Thursday, May 29, 2008

Why bother?

This article in the Green Issue of the New York Times, written by Michael Pollan (author of the famed “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto”), does an amazing job of explaining why we should all bother to change our habits in this current environmental climate. Sometimes it takes the words of people much smarter than I am to remind me that the actions of individuals can be powerful. Read it.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Dead car battery

Amanda and I both own cars. My commute is a walk, and Amanda's car works better for routine errands, so my car is relegated to "backup" duty. A couple weekends ago we tried to use it while taking her car to the shop for some maintenance, and found that the battery had drained out and my car wouldn't start.

The car was boxed in on an incline in a busy parking lot, so jumping it was impossible and moving it would be a risky feat of strength. According to my Hank Hill-approved maintenance file, the battery is 5 years old; young enough to be salvageable. After some analysis I decided the most prudent solution was to order a battery charger online, wait for it to arrive, then recharge the battery outside the car.

Right now we're on the "charging" step. The charger registered a fault at the fastest charge rate, so I'm trying the slowest charge rate. The battery might be toast -- which would be unsurprising for a 5 year old battery that's been deep-cycled -- but hopefully I can nurse it back.

This whole thing reinforces several rules of thumb:
  1. Keeping (comically) detailed maintenance records has a concrete benefit.
  2. Modern cars are outrageously complex. They are full of limitations (need electricity to start) and patchwork fixes (rechargeable batteries) that may fail (drain out after a month of non-use).
  3. If you can afford to be patient, you save money. The charger took a week to come from Amazon via free shipping, but was a lot cheaper than buying a charger or new battery locally.
  4. Every "thing" in your life has the potential to cost time and money, even seemingly-inert things like parked cars.
  5. Keeping an old car running feels expensive because it amounts to occasional out of pocket expenses, but in reality it's usually cheap. A $31 charger is a lot less than a single monthly payment on a new car.
  6. If my car were parked in my own garage this would have been easier to solve. Houses offer a lot of little miscellaneous benefits.

Friday, May 16, 2008

"Investing" entertainment experiences

Mass-market entertainment gets cheaper as it ages. Examples:
  • movies start showing at dollar theaters
  • shows on premium TV channels become available for rental through Netflix
  • DVDs, CDs, video games, and books become available used
And on longer time frames,
  • libraries add media to their collection
  • movies are broadcast on over-the-air television
  • media formats go obsolete (e.g. VHS tapes now, CDs and non-HD DVDs soon) and become extremely cheap
As I discussed in my post on old video games, this creates an opportunity to enjoy media for pennies on the dollar. Instead of paying for entertainment when it first comes out, set it aside until its price lowers to a "strike price" you're comfortable with. The cost becomes much smaller, so you can either
  1. consume more with the same amount of money, or
  2. use a lot less money for the same amount of consumption.
There are two big downsides:
  1. you don't get to experience the excitement of premieres at the same time as other people
  2. if you're excited about something you have to wait until it eventually shows up under your terms
At first downside #2 is discouraging because it effectively cuts off your flow of entertainment. I.e. if you decide to only watch movies at a dollar theater and you've already watched everything that's showing there, then you can't watch any movies. However once you wait through an entire release cycle you will enter a "steady state" where movies debut at the dollar theater at the same rate as a first-tier theater, just offset a few months later.

These tradeoffs parallel those of investing. Let's say you decide to invest $1,000. Then you are depriving yourself of the short-term gratification of $1,000 worth of consumption now, for the promise of much more than $1,000 worth of consumption later. If you choose to wait to see Iron Man until it's at the dollar theater or on Netflix, in a sense you are "investing" the experience of watching Iron Man for the promise that the experience becomes much cheaper in the future.

We apply this mentality to the media we consume. When something comes out we make a quick assesment as to where our "strike price" is. A movie is either worth seeing at a full-price theater, a discount theater, renting on Netflix, or not seeing at all. In addition to saving money, this moment of reflection also helps us sort out the movies that are actually worth our time, from the ones that we're only interested in due to marketing pressure.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The "Big Project"

In a previous post, Kevin had alluded to some "big projects" that we are currently absorbed in. I'm here to finally announce one of them: Kevin and I are engaged and will be getting married later this year! As I'm sure many of you know all too well, traditional weddings are one of the most expensive events that will ever occur in your lifetime.

Kevin and I hope to share parts of our wedding planning on this blog as a way of helping others out there in a similar situation. It's difficult trying to balance the traditional aspects of having a wedding that both our families had hoped we would do, and the frugal and simplistic way Kevin and I are accustomed to living our lives. I will tell you, it hasn't been easy so far. Imagine the horror I was met with when I mentioned I didn't want anything to do with bridal salons or "princess" wedding gowns. Imagine the shock when I came home with my bridal dress: a sweet little (used) white lace dress that cost me a mere $5!

Every step of the planning process has been like this so far, but Kevin and I are confident that we can pull off an event that is both something that will please our families, and won't cause us to be in debt for the rest of our lives. More updates to come...