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Archive for June, 2010

How I cut my cable bill in half

June 28th, 2010 at 07:32 pm

I don't see my job situation improving anytime soon. So I don't feel in control of my income. But I can still control my expenses.

Next in my sights for cutting expenses was cutting my cable TV. All I get is basic, but it's still $25 each and every month. I knew that by cutting it, I'd end up reading more (never a bad thing) and I could still watch the occasional free movie whenever I liked by picking up a free flick at the library. I even checked out to make sure I could watch my favorite TV shows there. (I can.) And I figured I could return to my old habit of getting my news from public radio.

So, after much back and forth and a great deal of angst (how could I not watch my beloved American Idol?), I called Charter Communications and announced I wanted to end my cable service. When he asked why, I simply told him I didn't think I was getting a lot for my money.

Without hesitating, he offered me a "promo" rate of $13 a month, a 45% decrease from what I'm currently paying. The promo rate is good for a year and at the end of that year, he advised me to call them back and see what other promo rate they might have going on at that time.

Geez. I could have done this 10 years ago and saved myself a bundle. I was elated and ticked off at the same time! Elated, because I wouldn't have to go TV Cold Turkey and I could still lower my bill by nearly half each month. Ticked off becus they don't make promo rates known to customers until they're ready to cancel.

TV service is a very competitive business, just like phone and Internet services. If you're not happy with what you're paying for cable, you have many options these days. And I guess that's working in the customer's favor. It makes you wonder just how much profit they are making on you when it still makes business sense to retain a customer at half the charge they used to collect.

So, if you think you're paying too much for cable, pick up the phone and call them. You just may be surprised at their response.

Adorable elephant ears!

June 28th, 2010 at 12:38 am

I purchased 2 elephant ear bulbs at Wal-Mart this spring for the first time. Not sure what luck I'd have. For a very long time, only one bulb produced leaf, to be exact.

I loved the way it looked. So tropical.

More recently, the 1st elephant ear has sprouted a second leaf, even larger than the first.

That second leaf is enormous!

I can't wait to see what it looks like in August! It thrives on this summer heat.

Meanwhile, Round 2 of the basil is coming up nicely. (The first batch is already bolting.)

I finished reading How to Retire Happy, Wild & Free. I didn't think the book was written very well, or well-organized, but I still got a few things out of it.

A good investment.

Today's 10 accomplishments

June 25th, 2010 at 10:00 pm

1. Two loads of wash, hang dried.

2. My (hopefully) last Census meeting, to sign some paperwork.

3. A torque check after getting my tires rotated.

4. Some groceries at Shop Rite.

5. Got a pork shoulder in the slow cooker and it's been cooking all day long. Dinner tonight: Pulled pork sandwiches with barbecue sauce, my homemade potato salad and homegrown salad. Fabulous......

6. Weeding

7 Talk with pseudo step-mom on the phone.

8. Mailed a package at UPS.

9. Homemade pizza for lunch featuring goat cheese, onions, garlic, olive oil, spinach and fresh basil.

10. I posted an ad on Craig's List looking for a male kayaking partner and I got 3 responses. One lives too far away and I responded to the other 2 as well. One may have lost interest becus i told him I wasn't interested in anything romantic. We'll see. And I'll be careful. Meet for coffee first.

The freakin' ants are back

June 23rd, 2010 at 11:56 pm

It's really uncomfortably hot and humid here today. I checked my thermostat and it was 78 downstairs, 85 upstairs, but that doesn't account for the dew point.

I find that when I'm physically uncomfortable, due to either very warm conditions in summer or too chilly of a heat setting in winter, I don't do a whole heck of a lot. It's just that now, instead of huddling under a blanket to keep warm, I'm walking around the house half naked and getting nothing done.

Well, I did write the June blog for my real estate company client. And I had what could be my last Census meeting for a while, or for good. Hard to say, it could be just a brief hiatus until the 2nd week of July, or it could be finally the end of it. I'm not sure I want to do any more "cleanup" work for them anyway, it's more of a hassle than anything else. And yeah, I did some mowing and came upon a large, black dead mole, no doubt one of the clan who's been tearing up my lawn. I also saw a dead mouse in the driveway the other day, the second such mouse in the last few weeks.

Oh, and I am crazy upset...the carpenter ants are back. SIGH. There's always a population explosion of ants after a lot of rain, and we did have a fair amount last night. It filled the bird bath, anyway. If I stand in my kitchen with its white cabinets, white counter tops and white back splash, I can spot 3 or 4 at a time, in different locations, but all mostly on the back wall. They must be coming in somewhere else other than behind the upper cabinets becus I still have Arm & Hammer toxic dryer sheets stuffed up there. (As you may know, I lauded the effectiveness of these dryer sheets as a chemical-laden ant deterrent in a recent post.)

Every time I go into the kitchen I look for ants, and try to see the entry spot(s). It occurred to me earlier today that one possibility is the recessed light fixture above the kitchen sink. Sure enough, I spotted an ant crawling around the CFL bulb. After killing it and feeling desperate, I took yet another A&H dryer sheet and crammed it into the spiral CFL bulb. Have to remember not to use that light fixture as I can imagine how much more awful the smell will be when heated even slightly. I will have to see if that helps.

I was so absolutely thrilled for the past few months because those dryer sheets seemed really effective, eliminating all but maybe 5% of my problem. I sprinkled more ant bait around the exterior house foundation. That works, more or less, though there's a delayed reaction of a few days. Though I've noticed when sprinkling inside the house, which I am very cautious about doing due to the cats, that ants have walked right by the bait with a complete lack of interest (or hunger).

Sadly, I let 4 or 5 small lettuce heads go to waste in the garden. I planned to give it to Frank, who chain sawed a fallen tree for me, but he's not a salad guy. I had mentioned that to my mother, so she didn't put i dibs for it. And I forgot to pick it, so now it's done gone bolted. I think I've counted 15 large salads I've consumed, so I did pretty well. The basil is also going to flower, but this year I was smart and planted some from seed, so they are just now looking promising while the old plants I'll let go to seed and maybe try saving the seeds for next year if they dry well.

Frugal Fast, Final Day: Spent $$

June 19th, 2010 at 11:42 am

Today's the last day of my week long frugal fast.

OK, I spent some money:

1. Filled up the gas tank, a necessity for my census work.

2. Yesterday, I got some cat food at Wal-Mart. I was near by after finishing up Census work so it wouldn't have made sense to make a separate trip next week. Wal-Mart has the cheapest Fancy Feast even at its regular price of .48 a can; they've had a "rollback" for a while now and it's just .30 a can.

The frugal fast still served a purpose in making me more conscious of my spending. I feel good that during a week's time I only spent on cat food and gas.

Today, my new friend Frank is stopping by with his chain saw to cut up a fallen crabapple tree. I'll stack the wood with the other wood already collected from the tree in my driveway and try to trade it as firewood on Craig's List for something else (plants?) Too bad I didn't have a fireplace. Otherwise, I can give it to my dad next time I see him.

After Frank finishes up here this a.m., I'll head out to do more Census work today. It will probably take less than an hour to go through my assigned addresses. After that, I think I'll pick up a few groceries, mainly fruit, at Xpect Discounts. And if I can find my other Fancy Feast coupons, I'll go back to Wal-Mart for more cat food.

That's the dangerous thing about me and coupons. I always collect them, but seem to lose them easily so I can't find them when I want to use them. I often keep them in my glove compartment box in the car, or on the dining room table, but sometimes they end up in stray places.

While out, I"ll also return a book I finished reading (Eckhart Tolle) which I really didn't get a lot out of. Way over my head. I ordered 3 books at the library through their statewide loan system; i would have thought I'd have gotten one of them by now. I really want to read The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches and also, How to Retire Happy, Wild and Free. Sounds like my kind of book!

Forgot to tell you about the investment seminar I attended this past week with my friend. Mainly for the free dinner. (smile) I won't be investing with David Lerner. They engaged us in small talk and once I told them I was out of work, they pretty much left us alone for the rest of the night. (smile) They were pushing two types of investments: tax-free muni bonds and their own REIT. The dinner was ok, but not as good as the Teva Neuroscience dinners I've attended.

Next on the Chopping Block

June 17th, 2010 at 01:26 pm

Unemployed:9 months and counting.

Income sources during that time:Unemployment benefits, Census work, freelance writing, market research studies, medical research studies, online surveys.

Personal savings spent: $0

Not bad, all things considered, but I'm also looking ahead and wondering what the heck's gonna happen if I'm still out of work by year's end. I'm deferring a variety of expenditures (some routine healthcare and doc visits, plus home maintenance) and I can't do that forever.

Right now, I feel I have more control over my expenses than I do income.

So what's next on the chopping block?

1.Cell phone.The savings aren't as much as you might think since this is a prepaid cell phone that costs me just $100 a year. I regret not ending this back in April before I renewed my minutes, but after having already done so, I'll just go ahead and use it and will lose the cell phone service when I don't renew next April 2011.

2.AAA membership. $90 a year. I've had this for a few years, never used it and since I'm not commuting anywhere, it seems unnecessary to maintain. I can always renew (at a slightly higher rate) when/if I get a job.

The above 2 items are no-brainers which I regret not having already eliminated, but I guess at the time I wasn't feeling a crisis was approaching.

What else can I cut from the budget? These next two would be very hard for me to do, but neither are "essential."

1.Cable TV: At $25 a month, this could save me $300 a year. This would be hard, very hard. I watch TV daily, usually during breakfast to catch the morning news and weather, and then again at night.

I considered ditching cable and getting unlimited Netflix at less than half the price ($9), but I really like my TV shows. Watching movies wouldn't really fill that void.

2. Internet:I pay $20 a month for slow-as-molasses DSL from AT&T, and so I'd save $250 a year if I dropped it and used the computer at the library instead. I doubt I'd do this since it would be hugely inconvenient to conduct a job search, check email or do my freelance work at the library.

What else is there to cut?

Not a whole lot.

Of course, I'll keep trying to be frugal with utilities like electricity, water, sewer and heating oil (there's also my dump permit at $80 and annual sewer loan assessment of $600) but those bills will always remain unless I move into a tent.

I recently looked into refinancing (again) my small mortgage, which I could actually pay off in full if I wanted, but even with ample cash reserves, the credit union I checked with said that my being unemployed could be an issue and couldn't guarantee I'd get the refinance deal, so I'm reluctant to possibly blow $300 to apply.

COBRA is still an affordable $178.50/month through year's end. Still, I've avoided having ANY doctor's visits these past 9 months and have only ordered my 2 current prescriptions. By summer's end I'll be down to just 1 prescription. (And I can't wait!!!)

Obviously things like eating out, entertainment and clothing have been off the table for a while, though I admit I'm not perfect. I'm only getting my hair cut once every 2 months ($19 with tip).

Most of my gardening/yard work expenses have been limited to my vegetable garden, which is providing me with food.

Cat food has been a huge new expense for me, partly becus I now have 2 cats, not one, and also becus I committed myself to feeding them healthier food, meaning canned food, not dry. My other cat ate dry food exclusively and I couldn't get her off it. I did the research and the consensus is clearly that dry food is crap. However, I'm spending a LOT of money on Fancy Feast, about $80 a month, and I've started letting Luther have one of his 3-4 meals daily be dry. Waldo still gets only wet food becus I'm still not sure if he has kidney disease and dry food would aggravate that condition.

I've had no work done on the car and it's due now for at least an oil change. The car's 11 years old and I want to keep it going for several more years since it only has 112,000 miles on it.

My car insurance is pretty cheap ($350/hr) but my homeowner's is not, so I'll DEFINITELY shop around when I get my next premium bill.

Any suggestions for shaving expenses still further?

Day 3 of Frugal Fast Week: No Spending's a Breeze

June 15th, 2010 at 12:19 pm

Off to a running start on the 3rd day of the week-long Frugal Fast.

No undue hardships to report! I worked a good part of yesterday doing Census work, so no real opportunity (or desire) to spend money, though I could have stopped in at Wal-Mart for more cat food, since I was in the area.

I agree with Mom Cents, who was, I think, the person who said the point of the Frugal Fast is not so much for me to "save" money as to make myself more conscious of how and when I do spend money.

Honestly, sometimes I think it would be difficult to make myself any more aware of my spending habits than I am now, since being unemployed has a way of magnifying every spending decision. Still, I think the Fast is a good exercise and I would like to see this through and prove to myself that I can refrain from spending for an entire week.

These days, my routine expenditures are simply gas for the car and groceries. I am disciplined 80% of the time; during the other 20% of the time, I am tempted to buy jewelry or clothing I see on online shopping channels. At other times, I feel like eating out.

First day of the weeklong frugal fast

June 13th, 2010 at 12:11 pm

I nearly forgot. Today's the first day of the weeklong Frugal Fast. Momcents, Ima and Scottish girl, don't forget!

I shouldn't have any trouble complying today. My gas tank is less than half full, but today will be fine.

I put in about 5 hours of work for the Census yesterday, at a higher end apartment complex in small nearby city. for the week, I eeked out 15 hours of work, plus I'll make money from the gas mileage reimbursement. It's better than nothing, for sure.

I'll put in a few hours of Census work today and tomorrow, but not sure how productive I'll be. These apartments, seven separate buildings, all have a locked main door and buzzers for each apartment. If no one happens to be leaving and lets you in, there's no way you can even leave a notice of your visit with your contact info, and I've found people find it easier to blow off the census survey when you're at the other end of the intercom, not face to face.

I canvassed probably 30 or so residences yesterday and was able to complete just 7 surveys. Back again to try today. The census work is getting old (rejection wears thin after a while), but it's money, and shouldn't last much longer anyway. At least I'm in a safe neighborhood.

Yesterday I fell asleep after getting home from census work but woke up and was able to squeeze in some stuff I wanted to do: make more homemade iced tea (I drink it by the gallon and it's a combo of black, green and white tea), change the hummingbird water, trim the 3 shrubs on the back patio and sweep the back patio. I love the look of bricks but I get a lot of weeds between them so it's quite high maintenance, and once the weeds take hold, sweeping is harder. I have lots of poison ivy sprouting up in one area but no sense spraying til Tuesday with all the rain that's forecast.

My mom was all excited after attending an annual big fundraiser for Hospice. As an artist who donated some work for the auction, she got in free; normally tickets are $150 each. She's gone every year for the past 13 years. She was happy because she sold 3 or 4 big pieces, grossing $1,400, but after Hospice gets its cut, she nets about $800. Still great for my mom on a fixed income. Plus the food is always to die for; it's quite the gala event and all her friends go there.

I'm ready for the Frugal Fast

June 11th, 2010 at 11:35 am

I did some grocery shopping yesterday with next week's Frugal Fast in mind. (No spending of any kind all week long, and then I'll blog about it.)

Not that I spent any more, or bought any more, than I usually would have. After all, going overboard on the groceries would sort of defeat the purpose. It's like someone declaring a No Spend Day after going on a spending spree the day before.

However, I did snag some good deals at my favorite grocery store, Shop Rite. Ronzoni pasta was on sale at .69 a pound, so I think I bought about 10 pounds worth!. I also bought 2 pints of blueberries at $1.50 each. (They should come down in price even more as we reach prime blueberry season, but it is a short season and I love my blueberries, so didn't wait.)

I also bought some Edy's frozen coconut fruit bars (oh so good) and my favorite junk food dessert, those frozen ice cream cones. I got rice pudding, 2 mangoes at .99 a piece and some fresh tomatoes for my salad until my own garden starts producing. At Costco, I got 2 gallons of milk and a frozen bag of Tyson teriyaki chicken cutlets, which are great. Not that I'm expecting anyone to want to read through my shopping list, but oh well.

I"m still waiting for a callback from my presumed new crew leader in the town that's nicer than the city I worked in for one day, though not as nice as my hometown. I've been waiting since Tuesday and called another person who had spoken to him. I haven't been as aggressive about staying on top of this as I should have been, but you'd think the guy would have already called me if he needed help in his region.

I was at the library the other day and ordered some books I'm interested in reading, one of them being The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road May to True Riches by Jeff Yeager, and the other, How to Retire Happy, Wild & Free. And the other being Diet, Life Expectancy and Chronic Disease: Seventh Day Adventists and Other Vegetarians.

A 100% Foolproof Ant Barrier

June 10th, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Ahh, carpenter ants.

Those large, black and ugly ants have been the bane of my existence in the 15 years I've lived here. I live in a very woodsy suburb and my own property is certainly heavily wooded as well. Carpenter ants just seem to go with the territory.

Each summer, they find their way into my home. I've found them in just about every room of the house, but they are most often in the kitchen. Of course, this requires the kitchen to be kept meticulously clean. Dirty dishes can't pile up or it's just inviting trouble.

I've known for a while of at least one point of entry: a small crevice behind a hanging kitchen cabinet to the right of the sink.

I've tried chemical-laden Ortho sprays, but am loathe to use them due to their obvious toxicity. In recent years, I have been somewhat able to control ant infiltration by regularly sprinkling ant pellets around the foundation of my house outside. The stuff wasn't cheap. I ordered it from a website online. However, I had to time this so I was spreading the bait during a dry spell; rain will simply wash the bait away and waste my money. But, if I timed it right, I could usually count on being relatively ant-free (not 100%) inside the house for a period of a few weeks. But, once I start seeing an ant or two here or there, I must re-apply, and this is how it usually goes all summer long.

Here and there I've tried some less toxic alternatives, such as oil of peppermint right next to that kitchen cabinet, but this has not worked

Then, this spring, I completely by accident stumbled upon a 100% effective ant barrier. It's a common household product which I don't care to use for its intended use, but the item is so darn stinky that I thought I would give it a try.

You see, it's a very narrow crevice behind the kitchen cabinet where I've seen the ants coming in most often. For all I know, there's a giant hole behind the cabinet. I really don't know, but I do remember years back when I was replacing my kitchen stove that I found a large hole in the sheet rock behind the stove, about 6 inches in diameter! I didn't have time to close it up while the workman was there, and I wasn't really thinking about insect infiltration at the time, but I was thinking about cold air, so I did at last stuff a fistful of cellulose insulation in there before he positioned the new stove against the wall. So, it makes me wonder what kind of gap might exist behind the kitchen cabinet.

But back to my secret weapon against ants.

Have you guessed what it is?

It's Arm & Hammer Total 2-in-1 dryer cloths. I don't usually buy these things. They're so impregnated with chemicals that I'm reluctant to have them touch my skin, but I got a free-after-rebate offer, so I used it. When I opened up the box and sniffed them, I really couldn't bring myself to use them in the dryer. (And these days, I don't use the dryer much anyway.)

One day it hit me that I should try stuffing one of the dryer sheets in the crevice behind the cabinet. The thing just stunk like chemicals. So I took one and used a butter knife to wedge it up as far as it would go behind the cabinet. It was white, so it blended right in.


Carpenter ants, it turns out, have a strong disliking for Arm & Hammer dryer sheets, possibly more than me. Yes, the odor of the dryer sheet is apparent while I'm washing dishes at the sink, but after a week or so, the odor fades. But it still works to keep the ants away.

I have changed the sheet once every 3 or 4 weeks, just to be sure.

I have been so pleasantly surprised by these sheets. I have found very few ants anywhere in the house, and certainly not in the kitchen! I had assumed in past years that there were multiple points of entry. Now I'm thinking that it's entirely possible that ants meandered in via the highway known as Behind-the-Kitchen-Cabinet/Rt. 302 and crawled in various directions so that, when I discovered them elsewhere in the kitchen or even in another room, they fooled me into thinking they'd gained entry from some other location closer to where I found them..

Thank you, Arm & Hammer, for reducing the ant infestation inside my home by roughly 90%. No doubt it's due to the very special ingredients that make our clothes oh-so-toxic and artificial-smelling.

Have you found alternative or off-label uses for common household products?

Who's Up for a Frugal Fast?

June 9th, 2010 at 12:51 pm

First, a disclaimer...I didn't come up with that clever phrase, "frugal fast." It's from author Jeff Yeager in his book, The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches.

I haven't read the book yet, but I've added it to my Wish List on Amazon. But the idea of a frugal fast, for a single week out of the year, is intriguing.

The rules are simple: You buy absolutely nothing. The idea is that, at least for that one week, you will have freed yourself from having to do the "Money Step," the endless dance of having to earn more to spend more.

During this one week of no spending, I have a feeling we'd all likely rediscover the simple satisfactions of living cheaply. Meals at home. Trips to the library to rent a movie or read a book. I'm sure the list of ways to not spend money for a week will be much longer and varied.

So who's up for doing this with me starting next Sunday, June 13 through Saturday, June 19?

If you must, wrap up any absolutely needed grocery shopping or fill up your gas tank by the end of this week. Only do what's really necessary. Too much "advance spending" will defeat the purpose of the exercise.

Remember, during this week of no spending, there's no fast food, no impulse snacks on the road and no shopping of any kind. If you work, that means no buying your lunch. Built-in expenses like your mortgage/rent and utility bills are, of course, something that can't be avoided.

At the end of next week, I'd love to hear how you spent your time, if you felt "deprived" and whether you think you saved any money.

Who's in?

The Leap to Cheap

June 8th, 2010 at 03:25 pm

Here's a great read for all you frugalites out there:

...and my favorite quote from the story:

"For us," Newman told me, "a true sign of wealth is free timeó freedom from drudgery and unwanted commitments."

That's it for me in a nutshell!

The Census Experience: Down and Out City vs. Comfortable Suburb

June 8th, 2010 at 12:58 am

By now, you may have come across some of my earlier posts about what it's like working for the Census Bureau.

To recap, I worked 5 weeks for the Census Bureau covering my hometown, an affluent suburb I know my way around pretty well after having lived here for 15 years. (Observation #1: People with money can be just as nasty as anyone else, but I must say that 98% of the people I met were cooperative, or at least polite.)

The bulk of census work wrapped up in the past week or so, depending on what town you were working in. A lot of people were already let go, but the more productive census workers were offered an opportunity for more work performing "cleanup" in other towns where the census response rate was lower.

Generally, the more affluent suburbs have a pretty high response rate of about 75% or higher while the urban areas in my state have had a much lower response rate of as low as 45%.

I was one of those people who was offered additional work.

So yesterday we had a preliminary meeting of a new crew put together to tackle cleanup work in my region. Prior to yesterday, I was told it was probably this town, or that town, but yesterday I learned it was a certain city about a 40-minute ride for me which has the distinction of having not only the highest unemployment rate but also the highest foreclosure rate in the state.

Although I had asked my old crew leader not to assign me work in this city, it turned out that this was the city that needed working, so it was a matter of, if you want to do more work, this is where it's going to be. So I said ok. I like to have an open mind about things and at least try something once. I don't ever want to be close-minded about anything in life because I believe it closes you off to new experiences and limits your growth as a person.

I thought I would give it a shot and see if it was something I could do. And I made SURE not to tell my mother where I was working because she would get all "concerned."

So at our morning meeting today, we were given our assignment binders. There were about 6 men in my group; I was the only woman (first red flag?), and we were all to tackle different parts of the city.

One of the crew leaders who I'd spoken with about my preference not to work in any bad parts of the city said he didn't believe my assigned area was "bad," although he hadn't driven the roads personally.

There was talk at the meeting of chained pit bulls, entire streets filled with foreclosure after foreclosure (which presents its own unique challenges to a census worker) and gang members on street corners who would demand to know who you were and why you were there. There was a certain amount of joking going on with these comments, but it certainly did nothing to ease my concerns!

Right from the get go, I knew this wasn't going to be easy. I used both a street map and the census-supplied map and neither showed the location of the mall where our meeting was taking place, so i could at least depart knowing where I was going!

I found my neighborhood, but got tripped up because I didn't initially realize that some of my target addresses were on Baldwin Street and I was actually cruising a borderline section of Baldwin AVENUE.

I worked about 5 hours on the streets of the city and was able to complete 10 interviews, which is a respectable rate.

Although nothing "bad" happened to me, I have to say I felt uncomfortable in this environment. It's one thing to drive in and out of the city with a certain destination in mind, but in this case I was all over my assigned neighborhood, getting in and out of my car, wandering into decrepit apartment buildings, etc.

I worried about my own personal safety and the safety of my car parked out on the street when I was in certain apartment buildings trying to do multiple addresses.

Observation #2: I anticipate having trouble completing the remaining 20 or so addressees after my first go-round today. Why? It's really due to the Census' disregard for its own rules.

Example: During training, they told us we were allowed to make UP TO a maximum of 3 in-person visits to an address and/or up to a maximum of 3 phone calls in an effort to make contact with the residents of a given address. After that, they don't want you going back because some people you will never get a hold of, for various reasons and I guess they recognized the futility of trying forever for a small number of addresses.

Each time you visit a home or attempt a phone contact, you record the day and time you did so and the result of your effort, whether that means leaving a note of your visit with a request they call you (they hardly ever do), an actual interview or a "refusal." A refusal is when someone absolutely refuses to provide any information despite all attempts you make to talk them into it.

So these rules worked well enough for about 3 weeks; then one day we were told that the Bureau was no longer accepting refusals, meaning that you were forced to go back repeatedly to get the info one way or the other. (You're instructed to seek out neighbors to use as proxies to provide what info they can.)

So intent was the Bureau in no longer accepting refusals that they instructed us to erase the 3rd entry recorded for an in-person visit! (Everything is written in pencil.)

So they're breaking their own rules and putting census workers in a real bind (and I believe that's why 2 people in my affluent hometown called the cops on me after I left).

Observation #3: Here's how the Census' disregard for its own rules could put its temporary employees in harm's way: Today I knocked on the door of a house. Two young black dudes answered the door, one with a phone in his hand. They quickly told me their sister owned the house but was in the hospital and probably wouldn't be home for a week and while I tried to explain that I didn't need to speak to the owner of the house, that they could speak with me, they had no interest in doing so and the one with the phone kept saying I'm on the phone and was getting annoyed.

Now it would be too complicated to try to explain to these gentlemen that if they don't talk to me then I will have to come back to bother them again becus the Census Bureau doesn't take no for an answer.

Observation #4: But I'll tell you this. There's a big difference between possibly antagonizing a housewife in my hometown vs. pissing off two bros from the 'hood. They had made it clear I was unwelcome, but due to the new Census directive, it could put me in a tenuous position when I return to the house.

I had to enter several apartment buildings with long, dark corridors that really made me nervous. You just don't know what you're getting into.

One thing I learned today: People in my hometown are much more trusting of strangers knocking at their door. When I worked in the city, people really studied my badge very closely. After knocking at another address and no one answering the door, I started walking back to my car. Something told me to turn around, and as I did, i glanced up at the second floor window, which was open. I caught someone watching me but when I looked up, they hid behind a curtain. I yelled up, "Hi, I'm with the Census Bureau," but they wouldn't show themselves. Now how do I make contact when I have to return tomorrow??

I chose to do this work, to at least give working in this city a shot because 1) I've been out of work a long time and need the money and 2) I have to be careful of giving the appearance of "quitting" Census work when more work is still available to me because that could jeopardize my remaining unemployment benefits.

I have re-read my state's unemployment benefits several times over and it does appear that if you quit a job because of a reasonable concern about personal safety, for instance, that could be considered a valid reason for quitting. Or, if your employer changes the rules mid-way through your work. That, too, applies to my case. But all of this is judged by an unemployment administrator and is subject to interpretation, which is what makes me a little nervous. There is no way I can jeopardize my unemployment becus that is what I'm surviving on right now.

But after much thought and feeling on the fence, I called my crew leader and explained the situation. He was very understanding. (I know there were people who turned down the idea of working in this city at the get-go and wouldn't even consider it.) At least I gave it a try. He said he sort of anticipated my phone call. A single woman walking the streets is different from a man doing the same thing. While I believe I appear less threatening to people as a stranger, I'm also a greater target.

So the crew leader offered to try to put together an assignment binder that would still be filled with addresses in this city, but it would be addresses on the outskirts, bordering neighboring towns and more single-family homes, less apartments. In other words, better areas.

Or, he said, you can just stop working, it's up to you. Mindful of my remaining unemployment benefits, I told him if it wasn't an awful lot of trouble to organize a new binder for me, I'd really appreciate it. He said, well, someone's got to do those other addresses, why not you? (Nice guy.)

So, after planning to call it quits and take my chances with the unemployment office, it looks like I'll give it another shot tomorrow.

I do like the money. It's nothing like what I'm used to making, but when you're not making much of anything at all, the pay looks good when you accumulate some hours. Plus, I'm making quite a bit of money on the mileage reimbursement and the nice thing about that is that you're not taxed on the mileage reimbursement. For example, I traveled 51 miles today and at .50 a mile, I'll get $25 back. With my thrifty Honda, I maybe spent $5 on gas, leaving me with a net $20 tax-free profit in one day.

And in case you missed my 5th observation in an earlier post, the people who are MOST POLITE to census workers are those who weren't born in this country. That's because where they come from, government officials can make life very difficult for them and it pays to be nice to the lowly census worker. Many Americans, on the other hand, take democracy for granted: they don't bother to vote, and they close the door in your face, knowing nothing's going to happen to them.

Tracking my puny income

June 5th, 2010 at 07:49 pm

The weather has been awful yesterday and today. In the 80s, but with high, high humidity.

I haven't wanted to go anywhere, so i have 3 ceiling fans and 2 box fans going full tilt.

I have managed to vacuum the downstairs, change the hummingbird water, clean the bath tub and make iced tea. I also calculated that my gross income year to date is about $15,000.

That includes $8900 from unemployment (gross), $3254 from 5 weeks of work with the census bureau (gross) and $1490 from my freelance writing. It also includes $200 from doing online surveys, market research focus groups ($240), medical research studies ($249) and some other odds and ends.

(I made roughly similar amounts of money from the online surveys, the market research focus groups and the medical studies, yet I must say the online surveys took the most time. I probably spend 30 minutes to an hour most days on them, while the money earned from the market and medical studies were earned much more quickly, in a day or two. Just a reminder to self regarding what my priorities should be.)

I want to continue tracking my income as the year goes on, since I want to do a Roth IRA conversion later in the year and I want to make sure that 1) my income remains in the 15% tax bracket, thus making it worthwhile to do a conversion while I'm unemployed since I'm usually in the 25% bracket, and 2) that the amount I convert itself doesn't push me into the 25% tax bracket. Doing it this year on such a low income means I'll pay 15% taxes instead of 25%.

Round 2 with the Census Bureau is imminent. In fact, I was told there'd be a prelim meeting of the new crew this weekend, but I haven't heard anything further.

I also applied for a p/t contract job (advertised only in my local weekly paper) working for my town's economic development commission doing some interviews and reports of how we can make the town more appealing to business. It sounds interesting. Preferential treatment given to residents of my town. Instant advantage.

I also exchanged a few more emails with a woman from the online rug website I mentioned before. It was sort of painstaking to get some basic info from her on what the job entailed, but now she has and i named my price, a small job that ideally would lead to more and bigger jobs. She hasn't gotten back to me yet on accepting my proposal.

Finally, in my never-ending quest to make money, I proposed to my older neighbor/friend that I scrape, sand, prime and paint her small front porch. She's been wanting to get it done for years. I told her to take 20% off what she's pay a professional painter and let me do it. It's the kind of thing I do around here at my house all the time. It'd be a lot of work but I would earn money and she lives a half mile away from me. I'd delay starting that until the Census "cleanup" work is done, probably a few weeks or a month from now.

They want me

June 3rd, 2010 at 11:17 am

I wrapped up my census work on Memorial Day weekend and was told I could expect a phone call in early July about doing some final, additional "cleanup" work in some other town.

I liked the paychecks, of course, but I was also looking forward to a break from the all-consuming work (I worked 6 or 7 days a week) and a chance to take care of things around here, like my veggie garden. Of course, the status of all things Census-related changes hourly.

I got a call yesterday afternoon from crew leader telling me my return to census work would be much more imminent than early July, and would likely be in D., a small nearby city with a large immigrant population.

Fine, I said. I'm ready, willing and able.

Then I got a call last evening from another crew leader telling me no, I'd be going to N., a valley town about 40 minutes from here.

They're returning my census bag and badge this morning at 8:30 am.

Either way, I expect a tougher time getting surveys done due to greater difficulty finding addresses in an unfamiliar town, many more apartments and more non-English speaking residents. Plus the humid and hot weather with t-storms will be more of a factor than it was in May.

In other job search news, my neighbor told me his company is expanding and hiring. He designs toys for a toy company where normal work hours make for 10 hour days (8 to 6) but they pay extremely well. They don't have any openings for writers, per se, but he said they don't hire for specific positions, instead focusing on the person, testing them all day and then if they like you they create a job for you.

It's a long shot, especially as I have zero retail experience, copywriting or otherwise, but there's nothing to lose. We agreed I'd leave my resume in his mailbox so he can grab it on his way in to work. He can at least hand-deliver it to the owner.

A few weeks ago a website where I have purchased 3 or 4 of my bamboo rugs was having a contest, giving away a $100 gift card to whoever had the best ideas for improving their website. Being a writer, I of course zeroed in on the website copy and in fact found a number of places with incorrect grammar, less than desirable language and other room for improvement.

I didn't win the contest, but I was quite surprised when I got an email from someone there yesterday asking me what my rates are and do I have writing samples they could see.

Wow! What a cool way to get a possible writing assignment! I sent writing samples, though again, I've done little to none retail copywriting. My work has all been in financial services, real estate or insurance.

Yesterday for hoo-has my friend and i drove over to a Big Lots store and I bought 3 jars of Prego for $1.90 each and some Pepperidge Farm bread at $1.50. It had an expiration date of that same day, but I immediately froze all the bread when I got home. We ate lunch at a deli type store where I had an overpriced quesadilla and warm diet Coke.

After a 6-month wait, I recently got my scanner from Nielsen Research and am now a National Consumer Panel member, which means I need to scan everything I buy (not just groceries, anything with a bar code) and transmit to Nielsen weekly. In return, after I do this for about 10 years, I will have earned enough points to get a high def TV which I have my eye on.

I sometimes get lazy and leave my garage door open over night and I see that last night and the night before, something knocked over a galvanized garbage can to get at the sunflower seed in there. I can't imagine anything but a raccoon doing that, except that in all my 15 years here, I've never seen a raccoon. (Only skunks, possums, turkeys, woodchucks, rabbits, foxes, coyotes and deer).

All kinds of fun stuff in the mailbox

June 1st, 2010 at 06:45 pm

Here's what I got:

1. a Special K granola bar
2. A Pantene shampoo and conditioner set, sample sized
3. A check for $117 (!), representing the final court settlement of a local oil company that ripped off hundreds 4 or 5 years ago. I think this 2nd and final payment now makes me whole. I'll set it aside for this winter's heating oil.
4. A rebate check for $2.99.
5. An Earthbound Farm reusable grocery bag.

Pretty good haul, eh?

Last night for dinner I had the most delicious salad.

A generous helping of lettuce from my garden (how cool), cherry tomatoes, toasted sunflower seeds and walnuts, a sliced hard-boiled egg and strips of teriyaki chicken. Yum.

Thunderstorms just passed through here. I hope it cools down the humidity. I did some small garden chores this a.m., pruning a tall rhododendron and trimming some shrubs, but I was soon drenched in sweat. I also vacuumed the upstairs.