Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Managing health

I always have the best of intentions with exercise. I get a gym membership, go for a few weeks or months, and then just really mean to go back. Or I'll rent a Pilates video, or get a yoga mat and try a few classes...but it somehow never sticks. And this is not precisely cost-effective, either in the short-term, when I'm spending money to become fit, or in the long-term, when I'll be buying blood pressure medicine or having back, hip, and knee problems from hauling around extra weight.

One possible solution that Husband and I have come up with is to buy an elliptical machine. The idea solves a lot of the problems that the other attempts have had (inconvenience of traveling to the gym, waiting on a favorite machine & dealing with drama queens once there, self-consciousness), but it creates some of its own problems. For starters, it is easy to stop a membership after only a small initial investment, but if we buy a machine, our costs are all upfront. If we want to move, as we were looking to do within a couple of years, we'd have to haul it around with us. We don't have a clear, open space to put it and use it; we'd have to clear out our spare room much more aggressively than we have done.

Also, we are facing a choice about what sort of machine to get. Consumer Reports lists two Best Buys: one that costs around $2K and is gym-quality (Precor) and one that costs around $900 (Schwinn 418) but is flimsier. I am inclined to go with quality--it'll be safer, last longer, and retain a larger resale value. On the other hand, if the convenience of having the machine doesn't surmount the excuses not to use it, that extra thousand dollars is pointless. It's a sticky dilemma, not made easier by the fact that we could afford, with our reserved savings, to go either way.

I think a possible solution would be to look for used machines, now that I am thinking this through with an eye toward frugality. We still need to clear out that space, but once it's free for us to get our elliptical, perhaps some other ambitious soul will be ready to jettison theirs.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Budgeting Bliss

Husband and I have been working, somewhat desultorily, on creating an actual paper budget. As I half-expected, our expenses look really good on paper, but in practice, there usually isn't as much left as it seems there should be. Which means, of course, that the budget isn't accurately reflecting reality.

We're still in an evaluative stage with the budget-creation, now that the wedding is over and things are getting back to a normal pattern again. As we do that, we're taking some baby steps toward frugality, but not cutting back so much that we feel deprived and might backlash into some unwise spending. Luckily, neither of us particularly enjoy shopping as a stress-reliever (although my cooking/baking habits and his video-gaming habits can both increase some budget columns).

I find that I enjoy discussing the budget/expenses with my husband; it feels familial, homey. Then again, I so rarely handle cash that all of this budgeting feels like a role-playing game, or an academic exercise--like we're playing at being grown-ups. It's very abstract to me, and unconnected with anything that's important in life. Would I choose to live differently if we had more money? You know, probably not. I like our cozy, crazy, cramped little condo (though granted, a little more counter space in the kitchen wouldn't come amiss); I like our cars, our computers, our stuff.

Back to the game, I suppose.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Doing the next thing

Now that the wedding is over (it was yesterday), Husband and I are starting to save up a good-sized house down payment. Nothing like moving forward on those goals! (We'll have a honeymoon first, of course--I'm writing this as we await the flight to San Francisco here in JFK).

We spend just under $20K on the wedding, including the trip out west, the rings, and hotel & airfare for one bridesmaid. Considering we'd saved about $30K over the last year and a half while we were being vaguely frugal, I think once we buckle down, actually make a budget (instead of budgeting-by-the-Force), and trim down some fat, we might be able to move into a really nice place within the year.

Oh, and the wedding was delightful. :D

Sunday, May 27, 2007

A Felicitous Convergence

The other day, we received a 5 qt. KitchenAid stand mixer as a wedding gift. This last week was quite busy, so I hadn't had a chance to pull it out until today. Now that I god, it's heavenly! We got along fine without it (she said defensively), but it's utterly boggling to be able to make, say, mayonnaise without killing my arm and taking forever. Now, I can set the yolks whisking and actually walk away.

Oh, sorry, too much effusing. Anyway, because of the long weekend, I've decided to make some more complicated things, and the mixer is a big part of my plan. Challah, always before, has been a project for a very quiet day and untired arms--but now I have a dough hook. Mayonnaise, madeleines, meringues--all of them suddenly near-instantaneous. I'm in foodie heaven.

I'm thinking very seriously about pursuing cake-making as a bit of a side business. Always before, I've restricted myself to fun cakes for my friends' birthdays (my favorite was the period corset-torso for my friend Amy, who is a costumer and a Rennie), but with more professional tools, it's easy to get some Ideas.

One of those Ideas is a fond old favorite of mine--starting a business that provides home-making services to busy families. Hand-made cakes, home-made Halloween costumes, help with meal planning--all the things that people wish they had time to do. I really just want to make a career out of things I love doing.

For now, I'm just going to enjoy them as ends in and of themselves. Here, have some challah.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Frugal life skills

Today, I mended my favorite pair of jeans. There are two little holes beginning to rub through at the inner thigh, and I don't want them to show wear. I wear these jeans every single day (I love working in a small office!), and they're pretty much the best ever. So knowing how and when to place a patch? Save me more than the cost of this pair of jeans.

In order to get these jeans, I would say I spent probably 30-40 hours shopping, and about $200 on "interim" jeans--something to wear that are good enough, but not perfect enough to stop shopping. So I'm going to wear these jeans until there's more patch than original jean.

I like doing this as much as I can. I try to keep only well-loved things around me, and repair the hell out of them before letting them go. A twelve dollar part at the right time can extend an appliance's life longer than you might think. Most of the time, this saves money, which, really, is a side benefit for me. The time and effort invested in finding an equally-beloved replacement is much more important to me.

I'm going to go admire my patch for awhile now.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Farm Share

I just got the last farm share in town! My particular city has three farms that participate in CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs, and I just love it so much.

The idea: you pay a fee in the spring (usually late March--I'm lucky to have gotten in this late) to help pay for upfront costs like seeds and labor, and every week in the summer, you pick up a box of freshly-picked produce.

The share at the farm I'm going with is $350 for the season, from June 4th until October 15th. That means that a box of produce--locally grown, fresh, organic fruits, vegetables, flowers, and herbs--will end up costing us $17.50 per week. Considering I can spend that amount at one STAND at a farmer's market each week, it sounds like a really good thing to try.

I'm really excited. I wish it started today.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Balancing Frugality with Love of Food

First, my apologies to the 6 people who still visit me; I had a last-minute freelance project pop up to steal all my time for the last fortnight or so.

Now, back on topic. Recently, I've been doing a lot of reading about good foods and the right way to eat, and everything that comes up seems to sound both (a) delicious and (b) expensive. My most recent read, real food: what to eat and why by Nina Planck, urges consumption of grass-fed beef, wild salmon, local, organic veggies in season, and raw, full-fat milks and cheeses. Her particular evil is what she dubs "industrial food," the food products like margarine and high fructose corn syrup that were developed primarily after WWII.

I'm on board with this philosophy (although I would miss refined sugar and white flour quite a lot), but it's quite expensive to pursue. I had an experimental swipe at it this weekend, and though it's been delicious so far, the weekly grocery bill looked more like our usual monthly bill.

But I think it's worthwhile to give it a try, especially after the farmer's markets open next month, and hopefully our doctor's bills will go down to compensate.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Not Trying to be Cheap

Weddings are for celebrating love--but the open bar at the reception is an oft-cited perk for guests.

My fiance and I are in great accord about many things, but the open/cash bar decision took quite a lot of discussion. It's funny, because neither of us are actually drinkers.

I am with Miss Manners--one does not require guests to pay for anything. If you don't want to pay for booze, don't serve it.

Fiance has a different view. He doesn't want to bankroll people's benders, and if there's a open bar, people will drink a TON. But he also swears that his family will riot if booze isn't available. Probably so would my sorority sisters.

So we have decided to go with a cash bar (except for the champagne toast, which is included in our wedding package). I am more interested in making him feel comfortable than in obeying strict rules of etiquette, but I feel awfully defensive about it--like I should have to explain that we're not being cheap, I swear!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Losing all that weight!

Remember our horrible spare room? We put some work into it today!

We got up early this morning, because we were supposed to go to a couples workshop at our church--but when we got there, the doors were locked and the parking lot was deserted. D'oh! We must've written the time or date down wrong (or they cancelled it and didn't tell us, which is possible. Our minister is not much for the remembering).

Since we were up, we decided to do some cleaning, as we're having some friends over tomorrow, and we were in the mood to make a dent. We tackled the far corner and got together a half-dozen trash bags and a few boxes full--maybe 7 trips down in the elevator?

We were on a roll! While Fiancé sat and rested a little, I went through his whole wardrobe and we got rid of stuff that he never wears anymore, or that doesn't fit, or that is so ghastly I wanted to be ill. That was another 3-4 trashbags, plus a carful of Salvation Army donations.

Because we were donating goods, we're required to get documentation on the condition and value for next year's taxes, right? Our SA warehouse was very nice* and wrote us a blank receipt, with everything marked "good condition," for us to put our own valuation. So that's about a grand of deductions right there! (To be fair, it included some very nice work clothes and a lot of housewares.)

I love clearing things out. And with my newly frugal habits, I have some hope that we won't just buy stuff to replace what went out the door. Things fit on the shelves now, and I want to keep it that way!

While we were cleaning, we both came across some reminders of bad financial decisions in our pasts. Fiancé once bought a shirt that looked great on the mannequin--but didn't bother to try it on. I love him dearly, but he really shouldn't wear that shade of green. So the shirt in the closet still had the price tag attached!

I found a pair of loafers that reminded me of many mistakes I made during college: 1) trip to NYC ($50 train ticket each way); 2) shopping spree in SoHo (said $215 designer loafers); 3) overdraft fee due to shoes ($25) and 4) finance charges on overdraft ($lots). They're nice shoes, and very comfy, but they are the single most expensive piece of clothing that I have ever purchased--and that includes my prom dress and wedding dress. Combined.

This round of cleaning, we both kept our reminders. Maybe once we don't need them, we'll throw them out. (Actually, I never want to get rid of the shoes. They're fantastic shoes. Maybe I can just toss the guilt.)

*Read: lazy.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

A tax sting operation

I may or may not have mentioned this before, but last year, I filed state tax returns in NINETEEN states. By hand.

And it was fun. Yeah, I said it. Fun.

I went to an accountant, to see what she had to say about it. She was actually pretty helpful--she photocopied state filing requirements for me out of this book she had around. That saved me some time, which was nice, but she declined to take on my problem -- or charge me for the hour of help she gave me.

Instead, I went to each state's department of revenue site over the course of a couple weeks, printing out the right forms. Then I gathered up my paperwork and headed over to my future mother-in-law's place. She was going to help Fiance with his taxes (she and her husband use TurboTax and aren't averse to sharing) and volunteered to assist in my herculaean task.

Five hours later, as we had an array of paperwork spread across her kitchen table, readying them to be sent, she was as chipper and cheerful as the instant we got started.

As for the sting mentioned in my title? Okay, mostly hyperbole. But the states that gave me the most trouble:
Ohio (HORRIBLE. WORST TAX FORMS EVER. They actually hit me with a $300 tax bill six months later, which was more than I EARNED in Ohio, and it was a huge fight to get it corrected. Bah!)
Utah (Just because they accidentally sent my resident taxes there instead of my actual state. That was a pain getting sorted out.)

So, they lose.
Winners (for coherent tax forms and reasonable instructions):
North Carolina
Massachusetts (believe it or not!)
Pennsylvania (The only state whom I neither owed nor received a refund from.)

This year, Fiance and I bought and used TurboTax (FMIL is in Florida for the winter, so we couldn't batten on her software this year) and we've both received our modest refunds. And I wish we hadn't. Sure, we both had a few complicated touches, but nothing I couldn't have figured out. TurboTax took care of it in just under an hour each.

But where's the fun in that?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Preventative Maintenance

I was recently speaking to a friend, Silas, when he mentioned, somewhat despairingly, how badly his car was running, and what a burden it was. He wanted to buy a new one, he said, but he didn't really have the money for it.

I asked him what was wrong with it, and he had a long list. I was horrified--not at the condition of the car, but by how many of those things would've been easily prevented with a small investment. If he didn't take care of this car, I inquired, why did he expect a new car to do any better?

It turns out that clueless Si barely knows how to gas the thing up--he doesn't know how to check or fill the air in the tires, change a wiper blade, check the oil, research good tires, or find a mechanic. Well! I may not have any kids, but my mothering instinct for my friends is alive and kicking.

He spent about $3000 on this car (with ~150K miles, an older Toyota--it should have another 100K miles in it, properly maintained). He hasn't had an oil change in over a year, and it's 6 months late for its inspection. The paint is scraped, the A/C doesn't work, the seals around the doors are loose, the wipers are split, the brakes squeal, and the tires are worn. The cassette player's broken too, but who has cassettes anymore?

Let's break this down, shall we?

Things I can teach him or help him do right away:
Repairing scrapes: $20 for ugly but effective anti-rust measures (no need to be pretty--they just need to not rust)
Replacing wiper blades: $15
Air for tires: Free
Changing air filter: $15
Weatherstripping repair kit: $20 (possible overlap with scrape repair kit)
Oil change: $20 (if we had some garage space, I could do it myself for under $10, but alas, everything is covered in snow at the moment.)
Si's Total: $90

Slightly more intensive repairs:
Inspection: $25 (plus fixing whatever's wrong)
Brake pads: $100-150 (if rotors need replacing too, add'l $300)
A/C: depends what's wrong. If too expensive, he can get by without it.
Modest set of tires: $400
Si's Total: about $875

Si is a student, and works part-time. He's very careful with his money, and is afraid to spend anything he doesn't have to. He's proud that he doesn't carry a credit card balance from month to month. But his ignorance of car repair is intimidating him so badly that even basic maintenance seems daunting and expensive. Even more daunting and expensive, though, is the idea of simply buying a new car every time he drives his into the ground. I'm hoping to show him that spending that $965 now is far preferable to spending another $3000 for a new car when his breaks down--and it will. It's hard to convince him of that, because he doesn't have the $965.

But then, he won't have the money for a whole 'nother car very soon either.

Are there any basic maintenance things that I've missed? I'm planning to double check fluid levels and check the hoses & belts, but I'm open to suggestions from more experienced home mechanics.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Gosh darn it anyway!

You better believe I said the actual swear words this afternoon. A couple days ago, I got some very nice-looking steaks to cook for tonight. I just know I should've popped them in the freezer, but I figured they'd be fine in the fridge (there's a texture change in steaks after thawing that I don't like).

Well, they weren't. I grabbed them around four to get them to room temp for cooking, ripped open the packaging--and got a case of the nasty greys. Blech! That's $20 in the trash.

Luckily, the dinner was salvaged: chicken marsala and corn chowder, followed by homemade truffles. (So easy, but so good!)

Tomorrow is my favorite holiday, though, and it only comes around three times a year. Discount Candy Day, celebrated by knowledgable sweets enthusiasts everywhere!

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Making food stretch

Last week, I took a look at the store circular before I went grocery shopping, and I noticed that whole chickens for roasting were $.79 per pound. Usually, I buy frozen boneless skinless chicken breasts in bulk from Costco for chicken-related meals, but I've been wanting to roast a chicken for awhile--this seemed like a pretty good time for it.

Cost of a six-pound (smallest available) chicken: $5.31.

We had roasted chicken on Wednesday night, and a few pieces on Friday's leftover night. I made stock out of the bones today, so we're having chicken soup tonight, and we'll have some left over tomorrow. I also made a casserole with diced leftover chicken--that'll last us two meals, too.

So out of that five-dollar chicken, we got six meals for two people and some really nice, rich stock.

At this rate, I'm sort of ashamed to go buy steak tomorrow! (But not all that ashamed, as the cut I want is on sale this week, and it's going to make a really nice Valentine's Day meal).

I always feel particularly effective when I have dinner plans in place for more than a couple days. I'm not very consistent with this--some days I'm so tired I just slap together some shepherd's pie or vindaloo curry, which are my easy standbys--but I feel like a goddess when I do.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Does it make me a conservative...

If I'm incredibly distressed at the idea that $8.8 BILLION dollars have magically been disbursed with no plan and no budget? In a country where people are actively trying to kill American soldiers (and each other)?

Have you heard about this? It's crazy.

Questions were raised about an audit report issued in 2005 by Mr. Bowen that concluded that more than $8.8 billion in cash was disbursed without adequate financial controls.

I don't want to get political or debate the foundations of the war in Iraq. I'm just a touch bitter that I'm budgeting my few hundreds each month, and this guy, Former Ambassador L. Paul Bremer is sending out billions of dollars willy-nilly? And no one's getting upset about this until now?

The Federal Reserve disbursed $12 billion dollars in CASH, by the way. That's 363 tons of money. Tons.

I would be less distressed if he said, "We spent it on kickbacks and bribes in order to actually get something done in a corrupt and unstable war zone,and on trying to distribute wealth to the Iraqi people to help alleviate some suffering." Maybe they should've thought a little more closely about those goals and documented the money trail, but at least they'd know where the money was.

What he said was actually "I have no idea, I can't tell you whether the money went to the right things or didn't - nor do I actually think it's important."

I wonder what my creditors would say if I said that? I'm not sure, but I'm pretty sure that some laughing in my face would be happening.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Wedding Frugality in Practice

We haven't done very much wedding planning this week, but last week, we picked out our entree details and ordered the invitations. Considering that, I feel comfortable resting a touch on our laurels (also, I hate working on stuff when my back hurts, but that's an entirely different story). But I'm ready to start thinking about it again, so I'm starting with a blog post.

We've been saving up for the wedding since we got engaged, just over a year ago. We managed to sock away about 12k (including the $200 or so in interest from HSBC, yay!), plus two of our three sets of parents have agreed to help with some things. Our goal is to keep this thing under $20k, mostly because I feel totally ridiculous spending that much on a single day's party. If I look at it another way, it's really averaging 10k for my parents to get both their two kids married off; my brother and his wife got married in September for under $100 (streamers, cake, and dinner for ten), so it's like we both just had smaller-than-average weddings, right? Right?

So far, we've spent just under 5 grand. That's a couple of deposits on the reception site, photographer, florist, invitations, and honeymoon plane tickets. The estimated amount left to pay (unless all 192 of the invited guests show, and all want the beef dinner instead of the fish or pasta) is around 13k. All in all, I think we're about where we budgeted for.

We saved money in some places--as many as we could. The first step any manual suggests for this is cutting down on the guest list. The problem is, we both have a lot of people to invite (his dad has 8 siblings, most of them married with kids; I have very close extended family and a sorority). Trust me when I say that the guest list has been cut until it cries, and unless this becomes a very different sort of party, they stay. So the budget has to squeak in other places to accommodate people.

The first, very effective, budget cut was the dresses. My gown, all four bridesmaid dresses, and the flower girl dress are all being made by the same woman in my hometown in the Midwest. Because my mom's handling that cost, I'm actually not entirely certain of the exact cost, but I'm pretty sure it's not a lot higher than the cost of the fabric. Also, I'm borrowing the hoops from one of my attendants, who wore them at her own wedding 5 years ago. And the bridal tiara, as described earlier, will be very cheap. Wedding shoes and underwear--also bought at 75% (or more) off. I'm planning to get some tulle and make the veil myself, once I get the tiara.

The next was the invitations, which we ordered from this website, very kindly recommended by David. Budget was $400; total cost for 150 invites, $292. Rock! If I didn't have the design skills of a rhesus monkey, I'd've gone with the print-your-owns from Costco, but even though we have access to some very nice printers at work, I wasn't willing to try to make the damn things look good. So, midrange savings overall.

I'm over the moon about the next one: a friend of mine who deejays on weekends has offered to spin for us in exchange for free beer. Hooray! (This is not a budget-related hooray. I'd be thrilled to have him, even if we were paying his going rate. For starters, he is standing staunchly with us in our firm desire never to hear the Chicken Dance ever ever.)

Our honeymoon is going to be 6 days long, mostly because I don't have very much vacation time. Fiancé gets three weeks a year because he's been there for five years, but I'm only at 18 months or so, so I only get two weeks. Sigh. But we're still going to have a great time. The savings on the rental car and hotel room comfort my mind enough to be happy splurging on activities (spa day, here we come!).

The photography package is actually quite inexpensive as well. The studio makes most of its money on the expensive and very nice photo albums they sell, so having chosen just to receive digital images saved us quite a bit. And I'm really glad, because that way we can choose to have just a few shots printed very cheaply for framing, and have only a CD of photos, rather than a big ol' book to dust.

We're also not having a videographer. We have a very eccentric and funny friend who's volunteered to bring his digital camera for documentation, and that'll be far preferable (even if it will feature his wife in her bridesmaid dress a little more than is strictly proper) than having some pro who doesn't know anyone there. Again, personalization is worth zillions.

As for favors, we don't want to go overboard, especially because Fiancé is unfamiliar with the practice. What we're planning to do is have a disposable camera or two for each table to play with during the reception, and a little tulle package of Jordan almonds for each guest. Cameras are about $5 each, and the almonds packets are about 30 cents per person (bought in bulk), so about a dollar per person for a couple of cute traditions (one old, one new). I'm also planning to do gift baskets for out-of-town visitors, but baskets are cheap at Michael's, and the thoughtful touches almost free (town maps, homemade cookies, photos, things like that).

A big money-saver (I can't believe I just thought of this one) was that we booked the hotel reception site as a package deal. Reception decorations, cake, champagne toast, and dinner are all packed together and calculated as a per-guest cost. It worked out to be thousands less than most any other local reception site, and still really lovely. Before we booked it, I was pulling for the local VFW hall, which at home is a very cheap yet perfectly respectable reception site, but which here, apparently, are not well-kept. Too bad, really.

There are a couple of places where we just totally splurged, though. Fiancé is allergic to a lot of metals, so the bands (and my engagement ring) are platinum works of beauty. We're also paying for our attendants' dresses and tuxes, which is only fair, since 80% of them have to pay for airfare (international, in one case) and lodging to be here. My parents are also paying for a lot of our family to fly out; this is going to be a pretty big vacation for many of them, which is exciting. We're also paying a bit of a premium for nice silk flowers. I don't want to be sniffling and sneezing on our wedding day! There's going to be some real blooms, but I just can't face a room full of pollen and scent for hours. No WAY.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Old Spending Patterns

I just got a year-end summary from Chase, and I browsed through it quickly, cringing.

Some numbers, a la Time Magazine:

40: Number of times Fiance & I ate pad thai
$2,872.54: Amount I spent on plane tickets
3: Times we went to Boston
2: Times that those trips were on consecutive weekends
6: Out-of-state trips we took
13: Times I gassed up my car
4: Times I paid for expensive and irritating repairs to my car
$1,128.28: Average monthly expenditures*

I'm sure I'll have more later, after I more closely analyze the numbers. Oh, how I wish I could download this stuff directly into Excel! Instead, I'm preparing for a nice long evening of data entry.

*I used this card for the vast, vast majority of purchases, excluding those made at Costco, damn their non-credit-accepting-black-hearts.

Carnival of Investing is up!

Check out the Carnival of Investing #58: Monopoly Edition over at The Digerati Life. Lots of great entries, neat format!

My favorite entry? Keep Your Cool in Stocks and Dating: Efficient market? As if! I totally agree with this guy.

And oh, my, I was an editor's pick (!) with my Anatomy of an Arbitration, where I describe what it is about investing that keeps me in business.

Friday, January 26, 2007

My very first carnival!

The Festival of Under-30 Finance is up at Golbguru's journal.

A few interesting entries:
55 Ways I Saved (or Considered Saving) Time and Money Planning my Wedding, which is nice and relevant. I love saving-on-weddings tips!

Top 10 Resume blunders--even though I'm not looking for a job right now, you never know! Plus, I'm on the hiring committee right now--and he's right on the money about what we toss. :)

Don't Rely on the Lottery. I have a co-worker that spends quite a lot of money on the lottery every day, and I just want to hit him over the head and shout: "The lottery is not a retirement plan!" Yeah, it's nice to fantasize about what to do with the windfalls, but for pete's sake. Lottery=tax on people who are bad at math.

Five Rules for Investing is a great set of rules for beginning investors. Of course, if everyone followed these rules, nobody would ever file a claim, and I'd be out of work!

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Shamelessly exploiting my connections

Also known as "intelligently using my resources," depending on whether or not you are inclined to be charitable.

This is pretty much my MO for wedding planning--step one is always asking, "Do I know someone who does this professionally?"

In several cases, I do. Most of them I wouldn't exploit, exactly, but if, in asking advice, they offer tips on getting better prices or offer freebies, wonderful! The best example of this is my tiara. I was prepared to pay through the nose for a really nice custom-designed, crystal- & amethyst-embellished piece, as I don't plan to have too many other accessories. And that's what most people will see of me, anyway (I'm a bit short). Also, I like tiaras.

So my first* step: ask my crazy Welsh friend who makes tiaras for Halo & Co. what my best option would be. My best option, she explains, is for me to sit tight and wait for her to send me a CD of the new collection photos, among which will be the perfect tiara.

On this CD is a price list, which has wholesale prices. Score! I say to myself. Wholesale! I e-mail her my order. "Wholesale? Pfah!" she says. "At cost! I'll let you know next week after I make it for you."

Considering the fact that the pound is just under two dollars at the moment, it's quite a relief. I'm doing little happy dances here at my desk.

*Also last.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Anatomy of an Arbitration

It's 1999. The market looks great for investing. Dot-coms are springing up, tech markets are booming, and you* are ready to buy, buy, buy! You go to see a broker. Let's call him Jim. Jim is a great guy, and just as gung-ho as you are. You talk about your financial goals: let's say you're 45, with retirement far enough away that you feel like you can speculate a little. Your only son got a scholarship at the state school, so you're in good shape there. You're ready to hand over your cash: a cool million for investing. You know what you want to do. Tech! Energy! Communications! All the sexiest stocks. Jim's on board, so he buys big in Worldcom, Lucent, JDS Uniphase, Qualcomm, and Yahoo. He also gets a few PIMCO mutual funds--they've been turning out some really nice, high numbers. You nod, but really you're impatient at the idea of wasting your money in something so staid as a mutual fund.

Most of the time over the next couple months, you just hold onto your stocks, but you can't resist the occasional trade. You want to play around with options, but you lose a bundle when a naked put gets assigned, and you drop that like a hot poker.

Aside from your gaffes, you're watching your profits billow. You couldn't be happier. Jim starts making some noises about selling, but you're scornful about his caution.

In March 2000, your daily scan of the tickers gets frantic. You can't believe it. What's happening to Worldcom? Yahoo? They're sinking like stones. You call up Jim, hysterically order him to sell. Jim is adamant--you can't sell when they're down. It's a temporary wave, you have to hold on and don't lose confidence.

By April, you're despondent. More than two-thirds of your money is gone, and it doesn't look like it'll ever make it back up. But you're clinging to the idea of holding on, and your portfolio rallies a little over the summer. But in November, it dives again, and this time, Jim agrees to sell. Cut your losses, you think to yourself, and start again more carefully.

For several months you stew about the losses, until finally you go see a lawyer. Let's call him Sam. Sam grins like a shark when you tell him why you're there. He's more than happy to file a complaint on your behalf. After all, in 2002, there were over 4,000 formal investor complaints against a member of the NASD, and that number rose as more people got angry about their bubble bursting. He's about to make money hand over fist.

After you have a complaint number, Sam writes up a statement of claim. In the statement, you have magically become totally ignorant of investing--a complete naif. It was Jim and his firm that did all the trouble--failure to supervise, failure to diversify, making false and fraudulent representations, advising you, the Claimant, to pursue unsuitable investments, and causing you untold harm. When you finish reading the statement of claim, you're angrier than ever. How dare they take advantage of you like that! Never mind that most of it's just not true--you knew the risks.

The brokerage company gets the statement, and you're not sure what they do, but they come right back with an answer that calls you a big liar, and a slick profit and loss analysis of your account, complete with a row of neat little "U"s by the worst of the trades. You ask Sam what that means, and why he's covering his face with his hands like that, and he points to the footnote: "U=Unsolicited Trades." Oh. Those are the ones you initiated. That doesn't look good.

You and Sam continue undaunted, however. You schedule a mediation with the brokerage company, and it's scheduled for six months in the future, when the NASD finally has a free mediator. Meanwhile, you've stuck your money into a money-market account--what's left of it. The lawyer fees are starting to make a dent, and you're sweating a little. Doing some overtime, trying to get your wife to maybe think about working. She's pissed that you were so stupid about the stock market when you had a million bucks in the bank, and wants you to stop this idiotic lawsuit. But you persist.

When you get to the hotel that the mediation is scheduled at, you and Sam sit in one room while the mediator talks to you, then sit and wait while he runs to the room with the brokerage representative and lawyer. Huffing and puffing, he comes back with a settlement offer: 10% of your losses. Your lawyer laughs, and offers 75%. Eventually you're at an impasse--they won't come up, and you're too desperate to come down.

So Sam gets you in queue for an arbitration hearing. This is even harder to schedule, because three NASD arbiters will hear this case, and their time is as difficult to schedule as the mediator, multiplied by a factor of three. "Usually," Sam tells you, "Cases don't get this far. Brokerage companies generally have to pay out more, when the decision goes against them, but the awards can also be close to nil if the arbiters don't like you. It's like going to criminal trial, in a way. But you're a guy who likes risk, right?" You have a sudden qualm, but you can't stop now.

The intervening time is spent with the lawyer and the expert, trying to find some charts that look as terrible as possible, so the arbiters will take pity on your case. You have a sneaking suspicion the respondents, the brokerage firm, are spending time with their experts too--and the firm has a lot more money to spend on defending their case! They make Sam a few settlement offers, and you are really considering taking them, but he thinks you can get more, so you hold strong.

When the arbitration arrives, you realize that the respondents did, indeed, spend time and money prepping. Their expert, a chirpy young lady** in a very nice suit, lovingly describes every detail that could possibly prove ruinous for your case: your dealing in options, which shows expertise, and your enthusiasm for all those unsolicited trades. Your expert, a middle-aged man whose suit is rather rumpled, refutes, and your lawyers expostulate over the case.

The panel deliberates, and arrives at a figure. Less than $100,000. Once you subtract Sam's fee, you hang your head. He did better than you out of this. Was it worth it? Better than not having it, you explain to your wife that night. She rolls her eyes and ostentatiously hauls out the want ads.

*You in this case being a totally theoretical investor. This case is merely representative, and in no way is meant to portray any single individual.

**Chirpy young expert for the respondents? That would be me. Although truthfully it's very rare that we actually will testify in front of the panel. They'll fly us to Oklahoma or Minneapolis or Detroit, and we'll sit in a hotel room or lobby for hours, waiting to be called. Either that, or they'll schedule a time to call us over the phone--and then never end up needing us. (Our company's reports are very good. Usually, the claimant agrees to stipulate that our numbers are correct and we therefore aren't needed to testify about them.)

Sunday, January 21, 2007

My ignorance is costing me...$360/month (and sometimes more)

As I may have mentioned, Fiance and I work together. Naturally, we drive in together. He has a lovely car that he likes driving. (And it's only about 7 or 8 miles to our office from where we live, so it's a brisk 15 minute drive.)

Buuuut....his car has a standard transmission. Yup, you guessed it--I don't know how to drive stick. There's not much that can be done about teaching me right now; the slush and snow makes the road conditions pretty bad, and I don't drive much in the winter as it is. But when the weather gets nice, look out!

Actually, yes, look out.

(Kidding--I'm not that terrible of a driver.)

Anyway, the other issue is the convenience of having two cars available. There've been a few times when we split up errands, or had two places to be on the same night, but I think I can count on one hand the times when the scheduling problem couldn't have been solved by a little bit of forward planning.

There's two pieces of good news (as in, it's not costing as much as it could be):
1) The car was bought on a 0% loan, and I can adjust the payment amount as necessary (as the lender is my mother), and
2) Insurance is several hundred dollars cheaper because it's for pleasure instead of commuting, and because it's driven less than 2000 miles per year.

And that begs the question: If I drive it less than 2K miles each year...why am I keeping it?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The birth control you won't see commercials for

So I saw a post about the cost of razors, and my mind jumped to another costly, yet rarely considered, expense. PF Ladies? Lend me your ears.

There's all kind of commercials for Nuvaring and Yaz and OrthoEvra, and they might be right for a lot of women, especially women who know that they may want to have a baby soon. But mostly, they're advertised because they're wildly profitable to sell. You think there's a lot of research going into longer-term BC? Hell no--why would they cut into their profit margin?

I've been on all three at various points, and when your insurance doesn't cover costs, it adds up quickly: $40/month for the patch, $25/month for the ring, $20 to $50/month for the Pill. And that's at Planned Parenthood: buying at pharmacies includes an extra markup for them to profit off your body as well. That's an average of $2,400 over five years. Not to mention the sanitary supplies and pain medications--few hundred bucks more. And frankly, I couldn't ever remember to take the dang pill e v e r y day.

You could be protected for about $350 for the same five years. Mirena, which I had installed in November, is five years of Guaranteed No Baby. Also, no period.

Okay, I seriously sound like a dippy commercial for it, and I don't mean to come across as a shill. But seriously, women who want to be frugal? An IUD is the way to go for massive savings in your 20s, when you know you're not going to be having babies. Or even if you don't want babies for just a couple of years--you can have them take it out whenever you want, and it's already paid for itself after about 9 months anyway.

Problem: a lot of doctors won't even install this for you (especially if you haven't already had a baby), so you might have to seek out a Planned Parenthood. (Which presumably you're already using for cost-effective women's health support--I love their sliding payment scale!)

The best wedding dress ever

When we first started planning our wedding, I had romantic visions of me wearing my mother's gown and grandmother's veil, floating down the aisle in a swirl of tradition and satin.*

When I got my first good look at the dress (I'd only seen pictures before), I realized: my mother got married in the early 70s. She was THIN. No way would this fly on me--no way, no how. But I still wanted a unique dress, something unlike anything I'd seen in the magazines and stores. Almost all of them were sleeveless, with massive trains, and covered in lace and pearls--ugh! And the idea of paying thousands of dollars for a dress I'd wear ONCE kind of made me want to throw something.

So I did the next best thing. I looked at a lot of pictures, made a couple sketches, and sat down to make my own. I did a sample dress first, out of cheaper fabric and simpler pattern, to see how difficult it would be. The final result was pretty (I wore it to my brother's wedding in September), but I definitely don't have the skill to do fancywork. I managed to put two sleeves on one side and had to rip one of them out--satin is much more unforgiving of those sorts of mistakes than cotton, I am led to believe.

Time for Plan C. My mom's friend Mary knew of a woman who makes wedding dresses! Mary sung her praises as a seamstress (the lady had done some spectacular work on Mary's mother-of-the-bride dress last summer), and suggested her as a person to go to for alterations at first. But after talking things over with her, I decided to have her make my dress. In fact, I wanted her to make dresses for my whole wedding party--me, my four maids, and darling little Althea the flower girl. For less than the cost of a traditional bridal gown. (Though I couldn't tell you how much exactly--she negotiated that with my mom, who kindly offered to contribute that portion of the budget.)

So far, I've only seen pictures and reports from a bridesmaid about my dress. Tomorrow, Fiance and I are flying back to the Midwest (where my parents are, and where this wonderful lady is), and I will have my first fitting. How exciting!

*That's a flat lie, actually. My first impulse was to convince Fiance to elope, so we could get married in jeans and baseball caps. No dice. He managed to win me over to his point of view instead, and that's when the romantic visions began to appear.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Don't you dare call a repairman!

Awhile back, our dryer started making funny noises. I, who am rather inclined to over-cerebrate, began to Google the problem. Surely our dryer is not unique, I said; surely others have had that horrible squeaking noise that makes you want to slit your wrists.

Perhaps that is not the best Google string for your search, Fiance suggested. Also, I'll give the Sears repairshop a call so they can send someone out to fix it.

But Google triumphed, as it does upon occasion, and a Kenmore dryer has a history of getting a worn-out flimjammer* that needs replacing. So I called Sears back to ask if they had just the part. Ha! Ha! they laughed. Parts? Try the warehouse at the other number, little lady.

So I gritted my teeth, hung up, and then insulted the heck out of their condescending tone. And called the warehouse, which did in fact have a flimjammer replacement kit.

After a brief field trip to drive out to Warehouse Land to retrieve the part, Fiance and I were ready to start fixin'. Actually, Fiance is not particularly in favor of home repair (hence suggesting a call to a repairperson), but I managed to draw him into things. Mostly by swearing at the front panel of the dryer, which according to the diagram I had pulled up from the website had interior screws at all four corners, but how the heck do you unscrew the ones at the bottom? Think about it--you'd have to have the longest arms in the universe!

We almost gave up several times--luckily, not ever at the same time. Turns out, the front just lifts off. It only had screws at the top. Took us half an hour to realize that.

The flimjammer itself was pretty easy to replace--it just sits there, holding the belt so it can be turned by the motor...somehow. Look, I just put it in, don't ask me to explain it!

Anyway, after we got the lid put back on, the repairperson called back in response to the original message, with a suggested arrival time of Three Days From Now and a minimum cost of $100 for the honor.

The part? Cost $12. And a banged finger, and an hour of shouting and cussin'. Plus a scenic trip out to Warehouse Land, but it was a pleasant drive on a day I normally wouldn't have left the house, so that doesn't count.

Right. Draw your own moral from this story.

*Not the actual name of the part.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Deciding which health insurance to use

My company offers two options for health insurance: a low deductible, high premium plan (BCBS Plan L) and a high deductible HSA plan. Fiance uses Plan L, and I use the HSA. (Obviously, we work together.) Wouldn't you know it that I'm the one with biopsies and ambulance rides this year? Shucks.

So just for giggles, I calculated the point at which the HSA saves money versus the low deductible plan. We are allowed to switch plans only once per year, in January, and I did this a few weeks ago, to see if it would be more cost-effective for me to switch.

Executive summary: If you have either very few healthcare costs, or ruinously expensive ones, the HSA is the plan for you. If your costs range from about $1-6K, stick with your low-deductible plan.

First, the parameters:
The deductible for the Plan L (called L hereafter) is $500, and the premium is $71.63 per week (paid before taxes from a cafeteria plan our employer has set up). This plan pays 80% of all costs above the deductible. All of your payments, the deductible and the 20% match, are paid in post-tax money.

Out-of-pocket payments for L, therefore: $3,725* + $500 + 20% of all costs above $500 + income tax on deductible & matching.

*yearly premium: $71.63*52.

The deductible for the HSA is $2,250, and the premium is $55.15 per week (also from pretax monies). Once the deductible has been reached, BCBS pays 100% of costs. You can also set aside, pre-tax, up to $2,250 (some plans allow you to contribute more than your deductible; ours doesn't). Unlike flex spending plans, this money is always yours. If you don't have any healthcare costs, just invest the money and let it sit there until you're old and infirm. You can also spend this money on almost any health-related expense: over-the-counter medicine, dental work, LASIK...pretty much anything but plastic surgery.

Out-of-pocket payment for HSA: $2,867.80 + up to but not over $2,250.

Here, have a graph:

The first crossover point is as healthcare costs pass about $1,250 (with data points at every $250). Until that point, the HSA is the better choice. From then until healthcare costs pass $6K for the year, L is the more economical vehicle.

Found Money!

Good news for us today--I found a hundred bucks in the lost room! Two gift certificates (one for Best Buy and one for Linens 'n' Things) were just floating around. Luckily, they don't expire, because I suspect they were Fiance's Christmas presents from 2004--or earlier.

I did a bit more organizing and shuffling around of under-utilized furniture, and hopefully the only furniture we need (a linen cupboard of some description--our bath towels are stacked on a chair, and the extra sets of sheets are on the shelves next to the TV, which makes for a very odd-looking home entertainment center) will be available at Linens 'n' Things--which we now have for $50 cheaper! Good deal, says I.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Getting Rid of the Stuff

When I started spending a lot of time in my fiance's condo, I thought it was a one-bedroom. There was a second door off the hallway, but I assumed it was a closet.

Technically, it was. When I finally poked my head inside, I was shocked. It was full of...stuff. I've hardly ever seen anything like it. I take that back--it looked like a fresh move. My parents' basement looked like that for awhile, after they moved into a newer, smaller place.

In this second bedroom, the closet was bulging with boxes, there was a bike leaning against some shelves that were in front of a wall of boxes, and things were strewn everywhere, atop the boxes. Everything that he didn't want around, but didn't want to make a decision about throwing out--landed here.

It only got worse after I moved in. We managed to beat back the mess to the perimeters, but I had some furniture that my mom wanted to reclaim (eventually) that got in the way. I had a spare bed that we could've set up in there, but it had to stand upright, because there wasn't enough clear floorspace to put it down.

A couple of months ago (this tale begins in December 2005, by the way, when Fiance and I began seeing each other), we got a large piece of furniture crated up and shipped 1500 miles to my mother, and that cleared out a large patch of workspace. I shuffled things around and got the bed to fit in lying down. We've tackled it in small bits and pieces as we happen to think about it, but I started to take a real inventory yesterday afternoon.

There's so much neat stuff! Hockey skates, bike & helmet, a golf bag with a set of clubs, an unopened printer, a TV, 2 VCRs, a PS2 (in need of small repair and long promised to a friend), a Sega Dreamcast, tons of Legos and baseball cards, fairly nice speakers and stereo system, older computer games...much of which he does not wish to part with. But then, there's also his old college textbooks and all of the presents he's received over the years that have just gotten put aside (unburned candles, a golf ball cleaning tool, &c.), and of course all of the empty boxes for computer monitors and TVs and furniture that was always just easier to put away than throw away.

Not to mention that closet full of boxes, which turn out to not even be his! He's storing them for his ex-girlfriend, whom I gather is somewhat mobile by nature, and we've had probably 700# worth of her stuff for over a year. But I digress.

I had a nice pass through the room yesterday, and I wish I'd been taking pictures all along to show progress, but I worked for hours and it doesn't look much different, really. The junk pile is much lower (not ceiling-high anymore) in the corner, that's it. But with the wedding in less than five months, I'd really like to see if we can have a viable guest room. I'm going to try to put travelling people in locals' guest rooms before making them book hotel rooms (lots of my friends are just out of college, and the reception hotel is quite pricey, even with the group discount), and I think it would be wonderful if we could host some folks too.

But not with boxes of Legos covering the guest bed!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Maiden voyage

I hadn't planned to start a blog. I suppose that's what they all say.

But really, blogging qua blogging doesn't particularly appeal. I've had a livejournal for nearly four years now, and I haven't much to say over there, either. However, I do like talking to the intelligent blogging folks I frequently read, and it's easier to start a dialogue when there's a little knowledge of each other on both sides.

So here's my introductory post. My name is Ellen. Hi! (waits for chorus of "Hi, Ellen!") I am a twenty-something living in New England, engaged to a wonderful man, and living a lovely life filled with good friends and theatre. I work at a job I don't despise (most of the time) and get to read the thoughts of smart people on any number of topics that interest me.

I'm working on adding all of the blogs I like to the sidebar, but Blogger does not seem particularly flexible with such a maneuver.