Archive | October 2015

Why I’m Not Embarrassed by My Car

One of my coworkers got a brand-new car this week. Some kind of SUV. I forget what kind, not being into cars, but it was very shiny and silver. He had the back end open and several other young men were standing around it drooling.

I walked right by it and got into my car, the Auto Paragon, if you will. It looks like this:

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It is easily the junkiest-looking car in the library parking lot at any given time, staff or customer.

The Auto Paragon is a 1999 Honda Accord. I bought it certified used in 2004, and it was my first real grown-up car. We did not have the whole ten thousand dollars, so we put down the five we could spare and took out a three-year loan with payments of $193 per month.*

You may have noticed it has some, ah, cosmetic issues. Some of these are entirely my fault. Dent in the truck lid? That’s from when I backed up into a flat bed truck. (Had to shell out $175 to replace the tail light and reattach the bumper, but did not bother paying to have the dent removed.) Hey, it was flat. Very hard to see in the rearview.

Dent in the hood? Not sure where that come from. I think I hit an unusually tall curb blocker too hard.

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The biggie, of course, is the detached bumper. I got rear-ended on my way to work a few months ago. But Mrs. FP, you say, didn’t the other driver’s insurance pay for the repair? Well, yes. But it turns out that to fix the bumper would have cost $700, and before I scheduled the repair, they just mailed me a check. Well, once I had seven hundred dollars in my bank account, I preferred to, well, keep it rather than pay it out on my car. (I did make sure that it was not dangerous. The bumper is not loose, just low, and it is apparently not an important safety feature.)

It also has mechanical issues. Evidently it needs a new axle, but I can’t tell. And the check engine light is on. I was told that it is giving a code for an exhaust leak (did not fix because not due for emissions inspection this year) and for the transmission. Also the transmission fluid was so filthy it looked like engine oil, and I am informed this is a bad thing. Transmission may be fine, may not be Dave the mechanic said I could drive it as is as long as I don’t go anywhere remote. Fortunately, my route to work is along well-lit, well-traveled city streets.

Despite its manifest problems, I still consider my car a luxury and extravagance. There’s a bus stop half a block from our house, and we can bike. Yet we have not one, but TWO cars! One for each of us! We never have to share of take turns or coordinate or anything. It’s paid for. It drives. I never have to wait at the bus stop in the rain. It even has a radio for my entertainment AND climate control!

So why do we even have two cars? Well, for one thing, the bus takes a lot longer than driving and our daycare charges by the hour. We have two little kids and preschool schedules to keep up with. Next year, both the boys may be in full-day school, and we can reevaluate whether we still find the car worthwhile (assuming I can keep the Auto Paragon limping along until then).

It would be easy to convince myself, first of all, that my car is a necessity, and second, that it must be replaced. Certainly that’s what standard American behavior would indicate. But I refuse to kid myself that my car is anything other than a luxury.

Are you a one-car family? Have you ever tooled around in a suspect vehicle?

*Note that we no longer take out car loans. Our recent car purchase for Mr. FP was (a) significantly less than the ten thousand I paid back then and (b) cash.

How I’m Learning Spanish for Free

I never gave much thought to learning another language. My attempt to take French in high school (and then to pass a translation exam years later in grad school) proved that while I can develop a reasonable reading knowledge easily enough, I have no ear at all.

Then I moved to Colorado and became a public librarian. A lot of the people coming into the library asking for our help? They don’t speak English. So I started working on it in my spare time at work and at home.

Then I successfully lobbied to get my own storytime. At my branch, all our storytimes are bilingual. That’s right, friends, after the equivalent of about two months of high school Spanish, I was reading picture books in English and Spanish.

Also singing. All right, let’s do “Cinco Ratoncitos!” Everyone ready?

Fortunately, I have come a long way since my early storytimes, when I tried to read Donde Viven los Monstruos (that’s Where the Wild Things Are in Spanish) and made a complete ass of myself. I can’t converse in Spanish yet, but I understand a lot more and can pronounce it much more convincingly. I know I can, because Latina moms only laugh when the story is supposed to be funny.

(Yes, Spanish is totally phonetic. But some of those long words trip up an unpracticed tongue. And I can’t roll my Rs.)

Shelling out for Rosetta Stone (though I hear it’s great) or other paid programs was not an option I considered. I’ve been using a variety of freely available and free-to-customers library resources (and only scratching the surface of what’s available).

Free resources

Duolingo.com–This is one that I use almost every day in ten or twenty minute bursts. Duolingo gives you English and Spanish words, phrases, and sentences to translate. You can use it with or without audio (there is also a microphone option, but I couldn’t get it to work). The no-audio version is nice if you are, for instance, sitting at a public service desk and just want to get a little vocabulary practice in between customers.

Spanishdict.com–This is a dictionary, not a learning tool per se, but I have found it very helpful for pronunciation.  The site offers easy-to-use audio pronunciation, which has been invaluable for me when I come across an unfamiliar dipthong or whatnot. Another nice feature is that you can look up a form of a verb (if you are not sure of the infinitive) and be taken to the right infinitive. And it has easy-to-read conjugation tables.

StudySpanish.com/Verbs/–I use this for verb drills. Being an adult wanting to learn to communicate and not a fifteen-year-old girl studying for a quiz, I wasn’t focusing too much on memorizing verb conjugations. Eventually, though, I felt like I was getting confused by verbs and started spending some time working on them through this excellent site. Click on a kind of verb, it will give you a brief lesson and then make you a short quiz on it. Handy!

Extras en Espanol–This is a faux sitcom with Spanish-speaking characters who talk slowly using small words. Two pretty Spanish roommates are surprised to find out that their pen pal, “Sam from America,” is an awkward but extremely attractive guy. Add their greaser friend Pablo from across the hall and let the hijinks ensue. It’s actually reasonably entertaining. There doesn’t seem to be a comprehensive source for these, but I just Google the episode I want and watch it on YouTube.

Combination Free and Library

Destinos: An Introduction to Spanish–This is entertainingly out of date; it seems to have been made up as a college-level course back in the early 90s. It’s a faux telenovela about an elderly Spanish-Mexican, Don Fernando, who finds out that his first wife, whom he believed dead, may have actually survived the Spanish Civil War and born his child. His brother hires a young female Mexican-American lawyer to investigate. She has awesome shoulder pads. Worth watching for that alone. The way it is designed, you do some preparation, then watch an episode, then do a variety of reading comprehension and vocabulary exercises. (There are no grammar exercises in the hardback textbook; I do not have the Workbook and Study Guide.)

The original video episodes are available for free online here. They won’t, however, make much sense unless you also have the accompanying textbook and preferably also the audio CDs. Happily, I was able to get these from my library. Since they are so old, I can renew them over and over again as no one else has requested them. (Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m abusing my librarian privilege by overriding the renewal limit. But what’s the fun of being a librarian if you can’t do that sometimes?)

Been carrying this back and forth between work and home, like being back in high school.

Been carrying this back and forth between work and home, like being back in high school.

If your library doesn’t have it, the textbook is currently available in the Amazon Marketplace for forty-seven cents plus shipping. Since this is designed as a college course, it’s pretty time-consuming and where I have been devoting most of my energies. Because I’m a very strong reader but a terrible listener, I’ve been working hard on Spanish listening.

Other Library Resources

Spanish children’s books–Reading picture books in Spanish has been good practice for me. I particularly like bilingual nonfiction; it has straightforward sentence structure and the translation is right there!

Mango–This is an online language learning tool that many libraries make available to their cardholders. I was already doing Duolingo, so I haven’t tried Mango.

eAudiobooks–My library has a selection of eAudiobooks available (and a few CD books). I haven’t used these mostly just because I don’t have an iPod jack in my car. Also, Overdrive resources can be harder to renew than physical books and it’s impervious to my librarian mojo, so I didn’t want to get into something and then lose access to it.

Conversation table–Some library branches have a conversation table for people learning Spanish. I haven’t tried this because I already work two evenings a week; I’m not going to go to a different library at six o’clock on one of my evenings off.

Using free and library resources to learn a language is totally possible. It does requires some flexibility; you won’t have your very own book, but you can switch back and forth between multiple methods.

Have you learned another language? What method did you use?

My Frugal Parenting Fails

By now, you have probably long since guessed that the title of this blog is half-aspirational, half-ironic, as I am not at all paragon-like. I believe, however, that adults can grow and learn new tricks, so I get more and more paragon-like every day.

Or sometimes I fail spectacularly. Sometimes I learn something, sometimes I just have to move on. This week, enjoy a postmortem of my frugality-related parenting failures.

Natural Childbirth

Since I had excellent insurance, my two unplanned surgical births did not cost me anything out of pocket. (I maintain that no woman in labor should be wondering what her epidural is going to cost. That’s just cruel.) However, there were costs in terms of new clothing (larger underpants and nighties instead of PJs–thanks, Grandma FP) and, when Little Brother arrived, extra childcare; Big Brother was only 16 months old and I was not able to care for him.

Grandpa FP had to put Big Brother in his car seat. Apparently this was not acceptable.

Grandpa FP had to put Big Brother in his car seat. Apparently this was not acceptable.

This was not my fault, so it’s only a “fail” in the sense that I tried to make things go differently. Seriously, I read all the books and tried all the things, I just had giant-headed babies stuck at awkward angles. Fortunately, I had upgraded my insurance to cover any unanticipated birth costs. Sometimes, no matter how many books you read and how good your intentions, you can’t beat nature.

Birth Control

Unplanned babies are more expensive. Especially close together ones, because then you need doubles of a lot of things (play yards, baby carriers, etc.). Oops. This one was totally our fault.

The wages of carelessness. This is me in my second trimester of pregnancy, making up a oack n play with an eleven-month-old baby on my back.

The wages of carelessness. This is me in my second trimester of pregnancy, making up a pack n play with an eleven-month-old baby on my back.

Exclusive Breastfeeding

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I got glass bottles for Little Brother so I could wash them in the dishwasher guilt-free. The narrow tops were hard to put the formula in. I still find the bottles handy in the kitchen for measuring and whatnot.

Everyone talks about how much money you save breastfeeding. Both my kids had formula. Both times, I ran into problems after six or eight months, the first time because I had gotten pregnant again and the second time… I dunno. I was mysteriously ill all that winter, was doing an internship, couldn’t pump more than an ounce, on and on.

I mitigated the cost by using store brand formula. All formula are pretty much the same nutritionally. In my experience, Parent’s Choice (Walmart) is hard to dissolve and Kirkland’s (at Costco, the best deal I’m aware of) is kind of foamy, but they both, you know, feed babies. I also kept cost down by switching from formula to gallons of whole milk as soon as baby’s birthday passed (which not everyone does).

The lesson here is that sometimes, you can’t do everything you want. I might have been able to keep breastfeeding if I had postponed my internship and just kept that baby strapped to my chest all winter, but that’s not what I chose.

Stroller Minimalism

Some people swear you don’t need a stroller at all because you can just use a baby carrier. (Those people apparently have never walked to a library or farmer’s market.) But since I owned a great baby carrier, I should just have needed one stroller, right?

Well, at one time I owned four. One jogging stroller, one cheap lightweight stroller, one nicer lightweight stroller, one double Sit n Stand. And I still wasn’t totally happy! Sometimes I wished I had an umbrella stroller, or a Snap n Go, or a side-by-side double, or a double jogger.

We still own two strollers (a single and a Sit n Stand) but haven't used them in months. Probably Craigslist time.

We still own two strollers (a single and a Sit n Stand) but haven’t used them in months. Probably Craigslist time.

If I were starting over again, I would probably still want three strollers: a jogging stroller for rough city sidewalks, an umbrella stroller or nice lightweight one for convenience after six months, and a Snap n Go for the first few months.

Early Potty Training/Elimination Communication/Exclusive Cloth Use

I did blog a while ago about how much money I have saved by an early switch to underpants. That is not, however, the same thing as actual potty training. Both my kids had frequent accidents until well past three and on towards three and a half—I just did a lot of laundry. Had I been able to get them to stop wetting themselves, I could have saved some money on utilities. I definitely wasn’t one of those people who have tiny diaper-free babies, although my hat goes off to those observant parents who make this work.

Have trained boys to put anything they pee on into this purple basket for pre-rinsing.

Have trained boys to put anything they pee on into this purple basket for pre-rinsing.

I did cloth diaper. But I used a lot of disposables for day care, vacations, babysitters, trips out of the house, etc. And while I fought the good fight (see this post on what I used to swaddle Big Brother in), I have long since given up on overnight cloth. Little Brother is still wetting and sometimes soiling at night. I tried two pairs of cloth training pants with a cover, but he kept getting his sheets wet. I could have kept using diapers at night, I guess, but I really wanted to be done with all diapers once we started using undies during the day. I just shell out for disposable training pants for nighttime. You know what’s great about disposables? You do not have to put on dishwashing gloves and rinse them in the damned toilet. Just drop them in an old bread bag and move on.

Under the boys' sink. I usually buy just a small package in hopes he will start to stay dry, but the nice name brand Pull-Ups were on sale at Costco this month.

Under the boys’ sink. I usually buy just a small package in hopes he will start to stay dry, but the nice name brand Pull-Ups were on sale at Costco this month.

This one was largely a matter of priorities. Sure, I could have found a way to make cloth work all the time, and I might have saved some money doing it, but I have found the quality-of-life factors to outweigh the cost.

I’m noticing a common theme to all of these–the results I got were generally proportional to my efforts. What I’m getting better at is choosing better where to spend those efforts in the first place. We are past the baby years now, but the general awareness of my skills and priorities as a parent is helping me choose what to worry about. (If I had to start over with a new baby, I’m sure I would do better in some of those areas, but others–most notably natural childbirth and exclusive breastfeeding–I wouldn’t even attempt.)

What have you learned from your frugal failures, parenting-related or otherwise? Or feel free to tell me in the comments how you avoided all these problems!

Mending Time: Adult Pants Problems

Okay, I gave you a break for a while from sewing posts after I finished my interminable skirt project, but sewing is BACK.

I posted a while back about my never-ending quest to mend the knees of the boys’ pants. New rule: They wear shorts any morning with no frost. (We’ve had some upper-forties mornings and I sent them out in fleeces and shorts. They have not complained.) I mentioned that some of the pants were not salvageable and that I kept them to cut up for patches.

And with those patches, I did some adult pants mending projects. Since Mr. FP and I neither grow nor (as Big Brother seems to) walk on our knees over sandpaper, our problems were different. His work khakis were frayed at the hem, and my jeans were worn at the inside thigh to the extent that I worried they would give up the ghost altogether at some awkward moment. Since I hate shopping, hemming new pants (I’m 4’11”), and spending money on clothes, it offends me to throw away garments with only one weakness. Mending time!

Frayed pants hem in front and back.

Frayed pants hem in front and back.

Wearing thin in a crucial area.

Wearing thin in a crucial area.

First, the frayed hem. Now, the easiest thing to do would have been to pick out the hem and make them half an inch shorter, but understandably, he liked his pants the length they were. So I used this helpful online tutorial. The basic steps involved were:

  1. Picking out the hem and ironing it flat.
  2. Patching the ripped area. I used an old pair of toddler khakis, but the color is not important as it will not be seen. First, you attach the patch with a little Stitch Witchery, then you zigzag stitch it in place.
  3. Re-hemming the pants. You will need to turn the patched area under, but just a smidge. The pants wound up only about 1/4 inch shorter.
Hem picked out, ready for repair. This step can be completed at the playground!

Hem picked out, ready for repair. This step can be completed at the playground!

The patched hem will naturally be stiffer, and it does not hold a crease as well. I found that going very easy on the Stitch Witchery will reduce the stiffness a bit. Mr. FP is a pretty picky individual, and he has not complained about the stiffer hem. I think he has long since forgotten I patched them at all! I made this repair several months ago, and it is holding up extremely well. The rest of the pants are still in excellent condition, so I was psyched to be able to save them.

This is what the finished repair looks like on the inside.

This is what the finished repair looks like on the inside.

Next up: inner thigh repair. It is not surprising that the inner thigh is worn, considering that I wear these pants for short bike rides. One blog I consulted suggested just tucking a little bias tape into the seam, where the worst fraying is, but I knew better. If there’s one thing I learned from trying to patch the boys’ pants, it’s that with patches, you go big or go home.

So I cut a patch from Big Brother’s old jeans. Again, this is an internal patch and won’t be seen, but I figured that denim would be a good choice as it would be a similar weight. I cut the patch large enough to cover the whole frayed area and pinned it in place.

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The tutorial I consulted advised that I NOT finish the edge of the patch before sewing it in place, as that would make it too bulky. Instead, when I sewed it down, I used a zigzag, finishing and attaching in one step. (It looks like the author did it with a straight stitch, which would show less on the outside but provide less fray protection.) The tutorial was written by a lady who wears size 26 jeans; mine are size 6 “skinny” leg, which makes it trickier, but by no means impossible, to wrangle them on the sewing machine. I’m improving: I have not accidentally sewed together a pants leg in several months.

I added an extra line of stitching next to the inner thigh seam in order to secure that area, and I was all set, confident that my pants would not let me down at an awkward moment.

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Inside view of repair after a few washings.

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Outside view of patched area. Hard to see the stitching even if you’re looking right at it, but I hear that really classy people use a blind stitch.

Several months later, I noticed a new threadbare area. I secured this by zigzag stitching back and forth over it before it could run any larger. Meanwhile, the other leg is getting more and more worn, so I patched it, too.

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Before second repair.

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After repair. I might even go back and do a few more rows.

(MOM: I can hear you suggesting that maybe I should buy new jeans. I assure you, I have already done so. I have nice shiny new work jeans and am keeping these for biking and whatnot, so as to preserve my work jeans.)

Do you mend your favorite clothes? How do you keep your clothes lasting longer?

Surviving a Children’s Consignment Sale

Even if you get all your baby clothes free, there comes a time when the hand-me-downs dry up and you have to buy your kids some clothes. Yard sales, Craigslist, and Goodwill are the cheapest options, but time-consuming because of limited selection (you have to go so many places), while new stores are obviously ridiculously expensive.

For me, those big semi-annual children’s consignment sales are a good balance. A decent sized one will have enough selection that you can get a lot of what you need for the season, and it’s possible to find some good deals.

But… it’s taken me five years to get the hang of the damn things. In hopes of sparing someone else a few traumatic experiences, here are my rules for survival:

1. Know the setup.

These sales are generally held in enormous warehouse spaces. They are cavernous. For people like me who do not consider shopping a recreational activity, this can be disheartening. Buck up. You can survive it for ninety minutes.

Also understand how these things are run. They are largely staffed by volunteers who gave up a few hours of their time in exchange for getting into the sale early, favorable rates on their own consignments, or other perks. They are kindly, but no almost nothing. Then there are a couple of women actually running the thing; they are elusive, but accessible in a pinch.

Unlike a traditional consignment store, at these sales, prices are set by the consignor, not the person running it. These people are also in charge of placing their own merchandise. Some people have an inflated idea what their kids’ old clothes are worth. Have a working knowledge of retail prices and if someone wants more than 50%, except in unusual cases, put it back and go on to the next thing.

 

I have been consignment sales in several states, and they all use the same kind of tagging software. Be ready for safety pins. Lots of 'em.

I have been to consignment sales in several states, and they all use the same kind of tagging software. Be ready for safety pins. Lots of ’em.

 

2. Know your kids’ sizes.

It’s not enough to know that your kid is 3 and should be in 3T. Little Brother is three and a half; he can still wear some of his 24 month pants (since he does not wear diapers anymore), while some 3T clothes are too narrow for him. Big Brother, too, is short and stocky; I have to be careful lest I buy him pants that are too tight and too long.

I have been known to attend sales with a dressmaker’s measuring tape around my neck, but, well, I lost it. So this time, I took a piece of string sized for each child and held it up to each pair of pants I considered. I was able to weed out a couple with tiny waists.

Proving that these pants are similar in size to some that I know fit Little Brother.

Proving that these pants are similar in size to some that I know fit Little Brother.

3. Make a list.

Start by inventorying your kids’ existing wardrobes. What still fits from last year? What hand-me-downs have they grown into? Yes, make them try stuff on. What are the gaps?

Then make a list of what you need–how many shirts and pairs of pants, and, when helpful, some idea of color. You probably don’t want to accidentally wind up with four pairs of nearly identical navy pants, for instance, or you might want black to go with a particular shirt. Nor do you want to wind up like me some years, with four pairs of pajamas but only four long-sleeved daytime shirts for one kid.

Little Brother's list. His is shorter because he gets hand-me-downs. Big Brother, for instance, also needed a light jacket and some PJs.

Little Brother’s list. His is shorter because he gets hand-me-downs. Big Brother, for instance, also needed a light jacket and some PJs.

4. Choose your time.

Many sales have a half-price last day that can be great if you need a bunch of clothes (all the good strollers and whatnot will be long gone) and aren’t that picky. Otherwise, after the beginning of the sale, generally the crowds and selection dwindle together. If you need some very specific items, gird your loins and go early. If you are worried about having a panic attack in the baby bathtub section (TIP: You don’t actually need one of these; you have a sink right?), go later. I chose to go on day 2 (Friday) of a four-day sale. Reasonable selection, smaller crowds, and they had sent me a ten-dollar-off coupon good for just that day.

5. Secure your children.

I have tried various methods for this:

  • Carrying a baby on my front or back. This is extremely uncomfortable for shopping racks above shoulder-level. Don’t.
  • Baby in a stroller. OK, but once he finishes the Cheerios you put in his cupholder, he’ll be ready to leave.
  • Sharing kid duties with another mom. OK, but trying to keep them from destroying the toys was stressful, and I felt rushed when the other mom was watching my tots.
  • Leaving them at home with Dad. Obviously the ideal solution, but due to the timing of the sales, not always possible.
  • Distracting them with my cell phone. This one was largely a winner, although it only worked because Big Brother was at school. I pre-downloaded a Duplo train game and it kept Little Brother engaged.

6. Be prepared for error.

You will buy at least one thing that doesn’t fit, is dirtier than you realized, has a hole you didn’t see, whatever. It’s okay. If you’ve done it right otherwise, you’ve still saved money. Donate it to Goodwill and move on with your life.

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Little Brother picked out this great astronaut costume, but it is quite small (he is squeezed into it with great effort). I held it up to him at the sale, but apparently didn’t look closely enough. That was the fail for this trip.

7. Finish your list.

You will not find everything you need at one sale. If your area has multiples, go to another. When I have had a selection of sales, I have sometimes gone to half-price day of the first sale for bargains, and then the first day of the second sale to finish my list. Otherwise, fill in gaps from permanent consignment stores, online shopping (I have found some good deals on eBay), or whatever department store near you has the best sales. I still need uniform-appropriate pants for both kids, so I’ll try eBay and Schoola, and if I still don’t find them, I’ll just grab some at Walmart. Target if I’m feeling fancy.

Do you go to consignment sales? How do you save money on kids’ clothes?