Monday, August 25, 2014

Coupons or Bust

About a month ago, I became and Extreme Couponer.

No, I do not leave the grocery store with an entire cart worth of stuff for a penny. No, I don't have a massive stockpile. It's a very modest collection sitting in my closet. However, even after only working on couponing for a month, I bought well over $200 in goods for less than $10.

For the first time in my adult life, I asked myself; "Do I need anything from Walmart?"
And the answer was no.
If I keep this up, I will be able to pay off my credit cards in the next year.

At some point in my teenage years, I became my family's designated shampoo-buyer. It became an unspoken rule; so much that my brothers came to me instead of my mom, saying, "Shannon, we're out of men's shampoo."
My mom only bought the cheapest stuff from the dollar store, which contributed to my frizzy and unmanageable hair throughout middle school and high school. Unfortunately, I could never afford anything more expensive than a $3 conditioner.

Recently, I calculated that my family goes through a bottle of the smaller conditioners once every two weeks.
As the designated bathroom supply buyer, whose credit card do you think that went on?
Yep! It was mine!
(I can't complain. I don't mind helping out my family at all, but my point is, I was constantly adding more credit to my Target and Walmart cards.)

So, check this out:

This is my collection of women's shampoos and conditioners this month. From left to right:
Clear Hair & Scalp Therapy Lengthening Conditioner
Retail Price: $6.99
Out of Pocket after Coupons/Sale: $0.25

Clear Hair & Scalp Therapy Shampoo
Retail Price: $6.99
Out of Pocket: $0.25

Store promotion: $4.00 credit when you buy two Clear products.
Total: $ -3.50

Yes, you are reading that correctly. Instead of paying $14.00 for hair products I could never afford before,
I got paid $3.50 to buy them.

Skip the Dove, because my mom bought that. It was on sale, apparently, but I don't know how much she paid for it.

Tresemme Conditioner 
Retail Price: $5.99
Out of Pocket: $0.50
Store promotion: $+3.00 store credit
Total: $-2.50

Again, I got paid to buy this. I bought two bottles, but one is in my "stockpile", which is really just one shelf in my closet.

Nexxus Shampoo
Retail Price: $5.99 (So expensive for just the travel size bottle!!)
Out of Pocket After Coupons: $0.00
Store promotion: Make +$3.00 store credit
Total: $-3.00  

This is something I have been stockpiling this month, because it's free, and I just have to keep repeating the process. Nexxus is a salon shampoo. It does amazing things to my hair, plus it is a lot more convenient for traveling.

Organix Brazilian Keratin Treatment
Retail Price: $7.99 
Out of Pocket: $2.00 
(No store promotion)
Total: $2.00
This one was a real "splurge" at $2.00, which was a birthday present to myself, because I just really, really love Organix products.

And that's just the hair products!
My hair is getting prettier every day. I will never have to worry again.
Seriously. Life is good. This is a major benefit to living in the USA.


Sunday, August 24, 2014

Extreme Poverty in America Post #1: Metal Scrapping

I decided I want to start a series of blog posts talking about extreme poverty in the United States. A lot of people would say it doesn't exist. Most people would say it is reserved for drug addicts or the mentally ill. There is this unspoken sentiment that the people in this country who are destitute somehow deserve it, and that makes it easier to pretend these people do not exist.

However, as the economy gets worse, it is obvious that people are becoming extremely poor at no fault of their own, which forces them to resort to money-making tactics that were once reserved for addicts in Camden and Philly looking for a way to pay for their next fix.

I live in a town where if you go five minutes east, you will be in the middle of cow fields with houses spread at least 6 acres apart. Five miles in the other direction, you will find apartment complexes, shopping centers, and houses practically on top of one another. For the most part, I live in a nice place.
I don't know if extreme poverty has always been in my area, or if it has gotten worse now that we are a few years into a dead economy.

American poverty is not always out in the open. It makes a lot of people uncomfortable. People try to pretend like it isn't there. However, if you know what you are looking for, it's all around us. The worse the economy gets, the more I notice.

This week alone, I noticed quite a few things:

 Someone in my neighborhood was throwing away a TV. It was a 40-inch flat screen, so I went to check it out. ...Someone cut the cord. I could see the exposed wire peeking from the back of the TV, and it was made of copper.

If you didn't know, you can exchange copper and other scrap metal for money. My dad used to build and
rehab houses in Camden. He told me that one of the most common problems was the locals breaking into the construction sites at night, ripping out the copper piping, and causing thousands of dollars in flood damage to the basements.

Let me explain something: Currently, copper is going for $3 per pound. That is what the metal recycling companies can get for it at a refinery. (Refineries usually do not deal with the public, because they usually accept metal by the TON, and normal people can't accumulate that much at one time.) This means that whoever is providing the copper to a metal recycling service is only going to get a fraction of whatever the recycling center will get, in order for them to stay in business and pay for the gigantic overhead costs of hiring their employees, paying for the warehouse, the trucks, etc. If this huge business is only going to make $3 per pound, you can only imagine what they will offer to get that inventory. That's right: pennies.

 Yes, there was more metal inside of the TV itself, but the person who cut the wire probably didn't have a car to carry it away. Essentially, they destroyed a TV they could have gotten between $50-$100 for if they sold it at a flea market, and they cut the cord and made it worthless.

Last summer, a thin man with a long beard drove up to our house in a pick-up truck. This man looked like he was an honest, hard-working dude. He knocked on the door, and asked my father if he could walk through the woods on our property looking for scrap metal. My dad told the man that he could take whatever he wanted, if he found anything. I wondered for a while how much money the man was actually making.

This year, my mom was cleaning up our shed, and put all of the metal we were not using in the back of her SUV. There was so much of it, I assumed she would come back with a lot of money. However, she came back with..............Wait for it- $8.

That man who searched through our woods wasn't a drug addict. He wasn't a criminal. He was just someone who was struck by the economy looking for a way to make enough money to eat, and probably put more gas in his truck, so he could keep driving until he found work or scrap.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Ferguson.

"We are not better," is a thought I have had repeated in my head recently.

When I saw what was happening in cities all over the world, I thought that police brutality towards peaceful protesters was something from the past here in the United States.
I hoped that Trayvon Martin's death would have brought attention to racism that is still alive today.

Michael Brown died. The cop gets an award for killing him.
Protestors try to be peaceful, but get tear gas and rubber bullets, just like the protestors in Caracas.

We are not better.

Right now, Ferguson is in a state of emergency. There is looting...Which honestly does not help the African American's cause. If you are trying to fight negative stereotypes, why feed the stereotype that black people steal?

I'm sure no one in Ferguson will read this. It's just a thought.
Maybe I need to go hide under a rock and stop reading the news.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Retail Therapist

When I began college, I asked myself what I really wanted to do with my life, and the answer was: "I want to help people."
I was majoring in Psychology, and I worked at a Special Needs Office and as a Photographer at a studio simultaneously. One job was clearly helping people by definition.  I was helping college students who had special needs, and I'm happy to say that I think I made a difference in at least a handful of kid's lives.

The photography job was still helping people, only in a much more shallow sense. I was helping people get photographs of themselves where they looked the best they ever would in their entire life (Oh the wonders of Photoshop.) Or I was helping to host these super extravagant parties that wanted photo shoots. Maybe it was help that they didn't necessarily need, but it gave them a lot of joy, which in turn made me happy too.

Unfortunately, the Psychology idea lost its luster. I heard horror stories of the Psychology field....Many entry-level jobs were only attainable at mental institutions where you could expect to get punched in the face by an out-of-control patient on a regular basis, or work at High Schools filled with troubled kids who were likely to break out into giant brawls in the cafeteria.
Even in the more high-end comfortable positions, the majority of patients were adults who paid their therapist to rattle on the same issues in their lives every single week, and yet doing nothing to fix their problems. It sounded redundant and frustrating.
It sounded like I would need my own therapist to cope with that lifestyle.

Fast-forward a couple years, and I decided I would rather be a lawyer. I thought; "Lawyers really make a difference." I imagined winning cases for the underdog, and all of those well-meaning thoughts I'm sure all legal students have.

However, I did not learn until after I graduated with my Jurisprudence BA and sat in on some Paralegal classes just how terrible the legal field would be too. It also sank in that I would be dealing with the same exact crazy people that I was trying to leave behind giving up Psychology. Only now, these people wanted to sue somebody.

I still have a really strong desire to help people and to "change the world" in some way, but the older I get, the more I realize how difficult that really is. Even people in power have a tremendous amount of red tape to go through in order to make changes. (If you watch House of Cards, I'm sure you understand what I'm talking about.)

For the past year, I have been selling online. Some people call it "Retail Arbitrage."
You wouldn't think that this is a job helping people. Like the photography job, it's a rather shallow way of making people happy.
However, I love getting e-mails from my clients. I get to hear from people all over the world.

One man bought a sewing pattern from me. I used "Miami Vice" in the tags, because the style of the jacket reminded me of the clothes they wear in the TV show.
 The buyer, Dean, messaged me asking how quickly I could ship it to him. At
first, I thought he was crazy impatient, but I politely told him that I could get it out that same day.
He followed up with a long e-mail gushing about how excited he was about this sewing pattern.

Dean explained to me that Miami Vice meant a lot to him, because it reminded him of a time in his life when he was so much happier than he is now.  He said that he collected memorabilia from the show, but this was the first time he had ever seen something like a sewing pattern. "I am going to take it to my local tailor so I can start wearing this jacket", he told me.
Dean was like a little kid on Christmas. He was going to feel amazing wear that jacket around town and bring the joy of Miami Vice with him all day long, and not just when he was home with his collection.

Another customer, let's call her Janet, bought a really obscure painting from me. I had no idea who the artist was, and I couldn't find any identical pieces online, so I described it as best as I could, and asked $50 for it.
Janet e-mailed me after she bought the painting, and she attached a photograph of herself and a friend in the 1980's. These two girls looked very young and happy. They were clearly having the time of their life. In that photograph, I could see the same painting hanging on the wall behind them.

Janet wrote:
"My best friend and I used to live together, and we had this painting on our wall. She took it with her when we parted ways, but I always wanted my own copy of the painting to remind me of that time when we lived together. I've been searching for this for so many years, and I wanted to thank you for finding it."

Stories like this happen all the time, and it puts the biggest smile on my face. That pattern cost me 10 cents, and Dean was more than happy to pay $15. The painting was something I got for free from an estate sale, and Janet was willing to pay $50 for something she had not found in years. I made a profit, and in turn, it made these people really, really happy. In many ways, I feel like I rescue these pieces so that they can find their rightful owner who is going to appreciate them.

They say shopping can be "retail therapy", so I guess I'm a Retail Therapist. Right now, I am happy with the little moments of joy I can send someone in the mail.
 Maybe some day, I can move on to bigger and better ways to help people, but I will never, ever stop doing this job. I really love experiences like this that much.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Red Meat Guy

I swear my life should be a sitcom on TV. Sometimes I just want to look around and see if there is a hidden camera capturing the ridiculousness of the mundane events of my life, like The Office. Or maybe  a mortifying situation could be made so much better with a TV laugh track that proceeded it.
There is an elderly man who lives in my town. He swerves on the roads in his old pick-up truck, thankfully missing the pedestrians who get in his way. I do not know his name. At first, his advice to me while standing in line at the super market or getting coffee was always the same:
"Excuse me. Do you eat red meat? Don't eat red meat."

He told me that he used to eat steaks every single day....but not anymore. Why? You guessed it- he had a heart attack. Now, I guess it is his life mission to tell everyone not to eat red meat.

I told him that I almost never eat red meat, and he is absolutely right, that it's bad for you. He smiled, and nodded approvingly, as if to say, I like this girl. She gets it.
I guess my friendliness was my first mistake.

For whatever reason, he is always in line behind me. And out of everyone around him, he always chooses to talk to me, probably because he knows I won't ignore him. Unfortunately, he proceeds to talk shit on the people around us, as if we are part of the same High School clique of bitchy girls.

The first time he did this, we were standing in line at Dunkin Donuts. He tapped on my shoulder, and said, "You still have all of your hair."
My hair is really long. It's down to my waist. I thought maybe it was an awkward old man pick-up line or creepy compliment, so I just said, half laughing, "Yeah, I do."
"You know, we shouldn't be eating stuff like this. Coffee and donuts, hmm...Well at least it's not as bad as red meat. You know what red meat does? It makes you lose your hair....You have nice hair. I still have all my hair too," he said, taking his hat off to reveal the poofy white scraggles.

I smiled, imagining that once you are an old man, keeping all of your hair is probably a huge accomplishment.
 I decided to play along. I began saying the sentence, Yeah, being bald is terrible...
and as soon as the words "being bald" came out of my mouth, I looked up and noticed that two people in front of us, there was a bald man standing in line.
So my sentence came out more like this, "Ha ha yeah, being baaaagggghhhhhh-" and trailed off.
So, obviously, I was horrified.

 Today,  I was at my local grocery store buying a can of Monster.

"It's so cold in here," I heard the complaint. I turned around. Sure enough, it was The Red Meat guy. Despite the fact that it was a 75-degree day outside, he was wearing a hoodie and his token trucker hat.
 "They always turn the air conditioning up WAY too high," he said.

"Good thing you have a hoodie on, then," I said.

I wasn't having it this time. He wouldn't trick me into accidentally insulting anyone else again.

 I worked at this grocery store when I as 16. I'm 25 now, so it makes me feel extremely old to say that it was almost 10 years ago that I worked there.
The cashier was a lady who has been with the company for her entire adult life. I grew up seeing her as a kid, and we saw each other at work sometimes. She knows everyone in my family by name. I would much rather have a pleasant conversation with my old friend, but she was busy helping a customer.

"Would you like me to buy that for you?" Red Meat Guy asked, pointing to my drink.
My face probably lit up in surprise.
"I don't buy much. I can't cook," he said, gesturing to his sandwich-making materials. His order would probably be less than $10, and he was holding a $10 bill in his hand.
I wondered again if this was an old man version of a pick-up line. He can't buy me a drink in a bar, but he can buy me my caffeine in the grocery store.

"Oh, no! That's really sweet of you, but you don't have to," I said.
"Are you sure?" he asked.
"Really, no," I said, "But thank you."

Well, I should have known.


The next thing he said was; "If they asked me to work here, you know what I would tell them?"
I finished his sentence with my guess, "No?" and laughed a little.
He smiled and looked as if he wanted to trash-talk the working conditions of the grocery store some more, but before he had the chance, I said, "I used to work here."
He looked as though he decided to withhold whatever insult he was going to sling, for my sake.

The next thing I know, I'm next in line, and I'm face-to-face with my former co-worker. She asked me how things are. I said, "Not much, just working."
"What do you do?"
"Oh, I have my own business..."
As I explained a little bit of what I do, I could see in the expression of her face; Shut up. I hate you.

And it dawned on me...That it probably sounded like Red Meat Guy and I were shit-talking the people working in the grocery store. And by saying "no" to working there, it probably sounded like I thought I was too good for that job.
And it probably sounded like I was bragging about moving on with my life. Once I walked out of the store and analyzed the situation, I realized what a terrible mistake I had made in my choice of words.



Before long, Red Meat Guy is going to have the whole town hating me.




Friday, August 1, 2014

You're still alive. So breathe, already.

I found this picture on Tumblr. Clearly, it's a picture from someone's Instagram who must have taken a photo of a magazine, copied on someone else's Tumblr. So I'm committing some kind of triple copyright infringement here, but with good reason.
This quote sums up what I have learned to tell myself over the past couple years.

"You're Not Going To Die." It sounds obvious. Of course I'm not going to die when terrible things happen.... but it sure feels that way, right?

Maybe, somewhere deep in our caveman instincts, our bodies were used to predators out in the wild. If you get really scared, your body pumps you with adrenaline. The reason our bodies do this is because in the day of the cave man, adrenaline would have helped you run away from whatever was chasing you. It's the same chemical that has been known to aid mothers in lifting cars off of the train tracks to save their baby. Not to mention dozens of other chemicals in our brains that react in a million different ways. (Neurology is interesting to me, but not everyone. I get it.)

Maybe our modern day problems are the new fight-or-flight. Our ancestors used to get scared if we got too close to a black bear's den in the mountains. We knew to be afraid, because it would mean certain death.

In modern times, we are sitting around on our computers and devices, worrying about our own lives...So the only outlet for these "Holy shit I am going to die"- moments that are inevitable are for events that if we stepped back and thought logically, we realize we really won't. 

Things are always more terrifying when the results are unknown. It's very easy to give into the fear and stick with playing it safe instead of asking why we are afraid, and pushing through it.

This week, I am taking a risk for my business. If everything goes according to plan, it could change my life. It could potentially lead to me paying off my debts for good and becoming a lot more financially stable.
 If something goes wrong, it could damage my reputation as a seller, and I will have lost my chance to take a huge leap forward instead of baby steps.
I was terrified. Honestly, I was. But I realized that the potential positive outcome outweighed the negative, and I am willing to deal with the consequences if things don't turn out as expected.

I had to be honest with myself and realize that if I chose not to take my risk, or if I chose to take the risk and fail, I would be back to Square One. If I chose to try, and I actually succeeded, I would be so much better off. So why not try?

It might sounds like I have my shit together, but it took me about 48 hours to come to this conclusion. I have been so afraid of failure, I couldn't fall asleep until around 5AM for a couple days in a row. But what matters more is the decision you come to in the end.

I guess my point is- remind yourself that you are only human. Your mind will trick you into thinking you will die, whether you consciously think the words "I am going to die" or not. You'll still feel the tightening in your stomach. Your heart will race. Maybe your head will start spinning if you imagine the negative outcome of something like a failed marriage or getting laid off from your job.
As long as you are not in a war zone, you are NOT going to die. You can survive almost anything life throws at you, as long as you stay strong. Close your eyes, breathe, and remind yourself, "I am alive." and everything will eventually be OK, if you make it so.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Vice is Hitting it Out of the Park

About a week ago, I discovered the Vice News YouTube channel, and it has quickly become my favorite source of journalists reporting the truth from around the globe. For the first time in my life, I feel like I am getting the unbiased "whole story". They split up the videos into smaller clips of what eventually becomes half-hour long documentaries of current events. I have been pulling up YouTube on my TV and watching these instead of the other news channels that contain small clips and one-sided opinions of reporters.

So far, I have learned about so many different issues that I never even knew existed.

For example, I was SO EXCITED about The World Cup this year. You should have seen how many pizzas I made for watching parties. I am now an expert pizza chef. I actually got into futbal a lot this year, despite an old friend of mine trying to convince me to love Messi for a long time. (I understand now. God, do I understand the agony of Argentina's defeat.) I was too busy working at my old job 4 years ago when the last World Cup was on TV, so I never had the chance to enjoy it until now.

Little did I know how much of a problem it caused for Brazil. Once I saw this documentary, I just sat back and thought about how ignorant I am for being nothing but excited for FIFA, and yet I had no idea this was going on...And I know it's not just me- but how ignorant most of the people in the US are to the problems of the outside world. I really encourage everyone to check out their main YouTube page and check out their video library, because it covers so many current issues from all around the world.