Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Free Beauty in your Cupboard

We all know your face is your fortune. How else can we as Americans justify spending a staggering $45 billion per year on cosmetics? Just think about that for a minute. $45 billion dollars. That's larger than some countries' entire economies. Another interesting figure: North Americans eat more chocolate than any country in the world -- 12 pounds per person per year -- yet we spend just $8.9 billion on chocolate annually. We know that the average person eats about 1 pound of chocolate per month, and we collectively spend roughly $7.42 million monthly. Meanwhile, we collectively spend $3.75 billion monthly on cosmetics and use maybe 1-2 pounds per month each. Now, I tend to believe that chocolate tastes much better than most cosmetics. And you know what else? We use maybe twice the amount of cosmetics but pay 5 times more for it each month! There's no doubt that chocolate is a whole lot cheaper. And we know it works.

Cosmetics, on the other hand, are hit or miss. Few products in our collection can be considered the ultimate salvation for our face, body, or hair. Most cosmetics cost more than we'd like to pay for them, even the less expensive ones. Some cost more than many of us can afford each month. Those that don't cost much run the gamut of barely acceptable to mediocre. It's a rare product that is both cheap and works exceptionally well. Often, we find a product that works well but is so exorbitantly expensive that we have to give up other things. Most aggravating, however, is spending too much year after year on cosmetics that cost twice what they should and still don't solve our beauty problems. Yet we continue to search for the elusive wrinkle cream, the perfect moisturizer, the best shampoo, the most powerful eye cream, the most natural-looking foundation, the most lengthening mascara, the strongest nail polish, and so on. And we continue to spend $45 billion year after year.

Why do we do it? Well that's easy, we want to look our best and project the best possible image. But why do we spend such enormous sums of money on products that may or may not end up working? Is it because we are eternal optimists, hoping that tomorrow's buy will be better than today's? Are we naive, believing that if we buy the products in the glossy magazine ads, we'll turn out looking just like the models? Do we arrogantly buy into the promises of science, thinking that if there are enough cutting-edge molecules and chemical formulas, it just has to work? We are guilty of all of these. It's not enough to just be clean. If it were, we would simply wash our faces and bodies with plain soap and water and get out the door (probably in the fraction of the time most of us do). We want to look beautiful. We need to feel beautiful. For most women, looking beautiful is the key to feeling beautiful. Whether this attitude is healthy or not isn't the point. The point is, the need to feel beautiful is a major emotional need. Therefore, we'll spend whatever it takes to be beautiful. Even if it means giving up time, money, and other purchases.

Cosmetic companies know this, and they take full advantage of it. La Mer is one of the most expensive skin care brands out there. Despite this, the list of devotees is long and very distinguished. I've heard a girl say that she would rather give up groceries than her La Mer skin care regime because it makes her skin as smooth as a baby's bottom. Hey, as long as we're paying for a solution to our problems, we can overlook the fact that we're paying $110 for a 1-ounce jar of cream, or $65 for a 6.7-ounce cleanser. No wonder we're spending $45 billion a year on beauty products!

But let's think for a minute what all cosmetics are made of: chains and chains of molecules, forming dozens of ingredients. Some of those ingredients have been created in a lab and refined to exquisite perfection, thanks to decades of research. Many of the ingredients, on the other hand, have been used for centuries throughout the world. Think about some of the beauty "breakthroughs" that have happened in the past 20 years. Alpha and beta hydroxy acids. Guess where they come from? Plain old fruits and fermented milk products. Antioxidant creams. Guess what the common ingredients are? Vitamin C and algae. How about cellulite and skin-firming creams? You'll find a shot of caffeine in these. Kinetin and cellulose? Derived from plants. Hydrating sprays and atomizers? Pumped-up water.

And then there are the obvious. Salt and sugar scrubs. Milk baths. Aloe Vera juice. Cocoa butter. Olive oil soaps. Shea butter creams. Seaweed. Ginger . Green, white, and chamomile tea. Soy products. Just to name a few. The truth is, science discovers then imitates nature. Remember the ancient Egyptians, who dyed their hair, used deodorants, and wore kohl eye makeup and ochre lip color? Not unlike ourselves, they had an aversion to wrinkles and blemishes, thus developing a few effective potions. Even 4000 years ago the Egyptians knew enough about cosmetic chemistry to create shiny and matte versions of face powders!

The fact is, all cosmetics and body products were once made from "natural" materials. Even now, when we have the ability to enhance atoms and create new molecules, we still turn to nature for the building blocks of many of our favorite beauty remedies. If the earth is still the source of so many cosmetic products, then how does a tiny jar of cream become worth $110? Is it the ingredients themselves that are rare and therefore pricey? No, usually the ingredients are quite common, either available in natural form or easy to duplicate. Unless you're buying a serum with crushed pearls or black caviar, the ingredients themselves are not the main reason for the insane price tag.

The reason these compounds cost a fortune is threefold: someone has to research & develop them, someone has to market them, and someone has to sell them. Research & development accounts for overhead of only a few renegade companies at any given time. You see, as soon as one company makes a big discovery, the other companies benefit. Pretty soon, the new miracle ingredient spreads to all the major cosmetic companies, eventually filtering down to your drugstore brands (most of which, by the way, are owned by mega-giants of the cosmetic or pharmaceutical industry). Yes, it is marketing (and its children, packaging and endorsement) that allow companies to mark up products to the infinite degree. Some formulations cost as little as pennies or a few dollars to produce. Add in the price of packaging, retail sales commissions, advertising, endorsements, and promotions, and you've got anywhere from a 20% to 800% markup.

Think "natural" brands are less innocuous? Aveda and Origins, both plant-based brands, enjoy a healthy double-digit profit margin. Estee Lauder, which owns not only Aveda and Origins, but also Clinique, Prescriptives, M.A.C, Bobbi Brown, La Mer, Darphin, Jo Malone perfumes, and Bumble & Bumble haircare (as well as others), raked in a 74.1 percent 5-year gross profit margin, well above the industry's 52.1 percent and the average S&P 500 company's 44 percent. In fact, some plant and organic brands appreciate a higher-than-average return on investment because they cater to consumers who are prepared to pay more. Besides, who has the time to hunt down Tamanu nuts in the South Pacific, harvest wild meadowfoam seed oil, and charge tourmaline, then mix them all together with the proper additives to form a usable concoction? Aveda does. The rest of us will shell out $38 to buy the moisturizer and $24 to buy the cleanser.

Fortunately, exotic plant oils and rare minerals are not the only ways to get beautiful skin and hair. Plenty of excellent ingredients are not only available cheaply, but can be found right in your cupboard. The more disillusioned I get with expensive beauty treatments, the more I look for cheaper, alternative products. Frustrated with store-bought cosmetics that just don't cut it and concerned about a shrinking wallet, I undertook an investigation of homemade beauty remedies. I searched the net, surveyed other women, and learned that there is a plethora of cures for all different skin and hair ailments. I tried many of these remedies myself. On their own, they do a nice job of making my skin and hair look and feel better. Mixed with other ingredients, they can be even more effective. And I'm happy to report that some of these homemade treatments actually work not only as well, but *gasp* better than their pricey heavily-marketed counterparts. Best of all, they don't have added fragrances or chemicals that can irritate skin.

Disclaimer: I want to point out that different products work differently on different people. Some of these products work effectively for me, but may not do much for you. Conversely, a lot of people rave about household cures that frankly do nothing for me. So take all of these tips as tips, not gospel. I also want to stress that there is always a possibility that one or more of these ingredients may irritate you or cause an allergic reaction. It’s always best to do a spot test by putting a small amount of a product on the inside of your wrist to see if there are adverse effects. This is wise not just for homemade cures but for all products, particularly if you have sensitive skin. Finally, I want to assure you that I am not advocating that you stop buying cosmetics from the store and switch to only homemade cures. This is not only time-consuming but also silly. I mean, do you want your favorite brands to go out of business? Then who would make your favorite mascara, lipstick, and self-tanner? Besides, there are plenty of great products out there that are worth buying. I don’t know what I’d do without my Laura Mercier Tinted Moisturizer, Estee Lauder Idealist, or Alterna Hemp Repair Weekly Treatment conditioner (not to mention many other worthwhile hair, makeup, and body products). So by all means, continue using the products you love – and don’t hate paying for. Just do some experimenting every now and then with free ingredients that are already in your cupboard or medicine cabinet.

Here are some commonly found household products and their cosmetic uses:

Oatmeal. One of my all-time favorite treatments for so many ailments. When I was young and spent summers with my aunt, we used to visit the sauna in her health club and she would bring along a baggie of raw oatmeal. She would dump some oatmeal into two Styrofoam cups, add hot water, then we would go and steam our bodies. After we came out, we would apply the oatmeal paste to our face and neck then relax with tea and chat. After 20 minutes we would remove the mask and emerge with the most clarified, tightened skin ever. Oatmeal is truly a miracle food. You can apply it to your skin to soothe itches and irritations from poison ivy, insect bites, and chicken pox. When I'm stuck with a case of heartburn or reflux acid, I rush into the kitchen and eat two tablespoons of raw oatmeal. It absorbs everything from oil to acid to impurities. Very few people have negative reactions to oatmeal.

Honey. An excellent antibacterial, drying agent, and skin lightener, honey has been used since Egyptian times for numerous body treatments. Got pimples? Apply pure honey as a spot treatment, cover with a band-aid, and leave overnight. It should shrink your blemish by morning and help get rid of bacteria. Want tighter skin? Apply a mask of honey to your entire face, leave on for 20 minutes, and rinse. Your skin will be drier and tighter. If it's too drying, mix with avocado. It also dries out insect bites. On a whim, I once squirted honey right from the squeezy jar on a large insect bite -- possibly a spider bite -- that appeared suddenly one morning. The bite was about 1.5 inches in diameter, was raised to about 1/8-inch thickness, and wouldn't stop itching. All day, I had tried to relieve the itching with witch hazel, which worked temporarily, but didn't reduce the size of the bite. My husband insisted that I put cortisone on it, which I did, but it had not effect whatsoever. Later that evening, after the itching had become unbearable, I decided to coat the bite it with a generous glob of honey and cover it with a large Band-Aid, figuring it had a least a chance of working. Lo and behold, when I woke up the following morning, the bite had shrunk in half, was flatter, and wasn't itching much. I changed the dressing and applied fresh honey and a smaller Band-Aid, leaving in on all day. The next day, my bite had become just a fraction of its original size and was completely flat. I did notice an icky smell in the dressing after I had removed it, which did not smell like honey at all, but like something that had come out of my bite. I thought maybe the honey had drawn out some of the venom or whatever was in there. I later read that honey has made a resurgence as a treatment for open wounds and burns, large due to its anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties. It is even safe to use on internal tissue and causes no tissue damage. They say that pure unrefined honey is better, especially on flesh wounds, but my little supermarket-bought squeezy jar worked fine for skin problems. I'm definitely going to keep using this miracle cure!

Cocoa Powder and Cocoa Butter. Guess what cocoa contains? Caffeine. And guess what caffeine does for skin? It restricts your blood vessels, thus temporarily tightening and firming your skin. Mix cocoa powder with water and apply anywhere on your skin that needs firming. It acts as a temporarily fix for cellulite, so use it before you get into that swimsuit. Cocoa is also alkaline, so it can be used if your skin's pH level is too acidic. Cocoa butter is one of the most effective moisturizers available. It helps make skin elastic, supple, and does wonders for stretch marks. Just buy the cheapest cocoa butter you can find and it will do the trick. Plus, it smells heavenly!

Salt. You know how after you go to the beach, the air is fresh, your skin is somehow cleaner, and your face is less oily (except if you were out in the sun for too long or if you used an oily sunscreen)? Salt is a natural drying agent, and sea salt in particular contains loads of healthy minerals such as iodine, zinc, and magnesium. There may also be traces of seaweed and algae. Next time you go to the beach, bring home a large jar of seawater. Rinse twice a day with it after washing your face. If you're not planning to make a beach escape anytime soon, buy some sea salt and mix with warm water to dissolve some of the minerals. Use it as a rinse for your face, as well as a gargle for your throat to prevent nose and throat ailments. Sea salt and kosher (or coarse) salt also makes a great body scrub, hence all those designer salt scrubs packed into pretty jars. Mix it with mashed papaya or papaya juice, or with seaweed from your local Asian market.

Sugar. Another great body scrub, hence all those yummy-smelling sugar scrubs in beauty shops. It may be gentler on dry or sensitive skin than salt scrubs, and you can easily make your own with combinations of household ingredients. I make a sugar and olive oil scrub, which both exfoliates and moisturizes. You an also mix sugar with papaya, mango, and orange. To make a body scrub for sensitive skin, combine sugar with peppermint, either oil or tea.

Baking Soda. A very effective skin soother after insect stings, as it draws out been venom and other toxins. it's also yet another good srub, particularly if you're looking for a gentle one. You can use it on your face, which you may not be able to do with some of the heavier scrubs.

Lemon. Women have been using lemon juice for centuries to lighten skin, hair, and to get rid of blemishes. It also fades scars, helps eliminate excess oil, and may help keep acne at bay.

Orange. A more gentle chemical exfoliator for those who find lemon juice or physical scrubs too harsh on skin. Orange juice can help to dissolve oil. Mashed oranges make a refreshing skin treat after a hot day. Vitamin C helps prevent wrinkles and as well as skin cancer. It also makes a yummy body scrub when mixed with sugar.

Yogurt and Buttermilk. My mother used to apply yogurt and buttermilk to sunburned skin. Keep it in the fridge and make a compress for overheated skin, or, apply directly to the skin. It not only cools and hydrates the skin, but the lactic acid helps turn over the skin for rapid healing. Make a buttermilk bath or sponge bath. The gentle exfoliating and moisturizing will help keep skin young. It also helps restore healthy pH levels to your skin. Eating yogurt and other fermented products helps keep the digestive system healthy, particularly if it has live active cultures. Plain yogurt with live acidophilus is an effective treatment for yeast infections.

Aspirin (Do not use if you have an allergy to Aspirin). It's not just good for headaches, fevers and heart disease. It is an anti-inflammatory, but did you know it is also a strong blemish fighter? The main ingredient in Aspirin, salicylic acid, is the same ingredient used in acne treatments. Aspirin can be a powerful yet gentle face scrub. Many people swear by aspirin face masks to help clear up acne, refine pores, and reduce redness and blemishes. I do an aspirin mask about once a week. To be honest, I don't think it's a miracle cure for my face, but it's something cheap, easy, and works for a lot of people. In my case, I attribute more than half of the positive effects to the honey, but the aspirin is a less irritating scrub than others I have tried. To make an aspirin mask, grind up 8-10 aspirin. Or, you can grind up 50 aspirin at a time and keep them in a Ziploc baggie. When you're ready to make a mask, place the ground aspirin into a dish and add 5 drops of hot water. Then drizzle about 1 teaspoon of honey on top. Heat the mixture in the microwave for 10 seconds, then stir it up with your finger. Apply the sticky paste to your face, layering more on problem areas. Leave on for 25-30 minutes. Later in the day, your skin should feel tighter, more refined, and have smaller blemishes. Others mix aspirin with aloe vera juice and Cetaphil lotion, while many fans just use aspirin and water.

Cucumber. It helps hydrate your skin and draw out impurities. Cucumber slices used on the eyes make an effective de-puffer as they help drain out excess water and calm swelling. They are also a gentle cleanser. Make a cucumber mash and use it as a mask to clean out pores and refine skin texture. Use cucumber juice as a refreshing toner.

Avocado. Great for hair and skin. An avocado mask will moisturize your face and make it softer. It makes a wonderful hair mask and hydrates your scalp. Avocado can also be mixed with stronger exfoliating agents to keep the skin from drying out.

Olive Oil. Another excellent hair and skin moisturizer. Pour olive oil directly onto hair, comb through, and cover with a shower cap. Heat on a low setting with a blow dryer. Your hair will be silkier and softer. Olive oil is also an effective post-burn treatment, helping to restore much-needed moisture to scalded skin.

Pineapple and Papaya (Do not use undiluted if you have extremely sensitive skin). These fruits are packed with enzymes, which helps to chemically exfoliate your skin. If your skin is acne-prone, this type of exfoliation may work better than physical scrubs. Pineapple and Papaya also contain a substance called bromelin, which is a natural anti-inflammatory. The juice of these fruits can be applied directly to insect stings. Pineapple is actually used to help prevent wrinkles too. Papaya contains a compound called papain, which is the same ingredient used in commercial meat tenderizers. Mashed papaya can help unclog pores and tighten skin. Both fruits also make excellent additions to a sugar scrub.

Mango. An effective antiseptic, it helps deep-clean and refine pores. Mango butter is also a decadent moisturizer. Mango is a good source of beta carotene and antioxidants, which nourish your body as well as your skin. It can be mixed with salt to make a delicious body scrub.

Strawberries. A highly effective face scrub and mask. They contain powerful antioxidants and enzymes. Puree fresh strawberries and apply directly to skin. The seeds may irritate acne-prone skin if used as a scrub, so if you have sensitive skin, don't rub the mask. Let it sit for 25 minutes and wash off, preferably without a washcloth. It should make your pores smaller, your skin more refined, and your complexion clearer overall. People report that it helps decrease shine on hot days. You can also mix strawberries with sugar to use as a body scrub.

Tomatoes. A clarifier and astringent, they help remove excess oil from your skin. It works most effectively if you just put the juice on your face and leave it for about 10 minutes. Some people may be sensitive to strong to concentrated tomato juice, so slice a large, fresh tomato and apply the slices to the face. You might want to lie down while you leave them on for about 10 minutes.

Potatoes. When boiling potatoes, steam your face over them. When peeling potatoes, don't throw away the skin, which contains most of the minerals and vitamin C. Put potato peelings on skin to draw out toxins and nourish skin. Grate raw potatoes and apply as a mask to soak up oil and clean pores. This mask can also be mixed with plain yogurt to soften the skin. Raw grated and sliced potatoes are also a great remedy to reduce burns. Rinse with potato juice to help keep acne from appearing. Potato slices also help de-puff eyes and decrease dark circles.

Chamomile Tea (Do not use if you have an allergy to the daisy family). Chamomile has been used for millennium to calm everything from upset tummies to anxiety to skin. Drink chamomile tea to relax, and apply cooled chamomile tea bags under eyes to decrease puffiness. Make a chamomile tea compress for irritated skin or apply steeped tea leaves directly to skin.

Green and White Tea. One of my personal favorite products to drink, I also can't get enough if its smell. I'd love if green and white tea essence was added to every household product. You've heard a lot about the antioxidant properties of tea. I try to drink it daily to get rid of body toxins. It does the same for skin. The antioxidants in green and white tea help to bind with free radicals on your skin, caused by environmental exposure. Steep tea bags and apply directly to your skin to draw out toxins. The antioxidants in tea also help protect skin against sun and environmental damage, help prevent wrinkles, and make skin healthier overall. Use tea as a toner after you wash your face to even out complexion and improve skin tone.

Wheat Germ, Almond, and Sunflower Oil. These oils contain high amounts of Vitamin E, an incredible antioxidant that protects against cell breakdown, heart disease, and helps treat wrinkles. Wheat germ oil is a veritable powerhouse of the substance, while the other oils have strong concentrations. Rub the oil around eyes and anywhere you have fine lines and wrinkles. It will help smooth them out over time. To keep skin healthy and supple, prevent blot clots and heart disease, and for good overall health, add almonds and sunflowers to salads and snacks. Caution: Do not take Vitamin E supplements that have more than 400 IU per day. Extremely high doses of Vitamin E (1000 mg) actually have an adverse effect on your health and could be fatal.

Aloe Vera. The best burn, redness, and skin reliever I've ever used. It's most effective from a fresh aloe leaf, so I keep aloe plants in the house at all times. There's nothing as fast-acting as aloe after a sunburn. I also use it to take down persistent redness from chafed skin or beauty treatments. Aloe juice can be mixed with other ingredients to keep skin from getting irritated and inflamed.

Apples, Apple Cider, Apple Cider Vinegar. Apples come from the same family as onions and contain a substance called quercetin, a natural antimicrobial. Mashed apples make a great chemical exfoliator and antiseptic. They gently dissolve dirt, toxins and oil. Apple cider and apple cider vinegar are excellent clarifiers for hair (as well as your coffeemaker). To get rid of buildup, rinse hair with apple cider vinegar. People have used vinegar for centuries to clean, remove buildup, and as an antiseptic.

Tea Tree Oil. A powerful antiseptic, it is also the best antifungal I know. When I used to get fungal infections on my nails from certain nail salons, I would rub in tea tree oil twice a day and it would eradicate the fungus. It can also be diluted and used to treat yeast infections and other fungal ailments. Some people use it to fight blemishes. I haven't tried it for this purpose, but it is a pretty gentle formula considering how strong it is, so it may work well for acne. It is available in Whole Foods markets and most health and beauty stores.

Peppermint. Drink peppermint tea when you have an upset stomach (unless you're suffering from acid or heartburn). Use cooled peppermint tea as a refreshing astringent, especially on hot days. It helps remove excess oil while leaving a pleasant coolness.

Rosewater. A skin soother and complexion aid, particularly for those with sensitive skin. Rosewater has been used for centuries as a gentle skin cleanser and skin calmer. Rose oil is a natural mood calmer.

Calamine Lotion. You know how it magically dries up poison ivy blisters? It does the same for pimples. In fact, one of the industry's best pimple shrinking products, Mario Badescu's famous Drying Lotion, uses a mixture of calamine, camphor, sulfur, and salicylic acid. Apply it at night and when you wake up, your pimple should shrink. (I admit that Mario Badescu’s Drying Lotion is one of the few miracle-cures for pimples that actually works for me. My husband makes fun of me when I put in on before bed, calling me a pink spotted leopard, but when I wake up, my zits are usually extinguished.)

Toothpaste (white paste, not gel). Toothpaste works by the same principle as calamine lotion. It dries up any part of the skin that needs drying. Apply on pimples to help shrink them overnight. If your skin is very dry or sensitive, toothpaste may irritate it, so test it first on the inside of your wrist.

Mayonnaise. This makes a great hair mask to add moisture. Saturate hair in it, put on a shower cap, and blow dry on a low setting.

Vaseline or Petroleum Jelly. The universal moisturizer and protector. Safe to use on lips, skin, and even sensitive internal areas. I use it as my regular lip balm and it works better than any lip balm I’ve ever bought. It’s also great to put in hair and skin keep them from absorbing hair dye or self-tanner, or to keep face masks from creeping into your hairline. Many ladies swear that they used this for 50 years to keep away wrinkles and to get rid of rough skin spots. Celebrities say they use it on their lashes, and it's also an instant brow tamer. You can use it as an emergency hair styler or shine aid. Some makeup artists put it on top of makeup to give skin a dewy finish. Allegedly it doesn't clog pores, though I have not tested this theory. The best part is, it's so darned cheap – just get the large tub for general use or a small jar or tube to use on your lips alone. Heck, I even shine shoes with it in a pinch (and it’s always a pinch when I have to shine shoes at the last minute). Just don’t use it with condoms, as it breaks down latex.

Witch Hazel. An extremely gently natural antiseptic, it can be used on even the driest and most sensitive skin. I use it religiously after shaving and waxing. Saturate a cotton ball with it and dab onto irritated or red areas. It feels calming yet refreshing.

If you have more household beauty cures that you swear by, send them to me. It’s always useful to hear what works for people. Good luck!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

How to Lose Your Tax Savings in 10 Days

I just finished my taxes, praise the Lord. It's always the most dreaded time of the year, tax time. I had been noticeably depressed for weeks, procrastinating to delay the inevitable and highly unpalatable reality that my tax return would only bring gloom and doom: in translation, a sky-high tax bill. Sure, you may look forward to filing your taxes. But you see, when I file my taxes, it takes at least 4 full days of work. Rather than filing for a return with a simple W-2 and some charitable deductions, the world of self-employment opens up an entire encyclopedia of forms to file.

Unlike much of the population, I don't jump for joy at the prospect of receiving "money back." Now that's a rather backwards description, isn't it? After all, it's your money, earned with over 2000 hours of labor per year, that you generously "loan" to Uncle Sam so he can deposit it into interest-bearing accounts for 16 months before benevolently "returning" it to you. I sincerely hope that most people have come to their senses and have stopped asking for one paltry exemption on their paychecks because it's perfectly okay to take 2, 3, 4, or even 5 so you can actually take home more of your hard-earned cash every month. This is especially a must if you own your own home, since anyone who has purchased one in the past 5 years has undoubtedly watched their deductions quadruple. (I have to say as an aside that owning a home has done more for my tax deductions that anything else I could have invented. When Einstein was asked what the most powerful force in the universe was, he quipped, "Compound interest." Well I propose that the second most powerful force is mortgage interest. When your mortgage is between $2,000-3,000 per month and you're paying primarily interest for the first 5 years of your mortgage, guess how much mortgage interest you will have paid in one year? That's right, the better part of $2,000-3,000 x 12, which comes to almost $24,000-36,000. That, my friends, is powerful stuff). So I ask you, why wait till the following April to get back a "bonus" when you can take it home in the first place, invest it into your own interest-bearing accounts, and actually make money off of the money you've earned? What a novel concept.

Anyway, as I ploughed through the pile of papers signifying my wages, consultant income, interest & dividend income, retirement & annuity distributions, charitable donations, student loan interest, mortgage interest, asset summaries, itemized deductions, and the endless bags of receipts I'd accumulated over the past tax year, I pondered if it wasn't just easier to pay the $15,000 tax bill. But I persevered through Turbotax's exhausting but well-meaning inquisition and finally finished the hundreds of calculations that slowly whittled away at my so-called "taxable" income. Sure, self-employment paychecks may seem bigger at first, but subtract monthly operating costs, business and equipment purchases, health insurance, medical bills, business insurance, medicare, social security, and self-employment taxes, and you're looking at taking home one-half of your original compensation. So why pay taxes on money that doesn't even make it into your bank account, especially if you've already paid the sales tax on all those expenses?

Fortunately, by the end of the 3rd day of preparing my taxes, my dilligent record-keeping and tireless calculations began to pay off as I watched my $15,000 tax bill shrink to $8,000, then $4,000, then $2,500. I will admit that the $22,000 in mortgage interest I paid last year alone (plus the $4,000 in property taxes) represented the lion's share of my deductions. But hey, if you scrimped over the years so you could save enough money to buy your own house, then you shelled out exorbitantly high mortgage and tax payments, you'd take every deduction allowed by law. It's hard to stash away much savings from month to month when the most modest "starter home" in your neighborhood starts at $550,000 the average sales price of a house in your city costs $762,722. With prices like these, homeownership deductions are a saving grace for many families across America.

But back to my story. When I realized by the 4th day that my tax bill was $0 and that I wasn't going to owe taxes in excess of those I had already paid last year, I was visibly giddy. It could also have been delirium, since I had been chained to my computer for 4 days straight. But whatever the condition, it prompted me to make occasional forays into ebay and I found myself stealing glimpes of a certain bag. It was a luxurious Burberry leather Manor satchel tote, one of the undeniable "it" bags of the fall/winter season and a paragon of perfection aptly designated under the "Icon Collection." The color was a unique beige called "trench", the color of a perfectly prepared cafe au lait, or as I like to describe it, the color of Mississippi Mud ice cream (sans the chunks). Not too light like many of the bone-colored bags, and not too dark so it resembles brown (the color on the Burberry website is a tad too dark -- it's actually a shade lighter and more buttery). Just a perfect, seasonless, infinitely neutral yet decidedly not-boring bag. It had plenty of of light gold-toned hardware in all the right places -- even a little extra for the girl who likes to be noticed -- and loads of convenient zippers and pockets to boot. The size was just right for stashing all those necessary things, plus all those extras, plus all those unexpected things one tends to pick up along the way. Great for work, fabulous for a weekend outing, but not so big and bulky that it looks like you're carrying a tote bag. And being Burberry, it reeked of sophistication and class, both well-mannered and well-manored (sorry, I couldn't resist). I was a moth drawn to the light. I couldn't stop looking at it, imagining it, picturing what to wear with it, even inventing excursions to make good use of it. I was probably talking to myself a little too much because my husband kept peeking in and asking how things were going.

I confess that I first laid eyes on the bag while in London last October. Alas, the $1680 price tag was an unsurmountable obstacle at the time. And I might add, it's generally an insurmountable obstacle at any time. Can you believe that handbags have gotten so ridiculously high-priced? At one time (not that long ago) I thought $700 was a fortune to pay for a bag and was shocked when prices started to contain 4 digits. I mean come on, $1000 for a handbag? It had better be made of real crocodile. But no, real crocodile bags cost $4000-5000. (Does that price include the guy who wrastles the crocodiles and pins them down? I wonder if you can pick the poor sucker that's going to get wrastled that day....) Then I started to see handbags creep into the $2000 territory. Are women losing their marbles? I mean, who in God's name can afford a $2000 bag except heiresses and the independently wealthy? But if boutique sales are any indication, these bags are flying off the shelves. Apparently tens of thousands of people can afford a $2000 bag. Shame on me for underestimating the American economy. I shouldn't be so surprised, having learned that in December 2006 my proud state of Virginia (along with Montana, Utah, and Hawaii) lead the nation in low unemployment rates with just 2-2.9% unemployment. And why should women flinch in the face of a $2000 handbag purchase when my county's median family income in 2004 was $90,200 and 28% of families earned $150,000 or more? Surely a small $2000 treat is in the budget for many of these gals.

Being a self-proclaimed bargain shopper, I couldn't allow myself to splurge on such a frivolous accessory. $500 I could shell out for a barely-worn Jimmy Choo Tulita bag that originally retailed for almost $1000, and I did pay close to $900 full retail price for a Louis Vuitton one year (which I have since parted with on ebay). But I have never crossed the $1000 mark for any purchase -- not clothing, accessories, jewelry, or even computers or electronic equipment. Somehow, I've always managed to straddle the $999 limit and swung the purchase in my favor with some discount or promotion. I found it absurd that I was even considering buying a $1680 bag (which, after taxes, comes to $1764. I might add that Virginia has one of the more forgiveable sales tax rates of 5%). Perhaps, the times they are a-changin'. Maybe I'm the one who's behind and needs to get with the program. In an era where babysitters charge $15 per hour, dog walkers charge $25 per hour, and college tuitions exceed $120,000, I should hardly be fazed by a $1600, $2000, or even the stunning $3600 handbag I just saw at Neiman Marcus (no, it's not made of crocodile, just woven patent leather -- oh, and it carries the Fendi insignia. You'd think for $3600 they could give you real gold hardware, not "gold tone hardware." Sheesh.)

So there it sat, the Burberry bag, beckoning me with its simultaneously graceful and posh siren song. Meanwhile, I fine-tuned my tax return, remembering to include the 5 boxes of in-kind donations of clothing and shoes I had made to the local thrift shop that raises money for the blind. At the end of the night, I faced my final tax bill: -$450. Yes, there was a minus sign in front of the number. Wow! I was not only not going to owe money, but I was getting money back. The last time that happened was so long ago I couldn't remember. An added bonus was that I would receive another $420 back from the state of Virginia. Now that was truly an unexpected gift. Thus, I made a decision on that fateful evening, a decision that would eventually lead me down the path of ruin. I would purchase that outrageous Burberry bag, Suze Orman and The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom be damned. So without further ado, I prepared to part with my hard-earned cash.

Now here comes the twist. The same exquisite bag that called my name from the lofty shelves of Burberry in London was available to me for a much more reasonable price on ebay. In fact, I would probably have left it alone after our initial London introduction 6 months ago -- stopping periodically to fondle it at Nordstrom or at Neiman's -- had I not accidentally come across it on ebay while shopping for something else. You don't think a savvy shopper such as myself would just stroll into Saks and plunk down my plastic without shopping around first, would you? Of course not, or my name wouldn't be the 3-Penny Princess and this blog wouldn't be about scoring fabulous bargains. You'd better believe I regularly scour the hallowed ebay halls of the used and unwanted in search of the objects of my affection. So they've been carried a few times. Maybe a tiny scratch here or a mark there. Perhaps an ink stain inside. Listen, a great quality bag can handle being carried a few times and still look almost as good as new. As for those ink stains inside? I won't tell anyone if you won't. And sometimes, the bags barely show any signs of wear at all. We all know what happens when you drive a brand spanking new car off the lot, don't we? The price of the car instantly drops. But does that mean the car is any less valuable to those to might want it? No, it's just a better buy. Especially if it's a luxury car. The performance and comfort of a great car probably won't be compromised too much after just 5,000 miles. If the car has been well-cared-for and cleaned thoroughly, it may look like a brand new car. The same can be said of a great bag. Ladies, there's no shame in buying secondhand.

So guess how much the same $1680 beautiful beige Burberry Manor bag cost on ebay? How about 47% less at just $900? We're not talking about a model from seasons ago. We're talking about a bag that just came out last fall and is still sitting on internet and store shelves for full price. Of course I'll take it for 47% off the retail price! After doing my due dilligence to investigate the seller, ensuring that her feedback was immaculate, reading every feedback comment, arranging for a refund if necessary, and getting the authenticity proof that I needed, I felt confident to move ahead.

Now before you sound the alarm and proclaim that a Burberry bag doesn't go on sale, I must argue that it most certainly does. In fact, today, there are 6 bags listed on sale on the Burberry website alone. Turns out there are actually Burberry outlets. One is located in London, which I discovered only too late on my last trip. Even more conveniently, one is located about 50 miles from my house, which I discovered just recently. These are a Burberry-lover's dream, especially if you love the old-school trenches, warm scarves, and shoes. Not only are there Burberry outlets, there are also Gucci and Prada outlets. I drove right by them in Italy in a small town just off the main road. Marc Jacobs, Christian Dior, Jimmy Choo -- these all go on sale. Granted, they don't usually drop to half-off their original prices (at least not at first), but wait a little longer and you can get them for 40-60% off. Or, buy a gently used bag and you can score an almost-new gem on ebay for 40-50% cheaper just months after it retails.

Now that we've gotten that fallacy out of the way, my saga continues. Another bidder had already started bidding on my dream bag, so I had to be careful not to compete too early or too often. Fortunately, the auction ended late at night over the weekend, so there wasn't as much competition as there would have been in the middle of a workday. The price started at $800, and after a furious round of last-minute bids, I was the final victor, coming in at $900. I will admit I experienced a bit of shock and just a slight twinge of remorse right after it was over. I had never dreamed that I would spend this much money on ebay, for a bag or anything else! But the fear soon warmed to joy and was quicly replaced with anticipation as the very responsive seller promised to mail it right away. Exactly one postal day later, my jaw dropped as I heard a knock on the door and saw that the mailman was holding a huge box for me. Wow, I couldn't believe the bag traveled from Hawaii to Washington, D.C in 1 business day! The seller was great, following up to make sure that everything was to my satisfaction and expectation. I told her that both the bag and the service had exceeded my expectations. I fell in love with the Burberry bag as soon as I unpacked it from the thick Burberry gift box and proceeded to put it into service immediately.

As I write this a week later, I am still just as thrilled with the bag, having successfully worn it with a variety of ensembles. It really does fit everything I could think of carrying. It came in particularly handy when I went on an impromptu adventure and needed to grab a lunch, magazine, sweater, and other odds and ends, and I found that it still had room for more. The color matched everything I could conjure to wear with it. And it's tough and sratch resistant. Plus, Burberry was thoughful enough to install little brass feet and a lock on it. How useful! This bag is a keeper. (At least until I change my mind in a year or two.) The price was well worth it.

Wouldn't you know it, another Burberry Manor bag came up on ebay. It's not that I was actively looking for one or anything. It's just that, you know how ebay sends you reminders about items you're watching? Well, while I was watching the beige bag, ebay notified me that another one was available, only in a different color. This time, it was the same bag in burgundy. I admit I brushed it off at first, thinking one Burberry Manor bag was enough. But then I thought, burgundy would be so perfect for fall. And it would really bring out the pairs of bordeaux and claret-colored shoes I had recently acquired. Wouldn't it be a nice change from boring mouse-brown to carry a striking burgundy bag when the leaves start to change colors? I know, I'm jumping ahead a little, but a girl must think ahead when she sees a good bargain. And this was some bargain. I had paid an ambitious (but still worthwhile) $900 for the beige bag. Well, the burgundy bag was starting at only $600! It had been slightly more used, but I mean, how used can a bag from last fall/winter be? Especially one made of thick scratch-resistant leather. Anyway, I proceeded to watch it. When the final day came and no one had bid on it, I admit I felt compelled to take advantage of this opportunity. So, I sprung into action and placed a bid. Presto, another Burberry bag was soon to be mine. With barely any competition, I scored the bag for $612 -- that's 64% off retail!

This was too easy. Now I felt very guilty. How can I possibly justify spending over $1500 in 7 days, and on what -- bags? I must be losing my marbles. And I haven't yet figured out how I'm going to tell my husband. He was remarkably mellow and forgiving when I showed him the first bag. So much so that I worried if he was losing his mind. But now I'm really pushing my luck. I've crossed over into treacherous territory. Then again, I bought 2 Burberry bags for less than the price of 1 and they're stil selling for full price in stores. That's no small feat by anyone's measure! Besides, I haven't seen this model before or since on ebay. It must have been my luck to find not one but two of them. Now I have one for fall/winter and one for all seasons. You see, it was meant to be. Any savvy shopper would have done the same in my shoes.

Just think how far I have come from scraping to buy $4.75 shoes at the Talbots outlet only 4 months ago. And what have I learned from this experience? That I too am capable of buying an outrageously expensive bag. That I too am capable of blowing my entire savings on a completely unnecessary and frivolous purchase. That sometimes an excellent bargain can still leave you with a big hole in your bank account. Granted, I didn't shell out $2,000 or even $1680 for one single bag, but at the end of the week, I spent more than $1500. Granted, again, I got 2 bags and paid less than the price of 1 and I adore them both (well, to be fair, the 2nd still hasn't arrived, but I'm sure I'll adore it when I receive it). But I was only looking to buy one perfect bag. And one perfect bag led me to buy another perfect bag. So I still ended up spending more money that a person should be allowed to spend on any purchase in the course of one week. Or even one month. Heck, I shouldn't buy anything for the next year. But you know I will be back, secretly creeping through ebay searching for the next great buy.

I used to be a thrifty shopper. I never thought I could throw all my caution to the wind and shell out over $1500 for fashion in almost one fell swoop. I'm not like those women -- I have more common sense. I know how to save money. Well. maybe if I had stopped at one bag... But now, I am certifiably irresponsible, not fit to manage the household budget or raise children. I have fallen from grace. I hope that I can forgive myself.

Post-post script:
Okay, it's been 8 days since the auction ended for the second bag and I still haven't received it! It only needed to travel one state. What gives, especially given her 100% positive feedback and nothing but good comments about authentic bags and fast shipping. I already emailed the seller twice and got no answer. Maybe it's my luck. Maybe the second bag wasn't meant to be. Maybe if I don't receive it, I'll file for non-receipt of the item and try to get some of my savings back. Will it make me happy? Not really. Will be take a large burden of guilt off my shoulders? You bet! I guess we'll have to wait and see...

Meanwhile, I just checked ebay today and there's a new Burberry Manor bag listed! It's the black model. Bidding starts at $1000 and you can buy it today for $1300. Not a bad buy if you get it for $1000. I could really use a black bag to complete my collection.... Well someone should grab it, anyway.