Monday, December 29, 2008

Weekend roundup: the running late edition

First up, welcome to new readers who found their way here from the Wall Street Journal. The more, the merrier; I hope you stick around.

While I was not packing for my return to New York (upgrade to first class! Yeah!), here's what happened in the Frugal Blog Network:

Kelly at Almost Frugal re-ran an earlier post on keeping your meals out from busting the budget.

Frugal Babe had an attack of the gimmes, but she's over it now.

The Frugal Duchess stops at nothing to save a buck, and her conditioner bottle shows it.

Dana at Not Made of Money gives you five tips for financial success in 2009.

Tight Fisted Miser is committing slash and burn on his budget.

The next post comes to you in 2009 from back in the Big Apple. I hope you make the coming year your best one yet. I plan to.

Read more...

Sunday, December 28, 2008

But I'm not ready for my mid-life crisis yet

2009 marks a special year in terms of my personal goal-setting. Within the greater context of a global economic crisis and widespread layoffs here at home that are expected to get much worse before they get better, in 2009 I'm turning forty.

Forty.

Forty!

I've always thought of forty as the year where I'd slip gracefully into middle age, where the vision of my future would be more or less assured. With 2008's massive decline in the value of my assets under my belt, however, I don't think anything is assured. I'm still targeting twenty years from now as my eventual retirement date, and that seems both incrediby far away and so close it's almost panic-inducing in terms of both making sure I stay on top of my game and gainfully employed so I can make retirement on my terms possible.

Turning forty also means changing focus in other areas. As an athlete, I've been facing double hip replacements for some time, so it's increasingly important to focus on mobility, flexibility, and longevity in sports instead of intensity. My cholesterol took a jump this past year too, most likely the result of a genetic quirk that runs in my family and usually makes itself known right around now. On the relationship front, my SO and I have tiptoed around thoughts of our future. We're in agreement so far that neither of us is in any hurry to remarry. In all honesty, as good as things have been for the past couple of years, I don't know if I'll ever want to get married again. I do know that I love my home and I'm not ready to make any changes to my domestic arrangements.

On top of all that, contrary to earlier expectations, I'm not ready to call myself middle aged!

2008 was a whole lot kinder to me than it was to many people. As hard times continue and most likely worsen in the year ahead, it's going to be more important than ever to do everything I can do to keep things on the right track. To that end, I wrote my short-term S.M.A.R.T. goals for the year to support my long-term goals of reasonably early retirement, financial stability, ongoing personal growth, developing and deepening relationships, and maintaining my health. How do these look to you?

Financial
Max out Roth 401(k)
I'll do this through ongoing payroll deductions into diversified investments throughout the year, and I'll try not to throw up when I look at the volatility in the short term.

Max out IRA
I'll do this through one to four investments totalling $5000 before the end of December. Ditto the throwing up part..

Save $65,000
Between my 401(k), IRA, and after-tax savings, I plan to sock away this amount in total over the course of the year. I'll do that by maxing out my 401(k) and IRA, and by dropping a predefined amount every month into a money market fund. I haven't decided when or how much of those after-tax savings I'll invest, but I'll assess my options, outlook, and investment priorities on a monthly basis.

Commit to keeping my monthly spending under $1500
$1500 is enough to accomodate regular spending on everything in my budget (including apartment maintenance fees and property tax), with a little extra for entertainment and gifts. I also left some wiggle room between my budget total and my savings goals to cover five or six flights to the West Coast to see my family.

Maintain elite status on my preferred airline
I'll do this by taking either four trips to the West Coast to see my family and one elsewhere, or five trips West.

Fitness
Run at least three half marathons
I'm already registered for two, and I should be able to pick up the third with no problem before the end of the year. I haven't had a concrete fitness target to work towards in a while, so let's see what this does for my motivation.

Increase my flexibility
I'll do this by taking a yoga class once a week throughout the year no matter what, and twice a week whenever possible.

Bring my cholesterol below 200
To my chagrin, I cracked 200 for the first time this year. I'm achieving this goal by reducing consumption of saturated fats (goodbye eggs and ice cream), exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and hopefully shedding a few extra pounds in the process. This is an ongoing goal, but I'll check in on a quarterly basis to measure my progress.

Personal development
Read more news and ideas
I don't always finish the New York Times and the New Yorker, my two favorite subscriptions. I think I can do better in this area by spending less time at home indulging in escapism on the internet and more time facing up to what's in the news on a day to day basis. This is an ongoing goal, but I'll check in on a quarterly basis to measure my progress.

Give more
I plan to spend more time helping people I know who need it (like my New York mom), more time volunteering in my community, and more money on donations to charitable causes. This is an ongoing goal, but I'll check in on a quarterly basis to measure my progress.

Professional development
Keep my job and continue building my career
I don't want to delve into jobworld too much on this blog, so let's just call this doing my best work every day, with the understanding that I have much more specific and concrete goals in real life.

Become a better public speaker
Public speaking is fast becoming an integral part of my job. Without going into more detail, let's just say that I've managed to wrangle a few opportunities to get more practice, and I plan to leverage them to the best of my ability.

Relationships
I have some goals here, but nothing I'm inclined to share. ;-)

If you're already forty and counting, what do you see missing? Readers of any age, how old are you now and what do your own goals for 2009 look like?

Read more...

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Everything's cheap if you have the cash

A friend of mine sent a link to an article about how negotiating for discounts is suddenly okay even at department stores and boutiques. If you've tried this during your holiday shopping, please leave a comment: I'd love to know how it went. If you'd never do this for any reason, I'd also like to know why.

In the meantime, the good people at the MSN Smart Spending blog gave me two holiday gifts in the form of an article highlighting my gift wars post, and a guest post spot for my article on Why you're not getting promoted (and what you can do about it). I couldn't ask for anything better.

We're still snowed in here in the Pacific Northwest. Stay safe out there in the winter storms, wherever you are (unless you're one of the nice readers in Oz who are currently enjoying a beautiful summer!).

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Weekend roundup: the snowed in edition

I'm buried under the worst snowstorm seen in the last twenty years, and it's actually quite pleasant to have a reason to just stay home and enjoy a little bit of vacation time doing jack diddly squat. While I've been lazing around on my butt, here's what the rest of the Frugal Blog Network has been up to:

Kelly at Almost Frugal has a timely article about discussing family finances with children.

Frugal Babe has a dilemma: she's committed to green living, but she also has bugs in the house.

The Frugal Duchess developed some rules of thumb for putting buy one, get one to the test.

Dana at Not Made of Money posted her 2009 personal finance resolutions.

Tight Fisted Miser is now car free and loving it.

Tomorrow I'm venturing out to the dentist, snow or. . . more snow. Wish me luck!

Read more...

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Making your goals S.M.A.R.T.

As I mentioned in a recent post, I did well on most of my financial goals for 2008 and fair to middling on everything else. When I set my 2008 goals, I made a half-assed swipe at making them S.M.A.R.T., but in all honesty I didn't do that great a job, and I think my overall lackluster success reflects that. That's a little ironic, because I'm actually quite a fan of the S.M.A.R.T. model and use it all the time at work; I just didn't do such a hot job of applying it to the rest of my life.

So, what's this S.M.A.R.T. business, anyway? It's an acronym for a system of goal-setting that is recognized in business and human resources as a highly efficient model for managing personal performance. Here's what the acronym represents:

S = Specific
In other words, you need to articulate what you're aiming to do. Making your goal as specific as possible helps you define what you want to do and focus your effort accordingly. Here's an example that relates to personal finance:

Non-specific goal: I'm going to save more money in 2009

A better way to articulate this goal and set a definite target is to consider what you want to do, why you want to do it, and how you intend to achieve it. Rewriting the non-specific goal to something more specific might give you something more like this:

Specific goal: I'm going to save $6,000 in 2009 to bolster up my emergency fund, and I'll do that by setting aside $250 from every bi-weekly paycheck in direct payroll deductions to my savings account.

See the difference?

Moving on.

M = Measurable
If you can't measure your goal, how do you know when or even if you succeeded? Making the goal measurable means setting interim milestones so you can track your progress. Look at the Specific goal I wrote once more: how am I measuring progress in this goal?

Specific goal: I'm going to save $6,000 in 2009 to bolster up my emergency fund, and I'll do that by setting aside $250 from every bi-weekly paycheck in direct payroll deductions to my savings account.

If you said that I'm measuring it by establishing checkpoints that occur with every paycheck, then that's a gold star for you! If I miss saving $250 at any of those checkpoints, then I either need to retool how I'm getting to my goal, or I run the risk of missing the goal altogether. As a result, the goal of saving $6,000 for the emergency fund through payroll deductions is both Specific and Measurable.

A = Attainable
Attainable simply means that it's possible. It doesn't mean that it has to be easy. Effective attainable goals are reachable, but the reach should cause you to have to expend some effort. In the case of the $6000 savings goal through payroll deductions, there's a built-in expectation that I have to adjust my spending by $250 per pay period in order to achieve the goal. This goal should be doable, but it should make me have to stretch a little to achieve it. This is where goal-setting can be tricky: if I don't have to stretch at all, it's not much of a goal. At the same time, if I have to stretch too hard, I'll lose my motivation and quit trying. By those criteria, my hypothetical example qualifies as Attainable.

If I've done my homework on goal-setting properly, all of my goals will be attainable but will require a little extra work over and above what I do in my day to day living to get there. The combination of these two factors will help me develop and sustain motivation over the course of the year.

R = Realistic
Realistic goals are goals that can be mapped to a plan. Taking a look at the Specific, Measurable, and Attainable goal I devised earlier, let's see how Realistic it is:

Specific, Measurable, Attainable goal: I'm going to save $6,000 in 2009 to bolster up my emergency fund, and I'll do that by setting aside $250 from every bi-weekly paycheck in direct payroll deductions to my savings account.

Where's the plan?

I've explicitly said that I'll do automatic payroll deductions. Implicitly, I've also acknowledged that I have to adjust my spending accordingly. (It might even be better to explicitly work budgeting into the goal; I think that depends on the person and whether he or she has a spending trigger finger that needs to get under control.)

And finally. . .

T = Time-constrained
When are you going to achieve this goal? It can be whenever you want, as long as you have a realistic and attainable deadline to work with. In the Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic example above, I set my deadline for the end of 2009. That qualifies it as Time-constrained, making it a S.M.A.R.T. goal.

Why does setting time boundaries matter? For you folks inclined towards procrastination, deadlines are important. Without a sense of urgency, even with the best of intentions and early motivation, it's much harder to maintain momentum towards achieving the goal over time.

In summary: S.M.A.R.T. goals are

Specific
Measurable
Attainable
Realistic
Time-constrained

I'm working on my 2009 goals now, and I'll have the ones I can share with you posted by the end of the year. My challenge to you right now is to come up with just one S.M.A.R.T. goal (doesn't have to be financial) that you plan to achieve in 2009.

Post it in the comments and show me what you've got: let's have fun with it.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Being nice pays off

I rolled in at my mom's place much later than planned Wednesday night/Thursday morning, but at least I got here. Looking at the East Coast airport situation, it's a darned lucky thing that I left when I did: 500 flights were cancelled in the tri-state area today alone. Egads.

Yesterday, my mom and I went out for lunch at a new Thai place not too far from where she lives. I usually hold her hand when she needs a little steadying, so we made our way slowly and hand in hand from the car to the restaurant door. When we got there, Mom felt steadier and dropped my hand. I held the door open for her, and then waited in the entrance to hold the door open behind me for a guy also coming into the restaurant. He said thanks, and I said you're welcome; nothing exciting about that interaction except for the fact that I hate getting the door shut in my face, so I generally make a point of not doing it to other people.

Mom and I had a nice lunch, and I fired up the Crackberry from time to time to deal with incoming work stuff. After we were done, I got up to pay.

It's already taken care of, the hostess said.

I was puzzled.

The man paid for your check already. He said he wanted to pay for your lunch, so it's all taken care of.

I didn't know who the heck she was talking about, so I asked her which man. The hostess obligingly described him, and I realized she was talking about the guy who came into the restaurant when I was holding the door open. Don't you know him? she asked.

No, I replied. Never seen him before in my life.

I explained why we didn't have to pay to my mom, and we left a generous tip instead. Neither of us had any idea why the guy paid for our lunch. Was it because I held the door open for the guy instead of letting it close in his face? Did he like it that my mom and I were having lunch out together on a weekday? We couldn't figure it out. All we could conclude was that for some reason, the guy decided that we there was something nice about us, so he wanted to do something nice for us in return.

Did you do something nice for someone today? Did someone do something nice for you? Let's hear it in the comments. In the meantime, I'll get the S.M.A.R.T. goal-setting post going this weekend.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Vacation

Despite the lousy weather on both ends of the country, I'm heading out to visit my mom for Christmas this evening. I'll be posting sporadically over the next couple of weeks; look for some thoughts on goal-setting in the next several days, and my definitive list of 2009 goals before the end of the year.

In the meantime, here's wishing all of you a happy, healthy, stress-free, and fiscally responsible holiday season.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

2008 wrapup: Here's how I did

Being the slightly anal retentive detail oriented person I am, every year I put together a spreadsheet of goals for the year. I track goals in several different categories: financial, relationship, fitness, general health, professional development, personal development (in other words, trying to be a better person), and home life. Some of these goals are too personal to share with y'all, but here's a rundown on how I did on the personal finance front:

Financial Goals
Goal: Pay off mortgage
Result: Achieved. Killed off that sucker at the end of July. YEAH!

Goal: Build up emergency fund to $22,000 to $24,000
Result: On track to achieve. Emergency fund is just over $23,000 at present. Unless something very bad and very expensive happens in the next two weeks, I'll hit $25,000 at the end of the year.

Goal: Max out IRA in January
Result: Achieved. Too bad the stock market went down the crapper after that.

Goal: Max out Roth 401(k)
Result: Achieved (for what it's worth given the current economic conditions).

Goal: Don't buy any new clothes (other than a dress for a scheduled black tie event) until mortgage is paid off unless something is urgently needed for work.
Result: FAIL. I get a pass on the work suits and shirts I bought, but I also picked up some shorts and tank tops on sale before the mortgage was fully paid off. I reasoned that I'd rather buy them at next to nothing at the time than pay more at a later date, and the ones I had were in pretty disgraceful condition. Nevertheless, a fail is a fail.

Goal: Hit $1M in total net worth including property by age 42.
Result: Not on track. I'm not 42 yet (still have a couple of years to go), but I think this is unlikely at best. A better way to frame goals is to focus on the things I can control. Judgment matters in investing, but I can't create realistic personal goals based on externalities like market performance.

Goal: Maintain elite status on my favorite airline.
Result: Achieved. It's a worthy goal in my eyes only because flying sucks so very much these days. Any little amenity I can scrape up to make it better is worthwhile.

Goal: Donate more to charity.
Result: Achieved. Tripled my total charity contribution relative to last year.

The good news is that in the financial category, I've met nearly all of my goals. Unfortunately, I have considerably less success in the other categories. Out of a total of 26 goals, I've succeeded or am on track to succeed by the end of the year on twelve (46%); I've outright failed ten (38%); and I have mixed success on four (16%). Hindsight being 20/20, I think I could do a better job at making my personal goals S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-constrained). I'll give that some thought and cover more about the S.M.A.R.T. concept of goal-setting in a future post.

How did you do on your goals this year?

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Fragged in the gift wars

Well, so much for neutralizing gift wars. My SO and I exchanged gifts this weekend because it's the only chance we'll have before the new year.

We talked about Christmas a while ago, and at that time we agreed on a preset spending limit of $50 to $100. He asked for a weekend subscription to the New York Times; I suggested that a modest piece of silver jewelry would be very greatly appreciated. Both are easily within the range we decided to work with. I ordered the subscription, which was actually below the range; as a result, I decided to buy a nice but by no means extravagant bottle of pinot noir to go with it.

My SO decided to do something slightly different.

His gift to me was a stunningly beautiful 18-inch string of pearls.

I almost had a heart attack.

He assured me that it's a freshwater pearl necklace, not salt water (freshwater pearls are less round and a little less lustrous than salt water pearls, so they are correspondigly less expensive), and that he got a great bargain on Black Friday and had an additional discount coupon on top of that. Although he went over the spending limit we set, he insists that he didn't go very much over it. Nevertheless, I kind of felt like a piker in comparison.

My gut reaction after gushing thank you and rushing off to admire it in the mirror was to run right out and try to upgrade my gift to him, but eventually I calmed down. Retaliating with a gift upgrade would throw me right into a full-on gift war with the last person with whom I should be gift-warring. I finally concluded that:

--He voluntarily went outside of the range we had set. Trying to match it after the fact would make him feel bad.
--He wasn't being passive aggressive. I am sure of that just by seeing the look on the guy's face when I opened his gift.
--In addition to the inexpensive gifts I got for him, I also bought gifts for his rugrats and brother. None of those was particularly expensive in its own right, but they do add up.

In short, I decided to relax, be a gracious and grateful gift recipient, and just enjoy the gift for what it is: a heartfelt show of emotion from a guy who always wants to do nice things.

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Weekend roundup: the giving edition

It's been quite a week. The food drive I organized came to an official end this weekend. Not only did we reach our fundraising goal, we blew way past it by a magnitude of over 25%. I can't describe how good it feels to know that despite hard times all around, so many people were willing to step up and help keep total strangers from going hungry during the holiday season.

On a slightly more melancholy note, this weekend also marked nine months since my dad died.

Here's the skinny (pun not really intended, but I'll take it) on what's been happeining this week in the Frugal Blog Network:

Kelly from Almost Frugal has a few wonderful guilty pleasures.

Frugal Babe and her family are frugal because they want to be.

The Frugal Duchess writes about a special gift selected with time, care, and thrift.

If you're on the prowl for new stuff this holiday season, Dana from Not Made of Money shows you how to score.

Tight Fisted Miser delves into the thorny topic of frugality and relationships.

Elsewhere on the internets, you might enjoy (or possibly be annoyed by) this article from the New York Times written by a woman who became what she terms an "accidental breadwinner."

Enjoy the rest of your weekend, and stop back Monday night for my pre-vacation, end-of-year financial wrapup for 2008.

Read more...

Friday, December 12, 2008

Why you're not getting promoted (and what you can do about it)

I lurk as an observer on a couple of different internet forums from time to time. The other night, a woman posted a note about having been passed over for promotion for the third or fourth time in as many years. Every time she reached out to her management to ask what she needed to do to get promoted, she was told that she was doing all the right things, and the only thing that was holding back her promotion was budget contstraint. Meanwhile, however, people all around her were getting promoted like clockwork! Needless to say, the poster was very upset.

By the time I saw the original post, someone had already responded. The responder said something along the lines of That's totally unfair! They're dumping on you! You should march right upstairs to the head honchos and demand to know what you need to do to attain that higher rank and make sure they see you write it down! They'll find out what's going on.

Sweet, fancy Moses!

I can count the number of times I've participated on this forum in the last five years on one hand, but this time I was compelled to respond. I wrote as gentle and non-threatening a post as I could muster to suggest that perhaps there was something in the original poster's performance or personality that was holding her back, and that instead of dealing with the situation head-on, perhaps the manager was simply (and wrongly) avoiding a very difficult conversation. The original poster responded that it was hard to internalize that feedback, but she thinks it might be correct.

There are many, many reasons that people fail to move up the career ladder according to their expectations, and a good many of them have to do with external forces like a bad boss or a toxic work environment. More often, however, if someone in this situation looks in the mirror, the root cause is looking right back out.

If your career isn't moving along the way you feel it should, take a look at this list. Do any of these characteristics reflect your life in the workplace?

You bring your boss problems, not solutions
Bad things happen and people need guidance. Managers are there to provide it, but how you approach them counts. If you outline a challenge you're facing and finish up with What should I do?, you've just dumped your problem in your boss's lap.

A better approach is to define the problem, think through possible solutions, and figure out which approach you think is best and why. Then, after you outline the challenge to your boss, follow it up with something like There are a few different options here, but I think X is best. Here's why. . .

With this approach, you've taken responsibility for doing all the background legwork instead of making your boss do it. That's the mark of a self-starter who doesn't need a lot of hand-holding.

You don't follow directions
If your manager asks you to do something (touch base with person A, copy person B on your response, let me see your email to Director C before you send it) and you don't do it, you're making it harder for your manager to trust your ability to follow through going forward.

If you do it a few times, you've got a pattern. If you do it more than a few times, you've got a performance problem.

You take on a task without understanding what you need to deliver
If you don't take the time to fully understand what your manager is looking for, you're pretty much guaranteeing that it'll be wrong and you'll have wasted a lot of time. It's perfectly fine to check your understanding by spending ten minutes walking through an outline of what you think your manager wants before you jump in and do the work. Similarly, midpoint checks to make sure you're still on track are okay.

What's NOT okay is. . .

You hand in unfinished work
Checking your understanding of a task doesn't mean that you can expect your manager to play proofreader. You're responsible for the quality of your work. If that means asking colleagues for proofreading or input on the content or substance, that's fine; just don't expect your boss to do it. Your boss is the person you want to impress with the end product. A good maxim to remember here is:

Know what finished work looks like, and deliver it only when it's finished.

You're not a team player
You and your functional group can squabble all you want within your unit, but when you face the rest of the organization, you need to be a united front. If you engage in blamestorming, throwing other people under the bus, pointing the finger or any other ways of avoiding responsibility for an adverse event, you look bad whether or not it was your fault.

The simple fact that you went to effort to detail why someone else is in the wrong demonstrates a poor use of time and energy in what is sometimes a crisis situation. You are far better off rallying the troops to cowboy up and fix the problem, figure out how to prevent it from happening again, and communicate the fix to management. If you do it right, you and your team might actually come off as heroes.

You undermine your boss
If you have a problem, your boss is the first go-to person. . . but what if your boss is the problem?

He or she is still your first go-to person. It can be tempting to go around him or her for sticky situations, but this is very, very counterproductive! If you and your manager have a problem in your relationship and you don't give your manager a chance to understand your perspective and fix whatever's broken, what do you think will happen?

The first question management will ask is whether you spoke to your boss. If you say no, that conversation's over.

Remember what I said above about taking your problems and dumping them in your boss's lap? That's exactly what you've done here, but this time you've dumped your problem in your boss's boss's lap.

Meanwhile, your boss will hear from management that you went to them with a complaint. Your boss will feel betrayed (and rightly so!), and your relationship will take heavy collateral damage. It's not worth it.

Have the hard conversation first. If you can't resolve the issue that way, then you can think about escalating.

Your social skills need work
Humor goes a long way towards defusing a tense situation. Being likeable also helps motivate other people to help you out when you need something. Colleagues don't have to be your friends (and you should never mistake them as such anyway), but being a nice person with a pleasant demeanor - which is NOT the same as a doormat - makes for better relationships all around, including the one with your manager.

You're not plugged in
By "not plugged in," I don't mean that you're not attached to your PC. I mean that you're not plugged into the rumor mill.

I'm not saying that you should be a gossip monger, because that's not an admirable trait. Taking ten minutes twice a day to gather around the coffee machine and chat is a great way to stay abreast not only of what your colleagues are working on, but also what the word on the street is with regards to new hires, reorgs, and layoffs. You'd be surprised at what you can learn, and you might do some relationship building while you're at it.

And if you're one of those folks who looks critically at people who gather around the coffee machine for a few minutes of chitchat? They're developing relationships and learning about things happening behind the scenes, and you're isolated at your desk where not many people know what you're working on and how well it's going.

Who do you think is likely to be more vulnerable in a layoff?

You focus on the being, not the becoming
Promotion conversations are interesting. A common opener is What do I need to do to get promoted to the next grade? Another personal favorite is I've been here X years and Colleague A has only been here Y years. She's already been promoted, so that means I should be promoted too.

To me, those discussion openers means that someone is more interested in the reward than in doing the homework to understand what it takes to get there. You're better off gaining an understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, and working with your manager to define stretch objectives that go beyond the expectations of someone in your job classification and grade. If you do all that and turn in consistent high performance, under normal circumstances advancement will come.

Those are just a few of the many behaviors out there that bring career progression to a grinding halt, but most people who do these things either don't realize it, or don't make the the connection between the behavior and the lack of career growth.

Do you see any of these behaviors in yourself? What other career-limiting moves have you seen?

Read more...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Getting away on the cheap

If you're planning a trip in the next few months, take a look at the following indispensable travel links:

Kayak.com is a flight aggregator that lets you find the cheapest ride in the sky. You book through the carrier, so you're eligible for air miles, which is just about the only perk you're going to get these days.

If you're not sure whether it makes sense to plonk down your money on a ticket right away or wait a little longer, then Farecast is for you. It uses probability calculcations to help you figure out if the ticket price is going to go up or down in the next seven days.

Enjoy the low gas prices while you can, and I hope you at least go somewhere warm.

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Monday, December 8, 2008

Gift wars

They come when you least expect it. One year, someone gives you a little birthday or Christmas gift that you weren't expecting. The next time a holiday rolls around, you feel obliged to reciprocate, only that person gave you something again. You might counter with a slightly nicer gift next time to make up for being behind in the gift exchange, but your well-meaning friend decided to upgrade his or her gift as well.

You have now entered a gift war.

I hate gift wars. They're expensive. They're stressful. They create clutter. Most of all, they're totally unnecessary. I have a couple of long-standing gift wars that stress the heck out of me: my New York parents don't have the money to be buying expensive presents, but they do anyway. Over the years, their gifts to me have escalated from a box of candy to last year, in which I had to talk my New York dad down from a twelve-bottle electric wine cellar from the late, great Sharper Image. (They settled on a one-bottle electric wine chiller, a set of Mikasa champagne glasses, a dried fruit, nut, and chocolate mix, and a battery-operated stuffed cat with a creepy meow.) Another set of friends have exercised a little more restraint over the years, but the bottle of wine and socks, candles, or candy arrive twice a year like clockwork.

And me? Heck, I'm not innocent. I've desperately tried to keep up with both sets of friends, especially with my New York parents. Last year, I gave my New York mom a very expensive silk scarf with a print of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting. My New York dad got a generous gift card to Williams and Sonoma. More than anything else, I want my New York mom to recover from her illness and recent surgery (with all its attendant complications), but I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I'm hoping her health situation will give us all an escape route away from the ongoing gift war.

If you're looking for your own way out of gift wars, I have some suggestions that have worked in other contexts:

Don't exchange gifts
This only works if everyone keeps up his or her end of the bargain, but with the economy in the dumper and so many people worried about jobs, you might find less resistance to this suggestion than you ordinarily would. My family agreed to stop exchanging gifts four or five years ago, and it has enormously reduced the stress around Christmas and birthdays. My sibling and I cheat by getting generous restaurant gift cards for my mom but she saves them until we can all go together, so it's more or less a wash.

Exchange your talents
I would love to receive the gift of a personal training session from one of the many certified trainers I know, a piece of artwork from one of several artists I see from time to time, or a meal cooked by a talented chef I run with. As for me, I'm very neat. I can organize your home for you, or maybe I can walk your dog or take your kid off your hands for an afternoon.

Set a monetary limit
This can be kind of fun: do your worst on ten bucks, and let's see who comes up with the most interesting present. Of course, this one lends itself to producing clutter in the form of joke or junk-type presents. I think a higher road to take here is to focus on something consumable that the recipient wouldn't ordinarily buy for himself or herself, like relatively decent wine, chocolates, fancy soap, or candles.

Donate to each others' favorite charities
A few years ago, a gent I was dating and I discovered that we had the same favorite charity, the New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. We each donated in the other's name and felt very good about it.

If you can't beat them. . .
Sometimes, you can't beat the gift wars for trying. My New York parents were greatly upset when I suggested not exchanging gifts one year, so I've resigned myself to trying (with less success each year) to keep it reasonable. My other friends have a funny idea of quid pro quo somehow, and I think there would be a similarly negative reaction if I suggested that we drop the gifts.

If there's no way around a gift exchange, then in these hard times why not give a gift that you know will be useful? My New York parents are getting a grocery store gift card this year. My other gift war friends already received a gift: I gave them drinking glasses a few years ago with pictures of their favorite animals on them, and they broke half by accident. I knew they wanted to replace them, so I beat them to it and gave them their Christmas gift in October.

Are you involved in any gift wars this year? If so, how do you handle them: fight, or go with the flow?

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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Weekend roundup: the good tidings edition

Good news abounds: my New York mom is stabilized and just moved out of ICU for the second time. Yeah!

The food drive I organized has one more week to run and as of Friday, we hit more than 100% of our goal. Double yeah!

In the spirit of good things happening, here's what went on in the Frugal Blog Network this week:

Kate from Almost Frugal is a voracious reader and movie lover, but she never pays for her entertainment. Find out how she does it.

Frugal Babe is ahead of the curve: she already has her 2009 financial goals mapped out.

The Frugal Duchess is also all about the free media, and she has her own ideas about getting fun stuff for free.

Dana at Not Made of Money shows you how to stuff stockings without emptying your bank account.

Tight Fisted Miser upped his credit score.

Hope you're enjoying a restful weekend with good tidings of your own.

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Friday, December 5, 2008

Why I hate shopping for women's professional clothes

Last week, I went out for brunch with some friends. On the way home, I passed Filene's Basement. I don't like shopping as a rule, but given that I switched from barely-meets-standards casual earlier in the year to very conservative suits and heels every day, I'm always on the lookout for a decent suit at a price I can swallow.

Hindsight being 20/20, Filene's Basement isn't really the place to go for something like that. It's a closeout store: clothes that don't leave the rack in department stores get a second chance at Filene's, and the prices really are rock bottom. That works for some types of clothing, but suits?

Err, no.

First up, I am a stickler for professional attire. I'm not picky about anything else I wear but when it comes to work, I stick to a narrow range. Here's what works for me:

Size
Anywhere from six to ten depending on the maker. Eight normally works. For skirt suits, a regular eight will do; being vertically challenged, pantsuits have to be in a petite size so they don't drag on the floor.

Color
Black.
Light grey.
Dark grey.
Neutrals in the beige-brown family.

In the spring, a pastel jacket with black pants or skirt is okay. Light, thin pinstripes are fine; unobtrusive jacket patterns are okay as long as the pants or skirt are a solid color. Red would be nice if I could find a red suit I liked. No navy (I don't want to buy navy shoes), no white or ivory (appalling on my pale skin), no pastels on both top and bottom (too girly; also a bad coffee accident waiting to happen), no patterns on both top and bottom other than light pinstripes, especially plaid; I don't want to look like a sterotype of a used car salesman. No jewel colors, no forest green, lime green, or purple; basically, nothing that wouldn't be appropriate for any and every formal business occasion.

All of the above need to work with short or long sleeved collared, tapered, slim-fitting shirts because that's the only kind I wear to work.

Without even getting into style, you can already see that finding a suit that fits all of that criteria and doesn't make me look like the back of a bus is challenging.

Getting back to Filene's Basement: If professional women's suits end up there, there's generally a reason. The colors and patterns I saw were actually quite nice, and there were plenty of choices in my size. The problem was with the style. These were a revolting horror. Here's some of what I saw:

Short, puffy sleeves
Ever see short, puffy sleeves on a man's suit? I haven't either. Why inflict it on women?

Plastic belts
I don't generally like belts on women's suits anyway, but I do own one that otherwise works well for me. I would not be caught dead wearing the cheap, nasty, shiny, plastic belts that come with women's suits in the first place, though, so you can bet that I'd only buy one of these types of suits if I already have a nice leather belt that I can swap in instead.

Not quite short-shorts, but. . .
I found a stunning jacket that was everything I wanted for an amazing price. Unfortunately, the matching pants were Bermuda shorts. This isn't Bermuda, and work wouldn't find it funny if I turned up in shorts of any kind.

3/4 length sleeves
This length is ridiculous. You'd never see this on a man either; why inflict it on women? What's the point of it, other than to make me spend money on 3/4 length shirt sleeves (equally ridiculous) so that my long sleeves don't go hanging out of the bottoms? The only way to make this style worse is to add great big cuffs on the end so I can look like Sarah Palin. Sadly, many suitmakers went for this option this year.

Glittery thread or sequins
Where do they think women work, Studio 54?

Bows and lace
Yup, that's what I want to be wearing when I'm the only woman in a room of ten men arguing. NOT.

Batman style
Possibly the worst one I've ever seen: The jacket was a cape that came down to the ribcage, with short, floppy sleeves and a single button fastener at the neck.

I realize that all of these styles landed at Filene's Basement for a reason: They didn't sell in the department stores because most women wouldn't be caught dead in this dreck.

What's the alternative? Spend thousands on retail suits plus tailoring? The only alternative that works for me is to catch sales (remarkably good ones at times) for current styles at the department store when I'm visiting my mom in the Pacific Northwest and plan on devoting half a day in hopes of finding just one suit that I can look at in the mirror without feeling like a ginormous idiot. If you have any other ideas, I'd love to hear them.

Just about everyone's got a fugly suit story. What's yours?

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Welcome to the recession

New Yorkers, you can now officially take advantage of the Gray's Papaya recession special.

I don't eat hot dogs myself, but I'm told by people who do that they are actually quite tasty. The owner also went all out for Obama during the presidential campaign, if that makes any difference.

Chaotic week. New York mom is back in the ICU. She was so morose and sure that she's at death's door yesterday that I called her daughter (Grifter) and told her to get her butt over to the hospital NOW - which, to her credit, she did. New York mom looked and felt much better today, thankfully. I don't care if things go three steps forward and then two steps back, as long as the net direction is forward.

Check back tomorrow Friday night (Sorry!) and I'll tell you why I HATE shopping for women's professional clothes.

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