Sunday, April 29, 2007

Have You Met Miss Jones?

I had brunch with my friend M this morning, and had a run-in with that pesky keeping-up-with-the-proverbial-Joneses thing.

M is glamorous. She just is. She's a teeny, spritely Texan with a pointy nose and a pixie haircut, all-but-engaged to a boy who's about to start a 100k job with Goldman Sachs. She's a temp at a not-for-profit staffing organization, and probably makes the same amount of money I do (albeit with no benefits), but she's not saving anything (she told me) and she just borrowed money from her father (who has plenty of it), so she has more spending money than I do. You can see that difference, too. And though generally I don't do this whole trip, this morning it made me feel bad about myself. I just suddenly felt a distaste for the tightness of my budget and the scrupulousness with which I have to plan and live in order to stick within it.

So I ordered a mimosa at brunch when she ordered one. (She actually ordered three, over the course of the meal. I stuck with one.) One of the things I've always liked about M is her frankness about liking money, which makes it ironic that I wasn't able to say, frankly, "I'm going to skip the mimosa; I can't afford it."

Five bucks for a teeny (and none-too-strong) mimosa, for no reason. I do love a mimosa, but I didn't enjoy this one.

And here's the kicker: she told me that recently she "spent way too much money at M.A.C.," and was invited to the launch of their new product line. She knows I love M.A.C. makeup, so would I like to come? Eeurgh. I said yes, but I may have to call her and cancel, because my chances of getting out of a M.A.C. store in M's company without blowing thirty bucks are slim. And I do not have thirty bucks to blow. Not even on a wonderful new lipstick. Not even on wonderful M.A.C. foundation, even though I do need a new foundation.

See? This is why I shouldn't go.


Friday, April 27, 2007

Expenses Ahoy!

Tucking $3 in an envelope with a form just to see my own undergrad transcript (for the first time) makes me realize how expensive the grad school application process is going to be. Application fees are $50-$80 per school, and that doesn't count all the shipping expenses (like all those self-addressed stamped envelopes for my professors' recommendations), let alone the GRE prep course tuition.


Anyway, I'm going to chill out for the next week a little. I could push really hard and squeeze an extra $50 or so out to put in the Freedom Fund...but frankly, I'd rather have a little leeway and a social life.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Game of Life (or, Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor...)

The other day, I played a game of Life--you know, that oddly elaborate board game whose goal seems to be to retire to "Millionaire Estates," and which no one seems to really win?--with the girl I tutor. She's eleven. She struggles with English literacy, and both of her parents are Ecuadorean immigrants who support family in Ecuador. As we played, I tried to explain, in a scattershot fashion, a few basic financial concepts--that when you borrow money, you have to pay back more than you originally got; what insurance is and why people buy it; that people take out loans to pay for college.

I don't think it was very helpful. She didn't seem to understand why I was trying to explain these things to her. Part of the problem, I think, is when you're growing up in a household of illegal immigrants, your financial examples are necessarily different. My tutee's parents can't open bank accounts, let alone invest their money, so a lot of the concepts of institutionalized finance as I understand them are foreign and incomprehensible to her.

I've been thinking about it and can't come up with any answers. This kind of stuff is crucial to success in "mainstream" America: it's part of the lever by which people improve their children's lives so they can improve their children's lives, and so on. My father is the son of immigrants--albeit legal immigrants who came through Ellis Island--who worked and fought to get their kids out of the Brooklyn tenements by sending them to college. But college is more expensive now, and harder to get into, and when the financial opportunities for illegal immigrants are so restricted, how do they better their lives and their children's lives?

This made me, as we say in the theory-and-criticism biz, check my privilege. All this personal finance stuff, my ability to improve my situation, is contingent upon opportunities I've had (and have) and opportunities my parents have had, and opportunities my parents' parents have had, and so on. Now we as a country refuse to extend that opportunity to new Americans. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free doesn't seem to apply anymore.

What do we do about this? I don't at all mean that it's ever easy for immigrant families, that success ever comes for them without years and years of hard work, but my father's parents were never hobbled by their status as immigrants in the way my tutee's parents are. My father's father was free to open a business, to hire employees and travel internationally as it grew, to save his money as he saw fit. He didn't have to live "off the grid." He didn't have to fear deportation. He could teach his children to work hard with confidence that their country would reward them for it. My tutee's parents can't do any of that.

It's just discouraging, you know? I believe so fervently, so passionately, in the old patriotic notion of America as Land of Opportunity, and now that notion is so dented and battered and tarnished.

It's pretty extraordinary, the extent to which money and personal finance participate in the broader picture. All this from a board game.


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

How I Got a $10 Starbucks Card for Free

I'm a member of, which is one of those online shopping rewards sites. As far as those sites go, it doesn't hold a candle to Fatwallet (of which I'm not actually a member), but here's what it does do: it lets you sign up to earn points by reading what's basically spam. They send me two or three emails a day. I click a link and earn 5 points per email. And then, several months but basically zero effort later, I cash in my points for free Starbucks. I could have gotten something more useful, but I figure hey, as long as it's free, get the luxury.

If you're interested, I'll send you a referral (which earns us both points), but one caveat: don't do this if you're susceptible to ads. I don't even load the images on my webmail, and I close the windows before the linked pages fully load, so I've never bought something I wouldn't have otherwise bought (in fact, the only thing I've ever bought through MyPoints is a dress from Nordstrom's site). Nevertheless, they're sending you ads, and if that'll throw a monkey wrench in your routine, skip it.


Dave Ramsey, How (And Why) Do I Love Thee?

I love Dave Ramsey. I do. I love him.

This might sound strange, given that Dave Ramsey is pretty much my antithesis: a good ol' boy from Tennessee who assumes that everyone in the whole entire world is straight and Christian (occasionally he mentions Jews, but mostly only to affirm that Jews, like Christians, believe in tithing). He inveighs against the evils of pot-smoking (you'll never be a success if you smoke pot, even moderately) and cohabitation. Occasionally he mentions that New York City is "a very different culture" and not somewhere he'd care to live. He calls the IRS "the KGB" and complains regularly about the "unfair tax burden" shouldered by the rich, which is oh, so perilously close to the "goddamn socialist Congress and its liberal wealth redistribution!" thing.

So why do I love him so much?

Basically, because he gives incredibly accessible advice that prioritizes people over money. One of his regular answers is "You don't have a money problem, you have a [marriage/career/personal] problem," which typifies his belief that most serious financial problems are manifestations of nonfinancial problems (or, as he says, "debt it just a symptom"). He takes a holistic approach to debt reduction, focusing on behavioral change rather than on math tricks. People argue against his Debt Snowball technique of paying your debts in order of balance, smallest to largest, because it loses a little money in interest rates, but Dave argues that no debt reduction technique saves you money if you don't do it and that his plan is designed to provide periodic positive reinforcement. At the end of each show, he reminds his listeners that "the only way to true financial peace is to walk daily with the Prince of Peace, Christ Jesus." If you substitute, say, "live a good life" for the religious bit, you lose the wordplay but gain an aphorism with which I'm totally, completely, 100% on board.

He also focuses on the bigger picture: the ultimate goal of his financial program is "changing your family tree." While many people who affect a similar down-home common-sense demeanor argue against financial help for children over 18 and even against paying for your children's education, Dave prioritizes saving for college and advocates "being a blessing" to family members (those who are managing money well, at least) with the knowledge that providing your children with college educations free of debt puts them in a position to provide more abundantly for themselves and their own children. That, and his stated opinion that payday lenders "oppress the poor" hint, at least in my head, at an ideology that recognizes the socioeconomic role of debt and consumerism and that embraces opportunity as well as the oft-abused doctrine of personal responsibility.

I also find him charming, just as a human. I like that he doesn't talk down to anyone. I like that he's blunt but compassionate, that he manages to bond with people over having done dumb things without making anybody feel that doing dumb things makes them dumb people. I like his instinctive ability to find the real issue. I think he's totally brilliant at transfering people's focus, making achieving financial success a goal in and of itself, an exciting thing worth focusing on, something for which one sacrifices gladly.

Ultimately, I think he just does good things: I think he empowers people to live fulfilling lives and improve their children's prospects. I think he encourages people to consider their values and focus on the important things without using "there are more important things than money" as a way to undermine themselves. Even though we're really different, Dave Ramsey and I, what I really agree with is his perspective on money.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Savings Projections

By my calculations, I should have 3 months' worth of expenses (which I estimate at $1500/month) in my ING Freedom Fund by the end of this calendar year.

The current balance is $1,300.
I also have a CD at Bank of America, which will be rolled into the Freedom Fund when it matures at the end of August. By then, it will be worth about $1,030. (Running total: $2,330)
I have two "extra paycheck" months still to come. Each will allow me to save $300 above what I usually do, for a total of $600. (Running total: $2,930)
I have 18 paychecks left this year. If I save $50 from each of them in the Freedom Fund, that adds $900. (Running total: $3,830)
Hopefully, my beloved and generous aunt continues the tradition of $500 gifts to her nieces and nephew at Christmas. (Running total: $4,330)
I can definitely find $170 over the course of the year above and beyond my normal savings. I'm pretty sure I can't come up with $670, so if my aunt's gift changes this year, I may fall just short of the mark, but I should be able to make it to $4,000.

That's pretty serious savings, actually. $3,000 (the amount I'd be saving out of this year's earned income) is about 9.7% of my projected pre-tax W-2 income for this year. Disregarding my Roth (which, in this scenario we should, since it's mostly money I didn't earn and it's all money I didn't earn this year), consider that I also save 8% of my (pre-tax) salary in my 401(k). A 17.7% savings rate? I'm no slouch.

My newfound enthusiasm for the Freedom Fund leaves me neglecting my travel fund, though. Its current allotment of $25 per pay period will bring it to $1,500 at the end of the year, substantially short of the $2,000 goal. I'll either have to resign myself to prioritizing the Freedom Fund to the detriment of the travel fund, or find some way to step it up a little.


Monday, April 23, 2007

Gen Y-ers Like Our Brands Simple

This survey by a marketing group found that "Gen Y-ers" (those born after 1978, in this arbitrary definition) prefer brands that are simple and straightforward. And I have to say, the brands on that list with which I'm familiar are my preferred brands. In fact, they list all of the national brands about which I feel actively positive, including the top three: Apple, Trader Joe's, and JetBlue (further down the list are other brands I like, including Ben & Jerry's, Whole Foods, Target, and Converse). The only brand on the list I actively dislike is American Apparel, which I loathe for its skeezy sex ads (and for its skeezy CEO) (not to mention its inability to conceive of women over a size 10). I'm not that familiar with Red Stripe beer, but I admit I do find the "Hooray, beer!" ads charming, and for pretty much the reasons the survey describes: the branding isn't too elaborate or aspirational; it's just beer (hooray, beer!) without any bells and whistles. None of the classic advertising "You'll sleep with this hot babe and earn the respect of your peers if you drink our nasty beer!" gambits.

This is really interesting to me. What is it that attracts me (and my generation) to these companies? For me, there's a certain transparency to all of them--the "qualities" of the brand (i.e. the way the brand characterizes itself) are associated with the qualities (and quality) of its products, and none of them are known for terrible customer service or complicated corporate procedure. Some of them are also explicitly "in touch with the youth"--i.e. Ben & Jerry's new Colbert Report-themed flavor and the weirdo lower-cased ramblings on Vitamin Water bottles--and that counts for something, too. Mostly, though, I really do think all of these companies sell good products, generally maintain higher-than-average levels of corporate responsibility, and don't gussy it up too much.

I wonder if this apparent preference will drive future trends in branding and corporate policy--if it does, I'm cautiously optimistic that the effects will be positive ones.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

When Target Funds Miss Their Mark

This article from CNN Money, When Target Funds Miss Their Mark, piqued my interest, but really just comes down to two caveats about target funds:

1) Cost ratios can be high, and
2) The structure of the fund can obscure your view of your holdings.

I've yet to see a really substantial argument against target funds (per se, rather than a general "funds with high costs are bad, and some target funds have high costs" kind of argument) for young, single investors. My own slight hesitation about target funds, I think, came from a sense that investing should be complicated, like the stock market won't make me money unless I have to sweat and strain and read Kiplinger's. I'm delighted to be done with that idea, and very pleased with my target funds, both of which have rebounded from the late-February hiccup nicely. My Vanguard fund (their 2050 target) has returned about 4.7% for the year to date.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Spending Spurt

I wouldn't call it a "spree," really, but...I'm in the process of spending the money piled up in my vanity-related virtual envelopes. Yesterday, I ordered a denim blazer & a pair of jeans for $80 (each nearly 75% off) and made a hair appointment for a cut and color at the expensive curly hair salon. The shopping won't stop there--I've already got my eye on two more tops and a dress, and I definitely need a big fat belt and a couple of light cardigans. I do have the money--it's just hanging out in my checking account, doing nothing--and I have it for a reason, and the reason is this, right here: to buy stuff with.

Nevertheless, I find it difficult to avoid little twinges of guilt: I could have saved that money. (Maybe after I do this spending, I'll hold off on contributing to these envelopes again for a couple of paychecks and save that money instead.) I don't, however, feel so guilty that I'm not excited about new clothes and a new haircut.


Monday, April 16, 2007

Subletting: Just a Thought

My parents will be away for the entire summer. A friend of mine is housesitting for them, and plans to sublet her room (okay, "space," since she doesn't really have walls yet) while she stays in my parents' apartment. I wonder just a teeny, tiny bit if K and I couldn't do similarly: pack up a bit, stay in my parents' apartment with the friend for a month (or two), and pocket the sublet money.

It seems a) troublesome, b) risky, in the stranger-in-my-house way, and c) like a boundary issue I may not want to deal with, but...on the other hand...a month or two of rent reimbursed. It's kind of tempting.


Frugal Challenge: $5/day

So, I sent an extra $50 to my Freedom Fund the other day, leaving me about $15 to live on until Thursday, when I get paid. I've actually got more than $1,000 in my checking account, so the stakes are low if I need to go over that a little, but I've only got (about) $15 budgeted to live on until Thursday. I don't anticipate that being too hard--I'll have to buy lunch today, since I spent last night at my parents' (it was pouring) and didn't get to pack anything, but other than drinks to go with packed lunches tomorrow and Wednesday, I don't anticipate any further expenses. I have food in the house (two mangoes, a couple of bananas, peanut butter, some canned soup, some pasta and turkey meatballs...that should do it), a Metrocard in my wallet, and no expensive outings planned.

I'm glad to be getting a move on towards my savings goals--I've put $150 above and beyond my automated transactions into this account over the past month--but it does always feel a little pinched when I do it like this. Luckily, my deadline's not far away.


Friday, April 13, 2007

Meme: Five Obsessions

Madame X tagged me to list five obsessions. I'll roll with that, and tag five more people when I'm done. Are you tagged? Read on! Do you not care? Read no further!

1. Semiotics
Or, what anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls "deep play." I believe that everything has a meaning--or, more specifically, meanings, layers and nuances and vagaries of meaning, and I can't stop trying to figure out the meanings of things: ads, institutional bylaws, slang, movies, Louis Vuitton knockoffs,, logos, social interactions, and perhaps most especially, aesthetics. I am compulsively analytical, a cultural critic by training and inclination. I should note, here, my one semiotic blind spot: it is cars. I don't know what they mean, what a Volvo means versus a Lexus, a station wagon versus an SUV. I am always confusing the brands. It makes me crazy. Luckily, I have a good friend who is like a car-semiotics savant, so I call her when I'm frustrated.

2. The Future
You might think the fact that I have no idea what I want to do with my life would stop me from envisioning future-life scenarios: me in a cozy cottage with a cat, drafting an article for peer review; me as an expat in Berlin; me riding trains in Thailand; me as the millenial Susan Sontag, presiding over a dinner party full of witty people and beautiful food. You would be wrong.

3. Progress and Planning
We tell ourselves stories in order to live, and my stories are mostly about trajectories. I want always to be moving forward, improving in some way. I want to have improved. I want to make lists and timelines. I want to know when things will happen. Here is the downside: sometimes I begin wanting time to pass so that I can see my plans come to fruition. I just want the next two weeks to disappear so that I can meet that savings goal, or whatever. It's not a good thing, really. Sometimes my planning is helpful, and sometimes it's just obsessive.

4. Getting the Music Just Right
I have a tendency to play single albums, or even single songs, on repeat for days on end. Frequent offenders: The Notwist's Neon Golden, Belle and Sebastian's The Life Pursuit, Gillian Welch's "I Dreamed a Highway" and "Revelator," (or that whole album, which is Time (The Revelator)) Yo La Tengo's "You Can Have it All," Terry Allen's Juarez. I am, however, often equally obsessive about matching songs perfectly to moods, or weather, or events--there are certain times in my life that cry out for certain music. If I am in my parents' kitchen making a big holiday meal with flour all over my shirt and not listening to one of like four specific albums, something is missing.

5. Other People
I am pathologically nosy. It's why I love the internet. I want to know all about other people, their nooks and crannies and secrets, what music they love and why, who their first kisses were with and how they felt, what they do all day. Do not leave me alone with your diary. I will read it. I have no shame.


6. Words
I get lines of poems in my head the way other people get snatches of songs. Then I walk around reciting them over and over. For two days, I have been saying in my head, you must change your life, which is the last line of a Rilke poem titled, approximately, "On an Archaic Torso of Apollo" (or something like that). Alternately, when people are being melodramatic, my head starts quoting Roethke: The day's on fire! I know the purity of pure despair! (there's a linebreak somewhere in there, but it doesn't matter in my head so much). When I am happy, or feeling fierce about the world, the last words of Ulysses sometimes pop up: and yes i said yes i will Yes.

You're tagged:
Him and/or Her of Make Love Not Debt
Gradgal at Getting Out Grad
SF Money Musings
Wanda of Well-Heeled


Salary Expectations: Academia

Today I stumbled on some data about salary scales in academia. The average salary for full professors in general English lit fields clocks in at $73,673. For associate professors, that figure drops to $56,868, and for assistant professors, $47,405. We won't even talk about adjunct jobs, i.e., the job you do not want but might take anyway.

This money is enough money, in an objective sense. It is a lot of money. It is more money than most people make, and it can be augmented by lots of things. A professor at my undergrad institution is an ancillary author for one of my current company's textbooks; another is a food critic for the local alternative weekly (his reviews were pretty much like his teaching, which is to say, insufferable).

If I teach at a top-tier school, I might make six figures, but only after several lean years as a grad student and more not-quite-so-lean-but-don't-go-planning-any-grand-trips years moving up through the professorial ranks. It's hard to say how long that would take: tenure-track jobs are hard to come by.

One of the reasons salaries aren't higher in academia is that there isn't really competition--you get your PhD in English literature, you're pretty much stuck with academia as a field, you know? Tenure-track jobs get fewer and farther between, and I have to say, the prospect of hawking my intellectual wares at MLA conferences is an off-putting one. Nevertheless, the prospect of being a professor is a lovely one--I think often that how you feel about what you do is determined not by its mission statement, but by what you do all day, and what you do all day as a professor is read and think and talk to people. I'm good at those things, and I love them.

Suffice to say, I have made no firm decision about my future. Some days I want to go get an MBA and make a million dollars a year.


Thursday, April 12, 2007

Famous Last Words?

So...I've done one of those things you're not supposed to do.

I've added K as an authorized user on one of my credit cards--the Chase Freedom Visa, with a $1,000 limit--prompted by the fact that he applied for a credit card last night and was turned down for lack of sufficient credit history. "Lack of sufficient credit history," in his case, means "no credit history." Which is great, in that he's reached the ripe old age of 29 without ever having credit card debt, and also slightly problematic, in that at some point he might be interested in buying a house or something.

So I've added him as an authorized user. We've agreed that when Chase sends the card, we'll just cut it up, so he won't actually be charging anything on my account--I'll just be donating my credit history on this account, basically. Hopefully, he should be able to qualify for a card of his own within a few months, and then I can remove him as an authorized user without too many adverse consequences.

I know these are famous last words, but it does, actually, seem pretty foolproof.


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Complexities of Anti-Consumerism

I picked up some groceries at (New York's only) Trader Joe's last night and took them home on the subway. I was sitting next to a pretty young woman, probably no older than I am, with a beautiful little daughter who was probably three or so. You know how you can tell that some kids are going to grow up to be stunning? You could tell with this girl.

The mother was well-dressed, in boots, a nice pair of jeans, and a blazer. Her bag was a so-so Vuitton knockoff--the material was shiny in that Canal-Street kind of way. Her hair was chemically processed--it looked to me like Japanese straightening, not corner-beauty-shop lye straightening. Her little girl was dressed well, too, and tastefully--not in that miniature-adult way that children, especially girls, sometimes are--in pink sneakers, jeans, and a quilted coat. The daughter was clearly very bright: she was engaged and articulate throughout the subway ride in a way that made me associate her with the kids who win the leadership scholarships from the foundation at which I tutor.

The mother was holding a little pink bag on her lap. The plastic that had held the tag was still attached to the zipper. She asked her daughter, "Do you like the new bookbag I got you?" The girl was looking at something and didn't respond. The mother asked again, nudging her, and the girl looked up, flashed a huge smile, and kissed her mother on the cheek. "Yes, Mommy!"

Consumerism issues, an observer might say. The mother is clearly trying to maintain an image of having more money than she does (i.e. the knockoff bag) and trying to win her daughter's affection with material objects.


Consider that this is a young black single mother (she was telling her daughter, quietly, that they were going "to Daddy's house," and when she counted the stops for her daughter, it was clear that the destination was pretty deep in the Bronx). Consider the stereotypes with which she has to contend. Consider what she feels when people look at her and her beautiful, precocious child and glaze over in that "God, not another young black single mother" way that she has learned to recognize. It differentiates her, this image that costs money to project. The money that she spends on clothing and on her daughter's sneakers, on aspirational handbags, buys her some peace on the subway, buys her, maybe, freedom from the weight of each judgment levied by the glances of strangers, conscious or otherwise.

It seemed clear to me, sitting next to her, that this woman understood in an instinctive way the class-coding of consumer goods, that by sheer force of will and strategic spending she planned to change her social identity and her daughter's, that she was determined that no one would ever look at her or at her daughter and sneer. Her meticulousness in other ways--the carefully-packed snacks, the stop-counting--seemed to bear this out.

People do sneer. People really do look at other people and think, "Oh no, not another one," and imagine squalid apartments and corner drug deals and absent fathers. We all do it. I am doing it here, in some way. I'm not sure it matters whether the tone of our imaginings is compassionate or revolted. It is terrifying to know that other people can claim your life in this way, that they feel entitled to have opinions about you. The weight of these collective imaginings really does affect the people on whose shoulders it presses down. There are consequences, real ones.

I can imagine this woman's efforts paying off. I can imagine her spending everything she has to keep her daughter in nice clothes and green vegetables. I can imagine her daughter getting a scholarship to a good college, getting a lucrative job, paying for her mother's retirement. There is some way in which we fulfill the prophecies of our sneakers and mittens and freezers. Is it a coincidence that this determined, meticulous, anxious woman has a smart, beautiful daughter whose shining future visibly unfurls before her?

I don't think it can be. I think the bill of goods this woman has purchased includes not only the pink sneakers and bookbag but a set of behaviors that is rewarded. This is how class functions. You can give a child a different class identity than yours--I've seen it done, for many of the first-generation American kids with whom I went to high school. They went off to Yale and Amherst and Dartmouth and then into the Peace Corps and finance firms and law school, and they do take for granted what they've been given, in the way that we all do, the way in which it's what they've always known and had, and it is hard to understand on a visceral level what giving it meant to their parents. It is hard for me to understand what giving me Keds and riding lessons and an American Girl doll and dance classes and a private education and trips to Europe means to my father. There is a gulf there, much as, perhaps, there will be between the mother and daughter on the train when the daughter grows up and does not understand, really, what it is to be afraid of the way people look at her.

So I don't think we can really tell this woman, with authority, that she shouldn't be spending so much money on clothes, or toys, or her hair. I think we have to remember that things have meaning--real meaning, a meaning that changes people and lives and, ultimately, the world. At the very least, I think we need to recognize on a visceral level that it takes a strength of character that I cannot even comprehend to stare back at the staring strangers and know that you are still a person, your own, unclaimable, regardless of what they have thought about your hair and your clothes and your parenting--about you--that it is not weakness to want them to stop so much as it is unfathomable strength to bear everything they unknowingly communicate.

I think this deserves more consideration than the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses" can provide, much as the woman on the train deserves more consideration than the dismissiveness of a statistical, appraising glance.


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Frugal Weddings

I mentioned yesterday that K's sister's wedding was really lovely. It was. It was also a really good demonstration of the ways in which some selective frugality can make a wedding more a wonderful, albeit expensive, party than utter financial armageddon.

Some of the ways K's sister saved money:
-She bought her dress and shoes off the rack, for a total of less than $200 (she also looked totally adorable).
-She bought a white cardigan (off the rack) and used an embroidery kit her then-fiance had given her to embroider wedding-themed tattoo imagery on it. So cute! She wore it when she got cold (which was often. It was chilly).
-She made her own veil, a little beaded '30s-style number--out of, she confided, a tacky novelty wedding thong! She transported it in a hatbox that she decoupaged herself.
-She had a friend do her makeup, and another friend, a stylist, do her hair. (Again, both were really well done, and naturally, these contributions were the friends' gifts.)
-The same friend that did her makeup sang during the processional at the chapel.
-She did all of the flower arrangements herself, including her own bouquet.
-The bridesmaids weren't asked to buy new dresses, just to show up in the same color (black).
-She and her fiance negotiated a special package price with the (professional) photographer she hired based on minimizing the amount of photo editing the photographer would do and maximizing the amount that she and her now-husband (who does web design) would do themselves.
-The couple made the favors--framed family photos from both families, including pictures from both sets of parents' weddings--themselves.

In addition to these frugalities, the newlyweds are using gifts of money for two smart purposes: 1) to pay for the honeymoon, and 2) to contribute to their savings for a down payment on a condo.

What I think is really amazing here is not just that the couple (especially the bride) strategically tapped their own (substantial) creative resources and those of their friends, but also that they did it in a way that really made the wedding beautiful and intimate and memorable. Instead of considering these DIY elements sacrifices, they considered them a way to make their wedding both more personal and more communal--not to mention more playful. I think that's totally the right way to do DIY with something like this: do yourself what you can do well, recruit qualified help, pay for the rest.

P.S. For whoever found me by searching "curly haircut recommendations Portland," the salon you want is Dirty Little Secret, on NE MLK. Ask for Chai or Aimee. A cut is $40 plus tip, which to this New Yorker seems like a totally brilliant bargain.


Monday, April 09, 2007

Wedding Weekend Spending

I had a lovely trip. K's sister was very happy and very beautiful and very friendly and got (very) married. It was a lovely ceremony, a great party, and a fun chance to meet K's extended family.

I spent $100, mostly on transportation and food. Some of this spending was unnecessary, because K's parents, in addition to their various benevolences, also handed K and his brother each a wad of cash, so we did all of our beautifying (I had an amazing, amazing pedicure, with sugar scrub and paraffin and a nice lady making jokes, and of the $65 plus tip it cost, I did not pay a dime) and most of our cab-taking and food-eating at no cost to ourselves. Nevertheless, one doesn't want to be a freeloader, and it seemed only fair that after K's parents' cash covered my pedicure, I should cover some of our shared expenses. So my spending went something like this:

$20 for airport transportation and snacks on Thursday
$20 for a cab to the salon on Friday
$20 for dinner on Friday
$20 for miscellany: toothbrushes (we both forgot them--oops), hairbands, Starbucks
$20 for dinner (yes, the hated airport food purchase)

We could have spent less (that is, we could have done without cash from K's parents) had we given up a few things (beauty treatments--I got the wonderful pedicure; K got a manicure! And a much-needed haircut!--and Starbucks) or inconvenienced ourselves a bit by coordinating our transportation better and being willing to spend the time looking for parking in parking-poor areas (and by getting food before we got to O'Hare). I think K's parents knew that, but wanted us to have as nice a weekend as possible. I really appreciate that, and we really did have a wonderful time, so hopefully they got their money's worth. (And, of course, I'll be sending a thank-you note and a little gift.)

Anyway, I'm dispensing with the allocated-but-unspent $40 thus:
I'm sending $20 over to ING savings, to even up my numbers (my love of round numbers is a real savings motivator).
I'm hanging on to $20 for unexpected expenses for this week.


Friday, April 06, 2007

Hello From Chicago

Where I mostly, really, am not thinking at all about money, except to wonder if the friends-and-family discount at K's sister-in-law-to-be's sister's salon would enable me to get my nails and eyebrows done after all. K's parents have kindly put us up in a hotel room, lent us a car, and picked us up at the airport bearing sandwiches and water.

I'll probably decline to spring for too much beautification (maybe a pedicure—my shoes are open-toe), but it's all a nice reminder that the point of money is a means to an end rather than an end in and of itself.


Thursday, April 05, 2007

Absorbing Costs & Playing Musical Accounts

Immediately upon returning home last night, I entered the paycheck for today into Budget and began rejiggering my virtual envelopes to cover the Metrocard expense, figuring it was better to account for it in some way than to wait for my FSA reimbursement check in a state of confusion. I covered the expense pretty easily--a leftover $20 from the previous pay period, this paycheck's $40 "unexpected expenses" allocation, $16 worth of skimming, done.

Then I set out to find some money for the trip this weekend, my eBay plan having been an abysmal failure. I figure I need money for getting to the airport today (bus), getting home on Sunday (cab, probably), for covering the (relatively few) meals that won't be related to wedding festivities, and...for anything else that might come up. After assembling that sum (mostly, I co-opted this week's contributions to the clothing and haircut envelopes), I packed, put some airport snacks together (the hell I'm paying $12 for a disgusting sandwich), and spent some time catching up with my Internetting.

Then K came home. He'd thought to stop and get the mail, and there--lo and behold--was my FSA reimbursement check.


What I decided to do is this: I'll deposit the check into my Bank of America savings account, the one that holds my Keep the Change transfers and that will now hold the $100 float fund. I'll transfer the balance over $100 to my savings account over at ING.

I'll withdraw $120 of the $140 I put together for the trip from my checking account today. Hopefully, I'll come in under--but if I do, I'll need to figure out whether to "reimburse" my spending envelopes or to use it as an opportunity to save.

I'll update on this when I return--probably not before, though we can certainly hope that the hotel room K's parents have kindly gotten for us comes fully equipped with internet access.


Wednesday, April 04, 2007

FSA Follies

Oh, man, I did like eight things wrong when buying my new monthly MetroCard this morning. (Okay, three.)

First, I swiped my debit card before actually entering what I wanted to buy. No harm no foul, but still, wrong!

Then, after selecting a monthly unlimited card, I swiped my debit card again. My debit card. The whole point of having a credit card is so that I can float transactions like this, things that I don't have the actual cash for since they're FSA expenses. So: wrong!

Then, after paying with my debit card, the machine asks me if I want a receipt. I tell it no, because it's not like I need to submit a receipt for reimbursement or anything. Wrong!

I think I can get reimbursement with a transaction report from my checking account--it's clearly labeled MTA, and there's really only one kind of thing you can buy from the MTA, and that one thing is reimbursable--but nevertheless, watch and learn: a full night of sleep really does work wonders.


Tuesday, April 03, 2007

March Net Worth

I've updated my net worth chart at NetWorthIQ: it shows my net worth having increased by $426, or 3.7%. Most of that is attributable to my 401(k) contribution, which is about $330 for the month, including employer match.

This time I counted an outstanding check as a miscellaneous debt, which I think I didn't do last time. I'm also beign inconsistent because I'm not counting my (outstanding) rent check as a debt, but...I'm pretty much just following my own eccentric-but-functional accounting system, so, I don't really know.

Frankly, I'm still trying to figure out if this is a useful way to think about my financial life. I still haven't come to a conclusion.

Is there a reason you do or don't calculate your net worth?


Money in Context: Notes from a Dinner Party

1. There are three people under 30 and four people over 50 sitting around my parents' dinner table; it is Passover; we are a motley mix of Jews, half-Jews, half-Jews-half-Catholics, lapsed Catholics, practicing Catholics, and one lone nondenominational Protestant turned self-identified heretic, who has made the brisket and kugel and laid the seder table (my mother). We are talking about the pretty brownstones in Harlem. K mentions that if it were enough, he'd cash out his Roth for a down payment. M, a guest of the over-50 persuasion, says, "That's what I have, a Roth." M looks over at K and says, "You know, I don't mean to be condescending, but if you've got a Roth at your age, you're doing great."

K says, "I'm older than I look."

After guessing K's age correctly, M proceeds to explain that he never thought seriously about retirement until he was nearly forty.

C pipes up, "Well, we can't exactly count on Social Security, you know?"

This fact is universally acknowledged by all.

2. P and M had been together since I was a kid. P worked with my dad, and they were close. I've socialized, traveled, and in various other ways grown up with P and M--they've been a kind and loving presence in my life for nearly 15 years. In September, P, who was only 56, died suddenly of a heart attack. This loss hit a lot of people very hard--P had more friends than almost anyone I've ever met--but of course, it has been devastating to M, who held him as he died on the couch of their country home, waiting for the ambulance.

Here's where the money comes in: P and M are both men, which means that M has just been hit with an enormous tax bill upon inheriting, among other things, P's half of their beloved country home in Pennsylvania in which together they hosted parties, fixed up couples, offered acting coaching to their friends' children, and worked tirelessly on a particularly beautiful garden.

It's unconscionable, that right after this sudden and tragic loss, M has to contend with these exorbitant tax consequences in order to keep a home in which he's spent happy time with his partner for years. It makes me furious, and sad, and it underlines the need for recognition of gay partnerships.


Monday, April 02, 2007

Things I Currently Want but Have No Concrete Plans to Buy

-A cold brewing system for making summer iced coffees.
-A set of pitchers (for coffee concentrate & sugar water, for making summer iced coffees).
-A fancy pipe (for smoking tobacco products only). I saw this really beautiful one with a long, thin, curved stem...cobalt blue glass...pretty!
-A million sundresses.
-Two pairs of boots, one each in black and brown.
-Tons and tons of sandals.
-This one really pretty bolero cardigan.
-A manicure, a pedicure, an eyebrow wax, and a lower-leg wax (I will, reluctantly, do it my own self--I actually do a good job of doing my own eyebrows and nails, but I hate putting in the time).
-A plane ticket to [the small city in which I went to college].
-A windowbox herb garden.
-A cigarette case.
-Sushi and sorbet every day from now until October.
-An ice cream machine for making my own sorbet.
-The Lives of Others on DVD.

I will be buying some clothing for the spring, soon, and I'm looking into getting the cold-brewing system cheap on eBay, but most of these are things I just won't buy, because I can't afford 'em and can live without 'em. That's the ultimate bottom line of any budget: can't afford it? Then don't buy it. I think we do sometimes gloss over that part of financial responsibility: it's not all bargain-hunting and resourcefulness--there are things you just have to give up, sometimes.