Tag Archives: yard sale

Garage sale strategy: Go where the hordes aren’t

Today is one of the biggest garage sale days of the year.

An old, established, and relatively well-to-do neighborhood nearby has a tradition of doing a massive 4-block yard sale every September. People put it on their calendars. You never know what you’ll find there.

I went somewhere else.I’ve gone every year the last four years, but I noticed a pattern. Every year I get less and less, and it seems like fewer homes participate. This year promised 50 homes participating, but finding the 10 really good ones in the 50 is tough. The only way is to go to all of them. Figure five minutes per sale, and I was going to spend a minimum of five hours there. Some years I’ve spent longer.

So instead, I picked 10 sales somewhere else and spent about two hours out and about.

I got some good hardware for around the house for literally pocket change. I got some other predictable odds and ends.

But the prize was an under-cabinet LCD TV with radio and DVD player for 20 lousy bucks. The cheapest I’ve ever seen them new is $70. But one with reviews that suggest anyone would actually want to own it costs more like $200, which is about what this one cost new.

I plugged it in at the sale to verify it worked, then brought it home and hooked it up. It works nicely and takes up a lot less room than the 13" CRT we’ve kept in the kitchen for the last few years.

On any other day, I doubt I would have scored that. I arrived at the sale 10 minutes or so after it opened, and was the only one there. You have to be the first or second person there to get anything like that, especially at that price.

Since everyone else was at the big neighborhood sale, I got my chance.

My SSD experiment, coming soon

SSDs are the first technology to excite me in a very long time. Next-generation drives with ultralow seek times and transfer rates around 100mb/s are finally available from Crucial and OCZ, but at a price of $600-$700 for a 32gb drive.

I’m going to wait for prices to come down and experiment with a cheaper alternative.Intel and Toshiba are promising 120mb/s rates later this year, and analysts are expecting prices to drop as manufacturing capacity increases. Competition can’t hurt either.

What I’m going to do in the meantime is use the old compact flash trick. The key is to get an adapter and a card that are both capable of UDMA. Addonics is the manufacturer of the best adapters. For cards, get something at least rated at 233X. A 300X card would be better. A 233X card will give transfer rates of 30-35mb/s, which is unspectacular but reasonable.

My goal is twofold. One, I want quiet. Two, it’ll reduce power consumption by about 20 watts. The you’ll-burn-the-drive-up-in-a-week myth is pretty well disproven now, so I’m not worried about that. Eliminating the possibility of a head crash means flash will be more reliable than a conventional drive, not less. For some of what I do, the low seek times will make a flash drive faster, rather than slower.

I have a couple of adapters on order. I haven’t ordered cards yet but that’s next. I need to decide what size I need first. With 233X 4gb cards selling for $25 at Newegg, I can get in the SSD game really cheaply, assuming I can live with 4 gigs (which is a possibility). Initially I’ll mess with this 128mb card I picked up at a yard sale for $2. I can’t do much with 128 megs anymore but I can build a Linux server in less than 100, just to prove the concept.

I think the CF trick is a good way to get in the game while waiting for prices to come down. And if you’re fixing up an old system for someone, a 4-8gb card may well give performance comparable to what was in the computer to begin with, and provides enough capacity for Windows 2000 or XP, office software, and a web browser, while eliminating the danger of a disk crash. In that situation, the compact flash is a viable permanent replacement.

Why I never kept up with the Joneses

I had a bit of a financial epiphany over the weekend.

I have a well-deserved reputation for being a tightwad. Part of it is in my blood; I’m largely of Scottish descent, and Scots just tend to act that way. But I think part of it is what I observed growing up.My wife and I were sitting at my mom’s kitchen table, and for whatever reason, we were talking about my teenage years. In 1988, we moved to a new subdivision in Fenton, Mo. Fenton is a boomtown today, thanks in part to urban sprawl and also because of its first-rate school district, but in 1988 it was still largely an industrial town. Lots of people worked there, and not many wanted to live there. But in the late 1980s, the McMansions started sprouting up like weeds, and lots of families started moving there, ours included.

We talked about our neighbors, and something immediately occurred to me. Most of them were in their early 30s. They were the same age I am now. Not only were they my age, but they drove new cars, and most of them had at least two kids. Meanwhile they were trying to make payments on houses that cost $125-$150,000 at the time. According to inflation, they should cost a quarter million today. Not only that, though, in 1988, interest rates were a lot higher–10 percent wasn’t uncommon according to my quickie research.

Dad could afford that lifestyle–barely. He was a doctor and had been practicing medicine for 15 years. But even we made sacrifices in order to afford to live in that house.

The problem is, I shouldn’t say "even." Most of our neighbors had nicer furniture than we did. Some of them drove fancier cars. And their kids had bigger, costlier toys.

The absurdity hit me. I wouldn’t even try to compete with the lifestyle of a 45-year-old doctor. Not at 33. I make enough that a bank probably would let me have a mortgage of a quarter mil. I could lease cars that don’t depreciate quickly in order to keep my monthly payments down. But there wouldn’t be much of anything left at the end of the month, and I could probably forget about retiring any earlier than 73 (which is what Social Security is saying my retirement age should be). Just because I could make the payments doesn’t mean I should.

I wondered why so many of them got together every weekend and drank themselves senseless. And I don’t think I consciously ever realized I was living in a neighborhood full of people living way over their means–even the family next door, headed by a young dentist trying to establish his practice with five kids and a wife who insisted they needed a Jaguar.

Suddenly, sitting there at the table, telling old stories, I realized why that woman was such a psycho. She couldn’t pay her bills.

And that was also probably why another neighbor wouldn’t go anywhere without a thermos full of wine, and why another young couple who lived nearby smoked pot every Saturday night.

They had everything any reasonable person could dream of having at 32, but if anything at all ever went wrong–a layoff, an extended illness, or a serious injury–they would be in serious danger of losing it.

For whatever reason, I never measured my lifestyle against them. My first few jobs didn’t make me a lot of money, but they let me do pretty much anything I wanted. I had a nicer apartment than Dad had at a comparable age. I could go out to eat any time I wanted. I could buy a new computer every year if I wanted to, as long as I didn’t go overboard on it, and for a few years I did. I drove small cars, but there were always at least two or three cars in the parking lot that weren’t as nice as mine, so I was content to drive my 1992 Dodge Spirit. When it died, I got a 2000 Dodge Neon. It wasn’t a status symbol, but it had power locks and windows, which were two things Dad’s 1981 Chrysler LeBaron didn’t have. It had a nicer radio too. And that LeBaron was supposed to be a luxury car.

My lifestyle was far ahead of where Dad’s had been at my age. And not only that, I had money left over at the end of every month.

There were two things I wasn’t happy about. At the time, I didn’t have a steady girlfriend. And my apartment rent was going up by about $50 a year but the management company wasn’t taking care of the place. When stuff broke, they fixed it halfheartedly, and I didn’t want to pay $575 a month to live in a slum.

When my rent hit $575, I told them I wasn’t going to pay it. They offered me a seven-month lease at about $550. Conveniently, I had enough in the bank for a down payment on a house, and I figured I could afford to pay a couple hundred more every month for a mortgage. I just didn’t want to throw that kind of money away on rent.

So I bought a house. There was a neighborhood about a mile away that reminded me a lot of the neighborhoods I grew up in. I found a house about the size of the house we lived in before we moved to St. Louis. It cost more than I had planned, but it was big enough that I could get married and have a family there and not have to move again. I hate moving. Plus, it was (and still is) in a good school district, all the schools are close by, and anything I could need was close. I didn’t know it right away, but in an emergency, the nearest grocery store AND the nearest car repair place are both walking distance.

For an extra $100 a month, it just made sense. I bought the house. And every night, I filled up that Dodge Neon with everything that would fit, drove to the house, and unpacked. Several friends with vans or pickup trucks helped me move the stuff that wouldn’t fit in my tiny car.

Even though my 1-bedroom apartment was stuffed to the gills, it wasn’t nearly enough to fill a 3-bedroom house with a living room, family room, a study, and a basement. But it didn’t take long for that problem to solve itself. Several people offered me some nice furniture. They were hand-me-downs, but there wasn’t anything really wrong with any of it. Before I knew it, the house was full.

A couple of years later, the right girl came along too. At first she wanted me to get nicer stuff. The problem was, even though I’d gotten promoted to a server administrator at work, they were still paying me my old desktop support salary. The house had wiped out my savings, and I couldn’t really take on another monthly payment on anything. We fought about it a little. I showed her how little was left at the end of every month, and I argued that everything in the house was nicer than anything my parents had at my age. For that matter, most of it was nicer than the stuff they had when I was a kid.

She relented. I don’t know how happy she was about it then. But she didn’t complain.

A few months after we got engaged, I lost my job. I was mad about it. I was convinced I would lose everything I’d worked for. I guess for a minute I thought I was like those neighbors.

But because I’d lived within my means, I survived and soon I ended up with a job with a competitive salary for the first time in my professional career.

Something else came out of it too. The day we got married, neither of us had a job. We started a small business out of necessity. Our final paychecks made the mortgage payments during that summer, and we used our wedding gift money to get the business going. Soon it was bringing in enough to make our utility payments and buy groceries. When I got a full-time job, she took the business over and I helped out at night and on weekends. It allowed her to not have to work outside the home. There are probably things she could do that would make more money, but she doesn’t have a lot of stress, and she enjoys the flexibility.

The odd thing is, we’ve been able to upgrade our lifestyle on the cheap. For example, there are three light fixtures we’ve been wanting to replace for a long time. This weekend I found two light fixtures at a yard sale for a buck apiece. My sister rolled her eyes when I told the story, but these fixtures don’t fit the yard sale stereotype. A sticker on them says they were made in February 2005. Home Depot still sells the same fixture (or something extremely similar) for about $30. That’s not terribly expensive, but $1 is a lot less than $30. The third fixture we need to replace is smaller. We can get something that will look fine with them, and look much better than what we have, for under $20. The result will be a significant upgrade in how the kitchen and living room look, at well under 1/3 the price.

That $60 savings may not sound like a lot, but we’re constantly finding ways to save a few bucks here and there like that. We’re never the first to have anything, but it seems like we always end up getting whatever it is we want or need, and meanwhile we’re socking money away and whittling down on that house payment.

Judged against the standards of my neighbors in 1988, one could argue I’m a failure. I drive a five-year-old car and most of the time I use a six-year-old computer, and the four shirts I bought in 1998 to comply with my then-employer’s dress code are still in my rotation today.

But let’s look at things another way. Not only do my wife and I have nicer stuff than my parents had when Dad was 32, we also have an easier time finding money for necessities like groceries. She can shop at the health-food stores even though they’re more expensive. As long as nothing unexpected happens, we’ll own everything outright and have absolutely no debt–no student loans, no car payments, no mortgage–well before I turn 40. I stress over some things, but money isn’t one of them.

In my early 20s, I watched some of my friends from high school rack up massive credit card debt. At least it seemed like massive debt at the time. I knew then I didn’t want to be like them, at least not in that regard. Now I know that the average American family has $9,900 in credit card debt. That’s about what one of those friends owed, and about twice what another one owed.

I know who I want to be like. I want to be like my wife’s parents. They paid off all their debt sometime in their late 30s or early 40s. Today, when my mother in law sees something she wants, she doesn’t think about it. She can just buy it. Not only that, she’s retired, and she’s nowhere near 73.

I’m not saying I want to buy anything and everything I see on a whim. But not having to think much at all about money seems really nice.

And I guess on some level I’ve known that for almost 20 years, since I was in my early teens.

More lawnmower adventures

Well, the $25 lawnmower my wife scored at a yard sale late last year died a week ago. It just quit in the middle of the yard, leaving me with a yard with a mohawk, since I’d already cut the front and most of the sides.

I bit the bullet and bought a new Toro.Why a Toro? I bought a $300 Toro because I can’t afford another $100 no-name special. My first mower was a Mastercut that had been given to me because it mostly worked but the people who gave it to me had problems with it, and the second was a Yard Machines (MTD) mower that died after its first mowing season and only worked 3-4 times after I worked on it. Buy three of those throwaway mowers and you’ve paid for a Toro.

Consumer Reports said the Toro 20171 is the best sub-$300 mower on the market. I saw another news story where the reporter asked a lawnmower repair shop what brands break the least, and he said Toro and Honda. And I noticed that almost all of my neighbors have Toro mowers. More importantly, most of them have old Toro mowers.

So it’s what I got. I hated paying $300, which is over half the principle on my monthly house payment, but I justified it this way: The mower has a three-year warranty, so it ought to last at least that long. Probably a lot longer. If the mower starts on the first or second pull instead of the 35th, it saves me a lot of time. The mower has a 6.5 horsepower engine, a 22-inch blade, and is self-propelled, and mulching, so I was able to cut the lawn in an hour with it. Normally cutting the whole lawn used to take me closer to two hours, counting wasted time emptying the bag, trying 35 times to start the stupid mower, and making more passes due to the 21-inch blade.

I figure if I have an extra hour a week that I’m not wasting on yard work, I can spend a little bit of that time doing things that make me money, and hopefully pay for the mower.

The other thing I noticed is that the mower seems to use less gas than the cheap Yard Machines mower I’d been using–even though it has a bigger motor in it and is self-propelled. I was burning a half gallon of gas mowing the yard with the other mower. I filled the Toro once and still had gas left when I finished. I guess that’ll save me another five minutes since I won’t have to refuel in the middle of the job. And with gas at $3 a gallon, maybe, just maybe the mower will pay for itself in fuel savings over its lifespan.

Initially I felt bad about spending the money, but I think in the long run, in this case I probably needed to spend money in order to save some money.

Setting up the tree and the train

Although some of the people in our neighborhood had their Christmas stuff up well in advance of Thanksgiving, my wife and I did the traditional thing, setting the tree up the day after Thanksgiving.We use a pre-lit artificial tree. Growing up, I remember stringing lights on the tree and taking them back down was always the most tedious part of the job, so I decided that if someone didn’t invent it before me, I’d invent the pre-lit Christmas tree.

Someone else did, of course. The next time I get a great idea I need to move on it more quickly.

The angel wouldn’t light, so I got out the spare strand of lights, yanked one bulb, and started yanking bulbs out of the angel and plugging them into the strand to see if I could find the bad one. That got tedious, so I eventually decided to try the fuses. I swapped in the two spares off the spare strand, after checking the rating of course, and the angel came back to life.

The Christmas village is almost entirely secondhand. My wife found five Department 56 buildings–three houses, a church, and a store–at a yard sale a couple of years ago. Last year she found a secondhand bookstore, which she gave me for my birthday. For figures, we use the Cobblestone Corners figures from Dollar Tree, which are sized more appropriately for the buildings than the giant figures Department 56 sells. Plus, they come three or four to a package for a dollar, instead of selling for three or four dollars apiece.

Rather than use the big, clunky lights that come with the buildings, I lit them using a string of LED lights. They run cool and use almost no power. Once warm white LEDs become easier to find (the strand I have is a very cold blue light) I have half a mind to figure out how to convert the tree itself to LEDs. For lighting buildings, the strand of LED lights takes up less space, uses one plug instead of five, and uses less power.

For the train, I put down a simple loop of Lionel Fastrack. In the past I’ve done a dogbone with a reverse loop on each end, but that takes up a lot of space. A loop of Fastrack can take up as little as three feet by four feet.

The train is short and simple–two boxcars and a caboose, all 1950s vintage. The boxcars are Marx and American Flyer bodies I bought for a couple of dollars at a train show. I made replacement bases for them out of basswood from a hobby shop, and screwed a couple of cheap Lionel trucks with fixed couplers onto the base using wood screws, with a fender washer in between and a little bit of white grease between the truck and the washer. The total cost of each car was less than $6. From an operational standpoint the fixed couplers are a liability, but for running around a tree they’re ideal because they won’t come uncoupled. The caboose is a lighted Southern Pacific style caboose I got off eBay as part of a damaged goods lot. When I got it, the only problem with it was that the bulbs had some out of their sockets.

The locomotive is a Lionel 2026 that belonged to Dad. I had it professionally refurbished in 2003, so it probably runs better now than it did 50 years ago.

All in all, it was a nice way to spend the evening after Thanksgiving. We had half a mind to drive downtown to see the new old-style window displays at the downtown Macy’s (formerly Famous-Barr), but we’ll save that for another night.

My lawnmower adventures

I’ve had the same lawnmower for the last 4 years or so. Maybe three. I lose count. It’s a piece of junk–worth slightly more, perhaps, than what I paid for it (nothing) but it didn’t work right when I got it, and this mowing season it just fell apart. And besides falling apart–the wheels really were coming off, and I couldn’t find anyplace that sold new ones that fit–it was getting to be impossible to start.

My wife found another one at a yard sale for $25. It didn’t start either, but at least it was in good physical condition and it was only a year old.So this weekend I put my mad mechanic skilz to work. I know from my three years’ experience fixing Lionel and Marx trains that the main thing that keeps those motors from running is crud. That’s a technical term for the junk that builds up inside over the years. This mower hadn’t had years for crud to build up, so I figured I could probably keep it running, even if, as I suspected, the original owners did what you’re not supposed to do and kept gas and oil in it all winter.

I know that can’t kill a two-year-old mower, because I’ve done that with the mower I already had. Twice, even.

The previous owners said it needed a "carburetor flush" and it cost $2. So I went to the hardware store, hoping to find something I could just pour in somewhere and make the thing run again. No such luck. They pointed me to the automotive section, to Gumout Carb & Choke Cleaner. I looked at the ingredients. Yep, every nasty solvent I’ve ever heard of. That’ll clean out anything that might be in there, and I could use the leftovers to build plastic models with. The guy warned me that I’d have to disassemble the carburetor to use it–otherwise I’d dissolve the rubber seals. Fabulous.

I did some reading beforehand, because I’ve never disassembled a carb before. And everything I read said to do three things before messing with the carb: Change the oil, pour out the gas and use new gas, and change the spark plug.

So I did that instead, and used the carb & choke cleaner to clean up the mess I made. The oil was black as coal, and the gasoline, well, I’m not an expert on stale gasoline but I’m pretty sure the stuff was well over 30 days old. Briggs & Stratton says to not use gasoline more than 30 days old in its engines. The spark plug could have been worse, but it had clearly seen better days.

After all that, I gave it a pull, and I could hear the engine trying. I primed it a bit more and pulled again. It started and ran for a few seconds. Eventually I was able to get it to keep running long enough to actually mow the yard with it.

So the lawnmower that my wife paid $25 to get and originally cost $199 new needed a $3 spark plug to get it to run again. Being a $199 Home Depot special, I don’t expect it to have a long life. But hopefully I can keep it running for 3-4 years, by which time I may very well have the house paid off and I’ll be able to afford a Snapper.

Unless one of us sees a Snapper at a yard sale or an estate sale before then… I won’t rule it out.

Target is selling Lionel trains now

A number of hobbyists are reporting that they have spotted a Lionel train set at Target, priced at $249.

From the pictures, it looks like pretty much the same old starter set Lionel has been selling since the early 1950s, with the addition of the modern "Fastrack" with integrated plastic roadbed that plugs together easily. That’s not all bad.
The locomotive is made from the same dies as my dad’s first locomotive, which dates back to the 1952-53 timeframe. It’s the dreaded, infamous "Scout" body that makes self-styled serious hobbyists howl, but let’s face it, this is the locomotive that made many a person fall in love with Lionel trains. Dad and I had lots of fun with it in the basement when he set his old Lionel trains back up in 1986. (Has it been 20 years ago now?) Although it looks like the dreaded Scout, it has a new motor, so it shouldn’t have reliability problems. And the people buying this probably wouldn’t notice the difference between a 4-4-2 and a pricier locomotive anyway.

The train has "Lionel" splattered all over it. "Serious" hobbyists won’t like that. They want trains lettered for the Union Pacific or Burlington Northern-Santa Fe, Norfolk Southern, or CSX. Or maybe they’ll settle for a long-gone fallen flag railroad like the New York Central or Pennsylvania Railroad. But serious train guys aren’t really the audience. When they shop at Target, they’re there to get a can of Krylon and maybe they’ll wander down the toy aisle in hopes of spotting a 1/43 diecast car for the layout, but that’s it. Lionel is going for the retro cool factor here.

I do think it’s a mistake to be offering only this set in the stores, however. Target is selling Lionel’s Thomas the Tank Engine and Polar Express sets online. The Thomas set costs about $50 less; the Polar Express costs about $50 more. I think either one has the potential to outsell this set. Maybe Target and Lionel executives are watching to see how the sets sell, and if they all do OK, then they’re planning to sell the others in stores next year.

At $250, I suppose it’s a decent value. The retail value on the track alone is about $60, and the transformer is another $90. If the locomotive were available as a separate-sale item, it would likely sell for $75 minimum, and it’s almost impossible to find Lionel and Lionel-compatible train cars for less than $25 anymore, unless they’re used. So the bundle costs about $75-$100 less than buying everything separately would cost. And many people have pointed out that an awful lot of Christmas gifts cost $250-$300 these days.

For $250, I wish they would replace the locomotive with the locomotive out of the Polar Express set, which is more attractive and runs well, but that would probably hurt profit margins.

I think Target would do well to put a display somewhere in its bigger stores with the Lionel train set, accessorized with whatever flavor of ceramic villages Target sells. Most of those villages are sized about right for Lionel trains and they look good together. I think it would increase sales of both the villages and the train sets. Hobbyists have been combining them in their basements for years, but you don’t see them together out where the public goes very often. People who will spend thousands decorating their yards would likely be happy to drop $250 on a train for around the tree and another couple hundred to get enough ceramic buildings to build a town for the train to serve. And next year some of them will be back to buy more track and more buildings to make it even bigger.

I’m hoping this opportunity isn’t lost on Target and Lionel executives, but I won’t hold my breath. The modern Lionel seems to have forgotten that it made a lot of its money in the ’50s by selling additional locomotives, cars, track, and accessories to its existing customers. This was so lucrative that other companies fought for the market too.

Of course, some people will lose interest, and the train will end up in a box in the garage, attic, or basement, and eventually find its way into a yard sale or secondhand store. Maybe there, someone else will buy it and get interested. Or a hobbyist will rescue it and integrate some of the pieces into a bigger layout.

All in all, I see a lot of positives here and not too many negatives.

The road to financial independence

Early in The Millionaire Next Door, Danko and Stanley single out the Scottish. When my wife, Emily, read it, she said, “That explains everything about you!”

When I read it, I thought it explained everything about my two grandfathers–one was rich, one was poor, both were Scottish, and both spent their money pretty much the same way.

I’ve been reading a lot of these kinds of books because I’m not going to let what happened to us back in May ever happen again.But I blame Emily. She’s the one who started bringing me these kinds of books.

So what am I doing? I can’t list everything, but I can definitely give enough examples to highlight this Scot’s mindset.

Pick up that quarter. You know that adage that if a lawyer drops a quarter, it costs him more money to bend down and pick it up than to leave it be? Forget that. A lawyer standing in a parking lot isn’t billing time. I always pick up that quarter. I’m not a vulture–if I see someone drop a coin or three, I pick them up and hand them to the person. But if it’s on the ground and there’s no sign of the rightful owner, it goes in my pocket, whether it’s 75 cents or a penny.

Be scrappy. When I was out of work, I walked around picking up aluminum cans. At 45 cents a pound with a 10-pound minimum (a pound is roughly 35 cans), it was a slow way to make money. But if you’re out walking for exercise anyway, pick ’em up. I pick up cans when I spot them in parking lots, and I save the cans the local hoodlums throw in my yard. The last time we took cans in, we got more than $8. That pays for dinner for a night or two, if you cook. I only gather cans when someone’s not paying me to do something else, but during those times, why not?

Pay down your debt. Once Em and I got on our feet financially and it was clear we wouldn’t have to live off our savings anymore, we paid off our cars. We’d been making extra payments anyway. By paying off her 5-year loan in 3 years and mine in 2, we probably saved $3,000 in interest charges. That 3 grand is going to come in handy.

And that’s Biblical: Romans 13:8 says, “Owe no man anything, except love.” Does that mean my home mortgage and my car loans are sin? Yep. At least we’ve got two sins out of our lives.

If you can’t pay it all off, make extra payments. Even tiny extra payments help. Do a Google search for a financial calculator. Plug in your home mortgage. Many will figure the effects of extra payments for you. On my mortgage, just $10 a month pays off my house a full month sooner. A lousy ten bucks a month eliminates a single $1,000 mortgage payment. I can come up with 10 bucks. About 18 months ago I quit buying a doughnut and coffee at work, taking a thermos and a couple of packets of oatmeal every morning so I’d quit spending $1 a day on those things. The total savings per month was almost 20 bucks. Packing my lunch saved another couple of bucks a day. You get the idea.

Initially I was doing it for hobby money, until I realized how much more I would save by eliminating debt first. Once that $1,000 mortgage payment and $300 car payment are no longer over my head, I can buy a lot more $10 train cars. Even if the price doubles by then, which it probably won’t.

Keep an eye out for business opportunities. My brother in law has the right idea. He and his wife bought the laundromat in the town they live in. They have to fix something once a week, but compared to their regular jobs, it’s easy money. Within a few years it will have paid for itself and the money will just be there.

He’s looking to start another business too. Ethanol costs about $1.84 a gallon and the price is steady. That’s 70 cents less than a gallon of gasoline sells for in their town. So a lot of farmers use ethanol. Many would anyway, because they’d rather support corn farmers than middle eastern oil tycoons. So he’s looking to buy an ethanol station.

Emily and I moonlight selling stuff online. She loves shopping at thrift stores and yard sales. I spotted a copy of How to Make a Fortune With Other People’s Junk and bought it (with a coupon, of course). We’re not following it exactly, but it put us on the right track. We’re small time but we’re profitable, and now she’s getting paid to do one of her favorite things.

The goal isn’t the high life. This might be the most important thing. The reason most wealthy people stay wealthy is because their goal isn’t a swanky $500,000 home in a ritzy suburb with two new foreign luxury cars in the driveway all the time.

Don’t get me wrong: I may not drive a Honda Civic all my life. But I could see myself driving a Toyota Camry or a Honda Accord whether my net worth was $160,000 or $16 million. A BMW or Mercedes (or a Lincoln or Cadillac, for that matter) does nothing to improve quality of life.

The goal is something completely different: not to be anyone’s slave.

A year ago, whenever my phone rang after hours, I had to answer it. If I failed to answer the phone more than maybe once a year, I was afraid I’d be fired. So I picked up the phone and did whatever the person on the other end asked, whether it was reasonable or not, whether it made sense or not. Sometimes that meant I had to cancel plans. But it meant extra money, and I thought it proved how indispensible I was.

And it was all over one Thursday afternoon. There were cutbacks at work, and my position was eliminated. So I got in a car that belonged to Honda and drove to a house owned by the bank, where I sat down (at least the couch was owned by me) to figure out how much money was in the bank and how many months that money would last while I looked for another job.

Freedom is being able to say yes when the phone rings because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s what you have to do in order to support your lifestyle. Freedom is when it doesn’t matter if your job evaporates because you boss’ boss’ boss screwed up and lost a horrific amount of money because the main reason you’re working for him is because it’s more interesting than sitting around at home watching daytime TV.

Most people don’t have a job. Their job has them. And the main reason is because their lifestyle has them.

In a way I’m glad I learned this at age 30. I’m also very glad that Emily understands it, and that when I can’t explain something peculiar about the way I spend or (more often) don’t spend, she trusts me. This doesn’t work very well when only one person is on board.

And as long as both of us can hold down a job for about five years–a reasonable expectation, since both of us have done it before–we’ll get there.

Cheap ground foam for trains

Ground foam is a commonly used scenery material. You can use it to simulate grass and other ground foliage, and people often use it to make trees as well.

But there are two problems with it. What are the odds of you running out when working late at night when all of the hobby shops are closed? Too high. And it’s expensive. But I found two explanations how to make your own.You can see them here and here.

I’ve seen a similar method used where someone used cheap kitchen sponges from dollar stores. The source of foam doesn’t seem to matter. The materials you need are pretty much all the same: an old blender from a yard sale or thrift store, about a quarter cup of water, a bottle or two of cheap green acrylic craft paint and another bottle of a darker color to tint it, and some foam to grind up.

Cheap model railroading supplies can be hard to find sometimes. It’s nice to see one.

Shopping an estate sale for trains

My girlfriend loves shopping at yard sales, flea markets, thrift stores, and basically everywhere people look for bargains.

I’m not into that all that much. I’m a guy. So I just asked her to keep an eye out for tools for me if she happened to be garage sale-ing.

This week she found an estate sale with tools and trains. It started at 7:30 this morning. So I dragged myself out of bed to go.The description said "electric trains." Usually when people say electric trains, they mean old American Flyer, Lionel or Marx, because that was what those companies used to put on their boxes. "Model trains" usually means HO or N scale. Nothing against those, but they’re not my thing. And besides, you can buy those anywhere.

When I got there, it was right at 7:30. It looked like they’d started early because there were lots of people there. I noticed a lot of people glancing at the trains but not staying long. I took a look. The glossy brightly-colored enameled bodies instantly told me it was pre-war stuff. I looked at the prices. $85 for a refrigerated car. $28 for a gondola. $24 for a caboose. These guys had gone to the library and looked up the values of the cars. I know because the guy told me so.

"Are these prices about right? I went to the library and looked them up."

I explained to him that the Greenberg price guides tend to be skewed in favor of the east coast. Prices are higher there, partly because the cost of living is higher out there than in the midwest, and partly because there’s a bigger following over there. Lionel and Marx were both New York companies. Gilbert was a New Haven company. Flyer was a Chicago company before selling out to Gilbert, but that was prior to 1938. There’s more appeal to the stuff on the east coast because you find people whose grandfather or great uncle worked for one of those companies, or some other connection.

What I didn’t tell him (but should have) was that those prices are for mint condition. And while his items were in nice shape, they were anything but mint. Most of them would grade to excellent, or very good. Stepping down a grade knocks anywhere from 10%-50% off the price of the item.

The cars also weren’t 100% original. At some point the couplers on the cars had been replaced with Lionel post-war couplers. That’s an upgrade, which is probably why the original owner had done it, and whoever did the upgrade did a good job, but from a collector’s point of view, it lowers the value. It’s an advantage to people who run the trains, but someone like me isn’t going to pay extra for it.

The prewar freight set that was priced at $137 total at this sale probably would have been priced closer to $75 at Marty’s Model Railroads, frankly. Marty probably would have given him $40 total.

He also had two passenger sets. They would have graded out to Good, possibly only Fair. They, too, were priced at mint.

There was a nice prewar engine. I forget the number. It was priced at $250 for the engine and tender. That’s a fair price if it’s a whistling tender, if the engine is in perfect working order, and the paint is good. The paint was really good on the engine. But it probably at least needed a lube job. With no way to test the engine, there was no way I was going to pay $250 for it.

I spied a couple of postwar Marx diesels, priced at $50. It was an A-B pair, with the B unit being a dummy. A quick examination revealed the front had been cracked and re-glued. Diesels tend to go for more than steam engines the same age, but in that condition, and untested, a Marx should only go for $20.

I also spied a couple of pairs of Marx metal switches. They were the electric variety. I’m told metal Marx switches were prewar. I don’t know about that, since all of the metal ones I’ve ever seen were in a lot with postwar equipment. Maybe they were put together after the war with old parts. Marx was known for that. At any rate, the Marx metal switches are highly desirable. The later plastic switches sit higher than your track, so you have to shim your track for the locomotives to run right. These don’t. Also, the design allows Marx and American Flyer engines with thicker wheels than Lionels to pass through them. So a metal Marx switch lets you run any train you want. And unlike the Lionels of the same vintage, they run off a fixed 18 volts, not from the track, so they tend to work more reliably.

The only Lionel switch that compares is the Lionel 1121, which Lionel didn’t make for very long. It’s easier to make the 1121 self-tending, but in all other regards the Marx is better.

The switches were priced at $10 per pair, including the original boxes, control panels and wires (but the wires need to be replaced). That’s not a fabulous price, but it’s fair. I paid $10 per pair for some plastic Marx manual switches at Marty’s back in December. Marx switches tend to sell for $10 per pair on eBay, but then you have to deal with shipping.

So I bought the two pair of switches, and nothing else.

Later, my girlfriend told me they wouldn’t take her check. So I guess it’s a good thing I only got the switches. I wouldn’t have been able to get any more even if I’d wanted to, because I only had $24 in cash on me.

It was a mild disappointment. I took a quick look at the tools and saw the same thing. Prices were very close to what I would pay at Sears. Only at Sears, I’d get a warranty on it, and if I bought $100 worth of stuff, I’d get a $5 off coupon on my next purchase.

It was a mild disappointment. She was disappointed too. I’m going to assume it wasn’t typical. She told me it wasn’t a very good estate sale.

I think I’ll go back tomorrow afternoon, towards the end, and see if the trains are still there. Maybe then he’ll be looking to deal. Marty can charge the prices he does because he’s willing and able to sit on inventory for months or years. Individuals usually can’t or won’t do that. But he was charging more than Marty would.

If not, there’ll be more next week, or if not, the week after. ‘Tis the season, and very early in the season, at that.