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July 2013 - Posts - Live Like a Mensch
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Live Like a Mensch

July 2013 - Posts

  • Productivity in the Age of Facebook

    It may look like this guy is hard at work, but he's actually sending handwritten Facebook posts to all his friends about how he just found a bit of egg in his beard from yesterday's breakfast, LOL

     

    I am coming down to the wire in writing my retirement book. After amending my deadline three times, my editor has told me that I need to get the manuscript completed by August 16, or they will send a big man named Spike to come sit on me.

    Admittedly, some of my snail-like pace is due to my research needs. Even though I have a good general knowledge of many of the topics I'm covering in this book, I am finding that I need to do a great deal more in-depth research for everything, not to mention track down tiny little nuggets of information that are simply not Google-able.

    Some of my slow progress has to do with this being the Summer of the Afternoon Nap, for which I can blame Thing 2. I had forgotten how exhausting it can be to play hostess for nine months. Granted, babies do not wear out their welcome in three days like houseguests and fish, but there does get to be a point wherein you need to take a break from your hostess duties, and I have been enjoying quite a few more than 40 winks during my normal writing time.

    But the real culprit in my slow pace has been the Internet.

    Well, I guess that's unfair. It's not the Internet's fault that I'm surfing it, checking Facebook, reading every article friends link to, and otherwise wasting my time. Theoretically, I should have the self control necessary to ignore the siren's song that is All the Things on the Internet EVAR. After all, I sit down to the computer to write, not to read about the subversive nature of the film Dirty Dancing or give myself blood pressure spikes by reading through the comments on Washington Post articles.

    And yet, I would regularly find myself stopping my writing for a quick Google search, and emerge an hour later from the black hole that is the information superhighway, wondering what the heck I was thinking.

    So, when my editor started threatening me with Spike, J suggested I download one of those apps that won't let you fall into the Internet's black hole.

    So, the Self Control App was duly installed on our computer, and I came up with the top ten offending websites for throwing a monkey wrench in my productivity. (Facebook was #1, of course). J suggested that I also install said app on the iPad, the laptop, and my iPod, so that it would be impossible for me to find out exactly what my Facebook friends had eaten for breakfast. I said I'd try it just on our desktop computer first, and go from there if I found I that I became a junkie raiding the other electronic devices for my Facebook fix.

    You know what I've discovered? I'm apparently the laziest human being in Indiana. While that does not put me in the running for laziest worldwide (I'd need to live in a place like Los Angeles county for that), it was still quite the eye-opener.

    You see, after installing the Self Control App, each work day I would find myself stopping for a moment, thinking that I needed a break. I'd want to log onto Facebook, but knowing I couldn't, I'd briefly consider going to get one of the other electronic devices. Then, my lazy self would say, "Eh, I don't want to get up. I might as well get back to work."

    Clearly, there is something wrong with me.

    If I weren't such a devotee of the theories of Behavioral Economics, this would really concern me. But the something wrong with me is what's wrong with all of us. We all take the path of least resistance. It is so much easier to work when slacking off would require effort on our part. We all need to trick ourselves into productivity, particularly in the age of Facebook.

    I've noticed through the years that the most productive people I know don't necessarily have better willpower. They just have more useful tricks for forcing themselves to do work. They're the ones who put their keys in the refrigerator to make sure they don't forget their lunch. They're the ones who take their laptop onto the subway to ride for a couple of hours so they can work without an internet connection. They're the ones who set timers on their television sets so they turn off after a certain amount of time.

    It's so weird that our species has to do all these things just to make sure we do the things we actually want to accomplish. You'd think our brains would be better developed than that.

    That being said, I'm a huge convert to the cult of the Self Control App. I actually have a chance of not getting the big man named Spike sent to my house because of it. So, tell me what other self control tricks, tips, apps, and weirdnesses you all do in order to keep yourself on the straight and narrow. 

    I'm not just asking for me. I'm also trying my darnedest not to get sat on by Spike. For humanity.

  • Owning Your Money Choices

    Photo courtesy of Daaaveee

    The other night, we had some friends over for dinner. They had recently come back from a family reunion, so they were regaling us with stories of favorite family members, both those still living and those who had passed away. One aunt in particular had made some financial choices that her nephew was completely unaware of until after her death.

    This Aunt Doris had been a teacher and her husband had been a butcher. Obviously, their finances were somewhat modest, which our friend was well aware of. The furniture in the family home had been threadbare and the house went for several years without a necessary coat of paint.

    But Doris and her husband and children apparently loved to travel. And so any extra money they were able to find in their budget went towards their travel expenses. Which meant they were able to visit Egypt together as a family, among other impressive travel destinations.

    I've been thinking about my friend's Aunt Doris for a couple of days now. I must say I appreciate her (and her family's) choice to let little things go at home in order to have the life experiences that they felt were more important.

    All too often, you will see people refusing to truly own these financial choices. They will replace the threadbare furniture or paint the house for fear of what other people will think. And then they'll feel resentful of the fact that they can't do all the things they want to do.

    But as Doris's example shows me, it really doesn't matter what other people think. What matters is truly getting the full worth out of your money. If you're replacing your furniture because you're embarrassed about how it looks, and still dreaming about your Egyptian travels (perhaps not so much in this particular Egyptian political climate, but you understand what I mean), then you're not really spending your money to its fullest. You're buying your way out of a little embarrassment--which is likely more in your head than based on a real judgment--and missing out on experiences or purchases that could really work to make you happy.

    I'm admittedly a little defensive about these sorts of money choices. My previous car, the 1998 Mazda 626, was much derided by various individuals who shall remain nameless. Because it looked like your average hoopty, I often fielded comments about its unreliability and how it was an unsafe ride for myself and LO.


    The thing is, that car was a tank. For all intents and purposes, it never gave me a lick of trouble in the six years I owned it.

    It just looked like a piece of [redacted].

    While I certainly didn't care about the valets in front of swank hotels who reluctantly accepted the keys to my Mazda and then sat in the driver's seat as if both keys and seat were covered in Anthrax (and in fact, I found that kind of funny), it can be tough to hear people with whom you will have more than one conversation in your life question your frugal financial choices. Mostly because they don't understand that your frugality allows you to make some extravagant financial choices.

    After all, it's just a threadbare couch and an old car.

    I hope I own my financial choices, because I certainly will not be changing them. I'm not avoiding the embarrassment the frugal choices I make can lead to--but I also hope I'm not giving too much creedence to that embarrassment either.

    I just need to remember my friend's Aunt Doris. She probably took quite a bit of kidding about the state of her home, too. But, of course, she got to stand in the shadow of the Sphinx and the pyramids of Giza with her husband and children.

    That sounds like getting the last laugh to me.

  • Lessons From Bingo

    Photo courtesy of Michael Coté

    When J and I first moved to Lafayette three years ago, we knew no one, and found that our social lives were somewhat lacking.

    So when I passed by a sign for weekly Bingo at the local VFW, I suggested we try our hand at some legal gambling. After all, my cousin and aunt had rhapsodized over how much fun they had had at Bingo, and it was something I had always wanted to try.

    We got our first surprise as soon as we walked in the door. One Bingo card cost $20, which I suppose we should have anticipated. Since we still owned our home in Columbus and were in contract on a new house in Lafayette, we decided to share a card to avoid overspending on our evening out. After all, there were something like 10 to 15 games per Bingo board, so we would definitely get more than enough fun for two people out of one card.

    We found a seat next to a friendly woman who was kind enough to lend us a dauber and try to smoke from the other side of her mouth in deference to the fact that I was pregnant. (In Ohio, it had been illegal to smoke indoors for so many years that it hadn't even occurred to us that there were places where indoor smoking was still acceptable in other parts of the country.)

    Our new friend had no less than five or six Bingo boards arrayed in front of her. She told us cheerfully that she played Bingo three or four times per week--and that she was sure we would get hooked, too.

    During a brief lull, the woman ordered some mozzarella sticks, a dessert, and a cocktail. I was getting a little thirsty myself, so I took a quick gander at the menu. I blanched at the cost of the food and drinks and went off in search of a water fountain.

    In the midst of a conversation with our table-mates, the friendly woman mentioned that she worked three jobs and that Bingo was her downtime from all that stress.

    I found myself wondering if she realized that she could probably quit two of her jobs if she stopped spending $150 three times a week on Bingo. (Between the cards, the food, the cocktails, and the cigarettes--which, to be fair, she'd probably be smoking even if she weren't at Bingo--I thought $150 was a conservative estimate for her Bingo spending).

    I also found myself wondering what Miss Manners would say about my urge to take this nice, friendly woman by the shoulders and shake her until she came to her senses.

    J and I ended up playing Bingo for about two hours. We won one game--a $100 prize that two other Bingo players also won at exactly the same time, which meant that each winner was given $34. After the exciting win, J and I decided to stop by a pizza joint on our way home, where we were able to get our favorite chicken and pineapple pizza for $12 plus tax. The way we figured it, our evening of Bingo had paid for itself and a pizza.

    Even though it was three years ago, I still wonder about our Bingo table-mate fairly regularly. Is she still spending $450 per week on Bingo? Is she still carrying three jobs? Has she figured out the relationship between her hobby and her cash flow?

    I try hard not to be judgmental when people make different financial choices than I do. It takes all kinds, as they say, and just because something works for me doesn't mean it's the right choice for others. But this was more like seeing a toddler playing in traffic. Our friendly table-mate was doing so much self-harm with her money choices and making her life so much more stressful than it needed to be. And there was not a darn thing I could do about it--not that it was any of my business.

    Have you ever had an eye-opening experience about how other people spend their money? Do you ever feel like slapping them until they come their senses, or is that just me? 

  • The Mattress and Fireworks Outlet


    Back in 2010, when J and I moved to Lafayette, we hit a couple of bumps in the road of relocating. First, we ended up having to live in a truly terrible apartment sublet for six weeks while we waited to close on our house. Since J's company was generously paying for our move--but would not move our stuff twice--we had to bring the bare minimum with us for use in the sublet until we took possession of the house. That meant that we slept on my 10-year-old futon for nearly two months.

    That aging futon was just about as comfortable as you can imagine. Add to that the fact that I was hugely pregnant with LO that summer, and you'll understand why I came to hate that futon and all its futon ilk with the burning passion of a thousand suns.

    When we had finally taken possession of our house, moved the futon into our new house, and had a couple of weeks worth of furniture-less-ness while we had a little work done on the house, I was never more excited than the day the movers finally arrived with all of our stuff. Finally, I would be able to sit on a sofa (we hadn't brought one with us to the sublet). I would be able to write at a desk (we only had a kitchen table for the better part of two months). Most important, I would be at last be sleeping in a bed!

    Then, of course, the inevitable happened. Because we are old house people and we had bought a Cap Cod home built in 1940, the staircase is a mite narrow. The box spring for our queen size bed would not go up the stairs.

    I would have happily slept on the mattress on the floor, but the movers had already assembled the bed frame and inserted the mattress into the room--and the relative smallness of the room made it impossible for the mattress and the bedframe to both occupy sufficient space on the floor for anyone to sleep in a prone position (or really, any position other than leaning up against the mattress).

    In short, we would be sleeping on the futon for another couple of days until we were able to locate a set of split box springs.

    Considering the fact that I was a mere two weeks away from LO's birth at this point, I think I can be excused for the monumental flip-out that followed.

    I called around to all of the mattress stores in the Greater Lafayette area and kept getting the same depressing answer: "We could order them for you and have them in by the week after next!"

    (I did not endear myself to the salespeople at said stores when I then bit off their heads.)

    I can no longer recall how I ended up calling a shabby little Mattress and Fireworks Outlet (seriously) a couple of miles away, but when the gentleman who answered the phone responded to my query that they did, indeed, have split box springs for a queen-sized bed available, and that they would be happy to hold them for me until J got off work, it was clear that I had found my new favorite retailer.

    We arrived at the Mattress and Fireworks Outlet, and discovered that not only were these box springs in stock, they were a good 50% cheaper than any other split box spring prices that had been quoted to me.

    That night, I slept on a real bed.

    The clouds parted and angels sang.

    Basically, this is all background to explain how we again ended up at the Mattress and Fireworks Outlet last night. You may recall that J and I just recently purchased a big boy bed for LO, so that his former bed would not be pressed into a double-occupancy for which it is not safety-rated.

    We spent this past weekend putting the bed together, about which not much needs to be said. (It didn't take as long as we feared, and there was a minimum of cursing. But it was still a weekend day spent assembling furniture based upon poorly created instructions).

    However, we were still sans mattress, and I have been having to contort my once-again-uber-preggo body into the toddler bed to lie down with LO every night at bedtime. Yesterday, when J came home, I told him that we needed to return to the Mattress and Fireworks Outlet.

    While I did not have any real knowledge of how much a twin size mattress costs, I was thinking that we would probably be exiting the Mattress and Fireworks Outlet about $250 poorer and one mattress richer.

    As soon as we stepped in the door, the nice gentleman behind the counter asked if we were there for a bed for our young man (since it was pretty clear from looking at us that LO is about to be evicted from his former bed), and he steered us toward the twin size mattress that parents would often choose for toddlers.

    It was $95.

    LO and I took a test-lie on the mattress and deemed it adequate for both sleeping and jumping needs.

    On the way to the register, I saw a small selection of sheets. Since we do not own any twin-size sheet sets and I was going to have to make a Target run in the near future for them, I grabbed a set in an appropriate color and added it to the bill. These sheets are 1800 count Egyptian cotton (meaning LO now has nicer sheets than his parents) and cost a grand total of $25.

    We left the Mattress and Fireworks Outlet with a new mattress and the necessary sheets for LO to spend his first night in his big boy bed in under fifteen minutes, for a grand total of $120, plus tax.

    Truly, there is something magical about this place.

    (J did mention as we were loading up the car that putting together a Mattress Outlet with a Fireworks Outlet does seem to pair together two remarkably flammable things, however. We spent the drive home coming up with ways the outlet could offer even more flammable options: Come to the Mattress, Oily Rag, Fireworks, Gasoline, Bic Lighter, and Zeppelin Outlet!)

    Last night, LO and I snuggled together in his big boy bed, and I was thankful for the Mattress and Fireworks Outlet.

    Every time I need either a mattress or an explosive pyrotechnic device, I clearly know where to go.

  • My Challah Food Hack

    Photo courtesy of Aviv Hod

     

    Every Friday, J and I light the shabbat candles, say our brachas over a loaf of challah bread and a glass of wine (or, as if often the case, beer for J and juice for me--and if we knew the Hebrew for "fruit of the hops" or "fruit of the tree," we might even be inclined to alter the bracha appropriately, but we figure it's the thought that counts), and sit down to a special meal, even if said special meal is nothing more than a frozen pizza because Mama ain't in no mood to cook after a long week.

    This is a lovely way to end the week, and something that we do (in part) to help LO develop a sense of his Jewish identity. (Sadly, LO is often passed out on the couch right in time for Shabbat dinner, because Mama's not the only one who has had a long week.)

    I've mentioned before that living in Lafayette has certain disadvantages--among them, a dearth of easily obtainable loaves of challah. Only recently has our local Great Harvest Bread Company started offering challah year-round, which was a real relief to me since I've never been able to successfully make a loaf that could not also stand in for a doorstop.

    The only problem is that a loaf of challah from Great Harvest costs about 8 bucks, and is entirely too large for a family of three. (That's not to say that it doesn't get eaten. We just shouldn't).

    This past Friday, I happened to be in West Lafayette, where our local Einstein Brothers is located. LO and I had some business on the West side of town, and after we had wrapped up our doings, I was planning on taking the young with me to Great Harvest to get our usual too-big loaf of expensive bread. LO was getting close to his nap time, so I was dreading the thought of loading him in the car, driving him to Great Harvest, getting him out of the car, enduring his protests at not yet being home, and loading him once more in the car.

    As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and mothers are very inventive in circumventing the necessity of juggling an overtired toddler through another errand. Which is why the lightbulb went off over my head. Einstein's was within easy walking distance of where we were. Einstein's sells challah bagels, which are basically mini-loaves of challah. These bad boys cost about $0.75 each, and we wouldn't need more than two of them for Shabbat.

    I went and loaded up on a dozen, since I could easily freeze the unused ones, and be set for shabbat for the next six weeks.

    Boo-yah!

    Not only have I saved us $39 (6 weeks worth of big challah loaves at 8 bucks each would be $48, whereas my dozen challah bagels cost me $9), I also don't have to venture out on Friday every week for the next month and a half, nor do I have to worry about the ridiculous additional calorie load we were all taking on each weekend.

    What food hacks have you come up with lately? Anything you're particularly proud of saving money/time/calories on?

  • I'm Lovin' It! A Menschly Take on McDonald's Budgeting

    "Have a seat! Let's talk budgets."

     

    By now, you've probably read about the brouhaha surrounding McDonald's newly published Practical Money Skill Budget Journal. This seemingly well-intentioned educational attempt has been making many people very angry. Specifically because of the following sample budget:

    I won't go into all of the details of what people are objecting to in this budget, but suffice it to say, there is concern over the fact that this sample budget assumes a worker must either be carrying two nearly full-time jobs, or this is a family budget (which explains the two jobs) that does not account for childcare or other child-related expenses. In addition, the $20 amount for health insurance, and the lack of a line-item in the budget for food, gasoline, or clothing, are both pretty troubling.

    But, as Mother Jones (which was just about the last media outlet I expected to take this tack) puts it, Let's Give McDonald's a Break. (McD's, like the rest of us, deserves a break today).

    Educating employees--particularly those employees who are working at minimum-wages--on how to successfully budget is a noble goal. Budgeting is one of those skills that is undertaught, both by parents and our educational system. But learning how to create, tweak, stick to, and improve a budget is something that can mean the difference between getting ahead and falling thorugh the cracks.

    No, I don't think the problem is with McDonald's--although I do wish they could have used more realistic numbers. (The original version I saw listed $0 for heating but no corresponding higher cost for electricity, which is what you would see in areas where heat is not necessary but A/C most definitely is). I also wish there was more of a discussion about how it's nearly impossible for an individual earning minimum wage to get by on only one job.

    But ultimately, those are not issues with McDonald's. This large corporation, which I truly believe is in an excellent position to do a great deal of good because of its immense size, is honestly trying to provide its employees with an important and under-taught life skill. Good for McDonald's, and good for any employees who are able to take something from this program.

    Criticizing McDonald's in this case (although I do feel some of it is deserved) does smack a little bit of refusing to accept anyting less than perfection.

    I saw a clear example of this when I was a young voter. At the time, I made the mistake of telling someone that I didn't like either candidate for president that year, but that I felt I absolutely had to vote against one candidate. My listener told me I was making a horrible mistake by doing that, because I should be voting for someone, not against someone, and I should therefore go to the polls and just pick no one for president. My listener was an incredible idealist, thinking I should reserve my vote for someone worthy of it. I am very practical and feel I need to work within the constraints and choices made available to me, because making no vote helps no one.

    You'll also see this type of criticism anytime you start a slow, life-changing regimen. "Oh, you're drinking water with your double-bacon cheesburger? Like that's going to do anything!" Well, yes, actually, it will. Trying to switch to water and salad and runnning five miles daily and cutting out all sugar, etc, is unsustainable if you do it all at once. Making little mindful changes is much more likely to make a difference in the long run.

    And I feel like that's what McDonald's is doing. An enormous corporation is attempting to fill in an educational gap in its employees' lives. It's definitely not perfect, but it's a start. And it could lead to incremental changes.

    Also, by creating this budgeting journal, Mickey D's has gotten a lot of people talking about both personal finance/budgeting in general and how difficult it is to live on minimum wage in particular. That is most certainly a good thing. We need to have these discussions.

    I've never had to live on minimum wage, but my first job out of college in 2001 was working 40 hours a week at Barnes & Noble for $8.25 per hour. My take home pay was $1000 per month. I paid $505 a month in rent, and about $150 per month in groceries and food. I was paying $200 per month in student loans. That left me $145 per month for my other bills, gasoline, savings, and fun money. Thankfully, my car was paid for, and my parents were still helping me out with auto insurance. Barnes & Noble took out my portion of the employee health insurance premium before I saw my paycheck, so I didn't have to think about it. Even though I tried to put away $60 per month in savings, I was generally able to make ends meet, although I took more loans from the Bank of Mom and Dad than I (or they) would have liked.

    Even so, I consistently tried to find a second job that would fit within my irregular retail schedule, or a better-paying main job. But without the support of my parents, or the education I already had, I could have been stuck in a very bad financial situation for quite some time. And this was 12 years ago.

    If Barnes & Noble had produced a similar budgeting journal for its employees back then, I might have been a little offended by some of the assumptions the sample budget made. (And I don't blame any McDonald's employee for bristling at those assumptions.) But I think think it's a mistake to get caught up in those offensive assumptions the detriment of the big picture. Instead, let's focus on the good that this can potentially do.

    Here's hoping that it can lead to some important insights about finances on the individual through to the national level.

    Ronald McDonald image courtesy of M.Minderhoud

    Sample budget image source

  • How Do You Organize and Pay Your Bills?


    Recently, a friend posted the following question to the folks at large on Facebook:

    How do you manage your bills? I don't mean how do you make sure you earn enough money, per se, but I am curious what processes are out there to file, organize and pay bills on time. Do you do it on a certain day per week? Do you still write checks or use online banking? Do you do it once a month? What about saving files? Electronically? Hard copies? How do you manage all the *** paperwork and bills that come your way? Any words of wisdom for us on the topic?

    This, of course, made me realized that I had never outlined my particular bill-paying/organization strategy here on Mensch. I suspect I have a particularly convoluted process for bill paying, since that's how I roll, but I thought I'd explain both how I handle our bill-paying and our paperwork-filing, since it does take up a reasonable portion of my time. (About an hour a week, total.) Here's how I responded to my friend:

    I think paying bills has become much more complicated now that we have online payment options than it was when everything was paper based. Then, it was easier to organize everything in the same place and write a calendar reminder for when to pay bills. Now, most people have a hybrid system because they still have to write a few paper checks but handle many of their bills online or automatically. It makes it much more difficult to get organized, in my humble opinion.

    Here's what we do. 

    I have a bill-paying day around the 25th or so of the month, when I try to handle all of the monthly bills that are regular--utilities, credit card, etc.

    Some of those bills are paper and some are online, but I take care of all of them at once. 

    However, I also go through the mail once a week (we basically let it pile up through the week in our inbasket, and I clean it out/shred/recycle/file things on Saturdays). That's when I take care of irregular bills (usually medical copays that weren't paid at the time of service, but also any other bills we might get from home repair service providers, for example).

    Saturdays are also when I gather together those once-monthly bills and attach them to my "everything" clipboard where I keep my daily docket and other important papers that I will need to deal with before/rather than filing. 

    Once I pay a bill, either an irregular one or a monthly bill, I file the bill in our filing cabinet. I didn't used to do this, but now that I work from home, several of our bills can be considered tax-deductible, so I'm trying to keep careful track of everything.

    For paper bills, I write PAID and the date on it. For online bills, I just print out the receipt for payment (the date is usually already on there). I have set up a filing system *somewhat* based on what David Allen suggests in the book Getting Things Done. Each item has a hanging folder in our filing cabinet, and I just place everything that needs to be filed in the appropriate hanging folder.

    I also have a folder that I purchased specifically for tax documents, with tabs for business & job related expenses (where utility bills, as well as receipts for books that I buy for research, etc., go), childcare expenses, income (which I have to keep careful track of as a freelancer), medical expenses, vehicle registration fees, etc.

    Most of my bills end up being filed somewhere in that tax folder, although some (I'm thinking of home improvement stuff) goes into a related hanging folder in the filing cabinet. 

    To boil it all down, basically, I "deal" with bills about once a week, and I have a specific day to pay bills once a month. We do have several bills that are automatically deducted, which I account for on my monthly bill-paying day. I also balance my checkbook at least once a week, which helps with determining if I need to wait to pay a bill. Handling things this way means that I am always on top of the financial side of bill paying (never a "doh! I have to wait for that paycheck to pay this bill, and then I'll be making a late payment!"). It also gives me the structure to make sure I don't miss important paperwork.

    All that being said, I've realized over the last couple of years that good organization and finances really comes down to consistency. This system works for me because I can do it consistently. I like it, which makes consistency easy. No system that asks you to do something that sounds about as fun as a root canal to you is going to work, no matter how perfectly organized that system might be. So if you can figure out something that works for you to make bill-paying more pleasant in some way so that you can consistently keep with the same system is what's going to work best for you.

    So this is what I do, and it's a system I've cultivated and tweaked over about 15 years of being a bill-paying grownup. How do you handle your bills and paperwork organization? I know many people swear by Mint, Quicken, and the like, although I cannot imagine giving up my paper check register. I suspect there is a less paper-intensive way for me to hold onto all of my important paperwork/bills/etc, but I for one can't think of one that's also less labor-intensive.

    So, gentle readers, will you weigh in with your bill-paying strategy?

  • Awkward Money Situation #17: Gift Giving at Work

     

    Photo courtesy of Ana Fuji

     

    There are some awkward money situations that crop up from time to time--like being asked for money from a friend or relative, or going out to dinner with a stingy tipper. J ran into an unexpected one yesterday.

    J's boss and his wife just recently had their third baby. The boss has been out for a little over a week for paternity leave, and returns to work today.

    Yesterday, J's group at work passed the hat around to collect money to buy the family a gift card from Target as a welcome to the new baby boy. The group has a grand total of 5 engineers in it.

    The first gentleman to contribute--for they are all gentlemen--happens to be a young man originally hailing from India. He put a twenty dollar bill in the hat and passed it along to the rest of the engineers, all of whom blanched at the amount, since it now seemed as though they would have to match it. One of the remaining four gentlemen (who was not J) actually had to run out to an ATM, since he did not have enough cash on hand to be able to cover the $20 challenge.

    J claims that this gentleman was heard to grumble: "Silly foreigners with their unstinting generosity! Don't they understand good old-fashioned American token gestures?"

    Once all of the (rather more than expected) money was in the pot, J was dispatched to Target to purchase both the gift card and a greeting card to put it in. Since J tends to have a perverse sense of humor, he spent some time looking for the most inappropriate and/or ridiculous baby-related greeting card that he could find. He settled on a particularly sappy card that was covered in glitter that had a deplorable tendency to fall off and stick to clothing, since it was the card most likely to cause the other four gentlemen in the department to point as one man at my husband and exclaim "J picked it out!" when the boss wonders aloud what the heck they were thinking. J was quite satisfied with his find.

    He told me all of this last night over dinner, and we had quite a laugh over the way the first person to contribute money can set an uncomfortable precedent. I then pointed out the bright side: when Thing 2 arrives just a few months from now, the precedent of $100 baby gift cards will have already been set. J just shook his head. "That seems unlikely after the greeting card I picked out."

    I guess the lesson here is twofold:

    1. Don't let the person who hails from a culture known for generosity and giving go first when requesting an unspecified amount money for an office gift.

    And

    2. Picking out a greeting card to give to your boss is not the time to let your weird sense of humor shine.

  • How Much Should You Keep in Your Checking Account?

     

    Picture of one of my favorite famous ladies courtesy of Gage Skidmore


    I've recently been re-watching some of my old favorite episodes of 30 Rock on Netflix. One excellent episode, entitled Rosemary's Baby (and featuring Carrie Fisher!), includes the following dialogue between Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy:

    Jack: So what are you gonna do with your money? Put it into a 401(k)?Liz: Yeah, I gotta get one of those.Jack: What?! Where do you invest your money, Lemon?Liz: I've got like twelve grand in checking.Jack: Are you an immigrant?

    I've spent more time thinking about this tidbit of dialogue than any particular 20 seconds of a comedy show really deserves. First, I've found myself somewhat concerned that Liz's entire net worth is $12,000 that she keeps in checking. Then I find myself worrying about how Liz will be able to retire if she isn't even investing in her 401(k), because wasting mental energy on the fate of a fictional character is an excellent use of my time.

    Finally, I find myself thinking about the amount of money she has in checking.

    Because $12,000 in checking seems like a ridiculous amount to me (and I know that Tina Fey and the other writers chose that amount for that reason).

    But just how much should you keep in checking?

    The non-answer answer is "only as much as you need." (This is about as helpful as responding to the question "How old are you?" by saying "As old as my tongue, and a little older than my teeth.")

    The problem is knowing how much you need. For me, I like to maintain my checking account like a revolving door. Money goes in there just so that I can use it for specific purposes. The majority of my money is placed somewhere else, where it will earn me at least a little interest. Yes, I do like to keep a cushion of cash in checking, but my idea of a cushion is much smaller than other peoples'--like J's preferred cushion, for example.

    For instance, when I was working my first job out of college (as a bookseller at Barnes and Noble), I was paid every Friday. At the time I earned $8.25 per hour, and I generally got about $250 with each weekly paycheck. After receiving and depositing my paycheck (because this was 2001 and therefore the dark ages, and direct deposit wasn't exactly a thing yet), I would endeavor to have a cushion of $18 at the end of my necessary spending for the week to get me through until the next payday. If I had a cushion of $25 or $30, that would be even better, but once I got to about $40, I started moving a little money into savings, because that was just way more than I needed in an interest-free checking account.

    Had J and I known each other at the time, I believe this might have given him a heart attack.

    These days, my cushion is larger, but still hovering between $100 and $200--since I balance my checkbook for fun and I have savings accounts that I can transfer money from in case of emergency.

    J, when I met him, liked a cushion of about $5000 in checking, which drove me up the wall. "That money's just sitting there!" I'd tell him, and then I would start muttering something about compound interest.

    Our current compromise is that I keep my checking cushion where I like it, and I maintain his checking cushion at $1000 to prevent any potential medical consequences. He studiously avoids finding out how little I keep in my account.

    (I would like to say, however, that a low checking account cushion also has the added benefit of taking the wind out of the sails of any large impulse purchase. It's at lot easier to justify spending $8000 on a wedding dress when you're not even in a relationship if you're able to just write a check.)

    J and I are clearly at opposite ends of the checking account spectrum. He might be tempted to emulate Liz Lemon (except for the fact that he does, in fact, save for retirement), if he weren't married to a "I'm sure 50 cents is a reasonable cushion in checking" type. Sometimes, it's a wonder that we get along as well as we do.

    So how much do you keep in your checking accounts? Do you do the full Liz Lemon and just park all of your money in there because you're busy, or do you overanalyze every penny in your possession like a certain aspiring mensch? Or somewhere in between?

  • Getting Sick on Vacation

     

    One of the downsides to vacationing while pregnant is what to do if you start feeling under the weather, which is exactly what happened to me last week.

    On Thursday, I woke up with a pain in my ear. (No, it was not LO shouting at me to wake up and join him in welcoming a glad new day.)

    I asked J, who recently suffered the indignities of an ear infection, what his symptoms had been. They seemed to jibe with mine.

    Normally, if I were on vacation and not pregnant, I would ignore the issue until we arrived home. If I were pregnant and not on vacation, I'd give my midwife's office a quick ring to find out whether I should or could come in. Being both pregnant and on vacation, I felt I should probably nip the problem in the bud, lest somehow an infection in my ear were to spread to other more baby-centric portions of my person.

    So, on Saturday, I located a nearby Urgent Care, and timed my arrival to coincide with them opening their doors.

    This, I may say, was the nicest Urgent Care facility I have ever seen. The waiting area was spotless and decorated in soothing blues, maroons, and grays, rather than the usual institutional unappetizing/stained beige. There were potted plants about, and a refreshment station offering coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. The ubiquitous waiting area television was actual tuned to something you might enjoy watching (Pirates of the Caribbean) rather than the spittle-flecked talking heads on a 24-hour news station that is often what passes for calming waiting room entertainment in such establishments.

    When my name was called, I half expected to be asked if I wanted the optional shoulder massage with my consultation.

    Instead, I was informed that this Urgent Care did not accept my insurance. I would have to pay out of pocket.

    I inquired about the price.

    It would be $150.

    I indicated that I did not feel quite that sick.

    Since I was located in what amounts to health care heaven (although I suspect that had I poured myself some hot chocolate, they would have asked me to give it back once they realized that I did not have the right kind of insurance--"That's not for you!!"), the receptionist was kind enough to direct me to another Urgent Care within 5 miles of that location that did accept my insurance. She even gave me their phone number, address, and directions to get there.

    When I arrived at the second facility, I discovered that I truly wasn't in idyllic Kansas anymore. This Urgent Care didn't bother to turn on all the lights in the waiting room. There was no television (which was fine by me), but also no 17 year-old copies of Golf Digest, either. The waiting room chairs looked as though they might ensure that you got sick, whether you walked in the door that way or not.

    But, they accepted my insurance, by gum, and my 15 minutes with the doctor was free to me.

    (I will mention that my favorite portion of my visit was when the nurse asked me what medications I was taking. I told her that I was on a pre-natal vitamin. "Oh, are you pregnant?" she asked, sounding surprised. I looked down at my belly, which was quivering with Thing 2's kicks, and just nodded.)

    The doctor told me that I was infection free, but that I had fluid in my ear. She prescribed me some ear drops, and I stopped by a Walgreen's just down the street to fill it, thinking naively that our insurance would cover prescriptions from there since our mail-order prescriptions are serviced through Walgreen's.

    That turned out to not be the case.

    The pharmacist regretfully informed me that I would have to pay out-of-pocket for my ear drops.

    I inquired about the price.

    It was $17.50.

    "Sold!" I said, since I was fairly confident that I was feeling nearly $30 worth of pain. (More than $30, and I might have just grinned and bore it, considering I was neither going to go deaf nor give the baby some sort of zombie ear infection).

    Thankfully, I'm all better now, and no longer have ear pain--other than what I experience when LO decides to turn his outside voice up to 11.

    I still wonder if I could have gotten the spa treatment at the first Urgent Care, if only I'd had the right insurance.

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