Don’t be Embarrassed to Save Money

Thorstein_VeblenThorstein Veblen was an economist and sociologist who coined the term “conspicuous consumption” several decades ago.  Conspicuous consumption: spending money just to publicly demonstrate wealth or status.  The flip-side of that, I guess, is being embarrassed to appear as if you don’t have money to spend.  Logically, it seems ridiculous — especially to anyone trying to save and invest from an ordinary income.  But I can tell you, it affects me and probably everyone else.

I can remember, at times, feeling just a tinge of embarrassment as I sat down in the workplace cafeteria and was getting ready to eat the lunch I brought from home.  In fact, there were times when I ate my lunch at my desk instead of going to the cafeteria and letting everyone see that my lunch consisted only of a couple hard-boiled eggs or sardines, crackers, and a flask of homemade iced tea.

Can you imagine that?  What was I afraid of?  That my friends, people I have known for years, might make some comment about my what I was eating for lunch?  How absurd is that?

Luckily, one day when I was getting ready to have my lunch at my desk, I suddenly came to my senses and said to myself:  Stop being stupid.  No one cares what you eat for lunch.

I went downstairs to the cafeteria, sat with the regulars, and had a perfectly normal, enjoyable lunch.  No one said anything about my meager fare.

There’s a lesson in that.

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DIY Washing Machine Lint Trap

It’s a good idea to prevent lint from going down the laundry-sink drain.  At the local big-box home improvement store, you can find lint traps that attach to the end of your washing machine’s discharge hose.  They cost around a dollar each, if you buy them at your local grocery store or hardware store.

However, you can get them a lot cheaper (per unit) if you buy them in bulk numbers (e.g., dozens) from a big online retailer.  That’s by far the best way to do it.  They’re a good value and worth using, considering that you’re likely to have a clogged drain if you don’t use them.

mesh_bags

I’ve used the ready-to-use lint traps for many years and been pretty happy with them.  Recently I had one that was completely filled with lint, ready for the garbage, but I didn’t have any new ones in the house.  I wondered if I could create a DIY substitute out of something I had on hand and I though of the mesh produce bags that onions and oranges, etc., are packaged in.

I soon noticed that the mesh pattern of the produce bags is more widely spaced than that of the typical lint trap, so I doubled up by putting one mesh bag inside another.  Instead of using a cable tie to attach my improvised lint trap to the discharge hose, I cut a strip off the top of the mesh bag itself and twisted it into a cord, then used that to tie the bag to the hose.  You could also use a screw-type hose clamp and keep re-using it indefinitely.

The results:  The DIY produce-bag lint probably doesn’t catch as much lint as a purpose-made lint trap.  It might work better if it were tripled or quadrupled with three or even four bags.  On the other hand, it’s free.  Overall, I think it’s probably best to buy lint traps in quantity and get them for a good price.  In a pinch, though, the DIY version is definitely better than nothing.

Btw, check the internet: there are lots of DIY projects that use mesh produce bags.  I am certainly not the first person who has looked for re-uses for them.

Latte Factor vs Saving on the Big Things

If you read books and websites about personal finance (especially topics like early retirement, financial independence, etc.), you might have seen articles about how much money you can save by consistently saving on little things, like your daily coffee.  One personal finance guru has an online calculator.*

Then there are others who say don’t sweat the small stuff and focus instead on the big things; instead of trying to save money on by modifying your coffee habit, try to save money on your house and your car.

latte_factorFirst, I want to point out that you need to be careful how you calculate how much you will save.  I’ve heard or read statements like, “Coffee at the Starbucks costs $2.70.  So make your own and you’ll save $1,000 per year”.  How did that $1,000 get calculated?  It looks like they took $2.70 per day and multiplied by the number of days in a year, $2.70 × 365 is $985, and then rounded to $1,000.

What’s wrong with that savings of “$1,000”?

  1. Can you produce coffee at home for free?  If not, then your daily savings aren’t going to be equal to the cost of the coffee you buy away from home.  Coffee made at home costs something.  Your savings will be the cost of the away-from-home coffee minus the cost of made-at-home coffee.  Let’s say $1.00 is the cost of the made-at-home coffee.  If so, then your savings are $2.70 – $1.00 = $1.70.  You savings will equal the cost of away-from-home coffee only if you give up coffee completely.
  2. Do you really buy away-from-home coffee every day of the year?  If you only buy one cup of coffee on days you work, and you don’t work every day of the year, then you probably don’t buy coffee more than 250 times per year.  (That’s 5 days a week × 50 weeks per year.)  Of course, if you buy coffee twice a day, …
  3. Does the coffee at Starbucks really cost $2.70?  If you order something less expensive, you’re annual savings aren’t going to be less.  (On the other hand, yes, if your coffee costs more than $2.70 per day, then you can save more.)

Don’t get me wrong!  I still think that you can save a significant amount of money by avoiding convenience and doing as much DIY as possible, but it’s also important to do our calculations honestly and make sure our expectations are in line with reality.

Second, there are some people who say that they give up the away-from-home coffee, but they don’t see the savings.  Problem is, there are so many other expenses.  Some come irregularly or change from one month to the next.  It’s personal finance chaos!  The made-at-home coffee savings signal gets drowned out among all the financial noise from all the other expenditures.  This, however, doesn’t mean that there are no savings.  There are.  It’s the accounting that is the problem here.  If you’re actually spending $1.00 per day instead of $2.70, then you need to take control of that money and ensure you don’t spend it on something else.  Take that daily savings of $1.70 and literally put a dollar and a few quarters in a jar every day.  Or move $8.50 from out of checking and into your savings account each week.  Whenever you’re developing new habits to save money, you need to really save that money.  Be careful not to let it just sit around telling you to spend it on something else!

Now that we’ve taken care of that …

The “Latte Factor” is one presentation of the little-things-add-up-to-big-things philosophy.  “Watch the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves” is another way to say it.  This way of thinking has plenty of proponents, myself included.

As mentioned above, you’ve probably also seen articles about how much you can save on the big things.  At least one expert says, “forget all that little stuff, I’ll show you how to do big things and once you do them you won’t need to worry about the little things” [my paraphrase].  Save on the big things, and you won’t have to worry about the little things, the thinking goes.

So, we have a debate: Which is better?  Saving money by consistently reducing or eliminating spending on a small purchases (e.g., fancy coffee like latte that you might purchase 200 to 250 times per year) … or … saving money on a big purchase (e.g., a car or your house that you might have only several times in your life) and the semi-big expenditures like cable television, telephones, and credit-card interest?

Well, it seems to me, it’s not an either-or proposition.  There’s no reason you can’t save on both the small things and the big things.  In fact, in my opinion, saving on the small things is good training for saving on the semi-big and big things.  Kind of like in professional sports, start in the minor leagues and then move up to the majors.  It reminds me a bit of the sentence in “The Richest Man in Babylon” where Arkad says, “If I set for myself a task, be it ever so trifling, I shall see it through. How else shall I have confidence in myself to do important things?”

Set yourself the task using your habits of frugality, efficiency, and economy to save money on the small things and you’ll find you can also save money on the big things.


* I’ve experimented with the calculator at http://davidbach.com/latte-factor/ and have found that the weekly and monthly calculations do not match (aren’t even close) to results I get with other online compound earnings calculators.  However, the daily calculations are consistent with other results.

Remember the Ant and the Grasshopper

A few years ago, I saw “The Grasshopper and the Ants” (Disney’s short film of 1934, also available in various book, audio, and video formats, based on Aesop’s fable, “The Ant and the Grasshopper”) and I was reminded how well Aesop’s fable, even in Disney’s presentation, teaches a valuable lesson.

grasshopper_and_ants

Aesop observed nature, which to him seemed to show that ants are industrious insects who work all summer and thus have plenty of food set aside for winter.  Grasshoppers, on the other hand, spend their summers frolicking and making music, and come winter are seen withered and dead.

When I first heard this fable as a child, I am sure I grasped the idea that we need to work during the summer so we have food in the winter.  My mother grew up on a farm and I visited her parents’ farm enough to get some idea of the cyclical seasons of farm life.

But when I saw Disney’s  “The Grasshopper and the Ants” recently, from a vantage point well past life’s mid-point, it suddenly seemed clear that the message, the real moral of the story, doesn’t pertain only to the seasons of a single year, but rather to the seasons of an entire life.  During the spring, summer, and fall of life, you work, gather, harvest, and save (you know, pay yourself first) … and during the winter of your life, what you have set aside provides security and enjoyment.  Or, be like the grasshopper: play, spend and set nothing aside when you should and suffer the consequences later.

One more thought: Some commentators say that the Disney version changes the meaning of Aesop’s original fable because instead of leaving the grasshopper to starve, the ants invite him in to share their food and hospitality.  I think this is partially moderated by two things.  One, sharing is part of the enjoyment that can be derived from having.  Two,  in return for his supper and a place by the fire, the grasshopper is obliged to make music for the ants, literally to sing for his supper; this shows he might have finally learned the fable’s moral.

Here’s an English translation of Aesop’s original:

aesop_ant_grasshopperaesop_ant_grasshopper_2

Replacing Saddle Valve With Compression Tee

saddle_valveIf you’ve connected your refrigerator’s ice maker to one of your house’s water pipes, you probably know what a saddle valve is.  A valve that pierces a pipe with a needle held in place with a clamp bolted onto the pipe.  Saddle valves are cheap and easy, but they are not reliable.  They are prone to fail, either due to leaking or getting clogged with sediment.

I had one in my house, which I installed years ago when I was young and foolish.  It worked for several years, but eventually the refrigerator stopped making ice and dispensing water.  Evidently, the saddle valve was partially blocked and the refrigerator’s valves, which open electrically to fill the ice maker and dispense cold water, couldn’t function with the lower pressure.

It was tempting to just replace the old saddle valve with a new one, but I wanted something better.  A copper tee soldered in place is the best way to hook up an ice maker to a water line.  But … I’ve never soldered anything and I felt that the needed equipment would be too expensive for one job.

sioux_chief_add_a_line

Researching the problem led me to learn about compression connections.  Compression connections have a threaded ends with nuts that compress ferrules (wide copper rings) as the nuts are screwed tight.  They may not be as good as soldered connections, but they are far better than saddle valves.

Compression fittings aren’t easy to find.  The big box home improvement stores stock a lot of push-to-connect fittings (e.g., Sharkbite), which I was about to use, until I read the fine print on the label: “WARNING: This product contains a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.”  Given that this line is for water that’s going to my ice maker, and then into me, I figured that I didn’t want to take the risk.  Internet research showed me that what I needed was a compression tee made by Sioux Chief.  As the big box stores didn’t have them, I ordered one from a big website retailer.

Installing the tee was fairly easy, just a bit awkward due to the location up in the basement’s ceiling joists.  (Which is another reason I didn’t want to solder; the pipe is just inches away from wood beams and electrical wiring.)  After turning off the water, opening the faucet in the basement sink to drain the pipes, removing the old saddle valve, and cleaning the pipe with some steel wool, … I cut out a properly-sized section of pipe right where the saddle value used to be.  Because the saddle valve left a hole in the pipe, there wasn’t much of a choice as to the location of the new tee: either put the tee where the saddle valve had been or if I wanted to put the tee somewhere else, I would have to repair the hole.  Using a plumber’s tube cutter would have made the job easier and would have yielded a straighter cut, but I couldn’t find the tube cutter that I think I have.  I’ve never used it before.  (I got it along with a lot of tools I bought at the Goodwill.)  So I used a hacksaw, being especially careful to make a nice straight cut, i.e., a straight cup perpendicular to the pipe.  The first cut was easiest.  The second cut was a bit more difficult because the remaining pipe was apt to wiggle after it had been cut free.  I wanted to have both my hands on the hacksaw, so I used the old saddle valve clamp (after removing the valve and needle parts) to help hold the pipe steady and guide the saw.  I added the clamp, bolts, and nuts to my ever-growing store of parts.

Once the cut was made, I sanded the pipe ends with some extra-fine sandpaper to get everything clean and smooth, then I cleaned everything with a paper towel.  I slid the nuts and ferrules over the pipe ends and then slipped the tee in place.  Many sources warn against over-tightening compression fittings.  But none of them say exactly what that means.  I got the nuts on the compression tee good and tight and attached the line to the ice maker.  Then I turned on the water.  Everything worked fine, but over the next hour a small droplet of water appeared on the bottom of the pipe.  It was never enough to actually drop to the floor.  I tightened the nuts a bit more and after that the pipes stayed completely dry.

The best thing is that the refrigerator’s ice maker and water dispenser started working again.  In fact, they work better than before.  There’s more water pressure, so the dispenser fills a glass more quickly than it ever did before.

I’m quite glad to have a better connection for the refrigerator line, with a real valve that will actually turn the water off if need be.  (Like, for example, hooking up a new refrigerator.)

Naturally, the money spent for the compression tee was a fraction of what a plumber would have charged.  It’s true that a compression tee isn’t as good as a soldered tee, but time will tell if it’s a good value.  [Update: 60 days later: still working fine, no sign of any leak.]

Fixing Flapper Valve in Toilet

If you notice the water coming on by itself to fill the tank of your toilet, the problem could be your toilet’s flapper valve.  You can easily renew it or replace it yourself and save plenty of money.

flapper

Flapper valve?  Most toilets have a flapper valve.  The flapper valve holds the water in the tank until you press the handle to flush the toilet; doing so raises the valve and allows the water to flow from the tank into the bowl.  (There are some other methods of getting the water from the tank to the bowl.  There are other methods of getting water from the tank to the bowl, but the flapper-valve method has been around a long time and is probably the most common.)

Over time, the flapper valve and the seat on which it sits can be fouled with hard water sediment, rust, lime, or other dirt and grime. (Amazing how much dirt and grime is in “clean” water.)  The valves can also lose their flexibility, which keeps them from sealing properly.  Thus, water slowly and continuously seeps from the tank into the bowl.  If you watch closely, you might see it form little ripples in the bowl.  When the water level gets low enough, the toilet mechanism turns the water on to re-fill the tank, and you hear it, which lets you know it’s time to work on the flapper valve.  You can verify that the flapper valve is leaking by putting a few drops of food coloring in the toilet tank and looking to see if any of it ends up in the bowl after an hour or two.

You might try cleaning the valve and valve seat.  Remove the valve and clean it with a scrub brush, scouring pad, or steel wool.  A bit of dishwashing detergent might help. Do the same with the valve seat.  Once it’s all clean, re-assemble it and check to make sure it no longer leaks.

In my experience, once a flapper valve is leaking, it needs to be replaced.  Obtain a new one from your local hardware store.  Remove the old one and install the new.  There are plenty of youtube videos that will show you how.  You might want to save the chain and the metal clip in your hardware jar; they might come in handy for some other job.  I used such a clip once to replace a lost cotter pin.

One final note:  the various toilet cleaners that “clean the bowl every time you flush” are bad for the toilet mechanism in the tank.  Avoid toilet cleaning products that go into the water while it is in the tank.

As usual: Do it yourself and save $$$.

Which reminds me of a story:  I had a friend, a little old lady, who called a plumber when the water in her toilet kept coming on.  The visit from the plumber cost her something around $100.  That seems like a lot to charge for the few minutes of labor needed to replace a part that costs about $6 (retail)  — but I can understand that the plumber had to take the time to go to her home and he could have been working on another job (maybe something that would better justify a plumber’s time) instead of replacing a flapper valve.  Still, I wish she had told me about the problem before she called the plumber.  I would have been happy to do it for free.

Telephone Handsets from Goodwill

telephone_handset

I visited the local Goodwill to buy a short-sleeved shirt, something summery and tropical looking.  I found the perfect shirt, and it cost just $5.  Easy.  So with some time to kill I decided to look around the store.

Among the various computers and televisions, I saw two cordless telephone handsets with their plug-in chargers that were exactly the same as the kind we use at home.  Yes, we still have a landline.  I plugged them in, turned them on, and they seemed to work fine.  Of course, I couldn’t make a call because they were still “paired” to a base unit that was nowhere to be found.  I didn’t need a new base unit anyway.  But a couple new handsets would be useful.  For one thing, we’ve never had a phone in the basement; more than once I’ve been doing laundry or working on my computer in the basement (the only one for which the kids don’t know the logon password) and heard the phone ring upstairs but not been able or willing to go upstairs to answer it.  Well, that’s why we have an answering machine.

In deciding to buy the two handsets, I was making the bet that I’d be able to “register” them to the base unit in my house.  That’s the problem: cordless phones need to be registered to the proper base unit, meaning that they communicate with that base unit and forsake all others.  (If we didn’t use this system of cordless phones being registered to their base, then they would simply connect to whatever base is nearest or has the strongest signal, which might mean your neighbors’ phones connecting to your base or vice-versa.)  In order to use a cordless phone that has been registered to another base, the existing registration has to be erased and the phone needs to be put into “ready to register” mode.  That doesn’t happen automatically.  It requires some button pushing!  Would I be able to accomplish this phone-tech feat?

O Wonderful Internet!  In about 5 minutes online I found instructions on how to “deregister” the handsets from their original base unit and register them to mine.  They both work perfectly and will probably provide many years of service.  Pretty good deal, for about $9 for both.