Partners, but not (financial) equals?

My income has changed immensely at three distinct points in the past two years, and it's required a lot of adjusting on my part. The first one was expected: I was done with my schooling and had begun a fellowship with a decent salary. All of a sudden I had money in the bank...and then loans to pay off. I did the hard work of building up an emergency fund and paying off as much of my debt as I could each month. And I still had plenty of wiggle room to treat myself with the occasional new pair (or two) of shoes from DSW.

Just when I'd gotten accustomed to my financial situation, my fellowship was ending and I was back on the job hunt, this time in DC. What everyone warned me about was true: expect higher living expenses and a much lower salary. That was exactly what I got. When I finally got a job offer, I was thrilled until they offered me $10K less than what I was currently making. I did my best to negotiate, hoping they'd meet me at least halfway but they didn't. I got a measly $3K more than they'd originally offered me, and panic set in.

How was I going to live this way? I had debts to pay off and a relatively expensive share of rent to pay each month. I felt grateful to have SCL as a partner because he's careful with money. Living on a student stipend, he wasn't going to have much wiggle room either, and together we came up with a reasonable budget for shared expenses that has worked fantastically for the most part. Given my lower salary and my mandatory debt payments, we were (sadly, to me) making fairly close to the same amount each month.

As you all know, that job didn't last long for a number of reasons--including the low salary, as well as just generally disliking my position. When I was interviewing for this current position, I knew what the salary would be--a little under $20K more than I made at my first job in DC. Another huge financial shift.

I think we all can agree that making more money is really nice and helpful, but for me it was also a little daunting. What do I do with this extra money? And I began to think about how SCL and I were splitting things equally. Is that "right" or fair? Should I be paying more now that I'm making more? Would SCL be comfortable with that?

This is still something we're working through, and it'll continue to be an issue while he's in school and I'm (presumably...hopefully!) making more than he is. I waver between wanting to be really generous and knowing that this job is only for a year and wanting to invest this extra money wisely.

Here's one way I hope to be a bit more generous. SCL and I have been invited to at least three weddings in 2010, two of which aren't that close and one that'll require us flying there. Knowing that he doesn't have a lot of extra cash, I'm going to start putting away a little extra each month into a travel fund, so that when it comes time for us to make arrangements, we'll have that to offset the extra costs of attending these weddings.

How do you handle financial inequality?

Learning the Ropes of Business Travel

Yesterday I got back from snowy New York (so glad Amtrak came through for me!), and it got me thinking about how travel is becoming a significant part of my professional life. It's also one of the most annoying parts. For instance, this week I was invited to come to Illinois at the end of March so I scrambled to get tickets--only to find out the following day that my presentation had been rescheduled for May. (Note: If you book through Expedia and cancel by the end of the next business day, there's no penalty. Good to know!) Such is the life of a grassroots organizer who depends on the willingness and generosity of her constituencies. I'm learning to be flexible and say, "Oh no, that's totally fine! I don't mind that I spent three hours yesterday making arrangements to come all the way to Illinois and now I have to spend another hour on the phone to Expedia canceling them. No biggie!"

But, I'll be honest. Traveling makes me feel pretty cool. Getting to go to new places and old places, seeing old friends, and trying new things on someone else's dime is a sweet deal. During my trip to New York, I discovered that living in a city makes me much more comfortable being in ANY city. I've been to New York a good number of times in the past, but I always felt a little intimidated by it because I just didn't know my way around. The subway seemed daunting, andI had this strange fear of cabs--I didn't know the etiquette, or how to tip, or what to say or not say. (So glad that you can use a credit card now.) This sounds silly, I know, but to a small town Southern girl, the city was an scary place to navigate. But now that SCL and I live in a big city ourselves, I found NY to be a different place to visit this time. Despite the ridiculous snow, I got myself around just fine and didn't freak out even once--even when I fell on my ass right outside of my hotel because I didn't have proper shoes for a snowstorm.

While traveling itself a bit less daunting, I still want to become generally better at it. To help me along, I've decided that investing in some travel accessories could make things a lot less stressful.

Here are some things I want to add to my travel toolkit:
  • A netbook (I just ordered this one today from Lugging around my old PowerBook was a pain in the butt this trip. Even with the generous trays on Amtrak, it all was too cumbersome to do any real work. I had the computer, the power cord (my battery lasts approximately 5 seconds without it), my USB drive, my phone and USB cable (for tethering internet), and headphones all plugged in, and it was just too many damn wires. The netbook will be lighter, have better battery life, and more totable. And I'll be able to use it on a plane, too.
  • A professional looking tote. I ended up using my backpack for this trip, and the whole time I felt like a student it rather than the professional woman I am. It's covered in political buttons that say things like "I love Pro-Choice Boys." Cute, but not exactly chic. I may have a bag that'll do the trick, depending on how big the netbook is. But, regardless, when I travel, I want a good looking bag that's big enough to hold all of stuff.
  • A ready-to-go toiletries bag. Traveling is uncomfortable enough without having to use bad hotel shampoo, so I'm going to invest in a smaller versions of all of my favorite products that I can pack up in a toiletries bag and not have to think about next time I hit the road. I'm a big products person, and I find that packing up this part takes up more time than picking out outfits. I'd feel much more panicked about forgetting to pack my oil-blocking face lotion than my favorite pair of shoes.
What's your best travel accessory?

The Downsides of Being a Consultant

First, let me just say that I love my job. It's the perfect mixture of things I'm passionate about with all the flexibility a person could want in a job. No one micromanages me, I get all the support I need from staff, and I have almost total autonomy. It's awesome.

Logistically, though, things are a bit of a nightmare. Since I'm not an employee, I'm not on payroll, so I get paper checks once a month. I've been paid once a month before, but it's not my favorite. When I first started, I was told I'd get a check between the 5th and the 10th each month. No big deal, I thought. I have a savings account that I can borrow from until I get paid. Even though it was psychologically difficult to move money out of my "emergency fund" and into daily spending, I knew that I'd be replacing it very soon. Or so I thought.

February has pretty much been dominated by Snowpocalypse 2.0. And we're supposed to get more snow this weekend! And my pay check was among the casualties. It pushed everything back, and on the 16th I still hadn't gotten my check in the mail. Thankfully it was in the office, so I went out of my way to go get it, deposit it, and finally got my FIRST PAYCHECK IN TWO MONTHS cleared and ready to use. Thank goodness!

But, another pain in the butt is that I have TONS of reimbursements that I haven't received yet. And we're not talking about a few hundred dollars. It's well over $1K at this point (again, backed up because of the snow.) Going through the bureaucracy of a big organization for things like reimbursements is not fun because it takes so much time. And, honestly I hadn't been keeping track on my own of just how much they owed me until yesterday--even though I'd put in the check requests. When I added it up yesterday, I thought, holy crap, they owe me a lot of cash! And that means I've been putting a ton on my credit card and paying it off with my own cash because the reimbursements have been so slow. This is so frustrating! I'm watching my savings account get drained, even though I know it'll be refilled. It makes me terribly uncomfortable.

Here's what I'm going to do to ease this burden:

Make a special savings account that is just for dipping into when I have to pay off my credit card for business expenses. That way, when I get reimbursed, I know where to put the money back. And it won't throw off my monthly budget. Having this liquid cash will make me feel better about the waiting time.

Get direct deposit. I just filled out a form for direct deposit, which hopefully will speed up the time it takes for me to get my reimbursements (and paycheck!)

Keep better track of just how much I'm owed. I've made a special spreadsheet for the reimbursements I've submitted and which ones I've received (so far: ZERO--but I know that one check is on the way.)

I'm hopeful that this will help me keep track of how much money I actually have each month. It's difficult to understand how much money I have left in my monthly budget if I'm having to spend some of it on business expenses that I'm not really responsible for.

Investing Beyond the IRA

Probably like many of you, I didn't get much financial advice growing up. I knew nothing about money, other than that my family didn't have much extra of it, and I learned not to ask for things we couldn't afford. When I started babysitting, I started raking in the dough for myself, but that cash was as good as spent. I can't even tell you how many CDs I must've bought in high school. I remember blowing through the several hundred dollars I'd saved up for college within the first months on senseless things. Thankfully, I didn't end up with my own credit card, so I never ended up in debt. (This was an act of grace, not my own knowing better. Believe me.)

Since entering the job force in 2008, I've been trying to learn more about finances. I opened up a Roth IRA last year, and contributed as much as I could while still paying down my student loans. Even when I moved to DC where expenses were higher and my paycheck was lower, I still managed to stick away money each month and didn't tap into my savings, even though I was certain that I was absolutely going to have to! No, I just learned that all those "necessities" I had weren't necessary at all. I just learned to put a cap on my spending. Finding a balance between being savvy and being a financial fuddy duddy is still something I'm learning.

Now I'm adjusting once again with a new salary that gives me a bit more wiggle room, and now that I've finally gotten my first check, I'm figuring out just what to do with that extra dough. I have developed a few financial goals for this year:
  • Max out IRA
  • Up emergency savings by another $2500
  • Pay extra towards student loans
  • Diversify investments
Are you all intimidated by the stock market? I am. I have my IRA in an aggressive growth account, but I'm not really sure what it's invested in. I figure my broker can figure that for me. Probably not smart. Since that's long term investment, though, and my portfolio is pretty diverse, for now I'm ok with keeping it that way.

But I want to play a little bit. I just opened up an account at Scottrade, which has $7 trading, and only requires $500 to start trading. For me, I think this is just about perfect. I would rather do some small, regular investing rather than jumping in with a lump sum. And this way, I figure I won't panic if things don't go too well right away (hello bad economy). I read somewhere that investing in companies you know and care about is a good way to start, so that's what I did.

Do you all invest in the stock market? If not, why not?

My Stress-Busting Mantra

Karen at Living Well on Less wrote a great post on accepting the fact that there are only 24 hours in the day. It got me thinking about how I deal with stress and feeling generally overwhelmed about 75% of the time (on a good day).

Here's how my brain works:

I'm doing a task (let's call it A). As I'm doing A I start thinking about how after A I'm going to do B. Then I think of a C, D, E, and F that absolutely have to get done at that very moment, and if they don't, I'm a failure and the entire day has been a waste. And aren't I a horrible person for not being able to get A-F done in a single day???

I've tried lots of things in the past: meditation (I'm horrible at it); deep breathing (sometimes I can't even slow down my breathing because I'm too stressed out about breathing correctly); journaling (I do this, but I love to journal and don't want it to be something I only do when I'm feeling bad about life); etc.

Here's my new tactic that I'm trying:

When I'm doing something and I start getting overwhelmed, I say to myself, "Right now you are doing A" (in which case A might not even be a task--it could be taking a shower, eating breakfast, watching TV). "And when you finish A, you will do B." And that's where it ends. I don't let my mind go any farther than that. If it tries do, I just repeat my mantra "A then B." "A then B." Of course, my mind says "What if this won't work long term?" and I repeat again "Today you are doing A, then B."

How do you stay focused on the here and now?

An Unexpected Dinner Guest

Last night I was supposed to meet a friend visiting from Boston and another DC friend after dinner. But at about 6:00 I get a call from Boston friend that she's been in the city all day, is tired, and would really like to meet up earlier. Without missing a beat I invited her to come over to our apartment for dinner. "We're making pizza! We have wine!" Great. She was on her way.

As soon as we hung up, I though, oh crap. What if SCL doesn't really want my random friend coming over right now? He had been spending most of the day trying to update my laptop's operating system. When I told him about my conversation, we debated over what to do food-wise. We'd only been planning to make dinner for ourselves, so we'd only defrosted enough dough and cheese for one pizza. Should we make two? Make a salad? We decided on a second crust, which SCL promptly defrosted and starting rolling out.

"What kind of pizza do you want to make?" he asked. "We can make pepperoni, sausage, barbecue chicken, pesto chicken..." I figured I'd better call Boston friend to ask what she'd prefer. I felt so awesome, having all of these delicious options for her. And then she says: "I can't have pizza. I'm gluten-free."

CRAP. Not only have I invited someone to dinner at the last second, but now I have to tell SCL that she's gluten free and we really didn't need that second crust defrosted or rolled out. "Can you re-frost a crust?" I asked. "We'll find out," he said, rolling his eyes a little. He wanted to know if her being gluten-free was health-related or a lifestyle choice. If the latter, he said he would tolerate but not approve--to which I responded "Would anyone really give up bread if they didn't have to?"

Now we're scrambling to find something for Boston gluten-free friend to eat. Oh yeah, we bought this huge pack of crackers from Costco, which happen to be gluten-free (and therefore pretty disgusting...and we now have a lot of them!) We had veggies, hummus, and other non-wheaty things. It was going to be alright after all.

Friend arrives. She eats the veggies, hummus, and crackers. We have wine. We catch up. SCL quietly and graciously does the host thing. I am very grateful.

Having a partner who doesn't get mad when plans change at the last second, who doesn't get too irritated when those new plans change again, and who steps us as host for a dinner he didn't plan to serve--he's pretty much the best. Ever.

Valentine's Day Recap

As a general rule, SCL and I dislike romantic cliches, especially when it comes to Valentine's Day. No roses or sappy cards in our house. I like to think that we're a bit more creative in that department, so here's a recap of what our day looked like.

SCL was out of town for a conference the three days before V-Day, so I took the time to really clean our apartment from top to bottom. Then I braved the great outdoors to get some place mats, napkins, and a few other things to spruce up our apartment. Since moving in last July, we really haven't spent any money to make it feel homey, and I thought since we were making a delicious dinner for Valentine's Day, it would be a nice touch to add some love to our old, rickety, hand-me-down table.

Gift wise, we kept it non-traditional and went for things for the both of us rather than specific gifts for one another. SCL bought us tickets to see Chelsea Handler in March. This is my favorite kind of gift--time together doing something fun, something we wouldn't do as a regular date. And I bought us some kitchen things we didn't have, including (my favorite) a salad spinner! We love cooking, and having a few more of the right tools will hopefully make it even more enjoyable.

And dinner! This is something to write home about. We--really SCL--made the most delicious dinner of all time. We decided to make steak, which we made last year, but this time we took it to a new level of awesome. We got up early and hit up Costco for filet mignon (only $9.99 a pound there!) The price made it worth standing in line for about 30 minutes to check out. I don't know what it is about this Costco, but whenever we go, it's a total nightmare.

SCL prepared the steak with garlic butter, wrapped it in bacon, and served it with caramelized onions. We made more onions on the side, a simple salad, and fresh bread with more garlic butter. And, our favorite wine from Trader Joe's. Turned on the cheesy "Love Songs" channel on the TV and had a romantic, delicious dinner.

I'm a big proponent of spending Valentine's Day at home. Restaurants are nice, but they're crowded, expensive, and (hello!) cliche on V-Day. For a lot less cash, we made a delicious dinner together and got to enjoy it in our sweatpants, in our cozy apartment. We splurged on a food we normally don't buy, but we only spent $20! (We got four steaks and had them again yesterday.)

What do you think? Do you like going out for Valentine's Day? Or do you prefer dinner at home?

And We're Back

Hello folks. It's me, one of those fair weather bloggers who let her blog slide for two solid months. But instead of saying "Oh well, I guess I can't be a blogger. Blog fail," here I am, admitting my lack of care and hoping to do a better job this time around. And in case you wanted one, I do have a little bit of an excuse it. I got a new job. A fabulous one, one that makes me leap for joy most days, but one that also means a lot more work--and less structure for getting it done. You see, I'm a "consultant," which is basically a fancy way of saying no benefits and no office space. So, for the last month and a half I've been experimenting with working from home.

It's gone both poorly and rather well, depending on the week or even the day. I sort of feel like I'm back in grad school in that there's really a lot of flexibility for getting my work done. I don't have anyone looking over my shoulder or harassing me or even asking me if I have enough to do. And even better than being a grad student, I actually get paid rather well to do this.

Things were off to a decent start, and then Snowpocalypse hit DC. And there is nothing less motivating than a good 30 inches of snow on the ground, especially when the government is closed. At first I thought having nowhere else to go would actually help me get more done, but really it did quite the opposite. Being forced to say inside made me want to do less and less of everything. Theoretically, it would have been great to 1) clean 2) organize 3) work out (gym inside our building) 4) cook 5) read 6) organize Gmail. But I did just about none of these things. I did, however, get caught up on Chelsea Lately and really, really bad movies.

Now that we're sort of thawing out (although it is currently snowing just a little outside--I hate you, snow!), I'm back to thinking about how to work more effectively from home, even with all of the distractions, including SCL who is working here, too. I will say, he is generally much more disciplined than I am. I could learn a thing or two from him.

And with that discipline I plan to build in time to blog again, that is if you haven't all given up on me.