Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Consumer lifehacking

There's some irony in the fact that ever since David left his job, almost every blog post I've made here boils down to "and then we spent money on this ..." Still. In the last few months, I've been, for no exactly definable reason, somewhat fixated on my own non-tech version of lifehacking: let's change what is sub-optimal in our daily lives. If that requires throwing money at the problem, conduct cost/benefit analysis, then spend.

One item that flunked this analysis: Vacation. We'd hoped to spend two weeks this fall doing a Vegas-San Diego-Grand Canyon road trip. Barring David landing a job, that's unlikely to happen. Much as I want to go, I don't want to ring up more debt to do it.

But in the last week, I've flung substantial sums at upgrading the household. In descending order, priciest (by far) first, the major expenditures were:

-New mattress

-Kitten! I miss River. David wakes up about once a week in tears about his tux not being curled up in her usual spot at her side. The saving grace getting us through all the sadness has been having our other cat, Kea, around. Which was, the ruthless part of my mind acknowledges, part of why I went and got Kea a few years ago. If we ever lost one cat, I wanted a backup around -- not to replace, but to remind us that we can love other critters that also need homes.

So last Saturday, I wandered into Petco, handed over adoption-fee cash (and another $80 for a carrier -- I abandoned River's at the vet because I couldn't stand to come home with it empty) and wandered out with a KittyKind cat. Ashley is five months old, three pounds, mostly gray and totally psychotic. It's been so long since we had a baby kitten I'd forgotten how insane (and tiny!) they are.

-Keyboard. This was the cheapest expense - $50 - but an amazing life upgrade.

I type loudly. At work, it's not uncommon for people I'm interviewing by phone to comment on my rapid typing speed -- which means that with my phone headset at least a foot away from my keyboard, they can hear me banging on keys. At home, this has traditionally meant that as soon as I started typing something like email, David, lying several feet away on the couch, would complain about the headache I was giving him.

After months of hunting online for a "silent" keyboard, with little luck, we finally went one evening to Staples and had me bang on their keyboards. We left with a Microsoft Wireless Keyboard 1000. I was very dubious changing keyboards would make a difference in my typing volume. I was wrong. The minute I set it up at home, I could hear the difference -- muffled thuds instead of jackhammer clatter.

Keyboard: $50. Domestic harmony: Priceless.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Braving the mattress sales

When I bought my first mattress almost ten years ago, the whole thing was blissfully simple. I was just out of college, broke, and trying to buy all the basics for an apartment on a budget near zero.

I called Sleepy's and asked, "What's your cheapest mattress?" "$400," said the phone salesman. "Ah," I said, honestly chagrined. "My budget maxes out at about $200." "We can do that." Me: "Er, what?" Him: "$200, we can do that. When do you want it delivered?"

In retrospect, there's every chance my $200 mattress is whatever they picked up that morning from customers disposing of old mattresses. I have no idea what brand it is. It has no features, unless you consider "coils, mostly functional," a feature. It's iridescent blue and designed to be flipped, which I gather is no longer the done thing.

But when you're 21 and coming off three years of dorm mattresses, anything feels fine, and I slept happily on this for almost a decade. Until a few months ago, when I noticed that I could distinctly feel a few of the coils through the increasingly thin fabric. I started making noises at David about replacing it at some soonish point.

Then River got sick, and had a few accidents on our bed. Nature's Miracle is indeed amazing stuff, but I'm pretty sure not even Jesus could pull off the miracle of fully de-stinking our mattress. Replacing it suddenly gained urgency.

This time around, I felt obligated to approach The Mattress Hunt a bit more methodically than I did last time. (David delegated the task to me, claiming that he could sleep on anything and fully trusted my judgment on the matter. Translation: He really hates shopping.) So I started looking up information on what mattresses cost and what newfangled breakthroughs these modern-day, no-flip mattresses contain.

And -- woah. I don't have a car, but I imagine car shopping feels similar. "Sticker price" appears to be a complete fiction. You have to choose among all sorts of competing technologies -- memory foam, latex, natural fiber or synthetic, seventyzillion coils or no coils at all -- the salespeople are full of dire warnings about the consequences of choosing wrong ("Do you want to wreck your body with discomfort for one third of every day???"), and the prices are steep. Never mind $200 -- should I be spending $500 of $5,000 on this thing?

This is where I reveal my bad-consumer side. When it comes to major purchases, I hate the decisionmaking stage. My friend Karawynn will pour over Consumer Reports and read every scrap of available research before investing in a major household object. I tend to do a bunch of basic research, then get fed up and pull the trigger in a fit of "I just want this over with." After months of thinking about buying a new PC, I got my current one by one night simply getting annoyed with my constantly crashing desktop, going on eBay, and buying the first thing with a reasonable-looking price and enough oompf to run my word processor and Web browser.

So for the mattress, I tried to get a handle on the basics. I read New York magazine's I Slept on 100 Mattresses. It scared me. Removable top layers? Too springy? Too quicksandy? How would I know? $3,395!? Eek!

Then I hit Slate's Going to the Mattress, which hit the other extreme. Stevenson's basic premise is, "It's just a mattress, they're all interchangeable, buy the cheapest." The article was written not long after I bought my $200 special; I'm not sure if mattress technology really has come a long way in the past decade or if I'm just very easily sucked in by marketing hyperbole, but the Slate piece felt like simpler advice for simpler times.

But it did have some invaluable tips, including this detail: "Mattress makers rename identical products for each different retail store. Different labels, exact same guts. Why? Obfuscation. It's hard to shop for the lowest price when you can't compare apples to apples."

Ah! That kept me from even trying to use Sleepy's "We beat anyone's price by 20%" coupon -- not much use if it's a "guarantee" impossible to collect on because no one else "happens" to stock the same models.

Since I did at least want to try before buying this time, I headed to Macy's yesterday. I'd originally planned to go to a Sleepy's store or other mattress shop, but my friend Amy, who is also mattress-hunting, insisted Macy's had a better selection and comparable prices. Macy's in Manhattan is perennially a zoo, but the one in downtown Brooklyn was pretty empty, even amid the Memorial Day sales.

After a few glances at the mattress sales tags, which featured minimal text and explanation, I ended up giving up entirely on trying to "shop" by feature -- latex? foam? coils? I had no idea which I wanted -- and just road-tested a few. And ... they mostly felt alike. I could feel some slight differences between styles, and could tell if I was on a "plush" or "firm" variation, but which did I prefer? No clue.

Thirty or so mattresses later, I was getting slightly dizzy from the constant vertical-to-horizontal variation and still had only vague leanings toward one or two mattresses. Tempurpedic I hated instantly -- it felt like it would swallow me -- and a few mattresses with "pillowtops" that could hide elephants also went into my "no way" pile. But beyond that ... I tried $5,000 mattresses and $500 mattresses, and they felt different but neither was clearly better. At least, not for me. I just couldn't tell in a few minutes of lying around how I'd feel on each after a night of sleeping.

I had two mattresses I kept gravitating toward, though whether that was a real preference or simply a burning desire to make some kind of choice, I honestly couldn't say.

One was a Sealy and one was a Simmons. I copied down all the sales specs and headed home for some attempts at comparative Googling. The Simmons was, shockingly, Googleable: "Simmons Beautyrest NxG 250" turned up in a few outlets, generally for a few hundred less than it was priced at Macy's. On the other hand -- even with sales, discounts, rebates and whatever else crammed in, it was still over $2,000. Which seemed excessive.

The other mattress I was eying was a Sealy "Loring Park" Euro Pillowtop Firm. The "Loring Park" part was clearly the retailer-specific branding mentioned in Slate. A pretty stupid branding, at that. "Loring Park"? Other variations on this model appear to be the "Candle Glow," "Hidden Meadow," and "Pecan Ridge." Pecan Ridge? Are they naming these things with Mad Libs?

The "Loring Park"'s most salient feature was its price tag: Nominally $1,099, but on "Memorial Day sale" for $999 plus an extra 10% off. (I use the scare quotes because I imagine the mattresses are always on some sort of "special" sale.) Since I only wanted a mattress, no box spring (we're upgrading the mattress, but our bed remains the $150 Ikea platform bought back in the original-apartment-furnishing whirlwind), I knew it would be a bit cheaper.

Even though I didn't buy a set, Macy's waived the delivery charge, and I got an additional 10% off by opening a Macy's card account. So, final tally, with taxes, no-boxspring, sales, etc all factored in: $700.

Which seems not too terrible for my first plunge into the horrors of mattress shopping. Now to find out how we like sleeping on this thing ...

Friday, May 08, 2009

The cost of a broken heart: $1,071.50

It's a bit strange to say "three years ago I wrote," but it turns I've had the blog that long. Time goes fast. Life goes faster.

The day I moved into my first post-college apartment, I went to the animal shelter to get my first post-college cat. Ever since I was a kid, I've been a cat nut -- I spent about five years pestering my parents before they cracked and, right around my 11th birthday, let me get a cat. My dad and I went to the shelter and returned with Max, who slept on my bed every night until I headed off to college. Max stayed in Maryland when I moved to New York, but there was little question that as soon as I left the dorms and had pet-friendly accommodations, I'd be procuring a cat.

As soon as I got that apartment, I went and adopted River, who came home with me in October 1999, when she was about three months old. David moved in about a month later, and even though I had her first, River instantly decided she was his girl -- I often referred to myself as her Emergency Backup Human.

Three years ago I wrote about the financial cost of pets, including the inevitable whopping vet bills.

Monday, we noticed River was sniffling a bit, and she had an accident on our bed. I thought she had a bladder infection and maybe a cold. I called and made a vet appointment for Tuesday morning.

River had a panic attack on the way to the vet, and started panting in a way we'd never seen before. The vet seemed more worried about her panting than any of her other symptoms, which initially struck me as strange. Three hours and two X-rays later, the vet was proved right: What I'd thought was a cold was a massive tumor filling River's chest and pushing on all of her organs. By the end of the day, she couldn't breathe well without an oxygen tent.

Wednesday we found out it was lymphoma, inoperable and incurable. Only 48 hours after we realized our cat was sick, we had to say goodbye to our girl.

It cost just over $1,000 in vet medical bills to lose River. We would have paid any multiple of that to save her. As one of my friends said about two years ago on the night he lost his own cat -- "It's the price you pay. They're guaranteed to break your heart at some point."

David and I had River as long as we'd been together. We knew she'd be gone someday, but she was only nine, and we didn't expect it so soon. It's kind of a new milestone for us. Our family, without River.

Pets. One of the most expensive, devastating --and rewarding -- investments you can make. We've spent the last few days giving our younger cat a massive overdose of snuggling.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Shining light on financial monsters

The thing about this recession is that I know almost no one unaffected. All around me, I've got friends who have been laid off, had their salaries cut, seen their hours pared back, or finished grad school just in time to hit an epically bad job market. My own household is down one job, with an income that's half of what we had a year ago.

My friend Rose recently put up a blog post I found fascinating: Talk about how financially screwed you are. I think it's great, because hearing so many stories helps dispel the thing that perpetuates financial problems. Shame.

When the numbers are awful, you don't want to look at them. After college, when I had a monthly income that fell a few hundred dollars short of what I'd need to pay rent, student loans, living expenses and the bare minimum on a credit card debt that felt insurmountable, I threw bills out unopened. Sure, paying things months late trashed my credit score and racked up late fees and yet more interest charges, but the whole thing felt so hopelessly out of control I psychologically couldn't cope.

Two things finally broke that cycle: 1) David, who had just moved in with me, said that he couldn't stand that approach, and if I couldn't deal with taming my finances, he'd do it for me. He called my credit card companies and dealt with all the logistics of figuring out the size of the problem. 2) David got a job just a month after arriving in the U.S., and suddenly our household income doubled. Step 1 was critical in getting a handle on the problem, but there was no way we could possibly have addressed the financial shortfall without more money.

With the economy at a standstill, most of us can't do anything right now on Step 2, Increase Household Income. But Step 1 is do-able. The first step toward getting rid of the monster lurking under the bed is looking at it. Without letting it make you feel ashamed or afraid or like a bad, horrible person for having a lurking monster -- because hey, recession? Right now, lurking financial monsters are fashionable! Everyone is having money problems! You have company!

(Financial Monsters are spikey and they drool. I also strongly suspect they are purple. The illustrative Financial Monster pictured above is borrowed with permission from Mac McRae's extremely awesome monster gallery.)

This isn't something you have to do alone. If you have a stack of credit card, student loan or medical bills that you aren't paying, or that you don't even know how much you owe on, or the rates are stratospheric but you can't stand the thought of calling to negotiate -- enlist a close friend. Other people's stacks of intimidating bureaucracy are so much less daunting than your own. Have a friend over -- someone with a penchant for organization is perfect -- pour a glass of wine, and dive in. Once you know the shape of the problem, it generally stops feeling like a scary vortex of failure and shame, and starts becoming manageable.

On that note, I'm buckling down tonight to finally sort out our chaotic mess of retirement accounts -- the goal is to turn our two abandoned 401(k)s into IRAs. And over at Rose's, there's a followup post about what people are doing to tackle their financial demons.

And if you're doing financial debugging, here's two past posts that may prove useful:

-Debt statute of limitations - what they are and how to use them, plus a debunking of the apparent myth that contacting a debt collector restarts the clock

-The simplest good investment strategy for your 401(k) (aka "why management fees matter")