The old Montgomery Ward building in Kansas City

The old Montgomery Ward building in Kansas City

I remember the old Montgomery Ward building in Kansas City. I spent plenty of time in the sprawling complex at 6200 St. John Avenue in Kansas City near the intersection of Belmont Boulevard.

When I was growing up, the three most dreaded words in my (and my cousin’s) vocabulary were “Ward’s over town.” That was what our family called the monstrosity, which was home to a regional distribution center, an outlet store, a catalog store, and corporate offices in a mere 2 million square feet.

When we were eight years old, this store was where Saturdays went to die. I don’t know how many of its 2 million square feet were open to my mom, aunt, and grandmother to look for bargains, but there was plenty of room for bargains to hide, and if there was ever anyone willing to spend the whole day in that store stretching a dollar just as far as it could go, it was my aunt. Read more

Advice on scraping by

Here’s a good, timely Google search query: scraping by advice.

I looked, and I’ve never written anything that matched that query well. I know a lot of people are hurting right now. I’ve been in some tight spots and I’ve gotten out of some, so let’s talk about what I would do, on a really practical level, if I ran into another tight spot next week.

Read more

Can you afford that house or apartment?

Declining incomes have more people paying a higher percentage of their income in rent than in the past. I blame the recession. And what caused the recession? People getting in over their heads, buying more house than they can afford. I blame the big banks for that, because I personally experienced it. If I’d bought the kind of house loan officers were telling me to buy in 2002, I’d have been foreclosed on, too.

Here’s a very easy way to figure out whether you can afford a particular place. Read more

When it makes sense to cheat on the envelope system

So I’m only a week into the family budget and I’ve already cheated on it. Look inside the envelope containing my lunch money, and you’ll find $8, a few loose coins, and an I.O.U. for $30.

I can explain. Really.For the last couple of years, lunch has usually been a Healthy Choice frozen meal. They’re easy to find on sale, they heat up quickly, they have a pretty wide selection, and there’s practically no work ahead of time involved with them. Unfortunately, I found a lot of them have hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup in them. The only thing healthy about those is the calorie count.

Not wanting to slowly poison myself, my wife went looking for an alternative. She found one: Kahiki, a line of Asian-inspired frozen meals. They’re made with natural ingredients and usually weigh in at a reasonable 300-400 calories. There’s just one problem: They’re a lot more expensive than Healthy Choice.

This weekend my wife and son were away, so I had to fend for myself. I wandered into the nearest grocery store Saturday night looking for something to eat when I spotted a display of Kahiki on sale at two for $6. I bought four.

Later that night I told my wife, and she reminded me that each of those packages has a 55-cent coupon in it. That drops the price to $2.45, a very appealing price point for a Scottish miser like me. So I cut out the coupons, went to the store, and bought four more. I then proceeded to walk out to the car, cut out those four coupons, walk back into the store, and use the fresh coupons to buy four more. Then I did it all again. Pretty soon I could cut the coupon out of the package without even opening it by following landmarks on the outside.

If anything, I felt guilty only buying $30 worth. At $2.45 a pop, I can come in $11 under budget for next month. And if Costco gets another shipment of the Thai noodles I like any time soon, I can eat those a couple of times a week at $1.09 a pop and save even more.

Maybe I’ll buy another four late in the week. I already have the coupons cut out.

Give me a little time to process what I just saw…

I finally got around to seeing Supersize Me, the documentary film where the filmmaker ate three meals a day at McDonald’s for 30 days to see what would happen.I need to think more about what I saw. But here are some random thoughts that occur to me after seeing it.

The first thing that comes to mind is Rod Carew. Carew was the second-greatest hitter of his era (since I’m a Kansas City Royals fan, of course he can’t be as good as George Brett). Early in his career, Carew was slumping. He asked his hitting coach what was wrong. He happened to be eating ice cream. The coach ripped the container of ice cream from his hand, threw it in the nearest trash can, and told Carew to quit eating junk. He tried it. He quit eating junk food and quit drinking soda. He was 38 before his batting average dipped below .300 again.

I know I’ve read several times on John C. Dvorak’s blog the comment, “Someone wants us fat.”

When I worked in fast food, if we didn’t try to “suggestive sell”–that is, when someone ordered a soda, ask, “Is that a large?” or something similar, we could be reprimanded. I didn’t upsell unless the manager was in earshot. I was always in trouble. I know for a fact the reason I didn’t get fired was because they didn’t want me talking–I knew lots of things that company didn’t want getting out. (None of that matters now; the company folded in 1993.)

In the film, Morgan Spurlock visited a school of troublesome kids. The school served healthy lunches–fresh fruits and vegetables and foods that were prepared fresh, rather than out of a box. The behavior problems largely disappeared. Television and video games get a lot of the blame for the rash of ADD and ADHD. And maybe kids do watch more TV and play more video games than we did 20 years ago when I was a kid. But kids today do eat a lot less healthy than we did. We ate out a couple of times a month, generally. Kids today eat out a lot more than that, and there are a lot more convenience foods in the grocery stores now than there were then.

Spurlock experienced depression. Depression is almost an epidemic. All I have to do to get hits on my web site is write about depression. In college I became a hero when I wrote about depression in my weekly newspaper column–professors were asking me to lunch, asking me to guest-lecture classes, and students I didn’t know from Adam were stopping me and thanking me. I thought I was the only one who ever felt depressed. Turns out it was the people who didn’t ever get depressed who were weird! And every time I write about depression here, I get tons and tons of hits. People are desperate enough to solicit advice from some guy they never met who isn’t a doctor and hasn’t so much as taken a biology class since Gulf War I–me. Maybe the problem is what they eat.

But hey. There’s big, big money in depression. I did a quick Google search, and 90 tablets of the low dosage of Paxil (let’s see what ads that gets me) costs $189 in Canada. Of course, in the United States, we pay more. Assuming 90 tablets is three months’ worth, that’s $2.10 a day. I know what GlaxoSmithKline’s saying: ba-da-ba-ba-ba, I’m lovin’ it!

And of course the fast-food companies want us fat. When we’re fat, we order more. We eat larger portions more frequently. The less healthy we are, the more they benefit. And the more the drug companies benefit.

Another symptom Spurlock experienced was fatigue. That’s another common problem. And who benefits from that? Coca-Cola, Pepsico, and Starbucks, mostly. Who can function anymore without that jolt of caffeine in the morning?

I’m not saying it’s a big conspiracy. I’m not real big on conspiracies. I’m perfectly willing to believe the fast-food phenomenon happened and the companies that sell drugs and caffeine were the lucky beneficieries.

I’ll tell you something: I gave up fast food at 25, when my dad’s cousin started having serious health problems. That was a reality check for me: my closest male relative died at just over twice my age, and then when another one of my closest male relatives reached that age, it was just a lucky break that he didn’t die also. I woke up one morning, looked in the mirror, asked myself if I wanted my life to be half over, and started eating turkey sandwiches from Subway (with just veggies and mustard–hold the fatty crap) for lunch pretty much every day.

And a lot of times when things have started going wrong, I haven’t been eating as well. I know that’s true for me right now.

I’ve seen Dr. Mark Himan on TV a couple of times the past few months. The things he says make a lot of sense. My wife and I have one of his books and another one on order. I think it’s time for me to read the one we have. I’m 31 now, and sometimes I feel like I’m losing my edge. Maybe I should do what Rod Carew did, and see if I get it back.

How to make more money, but more importantly, keep more of what you earn

Most GenXers don’t spend their money wisely.

That’s not an insult on my peers; there’s plenty of blame to go around. Yes, we want what our parents had at 50 and we want it at 25, but part of the problem is the images all around us tell us we have to have all that. And if my education is any indication, the only financial education I received in school was an aside in a U.S. History class.

Let’s talk about how to earn more to dig out of financial ruin, and how to stay out.First and foremost, usually when people get to the point where they start typing “earn more money now” or something similar into Google, usually they need immediate help. A year ago, I was in that situation. Talking it over with the higher-ups didn’t help–a few months later I lost my job. Ouch.

I’d be lying to you if I told you I wasn’t bitter. I still am. But in a way it was the best thing that could have happened to me, because it forced me to look for opportunities. I already had been, but it forced me to find others that I probably wouldn’t have, otherwise.

There are a few ways to make a little money but it won’t necessarily happen immediately. If you have a web site, put Google ads on it. Click my link to find out how. Whether you get your first check in a month or in a year depends on how much traffic you get. A faster way to make a little money is to sign up for some online surveys. You won’t get rich, but a dollar here and five bucks there adds up. Sometimes you’ll hit the jackpot and qualify for a $25 survey. That won’t pay the mortgage but it will pay for a few meals.

Here’s another idea: Become a mystery shopper. Google for it. But don’t pay anyone to become a mystery shopper, not when there are legitimate outfits who are willing to pay you. Just keep in mind some of them want references. That’s actually a good thing. It protects your reputation and theirs. Again, it’s not big money, but it’s fairly easy money.

But I’ll be blunt: If you’re in some real trouble and there’s a bill that’s due in two weeks and you can’t pay it, then it’s time to make some sacrifices. Do you have any recent video games? Any collectible CDs or DVDs or VHS tapes? Collectible toys, such as Star Wars figures? There are lots of places that are willing to buy things like that, but to get top dollar you have to sell it yourself. Search eBay, find out what your items or something similar are selling for, and think seriously about liquidating some stuff. Don’t sell your family heirlooms, but if there are things that you can sell now to get you out of trouble and replace later when you’re out of trouble, consider it. While collectibles do increase in value, I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret: Most of them are doing well to keep up with inflation. None will increase as quickly as your debt–not for a sustained period of time, at least. If you have something that is, sell now. The bubble will burst, and you’ll be able to buy it back cheaper later.

And something sobering will happen as you research what some of the things you own are worth. You’ll find a lot of them aren’t worth anywhere near what you paid for them. There’s a lesson there. It’s much better to spend your money on things that hold their value than on things that have bling factor but have no value once the 14-day return period is over.

So when you have money again, spend less on worthless things so you have more to spend on things that do hold their value. A big truck turns heads and lets you bully people on the road (and the ads to some degree encourage it) but can you really afford $40 a week to keep gas in it? Do you have to haul stuff often enough to justify that expense? For the majority of people, it’s much better to drive an economy car and put the money you save on the lower payment and less gas towards paying off debt. Borrow or rent a truck those occasional times when you need to haul something. So skip the Hummer and get a house. You need a house anyway, and while a Hummer will lose value when you go to sell it, a house usually will gain.

Let’s go back to the eBay thing for a minute. Ebay does a lot of good things. Once you’ve sold your stuff, you have the option to go buy more stuff to sell. Buy what you know and only what you know, and only if you can buy low and sell high. If you can’t either double your money or make $10, don’t bother. It’s best to find something that lets you do both. But if you have the ability to do that, you have an asset that stands a chance of turning your financial situation around within a few years.

But it also does something else. It teaches you how to sell. There is no better, more useful ability than how to sell. Not everyone sells merchandise for dollars, but everyone has to sell ideas. If you regularly find that people don’t listen to you, then that’s a good indication that you need more salesmanship ability. Yeah, but those people are idiots, you say. Even better. There are more idiots out there than smart people. Most rich people got rich by getting idiots to buy their junk.

I remember reading a line in a book once that asked me if I could make a better hamburger than McDonald’s. Of course I can. So why did Ray Kroc have more money than me?

By the way, I don’t mean any insult by any of this if people don’t listen to you. There are a lot of people who don’t listen to me either. I need to work on my sales skills as much as anyone.

I did something else before I started selling my stuff. I took a walk. I walked at least once a day. But I didn’t just walk. I was picking up aluminum cans. At 40 cents a pound, an aluminum can is worth about a penny. There’s no way I can pick up 100 cans in an hour, so it’s a lousy way to make money. But nobody else was paying me to do anything else during that time. I made sure I didn’t walk during working hours so I wouldn’t be out if the phone rang with a job opportunity. At least I felt like I was doing a little something. It was very little, but it kept my mind off things so I didn’t get as depressed. It also helped me watch for opportunity. Those cans aren’t worth anything, but the ability to quickly spot things of value from far off is worth something. It made a few house payments when I didn’t have a 40-hour-a-week job.

That’s enough talk about making money. I’ll admit that they’re just general ideas. I can’t give specific advice because something that works where I live might not work 100 miles away. Something else works there. The nice thing about the United States is that there always is an opportunity, no matter where you are. Although politicians seem to be trying their best to destroy that, they can’t destroy opportunities as quickly as you can find them.

I read a study this past week that said 70% of college graduates today can’t balance a checkbook, and when presented with a 20-ounce jar of spaghetti sauce for $1.99 and a 32-ounce jar for $2.49, they don’t know how to figure out which one is the better deal. That should scare some people.

But it occurred to me that I didn’t learn how to do that in school. I learned it from my mother. And I think she learned it from her mother, who must have known it because she managed to raise 11 kids and her husband didn’t have any money.

They don’t teach that kind of thing in school. To me, that’s the only thing math is good for. But I don’t know how old I was when I realized math was useful for that. Before that I thought math was just something teachers used to prove they knew something I didn’t.

There are lots of books out there that try to teach you how to make more money. But a more valuable skill is learning how to spot the good deal. Learn how to calculate the cost per ounce and use it. Carry a calculator with you if that’s what you have to do. There’s no shame in that. A calculator is also a useful tool for keeping a running total of the cost of the stuff in your cart. So it might be a good idea to carry two calculators. They’ll pay for themselves the first time you use them.

And if you have any influence with math teachers, please hand them this word problem. It’s the only good use of math I can think of for a non-engineer:

A television costs $199 at a store two miles from you. The sales tax rate in your town is 5.75%. The same television costs $179 at a store 100 miles away. The sales tax rate in that town is 6%. Your car gets 25 miles to the gallon. Gasoline costs $2.00 a gallon. Is it cheaper to buy the television at the store two miles away, or is it cheaper to buy it 100 miles away?

I’ll conclude with the secret of getting rich. The secret isn’t to make lots of money. It’s human nature to spend more money as soon as you make more money. The secret is to spend less.

I remember when the first of my college classmates bought a house. He told me that at the end of the paper, it told him how much money the loan was for, and how much money he would pay between then and the end of the term. “Am I really going to make that much money?” he asked. Then he laughed it off.

He will. So will I. So will everyone. Most people living in the United States will make a lot more than a million dollars between their first job and retirement. The question is whether Nike and General Motors and Phillip Morris and Coca-Cola get to keep most of it, or whether the wage-earner gets to keep most of it.

I really don’t like the tone of this rant–and it basically is a rant–because it sounds like someone who made it looking back. I’ve only started the journey myself. I started 14 months ago. But my wife and I already have something to show for it. We have no credit card debt, we own two 2002 Honda Civics outright, and if we can keep up our current pace, we will own our house outright in a little over three years. Five years is probably more realistic.

Remember, around 12 months ago there wasn’t enough money to pay the bills. So if I can do it, lots of people can.

R. Collins celebrates his birthday

R. Collins Farquhar IV, aristocrat and scientist.
To my longtime readers and adoring fans. May you someday become enlightened.

Greeting:

I have just returned from my four-week tour of Europe in celebration of my 29th birthday. Aristocracy, unfortunately, is in decline in Europe just as it is in the United States, with the old money dying out and the Nouveau Riche taking over, but as there are more ruins of the old aristocracy in Europe than in the States, it still makes a worthwhile visit. I predict that within a generation, the old aristocracy will, sadly, be little more than a memory. I have made many predictions in the past and all of them have come true. You may read them by visiting Aristocraticguys.com and signing up for the premium-level subscription. I accept payment in U.S. currency, Pounds Sterling, and gold.

Speaking of the Nouveau Riche, I do wish I had spent my send-off with Raunche rather than with my so-called relatives. Little of my fine aristocratic blood seems to have seeped into them, sadly. I visited them on 27 November (November 27) for what they called “dinner.” They said it was something about Thanksgiving. Well, yes, for my enlightened readers, every day is reason to give thanks for the bountiful irrefragable enlightenment which follows my every footstep. I was very glad they were beginning to recognize this, and I told my manservant as much as he pulled my Rolls into my mother’s quaint little driveway.

After a feeble attempt at badinage, I noticed a smirk on my brother’s face. I always know I am in for something fetid and callow when I see that look. He suggested we sit down to dinner. I had my manservant sit at the table while I sojourned outside for a few puffs of my pipe. (My unenlightened family has not yet discovered the healing properties of tobacco smoke.) I always have my manservant eat my meals before I do, as it reveals two things. First and foremost, if my manservant lives, then I know the meal is not toxic. Second, I can interrogate him as to whether the meal was fit for aristocratic consumption.

I took a sip of my brandy (decaffienated, of course), thinking I might need it to face what awaited me inside. I needed not proceed with the interrogation upon my return. As my brother was stuffing his face with his third helping of a vile concoction called turkey and noodles, I scanned the table. Most of the usual traditional foods consumed by the rabble on that particular day were present: turkey, some vile concoction made with old bread that is commonly called “dressing” (I can only assume the French came up with that idea), mashed-up cranberries, some concoction that appeared to be made with apples and cream, mutilated potatoes and yams, and large quantities of white bread. No exotic animals. Nothing requiring the skills of a chef. Not even any haggis. Haggis is what commoners once ate in Scotland, but at least it is Scottish. Someone in this family needs to remember our roots. If they must be commoners, the very least they could do is be Scottish commoners.

Then, on the corner of the table, I spotted something worthy of an aristocrat’s refined palette: a jar of caviar.

But the caviar was not blended with red onions, scallions, sour cream, cream cheese and spices and wrapped in flaky puff pastry fit for an aristocrat, but it sat in an unopened jar, in the middle of a plate, garnished with small commercially-produced cakes resembling hockey pucks in plain white wrappers. My manservant told me they were a product manufactured by Hostess, commonly known as “Ding Dongs.”

My brother is a big enough ding-dong that I can only presume they are named after him. I need not contribute to his ego by indulging in them. Besides, my aristocratic gastrointestinal tract probably cannot handle such things.

I instructed my manservant to save one for Jacques Pierre Cousteau Bouillabaise Nouveau Riche Croissant le Raunche de la Stenche.

“Have some caviar and Ding Dongs,” my brother offered, before he resumed shoveling noodles into his face. I thought about offering him a second fork. I can only assume that this insult to my aristocracy was his idea, no doubt a result of a conversation with the Archduke of Stenche. I shall have to inquire at an appropriate time.

I decided it was time to depart. I instructed my manservant to warm up the Rolls. I waited a minute for some acknowledgment of me having graced their table with my presence. Finding none, I departed, unappreciated. No matter, as there were vintage antique radios to be refurbished and Europe was ever waiting. As the 31st great-grandson of William the Conqueror, I sought to return to Europe to plan my next conquest.

I can only assume they resumed stuffing their faces with noodles.

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