Sunday, October 31, 2010


I'm back.

I'm tired.


Trip report coming. . .


Friday, October 22, 2010

Ack! I ran out of time

I'm heading to the airport for Italy early this afternoon, and I'm so swamped with last-minute work things that I haven't had any downtime this entire week. I didn't even start packing until late last night.

Couple of quick things before I go:

I'm aiming for a total budget of $1200 for seven nights and seven and a half days. I'd like to use my credit card as much as possible (I never carry a balance, folks), but in the past couple of years some restaurants have started tacking on a five to ten percent surcharge for credit card users. I don't want to pay any surcharges, so I'm taking 300 euros ($450) in cash and I've mapped out directions to a branch of my bank in Rome in case I need to use the ATM. I also called both the bank and my credit card company to tell them I'm traveling, and also to verify with my bank that my PIN will work, since apparently six-digit PIN numbers aren't always accepted at ATMs in Europe.

I also contacted my cell phone company to add unlimited international email to my phone, so I can keep tabs on work stuff while I'm gone. Internet use costs an appalling $15 per megabyte download, so I'm logging out of all internet applications before takeoff.

I checked for free wireless hotspots in Rome (widely available), which will allow free internet access from my phone. I might pop in once in a while over the next week if I happen to think of it and find a hotspot at the same time.

Overall, it's going to be a mad scramble to finish up everything by the time I have to leave for the airport, but I think I'm more or less prepared. I haven't had enough time to map out detailed itineraries for the trip, but I've got a very long plane ride to think about it.

I'll leave you with a couple of good links: First, an inspiring look at eight people who paid off an aggregate $90,000 in consumer debt, along with their strategies for digging themselves out.

Second, I missed seeing this live because I don't have television, but one of the fringe candidates for governor of New York made a big impression at the gubernatorial debate last week:

That's it for now, and see you on the flip side.


Monday, October 18, 2010

21 awesome commenters couldn't possibly be wrong

Thank you so much to everyone who took the time to give such thoughtful feedback about directions for blogging and my writing in general. Since it sounds like there's interest in the non-personal finance realm, I'll roll with it here and see what happens. The prospect shouldn't be intimidating but it is, just a bit. Be patient with me.

In the meantime, I couldn't resist throwing one more financial topic into the mix. This weekend, I came across an article in the New York Times about Japan's deflationary spiral over the past twenty years. I was living in Japan when the economy went south, and the changes in such a short time were unbelievable. In 1991 and early 1992, I remember families taking out multi-generational mortgages to buy homes in Tokyo because real estate was so astronomically expensive. I also remember that for young women, the new trend in jewelry was diamonds embedded into cellphones, presumably because young women generally had all the diamonds they needed in regular jewelry already. I didn't experience much of the high life myself because I was an English teacher in a small town, figuring out how to cook lasagna in a toaster oven and discovering that semi-automatic washing machines of that era didn't do jack for getting clothes clean. In a country where a canteloupe cost $40 and came wrapped up in cushioning to protect it from the slightest bruise, though, signs of the rampant economy were awfully hard to miss.

The bottom started falling out of the economy in 1992, and the changes were fast and sharp. The first 100 yen stores (dollar stores, basically) began opening up late in the year, and by the time 1993 rolled around, most people weren't buying diamonds for their cellphones anymore. Motsu-nabe (entrail stew) was turning up on restaurant menus and cooking programs because it was cheap. Layoffs didn't start until after I left, but in the months before I came back to the US, there were several corporate scandals related to companies rescinding job offers to new college graduates. In a country where lifetime employment was simply expected, this was a cultural shift of seismic proportions.

I haven't been back to Japan since 1993, but my understanding is that economic stagnation worsened after I left and the return to normal that so many Western nations (except Australia, which never had a recession wasn't impacted by the current global recession, and maybe to a lesser extent Canada) are looking for never came.

I'm not too worried personally about deflation in the US, because I think there is much more willingness to intervene in the economy to prevent it than Japan experienced. I do wonder if the sense of long-term diminished expectations described in the article will take root in the countries affected by the global recession, though. Do you feel as though you're facing diminished economic expectations in your own life relative to three or four years ago? Why or why not?


Friday, October 15, 2010

Help me figure out which end is up

Better get a cup of coffee. We're going to be here for a while.

Lately, I've been pondering what to do about blogging and direction. In some ways, I feel as though I've beaten the personal finance horse to death. After all, there are only so many times you can chant Spend less than you earn! Spend less than you earn! before people start tuning out. In addition, I'm in a good place financially: No debt, healthy emergency fund, largely recovered investments, stable job (at least for now). I'm not rich, but I'm comfortable and working hard to keep it that way. I don't worry about finances the way I used to (and THAT is a godsend), but my current financial life really is not captivating reading.

While I still want to write about money, I'm also getting the urge to write more about other things, preferably the ironic and funny side of life that I tend to mostly leave out here unless I can tie it to finances in some way.

Is this the right place for that? Honestly, I don't know. People who like to talk personal finance more than anything else might stalk off in disgust. I could start another blog (either linked to this one or not), but I'm not sure if that's an improvement or a bigger distraction. I could do a twitter feed (there are some hilarously funny ones out there), but I'm not sure that twitter really grabs me all that much.

What do you think? Would you be interested in reading more about everyday crap that may or may not be amusing? If so, would you rather see it here, in another linked blog, in a twitter feed, or in an unlinked blog?

I'm open to other suggestions as well. Tell me what you want.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

This might be the new normal

I'm sure this topic has been debated to death across the blogosphere, but this article about unemployed people over age 50 facing the likelihood of never working again really caught my attention when it was published a month ago, and it's stayed with me ever since.

As the article mentions, many older workers bring a great deal to the table in terms of experience and judgment. In many cases, however, technology has changed faster than many people can or are willing to adapt. In addition, the perception that older workers resist change and take longer to process information easily overshadows the benefits that age and experience bring. The article didn't mention anything about the cost differential of hiring younger workers versus older ones, but I think it's hard to argue against the notion that older workers will rack up more medical claims than younger ones on average, resulting in higher overall costs for employers who provide insurance benefits. Similarly, experience and salary growth over time mean that older workers generally cost more to hire and keep than younger ones. All of those factors together put people over 50 (or heck, even over 40) at a competitive disadvantage in a tight job market.

So is it realistic to anticipate that unemployment over 50 means involuntary retirement? For people who haven't stayed intellectually agile and willing to change with the times, I think the answer in many cases is yes.

Given that I'm marching towards my mid-40's with all due haste, that's a pretty intimidating prospect personally. This is especially true given that I've noticed since turning 40 that I don't see as well, remember as much, or think as fast on my feet as I used to.

I can't stop the natural progression of age, but there are some things I can do to help minimize the prospects of being caught up in the over-50 unemployment vortex. These include:

Staying healthy
I'm convinced that physical health and mental acuity are closely linked. Simply put, I find that my brain works better when I'm fit, active, and get enough sleep, and that makes me much more productive at work. In addition, given the prevalence of cancer and heart disease on both sides of my family, anything I can do that will minimize my risk of crapping out from something major is a plus.

Keeping my brain active outside of work
Reading matters, and complex reading is better than novels. I'm also considering subscribing to the New York Times during the week again because I really miss the challenge of the crosswords (even though I've never been able to complete a Saturday or Sunday puzzle and rarely nail the Friday ones). I think writing challenges the brain, too. Recent absences to the contrary, it's important to me to keep pushing my brain to work by continuing to exercise my blogging muscles.

Maintaining and expanding my professional skill set
This includes not only the skills directly relevant to my profession, but also general technology skills. In the linked article, the unemployed workers over 50 who were profiled had all fallen behind in technology. Staying ahead of the curve (or at least on the curve) in technology means being able to maintain or increase work productivity. It also means increased opportunities to spot a way for employers to leverage new technology to either make more money or save money, and an employee who can do that is intrinsically valuable.

If you want to sum up all of the above into one sentence, it's very simple: Don't get complacent. In a tight job market, that's the kiss of death.

Beyond being proactive about maintaining viability in the job market, I think it's important to maintain a conservative financial outlook. In other words, I don't think it's wise for anyone working to assume that he or she will ever bring in more income than today, so work with what you have. I know how pessimistic that is, but I'd rather be pessimistic and wrong (but with plenty of savings) than overly optimistic, wrong, and dead broke.

What other suggestions do you have for maintaining and growing financial stability and employment security in hard times? Do you think age has impacted your employability? Why or why not?


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Wet and wild

That was my fall marathon, folks. It rained the whole way through. It lessened to no more than a sprinkle at times, but I stopped counting after the first seven individual cloudbursts. I ran this one much slower than I wanted: It wasn't my worst by far, but I also missed the qualification window for Boston 2012. (Thanks to a good race last fall, I'm still in for 2011.)

While the weather wasn't helpful, I think the extra eight to ten pounds I'm carrying did much more than the rain to slow me down. It motivated me to get on top of it before running Boston in the spring, and I re-registered for this marathon again next October so I can go back and have another try at running it faster.

Back to our regular PF blog here. Stay tuned.


Saturday, October 2, 2010

Stuff about stuff

Once upon a time, I thought I was a minimalist. I live in a small (under 600 square feet) apartment that actually feels pretty spacious thanks to neatness, clever built-ins courtesy of the prior owner, and a general lack of crap and clutter hanging around. After seeing sites by real minimalists (here, here, and here), though, I don't think minimalism is a term that describes me particularly well. I don't have a single word to describe my relationship with things, but I guess you could say that the stuff I have is here for a reason: I use it, I find it aesthetically appealing, or (in rare cases), there's some sentimental attachment. I've been told a couple of times that my home seems a little sterile because I don't have a whole lot in the way of decorations or personal things on display, but more people seem to like the quiet openness than not.

I mentioned in my last post that I just had a house guest for a week, which is something I do several times a year. A week's worth of guest possessions in the living room really isn't a lot, but it sure feels like it. The difference in the amount of free space with my guests's things was significant, and it definitely took extra effort to keep my place livable for both of us. I like having visitors, so I didn't and don't mind the temporary clutter and extra work. Even the three weeks my sibling lived here while Mom was in the hospital last spring didn't seem like a big deal, and the people who visit generally are great about keeping their things semi-organized. If that small amount of extra stuff belonged to me and I had to figure out how to manage storing and living with it, though, I think I'd start to feel suffocated.

Overall, I feel like my relationship with things is pretty healthy: Outside of groceries, I don't bring things in without getting rid of other things (one in, one out is a good rule of thumb), and I'm not a power shopper by any stretch of the imagination because there are too many other things I'd like to do with money other than pack more stuff into a small apartment. In addition, it's important to me to buy quality as opposed to quantity. If I'm contemplating a pricey purchase, I'll do a lot of due diligence to make sure that the quality justifies the cost. (Lately, I've been doing this over both the Kindle and selected Le Creuset cast iron cookware. Given that my non-stick cookware is both seventeen years old and badly scratched up on the inside, I might actually pull the trigger on the cookware one of these days.)

Once in a while, though, there are times that I feel really drawn to buy things just for the sake of buying them, and that usually happens when something is out of balance somewhere else in my life. I've found that it's helpful during those times not only to do a simple need/want analysis, but also to spend some time taking a step back to figure out what the real problem is and seeing if there's a better way to fix it.

Doing this doesn't mean that I don't make dumb purchases once in a while, and it certainly hasn't stopped me from salivating over the Crate and Barrel catalog. In general, though, it's saved me a lot of money over time. Taking the time to really think things through has also saved storage space, time spent using or doing maintenance on impulse purchases, and kept me from feeling the hefty sense of guilt that comes along with throwing money out the window. All in all, it works pretty well.

How's your relationship with the amount of things in your life? Do you shop when your life is out of balance?


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