Get What You Pay For

Why bargain hunting isn’t such a bad thing.

There’s an old saying everyone seems to know: “You get what you pay for.” It’s normally applied to situations where you buy something at a low cost and it breaks. “You get what you pay for” is supposed to explain why it broke — you apparently didn’t pay enough money for it.

Lots of people use this logic when they shop. If something is cheap, it must be crap because “you get what you pay for.” If someone else is selling the same thing or something similar for more money, it must be better, right?

Not always.

My Hair

Yes, I’m going to use my hair as an example.

I dye my hair. It’s no secret. I’ve been doing it since I was in my 20s when those first few grays started making their appearance. I did it myself for at least 20 years, using a reddish shade of brown that got even redder when exposed to Arizona sunlight. The color looked at least somewhat natural — at least no one ever commented on it looking fake. I’ve since switched to a browner color that’s more in line with what I remember my hair looking like. It’s been so long, I’m not sure. And those few strands of gray now account for about 75% of my hair.

Last year, I began living in an RV full time after leaving my Arizona home and waiting for my new home in Washington to be built. If you know anything about hair dye, you know that good water pressure is a must-have for rinsing that crap off your hair. So is a good supply of hot water. My RV is weak on both counts, so I began getting my hair dyed “professionally.”

I put “professionally” in quotes, because I started going to the local Beauty Academy. These are highly supervised girls (mostly) who are training to become beauticians. They do everything, from hair trims to dye jobs to perms. They don’t mix a color without consulting with a supervisor. The “classic color” service I needed cost $28.

I went every 6 weeks for quite a while. There was a different girl doing my hair each time. Based on observations, conversations, and chatter among the dozen or so girls working there, most of them were under 25 and apparently had at least one kid but no husband. Young women learning a good trade to support themselves and their families. We had nothing in common so conversation was minimal. Each girl took a long time to get the color in — a typical dye job would take over 3 hours. But it came out good each time and the color lasted. I was satisfied.

Then I succumbed to peer pressure. (Can you believe it?) When I complained to one of my girlfriends that it took so long to get my hair dyed, she ridiculed me for getting my hair done there. She recommended her woman at JC Penney’s salon. So I figured, why not?

I went to Sally (not her real name) and she did my hair. Although she was closer to my age than the Beauty Academy kids, she didn’t seem interested in striking up a conversation with me. While the dye “processed” in my hair, she disappeared into a back room. I learned to read a book or play a game on my phone.

The first time I went, she insisted on cutting my hair and waxing my eyebrows. I was trying to grow my hair long, but when I came every six weeks, she’d cut off 5 weeks of growth. And I don’t usually mess with my eyebrows. I let them do their own thing. But after waxing, they needed maintenance, so I had to have them waxed every time. The bill? $90. When I cut out the hair cuts and waxing, it went down to $70.

And I didn’t feel as if I were getting any better service than those young girls practicing on my hair.

So yesterday I went back to the Beauty Academy. The girl who did my hair was young but she had a professional attitude and would be graduating in just two weeks. She already had a job lined up. She did a great job on my hair, matching my existing color so she only had to do the roots. Because it was Customer Appreciation Day, the dye job only cost $18.

That’s more than $50 saved. And I got a pumpkin muffin to snack on.

I don’t think Sally will be seeing me again.

As for my peer pressure friend — well, I don’t talk to her these days anyway.

Harbor Freight

I was out with some friends last night, all sitting around a big table in a restaurant. I got into a conversation with a friend who was telling me about a crane he’d bought at Harbor Freight and had attached to his cargo trailer. He’s been collecting and selling scrap metal lately and needed something to lift engine blocks.

Harbor Freight, if you aren’t familiar with it, is a company that sells “quality tools at ridiculously low prices.” That’s what it says on their website. I can confirm the low prices, but I can’t agree about the quality. Most of what they sell is pretty crappy stuff.

But not all of it. My friend and I chatted about this. The “you get what you pay for” phrase was thrown around a bit. We both agreed that you had to think about how you planned to use what you were buying when making that purchase decision. If it was something you’d use occasionally and rather lightly, Harbor Freight was probably a good source. But if it was something that you needed to use hard and frequently — something you wanted to last a good, long time — Harbor Freight probably wasn’t the place to go.

Walmart

Most of my friends hate Walmart. It’s a policy thing — low pay and questionable promotional practices for employees, an abundance of cheap, low quality merchandise, and an atmosphere that appeals to the kind of shopper that most of us simply don’t want to get too close to.

I hate Walmart, too. But I have to admit here that I do occasionally shop there. Why? Because it sells two things I use every day at a price too low to pass up:

  • Eight O'ClockThe first is coffee. I like Eight O’Clock coffee. It’s a medium or perhaps light roast Arabica bean. I grind it myself and brew it strong, by the cup. I’ve been doing this for at least 15 years, if not longer. I’ve tried other coffees over the years but always come back to this one. And if there’s one thing that’s important for me to get right, it’s that first cup of coffee in the morning. Trouble is, Eight O’Clock coffee isn’t easy to find. And when I do find it, it’s expensive. Walmart has it for $4.99/package. That’s $2/package less than I can buy it directly from Eight O’Clock’s website.
  • Penny eats Cesar dog food. Yes, it’s the foo-foo dog food that comes in tiny plastic containers. She eats one every morning. They come in many flavors and are easy to store and serve. And travel with. It just makes sense. Unfortunately, Safeway and Fred Meyer sell it for $1.29/container. Cesar Dog FoodSometimes, if it’s on sale, I can get it for 10 for $10 ($1/container). But Walmart sells it for 70¢/container. So let’s do the math here. Suppose I’d always buy it on sale at Fred Meyer for $1/container. Walmart saves me 30¢/container. 365 days in a year is $109 saved. And since I’m going to Walmart for my coffee anyway…

Yes, there is a point here. By buying these two things in Walmart, I’m getting exactly what I want for less money than it would cost elsewhere. Quality isn’t an issue — it’s the same exact thing I could get somewhere else. In this case, I’m getting what I pay for but I’m paying a lot less.

Is my monthly shopping expeditions to Walmart to buy two things is supporting Walmart policies? Maybe. But hell, I need my coffee!

More Examples?

I can probably spend weeks blogging about other examples, but I think you get the idea. You can probably even come up with a few of your own examples.

I think the point I’m trying to make is this: when shopping for what’s best for you, it’s important to not only consider price, but to also consider the quality of what you’re getting. Don’t assume that low price means low quality — often, it doesn’t. Often, you can get the same quality for a lower price.

But not always. A smart shopper — especially someone who wants (or needs) to save money — has to look at the big picture with every purchase decision.

Life is Better on My Terms

A tweet reminds me of a life I didn’t like very much.

On January 14, 2008, I tweeted:

I’ve gotten very good at making my coffee in the semi-darkness so I don’t wake my parrot.

I don’t know where I was when I tweeted that, but I do remember too many mornings when I tiptoed around our Phoenix condo before dawn so as not to wake my husband’s roommate. As an early riser, every morning at the condo when his roommate was around was an ordeal for me.

You see, when I was in the condo, my parrot Alex was there, too. If I woke Alex up, Alex would start her morning routine, which is very vocal. That, in turn, would wake my husband’s roommate and make him hate me even more than he already did. The result: an even less comfortable situation the rest of the time we were all there together.

So I tip-toed around, making my coffee in the near-dark. And then I sat silently on the corner of the sofa in the dark, drinking my coffee, waiting for my husband or his roommate to wake up so I could make noise, too.

Things are different now. I don’t have to pretend to like something I don’t — namely, living in the cavelike condo my husband selected as a real estate investment — one that immediately went under water and made him a slave to a job he hated. I don’t have to keep the same hours as someone else. I don’t have to live my life a certain way just to make someone else happy.

Seeing this tweet today, copied to my Facebook timeline, really reminded me of how much better off I am finally living life on my own terms.

Penny and the Peanut Butter Bone

An odd solution to a puppy problem.

I am an early riser. I have been for at least the past 15 years. I’m usually up and out of bed by 6 AM. My body wakes up and, since I either didn’t want to wake my soon-to-be ex-husband or I had things to do, I’d get up and start my day.

My day starts with a routine that I’ve shared with Alex the Bird for almost 10 years — since Alex the Bird came into my life. I throw on some clothes, come into the kitchen, and brew some coffee, often reciting the mantra “Coffee is the most important thing” — a phrase that Alex the Bird still hasn’t picked up. While the coffee brews, I prepare Alex’s scrambled egg in the microwave. I cut up half of the egg and give it to Alex in a little dish atop her cage. Then I settle down at the table with my coffee and my laptop or iPad and enjoy the very first cup of coffee for the day while catching up on Twitter or writing a blog post — like this one.

(When I was home in Wickenburg or Phoenix with my dog Jack and then Charlie, the routine also included letting him out for his morning pee, putting a scoop of food into his dog dish, and topping off his water. He’d get half of Alex’s egg, then wait around Alex’s cage for the pieces of egg that dropped and gobble them all up. But those days are apparently gone for good, so it’s best not to dwell on them.)

The routine is pretty much the same when I live in the Mobile Mansion in Washington. After all, coffee is the most important thing.

Enter Penny the Tiny Dog. Or Tiny Puppy right now. Her routine is a bit different. After her morning pee, she comes in and cleans up after Alex the Bird’s scrambled egg droppings. And then she comes to me where I’m invariably sitting at my desk and starts jumping up on me. She wants to play.

Of course, I’m just getting started on my coffee. Not even half of it is gone. I’m not ready to play. Heck, I’m not even fully conscious sometimes.

A side note here…yesterday, one of my Facebook friends shared one of those images with a message — you know, the kind always floating around Facebook. This one said:

My favorite coffee in the morning is the one where no one talks to me while I drink it.

My reply was:

Mine is the one where a tiny dog doesn’t jump all over me for attention while I’m drinking it.

Making the Peanut Butter BoneThe solution is to distract her with something more interesting and rewarding than me rolling around on the floor with her. And that solution involves a beef soup bone and some peanut butter.

I bought the bone at the supermarket about a month ago. It didn’t take her long to eat the marrow out the ends. The bone is nice and dry and kind of clean. The holes on either end go in pretty deep. Sometimes she still plays with it.

I bought the peanut butter to bait the mousetraps. I don’t really like Skippy because it has sugar in it and I don’t think peanut butter should have added sugar. And although I like peanut butter, sometime over the past 10 years or so I’ve developed a sort of allergy to it; after eating it, I just don’t feel quite “right.” I switched to cashew butter, which is harder to find but very tasty. Of course, it’s not on my diet, so I don’t have any around for me or the mice. So I went to the supermarket and bought the smallest, cheapest jar of peanut butter they had. It turned out to be Skippy. I don’t care about feeding sugar to the mice.

Penny and her Peanut Butter BoneOne day, on a whim, I put a bit of peanut butter in each end of the bone and gave it to her. I was rewarded with about 15 minutes of peace and quiet to finish my coffee. Afterwards, she found something else to keep her busy.

Now it’s part of our morning routine. When she’d done cleaning up after Alex and she starts jumping up on me to play, I prepare the peanut butter bone and give it to her. I can then enjoy my coffee in peace.

The only problem is, she’s getting really good at licking that peanut butter out of the holes.

Pet Peeves: Coffee Edition

It’s the little things that drive you nuts.

Mr. Coffee, 4-Cup ModelPicture this: Every morning, a person makes his morning coffee in a Mr. Coffee 4-cup drip coffee maker. He then pours the coffee from the little pot into the same thermal travel mug he uses every day. Although he’s made 4 “cups” (6-oz each), the thermal travel mug only fits 3 cups. He throws away the extra “cup” of coffee.

He does this every morning.

My question: Why does he brew 4 cups when he only drinks 3? No one else wants the remaining 6 ounces of coffee. He throws it away every single morning.

Am I missing something?

Why in the world would a person choose to make and then discard 33% more coffee than he drinks? Every day? Am I the only person who thinks this is a waste of coffee?

For the record: I occasionally use the same coffee maker. My very large mug holds 3 “cups” of coffee. I brew 3 cups of coffee. I pour it all into my mug. The coffee tastes fine (or as good as it can coming out of a Mr. Coffee coffee maker). So the you-must-make-a-full-pot-for-it-to-taste-good argument won’t fly.

And no, I won’t ask him. It seems like such a little petty matter. Don’t know why it drives me crazy, but it does.

I guess that’s what a “pet peeve” is all about.

My Morning Cup of Joe

It has to be just right.

I start each morning with a cup of coffee. That’s not unusual in the United States. Coffee is a pretty standard breakfast beverage. It’s why we drink coffee and the kind of coffee we drink that varies from person to person.

And my morning cup is special.

First of all, I don’t drink coffee because I rely on that jolt of caffeine to jump start my day. If all I wanted was caffeine, I’d get it from a double espresso at the local Starbucks or allow myself to become addicted to one of those idiotic “energy drinks” that young guys like to get hopped up on.

Instead, I drink coffee because I actually like coffee. I like the flavor. I like the aroma. I like the way it feels going down my throat when it’s just the right temperature: good and hot.

The trouble is, I don’t like just any old coffee. I like a certain kind of coffee the way I like it made.

And that’s the rub.

The Ingredients

Coffee ingredients are very basic, right? Well, to many folks, they are. But to someone as picky as me about coffee, they’re special.

  • Coffee. This is the main ingredient in a cup of coffee and, for me, it needs to meet several requirements:

    • Freshness. I buy coffee beans so I can grind them myself at home. The beans never come out of a hopper in a supermarket, where they may have been sitting for who knows how long. They always come in a vacuum-sealed package.
    • Bean type. This is where I differ from many self-proclaimed coffee connoisseurs. I don’t like Columbian coffee. To be fair, it may be the way it’s normally roasted: dark. I prefer Arabica beans with a light to medium roast. I also like Kona from Hawaii. These are smooth, mellow beans, roasted in a way where the roasting process doesn’t impart a bitter or burnt taste.
    • Roast. As mentioned, light to medium roast is my preference. Dark roast coffee tastes bitter or burnt to me. This is my big gripe against Starbucks and other “high end” coffee shops.
    • Eight O'Clock CoffeeBrand. The brand of coffee isn’t nearly as important to me as the other criteria. These days, my coffee of choice is Eight O’Clock coffee. I tend to buy it in bulk — 4 to 6 12-oz bags at a time — when it’s on sale at the local Supermarket. I store the unopened (very important) bags in the freezer. (They say that freezing coffee doesn’t do anything to maintain its freshness, but I do it anyway, just in case.) I’ll also buy any brand of light to medium roast pure Kona (not a “blend” — whatever the hell that means) and, in a pinch, Starbucks Breakfast Blend. I should mention here that a recent “coffee snob” house guest turned her nose up at my coffee choice and would make a special trip to Starbucks every morning for her cup. I guess if you’re not spending at least $1/ounce for coffee, you just can’t make some people happy.
    • Caffeine content. I drink caffeinated coffee. While I’m not in it just to get the caffeine, I don’t see any reason to drink coffee that has been tampered with in a lab to remove a naturally occurring ingredient. The resulting buzz I get if I drink two cups of coffee is what keeps me from drinking a third.
  • Water. I’m fortunate enough to live in a home with excellent and tasty well water. When I’m at our Phoenix place, however, I will use the tap water, which tastes like chlorine to me. The way I brew my coffee, the taste of the water is usually not a factor.
  • Milk. Yes, I put a small amount — about 1-1/2 tablespoons, if you were to measure — of milk in my coffee. Not cream, not half and half, and certainly not some powered crap with ingredients I can’t pronounce. I prefer 2% milk but can use 1% or whole milk. Skim milk is pushing things a bit.
  • Sugar. I also put about 1/2 teaspoon of sugar in my coffee. I like plain granulated sugar or evaporated cane juice sugar (often touted as “organic”). I don’t like Sugar in the Raw, a popular product that has a distinct molasses flavor. Ick. I also won’t use artificial sweeteners. There are 16 calories in a teaspoon of sugar and I’m using only half of that. Surely I can put another 8 calories into my body each day?

The Daily Grind

Before I got a decent grinder, I’d buy one or two bags of coffee at a time and grind them using the supermarket’s grinder. It was important to shake out any trace of the hopper coffee that the previous user might have left in the machine. I once ruined a package of coffee by letting it mingle with what some flavored crap.

Krups Burr GrinderBut now I have a nice Krups Burr grinder which I like. It got mixed reviews on Amazon.com and I do agree with some of the points brought up by negative reviewers — for example, it can be a bit messy — but, in general it’s perfectly suited to my needs.

Almost perfectly. The least coffee it’ll grind is for two cups — even though the setting says it’s for one cup. But that’s okay. I usually do drink two cups of coffee a day. If I don’t drink the second cup, I don’t mind using coffee ground the day before. I’m not that picky.

I grind my coffee more finely than what’s recommended for drip coffee makers. Not quite an espresso grind, but certainly more fine than a basket or cone drip. That could be why the darn grinder gets messy.

The Coffee Preparation Device

A year or three ago, the big chatter on Twitter was about an $11,000 coffee maker. It brewed one cup at a time. At least they got that part right.

Brew and GoMy coffee maker of choice is a Black & Decker Brew ‘N Go. Designed for people who want to grab their cup of coffee as they head out the door on their morning commute, it comes with an insulated thermal plastic travel mug. I don’t use the mug unless I’m heading out to the car, too. I use a large ceramic coffee mug. It probably holds about 14 ounces.

I don’t use the reusable “gold” filter that came with the coffee pot. Because I prefer my coffee ground finely, the coffee grinds make their way though those gold filters and get in my cup. So I use #2 cone filters in the filter basket of the machine. I’m not picky about brand or paper bleaching. (Sheesh.) Because I go through so many of these things, I like to buy them cheap. I’ve actually found them very cheap in the coffee maker area of WalMart. So on the rare occasion that I’m in there, I stock up. And yes, when I’m at home, I compost the filters and coffee after brewing.

The Brewing Process

To brew a cup of coffee, I go through this routine.

  1. Fill a coffee cup with cold water and pour it into the coffee maker’s well.
  2. Refill the coffee cup with hot water to prewarm the cup. If I can’t get hot water from the tap right away, 2 minutes in the microwave warms whatever water I can get.
  3. Put a clean coffee filter in the filter holder.
  4. If necessary, grind enough coffee for a cup.
  5. Using a measuring spoon, measure out enough coffee for that size cup.
  6. Tamp the coffee down into the filter paper and close the lid.
  7. Dump the hot water out of the cup and put it on the coffee machine’s cup shelf.
  8. Push the button.

What comes out about 2 minutes later is a steaming hot, fresh cup of very strong coffee. This is what I like.

The Coffee I Don’t Like

I don’t like bad coffee and won’t drink it. What’s bad coffee? This:

  • Weak coffee. If I can see my spoon while I’m stirring, it’s too weak for me.
  • Coffee brewed from inferior ingredients. Yeah, I know the 3-pound plastic tub of Savarin was on sale at Costco last month. But don’t think I’m going to drink it.
  • Coffee that has sat in a pot on a warmer for more than 10 minutes. Yes, just 10 minutes. I have experimented with this at home using our bigger coffee maker. I’ll use that to make enough coffee for a group of people and the first cup is usually fine for me. But the second cup from the same pot ten minutes later? Keep it.
  • Columbian or dark roasted (or both) coffee. If it’s brewed right and fresh, I can drink it. But it’s normally not brewed strong enough or not fresh enough for me.
  • Most restaurant coffee. It usually falls into one or more of the above categories. Occasionally, you’ll get a good cup of coffee at a good restaurant, but I won’t even consider ordering coffee at a diner or cheap restaurant.
  • Flavored coffee. Are you serious?
  • Instant coffee. I stopped drinking instant coffee about 20 years ago and have seen no real reason to go back. And no, the new Starbucks instant coffee does not impress me. At all.

I prefer to drink no coffee than any of the above. In fact, I have. If I’m traveling and need a hot beverage and can’t track down a place to get a latte — freshly brewed, with enough milk to cut the bitterness of the dark roast — I’ll order tea. Or iced tea. Or juice.

Picky, yes. Snobbish? I don’t think so. If I were snobbish about my coffee, I’d buy expensive coffee, brew it in some fancy gadget, and turn my nose up at everything else. Instead, I buy relatively cheap coffee and brew it in a cheap machine the way I like it: hot, strong, and fresh.

What’s in your cup?