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'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.