Wednesday, February 27, 2008

It's that point in the semester when life transitions from merely busy to frantic because every professor decides to have a test in the same week. I also interview with my university's teaching program on Friday, and I still don't have my portfolio in a form I'm ready to share. I'm getting a bit stressed out, especially since my research advisor informed me, "You aren't allowed to make any B's this semester." (What, because graduating with less than my current 3.950 will limit my options in life???) I'm getting to the point where I'm not getting much sleep, partly as a result of the workload, and partly as a result of waking up in the middle of the night in a panic and having to lie awake until I can get my heart rate and breathing back to normal so I can sleep.

As a result, I won't be around for the next few days. Next week I should be a bit saner and have some time and energy to devote to blogging again.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Nonetheless, I'm learning that it's ok to shift food costs to others. Every semester there's a gathering of the recipients of the scholarship I'm on. Usually at these things I felt awkward about eating out in such nice places and ended up ordering one of the least expensive things on the menu because I just couldn't envision spending more than a week's grocery money on one meal, even if I didn't have to pay. Tonight I made the conscious effort to throw frugality out the window.

After all, how often in life do opportunities to get dressed up and eat lobster at the expense of dead rich people come along?

Monday, February 25, 2008

Link love tag

The lovely Ms. MiniDucky has tagged me in this great big link love fest. I'm supposed to pick five more folks and pass it on. She touts numerous benefits, including: building community, making new friends, attracting new traffic, and increasing your Technorati authority.

The Strategist Notebook ~ Link Addiction ~ Ardour of the Heart ~ When Life Becomes a Book ~ The Malaysian Life ~ ~ What goes under the sun ~ Roshidan’s Cyber Station ~ Sasha says ~ Arts of Physics ~ And the legend lives ~ My View, My Life ~ A Simple Life ~ Juliana RW ~ Mom Knows Everything ~ Beth & Cory's Mom ~ A Mind Forever Voyaging~ enjoying the ride ~ Jennifer's thoughts ~ Mom of 3 Girls ~ Amanda ~ Don't Make Me Get The Flying Monkeys ~ ExPat Mom ~ Just Jessie ~ Wilson Six ~Krisitn ~ Nuttier Than You ~ Shonnte ~ Summer's Nook ~ Laura Williams Musings ~ Melissa's Idea Garden ~ Confessions of an Everyday Housewife ~ Blah Blah Blog ~ Stop the Ride! ~Soap, Blings & Girly Things ~ It's All for the Best ~ Keeping Feet ~ Junky Love in FreehandGetting Out of Debt ~ Free From Broke ~ Money Matters ~ Arohan's Investing Life ~ My Investing Blog ~ Finance and Fat ~ Iowahippiechick ~ ~ ~ Making Cents Of Debt ~ DebtDiet ~ MakingMoneyJournal ~ Life Liberty & The Pursuit Of Money Mrs Micah Brightside of Debt Fiscal Musings Paid it Down and Moving Forward Phoenix from the Ashes Canadian Saver The Good Life on a Budget Last One In Line Finding Financial Peace CT Mom Beachgirl's Budget Blog~Saving For a Home of My Own ~ My Money and Politics ~ MoneyDummy ~ Fabulous Financials ~ Fabulously Broke In the City ~ Mapgirl's Fiscal Challenge ~ The Hustle of Sistah Ant ~ Ms. Miniducky~ Sense to Save ~ Thoughts From an SF Renter ~ Not Living on Ramen ~Living for the Blue World~The Penny Saved~Not Living on Ramen
I've decided to tag some people whose blogs I've been enjoying lately:

A of Keeping the Reins Tight
MarySue of Fangirling My Finances
sjean of Stacking Pennies
Dog of Dog Ate My Finances
Blubba of Fat Man...Skinny Wallet

If you guys decide to pass this along, add yourselves to the list, repost on your blog, and pick more folks whose blogs you enjoy to tag.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Scratch that: the original PearBudget is alive and well.

Well, I was completely wrong. The Pearbudget worksheet is still available, just a bit harder to find. (Thanks, Mr. Park.) Hooray!

Friday, February 22, 2008

PearBudget is dead! Long live PearBudget!

I've been bad; I quit tracking every penny of my spending a couple of months ago. The time has come to start keeping detailed records again, and the new laptop seemed like the perfect means to do so. Since I have OpenOffice, I thought I'd just pop over to PearBudget to download their lovely worksheet. It isn't fancy, but it does everything I want.

Alas, they don't seem to be offering it anymore. They are touting a new, improved, web-based PearBudget that will cost $3/month once it's out of beta. I hope it's great, it helps people take control of their finances, and the creators make a bundle, but I'm not interested in paying for advanced functionality I don't need.

I briefly considered switching to GNUCash, but I don't have this whole Linux thing figured out yet. Luckily, I have the old PearBudget on my desktop so I can just transfer the file to my new computer. The worksheet contains a message from Charlie Park, the creator, who encourages distributing it as long as you don't charge anything and give proper credit. The old PearBudget was simple, elegant, and oh so convenient. If you ever feel the desire to give it a try, just send me your email address and I'll pass it along.

"Socialist education?!?"

The February 21 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reprted on a discussion panel on public education that took place at a state university Wednesday. While reading the article, I was taken aback by the stance of Loyola University economics professor Walter Block, who advocates eliminating public education altogether. He suggests that private schools opertating in the free market could do a much better job of providing education to all, and said, “We shouldn't be calling it public education; we should be calling it socialist education.” Professor Block is clearly somewhat radically libertarian in his views. He stated, “To me, there are two parts of equity, and one is not forcing people to pay for other people's educations. That seems more like theft than equity.”

There are many things that free markets do very well. They are often a more efficient system than an elaborate central-planning bureacracy could ever be. Individual initiative is encouraged by capitalist systems. That said, having a social safety net for those who truly cannot help themselves is important as well. Children have little control over their own lives, and they shouldn't be forced to suffer as a result of their parents' poor choices.

Public schools in the U.S. range from the excellent to the truly awful. It's a system in need of dramatic change. School choice, charter schools, and vouchers all introduce competition and may play an important role in reform. Introducing free market aspects in education can be useful, but abandoning government involvement altogether would prove disasterous.

Professor Block insists, “ The idea that you need only public schools or only the aristocracy is going to get educated is erroneous,” but I'm not so sure. Most upper, middle, and working class families would adapt to paying for schooling, but the poorest children would be screwed. I can't quite buy into his claim that charitable organizations would step in to provide scholarships for every needy child. Privatizing education would exacerbate problems of educational inequality and sharply reduce economic mobility. It would mean the death of meritocracy.

An educated populace benefits us all. Literate and numerate citizens are essential for the functioning of both a representative democracy and a technologically advanced country. The provision of public education is a vital public good and a shared responsibility for all.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Better living through barter

I'm fairly nerdy in a lot of ways (no surprise considering that I'm a physics major), but I've never been a computer geek. My brother is. He and I helped our dad build a computer when my brother was in fourth grade and I was in sixth, and my brother has been borderline obsessed ever since. As a result, he has to deal with being the guy everyone calls when he or she has a computer question.

He grumbles sometimes, but he's pretty good about helping people out. So when one of my mom's co-workers needed to buy a laptop for school, he helped her shop and find a good machine within her price range. When his friends' computers die, he works to diagnose and fix the problem. He recently built a computer for a friend.

These are generally not people who have lots of money to devote to tech support. If my brother charged market rates, most of them might no longer come to him. However, my brother has gotten lots of non-monetary payment in return for his services.

When my mother's co-worker bought a laptop, she used my brother's Best Buy Reward Zone account, and he got quite a few dollars worth of gift certificates. His friends often give him their old parts when they upgrade. The girl for whom he built a computer gave him her old one,which he gave to my parents, probably in the hopes that they'll let him keep his current computer, which they paid for, rather than make him give it back after he builds the new one he's planning.

On the whole, this underground economy seems to function pretty well. I did a bit of tutoring for someone whose family owns a restaurant and got paid in salads rather than cash, a win-win situation for everyone. Do you have any experiences bartering for your services? Do you believe you get compensated fairly, or do you feel pressured to accept less than what your time is worth?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Was this a huge mistake?

I'm typing this on my shiny new toy, an Asus Eee 4G. I've been laptopless up to this point in my life. I got a spiffy desktop when I started college, and it did a good job of meeting my needs most of the time. Sure, there were inconveniences, like having to wait for an available seat in a computer lab on campus rather than just heading to a wi-fi hotspot. It also wasn't that great to have to use my parents' computer for schoolwork when I came home since that meant depriving them of its use.

I decided that, although my computer served me well, it might make sense to have something a bit more portable before beginning either TFA or student teaching. Since this computer would serve to compliment, rather than replace, my trusty desktop, I planned to get a low-end laptop. My brother is the computer geek of the family, and I figured I should run my plans by him and get guidance on what to look for or avoid when computer shopping.

He suggested I should consider buying this computer that a friend of his bought from NewEgg and then decided she didn't want after using it for less than a week. She was offering it for $350, $50 less than it had cost new. I'd expcted to spend a few months hunting for a great laptop deal,but after playing with the Eee, I was hooked. This isn't exactly what I had in mind; it's better.

So why, pray tell, do I feel so guilty about having bought this? Buying a laptop was part of the plan for the grant money I'm getting. If I end up hating the Eee, my brother has already offered to trade his laptop. He assures me that if Xandros ends up being a problem, we can load XP, but I'm actually kinda excited about using Linux. (I'll be interested to hear what Mary Sue decides to run since I'm a noob in need of guidance.) Really, the only problem is my hang up about parting with this much money.

A reminder

When you move, you need to notify your financial institutions. I moved into my apartment in August, and the guy who lived here before me clearly didn't bother to do that. An unscrupulous person could easily have stolen his identity. I've received letters addressed to him from the IRS and his bank, and his monthly credit card bill still rolls in like clockwork. Writing a note saying he no longer lives here and putting everything back in the outgoing mail doesn't seem to be doing any good.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Money vs. Freedom

Thanks to all of you who took the time to share your experiences in thoughtful comments on my last post. I guess I should take a few minutes to clarify what it is I hope to be doing with my life. My ultimate goal is a Ph.D. in physics, but I'm not planning to enter graduate school in physics right away. I have a wonderful mentor who does physics education research and is highly involved in efforts to improve science education at both the secondary and university levels. She's been an inspiration and has also given me the opportunity to teach a lab section and discover just how much I enjoy working with students. (Yes, I did enjoy my class, despite the days when they made me want to bang my head against the wall.)

I'm not sure I want to spend the rest of my working life teaching introductory physics to unruly seventeen year olds, but it is something I want to try. Although it might be naive to think so, I hope that by teaching high school I might be able to reach a few kids who would otherwise go through life disinterested in science. If Teach for America accepts me, I'll spend two years teaching wherever they send me. If not, I'll most likely complete the master's program in teaching at my university before entering the classroom.

The out of pocket costs for tuition and fees should be under $3,000 thanks to a scholarship I have lined up. There are other options that might have covered the rest, but I have elected not to pursue them. There's a fabulous new scholarship program for science, math, and engineering majors who want to earn teaching degrees, but scholarship recipients must demonstrate financial need, which I do not have. I could take out student loans offered by my state and then have them forgiven in exchange for years of teaching, but I don't want to be tied to my home state for that long.

As I start my adult life, I want the freedom to start making big decisions for myself, including where to live and how to earn my bread. I'd like to be able to move across the country and start over in a new town or to get a job in a DoD school and teach in Europe or Japan; even if I don't end up doing any of those things, I want to know that I could. A big part of the reason I save money and avoid debt is to allow myself the luxury of more options in life.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Planning for my future: Am I a parent mooching loser?

Right now I'm caught in limbo while I await the results of my Teach for America interview. It's slightly nerve-wracking to have to wait for weeks, wondering if you messed it up and knowing there's nothing more you can do if you have. The only sensible thing to do is focus on your back-up plans so I'm dutifully putting together my portfolio for the master's program in teaching at my university. I have to interview for that on February 29, but my advisor, who works closely with the teacher education program in the sciences, assures me that that's mostly a formality.

I really hope Teach for America accepts me. It's where I could have the most impact, and it would also be better for my finances to be working full-time instead of in school full-time for another year. Fortunately, the costs of the graduate program won't be too onerous if that's the route I end up taking. The cost of the one year master's program are estimated to be around $12,500, and I have a scholarship that will cover $10,000 of that. My savings will easily cover the additional tuition and books.

The big problem is living expenses. They are covered by my scholarships now, but they wouldn't be while I'm in graduate school. If I had to, I could afford to keep my apartment, but that would drain a sizable chunk of my savings. I could find another place and a roommate and cut the cost somewhat, but it would still be a significant expense. I really would end up living on ramen noodles.

I'm considering moving home. Based on articles in personal finance magazines and discussion boards I've read, moving home after graduation would make me a terrible slacker, drain my parents' resources, and delay my maturation into a responsible adult. I still think it might be the best option. My parents live within half an hour of where I'd be going to school, and staying in their paid-off house could make a lot more sense than renting my own place. It would be for one year, and I'd be doing something productive by going to school full-time and trying to find a part-time job as well. Although my parents have been generous, I don't think I'm draining their resources since my tuition, fees, books, dorm/apartment, etc. were all covered by scholarships.

I broached the subject with my mom last week. I laid out what I hoped to do and why, asked for her opinion, and offered to pay rent, although I would hope to pay less than I would for an apartment. She's fine with the idea as long as I contribute to the household chores and wouldn't hear of my paying rent, but I am going to try to negotiate an arrangement to at least pay my share of utilities and groceries. (You may be wondering why I didn't ask my dad. Well, when I was in junior high school he said I had to live at home until I was 35 or had a master's degree. He didn't seem to be joking.)

What do you folks think? Am I taking advantage of my parents' good natures and generosity? Does finishing my B.S. mean that I need to sink or swim on my own, or is it ok to accept one more year of some parental support? If I were your kid, what would you suggest?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Women and Money

In case you hadn't heard, you can download a copy of Suze Orman's Women and Money for free before 8pm EST February 14. I'm not exactly a fan of Ms. Orman's, but the price is right so I'll at least skim it. The target audience for this book clearly consists of women who know little about personal finance and are slightly afraid of it so the book contains lots of basic information and lots of motivational anecdotes. If that appeals to you, you might as well check it out.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Data! Oh, the joy!

For the first time in months I have good data, data that's meaningful in a "Let's put this in my thesis," way rather than an "Ok, let's use this to figure out what the heck is screwing up this time," way. After major modifications to the apparatus and many iterations of changes to the procedure, I think I finally have something I can just go in and run rather than fight with for hours. Seriously, I don't think spending seven hours in a windowless room with an argon ion laser has ever been this much fun before.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to buy a celebratory box of Pop-Tarts.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Vending machines of doom

In the past few weeks, I've developed a rather bad Pop-Tart habit. It all began one night when I had to miss dinner to stay in the lab and gave in to the temptation posed by the vending machine I passed as I left. I hadn't eaten a Pop-Tart in around a decade, but I was in the mood for something sweet. Since then, they've called to me, and I've been indulging more often than is good for my pocketbook and my waistline.

The last time I was at the grocery store, I priced the cardboard-like pastries and confirmed that I could buy them for far less than the eighty-five cents I've been paying for each package of two, but I didn't buy any. The stupid things are not particularly tasty or healthful so I should give them up entirely. The problem is, I haven't and keep buying them a couple of times a week despite all of my promises to myself that I won't. Should I break down and buy a box, throw some in my backpack, and hope that by the time I've eaten them all I'll be sick of the taste, or do I need to do a better job of convincing myself that vending machines are off limits?

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Teach your children well.

If everyone in the U.S. grasped the idea of compound interest, it might make a small dent in the number of people deeply in debt and facing bankruptcy or foreclosure. Understanding the math isn't a panacea; some find themselves in overwhelming consumer debt as a result of truly dire circumstances and others due to poor impulse control. Still, educating people about the consequences they could face can't hurt.

Teaching college students and adults about sensible money management has tremendous value, but exposure to basic principles can and should begin much earlier than that. When I was in upper elementary school, my Girl Scout troop attended a talk by someone from a local nonprofit credit counseling agency. The speaker talked about the importance of budgeting and saving. Although most of us couldn't have worked the calculations ourselves, she was able to use charts and graphs to illustrate the value of starting to save early and the costs of buying on credit and making only the minimum payments. I don't know about the other girls, but that made a deep impression on me.

There's really no reason parents and schools can't provide this information. Parents can teach about the household budget and provide their children with age-appropriate experiences handling money of their own. Lessons on compound interest can be incorporated almost seamlessly into algebra coursework. If children are exposed to sensible money management early and often, they stand a better chance of developing good habits that last into adulthood.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Think for a while before you take out student loans.

When I and the other applicants for TFA were sitting around chatting before the interviews, talk naturally turned to plans for the future. One girl stated, half-jokingly, "I figure the longer I stay in school, the more likely it is the world will end before I have to pay my student loans." There were a few chuckles, and others piped up about how they prefer to avoid thinking about the debt they've incurred in pursuit of their degrees.

Student loans are seen as a normal part of young adult life, and they are frequently cited as an example of "good debt." I don't exactly agree. Going to college, learning, and getting a degree are good things. Taking out loans to do so isn't, in and of itself, a good thing. It may be a necessity if you've exhausted your other options, but spending decades paying for your education is hardly something to look forward to.

Do what you can to minimize the amount of student loan debt you take on. It may not seem like a big deal right now, but you'll have more freedom after graduation if you aren't saddled with large payments. Apply for every scholarship you can, look for summer employment, and try to minimize your living expenses. Weigh financial aid offers carefully, and seriously consider finances when you decide where to attend.

An instructor at a program I attended the summer before my senior year in high school urged his students to avoid taking out loans to pay for their undergraduate degrees. He told us that if we plan to get doctorates in science, the top universities will still be around and offer fellowships, teaching assistantships, and research assistantships to pay their graduate students to attend. He insisted that graduate programs care far more about what you do while you are in college than the university you attend. It's easy to buy into the idea that an undergraduate degree from a prestigious university will help ensure future success, but people who are driven and capable should be able to get a good foundation at any decent school; a friend of mine from our (not particularly well known state school) physics department won an NSF Graduate Fellowship and was accepted by every graduate program she applied to, including MIT and UC-Berkeley. (She's at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, in case anyone was wondering.)

I'm tremendously glad I took his advice. I now have the option to take a low paying but fulfilling job for a few years before graduate school because I have no debt and substantial savings. If I owed tens of thousands of dollars, I'd feel far more pressure to pursue a more lucrative profession to try to get myself out of the hole.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

TFA interviews

Well, I lived through it. My dad went with me, which was good because otherwise I'd probably still be lost in Dallas. Yesterday we spent three hours being lost (on top of the 5+ hours it took to get to Dallas) while searching for the hotel where I'd made a reservation. I got a little under five hours of sleep last night. My lesson revolved around an electrostatics demonstration, and it was raining cats and dogs. Oh, and the hairdryer I brought to dry my supplies started malfunctioning while I was practicing at five a.m. The switch somehow broke, and it no longer turns off. That was ok, but I was worried something would jiggle loose and then it would no longer work at all. I was panicky, and my five minute lesson probably wasn't smooth and effective. I also had pretty much nothing to say on the essays they had us write.

My mother is very determined to lecture us on how we could have avoided getting lost if we weren't such screw ups. We keep foiling her by explaining that, yes, we got google directions online before we left, yes, we tried calling the motel to ask for help (twice, and they said they didn't know how to help us), yes, we stopped to ask for directions, yes, we had the road atlas out (the whole time). I told her I got very little sleep as a result of being lost and to please stop trying to tell us what we did wrong and was ordered to mellow out. I'm tired and grouchy. Sorry for the random venting.

Go Team Frugal!

This week's Festival of Frugality has a football theme and lots of great tips. I somehow ended up as a running back, but in real life, I played on both the offensive and defensive lines. It was my job to slam into people and knock them down. That was the only athletic activity I've ever been really good at; do you think my prowess at flag football is evidence of too much pent up aggression?

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Cheap generic drugs can be hazardous to your wealth.

My insurance company took the one prescription drug I take regularly off of their formulary, doubling my co-pay. I wasn't exactly thrilled about going from a $20 a month medical expense to a $40 a month medical expense. Since the drug in question treats a condition that is unpleasant but not dangerous in any way, I tried going off my medication for a couple of months to see if maybe I'd reached a point where I no longer needed treatment. No such luck.

I had a routine check-up last week and brought up the possibility of switching to a cheaper medicine. There are some similar drugs available in generics, and my doctor agreed that there's no reason not to try one of them instead. If it doesn't alleviate my symptoms or causes nasty side effects, I can just call her and get a prescription for my old medication.

The new prescription is on Wal-Mart and Target's list of low cost generics so it's actually $1 less than my insurance co-pay for generics if I buy it there. My doctor told me this, but also warned me, "They're hoping that they'll get you in the store and you'll end up finding lots of other things to buy. It happened to me the first time I got a prescription at Target."

Boy was she right. Friday night I went into Wal-Mart for my prescription and perhaps some gum, and walked out with my prescription and $23.35 worth of other stuff. None of the items were exactly impulse buys since they were all things I'd been contemplating buying for a week or more, but I'm not proud of myself. I did stock up on a pantry staple on sale, but I also gave in to curiosity and decided to buy the supplies to try waxing my legs. In the future, I'll be able to call in ahead of time so I don't wind up wandering the store aimlessly for forty five minutes killing time while waiting for the pharmacy to fill my prescription. If that weren't an option, I'd seriously consider paying the extra dollar a month to stay out of the Supercenter and avoid temptation.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Let the pre-interview jitters begin!

Tuesday I have my day-long interview process with Teach for America. I'm trying to remain calm, but I'm failing. I keep mentally replaying the last time I interviewed for something and wincing.

Almost four years ago, I had the interview for the scholarship that's paying for my education. Like any panicky perfectionist, I did everything I could to prepare. I checked out books and a video on interviewing from the school library, and I even asked my guidance counselor about the possibility of doing a mock interview before the real thing. She told me that would hardly be necessary, even though I had friends who were required by their school to do practice interviews. The night before the interviews, a group of us hung out in the hotel where the university put us up, reviewed one another's resumes and essays, formulated questions for everyone, and critiqued the answers.

The next day was a disaster. All of my friends there were applying for slightly different scholarships than I was, and they had different committees. Since my interview slot was late in the day, I got to grill most of them on their experiences before my turn came. Most assured me that they'd gotten to talking and laughing with their interviewers and the twenty minutes had flown right by. My interview was wholly different. Looking back, I can understand my committee's objectives and why they behaved as they did, but it wasn't pleasant. I did manage to get out of the room and down the hall at the end of the interview before I burst into tears.

This interview can't be any worse. After all, TFA won't ask if I believe in God or demand I justify my position on Mars exploration that I thought I'd fully explained in an essay they'd ordered me to write the day before as soon as I arrived at the hotel. (Important life lessons: admitting you like Dostoevsky on your college application can be perilous, and forcing teenagers to write several short essays on topics chosen from a list of current events with no advance warning is cruel even to those who read the newspaper religiously.) Maybe my attempts to prepare for expected interview questions will actually do some good this time.

I'm trying to psych myself up, but it really isn't working. I believe passionately in what I'm setting out to do, but I worry that I'll freeze and be unable to convey that on Tuesday. I need to project confidence and competence, and that isn't tremendously easy to do while being judged by total strangers.