Blogs I Read

Disclamer: I don't necessarily agree with every opinion, or even most of the opinions, of the owners of these blogs. However I do belive that it is necessary and instructive to read and listen to opposing opinons, and just because you don't agree with someone doesn't mean that they're wrong or prevent them from writing excellent posts.

Homeschooling & Education


Personal Finance

Politics & Society

Simplicity + Sustainability


Tuesday, August 01, 2006


For all the chemists out there!

Technorati Tags:

Thursday, July 27, 2006

I'm dreaming of a green Christmas

At City Hippy they have started a neat idea, the Christmas Lights Campaign. Basically you pledge to buy one CFL for each person you buy a gift for this Christmas. They're hoping to get pledges for 100,000 bulbs. A great way to spread the frugal, green spirit.

Technorati Tags: Christmas Lights, Simple & Sustainable Living

I'm dreaming of a green Christmas

Monday, July 24, 2006

Best Places to Live

Money magazine just released their poorly-named Best Places to Live survey. Interested in how it happened that 8 of the top ten in the Midwest or South and that they all had populations between 57,000 and 230,000, I did the first thing you should always do when looking at statistics - I looked at the "how we massaged the numbers to get the result we wanted" section.

So what did they do first? Selected only places with over 50,000 people. This practically eliminates any possibility of not living in a development. McMansions here we come! So I guess all farms and small towns are terrible places to live? They don't explain why they made this choice or whether it reflects what most Americans would consider the "best" places to live.

Next they screened out cities with populations over 300,000 - again with no explanation given. They gave no consideration as to what falls within city limits either. One of the nicest places to live in the Philly area is Chestnut Hill - lots of beautiful houses, not McMansions, lots of open spaces, right on the train line (read: no need to sit in traffic jams), and within city limits.

In a completely unrelated move, they also eliminated 'retirement havens' where more than 40% of the population is over 50. First of all - just because people are over 50 doesn't mean they are retired, many people are working until 65 or even 70. According to this logic, I work at a 'retirement haven'. Also the baby boomers are turning 50 now - and many of them still have living parents, which is a lot of people over 50. This step (city and retirement haven elimination) drove the list from 670 cities to 201. Considering there are only around 60 cities with populations over 300,000, that's an awful lot of places eliminated simply because their population boomed during the 70's. More to the point, what's so bad about having elderly neighbors? They're quiet; they tend to keep their houses nice. You'll probably have good medical facilities nearby. They like kids. They have more leisure time to devote to church, volunteer groups, and cultural groups. Yeah, I don't understand this at all.

Next they removed places with "low education scores, high crime rates, absurdly high housing costs, declines in employment or income less than 90% of the state median". I can understand this step, although I wish they would have explained “absurdly high housing costs” as that is extremely vague.

However, they also eliminated "bedroom communities and places where people identify themselves as being from a smaller locale within the area." I haven't the faintest clue what the first refers to. For the second, I guess they assume that it's terrible to conveniently describe where you live. I'm from a very small town south of Buffalo. When people ask me I always say Buffalo because no one has ever heard of my small town. My guess is that they just assumed that where I'm from is just like Buffalo so they'll just lump us all together. Or they assumed that everyone meant that they worked in the well known city and had thus had terrible commutes. Basically this was just laziness and close-mindedness. "You mean you live 20 miles from Philly and don’t work there! Impossible"

After eliminating 73% of their list of cities with populations over 50,000 they finally got around to see what other people thought was important, or at least what other people like themselves thought was important. "A Money/ICR poll of 1,005 Americans found that ample job opportunities, good schools, and low crime are the most important characteristics people look for in a place to live ... the most disliked attributes are congestion, high crime, and lack of job opportunities." Hmm, this list was obviously taken off another poorly written 'survey'. Obviously if people want "ample job opportunities" they're not going to want the exact opposite. Also, what about asking what people like/dislike about where they currently live – not some fantasy about where they might want to live. Sure maybe they think they don’t want a commute, but if they actually lived in a place without a commute they’d hate it because it’s 10 hours from their favorite designer store. I know there are people here in the Philly suburbs that would rather die than live more than 20 minutes from a Coach store. They would probably faint if I told them people actually live more than 20 minutes from a Coach store.

To utilize their survey data, they ranked the "remaining places on economic opportunity, taking into account income, job growth and affordability; quality-of-life indicators, including risk of violent crime and property crime, quality of public schools, arts and leisure, park space and incidence of stress-related ailments; and "ease of living" gauges such as commute times, divorce rates, population density and weather." Ok, this favors married couples with children and traditional office jobs and where people are affluent, but not rich (because most rich people live in big cities, near big cities, or in rich communities that would qualify as 'retirement havens').

High(ish) income is not a direct indicator of happiness and having affluent neighbors is not necessarily a good thing. Personally I think most people would be much happier if they were the wealthiest person in their neighborhood, as opposed to making slightly more money but being the poorest. Think about it.

And what did they consider in the Arts & Leisure category? Movie theaters, Restaurants, Bars, Public golf courses, Libraries, Museums (accredited by AAM), Ski resorts. What about concert venues, performing arts venues, art galleries, botanical gardens and arboretums, % of good restaurants (their number includes fast food and chain restaurants), historical attractions, amusement parks, beaches, camp grounds, white water rafting, climbing gyms, dance studios, community sponsored cultural events (like Taste of [City], Movie Nights, Art Shows, etc.), etc? My biggest question – why just Skiing? This heavily favors location in the Rockies and Northeast and there are many, many people who don’t ski. Plus it was ski resorts in a 100 mile radius so the same resort could count for hundreds of cities, which just increases favoring a city in the Rockies.

After their rankings they got more data on "job markets, housing prices, schools, ambience, weather and taxes" as well as calling people on the phone. At the end they visited 20 of the cities and picked the "best" one.

Their conclusion was to pick a small city in Colorado. Surprise – Not.
Stats for Fort Collins:

  • Median family income (per year) $64,623
  • Median home price $212,000
  • Colleges, universities and professional schools 2
  • Personal crime risk (100 is nat'l average; lower is better) 77
  • Property crime risk (100 is nat'l average; lower is better) 91
  • Median age 28.8
  • Amount spent on vacations(domestic and foreign, household avg. per year) $7,209
  • Percentage of Population that is white (non-Hispanic) 83%
  • Percentage of Population under 50 80.9
  • Average Family Size 3
Yes, that looks like your average American to me. Some stats from Area Connect

Actual results from this survey :
It just supports and perpetuates the popular media b*llsh*t theory that everyone should live in McMansions in developments (that they probably can't afford) and live in places where it's too big to know everyone but not big enough to actually be all that diverse. And to associate only with other white, affluent people, and to hold only those opinions that the media says other people hold too. Heaven forbid anyone lives near retired people, or dislikes hot weather, or uses public transportation, or likes to live in rural/urban areas, or doesn’t have enough money to ski.

Aside from the stereotyping, there’s another thing wrong with this article - they promote this as the "Best Places to Live" not the "Best Places to Find Affluent People". Just because you move to a place with a high median income doesn't mean your income will go up. Basically this is just a pat on the back for Money magazine readers, ‘If you live in these places you're doing well comparatively speaking, provided you value the same things we do.’

Hat Tip to My Money Forest.
Technorati Tags:

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Personal Finance - Franklin Style

I've been reading the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and came across some paragraphs that were very relevant to personal finance (No surprise there!). Anyway I thought that I'd put them in a post together with few observations for your edification. (I love reading older books - my vocabulary skyrockets for a few hours!).

Paragraph 95

Franklin is discussing one of his employers whom he greatly admired.

I must record one trait of this good man's character. He had formerly been in business at Bristol, but failed in debt to a number of people, compounded and went to America. There, by a close application to business as a merchant, he acquiredr'd a plentiful fortune in a few years. Returning to England in the ship with me, he invited his old creditors to an entertainment, at which he thank'd them for the easy composition they had favored him with, and, when they expected nothing but the treat, every man at the first remove found under his plate an order on a banker for the full amount of the unpaid remainder with interest.

Para. 132

In his youth, Franklin had been trusted to receive payment of acquaintance's debt and ended up using some of the money himself. Here he discusses finally repaying it (approx 5 - 10 years later).

Mr. Vernon, about this time, put me in mind of the debt ow'd him, but did not press me. I wrote him an ingenuous letter of acknowledgment crav'd his forbearance a little longer, which he allow'd me, and as soon as I was able, I paid the principal with interest, and many thanks; so that erratum was in some degree corrected.

I think that these paragraphs are very heartening for those of us struggling to pay off our own debts. If I owed any of my friends and family money, I would definitely look forward ability to treat them to a nice dinner and suprise them with repayment. It would be something to be proud of!

Para.s 142 amd 143

I began now gradually to pay off the debt I was under for the printing-house. In order to secure my credit and character as a tradesman, I took care not only to be in reality industrious and frugal, but to avoid all appearances to the contrary. I drest plainly; I was seen at no places of idle diversion. I never went out a fishing or shooting; a book, indeed, sometimes debauch'd me from my work, but that was seldom, snug, and gave no scandal; and, to show that I was not above my business, I sometimes brought home the purchas'd at the stores thro' the streets on a wheelbarrow. Thus being esteem'd an industrious, thriving young man, and paying duly for what I bought, the merchants who imported stationery solicited my custom; others proposed supplying me with books, and I went on swimmingly. In the mean time, Keimer's credit and business declining daily, he was at last forc'd to sell his printing-house to satisfy his creditors. He went to Barbadoes, and there lived some years in very poor circumstances.
His apprentice, David Harry, whom I had instructed while I work'd with him, set up in his place at Philadelphia, having bought his materials. I was at first apprehensive of a powerful rival in Harry, as his friends were very able, and had a good deal of interest. I therefore propos'd a partnership to him, which he, fortunately for me, rejected with scorn. He was very proud, dress'd like a gentleman, liv'd expensively, took much diversion and pleasure abroad, ran in debt, and neglected his business; upon which, all business left him; and, finding nothing to do, he followed Keimer to Barbadoes, taking the printing-house with him. There this apprentice employ'd his former master as a journeyman; they quarrel'd often; Harry went continually behindhand, and at length was forc'd to sell his types and return to his country work in Pensilvania. The person that bought them employ'd Keimer to use them, but in a few years he died.

These two paragraphs vividly contrast frugality and industry with rampant consumerism. It is interesting to see this same pattern today, around 250 years later.

Technorati Tags: , ,

Reading Ben Franklin's Autobiography (Para's 1 - 150)

Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin


Franklin planned what would later become the University of Pennsylvania - where I will begin my 'official' graduate education in a few short months

Para. 3

Franklin discusses the difference between vanity and pride (justifiable and reasonable) and notes that pride is necessary for happiness

Para. 6

"was bred a smith"
It is interesting to note the words that were used to describe how people were trained for a profession. Although the wording does not suggest it (in modern usage) his uncle, whose training was being discussed, later becomes a scrivener, or scribe. Franklin also speaks of similarities in personality and temperament between himself and this uncle, who died 4 years to a day before Franklin was born. Franklin suggests that, had the uncle died 4 years later "trasmigration" would have been suggested. I find this interesting when contrasted with the beliefs of most contemporary Christians in relation to reincarnation and the historical fears of witchcraft during Franklin's life. (Note to self: Consider the implication of "transmigration" on the abortion debate - how would it affect the pro-choice argument of 'killing a soul'.)

Para. 9

From the brief sketches given of his family to this point (and the description of his father that follows) it seems that most of the Franklin family was well educated and well written for many generations before Benjamin

Para. 12

After relating a humorous episode in his youth, Franklin relates his father's lesson, "nothing [is] useful which is not honest".

Para. 14

Franklin relates several anecdotes about his father, including one where he describes his father always choosing friends and conversation that would be edifying to his children, especially during dinnertime conversations. A result of this practice, Franklin suggests, is his lifelong preference for mental stimulation as opposed to being a gourmet. This strikes me as one possible cause for the obesity epidemic among Americans. Family dinners used to be treasured for conversation and companionship, not for the physical fulfillment from sugar and fat. Robbed of mental and emotional fulfillment, American seek to fill that void with rich foods. I'm aware that the dwindling of the family dinner has previously been cited as a cause for the obesity epidemic, but the reason I've heard has more to do with the increase of dining out and thus the increased consumption of rich foods.

Para. 17

Franklin describes the usefulness of being familiar with many diverse trades. This is also touched upon in further paragraphs, and Franklin considers 'well-rounded-ness' as praiseworthy trait in his friends and acquaintances.

Para. 21

Franklin advises against developing a combative conversationalist, in blog-speak, against being a troll.

Para. 23

Franklin describes how he used poetry writing and copywork as methods to increase his vocabulary and to improve his writing style a la Charlotte Mason

Para. 24

Franklin discusses the start of his periods of vegetarianism and discusses frugality and time management. He switches to a different landlord (at the time landlord usually provided their tenants with meals as well) and uses his new found time and eating habits to increase his studies.

Para. 25

Franklin studies philosophy and discusses his decision to refrain from using positive phrases like never, certainty, and undoubtedly. He also discusses his reasons for this decision.

As the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good be a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purpose for which speech was given to us.

Para. 27

One of Franklin's contemporaries remarks that one newspaper is enough for America. Franklin also gives examples of how his education gained him the respect of powerful men even before he was an adult. The value of an educated mind is continually apparent as Franklin continues to relate his experiences

Para. 65

"So convenient to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do."

Para. 73

Franklin recounts how he made a pact with a friend that the first one to die would visit the other to appraise of the outcome. His friend never fulfilled the promise.

Para. 88

Franklin recounts some of his experiences in London, including contrasting his frugal and teetotaling habits with those of his fellow workers who drink at every meal. The small amount of money they spend everyday on beer prevents them both from excelling at their jobs and from saving up any money. Essentially it is a description of an eighteenth century Latte Factor.

Para. 100

Franklin discusses the marriage and (effective) divorce of his future wife. I find this very interesting as it contrasts greatly with the contemporary view of divorce prior to the 1950's.

Para. 113

"I grew convince that truth, sincerity , and integrity in dealings between man and man were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life."

Para. 116

Franklin discusses the founding of Junto, a club for mutual improvement.

Para. 123

Franklin explains the value of industry. This is another recurring theme in his Autobiography.

Para. 138

Franklin explains how he was able to get a lucrative business contract due to his continued efforts to improve his mind and his writing.

All emphases are original to the text. The rest of the notes and a review to come.

Technorati Tags: ,

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Semi-Regular Quote

"It is never too late to be what you might have been.
-- George Eliot"

courtesy of Silent in the Morning

Technorati Tags: ,

Interesting Use for Postcards

Postcrossing - The Postcard Crossing Project

When I was younger I used to collect postcards. Now that I'm trying to get rid of all the crap that I used to collect, this sounds like a neat way to used up all those postcards and get some in return. Oh wait. :) At least postcards from strangers on the other side of the world are more interesting. Anyway it could be amusing, and fairly inexpensive. $0.24 for postcards 6"x4.24" and $0.39 for anything larger.

Technorati Tags:

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Frugal Wedding

If anyone noticed, my recent lack of posts was mostly due to getting married. The wedding went off without a hitch and now it back to work :) But before I put the wedding completely behind me, I'd like to share a few tips on having a nice wedding without going into bankruptcy.

The 'average' cost of a wedding now exceeds $20,000 according to this chart on wedding costs, although I've seen estimates anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000. There are three things to keep in mind when looking at these stats: (1) they are all researched by wedding professionals, people who will benefit if couples spend more money, (2) they include wedding from people with far, far above average incomes who are far, far more willing and able to spend crazy amounts of money, (3) $20,000 is way, way too much money to spend on a wedding.

Expanding on point three - a wedding is ONE, day. Your marriage is (ideally) for the rest of your life. Quite frankly, there is nothing about a wedding that should make anyone spend that kind of money, even if you're Bill Gates. Don't believe all that malarky about 'the wedding is the happiest day of your life.' It shouldn't be. You're going to be married for a long time (again ideally) why bother if the next 50 years are all downhill. Your wedding should be the beginning of the happiest period of your life. Which it won't be if you spend more money than you can afford on your wedding. Money troubles are a cause many divorces and I wonder how many of those couples started out their financial lives together spending more than they could afford on a wedding. Never, ever borrow money for a wedding. If you truly cannot afford anything consider a private ceremony (religious or civil) with just your two sets of parents and then go out to dinner. Have the big party later, when you can afford it and when you can truly enjoy it.

Ok. Enough with the preaching and on with the tips!!

  • SIZE - this is the single most important factor affecting the cost of the wedding. Always go small. Even if you are able to spend a lot of money. Consider the hypothetical $20,000 wedding, with 100 guests you can spend $200 on each guest - imagine how nice that wedding will be! Or you could invite 350 guest and spend $57 on each - and catered food is expensive. Also, the fewer people you invite the more time you'll have to spend with them - and if you don't want to spend time with them - why are they at your wedding.

    Of course the tricky part is whittling down the guest lists - here are some suggestions: (1) Don't invite children. They won't have much fun and you'll be able to give their parents a night off. The only person under the age of 21 at our wedding was my husband's brother. (2) Start small and build up. Start by limiting your list to 10, then expand to 25, 50, 75, and finally 100. This works much better than making a huge list and eliminating. (3) Don't invite 'and guest'. This is your wedding and you're paying the bills, you have the right to invite only people you already know. We made it our policy to only invite significant others if we had met them and the relationship was long-term (several months when we sent out the save-the-dates). (4) Don't invite relatives you don't talk to. I have a huge family (My mother has 8 siblings and my father 6, plus the extended families) if I had invited everyone one of my relations the guest list would have been over 400. As long as you are consistent with your policy (we didn't invite any of my cousins on my father's side or any relations more distant than cousin) people shouldn't be offended. If you get questions it is perfectly legitimate to explain that you are short on funds and are having a small wedding, if someone doesn't understand then they probably care more about the free meal than you.

  • Limit Transportation. Limos, etc. are expensive. Moving everyone from the ceremony to the reception is a hassle. Making sure that everyone has directions is a pain. Renting two sites is more expensive that just one. It's worth the extra effort to find a location where you can have both the ceremony and reception (as well as a place to get ready). Your guests will thank you. We had our ceremony outside in the garden of our reception site. The ceremony fee was $125 and that included setting up chairs, ushers to direct the guests, and a coordinator to help with the rehearsal and ceremony. Plus we didn't spend a dime on transportation. We arrived in regular cars early in the day to get ready (get ready onsite - you don't want to worry about the florist delivering to two or three locations nor do you want to forget the flowers) and borrowed my Dad's GTO when we left.
  • Don't buy a 'bridal' dress. The mark-up on gowns marked as 'bridal' is ridiculous. I spent less than $300 on my off-the-rack dress. Every single person at the wedding commented that it was the most beautiful bridal gown they had ever seen and wanted to know where I purchased it. I also didn't need to spend any money on alterations because it wasn't made in a weird non-size to force alterations (which all bridal gowns and bridesmaids gowns are). Shop around during prom season - there are many white prom dresses now if you're dead set on white - or you can go with cream, beige, or very, very pale pastels (white's not the most flattering color anyway). Look at upscale dress shops - ones you might not consider for a prom dress due to cost - Jessica McClintock often has very nice things.
  • Smaller wedding party = fewer headaches, easier planning, fewer attendants gifts, more quality time with each attendant, etc. And if you end up chipping in for some of the cost of the dresses (which I did, my cousin was in three wedding this summer!) that will be cheaper as well. It also helps in achieving a smaller guest list because you'll have fewer significant others to invite. And the point is to highlight people that are special and important to you, not possible if you ask everyone you've ever known.
  • Make your own wedding desserts. Not the best tip if no one in your family can bake, in which case I'm very sorry for you - nothing beats homemade cookies! My mother made a small cake for cutting, and I asked some of my aunts and cousins to contribute 2 dozen cookies each. There were plenty of desserts, people were able to choose what they liked (You will never ever have a wedding where everybody likes the flavor of cake you choose - there are people who don't like chocolate - I'm one) and it was very cheap. It also lets other people participate which they enjoy. Much, much cheaper than wedding cake. It also gives you more of a chance to personalize your wedding - you could make a cake entirely out of cupcakes (don't pay a baker to make cupcakes - just buy the boxed mixes and make it yourself!) or out of Pepperidge farm cookies, or donuts - whatever.
  • Photographer. My first bit of advice is to nix the videographer. Not only are they expensive but you'll either end up with photos full of the videographer or a movie full of the photographer. We decided just to hire a photographer for the formal shots and for the ceremony. We figured that most of the reception shots are just candids and there are enough people with cameras already at the reception. (Plus my parents used to do wedding photography as a side job so we would get at least one set of photos without thumbs.) Now that more people have digital cameras it's also very easy to get copies of their pictures. With 60 people taking pictures of us cutting the cake we're virtually guaranteed at least one good shot. Also, don't be afraid to negotiate with the photographer - if there's something in the package you don't want tell him/her and see if you can get a markdown - we did.
  • Decorations. Do NOT get floral centerpieces. They are extremely expensive and won't last long. If you want flowers go to a garden shop and buy a potted plant with flowers - they you'll have something afterwards as well. If you are dead set on roses - consider buying mini-rose bushes - very cute and original. We had an herbal theme and used potted herbs for our centerpieces - about $5 ea. including pots. Consider making your own favors - I made candles with scents to coordinate with the centerpieces. They were about $1 ea. and I got many complements. Plus they were pretty easy to make. Also consider decorations when selecting your location - one of the reasons I selected the Butler Mansion was the fact that I wouldn't need to decorate at all.
  • Have a casual rehearsal dinner. We went to the Anchor Bar (invented the Buffalo Wing). It was cheap, fun, and the out of town guests got a chance to visit a Buffalo landmark. Generally speaking, the more casual the restaurant the cheaper the meal.

Figure out what aspects of the day are most important to you (for us it was the food, personalizing the ceremony text (free!), and the location) and slash the budget on everything else. Try comparing wedding costs to other things you'd like to spend your money on - a nice honeymoon, paying off your debts - and try to decide if it's really worth it. For example, $55 ea. for floral centerpieces - if you have 10 tables that's $550. If you went with $10 potted plants instead you could pay off $450 of credit card debt and (at 17%) save $76.50 in finance charges!

Hopefully these tips are helpful!

Technorati Tags: ,

Monday, June 12, 2006

Our First Dance

Technorati Tags: