Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Is less really more?

Three years ago I had closet full of shoes and nothing to wear. Since then I have simplified. Simplified, streamlined, downsized. At first it was a way to raise some quick cash after I got laid off but after a while it became a mission to reduce possessions. It was oddly therapeutic, this getting rid of things in my closet that had not seen the light of day in a long time. It was as much a letting go of the past, of memories, some cherished, some dreaded, as it was of the physical items themselves. The end result, fewer than 7 shoes and a handful of clothes that I allowed myself to keep, was oddly exhilarating. I felt liberated.

This got me thinking. Why are we so easily tempted to buy? Is it a matter of keeping up with the Joneses, the power of advertising or is it something else, an urge to be prepared, to hoard like squirrels hoard nuts or the ants stock up before a long winter? Is it some kind of a primitive drive to accumulate material possessions in order to differentiate us from the nomads? I don't know the answer. Maybe there is no good answer. What I do know is that in my case it wasn't the first, which made it simultaneously both easier and more difficult. Just as I didn't buy something to keep up with anyone I also often bought things just because I liked them and for no other reason.

I have come some ways from those days but I have to wonder, if I hadn't lost my job in 2003, what would have happened? First year out of school I bought just the basics. A mattress, a TV and a toaster. Next year I got a promotion and bought 2 suits and a couple of tops. And a cute little wallet because I had earned it. The year after that, the year of the big raise thanks to a career change that saw my annual income shoot up from 49k to 72k, brought an onslaught of stylish clothes and designer shoes. I had found my calling in shopping. This trend continued for a while. And then came 2003. Suddenly my company and my only source of income was gone. Evaporated into thin year like so many other companies facing financial and legal difficulties at that time. It was a turning point, one of the many in my life that I resented, resisted, regretted at the time but look back on with a sense of overwhelming gratitude. It changed me, subtly but surely.

Since I started working again I have started adding things back. Last year it was a pair of Marc Jacobs shoes and a Chanel compact. This year a Coach bag, a pair of BCBG shoes, tons of makeup I rarely use, new DVDs and CDs that I could just as easily rent or borrow. It's not stuff, it's reward for my hard work and determination, it's a measure of adversities I have overcome. I have earned it, haven't I?

The fallacy to seeing material possessions as reward, of seeking comfort or validation in them, even if you don't compare your wealth to anyone else's, is that sooner or later you start defining yourself by your possessions rather than by who you are. That's a slippery slope. I know this and I have a decent enough self-esteem not to slide too far down before I catch myself but still, every now & then I find myself caught between wanting the shiny pretty things that call my name from store windows (like the shoes yesterday) and the austerity of self-discipline (like not buying the shoes yesterday). Maybe what I need is balance. That elusive balance between simplicity and indulgence.

I remember once telling my mom jokingly and in the spirit of teenage rebellion that when I grew up I was going to live off of just 2 suitcases and a cabin bag. I would be free to go anywhere I wanted on a moment's notice. I would not be tied down by my possessions like so many people. Well, I guess you can say I have come to the slow and painful realization that that is a little impractical. Even if I could fit most things I am not sure how I will get the sink in there. But maybe there is a way. A compromise. I can't fit furniture or the sink or the tub in 2 suitcases, but how about personal possessions like clothes, shoes, CDs and books. I can do that.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The shoes!

In a show with such snappy dialogues as "Squirrels are just rats with cuter outfits" and "Manolo Blahnik!" uttered with the same reverence that Archimedes must have felt for his discovery when he ran naked through the streets of ancient Greece yelling "Eureka!" it is cruel to expect substance of any kind or information of any use. I mean seriously, they didn't even list the names of all the sex positions for the rest of us to try out. However, Sex and the City did serve a purpose. It allowed some people to be vicariously cool, it gave some people the affirmation they needed that they are cool and it gave some other people something to laugh at. Now I don't know who Paul Ford is or how cool he is considered by people who wear pink pom poms on their feet but in my world he is mucho cool (and I hope he forgives me for saying "mucho cool") ever since I discovered his article about recasting Sex and the City as a Beckett play.

From the Paul Ford article:

I prefer to imagine the show as a black-box play from the 1970s with Beckettian overtones, three women on an empty stage, looking at the audience, speaking in monotones:

1: I doubt I am fecund.
2: I have eaten so little.
3: Where are the men?
1: There are no men.
2: I will pay a woman $40 to caress and decorate my toes with varnish. I will wear shoes that cost more than the weekly wages of a restaurant worker, with tips.
3: What kind of tips?
2: Not on the shoes, for the restaurant workers.
1: I am hungry. I will not marry.
2: Talk about the shoes.
3: The shoes!
Unison: Shoes.

These are "The shoes!" I didn't buy today:

The ones I really wanted were the green Louboutins but I wasn't sure if that giant metal flower in the middle will work at a wedding so I was leaning towards the more demure black Choos. The Zanottis are up there just because they are so wickedly S&M with that ankle wrap that I couldn't pass up the opportunity to post a picture. But alas, I have a lifetime net worth goal to meet and new shoes will just have to wait. I don't want to become a Beckettian parody, particularly when I probably already have something wedding-appropriate in my closet...

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Inflation adjusted

One of my favorite blogs is Overheard in New York. It's everything Sex And The City was not. That is it's real, fresh and both depressing and humorous at the same time. (Let's just say I am not the biggest SATC fan, particularly after the whole contrived "happily ever after" ending with the subtle subliminal message that a woman's life is fulfilled only in motherhood or through a relationship and any sign of independence and self-sufficiency in a woman is to be mercilessly eradicated. I mean how else do you interpret Samanth and her breast cancer, Charlotte and her infertility, Miranda trapped in her contra-elitist suburban existentialism and Carrie and the continuted ambiguity of her non-relationship with Big? It's like the show was out to punish the girls for being the same people that made them household darlings in the first place. Of course, it can be argued that given how shallow, materialistic and pointless the existence of the main characters were they didn't deserve the collective title of America's Sweethearts but then since when have we picked our national sweethearts on the strength of virtue and integrity?)

from overheardinnewyork.com:

Yuppy Mom #1: Can you believe there are people living in this city who make under two hundred thousand dollars?
Yuppy Mom #2: Really?
Yuppy Mom #1: Yes, I'd never do that. I wouldn't want to live like a Huckleberry Finn.

Like a Huckleberry Finn? I have this horrible sneaking suspicion that maybe this woman has never actually read a Mark Twain book. Considering that Clemens spent part of his life in New York City that makes me no end sad for the demise of our cultural values. Or maybe it's just these gray Washington clouds that's bringing me down today. Either way it's an interesting commentary on our national economy if $200k a year is considered by some, no matter how sheltered they may be, to be the equivalent of whatever amount kept the boy Finn in his tattered rags. Now that's inflation for you. Wonder what Alan Greenspan would have to say about that?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Fait accompli

I seem to have come down with a severe case of writer's block in the last week. (Either that or I ran out of things to say. It was bound to happen sooner or later) Thankfully, my writer's block did not extend to other areas of my life and as far as financial decisions go this was a particularly good week:
  1. Reviewed, signed and delivered - final condo papers. There's no turning back now. I feel a sense of overwhelming relief despite the fact that financially this is the biggest and riskiest move I have made in my life. I don't have to stress about how much money I am sinking in rent every year or whether buying is a good idea right now. That ship has sailed. It's done. Also, now I have two new contacts in my personal network -- a great mortgage broker and a lawyer -- and that's always a good thing.

  2. Booked - tickets to India. In order to save money I ended up exchanging all my hotel and Amex points for airline miles and combining them with existing frequent flyer miles to buy round-trip tickets to India. There was no way I was going to pay $3360 for tickets out of pocket so this way all I had to do was pay the taxes which came to ~ $76. Plus, I got economy tickets and used my available free upgrades to move to business class for as many legs as I could so I used only about half the miles I would have for full business class tickets. All my miles are gone now though and I feel a little sad (not sure why, maybe it's psychological) but hey, I saved over $3000.

  3. Signed up for carpool. I wish I could say I did a lot of research and planning around this but truth is I just looked up the RideshareOnline website, read MS policy around carpooling, found that I only have to pay $60 per month as opposed to $200+ and voila! I was in.

  4. Identified the "latte factors" that are my personal bane of existence by going through old receipts. One, of course, is lunch at work or dinners out. Another is my frappuccino/ice cream/sweet drinks & sweet treats habit. A surprising third is my apparent love for little wirebound notebooks. Turns out I spend over $150 a year buying notebooks. What on earth have I been writing in them? More importantly, where are they? I can't find any. Another one of my secret passions seems to be drugstore makeup. I have spent more on Prestige eyeliners this past year than on Chanel ones. What makes this highly ironic is that I only turned to Prestige because the Chanel ones were too expensive.

Ok, so I have to face it. I do a great job of managing big ticket items but when it comes to little things it's quite another matter. And as anyone who's ever tracked their spending knows, those little things can add up fast. One of my goals this week is to figure out how to kill off some old habits or at least trade them in for better ones. Oh and yes, sign up for magazine deals (why is it that I can commit to a 400k home but not to a $12 magazine subscription?)

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The healing power of opposing dysfunctions

I am the queen of brownbagging this week. I have been making do with what was in my refrigerator, freezer and pantry since Sunday. In fact, I haven't spent a penny on food since Saturday's dinner. 4 day total = $0.

Wonder what that says about me? I have a pretty balanced life but not because I have a balanced approach so much as because my dysfunctions are often of two extremes that cancel each other out. Take my wardrobe for example. I love fashion but I hate clutter. So I generally buy the best, most stylish thing I can afford but not too many at a time.

Maybe there's a better, more balanced, approach but for now this seems to be working for me. If I ever start wanting to buy every designer shoe in the market or to eat out at fancy restaurants every night I'll have to revisit this.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Analyze this

For the greater part this week I have been marvelling at the fact that I spent zero dollars out of pocket over 5 days. Can you imagine how much more I would save each year if I went back to consulting full time? And then, this weekend, I had my answer. I would save nothing more.

Lunch Friday - $12.50
Dinner Friday - $60
Breakfast Saturday - $17
Shopping Saturday - $192
Lunch Saturday - $33.60
Dinner Saturday - $75

Total for the week = $390.10
Total spent the first 5 days of the week = $0
Total spent the last 2 days of the week = $390.10
Total weekly budget for food & discretionary items = $192
Amount I went over by this week = $198.10

Friday and Saturday went by in a blur. I think I was eating out and shopping to fill some kind of a void left by the whirlwind week before. Now that I think of it the 3 years I spent on the road were kind of like that too. New places, new faces that soon become distant memories and weekends spent trying to recapture something I have lost during the week without even knowing what it is that I have lost. Maybe for the stronger willed among us it is an exercise in discipline just like any other and this will sound like an excuse but there's some truth to the term retail therapy. It's a way for people to fill a void in their lives or connect or avoid connecting as the case may be. If we were all perfectly centered and had nothing to compensate for we wouldn't need to spend so much. But then, if we were that centered we probably wouldn't care one way or the other how much we were saving or spending or about a lot of other things for that matter and life would be devoid of the everyday complexities that make it interesting. There's something to be said for flaws after all.

Tomorrow I start brownbagging again.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Whirlwind week

I spent the last 4 days on the road in 4 locations, 1 day per city. Hardly the most relaxing road trip ever but while it was tiring it was also a lot of fun at the same time. That is if you share my somewhat warped definition of fun.

We flew out to meet several tap customers (tap customers = customers who have agreed to use-test an early version of the product prior to its release) and presented some feature bundles at the end of which we got to collect customer sat surveys and responses. It was pretty cool. This is my first time doing something like this and the customer interaction part was totally fascinating.

But can I just say I am glad to be back home?

Technically, I am still on the road, or in a hotel room, but I get to fly back to Seattle tomorrow morning. My only remaining deliverable is a final draft report on the trip and I plan to stay up and finish that tonight so I can have a nice relaxing day at home tomorrow. Maybe make myself a margarita and listen to some slow jazz while doing absolutely nothing... although I am not sure that would be ethical since I am supposed to be working from home.

Anyway, I digress. The reason I logged in was to comment on the financial side of this week. My total expense this week was .. brace for it:

$0

That's the good thing about business travel. I spent over $4000 on my corporate Amex but it's all reimbursable so I haven't really spent anything out of pocket. A few more of these weeks and I will be a millionaire. Of course, I will also be dead from stress but at least I will be a dead millionaire. Is that something to aspire to?

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Monthly Review & Net Worth Report - September 2005

Net Worth as of 10/1/2005


* Other Assets = condo deposit

Previous month's report: click here.

This was my best month since starting this blog. My net worth went up $8303.75 thanks to several factors. I received my sign-on bonus with last week's paycheck. In addition, I also received an unused vacation reimbursement check from my previous employer for the amount of $1147. That's a total of $4747 extra net pay this month that helped boost my net worth a healthy amount.

My investment gains and interest income also came to about $1000 this month, an increase of almost $700 over last month's amount. I am not sure if that is good enough though considering I have over $140k between retirement, savings and investments. Seems like I should be earning more than 1k but for the time being I can live with it. I will take a closer look at my investments and savings in Dec when I have more time.

Other than that what added to my net worth was a $408 from eBay & furniture sales, $100 from the Sony card offer, $19 gas card (translated to $19 savings in this month's gas spend) from Great Fun and employer 401k match. I only received the employer match for the first half of the month as my 401k at Msft hasn't kicked in yet but the sign-on bonus kind of made up for it. The rest was savings from salary which came to about $1906.

Balance Sheet

My total income this month was about $15,800 from all sources (salary, bonus, vacation reimbursement, investments, interest income, eBay etc) out of which expenses were a little over $7,500 total including $1500 in unposted transactions from last month ($1000 to mom & dad and $500 Red Cross for Katrina relief) and $3800 in taxes withheld. The rest, $2200, was living expenses for the month of September.

The living expenses at $2200 is the lowest it has been since starting this blog despite the impulsive weekend trip to BC earlier in the month. For some reason I have been on a total spending freeze ever since. I didn't buy any CDs, movies, clothes, makeup, magazines, cappuccino, candy or any other junk that I normally buy every month. It's not something I set out to do. It just happened. For the most part I think it was because I have been busy training my replacement at the old workplace, getting ramped up at the new workplace, running what-if scenarios on renting vs buying, shopping for mortgages, reviewing condo papers, threatening would be delinquents on the phone etc. A couple of categories do need watching though: my food bill climbed up to over $500 (partly because the m/w was out of commission but partly because it acted as an excuse for me to go back to eating out more often) and my gas expense rose to over $200 (from the $70-80 monthly average) thanks to the new longer daily commute from Seattle to Redmond.

September score: A- (I feel like saying A for effort but I should have been proactive about the commute situation since I knew it was coming and I should have booked the tickets to Bangalore by now)

Thoughts for October: 1. Buy that damn ticket to India, 2. Sign-up for magazine subscriptions, 3. Look at carpool/vanpool/bus and other alternate commute options, 4. Decide whether to roll over my 401k or leave it where it is.