Archive for September, 2009

The economics of being a self-employed dog groomer

September 21, 2009

I have plenty of time to key in data to a spreadsheet these days, and I am trying to determine what I will owe in taxes  for 2009.  The ‘unearned income’ (what I make from rent, and selling books, the Murdock map, & stuff on consignment) is different from ‘earned’ income—& ‘earned income’ is different from wages.

I’ve earned about $200 in wages so far this year, but about $10,000 from grooming dogs, dog walking, & pet-sitting. This may seem  like real money in a small town, but my property taxes are about $620 a month.  It is not.  I have posted that I have been offered ‘jobs’, but  they are not really ‘jobs’ with ‘wages’.  They are independent contracting positions.

I recently tried yet another one, & I could tell at the interview the shop owner  was being unrealistic.  She had too many cages, but not enough dryers. She was trained by Petsmart, so didn’t see the need for more equipment, & her plan was to take 1 dog every 90 minutes per groomer.  This means if  a client runs late or doesn’t show up, you  are screwed for the day.  Not only that—they don’t check dogs before they bathe them.  No brushing, no cutting out matts, nothing. Right into the tub.

Most shops take 2—3 dogs per groomer per 3 hour period, and will call the owner when the dog is finished. True—some want them all in by 10 & have to have the dog until 4, but there is no need.

In any case, the shop owner told me she was booked 5 business days in advance, so she could give me 2 full days (6–7 dogs) a week.’

The first day I was scheduled, I came in, & I had a ‘bath’ dog (not a grooming), & the grooming dog canceled.

The next day I was scheduled to start at 11, she called me at 10 & told me ‘someone had made an error’ & booked my first dog for  10:30.  Only 2 people have access to the schedule…so  who could have made the error?  But—that was the only dog I had scheduled.  She asked me if I wanted the other groomer to groom the dog.  I told her ‘yes’.  Why should either of us not have a full day?  &  90 minutes in the car for me & $3 gas?

The next  day she had me booked, another client (kennel) asked me if I could groom 4 dogs that day.  I called  the shop owner  & asked her how many dogs I had booked.  She told me I had 1.  So, I asked her if I could leave about 2 to groom those dogs. “Well, actually, your first dog comes in at 12:30,” she told me.

Now, she wouldn’t have called me to tell me that.   She would have had me come in at 11 & hang around.

So, I told her, “NO problem!  I’ll go to the kennel first & then come in.”  She didn’t like that idea. She wanted ME available to HER so she could accommodate clients.  & why couldn’t she? She doesn’t have to pay me for time I hang around!

She wants to leave her husband & is moving stuff out of the house while he’s at work—so isn’t grooming  dogs herself the days she has me booked to…hang around.

Another shop  not far from this one wanted to hire me, but their average fee per dog is $38 (in the metro area it is $45 per dog).   On the one hand, they have bather/ brushers.  Groomers just clip.  On the other hand, at $19 per dog—even if I get 6 dogs a day (and there is no guarantee), I gross $114 a day.  That isn’t even $30,000 a year.  & they can’t raise prices now, but they haven’t kept pace with inflation.  So many groomers do not raise prices even every 2 years!  I can groom at home, average $70 a day, 2 dogs, no hassle.

The real kicker is, however, that I was considering refinancing my house.  My monthly payment—including property taxes, is $1588 per month.  I owe $87,000 , & my interest rate is 5.25%.  Current 15 year fixed rate is 4.33.    Minimum to borrow is $100.000. That would give me $13,000 to  redo the kitchen. &—get this—my  monthly payment would be $200 a month less! Problem—I don’t have a job.  I have  about $80,000 in retirement funds, about  $20,000 in liquid savings, but the world is a different place.  No job, no refinance without a co-signer.

Lots of people are going to be independent contractors now instead of employees, and they won’t be able to get mortgages.  Capitalism as we know it is going to change radically.

How Hard Could it be?

September 11, 2009

I started grooming dogs as a teenager, but in Chicago, it’s always been seasonal.  Everyone is crazy/busy right after the  end of Daylight Savings Time or  Easter.  It stays busy through almost the end of June, and then it slows & stays slow until about Thanksgiving.  Because of the Jewish Holiday of Hanuka, it may stay busy through Christmas, but then it is dead until the time change again.

I have worked at a few upscale shops that have remained somewhat busy, but if it rains or snows,  & the weather stays bad for a few days, we no longer have a waiting list.

So, I started modeling for artists & photographers during the slow times.  I worked mostly for  colleges & universities.  I also worked for ‘workshops’:  that is a bunch of artists getting together in a studio—no teacher—& splitting the cost of the model.

It doesn’t take much.  They usually want ‘gestures’ (10 seconds to 3 minutes) & then go into the ‘long pose’, with breaks every 20 minutes.    I made as much money modeling as I did grooming.  However, there are no benefits.  Most models are students, actors, dancers, or other artists.

I did that for years, but got tired of it.  I continued to groom dogs. Even after I got my master’s degree, most jobs I got were contract jobs, or  with nonprofits that wouldn’t pay a decent wage, but could find a  bunch of ways to lose money.  That was frustrating.

I got a job with a company that offered overnight pet sitting, in addition to dog walking.  It is a very well run business.  It is “All Good Dogs,” in Evanston, Illinois.  The owners, Dave & Ramie Gulyas, have managed  to  work 3 ‘microbusinesses’ together to make a living. They have  All Good Dogs, Mutt Maids (pet waste removal—this is the north shore, after all),  & The Hungry Pup pet boutique, which sells dog & cat food, collars, toys, etc.

Because I have a roommate who will  take care of my dogs, I can stay other places over night.  Usually, it’s a no-brainer if you know how to communicate with animals & FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS.

That’s why I have to give Dave his props.  He has a good instruction sheet that tells you where the  client is, who the pets are, where everything is (collars, leashes, food, pills), and what you have to do.

People who choose to walk dogs for a living are  an odd bunch: self-employed, retired, or…not suited for other kinds of work—& not always reliable.  Still, Dave’s crew is regular.  Sometimes it’s not so easy.  Like, when he give you 3 keys for 1 house…but there are 2 locks, & 1 turns left, the other, right—but you have to try all the combinations of keys.

You work every holiday.  That’s when people need pet sitters & dog walkers the most…like last Christmas when it rained, froze, and then rained on the slick pavement.  Most dogs won’t eliminate in the rain.  Try walking 2 or 3 at a time in those conditions. That’s challenging.

Or…my  very favorite…the houses with alarms.  You  might wonder why anyone would need an alarm if they have a dog, right?  It’s for 2 reasons:  the dog is not a deterrent, & in our areas, everyone’s working—nobo9dy would notice anyone breaking into your house.

So…on the instruction sheet—& Dave will review this with a walker when he gives the walker the client—-there is the alarm code,  and directions on how to get to the alarm IN 30 SECONDS and turn it off.   How hard can it be?

Well, usually, I am able to find the alarm right away, punch in the code, it goes off, & we —the dog(s) & I go for a walk.  But the odds of things not going as planned are very high…& this is an incident I will never forget.

I am instructed to go to the clients’ back door, and I am told the alarm is in the stairwell just off the kitchen.  I get in, manage to find the stairwell, almost tripping over the dog, a little Poodly thing, punch in the code (meanwhile, the alarm is warning me I’d better do it soon), and….it starts beeping rapidly & then goes off!  SCREECHING!!!!!!

Shit. I try punching in the code again…it’s still screeching.    Ear piercing nails on the chalkboard, high decibal…I try calling Dave on his cell. He’s not answering.  It’s Saturday night, & he’s ill, at home.  The dog is plastered against the back door. The alarm is hurting her ears.  I call the client on his cell.  No answer. The client’s wife on her cell. No answer. Then, the phone rings.  We are not supposed to answer a client’s phone, but I have a feeling it is the alarm company.  It is. The  rep tells me to move away from the alarm, asks me who I am, & I tell her I am the dog walker, I tell her the code I have punched in, and she tells me it’s the right code.  She doesn’t know what is wrong (in case you don’t know it, clients get charge for false alarms). She tells me it will go off.  I tell her I still have to walk the dog.  She tells me it will come on again when I come back in.  I tell her I have left messages for the client, but they have not responded to my cell phone.  Oh, well.

I walk the dog, return the dog, the alarm starts SCREECHING!!!! again & I continue on to  my next client…& on the way, my cell phone rings. It’s Mr. AlarmClient…and he tells me, “Yeah, some times that happens if you don’t punch the numbers hard enough. Can you go back & I’ll walk you through it?”

“Uh…I am on my way to my next client.  I’ll have to call you back,” I tell him.

Then, Mrs.Alarm calls me, “You must have done something wrong…”   duh I tell her I have  talked to her husband, but I am on my way to my next client.

At the home of my next client, I call Ramie’s cell phone, & she answers.  I tell her  I punched in the alarm and…  She interrupts me:  “Those people. This isn’t the first time this has happened to a walker!  They need to get a new alarm pad!  Just turn your cell phone off.”

Of course, if they had told me this might happen, I would have asked to trade with another walker…or something.

Lots of my friends want to be dog walkers until they find ‘real jobs’,  I don’t  refer them …even though  the company is usually in need of walkers. Why don’t I refer them?

For one thing, you need a reliable car, and most people I know don’t have reliable cars.  You also have to be reliable yourself. These are peoples pets.  Just like modeling—if YOU don’t show up,  you’ve  sabotaged the business (as well as  leaving a pet in distress).  I know few people as reliable as myself.  How hard could it be?  If you’ve never been accountable, it can be really hard.

Steely Dan Aja, big band concert of a lifetime

September 1, 2009

I am not the music festival type.  I used to go to Chicagofest, but I am 5’4″ & it can be overwhelming to be short in a crowd…especially a crowd of drunken guys.

I also don’t care to see  your dancing on stage—I came to hear music.

I  always loved Big Band.   There’s nothing like hearing music in a small room—you are hearing the music, not the sound system.  I   went to experience Woody Herman and his Thundering Herd several times at Rick’s Cafe at the old  Holiday Inn on LSD,  nothing like hearing—FEELING—those wailing horns.

I also got to see/hear  Maynard Ferguson, Buddy Rich (his hands were a blur), Gary Burton (love the vibes…heard him at Gordon’s, right up close), Blossom Dearie, many others…in small rooms.

I’ve always loved Steely Dan—-but remember—-30 years ago—they never toured. Rumors abounded:  they couldn’t recreate the sounds they made in the studio in concert;  just  were reclusive; Becker was in jail….

…then, last year, they played Milwaukee’s Summerfest.  I had to make the trip, and they did NOT disappoint.  It was a bargain of a concert, as you really just paid to get into Summerfest.  They had a huge ensemble, a great percussion section.

I’ve been marginally employed for the past year, but  because business was picking up,  I kept it in the back of my mind to consider  Steely Dan, in town for 4 concert nights.  Last week, when they still weren’t sold out, I splurged—$72—for a 3rd balcony seat (brought opera glasses)at the Chicago Theatre.

The Chicago Theatre is  opulent, nice frescos on the ceilings. Velvet seats.  Seats about 5,000.  You can eat & drink in the theatre.  Sightlines are all good.  The problem is never posts—it’s  over-enthusiastic fans  standing or  throwing their arms all over the place.

Imagine—most of those fans are baby boomers—over 45, many close to 70. So, not a lot of talking….lots of listening.

It really was the concert of a lifetime.  I  pretty much wore out Aja when it came out in the mid 1970’s.  To see & hear them perform  the album  straight through was  incredible. They had 4 horns,  2 other guitars besides Becker)a skilled player), and a keyboardist besides Fagin, as well as 3 back up singers.

This is as close to jazz as most people will get, as the only stations playing jazz on the radio are low-wattage college stations, usually at odd hours.  Steely Dan was always known as jazz-fusion, but having listen to the ‘smooth jazz’ station WNUA (they recently changed formats), Steely Dan  is more mainstream big band jazz than about  any  group you will find performing today.

Now, keep in mind—Aja was only about an hour long album, so they played another 2 hours (more or less) of other hits.  As though that wasn’t entertaining enough, whomever was their lighting engineer did a great job.    It wasn’t over the top, just complementary to the music.

Plus—big one here—-the music was loud enough so you could hear all the subtleties without  hurting your ears.  I’ve left otherwise great concerts because  they were just painfully loud.

I would love to buy a dvd of this concert, to watch at home.  It was worth the splurge.

I’ve been thinking of expatriating myself.

September 1, 2009

Years ago, before I even had any idea to travel, I asked an acquaintance, an archeologist, what  memory was the most vivid he had about a place he had been:

“Mexico,”  he said after a few seconds.  “The smell of the earth.  It smelled different from  places I had dug in the U.S.”

I never think I am so affected by odors, having worked with  animals most of my life, but I will never forget riding on the back of Chris Bauer’s motorcycle from Zomba, in Malawi, 1992, where we had attended a party at a house on the plateau, back to Dumasi.

We had  to  ride past the Parliament building, which was all lit up (in a country that either could not or would not extend electricity to the rural areas), then through Zomba town, where  the Queen-of-the-Night was in full bloom about midnight, it’s extremely sweet scent wafting over us for about  a mile.  It was amazing.

I’ve actually been thinking of expatriating myself since my first trip to Africa (Tanzania). At the time, the reasons was the ‘exotic’. Mangoes every day (imagine, my Japanese roommate thinks apples and deciduous trees are exotic. He’s taken photos of our huge snowfalls).
Now, the reason is a better quality of life. I am glad I do not have any student loans. I can’t imagine what young people are thinking–incurring over $80,000 in loans, when the chances of making an annual salary approaching that are slim to none. Possibly, with law or medical degrees, possibly with a Ph.D.—you might make a living, but if you’ve read Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bait and Switch,” you know making a living is the luck of the draw. It’s especially all luck if you don’t go to an elite graduate school & have a network, and are not ‘normal’ in personality.
At one time, I thought I would like to live in East Africa, but the fact of the matter is, unless you are an elite, life is difficult. That’s why there’s the brain drain. The educated know they have to get out not just to make a living, but to survive.
I am looking into Costa Rica, Panama, and Belize.
Why? Language is part of the reason. I can probably learn enough Spanish to get by, but English is widely spoken in all 3 countries. Literacy is high. Health care is good, and land rents are comparable to places like Arizona, Cincinnati. You get infrastructure in your home. Their economies & political systems are stable.
Chicago, being a major market, has gotten just too expensive. Between property taxes and energy costs (read that: heating fuel), I must say it’s a great place to visit, but truth be told, I’d get more out of visiting than actually living here.
Yes, my family and most of my friends are here, but how often do I see them? Due to work & our schedules, hardly at all.
Because of the price of energy, I haven’t been able to do race practice with my dogs this season. We’d have to schlep out to Gardner. That’s 80 miles from Chicago.

Part of the problem is the economy, but  the economy is not going to improve for most of us.  It’s going  to ‘straighten out’, and we’re going to get used to how things are, but  another fact that most people don’t want to address, because we can’t do anything about it, is land rents are high.  Even with the  ‘market correction’, our  homes cost a lot to buy and maintain.  Were I to put the money into  just living, I’d have a better quality of life.

Health care costs are lower in  Central America, for a number of reasons. They will not get lower in the U.S. because of how capitalism works.

I have started asking RPCV about their experiences where they served.  Anyone who has stayed in one place for over 3 months, please email me and tell me  the pros & cons, and  if you know of any rules for setting up permanent residency.

Most places want you have a financial  core to prove economic stability.