Sunday, January 27, 2008

Frugal challenge: hosting an engagement party

I have a challenge for all of you fine, frugal folk out there: help me plan an engagement party!

Two of my very good friends got engaged to each other a couple of weeks ago. I offered to throw an engagement party at my apartment, which they accepted. I can fit about 14 people reasonably comfortably, with a few more if we need to. I've never hosted an engagement party and I never had one myself before I got married, so I'm not quite sure what I've signed up for.

The happy couple want no part of trying to define the party's direction; on the contrary, the said that they will appreciate and be more than happy with anything I come up with. They also know about my mortgage payoff strategy, so they're well aware of the fact that I'm not exactly rolling in cash these days.

So far, my ideas include silly gifts (since I don't want to make this all about acquiring stuff) with a ten-dollar limit, cake, champagne, and maybe dinner. What else do people do at these things?

I appreciate your help, I really do.

In the meantime, the marathon training continues. Four pounds lost and one 20-mile run in the bank so far, with five more to go. Blogging time is limited these days, but hopefully I'll be back on course in late April.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

What are you doing differently now?

I think I've been relatively lucky in that the pinch of inflation hasn't hit me as hard as many others over the past year. The price of groceries has certainly gone up, but the timely arrival of a new grocery store in the neighborhood and resulting fierce competition has helped mitigate that. I don't buy books or electronic gadgets, and I swore off buying clothes until the mortgage is paid off unless I desperately need something for work. I take mass transit everywhere I go because there is no freakin' way I'd drive in New York City, and even though I'm still round-tripping to the West Coast every eight weeks, the price of airline tickets on the route I fly hasn't gone up much. All in all, I've been pretty fortunate.

Having said that, I've definitely made some changes in response to price increases. Inflation has hit me hardest in the grocery bill, so I've found that I'm much more careful about the quantities I buy. I used to have a cupboard overflowing with nonperishables, but I've been making a concerted effort to use up what I have instead of buying other things. It's made for a much emptier cupboard and a few meals that you could charitably term interesting. (Gnarly food combination might be a little closer to the truth.)

I've never been much of a meat eater, and for a number of years I was a full-on vegetarian. That had to stop after developing severe anemia, but I rely primarily on chicken, the occasional dozen eggs, and a piece of fish once in a while for protein. I haven't given up chicken and eggs, but fish is off the menu now. As for the chicken and eggs, I'm careful to buy both only at Trader Joe's (happier meat at much better prices!). I've also been deliberately eating many more straight-up vegetarian meals, generally for lunch and dinner.

Yep. That would be chicken for breakfast. Gross, right? At least I don't feel like I have to lie down by 11:00.

In the past few years, I used to eat yogurt as often as two or three times a day in hopes of getting my calcium from something other than a pill (although I took and still take the pills as well). No more. Yogurt is still a daily thing, but it's once a day now. I am also much more careful about not letting it go off because I left it out too long at work.

Over the past few years, I also got into the habit of using canned beans from time to time as a time-saver. I've gone back to soaking and cooking dried beans, making a huge load of whatever I'm cooking all at one time, and freezing the leftovers so I have easy meals ready whenever I'm short on time.

Finally owning up to the fact that I gained not ten but fifteen pounds since my last marathon has also motivated me to put the brakes on with things like hitting the vending machine at work on impulse, baking cookies, and other stuff like that. I've lost three pounds so far; I'm already feeling much better, and it's helping me be a little more rational when it comes to actually grocery shopping.

Are all of these belt-tightening measures helping? I'm not sure. I don't think I'm spending any more money on groceries than I used to, but I'm definitely buying less. I feel like it's time to hunker down, put spending on hold as much as I can, save my pennies, look out for my job, and hope that the crapstorm passes through quickly and doesn't land on me in the process.

What are you doing differently now?

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Here we go

The markets open in just over an hour. I'm betting on a reprise of Black Tuesday, 15 to 20% decline in one day. What say you?

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Better late than never, or something like that

Sorry for the radio silence. It's showtime at work for some important annual deliverables, and I'm getting into heavy mileage buildup time for the Boston Marathon.

So, like many (if not most) people out there, the stock market's plunge over the last few weeks has been immensely painful. The only way I can cope with it without freaking myself out is to stop checking my balances. I think we're in for some tough times, and that means it's time to take some pre-emptive action. If we have layoffs at work (and I'd be willing to bet that there'll be one before the end of the year), I think I'm pretty well positioned to survive; nevertheless, I'm pulling my resume into shape and doing whatever I can to make sure management doesn't consider me expendable. I'm also definitely delaying paying off my mortgage until later in the year. Paying it off even earlier than my accelerated amortization schedule is incredibly tempting, but it would wipe out my cash reserves, and that's too risky to contemplate right now. I'm also looking for ways to trim an already very tight budget. I'll let you know if I come up with anything creative. Most importantly, however, even though I can't look at my balances right now, I'm in the stock market for the long term. I'm keeping on keeping on maxing out my 401(k), and my 2008 IRA contribution is already in the can.

By the way, it's times like these that strengthen my belief that having a paid-off home is a very, very good thing to strive for.

In the meantime, I've been following the Fed's scramble to stave off a recession that I think is already here. The latest strategy is to apparently issue a bunch of tax rebates and encourage Americans to run right out and spend them. Somehow, that's supposed to fish us out of the spiraling inflation that $100/barrel oil and the subprime mortgage crisis has triggered.

Mmmmmmmmmkaaaaaaay.

Contrast that with Britain's approach. When I was over there just over a week ago, Prime Minister Gordon Brown was all over the news for announcing that his government's strategy for combating inflation would be to hold the salary increases of all public employees to 2% this year. He warned members of Parliament especially that it would be counterproductive for them to vote themselves higher pay increases, although he can't actually stop them from doing so.

Interesting choice of strategies for combating inflation: plunge the federal government into an even bigger deficit than we're already in, or ask the country as a whole to engage in collective belt-tightening.

I'm right up there with Mr. Brown, I think. I can't tell you the economic rationale behind asking people to accept hardship versus continuing a long cycle of encouraging the public to continue spending beyond their means, but it sounds to me like Gordon Brown is putting his public support at risk to implement painful but hopefully effective corrective measures in place for the good of the nation.

When was the last time you saw an American president do that?

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Betrayed by the Entertainment Book

Living Almost Large wrote a post a while back about the Entertainment Book, a metro-area compilation of discount coupons and deals. I used it once some years ago and found that there weren't enough coupons for my area to make it worthwhile. Based on Living Almost Large's thoughts, however, I took a look at the Entertainment Book website and found to my surprise that it's a whole lot better than it used to be. There were a number of restaurants with reasonable savings in Manhattan, and four or five with truly outstanding deals. The clincher for me was that one of the restaurants with the best deals happens to be one of my favorites, and it's three blocks from where I live. Sold! I ponied up the $20 and got ready to save some money.

The book arrived while I was out on the West Coast. On January 03, I grabbed my SO and towed him up the street to get a free dinner at the really good place in my neighborhood. We arrived at the establishment and found it dark.

This was puzzling.

I then realized that the sign out front had changed: the restaurant was no longer the excellent one I remembered. I had passed by it just two days before, but in that time the place had changed hands and names: I've seen the name of the new place before, so it either moved or opened up a second branch. The one listed in the Entertainment Book seems to have disappeared entirely.

Needless to say, this new establishment doesn't participate in the Entertainment Book discounts.

I'll try to make use of the book while it's valid, at least to recoup the $20 I spent on it. Nevertheless, It's disappointing to find that the entire reason I bought the darn thing disappeared overnight.

(This, by the way, is why I'll never buy a lifetime membership in ANYTHING.)

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Blastoff

I'm headed back to the US tomorrow, and I am tired.

A few thoughts (some even PF-related!) about the past week here in the UK:

  • Pretty much anything can go on a credit card. I took 20 pounds sterling out of my personal account when I got here, and I spent less than 5 pounds.

  • The corporate Amex certainly changes my mindset. I know this place is hellishly expensive with the exchange rate, but that didn't bother me at all unless I was spending my own money.

  • Need something cheap to do on the weekend? I managed to meet up with a local running group in Richmond Park on Sunday. They were very nice to me and it was a pretty cheap day as being a foreigner in London goes: my only out of pocket costs were train fare (about $13) and coffee and snacks after the run ($21, since I picked up the tab for the local runner who showed me where the cafe was). Made some new friends who want to keep in touch, too, so it was well worth it.

  • My only other out of pocket costs have been for a sandwich at lunch ($6 each for the two days I actually had time to eat lunch, and chips and a candy bar tonight while I was working late ($1.80).

  • Light sockets have switches to turn the current on and off. It's more energy efficient than keeping the current in place all the time.

  • Newer buildings that don't have built-in motion detectors to turn the light off are apparently subject to hefty fines.

  • Cookies, coffee, and cocoa are complimentary in the hotel room. Hiding (or eating) the cookies before turndown service means getting an extra two packets.

  • Other than the cookies, it hasn't been a good food experience overall.

  • It helps if you like mayonnaise.

  • Since I couldn't cash a check that is surely sitting at home, juggling money from the emergency fund to my checking account and hoping everything cleared before my credit card payment hit was stressful. I don't think I'd do that again if I could avoid it (and in this case, I couldn't anyway).
  • Two countries divided by a common language. It's a good maxim to keep in the back of your mind.

  • Jet lag is the pits. Took a week to adjust, and I'm about to go through it all over again tomorrow.

  • Apparently, I'll be doing this jaunt a lot more often going forward.

  • Only sheer coincidence or a creator with a snarky sense of humor would send my significant other here at the same time to work in the same office and put our hotel rooms three rooms apart. No, people at work don't know we're dating.


  • That's about the size of it. There's a lot to catch up on, and I'll try to do just that this weekend since I won't be sleeping anyway. Cheerio!

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    Thursday, January 3, 2008

    Off one plane and onto another

    Ack. I have to fly to London tomorrow night. It's a good turn of events, but it certainly came as a surprise. I've been running around tonight booking transportation, doing laundry, cancelling the newspaper, organizing a mail-picker-upper, and cooking seven pounds of tomatoes into sauce to freeze so they don't go off while I'm gone. (The spinach, I'm sad to say, is a write-off.)

    The timing on this isn't the best because I'm awaiting reimbursement of business expenses as well as a check from my insurance company to cover half the cost of my dental work a couple of weeks ago. I planned on having the check hit my checking account before my credit card bill is due, but that's clearly not going to happen. Instead, I have to move money out of my emergency fund to make sure I can pay the bill in full and access cash if I need it while I'm abroad. (This is another great reason to have an emergency fund!) I'll replace it as soon as I cash the dental check.

    I'm going to be crazy busy and London is ridiculously expensive thanks to the weak dollar, but the upside is that I get a business class ride and 6000 air miles, I get to visit one of my favorite cities in the world with a little downtime over the weekend, I get to stay in a really nice hotel on the company dime, and I get to see some great people that I don't spend nearly enough time with - including members of my own team.

    See you in a day or two on Greenwich Mean Time.

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    Tuesday, January 1, 2008

    Off to a semi-strong start

    It was hardly morning when I dragged myself out of bed after the most fun New Year's Eve I've had in years, but I managed to check off my first goal for 2008 by noon: I put in a trade order to fully fund my IRA for the year.

    Last night, in between two New Year's Eve parties, I did the four-mile Midnight Run in Central Park. It's something I've always wanted to do, but I've either been out of town for New Year's Eve or (the past two years) sick with the flu or a really bad cold. This year, I thought the registration fee for a race that wasn't even officially timed was extortionate: $30 for early registration, $35 for late registration (that would be me), and $40 for day-of registration. I was sorely tempted to do what is called bandit running, which is doing the race without paying for it.

    I was in the bad habit of bandit running from time to time for most of the last several years. My rationale for doing this was that I don't want race T-shirts and I'm not interested in official race times anymore unless I'm targeting something specific, like a Boston Marathon qualifying time. In addition, not many of my friends race at exactly my pace: some are much faster, and many are a little slower. As a result, unless I'm using the race for some specific purpose (like a speed workout while training for a marathon), I often do races as a social event with some of my slower-paced friends. Over time, I gradually got out of the habit of actually registering for local races.

    Is this ethical?

    No. It's a form of stealing.

    I justified bandit running by reasoning that I don't use any race resources if I haven't paid (i.e., no stops at water or Gatorade stations and no bagels afterwards), but in the past several years local races in New York have become severely oversubscribed. As a result, I finally had to face up to the fact that my presence alone takes away something from people who actually paid to be there and for whom the race might have personal significance.

    I reluctantly gave up bandit running after a heavily overcrowded half marathon in January last year, and despite the $35 hit in the wallet for last night's race, my conscience is much happier for it.

    Meanwhile, I think it's snowing, but I have other goals for 2008 besides the financial ones. Time to shut down the computer and go out for a run.

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