Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Train wreck blogs

Ever read these? You know the kind I'm talking about: they're the ones where people broadcast the most incredibly messed up details about their lives to the whole entire world. There's probably not a whole lot of redeeming value in spending time this way, but there are two or three I look at on a semi-regular basis.

One of these blogs (and no, I'm not posting the link) is written by a woman in her late 20's who has made a great many choices that wouldn't be right for me. She got into college but didn't go. Instead, she had a series of dead-end jobs and married a guy with three ex-wives and a string of kids that he wasn't supporting. Why did she marry him? All I can presume is that maybe she fell for a well-known bad paradigm that's common among women and thought she'd change the guy into a responsible human being. The end result is pretty predictable: she's now a single mom with little to no financial support from the ex-husband, and she's now pregnant with another child from the ex.

(Before you ask, what attracts me to her blog is that this woman is a really good writer. Her grammar is all over the place sometimes, but the pathos in her writing is unmistakeable and very compelling.)

Anyway, this woman posted a long diatribe one day stating that she quit her job because she didn't want her kid to be in day care, and she has no intention of getting another one because that's what government assistance is for. Besides, since her apartment is Section 8, every dollar she earns means having to pay that much more in rent, since rent is calibrated to 30% of her income, and she needs that income since she's supporting her child all by herself.

Whoa.

Several commenters chimed in supporting this decision and line of reasoning. Eventually, one anonymous commenter wrote a fairly scathing indictment of this woman's behavior, suggesting that the state is actually supporting both her and her children, and that's a situation that doesn't merit a whole lot of pride. The blogger responded by shutting down her blog entirely and then eventually re-opening it as read-only, and finally once more allowing comments. She raised the same topic again, stating that her own family members were calling her a welfare mom and how much that upset her because that's what financial assistance is for, and there's nothing wrong with wanting to raise her own child.

I've never commented on this woman's blog and I don't plan to. On reading her financial philosophy, however, a whole bunch of thoughts like these popped into my head:

I make a decent New York salary and I can't afford a home big enough to raise a child where I want to live.
Heck, I couldn't afford to raise a child on my own anyway, not if I wanted to be able to provide for him or her the way my folks provided for me.
How much money are you putting aside for your kid's college education?
How exactly are you raising your child when the taxpayers are footing the bill?
What happens when you or your child gets sick?

I know that poor people in this country have it really, really tough and the last thing I want to see is children living in poverty. I think the vast majority of poor people work very hard for not that much material reward, and that's a stressful and discouraging condition to face day after day. Having said that, at what point is chronic poverty and ongoing government assistance the result of personal irresponsibility, a sense of entitlement, and in general just really bad decisions?

At what point should government assistance draw the line on enabling bad choices?

Is entitlement mentality a relatively recent phenomenon in this context, or has it been around for a long time?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions, but I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Digression into personal stuff for a moment: I have been very sick and two weeks later, I'm still hacking up a lung because gosh, it's great being asthmatic. I've had to make some changes in the Boston Marathon plan: I've ratcheted the training back in a big way, and it really is going to be about as fun as a 26.2-mile run can be.

Stay healthy for the rest of this cold and flu season. This thing I had takes no prisoners!

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The end of the ebay saga

Both Coach handbags I bought on ebay arrived, and I checked them over carefully. I had a fifteen-item checklist for one and a twelve-item checklist for the other.

As far as I can tell, they're both . . .


. . .


. . . completely authentic.

Yeah!

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Tax time

I spent a few hours with my accountant this morning to figure out my taxes. There was a time I tried to do this myself, but after once having to pay a shocking amount in penalties for a mistake I made on the federal form that the IRS caught three years later (and yup, I was liable for three years of penalties), I've found that having an accountant is well worth the investment.

This year, I was happy to learn that my refund is considerably larger than I had expected. I thought that since I've wiped so much off of my mortgage I'd be getting far less back, and it was very nice to be proven wrong. It's not a fortune, mind you, but every little bit I can bolster the emergency fund right now is good.

Other things that came out of it:

--I escaped the dreaded Alternative Minimum Tax again. Since Congress did nothing to fix the problems with the AMT this year, I'm especially grateful for the reprieve. My accountant doesn't think I'll get caught up in it next year either, but he cautions me that there's no way to be sure, so play conservative with expectations.
--I got dinged for overpaying into my Roth IRA. This is the result of the big raise I got earlier in the year (not that I'm complaining). The Roth and I have now parted ways.
--Watch out what you're claiming in the way of non-monetary charity donations. The IRS has gotten very, very stinky about this. If you don't have a receipt, don't claim it!
--New York State is taking a nice bite out of my Federal refund. First thing on Monday, I'm adjusting my withholdings.
--It's not fun paying taxes in three states, with city tax on top of it.

And now, for the best part: Just being a homeowner saved me more than $2000 in taxes this year. My accountant frames it like this: to rent the quality of apartment I live in today, I'd have to pay my base mortgage plus my maintenance plus nearly $200 on top of it every month. Would my apartment rent for that amount of money?

Nope. In the Manhattan market, it would cost more.

Home ownership is not the right choice for everyone, but things like this are a nice reminder that in my case, buying was the right decision.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

The ebay saga continues

People lie like pigs on Ebay.

Who knew? Not me.

No, the handbag I bought on Ebay hasn't arrived yet. Thanks to my brilliant commenters, though, I scoured the web a couple of days after my bid for a small Coach handbag was accepted. In the search, I found a bunch of websites and tip sheets detailing how to tell fake Coach bags from authentics. There are even forums where women who are really into handbags scrutinize photos and help determine whether they're real or fake! How anyone can be so tuned into handbags as an abiding interest is beyond me, but never mind: I was grateful they were there and willing to help. I plugged in the auction details for the bag I bought on a couple of different sites, and the feedback was that it's real. The handbag people flagged a few additional things to look at for confirmation when it arrives, though, and someone also suggested taking it into the store to have the store confirm authenticity. I'm not too sure I want to have that conversation (Um, hello. . . I'm too cheap to shop at your store so I bought this on Ebay. . . ), but we'll see.

Hindsight being 20/20, if I knew at the time what I know now, I probably wouldn't have used Ebay to buy a branded handbag. Having said that, after learning more than I ever wanted to know about Coach bags, I did it again.

That's right. I did it again.

Last night, I bought a really big Coach bag that is large enough to hold my laptop, notebooks, and other work stuff. I did this because there are times at work that I have to put on a suit and be effervescent, and I know that dragging around my beat-up old backpack doesn't really help the first impression too much in those situations. In this case, I found one I liked that was identified as new with tags and asked the online handbag mavens to take a look at it. The photos for this one were very detailed, and they opined that it's authentic based on a whole series of telltale markers that I never knew existed. Like the other one I bought, this one just went out of production and was deployed to the outlet stores at the end of December or thereabouts. The seller was an Ebay store this time, not a private seller, and there were hundreds of positive feedback items and zero negative ones.

The bag was approaching the end of one of those 30 day Buy It Now things and the seller had knocked 15% off the price as of yesterday morning. It was still more than I wanted to pay, so I sent the seller an email to ask if he or she could take another 10% off.

You did what, f.z.?

Hey, you don't ask, you don't get. The photos were dated early January, so I figured they'd be eager to make a sale.

As it turned out, they did want to make a sale: they gave me another 7% off. The bag was still expensive, but the additional discount brought it down to a price I was (grudgingly) willing to pay. I'll probably take that one into a Coach store too just to be sure, but the photos were so clear and detailed that it was easy to check against the most common fake bag identifiers. I feel reasonably confident that both are authentic.

Therein lies the end of my Coach saga for the moment. It was a fun and interesting experience, but the novelty's worn off. I'm just not that interested in knowing everything there is to know about a manufacturer's product line, especially if it's going to cause me to spend money. I'm definitely done using Ebay for buying anything branded; come to think of it, I'm probably done with it full stop.

I'll promise you this, though: I will give you the final verdict on the authenticity of each bag as I get it checked out, and I will absolutely cop to it if I fell for a scam (or even two!).

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

exploring Ebay

My handbag is like the trunk of my sibling's car. To give you an idea of what that means, my sibling once lost a sandwich and a banana in the car trunk for six weeks.

Yep, my handbag is pretty much like that. Plus, it's pretty ratty and clearly worn.

One of the things I've wanted for a while is a genuinely nice black leather handbag that's small, has more than one pocket, and zips closed (the lack of which are all shortcomings of the current monstrosity that I've used for three years). I had picked a really nice Coach bag out for after I pay my mortgage off, reasoning that although the prospect of dropping $248 on a handbag is mortifying, it's something that I'm likely to use for years, hopefully without hating it the way I hate the one I use now.

After what seemed like the millionth time of not being able to find my ringing Blackberry in the car-trunk handbag before it went to voice mail, I finally got fed up and decided to speed up my schedule for replacing my current bag. I took a look at the Coach website to write down the name and model number and discovered that since my last glance at the website a couple of weeks ago, that model has been discontinued.

Well, what to do?

I checked a few online outlets like Overstock.com to see if the bag had migrated over there, but nothing turned up.

Then, I thought about Ebay.

I haven't really used Ebay before. I bought a piece of wedding china that we didn't receive as a gift once when Ebay was a relatively new phenomenon (a decision that turned out to be shortsighted, since we got divorced less than two years later), but other than that I haven't bought or sold anything there. Always up for a new frugal adventure, I called up the website and plugged in the make, model, and color of the bag I liked. Sure enough, about eight or ten popped up right away, most of them new with tags attached.

The pricing was interesting. The cheapest ones I saw were listed at $0.99. The most expensive one was $149.99. Some of them were non-negotiable, but others accepted bidding for various periods. How the heck was I supposed to tell what the so-called going rate was?

I decided that the only thing I could do was wait and watch, so that's exactly what I did. I added all of the bags to my watch list and then spent six days checking in once or twice a day to see how the market was moving. In that period, I saw some interesting behavior. There were a couple of presumably nervous buyers who bought higher-priced bags at the non-negotiable price instead of bidding. There were a few lowballers who threw in low bids on the $0.99 bags that had long wait times before the auctions ended. Most of what I saw, however, was buyers waiting until the last hour or so before an auction ended and then bidding furiously. (Some of this bidding- possibly most- was automated.) Not too surprisingly, I saw several of the more moderately-priced bags bidded up to over $100 in the last few minutes of the auction.

After six days, I was ready to make a move. I figured that there wouldn't be much action on Ebay on Saturday night, so I zeroed in on auctions ending late Saturday or early Sunday. In figuring out what to do next, I looked over the bags for sale carefully: the same stock photo from Coach was in use on many of the auctions, so I made sure that any auctions I was seriously considering had close-up photos of the actual bag, including store tags. I also checked the feedback to make sure that this person had a track record of reliability as reported by other buyers and sellers. I also checked to confirm that the sellers I was considering explicitly stated that their items are stored in a smoke-free home. (That's the last thing an asthmatic needs, stuff that's been sitting in a smoker's house for who knows how long.)

As part of the process, I gave considerable thought to how I was approaching the purchase. In doing so, I recognized strong nervous bidder tendencies in myself: it took a great deal of effort to wait until the auctions were nearly ended before I put a bid in, and I was strongly tempted to scatter bids among different sellers. (This can backfire in a big way: if you do this and win more than one auction, you're stuck with paying for everything you win.) Given that I recognize the nervous bidder tendencies, I decided to take the most risk-averse approach: rather than go after the lowball items that had only a few bids but might go through the roof at the end, I decided to bid on a bag priced $70.99 that had zero bids. I did this about three hours before the auction closed - earlier than I wanted to, but I had dinner plans.

Then, I waited.

While I was out on the town, I got an email from eBay. There were no other bidders, so a brand-new bag that had previously retailed for $248 was mine for $70.99, plus $15 shipping. I've never had a handbag that cost that much in my life, so I'm still a little uncomfortable about it - but I'm also pleased that my strategy apparently worked.

The question, however, is how well did it work?

I decided to see if my hunches played out about the other bags, so I'm still watching them. What I'm seeing so far is that no one is touching the bags priced at a non-negotiable $129 and above. The $0.99 bags have been bidded up like crazy: with less than one hour to go in the auction, one is currently at more than I paid, and the other one approaching what I paid with nearly 30 bidders. Another one, with five days to go, has already surpassed what I paid. I guess the short answer is that I probably could have done slightly (about $10) better than I did, but I'm satisfied with how it's worked out. Let's see how satisfied I am with the bag when it comes.

Have you ever used Ebay for anything? How did you plan your buying and selling and how well did it work for you?

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Sunday, February 3, 2008

Weight and finances: inversely related?

Weight is part of why I'm an athlete. I learned early on that I'm genetically predisposed to gaining weight easily, so I started getting serious about running in my very early teens. About six years ago or so, I also took up weightlifting. Thanks to some very long-standing exercise habits, I've never had a major weight problem. I blew up by thirty pounds when I was married, but I lost that and kept most of it off for about seven years, other than the occasional seven or eight pounds that I gained and lost several different times When we had a family medical emergency last year, I went off the rails in some ways and gained the fifteen that I'm fighting to get off now.

One thing I've noticed about myself is that when I'm very focused on personal finance (usually to the point of tracking my budget to the penny), I tend to gain weight. When I'm focused on losing weight or otherwise increasing my level of fitness, tight control over my finances starts to slip. I don't mean that I start running up debt or anything like that, but temptations that didn't exist before start to appear and I have a much harder time fending them off. This time is no diffferent.

At the moment, I've lost six, possibly seven pounds, so I have either eight or nine to go. The weight loss is visible: my abdomen has tightened up considerably, and my (completely vanity-sized) size four jeans fit comfortably. My cheekbones have started to emerge again, too. All the clothes that were getting far too tight are just about fitting now, so I should be happy for the additional flexibility in my wardrobe.

Unfortunately, instead of being happy about fitting into my clothes again, I'm fighting a strong urge to go buy lots of new stuff instead.

Admittedly, I haven't bought clothes unless I was generally desperate for about three or four years now; that money has been going into my mortgage. This didn't bother me at all for a long time, but now it's suddenly it's driving me bananas. I ended up spending $39 (reduced from $69) on new running tights that I didn't really need the other day. I managed to come up with plenty of justifications for buying them, but the real reason was that they looked really good. I almost did the same thing at Bolton's (a semi-discount clothing store in New York) because I made the mistake of stopping in and trying on some of their new spring skirts and winter close-outs. I managed to limit the damage to $10 for a new wallet that I genuinely needed, but putting clothing back on the rack was much, much harder than it usually is.

Another new spending leak that's popped up is directly related to working to lose weight. I'm extremely sensitive to sugar, so losing weight for me has meant avoiding sweets in general and anything containing high fructose corn syrup in particular: once my sugar trigger goes off it's all over, so the easiest thing to do is to avoid tripping that trigger in the first place. In order to feel less deprived from 500 fewer calories a day plus a complete moratorium on sweets, I've gotten into the habit of drinking a bottle of Boylan's diet creme soda or black cherry pop once a day. A twelve-ounce bottle costs $1.25 in the only store in my neighborhood to carry it, which is extortion in my view. Trader Joe's carries four-packs for $2.99, which lowers the cost to $0.75. That's more affordable than the store in my neighborhood, but still expensive if you add it up over time. In addition, Trader Joe's is nowhere close to where I live, so there's also a cost in time and hassle to make additional trips beyond the monthly chicken and bread stock-up visit.

I don't like spending money on diet pop; I haven't been in the habit of drinking it for many years. Having said that, I think it's helping me avoid a sugar binge, so it's not that hard to justify. The other means by which I rationalize some of the consumption is that when I do long runs of seventeen to twenty miles (which is part of building up for the Boston Marathon), I often get extremely nauseous. When that happens, pop seems to be the only thing that will settle my stomach.

The long and short of it is that while I'm not doing anything dumb like incurring credit card debt, I'm really struggling with keeping a tight lid on unnecessary personal spending and I think it's closely related to the fact that I'm losing weight.

Does anyone else do this, or is it just me?

On a couple of only peripherally related notes: I put another twenty-mile run in the bank yesterday, so four more to go. For the twenty-something and early thirty-something women who look in here from time to time, I have one very definite piece of advice: losing weight is much harder now than it was eight or ten years ago. You're better off not letting yourself gain weight in the first place.

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