Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Amazing Money Jar Bank

Okay, don't laugh. But my nephew keeps all of his loose change in his Amazing Money Jar Bank, and I've been thinking about buying one for myself for over a year now. I know it's all in my head, but $14.95 just seemed a bit too pricey for me. So, I've been waiting for it to go on sale. And my patience has finally been rewarded. I happened to stop by the local Walgreen drug store today, and saw the same toy on sale for $9.99.

The neat thing about this toy is that it automatically recognizes the amount of each coin as you drop it in the jar and then displays a running total on a little LED screen. So, if you're like me, and you want to know exactly how much loose change you have lying around in the house, this money jar is a great thing to have on hand.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Peace of Mind

Ben Stein came out with a new op-ed entitled A Season for Peace of Mind. It's definitely worth reading.

My point here is simple: If you're not rich, please don't show off at this time of year by spending money you don't have. It's Madison Ave.'s task to make you think you can spend your way into someone's heart at Christmas. That's fine, but it's not true. No one who can be bought is worth buying. That's especially true where romantic love is concerned. Besides, this is the season of peace. For any real friend or lover or relative, your peace of mind comes first. This is easy to forget at this time of year, but it's truer than ever now. To be broke and scared about money is not what "Merry Christmas" means. Give love, not heartache, this time of year -- and all year, every year.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Electricity Bill to Increase by 22%

Enclosed in my ComEd bill this month was a pretty little pamphlet entitled "Your 2007 bill is changing!" So, you would think this means that they're improving the layout and the format of the bill, right? Wrong.

"Since 1997, ComEd rates have been cut 20 percent and frozen. Your rates will increase in January because the cost of energy has risen and a nine-year rate freeze ends this year. Most residential customers can expect to see an increase of about 22 percent, which amounts to about $13 on the average residential customer's monthly bill."

Umm, thanks for the heads up, ComEd. Happy New Year to you too.

Bought a Nano

I finally gave in and bought an Apple 8GB iPod Nano to replace my 4GB iPod mini. The battery on the mini dies after only a few hours of use. Also, I had a $25 credit at amazon.com that I wanted to use before it expired. But I ordered it through target because I wanted to be able to return/exchange it easily. The online reviews indicated that some of the units were defective - something about buzzing noises. Shipping and handling was free, but the sales tax was over $17. Ouch!

To be honest, I really don't need 8GBs of flash memory because my music collection isn't all that extensive. But it's the only version of the 2nd generation Nano that comes in black. And if you've ever tried to clean the white clickwheel on a regular iPod, you'll know why I'm insisting on a black clickwheel. Otherwise, I would have ordered the 4GB special edition Product Red because Apple contributes $10 of the purchase price to the Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Admittedly, I could have purchased a refurbished 1st generation nano in black, but my friend says that they're pretty flimsy. The new nanos harken back to the minis and are encased in anodized aluminum. Also, the battery on the new nano lasts up to 24 hours (supposedly), in contrast to the 14 hours on the old nano.

Anyway, here's hoping I won't experience buyer's remorse.

*Update - I just got an email indicating that the item has been shipped. But oddly enough, they decreased the sales tax from $17 to $14. So the total came out to $239.05 instead of $242.42.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Charitable Gift Fund

I've been mulling over the idea of opening up a charitable gift fund with Fidelity. It's basically like setting up a mini foundation. Here's a summary of how the giving account works from Fidelity's website:

- Contributions to the Gift Fund are eligible for current-year tax deductions, and are then available to recommend grants now, or in the future. And, your contributions have the opportunity to grow and help make a greater charitable impact through the Gift Fund's investment pools, which benefit from access to a fund universe of approximately 2,000 Fidelity and non-Fidelity mutual funds.
- Make an irrevocable contribution of $5,000 or more in cash (by check or wire), securities, or other property and establish a Giving Account. Build the balance by making additional contributions of $1,000 or more at any time.
- Any IRS-qualified public charity is eligible – those you've supported for years, or new ones you discover using our research tools. Recommend grants of $100 or more online, via phone or fax, or by mail – on the timetable that works best for you and the causes you care about.
- Donate securities that provide the most tax benefit. Eliminate capital gains tax on gifts of long-term appreciated securities.

Last year, I gave away approximately 12% of my gross income to charitable donations. And I plan to do the same this year. But as I've mentioned in the past, I'm planning on quitting my day job next spring and hopefully, going back to school full time in the fall. There's a remote possibility that I might be able to work part time for my current employer, on a contract basis. But it's kind of just talk at this point. In any event, my income will drop substantially next year. And I won't have as much income in 2007 to offset any deductions. So, it would make sense to set up a charitable gift fund and have the tax advantages hit this year. Also, I know myself pretty well. And the temptation to hoard my wealth will become greater as my income drops. Since any contributions that I make to the charitable gift fund are irrevocable, it'll be a good way of helping me maintain the discipline of giving, even during the years when I'm still in school.

The only down side that I can see is that Fidelity charges a $100 fee each year to maintain the account. But I'm wondering if I'm missing something here?

Does anyone out there have any direct experience with a charitable gift fund?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Perils of Office Gift Giving

To be honest, I'm not a big fan of office gift giving. There are just way too many pitfalls involved. Several years ago, my co-worker and I spent $100 on a gift for an admin who only supported us one day a week. It didn't go over well. She was visibly upset with us. Perhaps because we spent $200 on a gift for the other admin who supported us the other four days of the week, or perhaps because she bought gifts for us, and figured that we should have spent substantially more than she had. After that particular experience, I just threw up my hands in frustration. I shouldn't have listened to my co-worker, who'd been working at the company much longer than I had. Since then, I've basically erred on the side of being overly generous.

But last night, I had to rethink the issue yet again. On my way out the door, I stopped at my boss' office for our semi-regular, end of day chat. We talked about Thanksgiving traditions and holiday parties and other random topics of conversation. And then she kind of caught me off guard with her next question. 'What do you think about giving donations to charitable organizations in each individual team member's name?'

My boss is a great manager as well as a great person. She gives credit where credit is due and really goes to bat for her people. She's also one of the few managers that I know who works a lot harder than the people who report to her. In short, she's part of a dying breed. Every year, around the holidays, she gives each of her staff of 20 a holiday gift, as a sign of appreciation and thanks. I'm guessing that she spends anywhere from $35-$50 per gift. But as my boss would say, 'no good deed goes unpunished.' Two years ago, she inherited another team of employees in a different geographic location. Apparently, those new employees were upset when they got gifts from her last year because they felt pressured to reciprocate in kind. She of course, had minimal expectations, maybe a token gift at most. Long story short, she eventually heard some of the grumbling through the grapevine, and was naturally a bit upset and frustrated that her act of kindness was creating dissension amongst the ranks. So, after talking things over with her admin, she's thinking of taking a different approach this year. Namely, a gift to a local charity in each person's name. But, I suspect that the folks who were upset last year about the gifts are going to be just as upset this year about the donations. So, if you were in my boss' situation, what would you do? Stop giving gifts altogether?

Anyway, it just goes to show that sometimes you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. At my old job, if you didn't give a generous gift to your direct reports, you'd be roundly chastised for being stingy.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

7 Deadly Sins

Maybe it's because of the upcoming holidays and the numerous articles and ads touting the must-have gifts of the season. But I've been thinking a lot about the 7 deadly sins lately, specifically greed and envy.

This past week, I was dropping off a friend at her house, and I saw another friend pull up in a Lexus SUV. 'Hey! Did Leon get a new car?' Oh, he got into an accident or something like that. So his parents gave him the Lexus. 'Must be nice!' I muttered under my breath. Just to give you some context, Leon's parents own several businesses, and they're quite wealthy. Several years ago, Leon dropped out of med school to go 'find himself.' I think he's still searching, but for now, he now works for a small company as a financial analyst. The car that he used to drive was a late model Audi A4 - a gift from his parents, naturally.

I don't have a problem with self-made millionaires. This is America, after all. But I do confess that I tend to resent people who were born with the proverbial silver spoon in their mouths. I'm grateful that my parents gave me a college education and taught me to be self-reliant and fiscally responsible. But there's an underlying expectation that I'll be supporting them financially during their golden years. Guys like Leon can barely support themselves, let alone their parents. And they tend to coast through life because they have the expectation that they'll inherit their parents' wealth someday. So, at times, his cavalier attitude towards money grates on my nerves.

Fast forward a few days to lunch with a coworker. We're going through the performance review cycle right now. So salary increases and bonuses are being discussed and determined by senior management. Naturally, my coworker is a bit anxious and worried about the actual numbers and how it'll all play out come next January. Her husband just started his own business, and they've had to dip into savings repeatedly in the past few months. So, for the first time ever, she's counting on a huge bonus to help tide her over while he gets his business up and running. She recognizes the fact that she's lucky - she has a nice home in an affluent neighborhood, a stable job, two wonderful kids and a husband who loves her. But she can't help but resent the fact that she's now the primary breadwinner. She envies her friend who has an even nicer house than she does plus the option of staying at home with the kids because her husband makes a ton of money. I told her that everyone struggles with feelings of jealousy and envy, and then briefly recapped my momentary lapse from earlier in the week with Leon.

So, what's the antidote to envy and greed and materialism? How do we banish the green monster when it rears its ugly head? Strangely enough, I think the key to being content with what we have is to give generously. When you share things with people, you're forced to loosen your grip. Or as my friend would say, to hold them lightly in the palm of your hand. For my co-worker, it helps that the folks in her church family have a lot less than she does. When she opens up her home to them for small group meetings and such, she feels embarrassed that she has an abundance of wealth. It helps keep her grateful.

Fast forward to yesterday, when my mom asked me if I wanted to hit the stores with her after Thanksgiving dinner. Absolutely not! I find it ironic and somewhat depressing that Black Friday now begins on Thanksgiving Day. Instead of counting our blessing and enjoying our time with family and friends, which is the whole point of Thanksgiving, the majority of Americans will be inhaling their turkey dinner and then rushing off to the big box retailers to gobble up so-called deals on really useless stuff to give to themselves and to others on Christmas Day. See for example the crazy behavior prompted by the release of Sony's Playstation 3.

Again, irony of ironies. Christmas is supposed to be about celebrating the greatest gift of all, not about buying the latest and greatest toys and gadgets. But we've managed to turn it into some weird spectacle of greed. And is it just me or does it get worse and worse with each passing year? So, this time around, I'm issuing a challenge, or more like a quiet plea. Please stop the insanity. During this holiday season, count your blessings, be hospitable and give generously to those in need.

[That's all. Nothing more. Stepping off my soapbox now.]

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The KISS Principle vs. Getting the Best Deal

I'm coming to the conclusion that I'm enrolled in way too many rewards programs. In addition to clipping coupons, I try to remember to use my Entertainment, Member (from the local NPR station) and AAA cards to score additional discounts. For online orders, I have to remind myself to click through to the website through Upromise.com. And my wallet is overflowing with loyalty cards from grocery stores, drug stores, boutique clothing shops, sporting goods stores, movie theaters, warehouse clubs, local coffee shop, etc. Every time I decide to leave a card at home, I inevitably wind up needing it. It's true that some stores will look up your loyalty reward number using your phone number, but I don't like giving out my phone number when strangers are standing nearby.

And lately, I've been having trouble keeping track of the various program benefits. In other words, when and how I'm supposed to be using these darn cards? Last week, I forgot to hand the cashier $4 worth of coupons that I had stashed in my wallet for my planned trip to the grocery store. And a few weeks before that, I forgot to use my Discover Gas Cashback Card to pay for my new set of tires. I could've gotten a 5% rebate on that $750 transaction.

So, I'm reminded of the KISS principle. Keep it simple, stupid. At what point do you decide that enough is enough? In my case, the law of diminishing returns is definitely kicking in. I spend way too much time and effort trying to figure out how to get the best deal, only to find out afterwards that if I had done this or that I could've saved even more. Maybe I need to extend myself some grace and resign myself to the fact that I'm always going to wind up leaving some money on the table. Otherwise, I'm simply going to drive myself absolutely nuts. Yes, there are bargains and discounts to be had out there, but I just don't have the time or the energy to take advantage of all of them.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Never Hurts to Ask

In one of my posts yesterday, I mentioned that I was assessed a late payment penalty on my credit card. I called Chase, and after looking at my account, the CSR reversed the charge. Today, I was assessed $24 in finance charges on the remaining balance, even though I sent in the full payment for last month's bill. Technically, because my payment was overdue, I was carrying a balance for 5 days at most. I called up Chase this morning, and again the CSR agreed to reverse the charge because of my "great payment history."

The moral of the story is that it never hurts to ask. I'm glad that they were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt and reverse the charges. But admittedly, it helps to have a clean credit history.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

How Much is a Bachelor's Degree Worth?

According to a recent AP article in the Chicago Tribune, a bachelor's degree is worth about $23,000 per year.

"That is the average gap in earnings between adults with bachelor's degrees and those with high school diplomas, according to data from the Census Bureau. College grads made an average of $51,554 in 2004, the most recent figures available, compared with $28,645 for adults with a high school diploma. High school dropouts earned an average of $19,169 and those with advanced college degrees made an average of $78,093."

Pretty amazing, when you think about it.

Scroll all the way down to the end of the article for statistics on the number of individuals with high school diplomas vs. bachelor's degrees, broken down by state. IL is slightly above the national average. I thought it would have been higher.

Danger of Point and Click

The other day, I was downloading my credit card transactions into Quicken, and I noticed a $39 late payment fee. What the...how did that get in there? I do all of my payments online, and since it was a direct bank to bank transfer, it should have taken only one day to arrive. So, I looked back at my statement and at by bill pay history. D'oh! For some odd reason, I'd scheduled the payment exactly one week after it was due. I'm guessing that I clicked open the little calendar next to the scheduled payment date and just clicked on the wrong date. I use my credit card as a debit card, in the sense that I pay off my balance each month, so I don't get charged any interest. But I started panicking a little bit when I realized that I'd missed the payment date because I had an unusually large balance on my card this past month. I was worried that I was going to be socked with not only the late payment fee but interest as well.

I called up Chase card services and was transferred to a call center in India. I explained the situation, promised to send the payment the next day and asked that the late fee be waived. She said she would look into it. A minute later, she came back on the line and said that since I was a valued customer, she would go ahead and waive the fee. I didn't want to push my luck, so I didn't ask her about waiving the interest on the 5 days the payment was overdue. I'll probably have to call again in a week, once my statement is posted online.

Anyway, the moral of the story is that you should not enter your bill pay transactions when you're tired and groggy. And you should always double check the payment date.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Free Senseo Coffee Pod

If you own a Philips Senseo single-serve, coffee maker, click here for a free coffee pod sample of their Sumatra blend.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Two Milestones

I celebrated the achievement of two significant milestones this week. The first is that I turned 35. The second is that thanks to the recent bull market, my net worth shot past half a million dollars. Woohoo!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

$750 Later...4 New Tires

I went in to Cassidy Tires this afternoon on my lunch hour to get my tires balanced for $50 and came out 2.5 hours later with four new tires. Apparently, the first owner of my car replaced the OEM tires with really cheap Goodyear tires that weren't exactly meant for a high performance luxury sedan. And the speed rating on one of the tires didn't quite match the other three (something that my mechanic had already pointed out to me). Hence the unstable ride that prompted my visit to the tire shop.

Anyway, I called my mechanic afterwards to give him the scoop, and he basically told me that I'd been taken to the cleaners. So, not quite believing him, I hopped onto costco.com and checked the prices. All of the options for my car would've required a special order, and the prices were pretty much in line with what I paid at Cassidy. But just to make doubly sure that I'd gotten the right tires at the right price, I hopped onto tirerack.com. The exact same tires were definitely cheaper online, but taking into account shipping costs, I really wouldn't have saved all that much money. And who wants to haul 4 tires over to a repair shop? As an added bonus, I read through the user ratings for my tires, and they were all very positive. Apparently, these particular tires provide superior performance in wet or snowy conditions.

To be honest, my car has always had terrible traction. I figured it was just normal since the car has rear wheel drive. I even thought about selling the car because I had such a horrible time with it last winter. But on the way home from Cassidy Tires, it started to rain. So, I decided to do a mini road test, and I purposefully took a few corners at high speed to see if the tires would hold. Sure enough, they did.

So, although it was an unplanned expenditure, in the long run, I probably saved some money. Because with new, grippier tires, I just eliminated one of the main reasons for trading in my car. And it all started out because my mechanic says that he doesn't do tires....

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Cheaper at a Brick & Mortar

After ruining a couple of shirts, I decided that it was time for a new iron. So, I hopped onto Wize.com, a user review aggregator site, to do some product research. I was about to order the Black & Decker Digital Advantage Iron from Amazon.com. But on a whim, I decided to check some of the brick and mortar websites to see if I could find it for a reasonable price. I really wanted to use the iron this weekend, but I'm too cheap to pay for expedited shipping.

Well, sure enough, Bed Bath and Beyond had the iron at the same price. So I swung by the local brick and mortar store this afternoon and used one of my 20% off coupons. They seem to send me one every other week, and they always accept expired coupons. So, even when you take into account 8% sales tax, I wound up paying less at Bed Bath than if I'd ordered it from Amazon.com or any of the other online retailers that were featured on pricegrabber.com and shopping.com.

So, sometimes instant gratification can be a good thing :-)

Thursday, September 28, 2006

$50 ING Direct Bonus - Updated with Valid Codes

To obtain a $50 bonus on a $250 initial deposit, sign up for a new account at ingidrect.com/chicago, using one of the unique reference codes below. The deadline is November 15, 2006, and the offer is limited to new customers only. First come, first serve.




For additional reference codes, look for the ING folks in their bright, orange and white cow costumes. They've been handing out flyers in various locations all over the Chicagoland area.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Free 12 oz. Drink at Borders' Seattle's Best Coffee Cafes

Click here for a printable store coupon. 9/30–10/8/06.

"Valid only in the Seattle's Best Coffee cafes in our Chicago (Michigan Ave.), Chicago (Hyde Park), Chicago (Uptown), Chicago (North & Halsted), Chicago (Lincoln Village), Chicago (State St.), and Chicago (Lincoln Park), IL; Snellville, Buford, Athens, and Augusta, GA; Waldorf, MD; and Arlington, VA, Borders stores. "

Friday, September 22, 2006

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Apparently, my 2004 federal income tax return is being audited by the IRS. According to the letter that I received yesterday, I need to substantiate all of my gifts to charity. Thankfully, I kept all of my receipts in a nicely labeled file folder. But I have to say that I'm more than a bit annoyed. Is it so hard to believe that an individual in my position would choose to give more than a certain percentage of my income to charitable organizations? The sad thing is that I didn't even report any of the smaller, one-off gifts that I made to organizations like the American Cancer Society. I only deducted gifts that exceeded $250.

Anyway, I've just got too many things going on in my life right now. And it's just one more thing I have to put on my to do list and remember to follow up on. Argh!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

More Haircare Products to Try

I wonder what it is about the demographic group that I happen to fall into? This is the second time in recent history that I've been asked to sample and evaluate a haircare product. First, it was a bottle of shampoo. This time around, it's a bottle of conditioner.

Since most manufacturers claim that their shampoos and conditioners produce the best results when used together, I'm curious as to why they'd ask their panelists to test the products separately? Not that I'm complaining. A free bottle of conditioner is a free bottle of conditioner. Just curious, I guess.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Creature of Habit

One of the advantages of being a creature of habit is that you know exactly how much things should cost. I typically grab lunch at Jimmy John's at least once a week. I pretty much order the same thing (No. 5, no onions, no cheese). And one of the cashiers knows my order by heart. But today, when I walked into the restaurant, I was greeted by a cashier I didn't recognize. And sure enough, when she rang up my order, she tried to charge me an extra dollar over the usual cost. So, I looked at her and calmly asked 'Are you sure that's right?' She says, 'Yeah.' But then her co-worker leaned over and pointed out her error. So then she had to void the transaction and start all over. And while she was doing it, she mumbled something about how the keys on the register tend to get stuck, and that's why she over charged me. Umm, yeah...right. It would've been nice if she would've just apologized for her mistake, instead of blaming it on the machine.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Stigma Associated with Fast Food

A co-worker called me just now to ask me if I wanted to do lunch. I told her I'd just grabbed something from McDonald's. And then she started musing out loud about what she wanted to eat. I guess she was in an indecisive mood. And then she said something that startled me. "Sometimes I'm just embarrassed to bring a hamburger from McDonald's into the office, you know what I mean?" Umm, yes. But then I just tell myself to get over it.

I guess there's a stigma associated with McD's. It's okay to buy your lunch from a healthy, chi chi place like Spa Cafe. Not so cool to buy something from McD's. As if it's a reflection of my socio-economic status. I guess it's the same thing as bringing a frozen entree to work and heating it up in the communal microwave. When I worked in the law firm, only the support staff brought their lunches to work. I always bought my lunch because it was a good excuse actually get out of the office during the middle of the day. But practically speaking, it would've saved me a lot of time and money if I had just packed a lunch. The lunchtime crowds can make even the fastest of fast food places seem slow.

Ugh...I hate spiders

I've been having a lot of problems lately with spiders. Every time I looked outside, I'd see the creepy things crawling all over my screen door. And I can't tell you how many times I had to use a broom to sweep the cobwebs off of my patio furniture. It definitely discouraged me from sitting outside with my morning coffee. To be honest, I'm not even sure how the spiders managed to get up there, 'cause I live all the way up on the 12th floor. And I know that our management company sprays for bugs every year in the spring.

And now that summer's almost over, it occurred to me that maybe I could do something about the spider problem. So I looked up the word 'spiders' in the index of my old copy of Earl Proulx's Yankee Home Hints. And sure enough, Earl had a very cheap, easy and practical solution to the problem. Cedar shavings. So, I grabbed a cedar block (the kind that you usually hang in your closet to keep moths away), and attached it to the outside handle of my sliding glass door. Voila! No spiders for the past 3 days. I'll have to find more cedar blocks to hang underneath my patio table and near my grill.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Fun Quiz About Money

Here's a fun quiz about money from MSN Encarta. I only got half of the answers right. Oh well.

Happy Tuesday!

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

An Apple Doesn't Fall Far...

My brother's family was in town for a few days last week. My ten year old nephew, in particular, is just the sweetest and most thoughtful kid in the world. But I was reminded that kids say and do the darndest things.

We were shopping for souvenirs at Navy Pier, and my nephew is totally into glass sculptures and crystals. Apparently, he'd been saving his pennies for this trip since early April. And he was about to buy an $8 crystal pendant for himself when his dad pointed out that the pendant should be worn by a girl. So, he paused and thought about it for a few seconds, and then decided that he wanted to buy it for his little sister. But when he went up to the cashier, he asked her if he could buy it for $4 instead of the $5 that was posted on the sign. The woman, who was talking on her cell phone at the time, agreed to accept $4. So, then my nephew decides that he wants to buy a larger crystal to hang in his room. And again, he went up to the cashier and asked if she'd accept $1 less for the item than the price that was posted. This time, she wouldn't budge on the price. So, my nephew just shrugged and handed over his hard earned $8.

When he came over and explained what had happened, I was absolutely amazed that he'd haggled with an adult. Where did he learn to negotiate like that? God only knows, but I suspect it's from observing his frugal dad.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Sellers with Positive Feedback

I purchased a new, unused textbook yesterday from a private seller on Amazon.com Marketplace for half the advertised price of other online booksellers. But I found myself waffling between one seller who had 93% positive feedback but the lowest price and another seller with 98% positive feedback but a higher price. I wound up going with the seller with the 98% positive feedback. But I'm wondering whether that extra 5% of positive feedback was really worth an extra $5?

As I mentioned in the past, I've been selling stuff on Amazon.com Marketplace for the past few months. And right now, I have a 100% positive feedback rating (knock on wood). I attribute my good fortune to the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do onto you. Having had some not so great experiences with other sellers, I've learned from their mistakes. Things like inaccurate descriptions or inadequate packing materials, drive me crazy.

Anyway, I'm wondering if it's just me, or do other folks pay a lot of attention to feedback ratings? If yes, are you willing to pay a premium to purchase something from a seller with a higher rating? And finally, what's your price point? Are you talking an extra $5, $10, $15?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

You're Right...I'm Wrong

Thanks to all of my readers who pointed out that I'm a complete idiot and left money on the table by frontloading my 401(k) contributions. What I really should have done was to contribute at least 5% per pay period for the rest of the year to take advantage of the company match. As it stands, I'm losing out on $2,000 of free money. But in my defense, I thought I was going to quit my job this year and go back to school this fall. So frontloading was the only way I could have contributed the maximum amount before I left the company. Live and learn.

As for next year, I'm going to have to frontload my 401(k) again because I'm planning on starting grad school full time in the fall. C'est la vie. The $2,000 match isn't enough to keep me on the job for another year.

Friday, August 18, 2006

....And the Effect on Company Matching Contributions

A reader asked a great question yesterday in response to my last post about frontloading my retirement accounts. In terms of the company match for my 401(k), do I get more or less money if I fully fund my account within the first 6 months vs. over the course of the entire year?

According to our company website, eligible employees "receive dollar-for-dollar matching contributions...on the first 5% of...benefits pay contributed each pay period." As far as I can tell, there's no dollar cap associated with each paycheck. So, if I contribute the full $15,000 (the 2006 tax limit) in 12 pay periods, as opposed to 24, the company match would still be $750 (5% of that $15,000) for the year. And since the company match is deposited in my 401(k) account immediately, there's the added benefit of time. That $750 will be earning compound interest or dividends for me for at least an additional 6 months.

So, if my reasoning is correct, there's really no down side to frontloading my 401(k) when it comes to the company match.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Frontloading My Retirement Accounts

Each year I frontload my retirement accounts, meaning that I invest the maximum amount in my IRA and 401(k) at the earliest opportunity. In terms of my IRA, I try to make my annual contribution in January. In terms of my employer sponsored plan, each pay period, 20% of my salary is deposited into my 401(k) account. That means that during the first half of each year, my takehome pay is substantially less than what it could be. But since I don't ever see that money, I never really miss it. And around this time of year, after I've maxxed out my 401(k) contribution, there's a really nice surprise waiting for me in the form of a huge bump in my takehome pay. Of course, when I see all of that extra income sitting in my checking account (the beauty of automatic payroll deposits), there's a huge temptation to blow it all on something frivolous and fun. But that's where discipline and goal setting and bit of trickery come into play. Cause again, if I don't see it, I won't touch it.

So, as an added precaution, I set up an automatic transfer. In other words, at the beginning of each month, before I can dream up ways to spend it, that extra cash is swept from my checking account (which I check on a daily basis), into my HSBC savings account (which I only check once a month.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Faith in Humanity Restored

Earlier an earlier post today, I mentioned that a buyer emailed me to ask me about the status of a product that I had shipped to him last month. I jumped the gun and assumed that he was claiming that the product never arrived and therefore wanted me to initiate a refund. Well, it turns out that this particular buyer lives and works in China, and he had asked me to ship the item to his parents house. When he asked his mom about it, she told him that she didn't have it. But apparently, she had forgotten that she'd already forwarded it to him, along with another item that he was expecting. The buyer was very apologetic, explaining that he just wanted to pinpoint where the item was (in transit or still at his parents house). And then he promised to leave me excellent feedback for my prompt communication. So, all's well that ends well. The moral of the story is that you should always be polite to your customers, even when you suspect that they're trying to pull the wool over your eyes :-)

Misdelivered Mail or Dishonest Buyers?

Some of you may know that I've been selling some random, miscellaneous stuff on Amazon.com Marketplace. Well, last night I received an email from a buyer who wanted to know when/if I'd shipped his order. Mind you, I always ship things the next business day. But this is the second time that this has happened to me. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the first time a buyer emailed me (claiming he didn't receive his order), I initiated a refund, no questions asked. But now, I'm starting to wonder whether the guy lied to me? Because this second time around, I paid the extra sixty cents for delivery confirmation (it was a relatively expensive order). And when I plugged in the confirmation number at the USPS website, it indicated that the package was delivered on July 10th. That's nearly a month ago. So, I sent the buyer a very politely worded email, indicated that the package had been delivered, gave him the confirmation number and suggested that he talk to his postal carrier. But I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, so I also asked him to confirm that I had the right mailing address, even though I printed the shipping label directly off of Amazon.com using the information he provided with the order.

But, now I'm wondering if people do this all the time? Buy something and then try to get their money back by claiming that it somehow got lost in the mail? Or is the USPS really that incompetent?

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Urban vs. Suburban Living - Haircuts

Everyone knows that the cost of goods and services is generally higher in urban settings when compared to prices in the suburbs. Which is why I typically shop for household stuff in the suburbs either before or after church, even though there's a Target and Walgreens within walking distance of my condo. But for things like haircuts or dry cleaning, I generally bite the bullet and pay city prices.

This past weekend, I was complaining to a friend about my hair stylist, who works at an upscale salon in a trendy neighborhood. The first time that I got my hair cut by the guy, he did a wonderful job. But the next 5 or 6 cuts were pretty terrible. $45 for each visit, and all he did was trim the ends. My mom, who was training to be a beautician when she first came to the U.S., kept insisting that the guy was ripping me off. And before that, I went to a salon in Chinatown. But my regular hair stylist seemed to give everyone the same cut, regardless of whether it flattered the person's face or not.

Since my friend and I were out the western suburbs for a church leadership meeting, she had pity on me and offered to take me to her Korean hair stylist in the northwest suburbs. I figured it couldn't hurt to try something new. I was feeling pretty desperate at that point. Nothing like heat and humidity to make my hair go crazy.

Anyway, because my friend is a regular customer, the woman agreed to squeeze me in without an appointment. And boy, she did wonders with my hair. She only took maybe an inch at most off of the bottom, but she trimmed my bangs and put in some nice, long layers. So, now my hair lays nicely in the back instead of the crazy poof ball thing that it's been doing for the past few weeks. All this for $18! Plus a $7 tip because she did such an awesome job. I am definitely *not* going back to my old hair stylist.

One could argue that the total cost of the urban vs. suburban haircut was the same, when you take into account gas, wear and tear on the car, and the amount of time that it took to drive out to the suburbs. But I've gotten multiple compliments on my hair in the past few days (even my mom, the perfectionist, approved). So when all is said and done, the suburban haircut was worth it.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Buyer's Market

CNNMoney confirms what we already know. It's a buyer's market in housing right now.
  • It's official - even the nation's leading group of real estate agents now says it's a buyers' market in housing, as a soaring supply of homes for sale means nearly flat prices and longer waits for sellers.

My friend has been trying to sell his house for the past 2.5 months because he accepted a job offer in another state. At the 60 day mark, he lowered his asking price by $40,000. And he's thinking of lowering it even more. His realtor told him that since early June, 150 houses came on the market within the same price range within his town. And only a handful have actually sold. So, he's facing some stiff competition.

And as I mentioned in a previous post, I'm thinking of putting my condo on the market next spring. It's probably an understatement to say that I'm just a tad bit worried.

Pros and Cons of Debit Cards

In this week's edition of Newsweek, Jane Bryant Quinn outlines some of the pros and cons related to debit card usage in A Debit-Card Nation.

The Pros
- You know you're spending real dollars. The purchase is pulled immediately from your bank account.
- They're an easy source of walking-around money. As with Discover Card, you can usually use debit cards to get cash at most grocery or drug stores by asking the cashier to add a specified amount to your total.
- They're a way to save. Not sure I agree with this one, especially for those folks who don't carry a balance. But if you have a lot of credit card debt, it's true that you can avoid racking up additional interest on credit card purchases by using your debit card.

The Cons
- You can't use debit cards to establish credit history.
- Very few debit cards offer decent reward programs. And for the few that do, only signature debits count towards reward points. In other words, you need to swipe your debit card, choose debit/credit, and then sign the receipt (vs. PIN transactions, where you just swipe your card and enter a PIN number).
- You risk losing the contents of your entire bank account. Although Visa and MasterCard advertise "zero liability" if you're a victim of identity theft, some banks only offer this protection for signature debits. And only if you notice and report the theft within a specified period of time. With credit cards, you're usually only liable for $50, no matter when you report the issue.

And one final piece of advice. Don't use debit cards for online purchases. "With your bank account open, you risk too much. Order by credit card or order only by phone."

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Happy to be a Guinea Pig

Thanks to all the pf bloggers out there (including Jim at Blueprint for Prosperity), who clued me in on survey networks. I've been faithfully filling out on average, five surveys a week for the past few months, in the hopes of winning some easy money through the raffles and sweepstakes that most of these companies sponsor. Each survey takes about 10 minutes to complete (I usually skip the longer ones). And this past week, I received my first $5 check from PineCone Research.

Aside from the extra income, one of the unexpected and neat side benefits to all this is being able to sample and help shape new products before they hit the general market. A few weeks ago, after I filled out a survey about food products, I was asked whether I'd be willing to test a product and provide feedback. I figured, 'Sure. Why not?' So, they sent me a big bag of yummy BBQ flavored potato chips. And last night, they sent me two full sized bottles of shampoo and conditioner that I'll need to use every day for the next two weeks. Of course, there are certain products that I probably wouldn't want to try, especially if I had health concerns about the product. But it's been kind of fun being a guinea pig for all of the marketing gurus out there.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

When It's Better Not to DIY

Yesterday afternoon, I played hooky from work and went for a bike ride along the lakefront. Halfway through my usual route, I veered off of the bike path and onto the concrete breakers. Along that particular stretch of the lakefront, people apparently have some pretty wild parties. You can see the evidence in the debris because they apparently don't know how to clean up after themselves. I usually manage to ride around the piles of garbage without too much trouble. But after a particularly violent thunderstorm the other night, there were shards of glass everywhere. Just as I was about to turn around and head back toward the paved bike path, I heard a hissing sound behind me. And I realized that I'd managed to puncture the inner tube in my rear tire. I got off my bike and managed to pull a sizeable chunk of glass out of the tire. Not such a good idea because that pretty much flattened the tire completely.

At that point, I had a couple of options. First option was to ride back home with the flat tire and basically ruin the rim. I wasn't sure exactly how much a new rim would cost, but I was pretty sure that it was more than I wanted to pay. Second option was to try and flag down an experienced rider with a patch kit and a mini bike pump and offer to pay him $20 to fix my flat. I only had a $20 bill and a credit card on me. But if I asked someone to patch the leak, it would probably take a while, and I would still need to replace the inner tube at some point in the near future. And what if the guy didn't really know what he was doing and wound up making things worse? My ex-boyfriend had a tough time getting my rear tire back on when he replaced my tires last year. And he works with bikes all the time. The third option was to walk my bike all the way back to the neighborhood bike shop, approximately 3 miles away. Although it would take about an hour, I figured once I got to the bike shop, they could fix my flat fairly quickly. And it probably wouldn't cost that much. So, I went with the last option.

And boy, it was a loooooong walk in the hot afternoon sun. But since I'd call the bike shop owner beforehand, he was expecting me. He had me in and out of there in 10 minutes flat (no pun intended). And he only charged me $9.95 (for both parts and labor) to replace the inner tube. Now that's what I call a good deal!

All this to say, sometimes it's best just to leave it to the experts. I know that my ex-boyfriend would've been disappointed that I didn't bring with me the patch kit and mini pump that he'd given me. But I can honestly say that if I had attempted to fix the flat on my own, it would have taken me twice as long and been just as expensive as walking all the way home and having the bike shop do it for me.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Sizing Up the Competition

I mentioned in an earlier post that I'm planning on going back to grad school next fall. So, I'll probably need to sell my condo. A realtor friend mentioned that there's a huge inventory of condos in my neighborhood right now because they're throwing up new buildings left and right. And I'm worried that higher interest rates are scaring away potential buyers. All this to say, I think it'll take me a heck of a lot longer to sell this condo than it took to sell my last one.

Well, the other day, I bumped into my upstairs neighbor. Her husband and I had purchased our condos at around the same time, nearly 2 years ago. So, I mentioned that I was thinking about selling my condo next spring. Her encouraging response? "Yeah, we're probably going to do the same thing." I'm thinking, 'Uh, oh.' Our units are nearly identical in terms of floor plan and layout, except that my unit has a couple of extra upgrades, a larger outdoor deck and hardwood floors throughout. I also paid more for my unit than they did for theirs. So no matter how you slice it, my condo is going to be priced higher. And I can totally see some buyer wanting to use their selling price as a starting point for negotiations on mine 'cause that's precisely what I did when I bought my place. Sigh. This'll be interesting.

On a more positive note, one of my good friends has been looking to buy a new townhouse, in the general vicinity of the school where I'm hoping to do my graduate studies. And she offered to let me stay with her (assuming that I pay rent, of course). So, that's a load off of my mind. I was so not looking forward to the prospect of student housing or renting a house with a bunch or random strangers.

Just a Small Cone, Please

So, I ran over to Dairy Queen this afternoon for a dipped cone. I figured I'd reward myself for achieving my 10 week fitness goal in less than 7 weeks. Of course, a bunch of people had the same idea, because there was a huge group ahead of me. But with 2 servers, the line was moving fairly quickly.

Then I noticed that the guy in front of me was sort of hanging back, and he refused to move any closer to the counter. So, I asked him if he was in line? "Yes, but I'm waiting for the next server. I've learned the hard way that the short lady is pretty stingy with the ice cream. Not sure what her problem is." Umm...okay (mental shrug).

Well, a new server pops in and asks to take care of the next customer. So the guy in front of me lunges towards him and quickly places his order. Meanwhile, the short lady finishes waiting on another customer, and I'm up next. I figure, who cares? I get a smaller cone, I get a smaller cone. Enforced portion control. So, I went ahead and placed my order for a small dipped cone. Well, low and behold, I finish paying the other server, and the woman hands me this absolutely hugeantic cone. Yikes! I'm guessing she must've overheard the other guy complain about her service. Or maybe she just doesn't like the other guy 'cause he was rude to her at some point or another. She was clearly trippin' off of something.

Oh well. So, much for portion control. My only consolation is that I'll be helping to load up a friend's truck tonight in preparation for a cross country move. Hopefully I'll be able to burn off the extra calories.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Wishing I Were Average

In terms of shoe size. In one of my earliest posts, I mentioned that I have trouble finding clothes that fit because I'm what the clothing manufacturers refer to as 'petite' (i.e., another nice way of saying that I'm vertically challenged). Well, I also have what my friends refer to as tiny feet, as well as short toes and low arches. Which means that I have trouble finding shoes that fit. On Wednesday, I ordered a brand new pair of Chaco ZX/1 sport sandals from shoes.com in a size 6, the smallest size that they had in stock. I was all excited because they're supposed to be really comfortable. And I got a great deal on them using a discount from the upromise website. Unfortunately, when I tried them on yesterday evening, they were too big. Huh! According to the Chaco website, the sandals do come in a size 5. So, I checked for a smaller size at Amazon, REI, shoemall and shoebuy. No such luck. Oh, to be an average sized American female...sigh.

Remanufactured Inkjet Cartridges - Money Saver or Waste of Time?

Back in early March of this year, I decided to try and save some money (approx. $10) by ordering a remanufactured inkjet cartridge from 4inkjets, one of a handful of online companies that refill and recycle old inkjet cartridges. Well, I've since read in a couple of news articles that inkjet cartridges can only be refilled about 10 times before the print quality starts to erode. And yesterday, I learned the hard way that you really do get what you pay for because I ran out of ink. Mind you, in the past, I've rarely had to replace the cartridge because I hardly ever use my printer. I mostly download stuff onto my hard drive or my Palm.

So, rather than running out and buying a new cartridge, I decided to call 4inkjets this morning to lodge a complaint. The customer service rep put me on hold for a few minutes. But when he got back on the line (without any additional prodding on my part), he told me that he would send me a new cartridge. Which leads me to believe that it's a fairly routine customer service issue that they encounter every day. And not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but part of me really just wanted a refund. I'm going to be really annoyed if I run out of ink again 3 months from now, especially if I'm in the middle of printing out something that I need ASAP.

Anyway, live and learn. If this cartridge turns out to be a dud, I'm going to stick with purchasing new cartridges.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Corporate Responsibility

Two recent headlines from the Chicago Tribune that I'd like to highlight. In my mind, illustrate both the good and the bad in corporate America when it comes to business ethics and moral responsibility.

Lay's Death Robs Many of Closure

  • The death of Enron Corp. founder Kenneth Lay on Wednesday puts an abrupt stop to a criminal prosecution that appeared to be leading inexorably to a life sentence for the one-time corporate kingpin. His death also eliminates an opportunity to deter wrongdoing by imposing a severe penalty, and robs American society of closure in one of its most painful commercial affairs, some observers said.

Suspects in Coke Case to Appear in Court

  • Coca-Cola and Pepsi are usually bitter enemies, but when PepsiCo Inc. got a letter offering Coke trade secrets, it went straight to its corporate rival. Six weeks later, three people were scheduled to appear in federal court Thursday to face charges of stealing confidential information, including a sample of a new drink, from The Coca-Cola Co., and trying to sell it to PepsiCo. "Competition can sometimes be fierce, but also must be fair and legal," Pepsi spokesman Dave DeCecco said. "We're pleased the authorities and the FBI have identified the people responsible for this."
Fair and legal competition? What a concept ;-) I have several friends who work for PepsiCo, so it's good to hear that their employer walks the talk when they encourage moral and ethical behavior. My employer just came out with a new version of its business principles, including my absolute favorite, "operate with the highest standards of integrity". If even half of my fellow employees started adhering to that particular principle, I'd be a really happy camper.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Initiating a Refund

I mentioned in a previous post that I've been selling some of my old books and CDs to clear off some shelf space. So far, I've had tremendous luck with Amazon.com and the USPS. But this morning I had to initiate my first refund because a shipment got lost in the mail. The buyer was really decent about it. He submitted his order on June 15th, I sent the book out via USPS media mail on the 16th, and he waited until a week and a half had passed before sending me a polite inquiry about the order. I asked him to wait a few more days, which he did. But as of last night, the book still hadn't arrived. So, I emailed him back to tell him that I'd refund his money and to apologize for the inconvenience. If the book does eventually arrive, I'll just eat the cost.

Call me cynical, but I do wonder if this guy is trying to pull the wool over my eyes? Since I didn't pay for delivery confirmation, who's to say that this guy didn't already get the book when he sent me that first email?

Sigh. The sad thing is that the book was fairly heavy and quite large, so it took more effort on my part to package the darn thing, and to add insult to injury, the shipping costs were more than double what I would've paid for a normal trade size book. Oh well. Live and learn. The cost of doing business, I suppose.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Five Buck Club - Cheap Movie Tickets

If you're lucky enough to live in a state where there's a Kerasotes movie theatre (currently Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Ohio), you can enroll in the Five Buck Club.
  • After a particular film has played a certain number of weeks — at least two — but occasionally more, we are able to offer you a discounted price, so admission to those films will be available to club members for only $5.

I just signed up for Netflix last month, and I have access to HBO (a not so great use of my condo association fees). But there are still certain types of movies that I prefer to watch in the theatre. The Five Buck Club is an excellent deal for folks like me who don't necessarily need to see a movie opening weekend. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Extreme Generosity

Newsweek's cover story, 15 People Who Make America Great, profiles individuals who "through bravery or generosity, genius or passion, devote themselves to helping others." Of course the most prominent photo on the cover of the hard copy is Brad Pitt, as if he's being singled out as the best of the best. Newsweek must really be hurting for sales. But I digress. I found many of the profiles inspiring, especially the story about Rick Warren, author of the "The Purpose Driven Life" and founder of Saddleback Church.

  • Since its publication, "The Purpose Driven Life" has sold 30 million copies in English, making it by some accounts the best-selling hardcover ever. It is a phenomenon, a movement. It has given Warren access to world leaders at Davos, to corporate chiefs and rock stars. It has generated "tens of millions of dollars," Warren says—enough for him to pay his own salary back to his church, retroactively, for the past 25 years, enough to launch three foundations. "PDL" allows Warren to "reverse tithe": he gives away 90 percent of what he earns.
  • Another pastor might be content to diversify into "PDL" DVDs and gift books, but Warren is more ambitious. If "2.3 billion people in the world claim to be followers of Jesus," then why not take the next step and mobilize those people to do important things, like stop poverty, improve literacy, feed the hungry, heal the sick? Conventional relief organizations are fine, but why not tap what Warren calls "the faith sector," the armies of motivated religious volunteers who are sick and tired of polarizing rhetoric and professional crusaders? "The old paradigm was, 'You pay, you pray, you get out of the way'," he explains, but in today's global and wired world, troops of caring volunteers can be deployed to communities in need with the push of a button.

So Rick Warren gives away 90 percent of what he earns? Wow. And I thought Angelina Jolie was generous. This is one individual who puts his money where his mouth is.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Stars' Worst Jobs

Last month, Nickel over at Five Cent Nickel started a series in the pf blogging community called 'Worst. Job. Ever'. Well, someone over at Entertainment Tonight stole his idea! Read more about in Stars' Worst Jobs.

Anyhow, many of the actors who were asked about their worst jobs recalled working in the cleaning services industry, which doesn't really surprise me. The worst part about my worst job ever was having to clean the popcorn machine.

Unclaimed Baggage

Ever wonder what happens to unclaimed luggage? According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, some of it winds up at the Unclaimed Baggage Center which is "a retail outlet that buys lost baggage that has gone unclaimed for at least 90 days directly from airlines" and then sells the contents to the general public at substantially discounted prices. The store is inconveniently located in Scottsboro, Alabama. But selected items are also available for purchase online at www.unclaimedbaggage.com.

So, what are the odds of finding some of your own lost items?

Cantrell said that's a "nearly impossible task." That is, unless you're one lucky woman in Atlanta."There was one gentleman who ended up buying his wife's old ski boots that she had lost two years ago," Cantrell said. " She had gotten a reimbursement from the airlines and everything, but he bought them here for $45 and didn't even know they were her original boots until he brought them back home to her in Atlanta.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Wire Transfers

I successfully completed my first wire transfer yesterday. Welcome to the 21st century, right? The funny thing is that I'm usually okay with sending checks in the mail. But lately, I've had a couple of strange incidents with misdelivered mail. Factor in the risk of theft from idiots who have nothing better to do than steal blank checks from people, and you have recipe for disaster. So, rather than overnight the check to my brother (to help with the down payment on a house), I spent $20 to wire transfer the money instead. I figured, as an added bonus, he wouldn't need to run to the bank to deposit the check and then wait 5 business days for it to clear.

Of course, the transaction was a lot slower than I was led to believe. I initiated the transfer via a live teller on Monday afternoon at 2:55PM, but because the teller was too busy eavesdropping on her neighbors conversation, we wound up missing the end of day cut off by 4 minutes. Anyway, when I asked when the transaction would be completed, she told me by mid-morning the next day. Hmm. Well, by Tuesday evening, I was beginning to get worried. Did I give her the correct routing number and bank account number? But I checked everything before I signed the paperwork? So I told myself to give it another day. It finally showed up as a completed transaction Wednesday morning. Whew! Moving around significant amounts of money can be quite nerve wracking. Here's hoping that I never have to do this again.

Friday, June 16, 2006

IBM/Lenovo - Another Positive Customer Service Story

This has been kind of a crappy week for me. I woke up Monday morning with a huge headache. And when I reached for my much needed first cup of coffee, my hand wobbled, and I wound up 'pouring' it all over my new Lenovo ThinkPad. Although I reacted quickly and managed to drain most of liquid out of the darn thing, it fried the keyboard. The irony is that I bought a ThinkPad precisely because I love the feel of the keyboard. Anyway, I didn't have time to deal with it right then, so I waited until evening to call tech support. I know this sounds really cynical on my part, but I was expecting to get the run around from some call center rep in India. Instead, I was connected to an IBM Tech Support Center somewhere here in the U.S. I spoke to two separate individuals, and one had a Midwestern accent, while the other had a southern drawl. They opened a trouble ticket for me and then offered to ship me a new keyboard in 2 days, no questions asked! Now that's what I call good customer service. The only catch was that I had to install it myself. In the words of the tech support guy 'If I can do it, you certainly can.' Umm, yeah, okay, right.

Thankfully, he pointed me towards some excellent videos on the IBM support website that had installation and removal instructions. Honestly, he was right. It wasn't all that difficult, once I got the case open. Except that the sugar in the spilled coffee had carmelized and managed to glue one of the hinges shut. Yuck.

The funny thing is that once I had the laptop apart, I realized that I had spilled the coffee in the exact spot where it could have done the least damage because the drive bay was covered by a thin piece of sheet metal. Any further towards the middle or the left of the keyboard, and I would have fried the CPU, which surprisingly is not encased in a separate box. I guess my guardian angel was working over time that morning. I would have been really upset if I needed to replace the darn thing when I just bought it 2 months ago.

Anyway, no more eating or drinking near the laptop.

On a related note, the acid from the coffee managed to etch several visible lines into the metal case above the drive bay. It's making me think that I should cut down on the amount of caffeine that I drink. If a tiny bit of coffee can do that to sheet metal, I shudder to think what 3 cups a day is doing to my stomach lining.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Why Flat Stocks May Not Always Mean Flat Gains

When the market takes a nose dive (like it has in the past few weeks), it's a great time for bargain hunters to add to their holdings. Most of my retirement assets are invested in aggressive growth mutual funds. But when it comes to individual stocks, I take more of a long term, buy and hold approach. In short, I'm drawn towards the relative safety of large, well-known corporations that pay hefty dividends.

This afternoon, the Motley Fool published The Market's 10 Most Mediocre Stocks, an article that essentially validates my approach to stock investing. The authors explain why flat stocks (i.e., stocks that haven't increased much in terms of price), aren't really flat.

First, there are the hefty dividends that most large corporations pay to their shareholders. Second, if a shareholder reinvests the dividends, there's the larger ownership stake in the company, which translates into the potential for a greater reward when the stock price does tick upwards. "The greatest rewards will go to those who had regularly reinvested their dividends at the lowest prices. This is why Wharton professor Jeremy Siegel calls dividends a bear market protector and a return accelerator. Simply put, they can protect you from an unforeseen calamity." And in today's market, that's saying a lot.

So, just to give you an idea of the types of stocks that I'm talking about, I went ahead and bought some shares of Procter & Gamble today. It's a solid, diversified company that sells great products, including ones that I use on a daily basis. Do I think that the stock price will double in the next year or so? Of course not! But I'm counting on those nice juicy dividends to help offset some of my paper losses. And I'll be adding to my ownership stake by reinvesting those dividends.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Father's Day Gift

In the past, I've been fairly uncreative in my choice of Father's Day gifts. What do you get for a guy who doesn't have a lot of hobbies and has very simple tastes? So, I usually wind up buying an item of clothing or a book, plus a card and dinner at the restaurant of his choice.

But this year, I started early. And after much angsting, I decided to buy him a Homedics Therapist Select Quad Roller Massaging Cushion from Bed Bath & Beyond. I gave it to him a week early because I wanted to make sure that he liked it. And thankfully, he did. Apparently, he's been wanting one for a while now, but my mom kept balking at the cost. Unlike some of the cheaper models, this one has four rollers that provide a really deep massage. Personally, I think the motors are almost too strong 'cause they really dig deep into your back.

Anyway, I've been in sort of a pensive mood lately about my parents. Two of my co-workers lost their moms to cancer this past month. So, it's been a somewhat harsh reminder that my parents are getting up there in years. Life as I know it could change in an instant.

My dad just turned 65 last month, and he's been noticeably tired lately. He started a new job in February because his old employer sold all of their assets and the new company moved all of the operations to California. The commute to and from the new job is pretty brutal, but my dad feels the need to work for financial reasons. My mom keeps herself busy with church related activities and household chores. She has a lot of hobbies, such as gardening and sewing. But she's convinced that she's going to die 'young', so she keeps harassing me to get married. Like most traditional moms, her sole remaining duty and responsibility in this life is to marry me off. Anyway, all this to say that I'm trying to make every birthday and holiday with my parents count.

If you haven't told your parents lately that you love them, please take the time to do so this week. And if you're looking for a cool gift for Father's Day, try the massaging cushion.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Opposite Ends of the College Debt Spectrum

There's a depressing article in the Chicago Tribune entitled 'New college graduates get quick education about debt.'

  • The average graduate who borrowed for college leaves school with almost $20,000 in student loans and about $2,000 in credit card debt. About two-thirds of students borrow for school, said Sandy Baum, a senior policy analyst for the College Board.
  • People in their 30s are delaying home purchases and having children because their debts are too great.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there's a really heartwarming story about Robert and Jill Car, a wealthy couple who are giving back to their community by sponsoring full tuition scholarships for 18 lucky eighth graders in Lockport, IL.

  • Carr calculates it will cost $720,000 to keep the promise each year. He said he and his wife plan to commit $100 million of their own money to get the program going. The funding has been placed in a charitable trust."When I ask myself, what in the heck does a person do with $250 million, my best answer is to help disadvantaged kids break out of their depressing lives one by one," he said. "We won't change the world, but we will change the world for a few kids--as many as we can afford."

I was the recipient of a similar grant through my father's employer - full tuition and fees (but not housing or living expenses) at a specific state university. Unfortunately, the foundation that awarded the scholarship mismanaged the funds, so the 'guaranteed' scholarship wasn't renewed in my senior year. As a result, I made the difficult decision to graduate from college a semester early. Needless to say, it was a hectic four months, trying to cram in the rest of my required coursework. But looking back on that experience, I realize that I was lucky. I graduated with pretty much zero debt because what the scholarship and part time jobs didn't cover, my parents paid for.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Leftover Wine

What to do with leftover wine? Turn it into a tasty wine reduction sauce.

  • Pour half-empty bottles of wine into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until the wine reduces by three quarters. Most of the alcohol will be boiled out, and the flavor will be intensified. Cool, pour into ice cube trays and place in the freezer. When fully frozen, store in a Ziploc freezer bag for future use. Reduced wine adds lovely depth to sauces, gravies, soups and dessert syrups.
For additional party tips, check out this article from Clean Home Journal.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Free Ben & Jerry Ice Cream Cones in Chicago

One of the things that I love about working in downtown Chicago -- the abundance of free samples! You gotta love those marketing folks.

They were giving away free Ben & Jerry's ice cream cones just now on the corner of State and Madison. Chocolate Cookie Dough and Cherry Garcia, individually wrapped in tiny, insulated packages. They'll be handing them out all week, so catch 'em while you can!

Celebrity Status and Generosity

Personally, I'm not a big fan of either Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt. But I can respect what Jolie, and now Pitt are trying to do in terms of leveraging their celebrity status for the greater good. Jolie serves as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations. But beyond that, she also puts her money where her mouth is. According to Forbes magazine, Jolie is one of the 10 most generous celebrities in Hollywood.

And now, in an effort to circumvent the paparazzi, Jolie and Pitt "plan to distribute photographs of their newborn daughter, Shiloh Nouvel Jolie-Pitt, with profits going to a charity aiding African children." You can read more about the Brangelina pics here.

To whom much is given, much will be required. It's a principle that few people live by these days. So, it's inspiring to hear stories about people who are.

Fitness Club Fees

One of the advantages of working for a large corporation are the substantial corporate discounts that employees receive on a variety of products and services, including cell phone plans and gym memberships. A local fitness chain in Chicago just opened a club in my neighborhood, and they're running a special for corporate employees - no enrollment fees, free parking and savings of up to 43 percent off the regular club rates. Several of my friends belong to that particular club, and I'd been toying with the idea of joining the club for a few months on a trial basis. It'd be nice to have some accountability, to be able to work out with friends, and take some classes (e.g., pilates or running). But since I have a small workout room in my condo building, I'm not sure the benefits offered by the club would offset the cost. Even with the corporate discount, my guess is that the monthly fees would still be more than I'd be willing to pay. And now that the days are getting longer and warmer, I've been doing a lot more walking and biking. Sigh. Decisions, decisions.

Monday, June 05, 2006


There's an article in Sunday's edition of the Chicago Tribune about helping Retired Urban People (aka 'Ruppies') adjust to life downtown living after years of suburban living.

The interesting thing is that I've witnessed this trend firsthand. Several folks who live in my condo building are clearly retirees. Last year, I got to know one guy on my floor who used to ride his bike to work. We chatted about the pros and cons of public transportation vs. biking and/or walking. And then one day, he told me that he was moving out because his parents were moving in. Apparently, they'd finally decided to kick him and his brother out of their 'retirement home'.

Personally, I can't see my parents or any one of their friends retiring and moving into the city. They would be way too irritated by the noise and inconveniences of downtown living. But having acquired a taste for urban living, I might consider it.

Friday, June 02, 2006

New Baby Trend - Domain Names

Celebrities have taken to registering variations on their children's names as domain names to protect their children's privacy in cyberspace. For example, according to E!Online, the domain names ShilohNouvelJolie-Pitt.com, ShilohPitt.com and ShilohNouvel.com were all registered by Jolie through her attorney in advance of her baby's birth.

But what's interesting to note is the trend amongst non-celebrity parents. According to the editor of Parents magazine, parents are snapping up domain names and setting up web sites devoted to their babies.

I did a quick search online, and there are already several companies out there that are capitalizing on this trend and targeting their ads towards expectant parents. So, my guess is that it's here to stay. Baby shower registries, and now domain names. What next?

From a personal finance perspective, it just seems like yet another way for the $7 billion baby industry to squeeze even more money out of financially strapped parents. But maybe if I had children, I'd want to document their every milestone for all the world to see as well?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Primer on Sheets

If you're in the market for bed sheets, read Ellen Warren's primer in today's edition of the Chicago Tribune. "The four big things you need to keep in mind are fiber content, weave, finish and--to a lesser extent--thread count."

In terms of fiber content, it's interesting to note that Egyptian Cotton doesn't necessarily guarantee a better feel than other types of cotton or even blends. It's all a matter of personal preference. Also, in terms of thread count, "you want to buy 180 or higher (which is called percale), but anything higher than about 300 in plain weave or 400 in sateen is meaningless. And those claims of really high thread counts (more than about 400 in plain or about 700 in sateen) are most likely not true..."

4 questions to ask when buying sheets
- Wrinkles really bug you? Then a blend's for you.
- Do you need color and pattern? The dye and finish will make it rougher.
- Pilling or fuzzy sheets drive you nuts? Go 100 percent cotton.
- What about long wear? Look for polyester content.

So, the moral of the story is that you should think twice about paying hundreds of dollars for 100% Egyptian Cotton, 1000 thread count sheets.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Toyota Prius Voluntary Recall for '04 to '06 Models

Toyota will be recalling 320,000 Priuses to repair a potentially faulty steering system component. Owners are being asked to wait until they receive a recall notice before scheduling an appointment with their local dealership. You can read more about it here.

Cashless Society? Not So Much

My apologies for the long hiatus and infrequent posts in the past week or so. I flew out to NY/NJ early Friday morning and spent the past few days with my best friend, blissfully disconnected and unplugged from life as I know it. Usually when I visit NY, it's a combination of both work and leisure. But this time around, it was purely for fun. We visited the United Nations, snagged really great tickets to 'Awake and Sing' at the TKTS booth for half off, visited a church that I've heard wonderful things about, had lunch with a bunch of friends who happened to be in town, walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and waited half an hour for a scoop of yummy gelatto at the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory and broke in a new pair of shoes.

One of the interesting things about NY City is that there are still a number of mom and pop places that don't accept credit or debit cards. For example, my best friend and I ate dinner Sunday evening at a wonderful, neighborhood bistro called Tartine. There was a large sign on the door that said 'We accept cash only'. Since I had offered to pay for dinner, I was thankful that I had enough cash with me to cover the entire bill because the nearest ATM was nearly 2 blocks away. But when I commented on the sign, my best friend explained that it's fairly common in NYC. When she first moved to the area a year ago, she asked her husband why he was burning through so much cash. He was constantly having to make trips to the ATM. She works in NJ, while her husband works in the financial district in Manhattan, so she just didn't get it. He explained that very few of the places near his office accepted credit cards, so he's forced to pay cash all the time.

Anyway, it made me appreciate some of the modern conveniences and comparative advantages of living and working in downtown Chicago. People in Chicago don't leave large bags of trash on the sidewalk because thanks to the Great Fire, we have alley ways and trash cans on nearly every street corner. And thanks to Mayor Daley, we have flowers and trees along every major street. Best of all, it's a cashless society. You can pretty much use your credit card to pay for even the smallest transactions, which makes tracking expenditures on Quicken a whole heck of a lot easier (i.e., one step update to download all transactions vs. recording each transaction on my Palm manually).

The one thing I will say about NJ. No sales tax. Since most of the places we would've visited were closed on Memorial Day, we decided to hit the outlet malls. Let's just say that I put one heck of a dent in my clothing allowance. But it was mostly stuff that I've been meaning to buy anyway. So, it's just as well, I guess. Also, my best friend trimmed my hair Monday evening, so that saved me about $50, which is what I usually pay for a haircut.

All in all, a fun and relaxing trip. And it turned out to be a lot cheaper than I expected.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

An Expensive Convenience Item

A lot of folks in the pf blogging community have been talking about rising fuel prices. According to an article that I read this morning on msn.com, entitled 10 cities worst hit by rising gas prices, the average American family with two drivers will spend between $2,736 and $5, 772 this year on gas. Well, fortunately (or unfortunately) for me, as a single person who either walks or takes public transportation to work, the rising cost of fuel prices doesn't affect me very much.

What does affect me is the high cost of maintaining a car, especially in a metropolitan area like Chicago. When I purchased my condo two years ago, I had to pay $35,000 for a deeded parking spot. Admittedly, even if I didn't have a car, I probably would have purchased a parking spot anyway, because my realtor told me that it adds to the resale value of my condo. But on top of the purchase price, there's the property tax, to the tune of nearly a $700 a year. And then you have the cost of auto insurance at $866 per year, which is pretty darn expensive when you consider that I'm a 'leisure' driver (under 6,500 miles per year) with absolutely no traffic violations on my record. Then you have the $78 that I pay the State of Illinois to renew my license plates each year. And another $75 to the City of Chicago each year for a parking sticker. So, as you can see, it all starts to add up. And that's not including the routine costs of actually maintaining the car (e.g., oil change, brakes, tires, muffler, window wipers, belts, spark plugs, etc.) . Thankfully, other than the routine stuff and a small leak in a hose, my car has been relatively trouble free.

So, given the relatively high costs, why exactly do I own a car? I confess that it's purely for convenience. I live across the street from a bus stop. And it's only a 10 minute walk to the nearest grocery store. But my parents and several of my friends, as well as my church are all located out in the suburbs. Admittedly, I could take the metra train to visit family and friends or hitch a ride to church and church meetings if I needed to. And I do offer rides to other folks and carpool whenever possible. But honestly, I just enjoy the freedom of being able to hop in my car at any moment, at any time of the day and drive wherever I want or need to go.

In short, my car is my number one most expensive convenience item. And it has nothing to do with rising gas prices.

How about you? What's your most expensive convenience item?

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Series Finale of Alias and Random Thoughts about Illicit Funds

A bit of a spoiler follows for those of you who didn't get a chance to watch the series finale of 'Alias' last night.

There's a flashback scene towards the end of the last episode where Sydney (Jennifer Garner), supposedly in college, comes home one day and hands her dad Jack (Victor Garber) an envelope full of cash. She says something to the effect that it's about time that she paid her dad back for some of her college tuition and such. With a bemused expression on his face he asks her 'What? Did you rob a bank?' She replies 'No, but I've been working at one or the last month.' Upon hearing the name of the bank, Jack realizes that Sydney has been recruited by SD-6. He's clearly upset, and in a fairly harsh tone of voice he proceeds to try and persuade her to quit her job. Sydney reacts with shock, hurt and bewilderment. At this point in time, she doesn't realize that her father is an SD-6/CIA agent as well. 'I didn't come here to ask your permission. I've made my decision.' And then she runs out of the room.

I found it kind of interesting that at no point in time did Victor try to hand the money back to Sydney. He was clearly upset about the way she had earned the money, but he accepted it nonetheless. So, that scene got me to thinking about how I would've reacted if a closed friend or loved one had offered to pay back a loan or bought an extravagent gift for me with what I suspected was 'illicit' money (i.e., cash that they'd earned through questionable means). Would I risk offending that person by refusing the money?

I knew of a girl in high school whose dad paid for everything in cash. He was always walking around with a huge wad of cash in his pocket. A lot of folks who lived through the Great Depression still hide their money under their proverbial mattresses, so it wasn't that big of a deal, except that he drove really flashy cars and engaged in a lot of conspicuous consumption, which fueled the rumor that he worked for the mafia. I'm not sure what I would've done if I were her daughter. Looked the other way until I became an adult?

Monday, May 22, 2006

Relaxing and Surprisingly Frugal Weekend

One of my friends was kind enough to offer up her lake house for the weekend. So I and a group of female friends drove up to Michigan Friday afternoon for some much needed rest and relaxation. We mostly just hung around the porch or sat on the dock, reading, eating, laughing, chatting and playing board games. It was nice to be able to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life.

Of course getting there wasn't so fun. We got caught in rush hour traffic in a relatively small city, about an hour away from our destination. So we arrived a bit later than we anticipated. A few of my friends started prepping for dinner immediately, using ingredients that we'd brought with us, while I and another friend went grocery shopping. I couldn't get over the low, low prices at the local Super Walmart. Talk about cheap!

When we split the grocery bill, we wound up paying $34 per person for five hearty meals, which included some yummy grilled steaks for dinner on Saturday evening. All told, it was a very relaxing and frugal weekend.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Money Saving Tip - Borrow Clothes from a Friend

As a follow up to my post earlier this week, I have a lot of hard-working, intelligent friends who are unemployed or underemployed.

One of my friends has been searching for a full-time position for nearly a year now, ever since she graduated from law school last spring. She's a highly qualified candidate who turned down a prestigious job offer with the DOJ because it would have meant relocating out of state and away from her husband. But just this week, she found out that she's managed to land a full-time job with a small law firm in the Chicagoland area. And she was totally caught off guard. Just to give you an idea of how quickly everything happened for her, she had her first round of interviews early last week, went in for a second interview at the end of the week, and then was offered the job the following Monday. She then had a day or two to think it over before she accepted. And now she's scheduled to start her new job this coming Monday.

Here's her dilemma. The law firm requires 'business attire' four days a week. But she only has two suits...just enough to get her through two rounds of interviews with any given employer. So, with only four days' notice, she now has to scramble to put together a decent business wardrobe for the upcoming week. Unfortunately, her weekend is already jam packed with other social obligations that she'd already committed to before she even found out about this job. So, she won't have time to hit the outlet malls.

Chalk it up to Murphy's Law, but if you're anything like me, it's nearly impossible to find a suit or a special occasion dress if you actually need one. I wind up spending hours and hours trying on various items and deciding that they don't fit quite right or are way too expensive. And just as the stores are closing, I wind up grabbing something, anything out of sheer desperation and then regretting the purchase.

Fortunately for my friend, she and I are nearly the same size. And since my employer no longer requires business attire, I offered to lend her some of my suits. That'll hopefully buy her some extra time, so she can shop at a more leisurely pace and find some good deals.

Anyway, if you're in need of a special occasion suit or dress, and you're really pressed for time or on a tight budget, consider borrowing the items from your friends' wardrobes or closets.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Free Tulip Bulbs in Chicago

For those of you who live in the Chicagoland area, the Garfield Park Conservatory is giving away free tulip bulbs this Saturday, May 20th, beginning at 9AM in the Market Place area. Get there early because it's first-come, first-served, and a limit of one or two grocery bags per person. The bulbs are usually gone by noon. For more information, visit the official website.

Most Expensive Home in the U.S.

What would $75 million dollars buy you? An oceanfront home in southern California and a footnote in the history books. According to an article posted by Reuters, if it actually sells at or slightly below list price, it would be the most expensive U.S. home sale ever. Admittedly, for $75 million you would get a 30,000 square-foot estate with "a car museum, entertainment complex, gymnasium and mini water park." But still....

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Hugh Jackman's Perspective on the New York Housing Market

I always liked Hugh Jackman (the actor who plays Wolverine in the X-Men movies). But after reading this interview in Newsweek yesterday, I like him even more.

Q. Now you're moving to New York.
A. We're going to have to bite the bullet and rent, I think. My wife is fussy, and it's a lot of money to live in New York.
Q. But I bet you could afford it.
A. Do I have the money? Yes. But I still struggle with how expensive it is. It feels a bit obscene.

So, there you have it folks. Even though he's rich and famous, Hugh Jackman strikes me as a fairly down-to-earth sort of guy, which is rare in Hollywood these days. Maybe it's because he and his wife avoid the excesses of Hollywood by living in Australia for the most part. I just can't imagine someone like Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt balking at excessive housing prices.

Festival of Frugality #23

Many thanks to Jane Dough at Boston Gal's Open Wallet for hosting this week's Festival of Frugality. I'm not sure how she found the time or energy to do it after spending the weekend fighting the flood waters. Anyway, check out all of the great posts, including one from yours truly on custom jeans.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Work is a Four-Letter Word

According to an article posted on Yahoo this morning, Hillary Clinton apologized to her daughter for essentially calling all young people lazy. In previous remarks, Hillary indicated that young people today "think work is a four-letter word," and they have a sense of entitlement after growing up in a "culture that has a premium on instant gratification."

Hmm. Interesting. Is it just me or does it seem a bit ironic that Hillary is commenting on the shiftless nature of an entire generation of young people? Flashback to the 1960s, when Hillary was a young person. What exactly was her generation known for? Something about smoking pot and talking about world peace and free love?

Quite honestly, as a member of Generation X, I'm sick and tired of hearing folks from the boomer generation complain about 'young people' and their sense of entitlement. Every time I look at my paycheck stub, I just shake my head. You want to talk about a sense of entitlement? Try suggesting that we take social security away from the boomers. As it stands, the boomers will be, most likely, the last generation to benefit from social security. The rest of us 'young people' are expected to fund Clinton's retirement and then fend for ourselves.

Anyway, I'm glad that Chelsea called her mom to task. Like Chelsea, I happen to work very hard, as do the majority of my friends.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Goodbye Hummer H1 - Rest in Peace

According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, GM plans to stop production on the Hummer H1 next month. A moment of silence, please...

Yeah, right! All I can say is 'It's about time!' Who the heck needs to drive a military-grade vehicle that gets, at most 10 miles to the gallon? The thing is so stinking wide that it can't fit into a normal parking space. I used to walk past an H1 on the way to the train station, and it was always parked half on the street and half over the curb.

Custom Jeans - Frugal or Foolish?

Have any of you women out there ever tried to order custom pants? If yes, did you have a positive or negative experience? I know that men do it all the time, but I'm more interested in seeing if any women have done it.

I'm actually thinking about ordering a pair of custom denim jeans from Lands' End. It seems like a fairly straight forward process. You choose from a variety of styles and colors. Click on your body type, enter some measurements, tell them whether you have a full, average or flat tummy, posterior or thighs. And voila! You'll get your new, custom jeans in the mail in 3 to 4 weeks.

There's also a money back guarantee:

If the fit isn't "just so" the first time around, you can nip and tuck your profile accordingly and re-order a new item. We save all your information, so you can fill your order with just a few keystrokes. And, if your Lands' End Custom garment is anything less than perfect, you may exchange it, or return it and we'll reimburse you for the purchase price. Lands' End Custom is Guaranteed. Period.

And surprisingly, they're pretty reasonably priced at $54. That's a bargain when you think about what it usually costs (in terms of both time and money) to buy a decent pair of jeans. For all you men out there who don't know what I'm talking about, check out the hilarious diagram that Financial Freedumb posted last week. It totally captures my typical jean buying experience. A few years back, my friend and I spent over 3 hours at the Gap store on Michigan Ave. We were bound and determined to find a flattering pair of jeans that actually fit. I think we must've tried on at least 40 pairs of jeans in all different types of styles, sizes and colors. I wound up paying $48 for a pair of jeans that fit me fairly well. But I promptly ruined them the second time I wore them. Someone spilled hot coffee all over me, and I couldn't get the stain out. Oh well. They were button fly and a total pain to get on and off, so I didn't bother to replace them.

So, what do you think? Are custom jeans are frugal or foolish? Should I order these jeans?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Cooking Lessons for Kids at Spatulatta.com

There's an article in Wednesday's edition of the Chicago Tribune about Isabella and Olivia Gerasole, the hosts of a popular online cooking show for kids. The amazing thing is that these two sisters are kids as well! At 10 and 8 years of age respectively, they just became "the youngest winners in the 16-year history of the James Beard Foundation food awards."

If you're interested in teaching your kids the joys of cooking (or just want some fresh recipe ideas), check out their Webcast at www.spatulatta.com.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Mother's Day Musings

I've been thinking a lot about Mother's Day this week. Maybe it's because my co-worker just lost her mom early last week. But it's been on my mind.

Like most individuals, I have an interesting and unique relationship with my mom. She's never been officially diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but she has many of the hallmark signs and symptoms. When my nephew was diagnosed with ADHD, it was as if a light bulb went on in my head. Suddenly, some of my mother and brother's crazy behavior made sense to me. But in spite of her sometimes crazy behavior, my mom is a great mom.

A few years ago, I sent my mom flowers for Mother's Day. She called me to thank me. But instead of telling me that some of the orchids were wilted when they arrived, she kept silent for weeks, because she didn't want to seem ungrateful. Later, when she asked me not to send her flowers anymore, I thought she was just being frugal and didn't like the fact that I'd paid for shipping. But when I dug a bit deeper, I got the real reason out of her, and then I was pretty annoyed. If she had told me about the wilted flowers right away, I could have easily called the florist and asked them to replace the order. Most florists have a money back guarantee.

Anyway, the following year, I decided to 'learn' from my mistake and sent her a plant instead because my mom loves gardening and she has a very green thumb. Well, the plant arrived on time and in good condition, with healthy and vibrant leaves. And although my mom grumbled about the cost, she was pretty happy about it...at least initially. To this day, my mom gives me grief about that plant because it never flowered.

So, this year for Mother's Day, I bought my mom a sweater, and hand delivered it to her last week. She seemed pretty happy with the sweater. It was something that she needed to round out her wardrobe. But somehow, it didn't sit well with me. It didn't seem like enough. Does that makes sense? I wanted to lavish her with something that she wouldn't normally buy for herself, to make her feel special. And I wanted to let her know how much I love her and appreciate her and all that she's done for me. Like I said, maybe it's my co-worker's recent experience that is weighing heavily on my mind. But I'm just not sure how much longer my mom will be with me. Longevity runs in the family, but you just never know.

So, I'm back to my old tricks again. Last night, I hopped online and ordered two dozen roses and a box of truffles for my mom. Hopefully, she won't complain about the cost.

Anyway, this is a shout out to all the moms out there. Happy Mother's Day (a few days early). And for all you slackers out there who still haven't ordered presents for your moms, get to it! Life is short. Take the opportunity to appreciate your loved ones while you can.

* Update 5/12/06 - The flowers arrived today. And predictably, the first words out of my mom's mouth were 'You shouldn't have spent so much money! I told you not to send me flowers anymore.' But then she followed it up by thanking me profusely for sending them. So, I know that she was secretly pleased.