Thursday, September 30, 2010

Third quarter goals update

Helleeeeewwwwww. I didn't forget about you guys, honestly. I'm just off of the toughest two weeks at work I've had in a while. Somewhere in the middle of that, I had a house guest for a week and I've just gotten my home back (more or less).

More on that next post.

In the meantime, it's the end of September and that means it's time to check in on my 2010 goals. Here's how it all shook out:

Max out Roth 401(k)
Action plan: Ongoing payroll deductions
Q1 update: On track
Q2 update: On track
Q3 update: On track. In order to achieve this one, I need to increase my contribution by a small percentage in December and then bring it back down again in January. It seems like a stupid way to do things, but it's the only way I can maximize my employer match and contribute the full $16,500 allowed by law.

Max out IRA
Action plan: Fund IRA with after-tax savings.
Q1 update: Completed
Q2 update: N/A
Q3 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
Q3 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.
Q3 update: Thanks to a 5% bonus I'm on track to exceed this one, even with holiday tipping, holiday charitable contributions, and a trip to Italy looming. Non-401(k) savings so far total $40,800.

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.
Q3 update: 60% to goal, and mileage accrued from two more flights I have booked will put me over the top. I also have a business trip to sunny California next month, so that'll be worth an extra few thousand miles.

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.
Q2 update: Not started. This one's not going to happen this year unless the appliances actually give out. Maybe next year. . .

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.
Q3 update: With a marathon just ten days away, that ship has sailed. No improvement in the sugar intake; if anything, I might have gone in the other direction. My weight's not where I want it to be, so I'm not expecting a sub-3:40 marathon this time around. At least I know I'll lose a couple of pounds that day!

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.
Q3 update: After a rocky start, I actually had a good training season. I don't think the speed is quite there, but with seven runs of twenty miles or more, I feel confident I'll finish and have a good shot at qualifying for Boston again, even if I'm not likely to churn out a peak performance.

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.
Q3 update: No improvement gain, but no loss either. I'm moderately satisfied.

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?
Q3 update: Umm. . . . this hasn't been working out too well. The Japanese have a good proverb for situations like this: Fall down seven times, stand up eight.

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.
Q3 update:This is a bit back and forth. I was doing well for a while, but at the moment coffee's up and sleep is down. Work has a lot to do with it.

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.
Q3 update: Still good.

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.
Q3 update:This one is off the table for the foreseeable future. At least we are done with layoffs.

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.
Q3: No progress. I had to back-burner this one because of work obligations.

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.
Q3 update: No progress this quarter, but I hope to pick up some credits while I'm in California next month.

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.
Q3 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.
Q3 update:I've been concentrating a little better. Having the stress of my mom's stroke and the threat of layoffs back off has helped considerably.

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.
Q2 update: Still behind, but I've scheduled in my annual giving for Q4.

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.
Q3 update: We broke up, so this one is off the table.

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
Q2 update: Not started
Q3 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.
Q3 update: My cooking club came over last month, and it was a great dinner all around. I'm happy with this one thus far.

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!
Q3 update:Three weeks to Italy!

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.
Q3 update: I replaced a lot of clothes that were getting ratty or just didn't look right anymore, and I'm going out with my friends more. I'd call this one okay.

Well, you can see that outside of saving, I'm not doing so hot on my goals this year. So much has changed in the past six months or so that many of them just don't seem relevant anymore. I'll limp through with this set until the end of the year, though, and hopefully 2011 will have fewer major surprises.

How's your progress on your 2010 goals? Has anything major changed in your life to either throw you off track or make achieving your goals more attainable?


Sunday, September 19, 2010

The crushing burden of student loan debt

Sorry. . . I know this is really late. I suppose I could tell you I was too busy to post, but I'm actually in one of those lull periods at the moment where I just feel like backing off from blogging for a while. The lulls usually don't last all that long, and I'll be back when I feel more motivated (which will probably also be right around the time I'm done with the marathon).

In the meantime, I received a very interesting email from commenter goldsmith, and he graciously allowed me to share it with you. Goldsmith is from the EU, so I thought his take on this topic was very interesting indeed:

Hi fz,

Just saw this:

It really threw me, mostly because the young people profiled have done nothing wrong. The idea that one can end up with a debt of over 100k USD just for an undergraduate degree is deeply disturbing. And this trend is coming to Europe, where university studies are getting ever more expensive, although fees are nowhere near US levels yet.

Not like I am for mollycoddling the young ones, but that young people should start into their lives together burdened by such debt levels simply for their education seems really wrong.

Would you think blogging about it?

I think goldsmith is quite right in that it's upsetting to see young people starting off their adult lives in heavy debt. It's particularly disturbing given the fact that thanks to the magic of compound interest, time is vitally important: Young people who can't scrape savings together early on because of college debt will, on average, end up with substantially less wealth later in life because of the opportunity cost incurred by student loan debt.

In the US college financing system, there is a built-in assumption that parents will contribute to college costs, and student loan debt is there to fill in the gaps. This assumption was already taking a beating when I was in college twenty years ago, but I think many parents today have concluded that their contributions to educational costs will be minimal to nothing, leaving the entire financing burden to the children. Some of this is undoubtedly the impact of less than optimal choices (lack of spending discipline, buying too much house, and so on), but the economic downturn has without question hit parents' ability to set savings aside for college particularly hard. I think another major driver of this change in attitude about financing is the fact that for a number of years now, college costs in the US have vastly outpaced inflation, and it's simply getting harder and harder for families to cover those expenses.

I was lucky: My parents started saving for college for both me and my sibling the week each of us were born. We didn't have a lot of extras in my childhood, but the basics were always covered. My parents' retirement and our college were treated as basics, and saving for both at rates that increased as their salaries rose was treated as non-negotiable. My parents' ability to save for college was made possible both by their Depression-era black belt frugality, and by the fact that neither of my parents was ever out of work.

Throughout high school and college, my sibling and I were expected to work part-time in order to cover our books, shared car, and personal expenses (and this included rent if we opted to live off campus as college students). We were also expected to earn scholarship money. In addition, we got a break in college tuition costs because we both attended the same college with a two-year overlap. All of these factors made it possible for us to graduate from a small, private college and study abroad with zero debt after graduation.

In today's economic climate, especially with the rampant rise in tuition costs, I'm not at all confident that my middle-class parents would be able to pull off the same achievement again, at least not as well as they did twenty to twenty-four years ago.

If you live in the US and have kids, how will you (or they) finance college? Are you saving for it now? Why or why not? If you graduated with heavy student loan debt, how has it impacted your life?

If you live outside the US, how is higher education financed in your country, and do you see it changing in the future?


Sunday, September 12, 2010

When you know better, you do better - is it true?

This weekend's New York Times contained a sobering article about a severe increase over the last two years of families whose only home is a homeless shelter. The article profiled one particular family and broadly outlined the series of circumstances that led to their becoming homeless. There's no question that some of the choices this particular family made contributed greatly to their dilemma since they were obviously living well beyond their means, but I can't help feeling bad for the kids who end up in this kind of situation. I wonder if the parents had access to any better guidance, and if not, whether that would have helped them avoid the sad situation they are in today.

Let's play make-believe. I'm sure each of us knows someone who is facing true financial hardship. For the person or family you have in mind, what do you think is the root cause of his/her/their financial difficulties? If you had the opportunity to step in and guide that person or family in a positive direction, what would your guidance be?

As an aside, I'm in my last week of heavy marathon training and I'm truly wiped out. I've got more topic in mind to post over the next few days, but I should have more free time (and hopefully a little more rest) after the end of this week. As always, thanks for your patience in the meantime.


Friday, September 3, 2010


The next generation Kindle with wifi was recently released, and last week I got the opportunity to play with one for a while.

I'm not normally a gadgethead, but this one knocked my socks off. The price point for the non-3G version (which is perfectly adequate for me) is $139, significantly lower than the original Kindle ($400 or thereabouts, if I remember correctly). It's light, fast, easy to read, and has an impressive battery life because the only time it actually uses juice outside of wifi connectivity is on page turns. The big attraction for me is what interested me in the original Kindle: Wifi subscription service to the New York Times. I cancelled my newspaper subscription outside of weekends over a year ago because the only time I could read the paper was on my commute, and the paper simply wasn't arriving before my 6:10 a.m. departure.

Even though my weekend subscription gives me access to the Times online, I don't always get the chance to read it. Between that and not having television, I feel annoyingly out of date on the news. For the cost of the Kindle and potentially a twenty bucks per month subscription, I could read the newspaper on my commute once more. Reviews of the New York Times subscription service for the Kindle are pretty mediocre, but major articles can be downloaded for free. Free makes mediocre look a little less, well, mediocre.

I'm hesitating a little bit before biting the bullet, and the reason is this: Technology evolves so quickly that I suspect a better Kindle is just around the corner. Wouldn't it be better to wait for that?

This is also the logic that sits behind my not having a flat-screen TV (well, that and the fact that I don't want to pay for cable), or an i-Anything.

In addition to being a little intimidated by the prospect of sinking money into a technology that might soon be obsolete, I get irritated by having to rebuy technology over and over, as I've done several times now with my Blackberry. My employer pays for the device and service, but normally by the time I'm approaching the end of a two-year contract, the device is on its last legs. I'm on my third model in five years, and that's after using the previous two until they fell apart. I'm not feeling the pinch personally because of my employer's willingness to shoulder the cost, but I would absolutely hate being on that treadmill if it was coming out of my own pocket.

What do you think: Kindle or no Kindle, and why? Also, you've seen some of my decision factors when it comes to buying technology. What do yours look like?


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