Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Cost Analysis: Frugal v. Thoughtless Entertainment

Frugality is the opposite of thoughtlessness. It is the art of putting money to its best use—spending less where you can so you can splurge where you choose.

Entertainment is an easy area to cut back on. We spend tons of money trying to have a good time, when we know perfectly well that a good time can be had for free. Below are two scenarios: first, a typical weekend for a thoughtless young single in NYC, and second, the weekend of a smart young single who has planned her weekend out in advance.

Scenario 1: Thoughtless

Friday night: After work, our Young Single (YS) meets two good friends at a bar—she buys a $6 drink during happy hour and a second for $10. She leaves $4 in tips. After the bar she grabs a $6 dinner at Subway before meeting her partner for a movie—they split the cost of 2 tickets and a popcorn-soda combo for $17 each.

Saturday: In the evening YS goes out to dinner with a friend at a downtown restaurant, paying $25 including drinks, tax and tip. She then stops at a liquor store to buy a $20 bottle of vodka to bring to a friend’s party that night. YS spends all night at the party and comes home in the wee sma’s via taxi, shelling out another $15.

Sunday: Tired and depressed over her empty wallet, YS stays home most of the day. She does duck out for a quick coffee and snack with a friend, spending $8 overall.

Total spent: $105

Scenario 2: Frugal

Friday night: After work, YS stops at a grocery store and picks up $25 worth of snacks and mixers, then heads to the NYPL to borrow a couple of DVDs. She has dinner at home. Around 8:00 she has 5 or 6 friends come over, a couple of whom bring alcohol. They have snacks and drinks, play darts and Trivial Pursuit, and watch/mock/recite two classic 80’s movies.

Saturday: In the afternoon YS meets her partner for a picnic lunch at the new High Line park, each bringing about $6 worth of food. That evening after dinner at home she goes to a friend’s house for coffee, bringing with her a $6 dessert for the two of them. At night they head out and meet her partner and friends on line for First Saturday at the Brooklyn Museum, where they spend the rest of the night listening to free concerts and attending free tango lessons. YS spends $6 on a beer but mostly indulges in the free food and drinks available. At the end of the night YS takes the subway home with her friends.

Sunday: Not at all depressed about her money, YS happily spends the day doing chores and in the afternoon meets her partner for rollerblading in Prospect Park, a hobby of theirs.

Total spent: $43

You can see how easy it is to alter your plans to spend less on entertainment. There’s not that much difference between the two weekends—drinking, dancing, hanging with friends. But in the second example YS put in a little advance preparation that would help her save money.

She had to invite her friends over to her house in advance and think of some fun activities to do. She also had to research a free activity like First Saturday at the Brooklyn Museum in advance. But the time she spent was worth it—not only did she save over $60, she had more memorable experiences. I’ve also found that I have more fun inviting friends over for snacks and games than I do going on yet another barf tour of the LES.

Weekly Ode to the New York Public Library, the second

(Note: scroll down for this week's tips--how to use the NYPL to save on college textbooks)

This week’s Ode to the NYPL takes the form of a letter. A couple of months ago the city government was threatening to cut contributions to the library system, which would have forced the closure of some branches for 1 or 2 days per week. The NYPL launched a massive letter-writing and fundraising campaign to oppose these budget cuts.

I contributed by writing to Bloomberg and to my district representative. I sent the following letter:

Dear Mayor Bloomberg,

The library has been my second home since I was a little girl. My summer vacations were spent in the children's section of the Donnell library, where I read Nancy Drew books there for hours on end. Even during college, I continued to use the NYPL hold system to find books not available at the Columbia or Barnard libraries.

A few months ago I lost my job. While living on unemployment income there was no way I could buy books either for entertainment, or to help me in my job search (books like What Color is Your Parachute or 48 Days to the Work You Love). Thankfully I could get them through the NYPL. I would also go to my local public library just to get out of the house.

I recently found a great new job but I know that hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers like me still need the library. During the Great Depression, MORE resources were directed to the NYPL system, not fewer. Extra hours and services helped people to educate themselves, find work, get free entertainment, and learn how to survive on less. Out of the Depression was born what we call the Greatest Generation--and I think we should learn from their example.

As one of the millions of library users and as one of your constituents, I urge you to PLEASE fight the proposed budget cuts and help keep our libraries open.

Carolyn O’Neil

This week’s tip is for the college students out there: USE THE NYPL TO SAVE ON TEXTBOOKS! I was an English major, so I was in a perfect position to use this strategy. Here’s what I did:

I sat down in front of my laptop with a list of the books I would need in the next 2 months. I would look up each book on Amazon to identify the correct version of the book—using publisher, publication date, and number of pages. From Amazon I could see an image of that version’s cover and also get the appropriate ISBN.

Then I’d look up the book on LEO, the NYPL database. If there were multiple versions I would go by the book cover first, then open up the item to confirm the other information. Then I would select “Place a Hold” and have the right book sent to the branch nearest my dorm. Be sure to check whether any copies are available, to get a sense of how soon you will get your book. If there are copies “Checked In” at any branch, then you will likely get it within 3-4 business days. If there are other holds on the book, compare the due dates to the number of holds and give it your best guess.

And that’s it! I did this for dozens of my books, and saved the cost of buying them. Of course if you do this you had BETTER NOT write or make notes in the book, but I consider that a sacrilege, anyway. This strategy takes a bit of work but sometimes, you just don’t have the money for all those books. This can be a lifesaver.

A final quick note: sometimes it wasn’t possible to get the same version of the book. Obviously, in a small discussion class you simply have to have the right version. But a lot of my classes were mid-size (30-50 students) or larger lectures, and in those you can get by without it. Rather than following along while the professor reads a passage, just listen carefully. Elegant in its simplicity, isn’t it?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

How I Got My Job: Preparation

I’m currently working at the organization of my dreams. Just a few months ago, I was unemployed and had no experience at all in my current field of work. How did I get from there to here?

I’ve decided to create a short series of articles on “How I got my job,” to be posted once a week for the next 5 weeks. I’ll describe what I did during my job hunt, and what was useful, easy, and ultimately successful in finding this new job.

Today’s entry is about preparation—what I did right after I found out I was being downsized.

Preparing for the Hunt.

I was downsized at the end of December 2008. We found out mid-December, and I was lucky enough to be kept on as a consultant through January, so I had a month and a half’s head start to job hunt while still receiving income. I used that month for self-reflection and career planning.

Getting laid off can be a blessing in disguise. Just read some of the quotes from these recently-laid-off folks over at Career Builder. Losing your job forces you to take a step back and evaluate your career path—is this what you want to be doing with your life? How can you put your skills to best use and combine them with your interests? What is your dream job? Getting fired can give you the opportunity to transition into a better job. So in December and January, I thought about all of these questions and did a ton of reading to focus my job search. I wanted to choose one industry and target organizations working in that field.

To figure out what field and what types of jobs were right for me, I used these resources:

1. What Color Is Your Parachute? This is the single best book on job hunting and career planning that has ever been written. Need I say more? If you haven’t read it, you should. If you’re unemployed, you need it.

2. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook: This entire resource is available online, and offers descriptions of most jobs you can think of. It holds a wealth of information, providing what a typical day is like, necessary training, salary ranges, and growth projections for people in that field.

3. The Princeton Review Career Quiz: You have to register to take it (make sure to de-select the 2 boxes for receiving spam emails from them), but the quiz is pretty good and will provide a whole bunch of suggested careers based on your personality. It also offers profiles of each career, much like the BLS.

4. Columbia University’s Center for Career Education: This is my alma mater so I used them a lot—-you should definitely check out your own school’s career center and see what resources they offer alumnae. Even so, the Columbia CCE has pretty excellent resources for the general public, including a library of tele-seminars and PowerPoint presentations that provide great information on finding a job. My favorite of the bunch was Connie Thanasoulis’ “How to Effectively Handle a Job Layoff,” which was chock full of so many great tips I had to pause several times to take notes.

5. Blogs: There are some great blogs out there, and I don’t just mean The Frugal NYer! Penelope Trunk has fantastic articles on networking, career planning, and using your time wisely while unemployed (the best article she wrote on this is 5 Things to Do When You’re Unemployed)

All of these resources guided me in my own career planning and in figuring out how I was going to get there. Thanks in particular to What Color Is Your Parachute? I reflected on my own values, skills and interests, and ultimately chose to focus on the field of Human Rights work, an area I am passionate about and in which I can see myself pursuing a career for many years to come.

Of course, while I was doing this research and soul-searching, I was also browsing the Web and applying for any full-time job I was qualified for. But few people would recommend that as a good job-hunting strategy!

Finally, before my last day at my old job, I made sure to take the following steps:

1. Updated my work product folder: I emailed to myself every document I had written, every project completed, and proof of all my accomplishments. All of these items I could present to potential employers as evidence of my skills.

2. Took all of my contacts with me: any connections you make on the job will be invaluable during your job search and career, whether you continue in the same industry or not. I emailed myself full contact information for everyone I had connected with.

3. Asked my colleagues if they’d be willing to act as references, and asked them to write recommendation letters: especially since I’m a young worker, it was really important—and ultimately valuable—to get recommendation letters from everyone who was above me in the organization. I also got their OK in advance to serve as references, and offered to serve as a reference for them in return.

4. Deleted inappropriate content from my computer: I have a nasty habit of venting through the written word. I kept a locked document on my hard drive of all the things that irritated me at work…you know that had to go stat. I also deleted all personal documents and bookmarks.

All of these tasks kept me busy through the end of January. In February, I began to job hunt full-time. I’ll discuss how I approached my job search in the next series entry, “Narrowing down the search.”

How I Got My Job Index of Posts:

1. Preparing for the hunt: before unemployment
2. 5 ways to survive unemployment
3. Narrowing down the search
4. The hunt: job applications and networking
5. Interview preparation
5. Lucky break (expect the unexpected)

Monday, July 27, 2009

What Emergency Funds are For

You probably already know what an emergency fund is and why you should have one. In case you don’t, check out this great summary from J.D. at Get Rich Slowly.

Today I want to discuss in detail what constitutes an emergency! Some examples of what does not constitute an emergency?

Broken TV
Weekend invitation to the Hamptons
Cousin’s bridal shower

Obviously, you have to determine for yourself what you consider a real emergency. But here are the emergencies most financial gurus think justify drawing from this fund:

Unemployment. Suze Orman says you need to save 1 year’s worth of expenses in a down economy because it’s more likely you’ll lose your job, and that it’ll take longer to find a new one. I think a full year is excessive, so I’ve saved 6 months’ worth of expenses—including an extra $200 per month for health insurance (I used Healthy NY). This is money that will keep you fed and housed while you’re searching for a new job—unemployment isn’t going to cut it, let me assure you.

Medical emergencies. I don’t think I need to go into detail on this one; use your imagination. But realize that there are lots of things that might prevent you from getting treatment in a medical emergency: say the hospital or insurance company decides it’s a non-essential treatment so you have to pay the whole thing yourself. Say you have insurance but you have to pay hundreds of dollars for drug copayments. What can happen in this case is that you either max out your credit card or ignore the bills, which gets you into tremendous debt and destroys your financial history. Or you don’t get the treatment at all. Dental emergencies fall in this category, too.

Bad luck: a fire or flood tears through your apartment and you don’t have renter’s insurance (who does?), so you have to replace everything. Or your car breaks down, if you use a car to get to work. Or your wallet or purse is stolen. Or your computer breaks down, and you absolutely, positively have no alternative and must replace it before you have time to save up money to do so. (I think a computer and a cell phone are the only electronics that should be replaced from an emergency fund!!)

The unexpected: Maybe you’ll go on vacation, miss your flight home, and get stranded in a third world country. I don’t know. Maybe you’ll get conned out of your monthly paycheck and need to make this month’s rent. Your emergency fund is for whenever you can’t pay for NECESSITIES—that shouldn’t be often. Even when I lost my job, I was able to get by on severance and unemployment money, preserving my emergency fund. Your goal is to save up the emergency fund and then forget about it until you find yourself facing starvation or homelessness. And then it’ll save you.

So if you don’t have an emergency fund, please start saving. Evaluate your own situation: if you feel secure in your job and invincibly healthy, maybe you’ll decide you can save at a slower pace. Or maybe you know that if you did lose your job you’d have nothing and no one else to fall back on, so you’ll choose to start saving 10% of your take-home pay. It’s up to you, but whatever you choose, please don’t put it off!!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

My Savings Goals

There’s no point in saving if you don’t have a goal. Then you’re just amassing money for money’s sake, which makes you Scrooge McDuck. And unless having your own swimming pool of gold coins is your main goal in life, you don’t want to be him.

One of the key goals for those trying to improve their finances is an emergency fund. Everyone says this is important—Dave Ramsey thinks you should start with a goal of a $1,000 fund and eventually get to 3-6 months; Suze Orman thinks you should have up to 1 year’s expenses saved.

Everyone is different. I decided to save 6 months' expenses: unlike couples, I only have 1 income to depend on; but I also have parents to fall back on, so 12 months is excessive. I worked to save 6 months of expenses, and I got there on December 31st, 2008! :-D Now I'm able to focus on new savings goals, and here’s what they are:

1. Vacation in Mexico: Yeah, bebe. Now that I’ve taken care of my emergency fund and retirement contributions, I can save for the fun stuff! I’m actually saving for a 4-day trip to New Orleans this Fall, and a 1-2 week trip to Mexico in February. Can’t wait! The NOLA trip I expect to cost around $800, the Mexico trip around $2500—but I’d like to save up to $3000 for it, in case I decide to take a side-trip to a certain verboten island country that shall not be named.

2. Vacuum cleaner, chaise longue, etc.: There’s a small part of my budget for what I call “short-term” savings, which is pretty much anything that I’ve decided I want but can’t afford to splurge on. My next item is a vacuum cleaner, possibly
this Electrolux from Amazon (yes I'm a dork about vacuums!). After that it will be a chaise for my bedroom, like this one from IKEA, though it's a bit expensive. My roomie and I have been using folding chairs and canvas wing chairs as the only seating in our bedrooms. I’d love to have a real comfy chair there instead, where 2 guests can sit or where I can curl up with a book!

3. Contribute $300 per month to my Roth IRA: After creating my new budget since receiving my first paycheck a week ago, I determined that I could save this much every month. It’s a big chunk of my budget (over 12% of my take-home) but it’s important to me. My old company used to contribute that much and a bit more automatically; my new company only puts 3% of my salary into a retirement account, so I’ve got to make up the difference. Note: This is sort of a fluid goal, as it doesn't have a finite end goal--not ideal.

I’m tracking my own savings with these widgets:

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Cheap Summer Dates

You know all the traditional cheap date ideas: picnics, museums, strolls, blah blah blah. Anyone can come up with those, and if you are here looking for creative cheap dates then you have probably already thought of them. Here are 5 great ideas that are not only unusual but really take advantage of New York City’s unique offerings. These dates range anywhere from $30 to absolutely free:

1) First Saturdays at the Brooklyn Museum: There’ll be loads of people here, but that’s because this place is happenin’. The first Saturday of every month, the Brooklyn Museum (of art) hosts a free open house with concerts of wildly varying music genres, film screenings, lectures, crafts, and an early night dance party. They even feed you, and it’s all for free! Be careful to check out in advance which events you need to reserve tickets for (most don’t require any). Total cost: $0!

2) Bike ride on Governor’s Island: This is best on a Friday afternoon, when bike rentals are free. Governor’s Island was opened to the public last year after extensive renovations were made to make it a pleasant park area. Take the free ferry right next door to the Staten Island Ferry, and enjoy the fresh breeze and great views while snuggling with your honey. Once on the island, rent your bikes—or, for true romance, a bicycle built for 2 (*sigh*). On Saturdays and Sundays, bikes are $15 for 2 hours (after 2 hours, you’ll have done a few circuits of the whole island). Pause for a free round of mini-golf, a picnic, and if you time it right, a historical walking tour. Total cost: $0 on Fridays, $30 for 2 hours on Saturdays and Sundays (or $25 for a tandem).

3) Share your favorite buildings, bridges, sights, etc.: My favorite idea, this is good for 2 dates. Each partner takes one date to lead the other on a tour of their favorite locales in the city. When I dated an architect, it was our favorite buildings. It could be your favorite statues, small gardens, river views, used bookstores—anything you’ve noticed that you’d like to share with your partner. Total cost: $0!

4) Rowboats in Central Park: Totally romantic. Rent a boat for $10 per hour (cost rounded up to the nearest quarter-hour) and glide across the Central Park lake, gazing at the sky, passing under bridges, spotting ducks and turtles, and avoiding collisions with other boaters. It’s a very mellow and relaxing activity, but not ideal for a first date—you should already have plenty to talk about for this one. It’s also best during the week, when fewer people will be cramping your style. Total cost: $20 for two hours.

5) Mini-golf at The Putting Lot: Hop on the L and head out to Bushwick for a round of artistic mini-golf. The “green” is located in an old vacant industrial lot, and each of the 9 holes has been designed by a different artist expressing his or her own vision of the most avant-garde use of the space. This hangout just opened up in June 2009, so you’ll get props for hipness. Total cost: $10 for 2 people.

Monday, July 20, 2009

I can make that cheaper...

I thought of a new idea for a series of recipes that imitate some yummy fast-food item for a lower price and much better health. Trent from The Simple Dollar did a great take on this, taking on the McDonald’s Double Cheeseburger, on the $1 menu. I’m also going to start this series with a McDonald’s item—the delicious Egg McMuffin for $2.95.

The Egg McMuffin: (300 calories)

Egg (25 cents, or 45 cents organic)
English muffin (17 cents—I buy 2 6-packs for $2)
American cheese (5 cents per slice)
Canadian bacon (75 cents per slice based on $5 per ½-pound)

Total cost at home: $1.22; $1.42 for organic

Make this at home with the same ingredients:

1) Melt butter or heat a bit of oil in a frying pan over low-medium flame. Slice a piece of the Canadian bacon and cook for about 2 minutes on either side, until it looks lightly crispy. Set the bacon on a plate in the oven to keep warm.

2) Melt butter in a pan over low-medium flame, and crack an egg over it. Break the egg and stir it around a bit. Add salt and pepper while it cooks, and flip the egg once it has solidified a bit.

3) Toast the English muffin, split into 2, while your egg cooks.

4) Place the cheese and bacon on the muffin while hot. Fold and cut your fried egg until it’s roughly circular, and place on top. Then dig in!

You don’t really save on calories for this homemade version, but you are avoiding high-fructose corn syrup, excessive oil, and god knows what else McDonald’s puts into its food. You can make this for less than half the price of the McDonald’s sandwich, and it’s incredibly easy. Use a whole container of eggs and English muffins, freeze them, and every morning stick one in the toaster oven to defrost for 20 minutes while you shower.


I make this without the bacon, since I’m a vegetarian. I use organic eggs, and my cost per sandwich is 65 cents. Not bad for yummy deliciousness! I call it the Eggamuffin, which maybe doesn’t sound appetizing but is fun to say.

You can also use a hardboiled egg instead of a fried one, which is probably marginally healthier. Using HB eggs makes the sandwich taste eggier, which is good, but also makes a drier sandwich.

Friday, July 17, 2009

3 Reasons I Prefer the Roth IRA

There are more options for retirement savings than there are people looking to save. OK, that’s not true, but it can feel that way. Most people in their 20s and 30s get overwhelmed and don’t bother to choose any, which is the real problem. The fact is, the savings vehicle we choose doesn’t matter as much as choosing one. The important thing is to get started!

My employer makes 401k contributions for me, but it’s a small amount. I can deduct pre-tax money from my paycheck to contribute to the plan, but the company doesn’t match what I put in, so there’s no incentive. Instead, I went ahead and set up a Roth IRA. Here’s why:

1. I maintain full control over my investments by using my own independent plan. If I lose or change jobs, I don’t have to worry about rollovers or vesting. Since I manage everything myself, I have an online account management page that I’m used to, and don’t have to deal with any changes.

2. Any money I put in has already been taxed. That means that every dollar in the account is mine. I will not pay any sort of income tax when I start making withdrawals, so I’ll know exactly how much to expect for retirement. Any future increases in tax rates won't affect me (and they're likely to go up a lot).

3. After I’ve had the account for 5 years, I can withdraw any money I’ve put into it whenever I want, with no penalties. If I decide to sacrifice my retirement fund to buy a house, go on vacation, or enter a poker tournament, I can choose to do so. Other retirement vehicles (those that let you put in pre-tax dollars) all have restrictions and penalties on when you can withdraw your own money.

As you can see, I’m a control freak. But I think everyone should be when it comes to their money. And I like the Roth IRA because it gives you that control. There are drawbacks, of course. Putting in taxed dollars means that you’re depositing less money, so there’s less in there to grow. 401Ks and other pre-tax vehicles also allow you to decrease your yearly salary, so you get taxed less. Also, part of me maintains a paranoid fear that the government regulations will change someday and they’ll start taxing Roth IRA withdrawals.

But overall I think the solid pros outweigh the vague cons, and I plan to continue investing through the Roth IRA indefinitely.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Grocery Shopping on the Cheap

I don’t believe in buying the cheapest ingredients possible. Even though my salary recently decreased, I upped my monthly food budget after reading Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. In that book he points out that Americans spend on average only 10% of our income on food, while French and Italians spend 15% and the Spanish spend 17%. Having lived in both FranceSpain for years, I can personally attest to both the higher quality of their daily diet AND their superior health and longevity.

The same study he references also pointed out that in 1960 Americans spent 17.5% of income on food, and 5% on health care. Now we spend 10% on food and 16% on health care--this flip-flop shouldn't be so shocking, but it is!

Given these health considerations, buying the cheapest of everything is not my highest priority. However, it IS important to me that I get a good price on whatever I do buy, and also that I avoid wasting money. Here are the strategies I try to use:

1) Plan meals in advance. Try to sit down once a week and plan out the meals you will prepare every day. Don't forget to factor in leftovers too, of course. As a single, I find that the typical recipe usually lasts me for 2 dinners and 1 lunch (with additional sides).

2) Have a shopping list. Since you'll have planned meals in advance, you'll need this anyway. A shopping list makes sure you get everything you need, avoiding frustrated take-out orders when you discover you're out of butter. It also prevents you from wandering and picking up random items that are bound to be either wasted or unhealthy. Supermarkets are designed to take advantage of aimless shoppers--don't be one of them!

3) Try to shop daily, every other day, or as close to it as possible. Make it a habit to stop at the grocery store or market once a day, maybe on your way home from work. Since you'll be buying for just one or two meals, your stops will be quick. This tactic is healthier, since you'll be eating everything fresh, and it's cheaper, since you won't be buying things you "might" want to eat later in the week.

4) Find your neighborhood farmers' market!! They're all over the place these days, selling locally grown (i.e. fresher) produce for good prices. Greenmarkets in the city are generally pretty good--find one by neighborhood at this link, with directions and descriptions included. If that doesn't work, check out this general listing of farmers' markets here.

---My favorite farmers' market is the Stiles Farmers' Market in Manhattan. There are two locations--the one on 52nd Street between 8th and 9th avenues (link goes to its Yelp page) is far superior, but the location on 9th avenue between 41st and 42nd streets is also excellent. Produce is fresh and local (not organic), so they only sell what's in season. The prices are just incredible (you'll cry at all the money you wasted at Whole Foods!).

---Fairway is also a good bet for cheap and yummy produce.

5) Cut back on your meat consumption! This is the single most important move you can make for a lot of reasons: to decrease your negative impact on the environment, to encourage moderation in the meat industry, or to improve your own health— but it also will do tons to lower your grocery bill. Beans, grains and vegetables are all crazy cheap, so fill up on them! Head over to the New York Public Library and check out How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman for simple recipes.

--Bonus: If you focus on vegetables that are in season, you'll also save loads. Anything that has to be shipped from another climate will have those transportation costs factored into the price (think: oil). Here's a great resource on figuring out what veggies are in season.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Weekly Ode to the New York Public Library, the first

Welcome to my first regular feature on this blog. We’re talking about frugal, we’re talking about NYC, so we’d damn well better be talking about the New York Public Library. To be fair, I’m a bibliophile and many of you may not be. The NYPL still has plenty to offer. Before we get into specifics, however, my ode:

The NYPL and Me

As a girl growing up in the heart of the city,
summer vacations were lengthy and boring.
‘Til one day I discovered a place that was pretty
damn cool for a girl who was always exploring.

A building that was filled from basement to roof
with books on more topics than I could imagine,
Broadening my horizons and offering proof
that the world was an exciting and fun place to live in.

That building was the New York Public Library,
A place that made my world a little less scary,
And brought me friends both real and imaginary.

That library became my second home,
And even now that I am grown,
I borrow more books than I own.

No, I’m not a poet. I know it. Nevertheless, expect many more of these odes (muahaha!). Every week I’ll talk about something that the NYPL has to offer.

This being our first week, I want to provide a general introduction to the library system. I meet too many people who don’t use the NYPL system at all, which I find utterly ridiculous. If you buy books, subscribe to magazines, or pay for Netflix, you could be saving your money and using the NYPL to fulfill all of your needs. Here’s a sampling of what it has to offer:

1. Millions of books. Literally. Any book that has sold more than a few thousand copies—and many that haven’t—can be found at the NYPL. Rarer and more academic tomes may be for reference only, but your average enjoyable reading material can be taken home for up to 3 weeks—and then renewed up to 5 times from the comfort of your laptop.

2. Lots of exciting DVDs and videos. Popular TV shows, movies, cartoons, and so on can often be found at the NYPL, as well as foreign-language movies, instructional vids like yoga or how to play the guitar, and much more. (No porn, though…not that I’ve checked)

3. CDs: Head to the Lincoln Center branch and explore aisle after aisle of musical CDs from absolutely every genre. The NYPL also has plenty of audio books and language courses available on CD.

4. Branches all over Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island. See complete listings here: These branches vary wildly in their collections, but all have reading rooms, computers with Internet access, usually friendly librarians, and are open at least 6 days a week.

5. A virtual e-library with tens of thousands of books available for download, as well as audio books and much more.

6. Web access to the entire catalogue, both the lending library and reference collection (now combined into one catalogue). You can also access your own account from the web, renewing books and placing holds from any computer.

7. Best of all, an INTER-BRANCH HOLD SYSTEM that allows you to request any one of the millions of items in the catalogue and have it delivered to the branch closest to you.

I’ll be writing more in depth about every one of these NYPL offerings. For now, I’ll just provide instructions on how to get a library card for you crazy fools who don’t have one yet! To folks living in Brooklyn and Queens—I’m sorry, I don’t know a damn thing about those library systems. I’ll think about looking into it in future. But I live in Brooklyn, and I don’t use the BPL. If you work in Manhattan, as I do, just find a branch close to your office and enjoy!

How to get a library card:

1. Find the NYPL branch nearest you at the above listing.
2. Bring ID (like driver’s license or student ID) to your preferred branch.
3. If your ID doesn’t have your NYC address listed on it, also bring a piece of mail (utility bill, etc.) with your current name and address on it.
4. Walk up to the front desk—there will likely be a sign indicating where to sign up for new cards.
5. Fill out a form.
6. Get your card.

Yeah, it’s even easier than it sounds. You can also do it online (check out, but you’ll have to wait forever to get it in the mail if you do. If you’re able, just go in person and start experiencing the wonderful, rapturous joy that is the NYPL! Or at the very least, go read a book. :-)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Rainy Day Fun in the City

When I was desperately trying to find activities for a rainy summer day, all I came up with were expensive or outdoor activities. Go for a walk, see a concert or movie in the park, and so on. It’s true there are scores of free outdoor events in the summer but, I thought, surely there are saving graces for rainy days other than museums and movies?

Of course there are! This is New York City, man. If it can be done by man or machine, we got it. So here are some fun and cheap things to keep you occupied when you’re trying to while a way a rainy weekend afternoon:

1. Chinatown Fair Video Arcade: the last authentic arcade in the city, if you don’t want to travel out to Coney Island. This arcade has all the old favorites: Street Fighter, DDR, King of Fighters, Pacman, Puzzle Fighter, and lots more. Sadly, it does not have my video game of choice—Area 51—or any shooting games, for that matter. But for a bit of fun, nostalgia, and an attack of B.O. on your nose, check this place out. Just be sure you watch how much you’re spending!

2. Free museums: I’m sticking this one in because there are apparently folks who still don’t know that most of the great NYC museums are pay-what-you-will. Next time you visit, take a closer look at the price lists—they say “suggested fee”; I usually pay $1. This is the best list I’ve found of free/suggested-donation museums:

3. Cool stores: Some stores are just giant houses of fun, and you can spend hours browsing through the collections and acting like a dork. Just be sure to BROWSE and NOT BUY. I leave it up to you to find a store that caters to your interests, but some suggestions: American Girl Place on Fifth Ave, Village Chess Shop in Greenwich, FAO Schwarz near Central Park, Toys R Us in Times Square, the NBA Store also on Fifth Ave, or Nintendo World at Rockefeller Center. For those of you a bit more mature than me and not looking for toys and games:

a. Bookstores: Any Barnes and Noble will do, but for something different:
--Argosy Books is an institution and supposedly interesting.
--The Strand off of Union Square is a great place for browsing.
--Or try these independent bookstores recommended by Time Out.

b. Music: I would’ve liked to send you music lovers to Tower Records or Virgin in Times Square, but sadly, both stores are history. Here’s Time Out’s list of independent music stores, for you hipsters.

c. Home goods: ABC Carpet & Home near Union Square, Williams-Sonoma in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, Pearl River in SoHo, any Bed, Bath & Beyond, or check out this list of voter faves.

4. NYPL free events: Really. No, really! The library often has free concerts, lectures, movies, author talks, etc. I met one of my favorite authors, Tammy Pierce, at one. There are also classes on anything from filmmaking to job hunting, and lectures for all you intellectual types. Check it out!

5. Host a party. Eureka! What an idea. The entertainment comes to you, and you stay perfectly dry. Split the cost by making it a potluck, or buy snacks and have friends bring their favorite alcohol. Provide games (Trivial Pursuit is a personal fave), put on some music for a dance party, or share an activity you’d usually do alone like knitting, writing, or watching the Yankees lose.

6. This one’s (probably) for the ladies: treat yourself to a spa day. Lock your partner, roomie or kids in the other room and indulge yourself. Take a long bath, light some scented candles, put on your favorite music, paint your toenails, use a face mask (google “homemade face mask” for some ideas), play with your makeup, dress up in fancy clothes, etc. Warning: side effects may include heightened feelings of sexiness, so hopefully you have a live-in partner or mechanical pal to turn to at the end of the day. ;-)

7. Read a book! For pete’s sake. Here are some suggestions.

8. Bake something! Baking is a perfect rainy-day activity, as it makes you feel all warm and cozy and homey. Bake a couple of loaves of real bread (Trent at the Simple Dollar has a wonderful step-by-step guide) instead of the usual preservative-y stuff we buy in the stores. Or bake some muffins to have for breakfast during the work week, try an exciting new recipe you’ve been scoping, etc.

9. Watch some thought-provoking videos on One of my favorites is Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk on artistic genius (because that’s how I roll). TED is a website database of videos of great performances, lectures from artists, scientists, intellectuals, and famous people, and they’re usually reasonably profound.

10. Do something creative. Being bored and trapped at home is the perfect excuse to do something you’ve been meaning to do but procrastinating on: write a short story, edit that poem, pick up your guitar, finish that drawing, exercise your vocals. We all have some pursuit we’d like to devote more time to, so quit being lazy and dive in!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Reading List

Here are the books I'm reading, divided into finance, fiction, and other non-fiction. Books in bold are recommended!

Money books

The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous, & Broke, by Suze Orman
The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness, by Dave Ramsey
The Millionaire Next Door, by Thomas Stanley
The Random Walk Guide To Investing, by Burton Malkiel
The Millionaire Mind, by Thomas Stanley
I Will Teach You To Be Rich, Ramit Sethi
The Complete Tightwad Gazette, Amy Daczyczyn
Your Wealth Building Years: Financial Planning for 18-To-38 Year Olds, Adriane Berg

Other non-fiction

• The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan
• A Primate’s Memoir, Robert Sapolsky
• Sex and the Single Girl, Helen Gurley Browne
• Crosswicks Journals, Madeleine L’Engle
• Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracey Kidder
• Leaving Microsoft to Change the World,

• The Revolution Will Not be Funded, edited by INCITE
• In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan

• How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, Mark Bittman

• Culture Jam: How to Reverse America's Suicidal Binge, and Why We Must, Kalle Lasn
• My Life in France, Julia Child and Alex Prud'homme

Copyediting and Proofreading for Dummies, Suzanne Gilad
• Vagabonding, Rolf Potts
The Elements of Style, Strunk and White
• Proofreading, Plain and Simple; Debra Hart May
• Zeitoun, Dave Eggers
• Copyediting: A Practical Guide, Karen Judd


• The Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
• Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
• Midnighters series by Scott Westerfeld

• Uglies, Pretties and Specials trilogy by Scott Westerfeld
• Skinned, by Robin Wasserman
• Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton
Table for Two, Nora Roberts
• One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, Agatha Christie
• Feed, MT Anderson
• The Captain’s Daughter and other stories, Alexander Pushkin
• After, Francine Prose
• The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie
• Wed Him Before You Bed Him, Sabrina Jeffries
• Life As We Knew It, Susan Pfeffer
• The Story Sisters, Alice Hoffman
• Fallen Angels, Walter Dean Myers
• Henry V, Shakespeare
• Beastly, Alex Flinn

Sunday, July 12, 2009

About the blogger

I’m a born and raised New Yorker, which is why I feel I have a lot to share on the city! I’m also a big fan of frugality, and studying personal finance (PF) is one of my hobbies. I like to read PF books and blogs, watch shows like Dave Ramsey or Suze Orman, and budget. Yeah, I legitimately enjoy budgeting.

I’ve always been frugal. As a kid, I had to be. I got a scholarship to a private boarding school but my parents didn’t have a lot of money, so I learned to budget carefully. I learned to anticipate expenses that my parents used to take care of—small things like deodorant or highlighters could totally throw my budget off if I didn’t plan for them. I found car rides to save my parents the $40 cab fare from the train station when they visited; I stored my computer with a local friend during the summers and split the proceeds with her when I sold it at her yard sale, and so on. If I didn’t track and limit my spending so carefully, I wouldn’t have been able to afford essentials like school books.

I don’t really have to be frugal anymore. Today I can afford basics like shoes or shampoo without wincing over the price. And yet, frugality has stuck with me. I save about a quarter of my earnings each month (before the recession killed my salary, I saved one-third). This is money that I use for vacations, for retirement saving, and for helping out my parents.

My motto is this: Frugality is the art of putting money to its best use. I spend less where I can so I can splurge where I choose. I live in a pleasant but under-developed immigrant neighborhood and spend 30% of my income on housing (significantly less than most New Yorkers). I take care to buy cosmetics on sale but pay over $1,000 per year on hair salons. And I try never to spend money unnecessarily when I can get something cheaper.

I also am a writer, so I decided to combine that love with my PF obsession and create this blog! I look forward not just to sharing knowledge but to creating a community with readers and fellow bloggers.

If you'd like to contact me, send me an email at: frugal nyer at gmail dot com. All one word, of course, with the appropriate symbols!

Welcome to The Frugal New Yorker!

This is a Personal Finance blog, addressing topics like investing, saving, budgeting, and so on. But it will also be packed with tips and ways to take advantage of New York City’s many frugal offerings. It’s a Time Out for the money-conscious and a “Get Rich Slowly” for the urban.

I post on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays (with the occasional Friday bonus).

The Frugal New Yorker was born out of my own love/hate relationship with personal finance blogs. Mostly I love them, but they tend to be written by people in very different circumstances from me. Eventually I got fed up with articles like “grow your own vegetables!” or “tips for car maintenance!” that simply don’t apply to most people in NYC. I also read a lot of blogs written by parents, so I have to put up with articles about childcare and related expenses.

My thoughts? Don’t care. DNW.

I am a single Millennial living in a big city. I have zero outdoor space, no car, no kids. So this blog is for people like me. Obviously not all of my advice will exclusively apply to young folk—and certainly not just to single ones—but that will be my bias. If any of this sounds like you, or if you think you might learn something, then read on!