Wednesday, April 30, 2008
The girl at the counter responded to my question by asking me if I had an account at their bank. I told her I didn't, but had cash. She rather snippily replied that that wouldn't work because they "need to track who buys bonds." I informed her that I had my driver's license and social security number, but she insisted, "Because of the 9/11 and the PATRIOT Act, you can't buy bonds if you don't have an account here. It's policy."
So, never mind that my savings bond order form goes straight to the federal government, it's a security risk to let me purchase U.S. government bonds without opening a bank account? How would having ten bucks in a checking account at that bank make anything more secure? (I'll spare you the rant about the U.S. government's cavalier attitude about the importance of civil liberties in general.)
Fortunately, I had time this afternoon to walk to the main branch of my bank where I filled out paperwork with the same clerk who sold me the bonds last week. I guess there must not be much demand for savings bonds because she remembered me. It took a bit longer this time because she tried to talk me into changing to a different kind of checking account, which would actually have been a good deal if I weren't moving away soon.
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Teaching is going to be time consuming. There's no way around that. Starting a graduate program in my second semester as a high school teacher sounds like a great way to increase my stress levels, but I think I could probably handle it.
The going to school full-time during the summer part is the problem. I'm going to spend this summer at Institute trying to learn about teaching while teaching summer school in Houston. Last summer I worked in the physics lab full-time as an undergraduate researcher, and I spent two months before my junior year living in New York in order to work full-time in a molecular biology lab there. The summer before my sophomore year I took two semesters of organic chemistry. I like productive vacations, but I may need to focus next summer on tasks other than coursework.
If I want to get a Ph.D. in physics, the dreaded Physics GRE is the next big hurdle. Everyone I've talked to describes it as a grueling experience, in no small part because it doesn't reflect how anyone actually does physics. The key to success is memorizing vast numbers of equations, constants, and terms and being able to solve problems very, very quickly. Six months preparation time is recommended, making sure to work through all of University Physics I through Modern Physics until you know it cold and going back over your notes from upper division classes to refresh your memory of various key problem types. If I'm going to have a prayer of doing well enough to get into a good physics graduate program after spending time away from enforced discipline of being a student, I'm going to have to make studying for the test my top priority next summer.
It would be much easier if I knew what I want to do with my life. If teaching in a secondary classroom is going to be a long term career, then getting a masters in education is clearly the right choice. If I'm going to miss higher level physics and research enough to want to become a professor and teach at the college level instead, then I need to hit the GRE prep as hard as possible. Unfortunately, the only thing I'm truly certain of tonight is that I really don't want to do my electromagnetism homework right now.
Monday, April 28, 2008
Saturday, April 26, 2008
The TFA office sent me an email informing me that they've received the scores from the Praxis II tests I took last month and I passed. Now I have the Praxis I, Mathematics Content Knowledge, and Physical Science Content Knowledge out of the way. I really should have taken Physics Content Knowledge (0265) this morning, but several weeks ago when I tried to register my university's testing site was full, as was the next nearest site. Luckily, the TFA staffer I spoke with agreed that it made more sense to register for the June test date than to spend over two hours on the interstate before a 7:30 a.m. test. Thus, I've been able to focus on my thesis and schoolwork and pretty much blow off testing for the past few weeks.
Now, the test date is looming, and I know it's essential that I pass. I've started looking over the list of topics and planning my study time. It's all stuff I ought to know, and the giant University Physics with Modern Physics tome they made us buy to use for one semester of the introductory sequence should contain just about everything I need to review. Even though getting a B.S. in physics ought to be pretty good preparation, I've allowed myself to get sucked into spending money on test prep materials yet again. I broke down and ordered a test-specific guide so I'll have plenty of practice problems at the right level of difficulty. If nothing else, it'll calm my nerves, and that alone is worth the $35.44.
All told, I or my parents have probably spent close to $100 on test prep books for my use to study for the SAT, ACT, GRE (not that I've really done much studying for that yet), and Praxis II tests. It could be much, much worse. In other areas of the country, there's much more pressure to keep up in the standardized testing arms race, and parents pay big bucks to tutors to get their kids ready for the PSAT and SAT. (The PSAT for Pete's sake! I prepped for that by working through the free booklet from my guidance counselor the night before I took the real thing.) I have a friend who makes pretty good money as an ACT tutor, and pretty much every pre-med I know takes the Kaplan MCAT course, but test prep isn't the big business here that it seems to be on the coasts.
I'd argue that's a good thing. Taking standardized tests is a learned skill, but doing well doesn't require a large investment of money. Classes or tutors may be helpful for getting unmotivated teenagers to put in the time, but the information on what to study and how to prepare is available for much less. There are lots of low or no cost resources to try before resorting to pricier options. Official sample tests and study questions for the SAT, ACT, and both general and subject GRE tests are available online at no cost. Number2.com offers very good online SAT, ACT, general GRE programs absolutely free. If you prefer printed materials, having a test book you can mark up as you would the real test is helpful so I'd shell out a few bucks rather than checking materials out of the library. Personally, I like the test preparation books from Barron's, but picking something that'll actually get used is the only important thing.
Friday, April 25, 2008
My brother has described me as, "the second cheapest person in the country," and finds it really baffling when I want to spend money on anything. He cheerfully accepts parental subsidies, reasoning that they have more money than he does, whereas I figure every penny they spend on me is one they won't have for retirement or their own current wants. I haven't been able to explain to him why I would prefer to keep my apartment for an extra month if I could instead of moving home. He sees only that it would cost hundreds of dollars for rent and utilities and that I'm not generally someone who spends that kind of money needlessly.
The point of saving is to have money later for needs or wants. There are a lot of things I want but don't get, but once in a while I find something important enough to me, and my usual habits mean I have the savings to afford it. In this case, the point is probably moot, and it looks like I'll be stuck spending the month before institute alternating between staying at home and sleeping on my friends' couch since I can't renew my lease for less than the full summer and haven't been able to find anyone who needs someone to sublet. If all else fails, I bet my brother will let me sleep on his couch once in a while.
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Last semester, I was co-TAing a University Physics I lab section (unpaid), and then my advisor asked me to consider tutoring a student in the class who needed some extra help. The student was a joy to work with, helped make me a better instructor for my class, and paid enough to cover my grocery bills for the semester. Funding from a state research grant I received enabled me to pay myself to do thesis research this semester. A fellowship that didn't even require an additional application means I'll get a signing bonus this summer.
I've just received an email offering me a job I didn't know existed and can't take. The math department offers one partial TA position to a student in the master's program in teaching, paying him or her $3,000 a semester in exchange for teaching a two-hour-a-week remedial evening class and spending four hours a week providing algebra help in the tutoring center. The professor who offered me the position knows (or at least knew) I'm going to do Teach for America, plus I'll only have a minor in math, so I'm quite surprised I was considered at all. I'm drafting a polite note letting her know that if I didn't have other plans I'd jump at this chance but I cannot accept the job.
Is it normal to feel a bit guilty about my good luck? People keep talking about how hard I've worked, but it doesn't feel like it. I haven't really sacrificed. I have certain aptitudes that prove useful, and I'm a hedonist whose preferred pleasures tend to be academic in nature. Yes, I put in time and effort; this is just what I do. Some of my activities have put me in contact with people who share my interests and are in a position to guide me toward interesting opportunities, but I haven't made an effort to network, it just happened. There are a lot of people around me who really strive for success, and it doesn't seems fair that I can just drift along and achieve the same results.
Monday, April 21, 2008
After that I headed to the bank. Like Ms. Miniducky, A, and many other bloggers, I've been toying with the idea of moving some money into I Bonds since interest rates keep dropping and inflation seems likely to rise. I purchased one paper $50 I Bond in 2005, and I don't see a lot of benefits to messing with the hassles of getting set up for Treasury Direct when a ten minute visit to my bank will accomplish the same thing. I know I could have earned slightly more interest by waiting until the end of the month to transfer the money out of savings, but since I don't expect to touch this money for several years unless I'm faced with a dire emergency, I went ahead and ordered another $2,000 worth of I Bonds today.
Somehow doing all this makes me feel very grown-up, which I suppose I sort of am now. Many kids in my small town went out and bought cigarettes on their eighteenth birthdays, even the non-smokers, just to revel in their newfound privilege. I cashed out my custodial savings account and got a checking account and a certificate of deposit in my own name instead. (I was very disappointed that everyone who could drive me to the county office was busy and I had to wait until a few days later to register to vote as well.) In my mind it was always a given that becoming an adult meant planning for the future and managing money to the best of your ability. (Thanks, Mom and Dad.)
Good bedding: You may not be getting tons of sleep, but you'll want to be able to get a good night's rest when you have the chance. Dorm beds are often spectacularly uncomfortable. A good pillow helps, as does a mattress pad, whether a cheap egg crate, a fiberbed, or fancy memory foam. (Twin and twin xl memory foam pads can often be purchased very cheaply a few months after school starts when stores put all of their leftover back-to-school merchandise on clearance so it might be worthwhile to start shopping while you're in high school.) Don't buy sheets before you're sure whether you'll have an extra long mattress; I've always had standard twin beds and been able to use bedding from home.
Shower shoes: Pick up some $1 flip-flops to avoid the ickiness of bare skin against the floor of a shower dozens of other people also use. If your dorm floor has a tub and you are likely to take baths, buy some generic bathroom cleaner and a sponge to wash it before and after each use.
Ear plugs: It's pretty much a given that you and your randomly matched roommate(s) will have diametrically opposed musical tastes and sleep schedules. Even if you somehow manage to luck out in that regard, the night you need to get a major paper written will coincide with the tunnisboule world championships*, which will conveniently take place directly outside your door. If you plan to do any studying in your room, ear plugs are your friend. It may take some experimenting to find a brand of ear plugs that are comfy and fit well enough to block noise effectively.
Headphones: Ear plugs are good, but they don't block all sound. Your roommate will be far less likely to bludgeon you to death if you don't constantly subject her to your musical preferences, especially when you need to listen to something to keep you awake at 3 a.m. while you finish up a paper and she needs some rest before a 7:30 a.m. honors chem test.
A computer: You may be required to purchase a computer with certain specs as a condition of enrolling. Even if a computer isn't mandatory, seriously consider getting one; it'll make your life much easier. The computer labs at my university are often full, some have limited hours, and most require trudging across campus, not something you'll be eager to do in the middle of the night. It's much nicer to know you have a dedicated place to work that will always be available.
Laptops can be convenient, but I opted for a desktop, used it as my sole computer for over 3 1/2 years, and am still very happy with my decision. If you need a computer primarily for research, writing papers, and email, you can probably find a package deal with monitor and maybe a printer that'll do everything you need for less than $500 if you wait for good sales. More RAM is generally a good thing, a nice monitor is a plus for watching dvds, and a cheap tv tuner card is nice if your dorm has free cable and you like that sort of thing. You might consider OpenOffice as an alternative to the expensive Microsoft Office if you aren't hopelessly attached to Excel for sciencey uses.
If you shop around and consider what you actually need, starting college needn't be hugely expensive. Plan on buying the minimum and purchasing additional items over the first few weeks as you get a better sense of what you'll use.
*Tunnisboule was invented in fall 2004 by some people who lived down the hall from me. It is a team sport played with brooms with dustpans duct taped to their handles, some sort of ball, and the elevators at either end of the hallway as goals. The rules are fairly flexible, and you're allowed to hit people with your broom handle if you feel like it. There's a lot of yelling involved.
Saturday, April 19, 2008
Despite being an absolute nervous wreck, I managed to pass my thesis defense. I won't find out my level of distinction until after the honors council meets in two weeks, but at this point I'm just happy I did well enough to graduate. (Well, I say that now knowing full well I'll be disappointed with myself if I didn't do well enough for summa.) I got my placement interview with TFA out of the way yesterday as well. By some minor miracle, I also don't have any major assignments due next week so I can take a more leisurely approach to homework rather than trying to cram productive activity into every waking moment.
Throw in a nice check from the latest installment of my research grant, and I find myself grappling with the temptation to go out and spend some money. Last night I kept the urge reasonably well in check. I went to a movie with my brother, but I had a free pass so the only splurge was $4 for popcorn for the two of us. I may not be quite so good throughout the weekend.
I want pad thai with tofu, something cold, fizzy, and caffeinated, and maybe that yummy appetizer with with the crab. I want to order used copies of some of Ian McDonald's books since River of Gods was my favorite thing I've read so far this year and the library doesn't have any more of his stuff. I want really good dark chocolate and some chewing gum. I want a bunch of things that aren't at all essential, and worse yet, I feel that I'm entitled as a result of my hard work. It's tempting to give myself $50 to blow on whatever I want this weekend and go back to being frugal next week.
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
My grandfather, on the other hand, absolutely must spend his stimulus payment within three months of receiving it as a condition of continuing to receive Medicaid benefits. He's 88, has suffered from aphasia as a result his second stroke when I was in elementary school, has had respiratory problems and been on oxygen since a bad bout of double pneumonia in 1999, and never regained the ability to walk after being bedridden following surgery summer before last. After completing physical therapy that summer, he ended up in a nursing home because he now needs more help with the basic tasks of his daily life than my grandmother and the rest of my family can provide.
Nursing care is tremendously expensive, and the bills quickly ate through my grandparents' savings. My grandfather was approved for Medicaid last fall. His pensions and social security income all go into a trust: he gets $40 a month for his own needs, my grandmother gets a fixed sum to supplement her own social security benefits since my grandfather has a far greater income, and the rest goes toward his medical bills. He's allowed to keep a small amount of money, and under most circumstances if he exceeded that limit he'd no longer be eligible for Medicaid.
The stimulus payment will push him and many other Medicaid patients over that limit. The state had to institute a special policy to deal with this problem: if the money is spent for my grandfather's benefit within three months, it won't count. Otherwise, my grandfather will lose Medicaid benefits and have to reapply, even though his stimulus payment would cover less than a week of his care.
Now we just have to figure out how to spend this money. It's hard to buy for someone whose activities are so limited. Watching sports and old movies on tv and reading the newspaper are how he fills much of his time.
Monday, April 14, 2008
There's a reason my grandparents' taxes go to a CPA: they're complicated, this year more than most. There were issues of making estimated payments on capital gains on stocks and mutual funds sold to pay for my grandfather's care, insane medical expenses, Medicaid kicking in partway through the year and paying my grandparents back for some of what they should have covered earlier if the bureaucracy hadn't gotten gummed up, and other assorted fun stuff. (Oh, and don't get me started on the "stimulus payment" and how that will affect my grandfather's Medicaid. Or, do get me started if you're genuinely interested.) We sorted through all of the relevant papers, filled out the worksheet from the accountant, delivered everything to her office, and trusted it would get done.
It looks like my mom may just tell them to file for an extension. That doesn't seem like a huge problem to me, but she seems perpetually overwhelmed by the amount of paperwork and bureaucracy she has to deal with for my grandfather's care so this may be the straw that breaks the camel's back. I want to do what I can to ease the burden, but she's the one with power of attorney so there aren't that many tasks I can take over.
Last year, she had completed her first full year at her second part-time job and hadn't set up withholding correctly so my parents were going to owe a bit when they filed her taxes unless she set up a traditional IRA and took a deduction for that. So, in late March of last year, she asked me to research investment options for her. I prepared a full slate of options for her, showed her what to look for when comparing the plan her insurance agent boss tried to sell her, and made a recommendation. She hemmed and hawed right up to the deadline and then decided to go along with my suggestion and invested in the Vanguard Target 2015 fund even though she was anxious about having any exposure to the stock market whatsoever. (My dad's 401(k) is entirely in something with guaranteed principal and meager interest rates.)
She spent the past year watching her balance go up and down as the stock market did its thing and fretted quite a lot. My mom doesn't think of this as a small fraction of a larger retirement portfolio, but as her money, money she doesn't want to lose. She has considered getting out of the fund and moving her IRA to an FDIC insured account at the bank, which probably isn't the best move for someone in her mid-fifties.
A couple of months ago, I asked her whether she planned to contribute to an IRA for 2007. Her answer was an unequivocal no, even when I suggested she could put this year's contribution in a cd if market volatility made her that uncomfortable. Then, of course, with two days before the deadline, she changed her mind and asked for guidance on where to put her money. My dad decided to jump on the bandwagon and fund a Roth for himself, something my mother has been urging him to do for months, even though she insists on investing in a traditional IRA herself. My dad has even less risk tolerance than my mother so he'll probably leave the money in a bank account for the next couple of decades, but he might as well avoid paying taxes on the interest.
I don't have time to hunt for the best rates right now. At this point, the best option seems to be an IRA of 30 day certificates of deposit that my bank offers. They can probably get better rates elsewhere, but the 30 day c.d. would give my folks the option to move their money in a month without penalty after they/I have time to do more research.
I'm not thrilled about being asked for investment advice. Based on the questions my mother asks, I do know a lot more about the rules for IRAs than she does and more about where to go for answers when I don't know myself so I guess it's understandable, but I worry that I'll end up talking her into things she isn't comfortable with, like the Vanguard target date fund, and she'll be upset with me if things turn out badly. I am not an expert.
Saturday, April 12, 2008
I lie somewhere in the middle.
There are people who took calculated risks by getting ARMs and lost out, and there are plenty of middle class families I know who're one minor crisis away from disaster, not as a result of an unfair system, but as a result of huge consumer debt they voluntarily assumed to pay for luxuries I can only dream of. I understand the grumbling about how we shouldn't finance other people's irresponsibility.
At the same time, I don't buy into the idea that the victims of predatory lending, which does exist, have no one but themselves to blame. In an ideal world,everyone would be well informed. However, we're not equipping people with the tools they need to make good decisions about money.
I think about my mother's co-worker, whom I tutored a couple of times. He's thirty and a nice guy. He has a high school diploma, which means he had more formal education than most of his family, and works as a cook at his aunt's pizzeria. He doesn't want to work there forever so he started taking classes through a well-known online university. When he got really far behind in his introductory algebra class, he called me for help.
He struggles with fractions. Problems involving simple interest were a mystery to him so there's no way he could figure the compound interest associated with his car payment. We're sending people out into the world who are functionally innumerate, giving them no formal guidance on financial matters, and expecting them to sink or swim in a society where easy credit has become almost a birthright. What did we expect would happen?
Friday, April 11, 2008
The thesis is looking quite thesis-like, a tight forty pages full of nifty equations, references, and graphs. It seems to actually contain data from which we can draw meaningful conclusions, which seemed like a lost cause last semester when I was redesigning the equipment instead of getting results. Now the end is in sight! However, I'm going to have to go sleep rather than finish the latest set of revisions and send it off to my adviser, which is not a good thing since it has to go to the committee tomorrow.
I get the feeling my adviser has been coddling me a bit these past couple of days. Apparently yesterday,despite my best efforts to feign cheery optimism while getting by on three hours of sleep and facing a thesis that was nowhere near complete, he thought I looked dangerously close to breaking. Now he keeps reassuring me that, yes, I will pass my defense and get to graduate, and reminding me to eat real food rather than trying to subsist on granola bars and diet soda.
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
I know moving, paying deposits, and buying supplies for my classroom will take a bite out of my savings. I'm also planning to put $5,000 in a Roth asap since this will be the first year I'll have earned income instead of fellowship income. Even after doing that, I'll be left with a substantial amount of money.
There's the dismaying possibility that my astonishingly reliable 1999 Ford Taurus with 111,000 miles on it will need big repairs or even replacement in the next couple of years. In addition, I won't feel comfortable without some reserves for emergencies. The big question is: how big should these reserves be?
My mother told me that she and my father always felt that $10,000 was the minimum they needed, and I've had that in mind as a goal. They arrived at that figure many years ago so inflation is an issue, but they also had a mortgage and two small kids back then. Lately, I've started wondering whether I really need that much on top of the car fund as I'd previously assumed.
Let's say the worst happens and my car requires repairs that cost far, far more than its value and I end up deciding that replacing it is the better option. If I have a grand total of $10,000 in savings, I can get a good newer used car for $6,000 and still have more than three months living expenses in reserve while I begin to build the account back up. That doesn't sound like the height of recklessness, does it?
It isn't as though I'd be forgoing the larger emergency fund in favor of lavish meals, shiny baubles, and a great dvd collection. The whole reason for keeping less in an e-fund is to be able to put more toward big, more distant goals like a house and retirement where it makes sense to take a bit more risk and/or sacrifice some liquidity to pursue higher returns. It all makes good sense, but I'm still reluctant to leave behind the security of a huge emergency fund.
Saturday, April 5, 2008
It all started when I went to a dinner in honor of our physics department's centennial. Alumni and retired faculty came in from all over, and it was a fairly swanky affair. Naturally, I ended up at a table with a few undergrads, plus the daughters of my academic advisor and her husband, my E&M prof. I had a grand time talking with the older of the girls, BJ, who has a B.S. in physics, recently completed an M.A. in humanities, and will be leaving for the Peace Corps in five months. We knew each other fairly well already since her mom pretty much adopted me when I was a freshman; I was at her house for Thanksgiving dinner last year.
I chatted with my research advisor about the thesis, and he suggested I needed to take a break. BJ then invited me to go out with her to hang out with some other alumni, including a very close friend of hers from her undergrad days and his girlfriend, whom she hadn't met. She suggested I could just go, have one drink, visit for a bit, and then leave whenever I wanted.
We arrived at the bar, where I bought a Coke for myself and a beer for BJ (total cost including tip: $4). Everyone was friendly, even though I was my usual shy self. I concluded I needed to stay longer than anticipated to provide moral support when we learned that BJ's close guy friend, with whom she has had some romantic entanglements and for whom she still carries a torch, is engaged and will be getting married in two weeks. The happy couple were engaging in a bit of PDA, and poor BJ was having a rough night, although she handled the situation with great aplomb (and a substantial bit of drinking).
So I spent a few hours in that bar, nursing that one Coke and trying to politely decline the numerous suggestions that I needed to have a few beers. My advisor would almost certainly kill me if I let anything happen to BJ, and no one else was in any shape to drive her home. It wasn't my ideal evening, but it was surprisingly ok, all things considered. BJ insists we must hang out under less excruciatingly awkward circumstances after my thesis is complete so I have that to look forward to.
On the whole, not bad for my first time legally in a bar. (Once in New York I went with the grad students from my lab to watch a World Cup match in a bar down the street. I had a soda then too, and nobody bothered to check my license to determine whether I could legally enter.)
Thursday, April 3, 2008
How, you may ask, do I manage to blow money without going out or doing anything? It's pretty simple. Junk food = comfort. (Yeah, that's a bad pattern, but if I keep it under control 95% of the time, will a couple of weeks with lots of chocolate and few fresh veggies do long term harm?) Convenience foods = less time cooking = more time for pressing activities. I'm not proud of my lack of willpower right now, but if a vending machine poptart or some microwave popcorn keeps me going, that's just the way it has to be for now. As a recent op-ed in the NYTimes suggests, I have only so much willpower and focus, and keeping my grocery budget low isn't high on my list of priorities this month.