Candy Tax and other Childhood Grudges

Tax day has come and gone. Congrats to those of you with hefty returns you’re already excited to spend, or better yet, save. My shove into the world of taxation didn’t come during my sophomore year of college when I worked my first legit job. The first memory I have of taxation (pretty sure it was without representation) occurred Halloween night 1993.

Dressed in my finest green felt with an orange feather stuck in my cap, I made the rounds of Heritage Woods as the cutest Peter Pan you ever did see. My one year old sister held court in her stroller dressed as Tinker Bell. Between her huge blue eyes and my endearing wit, we were really bringing home a substantial candy haul.

DSC02402
(Seriously, could you resist those baby blues? And no, this isn’t her Tinker Bell costume.)

When we got home I ran to the living room and dumped the contents of my cloth pumpkin bag onto the floor. Oh the candy. So much yummy candy. Unfortunately, our two big dogs came running and I had to defend my stash. My Dad called off the hounds and I eased up my defensive stance realizing, a moment too late, a bigger threat had entered my candy territory.

Higs and Murph

Summer sitting on murph(Attempts to steal my goods aside, they were my best friends. Besides my sister of course.)

Leaning down to pluck a fun size bag of Skittles from my pile, my Dad said the two worst words I had ever heard, “candy tax.” My mouth dropped open and I yelled, “put it back!” Those Skittles were my hard earned income. I shoved my body into a green-felt Peter Pan costume for those Skittles. I told jokes to the cranky lady down the street for those Skittles. THOSE WERE MY SKITTLES! My Dad looked at me and said, “We took you trick-or-treating, so we get some of your candy.”

Halloween (This was two years before the candy tax law of ’93. I really should have anticipated that one.)

Granted, I was four and much too young to truly understand taxation, but in my mind it stood for someone coming in and unjustly taking something I had worked hard to earn. Almost 20 years later when I received my first “real job” pay check and saw Federal, State and New York City taxes taken out I’m pretty sure I opened up to my mouth to yell, “put it back!”

holding my loot(I became increasing suspicious of everyone and guarded my loot carefully after Lollipop-Gate.)

Apart from my financial origin story, I learned about net profit by selling Krispy Kreme donuts at a yard sale*, candy tax is my earliest memory about finance and perhaps my biggest childhood grudge. My other grudges include the dogs getting to eat a whole cake on their birthday when I couldn’t. My sister finding the golden egg at Easter five years running. My eyebrows inexplicably turning from blond to black. And ruining my awesome Pocahontas sneakers because I dragged my feet trying to slow my bike down during a family outing.

Childhood grudges aside, I’m blessed to have two parents who were committed to making sure I had an understanding of finances early on in life. An understanding and respect of money is empowering and, in my opinion, one of the greatest gifts parents can give their child.

Even when we were little, my sister and I weren’t handed much. Sure, birthdays and Christmas were elaborate affairs filled with glorious toys, but in between we learned how to earn what we wanted or helped pay for it ourselves.

If I pointed out a toy at the store and asked for it, my Mom or Dad would ask if I was willing to pay for half. If I met them at 50 percent, then I could have the stuffed animal (it was always a stuffed animal). Nine times out of ten I wasn’t interested in paying the $4.50 it usually cost for a cuddly creature. However, this tactic taught me to evaluate purchases and prevent impulse buys at an incredibly early age. It’s a tough skill to learn later in life, especially when you have bills to pay.

Now, that I have reached “later in life” I’m pleased to be a millennial with a basic grasp on finances. According to mainstream media, the millennial generation is in big financial trouble. We can’t land jobs, with or without college degrees. We’re collectively drowning in student loans. As of October 2012, the average student is graduating with $26,600 of debt. And to top it all off we’re apparently all self-indulgent whiners who want to rely on parental welfare, well, forever.

Stereotypes aside, I have come across a fair amount of my fellow millennials who have a crippling fear of money, largely because they don’t understand how finance works. Those friends of mine were my motivation for creating #BrokeMillennial. Hopefully, this blog not only continues to develop my own financial literacy, but helps other fledgling adults learn some basics about budgets, saving and investing.  Plus, I think some real-life grownups find my stories pretty entertaining too.

P.S. If you ever think you see me out shopping, yes, I am the woman wandering aimlessly around the store clutching a stuffed animal cute blazer, trying to decided whether or not it’s worth my money. Unless it’s 50 percent off, then it seems like an obvious yes.

P.P.S. Don’t let the tough love with finances or candy stealing fool you. My Dad is an amazing father.

IMG_2959*For my financial origin story please read Donuts and Dollars.

Please join me and my fellow personal finance bloggers as we celebrate Financial Literacy Awareness Month. Hosted by Shannon Ryan from The Heavy Purse, you can read why financial literacy matters to all of us. Just visit The Heavy Purse and click on the participating bloggers’ links.

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Follow the journey on Twitter @BrokeMillennial or subscribe for emails about new posts. Email feedback or topic requests to brokemillennials@gmail.com.

The One Where Someone Else’s Dad Teaches Me About Money*

This post was included in the Carnival of Personal Finance #404. Check out all the other great articles included here!

Per special request a series of posts will deal with practical budgeting. I’m not claiming my way is the right way, or the best way, for you to deal with your money. I’m simply offering the #BrokeMillennial budgeting/saving system.

On Monday I sat in the airport waiting for my flight back to New York when my phone buzzed with a text message from my Dad reading, “I will put $20 in your account when we get home. Take a cab home or save it.”

Since my departure from the nest my Dad will spring these delightful financial presents upon me in an effort to get me to treat myself. After much deliberation, and even calling my boyfriend for his advice on the situation, I saved the $20 bucks and used my monthly metrocard I’d already paid for to take the bus home. Besides, I need a haircut this week so thanks Dad!

Treat Yo Self meme(This is me…well…never. Just kidding, I am still planning on the aforementioned haircut.)

Financial planners, fellow personal finance bloggers and possibly your parents all push the importance of saving money. Many of us have heard that we need to save at least 10 percent of every paycheck and have three months worth of living expenses stashed in an emergency fund. It’s a financial philosophy so deeply rooted in our society it has pervaded into mainstream media. The first time I heard about saving ten percent was from none other than Jack Geller, Monica’s dad on the show “Friends.”

Monica: Um, yeah, so uh, uhh, listen, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you this before but umm, I,     I’m no longer at my job, I, I had to leave it.

    Mrs. Geller: Why?

    Monica: Because they made me.

    Mrs. Geller: You were fired? What’re you gonna do?
    
    Mr. Geller: Judy, Judy, relax, this is our little harmonica we’re talking about. We taught     her well. Ten percent of your paycheck, where does it go?

    MONICA and Ross: In the bank.

    Mr. Geller: There you go. So she dips into her savings, that’s what it’s there for. She’s     gonna be fine..Aren’t you sweetie?

jack geller collage(Because one picture of Jack Geller just wasn’t enough.)

Needless to say, Monica hadn’t saved ten percent of her paycheck and had a rough time financially, for a few episodes. Life’s hard when living in a rent-controlled apartment in a trendy neighborhood with a bedroom bigger than most Manhattan apartments. Okay, rant over.

Monica's bedroom(There is a nightstand on each side of her bed! Who in Manhattan has enough space for a king bed that isn’t touching all four walls of the bedroom?!)

While it’s great to wax-poetic about the need to save, it’s hard for many millennials to grasp the idea of squirreling away funds when most of us are already scrimping. Unfortunately, I’m not going to empathize, I’m in camp Jack Geller. The time to save is when you’re making money, any money.

The notion of putting ten percent aside may seem daunting when you’re barely making enough to pay for rent and food. So don’t focus on saving ten percent, instead focus on saving ten dollars from each paycheck (unless $10 is 10% of your paycheck…then perhaps save less).

Sure, if you save ten dollars each paycheck you won’t amass that ideal emergency savings fund, but you will be in the habit of saving. It’s the habit that is most important. Reason being, when you get a higher paying job putting money aside will be an instinct and you can start to actually put aside ten percent of each paycheck. There are even ways to do this automatically (more on those in future posts)!

Being a saver is a mindset. Some people are raised or wired that way while others constantly battle the impulse to splurge. But if you don’t want to end up like Monica then live within your means, start saving and don’t be this guy (watch until minute 3:09).

the routine(Do yourself a favor and watch the routine.)

*Previously the title read: The Importance of Scrimping when Saving. People apparently don’t find that as catchy.

Stayed tuned for future posts about how this millennial deals with budgets and savings. During the interim, follow the journey on Twitter @BrokeMillennial or subscribe for emails about new posts. Feel free to email feedback or topic requests to brokemillennials@gmail.com.

The Accidental Environmentalist

One of the many financial shocks to millennials entering the housing market are the delightful hidden expenses known as utilities. Okay, maybe they aren’t exactly hidden, but when you live in New York and spend upwards of thousand dollars for a shoebox, it’s tough to see those first few utility bills. After the first couple bills the shock begins to wane, a similar experience to no longer being startled awake by ambulance sirens and gun shots. Just kidding, I never hear the ambulance sirens.

Some landlords are kind enough to include gas and hot water with rent but electricity is the true financial burden. The first time my roommate and I got a bill from Con-Ed (NYC’s delightful electric company) it read $1,000. Now, I didn’t know much about how electric meters worked, but a grand seemed a little steep. Luckily, the meter was broken and we didn’t owe even a tenth of the original bill, but the mild cardiac arrest I suffered had lasting effects.

For starters, I’m still a little scared to open our electric bill. The fact that the amount due fluctuates monthly really messes with my budgeting style. Even worse, the entire billing system is shrouded in mystery. Each month feels like a chess game, Broke Millennial vs. the geniuses at Con-Ed.

In order to out maneuver Con-Ed, I came up with some pretty sneaky tactics to lower our electric bill. I became something of an accidental environmentalist in the process.

** I realize how extreme some of my methods may seem, but I really, REALLY like saving money. My first year in New York I was also really, REALLY broke.**

My roommate and I moved into our apartment in July of 2011. If you’ve never experienced summer time in New York City, you’re lucky. It doesn’t have the blazing heat of Texas, but what we lack in temperature, we make up for in the stench of hot garbage and lack of central air conditioning.

Most apartments in New York do not come equipped with air conditioners so plenty of city dwellers stick portable ACs in their windows and pray the unit doesn’t fall out on an unsuspecting passer-by. The first summer, air conditioners represented one thing to me, wasted money. The cooling breeze offered me no relief. Instead, each blast of cold air represented the hours on my feet at Starbucks or changing dirty diapers while babysitting. I decided to forgo an AC and embrace the heat.

The fan in my room made the journey from college to the Big Apple. The best part about that old fan was the timer setting. Each night as I drifted off to sleep I set the timer for one hour. I would be lulled to sleep with the tickle of a cooling breeze which would promptly shut off during my slumber. Sure, some nights I’d wake up drenched in sweat, but that sweat represented all my saved dollars. It was worth it!

HPIM8439(I highly recommend investing in fans with a timer setting. And perhaps occasionally dusting them.)

I also got in the habit of freezing bottles of water and putting them next to me in bed. Don’t worry, I wasn’t buying bottled water! They supplied us with bottled water at work and I always brought my bottle home. See, accidental environmentalist.

HPIM8434(Mr. Bunny displays the effectiveness of the frozen water bottle plan.)

In addition to rejecting ACs and only using the fan a few hours a day, I became neurotic about unplugging anything that wasn’t in use. Lamps, toasters, microwaves, computers, hair dryers, if it had a plug (and wasn’t the fridge) it got yanked out of the socket after serving its purpose. Later I read that environmentalists have started pushing for people to conserve energy by doing the same thing, I guess I’ve just always been a trend starter.

In addition to obsessive unplugging, lights were turned off as soon as we left a room, even if we planned on coming back only a few minutes later. Not only did it save on the electricity bill but the practice extended the life of our light bulbs.

I’m proud to say that our electric bill has never been over $54. In the summertime it’s typically around $35 total, not each, because we use natural light all day, only turn on the lights after the sun sets and keep our fan usage to a minimum. To compare, friends of mine that each use an AC in their rooms during the summer see electricity bills of $100+. They’ll argue that the extra $70 is worth being in the cool air. I respect that, but just don’t agree. I’ll strut around in my bathing suit carrying my frozen water bottle to save seventy bucks.

HPIM8440(The anxiety inducing Con-Ed bill.)

As a side note, our water bill is covered by our landlord. Otherwise there would be a two song policy for showering. No epic rock anthems like Hotel California, we’re talking awful modern pop tunes like Party in the USA to make rush through the shower just to shut it down.

For daily bits of wit and financial advice follow the journey on Twitter @BrokeMillennial or subscribe for once-a-week email updates about new posts!

Why hiding your funds under a mattress makes you lose money (and not because it was stolen)

In June of 2011, three weeks after college graduation, I packed two bags and boarded a plane to New York City. I had landed a job working as a page for an iconic late night talk-show host. A fun, rewarding job but certainly not a well-paying.

Even though I came prepared to be broke…

IMG_3092(Yeah, I ferreted away hotel shampoos and soaps in preparation to be too broke to clean myself.)

…the cost of New York City living shocked me.

Everything I budgeted for seemed to be hundreds of dollars off. My measly paycheck of $200 a week (thanks taxes) didn’t even cover monthly rent. The time to “hustle” had arrived.

Like many millennials I turned to Craigslist. Those ads were terrifying. What did people want to do with my feet?! For the record, “Talent” rarely means credible acting gigs.

craigslist-new-york-city-classifieds-for-jobs-apartments-personals-for-sale-services-community-and-events_1250476179720After losing a lot of faith in humanity, I started applying to babysitting gigs (not on Craigslist) and also got a job working for the world’s largest coffee chain. Being able to make barista-level drinks sure looks good on a resume.

starbucks_getty--525x400(Green is a good color on me.)

Babysitting/nannying is the mainstay of struggling artists, students and financially-destitute New Yorkers. We endure spoiled kids, leering fathers and emotionally-distant mothers for the opportunity to walkaway with cash at the end of the night. Some families are great, but sadly many Manhattan parents should be forced to take parental aptitude tests before procreating. The Nanny Diaries are pathetically accurate.

ScarlettJohanssonsdenimshorts(Check out the Nanny Diaries trailer here for context. Oh, and nanny cams are a real thing.)

However, babysitting (and tips from Starbucks) resulted in quick cash-in-hand. Cash that went right into envelopes. Four envelopes to be precise.

IMG_3104Shortly after getting my influx of cash, I developed the “envelope system.” The envelopes represented different expenses in my life. The cash I earned was divided into:

  • 50% – Rent
  • 25% – Money for Anna (Anna was my roommate and the utilities were all in her name so I’d just pay her in cash when the bills came.)
  • 25% – Savings

IMG_3101(It’s always important to have money goals. I wanted to have saved $500 by May and set aside $50 each month in order to achieve my goal.)

The “fun times” envelope only got love on nights I received a tip from babysitting, or earned more than anticipated. That envelope usually was found wanting.

The methodology behind the envelope system is great, allocate money to the appropriate causes and then save some. The practice is really, really dumb.

For one, I usually had hundreds of dollars “hidden” in my room just begging to be stolen. Second, all that money in my room wasn’t doing anything for me. Money in the bank earns interest (also commonly referred to as compound interest). Money under the mattress just sits there.

money-under-mattress(Nope, not where I hid my money! I’m far too clever for that.)

When you’re ready to diversify your financial portfolio (or start one), IRAs, bonds or CDs (certificates of deposit — insert lame pun about music here) are excellent ways to invest money for long-term gain. IRAs and bonds will be addressed in the future. For now, I’ll break down putting your money in a CD.

Unlike the stock market, CDs are a low-risk way to save money. The interest rates are higher than those of a regular savings account and they are protected by the same insurance as other bank accounts. By choosing a bank backed by The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), you are guaranteed to get at least a portion of your assets back in case the bank goes under. Typically around $100,000. One reason it’s important not to have all your money in one place.

bank-run-wonderful-life(Points if you know the movie and reference.)

The first step of purchasing a CD is to have a designated amount of cash that you won’t need to access. This money should be separate from any sort of emergency cash fund, because once you put funds in a CD there are early withdrawal fees. CDs have various maturity dates: 6-months, one-year, five years, etc. Once the date hits then you can withdraw funds in full.

The second step is to investigate the best CD for you. Banks vary on the cost of early-withdrawal fees. They also vary on the rate of interest and annual percentage yield (or APY). APY is the rate of return you will earn each year and it accounts for compound interest, making it different from APR (annual percentage return) which does not account for compound interest.

Don’t strain your brain, let this fun, online calculator do the math for you.

If you’re a broke millennial like me, I understand wanting to put off investing until later. However, the earlier you start investing the bigger your return when you’re pushing retirement age. If you want to be a millionaire, now is the time to start.

millionaireusa                                     (All about the timely pop culture references)

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