Can you be friends with rich people?

I wanted to title this post, "Can you be friends with people in decidedly different financial situations than you?" but that wasn't very catchy. (And I know: some of you ARE rich!)

But I was reading the acclaimed recent novel, "The Interestings," with my writer's craft book group (we discuss books based on writing analytics rather than whether characters and stories are likable). The book's main character is just ordinary, with an ordinary job and ordinary talents. But Jules has some extraordinary ("interesting") friends, friends that she met long ago at a summer camp for the arts.

Because Jules hasn't pursued her art as a career, and she probably wouldn't have made a ton of money at it in any case, she often finds herself terribly envious of her friends that have; notably, her friends whose talents have made them a huge financial success. (The male half of the couple seems to be loosely modeled off Matt Groening; his animated series quickly becomes huge and he's rich within months of winning a network deal.)

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More about...Frugality

Why my garden won’t replace my CSA subscription

I told the checker at the grocery co-op where I shop that I didn't need a receipt. "I don't want to keep track of how much I'm spending on my garden," I told him. My modest cart had carrots and apples and popcorn -- staples! -- and tomato, lettuce, basil and lavender starts. The reason I don't want to know: I'm worried it won't pencil out.

If I had to guess, this year I've poured $500 in plants, seeds and compost-enriched dirt into my garden. Lots of it won't yield much this year (every few years, when I have available money, I invest in perennial bushes and trees, like blueberries, apples and currants; this was one of those years), but then again I'll probably get something like $200 or $300 worth of figs and raspberries alone. Those were planted years ago.

What I'm not so sure about is my vegetable garden. With several heirloom tomato plants producing 10 or 20 pounds of $4-per-pound tomatoes apiece and those very pricey herbs, I'm sure I'll get a few hundred dollars' worth of produce. I still am eating tomatoes I canned last year from my garden (and they're absolutely amazing, very flavorful and pretty to boot). What's more, I'm less likely to waste things like herbs and lettuce. Instead of buying a whole head or bunch from the farmer's market, I can pick just what I need for dinner.

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More about...Budgeting, Food, Health & Fitness

Should you ever work for free?

I lose count of my "jobs" these days: my literary writing (that theoretically pays, or had better one day or else), a magazine I started last summer. While I certainly put the same intensity into everything, I can definitely say that I work more hours for free than I do for pay.

So when I got the advice from a well-meaning friend, "You shouldn't let them work you like that for free!" I had to shake my head a little to see his perspective. I'm so committed to these projects (and I know the money simply isn't there unless I raise it myself) that I don't mind the work:pay ratio. My general agreement with myself is that, as long as I'm making enough money to pay bills, buy good coffee and local meats and veggies, and save a little, I can do whatever I want with my (ahem) "spare" time as long as it's for a genuinely good cause.

I heard the same phrase again a few days later, directed at someone else. "You shouldn't do that for free." Continue reading...

More about...Career

Investing in professional conferences

I am writing this after the third weekend in a row of attending professional conferences. While I wouldn't suggest such a schedule (it was a fluke of the calendar I hope won't ever happen again!), I came away from the experience renewed with the belief that, no matter what your field, attending conferences -- given the usual caveat that moderation in all things is important -- is an extremely smart financial move.

Refresh your enthusiasm

One of the conferences I attended was career-agnostic, and one of the many "TedX" events held throughout the country. This one was a day-long series of short, highly-designed talks with a similar theme ("What If?") that was meant more as a jumping-point than a strict theme. The talks were on such a variety of things that I was certain some of them would have no applicability to my own career goals or life plans. Continue reading...

More about...Career, Side Hustles

Invest in this: How I pick stocks

I've been doing what I call "investment banking" for a friend's company (I say it that way because the work I do is almost definitely not what you probably think of when you hear the term), and I get this question almost every day:

"So, I guess you know a lot about investing!"

Well, I know more than perhaps most people about investing. But, again, it's not what you think; I'm not doing any research into public companies, and I'm never, ever picking stocks professionally. Most of the work I do is with deals that have closed long before or deals that are only imaginary.

People ask me, often, "So, you're an investment banker? What should I invest in?" My response isn't what they're expecting, even though I think it's the best advice:

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More about...Investing

Spring-clean your closet and make money

We have all been there: standing in front of our closet or dresser drawers, looking at the contents, and waiting for something to emerge. That surprising dress or just-so shirt. That pair of pants that fits like it was tailored. That pair of shoes that is the sort of pair of shoes people refer to when they advise their friends to judge others on their shoes.

Once in a while, a surprising, just-so, tailored-seeming, universally impressive article of clothing appears, though rarely of its own volition. The rest of the time we just stare.

Maybe it's time to go shopping.

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More about...Clothing

Minimalist parenting: The frugal choice

The woman on the radio sounded panicked.

She lived in Los Angeles, and because of her neighborhood (weird homeless guy on the corner; busy streets all around) she didn't trust her kids to play outside. So she spent her time driving them to activities where they would get… physical activity. It sounded a little awful, and it sounded expensive.

I had been interviewed for this piece (my interview wasn't used), so I was really paying attention. The other story is about a family in Portland, who, like me, live without a car. The reporter said, "there's a bus stop at the bottom of the street, and the elementary school is just a few blocks away. The children ride their bikes back and forth, and they don't schedule many after-school activities that would require getting in the car." Continue reading...

More about...Frugality

Planning for a new financial paradigm

I'd tried and occasionally gotten by on very much less, and I'd shuffled small freelance gigs and guiltily spent windfalls instead of saving. But I just couldn't figure out a long-term way to make my rather meager freelance income work for all my non-household-bill expenses; food, child care, coffee shop goodies, lunches for my boys, the limited-but-still-precious entertainment expenditures, home office costs, clothes, and the rest of it. I was considering finding some more small jobs; I'd like to start paying back my student loans, which I've been avoiding thanks to income-based repayment. I was also a little (or a lot) stressed out about retirement savings, which had peaked in my late 20s. I'd emptied my account for a down payment on the house, at the time, figuring it would be fine; I was 28 when I made the purchase. Plenty of time.

Enter the decade of scraping by with a variety of situations in which either my husband or I was always unemployed or underemployed. My husband has been doing well with his military retirement savings, but, with my education and experience, it seemed a shame (if not a downright personal finance crime) for me not to have my own retirement savings.

I had recently started doing more consulting, but lots of it was for trade or for very small start-up businesses, some of whom couldn't pay me on time or couldn't pay my actual value. If only, I'd thought so many times that thought had worn a track in my head, I could somehow go back to investment banking without leaving the life I have now -- without forsaking the magazine and my writing!

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More about...Budgeting, Career, Planning

Taxes: Don’t rush it

I was really excited about filing my taxes this year. For once, I wasn't really in need of any pricey things for the house (though I have plenty of wants. Hello, wood stove!), and was rubbing my hands together with the thought of the emergency savings fund I'd soon have in the bank account! Thanks to my husband's tax-free military pay, and my lowish freelance income when he's overseas and full-time caring for the boys, we are due a large refund again.

I had a lot of to-dos on my list last week, and the taxes had the biggest payoff, so I tackled them one late night after finishing two other little projects. I could make that week's e-filing cycle window if I got them done before morning, so I plunged on through, guessing at one number for which I couldn't find documentation. It was part of the mortgage interest, and I knew I probably wouldn't make the itemized deduction cutoff, so it wouldn't have any effect on my taxes, anyway.

My husband's school expenses were the only new thing to consider; he's taking online courses while he's deployed. I didn't think there would be much tax effect, but I dutifully added the numbers from the statement I had into the appropriate part of the online tax form. It was late, and I rushed. I just wanted to cross the to-do off my list. I could see that checking account cushion materializing before my eyes… submit! submit! Continue reading...

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Party philosophy: When to spend big on fiestas

I grew up in a family not given to extravagance with regard to birthdays. Not that we could have been extravagant if we would have wanted to. With five children close together in age, a dad who'd pursued ministry as a career (and not one of those relatively lucrative evangelical TV ministries, either), and a mother at home with us, money was tight.

As an adult in my 20s, birthday parties meant dinners out at a nice restaurant; perhaps a very nice one, but never more than $100 all told.

And then came parenting. We had a pretty good-sized bash at the zoo for my oldest on his first birthday to the tune of $200 or so. But by the time he was 3 years old and I was the mother of more than one very small child with a full-time job, I didn't have the energy for big birthday parties nor the inclination for something extravagant. I baked cupcakes for everyone. We bought hot dogs from the local hot dog place. This was pretty much the extent of it.

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More about...Budgeting, Planning