Dec 31, 2009

No More Voice Lessons... For Now

My voice teacher just emailed me and asked me about scheduling January lessons. I've been going to lessons twice a month for the last year, which cost me $170 a month. Given that I'm now spending $200 a month for group therapy, it is important to pull back somewhere. It's a tough decision to say no to lessons, but it's something I need to do right now. I recently started dance class once a week which is $60 / month, and I feel like this is an area I need more work on anyway in terms of auditions. I'd love if I could afford all of the above, but I really can't. (Well, not if I want to save $20,000 next year.)

I feel bad about telling my voice teacher I can't afford lessons right now. It's tough being self employed, and even though I'm sure my $170 a month won't break her budget, it's much easier to cancel a subscription than voice lessons with a woman who I respect and actually want to pay.

That said, I need to take care of my mental health issues right now. And that's costing me a small fortune. When I got hired full time I sought out voice lessons as a reward to myself. I do think I've improved a bit, but I'll never be a great singer. It's more or less a hobby of mine. But at this point in my life it's just not worth investing in. My sanity, however, is.


2009: A Year in Personal Fiscal Review

2009 was an incredible year for be in terms of income. Since graduating college in 2005, I had at most made $30k per year, with months of the year usually dedicated to unemployment sans unemployment checks and freelancing to fill in the gaps. As much as 2009 was not a perfect year, my income this year hit approx. $70k before tax. So I made more than double what I've ever made before. That's the good news.

My spending also increased in 2009. I spent $35k this last year, according to Mint. This included unnecessary splurges which I likely rewarded myself due to my promotion. Next year, I'm going to create a budget and stick to it, as my goal is to save 30% of my after-tax income, about $15,000 assuming my income remains the same (which odds are it won't). I'd really like to save $20,000 next year, but to do that I'd really have to force myself to be frugal. Which isn't a bad thing, it's just something I've never done before. I might try, especially with Mint's budget tool and my new iPhone helping me keep my finances in check each month.

To save $20,000 in 2009, I'd have to save $1,667 each month. Assuming my take-home pre-tax pay is $66,000 (which I like to pretend is $33,000 after taxes) I have $2,750 a month to spend. That leaves me with just $1,083 a month of spending money if I really want to save $1,667 per month. Again, this is certainly possible. I'm really inspired by blogs like Under $1000 a Month because if a family of 4 can live off less than $1,000 a month (!!!) then so can I. Right?

Well, I'm not sure I can. My mental health therapy is expensive, as are the meds I will likely be on in 2010. That's my biggest cost that I'm not willing to give up. I've already cut back on voice lessons, though I'm taking a dance class which is $60 / month. And my car may become a wreck in 2010 (with 170k miles on it, I don't know how much longer it will last) which could mess up the whole savings thing.

I figure I have $800 in set costs (rent, bills, gym, car insurance) and then anything else on top of that which is vital... food, gas, new tires, etc. All-in-all it doesn't seem like I can live on less than $1,000 a month. Well, I could, but that would mean NO therapy and no dance lessons (and definitely no laser hair removal package, which I'm almost sure I am going to purchase in early 2010 for $300 / month over 12 months.)

My goal for 2010, though, is to seek out ways to live frugally, besides my set expenses, so I can save a lot. Maybe not $20,000, but it's not so bad to make that my goal. I'll aim to save $1,667 a month and budget for this as possible. If I can increase my annual income with additional freelance work, all the better. I count my interest in as well, so if my stocks happen to perform well and my P2P accounts happen to stop defaulting, I might hit this goal. Who knows. I do want to focus on keeping my budget in check. If I can save AT LEAST $1,200 a month in 2012, my networth will hit $50k, which is really my main goal for 2010. I read somewhere that at 30 your savings should be at the amount you want to live on for one year of retirement. I'd like $80k a year in retirement, so I want to hit $80k in savings by 30. Which is going to get totally messed up by my potentially going to grad school... but it won't exactly help matters if I'm out of a job either.

Anyway, here's to 2010 being prosperous and smart for me and for everyone out there reading this little blog of mine. :)


Dec 29, 2009

Get Your Free Drugs Here: Bipolar II Study

Well, I'm one appointment closer to getting free drugs to treat my Bipolar II depression. I qualified for a study at a local hospital where I'll be given either Zoloft, Lithium or Both (I'll be getting something, but I won't know which combo) and went today to get blood work for the final check before they give me the meds. Assuming everything comes back normal (and after I take an EKG next week) I'll be given the medication and set up to track my moods for the coming 16 weeks.

My psychiatrist gave me a prescription for Celexa but I'm holding off on buying that until I do this study. I think I'll learn about myself and my mental state by carefully tracking my interaction with medication, especially since I won't really know what meds I'm on.

In addition to getting free meds, I also get a $25 grocery store gift certificate every time I go in for an appointment (I'll be going every week for the first six weeks of the study, then every other week for the remainder of the study). It's not a bad deal... I can basically pay for my groceries for a month and get free meds. I do have to let them poke me with needles more often than I'd like and accept that I might be on a medication that may not be perfect for me, but with any mental health med you have to experiment to find the right medication and dosage. Plus, without knowing what I'm on I'll avoid the placebo effect. I'm looking forward to seeing if these meds alter the way I think and feel in the coming months.


Did Feminism Destroy a Woman's Evolutionary Means of Happiness?

The other day I randomly happened upon a blog written by a man who might be the most sexist psychologist in the modern world, which I'd write off as total BS if his blog wasn't on Psychology Today and for the fact that the guy teaches at the London School of Economics. His whole explanation for how we act is based on his belief that men want to compete for dominance and make themselves most desirable for women because the woman picks her sexual partners and the men must just make themselves wanted. He thinks that feminism has destroyed the modern woman's chances of happiness because it has taught us that being a mother (esp a stay-at-home mother) is something to look down upon, and in terms of evolution, that's what a woman would be most happy doing.

Do I believe all or any of this? Not really. Obviously everyone is different, and some woman would be thrilled to chase after a corner office and live a life without children. According to this guy women are necessary in the relationship equation to force men to not have sex all the time, as gay men never stop having sex. Ignoring this guy's obvious lack of ability to grasp reality, he makes a few good points along the way, and has lead me to some other interesting reading specifically about the woman's role in modern society. His point on how success today is pretty much only known by the "masculine" version of success is true, even though I'm not sure competing for the corner office or making a high salary is actually masculine.

I often wonder who I'd be in society 50 years ago. I feel so lost in terms of what I want out of life these days, and deep down part of me questions if this is due to my human nature as an animal and even as a woman. But I feel dirty admitting to wanting to be feminine in the traditional sense -- I couldn't imagine accepting that my path to happiness is to be a mother, stay home, take care of the kids, cook for my husband (well, that would be a bad idea anyway since I'm a terrible cook). Then again, I feel happiest when I'm helping people, when I can be in a motherly role. My boyfriend doesn't like it when I try to mother him (not that I try, but can't a guy learn to iron his clothes?) so maybe having children would make me happy...

My grandmother, who is now 80, married a guy who was 20 years older than her when she was younger. She told me about the marriage a bit this weekend when I went to visit her. He was a traveling rabbi, driving around Montana, Idaho, and the Dakotas as a chaplain for the military. She liked him because men close to her age weren't able to hold intelligent conversations (so she says, though really I think she just couldn't find anyone willing to put up with her... she's a bit on the nutty side of the PB&J.) After getting married, of course she didn't work. She raised three children. That was her life.

When I talked to a career counselor for a consultation on the phone a few months ago, her voice told me she was older, perhaps in her 50s, and she went on about how I'm doing fine, that I shouldn't worry, that only a decade or two ago I would not have any choices as a woman, and today I am doing perfectly well given how many choices I have. That gave me little comfort in my sanity.

Now that I've been dating a guy for more than 3 years (almost 4!) and we talk about marriage here and there, the idea of becoming a mother is going from something I thought would never happen to a possibility. Even though I know it will cost me a billion dollars to have a child or children (thanks PCOS) I have a partner now who I can see spending the rest of my life with. I know he'd be a good father. I'm not sure if I'd be a good mother... my aunt laughs whenever I talk about having kids, she thinks I'd be an awful mother (but I think despite her ability to make a great salary and force her children to eat healthy, she's not a perfect mother either)... I just wonder if I'll ever have kids, if being a mom is really what my genes are longing for these days... given that women are really supposed to procreate the second they hit puberty and only modern society has messed that up by creating "adolescence" (one thing I do agree with creepy sexist psychologist man about.) And now, at 26 without kids or a husband, I feel empty. Every possible path... grad school, a great career, etc, seem to be lacking something. I know I need to figure out the career thing before having children (as once I have kids I need a stable job, I'm not going to be marrying a rich guy and I'm fine with that.) But what if I wait too long and I can't have kids? My boyfriend casually mentions that he sees us getting married in 2015. I'll be 31. That's not too old to get married, but it scares me that my gynecologist, when I was 15, told me if I want to have kids I should try to have them by the time I turn 30. Back then she said "don't worry, you have time" but at 26 I don't feel like I have any time at all. I know I can't rely on kids to make me happy -- they might do just the opposite -- but at the very least they'll help me be less selfish. So much of what makes me miserable these days is how life seems to all be about me, and there's nothing in the world that can satisfy me, just things to do or buy to temporarily fill the void. I don't know what would make me happy... what's a well paying job without children in your life?


Dec 28, 2009

When a Friend is Deep in Debt

I've mentioned my friend Jessica* a few times before, often discussing her poor spending habits. Now, Jessica is a great girl with the best intentions. She'll always put a friend or loved one's needs before her own. I don't have that kind of patience or selflessness, and I admire that trait in her. However, I'm worried about her debt, even though it's not my problem, and wish there was a way I could help her.

This month, she revealed to me that she is $12k in debt. While that isn't terrible, what is painful to watch is that this girl, with all her talent and skills, could easily obtain a job (even a minimum wage job) and pay off her debt within a year or two. But, being selfless as she is, she refuses to leave her administrative position with the family's business, which has suffered greatly with the economic collapse.

Jessica consolidated a few of her credit card balances and has managed to pay off $3k of her debt, bringing it down to the current $12k total she owes. She works a few small jobs here and there, but what the small jobs do is make it impossible for her to obtain steady work. Without a college degree, I know it would be hard for her to find a decent job, but isn't it worth working a job you dislike for a little while to pay off your debt and build an emergency savings fund?

It hurts me as a friend to watch her constantly worried about her debt, her bills, and how she's going to afford the next month. She lives in a house owned by her parents so luckily doesn't have to pay rent, but it sounds like there have been months when the parent's house has been close to going into foreclosure. The whole family is so nice and I just wish I was rich enough to buy them all out of debt, but then I also wish I could buy the whole country out of debt and teach everyone to live within their means. Too bad no one would listen.

Today, I asked Jessica what games we'd be playing on New Years at her party night and she said she might buy a new game with her Christmas money. I just wanted to write back and say don't buy a game, however much money you got, put that into savings. Pay down your debt. Don't buy a game with it. But I can't do that. I can't help at all.


Leaving (your money in) Las Vegas

I learn the most about personal finance when spending time with families. Single folks usually can hide their personal finance problems, but families tend to talk about them more openly -- even if it's just to argue about how to spend money for the day. It's valuable to listen to people in their 30s and 40s to learn about PF issues before you encounter them.

This weekend, I got a schooling in how gambling -- and more importantly, financial honesty -- effects a marriage. My aunt and uncle are both fairly well off, yet own an expensive home and live in a very pricey area with two kids, so for them -- even making approx $400k a year, every cent counts.

Both of them look at bills after meals and with a gasp exclaim that the meal was pricey. They offer to pay for my meals, on occasion, but you can tell in the way they offer they really want me to pick up my portion of the tab (which is fine, I just wish they'd come out and say it.)

However, the most uncomfortable part of my weekend with my aunt and uncle in Vegas was when my aunt inquired about my uncle's gambling. Now, he wasn't high rolling or anything... he just played a few hundred bucks in video poker. But he didn't seem to want to tell my aunt. What made the situation worse was that he would gamble a twenty here and a ten there in front of his children, then get upset at them when they brought this up in front of their mother.

If you're in Vegas there's nothing wrong with gambling a little bit, but you have to set limits and more importantly, if you're married, you have to be open with your partner about how much you're going to spend. I don't understand how the same couple constantly worried about every penny can function with gambling involved.

All in all, my trip to Las Vegas was depressing, especially from a personal finance point of view. Watching all of these people... rich, poor, tourists, locals, everyone - just giving away their money in hopes to win big, is almost too surreal to believe. My grandmother, for instance, plays video poker non stop. She puts in $100 and goes through it in about five minutes, only to go to the atm, pay another $5 fee, take out $100 more and go through that. She says she comes out ahead but I can't really believe her. She does have a strategy which seems to help her "hit" on occasion, but I can't imagine anyone who is a gambling addict could actually come out ahead always. Granted, she's alone and her boyfriend of five years recently passed away, and she has nothing except the video poker machine to keep her company. She doesn't travel, she doesn't go out to fancy restaurants or shows, she just gambles. That's her life. That's a lot of people's lives in Las Vegas and in the state of Nevada. It's a sad, sad place.

At least when you are visiting the state there is a beginning and end to your gambling, but when you live there, it easily turns into an addiction. I spent about $50 on video poker, more to bond with my Grandma (who constantly screamed in my ear that i'm doing it all wrong and that I shouldn't gamble but instead play the game the way it wants to be played) than to get rich quick (though of course in the back of my mind I was still hoping...)

I don't understand Vegas. It would make more sense in the old school sense with cheap buffets and entertainment, all to get people to come and spend their money on roulette. But these days everything there is just so expensive. The shows, the rides, the hotels, the spas, the food... who has money left over to gamble after paying for your vacation?

If anything good comes out of my grandmother's gambling addiction, it's her thousands of "comps" which basically provide free room and board for her visitors a few times a year. I didn't feel so bad wasting $50 on video poker when my entire stay was otherwise free. I can't imagine ever going to Vegas and actually paying just to be there. It might be fun to go with a group of friends and party the night away -- if you're super rich -- but otherwise, how is what happens in Vegas ever worth the price?


Dec 22, 2009

My 2009 Health Spending and HSA Account Report

This was the first year I had an HSA Account along with a high deductible health insurance plan. It's worked out ok, though to be honest I'm still unsure if I'm doing this all right. I made some last-minute transfers from my account to reimburse myself for medical spending and glad I did it today, because I found out that I can only transfer $500 per day and I needed to take out the same $2000 that I just transfered in.

The biggest stumble with my HSA this year was my accidental over contribution (excess contribution), as I transferred $2000 into the account completely forgetting that my work would be putting in another $100 before year end, putting my account $100 over the legal limit for the year. Oops.

I'm still not sure how that is going to pan out... I'll probably just be extra taxed on that $100 which sucks but it will be a few bucks (hopefully) and I know better for next year.

My medical expenses this year beyond what was covered by insurance were pretty costly...


$134.95 eye exam

$429 13 month supply of contacts


$761 deep cleaning 4 quadrants and oral cancer screen

Mental Health

$710 -- group therapy 1 month, one psychiatrist appointment, one career counselor appointment, 2 individual therapy (group screening) appointments


$250 -- 2 visits and herbs


$200? -- ultrasound to see that yes, I still have many cysts on my ovaries and office visit to discuss this (all during my supposedly "free" yearly checkup

Foot Problems

$195 -- this was either for my one visit to the podiatrist or the xrays, I'm unclear which but I probably owe more.

Monthly Health Deduction: $20 (x 12 = $240)

Total Health Costs this Year: $2919.95

- $1200 (employer contribution to HSA)

My Approx 2009 Health Expenses: $1719.95


26 Aspirations and Goals for 2010

I like Affecting Change in Me's idea to come up with the # of goals for the coming year based on your age. She's turning 30 so she has 30 goals.

Here are my 26 goals for 2010...

I'll check in each month to update how I'm doing on each goal.

1. Save 20% of my income for retirement

2. Save 10% of my income for other upcoming expenses

3. Increase my net worth to $60,000

4. Study (a lot) for graduate school tests

5. Take the GMAT (and poss retake the GRE)

6. Apply to grad school(s) in fall 2010

7. Stop drinking alcohol (except on my birthday)

8. Go to the gym 3 times a week

9. Earn $10k in freelance income ($833 / month)

10. Eat 1300 calories per day

11. Drink 8 glasses of water per day

12. Come up with sweet, non expensive things to do to make my boyfriend happy and do them

13. Go to 1 networking event per month and get up the courage to talk to people (which is going to be really hard since I'm giving up alcohol)

14. Keep my room organized (easier said than done, hello ADD)

15. Write max 20 posts per month for blogging gig ($500 / month)

16. Start a saving fund for basic expenses for the second half of next year when I'll likely be out of a job.

17. Write hand written letters to the people in my life who I've lost contact with (sans Facebook status updates). I don't really like many people, but it saddens me that I've lost contact with the few people in this world who I really admire and consider friends.

18. Take an antidepressant for a year and see if it actually helps my mood swings over time.

19. Go to group therapy when possible and give what it takes to get the most out of it possible.

20. Make an effort to spend one day a month with each of my few friends.

21. Invite my roommates to do something fun outside the house and try to build my relationship with them (I am really bad at socializing with my roommates, I like them but when I come home I usually just want to hide in my room. They are so close to each other it's sometimes awkward for me to be there.)

22. Read at least 4 fiction books and 4 personal finance / economics books and 4 books on interaction design

23. Start saving for a car replacement

24. Put my all into work, even though sometimes I don't know how to. Be positive at work and supportive of the chaotic environment that is life at a startup. Try to bring a smile to the table always.

25. Work on being a better listener and communicator. Learn from career counselor how to do that.

26. Try to take one day at a time and be happy for all I have and all the opportunities that are to come.


Thanks 1-800-DENTIST: I won a toothbrush!

I never win anything, so I was really excited to get a DM from 1-800-Dentist informing me that I won ToothBrush Tuesday and will be receiving a Sonicare toothbrush sometime next month. Oh yea!

This makes up for the extra $500 I spent on my dentist this year since after my appointments I was informed that my dentist wasn't actually on my plan.

I've never owned a fancy electric toothbrush so I'm extremely excited to have won. My teeth aren't in the world's best shape but I think having a fancy toothbrush will help keep plaque at bay. Of all the things in the world I could have won, this is a prize that I'm truly value because it's useful and something I should probably own anyway.

So thanks 1-800-Dentist... I can't wait to get my new fancy toothbrush in the mail! Maybe I'll even call up to find a new dentist since the one I had this year is not on my dental plan.

If you want to win a Sonicare toothbrush, just follow @1800DENTIST next Tuesday and Tweet:

Its Toothbrush Tuesday! Follow @1800dentist & Tweet #1800dentist by 3pmPST. You could win a FREE Sonicare:

That's what I did AND I WON! Dreams do come true. Lol. Ok, so this prize isn't necessarily dreamy, but I'm half jumping out of my seat right now for winning something I actually need. Go me.


The Joys of Working for a Startup

There are plenty plusses and minuses that come with working for a startup. The biggest plus, in my opinion, is knowing when your money will run out. This gives you ample time to prepare for what's next if needed. While layoffs still hit smaller startups, it's not like at a big company where one day you have a great job and the next day you're in the unemployment line. With the risk of being in a startup, you get a little more security in the short term.

I've never worked for a big "stable" company. One day I'd like to, even though I'm fairly sure I won't be able to stand big corporate politics. Even though my job isn't perfect, I love that I sit in the same room as the CEO and that for the most part, there are no secrets about the business. Not everything is out in the open, but I can ask questions and get answers to most of my questions, and I try not to pry beyond my welcome.

The cons are largely in not being in charge and having little control over the direction the startup will take. If you are in control and you have VC backing, that's a lot of pressure on you. I'm not sure I could take that kind of pressure, so a part of me is glad that I get to sit on the sidelines and watch the game plays, even if I don't always agree with them.

Still, it's tough to know the date your job may end. I'm lucky that I'm young and single with an emergency savings account so being unemployed for a little while won't kill me. The question is, though, when is the appropriate time to jump ship? Do you wait and go down with the ship, and receive the honor that comes with that, or do you wage a full on job search?

So far I've sent out a few applications here and there, but the economy is limiting options and I haven't even landed an interview yet. My whole life I've been a roll-with-the-punches type gal, and I'll probably ride this little adventure out the same way. After all, my professional life has been a series of ups and downs leading from one job to the next, bringing me closer to whatever my dream job might be. When I got laid off from my part time admin job one morning and three hours later got a call from the company that would, within a week, offer me my first full-time job I knew to just trust the way the world works. I don't believe in God or karma, but I think things work out in the long run. In the meanwhile, you have to be smart, especially when it comes to finances. I'm no Einstein of dough, but having all my savings makes me a lot less nervous about the day, likely in the next year, when I will be out of a job.


Dec 21, 2009

Mid-Month Financial & Budget Check Up

Instead of letting my spending addiction control me, I'm now using Mint's planning features (read my interview with Mint CEO about this feature release here) and am finding that the tools are extremely useful in keeping myself on track.

This month has been a bit wonky between travel and gifts and end-of-year expenses, but I'm trying my best to stick to the budget I set for myself. What I really like about Mint is that it's easy to adjust my budget as the month goes on. So, for instance, this month my medical/health costs skyrocketed, and I reduced my entertainment and education costs to balance out some of the extra spending. Ultimately, my goal is to save as much as possible per month without living "frugally." I just want to live smart under my means, and earn enough income to make this possible without being "cheap" or "frugal." Also, this month I received a surprise $200 bonus, so I am using that to pay for the remainder of the month with the exception of whatever other bills I will be paying automatically before the 1st.

Expenses so far this month: $3983

Auto: $194 / 200

Bills: $341 / 400

Education $0 / 10

Fees: $12 / 15

Food: $363 / 500

Gifts: $90 / 100

Health & Fitness: $1422 / 1500

Rent: $632 / 632

Personal Care: $78 / 100

Shopping: $423 / 500

Travel $322 / 400

Other: $70


Come January, I'm shrinking my budget and focusing on saving more each month. This month, I'm lucky, I have a lot of belated freelance income owed to me that is coming in the mail so my excess spending should balance out, even leaving enough to save a bit. Still, I need to be more careful next year. I may only have a job 1/2 the year if my company runs out of money, which means I might need to give being a frugal a try, at least for a little while, and maximize my savings as much as possible.


Say Yes to the Dress -- Why I'm Going to Try to Say No...

My reality TV obsession as of late is TLC's "Say Yes to the Dress." Now that I'm 26, I'm like (almost) every other girl in the world who (isn't married yet) is thinking about being a bride and all that goes with it. Hey, I've been with my bf 3.5 years, so it's not like marriage is so far off I shouldn't be thinking about such things. (Right... right?)

Watching the show has me fiscally horrified, especially the episodes featuring women who have no budget and can buy a dress that costs $6k or more. As a kid, I would have been certain that my wedding dress would be on par with the dresses shown on SYTTD, and that I'd have money flowing from every possible bank account to fund my dream wedding. Nowadays, I'm a lot smarter than that. And thinking about the cost of my one-day wedding makes me almost violently ill.

When I was 12, my family threw a huge Bat Mitzvah party for me. It was ridiculous. I don't know how much it cost but I think it was around $13k. For a Bat Mitzvah. It was the fault of my parents as much as it was mine. My party was probably on the higher end of what my peers spent in my temple, but certainly not the highest. I wanted to have the reception at one venue that my parents deemed too expensive. Where'd all the money go? The venue and food, the DJ / band (yes I had a DJ AND Band at my Bat Mitzvah), the professional photographer, professional videographer, the outfit (though my dress wasn't really that expensive compared to anything else), the party favors (I needed three colors on the custom t-shirts so that cost extra), the party planner, and who knows what else. With such a big family on both sides, a lot of people were invited, and many came. I didn't know half the people at my party, but it was a party, and I enjoyed it (as much as an atheist girl can when she is celebrating the end of years of religious study.)

Looking forward to my wedding day (even though I'm not even engaged yet), I know that I want to be frugal when it comes to the big day. But I'm also the type of girl that believes in going all out or not going at all. And I'm tempted not to go. At least when I was a kid at my Bat Mitzvah I was so ignorant. While that was awful for my parent's finances, at least I could ENJOY the celebration, for what that's worth. Knowing how much my wedding costs will make it tough for me to enjoy any of it. I'd elope except my mom would shoot me, so it looks like I'll be forced to have a wedding.

According to I Will Teach You to Be Rich and the Wall Street Journal, the average wedding cost is $28,000. That's the AVERAGE, people. I'm not surprised knowing how much parties cost, but I can't imagine how so many people spend this much, especially when the majority of them are in debt.

When I watch Say Yes to the Dress, I'm amazed by how the lower-end buyers are looking for dresses that cost around $3,000. First of all, if I ever spend $3,000 on a dress it will NOT be white because God knows a white dress won't be able to be worn twice (and a bridal gown can't be worn twice anyway, unless you manage to have the Project Runway contestants makeover your dress into a modern frock.)

How can anyone spend $3,000 or more on a dress to be worn one day? I dream of finding a used designer gown that's still in perfect condition so at least I'll get a decent price on a nice gown, but really, I know designer gowns still cost more than what I'd like to spend on a dress. The most I've ever spent on a garment is $460, which was my $600 leather jacket on sale. And I wear that basically every day.

I've been eying the designer Maggie Sottero who has some lovely dresses that I could see wearing on my wedding day. I'm short and pear-apple shaped, so finding a dress that is flattering will be beyond difficult (I can't pull off strapless unless I go on a serious diet)... I wish I could pull off a dress like this but with my waist that would just not look good. From what I can tell, this designer's gowns run more like $1k - $2k, which is still more than I'd like to spend. Honestly, do I even need a wedding gown? Can't I just get a nice prom dress and call it a day?

How much did you spend (or expect to spend) on your wedding dress (or wife's wedding dress)? Was it in your budget, or did you spend more (or less) than you wanted to? Did you get your dress on sale, or full price? Were you happy with your purchase?


Dec 17, 2009

Julie & Julia -- A Lesson on Loving Your Work

On my Continental flight home for the holidays, I spent $6 to watch Direct TV and movies... maybe not the best use of $6, but it was worth it. They were playing a movie I had wanted to see for a while and haven't got around to it -- Julie & Julia.

Wow, I loved the movie! As a blogger, of course I could relate to the main character who wrote about her life every day. For Julie, her blog was all about trying to complete the recipes in Julia Child's cookbook. The real-life Julie actually did start out as a blogger, then got a book deal, and then a movie deal. Such things do happen, apparently.

I always dream about getting a book deal off this blog. I don't know if I'd have enough interesting things to write at this point, but by the time I'm in my 30s I hope I know enough to write a book about personal finance. It's certainly inspiring to watch a movie about how for some people, blogging about what you love can go somewhere beyond just putting writing out there into cyberspace. The movie was all about turning 30, and while I'm not quite there yet, I'm getting closer. I'm 26, I'm really close.

One thing that really spoke to me about the movie was how it's all about following your passion. For both Julia and Julie, they went against the odds and took a risk to dedicate much of their time to cooking. Cooking is not my passion, but there are plenty of things that are -- writing about personal finance, painting (which I haven't done in way too long), and, well, really I don't need more than two passions. One is enough.

I'd really like to get back into painting next year. I have paints and just need to buy a canvas and I'm ready to go. Maybe I'll even blog about it.

By the way, here's Julie Powell's current blog... where she writes about her life post the Julia Child Project. Awesomeness.


Reader Question Thursday: How Do I Get out of Debt, Fix My Credit, and Save Money? Part 1

Every Tuesday I'm going to try to answer a reader question. The question can be about anything related to personal finance. You can also ask me a question about anything you've read on my blog. If you ask me a question I don't know the answer to, I'll do the research and get the answer for you. :)

Please ask me question(s) in this post so I can get started and pick one to answer next week. Today, I'm going to answer a reader question from last night. Feel free to chime in with your advice by posting a comment.

Tamara "Tam" Major said...

"...i'm 25 and i wanted to read what others were writing at my age. ive really enjoyed reading your blogs the past few days - but i honestly have no idea where to get started saving in the finance world. my husband and i just got married and my plan for the new year is to get our credit up, get out of debt and save as much as possible. if you have any suggestions on where to start id really appreciate your input."


Tamara, great for you in doing research on how to get your credit up and get out of debt. I'm not sure how much of my blog you've read, but I've never been in debt for many reasons that have nothing to do with my being good with managing my money. But now that I'm a personal finance blogger and looking to save, I apply many of the principles of getting out of debt to saving money (though not always perfectly, as my readers will attest.)

That said, there are many great personal finance bloggers who are or have been in debt, and have impressively pulled themselves out of debt in relatively short periods of time by being really smart about their spending.

Let's break this question down into three parts... I'll start with part one in this Reader Question Tuesday... how do you get out of debt?

Some of this may be obvious to you, so forgive me for starting with the basics. Making a budget (and sticking to the budget) which includes a significant debt repayment each month is going to be key. I don't know about your spending habits so if you already do this and are extremely frugal and have absolutely no funds to spare for debt repayment, then this advice may not be as relevant for you. However, if you buy things you don't "need" -- even if that's a latte from Starbucks or a song off iTunes, it's time to re-think your spending patterns.

Suze Orman is a great resource for debt reduction. She is a tough-love type advisor, which is what people need when they're in debt. (And when they're out of debt and living on a limited income). I don't always agree with her but at the core she's probably the best resource for learning how to get out of debt. I skimmed her book Young, Fabulous and Broke when I first got out of college and found it provided some great advice for 20 somethings who are in debt. You probably get get it at your library, or read it at the book store if you don't want to buy it right now.

Secondly, I recommend reading all the wonderful personal finance blogs available where people have written about how they got out of debt. Since I don't have these stories, on the debt end you're probably best off reading some of these other blogs. Here are a few to check out:

Give Me Back My Five Bucks (by Krystal at Work) -- Krystal has $17,000 of debt and got out of debt in ONE YEAR! Now she's started an emergency fund, savings, a retirement portfolio, and I bet her credit score has improved too. She has a sub-section of her site about getting out of debt where she provides a lot of advice through experience.

Also check out Ugly Debty, Out of Debt Debt Again, Blogging Away Debt for starters. Lots of the personal finance blogs out there were started by people in their 20s and 30s about getting out of debt. If you are so inspired, start your own blog to track your process and goals. I find it is really helpful to have your goals read by the public... even if only one other person is reading your blog, you're accountable to that one person. You'll think twice before buying that latte.

Another helpful tool that I write a lot about is -- on Mint you can connect all your credit cards, debit cards and see your debt-to-income ratio, track your budget and your expenses. Sometimes just getting a clear picture of where your money and where you can be saving is a huge help in getting out of debt.

Figure out how much you can afford to live on, realistically, but cutting back on things that you think cost too much in your life. Make a budget based on that. Pay your debt off first. If you have time to do side jobs, do them, and put that money straight to your debt. The quicker you can pay it off, the better.

Without knowing how much debt you're in, what your income is, what kind of debt (education? car? credit card?) it's hard to give you specific advice about how to get out of debt. If you comment with some more details, I'll post them in this blog.

Also... readers... please chime in with your advice for Tamara. :)


Dec 16, 2009

If You're a Parent, Don't be Like My Parents

My father always brought home a good salary from his white-collar job, so when I still lived at home my family lived a comfortable life. Then my dad got sick and his income went from barely enough to support the family's lifestyle to the little he got for disability.

Even though he has saved up a sizable amount in retirement accounts through the years, between himself and my mother there's $1 million in an IRA available to support them for the rest of their lives. That sounds like a lot of money, but at the rate they spend, it isn't.

I made my mom sign up for Mint about a year ago, just so I can start to get a picture of their finances. It doesn't include all the income they're getting through disability and other monthly funds, so I'm not clear exactly how much money they have, or how much they will make in the coming years. Maybe they have tons of money and I just don't know where it all is or where it will come from.

On Mint, I looked at their spending for 2009. Right now it's at $160,000. They paid off their house (though I think might have a home equity line of credit they're repaying now) so that's $160,000 for two adults and one semester of my sister's college tuition, room and board. Yikes. I'm sure with my dad's health condition there are some costs in there that are necessary, but health insurance pays for a lot of those fees. My mom has no idea how to budget (my dad doesn't either, but he's generally better at not buying lots of things at once that he doesn't need) and I'm worried about her having enough money for her "retirement."

What's really making me boil is how my dad paid for my sister's tuition with his credit card because he is about 3 years behind on taxes... and can't get the home equity line of credit at 5% interest until he finishes all of this. So he put the money on the credit card, which has a $7000 balance on it right now. They've already paid two months of interest on that, and it looks like there will be more. At the very least, I know my dad used to always pay off the credit card bills every month, so it really makes me sad and frustrated to see that they are paying the credit card company when they don't have to be.

In one year at least they'll have access to the IRA money... but even that $1 million won't be enough for them. I showed my mom that if they spend $200k per year that $1m will last 5 years (maybe a bit more with interest, but not much more.) As I said above, they do have some extra income... disability, a pension, etc. I think for now they're taking in $6k a month, but I'm not sure what that will be after my dad dies of his cancer. That's when the shit is going to really hit the fan. And I'm going to have to try to help sort it all out and wipe it all up.

Now, I've written before about how my dad worked his whole life wanting to build wealth for the family and pass some on to his children. It frustrates me that my mother sees no reason to save any of the money he earned for her kids. It's hard not to be biased in this because I'm his kid and I'd benefit from this, but it's a bit sad that he saved so much money just to have my mom spend it all on QVC. I'm not counting on her leaving anything to me later in life, and I shouldn't, but I just grew up being told by my dad that one day there'd be money left for me and my sister. I didn't know how much, but my dad always has laughed at my current preoccupation with investing in my retirement, as he says there's enough money coming from him to fund that. Yea, right. That is all going to be spent. Which is fine, I just wish my parents would spend it a little wiser... not thousands of dollars on a cleaning person who overcharges them and on credit card interest, etc.

At least I am making my own money and have my own accounts now. I don't know what help I can be to my mother until my dad passes away. That's an awful thing to say, but it's true. My dad is so controlling about the finances and doesn't like to talk about them. He refuses to pay any bills online and won't let my mom pay the bills so they're often late and he just pays the late fee. It's all so ridiculous.

I can't wait to be a parent, and to have the ability to teach my kids about personal finance from a young age and practice what I preach.

For a man who spent his life planning pension plans for companies, my father sure needs to learn a lot about money.


How much should I save and where should I put it?

Lots of my readers think I'm a spoiled brat with a spending addiction, and occasionally I get a comment along those lines. Part of the reason I started this blog is that I agree with that statement and I'm trying to be smarter about my finances. Without the PF world I probably would be in debt by now instead of having $45k in savings. Yes, I have a shopping addiction. Yes, I need to stop making excuses for buying expensive clothes. Yes, I need to focus on saving more. But my biggest problem is not knowing where to save. It's not the best excuse, but it's true.

I can easily put away $5k per year in my Roth IRA because I always save up that much the year before (I overestimate on my taxes and pretend that money doesn't exist) but beyond that I am not sure where to put my savings. Spending the money is, sadly, a lot easier than figuring that out. Again, an excuse, but I really don't know where to put my money. With no 401k at work, I'm not sure where I should save. Do any of you have ideas for me?

I have some automatic transfers set up. $100 / month to ING Direct liquid emergency fund, $50 / month to Sharebuilder, $50 / month to my 529 plan. I'm not really sure how to save for retirement beyond my 401k or if I even should be saving more than that right now specifically for retirement. If I could figure out HOW MUCH I should be saving and WHERE I should be saving it, believe me, it would be a lot easier to save it.

My current accounts...

Checking: $375
Basic Savings Account: $301
CD / Emergency Fund: $8,073.49
ING Direct Savings / Liquid Emergency Fund: $3000
PayPal: $70

Roth IRA: $14,482
Sharebuilder Stocks & ETFs: $9,801.43
Vanguard Index Fund: $4113.69
Vanguard 529 College Plan: $890.44
Lending Club: $555.95
Prosper: $233.10
HSA: $1000

Where on earth should I be putting my savings and how much should I really try to save each year?


Dec 15, 2009

Dear Mint... How I love thee, let me count the ways...

After finding out about personal finance sites like Mint, Geezeo and Wesebe in their early days, I've been enamored with the concept of using technology to make personal finance easier to grok. While Geezeo and Wesabe (and Cake and Covestor, etc) had some decent features, Mint ultimately took the cake... with the frosting.

Even though I was a little worried when they were bought by Intuit, I'm still a fan. I can't say I contribute to their wealth as I'm pretty smart about my credit cards and cds, so they never have any good deals to offer me. (Mint, take note of, which is offering a cool find cheapo gas near you feature... which is actually useful for me. Though I'm not sure how they'd make money off of that feature, other than hoping you get a CD or Credit Card through them on an educated whim.)

Anyway, what has me all buzzing about Mint today? Their planning tools that they rolled out a few months ago. They weren't that useful to me online only, but now that I have my shiny new iPhone having the Mint app makes my financial life a thousand times easier and better.

Just tracking my expenses and income per category, and having access to that at all times, is giving me so much more control over my financial life. And it feels good. Minty good.

While this month my expenses have been (scary) more than I'd like, starting in 2010 I'm going to use Mint to carefully BUDGET (like really budget) and account for every little thing I spend. It's so easy to do that because Mint knows. Every once in a while I have to adjust a category or categorize a check, but that's easier than inputing everything by hand. I am so excited to embark on a year of incredible savings and budgeting thanks to my Mint iPhone app and (and yes, even (M)intuit.


In Happier News

I finally got paid after weeks of negotiating post negotiating my fees with the one company. I might not have made as much as I expected, but at the very least it pretty much directly covers the extra $500 I had to spend today on my dental care that I didn't expect.

It was nice to see that paycheck in the mail today, especially since today I also got my first iPhone bill statement which is $134 (for about 1.5 months.)

So I have $1050 worth of checks in my purse that I need to cash. My current credit card balance is $1700 (yikes) so all my side income this month is going directly to jail and not passing go, I mean, to the credit card company.

I had some old invoices I had to send out so I'm expecting a backlog of paychecks including the two I just got...

$550: company A blogs for October
$500: company B blogs, press release, etc for November
$450: company C illustration and copyedits
$475: company A blogs for November
>=$100: company A blogs for Dec (I've written 4 so far at $25 / blog)
>=$120: company B blogs for Dec (two written so far)

So my "side job" income from October to December will be at least $2195 and if I can get my act together and write 16 more blog posts this month it may be $2595 or $863 a month. Not bad... if I could keep that up I will be able to hit my goal of $10k side income in 2010... but it's unlikely I will make this much every month next year (and this year's income doesn't count.) I just had some really good months for my freelance business.

If only my freelance income could add up to enough where I could quit my job. I'd give anything to have a flexible schedule again... I just want to be able to work when I want and take classes when I want. I want to take a painting class and a few web programming / design courses at the community college but they're only offered in the middle of the afternoon or all morning, which is not possible right now. If my company goes under the first thing I'm going to do is see about building my freelance career again and taking some classes.


Why I Will Never Be Able to Not Take My Career Personally

I worry about the future too much, but at the moment I'm worrying about today. Well, everyday of my life. My career, my job, the thing I do that takes up most of my life and puts food on the table.

Maybe had I not been so stubborn in college and majored in design or something useful, I'd be in a better place right now. I'm so fortunate to have a great-paying job in these hard economic times and yet I'm miserable. I like getting paid, sure, but I hate feeling useless.

The biggest problem, I've realized, is that I don't feel like I have the ability to really influence the success of the company. There's little I can do... or offer to do... without it seeming like I'm stepping on people's toes. The challenge for 2010 is, then, to figure out some awesome impressive project I can work on that no one else wants to do that proves to be hugely important for the company in the short-long run.

Or maybe I'm going about career growth in all the wrong ways. I just am terrified of leaving this job and having nothing show for it. My specific position isn't easy to explain because it's changing on a daily basis. I want to find ways to measure my impact but I'm failing to do so... and ultimately it becomes harder and harder to promote a product I don't 100% believe in. Scratch that, I believe in the product, just not its execution.

The little I can do feels like such a futile attempt at putting band-aids on a broken leg or changing the angle so it just doesn't look that bad. I can't figure out how to not take work personally, I get so attached to everything I care about and then when other people won't even listen or think I don't know what I'm saying, well, what's a girl to do?

I have no idea what I want to do with my life. I wish I did. I have this complex where I can't accept doing something that doesn't have the potential to have a major impact on the world as we know it. Not that my current job will do that, but at the very least it's at a company that is looking to disrupt a market with innovation, which I'm drawn to... if we were truly innovating and knew which market we were disrupting.

Deep down I feel like maybe I'd be happy as a teacher or even a social worker... I get so much satisfaction out of helping people. That's the only part of my job that really fuels me, the customer service end of it. I'd be down with marketing if I believed in the product, but regardless I always believe in helping people. It's also nice that I do this all online because I think it would be very taxing to have to help people in person. And the whole concept of spending my life just helping people for some reason seems so... I don't know, it seems like a waste of a life. Even though I know it isn't. But that's what my gut tells me. I want so much more than being a social worker -- even though social workers are amazing and way better people then I'll ever be.

I read job postings every day and freak out. I read about various positions that maybe I'd enjoy and then get to the job requirements and cry a little inside. I read about entry-level positions that pay half what I'm making now that would maybe be my best bet, but that I doubt I could get given my experience. I doubt I'll ever find something that will really click with me. Obviously I have issues. But I know I love helping people. I have this dream of being a personal finance guru like Suze Orman except less annoying (wow, can I really be less annoying than anyone? heh.) I want to start a business. Or write a book. Or design a really cool phone.

Anything I want to do (with the exception of maybe writing a book, which I don't feel ready for yet) seems to unobtainable. And I'm stuck here at this job that could be so much if I could figure out what to make of it, and how to navigate the office politics, and make myself useful again. I just feel like everyone here is working their asses off and I don't even know what to do. Other than market the company. But I'm not in charge of marketing. I don't have a budget. I just have social media. And spending all day on Twitter can drive a girl off her Tweeter, so to speak.


Dental Fees and Expensive Insurance Goofs

I hadn't been to the dentist in a while so when I got dental insurance at my current job I scheduled an appointment with a dentist office near my office. I asked on the phone if they take Delta Dental and their answer was yes.

The first appointment for my annual cleaning (covered at 100%, in theory) went as well as I expected. I was pressured into spending $25 for this newfangled technology to scan my gums to see if I have gum cancer (which in hindsight I shouldn't have agreed to -- I don't smoke and there are plenty other kinds of cancer I'm at high risk for that I'm not spending money on getting screened for) and the dentist told me I needed to get a full deep cleaning (root planning and scaling) and that she wanted to fill in my back teeth (about 6 of them) so that they wouldn't get worse in the dark spots.

After spending too many years avoiding the dentist (mostly due to not having insurance) I agreed to all of these procedures. I've been to a few dentists in my life and didn't trust any of them, but I liked this office and other than the pitch for the cancer screening, I felt like I could trust this doctor.

I gave the woman in charge of billing and the front desk my insurance card for Delta Dental. I'm not sure if the card says "Premier" on it or not, but at the time neither her nor I noticed it. Besides, Dental Dental Premier sounds fancier than Dental Dental PPO. Wouldn't you think, logically, that Premier means better coverage, not worse than PPO?

The billing lady gave me an estimation of how much I'd owe with the insurance paying up to my deductible. And it wasn't cheap. It looked like I was going to be spending about $2000 with the insurance to get all of this work done. Well, $2025 with the stupid cancer screening.

I figured it was worth it to spend the money now and get my teeth squeaky clean and filled and healthy. I went through all the deep cleanings and paid for my estimated portion at the time of service on my credit card (hey, at least I'll get some miles out of this.)

So today when I went in to start the fillings the normal billing lady wasn't there and an assistant came in to the room to tell me what work I was getting done. Assuming nothing had changed billing wise, I just asked about why I was getting all four teeth on one side done and wouldn't it make sense to get the four worst (the back teeth) on both sides done first. I asked if the billing lady would be in and she was apparently at lunch and would be back in a minute...

This is when I was hit with the bad news. My "Premier" insurance actually didn't cover this dentist office. Well, it did a little bit, but at a much lesser amount than a dentist on the Premier plan. And, apparently I owed $500 to the dentist just to cover all the work done thus far.

I was shocked and felt like crying. It's not that the $500 is going to kill me, but I'm just frustrated that the billing assistant didn't notice that. In fact I remember the first day I came in she was having a conversation with another new patient about Delta Premier but I wasn't really listening to it and didn't know that was the kind of insurance I had... I figured she would tell me if I didn't have the right kind of insurance for that office. So maybe she didn't know or maybe she just missed it. I certainly missed it.

Sitting in the dentist chair today with a bib already around my neck and the dentist walking in the room prepping to do the fillings, I had to get my head wrapped around the $500 that I owed and the more than $600 that the work today would have cost for just four of the eight fillings I "need." The billing manager woman seemed to think I was going to stay and get the work done, basically pitching that I have more of my yearly deductible left so it makes sense to get the work done now before the year is over. I couldn't do all the math and without knowing how much the costs were going to be, I had to get out of the chair and cancel my appointment. It was really awkward and anxiety-causing. I felt like my head was going to explode but I just got up, paid the $500 I owed them, got an itemized receipt of all my work done, cancelled all future appointments and left.

It IS my fault that I didn't understand the Delta Premier situation and how it's different from the Delta PPO I had at my last job. I also didn't really pay attention to the mail I've been getting from Delta because I assumed I paid everything at the time of service... I had been paying more than $200 each time I went in and it was adding up fast.

Now I just wonder if I should bother trying to get fillings at another dentist that's actually on my plan. It still won't be cheap and I had budgeted for the dentist office's estimated costs. I didn't think they'd be $500 more just for a deep cleaning. I don't even understand this itemized bill... what should have been covered if I went to a Premier provider versus what wasn't. I thought the original cleaning and basic xrays were free with the insurance, but it looks like they weren't. I have no idea what I paid for or if I should have or what should be covered by my insurance. No freaking idea. This is really making me, well, not happy at all. I spent more than $1000 this month on medical expenses (incl. doc, vision and dental) and I haven't even gotten my fillings done. I give up. I am just going to avoid the dentist in the future. I'll stick to toothbrushes and floss.


$10,000 (Extra) in 2010

Given my poor ability to stick to budget and control my spending splurges, I've decided that the best way to balance out my shopping addiction is to up my income by a significant amount. My goal is to earn $10k in extra income (preferably post tax) in 2010. This is totally do-able, although far from a certainty.

Granted, I am going to work hard at budgeting (with Mint's iPhone app this may actually be possible. It's harder to spend $1000 at Bloomie's with your shopping budget in bright yellow, close approaching what you told yourself you would spend on clothes for the month) but even with budgeting, I think having a goal of side income is worth while, and one I can stick to in 2010.

I figure with self employment tax and my regular federal and state taxes, I will have to earn 40% more than 10,000 in order to end up with a net profit of $10k. So I'm just going to aim for $15k in extra earnings over the year, or about $1250 in additional income per month.

How do-able is this goal, really? I don't want to set myself up for failure, but I think I can achieve this. The variables certainly hinder my plans, as there's a large change I will no longer be in my current full-time position by the end of 2010 (either the company will fold or I will leave) and my next job may pay better but have less flexible hours or pay less and make the $15k extra income more of a necessity than a luxury.

Regardless, I'm going to approach 2010 as if nothing is going to change in my full-time income or freelance clients.

The closest to a sure thing is the $500 / month I make writing 20 entries per month for a blog. Beyond that, I have another client that I just started working for and I think I can make an average of $150 / month for them if they keep me on. That leaves another $600 to earn per month. I can earn this a variety of ways... through blogging (I've made about 8 dollars in AdSense Ads for the last five months so I doubt that's really going to help), trying to get other freelance writing gigs, or doing random jobs that pay decently on the weekends. I'm not sure what yet, but I'll have to figure that out. If my uncle's business picks back up, maybe I will get to write for him again as well. That was a good, stable side gig until the economy flushed itself down the toilet.

Do you think it's possible for me to earn an additional $1250 a month outside of my full-time job? Do you have any suggestions for what I should do to earn the income?


Dec 14, 2009

My First iPhone

I've avoided buying a "smartphone" for a long time now because I didn't want to pay the extra $30 a month for a required Internet connection. That $360 add-on to my cell phone bill per year isn't really necessary, given I'm rarely away from an Internet connection and my laptop. Still, working in technology and occasionally writing about mobile innovations, I felt it was important to finally get a fancy smartphone.

But which one? I have been on Verizon ever since my first cell phone, and wasn't ready to switch since I've been fairly happy with the service. I really wanted an iPhone and I've been waiting for Verizon to get one, but the AT&T contract ties up the iPhone w/ them until at least 2010. And given that my old phone disappeared, I needed a replacement and didn't want to tie myself up with another two years on Verizon.

I looked at the Droid and the Droid Eris but wasn't impressed. The iPhone just felt right and the design -- hardware and software -- was way more intuitive and slick than the clunky Droid. So I walked into an AT&T store and made my purchase.

I'm still in denial of how much I'll be spending on my phone each year. $80 a month is not cheap. But I think it's worth it in my industry.

The good news is that my iPhone is already paying back for itself. My boyfriend and I were out looking for a place to grab dinner and we found a local restaurant that had a 25% off coupon online and went there. The more I can use my iPhone to save, the better I'll feel about the monthly service charge!

How many of you own a smartphone? How much do you pay per month for your phone?


Look for a New Job or Apply to Grad School?

A few days ago I wrote a post about how I'm going to take the GMAT in 2010, but I'm still unsure that's the best idea. I feel like I'm ready for a change, and ready to focus on education right now. I don't want to put grad school off much longer, despite being incapacitated by my fear of educational loans and debt.

There are still things I like about my job, but not many. Largely I just need like I'm not needed anymore and the few things I could do to help, I'm not allowed to do. I'm in a very odd spot.

I have a hard time reading my mind and separating out what I really want to do from my escapist tendencies. I've been in this job over two years now which is really good for me, but I feel really stuck. My biggest problem is that I have trouble marketing a product that is flawed in ways that it needn't be flawed.

I don't know how people separate their work from their emotions. I always, ALWAYS get emotionally involved in the work I do. And when things are imperfect I find it impossible to just accept that and ignore it and do my job.

But going to grad school ISN'T going to change that. There will always be people who don't want to listen. And there will always be times when I'm wrong even though my gut tells me I'm right. I feel like at least with a graduate degree I'll have a little more clout, or an opportunity to be in a role that has final say about something.

I don't fit in with the culture here at all, but I'm not sure where I'd fit. If I go to grad school for the field I want to study I'd likely end up back in a company just like this. Maybe the culture would be slightly different, but designers as a whole seem to be faced with the problem of having engineers and the marketing team and the CEO alter their designs until there is no design left.

The reason I'm drawn to an MBA is that maybe I can be in charge one day. But I don't really want to be in charge, I don't want all that responsibility on my shoulders. I don't mind running my own freelance writing "business" because if something goes wrong I'm the one who loses money... no the investors or coworkers because I don't have any. I like that kind of responsibility. I'm terrified of being responsible for a business. And still having to convince people that my ideas are right.

So do I apply to grad school now? I kind of... well, I kind of really want to. I'm trying to think about why I shouldn't and should...

Why I should apply...

- Time to study a field I'm really interested in and obtain skills that I didn't get during undergrad
- Be in an environment where people are allowed to explore perfection without business realities (ie design school)
- If I get in, I can still decide not to go, but at least I'd have the option
- Have an "end date" to my current job that is set, so I can survive each day until I leave
- Open doors for myself that are currently closed due to my experience
- Shake up my life a bit, get myself out of this funk, move on to the next phase of my life
- maybe my boyfriend would be more inspired to apply to grad school if I did, and especially if I got in and had plans to leave town
- Explore new career paths that I'm not even fully aware of yet
- Make contacts and get solid faculty recommendations
- Secure internships in design that I can't do as a non student
- To prove to myself that I can get in to grad school
- To prove to myself that I belong in grad school

Why I shouldn't apply...

- I probably can't get into the schools I'd want to go to with my GRE scores and GPA
- I struggle with consistency in academic work and I'm worried I'd fail, never get my degree but still be in debt from school
- Going to grad school doesn't guarantee a good job after I graduate. It could even hurt my chances of being employed, though that's unlikely in my field
- It's possible to pick up skills by taking non matriculated classes nearby and to change professions without a masters degree
- A business degree might make more sense even though I'd rather be a designer than a CEO... but if I am the CEO at least I can have final say on design
- I'd have to ask for letters of recommendation from my current employers, so they'd know I'm trying to leave, and if I don't get in that would be even more awkward
- If I ask for letters of recommendation from my coworkers and then I get in and decide not to go, that will also look bad
- Did I mention debt?
- I like living in the bay area and the grad schools I'm looking at are far away. I'd have to move again. I hate moving. I really, really, really hate moving.
- I will miss my boyfriend. A lot. We've been together almost 4 years now. It would be tough being away from him.


What would you do?

My friend and her boyfriend, I'll call them Jessica and Dave, belong to a vacation club where they get a certain amount of points per year. They can either bank the points and roll them over to the next year, or cash them out in gift cards to use at hotels. Jessica is rolling in debt, but the whole vacation club is paid for by her boyfriend (which later turned out to be a big problem.)

I invited Jessica to go to a party with me in the city one evening earlier this month. She mentioned that she had all these gift cards left that were going to expire soon, so she decided to book us a hotel for the night so we could really have fun at the party. Personally, I thought it was kind of silly to book a hotel room for the evening when we live about 45 minutes away (I've done the sober up and drive home later in the night thing plenty of times) but she insisted that we might as well, since she had over $1500 in gift cards left that expire in February. So I said sure, why not.

She drove us to the city and wanted to get valet at the hotel for her car. That was $50 for the night. I suggested we put the car in a cheaper garage and she said it was no big deal because she would just pay for it with her points, so I said fine.

When we arrived to check in, I stood next to her and found out that she couldn't use her gift card at check in because they need a credit card in case there are any damages to the room or other expenses that go beyond the gift card amount. So she gave them her credit card but it was denied. So I offered to put the room on my card for the time being. My friend assured me my card wouldn't be charged and that she could use the gift card when she checked out. She had used the cards before with no problem at other hotels.

We went to the party and had a pretty good time. Drank a lot so it was nice to have a hotel room in the city. We didn't stay at just any hotel, we stayed at the swanky hotel where the party was with a room that cost $270 a night after tax. But it was all going to be covered by Jessica's gift card that she had to use up anyway. Or so I thought.

The next morning when we tried to check out, there was a problem. Because Jessica's boyfriend's name was on the gift cards, the woman at the front desk wouldn't let us use the card. My friend begged and pleaded to no avail. Apparently she used the card without Dave around before and at another hotel they accepted it. But here, they wouldn't. So after too long standing there and hoping the card would be accepted, we gave up. And the $330 charge went on my credit card.

My friend told me that she'd ask her boyfriend for the money and that he'd pay me back. The really awful part was that she couldn't use the card to reimburse us because you have to use it at a hotel. I told her that it would be worth calling the vacation club right away and say the card was denied. She doesn't have to tell them why, but if she can get her boyfriend on the phone maybe they would reimburse her. I kind of felt like an asshole trying to get her to do this since I also stayed in the hotel room for the night, but I didn't think her boyfriend should have to pay an extra $330 for something he didn't even get to experience. I know my friend Jessica isn't the best with money and is so much in debt that she can't afford the room either, so I offered to split the charge with her. So $175 down the drain for a night at a hotel that I didn't need.

That was last week. I keep asking my friend to call the vacation club company but she hasn't yet. Or she says she tries but they are busy. I don't think she's really trying. I'm sure her boyfriend will give her money for her half of the hotel room and eventually I'll get that back, but I'm a little peeved.

Question is, do I have a right to be peeved? I accepted the hotel room offer even though I knew it would be expensive, as my friend said she needed to use up her vacation points and this was a small percentage of the ones she had left. She didn't purposefully get the hotel and have the points not work, she didn't realize that her boyfriend had to be there for the cards to be valid. On the other hand, why didn't she realize that? And shouldn't she make an effort to call her vacation card company right away to see if they would be willing to reimburse her from her gift card? What would you do?


Dec 13, 2009

Childhood Neglect or Frugality?

Last night, my boyfriend and I went to his cousin's birthday party. He loves watching healthy families in action. While I knew his childhood wasn't filled with much expense, I never truely understood just how his mother's frugality led to him being neglected a child. But then he flat out said that he'd prefer his childhood to mine anyday, and I questioned how neglected he was, and where a parent crosses the line of being frugal too far.

This comes after my spending yesterday reading blogs about early retirement, like Early Retirement Extreme, and all about extreme frugality. After managing to get through Bloomingdales and make a return without shopping, I felt good about resisting consumerism (specificially, shiny things for sale.) I kept thinking about how awful stores are, especially trends and making you want to buy things that look new and stylish. So when I talked to my boyfriend last night, it just felt like such a contrast, and I understood why he's not lured by shopping malls the same way I am.

Was my boyfriend neglected as a child? I know a lot of people grow up without money and their parents make due, but that's not quite what his situation was. His mother has always worked, but she refuses to spend money beyond her thrift store splurges. She never left her parents house, and that is where my boyfriend grew up. The house itself is in a very nice area and the family owns a lot of land for this part of California. However, the place is a wreck. His Grandparents are hoarders of the Depression era, and often when I visit the house it seems like they live in a movie. They keep stale bread in the otherwise unusable oven, gather empty soup cans, collect broken bikes, etc.

His mother, who never married his father, lived with her parents, so my boyfriend lived with her parents (and still does, though now he at least has a separate one-room structure out back). He never had his own bedroom, in fact he slept on the floor on a mat with his mother until he was 12 or 13, as he recalls, and then eventually moved into the living room, where he slept on the couch.

As far as food and clothes go, he ate very poorly -- bread and toast, most often, and occasionally fast food. His clothes were all from thrift stores, which that alone is fine, but they were not nice, which made him more of an outcast at school. Also, as an only child, he grew up like this with no one else to talk to. His dad lived nearby in an apartment when he was young, but then moved away. His parents still get along (hey, that's better than my still-married parents who hate each other). His dad is a whole other frugal story which I'll get to one day, but now I'm just wondering if my boyfriend was neglected as a child, or if his family is just -- extreme frugal.

His mom has saved up a lot of money over the years. I don't know how much, but it's enough to put my boyfriend through college and grad school, and likely buy a home outright when her parents pass and the current house needs to be sold and split up among their children.

On one hand, I think it's pretty awesome that she could save so much through the years. She takes vacations on occasion to National Parks and goes camping, she doesn't do anything consumer except shop for groceries at discount grocers. She has saved plenty of money for retirement and then some. She hasn't worked the best paying job, but she had a decent job that she's held on to for years. She's miserable, depressed, hates living with her crazy parents, hates her job, but that's just what she does. She can't deal with change, so that's the way it is.

Apparently one day a long time ago the neighbors called the cops on the family for child neglect. They saw the Grandmother picking food out of a trash can at the park or something and thought she was going to feed it to the child of the house. So the cops came and looked around. I'm surprised they didn't find evidence of neglect. My bf spoke to them and eventually they went away.

So now my boyfriend has grown up with a very, very different idea of money than me. It's good... in that I like dating someone who doesn't value money as the be all end all of happiness. On the other hand, that was MY life growing up. It's hard to just switch to extreme frugality. Luckily for me, my boyfriend understands that its important to spend on some things -- healthy food, decent clothes, occasional vacations, etc. I couldn't be with someone any more frugal than that.

It just makes me sad to think of how neglected he was as a child. He was definitely an "accident" and it seems like he was treated as such growing up. Now he's got a slew of mental issues -- very unique ones -- involving socialization and relationships. No shit. I love him to death. Sometimes it drives me nuts how abnormal he is but I couldn't be with anyone normal, so I think we're a great match for each other.

I just wish for him that he'll get his act together and apply to grad school and get out of that house. He's 27 now, and he still lives at home. That's fairly normal for this area, but when you're in an environment like that, I think it's just unhealthy. He still has to go in the main cluttered house for the kitchen, the bathroom, etc. But maybe I'm just spoiled and have no idea what it's like to live when it's bad. He has electricity (though he's not allowed to use it much) and running water and he eats when he wants. At least he has that.


Dec 12, 2009

Hanukah and the Consumer Holidays

Happy Hanukkah to my Jewish friends out in cyberspace. This time of year always reminds me of why I'm an ardent capitalist wishing I was less of a consumer. If religion wasn't bad enough, we need to give ourselves one time of year when we have to give gifts to everyone we love. Well, we don't have to, but for many close relatives and friends, if they give you a gift you kind of have to return the favor.

I remember that one year in middle school when I was determined that buying people gifts would make them like me (oh, have I mentioned I was the odd kid out always?) I had a few close friends, but mostly all my friends and acquaintances blurred and I found it extremely difficult to determine who would get a pair of earrings from me and who wouldn't. So I had a long list of all the people who A) I was friends with, B) Who were nice to me and C) who I wanted to be friends with and who weren't total assholes to me. And all of them got gifts. I can't believe my mom let me do that. Each gift was on the cheap side, but regardless I didn't need to get gifts for half of the school chorus. It didn't change what they thought of me.

Nowadays, I am a lot more realistic on the giving end. My family doesn't really exchange gifts except one cousins gift exchange which I've opted out of this year. My parents don't get me gifts ever (even for my birthday) unless I buy myself something and request to be reimbursed. And I don't buy my parents anything either usually... for their birthday, Hanukkah, or any holiday -- mostly because they have so much and I have no idea what to buy them. My mom always says she wants jewelery but anything you get her she'll have something negative to say about it. I have no idea what to get for my dad. What do you get a man who's dying of cancer? Well, I'd like to get him a trip to Italy, but even for me that's an expensive gift to buy someone who may not be able to go... he has to be around for his doctors appointments.

I usually buy my boyfriend something in the $100 range. Last year I didn't get him a Christmas gift but then I got him a $550 birthday gift (guitar) so that was more or less his Christmas and birthday gift. Unlike buying gifts for my family, I like to buy gifts for my boyfriend because he's always appreciative. I usually get him something he's hinted at that he wants, but this year I got him something that he hasn't asked for... even so, I know he'll be thankful for whatever I give him regardless of the cost or what it is. He's a good guy like that.

When I have kids, I want to make sure they understand that gifts should always be appreciated. Also, I don't know how much gift giving we'll do in the family. Gifting is a waste of money to some degree, unless you buy something useful. But how many kids love to get socks for Hanukkah or Christmas every year? Toys are the biggest waste of all. If anything I'd gift my kids something that would spark their creativity, or books, or an extracurricular activity. I guess there are some toys that are worth while, but the last time I walked into a Toys 'r Us I felt incredibly dirty looking at the prices of toys these days. Who pays that much for junk? Lots of people.

I don't even remember what I got for the holidays growing up except a few items... a beautiful amethyst and marquisette bracelet from my grandmother, money towards a keyboard from my aunt, and, well, that's about all I remember.

What makes a good gift to a friend or family member for the holidays? How about for a child? And what was your favorite gift that you received growing up?