Jan 31, 2008

When Paying Late = Saving Money

I set this afternoon aside to organize all of my late bills and pay off what I can. My auto insurance bill was two payments behind (out of sheer laziness on my part). So I called up and requested to pay it off. It turned out they had my wrong address down, and then when they found out I moved (closer to work) I was told that I could get a discount for driving a shorter distance each year.

So I'm saving something like $100 a year just for calling up because I was late paying my bill. Also, I found out if I pay online w/ auto pay (which I was planning on signing up for anyway, it just wasn't working because they had my old zip code down), I can save $50 a year. Sweet.

I'm still probably paying too much because I have full comprehensive coverage in case my car gets broken into again and I have to get the window repaired. After having it broken into two without the full comprehensive coverage I signed up for it, and low and behold it got broken into again and I got it fixed for "free."

Meanwhile I just paid off my dermatologist bill and put my medical claim filings into an envelope to be sent out. Now I just have to get my health insurance set up on auto pay and I'm set... as long as I have enough $$$ in my checking account. I'm keeping it fairly low, which is scary for me. I usually keep a few thousand dollars in savings with free overdraft in case I overdraw my checking. I refuse to let myself rack up credit card bills, so I use my debit card for just about everything. That kind of sucks when my bank account runs dry, but otherwise works quite nicely.


Jan 30, 2008

Budget - Fixed Monthly Costs

Since I'm oh-so bad at not racking up random late fees on things, here are my fixed costs
and what they should cost me each month:

$1050: Rent / Utilities
$71.33: Cable/ Internet
$48.33: Verizon Phone
$128: Health Insurance
$138: Car Insurance
$100: Gas
$27: Gym

Total Set Monthly Income (actual, not dreamed)


Have to put 25% of that into taxes savings account...

$925 into savings account.

Leaving $2775 for monthly spending
$1562.22 of fixed costs


That hypothetically leaves
$1212.78 for food, fun, investing, medical spending, extra gas, etc

A reasonable budget would be:

$400: Food
$100: Invest (roth IRA)
$100: Invest: ETF/Stocks
$200: HSA Account for Medical (Need to Set Up!)
$200: Clothes / Makeup
$100: Extra Gas
$112.78: Entertainment

What am I missing?


Monthly Spending

Total Non-investment & Non-rent spending for Jan: $1778.34

Investment $: $4062

($3000 Roth 2008, $1050 Sharebuilder, $12 Sharebuilder fees)

Rent: $1050

Total Spending in January: $6890.34

Things I still owe money for that I should have paid this month:

1. Dermatologist Bill: $160
2. Driver's Insurance $200
3. Two fix it tickets for late registration: $20

Things I'm owed money for
1. AT&T bills for past 3.5 months, owed over $300 from previous company
2. $200 -- I need to send in paperwork to old health insurance for doctor's visits I paid for before my insurance card arrived (should offset dermatologists bill)
3. 10 hours of work (I need to file an invoice asap) at news company at $25 an hour, $250

What I spent Money on This Month...

$201.41: Verizon Wireless Bill (my minutes went way over last month, grr)

$67.85: Safeway (Groceries)

$62.76: Longs Drugs (drug store)

$129: Health Insurance

$.97: Bank of America "Keep the Change Transfer" to savings

$44.03: Safeway (Groceries)

$19.08: Safeway (Groceries)

$81.31: Haircut

$55: Brazilian Waxing (ouch it hurt)

$28.71: Brunch for two

$1050: Rent

$6.17: 24 Hour Fitness Dues (i'm not sure why I owed any more money this month, but I'm too lazy to complain about a $6.17 charge. They just better stop charging me now.)

$.75: Parking

$2.98: Bank of America "Keep the Change Transfer" to savings

$106.41: AT&T Phone Bill (that I didn't owe that my old company needs to still reimburse me for!)

$.59: Bank of America "Keep the Change Transfer" to savings

$31.77: Longs Drugs

$.23 Bank of America "Keep the Change Transfer" to savings

$71.29: Whole Foods (groceries)

$15.47: Dry Cleaning (spend too much on this.. long story I'll explain later)

$1.24 Bank of America "Keep the Change Transfer" to savings

$113: Hair Color

$23.71: Whole Foods (Groceries)

$7.40: Safeway (Groceries)

$.89: Bank of America "Keep the Change Transfer" to savings

$19.46: Lunch for Two

$.54: Bank of America "Keep the Change Transfer" to savings

$65.80: Lucky (Groceries)

$.20: Bank of America "Keep the Change Transfer" to savings

$500: Transfer to Sharebuilder Investment

$15.77: Whole Foods (Groceries)

$.23: Bank of America "Keep the Change Transfer" to savings

$71.33: Cable/Internet Bill

$33.19: Whole Foods (Groceries)

$6.50: Lunch

$1.31: Bank of America "Keep the Change Transfer" to savings

$500: Transfer to Sharebuilder Investment

$50: Transfer to Sharebuilder Investment

$12: Sharebuilder Monthly Fees

$6.99: lunch

$.01: Bank of America "Keep the Change Transfer" to savings

$75.60: Piazza's Fine Foods (Groceries)

$30: Gas

$.40: Bank of America "Keep the Change Transfer" to savings

$37.82: Bookstore

$.18: Bank of America "Keep the Change Transfer" to savings

$3000: Roth IRA Investment for 2008

$91.20: Smog Check & Oil Change

$20.09: Walgreens (drug store)

$14.06: Clothing

$2.74: Bank of America "Keep the Change Transfer" to savings

$26.07: Dinner for Two

$18.26: Whole Foods (groceries)

$1.67: Bank of America "Keep the Change Transfer" to savings

$161.34: New Cell Phone


Other than investments, my largest cost was obviously groceries...


$441.98: Groceries

That's actually not as bad as I expected, considering how often I go food shopping. I did really good on NOT spending a lot of money on clothing this month. However, I do owe money for various bills I've yet to pay. That will come out of my February salary.


Jan 29, 2008

Bought a New Verizon Wireless Cell Phone

It's funny how the cell phone companies make it seem like you get some extra special deal on buying a new phone every two years. I guess some people like to get replacements of their gadgets every two years, but I tend to hold on to my electronics for longer than that. My iPod? I don't plan on replacing it for a long time. Heck, if it still works, I'll use it when I'm 50.

But cell phones... dare I keep one longer than two years? Never. Well, the truth is this time around I actually lost my last phone (about a month ago) and despite being confused as to where on earth I put it, I'm splurging on a new, discounted-with-two-year-contract phone.

My tastes in gadgets (and everything else) tend to go by looks first, features second, quality third. That's not always the best way to pick out a big-ticket item. Luckily with phones there aren't that many options... which makes it somewhat easier to shop and decide.

Yesterday I checked out the latest Verizon phones at their Circuit City store and was hoping to fall in love with one that would be free after the rebate and my contract discount. Of course, I fall in love with one that will cost me $129 after the various discounts. Oh bother.

After trying to get my heart set on one of the cheaper phones, I did some research on the different phones and decided I really, really, realllly wanted the $129 one. At least this year I did research, right? Last time I got a Verizon brand phone and despite being black and shiny it was a crappy phone. This time around I'm going for an LG (that supposedly gets good battery life and decent phone quality).

Was I totally stupid to spend $129 on a phone when I could have got one for free (or perhaps even found my old one that's likely hiding somewhere in my room... or at a friend's house?)

I can't wait to get the phone. I ordered it online, so it comes next week.

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Jan 27, 2008

I spent ONLY $12.91 at Target.

Someone, anyone, give me a gold star.

I walked around the entire store as always, even though I went in to buy a notebook, a sponge and tape. I picked up a few items and then forced myself to put them back down as I wandered around. Holding the item is half of the excitement of shopping. I don't actually have to buy it.

I kept telling myself "no" (in my head, of course) and I made it out of the store with exactly what I had intended to buy (well, I bought a special soap-holding sponge scrubber thing, but I still did a good job.)

A for effort. A- for end result.


Jan 26, 2008

Crap. I got pulled over.

I can't blame anyone else for this mishap. My registration expired... a while ago. However, I paid the $120 registration fee at the DMV (which, I think included a late fee) and was to get my smog checked by Jan. I had until Jan 1 to get my smog checked and get my stickers for my plates.

Of course, being the procrastinating idiot that I am, I waited a little too long to get this done. I received one ticket (for $35) for my expired registration while my car was parked in a public lot. So I finally got around to getting my smog checked THIS MORNING. I paid $90 for my smog check & an oil change that was overdue.

Ten minutes later, I was driving on the freeway and I got pulled over.

I showed the cop my smog receipt and the little registration card (that may or may not have been expired... I'm a bit confused about whether it expired on the 1st of the month, or at the end of the month.)

The worst thing was that somehow my insurance card had gone missing. I kept it in my glove compartment, but the robbers threw everything out of my glove compartment when they went through my car last month. I thought I had put everything back, but apparently my insurance information was missing.

So now I have this "notice to appear" paper that says that I have an infraction for an expired registration and it also notes that I did not have insurance on me, though neither the infraction or misnomer boxes are checked for that. I'm not sure what that means.

The cop said that I should get my sticker and then go to any police department with the paper. He didn't really explain whether I'm going to owe a zillion dollars or if I just need to prove that I'm actually registered to avoid paying.

This really sucks because today I decided I'm going to start being really tight on my budget and living with a minimal amount in my checking account. I figure I'll spend less if I pretend I have less to spend. Simple psychology ought to do the trick.

Except now I'm worried I'm going to get an overdraft fee because of all of these unexpected expenses. That'll teach me to stop procrastinating, eh?

I owe quite a bit of money for different things... $200 for health insurance... $150 for my cyst removal bill... $35 for my ticket... and now who knows how much more for this other ticket-type-thing.

Right now I have $600 in my checking account. I'm supposed to get paid Monday for my work... so that would bring me up to $3900. BUT I plan on putting $1000 of that in a special ING savings account for taxes. That leaves me with $2900, and I have to pay rent in a few days. So I'm at $1850. Not so bad, but after I pay all those bills, plus my phone bill, plus the cable/internet bill, plus the gym bill, plus buy a new phone in two days (my old one is lost and I am eligible for the discount on a new phone on Monday)... well, I won't have much money left for food.

At least this setup will keep me from spending money on clothes I don't need!
At least that will keep me from


Millionaire Matchmaker - Bravo's Latest "Reality" Show

If you haven't had a change to catch Bravo's latest reality show: Millionaire Matchmaker, you're not missing much. Take a bitchy Yenta from New Jersey, Patti Stranger, whose entire life is dedicated to helping super-wealthy men find the girl of his dreams. Surely it makes for a good business. She charges anywhere from $10,000 to $150,000 a year to hook up the hotties and the notties (oh god, did I just quote a Paris Hilton movie title?).

The men who appeared on the television show were actually fairly attractive, but one has to assume for every attractive-yet-single millionaire willing to appear on TV, there's another ten whose reflection would likely crack mirrors.

Overall, the show greatly offended me. The men, surprisingly enough, did not offend me at all. Sure they wanted women who were perfect everything and had unreasonable expectations, but what really got me is this woman, Patti, has no freaking clue what men actually want. She thinks she does, of course. Being that the matchmaking service is LA-based, looks matter a lot (even more than they would elsewhere.) At the beginning of the show they film her going through a series of headshots and she says "definitely not" to a women who is wearing glasses. You can't see the photo up close, but the women certainly doesn't look fugly. She just doesn't have a glamor shot like some of the other girls. Given the right makeup, hair stylist and photographer, her pic would probably look just as "hot" as these other girls.

Meanwhile, this women definitely has a very narrow concept of attractiveness (ironically, she's very unattractive). Redheads? They're out. She even asked a redhead if she'd dye her hair brown.

The only thing I'll give them credit for is that they did want to get women with an education. In the end, though, this proved difficult. And too much education wasn't good either. They'd take women of top-notch pedigree (a graduate of the Ivies, etc) but not someone who used Dr. in front of their name while introducing herself.

Episode one featured two men... #1 "Sex Toy Dave" - a millionaire who made bank by selling - you guessed it - sex toys. On the Internet. His snazzy house featured such things as a view and a stripper pole in the middle of the living room (awesome). Of course, Patti wanted the stripper pole gone. Her interior designer suggested moving all sex related things to a "sex toy room."

Ultimately the gal Dave picked, who I must say was actually a relatively good choice for him, was not offended by the stripper pole (though she was a little good two shoes and was slightly off put by it. She wouldn't try it out herself.)

Meanwhile, the other guy was an older (46 year old) options trader. A Yale grad. He was a bit disillusioned with the type of gal he should be with. Patti wants to get these guys "younger" girls, but not with a 20 year age difference.

But her method of natural selection seems to go against this. She put the two men in a room with a dozen or so women and let them all have at it. The most impressive women got asked out on solo dates with the two guys.

Mr. Options Trader picked out a very hot, young brunette with blue eyes. Sex Toy Dave chose a women who seemed really cool. She had the Ivy pedigree, a great smile, she was laid back, and pretty but not in a porn star sort of way.

Still, in the end the pair didn't work out. He was too much of a party boy for her.

I don't really understand why these men spend thousands upon thousands of dollars asking this woman to find the perfect women for them. Maybe they'll get laid (though that's against the rules until they're in a committed relationship) but find the perfect woman, i'm not so sure.

First off, any women who wants to be in the "Millionaire's Club" is in it for the wrong reasons. Unless you literally find women on normal dating sites and think they're perfect for someone rich, and ask them to join the "club" without the intention of marrying rich, you will get gold diggers and more gold diggers. Do these men really want that? Eh, maybe they do. They have all this money and sometimes it's nice to spend it on designer clothes for your special lady. I guess.

I think if it weren't for Patti, this show wouldn't be quite so offensive to me. But she's just a nightmare. She wants the men to change for women who she think would make good wives and mothers. What ever happened to pay someone to find someone who might like you for the way you are? Or... you know... just find them.

Patti's club website: The Millionaire's Club, is subtitled: Where successful men come to meet their beautiful and intelligent wives as girlfriends. Honestly, the site looks skanktastic. It's one step above escort service.


Jan 25, 2008

Stolen Credit Card

Did I mention that my car got broken into a month or so ago? I thought all that was stolen was $4 in cash and two checks (for $400 and $50). The $400 check was canceled and sent to me again. My aunt refuses to cancel the $50 check (that was a gift) because she thinks I'm stupid for leaving my car door open with the checks in it. Fair enough.

So... apparently I am really stupid because I must have left this Amazon.com Credit Card lying around in my car as well. I kept meaning to throw it out... I signed up for it on a win wim (I wanted to buy perfume, they had a $30 if you sign up for a card now deal, and I couldn't resist at the time). But I keep one credit card because I know how I get with bills in general (if I could put all my late fees into one investment account I'd be rich by now.)

Anyway, these crooks stole the card that I hadn't even activated. I didn't find out about it until today when I received a bill for the card. $103 of charges. Interestingly, all the charges are at a gas station about 30 minutes north of here. I guess my car thieves travel to my 'hood to break into cars at night. The fuckers.

The good news is that the customer service people were nice about it and won't make me pay for the charges, or so they say. I'll see about that in 14 days when I get the papers I have to sign, and then I'll find out if I don't have to pay it.

At least it was my credit card and not my atm card.


Jan 24, 2008

Oh Boy! A $600 Rebate!

I'm a little excited about getting a $600 rebate this spring, thanks to the tax rebate package that passed today. While I'm not their ideal rebate grantee (I'll likely invest the funds, maybe into my Roth, which now has $2000 left until I max it out for 2008, though) it will make it easier to buy a few new spring pieces to my wardrobe without feeling terribly guilty about my spending (to be honest, guilt and financial logic never stopped me from spending anyway).

The good news w/ the rebate is that even if I end up owing money on taxes for 2007, I'll actually still get a rebate or... break even.


I wish this happened every year!


Don't Let Me in a Grocery Store Again, Ever.

Aisles upon aisles of tantalizing packaging torment me until I can't help but spend on edibles that I may or may not need.

How is it that I go into a grocery store planning on picking up eggs, milk, perhaps a few apples and a sweet potato, and leave with a $70 bill?

I'll tell you how...

$2.69: Milk, 1/2 gallon
$4.79: Flaxseed Meal (to try putting in a shake. Or to bake with. If i ever learn how to bake.)
$2.13: two red garnet yams (yum)
$5.99: String cheese (a good snack. i ran out of string cheese a while back. i needed more)
$2.99: bath salts (yea, I know, I don't need these, but... they smell so pretty, and they were only 2.99!)
$14.99: vanilla whey protein powder (i'm experimenting with protein powders. i got a small sample of this brand the other day and liked it. so i decided to buy more.)
$2.91: two pink lady apples (who can resist a pink lady?)
$3.99: figs (they were on sale. They have fiber. They called to me.)
$1.19: one sweet potato (well, my third one, counting the red garnet yams)
$19.99: a strainer. (I needed a new one since I keep burning myself trying to pour hot water when I cook pasta. This one is special. You can boil things in it.)
$2.69: yeast... in case I ever want to use the bread tin I bought the other day.
$2.99: frozen peaches (for a shake?)
$2.89: liquid egg
$2.24: four kiwis (i say a kiwi a day keeps the doctor away.)


+ CA sales tax of $3.13

Grand Total: $75.60

Gah! I've spent so much money on groceries this month. I'm trying to be good and not go out to lunch and dinner always, but I think I'm actually spending more now that I'm going to the grocery store on a weekly basis. Even though I am eating healthier...

In other quasi food-related news...
I bought three shares of McDonald's stock today. My gold ETF is up and my small cap risk is way down. I decided to put $3000 in my Roth IRA for 2008, so when I'm ready for retirement, at least I can say that I tried to be smart and I put in $7000 before I turned 25. I'll see if I can get the other $2000 in sometime over the year. More on that later.


Phone Call with AT&T

The only good thing out of this situation is that I was able to call and speak with a rep from AT&T last night (so I wasn't spending more of my Verizon cell phone minutes to deal with the saga (see here and here.)

After barking at this women for over a half hour, it seems I got somewhere. Well, sort of. She explained to me that since my account was canceled on December 24, the charge that just showed up on my statement was for Nov - Dec. Also, since my billing cycle ends on the 21, I will have one more charge appear on my account for the three days between the 21 and 24, but the rep couldn't tell me yet how much that would be for.

As far as canceling auto pay, she said she'd gladly do that, but it usually takes one billing cycle before that's put into effect (so, in other words, it doesn't really matter if i do that because there's only one more billing cycle left).

What really frustrates me is that this all should have been taken care of in October, if the women at AT&T handled our phone request properly and transfered the account then.

At the end of the conversation, I realized that trying to get reimbursed from AT&T for the charge was going to be impossible. So instead, I asked if they could send me a bill for the last three months charges, so at the very least I could forward this on to my boss so I could be reimbursed.

That sounds so simple, right?

Well... I'm told that it costs $5 per bill to have them sent to me, but I could go online to see and print them for free. I bitch at her for another 10 minutes, explaining that I can't get into the online account because it's under my bosses' name with HIS information and password. She finally goes to talk to her manager and puts me on hold for another 5 minutes. Then she comes back and says she'll mail the bills out to me. Jackpot. Well, sortof.

That's about all I can do for now. I'll send the bills off to my boss the second I get them and hopefully will get the $300+ back that has been withdrawn from my account.

All I can think is thank goodness I was able to make this call at night when my minutes are free!

AT&T will never, ever, ever get my business again.


Jan 23, 2008

AT&T Will Not Stop Billing Me!!!

Perhaps some of you remember the saga of my previous employer and the cell phone bill that kept showing up on my bank account.

In short -- for my full-time reporting gig, I bought a cell phone through AT&T for work -- my boss told me to do this and he would reimburse me. That all went over fine.

A few months and a firing later, the nightmare began. On the last day of work, after a long conversation with AT&T on the phone, it sounded like the account would be transfered to my boss and all would be fine.

But then the auto pay bills started showing up on my bank statement. One in December, then one in January. I finally called AT&T and after 3+ hours on the phone with them (which ended up costing me something like $100 on my Verizon cell phone that I used to call them) you'd think everything would be solved. They talked to my boss again and he re-gave them permission to transfer the account to him.

Oh... but what shows up on my bank statement this month? ANOTHER $106.41 charge from AT&T. WTF?? My boss is supposedly reimbursing me for the last two months ($109 and $106) but I haven't gotten that check yet, and now I have to bother him and the accounts woman again asking for more money to be expensed and...

I am just so frustrated and I don't know what to do. Not only is this costing me lots of money (which will hopefully be reimbursed at some point), it's also costing my boss lots of money. As soon as the account is transfered to him, he was going to change the monthly plan to the lowest cost one, so he wouldn't have to pay $106 a month. Except they just can't seem to figure out how to transfer it to him.

Add in to the mix that this former boss of mine just had a heart attack. It's not exactly the best time to be bugging him with this... but I also can't keep getting charged $106 a month for a phone I no longer have!

What should I do?? Do I have any rights here? I don't want to spend another zillion hours on the phone with AT&T because it seems that gets me nowhere.


Mutual Funds + Tax = Grr.

As most of you know, I lost $700 on my Vanguard accounts over the last year.

Still, I owe tax on $8.76. That's not a huge deal (maybe I'll owe $1 tax) but, still, it's just frustrating that I lose all this money, and then still owe tax on it. Well, I guess that's how investing works, eh?


Making a Living as a Freelance Writer

As a gift to myself for reaching $30 in my AdSense account (after only 102 blog posts and more than 12k hits, heh) I purchased a copy of Writer's Market 2008 at the local bookstore.

Filled with over 3,500 listings for various publishing opportunities, this book is a goldmine for freelancers.

I'm just getting started on my freelance career. I'm not a typical freelancer because I work one 30-hour-per-week job that pays the rent and the bills. But I'm hoping to expand my writing experience (and monthly earnings) by being published in numerous publications.

Sending out queries to publications is tough, especially because you likely will be rejected, or even worse, never hear back. I got lucky in that early on in my career I had the opportunity to work as an editorial assistant for a magazine and obtain numerous glossy clips. But it turns out, the clips that impress the few publications I'm trying to write for aren't the ones I wrote for the mag. Instead, they like the style stories I wrote for a few local newspapers.

If you want to get started in writing and get paid for it, I highly recommend writing for a local newspaper. You might not get paid, but you'll get a few clips. Don't sign up for a full-time internship unless you're in school or right out of college. You can try to freelance for a fee, you might make $50 an article. That's a start.

You've probably already checked out freelancewritinggigs.com, a website that lists daily freelance gigs. There's occasionally something good there. But generally, you're going to want to send queries to the editors of different magazines. Come up with a few ideas (you might think they're stupid and they might love them!) and send off a cover letter with your pitch, and attach a few writing samples. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, all this will cost you is your time... not even $.37 for a postage stamp.

Whatever you do, if you're just getting started, don't think of writing opportunities as being below you. Even though I make $50 an hour for some of my freelance gigs, on average I make about $25 an hour. Sometimes I'll do work for free because I know how valuable that work will be as a portfolio piece in the long run.

I'll write more tips on becoming a freelance writer as I go through my own trial and error process. Thus far, I've been assigned one 600-700 world Q&A for a magazine. The pay is $100. I'll probably spend 4-5 hours on it, including the interview, so that's a good $20-$25 an hour. Hopefully the interview will go over as planned, and I'll have a good article on my hands.


What do you think about Credit Unions?

When I was Googling CD rates in hopes of finding high-interest CDs to balance my rapidly-losing-money stock and mutual funds, I came upon a list of various banks and places with their rates. Most of them were around 3 to 4 percent for any reasonable amount to invest in a CD (sorry, if I had $50,000, I would not put it all into one 10 year CD, even if the interest rate was fixed at 5 percent). Then I saw that this one place was offering a 7 percent rate for new members. 7 percent interest on a CD? Where do I sign up?

After doing a little more research, I found out that the "bank" was actually a credit union. While I had planned to take out my $5000 from my liquid BoA CD that's getting 4.1 percent interest at the moment and put it into a 7 percent CD, it turns out the only amount I can put into this CD is $1000. No more, no less. Well, getting 7 percent returns on $1000 won't hurt.

Still, I'm a bit confused about credit unions. I did some further research and they seem like a pretty good deal. The only thing I'm concerned about is that when I signed up, the fine print noted they could charge me $20 in membership fees if they wanted. It wasn't really clear if this was a one time fee, or a per year fee... or monthly...

Credit unions sound good otherwise. When it comes to obtaining loans and such, since these places are, unlike banks, non profits, they can give relatively low rates. That's about the extend of my understanding of these credit union places for the time being. I decided to sign up for that $1000 CD (I'll be dropping a check off at my local branch later this week) so I can learn more. I figure if I ever get around to be able to afford a house (or a teeny tiny condo), it will make sense to be affiliated with this type of financial institution.

Do any of you belong to credit unions? Why or why not?


Jan 22, 2008

Dreams of a 401(k)

Oh 401(k), when I think about you, I touch myself.

Employers matching contributions? That's a truly beautiful concept, and one I've never been able to take advantage of.

At the moment, my freelance career prohibits me from obtaining full benefits at one company. That's how I chose to live my life, so I have to deal with the fact that my Roth IRA has lost significant amounts of money this year, while if I had been able to contribute to an employee-match 401(k) I might have at least broke even amidst this recession mess. However, I just have to go it alone. That's my choice.

But that wasn't always the case. My first full time job at a magazine showed me how even full-time gigs at companies don't always equate to earning the luxury of a 401(k). That company was a bit, how-do-you-say, confused in terms of organization. We had a meeting about getting 401(k)'s where the financial companies came in and presented our options, then they came in another day and we met with the reps and signed the paperwork. Of course, since the company was not making any money, our 401(k) was not going to include a match at all. So ultimately the only benefit was that it would encourage employees to start saving (but tax-wise, most of us would probably be better off with a Roth anyway).

Next up on my job history resume, I obtained another full-time gig at a startup where I was to get stock options instead of a 401(k). I never actually earned any of those stock options because I left the company after three months. I was fired. I was bored with the topics I was writing about. And I couldn't keep up with the pace. It was for the best.

I worry a bit about my retirement. I know it's many years off, but I won't have the security that my dad has. He retired early so my family is living on a tight budget now, but in a few years he'll have access to his pension and he and my mother can live off that. What will I have to live off of in 2058? Or whenever it is I end up retiring?

Thus far I put $4000 into my Roth IRA (started in 2007). It's down to $3600. I know... I know that investing is a long term thing. Still, I can't help but be concerned about what my future holds. Maybe the smartest thing to do would be to get a stable full-time job at a public company or government agency. But I'm trying to balance my happiness and my future. It's hard to find that balance. I'm worried I'm leaning too far towards happiness right now.


Question of the Day: Can Wealth Be Fair? - from Brip Blap's Blog

Blogger Brip Blap poses the question "can wealth be fair?" The blogger goes on to list three different scenarios where in order for people and a country to build wealth, others might have to suffer. The blogger does not say that (s/)he agrees with these scenarios. In fact, Brip Blap goes on to explain how (s/)he is upset but each of the scenarios discussed.

#1 -- A college graduate basically decides to save nothing and spend all his money throughout his life. Is society responsible to pay for his medical expenses and basic necessities later in life when he can no longer work?

Brip Blap Says: "I detest this attitude. His attitude will take money out of my pocket when he is older.... (still) I doubt anyone is prepared to see senior citizens sleeping on the streets."

I say: I think financial education should be a required, ongoing class in public school. Each year you should have a different amount of money (income) to budget with, and the idea of the class should teach you about saving money, investing, and why credit card interest rates are the devil. After that, if someone choses to go out and spend all their money right away, especially if they've made enough to save, then I don't see why the government should have to pay anything to them when they're older. I don't think the government should be able to "force" you to save your money through taxes, but should provide a clear and easy-to-understand tax incentive for people to save money. It should be income based, maybe in match form, so those who are in a lower income bracket but manage to save 5 percent of their income get a 10 percent match, where those in the upper income bracket get a 5 percent match... or something like that. (Those in the higher income brackets would likely be investing anyway.) For rich people who don't save, I don't mind them ended up on the streets. It's their own fault.

#2: A child is born with 50+ different health problems. Keeping her alive is more expensive than treating dozens of other children. The family is in debt, the health insurance system is hurting because it can't afford to treat this kid.

Brip Blap Says: "I knew a child like this. She was a lovely, happy and intelligent child who suffered from an incurable genetic condition that meant her chances of living to be a teenager - much less an adult - were minimal. Even if the chances of her living to be an adult are slim, she deserves her chance at whatever life she can have. My higher insurance premiums that may have resulted from that? Please."

I say: If we are going to have a health insurance system at all, I think it should not be based on the concept of wealth. We should all pay equally into a universal healthcare system and receive the same quality health coverage, regardless of our pre-existing conditions. Those who are well off may wish to also purchase individual insurance for additional benefits. Yes, even a government-run healthcare system has to make some money to pay for the people who work there, but until healthcare leaves the hands of private, profit-seeking companies, it will never be fair.

#3: Is it fair that a middle class married couple pays more in taxes than someone living off their investments, even though they both may be taking in the same amount of money? Is it fair to tax the rich more, but keep taxes on lower-income families low?

Brip Blap Says: "The unfairness in the system - the loopholes, the weak taxation on rich people - may not benefit me now but it will when I am financially free. I plan to be one of the people living off my investments, earning no wage income and avoiding my fair share of taxes. So if I want to build wealth, why should I rail against this system? I intend for it to benefit me in the end."

I Say: Taxes are never going to make everyone happy. If you live in a society with no taxes and a very limited government, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the middle class disappears. Then the poor start a revolution and the rich get slaughtered. This has happened in history many times. Yes, it's sounds extreme, but that's what happens if you make it impossible for the poor to have at least some opportunity to make it into the middle class. The more opportunity you give, the less likely we'll have another civil war one day. So as much as I hate knowing how much of my income gets zapped from my paycheck due to taxes, I know that at least some of those taxes benefit me (I'm glad the bridges are maintained, as to avoid falling into the East Bay). However, I'm not sure about taxing those living off interest income less than people earning the same amount. It seems taxes should be based solely off of income, regardless of where it comes from.

Brip Blap closes with a great point: "there is no fairness in a capitalistic society. Does anyone want complete fairness? Inequalities in the system are what allow wealth to be built."

That's very true. Otherwise we'd live in a communist society where we'd all (supposedly) be equal. We'd all work, get the same pay, have no reason to better ourselves or society. What kind of society would that be?

That's why I think the role of the government should be to keep wealth in check. To give opportunity to people who are born in poverty and even middle class families. If I had my way, I'd make it illegal for parents to give their children money, and instead they'd put that money into a giant pot that would be divided up evenly amongst all the children in the country. It seems fair for individuals to build wealth, but unfair for their children to profit from such wealth. Yes, I come from a family where I did profit from my parent's wealth, but at what cost? I'd probably be better off if I learned about budgeting from a young age, knowing that I would be on my own with a few hundred dollars in the back to start off with. Allowing families to pass money down from generation to generation is where unfairness begins.

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Making Money with Blog Advertising

... I'm not going to give you a list of "how to make money on your blog" here. Apparently, AdSense is not really working for me. It seems the more quality clicks I get on my site, the less likely someone is to click on an AdSense link. Which is perfectly fine, but kind of defeats the purpose of AdSense.

I'll keep the ads on my page for now, since I take in maybe $1-$2 a month (that'd be 1-3 clicks a month), but what surprises me most is how in the last few weeks my blog traffic has gone up substantially and consistently (yeay!), but my AdSense earnings have not reflected my increase in popularity.

Meanwhile, the one ad I sold on my site made more money than I've made on AdSense to date, and I bet that ad gets more clicks too (though I have no way of measuring that). People are just so numb to AdSense these days that anyone who actually reads blogs on a regular basis will very, very rarely click on an ad. Sometimes I'll click on ads other's blogs because either I'm interested in the advertisement or I just want to help the blogger out a bit. But most of the time I forget to do this.

I'm running a poll right now on the left side of my page about AdSense, where I'm asking you, the reader, if you ever click on AdSense ads (not just on my site, but on any site.) If you haven't voted yet, take a second to pop in your opinion. I'll post the results at the beginning of next month.

Meanwhile, I'm enjoying watching my readership grow. It's a slow, sloooow process, but you've got to start somewhere, right? I look at some of the PF blogs out there that have over ten thousand feed subscribers and I wonder how they did that! I have 28 right now (I gained a few and lost one thanks to that vibrator post, heh) and that's the highest it's been yet. It's exciting to know that people out there in cyberland can relate to my financial experiences. I'm ever-so grateful for all the advice my readers have given me to date.

So even if I won't make more than a buck or two a month by writing in this blog, I make a lot from getting to meet great people (albeit anonymously) and learning more and more about how on earth I should manage my out-of-control budget and investing experiments.

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Jan 21, 2008

Monthly Income Goals

While sorting out my expenses is necessary in order to start saving money, I am going to try over the coming months to focus on my income. Here are my goals:

1. Startup / Part-Time Writing Gig: $3300
2. Marketing Company Writing Retainer: $400
3. Freelance for Magazine: $100
4. Freelance for Market Research Firm: $150
5. 5 hours per week for online news mag: $500
6. One Pro Bono (or Paid) Web Design Project: $0

Then there's taxes. So I really won't make that much. But ideally, that's what I'd be bringing in, at minimum, each month.


What to do About This Cyst on My Head

A few months ago I went to see a dermatologist to find out about getting two dime-sized cysts on my head removed. From what I could tell, they were not cancerous or anything, they were just annoying me and potentially causing pressure on a nerve which would explain the headaches I had been getting.

When I went into the dermatologist, I had good health insurance - a PPO with a $250 deductible. She recommended a simple outpatient surgery to get the bumps off of my head and I agreed. I asked her if this would be covered by insurance and she said "I think it will be covered, don't worry about it." So I had the surgery done and all went well. She cut holes in my head, took out some gook, then stitched me up.

One month later I receive a $136 bill for the surgery (my insurance paid for some of it.) While I was hoping they'd pay for all of it since it was causing me headaches, I wasn't too pissed about the extra charge. What I was (and still am) pissed about is that one bump was not completely removed. At first I thought it was just scar tissue, but within the two months since the operation, that bump has re-grown and actually gotten bigger.

I'd like to go back to the dermatologist to have her check it out (she can at least tell me if it's normal for it to grow back, or maybe take it out again) but now I have a high deductible catastrophic insurance and I don't want to pay $200 for a visit to have her check my head when the original surgery... that I still have to pay for... was supposed to get rid of the bumps entirely!

What should I do?

Edited to add: I called the doctor and was informed that it's normal for these cysts to grow back and basically I just have to deal, or come in for another appointment. I wish the doctor told me about the odds of the cyst growing back before the surgery. I had read online that the cyst could grow back eventually, but I didn't think it would happen right away.


Jan 20, 2008

The Lawsuit and Rich Parents (aka, why I have $26k in my bank account at 24)

Many of you might wonder how on earth I have managed to save over $25k at 24... and to be honest, I'm a bit embarrassed to admit the truth. While I'd love to tell you all stories of how I worked my ass off through college, got an extremely well paying job the second I graduated and continued to watch my salary climb as the years passed, the reality is none of that is true.

Here's what really happened:

I was born into an upper middle class family. My mother stayed at home. My dad was an actuary who made a strong six-figure salary. While my mother and I kept spending his hard-earned money, he still managed to save quite a bit. Additionally, his company had a pension plan and all of those old fangled tricks to keep people working at one company for their entire lives. And it worked... my dad, after dropping out of his graduate program in Physics at Cornell, ended up spending his entire life working for this one company and climbing the corporate ladder. He never seemed happy, as he certainly did not like my mother, and having to commute one hour each way into the city everyday couldn't have helped.

But as he worked hard, I continued to reap the benefits. He saved up more than enough money to send me to a relatively expensive private institution for four years. Somehow he also managed to pay for my frequent shopping sprees to discount clothing stores. I was spoiled in an upper middle class sort of way. It's not like I went out and bought Prada or even Coach. Designers always meant little to me, but nonetheless I had a major talent for spending heaps of cash.

If all of that were the entirety of my story, I would have graduated without debt, and with about $9k in savings thanks to dad's "apartment for daughter after she graduates" fund. That would have been plenty more than I deserved.

But here's the secret to my minor fortune:

In 6th grade, I broke my arm at my birthday party. I'm not quite sure whose fault that was, although my parents, our lawyer, and the judge all seemed to agree that the company running the party was at fault for negligence. As an 11-year-old, all I really wanted was an apology from the folks running my birthday party... after all, I had to leave three minutes into the festivities while the rest of my friends stayed and got to enjoy games and cake. Well, my "apology" came in the form of $15,000. Although $5000 was taken out in lawyer fees, by the time I could access the funds at 18, my bank account had grown to about that original sum.

So if you were wondering how on earth I have so much money - that's how.

I do feel guilty about it, as I have many friends who had to take out loans to get through college and who will be paying for their education for years to come.

I've had the luxury to move across the country, to rent a $1050 a month apartment, and to mess up at a few jobs and figure out my career through trial and error. I'm lucky. I'm very, very lucky.

It's hard to compare myself to others my age. I don't know a great deal about people's personal finances, but I have friends across the spectrum of class (ranging from "upper lower" class to "upper middle" class.)

My boyfriend's situation is somewhat different, yet he also has money in savings and graduated with no loans. His mother has never moved out of her parents house. She's worked consistently throughout her life, and has saved most of her income. While I was a spoiled little brat as a kid, my boyfriend never experienced the finer things in life... even though his family had the money to show him such things if they wanted to spend it. But instead, his mother believed in buying clothing from the thrift store. Last Christmas I was shocked that she got me a gift (it is the thought that counts) but I just found it interesting to see that the "gift" was a red wool coat that she had bought from a thrift store a while back, knowing that at some point she'd give it away as a gift.

I don't judge her for this at all, I'm just fascinated by the different financial mindsets of people in America. I wonder how much of it is based on culture and religion, and how much is unique to each family and person. Even I believe that the best part of making more money is being able to share that money... at least with the person you love and your close friends.

There's plenty more I can write about all of this, but I need to get some more work done this evening before heading off to bed. Please leave comments about this topic, as I'm interested in hearing about your families and how that influenced the way you spend and save today.

Edited to add: My parents no longer send me money. I'm on my own. If I was in debt or something awful happens, I know they'd be there to help as much as possible. But now I'm earning money and paying all of my bills, including rent.


Sharebuilder - Will it Destroy Me?

I'm determined to "understand" the stock market as much as possible. Instead of "investing" in an economics class, I'm putting my hard-earned money into stocks via Sharebuilder.

It all started this week when I realized Sharebuilder and ING were now one in the same. I trust ING, so I figured it was time to make the next leap in my financial journey -- ETFs and stocks. I wasn't going to do anything crazy and spend $1000 on one stock right away, but it's time to do some experimenting... especially since we're in a recession and the markets are fairly weak right now. It can't be that bad a time to buy, looking at a long-term investment.

I did a little research and with in my typical spontaneous and likely under thought fashion, I decided to quickly move on from my original $500 investment in Gold and one small cap company that I've liked since my reporting days (even though now that I think more about it, they're probably not the greatest investment). Sharebuilder had a neat feature showing losses and gains that I couldn't see unless I signed up for their monthly plan ($12 a month) which also features 6 free trades, so I gave in and spent the money. Probably a dumb idea. Potentially a very dumb idea.

But I'm young and it pays to be aggressive in my investments, supposedly. If my "safe" mutual funds are failing, then I know to expect that anything more aggressive will likely lose money too. I'm just hopeful 10-20 years down the line these purchases might pay off... maybe in time to move to a bigger place (or buy my first house) and have kids?

Regardless of how much you know or don't know about the stock market, it really all is one big guessing game that can be sorted through with the help of statistics and a fine understanding of the economy. Still, another bomb could go off anywhere in the world and send everyone's predictions completely out of whack. A part of me loves the excitement of the stock market. It's a grown-up game where you can win some money (or lose all your money, eek.)

Again, I'm not being totally stupid about it. I still have a good $12k in two crappy-interest CDs (I'll be moving those funds to one higher-interest CD as soon as they're liquid again) and at least my gains on my CDs and occasional take-home pay equaling more than I spend in a given month have helped balance my loss of $700+ on my Vanguard accounts.

Besides, if we are in or going into a major recession, I believe (after reading a bit on the topic) that certain cheap retail establishments will do well, especially if they have foreign sales power. I'm all about the foreign investments too. Not all in one country, but I'm going to buy a small amount of an index fund in Brazil, one hot company in Spain, and another index tracker in China.

"Going to" is because I have to wait a week and a day before any of these investments post. That's what Sharebuilder's automatic investing is all about. I still don't understand it completely. The "coolest" part about it (that seems to be its selling point compared to other online traders) is that you can purchase "fractional shares." How they do this beats me, but basically you say "I want to invest $X into company Y the 1st Tuesday of every month" and if you have enough money in your account (which you can set up to automatically transfer from your bank account) it will invest exactly that much into that company on that Tuesday.

The good here is that if a stock costs $600 ala Google and you really want a piece of that action, I guess you could go and invest $30 in it. But what i don't understand is how on earth Sharebuilder does that. Do they actually buy a full share of the stock assuming you will continue to buy the rest of it? They can't really do that, because when they place your next order, you buy it at the market price for that Tuesday. As far as I know in my limited knowledge of stocks, you can't just buy parts of a share. You have to take the whole thing. So how on earth does Sharebuilder do this? They don't really explain how they do it on their site, they just say they can and basically that it's an awesome feature for investors with a small amount of savings each month to invest. I like the idea, but please, someone explain this to me.

Anyway, I've set my account up to buy parts of six different stocks once a month for a total of $300. I figure I'm better off forgetting about $300 that I've made and investing it, and either it will make money (I am investing in a few large cap companies that seem to pay dividends, which looks to be a good thing to balance out my risk a bit) instead of looking in my bank account and spending more on food and clothing and such that I could get more cheaply. It will certainly force me to be more frugal, in a good way.

I just hate waiting for the investment window. What if Bush's recession tax plan passes the day before my investment and all the sudden the stocks soar? I'm confident that the stock market is sucking right now, and I've picked stocks and ETFs that seem to have long term potential that are also sucking at the moment. I'm so nervous that it won't be the case on Tuesday the 29th, when my bets should be posted.

Then supposedly I keep investing the same amount every month until I've built up a decent portfolio. I just can't wait until I log into my Sharebuilder account and see a few different stocks and really start following them and understanding what they do and why. If anything, this will help me learn... for future reference... what kills a stock and what makes it soar. Hopefully I'll learn more of the later.


Jan 19, 2008

10 Ways to Make the Most of Your Gym Membership

Gym memberships are a costly investment, but the good thing about them is that you can control the amount of pay off by the amount you actually use them. It doesn't really matter if you're spending $19 a month or $99 a month, what matters is how often you actually get your lazy butt off the couch and go workout.

Here are 10 ways to make the most out of that costly gym membership:

1. Go, and go often: Ok, this one is obvious, but despite having a "duh" factor, this is the most important step of all. For the past year-and-a-half, I had a $46.99 a month membership to 24 Hour Fitness. I went to the gym a total of 10 times in those 18 months. Quick math shows that I would have been better off splurging on a day pass to a local luxury gym... or buying myself fitness equipment... instead of spending about $70 a visit. Now that I belong to Gold's Gym with a $27 a month membership I've vowed to go to the gym at least twice a week. Not only does this make my gym membership make more sense to my budget, it's also helping me be more healthy, which will hopefully cut medical bills in the long run.

2. Get a Gym Buddy... Who Isn't a Close Friend: Having a gym buddy is a good way to encourage yourself to use your gym membership. But if your gym buddy is a close friend, there's a better chance that one of you will come up with a last-minute excuse on why you can't go, letting the other back out easily. After all, friends are often more forgiving about these things, especially if the friends aren't keen on going to the gym in the first place.

3. Take a Class or Ten: Many gyms offer a variety of "free" group fitness classes. As soon as you start taking these classes, your "investment" dollars are being put to work. Assuming group fitness classes, on their own, would cost $50+ a month at the local rec center, taking a class once a week makes the entire gym membership worth a lot more. Go in without any expectations, and be ready to walk if the instructor is awful or the class is really too hard for you.

4. Use Those Machines: One of the main benefits of belonging to a gym is the ability to diversify your workout. Don't be afraid of the weight training machines (I know I was for a long time). Instead, read the instructions on the side of the machine and start slow. You should pick a weight that allows you to do 15 reps (repetitions) of the same movement until your muscle feels as if it is melting and has turned to jelly.

5. Go In the Morning: I'm going to try to take my advice on this one in the coming year, as I've yet to experience the 5am gym rush. Going to the gym in the morning is great because it gives you energy for the day, helps your metabolism, and... best yet... ensures you won't come up with excuses after work about why you can't make it to the gym. Also, going in the morning makes you more aware of getting to sleep at a reasonable hour, which is ever-so important for weight loss and health (she writes at 2am after getting 2 hours of sleep last night.)

6. Buy a Bunch of Used Fitness Magazines: Fitness magazines often repeat the same information over and over again, so I wouldn't recommend them for health nuts, but for beginners they can be quite helpful. Not only do they offer advice on workouts, they also will discuss (and show photos) of proper form, which will help you make the most out of your workout and not hurt yourself... both important things if you want to keep using the gym.

7. Don't Give Up: Easier said than done... but staying on track is more than half the battle. Don't disillusion yourself into thinking you'll drop 10lbs a week. If you're eating a healthy diet around 1200 calories (for women) or 1500 calories (for men) and working out 3 times a week, you will lose weight... like 1lb per every 1-2 weeks. Even if you don't lose a pant size, any exercise is good for your long term health. It's what you can't see that's the most harmful.

8. Join a Online Health Community: Free health and fitness networks can aid in your journey. Check out SparkPeople.com, a wonderful community where you can track your diet, get fitness advice and surround yourself (digitally) with other people like you.

9. Invest in a Personal Trainer: Personal trainers are very expensive and they're not all worth their lean muscle mass in gold. Some gyms offer a few cheap personal training sessions when you sign up, so take advantage of that deal. Tell your trainer up front that you're broke so he or she will be less tempted to try to sell you expensive supplements or additional sessions. Instead, explain that you really want to learn a good basic workout (or, if you're more advanced, ask for a workout that can help take you to the next level). Get the workout in writing and take notes on any specific proper positioning that isn't obvious.

10. Eat Healthy: You know that saying "you are what you eat?" Well, it's true, and it's most apparent when you're at the gym. It's easy to tell yourself that you've worked out a ton so a good reward would be an entire pizza or slice of cake. However, you're just sabotaging your hard-earned results. Eating a diet high in protein, complex carbohydrates and fiber will give you the energy needed to work out. For good, easy sources of protein try egg whites. Egg beaters, which are milk-cartons of liquid egg whites, are my new best friend. Also, splurge on a good vitamin. I'm no nutritionist, but look into what sort of vitamin would be best for you. It's cheaper to buy one slightly more expensive vitamin with everything in it you need than buying a lower-cost vitamin and having to buy separate supplements for missing nutrients.


Question of the Day -- From BankerGirl's Blog

"If your boss told you that you’d just won two years paid vacation, what would you do with the time?" -- From the blog of BankerGirl.

Oh gosh! Two years paid vacation would certainly be a luxury. A lot would depend on what I'd be getting paid during those two years. Assuming it would be a full-time salary of $50k, I'd probably work another job (hopefully making the same amount) during that time and invest the first $50k more aggressively, probably focusing on trying to buy a house or a condo.

What would you do?


Jan 18, 2008

Is this "Diversification?"

Where my money at, yo:

Bank of America Checking: $2,492.28
Bank of America Maximizer Savings: $674.96
Bank of America Family Checking: $421.19
Bank of America Savings: $1,156.67
Bank of America Investment CD #1: $7,570.29
Bank of America Investment CD #2: $5,136.60
ING Direct Savings: $100.6
Paypal: $604.36
Prosper Lending: $125
Vanguard Individual Account: $4,505.46
Vanguard Roth IRA: $3,649.51
Sharebuilder GLD, 4 Shares: $348.92
Sharebuilder COMV, 4 Shares: $91.84
Total Net Worth (in USD) : $ 26,912.96 as of Jan. 18

Goal: $30,000 by end of 2008. If the stock market keeps sucking, I don't know if that's possible.


Yeehaw, I Bought Gold -- How to Get In on the Hot Commodity

...And not in the form of a pretty necklace, either.

With my limited knowledge of the stock market and this recession that's going on, it seems that gold is one investment that works well during this sort of time. It sounds like if the rest of the economy decides to miraculously recover, gold's value might go down, but then my other mutual fund-held stocks would go up... hopefully making my fantastical logic actually work in the long run.

I'm a bit worried about this, but in I bought a whopping 4 shares of a gold ETF for something like $320. If the price goes up because a major recession hits, awesome. If it goes down, I've learned my lesson.

"Ultimately, the only logical reason to invest in gold stocks is if you believe, after you have done your own due diligence and research, that the gold price is going higher. If you arrive at the conclusion that gold is heading lower, you are better off not owning any gold stocks. Gold stock investing ultimately boils down to a bet for higher gold prices.
" -- Zeallic.com

It's all ING Direct's fault. I decided to start saving my money through them. Of course they bought Sharebuilder recently, so they advertise the budget trading site on their "savings" site. I've been wanting to sign up to do some individual and ETF trading... without making that my entire portfolio. I don't know if now is a good time to get into the stock market or not. I feel like most of the stock prices out there are down due to news of the recession... so either this recession will kill off some companies, or the companies I invest in will survive and prosper in the long run. Needless to say, I'm not going to be... THAT stupid. I acknowledge that I'm playing with fire here, as I really don't know what I'm doing. Except I know that following the advice for beginning investors -- "invest in Vanguard mutual funds" hasn't been going that well. I'm not going to sell off those funds, but I'd like to diversify my portfolio a bit. Thus, I went out and bought myself some gold, baby.

Apparently there are a few different ways you can invest in gold:

The lowest risk is through buying coins of solid gold. Then you own the precious metal, but you have to figure out where to store it, and then pay insurance, and... that just seemed way too complicated and frustrating to deal with for a relatively small purchase of less than $500 that I planned to make.

These are fairly new in the world of gold. From what I can tell, there are two different options. You've got streetTRACKS Gold Shares (GLD) and the iShares Comex Gold Trust (IAU). They're a good way to get your feet wet in the gold market without going super high risk, while also not having to deal with all the trouble that comes with insuring coins. Basically, they're both ETFs or "Exchange Traded Funds." According to Wikipedia... Exchange-traded funds (or ETFs) are securities certificates that state legal right of ownership over part of a basket of individual stock certificates that can be traded at any time throughout the course of the day. Typically, ETFs try to duplicate a portfolio such as SPY or the Hang Seng Index, a market sector such as energy or technology, or a commodity such as gold or petroleum. Sounds like a more focused mutual fund to me... which is nice because you can invest in a commodity without the risk of investing in just one company. Or...

Individual Stocks
You can buy individual stocks in gold mining companies. This is the highest risk option because even if the gold market as a whole is soaring, one company can falter and go out of business. Or maybe they just don't have technology that lets them keep up with the other companies. Owning an ETF mitigates this risk because you own stock in many different companies. But, of course, with the risk you also can reap great rewards.

... I ended up buying the GLD ETF, mostly because on Sharebuilder the other ETF option wasn't available for trade and it was 6am when I decided to start trading (yea, I know, I shouldn't try to understand investing after I've been up all night).

Do any of you have a better explanation of gold stocks and enlighten me if I'm being a complete idiot?


Jan 17, 2008

Found My Dream Job... But Why Must it Require 60 Hours Per Week?

My contract gig is going very well. In fact, it's going better than expected. In the past two months, my 30-hour-a-week gig has already expanded from that of "writer" to that of marketing assistant and community manager. In a meeting with my boss yesterday, we briefly discussed the possibility of my staying on past the end of my contract in mid-Feb, and he seemed to want me to stick around. Great. Here's the catch -- to be considered "full time" I'd have to work about 60 hours per week.

Yes, that's how life is out here in Silicon Valley. 60 hours a week is the norm for a full-time salaried position. Maybe I don't need to be "full time." I can be "part time" at 40 hours per week. Basically that just means that I'd be sans benefits and I'd get paid a bit less. And I might end up working 60 hours per week, but I won't be required to do so.

I'm not sure that's the end of the world. I'd rather have flexibility compared to having to be a slave (albeit a paid one) to a job (albeit a job I really like.) I want to have a life outside of work... even if that life is working other freelance gigs... I like the diversity of freelancing, so I think I'll stick with that. Or maybe I should actually find myself a job that's salaried at 40 hours per week.

But I tried that and I was miserable. I've been so happy lately, and it's all because of my flexible schedule. I'm making a bit less money, but in time I can fix that. I'm marketing myself and getting new freelance writing gigs. An article here, a marketing newsletter there, and pretty soon I'm making $50k a year, all with time to keep enjoying my "hobby" of directing theater in the evenings and on weekends. I just don't sleep.

I just wonder if I need to suck it up and take on a 60 hour per week job in order to advance in my career. I know that's the norm here, and it seems like I've got one of those generation Y sense's of self entitlement if I don't just agree to that kind of life. But I'm worried if I do that I'll quickly slip back into depression. And that I don't want at all.


Holding My Breath -- Investment Pains

I know the economy is suffering lately, and had I not been paying attention to the news I would have figured it out by looking at my bank account. My Roth IRA, which had $4000 in it, is now worth $3762, and my regular Vanguard mutual fund, which had $5100 invested in it, is now worth $4662. Ok, so I've lost about $700 thus far on my investments. Ouch.

I'll stick it out because I know investments have to be a long term sort of deal, and hopefully at some point our economy will recover and so will my piggy bank. It's just tough to watch $700 disappear so quickly, and I'm sure this isn't the end of the downturn. I'm prepared to lose all the money I invested, although it will surely SUCK to lose $9100. But if I lose all of that money, you can bet that I'm done with the stock market and mutual funds for good.


Jan 15, 2008

Who Needs $90 Wine?

Apparently the price of wine heavily influences how much people enjoy it. A team of researchers at Stanford and CalTech set out to prove this, and gave testers two glasses of wine to try. One was a "$90" glass of wine, and the other a "$10" glass of wine. What the subjects didn't know was that these two glasses of wine were actually identical.

"Specifically, the researchers found that with the higher priced wines, more blood and oxygen is sent to a part of the brain called the medial orbitofrontal cortex, whose activity reflects pleasure," reports CNET.


Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan, Paris Hilton, and the Destruction of America

When I was little, and when I was not so little, all I dreamed about was being a celebrity. It was the end all of success. As a celebrity, you'd be praised for being unique (albeit slightly unique), and everyone would love you.

Fast forward to a reality check... those celebs that find themselves on the covers of the gossip rags often once were the same ones that I'd envy, except their lives and careers had spilled sour.

Poor Britney Spears. She certainly has some kind of mental condition, and it's obvious that it's not helped by being smothered by Paparazzi everywhere she goes. Her family (that is, parents and sibling) are apparently not the most stable bunch, but Britney made it big with some spunk and rock hard abs. Could she sing? Well, not really. She could hit the right notes and had a voice that you couldn't forget, for better or worse. But Britney had what we all wanted... innocence with a serving of sex appeal. Even if we hated her music, we wanted to be Britney... or like Britney. Same goes for Lindsey Lohan. We saw both of these girls when they actually were young and innocent (well, so they'd like us to believe). And then... well, they've grown up in the spotlight, and it seems that spotlight was just a bit too bright.

It's unfortunate, but I think we need celebrities like that to use for public floggings, as otherwise the rest of us minions would think that their lives were perfect because they were rich. Apparently, money doesn't heal all wounds. Sometimes it's pouring fuel on an already painful flame.

I feel for Britney and Lindsey. They feel like it's part of their job and their image to go out and party. To be a young celebrity in Hollywood. Only when drugs enter into the picture, you lose control. I've seen friends get eaten up by drugs, and it certainly is just as much a problem in Hollywood... where celebrities have enough money to overdose daily on the most gourmet offerings of the latest designer drug batch.

But who could blame them for needing that rush? If as Americans we hold celebrities on the top of the totem pole of what we wish we could be (which I assume is the case for other people too, since celebrities are still featured on the covers of magazines, and talking about celebrities has made stars of once-Internet-nobodies like Perez Hilton, those GoFugYourself girls, etc) then once you've made it to stardom... what's left? Better party it up when the going's good.

Not all celebrities turn into psychotic drug addicts, of course, but those that do surely get the most press. Is it good for their careers? If they can make a sober comeback, possibly. Everyone wants to root for the fallen celebrity, despite how much he or she may make fun of this person. If a celebrity truly falls from their divine status and cannot return, then that pops the fantasy of flawed perfection.

Truth is... Britney, Lindsey... they're just human. Sure they happened to have been born with extra lovely looks, and with some luck and being in the right place at the right time, they guaranteed themselves a future in show business.

It's funny how easy it is to forget that what they do is their JOB. Sure it's a pretty awesome job that pays well, but so is being the CEO of your own corporation, or a successful venture capitalist. The job comes with a lot of negatives as well. Privacy? Forget it. You're working around the clock as a celebrity. From the moment you leave your house to the second you shut the door and close the curtains.

Accepting this changes my extreme, almost obsessive desire to become famous. Or, now I'd like to become famous for writing something brilliant... doing something interesting... but I don't know if I'd want to be so (un)fortunate to be one of Hollywood's young actresses. If you've got one life to live, there's not perfect way to live it. If you're rich, you have nothing to work for. You've been raised on attention, so you need to work for the attention. Look at Paris Hilton. She doesn't need to work, but she does because without work she'd be just like any other NY socialite.

A few months ago I spent some time with my grandmother who lives in Las Vegas. At breakfast one morning, she spent some time complaining about Hollywood today, saying that everyone these days is ugly. I went through a list of celebrities and she said they're all ugly (except she liked Halle Berry for some reason). Anyway, I know the idea of "beauty" has changed over time, because a lot of these actor and actresses she found ugly happened to be my personal idea of aesthetic perfection. Still, I get her point -- beauty is no longer about health and youth exactly. Sometimes people admire the beauty of those who do lots of coke because Kate Moss chic is unbearably still in.

And all of that makes us, the American public, especially the female half of that, spend oodles of money trying to make ourselves look like these people who have lots of money. It's a vicious cycle of consumerism that is at the heart of America. Capitalism would still exist without celebrity, but what would it look like?

I'm not sure of the answer. In college, I took a class called the "sociology of celebrity" and it was by far the best class in my four years at school. Dissecting celebrity culture, both from the side of the everyman and the celebrity, is understanding America.

I actually read the entire textbook from cover to cover...


Jan 12, 2008

Can I Prosper... using Prosper?

When it comes to investing, I say I lean more towards the conservative end of the spectrum. I'm not much of a risk taker in general, so the thought of losing heaps of money that I worked hard to save causes enough anxiety to keep me out of the stock market beyond basic mutual funds.

That's why I'm taking it very, very slow with Prosper.com, a popular site that basically lets anyone be their own bank. Most of my readers have probably already heard about this site (they advertise on a bunch of PF blogs), but for a quick rundown of what the site is for those who haven't heard -- Prosper makes it easy to lend money and earn back a fairly high interest rate on those funds. But, of course with "high interest" there's risk involved.

Business & Personal Loans. Great Rates. Prosper.

Anyone can borrow money on Prosper, but the good news is that they check the credit scores of the borrowers so lenders can determine how much risk they want to take. For instance, someone with a perfect credit history would have an "AA" score, but the interest rate you'd earn on lending the money would be less (around 6 to 7 percent). Lending to people with poor credit ratings might earn you a much higher interest, but the chances of them defaulting are also much higher.

The site is kind of hard to understand when it comes to determining the exact interest rate that the lender will earn. To be honest, I'm still a little clear on the details. Basically, the Prosper folk want you to lend a large sum, but break that into $50 per person. Just like with any financial portfolio, diversification = less risk. Still, it's unclear what the actual risk with any of this is. There's a reason banks exist... they have tons of money to lend, so if a few loans default they can deal. But investing $100 or even $1000 into loans at $50 each might never provide the necessary diversification to ensure you won't lose most of your money.

While I realize I might lose some money in this experiment, I decided to try out Prosper and invest $100 in the site. First I signed up for their auto-loan deal, where you chose your level of risk and they pick someone on the site to lend your money to. So I ended up lending $50 to someone who is trying to study abroad, with a B credit score and a 13 % interest rate. I wasn't so happy with my money ending up going to someone with a B score (though admittedly, that was my fault, I chose the second highest "non risk" auto-invest plan)... so I decided to loan my other $50 to someone with a perfect credit score, in case I just lost $50.

What I do like about the site is that you can read a person's story and decide what you want to loan money for. It feels good to loan to someone who needs money for their kid, or who needs to pay off a credit card bill because their interest is ridiculously high. Ideally, they pay you back within three years and everyone is happy.

I've read a bit about other people's experiences with the site on various PF blogs, and it sounds like they have a lot of happy users for now. Sure, loans default and lenders get screwed over, but generally people seem to be getting paid. Everyone seems to recommend keeping the amount of your entire portfolio investing in Prosper low, but it's a decent investment for a few hundred dollars.

Someone owes me their first payment on Feb 11, so I'll let you know if I get it. The good thing about Prosper is that if the borrower doesn't pay, they get a collection agency to stalk them for a few months, and then their credit score ends up sucking and they're not allowed to borrow on Prosper ever again. Also, they sell off these defaulted loans (I'm not really sure how this works) but you might get, like, 1 percent of your investment back. Or you lose all your money. But that's a risk everyone takes investing in anything... whether that be a stock or property.

I'll keep you guys posted on my experiences with Prosper in the coming months. You can bet that if I lose money, you'll get to hear all about it. :)

If you're interested in signing up, click here or on the button below to get an extra $25 in your account to get started, all for free. I did this when I signed up on another PF blogger's site, and a few days later I had that $25 in my account. Sweet.

Business & Personal Loans. Great Rates. Prosper.


Jan 11, 2008

Vibrators are Too Expensive (and they break easily)

I once spent $100 on a vibrator. It was a glorious instrument of pleasure, to say the least. At first glance, the purple translucent dong filled with "pearls" and adorning an attached rabbit head made me think of anything but sexy. Turned off, it looked like a foolish child's toy meant to be fetched in the deep end of a pool. Turned on, it sounded like a continuous fart meets an earthquake.

But then, as bunny ears blurred into ecstasy via vibration, despite the symphony of mechanical buzzing, I couldn't help but revel in my overpriced lump of plastic.

A few months later, my beautiful toy broke.

"Noooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!" I screamed.

(Well, I didn't actually scream that, but I like the sound of it for dramatic effect.)

I couldn't run off to purchase another $100 vibrator. Besides, by that point I found myself a boyfriend and I felt he ought to replace my purple friend.

But, come on, can a boyfriend really work such magic?

I searched the Internet and local sex stores (which make me feel totally awkward btw -- either they're meant for dirty old men, or they're designed like mini museums for women and gay men seeking out their masterpiece butt plug) and spent another $30 here and there trying to buy something cheap that would do the trick. I learned quickly that in the world of sex toys, the pricetag matters.

So... I called out my inner child... the one who discovered the wonders of the waterhead massager in the shower and the amazing vibrations of an electric shaver once the blade had been removed. Oh, and yes, the joys of the electric toothbrush, sans bristled head. Those were the days when in order to get off, money was not an issue. It was my fingers or whatever object I could find that would vibrate.

(Don't tell me I'm the only girl out there who went through that "phase.")

Since I wasn't going to spend another $100 on a vibrator that would break in a few months, I instead went to the local drug store and bought myself an electric shaver for 5 bucks. And you know what? It was heaven. It wasn't exactly the purple phallus of joy I had spent my money on during college, but it worked.

Moral of the story is... I highly recommend that when you have the money, you should try a quality sex toy at least once in your life. But if you're in the mood for some self-pleasing fun and you don't have a few hundred dollars a month set aside for a special "masturbation budget," there are plenty of cheaper items you can use. Get creative! Just be sure to properly clean said item(s) in order to avoid icky bacteria infections. Store-bought sex toys are often designed to be cleaned easily, so you might have to spend extra time on the cleansing portion of your, uh, alone time.

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Jan 3, 2008

Death to COBRA and Car Thieves.

I have a follow-up to my last post regarding my saga with the doctor's office and the collection agency, but first I feel it is more important to rant a bit about my recurrent car break ins.

My apartment is in a safe neighborhood. Of course, no neighborhood is perfect, but I live in the fairly wealthy burbs of San Francisco. My exact area isn't exactly upper class, but it's a cute little apartment complex where I have the illusion of security.

I have a carport spot right under my apartment. Last year, around this time, thieves broke into my car (they smashed the window) and took about $80. You think I would have learned my lesson after my car got broken into twice in San Francisco, but I figured that in the burbs it was a different story.

After the thieves broke the window and stole the $80 they came back about once a week going through my things until I got the window fixed.

Following that incident, I decided to stop locking my doors and to keep valuables out of the car. It seemed smarter to let them go through my thing and find nothing than to smash the window every other week. I even signed up for the full comprehensive coverage for my insurance just because I knew that they might break the window again regardless. But it's just such a hassle to bring the car in to get fixed. I don't have the time. So I let them go through my car if they want.

After a year without any problems, I started getting slightly careless again. My fault. I put two checks in my car that I had planned on cashing today. One was for $50 the other $400. They were in a closed compartment. The car was a bit of a mess but nothing else valuable was in there (except at $180 jacket that I'm so glad they didn't take.)

So two nights ago they (or he or she) came and went through my stuff. They took $4 and the two checks and made a mess of everything. They made my car smell like smoke. I am not happy about this. But at least I don't have a broken window.

Now I have to deal with telling the two people who sent me those two checks (it just so happens they're married and my aunt and uncle) to cancel the checks. At least I found out they hadn't been cashed yet. I just feel awful asking my aunt & uncle to cancel the checks when the stupid thieves took them. But what can I do about it???

I'll update on the health insurance situation in a bit. I have to get back to work.


Jan 2, 2008

Health Insurance Hell -- And I thought this part of the saga was over!

In 2006, I was covered under COBRA. My father was paying the bills to help me get started out after college, and he paid those bills on time until I got my first full-time job with health benefits.

During the time I had COBRA through Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, I went to see a gynecologist for a standard yearly exam. She had me get bloodwork done at the local lab. I filled out all the appropriate paperwork and thought I'd owe a small co-pay and that would be the end of it.

Two years later, I'm still dealing with this never-ending drama of trying to get health insurance to pay this bill. There is absolutely no logical reason why they should not pay the full amount (minus a co-pay), but I've been harassed by J & L Teamworks (a collection agency) on and off since my appointment, saying I owe about $1000. What???

Finally, after speaking on the phone to about 20 billion people, I thought I had everything settled in November. I wanted to be done with the mess for good, so I walked into the billing office of Mills Peninsula Hospital, where the lab services were done and apparently where the gynecologist bills her visits through if they haven't been paid on time (they weren't paid on time because they billed the wrong insurance and/or because my address (which I updated on my account by sending in a hand-written letter as requested) was added to my account incorrectly.) I'm still unclear what actually happened. All I know is I started getting calls from the collection agency, and they've barely stopped since.

In Nov of 07, I really thought the saga was over. I fixed my address on my account, I walked into the hospital's billing office and spoke with a nice woman who promised me that everything would be fixed. She even called the collection agency while I was there and said they won't be bothering me again... that they have to wait 30 days before legally being able to call me, and by then everything should be processed.

Fast forward those 30 days and without fail, those calls started up again. I didn't want to deal with it. I was hoping it would all clear if I just ignored it. Of course, that never works.

So today I called J & L Teamworks. They told me that insurance paid for about $200 of the entire bill, but I still owe something like $700.

That doesn't make any sense! If insurance paid for any of it, why are they only paying $200? I would understand if this was one of my newer insurances, but this was full COBRA of the policy I had since I was a kid. They couldn't even knock me for pre-existing conditions, had this been something that they might have got out of paying that way. But this was for a routine gynecological exam and bloodwork. I was on a PPO. My father paid something like $230 a month to keep me on it. I know I was covered. And that bill should be paid.

Of course since I live on the West Coast now and all of my records are back East, I have to deal with the time difference when calling. So it's too late to give a call to Highmark today. I'll have to call first thing in the morning and find out why the fuck this didn't get paid.

What really pisses me off is that I've racked up about $200 in interest on these bills... part of it is my fault because I did at times want to just ignore it because I knew insurance should cover the bill... but othertimes I was told by different people that it was all taken care of, then a month would go by, or two months, and then I'd find out it hadn't processed. Or it only partially processed.

All of my trouble with health insurance makes me kind of glad that I'm finally on a high deductible plan. It's nice to have the safety net (costing $1350 a year) in case I get into a major accident or something, but otherwise I'll just pay for everything that I need to do out of my pocket. I'm a little worried about how expensive that will all be... but I figure if I check out the services offered by Planned Parenthood, I might be able to get by without spending gobs of money, and without having to deal with any more bs-talking health insurance agents and collection agencies!


Jan 1, 2008

Define Gold Digger.

Long before I was born, the term "gold digger" had not been coined. Instead, it was acceptable to pursue a significant other of reputable financial status. At that time, women of worth did not have to work, so gold digging was probably the hardest job they'd have their whole life, especially if the woman came from a lower class family. Always marry up.

(This post is largely about heterosexual relationships, though it can be applied to homosexual relationships as well... except since gays & bi's in same-sex relationships can't get married, the money issues become even more complex.)

In today's world, gold digging has such a negative connotation. There are definitely different levels of gold digging...

1. Date only for the money. Go on some reality show about dating a millionaire. Expect your boyfriend to buy you everything. Luxurious trips. Spa treatments. Jewelery. Clothes. A car. A mansion. You name it, he's paying.

2. Date because you like the guy, and because he happens to be successful. Well, you say you are attracted to him because he is successful, not because he has money, but... you know that's not entirely the truth. Life is expensive, and although you may work and bring in significant dough yourself, you know that in the long run you will have a dual income household and that second income will either help you buy a house... or a teeny tiny condo... or keep renting your whole life, depending on how big that income is. You want stability, and a future. You'll date a guy who makes a good salary over one who doesn't any day.

3. You date whoever. You don't care what they make. Still, you like it when they pay for your date every once in a while. You enjoy nice gifts. You're happy with whatever gifts you get, yet still like to be spoiled a bit every once in a while. Like on your birthday. But you don't care about the cost of living in the future and you figure if all else fails, you'll take care of that on your own.


I'd say I'm more or less #3. Or a cross between 2 and 3.

Let me back up a bit. A few years ago, I started to date a law student. I dated him because he had a good personality and I liked the guy. We became good friends fast and eventually we decided to give it a go. During the relationship, he was a student and then a law clerk, so he wasn't what you would call "rich." But I found out that he covered his law school tuition thanks to mom and dad before even enrolling. So he had some spare cash to spend. After he started his life in the professional world of law, I was a poor intern making about minimum wage. But he wouldn't so much as buy me a movie ticket. Eventually, I got tired of his stinginess (because I am a gold digger?) and decided to move on. There were other reasons I made that decision, but I felt like if he had the money, he should want to help his girlfriend out.

Now I'm dating a guy who will probably always be in the middle class, like me. There's nothing wrong with being in the middle class. I love this guy more than anything, and I can see spending my life with him. He's just getting started out on his career... and while he dreams of making gobs of money and considered going to law school for that reason, he is probably going to end up in a less profitable career. If he ever decides to go to grad school, his mother is footing the bill. If he doesn't, that money exists for such things as... oh... a down payment on a house.

So... in the back of my mind, I still feel comfortable dating this guy because I know there's money there. I'm not dating him because of his money, but it's kind of a safety net... in case my own career doesn't work out the way I plan.

Meanwhile, my earlier boyfriend, the lawyer (who is still my good friend) now takes in over $200k a year at 29. He owns a condo. He still lives frugally (he loves buying things on sale at the supermarket) and he'll surely save up lots of money to buy a huge house one day.

Sometimes I think of what my life would be if I ended up with him. I know in my heart that would be the wrong choice, yet to give up a life of financial security (although I'd definitely have to earn enough to cover what I wanted in life, but at least things like house and food would likely be covered) is tough to give up for the sake of love.

We're all taught that love is what we should be looking for. But when it comes down to it, life is about the survival of the fittest, and the survival of the richest. Healthcare... yea, get married to someone who has good healthcare if you want to freelance on your own. That will make your life affordable.

Money has to play a role in relationships. Otherwise it becomes a giant problem later. So many relationships dissolve because of money issues. It doesn't even matter how much you have, what matters is how you decide to spend it.

What do you think about gold digging? Is it bad? Do you do it? How does money define your relationships?