Boring Birthday Present

My youngest sister (not the one who’s getting married), “Starfish” **, is turning 29 in a few days, and I just can’t bring myself to buy her crap she doesn’t really need and will probably lose within a month. She has also recently felt her first real motivation to get a real career, and is planning to take pre-requisites for an Associates degree in nursing (following in Engaged Sister’s footsteps) at the local community college. So I’m planning to give her Anatomy & Physiology I for her birthday/Christmas present. It seems kind of lame, but I just can’t bear the thought of giving her a purple iPod that she wants just because it’s purple.

I’ll be giving it to her in the form of a handmade “gift certificate”, because she’s not even enrolled yet. And if she changes her mind and doesn’t enroll, I’ll know by Christmas and can rethink gift-giving then. Now if only I could think of a way to make the presentation more entertaining, bearing in mind that she lives 1733 miles away and her birthday is Saturday.

I’d like to come up with more ideas like this for the rest of my family for Christmas. I’m just not in the mood for conspicuous consumption, but I still want to show them some Santa love.

** She earned the nickname Starfish by regrowing parts that have been surgically removed. To be specific, a mole on her chin, and then 3 cup sizes worth of breast ($8K for reduction surgery, wasted).

More Dumb $ Luck: The Platinum Edition

My sister’s boyfriend asked her to marry him on August 11th. Although she said yes immediately, she has since been frustratingly indecisive about everything else – including the frikkin’ engagement ring. The boyfriend-now-fiance very thoughtfully did not buy her a ring so she could pick out her own and gave her a guideline of $10K, but she’s not really into bling – lucky him!

In fact, not only is he lucky to be marrying someone who doesn’t want to max out her rock-and-metal budget, he’s lucky to be marrying Little Miss Indecisive. She checked things out two months ago to figure out the basics, like what settings and cuts she liked…and then threw up her hands and ignored it until this weekend. So she went back to the helpful jewelry store, and this is when Dumb Luck struck —

The price of platinum has HALVED in the last couple of months. It currently costs about the same as gold, which is down about 30% since then. This means that the price of the setting is also halved. HOW COOL IS THAT – By dithering for 10 weeks, they scored a 4-figure savings!!!

But wait, there’s more! The saleswoman asked when she wanted the ring by, and my sister requested mid-November, so that she’d have it by the time she flew home to NY/NJ for a shopping visit. Apparently there’s only one wedding dress store within a 2-hour driving radius of where she lives in Colorado, and it’s all pricey designer stuff. Anyway, the awesome salesgenius suggested that they deliver the ring to me in NYC and enjoy the option of avoiding state sales tax. That’s another $700 saved!!! But then my sister frowned…she wanted her fiance to put it on her finger and be the first to see her wear it. No problem, said Awesome Salesgenius, there’s no rule against letting her “take it for a test drive” for a few days before mailing it.

It sure is nice when good things happen to good people. It doesn’t happen often enough, and she’s been through it…I’ll save up that tale of bats, fire, a greencard-seeking kiwi, homegrown weed and a Hefner for another day. And it’s legitimately about personal finance!

eBay: Not Just for Unwanted Stuff

Let me start off by saying I’m not an eBay seller, but I do aspire to it. Perhaps what I’m about to describe is common knowledge for most of you out there, but I consider it a shortlist of things that work well as a sideline – at least, they do for the folks I personally know who are doing it.

Are You Crafty?
Do you like making Christmas ornaments, personalized artsy pillowcases, organic scented soaps? Set up an eBay storefront with a selection of your work.

Love Flea Markets & Yard Sales?
Figure out what sells for $2 at a flea market but $10+ on eBay. I know a Brit who does this with antique silver spoons, and a man(!) who hunts the markets for a selection of things he knows will sell well online. It helps if you’re already a fan or collector of something that you know a lot about, but it’s not necessary.

Prefer Something Home/Computer-based?
Provide eBay selling services to your friends, family, community. If you’re pretty familiar with how to optimize an eBay listing or like the idea of figuring it out, there are a LOT of people who are too intimidated by the posting/pricing/photographing/customer service/type-of-auction/mailing process to bother for just a few things they want to get rid of. You’re the logistics gal/guy, you only accept things that will sell for more than $XX, and you take a commission.

The Best Use of $20
Buy a domain name and some business cards from VistaPrint for a barebones professional image. If it works out for you, you can always upgrade and add on. And if it stumbles at the starting gate, hey, you’ve wasted $20 on dumber stuff than a prospective moneymaker, right?

Feeding My Need to Do a Good Deed

A few years ago, I read that poorly-written book Rich Dad Poor Dad, and took away one useful bit of advice that went something along the lines of getting your investments/expenses to pay for themselves. Well, in the past 6 months, I’ve developed a minor addition to charitable giving. In fact, the whole reason I started blogging was to sort out my thoughts and feelings about this (different blog, see sidebar).

You see, I have a problem giving away my hard-earned money, especially when my income is so variable and not “hedged” by a partnership (i.e. marriage). In September, I came up with an idea to support this new habit: offer my professional massage services 1-2x a week during off-peak hours at a huge discount, and send 100% of the donation to charities of my choice. This is money I would not other wise make at times of the day when I almost never have business. During my personal economic slowdown this past week, I put together a website/blog to defray any worries about what the heck I’m offering (it’s Thai massage, and some folks think that’s a euphemism for sex!).  I advertise the deal on craigslist, and we all know what a sleazy place that can be. Thus a little web presence is necessary, especially if I’m going to appeal to any women – who, sad to say, are in greater need of massage than most men thanks to heavy tote bags, cute shoes and breasts. No joke.

So I donate my time, plus I match tips over the minimum donation. I’ve been doing this for about 7 weeks and have raised $485, of which $70 came out of my pocket for tip-matching. It’s been such a great mood-lifter during these uncertain times.

The Price of Financial Laziness: $3340

No, this is not a post about the stock market. This is about my old checking account with the Royal Bank of Scotland from back when I lived there. I refuse to close it because it was surprisingly hard to qualify for one – not because I was foreign, but because you need to have a permanent job, and the Scots only ever liked me on a temporary basis. For 8 years. I did a “back door” arrangement with my ex-husband (no, not THAT back door!!!), whereby we opened an extra joint account just before we split up and then took each other’s name off one. What can I say, it was an extremely amicable split and we planned it months in advance because neither of us could bear to waste our already-purchased tickets to the US for Christmas.

But I digress (something I do way too often, I know). About 6 years ago, I cashed in some Premium Bonds because I had no way of depositing my winnings. That was super-difficult to do remotely because the US government classifies them as a lottery, and it’s a federal crime to discuss anything but cashing them in through the US Postal Service. For those who don’t know what Premium Bonds are, you buy the bonds at face value and they never lose that value. The interest is pooled and then given out as prizes from 50 pounds to 1 million pounds every month. I always made at least what I would have in interest. Anyway, I had a few thousand worth, and the nice man at the Premium Bonds office kindly deposited them directly into my checking account. And there the money has sat ever since, earning 20 pence interest a month.

My attempts to register for online banking failed because the material they sent through the mail always time-expired before I got it. Then the rules for registering changed and I just needed a current ATM card, which I accidentally cut up and threw away thinking it was my expired one. Three years ago. During those three years, I watched the Pound Sterling shoot up against the dollar, and I got a little excited. But not too excited to wait for my new ATM card to arrive after the old, cut-up one expired. Alas, they didn’t automatically send me one because I hadn’t used any ATM card in over 5 years.

I put off calling them to replace it until last night, and was told to call the branch this morning. With the 5-hour time difference, I had to do this before noon, which is usually 3 hours before I even think of dealing with these things (hence the many years that have passed). I ordered the new card and moved 85% of my balance to a savings account – something I should have done 6 years ago, SHAME ON ME.

The true cost of my laziness is astonishing, people. Here’s what it cost me…

  • 6 years of interest on 3600 pounds…let’s say a modest 3%, and for simplicity’s sake, I’ll round up rather than calculate compounding…minus 25% tax automatically withheld that would be extremely difficult to reclaim even if I still lived in the UK…holy sh*t, batman, that’s 500 POUNDS!!! My heart is breaking here.
  • Not moving the money to the US 6-12 months ago when I really wanted to because the exchange rate was 2-to-1…and is now 1.60 to 1…that’s 20% less hard currency. So my 3600 quid is worth $5760 instead of $7200. That’s $1440 I missed out on. Oh, just twist that knife
  • And then there’s my landline phone, which I’ve had for 5 years. I decided 3 years ago that it wasn’t worth keeping just for calling my cell phone when I misplaced it, and would cancel it as soon as I sorted out my British money. That’s $25 x 36 months = $900.

The total cost of my laziness – and that’s what it is, sheer laziness – is a whopping $3340. By the way, that’s the first time I’ve actually performed this forensic exercise, and I’m feeling ill. That’s what my entire trip to Africa will cost next year, and I could have had it in the bank. It’s small compensation to know that I’ve staunched the bleeding and will be saving $25/month after I cancel my landline next month, and grossing $10/month interest in another country.

Squirreling away my $50 bills

My least favorite thing about the Christmas season is that I spend more on tips to my building staff than I do on my mom and 3 sibs. That’s just so…wrong.

Christmas tipping is a dilemma that every New Yorker has to deal with, and everyone has a different theory about how to handle it. All buildings have a super, many have doormen, and quite a few have a repertoire of service staff. My building has 1 super, 4 concierges, 3 doormen, 4 maintenance staff, and 4 porters. Some people tip periodically throughout the year for things like dry-cleaning/package receiving, transport of groceries, etc. and less at Christmas. Some don’t tip at all (full-time doormen make $70K a year on average, before tips!). And a lot of folks lie when asked how much they give, and you never know what their agenda is – are they saying less than they really give so that you’ll tip less and get worse service? are they claiming more so they don’t reveal their cheapness?

For the first few years, I gave the doormen, concierges and super $50 and the others $20. Last year I increased that to either $60 or $70 (damn, can’t remember) and $30. If doing the math makes your head hurt, that adds up to roughly $750. As hideous as that sounds, it often feels like a very tiny thank-you for keeping me safe, which is a priority for someone like me who works alone from home, dealing with naked strangers every day. Five years, no incidents, and I’m sure my vigilant building staff and lobby security cameras play a significant role in that.

With Christmas just 2 months away, I’m starting to stash any clean, crisp $50 bills I get paid with. I need 8, and right now I’ve got 4 that pass muster. It helps me sort of pre-pay for this aspect of my holiday expenses so that I don’t feel the full pain of a $750 hemorrhage all at once.

Feel free to share any of your quirky strategies for easing the pain of holiday spending!

Watching CNN with a Dirty Mind

I caught a few minutes of the congressional hearings on the economic crisis this morning, specifically the part with Alan Greenspan. What a pointless (and at times, rude) witch hunt – what are the hoping to do, find someone to blame and sue them for $1 trillion?? I wanted to hear Dr. Greenspan draw attention to this particular waste of time by saying something snarky like “at the time, my judgment was seriously impaired by my hormones. I was spending every morning fantasizing about what I was going to do to my paramour, Barbara Walters, at lunchtime”. Then I changed the channel to watch The View. I flipped back and forth to better picture them as a couple. I’m obviously focusing on really important things this morning.