Thursday, December 31, 2009

Goodbye and good riddance: the 2009 wrap-up

This is it: 2009 is finally over at midnight. Who else is glad to see the end of this benighted year?

At the start of the year, I put together a set of fairly ambitious S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely) goals for my financial life, health and fitness, personal development, professional development and relationships. I've been doing a quarterly check-in here, and I've found that having a sort of public accountability has been surprisingly helpful in staying on track. Without further ado, here's the end of year assessment of how I did:

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.
End of year result: COMPLETE

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.
End of year 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%.

End of year result: Missed this goal by $2000 for the reasons you see above. I'm not too upset about this because I did manage to sock away $63,000 over the course of the year, and that's 97% of what I had originally planned. I don't think that's too shabby, since in January I hadn't anticipated doing any home improvement work.

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.
End of year result: Didn't achieve this one. This goal doesn't work for me as written because of the difficulty of factoring in periodic and unexpected expenses like the ones I incurred as part of the mini-renovation project. For 2010, I'm going to focus less on spending and more on setting and achieving savings targets.

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.
End of year result: COMPLETE.

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.
End of year result: COMPLETE. Still ridiculously pleased about running my fastest marathon ever (sub-3:40, for people who are interested in that kind of thing) and qualifying for Boston again at the age of 40.

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.
End of year result: I wouldn't necessarily mark this one as complete, but I'm moderately satisfied with how I did. The flexibility changes are incremental, but my long-standing joint pain is GONE. It didn't even flare up during or after the marathon. After what I've dealt with on that front in recent years, that's reason to celebrate and keep doing yoga.

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.
End of year result: COMPLETE

****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.
End of year result: If I make it through January 8, I'm calling this one COMPLETE. I exempted myself for a couple of energy gels during the marathon, but at 5 grams of sugar each, I don't call those deal-breakers. The sugar cravings finally let up in October. They flare up once in a while, but they're bearable - nothing like they were a year ago.

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.
End of year result: Didn't achieve this one. Unnecessarily late hours and insomnia are a bad combination.

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.
End of year result: COMPLETE. The marathon brought me back to my ever so irritating one-pound-above-goal weight, and so far I've stayed there.

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.
End of year result: Mixed. I finally gave in and started wearing reading glasses. It helps, but I still don't have the focus I used to have. I'm not sure if this is age related or not, but I don't like it. I will circle back on this one for 2010.

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.
End of year result: COMPLETE. We didn't hit goal on the food drive, but we did reasonably well given the economy. I gave more money in 2009 than I did in 2008. In terms of donating time, it works out better to use my time to help people I know personally who need assistance (like my New York mom), and support causes that matter to me through monetary donations.

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.
End of year result: COMPLETE.

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.
End of year result: COMPLETE. This is one of those goals that is ongoing over time and there's definitely plenty of room for growth, but for this year I achieved what I set out to do.

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.
End of year result: Uh, let's call this one COMPLETE.

On the whole, I'm happy with how I measured against most of my goals. The ones that were easiest to achieve were straight quantitative measurements, like maxing out retirement investments: Those are simply black and white, either achieved or not, so it was easy to benchmark how I was doing throughout the year. While I didn't quite achieve my overall savings goal, my emergency fund is now a robust $58,500 in cash, $1500 short of a figure that will let me live for 2 1/2 years without a job, severance, or unemployment if I need to. That's something I feel really, really good about.

Between market gains and aggressive savings, my net worth nearly doubled from the start of January. In absolute terms, I still haven't recovered all of the hit that I took from the stock market plunge, but my overall net worth is the highest it's ever been.

Some of the goals as originally written don't fit all that well against how I structure my time, finances, or priorities; not surprisingly, these are the ones I did the worst against. If those goals stay in the goal bucket for 2010, I need to do some reworking to make them more realistic and attainable than they were in 2009. It's also pretty pointless to post that I have goals and not tell you what they are, so I'll either be more specific about 2010 professional development and relationship goals, or just keep those entirely private.

Goals for 2010 are forthcoming, but they'll be late: I have them drafted, but there are still some things I need to figure out before I can finalize them and commit in public. Hopefully, I'll have them up in mid-January.

How did you do on your 2009 goals?

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Preparing for a new decade

I'm back from vacation; thanks for sticking around while I was gone. I spent most of the holiday completely cut off from both jobworld and blogworld, and for once I feel like I really got the chance to recharge my batteries.

In the meantime, 2010 is literally a day away. Like many other people, I couldn't be happier: 2009 had its bright moments early on (well, except for that little stock market problem in March), but the second half of the year pretty much sucked. I'll get back to that topic in more detail in my end of the year review of goals against actuals, but in the meantime I'm planning my 2010 January action item list. One of the first things on that list is to jump-start my 2010 Roth IRA conversions.

In the US, it's been possible to convert an existing traditional deductible or non-deductible IRA over to a Roth since the Roth was first established in 1997. 2010 is special, however, in that the $100,000 adjusted gross income limit for conversion eligibility goes away. As part of the conversion, taxes on the original contribution (in the case of deductible IRA's) plus tax on the growth can be spread across both 2010 and 2011. The Roth IRA may not be right for everyone, but there are some compelling reasons to consider it. These include:

--A tax-free future income stream at a time when many people will be in a higher tax bracket than they are today
--No mandatory withdrawls at age 70 1/2
--People staying in the work force past age 70 1/2 can continue to contribute
--Protection against future tax rate increases even if you're not likely to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement
--Contributions can be withdrawn without penalty in an emergency

I'm working on the assumption that my future tax bracket and/or rate will be higher than it is today, so when I became ineligible to contribute to the Roth, I started traditional non-deductible IRA accounts with the long-term plan of converting them to the Roth in 2010. Here's the kicker, though: In order to contribute directly to the Roth in 2010, contribution phase-out begins at $105,000 adjusted gross income and phases out completely at $120,000.

In other words, even though I'm eligible to convert my traditional IRA accounts to Roth in 2010, income limits on Roth contributions mean that I'm still ineligible to fund a Roth IRA directly.

This year, I'm getting around this by funding my traditional accounts first and then doing the conversion. Theoretically, I could continue to do this every year by starting a new traditional IRA, fully funding it, and then converting it to a Roth the next day (and locking myself out of future contributions in the process).

One new IRA account and subsequent conversion for every single year of my working life from 2011 on?

Messy. It's still a valid loophole, though.

I can't see the IRS letting this loophole continue, so don't be surprised if you see more changes coming for the Roth IRA. The best case scenario would be to do away with the income restrictions completely, but I don't expect that to happen. Instead, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see legislation mandating that a traditional IRA account has to exist for x number of years prior to being converted to a Roth. It would mean a little more up front planning since I'd be socked with growth taxes every time I did a conversion, but to me that's a small price to pay for decades of tax-free growth.

If you're in the US, what's your IRA strategy for 2010? If you're outside the US, what's your overall retirement account strategy for the upcoming year?

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Monday, December 28, 2009

There's living small, and then there's this

Zaarath and Christopher Prokop -- and their two cats -- live in the smallest apartment in the city, a 175-square-foot "microstudio" in Morningside Heights the couple bought three months ago for $150,000.

At 14.9 feet long and 10 feet wide, it's about as narrow as a subway car and as claustrophobic as a jail cell. But to the Prokops, it's a castle.


Yeah, these people are for real. You can read all about it here.

How is it possible for two people and two cats to live in such a small space? A few key points jumped out at me:

They don't cook
No cooking means no pots and pans and not a whole lot of dishes, so that opens up storage space in the kitchen (and no need for much kitchen space in the first place). This couple stores their workout clothes there.

Creative furnishings and appliances
With space at a premium, a Roomba vacuum is definitely the way to go. Similarly, the flat screen TV is a must if they are going to have a TV at all, and furniture doubles as storage.

Alternative storage
Storing clothes at the office and the dry cleaner? Really? Apparently it works. It sounds like they are also planning to assimilate some hallway space for temporary Christmas decorations, which the co-op board may or may not accept.

Could you do it?

I couldn't.

I like to cook and entertain, and I like having open space. (I feel a bit sorry for the cats since they don't seem to have anywhere to run.) Just the thought of trying to live this way gives me a little bit of agita, since having to remember what work clothes are where and when I can pick them up seems like so much work. It's neat that they can make this space function for them, though, and it's definitely the right price for home ownership in Manhattan.

175 feet. Could you do it? Why or why not?

You can find other small-scale living stories that involve even less square footage here.

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Friday, December 25, 2009

A little holiday levity

If today is Christmas, then you know I'm going to be padding around in pajamas and socks all day long.

I'll just let that image sink in for a moment.

Since Christmas is a day of giving (and also a day of enormous stress for many), I thought I'd leave you with a strictly humorous personal finance gift for your enjoyment.

This is Spinal Tap is one of my top three movies of all time. If you've never seen it, it's a cult classic and in my opinion, well worth renting.


Happy holidays!

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Figuring out where the heck it all went

I've said it before and I'll say it again: If you're just starting out taking control of your finances, the single most powerful way to understand where all your money goes is to log every penny spent for a month. A month isn't long enough to effectively factor in periodic expenses like travel or homeowner's insurance (assuming you do the big bang approach and pay it once a year), but it's enough to give a ballpark idea of the general outflow. Ideally, the tracking should continue for longer depending on your personal goals, but one months worth of data is enough to create a basic budget and start making some educated decisions on discretionary expenses.

I tracked my spending for years, always motivated by a particular goal. When I was a broke-ass grad student, I had three part-time jobs to help stay afloat. I tracked spending to the penny so that I could minimize the total outflow and keep my student loan burden as small as possible. It really helped. During my messy divorce, I also tracked my spending because I was racking up lawyer's fees to the tune of $250 an hour (totally worth it, by the way). In this particular situation, I felt like I had very little control over way too many things in my life, and tracking helped me feel like I was reining in some of the uncertainty. (What else was I going to do, develop an eating disorder?)

I also tracked spending minutely when I was aggressively paying off my mortgage because if I had an extra ten bucks in any given month, that was where I threw it. I didn't use any specialized personal finance software other than pencil in paper (and later on, spreadsheets), but there's a vast array of tools out there to make tracking easier. Ultimately, the right tool for any given person is the one that will help make a habit out of knowing where the money goes and leveraging that as a basis for decision-making.

Since becoming completely debt-free, I've moved away from tracking my spending in detail. Instead of focusing on a spending plan, I'm more oriented towards a savings plan, which I map out using a not-particularly-detailed spreadsheet. This is a key difference: As long as I'm hitting my savings targets (or close to them), I'm less focused on the minutiae of where each penny goes. I still fine-tune as needed to either take advantage of opportunities or factor in previously unplanned spending, but focusing on savings makes it easier for me to lighten up and not feel guilty on spending for pure enjoyment (i.e., travel) or for improving my personal environment (i.e., upgrading my home).

In other words: Maintaining life balance is not easy for me, but focusing my finances on a savings plan helps.

In your financial planning, do you focus more on spending or saving? What tools, if any, do you use to support your planning?

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

A new twist on marketing

Well, this is one of the weirder viral marketing ploys I've seen recently.

I saw reference to something called houseparty-dot-com out there on the internets, so I fired up the URL and went to check it out. Apparently, it's a registration site where people can sign up to host themed parties - but instead of being themes about dress or atmosphere (like Luau, Little Black Dress, or Vicars and Tarts), the themes are all focused on a particular set of products. Examples include:

Ziplock DIY Home Organization House Party (There’s no better time to start reorganizing your home than spring and there’s no one better to give you a little help than Ziploc® Brand Bags, Containers, and Totes. You’ll learn how to conquer the clutter when you gather your friends together and share creative solutions for organizing spaces throughout the house. It’ll be a fun and rewarding time full of great tips, resources, and products to help every partygoer become a do-it-yourself organization expert, thanks to Ziploc®.)

BOCA Surprise House Party (Surprised! Impressed! Deliciously happy! Your guests will feel all of these and more when you invite them to experience the surprises that BOCA has in store for them. Including a surprise that's sure to be a talking point for those Weight Watcher's® fans! The gang is in for a great night of fun, games, recipe sharing, fabulous food, and of course, surprises that everyone will enjoy!)

Do The Potty Dance House Party (Are you potty training your toddler, or thinking about starting the process soon? Well, then it’s time to ditch the diapers and do “The Potty Dance!” Pull-Ups® Training Pants, together with Ralph Covert, the singer/songwriting star of Ralph’s World, have collaborated on a NEW version of the song and dance that’s an instant hit with parents and potty training tots everywhere! Host a “Do The Potty Dance” House Party™ and share this fun experience with your toddler, and all the moms and kids in your life!))

Umm, think I'll skip that last one.

According to the website instructions, anyone can apply to host one of these parties. People selected to host will receive party packs that include decorations, copious quantities of the product around which the party is focused, helpful tips on making the party a success, and sometimes even a gift card to buy additional supplies. Party hosts are encouraged to take lots of pictures and talk talk talk about the event, before and after.

I'm not really sure what to think of this.

I guess if you're broke, this is one way to host a social event without creating financial stress. If I really had no money and had a child with a birthday coming up, this would potentially be one way to swing a birthday party. In that respect, I can see some limited benefit.

Outside of financial straits, I could possibly see doing this with a particular group of people who would turn it into a sarcasm and irony event, but I would never want people to come to my house for several hours so they can be assaulted with a straight-up marketing campaign, even if it's a "fun" one. Similarly, I'd probably decline an invitation to one of these events. If I went to a party and found out after I got there that it was basically a viral marketing event, I think I'd be pretty offended.*

What do you think of the sponsored house party concept? Would you do one of these? Why or why not?

*On a slight tangent, for people who were offended by the recent sponsored posts, I get where you're coming from on that, I really do. You might see embedded links in posts that I write from time to time, but I'm not taking any more externally written content. Are we good with that?

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Phew. At last

If you've been reading for a while, you know that the past couple of months have been tough. It's been layoff central for some time at work. Wave 7 (or was it a continuation of Wave 6?) hit another group at work last week, so more colleagues I've known for many years packed up for the last time.

It hasn't been fun.

I'm leaving all of the drama behind for a little while since I'm decamping tonight for a real vacation with my mom out West. I won't be online regularly, but I've prewritten some posts that will publish while I'm away. I'll look in on comments when I can, but responses might be a little later than usual (not that they are necessarily timely in the first place).

A very happy holiday season to everyone who is celebrating, and may 2010 bring better times for all of us.

Peace out.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Cost versus celebration

Sorry about the relative lack of posts this week. It's a little chaotic around here as I'm trying to wrap up a bunch of different things before going out to my mom's for Christmas.

Spending the winter holidays with extended family is a common Western tradition, but it's one that's likely to be impacted for many people this year because of financial considerations. That got me thinking about other traditions, and the extent to which the economy does or doesn't play a role.

When I was married, I spent Christmas one year with my husband's family celebrating according to their traditions, which generally involved getting everyone together at a big hotel outside London to spend a few days eating, drinking, and exchanging gifts where we drew names for adults (the gifts were expected to be fairly big on the grounds that everyone was only providing one). In addition, everyone attending provided extravagant gifts for all of the kids. It was fun, but very expensive all around. I'm not in contact with my outlaws anymore, but in this economy I'd be very surprised if they still did things this way.

With my family, it's always been a lot more low key and thus not very vulnerable to economic change. We used to do traditional things in that we had a tree and exchanged relatively modest gifts, put decorations up around the house, cooked a turkey, and brought in a big tray of sweets and fresh bread from the best bakery in town. As my parents got older, however, our traditions evolved accordingly. We stopped putting the tree up about seven years ago because my dad was too frail to help with it. About three years ago, we stopped exchanging presents outside of restaurant gift certificates for my parents. We still buy fresh bread, but after my dad died we stopped ordering a sweets tray because none of the rest of us really want it. I think my mom has intentions of decorating the house this year, but she doesn't sound enthusiastic so I wouldn't be surprised if this is the last year that happens. The turkey will be a turkey breast, and that'll be plenty for three people.

(Rest assured, Christmas will be a lot more fun than it sounds so far.)

I think these changes are evolutionary in that they're the natural result of everyone growing older and no one wanting or needing piles and piles of stuff. I wouldn't call them the result of a rough economy, anyway. How about your holiday traditions in recent years? (I'm not necessarily referring to Christmas, since I know a lot of people don't celebrate it.) To what extent are they influenced by either a good economy or a bad one? If you're doing things differently this time around, what are you changing and why?

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

The gift that keeps on giving

Got my first regift of the season yesterday: A good friend gave me a lovely set of holiday scented candles.

Apparently, she doesn't remember showing them to me when she received them last month.

In the spirit of the season, I passed them on just today: I bought a really nice bottle of champagne for my SO's brother and his partner, so I slipped the candles into the package and handed them off with a big smile.

For the record, I'm fully in favor of regifting. As my regift to you, here are links to two other other articles I've written on the subject.

Are you doing any regifting this season? What are you recycling and why?

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Holiday shakedown

Ye gods, it's holiday tipping season again.

Okay, I suppose I shouldn't be thinking of it as a shakedown, but that's what it feels like sometimes. Back in my college days, I used to be a waitress and I know it's a tough, unrewarding job. Based on that, I'm a pretty good everyday tipper: 20% is my standard unless there's been a real problem with the service, and I have never, ever stiffed anyone. I use the same standard for cabs and haircuts. When holiday tipping season comes around, however, I find that the decision-making is much tougher. The New York Times recently published a series of etiquette blog articles dealing with tipping, and you can find them here, here, and here.

Tipping in New York for building staff is customary and expected, and my building co-op's board distributes a gentle reminder about this ever year along with the names of all the building staff. They don't provide any specific guidance about tips, though, so I was interested to see that the Times recommended the following:

Building personnel should be remembered at holiday time. Tipping amounts vary according to your geographic location and how luxurious the building is. Following are ranges for tips. Superintendent: Cash or gift of $20 to $80. Doorman: Cash or gift of $15 to $80. Whether you see the doorman or not, he is still providing service to you and your building so do plan on $15 or more for each doorman, or a gift of similar value. Elevator operator: Cash or gift of $15 to $40 each. Typically, a concierge is tipped when services are provided. If tips have been given throughout the year for any of the personnel, then a small gift of $20 to $50 value would be appropriate.

Normally, I use the following benchmarks:

Building superintendant: $80
Porter: $100

Why does the porter get more? He's always really, really nice, his job is really the pits (cleaning and hauling garbage), and he's really hard-working, much more so than the super.

Doormen (or women) who are nice to me and helpful when I'm struggling with too much to carry: $50
Doormen (or women) who are standoffish and/or unhelpful: $35

I tipped the same way as a renter as I do as a homeowner, and apparently the Times etiquette columnist agrees that this is appropriate. This year, it's going to cost a total of $400, all cash in Christmas cards.

You'll see from the articles linked above that postal workers should be remembered with non-monetary gifts under $20 in value, and I must admit that I don't do that. Similarly, I always get a card signed "New York Times Paper Guy", but I don't normally tip for that service either. This year, since I only receive Saturday and Sunday delivery and the Saturday paper arrives on average only one time out of three, I definitely won't be tipping.

As far as other tips go, I don't have a regular hair stylist or any other regular professional services people, so my job is done once the holiday tips for the building staff are completed.

On a related note, I don't really bring gift-giving into the workplace during the holidays. Junior people who are especially helpful will occasionally find a case of beer (or whatever else they like) under their desks as a personal gesture of appreciation, but I don't do holiday gift-giving because it seems like it could go wrong in so many ways. The morale has been the pits over the last few months while we've been going through layoffs, though, so I brought homemade cookies into the office last week. They got scarfed all in one day, and that seems like enough holiday cheer this time around.

Are you giving office gifts or holiday tips to anyone this year? Who gets what and how do you decide?

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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Daily bread

I don't know if anyone else felt this as much as I did, but I noticed over the course of the year that bread prices in New York have really shot up. Part of the pain is the result of being much pickier about bread than I used to be. When I went on the no-sugar kick last January, I started getting much more assiduous about reading labels. To my dismay, I found that commercially produced bread often contains a shocking amount of sugar in various forms, including molasses, honey, brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and other types of sugar that I can't even pronounce, much less remember. A nutritionist friend told me that three grams of sugar (preferably the naturally-occurring kind) per serving is a good benchmark generally to support the larger goal of keeping processed sugar to a minimum, so I set that as my maximum standard for staying within the rules of the no-sugar challenge.

Good luck finding commerically produced bread that fits that standard, by the way. It's not impossible, but it's tough.

In an effort to solve the bread dilemma, I found that many artisan breads contain relatively little sugar. The problem, however, is that they're expensive - often four dollars or more per loaf. Yikes! I shelled out for it, though. I found that once I was over the first three weeks of complete and total misery from sugar cravings, the periods between cravings began to lengthen and I felt a lot better while they lasted.

Once the job situation began to look unpleasant a couple of months ago, I took a long, hard look at everything I was spending and started making cutbacks so I could pump up my emergency fund. At that point, I decided that I could no longer justify really expensive bread. At the same time, however, I didn't want to go back to the stuff with all the sweeteners in it.

Well, what do you do when you're between a rock and a hard place?

Thanks to the internets, I started learning how to bake.

The first five tries were dismal failures. They came out somewhere between sponges and bricks, and they were in no way delicious. I've always been one to eat my kitchen mistakes, though, on the grounds that I hate wasting food, and that figuring out what went wrong through eating my mistakes might help me learn what not to do next time.

I kept refining as I went, and the sixth try turned out to be the charm: For once, the bread turned out to be genuinely good.

So did the sevenh.

So did the eighth.

By the eighth, I was experimenting with throwing in things like garlic and rosemary, or pumpkin and sunflower seeds. I've also found that making bread is a wonderful way of connecting with the memory of my grandmothers, who I'm sure would have laughed themselves silly at my first few attempts. Now I'm baking once a week or once every two weeks. Aside from the fact that it's a real pleasure to be able to produce bread at about a quarter of the price of artisan bread in the grocery store, I can't help feeling a stupid sense of real accomplishment every time I do it and it doesn't suck.

A few things I learned by doing:

--Bread does take time, but most of that time goes towards waiting for it to rise. If you plan your time well, it fits in nicely with other things.
--As long as you have strong hands, you don't need a breadmaker.
--A tablespoon of honey is plenty to activate a packet of yeast, and it works out to far less than three grams of sugar per slice.
--Yeast is cheaper when bought in jars instead of packets.
--One way to keep bread from sticking to loaf pans is to coat the pans with olive oil and then a layer of flour.
--Don't try the bread when it's just out of the oven, unless you planned to chow down on half a loaf all along. (Yes, I've done this. More than once.)
--Recommended baking temperatures don't seem to work well in my oven. I put it up to 375 instead of 350, with much better results.
--Bread goes stale in about three days. I cut each loaf in half and keep half in the freezer until I want to use it.
--You can't use all whole wheat flour without something called dough starter. I haven't graduated to dough starter yet, so I'm sticking to a roughly 50-50 mixture bewteen white and whole wheat.

Does anyone else bake their own bread here? Why or why not? Do you have any other recent culinary adventures to share?

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Monday, December 7, 2009

Winter bites

Winter suddenly set in this past weekend, and I don't like it. Everything seems to get more difficult at this time of year because I don't want to go to work in the dark and come home in the dark. I don't want to go out in the cold to exercise, especially since I'm still dealing with heavy fatigue from the marathon. I don't really want to do anything much: I just want to stay inside and be warm with the newspaper and a cup of hot chocolate.

Oops, eleven months without sweets. Guess the hot chocolate isn't happening.

Between entertaining, Christmas presents for the SO's kids and a raft of birthdays that hit all at once, it's also an expensive time of year. SO's out of work, my homeowner's insurance is due, and I'm getting a crown (YAY!) in two weeks.

I'm also prone to a mild touch of seasonal depression, and that doesn't help either.

I'm trying to reorient my thoughts towards the good things that are happening right now, because that both makes me feel better and also helps me stay away from non-productive compensating behaviors like overeating and retail therapy. In no particular order, here are a few of the things that are cause for celebration:

--The job seems stable for a while longer.
--SO has already had one interview that went really well, and he has another one scheduled for this week. I'm cautiously optimistic that he'll be employed again in the next couple of months.
--The horrible, horrible sugar cravings that hung around for eight months after I stopped eating sweets suddenly departed at the beginning of October, and they haven't been a problem since. I even baked cookies on Saturday with absolutely no desire to sample - and I love me some cookie dough.
--I got a bunch of nice emails after the little get-together I had on Saturday. It looks like my friends really did enjoy it.
--I'm going to see my mom for a ten day vacation in less than two weeks.
--My emergency fund is at 90% of goal, and in a worst-case scenario, goal will allow me to be out of work for two and a half years without unemployment or severance.
--I will NEVER regret paying off my mortgage early. It may not be the right financial choice for everyone, but if there's one thing I've felt genuine, overwhelming gratitude for more than anything else during this dreary economic year, that's it right there.

That's how I'm coping with the winter blues. Are you feeling joy during this holiday season, or is it more of a struggle? If it's a struggle, how are you dealing with it? (Suggestions appreciated.)

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Sunday, December 6, 2009

When the nest is best

Sorry for the slowdown around here. It was a busy week, and yesterday was cocktail party night. I think everyone enjoyed it. I know I did, and I have the brain fog today to prove it.

CNN published an interesting article last week about an emerging trend in real estate: Instead of trading up to new homes, more people are apparently staying put and improving what they have.

I was interested to see in the article that the improvement seems to largely be taking shape in the form of remodeling and renovating. I did that myself earlier this year with the new bathroom cabinetry, paint job, and new recessed lighting and the satisfaction it gave me as a homeowner is off the charts. According to the article, however, the main reason driving the renovations seems to be a desire for more space.

I have some reservations about renovating for more space. Of course, there are certain circumstances (i.e., growing families or taking in elderly relatives) that sometimes make expansion an absolute necessity for staying in the same location without living on top of each other. If it's just more space for the sake of more space, though, the extra cost to heat, cool, and generally maintain the new space can add significant cost over time. In those cases, I think people are better off first taking a careful look at the amount of stuff they have and doing a decluttering exercise if it's warranted. Just getting clutter out of the house and getting into a regular decluttering maintenance routine can help reclaim significant square footage for little to no cost.

If there's still not enough space for everyone to live comfortably after reducing clutter, then maybe home expansion makes sense. If there's enough space but expansion will add to the overall quality of life and renovation and subsequent upkeep are affordable, then that's also reason to move ahead. Given how quickly home expansion racks up cost and can increase the cost of ownership on an ongoing basis, however, I don't think it's something most people can afford to enter into lightly.

If you're interested in reading about a renovation story as it happens, I'd suggest checking out the lovely Moneyapolis, who is knee-deep into turning a wreck of a mansion into a showplace.

Do you have any home renovation and/or expansion plans in the works? What are you doing, and why?

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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Profiting from your passions

Today, CNN posted an interesting article about how seasonal jobs are helping unemployed or otherwise financially stretched people get through the holidays without a big hit to their wallets. I have often toyed with the idea of trying to score a weekend-only job at Crate and Barrel or Williams and Sonoma to make a few extra bucks during the holidays (and also to indulge my homemaking jones with a whopping discount and very ilttle guilt). I do know one person who does this quite successfully, but I ultimately decided against it because I think my greatest income potential lies with my real job. By that logic, anything that makes me take the eye off the ball in that area is counterproductive in the long run.

As far as other sources of income go, however, I do freelance projects from time to time. I've mostly priced myself out of the market because I don't have a tremendous amount of spare time and it takes more than most people are willing to pay in this economy to motivate me to give much of it up. I also make a couple of bucks from the blog every once in a while, but that's much more amenable because I like blogging and count it as entertainment.

A reader wrote in the other day to ask if I've ever considered tutoring for extra income, and I had to admit that the idea had never crossed my mind. It's not something I really see myself pursing right now, but it seems like it wouldn't be a bad way to bring in some cash if something happened to my job. If I became really committed to the idea of supplementing my existing salary with some part-time work on the side, however, I think I'd probably opt for earning a low-level personal training and/or coaching certification and then try to pick up some private clients on the grounds that it's much more in harmony with things I already enjoy doing.

I think that's the key right there: If you're going to work part time to supplement an existing income or fill in an income gap, the best way to go about it is to look at the things you already enjoy doing and find a way to turn a profit by doing them. For several people I know, following this path resulted in incredibly fulfilling and profitable second careers.

I don't have the confidence that I could or should start down this road right now, but with my SO out of work and my own job situation not being as stable as I'd like, it's something that I've been considering. . . and the more I think about it, the more attractive the idea becomes.

Do you have any interests that you could leverage to make money on the side? If so, what are they? Do you see any of these interests resulting in a change of career someday?

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