Coffee heat rising

Incoming! How to get the paper flak under control

Bills. Junk mail. Credit offers. Catalogs. Magazines. Insurance statements. Reminders. Envelopes full of coupons. Bank statements. Investment prospectuses. Mutual fund statements. Business correspondence. Greeting cards. And heaven help us, an actual letter from a friend!

Where does all this stuff go once it gets out of the mailbox? If you’re like me, it lands in stacks on the kitchen counter, where it mounds up until it finally starts to fall onto the floor. Eventually you carry it back to your desk and plop it on top of the last two or three weeks’ worth of paper. There it turns into a stress time bomb, set to go off the minute you “lose” a bank statement or a credit card bill and have to spend ten or fifteen minutes pawing through a mountain of trash in a frantic search for a document you need right now. Each piece of this stuff has to be opened, handled, acted upon, thrown out or filed away—a time-consuming task when you’re looking at a Mt. Everest of loose paper.

Here’s a Method to take control of the mailbox blizzard. First, you’ll need these things:

  • 3 file folders
  • a box or basket large enough to hold an 8 ½ x 11-inch file folder
  • a trash basket or recycling bin
  • a shredder or pair of scissors

Set the trash or recycling container near the door through which you enter carrying the mail. Have the shredder or scissors nearby.

Label the file folders as follows:

  • Bills
  • Financial Statements
  • To File

Place the folders in the box or basket and put it in a convenient place near where you bring the mail into the house.

As soon as you pick up the mail, go immediately to the trash or recycling container. Throw out all obvious junk mail, except for credit offers, without opening it.

Next, run the credit offers through the shredder, also without opening them. If you have no shredder, use the scissors to cut each offer into small pieces and drop them into the trash or recycling.

Before doing anything else, place the bills and financial statements in their respective file folders. Place any items that need only to be opened and filed in the To File folder.

Voilà! You’ve sorted the mail, thrown out the trash, and put away the things you need to attend to. The statements and bills can sit there until you’re ready to deal with them—without making a mess on the kitchen counter, the dining room table, or your desk. When you’re ready to reconcile accounts or conduct business, you know exactly where to find the paper you need, and you’re rid of the junk mail. You’ve decluttered, organized, and cut stress in one swell foop.

Four other strategies to deal with incoming paper:

  • Retrieve your financial statements online and ask to have mailings canceled.
  • Go to OptOutPrescreen.com and register to opt out of credit and insurance solicitations.
  • Go toNew American Dreamand use the free form to remove your name from major junk mail lists.
  • E-mail the Direct Marketing Association with a request that you be removed from marketers’ mailing lists. You can also reach them by snail mail:

Mail Preference Service
P.O. Box 643
Carmel, NY 10512

Either way, this request will cost you a dollar.

decluttering, organization, stress control

Stay on top of magazine renewals

“YOUR NEXT ISSUE WILL BE YOUR LAST ISSUE! IT’S ALARMING BUT TRUE…UNLESS YOU RENEW NOW!”

This message comes plastered to the current issue of Consumer Reports, the widely respected (off and on) self-appointed guardian of consumer interests.

Alarming, indeed, but is it true?

Well, no. My bill isn’t due for another three months. I paid for a one-year subscription in March, 2007. For this “alarming” message to reach me on January 5, it would have been mailed in December, four months before the actual renewal date.

Magazine hustlers—the august Consumer Reports included—rely on the twin probabilities that you don’t recall when you paid and that it’s more trouble than it’s worth for you to dig out your records to find out when you did pay. So you’ll pay a few months early. Each year you pay another month or two or even three early, and guess what-after a very few years, you’ll have paid for an extra subscription. An extra ten thousand $20 subscriptions represents a free $200,000 for the magazine. Sweet, eh?

A couple of years ago I realized my magazine subscriptions were coming due within a month or two of each other, after I had deliberately signed up for each at different times of the year so that I could afford to pay for the subscriptions without straining my budget. A Quicken search revealed that, yea verily, renewal demands were coming months ahead of the actual renewal dates.

If you have Quicken or a similar program, here’s an easy way to keep track of when subscriptions are actually due:

When you pay to renew a subscription, enter the amount you paid and then make another entry for the same month and day, one year in the future (or two or three, depending on your subscription’s length), showing when the renewal is due. For example, the account I use to pay subscriptions shows these entries:

1/7/08: Harper’s due
2/10/08: Scientific American due
2/10/08: Atlantic due
3/6/08: New York Review of Books due
3/6/08: Consumer Reports due
9/1/08: CR Money Advisor due
11/20/08: gift sub for Atlantic due

The reason two subscriptions are due in February and two are due in March—when I would never start two subscriptions in one budget cycle—is that I didn’t realize I was being herded into paying earlier and earlier until the due dates had been pushed forward, closer and closer to the beginning of the year, and finally began to coincide.

Just because a publication’s editorial policy seems sound does not exempt its circulation department from sleaze. Keep your eye on the rascals…no matter how venerable or upstanding the journal’s reputation!

Chicken soup for dog-lovers

Anna H. Banana is looking a little peppier today, after having been off her feed for quite a while. The other day it occurred to me that if chicken soup is Jewish penicillin for people, maybe it would perk up another mammalian species. So I took a few chicken thighs out of the freezer, which I happened to have in lifetime-supply quantities thanks to a bargain purchase, tossed them in a saucepan and covered with water, and added a little salt and a little sugar, and simmered.

Sugar and salt, because she was so peakèd she wasn’t even drinking much water. Suspecting she was getting dehydrated, I wanted to slip her a dose of electrolytes. The beauty of chicken thighs for making a small amount of broth is that they have only one large bone. Getting the cooked meat off is easy—no dodging splintery little bones and sinews.

After an hour or so, I dipped a couple of cups of broth and meat into the dog bowl, stirred in a few ice cubes to cool it to a temperature on the high side of lukewarm, and served it up to the aged Queen of the Galaxy.

She inhaled the stuff! After a couple more meals like that, she began to eat her regular food again, especially if it was made soupy by the addition of lots of broth.

Discovery: Dogs like chicken soup.

Discovery: Dogs like their food warm. Try zapping a little dog food (not kibble) in the micro until it’s warm but not hot. Works.

Discovery: Dogs that hate kibble will eat it if it’s floating in broth.

Normally I don’t feed her much kibble, but if I’m broke or under the weather myself so that I can’t buy or prepare two pounds of food a day for Her Dogship, we don’t have much choice. She’s a lot more likely to eat it if it’s drowned in chicken, lamb, or beef broth.

Chicken broth is easy to make, with thighs, legs, or wings or with bones and carcasses from several meals stashed in the freezer until you’re ready to cook. Just cover them with water, bring to a boil, and turn down the heat to a slow simmer. Pour the cooked broth through a strainer to remove bones. Just now a big pot with three carcasses and bones saved from cut-rate beef roasts that were converted into hamburger is bubbling away on the stove. You can sometimes get lamb necks on sale—dogs really like lamb. There’s only one caveat, and it’s important:

Do not add onions!

Onions are toxic to dogs. Onions themselves are especially bad, but all members of the onion family (garlic, shallots, little green onions, chives) can do the job on your dog. They cause a kind of anemia that can kill the animal—I can testify to this, because I put some onions in meat I was feeding and almost did in two ninety-pound dogs. The smaller the dog, the more vulnerable it is to onion toxicity. For this reason, it’s not a good idea to dose your dog’s food with canned chicken or beef broth, which almost always contains onion.

To make a tastier broth for human purposes, brown some chopped onion, celery, and carrot (any or all) in another pan. Add some garlic if desired and then dip a portion of the broth into the pan. Simmer for an hour or more. Strain into a clean bowl, pressing juices out of vegetables. Et voilà! Dog joy and chicken soup for humans from one set of bones.

pets, dog food recipes, recipes

Less clutter = less stress!

Freeing the house of kitsch and clutter worked! In the time it took to draw a bath, I managed to dust the entire four-bedroom house, including picture frames, mirrors, and light fixtures. Since the bathrooms were already cleaned, all that’s left of the dratted weekly housecleaning is to vacuum and mop 1680 square feet of tile, scrub the grease off the stovetop, and shine up the kitchen counters with vinegar.

This is great stress control when I’m looking forward to several hours of dumbing down my (already finished and posted!) syllabus and assignments to accommodate twice as many students as I agreed to teach this spring. That task will absorb time I’d planned to use on something more entertaining. Or at least more useful.

A$k and ye shall re¢eive

Great galloping zot!

To get me to take on those two bloated, maxed-out sections of Writing for the Professions, the university is going to pay me for four courses. That’s fourteen thousand dollah, for a spring-semester net of seven grand.

While it’s peanuts for the institution (a full-time lecturer would earn between $22,500 and $25,000, plus benefits, to teach the same courseload), for me it means I will meet my 2008 savings goal without having to take a second job during the fall semester. And fourteen percent of that 14 grand will go into my 403b, adding almost $2,000 to this year’s retirement savings.

If the spring overload doesn’t kill me and I decide to take on two sections (normal-sized, we hope) in the fall anyway, by December 7, 2008, I will have exceeded half my three-year $25,000 savings goal.

My daddy always said the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Guess he was right.

2008 financial goal thwarted at birth

In a New Year’s Day post, Mrs. Micah described her 2008 financial goals and asked readers about theirs. I responded by remarking that I hoped to put $10,000 a year in savings over the next two and a half years to pay off a small second mortgage used for house renovation. The plan was to set aside $250 a month out of my current salary and do the same with the $3,500 a semester I expected to net from teaching two online sections of a required service course for one of the Great Desert University’s satellite campuses.

Yesterday, they e-mailed a contract for the two classes, urging me to sign it immediately and fax it back forthwith. Understand, for unknown reasons (of the sort that feed paranoia) I haven’t been able to enter the university’s site that allows faculty to view their course rosters. So, this morning a colleague and I accessed it through her password. And what should I discover? Every section except the two I’m slated to teach is capped at 20 students. Mine are capped at FORTY! And both are full. I’ve already had students on the phone begging for overrides.

In other words, GDU expects I will teach the equivalent of four sections–EIGHTY STUDENTS in a WRITING COURSE (if it looks like I’m shouting, it’s because I am)–and accept pay for two sections.

Wrong.

I’ve e-mailed the interim vice president asking to be paid for four sections. He of course will turn that request down. But it doesn’t matter. Even if he agreed to it, I can’t pack 80 students into my spare moments around a full-time job, nor will I try.

If you are an employer and you wonder why young college graduates applying to work at your business can’t write a competent cover letter, to say nothing of any other kind of business document, this is why. Writing courses at universities and community colleges are traditionally taught by part-timers who are shamelessly exploited. Most cobble together four to six sections by running around from campus to campus; it is physically impossible to do a decent job of teaching writing to more than 15 or 20 students in a course, and an instructor certainly should not be teaching more than two writing-intensive sections at a time.

Well, in the new destressification regime, my foot is firmly put down about this kind of treatment. Better to take a little longer (make that “a lot longer”) to accrue the funds to pay off the loan than to put myself through the overwork, anger, and grief that will result from allowing GDU to take advantage of me like that.

Revised 2008 financial goal: Save $3,000 and put it all in the Roth IRA. Snowflake the loan principal with freelance income, extra savings from penny-pinching, and windfalls.