Saturday, May 27, 2006

Some weekend reading for you!

Well, I'm off on my road-trip early tomorrow morning, and you likely won't hear from me again until Tuesday. In the meantime, check out these thought-provoking posts:

Her at Make Love Not Debt has a fascinating post about yield disparity, and the dramatic differences in the returns lower and higher-income employees get from their 401(k)s. Follow the links, see what you think, and leave a comment there or here!

Claire also has an interesting post reflecting on being a part of gentrification. (There's also a Part 2.)

Have a great holiday weekend!

Friday, May 26, 2006

Credit cards meme

I was planning on just linking to Claire's meme about credit cards, since I'm getting ready for our road trip, but then I realized how quick and easy it would be to just answer the question. I only have two credit cards:

  • MBNA America Mastercard. This used to be the MBNA Barnes & Noble Mastercard, and it was my first and only credit card in college. No annual fees, and I got a $10 Barnes & Noble gift certificate for every $1000 I spent. Then about a year ago they ended their affiliation with Barnes & Noble and switched over to Worldpoints. I don't really like that rewards program, and it annoyed me at the time, but in retrospect it was great because it prompted me to search for a better card, namely...
  • Citi Dividend Platinum Select. 5% cashback on groceries and gas, 1% on everything else, and no annual fee. Now I use this card exclusively, except for putting something on the MBNA card every once in a while to make sure it stays active (for the sake of my credit history).

I've always been pretty hesitant about signing up for cards for the sake of various promotions, out of concern for my credit score. That said, I wouldn't rule it out. I'd like to do some balance transfer arbitrage at some point, and I think the best deals for that are for new cards. But I'm worried at this point that my beginning credit limit would be too low to make it worthwhile. (My limit on my MBNA card is $15,000; my starting limit on the Citi card was $3,000, although I've now nudged it up to $8,200.)

So, that's mine. Go post your own and let Claire know!

Could you walk (or bike) to more places?

There are probably times-- at least occasionally, and maybe regularly-- when you drive or take public transportation when you really could walk or bike instead.  It's only recently that I've begun to truly appreciate the benefits of walking-- it's good exercise, it saves money, and sometimes (believe it or not!) it can even save time. But in my experience, it takes a lot of effort to switch over.

Part of the problem, as usual, is our habits.  We are in the habit of traveling somewhere a certain way (by public transit or car), and so we don't really even think about getting there a different way (walking or biking).  I'm all too familiar with this!  To successfully transition over, there are a series of stages:

1.  ...
[Not even thinking about the possibility of traveling another way!]
2.  I can't walk/bike there, because it's too far/too hot/too cold/I have too much to carry/I don't have time.
3.  Well, maybe I could try it once, on a nice day when I'm not in a rush, just to see how it goes.
4.  Hmm, every time I walk/bike there I could save $X in bus fare/gas.  I should try to do it occasionally.
5.  Every time I don't walk/bike there, it costs me $X in bus fare/gas.  I should try to do it as much as possible!

When you get to #5, you're establishing a new habit!  But the most crucial steps are the first few, getting from #1 to #2 to #3.  So, I want to challenge you to take a minute to really think about your options. 

Go ahead, I'll wait!

Okay, great.  Now if you're stuck in all those objections in #2, here are some more things to keep in mind:

There can be savings of time and money beyond the obvious ones. It depends on your personal fitness level, and what you consider sufficient exercise, but you can turn your commute (or whatever other trip you're walking/biking) into your exercise time.  Speed-walking and biking can be great exercise.  And hey, who's to say you can't bring a change of clothes and jog home from work?  It really helps to cut through the "It takes too long to walk/bike there" objections when it's freeing up time that you would have spent on a regular workout.   And if you can get into a routine where you can cut out your gym membership fees-- well, those are some big savings!

(Another note about time: walking and biking are much more predictable than public transit or driving.  If I know it takes me 30 minutes to walk somewhere, I know exactly when to leave in order to arrive on time, and there's no worries about trains being delayed or hitting unexpected traffic.  This can save a lot of stress!)

A few more miscellaneous perks:

  • Feeling more refreshed and energetic in the morning
  • A great way to relax and unwind at the end of the day
  • Noticing new places to explore, and generally being more aware of your surroundings than when you're speeding past them
  • Feeling the sunshine on your skin (okay, this is not always a good thing when it gets too hot-- bring lots of water!)
  • Being environmentally friendly (if you're substituting it for driving)

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Carnivals (Now With Extra Haiku!)

Extra! Extra! Carnival of Personal Finance at Frugal For Life in Newspaper Format, Includes Posts About SRI!

Library of Congress subject heading: Librarians' Index to the Internet. I don't know what that actually means, but everyone's favorite librarian, Claire, probably does, and it's the most appropriate category I could find for her internet indexing, otherwise known as the Festival of Frugality.

I don't often read or link to the Carnival of Debt Reduction, but this week's at Make Love Not Debt is a special case:

Him or Her? Which one
had this creative idea?
I can't help but link!

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Frugal Vacations

I don't know how it happened, but summer's just around the corner, and vacation season is upon us. Mine's beginning with a Memorial Day Weekend roadtrip, which has gotten me thinking about budgeting, frugality, and vacations.

For starters, how much do you budget for vacations? I know it comes down to personal priorities, but do you have any rules of thumb? I always feel like I'm pulling a number out of the air.

Then, of course, you've got to squeeze as much fun as you can out of that budget. What are your tips? I've got a lot to learn, but here are some of mine:

  • Eat as many non-restaurant meals as you can handle without feeling deprived. For me, that usually means eating out for one meal a day. You don't want to make your own food for every meal but resent it, and often eating local cuisine is a big part of enjoying your vacation. But if you're eating at restaurants so often only because of habit or because you didn't plan ahead, that's a waste of money. Pack a cooler from home, bring and buy foods that don't need refrigeration, and/or don't hesitate to stop by the grocery store instead of a restaurant.
  • Eat out for lunch instead of dinner, if you're only eating out for one meal a day. Lunch menus are usually cheaper, plus you've got a better chance that your leftovers will keep for the few hours until dinner rather than overnight. (Try trading leftovers if you don't want to eat the same thing for two meals in a row!)
  • Consider camping, if you own or can borrow a tent. Vacations centered around camping are fun on their own (and conducive to being especially low-cost because you're often in the middle of nowhere, where you can find your fun in nature instead of being tempted by pricey entertainment options), but even if your vacation is to a big city, you can often find somewhere to stay outside the city, or at least camp if you need to stay overnight on your way somewhere.
  • Plan trips to places where you have family or friends, if you can. Not only do you get to spend time with people you care about, but nothing beats a free place to stay. (Or almost-free, since you should probably treat them to something nice in thanks!) Plus, being locals, they will probably have great tips on the best things to do and see and the best places to eat in their area.
  • Be a tourist in your own backyard. You can do this on your own, but it's especially fun when you're hosting friends or family. The attractions in your area have that extra sparkle when you're with people enjoying them for the first time. If you're taking days off to share with your visitors, you can take advantage of things like museum free days that you usually have to miss since you're working. And you get to spend time with people you love and don't get to see regularly. It's obviously low-cost for you since you don't have to travel and can sleep in your own bed at night, plus your guests will likely be willing to reciprocate when you visit their area.
  • Consider driving instead of flying. Obviously this depends on how far you're going and how much time you've got-- and with the price of gas, it's not as good a deal as it used to be. But it still usually saves money, especially since you don't need to rent a car when you reach your destination. And the more people who are traveling, the better deal it is. But don't forget to factor in the wear and tear on your car. (Here's one post about this question.)
  • How about a volunteering vacation? Especially if you want to travel to a foreign country, working as a volunteer can be a cheaper alternative (don't expect it to be free, though-- you'll still have to pay for airfare and probably some fees). You'll be working for a good cause, and you'll have some free time to explore the country on your own. And through your volunteering, you'll probably get to know the country and its people in a much deeper sense than you would as an ordinary tourist. This is something I definitely want to look into for the future, but I haven't tried it yet and so I don't have much wisdom to share. Here's a link to start with, though.
Please share your thoughts and ideas!

Friday, May 19, 2006

Ethics and the Per Diem travel allowance

I travel moderately often for work, and when I do, I have two options for my meal expenses: submitting receipts, or claiming a per diem. Therein lies my ethical quandary. The per diem is $40 a day-- and I never spend close to that.

I don't know if those of you who work for for-profit companies worry about this, but as for me, my employer is non-profit and I don't want to waste their money. So I feel bad claiming a $40 per diem for a day I spent $15 on food. On the other hand, I certainly could spend more, and shouldn't I get some benefit from choosing to eat frugally when many of my coworkers don't? On the other other hand, eating frugally is just my habit, so why do I deserve extra money that my employer could be using to carry out its mission?

(The other complication is that I'm terrible at keeping track of receipts, so even if I wanted to claim expenses based on receipts, I'd have a hard time doing it.)

My current strategy is essentially splitting the difference. For example, if I'm traveling for 3 days and spend a total of $50 on food, I'll claim two days per diem for $80. That way I pocket a little extra myself, as a reward for doing things like drinking water with my meal and picking cheaper entrees. But I don't claim the full $120 I'm entitled to for the trip, since that's much more than I spent. (The exception would be for very stressful trips in which I'm working much longer hours than usual-- I don't get paid overtime or get any other compensation for that work, so I sometimes take the full per diem as essentially a bonus. Of course, when things are that stressful, I often find myself spending more money on my meals anyway because "I deserve it"...)

I still question myself, though. Sometimes I think I should claim the full amount I'm due every time. Other times I think I should get closer to actual expenses, whether by submitting receipts or by doing some multi-trip "mental accounting" to be more precise about claiming for only what I spent.

What do you think? Is this something you deal with? If not, don't hesitate to give me advice anyway!

Carnivals, carnivals...

This week's Festival of Frugality was at Boston Gal's Open Wallet, and included an ethics and frugality quandary from Nina at QueerCents.

And the Carnival of Personal Finance this past week was at 2million, with a special 401(k) theme. One of the posts was from Laws of Finance, who asks What Good Is All That Money If You're Not Around To Use It?

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Are you "naturally" frugal, or not? (or, Penny Is Hearing Voices!)

Reading Seattle Simplicity's post "Born Frugal" a couple weeks ago got me thinking about natural tendencies towards frugality and thriftiness (or lack thereof). It reminded me of one of Madame X's posts at My Open Wallet a little while ago which totally resonated with me:

I start to wonder if my frugality is actually just a personality disorder, as I seem to suffer from some kind of mall-induced paralysis. When I walk through a mall, I look at every store and start eliminating them as being too expensive, too tacky, or just not what I need right now... It's as if shopping is just something you have to be good at, and I'm not that good at it. This is probably a good thing.

I know that paralysis all too well, and sometimes I'm convinced it's a personality disorder, too! See, Doc, I have this problem where I'm hearing voices... I have a little voice in the back of my head, and every time I think about spending money on something, it speaks up and asks, "Do you really need that? Is it worth the amount of money it costs? Is there anything better you'd rather do with that money? You're gonna regret this..." Every time, without fail.

Now, this is not always a good thing (although on balance I think it's good). For starters, the little voice isn't really about frugality, it's about being cheap. I don't think the selfish/uncharitable connotations of the word "cheap" apply to me, but a big different between cheapness and frugality is wisdom, savvy, and long-term thinking... and that's something I'm still learning and definitely struggle with.

Here's an example: last summer, I needed a new pair of sneakers, and ended up settling on an $8 pair (kind of like these, if you're curious). They were flimsy and had really thin soles, and I thought about choosing more comfortable shoes with good support, but the cheapest athletic shoes I could find were $20, and so my little "cheap voice" pestered me until I picked the $8 shoes. But I do a lot of walking, and after the first couple miles in my new shoes, my feet were hopelessly sore and I was miserable. I ended up going back and getting the $20 sneakers, which have served me very well ever since. But my cheapness wasn't frugal; it cost me an extra $8, with some bonus foot pain.

I think-- I hope!-- that situations like that are mostly because I'm only 24 and have only really been shopping for myself for a couple years... hopefully experience will help transform my cheapness into frugality. I also hope I can learn to turn off those thoughts sometimes, so that I'm able to more fully enjoy vacations and other indulgences without the nagging reminders of how much X is costing me and regrets/second-guesses about whether it's worth it-- and so I can more easily spend money on important things like eating healthy.

In the meantime, I wonder how many of us have this sort of natural, innate "little voice" or force-of-habit or "personality disorder"? I can see it reflected in many pfbloggers' posts-- but then I read others and think, "No way, he/she is not at all like me in this." I actually admire those people tremendously, since their successes in cutting back spending are clearly much more difficult for them than for me, and involve much more willpower. While I am tempted to take lots of credit for how little I spend, that's not really fair because it's largely automatic for me. That paralysis that Madame X mentions takes over, and sometimes it takes more effort to spend than to avoid spending.

How about you? Is being frugal, cheap, a "saver" instead of a "spender" something that comes naturally for you? (I bet you're handling the downsides better than me! How do you do it?) Or is frugality and saving a constant struggle for you? (Good luck, and I admire your hard work!) Or maybe you used to have trouble, but through effort and repetition you've finally trained yourself into new habits... (That's terrific! Any tips?)

I'd love it if you'd share!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Links: Punny Money Blog-a-thon, BookCents, the CoPF and the FoF!

Nick (of Punny Money) is doing a 24-hour blog marathon starting at 6pm (ET) tonight, with all revenue going to fight breast cancer. Please stop by and support him!

Over at BookCents, we're reading and discussing Vanity Fair at the moment. Come join us...

This week's Carnival of Personal Finance at Blueprint for Financial Prosperity is a can't-miss... don't worry about getting lost in all the great posts, there's a map!

And the Festival of Frugality at Clutter2Cash has all sorts of terrific posts for your perusal.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Worst job meme

There's a meme started at about bad jobs. I've been pretty lucky, and I'm sure my worst jobs pale in comparison to others', but I do have a couple bad stories-- luckily, only from short-lived summer jobs as a teenager. Actually, they both date from the same summer, when I was 18.

To set the scene, there was about a month left of summer when I was flooded out of a job (no, seriously, a heavy rain broke a dam and a man-made lake did some serious damage to the little podunk water park). That's a pretty inconvenient length of time-- too long to say "forget it," but too short to find many job options open. I came up with two.

The first was at the local newspaper. It was an overnight shift doing newspaper assembly. I had to lift piles of newspaper that were too heavy for my 90-pound-weakling arms, the place was steaming hot, and the machines were so loud that I thought I was going insane. That would have been bad enough on its own, but in my sleep-deprived 3am state, it brought me to the edge of tears, and I seriously considered walking off the job in the middle of the night. I managed to hang on through my scheduled shift, but I couldn't imagine coming back. I still shudder a little thinking back on that one long night.

So then I signed up for a temp agency, and they hooked me up with an inventory gig at a BMW plant: 8 hours straight of counting. Now, I don't know if other people have done work like this, but I found it excruciating. Partially because it was mindnumbingly boring, but I've had other jobs that were that boring and didn't mind them much. But the problem with inventory is that you're constantly counting, so you absolutely can not let your mind wander or you'll lose your place and have to start over. My mind wanders at the best of times, and when I'm bored it's a crucial escape. The problem with the inventory was that there was no escape from the boredom. It was a three day job, but on the morning of the third day they gave a call and told us they wouldn't need a full crew to finish up, so that day would be optional. "No thanks!" I said eagerly.

I am really lucky that, as a middle-class teenager supported by her parents, I had the freedom to flee those lousy jobs without looking back. I didn't think much of it at the time, but at both of these jobs, I was working aside mostly adults. (Most of my teen-dominated jobs were actually pretty fun.) I don't know if my adult coworkers hated the jobs as much as I did, but they couldn't've enjoyed them, and I'm sure they couldn't just leave as casually as I did. And it's sad to think that while I get to do fun work that I love now, many of those same people are probably still at miserable jobs like those-- and I'm the one making more money...

Monday, May 08, 2006

Socially Responsible Investing, Part 2: Some SRI Options

So, you read Part 1 and are wondering how you can get involved in Socially Responsible Investing (SRI)? It really depends on your values and what you want to accomplish.

Mutual Funds

[Note: This link is so incredibly useful; it has all kinds of information about dozens of SRI mutual funds in a great, easy format. If you don't want to bother with my commentary, just go straight here!]

Are you only concerned about social screening, and not about shareholder activism? You might like the Vanguard FTSE Social Index Fund (VFTSX), with a cheap 0.25% expense ratio, which follows an index with a fairly typical set of progressive screens (environment, labor practices, human rights, etc).

However, for me personally, I feel that shareholder activism is absolutely vital, and so I wouldn't be comfortable with VFTSX. Instead, I looked for funds that had similar broad progressive screening policies, but were located at mutual fund companies dedicated to serious shareholder activism. The most active ones I found were Calvert and Domini, with the runners up including (but not limited to) Citizens, Parnassus, and Pax World Funds. If you are interested, I recommend looking into all of these. All my IRA money is at Domini so far, and I love it-- it has less variety than many of the other fund families (just an index fund, a European fund, and a bond fund plus the money market account), but is no-load and keeps expenses low while staying seriously committed to shareholder activism. Claire over at Tired but Happy recently picked some Parnassus funds, which has prompted me to think about some of them for the future as well.

There are also some funds which focus especially or exclusively on single issues-- like the Winslow Green Growth Fund (WGGFX), a highly-rated small-cap fund focusing on the environment (other environmental funds include Green Century's balanced (GCBLX) and equity (GCEQX) funds, and Portfolio 21, which is a global fund); Women's Equity Fund (FEMMX), which supports the advancement of women in the workplace and other women's issues; and the Parnassus Workplace Fund (PARWX), which focuses on outstanding workplaces. If these issues are particularly important to you, you might be interested in these more targeted funds.

Religious Mutual Funds

The Timothy Plan funds screen against direct or indirect involvement in alcohol, tobacco, and gambling, but also abortion, pornography, "anti-family entertainment", or "alternative lifestyles". The LCKM Aquinas funds, designed to promote "Catholic family values," look at a broader spectrum of issues, while keeping a distinct religious perspective: "abortion, contraceptives, weapons of mass destruction, gender and race discrimination, human rights, economic priorities, environmental responsibility and fair employment practices," and the MMA Praxis funds, which are affiliated with the Mennonites, take a similar approach. (They are also the only religious SRI fund to have 1% of assets in community investing.) The Catholic Equity Fund (CTHQX) actually doesn't really do social screening at all and just focuses on shareholder advocacy. And the Muslim Amana funds not only avoid alcohol, gambling, and pornography, but because interest is against Muslim principles, they also do not invest in banks or hold bonds.

Non-Mutual Fund Options

The obvious non-mutual fund options are community development banks and credit unions. At this link, you can search for ones in your area. ShoreBank is one which has many locations in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest, and includes an innovative eco-bank. I actually invest in ShoreBank via a money market account at Domini which I cannot say enough good things about (see my earlier post from back in March).

But there are many other options. For example, there are dozens of loan funds out there, which usually let you set your own interest rate (from 0% to somewhere below market rate) with the idea that the amount you are giving up in interest is like a charitable donation-- a great place to start is the Calvert Foundation's set of a half-dozen or so different types of Community Investment Notes (and they even have this funky money market/Community Investment Note hybrid). I also came across a terrific-looking 3-year, 4.20% APR CD that supports Equal Exchange's work in promoting fair trade and supporting farmer cooperatives.

In Conclusion

I know I've mentioned dozens of options and your eyes are probably glazed over, but in reality
I've just scratched the surface of the choices that are out there, too many for me to possibly list or summarize here. I would love to assist any and all of you who are interested in looking into your SRI options by helping you do some research-- I really believe in this stuff and want to see more dollars going into it, and since I only have a limited supply of aforementioned dollars myself, I'd consider any time helping others as time well spent!

Here are a few more links for you (as if the ones above aren't enough!):

I hope this has been helpful, and please don't hesitate to ask if you have any questions, to add in any of your suggestions or experiences, or ask some tough questions if you disagree with this approach. Good luck!

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Cheap and easy pizza at home

I live in Chicago, home of the best deep dish pizza in the world, so I'm not suggesting you never go out for pizza or order in. But it gets pricey if you do that every time you have a craving.

I've never been much of a fan of the taste of frozen pizzas (at least the cheaper ones... I must be honest and say I have never tried frozen pizza that costs more than $5, since I figure that if you're paying that much you might as well order in!). And I worry that they are hideously unhealthy and have all sorts of weird chemicals in them. Not that other processed foods don't, but for some reason I'm really aware of it with frozen pizza.

I have often thought about making pizza from scratch, but I never end up doing it. In my head, it always seems too complicated. (And you have to muck around with yeast!) I'd love to hear stories from people who make pizza dough from scratch to reassure me that it's really not that hard, and maybe I'll give it a go sometime. But so far, it just hasn't happened.

So what's my solution? Jiffy pizza crust mix, 60 cents a pack. Add hot water, let rise for 5 minutes, knead a little, spread out into crust. Add tomato sauce, cheese, and toppings, and pop in the oven for 10-20 minutes. About 2 servings for a total of $2 or so, depending on your toppings. The taste won't bowl you away or anything, but it's yummy and it hits the spot. It's cheaper and faster than delivery, easier than making it from scratch, and tastes better and is healthier than frozen pizzas... so it's a winner for me.

(P.S. While we're on the subject, I think that one of my favorite foods of all time is delicious Giordano's deep dish stuffed spinach pizza. A tip for Chicago-area readers: Giordano's pizza is half-price when you dine in on Monday in their Evanston restaurant. I don't know if they offer similar deals in other locations-- they certainly don't at the one nearest to me now-- but when I lived in Evanston I took advantage of the deal far too often...)

Friday, May 05, 2006

Socially Responsible Investing: Part 1

I'm surprised I've gone this long without writing about Socially Responsible Investing (SRI)! This is a two-parter: I'll start with the basics of what SRI is, and Part 2 will describe some specific SRI options you might be interested in looking into, as well as including links to other resources to learn more about SRI (and to relevant pfblog posts!)

What is SRI?

Socially responsible investing is the process of incorporating your personal values and concern for society into your investing and financial decisions. This is commonly done through mutual funds, but that's not the only form of SRI.

There are three different SRI strategies, which often are combined. The first and most well-known is social screening, but the other two, which in my opinion are even more important, are shareholder activism and community investing.

Social Screening: Social screening can be "positive" or "negative." Positive screens seek out especially good companies on a certain issue, while negative screens avoid certain companies. Companies can be screened on their policies (environmental impact, labor, diversity and discrimination, etc) and/or on the products or services they provide (alcohol, tobacco, gambling, nuclear energy, weapons manufacturing, etc). Individuals can do their own social screening when they pick their portfolios, but it's most often done in the context of SRI mutual funds, which dedicate significant resources into doing detailed research into the social impact of the companies they invest in or are considering investing in.

Shareholder activism: SRI mutual funds holding stock in certain companies will often initiate a dialogue with corporate management if they have concerns about certain practices or policies (or the lack thereof). Often this dialogue is enough to lead to change. If the company is unwilling to make changes, the mutual funds (or other investors) may file a shareholder resolution to put the question out to all stockholders. There are hundreds of these resolutions filed every year, and the various SRI mutual funds will consider all of them and often vote against managment on most. (Traditional mutual funds usually vote with management.) Individuals who own stock can vote on these resolutions too-- if you own even one share, you should get a proxy ballot every year. Since the default vote is "with management," the resolutions rarely get a majority (and are non-binding anyway). But any time they get a significant percentage, it sends a strong message and really helps the dialogue process.

Community Investing:
I talked about this back in March when I discussed my money market account, so I won't go into too much detail here. But the central idea is that community investing means using your banking and investing dollars in ways that prioritize helping financially underserved communities get access to credit and capital. Lending is targeted to individuals and organizations that help low-income communities. Most commonly this is done through banks and credit unions (with savings accounts, CDs, money market accounts, etc), but there are also community development loan funds and venture capital funds out there. There is a nationwide 1% or More in Community campaign which encourages individuals, institutions, and mutual funds to put at least 1% of assets into community investing. As for me, I'm at about 50%!

How common is SRI?

SRI is growing. Between 1995 and 2005, the amount under SRI management rose from $639 billion to $2.29 trillion. (Over the same period, the total universe of managed assets went from $7 trillion to $24.4 trillion.) So as you can see, SRI makes up about 10% of professionally managed money. And $19.6 billion is currently in community investments, up from $5.4 billion in 2000.

Does SRI mean giving up financial performance?

The short answer is no. The medium-length answer is that it depends on the particular fund, and the time period you look at, but SRI funds sometimes overperform and sometimes underperform the market. (Community investment options vary-- some are at or close to market rate, while others let you voluntarily choose below-market interest rates in order to have a higher social impact.) And the long answer-- try reading these seventeen studies!

What are some specific SRI options?

Please check out part 2! One thing I want to make sure to point out is that while SRI is typically associated with a "progressive" set of values and priorities, there is actually a great diversity of SRI options to fit people with a variety of different values (including a strong religious SRI sector). I'll be describing some of them next time.


Thursday, May 04, 2006

April spending...

So I made two blog resolutions for the month of April. One was to come up with a giving plan, which I'll be posting in the next couple days. The other was to keep a detailed record of my spending for the first time in my life.

I failed miserably.

I'm going to try to do a better job in May (and every month after that until I get it right), but in the meantime, this is what I was able to piece together from my credit card statement, bank statement, and from memory, so theoretically it's not too far off:

Groceries: $42
Eating out: $51
Transportation: $40
Clothes: $7
Gifts: $8
Charity: $65
Entertainment: $33
Misc: $34

The first thing I notice from this is that to get any real use out of this, I'm going to have to average out several months in a row-- at least based on my previous perceptions, the groceries number is low and the eating out is high.

Okay, wish me luck. As I said, I've never been organized/disciplined enough to keep track of this stuff before, but hopefully the spectre of coming back month after month to tell the whole wide internet "Oops, I failed again!" will motivate me into getting it right!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

April month-end totals/net worth

Here you go, for the .13% of you who are waiting with bated breath: my end-of-April status report.

$18,697 cash/savings (up $1,823 or 11%)
$11,853 retirement (up $893 or 8%)
$17,345 debt (down $300 or 1.7%)
$2,075 accounts receivable/owed to me (down $1,500 or 42%)

Net worth: $13,205 (up $3,016 or 30%)
Net worth including accounts receivable: $15,280 (up $1,516 or 11%)

My net worth went up a whole 30% in April, but half of that was due to getting $1,500 back from people I've lent money to. I also put $715 into retirement savings (and my retirement savings gained $178 in value), saved $277 in cash (and got $46 in interest from my money market account), and paid down $300 in debt.

Check out the visual here.

If you need a link to the carnivals...

This week's Carnival of Personal Finance is at Consumerism Commentary. And don't forget the Festival of Frugality, at Wandering Indian Monk.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Eating cheap vs. eating healthy

It seems that eating cheaply and eating heathily are often at odds in my life.  

Oh, there are lots of times when they work together.  Making food from scratch is usually both cheaper and healthier than eating prepared, processed foods.  And eating healthy will probably pay off in cheaper medical costs, but that's usually so intangible!  But in my day-to-day, "What will I buy at the grocery store today?" routine, I often feel like I'm weighing my purse against my health.  I really want to eat more healthfully, but that little frugal (cheapskate?) voice in the back of my head keeps getting in the way.

Here's one example: at work, I snack a lot on Saltines.  I've always been kinda proud of myself for going for a more healthy snack like Saltines instead of potato chips or some other "junk food."  And of course, I get store-brand Saltines instead of paying more for name-brand.  But I was reading the nutrition facts the other day, and I realized that my store-brand crackers have trans fat in them!  The name-brand crackers, which cost almost twice as much, don't have trans fat.

I have noticed this as a general trend, actually.  With the advent of trans fat labeling, many name brands have reformulated their recipes to decrease or eliminate the trans fat in their products.  (Which is great!  Huge kudos to the activists behind this movement.)  But it seems like most store brands haven't.  Which puts me, the queen of "never pay for a brand when you can get store-brand cheaper," in a tough spot.  I've started coming down on the side of paying more for the non-trans fat foods.

(Tangentially, one of the results of this is that I get to buy Oreo cookies-- which I adore but have always been told are horribly bad for me-- and say I'm doing it for health reasons!  Yes, I know that Oreos still aren't healthy.  They still have 7g of total fat per three-cookie serving.  But they've gone down from 2.5g trans fat per serving to 0g, and the store-brand cookies I used to get usually have 1-1.5g trans fat per serving.  I know, I know, I should eat fresh fruit or something for dessert.  But Oreos are sooooo good...)

It isn't just about trans fats, of course.  Fresh fruits and vegetables are more expensive.  Organic and natural foods are more expensive.  Where do you draw the line on spending $5 on a super healthy natural version of something when you can buy the regular, store-brand kind for $1.50? 

Eating more healthily is a big goal of mine.  But because I am lucky enough to have a metabolism where I don't really need to watch my weight (at least at this point in my life), I don't really see much tangible payoff from healthy eating, just the knowledge that hopefully I will live a longer, healthier, happier life.  Which is really important, of course!  I just sometimes struggle with balancing those more abstract payoffs against cold hard cash in the bank at the end of the month...

(I know there are tons of posts out there about these issues, but I don't have time right now to dig them up!  But if you know of any, let me know, and I'll add links.)