Coffee heat rising

Panic à Costco?

Went over to the Costco on the I-17 this morning to stock up on some products the store here in the po’ folks’ part of town doesn’t carry. Amazingly, for example, you can’t buy a chunk of blue cheese here in the low-rent district. But the store up north has a very nice Bel Gioso blue that’s wonderful. They also have a propane dispenser, the only Costco in town that does.

It’s always wise to plan one’s trips to that place propitiously. So a bit before noon on Friday morning I figured the store wouldn’t be too crowded. Hit the Albertson’s first, then hit the freeway, where a couple of those lighted message signs informed us that a construction worker had been killed. So got off the freeway to avoid a traffic jam and got to the store the back way.

Not too crowded? Hah! The Coronavirus Panic run on grocery and hardware stores has begun.

The place was jammed.

But it was weird. Normally Costco customers are exuberantly oblivious of their fellow grocery-cart pushers. And a lot of noise goes on and people are happily rolling toward whatever doodad they think they can’t live without. Not so today. Not that people weren’t talking and kids weren’t carrying on…it was that they were strangely quiet. And bizarrely polite — people would motion you ahead instead of cutting you off to get there first.

I got one of the last packages of toilet paper. People were buying a lot more TP than paper towels, but the paper towels were also going fast. And I nabbed the second-to-last package of boned chicken thighs. Drumsticks were gone. One of the butchers told us they were out of chicken and wouldn’t get more in until the first of the week.

It really was just…kind of a weird experience

Anyway, if you haven’t already done so, now may be the time to make a provisions run. If Costco is any measure, it looked like paper goods (especially TP!) and easily cooked or grilled meats were going fast. In these parts you can’t buy hand wipes, but countertop wipes by Lysol will work as well or (probably) better.

Don’t forget to keep the gas tank topped up, too.

Morons, Money, and Ay-Mazement

One of the excellent Chinese scholars for whom I’ve been privileged to work decided to try to pay through Western Union, which required, I expect, some extra hassle on that end. PayPal, as you may recall, dropped the ball colorfully some time back, forcing me to close my credit union account and reopen it with a different account number. The decision to quit using PayPal effectively closes down my business with clients in Asia, since there aren’t a lot of easy ways to transfer money internationally from the mainland. However, we did learn that Western Union does business there, so we decided to try it.

This experiment took place several weeks ago, right before I started to get sick with the current enervating epizoötic. When the client asked me to go over to a Western Union office to see if the money came through, I searched out a site that seemed not too alien — a Walgreen’s at Seventh Street and Camelback.

Western Union is popular here, because Latin American immigrants can use it conveniently to send remittances to family back home. It seems there’s a Western Union kiosk on every corner. So I go in there — at some risk to life and limb, since 7th and Camelback is one of the craziest intersections in a city full of crazed drivers — and am directed to a free-standing computer into which one is supposed to enter data and somehow extract money. How is unclear. I ask the clerk who supposedly knows how to work the thing: looking into her eyes is like gazing into a deep and motionless void.

Moving on, I reckon I’ll ponder through this conundrum later.

Now I come down with a bacterial infection followed by a viral bronchitis picked up from the Mayo’s ER, leading to a month of incapacitating illness. I haven’t been able to drag out of bed long enough to fix a decent meal, much less traipse around the city and do battle with a new-to-me system.

Client asks me to puhleeze find out whether payment has come through, a lot of time having passed with no word from me. I try to beg off. This whinge buys a day or two of delay. Finally I am importuned to get off my duff and go try to figure this out.

Having almost died trying to get into that Walgreen’s parking lot (and having no great craving to try again with Ms. EmptySpace), I call an office supply and FedEx store that The Copyeditor’s Desk often does business with and ask them if they by chance have Western Union.

“No,” says my guy. “But in my experience, every Fry’s grocery store in the city does.”

Oh yeah? Fry’s, you say? Well, hot damn. There’s a Fry’s supermarket right around the corner from M’hijito’s house…and just down the road from Costco, whereunto I also need to repair. Look it up online, and yep: that Fry’s does have Western Union.

Drive on down there, make my way across the rather menacing parking lot (at least this store does kindly have some fairly prominent security guards lurking around), surface at the customer service desk, and…migawd! Find a clerk with a measurable IQ! And the contraption is behind the desk, where the customers are neither expected nor allowed to put their sticky little paws on it.

This excellent young women sits down before the machine and shortly disgorges something over $400, which she forks over without even asking for a transaction fee.

Hallelujah, brothers and sisters! This, I realize, is enough to pay the cleaning lady for about five visits, obviating my having to make a cash run on AJ’s or the credit union for two or three months. If I were good, I would of course stash the cash in the corporate checking account. But I’m not good, and I no longer have to be good, because WonderAccountant and I converted the S-corp to a sole proprietorship, meaning (in effect) that the money is mine, mine, ALL MINE! All I need to do is file the receipt and an explanatory note with this year’s tax papers and hide the stash in the safe, where it will await the services of the Cleaning Lady from Heaven.

And best of all, I’ve met a human being with a measurable IQ.

The journey did not start out that way. Cruising down Main Drag East, out of the ‘Hood toward the precincts occupied by the Fry’s Market in question, I pass a fool cruising up the sidewalk on roller skates, a stupid grin on his face and a dog running beside him on a leash. The dog stands knee-high to the man — who himself is a good six feet tall. They are flying along within about two feet of a five-lane thoroughfare. Most of us drive 40 to 50 mph on said road, which is heavily trafficked. As I shot past this apparition, I counted eight cars around me. Nary a one of us could have stopped to avoid hitting him if he had stumbled into the street or if the dog had decided to shoot across the road after a cat or another dog.

So. Moron #1.

Of many. Every single goddamn moron in the city has to get in front of me. Heading south, a tow-truck flatbed does a Y-turn across all the lanes of north- and south-bound traffic to deliver his load of broken-down cars to a repair shop. Northbound, a city transit shuttle hogs the fast lane, and noooo, he’s not getting ready to turn left. He’s just having fun holding up traffic.

At any rate, having found a Western Union site with an employee who evinces actual competence overrides the annoyance factor entailed in having encountered three morons between here and there.

Now it’s on to Costco.

Yesterday when I visited the Costco up north, which has a fairly safe parking lot, I picked up a  bag of coffee. So sick was I that I didn’t even see the thing: just grabbed it and ran. When I went to stash the loot in the car, I finally noticed that it was a bag of Starbuck’s beans, not the San Francisco Bay brand I usually buy. Feeling slightly better today — and having to venture near the mid-town Costco anyway — I decide to brave the parking lot where the lunatic tried to kidnap my neighbor’s baby out of her car, there to return the Starbuck’s and get the preferred product. It’s early, so parking’s not a problem to speak of. And the place is not even very crowded yet.

Well, wouldn’tcha know it: As usual, Costco has ferreted out the product that I like and, naturally, gotten rid of it! No offense…you may think Starbuck’s coffee is just grand, but that, alas, would be be because as a red-blooded American you’re readily hornswaggled by advertising. It’s terrible, low-grade plonk dressed up in a corporate emperor’s new clothes. Try San Francisco Bay brand if you’d like to see what I mean. Or maybe not: if you do, you’ll never be able to swallow SB again…

Costco was charging a lot less than Amazon’s vendors demand, which made it eminently affordable. But no…I’m not paying $20 to have a bag of coffee beans dropped off at my front door for the porch pirates to steal.

So this made for yet another trip, over to AJ’s to buy a bag of their over-priced, locally roasted, just OK coffee.

By now I’m getting tired and light-headed, and again having trouble drawing enough air into the lungs to sustain life. Onward.

Into the ‘Hood, where I spot one of our pet bums plodding along the sidewalk by the park: a really filthy, scary-looking guy with his face and head shrouded under a hoodie. He approaches an athletic, sportily dressed young woman jogging toward him on the sidewalk and tries to panhandle her. I pull over, wait, and watch, figuring I may have to drive over there and pick her up. No: she repels him easily. She strides off. I wait. He does not turn to follow her. A small miracle.

Home at last. Let the dog out, start to fix lunch. A cop helicopter roars over and circles Upper Richistan a few times. Then he shoots across the street just to the north of the Funny Farm and takes off northerly along Conduit of Blight. Delightful.

Discretion being the better part, I decided to stir-fry some scallops in garlic over a stove burner rather than, as planned, grill a piece of steak outside for the mid-day feast. This made for a nice meal…and a nice mess to clean up. Ohhh well. The cleaning lady will earn her pay on Monday. 😉

Sooo…still sick but slightly better. I estimate another four weeks before the cough stops. Probably longer to get completely back to normal. Yea verily, quite possibly not until it gets hot again: that would put full recovery in May.

Dayum!

 

Life in Dystopia

Today I needed to accomplish three fairly minor errands:

  • Take the clogged-up vacuum cleaner to the repair shop to have it cleaned out;
  • Go to the post office and mail tax returns, return receipt requested;
  • Buy a new mattress to replace my 15-year-old number, which is sagging on both sides.

How easy does that sound, eh? None of these places is very far away. It should take maybe an hour, an hour and a half at the outside, to accomplish these small chores.

And how much time did it take?

Three hours of miserable, frustrating running around. I left around 11 a.m. and got back at almost 2 p.m.

First, to the post office, the one over by the freeway on the other side of Conduit of Blight Blvd. There I found a packed parking lot and a line extending to the back of the big reception area and curving along the wall.

Okayyyyy. Got better things to do than stand around with a sore back watching postal employees move as though they were swimming through molasses. Turn around, walk back out, climb in the car. Back out of the space, with  no one coming. A moron down the aisle can’t stand it, so floors the gas pedal and shoots around behind me. Fortunately I’m watching and so see the bastard coming. He misses me.

Schlep across the freeway and through a depressing slum, therein to visit the fabric store/vacuum cleaner repair store. Go to the front counter, where I ask about vacuum repair. (The place is primarily a fabric store for quilters.) Am told to go to the back of the (very large) store.

Walk to the back of the store. They tell me to go to the front counter.

Walk to the front counter. There I’m told they don’t repair Shark vacuums because they can’t get the parts. “That’s why they’re so cheap,” says the broad behind the counter. If you think I’m going to replace this thing with one of those Mieles you folks are peddling, you are FREAKING NUTS. They’re evidently lying, because at Amazon customers remark on having this, that, or the other item repaired on their Sharks, and Amazon sells Shark parts. But if the only repair shop in town refuses to fix it, my sole alternative is to buy a new one, which probably wouldn’t cost much more than paying those clowns to fix it. Ask them if they’ll toss the thing, and they say sure. I figure they’ll fix it and resell it, but WTF.

Now for another try at the post office.

There’s another PO near the ’hood, about the same distance from the Funny Farm as the one over in the blight by the freeway. This one is usually less busy; it’s better staffed, and the regulars there seem to be more competent than the bunch over by the freeway. So, traipse north of Gangbanger’s Way into Sunnyslope, park a good long distance from the door, and without much hope, trudge into the building.

And yup: the line there is even longer! People are backed all the way up to the door, a good 20 customers standing there looking bored and annoyed.

Fuck.

Drive down to the Albertson’s shopping center. There one can find a Matchbox Car store that has a postal counter.

“Can you send these envelopes return receipt requested?”

“Sure. Fill out these forms.”

No line. Zero waiting. Nil aggravation. Why didn’t I think of this at the outset? I must be getting senile.

Head on down to the Target, thereinat to buy a new Shark. To get there, I have to navigate endless signals around the accursed train tracks, playing touch-tag with the Bum Express lightrail all the way down to the Target/Walmart/Costco shopping center.

This Shark-purchasing task used to be easy. Not so anymore!

First time I bought a Shark at the Target, they had one (1) model. No hassle. Next time, they had two (yes, just 2). Not much of a hassle there, either. But today? They had a freaking can-can line of Shark vacuum cleaners! What exactly were the differences among these contraptions is unclear. Which is what and why? I decide to go home and look them up on Amazon, where I can at least see the rants and raves of random consumers.

Pick up a bag of tennis balls for the dog, walk to the front of the store, where the longest wall in the whole huge building is lined with checkout stands…most of them closed. Two self-serve stands way down on the south end and one self-serve stand way over on the north end are open…and vacant. Two (2) cash registers staffed by humans are serving lines of customers backed halfway to the cosmetics department.

Well, I figure, if I have to order from Amazon, I might as well buy the tennis balls there. Out the door.

On the way to the car, I reflect that Costco, which is right next door in an adjacent parking lot, vets its products pretty well. They have in the past carried Shark vacuums. If they have one, it’s probably the one their buyer thinks is the best.

Okay. Move the car a quarter-mile, traipse into the store, and track down the vacuums.

Yea verily, they do have Shark: only two models, each well rated at Amazon. I buy the one that looks most similar to the one I just tossed. A hundred sixty dollah!

Cheap, eh?

Peruse the mattresses. See a couple that will do the job nicely. Confirm that you can’t buy them there and arrange for delivery: you have to go online to give them your money and beg them to deliver the thing.

Having been told this before, I’ve watched for mattress stores as I’ve been trudging around the city. These seem to have been put out of business by Tuft & Needle, a popular mail-order product that has two stores in more affluent parts of the Valley.

Tuft & Needle, I’m sure, is wonderful. But their mattresses are made of foam. I’ve never cared for foam mattresses. Sorry, I may be retrograde (again), but I want an innerspring mattress, dammit! Besides, even if their mattresses are miracles from heaven, they don’t deliver and cart off the old stuff. The mattress I’ve got is so heavy I can’t even rotate it by myself, to say nothing of hauling it out to the alley.

No mattress companies. The department stores that used to carry mattresses have closed. WTF?

So I give up and figure I’ll have to order a Sealy or something from Costco’s online site. And lemme tellya…I really, truly, do NOT want to buy a mattress sight unseen.

There’s a Penney’s next door to that Costco, but the area is so downscale I think I’d do better to schlep to the Penney’s in Paradise Valley, or go over to the Whole Foods shopping center in the Biltmore area to see if the mattress store that used to be there is still holding forth. Choices are likely to be better in either of those garden spots.

Annoying.

Think of that: three hours to mail two envelopes and buy a (relatively) cheap vacuum cleaner.

The other day I was chatting with a friend about the dystopic nature of life in Our America. I think this kind of experience is emblematic of that dystopia.

Consider: in the name of political correctness, globalism, and corporate greed, what do we have?

  • Washers that do not wash clothes
  • Dishwashers that do not wash dishes
  • Wall ovens that burn themselves out if you set them to “broil,” to say nothing of trying to use the self-clean feature
  • Cheap foam mattresses sold to us as the be-all and end-all of sleeping luxury
  • Water-saving toilets that have to be flushed three times each time you use them — assuming they’ll flush at all
  • Water spigots that dispense water at a slow drizzle
  • Water heaters that cost $800
  • Steak that even fairly affluent Americans cannot afford
  • Farm-raised fish full of filth and chemicals
  • A steady diet of unhealthy, processed food
  • Cars that cost three times as much as your first home cost
  • Weed killers that do not kill weeds
  • Medications that promote drug addiction
  • Doctors whose goal is to get you hooked on medications of all varieties
  • Homeless drug addicts swarming the street corners and living in our alleys and yards
  • Prisons run by corporations that don’t even provide basic healthcare for the hordes of minor offenders warehoused there
  • Schools like prisons, where children are regularly terrorized in bullet-dodging drills
  • A plague of untreated mental illness (hence the need to teach children to dodge bullets)
  • Costs for basics — like cars and homes — that are now so high that most mothers have to work, leaving the kids in day-care: no option there
  • Cameras and microphones spying on us at every corner
  • Computers that record our every move, from purchases of bug spray online to what TV shows we watch
  • Jobs that do not pay a living wage
  • Decently paying blue-collar jobs sent off-shore
  • Junk merchandise, sold at upscale prices, shipped back into the country, made by underpaid workers in those off-shored jobs
  • Desperate, beleaguered citizens who elect a batsh!t corrupt administration in a mistaken effort to bring back the good old days…which really were better than what we have now, objectively speaking

Lovely, isn’t it?

We live in a dystopia. What marks that dystopia is exactly what my father used to worry about and, in his most pessimistic moments, would predict was gonna happen: Our standard of living is slipping.

He believed that America, simply by its top-heavy nature, risked sliding back into Third-World conditions. This, he feared, would happen for political and economic reasons. And he knew whereof he spoke, when it came to Third-World conditions. As a young pup, one of his first jobs was delivering milk in a horse-drawn wagon. He escaped Texas and went to sea, and then along came the Great Depression — when he and my mother passed ten days eating nothing but oranges and pancakes. And he spent most of his life sailing to Third-World countries, plus for 10 years we lived in a country that was a relic of the Middle Ages.

I used to think, when he’d go on about this subject, that it was just his right-wing craziness speaking. But he was right. 

It’s highly unlikely he would have voted for Donald Trump, and neither would my mother — they recognized corruption and lies in action. But the woman he married after my mother died surely would have — she shared his thinking about the inexorable downward slide of America, but in addition she was very stupid.

Still, my guess is he’d have cheerfully voted for Mike Pence. In a heartbeat. And it’s no wonder, when you look at what has happened and continues to happen to the lives of working-class Americans.

And in the lives of all of us.

Crazy Ol’ Lady Day at Costco

Home, sweet home…

Well, the Costco Cash Card Budgeting Scheme worked out exceptionally well for July. By the 31st — yesterday — I ended up with $54 and change left on the prepaid card for in-store shopping (budget: $300), and about $45 left on the gasoline card (budget: $60).

The gas card held up well because I’d filled the tank right at the end of May — the 30th or 31st — so in fact the $60 budget intended to cover two fill-ups was only needed for one, and that, not a total fill-up. And the three hundred bucks was probably about right for a month’s worth of grocery and sundry purchases, in the absence of the dreaded Impulse Buy.

So today I join my friends and companions in shopping crime for a Costco Run. We get there as the store opens, but it’s still monstrously hot outside, and warm inside the store, too. This particular day, I’ve driven us not to our favorite store on the fringe of East Richistan, but to a more middle-class outlet on the lower edge of Whiteyville, up on the I-17 freeway. This is a good enough store, but what draws me is that they sell propane. For a lot less than regular vendors do. And I’m low on propane. I lash two tanks into the back compartment of the unbeloved Venza, and we’re off.

We circumnavigate the store, but we find it a little frustrating because its layout is nothing like the other two big-box warehouses we frequent. And I’m pretty sure they’ve rearranged everything since the last time I was there…so I’m no help at all, because I have no clue where they’ve put things. NOTHING is in what feels like a normal place. We wander around, perplexed, dodging millennials and their urchins and generally having to walk three times as many steps as we would normally have to do, to find the stuff we normally buy.

In the course of this venture, Mr. Friend says he’s not feeling well and needs to sit down. Mr. F, you should know, is in his 90s, as is Mrs. F. Fortunately, Costco is selling furniture these days, so Mrs. F and I park him in a dining-room set and take off to find the last couple of items we need. But since he has remarked that he’s afraid his heart may be acting up, I’m worried.

Shortly, we head for the check-out. Mercifully, the lines are extremely short, and we get up to the cash register forthwith.

I tell the cash register guy, when he presents me with a bill for $156, that I would like to top up the depleted Costco cash card with another $250, and then pay the bill with the cash card. He says he can’t do that: he can’t add new money to an old cash card.

Huh? That’s not what they told me at the Outer East Richistan store.

But, says he while I’m puzzling over this discrepancy, he can take the $55 off the old card, put it onto a new cash card, and then I can use my credit-union debit card to add $250 to this new card.

It’s hot, I’m tired, and I’m worried about my friend, so I say okay, make it so. We get through the checkout, stumble back out into the heat, collect the propane tanks, and escape.

When I get home, I look at the receipt and realize that what this idiot has done is, yes, filled up the cash card with money extracted from my checking account via the debit card. A-N-N-D…THEN he has drained another $156 from my checking account to pay for the stuff I specifically asked to put on the cash card.

WTF????

So now I have to get into my car and drive through the heat, fight for a parking space, and hike across the parking lot to my local Costco, down on Conduit of Blight Blvd.

God. DAMN. It.

When I get there and explain that with $156 extra taken out of the bank, I won’t be able to pay the utility bills, the customer service lady is flabbergasted to learn the guy told me he couldn’t refill the cash card. Of course he can refill the cash card, said she.

She called over a guy and said “Fix this!”

And he fixed it. What he did, basically, was simply withdraw $160 from the card and had me a fistful of cash.

This worked. I can either schlep it up to the credit union and re-deposit it (oh, goodie! another 40 minutes of dodging my fellow homicidal drivers through 115-degree heat!) or simply use it to buy stuff during this month. Probably the later is the path of least resistance.

While I was there, I refilled the gas tank, leaving $8.25 of the original $60 cash card for gasoline.

Tomorrow I have to drive to Tempe, so for sure I’m not going to make a whole month on one tank of gas. That’s really pretty unusual…normally I’d have to fill up twice in 30 or 31 days. But still: I’ll only have to put $51.75 on it to top it back up to sixty bucks.

Meanwhile, $40 was left from the rest of this month’s budget, after everything was paid. So I’m figuring if I shifted that over to the Emergency Savings Project, that would help to revive the account to its former glory We put $681 in there, the max I could spare from July’s Social Security deposit and still have enough in checking to live. If no emergencies require withdrawals from that account (har har!!!), then in a year there should be $8,172 for unexpected expenses.

Obviously that ain’t a-gunna happen. But it’s nice to dream, eh?

It would be slightly likelier to happen if at the end of each month I transferred whatever few dollars remained unspent from that month’s budget. Say, $40…multiplied by 12, that would add $480 to the pot. And if $40 is left over at the end of July, the worst month in creation for utility bills, then a lot more would be left over in January and February.

When I got home from the second Costco junket, I realized I’d failed to buy coffee while we were at the Whiteyville store. However, there’s a Costco on the way home from Tempe, on 44th street just north of the freeway. So I’ll have to stop by there tomorrow afternoon. In the heat. Probably in the rush hour, by the time I spring free from the university library.

What fun: three Costco trips in two days! 😀

Budgetarium…

Naturally, even though I hit “save to DropBox” until I was blue in the face, the Time Machine Mac-reboot demolished my Excel budget sheet. Sooo…this morning I had the ineffable privilege of trying to reconstruct every penny-pinch I’ve indulged this month.

Is it, really, any wonder that most Americans have little to no control over their money? That most of us have little or no emergency savings, to say nothing of enough to live on through our dotage?

On the “fun” scale, budgeting ranks down about where “scouring the toilet” appears. Maybe slightly below that. Depressing, frustrating. and annoying. Especially when your damn computer deletes several hours’ worth of ditz.

Okayy…. So after spending most of the morning wrestling with this sh!t, I was unable to reconstruct all of the month’s record without having to spend even more hours poring over each entry in three weeks’ worth of receipts. So…had to make a few shortcuts. Those skimpy calculations notwithstanding, I did manage to ascertain the following:

The Costco cash card devoted to in-store purchases still holds $54.
The CC cash card for gasoline purchases still has its original $60(!!!).
I’ve managed to hold the AMEX bill to an amazing $277, an all-time low.
Despite a $237 power bill and a $200 water bill, I’m still $220 in the black (!!!!!).
I now have $681 in the emergency savings fund, up from last week’s $5.41.
The Mayo Clinic savings fund holds something over $500 in unclaimed funds, mysteriously: I may be able to afford to have the broken tooth fixed, after all.

Where the phantom $500 in medical savings came from, I do not know. I must have accidentally paid a bill or two out of cash flow. Typically, I charge Mayo bills on American Express as soon as the money comes in from Medicare and Medigap, deposit the incoming funds to a credit union account reserved to hold money for medical spending, and then use that to pay amounts charged on said AMEX bill. But because I hate loathe and despise the ditzy job of scanning and depositing those checks (or of traipsing 40 minutes across the city to deposit them in person), I may simply have spaced a few AMEX medical charges, paying them out of cash flow. WhatEVER…now I can use that to help get the teeth fixed.

Explanation: The Mayo Clinic declines to accept “Medicare assignment.” That does not mean, contrary to the impression many people have, that they refuse to accept patients who are on Medicare. It means only that they don’t accept direct deposit from Medicare or from Medigap insurers. Read: they do not want to pay an army of bookkeepers to deal with the endless blizzard of tiny little payments that Medicare and Medigap emit. If there’s one bill for a visit during which you had, say, nine minor tests and a doctor’s appointment, they don’t write one check; they write ten checks. The amount of paper these agencies vomit out simply defies belief. I have almost an entire file drawer full of the sh!t, and that’s just for one little old lady. One reasonably healthy little old lady.

So if you want to do business with…uhm, I mean, get care from the Mayo Clinic, you have to field All…That…Paper. And dig the checks out of the dunes of snail-mailed paperwork. (They’re easy to miss!). And then deposit them to your account. And then from your account, pay the amount due to the Mayo.

It’s a fuckin’ nuisance, and believe me, if there were any other hospital in the Phoenix area that consistently ranks good to excellent, I would take my healthcare business elsewhere. Alas, though, where medical care is concerned Arizona in general and Phoenix in specific are, shall we say, somewhat lacking in the “good to excellent” department. There are specific hospitals here — such as the one about a mile and a half from my house — that you do not want to go to. Hence, a drive that’s halfway to Payson whenever I need to see the doc, and unending hassles with paying the bills.

Truly. If my son didn’t live here, I would be living in Europe right now, today. This country has backslid so far into the Third World, one truly has to question the benefit of staying here.

See what I mean, about how annoying and depressing the whole budgeteering effort can be? If you even begin to think about the absurdity of it all…sheesh!

Where were we?

Yes. Well, despite the crabbiness this endeavor generates, by the time I finished reconstructing the month’s budgetizing record, I felt a lot better about things. With $54 still free to spend at Costco, plus $60 on the gasoline card (I had to buy gas on the last day of June and still have about a third of a tank left — meaning I will have spent only $30 on gas by the end of this month), I should finish this cycle well within budget. Maybe I’ll even have enough to pay the barbecue repair guy next week without running into the red.

The piddling $277 on the AMEX card was a surprise. In a big way. Typically, AMEX runs between $900 and $1200 a month. Why did this happen?

My theory is this:

Dedicating a flat amount to spend in Costco and determining not to exceed it forced me to build shopping lists before each of two Costco junkets. This accomplished two things:

a) Because I did not want to have to go back to Impulse Buy Hell unnecessarily, I thought very carefully about the things I needed. And…
b) Determining to stay within the $300 budget worked successfully to block the impulse-buying habit.

A carefully planned Costco [or Sam’s Club or Aldi or Walmart…] shopping list means you buy most of your needs there. So, you have to buy relatively few last-minute or forgotten items in a grocery store or a hardware store or a home store. That limits another category of impulse buy, of course: the ohhh I must have that [bag of popcorn] [box of clothespins] [overpriced artichoke] [tube of purple lipstick] [can of WD-40]! purchase.

There are a few things I have to buy in a grocery store. Those fancy rolls of dog food I use to fill in when the gourmet home-made food runs out, for example: Costco doesn’t carry those things. Walmart and the uppity AJ’s both carry them — and each charges the same for the stuff. If most of a month’s supermarket and grocery store items are purchased at Costco, then all that’s left to buy elsewhere is the dog food and occasional fresh produce. Walmart’s produce stinks and half the time they’re out of the dog food, so to avoid wasted trips (and wasted gasoline) I buy both at AJ’s, the Jewel of Richistan. But even buying fresh produce and overpriced dog food at that upscale emporium does not run up the AMEX bill the way list-free shopping does.

If these speculations are true, then I should have relatively little trouble staying within what seemed like an impossibly tight budget (given what I have been spending, habitually). Frankly, after the astronomical power and water bills, I was very surprised not to find myself flat broke already.

Now is the most expensive time of year, when it comes to running the Funny Farm. I do not do time-of-day billing deals with the power company (like, yeah: I really want to spend my evenings running the laundry! And sure, I really want the Salt River Project telling me what I can do and when!). Nor do I average out my bills over the year: that would leave me with unaffordable bills all year round instead of just three or four months a year. The result is that during the winter, the power bills in this house are very low. I don’t mind being a little chilly for a few hours a day. Once the sun hits the roof, the house warms right up, even in the middle of January. There’s no reason to heat the entire building when a space heater will make the room where I spend most of my time plenty comfortable. Same is true with the water bills: in winter, the vegetation uses a quarter of the amount of water needed to keep it alive during the summer. As a result, water bills are correspondingly low. This leaves lots more money to spend on my indulgences during the cooler months.

Or to set aside in savings. 😉

Cash Card as Budget “Envelope”

Okay, so tomorrow is the first of July, which we hereby call the first day of a new budget cycle…even though, infuriatingly, credit-card billing cycles do not coincide with the first or last of a month. Couple of weeks ago, I came up with the idea of using Costco cash cards as metaphorical budget “envelopes” to help get a grip on my spending in those Elysian realms. And just a day ago, I also had the bright idea of using my credit-union checking and savings accounts as another type of “envelope” in which to organize the annual required minimum distribution (RMD) from the 401 K and the monthly Social Security income into categories:

  • cash-flow money,
  • emergency savings, and
  • set-asides for the upcoming year’s tax and insurance bills.

Hm. Sounds plausible, doesn’t it? But…how will that work, in practice?

The RMD came in last week: a couple months early since I’m running out of cash. Forthwith, I transferred the tax-and-insurance set-aside — 8400 freaking bucks! — to savings, and I set up the checking account to automatically transfer Social Security deposits to another savings account, where the money (barring any immediate catastrophes) will accumulate to create an emergency fund.

This leaves a rather limited amount to live on over the next year: a little less than $1400 a month, about $365 less than average monthly 2018 spending.

That is going to represent a significant cut in spending. How to pull it off?

Come to me, come to meeee….

Well, the big challenge (IMHO) is Costco, lovingly known as Impulse Buy Hell. Even when I go in there with a list, I still come out with a bunch of junk (no, valuables!) I had no intention of buying. Consequently, a $300 tab is not unusual, and a cash-register bill in excess of $200 is pretty routine. To get a grip on this predicament, I had the idea of purchasing a cash card on the first of the month and using it to buy as much as it will bear, and then when it runs out…well…STOP buying at Costco for the rest of that month.

Two cash cards, actually: one for in-store shopping, and another, to the tune of about $60, for gasoline and propane.

But…how much to budget for Costco in-store spending?

Since I buy most of my groceries, all of my household goods, and much of my personal-care products at CC, $200 is probably not enough. On the other hand, presenting myself with a prepaid card for $300 may do nothing to resolve the diddle-it-all-away issue.

While studying this conundrum, I remembered the box into which I toss Costco receipts. Costco will take anything back and fork over a full refund. Often they’ll do so without a receipt (because, like Big Brother Himself, they have a detailed record of everything you’ve ever bought, and when), but it expedites things to have the receipt. Wouldn’t a fistful of these paper scraps contain a record of how much my various regular purchases cost? And with that in hand, wouldn’t I be able to calculate what any given shopping list of Costco items would cost?

Well… Yes. And yes! Rummage through a few months’ worth of yellowing receipts, and here’s what you come up with:Yea, verily…  😀

Now we have a clue to some of the things I buy all the time, some things I rarely buy, and a couple things I’ll never buy again (bear spray?). Some of these prices you can find at Costco’s website, but of course they don’t list produce prices (because they can’t, in any sane way, without updating pages about every day).

With this in my computer, now I can know about how much a given shopping list is going to cost! Woo-hoo!!

POWER!

So. On Monday, when I intend to make a run on the Costco in outer Richistan, where they carry the fancy products I crave (you can’t get pomegranate juice at the Inner City Costco down the street, for example), I will have a clue:

Tax is about 10% here. Not everything on the list is taxed at that rate; food is a little lower, but things are considered “food” in highly erratic ways. So it’s safest to assume all purchases will be taxed at 10% and then be pleasantly surprised.

I’m going to have to buy chlorine tablets for the pool, now that the water is getting tropically warm. Until recently the granulated stuff from Leslie’s was working fine (though it, too, is spectacularly expensive). But with summer definitively here, I need the tablets’ stabilizer to keep levels steady under the merry ultraviolet sunlight. At Costco, ninety bucks (plus 10% tax…) will buy you 40 pounds of the stuff. Leslie’s will sell you 35 pounds — some 12 percent less — for the same price, unless you want to fart around with finding a coupon and making an extra trip to an extra store to apply it.

My feeling about that: Hey, guys. If you think $72 (about what you can bring it down to) is a fair price for your product, then that’s the fair price, and I shouldn’t have to be jacked around with stupid coupon bullsh!t.

Truly. I do hate coupons. As I hate “membership” cards at grocery stores. Just charge everyone a fair price and quit the crap.

Where were we? Fifty pounds of chlorine tablets last exactly one year. (Hence, you could argue, if I’d had any sense I would have bought a bucket of the things when I ran out last winter, instead of stupidly waiting till the middle of the summer when the power bill is hovering in the stratosphere….) Thirty-five pounds will last less than a year, plus I’ll have to put up with marketing bullshit or let Leslie’s rip me off on the cost by about 12 percent. Conclusion: Buy the damn things at Costco.

That purchase will push this month’s bill to something around $290.

While the chlorine tablets are an “extraordinary” buy in the sense that the purchase will not appear on any other bill over the next 12 months, note that this month I’m not buying either beef (about $45 for a package) or fish (around $20 to $30, typically). Or shellfish (neither shrimp nor the beloved scallops). So in other months when I would not buy chlorine but would have to buy meat, that cost would keep the total right about where it is for this month.

That suggests that I should budget around $300 for in-store Costco purchases. At the end of a month, I reload the cash card to top it back up at $300 for the following month. So if, say, this month I really do spend only(!) $290 on food and household products, $10 should be left on the card come August 1. So next month I will only have to put $290 on the card.

Now, what about gasoline?

A glance at last month’s Visa bill shows that I spent only $30 on gasoline over the past month.

Freaking astonishing! Especially since if you’d asked me I’d’ve said I spend upwards of $60 a month on gas.

The car’s computer claims it can run another 51 miles, enough to get out to the coveted Paradise Valley Costco. As a practical matter, though, I think I will buy these cards and fill up with gas tomorrow at the Inner City Costco, which is closer to my house and whose gas prices are usually lower. Then I’ll drive to the store in PV or up in Whiteyville, where I can get the upscale products I crave and walk across the parking lot in reasonable safety.

Why did I spend so little on gas last month? Several reasons:

  • Choir season is over, so that eliminates two round trips to the church per week.
  • I stopped driving halfway to Blythe to attend monthly meetings of my favorite writer’s group.
  • And I quit attending the weekly Scottsdale Business Association meetings when they started convening at a Denny’s on the border of the Pima Reservation, halfway to freaking Tucson.
  • And I haven’t had to drive out to the Mayo this month — halfway to freaking Payson.

One or two doctor’s appointments will cause the car to soak up a fair amount more than thirty bucks worth of gas. Same would happen if I chose to drive to My Sister’s Closet or Nordstrom’s Rack in Scottsdale to shop for clothes — unlikely, but both those establishments display the best of their products in Inner Richistan. There’s hardly any point in going to either of those stores at their uptown Phoenix locations.

So I’m thinking it would be best to put $60 on the gas card. And the same will apply: if I don’t spend that much, it won’t take as many dollars the following month to top it back up.

Setting a rule that I have to quit buying when one of these cards runs out will at least stop me from spending more than $360 a month at Costco. I may just run over to Safeway to buy whatever the CC budget cannot sustain. But…maybe not. If a purchase isn’t urgent, I may just defer it to the following month.

And since the bulk of my buying occurs at Costco, that should help to keep 2018/19 spending under control.