Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Slack-A-Doodle-Do: A post which eventually gets around to money

It's too cold in my office to work today. The temperature is reportedly adjustable, but I have never noticed the slightest change in temperature when I fiddle with the radiators against my wall.

I have a bad feeling one of the women who I supervise has overslept again. Two weeks ago, I had to call her and wake her up at 11:00. It wasn't the first time. Makes me feel like her mother, which is odd, because she's four years older than me, and also jealous, because I would love to be still in bed at this hour. I don't think I've ever slept through the beginning of work, a class, or anything else important. Oversleeping for me means waking up fifteen minutes before I absolutely have to leave the house and rushing out the door without showering. I must have an internal alarm or something.

She just called. Indeed, she took some cold medicine and forgot to set her alarm. She'll be here at 11:30. Well, at least I don't have to call her.

This week I'm continuing to work on using up my weird ingredients. I'm eating bacon burgers, corn chowder made with dry-milk cream soup mix (contrary to my expectations, the only unpleasant part of the chowder is the freezer taste of the frozen corn), and grits with cheese. Oh, and Christmas candy. I just ate a white-chocolate snowman as a morning snack.

I have mixed feelings about Christmas. I hate getting stuff I don't like as presents. Really hate it. Unlike a lot of people, I'm pretty okay with disposing of/regifting the stuff, but I just hate the phenomenon of something I don't like coming into my house without me choosing it. And since I'm not going to just throw away something brand-new, it takes time and/or energy to regift, donate, or use it up.

As a result of this feeling, which has increased sharply in the last couple of years, I'm becoming really careful about what I buy for other people. Family is easy because they give me wish lists, so I can know that the gifts I buy them will be un-annoying. R. and I decided not to buy each other presents this year--we'll do birthdays, but not Christmas.

But two of the women I supervise gave me little gifts this year, and though I really should get them something in return, I'm finding it hard. Special office supplies? Who really needs office supplies? I personally have at least a five-year supply of post its, not to mention a massive stash of paperclips, bulldog clips, pens, etc. Frog-shaped paperclips are cute, but never work as well as plain old paperclips. Lotion? God, takes me forever to use up, and what if they don't like the scent? Candles? Same scent issue, plus is that really a good gift for the one who has kids? I'm pretty sure I'm just going to go the chocolate/cookies route, even though I'm fairly sure one of them isn't big on sweets. As a New Year's gift, since I have clearly already missed the Christmas window.

The office gifts I got this year were pretty non-stuff: a Starbucks card, soap, and a tote bag, which I will probably eventually use. Over Thanksgiving, a friend's kids bought me "Christmas" presents that I threw away as soon as I got home. I felt pretty horrible about that, since they're kids, but what the heck am I going to do with a lip-gloss set made for tweens? My brother and sister-in-law gave me some great homemade gifts--fudge sauce and Christmas ornaments, which were personalized (i.e., cute animals and an ornament that says "I love Chicago").

And then there were my parents. Sigh. I hope they don't read this. I gave them the address once but I don't think they quite understand what a blog is. First and foremost, they gave R. and I one absolutely fantastic gift: a trip to Korea! Wonderful. I'd been angsting over how I was going to carve the money for that out of my poverty-line budget, and R. didn't think he could go at all unless I seriously subsidized him. I would have been over the moon with just that one gift. But there was some other stuff involved. A bracelet that, even if it were my style, would be seriously annoying to wear. Bookends shaped like teddy bears (what?). And a small stone rooster. I guess that was it. So not a total overload of stuff. But it was still irritating to get things I knew I would never use.

Am I the only one who's Scroogy in this way? I love Christmas itself: the music, food, family, pine trees, etc. But minimalistic me really hates the stuff aspect.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

4.5 Miles on Lincoln Avenue

I walked home last night, 7.2 miles. It wasn't too bad. I mean, it did take forever. There was a lot of leaping involved, because there are huge slush puddles at every busy intersection. And
fellow pedestrians kept wanting to commiserate with me, but I wasn't feeling particularly social after, say, mile 3. But I did it. And I wasn't all that miserable or even particularly tired by the end, although I was absolutely exhausted this morning.

The last time I walked to or from work was in Lubbock, Texas. I was signed up with several temp agencies at the time, and one of them called me that morning with a job. Both my parents had already left for work. Mom worked an hour's drive away, and Dad wasn't an option either for some reason...maybe he didn't have a cell phone yet. There was a bus system in Lubbock, but the closest stop was several miles away from the place in question. So I walked.

I'm not sure why I didn't take a cab--I can only assume I didn't have any money. I don't remember anything about the walk, but I do know I got to work by the time I said I would and I got the job, which lasted for several more months and earned me enough money to get out of Lubbock. I started to walk home that evening, too, but before I'd gone more than a quarter mile a coworker drove past me and forced me to accept a ride. After that day, I worked out a system with my parents where I could either borrow the car or get a ride from Mom.

If last night's walk went well, I was going to consider doing it regularly. It didn't go well enough for that. In spring I might try biking. I'm terrified of being in city traffic on a bike but I'm sure I can get over that after a couple of tries. We'll be in a new place by then, anyway--although it's more likely to be farther away from work than closer.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

My Weird Foods List

Jacob at Early Retirement Extreme has started a 30-day makeover series. I absolutely love it. Ramit at I Will Teach You to be Rich is just finishing up something similar, but I lost interest in that one pretty early. It wasn't, well, extreme enough for me.

One of Jacob's first posts is about grocery shopping. He recommends a "staples-based" diet--eating the same few meals over and over again. I'm interested in trying this out, but according to Jacob, first I have some housecleaning to do: "Before switching to a staples based dinner plan, I recommend getting rid of all the weird things in your cupboard. The best way is to not buy anything until your last strange ingredient is gone."

One of my weak spots is a tendency to go crazy at the supermarket buying things that I've never heard of and have no use for, but that look intriguing. Since one of our usual shopping places is an ethnic grocery store with lots of weird foods, this happens pretty often. Combine that with the low-carb diet I was on for a year, and I have an impressive (scary) number of weird things in my cupboard and freezer. I don't think I can actually not buy anything until they're all gone, since a number of them are things that can't be eaten on their own, but I can at least give it the old college try.

For my own recordkeeping and your horror/amusement, I herewith provide a full list of the strange foods I need to use up (along with a few possible uses). By including these foods on my list, I do not intend to cast aspersions upon the foods involved. They are simply weird because they do not make up a regular part of my diet (i.e., I have not opened the package for a month or more).

Weird Foods/Ingredients
soy nuts, sizeable bag
unpleasant protein powder (for protein shakes)
fiber/Metamucil, orange flavor
bruschetta (found a good pasta recipe that will use the whole jar)
pork rinds
sugar-free jello (three boxes)
marshmallows
corn syrup (apparently I can make this into fake Crunchies, which I wish I'd known a year ago when I purchased the corn syrup, as I have in the interim purchased several overpriced and disappointing imported Crunchie bars)
malted milk powder
sunflower seeds (could shell and mix in with my oatmeal)
mate
kasha (there seems to be only one actual recipe that you can make with kasha, and I didn't like it. Adding raisins might make it palatable.)
grits (just made most of these into an ok grits casserole)
onion soup
cous cous
generic Slim Jims (ew)
cream soup mix (homemade, but I never use it)
soy flour (the pancakes I made with this were hideous and I haven't touched it since)
flaxseed meal, way too much (flaxseed muffins were a pretty good breakfast when I was on Atkins, but they're not good enough when you're eating real carbs)
cocoa
cornmeal
rye crackers
mint extract (failed attempt to make generic vanilla ice cream taste like mint ice cream)
molasses
honey wheat germ
TVP (God, I think I've moved twice with this stuff)
lentils, small amount
whole frozen strawberries
roasting chicken
freezer-burned hot wings
buffalo chicken skewers
French fried cheddar onions (don't ask)
dry milk (I used to use this for cooking all the time, but now we almost always have fresh milk in the house)
2 sour cream containers full of pepperoni
hamburgers wrapped in bacon (nice idea, but the bacon never seems to cook)
3 round steaks, possibly too freezer burned to eat
frozen corn
whole cauliflower, frozen in a moment of desperation just before I left on a trip
whipping cream, ditto. Less likely to defrost successfully than the cauliflower
two kinds of sugar-free jam
malt vinegar
balsamic vinegar
red wine vinegar
white vinegar (WHY? Why FOUR kinds of vinegar?)
peanut sauce
tandoori chicken marinade
mild curry paste
sauerkraut, large container
dijon mustard
Frank's hot sauce
horseradish sauce
Gum (Juicy Fruit and Doublemint, can't fathom where we got this; I never bought it)
granulated Splenda, lifetime supply

Spices
chili powder (three kinds, huge amounts of all!)
Splenda packets, 50 or so
onion powder (I thought it was the same as dehydrated onions)
thyme
rosemary
5-spice powder (from when I lived in Chinatown)
coriander seeds
pod-like spice (cardamom?)
tons of colored peppercorns
bay leaves (what IS the point?)
hamburger seasoning (R. might use this)
feta cheese
mulling spices (which one would use for making cider, which I have never made)
pizza spice grinder
steak
spice mix
Mrs. Dash (original), purchased in a wild phase when I thought I might cut down on my salt intake
Mrs. Dash (spicy), ditto

Friday, August 15, 2008

Dirty Little Secrets

So theoretically, I'm saving 75% of my income. Every month, I put $2650--after tax--into my Roth IRA and savings account. I decided on this percentage based on Jacob of Early Retirement Extreme's guidelines on how to retire in 5-7 years. And when I talk to people in real life about my early retirement plans, that's the number I throw around.

"I'd like to retire when I'm 35."
"How are you going to manage that?"
"I'm living on about 25% of my income."

Something about that hard number tends to quench any potential naysaying, which is awesome.

The trouble is, it's not quite true.

I am saving my $2650 every month. And that is 75% of my after-tax salary. But my irregular income--gifts, rebates, and, most significantly, freelance income--is disappearing into my checking account and inflating my lifestyle. That's not what I want. I want that freelance income--hard-earned through the work squeezed out of vacations, evenings, and weekends and the time spent reading poorly written and poorly conceived manuscripts--to be padding my savings, not my lifestyle.

This is actually quite easy to solve. All I need to do is deposit all checks I receive into my savings account rather than my checking account. So why don't I?

Because I'm scared. I like having that extra money in my checking account in case I want to buy a new shirt or splurge on entertainment. Putting all my "extra" income into savings would mean that I'm really committing to this early retirement thing. I'd have to start paying attention to the amount of money in my checking account again to make sure I don't pull an overdraft. I'd have to actually live on this theoretical miserly budget I've set up for myself.

That's what I say I want. And I think it is what I want. I spent $119 on opera tickets a few days ago, and I feel foolish. I don't really enjoy seeing opera live all that much. Sure, it's nice to have an excuse to dress up and go to the lovely opera house, but the seats I get are so far away I can't see the singers, and I could essentially have the same experience in my own house, for free, by renting a video of the opera from the library. And when I'm totally honest with myself, I find opera kind of boring. It's one of those thing I want to be familiar with, but don't actually enjoy that much. It is not worth $119 to me.

From this day forward, I will be depositing all "extra" money directly into my savings account. The fear is a chimera. If I ever actually need the money, I can transfer it instantly. And keeping the amount in my checking account to my actual budget, instead of just a kind of "funds on hand" account, will keep me honest.

Friday, August 8, 2008

July Budget Busters

July was my most expensive month yet since starting my early-retirement savings plan. It even came pretty close to last November, when I spent over $3000, largely on clothes and accessories (I had free rent that month, and I still managed to spend that much money! It had been a really long time since I'd bought any clothes.)

Total July spending? About $2700 dollars. What did I do to create that kind of wallet damage?
- $600 gift card at Jewel-Osco. As a promotion, they offered a 10% bonus on gift cards if you gave them your economic stimulus check, so my $600 got me $660 to spend at Jewel. We do most of our shopping at Aldi, but go to Jewel every few months for specialty items like dill (not sweet) relish and the particular rye crackers I like. I think the gift card will last us most of a year, and since we only buy items we can't find elsewhere for a cheaper price, I consider it a 10% return on investment--not bad when I've lost about 9% in stocks since the beginning of the year.

- $691 on a plane ticket. A domestic plane ticket. To Minnesota. It was a family reunion for the side of the family that isn't very close--some of the people there I hadn't seen in fifteen years. I tried to find another option, but the town I was going to doesn't have a train or bus station, is very far away from any other city, and even if I had a valid driver's license I don't think I could have managed an eleven-hour drive by myself. I think being able to spend a lot of money to see people who are important to you is an important luxury, if that's not an oxymoron. I hated spending the money, but I am very glad I went.

- About $80 on books. Part of that was a Korean bird book for my mother. They moved to Korea on Monday. Neither of them was terribly excited about it, but my mother in particular seems a little depressed by the prospect of spending two years in Korea--there's basically no chance of her getting a job in the ministry, and from past experience I think she's really much happier when she's working in her chosen field. At least once this tour is over they're done with the military for good.

The rest of the $80 was postage on books I sent out for paperbackswap. I posted a bunch of new books and most of them got requested, so I have a bunch of credits waiting for when books I want become available.


The good news is I still made my savings goal for the month, thanks to a bunch of freelance income, and my net worth is catapulting towards $40,000. At my current spending level (about $20,000 a year) that's about 8% of what I'll need to retire. I feel like I'm making real progress, and once the market starts to recover (I swear it's going to someday) I should be heading towards early retirement by leaps and bounds.



Hey, cool! Beany gave me an award! I really love Beany's blog--she always has interesting things to say and I think her oddnesses kinda match up with mine (super-cheap, introverted...).

I'm pretty out of the loop blogwise right now, so I don't have seven nominations, but I would like to nominate Carrie, who just stopped by and has a cool blog about environmental living in Chicago. I especially like reading blogs by people from my neck of the woods...The Budgeting Babe is another Chicago personal finance blogger I like.

Award Rules:

1. The winner can put the logo on her blog.
2. Link the person you received your award from.
3. Nominate at least 7 other blogs.
4. Put links of those blogs on yours.
5. Leave a message on the blogs of the people you’ve nominated



Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Cost of Location

In the past month, I've made two trips to small-town Minnesota, both of which included some discussion of real estate prices in small town America.

Real Estate Prices in Chicago (rough estimates):

A smallish two-bedroom condo in my neighborhood: approx. $300,000 with assessments of about $200 a month.

A "nice" two- or three-bedroom condo in Chicago: $400,000 to $500,000 with assessments of $400 to $800 a month

Any sort of single-family home in a non-scary neighborhood in Chicago: At least $650,000, and usually much closer to a million.

Real Estate Prices in Small Town Midwest:

1. Small two-bedroom house on large lot, no garage: bought for $27,500 in June

2. Grandma's old lake house (three bedrooms, two baths): currently offered at $97,500. Grandma thinks a fair price would be $65,000.

3. Victorian "mansion" (three floors, at least four bedrooms, adjoining barn and other outbuildings): bought for $70,000 in 1988

4. Grandma's custom-built, architect-designed four-bedroom home with large lake-facing lot, huge kitchen, dining room, two fireplaces, spectacular living room with very high ceilings and view of lake, three-bedroom garage, almost infinite storage: sold in June for $250,000

But what do you give up to pay this kind of money for real estate?

Properties 1 and 2 are in a town of about 6700. The nearest town of significant size is a three-hour drive away. The paper mill is the largest employer. The second largest industry is tourism to the beautiful nearby lakes and national parks.

Property 3 is in a town of about 1000, which is about 40 minutes away from a larger town of about 50,000. The larger town could provide some employment prospects for someone who wanted to live in a very remote place. My relative who owns this property is a doctor with a family practice for the town of 1000. Other relatives who live here own a drugstore and farm.

Property 4 surprises me the most. It is in a town of about 18,000. Like the other towns, this town is slowly aging and dying. But it is much more centrally located--if you were motivated, you could commute to either Rochester or Minneapolis. I could see this town becoming an exurb of one of these cities in 10 or 15 years. The largest employer is a fast-growing health care center. But a comparable house in Chicagoland would easily go for over a million dollars.

All of these towns have limited options for what big city dwellers think of as entertainment. A few dive bars. Maybe a music venue or two. Restaurants are mostly chains or independent places serving diner-type food. The Elks or Lions Club might be your best option for a good meal out.

On the other hand, fishing, boating, and other outdoor activities are common and much cheaper than they are in Chicago. It's plausible to have several pets and even a horse or two. The two larger towns have airports that offer flying lessons and manage to support small concert series and community theaters. Shopping is decidedly limited, but can't you do most of that over the Internet anyway?

I hate most suburbs and the sorts of medium-sized cities that seem to consist mainly of big-box stores and strip malls. I like the place I live in to have a sense of place. Chicago does. So do these tiny Midwestern towns. Someday, when I have a primary source of income other than my job and if my other activities are pretty location-independent, I might consider moving to a place like them.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Current Obsessions

- reading about real estate investing. I don't have enough capital to actually do it yet, especially since I just tied up about half my net worth in a 6-month CD in a spontaneous effort to a) earn a little more interest than my not-so-high-yield-anymore savings account and b) prevent myself from doing something rash with it, like trying to qualify for a loan on a condo when I know perfectly well that prices will probably be lower in six months.

- free TV. I love Joost (sorry, R), and Netflix on Demand (ok, not exactly free), and the way most networks are now posting scads of free content online, which makes it seem almost like I have a) Tivo and b) cable, even though I don't.

- trying to figure out some way to make positive returns in this almost universally crappy economy. My 35-year-old retirement plans are based on small, but positive returns!

- asset allocation. Which asset classes do I want to own? Which ones can I get in my 401(k)? Which ones can I cover in my IRA? Which ones are ok to hold in taxable accounts? If you had told me a year ago I would soon be making charts of potential asset allocations, I would have promptly fallen asleep.

- reducing the number of books I check out of the library at any one time. This may not seem worthy of obsession, but I'm starting to feel pressure to finish books in time for the due date (these are usually books that have already been renewed at least once). I think that means my library eyes are getting bigger than my library stomach.

Greetings

So, uh, hi. Guess I took a summer hiatus there. I kinda burned out on blogging. Trying to do a post every weekday was way too much for me, and the kind of posts I was trying to do (advice posts and reviews) weren't very fun for me to write.

I still want to write about personal finance in some semi-public way, but I think from now on this blog is going to be more focused on personal stories, thoughts, etc. That style of writing comes more naturally to me and makes me feel like I'm getting somewhere as I work out a subject in my head. I'll probably still post some book reviews from time to time as I do like having a record of the books I read--and passing judgment on them!

If you're still reading, please stick around--when I was posting regularly I really enjoyed getting feedback and comments!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Review: A Million Bucks by 30

There need to be more books like this one. Alan Corey did something extraordinary and then wrote a book explaining exactly how he did it. A while back, I talked about how lots of people discuss step 1 and step 3, but few people talk about exactly how to get rich/build up enough money to retire early. Alan Corey talks about the journey in lots of detail and provides an entertaining story besides.

By being extremely cheap, creating side incomes, and making good real estate deals, Alan Corey made a million dollars by (actually, somewhat before) his thirtieth birthday. (Quite a bit of that was equity rather than cash, but hey, the guy was 29!)

I'm pretty sure I'd hate Alan in real life. He spent college partying and his initial goal was to keep his college lifestyle forever. He's forever throwing in references about how he did something to meet women. But his self-deprecating humor when he talks about the stupid and naive things he's done is so endearing that I couldn't help but like him as an author. (Example: His first post-college email address--the one he put on over 500 resumes--was bigal@models.com. That was supposed to be BigAl, not BiGal. Oops!)

But Alan gets smarter, and through a combination of nonconformity, chutzpah, and persistence he bumbles his way to a million dollars. He masters the basics fast--living way below his means (he claims to have once eaten ramen for three months straight), socking away money in a 401(k)--and moves on to trying to figure out how to make big money. He starts by studying every get-rich-quick scheme out there to find out what they have in common. Then he starts looking for ways to increase his income, first with some interesting side gigs, then by investing in real estate. When he sees a good opportunity, he finds a way to take it, even if he has to do some fancy footwork to do so. He takes bold risks, even though he's often ignorant and scared.

It's worth noting that Corey did a few ethically questionable things on his way to a million. These things didn't make him much money and are portrayed more as college pranks than strategies that he recommends.

The book includes nuggets of financial advice, but the real value in this book is in Corey's story. A great read for people with big money goals.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Curse of the $13 Drink

A cousin of mine moved to New York at the age of 18 to attend college. His first month there, he spent $500 going out to bars and clubs. He spent so much on going out that he had to get a second job to pay his bills, and a few months later, ended up transferring schools to live somewhere cheaper.

I love my cousin, but this has to rank up there with the dumbest financial moves I've ever heard of. $500 is a lot of money. $500 is a plane ticket to Europe, a big pile of clothes, or, for many people, a month's rent. I believe that people should spend their money on the things that are most fulfilling or important to them, even if those things seem frivolous to others. I also believe it's extremely unlikely that anyone could get $500 of fulfillment out of a month's worth of dancing, drinking, and cabs.

For many young people, especially college students and singles, having a social life seems to be synonymous with spending large amounts of money every weekend. How can you avoid spending an entire paycheck on cover charges and overpriced fruit-flavored "martinis"?


Rule 1: Don't Go Out Unless You Really, Really Want To
If your friends are in the habit of going out every weekend, suggest more creative pursuits once in a while (Whirlyball? Themed movie night? A potluck where everyone brings an intentionally bizarre dish to share?). If they really can't see beyond the bar scene at all, they're probably not all that interesting to begin with.

If you're looking to knock back a few, drinking at your place or a friend’s place is much cheaper, safer, and often more fun than going out to a bar or club. Discover, or rediscover, the joy of the house party. Personally, I much prefer the atmosphere of a few friends and a bottle of whiskey to a club full of pounding backbeats, sticky floors, and sweaty drunks.


Rule 2: Go out for the right reasons
Good reasons to go out:
1. To dance (especially if the kind of dancing you want to do requires a partner).
2. To see a particular band or hear your favorite type of live music.
3. To meet other women, if you're a straight woman.
4. To find a short-term romantic interest.

Bad reasons to go out:
1. To get drunk (much, much cheaper to do this at home--and no worries about how to get home afterwards).
2. To meet the love of your life, or your next boyfriend/girlfriend. The first one won't happen. The second one might, but eventually, you'll probably wish it hadn't.
3. To spend time with your friends. It's too loud in most clubs and bars to carry on anything resembling a decent conversation.

Rule #3: When you do go out, don't drink at the bar.
Do everything you can to avoid buying alcohol at inflated club and bar prices. If your goal is to get buzzed, do most of your drinking at home or at a BYOB restaurant before going to the club or bar (using public transportation, a designated driver, or a cab to get to your final destination). If you're drinking just to be sociable, limit yourself to one alcoholic drink and go dry the rest of the night (Coke is more expensive at bars, too, but not as expensive as vodka). If you need something in your hands, make it water or soda--alcohol is an expensive social prop. Better yet, if you're not planning on drinking anyway, volunteer to be designated driver, and many places will subsidize your soda, or even virgin cocktails.

Rule #4: Don't use guys as drink dispensers
A bonus rule just for the women. While it should go without saying, I've seen some of my best friends engage in dubious behavior in this area. Obviously, if you're already on a date, let the guy buy you a drink or five. But when it comes to accepting drinks from guys you don't know, please be a) safe and b) kind.

Safe acceptance of drinks is self-explanatory. Don't accept drinks from guys who seem creepy, sleazy, or are too drunk to stand straight. Avoid anyone who gives even the slightest indication that if you accept a drink, they will expect something from you. Even if the situation doesn't turn nasty, guys in any of the above categories will inevitably get seriously annoying after a while.

Kind drinking behavior is easy to ignore, but just as important. A guy buys you a drink because he's interested in you. Period. Decent guys will not expect any sort of physical reward for buying you a drink, but they DO take your acceptance of the drink as an indication of interest. If he doesn't stand a chance with you, do him a favor and don't accept the drink. You may have to buy your own drinks, but you get to retain your self-respect. And when the planets align and a cute, coherent guy offers to refill your glass, you can say yes with a clear conscience.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman

My high school geography teaching recommended this book to me. He wrote the title on the edge of my notebook while I was reading something else; maybe Summerhill. He liked me even though I spent most of his class reading, I guess because a couple of times I misunderstood the assignments and accidentally turned in something interesting and also because I had these jeans I'd written all over. They were against dress code but he never sent me to the office for them. When another girl asked why he didn't he said it was okay because they had "philosophical quotes" all over them, although I think the closest I got to philosophy on those pants were some Smashing Pumpkins lyrics.

He wrote on one of my assignments, "Never stop writing. It will be your lifecraft." I still have that note. I was about to say he was the first person who ever told me I would be a writer, but now that I think about it he might be the only one who's ever said that.

He was pretty crappy at being a high school teacher. He was young and insecure and tried to be cool, not realizing how cynical we were. He told us there was only one rule in his classroom, "respect." I guess he didn't know that half the teachers said that and that they all found ways to make "raise your hand and ask for the bathroom pass," mandatory parts of respect. I guess he didn't know he would do that, too.

After a while, he started calling the campus police over really stupid stuff, like someone raising their voice but not even actually yelling. It seemed like he pressed his red emergency button about twice a week. Officer Nino would come to find out what was wrong and talk to the kid and tell them to cut it out while Mr. Caesar got redder and redder in the face trying to explain what a huge disturbance the kid had caused. In other classes, they only called the campus police when actual violence was occurring.

I had learned to tune stuff out, so while all this was going on I sat in my seat in the back row playing Magic with my friend Jesse or reading Of Mice and Men for English.

I kept that bit of paper where he wrote Steal This Book for many years. Every once in a while when I was in a new bookstore or library I'd look for it. I either didn't think you were supposed to use interlibrary loan for something like that or I was too shy to ask about it.

My senior year of college some friends and I went to San Francisco and found Steal This Book in the City Lights bookstore under a section named something like anarchy. I was a little tipsy and spent almost $70 on books, which was a lot for me at the time, especially since I was financing the entire trip on a credit card.

I bet Mr. Caesar, who if he is still a teacher is almost certainly battered and bitter by now, would like this story.

After six years of waiting to read it, what did I think of the book? I'll leave that to the next entry.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Splitting the Check

Why is it that whenever four or more people go out to dinner together, even if everyone rounds up generously and even if everyone got almost the exact same thing, it always takes about half an hour to settle the check?

Our annual conference has started, and so has company reimbursement for my meals and transportation. Yesterday I took a cab with some coworkers from the location of a board-staff reception to the hotel where our conference is taking place. We asked the beleaguered driver for a dollar in change and three receipts.

Due to the conference, I'll be working long days every day until next Friday, so posting will continue to be spotty and/or short. Please stick with me--I'll definitely be back to full strength soon. Enjoy your weekend!






Monday, May 12, 2008

Virginia Woolf, Financial Guru?

"It is necessary to have five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door if you are to write fiction or poetry." - Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

The idea of having a private room or space in which to work on creative pursuits is still embraced by artists and writers 80 years after Woolf wrote these words. The importance of "five hundred a year"--in other words, financial security--is less often mentioned.

The idea that money is important to creativity, that great creative achievement perhaps cannot be achieved without it, seems to run counter to conventional wisdom. The "starving artist" cliche is romantic, and perhaps more importantly, democratic. But Woolf conveys the romance of financial freedom and its positive intellectual effects more eloquently than any writer on personal finance could ever do. She begins by showing us her main (fictional) character buying lunch in a restaurant.

"I gave the waiter a ten-shilling note and he went to bring me change. There was another ten-shilling note in my purse; I noticed it, because it is a fact that still takes my breath away--the power of my purse to breed ten-shilling notes automatically. I open it and there they are. Society gives me chicken and coffee, bed and lodging, in return for a certain number of pieces of paper which were left me by an aunt, for no other reasons than that I share her name.

The news of my legacy reached me one night at the same time that the act was passed that gave votes to women. A solicitor's letter fell into the post-box and when I opened it I found that she had left me five hundred pounds a year for ever."

(In 1928, five hundred a year was a comfortable but not exorbitant fortune, perhaps equivalent to an income in the high five figures today.)

"I had made my living by cadging odd jobs from newspapers, by reporting a donkey show here or a wedding there; I had earned a few pounds by addressing envelopes, reading to old ladies, making artificial flowers, teaching the alphabet to small children in a kindergarten. Such were the chief occupations that were open to women before 1918. I need not, I am afraid, describe in any detail the hardness of the work, for you know perhaps women who have done it; nor the difficulty of living on the money when it was earned, for you may have tried. But what still remains with me as a worse infliction than either was the poison of fear and bitterness which those days bred in me. To being with, always to be doing work that one did not wish to do, and to do it like a slave, flattering and fawning, not always necessarily perhaps, but it seemed necessary and the stakes were too great to run risks; and then the thought of that one gift which it was death to hide--a small one but dear to the possessor--perishing and with it myself, my soul--all this became like a rust eating away the bloom of the spring, destroying the tree at its hard."

The effect of soul-crushing jobs hasn't changed. Debt and runaway consumption raise the stakes and intensify the feeling of slavery.

"Whenever I change a ten-shilling note a little of that rust and corrosion is rubbed off; fear and bitterness go. Indeed, I thought, slipping the silver into my purse, it is remarkable, remembering the bitterness of those days, what a change of temper a fixed income will bring about. No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds. Food, house and clothing are mine for ever. Therefore not merely do effort and labor cease, but also hatred and bitterness. I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me.

"They, too, the patriarchs, the professors, had endless difficulties, terrible drawbacks to contend with . . . Watch in the spring sunshine the stockbroker and the great barrister going indoors to make money and more money and more money when it is a fact that five hundred pounds a year will keep one alive in the sunshine. These are unpleasant instincts to harbour, I reflected. They are bred of the conditions of life; of the lack of civilization. And, as I realized these drawbacks, by degrees fear and bitterness modified themselves into pity and toleration; and then in a year or two, pity and toleration went, and the greatest release of all came, which is freedom to think of things in themselves. That building, for example, do I like it or not? Is that picture beautiful or not? Indeed my aunt's legacy unveiled the sky to me, and substituted for the large and imposing figure of a gentleman, which Milton recommended for my perpetual adoration, a view of the open sky."

This eloquent passage describes exactly why I place so much importance on financial freedom. Of course, financial independence isn't the only way to get to the point of "thinking of things in themselves." I try as much as possible to intellectually distance myself from my job in my off hours and on weekends. I also try not to attach too much importance to what any person thinks of me or to this particular job--I had a different job last year and will have a different job five years from now.

For most present-day Americans, financial independence may be only a blip on the far-off horizon, but Woolf's passages on money make some points that can be useful even for those of modest means.

1. Money and material comfort are advantageous even for artists. Poverty is not more noble; it simply puts more roadblocks in the way of creativity.

2. The best situation for an artist is to have a completely independent source of wealth.

3. The next best situation is to have work which frees one as much as possible from sucking up to people or chasing after ever greater amounts of money.

4. Don't let your job interfere with your creativity. (Easier said than done, but worth keeping in mind.)

5. Think of money in terms of an amount of interest per year. Five hundred pounds "forever" means that only interest is being consumed, not capital. At a five percent rate of interest, five hundred pounds of income would have been 20,000 pounds in capital.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Oh Frabjous Day



[oh frabjous day by jchatoff]

After nearly a week of trepidation, planning, strategizing, and frantic phone calls to camp headquarters to see if I could switch to another session, I finally talked to my boss.

"I'd like to take vacation during a time when vacation normally isn't allowed."

"When?"

"During the September board meeting."

"That's fine."

I almost offered to take the time unpaid, do kitchen duty, and write a conciliatory email to the board anyway, because I'd been thinking about the various negotiating strategies I could use for so freaking long. Next time I do this? Obsess and freak out about something for days on end? Remind me how this was so not a big deal.

So in September, I'm going to Vermont (state number 46!) to hang out with a bunch of unschooled teenagers, some crazy hippie unschooled adults, and this woman. Life is officially great.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

$5 Adventures: The Newspaper

Get a newspaper. Not the New York Times, unless you live in New York. The local one. The more local, the better. If your city has one of those crazy free papers, that’s the one you want. Even if you’re a Republican or fifty-five and would never read it otherwise. For our purposes, it’s the best one.

Throw the front page away. The latest developments in the Rezko trial or the Democratic primaries aren’t important today. Ignore everything remotely socially relevant. What we’re looking for are the listings: movies, festivals, sports events. Gardening clubs. If you found an alternative weekly, probably about half of it is devoted to such listings. In a mainstream paper, they may be more scattered around, but they’ll be there, on the edges and bottoms of pages, in tiny one-paragraph articles squeezed into corners, in ads. Go through the entire paper and look at them all, even the ones that sound boring. The sports section might list a contra dancing club or a roller derby. The “lectures” section might include a book signing with Rachael Ray (she makes me want to claw my eyes out, but maybe you like her). Many papers conveniently mark free events so they're easy to spot. Read the classifieds and the personal ads, too. Just in case the one other wakeboarder in town or the one other woman in Lubbock who reads Bust magazine is advertising for a likeminded buddy.

After you've finished looking through the entire paper, flip back to something
that sounded interesting. Then go.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Against Work, Redux

Back in February, I spent a week laboring over an application that made my hands sweat. I applied to be an adviser at a camp for homeschooled teenagers. The camp is run by one of my heroes and would be an opportunity to actually get involved in homeschooling instead of just thinking about it and reading about it, like I've been doing for the last ten years. This camp is completely one of a kind, and really the only way I've come across for an adult who doesn't have kids to get involved in homeschooling.

I was convinced I wouldn't be accepted, since I wasn't homeschooled myself and live a pretty traditional life, in contrast to the other advisers, profiled on the camp's site, who do things like raise sheep and live in communes. I knew there was a lot of competition.

On Friday, I found out I'd been accepted for the session in mid September! Ten shades of awesomeness!

Except...the board meeting is the same week. I'm expected to attend board meetings. I confirmed with a coworker who's been there for two decades that no director has ever taken vacation during a board meeting.

I hate that I have to ask for permission to do this. My actual participation in the board meeting is *extremely* minimal...at the last one, I believe I uttered three sentences. My presence, and the presence of the rest of the staff, is really symbolic more than anything. If it wasn't an expected part of my job, no sane person would expect me to choose going to this board meeting over participating in an event that's personally important to me. Yet there's a very good chance my boss will say no, either because (a) she doesn't want other staff asking for vacation during board meetings or (b) because it wouldn't look good to the board for me not to be there. Reason #134 I'm looking forward to freeing myself from full-time employment as soon as possible.

Going to this camp is so important to me I would actually consider quitting my job over it. It's a unique opportunity, and if I turned it down I have no guarantee I'd ever be invited again. I've spent all weekend formulating a plan for how I can convince my boss to let me take leave. I think I've come up with some pretty good bargaining chips. Wish me luck!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Against Work


[Photo by laffy4k]

Today I spent eleven hours at work. I think that may be the longest I've ever spent in the office, with the possible exception of that time I accidentally got drunk with my boss and ended up sleeping on the floor underneath my desk. (Don't ask.)

My parents both worked while I was growing up. My mother always worked part time, usually arranged so that she was home when my brother and I came back from school. My dad started out working part time as well, spending his off hours doing hippie-dad things like baking bread. By the time I started kindergarten, Dad had gotten a full-time job.

Dad was always home for dinner to spend time with us and ask about our days. But after dinner, he often went back to work. I don't remember how often or how late he stayed. I do know 10:00 wasn't uncommon and that he worked after midnight more than once when I was small. I do know he was always working on our home computer and that as time went on I saw more of his tense back than his face. I do know that when he takes a "day off" these days, that can mean going to the office from 5-8 a.m. and working on his home network for several hours after my mom goes to sleep at ten.

He was a good dad. He is a good dad. And I don't want to be like him. I want to be as good at relaxing as I am at work.

In honor of Friday, here are a few ways to make sure you don't become a workaholic:

-Go home on time.

-Take all the vacation time you're given.

-Take personal time if it's offered. Take sick time when you're sick. Even for colds.

-Don't take work home.

-Take time off between jobs.

-Travel. The more remote and further from Internet connections, the better.

Happy Friday!

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Rules Report: April

What I spent in April:
Rent: $625.00
Groceries: $171.47
Eating out (socializing): $38.00
Entertainment: $21.73
Healthcare: $90.00
Aesthetician: $62.00
Miscellaneous: $2.50, postage for my taxes
Taxes: $186.54 (net of federal and Illinois state taxes minus NY minus "economic stimulus payment")
Total: $1197.24

Savings:
$2650

This month's developments:
- In spite of the fact that I wasn't sticking strictly to a budget this month, I spent less than I did in March. I think this is because I've internalized some of my budgetary guidelines (don't buy books, don't eat out for convenience) so well that they're becoming second nature.
- Spent twice as much on food
- Started getting my prescriptions by mail order, which saves me 33%.
- Virtually no miscellaneous or extraneous expenses.
- Paid taxes, which were actually less than I feared they would be. Doing taxes on my freelance income turned out to be not a big deal at all--I'm very glad I didn't shell out to get them professionally done. Next year I'll probably skip TurboTax, too--I don't have enough deductions to itemize, so the "expert" information in the package doesn't really benefit me.
- I acquired (free or through paperbackswap) several new books this month. Nonetheless, my crazy pile of "books I own but haven't read" is down to 10. I'm still limiting the number of books I check out from the library to minimize my information overload.

Small Slips:
- Paid $10 extra to get my feet waxed. She asked if I wanted them done, I said yes, thinking it was included in the price, and when she said it cost more I was too shy to take it back. Must stop this silly pattern.
- Last Friday while tipsy I bought a magazine. That would be okay except I still haven't read it and, now that I'm sober, really have no desire to.

May Plans:
I may have a couple of bigger expenses coming up--I want to go to a conference in June, and I want to take a vacation to the West Coast later this summer, so eventually I'll need to book a plane ticket and lodging.

I'm still convinced there must be some way to get my food budget down further without depriving myself. The amount I spent on groceries this month falls into the "low-cost" portion of the USDA Food Plans. The "thrifty" food plan for a woman my age is $145.80. I'm thrifty, darn it, and I want to be recognized as such! (I might dismiss this as an unrealistic government figure except that Amy D., my frugal cooking guru, spends about 30% of the "thrifty" plan for her family.)

My next plan for trying to reduce my food budget is to calculate the cost of several of my favorite meals and either lean towards using the cheaper recipes more often or find ways to make my favorite recipes cost less. For instance, one of my favorite meals includes artichokes, but it's almost as good made with much cheaper spinach instead.

May will mostly revolve around my company's annual conference in the middle of the month. I've been preparing for it for months and spending almost all of my work time on it for the last six weeks. After it's over, I'm going to take my first official paid vacation days since May of 2006!

Do you have any spending or budget goals for this month?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

$5 Adventure: Volunteering

Frugality can be dangerous. If you don’t live somewhere with an easy casual social life, like a college dorm or a commune, it’s frightfully easy to let all that not eating out and not spending money on movie tickets turn you into a hermit. If you look carefully at last week’s post on Meetup.com, you’ll notice it’s tagged “$5 Adventures.” This is the second post with that tag. The $5 adventure posts will focus on cheap ways to get out of the house and shake up your routine for—wait for it—$5 or less. Mostly, these posts will focus on free things, but the $5 budget allows for gas, bus fare, or incidental purchases like snacks.

Today’s $5 adventure is volunteering. I’m not really talking about contributing to the community here, though I’m obviously very in favor of it. In this post, I’m going to assume that for the moment you’re more interested in doing something stimulating or fun than in making a difference in the world (that’s just a bonus).

My most recent experience with volunteering was at Open Books, a Chicago literacy organization. I'd been on their volunteer mailing list for a couple of months, but hadn't participated in anything yet. Then my college alumni group signed up to help out at their warehouse sorting books. Meeting people from my college + worthy cause + books = perfect!

The warehouse was in a part of town I'm not familiar with--it's always fun to see a new neighborhood. The book sorting room took up an entire floor--maybe the size of a football field--filled with thousands of boxes of books.

I spent the first hour or so making boxes with an eight-year-old girl who'd come with her whole family. Then I spent some time talking and sorting with my freshman roommate's best friend and catching up on the news from people we both knew in college. Finally I spent a lot of time opening up new boxes (felt like Christmas!) and sorting them into broad categories. I found it quite satisfying to find an obscure title and know it belonged in young adult fiction or women's studies. There were also some interesting things in those boxes--books in Japanese (history books as far as we could tell), a beautiful but very obsolete atlas.

There are several good ways to find out about casual volunteer opportunities like this one. First, if you know of any organizations in your area where you might like to volunteer, get on their e-mail lists. I'm also on lists for Working Bikes, Planned Parenthood, and a group that hooks up at-risk kids with writing mentors.

One Brick focuses on short-term or one-shot volunteer opportunities and organizes events in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Washington, and Minneapolis/St. Paul, with more cities coming soon. Here's May's Chicago schedule--lots of good stuff here.

Volunteer Match is more about long-term volunteering, but lists opportunities nationwide and allows you to search by interest area and keyword.

Craigslist's calls for volunteers can be good for finding more obscure organizations and causes that fit well with your interests and skills. (If you haven't checked out craigslist lately, they've started boards for every state and many smaller cities and towns.)

Local publications often run calls for volunteers on a weekly or monthly basis. I've mostly seen these in free weeklies, like the Chicago Reader or the Austin Chronicle, but that may only be because I rarely pick up a standard newspaper!

My Open Books experience was not only free, but came with a few perks, too--snacks and bottled water, a free t-shirt from my alumni group, and repeated assurances from the Open Books guy that we could take home with us books that looked interesting (I did cave and bring one book home, a book I've been wanting to read that I know isn't available at the Chicago Public Library or at Paperbackswap).

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Out of the Bloffice

No more blogging for me for the next few days. Work alone is exhausting me, and I've still got way too much to do on my freelance project. The project is due on Monday, so I'm hoping I'll be sane again by Tuesday night.

Until then,

Rachel, who knew it was a questionable idea to accept the freelancing, but couldn't resist a book called Religion, Race, and the American Presidency.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Health Care for Independent People: Part II

This post is part II in a series exploring the different options available to people who don't have health insurance through their jobs, or who are hoping to retire early or go freelance and need to plan for healthcare costs. In part I, I talked about self-insuring by setting up a large emergency fund for healthcare costs. For many people, putting away several thousand dollars in a dedicated account could take care of all maintenance healthcare costs as well as treatment for minor conditions and injuries. But in a country where cancer or a broken leg can bankrupt you, self-insurance isn't enough. Some kind of insurance is necessary.

One source of health insurance often mentioned in books on early retirement is joining a professional association that offers group health plans to its members. Since I plan to still do some freelance or casual work in retirement, this might be a good option for me. I checked out two well-known associations in my field to price health insurance through them. (It's worth noting that neither of these associations requires you to actually make money or have a registered business in the field in order to be a member--you simply must pay the dues. This is probably true of many other professional associations as well.)

Association A offers an HMO from a national insurance provider. The cost? $1287.58. Per month. For an individual. For a "family" (member plus spouse and children) it's $4043.00. They also offer a PPO, but it's even more expensive.

But they have another option--this one's only $26.95 per month, plus a $20 enrollment fee. This "customized discount plan" offers 10% to 30% off most health care costs. Sounds okay for physicals and prescriptions, as long as you don't get seriously ill or spend any time in the hospital. Cancer treatment can cost $300,000 a year. 30% off $300,000 is $210,000. That'll take a chunk out of anyone's nest egg.

Association B is a bit less grim. Their HMO is $477.08 per month for an individual. Still not a happy number, but one that's at least within the realm of possibility. They also have a "health savings plan," which seems to operate like high-deductible insurance. The deductible is $5200, and the annual premium for a family is $3016--less than the monthly cost at Association A.

I was surprised at the huge difference in cost between the plans offered by these two groups, so I checked out a third group, a group for graphic designers. This group offered the same HMO plan as association B. Their second option brought me to a site that offered quotes on many different types of plans, all of which were discounted because of membership in the association.

When I entered my information (fake contact info but accurate health and geographical info), I was given seventeen plans to choose from, ranging in price from $67.00 per month to $267.00 per month. Some of them were PPOs (what most people think of as "regular" insurance, in contrast to an HMO's "managed care") with quite good benefits. Others had high deductibles, but good catastrophic coverage. There were also a couple of health savings plans, none of which seemed as shady as the "discount plan" offered by Association A.

Are associations a good way of getting health insurance? From this quick survey, it looks like some organizations offer decent plans, but it depends a lot on the association. The largest association I looked at offered the best deals, and was also the most geographically diverse (the other two associations only offered plans in certain states and metropolitan areas). Even for associations with good health insurance offerings, there's still no guarantee that you'll be approved for coverage.

What about the prices? In the next post in this series, we'll see how these prices measure up by venturing into the frightening world of individually purchased health insurance.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

More About Rachel

Finally online after ten hours at work and additional hours of freelancing. My company's annual conference, the focal point of the year, is in three weeks. My department has about a hundred and thirty-seven projects to finish by then, and I'm running around trying to coordinate everything and keep my staff on track without turning into Evil Slavedriver Boss.

I don't have much energy left tonight for blogging. Luckily, Retired Syd at Retirement: A Full-time Job tagged me for a meme. She’s not a big fan of memes. Neither am I, so I’m throwing away the rules and just doing the ones that seem interesting to me at the moment.

Four jobs I've had:

- Student worker in the rare books room of my college library. My roommate and I vacuumed the entire pre-1801 collection after it was accidentally covered in construction dust. We wore protective cotton gloves, providing fodder for many mime and Mickey Mouse jokes.

- Afternoon bakery assistant. This mostly meant I spent a long time every day in the freezer room counting out the doughnuts, rolls, etc. for the morning bakery assistant to put in the oven. I liked it, and I never did get sick of doughnuts.

- Audio typist in London. I listened to dictation tapes all day and became an expert in the differences between British and American English. Typing was relaxing and strangely satisfying. I would be tempted to become a court reporter if I didn't already have warning signs of carpal tunnel.

- Telecommuting development editor. This was my last job before this one. It was an ideal job, except for my hideous boss. He was a man who loved getting revenge by killing people’s future careers, so I jumped ship before I got on his bad side. I miss telecommuting. I still had to get up early and keep regular hours, but I could listen to music and cook my own lunch. I loved being able to cook my own lunch.

I temped for a long time, so I've had a lot of jobs. I once started counting the jobs I've had that lasted more than a month and stopped at fifteen.

Four Places I have lived:

Impossible to pick just four (see sidebar). I'm 27 and have moved 26 times. I'm hoping I'm mostly done.

Four places I have been on holiday:

Egypt, Rio de Janeiro, Finland, and Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

Four websites visited daily:

Early-retirement.org: the fount of all wisdom regarding early retirement and investing. Lately, I've been googling things that I don't think have anything to do with early retirement and getting this site as one of the top results--I think I'm being assimilated.

the 1bruce1 community on livejournal, where twentysomething and thirtysomething adults make fun of Sweet Valley High books

Early Retirement Extreme

Gala Darling's Icing, my first blog crush.

Four places I would rather be now:

London

India

My parents’ house in DC. I’ll probably won’t get a chance to go there again, as the silly people are moving to Korea in June.

May 25, 2008—the week after our annual conference, when I'll finally get a chance to catch my breath

Monday, April 21, 2008

Frugal Tip: Choose Rich Doctors



[Photo by brimelow]

How did you choose your doctor? Their gender? Their specialty? Fame? Recommendations from friends?

My insurance plan lists thousands of primary care providers. Narrowing by gender and specialty still left me with over a hundred, and all of my friends hated their doctors.

So I chose the doctor with the best address. Not the one closest to me, but the one with an office in the poshest area.

I learned this trick from a friend long ago. All else being equal, choose the nicer or richer environment. In her case, it meant choosing a job with a beautiful office (seriously). In my case, it means finding stores and service providers that make me feel rich without spending more money.

My doctor's office is in this building. My dentist works here. The copays for healthcare providers in landmark skyscrapers are the same as for doctors in bad neighborhoods. This is where I go for salon stuff. The salon in this building costs $10 less than the slightly sketchy place near my house and has better magazines to boot. When I do errands or go for appointments at these places, I feel rich, even though I spend less than most people.

The same principle also applies to free things. I go to the Harold Washington Library as much as I can, because the service is better and the environment more pleasant than at my local branch. If I need a restroom when I'm out and about, I'll try to find one at a fancy hotel rather than at a Starbucks. (Using the bathroom anywhere without being a customer is slightly ethically questionable, but that's another entry.)

You can also twist it around: find reasons to feel good about places where you go to save money. Lots of people don't like putting a quarter in the cart at Aldi (you get it back at the end of your visit), but to me, it's a reminder of growing up in Germany and the German roots of the company. Thrift stores and Filene's Basement? Treasure hunts, with a more interesting and varied selection than what you find at Macy's.

Obviously, I don't mean you should choose service providers or stores based on their atmosphere alone. Do your research to find out which option is cheapest or offers other things that you value, like a grocery store with local produce or a doctor with special expertise. But after that, if you still have more than one option, go for the place that makes you feel good.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Social Life for Cheapskates


[Photo by bahman]


Checking out meetup.com was one of the best things I've ever done.

Okay, I may be a little biased--I met R. through a Meetup group. But I do think Meetup is a great resource for anyone who wants to meet new people, find others who share their interests, or just try something a little different on a boring night without dropping too much cash.

Here's how it works: search for an interest or browse through the listing of groups for your city or area. Just a few of the groups meeting in Chicago tomorrow night include New in Town, Libertarians, Pick-up Soccer, Neuroscience, several singles groups, and a "Friday playdate" for moms. When you find a group that interests you, sign up for it. When the group sets up their next event, you'll receive a notice and a request to RSVP.

Arriving at the event can occasionally be a little awkward, as you're meeting a group of strangers. Many Meetups are held at restaurants or coffee places, and the staff will know whether a Meetup is being held that day. Otherwise, just look for the other people who are either glancing around nervously or looking at the entrance as though they're waiting for somebody.

I've never been completely stood up at a Meetup, though once when R. and I had just started dating we both accidentally attended a Meetup that had been cancelled. Meetup was free when I first started going to Meetups--now the organizer of each Meetup group pays a monthly fee of about $15. At many meetups, the attendees pay the organizer $1 each to reimburse him or her.
You'll also probably want to order something to eat or drink if the Meetup takes place at a coffee shop or restaurant, but it's usually possible to keep the total to about $5--in my experience, most people don't order full meals and you won't be the only one nursing a single muffin or cup of tea.

Every group is different and every individual meeting is different because of the new mix of people.

- The very first Meetup I attended was a board game Meetup. I was thinking Scrabble and Trivial Pursuit. Instead, it was Risk and other strategy games with the guys who hang out at your local independent game shop. That particular night, the group split into several smaller groups, some playing competitive games, others teaching each other simpler games. It was a very low-pressure and friendly environment and, during a bad period in my life, the first good laugh I'd had in months.

- In Austin, Texas, I attended a livejournal Meetup. This one was unique because many of the members knew each other online, but had never met in person. There were a lot of "oh! You're cookie976?" conversations. It was held on a patio outside a sandwich shop on a beautiful fall night, and I don't think the waitress ever even came out to take an order.

- My first group of friends in Chicago grew out of the Meetup where I met R. Five of us became quite tight, with other members of the group moving in and out of our circle of acquaintance. This group became my family in Chicago--people I loved, and a few people who just annoyed me, but who all accepted me as I was. Fragments of this group (the ones who haven't moved away or lost contact with the rest of us) still get together from time to time for birthdays and holidays. Another couple also started dating and is now living together.

- The Children's Literature Meetup is the only Meetup I attend regularly right now. Children's literature is a pretty unusual interest for an adult, and I love talking to people who share my passion. The organizer is a librarian at a research library, and one of the regular attendees is a prominent scholar in the field. When the Modern Language Association meeting was in Chicago last fall, several of the speakers dropped by our Meetup. This Meetup has been an amazing opportunity for me to talk to people who I otherwise never would have met in person.

- At a dining out Meetup, I spent an evening at Spring with two other women. This Meetup was the opposite of frugal--it still stands as the most I've ever spent for a single meal. The conversation was awkward, the atmosphere was pretentious (our server spoke in a fake restaurant, and there was grass growing in a planter beside the table), the food was fabulous, and I'll never forget it.

Meetups have worked so well for me that I haven't explored many other ways of improving my social life. What are some other ideas for getting to know new people without spending a lot of money?

Health Care for Independent People: Part 1

For anyone who wants to live outside the confines of regular employment, one of the biggest questions is, "What about health insurance?" This question is so big and scary that many resources on early retirement pretend it doesn't exist, or simply say, "You must have health insurance," as though it's a given.

Back in March, I laid out my rough plan for becoming financially independent by sometime in my thirties. I also examined how a potential child could affect my budget. Today, it's time to tackle healthcare.

The traditional solution to post-retirement healthcare is Medicare. There’s a heck of a long time between 35 and whatever-astronomical-age-I’ll-become-eligible-for Medicare, and I'm not overly confident that it will exist in a form like it does today by the time I get there. So for the purposes of this post, Medicare isn't a factor.

The first pillar of my healthcare plan, and one I would recommend to anyone who's planning to live without employer-sponsored health insurance, is to self-insure for routine medical expenses like maintenance prescriptions and annual physicals. The premiums for health insurance that covers these expenses are often astronomical, as we'll see in part two of this series. For many people, it will be far cheaper to pay these routine costs out of pocket.

At my current level of health, I would expect to pay about $1700 annually for health maintenance. This covers my two current prescriptions, which would cost about $105 a month, a yearly physical with blood work and a pap smear, which according to the bill from my doctor would have cost $359 without insurance, and perhaps a second doctor's visit for a straightforward health problem, which would cost about $150. These costs should be built into my baseline post-retirement budget.

I would also plan to "self-insure" (meaning I would pay out of pocket) any healthcare cost under $10,000. This would cover minor but less routine costs like some emergency room visits, extra tests, and minor injuries. I'd put about a third of this in a Health Savings Account, currently capped at $2850 in contributions per year. This account functions like a Roth IRA--money is taxed when you put it in, but is not taxed when you take it out. For long-term savings, this is an excellent deal, since the interest on your savings can far exceed the initial contributions. Unlike a Roth IRA, there are no age limits on when money can be used. Eventually, the HSA would become large enough to contain all of my self-insurance money. For the first few years, I'd put the balance of the $10,000 in a liquid and low-risk investment, like a high-yield savings account.

Even with a large amount of money set aside for self-insurance, major medical events like surgery or cancer can be catastrophic. Cancer treatment can cost $300,000 a year. Young people may get away with not having insurance for short periods of time (I have, and am none the worse for it), but any long-term budget must include some form of health insurance. What are the options for getting health insurance on your own? How much does it cost? We'll start exploring this in Health Care for Independent People: Part 2

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

First Poll!

I've been learning a lot about investing lately, but I've been holding off on posting about it until (a) I learned enough to talk about it coherently and (b) I figured out how to make it interesting. Now I have several half-finished entries and need to decide which ones to polish and post. What investing topics are most interesting to you? Please vote in the sidebar!

It's been quite a week already. Sunday I spent relishing my weekend freedom by writing e-mails to a couple of scholars I admire asking for research advice (they both wrote back today--yay!). On Monday night, I came home to find that we had no running water. I spent the evening finishing my taxes and wrestling R. for the last bit of moisture in the Brita. Also on Monday, my post The Financial Generation Gap was included in the Carnival of Personal Finance at Gather Little by Little.

The water came back on at 10:00 this morning. I ran myself through the shower, hustled off to work, and spent the next seven hours jumping from one urgent project to another and one meeting to the next. Lunch was grabbed in bite-size chunks between conversations. I managed to mail my taxes about 3:00 due to the kindness of our mailroom guy, who let me owe him the postage after I dumped a wallet full of pennies and nickels all over his desk.

Hurry and scurry is rather fun as an occasional thing. The downside is, by the time I get home, I'm functionally mute. R. found me cooking about 8:00 and asked me what it was. I could only get out single words--"Hamburger . . . tomatoes . . . cheese." Thankfully, I was conscious enough to save leftovers of Thrown Together Casserole for tomorrow's lunch.


Sunday, April 13, 2008

The $62,500 Question

$62,500. That's approximately how much I make, before taxes. I'm pretty comfortable revealing that here, in front of (mostly) strangers, but it's a different story in real life.

Last Monday morning, one of the women I supervise walked into my office before I'd even poured my first cup of tea.

"Did you freak out on Friday?" she asked. "Did you think you'd been demoted?"

"No...why?" I said, searching my brain for something that might have gone wrong on Friday afternoon.

She held up a pay envelope. "I accidentally got your paycheck."

We have the same first name, and our checks got switched. I rarely look at mine, so I hadn't even noticed.

She seemed to think it was a good joke, but for me, it was awkward. I don't like her knowing how much I make. And I don't really know why. I make more than her, of course, but the difference isn't astronomical, so I don't think she'd resent my salary. And I can't think of any situation in which her having that information would hurt me or benefit her. Still, it feels like she knows something private, something that somehow gives her a small edge on me.

I debated telling my parents about this blog because I wasn't sure I wanted them to know how much I make. I'm sure they assume the number is lower, even though they know I got a big raise when I took this job. I tell my parents a lot about my life, and would tell them even more if they weren't so conservative, but this, for some reason, I wanted to keep to myself. I did finally tell them about Working for Rachel. They don't read it--they read the one post I told them about, but I'm not sure they quite understand the concept. :)

Today R. and I went grocery shopping. At the checkout counter, I picked up the latest issue of Chicago magazine. Every year, Chicago does an issue where they feature the salaries of a cross-section of Chicagoans--celebrities, athletes, businesspeople, artists, and so on. Some people are identified only by their first names; others are profiled in half-page articles including all their vital information and a color picture.

I flipped to the page on arts and media. On the lower right hand page was a guy about my age standing amid piles of paper--my friend Sarah's ex-boyfriend. The article listed his name, occupation, alma mater, and salary down to the dollar.

That took bravery. I imagine most of the people he knows will see this article--it'll travel fast in the circles we run in. He grew up in Chicago, so people he knew as a kid may see it. And people who dislike him, like me and like Sarah, will also see it, and judge him for it. My first thought was, "Whoa, a guy I know is in a magazine." My second thought was, "Ha, Sarah makes way more than him."

The taboo against sharing salaries goes deep. I'm rather infamous for telling people more than they wanted to know about myself. With those I'm close to, I babble about painful childhood memories, openly share things that most people would consider deep dark secrets, and when something embarrassing happens to me, I can't wait to share the funny story. And yet even I get close-lipped when this topic comes up.

Friday, April 11, 2008

6 Books for Frugal Cooks

With millions of recipes on the Internet, are cookbooks obsolete? For people trying to spend less on groceries, the right cookbook can still be the ultimate tool. While almost any recipe you can imagine is available somewhere online, recipe sites tend to favor recipes that are impressive and complicated, use brand-name ingredients, or are heavy on convenience foods. (For the ultimate in convenience food cooking, this book is disturbing. There's an entire section of meals based around beer. Oh, ew, there's a microwave version, too!) It can take a lot of sifting to uncover simpler alternatives.

Here are five of my favorite cooking references to have available within arm's reach of the kitchen.

1. More-with-Less Cookbook by Doris Longacre
Hands down the best frugal cookbook out there. Written by a Mennonite woman and full of submissions from the Mennonite community, these recipes are distilled to their simplest and most frugal forms. Most of the usual bases are covered, along with more unique entries like Pakistani Kima and Formosan Fried Cabbage (since many Mennonites are missionaries, there is a "global" feel to the book). It's also an excellent source for vegetarian and less-meat recipes and help in planning simple meals. The recipes encourage experimentation--I've found that some of the dishes benefit from additional seasoning.

2. Now You're Cooking! by Elaine Corn
This more contemporary book gives simple, easy-to-follow recipes for things like hummus and smoothies. It's a comprehensive guide for the beginning cook, and also a great tutorial for a "by the numbers" cook who'd like to learn to go with the flow more--the author suggests adaptations for many of the recipes, and explains the "why" of different cooking techniques and ingredient choices.

3. The Complete Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn
Yes, I recommend this book for everything. That's because it's awesome and has changed my life. Amy D.'s cooking advice is all about the numbers. A dozen different times in these books, she asks for reader submissions for, say, homemade worcestershire sauce, chooses the cheapest one, and comes up with a new version that costs half as much. She also sprinkles several "universal" recipes throughout the book--I've used the universal muffin and universal casserole recipes several times with very satisfactory results. I've long since written all the Tightwad Gazette recipes on recipe cards so I don't have to page through the books every time I want to use them.

3. The Joy of Cooking by eight million generations of Rombauers
This is the gold standard of comprehensive general cookbooks. I love it for its combination of information on food (the different ways of cooking asparagus; the difference between pudding and custard) and recipes that invariably produce wonderful results. I rarely use a recipe out of this cookbook exactly as written, but I still turn to it whenever I'm cooking a new dish. If I'm using a recipe out of The More-for-Less Cookbook, for example, I might use Joy of Cooking for ideas of additional ingredients to add or to see what steps the simpler recipe skips and whether I might want to add them back in. If I'm using a recipe I found online, I'll turn to Joy of Cooking to see whether any of the components of the recipe can be made from scratch without too much additional work.

5. How to Cook a Wolf by M. F. K. Fisher or Good Recipes for Hard Times by Louise Newton
Both of these books are written by women living through tough times on tight budgets. M. F. K. Fisher was a famous--perhaps the most famous--food writer. How to Cook a Wolf, written in 1942, one of the bleakest years in modern history, is both a collection of funny and quirky essays and a practical guide to very frugal cookery. (Wolves, however, are merely a metaphor and not on the menu.) Fisher offers more tips than actual recipes, and some of her recipes are hard to adapt for the modern reader.

Good Recipes for Hard Times
, in contrast, is primarily a collection of recipes, and as such provides more direct help to the ultra-frugal cook. This book goes even further than The More-for-Less Cookbook in making each dish as simple as possible. However, the perspective of the author is rather grim--her own shopping list is based very heavily on grain products, allowing little room for even fruits and vegetables, much less meat. She's been through what sounds like decades of hard times and seems a bit worse for wear, which could make this a useful but rather depressing read for those struggling to stick to tight budgets.

What are your favorite sources for cheap recipes? Are there great web sites out there that I'm missing?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Update on my Book Fast and Link Love



[photo by el7bara]

Last Purchase of a Book: 2/4
Number of books in to-be-read pile: 22

That's 66 days and counting, folks! My reading interests are getting increasingly obscure, but so far the trusty Chicago Public Library is holding up pretty well. I did search for something the other day that was available in exactly one library in the world, the public library in Wetherby, Yorkshire, the town in which one of my relatives once performed in drag as Cinderella's ugly stepsister during a Christmas panto. He was horrifying. I would link to a picture, but I don't think he'd appreciate having that posted online.

Some great posts that caught my eye lately:
Kacie lays out her debt in Monopoly money. I love it! Here's to freedom from debt in 2009 for her and her family.

Budgeting Babe (a fellow Chicagoan) talks about finding work after college--she's run into some of the same generational issues I have.

Can I Get Rich on a Salary shares nine ways of getting rich. Very interesting stuff--there's a part 2 coming soon!