Why we moved

After our old apartment complex changed hands, our neighbors spent the whole summer worrying aloud that the new management company would raise the rent.

We declined to join in. I expected the rent to go up, but we had been getting such a good deal for so long, I figured that the rent could go up by 20%, maybe even 30%, and still be competitive.

Then we saw the proposed lease from the complex’s new owner, and went straight from “wait and see” to “let’s find a new place to live.”

You see, the new lease (I almost put the word in scare quotes) was an internet-style agreement. You’ve seen them—you’ve probably clicked through to agree to hundreds of them by now. They’re the ones with these two characteristics:

  1. There’s a long list of “terms and conditions” that they can change at any time.
  2. They doesn’t promise that the service they’re providing actually works.

For a broad range of internet stuff—especially stuff that’s free, like an email address or a web tool—a contract of that sort is perfectly reasonable. If someone is kindly letting you use some service for free, it’s fine if they decline to stand behind it, and understandable if they ask you to agree that the service is offered as-is and shouldn’t be relied upon for anything important.

For real-world stuff—especially real-world stuff you’re paying for—signing such an agreement is a terrible idea. Any adult with experience in the real world would know better.

Sadly, young folks don’t have much real-world experience. Worse, the current generation of young folks—having clicked through hundreds or thousands of such contracts—see them as normal.

I bring this up now because the new management company’s so-called lease was my first instance of such a contract for a real world thing.

An Internet-Style Apartment Lease

They raised the rent of course; this was not a surprise—and would even have been okay. But the proposed lease was an internet-style agreement. That was a deal breaker for us.

They Can Change the Terms and Conditions

A lot of internet-style contracts allow the other party to change the terms and conditions at any time, just by updating a document on some website.

This is fine for certain kinds of things, such as an internet service. Specifically, it’s acceptable for any service where you engage in individual transactions. Maybe it’s a video service where you pay $x to stream a video one time. Maybe it’s a service that will print your photo on a t-shirt or a coffee mug for $y. If they change their terms in some way that makes the service no longer attractive, you can just quit ordering.

It’s even true of a service with a subscription format, as long as you can cancel the service at any time. An example might be a service where you get to listen to unlimited music for $z a month. If they change the terms so that it costs too much, or they put limits on the music (or they lose access to the music you most want to listen to), you can just cancel.

Where it becomes completely unacceptable is when it’s a longer-term contract you can’t just cancel, such as a lease.

The contract the management company wanted us to sign said that they could change any of the terms at any time. If we didn’t like it, we’d have 30 days to move out.

That’s not a lease at all! The whole essence of a lease is that I know that I have an apartment I can live in for a year, and I know what I’d have to pay.

This is more like month-to-month renting, where I have to be ready to move out at any time. Except that it’s worse than month-to-month renting, because I’m committed for the full duration of the lease.

In fact, it’s even worse than that—the plain terms of the contract would allow the apartment company to change the duration of the lease as well: They could have come back the day after we signed and said, “We’ve tripled the rent. Oh, and we’ve also changed it from a 1-year lease to a 99-year lease: You have to pay for the rest of your life.”

I doubt if a court would tolerate such a thing, but I’m not going to sign a lease with unacceptable terms and hope that the court will take my side.

They Make No Promises

The other thing that’s common in internet-style contracts is that the party offering the service doesn’t promise anything.

That’s perfectly reasonable for a free service. If a company offers to let me use their cool thing for free, I’m fine with clicking through an agreement that says that they don’t promise that the thing even works and don’t promise to fix it if it breaks.

You know where it’s really not reasonable? In an apartment lease.

The whole point of an apartment lease is that you give them some money every month in exchange for a habitable place to live. They promise to keep it habitable if stuff breaks (you promise to pay for anything you break), and when the term is up, you return the apartment in the same condition you got it, except for normal wear and tear.

The contract the new management company wanted me to sign specifically said that they didn’t promise the apartment would be habitable. They also specifically didn’t promise that it would have any appliances, nor that they’d fix them if they broke.

They would have been within the terms of the lease to show up one day and take down the doors and windows, pull out the fridge and stove, shut off the heat and water, and drain the pipes. (It would probably have been illegal, but it wouldn’t have violated the lease.)

I saw this coming some time ago, and have written about it before. (Specifically, in a post called Reject Variable Terms and Conditions that I wrote for Wise Bread back in 2009.) I didn’t expect that I’d start seeing them in apartment leases this soon, though.

No sane person would sign such a contract—unless they’d been trained by click-through internet contacts that such terms were normal.

An internet-style contract is fine for an internet service. It’s even fine for a real-world service that’s not critical to your life or your business, as long as you can cancel it at any time.

It is not fine for anything you depend on. And it’s never fine for a contract that they can change but that you can’t cancel.

We looked around for a new place to live, and found one easily—one with a real lease.

Other Issues

Most of the above is an edited version of an article I originally wrote for Wise Bread, but that the editors didn’t want. For the Wise Bread article, I was focusing on internet-style agreements and why they’re bad for real-world stuff. The rest of this post is just a short description of the other reasons we decided to move. There were two of them.

First, they were going to start charging separately for utilities that had been included in the rent. This is something that I’d be fine with in theory—we probably use less heat and water than average. Except that heat and water were not metered per apartment. Without actual per-apartment numbers, the plan was for the complex to charge us made-up numbers. (They had hired company to make up the numbers for them, supposedly by allocating the complex’s actual costs to apartments by size. But there was no transparency, so I stand by my characterization of the charges as being made-up numbers.)

Second, they were also going to start charging extra every month because we have a cat. (We had already paid an extra pet deposit to cover any damage the cat caused, including a non-refundable part to pay for a more extensive cleaning.)

All told—higher rent, made-up utilities cost, cat rent—the increase would have been several hundred dollars—something like a 50% increase to our monthly housing cost.

We might even have paid that, to avoid the hassles of a move. But we weren’t going to sign an internet-style not-really-a-lease agreement.

Great writers versus great posts

I do most of my on-line reading via a feed reader. For years I used Google Reader, without even really worrying about the risks. After Google ruined it, I experimented with several alternatives. I’m happy enough with a couple of the options, so I’m not so unhappy with how things have turned out (with Google having announced that it is canceling Reader). But the surge in interest has prompted me to think about how reading feeds is different from reading things via social media. Social media helps you find great posts. Feed readers are for when you’ve found a great writer.

I notice this whenever someone shares one of my pages (either here or on Wise Bread). I’ll get a surge of traffic to one post. Some of those people will read another post, or even a few. Only a few seem to become regular readers of my work—and fewer now than before.

Back in the old days—let’s say, five or six years ago—there was more of the latter, and I think it was because more people used feed readers. It was wonderful to find a great post, but it was much better to find a great writer. Then you could add their feed to your feed reader and read everything they wrote.

I still do that. Every time I find a great post via Facebook or Twitter (or whatever), I look at other stuff the guy has written, with an eye toward adding the feed to my feed reader.

I’m puzzled that more people don’t seem to do the same. Finding a great writer is way better than finding a great post.

The wonderful Spurlock Museum

Plaster copy of Venus de Milo.
Plaster copy of Venus de Milo.

A hundred-odd years ago, a lot of towns and cities had their own museum. In those days, international travel was beyond the reach of ordinary people, and museums saw it as part of their mission to bring the great artistic and cultural works of the world to a place where ordinary people could see them. To support that, a whole industry existed making molds of the great works of European sculpture, and then casting plaster replicas of those works to be displayed in museums.

After all, the Venus de Milo can only be in one museum, but should only people who can get to the Louvre be able to see it?

A few decades later, fashions changed. Air travel and other changes made it possible for ordinary people to get to Europe after all, so they could see the great works of European art and culture. Rather suddenly, it no longer seemed like a great service to show people copies of the greatest works of art and culture.  Museums decided that they should show people originals—even if they could only afford 3rd rate originals.

julius caeser
Plaster copy of bust of Julius Caeser

Thanks entirely to great good fortune, at the time that this shift was at its peak, a budget crunch at the University of Illinois had virtually shut down the museums that are now known as the Spurlock Museum. They had so little money, they were unable to hire a director, meaning that there was no one in authority to throw out the plaster copies of the great works and replace them with 3rd rate originals.

At museums all over the country, an incredible number of these excellent copies—quite literally museum quality—were simply thrown away. But not those belonging to the Spurlock Museum.

Among other things, we have a fairly complete set of replicas of the Elgin Marbles, made from molds taken before an ill-fated attempt at cleaning did serious damage to the originals. Scholars come from all over the world to study our copies.

elgin marbles
Plaster copy of frieze blocks from the Parthenon

I was going to the Spurlock Museum today, to attend a meditation class by Mary Wolters (an excellent workshop, by the way), and decided to catch an earlier bus so I’d have half an hour to look around the collection. I’d several times wished I had a picture of one or another items from their collection to use to illustrate a Wise Bread post, and I figured this would be a good chance to get a few photos.

Having taken a few, I thought I’d share some here.

spurlock scupture

If you’re local, don’t miss the wonderful Spurlock Museum.

Interviewed on Navigating Your Money

Mike Tierney of the Navigating Your Money podcast interviewed me last week and has already put the show up. Listen to me natter on about frugal living here:

Episode #19: Live Like You Have More, On Less

I haven’t actually listened to it. I find the idea of doing so fills me with dread. (I’ve heard other people say similar things, but am a little surprised to find myself so strongly affected.)

Wise Bread’s Will Chen has assured me that I sound reasonably articulate:

I especially like the part where you explained that a budget is not a limit but rather a tool for showing you what you CAN have. The part about sharing tools is also a really awesome part. You did great, but the host is also really good. He clearly has read through your material and gets your philosophy.

So there you have it. If you’re interested in what I’ve been saying, but you want to hear it in my voice rather than reading it on the screen, here’s your chance.

My shameful integer posts—and my shameless ones

You know what integer posts are—the ones where the title starts with an integer. I scorn them when I’m reading, so I tend not to write them. I’ve ended up writing a few, though. Seriously—sometimes they just pop out.

I knew I’d written three, but looking back over my list of Wise Bread posts, I see that I’ve actually written six, a fact that I’m somewhat ashamed of:

These last two are sliders. For one thing, the integer is spelled out, not written as a digit. For another, the posts are organized as a logical sequence, rather than as a lame list. I don’t know if they count or not, but the title begins with an integer, so I’m including them.

This next list, though, don’t count. They’re posts that quite legitimately include a number in the title because it’s part of what the post is about:

Those I’m not ashamed of at all. I mean, 401(k) isn’t even an integer!

Oh, and I almost missed this shameful integer post, because I’d hidden the integer in the middle:

And what about this one?

Shameful? Or shameless?

Sadly, integer posts do seem to work, if by “work” you mean “get more reads.” Perhaps the title of this post should have been “7 Shameful Integer Posts”! Hmm?

Soldierette mention

My Wise Bread post Have Style, not a Lifestyle picked up a mention on the blog Soldierette as one of 5 Unmissable Personal Style Tips.

I spent a few minutes poking around the site. There’s a lot to like there. The fitness stuff in particular caught my eye. (I’m always trying to balance staying motivated enough to get my exercise with avoiding injuring myself by training too much or too hard. I find fitness-related writing helps with both aspects of that.)

I’ll be interviewed on Rudy Maxa’s World tomorrow

I’m going to be interviewed on Rudy Maxa’s World (America’s #1 Travel Radio Show) tomorrow (Saturday, May 19th). I’ll be on at 11:43 Eastern time for five minutes.

If you want to hear me talk, you can:

They want me to talk about my Why I Hate Points Wise Bread post.

I’ve been interviewed before, but usually either by a reporter who’s gathering info for a story, or else by email where I can compose my replies. This’ll be my first live interview.

Lunch boxes

Various containers for carrying lunches
Photo of lunch boxes originally taken for Wise Bread.

I took this photo specifically to illustrate my latest Wise Bread post, which uses lunch boxes as an example in a discussion about how to choose between buying disposable versus buying to last. The editor ended up going with a different image, but I kind of liked this one, so I figured I’d use it here.

Turns out I have a lot of containers for carrying lunch.

The right-most one is Jackie’s tiffin carrier. Some places in India, wives produce fresh hot lunches for their husbands in the late morning and use a delivery system to have the lunches delivered at lunch time in carriers like this. We sometimes bring it to restaurants so we don’t need to ask for a box when we want to bring leftovers home.

Next to that is a brown paper bag, which I contend is a perfectly reasonable choice for brown-bag lunches: paper is cheap, made from renewable resources without requiring large amounts of energy, and is bio-degradable.

The blue container next to that is the lunch container I actually used to bring my lunch to the office for years. It’s insulated, so food from the fridge would stay cold enough to remain fresh, and then I’d heat it up in the office microwave.

Behind that is a metal lunch box printed with a Hindu pantheon. (The other side has a rather terrifying picture of Kali.) As best I can recall, we’ve never used it to carry a lunch. I think Jackie stores some sort of textile-related tools in it.

At the far left is an awesome thermos-brand lunch carrier that’s basically a big thermos bottle. I won it in a raffle at  Motorola company picnic. (It’s got a Motorola logo printed on it, although it was made by Nissan which I gather bought Thermos some years ago.) It’s a very clever contraption. Clearly someone put a lot of thought into it. There are four stackable containers inside. The bottom one is made for soup, and has gasketed lid to keep liquids in together with a little valve that lets pressure equalize as the soup cools. The next one up is a big container for the main dish—rice, pasta, whatever. The lid of that container is insulated. The next container up is supposed to be used for salad (kept from getting hot by the insulated lid below it), and the top container is for desert. I don’t think I ever used it as intended, to carry both hot and cold dishes, but it worked great as an alternative to my blue insulated carrier to carry cold dishes that I could heat up in the microwave. (And I might yet use it as intended, if I ever want to carry a hot lunch someplace that doesn’t have a microwave.)

As I was setting up for the photo shoot, I kept thinking of more lunch containers that we own. We actually have at least two that didn’t make it into the picture.

Some years ago, my dad gave us a picnic backpack. It’s for rather higher-class affairs than lunch at the office. It came with a tablecloth and place settings for two, together with a cutting board for serving bread and cheese, and a corkscrew. There’s a sleeve suitable for a carrying a bottle of wine. The pack has two compartments, one for the implements and then another insulated compartment for the food.  (I think it’s this one: Picnic Backpack at REI.) I never brought that into work for lunch, but Jackie a couple of times packed up food for two and came to join me at the office for lunch.

The last is my “rack trunk” for my bicycle. It’s sized to fit on top of the bicycle’s rear rack, and is basically a big plastic tub lined with insulation, and then covered with nylon. It’s just the right size to hold a six-pack of soda (turned sideways), with enough room left over to hold a sandwich, along with a couple of granola bars, Reese’s peanut butter cups, or what have you. Jackie packed my lunch in that pretty often as well, during summer bicycling season. (If you don’t try to fit in a six-pack, there’s plenty of room for a proper meal.) They don’t make this sort of rack trunk any more. The new ones lack the rigid plastic tub, and just get their shape from the structure of the fabric—they’re not nearly as nice as mine.

I’d had no idea I had so many lunch boxes, until I started gathering them up for that photo shoot.

Another view on frugal living

One of my fellow Wise Bread writers, Nora Dunn, has been posting some of the financial details of her travel-heavy lifestyle, including this post on her 2011 Income. (It’s got a link to her earlier post on her 2011 spending, and promises a forthcoming post on why she chooses to earn this much money and not more.)

It’s pretty interesting for anyone who’s thinking about the sort of issues that I write about in my Wise Bread articles—how and why to spend less, and how and why to earn the money to support that frugal lifestyle (and not some other lifestyle).

Drew Breunig on “Content” Creep

I think of myself as a writer, not a “content creator,” so I find Drew Breunig’s warnings of doom to anyone whose business is built around “content” to be hopeful. Those same warnings ought to terrify the owners and managers of those businesses.

My writing for Wise Bread has given me a particular perspective on this. The Wise Bread admins have done a pretty good job of seeking out and paying for high-quality writing. They have fallen prey to the idea that winning in this niche is all about SEO and monetizing, but that’s not so bad.

The SEO thing tends tends to work in favor of a writer who wants his work to be read. A Google search for budget categories finds my article Refactor Your Budget Categories, despite a lot of other articles on budgeting. (I was going to say that I wouldn’t do so well if I just posted the article on my own blog, but when I tested that theory, I found a Google search for rich country finds my article How to Have a Rich Country just fine. Maybe I could do as well on my own site.) In any case, there’s nothing wrong with SEO, as long as it’s in service of good content—good writing.

The monetizing thing is more of a slippery slope. If you let your browser do so, it’ll run scripts from at least 15 other domains every time you load a page on Wise Bread. I haven’t looked at what they’re all for, but most of them either serve ads or provide some sort of analytics or tracking of who’s viewing what. As a reader, I don’t care about any of that stuff, so I generally don’t let my browser run those scripts. As a writer, I tolerate it as a way to make more money, but I don’t think it makes my posts look better. (Wise Bread does at least avoid the very worst of the interstitials and floating boxes that cover the page and so on.)

So, as I say, I hope Drew Breunig is right. I’d very much like to see the revenue potential of a content farm article fall to zero. Or, at least, low enough that there’s no point in paying some semi-literate buffoon a nickle to cobble together a few paragraphs that look like prose and are stuffed with keywords. Not that I begrudge the semi-literate buffoons their nickles; I’d just like to see the incentives in the system shift so as to make it pointless to hire writers who can’t write.

It would take a lot of those nickles to add up to a reasonable wage, but there are a lot of those nickels. A world in which we swapped 10,000 worthless articles for one worthwhile article—and paid one writer $500 instead of a thousand buffoons 50¢ each would be a better world.