The Provident Professor

Literary Finance and Personal References

Month: July 2016 (page 1 of 2)

Against De-cluttering

I’ve said it before: I love stuff. I love making things and then seeing and feeling and using the things I’ve made. I love getting gifts that someone else has picked out for me and then remembering that person every time I see the candlesticks on the dining table or the little ceramic drawers on the mantelpiece. I love that, because no one else wanted it, I have all the family china from both sides of the family. I keep it all displayed in the dining room so that I can always think about my grandfather, who I never got to meet, buying the game bird pattern from the Orvis catalogue some seventy-five years ago.

I collect teapots, which is the opposite of de-cluttering. I’m very selective about what I collect: no kitschy teapots, and I don’t have that many–10 or so, several of which are in regular use, two of which are family hand-me-downs, and three of which are gifts. When she found out I collected teapots, my aunt got several from an antique-dealer friend and gave them to me each Christmas. I love looking at them and knowing that my aunt picked them out because she knew I’d like them.

Stuff is important. Some of it is laden with memories; some of it was made by someone you know, or you yourself. Lots of it is beautiful. I don’t hold with the minimalist idea that you should have just a few really beautiful objects. You should have lots of beautiful objects. (Though for my part, I try to stop well short of Victorian rococo proportions, but you do you.) And beautiful doesn’t have to mean expensive. Lots of my china was free, though some of it would be quite expensive to replace. My favorite purple ceramic vase, which sits on our mantle, cost $30 when I bought it from the potter.
Continue reading

Bill-Busting Summer, Part III: How We Cut Our Monthly Rent By $300

Easy: we moved. We hadn’t been planning on moving, but our landlord wanted to raise our rent, so we figured it couldn’t hurt to see what lose was out there. Once we started looking, we realized our current house was a little overvalued, even before the rent increase. What’s more, we didn’t actually need all the space we had. There were smaller, cuter, cheaper houses available in town.

Lesson 1: Don’t let the pain of moving keep you in the wrong place.

We should have moved earlier, but moving just seemed like such a pain that we stayed put year after year. Inertia is not your friend.

It took our landlord trying to hike our rent to get us to really consider leaving. Once we said we’d be moving out, our landlord tried to backtrack on the rent increase, but by then it was too late. (Sometime later I’ll write up the many lessons of property ownership that our inept landlord has taught me.) We discovered we could rent a smaller but more charming house just around the corner from our old house for $300 less than we were currently paying. That’s $390 less per month than the proposed rent increase.

Lesson 2: Every year before you sign a new lease, look for a new place.

You don’t have to move, but you should at least consider it. Go see two or three places that are available. Are they better? Cheaper? Try to forget the pain of moving (this checklist will help you out when the time comes) and imagine how a new house could change your budget or your commute.

Of course, moving can be a budget-buster. Our actual move was cheap, if protracted. We borrowed a pickup truck and enlisted some friends to help us move all the big stuff one Saturday. Then we took another week to ferry everything else from the old house to the new. But we’ve had to buy quite a bit of new stuff: the new place has much less storage, so we had to stock up on IKEA shelves and carts and drawers. And of course there were the curtains. And the inevitable multiple trips to the hardware store for all the things you suddenly discover you need.

Lesson 3: Weigh the cost of the move against the rent savings.

In our case, we could afford to spend quite a bit on the move before we started to eat into our savings: at $3600 less per year, we’d have to make a lot of trips to Lowe’s before we tipped into the red.

I’ve been avoiding tallying up our total spending on this move because we did buy a few more things than we strictly need, but most of what we bought is the kind of thing that’s always good to have: kitchen carts, metal shelves, and closet storage. Sure, we could have just gotten rid of a bunch of our stuff, but we actually use it all. We cook a ton, and we really use all the pots and gadgets and spices that we have crammed in our kitchen.

Lesson 4: Learn how to make creative use of storage space.

We could have easily looked at the new house and dismissed it because the closets are tiny and we used every one of our eight closets in the old house. But we spent some time thinking about how we could reorganize the stuff we had unreflectively jammed in the closets so that it could all live in the new house. And once we really thought about it, we realized that there was plenty of stuff we could move to the basement, and plenty more that we could store on shelves around the house. We’ll need to be a bit tidier and more organized, but that’s probably for the best.

Has anyone else learned any valuable renting lessons? I feel like people don’t talk about tips for renting as often as they talk about home ownership, but sometimes renting really is the smarter choice, and the tips and tricks are very different than they are for owning your home.

Moving Checklist: Relocate without the Chaos

As I said yesterday, moving is both an enormous pain and a fantastic opportunity. Right now, the Provident household is feeling the pain. There’s still a ton of stuff to be moved, a house to be cleaned, and we’re about to experience a record-breaking heat wave.

There’s nothing to do but embrace the pain, and if you’re moving, I can’t help you much with the unpleasant reality of packing and carrying and unpacking. But the other pain of moving is all the administrivia that goes along with a change in residence, and I’ve got your back there.

This checklist will get your started with the moving paperwork. It probably doesn’t include everything you’ll need to do, but if you check off all these boxes, you’ll be in pretty good shape.

Tips for Energy Efficient Window Treatments


The Provident household has moved! Well, if you want to get technical about it, we’re still in the process of moving, but we are now fully occupying our new house, even if some of our stuff is still occupying our old house.

Moving is both an enormous pain and a fantastic opportunity. Our move is part of our Bill-Busting Summer, and I’ll talk about the money-saving details later. I don’t have definite opinions in the rent vs. buy debate except the opinion that renting is right for us in our particular time and place, but I will say this for renting: when you decide you want to spend less on housing every month, you can make that happen in the space of a month. Try doing that if you’ve got a mortgage.

Our new house is almost a hundred years old and is high on charm. It’s not exactly vintage, because that’s not our aesthetic. We’ve got more of a classic-meets-cheap furniture look going on, paired with my only slightly out-of-control collection of family china and glassware. Sort of a Minimalist Grandma kind of thing.

Whatever it is, it fits well in our new little bungalow. We’ve got high ceilings and chair rail molding and tons of great light coming in through what may well be the original windows. They are certainly not from our modern era of window technology. They are single pane and counter-weighted and they look lovely.

They also present a pretty big thermal problem. We’ve had highs in the 90s ever since we moved, and the sun beats down on the windows and the house heats up like a charming little greenhouse. I think we’ll see a similar, but more welcome, radiant heating effect in the winter, but at night, I’m fairly certain the windows will jettison every bit of warm air out into the world.
Continue reading

Making the Right College Choice for You and Your Finances


The one thing everyone seems to agree about when it comes to college is that it costs a lot of money. Beyond that, everyone’s got a different idea about whether it costs too much, how it should be paid for, what you should major in, and if it’s even worth it. Some people do fine without a college degree and some regret having gotten one, but statistically speaking, you’re more likely to have a job if you have a college degree than if you don’t.

As a college professor and aspirationally provident person, I know quite a bit about colleges and a decent amount about making good financial choices. In this series, I’m going to try to demystify college a bit by shedding light on some of the aspects of higher education that don’t really get discussed with enough clarity in the gloom-and-doom student loan articles, or in the predictable encomiums encouraging everyone to be a STEM major or just drop out and start a tech company.

So if you’re unsure what you want from a college education, don’t know where to go to get what you want, or aren’t sure how to make the most of your tuition dollars once you get there, your in the right place.


Part I: Know the Difference Between a Vocational Degree, a Professional Degree and a Liberal Arts Degree

Not all college degrees are the same. For one thing, there are a lot of different letters you can end up with: AA, BA, BS, BFA, JD, MD, PhD, EdD. That’s only a few. But in addition to denoting different things, different degrees serve very different purposes, and it helps to understand the difference before you start earning yours.
Continue reading

Bill-Busting Summer, Part II: Wireless Service


Lowering our wireless bill was hands down the easiest part of my quest to trim our bills. Our contract runs out in September, so I’d been toying with the idea of unlocking our phones and taking them to a budget carrier. I priced out the various options, and then it occurred to me to check back with Verizon and see what their plans looked like today, as opposed to almost two years ago when we signed up with them.I know a lot of people hate Verizon, but then, a lot of people hate AT&T, and a lot of people hate Sprint, and so on. We’ve been pretty happy with Verizon, though, primarily because we live in a tiny town surrounded by mountains, so there’s a lot of the local area that gets pretty terrible cell coverage. You’re more likely to get a Verizon signal up in the mountains around here than you are to get an AT&T signal. If you have Sprint, you’re phone’s pretty much useless as soon as you leave town.

So I wanted to stay on the Verizon network, I just wanted to pay less for our cell phones, which were currently costing us $130 a month for talk, text and a shared 3GB of data. 3 GB is actually quite a bit more than we need, unless we’re on vacation. Our house has wifi, the colleges we work at have wifi, and we’ve only had smartphones for two or three years, so we never got in the habit of overdoing it with data on the go.

It took me about three minutes on the Verizon website to discover that their Verizon Plan would let us share 3GB of data for $45, plus $20 for each of our phone lines. That’s way less than $130 a month, and when the fall rolled around and we were through with summer travel, we could step the data back to 1GB, saving another $15 a month. Not only could I change our plan online, but I could retroactively apply the new plan to the previous month, resulting in a refund. The whole thing took about 20 minutes.

Continue reading

Forget Experiences, I’m Choosing Freedom Over Stuff


You’ve heard the “experiences over stuff” mantra a million times, right? The idea is that you should spend your cash on memorable experiences—vacations, weddings, concerts, whatever—instead of acquiring more material goods that will clutter up your house and way down your soul on the path to enlightenment.

There are so many things wrong with this attitude that I can’t even start—I’ll never stop. For one thing, it’s super gendered. For another, it’s super-privileged: you can only stop accumulating stuff when you’re confident you’ll always be able to buy something when you really need it. And—and this is my biggest issue—it devalues the beauty, utility, meaning and emotional heft of objects. I wouldn’t trade my family china, handmade quilts and thoughtfully chosen chotchke gifts for the vacation of a lifetime.

So we’ve established that I think experiences over stuff is dumb. I love stuff, though I try to keep a handle on that love for the sake of clutter and my budget. But I’ve accumulated my share of stuff over time, something I am sorely regretting as we prepare to move house.

Recently, though, I’ve pretty much gone off stuff. And it’s not because I’ve been converted to the gospel of experiences. It’s because I’ve stopped thinking about money in terms of stuff or experiences. I’ve started measuring my dollars in years of freedom. And there’s not much I want today as much as I want freedom.

Continue reading

Literary Finance: You Will Never Be Satisfied (If All You Care About is Money)


Literary jokes and Hamilton quotes all in one place. How’s that for your one-stop nerd shop?

Today’s literary finance lesson comes from the still-unparalleled queen of high society and New York money: Edit Wharton. Nobody—not even my best pal Henry James—has ever had such a keen eye and razor-edged wit for the ins and outs of the upper class or the not-always-direct relationship between buckets of money and social mobility.

Edith Wharton, social commentator and shoulder-dog aficionado

Each of Wharton’s novels is a masterclass in finance all by itself, but my favorite is notable both for the aptness of its financial lessons and the awfulness of its protagonist: Undine Spragg. If you looked “social climber” up in the dictionary, you would find a picture of Undine Spragg.

Continue reading

7 Lists that Will Tell You How to Get Rich and Be Happy

The Internet is full of financial and life advice, most of which comes packaged in lists of no more than 15 easily digestible wisdom blurbs. Why lists? Based on their popularity (and my own browsing habits), I can only assume it’s because no one can resist the temptation to read a list. Call an article “How to Get Your Life Together, Guaranteed,” and you’ll be lucky to get a few hits. But title your piece “7 Sure-Fire Ways to Get Your Life in Order” and people won’t be able to click over fast enough.

What’s more compact and efficient than a list of ways to fix your life? I’ll tell you what: A list of lists of ways to fix your life. So in the service of streamlining your list-reading, self-flagellation and potential self-improvement, I present


Continue reading

Bill-Busting Summer, Part I: High-Speed Internet


This summer I made it my mission to take a long, hard look at all of our bills and see how many I could cut down to size. So far, I’ve trimmed about $380 from our monthly bills, and I’m not done yet.

Last year, I had cable for the first time in my life. And not just cable, HBO. I got up to date on every prestige drama I could. I binge-watched Silicon Valley, streamed Girls whenever I took a bath, and caught up on my mumblecore-boyfriend Mark Duplass’s show Togetherness. It was kind of great, but also totally unnecessary and not something I even really wanted. So how did it happen?

When we moved to town three years ago, we got an introductory rate from Comcast for our Internet. I think it was about $40 a month. Two years later, the rate went up, but it was still less than the standard rate, so I put off an unpleasant call to Comcast customer service with the rationalization that we were still saving money. But then last summer our rate was about to go up to $80 a month for Internet alone. And not even fast internet. We were surfing the Web at a crawl and Netflix was constantly buffering in the middle of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.

Continue reading

Older posts