Thursday, December 27, 2007

Post Christmas review and looking ahead to the New Year

Well, I survived my trip home and am already back at work, if not quite out of vacation mode.

I did fairly well financially. I aimed to spend around $20-25 per person on my shopping list, aside from Mr. Boyfriend, and came in right around target. I have to go back and add up miscellaneous charges, but I think I did fairly well considering I had a boyfriend, four parents, two grandparents, two brothers, two sisters, a roommate, and several friends to buy for. If I do say so myself, I also managed to do quite well in the actual purchasing of gifts, and was really happy that everything I got for everyone seemed right on target.

Travel expenses came in around budget as well. I did spend some unexpected money changing my return flight, and had a little bit of sticker shock when filling up my mother's car with gas when I borrowed it to visit a friend. I also did some shopping and spent more money on myself than I had really planned to, but most of that came out of Christmas money I actually received on the trip, so it wasn't too bad. All told, I didn't clean out my travel fund, so really I'm not at all dismayed by spending more than I'd expected to.

In terms of what I got, I am thrilled with pretty much everything I got. A few things that aren't quite me have already been returned, and I need to make one more run this weekend to exchange the rest. I got more cash than I expected, as well as a gift card from my boss, and am sitting on what I didn't spend already to decide what to do with it. I think most of the money will go into my moving fund after I verify what I need to spend on books for the semester, since I've already blown about $100 on clothes and shoes (all of which were on sale and immediately became my favorite items of clothing ever).

Looking toward New Year's Eve, I'm glad that I don't have to stress about what to do or whether to spend money like so many other New Yorkers. It's a big night for the dance company and I'm already booked for at least one job, so rather than spending money to get into a fancy party, I will get paid to be there! I certainly can't complain about that.

In miniscule money news, I found out that the Direct Federal Subsidized Loan takes a portion of the money I accepted and holds it in reserve as a rebate "to encourage timely repayment". I don't entirely understand why or how this works; all I know is I will end up paying $34 out of pocket before I start classes. No biggie.

The other is that my dentist has clearly mistakenly billed me, and I'm dreading handling this. My explanation of benefits from the insurance company shows the dentist could bill me $22.60--and instead he billed me $75.55. Someone's got some explaining to do, and I'm not really in the mood to deal with this right now. But I definitely need to be shown where and how I owe more than $50 more than I expected.

And lastly, I have until Monday to gather up all my final medical reimbursements. I really want to clean out my HCRA before the end of the year, so I don't have to wait until next September to get the reimbursement.

Friday, December 14, 2007

2008 Financial Resolutions

It's that time of year, isn't it? Several of the other blogs I frequent (including Might Bargain Hunter, My Open Wallet, and The Simple Dollar--see also Cash Money Life's resolution roundup) have already done this, and given me some ideas. So below, in no particular order, things I'd like to accomplish with my money in 2008.

1. Cut my living expenses. While technically, yes, I can afford the rent that I'm currently paying (in that I'm not going into debt to do so), it's just about 50% of my monthly takehome pay (not including utilities). I don't know what I was thinking--I need to be saving more money at this time in my life, especially since I'm at work more than I'm at home! Luckily, my plans to move in with Mr. Boyfriend in the first quarter of the year will result in a lower rent payment by probably two to three hundred dollars per month.

2. Continue with my on-paper, on-purpose budget. Once my rent goes down, I will up a few categories in my budget (like groceries/eating out) and add a few more categories (like clothing replacement--I need a real winter coat!).

3. Add another $1,000 to my emergency fund. While I can live off what I've got for about four months in true emergency fashion (ie, no money coming in from anywhere else) and more than six months in a scenario where I lose my main paycheck but would work part time at Starbucks or something, my goal right now is to build it up to a nice, round $10,000.

4. Begin setting aside money for Lasik surgery. I went for a consultation earlier this year and discovered that I am a perfect candidate for the surgery--and that it's going to cost me about $5,000 out of pocket. I did not set up my 2008 HCRA account for this type of expenditure, but I will do so for 2009. That still means that I have to have the cash on hand to shell out before I get reimbursed. I'm scared of the procedure (medical stuff makes me very nervous) but it will be SO worth it. My vision is pretty bad, and about two years ago I lost the ability to wear contacts for more than an hour or so at a time. Glasses are fine, I guess, but I can't even rememember what it's like to wake up, get out of bed, and just GO...no fumbling around for glasses before I can find the floor.

5. Pay for school. I will be starting a Master's degree program in January. I got a departmental scholarship that will give me nearly $2,000 towards tuition for the spring and fall semesters, plus a $5,000 annual tuition reimbursement from work. This will leave me with about $4,000 in loans per year (the degree should take two years, maybe two and a half), and I'd like to pay them off as I accumulate them. So far, all my loans are federally subsidized, which is great--I'm hoping I can really make this an interest-free loan. I will be paying for books, fees, etc, out of pocket as they come up. This is all new to me--I've never taken out loans of any type before, so I'm interested in learning how this works.

As far as paperwork goes, I think this year I finally refined all my systems for keeping track of money coming in and going out. It's possible I may give up mystery shopping in 2008--I won't know for sure until I do my taxes, but it seems that the money I brought in this year was not quite equal to a lot of the hassle I went through with some of the companies. I may just continue with a few of my favorite regular jobs to pad my Paypal account for extraneous eBay shopping.

From where I'm standing right now, 2008 looks to be a pretty good year--financially-speaking and otherwise.

Monday, December 10, 2007

I have long been a "see a penny, pick it up" kind of person. The most I've ever found on the ground was a $20 in a Walgreens parking lot (which I got to keep when no one claimed it), and I found a lucky penny in front of the Wynn in Las Vegas (I went on to hit two $250 jackpots consecutively). After some news reports of Operation Lucky Bag, New York City police officers are operating, however, I find that I won't pick up money on the street--and it seems like I'm seeing it everywhere!

A while ago, while walking into a subway station in the middle of the night, I passed a frighteningly large wad of money on the stairs. The outer bill was a $100. I didn't even touch it, just acted like I didn't see it and kept on going. Friday while walking home, there were a couple $1 bills on a main corner at an intersection near my home. I left it there. Saturday, a single dollar in the aisle of the bus I was riding was making me incredibly uncomfortable until a very drunk guy got on board and exclaimed "HEY LOOK A DOLLAR!" and gave it to the driver. (Drunk Guy then proceeded to be very startled that he was not wearing a hat).

I've long known that society is more apt to keep found money than to turn it in, but now I'm afraid to do even that. I'm afraid that if I pick up money left in one of these sting operations and try to do the right thing but don't see the very closest plainclothes cop, I might be questioned or arrested--so instead, I do nothing. It's a very bad mindset to put people in.

In other news, I attended my second non-participatory Secret Santa gift exchange this year. The first one, I was informed of two months earlier and completely forgot (also subsequent emails failed to include reminders, and only two people ended up remembering out of 8, so I didn't feel so bad). The second, at lunch today, was when a department I'm not part of but work closely with invited MY department to have lunch with them, and I was the only one who ended up showing. They were going to do their Secret Santa later but asked if I minded, which of course I didn't. I hate Secret Santa gift exchanges, as I always get something perfectly useless and am tortured about what to give. The ones where you have a name ahead of time are only slightly better to me than the Dirty Santa or White Elephant games, in my opinion.

And in still more news, I pulled one of my free credit reports today, and am happy to say that all is well. I've started doing a staggered routine, pulling one company every four months rather than all three at once. For the most part, the information is accurate and the same across all three (I don't have much credit in general), so this way I'm getting a year-round view instead of once a year. I recommend everyone do the same.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The hidden costs of living in a big city

As I prepare to move in with my human beloved, I've been doing some reminiscing about moving to be with my inanimate love, New York City. I started my adult life (post-college) here in the city, and since then, I've come to realize several things. One thing that jumped out at me was the hidden costs of living in a big city. I was prepared for sky-high rents, and even to some extent for higher prices like movie tickets and groceries. I knew I'd lose the car expenses--gasoline, insurance, maintenance--so figured it would roughly even out. But there were some things I didn't expect.

The wear-and-tear cost
I go through things, particularly outerwear and bags, MUCH more frequently than I've ever done before. Every coat I've had has had to have pockets resown at least once. I reheeled a pair of boots for the first time in my life, because they were so worn down I couldn't walk in them anymore. Umbrellas actually blow inside out and must be thrown away. Before moving here, I used to get rid of bags and coats in perfect condition, and could take them to a thrift store or even consignment shop. Now, these things go in the trash in tatters and have to be replaced. Before, the only time I would ever go to a tailor was to have a brand new suit fitted to me, but now I even take my boots in to get new heels put on them.

I finally decided the cause of this is not me, but the city. I walk about six times more than I did down south, and I'm walking as much on pure cement--sidewalks, roads--as inside buildings on marble or carpet. I've discovered that wearing sneakers to work will not only save my shoes, but save me pain--I can wear heels 24 hours a day as long as I'm not stomping around outside. My coats and bags get carried around more. Instead of being tossed onto the passenger seat, they're being carried around, rubbing against other people on the train, otherwise just being WORN more.

Eating out
I was prepared for the higher costs of restaurants--and I've found that for the most part, especially by avoiding chain restaurants and fast food--I can actually eat cheaper and healthier here in the city. However, I was not prepared for how frequently I'd "need" to eat out. One of the downsides of a walking society and being away from home for most of the day is that you must carry everything with you. This automatically makes it more difficult to carry food along when I know that I'm going to need it--Mondays, for example, I have dance class after work. I do not have time to go home between work and class. I typically pack my lunch for work, so it's not that I'm against carrying food with me--but packing two meals makes things tricky. What will stay good for an entire day, rather than just a few hours? What will allow me to carry the least dirty tupperware around in the evening? What will be the lightest, considering I also have to carry books, a purse, and a bag for my dance outfits? What will hopefully not spill all over everything during my morning commute? And of course...do I really want to stay late on a Monday and eat dinner at my desk?

More often than not, I will pack in lunch and then go out to eat after work. I can eat for around $5, so it's not an exorbitant amount of money, and it also gives me a chance to sit in a restaurant and read my book with no other distractions for 45 minutes or so (treasured time, actually). I'd like to have a public area where I could do that and bring my own food, but I haven't figured out a way to make that work yet (sometimes in the summer I could go to a park, but now the studio has moved and there are none convenient).

The cost of grooming/Having a big city look
I'm rather simple in terms of style. I lean heavily towards comfort, especially in shoes, and don't have a particularly chic style. I'm ok with that. However, there's a real pressure around me to dress stylishly, to get manicures and pedicures, to be groomed and coiffed in places very few people ever see, to get highlights and lowlights and all sorts of professional assistance with my unruly hair. Then it doesn't help that I went and joined a dance troupe so that at least some of these services could be considered necessary.

I don't buy it. I have a friend who's a hairdresser who cuts my hair, and I love what she does. It's ridiculously cheap compared to a salon, in the comfort of my home or hers, plus I know who my money is going to and I feel good about that. I dye my own hair with dye purchased at a discount cosmetics store. I paint my own nails. I will treat myself to a manicure every once in a long while for a special occassion (I think I've had two) and I've never had a pedicure because the thought of someone working with my feet freaks me out. I've decided to spend my "pamper" money on things that work for me--laser hair removal and massages, twice a year during spa week.

Overall, it's clear that my money would stretch farther in a smaller metro area. The price I'm paying for rent would be more than a mortgage on a very nice house. Groceries, restaurants, and entertainment would be cheaper. A car and gas would pull it closer to even, but I still think that my counterparts earning the same salary in my hometown in Tennessee probably get to live it up a little more than I do--plus, their boots' heels aren't coming off.

*snappy transition*
I'm doing most of my Christmas shopping tonight--I'd say all, but I am not that much of an optimist. Whatever I can get online tonight, though, I'm going to. I've been bookmarking holiday deal sites for a few weeks now, and I'm going to put them to work. Most items will be shipped to my mother's house, where I'm spending the holidays, to avoid having to carry everything on a subway, bus, and plane with the rest of the holiday travellers. Overall, I think this is going to beat the Christmas that Mr. Boyfriend and I baked thousands of cookies for our families. Sure, it was cheaper than shopping but we spent literally 13 hours straight cooking, gained 30 pounds between us, and I still can't face macaroons.

Monday, December 3, 2007

The cheapest family in the nation

Wow.

Anytime I feel bad about how much I make, here's an entire family living on what's almost my exact salary.

*feeble waving from sickland*

Related to my post about using credit card rewards (something I’m working towards), Seven Reasons to Use Your Credit Card for Everything. This is something that I’m moving toward, using my credit card for all recurring, expected costs like dance classes and utility bills, then paying one lump sum per month to the credit card. I can’t set up auto-bill for many things right now—in fact, only my cell phone and Blockbuster membership are on it—since my expenses vary so much. I pay 50% of my electricity and cable bills, so I can’t even estimate a way to set that as an auto expense. Same for dance classes—it’s the same amount every time I purchase a 10-class card, but the speed at which I go through those cards varies with my schedule. Still, I won’t make another major purchase except on my credit card, and I’m planning to do all my (budgeted, saved-for, planned) Christmas shopping on my credit card as well.

This couple, however, takes it a little too far!

As much as I like personal finance, maximizing my options, and playing with details, I do have a life outside of it. Throwing this kind of management into the mix would ensure that I never did anything fun again.

Many apologies for the delay in posting—I’ve been swamped both in my personal life and at work, and have come down with my second cold since October, so I’ve not been up to posting much lately. I’m working on rectifying it, though—aiming for three regular posts per week instead of pressuring myself to post every day, which leads to procrastination when I miss one.