Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Swan Chicks

We've been busy thus far this Spring, hiking, doing school projects, working, etc. Above is a picture I took hiking around our neighborhood - there is a group of Swans which hatched out some young around a lake - these young chicks looked very hardy but within a week only a couple were left and all were gone within 3 weeks - I wonder if neighborhood cats might have eaten them.

Our Very First Yard Sale
Last month, one of our neighbors suggested they were thinking about yardsaling and we jumped on-board (actually my wife did). Someone else in our neighborhood had taken out a newspaper ad in the local papers to run a yardsale in our neighborhood, so we took advantage of this fortuitous free advertising to go for it. We gathered up a whole bunch of junk we thought might be sale-able and tagged them as to price (this took all day).

Here are some photos of the junk we were setting out in our garage the night before the yardsale:

It took 3-4 good truck-fuls to drive down the hill to our neighbors house for storage overnight. Apparently the yard-sale went from about 07:30 to about noon-time. This was our very first attempt at a yard sale and we didn't know that most yard-salers were looking for items in the 25cents to $3 range. We tried to unload our Sears power edger, our push-reel-mower, and things like that and they didn't sell at all. We got rid of a lot of my kids' junking plastic toys though as well as a huge plastic toy boat/sand-pit monstrosity (this huge item sold for $6). In the end, she ended up bringing back about 2-3 truckfuls of stuff which didn't sell. We were surprised at what did and didn't sell. For instance, nobody would buy the highest quality items like new-appearing Gymboree toys or furniture, but would buy the junkiest junk (like an ancient Pentax camera with scratched lenses). My wife was very stressed out over this yard sale so I don't know how often or if we'll do this again. I unfortunately work most weekends so I couldn't help much. She made about $184 for all this effort - the biggest benefit of it was actually in freeing up some free space in our attic and garage. We still have a basement and attic full of junk to get rid of. We're thinking of donating some of our inappropriate furniture to Habitat for Humanity later this year.

Changing Schools for Next Year

Good news is our son was accepted into a local Charter Montessori school for next year. Our son has been going to a private Montessori school over the past 2 years. Though he enjoys his school and has become quite attached to his classmates, we couldn't justify the thousands of dollars a year in tuition and expenses for a school which frankly we didn't think gave us good value for the money. We had our son tested recently by a neighbor who is an academically-gifted programs instructor for our local county school system. We had him tested because we were honestly worried that he was lazy, unmotivated, and slow to respond to questions about math and reading comprehension. However, he was always a quick study on various matters and usually remembered things well. We were concerned that he needed a more "standard" and goal-oriented program of study, including more testing and competition than a Montessori education could offer. I've read several Montessori books including all of Maria Montessori's fabulous original works and the system seems almost too good to be true. I'm convinced now however that the drawbacks of the system is in the lack of teaching to the real-world of test-driven education. It would be great to be able to get into a good college or high-school without having to submit standardized test scores, but this is not how the world works anymore. Well the good news was that our son tests so well on the 3rd grade level tests (though he is only a first grader), that our neighbor tells us that these IQ and achievement tests are unable to measure his skills adequately. Hopefully he'll be a good test-taker in the future as he seemed to genuinely enjoy taking these batteries of tests. Speaking of testing, I don't know why the College Board folks wanted to change the SATs now into a completely different format - if I were on an elite college admissions board, I'd want some kind of test to show me how intrinsically smart a kid was as well as how active and well-rounded he has been throughout his school years. With this politically-correctoid change in the system, it looks like most college boards might have to resort to a standardized IQ test like the Wechsler test to get this information - what a waste of resources. I saw that Frontline show on the SAT a couple years ago and I can see the problems inherent in the test, but you're not going to be able to ever create the perfect test and the SATs have been in place for so many decades now that it has created its own history and culture. Everybody knows what you mean when you say "my girl scored 1580 on the SATs" or "my son scored 1100" - you automatically start thinking various subsets of colleges when you couple their scores with their high-school grades and activities profiles. Now with this standardized test score totally tabula rasa, it's going to be very difficult for everybody to figure a kid's near-term future out.

The best news for us in the change to a charter school is that this school is free, and thus fits into our new goals to live a frugal lifestyle. It will also free up money we could invest into a college/private high-school fund for both our kids. I'm either going to go ahead and call up a Schwab broker to set something up myself in the near future or maybe call up an old friend of ours who is a successful lawyer/financial advisor to help us.

I read some books recently which I wanted to comment on:

1. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich

2. Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, by Barbara Ehrenreich

3. The Wealthy Barber, by David Chilton

4. Frugal Families: Making the Most of Your Hard-Earned Money, by Jonni McCoy

Barbara Ehrenreich is a liberal sociologist who writes mostly about American culture. She makes some very interesting observations and meta-analyses political movements and media behaviors. Her approach is sympathetic to left-wing causes and her Fear of Falling is I think a very good book to read alongside Bernard Goldberg's very provocative Bias : A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News. I enjoyed her Nickel and Dimed book the most as it was mostly a voyeuristic recounting of her experiences as a minimum-wage worker. I couldn't help but think that most of these minimum wage-earners ought to read Amy Dacyczyn's Tightwad books and Dominguez's Your Money or Your Life to help themselves to a better life.

The only thing I have to say about the Wealthy Barber and Frugal Families is that these are two fairly inferior publications. I think if you know nothing about managing your money the Wealthy Barber is something you could pick up, though there are many better books of its type. Jonni McCoy's Frugal Families, like her Miserly Moms book is a copy-cat frugal lifestyle book in the tradition of Heloise or the Tightwad Gazettes.

Our Food Bill is Getting Better

By trying to copy many of the tips and tricks from all these frugality books, we've been having some good results with our grocery bills.
Here are our grocery bills from 2003:
Jan - $742
Feb - $732.90
Mar - $742.98
April - $621.20

Here are our grocery totals from 2004:
Jan - $330.97
Feb - $459.47
Mar - $491.93
April - $316.43

In addition, our dining out bills for 2003 were, as I've said before, astronomical - we never kept up with all our receipts and never counted the stray can of ice tea from a vending machine for sure. I'm estimating from our past receipts that we might have spent $500 to $1000 per month on dining out last year. Check out our dining out totals for this year thus far:
Jan - $137.65
Feb - $33.06
Mar - $75.80
April - $54.17

These figures do include every penny spent - including our son's weekly "pizza day" at school and meals we paid for to celebrate birthdays and for when friends or family came over and wanted to order out pizza (i.e. things which would have been nearly impossible to avoid without an ugly scene). I think practically ~$30/month is as good as we're probably going to do, though we'll keep trying to do better.

Here are two big expenses for us this May: our son's taekwondo program costs about $150/month if paid monthly, $119/month if paid annually, $109/month if paid 2 years at a time, and $99/month if paid 3 years in advance. We've decided to go for the 3-year program after talking at length with our son. Our son's taekwondo is advantageous not only for its fitness promotion and acculturation to his ancestry, but we feel could become an asset in term of self-defense, self-confidence, and future admissions to competitive schools. He has already won a medal and two trophies from local competitions. He is very eager to continue it even though I have suggested to him to quit if he is losing interest (said in a moment of "simple/frugal life" ethos excess). This is going to cost us around $3600 but we happen to have some extra cash in our accounts and though this is clearly not a frugal move, we believe it is a good investment in our son's education and future.

The other big expense is that we are going to pay off our 2nd car (the Honda Pilot) - about $3000 left on the purchase from last January 2003. This behemoth cost us about $36,000 with all its fittings and options. By paying off this car, we will deplete our savings over the past year, but we will be able to re-set our expenses to exclude the "car loan" line which has been between $658 to $1200 monthly. This will get rid of our 4th largest monthly expenditure (after mortgage, kid's education fund, and retirement). In the future, I've vowed to never purchase a car with financing every again. Also, we are never going to purchase a gas guzzler ever again. Our Honda CRV guzzles gas at the rate of between 20 and 25 mpg (all-around usage). Our Honda Pilot guzzles gas at the rate of between 17 and 21 mpg (all around usage). With gas prices around 1.72/gal at our local warehouse clubs' gas pumps, that figures out to a couple hundred dollars a month on gas! Gas at our corner station is being sold at a criminal $1.96/gallon. We are monitoring with great hopes to the future of hybrid cars like the Toyotal Prius If only their Consumer Reports repair records, NHTSA/NCAP crash records, insurance institute crash tests, and reports within the next coming years come out favorably disposed toward these vehicles, we hope to make them our next automobile purchases. When our kids are grown and out of the house, I think my wife and I could easily get by on one small automobile (for long trips), and maybe a scooter - kind of like the one Jim Carrey used on Dumb and Dumber.