The Billfold Book Club Discusses Helaine Olen’s ‘Pound Foolish’

it's my desk yo

I want to start the discussion of Helaine Olen’s Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry with a true story.

When I finally got a job that paid over $50,000 a year, I started doing all the right things.

I paid off all my debts—both the medical debt I owed on an unexpected foot surgery and some non-student-loan educational debt. I contributed to my 403(b) and took the full company match. I started a Roth IRA and made the maximum yearly contribution. I got a “high-interest” ING checking/savings account which—I just checked—was paying 1.5 percent interest that year.

In order to further this financial prudency, I did all the other stuff too—I got the slow cooker and started packing it with lentils, I walked instead of taking taxis, I continued my long-standing love affair with the public library.

And then I started doing the math. As I wrote in a now-defunct blog on April 18, 2009:

If five years of working earns me enough savings to live on for one year, then how many years will I need to work to be able to have enough savings for retirement?

Never mind the variables or inflation or 401(k)s or anything like that. Let’s even ignore things like getting married, having children, buying a house, traveling, major medical expenses, etc. Let’s just look at the basic math.

5=1. 10=2. 20=4. And even after working for the next 40 years (which would make me 67 years old) I’d only have enough money saved for 8 years of retirement.

Again, we’ll leave the variables out (and the response “but people usually spend less money per year when retired,” which I will balance out with “yeah, but stuff is going to cost more in forty years”).

What does one do when looking at an equation like this? Try to invest? Try to save more? I can’t be the first person who’s stared down the end of this equation.

Helaine Olen’s Pound Foolish also stares this question in the face, and doesn’t quite come up with an answer. READ MORE

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Exciting SNOWPIERCER Film Club Updates!

snowpiercer-trailer-2Have you gotten a chance to watch Snowpiercer yet, the best movie ever made about a post-apocalyptic #AmtrakResidency? If not, you have a little more time: we’re going to chat about what it has to say about money and class on Friday, July 25th, instead of the 24th, so that — huzzah! — ‘Folder Anne Helen Petersen can join us. She has Feelings about this movie, guys. Feelings she’s excited to share.

According to IndieWire, producer Harvey Weinstein calls Snowpiercer “a smart movie for a smarter audience.” Like, as opposed to a dum-dum movie for everybody. That’s the reason that he experimented with releasing the film to viewers via Video On Demand, iTunes, Amazon, and other outlets after it had only been in theaters for a couple of weeks, as we mentioned. He didn’t think an uncut version would please a broad audience, interested less in the politics and more in the axe fighting. The gamble seems to have paid off:

The theatrical marketing–a fraction closer to $5 million than $25 million–provided the launchpad for VOD. “We’ve devised a multi-platform model,” says RADiUS’s Quinn. “We’re here to crack that no man’s land between a boutique movie and a blockbuster where there’s no middle ground.”  “RADiUS did it perfectly for a giant financial success,” boasts Weinstein. “We’ve done $2 million in a week on VOD. We’ve never done that much, it’s our biggest weekly number. I think we wind up grossing $4-5 million theatrical beyond VOD, which makes for us all with ancillaries like TV very profitable. That’s the reason I brought in Tom and Jason to TWC, to do an amazing job. I’m not just an old theater guy, I want to be innovative and make movies work.”

More information about how to rent the film from the comfort of your own couch here, or go see it in a theater if you can and show Harvey Weinstein that smart people go to multiplexes too. But, um, you might not want to watch it alone. It’s like Wall-E meets Brazil, okay? It’s dark. You need a hand to hold / arm to grab, or at least I did.

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The Legend of the Legend of Bunko Kelly, the Kidnapping King of Portland

poooortlandia

In the late eighteen hundreds, the port cities of the American West were dangerous nests of sailors, prostitutes, and gangsters—none more so than Portland, Oregon. The most infamous relic of those bad old days are not the wooly beards of its male population, but the Portland Underground, the city’s network of so-called “shanghai tunnels,” which tourists today are often told were used to spirit unsuspecting men, perhaps lured by a half-naked prostitute to an establishment where they were drugged and kidnapped, toward their final destination: pressed into service on a ship.

These kidnappers were known as crimps, and the “king of the crimps,” according to folk legend, was a man named Joseph Kelly. By his count, some two thousand souls owe their time at sea to him. Kelly spent his early life on the sea as well: In his memoir, he wrote of once being shipwrecked on the island of Madagascar. Rescued from the shipwreck by the natives, Kelly was fed soup. Afterward, he looked into the clay jug that stored the rest of the stew and discovered the right hand of one of his shipmates. When a typhoon struck, he and some other sailors followed the lead of a man described as an old pirate, and escaped from their rescuers; they were promptly picked up by pirates. Fortunately, Kelly and his band managed to lock the pirates in the ship’s belly before heading ashore in India.

In 1879, Kelly got off a ship in Portland. In those days, since sailors weren’t allowed to leave their ships until they reached their final port, many sailors disappeared when they arrived—fleeing for jobs in the local logging industry, for instance. About three-fifths of all sailors who arrived in Astoria or Portland ditched their ships. These desertions were a problem, since captains needed able-bodied men to set sail again. This gave rise to the crimps: If a ship needed to find more men, the captain sent for a crimp, who supplied bodies for up to fifty dollars a head. Kelly took up the trade and became so good at it that Stewart Holbrook, a “rough writer” who specialized in selling local Portland history to the reading public of the East Coast literary establishment, and Kelly’s somewhat besotted biographer, described him as “an artist, for the magnificent imagination he applied to his occupation was nothing short of creative.”

READ MORE

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Job of the Day: Former Beekeeping Brand Ambassador

512px-Burt's_Bees_Products,_Sep_2012I read this Talk of the Town last night about Burt Shavitz, the 79-year-old real Burt of Burt’s Bees, and was OBSESSED.

Shavitz finally sat and told the Burt’s Bees story, starting with building his hives—“It’s a way to make a living if you’ve got a strong back and a strong mind and good eyes”—and then, in 1984, meeting a single mother named Roxanne Quimby, who was camped by Lake Wassookeag. “She was man-hungry,” he recalled, “and she and I, by spells, fed the hunger.” Quimby and Shavitz began selling his honey, then candles from his beeswax, and finally—in a masterstroke—his motorcycle-riding, golden-retriever-raising life style. In 1999, Quimby bought Shavitz out for about a hundred and thirty thousand dollars; eight years later, the company was sold to Clorox for $913 million.

It ends with a semi-charming anecdote about Burt peeing outside? Very Talk of the Town-y. Since reading it I have told everyone I’ve talked to (so, two people!) about Roxanne Quimby, capitalist villain and/or misandrist hero. Upon re-reading, though, Shavitz’s phrase “man hungry” tipped me off to the possibility that there is a lot more going on here? READ MORE

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How David Shapiro, Creator of Pitchfork Reviews Reviews, Does Money

David

David Shapiro is the pen name of a writer who created a Tumblr blog called Pitchfork Reviews Reviews. He then wrote a novel (You’re Not Much Use to Anyone, out now) about a character named David who created a Tumblr blog called Pitchfork Reviews Reviews. We talked about his career and his money.

What do you do?

I work as a summer associate at a white-shoe law firm. I hope to get an offer to come back to my firm after I graduate law school next year, meaning I would start full-time around September, 2015. I also write a little bit at The Wall Street Journal (in the paper) and The New Yorker (online). And I also wrote this book, obviously, the reason we’re here.

What does white-shoe mean?

It generally refers to old, large, well-respected law firms. Like, my firm has about 1,000 lawyers. It’s peculiar—in America, in general, the biggest corporations are the best at one particular thing. ExxonMobil is the biggest/best at producing oil and gas. Pfizer is the biggest/best at making pharmaceuticals. In other parts of the world, it’s different—Samsung, the biggest/best corporation in South Korea, makes toilet seats, phones, coffee machines, cars. They own an amusement park. In May, when the CEO of Samsung had a heart attack, they took him to Samsung Hospital. But law firms in America, the biggest ones (which are generally the best ones), can provide any kind of legal service that you need—much closer to the Samsung model than the Pfizer model.

So that’s what I do, this summer. I work in the private equity group.

Is your real name David Shapiro?

No. My legal name isn’t David Shapiro. I’m a lawyer and law student under my legal name, and I write under the name David Shapiro. I picked it because it’s like the John Smith of Jewish names. It’s hard to Google. I wanted to separate my writing life from my legal life because when I was 22, me and my friend wrote a Village Voice story about heroin dealer/addicts and I thought no employer would ever hire me if they knew I had spent time with heroin addicts. That seems naive now (I didn’t actually do the heroin with them), but I felt paranoid about it then.

But being David Shapiro has some definite upsides—someone on Tumblr the other day reblogged my post announcing my book, and he said, “I’m so psyched about this book, I loved his scholarship on the Shakespeare author debate, I’m definitely going to order this,” and I was like, “Sick!” There is David Shapiro the poet, David Shapiro the party photographer, there was a David Shapiro in the index of my constitutional law textbook.

My publisher was not excited that I had chosen this name because it does indeed make my work very difficult to find through Google, which makes the marketing department’s job harder. I used David Shapiro, Jr. for a while, which is the opposite of David Shapiro, because among Jews, it’s untoward to name someone after a living person, so there are almost no David Shapiro’s, Jr. There is one, actually—I think he is about 14 and he may or may not have frosted tips [in his hair]. But then I switched back because it sounded really stupid. So now I’m David Shapiro again. READ MORE

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Concerning Eschewing Ivies and Raising Working-Class Heroes

Magnifier

On the heels of Ester’s exploration of trust fund kids (my position: don’t trust ‘em), I came upon this rather wide-ranging indictment of elite colleges and the admissions process in the New Republic: in short, the author avers, the Ivies squelch creativity, channel thinking and energy into a narrow set of endeavors, reinforce privilege, and perpetuate the illusion of a meritocracy: “This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead.”

And the cause (aside from, you know, how rich people always set stuff up to benefit themselves)?

Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. The more hurdles there are, the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (“enrichment” programs, to use the all-too-perfect term)—most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools.

READ MORE

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Which is Objectively Worse, Burger King or McDonalds, Sbarro or Pizza Hut?

sbarro pizza the office screenshotThe most familiar names in fast food are also the worst. Turns out no one actually likes McDonalds hamburgers, Taco Bell burritos, or Subway subs. According to a new Consumer Reports survey:

many of the biggest names earned significantly lower scores for the foods that made them famous, notably McDonald’s. The chain, which serves flash-frozen patties made with 100 percent USDA-inspected beef, touts them as free from  “preservatives, fillers, extenders, and so-called pink slime.” Such a pledge might be comforting, but it’s hardly a rousing endorsement. McDonald’s own customers ranked its burgers significantly worse than those of 20 competitors, including Hardee’s, White Castle, and Carl’s Jr. No other house specialty scored as low.

Taco Bell’s burritos were also voted least luscious. And the subs from Subway, the world’s largest restaurant chain with more than 40,000 units in 106 countries, are near the bottom of the list.

Also at the bottom of the list with Congress and Comcast are nationwide chains Panda Express, Burger King, KFC, and pretty much anyplace that attempts to pass off crust-with-sauce-and-cheese as pizza: Little Caesar’s, Cici’s, Pizza Hut, and Domino’s are all in the bottom 10. Poor Domino’s! They’ve been trying so hard. The most worthless of all though is Sbarro, which makes perfect sense to everyone who ever had to gag down a slice there while waiting for their mom to come pick them up from the mall.

If no one can stand these places, why do they do such vigorous business? READ MORE

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From Night Shift Obit-Writer to Corporate Monkey: An HR Exec Reflects

girls-gq-snack-room

I spend most of my job coaching people on what to do with their careers. You might think this means I have my own life figured out. In reality, my job history shows a lack of focus and intense desire to live in locations that please me. From the mouth of a person who has likely looked at your resume, here is my career history:

Annual Conference Intern, Non Profit in D.C.

I was hired to do all of the logistics planning for the organization’s annual conference in Boston, MA. I found the job on idealist.org because that was back when I still had ideals and didn’t mind being broke. I believe it paid $10 an hour with a monthly metro card. My boyfriend at the time drove me out to D.C. for the summer where I lived in a married couple’s guest bedroom. The job was fairly low stress and my coworkers were nice. One time I won free burritos for the whole office when I dropped my business card in a fish bowl at Chipotle so I like to think that I was their favorite intern of all time. I also got a free trip to Boston out of the deal, where I learned the key lesson that networking is really about a bunch of highly paid people boozing.

I briefly considered staying in Washington D.C. because it’s an amazing city and you make friends at Front Page over pitcher beers and making fun of people who wear their Yale jacket to bars. I sadly left D.C. in favor of returning home to go to graduate school. Somewhere lingering in Dupont Circle is the ghost of the woman I would have been had I stayed.

Lesson learned: Sometimes the city makes the job.  Also, if you are going to live in D.C. for the summer, live somewhere with air conditioning.

Obituary Editor, Night Shift

Ah Craigslist, you wanton beast. I was going to graduate school and looking for a gig that could accommodate my erratic student schedule. I found a posting on the old craig’ers for a part time editing position. The job was at a subsidiary of a legitimate newspaper. They had a snack room so I was sold. I worked all kinds of crazy hours, usually starting at 8pm after my evening class. Sometimes I worked onsite and sometimes I worked from home. It’s amazing what kind of people you run into when you live your life like a vampire, waking up at 2pm to start your day. For example, I encountered a crackhead that chased me on the el with a handful of Monopoly money. I fell in love with literally every boy I met at that job because they were all geeky writer/musician types who would crack jokes about punk bands and Russian history. We were allowed to listen to music while we worked and we tried to amuse ourselves with obscure covers of pop songs. When I reflect, these were the best coworkers I’ve ever had and sadly it was the lowest paying job I had in my adult life. READ MORE

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Link Round-Up: Index Funds; Women-Oriented Companies Run By Men Because #Patriarchy

joanie+ Someone in a comment asked for an overview of Index Funds. Here’s a very good, straightforward, and simple one: Why Does Everyone Preach About Index Funds? What They Are And Why They’re Good – From The Very Beginning.

The natural state for a business is to increase in value, and thus for its stock to go up. Now, let’s say you have the money to invest in the stock of one company. A lot of people invest this way by choosing individual stocks to invest in. That one company might be a really good one and skyrocket. It might also just be an average company and just do average. It might also be another Enron and just completely fall apart. Obviously, you want that high-riser, but what you really want is to avoid that Enron. If the stock you happened to buy is another Enron, your money is gone. This is a very big risk with individual stock investing – if you buy a lemon, your money goes poof. …

An index fund is exactly what I described above: they define some rule or set of rules, then just buy the stocks that follow that rule. Because it’s so easy to do this, the companies that run index funds generally don’t charge very much in fees for doing this for you. It’s popular because it’s very easy and it works.

For further / deeper reading, there’s some interesting info here in Q&A form (“Will the popularity of index funds cause a pricing bubble in the stocks that make up an index?”) on Stack Exchange. 

+ Men might not buy tampons, but they sure will sell them. READ MORE

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When You’re Not Saving Enough to Retire at 65

The Employee Benefit Research Institute recently conducted a 20-minute phone survey of 1,000 workers and 501 retirees ages 25 and older to discuss “retirement, their preparations for retirement, their confidence with regard to various aspects of retirement, and related issues.” The full report is here, but this chart with total savings and investments will probably interest you since more than a third of respondents said they had less than $1,000 in savings:

yup

So if you’ve got a little hitch in your git-along (as my family down South would say) when it comes to saving for retirement, you are not alone. What is your game plan? READ MORE

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Ask A Human Who Actually Practices GTD (‘Getting Things Done’)

gee tee dee

Here is an real tweet that I really tweeted yesterday:

I meant every word of it.

I’ve been practicing GTD, or David Allen’s Getting Things Done system, since 2008. That’s well over 300 Weekly Reviews. An uncountable number of Ubiquitous Capture Devices. The regular, systemic processing of my Inboxes to Zero.

What does this have to do with personal finance, you might ask? When I was working as an executive assistant, practicing GTD didn’t have all that much to do with finance except for the part where it helped me pay my bills on time. It was only when I switched to the freelance world that GTD became an essential part of my money management.

It’s probably time for a quick update of what “GTD” is. At its core, “practicing GTD” means sorting through all of the various inputs that come at you every day — email inboxes, Twitter feeds, online chats with editors, personal conversations — and isolating every task that you have agreed to complete onto a single list. Then, you organize the list into completable chunks of action items, and you get things done. READ MORE

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Riding in Car Services With Boys

me basicallyYesterday morning my family and I found ourselves 40 minutes deep into Brooklyn — Midwood, people! — for an appointment with an audiologist. I blame our socialist healthcare, which ironically doesn’t even go into effect until August 1st, but I didn’t know this when we got our referral. So there we were on the corner of Ocean Parkway and Avenue P, sitting in the back of a car service because we made some very impractical promise to ourselves not to take the baby on the subway until he got his two-month vaccinations.

The doctor’s office we were aiming for turned out to actually be not where we were dropped off, but a roughly 20-minute walk away (thanks, Google Maps!). Luckily we had the baby in a carseat with no stroller or carrier, and it was approximately 90 degrees. A recipe for relationship success right there. About to find out if your child is hearing impaired? Definitely recommend getting no sleep the night before then go for a 20-minute walk in the sun carrying a baby in a carseat. Then, once you get there, realize you forgot to memorize your baby’s social security number and are therefore a terrible parent. Despite this, find out your child’s insurance kicks in August 1st so you will be paying out-of-pocket to find out two weeks too soon that your kid’s hearing is perfectly fine.

Thankfully it was only (only?) $75 and we put it on our (shared!) debit card.

Anyway at the end of our first of two car trips, we unbuckled and I said the magic words:

“So how much do we owe you?” READ MORE

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