Monday, March 5, 2012

1920s, Fords & the American Consumer

I was interested to read that in 1914 Ford implemented a new pay for his factory workers: $5 a day. At the time that was unheard of. This was unskilled labor, and about three times the going rate for an unskilled factory worker. But Ford wanted his workers to be able to afford the cars they were helping to build.

In 1914 the entry level Ford car went for about $550 for a Touring. That meant about 110 days of the unskilled factory worker's pay would cover a Ford vehicle (of course they had installment plans just like we do). Today Ford's new employees make about $14 an hour. That'd be about 147 days to buy a new Ford Focus. Then again, I don't suppose workers in 1914 had too much in the way of used car options.

By the end of the 1920s 1 out of every 5 Americans owned a car. Now we average more than 2 cars per household. Of course the 1920s also experienced unemployment under 5% for the most of the decade. The 1920s also saw the introduction of many new debt and credit plans for the American consumer who began financing things that would previously have been unheard of.

(Photo via wwarby)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Resumes: Not hip but a good start

I know writing resumes and using job boards is not the cool thing to do these days. Pretty much any person giving you job advice in this "new economy" will tell you to network, network, network. But I'm actually a little tired of this advice. Ramit Sethi of I Will Teach You to be Rich fame was on one of my favorite podcasts this last weekend, Marketplace Money. Sethi was clarifying some comments he made on the week previous about it being essentially a waste of time to send out a bunch of resumes:

Now, let's take Person B. They say, "You know what, for the first two weeks I'm gonna do a little bit of homework. I'm gonna really figure out what company I want, what job title I want. I'm gonna do a little networking. I'm gonna take some people out for coffee for informational interviews." And by the time I send out my first 10 resumes, they're going to be highly targeted. They're gonna use the language that the hiring manager himself or herself uses. And I'm going to have an inside connection to that job. So, this person who sent out 10 resumes, odds are they have a better chance of getting a job than the 80 resume submitter.

I agree with Sethi in principle. But I do think a resume is a good way of organizing your own life's bullet points. It's also very necessary as social lubricant.

Over at Ask a Manager this last week many of the commenters focused on what they felt was the scam of job sites. I feel like it's worth pointing out that's how I got hired at my current company. I found the job on one of the major online job boards (Monster, CareerBuilder). I can't remember if I applied there or I went to the company web site, but I did send my resume into a black hole, was called later for an interview, and was eventually chosen for the job. Granted this was pre-recession, but honestly the job market was not fantastic at this particular time either.

So will networking and targeting your resume probably give you a better chance at getting a job? Of course. But sometimes you just don't know anyone. Sometimes you are a fresh college graduate coming from a family background where your family members do not have professional connections. There's also no way that I as a young college graduate could have networked my way to my first professional job. I just did not have the confidence for it or the experience to even talk with folks. So I don't blame anyone for going the 100 resume submission route. We just hired someone this week and he was not a referral. We got his resume in a bin with thousands of others and now he has a job. Turns out it's a small world and he knew quite a few people in my department, but that's not what got him on our radar to begin with.

Now I like to help people. If I know a qualified person I would love to get them a job at my organization. But if you know my beefs with folks trying to network with me than it won't surprise you that very little initiative on your part will not inspire me to help you. If you ask me about jobs, and I know folks in the department you would be a perfect fit for, I am going to need a copy of your resume. It's awkward to contact someone with the intro, "I worked with Joe on a project and he is very intelligent and capable. I would recommend his work and if you are hiring suggest you consider him." The hiring manager if they are so inspired by my introduction is going to turn around say, "great, send me his resume." Will he look at it for more than 5 seconds? Probably not. But I need it to get things started. So definitely network with me and ask me about what you might want to do or who I know who you can talk to. But please don't neglect the resume.

(Photo via El Caganer)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Unemployment and an Aging Population

If you look at the unemployment by age graph I posted yesterday you'll see a trend. The younger you are the higher your unemployment rate. But, I wondered, was this what was really happening? Was it possible people were dropping out of the workforce? I looked at two age groups in particular: 45-54 and 55 and older and their respective populations and employment to population ratio.
The 45-54 graph paints a pretty obvious picture of what we might expect to see. After the recession the employment ratio drops significantly. Fewer people in this prime working group have jobs. The 55 and older is a little more tricky. They naturally have a much lower employment ratio since many are post retirement.

Still, it's interesting to see the aging demographics as the 45-54 population growth peaks in about late 2009 and that starts dropping a little. The 55 and older demographic is steadily growing. But looking at these two graphs doesn't tell you whether the unemployment rate is only dropping because people are dropping out of the workforce. To see that you'd want to compare the employment to population ratio with the unemployment rate.
Again it's expected that the employment to population ratio would take a dip in 2009 and the unemployment rate climb significantly. But we can see in late 2011 as the unemployment rate is dropping that the employment to population ratio is staying pretty steady. Let's zoom in...
Unemployment going gradually down and the employment to population rising a bit in December 2011 and January 2012. That would seem to dispel the idea of people dropping out of the labor force. In fact given the climb in the ratio it would seem to imply the opposite, that more people are getting back into the workforce.

Why don't the two follow each other in an obvious way? In October 2010 there's a significant drop in the employment to population ratio but the unemployment rate stays mostly flat. I'm guessing that's because a lot of people dropped out of the workforce here, gave up, stopped looking for jobs, etc. So the unemployment rate did not go up significantly (though did bump up a little).

None of these graphs will really be encouraging though until we can see an obvious month over month trend. Overall unemployment peaked for most age groups around late 2010. But it didn't start immediately getting better after that. Those 55 and older have fared significantly better than their younger colleagues but that doesn't mean age discrimination isn't still out there. Older works might be having a problem that they are part of a very large and growing population demographic so while they are more employable than younger people with better experience they also have to compete with many other folks their age who also have great experience. What do you think, do these graphs capture a slightly improving job market or is there more at play here?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Young People & Job Hunting

There's were a couple of interesting posts up this weekend within a day of each other from two folks in their 20s offering advice for other, fellow young job seekers.

First there's 4 Ways to Defeat Job Search Desperation at the Daily Muse by Elise Marraro. Then over at 20s Finances Mrs. 20's writes 6 Tips for Young Job Applicants.

Both suggest expanding your search to more jobs or areas and both suggest not getting down on yourself if you've been searching for a while. For there is a slight difference in tone where Marrarro suggests you be "realistic" but "don't settle" as well as warns you to "use your time wisely". Mrs. 20's suggests applying for temporary jobs, moving to where you want the job,and  getting used to the idea you won't get your dream job.

I think Mrs. 20's tips are more likely to land someone a job. Not settling is such an arbitrary frame of mind anyways. Marraro talks about how one of the places she went to she realized would be "soul crushing". I think perhaps young college grads place too much emphasis on lofty goals of the organizations they want to work for. It's okay to work somewhere "soul crushing" for a few years until you get some experience under your belt. The idea that you are too good morally or otherwise for the companies you are checking out is not going to help you succeed in interviews or get a job. Of course if your primary goal is to change the world and you can live at your parents' house for the next 15 years than by all means be picky. But if you want a job and to gain some experience don't be afraid to give the corporate monoliths a shot: they may be less soul crushing than you thought they were with good employees and good learning experiences for you as a young professional.

(Photo via Jans Canon)

Unemployment: Young & Old

Just a sneak peek on some data I am working on this week. Looking at unemployment across various age groups.

This is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (seasonally adjusted) unemployment rate for each month for some select age groups since 2007. Why 2007? Well I wanted to have a good idea of where we were before the recession and where we are now. I don't think it's a secret younger people have a higher rate of unemployment. But it's interesting how it takes until age 35 for the ages to start nearing each other in unemployment rates. Could that have something to do with the way the government counts the unemployment rate or is it because younger, less experienced workers genuinely have a harder time finding employment? I plan to see if I can illuminate that a bit this week.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Leadership Qualities

I was listening to the first of Dave Ramsey's Entreleadership podcasts (h/t to Anna Runyan at Classy Career Girl for introducing me to this resource). There's a lot interesting stuff packed into the first podcast but one thing is of particular interest to me. They have an audio clip of Ramsey doing the introductory bit of his leadership training where he asks everyone to first think of a great leader they know (either personally or maybe a famous one they revere). The sort of ideal leader. I'll admit, my brain couldn't work fast enough to think of anyone at this point. And I had to admit to myself that of the three or four people up in my chain of command none of them would make the list of the one leader whom I have great respect for. Neither could the four or five previous bosses I have had. I'll get back to that in a minute.

So he says then to write down in one word character qualities what you would attribute to this great leader. Then he gets some suggestions from the audience. The first one (inspirational) was also the first one that came to my mind. And maybe if I had to pick my favorite that would be it. Ramsey goes on to elaborate on this quality a bit, that being an inspirational leader is both about inspiring and about enabling your team (he doesn't like the word employees) to be successful. But one other word he talks about quite a bit made me stop and think. Humble.

I think in Ramsey's mind or at least what he is trying and project is that a great leader is humble. Perhaps that there is some sort of correlation between great leadership and humility.
Again I had to think back to the folks who supervise me and to people I have worked for in the past. Seems to me the higher I get from my boss to the top guy the less humble folks really are. My direct boss is probably the most humble. And yet I would also characterize him as the least inspiring. Higher up the food chain is the person who I think best exemplifies being inspirational and enabling those below him to succeed. Yet he would be one of the least humble people I know. Does humility really make one a great leader?

I don't mean to necessarily disagree with Ramsey. I suspect he knows a fair bit more about being a leader and about communication and teaching than I do. But humility either does not directly correlate with good leadership, or possibly there is something in the corporate world that does not reward leaders who are humble. The Bing dictionary gives "arrogance" as an antonym to humility. I could see some of the folks above me arguing that it is not so much arrogance that is required, but confidence. However, what is the thin line between confidence and arrogance? Can one really be recognized and promoted without a certain level of arrogance?

And to that end, what does it say about me that I simply can not respect any of these individuals as being great leaders. I respect them as individuals certainly. Many of them have technical skills that far outweigh mine. All of them seem to be much better at being politically savvy than I am. They know when to speak up and when to stay silent and these are things I am still figuring out. But I can't really think of any of them as being great leaders. The one who comes closest is also the one who I would describe as the most arrogant. But really, if I can not respect any of them as leaders doesn't that they say something about me? That certainly must mean that I, too, have an overabundance of hubris and a lack of humility. I'm not sure I like this realization or that I know how to deal with it. But it gives me something to think about and work on at least. I think no matter how arrogant anyone is it is universal to want to improve and this is just one of many things I should stay conscious of.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Wrapping up the latest economic data

There's a lot of jobs, unemployment and economic data that gets released daily and weekly. Here's a quick look at some bits that interested me.

Mass layoffs included 145,648 Americans laid off in December 2011. An average of about 100 people laid off in each case. The vast majority of layoffs in 2011 affected temporary workers but food service workers and school transportation were also heavily hit.

Wages and salaries increased by 1.6% in the private sector in the year 2011. This compares to a 1.8% increase in 2010. In the public sector the wage increase was also 1.8% in 2010 but only 1.3% in 2011.

Number of employed persons is predicted to increase by 14.3% between 2010 and 2020. Industries with the fastest predicted increase are healthcare and construction. This indicates an average yearly employment increase of 0.7% compared to 1.3% in the previous decade. And another interesting fact, the baby boom generation will all be 55 and older by 2020. Manufacturing and federal government employment are predicted to take the biggest hits in employment.

Initial unemployment claims for the week ending in January 28th were 367,000. That's down 12,000 from the week before.

Productivity was up 0.7% in the fourth quarter of 2011. That's a combination of an increase in hours worked as well as output per individual.

Unemployment rate drops to 8.3% at the end of January 2012 with (nonfarm) payroll employment increasing by 243,000 persons in January. Long term unemployed stayed mostly flat. People working part time who want full time employment but are unable to find it also remained mostly the same. Professional services, accounting, engineering, food services, retail and health care all had strong gains in employment.

Average hourly wage at the end of January 2012 was about $19.62, approximately a 1.5% increase from the year before. Average weekly earnings were $663.

(1) Mass Layoffs Summary
(2) Employment Cost Index
(3) Employment Predictions 2010-2020 Summary
(4) Initial unemployment claims
(5) Productivity
(6) Employment Situation
(7) Average hourly and weekly earnings

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

February Challenge: Tracking Food Costs

I like 30 day challenges for many things: writing, exercising, eating. So here's a 30 day financial challenge (or less as February is a short month) I'm going to give a shot.

The idea here is that as I talked a little about before I'm expecting to drop down to a single income here in 2012. In preparation for that I've been doing a whole lot of things. But one of those is refining my budget, and especially as it pertains to one particular cost: food. Right now I eat out. A lot. Maybe not a lot for the typical American, but a lot for someone who's trying to pay off debt and save money.

So for January I had two food budget items: out to eat and groceries. Come single income days, my out to eat will be drastically reduced. And the grocery bill will have to take a bit of a hit too. But it will be all the harder since I won't have the out to eat money I'm spending now helping me stretch my grocery dollars. My future grocery spending needs to be about $400 to feed two people for all but one meal a week. So that's about $13 per day, or $6.50 per person per day.

This is not wholly unreasonable. Many folks don't spend anywhere near this. I do live in a higher cost of living area where (inexplicably) groceries seem to cost a little more, as does everything else. For January I just kept a grocery budget and we stuck with it just fine. But for February I'm challenging myself to break out my daily food costs. I'm going to look my grocery and figure out how much each item I ate that day cost me. Should help me to eliminate the unnecessarily expensive foods in favor of tasty but affordable options. Here's to cheaper eating!

(Photo from Shorts and Longs)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Dealing with Stress

Posting has been a little light lately. I'm not going to lie, I've been pretty stressed out with some work related stuff and some of my side projects. Like most of the human race, I am not particularly good at dealing with stress. This can really compound what's happening. Feeling too tired or frustrated to work out? Now you're even more stressed because you missed a workout, didn't get to relieve your anxiety that way, and feel guilty (or might be worried about weight gain).

Like many folks, I do tend to turn to food when I am stressed out. I don't have a problem of spending money when stressed out on crazy shopping trips or buying things I don't need. But I do tend to err towards fast food because it is quick and convenient. Eat too much of that and you won't be feeling good mentally or physically. What's a person to do? I'm no expert but here's what I try:

  1. Get that workout in. I'll feel better after and get the endorphin rush.
  2. Try to cook at home. Since I know fast food is a stress induced weakness, I need to be conscious about what I am doing and try to make the decision ahead of time to do the right thing.
  3. Get some sleep. This is easier said than done when you are lying awake with insomnia. But at least make sleep a priority.
  4. Review my situation. I track my finances, exercise, and a few other odds and ends. If finances are stressing you out it may seem counter intuitive to play close attention. But if I look at my spending spreadsheet I know that at least I am in control of monitoring it and being aware. That might include taking a look at my career plan or my resume too. Reassure myself of what I have control over.
  5. Relax and take time for you. When I am stressed I have a tendency to kind of hide within myself. My creativity really ebbs, I find it difficult to read or stick with any task for any length of time. I realized it's important to focus on what will relax me. Sit somewhere comfortable for a while, drink some coffee or tea. Not be afraid of just doing nothing for twenty minutes if that's all I'm capable of.
That's what works for me. In the end, as with anything, it's always important to do what works for you as an individual. There is no perfect answer, or if you keep looking for it it might just stress you out even further.

(Photo from diowel)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Let go of the financial guilt

There's something that can happen to you if you read a lot of personal finance blogs: you can start to feel incredibly inadequate. Whatever your goals may be, there's plenty of people out there who are doing it better. There's the person who's making thousands of dollars of their blog ads when you aren't even making ten dollars. There are people who are managing to save 40% or 50% of their income to retirement. Other folks have budgets so clean and no unnecessary expenses you marvel at their self control. And lastly you keep reading about the people taking European trips you really envy or maybe buying a home when you realize they are decades younger than you and you still don't own a home.

Well I'm giving you permission to let go of the guilt. You've set your budget. You're trying to pay off that debt or save up for that goal. Then you realize you forgot it was your niece's birthday this month so you have to buy her a gift. Then maybe you didn't pay a bill on time and now owe a late fee. Don't sweat it. Stuff happens unexpectedly. We all make mistakes. And none of us are superheroes.

If you've got your plan in place on how you are going to get to your goal (or even are just thinking about the early stages of your plan) you are so far ahead doing nothing. It's sort of like wondering whether marathoners look down on those who don't run but just walk. Of course not! By getting out there and walking you're doing better than people who aren't even trying. And making the effort to try means you're admitting you can't keep going on as you have been. That's sort of like admitting a little fault. Like maybe you really want to travel, but you haven't been saving a dime for it. Opening your new travel savings account and trying to figure out how you're going to save more money going forward is such a big step.

You can't get all caught up in the competition. Keeping up with the Jones's is what got us all into this mess to begin with. So don't make the same mistake with frugality or savings or retirement planning. Just do what you can, what you are personally capable of. And don't berate yourself so hard when you slip up. It's a journey not a multiple choice test. So let go of the guilt and take hold of taking some pride in the fact that you're moving forward.

(Photo from aLindquist)

Monday, January 23, 2012

My 2012 Financial Goals: First Look

It's time to put the personal in personal finance and talk about some of my goals for the coming year. 2012 is going to be a big year for me. 2011 was my highest earning year ever. 2012 is hopefully putting some of that money to work and then working towards some of my major goals.

A big deal for me in 2012 is I'll be going down to being a single income earning household. Having dual incomes is pretty nice. It gives you some amount of comfort and insurance against one of you losing their jobs. I will be the primary earner and my spouse is going back to school. So as many of you can guess, loss of income is only a part of this transition as is saving money for school.

Budget: I'll admit I've kept a "budget" and tracked spending for years. But it seems like I've only tracked spending. When we go over we just shrug our shoulders and move on. That wasn't going to work. We really needed to get used to getting by on less. So with about six months to prepare I started at a budget that was close to our normal spending and only a little bit more frugal. As we get closer to the end of the six months the budget will get more and more stripped. But we needed to practice. So January was a practice month and I'll report back on that some more in February to see how we did.

College Savings: I've had a 529 for several years now for my spouse but it's not very big. In 2011 I doubled my contributions to it from less than 1% if my income to about 2%. Still, I don't live in a state where there are strong tax benefits for a 529 so it's not my primary college savings vehicle. It now has about 4% of what I expect college will cost (assuming no scholarships or aid). I'm hoping to get that up to 7% by the end of the year, and about 12% by the time it's actually needed. One could argue that's almost nothing. But I think any little bit is better than nothing. And I do have other savings, but this can't be touched until college so it's a nice safe place to keep it in a very conservative 529 portfolio.

Debt: Last year we had to make a tough call on a car. Fix something that cost about what the car was worth, and risk it going out again while my spouse was not working. Or go ahead and buy a newer car while we still had time to pay it off. I started off with about $15,000 in car debt (ugh! I know!) In 4 months I've gotten that down to less than $10,000. I hope to use my tax refund to kick it down a little more. But this is the primary motivator for the budget subject above. I need to save a set amount every month to pay down the car. Technically it's a 3 year car loan at 0.99% interest and if I paid the car payment amount I could pay it off in another two years. But I don't have two years. And I don't want to carry around this debt with me much more.

Mortgage Debt: In 2011 I refinanced from a 6.25% interest rate to 4.5%. Saved myself a lot of money in my monthly bill. This year I plan to switch my home insurance (though I suspect savings will be minimal as both are discount insurers). But counter intuitively, I am putting my home on the back burner. I'll just be paying the minimum every month for the foreseeable future, or at least until my spouse is done with school. Other goals are more important at this time and paying down the home will become an issue again once we have two incomes or as my income continues to grow.

Retirement: This is tricky. I've been contributing to a 401k now for about 6 years with a 403b rollover from a previous employer. My spouse also has about the same. For most of that time we've been paying in 10%, paying way more than the match at either one of our places. In 2010 I started a Roth IRA but put far less than the limit in it each year. My workplace recently added a Roth 401k so I've moved most of my regular 401k contributions to the Roth 401k. It's also hard to see the Roth IRA as a priority with the looming debt and necessary college savings. So I intend to keep contributing to it, but again, probably less than the max. I'll still keep my overall 401k contribution at around 10% because that's an easier amount to deal with when it comes out of my paycheck before I get it. Unfortunately my spouse will no longer be contributing to their retirement in another six months so I'll be unintentionally slowing down my retirement contributions. And I need to think carefully about how this will impact my future, and how I will catch up later.

So there you have it, hope you enjoyed a peak into my very personal, personal finance! I'll keep updating with progress and my goals each month and challenges I'm dealing with as they happen. Would love to hear if you have any feedback on your personal situation or any suggestions for mine.

(Photo from Powi)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Both frugal and cute

In the whole year of 2011 I spent approximately $189 on my cat. That includes food, litter, any special treats that might have been purchased for her. I don't go over the top for the cat. Let's face it, she appreciates an empty cardboard box or a plastic bag more than a fancy cat toy. And most days she's satisfied to eat dried food. Only every now and then does she get wet food as a "treat" and turns out, comparatively, that's not very expensive either.

I think I've spent more in all my other categories: food, housing, insurance, savings, entertainment, utilities, gas and auto repairs. The cat remains, to date, my cheapest yearly expense. Probably get a lot more enjoyable hours spent with her as well than with certain things.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Say no to the boss

Hey, you! Yes, you! You're about to take on another project just because you're afraid to say no. I know how you feel. The economy's bad, unemployment's high, and one of the golden rules is to never say no to work and never say no to your boss. You're afraid. Maybe he'll be disappointed. Maybe he'll suggest you can't handle your current workload and that's a problem. Maybe (like some boss's I've had) he'll use scare tactics and indicate that more work is better than being out of job.

You don't have to be intimidated. Stop and think about it. They're entrusting you with this project for a reason. Your responsibilities and to-do pile is now higher than your door because, let's face it, you're awesome. I know you don't tell yourself that too often. You're still afraid. You know no matter how awesome you are it's not going to protect you from a layoff or your boss's disapproval.

But things are turning around and being a doormat is not how your boss got to be your boss. Remind your boss of the other top priorities you're working on and ask him or her where this fits in. If they say top priority, fine, let them know what other projects will slip as a result. They ask you to work late hours? Well most offices don't run on a single person. Chances are no matter how late you stay you're not going to be that much more productive. You need Jane over in IT to help get your project in this system and Bob in accounting to sign off on your numbers.

Also be sure that when you're taking on a project that's obviously a step up that your boss knows this too. Sometimes it just gets expected of us that we're moving on to the next level. Boss's use this to get you to do a lot of work ahead of time that's above your head. If you protest they can threaten that maybe that means you aren't interested in a promotion in the future. But you don't have to play their game. Just say, "Okay, I'll be happy to take this project on. This is definitely more of a level 3 lead kind of program than what I'm already doing so this will be a good opportunity for me to prove myself." There. You've said it. Then when you go ask them for a raise in six months you can remind them. "Remember when you gave me the Humboldt Project and we talked about how that was me proving myself for the next level?" Hey, did I just take their silence to mean acquiescence? You bet I did. Same as when you accept a project without saying anything your boss is assuming you're willing to take that on as part of your regular responsibilities without ever expecting anything in return. Sometimes you have to say no.

(Photo from Qfamily)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Be positive and use a pen

Apparently when people pay off debt they are able to learn from it in ways they wouldn't otherwise. As in when you have to budget and save money every month or maybe take on an extra job to pay off your debt it means a lot more to you than if you had won the lotto or if a credit company forgives your debt.

What does this have to do with the archaic system of putting ink to paper? I think the act of writing things down helps you remember them better. I also think it helps you feel more like you earned what you wrote down. So I recommend people write down the things they're proud of you.

What were your career accomplishments this last year? What things did you excel at? Writing it down might help you to cement those moments into your brain rather than just keeping a word document of your goals and achievements. Try it.

(Photo from vignetfishnet)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Network with me

The conventional wisdom is that to get a job, or to get a better job, is to network. It's really the magical word around job and career advice these last couple years. I'll be honest, it's not something I'm great at. I don't run into too many people outside my company and it is hard to maintain friendships, especially of the networking kind, without feeling like a fraud.

So maybe it would be a little hypocritical for me to criticize other people's attempts. But here I go anyways. I've occasionally met people working on outside projects. Here's what they could do to get me to help them get a job:

  1. Ask me. That's right the first mistake people make is not asking me. You want to work where I work? Do I know someone who you know could get you a job? I see them sort of itching to get it out of me. But they don't know the easiest way. Please. If you want me to do you a favor than ask me to do you a favor. I'm not going to go out of my way to spontaneously help you. I'm a little conceited. I like to be asked.
  2. Show me. If I don't know what kind of work you do I can't recommend you to anyone. Show me that you are awesome, or that you fit a role. I'm not talking some crazy recruiter speak here. You don't have to prove that you fill the need that I didn't even know I had. Just show me you do good work. That you're a decent person who plays well with others.
  3. Don't embarrass me. Some of the few times I've had people asking me for a job, they're looking for a backup plan. They want me to get them something in the meantime even though I know they're applying to grad school in another six months or really would rather move back home. I can't do that. I'm not going to put my reputation on the line to get you something that is temporary. Also even if your work is great but you're always 15 minutes late to coffee with me or dress horribly or have some sort of aversion to hard work I'm also not going to give you a shot.
What do you think? Are these what you've seen with others networking and what are your own beefs?

(Photo from Mark Geo)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Do your own auto repairs to save money?

It started off as any other morning. I got my lunch out of the fridge and went out to the car. It's always a little fussy starting up on a cold morning. But it just kept cranking and never started. Bummer.

So at what point do you try to do your own repairs in an effort to be frugal? I certainly do some amount of very basic repairs: spark plugs, spark wires, battery, constantly checking and refilling all my fluids. It's important though to consider how much your own time is worth. If you don't have a lift or a ramp, and have a very low car, than doing your oil change can be kind of a pain. It might not be worth it to do that one yourself when you can keep an eye on the ads and wait for the $10 or $15 oil change coupon.

Sometimes it can be worth it to buy the parts separate. Mechanics buy their parts from a parts distributor. That distributor will bump up the price before he sells it to your mechanic who will also crank up how much he charges you. But often it's the labor that will get you. Diagnosing your problem can take a certain amount of time, and then they've got to fix it.

If you can learn as much as you can about your own car you might be able diagnose the problem before taking it to the mechanic. You can find the Haynes Auto Repair manual for your car for between $15 and $20 for most models. It also walks you through many repairs so you can decide whether you have the tools or it's worth the trouble for you. Chilton's Auto Repair is another, slightly more expensive, option. The repair manuals also give you a great idea of how much trouble it is.

I'm not one for low bidding your mechanic. If he owns his own shop it's worth paying him fairly. But if you can get an idea of what it is (or even consult your manual after he tells you what he's going to fix) you'll be much more prepared to decide on a fair price. You can look up how difficult the job is, and then search for the part on various big name parts distributors, and be in a better position to talk about money and hopefully save yourself some. Treat it like salary negotiation. If they throw you a number and your research has shown that's high, ask them if they can do the repair for less and give them the results from your research. Most good mechanics won't be trying to overcharge you anyways.

(Photo from megavas)

Monday, January 16, 2012

M-Ad Mondays

I'd like to dedicate some of my posting to reacting to various commercials and advertisement campaigns. Up for today is a series of commercials from Virgin America. There's this video where as a result of the supposedly good music offered aboard a Virgin flight this guy can't help but dance in his seat.

First of all, the other passengers don't seem at all bothered by this as much as they should be. Even the guy in the same row as him is only a little surprised. It's too close to one my least favorite airplane situations: drunken revelers. If I'm flying into Atlantic City or Las Vegas? Fine. If I'm flying on a Monday morning across country? No thanks.

Second of all, this flight is crazy empty. I'm not sure there's a single aisle seat being taken. There's an empty seat next to him (otherwise there wouldn't be enough room for him to dance without punching his neighbor), an empty seat in front of him, an empty seat kitty corner from him, and in another shot you can see the next two seats in his row are empty. Crazy! Hey Virgin, if you advertised that you didn't fill all your flights to the last cramped sardine sitting? That might actually sell some tickets.

Then for their next idea, they're trying to advertise what they call their "moonlight" in this ad.

It's pretty clear the couple has just met and she's about to give him her phone number. Yes because right after drunk people on the plane other random people hitting on one another and trying to get lucky is also really awesome. So anyways, she's about to give him her number when she drops her phone. He flips on the light to pick it up and under full light looks pretty different.
After she gets her phone back, she mentions they should turn the light off again. He goes back to normal and they are talking again. Okay, so it's sort of the typical nerd man (that's an inhaler he's holding). But I did like the cute twist that she just flipped the light back and went back to the way it was rather than making an excuse seeing what he really looks like and leaving. However, they really missed an opportunity I think to not change her appearance as well. I guess that's fine if all of Virgin America's ticket buying population are a bunch of nerdy guys with high standards, but it might have been nice to have them both be less attractive under the full light.

Also, note all the empty seats again? So not doing a great job selling your flight experience to me by showing me the kinds of people I dread being seated next to in an unusually empty plane. Hope you liked this week's look at ads.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

What's in your emergency fund?

The conventional wisdom on how much you should have in your emergency fund might be 3 - 6 months of expenses. But what does this mean?

For me personally, I'd only tap my emergency fund in a major event. Something like an unexpected bill wouldn't qualify, as was discussed in a recent post on Get Rich Slowly. I do have more than 3 months of expenses set aside. I calculated a month's worth of expenses by looking at all my fixed expenses (mortgage, utilities, any other debt) first. Then I looked at how much I usually spend on non-fixed expenses (groceries, gas, fun money).

I figure if there was a job loss, is there anything in the fixed expenses I could cancel? Then after that I look at the other expenses. How much could I reasonably cut back there? I try not to assume I'd be capable of making too many major cuts. Better to overestimate my expenses I need to save and then be able to buckle down later. But there's still a point in being reasonable about what you will have to cut if you've actually gotten to the point of tapping your funds.

What do you think? How much is in your emergency fund and would you ever consider tapping it for a bill?

(Photo from Richard Cocks)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Building Blocks of a Roth IRA

Maybe you've been thinking about supplementing your 401k or 403b retirement accounts. Or maybe you're a student or person with relatively low earnings. Or maybe you just want to get started on your retirement. You might be looking at a Roth IRA. Here are some basic facts to get you started.

  • You must earn approximately less than $169,000 household income to contribute to a Roth IRA. Or less than $173,000 in 2012 (which starts after April 2011) for married fairly jointly (or less than $122,000 in 2012 if filing single).
  • You can contribute $5,000 a year (or $6,000 if you will be over 50 by the end of the year).
  • You must earn in the same year at least as much income as you are contributing.
  • Contributions are made with earned income (or compensation in general) dollars after tax.
  • Qualified distributions are taken without paying taxes.
  • Qualified distributions can be made after you turn 59.5 years old, if you become disabled, or up to $10,000 for certain qualifying down payments of a first home.
  • If you don't meet any of the above requirements for a qualified distribution, and remove money from the Roth IRA that has been in the account less than 5 years you may have to pay a 10% tax on that withdrawal.
  • Exceptions to the 10% penalty tax include paying medical insurance premiums after losing your job, your distribution is less than your qualifying higher education expenses for the year, your you have significant medical debts.
  • You can withdraw contributions in the same year you made them. It is treated (tax-wise) as if you never made them.
  • Distributions must be taken when you turn 70.5.
Hope these facts helped you learn a little more about the Roth IRA. For the full description and details of a Roth IRA you can check out IRS Publication 590

Most major brokerages will let you open a Roth IRA with them. Often you can do everything you need to do over the internet and open the account the same day or within a few days. So if you decide a Roth IRA is the right kind of account for your retirement, I hope you will open one up and start saving! It's never too early or too late.

(Photo from Steven Depelo)

Friday, January 13, 2012

Dieting and Saving Money Are Both Tough

In a lot of ways our finances are mirrored in the way we treat food. Not only do our brains treat money like they treat food (with a resulting dopamine response) but they are both finite resources of which our primary brain and/or rational brain are always trying to get more of.

I think dieting is a lot like trying to save or pay off debt. In both instances, it's probably easier to cut back. Either to consume fewer calories or to cut your spending budget. It's much more difficult to earn extra. It's a lot easier to save 300 calories saying no to that cookie than it is to jog the 3 or more miles it would take to burn off 300 calories.

Similarly, when people are faced with tremendous debt or the need to save for a goal we'd much prefer we could just make the extra money. But earning more income is pretty tough. Sure you can look for a better paying job, ask for a raise, try to start your own business on the side, or maybe even take on a second job. But it's probably a lot easier to save an extra $50 a month by cutting back on certain bills or utilities where you can, or spending less in discretionary areas. It would be a lot more difficult to convince your boss you're worth $50 extra a month. Especially in this economy.

(Photo from Better Than Bacon)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Thinking About Your 2012 Career Plan: Part 2

This is the second part of a series on the sorts of questions you might ask yourself when putting together a career plan. The first part focused on looking back at 2011 and earlier and reflecting on where you've been. Now it's time to look forward.

Get your favorite beverage and sit down and relax. Get yourself in a calm quiet place. Or, if that's not your thing, a loud, noisy place! Point is, for part 1 you needed to be realistic and have a good memory. Now it's important to be relaxed and positive. Be as confident and optimistic as you possibly can be. Now's not the time to be shy or cynical.

-What new projects are you looking forward to in 2012?
-What are you dreading about 2012?
-What new things would you like to learn or train in?
-Who would you like to better communicate with in 2012?
-What aspects of your career do you have the most control over and how can you change/improve them?
-What new risks could you take that you've been afraid to take so far?
-What kinds of people would you like to meet or see more of in 2012?
-What kinds of growth would you like to see for yourself as a person?
-What major milestones would you like to accomplish?
-Think about where you really want to go as a person and in your career, what steps can you take in 2012 to get you there?

So hopefully these questions can help you get started thinking about your career and goal planning. Don't be afraid to set your sights too high because even a step towards a lofty goal is better than not taking any steps forward at all. Here's to a productive new year!

(Photo via Arnar Valdimarsson)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Will a library card save you money?

I've been thinking about doing something I haven't done since probably before I was in high school. I'm considering getting a new library membership. Up until not too many years ago I benefited from high school and university libraries. Then, as a full time employed person, I chose to spend my money on books.

I love books. I just don't see myself ever using an e-reader and I liked the idea of supporting the authors I like. Still, I probably have held back on buying books a few times to save money. In fact, in recent years my book budget has dwindled. Maybe this is because I've already built up a decent home library. Or maybe the commitments in the last couple years have kept me too busy. At any rate, I'm thinking about taking the plunge and becoming a member of my local library.

But, having an interest in saving money I wondered whether this was a cost saving measure? That was actually fairly easy for me to determine. I've been pretty consistent about buying books online for convenience sake so it was pretty easy to estimate. About $10 in 2010 and $30 in 2011. Of course I'm not counting all book-like things (pretty sure comic books will not be available at the library) but still, that's a pretty miserly budget. So will a save a lot? No. But hopefully I'll read more than I would have otherwise and take the risk on something that might not be worth buying. And that's worth it in the end.

(Photo from shutterhacks)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Thinking About Your 2012 Career Plan: Part 1

At the beginning of a new year is a great time to reassess where you're at and make new goals and plans going forward. One of the common themes I've been seeing alluded to this week is making your career plan for the coming year. I didn't want to talk so much about what exactly your career plan should be like, but just some good questions that might help you to start thinking about yours.

For part 1 of this I think it's important to look back at where you've come from. That's right, think back to 2011 and your career. Then think back even further and reflect on your last couple years, or last whole years if that seems to make sense. Here's some questions I think will help you to analyze your year:

-What accomplishments are you most proud of from 2011?
-What projects or tasks made you feel the most valuable and confident?
-What projects and tasks were the most frustrating?
-Where did you feel like you wasted a lot of time but maybe didn't accomplish as much as you'd like?
-How did you feel about the hours you worked and how much you did or did not do work tasks from home?
-What's your overall feeling on what your work/life balance was?
-What did you learn or train on that was new?
-How did you feel about the respect you received from your boss and colleagues? Your working styles and communication?
-Looking back, what were the major milestones in your career and career path?
-How did 2011 fit in with the last several years of your career, did you see yourself moving in the direction you want or away from what you want?

Some food for thought as you think on your career in 2011 and how it might affect what you want to set forward as your career plan for 2012. I'll finish this up with part 2 looking forward with some questions to spool your creativity.

(Photo via Gary Huston)

Monday, January 9, 2012

3 Things Your Resume is Missing

I was helping a friend review their resume the other day and while they had done a very good job and I am very hopeful they'll be considered a top candidate for the position it reminded me of a few things that are easily forgotten when putting together your resume.

At this point you should already have a customized resume for each job you apply for. So after that, what's going to put you across the finish line?

  1. Keep the most quintessential points on top.  Most people know that if you are a recent graduate you probably put your education on top. If you've had years of experience you probably put your experience before your education. But I suggest that for each job you think of the most crucial thing you did and put that up top. It shouldn't just be a description of what you did, but where you held the highest level of responsibility. Or if you are changing into a slightly different field, this should be the key to why you are qualified for the job you are applying for. Why up top? I am a cynic and think resume reviewers may not always read everything on your resume. So best to front load the good stuff.
  2. Jobs and responsibilities should show clear progression with the job you're applying for as its obvious conclusion. Think about this like a puzzle game. Employers want to see that you are improving, learning and that previous jobs have increased your levels of responsibilities and abilities. Whether you're just going after the next level or whether you're trying to switch careers, the job you're applying for should be the obvious conclusion to the bread crumb path you've been setting out. Obviously you want to look well qualified for it, but at the same time it should be clear why this is the next step for you.
  3. Think like an employer to add in that WOW factor. You've looked at the job description, you've thought about what the company does, and you've peppered your resume and cover letter with all the details that show you match as many of those qualifications as possible. But now I'm asking you to be a detective. Try to look past the words. Use your knowledge of the industry. What is it that will help you stand out? Does the company have a reputation for difficult people and you've demonstrated extreme patience in the past? Are they looking for someone who works 90 hours a week and that's definitely you checking your blackberry during the middle of the night? Try to figure out what kind of person they really want, past all your job qualifications, and make sure you let them know you're that kind of person too.

Hope you liked my tips and feel free to suggest your own in the comments. Given the economy right now my additional suggestion if you are job hunting is to not take it personally. You may be a fantastic employee but there are just a lot of fantastic job hunters out there. So stay positive and keep trying.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

What the Unemployment Numbers Mean for You

Optimism seems to be flowing rather freely based on the unemployment numbers just released from the BLS. I think after so many months of bad news and such a tough economy it's natural to look at what seems to be a  positive report and take it to be so. And it is a sign that employment (at least for now) is looking better. More Americans have jobs now than they did a year ago.

About 1.5 million more Americans have jobs than did a year ago. Still, at a 8.5% unemployment rate there are over 13 million people still classified as being unemployed. And probably many more who are underemployed or have simply given up looking.

The scary thing to me as that while the unemployment rate has gone down nearly a whole percentage point in the last year the ratio of those employed to the population has remained basically flat.

As you can see the percentage of the population employed has barely fluctuated between 58.2 and 58.5%. So what does this mean? Likely many more people are dropping out of the population considered eligible for employment. That the gains we're making in jobs are small compared to how many people are discouraged and giving up on trying or how many people are accepting early retirement.

Still, I don't tend to disagree with the optimists. I think a dropping unemployment rate is a good thing. But it probably means if you're on the ground level looking for a job you're not going to see much of a change. If you are employed and overworked you probably aren't going to see your employers hiring much. But they might start talking about it and planning for it. And 2012 will probably be a better year for jobs than 2011.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Weekend Reads

Here's just a few brief links to what I'm reading this week and what I've found interesting.

At Classy Career Girl Anna Runyon offers five things you need to know before your first day of work at a new job. Practical tips mixed in with the humility you need to make the right impression and start off on the right foot.

Over at The Daily Muse Neale Godfrey writes in their series for lessons for your younger self to let go of the guilt. She's advising that with all those sacrifices we make when we go for career ambition and let things slip at home and with our families are okay. That it's okay to make those decisions. But we need to leave the guilt behind us.

Lastly at Corporette they ask what makes the perfect planner. They point out waiting until a few weeks into a new year is actually a great time to get discounts on custom planners and offer their own favorites and suggestions.

Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments!

(Picture via Honou)

Friday, January 6, 2012

An Introduction

A new blog can be so exciting. It's tantamount to a new career or maybe a new project or entrepreneurial endeavor. So here we go; nothing ventured, nothing gained. I'm a Financial Analyst and do personal finance and career consulting. I'm starting this up because these are things I'm passionate about. While there are a lot of great personal finance blogs out there I felt like I could be writing about the economy and policies as it effects the individual. So yes I plan to talk about the usual suspects (budgeting, saving, investing) as well as my favorite career related topics but I also plan to tie it in to the overall economic big picture showing how someone else's decisions seemingly well distant from the ordinary person can have such a big effect on how we all live our lives, spend our money, and plan for our financial futures. I look forward to connecting with the financial and career blogger communities.