Showing posts with label food. Show all posts
Showing posts with label food. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Spring Update

What a busy few months it has been... for the first time in years, my job has been stressful enough that I started to question whether it was worth the money I make. Sweetie has been feeling the same way, and we often fantasize about ways we could escape the office grind and make a living in some other way... like winning the lottery! We are definitely prisoners of our lifestyle-- we enjoy having certain luxuries, but they have to be paid for, and it's not that easy to find jobs that would make us enough money to continue as we are. We know we could cut out some of those luxuries and still be happy, but they are things we enjoy. When we fantasize about quitting our jobs, it's so we'd have more time to do things like traveling and reading books-- but travel and books cost money. (Books might be obtainable for free at the library, but there is no travel library where you can borrow a plane ticket, unfortunately!) We're both grateful to have jobs in this economy, but when you go from being challenged and entertained by work to feeling like you're stuck in a Dilbert cartoon or just deluged with thankless tasks, it's hard not to question whether there's something better you could be doing.

This is all made more complicated by the fact that retirement seems to get closer and closer. Sweetie is older than me, and will have a nice pension, plus income from a 401k and other savings. I will have to rely on just a 401k and savings. Sweetie's retirement income will actually be pretty good unless the stock market totally tanks, but that would all change if there was less income in the in-between years. I'm still worried about whether my savings will be enough to live on by the time I retire, so the thought of early retirement doesn't seem very feasible. But we need to sit down and do some in-depth analysis and planning, which will be made easier by the fact that I finally got Sweetie set up with Quicken to track expenses.

In other news, one of the little luxuries we've currently been enjoying is a food delivery service. It's a weekly delivery in which you get all the ingredients for 3 meals, plus recipes. All you have to provide is your own pots and pans, salt, pepper, and olive oil. The cost works out to $10 per person per meal (including shipping), and you can pick a meat/fish plan or a vegetarian plan. We've been doing the vegetarian plan, and I love all the new ideas we've been getting for how to eat a well-balanced meal without meat. The portion control is helpful too. Sweetie is someone who can cook creatively and inventively, but I am not, so I love having someone else make all the decisions and just tell me what to do!

As for the cost, I've been thinking it would be interesting to do an analysis on whether this service is "expensive." A lot depends on the specific ingredients included each week, but even without getting too in depth, it's possible to draw some comparisons. Compared to a restaurant meal, $10 per person is definitely cheap. Compared to ordering takeout food, it could be about the same price per meal, depending on what sort of takeout-- it probably works out to be cheaper than most takeout in our area. Is it cheaper than buying our own groceries? Probably not, except in the cases where the recipe requires an unusual ingredient. If I had to buy a whole jar of a spice, it could easily cost $5 or more, so it's nice to get just the exact amount needed and not have to worry about waste. And occasionally the recipe and ingredients make enough food that we have enough leftover for a lunch the next day. When you factor in the convenience factor and the enjoyability of the meals, I would say it's a good value and certainly reasonable in relation to our current financial circumstances. But if we did lose our jobs and have to budget more carefully, I'd probably discontinue it and make more effort to cook at home with cheaper ingredients bought in bulk. (The service is called Blue Apron, if you're interested, and I have not been asked or paid to write about them.)

What else is new? Well, I think my mom is going broke, as predicted. She has had her cable TV service turned off to save money and occasionally says things about money being tight, but I haven't asked for details. It is just too upsetting to get into it with her. It really makes me ill that she couldn't listen to reason a few years ago-- she should have sold the house instead of pouring money into renovating it, and moved into an inexpensive condo. I think she still has a little money left in CDs that haven't matured yet, but I'm sure she'll cash them in soon if she hasn't already, and then she'll be stuck living on just Social Security and the continuing payments she gets from my dad's pension plan, which she'll find impossible to do without running up debt, so she'll end up having to sell the house anyway, and then she'll blow through that cash too. There is no satisfaction for me in being able to say "I told you so."

How about you? What are your financial plans and dreams and worries these days?

Monday, January 28, 2013

2012 Income and Expenses

2012 was a great year in terms of income-- I hit another new high:

Salary $106,244
Bonus $18,239
Employer contributions to my 401K $8,119
Dividends $15,977
Realized Gain (from a fund change made in 401k) $11,347
Blogging income $4,402
Gifts received $100
Interest $208
Tax refunds $2,516
Total Income $167,152

Almost all the dividends and realized gains were reinvested, and sometimes I don't really even consider these "real" income. But I love seeing my money work for me-- that is over $35,000 worth of income made not from labor but from my own savings and 401K participation.

The other income I had this year was $10,000 in rent from the tenants in my apartment, but for this year, I am kind of looking at it as a defrayal of my housing expenses. I'll start breaking this out differently next year, as I'll be reclassifying some of my expenses as business expenses for an investment property rather than personal household expenses.

Now for expenses:

Bank Charge $77
Charity $1,153
Clothing $3,062
Dining / Groceries $11,296
Education $458
Entertainment $1,364
Gifts Given $2,266
Gym $2,249
Household $1,792
Housing (net) $11,974
Income taxes $34,639
Medical $1,714
Miscellaneous $3,434
Newspapers and Magazines $404
Travel $8,421
Utilities Internet Access $360
Utilities Telephone $953

A few notes:
  • Charity refers to my personal contributions. I also plan to donate all the blogging income from this site.
  • Dining-- about $8500 of this is for stuff shared with Sweetie. (I have to admit that we have been indulging in fancier wines than we used to! We buy it by the mixed case and usually 1 or 2 of the bottles is a special treat, i.e. something in the $16-35 range, compared to the $9-12 range for the rest. But at least in restaurants, we tend to stay with whatever's cheapest.) The rest is mostly for my own breakfasts and lunches.
  • Entertainment was pretty high this year, due to buying more tickets for concerts and theater, including a rather expensive one to see Madonna at Yankee Stadium
  • Gym-- this covers a membership renewal for 2 years
  • Household is mainly laundry and dry-cleaning, plus a new armchair for the apartment Sweetie and I now share
  • Housing-- as noted above, I pulled together my housing expenses such as condo charges, property tax, mortgage interest, rent I pay to Sweetie, and gas and electric charges for my condo, and then subtracted the rent I receive from tenants to arrive at a net housing cost for the year. This does not include about $10,000 in mortgage principal I've paid off, as I view that as a transfer from my cash net worth to home equity.
  • Miscellaneous included a new iPhone and a lot of art supplies, plus haircuts and all the usual little personal items
  • Travel includes daily commuting, some family visits, and a 2-week summer vacation in Europe.

Total expenses for the year came to $85,616. This is also an all-time high. I think the new iPhone, big vacation, 2-year gym expense and new chair account for a lot of that, plus trying to take better advantage of all the culture NYC has to offer.

Net savings were $81,536, of which $10,125 is the transfer to home equity for paying off mortgage principal. This is NOT an all-time high, but it's second only to the year when I received a $25,000 inheritance, so I'm not going to beat myself up about it. I saved about $5000 more than I did last year,
and about $9000 more than I did in 2010 if you back out the inheritance.

As always, I could easily have cut back on expenses and saved more, and I always have these thoughts about how much sooner I could retire if I did, and whether I'll wish I had saved more when there's another economic crisis... but at the end of the day, I am comfortable enough with my savings and net worth so far to allow myself some luxuries. I feel very, very lucky and thankful for the good fortune that has come my way.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Food: Local, Organic and Unsustainable?

As I've detailed my spending on this site over the years, I've sometimes gotten a little flak from people about my food expenses. For quite a few years, the amount hovered in the vicinity of $8,000 a year, covering all my food and drinking, groceries cooked at home and meals bought at restaurants. That works out to around $150 a week, which is about $21 a day.

To most people, that would seem like a lot. If you're careful, you could easily feed a family of 4 on that amount, so it may seem crazy and indulgent that one woman can spend that much on herself. If I wanted to, I could easily spend way less-- but in the context of my financial circumstances and lifestyle, I choose not to. I have always justified this as spending money not just on the necessary calories to survive, but on convenience and pleasure. It costs more to buy a coffee and a bagel at a deli before going to work than to make coffee at home and eat bagels purchased in bulk at a supermarket, but the extra expense is not all that much, and worth it in terms of saved time. The same can be said for buying a sandwich or a salad for lunch vs. making them at home. Dinner in a restaurant is a little harder to justify because it's quite a bit more expensive and it's not in the middle of my busy work day-- but the fact of the matter is that my level of spending actually doesn't include that many restaurant dinners. I might get cheap take out one or two nights a week, and cook my own meals from scratch other nights, eating in a restaurant less than one night a week on average.

I should also point out that I buy pretty average groceries in normal supermarkets most of the time. I occasionally buy something at an upscale shop or greenmarket,  but I generally don't go out of my way to buy organic items or fancy prepared foods. But in the last few years, I have been amazed at the increasing variety of expensive artisanal food items available all over Manhattan and Brooklyn. Most recently, I went to a market called Brooklyn Fare-- it's a pretty full-service supermarket, with an emphasis on upscale, products, but what really blew me away was the selection of chocolate bars as you approach the cash registers. There must have been 100 different chocolate bars, maybe more. At prices like $6 per bar, maybe more. Chocolate is just one tiny part of the food universe, but it got me thinking about how these sorts of products have proliferated of late: cupcakes, chocolate, artisanal pickles and other such un-necessaries. Who on earth has enough money to sustain this business?

With all that in mind, I was gratified to read this article in yesterday's New York Times:

The Unaffordable Luxury of Food

Here's an excerpt that pretty much says it all:
Every generation of young New Yorker finds its own way to squander its meager earnings, and this one seems content to spend the money it makes on expensive, curated food with little sense that it is really squandering anything at all.

There is vast cultural support for this exercise, of course. We have long since moved past the vague idea that the personal is political to the notion that the epicurean is essential — for ethical cleanliness, environmental sensitivity and all the rest. Pleasure is mingled with obligation. “I don’t think about what anything costs,” Emily Gerard, a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and a publishing assistant making the requisite salary, told me recently. “I’ll drop $60 once a week at the Greenmarket, which I would never do at a grocery store; I like supporting local farmers.”

We talk a lot about exquisite food but we rarely talk about a corollary to our fixation with it — the financial toll it takes on people who do not in any real sense have the income to afford it. Last week Yaffa Fredrick, who is 23 and a production assistant at MTV, broke down the finances of her passion for me. After taxes, she makes about $30,000 a year, a little over half of which goes to rent. In an especially frenetic dining week before the holidays, she went to Morimoto in the meatpacking district one night, Fig & Olive the next and Spice Market a few nights later, with a drinks evening sandwiched in between at Experimental Cocktail Club on the Lower East Side.

Typically, she told me, she spends about $250 a week eating in good restaurants, which amounts to about $13,000 annually, and this does not include the additional $50 to $100 a week she spends on cooking classes, wine tastings and cheese pairings. Because about half of her salary is given over to food, she works an additional 10 to 15 hours a week tutoring and baby-sitting to supplement it.

It surely comforts modern parents who have spent fortunes educating their children to know that these children are spending money on pork belly and not, for instance, cocaine. But what solace can it offer to realize that $300 a week put into an S. & P. 500 Index fund over the past five years would have provided an annual rate of return of 10.34 percent and grown to $100,354 today? Even saving $300 a week at a 6 percent rate of return would have yielded about $91,000, Mark X. Chemtob, a financial adviser at Ameriprise, said, adding that in both cases, the sums would qualify for a down payment on a starter apartment in New York.
I see these sorts of people in action all the time, yet it still blew my mind to actually read those numbers. These young women are making maybe a quarter or a third of what I make, and they are eating their way into debt! But it's cloaked in this mantle of supporting small local businesses and saving the planet. It's not that I don't believe those are good things to support, but where do you draw the line on how you support yourself first? And of course the fancy restaurants and cooking classes are purely hedonistic, without any real altruistic justification even if they do locally and organically source all their ingredients.

Of course this article focuses on a very thin slice of the world, a certain type of upper middle class New Yorker. There are many more people out there who don't eat this way because they can't afford to or have no interest in doing so. Yet there is a huge amount of mass-cultural attention paid to food right now, on TV, in books, and at least in my world, in store shelves. I keep asking myself if we are in some sort of food bubble, similar to the housing bubble a few years ago, because it somehow feels wrong and unsustainable in a way I can't put my finger on, just as the real estate market did back then.

And not directly related, but here's a book well worth reading on the topic of food, what it costs, and why:
The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table

Monday, February 08, 2010

My Money Weekend

I was out and about in Brooklyn this weekend, and that always provides fodder for thoughts about money.

On Sunday, I went out for brunch with Sweetie and Mortimer. Brunch is something I always have problems with-- I think it's a nice time to have a social meal with friends, and I always enjoy the food, but it pisses me off that it's so expensive! Brunch has to be the restaurant meal with the least value for the customer and the most profit for the restaurant.
We went to Sidecar, a great restaurant in Park Slope, where I paid $11 for "migas," which is scrambled eggs with guacamole, chilis, cheddar cheese, tomatoes and tortillas. It was absolutely delicious, but spending $11 for gussied up scrambled eggs just seems crazy!

After brunch, we went strolling through Park Slope for a while. At one point, we ducked into Ollie's cafe so I could use the bathroom. We didn't buy anything, but on the way out, I found a $5 bill on the floor. It wasn't obvious who it might belong to and I was tempted to keep it, but instead I stuck it in the tip jar.

Our next stop was the Brooklyn Flea, which has moved indoors for the winter, at the fabulous location of One Hanson Place. This is the old Williamsburg Savings Bank building, a striking landmark when you see it from the exterior, and even more fabulous within. The main lobby of the old bank seems to have been almost completely preserved and the flea market wares are spread out in front of and behind the old teller windows, and on thick glass counters that still have holes for inkwells, where people used to endorse their checks and fill out deposit slips. It's just a gorgeous space, with cathedral-like ceilings and elaborate windows. The rest of the building has been converted into condos, but I'm not sure what they do with the lobby space when the flea market isn't there.

Once you get past the architectural appreciation, the flea market is a blast. There are lots of great vendors with jewelry, vintage clothes, records, books, art, furniture and all sorts of random stuff. And "random stuff" is my favorite! I ended up spending $32 on a variety of old tobacco and medicine tins, which I collect. In a way, this seems just as crazy as spending $11 on scrambled eggs. I mean, what am I going to do with these tins? They'll just sit on my shelf with the rest of my collection, making it even more of a pain in the ass to dust. It's so purely materialistic to buy stuff that has absolutely no purpose... but I just love them. I love looking at them and wondering where they've been and who owned them, and I love the old-fashioned designs. In the larger scheme of things, $32 for a bit of decorative pleasure seems quite reasonable. Which makes $11 for the pleasure of eating a yummy brunch pretty easy to rationalize too!

Speaking of food, that's the other fun thing about the Flea-- there are quite a few food vendors. I don't know how Mortimer managed to be hungry again after his omelette, but he got a plate of pupusas. I found myself wishing I had room for a lobster roll, or some Greek pastry, but only managed to sample a bit of a pickle and some salted caramels, and Sweetie and I each had one mini chocolate-pistachio cupcake, which cost $1 each.

After the Flea, we walked along 4th Avenue to get home. I am always amazed at how much new construction there is along there-- over the last few years, it's changed enormously as they've knocked down some smaller tenement-style apartment buildings and replaced them with these massive high-rises. Every time I go by there, I feel like I notice something new that looks almost ready for people to move in... and I wonder how long it will take for all these buildings to fill up. I have no illusions about selling my apartment easily in the next few years-- hopefully I won't need to. I still think I could rent out my condo for a little more than it costs me each month, but seeing all these big empty buildings reminds me I'll have more and more competition, closer to Manhattan than I am.

The latter part of my Sunday, of course, was spent watching the SuperBowl. And for the first time, I wondered if any of the shots of the crowd would show some friends of mine, Richard and his partner. Are they big Saints or Colts fans? No, quite the opposite. They don't care about football at all, but one of their fabulously wealthy clients invited them to the game and even flew them down to Miami in a private jet. One of our other friends said Richard made over $2 million from his business last year, and I don't doubt it. It's kind of fun to observe the way he lives and the luxuries he enjoys, some paid for out of his own pocket and some by his clients. I'm happy for him, but sometimes it makes me smack myself and wonder why I don't have his life! I realized recently that I'm not jealous of his lifestyle per se-- I'm jealous of the fact that he is so successful precisely because he is doing exactly what he loves and is passionate about. That's what gives him his drive and makes him good at what he does. I think he would do it no matter how much he was paid. I am fairly content with my job, but I don't love it the way he loves his-- I wish I could find that perfect combination of satisfaction and financial success.

Whew-- all that squeezed into one Sunday! Now back to my Monday...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Last Summer's Vacation (Yes, It Was Botswana!)

I can't believe it's taken me so long to get this written! Sorry I've been torturing my loyal readers for over a year. But if you think that was bad, get this: I told no one in my family, other than my very discreet sister, that I was going to Africa until about 3 days before I left. My parents tend to be worriers, and I didn't want them to be spending more time than necessary thinking I would a) catch malaria or worse; b) get caught up in Zimbabwean refugee violence or other political turmoil; or c) be chomped on by a lion. In the end, my dad was the more paranoid one, shuddering at the idea of having to be evacuated to a hospital in Johannesburg. My mother, on the other hand, who worries I'll be mugged in broad daylight in NYC, was thrilled to hear I'd be doing a safari and rhapsodized about me following my dreams, living life to the fullest, yada yada... which is actually no surprise when you consider my parents' financial personalities!

So, long ago, I'd alluded to the possibility of traveling with some friends. I'd said a safari was one of those possibilities but I'd initially written it off as being too expensive. After thinking about it more, and thinking about that year's budget, I changed my mind. I didn't know when else I'd have a chance to do this kind of group tour with friends, and I am not a sociable enough person that I wanted to risk being trapped for 2 weeks in the middle of nowhere with total strangers! So I gritted my teeth, signed myself up, and started bleeding money! The initial $500 deposit was just a drop in the bucket!

Package tour costs:
Perhaps if I'd been exploring this on my own, I would have picked one of the cheaper tours that other people I know have been on. But the friends I was going with had used our tour company before and were used to a certain level of travel comfort I guess. And I was okay with that for a trip like this-- I'll explain more about that below. Included in the tour cost was one internal chartered flight, other transport by boat and bus, all game park entry fees, all accommodation and all food and drink except for a couple nights in lodges where some drinks weren't included. All this, for a 13-day trip, came to $5,960.

Travel costs:
I shared a car to the airport with one of my friends-- I think that was about $40. Then there was the airfare-- I had to buy a round trip ticket between New York and Johannesburg, plus one-way flights from Johannesburg to Maun, Botswana on the way there, and from Victoria Falls to Johannesburg on the way back. The total for airfares was about $2,400.
One significant wrinkle was that my travel companion and I decided to book flights on National Air for the Victoria Falls to Johannesburg leg. National, which is basically "Air Zambia," had some kind of crash incident, or a wing falling off, or something like that, which led to their fleet being grounded, which in turn led to their bankruptcy about a week after we booked our tickets. We totally lost the money-- $300 each-- and had to rebook on British Airways for about the same cost. (Per the suggestion of some commenters, we tried to get a refund through the credit card company, but it didn't end up being eligible.)

Lodging costs:
We had to stay one night in a hotel at the Johannesburg airport before continuing to Botswana the next morning. We stayed in a lovely and convenient place for $152 including the cost of round trip van service to the terminal.

Food costs:
Most meals were included, but before we joined the tour, I spent about $20 on dinner in the Johannesburg hotel, and about $100 on lunch and various drinks at the hotel in Victoria Falls. (We stayed at the Royal Livingstone, which was very high-end, and only the room cost and dinner food were included in the tour cost.)

Medical costs:
If you're going to southern Africa, it's recommended that you get shots for yellow fever and hepatitis, as well as a typhoid vaccine and polio booster. (If you've had these before, you may not need them again.) Malaria pills are also recommended. There were no bugs whatsoever at that time of year in Botswana and we weren't doing any swimming, so the actual risk of infection was quite low, but to me, that just isn't something you want to mess around with. I spent $175 on doctor visits and shots, and $125 on medications. Travel medicine is not cheap, and insurance doesn't tend to cover it, though you can claim these expenses against a healthcare FSA. But the good news is that most of this was a one-time expense that won't be needed again the next time I take an exotic vacation to some disease hotspot of the world!

It's customary to tip the trip leaders and the camp staff. The tour company suggests amounts of about $100-125 for the trip leader, $80-100 for the assistant trip leader, and $80-100 to be split among the other crew members. The tip amounts seemed like a lot to me at first, but for the length of the trip and the level of service, I ended up feeling like they were justified. We pooled all the tips from our group and then gave them out, so if anyone had wanted to put in a different amount, they wouldn't have had to feel self-conscious about it.

Miscellaneous other related costs:
These costs weren't strictly for this trip alone, but I bought some of those packing organizers, which are indispensable when your luggage is a giant duffle bag. I also bought a pair of binoculars, and a few months before the trip, a new camera. Also, I paid $3 for a SmartCarte at JFK (so annoying, as other airports around the world have free carts.) And I spent about $150 on gifts for people back home.

So what was the trip like? Well, in a word it was fabulous. If you'd asked me a few years ago, I would never have said I would do such a trip. I'm not that big an animal lover, and Africa wasn't at the top of list of places I wanted to visit. But this trip was like nothing else I'd ever done and I can sincerely say it was an amazing experience. There's something about being in such a remote place with wild animals all around you-- it's just glorious. I think part of the reason it's taken me so long to write this post is that I found it hard to put in words how I felt about it.

I don't think this kind of safari trip is for everyone, though. You spend a lot of time driving around on bumpy, dusty, unpaved roads. We spent most nights in tents, and even when we were in lodges, which felt quite luxurious, the amenities are still simple, and there are often limits on hot water and electricity use. Even the lodges have mosquito netting and canvas for parts of their walls, and July was winter in Botswana-- temperatures in the tents were sometimes in the high 40s (Fahrenheit) overnight!

If you're into camping, you'd find it quite easy going-- I'm totally NOT into camping and I still found it very comfortable. You don't have to carry your bags anywhere, the tents are spacious and equipped with cots and battery-powered lamps and shelves for your stuff. Your laundry will be done for you and the staff bring you hot water for a wash basin in the morning, and for a shower in the late afternoon. Each tent has its own bathroom area in the back, with a toilet seat over a pit and shower. The grossness of a pit toilet is greatly made up for by the gloriousness of using it under the spectacular stars and moon at night!

Every morning we'd have coffee and breakfast around the campfire. Lunch would be a picnic most days, usually in a scenic spot with animals grazing not far away. Dinner was in a big dining room tent, or, if it was really cold, we'd move the table out of the tent and onto the dirt so we could have piles of hot coals under our seats to keep us warm! The food was amazing: the cook made everything using pans over an open fire or a dutch oven buried in the coals, and she managed to produce all kinds of fabulous roast meats, stews, soups, homemade breads and cakes and muffins, all of it delicious. At first some of us were a little leery of some of the salad-y items, given the typical recommendation against eating any vegetables that might have been washed in iffy water-- but they used a tank of purified water for everything, and I don't think anyone got the least bit sick. Alcohol was abundantly served, and sometimes we'd even stop for sunset drinks out in the vehicles or even on boats. I had no idea we would eat so well.

The food and the level of service in the camping were a big part of the expense. It's key to point out that we were a group of ten guests. The staff were two guides, the cook, and at least 3 or 4 other crew at any given time. On our game drives, there would be 5 guests and one guide in each vehicle so there was a lot of personal attention. The guides got to know everyone and what they were most interested in, and if someone wanted a particular camera angle for a photo, they'd make it happen. After encountering other groups of 10 or 20 or more people packed into oversized trucks, I started to really appreciate the small, personal scale of our trip. We were on no schedule but our own, so if we wanted to stay out a bit later to chase down a leopard, we could... and did!

If there was any drawback to this trip, it was that there was very little "cultural" component-- it's really all about the animals. If you do a safari in Kenya or Tanzania, part of the trip will involve visiting a tribal village where people are still in colorful traditional garb, but in Botswana, you won't get that. We had a little time to walk around and buy crafts in one small village and there was one touristy town at the end of the trip with some shops and galleries, but otherwise we were quite isolated and hardly saw other people. So don't go if you like to shop a lot, and don't go if you just want to gawk at exotic-looking locals. But on the flip side, the tour guides and lodge staff don't keep their distance-- they sit and talk with you at every meal and hang out by the fire afterwards, so you can actually get to know quite a lot about them. They all spoke excellent English and we learned a lot about the history of the country and what life is like for middle-class Africans, who are somewhat absent from media coverage of the continent. In the end, that was probably of more educational value than visiting a traditional village.

So bottom line, if you've got $9,000 to spend on a fabulous two week experience, a safari is a great way to do it! I'm glad I did it-- pulling the trigger on spending so much was really hard for me, so for once, peer pressure was actually kind of a good thing! But of course I didn't take that kind of spending lightly--to make up for it, this year I'm not traveling at all, except for a relatively inexpensive family reunion trip I have planned for Christmas. There is no rule that says you have to sacrifice all luxuries to keep your financial house in order-- you just have to make the necessary choices to keep your budget in line, and in this case, the trade-off was worth it.

Oh, and did you want to see some pictures? :) Here's a few highlights, and I'll just point out that my camera was just a little compact point and shoot, without all that great a zoom lens.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

If You Think $5 for a Slice of Pizza is Bad, How About $50,000 for Hot Dogs?

Read this article:

Hot dog heartache has come to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the Parks Department on Friday evicted a weiner vendor who couldn't pay his $53,558 monthly rent.

Over $50,000 a month for the right to sell hot dogs in a prime spot, right in front of the Met. Wow. Of course this doesn't count any of the other expenses for the business, like the cart, the supplies, the labor...

The whole thing brings up so many questions. First of all, despite the populist outrage that the guy must be getting screwed by the government, the city didn't "charge" him that rent, the vendor BID that amount to win the contract. Did he just wildly overestimate the number of hot dogs he'd sell? He would have had to make $1785 a day just to cover his rent. I don't know how much a hot dog costs at this stand, but since there are few other food options near the Met, I'd assume the hot dogs are very expensive, say $4, which is double what many carts charge. That means he'd have to sell 446 hot dogs just to cover the rent. Maybe round that up to 500-600 hot dogs when you factor in all the other costs of the business. Say it takes 15 seconds at least for the transaction of buying a hot dog, plus an average of 15 seconds between customers-- that means it's 5 hours of steady hot dog sales in a day to make ends meet. Not impossible, perhaps, but certainly ambitious!

In any case, the article doesn't say how much the other bidders offered for the spot, or how much the previous vendor had been paying-- I'd love to know!

Monday, August 03, 2009

A $5 Slice of Pizza??

Yep, right here in Brooklyn:

On Avenue J in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, a small cup of coffee costs $1.39. An 18-stick package of gum is $1.49. And at Di Fara Pizza, the price of a plain cheese slice: $5.

Crowds form at the counter at Di Fara and spill onto the sidewalk. They are not an angry mob, but a hungry one. Some order two slices, for $10, and some, like Frank Mancino, a retired electrician from Bath Beach, Brooklyn, whose girth is a statement about his allegiance to pizza in general and Di Fara in particular, order a whole square pie, for $30.

“Worth it,” said Mr. Mancino, 64, between bites on Wednesday afternoon. “It’s like they dug up my grandma and she made the pie.”

Wow. That's some pretty expensive pizza. I have to confess that I find myself in the "I want to try it" group, as opposed to the "that's outrageous, I'd never go there" group. But I sure wouldn't be getting it for lunch every day at that price...

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Money Doesn't Motivate People to Lose Weight?

An interesting tidbit from the NY Times:

Behavior: Money Not a Motivator in Losing Weight

Researchers studied 2,407 overweight and obese people enrolled in weight-loss schemes at their jobs. Participants were divided into three groups. The first received $60 for keeping a 5 percent weight loss for a year. The second agreed to pay about $100; the money would be returned if they lost 5 percent of their weight, and they would get bonuses for losing more. The third, a control group, was offered only $20, a reward for staying in the program for a year.

The study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that money had very little effect. The group that was offered $60 lost an average of just 1.4 pounds, while the controls lost 1.8. Those who made the $100 deposit dropped an average of 1.9 pounds more than the controls, but, the authors write, people motivated enough to risk their own money would most likely have lost weight with any program.
The article points out that the study had some limitations that make it far from conclusive. First of all, the amounts of money in the study were quite small, probably not enough to seriously motivate anyone. But it's not exactly practical to try studying the effect of a million dollar bonus for dieting! Also, I believe there have been other studies that have shown that when you pay people to achieve something, it doesn't always help encourage that behavior-- it's as if it obscures the fact that the goal is worth striving for on its own merits.

But it's an interesting question-- losing weight is a very difficult thing for many people to do. I'd like to think I would have the discipline to achieve a goal like weight loss, or quitting smoking, etc. in order to win a large sum of money, but who knows, maybe I'd blow it! How about you? What amount of money would motivate you to stick with a diet and exercise plan and lose weight?

Monday, July 06, 2009

Is Eye Candy Always Expensive?

This post from The World of Wealth reminded me of something I'd been trying to write about a few months ago. First, an excerpt from MEG's post:

It's been over a month since I joined my new upscale gym, and I have never looked back!

It costs over $130 a month (compared to the $44 a month I used to pay for a regular gym), but I have not had even a twinge of buyer's remorse.....

Going to the gym makes me feel strong, healthy, and energetic, but this one in particular - like any upscale spa or designer boutique - also makes me feel pampered, composed, and worthy.

Also, there is plenty of good eye-candy!

That last line was the kicker for me (emphasis mine). The post I'd been working on several months ago was inspired by two lunches I had at places near my office, one being a typical NYC pizza joint, and the other an upscale, expensive, gourmet Italian cafe. I never got very far writing it, but the tentative title was "Where Do the Beautiful People Eat Lunch," because it seemed to me that the more expensive the lunch spot, the more attractive the clientele was, which seems to have been MEG's observation about gyms as well. Are expensive places really frequented by cuter customers? How might that work in terms of cause and effect, or mere correlation?

There's some logic to thinking people are more likely to be attractive if they can afford upscale lunches and gyms-- money can't create good looks, but it can certainly help enhance an otherwise average appearance. People of a higher socio-economic status are also more likely to be healthier and less overweight, which can improve one's looks. And in the case of restaurants, people who eat pizza for lunch every day might indeed be less healthy than those consuming organic salads from the gourmet place.

Then there's the question of who can afford the more expensive places: I'm sure I've read of plenty of studies showing that attractive people are more likely to be hired for jobs, and paid better. I can't cite any of those studies now, but I think this is something most of us would instinctively believe is true, whether or not it should be!

And there are psychological reasons-- if people value the things that differentiate upscale places from their less expensive counterparts, they are also more likely to prioritize appearance and wear the sorts of clothes or jewelry that might be judged fashionable or attractive by others. And from the perspective of the beholder, perhaps we are predisposed to find people more attractive because we think they have money.

Of course, all of this is very subjective-- everyone has different definitions of what is attractive in the first place. If your aesthetic tends more towards artsy thrift-store skinny-hipster chic, you might not find much eye candy at any gym, at least not in the weight room!

Where do you find your eye candy? Does it have anything to do with money?

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Weekend With the Parents

It was a couple of weeks ago now that I went to visit my parents. It had been a couple of months since I was there, which seemed okay since my father's health has been relatively good, but I was getting anxious about visiting again so I'd have a chance to check on my parents' finances! I'd been hearing lots of stories about all the things my mother was trying to get done around the house, and was starting to worry about how much money she was burning through.

You may wonder why my mother would be doing all this. She's a full-time caregiver to an invalid husband, so where does she find the energy to deal with hiring people to paint the house, pull out trees and shrubs, replace the windows, and put up a new fence? She also had people giving her estimates for repaving the driveway, putting a new roof on the porch, and gutting the one full bathroom in the house. She did acknowledge that this last item was crazy to do given my father's health situation-- which is why she was also getting an estimate on expanding the downstairs half-bathroom into the garage and adding a shower stall.

My mother is just manic when it comes to home improvements and decorating-- it's a bit scary. My father has always checked her impulses to do these things, but now he doesn't have the energy. My mom was also quite inspired by our estate planning conversations with the lawyer several months ago. He said that if my father was about to go into a nursing home, it would be a good idea for us to spend down some assets so he'd be eligible for Medicaid sooner, and that putting money into improving the value of the house was a good way to do that-- music to my mom's ears!

After spending some time going over all my mother's credit card receipts, I had to tell her to put the brakes on any further projects. At the rate she's burning through money, my parents will be broke within 10 years, and this is not even counting major expenses for the house, or funerals, or potential costs like a nursing home. My mom is only 65, so this is a major problem.

When my father first got sick almost a year ago, I went through all their accounts and bills and put together a budget that I thought would allow them to live very comfortably, without changing any of their habits. I was happy to see that the budget would stretch their savings out to last over 20 years. I knew they'd have to be careful about major expenses, but I also knew that some of their expenses would decrease as they got older, so I wasn't too worried. But unfortunately, when I made that budget, I made two major errors. First, I didn't account for the fact that my mother hadn't actually been living with my father for almost a year. I thought it would be enough to take his grocery spending and more than double it. I might even have tripled it, just to be safe. This came to a budget of $775. But now that my mother's back, her actual spending on groceries tends to be more like $1500 a month!

To be fair, she doesn't only buy groceries at the supermarket-- she buys cleaning supplies, paper products, and sometimes plants and cosmetics. But still, it just boggled my mind that she could spend that much, especially since my dad was on chemo for most of the past 6 months and didn't have much of an appetite. I'm still a bit baffled-- she's not eating caviar and steak all the time, and most of her spending is at Stop and Shop, not Whole Foods. I think she just somehow consumes a lot.

The other budget item I got wrong was medicine. Although my dad has supplemental insurance and a prescription plan that gives him better coverage than Medicare, he has so many ailments and takes so many medicines that his co-pays seem to be coming to over $300 a month. I had budgeted about $50 a month, which I should have known was way too low.

When I re-ran all my budget numbers, I felt almost nauseous. It was the same kind of stress I felt when I learned several years ago that my mother had run up $50,000 in credit card debt. I thought since then that she had learned a lesson, and that my openness about the family finances would have cleared up her illusions about there being unlimited funds for her to spend. And in a way, she is being more conscientious-- she's spending money on the house because she thinks the lawyer told her she should. And as far as the rest of the budget went, the problem is that her idea of normal and necessary spending is just different from mine. But it was just extremely frightening to me to feel like my family was speeding towards a financial disaster. I was so wound up and frustrated one night, I ended up just crying in Sweetie's arms.

The next day, I sat my mom down for a talk. I tried to include my dad, as he sometimes seems to feel insulted when he's left out of things, but he walked away halfway through the talk, as if he just couldn't handle being involved. My mother had been jokingly referring to me as "her accountant" and telling the contractors who gave her estimates that she had to "get permission from her bookkeeper" but I tried not to get too dictatorial with her. I told her that I'd looked at over 6 months of her actual expenses and that they were much higher than the budget I'd originally done. I said she could go ahead with having the outside of the house painted, which would have been done already if not for the rain, but that I wanted her to put a total stop on any further household improvements for 6 months, and try to see if she could cut back some areas of her spending, emphasizing that it was her money and her choice in how to spend it, but that once it was gone, there would be no bailout available to her. She could make some moderate changes now, or she'd have to make drastic changes later. I explained that there was not much buffer for emergencies and that the only other source of income she'd have would be a reverse mortgage, which still wouldn't cover her spending at her present level. She didn't seem too happy about it, but asked for a printed out copy of the budget and said she wasn't sure how she could cut back but that she'd try.

I thought I'd gotten through to her but a couple of days later when I was back in New York, she called me at work and then said "you know, I'm still going to just go ahead and have the driveway repaved, it's only a couple thousand dollars." I just lost it. "No, Mom, do NOT repave the driveway. The driveway is fine. This does NOT add value to the house. You can NOT afford it. Would you rather eat for a couple of months or have a smoother driveway?" I was probably a little too harsh and she got off the phone in a bit of a huff but I think sometimes I have to be harsh to get through to her.

I talked to my sister ZZ a little while later and she said "Mom's kind of depressed. She's freaking out about the budget stuff." ZZ also can't get her head around the immense amount spent on groceries, but she did have one good idea for cutting some money out of the budget. My parents spend several thousand dollars a year to have someone do their landscaping and shovel in the winter. ZZ pointed out that she and her husband could just visit more often to mow the lawn in the summer, at least, and that they could probably pay some neighborhood kid much less to help shovel in the winter. We'll see how this works out. I hadn't originally thought the landscaping was something to be cut because I was focused on not causing my parents any extra stress or discomfort, but I need to think more creatively about it. We'll all be trying to find ways to balance their budget over the next few months... we'll see how it goes.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Starbucks Overcharged People for Espresso

Just saw this little news tidbit:

A Double Charge for a Double Espresso

Because of a computer glitch, Starbucks accidentally charged about 1 million customers double for their coffee purchases on May 22 and part of May 23.

This revealed two things: Starbucks needs to maintain its computer systems better, and way too many people are using debit and credit cards to make tiny purchases.

The glitch occurred in the United States and Canada. Starbucks is working to reimburse all overcharged customers.

The problem was made much worse by the fact that receipts showed that the proper amount had been charged. Consumers saw the error, if they saw it at all, only when they looked at their statements after the transactions were processed. Starbucks is crediting the accounts.

But, really, people: I know Starbucks can be pricey, but it's not that pricey. You don't carry enough cash with you to pay for a cup of coffee?

Well, I'm sure David Bach ("The Latte Factor ™") will have a field day with this! But why the hating on credit cards?? Coffee is one of the few things I actually do pay cash for, but if I wasn't always hurrying in the morning, I'd probably use a credit card too!

More details on the Starbucks snafu available at MSNBC.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Economics of Opening a Bar in New York

This was in New York Magazine a couple of weeks ago and I found it interesting:


So you want to open a bar, huh? A profitable bar? We asked four experts to run the numbers on a make- believe, 1,000-square-foot neighborhood pub in the East Village.

Start-Up Costs
Rent for six months while waiting on a liquor license: $49,800 (assuming $8,300 a month)
Liquor license and fees: $9,000
Equipment, construction, and demolition: $60,000
Signage: $1,000
Décor and glassware: $21,000
Training for six employees: $858
Initial liquor order: $6,000 (45 percent on beer, 40 percent on liquor, 5 percent on wine, 10 percent on mixers)
Sound system: $1,000
Emergency funds: $50,000
Misc.: $2,000
TOTAL . . . . . . . $200,658

Ongoing Monthly Costs
Rent: $8,300
Booze: $10,000
Insurance: $500
Misc.: $1,900
Staff pay: $1,720 (assuming 100 hours a week at $4.30 an hour)
Utilities: $1,320
Taxes and fees: $1,000
TOTAL . . . . . . . . $24,740

The Markups
Draft beer: $3.59 a pint
Bottled beer: $3.85 a bottle
Well liquor: $4.65 a pour
Top-shelf liquor: $3.35 a pour
Wine: $3.48 a glass

Break-Even Point
Amount you’d have to gross in 18 months before you start turning a profit: $645,978 (monthly expenses of $24,740 for 18 months, or $445,320, plus start-up costs of $200,658)
Number of customers required per night to reach $645,978 in 18 months (assuming $5 per average drink and 1.5 drinks per person): 160

I was surprised at that very last assumption, that the average drink is only $5 and the average customer only has 1.5 drinks. It seems like drinks tend to be more expensive than that, and I would have thought more customers tend to have multiple drinks... but maybe I'm just a biased high-end lush! Either way, opening a bar is definitely one entrepreneurial effort I will never undertake!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

When To Buy Organic

Here's a helpful tip from the April issue of Cooking Light magazine. As part of an article about organic produce, they tell you which non-organic fruits and vegetables are more likely to contain pesticides so you can buy only the organic options that are worth the extra money:

Best produce to buy organic:
Bell peppers

Skip organic and save money:
They also recommend these other ways to save: buying directly from a local farm or farmer's market, or buying private-label organic products at supermarkets like Safeway, Stop & Shop, Kroger, Publix, Wal-Mart, and Whole Foods, all of which offer their own organic food lines.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Snicker Shock

I had a little candy attack yesterday when I bought my lunch at the deli. Most times, I am able to resist these temptations, but lately I've been building up a real craving! And maybe PMS tipped me over the edge or something, I don't know...

Anyway, I almost bought a Snickers, as their stupid advertising campaign that's everywhere lately has been effective in actually making me want a Snickers even though it annoys me to no end. But instead of the Snickers, I ended up buying one of those Ritter Sport bars that are becoming more and more common here. They make one with a sort of butter cookie interior that reminds me of my favorite Choco Leibniz cookies. I'd bought a mini-sized one before, but today I decided to go for the full-size bar. But when it was rung up, I was shocked that it cost $4.

That is a lot more then a Snickers would have cost-- maybe 4 times as much? The Ritter bar was maybe only 50% more in weight or volume. And it didn't end up being 50% more yummy-- I thought it would just be chocolate and cookie, but there turned out to be a cocoa cream in there too that made it feel a bit gloppy in the mouth.

Oh well-- I won't be spending that $4 ever again...

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Money for Candy

Apparently sugar can sweeten even the sour taste of insolvency: When Economy Sours, Tootsie Rolls Soothe Souls

At the Candy Store in San Francisco, the owner, Diane Campbell, has tripled her orders for nostalgic candies like Necco Wafers and Mallo Cups in recent months. Many of her customers tell her that even though they are living on less, they’re setting aside cash for candy.

“They put candy in their actual budget,” she said.

Of my approximately $600 a month food budget, very little ever goes to candy. But I confess that I've been raiding a candy bowl in the office a little more frequently these days! How much do you budget for candy?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

My Dinner with Richard

I had a nice meal last night with a friend who I'll call Richard. He owns a small business which has been very successful in the last few years, catering to a very wealthy clientele. Richard himself seems pretty wealthy these days, and it's gotten to the point where arranging to have dinner with him makes me a little anxious, as he sometimes suggests rather expensive restaurants!

It's not always a problem-- sometimes we just order cheap Indian food and eat at his apartment. But last night we went to a place where the entrees ranged from about $27-40, and Richard ordered an $18 appetizer. He also picked the wine without my seeing the list, and when I did the math in my head afterward, I think it must have been between $40-50 for the bottle. And who knows, maybe that was the cheapest bottle! The total bill with tip ended up being about $80 per person-- you could certainly do far worse in New York, and the meal really was very good, but I couldn't help thinking it was the kind of thing I should only be doing for a special occasion, not just a routine dinner with friends.

The other thing about the dinner that made me laugh was that just before we were about to leave, Richard's eyes suddenly opened wide as he was looking behind the other friend who was sitting next to me. "Don't look, don't turn around!" he said. At first I thought, ooh, what celebrity is sitting behind us at this swanky place... but there was only a wall behind us-- a wall upon which a giant cockroach was crawling! I reached over and swatted it away with a napkin and an attentive waiter immediately stomped on it with a big crunch. And that is one of the great truths of life in NYC-- no amount of money will ever make you totally immune to cockroach encounters!

Friday, February 06, 2009

Dieting For Dollars

Financial incentives may be an effective way to help people lose weight, according to this New York Times article: Dieting? Put Your Money Where Your Fat Is.

Most diet bettors agreed that while losing weight was the ultimate goal, winning the bet — and pocketing the winnings — soon became the main reason they stuck to their diets.

“I wanted to win, and I blew everyone away,” said Christopher Fallon, 36, a medical sales representative from West Orange, N.J. Mr. Fallon participated in a three-month diet bet with nine other colleagues, everyone contributing $100 to a winner-take-all pool. At a sales meeting a few weeks before the end of the bet, Mr. Fallon’s fellow bettors realized that he was way ahead.

“When I saw Chris at the gym at 6 a.m. looking skeletal, I knew it was over for me,” said one colleague, Carolyn Kramaritsch.

Mr. Fallon admitted that he enjoyed vanquishing his peers even more than losing the pounds. “I didn’t even need to lose much weight,” he said, “but when I saw everyone else, I thought, ‘I just won $900!’ ”

Sounds like a win-win situation... unless people start cheating with dangerous weight-loss drugs, just so they'll get the money!

But it seems to me that what would REALLY work well is exactly the opposite: let's say you could magically lose a pound for every $1,000 you put in a savings account. Something tells me a lot of Americans would suddenly have much bigger nest eggs!

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Financial Goals for 2009

I've been trying to come up with some goals and resolutions for 2009 and I'm having a hard time! Everything is so uncertain right now, it seems useless to set a net worth goal. I'm trying to just focus on little things I can control, so here are a few ideas:

  • Get off all those stupid email lists
I've been aggressively tackling this already and it makes me feel good! I have drastically cut down the mailing lists I'm on. This only indirectly affects my finances-- sometimes I'd open one of those emails and click through to an online retailer and buy something, and now I'll be less likely to do that. Also, it was just a time-waster, and time is money!

  • Cut down on dining expenses
After looking at all my food spending details, I'd like to just scale back somewhat on my lunches, dinners, and liquor, for health and financial reasons. I think a good goal would be to cut those expenses by at least 10%.

  • Increase savings
This should be easy to do, as I have no intention of spending thousands of dollars on travel this year, and my other expenses tend to be fairly consistent.

  • Pay extra towards mortgage
I'd like to make at least an extra payment or two, going towards the principal of my mortgage. I view this a nice conservative investment. I'm not sure refinancing would be worthwhile for me right now, as I already have a decent rate, but I will keep an eye on interest rates to see if that changes.

  • Rebalance my investment portfolio
My current portfolio balance isn't all that out of whack with what it should be for a person of my age, but there are a few mutual funds in there that I think are dogs. I'm in the hole right now no matter what, and the question is whether I have the best investments to help me climb out whenever the market recovers.

  • Increase my income?
I already know I won't be getting a raise this year, and if I get a bonus, I'm sure it will be small. I also don't think the current climate is one in which I want to be jumping from one company to another. I don't think there is any opportunity for a promotion at my current company right now. So that leaves other sources of income. I could try to increase the advertising on this site (and drop the pledge to donate all proceeds to charity). I also have an idea for another website I could start, but I can't imagine where I'd find the time to do it! Taking on a 2nd job also doesn't seem feasible. (Of course I could do it in an emergency, but right now I'm prioritizing my sanity!) So all in all, I don't think I'll focus too much on this goal.

  • Roth IRA contribution
I actually knocked this one off my list the other day. I made my $5,000 contribution for 2008 and put it in a Vanguard bond fund. I'm toying with whether to also make my 2009 contribution now-- I will probably put off that decision until after I find out about my bonus, as I don't want to tie up too much cash. Gotta have some liquid funds in case of emergency, now more than ever!

What are your goals for 2009?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Details on the Food Budget

As other readers have, SingleMa expressed some shock as to how a single woman could manage to spend over $8,000 a year on food, quite consistently. So I dumped some Quicken data into a spreadsheet so I could look at it differently:

For coffee/bagels/yogurt etc. bought at delis, I had 176 transactions totaling $640, an average of $3.64 per breakfast.

For soup/salads/sandwiches/sushi etc. bought at delis, I had 178 transactions totaling $1,241, an average of $6.97. (I pretty much never eat a sit-down restaurant lunch unless I'm expensing it for work.)

For Indian/Chinese/Mexican/Thai/Pizza takeout dinners, I had 26 transactions totaling $622, an average of $23.91.*

For sit-down restaurant dinners, which always include a couple of alcoholic drinks, I had 58 transactions totaling $2,976, an average of $51.30.*

As noted above, drinks with meals at restaurants are counted under "dinner," not "liquor."
For purchases of wine at liquor stores, I had 16 transactions totaling $1,078, an average of $67.39. I stock up by the case at cheap liquor stores outside the city whenever possible, but sometimes buy just one or two bottles at a time.*

For drinks at bars, I had 5 transactions totaling $63, an average of $12.60. I rarely go out to just drink without a meal.

I'm dividing this one into two categories, "supermarket," and "upscale supermarket." The Supermarket category can include cleaning supplies, but otherwise is pretty basic groceries. The Upscale category is for places like WholeFoods and Garden of Eden, a gourmet chain in NYC. I'm usually just buying basic items like meat, fish, fruit and vegetables at these places, but they tend to be more expensive, and every once in a while I will also get a prepared food item, so I think it's worth separating this out as luxury grocery shopping. Either way, I tend to buy groceries a couple times a week or more-- I don't stock up for very long periods of time as it always seems to lead to more waste than it's worth. Lately I've also been trying to find some healthy frozen meals for nights when I get home from work late-- Trader Joe's has some inexpensive options, but you have to be careful on the fat content.

For supermarkets, I had 96 transactions totaling $1,158, an average of $12.06.*

For upscale supermarkets, I had 15 transactions totaling $204, an average of $13.59.*

There wasn't much other-- just $2.19 for 2 instances of buying candy bars, and $35 for lunch at some wine bar that seems to be an error, probably belonging under business expenses.

*For all the dinner, grocery and liquor items, it should be kept in mind that about 3 or 4 nights a week, I'm with the sweetie and we're either splitting or alternating picking up the check, so sometimes the per-transaction amount may seem high. We eat out sometimes, but also tend to stay in and cook at least 2 nights a week, so grocery bills are also somewhat shared.

So what does this all show? Obviously it's those restaurant dinners that are a killer. I don't go to extremely high-priced restaurants, but these days, anything that is a cut above take-out runs you between $15-20 for most entrees, and the markup on alcohol is deadly, about 4X what it costs to buy a bottle at a wine shop. But dinners out are also a fun, social way to enjoy food and try things I could never make myself-- there's more to it than just getting my daily required intake of nutrients. And when you average everything out, I am only getting take-out and restaurant dinners less than 2 nights a week. I could also save a lot of money by bringing my lunch to work more often, but there is definitely a convenience factor involved in buying it at a deli. I buy breakfast and lunch on about 75% of my work days, so I could definitely do better there. Part of my strategy is to try to cook more dinners that I can eat as leftovers for lunch the next day.

All in all, though I do have a somewhat luxurious level of dining expenditure, my food budget is probably lower than many New Yorkers', as a percentage of my overall income, at least. So many people here just don't cook at all, even if they're on tight budgets. But it's no excuse to just say "oh, it's the New York lifestyle." Yes, we live in tiny apartments where it's hard to have dinner parties, and yes, we're surrounded by a wealth of restaurants offering some of the best food in the world. But most of us still have perfectly usable kitchens and plenty of sources for cheap yet interesting groceries, including lots of ethnic ingredients that are hard to find elsewhere. I like to allow myself to spend a little extra money on food that is enjoyable, relatively healthy, and part of a fun experience with friends. But I'm conscious of this spending and strive to lower it, rather than just taking it for granted.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

In Praise of Tiny Kitchens

Hooray for Mark Bittman, who reminds us that you don't need a gigantic, expensive kitchen to cook well.

So Your Kitchen is Tiny. So What? (NY Times 12/13)

My own kitchen, which is what many New Yorkers would consider halfway decent (and is much like the one my mother cooked in when I was growing up), is about 7 feet long and 6 feet wide. It has a moderate-size refrigerator, what was once considered a full-size stove (as opposed to the compact “apartment-size” stove or the monsters recently gaining popularity), annoyingly little counter and storage space (yes, I sometimes must remove the stored pots and pans before using the oven) and even a small dishwasher.

I complain, but I make do. And it’s here where I develop and test most of the recipes for my cookbooks and articles. So imagine my surprise when I posted a picture of my kitchen on my blog a few weeks ago and received a flood of e-mail messages from readers who wondered how someone could write large and evidently useful cookbooks, even a weekly column for The Times, while suffering such deprivation. (In the middle of all this, a young journalist called and asked what, after all, I considered essential in a modern kitchen? “A stove, a sink, a refrigerator, some pots and pans, a knife and some serving spoons,” I answered. “All else is optional.”)

Sounds very similar to my kitchen set-up. In my old studio apartment, I had an even smaller kitchen, probably about 5x5'. I will never come anywhere close to Mark Bittman in terms of cooking skill, but I totally agree that it is very possible to cook good meals with minimal equipment and space. I can see why people like to spend money on kitchens-- gadgets can be fun and labor-saving, and if you spend a lot of time cooking, a nice kitchen will be more pleasant.
I know someone who has gorgeous cabinets in her kitchen, very high-end-- she has a lovely built-in spice rack and other customized storage spaces, and everything feels heavy and solid. You can tell it's good quality woodwork that will last way longer than the cheap cabinets at my place. But when it comes to the actual experience of preparing meals, there's no real difference between my kitchen and hers, and hers must have cost a heck of a lot more.