Archive for December, 2008

I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas long weekend! Me? I’m already looking forward to New Year’s!

There’s something about the holidays (all that generosity and goodwill towards men?) that makes me want to splurge on loved ones and – I admit it – myself.

So I was a good consumer this weekend, even I only bought a pair of pants and a pair of tights from The GAP (both of which I can pretty much honestly say I needed). Every store was screaming deals Deals DEALS!, so much so that I think I’ve come down with a case of deals fatigue.

But what I lacked in purchasing stuff I more than made up by splurging on experience: a facial! The day after Christmas, I bypassed the malls and headed to a dermatologist’s office, where I underwent my first facial. There was warm steam and scrubs and treatment creams. The technician used some type of invigorating mask with “oxygen plasma” in the ingredients list.

So indulgent, but it’s a gift to myself.

Even though I’ve been spending more than usual this month, I can put $500+ from my last paycheck of the year and meet my stretch goal. I’m also expecting a bonus from work. So that makes me feel better about spending more money here and there. Less guilt = more spending.

Even the recession can’t provide much deterrent. To be honest, I’m also feeling the recession fatigue – yes, it’s all going downhill faster than you can say “global economic crisis”, but I can’t control that.

So instead of wondering about my portfolio, I threw on a cheery coat, got a facial, and then had tapas with one of my oldest girlfriends. We spent 3 hours talking, laughing and commiserating – my Sex and the City day, I call it. ūüėČ And the best part is that I know, 20 Christmases from now, we’ll still be a couple of girls women delighting in good food and great company.

What was/will be your holiday indulgence this year? Do you feel more inclined to spend on yourself during the holidays?


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I already took care of my big present to Mom & Dad, but there are a bunch of smaller things / stocking stuffers that I realized I need to get for an unexpected family get-together.

So I headed to Marshall’s. I was given $100 in gift cards to review it’s holiday offerings. Marshall’s, like other discounters, usually have different selection of goods at different locations, and the inventory can change rapidly. I visited 3-4 different Marshalls within a 60 mile radius (can’t say I don’t do my diligence!).

I looked for Christmas cards, tights, boots, a white elephant gift for the office holiday party, and some sweaters to tide me through the winter chill.

The Goods
The shoe department was very well-organized by the shoe style, then by size. There is also a clearance rack where shoes are discounted even more than they already were. I saw some gorgeous Nine West pumps discounted to $19.99. There is a good selection of boots from Cole Haan, Guess, Nine West, etc., although the size availability can be hit or miss depending. Overall, I was really impressed with the concept of Shoe¬†MegaShop. Marshall’s will be one of the first place I go to buy quality shoes at a reasonable price.

The clothing section are organized by the designer or by style of clothing. It gets a little tiring searching through SO much stuff, but if you are patient, you could be rewarded by a $30 BCBG dress that retails for $220, a $50 Calvin Klein sheath that retails for $200, and a $25 sweater that’d cost $50 at a department store. Patience is key. The clearance racks are organized by size.

In some stores, there are the fragrance counters and skincare aisles. Lots of great ideas for stocking stuffers (body scrubs, hand washes, lip gloss, etc.). I also love the stationary / desk organizer aisles. Crane cards for $5? Yes please! I stocked up on some last-minute Christmas cards. A couple of the Marshall’s I visted also had the CUBE,¬†a separate¬†section of the store that has more trendy items. (They have a contest for $2,500 in shopping… and I entered. Crossing my fingers…).

The Service
You won’t find the service at Marshall’s that you’d get a high-end department store, but if I wanted the high-end experience, I wouldn’t have gone to Marshall’s in the first place. My experience at the check out counter and with the store clerks walking around the floor has been fine – the service was professional, if a bit rushed (but it’s right before Christmas – can’t blame ’em!) and the clerks were knowledgeable about the layout of the store.

The results
I got three bags of cookies and several body scrubs, a Kors by Michael Kors sweater for my aunt, a pair of Nine West suede pumps for myself, a box of Christmas cards, and a pair of Cole Haan tall boots for a cousin who is obsessed with Cole Haan, which retails for over $400. I also snagged three scented pillar candles and some decorative napkins Рwill make that into a last-minute gift basket as a hostess gift. I spent around $170, or $70 out of pocket, but now, my Christmas shopping is done!

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On a sunny weekend morning, as the whole day stretched out in front of us like a long embrace, CB turned to me and asked, “would you be poor with me?”

If I was feeling romantic and dreamy, I might’ve answered, “yes, because I love you,” and then added a caveat about “but you won’t be poor.” But all this personal finance must’ve seeped into my subconcious, or maybe half-asleep I am more honest and less tactful than I might’ve been awake, because I managed to look straight into his beautiful big eyes and said, “I don’t want to be poor with anyone.”

I thought about that less-than-romantic (but very-honest exchange) after I read posts by Madame X and Meg on the topic of the “accidental woman breadwinner.”

Reading this article made me realize that I don’t want to be an “accidental” breadwinner in my relationship, just as I don’t want to become an “accidental” stay-at-home wife or mom. “Accidental” implies a lack of choice, a lack of introspection, a lack of conscious decision. “Accidental” spells “resentment down the road” to me.

In marriage vows people promise to stay together “for better or worse, for richer or poorer.” I believe in those vows very strongly, but I also don’t subscribe to the theory that “all you need is love.” I’ve seen the tension that bad finances bring to even the strongest of marriages. I’ve seen it with my parents. I’ve seen it with several of my mom’s friends. And what I saw scared me.

Maybe that’s why I’ve always envisioned that both my future husband and I will work, even after we have kids (one, maybe two). One of us may take a part-time schedule for a year while the kids are young, but I don’t see either of us taking a longer hiatus from our careers. A satisfying career is important to me, and I’d imagine, to my future husband as well. Maintaining financial autonomy is important to me. Being able to care for my family if anyone should happen to my spouse is important to me.

The topic of whether to have a stay-at-home parent is a sensitive one – I don’t think there’s one solution for all families. It’s a personal decision. My thoughts to this subject is influenced by my mother, who has always worked. In fact, she left me in the care of grandparents for FOUR years when I was young to work overseas. I did not see her (or my dad) from the age of 5 to 9. And I turned out okay. Given my experience, I think I can probably manage any guilt I will have as a working mother.

So, no, I don’t want to be poor. Not by myself and not with anyone else. No one knows what tomorrow brings, but I hope that by making smart financial decisions and by marrying a partner who shares my priorities (and whom I love and respect, of course – divorce is a huge money drain!), I will improve the odds of having a “richer” life instead of a poorer one.

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Buy what you love

Ever since I’ve adopted “Buy what I love” as my shopping mantra, I’ve become a much pickier shopper.

Exhibit A: This month, I visited FOUR different Banana Republics, checked out three Forever 21’s, ventured through two Macy’s and J.Crew’s, traipsed through a Ross and an Ann Taylor Loft’s, and bought… basically nothing.

Exhibit B: When I see a $59 BR shirt marked down to $22, the first thing that I think about isn’t “such a deal! Must have it!”. It’s also not “do I need it?” Because, let’s be honest, I will never truly NEED a silk/cashmere blend from Banana Republic. Instead, my first thought has become “Do I love it?

I’ve found this philosophy (actual philosophers, please do not stone me for ascribing the lofty title of “philosophy” to a shopping belief) to be surprisingly liberating.

No need to feel guilty over paying for a $300, full-priced coat if it’s something you love (and if it’s affordable). On the same token, I’m freed from the nagging feeling that if I did not grab that shirt (which is in a nice color, and fits pretty well, even though it’s cut a little long… and the color isn’t quite right against my skintone… but it’s only $20) on the sales rack, I’m missing out.

If a pair of shoes is half a size too big, if the shirt sleeves feel a bit funny, if the dress looks gorgeous on the top but falls awkwardly on the bottom – I do not buy them. This way, I will have the funds AND the closet space to buy clothes that I love – clothes that I look and feel great in.

There are so many great sales this holiday season. Sometimes, it is a little hard to walk by aisles and aisles of 50%+ off clothing. But you know what they say: true love waits. ūüėČ

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The Little House in the Big Market

For the past few days I have been (re)reading all the Little House books – beloved books of my childhood.

When I was young, I loved them because the books were simple to understand and filled with mouth-watering descriptions of food. As I read them now, I started thinking of how much things have changed in the time between Laura’s life and my life.

The one thing that have struck me is the disparity in material and culinary richness, but also in people’s mindset. When Laura was five, her sister Mary had a proper rag doll. Laura, however, played with a corn cob wrapped in a napkin as a doll. A corn cob!

Finally, on Christmas, Laura received a rag doll, a pair of mittens, and a stick of peppermint candy cane. She was so happy that she could not say a word. Can you imagine only having candy once a year?

All foods were prepared at home. Even though the dishes sounded delicious, there was really no variety in terms of ethnic offerings. There were no pizza or potstickers or pho. No gelato or chocolate mousse. No tacos or teriyaki.

There was no expectation that little girls shouldn’t not have a corn cob, or that women should have more than a couple dresses a year. I can’t tell from the Little House series if the adults were ever ashamed of not having more – but I imagine that when one is living in the Big Woods, with wolves and bears for neighbors, the Joneses are pretty far away.

When Laura was sixteen, she worked as a schoolteacher and a seamistress’ assistant to earn money for her family. I have often wondered if she would’ve liked to go to college – that subject, I gather, was never even broached because the Ingalls could only send one daughter, Mary, to a college for the blind.

And now, we enjoy a level of material, culinary, and informational richness that would have been mind-boggling in Laura’s days.

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Bit the bullet, canceled coverage

I’ve decided to cancel collision and comprehensive coverage on my car. This move reduces 6-month premium from ~$620 to ~$450.

Even though having the insurance made me feel safe, the real purpose of insurance is to protect me against costs I cannot shoulder. My cash reserves, coupled with the actual cash value of my car, meant that comprehensive/collison coverage didn’t make much sense. I already had a high deductible of $1,000.

I can get a reasonably reliable late-90s Honda for $5,000 to $6,000, so I think I’ll be okay.

As for liability coverage, I am maintaining 50/100/50 coverage ($50k per person, $100k per accident, $50k property). Here’s hoping that I’ll never have to use it.

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It’s that time of the year again, when pf bloggers set out SMART financial goals and then resolutely check them off one by one as the year goes by.

I have an idea of what I’d like to accomplish, but they all¬†mostly depend on this economy of ours, which is to say that it’s fairly difficult to come up with good, solid goals when the future is so unpredictable.

But here, assuming all goes well (i.e. I stay healthy and gainfully employed at around my current salary), I have six (relatively?) simple goals for 2009:

1. Max out Roth IRA: $5,000 – this will mark the fourth year of maximum contribution. Going to do this in January/February.
2. Contribute to 401(k): $5,000 – 2009 limits have been raised to $16,500, but there’s pretty much no way I can max out my 401(k). If I can get to $5,000, I’ll be very happy.
3. Retake the GMAT – my first score was serviceable but not ideal. I want to do better. This means hitting the books harder and smarter than I did before.
4. Apply to 6-7 graduate schools – this will involve lots of school visits and applications. I am hoping that I can take all the application fees out of regular paychecks, and not my Freedom Fund.
5. Run a 5K race – I’m so out of shape that if there is an organized run that’s less than 5K, I’d do that one instead. Are there 1K runs?
6. Go on a trip with CB – This would be so fun if we can make it happen. I’d like to do a weeklong vacation.

As you can see, my saving / investing goals aren’t that ambitious next year. I feel a little hesitant stating that “I will save $20,000+” when everything is so up in the air. Goals #3, #4¬†, and¬†#5 depend less on the job situation.

Someone I know was recently laid off. From a Big Four accounting firm. When the accountants start cutting, you know we are in trouble.

Is anyone else finding it difficult to define goals in such uncertain times?

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Yay me

I passed on a red $7.98 swing jacket at Ann Taylor Loft because the color was a little too orange on my skin tone, I already own a jacket in a similar style, and just because it was cheap did not mean that I have to have it.

When I walked out of the store, I felt as if I’ve earned the Orange Belt of Savvy Shopper-dom.

Or something.

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Do you purchase knock-off brands?

I don’t. Not so much as a moral imperative, per se, but because I’d rather have a quality, non-name brand handbag or clothing than a knock-off version of a name brand.

A lot of designers take “inspirational cues” from each other – so I’m not talking about the Steals vs. Deals or Lust vs. Must sections that many magazines have. I just don’t see the point of products that are pointedly and unabashedly passing themselves off as something else – i.e. a bag that has never passed through a Prada factory having the Prada logo.

If I choose not to buy the real thing, why would I want to fool other people into thinking that I did? It’s almost like putting fake BMW hardware on a Honda (not knocking Hondas here… I have a Honda and I LOVE my car).

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2 nights at Mandalay Bay for my parents over Christmas: $300

Being able to treat my parents to a nice hotel? Fully awesome! (if you do not get this reference, you need to see Bolt.)

I haven’t expected to give such a big gift this year, but when I was talking to Mom over the phone last night, she mentioned that she and my dad are going to Vegas for a weekend after Christmas.

Now, this is a pretty big deal for my parents. From the time I was 12 to the time I graduated college, I don’t think they’ve ever taken more than a couple of days for themselves. They saved vacation days for family visits / caretaking duties overseas. They saved their money for my college education expenses and down payments and retirement funds.

So when I heard about the Vegas trip, I was so excited. I decided that the best gift I can give this Christmas is to treat them to a nice hotel. I originally thought about putting them up at the Venetian, but Mom vetoed the idea because it was too expensive (over $450 for the same two nights). The Mandalay Bay is still nice, just a little far from the center of the Strip, but Mom said she didn’t mind the drive.

So, Mandalay it is.

And the funny thing is? The part that really makes me smile? Is that I know my mom will tell her relatives and friends about this, and that in addition to all the enjoyment she will get out of her luxury hotel, she will also get to feel like she raised a good daughter.

And that? Is money well spent.

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