Monday, August 30, 2010

The incredible shrinking house

I'm a little late off the mark on this one, but last week CNN posted an article detailing a trend in the US away from McMansions and towards smaller square footage in new home construction. Instead of more space, homeowners appear to be focused on amenities, including dishwashers and garbage dispoals.

I'm a huge fan of living small. I faced the question of whether bigger is better when I bought my co-op in 2001: Back then, the bank approved me for a $500,000 mortgage that I would have been extraordinarily hard pressed to make the payments on, and most people I knew urged me to aim at places three or even four times my salary. The apartments I saw within that range were really nice, but the cost of ownership was way too scary.

Buying small was partly my choice because I had a pretty good idea of what affordable meant in the context of my other financial goals, but co-op financing requirements in New York can be pretty stringent: I had to put a minimum of 20% down plus prove that I had matching funds in reserve, of which only half could be from my 401(k). The co-op's financial requirements radically limited my buying options, but as it turned out, that limit was certainly in my best interest.

Of course, New York is a weird place to buy a home relative to the rest of the country, and the kind of requirements I ran into aren't usually applicable elsewhere. It's not hard to guess why housing is going smaller now, though. After the last two brutal years, it's a whole lot harder to get a mortgage than it used to be. (Call me crazy, but I think that's a good thing.) In addition, I don't think there are too many people who feel secure enough about their income to want to take on the same level of mortgage they might have been open to a few years ago. I think the general difficulty of recouping one's investment by selling greatly reinforces this reluctance.

What other reasons are there for going smaller outside and/or more elaborate inside, in your opinion? Has your perspective on housing changed since the recession?

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Friday, August 27, 2010

Displaying my ignorance for you

Many of my friends have gotten married (and some divorced) over the years. I didn't want a bridal shower myself before I got married, but some friends I know have had them. For some reason, they've tended to fall when I'm traveling for either work or family, and the last one I actually attended was a low-key lunch at the Plaza with a group gift more than ten years ago.

Suddenly, I have two bridal showers coming up within three weeks of each other. Both are for first-time brides; one is in her early thirties and one is in her mid-forties. I can attend one of the showers but not the related wedding because I'll be out of town with a marathon on deck the very next day. Similarly, I'm going to the other wedding but I can't attend the shower for that bride because I'll be away, and in fact it falls on the same day as the wedding I can't attend.

I'm planning on giving generous wedding gifts to both couples. The organizer of the shower I'm attending is directing guests to the wedding registry for shower gifts. Does this mean that I should buy two registry gifts for this couple? What's the protocol these days on buying gifts for a shower I can't attend? Finally, how much should I expect to spend on shower gifts for both the one I can attend and the one I can't?

This is all so confusing.

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Okay, I'm over it

I think the retail therapy is out of my system. It was fun (in a weird way) while it lasted, but I've hit the spending equivalent of Pancake Overload, which is the exact moment in which pancakes stop being wonderful and start feeling like a boulder in my stomach.

I can't say I feel the same way about socializing more, though. I'm pretty wiped out because it's been a very social couple of weeks, and that's something I'd like to keep up at a slightly less frenetic pace and at a reasonable cost. There's plenty that's cheap or free to do in New York and for the most part, my friends have become much more careful about spending over the past couple of years.

Meanwhile, I don't have any interest in dating at the moment, but I spotted an interesting article on how the F word (frugality, not the other F word) doesn't win any points for attractiveness unless it's packaged up as something else (i.e., smart) and presented with subtlety. Your thoughts?

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Breaking up is expensive

I don't know about you, but being dumped flat on my ass by a partner has always been a costly proposition. When my ego has taken a beating, wanting to shore it up is a natural instinct, one which tends to manifest itself in spending money.

Even though breaking up with ex-SO was my idea (which ex-SO bought into gracefully, mind you), I'm finding that I've ripped through a fairly awesome amount of cash in no time at all. The first thing I did was start going out with friends much more than I've done for a long time. In addition to meeting up with friends to run on the weekend as I normally do, I went to a happy hour on Friday (drinks in Chelsea), lunch with an ex-colleague on Saturday afternoon (I picked up the check since my ex-colleague is unemployed), a birthday party on Saturday night (drinks in the East Village) and a meeting of my cooking club on Sunday (in which I provided two side dishes for four people). This week, I'm meeting an acquaintance who is becoming more of a friend for dinner on Thursday, possibly going to a happy hour on Friday, and going to MOMA for the Matisse exhibit on Saturday with another acquaintance I'm getting to know better.

I know what this is all about: I don't want to suddenly discover that I'm lonely.

At the same time, I'm also doing some serious retail therapy. I replaced two pairs of really grotty sweats with some nice yoga pants, replaced all my worn-out bras, and then accidentally stumbled upon a one-week dress sale at Ann Taylor, an upscale clothing chain for women. I'm sick to death of both ironing work shirts and wearing the same old summer skirts I've had for years since it's been far too hot for suits. I ended up tossing out my seven or eight year old summer skirts and buying FIVE very, very nice dresses and two non-work tops that were half off. I have one more purchase on the radar, running shorts with pockets (harder to find than you would expect) that I've been stalking for months and which finally went on sale.

I justified all the shopping on the grounds that I just got a nice bonus and I'm mostly replacing things that are very old, but truthfully I think it has more to do with wanting to feel better about myself, especially since I can't help feeling that yet again, I've proven that I'm just not that good at romantic relationships.

Anyway, with the exception of the shorts, I think I'm done. I don't feel guilty about doing it because there are so many other coping mechanisms that are so much worse, like scoffing pint after pint of ice cream, binge drinking, or other kinds of substance abuse. The caveat here is that retail therapy has to be temporary and it can't lead to jeopardizing my financial security. Longer term, the other things I'm doing like focusing on work, on my upcoming marathon, and on strengthening other relationships are in total a much healthier way to go.

How do you cope with relationship woes?

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Friday, August 13, 2010

Now THAT guy got canned!

As an aside:

Thank goodness for cordial breakups.

Back to the main topic:

Courtesy of Sports Illustrated, a writeup of one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes:
"The Millennium," Season 8, Episode 20, May 1, 1997
The Mets want to hire George as head of scouting, but they can't make him an offer while he's employed by the Yankees. So George goes all-out to get himself fired, because he wants to leave people saying , "Wow! Now that guy got canned!" The situation reminds George of when he lost a summer job at Dairy Queen for cooling his feet in the soft-serve machine. Among his stunts to draw Steinbrenner's ire:

George Steinbrenner is always a George Costanza fan.Wearing an authentic Babe Ruth jersey taken from the Yankees Hall of Pride display case, then cleaning his strawberry-stained hands on it. Unfortunately for George, Steinbrenner digs it, saying the team's gotta "tear down the past" and that Ruth was "nothing more than a fat old man, with little-girl legs."

"Streaking" through a Yankees-Orioles game in a flesh-colored bodysuit. The fans love him for it.

Tying a World Series trophy to the back of a car and dragging it around the Yankee Stadium parking lot, yelling, though a bullhorn: "Attention, Steinbrenner and front-office morons! Your triumphs mean nothing. You all stink. You can sit on it, and rotate! This is George Costanza. I fear no reprisal. Extension 5-1-7-0."

But Costanza just couldn't get out of the Bronx.


I can't imagine that anyone hasn't heard of Steven Slater by now, but in case you've spent the last week under a rock: Slater is the Jet Blue flight attendant who snapped at work after being called a mother f***er by an uncooperative passenger as the plane was taxiing to it assigned gate after landing.

Apparently, this was the last straw.

Slater got on the intercom and cussed out the uncooperative passenger to everyone on the plane. Then, Slater popped open the jet door, threw his carry-on bag out, and deployed the emergency slide. He then grabbed two beers off of one of the beverage carts, hopped down the slide, retrieved his luggage, and went home.

Within hours, Slater had a Facebook fan page with over 100,000 fans.

Let's be honest. Who HASN'T thought about flaming out from work in the most dramatic way possible?

I doubt I have the stones to ever put this into action, but my personal fantasy flameout plan involves taking advantage of the copious amounts of glass in my workplace and streaking the building. I know I'm not the fastest runner out there, but I'm fast enough that it would take some effort to catch me.

For a little fun Friday levity, do you have a dramatic real-life story about quitting your job? If not, what's your fantasy flameout scenario?

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Monday, August 9, 2010

Happier news

Thank you very, very much for all the supportive comments on my last post. I'm back in New York now, and just trying to do things one day at a time.

On a more positive note, I learned today that I'm getting a 3.5% raise. In better economic times this would be be pretty anemic when measured against my end of year performance rating, but it sure beats the zero percent increase from last year. In addition, the bossman says that I'm at the top end of the scale for raises this year, and that was good to hear. On top of the raise, I also received a 5% performance bonus. Schweet!

At my workplace, the current bonus pool is significantly bigger than it's been in past years. The reorg of the last year has fundamentally changed our organizational structure, so I can't tell if this is a one-off or standard operating protocol going forward. My impression has always been that bonuses are taxed at a much higher rate than ordinary income, but I did some checking on that today and discovered that I was wrong: Bonuses (I'm talking about the ones paid in cash, not stock options) and salary are taxed at the same rate, but how the withholding is generally applied differs. The rules insofar as I understand them are as follows:

--Bonuses are automatically taxed at a federal rate of 25%. If that's higher than your standard tax rate, you may see a bigger refund at the end of the year; if it's lower, you may end up owing more in April.

HOWEVER:

--Depending on your employer and the state you live in, your employer might withhold more than 25% based on your income to date and the impact the bonus will have on your tax bracket. (My employer does this.) It's also possible that payroll software will not recognize the bonus as a one-time event, so it will assume a tax bracket leap that doesn't actually exist and compensate for that in the withholding.

I've always found that a good rule of thumb is to assume that the actual bonus payout will be 50% of the gross figure awarded. It's a pretty gloomy expectation even though I know it's normalized during tax time, but it beats expecting more and then being disappointed.

If you want to know more about how bonuses are taxed in the US, I found a couple of helpful articles here and here.

Are you expecting a raise, a bonus, or both this year? If so, how much do you anticipate and what do you plan to do with it?

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Friday, August 6, 2010

Hello

Well, hi there. How have you been?

I realize I haven't been posting much these days. I probably wouldn't have gotten around to posting today either, but Grace made me feel a little guilty about backing off without any word in this post. In a nutshell, here's what's going on at the moment:

--I'm visiting Mom out West right now. Mom's health is slipping big-time, and while she's living in a retirement community where step-up care is available, she flatly refuses to accept assisted living of any kind. I am worried that it's going to take another major medical emergency before she bends even a little, and at this point I don't think she has a great chance of surviving another major event.

One of my IRL friends (who can be very disagreeable at times) is insistent that I put my foot down, as she phrases it. Bah. This is my mom and she has rights that need to be respected. I'm not done trying to reason it out yet.

--SO is essentially ex-SO. We are having the closure talk when I'm back. After a friendship of eight years followed by three and a half years as a couple, this is going to be tough for both of us. My gut says it's the right thing to do, though. I even booked a couple of appointments with the therapist I saw during my divorce, and that was really helpful in validating my decision (one which I'm sure will come as no surprise to him anyway, and one which he will probably also agree with at least in part). It's my genuine hope that we can transition back to friendship, but of course there are no guarantees on that one.

--Suddenly, burning an extra two thousand dollars of my flexible spending account is not going to pose any problem at all. I need two crowns and my dental insurance won't cover it all. I'm getting one in October and the other in December. Yay?

--Halfway through my fall marathon training cycle, this has been the hardest one yet. I don't think I'll be hitting sub-3:35 this time. I'll take anything under four hours, and while a Boston qualifying time (sub-3:50) would be great, I won't be too disappointed if it doesn't come through.

Here's hoping the last few weeks of summer start looking up. How has your summer been so far?

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