Monday, March 31, 2008

A lesson, and an update

I cannot overstress how important it is to stay on top of your financial situation.

A friend of mine at work, spurred on by a lunch ladies' discussion about having company stock in our 401ks, logged in to see her balance, only to discover that due to a paperwork error, she has NOT been contributing to a 401k as she thought...for the last three years. This is thousands of dollars lost in real money (that she would have invested), company match and compound interest (which she would have earned) that she can never get back.

It would have been simple enough for her to realize this--my 401k deduction is a line item listed on my pay stub each week. But she didn't know she needed to look for it. This was her first job out of college, and it was a case of not knowing you're supposed to see something you've never seen. But she also would have noticed had she ever attempted to log into the 401k website to allocate her investments (or rebalance them, as I do about twice a year).

It's too bad, and she's rather disheartened (as I would be!), so I'm using her experience to remind you: keep on top of your finances. Log in and check your balances on ALL your accounts at least once a quarter...I'd recommend more like once a month but with the recent drops in investments, I don't blame you for looking less frequently. Know what you owe and what you have. Never assume that something you've signed up for is being taken care of. Be known more for asking questions than burying your head in the sand.

*snappy transition*
Last day of the February-March lunch challenge, and I did very well--packed in my lunch, granola bar, and juice box (I've started drinking 100% fruit juice in the morning in an attempt to ward off the yuck that's going around). Yay for me.

I have no April challenge, because my April goals are solid and I've got a lot going on in the upcoming month. No need to wear myself down.

It really MUST be the weather

As other pf bloggers/shoe fanatics have mentioned, something's going around...a shoe bug!

I picked up these at DSW this weekend, only in a deep, dark red:


Yay for DSW! My lovely Bandolinos cost me only $25 (on clearance for 50% off $50). I also picked up a nice tan mock croc handbag for $38, marked down from $130. Now THAT'S how I like to shop!

Friday, March 28, 2008

March/April

Recap of March goals:

1. File and pay taxes. Done! I’m still waiting on my state refund, but I filed and sent in my federal payment. What a relief!

2. File my FAFSA for 2008-2009. Done! And not only is this done, but I registered for summer classes and applied for the necessary loans. In addition, I did some research and discovered that tuition reimbursement under $5,250 per year is not taxable! My company caps the annual assistance at just under that, so I’m safe. It’s too bad their reimbursement won’t cover the entire cost of my education, but I’m glad what they are offering is tax free.

3. Do some soul-searching. I did do some soul searching. A lot of it. And I came to a decision I can live with, even if it’s not what other people would do. (Again, I don’t mean to be mysterious, but I’m not ready to talk about it, although I’ve got the post started. Someday.)

4. Stick to my budget and try to bring in a few extra bucks. Yeah, right. I did manage to bring in some extra money (or WILL bring in the extra money; the work is done and I’m waiting on payment which should come rolling in soon), but I didn’t do so well with sticking to the budget. Between last-minute Costco trips and two visitors, I sort of threw caution to the wind. I need to keep working on this.

April Goals:

1. Really work on sticking to the budget. I may need to leave my debit cards at home, honestly—or be more proactive about getting money out of the bank and into the envelopes instead of trying to keep track of what I’ve spent from each category via debit card. Truly, a recipe for disaster.

2. Try to lower my electricity bill. I will be getting my first electric bill for my new apartment any day now, so I will have a threshold to try to beat. I aim to do this in a couple ways: turning lights off in rooms I’m not in (I’m really bad about this for some reason!), and turning off the power strip to computer during the day while I’m at work and at night while I’m asleep—basically, the power strip should only be on when I’m using my laptop. I don’t use the computer every single night anyway, since I don’t have internet, so it really doesn’t need to be drawing power except for a few hours a week. I wonder if it will make a difference?

Eventually, I’ll switch to CFLs but my super has to swap them out (very high ceilings, and I don’t have a ladder) so I’ll wait until at least one light goes out before having him do them all at once.

3. Clothing challenge. As I’ve posted about, I need to do some wardrobe upgrading in a smart and thoughtful way, and April’s the month I planned to do it. I need to set the budget, develop a good list (that’s under way and I should get it posted this week), and find some sales. And I definitely need to do weeding out! I try to have a rule that one new thing in means one old thing out, but I apparently haven’t been sticking to it lately. Also, perhaps getting rid of some of my “it’ll do” stuff will spur me to find a replacement item of good quality, instead of passing it over since I technically already have a whatever.

4. Plan and book my trip home. My youngest brother is graduating from college (*gulp*) in May, and I need to book a flight and rent a car for the trip. I’ve been keeping an eye on ticket prices, and they’re definitely much higher than they were a few months ago. I used to be able to fly home for just under $200, now it’s looking like $230 will be a deal. Boo.

5. Find a new $5 bill. I broke a $20 earlier this week because I needed smaller bills—and got one of the new $5 bills. It looks really cool, but I didn’t have time to inspect it, since I had to hand it over to the person I broke the $20 for in the first place right away. It’s got stars on it! And purple! I’m not really a notaphile but I’ve really enjoyed looking at all the new versions of money that have come out in my life.

What are your goals for April?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

HAIR!

Based on a recent comment by English Major and this post at Well Heeled with a Mission, I wanted to give a rundown of my hair care routine and the costs associated with it. And also an announcement that this summer, the Public Theater in New York will be presenting Hair the Musical, about which I am super excited.

Any woman knows that it costs money to have great hair. Sometimes, a lot of money. I’m lucky in that my hair has a lot going for it—it’s a nice, interesting color, it’s curly, and it’s thick and grows fast (I average an inch per month). I’m also lucky in that I finally found someone I trust to cut it who charges very little (she’s a friend of mine), and that I’ve had some of the worst haircuts on the planet* so I’m no longer afraid of being somewhat experimental. It’s just hair, and it will grow back.

Then I discovered NaturallyCurly.com and its associated book, Curly Girl, and learned how to deal with my hair.

I don’t really have a daily routine for my hair, since I only wash it a few times a week (despite the CurlyGirl mantra that you should never use shampoo; my head just felt icky when I tried that). I buy a bottle of shampoo every six to eight weeks, and I get the cheap kind. V05 or Suave for about $1.19.

Conditioner and mousse is where I really spend most of my money—I’m pretty much brand loyal to Tresemme, and I go through about two bottles of conditioner to every one bottle of shampoo. Rough average: $5.49 per bottle. Mousse I go through a little faster than conditioner, say two bottles per month. Another $5.49 per bottle. (I often have coupons for these, but for now I’m going with base prices).

I get my haircut by my friend once or twice per year. I keep it long (between mid-back and waist length), and I don’t brush it, blow dry it, or use a straightener or curling iron with any kind of regularity, so it stays in good condition and I don’t need it trimmed more frequently than that. Haircuts cost me $25 a pop and I usually spring for takeout.

I also dye my hair. Yes, I said it was an interesting color, but I like to liven it up a bit, especially in the winter. If I didn’t tell you I dyed it, you wouldn’t know. I keep it a very natural medium auburn, when without the dye it’s usually more of a medium dark auburn. I found a fantastic resource for hair dye (and all my makeup): Cosmetics Warehouse on 39th Street in Manhattan. I can get my Revlon Colorsilk dye there for $2.50 per box (as opposed to the $7 or so I’d have to pay at a Duane Reade). I dye my hair every two or three months, and when it’s really long, I need two boxes at once.

So, to sum up:
Shampoo: $1.19 x 8 bottles per year=$9.52
Conditioner: $5.94 x 16 bottles per year=$87.84
Mousse: $5.94 x 30 bottles per year=$178.2
Haircuts: $25 x $2 + say $20 (takeout) x 2=$90
Dye: $2.50 x 6 boxes=$15
Grand total: $380.56

Yikes! Really, though, that’s not too bad. It’s actually cheaper to keep my hair long and use more conditioner/mousse per sitting than it is to keep it short and have to wash/condition/fix it more frequently, thus using more product total PLUS needing more regular haircuts and doodads to fix it with.

And for English Major—my basic routine is as follows: Two or three times a week wash with shampoo, put conditioner on for five minutes. Finger comb conditioner through, and that’s the most combing/brushing I do. I lose GOBS of hair in the shower. :) Rinse with cold water, and not super-thoroughly. Squeeze excess water with a towel—I never rub it or put it up turban style.

Sometimes a small dollop of conditioner, usually just several big handfuls of mousse. I try not to disturb the natural curl, so I do more scrunching than running my fingers through it. I used to plop but it’s a little long for that and my ex still has the favorite t-shirt I used to use, so I haven’t done that in a while. Now I clip the roots for volume (I call this my alien style) and let it air dry, which takes several hours. I’ve perfected knowing when to take the clips out to get maximum volume without strange, stiff shapes at the top of my head. Occasionally I’ll go to bed with it wet, but that can really cause strange things to happen.

Between washings, I spritz with water to control frizz or liven it back up. I try not to pull it back tightly with clips or rubberbands or anything during regular wearing, but I do often wear it pulled loosely back from my face, just to keep it out of the way.

I do straighten it maybe once a year, mostly to see how long it really is. It looks bad straight, though, partly because it's cut when curly, so the layers don't look right straight. Straightening it takes me two or three hours and usually ruins the ends requiring me to get it cut right away, so I just don't bother with it. I blow dry when I have absolutely no alternative, which happens maybe three or four times a year. In the summer, I sometimes will get it soaking wet in cold water and go to bed, using it as a built-in air conditioner (I don't have a window AC and don't want one).

And my favorite part about curly hair: Fancy updos! My straight-haired friends will spend hours in the salon getting their hair curled and sprayed to perfection. I can take six bobby pins, stick them in wherever I feel like it, and have a fantastic look for free!

*A few that come to mind: an undercut, a wedge, and a pixie (It looks much better on her than it did on me).

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Regular update

I have been very busy lately, but here's a drive-by update!

Lunch challenge status: Safe! I was off work on Monday but ate at home. Packed in leftovers Tuesday and today, and will continue to do that the rest of the week (regularly scheduled lunch ladies has been rescheduled). I'm bringing in snacks from home too, thanks to my successful Costco trip (which I still need to write about, I think). For the most part, so far so good.

In other news, I signed up for NetworthIQ today and will figure out how to include that in my sidebar. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it'll do. Sadly, it will be going down the rest of the year as I take out more student loans, so I'm glad I didn't set a goal to make it equal my age or anything like that.

In the process of inputting my information, I checked my credit card online just to see if my cell phone bill had posted there yet (in which case I would have a debt to include) and discovered a mysterious charge for $32.500 from Blockbuster. I had no idea what this was for. I used to be a member of their online program, until the third time they raised the price and lowered the number of movies I could have per month, but that was in 2007. And this charge is several times what I was paying monthly (but not exactly several times, so it's not like they bundled a few months and charged them all at once). I returned no movies late, and in fact checked out a movie only a few days ago and had no notice of any overdue fees. So I disputed it through my credit card company, and then called Blockbuster (which I probably should have done first, but they didn't list a phone number on the statement, so I went through the online dispute process). Sure enough, their records showed I had not returned two movies at all. I HAD returned those movies, and even knew the date I had returned them. The girl checked, found both of them on the shelves, and reversed the charges immediately.

This brings up two points:
1. STAY ON TOP OF YOUR LIFE! I typically check my credit card online at least once a week, even if I'm not expecting anything to show up. I find they work with me much faster if I dispute something immediately than if I wait for the entire billing period. Likewise, I check my online bank accounts every few days and note any strange charges (this is how I discovered that my debit card number had been stolen last summer, avoiding thousands of dollars in fraudulent charges).
2. Blockbuster is vicious. If those movies HADN'T been returned, they wouldn't even be two weeks late. I rented them while my sister was visiting, and neither were brand-new releases. I rented movies in the interim from Blockbuster, who never gave me any clue that their system showed me as being a deadbeat. I'll be checking with a manager the next time I'm in to find out exactly what their policy is on this (I used to get voicemails reminding me a day before a movie was due, too. Wonder what happened to that?), and to let them know that their staff is not handling returns dropped in the box correctly. AND I'll only be returning movies at the counter from now on.

And speaking of student loans (which I did, a few paragraphs up) I finally got in touch with the financial aid office and found out what's up. Just like they didn't send out an email announcing that registration was open, they didn't send out an email that I need to do x, y, and z to try to get loans for the summer classes. There are forms on the website I have to fill out, but it's so many clicks in, I couldn't find the form while I was on the phone with the office. Thank goodness I'm a little anal about stuff like this, or I'd be in a world of hurt. Right now, I'm waiting for approval for the loan amount I need, which I expect will be no problem.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

PSA!

SpaWeek is back!

All sorts of different spa services (facials, massage, waxing, mani/pedis, hair services and more) for only $50 each. That's often at least 50% off the typical price of many of these services. It's my favorite time of year!

PSA #2: Please remember to tip your specialist on what the service would normally cost, not the discounted rate. It's been my experience that you definitely still get the same service.

(Nope, I don't work for SpaWeek or get any compensation for this. I just LOVE LOVE LOVE it, and I don't want it to ever go away.)

Friday, March 21, 2008

Epic budget fail!

Lunch challenge status for this week: roundly failed. General budget status for this week: roundly failed!

Yesterday's lunch ladies lunch turned into an equal-split-fest when we realized that our chosen restaurant was substantially more expensive than our typical fare, and it wouldn't be reasonable to ask the payer to foot the bill for all of us. Yes, we could have left...but I sucked it up and forked over $40 for lunch. Ouch! That's half my food bill for the pay period, so I'm clearly going to go over budget (especially considering my Costco trip tomorrow). I wouldn't change it though. I'll have to do some juggling, and eat in for the rest of the month, but it was a fun lunch and I am developing relationships that will hopefully last the rest of my life. I am not going into debt to pay for a $40 meal, and as I mentioned last week, I do feel like I sometimes get too strict on myself regarding how I spend money. I'm definitely not making a habit of it though! (And I did take the leftovers with me and I had them for lunch today.)

Then tomorrow I'm going to Costco with a friend, to do some stocking up and also some taking stock--I've been considering getting a membership but I don't want to do it without knowing whether it would likely actually save me some money. She's got a membership and she's willing to let me piggyback for a day, so I can check it out. If I like it, I might get my own, or offer to split hers (if I can get my own card). I want to stock up on things that will help me keep my grocery bill low like granola bars and frozen stuff, rather than paper products like toilet paper and paper towels (since I really don't have storage space for that stuff, and I don't find it terribly expensive for one person). The food will be cheaper per item, PLUS will save me from running to the grocery store to just get a box of granola bars and then coming home with three bags of stuff. Or running out and picking up a single bar from a bodega for 1/2 the cost of a box of six. I do need to make a list and stick to it, and take a set amount of money along and stick to that too (shouldn't be too hard; apparently my only payment options are AmEx [which I don't have] or cash).

My general budget status is fail, as I've not been keeping very good track of my spending and put all the money in my wallet instead of the envelopes and thus spent it all, and I've got a week till my next payday. And I've actually got plans, since a friend is in town for the holiday weekend (luckily she's a thrifty sort, so I know I won't be spending THAT much money, but I will be spending some).

Oh, well. We can't all be uber-responsible all the time, and at least I can still cash flow everything. Just have to be more careful in the future!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Hmmm, Dad.

I got an email from my father today in which he mentioned buying a new car. His last car was very nice, some fancy Eddie Bauer edition of a truck which he only had two or three years. It got about 10 miles to the gallon, so with gas prices rising as they are, he thought it would be prudent to get something a little more economical, so he financed a 2008 Hyundai. It’s certainly not the most expensive thing out there, so I guess I should be glad for that but GEEZ. I don’t understand why anyone EVER would purchase a brand new car? He lost 20% of the value in the last six days alone.

My dad is hard on vehicles and electronics. He also thinks he knows a lot about fixing and maintaining them and he’s only half right (he’s fairly good with cars and has put his Harley back in almost-working order after a wreck, but he really knows nothing about computers). Besides, he drives A LOT. He recently quit his job to become a full-time freelancer in a related profession, and it seems to be going well but it’s still touch and go from what I hear. I also understand he had a lot of technology problems a few weeks ago and wound up replacing basically an entire office worth of stuff (I’m still not really clear on what happened, but he dropped at least $2,000).
I don’t know how much I should be worried about his financial status. His profession is assumed to make very good money, and for all I know, that’s the case. He and his wife have not lived a flashy lifestyle. No fancy vacations or clothing or anything like that. They live in an area of the country with a very good cost of living ratio, and don’t have expensive hobbies. He paid piddling child support (usually but not always) for my sister and I after my parents divorced, and his financial contribution to our lives ended as soon as we turned 18. Judging by all these things, I could assume that he’s fairly well set for retirement and old age.

On the other hand, when he drives to visit me, he stays in campgrounds to avoid the cost of hotels. And he always finances his cars. For a while, they had problems selling their house when they moved, and he complained a lot about having to pay two mortgages (for a little over a year, if I remember correctly). Since I’ve been out of college, I’ve definitely noticed him complaining about money more—but is that my own increased awareness of personal finance, or an actual increase in his complaints?

I dread having to have any important conversation with money about him as he ages. The discussion in which my mother asked whether he was planning to help with my education very quickly devolved into profanity (on his end) and I’ve never asked him for money since then (or before then, actually, but whatever). I don’t know his financial philosophy or whether they have debt or investments, or even if his wife works for pay or out of boredom (I know she does things at the church school, but it might be volunteer work—I truly don’t know). I would feel as out of place asking him about this as I would an uncle or a family friend. I know that he made me feel like shit last summer when he figured I was making twice what I actually do, which might point to a really unrealistic expectation both for what people earn and how expensive it is to live in a city like New York (I’d love to make twice what I do—but I don’t need it).

I do know that I feel like his constant upgrading in financed new vehicles and other past behavior makes me nervous that I’ll have to help support him, which seems strikingly unfair considering how stingy he was with me when I was a kid.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

I miss naptime...I could use one right now!

Lunch challenge status so far this week: Safe. Lunch was bought for me yesterday by new mentor, and I packed in leftovers from home today.

Lunch challenge prognosis for the rest of the week: Fairly bad. I have an unexpected rehearsal tonight, which means I will be lucky to get home by midnight so I will not be making anything tonight. If I get out of bed early and happen to make something then, that would be awesome, and is as unlikely as me also getting to wear summer clothes to work tomorrow.

I find packing my lunch in works best when I make something big on Sunday and can bring it in the rest of the week. It's not exactly freezer cooking, though I often do freeze the extras. Three weeks ago it was...I don't remember what it was, two weeks ago it was veggie "meatloaf", last week I had enchiladas. I can't face the thought of either again for a while, and now I've run out of ideas of something to make in a big batch that will keep for five days.

Monday, March 17, 2008

This terrible tragedy reminds me of how important it is to have an emergency fund. Often, I find that there are two schools of thought regarding emergency funds: either a new television, sale at Bloomingdales, or last minute cruise deals are emergencies, or nothing short of complete and total loss of income and housing is an emergency.

Imagine having your apartment and all its contents obliterated by something you couldn't possibly have foreseen. Imagine suddenly winding up in Red Cross housing with nothing but the clothes on your back. In the current situation in New York, those people will likely be compensated (eventually) by the crane company or class action lawsuit. Anyone would accept that the incident caused harm and suffering to the people affected.

But imagine that your apartment is completely intact, but you are not allowed into it until the area is cleaned up--which might take weeks. You still have to pay rent, but now you must also find another place to live indefinitely. You could stay in Red Cross housing, or with a friend, or in a hotel--regardless, you're going to incur expenses of some kind. You'll need to buy clothes to go to work. You'll probably be eating more meals out, and maybe doing some retail therapy. It might be harder for such displaced (but ultimately "uninjured") parties to recoup the expenses such an incident caused them. Imagine the additional stress you'd feel if you had to put all these purchases on a credit card. Imagine the comfort of not having to pay super-close attention to the checkbook during this time, because you had a savings account full of money for just this purpose.

Financial experts recommend an emergency fund of X-times your monthly expenses (Dave Ramsey says 3-6 months, Suze Orman says 8, some even advocate a year). Sometimes this can cause the confusion that "Oh, an emergency fund is just there to get me through times when I have no other money coming in," something rather unlikely to happen, even with the current economy (when laid off, most people qualify for at least some type of unemployment benefits, and I'd hope would go out and find whatever work they could to be bringing in money as well). But an emergency fund is not just peace of mind in case you lose your job. Unexpected things happen all the time, and it's not realistic to be unprepared that they will happen to you, too. You don't have to experience a complete and total devastation to be affected and need to fall back on an emergency fund--car accident, sickness requiring more paid sick days than you're given, flying across the country because of a death in the family, barred access to your own home--these things are what the emergency fund is for.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Part II: In which I decide how to remedy the situation

As I mentioned the other day, I need to do some wardrobe upgrading. This is not the first time I’ve tried it, and truthfully it’s worked every time I’ve done it, I just haven’t aimed high enough. I went from oversized guys’ t-shirts with stupid sayings on them to fitted girls’ t-shirts with stupid sayings on them to plain girls’ t-shirts from Target, but now I’m looking for shirts that aren’t t-shirts and quality stuff instead of cheapy stuff--and I'm going to stay out of the juniors' department!

Previously, I’ve created a clothing budget or taken a pre-determined amount of money and gone a little crazy in a short span of time. I usually wind up with some good stuff out of these shopping trips, but frequently I also come back with stuff that either doesn’t fit the new wardrobe, doesn’t fit my body, or doesn’t fit anything else that I own. Then I end up holding on to it for months or years until I finally admit to myself that I am never going to wear it and donate it to a thrift store. I can currently think of at least one blazer in my closet that I bought this way: I wanted a khaki blazer because I saw an outfit on TLC’s What Not to Wear that I wanted to recreate. However, I couldn’t find a khaki blazer that quite fit the bill, so I bought the one that was the closest. I should have waited, because I’ve since seen khaki blazers at H&M that were perfect, but I wouldn’t buy them because I already have a khaki blazer hanging in my closet.

So. Step one for me right now is a very serious closet assessment. I need to figure out specifically what I’m lacking, keeping in mind my goal (having clothes to wear to book parties that my boss is sending me on, then upgrading my wardrobe in general).

Step two is getting ideas. Some of my immediate coworkers dress in such a way that give me something to aim for, so I have real-world ideas (I have found that no fashion magazine on the planet gives ideas for real-life women—the clothing is either really expensive, really faddish, or just unrealistic for a real life). I’m also perusing the Lucky Shopping Manual, something I finally got off PaperbackSwap. I love this book. I haven’t found their magazine to be much more than a catalog of advertisements, but the book is genius. And I’m paying attention to a store window in the first floor of my office building—they put together the most fantastic outfits, and I’m going to identify what it is that I like about them to figure out what style I want to achieve.

I’ve also signed up for the email list of stores that have intimidated me a little in the past. Express, Ann Taylor Loft, J. Crew, NY&Co—this is along the lines of where I want to start looking. These emails will hopefully both give me ideas and let me know about upcoming sales or send coupons! Any other ideas of stores I should be checking? I have not had good luck at TJ Maxx here in New York, but I should probably add them as well as other discount department stores like Filene’s and Loehmann’s. The Limited does not have stores here. Other suggestions are welcome!

Step three is figuring out how to pay for it. I’m not going to rework the budget to fit new clothes in there. I did a lot of thinking about this, but ultimately rebuilding my emergency fund and doing it quickly is more important to me (and I don’t *need any new clothes, in that I *could muddle through with what I have). So the money for the new wardrobe is having to come from other places.

First, I have a high balance in my checking account right now. Part of it is the bit of my bonus that I earmarked for things around the house—I estimated that I’d need $300-400 for additional things and wound up spending maybe $30. I think I’m going to repurpose that money for clothing.

Second, any found or earned money can go for this. My birthday is coming up so any birthday money I receive can be spent on clothes. Likewise, all money from my freelance work (once I set aside 30% for taxes). Money that I don’t spend from any budget category—I wonder if that will encourage me to be super-cheap and not spend the cash. Also, I have about $13 on an Express gift card—and they never expire!

Third, I’m planning to start shopping next month instead of right away. Apparently, April is the best month to find spring clothes, so I can wait a few weeks to get some better deals. This will also give me some time to put more money aside. It’s going to be an on-going project, in the sense that I really do need stuff for all seasons, but I’m trying to get myself out of the mindset of one shopping trip to take care of all my needs for the year, which clearly hasn’t been working out so well.

So, there you have it. My plan to conquer the world, or at least my closet, hopefully as painlessly as possible. Stay tuned for the next update, wherein I make my shopping list.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A frugal Saturday

And it's a good thing, since tomorrow probably won't be so cheap! (I don't know why I always think of brunch as being an expensive meal, since it's certainly cheaper (and for some reason, usually more fun) than a dinner out.

Today, I ran some errands and met a friend for tea to discuss my job and her career interests. This is the first time I've been asked to give advice like this, and that was kind of cool. I think I probably talked a little too much about my job instead of asking questions about what she's interested and helping her figure out the best place in publishing for her--but frankly, that's something I'm still trying to figure out for myself. It might be one of those situations where you can give better advice to someone else than to yourself, but I don't know. She at least feels pulled towards editorial, whereas I just want to be surrounded with books all day in any capacity. We had a very nice time, though, and it's all experience for the future.

I also rented a movie from the library today, which, shamefully is something that had not quite occurred to me before. I got Wedding Crashers, which somehow I've never seen. The bad part is, though, that it's due in three days and I can only get to this library on Saturdays (I'm a member of both the New York public library, which I hit during the week, and the Queens library, which I can only visit on the weekends. So I'm going to have to find a way to drop this off early or pay so much in late fees I might as well have gone to Blockbuster. I should have asked before checking it out, but I assumed that it would be for a week, as the NYPL and Blockbuster rental periods are. I'm going to put this knowledge to some better use, though, by requesting movies through the NYPL and picking them up when they come in. Have you heard that some libraries (and mom-and-pop rental stores) are essentially using Netflix to service an entire community?

The next two weeks will be a budget challenge for me: I've noticed that since December, I've not been really conscientious about sticking to my budget for a number of reasons. It was the holidays, I got my heart broken, I was travelling, I was moving, I had visitors. Always an excuse. And it's not that big of a deal, really--I've not gone into debt or anything. But I'm not sticking within my budget guidelines. I'm borrowing from this to pay for that, or just sticking all the cash in my wallet and making sure it lasts until the next payday. There's no inherent problem with this, but how do I know that my budget categories are realistic if there's no way to track how I'm using the money in them? I'm going to work on that this pay period, and see how it goes.

Part II of my clothing dilemma coming up, I promise!

Friday, March 14, 2008

What inflation?

Perhaps the higher grocery store prices that startled me the first time I went shopping in my new 'hood are not simply the result of a new grocery store--looks like lots of New Yorkers are complaining about rising prices.

Part 1: In which I disclose my insecurities

I was informed today that my boss is “tired” of going to book parties, and she’s sending me in her stead from now on.

YIPPEE!

Actually, this makes me nervous—I’m sort of shy and not very experienced with networking, but what a great way to get practice at it (plus getting to go to some fun/swanky parties where I don’t have to perform!)

But, in that vein, I realized that I need to do some shopping.

I’m not terribly fashion-conscious. As a teenager, I had “my own style”, which is a nice way of saying I wore whatever I wanted and called it a style. I was partial to baggy guys’ jeans and oversized t-shirts, with a lot of knee-high patterned socks (I still love those!) and Converse All Stars with everything (including my prom dress). Things didn’t change much when I went into college, although I did get a terrible black “suit” from some store like Rave to wear on interviews. I call it a “suit” because it was made out of lycra (seriously!).

Then I got my first real job and needed a lot of conservative suit-type stuff, so I got a job at Casual Corner and spent all my paychecks on building up a “grown-up” wardrobe (yay 30% discount!). Unfortunately, and I didn’t realize this until years later, I was too young for Casual Corner. Their clothing is cut for adult women and assumes that these women have borne children—everything, even when it was actually my size, was too big for me in the hips and bust. I looked like I was playing dress up in my mom’s clothes.

My next job was at a casual tech company, so back to jeans and t-shirts it was! I donated all the Casual Corner stuff to Dress for Success. Then when I started my current job, which requires business casual, I spent a few hundred bucks on cheap professional clothing from Joyce Leslie and similar stores and have been trying to add quality pieces to my wardrobe ever since, but it’s taking a long time. I almost consistently feel underdressed (in terms of being too casual), or that my clothing looks as cheap as it was, or that things look like they don’t fit me right, or that I just look hopelessly out of style (like I'm shopping in the juniors' department, which, technically, I guess I kind of am).

I have a hard time judging my own size. For some reason, I always seem to get stuff that’s way too big, and then later I wonder what I was thinking when I find a pair of pants that I can pull on and off without even unbuttoning them.* My frugal tendencies also definitely come out when I go clothes shopping and I wind up getting stuff that won’t last a long time or isn’t well made instead of dropping more money on fewer pieces that will last for years.

There are other silly issues—I have crazy, wild curly hair that will not be tamed (and which I refuse to straighten for many reasons). I have problems with my feet (probably from dancing) and can’t wear heels for a long time or when walking long distances—I most definitely tend towards clunky but comfortable. And I can’t wear any shoe that doesn’t have either a back or a thong between the toes (i.e., flip flops are ok, but mules are not). They just won’t stay on my feet!

And the way all this ties together?

I don’t feel prepared to attend these professional book parties looking as juvenile as I feel. I just need a few really, really good complete outfits to wear to these parties. I need some jewelry that’s understated and mature but not boring. I need shoes that work, and I need a really good bag that’s big enough to carry work home if I need to, not so big that I’m going to knock someone over with it, and that I didn’t get for $5 from some guy’s stand on the street.

In short, I need some quality stuff, and quality stuff costs money, and I have not budgeted money for quality clothing to attend book parties.

In part 2, I will address how I plan to remedy this situation.


*This might be hitting close to home still because I haven’t gained back the weight I lost a few months ago during my breakup, and even my favorite jeans require a belt now. I know most people would be happy to lose some pounds without working at it, but I didn’t have the weight to lose in the first place, and I am having a hard time gaining it back without going on an all-ice-cream, all-the-time diet. It’s as hard to gain weight in a healthy way as it is to lose it. I’m tired of being told to go eat a sandwich because I look too thin. Skinny people have body issues and problems too, you know.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Thursday update

If you subscribed using my previous subscription button, you may need to do it again--there were problems with it and I've finally gone ahead and gotten all situated with FeedBurner. I'm still learning about this whole blogging thing, so please forgive me!

Lunch challenge status: safe. I brought in leftovers yesterday, and also today even though I'm scheduled to have a regularly-scheduled Lunch Ladies treated lunch. I figured given Monday's last minute change of plans, I'd bring something in today and if I don't eat it, at least I don't have to carry anything in tomorrow.

In other spending news, I had a mild panic attack last night. I started my graduate program in January 2008--I'm paying with loans that will be paid off as my job reimburses me for tuition (or, since the loans are subsidized, I'll probably stick the reimbursement money in a CD to earn interest until I graduate. The minute I have to start taking out unsubsidized loans, however, things start getting paid off asap). However, since I started in the middle of the academic year, and this is the first time I've ever taken out student loans, I don't know how to go about getting loans for the summer sessions that I just signed up for. It's going to cost a little over $5,000, and I'm not sure if I'm going to suddenly have to pay that out of pocket since I missed a deadline for loans that I never knew about. Are summer sessions considered part of the previous school year, or the upcoming one? I'm not sure, and I need to call the financial aid office asap to figure this out.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Ouch

Lunch challenge update: Fail. My planned mentor-lunch got rescheduled for next week (which ended up being a very good thing since my first day back has been cur-raaaazy!) and I did not think to pack a lunch just in case. I bought soup and a roll for $2.25, burned my tongue badly, and ended up eating only half the soup as well as a few granola bars I'd brought for the week. I now feel still sorta hungry, kinda yucky full, and my tongue feels like I've been licking sandpaper all morning. :(

CNN reported today that people are starting to tighten their belts in response to this almost-maybe-not-quite-sure-recession--this is the first article I've read (I think) that explicitly says, yes, people are starting to watch their money more carefully. I've been starting to crack down on my own spending more the last few weeks, but I think it's more due to the craziness of moving being over than because of the economy. Now that I'm no longer shelling out money for security deposits or movers, have stocked my pantry and refrigerator, and bought everything that I need for my new apartment, I'm better able to funnel the money I have coming in to go where I want it to go.

I haven't much noticed that people around me are likewise changing their spending habits, which might be too bad. I do worry about people who don't understand how or bother to manage their money, which is part of the reason I started this blog. I think it's completely possible to get a handle on it, but it's so overwhelming and people don't like to feel stupid learning things they feel they already ought to know. Of course, it doesn't come across well preaching to people who know you, but personal finance blogs helped me understand things very well in an anonymous forum, and I'm hoping that's what I can provide as well.

Still...I just want to shake some people and be like "Save that $5! You really don't need a fancy coffee, especially now when things might get rough!" I might be in a fairly Chicken Little mode right now, too, though.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

My smile is not so big today

I went through Turbotax again with a fine-tooth comb, and sure enough, it wasn't right that I'm getting a refund from both federal and state. I found a mistake that TURBOTAX made (well, it was a mistake I made first, by entering some schedule C deductions in the wrong place, but when Turbotax recategorized them, the software didn't remove them from where I'd put them, thus doubling the dollar amount).

As of now, I owe federal and am getting a refund from NY state. I'm sure the federal amount is correct now but I still need to go through state with a careful, fresh eye one more time. I guess it's possible that I would wind up owing federal and getting a refund from NY (self employment tax, maybe?) but it seems a little odd to me.

At any rate, I estimated well enough and put enough aside that even if I owe state taxes equal to what I owe for federal, I have enough saved to cover it and the Turbotax fees. Whatever's left in the tax fund I decided to leave there for next year, just to give some extra padding, and if worse came to worse, I could use it as an emergency fund (it's technically all in the same pot, just broken out in a spreadsheet anyway).

I didn't mention, but my sister was here for most of last week and it was great. I spent a lot of money eating out and doing a little shopping (btw, H&M has the perfect jeans), but it was all planned. I've missed her since she left.

Plans for the coming week:
Keep to the lunch challenge. Monday I'm being taken out to lunch by my new mentor, and Thursday is traditional lunch ladies' day (it might be my turn to pay, but I actually think that's next week), and the other three days I will be packing in leftover enchiladas or spicy black bean burgers.

Get some things done: namely, actually file taxes and my FAFSA. I'm waiting right now on the time to go over state taxes once more, and the transfer of money to pay from my ING account. Once those are filed, I'll have the necessary information to complete the FAFSA, and will hopefully qualify for more subsidized federal loans for 2008-2009.

Decide when it's worth it. As English Major says, sometimes I feel like I'm getting to anal and tied up with keeping track of my finances. She who dies with the most money still dies, so I'd like to make sure I have some fun with the money I'm so carefully managing while I'm still around to enjoy it.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Taxes making me smile?!

I've spent the last several hours doing my taxes and....is this possible? I'm getting a refund from both federal and state?! Plus the $600 credit this summer? PLUS the money that I set aside to pay taxes I was sure I was going to owe?! REALLY?!

Well, I'm not holding my breath just yet. I'm going to stop for a while and come back to it, review to make sure all the information is correct before I file. However, it's conceivable. I made quite a bit less mystery shopping in 2007 than in 2006, and while I showed a profit from the dance company, it's a very small profit--and I had unreimbursed day-job related expenses as well as a few education expenses that I did end up paying in 2007. Hmm.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Spring is here!

Well, for today anyway. I'd love to throw away my coat and run around, but I know it'll get cold again for a while. Still, I always feel like I'm coming alive when the first scent of spring is in the air. Also, it reminds me that my birthday is coming up, and I'm excited about this one. I prefer being odd-numbered ages than even-numbered ones for some reason.

Lunch challenge update: going strong. I had free lunch yesterday at the book club meeting, and brought leftovers and some fruit today. I'm off work the rest of the week to hang out with my sister, and yes, we'll probably eat lunch out. Doesn't count, since I'm on vacation. ;)

Tax dilemma: I've done some research, and it looks like I'll be stuck doing it over an open wireless network at a library or coffee shop. Apparently, this is ok if the tax company encrypts their site (using https, which TurboTax does). It makes me a little nervous, but frankly...well, you can take all the precautions in the world and STILL have your identity stolen (happened to me TWICE last year) so I don't see it as being the most dangerous thing in the world. I'm scheduled to pull my credit report soon, and, well--I'm on top of my finances enough that I would probably notice very quickly if something was amiss. I'll probably head over to my new favorite coffee shop with my laptop this weekend and get it over with.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Planning for March

I didn't really post financial goals for February, considering there was so much going on. I didn't do too badly, all things considered--I moved and paid all expenses in cash up front, brought in some extra cash by finding focus groups, and began eating at home or carrying my lunch to work more frequently than I'd been doing so in the past few weeks. I determined to cut cable and internet out of my budget entirely and have started getting used to going without both. I refined my budget based on my expected future expenses now that I'm paying more in rent.

I have some definite goals in March:
1. File and pay taxes. I finally got the last bit of paperwork I needed to do this. I've made quite a start of it, organizing receipts and spreadsheets and getting everything in one place. I need one more day of matching receipts to spreadsheets and I'll be ready to start filling out forms--I'm currently planning to do this next weekend. Anyone know where one can take a laptop for a secure wireless signal? I'm leery of doing this on the wifi at the coffee shop, but it's that or at work (highly frowned upon).

2. File my FAFSA for 2008-2009. I've needed to do my taxes before I can do this, so I know how much I can get in Federal loans next year. Luckily my scholarship is merit-based and not need-based, so as long as I maintain my grades, I'm ok. I guess at the same time I should investigate whether tuition reimbursement from work is taxable--I know the scholarship is not (since it's being applied directly to tuition) but what about reimbursements?

3. Do some soul-searching. I don't want to be mysterious, but I can't talk about it and I can't talk about why. Suffice it to say that I need to do some serious thinking about myself and some research and potentially change my life quite a bit. I've been doing a LOT of soul searching the last two and a half months; I can't say I enjoy all of it but a little more won't kill me. ;)

4. Stick to my budget and try to bring in a few extra bucks. I'm not going to set a dollar amount or anything like that, but I do want to push more money into rebuilding my emergency fund as well as learn to live with this tighter budget. I have lots of ways of bringing in extra cash (performing, focus groups, mystery shopping, taking surveys online/writing PPP posts, selling stuff on ebay/half/amazon, etc) and I just need to do some of it in an organized fashion, keeping taxes in mind.

I have a few other goals, not so much related to personal finance, so I won't go into them here. Suffice it to say that March feels like I'm really getting back on my feet and ready to take charge of my life, so let 'er rip!