Monday, November 26, 2007

Oh, poor little neglected moneybags blog!

I did not go shopping on Black Friday or on Cyber Monday. In fact, I have done no Christmas shopping whatsoever, which is a little unnerving. As this week is turning out to be very busy, that’s not going to be remedied any time soon.

On the upside, however, I spent hardly any money at all over the four-day weekend. I had done my grocery shopping the weekend before, and although I have basically run through my entire food budget, I also have enough leftovers to last me a good while. Probably the rest of the week, in fact.

Savings-wise, I must now ramp up my savings rate as Mr. Boyfriend and I have picked a move-in date, which is, to put it bluntly, about as soon as we can possibly manage. Now that my raise has kicked in, and what with the extra money I’ll have coming in this weekend after working on my freelance stuff, this should not be a problem. It just means I need to be mindful of it.

I’m also considering taking any leftover travel and most of the leftover gift money out of my sinking funds at the end of 2007 and applying them to the moving fund. However, I’m afraid it might make me stingy with presents and gas money in December, so I will wait until the end of the year to decide that. While I don’t mind going back and revising budget categories when they need it, I’m a little loathe to just re-brand an existing sinking fund for something else that I suddenly decide I want more than what I was saving the money for in the first place.

Oh, and my next big savings goal: Lasik. Once I’m moved in, I think I’ll be able to justify saving for it, and hope to get it done in 2008 or 2009. We’ll see—I’m banking on not moving for several years after this, and also on being able to pay for school as I go through, and you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and Moneybags (what, you haven’t heard that one?).

Happy holidays, everyone.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Shady Cingular Tactics

Sorry for my recent lack of posting—the promotion that wasn’t supposed to come with any added responsibilities sort of did come with some added responsibilities, and I’ve been swamped. I come bearing lessons learned from experience, however.

Related to my post on reading the fine print, another important responsibility in the world of personal finance is to carefully read your bills—especially if those bills are paid using an auto-pay feature from a credit card or bank account.

My cell phone bill has been exactly the same—to the penny—for about six months, ever since I got my Palm. For two years before that, it was also consistent, so I’ve had it on an auto-pay to my credit card for more than a year. I still check out the bill online sometime before the second of the month, when that auto-pay goes through, just out of paranoia. I’m glad I do--imagine my surprise when I clicked through the email yesterday to see that it is $20 higher than normal! I scrolled through the detailed billing to find that my plan has been changed from an unlimited data plan ($39.99) plus 200 text messages ($4.99) to an unlimited data plan that includes 1500 text messages (all for $39.99). This is great, right? It lowers my bill by $4.99 per month.

However, a) I did not authorize or know about this change, and b) I’d been charged a pro-rated amount of $18.66 for 10/29-11/11 for this feature—despite already having paid for unlimited data and 200 text messages for that period of time.

The way Cingular/AT&T works is that they bill you for the month coming up plus any incidental fees that accrue during the month (like text message charges if you don’t have a plan). This means that my previous bill had included a $39.99 unlimited data charge and $4.99 text messages charge for the period from 10/12 through 11/11, which was paid by auto-pay on 11/2. But since they included a pro-rated amount of the new $39.99 charge for inclusive text messaging/data from 10/29-11/11—I was being double billed! You can see how this works out in the image below (well, it's easier if you click on it to make it readable--clearly I am not all that educated on how Blogger works with images!).



I called them up yesterday and voiced my serious displeasure. For one thing, I’m concerned that they can change my plan without informing me, even if it results in a bill that’s $5 cheaper per month, and I’m especially concerned that they can attempt to double bill their customers—and I bet they’re getting away with it with many, many customers. The rep that I spoke with immediately credited me the pro-rated charge after I pointed out that I’d already paid for text messaging and unlimited data from 10/29 to 11/11, and I needed to either receive a pro-rated credit back for what I’d already paid if I was going to be charged a pro-rated amount of the new inclusive package, or the $18.66 needed to be taken off post-haste. She went one step better and credited me an even $20, and supposedly flagged my account so that no changes can be made without my express authorization (her only reasoning for how this could have happened is that perhaps the plans I was on are no longer available—but it still seems like Cingular ought to alert their customers that this is happening). And I find absolutely no excuse for the double-billing whatsoever. It’s blatantly obvious that I’d already paid for the period of 10/29 through 11/11—I guess the only reason they added a second charge for the exact same service is that they thought they could get away with it.

If you are a Cingular/AT&T customer—or really, have any regularly recurring bill that’s on auto-pay—read your bill carefully and before the auto-pay takes effect.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Renter's Stupid Tax

Where do you draw the line between expenses you as a renter are responsible for and what your landlord should spend money on?

This weekend, I broke my handheld showerhead. I was trying to re-aim the spray and got a little too rough, cracking the hose that attaches to the showerhead itself. I was really upset at first, thinking that these showerheads cost around $200-$300 which is money I did not want to spend on something I'd be leaving behind. However, a little googling determined that in fact I can replace what was in the apartment with a comparable (and truthfully, slightly better) model for around $30. A trip to the store turned up a $16 "universal" hose, which is the only part that's damaged, so I came home with that.

It's not quite that easy, however--that universal hose is not, in fact, so universal, and is not only far too long but also sticks out funny into the shower and does not fit into the holder-grippy thing (technical term). So I'll be going back to Home Depot this weekend to try and swap out the hose we've used all week for an actual kit (not sure how much luck I'll have with that, but we have no choice but to keep using it--five people in one small apartment for three days and then two people for the rest of the week definitely need to have a working shower!). This is an instance in which I am clearly responsible for the repair--I broke what was there when I moved in; therefore, I will be replacing it with something of roughly equal value. (This is something my roommate needs to learn, since she damaged the rug several months ago and hasn't made any effort to fix it). But what about standard wear and tear?

While we were at Home Depot, I wanted to look at door sweeps. Our balcony door's sweep began falling off a few weeks ago and I finally ripped it off because it had gotten so warped we were having problems closing the door. I had originally intended to fix it, then just decided to get a new one. My boyfriend argued with me, telling me that this was not my responsibility and instead I should alert my landlords and make THEM fix (and pay) for the sweep. I feel like this is a small enough expense and a simple enough chore that I do not want to go through the hassle of communicating with my elderly landlords (which involves having their daughter come over to translate), and likely being misunderstood and lectured for breaking something (which has happened before, unwarranted), just for them to come up (likely when we are not there) to fix something I could do myself in five minutes.

It's not the only thing around the apartment I would like to fix myself. There's a sticky drawer, a few doors which rattle in their casings, caulk that needs reapplying...these are all simple and inexpensive improvements which I am fully capable of making myself and which I don't entirely mind doing. However, I am paying dearly for this apartment and this is one of the perks of renting--not HAVING to deal with renovations and repairs. In spending the money on caulk, door sweeps, or adhesive felt for door hinges, am I paying renter's stupid tax?

I don't have an easy answer. Clearly, I am of the opinion that I don't want my landlords to deal with these minor things I can handle myself. When it's a lightbulb in a 15-foot ceiling above stairs, sure, I'll call them. But I don't like dealing with them if I really don't need to, and caulk repair and a self-adhesive door sweep fall into those categories of things to do myself and leave them out of. My boyfriend feels that this is what I'm paying rent for, and I should actually be making sure that they're taking care of these things, even if it's uncomfortable for me to talk to them about it.

Ultimately, I'm going to do it my way. My boyfriend doesn't live there, and he doesn't need to deal (or not deal, as the case may be) with my landlords. The cost for all the possibly-landlord's-responsibility chores is going to be less than $15; it's certainly something my budget can handle and worth the peace of mind to me. But I'm curious: What do you think?

Monday, November 12, 2007

entertaining is more expensive than travelling!

I have spent so much money in the last six days.

My younger cousin is visiting me with her best friend. Though there is a seven-year age difference between us, this cousin and I were particularly close growing up as her mother used to babysit me several days a week. I moved away when she was about six, and in the last few years have been trying to rebuild that relationship as an "older sister" role, especially since they've had some family problems. I'm also trying to encourage her to stay in school and pick a career that will take her wherever she wants to go, instead of following the footsteps of the rest of my family, living within two miles of where they were raised and settling for whatever job has a "help wanted" sign out front. (It still startles me to realize that I am the very first person on my mother's side of the family to earn a bachelor's degree, and my sister and I are the only ones out of our generation to go to college).

Anyway, I've been having fun showing them New York and what the city has to offer, but my wallet is pretty much screaming in pain at this point. (And these are just MY expenses...they pay for themselves for almost all meals, and have treated me to one for having them).

Things I normally would not have paid for over the past week:
  • Dinner out every night, including a $45 per person evening at Lucky Cheng's, and several other meals out
  • Tickets to a show (which I've already seen, and for cheaper, but I wanted to see their reactions)
  • Hookah bars every other night
  • Snacks, including bottled water and lots of tea (it's been so cold!)
  • Top of the Rock tickets (my treat for all three of us)
  • Shopping (which is what they've spent 90% of their money on)
  • Ice skating (I really need to just invest in my own pair of skates--I could go for free in Bryant Park a few times and get my money's worth in a month)
  • A cord for my handheld showerhead (which I broke, and which didn't fix the problem, so I'll still be having to buy an entire handheld showerhead kit)
Things which I don't mind having paid for over the last week
  • Everything but the showerhead stuff
It's funny though--their trip has been infinitely more expensive than traveling to see my family. Still, it's worth it--the girls are having a blast and they seem to be making the connection--without my saying anything--that going to school and picking a job with sustainability means that they can do whatever they want, move wherever they want...take charge of their own lives.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Mo' Money!

I got a promotion and a raise this week. It was my first promotion ever (yay!) and my most significant raise (about 13%). It's big enough that I will see a definite boost in my take-home pay, which has me most excited of all.

The night I got this news, I sat down and figured out roughly how much it'll pan out to be after taxes, and then planned what to do with it.

1. Increase my 401k contributions.
I would like to be contributing a full 15% as Dave Ramsey suggests, but I just can't quite swing that yet, especially with the upcoming expenses I foresee. I will bump my contributions up 1% to 10%, and enjoy the 6% match.

2. I will not change my budget yet.
I am on a rather strict on-paper, on-purpose budget right now. My rent is high (a little more than 50% of my pre-raise takehome pay--ouch!) and I am squirreling money away for school and the impending move. Rather than create new budget categories (like clothing again!) or putting more dinero in existing ones (more for eating out! or travel!) I will continue as is. The first paycheck's difference will be placed in a school fund (for books and anything not covered by loans), and the second into a moving fund. I'll keep doing this until I actually move.

3. Dreaming about future options.
There are lots of things I want to do with the money when I am free to do something with it. I anticipate that my rent will drop by $100 or more after the move, so that will give me even more to play with. I'd like to have a clothing fund again--I AM a 20-something young professional, after all, and you know how we working girls love to shop.* I'd like to build my emergency fund up some more--right now I have about six months worth of dire emergency funds (nothing gets paid but rent, utilities and food) and I'd like to pad that a little more, up to $10,000. I'd like to buy some real furniture. I'd like to have a pet fund, if I can convince Mr. Boyfriend to eventually get a cat. I'd like to just loosen the budget reigns a little bit and have more money in all my existing budget categories.

Clearly, I can't do everything with only a little more than $200 per month. But I can start. I can plan. Even $20 put away each week will wind up being more than $1k after a year, and that's without the power of compound interest. The most important thing is that I do plan...that I don't just fritter this extra money away. Having goals is one thing...but you have to take steps to reach them.



*I'm being a little ironic here...I'm not a big shopper, but I am still trying to build a full professional wardrobe, especially since I lean towards all black clothing. Not having a clothing budget for the last year or so hasn't been that much of a hardship, especially as I do put money from my side gigs or that I receive as gifts to good use to buy things that I need, like a winter coat. But I don't go shopping "just because" anymore.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

On Credit Card Rewards and My Grandfather's Advice

My maternal grandfather was a rags-to-riches story, and aside from his example of hard work and business savvy, he gave me one piece of financial advice: he told me to get a credit card with rewards and do all my spending with it. He showed me part of a statement in which he'd gotten more than $1,000 in cash-back bonuses in one month alone.

I didn't take his advice. In fact, I argued with him at the time, believing credit cards to be destructive and impossible to manage. I didn't get one until I was in my mid-twenties, and then I started with a secured card. Six months ago, I got a Discover card with some type of reward system that I don't fully understand and I've been using it for auto-drafts of my cell phone bill and other miscellaneous (but planned) expenses.

Lately, however, I have been thinking that perhaps I am not using credit as the tool it can be. I have a very good credit score, I have proved to myself that I have the discipline to handle a credit card, and then I saw Dumb Little Man's post this morning about how to really maximize credit card rewards.

A few things of note from his post:
#2. Don't be a sucker for promo rates.
I keep seeing commercials for the Chase credit card which changes what you get points on each month depending on your spending habits and which gives you like 200% points back or something equally ridiculous. While I knew there had to be a catch somewhere, I bet this is exactly where it is--I don't even know what my Discover card's rate is (I just see that I have earned x dollars in cash back when I log in to my account), and I wonder if it is also a promo rate that probably just expired since I passed the 6-month mark. This is definitely something for me to watch out for.

#6. Take advantage of the "minor" benefits.
As I am still beginning to use a "real" credit card, I'm discovering some of the biggest benefits to using one--the protection they afford which debit cards and cash do not. One of my debit card numbers was stolen earlier this year, and charges of around $30 went through before I caught the fraud. Luckily, I closed the account down before another $1,100 in charges went through, but it still took me six weeks to get that initial $30 back. If it had been a credit card, that wouldn't have happened. Also, I had a subscription to the New York Times which I ended up cancelling because they would bill me three times in one week, or different amounts, and couldn't give me justification for the charges. I took it up with Discover, who took care of it for me, and then I cancelled the subscription. In addition to these protections (and more along the lines of what Dumb Little Man is talking about), apparently these rewards cards also entitle you to certain perks like roadside assistance or extended warranties. So, I should use the credit card for any purchases which are likely to need an extended warranty, thereby garnering myself more rewards points as well (as purchases requiring an extended warranty tend to be higher cost anyway).

I think this is going to be my financial goal for the next two months--do some research, find a card that gives me rewards I will find useful and the earning of which I understand, and figure out which of my expenses I can put on the credit card to pay off in full each month. I do not want to have a slew of cards open in my name, but this is the prime time of my life to find a good rewards card. I don't have much credit history, especially since I closed and cancelled the first secured card I had--for all practical purposes, I only have six months' worth of credit history because of that.

I will end up changing my habits a bit--I currently try to pay cash for everything that I can, but there are clearly some regular expenses I can put on the credit card to get the points (like dance studio costs or cable and electricity). My roommate gets free trips from JetBlue with her rewards card...I wonder what I can get?

Monday, November 5, 2007

I am a cheap date--and I'm proud of it!

When does a frugal date become a cheap date?

CNN.com had an article about this last week, mostly in terms of finding cheap date options when you can't help but be one. Most of their interviewees are college students, justifiably strapped for cash. I think it's a mistake to leave cheap dates in the realm of academia, however--who says you have to spend money on a date just because you can?

CNN.com says: Work with what you have. (take advantage of your location)
Little Miss Moneybags says: This is my favorite tip. When my boyfriend and I were first dating, we had both recently moved to New York City and were working at Starbucks. Needless to say...we did not have much extra cash. But we are both big nerds, especially about the city, so we started exploring the city together. (Our very first date, actually, was a ride on the free Staten Island Ferry, followed by walking up Broadway for hours). We saw new neighborhoods, explored the history of different areas, compared architecture and landscaping, studied the effects of gentrification, and found some of our very favorite restaurants, parks, views, and places to take visiting friends and family. The only cost was that of transportation (subway, on our monthly unlimited passes) and food/bottled water/snacks (we usually hit very low cost restaurants and packed granola bars). We later purchased several guide books and walking tours as Christmas gifts for each other. We now look back on those times as some of our favorite moments we've shared together. We don't go exploring new neighborhoods as much anymore, but we'll still walk for miles together in my neighborhood just talking and wandering.

CNN.com says: Play off your shared interests. (self-explanatory)
Little Miss Moneybags says: Clearly, it's best if you and your beloved (or beloved-to-be) have something in common, but in my own life I've found that that's not as common as you might think. My ex was a sports fanatic; I much prefer theater. My current honey works in theater, so he's not as interested in spending his free time going to shows; I'm more interested in reading and dancing now. Fortunately, we do both love science fiction books and nerdy shows on TV (Discovery Channel, Sci Fi, History Channel...oh, where are you, a la carte cable?!). We can watch these shows for free (or sunk costs, really, since I pay the cable bill anyway), we can explore or go walking, or we can just be together--he can play video games while I read a book, but we talk to each other occassionally and feel comfortable in each other's presence. At the beginning of a relationship when you are still getting to know someone, it's probably more important to find things that interest both parties which you can do together.

CNN.com says: Learn something together. (Take a class, go to a wine-tasting)
Little Miss Moneybags says: Ha! This is one that has really never worked for me, at least in a structured way. I cannot imagine any guy I've dated ever coming to the dance studio with me, nor do I want to take, oh, guitar lessons. Also, most guys I've dated seem a little resistant to organized learning aside from school anyway--if they want to learn something new, they'll do it on their own, thankyouverymuch. However, the television shows and exploring that my boyfriend and I experience together are educational in several ways: literally, as when watching How It's Made or a PBS special about NYC, or organically, as when reading plaques on the sides of buildings downtown and realizing that this is where George Washington was inaugurated or that City Hall was initially built with an unfinished back entrance, as who would ever go north of it?*, or conversationally, by learning about each other while discussing something we've seen or heard or seeing how we react when tired, cranky, and cold.

CNN.com says: A little effort goes a long way. (Picnics, homemade dinners)
Little Miss Moneybags says: Unfortunately, a homecooked meal does not count as a cheap date after three years--that's just dinner! I prefer to cook at home when I can, so it would be hard to justify that as something special considering I do it every weekend. However, a handwritten love letter scrawled on a post-it might mean as much or more than a $3.49 Hallmark card and any gift that signifies true thought and caring behind it is worth a lot no matter what the cost. If you're often spending more in dollars than in effort, I think you need to reevaluate the relationship anyway--are you sure it's worth it?



*For those unaware, City Hall is located somewhere in the southernmost tip of Manhattan....a good sixth of the way down the island.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Social costs

My Open Wallet has an interesting post about the impact of being social or antisocial on personal finance. I agree with her, that in some cases being antisocial is cheaper, and in others, it's definitely more expensive to be exclusive.

Being Social
I live with a roommate, and thus split the cost of rent, eletricity and cable, and also have almost-unlimited bread-borrowing opportunities. I *might* be able to get my own place for what I'm spending now, but it would be a crappy studio apartment, and I sure wouldn't have cable and internet. Plus I would miss out on the lifestyle aspects of sharing a living space, like someone to talk to and who will take out the garbage when I'm sick. Splitting cab rides is cheaper than taking one solo. Going out with my boyfriend means he usually (but not always) pays, or we split the bill.

On the other hand, going out with friends is almost always NOT cheaper for me. I'm a strict vegetarian, and my entrees are usually $2-$20 cheaper than the omnivores around me. Unless the difference is hugely disproportionate and the group wants to split everything equally, I usually just go along with it--I figure that into my budget when deciding whether to go out. I'm also really lucky in that the friends I go out with most frequently (colleagues from my old job, actually) are extremely considerate of the difference and try to take it into account (which actually makes me more willing to pony up an even portion). My closest friends and I prefer a restaurant which is pay-when-you-order, and when we go elsewhere we frequently cover-me-then-I'll-cover-you-next-time.

Being Antisocial
I'm a homebody by nature and prefer to spend every weekend at home puttering around and cooking every meal. This keeps my food bills lower than they might be--usually. I'm on a kick of trying a new recipe each weekend, and I know at some point I'm going to wind up with something I hate so much that I'll throw it out without finishing it. There goes the cost of groceries I might not have otherwise purchased! Also, cooking for one often results in a lot of waste in general, as ingredients or leftovers go bad before one can eat them. My boyfriend and I recently gave up going to the movies in favor of renting DVDs from Blockbuster. One adult admission in NYC runs about $10.50, so it's a significant savings (we were going to 2-3 movies per month). Factor in the cost of snacks at the theater vs. at home, and it's even more pronounced. I'm not actually sure that this qualifies as antisocial, since we certainly weren't socializing with others at the theater or even each other, and now we can talk to each other over the movie or pause it and talk about a part we liked.

However, I already lean toward the crazy-cat-woman and frugal-till-you're-just-cheap end of the spectrum, so being antisocial might have associated non-financial costs that aren't healthy for me. While I don't purposely blow money just to make sure I'm spending time out with people, I do build it into my budget knowing that the costs are going to come up (an example would be budgeting for tea/pierogies at bimonthly book club meeting). I tend to pick relatively cheap enterprises (I get books from the library instead of purchasing them, and our meeting places tend to be very reasonably-priced coffeehouses and the like) and I don't want to be that person always complaining that they have no money for this or that, especially when I CAN afford a few luxuries in my life (and in fact, I think it's necessary to prevent going crazy!).

So, to sum up. Neither being social nor being antisocial is harder on the wallet--it all depends on the specifics of the situation and how you personally approach the instances.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Expenses I Hate

So, every once in a while I get irritated about expenses that are normal, everyday, because-you're-a-human-type of expenses. I recognize that these are either things or services I need to pay for, but it just irritates me that they exist. In no particular order, they are:

Fees I Think I Shouldn't Be Charged At All
This includes service recovery fees on my cell phone, a 9/11 fee on airline tickets, banking fees (which is why I recently changed banks). Pretty much any surcharge. Federal, state AND local taxes on any one thing. Automatically included gratuities. Toll roads and bridges.

Things I Hate Having To Spend My Money On But Know They're Necessary
Toilet paper and dish soap (when living with roommates...you always feel like YOU'RE the one buying it all the time and no one else pitches in, even if that's not the case). Female necessities, including extra trips to the doctor and birth control prescriptions.* Bottled water. Deposits for anything. Broker's fees. Insurance copays. Curtains.

Things I Avoid Doing/Getting Because Spending The Money Seems Outrageous
Drycleaning. Shoe repair. Organizers of any type. Pens/pencils (when was the last time you truly had no pen or pencil to your name?!). Art. Music.

Things I Don't Mind Paying For, Ironically
Renter's Insurance. Taxes (within reason). Lemonade from lemonade stands.



*If guys could have babies, birth control would be ubiquitous and free. Ha!