The Expatriated Consumer

Imagining life without debt. Working to make it reality.

Now that’s music to my ears!

Posted by Max Finkle on August 20, 2008

I read a lot of personal finance blogs, get tons of great ideas, and free advice, all for the price of a big donut. I really like most of what I read, and oftentimes I follow up on some of the suggestions, like utilizing the library. I hadn’t been to one in years. Kinda forgot they were there, ya know?

Recently it occurred to me that as an avid music fan, no one seems to talk about how to obtain free music. With the Napster heyday long over, and the RIAA stretching the boundries of the Constitution in pursuit of illegal downloaders, what is rabid music fan supposed to do besides listen to the radio? I love listening to music, and I don’t like the idea of obtaining it illegally.

Over the air radio has it’s place, but I generally can’t stand the offerings. I like to have complete control of my listening material, and don’t like being force-fed the tripe that passes for music nowadays. To top it off, I have little tolerance for all of the marketing that goes along with listening to the radio.

Enter the digital age! The Internet has changed the way many of us listen to music, especially with the introduction of ITunes and other pay-for music download services. Even Napster is a pay-for use service now, with a subscription model, verses a pay for ownership model. As long as you subscribe to the service, you are welcome to listen to most of the music. Stop paying, lose the right to listen. I’ve read that music companies are trying to encourage that model, because it gives them perpetual earnings, instead of one-time purchase money. Their goal is to keep listeners’ wallets open.

The alternative, for those of us who like to buck the system, and do it legally, is to seek out free sources. Fortunately for us, they abound, and the offerings run the gamut from popular music to the obscure. Lets take a look at some of the available goodies out there.

The local library. Yep, for those of you who haven’t been to one recently, many of those archaic archival institutions crept up on us and entered the musical foray years ago. My local library only recently opened, and has little to offer, but the next city over has an extensive collection of CD’s just begging to introduce me to artists and genres that I’ve been overlooking my whole life. The bonus to library CD’s is that I don’t have to worry about the clutter of ownership, or being stuck owning a terrible CD that I shelled out good money for. Additional bonus: if I like it, I can borrow it again any time I want.

Friends & neighbors. What better way to relate to someone than through music? I’ve been introduced to some great and even some not so great music by friends willing to lend a CD to me. Borrowing CD’s can be risky, though, so if you don’t plan to return them, or if you’re concerned that a friend may not return yours it’s not worth losing a friendship over. Rule of thumb, if you’re not willing to risk losing a treasured disc, don’t lend it out.

Internet radio. Live365.com, Shoutcast, AOL, Pandora.com. are all free Internet radio, where you can customize your stations to your heart’s content. I’ve toyed with a few of them, and a quick Google search will net you all the links you can stand. All seem pretty easy to sign on to and set up. Unfortunately for me, they still don’t give me the control I like over what I listen to, and I’m generally subject to adverts, which I can ignore onscreen, but can’t avoid when they are slipped into the playlist by the vendor. Granted the advertisements are less intrusive than over the air radio, but I’m picky, what can I say?

Individual band Websites. For all of their blustering during the early days of file sharing, Metallica, of all bands, offers free music for download directly from their Website. Hunt around and you can find many others that do so as well. The Allman Brothers Band hosts a forum, and topics include trading live recordings of the band. Oftentimes, music traders will allow you to send them blank CD’s and they will send them back to you with music. All for the cost of blanks discs and return postage.

Live music trading communities. Etree.org is arguably the most popular of the music trading Websites out there. No copyrighted material is allowed, but the scope of music you can obtain for free from traders is mind boggling. None of the material is for sale, so if someone asks for money in exchange for the music, they are illegally bootlegging for profit. Trading with no intent to profit is the only way to get the goods from here. Learn proper trading etiquette and you can net obscene amounts of music. Some music is also linked to:

The Live Music Archive. Archive.org has one of the largest collections of free music anywhere, and it keeps getting larger on a daily basis. They host the largest publicly available collection of live Grateful Dead recordings and all are available to listen to whenever you wish. That collection alone could keep you busy for the foreseable future, nevermind the hundreds of other bands from all different genres that make their music available free there as well. All the recordings are from live performances, so if you seek perfection in your listening, you won’t find it there. The collection is extensive, and it’s easy to get lost there, so be careful!

Bittorrent. Careful with this one. There are sources of illegal file sharing out there if you’re so inclined, and then some, like Lossless Legs, and Dime a Dozen, offer material that falls into the gray areas of copyright laws. While material is available there often without the express consent of the artists, the music is not technically copyrighted because they are most often live recordings or radio broadcasts. The communities are self policing, and when copyrighted material shows up, the site owners ban the files. They also take pains to prevent music from being available from artists who’ve expressly stated to the site owners that they don’t condone the free trade of their recordings. Most artists seem okay with the fact that the community does a spectacular job protecting copyrighted music.
If you’re not comfortable toeing the line, etree.org also hosts bittorrents only of bands that expressly approve of the electronic transfer of their live recordings and otherwise non-copyrighted works. Unfortunately, that greatly reduces the choices of bands and genres, but at least it’s all legal with no hitches.

There are loads of other venues to get your paws on great music for free, if you desire. Just be cautious. With so much of it out there, it’s easy to forget that there is life beyond great tunes. Enjoy what you find before you seek out more, as the quest for free music is as addictive as a good beat.

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Have some respect!

Posted by Max Finkle on July 23, 2008

I griped some time ago about an outstanding medical bill that wasn’t covered by my insurance in a previous post. They were trying to whack me $275 for some labs that my doctor’s office had sent to the wrong laboratory company. My insurer mandates that all labs go to one specific company for processing, and my doctor’s office decided they liked this other company better. So, here I was stuck shouldering the cost. The bill sat on my desk for three months, until I could stand it no more, and simply had to call to arrange some sort of compromise, or at the very least, a payment plan.

Now, it is a medical related bill, and if I so desired, I could simply ignore it, and it would go to collection, I would get pestered for a little while and then it would go away. But, money works in mysterious ways, and I’ve begun to believe that if you treat your money with care & respect, it will treat you likewise. To ignore this bill would have been an abuse of my money, and the negativity would carry through to other parts of my finances. I’m not entirely sure why it works this way, but it seems to.

Two hundred & seventy five dollars seemed a trifle too much to me, and when the nice lady picked up on the other end, I let her know it. The conversation went similarly to this:

Her: “Hello, my name is Sydney (not her real name) how can I help you?”

Me: Hi, I’m Jeremy, I am calling regarding a bill I received.

Her: OK, may I have your account number?

Me: Certainly. It’s OU812 (Not the real account number).

Her: Thank you. I see you have an outstanding balance of $275.

Me: Yes, that what I’m calling to discuss. That seems a little high.

Her: Well, I understand how you feel, but that is what we normally charge for those services.

Me: Now, I know that you give discounts to insurers, so that those very same labs would cost significantly less for them. I’m just wondering how I might qualify for that very same sort of discount. I would like to pay the bill, but it really is more than I can hack right now.

Her: I’m sorry, but we are unable to do that. We have contracts with insurers that give them those discounts, unfortunately, there is no such arrangement for the services on this bill.

Me: I understand that, since you are unable to help me, could you put me in touch with someone who maybe could?

Her: Well, I can try to get my supervisor.

Me: Tell you what, if you simply knock 50% off the bill, I will send you a check for that entire amount today.

Her: Here, let me put you through to my supervisor.

Me: OK.

Supervisor: Hello, my name is Rachel (not her real name), can I help you?

Me: I’m having an issue with this bill. It seems my insurance won’t cover it, because they contract with a different lab, and now I’m stuck with it.

Rachel: I see, so basically your doctor’s office sent the specimens to be processed at the wrong lab. That happens a lot. Actually, is this the first time this has happened to you?

Me: Yeah.

Rachel: If I remember correctly, your insurer does provide a clause for issues like this, and will offer a one time payment to cover it. You’ll just have to work with your doctor’s office to be sure any future labs are sent to the appropriate processor. I will call the contact person at your insurance that deals with these issues, and see if we can get them to cover our services to you this one time.

Me: Really? Thank you so much! Thank you very much for your time and have a good day.

Rachel: Thank you, and goodbye.

I spent three months steaming over this bill. I’ve mulled it over, trying to figure out what transpired in my life recently to make this issue work out in my favor. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m developing a new respect for money. I’m changing the way I think about it and feel about it, and how I handle it. Furthermore, two significant things happened this week:

1. I donated a sizable sum to a charity organization for the first time in my life, despite my own financial difficulties. I’ve come to believe in the power of giving, and the positive effects it has on your life. It feels good to know that I did something small, but extraordinary (to me, anyway) with my money. Normally I fret about bills unpaid, and get depressed because of it, and use that to justify not sharing my good fortune.
2. I faced the music regarding a bill I owed, even though the mistake wasn’t mine that produced it. Instead of taking the easy way out, and ignoring it, knowing that the long term consequences were nil, I decided to respect my money and do the right thing. I was prepared to pay it.

In turn, the consequence was that the solution to this issue with the lab company ended up saving me, not just a portion of the bill, but the entire balance due. To top it off, I’m coming away from this knowing that it was settled properly, and not just swept under the carpet. Something just seems right about the whole thing to me. Any thoughts anyone?

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Everything but the squeal…

Posted by Max Finkle on July 17, 2008

My grandmother told me that one day, when we were talking about her childhood. When they butchered a pig, they used every part of it, everything but the squeal. She grew up in lean times, as everyone in the country did at the time. There was no excess, because oftentimes there wasn’t even enough. So, they had to use everything they had and squeeze the maximum amount they could from it. That applied to everything from foodstuffs to socks.

My father-in-law relates tales of days when, because of rationing for the war, they had no butter. They would get a large block of white plastic-looking stuff and some yellow food coloring at the beginning of the month so they could make their own margerine. No one could drive anywhere because there was no gasoline to be had, nevermind that tires couldn’t be replaced even if you had the money.

An elderly friend once told me how every Sunday after church, one family from the congregation would come to their house for supper, because being farmers, they had enough food to share. I always wondered what the rest of the families in the congregation did on the weeks they weren’t fortunate enough to partake.

Myself, I grew up darning my socks. (That’s fixin’ the holes in my socks with needle and thread, for those who may not be familiar). My mom did it for me when I was younger, but as I grew older I had to fend for myself. Once my dexterity was acute enough to avoid stabbing myself constantly, the needle and thread were presented to me; my mom had enough. There was no guilt, I never worried what the other kids would think, it was a part of growing up. I even sometimes had to patch my winter boots after I wore holes in them. It was my choice to either work the farm with wet feet, or to break out the tire patch kit and fix it myself. I learned to make do.

We grew a huge garden, upwards of an entire acre of food, annually. I hated pulling weeds and picking stones, what with all the bugs, and the dust and the grit. I recall my mother canning and freezing loads of veggies, filling the cabinets and the deep freeze for the colder seasons. We picked wild blackberries, which grew in abundance on our property, and tapped maple trees in the spring. We lived off the land as much as we could.

I got my first chainsaw when I was twelve years old, because my stepfather felt it was time for me to contribute more to our winter heating bill. All we had was wood heat, and when we ran out of wood in the middle of February, as we did more than once, I would have to go out into the woods with my stepfather and fell trees in two feet of snow.

I, and many people I know, have lived in leaner times. To me, no matter how horrible the economy is, or how high gas prices are, I live in a time of prosperity. Everywhere I turn lately there is empowering stories in the news of families who are are stretching their dollars to make ends meet, and living with less. I take it all with a grain of salt, because as tough as the times are currently, they don’t compare to what it could be, or what it has been. I appreciate their efforts, and even draw some inspiration from them, because I have come to realize the excess in my own life, and am learning to scale back.

It makes it easier for me to make the changes necessary to fix my finances when I keep it all in perspective. I’m not living without, I’m not really living with less. I am certainly not hurting, even though I would like to have a 52″ LCD t.v. and a blueray player to go with it. At least I’m eating well, I have a roof over my head, and my family is healthy & loving. I can ask for more, but I am content if I don’t get it.

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Drop the Attitude, dude!

Posted by Max Finkle on July 15, 2008

Attitude. What’s your attitude about money? Theory goes that if you think like the rich do, you can achieve wealth, too. For me, I’ve got some long held opinions of the rich that aren’t very flattering. Reconciling those attitudes is taking work, because I only now, in my late thirties, am trying to confront those beliefs, and reconcile with them, so that I can move forward in my quest for financial freedom.

For starters, I grew up in a small farming community in Western Massachusetts, where most folks were living comfortably, or at least getting by. Although the factories had long since closed, there was work to be had, and many folks ran their own businesses either in construction or doing some other form of manual labor if they didn’t farm.

My family was relatively poor, primarily because my stepfather had some very serious substance abuse issues. Pretty much most of what he earned went towards his habits. That’s not to say that we didn’t have periods of prosperity in our house, but they were interspersed with longer periods of having no money.

My stepfather was a construction contractor and built homes for wealthy people all the time. He would come home with sordid tales of excess, with spoiled rich wives making them redo projects because things weren’t perfect, or eccentric doctors who insisted on gold plated faucets in their bathrooms. At the end of the week when my mom needed to buy groceries, and there was no money, it was their fault because they withheld their check for services rendered, or when he subcontracted, the wealthy contractor he was working for was giving him the run-around all the time.

Because we had no money we looked for reasons to hate those who did. The banker family in town? A bunch of snobs. The children always had the best clothes, and as far as we were concerned, walked around with their noses in the air. The family with the dad who was a stock broker? Well, they were just strange, since they weren’t born and raised in town, and were outsiders, so they couldn’t be trusted. The U.S. ambassador that had a summer home in the country? We snarled in disgust at the tennis court that marred the roadside scenery, and mocked the in-ground pool as unnecessary in country living. If those people wanted to be in the sticks with us, they should’ve acted like us as well, seemed to be the general sense of things. In other words, they should’ve acted poor, since it seemed most of us in town were just getting by.

As I got older, I continued to associate money with excess. I was far from popular, and it seemed that all the popular kids in school were well off, and all seemed to sneer at those of us who weren’t. It was also around this time that I began to be exposed to alternative media that seemed to always point to corporate excess, and the idea that the rich keep getting richer, and the poor, poorer. Those corporate execs were giving themselves all kinds of enriching bonuses while the planet was being polluted by their companies’ waste, and people like us were barely able to stay on top of our bills.

I remember watching the news during the Enron debacle, and Mrs. Ken Lay was on t.v. She was crying because the public just didn’t understand the emotional distress she was experiencing when they lost their multi-million dollar summer “cottage” in Aspen, CO. Of course it’s difficult to appreciate that when you can’t even relate, or even come close to grasping the idea that someone owned a summer home that was larger than any house you’ve ever lived in in your life as a primary residence, never mind a summer cottage.

I remember tending bar and one of my customers was a millionaire, because, as she put it, she divorced well. She had totaled her Porsche driving drunk and griped for weeks about how outrageous it was that her riches couldn’t help her duck the charges. “What’s the use of having all this money if I can’t buy my way out of this,” she lamented out loud one day.

Another time working at the bar, we looked to see a Mercedes SUV parked on the curb out front. We all marveled at the beauty of the vehicle, and wondered who it was that was lucky enough to drive it. It wasn’t long before he came in, drunk as a skunk, crying in his beer to us about his financial woes. He was worth several hundred million dollars, with lucrative government contracts raking in more and more millions. People gathered around him in awe. He bought rounds for everyone, and tipped the bartender more than the rest of the bar put together that night. At one point he pulled out a gigantic roll of $100 bills and placed it on the bar. “There’s $10,000 right there. All this money, and it doesn’t make me happy.” He cried about how his wife was spending an average of $25,000 a month, and refused to curb her spending. Everyone pitied him, and tried to comfort him.

Me, I was trying to figure out how I was going to pay my rent, since I was working two part-time jobs for nearly minimum wage. And this guy had the audacity to come here and cry to us? We were all working class Joes in that bar, aside from the occasional rich person who came in because they heard it was a cool place to hang out. They weren’t one of us, I felt, and had no business being there.

Since I never really rubbed elbows socially with the wealthy, I presumed that they had disdain for me because I wasn’t as well off as they were. Consequently, I felt they deserved my disdain, and I refused to allow myself to believe that any rich person could actually be “cool.” To me, you were only cool if you were broke. I surrounded myself with other people who were broke, and we lamented our mutual fates as we squandered our earnings on cigarettes, lottery and excessive drinking, and whatever other opportunities for instant gratification came our way.

Now, as I work to reform my financial life, I’m developing a new appreciation for money. I pay attention to stories of the generous, those people who have more, and share with the less fortunate. A friend of mine who used to own a limo service tells me tales of the rich and famous that he chauffeured around, and relates stories of generosity, and people who were just genuinely good to him, because it was their nature. I observe those with money around me, and I am more able to separate behavior and attitude from money. I try to respect my money, and obtain as much value for each dollar that I possess, so that I may have more for my future. My goal is to squander none.

Most importantly, I realize it’s okay to have money, that it’s not going to make me a bad person. It’s okay to want more, but for the right reasons. I used to want more it so I could buy stuff, now I want it so I can build a more secure future. I don’t judge others by what they have compared to what I have, I judge them for who they are. I’m developing an understanding of money, far deeper than I’ve ever known before. I’m finding that it’s not the outside influences, but the inside influences that have gotten me where I am today. As I weed through them, I’m finding the ones that make me most happy and focusing on those, and I’m finding that good things are coming my way. And it’s nobody’s fault but mine.

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Goal!

Posted by Max Finkle on July 9, 2008

It’s difficult to accomplish anything when you don’t have a goal.

I’m trying to set my sights on a number of different things, and I’m finding that the hardest part is establishing a goal. Something to strive for. A target to aim at.

It applies to personal finance: what are my goals? Well, I’ve pretty much decided that I want to get out of debt. Sounds good doesn’t it? It’s easy – we just have to spend less than we earn. It’s taking the steps to do that that’s difficult. So how do I start? Where do I start? Well, starting small seems the prudent choice. We’ve decided that one of our goals is to cut our monthly grocery bill in half. That should be a piece of cake when it seems to balloon to obscene amounts each month. The next goal will be rolling that freed up cash into debt payments.

It applies to starting this blog. I’ve realized that I’ve committed the cardinal sin of blogging and have not maintained a regular posting schedule. My short term goal is to post at least 3 times a week to start, perhaps Monday, Wednesday & Fridays so that as I hopefully gain readers, I can keep them. Then next goal is to work on optimizing my site to maximize exposure to help build readership.

It applies to my waistline: Yes, I’m a bit more along around the middle than I’d like to be. In my zeal to cut my grocery bill, I decided to eat less junk. Not to say that I’ve eliminated it, but cutting out that extra dollar here and there on snacks seems to be helping me maintain healthier eating habits overall. My next step is to start walking on a regular basis, perhaps three days a week, in hopes that I can get back some of my youthful vigor…

Setting goals is my current goal. Little goals to start, and then snowballing them into the bigger ones that I want to accomplish as time progresses. Without an idea of where you’re going there is no place to start.

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