Friday, December 14, 2007

Spending Beyond Your Limit

It's been nearly six months since my last post. And a lot has happened since then. I'm almost finished with my first semester of grad school. And I'm starting to freak out about internships next year. Unpaid labor, but that's part of the training process. But on to my story of the day.

I went to a discount department store this afternoon to purchase some warm socks. I love hardwood floors, but can you say 'brrrrr' in the winter months? When it was time to check out, there was only one cashier working. But then another cashier dropped in and offered to help the next person in line, meaning me. The woman ahead of me was pulling out her wallet, so I told the woman behind me to go ahead and check out with the new cashier. Well, bad move on my part, 'cause the woman ahead of me starting counting out her bills and realized that she didn't have enough cash to cover her purchase. So, instead of putting one of her items back (like any sane person would have done), she asked the cashier to split the bill in two and paid for most of the items in cash. But then when the cashier swiped her credit card, it was rejected. So again, instead of taking that as a sign hat maybe she was spending way beyond her means and that she should put something back, the woman asked the cashier if she could write a check. If I were the cashier, I would've been thinking, what are the odds that she has enough money in her checking account to cover the balance? But I guess you can't really say that to a customer. Anyway, five minutes later, after two customers made it through the other checkout line, I finally made it to the cashier. The sad thing is that all I had was one item...a pair of warm slipper socks.

Anyway, that got me to thinking. Is it more embarrassing to have your card rejected or to put something back? If you were that woman, would you have tried various methods to complete the purchase like she did?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

A Second Home

I closed on my new home yesterday. The closing itself went smoothly. But I missed the commuter train to the suburbs because I took the bus instead of calling a cab. So I had no choice but to hail a cab at the train station and head all the way back home to grab my car. Which meant that I was running 45 minutes behind schedule. And missed the final walk through. Thankfully, my realtor agreed to check everything for me (e.g., ran the washing machine, air conditioner, etc.). Even so, I was 15 minutes late to the closing, which as my realtor pointed out, was very uncharacteristic of me. But now it's over and done with. And I can focus on packing and moving.

So, as my mom pointed out, I actually own two homes, at least until I close on the sale of my home in the city. Big deal, right? But for some reason, my mom is getting a big kick out of the whole situation - her daughter the soon to be unemployed grad student owning two homes. Sigh. Parents are funny like that.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Friends with Benefits

No, I'm not talking about the type of relationship Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn supposedly have right now. I'm talking about several friends who have been very, very good to me.

My friend P is someone that I hope to emulate. She's "holds loosely" the things that she has. She recently loaned her minivan to a group of college students. And when they struck a deer on a country road, she was glad that they emerged from the accident unscathed. Her thoughts were more for their well-being and safety than the cost of the repairs.

Her family owns a lake house, which they sometimes rent out during the summer months. But more often than not, she offers the use of the house to friends and family who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford a vacation rental. This past weekend, she offered to take me and several of my gal pals to the lake house. The weather was perfect. So we went water skiing, rowed a boat, lay out on the dock, played a couple of rounds of boccie ball, took a long walk around the lake, built a fire outside, drank hot chocolate and talked into the wee hours of the night. All my friend asked of us in return was that we split the cost of some groceries and help tidy up the place before we left. It was well worth the four hour drive.

Gas = $20 (technically $15, but since we were using a friend's car, I rounded up)
Groceries = $23
Total for the weekend = $43

Earlier this month, a coworker was giving away a couple of free tickets to a Cubs game. I'm not a huge fan of baseball, but I'm too frugal to let $35 tickets go to waste. And these were great seats. It took several last minute phone calls, but I managed to convince a couple of friends to go with me to the game. Again, a very fun, relaxing and frugal evening. As an added bonus, they were handing out free baseball caps to all of the women :-)

Hot dogs = $4
Drink = $3
Nachos = $3
Total for the evening = $10

I learned the next day that my coworker and another coworker go in on season tickets every year. And more often than not, they wind up giving the weekday tickets away, usually to support staff.

All this to say, I'm grateful that I have generous friends and coworkers who share freely of their wealth. This wasn't always the case. When I was younger, I used to be jealous of my 'rich' friends and relatives. Kids who drove around in fancy cars and wore designer clothes and spent money like there was no tomorrow. One of my friends in junior high invited me to go water skiing with her and her family. Strange as it seems, I rejected her offer because it seemed too much like charity to me. So maybe I've matured a bit since then. Despite the fact that I may not be able to offer my friends expensive 'perks', they seem to enjoy my company anyway :-)

Monday, June 04, 2007

How Much Did You Pay for That?

Maybe I'm being overly sensitive, but it kind of annoys me when people ask me how much I paid for a particular item. Chalk it up to natural curiosity, but I still think that it's kind of rude.

When I mentioned that I was putting my condo on the market, an acquaintenance immediately asked, "For how much?" When I got a hair cut the other day, the owner of the salon said, " got a new car. How much did you pay for that?" In the elevator a few weeks ago, a total stranger asked, "I like your purse. Where did you get it? And how much did it cost?"

I mean, most of this information is publicly available (e.g., real estate list prices and closing prices). And we all know people who actually volunteer that information, either because they're insecure and want you to think that they're rich and successful or because they want you to admire their bargain hunting skills. I tend to fall into the later category. If I get a great deal on something, and I'm excited about it, I might mention it to a friend or blog about it. But more often than not, I'd rather keep that information to myself. For example, I bought several sets of fine bone china from for much less than you would have paid for comparable dinnerware from Crate and Barrel.

So, what do you think? Is it rude to ask random strangers or even acquaintences how much they paid for something? In my mind, it's kind of like asking someone about their net worth or how much they earn.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Car Buying Experience

I mentioned in a previous post that I was thinking of buying a 2007 Honda Accord. And I am happy to report that I purchased the car for (a) hundreds of dollars less than what listed as the dealer invoice price and (b) a few dollars less than a comparably equipped 2006 Accord at CarMax. I had my heart set on buying a used, crossover SUV. But my financial planner suggested the Accord (reliability and resale value and factory to dealer incentives).

Thanks to, I was able to negotiate everything with the dealership via email. So, the whole car buying experience turned out to be a pleasant one. But it definitely started off on a sour note.

A few weeks ago, I went to the Honda dealership on the north side of Chicago to test the Accord and the CRV. When my friend and I got there, we were accosted by an older woman in her 50s or 60s (unusual for a car dealership), who immediately went into hard core sales mode. But as we talked, and she realized that we were serious buyers, she toned town her sales pitch a bit. I told her that I wasn't ready to buy the car that evening, but I did want to test drive the Accord and the CRV. She wound up telling us a bit about her life story. I sensed that she was an honest person who was trying to make a living under some difficult circumstances. If she managed to sell a car to me, she would earn $175 in commission. So, although they didn't have the car that I wanted in stock, I decided in my own mind that I would come back and order the car from her.

But then we got back to the showroom. Funny how our feelings can change in the span of a heartbeat. Our salesperson went to log my contact information into the computer, but she was accosted by her manager, who proceeded to berate her in a very loud and hostile tone of voice. "Are you going to close the deal tonight?". No, she needs to sell her car first. "Well, what is she driving? Did you talk to her about trading it in?" No, she's already promised to sell it to a friend. He gave her a dirty look and then announced, "Well, I'm going to ask her myself!" Mind you, from where we were sitting, my friend and I could see and hear the entire exchange. So when he turned and walked over to where we were sitting, I was both irritated and apalled by his bad behavior. He introduced himself and then asked if I'd be willing to buy a car that evening if he offered me a great deal. I explained that I was going to wait a few days because I was selling my car to a friend, and she was in the process of applying for a loan. "Did you think about trading your car in? I could give you a great price." No, you couln't. I've already looked up the trade-in value, and my friend is willing to pay the private party value. "Did you think about the tax savings you'd get by trading in your car?" Yes, I've already calculated that. In my head, I was thinking, "Does he really think that I'm that stupid?" I'd save at most a couple hundred dollars in tax and lose thousands of dollars on the actual sale of the car. He tried one more time to get me to negotiate an actual price with him, and then finally gave up and walked back towards our salesperson where he proceeded to berate her yet again because she was having trouble logging my contact information into the computer system.

At that point, my friend and I were absolutely furious. I can deal with people who are condescending or disrespectful. But it turns my stomach when I see people being verbally abusive towards children or the elderly.

The salesperson came over and explained that when I was ready to buy, she would be my advocate and get me a great deal. And she assured me that I would wind up paying about the same price at any other dealership. I made a vague promise to come in the following week to close the deal and then my friend and I left in silence. When we got back to my car, I said "Was it just me or was that manager just a complete ass?" And that's when my friend let it rip. She said that she was on the verge of telling that manager off, but she didn't want to embarrass me.

Sigh. I really wanted to buy the car from the salesperson. But I just couldn't stomach the idea of adding to that manager's bottom line. So, I called her the next day to cancel my appointment. She of course had the day off, and I had to leave a message with the receptionist. And then we played phone tag for the rest of the week. When we finally did connect, it was the day after I had purchased the car from another dealership in the suburbs. She said that she needed to explain to her management why I chose not to buy the car from her. And so I told her that I didn't appreciate the way her manager talked to her. The sad thing is that she didn't remember the incident. "Was the manager tall and blond or shorter with dark hair?" Which leads me to believe that verbal abuse is a fairly common occurrence for her. Even worse, she tried to defend her manager. "Well, you did come in kind of late in the day." Umm, right. That still doesn't give anyone the right to be disrespectful towards their employees. In the end, she asked if she could relay my story to upper management, and I told her that she should definitely feel free to do so.

So, have you ever walked away from a deal because of poor customer service or because you just really didn't like the buyer/seller?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Free DVD Rental at Redbox Kiosks in Jewel-Osco stores

For those of you in the Chicagoland area....

Get a free one-night movie rental at the Redbox kiosk at your local Jewel-Osco store. Enter promo code "JEWEL". Free rental code is valid once per customer until 5/31/07, and only unitl 7PM the next night.

Redbox is an interesting concept. Like Coinstar or even ATMs, it's got the convenience factor going for it. But my guess is that the selection is somewhat limited, and therefore not enough to make me want to cancel my Netflix subscription. But if I were with a group of friends on a Friday night, I could see myself making a quick stop at the Redbox kiosk.

Making a Clean Sweep

I've had somewhat of a love-hate relationship with my car. On the one hand, I love the way it drives. After all, it is the ultimate driving machine ;-). On the other, people have made certain snap judgments or assumptions about me, purely based on the car that I drive. I get a similar reaction from people when I tell them what I do for a living. But I'll save that rant for another day.

The sad thing is that I angsted over the car purchase decision for months. European luxury sedan or just something to get me from point A to B? But grew up in a 'car' family, and I happen to enjoy driving. So when I saw this particular car advertised at CarMax, it was just too good of a deal to pass up. Although this car has a reputation for expensive and frequent repairs, I've been lucky in that sense. It's not particularly fuel efficient, and it requires premium gas, but I don't really drive it very often. I walk or take public transportation to and from work.

But since I'm going back to school in the fall, and 'renouncing' my former way of life, I figured I'd make a clean sweep of it and sell my car. When I mentioned it to my mechanic, he immediately offered to call up some of his friends and customers for me. He obviously knows the car and knows that it's been maintained properly, since he's the one who's done all of the work for me. And he knows that I'm an honest person and willing to sell the car at a fair price. So, true to his word, he found a buyer for me. If all goes according to plan, I'll be handing over the keys to her on Monday.

As for my new car purchase, my financial planner suggested that I buy a new Honda Accord. Reliable and safe and reasonably good gas mileage. No, it's not exactly a fun car to drive, but I've had my last hurrah. I just need something that will get me to and from school. So why a new Accord instead of a used one? Accord is being redesigned for 2008, and all of the dealerships are offering huge incentives. And Accords tend to retain their value and depreciate slowly. So the difference or margin between a 2005 and 2007 Accord is negligible right now.

But just to make sure that I covered all of my bases, I test drove several new and used cars, including the RAV4, CRV and Forester. I have more to say on the subject of slimey auto dealerships. But I'll save that for another day.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Beware of Check Related Scams

There are two great articles in the Chicago Tribune about check related scams. The first article provides some background and history on check washing and certified check overpayment scams.

The second article talks about the writer's personal experience as a victim of check washing. The main point of both of these articles is that thieves are getting back to the basics. Even the most savvy and intelligent individuals may find themselves the victims of check related schemes.

One of my friends almost fell for the bonus check/overpayment scheme a few months ago when he tried to sell his car on Craigslist. The buyer wanted to purchase the car sight unseen (major red flag) and offered to send him a certified check for $5,000. He asked my friend to deduct the cost of the car plus shipping and then wire the rest of the money back to him. Thankfully, my friend sent an email to me and to another attorney friend, asking if we thought it the buyer's request was legit. The sad thing was that the other attorney said he couldn't see anything wrong with the request. My friend was pretty upset when I told him that it's a pretty well-known scam. In the end, he managed to sell his car to a local buyer for list price. But you can be sure that my friend asked for payment in cold, hard cash.

Here are some lessons learned...

1. If you still write checks, buy a solvent resistant pen such as the Uni-ball 207. It's a $1.99 at Walgreens.
2. If you need to send a check, take it to the post office or drop it in a secure, USPS mailbox. Never send it from your home. That little red flag on your mailbox has the unintended effect of alerting thieves as well as your mail carrier.
3. If asks you to cash a check (even if it's a certified check) and then wire money back, DO NOT do it. You could be on the hook for criminal and civil penalties for passing a fraudulent check.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Shame Factor

I know that rich people become richer by practising simple economies. But I gotta confess that the shame factor prevents me from using coupons as often as I should. Today, I went to Target to buy a gift card for a friend. And since I had some time to kill, I decided to use some of my free trial coupons. A 16 oz. bottle of creamer, a package of Airborne, and a bar of Cacao Reserve dark chocolate. When I went through the checkout line, the clerk scanned all of my items. But when she tried to scan the coupons, the computer kept prompting her to manually key in the price of each item. Well, that meant that she had to back up to a prior menu and then scan in the coupon and then the price. Repeat that process 3 times, and you have one very frustrated clerk and a mortified customer who avoided the eye of everyone in line behind her. Let's just say that it'll be a while before I try that again. Maybe the trick is to limit myself to one coupon per visit?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Before You Put Your House on the Market

Before I put my condo on the market, I read this article, How To Prepare Your House For Sale, plus dozens of others. Some of the tips are a bit over the top. I didn't alphabetize my spice jars ;-) But I did remove half the books from my bookshelves and stuffed them in my storage locker. I put away all personal items, cleared everything off of my refrigerator door and stuffed all of my smaller appliances under the sink/counter. When my realtor dropped by for an initial walk through, she told me that our goal was to make the place look like as if no one lives there (i.e., a model home). So she pointed at various things that I needed to hide/put away (for example, she told me to remove all loose papers, magazines and books from the living room area and my desk). And this was after I had already made an initial pass at 'decluttering' my place. She also suggested that I straighten all of the bottles of detergent and cleaners in my laundry room. And she stressed that everything needed to come off the floor, under the theory that if you have stuff on the floor, buyers will assume that you don't have enough storage space. Big sigh. As I've mentioned in the past, I'm somewhat vertically challenged. But I dutifully moved all of my clothes and shoes and miscellaneous food items onto the top shelves of my closets and pantry. My two step ladder saw more use in the past month and a half than in the last 3 years combined.

As for repairs, I had to patch and repaint a small 6"x6" area on each side of the shower stall. And I had to recaulk the bottom of the shower stall and around the kitchen sink. I also adjusted the master bathroom door and a closet door in the second bedroom that didn't close properly. And I used a magic eraser to remove some minor scuff marks on the walls in the hallway.

As for staging the place, I didn't do very much in the way of rearranging furniture. But I did buy a new comforter set for the master bedroom and added some fluffy pillows to hide the fact that I don't have a headboard. I also put a single pillar candle on the coffee table and the dining room table, artfully arranged a new set of towels in the guest bathroom, and set out fresh cut flowers on the kitchen island. And as the article suggests, I put some organic, scented soap in the master bath. The funny thing is that when my realtor showed the place to another agent in the building, she asked if my place had been professionally staged.

In terms of daily maintenance and cleaning, I had a pretty extensive and exhausting routine. I would make my bed, arranging the pillows and sheets and comforter as you would in a hotel room. After taking a shower and getting ready for work, I would start with the kitchen by clearing all of the dishes and put them in the dishwasher, wipe down the counters and faucets, and store everything under the sink. Then, I would move to the bathroom, wiping down all of the faucets, mirrors and counters. I would rearrange the towels, vacuum the bathroom floor and around the kitchen garbage can. Every other day, I would toss out the garbage and vacuum the kitchen, living and dining area. Every Sunday, I bought a fresh bouquet of flowers (usually from Costco). And every other week, a professional cleaning crew would come in and do a more thorough cleaning of the floors, stove, bathrooms, etc.

Let's just say that I'm relieved that my place sold quickly.

Monday, April 30, 2007

General Life Update

Okay, it's been forever and a day since my last post. So my apologies to the few folks out there who were actually reading this blog :-) But let's just say that I've been kind of busy. At the end of March, I found out that I got into grad school. Yipee! But that acceptance letter precipitated a series of crazy events, including the need to sell my condo and find cheaper housing closer to school.

So at the beginning of April, I put my condo on the market. Exactly 18 days later, I received a lowball offer from an independently wealthy buyer. And after several rounds of negotiations, she agreed to pay 97.5% of my original asking price, which I'm told is quite phenomenal in this market. In the mean time, I had been driving my realtor in the burbs crazy, looking at everything from condos to townhouses to single family homes within a fairly huge price range. But 5 days after my place went under contract, I made an offer on a condo in the 'burbs. And after 2 rounds of negotiations, the seller accepted my offer. I'm told that I got a great deal on the condo because it was a For Sale By Owner that had been fully renovated and therefore priced well under market. So, all in all all, I feel blessed that everything turned out so well. But there was a lot of drama leading up the actual sale and purchase. Dishonest neighbors and realtors who lied about square footage, sneaky landlords who own the unit next door, feuding realtors who live on opposite ends of the hallway, and meddling doormen with loose lips. More details to come.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Happy 1 Year Anniversary me! It's hard to believe that I wrote my first post exactly one year ago today. Where did the time go?

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Changing Life Circumstances

I've sent in my grad school application. So, now the nail biting begins. I'm supposed to hear back from them by April 15th, at which point, I'll probably put my condo on the market. I'm meeting with my realtor on Monday, and hopefully she'll have some good ideas about how to stage the place. I've been in a mad frenzy these past few weeks, trying to declutter the guest bedroom and some of the closets. I managed to give away some electronic items, some small kitchen appliances, and a bunch of CDs. And I posted a bunch of books on But you'd be amazed at some of the stuff that I've managed to accumulate over the years. Old cards and letters and my day planner from college. In addition, I found the final distribution statement for my 401k account from my first job out of college. How times have changed. After two years at that job, I only managed to salt away $2,500 in my retirement account -- and that's with a company match. These days, with my current position, it takes me less than a month to save that amount. But now that I'm heading back to grad school, I'll be dipping into savings for the next two years. Although it's a long term investment in what I hope will be a more rewarding career, it's hard not to think that I'm somehow going backwards in life. But you know the old saying, "two steps forward, one step back."

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

How Low Can You Go?

No, we're not talking about the limbo. Here's the latest, according to CNN headline news.

"Stocks tumbled across the board Tuesday, with the Dow sinking about 500 points at one point. It closed 415 points down -- the biggest one-day drop since the stock market reopened after the September 11 attacks. The New York Stock Exchange tried to limit declines by imposing trading curbs. The selloff is on the back of a nearly eight-month rally."

My stock investment account plummeted by more than $5,000 today. Ouch! And the verdict is still out on my mutual funds and retirement accounts. It's a good thing I'm in it for the long haul. But still....

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Steaming Stamps off Envelopes

This evening, I rode up in the elevator with a friendly, older woman I see from time to time in my building. I greeted her with a smile and a nod. And then I started flipping through my mail. I commented on the fact that we seem to get a lot of marketing postcards from Fred, one of the Realtors who lives on my floor. Sometimes one or two per day. She laughed and shrugged. "At least you can reuse the 39 cent stamps." I must have given her a confused look. "They're never cancelled," she explained. So then I took a closer look at the postcard in my hand. Sure enough, she was was right. Huh! I never noticed that before. My guess is that Fred mails the postcards from the building. And the postal carrier picks them up and immediately turns around and stuffs them into our mailboxes. I couldn't help but think about the money Fred could be saving if he only had a key to our mailroom. But his loss is my gain. Self-adhesive stamps on slick glossy paper. Can't get much easier than that. Gone are the days when you had to steam stamps off of envelopes.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Reactionary Behavior We Learn from Our Parents

One of my friends confessed that she absolutely hates DIY projects. She'll readily outsource mundane tasks that most people would do on their own. But the way she tells it, she grew up in a relatively poor household. Her parents did everything on their own. But they both worked full-time jobs, and were constantly bickering about all of the household stuff that they had to do - things like cooking, cleaning, paying the bills, mowing the lawn, shoveling the driveway, etc. So, my friend decided that she didn't want to be like her parents. She'd rather pay someone else to do all the unpleasant tasks and avoid the infighting.

I think there's some merit to my friend's argument. But as with all things in life, you can take it to an unhealthy extreme. I'm a fairly neat person, but I pay a maid service to deep clean my condo once a month. At the same time, I can't see myself hiring a personal shopper to hand pick groceries for me and then have them delivered, even though it's one of my least favorite things to do.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Why I Hate Gift Cards

I wound up ordering the Bogleheads' Guide to Investing at because I needed to use the $25 GC that I got for my birthday 2 years ago. With tax and shipping, it came out to $25.45. I could've bought the same book at for $20.46 with tax and shipping, even less if I qualified for super saver shipping. But I had that stupid gift card. The book was shipped in a flimsy cardboard box (no bubble wrap), so of course some of the pages were damaged. I could exchange the book at a brick and mortar, but that kind of defeats the purpose of ordering a book online.

And yes, I already tried the frugal route. Would you believe that there are only 2 copies of the book available for checkout in the entire Chicago Public Library System? Sigh...

Monday, February 12, 2007

What Boomer Pop Icons Have Learned About Money

Check out the recent article on

My favorite quotes...

"Money doesn't make you happy. I now have $50 million, but I was just as happy when I had $48 million." - Arnold Schwarzenegger

"[F]or financial stuff I always listened to my father, a Republican investment banker. He told me if I always pay my bills with one-third, save one-third and screw around with the last third, I'll be okay, no matter how much I earn. It's the one thing he said that I listened to, and I have never been in any financial trouble." - Grace Slick

"My father used to tell me a riddle: Who is happier, the guy with $11 million or the guy with 11 kids? The guy with 11 kids. Why? Because he doesn't want more." - Bradley Whitford

"[T]he good times don't last forever, so be conservative with your money. Always try to live off half of what you make. The other half goes to taxes and investments. If you can do that, you'll succeed at money." - Bruce Jenner

Fewer Buyers Can Afford Homes

I finally finished my grad school application this weekend. I won't find out whether I've been accepted until the end of March, early April. And then I'll need to try to sell my condo. So, it goes without saying that I'm a bit worried about the current state of the housing market. According to a recent MSN article, the housing slump may not be over any time soon because houses are still priced too high for the average buyer.

"The question is when a new balance will be reached between supply and demand. The housing slowdown is unusual because it has not come amid a general economic decline. Rather, it appears that home prices simply rose to a point where fewer buyers could afford homes."

Okay, no surprise there. But check out the actual ratios of salary to home prices.

"By last year, a median-price American home cost nearly eight times average annual earnings, up from about five times earnings in 1980, according to research by New York investment firm Merrill Lynch. Now, fewer buyers can afford homes, and many speculators are trying to clear out of a cooling market."

Eight times average annual earnings? No wonder Americans have a negative savings rate!

My condo and deeded parking space cost less than 2.5 times my average annual earnings, and I put 20% down. Even then, I thought I was stretching a bit. Admittedly, my association fees for my condo and parking space are outrageously high at $500 per month. But that includes water, heat, garbage, sewer, satellite tv with premium channels and high-speed, internet access.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

When the Experts Give You Conflicting Advice

Fidelity Europe Capital Appreciation Fund was recently named a best buy by Forbes magazine. But the overall Morningstar rating is only 3 stars. Same deal with Fidelity Worldwide Fund. What's up with that? This is why I don't always use stock and mutual fund 'screeners' when looking for managed funds. And yes, for a variety of reasons, I do own actively managed funds through Fidelity, rather than index funds through Vanguard.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Netflix Wins

A lot of folks in the pf blogging community have been debating the pros and cons of Netflix vs. Blockbuster. I prefer Netflix because (a) I don't live anywhere near a Blockbuster, and (b) my taste in movies is a bit eclectic.

Against my advice, my friend Shirley converted recently to Blockbuster. Admittedly, she lives right near a Blockbuster store, so it's convenient for her. But lately, she's been complaining about the limited selection. For the past 3 weeks, she's been waiting for the movie 'You Can Count on Me'. And although it's at the very top of her queue, Blockbuster has been sending her everything but that particular movie. So, as an experiment, she asked me to try to get the movie from Netflix. And the race was on. Which one of us would get it faster? Well, no contest, really. Within 2 days of bumping it to the top of my queue, I received my copy of the movie in the mail. She's still waiting for her copy from Blockbuster. Go figure.

401(k) Savings Plan Performance in 2006

Sorry it's been a while since I've posted. Life has been incredibly busy in the past few months but should be slowing down considerably in the next few weeks.

I just got my 401(k) statement for 2006, and it looks like the investment gain over the course of year amounts to a 14% increase, after you factor out the $15,000 that I invested plus a $6,500 company match. Not great, but decent, especially considering the fact that I put new money into the account over the course of eight months.

As for asset allocation, 25% in each of the following 4 sectors funds: S&P 500 Index, Mid Cap Value, Small Cap Index and International Large Cap Index. My simple allocation actually beat the company's actively managed 'Aggressive Portfolio' by approx. 1%.

My only regret is that I lost out on part of the available company match because I frontloaded my investment. You can read about it here, here and here. C'est la vie.

Friday, January 05, 2007

IRS Withholding Calculator

Remember to adjust your federal withholding allowances if you anticipate any major changes in your life this year. I'll be quitting my job to go back to school full-time this fall, and potentially selling my condo, so I actually need to reduce my withholding allowances.

Use this handy calculator provided by the IRS to ensure that you don't have "too much or too little income tax withheld" from your pay. In other words, you don't want to give the federal government an interest free loan for a year, but you also don't want to be banged with a huge tax bill a year either.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

TurboTax at Costco

As I've mentioned in the past, sometimes it's still cheaper to buy things offline. I was going to order TurboTax Deluxe 2006 through this week, but decided to hold off a few days to see if the price would change. Well, last night I was rifling through a stack of mail, and noticed a coupon booklet from Costco. Normally, I would just toss the booklet into the recycling bin immediately because I rarely want or need any of the featured sale items. But this time, I decided to flip through the booklet quickly. And low and behold, there was a $15 off coupon for TurboTax Deluxe, for either the Federal and State version or just the Federal version. Since I don't really need the State version (you can file your IL tax return online for free), I'll probably just pick up the Federal version. Kind of interesting to note that the Costco list price is a few dollars cheaper than the price listed on But even if you factor in sales tax, with the $15 off coupon, I'll definitely come out ahead by purchasing the item at Costco ($16.99 plus tax). The coupon is valid from Jan. 15 - Jan. 21 only. So, I'll need to remember to make a Costco run that week.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Update on 1st Time Experience with Craigslist

As I mentioned in a previous post, I purchased a new iPod nano for myself a few weeks before Christmas. So, now I need to get of my old iPod mini. I just posted it on craigslist last night, so we'll see if I get any nibbles. I found a comparable listing for a used mini on, but I think the seller is asking way too much for what is essentially an obsolete item. Maybe he's factoring in the cost of shipping and amazon's listing fees? Or the fact that it's now a 'collector's item'?

*Updated on 1/5/07

Well, 2 days after I posted my ad, I got an email from K who wanted to buy the iPod for $25 less than my asking price. I did a quick search for iPod minis on craigslist, and someone had posted a similar item for $75 several days ago. So, I told K that I would come down $10 from my asking price, but that was it. A day later, he agreed to buy the iPod for $90, and we arranged to meet in person. In the meantime, I had posted the item on for $129 because there were several listings ranging anywhere from $199 to $250. Some of the items were in better condition, some in worse condition. And wouldn't you know it, after I had agreed to meet K but before I could pull the listing from, someone actually bought the iPod for $129! But since I'd already promised it to K for $90, I decided to go through with the original sale. Much to my regret, I had to issue a refund to the second buyer.

All this to say, my first experience with craigslist was relatively positive. I just wish I had been more patient in holding out for a seller on Even taking into account the amazon commission and the cost of shipping, I would've been better off selling the item to the second buyer.

My friend pointed out that I could've asked K to meet or beat the $129, but in my opinion, that would've been jerking the guy around. And I'd been on the receiving end of that kind of behavior when I purchased my condo. To make a long story short, I'd already agreed to pay list price, but after verbally accepting my offer, the seller decided he wanted more money. I wound up walking away from the deal several times because he was such a jerk. But after two other deals fell through, the seller finally agreed to my terms in writing. Personally, I miss the days when 'my word is my bond' actually meant something and handshake deals were the norm rather than the exception. As an attorney, I'm often times asked to come up with a creative argument or loophole to get someone out of having to follow through on something they agreed to. So you can see why I'm a bit disillusioned with the practice of law.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Retirement Savings - The Magic Number

Happy New Year!

Okay, so everyone in the pf blogging community is talking about New Year's Resolutions and Goals for 2007. I haven't put much thought into that particular topic yet because I have too many variables in play right now. If I get into graduate school, I'm going to quit my lucrative job and try to find a part time job. If I can't find a part time job that pays enough to cover my property taxes and monthly assessments, I'll need to sell my condo. If I sell my condo, I'll need to figure out where to live. And so on and so forth. You can see why it's a bit difficult for me to set any concrete financial goals for 2007.

So to ring in the new year, I thought I'd blog about retirement savings instead. When I first met with my financial planner in 2004, he told me that given my lifestyle and values, if I decided to quit saving for retirement altogether, I would still have enough money to retire comfortably at the age of 67. I couldn't tell if he was joking or just being overly optimistic. But a recent article in the Your Money section of the Chicago Tribune makes me think that perhaps he was right.

Where are you on the road to retirement and how much should you have saved by now? According to senior financial planner Christine Fahlund, here are some rough guidelines. If you're...
30 years away from retirement, 100% of your income
20 years away from retirement, 2 times your income
10 years away from retirement, 6 times your income

The article goes on to say that the above "goals are generally achievable if you've been socking away 15 percent of income steadily since your 20s or 30s….if you started late, you need to save a higher percentage of your paycheck.”

I'm guessing that by 'savings' they mean liquid assets vs. equity in your home. Either way, it looks as if I'm well ahead of the curve, which makes this whole career transition thing a bit more palatable, thank God.