Saturday, September 29, 2007

Getting paid for work is still awkward.

Tutoring this semester is a good thing. It's almost certainly making me a better teacher for my lab because when the girl I tutor, L., struggles, it's a safe bet some of my other students are having similar problems. It's also pretty much covering the cost of groceries.

I should be happy about that, right? Somehow, instead I feel mildly guilty. It's awkward at the end of each session when L. digs a ten dollar bill out of her pocket and thanks me. It's clear she doesn't come from a wealthy family. Her finances are tight. This is her last semester as an undergrad, and she's certain she'll have to work and save before she can apply to pharmacy school. Doing well in this physics class will help her get in and achieve her goals, so she seems to think paying for extra help is a good investment. I should be paying her. Watching her slowly build mastery is a great joy. She makes me feel needed, and she laughs at my jokes.

At this point in my life, I have the luxury of taking only jobs that please me. As a result, the work I end up doing is generally something I'd happily do for free. There's something very peculiar about being offered an additional reward for such a rewarding activity. If it's possible to go through life enjoying what I do to earn my bread, I should be content, but I can't quite get over the feeling that that's almost cheating. Shouldn't work involve sacrifice?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Is personal finance software worth it?

Today in a meeting with my thesis adviser, he bemoaned losing the files he hadn't bothered to back up when his wife killed their home computer. He mentioned that he'd lost his most recent entries into their financial software and wasn't sure whether he would spend a few hours redoing it. I resisted the temptation to ask him whether he used Quicken, Money, or built something in Excel since I knew if I got him talking we'd never get around to discussing my project.

I've pondered whether I would benefit from using financial planning software myself. Since at this point in my life I have a checking account, a savings account, and might get a c.d. but don't have investments to manage, I don't think I need to shell out the dough for a big, fancy, needlessly complicated software program. (If you can think of a compelling reason why I should change my mind, please let me know.) There are lots of simpler free options that might be fun, however. I'm just not comfortable giving my password to a third party so financial aggregator sites aren't appealing. I've considered using either PearBudget, which is a nice worksheet for using with a spreadsheet like Excel or OpenOffice, or WalletProof, which is something you do online, but for some reason I haven't so yet. Do you see any major advantages to budgeting on a computer?

Right now my budgeting system is pretty basic. I have a little purple spiral notebook that I've started recording every bit of income and purchase in, including the sixty five cents I spent in a vending machine last Friday. It was simple to calculate how much of my scholarship money I should spend each month to make it last for the entire semester. Every time I get a bill, or, if I'm really lucky like last week, a reimbursement check, I sit down and crunch the numbers, generally on the back the envelope the bill came in. I'm not kidding. My financial planning system consists solely of a ten cent notebook and a mechanical pencil. It's surprisingly satisfying.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

A big part of why I worry about finances

In some ways, my grandparents are an example of how to be sensible but still end up with financial problems. My grandfather is 88, and my grandmother is 82. They are part of the the last generation that will be taken care of by their former employers in retirement. My grandfather was in the Army Air Corps, became an officer in the Air Force, and spent 21 years in the military. After that he worked as a budget analyst in the aerospace industry and then became a realtor. My grandmother raised five children and then became a nurse. When they retired, they had a substantial nest egg, my grandfather's pensions, and Social Security. They bought a modest two bedroom house in an inexpensive area of the country.

In the early 1990's my grandfather had his first stroke. He made good progress, but a couple of years later he had another stroke. He developed a bad case of pneumonia in 1999, and he made it through but has been much frailer and on oxygen ever since.My grandmother was able to care for him with help from my mother, and later, a few hours a week of paid help. The stress on her was intense, but she managed. Then, last summer my grandfather needed surgery. Afterward, he became so weak he became immobile, and physical therapy was of limited use. My grandmother attempted to bring him home, but after less than a day it became apparent that he needed twenty-four-hour nursing care. It was tough on her (and on the rest of us), but there was simply no alternative.

These days, we're fretting about when my grandfather's Medicaid application will be approved. My grandparents have spent the vast majority of their savings, and their monthly income doesn't cover his care, let alone also provide for my grandmother. A year of paying for a nursing home has wiped them out.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Soylent Green is people!

I haven't bought meat since I moved into my apartment. I've eaten some at meals with my family. When it's provided, I sometimes partake, but I don't feel any great need to cook it for myself. When mad cow first reached North America, my family cut way back on beef consumption. My mom added soyburgers to the list of frozen staples she keeps on hand for quick meals. With cheese and mayonnaise they aren't exactly health food, but they are tasty and still lower in fat than decent ground beef. (Really lean beef isn't good in burgers. It just isn't.)

For the most part, I'm satisfied with a mostly vegetarian diet with occasional seafood. A really great cheeseburger once every few months is enough red meat. Am I saving money by living this way? Probably not, even though the lowest possible cost vegetarian diet is certainly cheaper than a meat based diet. I haven't run the numbers, but I suspect I could get cheap beef or turkey for less than a soyburger, although beans and rice beat them all. Am I improving my health? I'm not sure. I still like cheese, which isn't exactly low fat, and I now have to be more careful to consume enough protein and supplement my iron with a good multivitamin.

I like meat. It's a normal part of the human diet, but not in the quantities modern Americans eat. Frankly, the environmental cost of meat production is significant, and we have a better shot at feeding the world's growing population if we don't divert so many of our resources to livestock. Meat is an indulgence, a great treat to be savored, but it shouldn't be at the center of every meal.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Just plain tired

Right now I'm feeling worn down. I've been trying to keep busy because then I have less time to dwell on things that aren't going well. It works up to a point. The most positive thing I can say about all this is that will be good for my finances since part of the reason I've been busy the past few days is tutoring and a job working for my advisor. Tonight I finished the part she asked me to do, but if I did it well, there may be more to do in the future. When she asked me if I had time to do this, she said, "Of course, we'll pay you so you can start an IRA." She knows me well.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Finances and my folks

My parents have been pretty good financial role models. They always stressed the importance of spending less than you make. My dad in particular was willing to be quite open about their finances when I started to ask questions when I reached my early teens, and my parents have been fairly sensible with money. They kept a substantial emergency fund. They bought a house with a 30 year fixed rate mortgage when I was in preschool and paid it off when I was in junior high. They contribute the maximum allowed to my dad's 401k (although that is less than the maximum the government allows due to rules that try to ensure that retirement plans don't disproportionately benefit higher paid employees).

They paid me an allowance and took me to the bank to open my first savings account. My dad suggested I read The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need and taught me about the wonders of compound interest. My mother explained how to build a good credit history and why it's so important. My mom and dad taught me all of the fundamentals.

It's strange that they now come to me for financial advice once in a while. They know I enjoy reading about personal finance and thus know more of the technical details of some aspects than they do. My mother decided to start an IRA last spring before she filed their 2006 taxes, and she asked me for recommendations, had me look over her options with her, and had me do the actual typing to set it up online. She went with my recommendation of the Vanguard Target 2015 fund. Considering that my parents are in their mid-fifties and have all of my dad's 401k in something that guarantees the principal but doesn't have much growth potential, it would have made sense in theory to put it all in stocks. In practice, however, my parents became extremely conservative investors following the tech bust, and my mom is pretty panicky about the idea of losing money. She was reluctant to put any money in stocks at all. Now she's finally becoming a bit more comfortable and not contemplating moving her money every time the fund goes down a bit.

Friday, September 14, 2007

When is it ok to stop worrying?

If nothing else, the project of tracking every cent I spend for the rest of 2007 is keeping my attention on my finances. I'm no longer quite so certain that's a good thing. The goals I set for myself were pretty ambitious: I wanted to live out the semester on nothing but the housing allowance from my scholarship, $100 extra for the expenses of moving into my own apartment, and any money from tutoring. There was no real need to be this frugal since I worked this summer, get an additional stipend on top of the housing money each semester, and could easily dip into savings a bit as a result. Before I decided to get an apartment, I planned on using the roughly $60 my online savings account earns each month as an allowance. For some silly reason, I concluded that it would be better to not touch that money and instead build my savings.

I'm beginning to think I'm making myself unhappy over nothing, fretting about whether it's extravagant to spend $3 on a Lean Cuisine dinner at the end of a stressful, sleep deprived week rather than trying to figure out something novel to do with beans, rice, and frozen veggies. Last night I was actually worrying about how to save for Christmas gifts for my family, an expense of perhaps $100 total. It's silly to treat what's left of money I earned this summer as untouchable, and even more silly to try to save a stipend that's supposed to help with living expenses.

This may cross the line into pathological if I don't keep it in check. Frugality is good, but there are limits. Adult life is rushing at me very fast, and I am very much adrift. Saved money can be a source of security, but saving because I'm frightened and it is one of the few things in my life I can control probably isn't the wisest approach to money.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Quantum mechanics might just kill me.

Ok, perhaps it isn't as bad as all that, but so far intro to quantum hasn't been pleasant. I'll probably have to lean more on the proposed study group. Clearly, the expectation value for momentum has to be real, but despite my best efforts and lots of time, I have an i that persists in one of the homework problems.

I've purchased an additional book in the hopes that Griffiths will help me through the points when I'm confused by Liboff. A classmate said he has the solutions for Griffiths so that should serve as a collection of worked examples. I'm hoping the cost of the extra textbook is something my scholarship will cover and have submitted a requisition for reimbursement, but if it isn't $24.83 seems like a small price to pay for potentially learning more in a difficult class. (Side rant: If they can sell international editions so cheaply, why don't they use cheaper production methods for books sold here as well and not charge and arm and a leg?)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Yay! I'm no longer broke.

The bank located the deposit slip they lost so the money will be credited to my account tonight. It's a relief. It wasn't as though they could just lose my money and never give it back, but it's very nice that they handled this with a minimum of hassle. They were apologetic and helpful. I guess the take home message is always save your transaction receipts, at least until you confirm that your statement is correct. Errors do occur.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Bank statement panic

Tonight I was digging through the pile of mail that arrived in the past couple of days and came across my latest checking account statement. This is not good at all. I'd been going merrily along, thinking that because I keep track of my transactions and account balance I had nothing to worry about. I was wrong. I haven't used the internet banking feature even though I set it up this summer since I promptly forgot my password. I have occasionally gone to an ATM to check my balance before making a large transfer to savings, but I generally assume that my bank is doing what it is supposed to. Every month I check the statement, and until now there had been no surprises.

This time, a quick glance at the ending balance revealed that all was not as it should be. 623.51??? There should be over five times that much! The housing money didn't appear on the statement even though I deposited it a week before the statement period closed. It should have been available the next business day. Tomorrow I'll go sort it out. I'm still hoping that the deposit got credited in the past couple of days. If it hasn't been, I'll have to spend the time I really needed to catch up on school things that didn't get done this weekend proving to the bank that they owe me money. (This is why you should always save your transaction receipts.) Just how much of a hassle will this be? My bank is small, local, and has always had great service at the main branch so I'm hoping for the best.


I apologize for the unplanned hiatus. My father's younger sister died Wednesday. It was quite a shock since she was only fifty two and had been in reasonably good health. My dad and brother saw her last summer, but I had not visited my aunt since my cousin's wedding three years ago.

I spent the weekend surrounded by family. It was sad and strange, but also as good as such a weekend could be. There was much hugging and crying, many old family stories, a few jokes, and way too much food.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Getting paid is nice

Today was my second tutoring session. My student is paying me $10 an hour. After I asked her if that sounded reasonable, she said she'd paid $20 an hour for calculus help last semester so this probably could have been more lucrative, but trying to explain basic mechanics is so enjoyable that I don't mind. It looks like I might make ten to twenty bucks a week for several weeks, or perhaps the rest of the semester. This really takes a bit of strain off of my finances. It might be possible to save this semester instead of merely breaking even.

On the other hand, it might be sensible to allocate some portion of this unexpected windfall to frivolous spending. StoryGirl's post on what she calls "The Chocolate Croissant Effect" is a charming and insightful commentary on small indulgences. It's important to find a balance between working toward far-off goals and enjoying some of the rewards of your effort now. I know that I'd take a certain satisfaction in seeing my savings account balance grow or buying another I-Bond, but sometimes a scoop of frozen yogurt, some really great bread, or a pretty lipgloss is nice too.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

A realistic food budget?

I'm attempting to keep my spending on groceries (and dining out on the rare occasions I do that) to $25 or less a week. This seems reasonable to me, especially since my parents still expect me to eat their food whenever I am home. (In addition, it seemed to make my mother pretty annoyed when I insisted on paying for my own groceries when we went shopping together today, but that story probably deserves its own post.)

Yet, I keep getting strange looks when I mention the food budget. Is this amount unrealistic? I'll buy generic, clip coupons, shop sales, and plan quite a few meals around beans and rice or peanut butter and jelly on whole wheat bread. Can anyone out there give me an idea of what it costs them to eat frugally yet healthfully?