The Future of Christmas Presents – feat. BladeRunner?

I was leaving the mall after lunch with a business associate. I was going to stop and buy a gift, something specific, probably a 10-minute detour before heading back to the office.

I mentioned it to my associate, who laughed and said he – HE – was already finished doing his Christmas shopping, had done it all online, everything had been delivered, wrapped, Done.

I thought for a moment about working my way back to the shop I had in mind, not even sure that they sold what I wanted. I pictured my high heels slipping and sliding on the mall floor, and then the ice as I returned to my car, much like a less graceful version of Bambi.

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I didn’t end up shopping, just incase you were wondering. Instead I went straight back to the office and made my purchase online. I had to go up to $35 to get free shipping, but the gift improved vastly with the upgrade. Maybe it still took me half and hour, but at least I didn’t have to worry about those stupid slippery tiles at the mall  (sidenote: why do they do that even MAKE tiles like that? People walk on tiles; they should be slip-proof).

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My progeny keeps sending me links to things they want – easy peasy. Amazon seems to have my credit card number on file; I don’t even have to get up to get my wallet out of bag.

I remember dutifully Christmas shopping in my early twenties, aware that since I was making money I should be gifting the people in my life. I was never one of those people who started Christmas shopping in January, but I usually started early-ish – mid-to-late October. This was before anyone except academic eggheads knew about the internet and they only used it to source books and research.

I went once a week after work downtown and worked a steady trek between the two landmark department stores. I had a list. At that time I gave everyone presents – family, friends, co-workers. While very careful with how much money I spent on gifts. I developed a self-indulgent shopping habit that lasted about 30 years, and usually came home with many more things for myself than anyone else.

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The list shortened over the years. I stopped giving friends presents after one Christmas when I sat in front of a bunch of well-intentioned, useless, meaningless items including a calico cat decoration (I am neither a calico nor cat person) and a crystal mouse, related gifts from two people who didn’t even know each other. What it said about my friendships was devastating to me – these people did not know me at all.

The next few years with friends were awkward but eventually they stopped giving me presents. I would effusively thank them and then say “But I didn’t get you anything!” enthusiastically.

Family members turned from individual gifts to and from everyone. My mother’s sunken living room became a mosh pit of wrapping paper and excitement, to a name pull. The name pull didn’t work well as it seemed we didn’t really know each other that well and some people were disappointed with the one gift they got. Then we went to a generic women’s/men’s gift, which quickly devolved into a liquor exchange. The final year there was a snowstorm and we decided we would no longer have the BIG Christmas gathering and this year we’re just meeting at a restaurant. That was the end of the family gift exchange.

As a singleton, all that is left now is my progeny. When they were growing up it was very easy to collect most of what they wanted from the grocery store – the most popular toys would be available very early and each week one would be on special, so I saved money and spread out the spending. I was a little ashamed that I did not source out quality, educational toys the way some mothers did, but I had tried in the earlier years and it was the popular stuff that got the most happy reaction so I gave up on the specialty stores – sorry local merchants – my kid was basic.

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At the height of my shopping compulsion, and before the progeny was old enough to give me gifts, as a single parent with no partner, I went out and spent a great deal of money on stuff I would have liked other people to give me. I continued this even after I had a partner because he was resolutely pathetic about picking up on any hints given, even when prefaced with the words “This would make a nice Christmas gift!” or on a list in the kitchen titled Christmas “Gifts.” So much shopping…

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There was a period when I did frequent specialty stores, right before we as a society discovered online shopping. No line ups, unique gifts. Lee Valley was a favorite, though you run out of affordable options that can function as gifts in a few years – not everyone appreciates fine tools the way they should.

My self-shopping days are pretty much over. In almost an instant I turned from shopping-my-unhappiness to forcing myself out twice a year to buy a few new seasonal clothes for work. I neither need or want stuff.

The question is – is this what is happening all over, or is it just me.

I know that online shopping is an issue for merchants, but maybe it’s not, because the mall stores are all the same as the online stores, so maybe it’s just an issue for retail workers and mall owners. Will malls eventually become like Mayan ruins or the temples of Ankar Wat, abandoned, covered with weeds and Virginia Creeper? Massive monuments to gathering places of the past, where citizens worshipped the gods of the time? Will we convert them to exercise venues, used for walking and rock climbing? Or homes for the homeless? Each person with their own cubicle. Some kind of Mad Max scenario in which punks with mohawks and skateboards see out the end times?

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I have seen smaller outlet malls in the US shut down and abandoned; grocery chains forsake large commodious buildings when another chain builds a store across the street. And the most egregious of Canadian consumer failures, huge buildings with a space where a large red circle used to be, red doors and other trim still in place, with no future use apparent.

Continuing the movie metaphor, will we hunch over our small electronics, the only light in our dark lives, BladeRunner Style, a fireplace app glowing and a pile of opened cardboard boxes growing in the corners of our multi-complex residences. Or will Black Friday continue to draw people out, will the feel of merchandise between our greedy fingers outweigh our sloth, the thrill of the hunt for Canada Goose at half price even though we have perfectly good jackets at home and the temperature never goes below freezing driving our lizard brains to thrash it out with other dinosaurs. Is Boxing Day our salvation as human beings? Will the pursuit of last Christmas’s wrapping paper keep our drive for acquisition alive, the only thing that kind of separates us from other animals?

Yeah – it’s probably just me – and that guy I had lunch with.

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59 – What is it good for? Or, why do old women’s pantyhose sag around their ankles?

Facing my 59th birthday with considerable nausea, I turned to the internet seeking comfort. The most hopeful comment I could find was, “You have one year before you turn old – try and enjoy it.”

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Hmm… Not quite the sage advice I was hoping for, the peaceful perspective, the 60-is-the-new-40 chutzpa I needed

So I pulled up my hose which has started to wrinkle around my ankles in true old lady fashion because my ass is no longer round enough to hold them up properly – didn’t know why that happens did you? – and acted like a big girl for the next couple of months trying not to let it drag me or my stockings down.

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Then the other day I realized, as I met with a 30-something go-getter (with a penis, not to say that a penis defines a man because not all men have penises but… well, you get the picture) who is taking over my business. I don’t resent him. In the past I would have wished that he would fall out of tree while trimming it and break multiple bones in his body. Instead, I very sanely and peacefully let him negotiate with me over the purchase of my dream. I didn’t resent his success in doing what I had set out to do, even though I am convinced my failure was in my reproductive organs and not in my ability. Or maybe it was in my bleach blonde hair with pink highlights, or my pantyhose… It doesn’t really matter.

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THE POINT IS: I did not resent him and his stylin’ ambitions; instead I felt the satisfied security of recognizing that I was the same only 10 years ago: my closet full of business suits, dresses and oh, the high heels, my head full of plans. I even had the equanimity to say to him that I had wished for his success but felt it was better to join it than fight it. I say this with no sarcasm or irony.

As part of my transition to an active retirement, I am upgrading my qualifications with a program put together by a younger businesswoman. In younger days I might not even have been able to look at the course, so envious would I have been of this person who is on the cutting edge of our changing industry. I would have wondered why I myself didn’t think of doing this which would have led me down a path of negative self-criticism – lazy, disorganized, not good with people. Now I only want to benefit from her efforts and make small changes in my own business life.

So there is good stuff after 58 and it does bring something new – not only acceptance but the ability to admire others for the things I could not do. There is a wonderful blamelessness to this new feeling. I don’t feel like a failure. I’m OK with the fact that others are in a better situation to accomplish things that should be done and glad that they are doing them. I’m kind of liking this new feeling. It’s a lot easier than before.

 

 

November Challenge – Not the Facial Hair Kind

My mother hates November. I grew up hearing about how awful it was and at the age of 92 she still has a lot to say about it.

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Although T.S. Eliot coined April as the Cruelest month, many people feel this way about the second last month on the calendar.

First there is the time change, compounding the loss of daylight, the grey days, and the anxiety that comes with the feeling that accompanies the closing of another year.

My challenge to you is to learn to love it. Looming ahead of course is The Big C, Christmas, a residual religious occasion marked by secular and observant Christians alike. Although you, like many people, may not like Christmas, with its commercialism and forced family jolliness, it may help to remember that there are many others celebrating at this time of year for different reasons, thankful for what nature gives us before going to sleep as we all should. Other religions and cultures have marked the time with their own celebrations – Hannukah, Rabī‘ al-Awwal, Bodhi Day, Pancha Ganapati, Kwanzaa, Human Rights Day, Quaid-e-Azam’s Day – the list is very long.

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All of which ties this time of year to historical, festivals of lights fighting the winter doldrums. November is probably the only month of the year that could be called restful. The weather is probably not calling you outside, unless you live down under. The grey light is like a luxurious piece of silk blanketing the earth. If this doesn’t work for you, use a SAD light indoors to minimize the physical effect of Vitamin D withdrawal. Like animals getting ready for winter, grow your body and facial hair and turn to food that your body will store for the lean months ahead, most likely cookies, eggnog, or possibly deep-fried potato cakes. Go to bed early, unless you are invited out for more fat-and sugar soaked food. If you have to drive after dark, take the long way home and enjoy the ridiculous and/or fabulous light displays of people who have the energy or money to put them up. If you don’t like Christmas music, buy one of those World collections that book stores sell at the counter and play it until Jingle Bells is Chimerenga-ed out of your head. Hannukah songs are also quite catchy.

November, with its encouragement to hibernate, is a great time to take stock, before the news and music stations start doing it. As humans, most of us measure our life in arbitrary groups of 365 ¼ days, and we end up feeling, especially at this time, like we could have done more with the 304 ¼ days we had until November started.

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We don’t know at the start of those days what life will throw at us, so we can only be responsible for how we made it to this point. That is something to feel good about. Put it at the top of a list and then continue, noting other things you did. Maybe you changed jobs, or got a job – Major. Maybe you got to 3 out 4 of your kid’s school events – major. Maybe you finally took that weekend with your college mates that you’ve talked about for the last 20 years. Maybe you got a flu shot and felt pretty good most of the year. Maybe you cleaned out half the garage last Victoria Day weekend. Maybe you took up/gave up golfing, quilting, health supplements. Those 304 ¼ days are long, even though they go by quickly, and you did some good stuff during that time.

Earth knows to take a rest during this period. My challenge to you is to do the same thing, whatever your ethno-religious-cultural background is. This is the home stretch, 61 days to be grateful, take it easy, and enjoy the light show.

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My new financial life… or how I told the window crank guy I couldn’t afford him today

It was really hard for me to do.

All of my adult working life I have been impulsively committed to paying for things. Specifically, things that needed to be done even though I knew I didn’t have the money to pay for it. I had this problem on top of being a compulsive shopper, and a novice hoarder.

The windows do need to be fixed so that they can open and shut the way they should.  But they are closed for the winter and I can delay what looked to be at least a $300 expense for at least 8 months.  On top of that I just had the drain lines routed for $300 when I thought it was going to cost $100.

The difference is – you just can’t live with clogged drain lines when toilet paper is collecting in the mysterious hole in the basement floor.  I can forgo other things while I deal with the extra $200 I didn’t expect, but to add another $300 to fix window cranks while my dishwasher also needs repair doesn’t make sense.

So why did I ask him to call?  First of all, I didn’t dream that replacing a couple of metal pieces would cost that much.  Second, and more importantly, because he was right in front of me and fixing the windows is on a long list of things I want to do for my home and I had been wondering who to call for that kind of thing.  And third, even more importantly, because it makes me feel like a big person to say confidently “Yes, fix my windows.”  It makes me feel for a moment like I do have that kind of cash flow.  It’s only $300 after all, and I make decent money.

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But my new financial life, thanks to The Money Finder, tells me that even though I make decent money, I also spend lots and lots of it and there is never anything left over and I would like to feel like a big person that saves money first – and then spends it.  The Money Finder helps me to be conscious of how much “loose” money I can throw around on impulsive – or emergency – spending. Even when it’s not shoes, I need to be much more aware of whether I can afford it and groceries.

That is another way to feel like a big person – being responsible for my spending.

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Do you have a magic credit card?

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The credit card that you get in the mail is an awesome thing. This little piece of plastic with flashy graphics and a microchip that knows you better than you know your own mother. It recognizes you when you are out alone without enough cash to pay for food. It lets you buy things you really want late at night from the comfort of your own bed. It allows suppliers to track what you like and notify you when there are deals that you need to know about. It provides security when you are far away from home. Is it any wonder it feels like magic?

I met someone recently who didn’t know that their credit card charged interest.  Don’t judge them – they were dutifully making their minimum payments on time.

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When you start using a credit card, you need to know that you are borrowing money. If you don’t pay the whole amount you borrowed within a month, a special charge is added to your balance, about 2%. This is called “interest”. Every month you don’t pay off the full amount you owe, and put more purchases on your card, the interest gets charged – another 2% every month. Over a year that adds up to about 24%. That is a very high rate of interest.

Interest is charged on the interest you haven’t paid. Interest on interest is the worst kind. In the criminal world it’s called loan sharking. You need to know that credit card companies are like loan sharks.

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Except that they won’t break your legs. Credit card companies like it when you don’t pay off your monthly balance. Because then they can keep charging you interest. Most credit card holders don’t run away from their credit card debt.  They just keep making that minimum payment, which makes credit card companies very happy because at their rate of interest it would take about 34 years to pay off the borrowed money – that’s a lot of interest. When you go to the bank for a loan or a mortgage, they look at your credit profile. If you are carrying a balance on credit cards, the bank is as likely to offer to roll it into your new loan as they are to say “tsk, tsk”. The credit card companies are owned by the banks, and they know you will soon have a new balance to pay interest on, so everyone is happy that you don’t pay off your credit card bill every month.

Now that’s magic.

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The High Cost of Low interest – Who’s to Blame?

You’ve hit the wall. You realize that you can NEVER pay off your debt (thunder cracks in the background and a lone wolf howls as rain starts to pour). Thanks to the good ol’ credit card companies who brought you high limits and sweet, sweet low or no interest  deals, your non-housing debt has grown to where it may be bigger than your mortgage.

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You are not alone. You are among the people who buy in to lottery pools at work and set up biweekly mortgage payments, people with “good” jobs who live well and are broke. They have no savings other than what is forced on them through payroll deduction. They include inheritance from parents who are alive and kicking (and may also be broke) in their retirement planning. They unquestioningly pay for orthodontics and orthotics while earning points on credit cards. Along with a supersized mortgage, the bank gives them a line of credit which they use to pay off credit cards every month, so they can avoid the incredibly high interest that credit cards charge. The credit card company congratulates them and raises the limit.  Next month the kitchen renos go on the credit card.  And so on.

Until the line of credit reaches the max.  Now what?  Along comes an offer you can’t refuse – a low interest credit card – 3.99%, 1.99%, maybe even 0%, maybe from the same company as your regular credit card.  You can use this low interest card to transfer money to your regular credit card or bank account. Problem solved – until the low interest period runs out and you start playing a stressful musical game of moving balances from one low interest card to another, until all the offers run out and you have no chair to sit on.  Your debit is unimaginably high and you are paying normal credit card rates at 20% or more.

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Is it your fault? No. You’re probably feeling guilty but I’m going to let you off the hook. You were trying to manage your debt with low interest.

Yes, you bought a bigger house than you really needed. And yes, your cars are more expensive than they should be but the payments are manageable. OK, you buy things at Costco that aren’t on your “list” because they’re’ such a good deal, and those coach lamps on the three-car garage look awesome. Sure, you made your usual winter getaway even though you had to put in on a credit card and knew you had no money to pay for it. Even with the usual credit card interest rate, you should have been able to pay it off in a few months but then one of the kids got “invited” to join an elite sports team and the registration fee was almost $1500. And then your niece got married and between the jack-and-jill and the wedding gift and paying for your daughter’s flower girl’s dress it cost almost $1000.

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It’s not your fault. It didn’t happen because you are a compulsive shopper or gambler and you overindulged. The banks and the credit companies and the car dealerships didn’t force you to overspend and they were there to lend a helping hand at a very reasonable rate when you needed money. They based their lending on your good credit rating and your good income – and your good payment record. They are the experts – why would they loan you money if you weren’t able to pay it back? They made you think it was OK.

And yet here you are. Your consumables debt is more than what you make in a year. If you had to make actual payments you would be bankrupt in a few months. If any of life’s 3D disasters happened – downsizing, death or disability – you don’t have enough savings or equity to pay it off.  Is it their fault?

No.  I will go out on a socialist limb here and say – much as you should not have overspent – the government is to blame. Government requirements for home financing are excruciating. But auto dealers and credit card companies are not supervised in the same way. When my kid turned 18 they were given a $2600 limit on their first credit card – no job, no plans, no income, just a student credit card. Why? They never spend more than $100 on their credit card, mostly for online purchases and you can’t put tuition on a credit card.  A client’s 30 year old son makes $35000 and owes $35000 – on two credit cards. When credit card companies approve a new card, they look at your credit file and can see how much credit you have on other cards.  No one’s credit card limit should be as high as their annual income.  And don’t get me started on car payments – that is a whole ‘nother blog.

I’m not even addressing the ridiculous interest rates that credit card companies are allowed to charge. If you owe $2000 on a credit card and they charge 20% annual interest, that’s horrible but it’s $400 and you have a hope of paying it off in a year. When you owe $20,000 on a credit card, that same interest is $4000 – you can’t even keep up with the interest never mind pay off the debt. The high limits mean people are well beyond their ability to pay off the balance – so they can keep paying the interest for a very long time. Why would our government – any government – allow this? American Express – the original credit card – had the right idea – pay it off every month or you don’t get to put any new charges on it. Credit cards companies should be held to that standard and they are not. They are allowed to intentionally put you in a financial situation that you cannot handle.

So, contact your government representative and urge them to make this a priority. Part of the penalty for the credit companies who got you into this situation should be that they have to carry your debt at the low interest rate they offered you in the first place until you pay them back – over about 25 years.

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In the meantime, impose your own limits. If you can’t pay your credit card off by the end of the month, don’t put any more charges on it including trips, gifts, or orthodontia. Tell the dentist you’ll be returning the wires or that you need to make a payment plan.

 

Low Interest Credit – or Fluffy by any Other Name

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Low interest credit cards seem wonderful when you first find out about them. Like Fluffy asleep in the attic, so sweet – what could possibly be wrong?

Many moons ago, when interest rates hit their first historic low, finance companies came out with credit cards that offer to transfer an existing card balance and charge NO interest for a set period – 0%. And at first it was in fact 0%, for a year, sometimes longer. Or you could use the balance transfer to pay for things like a new bathroom or a vacation, instead of using your lame 7% line of credit, or applying for a traditional bank loan that you had to go down on one knee for.

 

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You didn’t need to have a financial advisor to figure out that 0% was better than any other percent. The first few times the NO interest period ran out you were able to pay off the balance without experiencing the pain and humiliation of a month’s interest at regular rates.

When I say “pay off” I don’t mean pay off the debt. I mean you were able to transfer the balance from the NO interest credit card when the interest free period ran out, on to your lame line of credit until the next NO interest offer came in, which it inevitably did. It got so that it was infuriating to pay 7% interest while you waited for the NO interest offers, which were timed so that you usually had to wait an interest cycle or two, not saying that the credit card companies were colluding with the banks or anything (cartel much?). This worked well for several years until life got in the way and there was no room on the line of credit for the switchback.   Fluffy was beginning to wake up but still looked pretty cute.

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You may have wondered, naively, how the credit companies could make money, until the one, two, three times that you didn’t move the interest free balance quickly enough and ended up with a month of interest that in the old days would have been referred to as “usuary” – an illegally high rate of interest intended to drive the debtor into bankruptcy. Then it made sense: for everyone that managed to transfer their interest free balance out on time – or actually pay it off! – there were many others who didn’t. And one month at regular credit card rates more than compensated the finance company for waiting for you to mess up.

Luckily, you thought, other institutions started doing the same thing. Every month offers came in. Even if you had never done it before, if you had any debt at all you had to consider it, with the best of intentions of paying it off. So you could now funnel the line of credit balance to a second NO interest credit card, pay off the balance on the first with the line of credit and then transfer the line of credit balance back when the next offer came along. And so on, and so on until you had several NO interest arrangements going.  Fluffy full on is a pretty scary thing.

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Even now, much later, it makes absolutely no sense to carry a debt at a higher rate of interest when a low rate of interest is offered to you, but you know that your “credit” is growing every time you go through the revolving credit door. You feel like you are in a bind and you are: at about $100,000 of low interest consumer debt (not your mortgage), they stop offering you credit. It is now difficult to get a mortgage or a car loan or refinance either of these when your unsecured debt is this high. When it comes time to revolve you have no where to go. And that’s when the credit card really starts making money – at 22%.  You are now one of those people in the commercials who dreads opening bill statements.

 

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It’s time to get help from a cash flow planner or a credit counsellor. Then read my posts about budgeting.

And recognize your credit cards for what they really are: a many-headed beast that needs to go back to sleep.

 

The 30 Day DeClutter Challenge – limping almost to the finish line

The OfficeDay 26 – Bonus.  My big brother came by and picked up some leftover blue metal siding which was harboring  several lifetime supplies of pine cones for the squirrels.  He very successfully repurposed it to side part of his own garage, painting it white.  The metal had already been repurposed once when I paid two millennials to strip it off a large shed that was being bulldozed down at a former residence so I could side and re-roof my own garage – waste not want not can be a good thing.

Day 27 – a Portables Dorothy Parker book purchased at the Thrift Store for 50 cents.  It was from a series of classic and sassy paperbacks from the 50’s – worth keeping for its vintage-ness, but…  I read all of it.  It alternated between heavy and/or acerbic short stories which were alternately enjoyable and – sorry Dorothy – mostly school-girlish poetry about men who break women’s hearts.  Poor woman – all that biting social commentary was compensation for being a love-worn romantic.  The whole thing TBH was tough slogging and not the literary romp I thought it would be.

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Day 28 – my daughter’s father was picking her up and saw a small ceramic turtle in one of my plant pots.  He wanted to know where I got it from.  “Take it!”  I said.  “Really – take it!”  He hesitated.  I told him it came from the $2 dollar store in another city and if he had a use for it he should take it as it would help me meet my quota for the day.  He still seemed reluctant but took it, inspecting it for cracks as he went down the walk.  I hope he actually used it.

Day 29 and 30 my calendar is blank.  I’m sure I gave something away those days but I’d be making it up if I wrote them down.  I don’t know why I didn’t write it down but then I’m not much of a finisher.  If it had been February I could have called it.

The question is:  why was this exercise so difficult?  I have a house full of stuff that needs to be gotten rid of and I don’t want to end up renting a dumpster when the time comes.  If I died tomorrow, my family would have a horrible job getting rid of everything, even though you can get directly across most rooms – no newspaper mazes.  Even so, most items require too much attention before going in the giveaway bag.

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I am a fan of the Peter Walsh approach, which generally means getting all the “like” items together and then eliminating most of them.  Seeing one t-shirt that doesn’t fit leads me down the garden path of cushion projects and cleaning cloths and losing weight and using the sleeves to put on sleeveless dresses (!)  Seeing 6 t-shirts that don’t fit makes me a bit nauseated and overcome with the need to banish them all from my sight.  It may be that the one-a-day approach doesn’t work for me personally.

 

 

For my next feat…