human, being

Suze Orman wants me to have $27,813 in the bank
April 15, 2009, 8:09 am
Filed under: money | Tags: , , , , ,

Last weekend I watched Suze Orman’s show, and she kept hammering it home that everyone needs 8 months of living expenses in the bank just in case.

I know about just in case. We experienced just in case for five months last year. It sucked. We got through with unemployment, some credit cards, cutting back dramatically and shooting a small porno which we sold online.

(Just seeing if you’re actually reading. Kidding, Mom.)

Anyway, Ms. Orman says 8 months is the magic number. According to the calculator I ran on her site, that’s $27,813 for me. She’s also now recommending that people pay only the minimum on their credit cards (and stop charging on them) and putting every extra penny into that emergency fund.

It would take me 56 months — nearly 5 years — to put that together. That seems insurmountable. Un-doable.

And in the meantime, my credit cards would be accruing interest at 14% a year. Oh, and I should also be putting money into an IRA and hitting the match level in my 401K, and saving toward Lauren’s college fund. And I should also be saving for the things I want to buy, like a new house and a new TV. Because I’m not using my credit cards, remember.

Seriously, what universe does Suze Orman live in? I don’t drive a fancy car. Hell, we hardly even eat out anymore. My stepson lives in an unfinished basement and our carpet smells like cat vomit. I know I could find an extra $500 a month, but that would be my entire savings plan. All of it. And I can tell you that sometime during the next 5 years, as I’m building up to that 8 months of savings, I’m going to want to buy something. Or need to fix something.

So I’m going to ignore her. I don’t feel totally confident with only $150 in my savings account right now. But I feel more confident sending an extra $350 a month to pay off my cards, which got charged up when Steve’s income dropped for five months last year. When I get my cards paid off, I’ll have an extra $1000 a month, and then I can get serious about saving.

Sure, I’d feel like a princess with $27,813 in the bank. But I’ll feel like a queen with no credit card debt. I’d rather be a queen.


Tax season mess
April 14, 2009, 10:19 am
Filed under: money | Tags: , ,

I owe the IRS money from 2005, when I decided to stop the post-divorce collectors’ calls by negotiating down my debt and distributing an old 401k to pay the negotiated amount. I did this on the advice of a bankruptcy lawyer I consulted with. I made too much money to qualify for Chapter 7, and this seemed like the best option to end the financial nightmare I’d gotten myself into. I knew I’d have some tax and penalty consequences from the 401k distribution, but they seemed worth it.

What I didn’t know–and he failed to tell me–was that I had to count the settlement amount as income for 2005. When the IRS hit me with the adjusted tax bill, it amounted to almost $10,000. So, for the past three years I’ve been paying it down, $70 at a time. Any tax refund was applied to the bill. Last year’s stimulus money lowered it by another $600.

So I was thrilled when I did my taxes this year and found that I would be getting a refund that would wipe out the rest of my debt and give me an actual deposit in my checking account.

But there’s a hitch.

My ex and I are supposed to alternate filing Head of Household and Single with Lauren as a dependent. I was supposed to be claiming her as a dependent in odd-numbered years. Somehow, I did it backwards, and my ex and I have been filing the same status every year. Which means I get to go back and refile for the past four tax years.

I may actually owe more. Which really sucks.

I know I should just hire someone to do my taxes for me. I just couldn’t afford to spend $500 to prepare my 1040 and Schedule C. Instead, I’ve been using TurboTax. Last year, both of our returns should have been rejected because we both filed as Head of Household. But they weren’t because for some reason TurboTax didn’t ask me for Lauren’s social security number.

I guess at this point I should just take the whole mess to a tax accountant and pay to have all of my tax returns fixed. One little glitch: I can’t find my 2005 file anywhere, which means I have to order all the backup paperwork again.

I’m still getting both state and federal refunds this year, but both are about $1,000 less than what I thought they’d be. I am totally bummed, because I had already recarpeted my house with the money I’d get back.

Spreadsheet freak
March 6, 2009, 5:06 pm
Filed under: money | Tags: , , ,

The other night, I wrote my blog about what I would do with $16 million netted from the lotto or a dead uncle. Was that ridiculous or what? (I blame it on insomnia and lack of new posts by Dooce. Sorry, Heather, your vacations are bad for my mental health.)  I did the math of how to spend the money in a spreadsheet, down to the last dollar. Want to know how I’m paying down my debt over the next two years? Got a spreadsheet on that. Grocery list, with frequently purchase items pre-populated in a drop-down list? Let me show you the Excel file. Want to know how many hours of comp time I have? There’s a spreadsheet for that, too.

Hi, my name is Lynn, and I’m a spreadsheet-aholic.

There’s something about the perfect little boxes that I love for making schedules and lists. Everything lines up neatly, and if I happen to want to sum or average a column, it takes a click of a button. I can format, shade, make dollars dollars and dates dates. I can insert pictures. I can create charts and graphs. I can go absolutely hog wild and it makes me happy.

I’m not an advanced user. Sure, I can create some basic formulas because Algebra was totally my gig. I heard an NPR story last Saturday that said that spreadsheets are all about Algebra, which was a fascinating answer to the whine, “But I’ll never use this stuff in the real world.” Yes, junior, you will.

My biggest complaint about my spreadsheet addiction is that I often have the one I need at work when I’m at home, or at home when I’m at work. I’m hamstrung by accessibility. But no longer. Today, I discovered Google Documents and the spreadsheet tool there. The docs are saved in my Google account, so if I want to make up my grocery list at the end of my workday, I can! And if I want to log in my work hours from home, I can! Miracle of miracles, I say.

But wait! There’s more! Not only does Google Documents have spreadsheets, it also has documents, presentations and forms! I can share all of this with others too, so when someone asks me, “Lynn, how on earth do you keep your life so organized?” I can link them to my spreadsheets.

So excuse me if this post isn’t my usual War & Peace tome. I have to cut this short and go move more spreadsheets into my new favorite online tool.

20 things I’d do if I won the lottery
March 5, 2009, 12:49 am
Filed under: money | Tags: , , , ,

We all play the “if I won the lottery” game every now and then. I do it especially when the PowerBall jackpot’s digits add up to 11, which is my lucky number. Sometimes I buy a ticket in that situation, but usually I don’t because — drum roll — I once had a psychic tell me that I’d never win anything in the lottery, not even $20, so not to waste my cash. Yes, I occasionally consult psychics. I have two on speed dial. They’re usually right on the money.

But I digress. Even though I know the chances of me winning the Powerball Jackpot are about as good as Steve giving birth, I love t fantasize. Maybe I have a very rich uncle somewhere (hey, I’m adopted, it could happen) who will leave me $40 million in his estate. So after taxes, that gives me about $16 million to play with. I love this game, because it helps me fine tune my values and think about how I want to spend my time and money in the here and now. What’s interesting is I’ve had basically the same items on the list since I first started dreaming about winning 20 years ago.

Invest for the future

  • I’d immediately set aside about 60% for our retirement ($9.6 million) and put $400k into a cash reserve fund. We’d both get a monthly allowance, out of this and we’d quit our jobs.
  • I’d pay off all of our current debt, including mortgage, cars, student loans and credit cards, about $210k.
  • I’d give Steve $500k to buy a franchise. His job would be to run it.
  • I’d refurbish our townhouse to prepare it to become a rental property. To do it right, including finishing the basement, would take about $25k.
  • I’d set up $500k trust funds for both of the kids, which they would begin to receive on their 21st birthday as a percentage of earnings until they are about 35, and then they’d take charge of the principal. If they show they are financially responsible before that, then we’d move that date. I don’t want them to ever have to struggle, but I want them to work too.
  • We’d get married in style. I’d spent $20k on our wedding. What? Only $2ok? Yes! I think that’s plenty to have the wedding we have in mind, and we may actually be able to do it for less than that.

Give back

  • I’d immediately give 10% of the net away to charities. Right now, they would be my cancer center, The Children’s Hospital, two local animal welfare organizations and three great arts organizations that I believe are very important to my city. $1.6 million.
  • I’d take about $1.5 million to start a family foundation, and running it would be my part-time job. I think giving away money would be the best job in the entire world. It’s not a ton of money, but it’s enough, if, invested wisely, we spend off the earnings.
  • I’d give the kids each $1k to give away to organizations they like. They can do it over time or in one big fell swoop.
  • We’d take another $3k and pass it out in $20s to people randomly, just because. I’d do things like buy lunch for the guy behind me in line, and fill up someone’s tank with gas.
  • I’d give each member of our immediate families $10k each (about $80k total)

Get a better roof

  • I’d buy us a new (to us) four-bedroom townhouse with a two-car garage. I’d pay in cash. Maybe literally in $20s because how fun would that be? We’d spend about $400k in today’s market for what we want.
  • I’d set aside about $25k for any renovations and new furniture we’d need.

Keep learning

  • I’d set aside $100k each for Ryan and Lauren’s college educations. If they figure out how to pay for college on their own (completely or partially), they get the balance upon graduation to use as a down payment on a house.
  • Steve and I would each get $50k for education. I’d get my master’s degree in something I love, rather than something that makes sense: Photography. Steve could finish his bachelor’s degree and get his MBA, if he still wants to do that.

Go places

  • We’d take a long family vacation to several places, spending about $30k over six to eight weeks of travel.
  • Steve and I would have a beautiful honeymoon on a beach somewhere for about $10k.
  • I would put $20k aside for spur-of-the-moment travel over the next several years.

Buy some stuff

  • I’d buy Steve a new car and get mine fixed. My car, a 2006 Civic, works just fine but has minor body damage. Steve’s car, a 2001 Saab, needs a lot of work. His would be a new-to-him car, but probably not brand new, because that would piss him off.
  • I’d give Steve and me each $15k  and each kid $2.5k in play money to use for whatever we wanted. Lauren would probably get a dog and use the balance to pay for caring for it. Ryan, that’s easy: video games. Steve would buy himself a laptop and a motorcycle. Me? I’d take my trip to Africa and buy a Nikon D90 with a couple of new lenses.

How would you spend $16 million?

The new frugality is off the chain
March 2, 2009, 10:46 pm
Filed under: As I See It, money | Tags: , , , , , , ,
Penny, from Chrissy-D on flickr

Penny, from Chrissy-D on flickr

I jut got done watching today’s episode of Oprah via TiVo. Now don’t get me wrong: I like Oprah. I admire her actually. But it seems completely inauthentic for THE RICHEST WOMAN IN THE UNIVERSE to be counseling us normal folks about how to behave financially in this recession.

I appreciated the stories today about the woman who has enough processed food in her basement to feed her family of four through Armageddon, and the other woman who was coping with the death of her husband by buying, buying, buying. Both families took a vacation from spending any money, stopped driving their kids a few blocks to school, ate at home. It’s all good. Yes, we’ve all been little piggies for the past decade or so. Time to step away from the trough.

During the broadcast, Oprah cringed when one mom threw away an expired super-sized tub of sour cream. “I hate waste,” she said, wrinkling her nose. She also claimed to pick up pennies. Steve, who was sitting on the couch uncharacteristically unsarcastic for the most part, said, “Oh, come on, Oprah’s earning a million pennies in the time it takes her to pick up that fucking thing.”

The lesson is not lost on me. Oprah is a billionaire, right? Or hundred-millionaire at least. She didn’t get that way buying Jimmy Choos on credit and refinancing her house to pay off her car and buy a second (unnecessary) car, as one of her guests today did. Maybe she does take her lunch to work every day, and save used Yoplait cups because they may come in handy someday. It’s not like she was born rich. She worked for her money, and got lucky, and was smart.

She says that having the best stuff — craving it, really, and indulging by buying it — keeps us from living our best life. I agree with her, and I am working on unhitching my feelings of satisfaction, self-acceptance and success from the stuff that I have (like my house, my car, even the wedding we want to have). I know it is Oprah’s mission in life to save the world, one million audience members at a time. But the message, coming from her, rings false because at this point in her life, I just don’t see how she can relate. Like a skinny person complaining about her 22 percent body fat to a woman in a size 22 dress, she’s trying to make us feel like she’s one of us. When she’s obviously not. Maybe that’s beyond the point: We need to relate to the message and to her guests.


And on this topic of frugality, I’m torn. I haven’t been saving lately because I’m trying to undo the financial damage I incurred last fall. All my exta money is going to pay off credit cards, yet again. Frugality is cool, it’s in, it’s hip, it’s off the chain. Everyone’s talking about how they aren’t spending money, and that RAWKS! people! Every night on the news, there’s another story about how to save money, cut corners, do without (but without the suffering!). Instead of bragging about our latest purchase, we guiltily hide it in our closet and when we finally pull it out, we’re all, “This old thing? I just pulled it out of mothballs. I’ve had it for years!”

Folks, believe me, I know what it’s like to freak out about not having any money. To worry about the mortgage getting paid. To cross my fingers that the Xcel check will clear the day AFTER my paycheck hits my account. But if nobody is spending any money, how the hell are we going to get out of this recession?

Suze Orman a couple of weeks ago challenged people to stop eating out entirely for a month. Now Steve works for a restaurant, and if a large percentage of the population took her advice–sound as it is, he could very well lose his job. So no, please eat out, especially at Subways at Cherry Creek mall, Park Meadows and on the 16th Street Mall. It’s a fine line to walk, this new frugality. By trying to be “responsible” with our money, we’re killing the economy, which makes companies lay off people, which means more people have to be responsible and not spend any money, which means another business closes and so on and so on.

So I’m going to make it a point to NOT be frugal a few times a month, to buy something that I want but don’t need, to frequent small businesses in doing so. Next week, we’re traveling (gasp! no–not that luxury!) to Napa, and we will drop a few hundred dollars into that local economy. And I’m going to feel damn good about doing it.