Friday, March 3, 2017

February 2017 Month in Review

What did I buy this past month? Let's find out!

Clothes & Accessories - $256

Flannel nightgown - $45
Somewhat matronly but very comfortable, this was invaluable in the days following my surgery, plus a few days where we had no heat at home. I haven't been wearing it as much in the last couple of weeks, but I wore it a LOT in the first weeks of February.

Plaid tote bag - $16
I didn't really need this! My wife thinks I buy too many tote bags. They're useful for lots of things, like replacing shopping bags (provided I remember to bring them shopping), and this one is better than the cheapo ones you get at the grocery store because it's durable and cute and has a zipper. But yeah, I don't really need more of these.

Hiking pants - $80
This is a different-size version of something I already have. I have the size 8 pants and I love them, but they kept sliding down, so I tried to size 6 at the store and they fit way better. I'm keeping the size 8's in my "larger size clothing" box, since my weight tends to fluctuate.

Polish dresses - $115
The weather was warm for one (1) day, and I got the urge to buy dresses! (It's cold again now, but it will be warm in the future, I'm told.) I've had such good luck getting bras and dresses from Polish big-bust clothing companies in the past, so I'm trying another one. I haven't received these yet, and I'm a little nervous about whether I got my sizing right. If they don't fit, I can probably sell them, since I know a lot of people in the Bra That Fits community are interested in trying these companies but are hesitant to make international currency transactions with high shipping fees and long ship times.

Misc - $56

Thermal mug - $26
I had previously gotten the 8 ounce version of this and love it, so this is the 16 ounce version. I knew when I bought it that the 8 ounce version would be a little too small for most things, but I always get hot coffee in size small. However, a warm snap prompted me to go for the larger version because I usually have iced coffee in 16 ounces, and a thermal mug would be great for icy drinks as well as hot ones. I probably don't need the smaller one at all now, but oh well. It's nice to have one at home and one at work.

Bottle brush - $8
For cleaning the mug.

Cute outdoorsy things - $22
A bandana and an enamel camping cup. I admit that I buy into outdoorsy style more than I actually hike or camp. I keep daydreaming about all the hiking I'm going to do, but I probably won't need these items even when I do go. I still, I can still use them in my noncamping life as an accessory, and a normal cup. (I ate granola out of it last night.)

Hobbies & Entertainment - $165

Art supplies - $29
I got two sketchbooks and some micron pens, hoping to do some nature sketching as I've recently joined a few citizen science projects relating to plants.

Reference books - $52
Though I've bragged in the past about getting rid of all my books, I've been expansionist about plant books lately since I'm trying to teach myself about botany for my volunteer work. I think eventually I'll figure out which of these books I actually find useful and get rid of the rest, but for now I'm still looking for my ideal plant library. I also have to admit to buying another bird book because it called to me in the store!

Ebooks - $24
I keep buying these, even though I also get a lot of reading material out of the library.

Video games - $30
I bought the $30 Freedom Bundle which donated proceeds to the ACLU, and I've already gotten far more than $30 worth of entertainment out just one of the games, Stardew Valley. It's a cute 8-bit farming and romance sim and is MY IDEAL GAME.

Running app one-year subscription - $30
This is kind of silly to get, since the app works fine without the pro upgrade. But I've used it a lot and I was hoping that the extra features would help me run more frequently in the coming year.


Total: $477
I stayed within my $500 goal, barely! This doesn't include eating out for lunch and stuff, but also doesn't include a +$90 from returning a pair of boots that I never actually managed to wear.

I'm okay with most of these purchases. Some stand out as real winners (Stardew Valley, some of the more approachable plant books), some I haven't used yet but expect to get more use out of later (dresses, hiking pants, mug, some of the more technical books). Time will tell!

Monday, February 27, 2017

One-Year Purchase Review: February 2016

I'm on a seafoam diet
I sea foam, I eat it

Here's what I bought for myself in February 2016.

Stuff I Still Have

Headphones - $70
This is more than I'd normally pay for a pair of headphones, but I knew I liked them because my wife had the same pair and I'd tried them when she wasn't using them. I was also, I'll admit, swayed by the colors, as they came in white and pink. I still love these. They're comfortable, the sound quality is good, and they can be used as a mic headset.

Layering tanks - $35
Utilitarian and good.

Misc Used Clothes - $18
This includes some items I didn't specify (probably sweaters). I'll assume there were OK.

Pencil bag - $14
I don't remember why I got this and it's not strictly necessary, but it's cute and occasionally one has to transport pencils. Sure, it's fine.

Stuff I Don't Have Anymore

Light Aqua Clothes - $83
For some reason, I really thought aqua was on my color palette, even though it turns out to be more Light Summer than True Summer. I still love it as an accent with navy or dark teal, but for large items of clothing (like, in this case, a used jacket, used T-shirt, and brand-new expensive flannel shirt) it looks suboptimal for reasons I couldn't quite pin down. In the year since I got these, I've one by one redonated them after finding similar items I preferred in darker colors (dark wash denim jacket, navy T-shirt, substantial flannel shirts in blackwatch and green/pink).

Jeans - $58
I was trying to find a pair of jeans that I liked, and I thought I had but I ended up not liking them in the long term. FASCINATING I KNOW.

eBay Clothes - $38
Although I didn't take great notes, it's my recollection that these didn't work out, mainly because of difficulties pinning down the color and size in an eBay order. When you buy, like, a $2 tank top with $5 shipping, it's not worth it to return.

Misc Audio Equipment - $34
Since I recently donated my bass, it turns out this audio equipment (a mixer and some cords) aren't necessary either.


Total Spend: $350
Percent Spend on Things I Still Have: $137 (39%)
Percent Spend on Things I No Longer Have: $213 (61%)

The total is remarkably low this month, compared to previous months, but the success rate is abysmal.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Living that #ebird365 life

This year, I'm participating in the eBird 2017 Checklist-a-Day Challenge, aka #ebird365, where birdwatchers are challenged to submit 365 birding checklists within the year 2017. (I think--I hope--that you just have to end the year with 365 checklists, not necessarily one per day. If you need one per day, I'm already out, since I didn't start until January 12.)

To participate, you just submit your lists of seen birds on, a neat website which helps you track all kinds of stats. More importantly, the data submitted by amateur birdwatchers worldwide is helpful in tracking migration patterns and bird populations. It's basically a giant, crowdsourced, citizen science project.

365 checklists for the year is a huge increase for me. In 2016, I submitted 74 checklists total. That's about 290 short of my goal this year! But it's turning out to be a lot easier than I thought to stay on track. As I writing this on the 45th day of the 2017, I have submitted 50 checklists year-to-date. I'm ahead of the game, despite my late-ish start!

So, I think it's definitely do-able even if you start now. You just have to get in the right mindset. Here are some tips.

Expand Your Definition of "Checklist-Worthy" Birding

Before this challenge, I would only submit a checklist to eBird if something "checklist-worthy" happened. That is, in one of two circumstances:

(1) If went out specifically for birdwatching, say to a park or nature reserve.

(2) If, in the course of keeping my eyes open in my everyday life, say on my commute or in my backyard, I saw a somewhat unusual or interesting bird.

Now, my definition of a checklistworthy event is:

(1) Keeping my eyes open in my everyday life, even if I don't see any unusual or interesting birds!

I'm pretty sure this is the point of the challenge, from the eBird scientists' point of view. Say in the course of a month I submit two checklists for a certain park, and both times there's a Downy Woodpecker on my list. The folks at eBird don't know if that means there's always a Downy Woodpecker in that park, but I only go there twice a month; or if I go to the park every day, but I only bother to submit a checklist when I see a Downy Woodpecker. If I'm doing the eBird 365 challenge, you better believe I'm submitting a checklist every time I go to the park, even on those days when I only see boring old House Sparrows and European Starlings. Even though I consider those checklists dull, they're still useful data.

The folks at eBird have even confirmed that checklist with no birds counts toward the challenge, assuming you went out and looked and just didn't see anything.

Make Frequent, Short Trips

These days, most of my checklists report only about 5-10 minutes' worth of birdwatching at a time. The instructions for the challenge specify that you can go out for as little as three minutes at a time. This is really helpful when it's cold out!

Work Birding Into Your Everyday Life

The majority of my checklists occur at the same four places, all of which I'd go anyway in the course of a typical weekday:

(1) The backyard behind my building. Specifically, the portion of my backyard that I can see from my window while sipping my tea in the morning.

(2) A little mini-parklet that I pass through on my walk to the subway in the morning. If I'm not running late and it's not too cold, I can linger here a few minutes. I've seen a surprising diversity of species in this tiny oasis of trees and grass.

(3) My subway stop. A small strip of scrubby woods can be seen from a particular spot on the platform, and occasionally there are birds there. I haven't gotten up the nerve to actually whip out my binoculars on the subway platform, but maybe in migration season, I'll have to!

(4) The park near my office, which I can drop by at lunch.

On weekends, I can visit more intentional and interesting places for longer stretches at a time, but I wouldn't be able to make the 365 without the four biggies above. I don't submit a checklist for each place each day, but between these four, I can usually manage one or two a day.

Learn to Estimate Flock Sizes

The rules for having your checklist "count" are pretty relaxed, but the one kind of technical thing is that you have to say how many of each species you saw; you can't just say "check, I saw some Grackles." This can be tough when you see large flocks, or when the birds keep moving around. With flocks, the easiest thing to do is to try to get a sense of what 10 birds looks like, then count the approximate number of tens. Make your best guess; an estimate that's a little off but in the right general magnitude is better than nothing.

Keep Your Tools On You

Here are the tools I try to have on me most of the time when I could be birding (which is all the time):

(1) My smartphone. This is the most important thing. eBird has a checklist app which is helpful for submitting checklists on the go, and means I don't need to remember to submit anything later. If I need to identify a bird, I use the Merlin app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. With Merlin, I don't feel I need to carry a guidebook.

(2) A compact pair of binoculars. I have a full-size pair which I leave by my backyard window, and carry when I'm going on my big weekend trips, but for everyday on the go, a $40 compact pair lives in my purse.

(3) Lightweight touchscreen-friendly gloves, in winter. Even in temps as high as the 50s, my hands get cold if I have them out a lot because I'm using binoculars on a phone. In summer: sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen.

(4) (Optional) A small pad and pen. As nice as the eBird app is, pen and paper is usually faster.

If you're not already into birding but you're curious, I think this challenge would be a great start because it allows you to consistently work on your skills without feeling like you need to see something amazing. If you live in a city like me, most of what you will see will be typical urban birds such as Rock Pigeons and Herring Gulls, but you may be surprised by what you can find in tiny corners of nature when you keep your eyes open.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Divest from DAPL the Fun and Easy Way

Where do you want your money to go?

The Dakota Access Pipeline is back in the news after Trump signed an executive order smoothing the way to building it. A number of sources have reported on the banks that are supporting the Dakota Access Pipeline. These include the biggest banks in the U.S. and Canada. Most of us probably bank at one of these institutions in some fashion:

  • Bank of America
  • Citibank
  • Credit Suisse
  • HSBC
  • JP Morgan Chase
  • Morgan Stanley
  • Royal Bank of Canada
  • Wells Fargo

… and a number of other smaller banks. (Source: Snopes)

My wife and I have decided to cut ties with these institutions.

Our day-to-day banking is already all set. We used to be Bank of America customers, but in the past few years, we have moved all of our banking to a credit union. We're really happy with it. Credit unions tend to have better policies because they're member-owned and exist for us, the members, the actual people who bank there. We have two credit union memberships. We primarily use one we chose because it has a ton of great online features (I've never had any need to go to a branch, which is handy, since there are none around here). And we keep a nominal amount at a small local one, in case we need a local branch for some reason. (We actually haven't so far.)

But we still had credit cards from Chase and Bank of America. We had opened them for various reasons. One has great rewards. One is a store card for a store we use a lot. One is simply my oldest card, opened when I was in college, so it gives me a longer credit history.

We decided we still need and want to use a credit card; they offer rewards, make our budgeting simpler, and offers certain protections for online shopping and travel. So, we opened a new credit card account at our big online credit union. I initially said that I would close the other accounts by the end of January, but it's taking longer than I thought to get a handle on the recurring payments and returns--realistically, we'll close them by the end of this month, instead.

It's not hard to switch banking institutions, but it can take some time to actually execute the process. Here are the basic steps:

  1. Research your options.
  2. Open the new account.
  3. Move the balance from the old account(s) to the new (or pay it off, for credit cards).
  4. Update recurring payments, such as automatic bill pay.
  5. Delete saved payment information for the old account from online stores.
  6. Wait about a month to make sure everything is moved over. There could be recurring payments you forgot about, or returns that haven't posted. (This is the step I'm on now.)
  7. Close the old account.

For more detail on this process, my old post How to Change Banks might be helpful.

Before deciding to close our big-bank credit card accounts, we considered the disadvantages.
  • Inconvenience. That is, just the hassle of following the process above. Honestly, it is not really a huge deal.
  • Lower cashback rewards. The credit cards we're closing had between 1-5% cashback rewards, depending on the type of purchase; the new card offers a flat 1%.
  • Credit score hit.  I don't think this will have a huge impact on my credit score, but closing my oldest account does mean my credit history will shorten. Also, our credit limit will go down overall since the credit limit on the new card is less than the combined limit on the old cards (though I can probably apply for a higher credit limit on my new card after my other accounts close).

Overall we decided that these issues were not as important as the conscience boost for not banking with horrible people.

Other Advantages
Aside from the conscience reasons, we're looking forward to a few other minor perks for making the changeover.

  • Lower interest rate. Credit union credit cards almost always have a lower long-term (not just introductory) interest rate than those offered by for-profit banks. Typically this is offset by the lower rewards points. Since we pay off our bill in full each month, the interest rate isn't super meaningful to us, but it's still nice to have a lower one in case there's a month where we can't or forget to pay on time.
  • Less draconian late fees. The late fees are lower, too. In general, you're less likely to get slammed with bullshit fees at a credit union (You can compare fees by looking at the Fee Schedule, which should be available online for any bank or credit union without making an account there.)
  • Simplicity. Since all our accounts are now at one credit union (except the token local account), it's really easy to see all our activity in one place. Financial simplicity is something I didn't value much when I was single, but when you have two people trying to coordinate one set of finances, simpler is better.
  • Opportunity to review. The process of moving our recurring and saved payments to the new credit card is also an opportunity to decide which payments are truly necessary. It's good to do this every so often, and I feel like I never do as good of a job as I do when I'm changing accounts. It forces me to make a decision about each payment, instead of ignoring some out of boredom/inertia/forgetting.

If you've been on the fence about divesting from the big banks, I say go for it: it's not too hard and I have had a fabulous experience with credit unions so far! And don't forget to send a letter telling them just why you're breaking up with them.  

Thursday, February 2, 2017

January 2017 Month in Review

I always think, "This month I'm not going to spend a lot of money, because the world is in turmoil and no purchase could possibly seem important," and then I spend a lot of money.

Misc Office Stuff - $40
Toward the beginning of the year, I decided to spiff up my work space a little. I have a metal wall, so I got some magnets to put on it, including rainbow-colored glass magnets, magnetic hooks, and dry-erase magnets. They didn't cost a lot, but I like them a lot; they make things more colorful and useful.

2 Fashion Scarves - $21
I wear these at work. They're inexpensive, but cute. I keep them at work and therefore end up wearing them more often than the ones I keep at home.

5 Scoop Neck Cotton T-shirts - $75
I decided I was going to do a new thing where I'd wear scoop neck T-shirts as undershirts underneath my work sweaters, instead of spaghetti-strap tank tops. It's a little harder to make the necklines look good together, but I was hoping the existence of sleeves in the underarm area would absorb more sweat and protect my wool sweaters so I can wear them more than once between washes. I think they do! It's going pretty well. I don't know if this will help me get more than $75 worth of wear out of my sweaters, though. It would probably be a better deal if I hadn't already bought a bunch of tank tops, which are now mostly obsolete under The New System.

Canvas Bird Tote - $22
An impulse purchase from the online Audubon Society web store after I found out my membership gives me 10% off. It's nice to have a big tote that I like (it's teal! with a bird on it!) but yeah, probably not needed.

Merino Hoody - $80
I gave my wife my blessing to wear my merino hoody as much as she wanted, and she wears it a lot. I wore it a lot over the summer, not so much in the winter, so I don't mind… but when I saw the same model in one of My Colors on sale at Sierra Trading Post, I got another one IN CASE WE BOTH WANT TO WEAR IT AT THE SAME TIME. This is a classic Not Urgent & Probably Not Necessary Purchase. But I know I like this hoody.

Down Coat - $172
Another Probably Not Urgent purchase, but again: sale. And this time, the purchase was more arguably needed as my current coat is slowly falling apart. I could probably have gotten another few months out of it, though.

Nylon Shorts - $49
What a lot of money for shorts! And it's a weird purchase for January, too. I actually bought these after resolving to only buy things I'm going to use right away, but I promoted these from the "For Summer" wishlist to the "Right Now" wishlist after I found myself searching for a pair of exercise shorts I could wear for indoor workouts. These are relaxed fit but stretchy nylon shorts and I think they are going to be really good for a ton of use cases: workouts, running, summer hiking, going to the beach, and so on. But we will see in my One Year Purchase Review how often I ended up using them.

Wool Lounge Pants - $60
I was hoping to find pants that would bridge the gap between around-the-house pants and could-wear-out casual pants. When I got these, the cut definitely looked way more sweatpantsy than I expected, with the odd twist that they were made of a woven wool material that reminded me a bit of unlined suit pants. They should be the worst of both worlds, but I loved them and didn't want to take them off. My wife says she wouldn't be ashamed to be seen with me in person when I'm wearing them, and I think she might be lying but I don't care. I'm probably wearing them as you read this.

Ebooks - $40
I keep buying baby-sitters club books help

Botany Books - $40
Some physical books! I signed up to volunteer as a rare plant finder, and while I still don't know if they will select me -- prooobably not given my lack of experience or knowledge -- I figured I'd brush up on my plant-finding. This hobby will definitely get more play in spring and beyond, but I can use winter months to read.

Total Spend - $609

Another stay-under-$500 fail!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

One-Year Purchase Review: January 2016

It's that time again. What was I buying one year ago?

I made several small clothing purchases, so I'm just going to group it by "clothes I still have" and "clothes I don't still have."

Clothes I Still Have - $92
  • Bra, $46 from a Polish online store. You know it was worth it.
  • Hot pink sweater for work, $5 from a thrift shop. I think this is one I wear all the time. Definitely worth it.
  • Teal plaid pajama pants, $14 used from eBay. I've gotten a ton of use out of these in the last year, although I may have just surpassed them in comfort with a new pair of wool lounge pants. Still, I'll hold onto these for now.
  • Green plaid summer shirt, $27 new from eBay. I got this because I have another plaid shirt of the same brand which I wear a lot in summer. This one isn't quite as good though, it's too long on me. I wear it sometimes, especially if I've already worn my better one, but it wouldn't make the cut if I had to pick my favorite things. I'm not sure why I was buying this in January.
I think clothes I've had for a year are generally worth it by definition, but as you can see, I'm on the fence about a few of these items.

Clothes I Don't Still Have - $40
  • Cheap tank tops from Forever 21 - $27. I went a bit overboard since these were like $2-$3 each. Predictably, they were terrible.
  • Sleeveless shell top for work, $2 from a thrift store. Again, not a huge expenditure, but not a great idea nonetheless. It turns out I don't really use sleeveless shells, since I feel like I need to wear sleeves at work. I'd only use sleeveless things for undershirts, so they don't need to be fancy. I'm even moving away from sleeveless undershirts now, since I think undershirt sleeves protect my sweaters better.
  • T-shirt on sale from a going-out-of-business sale, $11. Again, I was wowed by the DEAL$ (which weren't actually that great tbh). This was a "burnout" style T-shirt which turned out to be basically see-through, so I never found a way to wear it without being self-conscious.

I'd say clothes I don't have one year later were, by definition, poor purchases. It looks like in most of these cases, I was more excited about the DEAL than the actual item, which is a recipe for losing money in dribs and drabs.

Bass Guitar - $197
This is for the actual bass, the stand, and a digital copy of Garage Band (which I never used because I couldn't figure out how to hook up my bass to my computer). I wrote about the bass in my March 2016 post, I Rebought Things I Decluttered! I'd previously had my brother's bass on long term loan. After I returned it to him, I went without a bass for about six months, then bought a new one, which, mostly, has gathered dust. I think I like the idea of being "a person who plays bass" more than I like actually playing? I mean, I enjoyed playing when it was something I did with my brother, but when left to my own devices, I don't play very often. After one year and only playing it a few times--and then, just playing the same songs I know, not adding new skills--I've decided to donate it to a girls' summer rock'n'roll camp.

So, I guess I have to say that this experiment was not worth it, since it was ultimately a failure. But I do kind of feel like, if I hadn't done it, I'd still be wondering if I would play the bass if I had one.

Earbuds - $25
I got these to replace an almost identical pair that had broken after 1 year. So I guess I should watch out that these might break now! But they seem to be doing fine. I don't carry or use these often, but I couldn't run without them. Worth it.

Total Self-Spend: $354
Total Worth It: $117
Total Not Worth It: $237

The overall spend wasn't too high (compared to other months) and I think I did a pretty good job of keeping expenses down aside from the bass. Like I said, I don't really begrudge myself that experiment, since I think music is a constructive hobby. It just didn't turn out to be the one I have a consistent, lasting interest in. For comparison, other things I mentioned in my "Rebought Things I Decluttered" post, the art supplies, have seen a lot of use. I think I'm just more of a drawing person than a music person.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Organizing After January 20: The Best Tools I've Found So Far

This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint.

We are all citizen-activists now.

How have the last few days been for you? For me, it's been a struggle to keep up with it all, and figure out what to do and what actions to take.

Here are some guidelines I'm trying to remember:

1. You don't have to do everything. 

2. Something is better than nothing. 

3. Take breaks. The goal isn't political action all the time, or in all your free time. Self-care is necessary. Getting sucked into a news anxiety hole to the point where you're paralyzed is unhelpful. In How to #StayOutraged Without Losing Your Mind on Medium, Mirah Curzer points out that taking breaks can actually help prevent you from adapting to all this as the new normal. 

4. The best defense is a good offense. In A 10-Point Plan from Waging Nonviolence, George Lakey points out that desperately trying to maintain status quo is a poor negotation strategy when the other side is demanding the moon. We should, instead, try to make progress in the right direction, instead of simply struggling against the wrong. For example, instead of trying to protect ACA, we could be demanding Medicare coverage for all. I'm trying to get out of a defensive mindset and focus on my asks for Senators, etc. on things I want, not simply things I don't want. But, again...

5. You don't have to do everything. I, personally, don't have to fight on every front. To prevent burnout, we each need to pick the front(s) that matter most to us and go there.

So, how do we decide what and how much to do, and how to focus our efforts when we do? Here are some resources I've found recently that help keep it organized. 

Started just after the election, this is a document from former congressional staffers that explains which actions are most politicially useful (e.g. calling, not tweeting; going to town hall meetings; etc.) The idea is to take the lessons that made the Tea Party so powerful and harness it for progressives. There's also now a part of the website where you can search for an in-person meetup group near you.

A super-simple organized set of issues you can currently call your reps about, including phone scripts and phone numbers (it provides your senators' and representatives' numbers based on your zip code; no other information is required from you). This is a huge help if you want to call your reps, but you're daunted by the time it takes to organize the phone numbers, what issues are before the House vs the Senate, whether it's too late, etc. and especially if you have trouble coming up with the words to say on the phone.

I just found this, but I think this is basically an email list providing actions you can take, such as calls to make or demonstrations to attend. The idea is that you commit to spending 1 day a month (or whatever you can make time for), and you pick whichever action you feel you can take. I also like the idea of being part of a peaceful "guard." I hope there are badges. 

That's what I've got so far! If you have any resources you're finding especially helpful these days (not just overwhelming), please feel free to share.