Thursday, September 5, 2013

Consumerism Thursday: The Incredible Shrinking Woman Drowns in Brisket

I ordered three briskets from FreshDirect. In my defense, they were on sale, one is for a party in October, I had free delivery and my mother was planning on buying one of them from me. I threw in some ground pork and veal to make bolognese sauce, checked out, and scheduled delivery for this morning.

The meat never showed up.

I called FreshDirect in frustration, and they informed me that my meat had been left with the doorman, which their drivers are not supposed to do. What? I headed downstairs, and sure enough, my meat had been hanging out downstairs for an hour and a half. I hustled it upstairs, threw it all into the freezer, and called FreshDirect to give them a piece of my mind.

They're replacing all my meat, and delivering it tomorrow as an apology. So now I have SIX briskets, and enough ground meat to make bolognese for half of Italy. It's a good thing I'm a huge brisket fan, and score one for FreshDirect's customer service.

I weigh 20 pounds less than last year. Hooray!

Unfortunately, now that I'm interviewing, I've realized all my "nice" clothes are too big for me. I've gone from barely fitting a size 10 to and 8. All my skirts can be salvaged by a visit to the tailor to take in their waistbands, but my one button-down blouse is vaguely tent-like on me.

So the other day I had a job interview, and I felt so fat, frumpy, and lumpy-bumpy that I ran into a nearby Banana Republic and bought a new button-down in the correct size, paid full retail, and swapped shirts in the changing room.

That's possibly the silliest impulse purchase ever, but it was worth every sent. I felt fantastic, and the interview seemed to go well. I'll hear more after Rosh Hashanah.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Domestic Wednesdays: I Made More Socks

I finally roped CodeMonkey into making pictures for me, because it's hard to photograph your own feet! These are destined for my mother:

My knockoff Boden sweater has been stalled because it's hot, the sweater is getting bigger, and I don't want to run the A/C to make holding a giant pile of wool comfortable. So for now, socks.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Monday Sundries: Terrifying Midwestern Cookery!

I visited my grandmother and parents last week and we made four boils of sour cherry jam. Three jars are mine, all mine! *cackles*

Amazing Vintage Midwestern Cookery

We also dug through my great-grandmother's recipe file and found some truly amazing examples of mid-century Midwestern cooking. I particularly like this one. I mean, it never would have occurred to me to combine lemon Jello, canned corned beef, onions and mayonnaise! I'm almost tempted to make it because it's so disgusting sounding.

I'm also comforted to know that I have a recipe to make potato soup for an army, should the need arise. I love any recipe that lists ingredients by the gallon rather than the cup. My grandmother has no idea why she or her mother had this recipe in there, and no-one in our family has a Cheaper-by-the-Dozen scenario where one needs to whip up 4 gallons of soup in one go.

Thrifty Food Plan Challenge

I went to BJ's and some other stores and did my monthly grocery stock up: cod, chicken drumsticks, pesto, ground beef, chicken breasts, flour, ham, mozzarella, milk, pasta, butter, eggs, parmesan, spinach, kale, cheese tortellini, Haagen-Dasz ice cream bars, sweet Italian sausage, hot Italian sausage, red wine, white wine and onions. The goal is to not shop any more this month except for fresh fruits and vegetables and milk, which seems doable, given that the freezer is currently groaning with food. I've spent $255.18 of $380.20 toward my Thrifty Food Plan Challenge.

My Mother Saves the Day

Despite being a fairly serious baker, I do not own a complete set of measuring cups or spoons. I've been relying on eyeballing things and metric recipes where I can use my kitchen scale. Out of frustration, I texted my mother and asked her to please buy me a set of cups, spoons and liquid measures for my birthday, and she was sweet enough to hit up the dollar store and buy my all three, and doubles of everything. Best. Present. Ever.

Cooked Lately:

Beautiful burger buns: Subbed half the white flour for whole wheat, omitted the sesame seeds, and made a double-batch. Shaped half the dough into hamburger buns and half into hot dog rolls and got 8 of each. Very tasty, though next time I'd make something crustier for rolls.

Homemade Teriyaki Sauce: I omitted the mirin because I didn't have any, and made a double batch. CodeMonkey felt that it was too sweet. If you make this, halve the cornstarch because this gelled up like mad. Soy Vay and Trader Joe's Soyaki (pretty sure these are the same thing) are both much tastier, though unavailable in my area. I wouldn't make this again.

Fast and Easy Puffed Pastry: I made this so I had wrappers for some spinach, feta and ricotta bourekas I decided to make. (To use up some frozen spinach and milk.) It's cheaper than buying puff pastry, particularly if you want one of the high-end brands that uses real butter. Very easy, though nowhere near as flaky as a real laminated dough. I doubled the recipe, but needed another 4oz of yogurt besides that to make the dough come together. A double batch was enough to wrap 32 bourekas.

Margaret's Oatmeal Hotcakes: After I made ricotta cheese to go in the bourekas, I had four cups of whey left over. You can substitute whey 1:1 for buttermilk in most recipes, so a double batch (Notice a pattern here? I never cook single batches). My mother has been making these for years, and they're fantastic and SO easy, since you mix the batter the night before. I skipped the dried fruit because we didn't have any. They freeze beautifully, so I froze them on cookie sheets and I've been thawing them in a skillet and serving with maple syrup for breakfasts. They're very hearty, so you don't need more than one.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Fiscal Friday: Poor, Sad Net Worth

I think our net worth is going to increase by a whopping $100 or something this month, if at all. (Still waiting to get info on our investments before doing the final tally.) And the irony is, we had a pretty decent month, income-wise.

But then our health insurance bill was high because CodeMonkey had to add me at the last minute, so we paid my premium for August plus the September premium for both of us.

And then, like an idiot, I misunderstood the person helping me at the insurance company and paid the high premium twice. Whoops. They're giving us an account credit, but I ended up spending $1450 this month on insurance instead of $475. That $475, by the way, gets you a plan with a $10,000 per person annual deductible, which means it basically just covers the risk of something really expensive and catastrophic happening. We'll need to cashflow any medical expenses until I get a job that (hopefully) offers decent insurance for both of us. The current plan is: don't get sick.

I had a medical emergency back in February and used an ambulance to get to the hospital. Lesson learned: do not let the nice 911 people (I called to ask if I should be going to the hospital given the symptoms I was experiencing) send an ambulance unless you are hemorrhaging in multiple places. TAKE A CAB. Because, holy shit that ambulance costs. Yes, this is stupid and naive and I should have known better. That was a $900 bill*. Insurance covered $300. After multiple rounds of back-and-forth with the hospital's billing department, including using a medical negotiator to try and get the bill down (it failed), I finally just paid the $600 outstanding. Bah, humbug.

Then we overspent on groceries, just to top everything off.

*For comparison: the cab ride home from the hospital was $10, WITH TIP. The ambulance was not 90 times better at anything. Obviously an ambulance is different than a black car, and is staffed by two people with significant qualifications rather than a single fellow with a driver's license, etc. But we were both floored to realize it was 90 times more expensive.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The USDA Thrifty Food Plan

Another day, another soul-sucking stressful round of job-hunting. *sigh* I'm forcing myself to do one thing at a time rather than looking at the big picture, because otherwise I get overwhelmed and sink into the Despairing Pit Of Doom. Seriously not helpful.

Also, is it just me, or do tiny tasks become much bigger when you don't have enough going on? This morning, I was grousing to myself that I had to fold the laundry AND cook breakfast, which was JUST TOO HARD TO MANAGE AND NOBODY HAS EVER WORKED AS HARD AS I HAVE. I'm sure this is a symptom of not having enough to do in general, so I sort of yelled at myself to put on my big girl panties and deal with it.

Back when we lived Upstate, I used to extreme coupon. In a fit of domesticity, I recently reorganized our cabinet of household supplies. When the apocalypse comes, we will have plenty of soap, that's all I'm going to say. We can barter that and my hand-knit socks for useful supplies, I guess. Yeah, I don't foresee us lasting long in this post-apocalyptic scenario.

I've been looking at the USDA's food plan costs for July 2013. In the interests of keeping the grocery budget under control, I've decided to adopt a little challenge. I'd like to keep our grocery costs of September at or below $380.20, the "thrifty" food plan for a two-person household. I'll use any food in the house (mostly chicken, eggs, greek yogurt, condiments, rice and baking supplies. Note to self: go shopping), but I won't spend any more than that. Since I paid my mother for my share of a bulk order of Italian sausage that will be delivered Sunday, I'm down $50 already. This should be a fun plan. I'm also exempting any meals purchased for business networking purposes because hello, I'm job-hunting here.

The current plan is to go make a giant stock-up trip to BJ's on Saturday night and count that toward the Saturday total, since I have a giant grocery list pinned to the fridge. I'll try to post any good menus or recipes I come up with.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Fiscal Friday: A Money Order of Preference

CodeMonkey gets paid twice a month; I collect UI every Thursday, and we both freelance. All these taken together mean we can have 15 or more deposits in a single month. Since our income can swing wildly from month to month, I like to have only one financial goal to focus on at a time. After a few years of trial and error, I've settled on a system for managing our income. Whenever new income comes in, I go through the following mental flowchart.

  1. Money goes into the checking account from freelancing, paychecks, unemployment, tax refund, birthday gifts, whatever.
  2. Replenish the checking account balance to $700 for direct debited bills and ATM withdrawals. Is there money left over? If YES, proceed to step 3.
  3. Set aside next month’s rent money. Is there money left over? If YES, proceed to step 4.
  4. Pay off the credit card balance. Is there money left over? If YES, proceed to step 5.
  5. Check savings account balance. Is there six months* of living expenses in there? Add money until there is. Is there money left over? If YES, proceed to step 6.
  6. Check your Roth IRAs. Have they been fully funded for the year? Add money until they have. Is there money left over? If YES, proceed to step 7.
  7. Check books for self employed businesses. How much has your business netted after expenses this year? Do you have all that money set aside to put into your solo 401ks come tax time? Add money until you do. Is there money left over? If YES, proceed to step 8.
  8. Do you have a down payment for an apartment? Add money until you do. Is there money left over? If YES, proceed to step 9.
  9. Treat family to a moderately priced dinner out and invest whatever is left.
Every month my goal is to have the credit card zeroes out and next month's rent set aside by the 15th of the month so that the other half of our income can be saved and invested, though this doesn't always happen. Right now our big goal is step 7, but come the beginning of 2014, we'll be back to funding our IRAs again.
This system has a number of advantages. Because I’m only focusing on one goal at a time, I see progress very quickly. When we were paying off my student loans, it was really empowering to see the balance drop by a couple thousand dollars a month. If I’d been splitting that money toward multiple goals, it wouldn’t have had the same psychological impact.

*I'm really not sold on the six month emergency fund thing, as I've never had an emergency that comes close to that. Right now we have medical insurance plans with $10,000 per person deductibles, but come January 2014, I may take enough out of this fund to meet our 2014 IRA contributions in one go.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

I Kind of Hate My Life Right Now

I'm one of those people who likes plans. The hardest two years of my life were after college, when CodeMonkey and I were newlyweds living apart while he finished college and did a fellowship and I lived with my parents and worked. It wasn't the separation that made it painful, but rather the constant feeling of being in transition, as though we were waiting for our real lives as husband and wife to begin.

Right now is another such transition. CodeMonkey is transitioning out of being a CodeMonkey into another field entirely. He's doing a great job, still supporting us, and everybody seems confident he'll be a smashing success in his new career, but it's still hard to be waiting. I'm unemployed and I honestly have no idea what I want out of my life, personally or professionally. All of this is ruining my motivation to job search as I get wrapped up in trying to figure out what the heck I want instead of just applying to jobs and getting out there and talking to people to learn more about my options.

I'm not coping well with the reality that I don't know what either of our lives will look like a year from now. I don't know what the solution is aside from trying to put the anxiety out of my mind and doubling down on my job search.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Fiscal Friday: Talk Is Cheap

If you ask parents if they value their children's education, they will, to a one, say it's very important to them. After all, who is against education? It's like being opposed to kittens and flowers and sunshine.

But consider three demographically identical families who say they value their children's education and what the children do between 3:30 when school ends, and 8:30 when they go to bed:

  1. Family A's children go to sports practice for a couple hours, then eat dinner, spend an hour on homework, and then watch some TV before bed.
  2. Family B's children come home, do their homework, eat dinner, and spend the rest of the evening playing indoors before bed.
  3. Family C's children go to a math tutoring center for an hour after school, do some homework, eat dinner, go over material taught earlier in the term, review the notes from the tutoring center, read a book for a little bit and then go to bed.
Despite all ostensibly sharing the same values, Families A and C clearly have very different childrearing philosophies and place a very different value on education. That isn't bad (and there's good evidence to suggest playing team sports helps kids prepare for the workforce in important ways), but it brings up an important point. What people say is important to them is less important than how they act.

By the same token, pretty much everybody believes financial solvency is good, and their vision of The Good Life includes material prosperity. That isn't debatable; everyone would like to be well off. The more pressing question is: does what you do on a daily basis move you toward this? What will your sacrifice to attain it? Because that is the real measure of your priorities. Economics deals with the problem of scarcity, and how we choose to allocate our scarcest resources shows what we think is most essential. The question is not "What would you do with all the time and money in the world," but "Given the need to make tradeoffs and limited time and money right now, what are you doing?"

If the choice is between free time and freelance work, which one are you picking? If the choice is between cooking dinner when you're falling down exhausted or calling for pizza, do you order delivery or grumble, sigh, and put water for pasta on? Do you go on vacation while in student loan debt? Have you bought new clothes instead of hitting the thrift store? Do you indulge in an expensive hobby rather than saving?

I've chosen the less fiscally responsible option in some of these scenarios, as I'm sure most people have. I slashed budget a few months ago because I realized when I was doing wasn't in line with what I really wanted. Once I observed that I was letting my inner lazy toddler ("But I want it, I WANT IT NOW, I WANT IT RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE!!!") rather than my rational adult self call the shots, I worked to get what I was doing back in line with what I was saying. That doesn't mean I always succeed, but it means what I say and what I do are becoming more aligned, as I had hoped. If you're pursuing any long-term goal, it's worth asking if you're making similar efforts to align your words and behaviors.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Domestic Wednesdays: Designing a Knockoff Sweater

I woke up this morning full of energy! And pep! And motivation to GET THINGS DONE! This is in marked contrast to the last few days where I've been unmotivated, exhausted, and utterly convinced that I'm completely unemployable.

It's also the first exuberantly sunny day we've had in a week. Coincidence? Probably not. Weather has always affected my moods more than most people, and I spend October through April in a sort of black, despairing funk of misery. My grandmother has a diagnosis of seasonal depression and has been pushing me to get one of the special lamps she has, which I should probably look into.

Anyway, Boden released their fall preview collection, I I fell for this sweater, which I'd eyed last year and decided wasn't in my budget. It looks like a lovely, warm, casual sweater, which would fill the niche in my closet that has magically appeared for it. One problem: even with a coupon, it's $80.

On the other hand, I knit! So I decided I'd make my own copy. I dug around in my massive, really it's quite scary yarn stash and came up with this lovely tweedy purple wool-mohair-angora blend yarn.

Looking at the Boden original, I'm guessing it's knit with a slightly finer yarn at 6 stitches to the inch. This was a bit thicker, so I knit a test square and measured. It's 4.625 stitches to the inch, which is called the gauge.

While I was at it, I took my own measurements: 35"-29"-38". Marilyn Monroe I am not. So I grabbed The Knitter's Handy Book of Top Down Sweater Patterns, which is an amazing "recipe book" that allows you to knit a sweater in any size at any gauge. There are patterns for every chest circumference from 26" to 52".

Just one problem: the book's gauges are in whole stitch increments. There's a pattern for a sweater at 5 stitches to the inch and one for a sweater at 4 stitches to the inch, but nothing at 4.625 stitches per inch. So I dusted off my algebra and calculated that if I knit the 5 stitches to the inch sweater pattern in a size 32" at my current gauge of 4.625 spi, the final garment would be 34.59". I'm between a size 6 and 8 in Boden clothes, and the original sweater in those sizes measures 34" and 35.5" around respectively. Since I know I'll be adding a wide button band which will up the finished garment to about 35" at the bust, this looks good.

On the yellow pad of paper above you can see my stitch tallies; I've already started knitting, but it looks pretty shapeless right now. I'll be back next week once I've (hopefully) finished the body of the sweater.

One more thing: this is not a strictly money-saving endeavor. I dug up my receipt from two years ago when I bought the yarn for this sweater, and it was $70. This is one of the more expensive yarns I've ever bought, but the point remains: it really isn't money-saving to make your own clothing. That's without taking into account the cost of your time; this sweater will take me between 10 and 20 hours to make. This is my hobby, though, and I find it a lot of fun.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Monday Sundries: The Days Are Long, The Years Are Short

The Mid-Autumn festival is approaching, and posters for mooncakes are starting to appear.

I can't quite believe that a year ago, I was eating mooncakes in Malaysia with my in-laws. We'd just moved to New York; I'd started a new job and CodeMonkey was offered a short-term contract in Malaysia, so he somehow convinced his employer to let him take enough vacation days to fly over and see his family.

A year later, neither of us have the same jobs, we've committed to another year in NYC, and I can't believe this much time has past. The days are long, but the years are short. It's been five years since I met CodeMonkey, four years since I finished college, and three years since I got married. I'm turning 25 in November. When did time start racing by?

I also found an auntie who has super detailed cooking videos on YouTube. If you've ever wanted to make amazing Cantonese food, but didn't have a grandmother to teach you, I'd start here, perhaps with the seasonally appropriate mooncakes? They're on my to-do list.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Fiscal Friday: These Are Not Investments

I enjoy reading fashion and lifestyle blogs (guilty pleasure) and I've noticed an obnoxious trend. People refer to a pricey pair of shoes, a nice coat, or a fancy piece of furniture as an "investment piece."

No. Investments are appreciating assets or tools that allow you to make money. Clothing, handbags and home furnishings almost always depreciate in value.

I have some nice things: a leather handbag, cashmere stole, and high quality clothes. I like them, and it gives me pleasure to wear and use them regularly. But they aren't investments, and it's a dangerous habit to identify them as such.

Your wardrobe is not an appreciating asset. You will not be able to retire one day on your stash of J Crew pencil skirts, classic black pumps and Kate Spade bags, no matter how timeless they are. Unless you are Macy's, purchasing clothing is not investing; it's consumption. Invest in stocks; consume clothing, and know the difference.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Consumerism Thursday: Needle Bait and Switch

I'm a rather fanatical knitter, and because of my joint problems, I'm very fussy about the tools I use. I only use nickel-plated circular needles with flexible cables and very sharp points. Wood, plastic, bamboo and stainless steel were to sticky for me, and the other nickel brands were blunt, so out of dozens of brands on the market, the only supplier I found with needles that didn't cause me hand pain was They had a lifetime warranty, so when I got a needle that broke or had a rough spot, I'd call and a new one would promptly be dispatched, no questions asked. Everything was lovely and happy for about two years.

Then this winter I ordered a few needles, and they just weren't the same. The points were blunter; the cables were darker and stiffer. Complaints built up in various knitting fora, saying the new wooden needles were more likely to split, that the cables were stiffer and the needles generally more fragile. Someone noticed that the needle packaging now said "Made in China" instead of "Made in India" and we concluded Knitpicks had changed suppliers without telling anyone. The manufacturer studiously ignored the complaints until about a month ago, when they sent this to their mailing list:

Forgive me, but this is the biggest piece of corporate bullshit double-speak I've ever seen. It's more like: "Thanks to savvy and subtle manufacturing improvements moving our manufacturing from India to China, we're now able to offer the same beautiful product, crappier needles that only visually resemble their Indian-made counterparts at an even more beautiful price a much lower price, while we capitalize on our customers' naive assumption that these needles are the same ones we've always sold. Cha-ching!"

I've long liked Knitpicks because their low prices let people try high-quality, natural fiber yarns which might otherwise be unaffordable. Most of my stash is Knitpicks yarn, and I've been very happy with their products, but I doubt if I'll ever buy from them again. I am not impressed by these kind of underhanded tactics. (Not that I need more yarn in any event.)

There is a happy ending to this story. The Indian factory had gone into business on their own, and now manufactures the same needles with only cosmetic differences, to the old quality standards, with a lifetime guarantee and a vastly expanded product line, under the name Knitter's Pride. Check your local yarn store or Ebay for them. I've been using some and they're just like the old Knitpicks needles.

ETA: In what is obviously a sadistic joke, Knitpicks released a new yarn line today that I'm totally in love with.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Monday Sundries

I knit a pair of socks:

Yarn: Loops and Threads Luxury Sock
Needle: Size 0
Pattern: Gusset Heel Basic Socks, by Wendy Johnson

Thoughts: It's not a trick of the light, those socks are two different colors, despite being from the same dye lot. At the top of the right sock, you can see that there's an dyeing error in the striping pattern. My mother will be happy to take these as socks, since her store has concrete floors and she wears wool socks daily in the winter, but I think they're dreadful.

This is why I love my neighborhood:

Two onions, two carrots, one golden melon, four potatoes and six pluots for $5. Everything is gone now, save for the melon (tomorrow's snack) and potatoes (part of tomorrow's lunch and dinner). Perhaps a few too many root vegetables for midsummer, but they were cheap and I didn't have enough pocket change to grab the broccoli that was $0.48/pound.

I made bread again. Every time I turn around, we're out of bread. I suspect it's the malicious elves again. Those are the same ones that generate all the laundry, right?

I bought white chocolate, since CodeMonkey requested his favorite cookies in lieu of a birthday cake. White chocolate was $3.04 for four ounces at Target. Yeowch. I bought a half dozen bags of Trader Joe's seasonal white chocolate chips when they had them at Christmas, and I should have bought triple that. Lesson learned.

I'm trying to stay focused on job-hunting rather than entering a despair filled spiral of "I AM UTTERLY UNEMPLOYABLE AND NOONE LIKES ME." That would not be productive.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Literary Saturday: Homeward Bound, Overbooked and Chosen by God

Books read recently:

Homeward Bound, Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, by Emily Matchar

When I saw this book at the library, I jumped on it. I grew up canning, gardening, sewing and knitting, and I've watched in some bemusement as the weird stuff my family did has become hipster-chic. It was never a lifestyle or a statement when my mother made jam; it was just life. I didn't understand how weird we were until I brought my high school boyfriend for a visit home and he gawped at the quilts, the cottage garden, and the bread rising on the kitchen counter. But now, thrifting is no longer a sign of poverty, people brag about making their own clothes, and Mason jars are used as drinking glasses.

I really enjoyed the way Emily Matchar cobbled together a cultural history of canning, natural foods, baking, blogging, homeschooling and gardening. One of her main arguments is that these trends represent a rejection of government authority and an embrace of individualist, DIY solutions. She's right to a degree, but I just don't buy her conclusion that the new domesticity is the main reason middle-class white women aren't banging down doors on Capitol Hill, trying to get federally subsidized daycare, extended maternity leave, and other family-friendly political reforms passed. She has no numbers back up her thesis. How many would-be career women are leaving their jobs to attachment parents, extended breast feed and homeschool anyway? Is it really a social movement, or is domesticity just a short-term trend?

I think that if the new domesticity has taken off because many people, male and female, are finding white collar labor lacks a sense of realness that constructive domestic labor doesn't. Among other reasons, I knit because, after a day of breaking my brains working on spreadsheets, it's nice to do something physical, tangible, and easily quantifiable. I continue to bake not only because it tastes better, but because my husband really appreciates the food and I like to make him happy. It provides an intangible happiness to our lives that I quite like.

I was disappointed that Matchar didn't talk to any women who never stopped being domestic, because I would have liked to hear both how they view this movement and how they think of their own work around the house. She mentions Mormon mommy-bloggers briefly, but they are hardly the only group that has placed a high value on women tending hearth and home. It would have been nice to hear from more women from traditionally domestic cultures as a counterpoint.


I saw this book in Barnes and Noble and hit the library on the way home to nab it. I spent two years working in the travel industry, but this is the first thing I've ever read about the business as a whole. Elizabeth Becker points out that tourism is one of the world's biggest industries, but it is largely ignored by governments and economists. One billion people took a trip for leisure travel last year, and it's a multi-trillion dollar business, as big a business as oil or banking. None of the destinations I specialized in are covered here, but it was nonetheless fascinating.

Becker looks at how tourism affects the places visited. In Zambia, tourism is one of the best hopes for saving Africa's wildlife, while in Venice, so many people have bought vacation homes that it's almost impossible for actual Venetians to afford their own city. The U.S. government barely has a national tourism office, while in France, laws are passed to ensure that the country retains the rural charm and historic buildings that make it the world's top tourism destination. American cruise companies have their ships fly foreign flags so they can pay their workers $50 a month in wages. The tourism that draws millions to Angkor Wat is also causing the slow destruction of the temple complex, while locals make very little money in exchange. Sex tourism enslaves millions of women, boys and girls around the world.

One of the more depressing takeaways I got from the book is that ethical travel is very, very difficult, and you might as well stay home. That being said, this is a fascinating, illuminating read, and I almost considered buying a copy, and I never do that. Joshua Hammer, who wrote the book I reviewed below, wrote a very good review of the book in the New York Times.

My only pet peeve was that it was clearly edited by someone who was not in travel. Abercrombie and Fitch sells expensive faux-prep clothing; Abercrombie and Kent is a high-end tour operator. Only one of them was running tour programs to a newly-opened China.


I bought a used copy of this book years ago, and it's been kicking around the house ever since. I have a thing for religious memoirs, so when I was craving one, I picked it up. Author Joshua Hammer traces his brother Tuvia's (formerly known as Tony) journey from a Marxist actor to devout Orthodox Jew and father of six.

As I said, I'm kind of obsessed with the "person grows up secular, becomes religious" and "person grows up religious, becomes secular" genre of memoirs. I've noticed that most people who become much more or less devout than their parents had dysfunctional childhoods. It seems few people wake up one day with the revelation that the Torah is the complete word of God and a manual for living. More often, a person is unhappy with their life, and this throws them into a tailspin of questioning everything about their life.

As Hammer traces Tuvia's transformation, he considers how much his brother suffered when their parents divorced, their baby sister died, and both of Tuvia's best friends died, all while he was in high school. Hammer grapples with his brother's decision to so wholly turn his back on modern life, shunning work for religious study, teaching his children Yiddish before English, and generally rejecting his past self. It's a beautifully written book, which reveals as much about Hammer's own difficult childhood as his brother's history. The author swings from blind fury at his brother, to frustration, to finally, a grudging acceptance. It was a fantastic, fast read, and I'm passing it on to a friend.

And once again, I wish they had hired an editor who knew the subject matter better; there were translation and transliteration errors in the Hebrew and Yiddish words. Sloppy, but not the author's fault.


Friday, August 2, 2013

Fiscal Friday: Managing Post-Layoff

I got my last paycheck last Friday, which was a nice one, thanks to all those vacation days that got paid out. Between our freelancing work, CodeMonkey's long hours at the office, and my final paycheck, we actually realized a decent net worth increase this month. The stock market also went bananas, so we realized a pretty massive paper increase in our retirement funds. We have about $1800 to go to meet my revised net worth goal for 2013, so I may end up increasing it once more.

When I got laid off, we'd fully funded my IRA for this year, and funded 60% of CodeMonkey's. I had enough cash to finish funding it and was going to make the transfer the day I got laid off. Instead, I shunted it into savings. I normally keep a three month emergency fund, but I was nervous about my job situation and had upped it to six months. It's at about seven months now.

Right now, any extra cash we make is going straight into savings. It is my hope that our freelancing, CodeMonkey's paychecks and my Unemployment Insurance payments will cover our needs with a bit to spare until I get a new job. COBRA is so extravagantly expensive that CodeMonkey added me to his plan, which has a $10,000 per person deductible, so I'm just praying I don't need much medical care between now and when I get a job.

In the mean time, I've nixed as much recreational spending as possible, returned a couple of online purchases bought before I lost my job, and hunkered down. I'm searching high and low for work and seeking new freelance clients, because the idleness of being home all day is driving me batty. I'm also looking into volunteering in the neighborhood in the hopes of giving back and getting to meet new people.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Consumerism Thursday: KitchenAid Disappointment

Long-time blog readers all two of you and that includes my mom will be familiar with my ongoing rants about the declining quality of consumer goods. Here's another entry for the files.

My mother was a serious baker, and I grew up using her KitchenAid stand mixer, which is so old it predated her marriage to my father. So when I got married and my grandmother offered me one as a gift, I was thrilled. Nana wasn't messing around either; the mixer is a 6 quart professional series one. It's an absolutely gorgeous appliance. When we moved to NYC a year ago, I finally had a kitchen where I could really use the mixer.

And I discovered that this isn't my mother's mixer. My mother's mixer has mixed over a thousand pounds of bread dough, cookie dough and cake batters since the early 80's, and it's still cranking merrily along. Mine overheats, has an acrid smell if you let it run past ten minutes and struggles to handle a fairly simple, soft bread dough. I don't think I've even made a hundred pounds of dough in it yet, and it's already showing serious signs of wear.

I made bread last night, since CodeMonkey is not enthused by the idea of a low-carbohydrate diet. I realized that my KitchenAid nods its little mixer-head up and down in the most pitiful manner. My mother's never did that. It's like the whole mixer is thrown together half-assedly. I will be surprised if I'm using it 5 years from now, let alone 25. The bread recipe I'm mixing up in the video below has been made in my mother's smaller, older KitchenAid before with nary a wobble or complaint.

What bugs me most about this is that the KitchenAid professional series is the top of the line mixer for the home market. If this one is crappy, there's really nothing better to buy, unless you want to go the route my best friend did and buy a full-on Hobart industrial mixer. (That thing is beast; it's amazing. I totally covet it.)

So I called my mother to grouse about my mixer, and she told me that Hobart used to produce KitchenAids, but they sold the brand to Whirlpool in 1986, and the quality has gone downhill since. Good quality is increasingly hard to find at any price, and I'm getting sick of corporations trading on old reputations of high quality to sell crap.

But! You should really make that bread recipe I linked above. It makes the tastiest, most lovely sandwich bread you could imagine, and you can make the dough by hand. To bake it, you'll need a pullman pan, a sort of long, rectangular shaped loaf pan with a lid, that turns out perfectly square sandwich loaves. I can't say enough good things about that pan I linked above. It's sturdy, made in the USA, and has some kind of space-age silicon finish on the inside that makes loaf after loaf slide out of the pan perfectly. It's one of the only unitaskers I allow in my kitchen, and it's worth every single penny.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Around the Neighborhood

Yesterday CodeMonkey had to work late, so I took myself out to Dosa Hutt. A dosa is an Indian crepe made from rice and lentil flours, stuffed with fillings. Dining out isn't the most responsible thing to do when you've just lost your job, but boy was it tasty. $7 gets you a large enough to share cheese-stuffed dosa and a mango lassi. It's next door to New York City's only Hindu temple, and it's usually busy.

I hit my favorite produce stand today. Everything they sell is $1/bowl, and their selection changes daily. Today's find was a half dozen little donut peaches. They're ripening on the counter now.

Friday, July 26, 2013

In Which I Got Laid Off

Last Friday was my final day at work. My former employer is downsizing, and I was among those laid off. It's taken me about a week to some to grips with this, since I've never before lost a job.

I think there's been enough crying, sulking, ice cream and self-indulgent nonsense now. Effective immediately, I slashed expenses to the bone, filed for unemployment and started dusting off my resume. Between my husband's income and my UI, we'll come out  few hundred dollars ahead every month. We paid off my student loans and have no more debt. Beyond that, we have seven months of living expenses in the bank. I am hell bent on getting another job within 12 weeks. I keep telling myself everything will be fine.

I'm trying to view this as the kick in the pants I need to get a job that suits me better and to get more freelance clients. In the mean time, I'm thankful for my husband, our savings and for the opportunity to move my career forward. I'm luckier than most people. I just need to remember that.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

New Year's Resolution Update

Time for the quarterly new year's resolution checkup.

2013 Goals

1. Meet financial goal.
Met and substantially exceeded, thanks to the windfall! The target goal amount has now been revised substantially upward. We've met 87% of the revised goal and are on track to meet it by the end of the year.

2. Go cold sheep. Like cold turkey, only for yarn.
I bought two cones of wool and a couple skeins of a merino-angora blend. Bad girl, so this one was a failure.

3. Buy no more than one article of clothing per paycheck.
The red and blue floral wrap dresses were returned, so that would be 6 articles of clothing, to which I added 1 sundress, 2 pairs of black sandals, a pair of black flats and 2 skirts. That puts me at 12 pieces for the year, which is right on track. Go me!

In other news, I've seriously slashed my sugar intake and adopted a paleoish diet, with fantastic results. I'm thinner, have more energy and less joint pain, but it's been less than a month, so the jury is still out.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Attack of the Giant Carrots

The Chinese grocers here sell produce that mainstream Western groceries reject. Sometimes that means the vegetables, while perfectly tasty, are in shapes that don't conform to American aesthetic norms

Like these carrots which were $0.49/lb, but a bit...irregularly sized.

The two of them weighed over three pounds. I had to make CodeMonkey take a picture.

Debt Free

After much angst and hand-wringing CodeMonkey and I have decided not to downsize to a small apartment. I'm happy with the decision, though it will slow our savings rate marginally.

However, I did take the money I had stashed to pay for deposits and moving costs and put it toward my last student loan. We're now totally and completely debt free, just about four years after I graduated from college, and we haven't received any of CodeMonkey's windfall.

It still doesn't feel quite real, but I'm looking forward to getting that payoff notice in the mail.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Clothing Quality Decline

Unlike many of the personal finance bloggers I read, I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to clothes. I prefer to wear natural fibers, in high quality, durable materials. In the winter I wear wool skirts and stockings, and cashmere and wool sweaters. My scarf is cashmere, my gloves are leather. In the summer I prefer to wear linen and cotton.

Increasingly our clothes are made from synthetic fibers, which are much cheaper, and much easier to care for. In general, I find they make lousy garments which pill, wear out quickly, cling, and look cheap. Wool had remarkable abilities to wick moisture, retain warmth and age well. Cashmere is up to eight times warmer than wool. Linen breathes and can absorb a large percentage of its weight in water without feeling wet. With the exceptions of nylon, modal and viscose, which are useful in limited quantities, I try to avoid synthietics.

In the last few years, a spike in the price of cotton and the global recession have accelerated the trend toward synthetic fibers. Even Old Navy used to sell t-shirts that were over 90% cotton, now they are all poly-blends. Even expensive jeans now include not only a bit of spandex for stretch, but also polyester, elastomuliester and other similar abominations. It's increasingly difficult to find garments made of high quality materials, even at high end brands.

Which brings me to the subject of today's rant. In the past I've patronized Boden because they were bricey but produced consistently high quality clothing of mostly natural fibers. I have lovely cotton dresses, wool skirts and cashmere sweaters from them. They released their fall collection for pre-orders and I am not impressed.  This lovely dress is $200 and made of 100% viscose (rayon) lined with polyester. In fact, most of their dresses have high percentages of synthetics than in years past, with no change in price.

They aren't alone in this. Last year, J Crew released their updated Lady Day coat, a coat they have made every year for nearly a decade. There's just one small problem. The coat is now 75% wool. 25% nylon, instead of 96% wool, 4% nylon, as in years past. Naturally, this change, which makes the coat less warm, was not mentioned anywhere. In fact, it's nearly impossible to find a real, 100% wool coat any more.

I appreciate that manufacturing garments in natural fibers is costlier, and I'm willing to pay the price difference. I'd rather have fewer, nicer pieces. Unfortunately, my views must be out of step with the mainstream, as more and more clothes are made from petrochemicals, synthetics, anything that wasn't once part of an actual plant or animal. If Talbots quits making clothes from natural fibers, I'm going to make good on my threats to learnto sew.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

I Have Discovered the Broiler

One of the problems with a chronic illness is that it leaves you very, very drained of energy. I've consistently struggled with cooking after a long day of work, because I just lack the energy or ability to spend much time standing at the stove.

Recently I decided to try out the broiler function on my stove, and it's life-changing. Fish in 8 minutes! Crispy vegetables! Perfectly made polenta! It's like something out of an infomercial and it was already in my kitchen.

The current favorite dish is crispy zucchini, which I happened on after buying 5 zucchini for a dollar.

1/3 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/3 cup grated Parmesan
1 zucchini
olive oil

1. Grease an 8x8 baking dish or cast iron skillet. (I use the skillet.)
2. Slice the zucchini into 1/4" rounds and arrange in a single layer in the pan.
3. Mix together the parmesan and panko, adding pepper to taste.
4. Drizzle the zucchini with a bit of olive oil and sprinkle the panko mixture over the zucchini.
5. Broil until the panko is browned; about 6 minutes. Serve immediately.

The crunch factor on this is amazing. It seems to go with almost everything we eat, and I've been serving it alongside a meat and vegetable instead of pasta, rice or potatoes most evenings. It's even become a last minute snack a few times. The panko Parmesan mixture also holds its own as a breading for fish and meat as well.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Managing a Windfall

Chinese people traditionally give cash gifts instead of stuff at holidays and weddings, so for every birthday and New Year's since he was a baby until he married, his family gave him cash in traditional red paper envelopes. These are called ang pao in Malaysian Hokkein Chinese, or hong bao in Mandarin.

I'm holding non-traditional Hello Kitty, Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse hong bao I purchased in Flushing, Queens for Chinese New Year 2013, the year of the snake.

While I always thought I was fiscally responsible when younger, I pale in comparison to CodeMonkey, who was so devoid of consumerist desire he handed every single red envelope to his parents, unopened. My in-laws, being sensible people, invested them on his behalf, and the money sat and grew until my father-in-law, impressed by my financial savvy, decided to reveal the existence of this account to us and offered to send the money along.

I confess that when this happened, my jaw nearly hit the floor. I asked my husband if he ever once considered spending all that money on toys, clothes, candy, ANYTHING, and he said he'd had everything he'd needed, so why would he? My husband is awesome.

This leaves us with the sort of problem most would kill to have. The money is enough to finish funding our Roth IRAs for this year, pay off the last of my student loan debt, and leave about $7,000 besides. We're trying to figure out what to do with that leftover money.

1. Add it to the emergency fund.
We have three months of expenses in there now; this would bump it up to about 5 months' worth.

2. Invest it in a taxable brokerage account.
We could invest this in another Vanguard taxable fund, since we've maxed out the IRA space for this year. Potentially we could move this into a Roth IRA come 2014.

3. Put it in checking and slowly draw it down while funding a 401k.
I become eligible for a 401k in August, after a year at my employer. We could then put 100% of my remaining 2013 pre-tax pay into the 401k, allowing us to maximize tax-advantaged saving space and slowly draw down the $7,000 to bridge the gap between CodeMonkey's income and our expenses until the money is gone, when we could reduce my 401k contribution.

4. Save for an apartment.
Every time I've run the numbers for our area it's been better for us to rent than buy, but maybe we should start saving up for some tangible property? $7,000 is hardly an adequate downpayment, but maybe it's a good way to start one.

Ok, not really at all. But I figured I might as well mention it as an option.

I'm typing this while sipping a Tall Chai Latte from Starbucks, which is the first sugared thing I've had since I announced my quitting. Not great, but this has to be the longest I've gone without sweetened food in months, if not years, so I'll chalk it up to a small victory. And I normally order a venti. Baby steps, I guess?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

I'm Quitting Sugar

Yesterday I ate: a Belgian waffle with Nutella, a Starbucks Morning bun, a bowl of lentil soup, and a slice of opera torte. Obviously the amount of eating out is appalling, but so is the sugar content of all that.

I've become dependent on sugar to the point where I crave it every few hours. This is clearly not healthy, and it's making my skirts fit a bit too snugly as well. It's outrageous (and outrageously expensive) to consume that many sweets.

So I'm quitting sugar. Not naturally sweet foods like fruit, or refined flours like bread, just the plain old stuff derived from beets, corn and cane. I'm not shooting for forever, just a week. Anyone can manage one week without sweets, right?

I had Greek yogurt with strawberries for breakfast this morning. It's 10:40 a.m. and the vending machine is calling my name. Must resist. This is ridiculous.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

I Loathe New York

Ok, not loathe, not really, but we're coming up on our one year anniversary living here, and it's made me think a lot about it. We'll be here for the foreseeable future for CodeMonkey's career, so I'm accepting this with the best grace I can muster, but it's a trying place to live, if you want to build financial security.

There's All These Rich People
Living in New York, particularly Manhattan, is something of a luxury good, and whole industries have sprung up to cater to those with money. The best of every luxury good is available here, should you want it. When we lived in the Albany area, the whole culture was much more middle-class, and so you were never tempted by high end items, because they simply weren't for sale locally.

You Need More Willpower
This brings me to my second gripe--because of the high population density, you see and must turn down more tempting things. When CodeMonkey and I drove to work Upstate, we'd pass (and have to resist) one Starbucks en route. These days, I pass one in Flushing and five in Manhattan when going to work. There's a Starbucks across the street from my office, which is not helping me resist $5 high-sugar drinks. Willpower is a muscle that wears out like any other, and I find myself pushing its limits on a regular basis.

We're downsizing to a studio this summer, because with CodeMonkey's current career transition, we need to reduce our spending to keep meeting our goals. I'm not particularly looking forward to paying a small fortune to live in a shoebox, and I suspect we'll end up living with a baby in a tiny space too. I long for the reasonably-priced three bedroom apartment we shared in Albany.

I grew up in the middle of the woods. The lack of trees and overabundance of people makes me vaguely panicky.

That being said, there are things I really love:

Neither CodeMonkey nor I adapted well to driving, and we're much better off taking the subway. This helps balance out the exorbitant rent. We've both been steadily losing weight because of all the walking we're doing.

More Opportunities
Within six months Upstate, CodeMonkey was running out of musical opportunities. While he enjoyed showing up and immediately getting plum positions, there were limited opportunities for growth. Likewise, I worked for the only company in my field; in the city there are many, many more opportunities for both of our careers. In general, we're both finding there's as much work as we have time for.

Quality of Life
I love that I can walk to a half dozen Chinese groceries, instead of driving thirty minutes to the only one in the region. I enjoy the wide variety of ethnic food in my neighborhood. I like that I can go to a different knitting group every night of the week, if I want. That being said, all that eating out does add up!

If I wasn't married to CodeMonkey, I don't think I'd have moved here on my own, but it's not that bad on the whole.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Marry Young, Prosper

CodeMonkey and I got married at 21 and 24, when I was a new graduate and he was a college student. I am convinced that this is the single smartest thing I ever did.

No, really. Believe me, I heard the dire warnings from my family, friends, acquaintances and nosy passerby. I'm familiar with the research about higher divorce rates among couples who marry young. But it's probably the one decision in my adult life I never experienced a moment's doubt or regret about.

I was expecting to enjoy some benefits of marriage: the ability to sponsor my husband, rights to shared property, social legitimacy, shared health benefits, etc. I wasn't expecting, though, that marriage would help us build wealth in an aggressive way.

It Creates Accountability
While CodeMonkey and I don't stop each other from making large purchases, we do discuss our general financial direction with each other. Even if my husband never said a word, I would feel uncomfortable bringing home an expensive purchase when we'd discussed trying to max out our IRAs. Likewise, he has confessed to avoiding buying lunch out because he knows we're trying to save. It helps to have another person checking in on you. We push each other to achieve our financial goals.

More Incomes, More Savings
CodeMonkey and I have lucked out and been gainfully employed continuously since college graduation. While two people can't live as cheaply as one, we've really benefited from being able to leverage two incomes. Individually, our living expenses would probably be more than half the sum of our shared expenses.

Thinking Long Term
A savvy reader will point out that the first two benefits are hardly exclusive to marriage and could just as easily be enjoyed by living together. But the great thing about being married is that because we have committed to a future together (and we have recourse to a court to divide assets should our relationship fail) we can prioritize our collective best interests over our individual ones. Since CodeMonkey and I are yoked together for the long haul, it makes sense for us to use some of his income to help pay off my student loans. Our little two person family will benefit from having fewer monthly payments and frittering away less money on interest. Were CodeMonkey and I not married, this would not be in his best interests. Likewise, I have quit jobs twice to move when CodeMonkey got a better position. This has arguably hurt my career path, but it has substantially improved the economic outlook of us as a couple. I don't know that I'd have made those risky moves if I was simply his live-in girlfriend.

Time Is On Our Side
We've been leveraging our dual incomes to invest aggressively. Since every dollar saved in our twenties is worth far more after compounding than dollars saved later, the money our marriage has allowed us to put away will impact our long term net worth in a very big way. I think that our marriage has allowed us to build wealth on a level that would have been impossible for us as singletons.

Obviously, all the wealth-creating benefits of marriage disappear in short order if you divorce. But for us, I suspect getting married young, and staying married, will make a bigger impact on our net worth than anything else.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

I Love the 21st Century

It's a typical Saturday morning, and I'm doing the usual routine. At present, I have one appliance kneading my bread, one washing my dishes, one washing my clothes, and done drying the clothes. The twenty first century is indeed a marvelous thing.

Monday, April 29, 2013

We're boring, but happy

The other day, I made the mistake of mentioning to a friend that CodeMonkey and I are not interested in vacationing or travel. Not now, and not in the foreseeable future. We're not morally opposed to it or anything, it's just unappealing. I work in tourism, so I obviously don't want other people to stop traveling; I just don't fancy doing it myself.

Given my industry, this is an unusual sentiment, and my friend was flabbergasted. The conversation ended with him joking that we must be "boring" people, since we don't vacation, don't have a TV and don't "do anything."

I was surprised, as I honestly can't remember the last time I felt bored, surely a prerequisite for being boring. I have a happy marriage, a good relationship with my family, close friends, fulfilling hobbies, and enough work to keep me busy. My life is rarely thrilling, but it is rich, very rich, in satisfying emotional bonds. Until I got out of college and started working in the travel industry, it never occurred to me vacationing was normal or common. In adulthood, I've continued the patterns I learned from my parents. When I was a kid, vacations happened rarely and were usually just renting a cabin in the middle of the woods. We spent most evenings at home, cooking, reading, talking and doing handiwork. It never occurred to me we were dull or lacking anything, and I was happy then and now.

I'm not an inveterate cheapskate, either. When spending on non-essentials, I try to look at how much happiness a dollar will buy me. My knitting group meets at an Italian restaurant, and I consider the money spent on meals there an excellent value for the happiness it buys me. On the other hand, I've cut back on buying lunches out, since I don't enjoy a carryout burrito enough to make it worth not packing in the morning. I have no TV, but I have an subscription. I follow Ramit Sethi's philosophy of conscious spending: spend extravagantly on things you love; cut ruthlessly everywhere else. I'd rather buy a super-expensive mattress than a vacation. I'd rather pay off my last student loan before going on vacation. I'd rather own an apartment than spend on a vacation. Those things make me happy; travel mostly makes me tired and cranky.

In light of what makes us happy and how we want to spend our money and time, vacationing is a poor use of resources. Does that really make us boring? Is this entire post protesting too much?

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Internet Sales Taxes

There's been a lot of chatter lately about charging sales tax on internet purchases, since Congress is currently considering measure to levy taxes on online sales. I'm sympathetic to both sides; my parents own a small retail store, and I'm and avid online shopper. The merits of the bill aside, I'm skeptical that this will be the saving grace that brick and mortar retail is looking for.

I've been shopping online since I got my first debit card at 16. At first, it wasn't because it was cheaper; it was because I  didn't have a car, so how else was I to get to the mall? The lack of sales tax might have been a bonus, but I would have shopped online regardless. I continued shopping online because it was a cheaper and easier way to get used books, because my favorite clothing and yarn retailers are online-only and because online stores are far more likely to cater to my niche, obscure tastes. Brick and mortar stores necessarily cater to the broad middle, selling the products most people are most likely to buy. This is particularly true if you don't live in a large city like New York. And my tastes have never aligned with the broad middle.

For me at least, online shopping has been great:

I could shlep into Manhattan and visit a few cookware shops trying to find a Pullman pan, but is not only cheaper, they will ship it to my apartment, saving me an errand.

I could comb thrift stores trying to find used clothes I like, or I could have Ebay e-mail me daily with new listings matching "Boden skirt 10," allowing me to peruse and bid at my leisure.

I could comb through the library's offerings at the annual book sale, hoping my taste matches that of the locals (it often didn't) or I could hit, and find a used copy for $5, shipped.

I could visit a yarn store or three, hoping they carry tiny crochet hooks, or I could get a full set on Ebay, shipped from the manufacturer.

It's worth noting that in three of the four above examples, I ended up purchasing the items from small businesses, with Ebay or AbeBooks facilitating the transaction. Internet shopping does not mean I don't spend my money with small companies, although it usually means I don't spend it with local ones.

For the last three tax years, I have conscientiously reviewed my online purchases, totaled them to the best of my ability, and paid use tax on the amount, so this bill is unlikely to change my out of pocket costs. Now, obviously everyone isn't as rule-abiding as I am, or this bill wouldn't be before Congress. But this means that I have been taking sales tax into account when making online purchases for the last few years and online purchasing has still won out, time and again. I think that if traditional retailers think Amazon et al.'s only advantage is a lack of sales tax, they are likely in for a rude awakening.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Purse Accident Avoided

Wht, you've never had a handbag related accident?

Last winter, I splurged on a Coach purse, wallet and gloves. They're beautiful pieces; I'm still thrilled with them, and I expect to carry them for years to come. (I'd better, at what they cost!)

Somewhere in all this purchasing, I gave Coach my phone number and address. I've been receiving mailers from them regularly, which I dutifully discarded. Last week, a sales rep called me, inviting me to check out their new spring collection and sale.

I checked out their website. BAD IDEA. They have released pieces in this stunning dark purple, my absolute favorite color, ever. I was seized with immediate bag lust. I put down the computer. I walked away. I showed them to my husband, who unhelpfully loved the pieces.

Then I heard it. The voice of Mr. Money Mustache. Yes, I have a personal finance blogger living in my brain. I realized that one $300 handbag is a silly extravagance; multiples are absurd. I noticed that none of the bags were in sizes or shapes I enjoyed carrying, unlike my current bag. I calculated the amount of principal required to generate returns sufficient to cover the cost of a new bag. And I closed the web page.

Given the speed with which Coach cycles in new colors and removes the old ones, if I can hang on for just eight more weeks, the bags will no longer be for sale and I will have escaped.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Not an Emergency

Last week, CodeMonkey called me in a panic, "I HAVE AN EMERGENCY!!!!" He's naturally high strung, but I'm prone to panicking, so I immediately started imagining him across town, hemorrhaging after being hit by a bus. Once I choked down my terror, I asked him what had happened.

Further investigation revealed that a lens had fallen from his glasses, leaving him temporarily blinded. I calmed him down on the phone, he found an optician, they fixed him up, and when he got home, we had a talk about things that do and do not constitute emergencies.

This weekend, CodeMonkey called me from his gig Upstate. "I know you told me not to call frivolous things emergencies but..." His trousers had split down the rear seam, leaving him stranded with half a day of teaching left to go. We decided to tie his sweater around his waist and sort out the pants situation when he got home.

Then we had another talk about what constitutes an emergency. Progress is slow, but we're getting there.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

How to Save Money at Target...and Everywhere Else

I manage to find myself in Target multiple times a week, picking up shampoo, printer paper, or Western groceries. Given my husband's recent career transition, we have been trying to cut back, and I'm happy to have found another way to stretch our budget without affecting our quality of life.

For any chain stores we patronize regularly, I try to buy gift cards at a discount on the secondary market. Cardpool and Plastic Jungle both sell below value gift cards.* The balance on the gift cardsis verified by the seller, and they ship out quickly via USPS.  I have used both sites extensively without a problem (and they aren't paying me to write this.) I usually check both sites, and purchase from the one that offers the high discount on a particular vendor's card. Currently, I buy Target gift cards at 6% off face value to stret our grocery budget. Since CodeMonkey frequently uses Starbucks to work or meet clients, I buy their gift cards at 15% off and transfer the balance to his Starbucks account. If we were in the position of needing to buy either of us a large work wardrobe again, I'd definitely look to these sites first, as certain clothing store gift cards seem to go for 20% off face value. When you combine that with sales and discount codes, the savings can be substantial.

*If you have unwanted gift cards lying around the house, they'll buy those too, at a percentage below face value.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter, etc.

I went to Easter vigil last night. I'm not good st juggling a missal and a lit candle, and now I have wax on a dry clean only skirt. It's in the freezer awaiting treatment at the moment. But the vigil was moving the sermon was good, and Easter is wonderful.

I took my worn out leather gloves to the a Coach store where I bought them. The store's manager was very surprised by the damage and arranged to send a new pair to me. So score one for excellent customer service, and I hope my gloves were simply an outlier.

The other day, the last bit of my commute was in an empty subway car. I think this is the first time that's happened since I moved to New York.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Changes, New Year's Resolutions Checkup

Yesterday was CodeMonkey's last day at Big Bank. He left to pursue a career as a musician and freelancer. I'm happy for him and excited and nervous all at once. This means some changes to our lifestyle: for one thing, we're probably downsizing to a much smaller apartment when our lease ends this summer. I've gone through the budget and slashed it as many ways as I can. This is going to be a challenge, but it's a manageable one.

2013 Goals

1. Meet financial goal. In the interests of privacy, I'll keep the amount to myself, but we are looking to increase our net worth by a certain amount.

Thanks to CodeMonkey's bonus, freelance income, and an unanticipated federal tax refund, we met 57.5% of our annual goal during the first quarter of the year. Given that we will be staying in our more expensive apartment until the end of June and that we will have the expenses of moving during June, I think we will have to work hard to reach 65% of our annual net worth goal by the end of Q2. The second half of the year, with lower expenses and more income streams established, should be easier. I'm pleased to see this goal is still attainable, even with CodeMonkey's career transition, because it was designed to be a stretch, even on his finance income.

We have benefitted from the run up in the stock market of late. As our retirement investments constitute and increasing portion of our net worth, I may have to look at other ways of tracking our financial progress. The markets will fluctuate, but the daily, monthly and yearly ripples are irrelevant over the long haul. I track our net worth to ensure we are meeting our savings goals, and I want to measure that, regardless of what the Dow does. 

2. Go cold sheep. Like cold turkey, only for yarn.
I made one order of yarn this year, when Knitpicks released the new colors of their limited edition sock yarn. That's always a weakness, but thankfully, that's a once a year event.

3. Buy no more than one article of clothing per paycheck.
So far this year I've bought: 1 J Crew wool coat, 1 red cashmere cardigan, 1 red wrap dress, 1 black wrap dress, 1 blue floral wrap dress, 1 fair isle cashmere cardigan, 1 pair white sandals, 1 red sundress. That puts me at eight pieces for the year, more than the six I should have by this point.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Coach Makes Crappy Gloves

On Black Friday 2012, I got tired of freezing cold fingers and bought a pair of Coach black leather gloves. The leather was buttery, the cashmere lining was soft, and we were good to go. My mother always had leather gloves, and I felt Terribly Grown Up with my own pair.

They seemed the sort of thing a sophisticated, together adult lady would have. I am never sophisticated, only rarely together, and curse too much to be a lady, but it's nice to pretend. I have been wearing my grown up gloves walking to and from the subway. It sure beat those $1 one-size-fits-all mismatched acrylic gloves I had been sporting before.

It's now March and several of the fingertip linings on my gloves have worn through completely. This is maddening. It appears that Coach offers a repair service for the "natural life" of some of their items, provided I'm willing to pay $20 for shipping. I'm considering simply knitting my own linings because I don't want to pay for this repair annually. On closer inspection, the cashmere is too fine and too loosely knit to hold up to even the slightest friction.

I have no problem buying expensive things, if they are high quality. If they are high quality. It is outrageous that a $100 pair of gloves which are under three months old are wearing out. I'm annoyed with myself for not inspecting the linings better. I'm annoyed that when buying a high end brand I need to inspect the details. Is it me, or is the quality of everything in mainstream retailers plummeting?

Monday, March 18, 2013

How I Manage Our Finances

I am a little obsessed with budgeting. I visit multiple times a week. I was the only 21 year old I knew with a retirement account (and it was hard to find a Target Retirement Date 2055 mutual fund to invest in). I have net worth projections calculated 15 years out.

I'm also deeply lazy. Here, in no particular order, is what works for us.

-As many bills as possible are auto-drafted so I don't need to remember to pay them.

-I have one financial goal at a time. I keep a list or priorities, and when one is accomplished I move on to the next one. Current priorities look like this.
  1. Pay off the credit card balance.
  2. Keep the emergency fund at 3 month's of living expenses.
  3. Fully fund my IRA.
  4. Fully fund my husband's IRA.
  5. Pay off my student loans in order of interest and then size.
  6. Save up a down payment on a house.
Any income, from any source save my husband's freelance income goes toward these goals, whether it's credit card rewards, tax refunds, overtime, bonuses, or normal paychecks. It helps to focus on one thing at a time. We've never carried a balance on a credit card, so whenever money comes in, I just pay off the balance and then move on. It's been at least 6 months since we've had to touch the emergency fund. My IRA is funded before my husband's because he has access to other retirement vehicles. For a variety of reasons, I try to keep the marital assets divided evenly between us, though it's hard. I kick in extra toward the student loans when we've finished funding one year's IRAs but aren't eligible to fund the next year's. We've managed to fully fund my IRA since 2009 and CodeMonkey's since he was eligible in 2010. My student loan balance is around $8,500, down from $12,000 when I graduated in 2009, which isn't great, but we'll get there. We've never gotten around to saving up to buy a home, but that's just not a priority at the moment anyway.

CodeMonkey's business income is handled separately. I run our budget on the assumption that it doesn't exist, because I prefer not to count on it. Going forward, any money he makes there after expenses and self-employment taxes will be going into a Self-Employment 401k. This will, with any luck, leave his business making no taxable income at all in 2013.

-I track our net worth at the end of every month and have net worth goals I try to reach on an annual basis. Monthly tracking keeps me in line.

-We both have IRAs from previous jobs that I need to roll over into Vanguard IRAs. That's a project for the second quarter of 2013.

-At the moment, all our retirement assets held by Vanguard are in age-appropriate target date retirement funds. Down the road I would like to get more involved in actively managing our investments, but that's not a priority right now and these funds do well enough.

-The whole system probably takes less than an hour a week to manage, so it's very easy.

Weekly Goals 3/16/13

Blogger was being a jerk yesterday and wouldn't let me in, so this is a day late.

Last week's goals:

1. Get rid of 50 things. I think we're moving to a studio in June when our lease is up, so it's time to pare down our possessions. Got rid of 49, with one more being given away when I see my knitting group next.

2. Return things to Brora,, and Lands End. One downside of online shopping is having to mail in returns. Managed Brora, but not the others. Fail.

3. Pack lunch three days this week. Baby steps. Managed once. Fail.

4. Finish Federal tax returns. 98% done; I have one error to be resolved with TurboTax. And we're getting a large refund. Yay!

5. Enter CodeMonkey's business financial information for March into Quickbooks. Not done. Not even started.

6. Make one thing in the Crock Pot for the freezer. Done! I made filling for frozen burritos. Need to assemble them tonight and freeze them for lunches.

This week's goals:

1. Get rid of another 50 things.

2. Read 2 books.

3. Finish one Swedish Fish Mitt, because my mother needs a birthday gift.

4. File Federal and State tax returns.

5. Enter CodeMonkey's March financial information into Quickbooks.

6. Make one thing in the Crock Pot for the freezer.

7. Pack lunch three days this week.

8. Return things to Land's End and

9. Submit receipts for medical reimbursement.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Habemus Papam

Workplace productivity was seriously hindered on Wednesday, not by watching the conclave and its aftermath, but by watching the media watch the conclave, which is way more entertaining. One should be charitable, because most of these people are only on the Popery beat when the last one shuffles off his mortal coil to retire, but it was getting egregious.

Allow me to gripe:

1. The media is shocked the Pope is, in fact, a religious Catholic. Many reporters seem surprised to discover the conclave did not accidentally pick a Unitarian. Rumor has it the Pope also thinks some pretty wild stuff about Jesus. (No offense to the Unitarians. But it's more likely that the Unitarians will start venerating icons and praying in Old Church Slavonic than that the conclave will pick one as pope.)

2. The media thinks Pope is the first non-European to hold the post! No, he's not. Church history actually goes back quite a ways, and in the early church, there were a few from North Africa. Prior to the rise of Islam, the center of the Christian world was not Europe. St. Augustine, one of the Church Fathers was North African. St. John Chrystosym was from modern Turkey. The apostles founded their churches in Turkey, Greece, North Africa and the Middle East. The center of global Christianity didn't really solidify in the West until the fall of Constantinople in the 1400s.

3. Apparently, CNN can not hire a competent Italian translator. The fellow they had translating on the live webstream was awful.