Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Sushi Chronicles, Parts One and Two

These entries will be short, and may be incoherent, given that Japanese keyboards are just different enough to make me crazy.

Part One:

I`m in Kobe, Japan, having spent two days there, and one in Himeji at an onsen (natural hot spring) Ryokan. I should probably put some links here, and if I get a chance, I will, later. In the meantime, both cities are intriguing.

Kobe`s recent history is forever colored by the huge earthquake that devastated the city and killed nearly 6000 people in 1995. Thirteen years later, the city is almost entirely rebuilt, but the earthquake is certainly not forgotten.

This is where my traveling companion`s relatives live. An aunt and two cousins died in the earthquake. The relatives that are showing us around have very strong memories of the quake.

We visited the quaintly named Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Museum which is staffed by quake survivors who are anxious to tell their stories. There is also a highly effective movie, complete with special sound and motion effects to convey the chaos that the city endured.

Almost as good was another earthquake museum on the nearby island, Awagi, which is actually built over the faultline, which is covered with glass, so that one can follow it over the course of a hundred feet or more.

Using Kobe as a base, we visited Himeji Castle, which you may have seen if you watched Tom Cruise chew up the scenery in The Last Samurai. The six-story wooden castle was very impressive, even without Mr. Cruise.

In terms of money, I`ve spent fairly little so far, given that my friend`s relatives have been taking us everywhere. I should also mention that when it comes to food, the cliched Jewish mother has nothing on a Japanese housewife determined to make sure her international guests don`t starve.

Part Two:

I am now in Kyoto, having spent the previous day in Nara. I saw no women in kimonos in Kobe or Himejii except for employees of the Ryokan who wore Yukatas (cotton bathrobes) everywhere, as did we while staying there. But in Kyoto, there were a surprising number of women of all ages, wearing kimonos. And carrying, and using cell phones. Quite the ambiguous image!

The emperor was in Nara the same day we were but we were too busy trekking to various temples to see him. It is difficult to describe the combined effect of the temples in Nara and Kyoto. I expected to get templed-out at some point but it never happened. The spareness, the size, the sense of foreignness was impressive and awe-inspiring.

My Japanese language skills (dusted off after 30 years of non-use) have been laughable but I have yet to meet one rude person in Japan. Everyone has been kind and several strangers have gone out of their way to keep two middle-aged ladies on track.

This part of the trip, my friend and I have been on our own, so I`m spending more money. The exchange rate has not been in our favor. But I am still well within my original budget. I could, if I have to, use my Bank of America debit card, but with a five dollar fee plus a three percent foreign transaction fee, that`s one card I`ll avoid.

Next stops: Kamakura, Nikko and Tokyo.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Off on an Asian Tangent

For the next three weeks, this space will be devoted to GRACE--the Asian Edition.

It's not my intent to bore folks with a travelog and I will try to keep my focus on the financial aspects of foreign travel during a recession. I'm also thinking it will be interesting to watch the US election from foreign shores. (Yes, I already sent my ballot in.)

This trip is a dream for me, but the timing could have been a whole lot better.

Fortunately, I did save for it. Unfortunately, I may not have saved enough. We'll see.

My airfare was prepaid last March. My sister gave me a $500 prepaid VISA card for "fun stuff." I have $1600 of my own to cover lodging, train travel, food and expenses. I'll be gone 18 days, but lodging is covered by my travelling companion's relatives for six of those days. To the extent there is a cost for this, it's $180, my share of two Pendleton blankets we're bringing as gifts to the two families taking us in.

The most important thing, for me, is not to become obsessed with how much I'm either spending or not spending. That's my tendency, and it can ruin a vacation if I let it.

The Japanese Yen is very strong against the dollar. That's good for the Japanese, less so for Grace. I bought $800 worth of yen yesterday at a rate of 97 yen to the dollar. Two days ago, it was 107 yen to the dollar.

The Japanese know about recessions. They were in one for ten years and it destroyed the retirement plans of many individuals. So I don't begrudge them their current prosperity. In fact, I'm eager to see it.

Sayonara for now. Watch this space.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Festival of Frugality is Up

The Festival of Frugality, hosted by Mighty Bargain Hunter is up and running.

My Tracfone post is included, along with a multitude of great money-saving posts.

Friday, October 17, 2008

On Track with Trac

I'm something of a Luddite when it comes to cell phones. I didn't even have one until my oldest daughter gave me a Tracfone for Christmas, 2006. She was so excited for me, she actually snapped a picture as I unwrapped it--capturing forever a shot of me with my best "What the heck am I supposed to do with this?" look on my face.

Over time, I have come around--no longer would I want to be without my cell. I particularly like the idea of having it available for emergencies.

Still, I'm not one of those folks you'll find chatting away on the bus, on the street, or even (much!) in my car.

I pretty much use my cell only to keep track of my kids (or to be more accurate, they call me to keep track of me!) or when I'm running late for appointments, or to be in contact with my office.

I don't routinely give out my cell phone number.

I apparently have the capacity on my Tracfone to text. I wouldn't really know because I've never done that.

I don't have a fancy phone--the $9.99 price for the Motorola phone is the first clue! It doesn't take pictures, it doesn't have fancy ringtones and I can't have George Clooney as my wallpaper.

But what it does do, it does well. It gets reception virtually everywhere. I notice that when I return to my old hometown on the coast, my daughter's Cricket phone stops working about an hour out of our city. And in spite of all those "Can You Hear Me Now" ads, her husband's Verizon phone doesn't get reception in many places in that town either.

Another of my daughters has replaced her phone three times while mine was only replaced once and that's because I ran it through the washing machine. (This is NOT recommended). Then, of course, my replacement was still $9.99. I have dropped the phone innumerable times and even cracked the back plate, but a small piece of duct tape later, it still works just fine.

The per minute price is high. A 60 minute phone card retails for $19.99. There are always codes to be found on the internet that will add anywhere from 20 minutes to 60 minutes to this time. The nice thing about the codes is that you can "try them out" if you use Tracfone's online site to refill the minutes. You can ignore everything Tracfone says about codes being 'only good for one use' or the dates they say the codes can be used. I always try the old codes and often, they continue to work. Oddly, last month, when I couldn't get my minutes credited on the website, I called Tracfone. The operator used the bonus code I gave her, which was supposed to give me an additional 30 minutes, and it gave me an extra 60 minutes. Go figure.

Target sometimes offers the 60 minute cards for $18.99. E-bay is often cheaper than that. My lowest price on E-Bay was $14.50 but that was some time ago. Lately, I haven't been able to get better than $17.50 at auction. I have never been burned buying cards on E-bay for my Tracfone. After the auction, and once my paypal account makes the payment, the seller e-mails me with the code off the card and I use it. I don't bother asking for the card to be mailed because that adds to the cost and so far, it hasn't been necessary.

But with any Tracfone, and even with discount prices and bonus codes, the per minute price remains high, around 16 cents a minute.

That would never work for my kids and some of my colleagues, who seem to run around with their cells glued to their ears--literally, for those addicted to Bluetooth!

However, for me, not having a two year contract or overage charges, actually saves me money. I've been tracking my expenses since January of this year. During that time, I've spent $74.50 for four 60 minute cards that have actually given me 400 minutes. Depending on my use, I need a new card every six to eight weeks.

Trac is keeping me on track with my money.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Syd Gets it Right--I Hope

If you're not reading Syd's blog, Retirement: A Fulltime Job, you're missing some interesting and timely posts. Her latest one on the current market (Syd did pick a spectacularly inauspicious time to retire) is one I particularly appreciate.

Of course, I do look for posts and experts that back up how I prefer to see what is happening in the stock market.

But I think that it is an advantage to have been on this earth for 59 years. It gives me perspective.

I have witnessed the stock market and the economy in general do a lot of crazy things. Heck, I remember having CD's that earned 15% and I remember thinking that was not nearly enough interest! I remember when a mortgage rate of 10% was not considered unreasonable. Finally, having worked in non-profits dependent upon public funding for many years, I am all too familiar with the ups and downs and political whims that have governed my paycheck.

This, too, shall pass.

I hope.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Trying Hard NOT to Hyperventilate

I knew better than to look, but it's kinda like being ordered NOT to think of a pink elephant--once someone brings it up, you just can't help yourself. Pink elephants are ALL you can think about.


I looked.

There were my retirement funds: the ones that were at $174,518 last October; the ones where I've been contributing an additional $1000+ every single month since then;

And there I found my retirement funds as of yesterday: $129,626.


I just keep telling myself to stick with the program; I'm getting a bargain on purchases of my mutual funds; I've got nearly ten years until I want to retire; It will get better. It will get better.

It had dang well better get better!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Credit Card Weirdness

This did not happen to me.

I don't have an American Express credit card.

But a colleague of mine does. Her husband is a physician who flies all over the world setting up temporary emergency hospitals, particularly in third world countries.

They use their American Express card alot. They tend to charge several thousand a month, particularly in airline fees for which they are reimbursed.

They have never been late with a payment. They are nowhere near their credit limit.

Yet this past weekend, my colleague received a telephone call from American Express demanding an additional payment (she had just sent in a payment the prior week) or their card would be suspended.

When she objected and pointed out their excellent payment record, she was told that American Express was calling on many of their "good" customers to make additional payments.

My first thought was that this was a scam, but my colleague called American Express this morning, and verified that the weekend call was genuine, and so was the threat to suspend the card.

I'm just amazed that this could possibly be legal.

What is going on? Fall-out from the credit freeze? Credit card companies running scared?

All in all, it seems foolish of American Express to tick off their "good" customers. And my colleague is plenty ticked off!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Silver Linings

The bad news should be that there was a fire in my stand-alone garage last month that caused considerable damage.

Oddly enough, burning down one's garage is turning out to be just fine financially!

Say what?

Well, not only is the entire inside reframed and painted (fortunately, the stucco outer walls and the two-year-old roof survived the fire) but my badly-graffitied garage door has been replaced with a pristine new one. While I wish the white panels didn't scream "Come On! Your gang sign belongs HERE!" quite so loudly, it really does look nice at the moment.

Who knows how long it would have taken me to replace that door otherwise?

To top it off, my neighbors across the alley approached me about renting the garage to park two of their vehicles. Don't ask me why the two guys who've lived there for years have six vehicles between them while I've been driving my solitary Dodge Caravan minivan for almost ten years.

I will probably go ahead and rent to them since I only use the garage for storage anyway.

So, far from being a financial disaster, I'm winding up with a newer, better garage and possibly, a new source of income.