Tuesday, October 30, 2012

How to plan your spending

As you wander through the world, sooner or later you will come to two great realizations:

1) There's a lot of really amazing STUFF for sale out there.
2) No matter how much money you make, it won't be enough to buy everything you want.*

This is why you need a spending plan. Here's how it works: you figure out how much money you're making, then plan out how to spend it -- to get both the things you need and the things you want. If you can get used to doing this now, you'll be on track to make your life a whole lot smoother.

You will need:
  1. A pencil and piece of paper, and/or a computer.
  2. Your latest paycheck stubs, or a record of money you took home in the last 6 months.
  3. Stubs from your most recent bills (rent, utilities, and other stuff that has monthly payments).
  4. Some spending goals (things you want to buy or do with your money).
  5. A calculator, especially if you're a mental math midget like me.
  6. A half hour or so to write your plan, and another half hour every few months to tweak it.
Figure out how much money you take home every month. If you have a job with a regular paycheck, this is pretty simple -- for example, if you get $150 a week, multiply that number by 4 weeks in the average month to get your take-home pay (everybody get $600? Right. Just checking). If you don't have a regular job, this step's a little harder -- add up all the money you've taken home over the last six months, and find the average. (Example: total of $3,500 take-home pay over 6 months = 3500 divided by 6 = about $583.33 per month.)

Don't make the common mistake of adding up how much money you make before taxes -- figure out how much you actually have available to take home and spend. If you can't spend it, don't count it. (You might have less take-home pay than you think.)

Once you have a guesstimate of your monthly take-home pay, write it at the top of the paper. This number is the kitty: the total pot of money you get to distribute. Underneath that, make two lists. The first one, the Gotta List, covers living expenses you have to pay every month: rent, utilities (lights, heat, water, phone, garbage, Internet), anything you're paying off on time like credit cards or car payments, grocery bills, gas money, etc. The second one, the Wanna List, covers things you want to buy with your money: movies, video games, books, a car, a trip to Disneyland, 10,000 gumballs, etc.

Now, pulling money from the kitty, start writing down how much you pay every month next to each item on the Gotta List. (Time to get out the calculator.) The Gotta expenses get first dibs from the kitty, for two big reasons. First, adults honor their commitments, including the terms of the contracts they sign, and most of these expenses involve contractual obligations that you agreed to honor, such as when you signed your rental agreement. Second, if you don't take care of these things first, you'll lose control of all your money and your life. If you're a honorless dirtbag who doesn't keep your word, angry landlords and frustrated power companies can turn off your utilities or kick you out of your home; if they don't get paid after that, they can go to court and garnish your wages to make sure they get what you owe them, or do things like repossess your car. (Good luck getting a loan now, dirtbag.) They won't do any of these things if you do your part by honoring your commitments, so pay your bills first!

Some items on your Gotta List are fixed expenses, meaning the cost doesn't change much from month to month (rent, for instance). Others are variable expenses, which go higher or lower depending on how much you use them (if you're like most people, your heating bill will be higher in winter than it is in summer). Still other expenses will only come due once every three to six months; for these, split the cost into equal monthly chunks and write it down. If you're not sure how much you spend on these items, make your best guess. This first spending plan is just a rough draft, so it doesn't have to be perfect. At the bottom, total up everything from the Gotta List. Then add $10 for fudge factor. (Just trust me.)

You may discover some useful information as you work on your plan. For instance, if you take home $600 a month and your rent alone is $500, um... to put it mildly, you've got a cash flow problem. Or you may find that everything in the kitty is going to the Gotta List and there's nothing left over for the Wanna List. What do you do? Well, you could find a better-paying job to boost the money in the kitty. This is a great strategy and worth pursuing, but it's not always possible in a bad economy. Also, look at Great Realization #2 again. The other option is to inspect the Gotta List for places where you can legitimately spend less money. Fixed expenses are hard to change -- yes, you could move to a place with lower rent, but you don't want to end up in a total rathole fleabag, and it also costs money to move (ever hear the phrase "first, last and deposit"? You will). But you can fiddle with variable expenses by changing how much you use them. There are lots of ways to squeeze a little more money back into the kitty.

OK, assuming you've covered everything on the Gotta List with money left to spare, take some time to do the Extra Moolah Dance of Triumph. Go on, I'll wait.

(20 minutes later)
All finished? Time to turn to the Wanna List. This list is wide open, and it's all yours. You can put any spending goal you want on it, from a pair of $500 shoes to a trip to Damascus to feeding all the poor kids in Bhutan to going skydiving with your cat. The point of this list is: if you love it and want to spend your money on it, go for it. There's no such thing as a wrong entry on your Wanna List (well, unless one of the entries is "be a creepy stalker" or something) and there's no set method for spending your extra money. You can buy the small stuff first, or start putting money away for a big-ticket purchase, or do a little of both -- whatever you choose.

What's the point of this exercise? It's to help you understand where your money goes, and to help you calibrate where you want it to go. Money is a representation of your life energy, which is limited, so you might as well put it in the places that are most important to you. In other words, save as much as possible on things that don't matter to you, so you can free up money to spend more on things that do matter to you.

Most non-adults don't have a spending plan. They don't think of money as their life energy; they just drop it randomly on anything that catches their eye, until they run out of cash. Then they beg their family and friends (and the credit card companies) for more. Worse, a lot of them don't even earmark money for the Gotta List first, which means they tend to end up in huge debt and/or getting kicked out on the street. If you have a spending plan, you get to consciously decide where your money goes. In the process you'll learn what's really important to you, and discover what kinds of purchases waste your money.

OK, keep this paper (tape it to the wall or something), because now you're going to put your first-draft spending plan into action. See that amount you put at the bottom of the Gotta List? Take it out of circulation. Remove it from your spending money right now -- either by temporarily moving it to your savings, pulling it out in cash, writing out payment checks ahead of time, or somehow making sure it's off limits so you can't spend it by accident. Use this money only to cover the cost of the items on your Gotta List.

Also keep your receipts, because this month you're going to keep track of where the rest of your money actually goes. You can choose to do this several different ways. I've used Quicken for almost 2 decades, but any money tracking program will work as long as you'll use it consistently. There are online money services like Mint (the money program with super-fresh breath!), or just do battle with a pencil and paper if you like that sort of thing. I prefer money programs because they make the math easy, and they'll also make automatic graphs of your spending and can show you how close you are to your goals. Nice! Plus if you have a money program with a mobile app, you can enter amounts into your phone right as you spend them.

At the end of the month, take another half hour to look over your draft plan and your actual money tracking. Were the numbers on your Gotta List fairly close to what you actually spent, or were they way off base? Make corrections to your plan as necessary, so the amounts you paid for items on the Gotta List are closer to what actually happened during the month. You will probably have more or less money left over than what you originally planned. If you have less, don't sweat it; you can expect to make another draft or two of your spending plan before you iron out all the kinks. If you have more, congratulations; put the extra money toward stuff on the Wanna List!

Oh yeah, one other thing: the process I've just described is usually called basic budgeting. But most people's brains implode when they hear the word "budget." They think it's too hard, or that budgeting means never doing anything fun. Pfft. A budget is just a way to plan out how you're going to spend your money. So go out and spend it AWESOMELY.

*Unless you're someone like Bill Gates. Good luck with that.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How to register to vote in the United States

There's an old political saying in the USA: "If you don't vote, you can't complain." But most states won't just let you walk into a polling place and cast your vote on Election Day -- you must register to vote first. A surprising number -- about half -- of American citizens who are eligible don't vote, because they don't know how to register or they're just too lazy to bother. I imagine this would cheese off the millions of people in countries ruled by despots and dictators, who would jump at the chance to vote if little things like jail or beheading didn't stand in their way. Voting is both a right and a privilege, so make sure you exercise it.

Ready? Here's how to register.

You will need:
  1. to be at least 18 years old on or before Election Day.
  2. to be a citizen of the United States of America, either by birth or naturalization.
  3. to be a legal resident of the state in which you live (you may only cast a vote once per election and only for a single residence, so if you share time between houses, pick only one of them as your "voting residence." It's illegal to vote multiple times, so don't do it).
  4. to be free of any other legal complications that would disqualify you from voting (for instance, if you're a convicted felon spending quality time in jail or under a court order that forbids you from voting, you can't vote).
  5. Some form of positive identification; examples may include your driver's license, state-issued ID and/or Social Security card with number.
  6. Internet access, or a working telephone and a local phone book.
Specific rules about registering to vote vary from state to state, and even between different cities in the same state. To get the most accurate information about what to do for your area, find your home state on this map or the list below it, and click on it. If you're stuck with no Internet access (how the heck are you reading this?), find a local phone book and check the government listings for the local election office (if you don't see anything with the word "elections," look for something like "clerk," "registrar" or "auditor"). Call them and they'll give you information about how to register to vote.

Registration deadlines also vary by state. In most states, you must register to vote at least 30 days before the election, though some places have much shorter registration periods. Even if you've missed the deadline to participate in this election, just register anyway; that way you'll be ready for the next one.

You'll probably have several options to register. You can get a mail-in form, fill it out and send it in, or you can get forms and assistance at places like libraries, city and county government offices, DMV offices, even unemployment offices. Once the election office has verified your information, it will send you a voter registration card which you should keep in a safe place. This card will have your voter ID number, your voting precinct and districts, and usually the address of your local polling place (where you'll go on Election Day to cast your vote). In some places, everyone votes by mail-in ballot, so there's no polling address on the registration cards. If you don't get your registration card after a few weeks, call the election office and make sure they got your information; sometimes forms get lost in the mail.

So, now you've got your card, you're registered, and you can vote for ANYONE, right? Wrong. You can only cast your vote for specific offices, depending on where you live. For instance, every registered voter in the United States can cast a vote for President and Vice President, but only Californians can vote in the California gubernatorial race, only Idahoans can vote for Idaho senators, and only Seattle residents can vote in the Seattle mayoral race. This only makes sense, though -- would you really want people from another part of the country to be able to decide who your mayor should be?

If you move, you'll need to re-register under your new address, and will probably get a new voter registration card.

Once you're registered, here's one of two possibilities about how it goes on Election Day:
  1. You grab your registration card and go to your local polling place. Once there, a volunteer for your precinct will ask you to sign your name (indicating that you've voted) and will give you a ballot and send you to a private booth, or direct you to a voting machine. You will get to vote for all national races and all public races in your precinct, as well as any propositions or initiatives on the ballot. Choose wisely. (You can make your decisions ahead of time and bring in a sheet of paper to help you remember your choices.)
  2. Some time before Election Day, you'll get a mail-in ballot and a voters' pamphlet in the mail. You can vote at any time between the day you get the ballot and Election Day itself, and either mail it back or drop it in a local ballot box. (If you choose to mail back your ballot, make sure you give the USPS enough time to get it to your local elections office before Election Day, or it won't be counted.)
All that's left is to sit back, cross your fingers and watch as the precinct reports roll in. Remember, even if your chosen candidate doesn't get elected or the issues you voted for don't pass, you participated and your voice was heard.

Now you've earned the right to kvetch about the bum in office! Well done.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How to be invited to dinner more than once

So you've been asked to come to a nice dinner, and boy, are you excited! It's been such a long time since you were last invited to one of these things. What was it... Thanksgiving, six years ago? The food was so fantastic you were looking forward to the next year, but for some reason your invitation just seems to have kept falling through the cracks. You're not really sure why, but...

OK, let's just cut to the chase. Your boorish behavior at that Thanksgiving dinner six years ago pretty much guarantees you'll never be invited to any meal in that particular household again. Not only did you overstay your welcome and eat far more than your share, your table manners were a step away from a hog slopping. And never once did you thank your host for the meal. No one would blame them if, once you finally departed, your hosts sighed, "Well, that one's never darkening our doorstep again."

Want to increase your chances of being invited to eat at the same household more than once? Read on.

NOTE: This is only a quick start guide to table manners. If you want the real deal, I highly recommend The Little Book of Etiquette by Dorothea Johnson as a reference that will cover 95% of most formal dining concerns. (You may need a more protocol-oriented reference book if you've been invited to dine with the Queen; otherwise, you're good.)

  1. I started off detailing how to take a bath for a good reason.  Make sure you and your clothing are clean, presentable and appropriate for the occasion. (If you're not sure of the appropriate dress for dinner, ask your host.)
  2. At the door, say hello. Smile.  Introduce yourself by name if necessary. Look your host in the eye (if this makes you uncomfortable, look at the bridge of your host's nose instead) and say, "Thanks so much for inviting me."
  3. Bring a small gift for your host. It can be a nice bottle of wine (if your host drinks), a bouquet of flowers in a vase, seasonal fruit in a basket, or something to share for dessert. Whatever it happens to be, TAKE OFF THE PRICE TAGS BEFORE YOU GET THERE. It's also a good idea to offer the gift after you've come inside; don't just thrust it across the threshold at your host. You don't have to do this, but consider that they also didn't have to invite you. A wisely-chosen small gift definitely starts things out on the right note.
  4. If this isn't a super-formal dinner and your host is still putting the finishing touches on the food when you arrive, offer to help with preparations. (After you've washed your hands, of course.)
  5. Be seated at the table only when you are invited to do so. Otherwise you look like a sugared-up six-year-old who can't wait to eat his weight in mashed potatoes. Easy there, Calvin.
  6. Your napkin goes in your lap. Don't use anything else to wipe your hands or face. (Especially not the tablecloth; that trick went out of fashion before Shakespeare's time.) If you need to blow your nose, excuse yourself and go to the restroom to do it; no one wants to see or hear your snot going 90 MPH.
  7. A general rule that will rarely steer you wrong: if you're not sure what to do (which fork is the right one to use? how do I eat this artichoke?), watch your host and follow his or her lead.
  8. In an American family-style dinner party, guests usually pass the food to be served around the table. Always stay fully seated to pass serving dishes; if something's too far away to reach, ask someone closer to pass it to you. Do not reach over someone else's plate to get an item, and never eat directly from a serving dish, for Pete's sake. Don't start to eat until everyone has been served; if you're not sure when to start eating, watch your host. When you take food from a serving dish, think about other guests who have not yet been served. If you're not sure what a reasonable serving is, watch your host. It is sometimes permissible to take a second serving after everyone has had a first; again, watch your host.
  9. The rule of thumb about flatware: start on the outside and work your way in for each course. And don't clutch your cutlery like you're going after Dracula. You should hold your knife and fork similar to the way you hold a pencil. The knife should never go in your mouth. Do not stab an entire steak with your fork and gnaw off it like a wolf; cut only one small piece of food at a time, and take small bites. This is useful for several reasons: it keeps you from doing horrific things with your mouth if the food turns out to be volcanically hot, and it allows you to chew and swallow gracefully before answering a question from another diner.
  10. CHEW WITH YOUR MOUTH CLOSED. It's one of several things that separate us from the animals. Mastication, or for that matter anything that rhymes with it, should not be on public display. And if food is in your mouth, no noise should be coming out of it. Likewise, no bodily percussion. You may not be able to help it if your stomach rumbles, but you don't have to burp or fart at the table.
  11. Table talk is not meant to be a political debate or a religious polemic, nor is it meant to be All About You. The best table conversation is good-natured, varied, friendly and not too serious, and it gives everyone a chance to contribute. Listen; don't just wait to talk. And since not everyone at the table has your cast-iron tum, don't give a blow-by-blow account of your last surgery, talk about the gory accident you passed on the way in, or discuss that program about cockroaches you saw on the Science Channel.
  12. Even if you're Anthony Bourdain -- scratch that, especially if you're Anthony Bourdain -- don't criticize the food. If you don't care for something, stop after trying one bite. Should your host ask if you dislike a dish, "I'm sorry, but it's not to my taste" is a far more thoughtful response than "Hard-boiled eggs make me vomit." On the other end of the spectrum, even if you really enjoy a particular dish, you shouldn't vacuum the rest of it into your gaping maw or try to take home the leftovers. Ask your host if you can get the recipe. And if you drink, don't get blitzed.
  13. Again, if this isn't a super-formal dinner, offer to help with cleanup. Do not use this as a chance to scarf down the remains of your favorite dish in the kitchen.
  14. Even if you're having a fantastic time, do not be the last person to leave. Thank your host again for the invitation and the meal before you depart. You don't want to overstay your welcome; it's best to leave everyone wanting more.
  15. Send your host a thank-you note. Yes, an old-fashioned snailmail thank-you note. Just use a plain notecard and envelope, and your most presentable writing.
Some of the items on this list may not come to you naturally. Few manners do. You may need to practice at home or in a restaurant for a while before these behaviors become second nature to you. But it's worth the effort. If you do these things, most hosts will LOVE you and would be more than happy to have you over again. That's a great feeling.

Monday, October 22, 2012

So what's with all the cleanliness posts?

There's a reason why I've chosen to focus on personal hygiene issues first.

It's because a lot of other people don't.

Look, it's notoriously difficult to correct a bad first impression. And when your sheer animal musk so assaults the senses that people want to mail you a restraining order, your chances of making a second impression are pretty slim.

You might think other people are shallow if they judge you by your hygiene (or lack thereof), and perhaps you're right. But it's still a simple fact: people do make judgement calls about you based on your perceived cleanliness. Further, if you don't measure up, most people won't take the time to tell you. They'll just go out of their way to get out of your way. It won't matter if you're as brainy as Marie Curie, funnier than Jonathan Winters and the first recipient of the Nobel Prize for Charm -- if you're funky and unkempt, no one will ever get close enough to find out. You can spend the rest of your lonely life railing against the inequities of human nature, or you can make it work for you.

Do the smart thing, won't you? Thanks in advance.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

When and how to clean your teeth

Back in high school I knew a certain person who really could have used this blog. (Alas, this was in the dark decades before such things as blogs existed. These are indeed the days of miracles and wonders.) Detailing his grave misunderstanding of personal space and all his copious breaches of the rules of basic hygiene would take the better part of a day, but to my mind the most skin-crawling aspect of his being was his cavalier disregard for dental care. His teeth were usually furry, ill-defined, and (after drinking a soda) bright orange. When he turned his smile on you, you weren't so much dazzled as you were simply stunned.

Don't be that guy. Please. One specimen was more than enough to burn a permanent impression into my brain.

When to brush: at least twice a day, once after breakfast and once after your last meal of the day. You can brush more often if you want, but you shouldn't brush less.

You will need:
  1. Your very own soft-bristled toothbrush; on which, see more below.
  2. Fluoride toothpaste.
  3. A potable water source.
  4. A cup.
  5. Somewhere to spit that won't get you in trouble, such as a sink.
  6. Mouthwash (optional).
  7. Dental floss or floss picks.
You must have YOUR OWN TOOTHBRUSH for a practical reason. At the best of times, your mouth is chock full of germs, and when you get sick, it gets even worse. Since you don't want to make yourself or anyone else ill (right? RIGHT?!), get your own toothbrush and don't lend it to anyone. If you suspect someone else has been using it, swab it down with alcohol, then rinse very thoroughly in hot water. (Then go poke the dastardly toothbrush thief in the eye. That'll show 'em.) In any case, since teethbreesh do wear out, you should replace yours every 3 months or so.

Wet down your toothbrush bristles. Apply a dab of toothpaste to them, about the size of a pea. (Despite what the commercials show, you really don't need more.)

Start at the top front of your teeth, aiming the bristles up at about a 45 degree angle from the tooth surface. You don't need to brush hard; just give each tooth surface a few seconds of attention and move along, gently moving the bristles up into the gum line. Work back to the molars on one side, scrubbing back to front. Then switch the brush around to the other side of your mouth and hit the molars on that side as well.

Flip the brush around to do the inside surfaces of the same teeth, again aiming the bristles up at about a 45 degree angle and working on one tooth surface at a time, hitting the gum line with the bristles.

Now work on the bottom front teeth, aiming the brush down at a 45 degree angle from the tooth surface so you can get those bristles down into the lower gums. Follow the same basic instructions to clean the outside and inside surfaces of the lower teeth.

If you're pressing too hard or you haven't been brushing your gums correctly, you may see some bleeding. If your gums continue to bleed after a few weeks of brushing, it's time to visit the dentist.

Brush your tongue gently to refresh your mouth. Fill your cup with water, swish the water around your mouth well, and spit out the excess toothpaste into the sink. Rinse off your toothbrush in the water and put it away.

If you're using mouthwash, pour a small amount (say about a tablespoon) into the cup, swish it around in your mouth for 30 seconds and spit it out into the sink.

Pull off a strand of dental floss about 12 inches long and wrap the ends around your index fingers, or use a floss pick. Work the floss into the spaces between each tooth, top and bottom rows, one by one. When you're finished flossing, you may need to rinse and spit again. Discard the floss.

Now you know. And knowing is half the battle. (G.I. Joe!)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

When and how to wash your hands

Honestly, I wish I didn't have to address this issue. But based on the sheer number of people I've observed walking straight from the toilet stall to the restroom door without even glancing at the sink, this has to be said.

When do you need to wash your hands? Any time your hands are visibly dirty, and (more importantly) whenever you've been exposed to pathogens. That means before and after you eat, frequently during meal preparation and when you're ill, and EVERY SINGLE TIME after you go to the restroom. It doesn't matter if you think your hands look and smell "clean enough;" the next time you offer someone a handshake they're going to get a heaping helping of microbes from your feces and urine into the bargain. Don't be a plague rat.

So, how do you wash your hands?

You will need:
  1. A clean running water source.
  2. Soap.
  3. A towel or other drying device, such as a hand dryer.
Step up to the water source and turn it on, if necessary. Get your hands thoroughly wet -- front, back, and between fingers. Warm to hot water is most effective for killing germs, but you don't need to scald your hands to get them clean. Only after your hands are wet should you move toward the soap. Use enough soap to work up a lather, if possible. Lather for at least 20 seconds (about the time it takes to hum the song "Happy Birthday"), paying special attention to your nails and between your fingers. Rinse the soap off your hands. Turn off the water source if necessary (some instructions suggest you turn it off with a paper towel in hand to avoid cross-contamination). Dry your hands on the towel or under the hand dryer.

Now you know. And on behalf of the entire human race, I'd like to say thank you for doing your part to help keep the Black Death out of modern society.

How to fold clean clothes

I'm going to let you in on a little secret.  There's no hard and fast rule for folding clean clothes, other than this: the sooner you fold them after they come out of the dryer, the nicer they'll look.  That's about it.

At this point I'm going to defer to a professional, who will show you one way (remember, it's not the only way) to fold your clothes:

"Where's the info on how to fold coats, dress shirts, dresses and skirts?" I hear you cry. Well, you don't have to fold these items. They go on coat hangers.

Oh, one more laundry secret: if you buy multiple pairs of the same color/style of sock, it's a whole lot simpler to pair them up after they're washed.

Friday, October 19, 2012

How to launder your clothes

There's no point in taking a nice bath only to slip back into your funky shirt, soiled jeans and skid-mark underwear.  (Ew.)  Get your clothes clean, too.  It's not as hard as you probably think to get the job done right.

There are two options for cleaning your own clothes: by machine, and by hand.  We'll cover these skill sets one at a time, with a final note about dry cleaning.

Machine washing clothes

You will need:
  1. A few hours to kill. This is why people used to set aside specific time for "wash day".
  2. A quantity of dirty clothes (duh).
  3. An automatic washer and dryer.
  4. Laundry detergent formulated for your washer (liquid or powder, your call).
  5. Laundry stain remover (brand names include Shout, Spray & Wash, Zout, OxiClean, etc.).
  6. Bleach (chlorine, oxygen, etc.; chlorine bleach is only for white loads).
  7. A measuring cup.
  8. Borax (optional, for hard-water areas).
  9. Dryer sheet (optional; I don't use them).
  10. Receptacle for clean clothes.
[NOTE: these instructions assume you are using a top-loading washer -- the kind with the lid on top of the machine.  Front-loader instructions are similar, but you usually use less detergent and load the clothes before starting the wash cycle.]

Sort your clothes by color.  White clothes (true whites, that is, not partly-whites or white-and-color stripes) must be separated from other colors for washing, or they won't stay white for long.  If you're lazy about sorting and accidentally leave a nice red shirt in your white wash, everything in the load will turn pink, which might revolutionize your social life but is probably not the best idea.  As you sort, find the fabric care label for each garment (usual hiding places: back of the collar, seat of the pants, sewn into a side seam).  Socks don't have care labels, but unless they're wool socks hand-knit by your Auntie Gertrude, you can wash them in a machine.  If any labels read "hand wash," "delicate cycle" or "dry clean only," set these clothes aside to deal with later.

We'll do a white load first.  Load whites loosely into an empty washer to see how they fit.  If you have a larger load of clothes than the washer basket can easily hold, don't try compacting them into a single load by heaving and squishing with all your might; this isn't as efficient as you think.  Washers work by agitating clothes in water, and if they're filled beyond capacity your clothes won't get clean and may wear out faster.  It's also really hard on the washer.  Sometimes you just gotta do more than one load, especially if you haven't done laundry for three weeks (slob!).  So fill your washer lightly, don't cram it full.

Now pull the clothes out of the washer (yeah, I know; bear with me) and set the washer dials according to manufacturer instructions.  These are often printed on the inside of the washer lid for your convenience.  As a rule, with a full, white wash load you should set the load size to its highest setting, the water temperature to the hottest setting your laundry can handle*, then push down and turn the dial clockwise until you reach the cycle setting you want (I use general-purpose cleaning settings like Normal or Permanent Press for white loads).  Pull up on the dial to start the cycle; the washer basket should start to fill with water.  Some models won't start unless the lid is shut, so if nothing happens, close the lid.  As it fills, add your detergent (and borax, if you're using it).  You want to use the right amount of detergent: too little and the clothes won't get clean, too much and the detergent won't rinse out completely.  Don't just eyeball it; follow the instructions on the detergent container and measure carefully.

[A note about local water quality and its effect on laundry: some municipalities have hard water -- in other words, high amounts of dissolved minerals in the local water supply.  (American readers: check this map to see if you live in a hard-water area.)  Hard water makes a big difference to your laundry; the minerals in your water react with soap and detergent to create a grayish curd that gets ground into your clothes, wearing them out prematurely and making them harder to get really clean. You can fight the hard water blues by adding a cup of borax to your wash.  Using detergent over soap also helps, as does choosing liquid detergent instead of powder.  Frankly, the most effective stuff for hard-water washing was laundry detergent with sodium tripolyphosphate in it, but due to environmental concerns you can't buy it in the United States any more.  Though I guess you could buy sodium tripolyphosphate from a chemical supply store and put a quarter-cup in your wash just to see how the old stuff used to work... in the name of science... I'm just saying.]

When the washer basket is full and starts to agitate, put the clothes back in; keep a dirty white towel in reserve for the next step, which is adding bleach.  (Why add bleach?  It keeps your whites white, and it kills germs in your socks and undies.)  Wait a few minutes before you put bleach in the wash, giving the clothes a chance to mingle and get to know each other better.

Liquid chlorine bleach is serious stuff, so respect its caustic power.  Some rules to follow:  NEVER MIX CHLORINE BLEACH WITH AMMONIA, as the resulting fumes can kill you.  Also, NEVER POUR CHLORINE BLEACH ONTO DRY CLOTHES, and NEVER USE CHLORINE BLEACH ON COLORS; you will destroy them.  Really.  Don't let my tragic failures be yours.  So take that dirty white towel and drape it across your front; that way if the bleach splashes up, it won't ruin the clothes you're wearing.  Check how much you need to use on the back of the bleach container, pour the bleach carefully into a measuring cup, and pour it into the washer basket.  Give it a minute to disperse into the wash load, then cap the bleach, put the measuring cup away, take off the towel and drop it into the washer basket.  Close the lid and let the washer do its thang.  (If you use a non-chlorine bleach instead, such as oxygen bleach, it's added the same way, except you don't need to wear the towel; these bleaches aren't as likely to damage your clothes.)

Sometimes washer loads go off balance, usually during the spin cycle.  If this happens, the washer will start making a loud knocking or clunking sound.  Some off-balance machines will stop the wash cycle, whining petulantly until you investigate; others will just start doing the Possessed Washer Boogie across the floor.  You can fix it by stopping the cycle for a minute, opening the washer and shuffling the clothes around until the weight is evenly distributed, then closing the washer and starting it again.  Repeat as necessary until the washer stops complaining and/or dancing.

Well, don't just sit around contemplating your navel; it's time to start prepping the dryer.  First make sure the dryer is empty (if not, empty it).  Pull out the lint screen (it's in different places on different dryer models, so hunt around), remove and throw out the lint, and replace the lint screen.  Set the dryer heat (use Low first, and nudge it up a little if the clothes aren't drying fast enough) and the length of the drying time.

When the washer load is complete (about 20 minutes), unload the washer and transfer the clean, wet clothes to the dryer.  If you want to use a dryer sheet, add it to the dryer now.  Close the door until it clicks, and press the Start button.  In my experience, most dryer loads take a longer time to complete than washer loads.  (Especially if you forget to press Start.  Don't ask me how I know about this.)

You're now free to goof off until the clothes are dry.  Some dryer models buzz when the load is finished, which is nice if you want to avoid wrinkles in your clothes.  Thicker items like towels take longer to dry, so check to make sure they're not damp.  Once you're sure all the clothes are dry, pull them out of the dryer and into the clean clothes receptacle, and carry them off.  If you fold your clean clothes or put them on hangers right away, they may not need ironing, which gives you one less task.

Dark loads are just like white loads, except you use cooler water to keep colors from fading, and don't add chlorine bleach (it's OK to use color-safe bleach on lighter colors).  You should also find and pretreat spots or oily stains on the clothes with laundry stain remover; for best results, spray or rub it on the stain and let it sit about 10 minutes before you wash the garment.  Before you put clothes in the dryer, check to make sure these stains are gone; if they're not, treat and wash them again.  The heat from the dryer sets any remaining stains, making them harder to get out, so don't dry them until they're clean.

* Hot water is great for keeping whites really white, but it can also shrink fabric, especially all-cotton and all-wool fabric.  If you're worried your favorite T-shirt might shrivel up, dial down the water heat a bit.

Hand washing clothes

Even if you have a washer and dryer, you still need to know how to wash clothes by hand. It's a useful skill for times when you don't have access to a machine, and besides, all those items marked "hand wash" have to be cleaned at some point, right?

You will need:
  1. About an hour's time.
  2. Dirty clothes marked "hand wash."
  3. Tepid water.
  4. A sink, bathtub or washing tub. A running water source, such as in a sink, is ideal.
  5. Hand-wash detergent (brand names include Woolite and Ivory) or a bit of hand-wash dish detergent.
  6. A clean towel.
  7. A flat place to dry clothes.
Separate the whites and colors.  Fill the sink or tub with tepid water.  Add hand-wash detergent to the water, then add a load of sorted clothes.  There should be enough water that the clothes can get completely wet and move around easily.  Agitate them with your hands, kneading the clothes in the wash like bread dough.  If you find a spot or stain, rub it gently against another part of the garment until the stain releases.   Keep kneading.  Yup, it's boring.  So make the time pass quicker by fantasizing about what you'll do with your future immense fortune (buy Disneyland? invest in a chinchilla farm? turn Disneyland into a chinchilla farm?).

When your clothes look and smell clean, drain out the wash water and fill the tub with tepid rinse water.  Rinse out your clothes.  You may need to do this more than once, depending on how much detergent you used.  Try for clothes with no detergent residue (so no bubbles or foam, and no "soapy" feel).

Now to dry the clothes.  You can wring water out of casual clothes like T-shirts and jeans, but delicate clothes like knits can be deformed by wringing and twisting.  Instead, squeeze the garment gently to remove as much water as possible, then pull out the clean towel and open it up, spread out the delicate garment on the towel, and roll the towel up tightly.  Press as hard as you can on the towel to release water from the garment.  You can even kneel on the towel and press down with your knees.  Then unroll the towel and take out the garment.  It should feel almost dry.

Spread your cleaned hand-wash clothes out gently and let them dry on a clean flat place, like a drying rack or even the back of a sofa.  Don't hang up your knits to dry (they stretch and deform when they hang, making you look like Quasimodo when you wear them).  When they're completely dry, fold them and put them away.

Dry cleaning clothes

What to do with the "dry clean only" items?  Take them to the dry cleaners, of course.  You can't just toss a dry-clean-only item into the washer and dryer; it will come out looking like crap.  Search online for a dry cleaner in your area with a good reputation, take your clothes in and find out what they charge.  If you agree to their rates, you give the dry cleaner your clothes and will get a claim ticket in exchange.  DON'T LOSE YOUR TICKET; it's the only way to get your clothes back.  The ticket should also be printed with the date you can return to pick up your clean clothes.

You may have noticed that owning "dry clean only" clothes is expensive, since they have to be cleaned by a professional every time they get dirty.  Yep.  Some dry-cleaned clothes such as outerwear (coats, jackets) are worth the extra maintenance cost in places where it gets cold during the winter.  For other items of clothing, you'll have to decide for yourself whether the expense is worth it.

Don't wait until the last minute to get clothes dry cleaned.  The longer a stain sits on a garment, the harder it is to remove.  Also, most dry cleaners take a few days to finish your clothes; some charge extra for 24-hour turnaround service, so you'll spend less if you get your dry cleaning done when you aren't in a hurry.

You're well on your way to clean, fresh-smelling clothing.  Next up: how to fold that pile of clean clothes.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

How to take a bath

As my great-grandmother, a wise woman, used to say, "You're never too poor to afford soap and water." Bathing is a daily ritual (some people would benefit from making it a twice-daily ritual), and yet based on the sniff test, many people don't know how to take an effective bath. If you wait long enough between baths that you can smell your own body odor, you're waiting too long. Also, deodorant, perfume, cologne and body spray are NEVER substitutes for bathing.

Geeks, nerds, gamers and techies, I'm looking especially hard at you. You folks tend to be unusually intelligent, so I can't understand why many of you reek like rotting poultry. You want to win friends and influence people? Take a freaking bath!

So here's how you do it.

You will need:
  1. A bathtub with a drain stopper.
  2. Several gallons of hot water.
  3. Soap (this can be bar soap or body wash, depending on your preference).
  4. A washcloth, scrubbie, loofah or similar scrubbing implement.
  5. A nail brush (optional).
  6. [Shampoo and conditioner, for those with hair.]
  7. A razor.
  8. A towel.
Put in the drain stopper and run the water. You want your bath water to be as hot as you can comfortably take it; certain body oils and grease will only dissolve in hot water and soap. Test the heat of the water on the inside of your wrist to make sure it isn't unbearable. The tub doesn't have to be completely full, just enough so that you can get thoroughly wet all over. If you like, you can add a squirt of body wash under the tap and get some bubbles in your bath.

Strip.  Get into the tub.  Wet yourself down completely.

Grab your washcloth (or whatever it is) and lather it up with some soap. Start at the top and work your way down: close your eyes and use the cloth to scrub your face (gently), your neck, behind your ears. Rinse and continue with your shoulders and arms, your chest, etc., stopping every now and then to re-lather your washcloth as necessary. Don't be stingy on the soap. Pay special attention to any area where your body parts rub against each other -- your underarms, your crotch, any folds of fat -- because these are areas where body odors are most likely to accumulate. If you're using a large washcloth or a loofah with a handle, you can whip it around behind you and scrub your back (recommended). Once you've gotten all the way down to your toes, rinse off the soap.

If your nails have gunk under them, use the nail brush to get them clean. Scrub the flat surface of your nails, as well as the tips where dirt accumulates. You can scrub your toenails the same way. If you have problems with foot odor (and you're not too ticklish), you can use the nail brush on the soles of your feet to really exfoliate them.

[Squeeze some shampoo into your palm -- about a quarter-sized amount for short hair, maybe twice that for long hair -- rub it between your palms and massage it into your wet hair. DO NOT JUST SMEAR IT OVER THE TOP OF YOUR HEAD AND RINSE IT OUT! Really work it in, right down to your scalp, using your fingertips to massage your head all over. Pay special attention to the area just over your ears and at the nape of your neck. It should take about two minutes in total. When your hair is thoroughly and deeply lathered, rinse it out completely. Follow with about a quarter-sized amount of conditioner, which you should distribute through your hair just like the shampoo. Let it sit for two or three minutes so it has a chance to do its work, then rinse it out.]

Save any shaving for the end of your bath. This will give your skin some time to hydrate, making it easier to get rid of that excess body hair. (Also, it's no fun trying to get clean in a bath full of tiny shaved-off hairs.) You can use shaving cream if you want, but you may not need it; try lathering up with regular soap and see if that does the trick. If you've never shaved before, use a new disposable razor and go a small amount at a time. Don't press hard; just glide the razor over your skin and rinse it out regularly so the razor blades don't clog with hair.

One last rinse, pull the plug, stand up and strip as much excess water from your body [and hair] as possible. Step out of the tub onto the bath mat (you do have a bath mat, right? If not, use an extra towel on the floor), grab the towel and dry yourself off thoroughly -- you don't want to leave wet footprints as you exit the bathroom. [If you have long hair, make sure it's dried off enough that it doesn't drip.]

How to take a shower

Follow the basic instructions for a bath, but stand up, flip the water to the shower head, and don't plug the drain. If you want to save extra water, turn off the spray while you lather up, then turn it back on to rinse off.

Congratulations! You now know how to take a proper bath.