It was hotter than hell today in New York. I rarely use my air conditioners, but until a huge thunderstorm came through, the temperature inside my apartment was unbearable. I squirmed around sweating for a while, but I finally broke down and turned on the AC.
I felt much better as the air conditioner hummed along merrily, but I couldn't help thinking about the impact it's going to have on my electric bill, especially with newly jacked-up rates from Con Edison. Obviously, I don't want to make a habit of running the AC if I can help it, so I started thinking through some strategies for keeping cool without burning up the money in my pocket. Here's what I've come up with so far:
1. Use fans, not air conditioning
Fans do a good job of circulating air, and they use far less energy than air conditioning. I noticed the difference in my utility bills right away last summer, so whenever I needed all-night cooling, I set an electric fan on the lowest setting and left the AC off altogether.
So why didn't you use a fan instead of the AC today, f.z.?
I should have.
2. Shade is good
One benefit of facing a brick wall is that I'm not exposed to direct sunlight other than about an hour in the afternoon. My plants hate me, but my apartment is far cooler than my friend's apartment fourteen floors up.
Since not everyone is lucky enough to face a brick wall day in and day out, you might be gratified to learn that you can get the brick wall experience for yourself: pull the drapes or blinds closed before it gets too hot, and you'll be cooler all day long.
3. Don't be a princess
When I lived overseas, I became acquainted with a fellow American from a hot climate. He informed me that the best way to cope with the subtropical heat we were enduring was to do what he did, i.e. run the air conditioning all day while at work. He explained that when you get home, nine to twelve hours later, you'll be greeted by an arctic blast the moment you set foot in the door, and it feels really good.
That guy? Biggest princess I ever met. Just leave the cooling systems off when you're out, turn them on when you get home (but only if you really need them), and put up with the ten minutes or so it takes the room to adjust. Cry yourself a river in the meantime if you need to, but you won't get any sympathy from me.
4. Minimize your cooling space
This one works best for singles: if you have the air conditioning running in one room and only one room, shut the doors to help prevent leakage to other rooms. If you have a family, it helps if you can corral them all into the same room, at least for a while.
Someone will eventually flounce off and that'll be the end of it, but at least you tried.
5. Don't turn on competing appliances
Assume you have a family room/kitchen area where most people in the household congregate. (I live alone, thus I am most people.) If that's the room you're cooling, it doesn't really make sense to turn on the kitchen stove or oven, since it will heat the house right back up. The occasional cold meal - I recommend celery, hummus, flat bread, and olives for a light dinner - never killed anyone. On hot days, your family might even appreciate it.
6. If you're not using it, turn it off
That goes for lights, television, radio, computer, and anything else that's sucking up energy. If you want to take this one one step further, unplug everything that has a digital clock or a little LED light on it to show that there's an electrical current present. Those little doohickeys are known as energy vampires, and over time they'll cost you.
7. Switch out your light bulbs
Replace your existing bulbs with newer, energy-efficient models whenever you can. Word of warning, though: the new energy-efficient bulbs contain mercury, so make sure you dispose of them appropriately (as defined by your munincipality). If you can, make do with less wattage - but only if you're not straining your eyes.
8. Compare your energy provider with competitors to make sure you're getting the best rate
In some cases, you can do this on the internet. If you can't do internet comparisons, this can mean having awkward conversations with sales reps about the charge for kilowatts per hour used, scheduled rate changes, unscheduled rate changes, and other related topics. You might find that switching energy providers will lower your overall cost. If not, you'll at least know more about energy billing than you probably ever wanted to know.
These are the things I'm doing to beat the heat without handing over too much of my own cash in the process. What about you? Are you getting killed by your electricity bills this summer? If so, what are you doing about it?
Sunday, June 29, 2008
It was hotter than hell today in New York. I rarely use my air conditioners, but until a huge thunderstorm came through, the temperature inside my apartment was unbearable. I squirmed around sweating for a while, but I finally broke down and turned on the AC.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Well, today was certainly an unpleasant day on Wall Street. Stocks hit their 21-month low by the close of play, so any gains you've had since late 2006 are pretty much gone. Oil went up another five bucks per barrel or thereabouts. It's getting a little bit dire out there, wouldn't you say?
Believe it or not, there are coping mechanisms that help. I think I'm wired to be somewhat pessimistic by nature. This is helpful in conservative forward financial planning, but I've found that life is a lot more fun with a more optimistic outlook. Optimism is one of those attributes that can become second nature (or very close to it) with practice. Instead of letting panic or depression take over in tough times, here are a few attitude adjustment tools that I've used for years:
By this, I mean turn the situation on its head. Here's an example:
Bleah, it's raining
Yay! At least it's not snowing!
I know, that was kind of a stupid and simplistic one. Here's one that might be a little more germane to today's events in the stock market:
The stock market dropped 350 points today
Yay! Buying opportunity!
Yay! I have plenty of cash reserves!
or my personal favorite
Yay! I'm so glad I've been dumping my extra money into the mortgage!
Flipping a negative into a positive has limited utility. There are some situations where there simply isn't a positive side that a rational humanist can embrace. (Can you imagine saying Yay! about genocide, rape, massive flooding, earthquakes, or torture?) Plus, relentless cheerfulness is likely to eventually get you smacked.
I'm just saying.
By reframing it, I mean utilizing a two step process: First, I imagine the worst possible outcome of the current situation. Then I deconstruct it and look at it in context to see if my fears are rational or not. Here's an example:
Between the oil crisis, and incipient stagflation, the economy looks to be headed south awfully fast. What's the worst possible outcome?
Well, I could lose my job, not be able to find another one, lose the entire value of my portfolio, lose my home, and end up on the street. Scary stuff.
lose my job
Not terribly likely at the moment. Our headcount was approved for the next fiscal year; my job is in an area that's hard to outsource working for an industry that is not as vulnerable to bad economic conditions as most; both the bossman and I just got promoted and got the highest possible rating in our annual reviews; and today the bossman said I'm indispensable. This last part isn't true, but it's a reasonably good indicator that I wouldn't be the first one asked to leave.
That obviates the rest of my fears but I usually deconstruct them all the way through, so here goes:
not be able to find another job
Definitely possible, but people who are certified to do what I do are pretty employable. In case I'm wrong on that, I have cash reserves and after that, non-retirement mutual funds that would let me stay unemployed for several years without touching my retirement. And hey, I'm not proud. My cost of living will be really low after my mortgage is paid off; if I have to become a barista to survive, a barista I will become. At least the coffee's free. (Yay! Free coffee!)
lose the entire value of my portfolio
This will only happen if I lock in my losses by cashing out, or if I'm unemployed for a lot longer than a few years. I think the probability is low.
lose my home
Once it's paid off in July, as long as I pay my taxes to keep my home out of the gubmint's hands, a little over $600 a month will be enough to keep my home from defaulting back to the building corporation. My building management is very fiscally prudent; a 4% maintenance increase has happened, but it's highly irregular. Most years, the maintenance increase is less than 2%, if we even have an increase; skyrocketing costs just don't really happen here. I think the probability of losing my home is an extreme long shot.
end up on the street
Okay, so suppose I did lose my home. Between my SO, my sibling, and my mom, no one would let me become homeless. If I had to swallow my pride and accept a room or a sofa from someone, I would. Given the low probability of the events leading up to this, however, I don't think it would happen.
The first part of this exercise, anticipating the extreme worst case scenario, is rather scary; if you stop there, I think you're doing more harm than good. I wouldn't recommend even trying this unless you're willing to do the full deconstruction. If your deconstruction gives you more reason to be scared, then the next tool is for you.
If you have some gaping holes in your safety net, there's nothing more empowering than taking action. Similarly, no matter how safe your situation seems, you can always make improvements. One thing I was mulling over this week was that as rosy as things look at work, there's one major thing I'm not doing the way I should: I'm not networking enough with people in my field. The bossman made a similar observation to me today. That prompted me to dig up contact information for a women's leadership organization in my workplace and reach out to ask for information on joining. I also started looking at similar organizations here in New York, and I have a few new business contacts from a couple of weeks ago that I'm following up as well. Just doing those few simple things that took less than ten minutes in total made me feel like I was taking ownership of my circumstances instead of letting them own me, which in turn made me feel really, really good.
You might find that other coping mechanisms work better for you than these; if that's so, go forth and cope any way you want. Bottom line, life's too short to spend your time worrying instead of planning and enjoying all at the same time.
A shout out to my good friend, Madame X at My Open Wallet: Madame X is looking for money minded singles who want to mingle. If you're interested in checking out Madame X's free dating service, just go hither.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
I've been roaming the country for work over the past couple of weeks. This post comes to you from a fine Southern state, where I'm taking a class to renew a professional certification.
One thing that annoys me about business trips is that although my employer's expense policy is relatively generous as these things go, lunches are generally not comped unless there's a meeting involved. This annoys me because I just about always end up paying more for lunch out of pocket than I would at home, where I normally bring my lunch to work. Training this week gave me a frugal opportunity to get around this little problem, though.
The training center I'm at provides a surprisingly decent breakfast (which is good, because that's something I don't have to make my employer pay for) as well as a generous afternoon snack, with plenty of healthy offerings along with the usual cookies. Basically, there's food available all day. Between yesterday and today, I've discovered that between a rather large breakfast, 2:00 snack, and a mid-morning piece of fruit, I don't need lunch.
Yay! Less cost out of pocket!
I quietly paid attention to what other people were doing to see if anyone else was taking advantage of the opportunity to save a few bucks. To my surprise, both Monday and today my classmates shuffled off en masse at lunchtime to eat at nearby restaurants. My colleague (a guy with several kids and thus plenty of motivation to save money) tried to convince me both days to join him for lunch at our own expense at Chevy's or some other god-awful place.
I have to say, I don't really understand this. There's really good food available at the training center all day, and Chevy's pretty much blows. Why spend money to eat there instead of mackin' on the free stuff and then going for a stroll at lunchtime?
Is it really that abnormal to think like this?
Now, in the interest of full disclosure: it probably would have been cheaper to eat lunch with my colleague. Macy's is having a very good sale on women's suits at the moment, and I dropped $500 today on three Tahari classics I dug out from a very fugly general collection. I don't actually feel guilty about this: my vault into senior management brings more accountability and much more visibility with it, and I already feel that buying (and yes, wearing) a few suits a couple of months ago was a very good thing to do. One of my commenters at that time called it an investment in my career, and I can't argue with that.
Besides, Chevy's really is that bad.
Sunday, June 22, 2008
. . . read this.
I have no words.
ETA: Okay, I have words: apparently, you need an account on the site and must be logged in to read, so here is what the thread is about: At a poster's workplace, human resources called all the women (and only the women) into a special meeting to tell them that according to a new company policy, perky nipples are against the dress code.
Um - excuse me?
To make matters worse, the HR rep was so uncomfortable delivering the news that she referred to the perky nipple issue as "headlights." Female employees were asked to consult with a trusted colleague about whether their "headlights" were in violation of the new policy; if so, they were required to take preventive action (band-aids over the nipples, nursing pads, or extra layers of clothing.)
The HR rep made a point of calling the poster aside IN THE HALL later in the day to confront her on her particular perky (or perhaps particularly perky) nipple issue.
Mandating appropriate attire for the office is one thing, but the relative rigidity of nipples is out of anyone's control - and I say anyone because men are not immune from it. Shoot, given how cold my office usually is, I suspect it's a chronic condition all around. . . but I'm not aware of anyone going around taking notes about it, either.
Whether it's a legitimate dress code issue or not (and I cannot possibly see how it is), I can't even imagine having a conversation like this in the workplace.
I smell a lawsuit a-comin'.
Saturday, June 21, 2008
CNN had an interesting article online the other day about getting away from the "magic number" mentality for retirement. The author posited that people should think in terms of generating adequate retirement income instead of getting fixated on a number.
Well, that's all well and good. I already think in those terms to some extent. The conventional wisdom is that 4% is about a safe rate of withdrawl to sustain a retirement portfolio for 40 years, though. If that's the case, then knowing that my retirement withdrawl rate shouldn't exceed 4% goes right back to the concept of needing to know what lump sum figure is going to sustain that rate of withdrawl.
For what it's worth, my magic number is predicated on some very pessimistic assumptions. I don't think Social Security is going to be around by the time I retire, so I don't count it. I also don't count my traditional defined benefit plan (a.k.a. my pension), since it's possible that I might not stay with my employer until retirement. Even if I do, company pensions could be frozen across the board at any time, and that would mean losing a huge amount of potential income.
Another pessimistic assumption I make is that inflation is going to continue to erode my portfolio's value. I used a simple compound interest calculation for this: I plugged my annual cost of living expenses in as the principal, zeroed out annual addition (since I'm not really into lifestyle inflation), added 20 years as the years to grow, and plugged in 4% into interest rate to reflect annual inflation. The numbers are staggering: the expected cost of living at my current standard of living 20 years from now (when I'll be just shy of age 60) is more than double what it is today.
Don't believe me? Try it for yourself.
I also factored in the fact that my portfolio should continue to grow even while I'm in retirement, so it has to be large enough to allocate part of it to continuous growth. I think medical expenses are likely to be substantially more than they are today, since there's no realistic fix to the health care crisis in sight. Finally, retirement is supposed to be very, very fun; there's no point in retiring if it means sitting around and staring at the wall all day.
With all of these variables in play, I decided that while I could retire on about $2 million, I'd be significantly better off if my magic number is somewhere between $4 million and $5 million. $4 million would generate a post-retirement income of $160,000. In today's dollars and assuming about 4% inflation, that's equivalent to just over $80,000. That's a decent income, but if you factor in taxes, the cost of living in a place like Manhattan, and ongoing increases in medical costs, it's not that great.
The CNN article noted that some people might find dealing with lump sum planning self-defeating. I disagree; personally, I find it incredibly motivating.
That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.
What's your magic number for retirement?
Monday, June 16, 2008
A couple of days ago, a friend asked me to sponsor her next marathon effort by donating to a charity in honor of her run. I do a couple of these kinds of donations every year and the charity is one that I normally feel pretty good about, so I navigated my way over to the website my friend gave me and got ready to contribute a few bucks.
This, as it turns out, was an exercise in aggravation.
When I got to the site, I had to find my friend's page by doing a search on her name. There was a drop-down box with a list of events related to the charity, but it was too narrow to read all the text in each line. I guessed the event based on the city name, but I came up blank; instead, I had to remove this option and do a search on her name alone.
This annoyed me because it's sloppy HTML and very easy to fix.
Once I got to my friend's page and clicked the "Donate" button, I had to fill out a form with all of my contact details and credit card information. The address box had a character limit, so I couldn't type in my full billing address (which, by the way, is really not that long). I decided to type in the remainder in the second line, added my credit card number and expiration date, and clicked "Submit."
Instead of getting a confirmation page, I got the same page again, with a tiny little red error message telling me to put my address in the correct format.
So. . . the correct format is what exactly?
Beats me. The page sure didn't tell me.
I removed the second line, removed all the punctuation on the first line, and did some fancy abbreviations to get my billing address to fit inside a twenty-character limit. I then entered my credit card number for the second time (since it had been wiped out) and clicked the Submit button again.
This brings us to. . .
I got the submission page again. The address seems to have gone through, but I got a new error message: my credit card expiration date was incorrectly formatted. I typed in mmdd, and apparently it should have been mm/dd. I missed the forward slash.
Okay, that was my mistake and I do need to get my eyes checked. It was at this point, however, that I learned that the donation page counts errors one by one and stops each time it finds one, instead of counting them and presenting a cumulative list of needed corrections.
Again, sloppy code. Very easy to fix.
In the meantime, however, I fixed the credit card expiration date, re-entered the credit card number for the third time, and clicked the Submit button again. This brings us to. . .
Most charities, I have found, sell my contact information. To get around this, every time there's an empty field in a donation form, I type the helpful message DO NOT SELL MY CONTACT INFO. By and large, this keeps me off of most mailing lists. In this case, the empty field happened to be labeled In honor of/in memory of. Whom I have in mind when I donate money is my own business, so I had populated this field with DO NOT SELL MY CONTACT INFO.
There was a check box for In honor of and another check box for In memory of, and I hadn't checked either one despite entering data (DO NOT SELL MY CONTACT INFO) in this field. Not surprisingly, the validation code didn't like that too much. This time, the failure message told me to select one of the two options and resubmit. It wanted me to re-enter my credit card number again as well.
I was pretty fed up at not being able to give away $25 in four attempts, so I emptied the In honor of/In memory of field and instead navigated up to my telephone number (required) and email address (required). Based on one charity that I donated to once and which now phones me with impunity late at night and almost every weekend, I deleted my telephone number and replaced it with NO TEL SOLICITATIONS. I then went down to my email address, deleted my entry (which is a dummy account that I use as a spam collector anyway), and replaced it with DO NOT SELL MY CONTACT INFO. I then retyped my credit card details for the fifth time, clicked the Submit button again, and sat back, waiting for the validation to fail.
It did. This time, both errors got flagged at once: Daytime telephone number and email address are both required, and the formatting is extremely stringent. The credit card information is blanked out again as well. I can understand about the daytime telephone number, but no charity needs my email address, spam collector address or not.
I'm annoyed now. I'll probably go back and try to donate another time, but it's not going to be today.
Here's the best alternative energy news I've heard in a while: Honda is coming out with a zero-emission, hydrogen-powered car.
It's way too early to know whether this is the wave of the future (not to mention that there isn't really such a thing as a hydrogen station outside of a few select locations in California), but if we're ever going to break dependence on fossil fuels in general and foreign oil in particular, this sounds like a promising start.
Thursday, June 12, 2008
Yes, it's just a metaphor. What I mean to say is . . . I just got promoted to senior management.
I was up for promotion last year, too. I was one of two candidates for senior manager in my division, and the other guy in the running edged me out. (My management appealed the decision, to no avail.) Same thing happened when I applied for a higher-level job in another area recently: I beat out more than 20 candidates to get to the final round, and then someone else got the job. I knew I was up for promotion in my current role a couple of months ago, and it's been a long and somewhat nerve-wracking wait - all the more so because it's a major organization where smart and talented people are a dime a dozen. This place is competitive and occasionally cutthroat; wallflowers and special little snowflakes do not survive, unless you call being pushed to the sidelines survival.
How sweet it is now that it's over.
So, what does this mean? More money, for one: there's a formula for calculating grade-jump salary increases that factors in both promotion and overall grade. I scored the highest possible grade on my annual review (grading is done on a bell curve), so the payout should be close to the highest percentage given. Normally, that's 12% to 15%, but this year it might be a little lower due to poor economic conditions. That's okay; it's still a nice kick in the butt relative to the standard annual performance-based increase.
More money and no mortgage. I can live with that.
It also means better accomodations in terms of workspace. I had an office in our old building; when we moved to a smaller space, middle managers got bumped down to a cube, which was a very unpleasant transition. The bossman requested an office for me before he even gave me the good news.
Another benefit I've heard about is free long-term care insurance. I don't know if this is true or not, but I'll take it if it is.
There's no additional vacation beyond what I have now, but I get five weeks. That's a key reason why I've stayed here as long as I have.
I don't think my job is going to change that much with the new rank; people don't get promoted at my workplace unless they're already working way beyond their expected level of responsibility. Whether my day to day life changes or not, though, I'm thrilled because I've worked really hard for a long time to get to this place.
Having said that, I know I didn't get here alone. I'm both grateful and humbled to have friends and colleagues who believe in me enough to make this happen.
Sunday, June 8, 2008
Between the stock market dive and the oil spike on Friday, I'm feeling even less groovy about short term economic prospects than I was a couple of weeks ago. While recovering from the pestilence this weekend, I went through one of my favorite pencil and paper exercises that I like to call How low can you go?
It's pretty straightforward: the idea is to figure out what I could trim out of my current budget to get it down to straight up survival level. There are a few easy and immediate cuts that I could make today. These include:
Specifically, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and Sunset magazine. The New York Times would give the biggest bang for the buck, freeing up about $480 per year, versus $56 per year for the other two combined.
I don't give extravagant gifts to friends (nor do I expect them), and my family stopped gift giving at holidays a long time ago. I could probably get about $150 to $200 back per year on this one.
Eliminate sports activities
Between belonging to running organizations ($65/per year) and the gym ($720 per year), that's a pretty big potential cost savings.
Eliminate entertainment that isn't free
That's my catchall category for things like eating out, movies, museums, and any other kind of entertainment that costs money. It works out to probably about $1200 per year in total, although it's been less in the last few months.
Cut back on groceries
This one is tough: my groceries are already pretty frugal. Nevertheless, I could probably whack about $5/week off on an ongoing basis, for a total savings of $260.
Those were the easy items. It gets harder from here because I don't have a whole lot of other easy-to-cut discretionary expenses: I don't have cable TV, don't get my nails done or my hair colored, don't drink lattes unless I get them free from credit card rewards, I do my own housecleaning, laundry, and ironing, I take my breakfast and lunch to work every day, I read library books instead of buying them, I don't normally buy clothes or other household items unless I really, really need them, and I've already said no to discretionary out of town trips with friends way too many times in the past few years.
Not surprisingly, as I got to this point in playing How low can you go?, I came up with a bump against more than a few things that I'm just not willing to give up. These things include:
Seeing my mom is non-negotiable, especially since my dad is gone. My new schedule is quarterly instead of every eight weeks, but no matter how much it costs, I'm still going.
I've cut back not for budget reasons but because it's been interfering with my sleep. I only make it on the weekends since it's free at work, and I haul five pounds at a time back from Costco on the West Coast periodically for less than half of what equivalent-quality beans would cost in New York. Both from knowing the depths of my addiction and from vivid memories of my parents grimly trying to switch to tea in the stagflation of the '70's (and not succeeding), this is something about which I'm not willing to compromise.
Tipping the building staff is customary in New York, and that's factored into their salaries. The doormen (along with the super and porter) might not get raises this year, but I'm not going to stiff them.
Part of my high-speed internet cost gets comped by work, but by no means a majority of it. Being able to work remotely when I need to is an investment in my career; it would be a big setback to let that go.
Work pays for all work-related use, and I almost never use it for personal reasons. The five bucks a month I pay for personal use is worth the ability to be reachable in a family crisis. In addition, like internet use, it's an investment in my career.
If push came to shove, I'd have to come back and revisit all of those things, but I think things would need to be pretty desperate to reach that point.
How about you? What can you cut from your budget today if you had to, and what would you insist on keeping?
Saturday, June 7, 2008
The Hermes Birkin handbag is supposed to be the it bag of all time. It's sported by celebrities, celebrity wanna-bes, and people who just spend like celebrities. Walking around the streets of New York, it's a relatively common if not everyday sight. If ordinary people like me want to obtain this uber-bag, we would have to invest time and money in dressing up to go to the Hermes store, suck up to salespeople by spending a few thousand dollars on other crap, start building a relationship with said salespeople by taking them out to lunch or bringing in homemade treats, and then maybe - maybe! they'd be willing to give us the chance to drop $8000 or more on a single handbag.
Am I the only person that thinks this is the most impractical, butt-ugly handbag ever?
Today's snark is brought to you by a severe and ongoing viral infection, and I'm going back to bed now. You're welcome.
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
I was hoping to have some deep thoughts pulled together about life after mortgage payoff, but instead I am sick. Sick as in sneezing, coughing, sent-home-by-the-bossman sick. This has now expanded into sweating, chills, shaking, fever sick.
All of this would be more amusing (because who doesn't like a good sick day?) if I didn't have to get a ton of stuff done tomorrow and if I hadn't just been through the EXACT.SAME.THING. over Memorial Day weekend.
Blagh. At least I'm not spending money.
See you when I can sit up.
Sunday, June 1, 2008
June's mortgage payment was just credited to my account, and I've decided that it's time to pull the plug. By the time July 31 rolls around, I will own my home free and clear.
This wasn't an easy decision to make. I'm making one more regular accelerated payment in July and then one great big payment after that, so my cash reserves are going to take a hit in the short term. I'll still have five months of expenses in reserve after the big final payment, though. I'm also in a good place with my job right now: layoffs are always possible, but based on my annual review and how things seem to be otherwise playing out, I have reason to believe that I wouldn't be picked up in the early waves. My expenses are generally pretty steady since I don't drive, and my mom's in good health so I don't expect to have to leave unexpectedly to help her through a medical crisis. My dad is gone, so his severe illnesses are a thing of the past. As long as I don't make any radical changes in my lifestyle, my cash reserves will be built back up in three months or less after the final payoff.
So, there you have it: The years I've been hacking away at the biggest debt I could ever imagine gradually turned into months, and months are now just a matter of weeks. It's finally almost over.
I can't wait.