Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Boo, Taxes!

I am totally going to owe the IRS money. I got my W-2 today and immediately entered it and my ING 1099 into the same free e-file site I used last year. Looks like I'm going to owe the federal government $116 and NY State $28. And I haven't even entered my Bank of America 1099 yet! It's not a lot, but I'd still rather owe nothing, for obvious reasons. Thankfully, I wasn't counting on a refund, and kind of had a hunch this might happen, and if I have to raid my savings to pay my taxes, that's what I have to do. I should probably consider adjusting my witholding for this year, since I'm going to (hopefully) have the $1500 of extra income above and beyond my W-2.

I'm almost wondering if it's worth trying to itemize in order to make it come out even. Medical, state & local taxes, and charitable donations almost might squeak past the standard deduction...but is it really work $200 to try to add up all that stuff?


Monday, January 28, 2008

It's Going to Get Better

...does anyone else have to tell themselves that, sometimes?

Today I left my house, squinted against the winter sun, checked out the sale posters on my grocery store on my way to the subway, and realized that I had forgotten the bag I'd packed. It had my lunch in it, and the manuscript I'm working on, and the box of Trader Joe's instant cranberry oatmeal (a new staple of mine, and oh, so delicious and healthy and easy), so I needed it. I went back. I got the bag. I left again, squinted again, checked the sale posters again.

And I was suddenly overcome by a sort of exhaustion. It's tiring to have to try so hard all the time, to scrimp and pinch and worry. I know that I'm doing it so that I won't have to scrimp and pinch and worry so much later. I know that I'm laying a foundation. I know that at the end of this year, when I have $10,000 in the bank, I can lighten up a little bit, have an extra drink when I'm out to dinner, buy the new lunchbox I want, go to the movies. And in the meantime, I comparison-shop, use old tupperware, wear the same four dresses over and over again to work. I think it's evident how hard I'm squeezing my paycheck; a $50 Starbucks card turned up in my mailbox last week, signed "Your Secret Admirer" in my mom's handwriting. (Aww, mom. Thanks.)

But it's exhausting. I bumped my 401(k) contribution up a point, from 7% to 8%--with the new match, I can get about 12% of my salary in there this year, and I want to make sure I get the full match. But the switch to the Roth 401(k) and the increased contribution have eaten up my raise entirely--my last paycheck, I actually took home $5 less than usual. Where was the money I was going to use to join a gym? Not a penny of it to be found.

And I've got a couple upcoming financial commitments--things I very much want and/or need to do, but which cost money, and not spare change, either--to take care of, and no clear sense of how I'm going to take care of them, short of pulling money out of savings, which means more scrimping and pinching, cutting even closer to the bone. The prospect is a glum one.

But it is going to get better, easier. Once I've got that $10,000 saved, I can let up a bit. I'll bump up my 401(k) contributions and stop trying to squeeze an extra $25 in savings out of every paycheck--instead, I'll open an ING sub-account for short-term savings, for when I want a lunchbox or a dress or a plane ticket, and automate a modest contribution to that out of every paycheck. I'll begin to think idly about the idea of saving for a down payment, sure, but that's a ways off. I always want to be living below my means, but right now I'm living pretty far below my means, and ultimately, I'd like to decrease that distance a little, give myself a little more slack.

And I'm working hard now so that I can do that. That's what I tell myself. It's going to get better.


Friday, January 25, 2008


So, you've probably heard about the economic stimulus bill that's going to be the cause of some tax rebate checks in the mail for those of us under a certain income cap. (I am under almost any income cap.) I can't say I'm thrilled with the idea of flinging money we don't have at everyone in the hopes that everyone will fling it back at the retail sector, but that doesn't mean I'm going to turn down a $300-$600 check. No sir.

Initially I'd thought it would just go right into my savings account, but actually I'm thinking I should stash it for medical expenses. Then I won't have to scramble around like I'm currently doing, for a little while, at least.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

On the Silver Spoon Itself

My aunt—the beloved-and-generous one who hands out $500 checks to her nieces and nephew at Christmas—is rich. Like, rich rich. Like, lives off her investment income rich. She's my mom and my uncle's half-sister; the money comes in large part from her mother, but I also think that she got more money from my grandfather than her siblings did, through coincidences of chronology and alimony.

She lives in the Bay Area—she bought a sweet, rambly little house that she's never really furnished (it still has one of those dishwashers where you hook up the hose to the sink)—and she drives a twenty-year-old car with a broken gas gauge, and she never ever buys clothing, but she does buy cross-country plane tickets whenever the fancy strikes her, and she eats at great restaurants on a daily basis. She's on the board of an organization of young people with inherited wealth doing progressive philanthropy, and she's thinking about going to school to do a degree in social work. So she's nobody's pampered child of privilege with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement who doesn't understand that not everyone has the privileges she's had. That said, she's still been profoundly shaped by her experience with money (that is, having lots and lots of it).

She's only about ten years older than I am, and when I was little, I thought she had the best life I could imagine (when we visited my grandfather, she would be there riding her pony). When last I saw her, she referred to herself as "a damaged rich kid raised by damaged rich kids," and that's kind of true. She has trouble with people. She's very, very into holistic medicine and alternative nutrition, and is prone to being diagnosed with new and obscure conditions. She's not, you know, shoving the entirety of Colombia up her nose or anything in the manner of certain daughters of privilege one could name, but she's not the world's happiest, best-adjusted human.

I really do think that inherited wealth, in and of itself, can alter people in a negative way. It can obviate the responsibility to confront the disparity between your world and others' world--not just in terms of privilege, but in reference to very pragmatic things, like: "Is it a good idea to eat rotten raw meat?" (The World: No! My Aunt's Alternative Nutritionist: Yes!) It can also, of course, make other people unreliable, prone to flattery and dishonesty. It breeds instability, somehow, a disconnect between the internal and external worlds. This can lead to general quality of suckitude, where the disconnect is not recognized at all and enormous oblivion and entitlement flourishes (think Paris Hilton), or something more along the lines of my aunt's state, where the disconnect is recognized but not overcome, and the result is a person kind and well-meaning but weird. Then again, had my aunt had less crazy and/or awful parents, she might have turned out just fine--certainly, rich kids are not necessarily doomed to suck. I grew up with some pretty nice and normal ones. But I do think that lots and lots of money, because of its ability to remove one from the tumbling effect of the world, which polishes people like gemstones, sanding down our sharp edges with much friction, can isolate people. It's a danger that heirs need help to avoid, and my aunt certainly did not get the help that she needed in that department.

My family is rooting for my aunt; her siblings and my sister and my cousins and I all care a lot about her, and not just because of the checks she distributes and the dinners she takes us out for. But she's got an uphill battle--for her, I think, the money really has been more of a curse than a blessing.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Waiting for the Other Shoe...

I woke up to the news of the Fed's three-quarter-point rate cut. NPR informed me that this is the biggest single rate cut since 1984. Now I'm just waiting for the ING interest rate to follow it down the number line. So far, it hasn't happened, but I'm not willing to bet that it won't.

And I'm definitely not going to check my retirement accounts this week.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

ING Savings Sweepstakes

This is sort of hidden in the ING website, so I thought you might not know about it: ING is running a $60,000 Automatic Saver sweepstakes. They're giving away 5 $1,000 prizes every month, and one $30,000 grand prize at the end of the contest's run, in June. Every month in which you have at least $100 autodrafted into an ING account, you're automatically entered to win. As long as the autodrafts total $100 or more per month, you get an entry for that month's prize.

To set up autodrafts at ING, go to the "transfer money" tab and select an "automatic savings plan." More information about the sweepstakes can also be found by clicking "transfer money" (it seems to be the only place the information is available, weirdly enough)--so I think you'll need an ING account to check out the details.

This might be a good motivator to bump up your autodrafts, if they're below $100/month!


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Economy, Stupid: Or, Further Thoughts on the House of Cards

I got a couple of comments on my previous post reacting to what they saw as a knee-jerk anti-corporatism. The term "hegemon," I think, triggered some of this; honestly, look it up. I consider myself sort of an agnostic on this issue, a four on the one-to-ten scale of "Visceral Response to Corporations," where 1 is "They are the fat-cat horsemen of the apocalypse spreading disease over lands far and wide out of malice and spite!" and 10 is "They are at the vanguard of the march of progress to liberate us from our cave-dwellings out of the goodness of their hearts!"

I do think there is something unhuman (not inhuman, quite) about corporations. They take on an identity apart from the people whose aggregated labor they represent (hence our legal treatment of corporations--limited liability, corporate "rights," &c.--they are both de facto and de jure entities unto themselves). I think also that given the scale and scope at which they currently function, we treat them less like human forces and more like implacable forces of nature, like hurricanes or governments. The lack of transparency disturbs me. The something else disturbs me, the part of them that is not people and seems more self-propagating than beholden to human interests. We do not need Coca-Cola; how is it that Coca-Cola convinces us that we do? And why?

Truly, though, people need jobs and corporations provide them. People want soft drinks and toothbrushes and arcane financial advice and corporations provide them.

But as Moom, an honest-to-God economics professor, so helpfully explained, there really is this question of "how far can this go?" Others have mention that population growth fuels economic growth. But population growth, too, is limited by the intersection of natural resources and human technology (i.e., how much we have in the way of natural resources and how far we can stretch it), and it looks, some days, like we are beginning to approach that endpoint. Now, we're resourceful creatures, and so I wouldn't be super-surprised if indeed we now set ourselves to the business of stretching our stretched natural resources further than ever they have stretched before, but doesn't it seem logical that at some point, there is terminus? At some point, population growth must, for everyone's sake, flatline? And as Meg said, just imagine what would happen if we all scaled back, immediately, synchronically, and drastically. Imagine if everyone suddenly decided (realized?) that Coca-Cola is full of vile high-fructose corn syrup, tastes like cough syrup, and rots your teeth. Imagine if everyone suddenly decided that their old sheets are good enough, that their old car is good enough, that the store brand is basically the same, that Gucci is tainted with Tom Ford's disgustingness, that they don't really want any more DVDs after all. Imagine what would happen if no one bought things they didn't need, either because they'd decided that they couldn't afford to or because they'd decided they no longer wanted to. Imagine what would happen. I can't even imagine it, quite. We rely on all those people spending all that money. We need them. So how can it be that we both depend, desperately, on their continuing to spend every penny to which they have access and chastise them for their profligacy? All of the guilt and shame and finger-wagging--why and wherefore? We need those people.

I know that I sound more and more like a crazy person as I struggle to explain this, and please do believe that I know that I don't really know what I'm talking about, that I am not waving my arms in the air for the head of Ben Bernanke or putting on a stocking cap to raise my tiny fists like antennas to heaven against the WTO. I lack a certain vocabulary here, and I would like to find some relevant information. I am not necessarily even saying I am right. I am saying I have a hunch here, that I wonder about the way it all works, the power it has to shape our lives.


Monday, January 14, 2008

House of Cards

I have this amorphic, nascent idea about the stock market--about how maybe it's not a perpetual-motion growth-machine, about what might happen if we all did choose to live our lives differently, about how maybe it has a terminal velocity, about how maybe the whole idea that the stock market doesn't have anywhere to go but up so we have to invest lest we be left behind is spin, that maybe the whole thing is a house of cards that dupes us into funding the dominance of corporate interests over human ones.

But that's probably dumb. It probably makes me an apocalypse conspiracy theorist, one of those infomercial guys going, "Buy gold!" Truthfully, as long as you're doing what most other people are doing, you'll never be worse off than most people, so I'm not too worried on a day-to-day basis.

I do worry, but I don't have the right vocabulary to express exactly what it is that I'm worried about. I worry that maybe it's unethical to fund these companies that are the new hegemons and maybe there's nothing I can do about that, or maybe I only think there's nothing I can do about it and that's what keeps me forking over money into shares of companies whose names I don't even know. You used to buy stock in a company because you believed in that company--you liked the way they did business, you thought their products were good. Now we buy stock in companies because someone says other people think they're good.

I heard a theory that we all follow the lives of celebrities to simulate the effect of a smaller community where everyone knows the same people--so we still know the same people, it's just that we don't actually know them. It feels connected.

I never took an economics class, and now I kind of regret that.


Sunday, January 13, 2008

More Frugal Food: Southwest Chicken Salad

I was actually inspired to figure out this recipe when, last Friday, I picked up a salad much resembling this at Starbucks—I hadn't planned ahead for lunch, and I had money on a Starbucks card courtesy of my mom. I think I paid more than $5 for it. But I was disturbed by how easily and cheaply I could replicate it myself, and also by the lengthy list of unpronounceables rounding out the ingredient list. My version has none of them.

This one's going to be lunch for the week—the batch I've just whipped up should cover K and me for two lunches each, and then I'll do another batch Wednesday evening, for Thursday and Friday, with something different on Wednesday to break up the monotony (I find that three days in a row of the same lunch is just too much).

1 15-oz. can black beans ($.50—they were on sale)
1 15-oz. can corn kernels ($1.09—not on sale)
1 medium onion (I used a Vidalia because it was what I had) (about $.80)
4 boneless skinless chicken thighs (or, really, whatever chicken you've got lying around) (I paid about $4 for 8, so let's say $2)
1 container of nonfat Greek yogurt ($2)

Drain the beans and corn, rinse, and combine. Chop up the onion in a rough dice; throw that in with the other ingredients. Cook the chicken in your preferred method—I marinated mine in some Greek yogurt and mustard briefly, seasoned with salt, pepper, and oregano, and grilled them up in my cast-iron skillet. When I do it again towards the middle of the week, I'll add cumin to the marinade. Cut the chicken into slices and toss them in, too. Toss. Combine some mustard (or mustard powder, or wasabi, or whatever you think would taste good that has some bite) with the remainder of the yogurt. Add mixture to bowl. Salt and pepper to taste. Done! (I also added a splash of lime juice, just because it was in the fridge. I can't taste it, though.)

If you're using very lean chicken (i.e. breasts or "tenders"), I would add a splash of olive oil to the dressing, for balance and satiety's sake, but I used thighs, so they take care of themselves (aside from being deliciously tender and very absorbent of other flavors).

I expect this to make four lunches, which works out to a per-serving cost of about $1.60. Not too shabby for an easy, tasty, healthy lunch. It certainly beats Starbucks's price.

Like all of my recipes, this one is endlessly adaptable, so tell me if you hit on any particularly tasty variations!


Frugal Food: Lentil Soup with Goat Cheese

We had this for dinner last night: it's cheap, delicious, healthy, and doesn't take more than half an hour to put together from start to finish. I recommend it highly.

Pick over and rinse a bag of lentils. Bring 7 cups water to a boil in a big saucepan, add the lentils, and boil for twenty minutes. Chop up a big white or yellow onion. At about the fifteen-minute mark on the boiling, start sauteeing the onion in a smidge of olive oil, with two pinches of salt. Do this in the big pot that will eventually hold all the soup. When the onion is tender and translucent, dump in one 28-oz. can of crushed tomatoes, the (drained) lentils, and two cups water or stock (I used stock; water is obviously more frugal). Bring the soup up to a simmer and add half a bag of frozen spinach (or any other leafy green: kale, chard, whatever). Bring the soup up to a simmer again and adjust the seasoning to taste: I added lots of black pepper, some cumin, and some salt.

Top with some chunks of goat cheese (optional, obviously: you could also use yogurt, or a drizzle of olive oil, or a poached egg). They melt slightly and are super-delicious, and also bolster the fillingness of the soup (the cheese adds protein and fat—an egg would do the exact same thing for much less money).

The lentils cost $.99, the onion cost about $.80, the tomatoes cost $1.29, the stock cost $2.29, and half a bag of spinach cost about $1.20. An 8-oz. package of goat cheese cost $4; we used about a third of it on two servings, so let's say the whole thing, if you want to go there.

The total of the ingredients (including the optional stock and cheese) is $10.57. This provides six generous main-course servings, and, especially with the cheese, is really filling (also, somewhat obviously, really good for you), so the cost per serving of the "deluxe" version is $1.75. The pared-down version (or even substituting bullion for prepared stock and an egg for the cheese) is much cheaper.


Friday, January 11, 2008

Times Have Changed

I had dinner with my mom last night. She reported that she'd just been at a co-op board meeting where she'd futilely voted against a 20% maintenance hike and the imposition of a sales fee (1% of sales price to the co-op association). The sales fee has been instituted because a well-known cosmetics mogul bought a full floor about six months ago and is now selling it for more than a million dollars more than she paid for it. "The building has really changed," my mother said.

When I was a kid, my parents' neighborhood was down-at-the-heels, full of artists and Hispanic church communities. There was a gas station across the street, a firehouse, a mysterious utility building of some kind, an Irish pub on the corner, nothing bigger than fifteen stories for blocks and blocks.

Now high-rise condo buildings are popping up like towering glass-and-steel mushrooms. Every time I go over there, my parents' big windows have less and less of a view.

Before I left last night, my mother showed me pictures of a townhouse they're looking at, up by Inwood, a beautiful four-floor Beaux Arts building with a rental unit. They could get it for substantially less than the price at which their current place is appraising, and that seems ludicrous, somehow, but I don't doubt it's true.

When I left the apartment, the elevator went up instead of down. Someone on a higher floor had called it, and when the elevator door opened, it was on the cosmetics-mogul's floor. The elevator opened right into the apartment, as it does sometimes when people own the full floor and want to maximize space, and there was a guy standing there, in an atrium of dark wood and glass, wearing what was very obviously more than a thousand dollars worth of clothing.

And I wonder what all those people must think of my mother at the co-op board meeting, what they think of the fact that she's lived in her apartment for twenty-six years, was married there, raised children there (we used to roller-skate in the big hardwood living room), left the piping exposed, buys her clothes at Housing Works and Loehman's and Daffy's. I know she has a few friends in the building--the other apartment on my parents' floor is still occupied by the sweet, round little artist and her lanky neuroscientist husband and their spoiled-rotten cats, who've lived there as long as my parents have, and there is a nice young mother of two with whom I know my mother has coffee, but the building used to be full of families with children; there used to be trick-or-treating from floor to floor; people used to organize children's innings for us in the beer breaks in the stickball games sponsored by the Irish pub.

It used to be a nice family building. The sense of community has somehow evaporated as the asking prices have escalated, and I know that now my parents are trying to face the idea of selling the family home, the place where they were married and raised their children, where we've celebrated one bat mitzvah, two graduations, and any number of family Thanksgivings, everyone sitting around the big wood dining room table. It's definitely a sad thought, but when it comes right down to it, I don't blame them.


I'm Trying AdSense

Perhaps you've noticed the AdSense bars at the bottom of the page and on the right-hand sidebar. They're part of my non-salary income initiative--I certainly spend enough time on this blog that it could be considered a part-time job, and I run the Prosper ad, so this seems a logical next step.

I can't bring myself to give them more prominent placement--they're ugly!--so they may not even be worth it. I'm going to give them a try for a week or so, see what kind of earnings I'd be looking at, and go from there. (Unless my readership hates them passionately--if you do, tell me so!) The other reason I'd cancel them is if they were consistently displaying ads for stuff I'd feel terrible bringing to my readers' attention--payday loans and the like. So far, though, it's all money market accounts and informative sites (I've seen ads for ING, Bankrate, and Mint) so I'll see how that plays out.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Get Your ING Sign-Up Bonus Here!

My readership has had a substantial jump, lately--part of it is that WSJ article I was mentioned in, but I think part of it, too, is the increased attention to money management around the New Year--apparently, the most common resolution is to save more money. So though it's often taken for granted in the pf blogosphere, I thought I'd mention the financial staple that is online high-yield savings accounts.

Like many personal finance bloggers (and many non-bloggers!) I keep my savings in ING Direct's high-yield online savings account. It's not the highest rate out there--I think that crown sits atop Emigrant Direct or E*Trade's head at present. Nevertheless, I stick with ING because I like their super-easy interface, great reliability, and, perhaps most of all, the ability to set aside money in sub-accounts for different purposes. And the 4.1% is higher than you'll find at nearly any brick-and-mortar bank. I think I was earning .05% before I found ING. (Yuck.)

I've referred a bunch of friends and family to ING, but, as Single Ma pointed out, ING has wiped their referral logs, so I can refer some of my readers. If you use this link to open an Orange Savings account with $250 or more, you get a $25 bonus--that more than equalizes the interest rate issue for most modest savings accounts (based on some quick calculations, it's worth going elsewhere for a 5% interest rate if your account is starting at $2,777 or higher--you may want to do your own math, given that I, uh, majored in English). I get $10, too, which I'd count as non-salary income and put towards grad school. Everybody wins.

Referral #11
Referral #12
Referral #13
Referral #14
Referral #15

Like Trent does, I also use Electric Orange Checking. It's not my primary checking--it's a dedicated account for my grad school application expenses--but I do find it useful and simple. If I ever needed to get cash from that account, there's a very comprehensive network of free ATMs, too (though so far I haven't tried using one).

Anyway, if you're interested in that, give it a shot. Same $25/$10 referral structure. Here it's actually an even better deal, since interest on checking accounts is lower than on savings accounts.

Referral #1
Referral #2

I'm pretty sure you can only get one bonus. Let me know if it turns out otherwise!


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Less Stuff! More Money!

It's time for me to deacquisition, hardcore. I have too much stuff. The clutter in my bedroom, in particular, is beginning to make me crazed. Additionally, I have very little slack in the ol' budget this pay period, and a weekend spent at home decluttering might be just what the doctor ordered for my sanity and my checking account both (I do have one coffee date, but that's it).

Clothes with tags still on (I know there are at least three or four pieces, and none of them came cheap) will go on eBay, as will four pairs of new, non-fitting, and never-returned shoes (bought 'em more than a year ago) and maybe a couple of Christmas gifts that aren't my style and/or are redundant. I'm hoping to make $200. What I can't decide is whether this counts as non-salary income that should be added to the grad school stash or whether it is best used getting myself some newer, non-scraggly clothing.

Speaking of scraggly, there's also lots to give away--I think a bunch of my clothes are starting to look like they've seen better days. So off to Goodwill they'll go.

I'd be really happy to have a little less stuff and a little more money in my life.


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

After a Visit to HR

So, I'm officially switched to the Roth 401(k), though I'll miss Thursday's paycheck (drat!). I made this choice largely because of what commenters reminded me when I last posted about this option: that I probably won't have this option forever (because I probably won't be working here forever, and laws change, and whatnot) so it's smart to take advantage of it while I've got it, and while I'm young and in a low tax bracket (at a historically low tax level, too). Because the contribution percentage is set aside and then has the appropriate taxes deducted from it, I bumped up the contribution to 9%--I can't remember whether it was 7% or 8% before--so as to put myself on track to get the full $2,000 match. I can always tinker with that when I get a paycheck if it's too much or not enough.

I also got information on our corporate discount at NYSC--turns out, you can set up the membership fees to function as a payroll deduction. I'm not sure whether that means the membership is paid pretax or not, and I'm not sure how it works with the "extra" paychecks that fall outside the two-paychecks-a-month pattern, so I'll have to ask. I was hoping that there might be some room for negotiation--like, say, "Hey, if I pay cash for a year up-front, will you give me 20% off?" But the membership plan that my company offers is a good one--the enrollment fee is waived, and it's a substantially discounted price for a membership that allows me to use any NYSC location at any time. Not too shabby for $77/month. Essentially, then, this will work out much as I thought it would: the gym membership plus the switch to the Roth 401(k) will eat up my raise. That's fine with me. Both are worth my money.


Monday, January 07, 2008

Non-Salary Income: $145.35

I'm going to continue running the Prosper referral ad, at $150 per quarter. I've received the first payment via PayPal: $142.35 ($150, after PayPal fees; in future I will request payment by check). If I could get this kind of money on a monthly basis, I'd have no problem meeting the goal; as it is, I'm going to do a little more research on blog advertising options, which may be my best bet, and also call the coffee shop woman back.

I also got a Pinecone Research check: $3.

That's a total of $145.35 of non-salary income, or 9.7% of my goal for the year. The timing is good, too: I just registered for the GRE in Literature in English, which cost me $130. (Only $130 for a brutal standardized test that will consume my life, send my anxiety levels skyrocketing, make me feel bad about my education, and require me to get up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday--what a great deal!) The extra $15.35 will be shuttled into the Electric Orange checking account I maintain just for grad school stuff (I used it on Friday, to buy a big fat pack of 4x6 index cards to begin studying for aforementioned brutal standardized test).


Friday, January 04, 2008

Financial Goals for 2008

I've been thinking seriously about these--apologies for the delay. But without further ado, here are my 2008 financial goals.

Earn the full match in my 401(k)
I'm going to be switching over to the Roth 401(k), and my company's match has been bumped up to $2,000 (dollar-for-dollar!), so this will be a more challenging goal than it was this year.

Save $4,000 in the Freedom Fund, for an end balance of $10,000
This figure will just about cover six months' worth of frugal living, so it's a nice stash to have in case of life change or emergency. This means regular monthly contributions of about $250, plus saving the slack in my extra paychecks. Quite doable. If it's looking too doable as the year progresses, I may revise this goal upwards a touch, but since I may have to adjust my 401(k) contributions up, this one may be harder than it looks.

Give $1,200 to good causes
Yes, indeed, this is less than I gave this year. But a hundred bucks a month is a nice round number, and I really don't think it's ideal for me to be resenting my giving plan (and I did feel that way a couple of times this year), so I'm going to take this one in baby steps. The figure is still a chunk of money for someone of my age and income. I also need to devote some thought to creating a giving plan that makes my donations meaningful--I felt a little haphazard this year.

Earn $1,500 of non-salary income, earmarked for graduate school application expenses
This is going to be a big challenge, especially since I'm going to give up the freelance work I do through my employer. But I'm going to try to earn some money through the blog (you'll note I'm continuing to run the Prosper referral ad), and I'm going to talk to a local coffee shop about maybe doing some contract baking. And all those tiny Pinecone Research checks count, too! I'll get a goal meter up on my sidebar for this one.

Buy a friend a drink at least once a month
And not in the "I'll get this round, you get the next round" way, either. This seems like a strange goal, I know. But I want to be careful that I don't get tight-fisted, and I want to prioritize my friendships. I'm not going to be too picky about what it is I'm buying--coffee or a snack counts just as much as a beer, as long as it's bought during social time together and not reimbursed.

Achieve a $35,000 net worth
This one seems the likely result of achieving all of the above goals. I'll revisit it at the six-month mark.

You'll note that there's no goal pertaining to the Travel Fund. That's because it's not a priority right now. I'll keep up my $50/month automatic transfers, but I'm not going to be pushing this one this year, partially because it's not as urgent if I'm not taking my trip until summer of '09 and partially just because I'm going to have other things on my mind.

So onwards and upwards. May we all enjoy success in 2008.


Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Income & Savings in 2007

So here's something I thought would be interesting: a report on my savings from my individual income sources. The below attempts to account for every dollar that came into my coffers in 2007 and every dollar that stayed there. There's probably a little margin of error, but this is pretty thorough.

Income sources:

1. My regular salary.
My gross salary income for this year: $31,615.37. Of that, I saved $3,955.57, which is 12.51% of my gross income, in the Freedom Fund, and $2,276.70, or 7.20% of my gross income, in my 401(k), for a total savings of $6,232.27 and 19.71%. Going back through my ING records to add up the deposits to the Freedom Fund was amazing--I could see the momentum taking hold, the deposits growing. I saved $1,751.45 of my salary in the Freedom Fund in the first six months of 2007, and $2,204.12 in the Freedom Fund in the second six months. I also saved $525 in the Travel Fund, which is earmarked for later spending (so it's not in the total).

2. My freelance income.
I grossed $703 through freelance work in 2007, and have 38.24 of that left. The rest was spent on grad school-related stuff (test registration, study materials, &c.) and on my trip to France. The balance is earmarked for future spending on grad school stuff, so I saved 0% of my freelance income.

3. My 401(k) match.
It was $1,500, and, somewhat obviously, I saved 100% of it, because spending it wasn't an option.

4. My parents.
Oh, yes. Aside from the many times they have fed me and taken me to the movies this year, my parents wrote me a check for $6,000 last January. I saved 83.3% of it: $5,000 went to my Roth (topped off '06, maxed out '07), and $1,000 went towards my Travel Fund, which will eventually be spent on an adventure (so I'm not counting it as savings).

5. Windfalls.
I got a $500 gift from my aunt and a $520 tax refund. I saved 100% of each.

6. Interest.
My savings at ING earned $167.65 in 2007, and my CD at Bank of America earned $32.82; 100% of this interest was saved in the Freedom Fund.

7. Dividends.
My 401(k) earned me $29.36 in dividends, 100% of which were reinvested.

8. Pinecone Research surveys.
I made $24; I saved 0%.

All in all, my income this year totals $41,092.20 and my savings this year total 13,982.10, or 34.03% of my total income. That, I think, is a number I can be pretty damn proud of.


And by the way, happy new year!

I had a lovely and relatively frugal New Year's Eve on Monday--I withdrew $40 from an ATM on Sunday night, and ended up only spending $30--K and I met some of my favorite folks at a Williamsburg bar for some drinks & company before heading over to the Promenade for the fireworks. The rest of the evening was spent at the nearby apartment of one of our company, where the drinks were strong & free (to us).

Tuesday was my family's traditional New Year's Day brunch--it marks the end of the season of excess. After a multi-course meal of bagels, cream cheese and lox, whitefish salad, pineapple-banana smoothie, various cheeses, mixed berries, and pastries, all capped off with a couple of hefty mimosas, I was ready to crawl onto my parents' couch and watch Law & Order for four or five hours. And that's exactly what I proceeded to do. The day end up costing me $15 (I picked up orange juice at Whole Foods on the way, per my dad's request, and split a cab home with K), and that's pretty much the end of my discretionary spending until a week from tomorrow.

It's been a really lovely couple of weeks, though--saw some friends I'd not seen in awhile, hung out with my sister (home from France for another couple of days), and enjoyed the celebrating, the singing & dancing & eating & drinking.

But now I am back to the office, back to eating Greek yogurt and Kashi GoLean, and back to watching my spending with the customary eagle eye.


Tuesday, January 01, 2008

My 2007 Financial Progress: The Numbers

I had five financial goals for 2007. I also, somewhere along the line, developed an unofficial goal of reaching a savings goal of $5,500 in my Freedom Fund. For whatever reason, that goal was the most important to me. It represents progress towards being able to do what I want to do with my life.

And as of this very morning, that goal is met. My Freedom Fund account at ING reads $5,500, which actually represents cash savings from this year of somewhat less than $4,500 (the balance also includes a CD that matured). And I've transfered my beloved-and-generous aunt's $500 Christmas check in, so it'll stand at $6,000 for the year. And as to the rest of them?

1. Give 5% of my income.
My gross salary income for the year was $31,615.37. I gave $1,371.45 to good causes this year. That's 4.3%--short of the goal. Not by much, but still short. I copped out of giving for a couple paychecks (or maybe three?) this summer when money was tight. Had I given that money, I would still actually have been a little short (4.9%), so this goal will need a little rejiggering for next year.

2. Open a Roth and automate contributions.
Sort of. I actually funded my Roth in a lump sum, with the money my parents gave me. But the end is accomplished—the money my parents gave me maxed the thing out.

3. Earn the full employer match in my 401(k).
Big fat check, and I'm proud of this one.

4. Open and automate contributions to a travel fund towards a savings goal of $2,000.
No. But this one was by choice—I just wanted to prioritize the Freedom Fund as that goal grew in size and priority.

5. Triple my net worth.
Stupidly (as Moom pointed out at the time), I didn't count my checking account in my net worth when I set this goal. When I started this blog, though, I listed out every penny I had, an though it had clearly come up somewhat in the next two months, even if it had been $7,000, it would be well and truly tripled. And I bet it wasn't even that high—I bet it's more like quadrupled. My net worth as of today is $21,247, which is a modest increase from last month of 2.27% and well clear of my unofficial goal of $20,000.

So I think I made some pretty good progress. And this is just the numbers.