Thursday, October 30, 2008

Leadership

I just spent a few very hectic days at a leadership conference. It was draining and at times a little too rah-rah, but it comes at a good time since leadership is a topic that's been on my mind quite a lot recently. I have a leadership role at work and have also had the opportunity to be a leader in a number of different capacities in my favorite community organization (and I've made plenty of mistakes in both arenas). I've also worked and/or volunteered with leaders who range from the gifted to ones that fall more or less under the category of if you can't be a good example, you'll just have to be a horrible warning. I think it's possible to learn from all of them, even if it's learning about how not to succeed.

There are a great many qualities and skills (which are not the same thing) that contribute to making a person a talented leader. It's hard to pick out the most important, but there are a few that particularly resonate with me:

1. Ability to inspire
A good leader respects his or her people and motivates them to think on a grand scale. Anyone can dream big, though; a good leader also gives his or her people the tools to draw up a battle plan and put it into action. He or she doesn't demand excellence as much as help find people a spark within that makes them both want to excel and willing to learn how. Part of inspiring others also means showing grace under fire while remaining open, warm, compassionate, and very, very human.

2. Willingness to share
Good leaders don't lay down the law from above and expect people to follow it. On the contrary, a good leader encourages people to speak up, listens to their ideas, and engages them in collaborative problem-solving. Giving people the chance to share in creating a solution motivates them to take ownership of, responsibility for, and pride in their work. Sharing also means sharing the credit: a good leader gives his or her people the opportunity to shine by recognizing and publicizing their contributions.

3. Willingness to protect
Despite all efforts to the contrary, sometimes things go south. When something gets focaccaed up through simple human error, a good leader swoops in to protect his or her people, even if it means taking a few dings for the team. A good leader doesn't punish his or her people for mistakes, but instead uses them as opportunities to learn and improve. A leader who is willing to protect his or her people and help them learn from mistakes inspires trust and loyalty through actions, at the same time recognizing that trust and loyalty are never given but rather earned over and over again, each and every day.

4. Ability to take calculated risks
Doing the same thing over and over the same way leads to stagnation. A good leader welcomes change, but he or she doesn't do it haphazardly. On the contrary, a good leader encourages new ideas, listens to them with an open mind, and implements them by working to maximize the likelihood of success and minimize the probability of adverse outcomes.

5. Humility
Every lousy leader I've ever known has an outsize, overblown ego. Every truly outstanding leader I've ever known is a humble person who knows that he or she owes success to a multitude of other people. These other people include trusted advisors who saw potential and helped the leader grow; team members who contributed to the entire team's achievements; and even rotten, horrible leaders who demonstrated every day all of the many things a good leader shouldn't do. A good leader knows that he or she is fallible: instead of sweeping his or her own mistakes under the rug, a good leader gives other people the opportunity to understand and learn from them. A good leader also welcomes and accepts constructive criticism from all sides, including people on the ground. Overall, a good leader remains open to understanding and improving his or her own faults, and he or she never stops wanting to become a better leader, a better listener, a better strategist, and a better friend.

I could keep going, but I'd rather hear from you. What makes a good leader in your eyes? I'd also like to hear about some of the best and worst leaders you've ever known and what made them so good or bad.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

When is a ring more than just bling?

I promised NeimanMarxist some time ago that I'd write about engagement rings, but I've had trouble thinking up a way to frame the discussion. An article in the New York Times this week took care of that issue for me.

You can read the full article for yourself, but when I read through it, I put the paper down with a general feeling of disgust. As a short synopsis, a man and his parents were squabbling about which of two family engagement rings the man should use to propose to his girlfriend, with the parents feeling that he should take the smaller one instead of the "showy" 2.5 carat number that once belonged to the man's grandmother. The man insisted that his grandfather promised him the 2.5 carat job, and his girlfriend weighed in with a weepy fit in which she declared that she wanted the big diamond, not the small one, on the grounds that it would feel strange to know that there were two diamonds and that the family preferred that she have the small one.

When the man finally got around to proposing, his girlfriend's first reaction was not to say Yes or I love you. According to the article, she responded with This is the big ... ?

Wow. So many things about that story bother me. First, it was clear that the man's father felt that if anyone should have the monster ring, it was the daughter of the original owner, the man's mother. I think the father was right. The author stated that his grandfather had told him as a young man that the large ring was the one that he wanted the author to have in his hand when he proposes to his future wife. Nevertheless, the less selfish course of action would have been for the author to leave the ring with his mother, with the understanding that it would pass to his future wife in his mother's will.

Second, the girlfriend/future wife was fixated on getting the large ring instead of the smaller one because she felt the ring the man's parents preferred her to have reflected a less than outstanding opinion of her. If she insisted on having the bigger stone anyway when it was clear that the man's parents didn't want to let it go, then they were probably justified in their opinion. Did she somehow think that yanking away a much more valuable family engagement ring than they were ready to relinquish would make her fiance's parents suddenly approve of her? If anything, they probably think less of her now than they did before.

All in all, I think the man should have just plonked down the money to buy his girlfriend her own damn ring. If having a big diamond was the issue, as it appeared to have been, it seems that he and his girlfriend could have paid for it themselves and avoided all the attendant drama.

Of course, paying for a big diamond on their own would mean that the happy couple would have had to adjust either their finances or their expectations accordingly. That's not nearly as much fun as getting a free five-figure bauble, though, is it?

And yet. . . wouldn't it have made a much stronger statement about their committment if they had paid for it themselves?

All of that was a long-winded way of saying that while the tradition of diamond engagement rings dates back for centuries (perhaps as far as the Middle Ages for the wealthy), the symbolic value of eternal union seems to have taken a back seat to the bling factor. The DeBeers Corporation has done everything possible to encourage that trend, establishing two months' salary as the appropriate benchmark for what an engagement ring should cost.

Two months' salary for a ring.

For most people most of the time, that's insane.

There are other problems with the diamond trade, and I wrote about them once a long time ago. I won't repeat what I covered in that article, but suffice it to say that although I have a diamond enagement ring as the only souvenier of a short-lived and pretty crappy marriage, that's not a decision I'd make the second time around.

Buying an engagement ring is a matter of personal choice, but I think any couple considering taking the plunge would do well to think about their motivations and values before dropping a wad of cash or creating family histronics about heirlooms. If the presence or absence of either:

a.) a diamond, or
b.) a diamond of a certain size

makes a difference to how either partner feels about the prospect of marriage, does that give you a feeling of confidence that the marriage is about to start off on solid ground?

I'd take that as a big fat no, but that's just me.

Tell me about engagment rings in your world. What do they mean, and why? Would not having one change your feeling about marriage in general or about your marriage in particular?

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Weekend roundup: the leaving for a business trip edition

I have to be out the door in fifty minutes, so without further ado, here's what happened in the Frugal Blog Network this week:

I'm a pet lover myself even though I don't have any, so I was happy to see that Kelly at Almost Frugal wrote with tips for being a frugal pet owner.

I'm also all about the food, so I was interested to see how the very, very green Frugal Babe balances being green, frugal, and healthy.

Seeing kids learn is fun. To that end, the Frugal Duchess was pleased to see her daughter catch on to the buy some, get one free trap.

People have really tightened their wallets in response to the economy, but Not Made of Money notes that October is the time for certain seasonal buys that make it well worth spending the money if the specials include something you really need.

Finally, this week Tight Fisted Miser both fixed the IE6 problems that kept his site from rendering properly for me (Thank you! Thank you!), and also reviewed the Frugal Duchess's book.

I have a plane to catch, so that's all she wrote. I'll try to check in from Florida with some upcoming thoughts about engagement rings.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Homebody

I like being at home.

The whole time I carried my $200,000 mortgage, I rationalized spending at least one evening at home most weekends because I figured that if I was paying that much to own the place, the least I could do was spend some time in it. This little 577 square foot one-bedroom isn't perfect by a long shot, but it's uncluttered and very comfortable. When I'm here, I don't feel like I'm missing out on something better going on elsewhere.

Home is supposed to be a haven, and that's what mine is to me. As long as I can be here, it doesn't even bother me that I'm working on a Saturday night.

What's your home like?

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What changes do you see?

My work-life balance has tipped heavily over into the work side, so this is going to be a quick one. I've read all over the internets that people are rapidly changing their saving and spending behavior in response to the economic shock. I'm not sure if I'm looking in all the wrong places or what, but I don't really see much in the way of change so far. The Starbucks near my house is packed every time I walk by, and the local grocery stores are as busy as ever. I see people with shopping bags from high-end stores on the street every day, and it doesn't look like restaurants are any less busy on the weekends.

There is one significant difference between now and six months ago: the number of really desperate people on the street has increased enormously. It's sad and upsetting, because although most of the people I've seen don't look like they came to that condition overnight, I don't remember seeing it this bad since my first year or two in the city, fifteen years ago.

What part of the country are you in, and do you see any major changes in people's economic behavior over the past few months?

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Real thoughts about fakes

I had an interesting conversation with a twelve-year-old yesterday. Like more kids than not (I suspect), she is very brand conscious. As we passed the guys selling fake bags on the street in Manhattan, she flagged a Coach lookalike as an obvious fake because the C's looked like G's. This twelve-year-old (I'll call her Betty) told me that obviously fake-looking bags are, like, so uncool because everyone knows they're fake.

I couldn't help myself.

But what about fakes that look like the real thing but are a lot cheaper? I asked. Are those okay?

Betty considered this for a moment. She decided that no, it isn't okay to buy and use fakes that look like the real thing. I pressed her to explain why, and she said that even though Coach makes a lot of money and their bags are way too expensive, copying their bags is wrong because it's kind of like stealing.

DING DING DING DING DING!!!!

I wanted to hug her for giving the right answer, but that would have been, like, so uncool and it would have made her look like a major loser. Instead, I just agreed that yes, copying other people's ideas and selling them as your own is as bad in life as it is in school.

Betty asked if people can go to jail for copying handbags. I said that they can, because copying handbags (or other things) is called violating intellectual property rights. I then told her about the big bust in Chinatown earlier in the year where a bunch of people had their stores shut down and were arrested for selling fake Coaches, Chanels, and more. Betty said that shutting them down was the right thing to do, and that people shouldn't support breaking the law by buying fakes.

It was a really heartwarming moment, except for one thing: Did Betty give me the answer that she believes, or did she just figure out what the slow-moving (and short) grownup wanted to hear and respond accordingly? I don't know the kid well enough to be sure.

I am the first one to admit that I make merciless fun of luxury goods at times, but at the same time, I don't condone copying them because whether she really believes it or not, Betty's right: it is a form of stealing.

However. . . I have also copied friends' CD's from time to time. I know that's ethically wrong, but I don't feel bad about it. I also don't have a real reason for not feeling bad about it: I simply don't. Does that make me as morally bankrupt as a guy flogging fake Coach bags in midtown? Alternatively, is it more okay (as opposed to less okay or completely wrong) since I only copied them for my own use and wouldn't have bought them if I hadn't had the opportunity to make copies? Is it more okay if someone does it without my asking and then surprises me with the discs because he or she thinks my taste in music is lame?

Intellectual property rights issues include not only copied music and copied handbags, but also plagiarism, photocopying books or other written work, unauthorized use of a registered brand or trademark, cybersquatting, and more. Where do you draw the line in your daily life about what's okay and what's out of bounds?

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Weekend roundup: the work followed me home edition

It's Saturday night in one of the most vibrant and exciting things in the world, and I'm busy working for the man. It sounds like I'm complaining, but not really. It doesn't happen as often as it could, I'm getting a jump on what's going to be a very hectic week, and I'm not spending any money!

Since the excitement is almost too much to bear, I'm taking a break long enough to put together the weekly Frugal Blog Network roundup. Here's what's been afoot this past week:

Almost Frugal does so many frugal things it's hard to keep track, but Kelly does that for you by listing them out. You'll probably find ideas you can use; I know I did.

Frugal Babe made a trip to a hip new health food store only to find that health didn't really seem to be all that high on the agenda at the new establishment.

The Frugal Duchess found some outstanding tips from the Consumer Credit Counseling service for surviving the economic crapstorm, and she shares them with you.

Anyone who knows me in real life can tell you that I am all about the food. Not Made of Money weighed in this week with some ideas for fun, frugal sandwiches.

Tight Fisted Miser has grand ambitions for retiring at fifty, but he spent some time this week wondering if he could pull the plug now and still get by.

That's all the hedonistic fury coming out of the Big Apple tonight, folks. Back to work.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Not sure what this is exactly, but. . .

I stumbled upon a website called spendster.org that features confessional videos from people who wasted a lot of money on crap. There's even a way for you to submit your own video! Before you do, however, I'd suggest you give some thought as to whether you really want a video of yourself describing behavior that you're not particularly proud of posted on the internets, especially since it'll be on a site where you don't know the owner's motivation and don't have the power to take it down.

The website looks like it's not quite a finished product, but the concept is interesting in a watching-a-train-wreck kind of way. I'll probably check back once in a while to see if they do anything really relevant with it.

Oh, and a special note for the woman in the spending by number video: gifted is not a verb!

Now, who has a spending confession he or she feels compelled to share?

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Let's talk about someone else's life for a change

A reader named Emma found this blog a while ago, and it sounded like she had an interesting story to tell. She used to be a latte-slugging recreational shopper, but the convergence of a variety of factors led her and her husband to rethink their spending and make some changes in their lives. I asked Emma if she would be willing to let me interview her, and she agreed. Here's her story:

You have made some major changes in your life by giving up Starbucks, lunches out, pedicures, and recreational shopping to embrace frugal living. What triggered the change?

This change was triggered for several reasons. First, the economy in my area began to deteriorate in early 2008. My workplace began to assist local unemployment agencies and re-careering programs to provide services to displaced workers. I began to realize just how lucky I really was. Second, frugality became popular and 'cool' again with the media, and I really took note. I would imagine this was due to rising gas and grocery prices and the housing crisis. I read online news several times a day and began to develop a real interest in 'trimming the fat' and scaling down. I think the biggest reason, however, was that I needed to grow up and be more responsible. I was being very selfish and immature with all this extra spending. I was not doing the right thing for myself and my husband. The more I scaled back, the more grateful I became. I felt more grounded and much happier. Shopping is no longer a hobby or a way to pass the time. I stay out of the mall and only buy something if I know I need it and have shopped around. I go home on lunch most days and drink office coffee. I buy store brands. As a result, there is extra in the bank each month. We no longer use charge cards.

Do you think your upbringing had anything to do with either your former way of life or your new one? Why or why not?

Yes, I think my upbringing affected me. My family was always frugal (no fancy potato chips, for example. I still feel giddy when I bring home a bag of cheddar-and-sour-cream Lay's or fancy cookies). We were careful with the A/C and ate lots of leftovers. Shopping for school clothes was a celebration. As an adult, I understand how careful my mother had to be to take care of her kids on a tight income. This has made the two of us much closer.

You have a husband and no children so far. How willingly has your husband embraced your new way of life? Are there any areas where you and he are not yet on the same page?

My husband is delighted. We are, I think, the happiest we have ever been.

What do your friends and extended family think of the change in your lifestyle?

My family is thrilled that I have finally 'seen the light.' I am now trying to convert my work friends to my new lifestyle. I send them articles and talk about my little 'journey' relentlessly. They soak it up!

You mentioned having debt. What kind of debt is it, and what does your repayment plan look like?

We have both student loans and some credit card debt. We are putting a significant portion of each month's income toward paying off our debt. We are making real headway.

What are your short term and longer term financial goals?

Short-term, we want to pay off the credit cards and open an IRA together. Long-term, we want to buy a house and pay off our student loans.

What do you like best and least about your new lifestyle?

I like the simplicity. I drink my office coffee, go home for lunch, and check out books from the library. I give myself pedicures. I play around in my closet to come up with new combinations, instead of going to the mall because I am bored with my clothes. I no longer visit Starbucks in the morning and wait in line, which makes me late for work, go out to a lunch that ends up being disgusting and fattening, buy a book at the bookstore and then a new top at the mall… my purchases are carefully thought out. I know that I am in control of my finances and my life and am working toward something meaningful.

What advice would you give someone who is contemplating scaling back his or her own lifestyle?

Mmmm, I don't know! :-) I'm such a newbie!


Newbie or not, Emma's made an enormous transition in a short amount of time, and it sounds like she wouldn't change a thing. What do you have to say about her decision to change? If you have any follow-up questions for Emma, I'll try to get some answers for you.

Feel free to share your own story in the comments, too.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Weekend roundup: the running late edition

I got knocked flat by the latest pestilence going around, so I'm running late with the weekly Frugal Blog Network roundup. In the past week, here's what happened around the network:

--Almost Frugal wrote a great post about understanding why she shops.
--Frugal Babe writes about how giving is receiving.
--Frugal Duchess shared some tips from the Consumer Credit Counseling Services about surviving the new new economy.
--Not Made of Money considers birthday gifts that won't break the bank.
--Tight Fisted Miser shares his bankruptcy story.

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What do you tell the kids right now?

The New York times had an interesting article this weekend about how the worsening economy is causing parents to enforce budget cutbacks on their kids, some for the first time ever. The article noted that the conversations that many parents are having with their kids are difficult ones, with reactions ranging from surprise to panic that the family might suddenly be destitute. A large part of the fear that many kids are experiencing apparently stems from not understanding how family finances work. Many teens have never held a job and thus haven't experienced tax withholding or filing tax returns. Some teens interviewed in the article have both debit and credit cards, but don’t really understand how either one works. Others, despite high brand awareness, simply have no idea how much things cost relative to income. According to the article, however, some kids are responding to the economic downturn by turning away from brand labels, suddenly finding them too showy and ostentatious. Others are sitting down with their families to set overall family spending priorities, or pitching in to do chores that were previously done by household help.

My impression is that the kids who will make the easiest transition to a weaker economy are the ones who are a.) old enough to understand what an economic downturn means for household income, and b.) brought into the household budgeting process by their parents as stakeholders in their families’ economic choices. I wonder, though, about the impact on their sense of security and stability. Will making kids partners in their families’ budgets cause them to experience otherwise avoidable angst and a reduced sense of security? If so, does the negative impact outweigh the positive experience of learning to budget and prioritize?

I think it’s well worth bringing kids into the family finances discussion along as it comes with extra reassurances from Mom and Dad that everything will work out okay, but I’m not a parent. Parents, do you agree? Are there situations where you would absolutely conceal financial reality from your children? Why or why not?

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Thursday, October 9, 2008

What does your aftershock look like?

Five years of growth: Gone.

I've written a bunch of posts about changes individuals can make to salvage their financial health until things get better, but for many people the impact is more widespread than just their own finances. What happens when you need to step in and shore up people in your extended family?

I'm thinking specifically of situations like:

--Suddenly, retired or soon to be retired parents can't make ends meet
--Kids are in college or headed for college and suddenly the college fund is dwindling
--Sibling has lost a job and is in danger of losing his or her house

Those situations are best avoided in advance through careful planning, but for many people the avoidance either wasn't done thoroughly (or at all), or didn't work as expected. Also, sometimes the economic hits are large enough that even the best of mitigation plans isn't enough. For those people and especially their likely rescuers, reality is starting to look rather harsh right now.

Is anyone facing a situation like this? What's your game plan for handling it?

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Riding out the storm

The good people at Geezeo asked me to do a guest post on the financial crisis. If you're not already crisised out by now, you can find it hither.

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Affluenza and the new economy

With the national economy in free fall, many Americans have been jolted into facing an ugly reality about their spending. Despite the widespread availability of tax-advantaged savings vehicles like Roth IRAs and 401(k)s, statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis show that on the whole, we're not taking advantage of them. According to the BEA's statistics, the national savings rate ticked upwards to just under three percent in the second quarter of 2008, but that's almost the only time it's cracked one percent since 2005.

It's no wonder we're running scared now.

More people are struggling to get by than ever, and that's certainly a significant factor in the paucity of our national savings. More than that, however, I think we're just spending too damn much on stuff we don't need but think we have to have in order to be happy. There's even a name for for the conditions of debt, overconsumption, and anxiety all rolled up into one: it's called affluenza.

I think there are multiple contributing factors to overconsumption. They include having overconsumers as role models while growing up, never having learned how to budget, compensating for a lack of self-confidence, a disintegrating sense of community, excessive exposure to media advertising, and more. Even more disconcertingly, I think there's an unfortunate synergy between affluenza and its triggers: triggers lead to affluenza, but affluenza strengthens the impact of the triggers, leading to less self-worth and more keeping up with the Joneses over time.

There's a greater cost to affluenza than the hits it takes on bank accounts and sense of self-worth. Sustaining affluenza means spending more and more to acquire the latest and greatest of everything, which usually means more and more work to keep up with the spending as much as possible. There comes a point where the earn and spend cycle takes its toll both on physical health and emotional well-being. It also puts ever-greater strain on family life and natural resources. Finally, affluenza has has a warping effect on relationships and perspective. I think it was Judith Schor in The Overspent American who said that in the 1950's, people measured their material successes by comparing what they had to what their neighbors had. In a modern society with less of an overall sense of community and place in the neighborhood, people turn to television as their reference group.

Does watching Sex and the City reruns foster affluenza? Apparently, it does.

There are ways to lessen the impact of affluenza. Ones that work for me include:

Assessing my values
What's really important to me? When I spend money, is my spending in harmony with my values?

Shopping mindfully
Is what I'm buying a need or a want? If it's a want, will it contribute to my happiness in proportion to the resources I'm expending to get it?

Considering opportunity cost
What do I have to give up in order to buy what I want? Do those alternative choices accord more or less with my values than the choice I'm making now?

What's influencing my decision?
If there's something I want to buy, where did I learn about it? What sort of image associations do I have with this product, and where did they come from?

There's no defined process that works for everyone, but consuming mindfully generally leads to more responsible, better thought out choices than responding to affluenza.

In times of economic stress, that's a pretty empowering way to respond.

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Monday, October 6, 2008

Wall Street staggers

The DJIA ended the day below 10,000. At its lowest point in trading, it hovered around 9.500.

One mo' time: Does anyone still want to privatize Social Security?

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Saturday, October 4, 2008

Weekend roundup and the fulfillment curve

First up, a belated welcome to Frugal Duchess, the most recent member of the Frugal Blog Network. This week, Frugal Duchess has an outstanding post about how the current financial crisis impacts our decision-making, and as you might guess, it's not for the better.

With Halloween right around the corner, Almost Frugal has some great ideas about making frugal Halloween costumes. Meanwhile, Not Made of Money is thinking about the entire holiday season and how to minimize stress and maximize savings all the way through.

This week, Frugal Babe also shows that strollers aren't just for babies anymore. Tight Fisted Miser notes that living in a small town can keep your cost of living down. Living in Manhattan where just about any other place is the US is cheaper to live than here, I know he's right about that.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, Trent at The Simple Dollar has a fantastic post up about the fulfillment curve. Escape Brooklyn's husband just landed a job that will give them more money and get them out of Brooklyn, so head on over there and show her some love.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend. I plan to.

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

The bad old days?

MSN Money Central posted an article on their Smart Spending blog that draws from thoughts on coping with the financial crisis from a number of PF bloggers, including yers truly. It's been viewed nearly 20,000 times so far and quite a few readers found their way from there to here between yesterday and today. It's also sparked a lively debate in the comments section. Check it out if you have a chance; you might decide to dive into the fray.

In the meantime, a palpable sense of gloom and despair seems to be settling over the country right now. This seems like a good time to take a step back and think about the good things that are happening. Here's a challenge: can you think of ten things that are going well in your life right now? Take a couple of minutes and drop them in the comments if you can; it's cheaper than therapy and healthier than alcohol. Here are my ten:

1. I'm in the groove at work: I not only have a job, I have a job that I really, really like.
2. I got a promotion, which came with a nice bump in title, office, and pay.
3. I just got to spend a week with my family and a bunch of sea lions on the coast.
4. My mom is healthy.
5. Six months after my dad's death, we are all finally getting to a better place.
6. My SO is patient and does not give up easily.
7. I'm working at home on Friday.
8. I just got called up for jury duty, but I'm off the hook because I served less than six months ago.
9. It's autumn in New York, and the trees are only days away from exploding with color.
10. My friend's birthday is on Saturday, so there will be a dinner party.

My happiness tends to come not so much from big, flamboyant, life-changing events than little things in everyday life. During shaky times, I find that focusing more attention on the things that bring joy in little pops like that really helps.

Can't wait to read what other people have to say.

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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Up close and personal

In a break from economic news. . .

If you've been reading here for a while, you might have seen that I like to poke fun at the Hermes Birkin. I smile to myself every time I spot one on the street because not only does it cost upwards of $9000 or thereabouts, it's quite possibly the fugliest handbag I've ever seen.

While flying back from the West Coast last weekend, I got upgraded to first class. Shortly after getting settled, I ended up swapping my aisle seat for a window seat so another passenger and his wife could sit together. As I got ready to relocate, I hitched up my sweat pants and collected book, backpack, handbag, and pre-flight drink. My hand tremors were acting up and I had a lot to balance anyway, so my club soda started wobbling as I approached my new seat. The passenger in the aisle seat next to me saw me shuffling in her direction and her eyes widened. (I didn't think I looked that bad, but what do I know?)

As I neared, my new neighbor suddenly snatched the drink out of my hand, carefully set it on the armrest drinkholder, and clutched her lipstick-red handbag to her chest like a baby. As I squeezed by her and resettled in my new seat, I noticed that the red bag was actually a red leather Birkin with gold accents. I probably smirked outright because I realized that my neighbor had grabbed my club soda away because she was terrified that I was going to spill it on her expensive bag.

Seeing a Birkin from less than twelve inches away did not improve my opinion of it.

I didn't want to make the woman uncomfortable by staring at her bag, but I did glance at her out of the corner of my eye from time to time because I was interested in her behavior. As boarding continued and people waddled through the aisle loaded down with coats, backpacks, and roller bags, my neighbor not only continued hugging her bag to her chest, she also bent over it to protect it from being bumped by any of the boarding passengers. It really did look like she was guarding a newborn baby except for the rather bizarre part that the "baby" was fire-engine red and had handles.

After boarding was complete, instead of putting the bag under the seat ahead of her prior to takeoff, my neighbor put it on the floor and clamped it behind her calves. During the flight, the Birkin resided between her calves except during the five visits I made to the restroom. (I wasn't trying to torment her, by the way. Five trips on a cross country flight is pretty normal for me.) On those occasions, she did the chest-clutch routine again.

My neighbor and I talked for a while during the flight and she was really a very nice lady. Having said that, the lengths she went to in order to protect her expensive handbag made her look ridiculous. She appeared to be going through great stress, all over a very unattractive and floopy bag.

If that's what luxury goods do to people's ability to relax in comfortable surroundings, doesn't that suck away the enjoyment?

I kind of think it would.

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