Jan 25, 2010

When is the Right Age to Get Married? Have Kids?

For whatever reason, my biological clock started ticking loudly. I'm now 26 and I'm not getting any younger. While part of me wonders if I'll ever be mature enough to have children, I'd like 3 of them, and a house and stability and all of those adult things. I feel terribly young -- way too young to have a husband or kids -- and yet I know so many people who are my age or younger who are already packing in a full house. (This article argues that you should get married in your early 20s.)

I started Google searching things like "when is the right age to have a baby?" and "how old should i be when I get married." More often then not, I find people recommending marriage in the 20s, and popping out kids by 35 (and later and there's a higher chance for defects).

My boyfriend and I have been together over 3 years. We both know we're going to get married -- one day -- but he's convinced that he needs to finish grad school (well he needs to start it first) and obtain a career in order to get married. If he starts grad school next fall, I'll be 29 before he's finished with his MA. Then there's the PhD he may want to obtain... I'm not getting married until I'm 35 at the rate things are going.

I'm not marriage obsessed, I just wonder now that I'm 26 why I'm not getting married. I guess the way I see it is either my boyfriend and I will get married OR we won't and I'm wasting my time with him now when I could be out dating while I still look somewhat attractive. What if I get to 30 and he decides he isn't ready, or worse, wants to break up?

Given my health, having children is going to be extremely difficult and expensive anyway, and I don't want to put it off too long. At the moment I'm somewhat stable in my career -- somewhat as in I'll probably need to switch jobs this year -- but I've learned how to save and I'm starting to feel financially mature. I honestly could give two shits about being married, it's having children that is what's on my mind right now. I don't want kids now, but I do want them fairly soon, in the next 5 years. Maybe I should break up with my boyfriend and date a guy in his late 30s to make sure this will happen.


Jan 15, 2010

Bipolar Study Update

As many of you know, I've been accepted into a study for Bipolar II depression medication at a local university hospital. The study provides me with 4 months of free medication, tracking of my condition, and a side benefit of $25 grocery store gift cards every time I go in for an appointment (once a week for the first 6 weeks then every other week for the remainder of the study.)

The study is designed to find out if lithium, zoloft, or the combination of both is best for Bipolar II depression. Since I'm obviously depressed (I'm still not certain I'm bipolar, but whatever, the meds are for depression anyway. I'm either ultra rapid cycling bipolar or just depressed with random extremely excited and elevated moods throughout my life.)

Lots of people have expressed concern that I won't ever know what I'm on, since they can't tell me what I was on until after the entire study is completed years from now. If the drugs work, then it sucks that I can't know what I was on. If they don't work, then it also kind of sucks because I don't know what not to try in the future.

But the benefits of participating, I feel, far outweigh the negatives. Having ADD, I struggle to take pills on a regular basis. The structure that comes with participating in this study is really helpful. I was given this massive pillbox that where each day of the week and each time of day has a separate box for the pills I am supposed to take. I also have to track my moods on a daily basis, which is really good to do, especially when I'm on medication to see if it's working.

I started last night taking one blue pill, which is either 300mg of Lithium or a placebo. I take that twice a day. I didn't feel a lot of side effects last night, just some dry mouth that could have been from not drinking enough water.

This month I took one blue pill and one white pill, which is either 25mg of Zoloft or a placebo. I could be on both zoloft and lithium or just one of them, but I'm definitely on something right now. And I definitely am having some side effects. But I can't tell which drug they are caused by...

Still, I'm having issues with dry mouth. I am extremely thirsty. I don't drink a lot of water normally and I've already gone through almost two cups of it and I'm still very dehydrated. My mood, overall, is calmer than normal. But that might be due to half the staff at my office being out today, and looking forward to a 3 day weekend.

I'm curious what will happen when they up my dosage later in the study. SSRI's and lithium aren't supposed to really help your mood right away so either I'm really susceptible to the placebo effect or my brain chemistry is just very sensitive. I don't have any other side effects yet that I can tell.

Have you been on either of these medications before? What were your side effects?


Donated $10 to Haiti, but It Isn't Enough

After writing my last post, I realized that I could afford to donate (at least) $10 to the Haiti cause. So I grabbed my phone and texted "Haiti" to 90999 to donate $10 to the American Red Cross. I don't feel "good" about it because it's not enough, but I like knowing that this text message campaign has raised millions of dollars, and I'm a small part of it.

My last post about my not donating got some pretty passionate responses, one being from an anonymous reader upset by my thoughts. The reader didn't completely get what I was saying (they thought I said you can only donate through a church, which is not what I was saying... I was just commenting on how the world is full of "missions" and people doing charity for their religion, if you don't have religion or the constant reminder to give with the guilt that comes along with it, you have to find your own reason and motivation to donate or volunteer.) Also, looking overall at the animal kingdom, we are the only species that helps out fellow animals in need (that I know of) -- we are built to do what's needed to survive and to pass on the best to our offspring so our DNA can continue on into the future. So without "God" and with science only, we need empathy and compassion for humanity as a whole. That's not a bad thing, but then you take on additional guilt -- if your reason for helping is God / the church, where if you give a little God will reward you after death, and you think being a good person and helping others is good for you and secures you a one-way-ticket to heaven postmortem, it's a little easier to do a small amount of volunteer work and feel good about it. When it's solely about empathy for the pains of mankind, that empathy becomes overwhelming. The world is a sad and scary place.

Regardless, I donated $10 because it's the least I can do. I've been very strict with my budget this month (with my aim to save $20k this year) so $10 won't kill me. I know it's not enough, I'm trying to figure out my budget for next month to see if it would be possible to give more.


Jan 13, 2010

What is Poverty? Haiti Reminds Us.

Watching or reading the news lately, one cannot avoid images of Haiti's poverty. The poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, many in Haiti, even prior to the earthquake, resorted to eating mud because they could not afford rice or other staples.

The reminder of that kind of poverty makes me question how anyone, myself included, can live a life of such relative wealth without guilt. While I am generally opposed to religion, one good thing that comes of certain religious organizations is the idea of charity, giving, tzedakah, etc. Of course one can lead a life without God and be inclined to give time and money to those in need, but it seems that without God reality is tied to science, where the genetic reality is "survival of the fittest" and to care only for ones' self and offspring.

On NBC, Conan and Leno are fighting it out for a time slot when they can make America laugh. These comedians poke fun at life so we can get by it. Because regardless where you stand on the food chain, life is ultimately scary and meaningless. You can have all the money in the world and even moments of happiness but that means nothing. You can spend your entire life being Mother Theresa 2.0 and give and give, but that also means nothing. You can be in poverty, trapped by economic forces greater than any talent or skill you have, and that ultimately means nothing too.

Yet as I work as a widget in the machine known as capitalism, I have dual, painfully contrasting purposes in my mind, like two opposing notes sung by the shrillest of voices in attempted and failed harmony. One part of my mind wants wealth. Not stuff, per say, but "money" in the bank. Lots of money. To save and to have. Maybe to buy some stuff. This is what America instills in us as values. If we do not make money, if we chose poverty, we are failures. If we work hard (and use birth control and can obtain health insurance) there is "no excuse" to be poor in this country. Not poor like those in Haiti, anyway. No one in America has to eat mud cookies to survive.

The other contrasting note plaguing my ears is that of the desire to help others. To make a difference in the world. But the pain is so great. And the difference one can make is so small. You can feed a child, you can help a family in a third world country eat for a few days, or even a year. But how much can one person help?

Is there even a way for the world -- everyone in the world -- to live at a level above poverty (the US standard of poverty) if wealth exists? Doesn't the wealth of one rely on the poverty of another? And we know communism, the ideal of equality, doesn't work, because humans are genetically greedy.

So what can one person do? A part of me wants to donate all of my savings to Haiti right now. Of course, I won't. I've never donated money before in my life. Which is terrible of me. But I'm afraid to part with money. I'm afraid any difference I could make (with the exception of donating all of my income to charity or spending my life as an atheist missionary) is too small to be a difference at all.


Jan 8, 2010

An Investment in Career Counseling

Per request of one of my loyal readers, investingnewbie, I'm going to jot down some information on my process in seeking out a career counselor -- why i did it, and what services they provide.

When I get into a funk I often start questioning the cause of my depression. More often than not, it's my career. After spending too many hours in a therapist's office rehashing the same old issues, I started thinking about how advice from a different angle could help. After all, understanding the root of my dissatisfaction with life is one thing, but being able to proactively create a better future for myself is another.

After doing some searching online, I sent out emails to a ton of local career counselors that went into detail about my current situation. Some, I'm sure, were scared away or weren't interested in helping me. I knew the more honest I could be, the better a match I'd find in whoever responded.

I got a couple of bites. Career counseling is not cheap (it's usually $100 - $150 per hour, more for some seriously overpriced counselors) so I wanted to make sure to pick someone who could really help me. One counselor, who was obviously in her 50s or older (likely older) talked to me on the phone for an hour in a free consultation. She basically told me that when she was my age women didn't have any choices and now we have a lot of choices so I am doing fine for my age and I shouldn't worry. While that was kind of nice to hear, it wasn't what I was looking for. She didn't want to take my money and she spent a whole hour talking to me, which was really nice of her. But I had to move on.

After that I decided I wanted to find someone nearby (not in the city, which is an hour a way and a pain to get to during business hours) so I did some more research. A woman who had been quoted in an article wrote me back and sounded like she might be a good fit. I scheduled a first appointment with her.

Before the appointment she had me fill out a lot of forms about my work life and why I'm dissatisfied where I am at. She charged $125 for the first hour long session, which I scheduled on my 26th birthday. I could immediately tell she was the type of person "not in it for the money" as she spend 30 minutes extra on my first session answering my questions. She really seemed to like helping me. Not saying every counselor is or should be like this, but it just so happens that mine is.

On the first session we went through some different forms about things that matter to me in work and talked a lot about values and goals. One thing I find that's difficult with a career counselor is that the industry I'm in is fairly new and I have yet to find someone who gets it, or anything I'm really interested in pursuing. Most career counselors have been in the workforce for some time and then decided to become counselors, getting their MSW's later in life. So while they know the basics of getting hired very well (resume writing, interviewing, etc), actual knowledge of future career opportunities, especially in newer fields, may be limited.

However, I've found that isn't too much of a deterrent to learning something from my career counselor. What she has taught me so far is that every person has a unique mix of what work means to them, and that finding the most important things to me (goals and values) is most important in figure out what path to take...

She's also helped me with some of the nitty and gritty, fixing up my resume that I hadn't taken the time to tweak much in years minus adding new jobs. She has also decided that I should take a class in marketing or business before really considering applying for an MBA.

I've only seen her for two meetings thus far, and she understands that my budget is tight so I don't need to see her often. Again, not all career counselors will be this flexible. I met with one who asked for $600 for a starter package, which would include 5 sessions, though it sounded like I could do them at my own pace. Some require monthly or even weekly meetings. Find someone who is flexible if you need that flexibility.

My career counselor even decided, at my last meeting, to drop her rate to $90 per session (and she gave me an extra 30 minutes again). She seems, for some reason, to really like me. After I went on about social networking, mobile, and the future of technology she was like "you're cool" and decided to give me a discounted rate. She thinks I have potential, apparently, which is nice... I've been so down on myself lately, it's nice someone thinks I can succeed somehow. Not that I really believe her, but in the least she can help me come up with goals and meet them, which is really important for me.

I'll update you all on my career counseling going forward when I have another session. Right now I'm trying to figure out if I'll stay at my current job. My company is going through some major reorganization soon and I think I may be left out in the cold. I'm not too worried, as it seems the economy is picking up and recruiters are writing to be on LinkedIn for open positions in my field. Luckily, I picked a field that few people specialize in. I'd really like to work for a company where I have the support to do my job, as opposed to my current job where all of the opportunities to quantitatively succeed and put on my resume are most often taken by my boss and coworkers.


Are Certificate Programs Worth it?

My career counselor (who I've seen twice so far) wants me to take a class. She recommended an extension program based at a top University where I could take courses in business and marketing, and possibly complete the certificate program. The program is expensive and not something I want to invest in unless I'm sure I would complete it (I've been known to start things and not follow through, working on that as well.)

I could get a certificate in marketing or business administration, which would give me a solid pre-MBA education... more to see if I really want to pursue an MBA than help me obtain one (though it might help.) Each course is $600-$800 and then there are the text books. I realize graduate school is even more than that, but it's hard to justify spending that amount of money for a certificate. Especially when I could just buy the textbooks and read them on my own, if I was able to combat depression & ADD and muster up some motivation.

Have any of you ever done a certificate program? How much did you spend on it and was it worth it?


Are New Restricted Shopping Sites Worth the Splurge?

Sales aren't for cheapskates anymore. With the economy still in a state of despair, sales are the new black. Sites like Bluefly and Overstock have long offered last season's designer goods at steep discounts, but those just don't feel exclusive and urgent enough to get buyers to to splurge right here, right now.

Enter "restricted" shopping sites. These sites claim to limit entry to friends of people already on the site (which means they are restricted for about a day and then everyone gets in.) But their real sell is that they offer designer goods at steep discounts for a very limited time. It's the buy now or forever hold your cash philosophy. And it apparently works. People love to think they're getting a good deal. Sites like Gilt, Ideeli, Rue La La, OneKingsLane and others are making bank convincing shoppers if they don't get in on a sale they're going to be miserable forever.

I've long believed that a sale is only as valuable as whether or not you actually need what you buy. In my previous life, I was guilty of shopping the sale rack and feeling pride leaving a store when I got a "steal." And that "steal" often ended up in the back of my closet, never to be worn.

Designer goods tend to either be beautiful or just plan odd. Trends don't last. There is a reason an item is on sale. If you're going to shop a sale, whether that be at the mall or on a restricted shopping site, know what you are looking for "before going in." This way you won't end up with credit card debt from buying a whole bunch of "great deals." These sites are probably best shopping for gifts since you can spend less for more expensive goods. But in shopping for yourself, don't get caught by the lure of the sale.

For more about these sites, check out the latest post by the Cranky Consumer on The Wall Street Journal.


Jan 7, 2010

Is Grad School Worth It? Financially Speaking.

I've been obsessed with the idea of applying to / going to grad school lately. Not for the earning potential post graduation, but for the chance to focus on an area of study and build up my skills so I feel like an expert in an area (at least until those skills are out of date.) But then I wonder... financially speaking, is grad school worth it?

Really what I need to look at is how much I will have when I retire. I figure I should have at least $1.5M in my bank account when I "retire" (although I plan to work at least part-time well into retirement, but at this point I want to be able to travel and freelance and not have to worry if I get sick and can't work.)

At the moment, if I can live up to my quasi-frugal savings plans for the year and maintain my current job and occasional freelance income (say $70k per year pre tax) and save $20k each year, according to the compound interest calculator if I start with $30k today and save $20k a year for 30 years at a modest average interest rate of 3% I will have $1.052M in savings by the time I'm 56 and $1.65M by the time I'm 66.

It almost seems silly then to add in the cost of grad school, which will put me into debt and for many reasons, not guarantee I will make more than I am now later and certainly will not allow me to comfortably save $20k anytime during or after graduation from a graduate program.

Additionally, if/when I have children, it will also become increasingly difficult to save $20k per year, if not impossible. This variable could effect both the non-grad school and grad school potential scenarios. And since my 27-year-old boyfriend refuses to work a full time job or put an ounce of his occasional earnings into a Roth IRA, it's likely that I'm saving for the both of us and our families. Which makes that $1.65M, esp with inflation, seem like a few dimes and a penny.

That brings me to wondering if I should just keep living like I'm living now for the rest of my life. No kids (they're expensive.) Roommates. A small room. Living in an area where heat isn't necessary. Cheap bills otherwise. Saving $20k per year. Cutting back when needed to make that possible. Retiring single at 66 with $1.65M (some of it would be taxed, of course, but that's still not bad.)

Then again... why should I be living life to save for retirement? I can't imagine ever wanting to fully retire -- I see my grandmother at 80 spending her days in the casino and I think if I had the mental capacity she does at 80 I'd be working. I might be limited in my job choices but still, I'd be working because I don't want to be the type who just sits around and "enjoys" retirement.

Going to grad school is probably an easier choice when you're making $35k or less. But once you're making $70k it's a hard trade in. I'm looking more and more at MBA programs (my career counselor seems to decided that I should consider this path and is in awe of my knowledge of social networking and certain aspects of the tech business) but I don't know. I don't see myself ever really following an MBA path -- working 100 hours a week, traveling more than I'm staying... I could do that maybe for a few years but not my whole life. How much more can I really earn with an MBA vs. 2 more years of experience that I can gain through my current or next job? Alas, these days I'm liking numbers a lot more than I used to... and I think I'd like studying applied math. I like spreadsheets.

The debt truly freaks me out. People go into debt all the time for school but I don't know if I can. Partially its because I don't know if it will actually be worth it for me to go to grad school. It would probably make more sense to give a loan to someone more focused than I am and more dedicated to getting a high salary, pay for THEIR grad school, and earn interest on that... then for me to go to grad school.

And, anyway, I read that in 25 years a dollar today will be worth $.32 which means that my $1.65M when I'm 66 will not be enough to get me through retirement (unless natural causes like stabbing myself help me reach those goals.)

How much are you saving for retirement? How much do you think we will need to retire in 2050?


Jan 5, 2010

Dislike your Job? You're Not Alone: American Job Satisfaction at Record Low

Think Americans who have jobs in this economy are thrilled just due to getting paid? Think again. According to a new survey by the Conference Board, only 45 percent of Americans are satisfied with their work. That's the lowest level in 22 years of the survey being run.

The cause of the mass unhappiness isn't clear, and while the recession certainly factors in (I'd bet salary freezes and Plexiglas ceilings aren't helping matters) worker dissatisfaction has been on the rise for more than two decades, according to the report.

Again, this leads back to my question of -- what makes us happy? The rise of unhappiness in work seems to match the rise of television being controlled by the five largest media corporations, and advertising becoming a prominent part of our lives. With all of the negative messages we receive every day about how we're not good enough, it seems no level of work -- or money -- can make us truly happy.

The study notes that workers claim their unhappiness stems from issues such as boring jobs, incomes that haven't kept up with inflation, and the soaring cost of health insurance.

"If the job satisfaction trend is not reversed, economists say, it could stifle innovation and hurt America's competitiveness and productivity," reports the AP. umer Research Center.

Workers under 25 expressed the highest level of dissatisfaction. Roughly 64 percent of workers under 25 say they were unhappy in their jobs. The recession has been especially hard on young workers, who face fewer opportunities now and lower wages, some analysts say.
Conference Board officials and outside economists suggested that weak wage growth helps explain why workers' unhappiness has been rising for more than 20 years. After growing in the 1980s and 1990s, average household incomes adjusted for inflation have been shrinking since 2000.

Some other key findings of the survey:

• Forty-three percent of workers feel secure in their jobs. In 2008, 47 percent said they feel secure in their jobs, while 59 percent felt that way in 1987.

• Fifty-six percent say they like their co-workers, slightly less than the 57 percent who said so last year but down from 68 percent in 1987.

• Fifty-six percent say they are satisfied with their commute to work even as commute times have grown longer over the years. That compares with 54 percent in 2008 and 63 percent in 1987.

• Fifty-one percent say their are satisfied with their boss. That's down from 55 percent in 2008 and around 60 percent two decades ago.


Jan 3, 2010

I Should Call My Blog: ADD & ADHD Money

If you've been reading my blog for longer than two minutes you probably can guess (or have read) that I have ADHD. I don't entirely believe in ADD or ADHD (I think its caused by anxiety, which I happen to believe is the cause of most mental disorders) but for whatever it's worth, I have all the symptoms. I'm distracted, disorganized, have never followed a routine for longer than maybe two days at a time, and am pretty sure my intellectual potential far surpasses any of my output.

Every year, especially around this time, I tell myself -- this year I will get organized. This year I will figure out what to do with my life. This year I'll wake up early, go to the gym, get to work at a reasonable time every morning, work hard from 9-6:30, take an actual lunch break (not work through lunch), come home, clean, do laundry, COOK DINNER, read a book, go to sleep around 10, wake up and do it all again...

And every year, I know it's not really going to happen. Not without some serious outside help that I've yet to find. I don't know why I'm so unable to keep to routine. I don't understand how most people do easily (or seemingly easily.) For me, it takes so much focus and energy to accomplish anything once, let alone multiple times on repeat into the foreseeable future.

I still feel like a child, albeit one who understands the world overall fairly well, but I'm still a kid in my mind, wanting to run off on a whim, commit to nothing, yet still have the security of being taken care of, and living a life where risk is just s synonym for trying something new without the fear of any serious kind of failure.

Here's why I'm depressed -- I am afraid of everything. I'm afraid of trying and failing but I'm even more afraid of trying and succeeding. What's success? It always seemed like some sort of end to me. End of childhood. End of my 20s. End of growing up and instead being grown. At least failing you have somewhere up to go. I think too much. Constantly. My mind is filled with worry. I check my budget compulsively. Not routinely. Routine is alien to my very existence.

I oft wonder if some ADHD drug would help me focus... but every psych wants to treat my depression and anxiety before treating ADD. So I get drugged up on SSRI's and give up on them because they put me to sleep, they don't help me focus, they don't make me able to handle routine, they just make me feel out of it, like a zombie who is unable to cry, who isn't happy or sad. That's not getting me anywhere.

Whenever I consider actually applying to grad school there feels like a huge brick wall up in front of my face that I can't get passed. First is figuring out what I want to do with my life (I want to do everything and I want to do absolutely nothing), then there's actually having faith in my ability to do graduate-level work (I struggle with writing, math, reading, well... focusing, and just about everything that is required of academia) so then I think "what am I thinking? I can't do graduate work. I barely got through undergrad and somehow took enough classes to squeak by with a 3.2 from an average (ie non-impressive) liberal arts school. I don't necessarily want a PhD, an MA or MFA is more likely, as my graduate study should probably be largely about learning and applying skills, not solely research. But I worry about the level of other students who would go to any of these programs - they'd undoubtedly be smarter and more capable of focus than I am. They'd already know a lot more about whatever field I decide to study. I'd never be able to prepare enough to feel competitive in any graduate program worth attending. Then there's the pressure of applying -- I was lucky in undergrad, I applied to 5 schools, and even with a miserable high school GPA I was accepted to 4 out of the 5, mostly based on my artwork. But now... I don't know who would want me. I'm average at best and not sure what I could contribute to any program. Then there's my average GRE scores (not getting into any of the Ivy-level schools I like to daydream about) and my fear of asking anyone to write me a letter of recommendation. And beyond all that there's the cost of grad school which I can't even comprehend. Right now I've at least gotten myself comfortable with saving... if I can stick to my budget, I'll save $20k next year. But grad school looks like it will cost me $50k per year. For 3 years. After putting so much effort into getting accepted I then would have to take out HUGE loans that I'd pay back for practically the rest of my life.

Or I could... not go to grad school. I could find a job that I'm good at. But what IS that job? I get bored so easily. I fall for every job at the beginning and then after a year I'm ready to move on. It's like this with every other aspect of my life as well, but even more so with work because it feels like it's my entire life. I hate feeling infinitely trapped as an indentured servant of capitalism. But that's life. Can't I just accept it and move on? Why can't I just... focus?


Passion vs. Money: What I've Learned Since Graduating College

They say if you follow your passion the money will come. I agree with that 100%, though you can't expect always to make a lot of money by following your passion. Also, as you mature, your passion(s) may shift, causing your once "dream job" to become -- like any other job -- "just a job."

So should you follow your passion or follow the money? That's a tough one. Here's what I did. I was too scared to follow my true passion (performing) due to a few reasons -- I fear failure, I don't believe I have enough talent, I may actually not have enough talent, I'm afraid of rejection, I wanted to make a decent living, I don't have the physical beauty required for Hollywood, nor the true dedication to performing the same role night after night in a professional performance career.

When it came time to choose what I would do out of college (where I had obtained a "3.0" liberal arts education and obtained an affinity for the "quotation mark") I was in awe of all the possibilities, yet convinced none of them would open their doors to me. What I didn't do in college was think through my career clearly. I didn't take may practical courses. My only internship was at a program that despite being run by outside journalists was within the school and titled using the college name (ie, didn't sound that impressive, despite that I was doing work for major TV stations and newspapers). As college came to a close I freaked and applied for internships around the country for something I thought I might be good at related to my passion... public relations and marketing. While getting the internships came easy, my passion did not. I quickly learned that veering off to the right of your passion doesn't qualify as actually following your passion. It just kicks you in the face day after day, which for some people, like myself, leads to depression.

That year was the first year in my life when I felt like I was actually depressed. The fear of what's next and knowing this wasn't what I wanted to do (non-profit marketing really requires you to believe in the cause and I lost that conviction - the arts suddenly seemed just as evil as any big corporation, and the strain of constantly needing to raise money and sell tickets, and being an indentured servant (ie slave with free housing) during that situation didn't help. I know I would have done a better job had I understood how that internship would be a building block to a career I'd love, but I didn't see that. I left the internship a few months in. Well, I was let go, because I lost all motivation to lick envelopes, check the mail, and organize files when just in the building over live art was being created. I was jealous of the person who landed the creative internship (my first choice, which I didn't get) and my bitterness was the end of that.

Luckily, it took me a short time to recover from the "job" loss because even in the deepest of my depression I knew I had to keep pushing forward. Mostly this was due to the fact that I had one month of housing left to get my act together, and then I'd be kicked out of the intern housing, and I knew I did not want to go home. So I frantically applied for every job I could find on Craigslist and Monster.com. I applied for more internships. I applied for everything. I must have sent out over 3000 resumes that month.

Then came a call for an internship at a newspaper. It paid diddly squat (you got a small fee when your stories got published, but that would not be enough to pay rent) and it was part time. I took a train for two hours south to interview for the position. I needed to get this internship because I felt that at least I'd have some creative autonomy as a journalist, and I could tell the lack of any creative control is what killed me at my first attempt at a full time job. I was offered the position and despite knowing my savings would take a beating those few months I at least had a direction to keep me afloat. I found a cheap place about a half hour from the internship and started looking for a car, which I'd need to get around my new home. I didn't know anyone in an hours drive of where I was moving, and this scared me a bit, but not much. I packed up my stuff and moved it all on the train for a day, taking the train back and forth and dragging my heavy luggage (luckily I didn't have too much with me since I had flown out to my internship in the first place).

This move, which I thought would cure my depression, definitely sent me on the right path, but I don't think I've quite recovered. Since then I've been through a few different careers, all involving writing, which has led me closer to whatever it is I'm meant to do, but I'm still on this journey. Every day I'm faced with the question of whether to follow my passion of the moment (always changing) or the money (a constant) and if it's possible to find something that combines both.

One thing I do know is that my passion isn't money alone. I couldn't spend my life as a salesperson (unless I believed in the product 100%). On my last entry, a commenter suggested that I look into a career in sociology and I think that might really be my passion. I minored in sociology in college, more because the reading materials and conversations in those classes were the highlight of my college experience. I could see myself writing books about modern culture, as while my passion for performing a subsided through the years, I've always loved a good conversation about what we do what we do and what makes us do it. Not really in the psychological sense, though I'm very interested in social psychology, but in the cultural sense. I'd love to study money, family, gender, technology, childhood, the economy, education and every pieces relation to happiness.

But can that actually be a career? Would I have the ability and attention span to get a PhD and find a small topic to research and become an expert in (even my above interest in happiness and culture is too vague for graduate school.) I might enjoy this more than other options I have, but one thing I learned in undergrad is that majoring in sociology (or any liberal arts field) is a no-no when it comes to obtaining a career. A PhD is another story, but I don't see myself as a PhD. I don't see myself a professor. On the other hand, maybe I'd love it. Maybe that's the type of "performing" I've been craving all along.


Buying Happiness in a Consumption Economy

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about Capitalism and its relationship to the definition of happiness in modern society. Last night I watched this video...

... which describes why our materials economy is not sustainable and how it is awful for everyone involved (except the big corporations making lots of money.) Nothing really shocking in the video if you know how the consumption economy works, but it's just sad how capitalism is pretty much based upon making you feel like shit so you have to buy stuff you don't need and then making the stuff you don't need seem like shit compared to the latest cool thing so you want to buy that and so on, with all your once cool stuff becoming waste polluting the planet (not to mention the whole awful part about cheap labor and destroying third world countries.) That leads me to wonder, if stuff is ruining the planet, and likely our ability to be happy, then is it possible to be happy with money in our lives?

I jokingly asked my boyfriend today if he thinks I'd be happy if I just gave away all my money. That's a stupid idea, as I'd eventually starve and wouldn't have a place to live. I don't actually give any money to charity yet and I'm not sure at what point I'll feel comfortable doing so. If I save $20k next year, I should be able to afford to donate some funds to charity. But I just feel like all that money should be put in my grad school account, or in my making babies in vitro account, or in my house down payment fund, or car replacement fund. Having money is a necessity, unless you're that blogger who lives in canyon and eats out of trash cans and seems to be thrilled with his life, and I'm not sure how to let go of any of it.

Still, I don't see myself ever being happy in a stuff economy. I don't always buy the newest and most expensive gadgets and clothes, but I tend to shop for trends when the prices come down a bit, and I'll snap up the hottest gadget when I feel the cost is what it's worth (ie, my recent iPhone purchase), but I just don't know when I'll feel like I make enough to have enough to feel "good" in this society.

When I went to undergrad, I was so idealistic. I wanted to learn everything. I wasn't the best at learning because I couldn't decide what to learn and could never focus on one thing. When I figured out I need to find something to do to make money I became depressed. Now that I'm looking towards grad school, I have to find something that can sustain me for the rest of my life and also take in a decent income. I constantly think about having to support a family one day, knowing I could do it on a small income, but dreaming of a "large" six-figure income to support my mildly frugal stuff-based lifestyle.

The problem is, capitalism is inherently teaching us that our happiness should come from having more than the next person. Whether that's having a shiny new car, a cool pair of Ugg boots, or even just the ability to go out to dinner once a week when they can't (even if we're going into debt because of it) that is how we value ourselves in our society. Yet does it really make us happy? If there were some utopian society where everyone was equal, would we be able to obtain happiness without comparing ourselves to others from a financial standpoint? Or is that impossible... after all, we are genetically designed to compete so our offspring obtain the best life. Is that what our happiness is about?

My boyfriend is a simple guy. He's be happy living in a small hut with some good books and nothing but forest around him, and a visitor maybe once or twice a month. Me... I'm a different animal. I almost feel like I need stuff. I need the rush of shopping, it makes me feel safe. Without god in my life there's only shopping to fill that void. I don't go to temple or church, I go to the mall. I say thanks by purchasing the best fitting outfits I try on. I fill my religious void with lots of stuff. And then I fill my room with it and my clutter makes me miserable. It's a vicious cycle. And it has to end now.

Still, what replaces my stuff religion when it's gone? The only replacement are experiences... and those can be free or expensive and worth the same. It is our experiences that we remember, not our material goods. Even then, though, experiences can be pricey (they don't have to be) and do they even really make us happy? A blog I was reading the other day discussed how travel is a waste of money and that experiences are pretty much just as invaluable as stuff and they come and go. But if nothing has value (other than maybe our love ones, who we have no control over in terms of life or death as accidents happen) it becomes almost necessary for us to have stuff in our lives. Stuff keeps us sane. It puts meaning on something that really isn't worth anything, even if it cost a lot. Take away stuff and what do our lives mean?

I wish I could spend my life studying how the relationship of a people with material goods and experiences effect the happiness of a society and culture. Is American culture just so awful and warped that it's hard to see past life's true value and how to obtain happiness, or is this a worldwide epidemic? A human epidemic?

Plenty more thoughts on this topic to come... feel free to post a comment answering some or all of my questions... I'm curious what you all think...


Jan 2, 2010

170k Miles and 4 Years of Used Car Ownership

In 2006, I bought my first car. While my parents, at the time, had a new car-only buying policy, my financial situation led me straight to the used car salesman. The purchase would be the largest buy I had made in my life, and every second of the process I was nervous and unsure of myself. All I knew was that I wanted to buy a used car, that I wanted to buy a "good" used car, and that I didn't want to spend more than... $8,000 on my car. Though less would be better.

I spent a lot of time at used car dealerships. I almost bought a lot of cars that I'm glad I didn't end up with. Certified used vehicles are the biggest waste of my money in my (current) opinion, but maybe that opinion will change after I buy a dud one day. My trip to the Chevrolet store had me sitting in a certified car that I thought I wanted. It was way more than $8k, but it was only one year old... a rental that was ready to be sold. It was shiny and new-ish. It was a red Chevy Aveo. I didn't really love driving it, but at 22 and getting ready to buy my first car, I figured I'd grow into it. I was literally sitting down at the bargaining table when I started to negotiate terms, and I realized this car was just going to cost me more than I was comfortable spending. I wanted to pay for my car outright, and that wouldn't be possible with this car (unfortunately I can't remember its price tag, but I think it was around $13k). I'm very glad I walked out of the dealership that day.

Later in my search, I drove a used Saab that I fell in love with, despite the whole hatchback style not being me at all. I really fell in love with the idea of owning a "luxury" car when the pricetag was comparable to the crappy Aveo I almost bought. In fact, I think the Saab I was looking at was around $9k. But then I read up on Saabs and discovered that despite their top-notch performance in crashes, the cost to repair the beast would be ridiculous. I moved on to the Toyota dealership, when I knew I was closer to what I'd ultimately buy.

At Toyota the certified cars were expensive. I test drove one that was sporty and too low to the ground. Apparently I need a car that's slightly higher up to feel safe. I test drove a Camry and really liked it but due to the price tag it was a no go. I started to consider if I should buy a more expensive car and just pay per month like most people do. That's when I turned to Craigslist.

More nervous then ever, I scoured the Craigslist postings for a Honda or Toyota in my price range. I'm not sure when I first saw the older Toyota Solara model, but I fell in love with its sleek design minus the huge pricetag. I never thought I'd buy a two-door car, but I realized that I didn't know anyone in the area, and chances were I'd basically be schlepping myself around with maybe one other passenger. Four doors just weren't necessary.

The Solara I found for sale was around $7k. It was a 1999, which seemed old but not necessarily too old... (it was 2005 at the time, so it was 6 years old). The almost dealbreaker was the mileage on the car... 130k miles. Now, maybe it was a mistake to buy the car with that many miles, but I haven't had any issues yet. The most important thing to me was figuring out WHY the seller was trying to get rid of the car. He had a reasonable story -- he had a baby, he loved the car (which was always owned by his family) but needed a four door and planned to buy the four door Camry version of the model.

He agreed to get the car inspected so I brought the car to a guy who was supposedly a Toyota specialist and paid $100 or something to get the car checked out. The guy ran through a few small problems with the car but told me it was in really good operating order for so many miles and the year it was sold. And I was sold. I needed a car and I was tired of looking. I paid $7,000 via check and watched the money wipe from my bank account. But it wasn't that scary, I still had some savings left, and I really was excited to buy my first car.

Since then, my car has been running fine. Knock on wood. 2006 - 2010 makes my car at least a four year purchase, or about $2,000 per year plus gas and insurance. I've had to replace the breaks and tires, but otherwise it's doing ok.

I'm glad I didn't spend money on a new or newer car... being as this is my first car, I've dinged it up a bit, mostly driving into inanimate objects. I wish I hadn't, but I'm a better driver now and know how to avoid most scratches (at least ones I cause) if I get a nicer car down the road. I love my car for its sunroof, it's design, it's cost (even though I could have gone cheaper.) I love my car for keeping me safe during one accident and somehow not even getting too much damage from it (I didn't hit anything, I just had a really bad day and was exhausted and spun off the road into a ditch by accident.)

My car now has over 170k miles on it, so I've put on about 10k miles per year. I'm not sure if that's considered a lot. I don't drive much but I generally take one or two longer road trips per year (longer being like 5-6 hour drives) so that's adding up and undoubtedly wearing on my car. Since my boyfriend drives a really old clunker which can't accelerate well, we always take my car. I wish he had a better car so we could trade off car-driving duties, but at least when I use my car I can drive... I doubt he'd let me drive his car if he had one he liked!

Now I'm wondering how long my car will really last me. I'd like it to last to 200k miles, which would be 3 more years, I guess. I don't know how I could sell the beast, it's too dinged up to be worth much now, unfortunately. So I plan to run it into the ground, figuratively speaking. I'd love my next car to be a Prius but those things are damned expensive, even used. Heck, I may buy another Solara (though a newer model) because I've been happy with Toyota quality and my car. It's not fancy, it's not a show car, it's just a car that's a little nice to get me where I need to go.

How much did you spend on your current car? How long do you expect it to last you?


Jan 1, 2010

2010: A Fresh Start / Saving $20k in One Year

My goal of saving $20k in 2010 feels within reach. I used Mint to create a strict budget for myself which, allowing for occasional splurges, still should see me saving $1670 per month...

Auto: $300
Bills: $200
Education: $60
Entertainment: $50
Investing Fees: $12
Food & Dining: $200
Health & Fitness: $400
Rent: $633
Personal Care: $440
Shopping: $50
Travel: $50

What's in bold above is the hard part. I can see myself sticking to budget everywhere else, but it's going to take a lot of effort to make sure I spend less than $200 on food per month and less than $50 on shopping. Honestly, the shopping is easier since I can just avoid the mall and therefore not buy anything. I spend way too much when I let myself near a mall, so no mall visits in 2010 except to buy gifts.

I don't know how to spend $200 on food per month, even though in theory that should be easiest. Why can't I spend less than $200 a month on food... I'm only feeding myself (and occasionally my boyfriend.) I eat out WAY too much which is why in 2010 I will eat out ONLY ONCE A MONTH (really?) and this will be an extreme change in lifestyle for me. That means I need to eat breakfast at home (so I don't pick up $13 Starbucks on the way to work), figure out affordable lunch options, go out to lunch with my coworkers just once a week, and eat dinner at home -- or pack a dinner. I honestly have no idea how to eat cheap / frugally. When I shop for food at the supermarket I usually buy too much that I don't end up eating. I try to feed myself in the moment, which is bad, and usually wait to figure out what I'm in the mood for (am I craving protein? Calcium?) to decide what to eat. Well, that has to stop, as my $400 - $500 a month food diet is way too expensive and honestly not at all healthy for me.

If my income level stays the same this whole year AND I stick to my budget, I really feel like I CAN save $20k. It really helps using Mint's planning tool to visualize this. I'm such a nerd but I love adjusting my monthly spending in each category and seeing the yearly savings figure go up. It makes a few dollars saved each month seem a lot more valuable.

Now, chances are I will not remain at my job all year for a few reasons. Namely because I work at a startup and this is our make-or-break year. We may "make" but just looking at the odds there's at least some chance we'll "break." The good news is that with this tight(ish) budget savings plan, I should save $10k the first 6 months, which would at least put me in a good spot when I need to look for a new job (though would completely throw off my goal to save $20k and would depress me greatly.)

Now, I just need to figure out what to do about my 2010 Roth IRA. Over the past three years my IRA plan as been pretty simple... save up enough the year before to put in $3k on April 16 for the year, then put in a few hundred dollars a month until hitting $5k. It probably makes more sense to just max it out right away since I think I'll have the money and the market looks like it will recover more in 2010 (though it could do the opposite, but how much would dollar cost averaging $2k over a year really help?) Additionally, at my current income tax bracket, I'm unsure if I should be doing a Roth IRA or if I'm at the point where a traditional IRA makes more sense. With no 401k to speak of (I've never worked for a company with a 401k, let alone one that matches) the Roth is my only pure investment vehicle. So I need to be smart about it.

After a really awful December in terms of spending (vacations, gifts, dining out) I'm so ready to turn a new January leave and live a semi-frugal life in 2010. With the help of this blog and Mint's budget tools to keep me in check, I think I can accomplish this. This should be do-able if I keep myself in check every day. No more impulse buys. No more $1500 days at Bloomingdales to cure my temporary depression and need to feel free and reckless. No more alcohol. If I feel the need to do something impulsive - ever - I'm going to the gym.