Just tidbits about money and finance.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Festival of Frugality #8!

It's available now!

It's really good this week. Chock-a-block full of tips on saving money on dining, mutual funds, wireless broadband access and more!


DIY Series Part III: How to figure out if it's good or bad

Read the first two posts here and here.

I left off Part II with why it's not always a good thing and left you with 'sound judgement' as advice. Part III: DIY: How to figure out if it's good or bad will hopefully elaborate some more on it.

Questions to ask:

1) How much will it cost to do this project versus calling a professional or buying a new one? Include things like, safety equipment, new tools, time waiting for permits, time off from work, etc.

2) Can someone else do this better than I can? Will it last a long time if I repair it myself, or will I just have to do it again later?

Here are some concrete examples on this.

My friend asked me to hem a pair of jeans for her. I said I could do it no problem. I needed to hem some pants I have as well. It cost about $2.00 for the spool of gold thread to match her jeans. What's funny is that she was going to pay for it. I told her I would since I was going to keep the spool. She won't use it anway. She'll just ask me to hem her next pair. This is usually a $10 job at a tailoring shop. Easy and it takes about an hour. DIY GOOD!

A lady at knitting group told me it cost $60 for a tailor to alter her husband's old suit to fit her teenage soon. She told the tailor to leave in the extra fabric so it could be let out later. (wise move) The woman told me the $60 was worth it for the difficult alterations and she didn't have to buy her son a suit he'd likely grow out of anyway. (He's only a sophmore.) DIY BAD!

I love wooly socks. It costs about $12-14 for nice sock weight yarn, plus about $5 for needles. It takes me about 2-4 weeks to knit them. A comparable pair of socks might cost $7-10 at REI. In terms of enjoyment, DIY GOOD! In terms of cost, DIY BAD!

Take those same handknit socks and darn them so they last another year. Whereas regular socks I would just throw away. DIY GOOD!

Handspun yarn is about $1.00-$3.00 per ounce of wool. It depends on the type and amount of preprocessing. This gets tricky because most yarn comes in metric form, like those sock yarns. So 100 grams = 3.5 ounces, therefore the sock yarn is about $4.00 an ounce, but I didn't have to card it with nylon for durability, nor did I have to spend 6-10 hours spinning it myself. Again, In terms of enjoyment, handspinning is GOOD. Otherwise, it's a money losing proposition.

I hope this illuminates some of my DIY points. I realize I've just illustrated why my knitting hobby is a bottom line loser. I know I only do it for the fun of it. Plus I don't want to pay $50 for a pair of handknit socks.


Monday, January 30, 2006

DIY Series - Part II: Why DIY is Bad

Read the first part of the series, click here.

To continue the series, I bring you Part II: Why DIY is Bad.

Reasons Why DIY is Bad:

1) If you don't know what you're doing, you could end up spending a lot more.
2) Sometimes that 'homemade look' isn't what's called for.
3) You could get injured, hurt, or die. (My building manager fell off the roof while cleaning gutters. I am sad to report he passed on before an ambulance could arrive.)

I could only think of three. Again, if you can think of other reasons why DIY isn't a good thing, please comment here and leave your name & blog to be credited/linked.

Overall, there aren't many downsides to DIY. It's a matter of sound judgement. I've had a hand in building a flamethrower. It was really fun. I was surprised at how easy it was. I was also deeply skeptical that this was a safe thing to do. But it all turned out ok. No one got hurt and the men all sat around trying to figure out how to make the weak little bursts bigger. (Typical. Just fiddle with the valve to let more fuel into the mixing chamber.) I did end up watching from very, very far away though.

As for the building manager, it was a very sad story. I heard his voice while I was in that pre-waking dream state and I didn't know this voice was a real voice coming from outside my open window. (I was three floors up.) By the time I understood this was not a dream, other neighbors were attending to him. It was all very weird and sometimes I ask myself, what if he had been wearing a harness of some sort for safety? Just something to think about when you are planning a DIY project. Dust masks, safety goggles, thick gloves, steel toed boots, may all be good things to have while working on a project. Safety First!


Carnival of Personal Finance #33

The Carnival of Personal Finance is available at Fat Pitch Financials!

Many of them look interesting, but I've got to run to work now!


Thursday, January 26, 2006

DIY Series - Part I: Why DIY is Good

I was inspired by Free Money Finance. FMF writes lots of series about financial topics, which I now realize is a really clever way of getting readers to come back to his site! (Boy, mappy, you really are bright sometimes.)

My first series, in honor of FMF, is about Doing-It-Yourself and why it's good. I hope it's going to be a three part series. Part I: Why it's Good: When it saves you money. Part II: Why it's Bad: When it doesn't. Part III: DIY: How to figure out if it's good or bad.

Reasons why it's good:

1) It can save you money to fix something instead of buy a new one. (So obvious!)
2) DIY encourages you to learn something new.
3) It's empowering to know you fixed/made something.
4) DIY-ing means you can save the money you would have spent on something else.
5) DIY can bring people together. Couples working on the house, Grandma teaching kids to knit, etc.
6) The DIY experience can teach you something about yourself. (Gee, I really like pouring concrete! But I really hate housepainting with crappy brushes!)
7) Knowing how to do stuff makes you popular with friends! (You'll buy me dinner if I help you install the dishwasher? OK!)
8) You might be able to turn it into a career. (Finishing a gutting and remodel of his home, a friend just quit his job as a policy analyst to become a general contractor.)
9) Time spent on a DIY project is time not spent doing money-consuming activities like dining out, drinking, clubbing, golfing at 5-star resorts, etc.
10) You'll have skills to barter after the apocalypse comes!

I'm sure my readers can think of many more reasons. Please leave a comment if you can think of more! (include your name for proper credit!) I will append them to the list and link to your blog if you have one.

In general, I like feeling self-sufficient. I'm joking about the apocalypse, but it's something my girlfriends laugh about. One of them is nicknamed 'Bear Claw' because there's really nothing she can't do. She can do EVERYTHING, spin yarn, knit wool, tool leather, flint an arrowhead, etc. I think she's even a blacksmith.

Living near the Pentagon, I worry sometimes that I need more skills. My boyfriend and I have considered taking EMT classes since we like to make ourselves useful. During a crisis, I am a CAN DO person because otherwise, I'd be freaking out.

It's good to follow the old admonishment, 'Go make yourself useful.' There are many rewards to it, personally and financially.


An alternative to Kelley Blue Book

The NADA Guides. My friend works there and pointed out their guides to me. Her family runs dealerships and she said they list prices that are more favorable to the seller overall. So check them out. They aren't as well-known as KBB, but if you do a trade-in, the dealership certainly knows about them since they're probably a member.

I don't personally count my car as an asset since it depreciates. If you look at my NetWorth graph detail, you'll see my note about being a bit lazy on figuring the worth of my vehicle. It costs so much to maintain and operate that it's more of a liability than an asset.


Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Money Blog Network launched!

Money Blog Network is the consolidation of 5 great personal finance blogs, two of which are listed on the left, Free Money Finance and Consumerism Commentary

Meanwhile, I'm still crazy busy and have not fixed FeedBurner's Autodiscovery feature for this page, but I will get to it soon!


Deposits and tax prep

I made a bunch of deposits this week so I moved the Save-O-Meter to 34%. Progress, but slowly.

I think I got all my tax notices this year so I will be starting my preparations soon. Mostly I'm waiting for my tax forms to arrive so that I can plan if I am getting a refund or owe money. I am pretty sure I'm getting a Federal refund, but the VA one got all complicated last year. First I owed them money. Then I owed them some more money, then I got a mysterious letter that says I actually get a refund. I *knew* this state was wonky. They're out to get Yankees like me.

I like to do all of my taxes by paper & spreadsheet. It's all that accounting work I did when I was young. Last year I filed online through Quicken. I'm not sure I want to do that this year since there were things that I didn't like about the way Quicken classifies certain tax impacting items. So, I'll have to work the numbers on paper anyway. There is something about the ritual of buying registered mail receipts, etc. that make tax season kind of fun for me.

I hope folks are getting things ready too!


On checking real estate prices


My recent post about real estate assessment triggered a comment from a friend about how to estimate current fair market value.

My current method uses a combination of the county's public record available at the Washington Post, CraigsList, and Zip Realty. I'm lucky that I live in a metropolitan area where information is readily available. I know the Bay Area is also available at CL and Zip, but I'm not sure about county assessments. I'm sure some communities have public records online, but you'll probably need your lot number or something like that.

I start out looking at the Washington Post for recent sales in my building and my area. Then I move to the comparable current real estate listings, & calculate the dollars per square foot for each listing, and then average out all the results and multiply by the square footage of my unit. Zip Realty has a nice page where you can look at recent sales in your area and they automatically calculate that figure for you. The problem is, if you live in a mixed neighborhood like mine, the single-family homes are far more expensive than condos, so I toss those out if they are wildly out of range. I also try to read how much the HOA fees are for other condos and what's included in those fees. For instance, I don't have a concierge/doorman or indoor pool. Trash & water are included, but I also get lots of parking, which a lot of places don't have around DC.

CraigsList is mostly just for fun because people are awful grammarians. But they often have really nice photos.

For calculating the present worth of my unit, I try to average in stuff that's only about 4-6 months old. But I also trend the sales in my building since I moved in 18 months ago so I can see the overall growth. I was one of the first studio buyers in the recent set of sales, so I have definitely seen a lot of growth. I shake my head a bit at some of the prices my neighbors have paid, but I know that some of the sold units are nicer than mine too.

Since I get to see the market listing, and follow up by looking at the final recorded sale on the county books, I can see if people are paying the asking price or not. So far, nothing has gone wildly over the asking price, and luckily nothing has been under. But I do see that some units have been on sale for a long time.

If anyone needs me to get more specific on the math, please email me and I will follow up with another post.


Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Festival of Frugality!

The Festival of Frugality is up at Canadian Capitalist!

I have submitted something for this week. I encourage everyone to go over there now and read more articles on frugality!


Thrift stores

Looking for cheap silverware, dish sets? Fur coats? Try thrift stores. It takes a dedicated thrift store shopper to find good deals, but you can definitely save a lot of money.

My favorite trip was in San Francisco years ago when I lived with my sister. She sent me to Community Thrift in the Mission to shop for a dresser. I didn't want to pay the prices they were askign for on dressers. ($400 when my sister said I should be able find one for $150, but those were the booming Internet years). I bought a full set of silverware and a nice tablecloth, which I still have. Its ugly brown stain is totally my fault, an accident with a pot of tea.

It's not for everyone or everything, but many knitters like to find old sweaters they can unravel for nicer yarn, i.e. cashmere, or felt into mittens or bags.

As far as fur coats go, often times in a metropolitan area, there is one store in a chain of thrift stores that has all the luxury items. In SF, it was the West Portal Goodwill. In Baltimore, I think it's the one in Reisterstown. I used to go to the SF store and look at the mink coats. I really like fur. I fantasize about mink coats when it's 20F outside. They cost a tenth or less of the original price. They're not well-stored, but if you want to look money, it's not a bad place to start. We used to have 'thrift store tuxedo' parties in SF. The guys would find the ugliest '70's peach-colored tuxedos with light blue ruffled shirts to mismatch. Hideous, but lots of fun. Cheaper than going to a nightclub, that's for sure!

Keep in mind that real people owned these clothes and so you might not find your size. Most fur wearers were plumpy and the coats were all too large for me. I could sure use a coat now. It's horribly cold here now and I refuse to turn up the thermostat.

Oh! The point of this was not to ramble on about San Francisco memories, but to illuminate that you can find cool things for very cheap at thrift stores. Sometimes you have to dig, or visit regularly to see what's new and special, but you can find stuff you NEED there, and not just stuff you WANT.


Want to waste some money? Get a Chinese tattoo

I heard this story about poorly written tattoos on NPR.

This is a huge pet peeve of mine. There really isn't any extra meaning just because you write in foreign pictograms. I can't think of too many other stupid purchases than tattoos that are incorrect. I don't have a tattoo and I will probably never get one since there's nothing I want permanently on my body except all my original body parts, less maybe those wisdom teeth.

If you wanted Chinese or Japanese characters you should probably do some research and see a tattooist whose native language is one of these languages. But keep in mind, what you think is a damn fine translation in English doesn't mean much in that language. For instance in Latin, 'ignis caput' means 'fire' 'a head' in English, but it doesn't really mean the idom 'Fire ahead'. But you could get that tattoo and I'm sure someone out there would think you're depth of Latin knowledge is incredibly profound and cool.

FWIW, I can recommend a tattooist in LA. She's awesome, but she probably wouldn't do a Chinese character tattoo. I've seen lots of examples of her work. Erika Stanley is her name, but she isn't taking new clients right now. Check her out.


Monday, January 23, 2006

Dry cleaning silk and wool

Silk. Wonderful, beautiful, lustrous silk.

It's expensive to buy and to care for.

WRONG! Treenway Silks of Canada has a great article on caring for silk. Please note the part which reads, Commercial silk garments are marked 'dry clean only' as protection for poorly dyed goods more than for the silk.

My mother is a dry cleaner and I used to live in the shop during the summer when I was child. I can't tell you how many times she told a customer that her solid colored blouse might spot after cleaning and that there was no guarantee that the color would hold. So dry cleaning is still no guarantee that your item will not be ruined.

Washable silk is the way to go if you can find it. If you see something you like that is dry clean only, try to stay away from solid colors which are deep and dark. Those are more likely to have problems with dry cleaning. I'm sure you'll hear people say that dry cleaning is much better now, dyeing is different, etc, but I'm not so sure. If you buy silk, get patterned stuff which looks busy, or paler colors which will hide variations better.

As for wool. What is wool? It is merely the hair of a sheep. To wash it, just handwash it with a dab of cheap shampoo. No need for fancy wool wash products, and DEFINITELY DO NOT EVER USE WOOLITE. Woolite was specially developed for synthetics, not for actual wool. It has some detergents and chemicals that eat into the natural fibers of wool and protein-based fibers, i.e. silk (see above).

When you wash your wool item the essential thing is to use warm water that's not hot, and all through the wash process, keep the temperature constant as best you can. The temperature change of hot to cold shocks the wool and makes it felt. Fill your sink and add the soap after its full. Dunk your item under the surface until there are no air bubbles trapped in the garment. Soak your item for 20 minutes in soapy water, and then transfer to bucket. Drain your sink and fill again. Put your item back in. Repeat transfering to a bucket and filling the sink until the water is clean enough for you. Roll up your garment in a towel to soak up excess water. Then lay flat and reshape your item to dry. It takes up to 3 days to dry your item depending on humidity, etc.

I hope this saves everyone some money on their winter sweaters this year.


Beef-Onion Soupyness

This isn't a recipe per se, but a recipe idea.

I had stew cubes last week. I bought some more last night. I didn't like the beef buillion so this time I used Lipton Onion Soup Mix (still the best sour cream & onion dip mix ever) for the soup base. I added one giant clove of garlic, a half of a large sweet onion, chopped into strips, not minced, beef cubes in bite size pieces and water to cover, probably about 3-4 cups.

I put it all into the crock pot and went to work yesterday. I came home about 9 hours later and it was ready to eat. I didn't have any bread, which would have been excellent with it.


Sunday, January 22, 2006

Retail therapy

Wow. I've just lost all credibility with personal finance bloggers.

I went to work at the yarn shop late and I started off on a personal buying spree.

Now keep in mind I get a pretty good employee discount. But I also had a special gift certificate for an extra 10% off. It's a year old and while it doesn't expire, I actually had received two of them and I think it took me around 7 months to use the first one. I decided to go whole hog today since I probably won't go nuts like this again.

I spent $429.04. For this amazing sum, I got:
A 3 session course + materials fee
2 books which you can't find in a library
2 felting needles
5 silk cocoons
11 ounces of dye powder
2 balls of cotton for a present
5 balls of yarn for a class
2 balls of yarn for a costume
9 balls of yarn to make into scarves for sale/gifts
1 inflatable ball for making felted vessels

Keep in mind that I have to add value to all the yarn and dye by knitting it up, dyeing with it, etc. I am really stupid since the 5 balls I got were for a different class and I forgot to sign up for that one. (I might return all of them if I decide not to take the course altogether.) I'm not 100% what I have done, but I am darn lucky the shop has a liberal return policy for the most part.

It'll take me most of the year to work off this purchase. But I will be occupied for a really long time too!

HMMMM... Staring at the receipt some more, I see there is something wrong. I didn't get my employee discount at all... le sigh. I will have to call the shop manager tomorrow to fix this. I should have spent under $400. I knew there was something funny about the numbers.


Saturday, January 21, 2006

Web design at home saves you money

Over the last 3 days, the design of this site has changed a lot. Well, okay, only the sidebar really. I've put in more Google ads, claimed by blog at BlogShares, and put on FeedBurner links so you can subscribe to this blog more easily.

Sometimes it amazes me that I've actually had people click on the Amazon books I've recommended. And that just by having AdSense ads, I'm generating revenue. I like this passive income! (I think I made about 15 cents this week, but that's 15 cents more than I had before!)

I've been in a bit of a social rut lately. My friends are all wonderful people, but I've been choosing to dedicate myself to getting this blog thing going. I guess I want to 'fix it and forget it' when it comes to the layout and design. I also think I'm slowing down on content ideas, which is a good thing. I'm actually getting some sleep now.

I've written around 42 posts for the month, and there's still 10 days left, and I got this started only about 2 weeks ago. I know that every month, there will something to report, something that arrives in the mail which is blogworthy, whether it's my credit card statement, my W-2's, mortgage offer, etc. This is a never ending world of personal finance management. You can't ignore it.


Squeamish about ads

I seem to have lost all squeamishness about ad placement. But do tell me if it's intrusive. I figured information about myself is not so important, so I stuck it at the way bottom of the sidebar. I also thought my goals were very important, so those went to the very top.

One reason my blogroll is very short is that I like sites that are designed well. I make very few exceptions for busy looking web pages, i.e too much sidebar content. The ones that I think look too busy or distracting are on the list because their content is actually very good and too useful to ignore. Or else I just think they are nice people deserving of exposure.

Lots of advertisements can get in the way of a good design. I hope I've picked ads and colors that fit well into the dot template I've chosen. If I were really good, I know I'd put the sidebar on the right, but alas, I am not so good at web design. When I mess it up, I go to a friend's site which uses the same template and fix it from his source code.

If anyone out there would like to be added to the blogroll, please let me know. I'll also be adding an RSS feed of some sort soon if I can figure out which feed service/counter is best. (I know ATOM is already used by Blogger, I'm still figuring this all out.) I am open to suggestions!


Friday, January 20, 2006

Rules for posting comments

1) Please don't leave anonymous comments.

2) If it's not something you'd say to my face, don't leave it here.

3) If you want to be critical privately, you can email me directly at mapgirl [at] rangers [dot] org.

Thank you.


Interest rates, investing, etc.

I'll get around to serious financial topics someday when I'm fired up about it. I've just got too many posts in my head right now that it's bursting. I should retitle this blog, Mapgirl's Fiscal Obsession. I've been dreaming of new posts in that sleepy state right before full sleep.

I hope I'm not the only one!

ps- I've just added Personal Finance Advice to the blogroll! I couldn't resist. I was totally drawn to his blog with its sound advice.


Poverty in the US

Talk of the Nation had a conversation on Tuesday with John Edwards about poverty in America.

I'd say I'm a liberal. I'm not a fan on John Edwards per se, but my old roommate works for him now as a policy analyst. What I liked about the interview is that Mr. Edwards talks about helping everyone who is poor in a holistic kind of way, not just a temporary band-aid. He seemed to have a genuine clue about all the things that keep people in poverty. I didn't know that the percentage of people in poverty after LBJ's War on Poverty program actually did fall significantly.

I like that he talked about folks who had 3 jobs to make ends meet and if that any of the jobs offered healthcare, that would mean they could quit one job and try to have some quality of life with their families. It's a real problem when people actually work hard but can't rise up out of poverty. I think that's why the Wall Street Journal article means so much to me. My parents didn't have a lot when they arrived here 32 years ago, and while they aren't stunningly rich, they are solidly middle-class. I would like to think America is still a place where hard work and saving money means security. Otherwise, what are all these personal finance blogs about?

I struggle to moderate my wishes for finer things. Tonight I was at a yuppie bowling joint in Downtown DC. Yes, I did end up carpooling. The parking was miraculously cheap tonight with validation, $7, which my friend paid. I picked up a beer for me and one for her and tip for $11. The restaurant had a sign out front about a dress code. I almost stopped my friend there and said I'm going home.

I don't like being told how to dress to go out, and I liked it even less when I saw that everyone was there to be seen. The deep irony was the artwork on the wall. It was done by Shepard Fairey, one of my favorite artists. He is well known for his Andre the Giant OBEY posters. His work used to be plastered all over the then-yuppifying Mission District in San Francisco during the mid-late '90s. To me, his work is about not OBEYing advertising and what our eyeballs intake in the media, hence my lack of a TV at home. I admit it. I am sheep. Advertising has an effect on me. That seemingly contradicts Marshall McLuhan, but the OBEY posters give me hope that I can fight the powers out there that are enticing me to spend my money away until I'm in debt. I will NOT OBEY and buy things till I'm deep in debt. I will obey myself and my life goals, and that little Save-O-Meter in the corner.

(ps - I dropped a little cash into ING today. Not enough to move the Save-O-Meter, but enough to make some progress.)


Thursday, January 19, 2006

ING's Winter Save Up Sale - 4.75%

Found it at Boston Gal. She's a peach!

More details are available at ING. Of course there's a lot of rules and conditions, but it's worthwhile for new accounts.

I've been very happy with my ING account and the fact that they offer short term CD's in any amount. I am a terrible saver and being able to lock up a few hundred dollars at a time means I won't go out on a wild shopping spree since I have the cash in hand.

If you need a referral, please email me at mapgirl [at] rangers [dot] org.



EDIT: Someone complained without leaving their name or a way to communicate. Their criticism was invalid since I later realized they thought I was talking about the generic Korean word for soup, 'kuk', instead of 'jook'. So nevermind and just enjoy the soup and beware the Internet.

I could open a fast food place called Mapgirl's Jook Joint. (I'm quitting my job any minute now to open this place...) This is for Caitlin at Clutter2Cash & Madame X at My Open Wallet

Jook. That's the Korean name and I think the Chinese name too. My Cantonese-American girlfriend from college calls it jook. I think I've heard it for Mandarin as well. It's a rice porridge made with chicken. I have a hard time eating a whole chicken myself so I make this with a cornish hen. (My mom was really happy to find out that the American supermarket has this small chickens that fit into a regular pot. What will America think of next?!)

This is really easy recipe, but you can't be too squeamish about the meat part. It's not anything more than sticking your hand inside the bird. The other thing is knowing what's a good consistency for the porridge, but I'll get to that too.


1 whole cornish game hen, dressed and clean
garlic to taste, approximately a 1/2 bulb (or more!)
4-5 dried dates, or a handful, depending on your pot size
1/2-1 cups of sweet rice/glutinous rice
1 cup regular rice (short grain 'sushi' rice, not basmati)
6+ cups of water
salt & pepper to taste
chopped scallions for garnish and taste
ginger (optional)

Start boiling the water in a medium size stock pot, enough to submerge the bird and more. Wash and rinse your hen. In the cavity, stuff in the sweet rice about 1/2-3/4 full. Once the water is boiling, put in the rice-stuffed bird.

Boil for about 10-15 minutes and skim the water of any scum that forms on top. (Lid on, lid off, it's up to you really. I keep the lid on for most of the cooking)

Add peeled cloves of garlic, more is better if you ask me. Add the dates, not too many. It depends on how much you are making. Add a chunk of peeled ginger if you like.*

* A word of caution. Peeled ginger when boiled, looks a lot like a boiled clove of garlic. While you can bite into cooked garlic without reprisal, ginger keeps its bite. I used to hate that taste as a kid which is why I can't stand really gingery foods. Total ick. My mommy fishes it out for me now, but sometimes she forgets.

So the hen boils along for a few hours, not a roiling boil, but not just a simmer either. You want to eat this bird during your lifetime. Skim any fat if you like that sort of thing. I do, but I try not to obsess on the low-fat front.

Ok now here's the tricky part if you've never had rice porridge. What consistency do you want? It's not a pudding, but it's thicker than a soup. You want add any remaining rice (both the sweet rice and the sushi rice) to the water and continue boiling. But you don't want to add too much! And how much water? This is where I can't be of much help. You want to add enough to thicken the soup, but not so much that you run out of water. The size of your pot effects this a lot so don't use a really large one unless you scale this up for a chicken. You don't want to keep adding water because splashing cold water on the rice makes it do funny texture things. So boil a little water in another pot and if you need more water for your jook, use the hot water to thin out the soup.

How do you know when to eat? It's up to you. When the meat is fully cooked, you can take a knife and hack off pieces of the hen and ladle out the rice and broth, laying pieces of meat on top. Keep adding water to the pot to stretch the soup. Keep boiling it until the meat falls off the bone easily. Pull out the carcass and pick off any good bits and toss them back into the pot. Throw away the carcass.

Add the scallions on top of each bowl and stir them into the soup when you eat. Make sure you chop it thinly, not a mince, but bias cut strips of both the green and white part.

Confused? If so, please email me. I think I've made this more complicated than it actually is. I don't even think about little details while I cook, but when I write this kind of recipe out, I realize how much knowledge my mom has and how much of this kind of cooking is done by looking and feeling.

Why is this economical? Well, conceivably you can leave this on the stove or in the fridge overnight and keep adding water and more rice and eat this for breakfast all week long. It's a nice breakfast in the winter. You get nummy garlic to ward off germs, a little meat protein, and hot food for breakfast. As a dinner, I need to add kimchee or pickles to the meal, but I could eat 2 bowls of it easily. I add tons of salt. I could save a lot of money if I gave up on cooking and put a salt lick in the kitchen. I love sodium.


Real Estate Assessment

I got a new assessment last week. I've been staring dumbly at the paper. I know my condo has appreciated, but now the assessed value is more than what I paid for it. I don't think that I could get this price on the market if I sold it today.

I keep a spreadsheet of my condo community's recent prices. The Washington Post has all recent local sales on a searchable database so you can get an idea of what your neighbors paid 6 months ago to move into your neighborhood. With the opening of new condos all over the DC market, I wonder if prices are going to fall or go up.

It's nice to know that my condo is still appreciating, but it's disconcerting to know that I am going to have to start socking away some more escrow money, yet again. Where are those fixed payments the bank promised?! I have an aversion to variable payments. I want my payments fixed from year to year. I know I shouldn't give the bank a loan of my escrow money, but my community has a $500 homeowner's property tax refund if you have a net worth less than $250K. Per my NetworthIQ graph, I will be getting that credit for a while.

So let me post a question, how do you guys value your homes with doing your net worth calculations? Mine has fluctuated wildly over the last two years since I don't think the units in my building are selling. Because of this, I feel that my assessment is too high and to be conservative, my net worth values my home at its original purchase price.


Lowering your credit card rate is EASY as PIE!

Like many PF bloggers, I have a
Citibank Platinum Select Dividend Card. It has some really great benefits, and I definitely like getting cash back on my purchaes, up to 5% for certain kinds.

However, I went overboard during the holidays and I need to lower my rate.

I called Citibank and they lowered my rate by 3.0% on the spot. The nice agent on the phone didn't try to sell me any services and I was beaming and smiling as I tried to get off. As she thanked me, she slipped and said,'Thank you for shopping with AT&T...' I know she was about to say 'Universal' which is another Mastercard brand. After that she hung up even more quickly, but not after I said, 'Gotcha!'

The moral of the story? Call your credit card company. That might be all you have to do to lower your rate. FWIW, Citibank's number is 1-800-950-5114.

Today I found The Daily Financial Challenge - Day 2 and didn't know I was already participating!


Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Progress on the Paycheck Challenge

On Wednesdays I go out to knit at Panera. I usually buy dinner there. Today my strategy was to take two frozen dinners to work. Eat one for lunch and one right before I leave for Panera. This worked out nicely for me. I usually spend about $7-10 for a large meal with beverage. Because I had already eaten something, I ordered a hot tea when I arrived. Later on, I smelled some burnt sugar, that appealing caramel scent. I got a sweet treat, two actually. One for now and one for later.

I paid for all three things with my change purse. I had some dollar coins from the Post Office vending machine 3 weeks ago, when I bought new $0.39 stamps. I probably normally wouldn't have $6.00 of dollar coins, but it's nice to know I am still going strong on the paycheck challengs. Besides, I don't know of any other vending machines that accept these coins.

I have a check from the yarn shop that I need to deposit. I have decided to go out bowling tomorrow for a purely social event, so I will break the paycheck challenge by a few hours. (Direct Deposit is sometimes available the night before payday.) I almost bailed on bowling, but I like it and it's chance to meet some new people. I balked at paying $15 downtown for parking, so my friend offered to drive me. I told her I'd split the cost of parking and buy her a beer at the lanes. Saving money by carpooling!


Free stuff I actually want!

The nice thing of being subscribed to lists with like-minded folks, or meeting people with similiar interests is that the things they give away you might actually have a shot at enjoying, and not just junking later.

I knit every week with a bunch of women I met online. It's a nice group of ladies I've known for over a year now. Sometimes, in a fit of decluttering, people bring stuff they no longer want or need. It's called a 'yarn swap' and it's a little bit ritualized. You go through your 'stash' and pull out half-used balls, skeins of stuff you thought you liked but changed your mind a about, free yarn someone's deceased grandmother never used but thought you would, etc. It's a nice opportunity to get some yarn you might not have seen before, try out a small sample before you buy more, etc. It really can expose you to yarns that you might not normally find or pick out for yourself.

Tonight, one of the regulars had been cleaning up her bookshelf of old pattern magazines and books. I walked away with Stephanie Pearl-McPhee's book (aka The Yarn Harlot). I have been waiting to get it, and now I got it for free! I also scored three other pattern books from which I might make one or two small items, or simply study the patterns to get new ideas for shaping and design. After that, I will de-clutter by taking the books back and share them with other knitters. The other really good freebie was a knitting guide on a card that I think will be helpful for teaching new knitters some basics.

It sure beats the grabby-grabby nature of Freecycle, which is a nice concept, but only if you watch it like a hawk and beat someone else to it.



My 401k Rollover account hit $3000.00 on 3:00am on Saturday morning.

Little by little. Bit by bit.

Hm. That reminds me. Not to get all political, but EMILY'S LIST is a group out there that supports women political candidates. The name comes from a saying in the political world, 'Early Money Is Like Yeast. It grows and grows and grows.'

Same goes for your compounding interest, so start saving today!


Holiday Hangover

CNN has posted an article about debt strategies for your holiday hangover.

I have one and I'm going to pursue option two. Like many personal finance bloggers, I have a Citibank Dividend Rewards card, which I love, but I carry a balance. I'm really bad about not paying it off every month. Right now, it's living in my desk drawer while I try out my paycheck challenge this week.

I'll post an update once I find out what happens.


Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Another blog roll addition!

Flexo at Consumerism Commentary has blogrolled me! Wow!


Slow cooking

Stew cubes are cheap meat. They are great for slow cooking. Just rinse them, cut them up if you want smaller pieces, dump into a crock pot with veggies, whatever else you like, and cover with water. Wait 12 hours and voila! Soupy-stewiness.

I'm stuck in a bit of a rut over my crockpot since I am started to despise canned chopped tomatoes. 14oz cans go for about 69 cents on sale some times. Yes, I hoard these too, but I try to get only 4 at a time.

Earlier I suggested white beans, but the slow cooker directions say don't cook beans with tomatoes because the tomatoes make the bean's texture tough. I tried it out and they were definitely a little weird. Too much 'al dente' texture.

For variation on this pot of beef and beans, I'm going to make some macaroni elbows and add them later, after the meat's almost done. I'm a big fan of pot meals and this soup needs a starch.

Oh yeah, and if you haven't been reading carefully, I'm really big on meat and starch. I don't mind vegetarian and I find Boca Burgers to be my favorite veggie burger meat. It's just that I throw out produce all the time because it's spoiled on me. I had a red pepper on the grocery bill last week and I never cooked it. I got a tiny bit wrinkly so I chucked it today.


The Roast Beef Saga/Paycheck challenge

There's really no saga. It's just a catchy title.

On Sunday, I drove home from my yarn shop job and stopped at the market on the way. They didn't have any appealing roasts to cook, either too large, or something I was unsure of cooking. That kind of throws a wrench in to my meal planning strategy for the week.

I was not up to a challenge of a new cut of meat so I bought some stew cubes which will go in to a slow cooker sometime this week with white beans, buillion, onion, celery and maybe barley. I rarely cook with barley, but you know, you can probably get it bulk at a Korean grocery store...

That Asian Grocery Store post has me craving some home cooking. Unfortunately to make jook, I need a biggish pot for the cornish game hen. *grumble* I wasn't interested in making a purchase. On the flipside, it will be worth it because I can make more stock for soup and jook any time I want. Jook is easy. Remind me to post the recipe.

FWIW, I bought some more frozen dinners on sale at the crappy supermarket near my ex-bf's house, which is why I was not super suprised they didn't have a roast I wanted. It's a very small store.

So the meal plan for the week is frozen dinners for lunch, supplement with some salad or hot fries from the tasty cafeteria at work. For dinner, get that slow cooker ready for some beef stew/soup type food and anything I can scavenge on my pantry shelves. I have about $20 left in my checking account and Friday is pay day from my main job. I also got a check from the yarn shop for December, but I want to wait on depositing it to see if I can make it all the way to Friday like many folks on a budget do. I've never been totally freaked out and desperate for cash. If I've needed money, I've been lucky to have a bail out, i.e. my family, a receivable on its way & friends who can cover me till it comes in, found a job in the nick of time, etc.


Friends & Family coupon shopping strategy

A lot of retail shops have 'Friends & Family' coupons for about 30% off regularly priced items. I have figured out a good way to use them. When you get one of these things, take a look at your schedule and your closet. Sometimes these are one-day or one-weekend coupons. They are useless if you can't get yourself to the mall on that day. When you look at your closet, figure out what you NEED or would like to have, then go to the store's website and pick out what looks appealing to you. I'm not so frugal as to say I don't splurge on the occaisional trendy item for the season. I just don't do that on a weekly basis.

For the last 2.5 years, I worked for a small startup company and we dressed in jeans and business casual wear every day. I only got dressed up to meet my clients face to face. Now that I work at a corporate headquarters, I need posh clothes to keep up with the formal business wear dress code. It's not super formal. Ties and jackets are not de rigeur for men, but I do notice that women wear heels and make up more often at this place than at my old job. The guys have on dress shirts daily with nice trousers and not just polos with Dockers.

I got one of these coupons at Christmastime for Banana Republic. I had bought some new work clothes from Lands' End, but hadn't really filled out my wardrobe very well for the whole winter. I still felt underdressed at work. So after examining my closet and the BR website, I picked out pants as a definite need. I went to the store on the annointed day and tried out about 10 pairs to find 2 I liked.

I ended getting two pairs of wool pants and a blazer that I thought would go well with both pairs of pants and jeans and last me a few years in terms of cut. The pants are super trendy and I honestly hate them. But for wool, they aren't too expensive, nor too cheap (poorly made). I am going to alter them myself at home since no one stares at your hems in the office. I pray that when the wide-leg style changes, I can recut them myself into a nicer fit.

The thing that was the true deal was socks. I love having lots of socks. It's one of those things I hoard. At the last minute I notice the cute little patterned socks for sale. I look a little closer and I see plain grey trouser socks are $7.50 a pair, 4 for $20. I quickly calculate that I can get them for $3.50 a pair with the 30% of coupon I have and grab 6 pairs. I could have gotten 8, but I didn't need 8. I probably didn't 'need' 6 either, but I know my favorite socks at Target are $3.50 a pair and these BR socks were a little bit thicker and taller in the calf. So I happily saved a money on my socks and new office clothes.

If you plan it right, you can use these coupons effectively to spend less on your wardrobe. When I got these coupons during college, I used them as an excuse to splurge on too many things, like the Bath & Body Works soaps and lotions I hoarded. (Such a bad idea!) So the best thing to do is strategize, otherwise, just chuck out the coupon or give it to someone else.


Asian grocery stores save you money

Ok, I admit, this is addressed to folks who like cooking Asian food, which I find an annoyingly time consuming process so I rarely do it. I'm not sure what kinds of bargains you can find overall at the Asian food mart, but for certain specific things, it's a very good deal.

The main tip is that if you like Asian cuts of meat, you can save a lot of money around a dollar or two per pound on everyday prices. Most of these stores aren't unionized. (I'd even wager that none of them are.) That means the butcher shop is non-union. The butcher is the highest paid job inside the supermarket due to the occupational risks.

Pork: I like to buy tonkatsu cuts of pork. Basically it's a Japanese dish of a very thin pork cutlet that's deep fried with panko bread crumbs. I never deep fry at home, but this cut is similar to a boneless pork cutlet at the regular supermarket. The regular market sells 1" thick slices I split in half because those cuts are usually 2 or 3 times the size of a deck of playing cards, the standardized portion we're supposed to be eating. Also I get a little freaked out about cooking the pork all the way through.

Since the tonkatsu cuts are very thin, I can have one or two pieces for dinner and have it be equivalent to a 1/2" thick cutlet. Since the tonkatsu pieces are already 'bulk' and the right size, I package them up in 2 slice amounts and stick the extra in the freezer. I'd say there's usually 10 pieces in a package and the per pound price of the meat is a heck of a lot cheaper.

You can find whole pigs' feet here. Sometimes, in the right neighborhoods you can find pigs' feet, but it's a demographic difference. Today I shopped at a market on my way home from work and they had pig stomach and feet. The yuppieville market that's on my daily commute to my primary job never has it. (And I look for it too because I'm always curious about 'exotic' cuts.)

Fish: I don't know about you, but I'm not grossed out by fish heads and tails. The Asian grocery stores will give you the head and tail, which you can always save for stock. I don't like paying the fishmonger to dress the fish since the icky bits don't faze me. Keep that in mind the next time you get a filet of sole. Can you bear fileting it yourself? (Salmon is another story because you have to contend with the laborious process of bone removal.)

Beef: Tripe. In western food, I never touch the stuff. In Asian food, it's tasty. Mind you, I don't prepare this at home ever, but I can rarely find it in regular stores because it's so indesirable they don't put it out. They might just give it away if you ask at the regular grocery store because it's so unpopular.

For Korean BBQ, per pound, I've found that the price of the meat is cheaper than buying a roast at the regular supermarket. The last time I did this, the price was about $4/lb. This is one of those buy in bulk scenarios too. Koreans cut ribs cross grain, so you have three rib bones at the top and a nice piece of meat underneath, about 4-6 sq inches. It's VERY different that American or Chinese style ribs. You only need two pieces to satisfy your meat requirement for a meal. Usually these are sold in huge packs for large parties. I take the whole package, marinade it overnight in the fridge, then separate them out in to 4 piece portions to freeze. That way I cook once and get 2 meals out of it. Look for stuff marked 'kalbi' or 'LA kalbi'.

Chicken: Strangely, I don't recall my mom ever getting a chicken from the Asian grocery store. Purdue or Tyson's is usually a better deal at the regular store. I know my mom gets cornish game hens at the regular supermarket to make jook. Jook is a chicken porridge that's good for breakfast and sick people. It's one of my favorite comfort foods. Remind me and I will post the recipe up here too. It's a one-pot lazy man's meal.

Tea: Asian people have tea of all different kinds. My favorite is barley tea. It's roasted barley that makes a nice hot or cold drink and tastes fine without sugar. In fact, I've never had it with sugar. It's a heck of a cheaper than Koolaid. My mom kept pitchers of it in the fridge in the summer. I can't stand drinking water all day. It drives my palette nuts. I like tea and this is a good and cheap way to get it instead of all those little tea bags. You should also be able to find tea leaves in bulk. Skip the green tea beverages in bottles and brew your own at home! I like a lot of the Japanese green teas, and genmai cha (toasted rice tea).

You can buy 20 lb bags of rice at the Asian grocery store. Soy sauce, ginger, sesame oil come in larger sizes and is much cheaper than at regular grocery stores. Think of all the 'oriental' dressing you can make! Garlic is another one. Garlic & scallions are super cheap at the Asian food mart. Generally you can find pint-sized jars of chopped garlic too, and it's much cheaper than the 2oz jars you get at other stores. Other bulk grains and legumes are available, like millet, red beans and other things for which I don't have English names. Check it out sometime.

One of my friends like shopping for fruit at the Asian grocery store. I am allergic so I can't eat any of it. His observation is that it doesn't have a long shelf life, but between him and his girlfriend, they have 6 kids, so a bag of apples or bananas doesn't last long anyway.

I hope I've made an argument for why you should check out the Asian food market it on your area. In California, Ranch 99 was the THE BOMB. They had all kinds of international foods. On the eastern seaboard, try the big chain stores, Super H & Hanareum (in Baltimore and DC, probably NY too). In Philly, Koba Woo (owned by friends of the family). In DC, Lotte (owned by family of a college acquaintance).


Monday, January 16, 2006

The Carnival of Personal Finance is up!

The Carnival of Personal Finance is up at Savvy Saver, and yours truly is the fourth one listed!

For all my new visitors today, I am away all day, volunteering, but I promise to publish your comments later today or tonight when I get home.

Welcome new visitors!


Never pay retail

"Didn't your momma ever teach you not to pay retail?"

My mom is your classic Asian lady. She has tons of pocketbooks and shoes. She dresses smartly when she goes out on the town. The thing I learned from her is never pay retail. We used to outlet shop in Reading, PA when I was a kid. Always at Carters and Buster Brown. These days she goes to Off 5th and Nordstrom's Rack to get her Ferragamos.

In the same vein, I prefer to shop the sites where I already like the clothes and wait for a good deal, hence the Lands' End Overstocks site I mentioned in the Frumperella post. I rarely buy stuff at retail price. My favorite purchase were a pair of $195 Danner boots for $45 from, though I had to get them at the retail shop in San Francisco for that price.

One thing I wish we could do more here in the US is to bargain. I don't shop in stores where I can do that. But I will tell you that my mom is good. REALLY GOOD.

While we were in Italy in 1999, I really wanted to buy a 3/4 leather jacket. My mom was pretty skeptical, and had a sour look on her face the entire time we were in the store. She picked on this, picked on that. She said don't buy it too slim or you'll get fat and can't wear it later. I don't like the collar on that one, the buttons look cheap, what's that price in dollars? etc, etc. It was a litany of grouses and put-downs. I almost gave up.

Seeing that my mother was the final arbiter of the sale, the salesman started dropping the price to entice her, thinking she was going to pay for it. She was still stony faced as the price came down to US$400.00. I couldn't bear to leave Rome for a second time without something made of leather and $400 was easily $200 less than I would have paid in San Francisco (where I was living at the time), so I went ahead and bought the coat. All the while, mommy stood there pretty annoyed at me and the salesman.

Later on, we returned to the hotel and she was smiling brilliantly. I asked her what she was so happy about, and she started laughing. She proudly told me,'I got you a good deal on that jacket!' Savvy woman she is. BTW, I wore that jacket to work yesterday since the weather was mild. 7 years later it still looks good. And mom was right, there was a while there when I was too fat to wear it. bah!


Roth vs Traditional IRA

Silly Mapgirl! You have a traditional IRA not a Roth. There was no need to open a new account for your 401k rollover.


This means that when I have saved some money, I will be making a 2005 contribution to that account and the Save-O-Meter will be drained. Curses! Foiled again! (but in a still saving money kind of way.)


Blogrolling additions

I've been adding folks like crazy.

Today I added Financial Baby Steps. It's so cute!

Savvy Saver was added recently too.

Caitlin at Clutter2Cash blogrolled me! My first one! Without even asking! Woo Hoo!


Sunday, January 15, 2006

Securing your future through the lottery

Gambling is NOT a viable retirement strategy. It's a stupid tax, much like a sin tax on liquor and cigarettes. It taxes dumb people for their own stupidity and ignorance about statistics. I should know, I play the lottery.

I only buy tickets every once in a while when the lottery jackpot is really big, even though my chances of winning are the same on any day. Everyone out there does realize that YOUR CHANCES OF WINNING ARE VERY SLIM, RIGHT? I only play because it fulfills a fantasy of mine to win. You'll never win if you don't play.

Boston Gal's tips for accumulating money are excellent and I highly recommend them. My favorite?

Today Is Always a Good Day To Start [Saving]

I'm a big believer in Camp New Day's Eve at Burning Man. Their premise is that you don't have to wait until the New Year to live life to its fullest. I interpret that as not waiting to start changing yourself. You can start when the new day begins at midnight, or when you wake up. Every day is a New Day. Heck, like Boston Gal says, Today is a good day too.


Legumes save you money

Goya beans are cheap at the grocery store. If you learn how to make beans, you can save money. The nutritional trick is to have rice and beans together at the same meal to make it a full protein replacement. Eating beans or rice alone doesn't have the right amino acids to make complete proteins.

And guess what? Rice is generally pretty cheap too. I buy it in 5 lb bags at the American grocery store. If you are so inclined, you can get monster waist high bags at Asian food markets for even cheaper. (which reminds me to post again about Asian food marts)

My favorite recipe is just a simple lentil stew.

1/2-1 cup dried green lentils
1 or 2 cubes of chicken or beef buillion
some sun-dried tomatoes and dried mushrooms

Note: This is a list of dry ingredients with a long shelf life. I have problems storing and using fresh produce before it gets yucky.

Rinse the lentils and remove any that don't look nice, or any small stones/pebbles. Place into a pot with about 2-3 cups of water, depending on how much you want to make. Lentils are different from rice, you can add more water if you need it and no, I never measure. Add in all the other ingredients. If use buillion that's a powder, instead of cubes, I will add about a half spoonful at the beginning and more to taste as the dish finishes boiling.

Follow the directions on the lentil package for cooking times, it's usually about 20-30 minutes.

I end up tearing apart the tomatoes in the pot after cooking because you can't really cut them before you start unless you use kitchen shears and have strong hands.

Serve it over some rice, add salt and pepper to taste. But the buillion has enough sodium that you probably don't need more salt. With a nice salad course, you have a complete meat-free meal that costs you probably about a dollar or two at most. If you wanted to add some meat, I'd brown a little ground sausage meat and drain it really well.

This isn't a fancy meal. It's a meal I developed when I got really lazy and didn't feel like leaving the house or ordering delivery. I never order delivery, I don't know why, I just don't have that habit. Though if you want to order take out, pick it up yourself so you don't have to tip the driver. If there's a tip jar at the counter though, leave a dollar because there is someone back there checking your order to make sure it's right.


Grocery shopping II

So last week I made a pork tenderloin. Tonight I ate the last of the frozen meals and I'm thawing out the .5 meal for breakfast tomorrow morning. I think I ended up buying meals at restaurants 5 times last week. 1 on Sunday when I was at work, fries to augment a lunch, 2 dinners out with friends, and another lunch at work because I forgot my lunch at home. I actually ate most of the salad mix I thought I would waste too. That's a big surprise.

I still have a few groceries left from last week. This week I plan to make roast beef. The trick to beef is that I like it rare, almost mooing. Because I like it rare, when I pack a meal and nuke it in the microwave, the meat doesn't get overcooked and enhances my enjoyment.

I am a terrible meal planner because I am always running around after work and don't have time to fix a meal at home until the weekend. And then I become lazy. In truth, just being mindful of last week's savings, I am encouraged to plan again. This article talks about how meal planning and planning your grocery trip can save you money. The best quote?
"Last week [my wife] was away, so she didn't order [from an online grocery service]," Lawrence says. "I went to the store instead. I spent $150 and I can't figure out why."


Saturday, January 14, 2006

Second streams

I loathe advertisements. But I want a second stream of income. Well, at this point, it's a third or fourth. (I am getting 3 W-2's for 2005.)

So I have succumbed to posting Amazon and Google ads. I figure why not? Google runs Blogger. My sister works for A9, a division of Amazon.

Everyone says they want to make more money. Last night I re-read Rich Dad, Poor Dad, by Robert Kiyosaki & Sharon Lechter. He talks about adding more streams of income and working a good chunk of the year to pay the tax man. The trick to his stream of income is that he doesn't need to mind the store. I pick that phrase in particular since I work behind the counter at a yarn shop. I hope folks click through and actually generate a stream of something for me.

I put three finance books that I can actually recommend. I've read them all and they've taught me a lot. The last book is non-finance oriented and it was very interesting. I'll try to keep at least one non-finance book listed since pure entertainment is part of life's pleasures.

Perhaps an online finance book group is in order? I wonder how to do that.



When I go to the office, I am Frumperella. I have always been taught to dress professionally for work. When I was debating in high school and in college, my mom would make sure I got skirts that fell all the way to the knee.

My mom, being the conservative lady she is, never let me wear make up in high school. She flat out said, 'You look like a whore.' Gee, thanks Mom. Well, in the end, I do have to thank her since I save a lot of money by not wearing any on a daily basis. Now of course she tells me I ought to wear a little every day to the office, but she's made her no make up bed and now she has to sleep in it.

I wear classic clothes to the office. I look like a preppy mom. Hey, that's really funny. Why? Because the preppy moms at my high school shopped at Land's End catalog. And that's where I shop now! I love their Overstocks page. Be sure to visit on Saturdays when the new stuff comes out in the On The Counter section. Pay careful attention to when the discounts increase over the course of the week.

I am so frumpy that the guys from my old job flat out told me one night that though I am a cute girl, I dressed like THAT. That? What's THAT? Then I looked down and saw my grey turtleneck, plaid shirt, khakis and hiking boots. I guess I saw their point. The next day, I dressed in a skirt, tall heels and slimming sweater. I looked great, got lots of compliments, and the day after that I went back to my frumpy clothes.

I have my vanities. I do. My hair is unreasonably long and I use a lot of shampoo because I can't bear to wear my hair short anymore. But my role model was my Latin teacher. She is smart, witty, and kind of frumpy too. She wore Coke-bottle lenses in dark rims, Rockports and a narrow wardrobe of clothes. I admired her and learned that I don't have to dress to impress anyone. I can impress them just by talking.


Stocking up or hoarding?

My girlfriend in NYC is someone I've always admired for her ability to save. Granted, when we were young in San Francisco, she didn't have any student debt like I did. Even so, she was very careful with her money and how she spent it.

A few years ago, I bought Kokologyand I asked her one of the questions. It basically set up a scenario and your response is supposed to reveal something about you. You forget your wallet and you need to buy lunch, how much money can you scrape up? I said I could probably find $5 on me in my purse or at my desk at work, from the change in my car, etc. My friend said she'd have nothing. She'd have to borrow money from somebody. The interpretation of our answers is that I am not so careful with money. I have dribs and drabs of it tucked away in pockets since I don't account for it well. My friend on the other hand, is very careful with her money and therefore if her wallet wasn't on her person, she'd have nothing. It also implied that she is most likely in a better position financially. No doubt this interpretation is true.

The other day, after writing the hoarding post, I asked her how much she stocked up on staple products and found her answer quite revealing. She told me as she packed her belongings to make the move back East, she had something like 20 bottles of shampoo. Where she kept it in her studio was beyond me. I never saw them!

For a while my friend worked for a consumer products company and she would get products at a discounted rate. Though she got a phenomenal discount on household products, she no longer stocked up and kept only 1 or 2 bottles around. (Naturally, when she left that firm she stocked up again, but this is allowable since that discount was going away.) In the process of moving cross-country, she realized that she was keeping too much and it was costing her to move it with her. So you CAN take it with you, but is it cost-effective?

I like stocking up too, but I realize that I had hoarded lotions and soaps from my college job at the mall. I still have Bath & Body Works products, 10 years later. I try not to stock up anymore, but it's hard habit to break. I have made the commitment to use some of this stuff up before I buy a replacement. Shampoo & conditioner are the only things I keep on the shelf and I try to stick to supermarket brands as much as possible. (Unless as I've found out, it damages my hair. Stay away from Pantene Smooth & Sleek. It dries your hair out if you use it daily.)

So while you can get a good deal, just keep in mind that stocking up isn't always saving money if the product goes stale on the shelf or costs you money to move these extras around.


Friday, January 13, 2006

Savings programs for low-incomes

Pennsylvania has a neat savings program for low-income families. It was profiled on the front page of The Wall Street Journal yesterday.

The article has a little histogram of savings. It shows that 13% of the bottom 20% of all income earners have retirement accounts, in contrast 86% of the top 20% have accounts. Per the US Census Bureau stats for 2001, that means folks making less than $17,970 and folks making over $83,500. (I LOVE THE CENSUS BUREAU!)

The origin of many of these programs is the work of Washington University's Michael Sherraden. You can find an essay about it here. The basic idea is that asset acculumation begins with savings. By saving money, a low-income person can change their economic condition and lift themselves out of poverty.

Apparently there is also a Saver's Credit for low & middle income households on the Federal tax return. As the WSJ points out, it's only a benefit if you pay taxes.

My favorite two quotes from the article:

We are kidding ourselves if we think we are expanding savings [with] a grotesque array of savings incentives that do nothing for low-income Americans. Fred Goldberg, Treasury Department office in Bush Sr.'s administration.

Ms. Hughes says she tells her kids 'no' a lot. There were no Christmas presents this year. 'I have to lead by example,' she says. 'I can't tell my kids what to do if I don't do it myself.

I love that last one. It sounds like good responsble parenting to me.

I used to read Marxist Feminist books in college for school, stuff about Patriarchy and Capitalist Accumulation. I'll be honest, I'm interested in a little wealth accumulation myself.


Thursday, January 12, 2006

Oh the irony!

A telemarketer just called. I thought it was my boyfriend so I picked up.

As I hung up, I realized that DJ Boris Kafka at Theory Radio was playing a song where the man sings "Please forgive me."

How funny is that?


Student loans

Weird synergy! Last night I wrote this post and saved it to publish tonight. Meanwhile, Boston Gal had a similar post

My friend works for The Institute for College Access and Success. They are lobbying Congress on rising educational loan debt at
Project on Student Debt.

I know for me, educational debt has been a huge source of stress and anxiety.

This post is going to get really personal so pardon me if I start going off the deep end.

I went to a private school for 7 years. It was a great education, but the start of my student loans. At 16, a sophmore in high school, I signed a $1000.00 loan for my junior year. My financial aid package the following year, wanted me to sign an additional $3000.00. I thought about it and realized that I was most likely going to go to a private college and undertake $20K-$25K in debt. I decided to play hardball with the financial aid department of my lovely school and told them I was going back to public school. I still went to church with my public school friends and so socially it wasn't going to be a huge trauma. These were kids in my elementary school classes so I wasn't really going to lose out on that front. My older sister went there. She and her peers went to places like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, & Wellesley, so it's not like the education at public school was going to suck. My resolve not to take on more debt paid off and I got a larger aid package for my last year of high school.

As college wound down, I was dating this nice boy who had a lot of college debt. He did five years in a dual degree program at an Ivy League school. His debt load was about $50K. Mine was about $24K. Basically I was so afraid of marrying this guy because I'd be marrying his debt and the mortgage he was about to co-sign with his financially challenged parents. The debt wasn't a direct part of our break up, but my fears and worries about a future together were directly impacted by our financial statements. Looking back, we might have broken up anyway, but having a lot of anxiety about money sure didn't help.

4 years after I finished college, I never thought that I'd be done with my student loans. My mom had paid that high school loan for me while I was still in college. I still had a lot more left on my undergraduate loans. At the rate I was going, I was never going to have a down payment on a house. And I never did. After I asked for assistance, my parents generously helped me buy my condo. Over the years, they helped out with my student loans and other debts when I was un-/under-employed. I finally paid the last of my loans a year early in September 2005. Since then, I've slept better at night. But after paying off my loans, it would have taken me another 5 years to save enough to buy a home where I live.

I firmly believe that student debt is going to cripple my generation. I have friends taking public interest law jobs to escape their debt payments through special programs for public service. I have friends who work two or three jobs to pay their loans off. I have friends who put off getting married, or just forgo a wedding entirely because it's too expensive. All of this is going to catch up to us as a nation. I'm sure of it.

As to the anonymous commenters on Boston Gal's post, I wasn't going to be a geographer after college (hence my nickname Mapgirl). I floundered a bit and fell into an IT position that didn't pay very well. Eventually after slogging many years doing tech support, I have a well-paying job in my field. I don't think it's bad advice telling kids to pursue the thing they love while at school. There is no other time in your life where you'll have quite the intellectual freedom and level of discourse as in college. The trick is teaching kids perserverance and hard work to become successful at their chosen field.



I'm still learning to navigate Blogger. Yesterday I published two posts that I wrote on Tuesday night. I thought that if I waited to publish them, that it would be listed under the date published. But nope, Blogger stores it in the order you create the posts. That sucks. I'd like to have new content for my readers every day, but I'm not fond of writing every day.

Bummer. I'll have to work something else out.


Housing Bubble Articles

What can I say? I own a condo in the DC area. I'm totally freaked out. But then again, I have a pretty modest place. It's not new construction. It isn't luxury. It's just a solid place to live that's convenient for my commute. It's clean, safe and affordable. It will probably desirable for a while since folks are having a hard time finding any place under the $200K price point in this area.

Boy, am I glad I got a place I could afford. Kudos to my realtor and mortgage banker both for steering me to a 7/1 ARM at a fairly low rate. Yeah, I could have gotten a lower rate if I went with an interest only 3/1 ARM, but I figured at these are some of the lowest rates I'll ever have in my entire lifetime. I bit the bullet and signed for the longer ARM that is interest and principal. I'm building equity with each payment.

The second article is focused on the SF Bay Area, but I found the WaPo link at the bottom, where they've collected news links from around the country. It's worth noting to me since half my family in the US lives around the bay. Generationally speaking, all us younguns went West during the Internet boom years. I was one of six that moved there, one of three that left. I would love to move back, but I would definitely rent out there. I fantasize about keeping my NoVA condo as a rental since I could own nothing in San Francisco. I just couldn't rent it at market rates and cover the mortgage and HOA fee. I'd lose money unless I rented it as a furnished unit which has its own problems. But we'll see.


Tuesday, January 10, 2006


The Infinite Mind radio program has a fantastic show about Hoarding and Clutter.

As a knitter, I find myself hoarding yarn. I have way more than I can knit in a year. Recently I guesstimated that I have about 2-3 years worth of projects stored in my stash. That's hardly anything when you consider some older women have SABLE (Stash Acqusition Beyond Life Expectancy). That's the yarn you find in your great aunt's home after she's passed on.

I find this yarn hoarding is pretty serious. Hoarding is a type of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I think I'm borderline for OCD because I could be a serious hoarder if I'm not careful about what I bring into the house.

As a single person, I have a hard time filling a kitchen size garbage bag full of trash. That's because I don't generate a lot in a week. I usually toss stuff out every two weeks or so. When the white bag isn't nearly full, I float around the house and I sweep up stuff to toss out. I have lots of clutter, but I try to de-clutter regularly. My girlfriend thinks I'm nuts because my plastic recycling is full all the time, but I like to wait until I can fill an whole bag! A lot of hoarders have bags of trash in the house. Fortunately, I can let go of my trash. And my recycling. Periodically, I toss out all the periodicals in the house.

What does this have to do with personal finance? Well, this post at LiveJournal might illuminate it better. Hoarders often run up debt.

Ask yourself if you are prone to hoarding. (I'd like to hoard a little more in my savings, but that's another issue.) Can you spend less by breaking your hoarding habits? Giving up your penchant for collecting knick-knacks? A lot of people don't start out by being hoarders. It builds up slowly over time. Sometimes you hear stories of Depression-era folks who kept bags and bags of dry goods in the pantry because of their fears about having plenty. It's all related.

So my best advice is don't hoard. Be conscientious about what you bring into the house. Was it good deal? Was it free or gifted to you? Where is it going to go in the house? Is there upkeep/maintenance on it?

Some thoughts on changing our habits to become savers, not spenders.


Financial Issues in Relationships

Nina at Sitting Pretty has a great post on this topic, primarily about power and equality.

I've never had a 'Helena' in my life. I've had the occaisonal boyfriend who bought everything when we went out to eat or go dancing, but no, no lavish gifts. No vacations to exotic locations.

Couples need to talk about money and what it means to them. It saves a lot of grief later on. Financial compatibility should be as important as other types of compatibility when picking a partner. As my co-worker said to me the other day, 'Are you a spender? Is your boyfriend? Because a relationship with two spenders is really tough.' (Don't worry, he's not a nosy guy. It was something he said after making a comment about his wife's spending habits.)


Changing my thinking

I like Holly Ordway at Spending Wisely. I find her website interesting and helpful because it's about changing your entire mindset on spending. She believes the key is to spend less and to question why you are spending the money.

I think most people don't even think about where their money goes. It's so easy to just hand over your plastic at the register and not even note what dollar amount was rung up. Every day, it's two dollars here for a coffee, a dollar there for a snack, etc.

I find myself asking myself these questions for even the smallest purchases:

  • Why do I want this?
  • Do I need it?
  • Can I get it for cheaper?
  • Can my broken one be fixed?
  • If I get this, will I really use it?
  • How many times will I use it?
  • Is my cost per use a price I can live with?

Living consciously and spending consciously can be hard at first, but liberating too. Ever since I paid off my student loans, I know a portion of my mind has been put at ease. (Long story, but I signed for my first educational loan when I was 16. That's a whole post on its own.)


On credit card debt and cash reserves

An article on credit card debt in the US.

It's not too old. Dated October 2005.

Looking back on 2005, I realize that I was definitely depending on my good credit holding up while unemployed. I was also depending on my fabulous ability to find a job quickly. (My record is 10 days. This was about 45.) I did a little hustling, picking up extra shifts at the yarn shop and waitressing for the first time in my life. Honestly I should have a cash cushion as many financial advisors recommend, hence my $4000 savings goal. That's $2000 from last year, and another $2000 for this year.

Why is it only about $1000? Because I withdrew a chunk of it to pay off my Christmas gifts. While that felt pretty good, I really didn't enjoy taking that money out. I'm surprised how sickened I felt at chipping away at some of my security. Very interesting. Dipping into savings has never bugged me that much before. I guess it's all part of getting serious about saving money.

I'm working on building up that cash cushion. I know I can definitely reach my goal by 2007, I'd like to make it before September 1st.


Monday, January 09, 2006


Welcome to my non-spambot commenters! They are real live people! One I actually know in real life even!

Welcome one and all!

I'm still not 100% sure where I am going yet, but I already have follow up on Grocery Shopping. I ended up with three full meals (sans veggies because this is a personal finance blog and not a nutrition one) and a small box of meat slices, appropriate for one more meal. Everything went into the freezer so there is no risk of spoilage unless of course I fall into one of my other wasteful habits, leaving stuff in the freezer forever until it's really yucky.

But I'd like to refer back to Jane Dough's post about her fridge and my comment there. I suppose having stuff in the freezer, but not too much is actually a good thing.

So I got 4.5 meals from $0.10 of garlic, $14.61 for pork tenderloin, miscellaneous spices, half stick of butter of unknown price, and a free box of Stove Top Stuffing Mix. (My mother bought it at Costco for Thanksgiving, made 2 of 8 packets for dinner, and tried to pawn off the rest to me. I am a sucker and I took a box of 4 packets wondering when I was going to eat it since it's not my favorite side dish.) Each meal will cost me approximately $3.27. Not too shabby. Add a small salad from the cafeteria at work and water for a beverage and I'll probably spend about $4.50.


Grocery shopping

Sometimes having to work from home is a good thing. I get to leave work an hour or two early, hit the grocery store before it gets insanely crowded and plan a few meals.

I know lots of people out there think that store cards are bad because they entice you to buy things you wouldn't normally buy. I think I know my shopping habits pretty well. I lie in wait for the foods I really want to eat to be flagged for sale and then I stock up. Part of the reason is that I don't have a weight issue and I like processed foods for their shelf life and convenience.

Tonight was a good shopping trip for me. I bought some frozen dinners to stock up 5 for $10. Add to that a whole pork tenderloin, bread, cheese, salad mix, orange juice, bell pepper, garlic, orange, chips, and 2 sale-priced bottles of fabric softener. The total was $54.75.

I know that I'm going to end up tossing out half the salad. I always do. I really don't like salad that much unless I have a specific craving for it. Was buying that salad a good deal? I have no idea. I suppose it's psychologically making me feel good if I buy it and have it available to eat. Usually it just makes me feel guilty for throwing out the food when it's spoiled.

Realistically, I'm going to have problems eating the entire pork loin. The strategy here is to freeze the meat once it's cooked. The packages contain one loin in two pieces. I roast them with some generically tasty spices and slice them up immediately. I box them into lunch-sized portions. I try to pack in a starchy side dish and some vegetables for a balanced meal. Some go into the freezer, some go in the fridge for immediate leftovers. If I'm unlucky, there's going to be extra meat leftover. That gets put into serving sized containers and right into the freezer.

The last time I did this, I was a bad person. I did not put the extra meat into the freezer and it went to waste. Today I commit myself to putting it all into the freezer. By sitting and monitoring some batch processes at work, I will be awake and able to get tasks done around the house. There will be no "I'll do it later" thinking tonight. No sirree.

What's the bottom line to all this rambling? My point is, is that I don't save a lot of money because I dine out a lot, or I throw out my groceries a lot because I am under a spell of trying to save money but in reality I'm usually never home to cook unless work forces me to be at home. Yes, I will end up saving a lot of money with these meals if I can get around to eating them. So wish me luck. This is the week of the pig for lunch.


Sunday, January 08, 2006

2005 Recap

I thought I should start out by reviewing what was good about 2005.

1. I paid off my student loans a year early. It took me nine years and some help from my parents in those lean times to pay it off, but it's done now. That Johns Hopkins University degree is mine now, free & clear.

2. I 'paid off' my car loan. Actually, while I was unemployed and needing to conserve cash, I rolled it into my HELOC so I was down to one payment instead of two. Now that I am actually down to one payment, I am happily paying this stuff off.

3. I got a better paying job and I started getting serious about saving money. With my new job, I am maxing out my 401k plan. I also opened an ING Direct account to help me with saving.


TV vs. Hobbies

People think it's weird that I don't own a TV. I don't. I have other stuff to occupy my time.

I love TV. There used to be nights where I'd flip it on after classes for the 5 or 6pm news and wouldn't turn it off until Johnny Carson was on. I love the moving images. My eyes still wander to the set above the bar when I'm out at restaurants. I was and arguably, am still, a TV zombie.

Now that I don't have a TV to fill my time, I have other things to fill it up, like going out with friends and my hobbies.

I find that I have only 3 real hobbies, reading, knitting and surfing the web. TV doesn't enhance those three experiences. It's only conducive for knitting. I remember watching TNT's Law & Order marathons on Monday and Tuesday at my last group living situation. That was good because I would force myself to sit and knit a project for 3 hours when I really needed to get it done for a deadline.

Because I don't own a TV, I don't pay an astronomical cable bill. I get DSL from the phone company and I only have a house line so that I can call 911 on it. Otherwise, I use my cellphone (which is paid for by my parents' company. I am lucky enough to be their bilingual computer support person and 100% available. Really, in some ways it'd be cheaper and less of a headache to pay for it myself.). The DSL is essential to me since I am a computer systems geek. I need to be able to dial in from home for work. Dial up ain't gonna cut it when you're doing what I do for a living. And no, my company doesn't pay for it or offer me an employee discount for it (which is funny because they are a telecom that provides it for home consumers).

Reading. I'd do it anyway even if I did have a TV. I need to go to the library more. I have a good library near the house. I have plunked down a good chunk of money during the holidays for books, but I should have made the mile walk to the library and back. It would have been good for my heart and for my wallet.

Knitting. I have a second job at a yarn shop, primarily for the discount I get on yarn. I did have a job and lifestyle where I needed this job to make ends meet, but that's because I can be a spendthrift sometimes (see the above regarding a social life). The one good thing is that this hobby paid for itself. I did not spend more on yarn last year than I made at the shop. Quicken tells me that I netted about $30. If you include the money I saved by having a discount, I was ahead by nearly $80. (Yes, I spend about $500-600 a year on yarn and supplies.)

Since I have three wonderful hobbies that are essentially sunk costs, why should I own a TV? To be hip and cool and know what people are talking about? Nah. I love celebrity gossip as much as the next person. It would be no more lurid if I knew what these people were famous for. Just tell me the gossip and remind me why this person is famous and I will go on my merry way.


Saturday, January 07, 2006

Getting Things Started

I probably won't post daily. My job and social life don't really permit that. But I will have some content shortly, primarily reposts of stuff I put up on LJ. If possible, I'll try to update them with newer information or additional content. I'd like this blog to be a little more profressional and not just a musing about money.


Open for business!

This blog is an outgrowth of my old blog at LiveJournal. I think my boyfriend got tired of reading my financial obsessions, and my LJ friends are too nice to say anything about it to me. I was also the only person posting to the financial communities I subscribed to, so I decided to take the plunge and open a topic-specific blog.

Why Blogger? I found that most of my regular personal finance sites to visit were on Blogger, namely Boston Gal's Open Wallet.


Subscribe to Mapgirl's Fiscal Challenge