Friday, July 30, 2010

Stuff seems worse than it used to

At the risk of going down the road of We walked ten miles to school in the snow every day and WE LIKED IT!, I've noticed that a lot of things sudden seem to be, well, a whole lot crappier than they used to. I know that that's deliberate in many cases (i.e., electronics and planned obsolescence), but aside from that, it seems that just about everything is breaking faster than it used to.

I have two particular gripes at the moment: nylons and sunglasses. I'm not a big fan of nylons, but I dress conservatively for work on the grounds that I'd rather be criticized for the quality of my work than for what I'm wearing, and our dress code explicitly mandates hoisery for women. As a result, I wear nylons every day, no matter how hot. It used to be that I could buy a couple of boxes of three or four-packs of L'Eggs or whatever the other common drugstore multipack brand is, throw them in the wash with my running clothes, and have them last for at least a year. So far in 2010, however, I've been through at least SIXTEEN pairs. Several haven't made it past the second wearing. I'm not doing anything differently; the stupid things simply aren't made as well as they used to be, so I'm getting runs simply from wearing them.

The sunglasses problem is equally aggravating. I'm hard on sunglasses: I wear them all the time, especially running, but on dark mornings or evenings while commuting, I just shove them in my bag. I also lose them from time to time, so I don't want to spend a lot of money on them. Normally, Ironman sport sunglasses with UV protection from the drugstore have done the job well enough, and I replaced them roughly every eighteen months.

This summer? My FIFTH pair just broke.

The really irritating factor here is that for what I spent on five pairs of crappy sunglasses, I could have had a single decent pair, or possibly a really good one if I bought them on sale.

With most things, my philosophy is to buy less but buy higher quality. Admittedly (and as you can see here), I haven't done that with everything. Last night, however, I dropped $78 on two pairs of really good cycling/running sunglasses. They're 2009 models with outstanding consumer reviews, reduced from $90-$110 per pair (and free shipping!). I don't know what I'm going to do about the nylons issue, because I actually thought I was buying above average quality to begin with and taking advantage of bulk purchases for lower unit cost.

Have you noticed recent changes in quality in the products you buy? What products, and how have they changed?


Monday, July 26, 2010

Medical summer, part 2

You know, there is one slight upside to my flexible spending account being ridiculously out of balance. Something turned up on my mammogram and I need more tests, so I'm back at the imaging place tomorrow.

Most of these things turn out to be nothing, and I think that's probably also going to be the case here. I'll keep you posted.


The second set of tests came out clean, no sign of cancer. Yippee!


Saturday, July 24, 2010

Reuse vs. clutter

Let me start by saying that I'm all for recycling and keeping reusable things out of landfills. I think it's great when a product can either be reused in its current form, or turned into something else entirely (although I always wonder how many resources were used in converting, say, plastic bottles into a plastic-fiber reusable bag, and whether that resource utilization resulted in less overall waste or more).

Both home and lifestyle magazines and a great many internet sites carry detailed information about do-it-yourself projects that involve converting something into something else instead of throwing it away. The ones that come to mind first are the ones I remember from my childhood, like making egg cartons into little people and toilet paper rolls into Santas. More sophisticated DIY projects involving reuse include repurposing crates for storage, jars into candleholders or vases, or just about any other decorating project you can think of.

Admirable? Yes, absolutely. Throwing less stuff straight into the garbage is good. There's one factor that complicates thing for me, though, and that's clutter.

I hate clutter with a passion, and that's where the reuse paradigm falls down after a while. I've saved a few old jars to organize bathroom and kitchen supplies, but vases? Candleholders? There are only so many of those I can have around before they start looking and feeling like clutter. The same is true for things like clementine crates, strawberry containers, corks, old frames, toilet paper rolls, shoeboxes, and all of the other things that seem to form the basis of most of the craft and reuse projects I see online or (to a lesser extent) in magazines.

I don't want to be wasteful, but keeping things in my home in hopes of converting them into some kind of storage or decoration that I really don't need or want doesn't have the value-add that would make it worthwhile. I'd rather recycle responsibly instead, and focus on not bringing excess stuff into the house in the first place.

Do you find a second life for stuff in your home once its first life is finished? What do you with these things and why?


Monday, July 19, 2010

Medical summer

About ten years ago, I started using a flexible spending account to set aside money pre-tax for my out of pocket health care costs. I've used it to cover my ongoing dermatological and thyroid prescriptions, copays for doctor's visits, and the part of dental exams and treatment that my dental insurance doesn't cover. I also developed asthma in 2006, which added three new medications (two non-generic) to my daily repertoire.

I'm not aware of any country outside the US having anything analagous to employer-based flexible spending accounts, so here's a quick overview: The account runs from January 01 through December 31. Employees decide at the beginning of the calendar year how much money to set aside pre-tax from each paycheck to fund the account. After paying out of pocket for medical expenses like physician co-payments, prescriptions, and eligible over the counter medications, employees are reimbursed with the money set aside in the account. I'm not sure if this provision is universal or not, but my employer's flexible spending account allows me to spend more than I actually have set aside at any given time, as long as the total spent doesn't exceed the total of my annual contribution.

I've never managed to get the balance of my flexible spending account quite right, and the end result is that I've normally exhausted all the pre-tax dollars set aside by October. That actually doesn't bother me too much: I'd rather pay a little out of pocket after taxes than lose money I've set aside, since any flexible spending money not used by the end of the year completely disappears.

At the start of 2010, there was a major and most unwelcome change to how prescription drugs are covered under my health insurance. The cost of generic prescriptions remained static, but non-generics went from a flat $40 per three-month prescription to 30% of the retail cost of a three-month prescription. My thyroid medication and one of my skin creams are generic, so that's no problem. Two other skin creams and my two remaining asthma drugs, though? No generic equivalent.

I did a lot of research into the costs of my non-generic prescriptions under the new plan, and the best estimate I could come up with was that my out of pocket cost for these four medications was going up between 200 and 500 percent each.

Well, what do you do? I gave some pretty direct feedback to our benefits group at work, as did other employees socked hard in the wallet. In the meantime, I quintupled my flexible spending account contributions, and all was right with the world.

And then. . . my pulmonologist took me off of my most expensive drug.

Don't get me wrong: I prefer being on fewer medications. I had a tremendous struggle adjusting at first, but I'm fine now. The only problem is that with the calendar year half over, I have over a thousand dollars accrued in my flexible spending account, and that total will be nearly two thousand dollars by the end of the year. So far, I've spent twenty bucks. I can't change the accrual for 2010 (once it's set, it's set), so I either have to blow a lot of money in appointments, treatments, and prescriptions, or lose it at the end of the year.

I'm the first to admit that I should have jumped on this six months ago, when my doctor took me off of the expensive drug. As it is, now that work has slowed down marginally for the summer, I have a dental appointment, a physical, a skin checkup, and a lung checkup scheduled, and I just had my first mammogram (a singularly unpleasant experience) today. I'm also stockpiling as many prescriptions as I can, and I suspect I'll end up with about twenty pairs of reading glasses and a huge array of eligible over the counter meds by the end of the year.

Even with all that, I'm pretty sure I won't use all of my flexibile spending account up. It bothers me somewhat to think that a chunk of hard-earned cash is going to simply disappear at the end of December.

I don't think there's a whole lot I could have done differently to anticipate the major change in expectations vs. actual spend, so I think this is one to chalk up to unfortunate experience.

Do you have a flexible spending account or something similar for reducing your out of pocket medical expenses? If you do, how well does it work (or not) for you?


Friday, July 9, 2010

It's not the reality he thinks it is

A couple of days ago, I came across an article that really blew me away. It's a profile of a young man named Scott, who graduated from Colgate with top academic honors in 2008 but is still unemployed two years later.

In this economy, the story itself is pretty common. The twist that makes this article interesting is that Scott applied for the management training program at a prestigious insurance company. He was turned down, but invited to interview for a lower-level position in the claims department. He was offered an entry-level job for $40,000 per year. . . and turned it down. The reason Scott gave for turning the job down is that he would rather hold out for the job he wants instead of taking the first thing (the only thing thus far) to come along.

I get that Scott went to a good school and graduated with distinction, and he should certainly be proud of his achievements. In the real world, however, particularly in the nastiest economic downturn in modern times, what Scott achieved in school doesn't count for much. Smart young people with diplomas and no real-world experience are a dime a dozen. That doesn't mean that young people are worthless: Talented young people with drive, curiosity, ambition, and a desire to learn and grow are valuable assets to any organization. They suck up a tremendous amount of time and energy, but more often than not I've found that the payoff is well worth the investment.

Unfortunately, I don't get the impression that Scott is the kind of young person I'd like to hire. My experience is that young people who demonstrate Scott's sense of entitlement about the sort of job they should have without the experience or skills to back it up are more trouble than they're worth. My guess is that the companies Scott targeted over the past two years saw that sense of entitlement and opted to pass.

It's also possible that Scott simply isn't applying for jobs that match his real capabilities. The fact that a large insurer felt he was a good fit for a low-level entry job rather than a management training program is telling: It suggests to me that Scott's not the contender he seems to think he is.

I think Scott would have been better off by viewing the claims job as an opportunity, a way to get his foot in the door and gain skills that will help open the doors to bigger and better things. Since that horse is already out of the barn, it seems to me that a productive use of his time going forward would include getting out into the world through meaningful unpaid internships, volunteering, and getting experience doing the kind of low-level manual labor he seems to despise. Scott also was invited to re-apply for officer training in the Marine Corps after initially being rejected on the grounds of childhood asthma. To me, turning down that second chance because (as he said) "the sheen was gone" is another short-sighted decision that reflects badly upon his judgment, maturity, and foresight. Unlike the insurance job he passed up, however, that door might not be completely closed. Since his strategy for the past two years hasn't worked, it's long past time to try something else. Officer training in the Marine Corps was something that Scott once had every intention of doing, so why not pursue it again?

While I understand that a young person without a job is likely to end up living with Mom and Dad, I don't think that Scott's parents helped the situation by insulating him from the consequences of his decisions. I'm pleased to see that Scott has moved out, but as long as his parents continue to pay for his expenses without a deadline, I don't think Scott will face the reality of his situation and become more realistic in his expectations.

All in all, I'd really like to see Scott succeed, along with all of the other young people whose expectations have been blunted by the economic downturn, but I think the young grads who will fare the best are the ones who see opportunities in disguise and grab them. Maybe Scott will become like that over time (it happens), but he's not there yet.

Do you know anyone who graduated after the recession started? How is he or she making out so far?


Monday, July 5, 2010

Second quarter goals update

Well, progress on my 2010 goals is a still a pretty mixed bag (and in some cases a flaming one, if you know what I mean). My mom's stroke threw me off track in many ways, and I still feel like I'm struggling to get back into a normal groove. Here's how everything went down this quarter:

Max out Roth 401(k)
Action plan: Ongoing payroll deductions
Q1 update: On track
Q2 update: On track

Max out IRA
Action plan: Fund IRA with after-tax savings.
Q1 update: Completed
Q2 update: N/A

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
Q2 update: N/A

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.
Q2 update: I was doing better on this one in April, and then in May and June I went off the rails again. Unanticipated costs included two airline tickets out West (one at the last minute), plus a whole lot of eating out while my mom was in the hospital. SO and I went away overnight last weekend too, and I picked up a big chunk of the cost for that. I'm still ahead of plan because of last quarter's tax refund, though, so non-401(k) savings for 2010 total $26,500.

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.
Q2 update: 40% to goal. By the end of this month, I'll be 60% there thanks to another trip out West to visit my mom, and I have two more of those to go this year. It looks like I'll probably hit this one by year end.

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.
Q2 update: Not started. I'm not worried about my job anymore, but this one hasn't been a priority.

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.
Q2 update: No change from last quarter. I'm marathon training now and trying to get the sugar back under control. Thanks to three days of a GI bug this weekend, I suspect I'm suddenly a little lighter.

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.
Q2 update: The baseline never happened after my mom's stroke. I'm on schedule with my planned marathon training and mileage, but I am slow, sore, and exhausted all the time right now.

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.
Q2 update: My wrist hurt for nearly six weeks in the end. This also went by the wayside after my mom got sick, but I went to two classes last week and two the week before. I've lost a huge amount of ground here as well.

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.
Q2 update: As of July 01, I'm not bringing sweets in the house any longer. That's got to help, right?

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.
Q2 update:No improvement thus far.

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!
Q2 update: Still on track. My mom's place is more cluttered than I'm comfortable with, so I ended up doing a major decluttering binge as soon as I got back. Things are good in this department.

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.
Q2 update: My mom's stroke was a game changer. I don't think I could go anywhere else that would give me the flexibility I have to work anywhere I want at any time, no questions asked. Similarly, I'm not worried about losing my job anymore. As long as my mom is alive (and I'm not optimistic that it will be a long time), I'm digging in and staying put. This one is off the goals list for the rest of the year.

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.
Q2: No progress, although I have done a couple of formal presentations for work and they went quite well. If I can get one more practice speech done, I'll be halfway to ten. That seems like a reasonable mini-goal for the next quarter.

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.
Q2 update: No progress this quarter.

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.
Q2 update: Not started. Not a priority right now.

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.
Q2 update:Hasn't gotten better, but also hasn't gotten worse.

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.
Q2 update: Still behind.

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.
Q2 update: Break's over. We are trying to get back on track. I hope the fact that SO is working again helps.

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
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.
Q2 update: Well, my sibling lived here for three weeks while my mom was in the hospital. That doesn't really count, though.

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.
Q2 update:The friend trip is not likely to happen; more friends or their spouses have been laid off recently. I'm going to Italy in October on my own, though. Woo woo!

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?
Q2 update: I'm going to Italy! That definitely counts.

As you can see, my mom's medical situation had a huge impact on my life. I'm going back to the same travel schedule I was on during my dad's last year and a half (one week out of every eight to ten). In the meantime, the rest of my life is here and it's been waiting long enough. Time to get back to business.

How's your progress on your 2010 goals?


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