Monday, June 21, 2010

Crazy Singing Fool

This Sunday at church, I sang during the offertory. It was the very first time I had done anything like this in my life. Not only did I sing alone, I sang a capella. I was a nervous wreck. Sweat was pouring off of me. Fortunately, it was hot out with 140% humidity, so people may have thought it was just the heat.

I have been playing my mandolin in the church Worship Team for several months now, quietly singing and blending in. Because of this, I suppose the average person sitting in the pew thinks I must be talented or what not since I'm up there with the other actual musicians. No. This is not the case. I am a faker. A poser. I know only enough about my chosen instrument to be dangerous. My only "credential" is that I love music and, more importantly, I love the Lord. Thus, I'm drawn to the Worship Team. I fully expect at some point it's going to dawn on someone just how horrible I really am. They'll wave the music to a stop. Point at me and shout, "You! Off the stage!"

The song went well from my perspective. In that, I mean, I did not screw up. I did not forget the words. Nor did I pass out or throw up on myself in the middle of it. For that, I am pleased.

More importantly, I felt I made an honest offering of the song to God, and that those who were stuck listening to me understood and felt the meaning of the words I was singing.

I'm glad I did it. And I think maybe God was too.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Turning Amish

My flanks are collapsing, my center is beaten in -- I am attacking!

These words, sent in a dispatch by a French Marshall to his commander during a battle, demonstrate great indomitability, a trait that I hold in the highest esteem.

It may sound somewhat incongruous to how some of my friends perceive me, but I am at heart a creature of defense. It is not generally in my character to go on the offense, to attack, to seek out and conquer the new. To the contrary, I find it difficult to motivate myself toward offensive maneuvers. By my very nature, my goal is not to beat you; rather, it is to firmly establish myself so that I may not be beaten. Indomitability.

This holds especially true in the battles of money.

In my last blog, I discussed the retrenchment that we have been going through at Upham Manor. We're falling back, digging in, and fortifying our position to hold fast against the current economic tempests as well as to prepare for the impending additions to our family. In the not too distant future, my family will experience a dramatic 67% increase in size. In our early days, Janet and I were able to effectively demonstrate that two could live as cheaply as seven. However, I am now determined to show that five can live as cheaply as, well, as something that is very cheap.

With the second car now gone; new purchases being curtailed; efforts underway to sell anything that's not actively being used; and that which is in use having its life extended by repair and refurbishment, Janet and I have begun to identify sources of financial drain upon the manor. We've come up with a short list of services that we believe can be curtailed or eliminated.

Cable TV

I recall as kid my first exposure to cable television. A friend took me to his grandparent's house where we were going to watch some cartoons. We watched shows I had never heard of before. Awesome shows. I was fascinated by the fact that there were no commercials. "It's cable," he said. "There are no commercials because you pay to watch."

"Pay? Pay to watch TV?? That will never catch on."

Remember those days? That was the whole point of cable television, you paid to watch it and in return you didn't have to watch commercials. But look at how that has changed. Now, you pay even more money, and still you're treated to a constant succession of commercials. What is worse still, is that the networks have the gall to take up the bottom third of your screen with advertising WHILE you're watching the damn program! I've written letters repeatedly to the networks voicing my aggravation over this. I've never heard one syllable in response.

I've had enough. Overpriced cable TV must go.


Currently, our telephone is packaged in with our cable television bill through Comcast. I can't complain about the service other than to say that it's difficult to determine its value vis a vis our usage. One positive aspect of our phone service package is that we receive unlimited calling for all local and long distance calls as part of the bundle.

A few months ago, my cell phone contract expired. I didn't bother to renew it. Frankly, I haven't missed it at all. Janet still has a cell phone which she is reticent to give up. Though she isn't out of the house as often as she'd like, we still think it's good for her to have one. (I suppose having one cell phone in the family in the 21st century isn't entirely a bad thing.)


Also coupled into our Comcast bundle is our Internet access. This is largely my Achilles heal. I can't live without it. Given my continued addiction to World of Warcraft not to mention StumbleUpon, I'd likely go insane without access to the Tubes.

Janet is plugged in as well. I frequently get updates throughout the day of how the kids are behaving, who's pinched or poked whom, and what new thing they've learned during the day. Janet needs an outlet while at home with the brood, and besides, she often uses the Web for educational activities like watching animal videos and such.

The Plan

A couple days ago, I was telling my boss and his boss about my master Plan to save money and cut expenses. I asked them if they had any opinions about various alternatives that I was considering. My boss, who drives a very similar Nissan Maxima to the one I just sold, sat there incredulous. He's still astonished that I, another Maxima aficionado like himself, could ever have parted with my Maxima.

"Are you turning Amish?" he asked me.

To be honest, I had to think about it for a moment. He was asking in jest, but the notion struck me as rather appealing. I began to envision myself pulling up to the office in a horse and buggy.

"If you come in here sporting a beard without a mustache, I'll kill you," he continued.

The Comcast bundle we have provides Cable TV with some HBO and other movie stations, our telephone service, and a 12Mbps pipe to the Internet. The monthly cost is $139 before taxes and the $7 monthly fee for the DDR. (I'll miss being able to record shows and rewinding live TV at the press of a button.)

I called Comcast to find out how much it would cost me each month to have only Internet access, with no TV or Phone service. I was told $59 a month. Oddly enough, however, if I go with Internet access and basic cable (ABC, CBS, NBC, etc), the price goes down to $52. No brainer there. So we're going to change our Comcast subscription to include only high speed Internet and basic cable.

We don't watch much TV, but we do want to have some additional options for visual entertainment. The solution? and Netflix.

Hulu is a website that provides a great deal of television programming online. I've used it in the past from time to time to find an occasional movie or episode of a TV show. You can't always find exactly what you want, but there is quite a bit there to choose from.

In addition to that, we're going to open a trial account with Netflix. The first month is free. Thereafter, for $9 a month, you are given one DVD at a time and a host of other instant access, online programming. I've been told that their children's selection is large. If they have Thomas the Tank Engine we'll have everything we need.

Telephone was a more interesting question. I didn't want to rely on the cell phone, primarily because, well, I hate cell phones. Also, they're expensive at all tiers of service. I checked into Vonage. Vonage uses the Internet to connect your telephone calls. Vonage offers several service levels, including $10 a month for 200 minutes of local and long distance. We could probably live with that. However, it's the unlimited local & long distance for $26 a month plan that would make the most sense. But $26 a month (plus taxes)? That's still over $312 a year in phone bills I think I can do better.

And I did.

MajicJack. Yeah, I know, it sounds a snake oil solution, but according to every reputable source I've read, it works. MajicJack is another technology that uses the Internet to connect your phone to the telephone network. You get unlimited local and long distance calling for, get this, $20 per year. Not per month, per year. It costs $40 to buy the jack and that includes the first year of service. There is currently a one month free trial offer. I'm going to give it a try. If it works, works well, and works reliably, we may have a very inexpensive long term solution. The one drawback to this solution is that you cannot keep your current phone number. That bothers me. But, it may prove worth it.

The Numbers

Current Monthly Costs
$165 (Comcast bundle: TV, phone, Internet)

New Monthly Costs
+ $52 + tax Comcast Internet & Basic TV
+ $3.33 MajicJack per month (includes jack purchase
+ $9 NetFlicks (1 DVD & online content)
+ $0 Hulu and other online TV providers
~$64 Total Monthly Costs

This plan provides an estimated savings of $100 per month. Is that enough for all this effort? Well, all told it's around $1,200 a year. If I got an extra $1,200 a year in my bonus, I'd certainly notice. Besides, if we're careful of accounting for that freed-up $100 a month, we can do some nice things with it. The key is to not let the new found money slip away into the void of the checking account.

But don't forget, the point of this exercise is that I believe I can get the same services to which I am now accustomed at a much lower cost. If this test works, we really won't have given up much of anything.

So, at the risk of being labeled a weirdo (or at least even more a weirdo), the plan is to take my family down the road to Amish Country. Or at least to an even more tight fisted Yankee Land.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Yankee Principles

I am a Yankee. Not in the co-opted sense of the word that refers to the despised New York sports team, but in the actual definition of the word. A New Yorker is not a Yankee. Real Yankees are found in New England, not in New York. (I could go on, but that's a story for another blog.)

Yankees are known for frugality, a "make do or do without" mentality. The phrase "Yankee ingenuity" refers to the sort duck tape and wire approach that Yankees are known for in making things work -- and keeping them working --rather than spending money to buy a new one.

When I built myself a room in the garage, my "mead hall", I needed a great deal of plywood. Plywood at Home Depot was running about $18 a sheet. Instead, I found a guy who was selling sheets of plywood that had been previously used as a subfloor in a warehouse in New Bedford. I had to pull about a million nails out of them, but I was able to get them for just $2 a sheet. I had the time. I saved the money. (

More recently, I've been a Craig's List fanatic. This website was made for Yankees. When Janet told me she wanted to buy a new $250 baby carriage for the babies we're expecting, I quickly found the same one, used, on Craig's List for $75. (What? I didn't mention she's carrying twins? That'll have to be my next blog.) We bought pair of children's playground structures for the yard and saved about $500 over the cost of new ones.

On the other side of the ledger book, I've been selling anything I can pull out of my garage. Yesterday, I sold a small swimming pool for $70 for which I had paid $110 last year. And I don't plan on stopping there.

Last Sunday, I sold my beloved 2007 Nissan Maxima. I think I've mentioned my love of all things Maxima in this forum, but, if I haven't, let me just say that I've owned a succession of four Nissan Maximas, going back to 1994. I never buy them new, preferring to get them off lease at much cheaper prices. This last one, was the best of the lot. I often say that not only is it the best car I've ever owned, it's likely the best car I'll ever own. It was handsome, fast as heck, and fantastically reliable. There is nothing like a non-American car for reliability, and I can't say enough good things about the reliability of Nissan Maximas.

But now that Janet is running a home day care, it dawned on me that the only time both cars are gone from the driveway is on Sunday morning when I leave early for worship team practice and she's still home getting Ben ready for church. That's it. Otherwise, there is always a car payment parked in the driveway gathering dust. I asked myself why? Then I asked Janet what our payments were and how much insurance was each month. When she answered, I didn't hesitate. I posted the car on Craig's List that day.

I was able to sell it for just over $5,000 more than I owed on it. That, and a savings of over $400 a month in car and insurance payments made this decision a no brainer. That's a chunk of change that, in the middle of a recession, I'm more than happy to not send to someone else.

So we've become a one car family. (Yeah, you guessed it, we kept the minivan.) But I don't care. These days, I'd reuse toothpaste if I could get it back into the tube. Belts are tightening around Upham Manor and, rather than being bummed out about it, I find it rather exciting. With everything I look at around the manor, I think to myself, "What advantage can be made of that? Do I need it? Can I sell it? Can I fix it? How long will it last me?"

My next goal is to eliminate cable TV. That's not going to be an easy battle. Janet enjoys having it. I suppose I do to, but I don't enjoy the absurd price we're paying for it.

I think I just found the topic of my next post.