Sunday, January 31, 2010


To be completely honest, I've been back for two days. But it has taken that long to catch up on two stacks of mail (one at home and the other at the office).

What can I say?

Paris was incredible. There is much to be said for traveling in the company of rich women who don't mind covering for one's poorer relation.

It rained the entire time, but just a steady drizzle. Heck, I'm used to the Pacific NW. If it's not coming down in torrents, and the wind isn't blowing my umbrella inside out, I barely notice.

Not that it really mattered because the three of us--my banker-sister, and her pastry-chef friend, and myself--spent most of our time hanging out in patisseries, chocolate shops and museums.

The Louvre is everything it is cracked up to be--amazing. It is such a strange feeling to be seeing the original of so much artwork that I've only seen it books. Frankly, only the Mona Lisa disappointed--she's somewhat better (and larger) in all those pictures than in "person." I loved I.M. Pei's Pyramid, and, though it is supposed to a controversial addition to the Louvre, so did most of the French people that I asked.

However, the Musee D'Orsay wins, for me, the "best building" award--truly lovely.

The surprise for me was the Pompidou Centre, where I'd never been. It was terrific fun, with an ultra-modern art collection housed in a very modern, very ugly building that perfectly suits the art therein. I wound up spending much more than the allotted two hours going through the collection. (Sorry about the link for those who don't speak French--I couldn't find the site in English.)

Our chef-friend was in search of the ultimate French Macaron, which, it turns out, is NOT the coconut confection I imagined. Instead, it is a French Oreo in all sorts of interesting and weird colors with all sorts of interesting and weird (but TASTY!) flavors. Even the ones she found not to her liking tasted great to me.

That we did a lot of walking was fortunate given the amount of eating we also did.

One night was set aside for the La Tour d'Argent, a one-star Michelin restaurant. I don't know that it was worth the price (frankly NO restaurant is worth the $1400 my sister spent on four diners) but it was terrific food. They specialize in duck, and that's what we had, along with fois gras with truffles, dauphin potatoes and an amazing array of other items. Plus, of course, wine. If this is only worth one star, I can't imagine what the more greatly starred restaurants are like (or what they must charge!)

In all, I had a wonderful time. It was fun hanging out with my sister.

And, on a financial note, the whole thing cost me less than $300, half of which was for gifts for the folks back home.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Au Revoir Mes Amis

I'll be taking a six day break from the blog while hanging out with my sister in Paris. I'm turning off the comments for the duration because I'm getting too much spam that requires daily monitoring (and a sharp-eyed Hebrew speaker!--Thanks, Shevy). See ya next week.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Is That Murphy Camped Out on My Porch?

My newly acquired car payment is $160.00 per month.

On Saturday, my mortgage company recalculated my property tax and insurance payments for the year, and let me know that my payments for 2010 will be going up by $162.00 beginning in February.

Same old income, but now I have to come up with an additional $322 per month in regular expenses.


The only bit of good news is that my granddaughter's living expenses at college have reduced since her hours have increased at her parttime job, so I'll be saving $125 a month there.

On the job, collective bargaining has begun. I am at the top of the pay scale and have been for some time, so I usually don't get a monthly increase. Instead, there's a lump sum "bonus" instead. That's OK by me, but this year, health benefits are on the table. Mine will be covered, but I also cover my youngest daughter and will until she's 21. It looks like I may have to contribute some amount per month to keep her covered, beginning in April.

I was sort of hoping that 2010 would be better financially than 2009. Maybe it will, but first I have to get Murphy gone from my life.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Contest That Looks Good

Over at Money Crashers, a great-looking contest is going on. Check out the giveaway list, which includes tax software, Amazon Kindles, books galore and, best of all, Moola!

Registering gives you one entry, but there are plenty of ways to get more. Note that Grace picked up an additional 30 entries just by writing this post.

Monday, January 11, 2010

When the Best Buy Isn't

OK, I'll admit it.

I do shop at Best Buy. And yes, their "extras" sales pitches are annoying. I feel like I should come in with a sign that says "Just give me the product and the advertised price so I can leave with my wallet intact."

Over at The Consumerist , there's a fine article about just what a rip-off their optimization scam is.

With adult children, and quickly-growing grandchildren, my family's gifts of choice at Christmas or birthdays are usually electronics. This past Christmas, game systems, telephones and computers comprised most of my purchases. I watched sales carefully for months, and Best Buy came in the lowest for laptops and netbooks.

While I did not run into the "we only have optimized computers left in stock," I did get the hard sell to purchase optimization. I had to constantly repeat my mantra: "I am just purchasing the advertised computer." It strikes me as odd that all the extras are pushed so hard when Best Buy employees are salaried, not paid on commission.

One particularly ridiculous conversation occurred when I went to purchase a netbook that came bundled with a carrying case for $249. They were out of the bundle, but they had the computer alone for $279. I said I'd forego the carrying case, but I wanted the bundled price. It took three employees, two managers and forty-five minutes to finally decide that I could buy the computer without the case for $249.

You would have thought I was the one trying to scam Best Buy!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Continuing the Dialog

I knew when I posted yesterday that I was going to get exactly the sort of responses that, indeed, I did get. There was the usual (anonymous!) rant against public benefits. There was the assumption that my kids are jobless leeches. There was the assumption that jobs and housing are plentiful for anyone willing to look for them.

I posted anyway, because it helps me to sort out my own thoughts about assisting my adult children and grandchildren.

For starters, keep in mind that I do not, for the most part, have "normal" children. I adopted older children from the foster care system who came to me with a myriad of issues, not all of them solved by love and good parenting. They continue to have intellectual and behavioral problems that impact their adult lives. I knew when I started parenting thirty years ago that my children were going to have special needs well into adulthood.

Due to my own financial misteps (Retirement savings? I can do that LATER! Credit cards? Life's gift to me, right?), I am in the position of scrambling to secure my future at the same time that I am helping my children and grandchildren secure theirs.

But I also know that I am a soft touch when it comes to my family, and that it helps none of us to allow family to take advantage of me.

Finding the middle ground is harder than it looks.

Some of the comments to my prior post are thoughtful and well-taken. Others, not so much. It is easy to rail against food stamps and unemployment compensation--unless of course one is unemployed, and needs the food stamps. Surely if this economy has taught us anything, it is that jobloss and hunger are NOT circumstances that always happen to the other guy. Sometimes it cuts close to home.

My daughter, for example, is sporadically employed. She found retail work during Christmas. She will pick up more during the census. But what she needs is a fulltime job, which has been difficult for her to find. She strung together enough parttime work to pay rent for most of last year. But when she got behind in October, her roommates could not pick up the slack. So, in November, she moved back home. If she's working, she pays me $100 a month for rent; if she's not, she cleans house once a week for me.

The two grandkids and their father moved in with me in September when Child Protective Services got involved with one of my other daughters, their mother. The father works fulltime, but at a minimum wage job. He takes advantage of public benefits like food stamps and Employment-related daycare. These programs have been a lifesaver for him. He's finding that parenthood is a lot harder than just sending child support (which, as a matter of fact, he had always been good about paying). I charge him $150 for rent, because his take home is not nearly enough to support himself and two children.

Unfortunately, my increased utility payments alone outweigh the small amounts of rent I'm getting.

I don't see that either my daughter, or my grandkid's family have the ability to pay me more, at least not right now. I also don't see the point in throwing either of them out.

Constructive input is invited. Actually, even the non-constructive kind will be read and considered.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Five Cannot Live As Cheaply As One

I don't suppose it comes as a shock to anyone, including me, that having four additional people (one adult daughter, two grandchildren and their father) living in my home is causing issues in my budget.

My daughter is home for a few months (we've agreed she will be gone by April); my grandchildren and their dad are probably with me for a lot longer.

A comparison of some of my bills for November and December shows the damage: my water bill, which I get quarterly, went from $116 to $317. Since the two grandchildren have bedwetting problems, my washer and dryer run at least two loads a day, often more. And then, there's all the extra showers and dishwashing that occurs with four additional people.

My electric bills have soared, largely because the basement where the bedrooms for the grandkids and their dad are located, are heated by electric space heaters. Instead of $69 a month, I'm currently paying $184.

My oil bill is higher as well, thanks to young kids who have a hard time remembering to shut doors and not turn the thermostat to 80 degrees.

I am getting a small contribution as "rent" but it doesn't cover the actual increase in expenses. Both my daughter and my grandkid's father contribute food to the household since they both get foodstamps--that helps, but, again, it really doesn't cover the increases.

Time to do some rearranging of the budget!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

With A Little Help From My Friends

Walter Updegrave, writing in the January/February issue of Money magazine, has an interesting article on the importance of friends when one retires. I'd link to the article, but it appears that the current issue is not yet online.

At any rate, Updegrave cites research by the Pew Research Center which shows that in addition to sound health and strong finances, friendships are a major factor in boosting happiness during retirement.

Further research by the MetLife Mature Market Institute (which has a great downloadable workbook) supports that view.

It does seem to me that I had a wider circle of friends and a more active social life when I was younger. Right now, I have only a handful of friends with whom I go out on a regular basis. I hardly ever entertain at home any more.

Updegrave's point is that we cannot wait until we retire to cultivate friendships. We need to do it now while we're working, and out in the community. Then we need to keep up with the development of new relationships by socializing and volunteering after we retire.

The Pew report points to religion as one way seniors interact in groups. That probably won't work for me since I tend not to be all that religious. But I certainly plan to volunteer during retirement. Right now, being a CASA volunteer for children, and tutoring reading in elementary schools appeals to me the most. But that could certainly change by the time I retire.

I remember my maternal grandfather complaining as he lived into his nineties that all his friends had passed away before him. It never seemed to have occurred to him that making new friends as he got older was important. That's not a mistake I want to make.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Free is the Right Price

The folks at Wallet Pop are offering David Bach's book Start Over. Finish Rich as a free download.

This offer is good only for today.

In general, I find Bach's books too short and too simplistic. If you've read any one of them, you've read them all.

BUT, it never hurts to start a new year or a new decade with a fast financial read, so I've downloaded the book, and I do plan to read in the next day or two.

You can't beat the price!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Roth or a Traditional IRA?

My 401(k) is a traditional one. My employer contributes 6% of my salary to it. I can contribute whatever I want up to certain maximums ($22,000 which includes 'catch-up' provisions for those of us over age 50). I have the choice to add funds to the traditional 401(k) or to contribute to a Roth IRA or both.

I have always chosen to stick with the 401(k), largely because it reduces my taxable income.

Still, it is attractive to think that with a Roth, I could withdraw funds or not as I choose (whereas I have to start 401(k) withdrawals at age 70.5) and that those withdrawals would be tax free. (Not exactly, of course. Taxes were already paid when/if I made the deposits into a Roth.)

But this article convinces me that, at my age, and what looks to be my financial situation when I retire, it is too late for a Roth to help me. Certainly, it would be way too expensive to change over my traditional retirement savings to Roth accounts.

But for those with a 15 year or more timeline to retirement, the Roth may well be the way to go.

Friday, January 1, 2010

2010 Goals

My 2010 goals will look a lot like my 2009 goals, which, in turn greatly resembled my 2008 goals.

Which, if you are reading between the lines, tells you that I have yet to ever meet my annual financial goals.

Isn't it the definition of insanity to keep doing the same things and expecting a different result?

Ah well. My new plan is to institute smaller, quarterly goals that should lead me to year-end achievement of the bigger goals.

SO--here are Grace's Personal Finance Goals for 2010:

1. Reduce credit card/personal loan/auto loan debt by at least $6000.

2. Have $1000 emergency savings plan in effect by February 28 and keep it fully funded for the rest of the year.

3. Contribute $17,010 to 401(k). (This is a very slight increase of $12.50 per paycheck--I don't know yet if I'll get a pay raise in 2010.)

4. Drive less. Walk more or take public transportation since I have an annual pass.

5. Figure out how to use those cute graphic do-hickeys on my blog to chart my progress on these goals.

To everyone--here's hoping that the coming year and decade is fullfilling and prosperous for you all.