Conscious Finance

The Orangutan and the Face Cream

"Why do you have a pair of pliers on the bathroom counter?"

To the man who shares my life and bathroom space, it apparently seemed like a reasonable question. And, of course, I had a perfectly reasonable answer. "To squeeze the last of the face cream out of the tube."

For some reason, he thought that was the funniest thing he'd heard since the joke about the orangutan and the zookeeper. Funnier, actually. He hadn't laughed nearly that hard when I told him the joke. Come to think of it, he didn't actually laugh at all. He just groaned and rolled his eyes. It was that kind of joke.

But back to the pliers. Their presence in the bathroom made perfect sense to me. The face cream—nighttime moisturizing lotion with Retinol—is expensive. Not in the fifty bucks a half ounce range or anything like that, but not cheap, either. It comes in a metal tube. When it's almost empty, there are still several applications left at the top of the tube. Not having hand strength anywhere close to that of an orangutan, I can't squeeze them out with my bare fingers. Hence the pliers.

This brings us to the crucial question. Is squeezing the last possible bit of stuff out of the tube with pliers practical and frugal, or is it obsessive and cheap? Or, even worse, is it simply odd?

In my opinion, it's merely sensible. No different from using a spatula to scrape the last peanut butter out of the jar or storing the jar of salad dressing upside down to get the last couple of servings without having to sit at the table holding it over your salad for 17 minutes until it oozes out.

You just squeeze the top of the tube slightly with the pliers, and there's another application of lotion. No muss, no fuss, no wear and tear on the fingers. There you are, and Bob's your uncle.

Which brings us around to the orangutan and the zookeeper. (I know, I know. Admit it. You only read this far because you were looking for the joke.) There was an orangutan who was amazingly intelligent. Not only did he learn to communicate fluently in sign language, but he learned to read as well. One day the zookeeper came by and saw the orangutan reading two books at once—the Bible and Darwin's Origin of Species. The zookeeper asked, "Why are you reading both of those together? Isn't that confusing?"

The orangutan signed back, "It is, a little. But I'm just trying to figure something out. Am I my brother's keeper, or am I my keeper's brother?"

Categories: Conscious Finance, Just For Fun | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

Striking It Rich

Maybe it was the vastness of the endless, level Llano Estacado, the "staked plains." Maybe it was the whiff of gushing prosperity coming from all of the pump jacks along the road, bringing oil to the surface with every solemn nod of their mechanical heads. Or maybe it was driving past the very fields where my partner's great-grandfather planted the first cotton crop in this arid land.

Taken altogether, west Texas is a landscape that fosters risk. At least that's the best explanation I could find for our unusual behavior.

At a convenience store on the edge of Lamesa, Texas, we bought a lottery ticket. The maximum payoff that week was somewhere in the neighborhood of 137 million dollars, give or take ten million or so.

As we drove west, past mile after mile of oil wells, we speculated a bit on what we might do with that much money. How much would we reasonably need to put away to take care of ourselves for the rest of our lives? How much would or should we give to our family members without ruining their lives? How could we make wise choices about the charities we would support?

It was an enjoyable conversation, mostly because we weren't taking it very seriously. We did, however, agree that all those millions would give us tremendous opportunities for doing good. It's amazing all the things one can easily accomplish with a pile of imaginary wealth.

It didn't occur to us that one good immediate use for some of the money would be to replace our aging furnace. Which may be just as well. When we finally remembered to check our numbers online a few days later, we hadn't come close to winning even a consolation prize of a mere few hundred thousand.

For now, all our deserving family members and all those worthwhile charities will just have to get by without the benefit of our imaginary winnings. Maybe someday they'll get another chance, if we get wild and reckless enough to buy another lottery ticket. Or we could decide instead to make our fortunes with one of those Texas oil wells.

In the meantime, the furnace still needs replaced. I guess we'll just have to come down to earth and take care of it with real money.

Categories: Conscious Finance | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Christmas Bells

Do you drop your change into the Salvation Army's red kettles this time of year? Do you slip past, hoping the bell ringer won't notice you? I must admit I do both, depending on how much of a hurry I'm in and how much cash I have handy.

Someone in my family was living in Rapid City in June of 1972, when a devastating flood raged through the area and killed 238 people. Among his memories of that time was the heroic work done by the Salvation Army, even after the leader of the local organization was drowned trying to rescue flood victims.

So one of my Christmas traditions is to put a decent-sized check into a Salvation Army red kettle. I appreciate the work the organization does. I also respect the volunteers who are willing to stand out in the cold for hours, ringing their bells until they must hear them in their sleep and wishing "Merry Christmas" to both those who contribute and those who don't.

My favorite bell ringer this year is the slight, elderly man in front of the drug store. I stop by two or three times a week, and he's almost always there. He isn't the most active red-kettle volunteer I've ever seen. He's usually sitting down. He doesn't necessarily ring the bell with a great deal of vigor. Sometimes, on cold days, he'll be inside the entrance of the store warming up. All in all, he looks as if he should be receiving services from the Salvation Army, rather than raising money for them.

Yet he may well be one of the most effective bell ringers I've ever seen. Maybe it's the way he smiles and wishes everyone a "Merry Christmas." Maybe it's his consistent presence. Or maybe it's the fact that his seat is a folding one that doubles as a walker—and attached to it is his oxygen tank.

I'll put money into his red kettle any time.

Categories: Conscious Finance, Living Consciously | 1 Comment

“If You Have to Ask, You Can’t Afford It”

It was a glossy, oversized magazine, placed at precisely the right casual angle on the coffee table in front of the leather couch. The cover photo showed a slender model draped in diamonds that probably weighed more than she did.

I don’t remember the magazine’s title, but the subtitle was “For the Private Jet Lifestyle.” Presumably, you get a free subscription when you buy your private jet. Buy two jets, and maybe you get a two-year subscription.

As I skimmed through it, I didn’t find any actual articles. This wasn’t really a magazine at all, but an expensively produced catalog for very expensive stuff. High-end resorts and spas. Jewelry with lots of zeroes on the price tags. Limited edition cars with eye-popping sticker prices. Exotic and luxurious vacation packages. One of them was a month-long trip to several exclusive destinations around the world. Travel, of course, was by private jet. The cost was one million dollars.

There was a page of designer shoes in brands familiar to anyone who saw The Devil Wears Prada. Apparently at least a few of the mega-rich must be willing to spend $1200 for a pair of bright acrylic shoes with platform heels shaped like the letter Z. Or $995 for a pair of tennis shoes with five-inch heels, intended either for those “casual dressy” occasions or for giving short women an advantage on the basketball court.

Of course, there were several pages of designer clothes. My favorite (only $12,500) was a gown with a skirt made out of pieces of fabric gathered into little bunches the way you might make paper flowers. The model, despite being a size 0, managed to look as if she had spent two days in someone’s garage being stuffed with paper napkins as a float for the Homecoming parade.

And watches. Lots of watches, ranging from the ordinary (only $12,000 to $15,000) to the platinum ($75,000 to $85,000). I’m not sure exactly why, if you were mega-rich, you would need so many watches. After all, if you own the jet, it’s not going to take off without you. You wouldn’t need to worry about getting to the airport on time. Besides, the rich probably check the time like anyone else—by looking at their cell phones.

Of course, buying a watch that costs more than many people earn in a year doesn’t have much to do with telling time. The watches, like everything else in this catalog of conspicuous consumption, were intended to set the wealthy apart from the common herd. “If you don’t own these things, you aren’t really rich.” “Buy it because you can.” “Buy it because ordinary people can’t.” It struck me as an upscale version of a schoolyard taunt: “I can afford this, and you can’t—so there!”

I don’t know whether the majority of wealthy people actually spend money this ostentatiously. My suspicion is that most of the ones who do are spending money that someone else earned.

But I do know a couple of people who own private jets. At least, their companies do. Yes, they use the planes for vacation trips and family get-togethers. Still, their “private jet lifestyle” seems to consist mainly of traveling to business meetings across the country. They wouldn’t have time to spend a month on a million-dollar private jet vacation. They probably wouldn't even have time to browse through this catalog. They’re too busy showing up for work every day.

I wonder what kind of watch Warren Buffet wears?

Categories: Conscious Finance | 2 Comments

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