Monday, August 20, 2007

See you later...

I'm heading off on my two-week vacation, and I am so excited!

Millionaire Mommy Next Door has generously offered to host the Carnival of Ethics, Values, and Personal Finance, so you can stop by and see it this Thursday the 23rd. (Submit your posts here!) It'll be back here on September 6th.

I may or may not sneak in a post or two from abroad, depending on what kind of internet access I get and what sort of inspiration strikes me. But I will definitely be back Monday night September 3rd and ready to start posting again after that. In the meantime, if you don't want to keep checking back here to see if I've posted, now is a great time to subscribe to my feed or sign up to get posts by e-mail:

Friday, August 17, 2007

When your mutual fund speaks for you, what does it say?

Every year when companies have their annual meetings, there are a series of resolutions for stockholders to vote on.  Many of these are introduced by the company and have to do with things like confirming board members, but there are also increasing numbers of resolutions introduced by shareholders, often having to do with issues of corporate social responsibility (CSR). 
These votes are only advisory, but they express the positions of shareholders on the company's approach important social and environmental issues, and often lead corporate management to take action.  Resolutions are filed every year on issues from environmental impacts to non-discrimination and diversity to animal welfare to executive compensation to political contributions to human rights and many, many more.
If you hold stock directly, even a small amount, you're entitled to vote on these resolutions yourself.  But if you hold stock through mutual funds, the mutual funds vote for you.   And different mutual funds treat proxy voting very differently.
An analysis of the voting records of dozens of mutual fund families found that in 2006, mainstream mutual funds supported just 11.3% of CSR shareholder resolutions, compared to socially responsible investing (SRI) funds, which supported 74.9% of those resolutions. 
And a closer look at the mainstream funds reveals wide disparities.  TIAA-CREF supported 43.7% of the CSR resolutions, JP Morgan supported 25.6% and Goldman Sachs supported 18.8% of them.  But American Funds supported only 2.7%, Vanguard 2.3%, and Fidelity 0.8%-- four or less votes in favor of CSR in each case.  And the latter three funds control more than two-thirds of the U.S. mutual fund market.  (You can find information on the CSR voting records of ten major funds in this article, and many more at this website.)
These funds, and many investors, say that corporate social responsibility is irrelevant to a company's success.  But actually, there can be financial consequences to corporate irresponsibility-- from fines to lawsuits to bad PR to decreased productivity to being left behind by changing trends.  And beyond the dollars and cents, some investors are troubled by making money in ways contrary to their values, and would be happier if the companies they invest in would change their ways. 
If your mutual fund is not voting on shareholder resolutions the way you'd prefer, what can you do?   One option is to make your feelings known, either by contacting them directly or through coordinated campaigns (like this appeal on climate change to Fidelity, Vanguard, and American Funds).  Another, more dramatic choice?  Pick SRI mutual funds with a track record of not only voting "yes" on CSR shareholder resolutions, but often actually introducing those resolutions and negotiating with corporate management for change.
Where do your mutual funds stand on these issues?  What are their proxy voting policies?  Does it matter to you?
Related posts:

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Are you the "travel agent" in your family?

I'm sorry to be a little distracted from blogging lately... I'm leaving for a vacation with my parents and sister in less than a week and there is just so much to do in preparation! 
It seems like most of the work is ending up on my plate, too.  Part of this is because I am marginally more well-organized than the rest of my family.  But I think it's mostly because I am the one who's most interested in finding good deals.  I am willing to invest more energy on that than the rest of my family-- so I end up doing the lion's share of the research and booking.
I've done this for previous family vacations, and it usually isn't too much work.  But this trip is a two-week visit to England and Ireland, which is a) a longer vacation than usual, b) logistically challenging around currency, transportation, etc, c) higher-stakes since we can't just say "oh, we'll come back again soon and do X or Y next time,"and d) frustratingly expensive thanks to the bad exchange rate!  So the amount of time and effort it's taking is much higher than usual.
But even though it is a lot of work, it seems to be paying off.  I've found a number of bargain hotel rooms and (well-reviewed, well-located) hostels with private rooms, to go along with our B&B stays.  I found a ferry between the UK and Ireland which will be both cheaper and more fun than flying.  I've done my research on the best methods of currency exchange (and stopped my Dad from buying a AAA Visa TravelMoney Card with a 7% transaction fee!)  I've matched up the Heritage Card in Ireland to our probable itinerary and figured out that it will save us money-- and done the same with the London Pass, and figured out that it won't.
The fact is, saving money on these things is more important to me than it is to the rest of my family, and so instead of muttering under my breath about how I'm doing all the darn work, I've just got to accept the situation and decide whether it's worth investing my time.  I think it is, so I'll keep my eye on the financial savings and the gratitude from my family and the peace of mind of having things lined up in advance, and slog through the next few days of planning until everything's taken care of and I can finally relax and enjoy the trip!
How does planning vacation details and logistics work in your family (or group of friends)? 

Saturday, August 11, 2007

16 Tips for a Great (Frugal!) Stargazing Experience

One fantastic way to have a good time at little or no cost is star-gazing. Whether you make it a romantic couple's night, a family affair, a gathering with friends or an opportunity for solo enjoyment, it can be a truly special experience.

One of my favorite childhood memories is lying in the front yard in the dark with my dad and sister, looking at the constellations and watching for shooting stars. We did all sorts of stargazing and amateur astronomy, but the Perseid meteor shower every August was always a favorite. And this weekend it comes around again. We're very lucky this year, because the Perseids' peak (Sunday night the 13th, although Saturday night is good too, and the meteors will continue through August 22) matches up with the new moon, meaning a darker sky and great visibility.

But while there's something particularly wonderful about shooting stars, there's a lot to enjoy about the night sky whether or not there's a meteor shower going on. Here are some tips to make your stargazing experience memorable, for the Perseids this weekend and in general:

  • Minimize light pollution. If you live somewhere relatively rural, this may just mean turning out all the lights in your house and stretching out in the yard, or finding a local park. If you're in a city, it may involve more of a trip. Of course, if you can't get away from the city, you can still enjoy the sky, there'll just be less visibility.
    • Figure out the best direction to go to put the city lights behind you. For example, the Perseids are in the northeast sky, so you'd want to head northeast; if you went southwest, you'd have to face back towards the city to see the meteors.
  • Dress in layers. Even in August it can get chilly at night, so make sure you're warm enough. You don't want to be distracted from the skies by the temperature. Hats are especially helpful for keeping your body heat in. Warm blankets are nice too!
  • Stock up on good food and drinks. Hot cocoa, sandwiches, pretzels, chocolate chip cookies... whatever your pleasure, it makes the experience more complete.
    • Stay away from alcohol and tobacco, though-- they impair your night vision.
  • Try playing music. You may prefer the sounds of nature, or of good conversation, but music can also be a fine accompaniment to stargazing.
  • Bring the bug repellent. You will be spending an hour or two outside, after all.
  • Do some research ahead of time. What constellations will be visible? What planets will be in the sky? Where in the night sky can you see them, and when? Find some star charts online (or take out books from the library).
    • Use a red light (some red plastic over an ordinary flashlight works), if you're bringing reading materials to reference. It makes it easier for your eyes to stay adjusted to the dark.
  • Pick the right time of night. Depending on what you're looking for, timing can make a big difference. For example, you can see the Perseids best between midnight and dawn. The constellations and planets will rise and set at different times throughout the year. And in its first quarter phase the Moon rises early-- good for inspecting its craters, bad for picking up stars in the surrounding sky-- while it rises late during the third quarter.
  • Bring binoculars, if you have them. Telescopes have greater magnifying power, but binoculars work well too, and are cheaper and easier to use. With basic 7x binoculars you can see craters on the Moon, the moons of Jupiter, and many more stars than with the naked eye.
  • Learn the stories behind the constellations. This is especially fun to share with kids, but enjoyable for adults too. The most familiar stories are the Greek and Roman ones, but nearly every culture has stories about the constellations, many of which are much more interesting!
  • Understand the real story of what you're seeing. For example, meteor showers come when the earth orbits through the debris of a comet-- in the case of the Perseids, Comet Swift-Tuttle-- and the debris burns up in the atmosphere, causing "shooting stars." The Pleiades star cluster has 7-14 stars to the naked eye but about 500 in total! The scientific stories of astronomy are often just as interesting as the mythological ones.
  • Count the meteors, if you're so inclined. Some people feel it's distracting, but it can be fun to keep track of what you saw and perhaps enjoy a friendly competition with your companions. For the Perseids, you ought to be able to see roughly one shooting star per minute.
  • Take pictures. This only works well for meteor showers if you can set your camera for an exposure of several seconds or more, but if you catch a meteor shooting across your screen it's well worth it. For meteors and anything else in the sky, you'll do best if you can use a tripod and/or set your camera to take the picture without touching the button, so you don't shake the camera. Experiment with astrophotography and have fun!
  • Take advantage of meteor showers and other special events. Besides the Perseids in August, other big showers include the Leonids every November and the Geminids in December. Other celestial events include eclipses and "opposition," when planets are at their closest and largest in the night sky.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Carnival of Ethics, Values and Personal Finance

Hi folks, and welcome to the Carnival of Ethics, Values, and Personal Finance! Without further ado, let's get to the posts:

Editor's Choice:

Values and Priorities


Business and Ethics:


Okay, now here's an important announcement for next time-- two weeks from today, I will be on vacation, so we need someone else to host on August 23rd if we want a carnival that day. Otherwise I will be hosting the next edition on September 6th. Either way,
submit your posts here.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Install Rovr so your online shopping benefits good causes!

Want to give 4-10% back on your online purchases to the cause of your choice, at no extra cost to you? Check out Rovr, a plug-in for Firefox (the IE version is coming soon, apparently).

Rovr takes advantage of websites' affiliate programs by directing the kicked-back earnings towards a beneficiary of the shopper's choice (from amfAR Aids Research to freecycle to Hillel to Code Pink to Rainforest Action Network to AlterNet, and many more.)

When you shop at any of dozens of eligible websites-- including heavy hitters like Amazon, Barnes & Noble,,, CompUSA, etc-- this little guy shows up in the upper left corner of the site:

You can click on the icon to change your beneficiary organization, get info about your previous purchases, change your settings, etc. Once you make a purchase, Rovr will insert the affiliate code for your beneficiary of choice, and the retailer sends its percentage to said beneficiary.

Unfortunately, a lot of the participating websites are big corporate sites, although Rovr does include Alibris, an online network of local independent bookstores which is a good alternative to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. Rovr is very new, though, so I'm confident that in time it'll expand to other cool independent options. And they feature a catchphrase that's "bad for business" but warms my heart:

Buy less. Buy local. But online, make every purchase count.

Exactly! I'm not urging anyone to shop for the sake of using Rovr. But if you've already made your mind up to buy something there, why not send a buck or two to a good case while you're at it?

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Socially Conscious Gas Guide, Part 2: Workers

In Part 1, we looked at the environmental records of the big gas companies. In Part 2, we'll consider how they treat their workforce, before moving on to Part 3 which will explore their human rights records.


Only one gas company makes it into Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For list-- Valero Energy, which comes in at #22. According to Fortune, Valero has 11 of the top 23 safest refineries in the U.S. offers 100% health insurance to all its employees, and has never laid off a worker. [Valero also does business as Shamrock, Diamond Shamrock, Ultramar, Becaon, and Total.]

Discrimination and Justice

Back in this post I talked about the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index, which looks at U.S. companies' record on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. Here's a more detailed look at the gas companies on the list:

  • 100 (perfect score): BP America and Chevron
  • 85: Shell
  • 78: Conoco
  • 0: ExxonMobil
    • ExxonMobil is one of only three companies on the whole 446-company list with a score of zero; actually, its point total added up to -5, but HRC doesn't give sub-zero scores.
  • Sunoco and Valero are unrated but there is information in HRC's website database that suggests they would fall somewhere in the middle on the rankings.
    • Valero includes sexual orientation but not gender identity/expression in its non-discrimination policy, and extends a whole host of benefits to same-sex partners.
    • Sunoco has a similar non-discrimination policy (sexual orientation is included, gender identity is not) but no domestic partner benefits.
Sunoco and Chevron-Texaco have both faced and settled anti-discrimination lawsuits on the basis of both race and gender.
Health and Safety

An explosion at BP's Texas City refinery killed 15 people in 2005, and an after-the-fact OSHA investigation found over 300 health and safety violations. By some measures, BP's safety record is the worst in its industry (including the highest number of fatalities), although BP claims that some of the measures used by critics are flawed... here's one exploration if you're interested.

Valero is seen as a leader on worker health and safety; however, there are still injuries and deaths at its refineries as well.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Summer Savings: Picking picnics over restaurants

One of the great things about summer (and spring, and fall, depending where you live) is the ability to go out and enjoy a great picnic in some lovely spot near you. And one thing I find is that the more I picnic, the less I eat out at restaurants, which translates into some nice savings over the course of a few months.

What are the reasons for going out to eat? At least for me, a lot of it is about the change of scenery, doing something different and more enjoyable than the usual meal at home. Leaving the house and breaking the routine turns a meal with a loved one into a date night, something special to share together. The atmosphere in a nice restaurant feels attractive, relaxing, indulgent.

But I find I can get a lot of the same feeling out of picknicking, too. Sitting in a scenic spot in a park, by a beautiful fountain or lake or garden, makes lunch or dinner instantly out-of-the-ordinary. Sitting outside with my boyfriend without the distractions of home gets us focusing on ourselves and the experience. Meeting friends for a picnic is a fun way to socialize that doesn't involve any of us having to host at home. Munching on food in the sunshine and fresh air is a treat in itself.

Of course, part of the allure of dining out is replacing the work of preparing a nice meal at home with the luxury of someone else making it for you. But sandwiches are easy and taste great outside, especially if you use good bread. All sorts of great salads, whether based on veggies, fruits, pasta or potatoes, are pretty easy too and can even be made ahead of time. And if it's spur-of-the-moment, you don't have the right ingredients at home and/or you just don't want to be bothered, you can stop by a grocery store or deli and pick up some ready-made food there.

How often do you picnic? Do you substitute it for going to restaurants? And, of course, please share your favorite picnic foods/recipes!