Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Haaaave you met my friend Alice?

I may have a new love in life (don't worry Columbia). Her name is Alice. She could make my life easier. Let me explain:

Today is the launch of It's a merchandise site, but there are some interesting twists.
  • FREE SHIPPING. No matter how much or little you spend.
  • Good prices.
  • Coupons - not the ones in your coupon binder, but ones you don't even have to search for. The site has connected with manufacturers that offer coupon (extra discounts) on their products.
  • They will remind you when you are close to running out of supplies if you want them to.
  • $10 0ff of your first purchase. If you order a few items around $10 to try out the service you will be getting them for FREE!
  • Budget tracking. Alice will keep track of your purchases for you. If you need a little help with budgeting, Alice can do this for you. (For your household expenses anyway.)
  • They have an affiliate program so you can earn money when your friends (or lovely blog readers, ahem =) sign up through your link or referral email. Those you refer also earn $10 site credit when they spend $50.

I am always intrigued by a service that is willing to deliver items for free to my door. In this city, lugging is a way of life, but one I would rather avoid. Especially with Pumpkin. In the winter. Sludging through slush in 8 layers.

We initially used's subscribe and save service for diapers. It was a decent deal for 7th Generation and we didn't have to think about when to buy them or having to lug them home. When Pumpkin was a newborn with sensitive skin, this was a huge help. But... the cost isn't worth the advantage for us anymore. We are happy enough with Target's store brand diapers and they are not that frustrating to get home now that Pumpkin is bigger (and as Columbia will carry them for me).

Here's how Alice compares with Amazon for 2 products you don't want to haul around NYC:

7th generation Diapers Size 4
Amazon S&S 4 pack w/15% discount: $37.39 (no shipping cost as it's over $25)
Alice: $10.19 per package = $40.76 for 4 (shipping is always free)
Result? Amazon wins!

Iams Proactive Health Dry Cat Food 4lb bag
Alice: 8.47 per bag = $42.35 for 5 bags
Result? Alice wins!

So while Alice may not beat amazon on their subscribe and save deals, there does seem to be a savings on other items. And not just in storage space if you don't want to buy the mass quantities to save on shipping from amazon.

Alice will not beat the sales at the chain stores, especially when you can match up the sale with a coupon, but they do have good prices. If you are a "my time is worth more than the money I will save in the hour it takes me to cut out and organize the Sunday coupons" type of person, Alice is definitely the place for you.

After the initial $10 purchase I do not know home much we will use Alice. Every penny counts for us at this point and as I am home with Pumpkin I do have a bit more free time than the average person. Columbia is a champ to lug our groceries and household supplies. Still, in those cold months of slush and bulky clothing, I could see free cat food delivery as a MAJOR perk.

Here are 2 giveaways around the blogosphere for Alice: Sorry, both giveaways have ended.
Northern Cheapskate is giving away 5 $100 gift certificates and all you have to do is enter your info in a form. She also was a beta-tester for Alice and has a 1st hand review of using the site.
Brazen Careerist is giving away 5 $100 gc's to Alice also, but you have to leave a comment telling how you automate your life to make it easier
And if you should want a link to find out more about Alice, please allow us: Alice!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

NYC is Safe (Until You're A Victim)

I came across a piece the NY Times put together called the NYC Homicides Map. You can look at murder data mapped out across the city, each grim event appearing as a pinpoint with correlating data (victim/perp age, method used, date, etc). It's not pretty to look at, but it is incredibly informing. If you are willing to understand this as a reality where we live, you might not avoid the data, but rather try to find a use for it. Just as you could get hit crossing the street or end up with a cessna flying into your bedroom, danger can happen anywhere. This data doesn't say that you'll be murdered in one particular area; it just shows where to go to increase your odds.

My immediate application for this map was to help me understanding relative safety of neighborhoods with which I'm less familiar. One such neighborhood is East Harlem, said to be one of the last good deals in Manhattan Real Estate. So we bought in to the hype, and visited an open-house that looked promising. Outside the very charming apartment, my comfort-level was challenged (especially in thinking about my girls), and this was during daylight hours. I thought maybe the map could help inform me: was it really unsafe or just my lack of knowledge of the area?

Neighborhood of the open house:
Each dot represents a murder at that location (Since 2003)

For comparison, I looked at my neighborhood.

While it's true that where we live is very quiet and safe(comparatively speaking), it's affirming to know my sense of discomfort in East Harlem had some grounding in reality.

For the a God's eye view, here's the big picture of NYC:

The map and data is really interesting and slightly disturbing all at the same time. We've already looked at other areas where we are (were?) considering buying and are wondering the following:

  1. Will we let this information effect our home-buying decision?
  2. Is the "sense of the neighborhood" more meaningful to us than these statistics?
  3. Is there any way we can keep our families from finding this map?

Link: NYC Homicides Map [via StreetEasy Talk]

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Lost their Lease (NYC Economy Snapshop, Part 1)

The picture on the left is of the Health Nuts, formerly at Broadway and 75th Street. I always loved this store, with its shelves stocked to the 14' (at least) ceilings. It was a small store, where you knew the people and things were still priced with a sticker gun. This picture was taken on Feb 28th 2008. The store closed shortly thereafter and has been vacant since. The manager, David, opened up the Vitamin Peddler on Amsterdam after The Health Nuts closed, though the variety of his offerings is significantly smaller than before.

I was searching for a little more information about David, and found an incredible article from the West Side Spirit called "Closed For Business," which looked at how many stores in the UWS are sitting empty:

To discover exactly how the financial climate has affected businesses, West Side Spirit conducted a survey on Feb. 20 of Broadway, Amsterdam and Columbus avenues from 59th to 110th streets and discovered a total of 103 empty, on-the-avenue lots. Five more had announced their imminent closure and 11 others were closed but planned to open with new shops in the month ahead. Overall, 8.44 percent of individual stores on these three avenues stood empty that day. Amsterdam was the worst off, with nearly a tenth of its lots unoccupied. [Full Article]

I always find it a cruel twist of fate when a store, like the Health Nuts, closes from being being priced out. The area is what it is (desireable, profitable, etc) because of places like this: Small shops with good products, salespeople with heart and experience that offer solid advice, yet somehow don't need to mark up everything to a "luxury" price point. In short: Stores with a soul.

So now The Health Nuts is gone, which is clearly a loss for the neighborhood. With nothing in its place, there is a loss for the local economy, the neighborhood offerings, neighborhood appeal, security and other intangibles. Whoever owns 2141 Broadway has lost over a year's worth of rent due to greedy aspirations. And now the market has taken such a hit that they'd be lucky to get a tenant to pay whatever the Health Nuts was paying before, and surely would have continued to pay.

Link Closed For Business [West Side Spirit]

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The True Cost of a Membership

Just about a year ago, JC and I decided that it would probably be worth it to buy a membership to the Central Park Zoo. We looked at the price for the two of us (Children under 3 are free) to get in and it was $20. We decided to get the Individual Premium membership, which would pay for itself in 4 more visits on admission alone. For $90, we'd get free admission to all five WCS wildlife parks (including the NYC Aquarium at Coney Island) for one adult and a friend plus unlimited access to Bronx Zoo attractions. We also have had a membership to the Museum of Natural History, which is a stones throw from our place. With both memberships coming to a close, and our plans for an upcoming move by October, the idea of renewing these memberships has been brought to the budgetary table.

We decided that the zoo membership would be worth it for admission. The AMNH membership is a little more difficult to value, since a non-member can enter via a donation. In trying to crunch numbers and be wise with our money, I have to remind myself about the value from which we benefit with a membership:

1. Unlimited Access to The Collections
Want to see dinosaurs today, gems tomorrow, and maybe a deciduous forest on a whim? Do it. It's already paid for, so use it as much as you want. Zoos, museums and the like give us a view of something we don't have access to otherwise, and it's an exciting way to learn for Pumkpin and ourselves.

2. Significantly Shorter Lines
The next time we went to the Zoo after getting our membership (Labor Day Weekend maybe?) we almost turned around because of the lines to get in. It was bright out, and our pasty pumpkin would have looked like a cooked lobster before we even got through the gates. I thought, nay - I hoped! -- that maybe, just maybe, there was a members' line. Sure enough, there was. We went from a line of about 75 to a line of none and walked right in. I remember thinking at the time, "that just made the membership worth it." That line has been a very nice perk, and saves us time waiting on line that could be better be spent admiring the new Snow Leopards.

It should be mentioned that JC finds the non-members' lines to be very mild during the off-peak weekday hours, so this might not be a huge factor for stay-at-home-parents, or zoo-goers with non-traditional work hours.

3. Energy Savings
With a little more groundwork, I could put this into dollars, but I'll say this: Last year one hot month with two air conditioners running left us sweating a $300 electricity bill. Since the home is occupied during the day now, we use more electricity than if the house were empty; the hotter months exacerbate our electricty use. Turning off all the lights and AC for an hour a day while walking around the climate-controlled AMNH can only have a positive effect on our wallet.

4. Free Parking
While we've only benefitted from this once, but the membership to the Zoo came with 4 FREE parking passes for the Bronx Zoo and New York Aquarium. A free parking pass at the Aquarium saved us $12 while were we galavanting around on four wheels.

5. Developing Curiousity and A Love for Learning
Definitely an intangeble, but really priceless to me. I wonder how much Pumpkin picks up at the AMNH, but I do believe she knows that it's an important place with experiences she gets nowhere else. She's just starting to love the Central Park Children's Zoo, and is excited just to explore its grounds. At 15 months old, her curiousity and cleverness makes it clear that before long she'll be asking to go pet the animals, see the big whale, and asking the favorite question: "what's that?". I honestly can't wait!

Our memberships run out around the end of june, at which point we will hopefully be narrowing down on our future home. It sad to think that we might lose accssibility to these excellent resources if we leave our nabe', but I'll have to remind myself that similar options exist throughout the city and beyond. So until July 1, we'll party like it's the Mesozoic Era.

* Pumkin explores a "Sea Turtle's Egg" on May 30, 2009. Picture by Columbia.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

What's New in New York City - the June 9, 2009 edition

Today the long awaited High Line in open for business or rather park-ness. It's a little sad that the weather was not more cooperative. Maybe all of those thunderclaps and lightning flashes were really just part of the celebration of the train line-turned-park, and greening of an eye-sore. While their are many places to access the park, an elevator is located at 16th & Washington St. for the handicapped and those of us with strollers.

Yesterday marks the start of an open air art installation in Central Park known as the Central Park Sound Tunnel. It's located in the tunnel by the Central Park Zoo's Tisch Children's Zoo and plays every half hour for 20 minutes from 8am until 8pm. As it plays so often (and for so long) and runs through September 10, 2009, it seems impossible not to hear it if you're anywhere in the area. That doesn't really stop me from wanting to run over there as soon as the weather clears. =)

Saturday, June 6, 2009

New York Bagels for 7¢

About a month ago, Lifehacker linked to an article about "groceries that are actually cheaper to make at home" food items: Bagels, jam, etc. As someone who asked for "Better than Store Bought" for my birthday one year, I was of course intrigued. So intrigued in fact, that I dropped hints to the resident baker (JC) at every conceivable opportunity. Last night JC said to me, "I was thinking about homemade bagels for tomorrow's breakfast. Are you interested?" Ummmm... okay!

So we rushed over to the A Home in the City Test Kitchen with the bagel recipe she'd found online. (The only variations were: a substitution of whole wheat for some of the white flour, 10 bagels instead of 8, and the use of a kitchen aid stand mixer instead of hand-kneading.)

Once the dough was made, she formed balls and let them rise. We used the "make a snake and wrap" method, but I think next time we might try the "punch a hole in the ball" method.

Then we boiled them (1 minute each side) and let them dry on a towel.

And then into the oven, then cooling racks, where they cast seductive glances at me for the entire cooling period.

Voila! While the first attempt lacks a little of the cosmetic finish you'd find at the corner bagel store, the taste was nearly spot-on.

So were our efforts frugal? Absolutely.

Recipe Cost (made 10 bagels) 2 cups white flour = $0.22 per recipe (from 25lb @ $8.88)
2 cups whole wheat flour = $0.44 per recipe (from 5lb @ $2.50)
1 T sugar = $0.01 (from 5lb @ $2.50)
1.5t salt = $0.01 (from 3lb @ $1.99)
2t yeast = $0.03 (from 2lb @ $5.00)

Total cost per recipe: $0.71
Total cost per bagel: $0.07 (electricity/labor/rent costs not factored)

To put this into perspective for us, our local bagel shop charges $0.85 per bagel for fairly decent bagels, before any toppings. The neighborhood's fanciest bagels (H&H) are a little too rich for our blood -- $1.30 a piece. For us, these ones we made at home are pretty spectacular, and gives us a more affordable way to enjoy this New York tradition more often.