The long nightmare of no Frugal Me posts is almost over

March 3, 2013

I have plans. Don’t despair.

That is all for now.


Mammoth insecurity

January 12, 2011

Apart from being cheap, we here at Frugal Me are sound feminists,so we’d like to draw your attention to Maia at The Hand Mirror having a crack at “Mammoth Supply Company[1]” Yoghurt.

So how do you sell the idea that the official food of woman in apricot and manuka honey flavour is manly? Silly question – all you need is to emphasise misogyny, homophobia and the extreme danger of girl germs.

I have nothing in particular to say about her take on this other than “hear hear.” (A while ago though, I did think about this on the other channel — is there something about Fonterra and the elusive insecure male? Is it just that milk is irretrievably coded as feminine? I think we could have a psychoanalytic field day here.) However, I would like to relate a curious incident today at the New World Metro on Willis Street, where I often buy lunch ingredients when I’m caught short.

I like Greek yoghurt in my lunch, and I haven’t been very good about making it at home in recent weeks, and so I was perusing the dairy fridge. In principle I applaud this supermarket for displaying unit prices along with the actual price — their labels tell you the price per gram, or millilitre or whatever. I looked at the unit prices for yoghurt and I was struck by how very cheap Mammoth yoghurt seemed. “Why, it’s almost an order of magnitude cheaper” I thought to myself.

Well no. Very close inspection showed that every other yoghurt was showing the price per kilogram, but the Mammoth labels were showing the price per 100 grams. Odd. Once I figured this out, I realised that at $14/kg, it was not only no bargain but about 50% more expensive than comparable yoghurts that weren’t investing $$$ assuring me that they wouldn’t turn me into a girl. Perhaps the target market is not only insecure about their masculinity, but also bad at maths.

I think that could be a rule of thumb. If a product’s notional appeal is based on the consumer having but fragile confidence in their sexuality, it’s probably over-priced, or low quality (think Tui beer), or both.

[1] FFS, how stupid do you think we are, Fonterra? I happen to know that mammoths are extinct, and even if they weren’t, they would be quite difficult to milk.


Using old cooking oil on New Year’s Day

January 1, 2011

Yeah, I know. I don’t care. I have a life too, you know?

Broke out the barbeque for the first time this summer, on New Years’s Day. It’s a charcoal grill, so that means a certain amount of boy scout ingenuity is required to get a good fire.

I’ve never liked firelighters or lighter fluid for this purpose. They smell funny, and although I suppose all the petrochemicals have burned off by the time you put the meat on, I find the taint of plastic off-putting and inappropriate.

Hitherto I have used crumpled newspaper and kindling to lay a conical fire in the approved manner. This can be a bit slow and I find it a little nerve-wracking. Today I had a brainwave. I have egg cartons, and I have old cooking oil. (Of course I have a jar of old oil from frying chicken in the fridge. Who doesn’t?) What would happen if I put a half centimetre of crummy rancid friend chicken oil in each egg cell, built a charcoal pyramid atop it, and lit the carton?

What happens is that you have a damned good fire. That’s what happens. How virtuous. Better than recycling it this way.

Oh yeah, don’t put fat down the drain either.


Reduced To Clear revisited

July 10, 2010

Last year I went to have a look at the Reduced To Clear shop, which had opened with a certain amount of fanfare and also some criticism:

A new discount store selling junk food will feed our growing obesity epidemic by encouraging bad eating habits, dieticians say.

Back then I wasn’t too impressed:

I have to say I was a bit disappointed. I really like the concept, and I was hoping I’d see a somewhat supermarket-like range of dry goods. But the shop is quite small, and the range seemed limited, mostly to confectionary and packaged snack food of a low-grade sort. I did see some cheap sugar (can sugar spoil? I don’t think so) but it was not markedly cheaper than the cheapest sugar at Pak’N’Save up the road. The only useful basic thing I saw there was liquid laundry detergent.

I said I’d pop back in a month or two. Two months, eleven months, who cares? Also, apparently last year I had not yet learned to spell “confectionery.” Anyway today we were buying cheap curtains at a Briscoes’ sale out in Rongotai, so we popped around the corner on a whim.

(Do Briscoes ever not have a sale? There must be some times when they don’t, because I think it’s illegal to advertise sales that aren’t discounts to normal prices. But if there were truth in advertising, they could call their sales “normal pricing days where you have to do some maths” and the small periods with no sales could be “extra high prices for people who can’t wait but have to buy from Bricoes days.” But anyway, this was an actual saley sale that really was cheaper than normal and I know because we checked at the Warehouse first. I just want to make that clear.)

I’m pleased to report that the range at the Reduced To Clear shop has definitely broadened out to the point where it’s worth stopping in if it’s on your route, or checking out their website. I bought salt and tinned fish, but there was also a variety of other things (zip-lock bags, cooking oil, pasta, coconut cream, juice, yoghurt, cleaning products…) beyond confectionery that would definitely be on someone’s normal shopping list.

Incidentally, I was amused to see a laminated clipping from the Dompost’s “devastating for diets” story pinned up on the wall behind the tills. I guess any publicity is good publicity, and as long as the public hears you have cheap sweets, what’s not to like? For what it’s worth, nobody in the fairly busy shop today appeared more than usually overweight. I am a svelte 78kg these days and left with impeccably high protein, low fat purchases.


Walking in other men’s shoes

July 1, 2010

I reckon I’ve spent about $120 on shoes on Trade Me this year. For this outlay I’ve received four pairs of very solid, classy, high end shoes — classic style, old-school welts, leather sole, good condition. Only one pair has not fit, and I’m going to sell it again, or maybe trade them in at my favourite second hand clothes shop, so I expect to realise a small loss on them. I reckon I am still well, well ahead of the game here. I have shoes which prompt unsolicited compliments for a fraction of the price they would have cost new. In fact, I found one pair of the very same make and style in a Cuba St vintage shop for twice what I paid on Trade Me.

Trade Me’s saved search facility has been very helpful. I have a saved search in the mens shoes 8-8.5 category on “loake OR barker OR grenson OR church OR vintage” which pretty much covers anything of interest, ie English-made welted shoes and odd old ones. The thing about the English welted shoes is that they are generally made to a very high standard and are designed to be resoled and have a long life.

Another thing I’ve learned is to ask for measurements as well as the size. People can be a bit vague about US vs UK sizes, and sizing varies anyway, so find out how long and how wide the shoes are and compare this with a pair that fits.

Knowing how to do a good spit shine has also brought them up a treat. Old leather, well polished, looks better to me than new.

About the only problem is that the shoes are very nice, and the pleasure of acquiring a bargain is strong, so I’m kind of tempted now to keep going and buy more shoes than I need. I guess I need to delete that saved search…

At a meta level, I believe I’ve practised proper purchasing. I read up on the subject. I looked around to find out what the normal price was. I took the time to find a cheap source. I lurked and ruminated before buying. Mission accomplished.


Reusable vs. Disposable Nappies II

June 16, 2010

Way back in December 08 I outlined what I thought were the pros and cons of purchasing reusable nappies. What we’ve found since then is that they have been an effective way to save cash on the wee man’s toiletry needs, and have not been at all onerous.

The main thing is that we haven’t bought into any salespeak on what we need and don’t need to make then safe and hygienic. We did not, for example, use teatree oil to sterilise the inners (FYI, the nappy is made of three parts, a waterproof over, an ‘insert that’s the actual nappy bit, and a ‘liner’ that catches solids making for easy disposal down the toilet).

What we did do is apply common sense, for instance making sure we washed them very regularly, got them into the sunlight whenever possible, and were careful about things like using barrier creams that could ruin the inners. Also, we bought fixings for washing from Moore Wilsons in bulk – baking soda (a bleaching agent, about a tablespoon per wash), and vinegar (a steriliser, about 1/3 cup per wash). I think we can state that this was not detrimental, a claim borne out by not having any ‘incidents’ of ‘gastro’ while many friends using disposables did. Had our method been unhygienic you’d assume we’d have at least one.

So, the process. The main thing was that we’ve found that we can and should change the wee man whenever we wanted or needed to. Usually the loads in the machine are under the minimum fill level, so 5 nappies or 15, it makes no difference to the amount of warm (for days with no solids) or hot water we used. We also were sparing with the detergent, mostly because of our natural frugality. However, I’ve heard from people who will sometimes leave that nappy on “for just a little longer” to save having to pay for another, but none of that for us.

So, costs! The total amount spent on nappies, including disposables (we found the reusables didn’t work so well in the nights, usually resulted in bad rashes, and couldn’t really be used with barrier creams, so switched to Huggies), was Huggies $420, Real Nappies $440. This was between December 2008 and December 2009.

The total cost of all detergents, sterilisers, and bleaching agents was in 2008 (for the entire year) approximately $60. For 2009, $68. So an insignificant change there.

And power. This one was a little tricky. We had a great deal of trouble with our provider – Contact, a completely useless company- and switched to Meridian in early 2009. This meant that I was unable to work out the monthly costs accurately (it’s a long and boring story, ending with “Contact are completely useless”). However, the total cost for 2008 was $1020 – apartment living means very cheap electricity bills, while for 2009 we increased that a whopping $1340. But, the extremely cold winter last year might have contributed.

The short is that a 30% increase in power is not inconsequential.

All this was balanced against the savings from not using disposables. Ignoring the cost to landfills, and cost of manufacture the nappies, actually putting a nappy on a bottom cost you around $0.34 on average. Nappies tend to be a loss-leader in supermarkets, so they’ll range from $8-9 on sale, to the ‘usual’ price of $15. Assuming your wee tacker has a normal consumption rate you can expect to change between 8 and 10 times a day. If you’re changing less than this, you might need to wonder why your child is getting a rash… This gives an approximate weekly cost of $0.34 x 8 changes x 7 days = $18 per week, or approximately $970 a year.

Problematically this is only just more than the amount we spend on the nappies, the consumables, and power in that year… But the good news!! The wee man is 6 months along and still wearing the last size reusables!

The outcome is best summed up that the savings are not huge. Were we to have another the $430 outlay would be saved, but the electricity would still need to be consumed…

In the end the choice on this is probably a lifestyle one. If you’re happy to use reusables you’ll make a slight saving and have a less stinky baby (the difference is very, very noticeable), but if you aren’t you can go on filling landfills with poo for around the same cost.


Urgency and arm-twisting

June 15, 2010

In my last post, I talked about how one-day-deal websites exploit your sense of urgency to make you spend money you otherwise wouldn’t.

I became particularly aware of this after reading Robert Cialdini’s Influence.

Cialdini is an American psychologist. His book Influence is all about techniques of persuasion and in particular, how these are used in politics, marketing and sales. Cialdini’s aim in writing the book is ostensibly to enable people to detect when these techniques are being used and thus to protect themselves. But you can’t help noticing from online reviews that marketers and sales people pretty much use his book as a manual.

As Gio would say, I love this book so much I want to marry it. I’m planning to write more about Influence, but for now I want to stick with the urgency thing. Urgency is covered in Influence in the chapter on scarcity:

… Something that on its own merits held little appeal for me had become decidedly more attractive merely because it was rapidly becoming less available.

… people frequently find thimselves doing what they wouldn’t much care to do simply because the time to do so is running out. The adept merchandisers makes this tendency pay off by arranging and publicising customer deadlines that generate interest where none may have existed before.

Those one day sites don’t have to have a 24 hour window. They could be two day sites, or one week sites, or shock! they could have no time limit at all, and just be a remainder warehouse with a catalogue. There’s a reason they have the arbitrary, needless limit of one day only — it’s because they sell more that way than if they just listed their stock and waited for you to come to them. Hence my belief that in keeping tabs on such sites, you’re asking to be sucked in to spend money you don’t mean to.

Cialdini doesn’t mention this, but of course if you’ve only got a few hours, you’re not exactly going to be able to do due diligence as well as if you had a few days. Nor are you going to be able to cool off and reassess the way that you could if you went home from a shop and thought about it.

This stuff is everywhere, of course. We’re still looking for a house (yeah, it’ll be six months soon) and I have been struck by how real estate agents try to create a sense of urgency in you. I have come to detest this as particularly manipulative.

Oh, there’s been a lot of interest. I’m expecting this one to go quickly.  I can let you have a look now — it might not last until the open home. When can I expect your offer — this afternoon? Or shall we say 10 am tomorrow?

There are plenty of houses, pal. If we miss this one, I expect there will be another one soon enough.

On a completely other note, Lisa commented on an old post just now. Cheap chickpeas! Go to it.


Pressure cookers and pressure deals

June 6, 2010

Our new pressure cooker is giving me a lot of jollies on the frugal front.

Pressure cookers save power. Maybe only a few cents, but it adds up, you know?

And pressure cookers save a lot of time. Since the cheapest tasty protein is mostly legumes and tough meat, it makes a big difference to a busy person if you can get them cooked more than twice as fast. For example I’ve found so far that 35 minutes — five minutes to come to pressure, 20 minutes at pressure, 10 minutes to release pressure — is enough to render beef shin totally tender, and 25 is enough for dried beans (albeit with a soak first). Those are both things that previously I would only have had time for on the weekend, but which are now feasible on a week night. I also foresee a lot of soups made from odds and ends.

And this pressure cooker was cheap. About $30 I think, on one of those websites that have deals for just 24 hours. Kathy PM’ed me and said “do you want a pressure cooker for $30?” and I was all “I am hella keen on pressure cookers” and she was like “that’s good cause I got us one.”

Yet this bothers me.

Those sites are a nasty play on our psychology. We are hard-wired to take up opportunities that look as though they are about to vanish. That is the basis of all “limited time only” deals — to give an extra tweak to an offer that will make you more likely to buy. The “one day only” sites are particularly bad because they encourage you to check every day, or even to sign up to be alerted every day. And sometimes you get something great, so there’s also intermittent positive reinforcement, which is the most powerful kind for forming habits.

In my experience, usually those great deals can be had elsewhere without the pressure if you are prepared to look around. And sometimes if you check the specs of what’s on offer, you realise that the deal isn’t even that great. The price looks cheap for the product, but the product itself is inferior. Over time, this has to be a recipe for spending money you didn’t mean to spend on stuff that isn’t the best stuff you could have for that money. Those sites may have bargains, but spending lots on crap, no matter how cheap, is not frugal.

In this case I feel we definitely won, but we’ve got to stop checking those sites. Pretend I wrote a really good moral using the metaphor of pressure and contrasting good and bad here.


Stephen is a terrible procrastinator

May 30, 2010

Would you believe I wrote this in December? Thinking it would be a great post? And then did nothing at all, neither posting nor budgeting?

A budget plan for next year:

1. Get last year’s spending recorded and itemised as far as possible.
2. Apportion that spending into categories at some sort of sensible level.
3. Think through any changes in habits that might increase or reduce spending in those categories.
4. Based on previous steps, work out monthly expenditure
5. Note the big regular things (like annual insurance premiums, car registration) and tweak provisions for previous months to make sure there’s enough.

Better late than never, I say. The last couple of Sundays I’ve snatched an hour here and there and I’ve nailed everything I spent and everything I’ve earned in the last tax year, whipped up a spreadsheet or two to break it down monthly and set myself some targets for various categories. And the first Sunday of every month from now on, I’m going to track my progress.

I took the opportunity to take my number crunching back a couple of years. I noticed more spending on power, more spending on groceries, and more spending on air travel. I’m not sure there’s much to be done about that. I refuse to be cold over winter, and until we’ve bought a house, we’re stuck where we are. I’m pretty sure the increase in food costs really reflects prices going up. And because of my family circumstances, flying me to my daughter or my daughter to me has to happen regularly.

Unfortunately, there’s still a giant hole in my data. Remember early on in the piece I wrote about  tracking every last cash purchase? I thought of that as an interesting exercise, so once I felt I’d learned from it, I stopped. That was a really bad idea. What I should have learned, but didn’t until too late, is that recording things only works as a discipline against impulse spending if you keep doing it. Now it turns out that I have withdrawn actual thousands of dollars in cash from ATMs and I don’t know where it went. And unfortunately, it looks very much like that biggest blowout from 2009 compared to 2008 was in cash, somehow. I dunno. Maybe I’m buying illicit drugs in my sleep or something. But anyway, it’s shameful.

I am dealing with this in three ways. First, I’m going back to recording everything, every day. If it turns out to be annoying, I’ll let that provide more incentive not to spend. Second, since I don’t pay EFTPOS transaction fees, I’m going to make a real effort to put everything I can through EFTPOS so it will get recorded. And as noted, I’m marking my calendar to do budget updates so I don’t fall off the wagon.

Expect riveting posts in a month or so about how this is turning out.


We are back, with bread

May 25, 2010

I’m sorry. I ran out of steam and ideas. And I had a crisis of conscience about not actually being poor*, or indeed consistently frugal. On the other hand there’s a lot of people posting cat pictures who aren’t themselves cats. Anyway, I have decided to get back on this frugal-blogging horse, and I have taken the precaution of preparing a few posts in advance to tide me over the dry patches.

Just to get the ball rolling again, right now this very second, I have bread on. Yeah, I know, bread, we’ve done that to death, who has time apart from childless yuppies and the unemployed? However…

… this is different, honest, in that it involves five minutes a day. Many things are achievable in five minutes a day, supposedly, but this is for real. Unlike the difficult path of dynamic tension, the results are immediate and gratifying.

The basic idea is that you mix a BIG batch of dough. You don’t bother kneading it. You keep it in the fridge, and once it’s had a day to get going, you just take a portion for a small loaf, shape it, and bake it. It’s the NYT no-knead bread approach taken to an extreme. And it works.

You can read about the rest here. (Update: this link went to the wrong place before, but I’ve fixed it now.)

The authors don’t make any claims about the properties of the bread, other than it being delicious, but I’m hearing a lot recently about long fermentation improving digestibility and making bread tolerable for people who can’t cope with bread made by the dreadful Chorleywood process.

But anyway, it tastes great, and the time taken brings this out of the hobby category and firmly into the money-saving.

Do excuse me. I have something in the oven.

* I live in fear of turning into Muriel Newman.