Friday, August 29, 2008

Hoping for a cheap weekend

Oh, man.

I have spent way too much money on food this month. Part of the problem is that the challenge Peanut and I were doing required me to report ALL spending on anything that I consumed as food, and I didn't do that before. My budget allows me to categorize the (almost) daily Dr. Pepper as coming from "blow" money, and beer and bar food at pub quizzes or book club meetings as "entertainment". It wasn't an attempt to by shady, but that's how I divided it up--the food budget category applies to groceries and straight-up eating out, like lunch at work.

So that added to the sticker shock. Eating out while travelling caused an increase. But also, I've just been going out a lot, and to expensive places. I met a friend last night, and dropped $30 on a tasty meal and wine (with lunch for today). Still. That's almost a week's worth of cooking at home.

Today I was supposed to meet a friend for lunch, and Peanut's roomate&girlfriend invited us for dinner tonight...but I have to say no. I'm really busy this weekend, which is a good excuse--but it is about the money, too. Just looking at how much I've spent (more than $330, just off the top of my head)--I KNOW I can cut that down, probably by at least $100, which is $100 a month more into my Lasik fund, putting me that much closer. Having a hard and fast goal is great motivation.

This weekend we already have some firm plans. Today I have numerous errands to run (library, bank, post office, drug store, etc) and chores to do (laundry, clean bathroom, clean living room, clean everything). We want to see The Dark Knight in Imax. We're going to Hoboken tomorrow with roomate&girlfriend (which means some eating out). We're going to the Red Hook ballfields on Sunday, the whole point of which is to visit the food carts. I have an entire day of rehearsals and belly dance bonding on Monday, which probably also means eating out at least once.

I'm exhausted already. I would like to have a day to myself, to stay home and play video games with Peanut or read. I would like to not feel rushed. I would like to not feel like I have to spend money to spend time with people I care about.

It's been an overwhelming month, and I have to cut it down. School starts next week, and I have to start taking lunch and dinner to work with me. I have to get a handle on saying no to people, out of self-preservation.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Which is the better present?

So a while ago, Peanut asked me to come home with him for Christmas. This will be the first time meeting his family (gulp!) and will save me from either going to my parents for Christmas or spending it alone in the city. (Call me a terrible person, but I can only handle my own family every other holiday--and since last year, I spent Christmas day alone in an airport after missing my flight due to my mother's chronic lateness, heartbroken after being dumped a week before...this year, I am not going home.)

Yesterday, Peanut asked what I wanted for Christmas--for him to buy my plane ticket to the midwest, or for me to buy my ticket and him to buy me a present(s) instead.

Hmmm!

It'd be great to have someone buy my plane ticket home to meet their family--I think it's a really gallant gesture, and I know that he would like to do it "just because" but I also know his finances are limited like mine are, so it boils down to either the ticket or a gift. However, I'm also more than a little curious to see what he would get me for a gift--we've been dating a little over four months now, are fairly serious, have talked a bit about the future...but we've not crossed any gift-giving events. I don't want to let him off the hook for shopping, because I'll still have to shop for him! The other thing is that I have a travel sinking fund set up, and I have enough money in it to cover the cost of my ticket.

I think I'm leaning towards each buying our own tickets and exchanging gifts, but we'll talk some more about it and I'll decide. What would you do?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

How long it takes to fit in

The New York Times has a really great article about how long it takes new arrivals to New York to feel like they really belong here. It struck a chord with me, so here’s my story:

I moved to New York two weeks after graduating from college. I knew one person and not at all well—I wasn’t sure I’d recognize her when I saw her. I had no place to live. I had a job I was dreading, and was newly single for the first time since high school. I arrived on New Year’s Day, 2004, after a terrible cross-country drive that began with everything I owned being stolen out of my mother’s van in a hotel parking garage on Christmas day.

2004
I lived in an apartment with several other women, most of whom changed out for others as the year progressed. I’m still good friends with two of them. I only sort of knew my way around, hated my job and had no money. I was still finding myself, and I spent a lot of time at lesbian bars and burlesque shows with one of my roommates. I did not feel cool at all. The city exhausted me and excited me. I loved rainy days and early mornings watching the city wake up, but in general, I missed the hills and civility of Tennessee. I met someone and we started dating and it was an emotional roller coaster—he was also new to the city and we became each other’s only source of company and entertainment. I had a terribly unsuccessful job hunt that last until I had two weeks of money left when I landed my first real job. I spent Christmas and New Year’s doped up after having my wisdom teeth removed. I think it would be fair to say I was depressed and awkward most of that year.

2005
I liked my job and another roommate moved in who I am still friends with today. I began making tentative friendships at work, many of which I’ve sustained, and started taking belly dance lessons. I stayed in a relationship with the same guy and it was somewhat less of a roller coaster. I started to feel like I knew the city and could legitimately say this was my home. I drove in Manhattan for the first time. I was more social on my own terms rather than forcing myself to go out and party which is not my normal scene.

2006
I quit my job and found a new one which is more than a job, it’s a career. I kept up with friendships from that old job. I got my New York driver’s license. I moved to my second apartment, which was exciting in some ways and not so great in others (my roommates and I were very different). I began seriously performing with the dance company and made solid friendships with the other dancers. I started to feel financially stable enough to no longer be afraid I’d have to move back in with my parents if something happened. I really began to feel like a native—I watched favorite restaurants and stores go out of business and I could talk about “where someplace used to be” and reminisce about news events that had happened during my time in the city.

2007
I moved again, to my third apartment and for the first time in with someone I already knew. It was a solid step in claiming New York as my city—the first time I’d searched for and found an apartment rather than moving into one someone else already lived in (and with a native New Yorker, no less!). By this time, I was well-established in my job, in the dance company, in my relationship, in my friendships. I joined a book club to begin to make friends in my neighborhood and started making plans to go to graduate school. I started worrying about what I would ever do outside of New York, because I realized I probably didn’t want to live here forever but wasn’t sure where on earth I would go.

2008
Everything fell apart, and everything came together. My relationship ended (well, technically that was at the end of 2007), my roommate situation ended. I started graduate school and leaned heavily on my friends. I moved into my own apartment, met a great guy, and yet—just last night, walking home from dance class, I was astounded yet again that I live here—that this is home!

And it is. I’ve memorized not only the subway system but landmarks at almost every major stop. I have a very full life here, and I love it. Going to my parent’s house is frustrating, the people there are too slow, too nice. “Home” is here. I realized that I could, and kind of want to, raise kids in the city. Do I feel like a New Yorker? Sometimes. I might never be considered a native, at least not by real natives’ standards. But for the rest of my life, no one can deny me that I’ve had a great run here, and that, to be cliché—I’ve made it here. I can make it anywhere.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Are you better off?

CnnMoney asks: Are You Better Off?

While I won’t be uploading an iReport, here are my answers:
situation.

Employment: Are you still employed and is your job relatively secure? If you've lost your job, will it be hard for you to land another?

I have a stable job, which I am not likely to be laid off from. More than a stable job, it’s also one that I really, really enjoy, so I’m very lucky. If I *were* to be laid off, I have several months’ of expenses saved to cover the job search, and I would probably qualify for unemployment benefits.

Income: Is your take-home paying going as far as it used to? Have your hours at work been cut? If you switched jobs, were you forced to take a lower-paying one because you couldn't find anything else?

My income…well, my income is going as far as ever, I think. I supplement my income with side jobs (mystery shopping, performing, focus groups) but I think if push came to shove, I could easily live below my main day job income. I imagine I will get another raise when my next review comes up, but I’m not expecting it to be as big as the last one. I have not taken on as many responsibilities as I did last year, and I know my company is on a hiring freeze and I assume that translates to less money for raises as well.

Housing: If you bought before 2001, consider whether your house is worth more or less now. It may not command the sky-high prices that it did during the bubble, but is it worth less than when you bought it (taking inflation into account)?

Well, I don’t own. And I have no expectation of doing so for a long time, thanks to New York’s economy. However, I do rent my own place, which is a major goal I’ve had for a long time. I am beholden to no one and it’s wonderful. I hope that my rent will not skyrocket when the lease comes up for renewal, but that’s a possibility (my apartment is not rent-stabilized). If it goes up more than $50 a month or so, I might have to move again.

Net worth: Have you managed to sock away more money in your 401(k) or bank account? Are your investments worth more? Do you have more equity in your home after years of mortgage payments?

My net worth has been declining, due to retirement accounts losing value and my taking on debt for the first time. I feel that these student loans are worth it, however, and I will be able to pay them back quickly thanks to tuition reimbursement from my job.

Debt: Are you deeper in debt than you were seven years ago? Do you owe more on your credit cards and have less equity in your home?

Aside from the student loans, I have no consumer debt. I use a credit card but pay it off in full each month.

Consumer sentiment: How are you feeling about your personal financial situation? Are you concerned about the economy? Have you made any changes in your spending or saving because of these sentiments?

I haven’t made changes in my spending or saving, not really. I’ve always been frugal. I’ve always preferred to take my lunch to work or save up to buy something big. I feel that the rest of the economy is catching up to the way I’ve been living for a long time. I don’t feel it’s all doom and gloom—I think the economy is correcting itself and it’s been a long time coming. I hope people learn something from it and learn to stay within their means a little more. I hope it’s a reminder to me that if I stay frugal and save, I can take advantage of a downturn the next time it comes up—maybe I’ll have enough saved to buy some real estate or something.

What about you?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Thrift on the Sly, haircuts, and BINGO

WiseBread talks about how to Fake It Till You Make It and How to Be a High End Cheapskate. I could use some of this advice! Luckily, my job and industry are not focused on external flashiness, but I know I could still stand to appear a little more polished.

I'm taking steps to do that--I bought a fabulous and professional bag over the weekend which looks much more pulled-together than the canvas publishers' bags I was using to tote around my lunch, books and sweater every day. I am reminding myself to wear simple, understated jewelry almost every day. And I'm getting my mane of hair tamed in one week so hopefully I won't have wild bedhead every day.

I think I've mentioned that I have long, thick, curly, crazy hair. I don't use heat (no blow dryers, no straighteners) and I don't brush it so it doesn't get damaged quickly, so I only have her cut it twice or maybe three times a year. I even went about three years without having anyone cut it--I just trimmed split ends as I saw them. Even now, I don't realize until I have weeks of bad hair days that it's because it needs a CUT not more mousse.

My hairdresser is a friend of mine, who charges a very reasonable price, which works for me because I don't like having it washed and styled at a salon. I usually tell her any caveats I have--must be able to pull it back in a ponytail or bun, no bangs, or whatever--and let her do what she thinks looks good. I've yet to be less than ecstatic with what she does. I may tell her she's free to go a little shorter this time--I've actually shaved my entire head before, but I prefer my hair shoulder-length or longer (it's currently to mid-back when dry, to my waist when wet). I might tell her I want it so short I can't pull it back...but then I have an awkward growing out period to look forward to. Whatever. I'm kind of in the mood for something different.

I went to bingo earlier this week while visiting my grandmother. She was sick and wasn't able to go, but she insisted my sister and I go without her. We had a blast! I won $5 and my sister won $25, which was great but we didn't remotely come out ahead. I can't imagine people who play this who can't afford to lose the money we lost (about $80 each, which my grandmother gave us to play with so it wasn't a "real" loss). Still, I had a very nice time and look forward to going when my grandmother feels well.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Mo' Money!

I forgot to mention a surprise $600 I have coming to me!

A few months ago, my bookclub at work discussed a book that was edited by a friend of mine, who also at the time was in charge of the book club (the book had been selected by the previous organizer, so it was all above board!). Anyway, the friend felt uncomfortable coming up with questions for the meeting since she was so close to the subject, so I agreed to help her. I wrote up some questions for the editor, author, and group, and led the discussion and thought nothing else of it.

Well, last week we discovered that our marketing department let this book slip through the cracks. They were supposed to assign it to a freelancer to develop a reading group guide to be published online, and had forgotten to do so. The book pubs in a few weeks, so there was no time to hire a freelancer. The publicist remembered that I'd led the meeting, and asked if I still had the questions I'd written up--which I did! They pulled some strings so that I'd get paid the freelancer's rate for basically emailing them something I'd worked on months ago. I should get the check next week. Yay!

It will probably be a little over $400 after taxes, and I've already committed to putting it in my Lasik fund. I'm starting to do some serious research on the surgery, and it looks like I can afford to get it done next year after all. The initial consultation I had with one doctor quoted me $5,000 with a 15% discount, but I have had other personal recommendations that come with price tags closer to $3,000 before discount. I realize that this is not a procedure to get done at bargain basement prices, but why pay $2,000 more for the same service?

I've also considered going home to my parents to have the procedure done, since it's MUCH cheaper outside of NYC. However, if there were complications, I would have to fly back down there, and that might eat up the difference in savings pretty quickly.

This small windfall will get me to about $1,500 set aside, so I'm halfway there. I can probably put away another $1,500 by the time I'm ready to get it done. I have to wait until 2009 anyway since I'm going to change my HCRA withholding to cover the entire thing. I'm going to visit all the doctors that have been recommended to me between now and then and get free consultations until I find the one I'm ready to use. Things are moving forward!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

SmallNotebook.org: Add Grace to Your Budget

What a great concept! To sum up, SmallNotebook recommends keeping a buffer in your monthly budget to cover those things that you weren't expecting but which aren't quite emergencies (parking ticket, library fines, etc). If you don't use it, transfer it into savings, but most importantly, don't beat yourself up. Life is too short.

I really needed to hear this today. I've been stressed out by papers due, a heavy load at work, a tight budget, an upcoming trip, and a stack of Must Read Books that I can't seem to make any headway on. I'm going to stop beating myself up for not accomplishing everything I should (or that I FEEL I should) and start taking small steps.

I'm going to start getting up an hour earlier to work on the big paper that's due in nine days. This should allow me to finish it with little stress. I'm going to stop trying to multi-task and just go down my to-do list and do one thing at a time until everything's finished. I'm going to be honest about the things that I just can't accomplish as this class winds up, and that means book club books, blog posts that have been percolating in my mind, and probably a good deal of housecleaning. Oh, well. Life's too short and I'm only one person. In two weeks, this class will be over and I won't have to stress about the papers anymore.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

boyfriends, book clubs and wardrobes

I'm going to have to come up with a nickname for the not-so-new-anymore boyfriend, so I dub him Peanut. If he reads this, he will immediately know who I am. :)

Peanut and I were talking last night about joining a personal finance book club, if we can find one. We're already in a science fiction book club (that's how we met, actually) and I'm in two others, but we like to read and we like to discuss what we're reading...and we like to talk about money and we want to talk about money with other people who also like to talk about money. So we're going to start doing some scouting for one.

I noticed there seems to be a theme going around lately of personal finance and style/fashion. Stacking Pennies made up a list similar to my clothes shopping list last month. Single Ma talks about building a professional wardrobe on a budget. All About Appearances talked about the five hallmarks of her personal style. And Meg talks about buying cheap stuff versus quality (which to her means brand name/luxury, from what I can tell) pieces.

I have given up on my clothes shopping list for a while. I realized I just have ENOUGH. I may not have the specific pieces that I want to have, but I certainly can't complain about not having anything to wear. I am working on culling my wardrobe to the point that I actually wear everything I own at least somewhat regularly and then I will start adding the pieces I feel I am missing.

I don't think I can name five hallmarks of my personal style. I'm still figuring it out, but I find myself drawn toward hippy-dippy type stuff with flowing bits. I have several maroon/pink/black skirts. I like black (but I live in NYC, I can hardly help it) and purple. I would LIKE to have a style similar to one of my coworkers--she works in the art department and each and every item she wears is slightly unique or has an interesting detail. I've never seen her in a plain t-shirt. I would like to have each piece of clothing that I buy really represent ME.

Single Ma and Meg both talked about buying quality vs. quantity and I totally agree. I do NOT agree, however, that brand names or luxury items are better quality. I find that non-brand-name items can be excellent quality and last a long time without me advertising some designer and paying for that "privilege".

Underwear is another area I'd rather go to Ross or TJMaxx for. A fifty dollar bra does not last any longer than a $5 bra in my experience, and I'd rather have more interesting and fun undies than quality pieces that will last a long time. Underwear is not an area where I find longevity to be a benefit.

Bottom line: To steal Michael Pollan's line: "Buy quality. Not too much. What you need."

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Absolutely ridiculous

Starbucks is offering $2 iced drinks after 2 p.m. nationwide--IF you bring in your receipt from your morning purchase!

First of all, as a former Starbucks employee, what a pain. The cash registers do not automatically print receipts except when a debit or credit card is used. It's several extra steps to make it print a receipt after the transaction--what a way to hold up a cranky morning crowd.

Second, how irresponsible. Yes, Starbucks is losing ground for the first time. Yes, they're closing stores and they showed a loss in the last quarter. But COME ON. With the economy the way it is, they're playing on their customers' addiction to get them to spend even more money (two trips in one day? Talk about a latte factor!) at a time when people really should be saving all they can.

I realize that Starbucks is not forcing anyone to enter their stores and purchase their product, but I can't help but be disgusted with them.

Monday, August 4, 2008

July Review/August Goals

July Goals
1. Find an interest-bearing home for that tuition reimbursement money! Done! I just stuck this in my ING account—time is money, and finding another account to manage would have negated any possible gain in earning power I might have found, given the way the economy is going.

2. Decide what to do with my tax rebate. I made a whole post on this, and I am comfortable with how I decided to spend it.

3. Recoup some of the expenses I've had for the volunteer dance jobs. Not so much. I ended up choosing a more expensive skirt to match the costume, then ruined a pair of shows in yet another volunteer job, so I need to replace those. I also had to buy some odds and ends (elastic, thread to match a particular color, more hooks-and-bars). There just aren’t jobs available. I did book some videos, but the dates are looking iffy and I might not be able to do them. I’m currently at a 50% loss for the year (meaning I’ve spent more than twice what I’ve brought in, and that’s without setting aside 30% for taxes). I’ve made a profit for the past two years, so if I take a loss this year I won’t run afoul of the IRS hobby law, but it does open me up to being audited, which is a headache I don’t really want.

4. In addition or instead of dance jobs, I'd like to bring in income in other ways. Mmmm..so-so. I booked a lot more mystery shopping jobs, and the payment for those are starting to come in. I think I realized that there’s not much I can do to lower my expenses. I don’t have cable or internet to cut out, I don’t drink lattes (or even dr pepper as much anymore!). I don’t smoke. I don’t go out drinking. About the only place I can cut back is what I spend on lunches, and my entire food budget still falls within the suggested amounts ($100-150 per person per month) so it’s still not like I can do a massive cutting. So I need to bring in more money, period, if I want to reach some of my savings and spending goals.

5. Sort of related to personal finance, do another good decluttering. I did this! It feels great. I took two bags of stuff to Goodwill and posted another lot of books on Paperbackswap. I purged my jewelry again and figured out a way to store it that will make me more likely to wear it more often. I reorganized all the samples and excess beauty things I have so I will use them up and get rid of duplicates (my ultimate goal is to only ever have ONE palette of eyeshadow in my makeup bag. I always buy basically the same colors, so why ever have more than one?!). I feel a lot more in control of my space.

August goals

1. Do some serious catching up on my reading. Most of what I have been reading lately is “required reading”—either for work, school, or one of my three book clubs. I would like to read just one book that I WANT to read! I have a stack of books borrowed from friends and also really want to read Eldest before Brisingr comes out next month.

2. Bring my lunch to work at least two days a week for the entire month. That’s 8 days. That can’t be too difficult, right? Right?!

3. Bring in some extra cash, dammit. I’m thisclose to having my electrolysis fund maxed out, and Spa Week is in October. And once that’s done, I can focus on Lasik. I think it’s totally possible to pull the entire amount together in time to get the surgery next year, but I want to jump on it while I’m super motivated and before I lose steam. I’d also like to break even on my dance expenses but that seems unlikely to happen in just one month. I’d settle for settling my account with the director for the necessities I’ve needed to get—one job ought to cover that unless/until something else pops up.

4. Fix my student loan situation. When I accepted my loans for the Fall semester, I didn’t realize that they had not included my scholarship, so I accepted almost $2,000 in unsubsidized loans which I do not need and therefore do not want! I’ve already written them a letter explaining the situation and requesting a lower amount but haven’t heard back. I want to make sure this gets taken care of asap, preferably before the loans are disbursed.

5. Get tuition reimbursement for the summer sessions. I’m in the middle of the second session and still haven’t received my grades for the first session, but I already know that both grades will be high enough to get the max reimbursement. This will finish me out for the year (my job only reimburses me $5,000 per year) so that way I won’t have to worry about the paperwork until December. I can also sock it away and start earning interest on it.

Beginning of August update

I'm back! My sidebar has a networth update, which shows another downward trend...but more student loans have been disbersed to me, and I haven't received my tuition reimbursement for the previous session so...I guess it's real, but I feel like it's not a really accurate reflection of my financial state.

Overall, all sinking fund accounts are up even if just slightly, and my retirement accounts did not dip too badly (though they did dip). In one sinking fund alone, which houses my semi-long-term savings (9 months or more), I am only $70 shy of a big, shiny, round $10,000! I want very badly to transfer some money in from somewhere just to see that number, but I'll wait until I legitimately make it. No sense in bouncing dollars around from account to account and having to keep track of them.

I've been fairly frugal lately and doing well except in one area: lunch. Bringing my lunch to work has pretty much gone right out the window, and I'm ashamed. I found a bunch of frozen Stouffers' things on sale this weekend, so bought enough for two weeks and I'm hoping I remember to plan ahead and bring them.

The biggest problem is that I used to bring leftovers into work, but for the last three months, and especially the past few weeks with the $2 dinner challenge...there really aren't any. We plan and cook meals for two that either don't have leftovers, or the leftovers are planned for dinner the next night in order to make the $2/person/meal cut. And planning ahead to make a special lunch (even just a sandwich) simply hasn't been happening in my super-busy life.

The frozen dinners will help with that, but I don't like those as a longterm solution. There's too much sodium in them. I've been skulking around some bento box websites for ideas, and this weekend I found (but did not buy) a separated tupperware which would be very helpful. I might try my hand at making my own frozen lunches one weekend coming up. I used to do that with multiple tupperware containers which was a huge pain, but that separated tupperware would be perfect...they're $2.49 each, which is a little pricey, but if I four, that'd be $10 which would only take me about a week to earn back by what I'd save in not buying lunch around my office.

Hmmm.

Yesterday I was not so frugal. I had a very bad row with my ex who has been harrassing me by phone, and I bought a pack of cigarettes. I quit months ago, so I'm upset at myself both for the lapse in willpower and for spending $8.50 for four cigarettes (I hated them and really don't want to get hooked again, so I threw the rest away).

I also spent $2 on a single ride metrocard coming home from a friend's birthday. I live only a 15 minute walk from the location, so I walked. I didn't even bring my subway pass because I didn't expect to ride home. My friend left at the same time I did, but she's not able to walk that far due to an old knee injury. I felt bad leaving her to take the train, even though it cost me $2 to ride a distance I could have walked faster than the train took anyway.

A goals review/update post is to come this afternoon!