Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Here we go again

Q3 of calendar year 2009 wraps up tomorrow. That means it's time once again to check progress against this year's goals.

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.

Q1 result: On track.
Q2 result: On track.
Q3 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.
Q2 result: Complete.
Q3 result: Complete.

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.
Q2 result: On track, but on the verge of slipping behind. So far, I'm at $32,000 in total, which is on track with where I expected to be since I normally pick up a little extra savings towards the end of the calendar year. Unfortunately, that figure doesn't reflect the fact that I was ahead of the game by $3600 after my tax refund came through. I've blown through that extra cushion in this quarter, and next quarter I guarantee that I'll be behind on this goal. I'll tell how you I did that in my next post.
Q3 result: Yay, I'm behind! I'm at $45,000 in total, which is about $3000 shy of where I had planned to be by now. Since I was ahead of my goal by $3600 in April thanks to my tax refund, it means that I actually spent $6600 that could have gone into savings. Here's where it went:

--Summer trip to Europe: $1500
--Mini-remodeling (regrouting, repainting, new custom cabinetry in the bathroom): $4700
--Replacing the ceiling lights: $800

I hadn't planned for the new lights or the mini-remodeling at the beginning of the year but I'm glad I did them, even if it means missing my end of year savings goal by nearly 5%.


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.
Q2 result: Blew this one completely out of the water. Check out my next post to see how, why, and what I'm doing about it.
Q3 result: I'm being much more mindful about spending, but I don't think $1500 is realistic once I factor in periodic travel expenses to see my family plus other recurring expenses (like homeowner's insurance) and unexpected expenses (wedding gifts, work attire, and the like). I think it's more realistic to add a little padding in for the unexpected. If the unexpected doesn't occur, the padding can carry over into subsequent months.

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.
Q2 result: On track. I've booked all planned flights for the rest of the year, and I should just squeak by with 25,000 accrued air miles in 2009.
Q3 result: On track, but it's possible that I'll need to cancel my next trip because of work.

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.

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.
Q2 result: On track. I did a second half that became a fun run because of unseasonably hot weather, but it still counts. I also signed up for a full marathon in the fall.
Q3 result: On track, but #3 is in San Francisco and there's a possibility that I'll need to cancel for work. Marathon training is on track.

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.
Q2 result: Mostly on track. I was getting to yoga consistently three to four times per week until I started the heavy lifting with the mini-home renovation a few weeks ago. I'm going to two classes this week, will miss a week over vacation, and then it's back to the regular schedule until the end of August.
Q3 result: Mostly on track. Twice a week is about all I can manage at the moment, but there have been a few weeks this quarter in which I couldn't even manage that.

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.
Q2 result: Probably on track: I'm due for a checkup this summer and will confirm at that time. Unofficially, my self-measured resting pulse is 42 beats per minute.
Q3 result: Complete! Blood pressure remains 100/70, fasting blood test at my annual physical resulted in cholesterol of 165 and unusually good HDL to LDL ratio, and pulse clocked in at 40.

****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.
Q2 result: On track. As of today, I've been sugar free for exactly six months. The periods between sugar cravings are getting longer, but the sugar cravings themselves are still awful, awful, awful.
Q3 result: Mostly on track for nearly nine months. I do guzzle an occasional glass of liquier, but I'm pretending it doesn't count. Haven't had sweets of any kind since January 09.

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.
Q2 result: Not on track. I've slipped far, far back into the land of five hours of sleep per night or less. I definitely need to recommit to this one.
Q3 result: Moderate improvement. It's not the getting to bed that's usually the problem, just the damned insomnia.

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.
Q2 result: Mostly on track. Aside from occasional fluctuations, I'm maintaining a sixteen pound loss. That leaves me one pound that I just haven't been able to shake above goal.
Q3 result: Mostly on track. Blipped up by three pounds that won't go away (how does this happen during marathon training?), but I don't see a difference and my clothes fit the same way they did three pounds ago.

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.
Q2 result: Mixed. I'm focusing better on what I read, but the lack of breadth bothers me.
Q3 result: Mixed. Focus when reading the paper online hasn't improved, and I'm not trying as much as I used to.

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.
Q2 result: Mostly on track. Did one more charitable donation during the quarter, and I've been helping out during my New York mom's most recent hospitalization. (She just got out this week.)
Q3 result: Mostly on track. Two more charitable donations, and I'll be organizing a food drive fundraiser next month. If I still have a job, I'll make a fairly generous contribution myself.

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.
Q2 result: Got an outstanding performance review, plus one of the best compliments ever: Someone in the office approached me a few weeks ago and said "I want to come work for you." That's the third time that's happened over the past nine or ten months, but it never gets old.
Q3 result: Still employed, but it's definitely shaky as a result of a very large restructuring. All bets are off.

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.
Q2 result: No details, but thanks to a few really good opportunities, this one is still on track.
Q3 result: No details, but still on track.

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

Q1 result: No details, but mostly on track.
Q2 result: No details, but mostly on track.
Q3 result: No details, but mostly on track.

Overall, this has been a much tougher quarter than I had hoped in many areas. Marathon training is going better than anything, mostly because it's the main way I have of blowing my stress out.

How are you doing on your 2009 goals?

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

The costs of clutter

I've said it before and I'll say it again: My own personal aesthetic is minimalism. Part of this is related to living in a small space, which can get unlivable very quickly. Even when I've had more room, though, having an excess of stuff feels suffocating. I keep the feeling of suffocation at bay by being neat, handling paperwork as it comes in and shredding it afterwards, and adhering religiously to the one in, one out rule. There are still a few hot spots that I have trouble managing as effectively as I'd like (file cabinet and front closet), but my home feels much bigger than it actually is overall. It might seem a little stark to some people, but to me it's tranquil and relaxing.

With all that on the table, I guess it's not surprising that I'm fascinated by the television show Hoarders. Hoarders is a pretty self-explanatory title: each week, the program follows two individuals or families that are coping with severe inability to get rid of things, which has resulted in living conditions that range from squalid to truly horrific and dangerous. The program looks like it's been edited to heighten drama and tension between hoarders and their families, but on the whole the perspective of the program is compassionate. The time frame allocated to clean up each disastrous home on the show is patently ridiculous (two to three days!), but I think it's somewhat mitigated by six months of after-care therapy and/or help from a professional organizer.

The perspective of hoarding presented on the show is that it's a challenging but treatable mental disorder, not the result of laziness or slovenliness. In some of the background on the show, I was surprised to see that hoarding and squalorous living are often related to a strong sense of perfectionism in that many hoarders feel that if they can't keep a home spotless, it's pointless to even bother trying.

From a personal finance point of view, I think a person's relationship to his or her stuff is intimately tied to financial health in many ways. As one example, hoarding seems to be closely related to compulsive shopping, which is a drain on savings and overall financial well-being. Living in an extreme mess often means losing track of important paperwork, including tax forms, checks, or bills, and that's a second form of financial hit. A third costly complication of hoarding is having to buy the same item over and over because it's disappeared in the mess. Of course, there are many, many other non-monetary costs of hoarding, including anxiety, isolation, and risks to physical and mental health.

What are your thoughts and/or experiences related to hoarding? Do you see any other relationships between hoarding and financial well-being? If you don't know the show, you can see it online here.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

The giveaways just keep coming

In an effort to end what's been a pretty rough week in my part of the world on a high note, I'm really happy to present another very, very cool giveaway offer from the good people at Uprinting. In this giveaway, the prize is one 24" x 36" high-quality vinyl banner with grommets. Banner printing of these dimensions normally retails for $62, but your cost here is FREE, along with FREE shipping.

Why a banner?

Well, you can use a free banner like this one to advertise your business, a special event like a wedding (maybe a divorce?) or a graduation, or whatever your exhibitionistic little heart desires. Personally, I'd order a giant Canadian flag in honor of my citizenship card application, which is probably parked on a desk somewere in Ottowa Ottawa (corrected - thanks, Gord).

To enter, simply leave a comment on this post describing what you would do with the banner and I'll pick the winner via random drawing on October 31. Fellow bloggers, if you advertise this giveaway on your own blog, let me know: That'll score you an additional contest entry.

Have fun, and I'm looking forward to seeing your ideas!

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

When marriage isn't all it's cracked up to be

Time magazine published an interesting article this week about marriage. According to the article, even though marriage is often a foundation to economic gain, it doesn't bring as many financial benefits as it used to. It's still true that the overall cost of living comes down when two people share housing or when they can leverage their combined skill sets to avoid paying for repairs or other costs that come from running a household, but the change in women's roles over time has closed the gap between married people and single. In today's world, women's wages are much more competitive with men's than they used to be. In addition, women are having fewer children and having them later in life, giving them the opportunity to build more solid careers and work histories beforehand. Finally, unmarried doesn't necessarily mean unpartnered: more and more couples are living together (and benefiting from two incomes) without being married.

If you are or were married, did marriage make you better off financially than when you were single? If you're single, do you think marriage would improve your financial situation? Do economic considerations play any role in your romantic relationships (including a decision to marry or not), and if so, how?

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

The wheels of the bus go round and round

Well, it's starting. I'm expecting a big wave of layoffs by mid-morning tomorrow.

I should be okay in this wave; October to December will most likely be my scary time. The possibility that I might be wrong about all of this is always at the back of my mind, though, and it's really taken it out of me lately.

The one positive impact the stress has had on my life is that this marathon training cycle is going very well indeed. I've got three twenty-mile runs in the bank so far and three to go, and yesterday morning I put in eighteen miles at just over 8:30 pace. I'm pretty sore today, but that kind of a run is a good indicator that I just might be able to pull off another Boston qualifier in November.

Take your happiness where you find it, that's what I say. Where's yours right now?

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Then and now

My net worth peaked in June 2008. Since then, I've held onto my investments (including one I should have offloaded) and stayed the course with pumping up my 401(k) and IRA, trying not to look at the sickening decline over time.

Exactly one year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, I'm less than 1% away from my June 2008 net worth figure, not counting the value of my apartment. The number is essentially back where it was, but where I have it is altogether different. Since I paid off my mortgage, my biggest priority has been building up a substantial cash cushion. To that end, I've stocked up 22 months worth of living expenses and am planning to keep on keeping on until the end of the calendar year. On the equity front, I've continued maxing out my Roth 401(k) and IRA allocations, and the gradual recovery since March has given them a little extra buoyancy so far.

Being so close to my highest net worth figure feels really good in some ways, but all the aggressive saving in the world doesn't mask the fact that my portfolio is still down 18%. The figure 18% sounds better than the actual number, though: when I came up with the dollar figure that I'm still in the red, I felt pretty nauseated.

With a little more than nineteen years to retirement, I'm optimistic that the losses will eventually be erased. According to a cautionary story in the New York Times, however, the fact that substantial change in banking regulation and oversight is still lacking goes a long way towards convincing me that a large cash cushion is more important than ever.

One year after the fall of Lehman, how are you doing?

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Something is catchy (and it's not swine flu)

This weekend's New York Times Magazine had a very interesting article about how family, friends, and even friends of friends influence a plethora of our living conditions, from happiness to weight gain or weight loss, and more. According to data sourced from the Framingham Heart Study (which started in 1948 and continues today), when our friends gain or lose weight, we tend to do the same. When our friends are happy or sad, we tend to reflect their feelings as well.

Well, duh. Right?

There's more. Apparently, the study how other people influence us found that a nodding acquaintance with friends of friends can be enough to heighten the likelihood that we'll model their behavior. One strong tastemaker in a social network can lead other people who barely know the originator to reflect his or her feelings or behavior. This type of influence is considered to be the reason why buzz marketing (getting people to talk up a product to their friends) can take on an almost viral life of its own.

In some ways, I can see an element of accuracy here in my own life and relationships, but I'm not sure it's as strong as the researchers claim. One example is that I like to run. Most of my friends are runners, and we train together or at least encourage each other. This brings up a chicken-or-egg question, though: Is my affection for running heightened by the fact that my friends enjoy it too, or am I friends with these people in part because we share a common interest? In this instance, I think both are true but the second condition seems more influential to me than the first one because I liked running long before I met these friends. As a result, I'm not convinced that the contagion factor is necessarily as strong as the study suggests.

So, what does all this have to do with personal finance?

I'm curious to know if attitudes towards personal finance are influenced by the people around us. I think I'd grudgingly have to admit that I spend more money around some friends than others, but not to the point that I'm endangering my reputation as being a little OCD on the topic. Again, there might be some truth to the contagion factor, but I don't see evidence in my relationships that it's as strong as the article claims.

Are there friends or family who either influence you to spend or influence you to save? Why or how does that happen?

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Dropping the shopping

While I was away last week, I had the opportunity to read a book I picked up at the library, Not Buying It by Judith Levine. Not Buying It is a narrative of Levine's and her husband's year-long committment to not buying anything but absolute necessities and her musings of the role that shopping has in defining our own self-images.

I should caveat this review by saying that when I'm reading on vacation, my concentration and focus have usually gone to pot and I can easily miss important things. This time was no different, and that may be part of the reason why I found Levine's book a little disappointing. I was put off early on, when Levine and her husband decided in December that enough was enough and that January 01 would start their year of not shopping. For the week or two leading up to the start of the year, they spent like drunken sailors stocking up on things that they wouldn't be allowed to buy under their self-imposed rules. To me, that's building in a cheat factor from the get-go and it seems a little dishonest.

Another thing that bothered me was that I don't recall seeing a clear explanation of how they decided what things count as necessities and what things don't. I don't really understand why the New York Times counted as a purchase necessity, for example, when it's usually available at the library. At the same time, Levine's husband is a serious oenophile, but for some reason wine didn't count as a necessity and they ran out over the course of the year and didn't feel like they could restock. Creating a situation of deprivation is usually self-defeating in that it sets the stage for anger, frustration, and failure and it seems that in this case, that was avoidable. (To his credit, Levine's husband didn't cave, although Levine herself did a couple of times.)

I did like the fact that Levine brought in classical sociological and economic theory in an effort to explain why shopping helps us define ourselves, and I grudgingly had to accept that the brand loyalty I have for things like running shoes that don't make my toenails fall out and jeans that look nice and fit my stumpy little legs without needing to be hemmed reflects that. I also have to applaud her for using her savings to pay off nearly $8000 of credit card debt. After eight months without sweets and numerous bouts of cravings that range from mild to horrendous, I can also empathize with the frustration that both partners struggled with over time as deprivation set in.

On the whole,I thought that both Levine and her husband would have been better served and a whole lot less frustrated by figuring out their values and tailoring their spending accordingly. That's the kind of change that is more likely to last over time. It's possible that they felt they needed a full detox from spending the way I I needed a complete detox from sugar, though. I'm pretty sure that the first time I sink my teeth into a cupcake, it'll be like an alcoholic hitting the bottle. I'd be very interested to know whether that happened for Levine and her husband, and I would have enjoyed seeing an epilogue six months after the experiment ended to see what changes (if any) stuck with them.

Did any of you read this book? If so, what did you think? Feel free to comment about any other personal finance books you've read lately as well - good or bad.

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Monday, September 7, 2009

Suze-Oh!

Summer is essentially over. If last week is any indication, it's not a moment too soon. Tomorrow I dive back into the malestrom of working and trying to make sure I have a job at the end of the month. The short term outlook is pretty good; beyond December, it's still a crapshoot.

While I was away, I found myself with access to a television and that's how I found myself watching The Suze Orman Show. My impression of Suze was always that she was a brash, opinionated loudmouth, and she's certainly that. Unlike many other brash, opinionated loudmouths, though, she's also quite funny and the dribs and drabs of her advice that I picked up from the show were pretty down to earth and respectable. In the episode I saw, Suze concentrated on surviving a dismal job market by not buying too much house, paying off debt (including the mortgage), and not spending money on stupid things, like a $35,000 engagement ring that seemed to annoy the bejibbers out of her.

I thought it was particularly interesting that Suze said that 1.) People who have zero emergency fund should focus on paying the minimum on their credit cards and build up their savings to forestall disaster if their credit limits are reduced, and 2.) People who can only pay student loans or credit cards but not both should pay their student loans, since credit card debt can get discharged in a bankruptcy and student loans cannot.

The second point seems a little ethically ambiguous to me, and I can't really put my finger on why since it's strictly a rationalist approach with no sentimentality. On the whole, however, I was favorably impressed by her advice.

Now, having said that: I've heard other bloggers muttering from time to time that Suze Orman doesn't practice what she preaches. I did a little internet digging and uncovered a very old article noting that Suze Orman's own portfolio doesn't reflect the investment advice she gives to other people. The episode I saw was light on investing and heavy on protecting oneself during the recession, so I don't know how accurate this analysis is or whether it's still accurate in 2009, more than two years after the original analysis hit the press.

Investment advice aside, I did appreciate and even enjoy Suze Orman's cut-the-crap approach to dealing with living in a recession, so I think the next time I'm curled up next to a television on a Saturday night (not likely to happen for another three or four months since I don't have TV at home), I'll see what else she has to say.

What do you think of Suze Orman the financial advisor or Suze Orman's advice? Are there any other financial "experts" (and I'm using the term loosely) that you either love or love to hate?

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Friday, September 4, 2009

UPrinting giveaway winners

Congratulations to Melanie and Jim Egly, the two winners of the f.z. custom postcard giveaway sponsored by Uprinting.com!

Melanie and Jim, please send an email to me at frugal (dot) zeitgeist (at) gmail (dot) com as quickly as you can so I can get you set up with your prizes.

Regular updates to resume after Labor Day.

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