Thursday, January 31, 2013

Weekend Reading: Here I Go Again

Here I Go Again by Jen Lancaster

At first glance, you might not think this book has much to do with personal finance, but you would be completely wrong!  In a nutshell, this book is about Lissy Ryder, who was basically the Queen Mean Girl when she was in high school.  Twenty years after graduation, on the night of her High School reunion (they're always so dramatic in books and movies, aren't they?), her life basically falls apart and she's forced to reconsider all of her horrible choices.

I don't want to give too much away, plotwise, but trust me when I say that this book is hilarious escapism at its best.  Lissy starts off the book as a completely despicable, self-absorbed person who loses everything--and it's so satisfying.  Then, gradually, she learns to become a better person.  It sounds completely sappy and disgusting when I describe it, but it's quite witty and hilarious.  Eventually the main character realizes that she's so mean because all of the women in her family are incredibly mean, and the trait has been passed down through generations: "Grandmama's big claim to fame is once having made Jackie Kennedy cry.  She's still proud of that too, like it's her crowning achievement."

Personal financewise, Lissy is a complete gong show.  She works as a publicist, but barely shows up for work choosing instead to spend time at her gym stalking Oprah and working on her tan.  So naturally, she's cut loose right away.  Since she has no savings--her life is in shambles!  She has to move back into her bedroom at her parents house, and ends up depressed and eating her feelings.  Lesson one: have an emergency fund!

Anyway, highly enjoyable read, and I'm obviously very bad at writing book reviews for books I actually liked.  Check out the book discussion page at Blogher.com for people who are better able to put their feelings into words than I am.




I was compensated for this BlogHer Book Club review but all opinions expressed are my own

Monday, January 28, 2013

It Never Hurts to Ask

I recently overdrew my checking account.  Naturally, I was mortified, and I wasn't planning to tell anyone about it, but since I just published this information on the internets, you can see I've gotten over my embarrassment.  Yes, it's shameful that I forgot about a check that I wrote, and I admit that I did math incorrectly, but I ended up with a series of events beyond my control that resulted in me overdrawing my account, but also making some changes for the positive.
  1. I didn't get my gas bill in December.  Usually my gas and electric bills arrive around the same time at the beginning of the month. Last month, the gas bill never came, and I just didn't notice.  Then, a couple weeks ago, I got one, paid it, and then looked at it to see that it had been due December 28th.  Then I got another one two days later.  Double paying my gas bill meant eating up more of the monetary cushion I leave in my checking account.
  2. Car tax was due.  Car tax is due quarterly, and has to be paid for by writing a check since I'd have to pay a fee for electronic payment (no thank you).  I'm really bad at remembering I've written checks, which is why I try to avoid doing it!  So that was another odd amount of money coming out of my checking account, even though I had it on my calendar and knew it was coming.
  3. I'm bad at math.  I thought I had everything figured out, and that there was just enough money in there to cover it, but I overdrew my account by $4.
So I was assessed a $29 overdraft fee by my bank (I don't have overdraft protection because I never overdraw!).  Thankfully, they didn't bounce the check for my car tax, and I moved money over from my savings account about an hour after I noticed I was overdrawn (yes, I check my bank balance several times a day.  Call me crazy, but it comes in handy).

I was ready to accept the fee as just a tax on my stupidity, but then I remembered that I actually have a nice bank with good customer service.  I also have never overdrawn my account before, and that has to count for something!  So I sent them an email saying just that, I've never overdrawn my account before, is there any way I can get a pass this one time.  Within an hour, I got an email back saying, that's no problem, the money will be refunded by the end of tomorrow.

Because this is money I had already mentally spent, I decided it counts as bonus money and I quickly transferred it to my travel fund.  So, lesson learned: even though it sometimes feels awkward, it really doesn't hurt to ask, and it might save you $29.

Double bonus, because I didn't get my gas bill until way late, that prompted me to look at their website again and see that I can now sign up for e-billing, which was not previously available.  Less paper, less chance of a bill getting lost!

Monday, January 21, 2013

A Different Student Loan Scheme

I've been trying very hard recently to make a dent in my student loan total.  I've been paying more than the amount owed each month, and am actually a month ahead with no more payments due until March 21.  The only problem is, even with being this far ahead, the amount owed keeps increasing.

Yes, you read that right: I'm overpaying on my loans and the amount owed keeps increasing.  I am literally in a no-win situation.

I've decided to take a slightly different approach and see if that pays off.  Last month, $2.53 of my $300 payment went toward the principal balance of the loan.  Looking at that paltry amount made me realize that there actually is no way that I can ever pay these loans off.  I already knew that, of course, but I keep re-realizing it.

My loans are currently unconsolidated.  Each semester I took out loans is represented as a different group, A-H, and they have about three different interest rates.  My largest loan also has the highest interest rate at 6.5%, whereas the smaller ones are 2.1%. My new plan is to focus on that big guy and hopefully actually make some more progress in getting the principal down.  After all, I can only write off $1500 worth of student loans interest payments on my taxes for the year, so I might as well see if this new strategy actually makes a difference.

It's pretty much like that credit card debt reduction strategy where you tackle the biggest debt first and then work your way down to the smaller ones.  It is mighty tempting to try to wipe out one of the smaller loans, just because it would go faster, but that really wouldn't save me as much money since the interest is so high on the large loan.

It's all kind of like treading water and even if it does make a difference, it won't be a significant one, but I have to try.  I just look at that number get bigger every day, and it makes me sick.  If I can feel like I'm making some kind of progress, maybe it won't feel like I'm just throwing away my hard-earned cash every month.

I'll keep you posted...

Thursday, January 17, 2013

I Want to Quit The Gym

I joined Bally Total Fitness last February with my head full of marathon training plans and Spin class dreams.  Right after they ran my credit card for a 13-month membership, I tore my adductor (inner thigh muscle), and was more or less out of commission for nearly three months.

I also discovered in that time, that it wasn't just a fluke that it took me twenty minutes to get to and from the gym, and that 40 minutes round trip travel time means that I just don't want to go to the gym.  I'd rather spend almost an hour doing other things, and my membership was languishing.

So I tried to cancel it, and here's where things get weird.

In spin class one morning, people were talking to the instructor about the gym being sold to another company.  I asked my co-worker who goes to the same gym about this, and she confirmed it.  Since I signed a contract with Bally, I assumed that I still need to cancel my membership with them, so I followed the instructions on the back of the contract, sent them a letter in the mail and requested that they cancel my membership.  The contract stated that I could get out early if the club was sold to other entity, so I said that was why I was canceling.

No response.

Finally, I emailed them and asked what was going on, and they said I would have to cancel with the current owner.  Then I got lazy and didn't do anything about it until last month since they told me I would have to physically go to the club and fill out a form then make a phone call (of course).  I finally filled out the form, and then called the number on the form from my car just in case I needed to go back inside and yell at someone.

According to the woman I spoke to on the phone, my membership was actually cancelled back in June when I sent that letter to Bally--you know, when they said that they could not cancel my membership?  The new club says that they don't have my refund money, Bally does, but when I emailed Bally, they said they needed proof of the June cancellation in order to issue me a refund.

Simple enough, right?

Of course not.

I emailed Blast! Fitness (the new club owner) and asked them to send me proof of cancellation so that I could send that on to Bally.  I didn't think this was an overly complicated request, but so far I've dealt with six people who have been unable to help me.  Another fun thing, when there are a lot of responses to an email, their system deletes the previous ones, and the new person I'm dealing with doesn't have any of the clarifications that the previous person had gotten.  And you can't email a person directly, just the generic info@ email.
They're friendly, but completely unhelpful
 So we've been going back and forth for quite a while.  They've send me numerous confused responses and a copy of my contract in the mail (which I already have a copy of and can print off at any time since it's in my email).  Finally, one person wrote back and basically said, "I'm showing your membership was cancelled in June, what is it that you want?"  This was even though in the email I sent her I said "I need PROOF OF CANCELLATION" In bold letters, in caps and in a slightly larger font.

Finally, Bally said that Blast! Fitness should just contact them directly, and that's where I'm at right now.  If it wasn't a sizeable amount of money, I would have given up already, and I'm sure that's what they're hoping for, but $120 is walking around money, so I will continue to fight.

If you are considering joining a gym, I beg you to consider three things:
  1. How far is it from your house?  If it takes a long time to get there, you will probably not go.  The gym I used to belong to was far away from my house, but close to work, and that made all the difference.  This gym is close to nothing, and even though it's technically only 3.5 miles from my house (according to google maps), it takes forever to get there.
  2. Do you really need a gym membership?  Can you work out at home/outside?  Can you find a place that doesn't make you sign a contract?  Can you buy a treadmill/elliptal/stationary bike?
  3. Quitting the gym is an arduous task--do you have the mental fortitude to do it?  It doesn't actually burn calories to be so exasperated, which is a real shame.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Snow Day!

...but not a real snow day because I still had to go to work--drat!  I am pleased to report that since it was snowing out, I was unable to do my morning four miles.

BUT

I convinced myself to use that home gym I brag about all the time, and did a kettlebell workout with the handsome Bob Harper:
Bob wants you to work!

My legs and arms are still a bit shaky and I didn't even do the whole thing (ran out of time).  Success!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Weekend Reading: The Willpower Instinct

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal

This is a very appropriate book to kick of 2013.  Since so many people start off the year with lofty resolutions that seem to peter off, it behoooves us to take a look at the notion of willpower and see if we can harness a little bit more and actually meet those resolutions.

Personally, I went into this book a bit skeptical but also intrigued.  Since I'm the type of person who hates feeling out of control but still frequently gives into temptation, I was not really convinced that this book would do anything for me.  I pleased to report that I was pleasantly surprised.  I'm certainly no saint for having read this book, but putting into practice some of the ideas may actually work.  Unfortunately, it's too soon to tell, but I'll keep you posted.

Best takeaways:

  • Willpower is controlled by the prefrontal cortex region of the brain, so everyone has willpower, but some are better at tapping into it than others.
  • When people encounter sugary snacks, the reason the treats are so hard to resist is because our blood sugar actually drops in anticipation of eating the snack.  This is so that if we do actually eat it, we don't go into a sugar coma, but it actually makes resisting that much harder.  It's true!  It's not (as much) your fault!
  • Willpower and self-control are finite, and you can run out, but you can also exercise your self-control muscle and gain better willpower endurance.  Meditation apparently helps in this regard, and the more skeptical you are about meditation, the better the result (though I still don't really want to try it out, but I might).
  • When we are 'good' and recognize that we're good, we give ourselves much more permission to be bad.  Studies have even shown that thinking about giving money to charity--not even actually doing it increased desire to buy something extravagant.  Thankfully, by knowing this and thinking about it, we can quell those urges and get back on track.
Overall, I'm glad I read this book.  I don't typically read books that seem like self help, but this is much more rooted in science, which makes it feel less like self help and more just like logic.  This is not a book to just sit down and plow though.  Even the author says that you should read one chapter at a time and try the techniques mentioned before going onto the next one.  So I'm going to sit down with it again and try that out--I'll keep you posted.


This is a paid review for BlogHer Book Club but the opinions expressed are my own.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

It Pays For Itself

This is a phrase that I've heard many people use and that I've used myself, but for some reason, the other day, I started thinking about what it actually means.

Example: When I thought this, I was just leaving yoga class.  I do Bikram yoga, which is hot yoga, so when I leave the studio, I am a sweaty mess.  I need shoes to wear to and from class that can get bathed in my particular sweaty musk.  In the summer, it's flip-flops, but once it started getting cold, I was a bit concerned about what to do.

Thankfully, a couple years ago, I bought the faux Uggs that Old Navy sells i.e. Adoraboots:
Mine are sparkly silver
They are certainly ugly, and I would never normally wear them out of the house, but it turns out, they are super handy for the yoga.

Digression

I have been on the quest for a decent pair of house slippers for years.  Perhaps it's because I'm picky that I haven't been able to find any, but my criterea are:
  1. Non-skid sole--we have hardwood floors and I would prefer not to slip and slide around on them.
  2. Some kind of back-- I do not care for any backless footwear, even my flip flops are slingback.
  3. Both of these goals are just a way of saying that I want slippers I feel comfortable in rather than shoes that make me feel like I'm going to fall either out of them or because of them.
Apparently ALL slippers are fuzzy on the bottom and have no back.  I've been looking for literally years.  So I was quite excited when I found these adoraboots, but quite dismayed when I realized that instead of just keeping my feet warm, they made my feet HOT.  Like sweaty hot--gross hot.

So they went into the back of my closet until I realized that they worked for going to yoga.

Why is this story so long, you may wonder.  Well, I was leaving yoga the other night,  looked down at my ugly footwear and thought, these slippers have really paid for themselves.  Then I wondered what I meant by that, and what that expression actually means at all.

It's good that I found a use for something I bought that would have otherwise cluttered up my closet until landing at the thrift store, but does that really mean they've paid for themselves?  Is this just a little phrase that we tell ourselves to justify purchases that otherwise seem out of bounds or extravagant?

For instance, how many times do you have to wear a sweater before it pays for itself?  If the sweater is $30, would you have to wear it 15 times before you would say it was worth it?  Are we saying that renting the sweater for $2 a wear would be a reasonable investment?

I can see this phrase working in certain situations, for instance if you're currently driving a regular car and switch to a hybrid, you could look at the gas savings as the car paying for itself because it is literally saving you money that you can put toward buying the car.

Are there other situations where this works, or is it usually just an excuse to buy something?  Was it moronic for me to think this about my faux Uggs, or was I actually onto something?

Friday, January 4, 2013

Weekend Reading: Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail

Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail by Caitlin Kelly.

I picked this book mostly because I loved the title (wordplay!) and because after working in retail for most of my life and just sort of going numb to the way things are, I thought it would be interesting to get an outsider perspective on it (and revel slightly in the fact that I no longer have to do it).

My review, in a sentence, is that this is an important book, but one with far too many flaws to really have the impact that it should.  Kelly is a professional journalist who, feeling the pinch of the recession and the cutback that most journalists are feeling these days, wants a source of steady income and takes a job at a North Face store.  The problem with this book, and one that I didn't think would occur considering that this writer is a professional writer who has thus far managed to keep herself fed and clothed using the power of her prose, was that this book is just quite poorly written.  I don't know if the original draft was too short and she just added a lot of padding, but this is honestly the most repetitive book I've ever read.

I read this in an afternoon, and perhaps it was intended to be read over the course of months, or the author wanted to just excerpt each chapter out as a stand-alone essay because she kept repeating herself over and over again.  I feel like I'm repeating myself just mentioning it more than once, but at least I'm aware of it.  One of the other major flaws--she only worked one shift a week, usually just five hours.  On one hand, it's a bit shocking that working that few hours could make a person crack after just two years, but on the other, it's a bit disingenuous to call this a "career" in retail.

Best takeaways:
--We expect stores to provide a high level of customer service, yet retail employees are barely paid more than minimum wage, the industry has 100% turnover and staff are rarely trained.  This leads to frustration for the customer and abuse for the staff.  Kelly mentions that on several occasions, particularly when she asked too many questions, she was rewarded with inaction.

--Expectations from on high.  At this store, employees were given a daily sales goal.  It was a pretty arbitrary number and they were expected to meet it, but whenever Kelly asked what would happen if they didn't meet the sales goal, no one had an answer.

--Lack of employee support. At one point in the book, Kelly broke the de-tagger, which is that tiny gadget that takes tags off of clothes.  Because it was broken, staff had to constantly use one of the other two, which are bolted to the counter.  This necessitated a lot of hopping around, and took up more time.  She later found out that the replacement de-tagger cost something like $10, but their store went without one for months.

--Ludicrous demands and policies.  I alluded to this when I talked about my experiences at Barnes & Noble and how obnoxious upselling is, but it bears repeating.  I've never worked at a clothing store, but I thought it was interesting that they had a person on staff whose job it was to 'stage' the store.  This meant that every so often, someone would completely re-organize the store so that the staff never knew where anything was.  This was to create new displays and highlight certain collections, obviously, but it also seems like a tremendous waste of time and effort.  Of course, this was something I wanted to know more about, but it was only mentioned briefly once.  This is something that the frontline staff has no control over, but they have to deal with the fallout of not being able to find anything for customers and we, as customers, have to wait longer.

Overall:
Disappointing.  This book says something needs to be said, but it's just poorly written.  I was hoping for more of a retail version of Nickle and Dimed, but this is half fluffy memoir, one quarter analysis of the retail industry and just one quarter whining/boasting.  In writing something so sloppily, I feel like Kelly looks down on her readers the same way corporate overlords look down on retail employees, but that might be a bit of a stretch.