Sunday, November 10, 2013

A GOOD review of Care Credit

I have a Care Credit card. That seems like something you'd admit at some sort of recovering addicts meeting, but it shouldn't be that way. Before I used my Care Credit card for the first time, I googled it, like you do, and basically saw ONLY negative reviews. I thought... geez. Do I really want to get mixed up in all this? But the common theme in all the reviews was that people didn't pay off the card before the interest hit. I knew I was going to be able to do that, so I used the card with ease. Here, let me start from the beginning...

I had a toothache. I was recently married (though I hadn't yet changed my name) and preparing to move 2000 miles away from home in a month, so I figured I should get it taken care of ASAP. I went to my regular dentist and he said, "I think it's cracked." (Not "It's cracked." Just, "I think it's cracked.") They said I'd need some kind of procedure that would cost over $500, and I told them I didn't that kind of money (my regular credit card, with an embarrassingly low credit limit, was maxed out from the wedding - soon to be paid off!, but still maxed out). My dentist directed me to the Care Credit card. He didn't call it that - he just told me I could apply for a healthcare line of credit.

So I did.

And shockingly, I was approved, for $3500 (this is more than 3x the limit on my regular credit card, by the way). I thought that was pretty cool. So, card in hand, I went back to my dentist to get my possibly-cracked tooth taken care of.

Except... when they did the "cracked tooth test" to confirm, it didn't hurt any more. Turns out, I just had an overly sensitive tooth that day. So, no procedure.

So, oh well. Now I had fine teeth and a $3500 healthcare credit card (aka Care Credit, I now knew).

Fast forward 10 months... my husband and I moved 2000 miles to NYC and lived life. We were both insured through the military, since he's in the National Guard, and didn't have too much to worry about, healthcare-wise. We have a regular doctor, I have an optometrist (and the worst eyes ever), and we have a dentist out in Brooklyn. She told my husband he needed his wisdom teeth out, ASAP. This made sense because A. he's 29 and still has them and B. he's a musician and has never had a 'good time' to take them out. Now seemed like the perfect time since he was working a non-music job and his Juilliard audition was still 8 months away. PLENTY of time to recover. So, we went to an oral surgeon in Midtown to schedule his surgery.

Even with insurance, it was going to cost $650.

Ugh.

We did not have that much extra cash lying around, and again, that's nearly the entire limit on my regular credit card, and we didn't want to max it out. What were we to do?

Enter: Care Credit

The surgeon mentioned that they take Care Credit. We were making enough at the time to pay about $200/month. So, as boring as it sounds, we paid for the procedure with my Care Credit card. Then, we paid it off in 3 months, though we had 6 months to do so before the ridiculous headache of interest would hit the account. Is that really all it takes to warrant a good review of this credit card? I think so.

I should add - I spent about 15 minutes on the phone with their customer service two days before my husband's surgery.

THEY WERE GREAT.

In those 15 minutes, I confirmed I was able to use my card (since I hadn't ever used it, I was worried), I added my husband as an authorized user, I ordered my husband his own card for the same account, I ordered a new card for myself with my married name (since I still had my maiden name when I applied for the first one), and I updated my mailing address (I hadn't bothered to do so when we moved since I hadn't used the account). The person on the phone was incredibly helpful with this laundry list of tasks and took care of everything. The card usage was uneventful and the new cards arrived shortly thereafter.

So - Care Credit? Have no fear. Find out how much time you have before the interest will hit the account (usually 6, 12, or 18 months, depending on the cost of your medical procedure) and then pay off the account before that time hits. It's really that simple. Don't be stupid with credit cards, and don't give them bad reviews just because you didn't follow the rules. You should have known the rules before you started playing the game.

My Second Great Experience with Fresh Direct

If you've followed my culinary adventures since this summer, you might be happy to know that my meal planning did catch on and I've kept up with it very well, trying new recipes each week and keeping our grocery shopping at/around $70/week, which is pretty good for all meals for 2 people in NYC every week.

Usually, I teach recorder on the weekends to a student on the UWS, and after our lesson, I meet up with my husband and we travel to Garden of Eden and Westside Market to do our weekly grocery shopping. If we need some staples, I might stop by Trader Joe's and/or Food Town on Monday to pick them up. That's our system, and it's been working great... until this week.

This week, my recorder student is on vacation in Morocco AND my husband is away with the NY National Guard. I've tried doing the shopping on my own, but it's so heavy! My tiny arms can't carry it all. If I split the shopping by stores, it just takes soooo long to do.

What's a girl to do?



Why hello, Fresh Direct.

I had a coupon to use, plus a credit, plus they're offering free delivery right now, so it was like the stars were aligning, telling me to have my groceries delivered. PLUS, we're nearly out of toilet paper and paper towels, and those items are so bulky - it sucks to have to buy them along with regular groceries, and it sucks to get them on a trip all by themselves.

This was another AWESOME experience with FD - I placed my order on Friday evening and received it at 9AM on Sunday (my delivery slot was 8AM-10AM). My produce look and smell great, and my meats have gone straight into the freezer. Last time, I mostly ordered meats. This time, it was a mix of our regular, every-week grocery items and a few big-ticket meats.

Here's the receipt, subbing for most of our weekly shopping this week:

From the deli:
Boar's Head EverRoast Chicken Breast deli meat, 0.27lbs@$6.99/lbs (on sale): $1.89
FD Monterey Jack cheese (sliced), 1.74lbs@$5.99/lbs (on sale): $10.42
FD Premium Lite Buffalo Turkey deli meat, 0.30lbs@$6.99/lbs (on sale): $2.10
FD Smoked Off The Bone Ham deli meat, 0.27lbs@$6.99/lbs (on sale): $1.89
FD Smoked Pepper Turkey deli meat, 0.29lbs@$6.99/lbs (on sale): $2.03

(We usually buy about 0.75lbs of meat and 1.0lbs of cheese for sandwiches each week. Westside Market has by far the best prices on deli meats, averaging $6.99-$8.99 per pound for each of their in-house-made meats. FD had a sale on several different meats, so we didn't have to spend any extra to get these than we usually do on deli meats, and we got quite a sampling, so we'll know if they're any good for future reference. We have leftover bread from last week, bought mid-week, and plenty of mayo and horseradish-mustard for toppings.)

Fruits:
Red Jacket Orchards Fuji Apples, two 3.0lbs bags@$2.99/bag: $5.98

(We buy hand fruits each week to take with deli sandwich lunches. We usually buy whatever apples are on sale that week from Garden of Eden. These apples are at a lower price than we pay at Garden of Eden (usually $1.25 per pound) and someone else carried them up the stairs, so I bought two bags. Plus, I know they're local.)

Grocery:
Annie's Naturals Balsamic Vinaigrette salad dressing (on sale): $2.99
Bounty Paper Towels, 2-pack ($0.25 off): $4.74
Honest Tea Half & Half Tea with Lemonade, 59oz: FREE!
Seventh Generation 12-roll toilet paper: $9.99
Skippy Super Chunk Peanut Butter, 28oz: $6.59

(We get salad dressing about twice a month, rotating different flavors - got this one because it was on sale. The Honest Tea was free!! - a giveaway for some reason. I've been wanting to try the Seventh Generation toilet paper; I use their cleaners and I like them, and I like their philosophy. Also needed peanut butter - we usually get JIF. I hope Skippy measures up.)

From the butcher:
Boneless Chicken Tenders, 10-12 piece pack, 2.90lbs@$3.99/lbs (on sale): $11.57
Rib Lamb Chops (frenched and vacuum packed), 1.02lbs@$19.99/lbs: $21.39
Rib Eye Steaks (1.5" think, local angus, no antibiotics, vacuum packed), 2.5lbs@$15.99/lbs: $39.98

(The tenders were on sale for the same price as whole breasts, so I went ahead and got the cut-up stuff. The chops... well, they're the most amazing meat known to man, so even though they are ridiculously expensive, they are amazing. The local, no-antibiotic rib eyes were on sale for the same price as the regular ones, so I opted for the "better" meat. I am really looking forward to eating all this meat! Our freezer was recently emptied of all the previous FD meat, so it feels good to start restocking.)

Vegetables:
Celery, 1 bunch: $1.99
Zucchini (one), 0.49lbs@$1.49lbs: $0.73
Russet potatoes, 5lbs bag: $3.99
Spanish onions (four), 3.08lbs@$0.69/lbs: $2.13
Yellow zucchini (two), 1.18lbs@$1.49/lbs: $1.76

(We usually get all this stuff from Garden of Eden, but we don't usually get potatoes and onions in such high quantity. However, since their prices were AWESOME and someone else was carrying up the steps, I didn't mind buying in bulk produce that does not quickly spoil.)

So - not only does this give us some awesome meats to pick from, but it takes care of most of my weekly grocery shopping as well. I still need to drop by GoE for salad fixins (lettuce, tomatoes, carrots - the FD prices were just too high to justify, knowing the prices so well at GoE) and maybe oranges or plums. I plan to get a block cheese on sale at WSM (they usually have cheddar on sale for $4.99/lbs, which is great), and then some basics and cheap meat at Trader Joe's ($2.99 ground beef can't be beat; we also need ground turkey, tortilla chips, soup, and cereal). I may pick up some staples at Food Town this week, too - we're out of butter, sugar, and tortillas. This is an odd week where we've run out of several staples at once, so it was nice to have someone else deliver the bulk of the groceries for us. Plus, we're leaving for Texas in a couple weeks, so I can't buy too much produce, or we'll end up leaving it to go bad. I hope this helps someone else's Fresh Direct experience and grocery shopping planning!

My Praise of Trader Joe's Items: Petite Cocoa Batons and Potato Chips

We've started shopping at Trader Joe's more lately, mostly for inexpensive dry goods like peanut butter, spices, cereal, tortilla chips, etc. I also pick up meat and produce there, occasionally - I guess it just depends on what we need that week and if I'm in the neighborhood. This has led to trying more and more new products, especially semi-specialty products that can only be found at Trader Joe's. I've heard their Cookie Butter is amazing, but it's not really up my alley. However, I've found 2 products that I can't even bring myself to buy anymore because they can't survive in my house. (Of course, we continue to buy them... now they're used for training our self-control)



Product Number One: Petite Cocoa Batons
I was shopping for a semi-homemade picnic - I just needed some dessert. Now, the picnic was just for me and my husband, and we can be classic over-eaters, so I wanted to get something that, if we ate the whole thing, it would not be a diet destroyer. At the same time, I didn't want to get just a chocolate bar or something boring - and in particular, I didn't want to get something that could melt, either, since it is August in NYC and quite sticky most days.

Solution, after 15+ minutes of searching(/wandering) the store:


After doing a petite bit of research about them, I've found that these can be a controversial item because:

1. They are tres petit
2. They're not that sweet.
3. There are only 4 servings per box, at 17 pieces per serving.

In my experience, they were AMAZING because:

1. There are only 4 servings per box, at 17 pieces per serving. 2 people can TOTES pig out and not feel all that guilty afterward. It's still less calories/sugar/fat than a milkshake or 2 handfuls of regular cookies.
2. They are tres petit - the perfect end to a picnic of tortilla chips with bean dip and salsa, and fresh fruit. You can go easily between nibbling watermelon, to nibbling chips, to nibbling these little niblets.


Product Number Two: 


These chips probably need little explanation, but I love to talk, so... these are AMAZING. Very tasty, super crunchy, and addictive. We've bought them for lunch in the past and have to sort them out into tiny one-serving bags to prevent ourselves from eating the entire bag in one sitting. They are one of my favorite foods. Buy with caution!!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

What is the price of fresh produce at a grocery store in NYC?

I've posted before about my new BFF grocery store, Garden of Eden. I LOVE it. I always get a new cashier that can't see the differences between a zucchini and a cucumber, but the produce is so beautiful and abundant, even silly people can't stop me from coming back. And now that I know they offer a 10% STUDENT DISCOUNT!!, I feel less guilty about the (occasionally) high-ish prices. My local grocery store, FoodTown, has atrocious produce - it doesn't taste good, it doesn't look pretty, and there isn't much of it from which to choose. For that reason, I have 3 times now made a weekly trek down to 107th and Broadway to get fresh fruits and veggies from Garden of Eden (my recorder students lives at 103rd and Central Park West, so I'm somewhat in the 'hood once a week anyway), and I will continue to do so as long as I live in this neighborhood and it is the best option for me and my husband.

(Get to the prices already!) So, here's what we paid on our most recent trip:

3 yellow onions: 1.92lbs@$0.79/lb = $1.36
(way too many) baby red potatoes: 3.25lbs@$1.99/lb = $5.82
8 plum tomatoes: 1.98lbs@$1.49/lb = $2.65
1 lb bag of peeled baby carrots: $1.61 each
4 plums/pluots: 1.28lbs@$1.69/lb = $1.94
3 peaches: 1.4lbs@$1.49lb = $2.09
3 black plums: 0.93lbs@$1.49/lb = $1.25
4 loose carrots: 1.64lbs@$0.89/lb = $1.31
2 zucchini: 0.94lbs@$1.99/lb = $1.68
2 yellow squash: 1.11lbs@$1.00/lb = $1.98
3 romaine hearts, pre-packed bag: $2.50
box of broccoli cream soup: $4.49
meats from the deli, 0.5lb of each:
- black forest ham: $4.63
- bacon lovers turkey: $5.04
cold drinks (our special treat):
- mango coconut water: $2.69
- vanilla chai tea: $1.61

TOTAL: $44.64
total savings w/ sales and student discount: $6.38



Fall 2013 Goals

With the school year only 2 weeks away, it's time to talk about some goals. I like to post them here because 1. I'll never lose them or forget where they are, and 2. it makes me feel a bit more accountable, since it's out there for the world to see. So, here they are:

By the end of the summer:
- complete 2 interviews for my thesis
- read my entire Introduction to Music textbook and listen to the CDs
- prepare lecture notes for the first 2 weeks of class
- finish converting my 401(K) into my Roth IRA
- apply for a new passport
- attend at least 2 live performances (through JazzMobile and Chamber Music Society)
- start reading at least 1 Ellington book and 1 Parker book, for my classes in the fall
- brainstorm what my extra assignment(s) for the Parker class could/will be
- finish my "spring" cleaning by organizing small collections, like recordings and jewelry, etc.

This semester:
- stay on top of teaching and personal/student assignments (having weekends off will definitely help with this, though I want to get as much work as possible done on Tues/Thurs mornings and afternoons)
- bring lunch at least 20 days out of the month (assuming there are 22 weekdays in a month)
- eat dinner out less than 4 times/month for during the week, and less than 4 times/month for weekends
- attend at least 4 live musical performances per month
- LOSE 10 LBS! (This is a biggie, obviously, but it's not impossible. 10lbs in 4 months is 2.5lbs/month, or a little more than 0.5lbs/week. This is not that much. During my most committed times, I was losing 2lbs/week. My weight loss will be accomplished by eating better/bringing lunches, consuming less carbs overall, and incorporating more exercise/general movement into my daily life. I can do this!!)
- register for (and pass!!) NYS teacher certification exams (3)
- conduct 3-6 more interviews for my thesis
- complete 75-80% of my thesis work, including my discography, bibliography, and musical analysis. That way, I can spend time over the winter break (nearly 2 months) assembling the prose, and I'll have minimal research/interviews remaining for the spring. In fact, my goal should be 85-90% of thesis work...

By graduation (May 2014):
- apply for (and obtain!!) NYS PreK-12 music teacher certification
- LOSE 20 LBS! (Again, not impossible!! And if I am able to lose a total of 20lbs by May 2014, I will be back around the weight that I was at for my wedding, nearly 2 years prior. I have just been putting on weight since we moved up here, and it's time to reverse that trend. As my workload lightens at Rutgers, I will increase my weight loss efforts. My eventual end goal, from the weight that I am at this moment, is 55lbs of weight loss. 20lbs would put me over 1/3 of the way there.)
- start looking for a new apartment (though we won't move until July)
- apply to summer and fall job opportunities

Monday, August 12, 2013

What is Fresh Direct?

After moving to NYC, I started seeing trucks and hearing a lot about FreshDirect. Groceries... delivered? I had never heard of such a thing, besides Meals On Wheels, which is clearly not the same thing. I read some reviews online, which weren't too positive, saying you could find stuff for the same price in real stores and not have to pay shipping, etc. I created an account, for funsies, and I was immediately sent a $25 off coupon.

Well, now.

That's fun. I like getting $25 worth of groceries for nothing. An old habit kicked in - something I started doing while purchasing items online while planning my wedding. I searched for "Fresh Direct coupons", and found one for $50 off.

Well, now.

That's even better. I do like $50 worth of free groceries. The caveat was that I needed to spend $100 total, but that was fine by me... I already had $200 in my cart!

I went through a moral dilemma, though. I wanted to get all this super-awesome food, but the produce is delivered at the peak of freshness. What was I to do, needing to feed only 2 people and having more fresh produce than we could eat in time on hand? I changed my shopping approach.

I filled my online shopping cart with meat.

Meat is a tricky item. It can be very expensive, and it's less abundant in NYC, at my local grocery store, than in Texas, at any grocery store. Our freezer had been painfully empty since arriving in NYC, and our meat consumption left us wanting. So I took our $200 (minus $50, so closer to $150) and after comparing it to local prices and making sure it was comparable (which it was), spent it mostly on meat.

Need pictures? Here's my Fresh Direct Christmas:

The boxes arrived at my 5th floor apartment, at the scheduled time,



















packed so neatly
with beautiful fresh vegetables

including some curly kale

and a butternut squash.
The meat was abundant

and packed my once-empty freezer.















The food is/was/has been delicious, and overall, I was quite pleased with the experience. I'm not a FD member (for the discounted shipping prices), but I would consider purchasing in bulk like this again, if I have an extra $150 lying around. Speaking of which, here's the receipt total, if you're curious:

80% lean ground chuck 2 lbs@$4.99/lb                       $9.98
90% lean ground beef sirloin 1 lb@$6.99/lb                 $6.99
Australian lamb loin chop (2") 0.84 lbs@$11.99/lb     $10.07
Beef fajita strips family pack 3.3 lbs@$5.39/lb            $17.79
Beef stew meat family pack 5.14 lbs@$4.99/lb           $25.65
Boneless pork loin chop (1") 2.9 lbs@$5.39/lb           $18.63
($3 extra charge to have the 6 chops individually vacuum-packed)
Frenched lamb rib chop 1 lb@$18.99/lb                     $19.99
($1 extra charge for vacuum-packed)
Pork tenderloin roast 1.08 lbs@$4.99/lb                      $5.89
Rib eye steak (1.5") 2.48 lbs@$15.99/lb                    $40.64
(I sure missed me some thick-cut rib eyes from Texas)
Sirloin steak (1") 2.3 lbs@$6.99/lb                              $18.08
($2 extra for individual vacuum packing)
Butternut squash 2.74 lbs@$1.49/lb                            $4.08
Green kale (bunch)                                                      $2.99
Jersey fresh asparagus (1 lb)                                        $2.99
Russet Potato (5 lb bag)                                               $2.69
Yellow corn by the ear (4 ears)                                     $2.00

Meal Planning, Take One

I've never really REALLY tried to plan meals before. I mean, I'll have a general game plan, and I love cooking at home - I have all the tools I need and a large enough kitchen to get things done - but I usually only plan a day or two in advance, taking advantage of the time I have and my limited culinary skills to 'be spontaneous' and make what I can from what I have, or what I can pick up from the store on the way home.

This week, things are different.

I have three weeks left of summer before I start my final year of grad school, which will include teaching a course for undergrads at Rutgers University, and also serving as a teaching assistant at a K-8 school on the UWS 25 hours/week. So, for the next three weeks, I plan to take FULL advantage of my unheard-of free time, because it's all going to disappear quite soon. Hopefully, in the next 21 days, I can develop some meal-planning habits that will carry me through the semester, so that my husband and I can continue healthy and home cooked eating habits, rather than resorting to the old standby of takeout and thoughtless, boring meals.

The produce at my local grocery store, FoodTown, is horrendous. The rest of the store is decent enough, with a whopping four aisles of options, and while the produce LOOKS nice, I really feel like the produce distributors ship us the worst of the harvest. For that reason, we've started purchasing our produce from a store on the UWS, Garden of Eden (locations throughout the city) or the Union Square Greenmarket, depending on where we are through the week, since neither is particularly close to our home. This week's haul from The Garden includes:

carrots
cucumbers
plouts (Some hybrid of plums and.... apricots? I'm not sure. We called them dinosaur eggs growing up.)
hearts of romaine
plum tomatoes
poblano peppers
zucchini
yellow summer squash
sweet onions
red delicious apples (for lunches)

So, with the focus on these veggies, which were mostly on sale, this week's menu is:

Monday
Pork Tenderloin Chimichurri (using this recipe) with roasted vegetables (potato, onion, zucchini, carrot) and a green salad (lettuce, tomato, cucumber)

Tuesday
Cobb Salad with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, carrot, avocado, leftover chopped tenderloin, hard-boiled eggs, and this dressing. I'm also planning to make a carrot cake.

Wednesday
Pasta Primavera with summer squash and carrots, with zucchini cakes. We're planning to go to an outdoor concert that evening, so I'm hoping this will all pack well, and I know it will be tasty, even cold.

Thursday
Poblano steak fajitas topped with avocados and onions

Friday
Grilled cheese and tomato soup. This is the least homemade, most store-bought meal, as I'm using pre-made tomato/red pepper soup, but I figure, after a week of cooking at home, we'd enjoy something a little easier to make, that feels a little guiltier but still isn't too bad (and still not take-out).

If we still have cucumbers left over at the end of the week, I might try the #10 smoothie recipe.

***
The emphasis is clearly on the veggies, with only 3 meals even containing meat, and only 2 really focus on the meat. That meat is left over from our Fresh Direct haul (which I briefly mention here and still need to write a full post about), so we didn't have to spend money on that, and the pasta is from the 30 box binge-shopping sale experience. The shopping list to round out the produce trip includes:

jalapeƱos (As a Texas-NYC transplant, I'm embarrassed to not have any at home, but it is what it is.)
avocado
tortillas (Again, how am I out of this?? Obviously because quesadillas are a go-to meal.)
eggs
red pepper-tomato soup
cream cheese frosting (I don't want to bother making that from scratch, for cost reasons.)
vanilla extract

And that's it! Given that I have a base of other ingredients (flour, sugar, oils, butter, spices, vinegar, etc), and that we already had the meat in the freezer, we're going to have all our dinners for the week at less than $75. Add in our sandwich-based lunches and at-home coffee-based breakfasts, and we're going to eat (GOOD) in NYC for less than $100 this week. I'm very excited about that.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Grocery Shopping in Harlem, continued

Here's the tally from our most recent trip to the store:

"Golden Puffs" cereal-in-a-bag: $2.29
"Apple Jacks" cereal-in-a-bag: $2.29
Food Town Corn Flakes: $2.19 (least expensive per-lbs cereal in the store)
Skim Milk, 1 gallon: $3.99
Frozen Peas (small-ish bag): $1.99 ($.50 off, on sale)
Frozen Peas and Carrots (small-ish bag): $1.99 ($.50 off, on sale)
Chipotle Gouda Deli Sliced Cheese (not pre-packaged), 1/4 lbs: $2.00
Peppermill Turkey Deli Sliced Meat (not pre-packaged), 1/4 lbs: $2.29
Goya Chickpeas, 1 can: $.89 ($.20 off, on sale)
Grape Tomatoes, 2 pints: $2.49/pint (on sale)
Salad Mix (Half Spinach, Half Spring Mix): $2.99
Goya Ranchero Refried Pinto Beans, 2 cans: $1.69/can
Goya Black Beans: $.89 ($.20 off, on sale)
Russet Potatoes (5 lbs bag): $2.99
Blueberries, 1 pint: $1.99 (on sale, down from $4.99)
Jell-O Instant Pudding Mix: $1.49
Split Top Wheat Bread Loaf: $2.19

TOTAL: $40.82

The sale savings might not seem like much, but they do add up to $5.40 when all is said and done. Choosing off-brand and bag cereal also helps... my grocery store includes a unit price to do an equal price comparison, and the bag cereal per-unit price hovers around $2.62, whereas the boxed cereal per-unit price is closer to $3.50. The Food Town Corn Flakes per-unti price is around $1.50, I believe, making it the best value in the store, which is definitely something worth buying when you're a cereal addict like me. Hope this helps some people out there!

Friday, June 7, 2013

Grocery shopping in NYC on a budget

I've posted my receipts from my grocery store crawl and other, more specific trips, but here's a recent receipt when we were "out of everything". We've also been on a tight budget recently, so I wanted to spend less than $40 and get food for a week or so. I'll add to this - we have a stockpile of pasta from when it went on sale for $1/box (brought home 30 boxes of pasta that week, and loving it). We also have a freezer full of meat that we got from FreshDirect with a $50 off coupon (spent $145, so $195 worth of meat; planning to post on that at some point, too). So - with that in mind - here's what I spent this week (need to go back for milk, olive oil, and beans) at my local grocery store, FoodTown:

Grape Tomatoes: 2 pints @ $2.49/pint (on sale)
Loose Carrots: 1.35 lbs (6 or so carrots) @ 1lb/$.99
28oz can of crushed tomatoes: 5 cans @ $1/can (on sale - usually $2.19/can)
Small can of tomato paste: 3 cans @ $.59/can
Vidalia Onions: 1.56 lbs (2 large onions) @ 1lb/$1.29
"Apple Jacks" in-a-bag (off-brand cereal): $2.29
"Froot Loops" in-a-bag (off-brand cereal): $2.29
Red Delicious Apples: 2.47 lbs (5 or 6 apples) @ 1lb/$1.99 (least expensive apples this week)
Strawberries: $2.99 (on sale)
Salad mix, Spring Mix/Spinach: $2.99
Blueberries: 2 pints @$1.99/pint (on sale - usually $4.99/pint)

TOTAL: $34.57

As you can see, the focus was on fresh ingredients, sale items, and stocking up to make homemade pasta sauce (way more delicious than the jar and inexpensive/easy to make). We keep a stock of 'pantry staples', like rice, flour, sugar, seasonings/spices, etc., so we just needed things to complement that. I hope this helps people out there curious about NYC or looking to move here!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Job Scam #2: Mystery Shopper/MoneyGram

I received 5000+ hits on this blog because I posted about my nanny scam experience (see: this blog post). It was linked by the NY Times, which was obviously the source of most of my traffic. Yay for me. In another round of job applications, I was subject to another scam. Here is my story.

I was applying to jobs for which I seemed qualified that were part-time and clerical/administratively-oriented, in an attempt to get out of retail hell. My standard application - a response to a craigslist ad - included a brief cover letter explaining that I am a graduate student seeking part-time employment and my attached resume (which, as all resumes do, has my phone number and address). I received a few responses (even 2 interviews) and this very interesting email:

From: assignments@evaluationsservice.com
Sent: January 29

We get hired to go to other peoples companies and act like customers in order to know how the staffs are handling their services in relation to their customers. Once we have a contract to do so, you would be directed to the company or outlet, and you would be given the funds you need to do the job(either purchase products or required services), after which you would write a comment on the staffs activities and give a detailed record of your experience.

Most companies employ our assistance when people give complains about their services, or when they feel there are needs for them to improve their customer service. your Identity would be kept confidential stored in our data as the job state (secret customer) you would be paid $200 for every duty you carry out, and bonus on your transportation allowance, and funds would be given to you as well as compensation when necessary, if you have to dine as part of the duty Your job will be to evaluate and comment on customer service in a wide variety of shops, stores, restaurant and services in your area.

You will write a report about the customer services, you will send your report back to us via Email, you will have to use the following pointers to prepare your report as listed below:

1) How long it took you to get services.
2) Ambiance/Outlook of the Shop/Outlet
3) Smartness of the attendant
4) Customer service professionalism
5) Reaction of personnel under pressure
6) Information that you think would be helpful
7) Your comments and impressions.

No commitment is made on this job, and you would have flexible hours as it suits you. If you are interested, do send in these information:

FULL NAME:
CONTACT ADDRESS (Not P.O.Box):
CITY:
STATE:
ZIP-CODE:
TELEPHONE NUMBER:
MOBILE NUMBER:
AGE:
OCCUPATION:
EMAIL:

So we can look at your distance from the locations which you have to put your service into, and your address would also be needed for your payments.

Yours Sincerely
Walter Collins



*****
*****
There are no alternations to that email. Besides the fact that there is no greeting, the entire thing sounds sketchy. But... since they weren't asking for any information that wasn't already on my resume, besides my age, I figured I'd bite.

I responded with this sentence opening my email: "I am interested, though I have heard mixed things about "mystery shopper" companies."

I received this in response:


From: assignments@evaluationsservice.com
Sent: February 18

Hello ,
         Sorry for the late response, you have been Accepted as one of our Conducting Agent. You will be evaluatinMoneyGram which is at Wal-Mart Stores in your neighborhood, kindly check out for one Wal-Mart store you will like to evaluate , make sure the store you will chose is close to your area as much as possible, you will have to send the name and address of the walmart, Please note that you are to act Cool, Calm and Confident through out the period which you will be carrying out your survey at the store, in order not to arouse any suspicion. you will be shopping at Wal-Mart stores and also make a transaction at MoneyGram which is at Wal-Mart as well , you will write a report about the customer services , you will send your report back to us via Email, you will have to use the following pointers to prepare your report :

1) How long it took you to get services.
2)Ambiance/Outlook  of the Shop/Outlet
3) Smartness of the attendant
4)Customer service professionalism
5)Reaction of personnel under pressure
6)Information that you think would be helpful
7)Your comments and impre ssions.

Payments will be mailed out to you, which you will expend in carrying out all that will be required of you including your compensation and Transportation fee. All Other Instructions will be sent out to you as soon as Evaluation commences.

Please reply this Email and give us the name and address of the Wal-mart you will be evaluating so that we can mail out the payment as soon as possible.

Thank you
Walter Collins



*****
*****
An even sketchier-sounding email... and the fact that they wanted me to evaluate a Wal-Mart was sketchiest of all. This blog is mostly devoted to the fact that I live in NYC, and if you follow the Wal-Mart happenings, you know that they have tried to open a location here but never succeeded. So... there's not one here. Since I had to respond with a Wal-Mart location, I did... the Wal-Mart from hometown, a small town in Texas. I didn't write anything in the email beside the address.

I received this response: 

From: assignments@evaluationsservice.com
Sent: February 27

Top of the days to you. The Pay check for your first MoneyGram evaluation assignment as been mailed and it will be delivered to you today via Fedex. .. . The Tracking No. for the package is ( 802276620952 ) you can confirm it at www . fedex . com to make sure..

So, once you got the check I want you to go ahead deposit the check at your bank so that the fund can be released to you within 24hrs as the issuer bank instructed, then deduct your payment which is $200 Please remember that you are to act Cool, Calm and Confident throughout the period in which you will be carrying out the survey... You will proceed to any Wal-mart store in your Neighborhood and send Funds to another Secret Customer via MoneyGram In order not to arouse any suspicion. After which you will write a report and send back to us via Email using the following pointers:

1) How long it took you to get services.
2) Ambiance/Outlook of the Shop/Outlet
3) Smartness of the attendant
4) Customer service professionalism
5) Reaction of personnel under pressure
6) Information that you think would be helpful
7) Your comments and impressions.
8) The address and location of the outlet you evaluate

Here is the information for the new secret customer you are to send
the money to:

Thomas Yrlas
1700 Washington Ave
Port Huron, MI 48060

Once you completed the assignment you need to get back to me with the MoneyGram details such as;

Sender Name and Address
Amount sent (After deducting Transfer Charges)
Reference Number (Money transfer Code)
Detailed Survey Report in English

*Notice : You are to take cash to the MoneyGram 
*Notice : You must make sure you complete this first assignment asap, this can be done after 2hr you received the check.
*Notice : You are to deduct any charges for the wiring MoneyGram from the rest money you're sending .

I will be looking forward to read from you soon .

Thanks




*****
*****
How funny that the English gets worse as the emails progress. The tracking number is not a FedEx number, by the way - not enough digits, I believe. And did I mention that the Wal-Mart address I sent him was in Texas? I didn't respond to this email, and I thought that would be the end of the whole thing.

Then, I received a text from (872) 216-6879. This is transcribed verbatim:

Good morning Walter Collins i'm contacting you concerning the wal-mart assignment. The check for your first assignment has been delivered to your address and i have also emailed you with the instruction, kindly check because the assignment need to be carried out today

That's odd. I replied with, "Do not text me. This is spam."

The response? "This not spam"

So I responded (I learned this line from a manager in my past, who used it on callers with non-American accents): "Your number has been blocked. If I received any more attempted texts from this number, I will be reporting it to the authorities to begin an investigation. Do not contact me."

I did not receive any more texts or email.

And, for the record, I had not received anything from FedEx. In case you're not familiar with this particular scam, that's how it works. They say they've FedEx'd you a package and that you MUST carry out the assignment TODAY, even if you haven't received the money. So, if you fall for it, you transfer the $200 and then you never get reimbursed.

I hope this helps any potential scammed people out there. If you're doing a search for (872) 216-6879, Walter Collins, or assignments@evaluationsservice.com, please know that they are associated with the MoneyGram scam.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Cost of (Grocery) Food in NYC

Living in NYC has been quite the experience for me, coming from a small town in Texas. Of all the things I knew would be different when I moved here (laundry, transportation, getting to school in another state, going to the library, walking everywhere, having to go up 5 flights of stairs to get home, etc), I guess I never really thought about grocery shopping that much.

I mean, in Texas, it was pretty simple - there is HEB and Wal-Mart. Take your pick. Sure, there was a farmer's market every Tuesday and Saturday, and Austin has a Whole Food's, and there's a specialty "health food" store, but 98.5% of grocery shopping was done at HEB, and I was 100% ok with that. The produce section was 1/4 of the store, the meat and dairy took up the entire back wall (and the beef was quite expansive), and the aisles, stacked high with variety, were wide and inviting.

I had visited a friend in Brooklyn before moving here. I knew his local grocery store had narrow aisles and no meat section. I guess I expected my new neighborhood - Sugar Hill, a subsection of Harlem - to be different? It's not, really. Our "local"-ist place, Food Town, has 4 aisles: produce/meat, cereal/homegoods, canned goods/spices/pasta/coffee/tea, and frozen/beverages. Dairy is along the back wall, and that's all there is to it, besides the tiny deli/prepared foods counter and the 2"x2" fresh bread box. It's a sad and depressing place, but it is INCREDIBLY conveniently located store, being between my subway station and apartment; I pass it at least twice a day. It's great for picking something up on the way home, and it's all we've been using for the past 6 months (aside from PathMark, which is a joke not even worth mentioning, though you can read about it here, where it is named THE worst grocery store in America).

Today, I went on a grocery store crawl. I found amazing variety of oases dotting the Upper West Side along Broadway. Rather than ramble on about their amazingness, I'm posting links to their websites and the tally of my receipts. I can't wait to go grocery shopping again.

Garden of Eden Gourmet Market and Specialty Foods (my second favorite of all visited today)
Simple Margarita Mix: $7.99
Carrots (1.79lbs@$0.79/lb): $1.41
Pint o' Blueberries: $2.99
String Beans (1.10lbs@$2.99/lb): $3.29
Eggplant (1.30lbs@$1.99/lb): $2.59
TOTAL: $18.98

Westside Market NYC (my favorite of all today)
3 Progresso soups, on sale: $2.00 each
Pork Loin Filets, 4, boneless: $5.80
Ground Pork (almost a pound): $3.91
Beef Chuck Roast (almost 3 pounds): $12.52
Kosher Dill Pickles (made locally): $2.99
Assorted Cheese Bits: $4.09
TOTAL: $35.31

Zabar's
NY Mild Cheddar (about half a pound): $5.13

Fairway Market (the most similar to HEB in Texas)
5 chorizo links: $4.69 (way more expensive at Food Town - same package!!)
2 large cans of crushed tomatoes: $1.67 each
1 large can of peeled tomatoes: $1.50
2 cans of refried black beans: $1.59 each
2 cans of tomato paste: $0.89 each
Sugar Snap Peas (1.52lbs@$2.99/lb): $4.54
TOTAL: $19.03

I think I'll stick to Trader Joe's for staples like peanut butter, cereal, and frozen vegetables. Food Town is fine for chicken/poultry, eggs, milk, non-specialty bread, and things I don't want to lug 80 blocks home. As for the other places - I'm so excited to have new stores to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, canned goods, gourmet items, and beef products!!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Setting Goals

I studied flute with Dr. Jones at Texas State University for 11 semesters, and I began studying with her my sophomore year of high school... this works out to a solid 10 years with this amazing woman, with a few semester off here and there. One of the most important lessons she taught me was to set goals.

She had us (the students of her ever-growing flute studio) keep a notebook each semester, which included a lot of things I waited until the last minute to assemble... notes from my lessons, concert programs, handouts and notes from lectures and events, historical information on music I was learning in my lessons and in flute ensemble, projects related to our flute studies, and more, depending on where we were in our course of study. This itself was a valuable practice that I hope to keep up with as I continue collegiate studies (the procrastination is still there, for sure, but I am good about keeping materials - it's just a matter of organizing now), but one thing we had to include in the notebook every semester, in addition to all that I've already listed, was our goals. She had a "Goals" Sheet we had to complete that looked something like this:

Goals

This semester:

This year:

Before Upper Level (first half of music degree; 'pre-music'):

Before Senior Recital:

After Graduation:

In my first few years, I was quite lazy in setting my goals. I would write similar things from semester to semester and I wouldn't look at the sheet after I wrote it (therefore not accomplishing my goals unless it was something that I already knew/had to accomplish anyway). As my seven years as an undergraduate continued, I began to think more and more about my goals - as I passed my Upper Level, completed my first Senior Recital, and neared Graduation. Real Life was creeping up on me, and I needed to start thinking about where I was going and what I wanted to do. With each passing semester, the thought of "post-graduation" became a nearer reality, and those seemingly far-off goals at the bottom of the page became something I would actually have to face. They included things like: apply to grad school, get accepted, complete grad school, find a real job in music/education, etc.

And now, here I am. I've passed my Upper Level, two Senior Recitals, and I've graduated from Texas State. I'm in graduate school, and somewhat in real life (I've completed 3.5 of these milestones: Am I an adult yet??) And as I am upon the eve of a week before school starts, I sat down to write down my goals for the semester - WITHOUT EVEN THINKING ABOUT IT. Obviously, in 10 years, Dr. Jones had some effect on me.

I was literally writing down my goals when I realized that posting them on the internet would seem a little more solid, more committing. So, here they are - professional/school and personal goals for the semester...
- complete all assignments (reading and written) before midnight the day before they are due
- keep up with Historiography II listening assignments and my listening journal WEEKLY
- spend at least one day/week working on my thesis at home or at the IJS
- create a practice and exercise schedule (each, minimum 2x/week; ideally 3-5x/week)
- keep a journal of practice and exercise
(April: weight loss benchmark 1: Megan and Travis' wedding)
(June: weight loss benchmark 2: Amy and Mike's wedding)
- explore NYC with Ryan (ideally-weekly; at least-monthly)
- investigate the process of teacher certification in the tri-state area
- maintain my awesome sleep schedule (7-8 hrs/night)
- keep one jazz-related book on me at all times for reading on public transit

This summer...
- put my all into teaching my first collegiate class, if it makes (I need 10+ students)
- find another part-time job (if my class doesn't make)
- continue 1 day/week work on thesis
- create personal listening list to complete (classical and jazz classics, mostly)
- maintain practice and exercise schedules and journal
- seek musical performance and live music opportunities

That's all I have for now. I intend to consult this list each time I check on my blog (which just passed 5000 views - woo hoo!) and stay motivated to keep on them.

Thanks for everything, Dr. Jones.