Wednesday, October 31, 2007

October Net Worth

My October net worth is 19,876, with a net increase of 5.6%. Not bad!

Investment gains were a big help, and the birthday check from my parents makes some difference, but to give myself some credit, I had a great month, and put a whole bunch of money away. We'll have to see what happens in November--it's a three-paycheck month, but I'm also going to France, so...who knows?

And it looks like I'm coasting towards my goal of hitting a $20,000 net worth by the end of 2007. Victory in our time!

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Impromptu Travel & Lightbulb Moments & Blather

I think in less than two weeks I'm going to go visit my sister in Provence, where she's studying for the semester. (I would, in fact, be leaving on my blogoversary, which I somehow find funny, like my blog and I are going on a cruise together to celebrate our relationship.) I haven't actually bought a ticket yet, but they are oddly inexpensive for only-two-weeks-away travel: a round-trip plane ticket to Paris, nonstop, is available for $575. My parents are footing that bill as a birthday present (I find it funny that what I wanted for my birthday was a machine that makes seltzer and a plane ticket to France), and I'll be using their birthday check ($240) for spending money...except I'll probably need some more of it. I guess I'll try to cashflow what I can, and pull from the travel fund what I can't. It's not going to be super-expensive, though: I'm staying on my sister's couch, and really do need a chance to veg out, so I anticipate a lot of reading books in cafes and taking walks and making dinner in my sister's kitchen, and not a whole lot else, though my sister did mention perhaps doing a day trip to Marseilles, which sounds nice.

I've never really taken a budget-conscious vacation before. I lived in Berlin for awhile, but that was living there--it was different, somehow. All of my other travel has been with my family or some kind of group. So this should be new and different. Planning it, even though I'm not actually paying all of the costs myself, definitely gives me a new visceral understanding of how expensive it is to take a vacation--especially an international one (and with the dollar so weak, too!). If my parents weren't helping me out, I'd simply have to skip it--I wouldn't be willing to drain the travel fund entirely, not when I've got my sights set on a big, exciting trip before I start graduate school (whenever that ends up being). It's one of those important kinds of "aha!" moments, when I realize that I'm lucky, because on my own means, this would be a big, big financial deal, and I'm not sure that a little week off where I get to see my sister and hang out--but in France, instead of here--would be worth that big of a financial deal, you know?

I'm a total gibbering idiot about this trip--I've found planning it very difficult and anxiety-producing, but it seems to be almost all set now, and I know I need the week off. Badly. (This whole thing makes the rest of the year at work feel way more manageable: it's week of work, week off, week of Thanksgiving, three weeks of work, Christmas break. Easy.) And I miss my sister. And I've never taken a high-speed train before.

And so that's the way decisions are made when you're spending mostly someone else's money. Which is how this experience becomes one more lightbulb moment about luck and privilege.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

October Goals Update

There were goals for October, and here's how they went.

1. Add $225 to the Freedom Fund
Can it actually be true that I added $350 this month? My ING account history seems to say so, but I find this amount suspiciously large. I guess ING account histories don't lie, though, so: huzzah!

2. Buy one more pair of flats
Check. I ended up hitting a coupon-sale combination and getting a cute, sturdy pair of bronze flats for $33, including shipping.

3. Submit two new medical bills
Uh, whoops. I totally forgot about this. Let's see if I can get it done before the actual end of the month, shall we? I'm betting yes.

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Frugal Food: How to Break Down a Chicken

I hit a frugal food milestone last night: I bought a whole chicken and broke it down, for the first time ever. It's in my fridge, soaking in buttermilk, and tonight, K and I are going to pan-fry that sucker.

Breaking down your chicken yourself is frugal for two reasons: you save money on the chicken meat, and you get something extra: the carcass. From a chicken carcass (or two), you can make delicious homemade stock. I think I'll wait until I have two carcasses, and make a really intense stock for chicken soup. Maybe I'll even save the schmaltz (chicken fat skimmed off the stock) & make matzoh balls! There's nothing better for when the weather starts to change, and if you're making stock from carcasses you've already got sitting in the freezer and some schmaltz you just skimmed off the stock, all you really need is a box of matzoh meal (cheap!), some parsley (cheap!), and an onion (cheap!). I'm looking forward to it.

Anyway, I definitely did an amateurish job on my chicken: the skin doesn't really match the chicken parts, and I think I cut through a joint on one of the drumsticks instead of cleanly dislocating it from the thigh. The breasts are definitely smaller than they should be; I didn't do a great job of cutting them off the ribcage.

But with practice, I'll get better, which means I'll be getting an even better value for my chicken dollar. And I like knowing where my food comes from. Also, of course, the longer a bird stays whole, the fresher it is.

There are a ton of online resources for learning to break down chickens. Alton Brown gives a very helpful demonstration about halfway through this clip, and Chowhound offers this video tutorial. I prefer Alton's method; he teaches you to remove the wishbone instead of just cutting through it.

Happy butchery!

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Locked Out; Locked In

The other day, K and I got locked out of our apartment. We were in no mood to be locked out of our apartment, and it was late. We called a 24-hour locksmith.

They said they'd charge us $55 plus labor, and that they'd have someone at our place in forty-five minutes or so. K, broke, looked dismayed. I said I'd cover it out of my emergency fund.

Then, less than ten minutes later, we got the door open. We called immediately to cancel.

A few minutes later, we got a call. From the "cancellations department." The guy said he wanted to charge us a $55 cancellation fee, but he'd work with us, and bring it down to $35. We certainly had not been told that there would be a cancellation fee; then again, we didn't expect to be canceling. I asked where the locksmith was coming from. It was less than two miles from my apartment. "So, the idea is that he walked ten blocks, and I'm going to pay you $35?" The response? "He's in a van." Ridiculous. But they had dispatched a guy, and I was really relieved to be inside my house. I said I'd give them twenty bucks. "Look, I'm trying to work with you, here," the guy said, before counteroffering: "Twenty-five."

I took it.

Afterwards, I had the overwhelming feeling that I'd just been ripped off, and a fear that I'd given my debit card number to a conman. So far, though, only the one legit(...ish) $25 charge has turned up on my bill. And I suppose they probably had to pay the guy they dispatched something for his time. But presumably, his hourly rate isn't $220 (15 minutes=$55). I could just have refused to give a card number, I guess, but then again, a locksmith to whom you just gave your address is not exactly the guy to piss off.

So, was this fair? What should I have done? Just refused to give my card number at all? I definitely could have done a better negotiation job, but as a chronic negotiation-phobic, I'm a teensy, weensy bit psyched that I didn't just go, "oh...okay."

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Pot Lucky

The party went really well--I think everyone enjoyed themselves. I certainly did. And the pot luck idea was really fun--a great chance for people to ooh and aah over each other's cooking. I made a big tray of deviled eggs (with scallions and chili powder), a pot of frijoles (with a smoked ham hock), and frozen margaritas. K made delicious, gooey brownies.

The extra-special benefit here is leftovers. Yesterday, I grabbed three deviled egg halves for breakfast this morning, and brought half of the leftover pepper-onion-cheddar quiche for lunch. Dinner was more deviled eggs and some tortilla chips with spinach-artichoke dip. Today, breakfast was a piece of coffee cake, and lunch will be the rest of the quiche. I also froze individual portions of the leftovers from the big, deliciously crusty macaroni and cheese with broccoli, edamame, and peas: there are five or six foil packets of the stuff in my freezer, and I'll have one for dinner tonight.

Speaking of quiche, I only just figured this out: quiche is seriously frugal food. You buy a frozen pie shell, which I would (I do make pie crust myself, but I've got none of the appropriate tools in my own kitchen--neither food processor nor pastry cutter--and would probably not want to do the whole routine on a Tuesday), here is how you make quiche: you throw leftover whatever in a blind-baked pie shell, you pour milk and eggs on top, you bake, you eat. Voila! C'est marveilleux, non? I'm definitely going to get a couple of frozen pie shells for my freezer. They generally cost less than $4 for a package of two, so it's a very low-cost dish.

In fact, I'm hoping the leftovers from the party will last us all week. I think it's a serious possibility, and that would make me and my very broke boyfriend two very happy campers.

Point is: pot lucks are great! Creativity, cooking, variety, leftovers! I'd almost like to make it a monthly affair (rotating, of course, so the leftovers-bounty and the cleaning-burden are shared).

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Birthday Weekend Update The First

On Friday, my parents took me (and K) out for a great dinner at Sfoglia. I hadn't had a nice dinner out in awhile, and this was an exemplary one, replete with a pre-meal bottle of Prosecco and five desserts for four people. Mmm.

There was another birthday dinner there the same night, a table of well-dressed people not much older than I. My father said he heard one of them congratulate the birthday girl on being 29. I thought for a moment about having enough money, and having friends with enough money, to go out to that kind of a restaurant for my birthday at the age of 29. I let the thought pass. And then yesterday it crossed my mind that more than one of those chic young Turks may have put her dinner (and her dress, too) on her credit card.

Tucked inside the cover of the cookbook they gave me (a great-looking one with a focus on technique, which I'm excited to peruse) was a check for $240 (that's 24, my age as of Saturday, times ten). The obvious thing to do with it is to save it in the Freedom Fund, but I don't want to. I'm really attached to the idea of the "no strings attached" Freedom Fund, the fact that it's all money I earned. Yes, I know that it doesn't matter at all, because spending this $240 just means that I free up other money to save in the Freedom Fund, but still, I find the idea of saving this money in that way kind of distasteful, somehow. So that check isn't going in the Freedom Fund. I think it will be spending money if I end up going to France in November (more on this later), or, if I don't, it will flesh out the Gift Fund for Christmas.

And, okay, the other birthday present is the coolest thing ever. It is a machine that makes seltzer. Now, you have to consider that I drink a ton of seltzer. I grew up drinking it, and I'm just sort of stuck on it. I didn't think I'd want to spend the money on it once I moved out on my own, but...I do. Can't go without it, somehow. So I end up buying 5-10 one-liter bottles (bigger bottles go flat) at my local supermarket for $.75 apiece, or, when I need seltzer but the market is closed, little bottles at the bodega for $1.25 a pop. But no longer! Now I can fill one of their proprietary bottles with cold water and carbonate it myself, and it costs me nothing. It came with two CO2 cartridges, which make 110 liters of seltzer and which you send away to be refilled once they're empty for $20 a pop, plus shipping. That means that exclusive of the machine (because I didn't pay for it), I'll be paying about $.27 per liter once I exhaust my current supply. And there's no schlepping, and it's environmentally friendly! I am in love with my seltzer machine. And if I'd bought it myself, that $130 (which includes four of their bottles and two CO2 cartridges) would have paid for itself slowly but surely in the savings on my seltzer habit.

K is pretty enamored of the machine, too. The joke goes like so: when we break up, he'll have to buy a seltzer machine, and I'll have to buy all the Six Feet Under DVDs.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

The Pretty Girl Discount

I bought my lunch today, and somehow, an $8 pack of sushi, a $4 half-sandwich, and a can of Diet Coke added up to less than $10. Huh? I looked at the guy behind the register, who'd greeted me in what suddenly seemed like it might have been a somewhat more than friendly fashion, and tried to figure out if he'd made a mistake. But all three items were sitting out on the counter, in plain view. He carefully put all three items in a bag. He smiled at me. He pointed out that chopsticks were behind me. He wished me a good afternoon. I paid my less-than-$10, thanked him, and left. I probably did give him an extra smile.

So I'm going to guess it was the Pretty Girl Discount. And it may be ethically dubious, but I take that when it's offered. At my neighborhood bodega, one particular guy always rounds down to the dollar--"For you, four dollars!"--and throws in one of the sour apple blow pops I like. I do not object.

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My Budget Birthday

For my birthday (I turn 24 tomorrow!), I'm having friends over to my apartment for a potluck. My own contributions are going to be a big pot of cowboy beans and a platter of deviled eggs (not showy, but solid and easy to make in bulk; maybe I'll decide to get fancy if I have time tomorrow--I do have this butternut squash puree in the fridge that would be great for filling homemade ravioli); K is making his (by which I mean Orangette's) brownies, which are justifiably renowned amongst all who've tasted them.

Now, this is actually more expensive for me than it would be to go to a bar, where I might expect to have all my drinks bought for me, but my suspicion is that on balance, it will be cheaper for the collective. We'll all get dinner and drinks (non-cooks will be bringing wine and beer, and I'm going to borrow my parents' mega-blender and make frozen margaritas) for what we might each (except me) have expected to pay for drinks alone. And I think it's a nice opportunity for people to show off their cooking.

I'm going to need to do a thorough cleaning tomorrow (I did one already, but...well, long story), but I'm keeping that very cheap, too. My supplies are basically a couple of rags, a couple of sponges, and a spray bottle apiece of white vinegar-and-water solution and dishwashing-soap-and-water solution. Less toxic than most commercial cleaning supplies, and way cheaper.

Then I'm just going to have to pick up disposable plates and cups (and decide whether to get plastic cutlery--I think our household supply will probably cover it, but you never know). I'll go to the dollar store for that, and hopefully keep the whole purchase under $15. Then to the supermarket: I need probably another $15-$20 for the food supplies for my dishes. Finally, the liquor store and the bodega: I need a cheapie bottle of Triple Sec and a whole bunch of ice. I have $50 set aside for the party, and it shouldn't be a big deal if I go a little bit over. (I also have a sneaky little hope in re leftovers, but let's not go there.)

And then I just have to cross my fingers and pray the whole thing comes off! I'm kind of nervous, actually.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Towards Success: A Few Notes

Over at the always-excellent Get Rich Slowly, J.D. is running a contest for a Nintendo Wii: tell him about your financial success story. This has me thinking about sucess, financial and otherwise, and about the way I've changed as I've focused on getting my financial life in order.

In one sense, any "success" I've had is not particularly compelling. I haven't had all that many obstacles to overcome. I'm a privileged kid who graduated from a great school with no debt because my parents paid my way. And now I live in New York on $32,000. Boo hoo. I can hear the world's tiniest violin playing just for me.

In another sense, though, I'm very cognizant of the ways in which I've changed as I've begun to focus on money and hone my financial skills, and I think the vast majority of changes are for the better. (I do think there's a tendency of my money management style to validate and even, perhaps, feed my soup├žon of control-freakery.) Like most decisions, my decision to focus on money management and getting my financial life in line was a series of slow behavioral changes, a process in which I developed new habits and jettisoned old ones.

For example: taxi-taking. When I started my job, about two months before I started this blog, I took a ton of taxis. I often took taxis to work. Now? The last time I took a cab was Labor Day. It was pouring rain, and K and I were loaded down with a week and a half's worth of groceries and our bags from the bar mitzvah trip. Before that? I don't think I can remember. More and more, I'm allocating my biweekly $30 for taxis elsewhere at the beginning of the pay period, working on the knowledge that I just don't take taxis that frequently anymore. But I barely even noticed the change. (BTW, for the curious: a big part of it, I think, was chilling out with how often I wore high heels. Another big part was reframing the choice: I choose to save $10 and spend 10 minutes.)

More than any one habit, though, I feel like my focus on finance has reminded me that I'm responsible for my own life, for my own behavior and choices. I think a lot of people think of this in the framework of "being responsible for things is a burden," but for me, it's been incredibly freeing. It's great to feel like good choices and hard work will pay off, that I can make my life into what I want it to be. And that's how all this makes me feel.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

I Sold It: Worth It?

I am stressed out. I am way stressed out: swamped at work, full social calendar, and having a potluck dinner at my apartment for my birthday on Saturday (which necessitates a lot of chores). However, I'm also inspired by Krystal's recent efforts on eBay, and I have these four pairs of shoes I bought from Zappos.com more than a year ago and never returned (returning things is one of my great financial weaknesses; I'm working on it. I really have improved, I swear!). I'd love to a) get rid of them, and b) get money for them.

However, I'm not overly keen on putting in the eBay time, and, more problematically, I don't have a working digital camera (I lost the dock to my Nikon Coolpix in my not-really-at-all-recent move, and haven't yet replaced it). I'm sort of considering just dropping the things off at I Sold It, which sells your stuff on eBay, takes a nearly-50% commission, and send you a check. I find the "does it for you, sends you a check" part appealing; the nearly-50% commission, not so much. But I worry that if I wait until I have the time and equipment to do it myself, I'll never do it.

There's an I Sold It location tantalizingly close to my office. It would be so convenient to just drop these damn shoes off, never see them again, and get a check for $40 or whatever.

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

New York on the Cheap: The Crocodile Lounge

I spent two evenings this past week at the Crocodile Lounge. I never return to a bar that fast. And, okay, the fact that I left a bag of tupperwares there did have something to do with it, but not everything, because I didn't have to stay for two beers. But I did. Because seven bucks (including tip) buys you a beer and a personal pizza.

Oh, yes. That's right. With every beer, you get a ticket entitling you to one free personal pizza. Which isn't as bad as you would expect from a free pizza. In fact, it's quite tasty, especially if you eat it right out of the oven, when the pan burns your fingertips and the molten, gushy cheese scalds the roof of your mouth. Delicious. For seven dollars, you get dinner and beer!

Even better, go for Happy Hour (weekdays, 4-6), and get beer for $3, well cocktails for $4. Still with free pizza.

I wouldn't plug the great deal if it weren't such a great bar. It's laid-back and unpretentious and has Skee-Ball in the back room. And the music is great. And, at 14th between 1st & 2nd Avenues, it's close to the excellent and extremely free people-watching in Union Square. Which is how I wound up my Friday evening (well, that, a cigarette, a cute boy, and a $2.99 bag of Trader Joe's chocolate-covered pretzels). I recommend it.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

On Excess

This weekend, my parents, K and I flew down to Boca Raton to attend my second cousin's bar mitzvah. (A bar mitzvah, or bat mitzvah for girls, is a ceremony held the first time a Jewish boy is called to the Torah, typically at age 13. Like a Catholic confirmation ceremony, it symbolizes an entry into an adult faith. The bar mitzvah is now responsible for his own actions and his own life, spiritual and otherwise.)

A bit of background information: my cousin, mother of the new bar mitzvah, was a department head at a major New York financial concern, accumulated all the money she could handle, and left the company and the city to adopt children and get married (in that order). She bought herself a house in Florida, near her parents, and then bought one for her sister and brother-in-law for good measure. She's a lovely, talented, generous woman. With a ton of money.

Perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised that the bar mitzvah party she threw her oldest son was as elaborate as it was--my other cousin's husband, at brunch the day after, assured us archly that "for Florida, that was tasteful," that he had dropped his son off at a bar mitzvah that had gladiators in real chariots pulled by real horses standing outside the gates--but I have to say, I was surprised. And a little shocked.

There were cocktails and hors d'oeuvres to start, along with a magician and a video karaoke booth for the kids, and then we moved into the "grand ballroom" (note, please, that these amenities are built into the synagogue), where we find a cover band, hired crowd-riling dancers, an emcee, three videographers, two photographers, video screens playing slideshows of family photos, the bar mitzvah boy's name emblazoned hugely in lights, and four-foot rotating centerpieces on every table. Not to speak of the long, dormant buffet and the seared beef and cucumber salad appetizers already laid out at the adults' place settings.

Now, I've been to some big bar and bat mitzvahs. I have. Between the ages of 12 and 14, I probably went to 25, and some of them were big things, and some of them had hired dancers, and some of them had bands and some had centerpieces (though I don't think any of them had centerpieces like these centerpieces), but as I can recall, none of them had all of those things.

Then there was a brunch the next day, smaller, more intimate, but still probably fifty people at my cousin's house. Under her twenty-foot ceilings sprawled a catered buffet spread, hired omelet-makers making omelets to order at her beautiful stainless stove, and a guy in uniform working an espresso machine and a wet bar, giving out his business card for pet parties.

Now, my own bat mitzvah party was at my parents' apartment. We cleared out the furniture, hired a DJ and a fortune teller, and had a catered buffet. Guests took photos with disposable cameras, and my mom and I made an album of the photos afterwards. I had all my relatives, a few friends from my old school, a few friends from my new school, and a few friends from my Hebrew school class. I had a really wonderful time. It wasn't an inexpensive party, but I can't imagine my parents spent as much as many parents at the time did (let alone anything like what was spent on last weekend's extravaganza), and it wasn't as lavish, somehow.

What I like about the way we did my bat mitzvah is that it was somehow suited to the tone of the day. My memories of my bat mitzvah are dominated by the events of the ceremony: being up on the bima, chanting my Torah and Haftorah portions, my rabbi and my parents making speeches about me. Most of all I remember my sister, who was nine, saying the nicest thing about me that anyone has ever said, before or since. The party is a total blur. I don't remember a damn thing. But I like the idea that my family and my friends walked from the synagogue to my parents' house and celebrated with us in our home. It feels intimate, which seems appropriate.

The bar or bat mitzvah ceremony is about coming into responsibility for one's life. It's the beginning of agency. For this reason, young people preparing for their ceremonies traditionally do a tzedakah, or social service, project (my cousin was no exception), to demonstrate their commitment to their spiritual and social obligations. To couple such a ceremony with such a lavish party, a thing so unmoored from day-to-day life, seems strange to me, seems like insufficient attention is being paid to the meaning of the ceremony itself--its message about responsibility for oneself and for others.

But, like my cousin's husband reminded me, it's Florida. And the parties are given by the parents, really, and the parents are subject, perhaps more than their children, to an awareness of social norms. That awareness is hard to buck--my own aversion to a party of this magnitude is as much about finding it sort of overwhelming and a bit tacky (both related to my own, different sense of social norms) as it is about the cognitive dissonance between the occasion and its celebration. I don't know if that cognitive dissonance would be as strong for someone who didn't find the party itself outside the realm of their experience.

On the other hand, is it even reasonable for such a party to be within the realm of people's normal experience? Especially thirteen-year-olds' experience? What call is there for this kind of thing? It's not that I'm against luxury. I'm definitely not. But this party does not represent the kind of luxury I like. Maybe if it's your kind of luxury, this feels the way that a nice trip or a great dinner feels to me--something that you give yourself because you can, but wouldn't do every day.

I keep chewing on this thing without coming to a conclusion. I don't know what to make of it. I don't know that I can figure out what to make of it, really, other than concluding that it's not my kind of thing, and that says something about the kind of person I am, but more different than better. The whole thing just kind of blew my mind a bit.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

My Mom's Money: Gender, the Generation Gap, and Personal Finance

On Sunday night, after returning from the bar mitzvah, I put in some time helping my mom with her identity theft mess. I was pretty shocked to learn that she hadn't yet pulled her credit reports or placed fraud victim alerts on them. She had canceled the compromised card, signed up with a credit monitoring service, and begun wrangling with the companies that had charged the canceled card, so it wasn't an issue of being unwilling to put in the effort--she just didn't know what to do. I directed her to AnnualCreditReport.com, and in helping her verify herself to receive her reports, discovered that she didn't know what bank held her and my dad's second mortgage, or what the monthly payment was. She guessed the highest range the question offered as an option; when I asked my dad, it was within the lowest.

I also told her that she has to be really vigilant about her bills and statements for the next few months (at least), and my dad started in on how she never checks them over. Now, my dad's not exactly a financial paragon himself in many ways, but I never thought my mother was this clueless about her financial life. She's a gifted thrift-store shopper with a M.A. in arts administration, which means she's done half the coursework for a management degree (she did tell me that she almost failed her accounting class, though). But mostly, I just didn't think she was that kind of woman--the kind who can can just say, "Oh, my husband is taking care of it," and that's the end of that. That's certainly not the kind of woman she raised me to be.

I wonder if this is the way she always lived, or if her money-management muscles began to atrophy after marrying my dad. I know she worked a bunch of crappy jobs and lived very cheap when she was a young college dropout living in New York, and I know that she ran all the finances for her art gallery herself. Then again, I also know that the gallery went under. My mom comes from a family with a lot of money and a lot of (serious) problems, and I don't know if she got parental support or not--I could see it making sense either way. So I can't really say if these are skills she let lapse or skills she never developed to begin with.

But either way, it's weird for me because it's just not the kind of person I thought my mom was. I think of my mother as brave and independent and sort of unusual for her time--I think of her dropping out of her Seven Sisters college and moving to New York to go to Factory parties, or of her work bringing new technology into the curricula of the poorest New York City schools, or the way she talked her way into an MA program at an Ivy League school without a BA (she still doesn't have one, but she has two Masters degrees). And it's strange, because this is such a normal (if kind of unfortunate) thing for married women of my mother's generation, this learned helplessness thing, but it's not something I ever associated with my mom. I guess I always assumed she was an equal partner in my parents' finances. And it's not that she doesn't bring skills and attributes to my parents' financial table--because she certainly does (I can vouch for that myself; I've transfered the communications about my medical billing from my dad to my mom, and it's gone much more smoothly)--it's just that I always assumed she was as familiar with the big picture of their finances as my dad. And she's not. And that's weird to me.

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Monday, October 08, 2007

Consumerist Cookies?

So, I was in Florida with my parents this weekend for my second cousin's bar mitzvah (more on this to come). We got home, went back to my parents' apartment, and we ordered some Chinese food. And this was my fortune:

Perhaps you have been focusing too much attention on saving.

I am not kidding even a little bit. That's what it said.

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Friday, October 05, 2007

PF Bloggers Give Back

I'm proud to announce the opening of the PF Bloggers Donors Choose Challenge! (Catchy name, huh?) As you may or may not know, Donors Choose is a great charitable organization that connects the needs of teachers and their classrooms directly with donors. HC, at One Big Mortarboard, has selected a number of those needs that relate directly to personal finance, and it's up to us to make sure that these students get the financial education we like to talk about.

I donated $120 today. Anything you can spare will help: $20, $10, even $1. Please check out our challenge!

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

"Mad Money"

J.D. posted yesterday about his experiments in individual stock-picking. His conclusion? He's getting out.

But his description of his experience made me want to try it. Just in that same kind of small-time way, with a small amount of money I could afford to lose--what I've heard Jim Kramer calls "mad money." I just think it would be an interestingly direct way to dip my toes into the stock market. And I think it would be fun.

Right now, though, I don't have $1,000 to lose. Maybe once I get my Freedom Fund all nicely stocked up. Or maybe I could play around with a smaller amount of money. Say, $500. Yeah, I think $500 might be a good place to start.

I still don't have $500 I'm willing to lose, though. This may be something I'll consider adding to next year's financial goals, but the difficulty would be saving for this chunk of money. It might feel kind of futile, given that I'm going to be speculating with it. So it might be better to devote some windfall money to this.

But not until my savings goals are met.

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Pulled My Credit Report...

...from Experian and Equifax (I'll pull TransUnion in six months), via AnnualCreditReport.com, which is the only place to get a truly free credit report.

I have a bunch of "authorized user" accounts on there, which I would rather not have to hash out with my parents--aren't those accounts supposed to be dropping off my bureau report, like, now? I'd like it if they could go ahead and hurry up with that--as it stands, it looks like I have credit limits approaching my annual income, which I certainly do not.

I also have a thirty-days-late from October 2001, on a store card I signed up for when I was in high school and didn't know how to use. I'd love it if that would drop off my report--it's just the one charge, a thirty days late note, and then zero balances all the way up through '06, when I last looked at my credit report, realized I still had that account open, and closed it--but it looks like I'm stuck with it until 2013--seven years from the last time the card reported, not seven years from the last charge. Annoying.

But it is supposed to be seven years, right? Then why does a card (another "uh, sure, I guess I'll sign up for the 20% discount" high school store card) that was closed in '02 seem to be scheduled to be on my report until 2012? And is "inactive" the same as "closed"? Because if it's not, I should close that account, right?

Conclusion: no identity theft (phew!), but the usual low-level financial-jargon confusion.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Identity Theft Hits Close to Home

I got a call from my mother last night: she's had her identity stolen. Over the past ten days or so, thousands of dollars' worth of purchases on the internet and over the phone have been charged to her principal credit card, and someone applied for a second card in her name (the card company in question, Discover, declined the application and notified my mom, so points to them).

It makes me realize that this can happen to anyone. It can happen to me. And most importantly, there is no way to prevent this, really, short of not having bank accounts. You can decline to put yourself in harm's way (by not falling for phishing scams, for example), but you can't close up all the chinks in your identity's armor. The key, it seems to me, is to keep a tight rein on your finances--my mom only found out about this because she was notified of unusual charges, but given that I check all of my accounts through Bank of America's My Portfolio service at least every other day, I'd probably catch it sooner, and so have less damage to undo. And it seems to me that that's the best one can hope to do.

It's a reminder to me, though, and perhaps to you, too, that by opening extra accounts, an identity thief can do damage to your life and credit report by moving your finances outside your sight. I'm going to pull my credit report this week (via Annual Credit Report); I suggest you do the same.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Around the Blogosphere

There have been a few particularly good posts lately, and I thought I'd highlight them:

Define "affordable," from Escape Brooklyn, discusses the state of the New York City housing market in an extremely thorough and insightful way.

Your Major and Your Job, at Young and Broke, traces the author's trajectory from English major to business professional and MBA student.

At My Open Wallet, Madame X writes about an opportunity she missed because of financial cautiousness in I Thought I Couldn't...

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Freedom Fund: $4,050

I got the big insurance reimbursement check in the mail last night, and immediately (this morning) deposited it and set up the transfer over to the Freedom Fund at ING. This brings the balance up to $4,050.

Exclusive of the CD I rolled into the Freedom Fund, this balance represents 13.1% of my gross pay for the year so far, and at least two months' expenses. It represents the freedom to make decisions for myself, unbeholden to anyone. And the best part is that it's all, every penny of it, money that I earned. Even the aforementioned CD was initially funded with savings from my part-time job at college. The Freedom Fund is truly free, in the sense of independent. There are no strings attached.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

October Goals

Here's the plan for October:

1. Add $225 to the Freedom Fund
This is $125 over my autodrafts, and will be a stretch, but I think a stretch would be good.

2. Buy one more pair of flats
I'm looking for a pair of flats that are a) not black and b) a little more solid than the slightly flimsy $24 ones I'm currently rocking. I'm thinking somewhere in the $40-$50 range.

3. Submit two new medical bills
Once these two are submitted and reimbursed, I should have recovered all the money I initially laid out for medical expenses, and will begin endorsing the reimbursement checks over to my parents.

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September Net Worth

My net worth for September is up at NetWorthIQ.

My retirement accounts did pretty well this month, even though I've exhausted the $1,500 employer match, and are now hovering just above $12,000. If I were just to hold on to this $12,000 until age 70, contribute nothing more, and earn a yearly 8% return, I'd have more than $340,000. Not bad.

There's also a large increase in my cash holdings, and frankly, I'm not sure where that comes from. I did get some of my medical reimbursements in, though, so perhaps that makes the difference between a normal and a slightly odd cash increase.

My net worth for this month is $18,813. The overall increase is $884, or 4.93%.

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