bikes planes and automobiles · el cheapo · hackin' it · whine and cheese

Day 563: I don’t get it.

The air travel industry drives me nuts.

If I search for flights from Ecuador to Toronto (one way,) I can get a flight that goes through Miami for $3100 (for the whole family, not per person.)

Now, if I search for the same flights as above, but separately (Ecuador to Miami, and another search for Miami to Toronto,) the total price is $2100.

What gives?

Interestingly, when I clicked on “book through the airline,” the American Airlines page opened up for me… in Spanish. It seemed to think I was searching from Ecuador. I tried to search for that flight with my country set to “Canada—English,” but the page crashed every time I did that. In the end I decided that there’s nothing wrong with a flight ticket purchased in Spanish; Google translated the page for me, I filled in our details, and we got our cheap(er) flight.

I still don’t get it, though. Don’t get me wrong—I’m thrilled that an extra hour of searching saved me $1000 in after-tax money (easiest $1K I ever made,) but it seems just a little bit absurd, doesn’t it?

Even weirder: I just went and did the same searches again so I could get a screenshot for this blog post… and got completely different (higher) prices on the two separate flights this time around. HOW????? and WHY????

I think my head just exploded.

DIY · el cheapo

Day 522: Where everybody knows my name

I’m a friendly sort of person. Where Mr. December would go into a store, pay for his stuff, and get out, I’ll be chatting and smiling and asking how the cashier is doing. I do it because it makes me happy, not because it gets me any benefit… but sometimes I actually do reap the benefits of friendliness.

I went to my happy place—Lowe’s—because I needed plywood to make the drawer fronts for the library. I had actually called in my order to the Pro Desk (they call me a pro!) so they could have it cut and waiting at the front for me; but when I got there, my order wasn’t ready. As it turned out, the phone number on my account is my landline which I never use and which has a full mailbox; they had tried calling me three times to tell me that they didn’t have the product I’d ordered.

So there I was at the Pro Desk, asking one of the associates who knows me why the website said the plywood was in stock when it really wasn’t. She took a walk through the sheet goods aisle and offered me a few different options to replace the plywood they didn’t have. I approved one and we walked over to the cutting area together to find an associate to cut the board; but just as he started off towards aisle 51, I spied something between the back of the track saw and the rack of wood behind it.

“What’s that?” I pointed. “It looks like the kind of thing I’m looking for.”

“It’s scrap,” they told me.

Scrap!? It was a piece of ¾ inch plywood with sanded sides, at least two feet by seven feet. Who on earth bought the rest of a sheet and left that beautiful piece behind?

“I’ll take it,” I announced.

And that’s how I scored some free ¾” good-one-side sanded plywood. I asked the associate at the cutting area what they usually do with pieces like the one I’d chosen. “It’s sad,” he said, “but it usually goes in the garbage.”

So I’m a little happier because I didn’t have to spend $90 on a full sheet of plywood, and the earth is happier because that’s one less perfectly good product going to waste. Win-win.

When I got to the cash another guy who knows me asked whether I had been given a price for the partial sheet. “No,” I said, “It was from the scrap pile.”

He looked to the first woman I’d dealt with for confirmation.

“It’s Sara,” she told him. “She can have it for free.”

I have to say, I felt kind of special. I love the folks at the Pro Desk.

Next, I needed paint. So I called up our local paint store, where the three employees have helped me with a lot of paint-related needs. One time, the manager gave me a mini-lesson in painting technique for getting a brushstroke-free finish on cabinet doors.

It was the cheerful young man who answered the phone with a jaunty tone of voice. I ordered the paint I needed and told him I’d be there in half an hour. When I went to pick up, we chatted for a while and he made some notes in my file of which room or project the paint was for—handy if I need to go back later, I guess. When I left, he opened the door for me and wished me a great afternoon and good luck with the project.

Back at home, I set to work cutting the drawer fronts and installing the mounting hardware on them. Then I removed the fronts from the drawers and took them downstairs to start painting. They’re downstairs in the Makery, awaiting more coats tomorrow. And here I am at my desk, reflecting on how much I like to shop where everybody knows my name.

DIY · el cheapo · Keepin' it real

Day 497: Oops.

The photo I posted yesterday of me with the wrecking bar was, as commenter Rose suggested, related to the window seat. Before I could upholster the back and sides of the seat, I had to remove part of the windowsill so that it wouldn’t dig into our shoulders when we leaned back. It was really hard to pry the moulding off, until I could see into the crack between the moulding and the rest of the windowsill: then it was obvious that the tiny nails holding the moulding to the wall were quite long. No way could I pull them out all the way without damaging the surrounding wood in the process—hence the wire cutters. I’d pry from the top with the pry bar until I could fit the wire cutters in, then clip the nail. Once that was done it all came out easily.

I ended up doing four hours of manual labour yesterday, between the prying and the templating and cutting a new (slightly slanted) back out of plywood. I actually felt pretty badass—I love building things.

This morning I bought the fabric and foam for the window seat. I’ve decided on an upholstered back instead of adding back cushions like we had before, on the theory that it will be less messy this way. I can always add extra throw cushions later.

By this point you may be wondering what the “Oops” title was about. Right? Of course right.

After creating templates and double-checking dimensions, I was dismayed to discover that the fabric I had cut for the seat back was just a little too short.

“NOOOOOOOOOO!” I howled like a comic book villain who’s been thwarted once again.

It would have been insanely complicated to take the whole thing off and reattach it, and might not even look good given what the tacking strips do to the fabric. I only had enough fabric left to finish the seat cushion and upholster the second side, so I couldn’t redo the whole thing. I decided to work on something different and come back to it.

I’m proud to say that I came up with a solution that looks pretty good. I’m not even telling you what the solution was; if you can’t see it, then I don’t need to point it out. I’m just telling you because I’m proud of myself. Also because I’m the queen of keeping it real, as they say, and I think it’s important that you know that most of my projects have at least one major oops moment in the process.

I’m not sure how I like the fabric; I eventually chose it because nobody hated it, and E and Mr. December liked it the best of the bunch. It’s an outdoor fabric—helpful when it’s sitting in a west-facing bay window and getting lots of lovely sunlight that will fade almost anything it touches. It happened to be on clearance, so I ended up paying $35 for just under six metres. If I decide in two years that I hate it, I can redo the whole thing.

I’ve pretty much finished the back and sides, and have only to cut and cover the seat cushion. At one point I wanted to make sure I chose the perfect fabric and had the whole thing done perfectly; now I just want to get it done, period.

better homes than yours · DIY · el cheapo · hackin' it · whine and cheese

Day 495: Cheap Imitations?

“I have big plans,” I informed Mr. December. “I’m going to rope K into my crazy, harebrained scheme and we’re going to do it when you’re out of the house.”

You might be wondering why I told him at all; I was wondering the same thing two seconds after I finished speaking. That’s me, though: when I’m excited about something, I can’t keep my mouth shut. Except for that time we threw my parents a big surprise party for their anniversary… but that was really, really hard.

Back to Mr. December. “Does it involve wrecking a perfectly good table?” he asked.

How did he know? “Maybe a little…” I admitted.

I don’t know if I ever told you that we have a new-to-us dining room table. It’s not the fancy epoxy table, and it’s not the custom wood table with the tree-shaped legs either. I’ve known this table for most of my life, as it’s been sitting in the boardroom of my Dad’s office for the last twenty-five (or so) years. It’s the exact size and shape that I wanted, and it was free, which means I can throw my table fund into twelve beautiful (and matching) dining chairs.

Besides, you know I’m happier when I’m hacking furniture, right? This table is—like most office furniture—really nice wood-look formica over particle board. But I have big plans here: remove some of the laminate (probably a meandering river down the middle, but who knows) and pour a very thin layer of blue epoxy into the resultant gap. I think it would look extremely cool.

Speaking of cool, my mum brought these beautiful chairs to my attention:

Image description: a chair with chrome legs and a transparent blue plastic molded seat. There are ripples emanating from the centre of the seat. It looks like water.

When I saw them—and when Mum told me how comfy they are—I started looking for them online. I found what I thought was the right chair on Overstock and Wayfair; but when I read the reviews, many of them said the chairs weren’t very durable. I found this strange since my Aunty (in whose kitchen the above photo was taken) told me that the chairs still look untouched even with all the abuse her dogs and birds dish out.

So I ran a Google search on the photo of the chair. Sure enough, there appeared to be two different companies making a nearly-identical product. Of course, I couldn’t tell which was which except by the dimensions; in typical Wayfair manner, they’ve given the chairs a name that is completely different from the model name on the manufacturers’ website. Sure enough, though, one of them is slightly bigger and presumably more durable. It definitely gets better reviews than its doppelganger.

This kind of thing makes me crazy. It’s obviously designed to make it impossible for customers to comparison-shop, and in that it succeeds; but if I ordered a set of chairs and they turned out to be the cheap imitations, I’d be pissed.

So how am I supposed to know? According to the online retailers, I’m not. I guess this means I have to email actual bricks-and-mortar furniture stores around here and ask if they still carry these. And if not… do I take my chances and order 12 online? Or do I order just two online and risk them selling out before I can buy more?

el cheapo · whine and cheese

Day 492: I don’t subscribe to this model.

Warning: I’m about to date myself. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you’re a young’un and you should just sit down and listen. Okay?

Remember how in the good old days, you could go out and buy music and then it was yours? You held it in your hand, you could take it home, and then thirty years later you could pull it out and play it. (Why yes, I do still have my copy of Madonna: The Immaculate Collection from when I was twelve.)

Now everything is by subscription: we pay every month and in the end we actually don’t own anything. If the world went post-apocalyptic tomorrow, I could still listen to all our CDs. But if the internet and everything in it went down, and I had no CDs, there’d be nothing to listen to. I don’t own my music, even the stuff I paid for.

It actually bothers me less with music than with computer programs. Apparently you can still buy (and own) Microsoft Office 2019, but there will be no more updates. If you want a more updated version, you have to pay to maintain a subscription. Thank goodness for Google Docs and Sheets.

There are a lot of niche-type programs I use. I subscribed to PicMonkey so that I could do some more advanced image editing to make K’s bat mitzvah logo; I kept it because I do find my way onto it every now and then for other small projects. Is it useful? Yes. Is it ten-dollars-per-month-if-I-want-to-keep-access-to-my-original-files useful? No, probably not. I should really look into just buying a copy of PhotoShop… assuming one can actually be bought, and not just subscribed-to.

I use music notation software to arrange our ensemble pieces for homeschool. I’m making do with the free version, because I can’t stand the thought of another subscription. I did actually subscribe to a music education program, but at least we’re using their resources all the time. I have a Kobo Plus subscription because, with four Kobos, it’s a lot cheaper than buying those books for our whole family; it’s even cheaper than the late fees we’d incur if we borrowed hard copies from the library. To be fair, we also borrow e-books from our library through overdrive, and that’s great, but the Kobo Plus subscription is worth it for us.

But you see the problem: almost any niche interest or hobby that I have can be improved by using software, but I have to subscribe to it forever and ever, or I lose my stuff. These companies have got to be making a mint off this.

So no, I do not subscribe to this subscription model. Bring back actual ownership, I say (shaking my fist wildly.)

See? I’m dating myself.

Camping it up · el cheapo · Keepin' it real · Sartorial stuff

Day 462: Quality over Quantity

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know about my goal of using Amazon less (because of their unethical business practices) and local, fair-trade vendors more. Sure, the products are more expensive (often by a factor of 3 or more,) but that’s okay because Mr. December and I would rather have a small number of high-quality things than tons of cheap stuff.

But what happens when our values collide with necessity?

When I got the summer camp packing list, my first thought was, “My kids don’t have that much clothing!” We do laundry either once or twice a week, which means that in any given season we need maximum eight of anything—shirts, pants, socks, underwear, whatever. When we travel, we aim for just four days’ worth of clothes, and we do laundry every three or four days. We just don’t need that much stuff. Besides, as I once read somewhere, “Wearing different clothes everyday is an American obsession.” If the clothes aren’t stinky or visibly dirty, they can be worn again.

Mr. December would go farther with that and say that it doesn’t matter if they wear dirty clothes at camp. And they don’t need four sweaters, he’d argue, because the kid can wear all of their t-shirts at once to keep warm. Also, if their shoes get wet they can just wear wet shoes for a while. Problem solved.

I agree with him, to a degree. It’s camp. You’re in the woods. It doesn’t matter if there’s a stain on your sweatshirt from yesterday’s dinner. Just wear it.

(We used to wear the same clothes for a full week on our canoe trips, only changing our underwear and occasionally washing our t-shirts in the lake. Yes, we stank. No, none of us cared. And now my Mum is reading this and cringing. Sorry, Mum!)

I also tend to agree that kids don’t always need doubles of everything. It’s good for them to learn that no great misfortune will befall them if they have to wear sandals while their running shoes dry out. A little stoicism wouldn’t hurt these kids, I assure you.

Alas, the way laundry is done at camp my kids will only have about half their clothes with them at a time, so they do need at least twice as much as I would have thought reasonable. And since the kids just don’t own that much clothing, there’s lots of shopping to be done.

Ideally I would like to steer clear of fast fashion and things that were made in sweatshops, and instead invest in responsibly-made clothes. But first, things that go to camp might get ruined by the industrial laundry service or might not come back at all. That’s not the place for clothes that could be described as an “investment in a few good pieces.” Not to mention the fact that since I’m not willing to stand in line to get into a thrift shop, the cost of outfitting three kids with fifteen days’ worth of ethically-made clothes would be staggering.

I think you already know that reality steamrolled my lofty sartorial-ethical goals completely. It grates on me a bit every time I go back to my old, cheap standbys… but obviously not enough to make me want to spend ninety dollars on a single bathing suit that might not come back home. I’m trying not to sweat it; once all the camp purchases are finished I can go back to choosing quality over quantity.

Camping it up · el cheapo · IKEA · Keepin' it real · Kids · lists · Sartorial stuff · well *I* think it's funny...

Day 453: I never learn.

I feel like I’ve spent my entire day shopping online. If I have to look at one more sizing chart, I’ll scream: every few minutes I called a different kid over to my desk to be measured for clothing sizes. I managed to find bathing suits for all three big kids—no mean feat when you realize that the fashion and retail sector is always one season ahead of us. I had a hard time finding bathing suits at all, because all the summer stuff seemed to be on clearance and the only sizes left were for four-year-olds.

I thought we had all the large duffel bags we needed; but when I went to bring them upstairs so the kids could start packing, I found that two of the bags were shedding little bits of their waterproof coating all over the place. They had to go.

(It’s not like those bags owed us anything—they accompanied Mr. December and his brother to summer camp 30 years ago—but I was just so happy to think that at least I had luggage squared away.)

I decided to focus on bedding for a bit, so I went to the IKEA website and started loading things like inexpensive comforters into my cart. On a whim, I searched for “laundry bag” (because I needed those, too) and found this:

Image description: screenshot of the IKEA website. The product is a blue rectangular bag with handles, called FRAKTA. It sells for $3.99 and holds 76 litres.

It’s a 76-litre bag made out of the same indestructible material as those huge blue IKEA shopping bags you can buy at their checkout. This huge bag has zippers, carry handles, and shoulder straps (backpack-style.) And it costs $3.99. Four dollars for a bag that will probably never die? I hit “Add to cart” a few times.

And then I was sorely disappointed—again. IKEA has the worst e-commerce site I’ve seen in a while. They don’t tell you if an item is in stock for delivery until you get to the very end. So there I was, happily about to check out, when I was informed that the bag was out of stock for delivery. And for pickup. There were exactly zero 76L FRAKTA bags in their entire system. I almost cried.

And do you know where I ended up buying about half of today’s purchases? That’s right, Amazon.

So to recap, here are the lessons I should learn from today… but probably won’t:

  1. Don’t wait until bathing-suit weather to buy bathing suits—they’ll be sold out. The time to find swimwear for the kids is April.
  2. IKEA stuff looks promising but you’ll be disappointed somehow. (Didn’t we just cover this with the window shades, like, less than a week ago?)
  3. Despite your best efforts to buy from small local vendors, when you’re up against a deadline of any kind, or when you’re price sensitive, you’ll end up on Amazon. Again.

Lesson 1 I really should have learned the first time I had to buy bathing suits for camp, seven years ago. Lesson 2… well, as I said above, we just had this conversation last Friday. And lesson three… I’m still resisting, but sometimes it just seems inevitable.

It’s not that I don’t want to learn from today’s adventures, but the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour—which leads me to believe that after all these learning experiences, I’ve still learned nothing.

community · Early morning musings · el cheapo · family fun · Homeschool · Sartorial stuff

Day 450: Bagels, Bugs, and Buying Shoes

Our day started early. We were scheduled to be at the community orchard for volunteer duty at 8:30; the kids resisted the idea of an early (for a Sunday) wake-up. In the face of their complaints, Mr. December and I did what any good managers would do: we added an incentive.

“Here’s the deal: Abba will be walking to the bakery to get fresh bread, and then he’ll head to the park. If we get there by 8:10 we’ll have time to eat our fresh bread for breakfast before the volunteer shift starts.”

It was beautiful out this morning as we enjoyed our fresh (still warm!) bagels and cream cheese at the long harvest table in the park. The kids even got there early enough to play for a bit before our work began.

Our job is to monitor the insect traps: we have to empty them through a strainer, examine and identify the bugs we caught, then rinse and refill the traps with bait and return them to the trees.

All the kids were on board a few weeks ago when we built the traps and mixed our first batch of bait. But this morning, as they saw the bugs collecting in the sieve, three of them backed away and asked the Orchard-Person-in-Chief for a different assignment. R and N spent some time digging and weeding in the pollinator garden bed while E was assigned the task of inspecting all the fruit trees for gypsy moths and ladybugs (squish the former, save the latter.)

K was my partner in entomological fun. She took some remarkably good pictures of the bugs we found. We spent a significant amount of time googling moth identification images and trying to figure out why the colouring was off; geniuses that we are, it was twenty minutes before we realized that the colouring was off because the moths had been sitting in a molasses-and-cider-vinegar bath for a few days. Of course. We confirmed that they were gypsy moths and then identified the cherry fruit flies (did you know they have stripes on their abdomen?). We even found a huge spider and her breakfast leftovers—half of a fly.

By 9:30 Mr. December and the two older kids had headed home to start their school day; R kept on weeding the pollinator bed while E and I went hunting for ladybugs to relocate to the aphid-infested plum tree.

I’m sure you had no idea—I certainly didn’t—but getting immature ladybugs off of their leaves is worse than getting four kids to leave the house… and the ladybugs can’t be bribed with bagels.

After the fresh bagels, the volunteer time in the orchard, and learning formal logic with the kids, I discovered that my feet fit into youth size six shoes. Why does this matter, you ask? Because I want a pair of Keens, and the kids’ sizes are nearly half the price of the adult ones—and they come in way better colours, too. And, as I put it to Mr. December:

“If I can buy kids’ shoes at half the price of the adult ones, does that mean I can get two pairs?”

el cheapo · family fun · water you paddling?

Day 449: Back to the Beach

At 8:00 this morning I didn’t feel like going anywhere. We had planned to go to the beach—we were to leave much earlier than eight, in fact—but I felt kind of lazy and would have been perfectly happy to stay home.

I’m glad we didn’t. As soon as I got out of the car and smelled the air I felt energetic. Inflating the kayaks took a bit of time and effort (less than ten minutes, but I got very spoiled last September at the cottage where I could be on the water in under a minute) but when R and I paddled out, it felt wonderful.

K and N had put up a fight about going to the beach, but in the end they came along. K didn’t go into the water at all, but she did enjoy some fries from the food truck (she’s a teenager now, which means she’s feeding a massive growth spurt, which means she’s always hungry.) N waded out in the water and then surprised the heck out of me by wanting to go kayaking.

As we were packing up the car to go back home, I offhandedly said, “Hey honey, I think I need a better kayak.”

“What’s wrong with the ones we have?”

“They don’t have foot pegs, and they drift a bit. And they feel kind of slow,” I answered.

“Why didn’t you do your research before you bought these ones?” He asked in exactly the tone of voice you’re imagining right now.

“I did my research! But if I’d said I wanted to buy a $600 kayak you’d have gone into a whole speech about how I don’t even know if I’ll use it that much, and so I bought the cheapest ones I could find to try it out first!”

“Well, you don’t seem to use them very much,” he observed.

“Maybe if they were easier and more fun to paddle I’d use them more!”

He conceded that he’s familiar with the chicken-and-egg case of higher-quality equipment making it more likely that you’ll actually stick with a new activity.

I’m not going kayak shopping right now. I’m being explicit about this because I’ve just spent half an hour looking at kayaks online; but I need to focus on getting the kids ready and packed up for overnight camp. They leave on July 7… and then I’ll go kayak shopping.


Camping it up · el cheapo · Keepin' it real · Kids

Day 445: I wish I could quit you.

Dear Amazon,

I wish I could quit you.

By most accounts, you engage in unethical business practices and your employment practices aren’t anything to write home about either. You sell lots of stuff cheaply, most of it made in China, which makes me wonder whether it was made by Uyghurs in Chinese detention centres. And you’re not-so-slowly taking over the market, elbowing small local retailers out of the way because they can’t compete with you.

Granted, you have economy of scale on your side. And I’m sure you’ve invested gazillions of dollars in software development and logistics planning and implementation. You’re so big because you’re so good at what you do. I get that. But still, for ethical reasons I’ve been trying to reduce my purchases from you by, oh, ninety percent.

But I just can’t leave.

There are some things I can’t seem to find anywhere else; all of your collapsible silicone water bottles in multiple colours, for example. It may not seem very important to others, but in our house we colour-code everything so we know which of the four kids each item belongs to. I checked five local sports/outdoor stores before resigning myself to the fact that I’d have to buy from you. Again.

I needed a very long, continuous curtain track system. IKEA’s system failed me. I looked everywhere I could think of and found absolutely nothing. So I came crawling back again, credit-card CVV in hand, to buy a seven-metre track with rollers and everything. It works perfectly, by the way.

At least the curtain track story has a positive spin: it was sold by one of your “Marketplace” vendors, which I gather means they use Amazon as an e-commerce platform so they don’t have to develop their own. They benefit from your reach and your search algorithms and I presume they pay handsomely for the opportunity. Anyhow, this vendor was a small family-owned business based in Alberta that only sells through you. I had a minor customer service issue and they were perfectly lovely to deal with. I would absolutely buy from them again… on Amazon, of course, because they have no other platform.

And now… I have three kids to prepare for camp. Who knew they’d need so much stuff? Twenty-four towels (total, not each)? I mean, yeah, first I’ll canvass everyone I know for their old towels they don’t want anymore. But after that, you might be my best chance for towels on the cheap. Although I’m happy to pay smaller local stores a bit more for their products, I’m less happy to do it when I’m staring at a packing list that looks like it was put together by a stereotypical Jewish mother who doesn’t get that it’s okay to wear your sweatshirt a whole week running even if it’s got grass stains on the elbows and a smear of melted marshmallow from Wednesday night’s campfire. Point is, there’s so much stuff we need from camp that I do need to economize just a bit.

So, Amazon, even though I said goodbye dozens of times, even though I’ve resolved to stop crawling back to you, I can’t. You’re just that good at what you do. And apparently, I need you.

Shamefacedly yours,