Thursday, July 31, 2008

If you are a renter, you need renter's insurance.

I went an entire year in my apartment without taking out a renter's insurance policy. Paying premiums seemed like yet another drain on my already tight budget so I managed to keep putting it off. It was pretty idiotic since replacing all of my stuff if there had been a break-in or a fire would have been a much bigger expense and a huge hassle.

My roommate is a musician with some fairly valuable instruments so insurance was a priority for her, and I agreed to handle it since my mother works at an insurance agency and all. Getting renter's insurance was much cheaper than I'd expected. Our stuff is covered for losses up to $24,000, plus we have $300,000 in liability coverage in case we accidentally catch our house on fire or someone gets injured falling off of our deck, for the low cost of $215 a year. We'll even get a further discount once we get our security system working. The whole process took less than half an hour.

So, seriously, no excuses. If you had to replace everything you owned, that would be a major pain. If you had to pay for everything you owned out of pocket all at once, that would be far, far worse.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


The new teacher meeting thing wasn't quite a resounding success. I'd thought we'd be getting our contracts, but it turned out that we were just filling out applications and miscellaneous paperwork. Worse yet, it looks like there probably isn't a 403(b) plan at all! There were forms for the state teacher pension program, but nothing about defined contribution plans, and current teachers in the district haven't heard of one being offered.

This doesn't change my plans to save as much as I can during these next two years, but it does force me to reassess my savings goals. What exactly are my priorities after I max out my Roth each year? Am I saving for retirement in taxable accounts? Building up a larger cash cushion for grad school? Trying to amass a down payment for a house purchase that may be a decade hence? I wish I had a better sense of direction.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Leaving on a jetplane.

My time in Houston has drawn to a close. If my flights aren't delayed, I should be in the air somewhere between Dallas and Memphis when this is posted. I'll probably be grumbling to myself about having to pay fifteen bucks to check a bag. Some corps members are planning to fuss at the regional office about that in the hopes that they'll reimburse us. (I probably could have managed to somehow fit six days worth of professional attire into my carry on bag, but when you're required to bring your own sheets, towel, and pillow as well as textbooks packing light becomes a bit trickier.)

I'll be without internet for the next couple of days before I head home Tuesday night to see my family and figure out how to transport my stuff. Rest assured, I have plenty of fun activities planned to fill the void left by being unable to blog, namely possibly spending all of Monday waiting for the gas company (They've said I can expect the technician to show up sometime between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. but also stated, "Please note that, on very rare occasions, our technician may arrive after 5 p.m., but no later than midnight.") and filling out employment papers and such at the district office Tuesday afternoon.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Unsolicited advice girl strikes again!

I was all excited for about a minute and a half when I read Jonathan's post on cd rates. 4.25%>3.50% that I'm getting now! Except, of course, I can't afford to tie up every penny I have for the next eight months since that would defeat the purpose of the emergency fund. I then ran the numbers on moving $5,000 into a cd and quickly decided it isn't worth the reduction in liquidity. meh.

Then I had a semi-brilliant idea: my parents would probably benefit far more from such rates. After all, they have a lot more money to worry about. A quick visit to their bank's website revealed that they are currently earning either 1.70 or 1.80% APY depending on how much they have sitting in their money market account. A few months ago their money market account was competitive with the major online savings accounts, but I guess those days are no more.

So I mentioned the rates to my mom when we talked tonight. She's been hesitant to do any online banking before, but it sounds like she's willing to make the jump and open a Bank of America cd online since the rates are so much better than she can get at one of their local brick-and-mortar branches. It's all part of my dastardly plan to minimize the chances I'll end up supporting my parents in a few decades.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The intersection of cheap, lazy, and bored.

I want to go see The Dark Knight. I watched Batman Begins with my dad on opening night, during a heady summer when I spent many a Friday night at the movies decompressing after organic chem tests, and it was fantastic so I've been eager to see if The Dark Knight will live up to its promise. Now my dad and brother are raving about the movie, and everyone around me has either seen it or is trying to carve out some time time to do so. Tonight for the first time in weeks, I have absolutely nothing productive I ought to be doing, no lessons to plan, papers to grade, or houses to go see. It would be the perfect opportunity to head to the movies, except that I'm in a strange city with no car, not interested in trying to negotiate an unfamiliar bus system alone at night, and feeling far too broke to spring for cab fare and a ticket.

Fortunately, the internet connection at Rice is much faster than the one at University of Houston so I can spend the evening watching Firefly on Hulu instead.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Temptation abounds.

I've signed a lease on a sensible little rental house, the place with the big deck that costs $650 a month. My roommate will be handling all of the annoying little details of getting the utilities turned on since I'm back in Houston for round two of TFA boot camp, a seminar on long term planning for math and science teachers. I'm happy to rent that house. I am. Really.

But during the past week I kept driving by a charming historic two story brick house with a fantastic porch. From the outside, at least, it has tremendous appeal, and there's a sign in the front yard that reads, "For Sale By Owner: $60,000". I managed not to give in to the urge to knock on the door and present myself as a possible buyer, but it took a bit of willpower.

There are a million good reasons not to even think of buying a house right now. I could well decide to go off to grad school or move to a school district closer to my family at the end of my two year commitment. The housing market in this town isn't booming so finding a buyer or renter later could become a huge hassle. Technically, I'm unemployed until next week when I sign my contract for the year. The house might need a lot of work, and I don't have time, energy, and money to devote to a fixer upper at this point in my life. A 20% down payment would leave me with an uncomfortably small emergency fund. I'm also just not mature enough for that kind of a commitment.

Besides, you simply don't buy your dream house two months after graduating from university. Life just doesn't work that way, and if it somehow did, I'd probably worry myself to death wondering what tragedy would befall me to balance out my good fortune. There will still be great houses a few years from now when I'll likely have more money and a better sense of where I'm going in life, right?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Feeling like a fiscal failure.

I was getting by on way too little sleep this summer, my anxiety levels were through the roof, I was failing dramatically at everything I attempted, and I honestly just quit caring about the future. It wasn't pretty, and I'm still having to work hard to avoid slipping back into those sorts of thought patterns. Needless to say, carefully tracking my spending hasn't been foremost on my mind.

I ran the numbers today, and it wasn't pretty. I'd hoped to keep the costs of this transition to $2,000 or less, covering the entire summer using the fellowship money. However, I never really developed a concrete plan for doing so, and that's reflected in how badly I'm overshooting my tentative spending plan. It looks like once I pay a deposit and first month's rent, pay my credit card bill in full, and pay other random fees and deposits that'll doubtless crop up along the way, I'll be about $300 over.

Admittedly, some of that spending was predictable and unavoidable. I had to pay $900 for graduate tuition in order to get my provisional license. Assuming our meeting with the landlord tomorrow morning goes well, I'll be spending $650 for a month's rent and the deposit. There was no way to get from Houston to the Delta without spending money for gasoline, but that expense will be reduced if I let U. reimburse me for half the cost, as he keeps insisting I must. Keeping the temporary health insurance policy and paying for prescription medication without coverage isn't great fun, but I still see it as essential.

Then there were the other things, some large, some small, many necessary, some not, most forgotten until I checked my credit card statement. Looking back, if I'd done this right, with proper planning and sanity, it would have been extremely tight but I would have at least gotten closer to achieving my goal. I screwed up. Now what?

I know I need to get back to tracking my spending now, budgeting as soon as I have an idea of what bills will be, and saving as soon as I get my first paycheck. If I effectively execute those three steps, all should be fine, and this will be nothing more than an insignificant blip. That bothers me.

Shouldn't there be some consequence? It's difficult for me to avoid devising punishments for myself, ways to reinforce the message that this isn't something I may do again, but I know that such impulses stem more from the dark and destructive recesses of my soul than from any rational system for keeping myself on track.

So if I survive next week back in Houston, I'm going to allow myself to buy the gas necessary to drive home and see my family for a few days aftwerward. When the time comes to stock my pantry, I'm going to buy groceries that will enable me to make varied and enjoyable meals rather than trying to calculate the cheapest possible way to meet my dietary requirements. I'm going to try to keep living my life despite my shortcomings.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

There's no doubt about it.

Money makes a lot of things easier. The house hunt has been going well so today many of my fellow first-years spent the afternoon strategizing about how best to scrape together a deposit and first month's rent. There was much checking of bank websites to determine account balances, some speculation about when the university is going to cash those $900 checks for the graduate tuition for this summer's coursework,and a few plaintive phone calls home. It looks like everyone will be able to pull it off, but there were several tense moments.

I know I'm incredibly lucky to be in a position where this type of thing isn't a big concern, but, at the same time, I can't help wondering why many of my compatriots waited until now to address this issue. If you know months in advance that you'll be facing a large expense, why wait until the day before you absolutely must have the money to start planning?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

House Hunters: Delta

I'm typing this while lying on the couch of some kind strangers who've opened their home to the next cohort of teachers in this town. Tomorrow the first order of business is finding a place to live for the next year, and all eleven of the new TFA teachers are planning to plunge into the house hunt en masse, hoping to maximize our odds of getting the whole thing sorted out as efficiently as possible. Our orientation coordinators and some current teachers were kind enough to vet some places for rent and compile a list, pretty much a necessity since the rental market in our town of around 15,000 apparently operates primarily by word of mouth.

There are numerous options. I'm still not sure whether I want to try to live alone so I've also been sussing out the suitability of one of my acquaintances from Institute as a roommate. We both require a fair amount of private space, quiet, and solitude to function; don't really care whether it's possible to see the floors of our bedrooms beneath the clutter; aren't fond of keeping dwellings cold during the summer months; and like large dogs, an important consideration since she's been volunteering with a weimaraner rescue group for a couple of years and is eager to adopt one of her own. It all sounds promising.

Coming in, I set a target of spending no more than $400 a month on rent, possibly a bit more if utilities are included, reasoning that that's what I paid last semester so it ought to be quite manageable on a teacher's salary. It turns out that could get you a two bedroom house around here. An apartment complex that looked quite decent from the outside is listed as having one and two bedroom places available for $150 to 200. My potential roommate is especially interested in a three bedroom, two bath house with a big deck, fenced back yard, and landlord who welcomes pets, for $650 a month.

Does spending $325 a month plus half of utility costs seem reasonable? There's a constant trade-off between present comfort and future benefit when making financial decisions. As much as I'd like to maximize my savings during the next two years, I also want to live somewhere I'll look forward to coming home to.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Ambitious vs. Feasible

We've spent more hours than I'd care to recall being lectured on the importance of setting appropriate Big Goals for our students. It's crucial to set an ambitious goal that will move our students toward accomplishing something meaningful, possibly even life-changing, and yet also ensure the goal is something we and they could conceivably pull off. The same basic process should apply to setting financial goals.

My new friend U., who'll be teaching Biology at my school, rode with me from Houston to the Delta since he had to leave his car with his parents when he moved. We tried to keep a conversation going pretty much the whole trip, partly to get to know one another better and partly to keep whoever was driving at the time alert and focused. Out of the blue, somewhere in the middle of Louisiana, U. mentioned that he wants to save $30,000 in the next two years.

Ambitious, yes, but is it feasible? I suspect that even if I lived on ramen noodles or beans and rice for two years, lived in a dilapidated house with lots of roommates, and avoided shopping I still wouldn't be able to pull it off. We won't meet with the administration and get our contracts for a couple more weeks, but the word on the street is that starting salaries will be about $31,000 a year. Taxes, insurance, and pension contributions will take a hefty bite out of that. U. will have to buy a car sometime in the next few weeks, likely financing it since he has around $5,300 to his name, $5,000 of which is tied up in a cd for the next few months, plus another $1,500 in transitional funding that he'll eventually have to pay back. (I wasn't being nosy, I swear, he volunteered this.) Throw in that he's a great son who has promised his struggling immigrant parents he'll send home $300 a month, and I just don't see it happening. I would, however, love to see him prove me wrong.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Greetings from the Delta!

After the five weeks of sheer exhaustion that is Teach for America institute I'm finally here! Well, sort of. We started orientation at a college campus today and won't be heading to our towns until Tuesday evening. I'll be sleeping on my air mattress on some current corps members' floor and trying to find housing, along with seeing my school and meeting with my principal during the rest of the week. Then Sunday morning I'll head to Memphis to catch a flight back to Houston for a mandatory week-long Math/Science seminar. It will almost certainly be valuable, but having to leave for a week won't make transitioning to a new community any easier. My parents want to know when to make the five hour drive to bring my furniture from home, and I can't give them a definite answer because I don't know with certainty that I'll be able to find housing this week.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Out of the loop

I've felt strangely disconnected from the real world lately. Shuttling back and forth between a dormitory full of stressed-out twenty-something overachievers and a high school full of failing summer school students and trying to get by on an average of four hours sleep a night during the week will do that to a person. It also doesn't leave a lot of time to follow the news. Every few days I check my retirement account and discover I've lost more money, but that's the extent of my awareness of financial goings on.