Saturday, June 30, 2007

Some posts for you while I'm on vacation...

I'm sorry to leave you all, but I'm about to hit the road on vacation, and I won't be back until July 9th, so don't expect new posts until I return.

I'd hoped to have a Socially Conscious Gas Guide finished and up before I left, but there is just a whole lot of information and I'm still working on figuring out how to present it so it's manageable and useful to you all. But all the research will inform the gas choices for my own road trip this week, and I can at least give you the short version, which is that ExxonMobil is the uncontested worst.

In the meantime, here are some appropriately-themed posts from last year:

And just so you know, since the next edition of the Carnival of Ethics, Values, and Personal Finance is scheduled for next Thursday when I'm away, it'll be pushed back another week, until July 12th. Submit here-- and volunteer to host, too!

Friday, June 29, 2007

Sign up to get Ideal Bite eco-tips!

Have you heard about Ideal Bite yet? If you haven't, you're in for a treat. (If you have, I've got a treat for you too, but hold your horses!)

Ideal Bite is this nifty little e-mail newsletter... every weekday morning, you get an e-mail with an eco-friendly/socially conscious tip. Often they'll let you know where to find certain products you probably didn't even know existed, like organic breathmints or fair trade cotton napkins-- but they might also give suggestions on how to get the last bits out of your toothpaste tube or explain why aluminum foil is more eco-friendly than waxed paper and plastic wrap.

The e-mails are brief but informative and fun, bundling in the tip with an explanation of its benefits and personal testimonials from the Ideal Bite staff. I'm amazed and impressed that they come up with new ideas-- good ones!-- day after day after day, but they show no signs of slowing. So if that sounds good to you, click here to sign up!

(And I said I had a treat for the rest of you... those are affiliate links up there. You can sign up as an Ideal Bite affiliate and get $0.20-$0.50 for each person you refer who subscribes. I don't usually run ads, other than the text link ads at the bottom of my sidebar which are meant to be ignored, because I don't want to interfere with my readers' experience of the site for the sake of making money for me. But an ad for Ideal Bite is practically a public service, so as far as I'm concerned it's a win-win-win!)

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Making your money fit your priorities: budgeting advice for new (and not-so-new!) grads

A friend of mine just graduated from college, and asked some advice about budgeting.  I thought about it for a minute, and told him that there are no hard and fast rules... budgeting is about understanding your priorities and finding ways to make them work.  After reflection, I still think that soul-searching about your values is the most important part of budgeting-- money is and should be just a tool to help us shape our lives the way we want-- but it is also important that it be informed priority-setting, with a full understanding of what your constraints are and what options you have available. 
This guide is addressed to those new to the workforce, but I think most of the principles are good ones for anyone...
Understand your constraints:
  • Figure out your take-home pay. Remember that your gross pay and your net pay will look very different-- run your information through a calculator like this one to see what you'll actually be taking home.  You can do this even if you don't have a job yet-- in fact, it's a great way to understand what different salaries will mean for you. 
  • Figure out your fixed expenses.  Think as thoroughly as you can about your basic, unavoidable spending.  What is the cheapest rent you could reasonably get?  How much will basic utilities cost?  How much will you spend on groceries?  Will you have health insurance payments?  Car payments and/or auto insurance?  Student loan and/or credit card minimum payments?  Is there clothing you really have to buy for work?  Are there other expenses you consider truly non-negotiable, like trips home to visit family?  Even if they're not monthly recurring expenses, you'll have to pay for them somehow, so divide the cost up and plan to save a portion each month. Now, how much do those basic costs add up to and how does that compare to your take-home pay?

Understand your options and their consequences:

  • Read up about the smart moves you have available and make sure you know why they're smart.  No one will force you to take advantage of all of them, but it is wise to at least know what you're deciding on.  Make sure you really understand the benefits of compounding interest, the advantages of starting young .  Read up on the benefits of opening a Roth IRA at your age, especially if you're in a low tax bracket.  Learn about the 401(k) or 403(b) from your employer if you're offered one, and if there's a 100%, 50%, or even 20% match, keep in mind that it's the kind of return on investment you won't find anywhere else.  Find out if you're eligible for the  Saver's Tax Credit, and think hard about the benefits of saving for retirement and getting 10-50% back in your pocket.  If you have credit card debt,  take a serious look at how much you're throwing away in interest which you could keep if you accelerated your payments, and understand that paying only the minimum will keep you in debt for decades.  You don't have to make every smart move in the book, but you should at least make informed choices.
  • Have a plan for emergencies.  If your plan is asking for help from your parents (or other relatives), that's okay, if you're sure they are willing and able to back you up, and you're comfortable with asking them to.  If they're not or you're not, you need to save up an emergency fund.  Convential wisdom suggests you shoot for three to six months worth of expenses... figure out a monthly savings amount that works for you, but remember that until your emergency fund is bulked up you risk falling back on Plan B-- and if Plan B is credit-card spending, think long and hard what that means in terms of the interest payments you'd be handing over to the credit card company.

Understand your priorities:

  • Do some soul-searching about what matters to you.  What optional spending is most important to you?  Do you want an apartment in a better location, with more space, and/or without roommates?  Do you want to pay for cable and/or Netflix?  Do you want to spend on books or music?  Better food?  Clothes, shoes, accessories? Do you want to eat out, go to bars, movies, concerts, go on vacations?  Which can you find smart, creative ways to do more cheaply, and which are so important that you won't cut corners?  Do you want to make donations to charity and/or causes?  If you don't have a job yet, this is the time to think about how different job possibilities with different salaries (and benefits!) fit into your priority list-- what spending/saving are you willing to give up for a great job?  Then take a look at your available funds, and your list of priorities, and make a plan for what you can spend on each.  That's really all a budget is. 
  • Think about what sacrifices today are worth it for benefits tomorrow, and vice versa.   You can put money into retirement savings today and get way more bang for your buck than if you try to catch up later.  You can save up an emergency fund and help cushion the stress of an emergency later.  You can pay the minimums on your credit card or add credit card debt in order to have a better cashflow today but give yourself a huge interest burden for years to come-- or you can pay down (or avoid) debt now and have the freedom of no payments later.  It's silly to be completely focused on the future to the exclusion of the present-- none of us know what tomorrow will bring-- but you need to find where the balance lies for you.  (I struggled with this in Save for tomorrow or live for today?)
  • Be honest with yourself about your weaknesses.  If you find that your priorities don't match what you're spending in certain areas, you'll need to make a plan to cut back in order to achieve your goals.  Don't make a budget that rests on expecting dramatic changes, but do set goals and commit to making progress, and when you slip, remind yourself that you're doing this because you decided you wanted something else more.  And if you realize you don't actually want the other thing more, change your budget!  I love this quote from Gandhi:

"As long as you derive inner help and comfort from anything, you should keep it. If you were to give it up in a mood of self-sacrifice or out of a stern sense of duty, you would continue to want it back, and that unsatisfied want would make trouble for you. Only give up a thing when you want some other condition so much that the thing no longer has any attraction for you, or when it seems to interfere with that which is more greatly desired."


Saturday, June 23, 2007

Our DC-area pfblog gathering

On Thursday evening I had the pleasure of meeting some of the finest personal finance bloggers in the DC area, and I almost didn't go. I'd already RSVP'd a "maybe," since I wasn't sure if I'd be able to leave work early enough, and although it turned out that I was all clear to make it in time, I started getting nervous and thinking about backing out. "All these big names are going to be there and they will all know each other," I thought. "And then I'll say 'Hi, I'm from Money and Values' and they'll say, 'Who? Where?' and I'll want to disappear..."

And then, fittingly enough, a recent post from Get Rich Slowly came to mind. I remembered being struck by how J.D.'s descriptions of himself sounded like me, how he had struggled to push himself outside of his comfort zone. But then, after reading a powerful book and some self-reflection, "I made a resolution. I decided that instead of saying “no” to things because I was afraid of them, I would “just say yes”."

So I took a deep breath, and I told myself, "This will be fun; there are lots of good reasons to do it and no good ones not to, so just say yes." Off I went, and I'm glad I did.

Thankfully, Mapgirl from Mapgirl’s Fiscal Challenge was friendly and talkative, and made me feel welcome from the moment I arrived. She was at my end of the table and we had no end of interesting conversation with HC from One Big Mortar Board, JerichoHill, moderator of the Get Rich Slowly Forums, and Mike from Clever Dude Personal Finance. Also in attendance were Nick from Punny Money, James from DINKs Finance (Dual Income No Kids), Nick's wife Tegan, and yupitsean, pfblog reader and commenter-- I wasn't able to talk to and get to know these folks as much as I would've liked, but that's what next time is for, right?

So if you are a personal finance blogger or reader, and you live in the DC area, you should keep an eye out for the next meet-up, which will probably be in August-- we'd love to see you there!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Here's the Carnival of Ethics, Values, and Personal Finance!

Here we are again, for your fortnightly roundup of the best posts in the blogosphere on issues of ethics, values, and personal finance. I like this bunch a lot-- okay, I like every edition's posts a lot!-- so without further ado, here are my favorite:

  • In What Would You Do For Money? at Rich Minx, Travel Minx has a short but sweet post asking about just what we think is worth doing for money.
  • In Deep, Weighty Money Decisions at My Open Wallet, Madame X, in her wonderful, entertaining style, tells the story of a few mornings in her life. She described the post as "Sometimes a banana is not just a banana" but I think the issue is really that "sometimes a penny is not just a penny"! How important is "doing the right thing" when only small amounts are at stake?
  • In He Called It The Skyhook Theory at RealEstateUndressed, Larry Cragun tells the story of a professor of his who urged business students to have something greater than daily tasks, a higher goal than money to hang onto-- a skyhook.
  • In 10 rules for corporate social responsibility at Sox First, Leon Gettler lays out some standards of what CSR means and how you can tell companies are genuinely implementing them.

Family, Friends, Money, and Values


That's it for this time around! Please link this carnival on your blog to let everyone know it's up and help spread the word. Submit to the next edition using this form. And do let me know if you want to host-- I am more than glad to have the carnival here every time, but I'd also love to share.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Free Coffee Drink Tomorrow at Caribou Coffee!

Caribou Coffee is offering a 12-ounce Northern Lite Cooler for free to customers tomorrow, but only between 2 and 3pm.  They're cold coffee drinks that can be chocolate, vanilla, or caramel-flavored.  And they use skim milk and sugar-free syrup, which may be a plus or a minus for you, depending on your preference.  My plan?  Set some goals for myself to get a lot accomplished at work by 2pm, then reward myself with a break for a cool treat!
If you're not sure where your closest Caribou Coffee is, use this locator on their website.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Best of the Best from the Carnival of Personal Finance!

For the Carnival of Personal Finance's 2nd anniversary edition, J.D. asked us all to submit our best post from the last two years. After a week of dithering, wavering, and agonizing over which of my own posts to submit, I finally got to see the finished product today-- and it is certainly special! I highly recommend you wander your own way through them, but here are a few I thought were particularly good:

There's a lot more there, so do check it out. And while we're on the subject of carnivals, go on and submit to the Carnival of Ethics, Values, and Personal Finance in time for this Thursday's edition!

Friday, June 15, 2007

How much do I owe my parents for my college education?

How much do I owe my parents for my college education? I thought we had this all figured out, but I'm not so sure anymore.

Right after I graduated college and started my first full-time job, I sat down with my parents to talk about finances. During my college years, my parents had paid their expected family contribution to tuition, room, and board after the financial aid grants were applied, partially through taking out $45,000 in loans. I had a work-study job and worked summers, and paid for books, entertainment, and other personal expenses, including my groceries and a couple hundred dollars a month towards rent when I moved into an apartment my senior year, plus I took on the $13,000 in loans in my name that the financial aid forms suggested. Now the month-to-month expenses were over, and we were all left with the debt, them a lot more than me.

My dad suggested I just pay "what you can afford, what feels comfortable to you" in any given month, but I said no way... I wanted something defined, a number I could think about and plan around. I didn't care what it was, but I wanted to us to settle on an amount we all thought was fair and stick to it.

So we decided I'd give them $16,000. It was elegant and satisfying-- together we owed $58,000, and half of that was $29,000, so giving them $16K on top of the $13K in my name evened things out. $16,000 sounded like a tremendous amount of money to me, and with our tentative $250/month plan, that meant over five years of payments, which felt like forever.

Fast forward to 3 1/2 years later, and thanks to some accelerated payments, the $16,000 will be paid off by the end of the summer. I'm really excited about the prospect of having another $250 a month to put into savings. But I'm also left thinking, is it fair for me to be done already, or should I offer to pay more?

  • On the one hand, I'll have accounted for my half of the balance. On the other hand, my interest rate is several points lower than theirs, so it isn't really half of the total cost.
  • On top of that, there's the fact that they paid much more out-of-pocket during college than I did. But then again, they were adults with jobs and I was a college kid making a couple thousand a year, and they were paying what the financial aid formula said they could afford. But the formula expects parents to spend a pretty large fraction of their income and assets, so I don't know if it's fair to just say "They could handle it."
  • If I stop now, they'll still be making big payments on those loans for almost another decade, with no help from me. Of course, I will still be paying for my own loan-- but that's only $70 a month, and the interest rate is under 3%, so I barely count it as debt.
  • I'm pretty sure I'm in better shape financially for my age than they are for theirs-- and they have retirement coming up in a decade or two. On the other hand, a lot of that is because of their own choices. But the cost of my college education is certainly a significant part of it too. But then again, they're hardly destitute, and while they have debt from paying for college for my sister and me (and are behind on saving for retirement), they have pretty high incomes-- and my sister graduated from college last month, which will really help their cashflow so they can catch up more quickly.
  • When I was applying to college, my dad told me, "Go to any school you want, and don't worry about how much it costs, we'll make it work. I had to give up going to the college I wanted because my parents said it was too expensive; I've worked hard all these years so that you don't have to be in the same position." (My mom was not as gung-ho, but they eventually agreed on my dad's take on it.) So I did, and there was never any real discussion or expectation about how much of the cost I'd share-- if I'd expected I'd have to pay for a lot of it, I might have chosen differently. But in the end, I did choose an expensive school, and just because they said "Go ahead, it's okay" doesn't make it any less costly to them.
  • When it comes down to it, there are just two issues: they're my parents... but it was my education.
What do you think? What would you do? How did you and your parents handle paying for college, if you went?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Check out Money Changes Things!

I just stumbled across a fantastic blog that I'm adding to my blogroll, called Money Changes Things. It's chock-full of interesting posts about money and values/ethics, from CFL Philanthropy to the efforts to get Fidelity to divest from Sudan to the true costs of recycled vs non-recycled paper to clothing swaps, to name just a few (not to mention the frugal tips and deal-hunting adventures of a PSAWSWLD).

At Money Changes Things, BPT's theme is that once you reach a certain level of wealth-- "enough," as she puts it-- then you have the ability to really focus on spending money in ethical and meaningful ways. But I think people at any level of income and wealth can get a lot out of her blog, if they're interested in ways to spend money in tune with their values. Sure, the decisions are harder when you're not dealing with a surplus but instead have to make sacrifices and trade-offs... but for me, and I bet for many of you, these are things I'm trying hard to fit into my life anyway.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Carnival of Ethics, Values, and Personal Finance

Hi everyone, and welcome to the Carnival of Ethics, Values and Personal Finance! This carnival is all about the connections between financial decisions and ethics/values, and I'm always so excited about the participation and enthusiasm from the bloggers who submit articles, the hosts, and the readers. I hope you'll enjoy the posts in this carnival, and then be inspired to step up your participation a little more-- submit a post, volunteer to host, link and spread the word about the carnival on your blog!

Without further ado, I've broken up the posts into a few categories, and identified my favorites among them...

Personal Finance, Values and Ethics:
The Meaning of Money:
Business and Ethics:Along with all the posts I left out because they were way off the theme of our carnival, here are a few more that seemed kind of borderline but I decided to keep them anyway:Thanks so much, and I hope you enjoy these posts as much as I did! Please sign up to host, and please submit to the next edition through the carnival submission form.

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Sweatshops or co-ops?: Finding sweat-free apparel

Trying to avoid clothes made through sweatshop labor is one of the toughest kinds of ethical consumerism, because sweatshops are just so prevalent. Unfortunately, practically every item you'll find in almost any store was produced in a factory where people-- mostly women, often teenagers-- spend long hours stitching and assembling for pennies per $30/$50/$100 garment, often in unsafe conditions and afraid to speak up for themselves and their basic needs in fear of retaliation and firing. Factories around the globe are constantly competing to produce apparel for brand-name corporations and retailers at the lowest possible price, lest the companies whisk away their contracts to some cheaper factory, and workers become the victims of this race to the bottom or get replaced by the unemployed waiting outside the factory door.

Finding alternatives that don't help support that process, but instead build the demand for more just and humane production, can take time, effort, and often some extra cash (although not always, because workers get such a small fraction of the cost of items to start with). There are some brick-and-mortar stores selling ethically-made apparel-- do take a look in the National Green Pages (an awesome resource) for what's in your area-- but often it seems like online options are the best bet.

Co-op America recently put together a terrific compilation showing where you can find a wide variety of sweat-free products, called 9 Cool Ways to Avoid Sweatshops. It really illustrates the breadth of options that are available. From dress clothes for women and men, to underwear and tights, to blue jeans and sandals, to bath and bedding, there are a ton of great options for any occasion that you can order online, all from manufacturers that treat workers well (and many of the products are organic and/or based on recycled materials to boot!)

Sweatshop Watch has a shopping guide I like a lot, too. All of the products they list are not just sweat-free with a fair share of profits going to the workers (just like the Co-op America list), but are also made by workers who are either unionized or part of a worker cooperative-- those are some serious assurances that workers are treated with respect and dignity. Just take a look at the website of the women in the Fair Trade Zone worker cooperative in Nicaragua (who produce for places like Maggie's Organics and Rage Baby), or the Ceres shirt-makers in Argentina.

That said... it is very tough to switch to 100% sweat-free apparel (or anything close to that, frankly) under current conditions, and it's certainly far beyond my own personal abilities, inclination, and budget. (Especially because I already have a lot of clothing and I'm not about to toss everything out and start from scratch!) But every time I get to wear a piece of clothing that I know was a part of empowering and supporting workers rather than squeezing and exploiting them, I get a smile of satisfaction on my face and the motivation to add one more item. As a consumer, maybe one step at a time is exactly the way to do it. And as a citizen, I'll keep on fighting the way our choices are structured so that someday, exploitation and sweatshops may be the exception instead of the rule.

(And no, I'm not afraid to have the discussion about "why raise standards?"... part of my thinking was laid out in this post on fair trade, but if you want to debate more, go right ahead!)

Monday, June 04, 2007

I'm back!

Yes, the hiatus is over and Money and Values is an active blog once more. I'm very glad to be back and excited about the days, weeks, and months ahead. Come on back and enjoy!

Friday, June 01, 2007

Old carnival, new carnival, YOUR carnival!

  • Old carnival: At Tired but Happy you can find last week's Carnival of Ethics, Values, and Personal Finance. As usual, there are a ton of terrific posts; I especially liked Does Business Squeeze the Poor? at Trust Matters.
  • New carnival: Next week, on June 7th, the next Carnival of EVPF will be hosted right here. So that means you have until Wednesday, June 6th, to submit using this form.
  • Your carnival!: Why haven't you signed up to host (or host a second time, as the case may be)? Step right up and volunteer in the comments or send me an e-mail. You know you want the coolest carnival in the blogosphere on your very own blog!

Free Donut from Krispy Kreme

On Friday, June 1 you can get a free donut of your choice at participating Krispy Kreme locations. I'm planning to stop at the one on my way to work (I often tell myself I am very lucky it is a Krispy Kreme and not a Dunkin' Donuts; I like their donuts so much better that I'd be seriously tempted to stop in pretty much every morning, whereas Krispy Kreme donuts I can take or leave. That said, on a free day, it's a "take"!)

(And if you guessed that my return from hiatus is impending, you're correct. Look for more in the coming days...)