Saturday, April 26, 2014

New Beginnings

Monday will be my first day on the job. Well, not really. Monday will be my first day in the job as a "permanent" employee. With quotes because nothing in life is really permanent. But after 9 months on the job as a contractor, I'm now a full time employee.  The irony is that my engagement was only supposed to last 10 months. And I was pretty sure that they were not going to offer me a permanent position.  For reasons that are too complicated to get into, I was literally ready to quit a few days before my senior manager made the offer, but my friend cautioned me to sleep on the decision and wait a week.

It's been quite the journey back to permanent employment. For the past 3 years, I've  been working as a legal consultant, first as a part time thing to pay the bills and then full time when I finally acknowledged that my new career as a mental health professional was going nowhere fast. I recently read an article on increased wages for consultants and that's one of the primary benefits of consulting work. You generally get paid on an hourly basis. But the work is pretty irregular (either feast or famine) and you can be "terminated" on a moment's notice. Two of the contractors who started with me were asked to leave after completing 3 months of their 10 month contract. So, as with investments, high risks could potentially translate into high reward. But the other downside is that you often aren't eligible for benefits. The consulting I worked for did provide health insurance and a 401k, but from what I could tell from some of my fellow contractors, that was rare.

As with all careers and vocations, you have to know yourself and determine goodness of fit. Consulting really is for people who are flexible, open to new experiences, and willing to deal with the an inconsistent income stream. Either that or they have a partner's income to fall back on.  And although I will try just about anything once, that constant state of uncertainty is not for me.

So it's with much relief that I know where I'll be clocking day in and day out for the foreseeable future. Is it my ideal dream job? Definitely not. And some of the issues that prompted me to want to quit before my contract expired are still there.  But as manager told me months ago, it's easier to leverage or find a permanent job when you already have a permanent job.

Of course, his prediction came true, but not in the way that I anticipated.  A week after I agreed to stay on as an FTE, my old manager from my previous consulting gig called me to offer me a position that had opened up on his team. When I gently but respectfully told him that he was a day late and a dollar short, he asked me if I had any recommendations because he really needed someone just like me. I was flattered and told him that I would keep my eyes and ears open. I would've never predicted even a month ago that I would have not just one, but two job offers within the span of two weeks, neither of which I had to 'apply' for.

So, it does appear, based on my anecdotal evidence, that the economy is improving, employees feel secure enough to move on to new opportunities, and companies are now hiring.  The moral of the story is that timing is everything.  Sometimes good things do happen to those who wait.  And as all the career experts say, networking is key to finding a new position.  My old manager has been burned several times by consultants who seemed great on paper but turned out to be difficult personalities to work with, and hence why he was hoping for a referral from someone like me, who he enjoyed working with.

Anyway, here's to new beginnings....

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Early Retirement Extreme Movement

As a follow up to my post from last week, I read an interesting article on the Early Retirement Extreme (ERE) movement.  After I posted a link to the article on Facebook, one of my good friends, who is actually planning on retiring at 55, immediately responded.  You would think she would be supportive of the article. Instead, she seemed angry and questioned whether anyone could save 75% of their income without making 'a ton of money', considering 30% of her income goes to taxes and tithing. I pointed out that the ERE folks are simply suggesting that *ideally* we should try to save 75% of our income. For most folks, that's not feasible. But she couldn't seem to get past that 75% number.

Anyway, my takeaway from the article is that early retirement requires a lot of discipline and commitment on the front end, so you can enjoy more freedom and options on the back end.  But please, don't get hung up on that 75% figure. It's an aspirational goal, not an absolute requirement :-)

I like how the article ends by summarizing what it takes to succeed in early retirement: "Having meaningful activities to fill the day is key to successful retirement at any age..."  I guess that's what I was trying to say in my last post. I want to live my life with purpose and meaning regardless of my age or stage in life.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Thinking about Retirement

This post is going to sound as if I'm just complaining my downstairs neighbors.  And to a certain extent, I am. But it's also a reflection on aging well and living a meaningful life during our supposed 'golden years'.

I live in a fairly quiet community.  For the most part, the residents are close to retirement or already retired. And the couple living beneath me are will into their 80s, with children and grandchildren living nearby. Ironically, the condo development across the street is filled with young couples and young families, but having lived in a yuppie condo building in a busy neighborhood in the city, I was craving solitude and silence.

When I first moved into my current condo nearly 7 years ago, my neighbors were super friendly and upbeat. They would do little things for me, like bringing in my trash can from the curb and placing it near my garage door every single week while I was at school or at work. They stopped to chat with me whenever they saw me.  I admired them because they were extremely active, getting up early nearly every morning to go for a 3 mile walk. But then a couple of things started happening that made me think their lives were not so idyllic. I noticed that they were putting their trash in my garbage can, presumably to try to save some money (residents have to pay for garbage stickers vs. pay a monthly fee). They emailed me multiple times to ask me to print out coupons and plane tickets for them because the didn't have a printer. They called me to help troubleshoot and fix their WiFi network, which I found odd, since they have family, including adult grandchildren, living nearby. They asked me to pick up their mail for them every day, while they were on vacation, instead of asking the post office to hold their mail. And they told me that they do laundry for their adult daughter who hasn't been able to hold down a steady job for years because she struggles with anxiety and depression.

Because of my current job, I have a really long commute. So, during the work week, I get up at the crack of dawn to try to avoid traffic. On the weekends, I look forward to sleeping in. But every Saturday morning at 7AM, without fail, my neighbors start slamming doors and making a ton of noise.  It took me a while to figure out that they do their weekly cleaning and errands on Saturday mornings.  In my head, I was thinking, "You're retired. You could do this on any other given day, when no one is home and the stores are less crowded."  But my guess is that they grew accustomed to doing everything on Saturdays during most of their adult life, and now they can't seem to change their schedule.

And as for double standards, the husband is hard of hearing and the wife is extremely sensitive to noise and has a hard time falling asleep at night.  So, often when I get home from work, they have TV set at high volume.  But thankfully, they turn the volume off at 9PM, which is when they apparently decide that it's time to go to bed.  A few weeks ago, I turned my TV on to watch the opening ceremony of the winter Olympics and didn't turn it off until 10:30PM. Mind you, I rarely watch TV, and if I do watch a movie, it's with my headphones on. But the next morning at 6:30AM, the neighbors literally started slamming each and every door in their condo *multiple* times.  I mean, multiple times. Later that week, I used my hair dryer once at 10PM, and presumably the wife, started slamming doors to let me know that she was displeased.  I finally emailed them to 'apologize' for disturbing them and asking them to let me know if I'm being too loud.  To be honest, I was just tired of the passive aggressive behavior.  I guess I expected more mature behavior from them.  It's both disheartening and somewhat depressing to realize that my neighbor is effectively imposing her impossibly rigid schedule on someone who is literally half her age.

A few days ago, when it snowed early in the morning, I noticed that the wife was outside shoveling the snow....even though the predicted high for the day was 40 degrees....and the snow had already started melting.  As I pulled out of my garage, she waved at me, and I waved back.  But inside, I was just shaking my head in amazement.

All of this has prompted me to think about retirement (i.e., how I want to spend my twilight years). Admittedly, elderly people are known for having difficulty sleeping and craving predictability.  But other than a handful of roommates, I've lived by myself for most of my adult years. And I'm in even more danger of falling into a habit or routine and doing things just for the sake of doing them or because I've always done them that way.

I've been asking myself the following questions:

  • Will I be able to maintain a close network of family and friends I'll be able to call upon when I have problems rather than begging acquaintances for help?  
  • Will I be flexible enough to shift my schedule so that it takes advantage of the freedom that I'll have when I no longer need to commute to work? 
  • Will I be able to do things a different way when it makes sense?  Will I try to impose my schedule on other people?  
  • Will I finally focus on doing some of the things that I've been putting off for years?  Or will I engage in meaningless busy work, just to fill the hours and days?

In contrast to my neighbors, my parents (in their late 60s, early 70s), made the decision to move to CA last year, after having lived in the Chicagoland area for 40 plus years.  And after a few rough months where they complained incessantly about everything, they're now happy with their new life. They live next door to my brother's family, they take long walks each day, and they drive my niece to and from school.  They've developed new friendships with neighbors, and they're super involved at church, having started a new ministry to help mentor some of the younger couples and families. In addition to all that, in her early 60s, my mom started learning about day trading as a way to keep her mind active and earn extra income in her 'spare time', and she's become progressively better at it each year. Likewise, in his early 60s, my dad discovered that he had a gift for teaching and public speaking, and for a while, he was a regular teacher and guest preacher at church.

All this to say, I don't know what the future holds for me, but I know that I can start making some decisions now as to what my retirement years will look like.  And although there are many things that my parents have done wrong, they've also been a great example to me of how to live my life with meaning and purpose in the back nine.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Open Office Environments

Studies have shown that rather than increasing collaboration, open office environments actually decrease productivity.  And after Susan Cain's TED talk on The Power of Introverts, it seems as if the trend is finally shifting away from the emphasis on collaboration and more towards contemplation. 

That being said, the CEO of the company where I'm currently working is a huge fan of Google.  Never mind the fact that we are not an innovative technology company. But in the past few months, he's actually been doubling down on the open office environment.  So, the new video conferencing rooms that were recently built out don't have doors.  Just imagine how disruptive that would be for the poor folks who sit in cubicles next to those conference rooms.  For someone like me, who has to do a lot of reading, writing and critical thinking, that would be sheer torture.

Nevertheless, this week, I was reminded that as in every situation, there are both pros and cons to an open office environment. On Monday morning, I squeezed some honey into my mug and immediately heard a coworker say 'Ewww!' before she realized that what she thought she heard wasn't what actually happened. Sigh.  But later that day, I had a nice conversation with my manager and two other guys with whom I share a cubicle wall.  And then Thursday, I overheard an older coworker use the term 'shag' repeatedly during a conference call.  I kept cringing every time he said it because I kept thinking about the movie 'Austin Powers' (as in 'shag, baby').  Yesterday, I overhead him use the term again. So, I finally walked over and asked if he know what the word 'shag' really means. He said he thought it meant 'to chase something down'.  And technically he's correct. But then I showed him the definition of the word from  He turned beet read and thanked me profusely for letting him know. Apparently, two of the guys on his conference call made snide remarks the first time he said the word, and everyone laughed, but the jokes went straight over his head. All this to say, he agreed that he should probably use a different word in the future.

So, on balance, I still hate the lack of privacy and the amount of noise and distractions that are inherent in any open office environments. But there are some redeeming moments that come from being in close contact with coworkers.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Frugal-Generous Balance

We've all heard the phrase work-life balance. Similarly, two of the principles that I strive to live by are frugality towards self and generosity towards others. Or, to coin a new phrase, frugal-generous balance. To that end, I try to give away roughly 15% or more of my gross income each year. The first 10% goes straight to my local church. And the remaining 5% or more goes to various not for profits and charitable organizations.

So, how did I do in 2013? Well, it looks as if I gave away roughly 14% of my gross income, thereby missing my goal by at least 1%.

I admit that last year was a bit of an anomaly. Without steady employment, it's a bit harder to be consistent about giving. As a consultant, I wound up working only 10 months out of the 12 on two very different long-term assignments. Plus, December was one of the busiest months ever in both my personal and professional life. That's not really an excuse for missing my annual giving goal, but it does explain why I was a bit surprised when I crunched the numbers.

So this year, I'll try to be more proactive in terms of giving. I've already set a reminder for myself to do a quick check up in October and/or early November, just as I would with my savings plan.

As a side note, I learned the principles of tithing and generosity at a very early age from my parents. When I started working, I asked my mom whether I should tithe based on gross or net income. I'll never forget her response. In her heavily accented English she said, "Tithe on gross, receive gross blessings. Tithe on net, receive net blessings." I had to laugh. I'm not saying that I agree entirely with her theology. There have been many, many articles written on the so called health and wealth gospel, seemingly overlooking vast sections of the Bible that refer to suffering and persecution. But I do appreciate my mom's heart. It's a good thing that God doesn't give us what we deserve. That's grace, in a nut shell. But if we're stingy towards God, we can't exactly complain when God doesn't shower us with blessings in return.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Butterfly Effect of the Target Data Breach

You've undoubtedly heard about the massive Target data breach that affected anywhere from 70 to 110 million customers. And you've probably heard that Target is offering one year of free credit monitoring and identity theft insurance to all of its customers (not just the ones affected). And you also may have heard that the hackers accessed Target's network via a heating and cooling contractor that fell prey to a simple 'spear phishing' attack.

But what you may not know is that the data breach has had a 'chilling' effect on philanthropic giving. I was startled to hear a heartfelt plea on my favorite listener supported radio station this afternoon. The announcer begins by reassuring the listener that their personal information is safe and secure (a statement that's been proven false time and time again), then he goes on to acknowledge that many listeners have had to cancel their old credit cards and obtain new ones recently. He ends by encouraging listeners to update their credit card information to enable the radio station to process pledge commitments.

In December, I had to cancel and replace my credit card after an unauthorized $500 charge appeared on my statement. Ironically, it had nothing to do with the Target data breach. In my situation, it was simply a shady local business that tried to charge my credit card for services that it had never performed. However, one of the first things I did when I received my replacement card was to look through my old statements to see which bills I had on 'set it and forget it' auto payment. So, if I had been using that credit card to make monthly payments to the radio station, I probably would have caught it.

What about you?  Have you had to replace your credit cards in the last few months? If yes, did you remember to update your information for auto payments?

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Free FICO Score for Discover Card Customers

Okay, true confessions.  Since I first opened a credit card 20+ years ago, I've pretty much paid all my bills on time. So, I've never bothered to pull my credit score.  I figured I probably had a pretty decent score.  But I've been curious.  And now my curiosity has been satisfied.

Discover has expanded one of its offerings and is now providing FICO credit scores to *all* of its credit card customers for free! And yes, it's a real score vs. the close approximation from vendors like Credit Karma.  Ironically, my first credit card was a Discover card. So, it's kind of fitting since they're contributing to 15% of my score via the "length of credit history" component, don't you think?

I just shared my score with a close friend who is in my opinion a personal finance queen.  And apparently, her score is 7 points lower. Her disgruntled comment was "I attribute it to the fact that you're older."  Umm...okay. Considering length of credit history is a very minor component of the score, I really don't think so :-)

Wednesday, February 05, 2014


I have to admit, this story about a millennial who quit his six figure job and gave most of his possessions away, really struck a chord with me.  My parents are very frugal, and they taught me the values of minimalism even before I became aware of the minimalist movement. But I admit that in my early 30s, I did have a tendency to acquire way more 'stuff' than I needed. Instead of exercising or meeting with folks during my lunch hour, I used to go clothes shopping. However, the decision to go back to grad school in 2007 helped re-prioritize and reboot my life. I sold my luxury sports sedan, gave away most of my book collection, and put myself on a really tight budget. After graduation, the lack of steady employment for 3 years definitely reinforced my minimalist ways. So, in some ways, I'm grateful for the recession. When you no longer have the trappings of success, you start to see more clearly the things that really matter to you. I no longer buy books, unless they're on the bargain rack at my local library or Goodwill store. And my clothes are mostly items that I found at thrift stores or hand me downs from friends. But I'm a lot happier now than when I was making a six figure salary with an impressive title and closets full of random 'stuff' :-)

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

When Social Justice and Frugality Collide

Two years ago, I read a book entitled Everyday Justice by Julie Clawson. It's a short little book that provides some practical suggestions on 'living ethically'. Some of the information may be out of date. But it's a good place to start if you're feeling inundated about all of the information on various social justice issues, including modern slavery. I've since started trying to make small adjustments to my buying habits, particularly Fair Trade coffee and chocolate. More recently, I listened to the Planet Money's T-shirt Project podcast series. And they go into much more detail on the economic pressures that are shaping the global textile industry, including the unintended consequences of import/export regulations dating back to the Nixon era. The net effect is that I feel guiltier than ever buying 'cheap' products when I know that the folks who produced the products are not making a fair wage. At the same time, I know that these pangs of conscience are a luxury as well. For folks who are barely making ends meet, urging them to purchase Fair Trade or organic products is akin to saying 'Let them eat cake'.  They're concerned about feeding and clothing the children in their own homes, not the child laborers in Bangladesh or C'ote d'Ivoire. So, I try not to impose my choices on others. But the other day, my friend mentioned that she tries to shop at Walmart as much as possible because of their low prices.  I mentioned that I avoid Walmart as much as possible because they don't pay their workers a fair wage. And I referenced the book Everyday Justice. Her reply? 'That's why I don't read'. Yes, she was joking, but her response startled me. In point of fact, she exemplifies in many ways what it means to be both frugal and sacrificially generous towards others. But I wonder how many folks have the same mindset as my friend. If you have the luxury of buying Fair Trade items, do you choose to do so? Or do you look for the cheapest products, live a frugal life, and donate the excess income/savings to worthy causes?

Monday, February 03, 2014

Return of the Prodigal Daughter

When I started this blog, I could count on my hand the number of friends and family who were interested in discussing issues or topics related to personal finance. But as a Christ follower, I noticed that the Bible had a *lot* to say about money. This blog was my attempt to work through some of my frustrations and concerns about finances in a relatively safe environment without being judged by some of my more legalistic acquaintances. Yep, there's a lot to be said for anonymity :-)

However, it's been 6 years since I've updated this blog, and a lot has happened in the intervening years. In a nutshell, I....

  1. Sold my condo in the city in April of 2007
  2. Sold my BMW and replaced it with a more reliable, mid-size, family sedan
  3. Purchased a smaller condo in the suburbs
  4. Started a graduate school program in clinical psychology in August of 2007
  5. Along with the rest of the nation, saw my retirement portfolio and net worth drop precipitously over the course of a very short span of time
  6. Graduated with a master's in clinical psychology in May of 2009 during the height of the recession
  7. Could not find a full-time job as a therapist, so worked part-time at the community counseling center where I did my grad school internship
  8. Started working remotely as a part-time legal consultant with my old employer 
  9. Gave up on finding a full-time position as a therapist that didn't require me to be on call both nights and weekends or relocate to a different part of the country
  10. Started working full-time as a legal consultant at various positions that required me to be on site during the work week
  11. Paid off the remainder of my student loans
  12. Saw my retirement portfolio and net worth bounce back to pre-2007 levels

So, what prompted me to post an update now, as opposed to say last year, or the year before? Surprisingly, it was a letter from PricewaterhouseCoopers, indicating that I had a $24.99 credit from Google AdSense "due and owing" to me. It was an 'in your face reminder' that some folks actually did visit my site and hopefully read my blog posts while clicking on some ads. But like the author of a bad serial novel, I left my readers hanging, without providing any closure. Please accept my apologies, dear reader, for my long absence from the blogosphere.

Coincidentally, one of my friends recently asked me what I would want to do if I managed to retire early. My response was a no brainer. I told her that I wanted to write full-time. After majoring in rhetoric in collge and working as a technical writer for two years, I gave up on my dream of making it in the publishing industry and decided to go to law school. But working as a transactional attorney in Corporate America for 8 years left me feeling restless and pretty unfulfilled. So, I decided to make yet another transition into what I thought would be a more fulfilling career as a psychotherapist. Of course, that didn't work out so well, since my timing was a bit off.  In future posts, I'll share some of my 'lessons learned'.

However, be forewarned that I plan to expand the focus of this blog from personal finance, to other more general topics (i.e., whatever strikes my fancy). Although I still have a strong interest in personal finance, there are other topics that are also near and dear to my heart (i.e., social justice, Christianity, psychology, technology, leadership, management, productivity, etc.).

If you've stayed with me this long, thanks for reading my post.  If you skipped over the middle section and jumped right to the end, you are definitely missing out on the good parts :-)