Experiment: Travelling without my MasterCard

Earlier this week, I took a short trip to visit a friend near Orlando and decided that, since it was only 3 days and I’d be staying at her place, it would be a good opportunity to see how it felt leaving my credit card behind. I’ve done many trips without using my credit card – heck, if I’m out of the country, I go out of my way not to use it. But it was always in my pocket feeling a bit like a financial security blanket.

However, I decided that with all of this so-called credit card reform, this could soon turn into a rather expensive security blanket. So I packed 50% more cash than I thought I’d need and headed for the airport. I had a short connection through Charlotte, and didn’t mind that my ongoing flight was delayed an hour. I needed to recover from the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced – it lasted 30-40 mins and my seat neighbor and I struck up a conversation (wow, a pro-choice Texan!) to distract ourselves: her from fear of dying, me from fear of hurling. I had my clammy head against the seat in front of me, barf bag open, convinced I was about to do something that would humble my image of myself as a savvy world traveller. Heck, I even told her about the sideline I won’t tell you all about. I was the last, very green-around-the-gills person off the plane.

Long story short, my onward flight was cancelled due to weather after a string of 30-minute postponements. Not really surprising, but airlines don’t comp hotel rooms when it’s weather-related (fair enough, really – I have no problem with this policy). Oh dear. Suddenly that extra 50% was required to pay for a $69 room that magically, through the power of tourist taxes and “booking fees”, cost $90.  Next morning, the breakfast room was abuzz with the news that we had been grounded because of a tornado – which hit the area less than 10 minutes after we touched down. I refused at that point to feel ticked off that my 2.5-day visit with my friend was cut to 1.5 days.

Now, when I boarded the first flight, I was one of the last 15 people on the plane and my carry-on wheelie had been taken from me on the ramp and checked. Guess what? No access to luggage. Great, no cell/laptop chargers, fresh undies, toothbrush. The phone was a huge concern, too. When I emailed my friend about what my new arrangements are, she made a BRILLIANT suggestion – ask at hotel reception to poke around the lost-and-found box and see if there was one for my phone to borrow. Well, the housekeeper tracked one down that was about to hit the give-away bin and now I have an extra phone charger. Yay!

When I arrived in Orlando, which wasn’t the original destination airport, despite assurances that my bag would be routed there, it instead ended up at the other airport. I didn’t trust them to deliver the bag that night, so I toddled off to Walmart for the ugliest pair of undies I could find, socks, t-shirt and toothbrush. I got a call from the luggage delivery folks while in Walmart, and decided not to buy the toothbrush but to go ahead with the other things just in case. SMART MOVE. When the bag was delivered, the back part of it had clearly been sitting in a puddle and I had no wearable socks, undies, t-shirts or pyjamas. I ended up borrowing the biggest t-shirt I have ever seen in my life (4XL) to sleep in and figured that $11 for a t-shirt, ugly canary yellow hipsters with blue plaid ribbon bits, and 5pr athletic ankle socks was very tolerable. Still, it made me nervous because I had to drop so much of my cash almost immediately.

It turned out that the gathering at my friend’s house was going to be at the house for all meals while I was there, so I didn’t spend anything else the whole trip. I had plenty of cash in my pocket when I got home. However, I was really nervous the whole time that we’d be doing expensive things and I’d have to bow out because I didn’t have the cash.

What I learned:

  • There are other ways to obtain a free phone charger than shoplifting
  • Fast food bbq pulled pork in Charlotte airport is AWESOME and fairly priced
  • 4XL t-shirts make me feel petite
  • Don’t think for one minute that Walmart is a good choice for sexy lingerie
  • Oh, and bring your damn credit card!

So thanks, US Airways, for getting me there safely. Thanks, Wingate Hotel, for feeding me and supplying me with spare cords. Thanks, friend of friend, for handling my airport transfers and lending me the huge t-shirt. And thanks, friend, for inviting me down and introducing me to a whole lot of cool, smart people.

2010 Tweaks To My Monthly Budget

I just updated my Budget page to reflect assorted changes to my lifestyle over the past few months. Overall, my monthly expenses are down $140, which sadly does not reflect some fairly significant cuts I’ve made.


$90 – I no longer have a cleaning lady. After going through the bedbug nightmare, where I had to wipe down everything in alcohol and pack it up, and then vacuum twice a day for 3 weeks AND sterilize the vacuum’s bagless compartment after each use…well, cleaning up after myself just didn’t seem so daunting. Plus, she was missing a lot of stuff completely. Annual savings: $1170.

$100 – My take-out/restaurant budget has been scaled back from $250 to $150 a month. Bear in mind that I visit my mother once a month and pick up the tab for a meal, which ranges $25-50. Take-out 3x a week instead of almost daily for a weekly savings of $20. And the rest is for odd bits and pieces, like a snack or a can of iced tea on the go. Annual savings: $1200.

$50 – I’ve reduced my monthly grocery budget from $150 to $100. This time last year, I wasn’t into supermarket couponing because supermarkets in Manhattan just suck. But now I go out of my way to stock up in NJ – when I visit my mom, or by taking mass transit across the river for exceptional deals, or by mailing coupons to Dani when she’s able and willing to help me out. Annual savings: $600.

$65 – Utilities are down. When my cable/phone/internet bill leaped up from $134 to $148 for no reason I could discern, I called up and asked about shutting down my landline. It turns out that most of the nonsense fees, charges, taxes, etc. are associated with the telephone, so what I thought would be a savings of about $30 turned out to be $65. Shame on me for not doing this sooner. Annual savings:  $780.

Gross Annual Savings:  $3750


$100 for Advertising – In June 2009, Craigslist started charging $5 per post to place an ad on the Therapeutic Services page. I’m still incredibly pissed, because it puts a once-daily ad out of the reach of people like me. Spas have multiple treatment rooms and slave labor (well, the ones that advertise on Craigslist), and prostitutes are obviously getting more moulah per client than I am. Sadly, that’s the case for most paid advertising options. I am hoping to cut back on my paid postings and redirect the funds to other advertising venues, but I’m not sure how feasible that will be. Annual expense: $1200.

$40 for Weight Watchers – This monthly expense replaces my $600/year gym membership that I just wasn’t using. Plus, I’ve been through the ups and downs of weight loss often enough to know that for girls, it’s WAY more about food than exercise. Weight Watchers is about dealing with food, so here we go. Annual expense: $480.

Gross New Annual Expenses:  $1680

Thanks, 2am Infomercial (sort of)

Last night I was up until 2:30am hunting down my health insurance card for my doctor’s appointment this morning. I left the TV on in the background, which means I subjected myself to theta/beta-wave influence of The Late Nght Infomercial. Usually it’s the Magic Bullet blender or that odd-looking young man with a high voice hawking real estate investment secrets, but last night it was someone selling what he claimed to be the first edition of Napoleon Hill’s “The Law of Success”. I don’t mean one of the originals (apparently there were about 100 made), but a book containing the original transcript. No, not the mildly revised edition that came out two years later in 1927! Not even the revised-beyond-recognition version currently in bookstores! This is the REAL “Secret”!!! Ohhh, dear readers, I don’t know how I resisted the lure of Infomercial Man, but I did not call for my copy at the unbelievable price of $49.95.

But it got me thinking….

I’ve had it fixed in my mind since the stock market crashed that my minimum income target to make my bills was $800 a week. And all through this recession, I have hit that target more often than not. When I’ve missed it, it was usually by less than $100. And then there’s be the occasional spurt of wondrous busyness (October!).

However, that $800 figure does not take into account my whole life policy commitment. Silly me, I thought my premium had some flexibility, but it doesn’t. If I don’t pay the full amount, then the cash value gets decreased retroactively (e.g. if I paid $9K the first year and $9K the second year, but only $6K the third year, the value is reduced as if I’d paid $6K for all years and $3K x 2 is essentially flushed down the toilet).

I have no opinion on the Law of Success, the Law of Attraction, The Secret (a la Oprah), the Power of Positive Thinking, or whatever you want the call the concept of thinking about something so much that you make it happen, but hell, I’ll give it a shot. I spent 2009 thinking “Must Make $800 a Week” and it happened. So for 2010, because I’m 5 months behind, it’s got to be….let’s see, 30 weeks until my premium is due… “Must Make $1100 a Week”. And that’s totally skipping my Roth IRA contribution for 2009. Oh, sh*t.

So thank you, Infomercial Man, for reminding me to revisit my budget and my goals. Sort of. It needed to be addressed, but I really don’t like the math 😦

Finally, Weight Watchers has gotten $mart

So I’m way better with my money than I am with my weight. But I’m not here to whine about my having a beached whale body rather than a beach body. I’ve tried quite a number of thing over the years … a few fads, a gimmick, a bunch of books, a few meeting-type deals, self-hypnosis CDs, totally on my own, with a one-on-one dietician, and I’ve lost track what else. My greatest success was doing it on my own, but mentally I was in a pretty good place for 3 years and then I hit the skids about 18 months ago. I can’t do it alone now, but I also can’t afford to experiment the way I have done in the past — and I really can’t afford to mess with my health. So I’ve gone back to the tried-and-true…

Not sure why, but when I don’t have the  – hm, not sure what to call it, strength? motivation? inclination? sticktoitiveness? – to do it on my own, I can still do it with Weight Watchers. I have always found WW to be a very thorough, healthy and at times even clever approach, but I never agreed with their payment system. Historically, you paid per meeting and if you missed a meeting, you had to pay for it anyway. Well, the weekly fee and the registration fee (waived 2-3x a year during promotions) were about the same, so a lot of folks would either postpone their return to make the extra fee “worth it”, or they’d just wait for the next free sign-up deal. Not only was WW missing out on all those fees because of this policy, but their lapsed members were regaining. Talk about a lose-lose scenario, right?

Just before I left for Colorado, I opened one of their many email newsletters, which I’ve been automatically deleting for years. Apparently they now have a monthly membership deal, which works out to be the equivalent of 3 weeks’ dues and allows “unlimited” meeting attendance, and until 10/17, it’s a “BOGO”, as in Buy the first month, Get the second month free. It’s also set up as an automatic payment that needs to be cancelled, so you have to make a conscious decision to quit or just throw away $39.95 every month…so maybe you’ll just keep going even through a plateau or other bad patch because, heck, you’ve already paid for it. Weight Watchers gets more consistency to their bottom line, and we get a decent deal in terms of both value and support. Now that’s a win-win scenario!

I’m not a big fan of throwing money at a “solution” so I’ll feel committed to making the change. Although I have always stuck with the really pricey things I’ve tried (e.g. personal training), the Return on Investment was never satisfactory. At some point I’ll do a whole post about weight loss on a budget, but I want to leave my lady readers with this quick nugget of wisdom: if you’ve got limited funds for weight management, spend it on solving the input (food) side of the equation rather than the output (exercise) side. Eating and eating behavior are 75% of the problem, so hit that first and hit it hard. For the other 25%, just walk more.

Bye bye, landline – Hello, $70!

I’ve actively dithered over it for nearly a year, passively more several more than that, but when I checked my bank balance online yesterday and saw that the monthly price for my cable TV/internet/phone package had not so much crept as JUMPED up by $14 to $148, I got a little pissed and called RCN. Got chatting with a nice customer service lady in Pittsburgh – they’re gearing up for that G20 meeting next week so I shared my tales of snipers and sniffer dogs while she waited for the system to update my changes.

In the ridiculously fiddly “rules” for bundled services, dropping my landline would actually make my price higher – unless I kept my Mach 10 internet service instead of downgrading to the regular Mach 3 one. So by agreeing to that $10 premium, it somehow saved me $60 of the base price because I could retain assorted discounts. I grumbled something about, “yeah, plus all those stupid fees and surcharges and taxes”, so after suggesting that I cross the street and give our president hell for such things (what can I say, she was fun to shoot the breeze with), she mentioned that most of those dumb charges were associated with phone service, so that $68 price would not magically inflate to $90. In other words, not only am I saving over 40% on the base price, but I’m dropping disproportionately more on the taxation part of the bill. That should put my monthly bill between $75 and $80. I really thought I’d at best save $20, so of course I’m kicking myself for not doing this sooner. Ah well, at least it’s done now. I’m looking forward to keeping $70 more of my hard-earned money every month!

Bra-fitting Boutique: Vanity Sizing = Vanity Pricing

One of my mother’s co-workers went to a special bra shop on the Upper Westside and came back raving about how it didn’t even feel like she was wearing one because it was so comfortable. So over the family weekend in Manhattan, my mom dragged me and my sister along with her. We weren’t really into the idea, but when we overheard her in the dressing room saying things like “Wow, this is really comfortable. How many colors does it come in?”, we changed our minds.

Now, when I buy bras, it’s been the same brand and style for the past 10 years. Their official retail price is around $30 each, but there’s always a deal that works out to $15-18 each. That’s what I’m used to, but my mom warned me that the price tags would be around the $60 mark. Hm, okay.

Well, it turns out that for your $50-90 (depending on what they’ve got in your size and preferred style), you get some serious vanity sizing. I’m assuming my female readers know that your band size is the actual measurement around your ribcage plus 4 (rounding up if it’s an odd number). I tried on three or four different brands and they were all very obviously just the ribcage measurement. For a brief moment, I felt skinny! And then there was the cup size. Now THAT was clearly vanity-sized to make small-to-average women feel enormously endowed because there’s just no way…just no way…I mean, we were way too far into the alphabet. My mother knew she was wearing the wrong size – 42B (I’d have pegged her at a 40D) – but to hear her screech, “I’m an F??? As in, What The F….??? Because that’s just ridiculous, I’m not Dolly Parton.” Then she went ahead and bought two, with extenders to ease the initial discomfort.

I bought one bra @ $49. It was my second choice by a slim margin, but my first choice was $89 and I don’t think that slim margin was worth $40. I copied down the style numbers and all that to google when I got home. Sadly, these bras are like fancy cosmetics – same price no matter where you buy them.

So ladies, if you want to feel 2 sizes skinnier and at the same time 2 sizes more buxom, AND you don’t mind paying $65 on average for a new underthing, go for a boutique fitting. I’ll follow up in a few weeks to let you know if I think the purchase was worthwhile…if I add this to my Investment category, you’ll know I was very, very happy with my purchase.

And now I’m a little worried what kind of Google traffic this post might generate…

Revisiting my food budget

In a recent post about my whole life policy budget item, FrugalShoppingIdeas left the following comment which has had me thinking ever since:

The amount you set up for restaurants is sooo high though! There are so many free options these days or discounted. Even at Arby’s, buy a soft drink and you get a free Roastburger. haha Restaurant.com has deals pretty often where you can get a $25 gift card to a restaurant thats listed for only $3.

I don’t really keep track of my spending for this, just because it would be fiddly. I tried for a little while, using some of the online budgeting tools (Wesabe and Buxfer, to be exact – chosen because at the time, they were the only ones that let you input cash income and purchases), but accounts like PayPal and ING Direct were getting screwy so I stopped.

My eating out budget is high because (a) I get a lot of take-out, and (b) those great fast food deals that FrugalShoppingIdeas mentioned are very, very limited in NYC – the chains either don’t have any branches in NYC, or they just don’t participate in promotions. So no free slurpee at 7-11 on 7/11, for example, because there are no 7-11’s in Manhattan. But I take advantage of anything I can — well, except things like yesterday’s free pastry at Starbucks because I really don’t need the calories.

I decided to keep one of the free assignment pads I got a CVS on Sunday for myself, so I can keep track of food spending. When I created that budget back in September, it was really just a guess and a lot of my habits have changed since thanks to both bargain-hunting and health restoration (no, I’m not sick – just fat again, which sucks). Even though I buy groceries and household items for another family, I think I’m spending quite a bit less than I used to. So here’s the influence blogging has had on my food spending…

It turns out those restaurant promos are for real. Whenever I visit my mother, we don’t automatically go to her favorite steakhouse. She’s totally up for a deal, and we have taken advantage of the last two BOGO entree specials at Ruby Tuesday’s (sheer chance that my visits coincided with them). Not only does it save me about $30 on a meal for two, but Ruby Tuesday’s doesn’t offer unlimited free homemade bread like her steakhouse of choice – which my waistline appreciates.

I double-coupon shop by “electricity”.  I look at online circulars for the supermarkets in my mother’s area that double manufacturers’ coupons, then send her coupons and a little list to do along with her own shopping. I’m lucky if I can get 8oz of cheddar for $3 in NYC, but there I can get it for under $1. And I go through a lot of cheese. It’s also how I get free and nearly-free food for donation (tomato sauce, mustard, pasta/rice side dishes, peanut butter, salad dressing, cereal, brownie mix, etc).

Chain restaurant promotions – unless there was a commercial for it (and even then I figured there was a lot of fine print), I never knew about it. I now think of them as “treats for free” – a meal from KFC, McDonald’s Free Mocha Mondays, ColdStone Creamery birthday club, Starbuck’s volunteer pledge coffee. I also sign up for their online clubs – no need to ever pay full-price at KFC again.

CVS ExtraBucks system = free milk, free eggs, free iced tea whenever I want it, meaning I don’t wait for deals and just use up some of those “bucks”. Besides, drug stores in NYC have the best day-to-day prices on milk and eggs anyway, go figure. Also, there are times when it’s worth burning a few “bucks” to pick up the slack on cereal, crackers, spices, mayonnaise, coffee, nuts/cookies/snacks, tuna, gum deals.

I never say no to doggie bags and leftovers. I don’t actually do this for financial reasons – I do it because I hate cooking and don’t have a lot of variation in my home-made repertoire. It adds variety, costs nothing, and tastes better than anything I can concoct. Hm, maybe I’ll encourage my mom to make her artichoke and cheddar quiche for us when I visit this weekend, and then make off with a big chunk when she’s not looking. I’m her kid, that’s what we’re supposed to do, right? I mean, just because I’m too close to 40 for my own comfort doesn’t alter my birthright to pillage the contents of my parents’ fridge.

Anyway, I’m not going to let recording my food spending alter my spending habits – I might if I think they’re ridiculous though, but for now, I’m just going to figure out the reality.

Weekly-Patterned Thinking

I spent a few hours yesterday with my massage therapist friend, Bluejay, teaching her the CVS system and dropping in on her friend’s barbecue in a riverside park. Of course we touched briefly on our personal economics, and she mentioned how much she needs to earn each week to scrape by. Interesting, she thinks in terms of weekly too. Most people I know are paid either every two weeks or twice a month, though we tend to think of our larger expenses (rent/mortgage, utilities, credit card bills, insurance, etc) in monthly terms. She and I are both paid on the spot when we work, but daily is a fairly ridiculous way to think of finances.

When I lived and worked in Scotland, Spain and Japan, I was always paid monthly. I didn’t like it because I always had this niggling fear that the company would disappear the day before payday and I’d end up with nothing for the previous 4 weeks’ work and no recourse. And yet, it made really good sense from a budget perspective and, I suspect, made people more aware of sticking to a budget because a payday-to-payday lifestyle involved a rather long stretch of time. Aye, those Scots are a canny bunch (sorry, slipped into my other dialect for a wee moment – doh, did it again!).

I chose weekly because it’s easier to keep my finger on the pulse of my immediate finances. At any moment, I can answer how much I’ve made so far this week, what I made last week and for several weeks before that. To. The. Dollar. Some might think that’s obsessive, others might think freakish. The truth of the matter is that in boom times, it’s a constant reminder of how I can afford my travel addiction and in lean times, it’s a reminder to keep an eye on the pennies as well as the dollars. That’s a slight exaggeration, but you get my drift.

While I no longer get super-stressed about a dire week of business, I’m still trying to find a way to feel comfortable about earmarking any amount for discretionary spending. Not that I’m a shopaholic (unless you include my shop-for-free hobby), but there are things I semi-need that I’ve been putting off. So for those of you who are self-employed or have a sideline or for any other reason earn inconsistently, how do you approach your income needs and goals?

This Weekend in MMK’s Money

I don’t really do that whole “balanced life” thing, where I go out and be social on a regular basis, unless once a quarter counts. Still, a girl’s gotta make some kind of plans no matter how lame or else she risks festering on her couch trying to set a new personal best on how long she can get away without leaving her toasty apartment (current record: 70 hours).

$140 (possibly + tip): Sunday’s visit with the Rolfer
$20-25:  Total spent on my half of the dinner ingredients and other donations to the teen shelter.
$10:  CVSing…would be closer to $0 except I sent $10 of my ECBs to my mother to do last week’s trip for me, but the coupons and ECB didn’t get to her before her departure for Colorado. Dratt. At least I got a $5-off-$30 email, and can hit up a decent CVS for the cost of just one extra subway ride if I’m not too nauseous after the Rolfing appointment.

– No massage appointments booked yet, but that’s pretty normal. I’ve had a good week so far.
– Posting on Craigslist to sublet my apartment over President’s weekend @ $130/night.

– Make bank deposit
– Pay revolting rent
– Transfer final $1K of 2008’s Roth IRA allowance
– Mail donation to Thai Freedom House

Facing an Unemployment Hearing?

With so many people losing their jobs and dealing with our unemployment system for the first time in their lives, I thought some might find this useful…

I spent about a year unemployed from 2002-2003. I couldn’t even get a secretarial job at a 25% paycut (from an already low salary) despite 10 years’ experience and wayyyy too much education. Temp work was incredibly thin on the ground. I wasn’t too worried at first because I knew I could live perfectly well on unemployment benefits and had 39 weeks to find something. I got $405 a week and my rent was $500/month, my COBRA was $320/month, my MetroCard and utilities were another $100/month…and I had no debt.

The BackStory
Three months into my jobless stint, I finally got a trial-basis job offer doing something fairly lame in publishing. At the end of the first week, the boss said she wanted to extend my trial period by a week. Fine, no problem. Along comes payday at the end of those two weeks, and they sprung some nasty financial suprises on me: I’d be paid on a 1099 (self-employed/contract basis), and I’d continue on this basis for an indefinite period of time, sometimes not even full-time. In other words, a very cheap temp. I asked for $2/hr more than we’d originally agreed on to cover the extra Social Security, etc. that I’d have to pay on the 1099 arrangement, and got laughed at. Not prone to rash decisions, I waited until Monday to quit. She bullied me into two weeks’ notice, and then I left. I figured if nothing else, it helped extend my unemployment benefits by 4 weeks.

The Problem
You don’t qualify for unemployment benefits if you quit. However, I felt I’d been duped into a job that was worth far less than promised – no health insurance because I wasn’t an employee, I paid all payroll taxes, I had no guarantee of hours, and it paid an unbelievably crappy $15/hr, but really $11-12/hr because of all the stuff I had to pay for that my employer should have.

The Hearing
Unemployment administration court was really just a small office with a conference table and a judge. I didn’t have a lawyer, and neither did my boss and her boss. She asked me questions, I asked her questions. She claimed to have no recollection of me asking her daily about handing over my W-2 (she was avoiding telling me I wasn’t a real employee), but was otherwise pretty honest.

The Verdict
Bad Employer – Shame On You, Pay Up. Because they had unilaterally changed the terms and conditions of my employment (that’s verbatim), I was under no obligation to remain in the position and therefore retained my unemployment benefits – for which they were now responsible.

The Result
I had gone nearly 3 months without any income or unemployment benefits. Within two weeks of the hearing, I got 11 weeks worth of benefit checks…$4455.

The Lessons Learned

1)  Get a written contract for any job, no matter how reputable the company is. Thank god these folks rather obviously didn’t consult a lawyer and weren’t very bright, because all they had to do was lie and say “we never offered her benefits or implied there was an actual job on offer”, and I might not have won.

2)  Having no debt and a lifelong habit of living below my means meant that I could make it just fine on 2 weeks’ severance from a $40K/year job and then $405 a week for 10 months with health insurance and without incurring any consumer debt. And during that time I spent a week in Brazil, a long weekend in San Francisco & Las Vegas, and a week in Germany. Also, in the 3 months preceeding my getting the sack, I spent a week in Aspen (off-season) and a 5-day weekend in Paris.