Mini-Review: The Overspent American by Juliet B. Schor

I mentioned this book in my last blog post on decluttering, but I wanted to say a little more about it here. This might be the most significant book I’ve read in months; I wish there was a revised update with survey data for this decade (I’m reading Schor’s more recent book Plentitude next, so we’ll see what it contains). I was stunned to see the drastic increase in ‘ideal’ desired income from the early 80s to the mid 90s among those she surveyed, for example. Increased cost of living plays a role, obviously, but I can’t help but believe that the 80s lifestyle also perpetuated upscaling and ‘feeling poor without X’ amongst middle-class families.

Schor explores the challenges of descaling (how it impacts socializing, self-image, and personal interactions) as well as the relentless cultural messages to upscale (live like people on tv/ co-workers/relatives who make more money) because you ‘work hard, so you must deserve a nicer home, clothes, a vacation, etc.’ I’ve fallen into that trap before, buying fancier lunches because it’s depressing to brown bag when you’re an adult, a perk-me-up latte, ordering books, especially when I was working longer hours or tired. It’s scary how pervasive that feeling is when you’re blue. Schor argues persuasively that many people were living paycheck to paycheck as a result of these pressures. And this is all in the pre-Internet/smartphone era!

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Sold My Soul (to the Used Bookstore), Or How to Declutter

I’m de-cluttering like crazy this week. I blame Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee, authors of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. I checked it out from the library, thinking it was more about stuff acquisition and then read it all in one night, fascinated by the authors’ psychological analysis and case studies of hoarding. I’ve been talking about it so much that my aunt wanted her own copy. Reading it prompted me to look around and wonder: What I am hanging onto that is more about emotional attachment than usefulness?

  • First, I got rid of some of my books. I have more books than I have shelves, honestly. Yes, my name is Hope and I’m a bookaholic. For example, I have two layers of books in one cabinet and have to take out some books to see the ones behind them, which means I’m always wondering where the heck a book went, only to find it tucked away in some odd corner of the house. So, I went through all my bookshelves, looking for things I’d never read, been sent, or bought for reasons unknown. This prompts lots of inexplicable questions, like: When was I possessed by some sort of bizarre mania to read Malcolm Gladwell? Or how did I end up with multiple copies of The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup? (Answers: I don’t know and because Susan Orlean is fabulous). Once I started really asking myself if I wanted to read or re-read something, it was easy to distinguish between books I loved and ones I felt meh about. The stack of meh books ended up being enough paperbacks to fill some boxes and Trader Joe’s paper bags. Then I thought, why not sell these?
  • I used Bookscouter to find the best price from several online websites and shipped out several different parcels. Most sites ask you to sell back enough to meet a minimum (between $5-25) and provide free shipping labels. As long as you have a few empty boxes around, it’s fairly simple to do. One thing I learned: hardcover books really do depreciate like new cars. That hardcover of The Silkworm that I eagerly purchased and then only read once? It might net me $4–or less. Some recent books have zero market value. Ouch.
  • Next, I got all my magazines together. I usually donate the recent issues to my hairstylist every month or two. For some reason, however, I’d been hanging on to back issues of Yoga Journal (we’re talking 2009 here), thinking I’d revisit them. Instead of keeping the whole issue, I went through and tore out articles I wanted and put them in a folder. Random insight: magazines are mostly advertising. Really. So many adverts. Second insight? Ironically, almost all the January-February magazines had cover articles on how to live a simpler, less messy life. But decluttering articles in magazines are usually lousy and/or suggest more stuff to buy. Look at this ridiculous suggestion for Lazy Susans in your fridge or canvas bags on your kid’s bedroom door. I laughed, y’all. Canvas is a magnet for dirt, dust, and dog hair. You’d need to vacuum those suckers out periodically, barring accidents with crayons, sticky food, etc.11043276_915960355091404_4260365225382974538_o
  • I joined a Facebook group for decluttering. Check out their decluttering cheat sheets and in-depth guide. I find it easier to tackle individual tasks than to multitask. But I’m weird like that. Want to read more about spending and consumption? I enjoyed Juliet Schor’s The Overspent American, even though it is a bit older. Want to declutter? You can jump into XO Jane’s 30-Day minimalism challenge or teach yourself not to buy things.  Whatever you do, I doubt you’ll need these fancy $3 paper towels. I really laughed at that one.10986443_915971478423625_5577692112761736865_o

Is Mark Cuban Right About the Student Debt Bubble?

Mark Cuban is probably right about the student debt burden being comparable to the housing bubble. And I’m no fan of Shark Tank–I have this gut-level cringe response at that ‘walk of shame’ scene done to eliminated contestants that probably stems from PE class trauma in grade school–but as Cuban says: “When you’re 18 years old and you don’t really understand all the nuances of what it’s going to cost to pay something back — it was almost inevitable.”

Can’t argue with that. For years, students have been told that an undergraduate degree will pave the way to a successful career and that student loans are a socially-acceptable risk. Once you start borrowing, it becomes easier to add a little more and a little more to each loan.

As he says here: “At some point potential students will realize that they can’t flip their student loans for a job in 4 years….IMHO, the biggest problem the economy has is the enormous student debt new college grads and those leaving college find themselves with. In the past leaving college meant getting a job and getting a used car and/or an apartment with some friends. Yes there was student debt, but it wasn’t any where near your car payment. You could still afford the car and the apartment. Now its the exact opposite. Today, the minute you graduate college you face the challenge of debt against a college education whose value is immediately “underwater.”

Bingo.

Also worrisome, in my opinion, are the growing number of graduate loans for MA/JD/PhD programs. Grad school is more expensive and often built on graduate student enrollment or teaching assistant labor to a degree that makes it challenging for programs to shrink admissions in response to an over-saturated hiring market. Probably as a result, there’s a lot of handwaving about future employability at the graduate level in some fields. I can count on one hand the number of my professors who gave me more realistic warnings about debt and the shaky job market as an undergraduate (I majored in history), even if I was pretty naive about the larger issues and more resistant to their advice at the time. As I learned more about job prospects in the humanities, I realized their warnings were something to be thankful for. I’d recommend reading Karen Kelsky or Sarah Kendzior if you’re curious about those issues or thinking about grad school. Luckily for me, I don’t think that library science and writing suffer from some of the emotional baggage and ‘failure’ stigma of other humanities fields about doing work outside the university system.

Flying K-Cups of Death!

Do you drink coffee? It’s my favorite “legally addictive stimulant,” to borrow from Nora Ephron, so I’m trying to wean myself away from pricier coffee habits, like Starbucks and single-use pods. I saw this Atlantic article lamenting the rise of K-Cups and their lack of recyclability (recyclable-ness? I cannot spell this to save my life) today. Little plastic pods are running amok in our landfills, America! They could wrap around the planet more than ten times.

Luckily, there’s an easy solution for this problem: use bagged coffee and a reusable pod. That’s what I use with my Keurig and there are many models available. It’s dishwasher-safe and actually cheaper than single-use pods. I’m still looking for a reusable pod and comparable espresso for my infrequently-used Nespresso machine. Suggestions? I’ll be researching this question.

Update: Found!

Cut The Cord: Cheap(er) TV, Movies, and Books

Curious about cord-cutting? I’ve been reading a lot about things I can do to cut my expenses and cord-cutting is a popular topic. Some of these are things I’m already doing—and you probably are too–but a discussion about cord-cutting on a library Facebook group I’m a part of made me realize that not everybody understands what their options are.

TV

I cut cable back in March of last year and haven’t looked back. I don’t miss it. I realized I watch less than 10 channels and several of those I could get with an antenna. Psych, my favorite basic cable show, was ending, so it didn’t seem like a sacrifice. Plus, I’m a bit of a jinx where TV is concerned–shows I like tend to die early deaths (miss you, Pushing Daisies, The Finder, Warehouse 13). I use Netflix, which I had before ending cable service, and bought an antenna for local channels (aka the Snowpocalypse + local crime broadcast). Your local news stations may have advice about which antennas work best in your area. I needed a specific model to get CBS here, as the CBS tower is out in the country. All the rest of the models I tested got everything else, however, so it’s likely you can find an inexpensive one that works for you and get a dozen or so channels for free.  And, wildly enough, the picture quality with an antenna feed is actually better. Look how handsome Craig looks. Miss you, too, Craig!
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Streaming services are growing like crazy; the easiest and cheapest option is probably watching TV on your computer or laptop, which is what everyone under 20 does now. Or you can physically connect your computer to your TV.  If you’re old like me, you can either buy a device to connect to your TV (a Roku box, an Amazon Fire stick, Apple TV, and Google’s Chromecast, Xbox) that streams movie apps like Netflix via a wifi connection. Or you can look for a “smart” TV that already has the streaming capability and wifi connection built-in. Chromecast is probably the cheapest device option, but I have an older Roku box that still works fine. With any of those, you have options for inexpensive movies with Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and smaller apps like Acorn, which carries British programming, or Warner Archive, for classic films and television. I’ve had Amazon Prime for students and Netflix, but not Hulu, Acorn, or Warner. Most of these have free trial periods.

Movies
I’ve just stopped going. It happened gradually; I can count on one hand the movies I’ve seen in theaters over the past few years (My Week With Marilyn, The Artist, The Great Gatsby), but that’s more about taste than frugality. Netflix makes it easier to stay home, frankly. I’m not alone here, since 2014 was the lowest year in two decades for movie attendance. You can also visit your local library for DVDs and see if your library participates in free streaming movie services like IndieFlix.

Books
Frugal living blogger Mr. Money Mustache has these tips for getting rich with your library. As an MLS-holding person, I lovelovelove when people promote their local libraries. Fun fact: if you want to see steam come out of my ears, suggest that libraries are obsolete or unnecessary. Libraries provide all kinds of services: internet access, expensive database access, resume help, special programs for kids, retirees, students, etc.

Buying books is my personal weakness, so I’ve been trying to cut back on my Amazon/Barnes & Noble habit. This is not easy. I love books. No, really. Look at my Pinterest book board. I really love them. Sometimes, my wish list calls my name and whispers buyyyyy meeeee. Thankfully, I have a great public library that has a range of services and several yearly Friends of the Library used booksales. My library participates in my state’s digital library, which means I can check out ebooks as well as paper books from my branch; you can see if your library has access to a similar service. There’s also Interlibrary Loan, a widely-used service that many libraries employ to borrow books from other library systems; at my library, each ILL book is $2-3, far cheaper than buying the book new.

There are other options for cheap books, too: visit your local used bookstore or an online used books retailer like Thriftbooks. I buy a lot of my used books for beading projects from them. Classic novels–think Dickens and Jane Austen–are often available as free online ebooks for nook and Kindle users, too or via Project Gutenberg. Several of my Life of Crime…Reading Project books are available there.

Happy cord-cutting!
Hope

Somebody Explain Why Degrees Costs So D#mn Much, Please?

I don’t think a degree should cost as much as a mortgage, but I do know people whose student loan payments are equivalent to their rent. Over at attn:, Aron Macarow explains why Paying For College Is Now Harder Than Paying Off A Home:

“Student loans made up the smallest portion of household debt until 2009. Now, U.S. educational borrowing amounts to $1.16 trillion. This amount has been ballooning for years, surpassing total credit card debt almost five years ago – and jumping $77 billion in the last year alone. Nearly 1-in-5 households are impacted by student loans. That’s almost a quarter of the United States.”

Seriously, why the dramatic increase since 2009? Is it the recession creating more degree-seekers? Has it increased tuition and fees? Both? Here’s one take on where all that money goes.

I think I need to go look at some pretty paintings now.

The Life Changing Magic of Getting Your Sh%t Together

I won’t lie: I’m trying to get my stuff together. Let’s talk about it a little bit.

There are two things that happen to you when you get graduate degrees in creative writing and library science. First, your weakness for books grows like kudzu. You have an impossibly long wish list of books on Amazon, haunt your library’s used booksale, and are always out of space for books in the house. Your nightstand may start to resemble a Leaning Tower of Pisa constructed entirely out of paperbacks. Secondly, you probably have a good amount of graduate school debt and want to pay it off. Which is way less fun than recreating European landmarks out of your favorite mystery novels.

I’m not alone. Some people are even calling this generation’s grad school debt Loan-agedon. Since I graduated, I’ve been thinking a lot about debt, happiness, and priorities. While my own debt has never reached the apocalyptic levels of Slate articles, I’ve developed a soft spot for books that talk about eliminating debt and living more simply. Are you living in an impossibly tiny house? Paid off a lot of debt? Then I want to read your book, visit your blog, or listen to your podcast.

Some of my favorites:

The 100 Thing Challenge by David Bruno

Regular guy Dave attempts to limit himself to exactly 100 personal possessions, including toothpaste. I reviewed this book for the Where Is My Guru radio show back in 2013. Since Jessica, Heather and the rest of the WIMG gang are currently remodeling the site (I’m excited to see what’s next for WIMG!) my initial blog post about The 100 Thing Challenge has disappeared into the ether.  The best moment in the book, for me, is a moment where Dave talks about the emotional connections in his spending on projects–he realizes that he doesn’t care so much about the activity itself, he’s trying to recreate the feeling of childhood holidays and working with his dad. It’s a powerful insight.

You Can Buy Happiness (And It’s Cheap!) by Tammy Strobel

This is probably my favorite voluntary simplicity book. Strobel, who blogs at RowdyKittens, radically changed her life priorities by paying down her debt and thinking about what she really needed, rather than focusing on her wants. In You Can Buy Happiness (and it’s Cheap!), she documents her shift from wanting the typical lifestyle–two cars, a house with a big mortgage, a bigger engagement ring–to moving into a series of smaller homes and thinking about her possessions differently. I really related to Strobel as a narrator; I could totally imagine hanging out with her and maybe splitting an eco-friendly boxed wine.

The Happiness Project and Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin

The first time I tried to read The Happiness Projectit was a disaster. I attribute this to Rubin’s opening chapters on closet organization. I’m an awful organizer. Closets are not my thing. But now I’m practically a Rubin acolyte: I bought her second book, had my first-year seminar students do some of her exercises, and eagerly await her next book on changing habits.

The Myths of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky

Lyubomirksy is a leading scholar on happiness. Yup, happiness studies exist! This is probably the most scientific book on my list. She discusses concepts like “hedonic adaptation,” also called the “hedonic treadmill.” It’s the idea that we need more and more exciting things–a shiny new car, a bigger house–to get the same level of satisfaction out of possessions.

Books I want to read:

Stuffocation by James Wellman.

That is a great title, right?

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Marie Kondo is hot right now: #kondo and #kondoing are trending on Twitter. In related news, I’m number 30 on the waiting list for this book at my public library.