On wealth (or lack thereof)

I can’t weigh in personally, since I chose a career field that typically does not result in wealth. But I found this Quora link (via APW) that discusses  if getting rich is worth it. Comments mention two points that seem obvious, but are also useful:

Happy people are often still happy when they become millionaires. Unhappy people are often still unhappy when they become millionaires.

and

Yes, being wealthy is worth it.  But without a sense of purpose, being rich could turn you into a very different, isolated and perhaps awful person.

I think I’d be a pretty happy millionaire, based on the first idea. I’d be a bit more concerned about the second, but there are a lot of things I want to do and a bunch of causes I want to support.

LearnVest’s take (yet again, another website I love) is that a $50,000 annual salary is enough to make you happy. They do say that living somewhere with a higher cost of living increases that number (which is my situation). And I’m thinking that some people have interests that cost more than others.

I’m thinking I’m closer to that original $75,000 number stated in the article, at least right now. After I pay off my credit cards (one left, and should be by no later than June), I can put all of that money into my IRA every month. (When I’ve done this for a full year next year, I’ll hit the max contribution amount.) I already save a good chunk each month, though I’ll likely be using some of it for the trip to Portland in April, which I know I’m not supposed to do…

LearnVest recommends that you only put 20% of your income toward priorities, which includes paying off debt and increasing your savings. I’ll just have a very low-interest car loan left. I think I end up putting about 30% toward these priorities, but I’m behind.

In the past few years, as my salary has slightly increased (after an initial substantial cut–I hated consulting), I’ve generally worried about the same amount. When I took this new job in November, I got a pretty good bump, plus practically zero commuting cost (I can walk to work). I noticed I’m able to allocate the extra money to places I knew I needed to send it in the past, and it’s felt good to see the debt shrinking and savings growing.

It’s still a foreign feeling to see my checking account in the higher triple digits after paying rent–I’m used to it being around $100, give or take. It’s definitely a comforting change, though I now worry when I have $400 in my account–that’s now when I feel like I’m getting low. Which is a good thing! I’m hoping the numbers increase eventually, of course, and with age comes more costs and responsibilities, thus more cushion. But it’s progress in a very short amount of time. Something to be proud of, I think.

Little preparations

Rather than take a big leap into full planning mode for a future business, an epic trip, an inevitable move, a redefining of a relationship, I do little tasks. I read a story about a successful young woman business owner and daydream that I’d be the feature of that kind of article someday. I research when it’s best to travel to Turkey or Thailand or Argentina. I search for apartments on Craigslist in my price range in cities like Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Portland, and imagine the questions I’d ask the landlords–Are these double-paned windows? What’s the average heating cost in the winter? What are the neighbors like? I browse ring and dress websites, mentally bookmarking the ones I like best, in case the need ever arose.

But when it comes to follow-through, I rarely get past these tiny steps, these insignificant blips that fill up a slow day, later to be forgotten or deleted or expired.

A friend wrote a blog post I read today that was defiant and decisive; she’d made up her mind about how she wanted to live her life to the best of her ability, and she didn’t care if anyone else cared. Following her gut, knowing that her decisions, good or bad to others, were only truly relevant to her. No one had the right to comment or judge her movements or thoughts. If they did, let them–she’d go on living her life without their personal observations. She’s not scared to do and say what she thinks because she’s afraid the world will tell her she’s going about it all wrong. (I am constantly reminded why I am proud to call her a friend.)

I wish I had this courage–to take the big steps, to make the big plans, to upend social expectations, to execute what I only sketch out in my dreams. Here’s hoping she’ll inspire me to broach the parts of life I’ve been tiptoeing around. After all, in the end, you’re the one who has to live with how much happiness you’ve allowed yourself.

24 is not enough

I need more hours in the day. After spending eight hours at a desk Monday through Friday, around two hours planning and making dinner (unless it’s poached eggs over some kind of cheese and sauteed veggie), an hour getting ready for work in the morning, and a few hours decompressing and/or exercising/out, it never seems like there’s enough for a good night’s sleep.

Looking at that (very long) sentence, it’s dumb to think that I even do that much. Imagine what doctors, inventors, scientists, business owners, chefs do all day. They probably get so much more done.

How can I make the most of the time I have?

I want to fill more of my days with more activity: exercise more than three times per week, cultivate more friends, volunteer more at the animal shelter. Maybe writing it down will make it happen.

Lunch in Paris

Unfortunately, this is not what I am doing, or why I haven’t been writing here. It’s the title of a wonderful memoir I stumbled across when I search “lunch” in my library’s e-book search engine. I actually wanted to read Best Lunch Box Ever (which I now realize is aimed at kids’ school lunches) so I could jazz up my work lunches–try eating sliced peppers, a piece of fruit, and some sandwich meat sans bread five days a week, because it will bore you to tears. They didn’t have it, but Elizabeth Bard’s Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes was available. So far, I’ve read 80 percent of it since midday yesterday, and there’s still another hour and a half or so to kill before 5 p.m. today.

What has really resonated with me is Elizabeth’s desire not to be ordinary. She experienced all of the expectations that come with going to a decent college (Ivy League, in her case) and then wondering why, five or 10 years later, she and her friends hadn’t experienced the success they’d expected. “We were supposed to be famous, or at least rich by now. What the fuck have we been doing with our time?” she says.

She has a French husband, and in French culture, working above your station is looked down upon. Being ambitious and trying to do more than a basic office job–unless you were basically born into a higher or lower station–is almost offensive. She eventually convinces him to pursue his dream a la American. He succeeds in the preparation, networking, and execution, then encourages her to go out and follow her passion.

But the problem for her, and for me, and probably for many others, is that we don’t know how to do that. “What I want is to go to lots of cocktail parties with famous writers–peers, mind you–sign books, eat tuna carpaccio on wasabi flat bread, all while never having to sit down at my computer ever again.”

She was getting pieces published, but slowly. And she was giving tours of the Louvre, but for someone else’s company.

“I felt like I was doing something really valuable–sharing the love of museums my father had given me. But it wasn’t mine. Once again, I was a charming cog in someone else’s wheel. I was once again forced to confront (with the accompanying self-loathing) the fact that I had the goods, but not the discipline or perseverance to create something for myself. How could anyone so ambitious be so inert?”

THIS IS WHAT I FEEL LIKE EVERY DAY. I know I’m good at certain things, like writing, editing, and research, and I enjoy them, too. But getting myself to follow through with any kind of step past a job with someone else as a boss, where nothing is completely reliant on me, has been impossible. I know I want to do more. I think I want to start my own company. But beyond coming up with ideas and skeleton details for them, I never get anywhere.

How do you nail down what you want to do on your own? How do you get there?

Getting into good financial shape

Last night, I went to see Alex von Tobel, CEO of Learnvest.com, speak about her new book (which I wasn’t going to buy, but it was $8, so…) at Sixth & I in DC. I thought I wasn’t going to like her, and that the session would be light on helpful content.

Opposite happened. She’s surprisingly likable, even though she’s clearly super rich and went to Harvard and seems like one of those girls who has a TV show on Bravo–someone I definitely wouldn’t feel that I could relate to. She used the word “bananas” a bunch of times, and she shared anecdotes with the crowd of about 200 that made her seem like an older, wiser sister, rather than a fancy-pants CEO with millions of dollars.

You could tell how much she really cared about helping people get their money situation sorted out, and for an affordable price. Certified financial planners generally cost at least $3000, which is pretty prohibitive for most people I know–that’s what I make in a month. Learnvest offers three plans that vary in price. The Budget Starter costs $89 initially, then $19 per month. The others have higher start-up fees ($299 for the Five-Year Planner, $399 for the Portfolio Builder), but they’re all $19 per month after that. For all of the plans, you work with the same CFP every time, and you can email them as often as you want.

But there are a bunch of free features, and their 50/20/30 rule has been helpful. You allocate 50 percent of your monthly take-home pay to essentials–rent, utilities, groceries, and transportation to and from work. Twenty percent goes toward your future–debt, savings, retirement, investments. Thirty percent is for lifestyle, which is everything else, like restaurants, bars, the gym, etc. They’ve got one of those account managers like Mint, but I like Learnvest’s better. You’re able to group transactions by 50/20/30 category, so you don’t have to take the extra step of calculating the percentages yourself.

At the talk, she gave a bunch of helpful tips that I didn’t know. Did you know you CAN close credit cards? One per year, and only if you won’t be applying to grad school or for any kind of loan or mortgage, because your credit score will take a dip for a short period. I knew you could call your credit card companies and ask them for a credit line increase or a lowering of your APR, but I didn’t know that you should only use 30% of your card’s value–more than that and you’re making credit score ratings think that you might have some trouble with money. You accrue credit card interest DAILY, not monthly. An emergency fund to cover six months’ expenses is important, but if the more degrees you have, the more months you need to have put away. Renters insurance is a no-brainer, and if your apartment burns down, or someone steals all of your valuables, you get money back to buy all new stuff. Amazing.

I’m actually kind of excited about saving money now. Next thing on the list is paying off my credit cards so I can build an emergency fund.

I’m not a runner

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I hate it. I’ve never gotten a runner’s high. I get bored on the treadmill. Even running outside doesn’t excite me–it’s just one monotonous, heaving step after another to me.

I have a few friends who love it, and I think it’s great they’ve found their thing. If you enjoy running marathons, more power to you! Someone needs to raise money for those cancer walks and rare disease races.

I’m totally okay with my running aversion. I’ve never felt guilty about it. But I’ve had trouble finding a kind of exercise that works and that I can stick with. I’ve done yoga on and off since I graduated college, but that’s not enough of a workout for me to notice a difference. I sometimes go to Bikram yoga, but the repetitiveness of doing the same moves every class always bothers me after two or three classes. I never know what to do at the gym, and I feel uncomfortable working out in front of people who at least act like they know what they’re doing.

I’ve never been overweight, so convincing myself that I needed to exercise has always been a problem. Since I graduated from college about six years ago, I’ve probably gained about five or 10 pounds–nothing THAT noticeable, but I’ve been unhappy with how clothes have fit me lately. I was lacking energy, and I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do to combat this that wouldn’t involve endless poundings on the treadmill. (At least I could watch reruns of “The West Wing” on Netflix.)

For my birthday, I asked my mom for a gift certificate for personal training classes. She got me one from Inline, and after an evaluation by the owner, I was matched with Tanya. She seems like she’s about my age, but she’s clearly in much better shape. I saw her four times, each an hour session. She’d email me the exercises we did each session so that I could do them at home and at the gym. I really liked working with her–we hit it off and talked about our lives for most of the sessions, which made them go by quickly.

The one-on-one sessions are pretty expensive, so I couldn’t really continue them after my gift certificate ran out. I was thinking that I might buy the unlimited class package, or go to the small group sessions once a week.

The studio sent out an email about a holiday evolution series in December–three classes per week for three weeks, with weigh-ins and measurements done on the first and last days. They also give you one complimentary class per week so that you can try out their barre, yoga, or Pilates classes.

I signed up for the morning version as a way to postpone making a decision about what to do next (and so I wouldn’t quit). I go to Inline on Mondays and Wednesdays at 6 a.m. and on Saturdays at 8 a.m. (I am not a morning person, so this was a strange choice for me.) There is a group of about 10 of us, mostly women, in a range of physical conditions. The class is based on high-intensity interval training, meaning you go hard for short periods of time. For someone who gets bored with running or the elliptical after three minutes, even with Josh Lyman and President Bartlet, this is ideal.

I’m in the third week of classes, and I am surprised to say how GOOD I feel. Exercise is supposed to boost your mood, but I hadn’t really experienced that with anything other than Bikram. (And that was temporary–as soon as someone cut me off in traffic, I was back to my regular self.) I feel markedly better day to day, and I feel really great after a workout, like I’ve accomplished something. I push myself hard in class, harder than I do in other exercise classes. When they are guaranteeing results, and you actually start to see and feel them, I figured I should put as much effort as possible into that hour of exercise. Plus, because I’m paying $129 for the series (a big chunk of cash for me), it made sense to make it worth it.

These classes are hard, though. I’ve never had my ass kicked like this before, at least not consistently. But when you’re surrounded by people who are struggling through it, too, it’s not so daunting.

Surprisingly, as tough as it is to get out of bed in the morning, I like working out before work. When I exercise after work, I feel like that’s the only activity I can fit in–it takes me probably 2 1/2 hours round trip, including the post-workout shower. If I’m meeting a friend or going to dinner, I need to dry my hair and put on makeup–I’m not one of those girls that can let her hair “air dry,” put on chapstick, and leave the house looking acceptable for the world. I’m not high maintenance, but I NEED to put on concealer and blush AT LEAST so I don’t look like a strung out meth addict.

Because I work a short walk from my house, I can get home from class at 7:05, sometimes go back to sleep until 8, then shower and get dressed and get to work by 9. And then I’ve got the rest of the day to do whatever I want, including eat a burger at Hamilton Tavern.

I’m so glad that they’re doing a six-week program beginning in January. It’s $249, which is normally not something I would even consider, but I’ve had such great results so far that I can’t wait to actually get rid of this belly. LET’S DO THIS.

A struggle

Writing has never come easily to me. Yes, I could write quality papers for class, but I’d always agonize over them being good enough. It seemed like some people just wanted to get it over with, and they weren’t really attached to their paper on Their Eyes Were Watching God. Totally understandable, and I almost envy their detachment, because that’s just not me. Never has been, never will be.

I know I’m a good writer. In a huge pool of people who blog, or write for a living, or are trying to get their manuscripts published, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. So many people could do this better than me, and many do. So many more stick with it and are consistent about posting to their blogs, whether or not their writing is good quality or grammatically correct or if they have an audience other than their moms.

I can’t count how many blogs I’ve started. There have been countless proclamations of, “I’m going to really do it this time! Every day!” Just as many backtracks–“Well, no one’s reading it anyway. Why bother?” Enough minor moments to get me off track, and enough instances where the blogging world just seems too big to add one more.

But I don’t know why I see it as competition. I see just about everything as competition: which friends will get their “dream job” first, who makes more money, who seems happier, who’s really earned what they got, who seems to have all their shit together. I’ve heard so many times that it’s useless to compare yourself to others, but I’ve never been able to internalize it. I am the worst kind of perfectionist–the criticizer who knows I can probably do it better, but who gives up early on when confronted with people who are already doing it or when I hit a surmountable road block.

I can’t promise myself that I’ll keep writing here. I can’t say that I’ll be back here tomorrow, and the next day, and that I become a consistent blogger with connections to other bloggers. That’s the hope. I can only speak for today and say, “I did it.”