Let’s Throw Some Money at Our Problems: July 2014 Check-in

It’s time to check in on our debt payments and savings goals again. If you’re joining us for the first time, you can read about our decision to publicly keep track of our debt here.

Pull up those balances!



How Do You Deal With Your Nightmare Coworkers?

plankton-from-spongebob-squarepants_9-best-cartoon-villainsI don’t go into the Billfold office so I only have to see my nightmare coworkers every few months*, but some are not so lucky. How do you cope?

Rhik Samadder at the Guardian has a few admirable suggestions. His first option is “Make friends” which is obviously NOT realistic so moving on. The third option is “War of Attrition” which I really respect but just isn’t for me. The second one, though, involves passivity and delusion, two things I am GREAT at:

Have a nemesis.

Now we’re talking. All real heroes (and by real, I mean fictional) have a nemesis. A bete noire, a Skeletor, a villain who vigilantly plots their downfall. Anyone can have a nemesis though, and a nemesis can be anyone. Spongebob Squarepants has one who is literally just a dirty bubble called Dirty Bubble. Having a nemesis makes your daily workplace struggle a private narrative of heroic overcoming. Barry keeps checking your work and sort of hovering, because he is waiting for you to trip up. Gunther has scheduled another meeting on this of all days because he wants you to feel overwhelmed and have a cry. But you will not succumb. Screw those blackhearted bastards! READ MORE


Taking a Bite Out of Networking Events: A Guide for Beginners

GOALSHello, recent graduate. As you begin to progress in your career, you will likely begin to be invited to various “networking” and “schmoozing” events. Some will occur after film screenings, book launches, or discussion panels. Others will be designated “networking cocktail hours” for “young professionals.” Whatever the context, such events are very important for your launch into the wider world, and your own upward trajectory! So how do you maximize your time at these shindigs? How do you “work the room”? I’m happy to say that after 10 years of attending such events in person, I can offer you some hard-earned advice that will help you really get every crumb and morsel of worthwhile interaction out of these events. So get your pen or your iPhone ready, and be prepared to memorize a simple checklist for networking success.

1. When you enter the space, scan the room.

Ask yourself two questions: The first is whom do I know here, and the second is where is the cheese table?

Good. Now combine these two questions: whom do I know here who is closest to the cheese table? After you approach that person and begin to chit-chat, slowly position yourself, shifting your angle while you talk, until you’re within arm’s range of the cheese. Then put that arm to work. Eating cheese. READ MORE


What’s in a Name? Oh, Only Your Success in Life

Piper probably has the easiest time of allHaving a white-sounding name is worth about eight years of work experience. “Jamal” would have to work in an industry for eight years longer than “Greg” for them to have equal chances of being hired, even if Jamal came from a privileged background and Greg from an underprivileged one.

– the Atlantic, again. They’re killing it this week.

When I met my college roommate she said, “Oh!” I said, “Yes?” She said, “No, it’s fine, I just — Ester from Washington, DC? I assumed you were black.” Others have assumed I’m Korean. Largely though I have benefited from having an “easy” name: easy to pronounce, easy to understand, easy enough to spell if you can remember to toss the unnecessary “H.” Easy to read as Jewish/white.

Have you had to battle your own name for legitimacy? Have you changed your name to give yourself a smoother time of it? Does knowing that Greg opens doors makes you more likely to opt for Greg for your own kid, or do you say “FU White Supremacy” and do what you want, knowing progress has to come eventually and will only come if we fight for it?


Can Americans Retire?

retired or still working?

In a recent speech on the economy by President Obama, the only reference to the state of retirement in the U.S. was “401(k)s are growing.” That is the current talking point among the retirement industry.

Some types of accounts have average balances of about $92,000—a “record high,” but rosy numbers apply only to people who are actually saving. About a third of Americans ages 55-64 have no retirement savings. In addition, $92,000, though not insignificant, is not nearly enough money to retire on.

The elderly are losing their ability to retire. According to a cover story by Jessica Bruder for Harper’s magazine this month, “Nearly 7.7 million Americans 65 and older were still employed last year, up 60 percent from a decade earlier.”

We have gone through a decade-long series of hot air debates about how to squeeze/protect Social Security, with few discussions on how to effectively protect Americans’ overall retirement income.

Is it time for those debates? I was surprised to find that there are a few signs of hope. READ MORE


How the Other Half Lives


While I was in the middle of writing a long meditation on the moral obligations of the rich, I received the following email:


Woo hoo! A new Infiniti is in the mail to me! Some thoughtful benefactor must have seen me, my girlfriend, and my two kids trying to pack our aged little Prius for our weekend camping trip and said, “That family needs a luxury SUV right away!”

Actually, I assumed it was some sort of email scam and ignored it. But then, the next day, another email came: READ MORE


Kapitalism the Game, By and Starring Kim Kardashian

games carnyPerhaps you are one of those people who, when they hear “Kardashian,” thinks of the characters from “Star Trek.” You wouldn’t be too far off. Those otherworldly beings are described as “Tall, long-necked, humanoid in appearance, marked by several bony protrusions and ridges …” Though Kim’s protrusions aren’t exactly bony, that’s a good intro. NB: I am not the first person to make this joke.

The tall, long-necked humanoid TV star has gotten as rich as Kroesus, and almost as rich as Gene Roddenberry himself, by marketing her image in several media. Her latest successful money-making venture is a game that allows you, or your cute, busty avatar, to Keep Up with Kim in Hollywood. The Atlantic’s write up / review of the experience is amazing enough; I can only imagine how it feels to play:

Kim Kardashian: Hollywood [is] an app that is also a game that is also, now, a phenomenon. (“It might be our biggest game of the year,” Niccolo de Masi, CEO of the app-maker Glu Mobile Inc., told Bloomberg.) The game is free to download and play; but it allows—and encourages—in-app purchases. You use real-world money to win at Kim World. Which has meant, among other things, that Kim Kardashian is becoming even more explicitly what a reality star always will be, underneath it all: an entrepreneur.

While she has long ranked among the highest-paid of the reality (“reality”) stars—her estimated net worth, as of this June, was $45 million—the game is on track to earn $200 million, with Kim’s 45-percent cut coming in at $90 million. … Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is the game that Ayn Rand might have written, had Ayn Rand lived in the age of the smartphone and been a fan of bodycon skirts. It is what happens when objectification gives way to objectivism. “This game is so freakin stupid,” iTunes customer Dmon555 complained, before giving it a 5-star rating.

Have you played this game? Please tell me you’ve played it and that it’s as much ridiculous fun as it sounds. Have you spent any money on it? Was the experience worth it? Also, ha! The COMMENTS. READ MORE


The Cost of Attending a Weekend-long Improv Comedy Festival in New York


Last summer, I looked out at the audience while performing at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and saw an entire row of people asleep. That’s what happens at 6:45 a.m. at the Del Close Marathon, an annual weekend-long improv marathon with more than 50 hours of continuous comedy on multiple stages. We were okay with this because we had also crammed a handful of Pittsburgh improvisers into a tiny New York apartment, saw some really great shows, and had a blast.

I had a pretty leisurely trip last year. I got to New York on a Thursday afternoon to catch up with a couple non-improv friends. A friend and I ended up spending our Sunday afternoon checking out the James Turrell exhibit at the Guggenheim (incredible). I also spent money without doing any kind of budgeting and, during a phone call on the bus ride home, discovered that I was being laid off from my job.

This year, I was a little more cautious with my spending. I took a volunteer shift for a free performer pass ($25). I brought snacks and packed my toothpaste instead of buying a travel size at my destination (a bad habit). I bought a ticket to the late night ASSSCAT show, but none of the other premium ones. My friend cut me a break on gas and parking. I still made impulse purchases (hello, drunk snacks from Duane Reade), but consciously staying aware of my spending helped keep my debit card in my wallet. READ MORE


America Runs on Dunkin’ (In Secret Pools)

Penguin-Pool-SmlThe beach is largely democratic. Though, as commenters hastened to assure me when last we discussed it, some shorelines charge for entry or parking or both, where there is ocean there tends to be free access to ocean. Screaming children, old folks splayed out in chairs, teenagers strutting like seagulls: the beach embraces humanity in all its debatable glory.

The pool, by contrast, is elitist. It puts up walls. Yes, there are public pools, but much like public schools, they tend to be used by a specific subset of people with fewer choices. Those who can afford to usually go elsewhere, like the mom I heard agonizing in the playground about whether or not to give her daughter to the best free education in Brooklyn, or like the author of this piece for Mommy Poppins: “if the idea of putting your kids in a public pool makes you uncomfortable, there are other options.” Why would anyone be “uncomfortable”? The author doesn’t say, but we can guess. My dad grew up in small-town Virginia with pools whose signs read, “No Jews, blacks, or dogs.” The pool remains a potent symbol of racial and economic segregation even today. It says, “You there, you belong; come, bathe your weary limbs and refresh yourselves in my rarefied water. Immerse yourself in a Fountain of Youth. Emerge sparkling like a doe touched with morning dew. #NoFatties.”

This piece about secret pools in Manhattan does not, in short, come as a surprise.

The Dream Downtown, a hotel in the Meatpacking District, charges $175 a day to use the pool, Monday through Thursday. A cabana on the weekend will set you back at least $2,500.

It’s enough to make a person long for the Jersey Shore.

BTW: If you’re in the city and less squeamish than the Mommy Poppins crowd, this round-up of the best places to swim in Manhattan includes several absolutely free public pools as well as more affordable private options. Or, try a Dumpster!

Illo by Charrow


The Fraud Alert Specialist Who Calmed My Nerves

fraud alert

I have it set up so that I receive an instant email alert any time I withdrawal more than $100 from an ATM, so you can imagine my horror when I received a few of these messages yesterday while I was at work and not withdrawing money from an ATM.

But before I could freak out, I received a call from my bank’s fraud prevention department about suspicious activity on my account.

“Mike, are you in Mexico making ATM withdrawals?” they asked. The fact that this was being done in another country accounted for the uneven number coming out of an ATM. READ MORE


Taking a Year Off to Do What You Love, A Year Later

money in the banana stand for u and for meA year ago, I left my job—at an office I’d been at for four years, my personal record—to Do What You Love (DWYL). There were some problems with the non-profit I worked for, most importantly the fact that it felt like a ship headed for an iceberg. (And lo, it transpired that, shortly after I left, it smashed against icy reality and no longer exists.) But! I had good coworkers, good hours, and a reasonably good salary that I had negotiated for myself. I had my own office with windows *and* a door, which had been a goal of mine since I was 22.

Several different things clamored for my attention: I had a baby, a novel-in-progress, and a gainfully employed, though stressed-out and overburdened, husband. I felt fortunate and, day to day, I was satisfied. But my brain also felt overcrowded, teeming with too many details, some real, some fictional. I wanted to do everything: keep the apartment in a state of reasonable cleanliness, raise my kid right, finish and sell the book, be a good, upwardly mobile leaned-in employee and a good, calming when necessary and exciting-and-fun when called for wife.

After much deliberation and angst, facilitated by a partial fellowship to a writer’s residency in Lithuania and a query from an editor at a publishing house who found my work online, I decided to quit my job and DWYL for a year. The point was not to earn money, though I had been making very minor bank freelance writing and placing essays online on the side. The point was, for the first time, to give myself a Room of One’s Own.

That was last July. My year is up. Inspired the tabulations of Nicole and Kima Jones, I’ve decided to do a reckoning: What did it cost me to DWYL and what did I gain?  READ MORE


If People Were Corporations


If individuals were treated like corporations, I could set up an affiliate called “Catherine Rampell Bermuda,” have it pay my college tuition and then declare that the affiliate owns the resulting degree. I could then tell the IRS that everything I earn above the average high school grad’s wage should be recorded as income in Bermuda, since it’s all derived from a Bermuda-based asset. Until I decide to repatriate those diploma-derived earnings, I’ve built myself a tax-free IRA.

At the Washington Post, Catherine Rampell is like, Well if corporations are people, then people should be corporations! She talks to Tax Experts who list the many potential benefits we could earn by reporting our taxes as a corporate entity rather than an unfortunate old human being. No taxes on international income! Deduct sales tax! Deduct healthcare spending!

This sounds great although I don’t appreciate being made to think about taxes outside of tax time.

Meanwhile, Rebecca J. Rosen at the Atlantic retells an “extremely literal instance of corporate personhood” wherein a 1960′s IBM employee named Susan Elliott had her husband incorporate her so that she could keep working when she was pregnant. Amazing: READ MORE