Wednesday, November 16, 2005

It's a wrap

Well, I am done with most of my shopping and thanks to a mix of practiced frugality, creative cajoling and natural inertia I am actually under budget. I traded in the white iPod nano I received from my fairwell for a black one my coworker just bought for himself and gave him a $50 iTunes gift certificate as a thank you for being my knight in shining armor. Guess this is what they call win-win. He got a brand new nano at a $50 discount and I got something I know my brother wants. Cost - $50, savings - $199. For a girl who still hasn't balanced a checkbook that's not too bad.

Wish I could say though that I was this successful in all my shopping endeavors but it was a bit of a hit or miss at times. The best deal I found on the earrings for my sister-in-law was 15% off and free shipping. Couldn't find the slippers for my sister for less than retail so ended up buying them at Nordstrom for full price. Mom's perfume on the other hand was less than 1/3 of it's retail price on eBay. And while I was shopping at Sephora with the 20% off Friends & Family code (thanks to a very generous sales assistant) I decided to pick up gifts for several people since I was already there which turned out to be cheaper than what I had originally planned for them.

This is the first time in years I got all my Christmas shopping done so early. There are only two things on my list that I didn't get -- Nickel Creek concert tickets because they were all sold out and the laptop for my dad because he decided he wants golf clubs instead. At last tally here's where my holiday shopping stands:

Total spent = $777.98
Total saved = $407 off retail

Okay, so I am not exactly going to be under budget after all's said and done but I am going to be a lot closer to my $800 cap than I had initially thought. Plus since I am already approved for the mortgage (have to check if there is a time limit on the rate lock) I can go ahead and apply for the Citi Dividend Platinum card which should more than make up for the difference.

As for the condo, I am not selling it. I received the offer in writing last Thursday, spent a night tossing and turning and drawing up pros and cons. Ultimately it came down to my love for Seattle vs my love for moving. I don't know how long I will be in Seattle. It was never my goal to stay in one place too long and I haven't. But I don't think I am taking off for anywhere else anytime soon.

My next post will probably be sometime mid-Dec unless I happen to log on in the middle of my vacation. It's been known to happen but even if it does I probably won't post much. I want to take the time to enjoy the beautiful scenery, think through some things and come back with a clear idea of where I want to go with this blog and my financial future.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

When is the time to be frugal?

This reminds me of that scene in SATC where Miranda and Carrie go shopping for pregnancy tests and Miranda grabs one and says, “Here, get this one. This is half off.” As Carrie puts it back on the shelf she says, “Sweetie, I just spent $365 on a new pair of shoes last week. This is not the time to be frugal.”

When is the time to be frugal? I know some people’s answer to that is never just as some others’ is always. For me, this is not the time to be frugal. Prepared maybe, organized yes, savvy – that too. But not frugal. Since July I have spent $456 shopping on myself and donated $850 to charity in addition to the food and clothes drives. I don’t want to start being frugal just when it’s time to get gifts for friends and family. Unfortunately, this creates a bit of a dilemma. As it stands now I have $800 in my holiday shopping budget and $2200 in estimated gifts which puts me $1400 over budget.

So here’s my dilemma – the easiest way to absorb that would be by going over budget but if I did that I may not be able to meet my net worth goal. Maybe I could sell the condo but that could turn into an O Henry’s Gift of the Magi type situation. The other option is to reduce the cost of gifts by aggressively seeking out the best deals and making up the rest through monthly cost cutting. If I can shave around $600 from the cost of gifts that would leave me with a $800 deficit or a $100/month extra savings goal from regular expenses from Nov through June. Alternately, I have to seek out opportunities for generating an extra $100/month in income. How hard can that be? I guess I will find out.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Contradiction

I am weak, don't blame me. I just ordered a grande caramel frappuccino, light, with whipped cream and extra caramel topping. Not sure what the point of the "light" was since the extra caramel canceled out any calorie savings but it was so, oh so, good. I was at a traffic light in my car sipping my drink and thinking "Please, please don't turn green!"

This was one of those moments that get frozen in time, stay suspended in your consciousness as a lingering pleasant sensation for no apparent reason. Somewhere in the middle of being parked at a traffic light at the end of a long day sipping a cold drink in a hot car on a cold day watching the gray blanket of dusk slowly roll over the world I found the kind of moment that dreams are made of. Isn't it funny the things that make you feel wonderful sometimes? As I drove home I started thinking about times in my life that made me feel like I have everything I ever wanted. This was one of them. The first time I saw the mountains from a train window was another. The time this random little old lady stopped me in a Baskin & Robbins to tell me I looked good in blue. The time my brother said I was all right. Meeting H. Stopping my car to look at a bougainvillea tree next to a rundown trailer home in Ohio last year. I guess it's true. Money isn't necessary for happiness.

But then where does that leave Zagreus from the Albert Camus novel A Happy Death who had this to say about money:

"What I'm sure of," he began, "is that you can't be happy without money. That's all. I don't like superficiality and I don't like romanticism. I like to be conscious. And what I've noticed is that there's a kind of spiritual snobbism in certain 'superior beings' who think that money isn't necessary for happiness. Which is stupid, which is false, and to a certain degree cowardly. You see, Mersault, for a man who is well born, being happy is never complicated. It's enough to take up the general fate, only not with the will for renunciation like so many fake great men, but with the will for happiness. Only it takes time to be happy. A lot of time. Happiness, too, is a long patience. And in almost every case, we use up our lives making money, when we should be using our money to gain time. That's the only problem that's ever interested me. Very specific. Very clear."

So very specifically, very clearly maybe money does aid in happiness. If I didn't have the heat turned all the way up in my car I wouldn't have been in a position to enjoy an iced drink on a freezing day, if I didn't have a car I wouldn't have been able to turn the heat up in it and if I didn't have money I wouldn't have a car.

Not sure what the point of this post is except maybe a rather convoluted justification of spending $4 on something I didn’t need. Or maybe it's a precursor for something more, like this ...

Things that I would like to buy this holiday season:

Black iPod nano for my brother

Kosviner biwa pearl earrings for my sister-in-law

pink UGG slippers for R


Hermes 24 Faubourg EDP for mom

Fresh Memoirs of a Geisha bath set for best friend


Yochi earrings for other best friend

+
Nickel Creek concert tickets for J & 3 of his friends

and laptop for dad

Hide & Seek and a List

After the dancing visions of caviar and champagne on the deck of a Caribbean cruise ship faded slowly into pragmatism I started asking myself questions. How did these people know to make me an offer on the condo? In this day and age of identity thefts any possibility of unauthorized access to what one considers confidential information makes one feel a little paranoid. Should I start locking up my personal belongings? And what is the current going price for condos in my area? Is the $420 offer good, bad, generous or what? If I sell where will I live? Do I want to go house hunting again?

I wanted to first figure out how I felt about the idea of selling but finally broke down and called my mortgage broker a few minutes ago. Turns out the couple interested in my condo and I have the same broker and after they had finished viewing the condo site and floor plans and were lamenting that all the units they liked were gone she mentioned that she had already sold one of those to me (technically, that's not true since I found the property before I found her) They don't have my personal information or anything. They had just asked her if she thought I would be interested in selling and given her a price to discuss. That's better.

I also found out that the last condo of similar specs as mine sold for $459 which means the $420-435k offer isn't as generous as I initially thought. So now I have 3 options - keep, sell at 435, ask for 459. If only there was a crystal ball to tell me which decision would work out better in the long run.

On a much more positive note, I not only got done with my holiday shopping list complete with names & numbers but I also came up with some great gift ideas for a few of them.

$20-30 category:
Gift #1 - $30 - movie pak (blockbuster coupons, m/w popcorn bags and candy)
Gift #2 - $23 - baby pak (Burt's Bees Baby Bee buttermilk bath & soap)
Gift #3 - $20 - coffee/tea lover's pak (2 Ikea large coffee mugs and 1/2 lb columbian or nice tea)
Gift #4 - $23 - starbucks lover's pak (Starbucks mug filled with candy and a Starbucks gift card)
Gift #5 - $25 - spa kit (scented candles, homemade bath salts and a custom CD)
Gift #6 - $24 - kitchen virgin kit (copper-bottom saute pan from Target & bottle of olive oil)
Gift #7 - $30 - cocktail hr gift set (Shaker and recipe book)
Gift #8 - $25 - iTunes gift certificates, Sephora gift cards and Best Buy gift cards

I still need gifts for mom & dad, my younger sister, brother & his family, my two best friends and J. Everybody else is getting something from the above list! That is, the people who are not getting cookies.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Money! (like the Pink Floyd song)

I got a call from my mortgage broker this morning. Someone wants to buy my condo. That was fast! I am not even sure it's mine yet. What's more, apparently they are willing to pay $420k for the same unit I bought at $399 in September and may even go up to $435. That's crazy. So I told my mortgage broker I needed to think about it. For one, I will have to look at the papers to see if I am allowed to flip the baby. For another, if the offer price is any indication that prices in Seattle are still continuing to rise I may be stuck renting for a while or end up paying more in the end if I sell now. Plus, I got a seriously sweet deal on the mortgage at just over 5% interest rate. If I wait, I may not get another rate that good. On the other hand the idea of adding $20-30k to my net worth overnight is tempting. A lot of things to mull over.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Holiday Shopping on a Budget

Holidays are a time to celebrate the people in your life, the ones who make the good times better and the bad times bearable. And what better way to show your appreciation than with thoughtful and carefully handpicked gifts? Only, how expensive do gifts have to be in order to be meaningful and appreciative? I am sure everyone knows the answer to that is "not much" but there's a difference between knowing and doing. At least in my case. Every year I start with the same resolution of not spending too much but the first sight of the cozy cashmere socks that I know mom would love or the gorgeous YSL palette that my sister has been wanting and all my resolutions go out the window. After all what's money compared to the sparkling joy in the eyes of some of my favorite people in the world? But maybe, just maybe, there's a way to evoke the same emotion without breaking the bank in the process.

My idea of Christmas shopping typically consists of a long list of names and me, walking around vaguely through the glitzy aisles of dressed-up department stores. No wonder I get carried away with all the gingerbread cookie smells and christmas carols piped through the overhead stereos and before you know it I have spent too much. Not this year. This year I am determined to do better. And since I am going to be on vacation from day before Thanksgiving through mid-Dec it's even more important that I start my planning early this year. Here are some tips for others like me who never seem to be able to stick to their shopping budget to get them through this holiday season:

1. Make a spending plan. Create a list with 2 columns - 1 for names and 1 for the amount you will spend on each person. Just making a list of names isn't enough. This serves two purposes. You can total it all up to see how well this stacks up against your family budget and make adjustments accordingly, and b) you can start figuring out what kind of gifts you can afford within the listed limit. e.g. if you put $50 against "Cousin - Sarah" you know that cousin Sarah is not getting the $100 pashmina wrap so instead of wasting time in that section of the store you can move on to another area where you are much more likely to find something for her.

2. Bake your own cookies. Cookies are my no-brainer gift. When I can't think of anything or am caught short of a gift I give people a tin of cookies. That generally means stocking up ahead of time with extras and they can be anything from $3 - $20 each. So why not bake some? A lot of stores sell really cute empty cookie tins. You can wash and dry them and arrange some of your famous iced gingerbread cookies (or whatever else you are famous for) or fill a cellophane bag with them and tie a pretty ribbon. Most people probably won't notice that they are homemade rather than storebought or won't care. And a few will actually be touched by your thoughtfulness more than if you had bought something off the shelf.

3. Think homemade in other areas too. Give homemade spice mixes or flavored oils and vinegars as gifts. I have an Indian friend who always makes these amazing authentic Indian spice mixes that she puts in little tin jars, wraps in colorful pieces of sheer fabric and hands out as holiday gifts. They don't cost more than $3-$5 each and look & smell so good we practically beg her for more. Flavored oils and vinegars are really easy to make too. Steep herbs, berries, dried mushrooms, peppers in olive oil or white vinegar for about a week at room temperature. At the end of the week strain, bottle in cute glass bottles, add a recipe card with the ingredients list and it's ready to gift. If cooking isn't your thing make scented candles and bath salts (epsom salt, food coloring and a few drops of essential oil are all you need) for a spa kit or wooden spoons or disney note cards or whatever it is that you are good at. You are only limited by your imagination and, possibly, time.

4. Hit the dollar store. I have found some pretty usable stuff like kitchen gloves, books, pens/pencils, journals, craft items, picture frames, crayons. A great gift maybe a cocktail shaker ($19.99) from Crate & Barrel and a book on cocktails ($1) from the Dollar Store. I once found these really pretty china cups. There were only 3 left and I didn't buy because of the odd number. Looking back, 2 of those and a tin of gourmet tea from Whole Foods would have made a fabulous gift for my tea-loving uncle & aunt for $10-15 bucks. If you know the recipient's taste it's easy to bundle meaningful gifts from relatively inexpensive items. Coloring books, crayons and pencils make great gifts for little kids.

5. Get creative. Now that my little nephew is crawling his parents have almost no time for going out. I am not near enough to babysit but remembering how much they used to love going to the movies I bought some m/w popcorn bags, movie size candy and a booklet of 10 movie rental coupons ($40 value, $20 with Discover double points). Under $30 total. I don't think I have ever given my sister a gift that cost less than $30 before or one that will probably be appreciated quite so well.

6. Shop early. If you wait too long you'll be rushed and tempted to pick the first thing that catches your eye. By shopping early you can not only shop stress-free but take advantage of comparison shopping thereby making your dollar stretch more. You may even be able to save something from one gift that you may want to use for another later. The best time for shopping, according to a study from JupiterSearch, is between Oct 1 - Dec 1.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Monthly Review & Net Worth Report - October 2005

Net Worth as of 11/1/2005


* Other Assets = condo deposit

Previous month's report: click here.

Highlights:

The negative change in my ESPP is due to last quarter's funds being converted to stock and moving to my brokerage account, which accounts for the positive change in the latter despite investments being down.

Interest income for the month was $141.23.

Investments, both personal and retirement, lost over $1500 total.

Both my 401k and ESPP at MS kicked in in time for this month and saved what could have potentially been a red month.

Savings from take home came to a little over $1500, the highest since starting this blog thanks to cost cutting measures like brownbagging, eating in and carpooling.

Income v Expense:

Expenses for the month of October totalled $3565.69, the lowest ever. Here's the breakdown:

Household (rent & utilities) - $1118.90
Auto (car, carpooling & gas) - $398.17
Food - $436 (most of it due to that 1 memorable weekend)
Entertainment - $29.51 (Cable+Netflix)
Shopping - $0 (returned the $192 splurge from Oct 8 the very next week so net is zero)
Personal - $0
Gifts - $0
Misc - $0
Magazines -$12.93
Vacation - $75.45 (tax on tickets booked with miles)
Tax - $1494.73

I am still on some kind of a weird spending freeze which accounts for the long column of $0s. Entertainment cost was also low because although I did go out several times this month they were either special occasions at friends' houses or dates and other than the cost of homemade cheesecake and a couple of bottles of wine (and a few reciprocal homecooked dinners in the question of my date) none of it cost me anything.

Magazine cost, although better than prior months, is still too high.

October Score: B- (Savingswise I did pretty well this month but saving is only half the game. I have to maximize my investments or at least understand the world of investments well enough to know they are doing as well as they could be)