I’m stuck on you (or, More Fun With Numbers)

I’ll make this easy for you so you can stop reading here: USA stamps increase on Sunday. Buy more NOW.

Many missionaries who read this probably send a lot of letters. Some use newsletter services and many are migrating to more electronic communiqués, but even so—compared to most people—it’s my guess that the average reader of this blog uses substantially more stamps than anyone else they know not in ministry.

Part 1: A little rate increase history

ALERT: The U.S. Postal Service on Sunday, July 10th will do their next periodic first-class rate increase, from 58¢ to 60¢ (a 3.4% increase).

This shouldn’t be news to you, nor particularly concerning: U.S. postal rates do increase from time-to-time, but they have stayed very close to inflation rates.

I first started sending my “family newsletter” when I was 9 years old (1977) and remember stamps being 13¢ at the time. Adjusted for inflation, that 13¢ is worth 66¢ today, so in some respects today’s prices are comparatively lower than before. As a penny becomes less valuable each year, it is easier for the postal service to stay close to inflation. In 1932, the first increase in 47 years was from 2¢ to 3¢, a staggering 50% jump that must have been very painful for many during the peak of the Depression.

That 1932 increase was the only permanent increase between 1885 and 1958 (73 years!) when it finally jumped a penny again from 3¢ to 4¢… but that time it was only a 33% increase (wink). Since then, prices have increased sporadically in both time and amount, from as quickly as three months to several four-year breaks and from 1¢ to 5¢ each time. Until recently, Congress often didn’t approve the amount of the increase until the last minute so the postal service couldn’t print billions of new stamps in advance. As a result, everyone had to buy sheets of 1¢ or 2¢ stamps to combine with their existing pile of stamps, or until the postal service could print the new stamps. Painful. I felt sorry for the postal clerks selling billions of sheets of penny stamps.

The invention of the Forever stamp in 2006 (Canada) and 2007 (USA) was a real game changer. It made life easier for everyone, and of course self-stick stamps—originally derided by purists—are both wonderful and now the only stamps available. The fears of people stockpiling huge stamps in advance was never realized, and the savings from not re-printing and/or destroying billions of stamps far outweighed the lost revenue from stamps being used at a former rate. One time in Canada (in 2013) the single stamp price increased 58%; CanadaPost stopped selling Forever stamps the day the rate increase was announced and resumed after the new rate came into effect months later.

Part 2: The Math of Buying Stamps in Advance

The beauty of the forever stamp goes beyond just making life easier for us all. It actually gives us an opportunity to hedge against inflation! The largest face-value jump in USA history occurred on January 27, 2019, when prices went up a whopping 5¢ (a 10% increase).

Thanks to the powerful history engine of TntConnect, I see that over the past seven years I have averaged 104 letters per month. If stamps are going up 2¢ this week, buying six months’ worth of stamps today instead of Monday will save $12.48.

ALERT: The USPS is trying something new by pre-planning rate increases every six months for the next 10 years, with the actual increase being announced one year in advance.

Since rates will go up at least an additional 2¢ at that time, buying 12 months’ today saves a minimum of $37.44.

Over the years as I have had this same conversation with people, some financially astute folks suggest that the long-term gain is diminished because those funds could be invested at a rate greater than inflation. That would be true if I was using personal funds, but these are non-taxed, non-personal funds, so the net savings is only against future partnership development costs. I will either be reimbursing these funds in one big block now, or in smaller chunks every few months over the next X years.

The value equation increases on a fairly straight line into the future, so buying ten years’ saves a minimum of $2620 but likely hundreds more because the long-term increases could be 3¢ or 4¢ each time, especially if this current inflationary period continues for a while.

Will I actually purchase 60 or 120 months’ worth of stamps? Probably not. However, in 2019 with 7¢ in rate increases over the year I did buy 36 months’ worth of stamps and I’m down to my last 100. So it’s not just theory for me.

The only real downside of purchasing stamps so far in advance is that I do not get to purchase some of the new designs that will come out between now and my next purchases. Given that the average recipient gets exactly one stamp on a letter, and that very few people send any first class mail at all, I doubt anyone but me would notice that!

If by some chance I should leave the mission field, I’m sure I could find some willing friend to acquire stamps at a discount!

Part 3: Other Rate Increases

ALERT: Postcard and ‘second-ounce’ stamps are increasing 10% and 20% respectively.

You may occasionally send postcards or include inserts that make your letters more than one ounce. You should know about these greater increases. From left, above, on Sunday:

  • Postcard stamps will increase from 40¢ to 44¢ (10%)
  • Additional ounce stamps will increase from 20¢ to 24¢ (20%), which means the…
  • Two-ounce stamp will increase from 78¢ to 84¢ (7.6%)
  • International (or “Global”) stamps will increase from $1.30 to $1.40 (7.6%)

Part 4: Take Action Now

If you are in the USA, you can take advantage of this opportunity right now. Buy stamps online and they ship quickly for a very low flat rate no matter how much you buy. Be warned, though: Some of the forever stamps are dated after Sunday, so they are already selling for 60¢. Be sure to buy the correct stamps!

Part 5: The Sad Story

My father was an avid stamp collector and had an almost-complete collection of all first day of issue stamps in Canada from 1884 on. After he died, a young niece indicated an interest in the collection and we all agreed she could have it, but that we wanted to wait until she was a little older. The following year the entire collection was lost when my brother’s apartment in Iowa was buried in a flood.

Part 6, Wrapping it up: Two of my favorite stamps from all time (among many):

The 1998 CanadaPost stamp celebrating 125 years of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police:

The 2020 stamp celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower crossing. I was teaching U.S. History to our homeschool co-op and taught on the Mayflower the same week that stamp was released.


Efficiency vs. Exceptions (or, Frugality vs. Sanity)

Portland Head Lighthouse in Maine. I printed 100 of these at Walgreens for $19, then stuck them on cards I got at Hobby Lobby. Having a stack of cards handy facilitates quick notes.

Let’s just say… it could’ve been worse. The worst-case scenario could have happened but (praise the Lord) was averted simply by me forgetting a stamp.

I was working on a special ask and was preparing a batch of 40 letters. I had them all printed and ready to go and took them with me in the car to stuff while my son was doing something else. But alas, I had forgotten the stamps, so I had to wait until the next day.

Imagine my shock, then, when the very next morning I received a response with a gift from one of those 40 people. How did this happen? How did I almost send the same letter twice without realizing it? It’s because of a term I call Exceptions. (I’ll share the story below.)

One of the most significant philosophical changes I made in my missionary career was to remove personalization from our monthly newsletters.

In my early years, I would write little notes on some letters, add a p.s., etc. Or, even more commonly, I would personalize special ask letters with a little note. I had received some training early on that “Readers read the p.s. first, so always write one.” Or I simply hand-signed them with a real pen. The logic is that some personalization might increase the response rate or strengthen the relationship.

Over time, I found that personalization became a real burden. As my life got crazier with more ministry work, more church involvement, and more kids, the time I could devote to partnership development became, well… more focused. In other words, I had to accomplish more in less time.

To reflect the title of this post: It was the exceptions that were killing me. The regular letters were fine, but every time I would produce a letter and pull some aside for any reason, the whole production line fell to pieces. (And I have proof, as you’ll read below.)

One of the greatest inventions ever, in this genre at least, is the missionary prayer letter services like Chalkline, Prayerletters.us, and internal ones within an agency. By using these, I cannot personalize at all unless I have them send the completed package to me (a service they also offer but I’ve never taken advantage of). Most importantly, all of the production work is outsourced. Outsourcing, by its very nature, is more expensive. That is, I am paying a company to do what I used to do … “for free”. In other words, I’m exchanging money for time. And believe me, as a Scotsman, that is a painful proposition!

Do I feel that my letters have become less personal because I permanently stopped ever writing any notes? Or even if I (gasp) don’t hand-sign the letters? Or even because I occasionally use a newsletter service? Not anymore.

Instead, I opted to step up my handwritten cards, independent of responses to Automatic Actions in TNT. I’ve shared before that we letter writers are actually in a golden era because personal mail is a rare gift for most people now. In the last month, two partners specifically told me they really appreciate the handwritten notes, and one even went so far as to say how much she liked the lighthouse cards (such as the picture above I took last summer); I’m a sucker for lighthouses.

Putting my accounting hat on, I determined I only had so much time budget, so I exchanged the less valuable (to me) scribbled note in favour of the more valuable personal note. This is slightly different from mass-producing or outsourcing solely to take less time (which is also a valid reason). It was also a good exchange for me because I enjoy writing letters, which many people do not.

Many missionaries serving for decades still produce their own letters and jot personal notes… because they enjoy it. They have developed a rhythm that works for them. Indeed, I know many people who use TntConnect exclusively for producing their monthly newsletter (e.g., using Mail Merge to Word), using no other features.

For some, the moment taken writing a hand-written p.s. is value-added because they are praying individually for their partners at the same time. The physical effort of producing the newsletter also keeps the connection fresh…

  • Hey, didn’t I just read on Facebook that this partner moved?
  • Their child just won a trophy in hockey, say ‘Congratulations!’
  • Her birthday is next week
  • [Or, unfortunately and yet fortunately—and this happened to me—”Bob, his wife recently passed away… we need to reprint this envelope and letter and correct it in TNT.”]

Potential Catastrophe Averted

This isn’t true for everyone, I’m sure, but as I said at the start, when I try to do exceptions, things can go wrong quickly. That is, instead of being better, it’s worse. One special ask I wrote had some different wording for the different groups of recipients. As a result, I ended up not printing them at the same time. Then I ran out of paper and had to order more, further delaying the mailing for some recipients. In the end, it took more than two weeks to get the letters out. Imagine my great gasp when I discovered that—because I had not done it systematically and all at the same time—one of the sub-groups ended up having their letters done twice. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending: The day I was getting ready to mail this group of 40 letters, I actually received two responses from the first time I mailed to them just days earlier (and forgot). These partners’ prompt generosity saved me from the embarrassment of sending these letters twice. (But it was a reminder, yet again, of why, I, Bob, have to do these things in a single effort and NOT customize!)

The Irony

Here’s where theory and reality collide.

While I was mulling over and creating this post, I was simultaneously in a situation where I decided to do mass personalization. My college student son is preparing to go to Alaska on a summer mission with Cru. We shared a list of contacts with him as he is raising funds for this trip, his first foray into partnership development. Some of our partners are so much like family that they are closer to him than his own aunts & uncles, while others are complete strangers. To help him customize his letters, I broke the list up into six different saved groups so he could personalize the letters appropriately.

I’m not shy about asking, so if you would like to help send him to Alaska, you can do so at give.cru.org/1153643. 🙂

It’s that Thankfulness time again!

I went out to my mailbox expecting a some junk mail, perhaps a credit card application for my son who is away at college or maybe some glossy brochures for other colleges for my teenage son.

There may have been some of those there, but I only remember one thing: A completely unexpected package from a gourmet chocolate shop in Brooklyn.

A couple of weeks earlier I had read an article about the shop and the creative way the owner managed her small business with two teenager daughters not in school due to the pandemic. I enjoyed the article so much that I sent her a note of encouragement. It was a complete surprise then, a week later, when I received a gift package of some of their delights, thanking me for the note!

This sort of casual note writing is something I wish I had started doing many years earlier; okay, maybe decades earlier. But in recent years in particular as the amount of “real mail” has effectively dropped to zero for most people, the value of a hand-written note is exponentially greater.

It has been my practice forever to handwrite all thank yous to my ministry partners, so each partner gets at least one per year. But it was five years ago January I made a major change to how I write thank you notes: I expanded the scope of my letter writing beyond just ministry partners to anyone I feel inspired to write to. Many of these come from my daily reading of The Wall Street Journal, though it can be hard often to find an address to mail a thank you. I’ve sent cards to co-workers locally and across the country.

There’s one little thing I have found very important when it came to stepping up my thank you note writing: Materials. One time I discovered my writing notes (to partners and others) had plummeted, and a quick analysis showed me why: I ran out of cards! Now I keep a huge supply of cards and I have a folder full of various and colourful stamps to match the mood, season, recipient interests, etc.

I do not write this to toot my own horn. But I have found that as a coach, I do have to share my personal experiences (good and bad) so that others can learn. Maybe no one else will do exactly what I’ve done, but without seeing what others strive to do, it is harder to be challenged ourselves.

Since I started doing this, to my surprise about 10% of the people to whom I have written have also sent a response, almost always hand-written although some came by email.

That’s the principle. Now here’s the TntConnect application.

To log all of these “thank yous” (or “letters”, rather, because not all are necessarily “thanks”), I created a general contact I named “Thank-a-thon”. For every letter I send that does not go to someone in my contact list, I just log it there. I put the recipient’s name in parenthesis, followed by a short description of the note, and I finish with the label of the actual card I sent (I do this with all personal cards since I use a variety of cards; I never want to send someone the same card twice). In the task notes I usually put the address I used.

Since the pandemic it has been harder to write these types of letters in part because my interactions with people have been significantly reduced compared to prior years.

p.s. Free tip… I also have a catch-all contact I call “Contractors” where I log calls and service visits with the plumber, car repair, well & septic services, etc. This has helped me because a few times I have sought a contractor’s phone number several years later and I can look it up by finding the original appointment and checking my notes.