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."


"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!