Friday, April 28, 2006

OT - Crunch Time

Just wanted to let you all know that I'll be somewhat MIA for the next few days. It's crunch time for me, in terms of school work. A class presentation, 2 research papers and a final exam, oh my! If I can just make it through this weekend....

Thursday, April 27, 2006

GridPoint Protect - TiVo for Electricity

There's a new product on the market from a company called GridPoint. It functions like a TiVo for electricity, allowing you to purchase and store electricity during offpeak hours, and thereby shaving money off your monthly electricity bill. Check out the article about GridPoint on CNN.

The device, called GridPoint Protect, is the size of a small file cabinet and connects to the circuitbreaker panel. (The company also offers a lower-capacity version designed for homes, which costs $10,000.) A built-in computer powered by a Pentium chip will make intelligent purchase decisions, buying when prices are low, then storing the electricity for later use. That will make it possible to run your company during the workday with cheaper electricity that you purchased at 3 A.M. Corsell, 28, estimates that his device will shave a business's electric bill by about 15%. Assuming monthly charges of $2,500, the system would pay for itself in less than four years.

Because it stores electricity, it can double as a backup generator that is safer and faster than many models currently available.

Anyway, it's an interesting concept. We'll see if it actually flies.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

When the Customer Isn't Right

In an earlier post, I mentioned that I'm lactose intolerant. So, I'm always on the lookout for good dairy alternative products. A few weeks back, I started buying Silksoy yogurt because it was on sale at my local grocery store.

I thought it was great that they were trying to be environmentally friendly by getting rid of their plastic lids. But then I dropped one of the yogurt cups. And it immediately burst open, spurting strawberry yogurt all over the carpet. Needless to say, I wasn't a happy camper. Well, call me clumsy, but a few days later, I dropped yet another cup of yogurt, this time at the grocery store. And the same thing happened. It burst open, spilling yogurt all over the floor.

So, I wrote a friendly email to Silksoy to suggest that they create a stronger seal or lid.

And here's their response:

Dear X:
Thank you for taking the time to contact us. At WhiteWave Foods, we take our responsibility to our consumers and the environment seriously. We know it is important to take care of one while considering the other. It is in this spirit that we changed our Silk Yogurt packages to feature an easy-peel foil lid.
Our new yogurt cups use less plastic. Just replacing the traditional plastic lid with foil reduces our plastic needs by more than 100,000 pounds each year. That plastic reduction is great for the air we breathe because it improves the air's oxygen as much as planting 68 acres of trees would
In addition to the environmental benefits, reducing package materials allowed us to keep our price steady. The price for the raw materials was increasing; changing the package means we can avoid passing a price increase for our product on to our consumers.
Delivering consistently high-quality products is our top priority. Before making the packaging switch, we tested and retested the foil lids for strength and durability. We created stress test scenarios in our lab to evaluate seal quality and to ensure the cup structure can withstand all reasonable conditions.
We hope this is helpful.
Best regards from Silk

Umm, okay. So I sent them a nicely worded response. I was kind of wondering what kind of stress tests they did on their yogurt cups. Did they do any field tests? Maybe dropping one of the yogurt cups from counter height? I've never had this problem with yoplait yogurt. They too use foil rather than a plastic lid. Of course, I never got a response to my second email.

Anyway, in my ongoing quest to find the perfect dairy alternative, I've since moved onto a different soy based yogurt product from Stonyfield Farms. O'Soy has a more creamy consistency and a sweeter taste to it. As an added bonus, it's on sale this week at my local grocery store for even less than the sale price of the Silksoy product.

Just for kicks, I decided to email Stonyfield Farms, to see how they would react to a customer suggestion. And here's how they responded:

Dear X,
Thank you for taking the time to contact us. We always welcome comments and questions from our yogurt lovers and are grateful when someone takes the time to let us know what they think of our company and products.
We appreciate your suggestion for to consider boosting the calcium amount and lower the sugar amount in our O'Soy cultured soy. I will forward your suggestions to our Product Development Team. If I can be of further assistance, please feel free to contact me at 1-800-PRO-COWS (776-2697) M-F, 9-5 EST.
We are passionately committed to producing the best tasting, healthiest yogurts available, and trying to do some good in the world while we're at it. Please visit our web site at to learn more.
Consumer Relations Team

Wow. The difference in the tone of the two letters is like night and day. Both companies are environmentally friendly. Both companies are trying to produce a product that's both healthy and tasty. But whereas Stonyfield Farm welcomes suggestions from its customers and actually provides you with a telephone number, Silk Soy tries to blow off customer concerns with some long winded explanation as to why the customer's experience is invalid. Lab tests. Yeah, right. To be fair, I haven't dropped one of the O'Soy cups yet. I don't exactly enjoy cleaning yogurt off the floor.

But, it just goes to show that it's not really what you say, it's how you say it. I doubt that Stonyfield Farms is going to reformulate their O'Soy product just because I asked them to. But it's nice to know that they appreciate customer feedback.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Wimbledon's Disparate Treatment of Women Players

Continuing on the same theme of an earlier post, women tennis players are being given the proverbial shaft. According to a recent article in yahoo sports, Wimbledon announced on Tuesday that it would remain the only grand slam event not to pay its men's and women's champions equal prize money. In contrast...

French Open organisers announced last month that they would pay their men's and women's singles champions the same prize money of 940,000 euros ($1.13 million) this year, though they were criticised by the WTA Tour for not applying the equality throughout the draw.

The other two grand slams, the Australian and U.S. Opens, have long offered equal money to men and women players.

So, what accounts for the difference at Wimbledon?

Russian Maria Sharapova, the 2004 champion, said: "Women's tennis players are getting as many sponsors and media coverage as the men, and I understand that our TV ratings at the Grand Slams are pretty much equal to and often better than the men so I don't understand the rationale for paying the men more than us."

Dunno. Go figure.

More Working Women Find They Can't Afford to Retire

There's a very depressing story in yesterday's edition of the Chicago Tribune, entitled More Working Women Find They Can't Afford to Retire. It's a sad reality that women tend to get the short end of the stick.

Finances force them to stay on job or return to work because they've earned less, live longer.

Women's lifetime earnings look different on average than those of men. Women are concentrated in low-wage or part-time jobs and can lack experience dealing with financial matters. They are more apt to drop out of the workforce to be a caregiver, resulting in more meager assets. Such reasons help explain why older women are flocking to job fairs and filling out applications in record numbers, experts say."

For men, working past retirement has been more of a `want to,' but for women, it's a `have to,'" said Jacquelyn James, director of research of the Center for Work and Family at Boston College.

I'm grateful that my boss and my boss' boss are both women. And they continue to fight for gender equality in the workplace. But many female workers are not as fortunate as I am. As a single person in her mid 30s, I've long since given up the romantic notion that some prince charming would fall head over heels in love with me and take care of me for life. And even if I were married, the reality is that one out of two marriages in the U.S. eventually end in divorce.

But the women who were profiled in this article came from an earlier generation, when the social contract was a bit different. They got married, had some kids, left the workforce, with the expectation that their husbands would take care of the household's finances and save up for the couple's retirement. Sigh. My heart goes out to those women. But it also strengthens my resolve to not wind up like them. I expect to work during retirement, not because I have to, but because I want to.

Going Dutch

One of my friends wanted to meet me for lunch the other day. And typically, unless it's a romantic date or someone explicitly offers to pick up the tab, I just assume that people will pay their own way. But in my friend's email invitation, he specifically used the words "dutch treat", which IMHO, is an archane and extremely perjorative term. So that got me thinking about the etymology of the phrase "going dutch".

Here's what I found in wikipedia:

Going Dutch is a slang term that means that each person eating at a restaurant or paying admission for entertainment pays for himself or herself, rather than one person paying for everyone. It is also called Dutch date or Dutch treat. The phrase "going Dutch" probably originates from Dutch etiquette. In the Netherlands, it is not unusual to pay separately when dating. The Dutch were already internationally known as scrooges, and English rivalry with The Netherlands especially during the period of the Anglo-Dutch Wars gave rise to several phrases including Dutch that promote certain negative stereotypes. Examples include Dutch courage, Dutch uncle and Dutch wife. The particular stereotype associated with this usage is the idea of Dutch people as ungregarious and selfish.

There are many ethnicities and races that have a reputation for frugality. So, rather than single out the Dutch, I think we should all just offer to pay our own way and leave the poor Dutch out of it.

I can think of some other racially charged phrases that are, thankfully, going the way of the dinosaur. The first time I heard someone say "Jew them down," it was in the context of a negotiation session in law school. Insert collective gasp of outrage, particularly since the professor was Jewish. The individual who made the statement was actually shocked that people were upset with her. Anyway, it's something to keep in mind. We need to be sensitive to other races and cultures, particularly in the context of conversations about money.

Monday, April 24, 2006


Today's word at is oniomania, which means "compulsive shopping; the excessive, uncontrollable desire to buy things."

So, the next time you feel the urge to shop til you drop, call it what it is...oniomania.

Problems with Blogger

I'm not sure what the problem is today, but blogger has been crashing repeatedly. I've lost a couple of draft posts. So, I'm officially waving the white flag. I'll wait until tomorrow to post anything substantive.

Carnival of Personal Finance #45

This week's Carnival of Personal Finance is up at Million Dollar Goal. The articles are organized under major headings and includes one from yours truly under Career.

Thanks, Clint for hosting.

Friday, April 21, 2006

$1 Off Coupon for Silk Soymilk

Click here to download a $1 off coupon for any Silk Soymilk product, 64 oz. or larger. Vanilla is my personal favorite. But they also have a ton of other flavors, including plain, very vanilla, chocolate, mocha and chai.

As some of you may know, I am lactose intolerant. Here are some fun facts about lactose intolerance from the Silk Soymilk website:
  • 30 to 50 million Americans have lactose intolerance
  • Approximately 75 percent of African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans have lactose intolerance
  • 90 percent of Asian Americans have lactose intolerance
  • 15 percent of Caucasian Americans have lactose intolerance
  • Lactose intolerance can be managed successfully through diet

So apparently, I'm in good company.

Celebrate Earth Day by Recycling Old Batteries

Celebrate Earth Day tomorrow (Saturday, April 22nd) by recycling old batteries.

Recycle an old car battery by bringing it to a local AAA Approved Auto Repair shop. For a list of free drop-off locations in Illinois and Northern Indiana, click here.

To recycle household batteries in the Chicagoland area, (e.g., alkaline, rechargeable and other common battery types), drop them off at any of the Chicago public libraries or at any Walgreens drug store.

A Love/Hate Relationship with My Condo Association

One of the things I both love and hate about living in a condo building are the condo association rules. Most of the rules are designed to protect residents and maintain some semblance of order. We can't always assume that everyone will be considerate towards their neighbors or play nice in the sandbox. But every once in a while, I stumble across some obscure rule, and wonder 'what in the world'?!?!

Yesterday, our building management office distributed a helpful reminder of our some of our condo association rules, just in time for spring:

  1. Only electric, propane, and natural gas grills with a hinged top are allowed on the balconies or terraces. No other cooking devices, including charcoal grills, are permitted. I own a gas grill, so this isn't a biggie, but I gotta confess, I don't really understand the reasoning behind this one. Are they afraid that someone will accidentally leave a bunch of live coals burning and set the building on fire? But the building exterior and all of the balconies/terraces are made of stone, concrete and brick. And isn't it just as dangerous to have a bunch of propane tanks lying around? If one of those develops a leak and blows up, you're going to have a much bigger mess on your hands.
  2. Dropping, sweeping or throwing any objects (debris, plant maintenance products, water, pet excrement, cigarette butts, cans, bottle caps, glass, etc.) from the balconies is not only prohibited but also a safety hazard. This one is a no brainer, right? But apparently, back in the day, some of the residents were too lazy to actually walk their dogs. Instead, they would let their dogs run around on their balconies and do their thing. And then the owners would fling the poop over the side of the building. Can we say 'ewwwww'?
  3. Glass top tables are not permitted on the balconies and terraces. I think my friends have the dubious distinction of being the root cause of this one. Before I moved into the building, one of my friends bought a patio set with a glass table top. She and her husband complained that it was a complete waste of money because it didn't get much use. Well, one day, it was stormy outside. And the high winds literally lifted the entire table over the metal railing and sent it crashing down onto the terrace of a neighbor 4 stories below, where it shattered into a thousand pieces. Thankfully, no one was hurt. But it was definitely disconcerting for both my friend and her neighbors. Still, I think that it would be just as bad to have one of those plastic, resin tables come crashing down on you. So perhaps the rule should really say that all patio furniture needs to be weighed or chained down somehow? That's what I did with my gas grill after it scooted across my balcony and fell over during a particularly nasty storm.
  4. Planters must be hung on the inside of the balcony railings. Okay, this is related to one of my pet peeves. If you're going to hang planters on your balcony railings, please do not over water your plants! I have a neighbor upstairs who drowns her plants each morning, thereby sending a virtual cascade of dirty water over her balcony and onto my terrace. The first time I accidentally walked under that cascade, I let out an involuntary yelp. She definitely heard me because when I looked up, she immediately withdrew inside.
  5. Pet relief is prohibited on all condo property, including the flower beds. Again, a no brainer, given the exorbitant amount of money we spend each year on landscaping.
  6. Bicycles and roller blades may not be transported through the lobby.'s okay for irresponsible pet owners to let their dogs run through the lobby, but I have to go out of my way and use the rear entrance to park my bike in the bike storage locker room? Um, okay.
With the reminder memo, I also received a second notice, instructing me to move my car on a specific day because they need to rod the main kitchen drain lines. Sigh. If you've ever lived on in a highly congested residential neighborhood, where the byzantine street parking restrictions make it next to impossible to leave your car in one spot for more than 4 hours at a time, then you know how annoying it is to have to get bumped out of your own parking spot, even if it's just for one day.

As with everything in life, I guess you have to take the good with the bad. The rules are a bit annoying at times, but all in all, I do enjoy living in my condo building. The neighbors are generally quite friendly and the management company does an excellent job of maintaining common areas.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Baby Products - a $7 Billion Industry

Who knew that you could spend $879 on a baby stroller? Well, I didn't until last month, when a friend showed up at church with one of these.

Lately, it seems as if every time I turn around, one of my friends is either expecting, adopting or about to give birth. So, I've been getting a crash course on the latest and greatest baby products. All I can say is, 'Wow!'

According to a recent article from Fortune magazine, it's a $7 billion industry, and "companies are doing whatever it takes to get the attention of today's chic parents." Click here to read more about the Bugaboo stroller and the Skip Hop (aka the $5 million diaper bag).

Feeling Poor - Spoiled Food

I've shared in the past that I grew up feeling poor. So, I thought it would be good (at least for me) to write a series of posts on why I felt that way, including specific memories and experiences that contributed that overall feeling.

When I was a kid, and even well into my teen years, I remember that my mom hated wasting food. But when she cooked, she always made way too much food. So inevitably, we'd always have huge quantities of leftovers. Sometimes she would think to freeze the leftover. But other times, she'd forget to, and they'd get stuck somewhere in the fridge behind a gallon jug of milk.

Eventually, she'd find the leftovers, when it was well past the point in time when any sane person would attempt to eat them. But if they sort of passed the sniff test, she figured they were safe to eat. She never inflicted questionable leftovers on anyone but herself. But she figured, if the food was spoiled, it would simply prompt her to make a quick trip to the bathroom. No harm in that, right? I really hated the fact that my mom did that to herself, just to save a few pennies. I knew a youth pastor once who'd do the same thing. He had a notorious habit of eating things that other people would definitely take a pass on. But it was out of necessity, rather than preference. When he decided to go to seminary, his parents cut him off financially. So, he basically led a hand to mouth existence for several years while he was attending graduate school.
As a result of my childhood experiences, I have a definite aversion to leftovers. If I don't manage to consume something within a day or two, I tend to throw it out. No sniff test for me. But last night was an exception. I ate a piece of grapefruit that I had peeled and put away in a tupperware container several days ago. It definitely tasted kind of funky. And of course, I paid for it later on. My stomach was definitely in bad shape aftewards. Ugh. So, no matter how much I try to fight it, at times I really think that I'm turning into my mom.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Are All MBAs Created Equal?

According to a recent Fortune article, MBA hiring is up. But employers are being highly selective. Continuing on a theme that I mentioned last week in my post about language skills, globalization is the big buzzword right now.

But before you decide to run out and get an MBA from just any old school, consider this. Does it matter where an MBA comes from?

According to both the author of the article and the recruiter that she interviewed, the answer is 'yes'.

The big brand-name investment banks and consulting firms do 90% of their recruiting at a "target list" of brand-name campuses - and it's a tiny number of schools, sometimes as few as six, sometimes as many as 14, but a tiny list. It isn't the recruiters' fault, by the way. Their lives would actually be easier if they had a broader pool of candidates. No, it's the partners making that decision, and it has to do with the whole culture, and traditions that date back many years. So yes, if you want to work at a top firm, you have to go to a top school like Harvard, Wharton, Chicago, Stanford, or Columbia - unless you have an uncle in the business.

Unfortunately, the same principle holds true for law. When I applied to law school, everyone told me to enroll in the best school that I could get into, no matter what the financial cost. Even though it flew in the face of all conventional wisdom, I made the conscious choice to attend a lesser-ranked public institution, knowing that my decision would foreclose certain opportunities at some of the more prestigious law firms in other geographic locations. Thankfully, things still worked out for me. But it's something to consider when you're thinking about applying to graduate programs.

These Boots Were Made for Walkin'

As a money saving tip, consider walking instead of driving. Pretty basic idea, right? But it never occurred to me to try to walk home from work until a few months ago, when a friend invited me to walk with her. As we chatted and caught up on our busy work weeks, the 30 minutes just flew by. And before I knew it, we were standing in front of my condo building.

So, how much do I save by walking home from work? $1.75 in bus fare. If I do that 3 times a week, that's $5.25, or just enough to pay for quick lunch with a coworker in the cafeteria.

Now that the days are longer and a bit warmer, I really look forward to the walk home. I tried a couple of different routes, and eventually found one that takes me through some quiet, residential neighborhoods, along some tree lined streets. When you factor in the amount of time that I used to spend waiting for the bus, and the actual 10 minute ride home, plus the time that it took to change into my workout clothes, so I could hop on one of the 4 treadmills in our workout room for a 30 minute cardio session.....walking home just made a whole lot of sense. Of course, if I have to carry a lot of files or my laptop home with me, or it's rainy or cold outside, I cut myself some slack, and it's off to the bus stop.

Also, if I'm feeling particularly antsy or need more of an extended period of solitude, I'll hop on my bike and go for long ride along the lakefront. No cost savings there, but at least it's free :-)

If you don't live close enough to work to walk or ride your bike, then consider walking to the grocery store or to the post office, which is what my parents do. You'll not only save on gas and wear and tear on our car, but you'll be contributing to your long term health as well.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Latest Money Blogger Podcast with John and Jane OMM

Check out the latest Money Blogger Podcast with John and Jane at Our Money Matters. Lots of interesting stories and comments. You'll even hear Jane break the gender stereotypes by quoting from Star Wars ;-) Kudos to Scott for another great interview.

Fuel Efficiency - Maximizing Your Miles Per Gallon

Here's yet another article chock full of gas saving tips. This one is from Forbes.

Vehicle Maintenance:
  1. Keep tires properly inflated. One-psi drop in pressure in all four tires can lower gas mileage by 0.4%.
  2. Follow the maintenance schedule in your owner's manual. Change oil, engine coolant, filters and spark plugs at recommended intervals. Keeping the engine tuned can save about 5% on gas. A dirty air filter can reduce gas mileage by as much as 10%.
  3. Use the recommended grade of oil. Heavy oil can reduce mileage by 1 to 2%.
  4. Use the right grade of gasoline for your vehicle. Check your owner's manual.
  5. Buy gas based on price. It's a commodity product, and one brand is as good as another. The extra additives in more expensive fuel won't necessarily make a difference in your car's performance.

Driving Habits:

  1. Drive at off-peak hours to avoid stop-and-go traffic. Try to change your commuting schedule and get to work a bit earlier or leave a bit later.
  2. Combine shorter trips.
  3. Obey the speed limit. According to the U.S. Dept. of Energy, every 5 mph you drive above 60 mph is the equivalent of adding ten cents per gallon.
  4. Use cruise control on the open highway.
  5. Use a high gear or overdrive when driving at highway speeds. Don't rev the engine in third or fourth gear.
  6. At low speeds, avoid chugging around in second gear.
  7. Resist the urge to drive aggressively (i.e., jack rabbit starts and sudden stops).
  8. Shut the engine off when you have to wait for even a short period of time. Idling your engine wastes gas. It is not more efficient to the let the engine run for several minutes.
  9. Avoid the long waits associated with left turns. Try to make right turns only.
  10. Remove the roof rack when not in use. A loaded roof rack reduces fuel economy by 5%. So, try to put as much stuff as possible in your car.
  11. Avoid using your air conditioner. It can increase gas consumption by 10-20%. Roll down your windows instead.
All in all, very good advice. But I've heard a couple of conflicting opinions on the use of air conditioning. If you're in stop-and-go traffic, you should definitely roll down your windows. But if you're driving at highway speed, it's probably more fuel efficent to use your air conditioner. The aerodynamic drag from the open windows will actually reduce your fuel economy.

For additional gas saving tips, check out the recent posts by Mapgirl and Free Money Finance and the U.S. Dept. of Energy's fuel economy website.

Festival of Frugality #19

This week's Festival of Frugality is up at Punny Money. There are plenty of interesting posts. Thanks Nick for hosting and providing commentary.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Funny Tax Day Cartoons

A little bit of morbid humor. Enjoy!

Free Street Parking in the Loop Today

When I walked out of my office building just now to run a quick errand, I noticed that one of the parking meters had been covered with an Allstate advertisement. So, I did a quick search online. From an article in today's Chicago Tribune:

Helping to cut parking costs in the Loop—for today anyway— is a birthday present from Allstate Insurance Co. In celebration of its 75th anniversary, the company is covering the costs of all city-metered parking spaces located in the Loop until 4 p.m., bordered by Wabash Avenue on the east, Lake Street on the north, Wells Street on the west and Jackson Boulevard on the south. In addition, Allstate will pay for meters along Ontario Street, east of Michigan Avenue extending to Lake Michigan until 9 p.m. AllState paid the city about $30,000 to cover the meters, said spokeswoman Jennifer Topolewski. In all, 350 to 400 parking spaces are covered. In the designated areas, super meters that take money for eight to 10 parking spaces are covered with hoods so parkers will know not to pay, she said. Individual meters have signs on them informing parkers of the gift.

The only hitch in this whole marketing campaign is that one of the cars parked along the street had already been ticketed. I'm wondering whether the parking enforcement officials (aka, the meter maids) were actually notified about this promotion. Either that or the owner of the car didn't read the fine print on the hood. You still have to obey normal parking regulations (i.e., not to exceed 2 hours). I imagine that the owner of the car is going to be pretty pissed off when he sees that ticket. Instead of paying a couple of dollars for 2 hours worth of parking, he's going to have to go through the hassle of actually contesting the ticket. My guess is that this campaign is going to backfire on Allstate. Ah, the best laid plans....

I Fell for a Clever Marketing Gimmick

Yep, I fell for Dannon's Activia yogurt marketing gimmick. Last week, I bought a 4 pack of the product because I had a coupon, and it was on sale. Admittedly, even with the coupon, it was a bit on the pricey side. But according to the Dannon ads and the product packaging, it's "a delicious way to help naturally regulate your digestive system...clinically proven in two weeks, when eaten daily," and it contains the live active cultures l. bulgaricus, s. thermophilus and bifidobacterium. Wow! Okay. Sign me up for the 2 week program.

Only trouble is, when I got home and compared the ingredients in it to another brand of yogurt, Silk Soy, I realized that Silk Soy also contains the live yogurt cultures l. bulgaricus, s. thermophilus, l. acidophilus, b. bifidum. And as an added bonus, the Silk Soy contains two other live cultures, l. casel and l. rhamnosus.

Sigh. So, I guess I'm a sucker for pretty packaging and a clever marketing gimmick.

The sad thing is that the Silk Soy yogurt is actually healthier for you, in the sense that most of the ingredients are organic (no dairy, just whole organic soybeans, organic evaporated cane juice and rice starch) vs. the highly processed Dannon Activia (milk, fructose syrup, modified corn starch). In addition, since I'm lactose intolerant, to eat the Dannon Activia, I also have to pop a lactaid pill. Ah well. Live and learn. I should have compared the product labels *before* I purchased the product.

I've said this before, but I'll say this again. Just because you have a coupon and the product is on sale, doesn't mean that you're necessarily getting a great deal. Plus, don't believe all of the marketing hype. Dannon's advertising was truthful, even if it was a bit misleading.

And now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Carnival of Personal Finance #44

This week's all-inclusive Carnival of Personal Finance is being hosted by Nickel at Five Cent Nickel. Check out all of the great entries, including one by yours truly. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Random Food Revival Tips

From Earl Proulx's Yankee Home Hints:

* To restore stale/soggy crackers or cereal, place them on a cookie sheet and heat them for a few minutes in an oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

* To soften sugar (or to prevent it from hardening in the first place), store it in an airtight container with a piece of grapefruit, orange or lemon rind. The sugar won't absorb the citrus taste. Replace the rind with another piece when it dries out. Alternatively, you can use a slice of fresh apple, which I've done in the past. It works especially well with brown sugar.

Friday, April 14, 2006

'Maxed Out' - A Scathing Look at the Lending Industry

Filmmaker James Scurlock set out to create a lighthearted, satire about consumer irresponsibility. Instead, "what the self-described "finance geek" and former publisher of a financial newsletter ended up with however, is a much starker tale, one of struggle, suicide and desperation."

In a recent Newsweek interview, Scurlock indicated that there are to main points that he wants to get across with his movie: "one is that the financial industry has changed a lot in the last generation, and people need to realize that ...We're in a totally different time now where we're deluged every day with offers of credit. And the second thing is that I think people need to start getting active with Congress and [pressuring them] into changing the balance that's been so weighted toward the financial industry and against the consumer."

He goes on to say "[t]he major change is that the industry discovered that the most profitable consumers were the least responsible consumers--college students, people who'd declared bankruptcy, housewives [and] people who were consuming beyond their means. People who would pay anything for credit, any fee or any interest rate because they needed more credit. That's the major change. Before, credit was rationed based on whether you could pay it back, based on your reputation, based on your character to some degree. It's just not that way anymore, and that's a huge change."

He also talks about the depersonalization of the lending process (i.e., all decisions are based on a number, namely our credit score), how 90% of all credit reports contain at least one error, how difficult it is to correct those errors because credit bureau have no incentive to remove the inaccurate information, etc.

The one comment that he made that really struck a chord with me was in regards to what he perceives as the changing role/attitude/perspective of local bankers: "back in the '60s and '70s ... a lot of bankers objected to credit cards and said they were not going to give consumers the noose from which to hang themselves--that was immoral, that was unethical ... They understood that people would abuse credit if given too much of it, and the banker had to fill this role of regulator. That philosophy doesn't exist any more."

I'm not really sure that I buy his argument. It's true that financial institutions expect to write off a certain percentage of bad debt. But it's also true that they absolutely hate it when consumers file for bankruptcy. With unsecured debt, they'll be able to recover at most, cents on the dollar. As for secured debt, most financial institutions would still rather avoid the lengthy process of foreclosure. They'll work with the consumer to try to figure out an alternate plan.

Although the stories that he shares about suicide attempts are depressing, I do want to say that one of the disturbing trends that I've noticed in some of the documentaries is that we tend to blame society for individual problems rather than accepting personal responsibility for the choices that we make. In the '60s and '70s, maybe local bankers did have a more paternalistic attitude. But on the flip side of the coin, back in the day, when people borrowed money, they also fully intended to pay it back. I've met way too many people whose attitude towards or remedy for overspending is to just file for bankruptcy. So I really do applaud all of the folks in the pf blogging community who are taking active steps to repay their debt. As Scurlock would say, it's the moral and ethical thing to do.

Anyway, I do agree with Scurlock's assessment that financial institutions target college students because they typically have parents who will bail them out. And there's always the prospect of future earning potential. But that's where the role of the parent comes in. When I was in college, my parents threatened to cut me off if I so much as ordered a pizza instead of eating in my cafeteria, which they'd already helped pay for. I'm exaggerating, but you get the point. I mean, you literally couldn't walk down the street without being inundated with free credit card offers (t-shirts, frisbees, coffee mugs, etc.). I think maybe once I gave in and filled out an application for a Discover card so I could get a free mug. But when I got the card in the mail, I immediately cut it up into little pieces and tossed it in the garbage can.

As for lobbying Congress to put more protective measures in place, there are several anti-predatory lending laws on the books, at least in Illinois. Reputable financial services institutions hate being lumped into the same category as companies that provide paycheck or tax refund loans. But I'm not sure if that's what Scurlock is talking about? If he's talking about capping interest rates on loans for risky consumers with poor credit history, my guess is that the larger financial institutions will simply refuse to lend money to those individuals, period. That could be a good thing. But it might also mean that the rich will continue to get richer and the poor will continue to get poorer.

Anyway, the interview/movie provides an interesting perspective on changing norms in both society as a whole and within the financial services industry. Definitely worth checking out the movie and the memoir when it comes out in 2007.

Have a very Good Friday and a wonderful Easter weekend. I'll be back on Monday.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Economic Growth is Driven by Women

There's an interesting article in yesterday's edition of the Economist.

Even today in the modern, developed world, surveys show that parents still prefer to have a boy rather than a girl. One longstanding reason why boys have been seen as a greater blessing has been that they are expected to become better economic providers for their parents' old age. Yet it is time for parents to think again. Girls may now be a better investment.

Girls get better grades at school than boys, and in most developed countries more women than men go to university. Women will thus be better equipped for the new jobs of the 21st century, in which brains count a lot more than brawn. In Britain far more women than men are now training to become doctors. And women are more likely to provide sound advice on investing their parents' nest egg: surveys show that women consistently achieve higher financial returns than men do.

Furthermore, the increase in female employment in the rich world has been the main driving force of growth in the past couple of decades. Those women have contributed more to global GDP growth than have either new technology or the new giants, China and India (see article). Add the value of housework and child-rearing, and women probably account for just over half of world output. It is true that women still get paid less and few make it to the top of companies, but, as prejudice fades over coming years, women will have great scope to boost their productivity—and incomes.

Hmm....let the battle of the sexes begin.

On a related note, there was an article in the January 30, 2006 issue of Newsweek entitled The Trouble With Boys. Apparently, boys are falling further and further behind in school. And educators are beginnning to take more creative/drastic measures to remedy the situation.

Identity Theft?

We talk a lot about identity theft in the pf blogging community. But what about an honest mix-up? Here's a funny article from today's Chicago Tribune.

When Chicago-area part-time professional wrestler Jon A. Stewart got an invitation to speak at a charter school fund-raiser in Utah, he was so surprised he wrote school officials back to make sure they had the right man. They assured him they did. But they didn't. Instead of the Deerfield man, school officials thought they were booking Jon Stewart, the host of TV's "The Daily Show." They uncovered the mix-up before the April 20th event and told Illinois' Stewart not to come. He said he actually felt bad for school officials, who paid all of his non-refundable transportation expenses. "My ego was not the problem here," he said.

But that got me to thinking. If a prospective employer were to google your name, would they be surprised and a bit put off by some of the hits that came up? I'm thinking less than flattering photos or remarks? Or along those same lines, does someone in your company or department share your same name? That happened to one of my friends recently. For 2 years, she kept having to redirect email, phone calls, and letters from random strangers who were really looking for her alter ego. Thankfully, the other individual eventually left the company.

P.S. I googled my own name a few weeks ago. And there are apparently a number of folks who share my name: a 21 year old college student with a blog on, a website developer, a manicurist and....a professional fighter. Yikes! Not that anyone would ever confuse me with a fighter after meeting me.

Jumpstart Your Career by Brushing Up on Your Language Skills

Jumpstart your career by brushing up on your language skills. According to a recent article, entitled Do You Have Today's Hottest Skill?, bilingual job candidates are in demand.

Spanish is the language most commonly sought; however, Asian and Russian language skills are becoming increasingly in demand. If you speak a second language, include that on your résumé or application. Be explicit about your level of fluency and be prepared to demonstrate your skills in an interview. Do this even if the job description doesn't specifically mention language as a requirement. According to Ghislain Savoie, Social Research and Analysis Director at the Department of Canadian Heritage, most employers perceive bilingual and multilingual candidates as being more flexible, intelligent and adaptable to change.

There are plenty of free resources on the web. For example, one woman learned Spanish through courses via and

Another good resource that you should check out are podcasts. I stumbled across the other day. You can download the basic podcasts for free. But you have to subscribe to their premium services to obtain transcripts of the podcasts.

Here are some additional, practical tips from the article to help you master a new language:

1. Subscribe to a newspaper or magazine in the language you are learning. Personally, I would start out with story books and work my way up to a newspaper or magazine. 2. Watch movies or listen to radio stations in the target language. If you watch a movie with subtitles, be wary of the translations. Often times, they only capture the gist of the dialogue. And in one notable instance that I can recall (resulted in a heated argument with a friend who was fluent in French), the translation was flat out wrong.
3. Go some place where the language is spoken exclusively. This doesn't have to mean expensive travel. Head to your city's Little Italy neighborhood, your favorite Chinese restaurant or call on a friend whose family speaks the language. If you're trying to learn Mandarin Chinese, note that the wait staff in more established Chinatown restaurants typically speak Cantonese, not Mandarin.
4. Watch how a native speaker shapes his/her mouth when talking; then do the same while looking in the mirror. Good advice, except that in certain languages, pronunciation has more to do with the placement of the tongue than the shape of the tongue.
5. Buy a phrase book to keep with you and peruse during any downtime. Or if you have a PDA, load a language dictionary onto the device. I recently purchased a Spanish-English speaking language expansion card for a friend. You can select a word or phrase, and then hear it pronounced correctly.
6. Find a buddy or pen pal who is a native speaker of your second language. Sites that help you find language exchange partners include; and

If you're really serious about learning a language, an intensive, in-country crash course is always an option. My friend spent a few months in self-study (learning grammar and basic words/phrases and such) before she embarked on a 2 week intensive course in Spain, where she lived with a Spanish speaking host family. From the moment she got up to the moment she went to sleep, she had to communicate in Spanish, even though her hosts were fluent in English. When she returned to the U.S., she was speaking Spanish at an intermediate level and was able to communicate with her patients in Spanish with only minimal help from a translator.

A word of caution about including language skills on your resume. Employers are becoming increasingly suspicious of applicants who claim to be fluent in other languages. So be excruciatingly honest about your level of fluency. One of my friends recently applied for a position as a grade school teacher. As part of the application process, she was asked to disclose if she had any language skills. So, she checked a box, indicating that she had intermediate verbal skills and basic reading/writing skills in a certain language. Although the job description didn't include a language requirement (and why would it?), the woman who called my friend for her initial screening interview insisted on conducting the entire interview in that language because it was the interviewer's mother tongue. Needless to say, it was an awkward conversation. According to the interviewer, my friend's language skills passed muster. But to have to ask and answer technical, job related questions in another language, just because the interviewer wanted to do it for kicks....

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Best Jobs in America

Flexo beat me to the punch on this one. But there's a new article from Money Magazine and about the Top 50 jobs in America, with statistics on Average Salary, 10-Year Growth, Average Annual Job Openings, Stress, Flexibility, Creativity and Ease of Entry for each of the jobs.

My first job out of college is ranked in the top 15. My current job is ranked in the top 40. Let's just say that according to the national average, I'm not exactly overpaid. But these statistics are a bit misleading, since they don't take into account cost of living adjustments for your particular geographic area or quality of life. By quality of life, I mean the number of hours that you actually have to put in to earn that particular salary (i.e., your hourly wage). I have a friend in private practice who just graduated from law school and makes way more than I do, but she also puts in an extra 20 hours per week.

If you don't find your profession listed in the top 50, you can still hop on over to the salary wizard to figure out whether you're underpaid or overpaid. Just click on the drop down menu to find your particular job and the zip code for your geographic location.


How to Become Wealthy

There's a good article on entitled 'How to Become Wealthy: Nine Truths That Can Set You on the Path to Financial Freedom'.

#1 Change the Way You Think About Money - I totally agree with the notion that "each dollar you save is like an employee." Your goal is to make your employees work hard, and eventually you can live off the labor of your assets.
#2 Develop an Understanding of the Power of Small Amounts - Another good nugget of wisdom. As I mentioned in the past, I started investing $50 a month in a mutual fund at the age of 21 when I was only making $22,000 a year. David Bach refers to the concept of small amounts as your Latte Factor. Even little leaks in your financial bucket become huge problems over time. So start small but think big!
#3 With Each Dollar You Save, You Are Buying Yourself Freedom - This is a truth that my parents instilled in me from a very early age. Delayed gratification = freedom later in life. In my case, freedom to quit my job.
#4 You Are Responsible for Where You Are in Your Life - I agree wholeheartedly that "where you are right now is the sum total of the decisions you have made in the past." Some of my friends chose to go to a private institution for college and grad school. And now they're stuck with almost an overwhelming amount of school debt. Likewise, I have friends who eat out nearly every day, either lunch or dinner and sometimes both. And yet they complain that they don't have enough money to start investing or saving for a down payment on a home. These are all choices that people make in life. But the net effect is that they're constantly feeling strapped for cash.
#5 Instead of Buying the Product...Buy the Stock! - I remember reading about this concept in Peter Lynch's classic, One Up on Wall Street (or maybe it was Beating the Street) nearly 10 years ago. He encouraged investors to look to the mall for inspiration. In other words, if you notice that you or your friends buy a particular product or frequent a particular store, think about investing in that company.
#6 Study and Admire Success and Those Who Have Achieved It....Then Emulate It - This is good advice, but I tend to learn vicariously from other people's successes as well as their failures.
#7 Realize that More Money is Not the Answer - I've found this to be true in my own life. If you're faithful in the little things, you'll be faithful in the big things. Whether your making $22,000 a year or $100,000 a year, the same principles apply. That's why super star athletes who make millions of dollars each year wind up filing for bankruptcy after they 'retire'.
#8 Unless Your Parents Were Wealthy, Don't Do What They Did - I'm not sure I entirely agree with this one. My parents are not wealthy, and they certainly made their fair share of mistakes. But they also take me some really valuable lessons in terms of frugality and financial management. They did teach me to abhor debt and to save and invest.
#9 Don't Worry - This is the one that I have the most trouble with. I tend to be obsessed with the 'what ifs'. As I mentioned in the past, I'm constantly worried that I haven't saved enough to take care of my parents if they get sick and need long term care.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

About Me

Warning: this is a very looooooong post.

It’s been a little over a month since I started this blog. So, I thought it would be appropriate to tell you a little bit more about my background and history.

My parents emigrated to the U.S. when I was one. They didn’t come here to study or pursue higher education; they came here to work and to give their two kids a chance at a better life. In large part due to their sacrificial love, my brother and I have achieved what most folks consider the American Dream. We both graduated from college, we both have stable employment, and we both own our own homes. Like many immigrants, we grew up feeling poor. And that’s affected my brother and me in different ways. I tend to be a saver, like my parents. I’m always worried that I won’t have enough for a rainy day. My parents also taught me to abhor debt. So, I’ve always paid off my credit card bills at the end of each month.

My brother tends to be more of a spender. He says that he doesn’t want his kids to feel deprived, like he did.

Anyway, the American Dream didn’t exactly happen to me overnight. I’ve known what it is to be in plenty and in want. When I graduated from college, I made $22,000 a year (barely half of what most of my peers made at the time), even though I did really well in school. But I still managed to save a bit of money by moving back home with the parents. I started investing $50 a month in a mutual fund at the age of twenty-one.

From there, I went onto law school. After graduation, I was hired by one of the largest law firms in Chicago. I made an exorbitant amount of money for a twenty-eight year old. But I was also putting in twelve to fourteen hour days, six days a week. After paying my dues for four years, I decided that the extra money wasn’t worth it. So, I took a pay cut and switched to an in house position, which is where I am today. The hours are a bit more reasonable, and it’s freed me up to explore other interests outside of work.

As an aside, I managed to pay off all of my school loans within two years of graduation. Admittedly, I graduated with very little debt because I (i) went to a public institution, (ii) worked full-time during the summers, (iii) worked part-time for a professor during my second year, and (iv) worked for the university’s office of the general counsel during my third year, thereby obtaining a tuition waiver.

Being relatively debt free means having the freedom to pursue your passions. When I went to law school, I figured I would just try this law thing for a while. But after trying it for a few years, I came to the realization that I didn’t really enjoy the practice of law. So, I’m in the process of transitioning out of my current job and back to grad school to pursue a master’s in clinical psychology. Personally, I think even well adjusted individuals could benefit from talk therapy.

When people ask the question, ‘Could you live on half your salary?’ it’s usually in the context of a two-income household, where one person is exploring the possibility of staying at home with the kids. For me, the question is still relevant. Do I think I can live on half of my income? Yes. I’m going to have to. It’s taken me a while, but I finally made the decision last fall to give up a lucrative career to pursue one of my passions. Yes, a certain percentage of clinical psychologists in private practice do quite well for themselves financially by charging their clients an arm and a leg for each 45 minute session. But that’s not necessarily what I’ll be doing. So, my goal for the next year and a half is to ratchet back my lifestyle as much as possible and start living like a grad school student again. I already live well below my means (think ‘Millionaire Next Door’). But it’ll still be a drastic change.

I am spiritual but not religious. I identify myself as an evangelical Christian but not with the religious right. I believe we all live under grace. But I also believe that there are moral absolutes and certain universal truths. I tithe because I want to, not because I have to. And I serve as a leader and board member of my church.

When I fill out surveys, and they ask about my age, I can still check the box for 25-34 year olds, but not for much longer (or at least, not if I want to be honest about it).

In terms of why I started this blog, like many folks in the pf blogging community, my friends are tired of listening to me ramble on and on about personal finance (i.e., the stewardship of money). So, rather than inflict my inchoate random abstractions upon my friends, I thought I would inflict them upon you instead. LOL.

What keeps me up at night? The thought of caring for my aging parents. Although longevity runs in the family, my grandparents were in poor health for a very long time towards the end of their lives. My parents did not purchase long term care insurance when they were in their 40s and 50s, and now it is prohibitively expensive. So, I need to factor their financial needs into my plans for the future.

As for revealing personal details such as income and net worth, I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that it wouldn’t be wise for me to do so. I’m a bit concerned that my friends and coworkers will figure out my identity. I think that in this day and age, anonymity is more of an illusion than reality. But I’ll try as much as possible to be transparent about other things, such as expenses and spending habits. The lessons that I’ve learned along the way apply to anyone, whether they’re making $20,000 or $500,000 (NOT my current salary).

That’s all for now. I’ll update this if anything else comes to mind. Thanks for stopping by.

P.S. If you’re a returning visitor, and you haven’t left any comments, please consider doing so. I’d love to be able to say ‘hello’ to my readers.

Festival of Frugality #18

This week's Festival of Frugality is up at Canadian Capitalist. There are several interesting posts, including one from yours truly about cheaper long distance phone calls.

I especially liked Penny Nickel's post on Eating out for free, since it has a Chicago slant to it. Enjoy!

Monday, April 10, 2006

Carnival of Personal Finance #43

This week's Carnival of Personal Finance is up at MyMoneyBlog.

Jonathan's goal "was simply to create a nice mix of newer and older blogs, as well as a wide variety of topics from frugality to anti-frugality, giving to the homeless to winning the lottery, and differing investments."

But he also raises an interesting question about how the carnivals should be organized in the future. Check out the ongoing discussion in the comments section.

Disney to Offer Free Shows Online the Morning After They Air

From today's Chicago Tribune:

A published report says the Disney Company plans to start making some of its most popular programming available free on the Internet. The Wall Street Journal says shows like "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" would be available on a revamped Web site the morning after they air. The report says shows would be archived so viewers can eventually watch an entire season of shows from outlets including ABC and Disney Channel. New technology would be aimed at preventing viewers from fast-forwarding through commercials, in an effort to keep advertisers happy.

I wonder what, if any, effect this will have on TiVo and Apple iTunes? Perhaps people will still be willing to pay a premium to be able to fast forward through commercials.

**Update** Apparently, this is only an experiment. Episodes will be available at for a limited time only, beginning in May and running through the end of June.

Swapping Services

As a money saving tip, some of my more frugal friends here in the pf blogging community suggested swapping services with other people. I've 'hired' friends to do work for me. During law school, I paid a friend to move some of my stuff from Peoria to Chicago at the end of a summer internship. More recently, I asked a friend's cousin to do some major touch up work on a group photo. Afterwards, I gave her a gift certificate in the amount that I would've had to pay to a local photography center for the same services.

I get asked to help babysit, or do some research on a specific topic, or negotiate major purchases, or for rides to and from the airport or to accept delivery of a package because my building has a doorman. And last week I mentioned that I'm often times called upon to serve as tech support. And sometimes I'll lend tools or equipment to people. But that's more along the lines of doing a favor for a friend or family member.

So I'm wondering if any of you readers out there actually 'swap' services on a more frequent or regular basis? Do you have a formal arrangement with a friend to cut his or her hair if he or she will babysit your kids one night a week? Just curious.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Jeans Day - A Great Fundraising and Money Saving Idea

For a minimum donation of $2 per week, employees in our department are permitted to wear jeans and sneakers on Fridays. All donations are then forwarded to the United Negro College Fund.

Not only is it a great fundraising idea, it's also a money saving tip as well. You not only save on the cost of a professional attire (one less outfit per week), but it also means fewer trips to the dry cleaners.

Of course, it goes without saying that if you're meeting with a client on a Friday, you should dress up. But I've noticed that most folks avoid Friday meetings anyway.

Have a wonderful weekend.

PayPal Goes Mobile

PayPal Goes Mobile. You can now use your cell phone or text messaging to purchase items or send money via PayPal. - Cheaper Long Distance Calls from Your Landline or Mobile Phone

If you're in the market for cheaper long distance calls within the U.S. or to 60 countries worldwide, and you (a) don't have broadband access, (b) don't want to download additional software (e.g., Skype), or (c) hate using clunky PC headsets, check out

To make a long distance call, log onto their website, enter your landline or mobile phone number and then the number that you want to call. According to a recent Newsweek article, "the company's servers...connect the call over the Internet to witching stations in the cities of both caller and recipient, and two local calls are placed from there to the regular phones."

Here's a breakdown on costs:

For domestic calls, according to a San Francisco Business Times article, jajah's rates average between 1.7 to 1.9 cents a minute. For international calls, according to a New York Post article, "fees are 50 to 95 percent cheaper than...with a traditional long-distance carrier."

If you log onto the website, you can click on Rates at the bottom and check on the cost before actually making a call.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Getting Rid of Old Gadgets

If you're thinking of selling some of your old gadgets, check out this article from today's edition Chicago Tribune.

* for broken iPods, check out buy-back sites (in the left-hand column, click on "We Buy iPods!"),, and I know that there are similar buy-back sites for old Palm devices.

* for computers, make sure that you completely erase the hard drive, rather than just deleting old files. Search the Web for "data scrubber" or "data eraser" to find software that will overwrite every writeable part of your hard drive with zeroes and ones.

* for T-Mobile and Cingular cell phones, make sure that you remove the SIM card, located behind the battery. Your buyer will take his SIM card out of his old phone and pop it into the one you've sold him. (Sprint and Verizon store your phone information in their databases, so they don't have SIM cards.)

March 2006 Entertainment Expense

In the month of March, I spent a grand total of $0.99 on entertainment.

So, how does an urban gal manage to keep her entertainment expenses to less than a dollar per month? Well, fortunately (or unfortunately) for me, it was a busy month. Work, night classes and church obligations kept me pretty busy. But before you start throwing a pity party for me, I should also mention that my dining expenses came to a grand total of $309.33, the bulk of which was spent on lunches with coworkers and dinners with friends. In other words, most of my leisure time centered around going out to eat.

Next month should see a noticeable uptick in the entertainment category because I'll be heading out of town for a few days. And I've also got tickets to see the musical 'Wicked'.

I will say one thing about my friends. They've got the art of hospitality down to a science. They're great about inviting people over for low-key, informal get-togethers. And they're just as willing to spend the evening playing board games or watching a DVD as they are going out for an expensive night on the town. If you're trying to stick to a budget, you need friends like that. I remember when I first graduated from college, I was making $22,000 a year, while my best friend at the time was making $56,000. No matter how many times I tried to explain that I couldn't afford to try the latest or greatest restaurant and then a movie or play afterwards every week, my protests seemed to fall on deaf ears. And since all of our 'friends' at the time also made more than I did, I had the choice of either staying at home or spending more than I could afford to. Thankfully, I escaped that crazy stage in life by going to grad school.

Anyway, you might be wondering at this point just what it was that I spent 99 cents on last month. Think iTunes.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Financial Illiteracy Amongst U.S. Teens

According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, "young people don't know much about how money works."

* On average, high school seniors answered correctly only 52.4 percent of questions about personal finance and economics, according to a nationwide survey released Wednesday. Still, that was a smidgen better than the 52.3 percent in the previous survey in 2004 and was up from the lowest-ever score of 50.2 percent in 2002.

* 55.8 percent said they would have no liability if their credit card was stolen and a thief ran up $1,000 worth of debt. (Liability is limited to $50 after the credit-card issuer is notified.) Only 15.1 percent knew they could be responsible to pay $50. Two years ago, 18.1 percent gave the correct answer.

* Only 14.2 percent correctly said that stocks likely would offer the higher growth over 18 years of saving for a child's education. That was down from 17.2 percent who knew the right answer in the 2004 survey. In this year's survey 44.8 percent thought a U.S. savings bond -- one of the most conservative investments -- would offer the highest growth.

* Just 22.7 percent knew that income tax may be charged on the interest earned from a savings account at a bank if a person's income is high enough. Nearly 51 percent said that earnings from savings account interest may not be taxed. In the last survey, 23.9 percent chose the correct answer.

* Nearly 38 percent correctly said that retirement income paid by a company is called a pension. That's up from 34.2 percent who answered right in the last survey. Still, close to 59 percent in the current survey thought it was called Social Security or a 401(k).

* Only 28.6 percent knew that a bond issued by one of the 50 states is not protected by the federal government against loss. In the previous survey, 35.3 percent chose the right answer -- that such bonds are not federally protected against loss.

Not surprisingly, "seniors from higher-income families scored better than those from lower-income households."

Is it any wonder that U.S. teens are financially illiterate? Lack of solid role models and mandatory education are two of the most likely culprits.

Do It Yourself Tech Support

I've read portions of 'The World Is Flat' and watched a videotape of a presentation by Thomas L. Friedman. So, I understand the realities of the globalization of our economy. But like many frustrated consumers, I'm just not convinced that outsourcing customer service or technical support to India actually works. As an update to the post that I wrote yesterday, I did manage to fix my parents' computer, no thanks to Dell's technical support service.

When I logged onto the Dell Customer Service and Support Site, it said 'Chat With Us. Help is at hand.' So, I dutifully entered my service tag number and a brief description of my problem. I was then connected to an individual in India. After half an hour of back and forth questions and responses, I was still nowhere close to understanding how to fix the problem. Instead, the rep sent me a bunch of links to another software vendor's website, none of which really made sense. So, I gave up and logged off. At least he confirmed what I already suspected. The fan was whirring, so it probably wasn't a hardware problem.

A few hours later, I logged onto the Dell site again, hoping against hope that maybe a different rep would be more knowledgable and helpful. No such luck. Even though I gave him the case number from the earlier chat session, he kept asking me additional questions that weren't really relevant to the problem at hand. I kept trying to get him to just point me to a document that would walk me through the process of restoring Windows XP from Safe Mode because I knew that's all I really needed to do. And he, in response, kept asking me for 3 more minutes so he could 'research the issue'. Umm, okay. After half an hour, I again gave up and told him that I would contact him later.

Out of sheer desperation, I finally went to the Microsoft website and did a quick search using the key terms 'restore Windows XP'. And low and behold, what should appear before my eyes but a link to a document entitled 'How to start the System Restore tool at a command prompt in Windows XP'. Okay, now why couldn't the Dell tech support guy in India figure that out? Probably because he doesn't own a personal computer.

Armed with that document, I was able to use the System Restore tool to fix my parents' computer. So, all's well that ends well. But it left me with a less than positive feeling about Dell. What I find sad is the level of (non)support that we've grown accustomed to. Here's hoping that more companies will follow Amazon's lead and customer service call centers back to the U.S.

Tax Planning - Key Changes for 2006

It just dawned on me today that my recent bonus and annual raise might have pushed me into the next tax bracket. I know that it's a graduated tax, so only the last portion of my income would be taxed at the higher rate, but still....

Anyway, I checked the 2006 Tax Rate tables. And whew! I'm still in the same tax bracket. Thank God for inflation adjustments. Although, now that I think about it, I guess that just means that my salary isn't keeping ahead of inflation. Sigh.

Here's a summary of key changes for 2006, from the website:

- The value of each personal and dependency exemption, available to most taxpayers, will be $3,300, up $100 from 2005.

- The new standard deduction will be $10,300 for married couples filing a joint return, $5,150 for singles and $7,550 for heads of household. Nearly two out of three taxpayers take the standard deduction, rather than itemizing deductions, such as mortgage interest, charitable contributions and state and local taxes.

- Tax-bracket thresholds will increase for each filing status. For a married couple filing a joint return, for example, the taxable-income threshold separating the 15% bracket from the 25% bracket will be $61,300, up from $59,400 in 2005.

- The annual gift tax exemption will be $12,000, up from $11,000 in 2005. Revenue Procedure 2005-70, containing a complete rundown of inflation adjustments, is posted on the IRS Web site and will appear in Internal Revenue Bulletin 2005-47, dated Nov. 21, 2005.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Friends of

Please check out and find out more about their 2006 Annual Campaign. is an ads-free aggregator of several hundred personal finance related blogs. I know that I personally check the site at least 5 times a day. And as a result, I've stumbled across several new blogs that I otherwise wouldn't have known about. All in all, it's been a great resource for everyone in the pf blogging community. So, let's do our part to help keep it going.

Lending Money to Relatives

Many folks in the pf blogging community have written about, an online peer-to-peer lending community. But if you're thinking about lending money to a relative or friend, a better option would be Massachusetts based You can read more about the company's services in a recent article in the Chicago Sun-Times.

According to the CircleLending website, you can use the company's services to structure mortgages, personal loans or small business loans. For a minimal fee, CircleLending will set up a payment plan, handle the loan documentation and process the payments for you. They'll even send out e-mail reminders and late payment notices for you.

Sometimes it's just better to put things in writing, even if it makes for an awkward conversation on the front end. My parents are still lamenting the fact that my brother hasn't even offered to pay back a $5,000 loan. I guess he thought it was a gift.

Blue Screen of Death

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I ordered a new Lenovo laptop and wrote about my experience in setting up a wireless network. Well, lately it seems as if I've been having to do quite a bit of troubleshooting. My friend would say 'technology is evil'. And sometimes, I'd have to agree.

Part of the reason why I bought a new laptop is because my parents wanted a faster desktop. My dad got a new job, and he wants to be able to do some of his work from home. But like many first generation immigrants, they have a frugal, Depression era mindset. So they hate buying new things. Instead, they wait for their less frugal daughter to grow tired or bored of her stuff. And then they swoop in and offer to take it off her hands. Three years ago, when I bought a new, used car, they asked if they could have my old 1995 Acura Integra, even though they had a perfectly good Toyota Camry sitting in the garage. My dad is still driving the Integra to and from work every day. And my mom will gladly wear the clothes and shoes that I'm ready to give to away to a local charity. Very rarely will they let me buy new things for them. One time, for their anniversary, I bought them a much needed new refrigerator. And another time, they grudgingly allowed me to buy them a new desktop computer. Of course, I refused to tell them how much I paid. And sometimes, I'll intentionally buy something that I think they'll need, 'use' it for a brief period of time, and then give it them. But a part of me always feels guilty about giving my parents things that are technically hand me downs. Shouldn't they be the ones with the new stuff? They've sacrificed enough for me and my brother.

Anyway, when they asked me when I was planning on retiring my 'old' desktop, I figured it was time to do so. But the 'gift' quickly became a hassle for both the giver and the reciever. My dad couldn't figure out how to set up the router to connect the new computer to the Internet. So, this past weekend, I went over to their place to do it for them. Of course, it took a bit longer than I expected. And then last night, when my dad went to install a new software program on the desktop, he got the blue screen of death. So, I'm going to need to make a trip out to the suburbs again to try to reinstall the operating system and everything else that was on the hard drive. Sigh. More guilt and frustration. Maybe I should've just ordered a new computer for them, although I probably still would've had to help set it up for them.

Monday, April 03, 2006

I'm Lovin' It - McDonald's Online Casting Call

Wanna be famous? Submit a photo and a story about what you love in life and you could be featured on McDonald's product packaging. Click here for more details.

Exxon Topples Wal-Mart

According to a recent CNN article, Exxon Mobil vaulted past Wal-Mart to take the No. 1 spot as the largest corporation in the U.S. Here's the link to the complete Fortune 500 list for 2006.

Full disclosure. I own stock in both companies :-)

Impact of the Gene Pool Lottery

How do genetic factors influence your net worth? No, I’m not talking about the discovery of a spendthrift gene or a frugality gene. I'm talking about some of the natural advantages and disadvantages that you were born with.

Jeff over at floated the idea of cutting back on the number of visits that we make to the dentist’s office each year as a way to save money. Several folks disagreed with his suggestion, including one individual who wrote “if you lost the gene pool lottery when it comes to gum disease, think about upping your visits. In the long run, it can save you a lot more money on gum surgery…not to mention your teeth!”

His comment made me laugh. But it also got me to thinking about the gene pool lottery, and the ways in which certain physical weaknesses impact my net worth. Let me be quick to say that I don’t have any significant health issues. And for that, I’m profoundly grateful. But at times, I do envy other folks, in the sense that they don’t have to pay for certain things that I have to. Here are a couple of thoughts that come to mind:

- Gingivitis, cavities, receding gum lines, sensitive teeth, you name it, I’ve got it. My retainer snapped in half a few years ago, and because I grind my teeth at night, the teeth in my lower jaw are beginning to shift again. If it gets any worse, I may need to get braces. Potentially an out of pocket expenditure of $4,000 or more, since my dental insurance won’t cover it.
- When your eyesight is as bad as mine, money is no object when it comes to thin lenses and lightweight frames. Thankfully, as of my last annual checkup, my eyes have finally stabilized (one of the few benefits of getting old). For the first time in over 2 decades, I didn’t need a new prescription for glasses/contact lenses. If I were a better candidate for laser surgery, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
- 8 week rehab program for chronic back and knee problems, at a cost of nearly a hundred dollars per session. Thankfully, my health insurance provider covered part of the cost.
- Orthotics, arch supports, and specially modified shoes for folks who pronate when they run.
- Thick, unruly hair that requires frequent trips to the hair stylist. $50 every 4 to 6 weeks (and that’s really pushing it).
- Standing tall at 5’2” (think short arms and short legs). Being shorter than average requires frequent trips to the tailor, foot rests, foot stools, etc. Thank goodness for the advent of petite sizes.
- Severe lactose intolerance means that I’m always on the hunt for either lactaid pills or milk and dairy substitutes. Ever try ordering a latte from Starbucks made with soy milk? That’ll be an extra 50 cents, please.

Clearly, some folks have it better and some folks have it far worse. For example, my food allergies seem pretty insignificant when you think about people like my friend who developed a food allergy to corn products. If you've ever looked at the back of most processed food labels, you'd know that corn syrup is used to sweeten pretty much everything. Needless to say, her grocery bills are quite a bit higher than mine.

So, did you win or lose the gene pool lottery? And how does it impact your bottom line?

IRA Conversion May Trigger Tax Penalty

If, like me, you're thinking about converting your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, then you should read money columnist Humberto Cruz's response to a reader's 'question' in this Sunday's edition of the Chicago Tribune.

Here's an excerpt from the article:

A reader reminds me of a potential pitfall of individual retirement account conversions.

Q. I've read a few articles, including yours, about the benefits of converting a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. I did this last year (converted just enough to stay in the 15 percent tax bracket), but now it seems I'll be paying a penalty because of not making estimated tax payments. None of the articles I've read about IRA conversions mentioned making estimated tax payments to avoid a penalty. This is an important point.

A. If you don't withhold enough or don't have money withheld at must make estimated tax payments four times during the tax year: by April 15, June 15, Sept. 15 and the following Jan. 15. When you convert a traditional IRA to a Roth, the additional taxable income from the conversion may require you to make estimated tax payments. (One exception would be if you have taxes withheld at work and the withholding is already high enough or can be increased to take care of this new tax liability.) Otherwise, failure to make the minimum required estimated payments could trigger a penalty, even if you pay the full amount due by April 15.

The moral of the story is that if you plan to convert a traditional IRA to a Roth, make sure that you either (a) increase your withholdings, or (b) make estimated tax payments. The article goes on to say that "all taxpayers can make free electronic payments at the government's Electronic Federal Tax Payment System Web site ("

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Matching Gifts

This past week, our local NPR radio station was having a pledge drive. So, I decided to renew my membership a month earlier than I'd originally intended to. Rather than calling in on my cell phone, I waited until I got home to fill out the pledge form online. At the very bottom of the form, they asked whether my employer provides a matching gift. And then there was a drop down menu of choices of corporate-sponsored foundations. Thankfully, my employer encourages charitable giving, with various pledge drives throughout the year, and they do provide matching gifts. The only catch is that there's a limit of $1,000 per year and your annual salary needs to be below $150,000. Many of my co-workers maxxed out on the matching gift last year, in response to some of the devastating losses suffered by folks around the world as a result of various natural disasters (tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes).

That's my tip for the day. When giving to any nonprofit organization, remember to check and see if your employer will match the gift. All it takes is a few minutes for you to fill out a short form and turn it into your employer, and you've just doubled the impact of your gift.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

What would you do for a free meal?

I just listened to an interview on NPR with Angela Nissel, a former writer and consulting producer for the TV show 'Scrubs'. She's coming out with a new memoir 'Mixed: My Life in Black and White' about her experiences growing up as a biracial person in America. Her first book 'The Broke Diaries', is apparently a funny cult classic (it helped her land her gig as a writer for Scrubs), and in it she talks about some of the things she did to get by during college. She had a scholarship that covered tuition but no money to pay for housing or fees or textbooks. Even with 2 jobs, she was still broke, with no money to spare. So, what's a resourceful student to do? Well, in her case, pretended to be a college professor so that publishing houses would send her free textbooks to review. Or answered personal ads from the local paper in the hopes that if she went out with the guys, they would buy her a free meal. And wrote an online diary about her experiences.

I thought the first half of the interview was interesting and entertaining. And it made me want to read her new memoir. But when she described some of the things that she did to survive during college, it left me with a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. Like Angela, I had a scholarship in college that covered tuition. And like Angela, I worked part time (shelling, counting and sorting experimental corn for the Agronomy department). But unlike Angela, my parents paid for housing and related expenses.

Many pf bloggers have talked about simplicity and frugal living. But they've also talked about certain lines that they wouldn't cross, even if it meant saving a buck. Still, I've never been in a situation when I was flat out broke and simply trying to survive. I think a lot about the homeless folks that I run into on the street. And one of the charitable organizations that I support financially each year runs two homeless shelters in the city. Anyway, Angela's story just made me wonder. What would I be willing to do for a free meal, if I were in her situation?