Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Why being a Millennial in this economy is great

I keep reading and hearing about The Plight of the Millennial. My peers everywhere are complaining about the economy, leaning on down times as reason for lax attitudes, and whining about how bad they have it.
A potential employer recently opened our interview conversation with: “times are tough for young people. I’ve been talking to quite a few candidates and I hear it’s been pretty hard to get a job.”

I knew what I was going to say in response. I was going to say what I thought, and I didn’t bother pussyfootin about it: “honestly, Rob, this is the only economy we know. We don’t have any other times to compare it to, so as far as I’m concerned, it can’t be ‘bad.’ It just is.”

And listening to the morning talk show driving to my client site recently, I heard a fellow 24-year old call in and complain that she simply could not move out of her parents’ house. She couldn’t find a “real job” and, well, she had all these student loans to pay. (Yea, I was mad about that for the better part of the morning.)

So let’s tackle some of the most common quibbling – which I’ve not only been subjected to but also associated with – and set some things straight:

·         You’ve had a slow start to your career? Can’t find the dream job you were promised? You may not be developing your career as quickly as you would like, but at least you didn’t lose the job you’d had for 20 years. Not getting an offer means that now you have time to explore your options and better define your career path. Things are moving slowly; you have time to analyze; respond; redevelop your goals. You have time to find your calling rather than chase what probably wasn’t a fully developed dream.

·         You have student loans? You may have student loans, but you know what else that means you have? A college education. It’s one thing our parents’ generation largely didn’t have, and it’s one thing they made sure you did.

·         You don’t have any savings? Countless baby boomers don’t either, now that they’ve lost a lifetime’s worth of 401(k) accounts. And they don’t have another lifetime to start from scratch and rebuild it; we do.

·         You don’t own a home? Did you see what happened to home-owners everywhere over the last few years? Not having a mortgage right now means you won’t go through a foreclosure. Incidentally, homes aren’t the best performing asset right now. (Buy some stocks instead. It's what you're supposed to do in a down market. Did you sleep through Econ I?)

·         You’re not married? Neither is anyone else in the 40% who's divorced in our age group. Our generation should be taking that decision more seriously to begin with.

·         You live with your parents? Well, to be frank: you need to grow up. You need to move out. And you need to start living your life before you wake up in your childhood bedroom at 37 and realize you missed it.

I'm sorry for the tough love, but you guys gotta know that a.) I believe in our generation and b.) we need to get our act together. Being a Millennial in this economy is anything but a misfortune, and I wish that we would, as a group, stop treating it as such. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the greatest time in history to be between the ages of 20 and 30. We have opportunities available to us that generations before only dreamed of. It only requires we recognize and leverage them. Being a Millennial right now will:

·         Teach us discipline – we have student loans. And we have to take our jobs seriously, because recruiters aren’t lined up outside the door as promised. All this means is that we’ll have to make more intelligent decisions – with both our finances and our Friday nights. Skills that will likely be valuable throughout life.

·         Teach us creativity – gone are the days when you got a degree in something, got a job whose title mirrored your major, and worked your way up the ladder. Now we choose our course – and what a fantastic reality! Here’s one thing our parents didn’t lie about: you can be whatever you want. Your success and satisfaction depends on you doing what you want. And leveraging opportunities around us to create that.

·         Teach us to identify opportunities – similarly, this economy will teach many of us to think outside the box, to exercise foresight, to extend ourselves toward the horizon and around the market’s learning curve.

·         Give us a chance to do it better – things don’t improve when everything’s running smoothly. Nobody cares to fix what isn’t broken. It’s not until things aren’t going as planned that people start going back to the drawing board. And that’s where we are – dry erase marker in hand, waiting. It’s the time in the economy when great suggestions are made, great ideas come to life; when game changers make their presence known, and leaders develop a following; when society is redefined.

I feel fortunate to be where I am – up to my ears in student loans, unmarried, and renting. I feel fortunate to be young in a changing economy, when I not only have the flexibility and energy to fully experience everything on the horizon, but also have the opportunity to lead some of it. I fully believe that there have been few times in our history with as much promise as this one, and, to be frank, I'm incredibly stoked about it. (And I don't even say "stoked.")

I just wish my peers felt the same. (C’mon, guys. We got this.)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

New job first impressions

I've had a job since I was sixteen - some of them for as short as two weeks; others for as long as two years. Needless to say, I've had quite a few "new jobs" and "first days," and have noticed that, much like most anything in life - from a first date to your first experience with an exotic food - much of your perspective lies in and is founded on that initial interaction. Like a life partner, sometimes the chemistry sits right. And sometimes it doesn't.

There have been jobs that never "felt right" from the beginning - maybe I'm more sensitive than most, or entitled enough that I permit myself to conclude more than I should from first impression, but I do know that there has been a job or two that, from the very first moment walking into the office on the very first day, didn't complement my psyche. And, no matter my effort, that inital feeling of dread never fades. One of these jobs - a full time position after college - lasted four months. The other, fortunately for me, was an internship. It lasted two weeks.

Some jobs, though, always "felt right" - not only from the first day, but sometimes from the moment I walked in for the interview, or the moment I shook someone's hand. Maybe I was in a different mindset. Maybe I felt more determined, more disciplined, less entitled. More likely than not, though, it was simply a good chemistry - good fit.

In my experience, the deal breakers deteriorate the rapport. And it never gets better. The deal makers, on the other hand, lay a foundation of trust, comradery, and positivity that only grows as you continue there. Good rapport.

Good rapport happens when you get the sense that your employer is willing to go to bat for you. They like you, they believe in you, and they aren't afraid to say so. In turn, you begin to feel the same for them - you want to go to bat for them, too. You pound the Kool-Aid. You'd take a bullet. (Okay, maybe not that extreme... but in a metaphorical sense.)

And when you walk in each day feeling that way about your firm - like a fantastic life partner that means a lot to you - you're happier.

How do you feel when you walk into your work place? Burdened? Uplifted?
How do you feel as you walk out? Energized? Exhausted?

Choose a place that makes you feel good. The signifiers, if you're paying attention, will be obvious sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Our generation needs to learn to move on

When the world seems as though it's "falling apart," it's very likely that what's actually failing is not the physics of the world, but the way you've built it up around you - the structure and the "normal" we've tried so hard to create, when too contradictory to the way to things should be, it crumbles.

When things fail, there are countless reasons. But there are only two appropriate responses: evaluate the fallout to prevent it in your next effort, or take it as a sign and move on. The least appropriate response, just to be clear, is to sulk and mourn over the loss.
Our economy, our market - and, incidentally, our ways of interacting with them and defining ourselves in relation to them - have changed. Old standards that we took for granted have been replaced with new norms, and while some of us have successfully adjusted, the unfortunate reality is that many of us are lying awake at night, clutching the tattered remnants old dreams to our chests and lamenting the fact that we don't have our own houses and a couples of little wailing mouths to feed like our parents did "by now."

The fact is, somewhere along the line, we created that norm. As a society, we defined, sought and defended something that has only been "normal" for a few generations.

Life - and the meaning of it - goes deeper than the white picket fence, and it can't be summarized in the simplicity (and, quite frankly, shallowness) of "The American Dream."

Life is more that that. It's about success, sure, and building relationships and lifestyles, making love and doing good work. But it's also about being awake for it all - about looking around every day and being engaged enough to notice changes in our world - and the world now available to our generation - in order to identify what's not working and opportunities for what may.

And when things don't go right - including those "things" that we once held sacred - we need to roll with it.

So when your college degree doesn't land you on the "right" career path (which may or may not have been your father's) or you can't save enough for a down payment or you find yourself baby-less at 32, you need to deal with that, accept it as part of our new reality, and adapt.

Be creative. Be innovative. Be your own generation rather than a replication of what worked before.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

But Who's on YOUR Bus?

In Jim Collins'  bestselling business book "Good to Great," he and his research team explore the commonalities between a handful of companies that they have identified as being "great." The rules of success, they decipher, have far less to do with having a rockstar CEO (who, as it turns out, can actually drive a company into the ground in his or her pursuit of personal greatness) and much more to do with the company culture - the tone set by management and whether or not the team below believes in its leaders and the company as a whole. Collins assigns to this concept a metaphor of a "bus," saying "we found that [the great companies] first got the right people on the bus, and the wrong people off the bus."

If there are people at the company who do not believe in its potential, it's in everyone's best interest to show them the door - or invite them to make the decision for themselves. Collins advocates building a team of people who believe in the company strongly enough that they would work for it even without a salary. People who feel passionate about the company's mission; who demonstrate faith in its potential and motivation to help get it there.

This particular chapter inspires the reader to pause and ask him or herself: am on the right bus?!

And yes, that's a normal question. When I read "Good to Great," I was coming to the realization that I was not on the right bus. I felt largely indifferent about the direction of my company (probably largely due to the fact that it seemed to be set on its track, which was decent even if unrelated to my own, and had little history of straying from the tried and true.)

But then I thought: now, wait a minute. This "bus" metaphor doesn't just apply to companies! It's not companies alone that have direction and momentum. It's individuals too. We all have our own personal bus; we each have our own directions, regardless of whether we consciously and deliberately define them or whether we allow them to be defined by outside influences. We each have a path as individual people. And just like successful companies need a support team of people who believe in it unconditionally, each person needs the same network in order to realize personal success.

And that's when I questioned whether my company - the same one whose bus I knew I should disembark - should even be on my bus.

These were good people, at my company, who were doing good things for the business and for their own careers, but unfortunately exhibited very little enthusiasm for me as a person or confidence in my potential.

Over the course of several months, I pursued a new career, and have since found a position at a company whose employees regularly inquire about my longterm career goals and discuss how the company will help me reach them, advising me on steps I can take in the short term, who to go to with particular ideas, and what responses I should expect. Their unyielding message is: we want, most of all, for you to realize your career goals, whether with this company or outside it.

And that message makes all the difference in the world. Rather than exhausting myself with anxiety over how to conform to their rules, I am instead trying to navigate their framework in order to best climb it. And they're not only letting me do it, but are encouraging it.

And it's not just the company you work for; it's also the people you keep in your life. Many successful professionals have discussed, in books and articles and interviews, enduring a divorce from a partner who did not believe in their work, and subsequently marrying someone who expressed absolute confidence in it - and what a difference it made. They advocate figuring out what you want to do with your life - what bus you're driving - then admitting only those passengers who feel ceaselessly passionate about that bus, and refusing those who question its direction. Because when the bus breaks down - and it will, from time to time - you want passengers who can help you fix the flat or push it to the shop and pitch for the mechanic's fees. (Incidentally, though this isn't a post about "love" or "The One," you should also choose a life partner whose own bus instills in you the same unwavering desire to be on board.)

Choose the right bus. Choose the bus whose direction you consistently believe in and for which you do not only ride half-heartedly, while harboring doubt in clandestine. You owe it to yourself, and you owe it to the company.

And while you're looking for the right bus to board, you must also bear in mind that you will always have your own bus, and be ruthless when surveying the passengers on board. Take the time to define your objectives, and surround yourself with people who think that those ideas are bad ass. Ride with only those individuals that believe in you without skepticism, and remain diligent in your direction. It is better to spend the first ten years of your life with one person on whom you can depend than to surround yourself with a dozen who imply that your aspirations are silly.

And once you've got your bus on the road and some solid passengers along with you, then your job is to enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

There Is No Gender Gap

That's right, I said it.

I have read countless books marketed towards the professional woman, warning her to watch out for sexism and salary inequalities. I have read tons of the research concerning this argument. I took gender theory classes in college. Two months into my very first job, I discovered that a male peer hired on the same day and likewise lacked experience was being paid 10% more. 

And even after all of that, I still assert that there is no real gender gap. 

Yes, women may be paid $.75 for every man's dollar (a discrepancy that, as a former senior colleague informed me (however jokingly), is because maternity leave requires an absence for a fourth of the year, therefore justifying that we surrender a fourth of our pay.)

As much fun as that theory is, I think the reality is: women ask for this difference in salary. 
Or rather, don't ask for it to be eradicated.

Now, before we get up in arms with one another, let's consider some key points:

Get Hungry For It
In articles and books that discuss the 75% pay debacle, many go on to later admit that most women don't appreciate the value of money, meaning that when they're asked what drives them, fewer women than men answered "wealth." (As a rule, I actually reject most stereotypes. I particularly do not identify with this one, being a woman who expects to be compensated for the value she offers. That aside, this may very well be true for most women.) So, let me ask you: are you hungry?

Ask and You Shall Receive
When women don't put the same value on money, they don't fight for it - but men do. I frequently read research stating things like "women say they feared to negotiate when offered their first position... even women who are firmly entrenched and recognized for their achievements continue to take new positions without negotiating."(1) Ladies, listen up: accepting a job offer is like buying a car. The sticker price is never the "real" price at which the dealership is willing to sell the car; the salary a company offers is never what they're willing to pay you.

Fake It Until You Make It / Act The Part
I am an advocate for being conscientious about your appearance. You may not want to judge a book by its cover, but everyone does. That's why first impressions have so much weight. When you're going to work, what you wear sends signals to those around you on how they should perceive you - and, incidentally, how they should treat you.

I am endlessly surprised by the number of women (of all ages) who stride into work wearing short skirts, sky-high heels, fluorescent nails, blue eye shadow... the list goes on. If we do not take ourselves seriously, nobody else will. If you expect to be paid six digits, present yourself as someone worthy of that salary. If you'd wear it to a club or on the couch when you're hung-over, don't wear it to the office. (And this isn't sexist: if men rolled into the office on a Monday morning with their top three buttons undone, bright red shoes, or jean shorts, they'd probably be making 25% less too!)

In Short: Wake Up!
If the gender gap is alive and well, it is because we as a whole have fed it. Women apparently tend to be more complacent than men. Some of us also don't take ourselves as seriously as our male counterparts do. Just like many of you, I have been subjected to lower wages and being addressed as "sweetheart" in the workplace - but I refuse to accept this as the standard of my career progression. I know I'm worth more. 

I'm not saying you won't have to work twice as hard as your male colleague at least once in your career - we all probably will. But if you see yourself as making 100% of his salary, and present yourself that way, I do not believe that there's a reason it won't be a reality.

(1) - "Be Your Own Mentor" -Wellington

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A house in not a great investment

Houses have long enjoyed the reputation of being a good investment. Many people consider their home to be their first - and probably their biggest - investment of their lives, and many young couples (and, increasingly, individuals) spend the first several years of their career "saving for a down payment." There is a societal push toward owning a home, and having a mortgage under your belt brings with it a new status (that of a "home owner" rather than a "renter," with the former being superior to the latter) and the promise of having landed for yourself a "good investment."

But the truth is that, from a purely financial perspective, a home is generally anything but a good investment. And when we're dealing with dollar amounts that demand a third of our paychecks, it pays to look at the thing through personal finance lens, and understand why they're not great investment vehicles:

Appreciation Equals Inflation
Outside of the housing boom of the late 1990's and early 2000's, houses really don't earn their owners that much. And though homes may have made people a lot of money during the housing boom, they caused tremendous losses for their owners during the subsequent housing bust in the last few years. This collapse of house values was actually thought to be impossible by the same people who have historically pushed home ownership as a good investment. Homes, in their entire history, barely outpace inflation. (By contrast, in every 30-year period since 1928, the stock market's average annual return has beaten inflation by at least 4 percentage points and typically by 7.) (1)

If a house will earn you inflation, it's essentially a savings account. It seems that mortgages may have been attractive to people and encouraged by society because they act as a "forced savings." However, you don't need a mortgage to build equity - in fact, if you have the discipline to allocate a third of each paycheck to better investments (that don't have contractual obligations), you could build the same $300,000 in equity in fewer years - and buy a house for cash faster than you'll own a mortgaged one outright.

If you allocate the "recommended" third of your paycheck to your mortgage, you've signed over a third of your income over 30 years to one single investment vehicle. So what happens to 30 cents of every dollar you earn for thirty years, and how much you make from it, will be tied to the performance of just one asset. Would you ever allocate that much of your money to a single stock?

When you've decided to sell some stocks or bonds, it takes less than ten minutes - even if it's $300,000 worth. When you decide to sell your home, however, it will never, ever happen that fast - unless you're willing to take a loss. When you're ready to sell your house, it takes months to find a willing buyer. And though this is largely accepted as the way real estate market works, it becomes an issue if people ever need to relocate - or simply get their money out - quickly. In this situations, homeowners will often be forced to take a hit.

Transaction Costs
Not only can we sell that $300,000 of stocks in less than ten minutes, it only takes $7-30 to do the transaction. You could never expect to get through buying or selling a home that cheaply. After inspections, legal fees, application fees, land transfer costs, movers and the myriad of other charges, buyers end up paying far more for their home than is ever discussed. In fact, according to a study, "buyers who sold within four years of purchase on average paid 19 percent more as owners than they would have paid as renters. For these short-term owners, transaction costs averaged 23 percent of their total costs of owning." (2)

Opportunity Costs
This is obvious and goes without explanation for those that recall the concept from economics courses: if you're allocating a third of your paycheck to your mortgage, you can't invest it in other (and potentially more lucrative) opportunities. So even if you hear about a great stock, your money is already tied up in your mortgage. You can't change course and switch strategy from month to month or even year to year as the economy evolves to offer new opportunities.

So Why Buy?
Because home is where the heart is! A home will forever inspire in us, as a society, emotions of security, comfort, and consistency. We recall our own childhoods; summers spent at Grandma's, playing horses in our fathers' carefully manicured lawns. We will never stray far from the tradition of home ownership; mortgages represent "building a life" and becoming adults. Home ownership still yields the same status over renters, and does still help us build a little equity as we age.

But, this is my hope: though we are understandably reluctant to dissect our connotation of home ownership and separate our emotions from the financial aspect, if we take a moment to consider it from a strictly "personal finance" perspective, we might collectively come to admit that houses are, ultimately, not a good investment. And that while many of us will continue to own homes in order to build our lives and raise our children, we might do so by allocating a little less to our mortgage and a bit more to other - better - investments.

(1) MSN Money -
(1) National Multi Housing Council -

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The case for custom-made

I am having a sheath dress custom-made.

Initially, this may seem like an extravagant expense... until you consider the following (as I did, over the course of nearly six months):

1. Off the rack, a typical sheath dress will run $100-160 (with a few outliers)
2. The typical sheath dress comes in number sizes - 0, 2, 4, 6, 8, etc.
3. These sizes are based on the waist size, with bust, hips and hem more or less following a "ratio"
4. Not all women have the same bust:waist or hips:waist or even hem length:waist proportion
5. So it leaves us with two options: deal with it or pay a tailor $50-100 to have it (insufficiently) altered

So, assuming you actually want the sheath dress to fit, you're looking at $150-$250+ for it.

The problem is that mass retailers (including our favorites, like one that rhymes with "K Drew" or another that sounds like "Flan Sailor") fit their dresses to what seems to be the "average" height of like 5'4", with all sizes having close to the same proportions.

Reality Check: most women aren't built like that. So dresses that are aren't going to fit us.

And while many women can have the skirt hemmed shorter or go up a size and have the waist taken in to accommodate different sizes, my problem was: I'm at good three inches taller than whatever imaginary  figure that a dress - which is otherwise "my size" - was sewn for. So the seam that's supposed to sit on my waist actually sits on my ribcage. Then the wider part of the dress meant to fit the hips is now where my waist actually is, so there's a particularly unflattering baggy mess where a woman would like to see a cute curve. The hem's hovering in "no man's land" on my leg, somewhere between mid-thigh and my kneecap, and rides most of the way up it when I sit down. And guess where that otherwise modest slit is sitting?

I saw the same issues no matter where I shopped. I even marched into "Boredstrom," like all the proper professional ladies do, and shared my problems with the first associate I found. She put me in a dress priced at $350. Three hundred and fifty dollars. Gorgeous dress. But guess where the waist hit?

And here's the extra infuriating thing: I don't necessarily have a weird body. It's not like my torso is awkwardly long. At 5'9", I'm long all over. And now in my mid-twenties, I'm bored of throwing my money away on retailers who won't throw me a bone back.

So I spent several months looking for someone who was willing to make me some dresses. And after three meetings, she took my measurements (over a dozen of them, so this puppy fits like a glove), let me pick the fabric and designed me a sheath. And priced at $200.

To give up dresses from retailers who had little interest in me and instead have one that makes me feel like a million bucks, I think the $50 difference in price is a no-brainer.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Happiness Quiz (Psychology Today)

10-question assessment gauging how happy you are. 

First question reads: 
If it were possible to go back in time, how much of your life would you change?

Take it here

Sunday, June 26, 2011

What do you talk about?

Success is almost meaningless if you define yourself merely by the numbers and luxury goods you’ve achieved through association. If that’s how you perceive and communicate success, you’ve missed the point.

Shortfalls, on the same note, have very little meaning or weight if your life – until you insist on defining yourself by your failures. You have a choice, but if you talk about losing millions on a bad bet or that you were head of product development for Pepsi Clear, you give people very few alternatives with which to identify you.

You are not measured by your income. Your income can be measured, yes and is, as such, a measurement, but it does not measure you as a person. If you insist on forcing it on people in that way, you’re selling yourself short – regardless of how much or little you make. Your character is invaluable, and therefore will always be worth more – to you and to others.

I met two people at a fundraising event yesterday.

The first introduced himself and promptly launched into the details of his expensive hobbies – equestrianism and international travel. He owns businesses, started his own line of luxury foods, lost a few million in his last venture (“which is fine” he made sure to add, “I’ll make it back”) and never once did he ask what anyone else in the group did for a living, or clue in on the hints we dropped that we’ve been riding horses longer than he has. "For all he knows," I sighed to a friend as we turned away, "we could be self-made millionaires or the top competitors in dressage. He never bothered to ask, though." And, in failing to do so, made a fool of himself.

The second individual spoke to everybody as though he’d been waiting all day for the opportunity. He had a way of listening as though he had no intention of interrupting, a way of talking that warmed everyone in the group. He looked at you as you spoke, and he shared things that connected to the conversation. What does he do for a living? He recently walked out on his plush corporate gig and is planning on travelling for two months. And, oh, by the way, he asked, what do you do?

Guess which one we walked away from (twice) and which one we wanted to have another drink with? Don't let your spending habits or your income dictate your presence with others. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Pretend to apply to your dream school

There is very little as motivating as reading the sort of questions that MBA applications pose in their essay prompts. Most of us read “what is your greatest accomplishment?” and withdraw into ourselves in apprehension. “Tons!” comes the response of the egotist, “my two children,” from those who play well with others, “graduating high school” or “college” from those who are modest. “Nothing,” however, is the immediate – and very human – response for the rest of us.

Pessimism aside, the thing that makes questions like these motivating, however, is if you’re planning on applying to that program in three years.

Then you have those questions in your back pocket. You’re holding a copy of the final exam a week before it’s being administered – you’re going to study a little differently, right? You know exactly what’s going to be asked, you know what to focus on, and what to skip.

It’s the same with the applications. Those questions very rarely change drastically – as far as I know, the articulation of your Life Plan (and why this degree is so indispensable in achieving The Plan) still ranks pretty high in admissions – so if you want to get into a particular program, and you want to have a killer essay so that they see what you do in you, why not start molding your life into a great answer?

Even if you’re not applying to a graduate program, and never intend to, keeping these questions in mind still makes you think about your life differently, and may encourage you to step outside the box one more time than you would have otherwise, making all the difference in the world. In short, trying to be a better applicant makes you a better person.

Sample questions from real schools:

Tell us about your three greatest accomplishments. (Harvard Business School)

Tell us about an idea or an experience you have had that you find intellectually engaging. (Stanford)

Describe an accomplishment that exhibits your leadership style. (Yale)

Assume you are evaluating your application from the perspective of a student member of the admissions committee. Why would you and your peers select you for admission, and what impact would you make as a member of the school community? (Kellogg, Northwestern)

What if you had to answer these today?
What if, on the other hand, you had a couple more years to improve your answer?

You do.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The merit of minimalism - part I

Having things can help to solidify our identity. When we surround ourselves with possessions we love and ones that represent the things we love, it can serve to remind us of who we are.

When you get up in the morning and see the possessions that represent your values or interests, you don’t have to go through the exercise of recalling what your identity is, and it won’t change over time.

Seeing your running shoes reminds you of your new year’s resolution to run more. “Oh yes, that’s right. I’m a runner now.”

Your yoga mat coaxes you to broaden your practice or relax a little bit. The LSAT study manuals next to your bed remind you why you didn’t go out last night. The travel photos remind you why you’re saving up.

I wake up almost every morning to the realization that my dog has sauntered around to my side of the bed and is staring at me. The first thing I do after I get up is feed him, and that reminds me that he’s one of the most important things in my personal life.

When you surround yourself with everything, though, it confuses the psyche. If you toss your heels and party dress on top of your running shoes, you’re going to spend the next morning untangling everything and putting it away, postponing the run until later.  The effectiveness of using things to represent and remind significantly decreases when you start to surround yourself with too much. It muddles the identity.

On the other hand, when you streamline the items with which you surround yourself and protect yourself from being bombarded by too many messages, you grant yourself advantage of using your possessions and space to effectively define  who you are, and wake up each morning with the strength of that reminder.

Treasure your compliments

We as people tend to harbor the negative feedback we receive from others while forgetting the positive.

It’s good to absorb both – some of the best personal growth comes from constructive feedback – but too often, most of us relinquish the positive comments. Over time, we pad our psyche with the negativity  alone rather than an equal balance of both.

Perhaps it’s because we’re led to believe that leaning on those things is egotistical. I know I felt that way. The reality, though, is that if we collect those little positivity gems throughout our lives, it fosters a more secure sense of self, and drastically improves the way in which we interact with the world.

The next time someone gives you a compliment – and it can be anything you consider to be compliment – add it to a physical file or a Word document on your hard drive.

And whenever you’re feeling down, read through them.
And remember what a great person you are.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The BIG Questions

Am I happy?
Well, are you? How much do you smile during the day? How easy is it to let things slide? How do you feel when you wake up in the morning? How often do you suffer from pangs of jealousy, guilt, or resentment?

What’s going on right now?
Take out a piece of paper. List everything in your life that you like – down to the little details. (“I like my car, my dog, my time to get coffee and read the paper on Sunday mornings; I like nice bottles of wine, my handsome salary, the heirloom hutch upstairs. I like these things about my job.”) Whatever. List everything you like.
Now list everything you don’t like – be really analytical about it; challenge yourself to drill down to the details. Don’t just say “my job.” Be specific. What about your job do you dislike?

What should I improve?
Take both lists. First, identify things from the “happy” list that you could feasibly increase (and still receive the same enjoyment – while you may like yoga, you may or may not want to do it for two more hours a day.) Then, identify things from the “unhappy” list that are the biggest culprits, and target the top one or two.

How can I improve those things?
We make time for the things that are truly important to us. Especially in our leisure time, we build our lives based on what we choose to do with it. If you want to fish more, do it. On the flip side, begin to whittle away at the negative things – set boundaries with your boss on how late you’re willing to work or share your vision for the direction of your career. And actually do it.  

How did that go?
How efficient were you in taking these steps. How long did it take your motivation to manifest as action? How effective were your actions in achieving measurable changes? Was the experience positive? What roadblocks did you encounter? Many of us feel a bit paralyzed the first time we try to go about things like this. I think that’s pretty normal – the point is to take this experience and use it as fuel next time around.

Am I happy?
You certainly should be. If not, are you happier? If so, you’re moving in the right direction.

How much should you take out in student loans?

Answer: it depends.

More specifically, it predominantly depends on what you’ll likely be earning after graduation and the sort of lifestyle you want and with which you can be comfortable.

What’s the average starting salary for your major or career path? (A number of online resources make these numbers available – literally Google “average starting salary (your) major” for a start.) Take the average and decrease it by 10% to be conservative. Then divide that number by twelve to get your gross monthly pay. Multiply that number by 73-85% (depending on your tax bracket) to get your income after taxes. Now multiply that number by 15%. That’s the amount of your net monthly pay that you can comfortably allocate to student loan payments.

(When I first graduated, my student loan payments were just over 20% of my after-tax take-home pay, which was realistic and manageable with a few budget adjustments – like spending a lot less on transportation. I was comfortable giving up driving, but many wouldn’t be. It’s all personal preference.)

What if it looks like your student loan payments are going to be more than 15-20% of your pay?
You have two options:
First, if you’re pursuing a field you love that doesn’t pay a lot, and don’t want to leave it just to chase a salary, consider a more affordable education – either by transferring to a less expensive program, picking up student work or earning scholarships.
The second option is to consider pursuing a more lucrative career. Remember that resource you used to research the starting salary for your major? Explore other fields and compare numbers. If it makes sense, choose one that provides an income that would more comfortably support your loan repayment.

Whatever you choose, just don’t be like an author I once chanced upon, who wrote an entire book about her financial strain during her twenties after studying English at Harvard. She wrote several hundred pages blaming the school, her industry, and her employee for making her broke.

Average debt of a Harvard grad? About $100,000
Average starting salary for English majors? Just under $38,000
(That works out to $2,700 in monthly income to cover $1,200 in student loan payments each month. Honey, the odds were really against you from the get go. Do your research.)

Need a little help making these calculations easier?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Pros and cons of debit cards

Ah, the best of both worlds. Debit cards are, I think, the beautiful marriage of all the greatest attributes of cash with all the special benefits of credit cards. Like the almost-perfect genetically-modified child of two mediocre parents.


Security – if you lose a debit card, you can report it and have it cancelled. If you’ve chosen a cool bank, you can even get the money back. If you lose cash, it’s gone forever.

Management – you can see each individual charge that you made. Who knew that you spend 20% of your income on food – 60% of which is just eating out – and another 15% on clothes? Answer? You did, my clever friend. Want to know why? Because you have a card. So you, unlike your cash-carrying pal, will know exactly where all of your money goes.

Build your credit score – How? By requesting a line of credit. Yep – lines of credit, otherwise known as cash reserves or reserve lines, contribute to your credit report.  

Clean - You want to know who’s touched that card you’re holding? You. And only the merchants you’ve handed it to. Any haggard-looking creepy men? Nope. Incidentally, it will never be crinkled at the bottom of your bag or folded with funky creases or sticky or smell weird.

Shop online – Sometimes, you want to buy that certain super cool thing, right here, right now, and have it shipped to your door rather than getting in your car, driving through traffic, and buying the one in the store that everybody else has touched. (Maybe that doesn’t matter with DVD’s, but when you’re pawing through the lingerie sales bin, sometimes you wonder who else has…) Just point, click, enter your info, and pick it up off your doorstep. Feels pretty good, huh? Yes it does. It also feels good to buy your tickets off the website when they go on sale rather than paying twice as much in cash to scalp them in the parking lot before the show.


Sleazy “introductory” rates? Nope
Bogus “rewards” programs? No way.
Sky-high interest payments? None of that either.
Accumulation of debt? Pretty difficult to accomplish.

There are, in fact, no cons that I can think of.

Except, of course, that street vendor hot dog…

Pros and cons of credit cards


Points and rewards – you get all kinds of goodies for spending what you were going to spend anyway. More than that, you can choose a card that rewards you in the form you value most, whether it’s cash back or flight miles.

Security – if you lose a credit card, you can report it and have it cancelled. You can even get the money back. If you lose cash, it’s gone forever.

Management – you can see each individual charge that you made. If you spend $3 on a coffee every day, you could feasibly see that that’s where almost $1,000 of your money goes each year.

Build your credit score – lenders like to know that you’re good for the money they let you borrow. The mortgage rate you are awarded on your first home, and the subsequent monthly payments, could be drastically different depending on the score you’ve built up.

Flexibility - You can pay now or pay later. While this understanding gets most of us into trouble, it also saves us the embarrassment of making the phone call that starts like this: "Hey, Mom. Dad. Um, it totally wasn’t my fault, but I kinda totaled my car..."


Points and rewards – let’s think critically here: chances are credit card companies wouldn’t offer these if they weren’t making money off of them. Not only are you likely paying for them in another way, but they also probably entice you to spend more than you otherwise would. Incidentally, have you taken a look at how slowly those points build up and how inflated the “rewards” are? 10,000 points for a $50 gift card? Gee, I must be a "valued" customer.

Interest – remember that $60 shirt you bought three months ago? If you pay only the minimum amount each month, it could easily become the miraculous $180 shirt.

Encourages debt – Why would a 21 year old girl ever need a $5,000 credit limit? If she spends the entire $5,000, how is she supposed to pay that off, given her current occupation as “student?” To the credit card companies, the answer to this question is largely irrelevant.

Pros and cons of cash


It’s great for buying street food.
It’s also nice – though not entirely necessary – for splitting drink tabs with friends.
And, I guess, it's great for folks who lack basic money management skills - you can only spend what you have.

That’s about it.


Security – If you lose your wallet, every bill inside of it is lost forever. There’s even a beguiling “good Samaritan” etiquette that proclaims that the returner of a wallet, despite doing a "good deed" by reuniting it with its rightful owner, is permitted to retain the cash. I think it’s ludicrous practice – “hey, buddy, I’m gonna do the right thing and give you your wallet back. But first, I’m gonna go ahead and help myself to its contents. Like any good person would.” That's how little you are the owner of your cash. 

Dirty – you don’t have to ever work as a bank teller to suspect how disgusting money is.
I, however, did work as a teller and, as a result, I know just how disgusting money is. You know that haggard-looking creepy man who’s wearing the same clothes from two days ago and wiping his nose on his sleeve? Yeah, he deposited a $10 bill into his account JUST before you withdrew one from yours. I know, because I was the teller on both of your transactions. Think it doesn't happen? Think again.

Brick and Mortar only – Oh, look at those great clearance shoes from our favorite retailer - online only! Oh, and check that out – tickets to our favorite band just went on sale! I’m going to buy them! But you can’t. Because you only have cash.

How much will you need? Who knows? Might as well take out $100 – maybe $200 – and just see where the night takes us! Yippy. And when we wake up tomorrow morning, we’ll just try to piece together where it all went…

Where did all your money go? – who knows?! Not you. I know where mine went because I used a card and can track all of it online! Neat, huh? It’s how the future will work. Until you join us there, you can spend your time racking your brain trying to recall whether your part of the tab last night was sixty dollars or eighty. And assuming you must have taken another cab in there at some point, because you’re still forty dollars short.

But hey – at least you got a hot dog from the street vendor.
That you do recall.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

After asking "what do you do?" follow up with this

We love to ask other people what they do. It’s social protocol, it’s a polite way of asking someone to share something about themselves, it’s an appropriate way to brag just a little, and it’s a conversation starter.

I ask people all the time. Yeah, I regret that we base our conversations off this – I think we build too much of our identity on the answer – but I do ask.

And after they answer, I always follow up with “do you like it?”
And the sad reality is that very rarely do I get any form of “yes.”

(In the last three months, there have only been two who said “yes”. One trains executive-level sales people. The other is a tennis instructor.)

Maybe we all answer in the way of “oh, it pays the bills” because we’re expected to be humble. Or maybe we play down our sheer delight with our jobs because we fear our conversation companion will resent us for it.

I don’t think so.
I think people are being honest.

Next time you’re asking what someone does – especially if you feel impressed by it – follow up by asking if they like it. And really listen to the way they answer.

I want to be one of the few people who beams as they talk about their job.
Who, if asked whether or not they like it, will smile and exclaim, “I love it.”

Don’t you?

We should all strive to be on that side of the fence. We should all take the time to identify and pursue careers that will satisfy our deepest needs as individuals. We would all benefit from spending our lives doing things that truly do delight us on every level.