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Bought more "me" stuff

November 19th, 2009 at 05:42 pm

Sigh. As if this month I hadn't already spent so much stocking up on favorite lotions, cosmetics, etc thanks to all those Friends and Family sales.

Today I was surfing the web during my lunch break (yes, I know, bad me) and ended up buying a new MP3 player. My old one has been acting up, and though it will work ok after I hit it enough times (ha ha), it isn't able to play my audiobooks. So I decided I'd replace it someday...didn't know it would be this quickly.

Anyway, it only dinged my wallet $20 or so, which is why I bought it. But, it is another ME purchase. Which brings me about $200 total over my usual alotted amount for "Me" shopping per month. Ugh.

With so many Black Friday deals on the horizon, I'm wondering if this is just the beginning of more spending...

Update on personal finances

November 18th, 2009 at 05:49 am

Boy, housebuying experience last year really jump-started me into being serious about finances. Before house I was really on cruise control, just saving nearly half my paycheck and blithely paying the bills.

Now, there really is a place for every dollar, and for every dollar it's own place. I have to set aside appx $2000 each month for combined mortgags, taxes, insurance and association fees.

$500 is set aside each month to pay bills and such, though that number is flexible. I used to put nearly all leftover money into my brokerage, but now that I am a "slave to the house" I feel the need to have money at hand in case of house emergencies. And yes, I've discovered house accidents (overflowing toilet was the latest) do happen. So I try to keep a minimum $1000 in the local bank.

I also started making regular contributions to my Roth IRA. I'd taken out $10,000 to go towards homebuying, and the automatic contributions(something I probably should have started long ago)started because I wanted to "repay" my Roth IRA.

For whatever money is leftover, I was putting it towards rebuilding my emergency fund. I'm happy to say that I've reached my goal of saving $15K (or about 6 months expenses). Now, any leftover money goes into my brokerage. It's not too much, but I do feel confident that over time I'll have more money that can go towards investments.

Yikes, it has been awhile

November 17th, 2009 at 09:55 am

...not that I imagine anyone lost any sleep over my hiatus from blogging (myself included).

Seeing the year 2007 from my last entries sort of takes my breath away. The biggest change is that I became a homeowner! Though that experience was horrific and I never want to go through it again, I did learn a whole bunch of lessons about finances and homebuying that maybe someday I'll be brave enough to write about.

Work is the biggest part of my life right now. I was promoted and my boss's words after "congratulations" were somewhere along the lines of "good luck, you're going to need it." I'm sure most people are familiar with the challenges of a promotion...yet another topic I'm sure I'll blab about some point in the future.

Financially, I'm doing ok, or at least I'm not worrying too much over paying the bills. Again, there's so much to cover. I guess I'm really just brainstorming here (and eating up space). My latest "weird" financial habit has actually been keeping a Wishlist of items. Yes, on a daily basis, I jot down in my little notebook a running list of items that I have been wishing for. This is a bit of a stall tactic that I employ, and it actually works. The thing is to write a new list each time, and then to see what items keep showing up, and which drop off the list over time. My current list is just 3 items as follows:

coffee maker
leather jacket

Now the interesting thing is that my list was much MUCH longer just a month ago. Items such as flannel sheets, cashmere sweater, gloves, sunglasses, silver necklace (and more items) have disappeared. Why? Not because I bought them, but because they were just passing whims. I quote the sunglasses as an example. One weekend in September I was shopping at the outlets and was tempted to buy a pair of Ray Bans. But I paused because I wanted to go online to compare prices. I never got around to doing so, and now they're totally off the wish list.

Try keeping a Wishlist running for a few weeks. It really is interesting to pare down your list of "wants" to a few items. Then you can really focus on looking for good deals on just those few items.

Taking "Free" too Far

July 19th, 2007 at 06:04 am

Yesterday, I saw an embarassing sight. While shopping for groceries, I witnessed an entire family gathered around the bakery counter, where they have the free samples. The family was literally stuffing their faces with these samples. Not just that, they were blithely having conversation while continuously biting into and reaching for more pieces of bread/cake/doughnut, like they were at a restaurant. I was standing in line for about five minutes and the family was still eating when I left.

Does anyone else see something wrong with that picture?

Another example would be those who "rent" items for a weekend from Walmart or Target. I admit that once upon a time, like during college, I had friends or roommates who purchased a dress for a party but did not cut off the tag. After the event, they would go return the dress. At the time I thought they were being smart, but now I question the act. Recently, I watched some father, still decked out in flip flops and smelling of suntan lotion, return a whole bunch of beach gear to a rather peeved Walmart associate. The cooler looked in ok condition (though I wonder if the inside still contained ice or water) but the umbrella still had sand on it. He even shook it out (all over the counter, too) and then proudly showed his receipt. Wow. All I can say is, he had some guts.

Again, I wouldn't do it- I'd feel too guilty about purposefully buying stuff that I intend to use and then return. But are these people smart or stingy? There's some moral line here that I feel is being crossed...

First financial goal- almost there!

July 1st, 2007 at 05:34 pm

July is the best month for me because my birthday is in July, hehehe. But what might make it even sweeter is if I end up hitting my net worth goal of $50,000. Back in October, I'd estimated that I'd reach this magical number in October of 2007. Now wouldn't it be great if I could beat that prediction by 3 months? Stay tuned!

Spending spree is over

June 16th, 2007 at 07:01 am

Long time no see! I guess I took a break from keeping up with finances because my money habits took a quite different turn these past few months. But now that things have calmed I can explain myself.

First, the good news: I got a raise! I passed my 6-month "anniversary" at my company and my boss quietly took me aside to tell me she was pleased with my work and congrats, my salary has been bumped up a few notches. Woo! I decided to celebrate by getting a facial and massage (not-so-good service, unfortunately; next time I should research into spas rather than go to the nearest one) and a handbag, or two...

And then, vacation happened. I usually go to visit my sister in the summer, when her kids are on break and she's not teaching. But my parents, who had planned to take an extended trip throughout Asia during May, generously offered to buy me a plane ticket. Since it is a rare opportunity for our entire family to be together (oh sister, why did you move back to Taiwan?) I agreed. Even though I didn't have to pay for the ticket, there were still all those sundry "vacation expenditures" that just popped up- primarily, the procuring of presents for family. And then the duty free shopping. And then the costs of travel, eating, and more shopping in Taiwan.

After all in said and done, I added up the bills and found that I'd very rapidly spent whatever excess in one monthly salary my raise has earned. Aside from feeling cheated by wasting money on a horrible facial, I don't feel the rest of the money spent was reckless or wasteful- in fact, I would give anything to be able to see my nephews and niece again. So after I pay off- in full!- my large credit card bill this month, then it will be back to normal money habits.

This is pretty preliminary, but I thought I'd list some money goals (and hopefully stick with them):
- Increase net worth to $60,000 by end of year.
- Limit monthly clothing spending to $100.
- Use up airplane frequent flier miles** ok this isn't really "money" but now that American Airlines has set an 18-month expiration date for unused miles, I am going to see if I can arrange some sort of mini-vacation. Or else I will try to gift them to my parent's account. It would be a shame to lose all my miles, it really does feel like losing $$$...

Spring Cleaning my Closet (even though it feels like Winter)

April 9th, 2007 at 01:24 pm

It's April, but this past weekend (and this week) it feels like mid-January. ***Interlude: mindless ranting sessionI wish it were warmer! I miss North Carolina weather!***

Anyway, as the wind blew like crazy outside, and as my annoying loud heater cycled on and off, I decided to do some "spring" cleaning. But since I was in a bad mood, I decided to tackle the kindest area of my apartment- my closet.

Closet cleaning, or as I sometimes refer to it as Shopping my Closet, is both fun and somewhat embarassing. For example, during one session I opened a suitcase and discovered no less than five handbags. Add that to my pre-exisiting collection and I am really pushing handbag overkill, especially since I obviously had, at one point, purchased those bags but did not use them to the extent they could get hidden away and I never missed them. Sigh.

This weekend's closet shopping turned up no less than four black dress pants (of various lengths and fits, so that's ok), three black skirts (two were wool and identical length! but then again, I had combined my sister's old wardrobe with mine when my parents moved), and two black blazers. Now I understand why I have always hesitated about purchasing a black suit- my mind somehow knew I could put one together from pre-existing pieces.

I "rediscovered" a bunch of skirts and dresses that had been hiding in the back, and the nice part is that has quenched my craving for new spring dresses, at least for now. An extra bonus is I can mix and match them with my neutral colored blazers and have nice work outfits.

I did gather up a bunch of sweaters that I haven't worn in years...but I still don't have the heart to bag them up to Goodwill. They're all really nice sweaters. What I would love to see happen is to have a clothing swap or exchange with people. I don't have enough friends who are interested in clothing here in New Jersey (honestly, I have no shopping buddies, how sad) so maybe I'll hunt around on the internet to see if such clothing swappers exist.

All in all, closet cleaning/shopping didn't put me into a better mood. But it did satisfy my OCD and I now have clothing arranged by color. Plus it killed about 1-2 hours of time on a lazy weekend!

The Most Overlooked Job-Hunting Strategy

April 5th, 2007 at 06:42 am

You've spent hours preparing for the interview, you even had your answer to that trick question "What are your weaknesses?" memorized, and now you've made it through the grueling interview day where you sat through 6 face to face interviews with a bunch of execs and managers asking you to repeatedly talk about yourself and your skills. Congratulations! But this is only the first step. After a day or two, dig out all those business cards, get on the phone or start typing those emails. And don't forget to say those two magic words: "Thank You."

Surprised? Think that writing (or saying) that Thank You letter is an obsolete practice? Guess again. A Thank You note is guaranteed to improve your chances at getting that job. It cannot possibly hurt you...unless you write to the manager at Merck exclaiming how much you look forward to working at Pfizer. So please please have the contact information ready before you write.

When compiling your Thank You list, a rule of thumb is to try to write to every person you spoke with. At the very least, write to the person to whom you will be reporting (your future boss). Another very, very VERY crucial person to write to is the Human Resources manager, the person who probably first contacted you to set up the interviews. In many companies, the HR manager acts as the "screener" who sizes you up prior to even handing off your resume to the execs. If the HR manager gets the sense you are not a good fit for the job, then your job hunt prospects at that company are pretty much over.

When composing your Thank You letter, try to add in as much details as possible. When writing to your future boss, mention the actual job title/role for which you interviewed, then mention a couple of specifics that were discussed. Don't try and get *too* personal ("I thought your wife looked hot in that picture on your desk!") but something along the lines of, "I was excited when you mentioned drug XYZ was in Phase II trials. I look forward to participating in the research to bring this drug to market in the next year." Not only do you prove you were paying attention during the interview, but you imply you know of the company's future direction, AND you remind them of how you'd be a good fit to the company.

Writing to the HR manager can be strategic as well, mainly because you can get away with saying certain things that you fear may be too bold to mention to your future boss:
"Dear HR Manager: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to meet with Dr. X, the Director of Drug Development in your company, Pills Inc. I would like to take the time now to remind you that I am extremely enthusiastic about this job. As per our discussion, I look forward to hearing from you in the next few days. I also wish to take the time to remind you about the signing bonus; I would request the red BMW but would settle for black or silver."

Ok, kidding about the signing bonus part. But you can see how your little Thank You note to HR can also include that extra *push* of reminding them how much you'd like to hear from them (cough cough) sooner, rather than later. You might also mention things such as the salary range you are hoping for, or even a general feel of a starting date. Many times, HR has already asked you these questions during the initial screening interview. While you don't want to tie yourself down with a set salary or benefits package, you also don't want to be too vague, which might give HR reason to believe either you don't care or you're not going to negotiate/complain if they start you at the lower end of things. You should definitely include your phone number (not as a pickup line!) and stress how you look forward to hearing from them.

And it's as easy as that. As "old fashioned" as the Thank You letter may seem, I really think it's a small gesture of courtesy that goes a long, long way. At worst, you will get no reply. No one is going to vilify you for giving thanks. In many cases, during my second or third round interviews, people have actually mentioned the fact I wrote the letters. It seemed to surprise them in a good way. I think the problem with a lot of new job hunters is they go into job interviews with the feeling that they deserve the job, or the people should be begging/wanting them to take the job. Although it is good to have the confidence prior to a job interview, it should not be expanded into "I'm a Rock Star!" status. You are the job seeker; you are the one out promoting your skills and vying for the job. In most cases, the company is not out to woo you, even if you look like a rock star.

Lest we forget, it is also those rock stars who do extra things for fans, by giving thanks and charity concerts, who seem to have the most success.

ING Bonus Referrals

April 4th, 2007 at 03:19 pm

Want to earn a 10% return IMMEDIATELY? Open an ING Savings Account (see the handy links in the right-hand sidebar) with $250 and receive a $25 bonus! How's that for some cool savings?

Whew! Time flies!

April 4th, 2007 at 03:12 pm

It feels like a century since I last visited this forum, but luckily it hasn't changed a bit =)

Same could be said about my job. Today I got called in by my boss and next thing I knew, she was saying, "Congratulations!" It turned out to be my 6-month performance review! Luckily, it was quite positive and I got a raise. Yeah! It really is comforting to finally have a job I enjoy, and one where I like my coworkers and boss.

As for the raise....sure, lots of goodies swam through my head, stuff I could "treat" myself with. But I think the extra money will probably go into savings for a rainy day (or the House Fund I've been accumulating).

Am I the only person...

March 13th, 2007 at 12:00 pm

...who owes taxes this year?

Obviously, the majority of people I know are still graduate/professional students of some sort, who will be getting hefty refunds. My working friends all seem to have student loans and/or mortgages to write off. Aside from the tuition credit or deduction, I can deduct moving expenses (for work) and possibly that phone tax thing, but that's it. So why do I owe taxes? The main reason is because prior to my current job, I did a stint at a pharmaceutical marketing company, who hired me as a freelancer. Meaning I got paid straight, no deductions. Hence, I pay the price come Tax Time.

The second reason, which is more minor, is that my parents sold some funds that they held under my name, so there's taxes owed on those gains. But at least my parents have promised to pay me back for that.

New month, new budget

March 1st, 2007 at 06:02 am

After discovering my electricity bill was 4-times what I'd been expecting, I finally picked myself up off the floor and resigned myself to paying the bill in full (of course). There is definitely enough in my checking account to cover the electricity bill, but I did find I had to juggle around my usual money-allocating plans. As nerdy as it sounds, it was actually sort of interesting. Each month, I typically put $500 into my roth IRA, and then $500 into various investment accounts. I'd already done that, so the electricity bill will get paid off by my "bonus" money- rebates and bank bonuses- which I'd been hoping to put towards something more fun....but the bills have to be paid first. Thus, the kitchenware I'd been planning to replace will have to wait.

Wow. Money maturity moment! I am able to plan for my expenses and shift spending to make I avoid debt and pay off bills in full. What an "adult" thought! =)

Another easy recipe

February 27th, 2007 at 05:37 am

I saw a recipe the other day for a popular Chinese dish, spicy stir fry tofu (mapo dofu). The nice thing about this dish is that you could easily make this vegetarian by substituting mushrooms instead of ground pork. Also, this is as a vegetarian dish this one packs a lot of protein! You can also adjust the hotness to your tastes; me, I like it sinus-clearing hot, especially for times like today when my nose is a wee bit stuffy. Anyway, here it is (with relative quantities):

-Heat a skillet of oil, then stir fry a handful of peppercorns until fragrant. Remove, leaving behind the fragrant oil.

-Toss in a handful of chopped ginger and garlic; stirfry until fragrant, then add in the ground pork or mushrooms.

-Add in a block of firm tofu, cut into squares. Gently stir them in with the other ingredients.

-Tilt the pan so you have a cleared area, then add in about two spoonfuls of soy sauce (dark) and stir fry this until fragrant.

-Add in chili garlic sauce (I prefer either the Chinese brand called "Ha ha sauce"- yes, that is the name- or the Vietnamese Siracha sauce with the rooster on the plastic bottle) and stir fry that a bit, then lay the skillet flat and mix all ingredients together.

-Add in cornstarch dissolved in water to thicken the sauce.


The good, the bad, and....

February 26th, 2007 at 04:09 pm

The Good: Got two rebates this past weekend, and not just for a couple of bucks; one was the long awaited Comcast rebate for $89.95, the other was $26 for a flash drive. Nothing like more money in the bank.

The Bad: Was this close to making a purchase online at smartbargains.com. They're having a suit and shoe sale, and I actually do need a suit for spring/summer, but geez, three items in the cart and it's already zooming upwards of $200. The only thing that prevented me from making the purchase was the 15% coupon code I tried to use wouldn't work. So I didn't buy anything....which might actually be construed as "good." But this just goes to show, it takes months to save but mere minutes to spend.

And now, The Ugly: My electricity bill came and it was $189. No joke. For my ridiculously small apartment. I had been trying to get away with not using the heater, but when I started shivering while in bed (and bundled beneath two comforters, a flannel blanket and my heaviest winter coat) I started keeping the temp at 62. I did raise it as high as 65 when my parents visited (and they still complained about the cold), but basically have kept it somewhere from 60-62. What this month's elec. bill is telling me is, in order to keep my apartment at a temperature that is barely tolerable, then I have to pay the price. And what a painful price to pay....

(I did do the plastic window wrap thing, blocked the draft beneath the front door, in case you were wondering. Is it possible there's just something intrinsically wrong with the heater itself, and could I ask the maintenance to "fix" it- whatever needs to be fixed?)

I miss North Carolina!

Hey Readers!

February 21st, 2007 at 05:47 pm

Hi, my name is Peg and I am a reader. I will read any book that's lying around. Even if there are no boks handy, I will read anything as long as it has words- cereal boxes, junk mail, the ingredients in my toothpaste. Hehe.

Because of work, I cannot get to the library during the week and heck, it's even hard to make the trip during the weekends, but for all my fellow readers out there- there's hope! To my great surprise, there are many websites offering free online books- a lot of the great literary classics can be found. My favorite is bibliomania which I stumbled upon while trying to find a copy of "Dubliners" by James Joyce (yup, it's on that site). The site also has poetry and plays, as well as some handy reference books in case you want to look up that obscure word or try and remember who said what quote.

I could probably spend hours absorbed in reading (and rereading) many books online, but sometimes you just don't have the time. Which is why dailylit is the perfect solution. Enter your email address and choose a book, and each day you will receive a "fragments" of that book. These portions are perfect when you have 10-15 minute break and just want to read a little bit. Reached a cliffhanger? Don't despair, you can have the next fragment sent immediately.

Lastly, I must must MUST mention paperbackswap. I love websites that promote sharing and fellowship among a community with common interests, and paperbackswap lives up to it's name. Imagine a communual bookshelf that is accessible to the entire US. Members list their books and then you browse other peoples' bookshelves and request whichever books catch your eye, and then that member mails their book to you! It's that simple, but of course, the concept works because of karma; you must actively post AND mail books in order to receive credit to ask other members for their books. This site is especially good for catching up on the bestsellers, since they tend to be volatile and constantly requested and reposted for others to request. There have been too many times I've purchased a "beach/vacation" reading book and ended up donating it to the library or trying to sell it at a garage sale. With paperbackswap, it's nice to be able to exchange my book for one that I want to read...or maybe even keep. If you join paperbackswap then look me up (I'm "paigu"). I don't have as much books on my shelf now, but I'm planning to list more.

Well, I've certainly given you lots to read. Here's what's up on my "To Be Read" list:
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Happy reading!

Another Happy New Year

February 19th, 2007 at 11:46 am

Sunday, February 18th, was Chinese New Year. Since my parents have decided I'm now an adult (agh!) then I did not receive the traditional "red envelope" lucky money, which is fine with me, honestly. I have more bad memories of me as a kid, gawping at how my older sister would receive more than me, because she was older. I think my fussing was the reason my mom became the person who collected the lucky money for us kids!

Anyway, 2007 will be the year of the Pig. Rather than being seen as sloppy and filthy, the pig is actually thought of rather fondly in our culture. My mom showed me that the Chinese character for "house" is actually a combination of the words "roof" and "pig." Hmmm....so home is where the pig is, hehe.

According to my mom, this is going to be a so-so year for people financially (the pig brings wealth upon people but the money will be spent quickly on frivolous items). I thought that was pretty interesting, at least for me, because my goal this year is to save enough for a decent down payment on a house. So in reality, I will be hoping to just break-even this year, too. Hope I can control my habits and focus on "paying the pig" as in, the piggy bank!

Gong Xi Fa Cai! Happy Chinese New Year to all, and Best Luck with Health, Happiness, and Fortune!

Bank of America is Crazy

February 16th, 2007 at 06:43 am

I wrote this entry about Bank of America, not as a rant but more as an FYI that banks are not out to be your best friends.

Bank of America must have read it and decided they wanted to win me over. Because they've been giving me not one, not two....but FOUR bonus checks for opening a new account, when I should only have received one.

I've never had a really bad experience with BoA; I certainly don't *love* them, but they have so many branches in the towns I've lived in that I decided to stay with them out of convenience. Now they're giving me all these bonuses and it makes me happy, sure, but then I think, "What sort of wonky tracking system do they have on their computers????"

Being the honest person (yes, my conscience kills me) I actually called BoA service rep after receiving the third and fourth checks. The most recent call was, in fact, last night. The rep did her thing on the computer (who knows, maybe she was playing Doom or Minesweeper) and then asked me did I, in fact open a new account? I told her, yes, and then she was like, "Well, those are your bonuses!" She clearly was of the mindset that I was a nutter, but after I'd asked my barrage of questions to cofirm that these bonuses were legit and did not contain hidden traps (such as signing me up for some credit card or "protection" services or marketing scheme) she pretty much said, "If you insist, then we can deduct the amounts from your account."

And I decided to just keep the money.

Stay tuned for any updates in case Bank of America decides to pull a 180 on me and demand a refund!

Gas Station Tried to Rip Me Off

February 15th, 2007 at 06:11 am

There are three gas stations that I pass on the way back home; since all are along the same street, they tend to have the same prices. However, the Mobil's in my area (and it seems throughout New Jersey) have been converted into a brand called Valero. To attract more business, they've been having discounted gas, sometimes 5-10 cents less than the competitors.

Recently, I went to fill up my gas tank, in anticipation of the snow storms. I chose the "new" Valero station since it was 5 cents cheaper than the other stations on the road. I paid by credit, since my card offers rewards for gas purchases, and the transaction went as usual. While waiting, I witnessed an exchange where a lady came up to the attendant and said, "Remember me?" The guy sort of grunted. The lady went on to say, "You double charged me last week for XX dollars, remember? I thought we'd cleared it up but I checked with my bank and now it turns out you've charged me AGAIN."

Though my ears caught the gist of their argument, I can't say it set off any warning bells. Maybe I am naive but I figure credit/debit mistakes happen, but the chances of them happening are pretty low, so this was just another isolated incident. Well, a few days ago, I went online to check my credit card balance and saw two identical charges for something weird called "Diamond Express" and both charges were for the amount of my last fillup. After I realized "Diamond" was in fact Valero/Mobil, I thought, how ironic.... I decided to go to the gas station the next day to try to resolve this.

I approached the attendant: "Excuse me, sir, remember me?" He sort of played dumb but when I shoved the receipt in his face, his expression changed into the "Oh, s***, not again" guilty look. We went in the office where he allegedly canceled the double transaction, but I was on pins and needles all day, waiting to rush home to check whether the cancelation came through on my credit card. It did. Whew.

Since gas stations are indepedently owned and operated, I'm not advocating to boycot ALL Mobil/Valero stations- just ranting against this particular station. I will encourage people to double check their gas receipts. I've noticed nowadays that you don't need to sign for many gas transactions which then causes many people to stop paying attention to the total price. Add to that the fact that drivers don't pump their own gas in NJ and you increase the chances someone won't pay attention to how much that gas fillup really cost.

Stay alert. Or do as my parents have always encouraged me to do, which is to pay for gas with $$cash.

Some Recipes

February 11th, 2007 at 07:06 am

My parents came to visit for a few days. My tiny apartment was bursting at the seams trying to accomodate three people, but we're all family so it was ok stepping on each others' toes for a couple of days.

As I like to joke, whenever they come visit, my dad requests I cook for them, not because I'm some world-renowned Chef, but I think he just wants to taste a change in cooking styles. I do like cooking, but I also like finding shortcuts to reduce the prep time. So my recipes do tend to change at spur of the moment, depending on whatever materials are on hand. Here are some easy Chinese and Taiwanese dishes that you can try:

Pork and Daikon Soup
So simple to make in large quantities. Take a quantity of pork chop, cut up in small pieces. Throw in boiling water for a minute or two, then turn off the heat. Skim off the junk that floats on top of the water, then return to full boil. Reduce heat, add in daikon (white carrot) that is cut up in chunks. Cook until daikon is clear. Add salt to taste. The flavor comes from the meat and the bone.

San bei ji (3-cup chicken)
The traditional method is to cook the chicken in an earthenware pot but I made do in a regular skillet. You really have to cook the chicken for 1-2hrs over low heat to achieve the perfect tenderness. The name of the dish derives from the 3 main flavourings which are 1 cup each of soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice wine, but let me tell you, my poor stomach gurgles at the thought of that much oil going into the dish so I admit that I sometimes use less oil and more rice wine. Or use more soy sauce if you like the saltiness. Or just add more water. You need enough liquid to cover the chicken. Anyway, first you braise the chicken a bit, then you pour in the liquids. Now as to the rest of the flavors, I like to add basil, ginger and hot peppers. Bring to boil, cover the pot, let cook on low heat until chicken is of desired tenderness or you are too hungry to wait.

Si zi tou (Lion's head meatballs)
I used to call this Chinese meatloaf, much to my mom's chagrin. She only uses pork and a little chopped scallion but I am more, errrr, creative in my choice of filling. Ground pork is the staple of the filling, but then I chop up dried shrimps, bok choy, and once I added tofu (the result: meatballs were more tender, chewy, because the tofu added more water content). I loved making this dish because you got to play with your hands- plus shaping the meatballs by hand really speeds up the process! Braise the meatballs in a skillet using a little oil, then add some more water to cover the bottom of the skillet. Then here comes my mom's favorite part (she's a veggie fanatic) she puts in lots of leaves of bok choy or any sort of lettuce. Cover the skillet and let cook for 5-10 minutes.

"Ketchup" Fish
Well, actually, I read somewhere that ketchup is a Chinese invention. Really! The original sauce, which was not tomato-based, used in Asia contained rather fishy ingredients and fish/shellfish brine. The tomato got added at some later time. Anyway, for this dish you do use the tomatoey Heinz ketchup, mixed with soy sauce. As my mom likes to call it, "a little sweet, a little salty." I just think it results in a cool color. Marinade fish fillets in combination ketchup, soy sauce, ginger, scallion, and cornstarch. Stir fry, preferably with some bright green bell peppers to make a beautiful contrasting dish.

Still saving

February 7th, 2007 at 05:58 am

Bitterly cold temperatures and gusting winds have significantly hindered my running schedule. Ok, so I'd much rather be in bed than outside running at 6AM. I've switched to doing some pilates DVDs at night instead....but I miss the running.

Anyway, that means no contributions to the $20 through running, but I recently sold two CDs on half.com so I'll add that to the challenge:

Previous total = $74.70
CD sales = $13.62
New total = $88.32

Move over, Elmo DMX, Here come Toy ATMs

February 6th, 2007 at 10:52 am

My parents and I recently received, via email, a rather unusual request from my older sister. She wrote, "(when you come visit in May) do you think you can bring that popular toy ATM? The kids would love it." An ATM?? Did my little nephews and niece not want a PS3 or Elmo-3000 (or whatever its called) instead? Befuddled, I conducted a quick google search and discovered much to my surprise that the toy ATM was one of the most popular toys for Christmas 2006.

Reading into the article, I noticed some points that were a cause of much concern:

"Unlike in a real ATM, a cash drawer opens in the toy ATM, allowing an avaricious child to grab every last cent and run." Hoooooo boy, I'm sure the writer of the article meant that to be tongue-in-cheek humorous, but I sure don't like the image of a bunch of greedy little kids. But, as the inventor of the toy, Michael Searl, points out, "If nothing else, we are teaching them one simple concept: You gotta make money before you take money out." In other words, ATM doesn't automatically put money in your account; money has to be put into ATM by a human being, first.

The question is: Who's going to provide that money?

According to the item's description at the Toys "R" Us website, the toy ATM is meant for ages 8 and up. Hmmm, as I recall, I was still a pigtailed grade school kid at that age, more concerned with making friends than making money. Then again, kids these days are maturing at a (frighteningly) rapid rate. But still, the minimum work age is years beyond the tender age of 8. Thus, the main source of "income" for an 8 yr old is gonna be.....dear Mom and Dad.

Yes, despite claims that the toy ATM will teach kids financial responsibility, it's still going to be up to parents to enforce good financial habits upon their kids. Ideally, the child will perform some chore or task. Mom and dad will "reward" them with an allowance. The child would then take it and deposit it into the ATM. Later, when the child needs money, he/she will go to the toy ATM instead of to Mom and Dad.

Yeah, right. How many people instead see the following scenario develop? Child gets a rather overwhelming allowance from mom and dad, for doing nothing. Child races to the ATM toy to deposit the money, is not satisfied with the balance displayed, and runs back to demand more money from mom and dad. Why? Not just because child needs those Air Jordans, but because child feels "entitled" to more. Child sees ATM as money-access vehicle to be kept full by mom and dad.

Maybe I have a rather negative POV; my opinion is skewwed since I do not have children. But here's what I think needs to be done in order for a child to fully benefit from playing with the ATM toy. Mom and dad need to teach the child how much money is "enough" for the child. Somehow, parents should instill in the child a realistic view of how much money the kid needs, not how much he/she wants. For example, if the child sometimes stops by the Wawa for a snack, then having $10-$20 in their ATM toy should be a sufficient. If the kid is whining, then parents might show the kid the cost of monthly utilities and mortgage, compare that to junior's weekly hot dog and soda budget.

If parents avoid making their own "contributions" in excess of what their kids earn to the toy ATM- if the child is given full responsibility for what goes IN (and thus comes out) to the ATM- then perhaps the toy can be effective in teaching kids that in order to spend money....you gotta save it, first.

Think twice before you "Keep the Change"

February 5th, 2007 at 07:08 am

You might've seen the Bank of America commercials for their "Keep the Change" promotion. You know, that annoying commercial where the happy shiney people hand over their debit card to pay for purchases, and then do this rather sensual, clandestine little touching-of-fingers move. I have the feeling Bank of America purposefully uses the cutsey handplay motion to distract viewers into thinking this "Keep the Change" promotion is a better deal than it is in reality.

Face it; any sort of bank deals always have some sort of catch. The bank isn't out to give you a bunch of free money, as the "keep the change" advertising may lead you to believe. Instead, the bank is simply trying to pocket more of your money. Think about it. The way the promotion works is, if your total purchase is $3.58, the bank will round up and debit $4.00 from your checkings, then automatically deposit the 0.42 cents in change into your savings account. Essentially, instead of having the loose coins rattling in your pockets, they go straight into the bank.

As my mom pointed out, psychologically, this concept works really well for some. Some people don't keep track of all their loose coins (re: dropped coins), so it is a better deal to have the bank keep track of those pennies and dimes. For those who would otherwise might have lost those coins, it would impress them to watch their savings balance "grow."

Note that Bank of America regular savings account earns a pithy interest rate of 0.20%, which is pretty much equivalent to keeping the coins in your pocket. However, at the end of the year, you'll earn 5% interest on the cumulative change- NOT on your total balance, say, if you originally had $500 deposited into your account. Still, considering how much ends up going into the ol' coin jar at home, then it might be nice to earn that extra 5% interest...provided you can keep your hands out of that savings account during the year.

One very attractive prospect that might push you to enroll is, during the first three months, Bank of America is price-matching your change. Now, this is an actual "free money" offer (not 100% free since it will be reported as 1099-INT) that might be worth taking advantage. If you were sly enough to purchase an item for $1.01, then Bank of America would be forced to price-match and add in 0.99 to your savings. That's almost like getting your full cashback. Purchase something for $2.02, get 0.98 from the bank, which means you ended up spending $1.04, or ~50% off the original price. Spend $10.05, get 0.95 from the bank, bringing the original price down to $9.10....you get the idea.

In conclusion, "Keep the Change" is more a way to reallocate money than an actual money-making scheme. Instead of taking change out of your pocket and then having it spent or scattered to the winds, it goes automatically back into the bank. The alleged "savings" is really your own money, just being held in the relative safety of the bank instead of lying in the car cupholder. But if you are good about keeping track of loose change then those coins might be better off in your pocket. And if you are a "cash only" person in the first place, then "Keep the Change" is definitely not for you since it involves debit/credit card usage.

New Uses for Old Clutter

February 3rd, 2007 at 05:16 am

Clutter, junk, "stuff"- it happens. It accumulates almost on its own and takes over a closet or bookshelf as quickly as ants swarm upon a dropped piece of candy. Usually, you realize you're running out of space when you go searching for someplace to put more clutter. What to do? You can always toss it. Or donate it. Or you can find a way to reuse it. Here, I list some uncommon ways to deal with clutter:

Old "reuse" Donate or consign.
New "reuse" Cut up into cleaning rags. Sure, if you don't hem them, then those rags are going to fall apart very quickly, but that's why they're called "rags" in the first place. And there's nothing more convenient to have some lying around in the garage while changing the motor oil, or to have in the playroom when kids are painting.

Old "reuse" Write/scribble on the backs.
New "reuse" Fold your own envelopes. Even better, learn origami or the art of paper folding. Amaze kids (the ones I babysit for are endlessly amused by me making paper boxes) and family, and maybe even make some pretty, original art pieces to display proudly in your house. No one has to know it was made from an ad you got in the mail.

Old "reuse" Stick them anywhere you can think of- in the car, in your purse, in the office- for those unexpected "let me jot that down" moments.
New "reuse" Not for the faint of heart (and not exactly for everyday usage) but you could learn how to perform a tracheotomy.

For the rest of us, ladies, you can use a pen as hair accessory: Gather hair into a low ponytail. Hold a pen at the part where the elastic would go and begin twisting hair around the pen, like you're starting a bun. Make the bun tighter by turning the pen clockwise/counterclockwise (hair gets automatically twisted in the process). Weave the pen in and out of the forming bun to set it.

You can also learn how to spin a pen around your fingers. Just don't do it during meetings because your clients will pay more attention to the circus act rather than your contract negotiations.

Old "reuse" Ahh, books. You've already donated boxloads to the library, attempted to resell them at garage sales for 25 cents a pop, or traded them with friends like Pokeman cards.
New "reuse" There are lots of book-trading websites to be found, including bookcrossing where you "release" a book into the wild, leave a message of where you left it, and wait for someone to go pick it up. There's even a neat hunting/tracking feature so you can see oh where oh where has your little book been.
Paperbackswap is another book exchange site. For just the price of mailing, you can swap books; mailing books earns you good karma, or points, which allows you to request books from other members. From my experience, this site works quite well for best-sellers and what I would call "beach reads," or the popular books that you read when you (or your mind) are on vacation.

Happy decluttering!

A Day (or two) with No Cell Phones

February 1st, 2007 at 06:39 am

I am on my parents' Family Plan for mobile service. They recently chose to upgrade all our phones, so my "old" but awesome phone (caller ID and no frills, that's all I ask for) no longer works (except to dial 911). I have been cellphone-free since Tuesday and I can't say I mind terribly.

I'm one who actually doesn't like talking on the phone. Most of my conversations are short and just for confirming plans I'd made with friends via email. Long distance friends, well, it's sometimes easier to contact them via IM or just keep in touch by sending them photos. If my parents had not been so generous, I most likely would have gone onto a plan for less minutes, or even purchased a pay-as-you-go phone.

I won't vilify cell phones entirely. In an emergency situation, they are a handy, quick way to get help. As a single female who is terrible with car repairs, I have the constant worry that I'll be stuck in a situation where my car breaks down in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. That's one of the main reasons I feel I need to have a phone.

But that over-reliance that some people seem to have for their mobile phones- the people who always seem to have a phone glued to their ear in the car- that's just not me. So these past few days of being without a cellphone have not exactly been eye-opening or torture, but rather affirmation that yes, I don't need a cell phone.

Winter Bills Blahs

January 31st, 2007 at 06:18 am

It's a big surprise comparing cost of living between where I used to live, North Carolina, vs. New Jersey. I had a 700 sq. ft. apartment with water/sewer included for $605 down in NC; here in NJ, I could barely find any apartment for less than $1000. Not to mention utilities are hardly ever included in Jersey rents, plus a lot of places want you to buy insurance, insist you cover your floors with carpeting or rugs, and a whole bunch of fees that make me go, Whaaaaaat?

Anyway, I am getting used to paying the water/sewer/trash and electricity bills, though I still want to know what is the "norm" for an apartment my size. Talking with neighbors, it seems I'm in the same ballpark. I honestly don't understand the water bill; my actual water usage is pretty decent (at most $5) but the sewer portion of the bill is always $25 or more. What exactly am I paying for? The amount of times I flush toilet?

As for electricity, sigh, winter bills amount to about $50-55 per month. Just for heating my stupid little apartment. On one windy day I noticed the blinds lining my balcony door were blowing around wildly, indicating there's a crack somewhere. Closer inspection revealed my sliding door does not shut entirely. I've had a service call in but they really can't do much, the door shuts "all the way" according to them. Sigh again. My dad told me to buy those sealing strips but it seems weird, sealing up a doorway, but maybe it'll help to insulate.

Winter is really affecting my wallet and my mood....

Future gazing

January 29th, 2007 at 04:58 pm

Months ago, I thought my goal was to own a house by August of 2007. Now it seems my mind has changed. Argh! Why is it so hard for me to make financial plans? I keep saving for "it" but I haven't identified what "it" is. I'd been stashing my savings into easier access money markets and CD's, because I'd anticipated needing to make the large down payment on the hhouse this summer; now I want to start putting more money into my long term accounts- the Roth IRA, brokerages, 401K.

If I had a crystal ball, I'm sure gazing into it would be like trying to peer through swamp water.

It's so easy to say, "I need to pay my car insurance now," and then reallocate funds to pay it off in one quick payment. Or I can think, "I'm going to take a vacation in three months" and then I start up a short term "vacation fund." Short term goals are a cinch, but long term goals? Since "House 2007" seems to be falling through, should I just rename it "House 2008" and try to shape my savings plan around that?

$20 challenge weekly roundup

January 29th, 2007 at 04:41 pm

This must be called the challenge because it's hard enough for me to remember. Geez, last update was two weeks ago. I can't remember that far back so I'll recap just lats week:
Sun-8 miler = +.72
M,T,W and F, 6 miles/day = +2.16
Sat and Sun, 8 miles/day = +1.44
Reached water goal each day! = +9.73
Subtotal = $14.05
Grand total = $74.70

Festival of Personal Finance is Up

January 29th, 2007 at 06:14 am

The Festival of Personal Finance is now up. Get some reading in as you drink your fourth cup of hot tea/coffee on this cold, cold morning.

Since I'm always up for a good chuckle on Mondays, I got a good laugh from Frugal vs. Cheap by The Stubborn Capitalist. Do you save money by not paying your bills? Do you help yourself to your neighbor's magazines, newspaper, heck even their veggies? Guess what, you may be cheap.

I contributed my say about commuting to the festival. A word about my little ventures; I've made an overall vow to develop writing into a hobby. Contributing to this personal finance forum, as well as these festivals, is a good form of writing exercise. My hope is to work on developing more of a personable style, as well as to experience writing in different genres. My daily work consists of writing for medical journals and FDA documents, which is very technical and academic. Therefore, it is interesting (for me, at least) to compare my work-related writing to my hobby-related financial blogging, and hopefully I can learn to be a better writer overall from all this!

Musings on Commuting

January 28th, 2007 at 11:44 am

Despite the fact my workplace is 5.5 measly miles from where I live, I still commute using my car. I've racked my brain trying to figure out alternatives, but each option gets blocked by things that are beyond my control. Public transportation? No route that goes even remotely near to where I work. Running? In addition to logistical problems, such as no showering facilities and the fact I need to wear a suit most days (or I could meet clients wearing my jog togs and get a kick of their reaction), there are no sidewalks on the road, no shoulder, no grassy margin, heck even no ditch to run in, but there are lots of blind corners and crazy fast drivers. Biking? No bike rack at work, no elevators either, and no place to hide the bike from clients in my office ("Why don't you hang your coat here on my bike, Yamamoto-san?").

Carpooling would be the only feasible option, though everyone at work seems to live in their own little world of different work hours/habits. And quite frankly, I don't want to be the one holding up the carpool at 6PM....or the one waiting in the lobby impatiently.

So I drive that short distance, and I feel bad and spendthrifty. But the purpose of a car is to drive it, correct? In the meantime, I do pay attention to the conventional bits of wisdom about conserving gas. I don't put the pedal to the metal the instant the light turns green. I keep vigilant gas price watch on the three local stations. Since my commute is so short, I don't bother adjusting the temperature in my car; in summers I open windows rather than use a/c, in winter I use elbow grease to scrape clear the windows rather than blast the heater. And though I hate doing it, I check the tire pressure every once in a while, since I've learned the hard way that if I just relied on my own eyes to judge, then my tires would be flat before I took notice.

In the end, driving to work may gnaw on my conscience, but it is the only reasonable option for me. I should look on the bright side and sing praise for the fact my commute time is so short and unstressful. Besides, driving to and from work does have one hidden perk- I get to sing along with the radio as loudly as I want!

Netflix vs. Blockbuster

January 27th, 2007 at 07:47 am

In the on-going battle for DVD-by-mail supremacy, Netflix seemed to always have an edge over Blockbuster. As a previous Netflix subscriber, I was recently made aware that Netflix will soon be offering customers the option to download and view movies online. When this becomes available, Netflix thus becomes a "movies on demand" type of service. Compare that to Blockbuster, which at first had the advantage of "instant" gratification in that if you really couldn't wait, you could go to the actual store and obtain a movie by simply trading in your mailer. Now you can be an ultimate couch potato and just point and click your way to a movie on your computer via Netflix.

Blockbuster still has one slight advantage, but this applies only to gamers. You can rent video games for Xbox and Playstation at the stores. By being a subscriber to the DVD-by-mail program, you receive ecoupons which you can redeem in-store for a video game. Given the, ahem, episodic (re: addictive) quality of certain games, and depending on whether the "no late fees" applies, this could be a very good deal (though I have the feeling that is not the case). But if your thumbs were aching for a quick fix for Madden NFL 200-whatever, then Blockbuster could be your cure.

Pricewise, Netflix and Blockbuster are neck in neck. I don't know how prices will change when Netflix unveils the downloading service, but people may be willing to pay a little more for the convenience. Blockbuster would have to drastically lower prices to get people's attention.

I have personally tried both Netflix and Blockbuster and experienced no delays receiving DVD's in the mail from both services on a timely basis. There's no handy listing of the distribution sites, but perhaps some people in non-metropolitan areas have experienced shipping delays. My friends and I have received cracked/unplayable DVD's from Netflix a few times; can't say anyone really minded, though, because there were always other movies to watch and things to do. And WOW, Netflix let us return it with no problem or charge. Guess it's impossible to finger who's to blame.

Ultimately, the thing that draws me (and my friends) to Netflix are the 2-week Free Trials. For awhile, a group of us would take turns applying for the free trial membership, then we'd all get together to watch the movies. After three rounds of this, we did all chip in to pay for a subscription (we felt bad). When we canceled, Netflix offered ANOTHER free trial period to keep us, so we took that. Then we ran out of movies to watch =) But, my point is that FREE is always a big plus.

Still hesitant to give Netflix a try? Enter this code: 80004745 for a 4-week Free Trial Bring on the popcorn!

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