Sunday, November 29, 2009

Black Friday 2009

Seven JeansDespite the fact I hate long lines and crowds, I have for the last few years gone shopping on Black Friday.  I go more to see what the crowds are like and what people are buying than I do to go shopping.  I do have one rule though; if I have to fight for parking, I'm turning around and going home.

That almost happened to me this year.  It would have been the first time in the past three years.  The crowds at my local Best Buy were pretty staggering.  Cars were crowding the parking lot making it almost impossible to find anything.  I knew of parking spots on a street running right next to the mall so I tried my luck there and had no problem.  Amazing to me that people would rather drive around a crowded parking lot for 20 minutes rather than to park and walk no more than fifty meters more.

What is even more amazing to me are the lengths that people will go to to get a "good" deal.  My wife went to the Best Buy on Tuesday to buy Super Mario Brothers Wii.  Already parked outside was a row of tents filled with people waiting to get the Thanksgiving doorbuster deals.  This was Tuesday afternoon.  Best Buy's doorbusters were not available until 5:00 a.m. on Friday.  Many of these deals were available online so WTF?  Is it really worth it to waste three days of your life to save a few bucks on crap you probably don't even need?

I'm convinced the only way to shop on Black Friday is to do what I did.  Sleep in and go sometime in the late morning.  Let all the crazies who want to be there as soon as the door opens get out of your way.  There are still some deals to be had later in the morning.  They may not be for crazy amounts off but those "deals" are usually pretty limited anyway and only useful if you don't mind getting some random stuff.

Better yet, you are better off just shopping online.  Amazon had some of the best deals of any retailer, online or not, this weekend. I saw some crazy good deals on things I was actually interested in.  I didn't buy anything from them but if I were gift shopping I don't see why you would do anything otherwise.  My prediction is that in under seven years the days of waiting all night and rushing to physical stores to get the doorbusters will be pretty much dead.  Most people will just come to their senses and do their shopping online.  It is just easier to do and the deals are comparable if not better.

For the first time this year I actually ended up buying someting on Black Friday.  I had no intention of doing so but there was a one day sale at Nordstrom Rack on Seven Jeans.  Nordstrom rack usually sells the jeans 40%-50% off what you can get in the normal retail store but on Friday that added an extra 25% off.  Like I said, I was not looking to buy anything on Friday but since I was bound to buy another pair of jeans anyway in the next few months I figured I would just score the deal while I could.

I'll be interested to see what the final sales numbers are this weekend.  My hunch is that traffic will definitely be up from last year.  It just seemed more crowded.  I'm just not sure people were actually spending more money.  How about you, did you go out or spend any money this weekend?

Monday, November 23, 2009

When Do you Stop Chasing the Dream?

Living in California, and specifically Los Angeles, I know many people chasing their dreams of being in the entertainment business.  These dreams range from writing, acting, and of course becoming a famous musician.  The odds of becoming successful in any of these endeavors is minuscule but I think many of these people think if someone like Britney Spears can do it, why can't they?

I had my own dreams growing up.  I wanted to be a professional basketball player.  For me, this dream ended long ago when it was clear I wouldn't grow past six feet tall.  Needless to say, it has not been something that I have held on to. But for many people they continue to cling to their dreams despite severe financial hardship.  Most of these people cannot make a living chasing their dreams and this puts strains on themselves and their loved ones.

So what advice would you give someone chasing a nearly unobtainable dream?  I am not the type of person who would tell someone to stop chasing their dream.  I believe having dreams and refusing to give up on them are what make some of the greatest people great.  But I am also an extremely rational and practical person who believes at some point you have to take responsibility and get a real job.  In the specific case of my friend who made me think to write this post, he is currently out of work and she does not make enough to support the two of them.

I contrast this to my own current situation.  I have told my wife to go ahead and pursue her dreams.  She is going back to school with the hope of becoming an interior designer.  She will for sure make less money when she finishes school and there is the expense of actually putting her through school. But in the end I want her to do whatever makes her happy even if it doesn't make any financial sense.  But of course our situation is different than our friend's.  I make a very good living.  It is more than enough to cover our living expenses.  So her pursuing her dream has no deep financial impact on our family.

In general, I think the rules should be pretty simple.

  • When you are single and only responsible for yourself, you can do whatever you want

  • When you are in a serious relationship, pursue your dreams so long as it does not cause any financial strain (or resentment) on your relationship

  • If children are involved, really time to put away impossible goals and buckle down.  Your children's dreams are now your responsibility

At the end of the day, it really just boils down to your level of responsibility.  Like most things in life, the less responsibility you have, the more freedom you have to do what you want.  Family always comes first.

What do you think?  When do you stop chasing your dreams?  Have you ever known somebody who chased it too long and what did you do about it?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Just Perfect

Just what we need.  Government oversight of a government organization who job is to give governmental oversight.  That doesn't sound like a waste of money or a lot of bureaucracy.  I'm not saying I am in love with the Fed.  In fact I pretty much hate their monetary policy over the last decade.  By why have so many layers of bureaucracy.  Why not just scrap the whole thing and start over?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Adjusting to Life after Losing a Job

Laid offI was reading an article about people who failed to adjust their life after losing a job.  The article focuses on those who thought they could maintain their lifestyle because they got a severance check from their former employer and failed to realize that they might be unemployed longer than they expected.

It was hard for me to read the article because it is irksome to me to read about people who do not understand the reality of their situation.  It is especially bothersome to me to hear that people act this way in this country where most people have little or no money saved to deal with emergency situations.  Getting severance is a gift.  Few people have the "right" to a severance package.  Most employers provide them as a way to make all the parties involved feel a little better but they rarely if ever have to dispense generous severance packages.

I guess I just do not have a lot of sympathy for people in these situations.  I might if these people immediately cut their spending to the bare minimum to make their savings last as long as possible but none of these people did that.  They all decided to ignore the situation and continue to live as if nothing serious had happened.  I compare this to my own situation of life without a job.

I quit my Microsoft Job in September.  I was officially on payroll until the end of October but I stopped working at the end of September.  I simply used my vacation for that last month.  Despite the fact that I chose to leave, I had enough savings to last several years at my then rate of consumption, I still had a paycheck coming in, and my wife had a job that could cover all the bills, I started to immediately watch my money the day I gave notice.  Why?  I had no idea how long I would be out of a job.

My original idea was to take at least six months off.  That didn't happen because I have a problem not working and the uncertainty drove me nuts.  But despite my very safe position it was just prudent to not spend money the same way as I had before.  I was more careful about anything I bought.  We ate out a lot less.  We canceled plans that would cost us too much money.  I then look at my wife's position when we first moved to Washington.  She did not have a job lined up when we moved.  I made more than enough money to support the both of us but despite this she decided to get a retail job just to bring in some cash.  It wasn't great work but it paid and she wanted to make sure she brought a little something home just to get used to the idea and not feel too "safe".

Perhaps all of this was "easier" for me to do because I made a conscience choice to leave my job so I got to do it on my terms.  The psychology of it does not make much sense to me since I would think that having the situation forced on you would make the problem more immediate and urgent.  But I suppose there are those who would rather avoid the situation than tackle it head on.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Just One More Reason to Hate the Income Tax

I have written in another blog all the reasons why I hate our taxation system.  Taxing income is perhaps the most sinister way a government can collect taxes.  It is easy to hide the taxes and it can be manipulated it in so many ways to confuse you.  I ran straight into one of those today.

The Marriage Penalty is one of the most obvious ways this is true.  It is just absolutely stupid that your taxes should change whether you get married or if you stay single.  Of course, this is going to be true in any progressive income tax.  There is just no way to make a system that is completely tax neutral.  I tried to figure out what the best course of action for me to take on my taxes now that I am a married man.  I am a pretty smart guy and I'm pretty knowledgeable of finances.  But it seriously hurt my head to try and figure out what was going to happen to my tax situation now that I'm a married.  At the end of it I still didn't understand what the heck was going to happen and I'm pretty sure I'm going to owe the government more money than if we had not gotten married.  I wish we could just have a nice simple tax system which was anything but a progressive income tax with a myriad of deductions.  Add that to the impending tax increases we are all about to face (which I'll discuss in my next post) and you can understand how frustrated I am becoming with the whole thing.

Is it any wonder why I, and a few other people I know, are seriously considering moving to a state without income tax.  It is probably the one thing I miss about living in Washington state.  Although when it was 80 and sunny here today and rainy and 50 there, I only miss it so much.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Spending in Bunches

Diverging from my Italy trip for a while because, well I'm back and I'm tired of writing about it.  I may pick it up again.  I may not.  I do have a crazy Rome Airport story.  Seriously, something out of a comedy movie.  But that may be left undocumented.

So only a quick post tonight.  I'm just getting back into the swing of the markets.  I had not made any trades in quite some time because of the wedding and the honeymoon.  I also just don't think it is a good time to enter the market one way or the other.  I knew the market would probably trade sideways for a while and it has for the most part.  I was in no hurry to either go long or to go short the market.

So my question for all those out there today is, do you ever notice that your spending happens in bunches?  My credit card bill for the last two months is, as you might imagine, quite high.  But it is not just the wedding and honeymoon that is causing it.  I had to get new tires for my car.  The bill for my internet hosting came due.  I had two separate membership fees come due.  My wife had to register for classes this month.  And there were more things than that.

Now, lucky for me, I'm a good little saver and these random and volatile spurts of spending can easily be managed but I have noticed this happening to me in the past.  I wonder if this is really a phenomenon or you just happen to notice those medium size purchases a little bit more when you have had other large expenses to pay for?  How about it, do you ever notice that you spending fluctuates greatly and that you will just have one or two months a year where it seems everything comes due at the same time?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Italy Trip - Sorrento & Naples Day 8 & 9

This is taking me way longer than I thought it would.  Oh well, I will plow through it.  Sorry, no pictures for this part of the trip.  This was our second time in the city, so there was not as much new stuff to take pictures of.  The trip to Naples also had no pictures and I will explain why in a little bit.

We got back to Sorrento and we were glad to be back someplace that was familiar.  Unfortunately for us, the hotel we had stay earlier, Hotel Sorrento City did not have room availability that night.  Now I do have to say something about this. Earlier, I gave a fairly positive review of this hotel.  For what we spent, it was a good deal.  But I have to say that the receptionist on this day was extremely unhelpful.  When we got to the hotel we were told they were booked.  We asked if she knew of any nearby hotels that were approximately the same price.  Now most hotels will help you out here.  If they cannot house you, they are usually more than willing to help you out.  But she refused to help us.  I do not know if it was out of ignorance or out of just a bad attitude, but in any case it was very disappointing to me since they had been so good to us earlier.

We made our way down the street where we knew there was another hotel to ask if they had availability.  Lucky for us there was and it was fairly cheap.  Now, I didn't mind staying at a nicer place but this hotel, Hotel Nice,  had one thing really going for it.  It was close to where we were, so we didn't have to carry the luggage any farther, and it was close to the train station where we would have to go to catch the bus to Naples in two days.   The amenities were the bare minimum.  But if all you were looking for is a bed in a good location and a cheap price it fits the bill.  Now a word of warning.  If you want a restful nice sleep with very little noise this might not be the place for you.  The noise outside the window was pretty bad and it continued for most of the night.  To make matters worse, the insulation of the building was not very good and my wife was pretty cold most of the night.  Again, you get what you pay for.

The oddest thing about the trip was that we actually ran into two of our wedding guests in the city.  We had actually run into them twice randomly in Capri and it was odd to run into them again.  It ended up being perfect because it allowed us to just hang out and relax our first night back with some friends without really worrying about what to do.

The next morning, we made our way on the train to Naples.  Naples is the birthplace of pizza.  My wife, being a foodie, wanted to go and get a slice.  So we hopped on the circumvesuviana and headed toward Naples.  Now Naples is not a safe place.  To go with some of the worst driving in Italy (and that is saying something) it is also well known for its mafia presence.  Just the other day there was news of a man shot down in broad daylight.  If that is not enough to scare you I don't know what will.  So we decided not to bring anything of value with us, and that included the camera.  That's why there are no pictures for this part of the trip.

The stories really do turn out to be true.  The driving was quite crazy and the city just has a very dirty feel to it.  We didn't feel particularly safe walking around.  We didn't get mugged or anything but we still decided to get out of Naples as soon as we got our pizza.  We were looking for a particular pizza place that was recommended, but like all Italian locales it is hard to find unless you know exactly where it is.  The problem is that the streets are so poorly marked.  We asked several people along the way and I swear, they all pointed us in different directions.  We finally gave up on that place and just went to a vendor that looked busy.

He had a sign for pizza for 1.50 Euro.  That is pretty cheap but he was busy and the people didn't look disappointed.  We asked for two slices but when he started to hand us a whole pie we decided to just get the one.  We couldn't believe the whole thing was just 1.50.  And it really did turn out to be the best pizza ever.  No joke.  The crust was just absolutely amazing.  There was nothing special on the pizza.  It was literally just crust, some sauce, and a LITTLE bit of cheese.  But it was so fresh and so good.  I would risk going back to Naples just to get another slice.  OK, maybe I wouldn't.

We headed back early and just relaxed back in Sorrento.  We actually had to go back to Naples to catch a plane to Venice early the next morning.