Thursday, January 31, 2008

Some great posts about money and values

Sorry to be light on the posting this week, but work's been really hectic and I haven't had much time to catch my breath, let alone write dazzling posts for y'all.  So instead, here are some links I've noticed lately:

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Companies with happy employees have better stock returns

Employee satisfaction is correlated with higher stock returns, according to an award-winning paper by Alex Edmans, finance professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton business school.

Edmans found that firms making it onto Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For list earned more than double the returns of the overall stock market between 1998 and 2005, and also consistently performed better when matched directly against companies in the same industries and with similar characteristics.

The 100 Best list, which is two-thirds based on employee satisfaction surveys, is full of employers who offer high pay, great benefits-- like fully-paid health insurance, on-site child care, and paid sabbaticals-- and a committment to their employees' work-life balance. But while some might expect that these sorts of pricey investments in workers would hurt a company's bottom-line, and urge policies that keep wages and benefits low and work hours high, Edmans' study suggests otherwise.

Workers' satisfaction and well-being is just one of my priorities for socially responsible investing (SRI), but it's an important one. Some of my retirement money is in the Parnassus Workplace Fund (PARWX), which invests in companies with happy, satisfied employees and is advised by the co-author of the Fortune 100 Best list. I chose it for its social returns, not its financial returns-- but I have to say it doesn't hurt to hear that it's probably financially smart as well!

Related posts:

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Frugal + Fine Dining = ?

It was like a mirror-image of my regular self.  I was poring through restaurant menus online, trying to find the most expensive one so I could eat there!

Okay, so it's not quite as strange as it sounds.  Last week was Washington DC's Restaurant Week, which means a whole bunch of different restaurants were offering dinners for the set price of $30.08 and lunches for $20.08.  (Some have extended it an extra week or two, if you're interested.)  Normally I never eat at places that cost that much, but the "Oooh, I love a good bargain!" part of my mind won over the "You're paying how much for food?" part.  Besides, I figured, if I never even try eating at fancy restaurants, I'll never know if they're worth the price, right?  So my boyfriend and I decided we'd give it a whirl.  And since the RW price was already set, naturally the way to find the best discount was to figure out which participating restaurant had the highest regular prices, hence the menu-hunting.

It turns out that there weren't any jaw-dropping deals, because naturally, the most expensive places aren't going to give their food away at huge discounts.  What I did find were a number of well-reviewed restaurants with entrees around $30-- so in other words, essentially buying the entree and getting an appetizer and dessert for free. 

So we picked out a nice Italian place (Tosca, if you're curious) and tried it out last weekend.  And, indeed, we thought the food was very good.
But the thing is, there are a number of restaurants I've been to and loved which serve delicious food that I thought was just as good, or almost as good-- in the $8-$15 range.  When I ate at Tosca, was the food 2 to 4 times better?  Not to me, no.   And yes, it was nice to get an appetizer and dessert (I usually skip those), but on the other hand, I have a pretty small appetite, and so I actually didn't finish my dinner in order to save room for dessert, and still only had a few bites of dessert before feeling too full.  (It felt wasteful, but I felt awkward asking for a "doggie bag" in such a fancy place; I looked around and none of my fellow diners were doing it.)
I don't know.  Maybe I don't have refined enough tastes to appreciate fine dining?  I mean, I'm not giving up after just one try, because I know I shouldn't generalize based on a single restaurant.  DC does Restaurant Week twice a year, so we'll give it another whirl next time (and probably try the $20.08 lunch rather than the $30.08 dinner.)  But I have to say I'm not feeling entirely optimistic.
I can totally understand why not-so-frugal people enjoy fancy restaurants; great food in an elegant atmosphere has a lot of selling points.  But I know that a number of frugal bloggers, who are genuinely concerned about value for their money, have talked about really enjoying expensive restaurants, too, and I'm very curious about what makes some frugalites decide fine dining is worth the cost.  Is it based on finding a particular fantastic restaurant (or a few)?  Is it actually the even pricier restaurants that are the ones worth their cost?  Are there any "helpful hints" you've learned-- for example, specific kinds of dishes that high-end places really take to the next level?  Or do you think appreciating fine dining really just comes down to personal taste? 
And if anyone has specific recommendations for places in the DC area that you think can successfully get my food-loving tastebuds to overrule my frugal brain, do share!  (I'm vegetarian and not a wine-drinker, FWIW.)

Monday, January 21, 2008

Martin Luther King on Economic Justice

This is a re-run of a post from last Martin Luther King Day.

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
-- The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today, as we celebrate the life of a great man and the movements he was a part of, most of us probably know him through the canned, packaged story we're told about what he stood for and advocated, told in a way that makes us feel safe and proud of our country's progress because the problems he fought are all in the past, right?

But Martin Luther King actually had some pretty phenomenal, radical things to say in a lot of areas, things that may surprise you, things that we still need to hear today because they're as meaningful and relevant as ever. And as much as I'd desperately love to share all of it with you, I'm going to restrain myself and only focus on his words about economic justice (and encourage you to dig deeper on the rest of it yourself, especially his speeches and sermons against the Vietnam War and for a peaceful, just foreign policy).

Now, throughout the civil rights movement, activists had always been engaged with economic issues, from using economic tactics like the Montgomery bus boycott and the boycotts of places like Woolworth's that accompanied the lunch counter sit-ins, to economic demands (the '63 march at which MLK gave his "I Have A Dream" speech was called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom). King himself began to focus more strongly on economic issues in the last few years of his life. In 1966 he began working in Chicago and other northern cities to address housing and employment discrimination, and in 1968 when he was killed, he was working on organizing the Poor People's Campaign, bringing together poor people of all races in an attempt to win an "economic bill of rights" of anti-poverty policies.

Here are some quotes from three of the Rev. Dr. King's great speeches and sermons late in his career. The first, Beyond Vietnam-- A Time to Break the Silence, was given on April 4, 1967 and is an incredibly powerful speech that I would recommend everyone listen to (there's an audio file at that link) or read. I'm only excerpting a small section near the end:

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.

In August 1967, the Rev. Dr. King spoke to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in a speech called Where Do We Go From Here? Here are two excerpts:

The problem indicates that our emphasis must be twofold: We must create full employment, or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position, we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available... Work of this sort could be enormously increased, and we are likely to find that the problem of housing, education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor, transformed into purchasers, will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.

Beyond these advantages, a host of positive psychological changes inevitably will result from widespread economic security. The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he knows that he has the means to seek self-improvement. Personal conflicts between husband, wife, and children will diminish when the unjust measurement of human worth on a scale of dollars is eliminated.

Now, our country can do this. John Kenneth Galbraith said that a guaranteed annual income could be done for about twenty billion dollars a year. And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God's children on their own two feet right here on earth...

I want to say to you as I move to my conclusion, as we talk about "Where do we go from here?" that we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here, and one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, "Who owns the oil?" You begin to ask the question, "Who owns the iron ore?" You begin to ask the question, "Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that's two-thirds water?" These are words that must be said.

Now, don't think you have me in a bind today. I'm not talking about communism. What I'm talking about is far beyond communism... What I'm saying to you this morning is communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social. And the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say questioning the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.

And if you will let me be a preacher just a little bit. One day, one night, a juror came to Jesus and he wanted to know what he could do to be saved. Jesus didn't get bogged down on the kind of isolated approach of what you shouldn't do. Jesus didn't say, "Now Nicodemus, you must stop lying." He didn't say, "Nicodemus, now you must not commit adultery." He didn't say, "Now Nicodemus, you must stop cheating if you are doing that." He didn't say, "Nicodemus, you must stop drinking liquor if you are doing that excessively." He said something altogether different, because Jesus realized something basic: that if a man will lie, he will steal. And if a man will steal, he will kill. So instead of just getting bogged down on one thing, Jesus looked at him and said, "Nicodemus, you must be born again." In other words, "Your whole structure must be changed."

A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will "thingify" them and make them things. And therefore, they will exploit them and poor people generally economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and it will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. What I'm saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, "America, you must be born again!"

And on March 31, 1968, less than a week before he died in Memphis (where he went to support the city's garbage workers on strike), he spoke at the National Cathedral about the changes going on in the world, the challenges and opportunities they presented, and about the Poor People's Campaign he was part of organizing, in Remaining Awake Through A Great Revolution:

There is another thing closely related to racism that I would like to mention as another challenge. We are challenged to rid our nation and the world of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, poverty spreads its nagging, prehensile tentacles into hamlets and villages all over our world. Two-thirds of the people of the world go to bed hungry tonight. They are ill-housed; they are ill-nourished; they are shabbily clad. I’ve seen it in Latin America; I’ve seen it in Africa; I’ve seen this poverty in Asia...

As I noticed these things, something within me cried out, "Can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned?" And an answer came: "Oh no!" Because the destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation. And I started thinking of the fact that we spend in America millions of dollars a day to store surplus food, and I said to myself, "I know where we can store that food free of charge—in the wrinkled stomachs of millions of God’s children all over the world who go to bed hungry at night." And maybe we spend far too much of our national budget establishing military bases around the world rather than bases of genuine concern and understanding.

Not only do we see poverty abroad, I would remind you that in our own nation there are about forty million people who are poverty-stricken. I have seen them here and there. I have seen them in the ghettos of the North; I have seen them in the rural areas of the South; I have seen them in Appalachia. I have just been in the process of touring many areas of our country and I must confess that in some situations I have literally found myself crying...

This is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.

In a few weeks some of us are coming to Washington to see if the will is still alive or if it is alive in this nation. We are coming to Washington in a Poor People’s Campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. We are going to bring those who have known long years of hurt and neglect. We are going to bring those who have come to feel that life is a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs. We are going to bring children and adults and old people, people who have never seen a doctor or a dentist in their lives.

We are not coming to engage in any histrionic gesture. We are not coming to tear up Washington. We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty. We read one day, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.

We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that it signed years ago. And we are coming to engage in dramatic nonviolent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible...

One day we will have to stand before the God of history and we will talk in terms of things we’ve done. Yes, we will be able to say we built gargantuan bridges to span the seas, we built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies. Yes, we made our submarines to penetrate oceanic depths. We brought into being many other things with our scientific and technological power.

It seems that I can hear the God of history saying, "That was not enough! But I was hungry, and ye fed me not. I was naked, and ye clothed me not. I was devoid of a decent sanitary house to live in, and ye provided no shelter for me. And consequently, you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness. If ye do it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye do it unto me." That’s the question facing America today.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Fair trade flowers, chocolate, and more for Valentine's Day

It's hard to believe, but Valentine's Day is just around the corner again, and I'm writing my annual post nice and early so you have plenty of time to get in on the sales and specials, and order all the fantastic fair trade items you want.

As most of you know from earlier posts about fair trade, fair trade certification is about letting consumers know that the people who grow/harvest/make their products got a fair price and humane working conditions, which is a big step above the often horrible conditions (child labor, pesticide poisoning, intimidation and exploitation, etc) involved in producing non-certified versions. Valentine's Day is an especially big deal for two fair trade products-- chocolate and the newly available fair trade flowers-- because it's estimated that Valentine's Day accounts for 12% of chocolate and 25% of flowers sold in the U.S.

Luckily, there are a ton of great options for getting great fair trade products for Valentine's Day (and don't miss the action steps to promote fair trade, at the end of the list.)

  • Chocolate
    • Sweet Earth Organic Chocolates: From fantastic looking boxes of truffles (Cherry Chipotle or Green Tea, anyone?) to bags of chocolate hearts in a variety of flavors, there are a ton of awesome choices here-- and they're fair trade, organic, and many are even vegan! (Plus, suprisingly affordable, too.)
    • Ithaca Fine Chocolates has fair trade, organic chocolate Art Bars that also include a collectible card with a reporduction of a work of art, and 10% of profits go to art education.
    • Not all Sjaak's Organic Chocolates are fair trade, but they do have a number of neat fair trade options for Valentine's Day, including heart-shaped cherry truffles, a chocolate heart-shaped shell filled with small chocolate hearts, and a chocolate "nuts and chews" assortment in a Valentine's Day box. (Some are vegan too.)
    • Equal Exchange doesn't have Valentine's Day-themed chocolate, but they do have plenty of chocolate (and cocoa, and coffee, and tea.) And if you use the the code "valday08" you can get 10% off.
  • Taking Action
    • Click here to send e-mails to five big chocolate and flower sellers, asking them to offer fair trade and organic products.
    • If you're a teacher or have a school-age kid, and you send in a request by Friday January 25th, Global Exchange will send you a free package of 30 Valentines for a classful of kids, with detachable postcards the kids can send to World's Finest asking them to offer fair trade chocolate options. (There's also a curriculum for teachers to use if they want to talk about fair trade with their K-6 students.)
      • You can also buy a Global Exchange Action Kit, with the same valentines and postcards but also including fair trade chocolates, decorations, and an "I Love Fair Trade" iron-on.
    • If you join Co-op America (an organization dedicated to "Economic Action for a Just Planet," including but not limited to fair trade) for just $20 by February 14, you'll get a free gift of fair trade chocolate bars in a nice fair trade keepsake box. (If you're already a member, donate $25 or more and you can get the gift too.)
    • For more, here's Transfair's list of 12 ways to support fair trade.
As usual, this list is U.S.-centric (sorry!) so please feel free to comment with sources for fair trade goods in other countries. And if you're looking for the whole range of non-Valentine's Day fair trade products (like bananas, rice, sugar, molasses, tea, coffee, vanilla, spices, wine, and more) please check out this post.

Are you planning to make fair trade a part of your Valentine's Day?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Investing in sleep for personal and financial returns

Okay, so I don't have no idea about my next steps to better align my life with my priorities. I have one idea (so far)-- get more sleep.

See, there are a lot of things that are important to me but which I don't spend enough time on. But really, it's not that I don't have enough hours in the day. It's that too often (in the evenings especially, but weekends also) I'll think "I should get together with a friend" or "I should do some creative writing" but then follow it up with "No, I'm too tired, I'll do that tomorrow." And then tomorrow becomes the day after and the day after that...

Now, part of that tiredness really is from the long hours and stress from work. But I have to admit that part of it probably is from just not getting enough sleep. I typically get somewhere between 7 and 8 hours, which works fine for other people but I don't think it's quite optimal for me. So I'm trying to increase that by a half-hour. This cuts down on my evening free time by a half-hour-- but I hope it actually increases my productiveness and energy. I think I can get more out of one rested, energized hour than from two hours at the end of the night where I only feel up for wasting time online or watching whatever's on TV.

And I bet it will pay off financially, too. I cut all sorts of corners when I'm tired which have financial implications. I decide not to pack lunches for the next day, or forget them, and have to pay. I use the quickie, more costly dinners in the fridge or pantry or pick up food on the way home. I have a paid gig writing for a blog as frequently or infrequently as I like-- but when I feel tired I keep putting it off rather than earning $40 for a couple hours of creative, productive work.

I've only been trying to change my sleep habits for a couple of weeks so far, and haven't stuck to it 100%, so I can't report results yet. But I'm pretty optimistic. And I know that before I take a big step like quitting a job I enjoy, I need to do my best to cut back on my own silly time-wasting.

How about you? Do you stay up using the computer (or doing something else) into the wee hours, even though you know you shouldn't? Or did you used to but have now beaten the habit? How do you stay disciplined about getting to bed on time? Has being tired cost you personally and/or financially?

Monday, January 14, 2008

Battling the roots of materialism by focusing on happiness

According to a recent study, materialism in pre-teens and teenagers may actually be linked to low self-esteem. The study, which measured materialism by looking at what kinds of pictures young people included when asked to make collages of "what makes me happy," found that when kids read compliments about themselves from their peers before making the collages, the level of materialism they displayed dropped dramatically.

So the study appears to suggest that even though many young people think having consumer goods is what makes them happy, if they start to feel better about themselves their focus will shift to non-materialistic priorities like friends and family. In other words, if a teen you know is begging for pricey items, you may be better off spending more quality time with them-- boosting their self-esteem, and thus increasing their relative appreciation of your company compared to the material goods-- rather than spending that extra time earning the money to buy them what they want.

I wouldn't be surprised if this applies more generally to most of us. I know a lot of people have patterns of turning to shopping when they're feeling stressed or unhappy or lonely; I don't really have cravings to buy clothes or books or electronics, but for me it's sometimes a weakness for fancy overpriced food or drinks that I'd otherwise avoid (but I think it's a money-rooted issue for me rather than a food dynamic-- I'm not thinking "It's okay to indulge in this yummy food because eating it will make me feel better," I'm thinking "It's okay to spend a little money on myself because I feel lousy and I deserve a nice treat to make me feel better.") But after we spend, we don't usually actually feel any better, at least in any permanent way.

The things that actually make us happy, according to happiness research, aren't material items. Having more money doesn't usually make us significantly happier (unless our basic needs aren't being met and it's a matter of getting out of poverty)-- even though the studies find that almost all of us think we'd be much happier if we earned more money.

The things that actually increase our happiness most are things like close relationships with friends and family, good health, a sense of control over our own lives, the "flow" state that comes when we're accomplishing challenging and fulfilling things, and getting enough exercise and sleep. Sure, money and material objects can help us achieve some of those things to some extent. But focusing on money can also interfere with many of those things-- especially if we forget it's supposed to be the means to an end (happiness!) and start thinking about it like an end itself.

In other words, when we find ourselves feeling materialistic, we'd be well-served to wonder if we're like the teens in the study, and if what we really need is to find better ways to feel happy and good about ourselves. But also on the other side of the coin, when we find ourselves spending our precious time on earning more money, maybe we should be asking whether we're making the best investment in our happiness and that of our loved ones. Do we need all that money to cover our real honest needs and feel reasonably secure about the future? Or are we being bad predictors of what will really make us happy?

As for me? I've been feeling more and more like my life isn't quite how it ought to be. I like my job. But I work more hours than I wish I did, I sock money in the bank, and I tell myself it's great because it'll give me more freedom to pursue my dreams in the future. But right now, today, I'm not as happy as I could be. I'm not investing enough time in my friendships, or in the kind of meaningful hobbies that get me in the "flow" state-- I get home tired and stressed and I veg (watch TV, waste time online, etc.) I think I need to realign my time but I haven't figured out yet what my next steps are...

How about you? Do you get caught in patterns of spending and/or working that don't really fundamentally make you happier? How have you succeeded (or failed) at getting that under control?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

"I don't need a bag for that!" (or, what China and I have in common)

What do China and I have in common?  We're both decreasing our use of plastic bags!

The big news from China yesterday is that they're banning the thinnest plastic bags altogether, and requiring that stores charge for thicker plastic bags rather than give them away for free.  They're one of many countries (and cities, like San Francisco) that have taken on this issue, either by banning the bags or imposing taxes; apparently in Ireland, the 15 cent per bag tax has led to a 90-95% decrease in plastic bag usage:

In Dingle's largest supermarket, the plastic bag levy has worked smoothly except for tourists who are sometimes upset at having to pay or find some other method to carry groceries, SuperValu store administrator Chris Norveil said. "Local people bring their own bags now; they use boxes, or they carry their shopping out to their cars," she said.  "There wasn't very much fuss after it was presented by the government as a way of saving the environment."

That's pretty awesome!  (If you want to read more about the serious problems with plastic bags, check out this article at

In the meantime, while neither my country nor my city is discouraging plastic bags at all, I'm working on it for myself anyway.  I'm trying to get better about bringing reusable bags to the grocery store-- although I get funny looks from the checker, and they often make me pack the bags myself.  (That's one reason I wish there was a ban or at least a tax, so I wouldn't get looked at like I'm crazy!)  And I'm proud of myself for how much plastic I avoided during the holiday season.  I kept forgetting to bring my tote bags with me-- but as we went from store to store and most of the time I bought only one or two items, I just kept asking myself if I really needed a plastic bag with my purchase, and the answer was almost always no.  I could carry a lot of it by hand (even if a little awkward sometimes), or stick it in a bag I'd gotten from somewhere else, or make an extra stop at the car to drop it off. 

And happily, I've noticed in the last couple weeks that the habit has stuck.  When I'm at a store and my purchase is ready to be bagged, I'm automatically thinking about the alternatives to using a plastic bag, and usually I can come up with one.  "That's okay, I don't need a bag for that" is becoming my new mantra!  I've become more conscious and intentional about what used to be an automatic acceptance of the plastic thrust at me, and I'm creating a little less waste now, which is pretty cool.  Admittedly, I will get even further when I remember to carry reusable bags around with me every time I'm shopping, so that I'm using the plastic bags never rather than rarely-- but this new approach means I don't have to give up when I realize I've forgotten again.

Do you try to avoid using plastic bags personally?  What are your successes, challenges, and tips?  And how about politically?  Are folks in your area talking about taxing or banning plastic bags?  Would you support a ban or a tax, even if it meant you'd be charged extra for bags if you didn't bring your own?  And if you live somewhere where it's already happened, do tell us how it's going!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

2007 Financial Wrap-Up

I've run the numbers for my financials, and it's exciting! (That's the upside of forgetting to do it on a regular basis-- you get a pleasant surprise at the end-- although I suppose you run the risk that it's an unpleasant surprise...)

Savings: $38,923 (up $8,685 during 2007, or 22.3%)
Retirement: $22,763 (up $6,606 during 2007, or 29.0%)
Debt: $8,305 (down $5,340 during 2007, or 64.3%)
Net worth: $53,381 (up $20,631 during 2007, or 38.6%)

  • I was hoping to have the savings number above $40K, but I'll be there soon enough. Instead, I did a lot of debt repayment, and now have paid off the whole $16,000 my parents and I decided I owed them for my student loans (although I may give them more in the future anyway.)
  • That last $8K of debt was consolidated after I graduated, and this fall I got my rate knocked down 1% after three years of on-time payments, so now I'm paying 1.625%(!). I don't care what anyone says about the benefits of being debt-free; there's no way I'm paying any more than the minimum instead of leaving the extra money in my bank account to earn 5.0% interest a year (and do good for communities and the environment, too-- check it out!)
  • The balance in my retirement accounts is nearly $23K, but it's probably the equivalent of roughly $20K after taxes ($14K is in Roth IRAs, but $9K is in a 401k and will owe taxes upon withdrawal, which I'm estimating at about 33%.) If that $20K earns 8% returns on average over the next 42 years, I'll have a little more than $500K by the time I'm 68. I've estimated I'd need around $1.6 million-- which means I'm almost 1/3 of the way there, just shy of my 26th birthday!
  • My gross income was about $50,000 this year-- so I saved about 30% (13% to retirement and 17% in general savings) and put 10% towards debt. I also gave about 5% to charity. In a couple months I'll tell you how much went to taxes (which means the remainder is what I spent on expenses.)

All in all, I'm pretty darn pleased. How was your 2007 financially?

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Carnival of Ethics, Values, and Personal Finance

Welcome to the Carnival of Ethics, Values, and Personal Finance! We've got a lot of great stuff to offer this month, from turtles to Boy Scouts and from gift cards to gardeners... we hope you enjoy them all!

Thanks for reading! Submit to the February 7th edition of ethics, values & personal finance using our form here, and read up on past editions here. Also, we need hosts for future months, so let me know if you're interested.

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Do you pay the tolls or go the long way 'round?

When you have a choice between a shorter route with tolls to pay, or a longer one without them, what do you usually do? Do you pick time or money?

I drive very rarely, so I don't typically have to make those decisions. But earlier this week I borrowed my boyfriend's car to drive to New Jersey to visit friends for New Year's, and I was faced with exactly that dilemma.

Originally I was just going to take the route that Google Maps said was the quickest. But then I asked my Mom (who drives that way to NYC often) how much I'd expect to pay in tolls. She started rattling off numbers-- $3 here, $5 there-- as I added in my head. "Wait, you mean that it's going to be $45 in tolls to get there and back?!" She nodded. "Yup, that sounds about right."

So I started looking for another way, and found a path through Pennsylvania on major highways without a toll in sight. The catch? It took about a half-hour more in driving time each way. The money question was pretty straightforward-- an extra 40 miles round-trip would be less than $5 in extra gas costs, and even if you factor in wear and tear using the IRS mileage rate, it would only be about $20 vs $45. But was it worth spending an extra hour of my life driving?

I ended up deciding that it was. I hesitated, because driving stresses me out and I don't enjoy it. If the cost savings had been smaller, or the alternate route had been much more confusing (I get lost at the drop of a hat, which would mean more stress and extra time and miles), I might not have. But the directions were very straightforward, so essentially it was like putting in an hour's stressful but simple work in exchange for "earning" $25-$40, and I was up for that.

I wonder what the tipping point would be for me. If it had been the same financial savings for twice as much extra time ($25-$40 for two hours' extra driving) I don't think I'd have done it-- but if it was the same amount of extra time for half as much money ($10-$20 for an hour), I probably would have. So I guess it's not a simple $/time ratio!

How about you? Do you have any rules of thumb? Do you almost always go the cheaper way? Does the length of the overall journey affect your decision? Do other factors?