Friday, April 30, 2010

Telling it like it is

If you've been reading a while, you'll probably know that I do a lot of things to save money. There's more that goes into my decision-making than just a simple cost analysis, though, and the end result is that sometimes my choices are decidedly non-frugal because the non-frugal choice is way higher on the satisfaction scale than the less costly alternative. Here are a few things I do in which cost doesn't drive choice:

--I hate crunchy towels and socks, so anything that can be washed in hot water goes in the dryer, not on the rack.
--My PC is powered on most of the time when I'm awake, even if I'm not using it.
--To a point, I will pay more for something aesthetically appealing even if there are cheaper, functionally equivalent alternatives that don't look as nice. (This is why Crate and Barrel love me.)
--Even though I bring breakfast and lunch from home, I probably drop $3 to $4 per week in the vending machine at work.
--I have cut way back on this since the layoffs started at work, but sometimes I order food in just because I totally don't feel like cooking.

What are some of your choices made on the grounds of satisfaction rather than cost?

Two more while you're at it: I need to pre-write some posts for an upcoming vacation. Are there any topics you want to see covered here? If so, please drop a note in the comments.

And finally. . . I'm getting $500 after taxes as a thank-you for something work-related. What should I do with it?

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

You say you want a revolution. . .

I guess this question is mainly directed at the US readers since I don't think this show has gone abroad yet, but is anyone watching Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution? I've watched the six episodes available on Hulu, and while I like the overall message that making healthy food central to people's lives is important in so many ways, there are more things about the show that bug me than not.

For anyone who hasn't seen it, the show is based in Huntington, West Virginia, the city named as having the worst rate of obesity in the United States. The show is largely a remake of a hit show in Britain that focused on the dreadful state of school food. The US edition focuses on British chef Jamie Oliver's effort to get schools and families away from processed convenience foods and instead embracing whole foods made from scratch and designed to appeal to the senses.

Like I said, the overall message is great and Jamie's food values are very similar to my own in that the vast majority of what I eat consists of fresh vegetables and lean meats, cooked at home. I even gave up buying bread while on last year's no-sugar challenge in favor of baking my own because it was so hard to find bread that wasn't full of chemicals and preservatives. I really don't have any complaint about that aspect of the program.

Having said that, there are things about the show that, in my opinion, really detract from the message. They include:

Forced drama
I suppose this is a staple of reality TV, but it's pretty easy to see how the story has been set up to create dramatic confrontations and tension between some of the characters. In this instance, it seems forced and badly acted, and I find that distracting.

Too much Jamie and not enough family
I was fascinated by a segment where Jamie worked with a family with severe weight problems across the board (including an early-stage diabetic son) to improve their eating habits. Unfortunately, this was only a portion of two episodes. I'd love to see less ranting and showboating in favor of much more individual guidance.

Addressing the symptoms and not the problem
This is really the big one for me. While it's pretty clear that there is a lot of room for improvement in general in the community's eating habits, so far I haven't seen much discourse about the root causes. There were some truly shocking situations, such as elementary school-age children not being able to identify raw vegetables. If kids really are that out of touch with fresh food, that is indicative of a serious problem that needs to be understood before it can be solved with more than a celebrity band-aid.

For the schools, the root of the food problem is pretty easy to pinpoint: Budget and some fairly ludicrous federal guidelines (or possibly fairly ludicrous interpretation of federal guidelines) drive some truly abysmal choices in school lunch programs. While not easy to address, at least those issues are clear-cut and fairly unambiguous. As far as the families of Huntington are concerned, however, I haven't seen any attempt at all to understand eating habits at home. My impression of Huntington is that it's generally a poor community, but there's no exploration so far of cost differentials between healthy and unhealthy food. In addition, there hasn't been any visibility into parents' work schedules, or the accessibility of fresh food in local supermarkets. In other words, if people can't afford or don't have easy access to what they should be eating and/or can't carve enough time out of the workday to prepare it, then change for the better is pretty much dead in the water.

I'm hoping that these issues do get highlighted in future episodes, so I'll probably keep watching for now. If you've seen this program, what do you think of it? If you haven't seen it, what are your thoughts about the premise behind it?

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Torpor

Sorry about the radio silence. I've been very, very busy (mostly with work) over the past couple of weeks. In addition, the longer I go without updating, the easier it is to continue going without updating.

My own sense of blogging torpor resonated somewhat with an article on CNN that grabbed my eye the other day. The article noted that unemployment benefits have been extended for nearly two years and suggested that it may be time to consider whether extending them further will do more harm than good.

I'm not sure what I think about this, to be honest. My we're-kind-of-on-a-break SO has had several instances of being really close to an offer, one of which I mentioned here. All of them fell through for the same reason, essentially: The project was cancelled. The guy has been knocking himself out for five months looking for work, but nothing has come through yet. He's not the only one, either: I know far too many people who have been out for a scarily long time and are subsisting off of either unemployment alone or freelance gigs when they can get them. The job market may be coming back, but it seems to be taking an awfully long time for the improvement to really take root.

And yet. . . I find it hard to argue against the point that the longer one is out without feeling the full effect of the pain, the harder it is to get back in. Some people are undoubtedly doing everything right and just haven't found a break yet. For others, however, any number of possible factors start coming into play. In other words, some people who should make career changes postpone it. Others let their skills get rusty. Some are unwilling to make hard lifestyle choices that could support a greatly reduced income. Finally, some people just stop trying because it seems pointless after a while.

I honestly don't know whether another benefits extension will hurt more people than it helps, or vice versa. What do you think?

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

When a coupon is more than a coupon

Between the Facebook work dilemma and the charity contribution stickiness, it seems to be Privacy Week around here. In keeping with that general theme, I was a little alarmed by an article I read in the New York Times this weekend about online coupons and the information they capture.

In short, the article noted that online coupons printed from the web or sent to mobile devices carry a whole lot more than a discount. Information encoded in these coupons can include a plethora of private information, including:

--Your email address
--Your FaceBook page(or whatever social media you use)
--The keywords you searched on to find the coupon

While this information is used mostly for trend analysis and better customization of offers to individual consumers without necessarily revealing who they are to retailers, it's entirely possible for retailers to connect the dots and establish what individual customers are doing on the web.

Does that freak you out?

It sure bothers me.

You can help protect your privacy by not being a fan of any page on FaceBook, not joining any FaceBook groups, and not playing any games or using any FaceBook applications, as just about all of them mine user data. (This is what I do.) You can also use a web anonymizer to cover your IP address tracks. I've never done this, but I'm starting to see some potential benefits.

Meanwhile, I've never printed an online coupon or had one sent to my phone and I'm certainly not going to start now, but I do use promo codes from sites like RetailMeNot.com for online purchases. I don't know if online promo code warehouses are involved in the data harvesting described in the article. I can't imagine that they wouldn't do it if the opportunity is there, though, and that makes me feel very squicky about shopping online.

Have you ever used online printable or cell phone coupons for shopping? If so, did it change your shopping experience with that retailer afterwards? What additional suggestions do you have for protecting your privacy online?

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Awkward

I have made snarky remarks about Facebook a number of times here. A few months ago, however, I signed up for an account because I really wanted to see why my friends were so enamored of it. I haven't gotten too crazy with it, but I've found it surprisingly fun.

I still have deep reservations for a couple of reasons: First, I can't shake the suspicion that it's a total data mining operation; and second, maintaining privacy means fairly constant vigilance since the privacy rules can change at a moment's notice.

Both of the things about which I have reservations come back to personal responsibility, so I'm pretty careful about what I post (no contact details, no work information, nothing like that). In addition, I've blocked my Facebook page from being indexed by Google, and I went out of my way to block as many colleagues as I could think of from being able to find my page by searching on Facebook itself.

I haven't refreshed my colleague block list as frequently as I should, though. That's how I learned the hard way that the bossman found my page and is trying to friend me.

This is awkward. I'm not connected to anyone from work, and the culture of my employer is such that making one connection will open the floodgates to connections that I don't necessarily want to make but will find hard to refuse. I also have made the odd semi-snarky comment about work (now mostly purged) and while there's nothing harmful there, I don't want to have to walk on eggshells in future.

I think I'm going to have to politely decline the bossman's request, and I feel a little bad about that: The bossman is genuinely a nice guy, and we have a good working relationship. I think this is his way of trying to connect with me.

I am pretty sure I have a decidedly Gen-X outlook on this situation because privacy issues matter to me (a so-called digital immigrant) much more than I think they matter to people who grew up as digital natives. Readers here are a pretty diverse crowd, and I'd be really interested to hear your thoughts on this: Are you connected (or would you connect) to any of your work colleagues on Facebook? How would you respond if your boss or direct reports tracked you down and tried to friend you? Finally, do you think your generation's relationship to technology influences your perspective in any way?

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Okay, I decided

Thank you all VERY much for the input on the last post. I've finally figured out a game plan, based both on what else I was able to dig up and on the old put-yourself-in-the-other-guy's-shoes approach.

From what I've been able to gather, the email that came to me was part of a relatively large mass-mailing. Not many people have responded, but I think if I just ignored it I'd be in good company.

(Keep reading; I'm not done yet.)

I know the guy who sent the solicitation through business only, and I place a lot of importance on maintaining cordial professional relationships. In this instance, however, I think it's important to look a little deeper.

I know that the requestor is a very bright man, but I don't know if he did any research on the recipient charity or not and I don't feel like I know him well enough to ask. I do know that he had a rare and very aggressive form of the disease that required radiation, chemo, and radical surgery. Whatever his decision-making process was in selecting this charity as a fundraising recipient, I think there was probably a very large emotional component to it, and I would guess that he's pretty invested in the concept of doing something to either give thanks for the treatment he's received, or to help prevent someone else from going through the same thing in the future.

With all of that in mind, I think there's a very good chance that bringing what I learned about the charity's fund utilization to the requestor's attention and declaring that I don't plan to donate would be extremely hurtful, even if I also told him that I planned to make a generous compensating donation elsewhere. The guy has been through enough already without having his good intentions steamrolled.

This is all a very long-winded way of stating that I've decided to make a token donation of $25 (which won't make more than an infinitesimal bit of difference to the charity's bottom line), sent with a note of regards. When I do my regular charitable donations at the end of the year, I'll send a much larger donation to an organization with similar goals but more palatable utilization.

This may be the chickenshit way to deal with the situation. If so, then so be it. If I have to choose between a distasteful small donation and unnecessarily hurting a guy who has already been through the wringer, though, I'd rather hold my nose and donate.

Have you had a similar situation to deal with? If so, what did you do and how did the requestor respond?

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Friday, April 9, 2010

A frugal dilemma

I have a bit of an awkward situation to deal with, and I'd appreciate your input.

Someone I know professionally sent me a request to sponsor him for a charity event. I'm not wild about getting these requests from people I know professionally but not so much on a personal level, but I usually donate anyway. The cause is one that is near and dear to the requestor's heart: The charity sponsors research to cure a very serious and potentially fatal disease that the requestor has had. (In case that was a little too abstract, I'm talking about the big C.)

Ordinarily, I'd be fine with it and donate accordingly. In this case, however, I have a problem with the selected charity. A quick look on CharityNavigator.org confirmed what I already thought: A full 80% of funds raised go to administrative costs. A token 20% goes to actual research. I'm all for donating for the cause, but this particular charity really rubs me the wrong way because I think it's basically a front for lining people's pockets.

Readers, what would you do here? Would you email the requestor and decline to donate, explaining why? Would you donate to a different charity in the requestor's name? Would you grit your teeth and donate anyway? Would you do something else altogether?

So far, I haven't done anything. I really would appreciate your input before I decide.

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Monday, April 5, 2010

Networking at the speed of light

Based on just about all the job hunting tips I've read in recent months, along with both my own experiences prospecting for a new job and those of my friends, a solid resume alone doesn't cut it anymore: These days, networking and leveraging personal connections are critically important in getting hired.

Networking the old fashioned way involves face time, and that still counts for a lot. Simply talking to people over coffee is a great way to find out about opportunities that may never get advertised. That's how I ended up interviewing with an industry competitor for a job that never was publicly advertised. (Sadly, although the job was put on hold until the new fiscal year, it's now been cancelled due to an internal reorg.) In the internet era (at least in the US), however, LinkedIn has emerged as the most powerful way to make connections online.

I first joined LinkedIn four or five years ago. It's evolved somewhat over time, but the premise is fairly simple: As long as connection settings are kept viewable to connections, anyone I'm connected on LinkedIn can see all of my other connections. Similarly, as long as my connections keep their connections public, I can see all of the people with whom they've established links. If I know the name of a contact for a job I'm interested in pursuing, I can find out who of my connections knows someone who might know the contact. Leveraging these types of personal connections to get introductions to key people can help a job-seeker get his or her resume in front of someone who matters.

I've helped facilitate connections before, but I got my first real taste of the power behind LinkedIn just a few weeks ago. A former colleague who was laid off in the fall reached out to me to tell me about a job she was interested in. She had learned through searching LinkedIn that a director in the department of the company that was hiring was connected to me through someone that the director and I both know. My former colleague wanted to know if I could reach out to the common link between the director and myself and facilitate an introduction.

I really believe in helping people whenever possible in these situations. Whether or not it turns into a favor that I might need down the road, it's just a good thing to do. In addition, the person that the director and I both know happens to be incredibly nice and approachable, so I reached out to her right away. I explained that my former colleague was interested in a job at the director's company, and that she was hoping to get her resume in front of the director. I also added that I can vouch for my former colleague both personally and professionally (both true), and asked my contact if she'd be willing to talk to the director. My contact responded immediately and told me that she and the director went to grad school together and work in related industries, and that she'd be happy to look at my former colleague's resume and pass it on if it looked promising.

I sent my former colleague's resume and contact details over, and my contact was impressed. She talked to my former colleague over email to get the job description and better gauge the fit, and ended up calling the director with a glowing recommendation. As it turns out, the director is the hiring manager for the job my former colleague wants.

End result: In a situation where my former colleague would have been just one more resume on a huge pile submitted online, she ended up with not one but two valuable industry connections and an interview for a job that looks like a really good fit. She still has to prove herself in the interview, but leveraging LinkedIn gave her an enormous edge over most of the competition. I'm optimistic that she'll come out of it with an offer.

That's the power of networking.

What do you do to professionally network? Have you ever used LinkedIn to make important new contacts? How well did it work (or not), and why?

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Friday, April 2, 2010

First quarter goals update

I wish I had better news to report, but I'm not doing too well on my 2010 goals so far. Here are the gory details:

Financial
Max out Roth 401(k)
Action plan: Ongoing payroll deductions
Q1 update: On track

Max out IRA
Action plan: Fund IRA with after-tax savings.
Q1 update: Completed

Convert most of traditional IRA to Roth IRA
Action plan: Fund IRA first and then do a rollover with the account holder.
Q1 update: Completed

(It gets uglier from here.)

Save $63,000
Sharp-eyed readers who have been around for a while will note that this is less than my 2009 goal of $65,000. I dropped it for three reasons: First, I didn't get a pay raise last year, and I'm not expecting to necessarily get one this year. Second, my prescription costs shot up significantly for 2010. Third, I'm planning to have a little more fun this year.
Action plan: Max out 401(k) and IRA, and save an additional $41,500 after tax.
Q1 update: If it wasn't for throwing my entire federal tax refund into savings, I'd be behind on this one. Non-401(k) saving accounts for a monthly $3875 nut to reach my goal, and I'm coming up about a hundred dollars short on average. My most costly months of the year are January through May, so I'm going to work on bringing this into alignment over the next quarter. As it is, however, thanks to my tax refund, my IRA is maxed out and non-401(k) savings for 2010 total $14,800 to date.

Maintain elite status on my preferred airline
Action plan: Log 25,000 flight miles this year. As long as the cost differential isn't huge, the upgrades and free baggage in this dismal flight environment are well worth sticking to a single airline.
Q1 update: I'm about 20% to goal, so this one is a little behind schedule.

Upgrade appliances before they break
Action plan: My washer and dryer are on their last legs and I'll be surprised if they make it through the year, so I have some research and advance financial planning to do! I will also most likely need to replace my coffeemaker and iron. Recommendations are always appreciated.
Q1 update: Not started. I'm hoping for the best right now, as I'm not confident enough about the job situation to make a big purchase if I can avoid it.

Health and Fitness
Stay within 5 pounds of goal weight
Action plan: Keep running and doing yoga, and keep sugar consumption under control.
Q1 update: Way off the rails. Between work suddenly exploding and two lung infections so far this year, my physical activity has slipped considerably. Add to that the fact that I haven't been able to get the sugar monster back under control, and the end result is that I do not want to weigh myself. I'm guessing I'm up around ten pounds.

Qualify for the 2012 Boston Marathon
Action plan: I need to run a marathon in under 3:50 once the 2012 qualifying season opens. (I may run one other, but the qualifying one is the only one that matters to me.)
Q1 update: Not started. Training ramps up in June, so I have the rest of the quarter to pull myself together and get back to a decent fitness baseline.

Continue increasing flexibility
Action plan: Commit to yoga classes or home practice three times per week.
Q1 update: Yeah, that's not working so far. Part of the problem is that I had a huge crash while attempting a fairly advanced pose almost a month ago, and I tweaked my wrist very badly. It still hurts.

Moderate sugar intake
Action plan: After a year of being almost entirely sugar-free, the cravings are coming back. I'd like to leave room for an occasional treat, emphasis on occasional. For me, I think occasional means once or twice a month. The usual exclusions (fruit and alcohol) apply.
Q1 update: See above. I think I will need to go completely back on the wagon in order to get this one under control.

Sleep more
Action plan: Keep my coffee consumption at no more than six cups a day (don't laugh, for me this is limited) and get to sleep no later than 10:30 p.m. for at least four days of the work week.
Q1 update: Coffee and sleep are both very much off track. Unfortunately, it's easy to address lack of sleep via coffee. . . which results in even more sleep disturbance.

Home
Maintain good organizational habits
Action plan: Deep cleaning twice a year, regular cleaning once a week or so, and monthly decluttering sweeps.
Q1 update: Yay! Found one where I'm still on track!

Professional Development
Get a new job
Action plan: Networking is by far the most effective way I've found to find opportunities and that's kind of a challenge area for me, so I'll work at leveraging both professional and personal relationships.
Q1 update: I haven't been looking or networking much, largely because the outlook is better where I am at the moment. We are not done with layoffs and I'm not fully confident that I won't get swept up in a future wave, but I'm less concerned now than I was six months ago.

Improve presentation skills
Action plan: I'm an active member of a speechmaking organization, and I'd like to complete ten speeches by the end of the calendar year.
Q1 update: Mostly on track, although ten speeches by the end of December may be a stretch. Part of this is the result of schedule conflicts, but I've also been taking on other group roles because I haven't felt like pushing forward with the speeches as quickly as I did a couple of months ago.

Maintain professional certifications
Action plan: I have a certain number of credit hours of training and self-study to complete to stay on track for my next renewal cycle, and I plan to complete those accordingly.
Q1 update: On track. Half of my required credits for this year are in the can, and hopefully I'll be able to get the rest in before September.

Personal Development
Write more
Action plan: Continue blogging, but explore other forms of written expression
Q1 update: Not started. Focusing more on keeping my job at the moment.

Read with focus
Action plan: I'm not sure if this is an age thing or related to the way the internet has negatively impacted my attention span (I assure you, it has), but I need to redevelop the ability to read in depth and with focus. I'm operationalizing this in 2010 by reading books, magazines, and the New York Times for at least three hours a week without competing distractions like music or eating.
Q1 update: On track. . . sort of. I managed to borrow all four seasons of Battlestar Galactica, and that has proven to be a huge distraction.

Do more and donate more for charity
Action plan: I organize a holiday food drive every year, and I plan to continue doing that. I also plan to contribute more to charity than I did last year.
Q1 update: I'm behind on contributions this year relative to last year.

Relationships
Improve communication and harmony with my S.O.
Action plan: This has been a tough year for us. We realize that we need to improve how we communicate, so we are both trying to adopt active listening techniques more often. I also absolutely need to overcome having a short fuse and misdirected aggravation when I'm stressed out.
Q1 update: Uhh, we're on a break. It's probably not going to be permanent, but we both need space right now.

Write letters more often
Action plan: I have several overseas friends with whom I communicate primarily via snail mail. I don't write as often as I should, so I'm aiming to send between one and two letters to each throughout the course of the year. (I'm not always writing in English, so this is a little more challenging/less pathetic of a goal than it looks.)
Q1 update: Not started

Entertain at home once a quarter
Action plan: I love having people over, and I don't do it as often as I'd like. I think a dinner party every three months sounds both reasonable and fun.
Q1 update: On track. Had a small dinner party not too long ago, and the food came out better than I expected. Everyone seemed to have fun, too.

Travel
Take two trips, just for fun
Action plan: My friends and I want to do a repeat of our San Francisco trip last year. I'd like to do one more in addition to that, but I haven't figured out where yet.
Q1 update: Not really started (i.e., no concrete plans yet), but we are talking about it.

Fun and self-love
This is kind of an artsy-fartsy category that I'm having difficulty defining in terms of specific goals. The background is that I'm told by a number of friends that I am pretty hard on myself in terms of not being self-indulgent at all if it costs money. For that reason, I'm giving myself blanket approval to do a little spending just because I want to. That could include buying things like flowers, nice bath salts, or Philharmonic or opera tickets once in a while, or just taking a day off from work and doing nothing. I hate leaving this one so undefined, but that's the best I've got right now. If I can nail it down more specifically at mid-year, I will.
Q1 update: I've bought flowers for my dining room table a couple of times. Does that count?

In short, it's been a decidedly disappointing quarter so far. I hope the next three months go better, but it's up to me to make that happen. As usual, I'll revise goals at mid-year if needed.

How's your progress on your 2010 goals?

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