Our Google Searches Reveal Our Financial Dreams

macbook keyboard

The other week, after I read the amazing Wired essay Disney’s $1 Billion Bet on a Magical Wristband, I did some Google searching.

“Disneyland MagicBand”

“Does Disneyland have MagicBand”

“When will Disneyland get MagicBand”

Sadly, this magical smart wristband that acts as credit card and itinerary planner is only available at Walt Disney World. (For now. I’d bet it’ll hit Disneyland in a year.) And I wasn’t searching “Disneyland MagicBand” because I wanted to plan a trip to Disneyland right away; I just wanted to dream about it a little and imagine the day when I might walk into the Blue Bayou restaurant and hear the host say “Hello, Nicole and all of your friends who have also come to Disneyland with you. I hope you are enjoying your Disney experience. Your table is ready.”

I’m not the only person who uses Google as a way of imagining and experimenting with financial aspirations. Pacific Standard recently reported on a new study suggesting that the less financially secure we feel, the more time we spend online looking at luxury items.

The article, Income Inequality Inspires Interest in Luxury Items, explains:

“We found that, of the 40 search terms used more frequently in states with greater income equality, more than 70 percent were classified as referring to status goods (such as designer brands, expensive jewelry, and luxury clothing),” [University of Warwick psychologists] report in the journal Psychological Science.

While the researchers have no way of knowing how many of these fur vests and designer rain boots were actually purchased, their results suggest a larger rich-poor gap prompts people to spend “cognitive resources and time” searching for ways to keep up the appearance of affluence.



Toward a Theory of Normcore Food


Small-batch pickles, Greek yogurt, and quinoa are all high-stakes trendy foods with loads of moral and aesthetic baggage. We ingest them to prove to ourselves that we are ethical by way of being health-conscious, multicultural, hard workers. Of course, the labor required to produce and consume a pickle won’t have any measurable effect on the health of your body, the quality of your soul, or the degree of your authenticity. This constellation of foods, which might be crudely labeled “hipster food,” are the means by which our sense of goodness is outsourced through our gut.

The antithetical culinary trend of hipster food, snackwave, seizes on its puritanism and refutes it through slovenliness, shopping mall imagery, and pro-capitalist branding. It is the first prong in the anti-hipster food backlash. As Hazel Cills and Gabrielle Noone write in The Hairpin, snackwave “trickled up from Tumblr dashboards” to counter “Pinterest-worthy twee cupcake recipes.” It is chiefly defined by excessive consumption of junk food and is often couched in the doctrine that women, especially, can do whatever they want to their bodies. An important element of snackwave is its individualism: the meal is communal, the snack is individual.


Normcore food will be the second prong in the anti-hipster food backlash. Normcore and snackwave, though opposites, are both cultural formations that will teach us how to finally stop eating kale. There have been a couple anemic attempts to define normcore food, and they are usually wrong. For example, people who believe normcore food is just junk food done up in a chef hat—your David Chang-type cuisine—are confusing it with typical hipster fare. Bon Appetitmade a better go of it with their April Fool’s Day slideshow, which included items like yogurt and chicken fajitas, and at least one food blogger got it right when she identified the BRAT diet plus plain chicken and bok choy as normcore. In the realm of fine cuisine, The New York Times has unknowingly alluded to at least one normcoreish food movement in a trend piece on “refined slob” nineties food writer Laurie Colwin. Besides normcore being a running joke, it is also very attractive, as increasingly elaborate (or else humblebrag-y) food exhausts itself and gives way to a minimalism that is not regressive or folksy.

If normcore fashion is not just hipsterism made over in worse nineties clothes—which is a common critique—normcore food should also have its own menu. Specifically, it must exclude any variety of trend-forward food: kitsch Americana, artisanal products like pickles and jams, and snackwave-like excess. As with its fashion equivalent, the goods must be ugly and plainly dressed.



Fran Lebowitz Tells You How To Do Money

FranThere are practical reasons to fear growing older: breaking a hip; getting dementia; losing one’s cultural relevance; what happens if Social Security runs out; Jack Nicholson no longer wanting to sleep with you.

But there are plusses too! Politicians cater to you to get your votes. You no longer have to worry about not having the most exciting plans ever for a Saturday night, because who cares? You can eat dinner however early you want and go to sleep whenever you want. And, if you’re really lucky, like Fran “The Man” Lebowitz, you can get interviewed for ELLE Magazine and be as kvetchy as you want — in fact, the kvetchier you are, the more people will love you!

I used to buy all my shirts at Brooks [Brothers] but that was completely ruined about 20 years ago. They discontinued the shirt I liked. If I had only known this—I mean, if you’re going to discontinue an item that thousands and thousands of people buy, announce it. Say, ‘We will no longer be making our excellent Brooks Brothers cotton shirts that we made for 5,000 years. We’re going to change them in some awful way. We’re alerting you so you can buy a lifetime supply.’ Shirts don’t go bad, they’re not peaches.

Fran Lebowitz is like the mean voice in my head, only funnier. O speak again, bright angel! READ MORE


It All Comes Out In The Wash: A Story Of Love And Laundry

This never happens to me on Laundry Day.

This never happens to me on Laundry Day

Here’s what’s interesting about laundry: everyone has to do it. Or have it done. It is a thing that everyone has to coordinate the doing-of, somehow. And so, it perfectly reveals how certain class things work. If you’re rich, you never think about it, probably. Your clothes float off your body and somehow return to your closet cleaned and pressed. The less money you have, the more work it is to do laundry, and, like so many things, the cheaper option often costs more over the long term.

I’ve never been good at laundry. At some point in middle school, I pissed my mom off enough that she ordered me to start doing my own laundry, and my first load turned all of my dad’s whites pink. Being a thrifty man, he spent years changing into scrubs in front of co-workers in pinkish-purplish briefs and undershirts. I would be 0% surprised if he is still wearing some of them.

Laundry in New York is even worse than regular laundry. Like most every part of life here, it’s a production. You have to locate a laundromat, figure out what kind of money they take, haul your stuff there, come back in time to switch it before some angry weirdo tosses your intimates on the floor, lug it back home, and fold it. It can be a day-long saga and that’s if you have one nearby and it doesn’t require all quarters. In-building laundry is only marginally better. Now you’re dragging laundry and up and down stairs, and the angry weirdo knows where you live. At some point in my 13 years as a transplant here, my vision of the ultimate attainable NYC luxury took shape: a washer and dryer that were just for me. That I could let my wet clothes sit in until they were disgusting, mildewy wrinkle wads if I wanted, because it was my goddamned washer. I understand that this dream is suburban, bourgeois, boring, and probably anti-feminist on some level. I definitely feel shame about that. But listen: to not have my underwear water mixing with someone else’s underwear water? To not have to negotiate the passive-aggressive etiquette of trying to free up a long-finished-but-still-full dryer? To have this, I don’t care what anybody thinks. Here is my journey.  READ MORE


Adjusting My 2015 Budget To Accomodate Freelancer Estimated Taxes

kimmy schmidt plan

Yesterday, I wrote about learning that my 2014 tax burden included an additional $5,443, plus the recommendation to start saving 20 percent of my freelance income for 2015 taxes, or approximately $1,000 per month.

“Now wait a minute,” you might think, “why did you not assume you would need to save 20 percent of your freelance income for taxes?” Because I had a series of estimated tax vouchers that suggested I’d have to pay much less than that. And who knows—maybe I was in a lower tax bracket when my CPA figured those vouchers, and I’ve bumped up to a higher one since. So let’s not think too much about the past: let’s focus on the future.

My initial reaction, when I learned that I’d need to put aside 20 percent of my income for taxes, was “wow, I’m not going to be able to save anything and I’m not going to be able to move into a better apartment.” On closer inspection, I think only one of those is true.

Here’s what I know about my income, my fixed expenses, and my tax burden: READ MORE


Success: It’s In The Bag

when harry met sally bookstoreDISCLAIMER: I like Barnes & Noble, and I write for them for money, so in two different ways I am biased and I would like the store to remain in business. Oh also sometimes I stop in to use their restroom. Three different ways! 

Book-selling behemoth Barnes & Noble — which can be described by other B-words as well, like “beleaguered” and “the last bastion of brick-and-mortar literary retail” — frequently tries new things to compete with its arch-rival Amazon. Some of its innovations, like its e-reader the Nook, have failed to catch on. Other innovations, like selling coffee in the stores and now craft beer kits, have gone over better. Now it’s renovating its shopping bags as well.

“You don’t get a shopping bag when you shop online—you get a box,” says Glenn Kaplan, Barnes & Noble’s creative director. The company distributes more than 90 million bags a year, making the totes one of its most effective advertising campaigns. That’s why its latest bags, featuring first pages from a classic work of literature in a florid serif font, signal a return to traditional bookselling roots. After making their debut last month in New York, the redesigned bags will eventually spread across the country. …

Shoppers who prefer a box of Godiva chocolates to a book will still walk away with a literary-themed bag, and B&N intends for the disposable carrier to find aspirational reuse—just as some shoppers repurpose their status-infused Tiffany, Barneys, or Organic Avenue bags as lunch totes. Kaplan looks to New York’s streets for signs that the new design is working: “I’ve seen a lot of reused bags in my travels around town,” the Barnes & Noble executive says.

Funny enough, I made a purchase at my local B&N a couple of days ago, to — at last! — use that gift card that had been giving me so much grief. Did my books come in one of the fancy new bags?  READ MORE


Domestic Work and Tipping in Tanzania


When I first moved into my current house in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s commercial capital, my roommate had recently become a godmother to four puppies. These puppies happened in a very Dar way. My roommate, who founded a school for orphaned girls in a nearby town, had taken on a female dog as a temporary boarder. She already had a male dog, who is sadly blind after an encounter with what was probably a snake. The female dog belongs to a German family who wanted my roommate to “take care of her” until they “came back.” As in so many expat stories, that chapter ends with the Germans leaving Tanzania and never again asking after their dog. So we ended up with puppies, as if the accumulated negligence of Dar’s expat community had evolved into an organism that could reproduce.

We’re down to two puppies after two others left for their new homes last week. I miss the departed ones, even though having four puppies rushing the kitchen door whenever I tried to open it probably cost me many hours of starving-induced low blood sugar. It was easier to avoid the kitchen for a while. I haven’t paid for any of their food or vaccinations, so it’s hard to put a more specific price tag on the puppies. I did briefly consider negotiating down my rent because their presence (and that of their waste, mostly in the kitchen) was not really part of the deal, but I’m paying only $550 per month for a basic house very close to the U.S. Embassy, a price that includes utilities and most of our housekeeper’s salary. That’s low for Dar—I’ve written previously about paying around that much for a far less comfortable space. I decided it wasn’t worth trying to impose a tariff on the puppy poop.

Here I should thank the woman who has done virtually all of the puppy care: Stella, our Malawian housekeeper. READ MORE


When the Punches Come Your Way

see the light

Alina Tugend has been writing the Shortcuts personal finance column for the New York Times for the last 10 years, and her final column ran a few days ago. The topic: Rolling with the punches. “Life is flux,” she writes, quoting the Greek philosopher Heraclitus—in other words, “change is the only constant in life.”

As a lead-in, she tells the story of Teresa Mears, a 58-year-old who over the course of eight years experienced: the death of her partner, caring for her mother who developed Alzheimer’s, struggling with work during the recession, and the lost of her house. Rolling with the punches, Mears cobbled together some freelance work and downsized to an “inexpensive house in a 55-plus community in suburban Fort Lauderdale.” She’s now feeling good about her situation. Mears: “When you’re young and something doesn’t go right, you think it’s the end of the world. When you’re older, you’ve seen it happen before, you know it will work out — and if not, you’ll move on.” READ MORE


“The Grand 401(k) Experiment Has Been A Failure”

Field-of-Dreams-james earl jonesWhat’s in your 401(K)? I’ll go first! I don’t have one. I did so much — usually unintentional — job-hopping in my twenties, and even the jobs I stayed in for over a year weren’t the kind of places that offered 401(K)s, that I never got one off the ground.

Turns out maybe that’s okay though because 401(K)s in general have not been a success. The median amount a person has in their 401(K) is only just over $18,000. According to CNBC:

Older workers do tend to have more savings. At Vanguard, for example, the median for savers aged 55 to 64 in 2013 was $76,381. But even at that level, millions of workers nearing retirement are on track to leave the workforce with savings that do not even approach what they will need for health care, let alone daily living. Not surprisingly, retirement is now Americans’ top financial worry, according to a recent Gallup poll. …

shifting the responsibility for growing retirement income from employers to individuals has proved problematic for many American workers, particularly in the face of wage stagnation and a lack of investment expertise. For them, the grand 401(k) experiment has been a failure.

“In America, when we had disability and defined benefit plans, you actually had an equality of retirement period. Now the rich can retire and workers have to work until they die,” said Teresa Ghilarducci, a labor economist at the New School for Social Research who has proposed eliminating the tax breaks for 401(k)s and using the money saved to create government-run retirement plans.

Let’s all work til we die!  READ MORE