Tuesday, March 31, 2009

2009 goals: quarterly checkpoint

We've hit the end of the first quarter of calendar year 2009, and that means it's time to revisit 2009 goals and check my progress.

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.

Q1 result: On track.

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

Q1 result: Complete. I caught the second half of the recent rally and dumped the entire $5000 into my IRA at once. Tsk, tsk, tsk on me for attempting to time the market.

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.

Q1 result: On track. Total long-term savings in 2009 so far = $16,000.

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.

Q1 result: Not succeeding. I'm consistently running about $100 to $150 or more above goal. I'll track this one for another three months and possibly revise at mid-year.

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.

Q1 result: On track. One trip down, one coming up, and one more booked for San Francisco in the fall.

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.

Q1 result: On track. I missed the second half that I was registered for thanks to the flu, but I ran a decent first half marathon. I'm scheduled to run one in San Francisco in the fall, and I'll probably pick up another one locally before then.

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.

Q1 result: Mostly on track: The flu flattened me for two weeks and I didn't do squat for yoga while I was out of town in February, but I've been consistent otherwise. Improvement in flexibility is only incremental (and the increments are small), so I might need to squeeze out more time for another couple of classes or home practice every week.

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.

Q1 result: On track. The unofficial, non-fasting results from an on-site health fair at work pegged my blood pressure at 100/70 and my cholesterol at 144.

****I decided to break out the goal above into three additional goals, since this one covers a lot of ground in just one sentence.***

NEW GOAL: Get off of refined sugar
On January 09, after a massive chocolate binge that followed a layoff at work, I gave up sugar in the form of sweets and as an additive in more than trace amounts. (Naturally occuring sugar - like fruit - and alcohol are still on the menu. Honey, agave, and artificial sweeteners are not.)

Q1 result: On track. If I make it through today, that totals 81 days sugar-free to date.

NEW GOAL: 7 hours of sleep per night during the week
After I had the flu, I started getting more vigilant about getting enough sleep. Lights out is 10:15 during the week.

Q1 result: Mostly on track. I've had a few late nights during the week, but very few relative to the quarter as a whole.

NEW GOAL: Achieve and maintain goal weight
Losing weight at my age is suddenly both difficult and agonizingly slow. Despite a great deal of effort, I lost a grand total of two pounds between my last physical in June and January. Intense stress triggered another five-pound drop, and then I lost a whole lot more (too much, in fact) while I had the flu. I regained a few pounds after I recovered, and my weight stabilized at at one pound above goal, possibly the most irritating thing it could do.

Q1 result: Mostly on track. Overall, I'm sixteen pounds lighter than I was last June and it feels really, really good.

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.

Q1 result: Mixed. I switched to reading the New York Times online during the week because the paper started arriving after I left for work. After six weeks and numerous complaints, I finally cancelled the subscription except for Saturday and Sunday. To my chagrin, I've found that I have less focus when reading the paper online. On a more positive note, I'm reading the New Yorker during my commute, so I'm having much greater success in getting it read consistently.

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.

Q1 result: Mostly on track. I've done several charitable donations this year so far, and I've continued helping my New York mom. I'm short on the volunteering front, though.

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.

Q1 result: No details, but this one is on track.

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.

Q1 result: No details, but this one is on track.

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

Q1 result: No details, but mostly on track.

Overall, I'm satisfied with my progress, but this is a good reminder that I haven't followed through on stringently limiting personal spending or on making and honoring volunteer committments. I'm going to try to do better in those two areas over the next three months.

How are you doing on your 2009 goals?


Sunday, March 29, 2009

What do you say or do?

Despite the horrific volume of layoffs so far in the US, very few of my friends and acquaintances have lost their jobs so far. For the ones who have, I've thrown some freelance work opportuntities over the fence because I figure both that they need the income more than I do, and that I'd better spend my time concentrating on making sure I keep my primary source of income anyway.

I haven't faced any truly difficult conversations related to being out of work so far, but I'm sure they're coming. What do you say? What can you do to help?

The New York Times published an article last week on how people can help friends and acquaintances hit by the waves of layoffs. Some suggestions included becoming a customer of fledgling businesses, inviting friends over for a home-cooked meal, volunteering to babysit, and maybe making a monetary loan or gift.

Have you done any of these things to help people in your life who are struggling? What other ideas do you have so people can be ready to help? If you're out of work and friends have lent a hand, what's been the most valuable help you're received?


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Questions from readers and a big thank you

A couple of interesting questions from readers have turned up in the comments over the past few days. Who wants to help answer them?

From Banking Deals:
My company allow me to buy my parent's health insurance with me. can i include that amount into my itemize deduction? even though my dad file his own tax return; my dad is not a dependent on my tax return

There's a lot of information missing, but I would guess that this is based on the US tax system. I am not an accountant and would hope that no one is foolish enough to take anything I say as genuine advice. That said, I absolutely don't know the answer to this one. Any takers?

From goldsmith:
What's the story with NY co-op boards, and why do they have so much of a say in selling, buying or even letting apartments?

Co-ops in New York City consist of individuals who have formed a legal entity with ownership of residential building. In co-ops, instead of a deed of ownership, each member holds a proprietary lease, which consists of shares of the corporation that are allocated to living space. A co-op board is simply the board of directors elected to govern the building.

The lease-based structure of a residential co-op building provides the co-op board with power not only in buying, selling, and leasing, but also in enforcing compliance with building rules and policies. Because shareholders own leases rather than actual property, the elected governing board has the right to interview prospective new members and vote them in or not based on both financial strength and fit within the building's community. (Discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, sexual orientation, and probably several other attributes is illegal.) In cases of hazardous living situations (like extreme squalor) or pervasive non-compliance with building rules, the co-op board can take the shareholder to court in an effort to force an eviction.

There are pros and cons to this type of living. A buyer in a co-operative needs to be prepared to give up some personal freedoms (like really loud music and bare floors) in order to gain acceptance. Some people find those requirements restrictive and opt to buy condominiums instead. On the other hand, the generally rigorous screening process for cooperative membership is good in situations like the current recession. Back in 2001 when I first bought, my mortgage provider was happy to offer me a half million dollar mortgage on which I wouldn't have been able to make the payments. In contrast, my building requirements were much more stringent: the minimum down payment to buy in was 20% of the apartment purchase price and I had to prove that I had at least that amount saved in matching funds, with my 401(k) only counting for half of it.

Even though I technically met the requirements and did well in my board interview, there were other interested buyers whose financial position was stronger, so I came close to failing. As a result, my parents helped me out a bit so I wouldn't lose the apartment. Am I proud of that? Heck no, but my parents really wanted to help and it didn't create hardship for them. Without their help, I never would have been able to buy my home.

The end result of such stringent financial oversight of co-op real estate purchases is that significantly fewer cooperative apartments in New York have gone into foreclosure relative to the rest of the country. That, to me, is a key benefit of co-ops.

Other thoughts or experiences?

Moving on to another topic:

Today the subscriber count for my blog crossed the 500 threshold. I never envisioned the number getting that high when I started, and I want to take a moment to thank everyone who subscribes or just pops in to read every once in a while. Knowing that people really do take an interest and find some of what I have to say relevant is both thrilling and very, very humbling. I've enjoyed the ride so far and I hope you have as well.

Here's hoping you stick around for a while longer.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Candy, candy, candy, I can't let you go

One of the aftereffects I remember the most following 9/11 was the rapid and noticeable change in small but telling behaviors that varied from person to person. One guy I knew who hadn't smoked in six months immediately went back to a pack a day. Some social drinkers suddenly began drinking more heavily and more often.

Me? After having cut back from twelve cups of coffee per day down to four, I went right back to twelve. I also started indulging my ever-present sugar jones much more often, at least for a while.

As I mentioned elsewhere, I went cold turkey on sweets and most refined sugar in general a while ago (today is day 74). It's an ongoing struggle: the low-level cravings are constant, and the PMS cravings are truly horrific. I eat very little processed food, but I've gotten dependent on one big serving of pretzels a day because the salt helps alleviate the sugar cravings. I'm less concerned about the increased salt than I am about refined sugar because whereas refined sugar destabilizes my blood glucose level and causes it to unpleasantly whipsaw all over the place, extra salt is far less troublesome because my blood pressure is low and I'm very active.

Given that sugar is always at the back of my mind these days, I was interested to see this article from the New York Times about anecdotal evidence that the recession has triggered a collective sugar binge in the US. Profits for candy manufacturers on the whole are way, way up, and that's not a new phenomenon: apparently, the same thing happened during the Great Depression as well.

According to the article, there are a few possible causes for this positive correlation. One is biological: when everything else is going to hell in a handbasket, candy causes an immediate (if temporary) mood lift as soon as the sugar hits the bloodstream. Another is the association with childhood, innocence, and a time when we didn't have to worry about money, jobs, stocks, or going broke. This second theory is bolstered by the fact that today's best-selling candy includes nostalgia brands, like Necco wafers and Bit O' Honey (sorry, I think this one is nasty) that boomers and X-ers remember from elementary school.

I have another theory that wasn't fully fleshed out in the article: I've noticed that downmarket brands like M&M Mars are producing "premium" editions of some candies that cost more than their cheap cousins but not enough to really strain a tight budget. I think the market for these so-called premium editions resides in the fact that as people used to a higher standard of living cut back in other areas, one way of alleviating the stress and feeling of deprivation is to spend a little money on something that's comforting and not too expensive, yet retains a cachet of exclusivity - even if the exclusivity is really only pretend.

I'm not using candy or any other sweets to cope with my personal stress demons this time around, but I know I'm substituting one crutch habit with a couple of others, namely salt and increased coffee consumption (which crept up from four cups a day to five in recent weeks). How about you: in coping with your financial worries, have any old habits come back to roost?

Enjoy the marginally related videos. The '80's were not nearly as dorky as they look here.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Telling it like it is

The charming and gracious Living Almost Large published an interview with me today. For more inside information about me than you ever wanted to know, just hop over hither.

Thank you, LAL! I really had fun doing this.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Vigilance pays off

When I log into my PC in the morning, I do two things straight off the bat:

1. I check my bank account

2. I check my credit card account***

As it turns out, that's a good habit. I gave a weekend subscription to the New York Times as a gift during the holidays, and at that time I specified that the subscription was to be for three months, no renewal. When I checked my credit card account this morning, I found that I had been dinged $82.80 for an automatic renewal.

I called up the New York Times to complain, and it turned out that the account had no record of a stop date. The representative argued with me at length that I was responsible for paying for the next three-month installation, and I argued right back that the Times's failure to set up the subscription properly isn't my responsibility. The representative eventually gave in, credited the account for the days between expiration and renewal, and switched the account over to the gift recipient (and I gave the recipient a heads-up to let him know that he needed to call the Times to work out payment if he wants to keep the subscription).

The New York Times refused to credit my credit card for the balance since my name is no longer on the aubscription, so the refund will be in the form of a check. I didn't come away from the conversation with a good feeling about the follow-through, so if I don't have a check in hand within two weeks I'll call my credit card company and report the charge as fraudulent.

I think that's reasonable. Don't you?

That's a fairly benign example of unauthorized credit card charges because it stems from someone fouling up the account settings at the time I ordered the gift subscription, but I think it's a phenomenon that's becoming increasingly common as the economy remains in the dumper. The only real protections credit card users have from nickel-and-dime type fraud are to check their balances every day (or close to it) and challenge anomalies as soon as they come up. For additional protection, it's also important to check banking activity every day (or close to it) as well. I don't know about the rest of the world but in the US, account holders don't even need to be online to do this: I don't know of any US financial institutions in this day and age that don't offer the same service by phone.

How often do you check your bank and credit card activity? Have you found anything questionable as a result?

***Disclaimer: I know that there are people who are completely averse to using credit cards for anything, ever, and that's fine. Consumer credit isn't for everyone. I use credit cards for everything I possibly can because I don't have a problem with overspending on credit, I've never, ever carried a balance or had a late payment, and because I get a nice little 1% cash back at the end of the year. To each his own, and viva la difference.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Looking back

I've written before about how my parents grew up during the Great Depression, and how it influenced the way they viewed spending money throughout their lives. Although I thought their attitudes about money were a little nuts at the time, I absorbed quite a lot of good tips and techniques about responsible money management without really realizing it. Throughout my broke-ass grad school years, just about everything I learned from watching how my parents managed their money helped me get by. To this day, I still keep up many of the habits I started practicing in earnest at that time, and I really credit those habits with helping me keep the ship upright during both this recession and the internet bust before it.

Tell me about the money management techniques you learned from your parents growing up. What's the one financial lesson that's helped you the most during this recession? What's one financial concept you didn't learn from your parents but wish you had?

I'm a little short on post ideas this week, folks. If you've got any burning topics you'd like to see here, I'd be much obliged if you'd send them in.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Health is wealth

While trawling the interwebs a couple of days ago, I checked in on a couple of blogs I haven't looked at in a while. That's when I read that Grace from Graceful Retirement went in for a follow-up on a stress test and found herself booked for a triple bypass. She's already had the surgery; I hope she bounces back as quickly as possible.

Health is something that I'm mindful of anyway given that I have a couple of minor but permanent conditions to manage (asthma and thyroid disease, plus hints that I may have inherited a cholesterol abnormality), as well as some unpleasant risk factors coming from both sides of the genetic house. Even so, I've been thinking about health and health issues much more often since I got knocked out by the flu in early February.

When I had the flu, I was essentially down for the count for two weeks. I'm fine now and slowly building back up to my normal exercise schedule, but I'm still tiring much more easily than I did before I got sick. I'm mindful of the impact on my job: late afternoon brain fog has been something of a problem, and over the last few weeks I've literally collapsed into thirty or forty-minute catnaps as soon as I've gotten in the door at home. This sure isn't the time to let my work performance suffer, so I'm trying to listen to what the fatigue is telling me and make accomodations until it subsides.

If that's what happens after something relatively minor like the flu, how the heck do people cope with jobworld and finances when a much more serious condition rears its head?

I don't have an answer for that. I wish I did. Until the ailing health care infrastructure in this country undergoes some serious change, however, I'm going with the view that I'm on my own here. As a result, managing my existing health issues, staying fit, eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep (this is where I don't succeed all that well), managing stress, and maintaining a healthy weight are enormous priorities for me.

The kicker is that even with all those preventive measures, based on family history there is a higher than average probability that I will develop heart disease and/or cancer before I clock out. In a catastrophic illness situation like that, the only place I can put my faith today in is in employer-sponsored health insurance.

I wish I could feel better about that.

How's the health insurance situation in your life holding up? Any special concerns or worries? If so, what action are you taking to address them?


Friday, March 13, 2009

When does frugality go too far?

I am not one to do things halfway.

Thirty year mortgage? A couple of years into it, seven years to payoff became the number to beat.

Processed sugar is a big issue for me from a health perspective. Moderation doesn't work; I went cold turkey instead and I've been off of it for nine weeks today.

Getting seriously in shape usually means training for a maration. Every marathon is a shot at qualifying for Boston. (Actually running Boston resulted in my slowest marathon ever, but it was just a few weeks after my dad died - one year ago today, in fact.)

I regularly hurt myself in yoga because I'm trying not to suck at it as much as I do. That's why I'm having trouble typing today: I racked up my shoulder doing my first headstand in more than thirty years last night, when I really have no business trying headstands just yet.

Many of my friends think that I'm a little extreme on the frugal side as well, but I don't really agree. This is because I don't think of frugality as wringing the last possible financial gain out of a penny, especially if it means doing so at other people's expense (like not putting enough into the shared dinner bill, or being a lousy tipper). To me, that's not frugality; that's just being cheap. I don't do that, and I hope you don't either. Instead, I think of frugality as having two underlying philosophies: 1.) Spending less than one earns, and 2.) Spending in accordance with one's values.

Spending is like voting: As long as I'm earning more than subsistence wages, where I drop a dollar is a reflection on what I think is important. Most importantly, as long as I (or you, or anyone) have the ability to spend on something other than bare subsistence, there's no absolute right or wrong: discretionary spending is value-based, and the value component varies tremendously from person to person.

Here's one example: I do my own housecleaning and ironing both because doing these things helps fulfill my need for order at home and because I can usually spare the time to do them. My dollar vote is that these things aren't worth the money it would cost to outsource them. Conversely, my SO is a single parent with joint custody. He wants to spend his downtime being a parent and a partner, so his dollar vote is for sending out his shirts and having a housecleaning service once every two weeks. Neither of us is wrong; our choices are just different based on our values and particular life circumstances.

Here's one more: I spend $139 per month to go to a shi-shi Manhattan gym. I know that's a lot of money, but in my life, fitness is a Really. Big. Deal. For years, I went to a gnarly place where water seeped up from the floor in the women's locker room every time someone flushed the toilet, and open elevator shafts were blocked off by a couple of strips of masking tape. The nice gym was my reward for paying off my mortgage, and I feel no guilt about it whatsoever. Meanwhile, my SO goes to the Y for less than half the price for a family membership and probably thinks I have a screw loose about this one. Doesn't matter: different priorities, different choices.

With all of that said, I started thinking about where different people draw the line at frugality. For a lot of people, it seems to be in washing and re-using plastic bags (which I do). For other people, it's in the effort of bringing lunch to work instead of buying it.

For me, I think frugality becomes too extreme at the point where 1.) The time investment doesn't justify the savings, and 2.) The enjoyment factor isn't there.

Case in point: I've seen a few blog posts about people saving money by learning to make their own yogurt. Now, I really like to cook. I'll never be outstanding, but I'm not half bad. Although I haven't really entertained at home per se in over a year, a few friends even manage to invite themselves to dinner now and again. That doesn't bother me; I don't mind sharing, and in fact I think it's kind of a compliment. Making yogurt, though? No thanks. I eat it every day, but at best, I'd hate doing it and I wouldn't save that much out of my overall grocery bill. At worst, I'd do something wrong and poison myself. I'll leave the yogurt to yogurt manufacturers instead, and that's not something I can work up any guilt over from a frugality perspective because it's a decision that's in line with my spending priorities.

I'm curious: At what point does frugality become too extreme in your world? Even more importantly, has your frugal limit shifted as a result of the economy?


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Hey, I'm trendy!

The changes in consumption resulting from the economic crash have been beaten to death all over blogworld, including here. Even so, I wanted to share this article from the New York Times about how everyone is, like, so over conspicuous consumption. One wealthy woman quoted in the article said It’s disrespectful to the people who don’t have much to flaunt your wealth.

I don't know about it being disrespectful, but I was always taught that flaunting wealth (or wanna-be wealth) is gauche.

Do you think strutting your financial stuff is okay? Why or why not? Has your perspective changed since the economy cratered?


Sunday, March 8, 2009

Modern mawwiage

Mawwiage. Mawwiage is what bwings us togethew today. Mawwiage, that bwessed awwangement, that dweam within a dweam. And wove, twue wove, wiww fowwow you fowevah and evah… So tweasuwe youw wove.

That's the only thing I remember from the movie The Princess Bride, since I fell asleep in the middle. The only reason I remember it is that every time the friend I saw it with hears someone say mawwiage like that, he starts cackling.

A reader from Oz wrote in a couple of weeks ago with some thoughts on mawwiage marriage. I've been meaning to post it since it came in, but it's especially timely for me at the moment given that my SO and I spent most of the week screeching at each other and providing free entertainment for the neighbors. We've tap-danced around the subject of marriage before, but I know I thought more than once this week that I'm glad we aren't married; I'm sure he did as well.

Here's what the reader from Oz wrote:

I'm interested in the question of marriage. Good idea or bad, in these modern times? I know that people who are (a) religious and/or (b) intend to have children are likely to keep seeking the sanctity/security the institition offers, but what about the rest of us? My SO and I have been together for 17 years, and as atheists who have made a conscious decision not to burden the planet with more people, we have never married. I thought I was comfortable with this ongoing arrangement, but the older I get the more I wonder whether I've somehow shortchanged myself - not literally, as our finances are in a healthy state and we trust each other not to squander them - but the lack of any real commitment to the future makes me nervous. Obviously, I'm aware that marriage is no guarantee of "happy ever after", but I do wonder whether people who have taken the trouble to promise "for better, for worse" and "for richer, for poorer" maybe make more effort to ensure they stay together, and nurture the relationship? (Or to put it in more personal terms, I wonder whether, when I'm (say) menopausal and have put on a pound or two, he'll tell himself the relationship was never serious anyway, and run off with someone younger?)

We live in Australia, where, I believe, there is less stigma attached to "living together", as compared with being married. We also have some legal protections that cohabiting couples may not have in the US - for example, if we split up, the division of our assets will be treated as if we had been married. My SO uses this knowledge to argue that we don't "need" to be married. Perhaps he is right. Perhaps I'm worrying about nothing.

I think religious outlook as well as relationships between men and women have undergone enormous changes in the last forty to fifty years, and for some people marriage is increasingly becoming a square peg-round hole situation. If you're not religious and/or not planning on having children, is it really necessary?

There's no one size fits all answer, especially given the variation between how different countries and different states or provinces treat asset distribution between married and non-married couples. New York State established domestic partnerships as a way of extending some of the legal rights of marriage to gays and lesbians, but (although I can't find the reference online) I remember reading some time ago that New York City officials have been somewhat taken aback by how many straight couples have opted to register their relationships as domestic partnerships as an alternative to marriage.

In the United States, marriage brings with it a plethora of financial and health-related advantages which may not be available in all cases through domestic partnerships. They include:

--Social Security, Medicare, and disability benefits for spouses
--Military benefits for spouses
--The ability to file joint tax returns (I am not sure this is an advantage unless the marriage penalty has been completely eliminated: when I was married, my ex and I got walloped two years in a row with an additional $1500 in taxes that we didn't owe as cohabiting singles)
--Exemption from gift taxes and estate taxes for spousal inheritance
--Priority as a conservator if one's spouse is incapacitated and unable to make health or financial decisions

From a strictly financial/life management perspective and depending on where you live, formalizing a long-term relationship can be a smart thing to do, regardless of whether religion or children are in the picture.

But. . . isn't marriage supposed to be about more than that, f.z?

Well yeah, but it wasn't always that way. Marriage was once (and still is in many parts of the world) a union of families for financial and political benefit. In those arrangements, love is nice if it happens, but certainly not expected. In most Western countries, however, marriage gradually became a union of free choice for both partners, and the prevailing expectation is that it's based on love and mutual attraction.

This is where I think a lot of people get hung up. Most of the women I know who have never been married or lived with a partner have a starry-eyed notion of marriage bringing ever-lasting love, happiness, self-worth, financial security, and more. This image is usually thought out in detail right up to and through the wedding day, but that's where it stops: few never-married women of my acquaintance think about the less appealing aspects of marriage that come after, like stomach flu, who forgot to take out the garbage, and everyone's favorite, leaving the toilet seat up. (If my male friends and acquaintances think about marriage, they don't talk about it much - at least, not to me.)

Having been married, I don't really think of love as steady and everlasting; on the contrary, I think people fall in and out of love many times throughout a relationship. Flowers, hearts, and unicorns only last so long before romantic partners start annoying the shit out of each other. It takes hard work and the ability to make concessions on both sides to keep the ship on course over years. I also think that much of the time, economic stress is Public Enemy Number One for marital stability. My own marriage was a stinker for all of these reasons and many more. Hindsight being 20/20, the fact that it bit the dust before our second anniversary was by far for the best.

And yet. . . when I look at some gay friends and their relationship, I see what attracts people to the idea of marriage in the first place. These two men are life partners: before gay marriage was legal at all in the US, they rounded up lawyers and did a lot of paperwork (health care proxies, joint accounts, wills and life insurance explicitly naming each other as sole beneficiaries, a domestic partnership agreement) to come as close as possible to being married from a legal perspective because they each wanted to make sure that the other was provided for if something bad happened. When gay marriage became legal in Hawaii, they got married in Hawaii. When gay marriage became legal in Canada, they got married in Canada. They held a huge committment ceremony in their home city, San Francisco, to pledge their love before more than a hundred family members and friends. When gay marriage became legal in California, they got married in California. The marriage is in legal limbo since gay marriage was again outlawed, since they don't know if they've been grandfathered in or not.

Regardless of their legal status, however, they are married.

These guys are everything that I think marriage based on love is supposed to be, and that's what makes me believe that marriage as an concept and as an institution is still alive.

Do you think marriage is outdated? Why or why not?


Monday, March 2, 2009

Not buying things for a life I don't lead

Between the unpleasant and decidedly un-springlike March weather (twenty-seven degrees with heavy snowfall today) and the increasingly unsettling news about the economy, more and more I want to disengage from the news and focus on more comforting things. As part of my recent need for escapism, I've started perusing a few homemaking blogs.

Why would a career woman be interested in homemaking, of all things?

It's not that unusual. Working and wanting to live in a clean, pleasant, and relaxing environment are in no way mutually exclusive. I subscribe to a lifestyle magazine that's all about home, food, garden, and travel in the West, both because I love the home and garden ideas and because there are some great recipes in it. A friend also keeps up a subscription to Bon Appetit for me. I don't think I've ever cooked anything from it because the recipes are generally too high in salt and saturated fat, but I really enjoy looking at the presentations and it gives me ideas for healthier alternatives.

As far as where I actually live goes, some people find my apartment a little stark because I'm something of a minimalist, but I find clutter stressful and suffocating. Besides, I'm a little type A and I find cleaning and organizing kind of relaxing, both because they satisfy my need for order and because knowing how much better I'll feel afterwards, I feel like I'm doing something nice for myself. My favorite homemaking blog at the moment is Hyper Homemaker. The blog is currently on hiatus because the author gave up blogging for Lent, but what I've read of her posts so far suggest that she has similar motivations in terms of wanting to keep her home a tranquil, welcoming environment. I'm doubly impressed because she showcases her creativity in entertaining and homemaking while holding down a full-time job, volunteering, and diligently staying in shape. Her writing style is honest and unpretentious, and she seems like someone who would be fun to know in real life. Best of all, she never writes about personal finance or the economy, so her blog is great escapism.

The risk of taking my eye of the finance ball for home-related escapism is that it feeds a hunger for stuff that ultimately doesn't suit my lifestyle. When I'm in one of these moods, I know better than to step into Crate and Barrel: I'd be tempted to pack up the entire china and kitchen section and take it home, when realistically I know that it wouldn't work for me. Take plate chargers, for example. They're pretty, but in a 577 square foot apartment, is the utility worth the storage space they take up? I vote no, and thus I don't own plate chargers.

The same is true for seasonal decorations, vases, baskets, cake platters, and kitchen appliances. I don't decorate for the holidays (and I'm not here for most of them), so seasonal decorations aren't worth the storage space. I have three or four really nice vases and I switch them around regularly, but at any given time one's on the table and the rest are in storage. Don't really have any more room for additional vases. As for baskets, if I could figure out what to do with them, that might make me re-evaluate the storage question.

Cake platters. I'd love to have one, but the last time I baked a cake was when I was married, so what would I do with it? I had a terrible accident with a hand blender on that occasion and am lucky to still have all my fingers; to this day, I'm scared of hand blenders and I was secretly relieved when that one finally gave up the ghost last year. Mixing by hand is much safer (and something of a workout, too).

I'd like some wonderful kitchen appliances like a big 'ol stand mixer and a cappucino maker, but the only place I could store them is on the kitchen counter and I'd rather have the open space. Besides, I have a blender and food processer that I use once or twice a year. Seeing them parked in the appliance garage just taking up space makes me feel too guilty to go out and buy something else.

Rationalizing the storage space is one way I manage to avoid spending money for things that won't really be useful. Another thing that helps is the substitution effect: I'm not baking cakes, but I'm doing plenty of cooking with and for my SO (much to his delight) instead of going out for dinner. I'm not buying new stuff for the apartment, but I'm keeping the stuff I have clean and usable. . . and I'm trying to actually use things, not save them for "best". I think I deserve to use my best things myself. Besides, honoring myself the way I'd honor guests helps me stay on track so that turning inwards doesn't mean spending money.

How are you coping with the dismal last days of winter and the even more dismal state of the economy? Are you keeping in touch with the news or focusing on other things?


Sunday, March 1, 2009

February blahs and the Frugal Blog Network

The Frugal Blog Network switched to monthly roundups instead of weekly, and I was supposed to post one last night after I got back from the West.

Didn't happen.

On this snowy Sunday in March, let's pretend it's still February because it sure feels like it - winter blahs, lingering flu fatigue, and all.

Here's what happened in the network during this washout of a month:

Kelly at Almost Frugal gave some very interesting insight into cultural differences as they relate to money.

Frugal Babe not only has a gorgeous new template, but also muses on foreclosure bailouts and the fairness of it all.

The Frugal Duchess found some great tips on learning the games that grocery stores play and saving a few bucks in the process.

Utility bills are on the rise for many. Dana at Not Made of Money has some good recommendations for saving on your water bill.

Housing is the biggest expense most of us have to pay. Tight Fisted Miser explores extreme housing alternatives for adventurers or people fallen on hard times.


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