Sunday, March 8, 2009

Oh We Give Thanks

During the most difficult period of my life, I derived great comfort from being at church one Sunday morning when the minister gave a sermon about gratitude. He said (and I have no reason to doubt him, though I've never been able to locate the exact quote) that according to Schleiermacher, (apparently a noted theologian of the late 18th and early 19th centuries) all religion begins with gratitude. Like a lot of people, I find religion something of a mixed bag, but I think that we can all agree that gratitude is a very good thing.

One of my resolutions this year was to do a better job of staying connected to the people I care about, and I think that expressing gratitude is an effective means towards that end. I also believe that correspondence is in danger of becoming an entirely lost art in the age of email and -- especially -- text messages. And I believe that a small, tangible object almost always carries more impact, and is more memorable, than almost anything delivered via an electronic medium. The necessary output of those three inputs was my decision to bring back the thank you note.

Now I'm sure that there are those of you who will say that the thank you note never went away. I know that my minister, for example, regularly sends out such notes, and I've received them from other church members. But my minister's an exceptionally thoughtful person, and, more to the point, she's in her mid-sixties. Handwritten notes of any sort are exceptionally rare these days, and they're nearly unheard of by anyone who doesn't remember the Kennedy administration.

It might seem counter-intuitive to you that a blog that's -- at least in part -- about not finding satisfaction through material goods would encourage you to spend money on stationery and postage, but I don't advocate the abolition of spending: I just think that we all need to spend our money wisely and on things that have value. Besides, you can send a personal and memorable thank-you note for well under a dollar, including postage. That's right, readers: I'm about to get all how to on you! Be afraid. Be very afraid. Aren't' you excited?

An effective thank-you note requires a few things:
1. Something to write on (i.e., a card)
2. Something to write with (i.e., a pen)
3. Something to write about (i.e., gratitude)
4. An envelope
5. A stamp

And you can get those things for:
1. $0.14
2. An amount too small to calculate (especially if you're not above, um, borrowing office supplies from work)
3. Absolutely nothing.
4. No more than $0.14
5. $0.42

The card. You can spend a lot on a thank-you card (Hallmark is one of those likely recession casualties that I shall not mourn), or you can get a box of ten or twenty at a more reasonable per-card price. But I find that the cheapest and most memorable card stock is the back of a 4x6 photo. Last weekend, for example, I used the back of a picture of some water lilies (that I snapped a couple of years ago during a visit to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens) for a thank-you note to my partner's daughter, who'd sent me a cookbook for my birthday. I also used the back of a picture of some attractive men on the beach (that I'd downloaded from the Internet) for a note to a friend who'd had us over for dinner. (I hope that I didn't mix the two up: my friend would be confused if I were thanking him for a Paula Deen cookbook, and b&c's daughter probably wouldn't appreciate my complimenting her boyfriend's backside.)

I get all my photo prints, and now my thank-you notes, from Costco. At the Photo Center, you can upload and store pictures, and you can order prints in a variety of sizes. A 4x6 print is $0.13. There will be (or at least there is in Maryland) sales tax on it, so let's call it $0.14. You do not ever have to go inside Costco, by the way: you can do all the ordering online, and they will send you the prints, and they do not charge postage.

All things considered, it's best if you use pictures that you've taken yourself, but if you're a lousy photographer (like I am), then you can find a picture of pretty much anything on Flickr. And whether you snap the picture with your digital camera or steal someone else's photos (many Flickr snaps are available under a Creative Commons license, so you don't have to steal if following our ridiculous intellectual property laws is important to you), cropping the photos to 4x6 and correcting the color, contrast, etc. is extremely easy with Picasa. I use it on all my vacation photos. (Photoshop is waaaaaay beyond my abilities.)

The pen. A few years ago, I discovered the my terrible handwriting was due not to atrophy from so much keyboard use, but from using a pen with too narrow a barrel. I switched to wider barrel gel pens, and legibility returned. Gel pens aren't so good for using on the back of photos, though (they smudge easily if you touch them too soon), so I recommend a fine or extra-fine Sharpie in a color that you like. Sharpies are now available in a staggering array of colors. A lot of stores only sell the more interesting colors in large assorted packages, but you can buy such a package for someone you like and then steal back a color they don't use. I prefer red for this purpose, so for me it's easy. I buy Staples wide-barreled gel pens for addressing the envelopes, (And for general use; in fact, I buy them and take them to work, which means that if I appropriate office supplies for other personal purposes, I'm really just arranging for repayment of a loan. Right?) and I love those pens. The last time I was there, they were less than $5 for a package, and a package contains a black pen, a blue pen, and a refill for each color.

The gratitude. I'm pretty sure you can figure that one out for yourself. Fortunately, writing on the back of a photo compels you to be succinct.

The envelope. An A6 envelope is a good size for photos, invitations, and other similar correspondence. I did some quick online searching, and I found a box of 250 for just over $25, but by the time delivery was figured in, the price got up to just under $0.14 per envelope. As with pens, the array of available choices (sizes, finishes, colors, etc.) is amazing, so just find something you like. If I were the sort of person who has a good eye for color (which, tragically, I am not), I would likely tell you that the envelopes I got were somewhere between robin's egg blue and Tiffany blue, but since (again, tragically) I am not that sort of person, I'll just call them bright blue. And pretty. They were at a close-out price, so I might not be able to find an exact match again, but 250 envelopes is a lot of gratitude, and maybe by the time I'm through the box, I'll be sick of the color. (Not likely, though. I'm extremely fond of that color.) Dollar stores are another likely source for inexpensive envelopes, and you don't have to buy nearly as many. Just use a ruler (also available at the dollar store) to make sure they're big enough for your photos.

The stamp. I am -- shockingly -- old enough to remember when first class stamps went from eight to ten cents. Forty-two cents somehow seems like a lot to post a letter when you could just send an e-mail, but at least you won't have to worry about spam filters or about your message being crowded out by ads for natural male enhancement. Anyway, stamps are cool, or at least some of them are. My stamps aren't cool, but they're fiscally responsible, and what's cooler than that? You can currently purchase Forever stamps from the post office. They're forty-two cents each, but when first class postage goes up to forty-four cents on May 11, your Forever stamp will still get the job done. Speaking as a financial professional, I have to tell you that buying something at forty-two cents in March that will be worth forty-four cents in May is a terrific return on your investment. In fact, if I had had the foresight a year ago (when Forever stamps were forty-one cents each) to pull all of my retirement accounts out of equities and into Forever stamps, right now, I'd be sitting on a nest egg about 2.5 times as large as the one I've got.

By the way, for the extreme penny pinchers, you can buy 100 Forever stamps at Costco for $41.75, which saves you an additional $0.0025 per stamp. I know you needed to know that. Also, all of the pictures in this post that aren't directly related to the subject matter of the post are pictures that I've cropped to 4x6 and have had printed to use for thank-you notes. Feel free to download them if you like (click first, to enlarge). Costco did a great job with them.


  1. what a great idea for notecards. Definitely beats the free ones I have been getting in the mail with sappy sayings on them. Thanks

  2. Thank you for these posts. I wish I will understand mots of them. They're not so different from the other ones (play of words and play of ciphers...).
    But I hope you'll understand I won't send you a card for it as:
    a) it's just a "small" thanks
    b) I don't have your adress
    c) stamps from here to you are much more expensive...