Saturday, September 27, 2014

Spending in a Fog

I went to Home Depot the other day to buy a plant as a gift for someone. I figured I could find something inexpensive but cheerful there. But I have been very leery of Home Depot since hearing about their credit card data breach, and the questionable cyber-security practices that led up to it, so I went there fully intending to pay cash for whatever I bought, and wondered if I would see other customers doing the same. 

I browsed the plant section a bit, and took note of various prices, but then started to focus more on the kind of care the plants needed and whether the leaves were in good shape. I ended up deciding to buy a plant for myself in addition to the gift, and headed for the register. As I waited to pay, I did see people using credit cards, surprisingly, but I was then distracted from my observations by a lady in front of me who asked where I had found my plants. I told her, and then she asked how much they cost. I felt so stupid having to admit that I had no idea! I knew the range of costs for plants I had considered was about $10 up to $40, and was pretty sure I hadn't picked the $40 ones, but other than that, I was stumped. There is something very embarrassing to me about being perceived as someone who would just obliviously spend money with no sense of the value of things, so I was just mortified. When I paid, it turned out that my total was about $42 for two plants, which was more than I had been expecting. 
Sometimes there can be a bit of embarrassment to asking how much something costs-- that snobby "if you have to ask, you can't afford it" thing. And then there's the opposite experience, which I had in an airport recently-- I bought a small bottle of water and the cashier said "those are $4.25, do you still want it?" Again I had been oblivious, and suddenly that seemed an outrageous price for water! And I guess the cashier asked because she was used to people being outraged. But when I said "which water brand is cheapest," and she told me it was only about 25 cents less, it didn't seem worth walking back across the store to make the switch. Apparently water sales are the only thing that keeps airport stores in business these days, and if you want to stay well-hydrated you'll just have to deal with some degree of outrage! ( or bring your own bottle to fill if you can find a fountain.)

Ah psychology...

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Quicken for Mac 2015

Finally, Quicken has released an update for Mac users! This is meant to be a full version to replace Quicken for Mac 2007, with more functionality than Quicken Essentials for Mac. Unfortunately, it sounds like Intuit has failed once again to keep Mac users happy. The new software is getting pretty terrible reviews on Amazon. And it's not cheap! $74.95! Even against my better judgment, I was curious to try it because it will sync with a new Quicken iphone app, but I'd be resigning myself to more manual data entry because the Quicken for Mac 2015 doesn't allow import of QIF files, which is all that some of my accounts offer for downloading transactions.

As long-time readers of this site may remember, being able to enter transactions in a PDA or smartphone and sync with a desktop app has always been a big priority for me. It's a big part of how I track my finances, and I think tracking my finances down to the last penny is a big part of how I stay on track with my savings goals. I used to use a few different Palm apps, including Pocket Quicken. When I moved to the iPhone, I started using PocketMoney, which was the only app I could find that would "sync" with Quicken. I say that in quotation marks because the process is not a one-click sync, it's a rather complicated back and forth process, where you transfer a QIF file of recent transactions from iPhone to desktop, and then transfer a full restore of your updated accounts, transactions and balances back to the iPhone via another QIF file. But even if a bit time-consuming, it worked quite well... until now.

I finally upgraded my iPhone OS to iOS7. I had to be dragged kicking and screaming, because I preferred the look of iOS6 and was afraid a new OS would slow down my phone, but eventually, so many of my apps started to be incompatible that I figured I might as well do it. Fortunately my phone is working fine, but PocketMoney is now much more prone to crashing and has some weird issues, such as the keyboard covering fields where you'd want to read what you're typing. It still functions, though it's somewhat annoying to have to scroll to where you can see what you're entering. And the crashes make me worry that I'll lose data. Unfortunately the original developer of PocketMoney died a while ago, and his successors at the company don't seem to be keeping the software up to date. It's a shame, as there still doesn't seem to be any real alternative for my situation!

It's a shame-- I was all excited about a new version of Quicken, and then so disappointed when I saw the scathing reviews. Check it out on Amazon.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Airline Seating Prices

Travel is just designed to piss people off nowadays. They charge you for food. They charge you for baggage. They charge you for extra legroom. And now they are stooping to a new low: they charge you extra to not be in a middle seat!! To me, this is truly obnoxious. (I am not sure how many airlines are doing this,  but KLM is, and I'm sure others will soon catch on.)

If you travel internationally, you will notice that almost half of the total ticket price is a "carrier-imposed international surcharge." I used to travel frequently to London for only $300-400 round trip in the off season. The last time I went to London, in February, the price was about $900!

I just booked a trip to Amsterdam and the prices made me grumpy. But I ended up opting to pay even more-- I coughed up $123 for the best economy seat with extra legroom and incline, and so Sweetie and I could sit in a pair of seats by ourselves rather than having to share a 3-seat row with someone else. It is an overnight flight and I always have a terrible time sleeping on planes. On top of that, I've had some excruciating back problems recently, so it seemed worth it to add 10% to the price of the ticket in exchange for a little more comfort. 

I am really looking forward to the trip, now that I am past the annoyance of booking those pricy tickets! We'll be staying with friends, so that part will be cheap, and I am excited to add a new country to my world explorations, especially one with such a rich history of art and culture, not to mention the birth of global trade. But no World Cup final to add to their glory this year... 

Friday, July 04, 2014

Financial Independence Day

Today is the day-- a cold and wet and dreary July 4th, when I should be celebrating the birth of our nation by sunning myself and eating hot dogs but am instead huddled indoors catching up on my finances. And because today is the day I decided to pay attention to 6 months' worth of investment transactions, today is the day I became a millionaire. In truth, it probably happened on a different day, but today is the day I first saw it in my net worth report in Quicken:

So I am celebrating financial independence today. Of course, by "financial independence" I don't mean I never have to work again, or that I can stop saving money, or even stop worrying about money. One million dollars is an arbitrary number, but there is something symbolic about it. To me, it symbolizes having succeeded in one of my financial goals, and it means that I'm on the right track. I have about 20 years to go before I hit retirement age, so if I'm lucky enough to keep myself in a good job, keep my expenses in line, stay healthy, and not have any major catastrophes in my personal finances or in the stock market and economy as a whole, I should be able to be financially independent for the rest of my life, in terms of not needing to be a burden on anyone else in my old age.

It looks like the sky is starting to lighten up a bit, so maybe it's finally time to turn off the laptop and start celebrating July 4th in a more typical way! Happy Independence Day, everyone!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

How to Invest My Cash

For the last few months, I have had a very pleasant problem: approximately $150,000 in cash sitting in my savings account. Most of this is from the proceeds of selling my condo, plus a little growth from savings and interest. I have been holding off on any big investment decisions for a while, partly out of pure laziness and partly because there are some possibilities floating around for how to use the money. 

One thing I might do is buy all or part of some real estate Sweetie owns, as since Sweetie isn't working and I am, there could be some tax benefit to me being the one with the mortgage. 
Another possibility is going into business with some friends who want to invest in rental real estate upstate. There are some college towns where the investment return on properties is quite attractive. Though I didn't want to be an active, hands-on landlord, I don't mind doing some occasional work and otherwise being a passive investor, and trust the friends involved, one of whom has hands-on experience as a real estate agent and property manager.
And then there's just the stock market. I just bought $20,000 more in mutual funds to add to my E*Trade portfolio. I am tempted to put even more in, figuring I could sell some of my earlier investments if I need to free up cash later. 
There's no easy answers, but again, this is a good problem that I am glad to have!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Great Aunt Minnie Keeps on Giving

At a family party recently, one of my aunts took me aside to say she had something very important to give to my sister and me. This was the aunt for was the executor of Great Aunt Minnie's estate. And sure enough, there turned out to be some additional inheritance funds coming to us! My aunt had finally rolled all the coins that Minnie had kept in a jar, and after taking them to the bank, there must have been about $30. My aunt handed me a little envelope with my sister's and my name on it, and inside there were two silver dollars (the old ones with JFK in them) and 3 dollar bills. My sister and I each kept 1 coin, and I let her have 2 of the dollar bills, since neither of us had change... And, well, she's got a family to support and all...

I have the envelope in my underwear drawer at the moment-- not that there's any particular reason to keep it there, but it happened to be where Sweetie put it to get it out of the way one day. It makes me smile when I see it every morning, thinking about my wonderful great aunt, who would have turned 100 just a few days ago...
More on my inheritance from Great Aunt Minnie in his post:

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Update on Mom's Finances

I haven't written much about my mom over the last 5 years or so since my Dad died. To make a long story short, it's been too painful and stressful to even think too much about her finances. She didn't want to take any of my advice on how to manage her money and I knew things would go badly.

Now I know just how badly they've gone.

After my dad died, my mother would have had about $350,000 in various bank accounts-- CDs, mostly. This was what was left of my dad's 401k and a life insurance payment. She also owned her house, with no mortgage.
Now, according to what my mom told me yesterday, she has about $30,000 in a bank account. She still has the house, and no mortgage. Her monthly income from my father's pension and Social Security totals a little under $3,000. She's only 70 years old.

Somehow in 5 years, she managed to blow through over $450k. I'm still reeling at trying to do the math. I know she did various renovations on the house, and some redecorating. She gave away perfectly good furniture and bought new pieces. She hired people to help her move stuff around and do painting and other minor repairs. But it's not like she gut-renovated the whole house. It's hard for me to get my head around how much all that cost, but I would guess maybe $75,000. Maybe $100,000. Her other major expense has been keeping my grandparents in a nursing home. Although they are quite poor, with no assets other than a small house and a coffee can full of small bills that my mother and her 3 siblings already spent, they'd apparently run into roadblocks in qualifying for Medicaid or any other benefits. (They live in Puerto Rico, where the laws are a bit different.) Just recently it looked like they might actually start getting some coverage due to Veteran's benefits, but for several years, my mother and her siblings have been footing the bill on their own. What's worse is that not all the siblings are contributing equally-- the one who actually has the most money has been delinquent in sending checks and arguing all the way over what kind of care my grandparents should get. Meanwhile the other siblings are dealing with disabled children or spouses with cancer and various other dramas, so my mom feels that she has to step in and do more than her share.
On top of all that, one of the siblings asked my mother for a loan of several thousand dollars to help pay for her daughter's baby shower, which is apparently going to be a rather grand affair practically on the scale of a wedding reception. That sibling will hopefully pay my mom back after a court case she's involved in is over, if the lawyers who have been working on it for years don't take all the proceeds of the settlement first.

Is that enough f**'d up drama for you? But wait, there will be more. My mom wants to sell her house and move down to Puerto Rico to my grandparents', where she can live more cheaply and take care of some of their needs herself. She insists that she will be able to live on her current income if she does this. She also insists that my father intended for my sister and me to have an inheritance, therefore she has been talking to a lawyer about how the proceeds of the house should go into some kind of irrevocable trust that my sister and I will manage, because she got it into her head that her biggest priority right now is to qualify for Medicaid when she goes into a nursing home herself. (She does have some health issues, but I don't see her needing a nursing home anytime soon, though I guess you never know.) The proceeds from the house sale could end up being about $500,000 after all the fees and taxes, perhaps a bit more.
I told my mother that the idea of us getting that kind of inheritance was insane in her circumstances, and that all my father ever wanted was for my mother to be taken care of and not stupidly bankrupt herself. She said that my sister and I could give her whatever she needed from the interest from the investment earnings of the trust, which of course we are willing to do, but if the principal is locked up for some period of time, I just know we'll end up having to dip into our own savings for other things my mother needs or wants. That is theoretically fine if we get paid back from the trust principal at some later time, but I'm not even sure my sister has savings to dip into in the meantime, and she has two kids to put through college in a few years. And even if we're just managing Mom's money to keep her from making bad decisions, that means we're going to end up butting heads whenever she wants to do something we disagree with. I don't know what's worse, the idea of my mother uncontrollably burning through half a million dollars and then being really truly broke, or the prospect of years of nasty arguments. Right now she's acting all saintly about it, saying she knows we'll take care of the money and do right by her and that this is really what she wants to do, but I can see her bitterly regretting it later if she thinks her daughters are denying her needs and forcing her to live like a pauper. The idea of her happily living on $35k a year when she's been averaging over $90k a year lately is just one more indication that my mother has no sense of financial reality. Even without the expenses of the house, I just don't see that working. Either way, she has to sell the house as it's just too expensive for her to manage, but she's already talking about all the work she'll have to do on my grandparents' house to make it a comfortable place for her to live-- like replacing the entire line connecting it to the sewer system because apparently you can't flush the least scrap of toilet paper without flooding the bathroom, which is indeed gross, but could be coped with in other less expensive ways, as they do in entire countries in other parts of the world!

So nothing has been acted on just yet, but that's what's up with me lately! Fun times ahead!