Sunday, November 30, 2008

Let's Talk About Consumerism

I'm sure that by now, most of us have heard about the Wal Mart employee that was trampled to death by shoppers, and how those same shoppers also broke down the doors to the store.

Really? Is this the society we live in? That just to save that bit of money (OK, yes, I understand they had some good deals) acting so aggressively is OK? Are you serious? How do you completely ignore someone who has been knocked to the ground? It's just boggling that people would let someone lay on the ground, while other people rushed around and over them. I would also imagine that at some point this person made some sound of pain or groaning...and they were ignored. This is utterly shameful.

Yesterday, I was in Target. In line in front of me was a man, probably around 60ish. He was moaning about prices while holding his cash, and not giving it to the cashier so she could finish ringing him up. I suspect he was trying to angle for some kind of "oh, let me give you a discount" treatment from the cashier. I'm not kidding when I say this man was complaining about "how many people I have to buy gifts for...I just don't have that much money...My money doesn't go as far as it once did." It's a good thing I wasn't the cashier, because I wouldn't have handled him with the grace and patience she did.

Both the Wal Mart and Target stories are examples of just how appalling I think the Christmas shopping season has become. (Note: yes, I know there are other religions with gift-giving holidays/traditions in December, but let's face it, most people buying gifts are buying for Christmas celebrations.)

When we look at shopping for the holidays, consider:

1. You don't "need" to buy gifts for all those people. I don't know a whole lot about Christianity, but I'm pretty sure the bible doesn't say "buy gifts for everyone you know, to celebrate the birth of Christ." People are so far gone from what Christmas is really supposed to be about, and use it as an excuse to buy an over-abundance of gifts (many of which people don't want or don't care about). Even as a non-Christian, I know Christmas isn't about how many gifts you give or receive, and I wish more people would remember this.

2. Most of the people reading this live in the US, which means that you're living in a first world economy, and you have some level of affluence (or at least you have a computer and an internet connection). Remember your affluence. I'm still 98% unemployed, but I'm still better off than people in third world countries in that I have money in the bank and could get a job if I really pursued it. There is a recession going on, and it has spread throughout most of the world now. Think about that. Really. A lady I know can't afford the gifts her teenage kids want, so she's going to have them volunteer for some charities this holiday season, to show them how good they have it already and that the newest electronics/whatever they want, isn't that important in the grand scheme of things because there are people and teens in their community who have nothing.

3. If you are going to buy gifts for people, do it with care and thought. Personally, I am a big fan of consumable gifts. Every year or so, I buy my mother some perfume. I used to give some older relatives a variety of food stuffs, and they loved that. I take friends out to dinner or for drinks for their birthdays. The latter creates great memories, instead of giving them a CD that gets lost in the depths of their CD collections. Consider making donations in people's names, and then presenting them with a card notifying them of the donation. Or just talk to people and say "Hey, do you mind if we not give gifts this year?" You'll probably be surprised at how many people will breathe a sigh of relief as they say "Yes, that would be fine." Send cards to let people know you are thinking of them over the holidays. Or, just pick up the phone and give someone your time and talk to them for 20 or 30 minutes. If you are going to buy a gift, find out what the person wants or can use. My father always used to say that the perfect gift was one that he wouldn't buy for himself. Gifts should be treats, not obligations. If a gift is an obligation, I recommend rethinking why you are giving that gift in the first place.

I know that we're in a recession right now, and that spending money helps the economy. My point is to not get so crazy that people are killed, or that what should be a happy time becomes a "I don't have enough money" burden. If you're of the Christian faith, think about what Christmas means from a religious perspective, and remember that buying carloads of gifts isn't the best way to commemorate the holiday.

Gift giving should not be a competitive sport.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Economy and Spreading the Wealth

So, I was having dinner last night, and the man I was with and I were discussing the economy and its effects on both of us, and US in general.

As I've mentioned, I lost my primary client about a month ago. I haven't been really working since then (I've been working on some website stuff, but I've spent very little time with that), and that's by choice -- I haven't been seriously seeking new work.

He has his own business, and last month and this month to date have been grim. Things can go either way for him, because of the nature of his business.

One thing we both agree on, is that people are over-reacting to the recession. He pointed out that so many people hear "recession" and they think "depression" or "dust bowl." We both agree that people should live and spend like they normally do. When people stop spending money, it just exacerbates a slowing economy. To wit, we went to dinner at about 10pm, and the restaurant was completely empty. Granted, it was not in the downtown core of Seattle, but that's not what you expect on a Friday night.

I've been thinking for a while that what people need to do is just spend some frivolous money every week. Go out to dinner. Go to the movies. Buy groceries at local markets, instead of the grocery stores -- even if it costs a little more. Just pump some money into local businesses. Let's look at it this way, with the restaurant last night as an example: people continue to hoard money and not eat out and half the waitstaff is laid off, and maybe the restaurant eventually closes. Because people are hoarding their money, other people are directly and negatively affected (less money, no job), and local business suffers. Anytime people hoard money without spending on anything non-essential, they are impacting their local economy. Economies thrive because money is put in to them.

I'm not saying everyone should go on major shopping sprees or get into debt. Far from it. I think the first priority is to build an emergency fund, even if it's just $1000. Second, work on paying down debt, but don't let this dominate your personal budget -- allow you or your family a "splurge" for each week even if you don't normally. If you have income, share it.

We can't expect the government to bail out every organization hurt by this recession. That said, I strongly believe that individuals can have a much greater impact on their local economy than they probably think they can. I'm not advocating using credit cards, by the way.

So, help your local economy by going forth and spending some cash.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Casualty of the Economy

I know I've been absent for several weeks now. I was very, very busy with my primary client, and I was thankful for that.

Yesterday, it all changed.

In a pre-emptive strike against their budget, they laid off several people and I was included in that. It hurts. I am (obviously) their top pick for a technical writer, and they have said they will call me when they can. My VP even told me "I really don't know how we're going to do the documentation without you" and that was nice. One of my big projects is simply on hold now, and the other one is going to be handled by a couple people in the office.

I'm glad, though, that I was so hesitant to pay off my debt (I now have more money in cash savings than I have in debt). If I had done that, I would have barely enough cash to cover the next 1.5 months. As it is now, I have my three month emergency fund, in addition to cash that could last me another two months or so. I am very glad I won't have to tap my credit card to get through this.

It is unlikely I'll be underemployed for too long. I have a website to finish, and more of those will probably be forthcoming, so I will have some income. In the next few days, I will be contacting several people I know and asking for leads from them. Today, I plan on getting some business cards printed -- and then I will be handing them out every chance I get. Though part of me wants to take some time off (I need a vacation -- though the trip to NYC I wanted isn't the best option, now). Next month, I will be participating in National Novel Writing Month, so having the time and financial buffer to do that without working is a nice thing.

Like a cat, I will land on my feet. I am confident about this.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Power of Persistence

About a month ago, I found my "perfect" black shoes. They were perfect until they started to jam my left knee each time I wore them. So I stopped wearing them.

Then I called the store I bought them at, explained my problem, and they said they wouldn't take them back. The guy said they'd only take them back in perfect, unworn (wearing around the house was ok) condition. "We're not Nordstrom's," he said. I said, "Well, you're a store that advertises itself as selling comfortable walking shoes, and these clearly aren't. So, I've paid $130 for a pair of useless shoes, and you won't take them back?" Him: "That is correct." In the end, he was a jerk and nothing happened.

Then, I called corporate customer service. The guy I talked to there said I could mail them in and I would get a check by mail (I originally paid cash for the shoes).

This all happened a couple weeks ago. I've spent an inordinate amount of time in my primary client's office, and I haven't been able to get to a post office. Since nearly a month has passed, I decided to try and call corporate customer service again, to make sure I wasn't going over any time limits they had for returns.

Corporate customer service is closed for the weekend.

So I called the original location of the store I went to, with the intent of asking them if there was a time limit for returns by mail. I briefly explained how I needed to mail the shoes since the other store wouldn't take them, and...the guy started laughing.

Him: "Of COURSE you can return them!"
Me: "To the store?"
Him: "Of course."
Me: "But the guy at the location I bought them at said I could only return them if they were unworn."
Him: "That's nonsense. The shoes don't work for you, you can return them."
Me: "Can I return them to your location, instead?"
Him: "Yes. Just ask for me. I'm L**."

I explained that the shoes did have some normal wear (even though I wore them maybe five times), and he said that was still ok.

In the end, a little persistence, mixed with a little delay in getting to the post office, is saving me postage and hassle. It also goes to show that just accepting what one person tells you isn't the wisest course of action. I had been quite surprised that the first guy said I couldn't return the shoes (there isn't anything about returns printed on the receipt). Then, instead of calling another store, I called the corporate customer service number I found online.

Sadly, this is why I don't like talking to most customer service reps in the first place -- they just don't know basic things and correct procedures, and it also takes far longer to get any/correct information from them. So often, recently, whenever I call a customer service number, I end up talking to someone who doesn't know what they're talking about, and it takes upwards of five minutes to re-explain and have them still not understand. Then, once I get to talk to a supervisor or manager, everything is resolved in under a minute. Which just goes to show the people on the front lines are often mis-informed or just don't know -- and this is why I don't trust them when I'm told something against what I expect.

So now, I get to go to a group yard sale a friend is participating in (since I don't have to go out of my way to find a post office open on Saturdays), AND I will be getting a refund on the shoes.

Persistence and not accepting what just one person tells you pays.

Last Week's Carnival of Personal Finance

So, my article How To Be An Entrepreneur was included in this past week's carnival of personal finance, hosted over at Daily Finance and Marketing News.

Go an check the other articles out!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Dilemma: What Do You Do When You *Could* Pay Off Your Debt?

In doing my weekly finances this evening, I just fully realized that if I threw all of my cash savings at my remaining debt, it would be about 90% gone. Gone. Gone.

Part of me has a huge temptation to throw my condo downpayment fund, my travel fund, my emergency fund, my (shudder to consider this) IRA fund at my remaining debt.

Though, I'm sure I've mentioned how uneasy I am when I have no cash savings on hand. I become very, very uneasy.

I'm taking on a special project next month for my primary client, and I will be in their office five days a week for the entire month. I will, thus, be earning more than I have as my estimated weekly earnings (which is a static amount for all weeks without holidays or planned time off), and be able to pay down more of my debt.

After a number of months of feeling like I was just slogging away at my debt, and not getting anywhere fast, I feel like it's all gone in to hyperdrive. I haven't been working that much more than normal. I attribute paying off the one credit card and being hyperaware of not using that credit card for anything (it's the one I keep in my wallet, and use in pinches) as part of why this is happening. I think another part is that with the one credit card at zero, all my debt money is going to only two accounts -- credit card #2, and my student loan. And I should mention that if I were to snowball my student loan, it would disappear well before the end of this year... I haven't decided on whether or not I will snowball my student loan, as I recently received a notification that the yearly interest rate went down 2% points, and is now around 5%.

But I digress.

The question remains: if you could pay off your debt, at the expense of draining your savings accounts, would you?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Do You Know What's In Your Wallet?

As we all know, I "lost" my wallet a couple weeks ago...and then I found it.

I wrote about this, and how it would have been a much easier experience if it had turned out it really was lost, since I had very little in my wallet (which is, really, a medium-sized coin purse).

A girlfriend and I went out to lunch last week, and I told her my story, and how I'd thought of her specifically, when I thought of someone I knew with a bigger (and proper) wallet, and what it would be like if someone with a big wallet lost or had it stolen. She said that she needed to make a list of what was in her wallet, because she didn't know what was in her wallet. That was a pretty stunning revelation. As it was, she showed me most of what she had in it, and that consisted of: 2-3 each of major credit cards, store credit cards, debit cards, and then other things like a library card, insurance card, receipts, etc. She said she would have to go through her financial paperwork to re-create what was in her wallet, if she had the unfortunate experience of losing it. She also said that she didn't use all the cards that were in her wallet (and no, she doesn't have any credit card debt...seriously).

Part of me is thankful that I never developed the desire, or ability, to maintain and carry a proper wallet. I tend to carry small purses, and having a full size, fold out wallet doesn't work. I'd rather carry a paperback book than a space hog wallet. I have a half-size fold out wallet, that I used for a little while, but now it just sits in a bag and I haven't used it in years. I do have a full size wallet, that I used very, very briefly, and now it just houses my collection of foreign currency.

I just don't think it's necessary for most people to carry a large wallet. Aside from the obvious concerns about what would happen if it was lost or stolen, why carry that much information about yourself in one place? Is it necessary to carry every card that you have?

Some people think I'm cold-hearted or just plain mean, because I won't even sign a petition on the street, much less give any personal information to the people on the street who are shilling for charities. With the relative ease of stealing an identity, I'm not going to just trust people who come up to me on the street are who they say they are, and hand over anything -- especially my signature. So why should anyone make it easier for potential thieves and identity thieves, by carrying a wallet packed with so much that the owner doesn't know the entire contents?

Do you know what's in your wallet?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

How To Be An Entrepreneur

You don't have to have the idea for the next Google to be an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship can take many forms -- from someone looking to earn a few extra bucks a month, for someone looking for a flexible part-time job, for someone who wants to work full-time for themself. It doesn't take high-flying financial goals to start a business -- what's more important is choosing what you want to do and doing it well.

Here are a few pointers to guide you along your way:

1. Believe in Yourself: If you don't believe you will be successful, you probably won't be. Clients want to hire smart, confident people. I've hired people for little jobs before, and I never respond to anyone who says "might" or "not sure" or anything less than "I can definitely do that." Most clients treat freelancers as entities they expect to be able to come in, assess the situation, and do something about it.

2. Sell Yourself: People won't hire you if they don't know about you. Advertise in a local paper or craigslist, go to a local networking event, tell everyone you know what you're doing, post ads on community billboards (depending on your service -- this can be great for dog walkers, not so great for web designers). Also, use business social networking sites like LinkedIn.

3. Behave Like a Business Owner: Learn about what you need to do about taxes. Treat your business with respect and attention. If you don't take care of your business, it won't take care of you. Be confident when you talk about what you do. Know if you need to have specific kinds of insurance for what you do. Get business cards. Create a website.

4. Know Your Market: Are there many people doing what you want to do? No? Then great, because you'll be able to position yourself well. Yes? Then you have to find a marketing angle that will set you apart from the rest of the pack; or you will just have to work that much harder. Know who your competition is, and why clients should choose you instead.

5. Know Your Value (in cold hard cash): This is related to #4. Research and learn what the going rate for your skill is in your area. When I started out as a technical writer, I used online salary calculators to figure out what beginning technical writers earned and went from there. At the beginning, my rate was a bit high for my experience (but hey, I asked for it and received it!), though now it is probably a little low (this was recently told to me by someone more experienced in the freelance technical writing/editing field, and remember: I raised my rate by over 11% earlier this year). Don't be afraid to ask for a high rate -- if someone really wants you, they can negotiate with you, so leave room in your rate for that and also know your lowest acceptable rate. You are only worth what you think you are and what you ask for. No client will ever say "Gee, Sally here is such a good worker...we should give her more money" and then do so. Instead, they thank their lucky stars they found a great worker for a bargain basement price, and hope it lasts a very long time.

6. Deliver a Quality Product/Service: Take pride in what you do. As I've mentioned before, I only had to search for my first client. Contacts I have on Linkedin and a previous client have referred me to other people. While those referrals haven't yet generated business for me, it's free advertising. People are more likely to hire someone with a good recommendation from a peer, because it's expensive and time-consuming to find someone on your own.

7. Consider getting started by volunteering your services: If you need experience on your resume and are having difficulties finding clients, consider helping out a non-profit. This will give you experience, a line item on your resume, and you'll also meet similar people (who may be able to steer you towards some work -- the more people you meet=the more possibility of finding work).

8. Do what you have to do to get started: This is related to #7. For me, I had writing experience from when I worked at the hi-tech company. Yet when I wanted to go freelance, that wasn't enough for my resume, and the temporary agencies I went to wouldn't give me writing or editing jobs. So, I sought and created writing experience. I found some very small jobs via craigslist, and wrote some articles for a couple websites that pay for content. The websites paid shockingly small amounts, but I was able to add links to those sites, in addition to the links for the very small jobs (because they were also for websites), to my resume. Suddenly, my resume started looking like a proper writer's resume. At the end of my first month of searching, I was able to get one of my agencies to talk to a client and pitch me as a copywriter for them. I didn't get that copywriting job, but I started to get the agency's attention. As we all know, I ended up landing my own client, and I've not worked as a regular employee since then. The point is: I didn't have the experience, but instead of moaning about it, I went and did something about it. I didn't make much money that month (not even enough to pay my rent), but I acquired more line items and samples for my resume, and that landed me attention. It's not just experience, but initiative, that will get you where you want to go.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Carnivals

Eek. So while I've been swamped with work recently, I did manage to get a few posts up, and they made their way into the Carnival of Personal Finance and the Carnival of Money Stories.

Last week's Carnival of Personal Finance was hosted over at Squawk Fox, and today's Carnival of Money Stories is hosted over at Broke Grad Student.

There are lots of great posts, so go and have a look!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Wallet: Found (and the Beauty of Simple Finance)

Yes, I bow my head in shame. I found the wallet.

Somehow, it got kicked under my bed. And yes, I did look under my bed yesterday. I think the wallet had been hiding behind the area rug and the leg of my desk chair.

It made me realize, though, as I sorted through the things in my wallet, that I really need to take business cards and such out of my wallet from time to time. I have several cards from people and shops and I realized I didn't have all that information recorded elsewhere.

Sigh.

I do have renewed faith in my good luck charms, and that's a nice thing.

It was a huge sigh of relief (and awe) when I saw the wallet just lying there. Yesterday was partially a hellish day because of the presumed loss of my wallet. Though, I realized that living a "simple" financial life is hugely beneficial. I mentioned to a couple people [yesterday] that I'd lost my wallet, and they all groaned. They all assumed I had tons of cards to cancel, and were all surprised when I said I only lost one credit card, one debit card, and my identification card.

Lesson learned: not having a wallet filled with plastic minimizes potential loss minimized and time spent cancelling cards. As it was, I spent maybe 45 minutes on the phone yesterday, talking to my bank, my credit card company, and a couple related phone calls. I did have to spend about two hours at the licensing office, for my new identification, though I would've had to get one in a few weeks anyway (it expires on my birthday this year, and that is only about three weeks away).

In all, having a non-consumerismistic (is that really a word?) lifestyle made the pain of losing my wallet a great deal less painful than it could've been. I have a girlfriend who has a much larger wallet than I do, with more credit cards, and I shudder to think of how much time it would take to call all those companies and banks...and then how much of a hassle it would be to not use those, since I'm pretty sure she definitely uses plastic much more than I do.

Because I have so little plastic in my wallet (my second credit card is never in my wallet, since I signed up for it strictly for a balance transfer), my liability in the event of my own carelessness, or in the event of theft, is greatly reduced. I've had credit card checks stolen before, and it was a MAJOR hassle to get those cleared up. There were repeated phone calls to the credit card company, affidavits to sign for each check used, and just general headaches from all the time it took me to monitor everything and make sure the credit card company was doing what they were supposed to.

So, I'm inordinately pleased that my supposed lost wallet was a victim of my carelessness in putting it where it was supposed to be, and from me kicking it under my bed. I'm also pleased to realize just how much less painful it was, since I only had the two cards to cancel.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

I Lost My Wallet

I've done something I don't think I've ever done before: lost my wallet. It happened on Sunday, though am just now realizing it, since I worked from home all yesterday and never left the house.

I used something in my wallet at a grocery store Sunday night, but lucklessly, they don't have it. After my shopping, I walked home. The wallet is not anywhere it should be, or in the bag I was carrying, so I can only presume it fell out of the bag I was carrying when I was walking home. I didn't walk by anyone, so I know it wasn't pickpocketed.

Since more than 24 hours have passed, I think the odds of me finding it lying on the street are remarkably remote.

I can also only hope that whomever found it doesn't mail it to the address on my ID card, as I haven't lived at that address since 2004... A good reason to keep it up-to-date... Even more remotely, it would be remarkable if the person Googled me and found me that way -- they wouldn't find this blog, but they would find me on a couple social/business networking sites and would be able to contact me through those.

So, in the wake of having no plastic and only my passport as identification, I'm thankful I have my closet stash of cash. Otherwise, I would be SOL for getting downtown to get a new ID today, and then going to my client's office.

There hasn't been any activity on the debit or credit card, so that's lucky. I know what it takes to dispute charges, and it's not pretty and it's not brief. I also think I only had maybe $20 or so in US cash (I also had an Argentine 20 peso note), so I'm not out much there (remember, I tend to use cash far more than plastic).

I also found out that the local police precint doesn't even take reports of lost/stolen wallets. That was a surprise.

My only hope now, is that someone found it and turned it in to the police (I have a call in to the evidence officer).

There's still a remote chance it will turn up somewhere in my disorderly room, though I doubt it. My wallet is one of the things I always know the location of.

The good luck charms I carried in my wallet (it was actually a large coin purse) obviously didn't help me much on Sunday... Though, I'm quite sad to have lost the Turkish eye I bought in Istanbul -- it may have protected me from the evil eye, but it didn't protect me from losing my wallet...

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Tales From the Air: Ignore and Endure

On my flight home a couple weeks ago, I had the unpleasant experience of sitting close to three under-5 children. They were travelling with their father, who had a reprehensible parental attitude towards his children. Needless to say, I was the one who said something to the kids (twice) to get them quiet (the father didn't say boo to me either time, and actually looked surprised the first time). While I think his behavior was extremely rude, inconsiderate and tacky, I realized that the father was doing exactly what so many people do with their finances: ignore and endure.

I know a lot of my credit card debt is travel-related, though I can't tell you how much. I can't tell you how much is from travelling I've done in the last four years (since my mini-retirement), and how much is random purchases along the way. After getting incensed at the father's lack of control over his kids, I realized that until I started my debt eradication plan, I had the same attitude towards my debt -- I paid more than the minimum, shivered when I charged a little too much in a given month, wondered if it would ever be paid off...and then stopped thinking about it once I'd made the monthly payment. With my first credit card, I remember realizing that when I saw that I'd charged more than I'd paid, and couldn't pay off even the amount I'd charged that month, that that was an undesirable thing. Yet, I just ignored the obvious (I was spending beyond my means and not getting anything really useful out of it), and enduring the interest payments and the shackles of credit card debt.

On the flipside of all this, I've started to realize that my spending habits are definitely different [since I started my debt eradication plan] and that I'm not so wanton with my spending. I really do think my mind has absorbed the Buy Quality and Don't Buy in Excess that I've been striving for this last year or so. When I was on vacation, I did see a pair of shoes very similar to what I want, but they were horrible quality. In the past, I may have easily bought them as a stopgap until I found what I wanted. Now, I just sighed at finding what I wanted but with supremely bad materials and workmanship, and moved along.

In the end, I've realized that I no longer ignore and endure, and I'm pleased with that.

Monday, July 28, 2008

One Big Milestone: One Credit Card PAID OFF!

I just paid off one of my credit cards. Wheeeeeeeeee!

What allowed me to pay it off was most of my snowflake money from the last month or so. (The snowflake money leftover went to the student loan.)

Now, it's just the second credit card and the student loan.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Shopping and A Potential New Client

So, today I went on my long-awaited shopping spree, and for once, I actually found things I wanted when I had cash (literally) in my pocket. It felt great. I finally bought a new pair of black shoes (hurrah!), and several other things I've been wanting/needing.

Also, I went to exchange the shirt I bought on vacation last week (it had a snag), and when I took it back to the store and exchanged it, I got over $7 back. Apparently, it had gone on sale and I was entitled to the partial refund. Hurrah, again!

I still have cash leftover, though I haven't counted it out. I may do some thrift shopping tomorrow, so I'm going to keep it on hand. Just in case. Otherwise, I'm going to put it in the Closet Stash, and save it for a rainy day. Though, that closet stash is fairly healthy and not tapped very often, so I may just snowflake the money, instead.

How does going shopping relate to a potential new client, you ask? Well. While I was trying on a shirt, my mother started talking with a sales clerk at the store. I come out and join the conversation, and it comes out that I'm a freelance Technical Writer. Apparently the clerk's husband is a software developer or programmer, and has some documentation that he "thinks" he can write well, but it sounds like he knows he needs a Tech Writer. After explaining some of my experience, I gave the clerk my contact information and she's supposed to pass it on to her husband. It would be incredible if it actually turned into a contract -- especially since it's just the type of contract I like: get in, do the work, get out, pre-determined fee and timeline.

This so perfectly goes back to my post on the value of being chatty. You never know when you might meet someone that is looking for what you do.

This meeting also drove home my need for business cards and a better business presence. I hated to admit to my lack of business cards and then having to write my contact information down on the back of an envelope for the clerk...

All in all, it was a good day (though my mother got tired out from all the walking we did). I got to spend some of the bounty of my earnings from last month and from my tax rebate check, and I potentially have a new client.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Back In the Blink of An Eye

Whew. It doesn't seem so long since I was packing my bag...and now I'm unpacking it.

Sigh.

One week really isn't a proper vacation. Though, it was quiet, sunny, and I didn't come across any rattlesnakes, so it was quite nice. I'm fairly relaxed and somewhat recharged now, and that's the important thing. I have a ton of work to do this week, and my attitude is "OK, what's most urgent, and let's just start there and get it done."

I'm already thinking about another small trip, perhaps around my birthday (about a month from now). I'd love to go to New York or San Francisco. I love New York and would love to shop there and see some friends there. I've never been to San Francisco, and each friend whose jaw drops open at that tells me I'd LOVE it there.

Financially, I didn't spend much money at all on my vacation. Through random events, I never really got to go shopping, so that will wait until this weekend (because my day-to-day black shoes...well, the sole is so worn it's about to split...and the shoes aren't nice enough to even consider re-soling).

Finally, I had an article in last week's Carnival of Personal Finance, hosted over at Budgeting Babe.

Friday, July 11, 2008

T-14 to Vacation

In about 14 hours, I will be in the airport, waiting to hop the mini-jet for my 35 minute flight. It seems ridiculous and posh and decadent to fly to where I'm going, but like I've said, I'm allowing myself some splurging.

This past week, I've felt like I've suddenly lost a massive amount of brain cells, and I've been second-guessing some of the work I've done. Thankfully, nothing big has happened, and nothing that wasn't caught in review by someone else. It was sheer pleasure to finish today what I needed to have finished, and then to send an email reminding people of the vacation, adding "I will not be checking email." I may check email, but I certainly won't be opening anything work-related.

Really, I might try to go the whole time without checking email.

So now, I've packed my bag, done my banking and made sure the bills are paid, and tried to tidy my room (a failing activity at the best of times...I'm so not domestic(ated)...).

While I'm not planning on checking my email, I do have some posts partially-mostly written, and I will do my best to get a couple of them up next week. If I don't, please forgive me, and know that I'll be back next Sunday.

Have a great week everyone!

This week's carnival

My article Peak Oil and Retirement was included in this week's carnival of personal finance, hosted over at Mighty Bargain Hunter. He compiled an interesting theme revolving around the evolution of the American flag.

Go carnivals!

Monday, July 7, 2008

My Economic Stimulus Check, and Why I'm Spending It

Recently, I posted a rant about how it was seeming like paying off my debt is a never-ending thing, how last month was my highest-earning month ever and how I wished I could just blow some of the largesse on frivolity.

It's money I won't miss. Yes, I know some people use the same argument for putting it towards debt or savings, but come on... It's also a matter of using the money for what it's meant for, instead of giving it to banks for them to make more money.

Instead, I've decided I'm going to spend most/all of my economic stimulus check. Next week, I'm going to visit a friend for a week (vacation...YAY!) and instead of taking nasty Greyhound, I'm splurging the extra $100 to fly. Even with dealing with the airport in Seattle it will still take less time.

Aside from the trip, I'm going to spend the money as I desire, with a time limit of the next two weeks or so. I figure I'll give myself that amount of time to have some fun and frivolity, and then I'll sock anything leftover into the savings accounts.

I'm not planning some blowout shopping spree (though there will be shopping), but I'm just going to give myself some freedom to not deny myself. After I decided this was to be my plan, I started to realize just how much I've denied myself since I started my debt eradication plan. I've bought very little in the way of brand new clothes (I love thrift shopping, don't get me wrong), I've not bought any art, and I've so frequently been a slave to my crack finance spreadsheet that I've forgotten about the little luxuries of life (Aveda shampoo and conditioner...sigh, real French cheese (the chevre at Trader Joe's...c'est mal)). Sometimes, it's just nice to pay full price and not worry about if I could've found a better deal.

While I drafted this post a while ago, I just found an interesting Wall Street Journal article on Yahoo. It postulates that the occasional splurge makes people happy in the long run. It seems like a fluff piece (especially since it's so brief), though I fully agree with it. What the commenters I read, and what everyone else, too, needs to remember is this: a splurge is an occasional thing. When you live life on a continual splurge, that's when the problems start. I've read about people complaining they couldn't go to lunch/drinks/whatever with new co-workers because of their budget, and then they say they feel isolated from other people. Isn't the occasional splurge then worth it? Besides, for an example like that, you're building rapport with co-workers, which is always a very useful thing. This goes back to something I've believed for a long time: it's better to regret something you've done than to regret something you haven't done -- obviously, within moderation. It all goes back to the balance I talk about.

Life costs money. It's just a matter of choosing what and how to spend the money. For me, I'm giving myself a little splurge time, and having made this decision, already I feel happier.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Carnival of Personal Finance

Last week I was nicely included in the Carnival of Personal Finance, hosted at Greener Pastures. The theme was The First Zero-Emissions City (a real project currently underway), and my article When is it Enough? was included.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Peak Oil and Retirement

I know I've mentioned how my landlord thinks the world economy will crash and burn in the next 20 years, based on peak oil production occurring now. (In short, the premise is that the world economy is based on oil production, and that when the oil is gone, the economy goes poof.)

So with this in mind, how should one invest for their retirement? In 20 years, I'll be almost 60 years old. First, I don't hold any illusions about receiving social security when I'm 62, and second, I'll be in a really, really bad position if all the saving I do now leaves me with nothing because of an economic implosion.

I have a small family, and I don't have (and don't plan on having) kids, so who will I be able to fall back on? Will I end up homeless? Do I need to take survivalist training courses so that I can live in the country and garden and hunt and be self-sufficient?

Yes, it's pretty extreme to think the economy will go poof in the next 20 years, but while I don't fully agree with the peak oil hypotheses about what will happen to the economy, I can't help but wonder. The arguments do have merit. How long will it take the US to really get behind alternative energy sources and alternatives to driving cars that rely on gas alone? Will it happen before or after a major economic depression?

Will I still have retirement savings at 60?

If the implosion does happen, will I be aware enough of what's going on to cash out my money so that I'm not financially stranded?

I'm not speculating on all of this as a way to say "oh, well, I'm going to spend my money now." I'm just really trying to look at the big, long-term picture. My plan has always been to support myself and be self-sufficient. While I plan to get married one of these days, I still plan on having my own financial net.

Having a semi-substantial cache of cash under the mattress may not be such a bad idea...

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Side Income Spectacular

I know I'm self-employed. However, when forecasting what I plan to make this year, I only forecast based on what I expect to earn from my primary client. All other clients are what I consider secondary income, and what others might call snowflake income.

After working a little over 40 hours since Sunday (though it feels like far, far more), I decided to play around with the Crack Spreadsheet and see how my side income is stacking up.

Drumroll...

Before getting paid for the project I will finish Saturday, I've already earned 10% of what I've earned from my primary client. This number will almost exactly double once I bill and receive payment for the project that's kept me crazybusy this since Sunday (and which will, mercy exists -- this project has been rough, be finished tomorrow). Which will mean my income will have been bolstered by 20% from my side projects.

Not too shabby.

Aside from what I'm billing for the crazybusy project, I really didn't think all the other streams of income added up to that much. I've sold more jewelry than I realized, and I've made more on the website work than I'd realized, too. Not a bad realization!

So, it just all goes to show just how much a little here and a little there can add up.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

When is it Enough?

I haven't mentioned it, but I've been working on a new, very short-term editing project for a new client. It pays well. With that income for this month, I'm on track for June 2008 to be my highest income month ever. Which is pretty cool.

Except... Bills. Debt.

My snowball fund is pretty healthy right now, and I need to transfer it to one of my debts.

My economic stimulus check should be delivered next week, and it should go to savings or debts.
And my emergency savings account isn't yet quite at the level I'd like, so I should put some of the largesse there, too.

But really, I want to go and spend some of this fantastic cash!! I'm working a lot and hard this month (hence the sparsity of posts...), and I want more than the measly 10% I give myself for non-primary client work. I've talked about taking a week of vacation in the next month or so and going somewhere, and I'm probably going to visit a friend in mid-July (not the beach vacation I want, but it will be relaxing and sunny).

And then I started thinking: when does the scrimping end?

I know that once my debt is gone, I will be scrambling to hyper-fund my condo downpayment fund and retirement savings accounts (and thank the government for allowing us self-employed folks SEPs in which we can contribute something like 25% of our income, even after funding a regular IRA account). Which means I'll switch from scrambling to pay off my debt to scrambling to fund two other savings accounts.

When does it end?

What level of savings do you have to have to feel secure enough to say "hey, I just earned more money this month than ever before, and I'm going to celebrate and not feel guilty because everything is paid up, my savings accounts are great, and the retirement funds are maxed out"?! Is the secret in the balance (which I suspect, and this is how I manage my finances anyway), or is there really a dollar amount on this? Is it the price of finding financial freedom?

I'm not usually like this about my finances...it's just this month is turning out so great for me financially, and I wish I could just go do something frivolous and expensive and not worry about the cost. As it is, with the extra 10% I will have (once everyone is billed and paid up), I will probably just go buy a new pair of shoes (which I desperately need).

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Carnivals and Festivals

So, I had a bit more time to write this past week, and I participated in a few carnivals and festivals. I participated in the following:

Carnival of Money Stories over at MoneyNing.

Money Hacks Carnival over at Mrs Nespy's Frugal World. Mrs. N used a clever theme of Music of the 80s. Ahh, the memories of when those songs were brand new...sigh.

Carnival of Financial Planning over at The Skilled Investor.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

How Do You Name Yourself?

So. I'm at a point where I need to create a proper business public profile for myself. My business feels like it's on the verge of turning the corner of true success, and I'm thrilled. This means I need to behave a bit more like a serious business owner (instead of the accidental business owner I sometimes feel like).

I need a clearer demarcation between personal and professional lines of communication. I need a website. I need an email beyond my personal Yahoo account. I need business cards.

All of these things, I can handle. In fact, I've already played around a little with designing the website.

But the real hurdle is this: how do I choose my business name?

I have a couple names currently at the top of my list, still, but I'm still not certain. Whatever I choose will be with me (hopefully) for quite a while to come, so I need to choose a name with the right gravitas and business sensibility and uniqueness. A friend suggested "[my last name] Communications", though I shot this down pretty quick, since my last name is as consistently mis-spelt as my first name is mis-pronounced...aka 95% of the time.

Another major factor is domain availability. One of my initial favorite picks was nixed because two other US businesses already have that name, and the URL wasn't available. Being anything less than #1 in a Google search for my business name isn't an option (and my current top pick definitely fits the bill), and I do not want any confusion over which company is mine. This isn't so much an issue now, since all my new clients are based on referrals, but I'm looking forward to my even more illustrious future.

The perfectionist in me is so hesitant to just buy my current top pick, because I have this self-doubt that tells me that as soon as I publish the website, print the business cards, and formally announce the business name, I will come up with some other, snappy, oh-so-perfect name. Why can't I be a snappy copywriter instead of a kick-a$$ technical writer, editor, and budding web designer?

Part of me wants to handle this now and part of me is hesitant to make such a big decision. While I know I can always change the name in the future, this isn't something I want to approach as a trial run or as something disposable. This is my business, and I'm going to do it right...the first time.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

How to Financially Plan a Mini-Retirement: The Uber-Basics

Before I took my year-long mini-retirement, and spent over nine of those months travelling, people frequently asked me how I could afford to take a year off. I was appalled when people would say “how much did you save?” or “how much does the trip cost?” That was information I’d previously only shared with a couple close friends.

But you, dear reader, get to learn the theory of how I did it.

First: I figured my daily budget was $50/day (remember, this was for a trip in 2004-5). I knew that some places would require far less money, and some would require far more (ahem, UK and Paris). This amount included lodging, food, local transportation, and whatever I wanted to do or buy.

Second: I figured out a travel budget based on where I wanted to go and what I had been able to price out online. My itinerary changed at the beginning of my trip (during the four months I spent in Argentina, the 2004 tsunami occurred), though I think I kept the same travel budget. I did this because I decided to just spend more time in Europe (5-6 months, instead of two), and I knew I would be travelling around a lot there.

Third: I figured out how much I needed to cover my bills each month, and then I dumped that money into a second checking account and set-up automatic bill pay for the first of every month. This was smart, though I needed to check the minimum balance of my main credit card more often, as I would use it to buy travel tickets (because of the insurance the card provided), and I didn’t always transfer that money over immediately. Thus, my minimum payments changed from time to time, and I didn’t always catch it right off…


Fourth: I put aside some money in a "Come Back Fund." The first time I went overseas, I spent every last penny (this isn't a joke) and came back penniless. I was barely 19, and when my flight from Sydney was delayed and we weren't given food vouchers, I barely had enough money to buy an apple for $1... This first trip was literally done entirely with cash -- I converted all my money to Australian dollars and traveller's checks before leaving. Traveller's checks! I didn't have a credit card and this was before bank debit cards were introduced. Thankfully my mother took me in when I came back and lent me money until I had worked enough to pay her back and get my own place.

That's really all there is to it: plan your expenses, plan to take care of any ongoing expenses (e.g. debt, insurance, home taxes, whatever it is), have a plan for coming back. Period.

Even if you don't plan on travelling, you still need to figure these things. When you have time on your hands, you spend your money differently and that sometimes results in more money being spent -- even when you stay at home.

While I had begun saving for my mini-retirement out of my work income, much of the mini-retirement was funded through a small inheritance and me selling some of my hi-tech stock.

For me, the hardest part was deciding where to go during my mini-retirement. Taking it was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life, and it really, truly changed me. I had had a lot of negative things happened in my life the year before I left, and taking my mini-retirement restored my sanity, my faith in myself, showed me that what I had gone through wasn't so important in the great scheme of the world, and (most importantly) it showed me the sheer options the world and life has to offer.

So, all you need to do is sit down and figure out the financial aspects of a mini-retirement and how you want to spend your time. While taking one is a big deal, figuring out how to do it isn't. For further reading, I recommend Six Months Off (especially recommended for those with families -- this book isn't geared towards younger or single people, though younger or single people may still find it useful) and Vagabonding (this is obviously geared towards long-term travellers, though it also has a wealth of general travel information and planning aspects, too -- the author is a well-respected and popular writer among travellers).

What would you do if you could take a year off?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Value of Being Friendly and Chatty

No, this isn't about networking (though it certainly applies to that, too). This is about me being a chatty person and my last trip to the dentist.

I've gone to the same dentist for over 15 years. I love them. They love me. I've referred several friends there over the years, and back in the hi-tech days, I used to recommend my dentist to anyone who'd ask (we had an email list where you could ask for recommendations). Somehow my dentist found out that I'd done that (I think someone quoted what I'd written for the internal wiki). Ever since then, I get discounts. Note: I quit the hi-tech job in 2004.

The last time I went in, they didn't charge me for my post-cleaning consultation ($56, I think), and they gave me an $80+ discount for paying in full (I also had two small fillings).

Because I'm on good terms with my dentist, I saved over $130 on that last visit. Saving the $80 for paying immediately definitely makes up for having to put the bill on my credit card (my work wasn't stabilized enough then for me to feel comfortable using my "emergency" fund for the visit).

So, I saved over 35%, just because I've built a good relationship with my dentist! I know they give discounts for paying in full at the actual visit, but I'm not so sure the discount is quite the percentage I received then...

I remember having annual reviews, back in the hi-tech days, where the biggest criticism on the review would be me being chatty. However, back then it helped to get things done (when you have a friendly relationship with someone, they're far more likely to acquiesce to a "can you just give me a minute and squeeze what I need in now" request), and the same quality still gets "things" done (saving over $130 at the dentist -- which was a pretty significant percentage, considering my total bill).

So yes, just like telling people what you're up to makes sense from a business networking point of view, it also makes financial sense to be friendly.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Are You Ready to Budget? A Quiz

1) How do you feel about giving up your morning Starbucks?
a. Uh, no.
b. Can I just get a regular instead of a venti?
c. OK, they are really expensive.

2) Do you think you have money you don't realize?
a. Are you crazy? I wouldn't be in debt if I had extra money.
b. Maybe, but wouldn't I already know that?
c. Probably, but I don't know where to find it.

3) Can you go without recreational shopping for a month?
a. I'm just stopping this quiz. That is an unrealistic and cruel question.
b. Can I go just once?
c. It would be hard, but I'm willing to try.

4) Are you willing to give up other luxuries, for the sake of your budget?
a. Life's not worth living without regular luxuries. Period.
b. Depends. I'll have to choose which ones to give up.
c. For the sake of my budget, yes, I think I can do this.

5) Your favorite author/musician has a new book/cd out. You:
a. Rush out and buy it immediately in a bricks and mortar store, at full price.
b. Watch an online store like Amazon.com for a used copy.
c. Get it from the library/get it from a friend/wait until paperback and then buy it used.

6) You just blew your budget for the week, taking a friend out for their birthday. You:
a. Don't change your budget at all for the next couple weeks. Didn't pay cash anyway, because that's what credit cards are for, right?
b. Try to spend less this week.
c. Adjust your spending money for the next few weeks to offset this.

7) It's grocery shopping time. Do you:
a. Grocery shopping? I only eat out.
b. Shop wherever is convenient, though this sometimes means spending a bit more than planned.
c. Shop in a store that has the consistently lowest prices, and try to remember to use coupons.

8) Do you think it's possible to live your lifestyle on less money?
a. My lifestyle on less money? HA! No way, Jose.
b. I'd like to believe that's true.
c. I suppose it's possible, though I wouldn't know where to start making those changes.

9) What does this statement mean to you: "I have an emergency fund"?:
a. What's that?
b. I wish I had one.
c. I have a little money in my savings, but it wouldn't cover me if something big happened.

10) Do you save for retirement?
a) I expect my spouse to do that/I expect to win the lottery/I expect to inherit money.
b) I saved a little before, but I haven't contributed to an IRA or 401k in a few years.
c) I save a little, but I'm far from maxing out my contributions.

If you answered mostly As: while you're not ready to start following a budget, you probably need one. Suggested reading: Lessons I Wish I Learned Earlier and Financial Lessons I Learned Early.

If you answered mostly Bs: you're already taking some budgeting steps and you're conscious of doing so. If you're in debt, you could probably find more money to put towards your debt. Though since you might not know where to start, getting a book (like Get A Financial Life) would probably help tremendously. Suggested reading: Debt Reduction Strategies That Work.

If you answered mostly Cs: you are definitely ready to budget. You are already pretty keenly aware of how you spend your money, and you look for deals. You probably just need a good nudge to adjust your weaker habits, and to improve your better habits. Be careful to not step over the line of frugality and into cheapness. Suggested reading: Frugal vs Cheap.

This week's Carnival of Personal Finance

Pinyo over at Moolanomy hosted this week's Carnival of Personal Finance, and he included my article Reasons to Cheer the Higher Price of Gas.

There are a ton of other great articles, so hop on over and have a look!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Reasons To Cheer the Higher Price of Gas

No, this isn't a joke.

I came across this article over at Market Watch, and I think it's (mostly) pretty great. It goes far beyond the moaning over the current price of gas, and makes predictions as to what may likely happen as the price of gas hits $8.

The article also made me think: what is your threshold for paying to drive? At what point will people realize that driving is a luxury, and not a need? How much higher does the price of gas have to go before you really realize that to save money you just need to not drive alone, or to drive less?

I've seen people comment on "Oh, but it takes longer to carpool/take public transportation." Well, maybe...maybe not. Let's look at an example I experienced firsthand: a little over a year ago, I came back from living abroad and I stayed with my mother for a few months while I got re-settled. My mother works somewhat close to my primary client's office, and we would carpool together. There were times when my mother commented that she would get to work 20 minutes early because she'd been able to use the carpool lanes on the freeway. This, after having to get off the freeway, deal with street traffice, drop me off, and then get back on the freeway. Of course, some days the time savings was a bit less, but she was never late to work because she carpooled with me. In fact, I got her to start leaving a few minutes later (I'm not a morning person and I'll take an extra five minutes of sleep if I can), and she was still early to work!

How about two more examples, this time with public transit? I live close to downtown Seattle, and my primary client is on the eastside. The bus I take to get there uses a private entry to the freeway, allowing it to bypass around a mile of car traffic. Yes, it gets caught in that traffic when it merges, but compare the time savings for even that single mile. When I lived in another part of Seattle, it used to take ages for the bus to cross the couple miles on the freeway, so that it could connect to another freeway (this sounds longer than it is -- the total commute for me was somewhere around 8-9 miles). Eventually, a wonderful solution came up -- the city designated a lane on the freeway for the exclusive use of the buses. So, what would previously take as much as 20 minutes was reduced to a couple minutes. It also made commuting in a car longer, because cars had a lane taken from them.

Aside from potentially quicker commutes, think about this: haven't had time to read a book? Haven't had time to return an acquaintance's phone call? Do you wish your stress level was lower? Do you wish you could take a nap in the afternoon? Well, public transit enables all of these things. I generally read at least two books per week -- much of it while commuting. I don't generally have phone conversations on the bus, though I do occasionally. While I don't even know how to drive, I've seen the stress of drivers I've ridden with, and I'm thankful I don't have to deal with the jacka**es I've seen them deal with. I also regularly take naps when I take the bus back to Seattle.

Sure, there are some jacka**es on the bus, I know. I've sat next to the loonies who use styrofoam as a microphone to broadcast their views on whatever tickle's their fancy. I've sat in front of loonies singing country songs and moaning about government conspiracies.

I know some people will say "oh, but those are exactly the reasons I don't ride the bus...I don't want contact with those people." I say PFFT! Stop making excuses. Especially if you live in the suburbs, you really don't have to worry about this. Nearly everyone on the bus I take to my client's office is pretty vanilla. And really, the occasional loonies make the ride interesting -- I've gotten some pretty entertaining stories.

Yes, I know some people live places where public transportation isn't great. But that doesn't mean that you need an SUV in the city (really, how many people with SUVs really use them as a Sports Utility Vehicle???!). Get involved in your community and help drive the creation of a good/better transportation system. Just because one doesn't exist doesn't mean that driving a too big car too often is justified.

There have always been times when I wished I could drive. Yet none of those wishes has revolved around just being about to get to work more quickly. Sure, the bus to my client's office doesn't go exactly the route from the bus stop to the office (obviously), but I use that time for other "me" things. Sure, I like it when I can carpool to my client's. I also try to plan when I ride the bus, so that it won't take longer because of rush hour traffic (this can mean the difference between a 20 minute and a 60+ minute ride).

I once figured out (around 2002) that, living in Seattle where parking alone is outrageously expensive, it would cost me a good $500-700 per month to have a car. This included: car payment, insurance, gas, parking. Actually, it didn't really include parking because there was free parking where I lived then. When we go to the grocery store, we say "Is this loaf of bread really worth $4?" and make a decision that generally includes finding a cheaper alternative. Is being able to drive yourself around in a car, without carpooling or sharing that expense (e.g. family) really worth what it costs to rent an apartment in an urban city?? Because really, when I figured out the $500-700/month cost, I was paying under $800 to rent a one bedroom apartment.

So yeah, if people start rethinking their lives and choosing sane alternatives, it's a win-win situation: cheaper for the person, better for the environment, and a wake-up call to the car companies that refuse to aggressively pursue viable fuel alternatives.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Nope...Not Stiffed...

Apparently the IRS sends checks before telling you why exactly. My recent check wasn't an early, shortchanged economic stimulus check. I got a letter today explaining the check I received on Tuesday.

Instead of shortchanging me, the IRS decided to change my extimated tax total, which resulted in what I paid last year being a higher amount than what was due. Though, they took out a little as an underpayment penalty. That penalty was actually something I already paid for last year, so I'll have to call them and work that out. Or maybe they just took the penalty (which would make it particularly stiff) for me not paying my first quarter taxes this year (if you remember, that money went towards paying my entire tax bill for last year). Confusing, confusing, but I will get to the bottom of this and see if I can't get that extra bit, too.

So yay! Unexpected money!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Stiffed By the IRS?

Harumph. I received my tax rebate today (a whopping 2-3 weeks early!). However, it was only $500, not the $600 I expected.

No, I wasn't one of those "high earners" last year. (I wish.)

Really, I think I know what happened. I recently realized that I neglected to report the income from a stock sale (some of the last few shares from the hi-tech job). I haven't had a chance to call my tax preparer yet. Since financial companies report payouts and all that, I'm suspecting the amount I was dinged was the taxes I (very honestly) forgot to pay, and I think $100 is about what it should be.

Still though: yay for the money! Now, I just have to decide what to do.

Buy more pretty beads for my necklaces? Pay down debt? Rebuilding the emergency fund?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Last week's carnival

Ack. Another week where time flies and I don't even really have time to look at the other carnival articles. Sigh... Yes, I've spent time this holiday weekend, both yesterday, today and probably part of tomorrow, doing some work.

Money and Values hosted the Carnival of Personal Finance this past week, and they included my article How to Furnish or Re-Decorate for FREE!

The carnival is done in a handy Q&A format, which makes it easy to scan and find articles you're interested in. It's not too late to check them out!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Saving Money By Recycling

I've said it before: I have a particularly eco-minded landlord. Though, I've always been keen on recycling and have been since I had my first apartment (by myself) in 1990.

But do you realize how much you save by recycling? In Seattle, at least, we don't have to pay for recycling services. In fact, if it's discovered that you're putting recyclable items in your trash, the trash collectors will either not take the "trash" and/or you will be fined.

In my house, there is my landlord, the lady across the hall, and also a lady in the mother-in-law basement apartment, in addition to me. Between the four of us, we regularly fill up the jumbo, on wheels recycling bin (sometimes we have more than fits into it). But the real interesting thing is that our trash container is the smallest one available -- it's a 12 gallon "micro can." It's really a pretty small container...for four people! What's even more interesting to me, is that there are weeks when it's barely half full.

Now, I've written about my consumerism, so it's not like I'm an ascetic (ha!). In fact, I tend to accumulate more plastic bags (I know, I know...but I don't drive and I don't always plan when I'll pick up groceries or whatnot) than I generate trash. I recycle vastly more than I throw in the trash bin.

Aside from saving money by recycling, we can all benefit by reusing. I've recently signed up to freecycle, and I've been amazed at some of the things listed (e.g. someone a couple nights ago offered three working Apple laptops). I've seen people ask for bikes, and receive them with 24 hours. I've seen a sewing machine on offer. I've seen all sorts of clothes (men's, women's, children's, baby); a garden hose; a lot of plants; knives; a George Forman grill.

I've also been thinking a lot about simply reusing more basic things. While I make a killer tomato pasta sauce (when I have the time), I always buy pre-made Alfredo. That's a few jars per month. Yes, they get recycled, but how much better would it be if I could find someone making their own pasta sauce, or jam, or whatever, and give them the jars? How much better would it be if I got off my bottom and took the leftovers of my magazine addiction to the hospital that is less than two blocks from my house? It would be lots better -- but doing the right thing takes effort.

Lately, it's feeling like I'm becoming some kind of hybrid eco-warrior/consumer, which feels like a contradiction. Or maybe I'm just being a more conscious consumer. I've never really generated a huge amount of trash, and I've been recycling for a couple decades. Yet I've known people and lived in houses with fewer people that have generated more raw trash. I don't know that I particularly look for products that have packaging or materials that can be easily recycled, but I think I do. Heck, I live in the Northwest where not recycling is about on par with being a Nazi (I'm not kidding) -- aside from the fact it's now against the law to not recycle in Seattle.

So, regardless of why it's done (to save the environment or simply to save money), recycling and reusing makes a lot of sense. In a culture where we're pushed to buy and consume, it's smart to pass along things that we no longer want/need, and to make sure detritus is properly handled.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

I've Been a Lazy Snowflaker

I have to admit my snowflaking has been a bit erratic the last couple months. I actually snowflaked over $200 last month, though I don't remember exactly how that money got to my snowflaking account...

I've been much busier with work in the last few weeks, and it's sad to realize that because of that I've gotten off track with transferring my little snowflakes. There is a pile of receipts on my desk with amounts I need to transfer from my checking, but...they've been accumulating for weeks now. [Sigh]

It feels like when it comes to most savings I earn with sales at the grocery store, it just isn't always enough to get me to transfer that money over.

On the other hand, when it's extra money I earn from my jewelry or the websites I've been building, I have no problem with snowflaking part of those. (Note: I snowflake this money into debt, IRA, one of my savings accoubts, and a small percentage as additional pocket money.)

I think it's just easier to snowflake new money, than money that is already in my checking account.

But anyway, I want to be more conscious about banking my savings. Though...I can tell you that all those little un-snowflaked bits of money have been going towards buying more and more lovely beads for the necklaces I've been making and selling.

Carnival Update

This past week, my article My History With Credit: An Alternative View appeared over at Money Under 30. There are lots of posts, and he's created some very handy links at the top of the post that allow you to jump immediately to different subjects.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

How to Furnish or Re-Decorate for FREE! (or pretty darn close to free)

Need a new desk? Bookshelf? Area rug? Bed? Wall art? Dishes? Well, you can probably find it for free (or close to it) in the next few weeks.

How? College kids. The school year is ending within the next month or so, and all their stuff has to go somewhere. While some students will store there things or will not be leaving town, there are plenty that are leaving and don't want to take what they have.

I moved into my current home about a year ago, and I spent time on craigslist looking for a desk and a dresser. While I ended up finding my desk (a former small pine dining table) on the side of the road, I never did find the dresser I wanted. However, I discovered that college kids unload tons of furniture this time of year. This shouldn't be a surprise, but for me, I hadn't thought about it. My desk was found less than two blocks from where I live (I live within ten miles of four colleges/universities, and some of my neighbors are students).

Much of what I saw on craigslist was from Ikea, so it's generally pretty good quality. Much of it is also in very good condition (especially things like desks). I also saw lots of things just left in front of houses (e.g. my super desk). A few months ago, the students across the street moved out and dumped a bunch of stuff outside. My landlord, originally ticked that they'd dumped what he thought was bags of trash, went over to investigate. Instead of trash, he found plates, wine glasses, silverware -- and he brought some of it home. Considering all of my wine glasses are in storage, it's nice to have some proper ones in the house...

As an added bonus for you entrepreneurial types: if you have the space available, now is a good time to stock up on this furniture. Then, store it until the new school year is about to start, re-list on craigslist and/or make flyers and post them close to your nearby campus(es). Voila! Instant business and you're sure to make some money. College kids are guaranteed to need furniture/plates/etc, so this is a pretty sure thing. Believe me, if I had a truck and the space, I would do this.

I'm still in the market for a dresser (I currently use a shelf and some creativity within my closet), and I'm going to start looking again. I actually found the perfect one last year, but because I had a cold, I wasn't able to pick it up before the lady left the state the next morning.

So, whether you're looking to redecorate a little, or you want to start a seasonal side business, now's the time. Start driving through college neighborhoods in the next couple weeks, and start reading craigslist, and you'll be surprised what you find.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

This week's Carnival of Personal Finance

Oops. I meant to post about this much, much earlier...

This week's Carnival of Personal Finance was hosted over at Alpha Consumer, and my article You Think Gas is Expensive? It's Not... was included in the Hot Topics category.

The carnival theme is Surviving the Squeeze, and there are tons and tons of great articles this week.

Monday, May 5, 2008

My History with Credit: An Alternative View

Growing up, neither of my parents had any type of credit card. To my knowledge, my father never had a credit card during his 70+ years of life. In fact, I'd be pretty surprised if my father ever had a credit account of any kind [for anything other than a short-term installment payment for something like medical or dental bills]. My mother only opened credit accounts well after I'd finished high school and started living on my own. My father was a saver: when I wanted to play the flute and kept on pushing the issue, he actually bought me a flute, instead of renting one.

I got my first credit card when I was 21 or so. I don't remember exactly what age I was or what I bought, but I remember the circumstances: I was in a department store with a male friend. I saw something I wanted, presumably didn't have the money for it, and he convinced me to open a store account. The limit was only $100, and what I bought was far less than that, but that was my entree to credit cards. I'd been amazed it was so easy to get credit, and I felt like I'd entered some new level of society. I felt special.

The point of this is: I didn't grow up thinking credit was an option. If the money didn't exist, xyz didn't happen. Period. I thought only rich people had credit cards. It wouldn't have made sense to me to have a credit card if you lived paycheck-to-paycheck like my mother and I did. It's only the last few decades that credit has been so heavily pushed as the "solution" to buying things that you can't afford.

We need to get back to the way things used to be: living explictly on our earnings. Period.

Imagining what it must be like for a college kid now is shudder-inducing. Having so much consumerism constantly paraded in your face, in tandem with "Can't afford it? Then apply for our credit card (at a low! 21.9% APR!)!" This generation is being bombarded with offers of easy credit, instead of being taught how to manage their money. They are not being taught how to manage what they have. They are almost certainly, also, seeing their parents with significant debt. Maybe not bankruptcy-level debt, but neverending credit card debt. Children emulate their parents.

I don't think ease of obtaining credit is the problem. The problem is people are not financially educated when they're young. They should be taught that living within their means should be the goal and a credit card should be a tool. The myth of the quick fix of credit should be debunked.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

You Think Gas is Expensive? It's Not...

Gas in the US really isn't that expensive when compared to other countries. Really. Yes, it's dramatically more expensive than it was two years ago, but it's still quite cheap.

I remember the first time I was in Europe (1998), and I think it was in Paris that I saw my first "gas station" (in Paris, they aren't like in the US -- it was more like a driveway with a pump). Pointing it out to my friend, I said "Wow. Look at how cheap the gas is!" when I saw the price. After converting the price from francs to dollars, I thought the price per gallon was $1.25 or so. Then, my friend and I realized that was the cost for a liter.

It's just that in the US, the price of gas has been hyperconsciously kept low by the government. That, in turn, has certainly contributed greatly to the severe demand for gas and the resulting "shortage." I say shortage, because yes, there are reserves in the Arctic and other locations, yet I agree they shouldn't be tapped. We shouldn't destroy the environment to facilitate laziness. Yes, I do think that many drivers of single occupancy vehicles are showing a form of laziness. Selfishness, too.

In disclosure: I don't drive. I don't even know how to drive. I also want to throttle all the drivers I see during rush hour that are in a car by themselves. I really, really do. My landlord is also a pretty rabid environmentalist. I know some of his extreme feelings about waste, the environment, and recycling have enhanced mine and heightened my awareness. He's also utterly convinced that the US economy will completely and utterly implode and be destroyed...within the next 20 years...because of lack of oil. If you're interested in that theory, read this, or just search for "peak oil" in Google. It's compelling stuff, and the arguments have merit. On the other hand, I tend to believe that viable fuel alternatives will soon become more widespread and affordable and prevent this financial meltdown. (The fuel alternatives link also has links about peak oil.)

But back to gas. Read this to see just how affordable gas is in the US. Yes, gas is ultra cheap in Venezuela at 12 cents a gallon, but if we compare to France, the French are paying over $8 per gallon.

There are a variety of reasons to drive less (especially with only one person in a vehicle), and use other transportation (bus, bike, comfy shoes) to get from one point to the next.

NOTE: If you're interested in this article, you may also be interested in my new article Reasons to Cheer the High Price of Gas.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Carnivals and Festivals

Oops. I'm a bit late getting this out there...

I had articles included in both the Carnival of Personal Finance and the Festival of Frugality this week. They were hosted by Lazy Man and Money and Sound Money Matters. Between the two of them, there are probably close to 200 articles included. Thanks to them for hosting!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Importance of Being Properly Employed

No, this isn't about actually having a job...it's about having the right job with the right (type of) employer.

A couple weeks ago marked the 2-year anniversary of my contracting at my primary client's. I mentioned this to my VP, and we reminisced for a couple minutes. He summed up why we work together so well in one sentence:

I don't like giving instruction, and you don't like taking it.

Obviously, this works because he completely trusts that I will do the job on time and well. If this wasn't such a truthful statement about both of us, I could have easily been offended by the description of me (even though it's true). And while I recognize there are limitations I face based on my preferred work style, my work style and my VP's management style mesh exceptionally well, so it's not an issue. I knew from the very beginning that my VP is a super macro-manager. He's the type that just tells you to do something -- not how to do it. In fact, he doesn't like being involved or told most of the minor details. He likes to know if I'm on track for the timeline, and if I'm getting the resources I need. Beyond that, I'm on my own.

I love working like this.

When I was in college, I worked for a couple temp agencies during holidays and summer breaks. While I never really had any particular difficult jobs, there were some particularly gruelling work environments. I remember temping in an office around Christmas time, and naturally the phones were dead. A deeply angry-at-the-world, unsatisfied woman would come over to the reception desk and start ranting and raving and swearing like a sailor, loudly...even when I was answering the phone. While there were nice people who worked there, I knew I never could. There was no way I'd have worked there, especially since they all tolerated this woman's exceptionally rude and highly unprofessional behavior.

The upshot was: as a temp, I saw many different offices, many different types of co-workers and managers, and I learned a lot about what I wanted and needed from an employer, a manager, and co-workers. When I graduated college and was ready to start searching for full-time work, I made a list of what I wanted from the company I would work for -- down to details like age range of potential co-workers. I ended up at the hi-tech job, and it met at least eight of the ten or so items on the list (I no longer have that list, though I wish I did). For a long time, the hi-tech job was a great match for me.

In the hi-tech days, I briefly had a supervisor who tried to micro-manage me and her other charges. It did not go over well with any of us. At one point, she sat behind me to watch me work. Of course, I wanted to turn around and smack her, but love of my paycheck prevented me from doing that. My final manager understood me a bit more (I think), and let me go about my business on my own terms. I came in later than everyone else, telecommuted 1-2 times each week, and worked with minimal direct supervision. Basically, my manager told me as long as I was in by 10am to handle my east coast customers, made meetings on time, and got the job actually done, I was pretty free to work and manage my time as I saw fit.

All that said, what I'm currently doing, and who I'm doing it for, perfectly illustrates how you should work. Do something you enjoy, and find the right employer. Writing and editing is a form of play for me, and doesn't often seem like "work." The website design and development is a bit more challenging, as I'm constantly pushing my knowledge (I'm now trying to figure out some php and javascript -- which are both completely alien to me) and doing something that isn't as natural as writing and editing.

I've heard many people say "don't do what you love because you'll end up hating it." To a certain extent, I can agree with that when it comes to creative professions. I know that I rarely write for fun, now that I'm paid to write and edit. Though since I actually get to write and edit most days, this makes me happy since I consider writing and editing a form of play -- and what is better than that?! However, actually starting a(nother) side business of making and selling jewelry has actually got me back in to flexing my creativity, as I hadn't made a necklace for myself (or anyone else, for that matter) in years, and I'm loving it.

Too, when you do something you really enjoy, it's just so much more satisfying. People who are enthusiastic about their job are more likely to get better raises and promotions, too.

Most of us spend so much time actually working, it behooves everyone involved to be doing what they like for a boss/client that matches their working style.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

When Do You Let Things Go?

As always, I've been thinking about budgeting and money management. Most recently, I've been thinking about when people let go. Let go of bad habits, let go of restrictive habits.

Personally, I created my personal finance spreadsheet when I realized my debt load was not in any way close to what it needed to be if I wanted to buy a condo. It wasn't a matter of me getting to a point of debt where I couldn't live on what I was making, or when I was in the red in my bank accounts. In fact, I had several thousand dollars in the bank.

I know with relationships, many people have a tendency to stay in a bad relationship, because it's felt like ending it and starting something new would be too hard, or inconceivable. Or maybe they stay in the relationship because they like one quality, and convince themselves that that is enough to keep holding on. The latter happened with me and my last ex-boyfriend, and it was difficult to talk with him and break it off. I knew it was for the best, but it still hurt a great deal to do it.

Is being in a bad cycle with debt like being in a bad relationship? I think it is.

Is the turning point for other people hitting rock bottom financially? Do other people realize that in order to meet a certain goal (e.g. home ownership) they need to change their ways? Is there another factor that pushes the decision to change financially?

What do you think?

This Week's Carnival

I'm late announcing it, but I was included in this week's Carnival of Personal Finance. It was hosted over at The Happy Rock, and my article How I Save Money (aka Why I Have Seven Savings Accounts) was included.

Because it's relevant to me, I found Freelance and Contract Technical Writing Rates interesting. I know I got lucky with my first client, in the rate I negotiated and the fact that I hadn't had specific technical writing experience (though I had plenty of other writing experience). The article also does a great job of encouraging you to know your worth in your job market, which is invaluable. I recently heard a story of someone who is receiving $50/hour as a contractor. Sounds great, right? Then this person learned their agency was charging the client something like $180/hour. Outrageous!

Just looking over the titles and summaries of the other articles included show there is an exceptional number of good articles. I hope to catch up with them over the weekend!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Why I Love Thrifting

I went out for drinks and dinner with a girlfriend last night, and she loved the skirt I was wearing. Her jaw dropped when I told her I'd bought it for $4.

I went thrift shopping yesterday, and I found tons of great things (though I didn't buy everything I found). Notably, I bought five nice, most likely new, skirts yesterday...for under $20. Yep. Five skirts for $20.

A couple of the skirts will be part of my Change The Color project (I already have a few things I want to dye). One of the skirts is particularly ugly (which is certainly why there were at least 30 of them at Goodwill), though I'm confident it will look great when dyed blue (or red).

I've been wanting some more skirts, and I felt like I hit the bonanza yesterday. Normally, there aren't a lot of skirts in my size (my size isn't all that unusual or extreme), though that was not the case yesterday. I'm pretty certain I was looking at the result of a lot of other people's Spring Cleaning. While I generally don't find huge numbers of things I want to try on, I tried over five things in one place, and probably ten or more in the next. Three of the skirts I bought are new, since they were obviously donated by Target; one looked brand new; and one was probably actually owned and worn by someone else.

So, if you're in the market for some new clothes, check out your local thrift stores. Drive to the nearest major city, if it's a doable drive, or go to the nearest wealthy community (I once lived in a wealthy city/suburb of 10k, and the thrift shops often had high-end clothes for $10...). The change of seasons is always a good time to find things. People are cleaning out their closets right now...take advantage of it!

I'll be off to at least one more thrift shop today...

Thursday, April 17, 2008

How I Save Money (aka Why I Have Seven Savings Accounts)

I don't have just one savings account. In fact, I have seven. It breaks down like this: 2 for emergency fund (one in my bricks and mortar bank, a larger one with Ing), 1 for my IRA, 1 for my taxes, 1 for travel, 1 for my condo downpayment fund and 1 for my snowflake fund. The snowflake account is actually a checking account, but I don't use the account for anything else, so I consider it savings (I also don't put money in this account expecting to earn interest -- I earn money from this account, instead, by using it against my debt and saving money that I would otherwise pay in interest).

Keeping so many accounts may seem excessive, yet it works quite well for me. Each week I get paid, I allocate money to a different savings account (the emergency fund gets two allocations per month, and the IRA gets an allocation each check). Having these separate funds allows me to better manage my savings accounts, and to also not feel guilty when I take or plan a vacation when my emergency fund isn't fully funded. I like having more than one account, so that it's not constantly a battle to remember exactly how much of a lump sum belongs to particular budget item.

Paid Twice recently wrote about how she currently keeps a single savings account, as "all funds are emergency funds until you have a sufficient buffer." I agree with this, though I still prefer to have multiple savings accounts. Now, I don't plan vacations when I know I'm not going to be working. However, I don't want to let my not having a fully funded emergency fund from preventing me from a vacation. (Believe me, I needed the four-day vacation I took last week. A LOT. In fact, I could really use another couple weeks off (preferably on a Mexican beach), but that's something else, and something my travel fund can't currently support.) I also like to save up for things, and having separate funds for travel and a condo down payment allows me to save for these things (albeit slowly) and watch them progress and grow.

All that said, I do know that if an emergency came up next week and needed more than what's currently earmarked as emergency fund money, the condo downpayment and travel fund would be the first hit up for cash.

Too, I know that I generally don't need to tap my emergency fund too often. In fact, I really only tap it when I'm not working. Occasionally I need extra money because some irregular expense or other has come up (e.g. getting a couple fillings at my last dentist visit), but thankfully, I rarely need money for true emergencies.

It also works like this: I'm pretty obsessive about having money saved and cash stashed at home. I also know that if something Really Big and Really Expensive happened, I have a couple credit cards with fairly obscene credit limits at my disposal. Yes, I know a credit card is surely NOT the best option for an emergency, but I do feel a certain amount of security knowing I have that option if something really catastrophic happens. In fact, the friend who helped me create my initial finance spreadsheet said I should just put all my money to my debt and use the credit card for emergencies. I explained about how I must have some cash in the bank, and then we agreed to disagree on that strategy...though, if I had a regular full-time job, I could conceivably consider doing that. Though, I'm self-employed (hurrah!) and I don't plan on changing that anytime soon, so it's a moot point.

In all, I think a savings strategy needs to be done based on where someone is at financially, and what will make them feel comfortable. For some, I imagine it's more soothing to see one or two accounts with larger sums in them. Regardless of how exactly we do it, we need to save money -- and like how and how much we save, it's a personal choice.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Back in the Game

Whee. Four days is not an adequate vacation, when you haven't had a proper vacation in 16-17 months... Though I do feel a bit refreshed, and it was wonderful to be away from my email and laptop for four days. It did take a couple days to get past the sickness that started the Saturday before, though I now feel about 95% better.

It was a lovely getaway, filled with nothing more than a lot of walking, napping, and restaurants.

So today, it's back to work (sigh), back to making pretty necklaces (yay!), and back to getting some more articles posted for you, dear reader.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Reader Request: Balancing Frugality and Being Debt-Free

Kelly has a difficulty many of wish we had: she's debt-free. However, she feels guilty when she spends money on herself.

She left the following comment earlier today:

I consider myself frugal, although I do very much appreciate nice things like $250 jeans and such. As my husband and I become more successful- I will splurge on items here and there. recently I splurged and bought 2- $200 purses and a $130 on a single top- and I feel sooo guilty! Here's our situation:We have no debt, make good money and have 50k in savings. Most people in our situation would think that we've got it made and we're well off. so why do I feel sick to my stomach about spending money? Also I should point out that I recently sold a bunch of my old clothes on ebay to help justify this splurge- but it doesn't seem to be working! I wish I could just relax and enjoy my recent purchases which I absolutely LOVE but in the back of my head I just keep thinking I threw away $550. So PLEASE help me to put my splurge into perspective. what are your thoughts?

This is a perfect example of why I talk about balance. If someone practices strict frugality at some point in their life, to the point that it becomes second-nature, this guilt can easily appear.

Really though, as long as Kelly isn't spending like this weekly or monthly, I really don't see the problem in occasionally "splurging" on oneself. She didn't include her and her husband's income or monthly expenses, so it's difficult to say if $550 is a big percentage of their after-expense monthly budget. If they're both contributing solid amounts to retirement accounts, there's absolutely nothing wrong with splurging now and then. After all, if you're debt-free, earning good money and planning for the future, why not spend some of the extra money on yourself?

Too, I would also recommend paying attention to why and what is bought. If spending $200 on a purse means that you're buying a well-made purse that will last longer than it takes for the next fad to start and finish, great. But if that $200 is spent on something trendy and poorly made, then that isn't great. If buying these things is a stop-gap for other emotions, that needs to be addressed first -- because the issue isn't about money, money is just how the something else is being manifested.

Also, this really isn't a splurge, considering that ebay profits were (mostly) used to buy these items...

Aside from this, I think the real issue in this situation is a person's relationship with money. I, too, would love to have $50k in the bank and no debt. I know, too, that it would take a while for me to adjust to having money to spend after having been in debt for so many years. Kelly doesn't say if she's been in debt, or grew up with little money, so it's not clear if she has frugal habits from not having extra money before, or if there is another reason.

Overall, my advice is to still work from a budget and set aside a certain amount for splurges each month. As long as the occasional splurges don't become regular things (e.g. "where/when did I get this handbag?! It has dust/the tags on it!"), there's not a problem. If you have the excess money (post-monthly expenses and retirement contributions), there shouldn't be guilt in having the disposable income to buy things you like/want.

This situation is one of the reasons I have different savings accounts for different things, why I think super-strict budgets don't work in the long-run and why I think they create potentially dangerous money perceptions, and why I think we all need to work towards having a healthy relationship with money and how we manage it.

What do you think?