Alternative Marketplaces

August 17, 2011

Spring/Summer Shopping Series Part 3

In July I accompanied my mom on a trip to the mall. That’s right, readers: I aided and abetted a shopper. Mom wanted new outfits for the wedding ceremony and subsequent party, though she had a dress and a skirt in her closet that she could “make work” if necessary. Of course I groaned when she first told me this and then proceeded to show me the two perfectly appropriate garments, but at the same time, I could completely relate to her situation. After all, Mom is the woman who taught me not only how to shop but also when it’s desirable to buy new stuff.

She also taught me to be picky. Five hours after our arrival at Tysons Corner, she had only a handful of new items to show for herself: a pair of shoes, a wrap (to go with the dress already in her closet), and a sundress. I walked away with nothing other than a belly full of the tuna salad I had for lunch. Not that I wasn’t tempted. The brightly lit, expertly styled window displays made the sundress I was wearing—one of my favorites—look a little worn (from three summers’ worth of wash cycles). But I stuck to my guns and even declined Mom’s offer to buy me a skort that would’ve been ideal for my bachelorette weekend at Lake Anna (and guess what—I didn’t have to go naked).

I know a lot of people who don’t like the mall and nearly as many who avoid Tysons Corner in particular. Malls can be big and crowded and overwhelming. Parking is a chore; traffic is even worse. Prices are high. And think of the resources used for all those plastic clothes hangers, not to mention building materials for the mall itself and the individual stores, plus water usage in the restaurants and restrooms, plus energy usage for heating, cooling, lighting, etc.

I could go on about the problems with malls, but instead I’ll just suggest two more eco-friendly brick-and-mortar alternatives.*

For those who like the convenience of having everything in one place, there are independent markets. It seems like every city I visit has a fun, open-air, independent arts and crafts market these days. In the DC metro area, the big one is Eastern Market, but many other communities around here have them, including Reston, which hosts an arts and crafts market every Saturday at Lake Anne in conjunction with the farmers market. At first glance the little Reston market seems like a Podunk affair with a tiny selection of niche items, none of which may actually serve your present need. But I’ve taken notice the last few times I’ve walked through (on my way to the farmers market), and you can actually get a pretty huge variety of stuff, from clothing and toys to furniture and throw pillows to soaps and detergents. There are even at least two alpaca yarn vendors for those who prefer DIY.

The best part of the independent craft market concept is direct access to artisans. Customers at markets have a huge say in vendor offerings. Requests for things like organic products or goods made from repurposed materials are much more likely to be heeded because we’re often making those requests of the person who actually handles buying and manufacturing and within a small, local customer base one voice carries a lot of weight. Plus, if you can’t find exactly what you are looking for at one stand, you are mere steps away from someone who can probably help you out, either by agreeing to take a custom order or by pointing you in the direction of a vendor who offers what you need. You can’t get service like that at the mall. And, sure, it may cost you a little extra, but in most cases the quality will be higher than what you might find in a retail store and thus the product will last longer, if not because it’s handmade, then because the seller or artisan is directly accountable to his or her customers.

For many of us, though, cost is an issue, and so secondhand shopping is probably a better eco-option than the independent market.** In her book Made from Scratch, Jenna Woginrich extols the fun and utility of shopping at flea markets and antique shops for furniture and other household goods. She writes that older products were made to last; in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s manufacturers weren’t yet planning obsolescence. In particular she tells the story of buying a heavy old metal cheese grater that had, as she put it, “been through a world war and was still going strong.” On her advice, I’ve decided to consider only secondhand citrus reamers when I finally get around to replacing the glass juicer I broke in January. I’m also trying to convince Channing to take a trip with me to the Old Lucketts Store to find the butcher’s block he wants for the kitchen (and maybe that “new” couch he’s been whining about for the last two years).

Secondhand stores are also excellent sources for clothing. I discovered this in June, when my friend Nan and I went to Alexandria to hunt for wedding dresses on consignment. Having had some less-than-satisfying experiences in thrift stores as a teenager, my expectations for this trip were extremely low. Little did I know, Old Town Alexandria has a good number of consignment boutiques within walking distance of one another. The two I visited, Diva Boutique and Mint Condition, stocked high-end merchandise and mimicked the experience of traditional retail stores—meaning they were well organized and easy to navigate. Clothes were displayed by color and style, everything was freshly laundered, and prices were one-half to one-third of the original retail cost. I looked only at their dress selections but noticed they had business attire and jeans as well. Labels ranged from Vera Wang to J. Crew.

No mall-based retail therapy can match the feeling of finding the perfect wedding dress—or anything else, really—in a store full of other people’s discards. I’d highly recommend it. To find secondhand stores and craft markets in your area, Yelp is a pretty great resource.

*Even more alternatives abound on the Internet, but sometimes it’s nice to touch stuff before you buy it, right?

**Secondhand shopping is also the only option for those of us doing the No Stuff Experiment.

Early Summer Spending

August 12, 2011

Maybe you’ve noticed that I haven’t written a post about my spending habits in a while. I haven’t necessarily been avoiding examining the monthly budget—between marathon training, a freelance assignment I couldn’t pass up, and wedding planning and festivities, I haven’t exactly had much time to sit down, compare spreadsheets, and write up an analysis.

Still, I have been a little bit scared of what I might discover. I feel like I’ve been unloading a lot of cash lately—on groceries, on consignment wedding dresses, on lunches with friends, and then this past month on pre-wedding pampering and various other stuff. And by “stuff” I mean the off-limits kind, like makeup and flowers. You remember how I made that wedding exception? I took a few liberties (just a few, though, really—more about this in another post).

It turns out I had nothing to fear. Over the last three months (i.e., May, June, and July), I have spent 18 percent less than I did during the same three months last year. My spending was up a tad (3 percent) in June because of a trip to Berkeley Springs, registration for a yoga class, a renter’s insurance payment, and a handful of restaurant meals. However, that month I also moved a four-digit amount to my savings account (the previous June, I didn’t put anything in savings), so all things considered, it was still a good month.

The biggest savings over the last three months, as compared with May, June, and July 2010, came in car expenses. I think I have mentioned before that I no longer have a monthly car payment, and so I’m now shelling out a lot less to keep the old Civic on the road. In July alone, my car expenses were a whopping 77 percent less than they had been the previous July—even with the spike in gas prices.

Spending in the “miscellaneous” category was also consistently about the same as or lower than it was during the early summer last year, thanks primarily to considerably lower credit card bills. Even in July, the month I bought that stuff for the wedding, my miscellaneous expenses were 45 percent less. Hooray!

The money management lessons I’m learning these days are certain to come in handy down the road. It just so happens that Channing and I visited the credit union this week to open a joint savings account, and I’m happy to report I actually have a decent amount of money to contribute to our collective total. In early summer 2010, I didn’t move any money to my savings account, but I did make a significant withdrawal in May. This year I have managed to put 20 percent of my income into savings every month (plus a little extra in June), and that 20 percent is about to get a little bit bigger—in July I got a promotion at work, which included a bump in salary.

I have a couple other good financial tidbits to share while I’m at it: First, because of the bounty of my CSA share (all-you-can-eat tomatoes this week!), I haven’t had to buy more than 20 bucks worth of groceries for the last two weeks. So, though my food expenses for May, June, and July 2011 were 8 percent less than in the same months of 2010, they are about to drop even more. In addition, because there’s so much food in the house, Channing and I are both spending less in restaurants.

Second, I just downgraded our household Netflix account to “unlimited streaming” only, which will cut my monthly Netflix bill in half. We’ll still get to enjoy Netflix’s vast collection of 90s sitcoms (Wings, anyone?), but minus the gas-guzzling means of delivery. OK, this move alone won’t free up much money for the downpayment on a new home, but for us, it’s a step toward streamlining our at-home entertainment budget. Next step: ditching the cable. Eliminating the hundreds of excess channels we currently have will appreciably lighten our financial load.