Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tax time...

Today, two posts about taxes caught my eye, and reminded me that I have not finished my Mystery Shopping 102 series. The last post will be about taxes, and I'll get on it this week.

To sum up, The World of Wealth talks about figuring out how much you owe before you get all the paperwork in January, and how to prepare by putting off deductions until 2009 if possible.

And Money Under 30 addresses those who need to pay quarterly estimated payments, even though it's too late to catch up if you should've been doing that all along. This is important for those who do enough mystery shopping for it to apply to them.

I can't believe it's time to start thinking about taxes again already--I feel like I just paid them!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Musing rant

I've had an ongoing problem with payment from one of my mystery shopping companies--they're consistently late (and by late, I mean they don't pay me until I nag them HARD) and the amounts I'm expected to front are pretty high (this round, in the $200-300 range). But I like the shops (Peanut's favorite restaurant) so I keep doing them.

But when I was composing my latest nagging email to them this morning, quoting from their payment policy and copying over my meticulous records to prove my point, I got really stressed out. Sometimes, this is not worth it.

By that I mean, I keep doing things on the side--focus groups, mystery shopping, dance jobs--to bring in money. I'm afraid that my day job income isn't enough--that I'll never make enough money to not need these side gigs. I'm making almost $10,000 more per year than I was two years ago, and I managed to get by then. So when will it be enough?

I also sometimes wonder if I focused the energy I currently spend answering surveys and doing focus groups, maintaining the paperwork and doing the mystery shops, clipping coupons and comparing prices and reading personal finance blogs and adjusting budget categories--if I put all that energy towards my career, what would I achieve? How much could I start bringing in? How high could I get promoted? What awesome projects could I be working on?

The truth is, I'm afraid to put all my eggs in one basket. What if I got fired or laid off? What if I just got stuck moving up the ladder inch by inch, getting cost-of-living raises and the occasional bonus until I switch companies, which I really don't want to do? What if I couldn't do it?

Which is ridiculous. That's much less likely than that I would excel by focusing my energy on goals and things at work.

I need to work this out in my head.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Horror--buying lunch!

Peanut and I woke up this morning and simply could not face another sandwich. We've been eating a lot of sandwiches lately, but at work and at home, and collectively, we had had enough.

So we agreed to buy lunch today, the first time in...I don't know, weeks. It was very freeing to walk to work without tupperware banging about in my bag, and I'm really looking forward to my Indian lunch, but I'm sure I'll change my mind when I hand over my $7.95 (half of what I spend on ALL lunches, normally!).

I am really thankful to be in a financial situation where I can decide that I'm sick of sandwiches and really need some curry today--and I'll be happy to bring my sandwiches again tomorrow.

That's all.

Monday, October 20, 2008

weekend update with Little Miss Moneybags

This weekend, we spent $30 and waited three hours for a pizza. And it was worth it! Definitely the tastiest pizza I've ever had, and watching Dom make dozens of pizzas, including ours, was a treat. It even gave me an idea for part of Peanut's Christmas present.

Other than that, I spent much of this weekend studying. Midterms are this week so I will be under the radar until they're over. The nice thing is that ought to keep me from spending much money.

It's time for me to start making Lasik consultation appointments and figure out which doctor to go with for the surgery. I've decided to max out my medical flex spending account for 2009 to $5,000, which will probably not cover all of my medical expenses for the year (Lasik, doctor/dentist appointments, therapy if I keep going, prescriptions at $200 per year...yikes!). This will lower my taxable income considerably, and will lower each paycheck by about $150. I'll probably be getting a raise when my review comes around in a few weeks but ouch...I'm very, very nervous about my rent going up now. If it goes up more than, say, five percent, I'm going to be hurting very badly (and my apartment is not rent stabilized, so it's conceivable it could go up much higher than that). I really like my apartment, and I like my building, and I realllllly don't want to move again. Moving frequently is the biggest money-drain I've faced since living in New York, and I want to stay in one place for several years.

I guess if the rent goes up more than I can afford (I won't know until January) I will talk to the landlord. I've paid on time every month and am a good tenant (no complaints, no problems, etc). I'm hoping he'll be lenient--he lowered the asking price of the rent when I looked at the place, so that's a good sign.

I keep trying to tell myself that I cannot stress about this--there's no point. I don't know what I'll be making next year. I don't know if the rent will rise or by how much. So until I can know these things, why let them eat at me?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

What would you do with $297,500?

From Master Your Card, a breakdown of what might have happened if the government gave that $85 billion bailout directly to the American people.

What would *I* do?

Pay off school and student loans ~$20,000
Max out Roth IRA for 2008 and 2009 $10,000
Buy a condo or coop in New York--maybe. Even the full $297,500 is not enough for that, but it'd be a hefty downpayment.

And I would take a cruise.

What would you do?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

simplifying and eating cheaply

Mighty Bargain Hunter has inspired me today.

First, he talks about simplifying, which I am all about lately. I'm trying to use things up before buying more--things like eye shadow palettes (I have at least four) and "office" supplies (cards, envelopes, index cards, etc). I just don't want to have to move all this stuff ever again!

Second, he has a coupon code for 80% off at Restaurant.com--this is a GREAT deal if you use Restaurant.com. However, I have never used it. Every time he posts these codes, I'm intrigued and I click through and look, but I feel like there are so many stipulations on when and how these certificates can be used, and I would almost feel like a fool using them to pay for a meal at the restaurants that are listed there. I don't know why. I really should take advantage of it--I mean, the one that's up now is a $25 certificate for $2--that's such a steal!

Monday, October 13, 2008

A mashup from this past weekend

Peanut and I relaxed a little on the no-eating-out and the spend-as-little-as-possible-on-food rules this weekend, and I am very glad. I hadn't realized that it was sort of getting to me. Even though we ate out twice (dinner on Saturday at our favorite sushi place, and lunch on Sunday from the deli at whole foods), we only spent $30 combined and had a very nice and social time.

It was an unusual situation because we met up with some of his friends from out of town, so we probably won't be doing this all the time, but it was nice to know we could do it and not go overboard. One thing that probably helped was that Saturday, his friends were quite late showing up so we had a cheap snack at home before going out--which meant we ate less than usual. And Sunday, we split a salad and a bag of chips, knowing we had a yummy dinner planned at home.

We also went clothes shopping for Peanut yesterday, and ostensibly for me, but I just cannot bring myself to go clothes shopping with other people. He got a whole bunch of stuff, some of which he sorely needed (yay, shoes with no holes in them!) but I tried on a few things, felt rushed, and didn't buy anything at all. I have never liked shopping with other people, even girlfriends, because I feel bad taking as much time as I want to try stuff on and agonize over whether I want it. Also, I don't need anything right now, though I want a lot of stuff, and all I could think about was how every $30 towards clothes was $30 I was not putting towards Lasik.

My mother sent me two books and a very chic skirt from a consignment shop. The skirt was seriously on sale; my mom said it was a great deal. The books are a great gift--Tisha is one of my favorite books from childhood, and the other is one that I've been wanting to read--but the skirt is problematic. It fits, but only just, and is high-waisted, something I have never managed to pull off. It's a French label, and has a thigh slit that I'm not sure is appropriate for my workplace, though it might be ok with the right top and some dark stockings and high boots. But that means I'd need to buy the right top and dark stockings and high boots. So was this a good deal, or not? My mom only spent $3 on it--but I will have to spend close to $100 to make it work. A gift that requires the recipient to spend money to use it is not usually a great gift. However, my mom's heart was in the right place, so I'll hang on to the skirt for a while to see if anything comes up that matches it perfectly. If I haven't worn it in six months, I'll give it away.

And lastly, I figured out what I'm getting for Peanut for his birthday in two months. I had a couple ideas, but I think this one is perfect, and I'll get to enjoy it, too. It winds up being about $10 over the $100 budget I had planned, but I will do a smaller Christmas gift and it will balance out. I will also look for a coupon code or something to see if I can get a better deal. Unfortunately, I can't post the details here since he might find it so...well, I'll just describe it after the fact!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Looking my best

Yesterday I spent $91 on a manicure and pedicure. This is only because it was a mystery shop, and therefore I will be getting reimbursed because ye, gods—nearly $100 for little more than nail polish I could have applied myself?! Sure, it was a nice spa but wow.

Watching the other women in the salon, I started thinking about the amount of money that is spent on self-care, particularly in New York City, and my mind is boggled. Many of these women appeared to be on a close basis with the employees of the salon, indicating they go there frequently (every week, maybe?). And they were there in the middle of the day on a Thursday, not in work clothes like I was but in the spa robe and hair up in a towel—it seemed like an all day thing for them. HOW?!

For the most part, I’m quite frugal about personal care. I buy drugstore products, and not the most expensive ones. I use as few products as I can get away with—shampoo, conditioner, and mousse for hair, a cleanser and moisturizer for my face, simple soaps and lotions for my body. I rarely paint my fingernails, preferring to buff them to a high shine, and my toes are usually polished but not perfectly. I wear makeup pretty much every day, but it’s minimal, and I buy cosmetics at a discount store. A friend cuts my hair for $25 two or three times a year. I get massages twice a year during Spa Week, and usually treat myself to one other service like electrolysis or a facial at the same time.

Should I be doing more? Or rather, should I be doing things differently? I’ve never had great skin, but it’s never been terrible. I get blemishes fairly frequently but I don’t have acne scars. I keep a regular routine, but at my age, would it be worth it to invest in ProActive? I can’t see spending so much money on so many products but honestly, I’m starting to be unhappy with my skin. I feel like as I get closer to 30 my skin shouldn’t look like I’m still in high school sometimes. Is this a vanity issue, or is it worth doing because it might make my skin healthier?

Also, home mani-pedis. I do a good-enough job with an emery board and some clippers, but I love that cuticle clipper thing salons have. And nail stones --those things are great. I think I would be able to mimic a perfect salon mani-pedi with those tools, so aren’t they worth the money?

The thing is, I am not going to start spending lots of money at salons and pay someone else to do my nails when I’m perfectly capable of doing them myself. I’m too frugal by nature for that, but maybe I’m being TOO frugal for being a professional woman. Much as I hate it, people do judge you on your looks and it’s important to present yourself in the best light possible—you only get one first impression, as they say. As I get older, perhaps it is worth it to spend a little more money on products that both make me look good AND take care of my physical appearance as I age.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

boo hoo hoo!

I haven't thought of these cookies in years, but now I desperately want some--because I can never have them again.

For those who haven't clicked the link, you know those animal crackers with pink and white coatings and sprinkles? They're out of business.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Mystery Shopping 102: Completing the Shop, Keeping Track, Getting Paid, and Paperwork

See previous:

Mystery Shopping: A Field Guide
Mystery Shopping 102: What You Need to Get Started
Mystery Shopping 102: How to Find Shops

Doing the shop
Read the instructions carefully before signing up for a shop, and again before completing it. Print out any paperwork you might need before you begin (some shops require that you not take notes on the premises, some require that you print out an invoice before entering your report with no way to print it afterward). I usually make notes of particulars on a post it note or in the memo feature of my phone, rather than printing out paperwork. For restaurant shops that require timing, I will note all the things I'm supposed to time for in the memo section of my phone, and then enter the time while doing the shop. It just looks like I'm rude and texting someone or checking email at the dinner table rather than giving me away as a shopper.


Some shops require special equipment, like scales and thermometers or digital stopwatches. (The scale and thermometers were provided by the shopping company, and I paid a deposit for them. The deposit will be returned when I send back the equipement.) I have a digital stopwatch program on my phone, and since I don't have a car, I don't do many shops that require special equipment.
Do the shop honestly, objectively, in the parameters required, without giving yourself away. Upload your report, including scanning/photographing or faxing receipts, as soon as possible.
Keeping track of shops and payments
I set up a spreadsheet to keep track of all my shops for scheduling, payment, and taxation purposes. As you can see, I'm pretty detailed. I keep a tab like this for every company I shop for. Blue means the shop is totally finished and I've been paid. Purple means I've completed the shop and am waiting to be paid (note the estimated payment dates in the paid date column). Yellow means the shop is upcoming.
The columns are mostly self-explanatory, but I'll take a second to explain the fee/reimbursement/not reimbursed columns. The fee column is whatever I'm going to be paid just for doing the shop. This is always taxable income. In many cases, restaurant shops do not actually pay, but simply reimburse up to a set limit. That's what the reimbursement column shows. The Not Reimbursed column shows expenses I had above and beyond what the reimbursement covered. This is sometimes, but not necessarily, a tax-deductible expense. I will cover that more in the next installment of Mystery Shopping 102.

This spreadsheet gives me a lot of valuable information. At a glance, I can see what shops I have coming up and what I'm waiting to be paid for. I also have a summary page in the spreadsheet that shows what I have grossed and netted from each company so I know whether to expect tax forms from them, and also so I just know how much I've made in the year.

Getting Paid

As I said before, most companies pay via PayPal. The check number field is leftover from when I actually used to get physical checks mailed to me from every company. I keep it there because a few companies still do pay that way. I have a separate checking account for mystery shopping money. I deposit those checks into that account, and also transfer money from Paypal to that account to both pay for shops as they come up and to pay off my credit card if any shops were put on a credit card for some reason. I transfer some money from Paypal (about 1/3) into my savings account in anticipation of paying taxes. And I pay myself some money to do what I want with it--right now, it's going towards Lasik surgery, but I've funded budget categories of clothing, eating out, travel, and spa services by mystery shopping as well.

Paperwork
I keep paperwork until I'm paid for a shop, period. That includes copies of receipts and business cards if I have to physically mail them in, fax reports confirming the fax was sent, and anything else relating to proof that I completed a shop within the requirements and deserve to be paid for it, as well as check stubs. After I'm paid, I'll only keep receipts and things I need for tax purposes, and then I keep those things for the standard three years you keep any tax paperwork. I start a file at the beginning of the year and I throw receipts in it all year long for both mystery shopping and dance expenses. I note on the receipt what the expense was for if it's not clear. My digital spreadsheet means that at almost any point, I can figure out how much I'm going to have to pay.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The sky is falling!

Lifehacker has a great post on preparing for the financiapocalypse.

Cash
1. Make sure your bank accounts are FDIC-insured (this is almost always, always the case. Up to $100,000 per account is covered; if you've got more than that, why are you reading my blog?!).
2. Build a liquid emergency fund of several months' expenses in case of layoffs or other problems.

Investments
1. Do NOT let the market get to you (stop reading the news!). It can pretty much only go up from here, so particularly if you've got 10 years or more before retirement, let it gain back the ground you've lost. In fact, if you can afford it, invest MORE! (Remember, buy low, sell high!)

Career
1. Get ready to lose your job...and find a new one. I'm not focused on this, but for those in layoff-prone industries, it's really good advice.

That said, I will be taking a peek at my investments later today when I do my monthly net worth update. I'm nervous and excited at the same time--at least any drop in my net worth this time won't be my fault!