Only Suckers Don’t Buy Generic

You can count me among the nonchef idiots who pay three times more for brand-name pain relievers et alia instead of CVS-brand something-or-other. This BloombergView piece has almost convinced me to shake off my leftover childhood class anxiety and stop doing things like buy the most expensive pregnancy test because that probably means it’s the best.


On the Purchase of New Pillows

When we moved in together, PT and I combined our pillows without thinking about it. We just put pillowcases on them and piled them on the bed. Two of them went to the bed in the furnished extra room that we rent out as often as we can (n.b. we have not used Airbnb yet!). Some were mine and some were his, but all of them—save for the one Ikea pillow I picked up at some point in the past seven years in New York—were of unknown provenance; and they were gross.


What Aren’t We Spending Money On?

At TIME, Jacob Davidson goes through some of the data and makes a list of 10 things that Millennials aren’t buying. Are you not buying these things? Let’s go through them one by one.


On Underwear, Feminism, and Underwear-Feminism

The highbrow magazine The Baffler made its Internets redesign debut today with — among other things, including an out-of-nowhere slam of “This American Life” – a thoughtful blog entry about feminist underwear. As you may have discovered if you have looked for ethical alternatives to Hanes, prestige panties are expensive. And what do you really get for your money? A misguided sense of righteousness?

The problem with symbolic acts is rarely with the acts themselves, which range from mildly laudable to mostly harmless. Rather, the problem lies with an inability or refusal to move past the symbols to address the system. It mimics the shortsightedness people show when they congratulate themselves for buying an organic apple grown halfway around the world. Our well-intentioned discontent with globalization has never been resolved through more shopping, or even better shopping. … “feminist underwear” and other products like it are ultimately not so much game changers as they are status indicators.

I’m surprised that the author didn’t mention THINX, “underwear with built-in technology just for that time of the month.” At around $20-$40 a pair, “smart” underwear isn’t cheap, but it is more than usually functional: it’s anti-microbial, stain-resistant, leak-proof and absorbent. Also their business model is reminiscent of Toms, where the company rewards each purchase with investment in the developing world.

It might not be a total game changer, but it’s a partial one. I’m moved/convinced, I think! (“I can’t promise to try, but I’ll try to try.” –Bart Simpson.) What about you? Can shopping be a solution, or are products like this, however useful and even however philanthropic, just distractions from the Real And Ongoing Struggle?


Fear-Based Spending vs Hope-Based Spending

Josh’s fascinating post yesterday about fear-based spending, shelling out for things we probably don’t need on the assumption that we’re “better safe than sorry,” made me think about aspirational spending, shelling out for things we almost certainly don’t need on the assumption that it’s always worth it if we might end up a more attractive, enticing version of ourselves. Do you spend more on the lotion that will reduce your odds of getting skin cancer, or on the cream that promises “firmer skin in five days,” reduced wrinkles, and cheeks that glow like a sixteen-year-old in love?

What are we more susceptible to, really? Fear or hope? The product that might protect us, or the one that might make us the people we wish we were? And do you feel more like you’ve been cheated if your fear-based purchase is a fake, vs. your aspirational purchase? The fear, at least, is real, so if you find out your sunblock is snake oil, that’s worse than discovering that your Olay Rejuvenate is. Right?

Speaking of which, the term snake oil has a colorful history. NPR’s blog Code Switch explains:

Among the items the Chinese railroad workers brought with them to the States were various medicines — including snake oil. Made from the oil of the Chinese water snake, which is rich in the omega-3 acids that help reduce inflammation, snake oil in its original form really was effective, especially when used to treat arthritis and bursitis. The workers would rub the oil, used for centuries in China, on their joints after a long hard day at work. The story goes that the Chinese workers began sharing the oil with some American counterparts, who marveled at the effects.

So how did “snake oil” become synonymous with fraud? Because hucksters started peddling their own versions made with rattlesnake oil, or with a mix of oily ingredients like turpentine, which did nothing.


Fear-Based Spending

Let me start by saying that safety is good, and it is sensible to spend money on it. The auto industry howled miserably about the terrible increase in manufacturing costs that would accompany mandatory seatbelts, but it was probably worth it, because seatbelts save a lot of lives. But the line between prudent precaution and baseless fear can be hard to see, and can lead us to expend effort and money on the prevention of remote risks.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with an abundance of caution (except, you know, when there is), but it’s interesting to consider the sensible and not-so-sensible ways we spend money. I doubt anyone ever went broke buying a Brita water filter in New York City, but it is basically a waste of $25 in a city with some of the finest tap water in the country. And why spend an extra $100 to have a baby video monitor rather than an audio model? Have you ever watched a baby sleep? It is boring. (Besides, the audio version is perfectly adequate for sitting on your across-the-street neighbor’s stoop and having a margarita after your infant is in bed. Or so I’ve heard.)

And yet, we spend this money.


Weed Sells Like Hotcakes! Who Knew?

It’s high time that potheads get some respect. Turns out, when you make their vice of choice legal, they will indeed turn out to buy it on the open market, even for a higher price, instead of working the old, familiar backchannels. According to

When Washington became the second state to allow legal sales of recreational marijuana last week, Seattle only had a single store, Cannabis City, open for business. It ran out of weed in three days. Cannabis City opened its doors for the first time on Tuesday with 4.5 kg of marijuana ready to be purchased. By the end of Thursday, it had all been bought. It’s even more impressive when you realize that customers were only allowed to buy a maximum of 6 grams each, which means the store made at least 750 individual sales. …

Seattle wasn’t the only city whose store was a (limited) success. Top Shelf in Bellingham, which made the state’s first ever legal sale, set a new record with first-day sales of more than $30,000 thanks to serving more than 1,200 customers. It may be a surprise given how well stores did with their limited product, but not everyone is totally sold on the future of recreational marijuana in Washington. Retailers like Cannabis City have competition, both from medical marijuana (which is cheaper and often relatively easy to obtain) and old fashioned illegal marijuana (which is just cheaper). In addition to the in-state growing restriction, Washington applies a 25% sales tax on recreational weed, making it pretty pricey when compared to those other options.

The Western states aren’t the only ones making news on the subject of recreational drugs.


Concerning Inflation, Pants, and Getting Old

This is how it starts. This is the feeling of turning into an old person.

I am aware, and have made my peace with, the much remarked-upon phenomenon of musical tastes frozen at the time of adolescence. While I try to make forays into This Noisy Music All The Kids Are Listening To, I always come back to Big Daddy Kane, KRS-1, EPMD, and the like. I will be this way until I die, and it’s OK. But there is another way I am stuck: in my conception of What Pants Should Cost. This is much more problematic.

I moved out of my father’s house when I was 17, and I have been solely in charge of pants acquisition during the 20 years since (with some periodic, half-hearted intervention from romantic partners). In those two decades, I have become appreciably better at many of the things I started doing at 17, but not buying pants. I am irrevocably stuck with the notion that I should be able to acquire a decent pair of khakis or other office-worthy slacks for $25.


Label Whoring at Thrift Town

Just because I’m poor doesn’t mean I have to wear jeans from K-Mart. I love Kut from the Kloth jeans, which sell for $40 at Nordstrom Rack, but I recently found two pair in my size at Thrift Town, for $4.99 each. Thanks to label whoring, I can be the best-dressed person at the welfare office (and that is including the employees).


How Do You Decide Which Books To Buy?

The Millions this morning came out with a list of the most anticipated books of 2014: Part II, and it is exciting and painful in equal measure. Billfold pal Dustin Kurtz captured the feeling well on Twitter. (See left.)

To make matters worse, Book Riot also this morning came out with its list of the Best Books of 2014: Part I. Every one of these volumes would bring a person closer to God. What does one do when faced with the kind of bounty that occasions both greed & despair? Unless one is a billionaire — in which case, according to James Surowiecki, one is too busy grousing about how no one likes you and making ill-advised comparisons to Nazi Germany to buy books — one must triage. But how?

Because of various constraints related to not being a billionaire, my method is to be supremely practical. I get books from the library first; then when I fall hard for one, so hard that I find myself babbling about it at parties and in even less appropriate situations, and I know that I will want to both a) read it again, and b) lend it out to people I love so that they too can experience communion with the spiritual realm, I will pay money for it, usually once it has been released in paperback. Bonus points if the author is a female debut novelist, because karma. I have to be stern with myself, though, because small New York apartments only have so much space and thin freelancer wallets only have so many dollars.

My other hack is to review books for places like Barnes & Noble, because they send me novels for free, and the only catch is that, in exchange, I have to say nice things about them. (The books, not the store.) (Though I also like the store! Wandering around it, I feel like Corduroy: “This looked like a palace. Corduroy guessed he had always wanted to live in a palace.”) How do you feed your book habit? Are you library-only, or e-reader only, or audiobook only, or merely dreaming of the day when you once again have time to read for pleasure at all?


“Vegan, Gluten-Free Chocolate Brownie: $4.50″

Forget you, Fresh Direct; peace out, Peapod. A bright-eyed and bushy-tailed new competitor, Good Eggs, wants your money in exchange for delivering groceries to your door. The company seems built to appeal to Brooklyn, which is one of only four places it currently operates: there’s free delivery to the borough, for starters, and its mission “is to grow and sustain local food systems worldwide.” However commendable the goal, and even, it seems, the methods, there’s something unavoidably “Stuff White People Like” about the endeavor. The vegan, gluten-free chocolate brownie ($4.50!) is described this-a-way:

Super dense and intensely chocolately, you won’t miss the gluten in this brownie. Perfect with a cup of ice cold almond milk! Our sweets contain exclusively organic, nutrient-dense, virgin, and certified raw ingredients. We use low-temperature cooking methods to retain healthy enzymes and nutrients. No processed flours, sugars, gluten, animal or dairy products, or genetically modified additives go into any of our sweets.

So, uh, almost $5 for a brownie that has nothing in it but dark chocolate? A Hershey bar will run you a lot less than that.

Is a locavore-oriented and more ethical grocery delivery system the answer to your no-time-to-food-shop prayers? Or are you already satisfied with your CSA, FreshDirect habit, or other hacks to stock your pantry, like using Postmates or TaskRabbit to get someone to bring you the condiments you’re addicted to from Trader Joe’s?

Cartoon by Charrowan artist in Brooklyn.


Help, I’m Hooked on Battery-Operated Toothbrushes

My 22 month old loves brushing her teeth, mostly because her Spanish baby toothpaste tastes like strawberries; even when I give her as little as possible, her eyes still light up and she shouts, “Nummy!” I wish I shared her enthusiasm. A few years ago, my mother bought me a battery-operated disposable Oral-B Pulsar ($5.99 at Target) and I’ve been ruined for regular toothbrushes ever since.

Instead of spending $3 three or four times I year, I found myself spending twice that amount to get that awesome vroom noise the motor makes and the tingly feeling on my gums. Was it making my teeth cleaner to use something with an on/off switch? Who knows? The only thing my dentist said to me was to brush less hard. Oh, that Oral-B, I thought fondly. It’s almost too good!

Then, without warning, my too good toothbrushes started sputtering and dying after only a few weeks. The first time it happened, I figured, okay, no biggie, I got a lemon. But the next one also gave up faster than the French. $6 was too much to spend every month on a toothbrush. I decided to try other brands of battery-operated disposables, and there were plenty of choose from, because apparently I’m not the only one who’s been wooed and won by the magic of mouth vibration: the Oral-B Pro-Health ($11.64); Arm & Hammer Spinbrush ($13.99), which comes in Sonic, PureClean, or Whitening; Phillips Sonicare ($14.99), which comes with a two-minute timer. There’s even a Justin Bieber Singing Brush ($6.45), AS SEEN ON TV.

I feel like such a sucker, but what can I do? I’m hooked! Ultimately, I chose the Spinbrush, because alone among the ones I saw in my local drugstore it allows me to replace batteries rather than throw the whole thing away. But I still feel kind of silly and like I’m wasting money. Even Consumer Reports is making fun of me: “All you really need is a good soft-bristled manual toothbrush if you take the time and effort. But if you have arthritis, lack dexterity, or would like some extra power, powered toothbrushes can help.” THANKS GUYS.