May 15th, 2010

brutal!, bad bad bad bad

I am not impressed

Dave Lartigue described the following essasy, originally posted at the Huffington Post, as "the most clueless, idiotic, narcissistic, absurd thing you will read today." Unfortunately, when I followed his link, I found the article had been taken down. Luckily, Google had cached a copy, so I was able to confirm that Lartigue's description was quite apt. I don't know if things stay in the Google cache forever, so I'm posting it here to preserve it for posterity.

Incidentally, as of this moment I've spent $5.26 this week. Unless you count preparing and eating food I bought earlier and using my bus pass (which gives me unlimited rides for a flat fee paid upfront) as spending, which I don't.

ETA: I have since spent another $5.27, and I remembered having used a gift card to buy myself a treat at Coldstone Creamery last Tuesday, which I think counts as spending. Still, fifteen bucks in seven days isn't too bad. Also, check out the comments to the MetaFilter post about this article.

How I Went 24 Hours Without Spending Any Money...In New York City
By Alexa von Tobel, Founder and CEO, LearnVest

What would be it like to go a day without spending any money? How would I get from A to B? What about food? Turns out, a day of living expense free is very easy to do.

On Tuesday night I had just returned home after a long day of work and I decided to order in from my favorite restaurant. Forty minutes later, the deliveryman arrived with my pasta primavera and a Greek salad and I handed him $22.50, including tip. Pretty steep for a dinner for one, I thought. I returned to my kitchen counter, brown bag in hand, and it was then that I had a moment: I reviewed my spending for the day and I realized that I had spent well over $60 over the course of the day on menial expenses. I hadn't gone shopping, I hadn't dined out at Cafeteria for lunch, and I hadn't joined my friends for drinks. It dawned on me that the taxicab rides, stops at CVS, the Starbucks lattes, the mid-morning or mid-afternoon snacks, my take-out from the fabulous Italian restaurant, and other trivial expenses really added up; realizing the total cost of it all was a painful but eye-opening experience.

That night, I decided to go on a simple mission to live a full 24-hour day without spending a penny (I really should go a week). Millions of people do this all across America easily, though living in NYC, the most expensive city in the USA, makes saving highly challenging.

A self-proclaimed female A.J. Jacobs, I pledged to wake up Wednesday morning and eliminate all expenses from my daily routine. It would be a feat but I was determined to test my discipline and my creativity. I would prove to myself and to those around me that a day of living expense free is possible - and a worthwhile experiment.

Wednesday Morning

I knew that my success relied heavily on morning preparation, so I set my alarm clock 30 minutes earlier than my usual wake-up time. There were four morning spending hurdles that I had to tackle: the commute to work, my morning coffee, breakfast, and lunch. As a die-hard Le Pain latte lover, avoiding coffee was going to be a challenge. I knew I had a coffee maker and some Holder's House Blend coffee in my cupboard somewhere so it was about time I tried it out. Honestly, the coffee wasn't so bad. I was so used to my morning corner-coffee shop routine that I forgot how much I enjoyed a simple cup of joe in my apartment before I left for work.

On a typical day, I usually grab breakfast on my way to work at the deli below my Flatiron office. But yesterday I had some time to spare and I poured myself a bowl of cereal, adding banana slices on top. Not so bad. In order to prepare for lunch, I made myself a turkey sandwich on wheat bread, an apple and a granola bar and packed it up in a Ziploc bag. I'm not one to keep my fridge and cupboards stocked but I had a few items from my last trip to Trader Joe's and they would get the job done.

Luckily, I have a short commute to work; it takes approximately 20 minutes to walk to the LearnVest offices. With beautiful weather and a fun challenge underway, I gladly stepped outside and enjoyed the 20 minutes to myself before the hectic day began. En route, I make the decision to start walking more. If I left 10 minutes earlier, I could walk to destination and avoid the $5 spent on a taxicab ride. Within 20 minutes, I arrived at the office and I hadn't spent a single penny.

Lunchtime arrived before I knew it -- and I had my packaged lunch ready and waiting.

Wednesday Afternoon

Unlike the average day, I didn't have any meetings in midtown on yesterday so I was free and clear for the afternoon. I spent the afternoon at the office and avoided the usual mid-afternoon Latte run. I enjoyed a few of my colleague's crackers and surprisingly, made it through the day energized and motivated.

Earlier that week, I had discussed dining out drinks with my friends on Wednesday night. I hadn't spent any money the entire day and I was not going to jeopardize my experiment by dining out. I kindly proposed to my three girlfriends that we have a "potluck" dinner at my apartment, where everyone brought a different dish. I was surprised by how readily they agreed to the informal gathering and ran home after work to start putting together my part of the dinner. It was time to get creative.

Wednesday Evening

I arrived at my kitchen a bit fearful (let's just say I prefer eating over cooking) yet I was excited for the challenge. I rummaged through my cupboard and fridge and sure enough, I had a box of unopened penne and an unopened can of tomato vodka sauce hidden behind some cans of soup. Penne vodka -- perfect. I realized that this was the perfect opportunity to use up those unopened cans or boxes that have been sitting in my cupboards. I discovered some frozen peas in my freezer and added those to the mix. Within minutes, I had donned my apron and found my inner Julia Child (Who knew I had one?), whipping up a delicious pasta dish at the stove and singing along to my Billy Joel favorites. My friends arrived, adding a salad, a bottle of wine and some baked Brie to the potluck dinner. We sat in my living room and laughed for an hour. Fun night.

Last night as I lay awake in bed, reviewing everything that happened I realized that with a little preparation, dedication and creativity, I successfully went a full day without spending anything. Not only did I save money, but I also discovered new ways to enjoy the things I love. I love coffee but there is no need for me to indulge in expensive coffee everyday -- a cup of coffee at my apartment will do the trick and it is just as satisfying. I love my friends but there is no need to dine out and break the bank every time we want to see each other. And with a potluck dinner, I can enjoy my new discovered love for cooking -- it's therapeutic, relaxing and surprisingly, fun!

I encourage everyone to try living a few days without spending a single penny so you can enjoy the benefits of the challenge. Of course, there are some expenses, like the morning commute, that are unavoidable. If you live far away from the office and must travel by train, taxi or subway, you will have to spend some amount on travel. However, if you usually take a taxi to work, find the nearest subway and walk the extra 10 minutes to your destination. For those bicyclists out there, combine your morning workout with your morning commute and ride to work. The key is to be creative and be smart about your spending.

All in all, I was energized and motivated by my frugal living. I recognize that this experiment is unsustainable for a long period of time but I learned that if I just pay a little bit more attention to my daily expenses and put in a little effort, I could eliminate unnecessary, basic expenses from my daily routine. I woke up this morning feeling "cleansed," invigorated and ready to approach the day with an expense conscious mindset. This morning I opted for a cup of Holder's House coffee and I brought leftovers from last night's potluck for lunch; I foresee this quickly becoming part of my morning routine...

Library visits and other things

I've been spending most of my recent Saturdays on a quest to visit every branch of the Madison Public Library system. As I've mentioned before, what I'd really like to do is visit every library in the South Central Library System, but circumstances require me to defer that project to a later date.

Two Saturdays back, I visited the Alicia Ashman branch. That Saturday was Free Comic Book Day; I chose the Ashman branch because it was within biking distance of Westfield Comics, one of Madison's two comic book shops. It was also close to the Second Jacobs House, one of Frank Lloyd Wright's more notable structures. (It was the first of his solar hemicycle designs.) So that morning my bike and I rode the bus over to the fashionable west side.

The Ashman branch, like most of the branches, is a storefront library, albeit a fairly large and airy one. I spent a couple of hours there, using the computer and finishing the book I was reading at the time (The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment by A. J. Jacobs). I also picked up some free comic books; Westfield had donated a bunch of the kid-friendly titles to be given away at the library.

Next stop: the Second Jacobs House. While the distance was easy enough to manage, the terrain and the atmospheric conditions were working against me, in that I had to pedal up a fairly large hill into a 15-mile-an-hour headwind to get to the side street I was looking for. The side street was also an uphill climb, but there was a bike rack right there at the intersection, so I locked up the bike and hoofed it to the house. It's still a private residence, so I couldn't get a close look, but what I could see was nice. Then I walked down that hill and continued on foot the rest of the way up the first hill, to take a look at a little white clapboard church I had spied while parking my bike. I am nothing if not a sucker for a little white clapboard church. Thence, to the comic shop for more free comics. They were limiting each customer to five freebies, which I heard a bit of grumbling about, but that would have been plenty for me even if I hadn't already picked up four others at the library.

This weekend, I decided to check out another library on the fashionable west side, the Meadowridge branch. Once again, I took my bike with me, and while my original plan was to take the bus all the way to the library, I realized when I reached the corner of Odana and Whitney that I could get off there and just ride straight down Whitney to the library. Which is what I did, after taking some time to walk through Westgate Mall, which if not exactly a Dead Mall is certainly not very healthy. I think at least half of the storefronts were vacant. The ride to the library was unexceptional, as was the Meadowridge branch itself. It's the smallest of the libraries I've visited, and it felt kind of cramped.

After finishing up there, I grabbed a sandwich at a nearby Pizza Extreme and rode down Raymond and up McKenna (literally up, though it was a more modest hill than the one I'd encountered two weeks earlier) to Elver Park. I was under the impression before I got there I'd not been there before, but once I arrived I realized that my sister had shown it to me several weeks before when we were driving around killing time before a lunch date with some friends from college. On that occasion, though, we'd not gotten out of the car, just driven through the parking lot, so this was a more substantive visit.

Elver Park is home to a disc golf course, and after I finished my sandwich and my book (Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman's Co-Creator Joe Shuster by Craig Yoe) I decided to kill time waiting for the bus home by walking around the course. Which would have been a great idea had I not gotten lost. I noticed at one point that I had somehow switched directions, so I was walking the course backwards, from pin to tee instead of the other way around, and I eventually came back to a hole I'd been to before, easily recognizable for being at the bottom of a very steep hill, and encountered a foursome I'd seen earlier. They pointed me in the right direction, and I tagged along with them for one hole, then forged ahead, hopping from group to group but being careful to go from tee to pin. And it was working! I passed a couple of holes I'd not seen before. Then, suddenly, I found myself at the top of the hill at the bottom of which I had embarked on my new strategy for finding my way out of the course. What!

So I gave up. I knew that at the bottom of the hill, there was a little path leading out of the park, so I availed myself of the opportunity to escape the maze. I didn't know where I was, but I figured I had a better chance of finding my way back to my bike via a paved road than a path through the woods I'd already proved myself incapable of navigating. I was soon able to ascertain that I was back on Raymond, on the other side of McKenna, which means I had escaped the course at the point where I was as far away from where I wanted to be as I possibly could have been. Whee. But I did make it back to my bike, just in time to see the foursome who had tried to help me earlier emerge from the woods. Obviously, I should have just stuck with them, but my way didn't take any less time, so it worked out OK.

Next week: Monroe Street! Or possibly South Madison. I think those are the only two I have left. Whatever, I'll figure it out next Friday night.

(Oh, and in case you were wondering about the Saturday I didn't mention, I didn't go to a library that weekend. Instead, I went to my nephew's soccer game—on a very cold, very windy, and slightly rainy morning, thank you very much—and then went down to Illinois with him and my sister to take my grandmother out for a Mothers' Day lunch.)