Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Critique of Debt

Nicholas Von Hoffman has an online post for The Nation, Give Us This Day Our Daily Debt, which breaks down the plight of the little guy. The big companies need the little guys (and gals) to buy their products, which is why Henry Ford shocked and awed the world with the first ever raise without request. Somebody needed to buy those cars.

Quoting the Wall St. Journal, the wealthiest 1% rake in 21.2% of all income (2005). One lousy filthy rich percent. That leaves a 12.8% reap for the bottom half of earners. Whoa. Fifty percent of all workers in the entire US equals 12.8% of the earned income pie. That's paltry and putrid. So what happened?

Well, if you've felt your pockets lately you know what happened. You've got more plastic than paper, and the global market party keeps on keeping on. Why pay you more when they can just pay you less and let you borrow more? So not only are we broke, we are disempowered.

    Since so few people have so much of the money locked up and do not plan to share, either the masses cut back on their spending, which is the road to universal disaster, or they must borrow and borrow and borrow without end. Not only the grownups.

    From the point of view of the big rich, getting young people in debt not only keeps the money coming in but also makes youth timid and obedient. Debt ensures that they won't turn up on the streets to demonstrate for some unwholesome cause. You could almost call it a rule that all people--black people, Hispanic people, white people, trailer trash people, college graduate people--when put in debt pretty much do what they are told.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Working for Free

Okay, so two things have happened. The good news is that I found out I might be hired as a researcher for this project I am really excited about. It's for a non-profit organization interested in alleviating financial illiteracy among at-risk groups, for example college students. I can't wait to get started, and when I was working on my proposal for them I sincerely had fun doing it!

In the meantime, as you know, I got a gig at a restaurant. Which is where the work for free part comes in. So yesterday night was slow. It was a Monday, after all. But still. Towards the end of the evening the GM pulls me aside and tells me, because I asked earlier if they needed my Social Security number, that I should know they only pay cash. I just shrugged. In reality, the vast majority of restaurants in the city are cash only employers. Frankly, I would prefer to be on the books for a myriad of reasons, from the moral to the practical, but I'm not exactly a voting shareholder here. So then the GM tells me this I-am-one-of-you speech, concluding that after much badgering and goodwill he convinced the owner to guarantee a minimum of sixty dollars. What?!

Well, he doesn't pay an hourly wage. Okay, servers get a dollar below minimum, yes this part is legal, and yes this is why it's important to tip. That said, you make good money in the city waiting tables. If you give good service, which isn't a walk in the park but not exactly brain surgery, then you get an average 18-20% tip. Most restaurants still give you the dollar below minimum hourly wage, even if it is off the books. It is not normal to get nothing. And sixty bucks a night sucks a$#. Which, after I tipped out the entire staff (another irritating thing restaurants like to do- make the wait staff pay for the restaurant staff because the owners don't want to) I walked with sixty.

Suffice it to say I will not be staying at that restaurant. Which is sad, because I can't beat the commute- it's only a block away! It's only a couple shifts a week and a very easy and laid back place. Until I hear back from the other position as a researcher and learn what the pay will be, this will give me some pocket change.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Setting Goals

So I officially have a job. Of course, the first thing I'm doing is trying to figure out how to save all my money!

I tinkered around with my net worth graphic. Though our apartment is worth a chunk of change, I opted to leave it out of the equation. I also only included my own retirement savings, not M's as well. Frankly, gathering the info on my accounts alone was more than enough reminder that my desk looks very Salvation Army. At least the disorganized ones. I really need to get it together...

I'm trying to decide if I should put up my retirement goal, which would only depress the heck out of me, or more likeable goals, like a travel fund and emergency fund. I'm also trying to figure out a new set of goals, so if anyone knows how to set those financial goal progress bars, feel free to hit me up with an email!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Juggling Student Loan(s)

Juggling student loan debt is about as fun as juggling chainsaws on high speed. Not that I've ever tried the latter, but I'm all too familiar with the first.

I graduated in 1993 (now I just aged myself!) with $18,000 in debt. I went to one of, if not the, most expensive school in the country. After graduating I got a lease for a two bedroom on East 12th Street between A and B for $800 a month. It was a king's ransom for both myself and my friend, but we had our own apartment in the East Village with all the other recent college grads. Think Williamsburgh but with crack houses and affordable rents, and not a whole lot of bars and restaurants. I've held nine-to-five career-ish type jobs for the grand total of about two years of my life. My first job out of college was as an editorial assistant at a publishing house in the city. I share the opinion of this young man just out of school- paying off huge loans limits who we become. After a year of living off of coffee trucks for breakfast ($1 dollar special coffee and a donut) and ramen with bacon, I was done. I had worked in restaurants in the city during college, and I went back. I worked the swing shift at The Coffee Shop in Union Square, made boatloads of money, and in between dancing the morning away at Sound Factory I began my first novel.

And my student loan debt? Well, lucky reader that you are, that's another story.

According to a study recently reported in The Chronicle for Higher Education,

    ...borrowers who graduated in 1992 or 1993 with $15,000 or more in debt were three times as likely to default on their loans over 10 years as were borrowers with less than $5,000 in debt. Students with the lowest salaries in 1994 were more than four times as likely to default on their loans over that period as were students with the highest salaries after graduation.

So yes, I defaulted. Then there was that time I moved to LA to follow a girlfriend that I broke up with the day we left, well that miserable "year abroad" was another banner of a default year. I came back to NYC and jumped into my second, and last, real nine-to-five gig, Associate Director for an art gallery in the city. Again, not a whole lot of money and I didn't write for a year. Finally, I left to go back to bartending. The liberal deferrements were ending and my loans had ballooned. The interest was low, but still, they weren't coming down and remained out of reach. So I bit the bullet and tried to begin repayment. Problem was, I had moved around so damn much, and didn't go out of my way to let them know where I was, that they would only accept full payment. I was royally pissed off at myself and determined to change. So I read the fine print of every piece of paper I was given. I wrote certified letters, cc'd to the CEO of Sallie Mae, that were armed to the hilt with their own legalese as examples why I had the right to make payments. Six months later, I had consolodated my loans and was well on my way to paying them off.

Graduating with student loans is like having irresponsible debt without the irresponsibility. It's debt for something that has come and gone, and it's more often than not a pretty hefty sum. It's not like a mortgage and you get a house. No, it's an intellectual vacation of a lifetime that lasted four or so years and just ended. Best of all, you just won yourself an entry level position, or better yet, grad school. And suddenly, your financial literacy as a just-unleashed adult is to constantly "fix" all the things you keep fu*#ing up: a hacked up credit score, late fees, defaults, your parents have to co-sign your lease, overdrafts, the feared phone calls for eternal forebearance, the list is endless.

Count me as long ass lesson learned. As you can tell by the length of this post, I'm feeling generous. So if you want some friendly unsolicited advice...

Do whatever you can to pay off your loan and keep in contact when you can't. I preferred the head-in-the-sand approach, and if I had only talked to them I would be better off. And the damn loan would be paid by now.

Educate yourself, because the student loan industry will take you for a ride if you don't.

Know the statistics on defaults and avoid the traps. Again, if you have over $15K in loans you're almost 3Xs likely to default than a person with $5K. Paying off a big ticket item can become unreal, just like saving for a big ticket item (like retirement) can be unreal. Like saving for retirement, statistics make it real. Another stat, African-American graduates had a default rate more than 5Xs that of White graduates, and Hispanic graduates' default rate was more than 2Xs that of White graduates. Yet again, I fail to fullfill the Asian-American stereotype (but at least this time I'm not giving it the middle finger), since Asian-American graduates have the lowest default rates.

Play with your calculator. Fiddle with the figures and just know your big picture. Knowing what it takes to pay it off in ten years and what it takes to pay it off in twenty is a good kick in the pants.

Defer. If you have other debt, and you can defer your student loan(s), pay off your other debt first. This is the tricky part. If you have high credit card debt, for example, but you are well on your way from financial mess up to financial clean up, then free up some money. Credit card interest is high, and like all debt (except for, arguably, mortgages) you should pay off the highest interest rate first. Just be careful not to default.

Watch your deadlines. Mark one of those free calendars of cute endangered animals that you get in the mail every year. In big marker. Mark when your loan is due, when your forebearance ends, when the deadline is to call to change your automatic draft so you don't overdraw your checking account and miss a payment. Mark down the date, time, and reason for every call or correspondence with them. And of course, keep every piece of paper and email they send to you.

Look into consolidating your loans. The Boston Globe did a great piece on loan consolidation. Make sure the offers are legit, read the fine print, and research as much as you can. Student loan consolidation has great benefits, but it's a maze and a minefield.

And last but not least, talk to as many people as you can about their own experience. Whether you do it on a blog or over dinner with some friends, know the horror stories and the I-can't-believe-she-was-so-nice stories. Know that most of the time you call up they won't even be able to find you in their computer. Know that half of what they say to you will sail right over your head and you'll have to write it all down and get back to them. Know that no college degree equips you with the ability to decipher your loan packet, but you have to try your damn best. And know that if I can mess up and flip it around, anyone can. And this spring hopefully I'll be dancing around Prospect Park screaming, free at last!

Astroland is Back!

Freaks and frights are back! After mourning the loss of Coney Island's Astroland, for those of us who hoist this old school amusement park up to Disney-on-drugs iconoclast, well we finally get our wish. Astroland is back for one more year. For a fraction of the price of Great Adventure, and a greasy ton of fun better, it's another Brooklyn beach summer. You still shouldn't go in the water, but I won't share that story....

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Big Words and Bags of Rice

I'm addicted to a vocabulary game. Well, not really a game per se, but it's a test with rewards. At Free Rice you test your vocabulary with multiple choice answers, and for every word you guess correctly, 10 grains of rice are donated to the United Nations World Food Program. There's a bunch of corporate sponsors with banners on the bottom of the site, and they're the guys paying for all the rice.

The fun part, if there is such a person out there shares my stunted view of fun, is that for every word you get right the next word is harder. Until eventually you wish you a PhD in latin and biological taxonomy. There are 50 levels, and apprarently it's rare to hit 48. I got to 43 and I'm determined to get to 48. Without cheating, of course, because that would be not fun. By the way, when you get an answer wrong, you lose a level, but your donated rice grains stay the same.

So if you're looking for a time suck (generously known as procrastination), check out the test here and learn more about the program here, with a possible moral caveat here.

99 Cents

Top 10 things you can buy with 99 cents.

10. Three fourths of one item at any 99cent store in the city, since for some reason nothing is really 99 cents.

9. A 6 month CD at ING earning 5.00%. And then you can be like Look, two extra pennies!

8. A lovely oil painting on eBay, kind of like felt art but without the felt...

7. Homemade lollipops on Craigslist.

6. A bag of glass globs to make, um, stained glass globs windows.

5. Several attempts at trying to use a public payphone because you forgot your cell at home. Of couse, the pay phone eats your quarters without making the call, and you probably have a staph infection despite your best efforts to levitate the earpiece.

4. Food-in-quotations at various fast food joints off their 99cent menu.

3. Something you probably don't need but simply can't pass up at a stoop sale that, yes, is still going on in October because Al Gore warned us there'd be days like this.

2. A US dollar with 99 cents Canadian.

And last but not least, numero uno, you can download Alicia Keys' latest song, No One on iTunes and become near deaf. Like me. Because I've been playing it on repeat for the past hour while trying to figure out if it was possible to write about Alicia Keys on a personal finance blog...

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

My Free Haircut

I have been cutting my own hair for years. It began when I realized a long time ago that not a whole lot of people know how to cut thick, straight, asian hair without making it look like you're wearing the tectonic shelf of California. Or if they did, it cost two hundred bucks. So I just got done cutting my hair, and I can honestly tell you that it looks good from the front. Problem is, I couldn't find another mirror to check out the back, and was like Helen Keller with the scissors trying to make it even. So now I am going to trail at my (hopefully) new job. I think I better ask the neighbor if I'm presentable for the public yet...

Debtor City Map

Men's Health has a fun interactive map titled, Is Your City a Debt Trap. They used US Census data on "the percentage of people being squeezed by high housing and rental costs" (whatever that means), FDIC's recent personal bankruptcy rates, and Experian's reports on average credit scores, credit card debt levels, and credit to debt ratios. It's Men's Health, whose "science" is better equipped to explain how to bench 25% more, but the map is still intriguing.

City with the highest debt? Ten to one you know the answer. Las Vegas. City with the least debt? Billings, MT. Apparently not a whole lot of shopping to do in Billings. NYC only made the top ten in one category, cities with the lowest balance-to-limit ratio, clocking in at number 3. They ranked a hundred cities, so there's a good chance you're on there.

On a separate note, I got my credit score yesterday. It's 764, which they ranked as "excellent". Under negative factors that went against my score it's noted I have opened 5 accounts in the past 24 months. I just closed two of them (my irritating Chase cards which had no grace period, plus their ATMs are littering the neighborhood), which showed up and is reflected in the score. I wondered how much closing accounts affected your score, so far so good. I still want to close three more and just keep two Amex cards, a B of A Mastercard (oldest card, lowest rate, highest limit), and my REI Visa. I put everything on the Amex for points, use the Visa if Amex is not accepted, never touch the Mastercard, and pay off my balances in full every month. All I can say is, thank god I don't live near a casino...

Monday, October 22, 2007

College Costs Skyrocket

Here's something too many of us already know, tuition and fees for both public and private colleges/universities skyrocketed two times the rate of inflation.
    The increases in the cost of higher education continue to drive up the amount that students and families borrow, with the greatest increase coming in private loans, according to a separate College Board report also released this morning.
The cost goes up, grants go down, loans go through the roof, and the basic financial education of a college graduate revolves around debt, the enormity of which precedes saving for retirement, a house, a car, an emergency fund, a secure financial future. A friend recently requested a post on juggling student loan debt in relation to credit card debt, etc., and I thought it was a great idea. But seeing that it's afternoon and another dealine looms, that will be for tommorrow. Plus, I have to go get a job to pay my student loan...

Thanks, But No Thanks

Well, after a long weekend of too much thought, I declined the job. In the end, I realized that my writing was going just too well to jeopardize. Plus, there are some other freelance type opportunities cooking on the backburner that are far more rewarding than the service industry, albeit less paid. I will have to get a couple shifts a week at a restuarant in the meantime, but it is not the responsibility or soul suck of actually running the place. Thanks for all the advice, on and offline!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Job Interview

Yesterday I had a job interview. It is a General Manager position at a well known restaurant with an upper echelon Zagat rating. The problem is that it is 5 days a week and 10 hour days. I would get home at 3am some nights, and work directly under self-professed "anal retentive stubborn control freaks."

M works days, Monday through Friday, so we would go back to our lives of not really spending a whole lot of time together. My writer's group meets bi-weekly during the work week, and I would have to negotiate that evening off. They have never had a manager, and admit that they do things "not exactly the right way." But they seem anything but eager beaver to change their ways.

They are owner/chefs. Some of the best food in restaurants comes from chef-owned establishments, but some of the worst places to work are the exact same places. Before owning this restaurant, they have never worked, let alone run, the front of the house (the dining area, ie waitstaff. The back of the house is obviously the kitchen). They have the stereotypical back of the house disdain for the waitstaff and have a high turnover. It pretty much looks like they run their waitstaff to the ground.

The restaurant has been open for a while and they cook every single day. To say they are overworked is an understatement. But they have to pay for a better quality of life and I am unsure if they realize was the going market rate is for that. Hell, I had to ring up a friend and ask him myself. The restaurant is a definite advancement from my last job. I'm supposed to think it over this weekend and call them on Monday. It is not a given that I will get the job, but if I said yes I think they would give it a whirl. I think I will run a couple of my suggestions by them, see how they react to advice from another, and let them know that I won't do it for under $70,000. It's an $80,000 a year job, and if I'm still around by year 2 that's what I want to make.

If they say yes, which there is a good change they won't, then I feel like I can't so no to the money. Especially right now. But I will be eliminating my life- my social life, my writing life... I just don't know. It will be a long weekend.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Analog TVs Kicked to the Curb

Yesterday Best Buy announced that it pulled its analog TVs off the floor. This is in anticipation of February 18th, 2009, when broadcasters will end analog transmissions.

    Non-digital television sets that are not attached to a cable or satellite service and not equipped with special converter boxes will no longer work.

    Best Buy is the first consumer-electronics retailer to report an exit from the analog-TV business. More than 60 million U.S. households currently rely on an antennas or analog cable, and cable operators are required to guarantee their customers will receive broadcast channels until February 2012.

I'm pretty sure our TV is analog. Just the other day we had to get another little machine to connect a "new" hand-me-down DVD player to the TV because the TV connection was so Roman Empire era. I'm big on secondhand TVs off of craigslist, tend to inherit them from friends upgrading, and don't have cable, so before this article the only thing I cared about was that my TV wasn't black and white and it had a remote. But no more signal? Maybe by 2009 there will be a fire sale on flat screens.

Navigating Around Traffic

Okay, so I'm a New Yorker with a car. I move it from one side of the street to the other once a week to comply with alternate side parking. Then I get a 15 minute window at the end of the no parking time frame before all parking spots go David Blaine. But who's complaining, some streets fill in less than a minute. It's not a fancy car, but realiable and not car thief wishlist contraband. But yes, it is a luxury to own a car in the city. I certainly don't use it to drive around in the city (okay, fine, I drive to that Thai place in Queens, but it's Queens for god's sake. Practically Long Island!). So why would I have four wheels in a city with fantastic public transportation? Well, because the NYC subway doesn't go to Baltimore, where I like to go on my semi-annual crabcake pig out. Nor does it go to various invites to friends' home in the country, a long weekend in Maine, or home cooking in Springfield. For all that and then some I need a car.

To survive in the city, ya gotta get the heck out every now and then. And therein lies the problemo. Cities have traffic. And lots of it. There's this game New York drivers like to play, and it involves an infinite amount of effortless statements on the best route out of the city. From Brooklyn, for example: over the bridges (free), under the tunnel (fee), into Manhattan or the BQE, the Jackie Robinson during certain hours, the TriBorough, the Deegan, the Saw Mill, the Harlem River Drive, avoid the George Washington traffic by never driving north, oh- and my personal favorite, "I only take local streets". The f*#k you do. Which brings me to the whole point of the story. Aside from having locked and loaded the very best exit strategy for leaving the city, how the heck are you going to bypass the traffic crawl? Well, there's the dinging alert, like some "Red Dawn" era radio bulletin, of 1010 WINS' traffic report on AM radio. Of course, driving and listening to the speedtalking sixty second breakdown of every transportation artery in the tri-state area leaves one comprehensionally challenged.

Help may be on the way. Today's NY Times article, Navigating With Feedback From Fellow Drivers introduces the Dash Navigation system. It's a snazzy little invention on a trial run in 25 large cities, and works kind of like a GPS unit.

    Ms. Bender’s navigation device, a Dash Express, had done something that no other can currently do. It not only reported that there was a tie-up — many systems already do that — but it also told her how long it would take to get through it, based on current traffic reports and its record of past journeys.

    What makes the Dash device so different is that it not only receives location data from the satellites of the Global Positioning System, like other navigation units, but it also broadcasts information about its travels back to the Dash network.

Other GPS units have a plethora of info, including traffic info. But they take upwards of 2 days to be updated, and frankly, I'd like to be out of traffic by then. But who am I kidding. AM radio is free...

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Coming of Age Blowouts

Lakshmi Chaudhry has an article over at The Nation, Latina America Lavishly Comes of Age, that dissects the latest cross-cultural ritual of blowing wads of cash on an Old World tradition. An English Major's Money recently did a post on attending a lavish bar mitzvah, and Chaudhry joins the fray with the quinceaƱera.
    The fiesta is less about preserving an ancestral tradition than celebrating and affirming a Latino identity that simply didn't exist in the old country. The American version of the ritual was born of the quintessential immigrant desire to give the children what the parents were denied back in the home country--in this case, an out-of-reach fantasy reserved for the daughters of the wealthy.
I haven't been to a bar/bat mitzvah in years, never to a quinceaƱera, and the last sweet sixteen party I went to was in 1986 and I discovered I was hideously allergic to wine coolers (imagine a pink frog with chicken pox). But I've had to buy presents for the gamut of graduations, from kindergarten to high school, and don't even get me started on bridal showers. Celebrations seem to have gone the way of a Tolstoyian ballroom gala before the decline of the aristocracy.
    Corporate America loses no opportunity to transform traditions into selling opportunities, and communities into market segments, but we have also colluded in our own enslavement. Be it in Tehran, New York City or Beijing, consumerism has become our antidote of choice to alienation and displacement. In conflating value with a price tag, we've allowed every meaningful aspect of our twenty-first-century life--identity, love, faith, even resistance to tyranny--to be transformed into an empty imperative to spend, our most sacred rites performed at the cash register.

Competetive Trans-Atlantic Flights

Today Delta and Air France announced a joint venture. London, here we come! Up until now, Heathrow has been in lock down.
    The join venture, to be detailed at a news conference in Paris, would help break the exclusive hold that British Airways, American Airlines, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic Airways have on U.S. flights to Heathrow, Europe's busiest airport.

This past spring the EU and the US signed the Open Skies Agreement, which allows US carries to fly to any European Union city, and a European airline to fly to any US city. What it means for those with PiggyBankBlues is that Heathrow is now a free for all, and trans-Atlantic flights in general should start to go down in price within a year.

As a side note, I just got an Amex Delta card. At the time I was thinking of closing my Amex Rewards card and rolling over the points to the Delta card. Some of M's family lives in Spain, and so far I have enough points/miles for one ticket. Now I have more flight availability, but I'm also paying for a card whose reward just might go down in price. Is it worth the cost?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

YouTube Pirating DOA

Google, the parent company of YouTube (you may have missed the news of the $1.65 billion dollar sale, some rocks do fit humans underneath), announced that it has new technology to catch those pesky pirates. You want to see the one and only funny SNL skit to come out this year? You better head over to NBC's site, because some handheld cameraman shooting the TV screen just went out of business.
    "To help keep their videos off YouTube, media companies may need to give their videos to YouTube. YouTube parent Google Inc.'s long-promised method for reducing piracy, unveiled Monday, relies on TV networks, movie studios and other content owners to provide the video-sharing service with master copies of their videos. YouTube won't post those videos. Rather, it plans to use software to find unique characteristics in the clips so it can detect copies posted by YouTube users without permission. Media companies can ask Google to automatically delete every unauthorized copy -- or to slap ads on the clips and promote them."

Hmmm, let's see if the new technology is up and running yet...

Carbon Footprint Challenge

Over at My Money and Politics there is an eye opening quiz on how big your carbon footprint is. mm&p started a challenge and PiggyBankBlues is going to join! The challenge? For one month pick something to reduce your carbon footprint.

I picked vowing not to consume any more plastic to-go containers, including beverages. I'd actually like to extend this 'til the end of the year, because those damn soup to-go containers are the bane of my existence. There's not enough room for them in our apartment, so there's certainly not enough room for them in landfills.

Unfortunately, NYC recylces only #1 and #2 plastic bottles, no other plastics are recyclable. But my footprint starts before I even buy whatever is inside the plastic. Production of plastics saps fossil fuels, both as a raw material and in delivering energy for the manufacturing process. It is estimated that 4% of the world's annual oil production is used as a feedstock for plastics production, plus an additional 3-4% during manufacture.

Okay, so I'm feeling a little lame about my original pick, so I'm adding another. I'm cutting down my red meat consumption in half. This, to be quite honest, I don't think I'll be able to do, but we'll see. I prefer the beef and coffee diet, and think vegetables taste like mulch on a platter, but I will try my best.

There's always something we can do to reduce our carbon footprint. The consumerist version of saving the planet is not the only benefit. Taking on this challenge will not only make you greener in your 'hood, it will also make you greener in your wallet.

Here are my quiz results:


    category & #of acres
    FOOD 5.4
    MOBILITY 0.7
    SHELTER 3.5
    GOODS/SERVICES 3
    TOTAL FOOTPRINT 13
    IN COMPARISON, THE AVERAGE ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINT IN YOUR COUNTRY IS 24 ACRES PER PERSON.
    WORLDWIDE, THERE EXIST 4.5 BIOLOGICALLY PRODUCTIVE ACRES PER PERSON.
    IF EVERYONE LIVED LIKE YOU, WE WOULD NEED 2.8 PLANETS.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Investing Green

Today is Blog Action Day, when thousands of bloggers write on a single topic: the environment. While I am tempted to blog about the joys of turning my moldy leftovers into dirt for our rooftop garden, I thought it more appropriate to write about the other green topic, money.

This month's Kiplinger's magazine has a great cover story, Green Investing is the Next Big Thing. Investing green entails putting your money where your eco-conscience is. Green investing is not the same as socially screened investing. For example, international powerhouse General Electric is one of the few titanic corporations actively seeking ways to reduce greenhouse gases, despite its infamous past. It is also a company that is currently fighting Superfund clean-up laws that hold GE responsible for this infamous past, like PCBs pouring into the Hudson River. There is a long list why GE won't ease your conscience, but that is why green investing isn't social investing. It is simply investing in companies whose products are better for the environment. For some companies, like solar panel makers, it may be all their products. However, most green investing involves companies who only have some products that stem the tide of global environmental meltdown.

Now that we got the moral digressions out of the way, hear this. Saving the environment has graduated from tree hugging activists to huge profits for those in the know. From Gore's nifty new Nobel Peace Prize to NYC's new stolen recyclables black market problem, the world's conscience is slowly embracing the unfortunate reality that yes, we reap what we sow. And in a bumbling, and perhaps too late, effort to recoup our losses, there are markets that are being opened. We have turned a political corner, and the issue of the environment is no longer a fringe issue. For those of us with (hopefully) years left to enjoy this planet and its inhabitants, it would serve us well to vote on environmental issues, make a constant effort in our life and in our community to reduce, reuse, recylce, and invest in companies that support these endeavors. Because in the end, who wants to leave behind a world worse off than how we found it.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Strangest Shopping Experience

Okay, so I'm about to post about Radiohead for the third time, but I just had the weirdest shopping experience. Their new album, "In Rainbows", is being released on their own website and can be downloaded for any price. Redundant news, I know, and yet my brain stuttered through that part.

If it's not Chinatown or eBay, I'm a consumer that pays what I'm told to. I bargain hunt, for sure, and buy most things on sale, but I'm not a born haggler. So when I wandered over to the site for my download, I got to the sparse page that simply listed quantity, price, and subtotal. The price was an empty box.

So it got me thinking. Well, while it's true that Radiohead is no Top 40 band, I'm pretty sure that all bandmates have successfully saved for their retirement and live in well appointed British tudors and rehabbed mini-castles. So do I pay for the art of it all? Should I let the one million downloaders with more money than I pay for my broke sliding scale ass? Should I pay for a simply brilliant publicity stunt? Should I pay for what, as the New York Times speculates, could be a new movement in music to slash the rip-off facor in music consumption? Am I such a capitalist that I can't even stop for one second looking at the true cost of goods, from factory floor operator to bandwith jockey?

So I decided, depsite the fact that they probably don't need my money, that I believe in markets, sucker that I am. So I paid what I would pay on iTunes- $9.99. I punched in my 5 pounds, hoped the dollar hasn't tanked so far that it's triple the pound rather than double, and felt immense relief.

I don't know about you, but I would find it exhausting to figure out the true cost of goods for everything I bought. But for an album that will keep me ellipticalling for 45 minutes, I'll pay more than I should.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Madonna, A-Rod, and Radiohead

In today's CNN/Money site there's an article on how Madonna is rumored to have left Warner Music for a ten year contract with Live Nation, worth $120 million. Of course, in the extremities of paycheck ka-ching, A-Rod is currently in a ten year $242 million dollar contract that many expect he will opt out of in order to bump it up to $300 million. I mean, just to keep her $120 million in perspective...

Live Nation is the worlds biggest and baddest concert promoter, raking in notable NYC venues; Roseland, Hammerstein, Irving Plaza, Jones Beach, the Nokia in Times Square, and the McCarren Pool in Williamsburgh. This aint no CBGB town anymore, it's Live Nation vs. Bowery Presents (the local upstarts giving goliath a run for its money with Bowery Ballroom, Mercury Lounge, Webster Hall, and Music Hall in Williamsburgh). To me, that seems like a lot of money for a blond ambition in the waning years of her vocal career, but thank god she does more dancing than singing.

The article is interesting because it also mentions the altering landscape of music distribution. Paul McCartney goes latte factor, releasing his latest CD on Starbucks' label, and Radiohead eschewed labels altogether by going straight to download- off of its own website. It's like CDs will inevitably go the way of 8 track, and my guess is the iPod revolution has only begun.

    “The music business is changing and there are different ways of making money but the labels are sticking with this white whale called the CD. The Internet could be the salvation of the labels if they do a better job of adapting to it instead of fighting it,” said Phil Leigh, senior analyst with Inside Digital Media, an independent research firm based in Tampa, Fla.

In a BBC article on Radiohead's release and what it means for the music industry, NME reviews editor Julian Marshall says,

    "I think it's actually a really exciting time. People have been talking for years about how the internet was going to change the way people approach releasing their records."

Now if only we can find a way to bring back album cover art.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Money Magazine's 13 Retirement Myths

Ah, the myths of building a nifty retirement. All thirteen of them. Some are obvious, like you don't have to be rich to successfully save for your retirement. Some are depressing, like a million bucks is a fine amount to retire with if you have an, um, austere lifestyle. And then there's the strange myth about Boomers crashing the stock market. The stock market? Who cares about the stock market, what about Social Security for chrissakes? Oh, they get to that. Another myth.

Then we have the depressing part for those not-so-nine-to-fivers with PiggyBankBlues. It's a myth that you don't need a pension, but only because you need a 401k! Yikes. Time to open a Solo 401k- My Money Blog recently did a great post on it. If you file a 1099, it's a fantastic way to increase your retirement savings. (Talk to your accountant first!)

My favorite myth is "Short-term market swings don't matter":

    In any 10-year period since 1926, you'd have made money in stocks 97% of the time; over 20 years you'd be ahead 100% of the time... When you're far from retirement, you can tough out even devastating bear markets, buying low while you do.

Library Fodder

If you are craving a good book to read, and want to add it to your library list, The National Book Award finalists are always a good place to start. Just the other day I put Denis Johnson's "Tree of Smoke" on my library request list. Hopefully, I beat the crowd.

When the last Harry Potter came out I happened to be checking out books at the Central Library in Brooklyn. Behind the lady scanning my books was a wall of Harry Potters. Normally books on hold are not behind the counter but out on the hold shelves. "How long's the wait?" I asked out of curiosity. "Two years." I looked at her for a sign of humor. "You kidding me?" She smiled and handed me my books. "Nope."

My Unemployment

Today is rainy, cold, and bleak. I do not want to sort through my credit cards and figure out which ones to cancel. I do not want to read, yet again, the durable power of attorney that has been sitting on my desk for M and I to sign away our not-so-understandable rights. I do not want to work on my novel and find the plot that, another yet again, I've gone and lost. And I most certainly do not want to go out and trudge through the damp concrete and traffic to look for a job. But I must, because Radiohead released a new album, my savings has gone Saraharan, and I still have to pay my student loan and save for my retirement.

I haven't been working since the start of July. I first started working when I was twelve and I foolishly asked my mom for a three speed Huffy that had caught my eye. She snapped something about money on trees and get a job. I scored a paper route and eventually got my Huffy. I think since the age of 12 I've been unemployed no more than 2 weeks. And here I am, three months after I got canned, Radiohead the new Huffy. I'm ready to go out and get another job at a restaurant because I'm just sick of waiting until inspiration smacks me upside the head and directs me to a different career.

Some financial and career goals just sort of stall. I'd like to avoid saying fail, but if the day gets any bleaker I might be inclined to change my mind.

(edit)

I just listened to a CD I picked up at the library, The Best of Lou Rawls, The Capitol Jazz & Blues Sessions, and all is right with the world again.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Congress & The Fed Review Credit Card Tactics (aka the superfine print)

Credit card companies can be some of the meanest low down scoundrels out to get you. And until now, it was the wild west out there for 'em, but not anymore. This Friday, October 12th, is the last day public comments are allowed on the Federal Reserve's proposal to change the Truth in Lending Provisions.

An MSN article breaks down the points of contention that I'm sure many of us have experienced on first hand ring of hell basis.

Fixed rate means fixed rate.No more, oh we saw that the directional wind changed in the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania, so we raised your APR. They need to specify a date, or it's fixed for the life of the account.

Clearly state what triggers an APR increase. "Changes to your creditworthiness" won't cut it. A late payment on this card? A late payment on another card? Nail it down in language that is understandable.

Account changes within 45 days notice instead of 15.Rather than reading the past tense history of your interest rate spike and paying the consequences, you get an extra 30 days to make changes; pay down the card, transfer the balance to a less lecherous creditor, or close the account.

In addition, both the House and Senate are have held hearings on credit card standards and a House bill is expected to be introduced soon, guided by Carolyn Maloney's (D-New York) four "gold standard" principles:

Credit card companies should issue cards on terms individuals can repay.

Issuers should clearly explain account features, terms and pricing at relevant times.

Issuers should provide customers notice and choice with respect to changes in terms.

Issuers should encourage responsible, successful credit use, especially among new credit entrants and customers with special needs.

The article surmises,

    "None of those principles sounds all that drastic, but the devil will be in the details. You can expect a big push to eliminate the following four "foul play" practices: Universal default, deceptive billing cycles, anytime/any reason repricing, and pay to pay."

There are links within the article to contact your House Rep and your Senator, as well as the proposed changes with the Fed here (pdf file), then voice your opinion here, or shoot off an email to regs.comments@federalreserve.gov with Docket No. R-1286 in the subject line.

The card companies got their bankruptcy laws, now it's time for us to go out and get ours. I hope by Friday you can find the time to give them a piece of your mind.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Paris Below 50 Euros Un Soir

Here's something to tuck into your future travel plans, a place to bed in Paris for under fifty euros, courtesy of Gridskipper. It's not just the too-communal hostel arrangements, everything from bed and breakfasts to Paris' only campground are covered in the short list.

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Elitism of the Ivies


Today's New York Sun reports that Malcom Glaldwell and Adam Gopnik, both writers for The New Yorker, will square off in a debate over the elitism of the Ivy League. The sold out throwdown will take place tonight at the New York Society for Ethical Culture.

Glaldwell, bestselling author of Blink and The Tipping Point,

    is expected to argue that the Ivy League admissions process is subjective and breeds elitism in American society, and that intelligent students will do just as well in life regardless of where they attend college.

Where there's a thought.

    After a good internship on Capitol Hill, a student might have more success attending George Washington University than Harvard, a professor of sociology at Harvard, Martin Whyte, said. "The Ivy League is not especially wonderful or different — those schools just have more money," he said. "I don't think you're ever going to eliminate elitism."

Of course, if you read this past Sunday's NY Times Magazine article on the application hell to get into these schools, you might want to just say no.

    photo: Annenberg Hall, the freshman dining facility, (copyright Harvard)

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Gay Seniors Act Up

Well, here's a different take on a retirement community. The LA Times has an interesting article, Room Under the Rainbow, on gay retirement communities mulling over the straight retirees moving in.

RainbowVision (damn that Dorothy) is a gay retirement community on the outskirts of Santa Fe. When they first opened it was promoted almost entirely within the gay community. Of course, housing discrimination laws in NM include sexual orientation, and the housing market slowdown has left many homes on the market. Some sellers have opened their doors to the straight community, swinging open the debate over a gay majority wide open.

It's an interesting dimlemma. Gay seniors overcame obstacles people of my generation never had to deal with. For most residents, it's a matter of safety. Their own. After a lifetime of living with homophobia, they simply want to retire without it. Of course, I'd prefer to retire in a city of 12 million in the heart of the West Village, but my retirement savings aren't quite up to speed...

The New Yorker's Take on the Dollar


The latest issue of The New Yorker tackles, what else, the slide of the dollar. Color me shocked. Yes, folks, I sense a redundant theme on PiggyBankBlues for years on end. The greenback sucks. But wait! Americans won't notice because A, we don't save; B, we have a ginormous market where corporations beg for market share, even at the cost of decreased profits; C, more people listen to NPR in swahili than Warren Buffet in english; and D, only 28% of Americans have valid passports. Good grief.

James Surowiecki's aptly titled article, Greenback Blues explains why we may not feel the hurt, and why perhaps we should.

    "... consider Halo 3, Microsoft’s new Xbox 360 game. If you buy Halo 3 from Amazon.com, you’ll pay sixty bucks. If you buy it from Amazon.de, in Germany, you’ll pay ninety-three dollars. Adjusted for taxes, this means that German consumers are paying twenty-six per cent more than Americans for the very same product.

    The virtues of this peculiar arrangement are obvious: Americans are able to buy far more stuff with their flimsy currency than one would expect. The vice, if there is one, may be that the relative painlessness of the dollar’s decline has made it easier to ignore the reasons for it, like our colossal government debt and the trillions of dollars we’re going to have to spend on Medicare and Social Security for retiring baby boomers. We know that these things matter, but it’s hard to get worried about them when foreign-made DVD players cost twenty-nine dollars. The danger is that if no changes are made, and the dollar continues to fall, the safety net may at some point get yanked away..."

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Open House New York

One of my favorite events in the city will be happening this weekend! Open House New York happens every year, and it's when New York opens up its doors to the public for free tours, oftentimes in areas normally off limits. Between architectural wonders, cemetery catacombs, old theaters, and an abandoned section of Ellis Island, there's a lot to see. Check out Newyorkology's site for some highlights. I'm pissed the MTA substation in Brooklyn is already booked!

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Business Leans Left

The front page of todays WSJ has an interesting article, "GOP Is Losing Grip On Core Business Vote". The stronghold Republican business base is leaning Democrat, and that has potentially huge implications for the upcoming Presidential election.

Between the current administration's handling of the war in Iraq, the yawning federal budget deficit, the avalanche of employee health care costs on businesses, the inevitability of global warming and the potential new business opportunities available, and the stranglehold of social conservatives over the party's agenda that many in business disagree with, and top that with Greenspan's recent spanking of the Republicans, and you've got yourself a compelling read. Some highlights:

    In the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in September, 37% of professionals and managers identify themselves as Republican or leaning Republican, down from 44% three years ago.

    Federal campaign-finance reports document shifting support in some quarters of the business community. Hedge funds last year gave 77% of their contributions in congressional races to Democrats, up from 71% during the 2004 election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan analyst of campaign finances. Last year the securities industry gave 45% of its money to Republicans, down from 58% in 1996, the center said.

    Some intraparty tension is rooted in cultural differences. Social conservatives tend to be relatively lower-income, less educated, concentrated in the South and West, and newer to the party than many old-line Republicans of an economic or business bent. Each blames the other for the party's current state -- often employing pejoratives such as "Bible-thumpers" or "country-club Republicans."

Monday, October 1, 2007

Estate Planning Series- Durable Power of Attorney, Part I

I should come up with a more lively title, but planning for your grave illness and/or death is anything but entertaining. The fact of the matter is, I've been meaning to write this post for a while now, but it always seemed so daunting. You already read (hopefully) my I-am-not-a-real-live-financial-planner disclaimer, so you might as well also be forewarned that I am most certainly not a lawyer or a legal scholar. Which is why I'm writing this post about legal protection.

Everybody rattles off the things every gay couple needs, or every not-officially-married couple needs. A will. A living will. A health care power of attorney. A financial power of attorney. A notarized statement from you stating that your partner will be the first in line to visit you at a hospital. It's a short list but long on time and effort. So I decided I should put my money where my mouth is and you all get to witness just how easy it is for me to stumble through the legalese. One by one I will knock off my estate plan must-haves, and do what any responsible person should do in a relationship that is not recognized by the government; legally protect me and my partner.

Not all families are created equal in the eyes of the law. You could be live-in boyfriend and girlfriend, and if you are hospitalized it is your mother, who you haven't spoken to in years, who is the only one allowed to see you. Maybe you're single, own your own home. Do you want the state to decide where your home goes? What if you want it to be given to a sibling instead of your parents. What are the tax consequences if your estate goes straight to court? And if you're a queer family, well, we're pretty much up a creek without a paddle. So we have to make our own paddles.

I decided to start with the easiest and cheapest, the durable power of attorney. After a little googling around I found a free download here, for a durable power of attorney in New York State. Estate law is stringently tied to state law, so in your research you must refer only to your home state. Of course, federal law doesn't lose its importance (hello, one thousand one hundred and thirty eight rights, benefits, and protections that are provided to married couples), and a lot of estate planning involves filling those enormous gaps in your own protection.

What, exactly, does a durable power of attorney protect? You are granting power to someone else to act in your stead. It is not something to be taken lightly, which is one of the reasons why it is suggested as a mandatory document in estate planning for gay and lesbian couples. It is in effect whether or not you are incompetent, incapacitated, or just plain old out to lunch. You lay out what, exactly, the person can do. You can revoke or alter it at any time. While there are other powers of attorney, it is generally considered that durable power of attorney is most relevant to queer couples and/or unmarried couples. After all, it's when you are at your weakest that your need the most protection; to access your bank account to pay your student loans, or just to even be admitted into your hospital room. But don't be fooled, even married couples need a durable power of attorney. The law protects some more than others, but it still doesn't grant you the sun and the moon. For example, you cannot sell your spouse's stock in order to pay for medical bills. Married, "married", single, domestically partnered, or in a long term relationship that just started- if you are ever in the unfortunate position of being temporarily unable to speak and act for yourself, do you really want the government to do it for you?

Research, research research. Read your state government's website. See a lawyer. I'm going to forward my own form to a friend for review. And if there are any lawyers out there or people who have done this, please share your stories! Hopefully, I'll post an update this week after having finished the easiest (and cheapest!) component of my estate plan.