Friday, February 27, 2009

Opening closed doors

While I've been out West in the town where I grew up, I spent some time farting around on the internet to see what's become of a few different people and places I used to know. On a whim, I googled the name of my best friend from junior high and high school. To my very great surprise, I found that she keeps a very non-anonymous blog about her life and family: within the first couple of posts, I knew without a doubt that this is the same person.

I was tempted to leave a comment using my real name to say hi, but I'm not sure I want to open that door. We were friends for years, but we fell out of contact close to ten years ago: one year, I didn't receive a Christmas card, and I've never heard from her since. Nothing specific happened to trigger the end of contact. (Well, I'm sure a visit I made to her sorority house in college didn't help: not being a sorority girl myself, I didn't realize that I shouldn't bring my noueveau-hippie self there in Birkenstocks and help myself to coffee when I woke up early. In any event, we still kept in touch for another twelve years after that debacle.)

Towards the end of our high school years, my friend was getting increasingly involved in her church, and I could start to feel some distance between us. Our college lives were very different: I went to a small, private liberal arts school with no Greek system and spent a lot of time abroad, both as a student and for a couple of years immediately after graduation. She went to a large state school, where she immersed herself in Greek life and married immediately after graduation. Following graduation, her marriage, her divorce and second marriage, and some family tragedy that happened not long after, she threw herself deeply into fundamentalism. That's all well and good; religion brings deep meaning and inspiration to a great many people, and that's a valuable thing.

I'm just not one of those people.

To make a long story short, I think my being a heathen (I prefer the term rational humanist) is largely responsible for my former friend cutting off contact. I could be wrong about this; maybe just too many years went by in which we weren't a part of each other's lives. Anyway, I don't have any hard feelings about it. Although I'll probably keep reading her blog just out of general interest, I'm inclined to respect her privacy.

The only thing is. . .

She's in debt.

Big, fat, hairy debt.

The debt is the bad kind, credit cards (only one, but it's totally maxed out). There may be other stuff; I can't tell. I do know from reading her blog that she has been a stay at home mom for eleven years and her husband has no upward mobility or stability in his career, which is closely linked to the tanking real estate industry. She feels that the situation is desperate, but it doesn't look like it's been desperate enough yet to force any major changes what appears to be a very loving but very consumption-oriented lifestyle. She started the Dave Ramsey program recently, but it doesn't look like she's aware of the robust PF blogging community and all the neat ideas and money-saving tips that are out there.

So. . . do I out myself as her former friend and try to point her towards some smart people here on the internets who might be able to help?

Do I try to help her find smart people who can help but do it anonymously?

Or do I just keep my big fat mouth shut and silently wish her well?

I'm leaning towards option 3, keeping my big fat mouth shut and silently wishing her well. Sometimes closed doors are better left closed.

What say you all?

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Brave new world?

I'm visiting the Pacific Northwest at the moment, a place where the air is clear, the skies are rainy, and the television is frequently on. I don't have TV at home so I'm admittedly well behind the curve, but I'm astounded by how TV advertising has changed in a few short months. Ads are still screaming Buy! Buy! Buy!, but the spin is much more freqently centered around saving a buck than I ever remember seeing. One ad for cheese noted that a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup costs less than a dollar, which makes it easier to feed children. Another ad for a car proclaimed that if any new car buyer lost his or her job in 2009, the dealership would take the car back, no questions asked. There were others with the same general message (buy our stuff and save), but those are the advertisements that I remember.

I remember writing a while ago that I thought that any behavioral change by consumers was likely to be temporary and immediately forgotten as soon as times get better. I still think that scenario is more likely than not, because I don't think lasting change comes until the pain of change hurts less than the pain of staying the same.

With no realistic prospect of times getting better anytime soon, have you made any changes in your lifestyle that you think will be permanent?

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Friday, February 20, 2009

Faceoff

I don't have a Facebook account. I'm not on MySpace or Twitter, either. My internet presence consists of personal email, a LinkedIn account, a couple of online vendor relationships (banking, bill payment, and retail), and this blog. I've heard that social networking sites, Facebook in particular, are a great way to keep in touch with close to distant family and friends, as well as a way to reconnect with people from the past, Some of the things people have copied out and sent over to me are pretty funny, too.

My reluctance to wade any farther into the world of online networking is primarily the time suck factor: I have little enough time to keep on up blogs, including my own. I can't imagine trying to keep up with Facebook and the bazillion connections that seem to come out of it.

Even if time suck wasn't an issue, the privacy aspect of social networking bothers me. My LinkedIn account contains my work and education history, but nothing about my personal life, interests, aspirations, or anything like that. The fact that LinkedIn stores my professional history bothers me a little, but the career-oriented networking aspect of LinkedIn outweighs the concerns I have about what the parent company might be doing with my data. I don't feel as blase with more socially-oriented sites, though: I've heard too many stories about employers making job offer decisions based on Facebook or MySpace profile data. In addition, a kerfluffle that happened at work played out in Facebook as well, where one party in a work dispute defriended two much more senior work colleagues with whom she was having problems. At least one of those colleagues immediately broadcast that plus details of the dispute both all over the office and all over Facebook.

This week, Facebook found itself in hot water after announcing that it claims ownership of all photos and written data that people post to its site. It reversed course quickly after a public outcry, but while reading up on the issue, I came across a blog in which a Facebook user found that completely deleting his Facebook account (as opposed to deactivating it, which leaves most data intact) is nearly impossible..

So, what does all that have to do with this blog, which is mostly about personal finance?

Once you release private information about yourself into the wild, it can affect your job or college admission prospects. By default, that makes it something to take into account when you think about your overall personal finance picture. It's true that some employers use Facebook as a job recruiting tool, but the same employers will also use it to screen out undesirable candidates. Private information in the public domain can impact your existing work relationships, as happened in my workplace: if one party in the dispute hadn't defriended two others, the two others might not have decided to air the other party's dirty laundry.

Outside of the workplace, if creditors aren't mining Facebook and MySpace already, I think it's safe to assume that it's not far off. That has the potential to affect your ability to get a mortgage, credit card, or loan. In the meantime, posting too much personal information is a gold mine for identity thieves.

Lest I sound too much like a doomsayer, I think that if Facebooking away is your thing, personal finance considerations shouldn't stop you. I think it can be a fun and in some ways worthwhile and valuable experience. . . as long as you remember that once you put something on the internet, it's almost impossibe to take it back.

Social networking: tell me about your experiences. Do you have any other cautionary advice, or are my suggestions overblown already?

Side note: I'm heading out West for some family stuff, so updates will be even more sporadic than usual next week.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

f.z. versus the shoplifter

Okay. . . I'm still dealing with ongoing fatigue, weakness, and respiratory junk, but I'm getting better every day. Yay me.

Last weekend, when I was first up and around after two weeks of sickness, I decided that since I wasn't up for running yet, I'd go for a walk and see how that felt. I walked about a mile with the idea of wandering through a few stores at the end of the walk and then taking the subway back home.

The walk was uneventful, and it was sunny although cold. Walking through the stores at the end of the walk was a little disappointing: I wasn't looking to spend money anyway, but based on the prices I didn't think the stores were trying hard enough to pry cash out of my hands. The quality was even more disappointing: shirts as thin and about as durable as tissue paper, pants that looked nice but were so badly sewn that stitches were already coming loose, and other things that just didn't look attractive at all.

While I was in the store closest to the subway station towards home (let's call it Big Chain Fashion Store), I saw a woman who didn't look as if she was quite all there. She was acting very oddly and I immediately thought she might be a pickpocket, so I clamped my arm over my bag and moved away to look at a sweater or something. When I looked up, she was unfolding a large, blue plastic bag. We made eye contact.

I knew she was shoplifting.

She knew I was debating what to do.

She held eye contact with me while she swept a pile of black sweaters into her bag, quickly following it up with a pile of white sweaters.

I looked for the security guard.

There wasn't a security guard. I then realized that I hadn't seen security guards in any of the few stores I had been in; presumably, they'd all been laid off.

After two vile weeks of illness, I was too weak to defend myself if the shoplifter went after me, and she looked like she was thinking about it.

But. . . I don't agree with shoplifting.

I decided that based on the woman's threatening glare, standing my ground and yelling for the store staff might not be the safest thing to do. Instead, I walked as quickly as I could manage (which was actually a slow shuffle) over to the checkout line, where I interrupted a transaction to tell the clerk that someone was stealing a lot of stuff.

You gotta be kidding me! she said, right as the anti-theft detector went off.

Anyone want to guess what happened next?

Nothing. The clerk carried right on with her transaction and then started helping the next customer. Meanwhile, since the sweaters that got stolen were around $60 a pop (ridiculously overpriced if you ask me) and the thief cleared the entire supply, about a thousand dollars of merchandise walked out the door. Since that didn't seem to matter to the employees, though, I don't know if I'd bother trying to intervene in a theft again.

In any case, I thought there was a reasonable chance that the shoplifter had gone into the subway, and I figured that if she saw me there, she would go after me. I walked home instead and conked out for the rest of the day, totally exhausted.

With the economy as bad as it is and with staff levels in stores dropping, have you seen shoplifting happening anywhere? If so, what was being stolen? Did you do anything about it? If you haven't seen it, what would you do if you did?

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Monday, February 16, 2009

I am what you eat

I made it back to work today. Came in just shy of a full day and then came home and slept for three hours. I'm working at home tomorrow and Friday, which seems like a good compromise while I'm still on the mend.

Three people at work told me I'm wasting away. Um, thanks? But yes, my suit pants were dragging on the floor. Very classy and most fetching, I'm sure.

Health and weight have been on my mind in the last couple of weeks for obvious reasons. As revolting as it was, tonight I couldn't tear myself away from a website linked from time.com. The site, bluntly titled This is why you're fat, shows graphic photos of food: seven pound breakfast burritos, turducken (a duck inside a chicken inside a turkey) wrapped in bacon, an ice cream sundae served in a real kitchen sink, and more.

Overconsumption and consumption of the wrong kinds of food are huge problems in this country. I make better food choices than some and I'm physically active, but I've drowned my sorrows in a full pint of full-fat ice cream more than I care to admit. Flu aside, I'm working really hard to do better: by the time I get a checkup this summer, I hope to find that my cholesterol is back down below 200 based on gradually losing weight and reducing my stress level. I also swore off processed sugar, and except for two bad days when we had a layoff at work, I've stuck to it. The difference is huge: I don't have the massive blood sugar swings that I normally have when I'm eating too much sugar, and if last time around is any indication, my normal PMS symptoms are gone.

That brings me to a question I want to pose to readers: spiraling health care spending and lack of medical insurance are two of the many problems crippling the US economy. Many, many health problems in the US are directly related to weight and food choices. Would it be fair to impost a punitive tax on junk food and restaurant entrees containing more than a designated number of calories and grams of saturated fat? I seesaw on this issue myself: I don't like excessive government regulation in people's private lives, but at the same time health care spending is a very real problem that affects every single one of us.

If you come out on the side of thinking that a punitive tax goes too far, what alternative suggestions do you have for addressing health issues related to food choice?

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Still alive (and weakly kicking)

I'm finally pulling out of a week of flu relapse that was worse than the original flu. The disease sheets and duvet are all in the washing machine with soap and hot water, and I managed to clean my apartment well enough yesterday (with frequent breaks) that at least I can pretend it's not contaminated with flu germs anymore. The fever has finally burned out, so I'm going back to work for at least half a day tomorrow: in a horrible economy, being out and essentially asleep for two weeks aside from a few conference calls is a little unnerving.

Being totally incapacitated with illness is the only time that living alone is pretty much the pits, but I banned everyone from coming over because I was still contagious. My SO showed up unexpectedly on Friday night with some flowers for Valentine's Day, and now he's fighting something off.

I don't need to lose any more weight. In fact (and this is probably the only time you'll ever see a comment like this here), I'm pretty gaunt and could stand to gain a couple of pounds.

Nevertheless, being sick isn't frugal: chicken and rice soup in cans costs $2.89 a pop, so at one can of soup, lots of pop, and a couple of bananas a day, my grocery bill was actually higher than usual. I make homemade soup from time to time and freeze it, but I didn't have any this time when I really needed it. Meanwhile, a dreadful amount of fruit and vegetables went off and had to be thrown out because I couldn't eat anything else.

This wasn't the worst dose of the flu I've ever had. That one resulted in breaking out in terrible full-body hives in the middle of the night and staggering out to the all-night drug-store for Benadryl, where I promptly passed out at the cash register. This one, however, was the second worst.

I missed a lot of what's going on in the world this past week, but I'm doing a little catching up today and will get regular posts going again in the next day or two. Thanks to all the readers and subscribers who hung in there while I was out.

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Monday, February 9, 2009

Holy cow

The weekend away was great. . . just what we needed.

Unfortunately, I had a major sickness relapse when I went back to the office today. I'm down for the count until I feel better. Have a great frugal week in the meantime.

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Thursday, February 5, 2009

Whatever works, I guess

The New York Times published an article today about an interesting way to lose weight: bet cash on the outcome.

Apparently, it's more than just a trend: the article notes that recent studies support the premise that betting on diets will get the pounds moving when nothing else seems to work.

Is it really about the money, or is it about the competititive urge that kicks in when something of value is at stake? Does betting money make more of a difference than betting something else, like the loser mowing the winner's lawn in a dress, or the loser washing the winner's car every weekend for a month? The article also noted that sabotaging competitors is often a key part of dieting bets, and to me that's more about winning and perhaps not so much about the money.

For what it's worth, I've dropped fifteen pounds in the last seven months. (I'm two pounds away from goal.) Here's what's working for me:

--Kicking up workouts: 4 pounds
--Adding calorie reduction: 2 pounds
--Intense, prolonged work stress: 5 pounds
--Swearing off processed sugar (27 days and counting): 1 pound
--This week's disease: 3 pounds

That's kind of tongue in cheek, but I'm quite happy to be fitting into my (vanity-sized) size 4 jeans again. Taking the weight off slowly for the most part has been maddening but I think it's more sustainable in the long run than crash dieting, especially since I've reached an age where my body wants to fight me for every pound. I don't think I'll bet anyone on the last two, though. My body has shown reluctance to cooperate very quickly, so I'd rather hang onto my cash.

Betting to lose weight: what do you think?

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Good intentions and all that

So much for the weekend away. . . it's not looking very likely. I am sick. The black-tie event I went dress-shopping for was on Saturday night (and it was great!), but the body count of people who went to the event and then came down with the same pestilence I have on the same day is up to thirteen. That's just among the people I know; there are probably more.

My biggest accomplishment over the past two days has been sitting up. I think my SO and I are going to have to just spend a quiet weekend together here, assuming he can bear to listen to my snorking for a couple of days. We won't be spending money, but I can't say I'm glad that it worked out this way.

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Monday, February 2, 2009

Investing in your relationship

My SO and I have both been working a tremendous amount lately. That, together with separate family obligations, has impacted the amount of time we can spend together. To give you an idea of how much it's impacted our time together, we've been trying to take a weekend away since October, but there hasn't been a single weekend that was workable for both of us.

All of these factors together have contributed to a strain on the relationship and fueled a number of fights. We had a big blowout this past week, and finally we decided that we need to take some time (yes, and money, too) to invest in the relationship. We looked at the calendar and each cancelled a couple of things on deck for next weekend so we can take a two-day trip out of town. We're staying at a pretty nice inn and I'd really rather not spend the money right now, but I think it's important to forge ahead so we can get things back on track. He's already in a better mood, and that alone is worth the expense.

In these tight economic times, how are you investing in your relationships?

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