Graduated Learning: Life after College

I got my degree, I got a job…now what?

Looking back at 2013: Blogging about Money January 8, 2014

Filed under: General Blogging,Personal Finance — Stephanie @ 9:45 pm
Tags: , ,

Happy New Year!  I had some big things happen this past year, and I’m looking forward to some even bigger things this year!

I’ve been posting my yearly changes in assets and debts for the past few years now.  You can check out my money reviews for 2012, 2011, and 2010.  How much did my assets and debts change this past year?  Check it out:

Assets:

  • Liquid assets (checking and savings accounts):  +$25,825
  • Retirement (401(k), Roth IRA, Rollover IRA):  +$36,845
  • Car (edmunds.com private sale value): -$2,916 (I’ve been including this in networth for the past 5 years.  Recently lowered the “condition” I’m considering it, since it’s been beat up a bit over the years).

Debts:

  • Student Loans: Reduced  payoff balance by $3,989 (I wasn’t aggressive with my payoff like I thought I would be)
  • Credit cards: I pay them off every month, but if I want to be exact, I have $185 less to pay off as of the same time last year.

Change in net worth since last year:  +$63,558. Looking good.

This is probably the last year I can easily do these comparisons, since I’m getting married this year!  Some of that cash in savings will be put to good use, but not too much!  Plus, we’ll probably be taking the approach of “yours, mine, ours” with money, so tracking everything will be a little more difficult.

WordPress put together a review of my blogging for 2013.  Turns out I only published 22 posts.  I guess no one can accuse me of posting too often!  My blogging this year covered a few different topics.  There was, of course, personal finance.  And as with last year, I had a decent share of posts about fitness.  I also threw in a few general updates about things happening in my life.

I started the Graduate’s Guide to Being a Grownup series, but it sort of fizzled out after just one post on retirement plans.  I promise to get that back up and running in 2014, and definitely want to hear what you’d like me to write about.

I reviewed Helaine Olen’s book, Pound Foolish about the dark side of the Personal Finance industry.

I also wondered if my Roth IRA conversion was a bad idea, and took another look at health insurance options.

I’ll post separately a wrap up and review of my fitness posts and activities for 2013.

In the meantime, let me know:  How did your 2013 end up?  Are you excited for everything happening in 2014?

 

Ways that we’re saving money on our wedding December 8, 2013

Filed under: Personal Finance — Stephanie @ 9:16 pm
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Before I start. Yes. This is another wedding post. I’m trying not to include TOO many of these. But some people were curious, so I’m sharing a bit about our decisions.

Also? As with any blog about weddings, please don’t let this make you feel bad about your decisions. I (and many others I’ve spoken with) tend to struggle with the constant comparison to every other wedding blog post. Being not something enough. Not fancy enough, or low-key enough. Not eccentric enough, or not traditional enough. Too big, too little. You get the idea. I’m just sharing some of the approaches we’ve taken to cut down on costs so we’re not finding ourselves spending those crazy amounts every website reports.  Do not take my commentary as an attack on your decisions.  Everyone has different priorities, I’m just sharing mine!

So, what are some ways we’ve been able to cut costs so far?

-The Wedding Dress: I wrote a long time ago about a few decisions I’d made on wedding spending.  One was on the dress.  I had no desire to spend thousands of dollars on a dress I would wear for just one day.  I also didn’t feel I needed a “boutique” experience.  So, even though I’d read some not-so-fantastic reviews about David’s Bridal, I went there anyway.  Some reviews don’t like the quality of the dresses, or the general environment at the store.  Granted, when I was there, my “consultant” wasn’t always attentive, and I felt crowded in and a bit of an afterthought (at least at the store I went to in MA.  The one in NJ had a much nicer feel to it).  I tried on a few dresses, and quickly learned that long dresses were NOT for me.  I felt silly in them, like I was a girl playing dress up.  So that already cut some costs down.  I found a really cute, less formal dress for around $250.  I might have to spend a little bit on alterations, but as of right now, it fits pretty well, and is sitting in my closet and ready for my wedding day.

Bottom line:  Short, informal, and mass-produced dresses really cut down on costs.

-The Guest List:  A wedding cost tends to scale with the number of guests.  You’re going to have to feed them all, fit them all in a building (or outside, but they still probably need things like chairs or tables), and likely keep them happy with a little bit of booze.  This can all add up quickly.  When my fiance and I sat down to make up a guest list, we made the longest list we could thing of, i.e. who is every last person we would invite that we know of?  We wanted to make sure we wouldn’t forget someone and down the line realize we left them off the list.  Then we pared down the list (it’s still a work in progress) but are limiting the list to relatives we actually know and then lots of friends.  I know this is not always a possibility for everyone.  Third cousins and great aunts and family friends and business associates may end up on your guest list, either out of guilt or obligation.  I’m still struggling with who makes the “cut”, so this is still a work in progress.  But we’re looking at a guest list of 80-120 people total.

Bottom line:  Take a look at that guest list.  Also, sometimes your ceremony or reception location might have an occupancy limit.  So consider that as well.  Which leads me to…

-The Reception Location (and with it, the date/time and the food):  Early on in the book A Practical Wedding: Creative Solutions for Planning a Beautiful, Affordable, and Meaningful Celebration (by Meg Keene), there is a suggestion for wedding venues:  Is there a restaurant you love that you could accommodate a wedding reception?  This got me thinking about a local restaurant that would be perfect for us.  It’s laid back, has good food, and not very expensive.  This isn’t an option for everyone, but we were able to negotiate a noon-4pm time block on a Saturday (before their dinner rush) at the restaurant.  We get the place to ourselves, and lots of really good food and drinks to go with it.  The per-person price (for food) will not be very high, since they don’t serve very expensive food to begin with.  There’s still some negotiation to do on drinks (full open bar or just beer + wine + signature drinks or some other option), because we do want to let our friends and family have a few drinks!  But limiting the drink menu rather than having an open bar might help cut costs.  Don’t worry, after the wedding, I’ll share where we had our reception.  But for now, that’s our little secret :)

Bottom line:  Consider local restaurants or other non-typical locations for ceremony/reception.  Try times other than Saturday evening.

These are just some of the ways that we’ve tried to keep costs reasonable.  We’ve had to come to the realization that  the wedding will cost some money.  There’s no way around it, at least for the things we had in mind (i.e. celebrating with our close family and friends).

What are some ways that you’ve found to cut costs for your wedding?  Are there any non-negotiables?

 

Open enrollment returns November 17, 2013

You would think I’d pay attention to deadlines.  But I’m not the best at that.  So that may explain why I finally picked my 2014 benefits at around 10pm before my midnight deadline a few Fridays ago.

I went through this whole ordeal last year.  I also reviewed a bunch of the jargon related to health insurance plans. The  available options changed this year, so I needed to take another look.

I still had a similar question: Would I rather pay more up front (in premiums) so that I get cheaper coverage immediately than pay less but then have to pay most out of pocket?

I had 3 options this year.  They eliminated the option I went with last year (the Exclusive Provider Organization (EPO)), so I was left with the Point of Service (POS) plan and two “high deductible” options with HSAs.  Last year, I picked the option that allowed me to not think about things as much, i.e. the EPO.  Basically, if I was sick, or needed to see a specialist, I looked up a doctor in the network, and the price of the visit was just a copay.  No need to shop around for the doctor or facility that would be the cheapest.

With the High Deductible Health Plans (HDHP), or as they’re often called, Consumer Driven Health Plans, the idea is to put the spending decisions in the hands of the consumer.  The idea scared me last year, as I mentioned above, because I didn’t have a good way of knowing how much any doctor visit would cost.  For both of the plans, the coverage is a bit different.  Instead of paying a set amount per doctor visit/surgery/etc., the process can be a bit more involved.  You’re encouraged to shop around (which is often not possible if, say, there’s an emergency), and prices can be a bit confusing.  Many websites have started offering cost estimators, like the one at FairHealthConsumer.org, or through your insurer’s website.  There’s another collection of lookup options from this article in the LA Times or this article in the Wall Street Journal.  The insurance usually negotiates a discount, but then you are left responsible for some (if you’ve met the deductible) or all of the remaining cost (if you haven’t met the deductible yet).

The assumptions I’m making about my medical needs for next year:  hopefully don’t need many visits, and definitely not enough to meet the high deductible ($1500 for one, $2000 for the other).

All the plans have an out of pocket maximum, so the range between the “total expenses” for me (premium + out of pocket maximum) is $4-5k.  That’s the total amount of money that would be gone (granted much of it paid with pre-tax dollars).  Hopefully, it wont come to that, but it’s good to know that I wont go into debt forever if something bad were to happen to me (medically speaking).

I went with the plan with the lowest premium.  Then I set my HSA contribution to the difference between the lowest premium and the highest premium, so I wouldn’t feel so bad about having to spend the money on medical expenses.  This plan also includes a $750 contribution from my employer into my HSA.  So, I might use all this, or more of it, or less, but any money I don’t use can be kept in my HSA from year to year.

Another thing to consider:  Once my fiance and I get married, we can (and should) reevaluate our benefit elections.  It’s considered one of the many “qualifying life changes” that allows for us to modify our benefit elections.  It might be cheaper for one of us to join the other person’s plan.  We’ll see how the first half of the year goes, and see which of the plans works for us.  Knowing that I can change my health plan does help me feel a little less worried about my insurance choice.

So, which plans are you looking at?  A co-pay based system?  A high deductible plan with an HSA?  Has all this insurance stuff been confusing?  Are you one of the people in the individual market trying to navigate the options through the Affordable Care Act?  What questions did you ask yourself (or HR) to figure out what plan was best for you?  Let’s talk health insurance!

 

End of September, time to recap September 28, 2013

I promise I’m still here.  I’ve got a few updates.

Fitness:

Last Sunday was the Tavern to Tavern 5k.  I ran it last year, but it was a different route this year.  I wasn’t sure I was ready, because I’d been traveling, then sick, so I wasn’t fully in tip-top training.

Major upside of this race:  I have a new personal record for my 5k time!  I’ve got a pace just over 10-minute miles.  Next goal, get the pace under 10-minute miles!

Downside of the race:  I’ve become a bit of a road race connoisseur (read: snob).  I was disappointed they didn’t have a water stop (I found out afterward that the person in charge of the water stop got stuck in traffic).  Also, there were no signs saying how far we were (1 mile, 2 mile, etc.)  Luckily, I did have a general idea of where I was based on the voice-over on my iPod (it has Nike+ and reports approximately how far I’ve gone).  Another weird thing, they had blocked out an area across the street from the Tavern for the race, but then didn’t use it for the post-run party, and instead had a crowded, long line leading into the Tavern.  It seemed like a waste of blocked off space!  Lastly, and most importantly, there wasn’t quite enough police coverage.  I understand that local residents HATE when road races get in the way of Sunday morning traffic.  But there were plenty of intersections along the route where cars were just going right ahead and nearly running over runners.  SCARY!

Wedding:

In case you missed my last post, I’m engaged!  I’m trying to not let the whole planning process stress me out.  The good news is I have some stuff nailed down.  I’ve got the date blocked off, the ceremony and reception locations reserved, the wedding dress (I still need to get it altered), I’ve asked my bridesmaids to be my bridesmaids (and they’ve picked out dresses), and I have a vague guest list made.  The next steps near term are to make a few phone calls with some local photographers, and actually get serious about our guest list.  And then we can meet with the manager of the reception location to nail down our food and drink options.  Yes, this wedding seems to actually be taking shape.  Still in the works long-term will include finding a florist (or identify alternative options for getting flowers), and calling hotels to get them to put aside a block of rooms.  But I’m not worrying about these just yet.  Anything else I should think about? (Besides our registry and our honeymoon, both of which I’m not even close to planning out yet)

Careers:

My sorority (yes, I was in a sorority) at MIT hosted a “career night” where local alums were invited to come chat with current students about resumes, interviews, job fairs, etc.  They had a panel where alums could give more advice.  I was proud to be able to share the gospel of personal finance to the ladies there:  Save your money.  Take advantage of the 401(k) plans and matches at your new jobs.  Spend less than you earn.  You know, the usual.  But it got me thinking, I’d love it if my sorority hosted another event focused solely on personal finance.  I think I’ll ping the alumni relations chair and suggest it.

Random blogger meetup:

Leslie is in town for the Massachusetts Indie Comics Expo.  And Deena already lives in Boston.  So it’s a perfect chance for the 3 of us to meet up!  My expectations for tonight is that I will find out that Leslie’s last name is Freslie.  Stay tuned.

Well, that’s the latest from me.  Up ahead will be Birthday Fondue (just like last year, and the 4 years before that) and I’ll try to get back on the blogging train with more posts for the Graduates Guide to Being a Grownup series.

So, what have you been up to?  Have you become a road race snob like me?  Have any new running or fitness accomplishments to share?  Any advice for my wedding planning (what am I not thinking of that I should be)?  Had any opportunities to spread the word on personal finance to unsuspecting friends?

 

Major life event update August 25, 2013

Filed under: General Blogging,Personal Finance — Stephanie @ 2:39 pm
Tags: , , , ,

I haven’t posted in a while.  But I’m sure you’re used to that by now.

I wasn’t quite sure how to tell you guys this exciting news:

This happened:

Engaged!

Yep, we’re engaged!  Very happy :)

You may have already heard through twitter.  Or if you’re a friend in real life.  I guess it’s been about a month since we got engaged.  Sorry it took me so long to tell you guys!

Yes, I’ve started planning.  And trying to keep costs down!  I know how quickly wedding expenses can build up, so I’ll try to be careful!  We’ve already got a few things figured out (ceremony location, reception location, wedding date), but there’s plenty of things we still need to deal with (guest list? flowers? music? honeymoon?)

I know there will be some up and downs.  And lots of opinions.  But come our wedding day, it’s going to be AWESOME.

The one book keeping me sane right now is A Practical Wedding, written by Meg Keene, the woman behind apractialwedding.com.  I first heard about the book/website from Revanche (A Gai Shan Life)  awhile back.  And so right after I got engaged, I bought myself a copy of the book.  And apparently the book is so good that my good friend Sarah (of Sarah and Michael fame) also ordered me a copy! (I thanked her for it and returned the extra copy)  She said it really helped keep things in perspective for her.

So, I’ll probably be blogging a bit about my wedding planning.  And my attempts to keep costs under control without making things look cheap or tacky!

What are your favorite wedding planning books/blogs/websites?  What advice did you hear a lot?  And what advice did you actually take?

 

Reading Books: Pound Foolish August 4, 2013

I think I first heard about Helaine Olen and her book, Pound Foolish:  Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry, from Marketplace (or maybe Marketplace Money).  I’m always listening to those shows, either on the radio or through their podcasts.  I also caught her interview (pt 1, 2, and 3) on The Daily Show, where she went into quite a bit of detail about the topics in her book.

The idea of taking on the personal finance industry and exposing the not-so-pretty realities definitely appealed to me.  I get sick of all the sneaky fees and “sponsored” financial products.  So I was interested to hear what she had to say about the personal finance movement.

The author takes on quite a few topics, from personal finance “personalities” to the “flip this house” mentality.  A common theme throughout the book is that the industry is just that, an industry, and so the focus of many advisers, authors, and companies is, in reality, to make money for themselves.  While they may also be helping us save money, they’re not ready to do it for free, out of the kindness  of their hearts.

The start of the book reviews the beginning of the personal finance movement.  Olen talks about the sometimes wrong/changing talking points that come from personalities like Suze Orman and David Bach.  She also emphasizes the point that all the frugality in the world can’t make up for stagnating wages and increasing medical costs and housing prices.

She goes into great detail about how screwy the whole retirement plan is now with 401(k)s, 403(b)s, etc.  A move from pensions to individual retirement accounts mostly means a much more uncertain future.  So much money can end up going to fees for managed funds and portfolios.  Fees cut into EVERYTHING.  Individual investors are left to fend for themselves, and they end up falling for expensive funds or buying investment products they don’t need.  Yes, sometimes we can find no load, low fee funds for our retirement accounts.  But it’s not always the case.   This chapter led me to want to learn more about Teresa Ghilarducci, one of the main opponents to the current 401k system.  She believes that leaving all the retirement planning to the individual was flawed and leaves most people woefully unprepared for retirement. (see one of her recent articles).  I also learned about a Brightscope, a website that helps you see how your employer’s retirement plan stacks up.

Olen discusses many more topics in her book, including the focus on stock picking (and CNBC stock market obsession, Jim Cramer, etc.).  She also talks about the recent push to specifically help women control their finances, noting that while there are plenty of women who are lost when it comes to managing their money, there are just as many men in the same boat.  But that women are at a disadvantage mainly because “[w]omen have less money than men for most of their lives for a basic reason:  they earn less and live longer.”  There are other reasons, of course, and Olen goes into much more detail on the many misconceptions about Women and Money.  And while she is fine with young people learning the basics of personal finance, she is not so comfortable with the way that kids learn about it:  through branded experiences and sponsored programs by the big banks, all trying to get in on their lives early.

There’s plenty more to read, and Olen has pages upon pages of references and notes to back up her information.

Reading this book was a bit depressing, because it reminded me of quite a few of the harsh realities of personal finance.  She doesn’t quite present any “answers” to all these problems, though she does list a few suggestions on her website as to what should be done.

I did still enjoy reading  her book, since I did find myself agreeing with most of her points.  It’s a lot easier to read a book that you agree with!  It’s a serious read, but got me thinking a bit more about what I’m doing with my money and to be a little more skeptical of all the big money personalities and financial companies.  And to watch out for fees!

Have you read Pound Foolish?  What did you think of it?  Did you agree or disagree with certain points?  And aren’t you glad that I give away my advice completely for free? :D

 

Updates and Link Love (powered by snacks, naps, and tired legs) July 13, 2013

Filed under: Boston,Food,Travel — Stephanie @ 10:11 am
Tags: , , ,

Inspired by many of you (especially NZ Muse, with her link loves powered by assorted things)

These past few weekends were awesome.  So I’m going to share about them.  And stay tuned to the end for some links to blog posts by other bloggers that I really enjoyed this week.

2 weekends ago, my sister and brother-in-law came to visit.  They haven’t visited in ages, so we packed the weekend with lots of food and fun!

Food:  Instead of taking them to the tourist traps (we considered them, but too pricey/overrated!), we took them to some of our favorite local restaurants.  I’ll share the list with you, but don’t all go there, or there will never be any room for me! :)

Tenoch Mexican, Delicious Mexican food (especially, in my opinion, their tortas and horchata)
Boston Burger Company (epic burgers with all sorts of awesome)
Trident Booksellers and Cafe (both times I’ve been there, I’ve gotten their Lemon Ricotta French Toast.  Also, they have Poutine!)
Flatbreads (you can’t go wrong with their salads, pizza, and beer (though we forgot to leave room for their desserts!))

Fun:  Friday was museum day:  Isabella Stewart Gardner museum AND the Museum of Fine Arts Boston!  We managed to get discounted prices by getting passes from the local library.  Quite a few of the libraries around here offer passes for free or discounted tickets to the area’s top tourist locations.  Definitely a deal.  Other discounts to try:  Your employer, AAA, or other memberships (especially teacher’s unions).  Walking throughout both museums definitely tired us out!

Saturday, we amped up our walking by touring Boston on foot.  Parked in Kenmore square, then walked down Commonwealth, Newbury, and Boylston all the way to Boston Public Garden, then through to Boston Common, where we started walking on the Freedom Trail.  We didn’t take an official tour, but followed the red brick/painted line all the way to Faneuil Hall and the Union Oyster House.  At that point, we decided it was time to head home.  But instead of taking the T back to Kenmore, we walked ALL THE WAY BACK!  This time crossing past City Hall, then going back through the Common and Garden, then taking the tree-lined (i.e. shaded) walkway on Commonwealth all the way back.

Yes, we tired ourselves out.

The following week included the 4th of July in Boston(we watched the awesome fireworks from Storrow Drive), then a drive up to Vermont for some relaxing.  Well, not JUST relaxing.  We also went for an early morning hike up (and down) Mt. Abraham (total time: 3hrs 36 minutes, which included a few stops along the way to enjoy the view), and then headed to the Farmer’s Market to walk around and enjoy some tasty food.  The rest of that weekend was really just lots of reading books and napping.  YES.

Speaking of books, I just finished reading Helaine Olen‘s book, Pound Foolish, about the dark side of the personal finance industry.  I’ll try to write up a review of that soon.  And I’m most of the way through Paddy Hirsch‘s Man vs. Markets.  I’ll review that as well once I’m done.

Oh, and if all that walking and hiking wasn’t enough, I’ve ramped back up my running.  So that might also cause some tired legs.  Though I have started wearing the ProCompression socks I got recently.  I’d heard good stuff about them, and compression gear in general, so I figured I’d buy a pair to try them out.  I tend to wear them after runs/to bed.  (and I wore them on the 4th of July, because the pair I got was so darn patriotic!) A few friends on twitter had asked what I thought of them, so here’s my short review:  it feels good to wear them after a run.  I don’t know if they’re actually helping with faster recovery as most compression gear is supposed to do.  But they do make my legs feel better.  (p.s. I bought them on sale, and apparently all their stuff is on sale for 40% off+ free shipping until August 4th using the coupon code JULY)

And now for the link love I promised.  Just two today, but I did read a lot of good stuff this week:

Krystal of Give Me Back My Five Bucks wrote about the latest idea discussed this week regarding paying for college.  The proposal:  Instead of taking out loans, you pay a percentage of your salary for the next 20-25 years after college.  Krystal touched on quite a few of the points I was thinking of, and the commenters have also made some really excellent points as well.  Check out her post!

I happened across a post from someone I hadn’t been following before, but I really liked it (and will now follow her :P) She wrote about how she’s gotten sick of the health and fitness “ambassador” programs.  If you’re unfamiliar with these programs, they’re basically blogging/social media networks that, at their core, are just groups of people interested in health and fitness.  But many of these programs connect with brands, and then the bloggers are given free stuff in exchange for tweeting/facebooking/blogging about the brands or products.  And so Carly wrote about how she wont be involved in any of this branded speech from now on.  I agree with her on many points.  As I’ve mentioned before, I love free stuff as much as the next person, and will review things that I like (and even some stuff that I’ve even gotten for free!), but I want to be open and honest and not have to conform to a brand’s marketing plan.  I tweet about brands I genuinely love, and review books I’ve read and products I’ve tried.  I have reviewed things in the past that I’ve experienced for free, but have always disclosed it, and I hope you never would think I’m trying to market anything to you.  I like sharing my opinions on things, so hopefully you enjoy reading them and know that they’re completely honest!  Please let me know if you ever think I’m not keeping up with this standard!

Well, that’s over 1000 words in one not-so-short update.  I guess I had a lot to say.  Maybe I should try to update more often, eh?

So, have you recently been a tourist in your own town?  Do you only check out the sites when tourists are visiting?  Have you tried any of the restaurants I mentioned?  Do you have another favorite restaurant to add to the list?

Read any good books lately?  Found any awesome links you’d like to share?

What do you think of Krystal and Carly’s posts?  Agree or disagree with their stance?

Don’t worry, more blog posts coming soon, including more of the Graduate’s Guide to Being a Grownup series, some book reviews, and plenty more.  I’m still blogging!

 

 
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