Sunday, December 23, 2007

Happy Holidays!

I'm driving to Bahston this evening, so PiggyBankBlues will go dark for a few days at least. Everybody have a safe and happy holidays!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

'Tis the Season

I live in a city with 1.6 million people living below the poverty level (1 in 5 New Yorkers). And for what it's worth, the federal poverty rate is currently a family of 3 surviving on $16,600 a year. Can you even imagine? Over half of all babies born in NYC are born into poverty. Poverty rates soar while public assistance has plummeted. Only 44 percent of students in NYC graduate from high school in 4 years (it costs $13,755 to educate a NYC student per year). 40 percent of children in foster care end up in prison (it costs $100,000 to incarcerate a person per year per--you do the math). And as it says on NYC non profit Robin Hood's homepage, 34,000 people slept in shelters last night, nearly half of whom were children. One cannot live in NYC and not understand that the poverty is staggering.

I don't come from money. I grew up in a working class family in a proudly blue collar neighborhood. It was during the devastation years when the big factories like Bethlehem Steel closed down and threw Buffalo, NY into the brink of economic oblivion. I grew up with government cheese (those bright orange bricks were mighty tasty!) and gas lines in nearby Canada that went for miles. Like any other kid, I thought my life was perfectly normal and relatively happy. If you don't count high school. Then, as the first kid to go to college in my family, I arrived at a swank Northeast liberal arts college and gawked at the students who arrived in limos, at moms decked out in Chanel suits speaking Portugese with a Brazilian lilt. There was a lot of gawking that first month for me. Eventually I became immune to stories of fox hunting with the Rockefellers and when my mom asked me tentatively over the phone, how I felt coming from a lower class, I sincerely answered that I was proud of where I came from.

But I had advantages that many do not. I know that my family, as working class WASPs, sheltered my brown immmigrant ass from a lot of torture. As many of you know, I was adopted as a baby, so while I'm ethnically Filipino, coctail hour and -albeit government- cheese plates in my life was absolutely de rigeur. Because my own complicated identity crosses a lot of borders, I know in the marrow of my bones that if it weren't for some serious life changing luck outside of my control, my life would be very very different. My mom, my sister, and I moved into my grandparents' house when I was six. My mom chose this over public housing when her husband left her high and dry with two kids. If I did not have my grandparents, who were able to buy and pay off their house without predatory lending, if I did not have my mom who was able to get a job as a church secretary during a time of double digit unemployment with the basic but necessary skills she learned at the local high school, if I did not have the cheap local track team to keep me busy and sprinting my way through childhood, the backyard to safely play football, the after school programs at the local church, the free lunches at school, the well stocked shelves of the local library, then my life would be markedly different. And make no mistake, a working class suburb hugging North Buffalo is not the same as Brooklyn.

My grandparents passed away in 1999 and 2000, and I think of them every day. I miss them terribly during the holiday season. And it is because of them that I will never forget where I come from. There was a lot of giving thanks in my childhood, and this time of year was when you remembered others. So thank you, Nema and Grandpa, for making my life so fortunate. Hopefully somebody up there can explain the word "blog", because we were stuck on translating "answering machine" and never made it to "internet"...

That's an important word, Fortunate- Receiving good from uncertain or unexpected sources. While hard work and an honest education may be a best selling ticket to prosperity, there's a lot of division among the uncertain and unexpected sources. Non profits and charities help bridge this division. This is our city, our country, our world. And even if I have piggybankblues, I am fortunate enough to even have a piggybank. Whether it's a religious/cultural holiday, or simply the retrospection of filling up the new year's dance card, 'tis the season to remember that ten dollars a month to your favorite charity is $120 worth of annual giving. Just remember- charge it to a no-fee rewards credit card, and pay it off in full each month :)

Here are a few of my favorite charities that allow monthly giving in smaller amounts, please feel free to share your own.

Food Bank for New York City

Robin Hood

New York Asian Women's Center

Transportation Alternatives

Astraea Foundation

New York Cares- search engine to volunteer in NYC

Charity Navigator- evaluates the financial health of charities nationwide

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Lewis Cho Sample Sale

If you are searching for an affordable but fashionable dress for that Christmas dinner or that New Year's Eve soiree, look no further than the Lewis Cho sample sale.

I just got back from it and M is quite pleased, as am I since she looks gorgeous in her new duds! Sample sales are a killer way to peruse the racks of NYC's hottest young designers without becoming piss poor in the process.

The last day is tommorrow-
Thursday, December 20th from 12pm - 7pm
Lewis Cho
225 W. 36th Street (between 7th & 8th Aves.), Suite 701

Monday, December 17, 2007

Costco In Brooklyn (what to do during alternate side parking)

I just got back from Costco. No, it's not exactly like going to a toy store on Christmas Eve, but I am so tired I am typing this with my eyes half mast. Don't get me wrong, I love shopping at Costco. I buy my glucosamine, saline sloution, shrimp, laundry detergent, etc. there. But Christmas presents?

Today I went to look for a Christmas present that I can't name here, so let's just call it the box set of Englebert Humperdinck. It wasn't there, which didn't surprise me because Englebert is sold out online. So I go downstairs to checkout and I wait on line, which is kind of like bumper cars with carts on Ellis Island, then check out my few things and head over to some customer service counter. The frazzled lady looked up my item and told me there were three box sets of Englebert Humperdinck left, so I take my cart and make my way back to the second floor. Which is like on the other side of the Continental Divide.

It's high noon and Costco is mobbed by now. And here I am like a moron frantically digging through enormous boxes of merchandise, looking for the last three copies of Englebert Humperdinck. The boxes are dusty and I'm allergic so I have itchy eyes and I'm breaking out in hives. Clearly the most attractive shopper in the store. I have to throw my jacket in my cart because I'm sweating up a storm by now. On cue, every customer within twenty feet of me suddenly thinks I work there, and get indignant when I look up from my mad search to reply that no, I do not work there. Like I'm lying to them.

After about half an hour, and a few fallen boxes later, I leave without finding Englebert. I drive back home, slip the car onto the right side of the street, and take me and my things up five flights of stairs. And then I think, maybe some things are worth full price?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Why Playing Lotto is NOT Saving & Other Retirement Reality Checks

Today I picked up some wine for the pot-luck party M & I are throwing tommorrow and out of habit I glanced at the lotto machine by the cashier. The jackpot wasn't above $200 million, so I wasn't tempted, but there is always a steady stream of people scribbling in their numbers. Lotto is obviously gambling, but it's also, in a warped sense, a form of saving and investing for many people. And that is the scary part.

The 2005 Retirement Confidence Survey cites 14 percent of Americans who are not saving a penny for retirement play the lottery at least once a week. Whoa. The current undulations of the Dow have better odds than one in a million. Face it, if you play lotto you are a disciplined investor, someone who removes a dollar or two from their wallet, like clockwork, with the hope that it will come back to them in a bar of gold. Kind of like Apple stock, or AT&T, or a company that makes solar panels. The obvious difference is that one involves suspension of reason, and the other does not. But the discipline is there, it just got hijacked by better marketing. Because the reality is that a lot of people who play lotto daily are working class and/or poor. Fidelity, Vanguard, Fortune magazine, and MarketWatch are not exactly targeting them for marketing and education on how to properly save and invest for retirement.

By being cut off from the world of investing, like NYC's bartenders and waitstaff, you tend to think that you can't save. What, you think some white collar cubicle jockey gets to decide what percentage of her paycheck goes to health insurance? What percentage towards her 401K in order for the matching investment to kick in? You think they want to take home a smaller paycheck? They're not necessarily better at saving, they just have the opportunity to have less choice in the matter.

My feeling is this, whether you're a hair above the poverty line buying lotto tickets every day or the Maître d' at Balthazar tipping $20 each free round of drinks at a friend's bar, disposable income is disposable income, and that's the part that you slice up for savings. You don't need to be wealthy to invest, you need to have disposable income and discipline. And guess what, mutual fund company T. Rowe Price will take as little as fifty bucks a month with no money down. You can read more of my it's easy-to-save-for-your-retirement tirade here.

So let's put it this way, $20 a month in lotto tickets for 30 years will get you jack $h*T, and $20 in an index fund returning 9% a year for that same period will get you $34,288. It's not enough to retire on, but this example, like playing lotto, is no retirement plan. It's just an illustration of what jack $h*t could look like instead of, you know, jack.

The Financial Planning Association is a professional group for financial planners, and they have a great list of stats that are a good wake up call. Here are some of my favorites-

"20 percent of Americans actually believe winning the lottery is their best shot at accumulating several hundred thousand dollars over their lifetimes."
- 2005 Consumer Federation of America and Financial Planning Association consumer survey

"[Americans] have the lowest personal savings rate since the Great Depression - in January 2006 it dropped to minus 0.7 percent."
- April 2006 Workforce Management

"A large percentage of American workers see that the U.S. retirement system is going through major changes, but many are not taking steps that are likely to leave them well-positioned for a comfortable retirement."
- 2007 17th annual Retirement Confidence Survey (RCS)

Creating wealth by saving a little at a time over a longer period of time is not the same as hitting jackpot, but it is the odds on favorite. If you like dreaming big, just dream that Steve Jobs is gonna keep on inventing computerized crack and buy his stock. And this part is important- like playing lotto, you don't need to be wealthy to have that discipline. It's getting close to New Year's resolution time. Time to max out your 2008 Roth IRA and steer yourself towards retirement and away from the lotto line.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Kara Walker on a Budget

Last Friday I went to go see the Kara Walker exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Admittedly, I did not go during the pay-what-you-wish hours, but I was leaving just when they kicked in. I was shocked. No, not by the art, but by the pay-as-you-wish line. There was a queue to the sidewalk, but no wrap around the block and south to Georgia type of line. Winter, it seems, despite the deluge of foreign tourists happily spending their cheap-o dollars in the city, is the time to see museums for "free".

Okay, I know museums support themselves on their knees. So if you can afford to pay, then pay. But this is my wayward way of thinking- I've worked in the art world and I know that they're flush. It is so effing flush, like hedge fund king and close relative of a Queen kind of flush. The private art world sets the market value of art, the private art world should financially fund the open-to-the-public museums. Annual balls for beggars does not count. Nevermind the fact that I'm not (check out my blog's title) flush. I'm no starving artist, but I struggle and hustle as much as the next. And I feel that as a cultural contributer, no matter how under the radar one might be, then I get to have the artist discount. New Yorkers also get the New Yorker discount. Because we pay three taxes. End of wayward thought.

I have never been to MoMA's "free" night, but I've been warned off numerous times. And the MoMA is the zoo york of all the museums. Moreso than the Met, which always gets my quarter. But if you pick a day that's cold and dreary, my bet is that you're in for a treat. You can check out a list of of pay-as-you-wish times at NYC's museums here.

I'm not going to write a Kara Walker review, you can read Holland Cotter's in the first link of this post if you need one, all I can tell you is to just GO. Pick up the free headset on the first floor, maybe read up a little on Walker beforehand. And yes, with the Whitney's normal $15 entrance fee, go on a Friday evening from 6pm-9pm and get in with your pocket change.

    photo by lotu5 via flickr

Monday, December 10, 2007

Financial Personality Quiz

Okay, it's not quite as riveting as Cosmo's "How Lindsay Lohan Are You?" quizzes, but who needs riveting? The Independent has the quiz What Is Your Financial Personality?.

Turns out I'm An Analyst, "It is not enough to know how to ensure that your money grows, you have to make the right decisions to allow it to do so in abundance and support you and your interests fully." It is a fair (albeit simple) assessment. It was pretty easy to gravitate toward what my answer would be, but like all quizzes there were moments where I was fractionally between two choices. The best part about the quiz for me wasn't the result, but the multiple answers. It was interesting to see the different ways people could think about money.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Library Fodder Roundup 2007

The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2007 has been out for a week now, and I've been thinking all week that I must have a yen for unnotables. Bringing you PiggyBankBlues 100 Nugatory Books of 2007... Well, see, I can't even remember them because they were so nugatory. Avid readers of this blog (both of you) already know I pillage such lists and click on the catalog of the Brooklyn Public Library (or the NYPL), and request a book of interest to be delivered to my local branch. A lot of libraries let you hold books online, not just NYC's, so check out your local library's website.

But back to the nugatory. Fellow blogging buddy Tenured Radical scanned the list as well to tally up how many hits she had, so I am not the only one keeping track. Like her, I only have read 4 out of 100. Maybe I was reading 2004 notables? Well, okay, so once a month I read a quote unquote fast paced thriller. Not so notable. But other than that I tend to lean towards literary fiction. Anyway, enough about me, my sagging bookshelf is starting to feel insecure.

So here's a roundup of best books of 2007 lists. Save yourself some money, whip out your library card more often than your credit card, and blow hours and hours of 2008 catching up on the best of 2007.

New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2007

Publisher's Weekly Best Books of the Year

St. Louis Post-Dispatch Best Books of 2007

Book Sense 2007 Picks Highlights

The Washington Post Holiday Guide- best books of 2007

The Economist Books for the Year 2007

Paste Magazine Signs of Life 2007: Best Books

Boston Globe Best Fiction and Nonfiction Books of 2007

National Book Critics Circle Best Recommended 2007

Christian Science Monitor The 2007 Books We Liked Best: Fiction

LA Times The Joy of Reading: Favorite Books of 2007

The Village Voice The Best of 2007

Saturday, December 8, 2007

What's A Moderately Priced Restaurant?

Last night some friends were visiting from out of town and we went to Perilla in the West Village for dinner. Our friends, D & L, watched Top Chef winner Harold Dieterle compete through the show's first season, garnering its first Top Chef title.

The food was one of those Christopher Columbus moments, were you're like wow I am the first person to realize that there is such a thing as tasting every ingredient, as though you've discovered flavor itself. The interior was a nice balance between unfettered and elegant. Unfortunately, we sat in the back near a draft that kept us cold throughout the meal, but I didn't let it "ruin" the meal. Definitely, I would request a booth next time. I ordered the seared sea scallops as an appetizer and the jerk grouper as an entree, and I can still taste it in my mouth as I type these words. It was a great evening.

So suffice it to say, I blew my budget big time for going out. A bottle of wine, apps, entree, dessert, came out to $122 per couple. So while it is not Per Se, it sure as heck aint Sri Pra Phai.

During dinner we were talking about what we considered an expensive meal and a cheap meal. Personally, in New York if I can eat under $20 (which includes tax and tip) then I consider that a cheap meal. An entree above $20 is moderate to me (which is what Perilla's price point is), and a non-steak entree above $30 to me is expensive.

The thing that is hard about a moderately priced restaurant is that the food usually is good so I jack up the bill ordering more than just an entree. I'm not really willing to "try out" a moderate meal, I need to know ahead of time that it comes highly recommended because honestly I just don't roll like that. So once I'm eating good food, it's on. I want to try the apps, the desserts, have a nice sip of wine before I break out in hives, the whole works. So a moderately priced meal becomes, for me, expensive. There are exceptions, of course. Nearby Al di Là has moderately priced food and I am capable of only ordering one dish.

But I guess that when it's all said and done, I don't really know what is moderately priced until the bill comes. Do you?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Housing Works Bookstore Sale

Housing Works Bookstore is having a 30% off everything sale. It's going on now through this Sunday, and I just picked up a couple more Christmas gifts. If you are not familiar with Housing Works, 100% of their profits from both the bookstore and the thrift stores are used to provide well needed services to homeless New Yorkers living with AIDS. It's a good cause, and I have to admit that their fiction shelves were well stocked with great reads.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Cringe Reading Series

Tommorrow night I'm going out for some free entertainment. The Cringe Reading Series happens the first Wednesday of every month at a local bar. The readers are ordinary folk who are crazy enough to read from their own high school diary. The place is supposed to be packed, and the entertainment value will be about as funny as John Hughes deep throating are-you-there-god-it's-me-Margaret. I will have to post a follow up review, and who knows, maybe a few too many Brooklyn Lagers and Dear Diary introductions will solve Louis Menand's paradox of representation-
    "But (a paradox of representation) we would actually feel that we had a more intimate sense of Virginia Woolf if we read about her in someone else’s diary. Woolf described from the outside by another person is likely to give us a more vivid picture of what Virginia Woolf was really like than Woolf described from the inside by herself. Introspection is not as reliable as observation. (That’s why we have shrinks.)"
Well Mister Menand, I beg to differ. The high schooler of us all is another person (just ask our moms), and the high school diary is all observation with some shallow-as-a-puddle-in-the-Sahara introspection. An alien and a lost cause. And for one raucous evening, a celebrity. Who says you can't have fun in the city with no money?

Monday, December 3, 2007

The Economic Cost of Political Apathy

The other evening I was at a dinner with someone we'll call Ramona. Ramona is an old friend of mine who just had a baby, lives in Connecticut in a McMansion, husband is a partner at a midtown law firm, and she is by all accounts, not the least of which my own, a really nice person. She is fun, kind, and down to earth. I like Ramona a lot. The after-dinner conversation turned to the next Presidential election. Ramona is a lively conversationalist, so her sudden silence was noticeable. Afterwards, M was commenting that Ramona, for all of her good intentions and glowing reports of purging her closets every season for clothes that would fit the starving folks in Africa, was probably going to vote Republican. M couldn't understand it, and wished she could connect the dots for Ramona.

I come from an Upstate NY blue collar lifelong Republican family, so I understood it only too well. Connecting the dots for the self-interested voter is virtually impossible. And voting for your own self-interest is, I think, a debilitating casualty of political apathy. For the record, I like to declare myself a Social Capitalist, though M insists that such a thing doesn't exist and how could I even put those two words together. I think she's coming around, though :) So yes, once in my short-ish lifetime I voted Republican (a local election). That would be the time I didn't vote for my self-interest, but for the long term benefit of the city I live in. While it has meant that I haven't been happy regarding a lot of stuff, it also means that my city is solvent post September 11th, 2001. I divulge this info just to be clear that, despite my left wing name tag, I'm not a thoughtless partisan that mechanically votes.

This is what I think: If you live in a leafy suburb where there is no class diversity, no cultural diversity, nothing but a mirror of your very own lifestyle, class, and more often than not, color, then political apathy becomes tantamount to blindness. Throwing more money at the problem of public schools seems unnecessary (despite the amount of school tax your wealthy enclave pays), because, quite frankly, your schools work great(!) under No Child Left Behind. When you go and vote at your nearby public school, you aren't reminded of the architecture of a federal prison, nor are your children targeted to end up in one. Your neighbor is financially stable, as is your neighbor's neighbor, and subprime mortgages were never even thrust upon you when you bought your home. Nobody from your town is in Iraq or Afghanistan, but you have a yellow ribbon magnet on all three of your cars. Being patriotic is in and of itself concern for others. And since you own three cars for two drivers, the federal funding for public transportation seems just fine to you. You are a good person, so poverty is most assuredly not your fault, and therefore not your problem. America is safe and great, just look around you. And boy would it hurt if your tax cut was reversed.

The cruel starkness of wealth and poverty in New York City is hard to ignore, but people do. Connecting the dots for people is hard no matter where or how they live. I love my family, their Republicaness and all, and I grew up at a dinner table where three generations (I grew up in my grandparents home) would disagree with me. What is most striking is that my family is the opposite of Ramona. They were, until quite recently (thank god for pensions), the working poor. Everytime Reagan announced the new poverty line, my mom would quip, "Well, we missed it again!" And yet, like Ramona, they believe in The American Dream, whose power seems to hold sway to those who are living it and those who aren't. I learned very early on that I am not smart enough or articulate enough to help them see that who they vote for is hurting their very own self-interest. Because really, if I cannot pin national interest unto the lapel of self-interest, then I have lost their attention.

Speaking of attention, I've gone and probably lost yours! So I brought you this long-ass-never-ending post because I just read a great article that just might help me the next time I sit down with my family for tuna fish casserole. Joseph E. Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winning economist and best selling author of Making Globalization Work and Globalization and its Discontents, wrote a piece in the latest Vanity Fair- The Economic Consequences of Mr. Bush. It is a little long, and one may or may not get it all, but if ever there was a time to connect the dots, this would be it.

    photo by QXZ via flickr

Saturday, December 1, 2007

November Net Worth Update

After a month of blogging about the economy being one big toilet flush, I tallied up my net worth for November and my jaw dropped. My November net worth is $28,570, a loss of $442. My chart looks like the black diamond side of Aspen Snowmass. Thank god I saved money for Christmas gifts. There are rumors the Fed is looking to lower interest rates again. I'm going to move most of M and our savings into 6 month CDs just in case.

Okay, so even though every month like clockwork I put a dinky amount of money into my Roth, and pay down my student loan, until last month when I started posting my net worth I never really paid attention to it. All I knew was that I saved the annual max for my Roth, I paid X amount on my student loan to pay it off in half the time, I saved for a rainy day (and sure enough it poured), and I knew I paid off my credit cards in full every month. Which is why I felt like I didn't need to do a net worth in the first place. I was doing all I could, and frankly I didn't want to see how low my net worth was after all that.

But as I said last month, it makes sense to track my progress. Or my retreat, as it turns out. Because you see the real effects of the bigger picture. For example, my Roth IRA lost $805 in one month! I thought that was kind of staggering given that there's only sixteen grand and change in there. But then my ING gained over a hundred dollars in interest alone, and my student loan shrank by over 8%, so jaw dropping aside, the overall damage was minimized to a loss of 1.52% this past month. It puts perspective on the headlines, and the panic, and the depressed interest rate on my savings account, and it re-enforces the multiplicity of financial health. Save, invest, pay off debt. Here's to hoping for a December rebound to push me over the $30K mark!