Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Yikes - Utility Bills!

We heat our home with natural gas. The natural gas is also our source for hot water, cooking and our clothes dryer. However, up until this month our electric bill always trumped our natural gas bill - by quite a bit.

This morning I opened the gas bill. I was horrified to see we owe $333.26 for the month of November. The electric bill is a mere $120.52 in comparison. Dave and I do OK financially. We aren't setting the world on fire, but we get by. However, a utility bill of $333 is pushing the budget here.

Our house is an older, two-story farm house. We have three additions - two were added by us and one by the previous owner. All of the additions are on the first floor. The second floor remains its early 1920's original design.

Mom's addition on the south side of the house is the largest. It is a living area, bedroom and full bath. The addition on the north side is the master bedroom and bathroom. All of the windows in the additions are newer and pretty good at keeping the cold out (or in, depending on the season). The living room, dining room, kitchen and second floor have updated windows, but they are more than 12 years old.

After seeing the insane gas bill for the month of November, I have come to realize that weatherproofing attempts need to be addressed for the remainder of the winter. Here in Pittsburgh, January and February are our coldest months. According to local weather stations, November was colder than average, but not by much.

If I am expected to pay more than $300 for November, I can only imagine what I will face in the next three to four months of Old Man Winter!

Since it is out of the question to install layers of insulation in the walls and attic, my plan is to attack the oldest windows in the house. I picked up some "rubber foam weather seal self stick tape" from Home Depot. I also picked up a "roll-on premium insulating film window kit". This is one of those kits where you attach the clear plastic to the interior windows and seal it with a hair dryer. I have my doubts about these items, but I thought it couldn't hurt.

The whole time while I wandered through the Home Depot, the figure $333 was rolling through my head. I can't imagine what my parents would have done with a gas bill this high. I highly doubt they could have paid it.

I remember the winter of 1976 - at least I think it was 1976. My dad must have been struggling with the utility bills because he took to stuffing towels in the cracks of our old window frames. He stuffed a blanket under the front door and we all wore sweaters to bed and burrowed deep under the covers.

This was the coldest winter I can remember. One night, I awoke to the sound of my hair dryer running in the bathroom. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and followed the sound. I found my dad in his pajamas and bathrobe with his head under the bathroom vanity, pointing the hair dryer at the pipes. Apparently they had frozen. He managed to thaw them and we had to let the faucet drip at night from then on. Our house was old and obviously not very well insulated.

Even though we struggled that winter, we got by.

If my new-fangled rubber foam seal tape and roll-on window kits don't work well, you'll find me stuffing towels in the window frames and under the doors. If it was good enough for Dad, it's good enough for me.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Our Needs Vs. Our Wants

I haven't been able to get the Wal-mart stampede in New York on Black Friday off of my mind. There was a cell phone video of the event broadcast on Fox news this morning. People are truly hard core these days. I was shocked to hear the victim was a young man of 34. For some reason, I had pictured him as an older gentleman. He is an immigrant and I read where his dad was devastated and told the press his son had never even started a family. As a result, this poor guy never really gets going in his life because a bunch of greedy shoppers want to save 40% on their flat screen high-def TV's and vacuum cleaners. Unbelievable.

Along with the cell phone video, Fox had a psychologist commentator on to discuss his thoughts. He said he felt that people have become hooked on the idea of piles of gifts under their tree. Extreme expectations coupled with the state of the economy and people will do anything to save a buck. While I can understand saving a buck, I simply can not wrap my mind around stampeding a human being in the process.

This entire event has caused me a tremendous amount of introspection. What is the difference between needs and wants?

A need is fairly simple: we need food, water, shelter and clothing. We need our God, our family and our friends. But a want - a want is something we desire to have, but don't necessarily need.

Electronic gadgets first come to mind as a want. Between all the members of my family, we have pretty much every gaming system ever made. We all have cell phones. We all have CD players in our cars (though mine isn't operational as of this writing). In fact, we all have our own cars. We also all have computers and TV's.

In my house alone, there are six TV's. The only fancy high-def one is in my son's room. It was a birthday gift to him last year. The others are older versions and two are flat screens.

Do we really need six TV's?

One of the items the Wal-mart stampeders were after were discounted vacuum cleaners. I happen to have two of them. One is my mom's old Oreck and one I have recently purchased - ironically from Wal-mart. I have news for the stampeders: the Wal-mart one is a big disappointment. If they waited outside all night for a vacuum cleaner from Wal-mart, they really are fools.

Do I really need two vacuum cleaners?

The list is endless and I am ashamed of the amount of wants I own that I have thought of in the past as a need.

How many things are you asking Santa for this year that are wants Vs. needs?

Friday, November 28, 2008

What Were They Thinking?

This appeared on a local news website today. I don't know how many people actually wait in line for stores to open and then trample other shoppers to get to the "deals", but I think we have really lost sight of the reason for the season. My condolences to this man's family:

NEW YORK (AP) ― A worker was killed in the crush Friday after a throng of shoppers eager for post-Thanksgiving bargains burst through the doors at a suburban Wal-Mart, authorities said.

At least four other people were injured, and the store in Valley Stream on Long Island was closed.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in Bentonville, Ark., called the incident a "tragic situation" and said the employee came from a temporary agency and was doing maintenance work at the store.

"He was bum-rushed by 200 people," co-worker Jimmy Overby, 43, told the Daily News. "They took the doors off the hinges. He was trampled and killed in front of me. They took me down too. ... I literally had to fight people off my back."

Nassau County police said the 34-year-old worker was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead at about 6 a.m. The man's name was not released and the cause of death was not immediately known.

A police statement said shortly after the store's 5 a.m. opening time, shoppers "physically broke down the doors, knocking (the worker) to the ground."

A metal portion of the door was crumpled like an accordion.

Shoppers around the country lined up early outside stores in the annual bargain hunting ritual known as Black Friday. Many stores open early and stay open late, and some of the most dramatic bargains are available in limited quantities.

Among the bargains offered by Wal-Mart for Friday were Samsung 50-inch high definition Plasma TVs for less than $800.

Witnesses told the Daily News that before the store was closed, eager shoppers streamed past emergency crews as they worked furiously to save the worker's life.

"They were working on him, but you could see he was dead," said Halcyon Alexander, 29. "People were still coming through."

A 28-year-old pregnant woman was taken to a hospital for observation, and she and the unborn baby were both reported to be OK, said Sgt. Anthony Repalone, a Nassau County police spokesman. Four or five other people suffered minor injuries, he said.

Ellen Davis, a spokeswoman at National Retail Federation, said the group knew of no other incident where a retail employee has died working on the day after Thanksgiving.

Wal-Mart is working closely with police, company spokesman Dan Fogleman said.

"The safety and security of our customers and associates is our top priority," Fogleman said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families at this difficult time."

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Too Much Hype

On Halloween, I stopped at the local Wal-mart to pick up an extra bag of candy for my friend. I was spending the evening with her and she called my cell phone in a panic. She lives in a housing plan and was nearly out of candy within the first 30 minutes of trick or treating. I gladly obliged.

Perched above the Wal-mart candy display - the Halloween candy display - was a long line of fully decorated Christmas trees. Their only saving grace was that the lights weren't plugged in. I detected the faint sound of Christmas music playing on the PA system. It was quiet and subtle, but it was there just the same.

This past week, I went with Brian to our local mall to help him select a birthday gift for his girlfriend. In the center of the mall, there was a huge Christmas tree and little village of miniature north pole homes. Santa's train was running and there were about 30 kids on it. I figured it was just an early decoration; surely Santa hadn't arrived yet.

When we walked past the display again on our way out of the mall, sure enough there sat the big fella in his giant chair, ho-ho-ho-ing. He must have been on a break when we passed the first time. Mind you, this was on November 18th - a full 8 days before Thanksgiving.

Last night, the city of Pittsburgh held their annual light up night to kick off the holiday shopping season. It was much too cold for me to go, but I watched the highlights on the 11 O'clock news. There were dancing Santas, Christmas trees galore and carolers throughout.

When I was a girl, Halloween was Halloween and Santa never arrived anywhere before Thanksgiving. In fact, I vividly remember his big appearance was always scheduled for the day after Thanksgiving - affectionately known in the retail industry as "Black Friday".

We've heard people say it for years, "The holidays are much too commercialized." I hadn't though much of it in the past, but I truly believe it this year. I feel as if the economic indicators are a bit frightening for the retailers and they are responding with over-kill. The soft and subtle Christmas music in Wal-mart on Halloween was the last straw for me.

I realize the retailers hang their hat on their holiday sales figures, but I truly believe if they were smart, they wouldn't rush the season. And they would somehow try to incorporate the Reason for the Season into their holiday displays and advertising.

What ever happened to manger scenes and Hanukkah candles?

I long for the days when Thanksgiving was its own holiday; when people got together on a low-stress day, played flag football in the backyard and watched the pros on TV. I long for stuffing myself silly and falling asleep in front of the fire.

Bring back tradition! And please, please stop hyping the Christmas holiday before the first snowflake has fallen.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A State of Mind

When I was growing up, I knew we weren't wealthy but I never knew how thin the money really was from paycheck to paycheck. I wasn't particularly naive, but I think my parents did a great job of keeping me out of it. After all, what could a grade school age child do about the situation?

As a family, we took a lot of pleasure in simple activities together. One of my favorites was board games on a Saturday night. I was the master at "Sorry!" My brother chose games like "Monopoly" or an oldie known as "Money, Money, Money". We took turns choosing the game, and the four of us would gather around the dining room table to play. A few hours of no cost fun was had by all.

My parents told me years later that those Saturday nights were some of the best therapy they could have asked for. It was time spent with our nuclear family and it didn't cost a dime. On more than one occasion, it was the diversion they needed from the tough times we were in.

Mom was a frequent garage sale visitor and would often come home with a new game for the family. Some were great fun, some were pretty stupid. But we enjoyed the time together.

In today's rough economy, why not try a family board game night? Once a month should suffice and the rules are simple: only the nuclear family gathered around a table for the evening. No text messaging or AIM allowed. Just a few hours together.

Give it a try. You may surprise yourself with how much fun there is to be had without spending any money.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Could This Be Another Depression?

In 1929, the stock market crashed and all hell broke loose. My mom was 4-years-old then. I think of how my grandparents must have felt - an 8-year-old son and my mom to feed, clothe and protect. They must have been terrified.

When I look at the current financial situation we face in this country, I find myself a bit fearful. Certainly not as much as my mom and grandparents experienced in the 20's and 30's, but enough to make me begin to look at how my money is spent and ways to stretch my nickels further.

I'm filled with my own childhood memories of my mom managing to piece together meals out of whatever she had on hand. We never had a lot of money, but we got through somehow. I give full credit to both parents for this, but especially my mom. She was a creative genius when it came to ground beef!