Friday Frivolity: My Last $100

It’s Friiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiidaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!  (Hey, sometimes I like to pretend I’m Oprah.)  Very excited for the weekend to be here especially because the butter on our Easter table spread this Sunday will be in the shapes of little lambs and the moment someone cuts into it, I’m going to make jokes about sacrificial lambs for the rest of the day.

For a little bit of frivolity on this fine almost-holiday Friday, I was inspired by a great new website, The Billfold.  Brought to you by the good people behind The Awl, Splitsider, and Hairpin (all worthy reads in their own right), Billfold is an irreverently fun and actually useful site about money and finance.  They didn’t even pay me to say that!  I actually think that thought on my own!  One cool feature on The Billfold is the series “My Last $100” where the author details the last one hundred dollars they’ve spent.  So, I thought I’d give you all a little peek into my finances – prepare to be…underwhelmed (spoiler alert:  it’s mostly food and/or beer-related!)

Note:  For the sake of ease and sparing you from reading about every $0.75 Diet Coke and $2.00 cup of oatmeal I bought this week, this only lists purchases over $5.00 and doesn’t include last night’s Girls Night, because that is off-limits for blog talk (as I foreswore on shoes and you cannot welch on that business).

$10 – DC Beer Week button – put your hands in the air for supporting local beer, what what!

$22 – Pitcher of beer, nachos, and french fries for a pre-21 Jump Street best friend movie matinee.  Mom(s), please don’t judge us.

$18 – Grocery trip to Wegmans – all off the cold/hot bar to stock my lunches for the last few days.  A conscious effort was made to include vegetables, to counter the effects of purchases made the day before this

$25 – H Street Country Club – Shrimp fajitas, a single margarita, and a couple of Dos Equis Ambers – weird DC-themed mini-golf on second floor of the bar was free with entree purchase!

$18Little Miss Whiskey’s – Several beers selected from the beloved Beer Book.

$7 - Au Pon Bain – I attempted to order myself a “healthy” lunch sandwich (veggies!  no cheese!  no aioli!  lots of veggies!) but *true story alert*, there were apparently two Rebeccas ordering lunch that day because when I returned to my desk, there was a turkey, brie, and cranberry chutney sandwich in the bag.  I could have gone back and swapped out for my 400-calorie-veggie-delight but instead, I ate that brie-swaddled goodness and did not look back.  It was a beautiful moment.

Have a great weekend and remember to spend responsibly!

If You Drive A Car, I’ll Tax The Street

It may be foolish to even consider writing a post about taxes in an election year (and amidst the 1,875th Republican primary debate…) but if there are only two things that you can count on in life, it’s death and…you know.

Ah, tax season.  That time of  year where you realize that the rich really do get richer and the poor help pay for it.  Or for some, that time of year where you can finally pay down some debt or upgrade your television or just feel flush for a couple days.  I’ve done taxes in good years (2011 wasn’t so bad, really) and in bad years (2010, you horrid little bugger) and a few in  between, so I thought I would share a few tips for the un/under-employed to help you make the most of your money.

  • Keep track of everything:  Ideally, you’ve been holding on to all your receipts (yeah, right…) but if not, go back through your monthly bank statements and highlight expenses that might be deductible, specifically expenses related to job-seeking, education, donations, medical expenses, and even a move, if it’s for a job.  I set up a GMail label for any expense I think I might deduct, so it’s easy to go back at tax time.
  • Government aid is almost always taxed:  If you received unemployment benefits or compensation, you will need to report that and pay taxes on it, unless you read my post on unemployment and had the taxes taken out in advance (a lifesaver!)  However, programs like WIC or TANF or other food assistance generally are not taxed.  Be sure to ask a professional or check online before filing to make sure you’re paying no more than you have to!
  • No need to report wages from Bank of Mom/Dad/Grandparents/Sugar Daddy: Unless you are receiving Romney-levels of assistance, you don’t have to report gifts!  Even if the gifts are at a taxable level, it is the responsibility of the giver to pay any required federal taxes.  Unless you were given a gift that produces interest (stocks, bonds, funds, trusts, etc.), you have no obligation to the government.  You’d be surprised, but I have friends who have included monthly parental money under wages – don’t be that guy!
  • File your taxes every year:  Times is rough, y’all.  I get it.  But for most people out there, you’re either missing out of money you could have in your pocket OR you’re setting yourself up for even greater debt down the road by not filing.  If you do owe the government, ’tis better to file and set up a monthly payment plan than it is to ignore it.  Trust me, it will not go away.
  • Doing your taxes shouldn’t cost you an arm and leg:  E-filing is so easy and inexpensive (often free on the federal level based on your income.)  Unless you have a very complicated return or unusual financial situation, you can file yourself – or get a friend to help you!  Take advantage of reputable sites such as TurboTax, H&R Block, etc. that will process your return quickly and get you your refund.  Save time by setting up direct deposit and don’t be tricked into money-sucking options like refund debit cards (watch for hidden fees!), filing fees taken from your refund ($29.95 additional cost if you don’t pay upfront), or opening additional accounts you don’t need.
  • Refunds are not bonus money:  I know that tax refunds often feel like a year-end bonus – but they’re not.  It’s just your money that the government has been holding on to.  If you notice over the course of a year or two that you are getting significant refunds (without any major credits or unusual circumstances), you may consider having less tax withheld from your paycheck each period.  Instead of a $2,500 “bonus” in April, you could be getting an extra $200 a month!  It’s much easier to maintain a budget, pay down debt, boost your savings, and generally try to be a responsible adult if you’re maximizing your take home pay.

Anything that I’ve forgotten?  Anyone have a crazy tax story?  Or do we all just have Taxman stuck in our head now?

Is Dating Cost-Effective?

Self-portrait of the author on a date

On the occasion, I get a reader email or tweet asking why I don’t share a little more about my personal life, particularly my romantic entanglements (or lack thereof.)  There are many, many good reasons as to why I don’t blog about dating or love or sex, including but not limited to the following:

  • There are already so many great dating blogs (in particular, the Date Report and Shmitten Kitten), I have nothing new to add
  • The actual concept of dating tends to give me hives if I think about it too hard
  • You’ve seen Liz Lemon on 30 Rock, so you already have a pretty good idea
  • If there was anything actually interesting going on, I would shout it from the highest rooftops and mountains, organize a massive parade, complete with a me-as-Bueller rendition of a classic Beatles song, and would probably start a blog called “HOLY SHIT GUYS I ACTUALLY GOT LAID”

With that said, a very perceptive reader sent me a link to a Forbes blog post from a few weeks ago that examines the fact that, for most post-collegiates, dating is quite the economic endeavor.  The author brings up several good points, including the need for a neutral meeting ground early in the relationship (bars, restaurants, movies), the money expectations placed, and the increased costs of long distance love.  It’s no wonder that, according to OK Cupid, both men and women inflate their incomes by 20% on profiles to draw more messages.

Having had a relatively stable source of income for the last year (a legitimate life first…sad but true), I was able to budget a decent amount of fun money for frivolous activities, most of which revolved around booze and food (hey, a girl’s gotta eat…and she needs to drink.)  The difference between bro-ing out with friends and dating is that the financial expectations are so different.  My friends won’t blink if I suggest a bar with 2-for-1 drink specials or drop a Scoutmob coupon on brunch or suggest splitting a Groupon that we can use during dollar draft day.  I’m all about a bargain so that I can stretch my money like a slutty yoga teacher.

But when you’re dating?  Cheap isn’t always hot.  That bar we love for the rock bottom price on PBR pounders is not the ideal place to take a lady on a first date.  And as I tend to hold to the belief that (s)he who does the asking has the obligation to pay (even amongst friends, this is a nice rule), dating can mean doubling your expenses on any given night.  This doesn’t even begin to consider ancillary dating costs – new clothes, more frequent/sophisticated hair cuts, manicures, pedicures, waxes, car detailing, Metro expenses (whither the relationship with someone on another line from you…), and whatever else you need to show off the best version of you.

For all the hard-earned money you’re putting out, what exactly are you getting in return?  If the date turns out to be a dud, it’s not only your time and energy you’ve wasted but also dough that could have been spent on 1.5 liter bottles of wine and sushi for a classy dinner home alone.  Maybe the date is alright and you’re in bliss for a few months – until you’re left with a broken heart and a maxed-out credit card from that “romantic, spur-of-the-moment romantic trip to Vegas” that ended with him dumping you at the airport on the way home.

It seems that if you’re in your 20s and already struggling paycheck-to-paycheck (or even sticking to your finely-tuned budget and savings plan), dating is definitely an exercise in post-post-modern social studies.  No one is truly capable of shouldering the financial burden (let alone the maturity necessary for actual commitment), so most people remain in that blissful/awful state of non-dating dating, leading to the hook-up culture that many a trend piece has been written about.

What do you think, friends?  Am I being smart or surly?  Do the costs outweight the benefits?  Is this just the price of companionship?  Should love be untainted by the unsavory influence of money?  Will I end this blog post with a series of ridiculous questions?  Who can tell?

 

Friday Frivolity: Spending Money in Your Twenties

Oh, Thought Catalog, you have been providing so much great blog fodder lately. Earlier this week, they were discussing when you stopping being a post-graduate and today, its all about where your money goes in your 20s.

Again, Ryan O’ Connell hits the mark here on the five things that drain those precious few income dollars – rent (something that feels akin to being held up monthly), booze (and booze-related expenses, like late night burritos or over-tipping a cabbie because he switched the station to the 80s rock block), healthy organic food (I call shenanigans whenever someone doesn’t have money for happy hour but always has a pantry full of Trader Joe’s/Whole Foods organic goodness), college, and cell phones/Internet.

I find that there are a few other expenses that seem to come at you a lot in your twenties:

  • Weddings – This is the hidden money suck of your twenties!  Everyone is getting married but you, so you’re shelling out for a fancy mixer and travel to your home/college town and a new outfit (in a vain attempt to hook up with any remaining single people) – and this happens 2-3 times a year
  • Transportation - Even without a car, getting yourself place to place is almost never free.  After rent and student loans, Metro is my most costly expense.  You can factor in SmarTrip discounts and off-peak hours but if you ride daily, you’re going to rack up a tidy sum in trips.  Add in bike share membership costs, new walking shoes on a regular basis, and the occasional taxi and leaving the house just seems like a financial suck hole.
  • Redbox – Bear with me on this – even with Netflix Instant, Hulu Plus, and any other number of Internet-based movie/television watching options, there almost always seems to be an occasion for someone to run to the Redbox and grab a flick.  You volunteer to spring for the flick (what’s $1.05 – a pittance, really) while your buddy runs into the grocery store for the beer (sucker!)  Three unreturned weeks later, that direct-to-DVD buddy cop comedy you rented  and never finished has cost you $20 and your dignity.  [Note - This could also occasionally fall under booze-related expenses.]
  • Parties - I love a good party.  I realize that this could fall under the booze category but I think going to parties in your twenties becomes increasingly expensive.  In college, you’d grab a case of something cheap, throw in $5 for pizza, and be set.  When someone invites you over for wine and cheese, you’re expected to bring something that may actually come with a cork and a cheese that costs more than a cab ride.  I could throw a very classy affair if I had saved every $20 spent when heading to a “casual” get together in the last five years.
  • Gadgets - I have a personality that I like to describe as “charmingly analog.”  I don’t feel the need to wait in line for the latest Apple product or scourge eBay/Craigslist for gaming systems.  I just got my first smartphone, out of necessity more than desire, and I still have the iPod my parents gave me in 2006 for a trip abroad (it holds almost 200 songs!)  But in your twenties, gadgets are the thing.  Even more than clothes or going out, I see people spending large percentages of their take home pay on gadgets.  Its our generation’s most debilitating – and awesome – addiction.

Real Life Responses, Part Two

I polled a wide selection of post-graduates to get their feedback on what life after college is like.  Every few weeks, we’ll stop and take a look at what real people are saying about their post-collegiate experiences and what tips they have to share.

The biggest mistake I made after college graduation was…

  • Having super high expectations for my job. I basically made it out to be the perfect job in my head, so when I got here and it fell short of what was in my head I was a little bit crushed. However, I realized that there were still good things about my job even if it wasn’t the dream job I had envisioned.
  • Spending all of my money that I received from family as gifts. I should have saved it all! I was so stupid!
  • Clinging to my college lifestyle.  Living with my best friend from college, bar hopping most nights of the week, and being generally irresponsible made my first year out of college sort of a waste.
  • Managing my money. Once you move out on your own for the first time, there’s this massive explosion of expenses I never had to think about before: rent, furniture, bills, cleaning supplies… I was smart about finding cheap furniture, but I started spending a lot of money on decorations for my new place, which I really should have waited to do until after paychecks started coming in from my new job.
  • Thinking that just because I was younger than my co-workers I couldn’t be aggressive or decisive or disagree with them.
  • Five words: credit cards are the devil.
  • Limiting my job search to one place, especially now that my state is dealing with budget cuts in education
  • Letting my first boss walk all over me and intimidate me – you have to know your value in your workplace!
  • Not saving enough money before the economy tanked.
  • Not to be redundant, but budgeting better, and not paying bills/loans on time.  Luckily things are better now, but it was getting baaaad.

There’s definitely a managing your money theme to the responses!  However, one of my favorite replies came from my friend Jennie, who blogs about interning in Washington, DC.  What I love is she touches on the reality of post-collegiate life, where you’re struggling to make academic and career-related decisions not just as an individual but also as a couple.  She writes:

I think the biggest mistake we made after Heather’s graduation was that we both jumped in to graduate school.  I was 100% ready to go back and Heather was thinking she just wanted to continue through, but it made things much much harder for us financially.  This was mostly due to the fact that Heather was denied in-state tuition both years at GMU even though she has been living in VA for the past 6 years.  Out of state tuition is pretty expensive and the program wasn’t worth the out of state price to her.  In hindsight, we probably should have moved up to DC for me to go to school full time while she worked, then we could have moved to her top choice school after I graduated (which was in Denver, CO).  I guess now she has her degree which is worth something, but it all ties back to us having no financial investment knowledge when we probably needed it the most.

Anything to add?  Leave it in the comments!

Friday Frivolity

Oh, Fridays, I love how you always come around once a week.  This week, I thought I’d poke a little fun at one of many lists that are supposed to help the freshly graduated/newly professional get on their feet.  You can find the original article here.

1.  Start a Roth IRA for retirement.
At this stage of my life, I’m more likely to put money into a B-A-R than a I-R-A.  While a Roth IRA is a good idea (tax-free, it’s goes with you job for job, you earn more the earlier you start saving), any “what you should be doing now” list that kicks off with me saving money I don’t have is just depressing.  Which is why you’ll find me investing in some tax-free PBRs instead.

2. Buy a used car.
Well, this one just seems obvious.  Quick poll – how many of you ran out and bought a new car after graduation?  How about when you got your first job?  My parents don’t even buy new cars, so why would I?  When people come to me for automotive advice, as they often do, I remind them that it just needs to get you from here to there.  When my last vehicle, Cinderblocks, gave up the ghost, I started taking the bus and walking – and I lived to tell the tale, folks!

3. Keep renting, for awhile.
That’s just foolishness.  Become friends with someone who works in the foreclosure department of your local bank and find out when the really cheap ones become available.  Your parents/loan officer/drug dealer will be so impressed with your initiative, they’ll probably front you the down payment.

4. Start a rainy-day fund.
I have my own version of the rainy day fund.  Become a regular at your local bar, spend what you can, tip generously, and on those nights when you can’t afford a pint, most bartenders/bar owners will let you drink on the house.  Trust me, this works 99% of the time.

5. Maximize your employers contribution to your 401(k) at work.
I don’t think this is an option when your most successful business venture is dog sitting.  Moving on…

6. Keep living cheap.
It’s hard to even make fun of this when the original article starts with “remember what it was like to live with no paycheck (or maybe a very small paycheck) in college?”  Why, yes, I remember like it was yesterday – perhaps because a low-pay existence isn’t exclusive to college students.

7. Build your network
I am a hermit my nature.  I dislike 99% of the people in the world [congrats to those of you in the remaining 1% - y'all are awesome.]  I especially dislike conscious networks – people who force business cards into your hands or volunteer in their community just for the opportunity to recite their resume at you.  I can’t totally fault this one since they had the good sense to encourage readers to befriend a bartender. Preach on!

8. Build your story
I filled out a Facebook profile.  Shouldn’t that suffice?

9. Get a better credit card.
I am fairly confident the worse advice to give to most newly-graduated people, making little money and more responsibility, is to pile on additional debt.  You know what’s better than a low interest rate on your credit card debt?  Not having credit card debt in the first place.

10. Set goals, stay active.
This is, verbatim, the same advice given to widows who move into assisted living facilities.  It is insulting – especially since their idea of goals is writing a five year plan.  I feel accomplished if I complete a five day plan.

What do you think?  Is the Newly Corporate website hitting the nail on the head?  Or does their advice ring a little hollow in a post-recession 2010 world?  Leave your thoughts in the comments, email postcollegiateblog [at] gmail [dotcom] and most importantly, have a great weekend!