Friday, February 27, 2009

Fashionable Fridays: The Little Black Dress

Hello, chickadees! It's Friday and you know what that means -- a roundup of my favorite looks in fashion. This week I decided to, once again, scout out little black dress (or LBD) territory since there are so many different ways to be creative and make a black dress pop. If you know of a must-have LBD, let me know, I'm always on the prowl. Enjoy!

Little Black Dress
Little Black Dress - by eMgIrL<3 on

Elegance (for Jerica)
Elegance (for Jerica) - by Samara996 on

For ... Ana / *Anči* (only on weekends)/
For ... Ana / *Anči* (only on weekends)/ - by AnseV on

The Little Black Dress
The Little Black Dress - by abbey.x on

Little Black Dress
Little Black Dress - by brokenfairytale on

little black dress
little black dress - by Medea on

Black Rose
Black Rose - by ♥GlamGrl♥ on

I Tried
I Tried - by SGLover on

Ribbons & Pearls
Ribbons & Pearls - by pamdavid on

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Recession-proof your credit

Picture it: You're so dreading (or behind) on making your next credit card payment that the mere mention of anything related to money makes you want to hunker down on the couch, watch Bridget Jones Diary and lose yourself in a bowl of raw brownie batter. "Call me when I've won the lotto," you think, a helpless look in your eye and a glob of brownie batter on your chin. Who knew it would come to this? Just breathe. It will be okay.

There are two pros to this situation: 1.) Your form of escape (albeit just as caloric) doesn't involve four cocktails and subsequent sobbing through an awkward drunk dial to an ex about how your life is so screwed up, and b.) Now is the perfect opportunity to reevaluate how you got into this mess and take steps so that you won't fall even more behind.

Instead of letting the recession get you down, take charge and get yourself under financial control. Dig yourself out of the ditch, so to speak. For most people in financial distress and falling behind on credit card payments, the natural response is avoidance. (Hello late night Bridget Jones marathons.) But putting it off until later won’t make it go away. Instead, the long-term effects are stress and damage to your credit history.

If you are having difficulty making your monthly credit card payments, address it right away – before you miss payments and your account is reported as past due to the credit bureau reporting agencies. Once your account is reported, it could negatively impact your credit rating, which may then affect your ability to get additional credit in the future. Citi Cards offers some fantastic tips on how to get your payments back on track:

Talk it out. Financial troubles can happen to anyone, so don’t be embarrassed to explain your situation – honestly and immediately – with your credit card company. The sooner you talk to them, the better they’ll be able to help you get your finances under control. From what I've heard from friends and other bloggers, credit card companies are more than happy to work with you on payments, rather than receiving no money or explanation from your side, which leads me to the next tip ...

Work it out. Most credit card issuers want to work with you to come up with a payment plan to keep your account current. Many people experience tough times, but no two situations are exactly alike, so work with your card issuer to see what temporary payment options may be available to you, such as:
  • Lower monthly payments
  • Reduced interest rate
  • Waived late fees and over limit charges
Keep track of your account -- automatically. Once you’ve set up a payment plan, help stick to it by signing up for free online tools offered with your credit card. For example, automatic alerts notify you via e-mail or text message about important account activity such as due dates, current balance or payment notifications. Additionally, some issuers offer customers an "auto pay" feature ensuring that you’ll never miss a payment.

Stay the course. Once your payments and account are back on track, resolve to use credit wisely. Easier said than done, I know. But next time you're fantasizing about a new pair of Stuart Weitzman heels, take into account of whether you have the cash, and not the credit, to back up such a purchase, and where that purchase falls within your list of priorities. Do groceries or plane tickets to visit family over an upcoming holiday come before shoes in your life? Be honest with yourself and evaluate your impulse.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Simple is the new black

My boss sent me a video today that made me laugh out loud and almost spit chai latte all over my company computer (which would have made me laugh harder, now that I think about it). The monologue is hilarious because there are fundamental truths in the humor, especially for those of us who believe there is a pervading sense of entitlement within our generations.

I've never heard of this Louis CK comedian, but a friend of Conan's is a friend of mine:

Basically, everything is amazing today (with medicine, air travel, Internet, etc.) and no one's happy even though they are "non-contributing zeros," so Louis CK thinks that maybe it's a blessing in disguise that the foundations of capitalism are being shattered -- that way, we'll all be appreciative of when things get good again.

“Cheap” doesn’t have to mean “unhealthy”

As budgeters we scrimp to save money, but when it comes to food you should think about your health, too, and not just whether adding fries to your meal will cost an extra buck fifty. I confess, I love fast food – I know, it’s so American of me to admit – not because of the prices, but because it tastes so fabulous…maybe it’s my penchant for salt and sugar.

Anyway, Health Magazine just published a “Top 10 Healthiest Fast Food Restaurants” list, and some of their picks surprised me. They are:

  1. Panera
  2. Jason’s Deli
  3. Au Bon Pain
  4. Noodles & Co.
  5. Corner Bakery
  6. Chipotle
  7. Atlanta Bread
  8. McDonald’s
  9. Einstein Bros. Bagels
  10. Taco Del Mar

Perhaps I’m not the fast food connoisseur I thought as I haven’t heard of a few of these places (Jason’s Deli? Obviously a fabricated joint), but it warms my weathered, 26-year-old heart to see Chipotle make the list. It’s like cheering on your boss and awkward coworker, tethered together and fervently hopping toward the finish line at a company picnic using their lone, uni-leg. If you follow this blog at all, you know I have a deep and requited love affair with Chipotle that officially began on September 29, 2007 — the fateful day I went looking for “real” Mexican food in Virginia, stumbled upon the oft-scoffed-at Chipotle chain and realized with my first burrito bowl how empty my life had been prior. Bravo, Chipotle. Bravo.

What’s your favorite fast food chain? []

Monday, February 23, 2009

Economy rocks it like it's 1997

Stocks went into freefall mode again today (this is becoming so cliche), dropping to levels last seen in 1997 -- the same year we were awkwardly coming out of our "ugly duckling" phase freshman year of high school, obsessed with unattainably hot guys and thought "Daria" was the coolest show, like, ever.

The Dow fell 3.4% to close at a staggering 7,114.94. For those unfamiliar with this hodgepodge of numbers, last year the Dow was at a healthy 8,000+. At 7,500 last week, the last vestiges of still-employed investment bankers were retching into their cubicle trashcans. At 7,114, well, let's just say it ain't pretty -- and word on the streets is there's still room for it to get worse.

Enter the Treasury Department. Today the Treasury announced it will launch a new, revamped bank bailout program that would include the option of allowing the government to increase its ownership in financial institutions. Translation: The government wants more of a say in how banks are run, because they are (obviously) doing a crappy job thus far. As you can see by today's steep stock market slide, this news did little to bolster investor confidence.

But there's a difference between the government running a bank, and the government having a say in how it runs itself. The first would be nationalization (which was a hot stock market rumor last week, but turned out to be false when the Obama administration said there would be no bank nationalization and that "private banking is the way to go").

The Treasury said today that beginning on Wednesday, the 20 largest U.S. banks will be required to undergo a new “stress test," which will determine whether each institution has enough capital to survive any further economic spirals.

More details surrounding the stress test will be released on Wednesday by the Treasury, though it did divulge today that if any banks fail the test, the government will require it to raise capital from private sources. If any bank is incapable of raising the money, the bank will be required to swap out the government’s existing, non-voting preferred shares and replace them with new preferred shares that are convertible to common stock with voting rights. Um, what? Basically, as I said earlier, this will give the Obama administration a say -- and not complete governing power -- in the business of each bank, if it comes down to that.

No more Netflix via your mailbox?

When I'm having a bad day, nothing cheers me up more -- retail therapy aside, of course -- than popping open my apartment mailbox and finding a shiny, bright red Netflix envelope waiting for me to rip open and enjoy. But what would I, and thousands of others who might have also had a bad day, do if those fabulous morsels of cinematic delight stop frequenting our mailboxes cold turkey?

Though the red envelope may soon be a way of the past, it doesn't mean Netflix will be abandoning you at least in the next year (sorry, Blockbuster). According to reports from CNBC today, Netflix is considering a service which only delivers movies and television shows through Internet streaming, skipping its traditional mail-order business. Well that's all fine and dandy, but what about those who don't like watching all movies on their laptops? I was fortunate enough recently to buy a giant flat-screen tv (complete with the appropriate laptop hookups) with a Christmas gift card from work, but I know what it's like to own an older boat anchor of a television that only connects to a.) the wall, and/or b.) a dvd player.

Obvi there are pros and cons to this situation, like Netflix will have to spend $70 in IT infrastructure changes to get the plan implemented, but will save a ton of money on shipping, envelopes, dvds, etc. But what about my personal satisfaction of tearing open a familiar envelope and inspecting my (borrowed) treasure inside? At this point, to only offer Internet-streaming Netflix movies is widespread speculation, but Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has said little to ease my concerns. And speculation of this variety tends to end up being true. Look at the Brad and Angelina rumors during the filming of Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

I know, I know, this is the way of the future. Nothing needs to be on paper, dvd, or disc anymore, but I like having something tangible -- a book...newspaper...dvd....abacus..... Sigh, I am officially old. []

Friday, February 20, 2009

Fashion roundup: High-waisted pencil skirts

Back by popular demand, I'm doing another post on high-waisted pencil skirts. Lots of people have been asking me how to wear them, what to pair them with, etc., so I sifted through endless pages on, compiling my favorite looks. Many of the pieces used in these sets are a steal, and others are, well, a bit out of our price range. Nevertheless, they serve as good examples of what to look for when you're bargain shopping and need inspiration as you piece together your own high-waisted pencil skirt look! Here are my fave looks -- enjoy....

How to Wear High Waists
How to Wear High Waists - by Nina's Closet on

Untitled - by anettee_ on

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Do you have a love/hate relationship with money?

Many of us may consider our relationship with our money a love/hate one – but it doesn’t have to be that way. Just like any other relationship in your life, in order for it to be a success, your relationship with money requires a good attitude, consistent communication and an ongoing commitment.

The CEO and COO of Women & Co., a fabulous Citigroup-owned website all about personal finance for women, recently wrote a list of solutions to help you separate your money and emotions, and forge a healthier way to relate to your finances.

To get started, first assess how you feel about money. Begin by asking yourself these questions that may determine the psychological factors driving your financial behavior:
  • Is money a sign of power or control in your relationships?
  • Do you regularly put off budgeting? Saving? Investing?
  • Do you use money to boost your self-esteem?
  • Does the “rush” of making a purchase drive your spending?
  • When growing up, did the subject of money or budgeting start arguments?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, it may be time to re-evaluate your attitude toward money and budgeting. A healthy attitude is one that enables you to indulge now and then, but also helps you prepare for unanticipated expenses that inevitably arise.

Here are some key ways from Women & Co. to get on a healthier track with your personal finances and stay in control of the relationship:

  • COMMIT to your budget. Commitment is a key element when it comes to successful budgeting. Be realistic about your spending habits, and set a realistic spending limit for yourself. Monitor your budget and spending habits closely and regularly, and be prepared to change your budget to adjust to any lifestyle changes that may occur, whether these changes are for the better or worse.
  • COMMUNICATE. It is critical that you discuss your financial situation with your spouse/partner, financial advisor, and most importantly, yourself. Share any feelings or experiences that may shape your attitude towards financial activity. Communicating your financial flaws and past mistakes will help you determine what will be the most effective way for you to save, spend and budget from this moment on.
  • BE INVOLVED. It is important that you are involved in your finances, and if you have a spouse/partner, you both should be on the same page with creating and maintaining a financial game plan. Being involved not only means you have a plan, but that you’re also checking in with yourself and each other to monitor how it’s going, and making any adjustments along the way, as needed. Remember, knowledge is power, and by knowing all the financial facts of your life, you will have a much better sense of control.
  • HONESTY is the best policy. Be honest and realistic about your goals, as well as the sacrifices you’ll need to make in order to meet them. Maintaining a budget and financial plan will be extremely difficult if there’s any denial or disagreement with your loved one about money. It is possible that what you consider a “want,” your other half considers a “need.” Be honest about what you want, need and expect from your budget, and understand what meeting those wants, needs and expectations will require from you.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

...And milk prices continue to fall

We remember the days when buying a gallon of milk was about as much (if not more) than a gallon of gasoline. Shudders, while flashing back to daydreams of filling car up with milk, eating bowl of cereal with crude oil. Thankfully milk prices have fallen, thanks to waning demand for the product. But wait -- you ask -- does no one drink milk anymore with cookies? Eat ice cream? Make pudding? It's not quite that dire...yet.

Demand has fallen for milk because of the limping economy (i.e., people are buying cheaper alternatives), and this in turn has deeply hurt dairy farmers, which are selling their dairy cows in droves to slaughterhouses to make up for the lack of money coming in from unsold milk.

As prices are falling, feed costs remain high, and farmers are getting back only about half of their costs. Obviously, that's not sustainable. As a result, nearly a fifth of America's 9.3 million dairy cows might be turned into steaks and hamburgers this year.

Things I don't want to think about the next time I my quarter-pounder at In 'N Out.

The situation is only projected to get worse:

In 2008, the average price of 100 pounds of milk traded at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange was $17.44. Now the price is just above $10, and most observers think it will go even lower. In December, the price of commodity cheese fell by 40% in just a couple of weeks.

So what's the best fix for the milk melodrama? You guessed it -- a bailout! This, in the form of stronger price supports and government purchases of surplus milk. Think bailout prayers will be answered? [TheBigMoney]

Gas, once again, on the rise

Gas is nearing $2 per gallon -- again.

After the horribly high prices to fill up our Hyundai last summer, I didn't think gas would ever decrease in price again. (Yes, we drive a Hyundai. Thankfully, I had left my SUV back in California.) After all, if people (albeit a smaller amount) were willing to shell out over $4 per gallon, why would gas prices ever drop again? Well, then the whole demand issue came in to play, prices came down, we wiped the stress-induced sweat from our brow and happily drove our Hyundai at half the price.

But gas prices have reversed their downward-to-flat course and are now creeping back up toward $2. It always seems like when you least expect it, you're shelling out $40+ dollars at the pump and lamenting about the "good old days" when gas was only $1.50. Now is an even worse time for these lamentations, what with more people laid off than in recent history and struggling to save what little they can from unemployment.

So will the prices continue to climb? This time of year is generally when oil refineries perform maintenance on their plants, so we should take that into account, as they need to cover their costs, but as gas prices are rising, the price of a barrel of crude oil is sinking -- to the recent tune of about $35/barrel. Why the disparity?
"I think what you're seeing now is a backlash of a period, from the end of the summer until the end of the year, when refiners were selling gas into the consumer market at a discount to crude oil," Ben Brockwell, director of data pricing for OPUS, told CNNMoney.

Brockwell said refineries lost money last year, despite the surge in gas prices. The refineries in the latter half of 2008 were paying top dollar for oil, and then producing gasoline in a low-demand economy, he said. Now, refineries are producing less, driving up prices in even this low-demand economy, while stockpiling discount oil, he said.

The good news is that gas prices probably won't rise to the heights they saw last summer, the bad news is those extra few dollars to funnel into your tank will need to be accounted for in your budget. Here's to cleaner energy.

Compound Interest and the Rule of 72

It's rumored that Albert Einstein once said that "the most powerful force in the universe is compound interest" -- a bold claim, considering most are unaware of the virtues of such a phenomenon. But to truly understand this "8th wonder of the world," or so Einstein called it, you need a basic understanding of what it is, like everything else in finance!

If you're saving, compound interest is literally your best friend. Granted, you may not be able to call it on the phone to grab the occasional lunch with or gossip with it over a manicure about a pair of shoes you saw at Bloomingdale's, but in terms of your money, compound interest really is your new BFF. It's like the Ethel to your Lucy, the Robin to your Batman, the Nicole Ritchie to your Paris Hilton. Okay, enough with the examples (especially that last one).

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, compound interest is defined as "interest computed on the sum of an original principal and accrued interest." Zzzzzzzz (cue crickets chirping in background). "What in God's name does that mean?" you ask -- either that, or you're already nodding off with boredom at your computer, and if the latter is the case -- snap out of it.
Compound interest is a simple and painless way to make tons of cash back on your savings. How? Well, it's simple. Compound interest is money that you gain not only on your initial investment, but also on the interest that's already accumulated on it. If it sounds confusing, here's an example to assuage your "huh?":

Say you have two 22-year-olds . . . let's call them Simon and Garfunkel. Simon makes the most of his 20s and saves and invests $2,000 each year until he's 31, then stops. Lackadaisical Garfunkel, who enjoyed his 20s spending money instead of saving, starts investing $2,000 per year starting at 31 until he's 65. Both have identical rates and both allow interest to grow. Forward-thinking Simon will earn $50,000 more than Garfunkel by the time he's 65, even though Garfunkel will have put $50,000 more into the account over an added 25 years.

You know that saying "a rolling stone gathers no moss?" Well in the case of compounded interest it does, and it's a good thing. Compound interest acts like the moss your savings accumulates throughout the years. Shine on, you crazy diamond!

The two most important factors to remember when daydreaming about compound interest on a sunny afternoon, are:

  • Time -- The younger you start saving, the more time your money will have to grow, or compound. Time really is on your side, or so said the Rolling Stones.
  • Rate of Return -- What kind of rate of return is your investment giving back to you? Historically, the stock market yields about 11% per year, savings accounts give you about 3% per year, and so on. Rate of return is important because with the total amount that your money grows each year, the amount that is added from interest grows along with it. So it comes as no surprise that the higher the return rate, the faster your money grows.
    Unfortunately, finding a good investment with a high rate of return isn't as easy as looking into the underbelly of a Magic 8 ball for the answer. But there is a trick called the The Rule of 72 that you can keep up your cashmere sweater sleeve next time you're determining how good or bad a potential investment will probably be.

If you want to figure out how many years it will take to double your money at a certain interest rate, all you have to do is divide the rate into 72. Say you want to see how many years it will take to double your money with a 6% interest rate -- you'd just divide 6 into 72 and get 12 years time to double your money. Come for cocktails, stay for the deviled eggs, chickadees!

The Rule of 72 also works in reverse. If you want to see what kind of interest rate you'd need for a set amount of years to double your money, you'd take the number of years (let's say 8), divide that number into 72 and poof! You'd need a 9% interest rate to double your money in eight years. The Rule is fabulously simple yet timeless, just like a Chanel suit. As long as the interest rate is less than 20%, it's generally quite accurate.

With compound interest, just remember that the name of the game is to invest young and often (time is a key player here), in an investment with a high rate of return. Picture your money as a snowball you start patting together in your 20s. The older you get, the more snow gets patted onto it that by the time you're ready to retire, the snowball is so big from years and years of fresh snow, that it's more of an igloo than a snowball. And it will be ready for you to call it home!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Suze Orman, financial messiah?

Do you like Suze Orman? She's pleasant enough to watch and soothing to listen to, especially when we're stressed about money and need extra encouragement. You know, those "count to 10 and breath" moments when we glance at our bank account balances and our hearts sputter in our chests. Suze's calm, you-can-do-it prose often centers us again...but is the "bottle-blond former waitress and self-described '55-year-old virgin'" just a farce?

"Why the masses continue to invest their faith in Suze Orman in the wake of a financial meltdown she never saw coming is a more timely question," suggests James Scurlock, columnist for (a favorite site of mine).

According to Scurlock, Suze has no patience for statistics and often sounds off stats that sound good, but have no real basis behind them. These include her love of "dollar cost averaging," (buying the same stock over and over again as it falls), which is a favorite investment method of hers, and that the stock market returns 11% per year ("I have a million dollars in the stock market, because if I lose a million dollars, I don't personally care," she once told the New York Times.)

One fallacy in particular -- that the reason we are in debt is due to our own psychological causes -- infuriates Scurlock, as a myriad of real studies have shown that personal bankruptcies are caused primarily by catastrophic events like divorce, job loss, and, above all he says, medical bills and that most of us are struggling with a gap between our income growth and the soaring cost of necessities like housing.

Who is struggling these days, according to Suze? "
People who grew up without much money and later earn a comfortable living sometimes spend too much to make up for what they didn't get as children. ... People who feel entitled to the good life, or are unconsciously copying a mother or father who lived beyond her or his means. ... If you feel the need to impress people with what you have rather than with who you are, you are at high risk for credit card abuse.
"This from a woman who spends $500,000 a year chartering private jets and who sells 'Cruise With Suze' packages on an Italian luxury liner. (She has also hawked for GM, claiming that leasing a luxury car — you know, the kind that people drive to impress others — is a terrific financial decision," says the article.

Suze, it seems, has been lying to us:
What we're supposed to love about Suze Orman is not her knowledge and certainly not her prescience, but her ability to turn circumstances to her advantage, the resilience of a waitress-turned-bank-vice-president who squandered a great gig only to make a fortune off of you and me by having the courage to be rich. Despite her obvious flaws, we admire Suze so much that millions of us will fork over more of our dwindling dollars for her new [$50] FICO kit because she now assures us that a high FICO score is the key to our financial future. True, her previous book promised us that we would never be a financial victim again. Not only that, but we would receive the life we deserved, which sounds suspiciously like one of those insidious credit card offers, but whatever.
"When was the last time an evangelist predicted anything correctly or the phone psychic told you something that you didn't already know? So what if we cannot retire because Suze has been telling us to buy stocks and trust the fat cats? Suze possesses the courage to be rich. The rest of us are suffering from a collective emotional roadblock," posits the story.

Ouch. There are many bitter truths to Scurlock's argument, especially because of this: What do any of us have to show for the years we've been following Suze? Aside from the fact that she has no real know-how in the finance world, she has created a mega-brand around her name and niche, and has used your disadvantages to her advantage. Suze has made millions of dollars feeding off our insecurities and is laughing all the way to the bank. All of a sudden, we feel violated. [TheBigMoney]

What the stimulus bill means for you

Not a day goes by now without some talk about the "stimulus bill" being discussed by very important people in some very important chamber deep in a crevice of the Capitol building. But with so much news on the plan, the details can become muddy and confusing and before we know it we're completely lost and ready to top off our glass of Pinot Noir and take the dog for another walk before we kneel at the doorstep of, take a deep breath, and start all over in trying to understand it all.

Of course, the most vital info you need to know about the stimulus bill can be boiled down to just five itty-bitty words: How does it affect me? Simple question, but traversing through all the mucky language can be harrowing. Luckily, that's why you read moi, right? ;)

I've found a fabulous article by the New York Times that does the best job I've seen of simplifying the legislation and informing you of how the stimlulus affects, Most importantly in regards to:

Income Tax: In 2009 and 2010, there is a tax credit of up to $400 for individuals and $800 for married couples filing their taxes jointly. You calculate your credit, subtracted from other federal taxes you owe, by taking 6.2 percent of your earned income.

Your eligibility for this credit begins to phase out if you’re an individual with an adjusted gross income over $75,000 or a couple with income higher than $150,000.

Unemployment: Normally, you pay federal income taxes on federal unemployment benefits. In 2009, however, you won’t have to pay taxes on the first $2,400 in benefits you receive.

Health Insurance: If you get fired, your company is required, thanks to a law known as Cobra, to allow you to pay to keep your health insurance, generally for up to 18 months.

The problem is, it can cost you $1,000 a month or more to keep the coverage.

Now, the federal government will subsidize 65 percent of the premium for up to nine months. To be eligible, you need to have been forced out of your job between Sept. 1, 2008, and Dec. 31, 2009. Also, your income in the year you receive the subsidy cannot be more than $125,000 for individuals or $250,000 for married couples filing their taxes jointly.

If you lost your job after Sept. 1, 2008, and declined Cobra coverage, you’ll now get another chance. Call your former company in the next two months to find out how this will work.

Social Security: In 2009 a number of retirees and disabled people, including Social Security recipients, will receive a $250 refundable tax credit. The money would arrive within 120 days of the bill’s signing.

First-Time Home Buyer Credit: First-time home buyers are eligible for a refundable tax credit equal to 10 percent of the purchase price of their home, up to $8,000, if they made the purchase after Jan. 1, 2009, but before Dec. 1, 2009. (This gem is for singles who make under $75,000, or a married couples who make under $150,000).

Don't forget the language isn't final, but the above is the gist of it all. Ah, I love the sound of money in my pocket (thank you U.S. government!). [NY Times via CNBC]

Friday, February 13, 2009

The token Valentine's Day post

Valentine’s Day is my favorite holiday of the year, narrowly beating Thanksgiving. I know, I know: “Brunnie, how can you love V-Day? It’s a Hallmark holiday driven completely by consumerism!” Whatever. It’s so trendy to hate Valentine’s Day that I have to retort: “Be original!” Yes, you should tell people you love them every day of the year, but Valentine’s Day not only reminds you to love those around you (wow, I sound like Delilah), it also sets the perfect stage, what with red and pink paper mache hearts hung in every store window and your tummy full of conversation hearts...cinnamon hearts...sour gummy hearts. Four words: Get in my belly.

Love it or hate it, Feb. 14th is a fact of life. You don’t need to buy into it and drop money on flowers, candy or cards if you don’t want to (although Love just had a bouquet of flowers and balloon delivered to my office, which made my day!), but your 1-800-Flowers purchase may be just what the economy needs.

According to the Washington Post, the National Retail Federation's spending survey found that Americans plan to put up a total of $15 billion in the name of Cupid this year, or $103 per person. Granted, that's $20 less than last year, but it's still a far cry from macaroni-necklace territory, the paper says.

But if you’d rather take your left eye out with the nearest ballpoint then spend a lot of money on anything even remotely related to Pink Paper Heart Day, here are some of my favorite low-key, budget friendly ideas from MSNBC:

Stay in and relax. Valentine’s Day conveniently falls on a Saturday this year — and that means you could put your heads together and dream up the most ideal day at home ever. This Thursday or Friday, you could stock up on your favorite foods and drinks and rent movies that you both want to see. Tidy up the house ahead of time so you’ll be able to resist the urge to wipe down countertops and fold laundry all day long. If you have children, make baby-sitting arrangements for at least part of the day if at all possible.

Dinner doesn’t have to cost a bundle. There’s really no need to drop $90 to $250 on a romantic dinner at a restaurant. In fact, with some advance planning, you could have a fabulous candlelit dinner at home — and, heck, you could even get all dressed up for it! Again, be sure you have every single food item on hand before Saturday. You don’t want to be bothered with having to run out to the store to pick up lemons or onions.

Get all gussied up for a low-budget night out. If the two of you really want to hit the town on Saturday night, you could simply have coffee or a drink and dessert at a dark, romantic bistro or an expensive cafe or restaurant. At any time of the year, this avoid-the-entrée trick is a surefire way to savor the atmosphere — and your date — without busting your budget.

Write your feelings down. With the help of a package of inexpensive Valentines from the drugstore or grocery store — or, for that matter, any kind of paper — you could write out dozens of reasons why you love your mate. Leave the messages all over the house, in both noticeable and hidden-away places. This is another one of those gifts that could keep on giving for several weeks, if not months, down the road. [MSNBC]

And if you’re feeling the love but single, the International Falls Daily Journal has some fabulous ways to show someone you care:

  • Donate some time at a retirement home. Plan some type of entertainment for the residents, center on love.
  • Invite someone on your block over, someone who really can’t afford anything right now. This will give them the chance to forget about their problems — at least for a day.
  • Shovel a neighbor’s sidewalk. If you have some feeble neighbors, or ones that work all the time or care for children and really don’t have the time to shovel, do this good deed. Offer rides to those who need them — to the grocery store, the pharmacy, or the clinic. Help carry things. It will be remembered.
  • Help someone find a job. If you have a depressed friend, sit with them and help them with a job search. Sometimes it can be overwhelming to look for a job because it’s so easy to become discouraged. [Internationational Falls Daily Journal]

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Spend, don't save!

You know what's ironic? All those people who lived outside of their means for the better part of the last couple decades (you know, buying homes and other luxuries they couldn't afford but were so easily attainable with "magic" cards and loans) are only now learning the virtue of hunkering down and saving . . . but only because they've been backed into a corner. Had they lived day-to-day somewhat modestly (no need to live off ramen, here), then the recent dizzying debt spiral wouldn't have unwound so rapidly in all of a few mere months. But that's not what's ironic.

What's ironic is that to fix this problem, those people are going to have to stick to what they're best at: spending. Or so says The New York Times:
Enough already with the saving that many of you have suddenly begun doing. This very moment, Congress and President Obama are preparing to send you a tax rebate, to inspire you to stimulate the economy. So go out and stimulate. Spend as if the future of your country depended on it.
Come again? The idea is that now of all times is not the time to save. It may be okay for you as an individual, but it is ruinous for our collective economy. If there ever was a time to spend, then that time is now.

Essentially, this phenomenon is called the "paradox of thrift," created by 20th-century economist John Maynard Keynes, and suggests that when a person does what they believe is "rational" (i.e., saving money) during hard times, it could be ruinous for an entire economy. Eventually, many of the savers may end up out of work because everyone else is saving, too.

Although spending is highly condoned, there's a fine line between blowing your entire paycheck at DSW and spending some of it on fancy footwear. The key is to know how to spend money now to save money later — a phenomenon that could lift the economy today and help individuals cope with their battered finances in the long run, says the NYT, who (like moi) thinks people do not do a good job of planning for the future.
[People] eat just one more doughnut and put off exercising until tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. They fail to set aside enough for retirement. Again and again, they choose a bird in the hand — be it dessert, convenience or a little extra cash — over three or four in the bush. Most people could save themselves a good bit of money by giving proper respect to their future self. They could spend a little now and save a lot later.
[New York Times]

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Forget the "minimum charge on card" myth

As Led Zeppelin once said, “The song remains the same,” and it should be added that the tune usually plays out like this: It’s a hot day and our throat is parched. We have no cash on us (when do we ever?), but duck into the nearest 7/11 anyway for sustenance. Even though we feel somewhat ridiculous for using our trusty Visa to pay for a $2 bottle of water, we stop mid-slide when we realize the stained sticky note posted under our poised hand. The note reads “Minimum card purchase: $6.” We frantically scramble around, grabbing at caloric candy bars to add to the sole reason we came in the first place, for our coveted bottle of water. Thanks to a minimum charge (or special fee), we get to leave feeling refreshed but ripped-off…and a little peeved at the entire situation.

Guess what? Technically stores can’t add fees, surcharges or require a minimum on your card purchases. If only I had known this a decade ago. Adding fees and other charges to a credit card purchase is in violation of credit card issuer practices, according to American Express, MasterCard and Visa merchant agreements.

While some storeowners break these rules to make money or cover their merchant fees with your ignorance, many owners probably aren’t even aware that it’s in violation of their contracts. Taking into consideration that merchant fees are about $2 of every $100 spent on credit cards, it’s no wonder that many storeowners are scrambling to recoup fees — but it’s still no excuse.

"To clarify Visa's rules, merchants are not permitted to charge cardholders an additional fee for using a Visa card,” a Visa spokesperson tells

An American Express rep tells the site that its merchants pay for the service of accepting American Express from their customers, and that "if a customer suspects he or she has been treated unethically, they should contact us.” If, like me, you’re a part of the Visa family, Visa says that "if cardholders have any questions about Visa's rules, they should call the number on the back of their card or visit our Web site for more information."

Bottom line, if you feel you’ve been unfairly swindled with a fee, surcharge, or minimum charge requirement, report the violation to your credit card company. If I choose to spend $2 on a bottle of water (hey, I was dying of thirst!), then I should have to pay no more than $2, Visa card or not.

For much more information, and a fabulous little table defining credit card practice that are and are not allowed, swing on over to

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

More women choosing babies over careers

Since the late '60s, women have overwhelmingly refused to accept the same fate as their '40s and '50s mothers, suckling babies and cleaning house for their 9-to-5 husbands. And what happens when they do assume the June Cleaver role? We automatically think of Terms of Endearment, when Debra Winger is having lunch with those corporate power women in Manhattan who treat her "non-career" of raising her children as a disease worse than the cancer she's been diagnosed with. Sad, but personified the sentiment of many women in the '80s.

The point to that scene, besides making us tear up for poor Debra Winger in her shabby, threadbare cardigan, was that "successful," progressive women wanted careers of their own, so they delayed having babies until they felt they had wrung all they wanted out of the proverbial employment towel. Well that all may be changing, the Wall Street Journal reports, as new data from the National Center for Health Statistics has found that the average age at which women have their first babies is falling.
"Mothers' mean age at their first childbirth fell to 25 years in 2006, the most recent figures available, from 25.2 in 2005. Women ages 20 to 24 led the shift, with a 5% increase in the rate of first births."
There are a bevy of factors as to why the age is beginning to decline for the first time, but overwhelmingly experts see a shift in attitudes. "More young women today just assume they'll have both a career and a family, and on their own timetable," one source told the WSJ. "Young women feel less compelled to spend a decade proving themselves on the job before kids." People, the feminist movement happened to give women the freedom of choice, that is, the choice to have kids, a career, and/or both. Not to choose one in lieu of the other, therefore stigmatizing you by your decision.

Historically, the paper says, recessions have reduced family size, but their impact on the age at which women start families is less clear. What we do know, within the last three years at least, is there may be a correlation with the country's current economic woes and the move toward younger child-bearing. That and we won't have to witness anymore heartbreaking Debra Winger scenes. [Wall Street Journal]

And now, a word from the economy

Investors have waited with baited breath the last few days to hear of what will become of the bank bailout plan. A go? No go? Give us something, government! All eyes were on Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner this morning, when he took the podium and delivered the highly anticipated bailout details.....aaaaaand the stock market plunged. Watching the indexes alternate between tiny rises and lower drops as Geithner spoke was like watching a heart monitor tied to an ailing pulse. Just. beat. harder. It turns out there is no quick fix or bandaid, and the fact that the process -- like most processes, actually -- won't be fast and easy dented the market today. If you missed Geithner's press conference, or started spacing out on his pointy, elf-like ears about three minutes into the speech, here's a quick runup of his solutions:

• The creation of a "bad bank": A joint Treasury and Federal Reserve program, insured by the FDIC and financed by private investors, that will buy up cruddy mortgage-related assets from banks.

• Expanding the Federal Reserve's existing $200 billion program to between $500 billion and $1 trillion in order to unfreeze the credit market. I smell higher taxes!

• Using the remaining $350 billion from the Troubled Asset Relief Program to inject ailing banks with capital, which, while it seemed like a bad idea on the first go-round, has become necessary since the banking system is basically insolvent.

• A $50 billion initiative aimed at stemming home foreclosures, the details of which will be announced later in the week. [Reuters via Daily Intel]

All of a sudden my "crazy" idea of moving to Italy and selling flowers out of a cart doesn't seem so crazy after all, hmm??

To buy or not to buy is the question

If you any of you read my interview on FiLife last week, it's no secret that I'm simply salacious about real estate. It's up there on my shelf of "favorite things," along with shoes, fondue and Mad Men. One of the reasons why I can't wait till Love graduates law school next year -- aside from us moving back to California -- is that we can start saving to invest in said real estate. I want to own apartment complexes, office spaces, downtown buildings in San Francisco. I want to be Donald Trump (minus the horrible hairdo and gold-plated cufflinks), and even coming close would make me happy. This insatiable appetite for real estate is what keeps me addicted to HGTV -- especially shows like House Hunters and My House is Worth What? -- and what fuels my late-night searchfests on Zip Realty, bowl of sugar-free chocolate pudding in hand.

It appears that MarketWatch, as much as they share my love of real estate, seems torn on the issue of whether to buy in or not. They've written two lengthy articles: one trumpeting the merits to buy and the other explaining why not to. The dichotomy proved to be an interesting case analysis.

Reasons for buying a house:
  • Affordability is better than ever
  • You have a large inventory to choose from
  • Builders are offering big discounts
  • Mortgage rates are historically low
  • You can get a federal tax credit

Reasons against buying a house:

  • Prices are still dropping
  • This sale will be on for a while
  • You may not stay put
  • Your job could be the next to go
  • Your cash reserves will be eaten up
Within the personal finance blogosphere, there seems to be two camps of people: Those who are on Team Home and those who aren't. As much of a pessissimist as I make myself out to be, I'm still pro-real estate -- bad market be damned! Do you agree or disagree? More importantly, are you, too, addicted to HGTV? Don't lie!

Another 15 bite the dust?

One of the most fascinating things about 2009 -- aside from the fact that I'm hitting the ripe age of 27 in April, and thereby officially old -- is how many retailers will go belly up in the rising economic tide. Perhaps it's the Machiavelli in me. There's obviously saturation in every retail niche, some more than others, and the current malaise seems to be just the concoction needed to vet out the superfluous. Who knew how unnecessary Linens 'N Things was in the face of many a Bed Bath & Beyond? Or a Target, for that matter? Even with the undeniable allure of office supplies and our addiction to Post-Its and personalized paper clips, even Office Max couldn't stay afloat, what with a Staples seemingly on every corner.

So which companies will fail to survive what's started out to be a difficult 2009? U.S. News placed their bets on 15 firms they don't see living past another year. Among them? Sbarro, Six Flags, Blockbuster and Claire's Accessories. Claires?! The mecca of uber-affordable jewelry? Now where will we duck shamefully into in every mall, our heads low among the throngs of teeny-boppers, while we fish for giant cocktail rings we'll eventually tell our friends we bought at expensive places like Bloomingdales? One more lie, squashed. Thanks economy.

Another possible casualty they predict? Krispy Kreme Donuts. "The donuts might be good, but Krispy Kreme overestimated Americans' appetite - and that's saying something." [U.S. News]

Friday, February 6, 2009

I've been interviewed!

I'm very excited to announce that interviewed me this week and posted the Q&A on their website last night. I know I don't divulge much personal information about myself on my blog, but hopefully you can get to know me more through my interview and learn why I started my website and what I hope to accomplish with it.

I have to say that I really appreciate having a loyal base of readers -- you're what keeps me writing! :) To read my interview, click here!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The top 10 ways to save on groceries

I was on recently looking for easy, after-work recipes (love this website, if you're a foodie, definitely bookmark it!), and I came across a fabulous list of ways to save at the grocery store. I am in no way an accomplished chef or even come close to one (I once accidentally lit a bag of microwaveable popcorn on fire -- in the microwave), so when I perused the items on the list, some seemed like a far cry from what I normally do in the kitchen. Roast my own deli meat? Who am I, Martha Stewart? Definitely not, but after I got past the Betty Crocker stereotype of some of these tips, they actually aren't that hard or time-consuming, and best of all, they're very creative ways to save you money!

1. Pick and Choose Which Organics You Buy. Save on the items where buying organic doesn’t give you as much benefit, like onions and avocados. These crops retain the least pesticide residue (peaches and apples are the worst, according to the Environmental Working Group), so if you buy organic for that reason, you can feel OK about purchasing some conventional produce.

2. Skip the Deli Counter. It’s not very hard to roast your own turkey or beef for sandwiches, and you’ll enjoy substantial savings. Even precut turkey tenders are about $4 cheaper per pound if you roast and slice them yourself versus the $8.99-per-pound roasted turkey at the deli. Plus you can season it exactly how you like. If you’re not very well versed in roasting meat, invest in a cheap meat thermometer and you’ll feel a lot more confident.

3. Make Your Own Granola. Even in bulk, granola and cereal are expensive (Chow found them in the $3- to $8-per-pound range). Put a few cups of plain rolled oats on a baking sheet; toast them in the oven for about 20 minutes (stirring once); toss them with about a quarter cup of honey, some vanilla, a little bit of brown sugar, and a tablespoon of vegetable oil; then put them back in the oven for another 15 to 20 minutes, and you’ll have a base to which you can add whatever dried fruit and nuts you want, like this recipe for peanut butter and coconut granola.

4. Buy Spices in Small Amounts. Spices are often used in very small amounts, so don’t waste money on the big jars at the grocery store. Instead, see if you can find what you need at ethnic markets, where Chow has found the spices packed in little plastic envelopes to be considerably cheaper. If you have a store in your area that offers bulk spices, buy only as much as you need. (I blogged on this phenomenon a few months ago here.)

5. Don’t Pay a Premium for Health Fads. Pomegranate juice is a darling of superfoods enthusiasts, bartenders, and chefs, but it carries a hefty price tag. Christie Matheson, co-author of Wine Mondays: Simple Wine Pairings with Seasonal Menus, suggests using less expensive cranberry juice (look for the highest percentage of juice), which has the same “tart, tangy flavor, lends a pretty scarlet hue to cocktails, and comes loaded with antioxidants.” It’s about $3 to $6 cheaper per quart.

6. Find Sparkling Alternatives. Real Champagne is expensive. If you want to drink some bubbles, Matheson suggests popping open a cheaper bottle of Spanish cava. It’s “made according to the same traditional method, and can be just as dry and delicious.”

7. Make Mock Maple Syrup. When things were tight growing up, this writer's mom would simmer brown sugar with water and whatever spices were on hand (say, a vanilla pod that might otherwise be tossed after scraping) to make syrup for pancakes and waffles. It’s good, and it keeps you away from the nasty commercial substitutes out there if you can’t afford to buy the real stuff.

8. Create Snacks from Scratch. Prepared foods like pesto and hummus cost $4 to $6 for a tiny package, but they’re easy to make. For hummus, put a can of garbanzo beans in the blender with some lemon juice, garlic, salt, a dash of olive oil, and, if you have it, a dollop of tahini, then purée. You can throw in whatever else you like at this point: herbs you might need to use up, olives, roasted peppers, etc. Likewise with pesto: Skip the $6 package and buy a bunch of basil, then put the leaves in the blender with olive oil, garlic, salt, and a handful of nuts (pine nuts are traditional, but you won’t miss them if you use less expensive almonds or walnuts).

9. Use Substitutions for Fancy Ingredients. Crème fraîche is a sour cream–like ingredient common in recipes like Chow's Savory Onion and Leek Tart and Winter Greens Lasagne, but it can cost nearly $10 per pound, and might be hard to find. readers suggest using sour cream instead, or you can make this simple version suggested by Matheson: “Sanitize a small nonreactive bowl in your dishwasher or boiling water, combine 1 1/2 teaspoons of buttermilk with 1/2 cup of heavy cream, cover the bowl, and let it sit at room temp for 24 hours. Stir it and use it, or keep it covered in the fridge for up to a week.”

10. Chop Your Own Greens. Bagged salad mixes are a terrible value. Instead, buy a fresh head of lettuce, and when you unpack your groceries spend an extra five minutes washing, drying, and chopping it up, then store it in a bag in the refrigerator. It’ll be just as convenient, fresher, and cheaper. []

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Gimme a (tax) break

Continuing in the tax vein, there are specific steps that 20-somethings (especially recent college grads) can take to shelter portions of their income from being taxed, and inevitably save more money! In order to start saving anything, though, you'll need to remember to file your taxes! I honestly can't believe how many 20-somethings I know who feel they can't be bothered to file because they'll only get back a small amount (say $100 or $200). Either that, or they rely on their parents to do their taxes for them -- no joke!

To all the guys out there, if there's one way you can turn a girl off (aside from being unemployed or lacking personal hygiene), it's telling her that your parents do your taxes for you. If you're even reading this blog -- guys or girls -- I assume that you've decided to take some stock in your financial life, which means doing things, such as taxes and the like, yourself and not relying on Mommy and Daddy. (Contrary to popular belief, 21+ should never be the new 16.)

With that out of the way (phew!), do not, I repeat, do NOT use a Form 1040EZ when filing your taxes because doing so prohibits you from taking advantage of the super-tax-payer-saving ways I'll mention in a second. Instead, use the standard 1040 form. I assume that it's a trade-off as to whether you want to fill out a no-muss-no-fuss form (the 1040EZ), or whether you want to get into the more nitty-gritty and wring some cash from your filing form (the standard 1040). Since the EZ is just so......easy.....most tend to file using the former, which is fine if you know you don't qualify for deductions.

Here are some clutch ways to save yourself some greenbacks when filling out your 1040:
  • If you're making less than you thought you would after graduation, don't fret! You're automatically eligible for a saver's credit, as long as you're lining any retirement plan you've chosen (401(k), IRA, etc.) with monthly contributions. The catch is you have to make less than $26,000 per year (not horrible, considering the cost of living differs from region to region), but you can save an upward of $1,000 in money that might have otherwise gone to paying taxes. Consider it the government's reward for savers who are thinking ahead.
  • Did you know that your moving expenses (renting a U-Haul, gas for the trip, buying packing boxes, etc.) can be tax-deductible if your job out of college is 50+ miles away from your old address?
  • The idea of paying off those student loans could give anyone an ulcer, but remember this: you can now claim up to $2,500 of interest on student loans in the form of tax deductions, even if you're parents are paying off your loan interest. Apparently, the government deems any payments from a parent toward their kids' student loan a "gift," which is great news for both parties!
Just remember, you can't garner these savings unless you 1.) file your taxes , and 2.) use the standard form 1040.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A "kinder, gentler" IRS?

Call it a reflection of the times, but the New York Daily News is reporting that the IRS has promised to go easy on the nation this year in relation to filing taxes. Seems like a first, but we like firsts -- especially during the recession. The words "IRS" and "kind" have never been synonymous. The stereotype of the hard-as-nails, unmerciful IRS agent exists for a reason, after all.

It turns out the IRS actually does have a heart, and understands what the majority of U.S. citizens are going through, what with so many layoffs and foreclosures budding on a daily basis. No they aren't forgoing collection of taxes this year (wouldn't that be grand?); instead, they'll be more flexible with tax collection to help easy the fiscal burden that's cloaked the shoulders of so many of us.

The only catch is that you have to ask for help if you need it. Though the IRS may have gone the way of the Tin Man, it doesn't mean it's also gone the way of the all-knowing Oz. Struggling to pay your monthly bills and need a filing extension? Just lost your job and have no savings to pay taxes? Ask and you (probably) shall receive help.

The Mail reports that among the changes this year:
  • IRS employees will have greater authority to suspend collection actions — such as tapping your bank account — in certain hardship cases.
  • If you already agreed to an installment plan with agency and have been paying on time but now face trouble, the IRS might allow you to skip a payment or pay a reduced monthly amount without voiding the agreement.
  • If you thought you weren’t eligible for a so-called offer in compromise — in which a taxpayer and the IRS agree to settle a tax debt for less than the full amount — you may be now. In the past, if you had enough equity in your home to cover your tax debts, you may have been turned down. But given the downdraft in real estate, the IRS is willing to take a second look.
The IRS' website ( has an excellent list they call the "What Ifs of an Economic Downturn." On the list are many common hypothetical questions posted to the bureau, and their answers to each. Questions include: What if I lost my job? What if my income declined? What if I sell my home for a loss? What if I can't pay my taxes? Scary questions, but the IRS is anticipating them being asked and have answers for all of them. It's an excellent resource to tap in to if you're freaking out about tax season and feel fiscally pinned against a wall.

If these "What Ifs" don't answer your questions though, also has a phone number you can call for help (1-800-829-1040) and a list of tax assistance offices that you can visit in person.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Learn the lingo: Tax-deductible

This next ditty goes out to my sister, Sophia, who's been reminding me that she'd like if I wrote on anything tax-related, since she's in the dark about much of it. Without further ado ...


A tax-deductible item, or tax deduction, off your income is when an expense is lopped off your adjusted gross income (also known as your total income) to reduce the amount of your income that is subject to tax. Huh? Basically, having a tax-deduction on your overall income basically allows you to shelter a part or parts of your salary from being taxed in total by the government. Sadly, it's not as easy as simply setting some unreported money aside, with the vague hope that the government won't notice (there's a term for that -- it's called tax evasion!). The IRS has a list of expenses, along with specific rules surrounding each one, that are legally considered tax-free. These expenses include (among others):
  • A home mortgage.
  • Apartment rent, if you make under a certain amount.
  • Business expenses, including all expenses it might take to start your own business, travel and meals. Technically, these expenses can't exceed your total business income.
  • Charitable contributions. If you save the receipts, this can even include all your old junk you donate to Goodwill!
  • Any expenses paid in the removal of building barriers to the elderly and disabled.
  • Union dues.
  • Medical expenses that exceed a certain percent of your total income.
  • Any work-related apparel. This can include uniforms, or necessary items such as safety goggles, safety helmets or heavy-duty gloves or shoes.
  • In some situations, moving expenses can be tax-deductible.
Finding ways to ensure that portions of your income are tax-deductible is a fabulous way to save more money that would have otherwise gone to Uncle Sam, because it lowers your total taxable income. Say you make $28,000 per year, and you pay $1,000 in rent every month. Last I checked, the cutoff point for rent being tax-deductible was if you made $30,000 or less, so you would essentially shelter $12,000 worth of rent per year from being taxed, which means more money for you in the long run!
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