“Financially Comfortable” v. “Paycheck to Paycheck”

Please don’t criticize my TV habits – I watch the first 20 minutes of The View. What can I say, I love Whoopi.  Well, today I watched the whole episode, and the last guest was some financial guru whose purpose was to put a positive spin on the economy. She put up a pie chart with the following statistics:

3% are wealthy
27% are financially comfortable
54% live paycheck to paycheck
16% are getting further in debt

But…how do you distinguish between the middle two categories? I wouldn’t classify myself as either.

Paycheck-to-Paycheck:  I think agreement on this classification is fairly easy to attain. I would define this as anyone who couldn’t skip more than two paychecks without sinking further into debt. They’re probably debt-slaves as it is, or maybe their expenses are high because they have a lot of kids, an expensive medical condition, or just graduated college. That’s definitely not me.

Financially Comfortable:  To me, this means that you have a sizeable portfolio, you own a reasonably successful business or you’ve got a very stable job, and you either own your home outright or have a very manageable mortgage. You could go out and buy a new car without needing a loan. You could afford to take a year off from work to pursue a dream and not return mired in debt. If you’re half of a couple, you could live well enough if either of you stopped working. I don’t qualify…well, maybe a little bit (could take a year off from life, as long as it was spent somewhere cheap like Thailand), but not in any other way. By my standards, I don’t qualify.

Clearly my interpretation sets the bar a bit high? Perhaps it’s as simple as:

  • No need for a mental debate over purchases under $100?
  • If your computer breaks, you don’t need to finance a replacement?
  • Your emergency fund = at least 3 paychecks?

Where would YOU set the bar? What criteria would you consider indicative, or at least minimal?

Pick an Excedrin, Any Excedrin

I get migraines that are mild for a migraine (no blindness or flashing lights), but still qualify as pretty bad for a headache. Ten years ago, I tried a few prescription drugs for them, but nothing really did the trick. When I moved back to the US, I made a new best friend:  Excedrin.

excedrin-es-mThey keep coming up with more and more sub-categories of their product, which I find obnoxious – because most of them are exactly the same product. I hate when companies indulge in dumbass marketing techniques and jockey for more shelf space. In any case, I picked up their “new” Menstrual formula express gel tabs at Walgreens this morning in my sweep of the drug stores, and surprise surprise – exactly the same active incredients as Extra Strength Excedrin. And Excedrin Migraine. The formula for Tension Headache is actually different, with 500mg acetaminophen instead of the 50-50 aspirin acetaminophen split in the other two. All have the same amount of caffeine, which is the ingredient that makes all the difference for me. I know, caffeine is a migraine trigger for some people, and then there’s the possibility that the headache is really from caffeine withdrawal — but that wasn’t the case for me. In fact, if a headache ever descends when I don’t have Excedrin on me, I’ll take whatever pain reliever I can get my hands on with a coffee chaser.

I mention all this because sometimes one type goes on sale, but not the type perfectly labelled for your particular headache. It truly doesn’t matter…well, the “PM” versions are different, but that’s about it. There is one thing different about the Menstrual formula label:  while Extra Strength, Migraine and Tension Headache describe caffeine’s function as a “pain reliever aid”, Menstrual describes it as a “diuretic”. Whoopdeedoo. Thanks for the pink box – it clashes with my red Migraine one and makes my green Extra Strength look all 80s-preppie.

Apartment, Day 4: Settled

I’m getting an 18-month lease for a $25/month rent raise – I’m the one who requested 18 months. I’d like to put off the next negotiation as long as possible, and I’m banking on having a whole new, more profitable skill set up and running within 12 months so that not only will I be able to handle whatever the economy throws at me – I might even be able to upgrade to a larger unit…if I want. Honestly, I love my alcove studio. It’s L-shaped, with the little part of the L perfect for a queen-size bed, and a windowsill for a bedside table.

Now here’s hoping for a decent night’s sleep. And maybe the $6.29 tube of Garnier Nutrisse face scrub I couponed down to 50 cents at CVS tonight will help with the stress-acne.

Apartment Search, Day 3: So NOT done

The universe is conspiring to keep me right where I am.

Even though I told my guarantor that they’d want things like tax returns and credit reports, she just now declined to allow a credit report to be run on her because she’s in the midst of negotiating a re-fi to a lower rate. An inquiry on her credit report might jeopardize that. I have no one else in a position to do this – it’s such an uncomfortably enormous favor to ask of anyone. She said she could forward a copy of the credit report that the bank ran on her 2 months ago, but that’s it. Know what? I think that’s more than fair. So I whipped off an email to the blackberry-equipped real estate agent…2 hours…no reply. I’m guessing she needs to speak to the landlord, but it was too late (emailed at 8:30pm) to call. I’m not terribly hopeful, but that leads me to…

An awful lot of people whose opinions I respect are telling me to stay put – my financial adviser, my guarantor, the veteran real estate agent I met with yesterday, etc. My aunt-the-guarantor made the exact argument that’s been going through my own head: the difference in rent is the equivalent of 4 massages, and is that really worth giving up a “Big Picture” perfect situation (location, quality of building, first impression on clients, etc) for minimal short-term savings. Well — no, it isn’t.

So I emailed my lease manager guy: “Any chance the owners would reconsider, and keep me?” He replied immediately (at 10:30pm!) – yes, would I like a 1-year extension. I asked for 18 months…we’ll see. The awkward thing is, neither of us quoted a dollar amount. I figured “reconsider” implied my offer to stay at the same rent, but I’m not sure it was understood that way. I’ll see what documents show up in the mail.

Sadly, this exercise has cost me $200 as the “non-refundable processing fee” for me and the guarantor. However, they didn’t order the credit reports yet (the reason for the fee), so I’m thinking I may be able to get it – or maybe half of it? – back.  I’ll bribe the agent with free massage services; she had expressed an interest, so it might fly.

Know what pushed me over the edge? One of the questionable massage parlors that advertises on craigslist is two doors down from the new apartment – you know, one of those ads with legitimate wording but a picture of a barely legal Asian girl in a skimpy camisole. How could I not be confused with that establishment, when we would both be advertising the exact same location? I don’t want to fight an uphill battle with men thinking I’m selling some form of sex. It took me years to perfect my ability to weed them out before they even thought about dialing my digits, and I will end up causing grievous bodily harm if subjected to that sort of insanity again.

Apartment Search, Day 3: Done??

I went to see an apartment in my target neighborhood this afternoon, and it’s the closest I’m going to get to my wishlist. I should know by Saturday if I get the place.

On the up side:

  • It’s a 1-bedroom!!! — excellent separation of church and state
  • It’s $1800/month!!! — savings of $300
  • It’s got an elevator — so being on the 4th floor is fine
  • It’s around the corner from the best pizza in the neighborhood
  • It’s within a 3-minute walk of more subway lines than I can count
  • Only a super to tip at Christmas (= savings of over $600!)

On the down side:

  • No laundry on premises (but added expense of sending it out is only a few $ more than I’m paying now)
  • Individually metered electricity — will cancel out savings from Christmas tipping
  • Above lots of restaurants…rodents likely an issue at street level after midnight
  • Entrance is poorly marked — might be able to do something about that?
  • Landlady will probably grill me about whether or not I’m a hooker (past issue with a trannie)

Then there’s one thing I can’t figure out if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. Let’s go with good…it’s not available until April 15 at the soonest. The current tenants don’t move out until April 4, then they need to spruce it up. In other words, I once again have the option to take some rent-free time off to travel. I told the agent that April 20 would be even better…that would give me 3 weeks in Africa or Thailand or wherever. The thing is, with my drastically reduced income so far this year, I’m naturally hesitant. Well, it will ultimately be up to my landlord, whether he lets me stay beyond the 31st or not. Pretty sure he will – the market heats up in Spring, so those few weeks will definitely benefit him.

So here’s hoping the search and the pity party are over. THANKS to you all for the abundance of blogo-love in response to yesterday’s post. And to answer a few of your comments… Finding a job, hah, there aren’t any to find and they pay a pittance while offering no benefits. Moving somewhere cheaper? I can’t bear the idea of starting somewhere new with absolutely no existing client base in this economy.

Welcome to my pity party

There just doesn’t seem to be any joy in being an adult these days – the only silver lining is that I have no one but myself to worry about. I’d love to just throw in the towel for a little while, but that’s not really how it works, is it.

I woke up at 6:45 this morning, unable to shut my brain up. While that waking hour may be normal for a lot of people, my sleeping “schedule” is 1-9am because of my work. Hah, my work. I haven’t done any this week. All I can do is think about how insane it is to sign a lease for ~$1800 and feel like it’s a freaking bargain. And everything I’ve seen so far says the $300 savings is not worth the sacrifice in space. I mean, do you now how hard it is to lose 50 square feet when you’re only in 500 square feet to begin with?? You start thinking “who needs a bed, I can sleep on the couch”. Fine if you’re 20, but I’m way too close to 40 for this not to seem weird, even to me. And even though I’ve slept alone for the past 9 years, I’m not ready to give up all hope that that might change at some point in the next few. In other words, I’m getting all the downside and none of the upside to this whole grown-up thing.

And I miss working. My brain needs it almost as much as my wallet. I’ve considered dropping my rates, but they’re already at the low end of average/normal – any lower and I’ll be in the range where men think I’ve left room in the pricing to offer “extras”. Being treated like a prostitute more often than not would probably make me homicidal. Oh wait, problem solved – as a convicted criminal, I’d be fed, housed and clothed for free!

Apartment Search: Day 1

All four of the people I emailed about apartments last night got back to me today. I saw the first one at 10am – a quirky 1BR in a well-maintained building in Hell’s Kitchen, $1850/month and willing to lock that for 2 years. Unfortunately it was too far west for my business needs…though really, I’m beginning to wonder if I’m even still in business. Let’s not go there. I absolutely love 100-year-old tenement buildings – the architecture and “renovations” bring back my few good memories of living in Edinburgh for 8 years. There are no right angles, the doors have been moved half a dozen times, there are bits of wall in weird places…I love imagining it’s original layout and function. I’d have had a LOT to work with in this place. And it does have quite an excellent “room” for massage. But I must keep reminding myself that it’s one avenue too far, one avenue too far. Still, that didn’t stop me from checking the basement for signs of rodents. It was pristine. The entrance and common areas weren’t great, but they weren’t awful either. I really wish I had someone to come along with me for a second opinion. Remember, I like weird buildings but I need to know if it’s too extreme.

At 11:30am, I saw studio apartment for $1750/month in the PERFECT location…but it was on the small side, the kitchen was one wall of the apartment (and I’m not sure if there’s enough room to put a breakfast bar as a divider), the hallway was nasty linoleum and crumbling windows, and there were signs of weirdo neighbors – they all “stored” stuff on their doormats which were very, very telling. Like the person across the hall probably had a dozen cats, eww. But if I had to make a decision today, this would be it.

At 3:45pm, I had my first bait-and-switch experience with an a wannabe actor – I mean, real estate agent. An apartment that looked just like the one I’m in now, exactly where I pictured moving, maybe a little bigger, for $1795 somehow got rented in the 3 hours between making the appointment and the appointment. Bull. He started to take me to a great building on 9th Avenue and I stopped him – why torture myself and waste both our time. So we went to see 6 apartments in a rabbit hutch on 58th & 6th. That’s the best way to describe floor upon floor of 400 sq ft apartments, some with a partial wall to make it a “junior 1BR” (for which you pay a $200 premium), some without.  I actually kind of liked one, but…rabbit hutch. And 58th Street is one block below the bottom edge of Central Park, which means my catchment area to the north is truncated.

So tomorrow morning at 9:30, I’m meeting with yet another real estate agent, this time at his office. I don’t like that idea, there’s usually pressure to sign some kind of exclusive agreement and that ain’t happening. I was very specific about the area I intend to move within, and his office is actually 4 blocks down the avenue from me. And since he knows what property I was initially interested in, he can extrapolate my price range. Even if it all turns out to be a waste of time, heck, it got me up and moving….mm, which could just mean that the day seems really long if I get no business.

Speaking of which…it should be interesting if I see a surge the rest of the week. When the Dow drops, I swear you can see tumbleweeds blowing through my soon-to-be-abandoned apartment. When the market perks up like it did today, I manage to earn a crust or two in the ensuing short-lived euphoria. I still think my location is ideal for being a work-at-home massage therapist, but with everyone’s psychological state (because it’s the uncertainty and foreboding that’s killing us, not the lightness of our wallets as yet), I’m not sure I’m getting any more business than I would if I set up shop in the middle of the Hudson River. It’s really not fun trying to think medium-term when the outlook for the short-term is fairly dire.

Walgreens: Playing the demographics

I was just about ready to give up on Walgreens deals because they never restock their shelves – most likely not out of laziness but for lack of storage space. Seriously, the only sale item they replace from time to time is toothpaste. I’ve been avoiding their Times Square location because, well, those of us who live here go out of our way to avoid the swarms of tourists. However…I had a thought: tourists just want drinks, snacks and maybe a forgotten toiletry item. They’ll probably be well-stocked with everything else, so off I toddled…

Sure enough, the line at the cashier consisted of a dozen tourists buying Coke, Hersheys and razors. However, there were no weekly circulars, no Easy Saver booklets, and no sale tags on the shelves. I wasn’t sure if they’d accept coupons at all, theirs or manufacturer’s. I grabbed a box of Sambucol (free with a printable coupon and their Easy Saver coupon) and a couple of chocolate bars (circular coupon), and gave it a shot. Woohoo, walked out of there with $15.05 of stuff for $1.05. It was like, buy the candy get the cold/flu meds for free. Works for me – I ate the Butterfingers and will be donating the box of homeopathic cold tablets. I’m tempted to ask the manager if the weekly sales prices apply even if they’re not marked, but that might be pushing my luck. As it was, my cashier was one of those dead-behind-the-eyes types, which suited me – it meant she didn’t much care that my coupons made the Sambucol free, which tends to make all NYC cashiers suspicious. Heh, we’re so used to overpaying that it freaks us out when we underpay. Well, at first anyway. Clearly I’ve gotten used to it 🙂

Girding my loins for the apartment hunt

I wish real estate agents didn’t exist, my their sake as well as mine. Everyone resents their slice of the pie, no one trusts them (with good cause), and most of their job is made fairly redundant thanks to technology. So here I sit, about to start making enquiries, and I find myself needing a list of dealbreakers/must-haves:

To be determined before viewing:

  • In a very specific street/avenue area
  • Laundry room in building
  • If a walk-up, no higher than the 2nd floor
  • Under $2000/month and absolutely NO AGENCY FEE

To be determined at viewing:

  • Reasonably clean and attractive entry
  • 1BR, alcove studio, or weirdly-shaped so I can distinctly separate sleep and massage areas
  • Must be work-from-home friendly

Desirable features:

  • Separate kitchen
  • Doorman or camera intercom
  • Utilities included in the rent (easier for budgeting)

I have an appointment tomorrow morning to see this place (link will only be good for a few days), which looks cool in an updated-retro tenement kind of way. The drawbacks: not sure how weird the entrance into the apartment will feel (it’s in the kitchen) businesswise, and there’s no bathtub (I’m a huge fan of baths, but I’ve lived without for years at a time). It’s been on the market for at least a month that I’m aware of, so I’m wondering what the problem is…because you know there has to be one.

I’m also checking to see if this apartment is still available – perfect location, just not sure if the layout will be conducive to my needs.

My credit score: the Equifax update

After getting a blah report from TransUnion and a score that wasn’t actually my FICO, I dropped a line to my mom, who got a free score/report from her bank a few months ago to check for any fraud/identity theft because their systems had been compromised. She told me Equifax = FICO, so off I went…

MUCH BETTER. My score is 805, earning me top creditworthiness, for whatever that is actually worth these days.  So here are the areas that Equifax claims I did not earn top points on:

The amount owed on my revolving/charge accounts is too high
Bullsh*t. I’m using 6% of my available credit and it’s been that way for years.

There is a lack of recent non-mortgage installment loan information being reported on your credit file
Well, I live in Manhattan and don’t need or want a car – that’s the most obvious. I paid off my undergrad loan in 2001, 2 years early. I didn’t need loans for grad school – paid tuition in full out of savings. And any other material goods I’ve bought without needing to finance.  So does this mean I’d have a better score if I got a huge plasma/LCD TV I couldn’t afford and financed it over two years?

The proportion of balances to credit limits on my revolving/charge accounts is too high
I repeat: using just 6% of my limits. WTF.

So really, they only have one legitimate-yet-ludicrous area to deduct points. The other two are just wrong…but at least FICO has given me an A (even though I deserve an A+).