The Budget Wars

Ok so, I don’t know about anyone else but I feel like I am continually struggling to be able to manage my own budget. Maybe it’s because I kindof suck at budgeting, by which I mean I can stick to a budget for maybe a month (if I’m lucky) and then it’s blown out of the water. However, I am unbelievably proud of myself because I thought I had really completely blown my budget this month and would have to reach back into my savings to dig myself out of this little hole I’d gotten myself into. See, recently, I’ve been giving a lot of money to charity and eating out quite a bit. The giving to charity bit, I’m actually pleased with myself about. The eating out and just spending money I shouldn’t, I’m a bit annoyed with my lack of discipline.

At any rate, I was just trying to balance my checkbook since I have been having the most miserable day at work ever. Yes, it is definitely one of those “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days”. But then I was doing my budgeting because I figured if it was going to be a bad day, I might as well get all my bad news out of the way, right? Right. And then I looked and I saw that the only thing that’s even slightly off this month is that I had wanted to be able to put an extra $10 towards my student loans. But seriously, if I’m only off by $10 and that is part of the extra I typically put towards my loans (because I’m trying to aggressively pay off my loans so I send more than the monthly minimum). That’s really not so bad!! In fact, I’m ridiculously proud of myself. Granted, I would be more proud of myself if I could, you know, budget and consistently put money aside into savings. But hey, breaking even when I thought I had completely blown my budget ain’t bad. In fact, I’d say it’s a step in the right direction. (Now if only the rest of my life could fall in line with that).

Seriously, You Can’t Care Even A Little?

This is what I want to say whenever I speak to anyone in the billing departments of hospitals and even moreso when I speak to the people at the insurance companies. Because really, I do honestly believe that they don’t care *at all* about us. And it’s really frustrating to be on the phone trying to figure out why your bills are so high when you have a full-time job. Or in my case a full-time job and part-time school. Why do I have to spend 40+ hours trying to figure out why I was billed this way and why this is even a valid bill to begin with. Granted at some point you even start wondering if it is worth spending this much time trying to work out your bill or if you could be spending your time on other things. I mean if I calculated the amount of time I’ve spent trying to get this figured out and how much that would cost my company that bills me out by the hour, I’m pretty sure it’d be a tiny fraction of what my time could be used for. Yet, for me that sum of money is actually legitimate and it makes a difference whether I have it or not so here I am on the phone with like 8 million different health care professionals trying to figure out what to do.

Sometimes I really wonder who works there. I mean honestly how can you just sit there and tell someone that well I’m sorry you just have to make that choice, which is what I heard on the other end of the phone today for a procedure that I’ve been “strongly advised” to get. For something that could be a life or death illness that has yet to be diagnosed. But what incentive do I have to spend this money when I’ve been told that I’m not sick for the past 5 years. However, there is a chance that it could all go horribly wrong and so now I have to make a choice between what my doctors think I should do and what I can afford to do. I don’t even have much of a choice about what I *want* to do.

And don’t get me started on the bills that Congress are looking at. I mean what kind of a cruel joke is that. You are giving the insurance companies essentially complete power over the masses and requiring all of us “little people” to buy into plans that perhaps we can’t afford and in fact may even be detrimental for us. Honestly if you can’t come up with legislation that is somewhat decent don’t even bother. I’d rather have people stick to what is right than try to pass something that really only makes sense for the bottom line of hospitals and insurance companies. I’m sorry supporting insurance companies and hospitals is really not my concern. Nor do I think it’s something my tax dollars should be paying you to help!

Holding On To Hope

This is something I have to remind myself all the time. Or well, not all the time, when things are going well there is no need to try to hold on to hope because things are great. But currently with the economy in state it is in and everyone’s job security being up in the air. It’s a rather tense environment in general. With more people being laid off every day, sometimes it is difficult to keep your spirits up.

I’ve noticed that even in my social circle (friends, family, coworkers etc) there are a lot of people that have been getting rather down about it. And I’m sure listening to my pep talk isn’t always helpful considering I try to be a bright ray of sunshine all the time. But there is actual logic behind it. I’m not just trying to be an ass, I do believe that having a positive attitude about the whole job search process is really important. If anyone you are speaking with can detect that you are defeated or unhappy they are far less likely to want you on their team. I mean think about it logically. Would you rather have someone who is confident, bright and positive on your team or someone who is self-effacing and doesn’t have much confidence? Sure the self-effacing person might have better skills but it is hard to see that in an interview. I mean if you bring personality to the interview it can last twice the time it would if you don’t. And let’s face it the more time someone has to get to know you is probably better because a 20min interview is not doing anyone justice. The basic idea of this is that when you have a winning attitude and can keep yourself positive no matter how bad things get then people can’t tell just how bad things are.

I think it’s somewhat like an Asian concept where you have the face that you show your family and the face that you show the rest of the world. It’s actually fairly prevalent in India and China, I’m not sure about elsewhere but I believe many Asian countries have this concept. It’s like that old adage “don’t air your dirty laundry in public”. Sometimes people find these practices antiquated but I still believe there is some value in these practices. Perhaps not quite as extreme as they used to be but it is far more pleasant to speak with a well-put together, organized, attractive person than it is with someone who is clearly downtrodden.

I think the most difficult thing to maintain through job searching is maintaining a positive self-image. In today’s society it has become ever more prevalent that our self worth is reflected by what our “position” in society is which is generally tied with your career. So when that is gone or is difficult to maintain it generally has an impact to one’s ego. The key is to make it appear as if that isn’t true. Or not just to make it appear so. I like to believe that I have value regardless of what anyone else thinks. I think having a good sense of self will keep that value regardless of the economic troubles and whatever hardships one has to go through. I’m not saying it isn’t difficult to maintain, it takes a toll on everyone. But if you have a good sense of self it is harder to take away.

So essentially, I am trying to keep my faith that things will get better. And that some day I will find the dream job that I am looking for. In the mean time I will try to hang on to what I’ve got for now and make the best of a bad situation.

Losing Our Morals One Dollar At A Time

It seems to me that this economy is nothing but a product of sheer greed. What has always baffled me are the pay scales for people in different industries. I mean, in the banks people make millions of dollars in bonuses for what exactly? I would like to know why those executives make approx 100x what the lowest paid employee makes. Perhaps I believe too much in equality but I really think that’s a huge problem. When you have no clue what your actions effects are on the general populous and you no longer know how “normal” people live.

Not to mention our law-makers. It’s not just Wall St that let things go haywire, it’s our politicians too. Who quite frankly are totally out of touch with reality. I mean I’d really like to know who thinks that a salary of $169K+ is the salary of any average American (if you don’t believe me here are the links for actual figures for the House and Senate). I believe statistically speaking the average household income in America is approximately $50K, so why is it that our law-makers who are supposed to “be in touch with the pain and reality of regular Americans” make 3x as much as the average American? Not to mention, I don’t know about y’all but I am still a small fry so I only get 2 weeks of vacation but you know congress took 5 weeks just this summer when the housing market was crashing and the auto industry was in distress. Not to mention the fact that they will have government health care benefits for the rest of their lives for themselves and their families if they have served in office for 5 years. I ask you, how many corporate employers would do that? In fact, does the government even do that for any other employees? I know for a fact that isn’t true for teachers, so why are our policy makers so different? What exactly gives them all these rights and benefits when I’m not seeing a return on our hard-earned tax dollars. Sure, I’m upset with the banks. No, I don’t believe that their executives should be making the kind of money that they have been for the past I don’t even know how long, but at least that is their own private wealth that they can choose to dole out howsoever they see fit. (At least that was the case until the bailout and I believe there are no bonuses this year so at least there is *some* change in that field). Congress, on the other hand, is benefiting from *our* tax dollars. I mean the general public is expected to be able to balance our own budgets and live within our means but what about you? What right did Congress have to give themselves these raises? (They give themselves a raise every year, how generous right?) Have they truly made enough progress for us to think they are so above the rest of us? Quite frankly the way things are going, I’d say most of them deserve to lose their jobs *and* their benefits as is what would happen in the private sector if they did such a piss poor job as they’ve been doing for the last 8 years.

Granted I also believe that Wall St became too greedy and too loose with their money and with the government supporting their every move it’s hard to want to pull back. I mean why be smart when you could be getting an incredible bonus. You’ll have the money and will probably be gone by the time the whole thing goes bust, right? So who needs to be responsible. And Paul Krugman wrote a great piece on The Madoff Economy where he talks about what happened with the salaries. I think he makes some great points. I just wonder why no one ever considered him for a position in the White House considering he did just win the Nobel Prize and he has been writing insightful pieces for the NY Times for years now. Perhaps he wasn’t interested but I’m sure there would have been rumors if he had ever been considered and I find it quite distressing that he wasn’t. In fact I find a lot of the appointments to be less-than stellar. I mean it’s just a new set of characters from Wall St isn’t it? Instead of Hank Paulson we have Tim Geithner who headed up the NY Fed. Great let’s put more people who were involved in this giant mess into positions of power. Not to mention Larry Summers, why that man should be allowed anywhere after his Harvard fiasco is beyond me. And I mean let’s face it he’s the one that went along with Alan Greenspan back in the Clinton days and clearly that was not a good choice. But oh, I forgot we’re not allowed to criticize our new fabulous President-Elect because he is, of course, Prince Charming and will save us all. (And yes I am *still* licking my wounds that Hillary is only Secretary of State and not our first female President, not just because she’s a woman but because I still think she is the better candidate even if I have resigned myself to being satisfied with the lesser of two mediocre candidates.)

Being an Irate Customer

You know, I’ve never been one to really escalate with customer service very much but I received an Early Termination Fee from Sprint when I decided to switch to AT&T because I just really wanted an iPhone. Now, I think ETFs are stupid but I am a reasonable person and if it is the industry standard I will pay it. The thing is that Sprint started charging me for months in advance before I left. Now if you are going to charge me for a month in advance and I leave the first day that the new month starts, I don’t believe I should be charged for a service I haven’t used.

I mean it’s a little ridiculous to be paying extra charges. And I swear the first two lines of customer support are managed by people who just don’t think. They honestly give you answers without actually thinking about what you are saying. But today, for the first time in my life I actually escalated my issue about 3, maybe 4, times. And at the last place I actually spoke with a person who understood my issue. Did not make me repeat my information and actually knew who I was and what my account looked like. And was reasonable enough to drop the extra charges. It took a lot of effort but I’m very proud of myself for not giving up and just wasting money that I don’t need to waste.

I am also exceptionally proud of myself for taking the time out to manage my finances enough to know that these are erroneous charges and having my accounts all managed and up to date. It has taken me a while to get organized and there is *so* much more that I need to do but I am excited that I am finally getting there. I suppose being an irate customer is one of the first steps. It’s amazing what a little unpleasantness and escalation can do for you. So my advice to anyone who hesitates to escalate when they call with an issue, just keep escalating if they don’t give you what you want. Seriously, what do you have to lose? And from this experience I’m realizing that you have a whole lot to gain and it never hurts to try.

Student Discount for New York Times!

So I meant to post this yesterday but since I have been bleeding money to grad school (I just got my tuition bill last month) I decided I should cancel my subscription to the Times. I mean I love reading the paper on the way to work and when I have time on the weekends I also adore it not to mention my roomies happen to benefit from it too – they like the Sunday Times with the Magazine. I happen to be a fan of the Tuesday Science section and the Thurdsay Styles. I also like the one with the dining guide and the recipes. So anyway when I called to cancel the woman told me that they have amazing student discounts. In fact I am now paying $22.10/month for the paper delivered every day. I am so excited about it, especially since I can now afford it!

Budgeting Woes

Alright I’ll admit I’m not the best with personal finance. Although I have to say that I used to be amazingly methodical and organized when I was 16. It’s incredible the amount of will-power and personal finance savvy I had for a kid. And then I went to college and somehow went from super-responsible-thrifty-chic to reckless-crazy-spend-thrift. How or why that transition occurred I’m not sure but right now I am not quite a spend-thrift but I am by no means what I would consider to be “thrifty” these days. So I’ve run up against an unexpected expense and lately I have managed to reign in my expenses to something manageable. But I wasn’t expecting my grad school tuition bill for another month so I had decided to splurge and buy myself this slightly expensive but very awesome bike (that I do use quite frequently, so I do not view it as money wasted). It’s just that now I have to pay interest on this bike because the money I was going to use to pay it off is now going to tuition. This bothers me because I just dragged myself out of this miserable hole of debt that I created at the end of my misguided college days that was perpetuated by several moves since then. Moves always bring unnecessary expense. Anyway, I’ve actually been pretty good about saving money and getting myself out of my little hole. So I think if I just buckle down and set myself a small budget for this month I should be ok. I’ve been trying to use Expensr to help me see trends in my spending but I need to add in my credit cards to get a real picture, currently I only have my bank accounts. It’s just taking longer to get organized and create a budget than I wanted. Who knew it took this much effort? I’m sure once I get it set up and figure stuff out it’ll be fine. For now it’s driving me a little nuts. Granted I have only been really gung-ho about being this detailed for like 2 days. Before I just gave myself a set amount of cash and didn’t touch my savings, it’s becoming a little more complex. I guess I’m just deciding to be more proactive about knowing where my money goes.

Quantity vs. Quality (in my closet)

So I was just reading Well Heeled which happens to be a blog I like a lot and she had a post on this great topic about Quality vs Quantity in terms of clothes/fashion accessories. So it got me thinking about how I function, enough so that I thought about posting.

Typically my closet resembles quantity over quality but not necessarily. My “work” closet is in a bit of distress right now because I recently changed sizes and I’m trying to go back – that whole metabolism change has been gradual and evil to me since I hit college and I’m still working out the kinks. Unfortunately until that gets worked out I’m being a super spend-thrift about clothes. But here are some things that I consider worth spending money on:

1. A good winter coat. I received a fabulous black Burberry wool/cashmere blend last year that will probably be a little loose on me in years to come if I can whip myself back into shape. BUT the plus side that means I can layer more underneath it and at the moment it fits perfectly, looks super chic and is tres warm. The warm part being the key since I have lived in cold climates for the past 7 years, I intend for this baby to last me at least 10, maybe even 20. For example, the coat I was using before my fabulous present was my father’s black wool Austin Reed that his brother had used for a couple of years and then he used for a good 10 years (maybe more) and then lived in our closet for another 20 – cause they moved to Houston, you don’t really need a coat in Houston – and then I kidnapped it for about 6 which is when it really started to fall apart. So I mean that goes to show that a good coat can hold up over time and is worth the investment. Not to mention it can make you feel exceptionally pretty. 😉

2. Shoes, I find that I tend to buy pricey-ish (think Steve Madden) but not overly pricey shoes. If I get heels I want them to be heels I can walk in. I love public transportation and I loathe having to tote shoes around so I can put on my work shoes. I want shoes that will hold up when I walk all over the city. And quite frankly I just don’t think Manolos or Jimmy Choos or whatnot have that kind of a life and I think you can find very beautiful shoes that you can replace a little more often without feeling so guilty.

3. Watches, this may just be my own pet thing but my favourite accessory is my watch. This could just be because I wear watches all the time. Some day I hope to own a Movado but unfortunately I don’t think I’m responsible enough with my watches to justify that kind of expense at the moment. Currently my favourite is Skaagen and my last one has finally gotten just a touch too much wear and tear after 5 years to consider an upgrade. I believe this will be my new Christmas present to myself.

4. Jewelry, I don’t believe in junk jewelry. Most of what I own was either custom made by jewelers in India (and I don’t believe that anything under 24k is worth wearing if it’s gold) or is from Tiffany’s (or of that caliber). I don’t wear jewelry very often but when I do I want it to look good. Granted I do have a pair of $10 Jem earrings and a few pieces of costume jewelry that are purely for entertainment purposes but on the whole I don’t believe in junk jewelry nor do I purchase it.

5. Sweaters, I definitely believe that good merino wool or cashmere sweaters will always look good. I mean even if you lose a bit of weight and they get a bit looser typically you can still pull off an elegant look with them. Not to mention staying warm and looking good in winter are worth the investment.

6. Scarves, real winter scarves are so worth it. They are a fabulous accessory and let’s face it the average person really only uses their favourite scarf all winter so it’s not like you need a million of them. A few choice scarves that are warm and beautiful make a fantastic accessory. (And if you can afford the trip to India or are going for a better reason than shopping, the pashmina’s there are dirt cheap and adorable).