How to Play the Airline Miles Game

Originally published April 30, 2012.

I am a 30-year-old woman with an arts degree and some geographic commitment issues, so for much of my adult life, I’ve been in situations where I’ve earned unimpressive amounts of money, but have needed (or wanted) to fly to places semi-regularly. As a result, I’ve become a sort of unabashed, salivating fangirl for airline miles, and something of an expert when it comes to accumulating them. I offer here a primer on how you might join me in this rewarding hobby.

Not to be a scold right off the bat, but this method involves credit cards, so it may not be for everyone. You’ll need to have good credit, and pretty high levels of self-discipline for it to work right. If you’re the type who sees access to credit as an invitation to spend recklessly, I’m sorry, but this is not for you. You know that show on TLC about “Extreme Couponing” that is both inspiring and repulsive and you don’t know whether to pity the couponers or to cheer them on? This advice is going to be kind of like that, but for airline miles, so if you’re squeamish, don’t read any further.  READ MORE


Kids Trick-or-Treating Across Class Lines Makes 1%er Feel Faint

grinchAn unhappy rich person wrote into Dear Prudence this week with a crucial question raised by Halloween: do we have to be nice to everyone or just people like us?

I live in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country, but on one of the more “modest” streets—mostly doctors and lawyers and family business owners. (A few blocks away are billionaires, families with famous last names, media moguls, etc.) I have noticed that on Halloween, what seems like 75 percent of the trick-or-treaters are clearly not from this neighborhood. Kids arrive in overflowing cars from less fortunate areas. I feel this is inappropriate. Halloween isn’t a social service or a charity in which I have to buy candy for less fortunate children. Obviously this makes me feel like a terrible person, because what’s the big deal about making less fortunate kids happy on a holiday? But it just bugs me, because we already pay more than enough taxes toward actual social services. Should Halloween be a neighborhood activity, or is it legitimately a free-for-all in which people hunt down the best candy grounds for their kids?

Prudence replied, “go to Costco, you cheapskate,” and I have never agreed with her more. You do not buy candy on Halloween to feed only the sugar-addled monsters from your own class. Halloween, as much as Thanksgiving, is a holiday about generosity. You buy candy in bulk and you give it away to strangers for the pure joy of feeling grateful that you have money to spend, and nonsense to spend it on, and neighbors to interact with, and the realization that you don’t live in a war zone / under Communism. “Halloween isn’t a social service or a charity in which I have to buy candy for less fortunate children” — YES IT IS THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT IT IS

Where I live, teenagers walk into stores wearing street clothes and stores give them candy, no questions asked. It is one night a year when that kind of brazen behavior is rewarded with M&Ms. Get into the spirit of the holiday or move to some kind of gated community with padlocks and barbed wire so that the rest of us can be protected from people like you. 


Ghosts Of My Youth


The first ghost story I ever heard was from my mother. She described how once, while sleeping in an upstairs bedroom in her sister’s house, she woke to the feeling of twin icicles curling around her ankles. They were hands, but she didn’t see a body, exactly. More like an abstract interpretation of a body, female, crouched at the foot of the bed. It yanked once, hard, and she opened her pink teenaged mouth and screamed, causing it to let go and vanish. The details shift uneasily when she retells this story—sometimes there is a horrible, unseasonal rainstorm beating the roof, sometimes she is 15, or 17. But these two details remain the same: The bed belonged a dead woman and she never went into that portion of the house again.

There’s a lot of paranormal activity in my family. Whether it is more than most other families is hard to say, but we seem to have more than most. During holidays and family events, after the adults wander into the kitchen to drink coffee or head off to bed, us cousins gather in some remote part of the house and talk about the things that go bump in the night. These are our heirlooms, a series of signals and omens that help us make sense of each other and our shared family history, which is by turns strange, mysterious and murky. These stories open up a portal to the parts of life that don’t seem to make much sense but as still just as real as the rest of it. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that sometimes a ghost isn’t always a ghost. Sometimes, telling a ghost story is a way to talk about something else present in the air, taking up space beside you. It can also be a manifestation of intuition, or something you’ve known in your bones but haven’t yet been able to accept. But sometimes a ghost is exactly what it is—a seriously fucking scary spirit. READ MORE


The Cost of Defrosting a Freezer

IMAG2275-1As you may have noticed when I shared pictures of my microapartment earlier this week, I don’t have any shelving to speak of, and I don’t have any cupboards.

So my refrigerator stores both items that do need to be refrigerated, like almond milk and those enormous boxes of soup that taste really good the first few times and then you realize you have to have the same soup every day until it runs out or you’ll waste food, and items that do not need to be refrigerated, like rice and Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats.

Yes, I could stash my dry goods under the bed, probably. But I’ve lived in two separate places where any dry good left out would be inhabited by bugs the next morning, no matter how hard you scrubbed and wiped and sprayed mixtures of dish soap and white vinegar over everything. (There was a time when I would scrub down my kitchen every night before I went to bed, in the hopes that it would somehow deter the roaches.)

So I decided to just put everything in the refrigerator instead, which is probably how the freezer section ended up getting packed with frost.



A Costume Designer Gives You 4 Ways to Win Halloween

For a costume designer, Halloween can be tricky. On the one hand, we have the skills to tear it up, from concept to sourcing to execution. (See: friend and colleague Erica Evans killing it as 90s Poison Ivy.) On the other hand, we’re always using those skills, and we’re underpaid and over-scheduled, so wedging another concept-sourcing-execution into an already overstuffed October ain’t always possible. Also, it’s one thing springing for the right fabric or the perfect gloves when you have a production budget, and quite another when it’s your own hard-earned cash you’re forking over. Ditto execution. I can make a mask, a gown, a corset, a headdress, or a pair of hyper-realistic feathered wings, but I don’t always want to in my off hours, you know?

Forget store-bought. Not for snobbery reasons, but because this time of year in NYC the line to get into Halloween Adventure goes around the block and I am not here for that.

Most Halloweens I end up throwing something together at the absolute last minute and I can’t bring myself to spend more than thirty bucks, or more than an afternoon crafting. Sometimes, hell, I pick up something at the store to stick on my head and run out the door.

Here’s a few Halloween getups done the costume designer way: cheap, quick, and dirty. No specialist knowledge necessary.

1. Maenad



How Wizards Do Money: Ginny Potter


Ginny Potter hadn’t expected her life to change so much after having children.

In some ways, it was because she herself was the youngest of seven; she had never experienced an infant sibling who cried and wouldn’t stop, she had never seen toddlers throw tantrums or cling to their mothers (she had done that herself, of course, but it was long pushed out of memory), and she had never known her mother in the life before seven children, when Molly Prewett was thinner and quicker to curse and did not always look just a little bit tired.

Ginny expected parenting to come easily because everything else in her life had come so easily: she grew up in a happy home surrounded by a warm and caring family; she met, at 10 years old, the magical and wonderful boy who would grow up to be the man who loved her; she was clever at school and quick with spells and made it onto a professional Quidditch team after a single tryout.

After James was born, timed perfectly to arrive during the Quidditch off-season, Ginny realized that not everything came easily. Or, to put it more directly: just because you tried to do something didn’t mean it would actually happen.



Everything You Need to Know About Diapers, Part 2

probably pooping again right nowSee Part 1 here.

Disposables are big business. They’re convenient for parents but not cheap, except in Norway and Target, and potentially awful for the planet. What about reusables? Inspired by Pampers and its competitors, cloth diapers have come a long way. They have fasteners now, velcro and/or snaps; they are both more sophisticated and easier to use than their forebears. Sales have grown accordingly, especially in the last decade or so, when the Internet played a huge role in their resurgence: “The Real Diaper Industry Association, a group that represents makers of cloth diapers, says a survey it did found a 30 percent increase in cloth diaper sales between 2000 and 2007.” 

Great! But. Um. 30% is the let’s-be-real, probably inflated number the lobbyists are giving us, and that’s not even that big a number. The truth is, not that many people use them. Lots of people, like me, intend to! At least at first. (Spoiler alert?) Part of the reason is that they are expensive, at around $18 each, new, and you need so many of them. I had thought, naively, that if you buy liners, you could swap out a messy liner for a clean one and keep using the same shell. No. Ha! No. It turns out that pee, like water, goes everywhere, and baby poop, which is like its own subgenre of alien species, even more so.

Remember, your baby needs 10-12 changes in 24 hours. That means you need 10-12 cloth diapers, for a total initial cost of — let’s say you get some kind of bulk discount — $180, just to get through a regular Monday. That assumes you are then going to wash and dry the whole load to get it ready for Tuesday, and you will never do that, that’s insane. So really you need more like 25 ($250) at least, plus the liners, which are still necessary to keep the diapers from turning into a swamp. Even with a bare minimum of 25 shells, you have to do laundry constantly, or pay for a service. And you cannot go to a laundromat that often or it becomes your job.



‘I’d Like to Dispute These Charges, Please’


Yesterday, I received a text from my bank alerting me of some possibly fraudulent activity on my debit card. Despite the fact that it was tucked securely in my wallet, right next to my Qdoba rewards card, someone was using the number at a gas station in Lebanon. I can only assume they used the $97.60 to buy a tank of gas and then 57 hot dogs.

The matter was resolved very quickly, but my bank prompted me to comb through my recent activity and ensure everything else was kosher. Well, USAA, you were right. I have found some charges that must be fraudulent because I would never spend money so irresponsibly.

Over the last 30 days, these charges amount to:

$45.17 at J.P. Licks, an ice cream store. This absolutely could not have been me, because I’m lactose intolerant! Granted, I love ice cream. Granted, sometimes all I need after a long day is a cup of strawberry ice cream with hot caramel topping. Granted, I absolutely ate here 9 times last month. I’d like to dispute these charges. READ MORE


Everything You Need to Know About Diapers, Part 1

probably pooping again right nowWhen Babygirl was born, lo those two very full years ago, I had big ideas about cloth diapers. They’re super cute, but more importantly, they’re better for the environment, better for her, and better for my pocketbook all in one. The cloth diaper sites swear it:

You’ll save money. When you buy disposable diapers, you are throwing away money with each diaper change. Exactly how much you’ll save will vary depending on what brand of disposable diapers you (don’t) purchase and what brand of cloth diapers you choose.

Of course, that logic is a bit suspect. You’re not “throwing money away” when you use disposables anymore than you’re throwing away money when you pay your rent; you are exchanging your money for convenience, simplicity, and never having to use a diaper pail. (What’s a diaper pail? We’ll get into that later!) Still, I was sensitive enough to the potential long-term value of cloth to consider the old school / new school way, especially since I live in Brooklyn, and at least trying cloth diapers is written into the charter.

Quick bit of history: Back in the day, diapering, which involved pins, folding, leaks, rubber pants, and armload after armload of shit-smeared laundry, was a nightmare. The 20th century housewife-turned-entrepreneur who invented disposables was a Nobel Prize quality genius who changed everything. READ MORE


Paying by Phone

apple payApple’s mobile payments system, Apple Pay, was launched this week, and is working in national retail chains like Macy’s, Whole Foods, Walgreens, and Subway. Quartz has a guide to how it all works. Essentially, you’d connect one of your credit cards to your iPhone, and an antenna in your phone would automatically bring up the payments system when you’re ready to pay. You’d then pay using the fingerprint Touch ID system on your phone.

Paying with phones isn’t something new; places like Starbucks have encouraged customers to pay using their app—which you pull up and hold up to their scanner—by incentivizing rewards (a free drink or food item after 10 payments or so). I was an app user when I used to go to Starbucks on a regular basis (there is no longer one that’s close to our office). It’s not a perfect payment system—one report says that a few Apple Pay users have been hit with duplicate charges.

Will we all be paying with our phones in the next few years? Quartz considers this question:

Why should people use Apple Pay instead of simply swiping a credit card as they’ve easily done for years?
There’s no one great answer yet. Apple Pay won’t immediately, directly save you money. It might save you a little time paying, but not much. (Some of us may be faster retrieving and swiping a card than going through the motions with retrieving a phone from pocket or purse.) If you prevent your card number from being stolen, it might save you time lost updating your number on various auto-billing services. It might save the burden of trying to erase fraud or identity theft.

In apps, it might be easier to buy things, especially if you don’t need to sign up for new accounts, enter payment information, addresses, and the like. That could be great news for mobile-first merchants. But it’s still mostly theoretical time savings.

Credit and debit cards made some of us go cashless. Paying with our phones could potentially make us go wallet-less, which is an attractive idea for people who hate carrying around both their phones and wallets in their pockets. But cash still works for some people29 percent of us—so I suspect our wallets won’t be disappearing anytime soon either.