Category Archives: Budgeting Tips

Different Strokes For Different Folks Is A Good Thing; 5 Reasons To Love Money Moxie

There are a bunch of personal finance websites and blogs out there, and many that focus on women.  I think this is great; the more information we have access to, the better choices we can make for managing our money.  But with so many choices out there, why check out Money Moxie?  Here are 5 reasons to stay on top of your personal finances with Money Moxie–and tell your friends!

1. We won’t tell you to ‘lean in.’  Actually do whatever you want.

With due respect to Sheryl Sandberg and successful women everywhere, we all follow a different path.  Some of us are children of immigrants, some have worked our way through college and business school (even against our parents’ wishes who preferred that we just settle down and get married), some of us never went to college but managed to build a successful business anyway. There is no one recipe of success.  Sure, for some women, it’s a gradual rise to the top, from private school to Ivy League to management consulting to big corporation to start-up sensation.  For others it’s a sloppier zig-zag of good luck, dumb mistakes, stupid risk-taking and amazing success.  But somehow we ‘did it’ or we’re in the process of ‘doing it’ and we all have a distinct story of our own to share.

2.  Saving money is not about foregoing the ‘mocha skim latte.’  Personally I don’t remember the last time I went to Starbucks;  it’s not because of the cost, it’s that I feel like my stomach lining keeps getting thinner and more porous every time I get a coffee there.  But the point is, saving money isn’t about saving $4.00 a day.  It’s about knowing ourselves and what’s important to us.

Does money= financial freedom and home ownership?

Does money= the opportunity to make more money?

Does money= the freedom we need to ‘find ourselves’?

Those are the questions we should be asking ourselves and once we know the answer, the rest is easy.

3.  We love ‘shot-callers.’  Every entrepreneur, business owner, freelancer, artist or professional woman has a unique story and experience– how she made it, how she spends her money, how she prioritized to get herself up the ladder.  We love meeting these courageous, smart women, and sharing their inspiring stories.

4. We talk about the economy, the deficit, taxes and the election.  While these topics may cause some droopy, glazed-over eyes, they’re important.  The decisions made in Washington directly impact our wallets.  On the other hand, who wants to spend hours watching C-Span when we could/should be watching “Orange is the New Black?”  We comb through the WSJ so you don’t have to (unless you want to!)

5. We are a website for hustlers.  Sometimes when you break free from the pack and start your own project-whether it’s a new business, a film production company, a freelance lifestyle — sacrifices have to be made. We work several jobs at a time, we work on our passion while we’re ‘working’ at our day job, we’re constantly talking up or about our project.  But that also means that money, time and resources have to be managed wisely.  We often say ‘no’ to nights out with friends so we can stay home and work on our business plan.  Sometimes we say ‘yes’ to nights out with friends so we DON’T have to spend another night working on our business plan.  Either way, been there done that.  And we wouldn’t trade the experience and the lessons for the world.

 

Take A Savings Selfie; Why Establishing A Solid Savings Plan Is Cool

By Lena Rizkallah, Money Moxie

My teen-aged nieces came to visit me in New York a few weeks ago.  Besides spending 3 hours agonizing over what color “cheeksters” to buy at Pink, waiting another 45 minutes for them to stand in line to try on ONE tank top at H&M, and then rounding out the rest of the day with more, um, shopping (ie. THEM going through racks of midriff-baring tops and teeny ‘distressed’ jean shorts, ME sitting in a chair boyfriend-style playing Fruit Ninja), we also spent some quality time taking Instagram pictures of each other and watching YouTube on our Iphones. In addition to finding out which stores in Soho have the most comfortable chairs (Uniglo and Arsizia tied for first place, Mango came in dead last), I SURE learned a lot that weekend.

D & K shopping like champions!

D & K shopping like champions!

So many shoes so little time!

So many shoes so little time!

For example, I had heard of but never exactly knew what ‘twerking’ was until my niece pulled up about a dozen examples of little 13-year old girls jiggling their behinds, sometimes against a wall, backed up to their BFF or upside-down.  But now I know, so thanks D and K!

I had also never watched the show “Orange is the New Black” until D and K told me how awesome it is and stayed up all night watching back-to-back episodes.   But everyone can calm down because now I know what it is and as soon as I join Netflix and watch all the episodes of “Arrested Development,” I’m on it.

My nieces also introduced me to the wild and crazy world of “selfies.”  I’ve never really had a problem taking a picture of myself in different poses, as long as I could edit, delete or Photoshop them until absolutely perfect.  But with a selfie, you take the picture and then post it all over the place, like on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, etc.  All weekend, I watched my nieces photograph different variations of “duckface” or close-up selfies with each other, or with my dog, or in a Pink push-up bra showing off cleavage, and I was amazed at their bravado and lack of self-consciousness. They didn’t care if the picture didn’t show them in their best light or the photo revealed some flaws–not that they have any.  But they put their selfies out there for the world to see, and they kept them coming!

The original selfie

The original selfie

Savings  Through The Years

The idea of a selfie got me thinking about how honest we are with ourselves when it comes to saving, or whether we ‘edit’ some of the truth behind our savings  habits.  Up until the mid-1980’s Americans saved a significant amount of their earnings.  When employer saving plans like 401k plans were introduced in the 1980’s, the savings rate started to decrease because most Americans were encouraged to sock money away in these tax-deferred plans.  In addition, as interest rates declined, Americans were less incentivized to put extra money in savings accounts, and instead invested in real estate and equities for better returns.  The upside to this was, well, the possibility of better returns. The downside was poor returns and liquidity challenges.

However, as Americans began to rely more on credit to afford a certain lifestyle, the savings rate declined even further so that by 2005, Americans were saving less than 1% a year.  Compare that with an average saving rate of 10% per person in Europe.  Since the recession started, however, and as many people lost their jobs, credit became more difficult to come by and salaries stagnated, Americans got better at living within our means and putting more money away.  At the height of the recession the personal savings rate reached 5.5% but has since decreased to about 2.5% in early 2013.

Saving Habits

Why does this matter?  Think about the past few years of the downturn and whether you’ve had to make some lifestyle changes as a result.  Would things have  been different if you had a bigger cushion to lean on during tough times?  And it’s not only in case of tough economic times; establishing solid saving habits is crucial not just for the immediate term but also for retirement.  As Americans live longer lives and as the promise of Social Security payments and employer-based pensions begin to diminish and in some cases disappear, we are ultimately responsible for funding our retirement.

Say NO To Retirement Drama

Retirement probably seems a long way off for many of us, but it’s important to start saving as soon as we start earning.  Here are some tips:

– If your employer offers a 401k plan, you may already be automatically enrolled.  Check!

– Make sure you are enrolled and then make sure you’re saving more than the minimum if you can afford it.  Remember, this money comes directly out of your paycheck before it’s taxed.  So you never see it long enough to miss it.  And in the meantime, the money is invested and growing tax-deferred until retirement.

– Plus, if your company offers a matching contribution, all the more reason to sock away that moulah!

Emergency Fund Fun

But first things first.  If there’s one thing many of us have learned from the recent weak economy it’s the importance of an emergency fund.  Here are some tips:

– Your emergency fund should be able to cover at least six months of expenses in case you lose a job or life gets rough.  If you’re up-to-date on your bills, an emergency fund is the next goal to tackle.

– Every month, once you’ve tackled your budget and paid rent, bills, etc. then pay yourself.  That is, put 5-10% of your earnings away in your emergency fund.

– Do it consistently and on months that you can afford to save more, do it.

– Once you’ve reached the magic number for your fund, start saving for your next goal whether for an investing account, a home, a dream vacation etc.

Are you saving enough?  Take this savings selfie:

– How much money do you put in your savings account on a monthly and annual basis?

– Are you aware of your monthly “necessary” expenses?  How much would you need to save for your emergency fund?

– Based on your current monthly budget including bills/debt and current income, how long will it take for you to save for a six month emergency fund if you save 5-10% or more of monthly income?

– If you’re not saving enough, what steps can you take to start (ie. avoid the middle of the night online shopping-scapade, dinners out, etc).

While shopping with my nieces I even learned a big lesson on shopping and saving. Before the trip, they had saved up their summer job money and also got some shopping money from Big Daddy.  But instead of impulsive spending at every store, they shopped carefully, made their selections thoughtfully and really considered the value of some of the items they were trying on.  In the end, they came away with some great pieces they could share–and both went home with most of their savings still in their wallets!

Best selfie ever

Best selfie ever

Who Knew Excel Could Be This FUN??

By Lena Rizkallah, Money Moxie

Years ago, I was at a  meeting with my boss and some clients  when my cellphone rang.  At that time, the song “Drop It Like It’s Hot” was a big hit and like any self-respecting 15-year old, I decided that since that song was my jam, it also had to be my ringtone.  However, when my phone rang during the meeting and the bass filled the boardroom–and since I was actually not 15 years old–I decided that was the point in my life to rethink hip-hop ringtones.  Time to grow up!

Ironically, only a few years later, I met the guy who actually created the ringtone for “Drop It Like It’s Hot!”  Michael Zumchak was the nerd behind the ringtone and nowadays he’s the wizard behind the Easy Excel classes that he teaches to individuals and corporations in NYC (http://www.easyexcelclasses.com/).  I had heard about his Easy Excel classes from friends, colleagues and Yelp–that he’s a smart, funny instructor who makes learning Excel simple and fun.  I took the class a few weekends ago and I was not disappointed!

Michael Zumchak, Easy Excel

Michael Zumchak, Easy Excel

The basics class is for everyone–from beginners to programmers to people who just want to brush up and fine-tune their Excel skills.  Michael has a low-key, easy-going approach to a very dry,  coma-inducing subject.  I took the class on a dreary Saturday afternoon, and while staring at numbers, lines and formulas all afternoon could lull anyone into a nice long nap, Michael kept the pace moving, encouraged (DEMANDED!) class interaction and cracked jokes left and right.  Besides his comedic style of teaching, Michael has a great knack for breaking down a complicated, sometimes mind-numbing application like Excel, and explains what we need to know, and what we don’t need to know.  That information is priceless because if you’re like most people faced with a long, complicated spreadsheet that’s color-coded, contains multiple pages and full of various notes, formulas and charts–the more complex the spreadsheet, the less user-friendly it is and the angrier you become!

Michael began the class with simple tips and formatting short-cuts, then went into creating formulas and spreadsheets.  His tips on formatting–long forgotten since college–were awesome and he went over the rules of creating a clean, uncomplicated spreadsheet so many times that everyone got into it and started enthusiastically shouting out the rules like we were in 5th grade!  I left the class feeling more comfortable, knowledgeable and confident with my revitalized Excel skills–and much less angry and confused.

Make Your Budget EXCELlent!

Even if you don’t use Excel for work, consider taking this class if you want to create your own budget.  If you’ve been thinking of putting together a budget–and you don’t want to use Mint.com or any other online application–sign up and get yourself in gear.  With Excel, you’ll be able to customize your budgeting spreadsheet to your specific needs and spending habits.  Once you get the mechanics of the spreadsheet and formulas down, you can make adjustments in your spreadsheet based on any life changes or changes in your spending/saving needs.  And at the very least, you’ll have fun in class!

Hairy Therapy Remix

UPDATED POST FOR GOLDENGIRLFINANCE

I am your typical New Yorker.  Like many of my fellow city-men and women, I know how to hail a taxi without getting side-swiped. On escalators, I stand on the right and walk on the left.  I let people get off the train before getting on.  I give tourists succinct, exact directions – even offer restaurant recommendations – but don’t linger for small-talk.

However, as a New Yorker, I am an enigma.  That’s because I do not have a therapist.

It seems that every friend, colleague, acquaintance or person behind me in line at the drugstore has at least one therapist and sees that person pretty regularly. It’s not uncommon for a friend to start a conversation with, “Dr. Tony says my journaling is really helping me work through my issues.”  Or interrupt a dinner party to proclaim, “My therapist thinks it’s because my father never came to any of my piano recitals.” Or grab the phone in a panic and shriek, “I need to call my shrink!” after a night of debauchery.

I know that going to therapy is good for one’s mental health and can actually help people learn to deal with anxiety, stress or depression.

Don't tell me, tell your therapist!

Don’t tell me, tell your therapist!

However, as a woman of Middle Eastern descent, I prefer to spend my therapy money on more pressing matters – specifically on laser hair removal, electrolysis and waxing.  No therapist will help me get over the memory of me as a little girl in the fourth grade, sitting in my reading circle surrounded by my classmates. Compared to the cute, skinny blond girls in their bobby socks and tennis skirts, I was a thick hairy rectangle that smelled like hummus, sporting tube socks up to my thighs to cover up my hairy legs.  That’s a memory that is burned into my psyche and for that reason, I prefer to get rid of the evil that caused my anxiety, rather than go sit with someone and have a chat about it.

But everyone needs therapy – or even self-reflection – in order to take responsibility and move forward.

Similarly in personal finance, it’s important to do a little self-reflecting.  Especially now, at the beginning of a new year and as we gather our financial paperwork for tax time, it’s helpful to examine our finances, be honest about our spending and saving habits, and set some new goals to change bad behavior.

Here are some tips for planning a more financially rewarding 2013…

1. Before setting impossible goals for 2013, be thoughtful and thorough. Review your tax paperwork and last year’s budget.  Be painfully honest with yourself and ask, am I happy with the amount of money I made last year? Did I reach any of the financial goals I set for myself last year?  How or why not?  By actively taking the first step – looking honesty and critically at last year’s finances and identifying your satisfaction level with it – you can begin to set the right goals for next year.

2. Figure out your debt and make a plan to deal with it.  Add up your total annual expenses plus any additional debt; what is the ratio of expenses to income?  Were you able to manage debt and also save last year?  If not, review your spending/budget from last year and find three things you can cut out in order to reduce spending, manage debt and/or save.  Allocate the savings to a specific debt or to your savings in order to reach a particular goal.  Be specific.

3. Don’t have a 2013 budget yet?  SET ONE UP NOW!  Use Mint.com to set up a budget online, create an excel spreadsheet to track expenses or just write it down old-school.  Find a way to track your spending and then do it.   Manage debt by consolidating into a low-interest rate credit card and make sure you are paying more than the monthly minimum if you can.  Budget and save up for a six-month emergency cushion, even if that means putting $50 a week into your savings account.

4. Grow your money.  If you have a savings account and an emergency fund, consider taking a chunk and investing in short-term CDs or mutual funds or ETFs.  These can be low-risk options that can help you increase your savings instead of lingering in a low-interest savings account.  Also, make sure you are contributing to your company’s 401(k) and if your company doesn’t offer one, set up an IRA or a Roth.

5. Set a personal financial goal (that is also attainable) for 2013 and take the steps to get there.  Do you want to increase savings by 20%?  Do you want to get rid of all credit card debt?  Are you saving for a new home?  If that means taking an additional shift at work or getting a part-time job, do it. Or, are you ready to invest $15,000?  Check out some of the top online brokerage sites like Fidelity, Scottrade, or Etrade that also offer research and investing tools so you can do it yourself.

And if you’re ready to seek professional help, visit FPAnet.org to find an advisor in your area or NAPFA.org for fee-only advisors. Like a therapist, a financial advisor can help you identify bad habits, set priorities and help you reach your goals.  But they probably can’t help resolve any lingering daddy issues.

Measure Your Financial Body Fat

It’s mid-January; do you know where your New Years Resolutions went?

Hard to believe that the holidays were just 2 weeks ago.  Usually by mid-January, the mild depression caused by lack of sunlight that grips most of us in the Northeast is in full effect.  This year it’s that plus the flu.  No wonder, then, that many of us have discarded our New Years Resolutions like some forgotten grocery list dropped on the floor of the Times Square subway.

Picking up the pieces of our New Years Resolutions

Picking up the pieces of our New Years Resolutions

But even if you got sidelined by the flu and haven’t been able to make it into the gym yet, or maybe went to Macy’s with the $100 gift card you got for Christmas and accidentally left with a couple of pairs of boots, three cable-knit sweaters, a blender and a European-style mattress, don’t let a little bad behavior stop you from making good on the promises you made to yourself.

One of the top three resolutions has to do with money.  People vow to get out of debt, save more, or start investing.  Setting financial goals is always top of mind for most people.  And like the other top resolutions–losing weight, becoming a “better person (whatever that means) or volunteering (good luck with that!)–nothing will be achieved unless you set goals, make a plan and work towards those goals.

But before you go transferring your entire savings account into your 401k, or opening an online brokerage account and depositing last week’s unemployment check, or saving up for a Bloomberg station so you can start day-trading…chillax.  Think of the old adage “you don’t know where you’re going ’til you know where you’ve been.”  In other words, determining your financial foundation first helps you understand yourself better and your attitude towards money which in turn will help you set–and achieve–better financial goals.

Recently, I joined a new gym.  I’d been going to the good ol’ run-of-the-mill gym for years and was tired of the broken machines, humid conditions and questionable stains embedded on the “clean” towels.  This new gym is beautiful, shiny, sleek; it’s the gym that the one-percenters go to, and even though I am not currently a one-percenter, this gym gives me access to this special status, if only for 3-5 times a week.

The one-percenters on treadmills

The one-percenters on treadmills

With my new gym membership , I’m entitled to a couple free personal training sessions.  I recently met “Tareeq,” a tall Dominican glass of water who approached me in the gym and pretended to flirt with me so that I would make an appointment with him (yes, that’s what they do, those wily personal trainers; they flirt with you and flash smiles in hopes that you will hire them as a trainer!  And of course it works.)

Last week was my first session where we basically took my measurements, did a fitness test and talked about my goals…basically a humiliating start to my Friday.  Funny how I started out the session pretty optimistic, cracking jokes, telling Tareeq that my weight “ain’t nothin’ but a number, just like my age, know what I mean?  Haha!” And then by the end of the session, after I had ran, walked a steep incline, attempted push-ups, sit-ups, gotten my fat pinched in various parts of my body and then stepped onto a scale–I was depressed and quiet.  My goals had changed.  I had walked into the session thinking, ‘I feel good, just want to tone up my lower body, and have fun working out’ but after I had evaluated my present state of health and fitness, I wanted more.  I wanted to lose weight, strengthen my core, lower my blood pressure, burn more fat during a workout, fix the sag situation in various parts of my body.

When it comes to finance, just like in fitness, we often make lofty goals without truly evaluating our situation and our attitudes–and as a result fall short of our goals.  By establishing a financial foundation first, you get a better idea of your good and bad habits, and the areas in your finances that need immediate attention; this leads to setting the right goals and the steps to tackle these issues.

This first step in setting a financial foundations is to understand yourself.

1. Be mindful.  In yoga, we’re aways reminded to be mindful of things.  “Be mindful of your breath.” “Be mindful of thoughts for they turn into actions which turns into the truth yadda yadda.” “Be mindful that you don’t scrunch your neck in downward dog.”

I am very mindful of this beautiful sunset.

I am very mindful of this beautiful sunset.

These are small reminders that can be extremely important to the practice of yoga and to receiving the full benefits of a pose.  When it comes to money, we should also be mindful of our actions and reactions to money-related matters.  How do you feel when you get your credit card bill in the mail? Do you instantly cringe and throw the bill in a  desk drawer, only to be found sometime in mid-August?  Or do you react in the opposite way, panicked by a fear of debt, spend your whole paycheck on bills and leave yourself with a twenty-dollar bill for the rest of the month?

What is your current state of debt?  What is your monthly income?  What are your fixed expenses that you need to live on per month?  Find these numbers and memorize them.

2. Change your attitude.  Many people approach money issues with a sense of fear.  I’ve heard people complain that they don’t understand finance, it’s complicated or boring.  Others don’t want to delve too far into their finances for fear that they’ll discover how majorly dramatically horrifically in debt they are (which is probably not the case).  Still others may think they don’t have anything to worry about because they’re too young, don’t earn enough money, or have someone else make money and investing decisions for them, etc.

First of all, take a good hard look in the mirror and acknowledge how you feel about money, debt, retirement planning and investing.  Are you afraid to ask questions at the bank, or talk to a financial advisor because you feel like you don’t make enough for someone to care about your questions or accounts, or because you don’t want them to think you’re stupid or because you don’t want them to sell you something?  My advice: walk into the bank like a gangster.  Act like you own the place.  Look at the bank advisors like they work for YOU.  I mean, they don’t, but if that’s what it takes to get you to change your attitude, tell yourself those lies!

Think of yourself as the Godfather and your financial advisor as your trusted Consigliere.

Think of yourself as the Godfather and your financial advisor as your trusted Consigliere.

The opposite of fear is confidence.  It is incredibly empowering when you can overcome your fear–or maybe even just ignore it or side-line it–in order to start a conversation with an advisor, ask questions and take control of your money (and not the other way around).

3. Create a process that works for you.  Let me start by saying that I hate math.  Anything that has to do with numbers–even the calculator on my Iphone–is extremely puzzling to me.  I am often stumped when someone asks me to times a number by 10.  So when it comes to establishing a budget and managing my finances I don’t use an Excel spreadsheet.  I like things spelled out, so I gravitate towards specialized programs like Mint.com, and I also like keeping good old-fashioned notes in a notebook (or on my Iphone).

Some couples use the envelope method to manage their household finances.  They stuff money into envelopes dedicated to certain parts of the household budget and anything left over from fixed expenses can be used for the variable expenses like entertainment, big purchase items or hair extensions.  I have a friend that lives and breathes Excel.  She uses Excel at work of course, to manage her household budget and bills but also to manage expenses on a group outing, for vacation expenses, even for shopping.

No one process works for every person; you have to find the method that is convenient, easy to use and something that you’ll stick to.  And then stick to it.

Establishing a financial foundation, like fitness, is a simple (sometimes painful) process that can lead to establishing the right goals.  Once you know “who” you are–with regard to your attitude, your fears and your habits towards money–you can set real goals based on that reality.

Your financial foundation can also be a great scare tactic that inspires you into action–kind of like what happened to me after my fitness test last week.  I was back at the gym every day this week, and even tried some exercises Tareeq showed me.  He would’ve been so proud if he saw me on that treadmill–but he was too busy flirting with a new member at the juice bar.

The Art of Negotiating

Ever since I can remember, my family has always used fierce negotiating tactics for getting everything from cars to homes to discount tickets.  As an Arab-American, I was trained in the cheerful yet aggressive negotiating strategies of my fore-fathers from an early age and have used these techniques every since.

My father was the toughest negotiator around. I remember having three heart attacks when we went shopping for a new car and how he low-balled the car salesman at the Volkswagen dealership.  I think the sticker price was about $8000 more than the price he offered, and that’s when I had to leave the room.  Even I knew his offer was embarrassingly low and I tried to calm my nerves with a grape soda while they talked.  Watching the discussion from outside the office, my  palms were twitching, I had a headache and I tried to avert my eyes from the black VW Jetta that I had my heart set on (and that I had a sinking feeling I would lose, thanks to my dad’s ridiculously low offer.)  Twice my dad raised his voice, three times he stood up to leave, even making it to the door once before the salesman begged him to sit back down. 

Good ol’ Jetta!

Finally I saw him stand up for the last time.  He came out of the office in a huff and said, “Yullah Lena (come on).”  It was over.  The dream of owning my sassy Jetta went down the drain as I followed my dad outside into the parking lot.  But wait!  As we lumbered over to our car (come to think of it, my dad was walking extremely slowly!), the salesman came scurrying outside and called out for my father to come back inside.  My dad resisted, acting like he was offended and the deal was no good.  The salesman came over to my dad and persuaded him to come back to the negotiating table–and he did.  Fifteen minutes later, they had a deal and I had my new car!

My father’s negotiating skills didn’t apply exclusively to cars: sometimes he used these guerilla tactics to maximize deals and discounts.  I recall one year when McDonald’s offered an amazing deal: for one day (February 14th) they were selling hamburgers for 14 cents.  My dad, being the thrifty father of four that he was, wanted to take McDonald’s up on this offer–and in a big way.  So on February 14, the whole family (including my grandmother and infant brother) piled into the Ford Fairmont and drove over to the local McDonald’s where my dad proceeded to order 100 hamburgers.  I was very young at the time but I’m pretty sure a manager had to be called in and then later a phone call was made.  My dad stood his ground and after waiting about an hour and a half, we walked out with 100 hamburgers.  For weeks after that, McDonald’s hamburgers were our go-to afternoon snack. We had them in the freezer, in the fridge, as a side instead of rice or salad, they even replaced the fruit in the fruit basket.  But my lesson was this: it might sounds ridiculous but it never hurts to ask.  And stand  your ground, especially if it’s a deal worth fighting for. 

Ronald makes a deal!

Over the years, I have learned many useful negotiating strategies, honing my skills in the markets of Istanbul, Marrakesh, Jerusalem and New York City.  Here are 5 rules to live by to be a top negotiator:

1. It doesn’t hurt to ask

Sometimes it may seem silly or even cheap, but suggesting a lower price or a discount can actually work.  Recently, I received an invitation to attend an alumni networking luncheon.  Since I’m all about a) networking and b) lunch, I thought this was right up my alley–except that the cost of the luncheon was more than I wanted to pay.  So I emailed the organizer, told her I was really interested in attending but because I’m a small business owner and on a tight budget, I was wondering if she could offer a discount.  The organizer came back and offered a 50% discount–which I happily took! 

I often use my negotiating skills when I take my dog to the vet.  While I am obsessed with my dog, I sometimes think that taking her to the vet can be a waste of money.  Many times, the vet has no problem charging me an arm and a leg for a visit, or to do a bunch of unnecessary tests on my dog.  I’ve learned my lesson though and these days when I take my dog to the vet, I tell them right off the bat that I want to keep costs low.  I question everything  they do and every test they recommend, and also ask of over the counter meds I can give my dog instead of the expensive stuff the vet pushes.

2. Know your limit

In many situations–at a flea market, bazaar or craft fair–the price marked is already an inflated price; it’s like the vendor is BEGGING you to haggle!  In these situations, it’s OK to suggest a lower price, and test whether the vendor is willing to negotiate.  Most of them have a minimum price they have to charge for each item in order to make a profit. Likewise, we should have a maximum price in our head for the item we want to buy.  Negotiating a price should result in a good situation for both the seller and the buyer, but you shouldn’t give in so easily.  Start off by setting a maximum price in your head and start low, with the end goal of purchasing that item at or below your set price.

Moroccan bazaars have great deals!

 3. Always low-ball

Once you know that the vendor is willing to negotiate, start off with a low price.  The first price you offer shouldn’t be your final offer, just a starting point.  If the vendor is interested, he may give you a counter-offer, or give you a good price for more than one item.  However, if you’re in a professional situation, like you are negotiating event space or a deal on supplies from a vendor, you have less room to haggle.  Make your first offer a thoughtful, solid offer and bring up reasoning behind why the offer is lower than the listed price–like a limited budget or if you agree to rent space on a slow day for the business owner.

4. Don’t be afraid to walk away

Sometimes, no matter how fair a counter-offer you make and how thoughtful the reasoning behind it is, some vendors don’t want to haggle.  Or they may knock the price down a hair, which really does nothing for you.  Sometimes, you get an unreasonable vendor with a bad attitude.  If you think you’re getting nowhere, you feel offended or you think you should get a better deal, but the vendor isn’t negotiating in good faith, don’t be afraid to walk away.  For one thing, it makes a better story.  It’s always better to tell your friends you made a solid offer, but the vendor was a jerk and wouldn’t budge so you walked away out of principle–rather than forking over the full price. 

More important, walking away shows the vendor you’re serious about the final price and that may motivate him to action.  I’ve walked away from a bad deal several times over the years and more times than not, the vendor chases me down the street and gives me the price I want.  Or in a business situation, the vendor puts me on hold to “talk to his colleague” and comes back with good news.  Just yesterday I was standing on 6th Avenue and saw a hot dog vendor running after a customer.  The vendor was waving a bottle of Mountain Dew and pleading with the man to take the bottle at the lower price. I don’t know what the customer told this guy but it seems to have worked!

say ‘yes’ to the Dew!

5. Keep it light

The art of negotiation requires flexibility and a sense of humor.  Haggling over an item, a deal or a car may be serious business but it should never get personal or hostile.  It always helps to flatter the vendor, marvel at the handiwork of the item, the uniqueness of the service or convenient location of the space you want to rent.  Offer some personal information explaining why this item is perfect for you or as a gift.  Spend a moment on the phone with a vendor asking about his/her family before getting down to business.  In the end, a smile and friendly (sincere!) conversation can get you a better deal than any fast-talking lawyer can.

Girl On A Budget:Week 4-In The Beginning…

It’s Week 4 of our Girl On A Budget Series, which chronicles the adventures of a NYC woman trying to live on a budget.  This week, she takes us back to the beginning and offers tips on how to set and stick to a budget that works for you.  But, as we find, sometimes staying within a budget requires more than casual planning…

September 10

This week started out kinda weird….I got a call from a 1-800-preacher who said he knew I was having a hard time and that his prayer circle could help me get back on my feet. Now I know a few Hallelujahs go a long way, but I’ve learned the hard way that real change begins with action–and a budget.

After two months of sticking to my budget, things are going well on $250 a week, and that’s how it should be. It’s hard to believe that just a few months ago, I was worried about money, trying to stay out of debt and wanting to handle my finances like a responsible adult (living in NYC, AKA Neverneverland, sometimes one forgets that one is an adult 🙂

Living in NYC sometimes makes you feel like Peter Pan!

Coming up with a budget and weekly allowance required some research and soul-searching.  I learned that when you create a budget you’re supposed to pick a weekly or monthly allowance that alleviates stress and mine does. Here’s how I came up with my budget:
1.    I tracked expenses for two months so I got a better sense of where my money went (sometimes looking back at how I spent my money was a lit-tle painful!)

2. In tracking expenses, I also divided my spending into needs vs. wants.  How much money do I HAVE to earn or have in the bank in order to live? That includes rent, food, utilities, phone, transporatation and all the insurances (health and renter’s insurance!).  To that number I added a little somethin’-somethin’ to make sure I was able to go out to dinner here and there, buy a pair of shoes for an important interview, and other incidentals.

Ummmm…maybe not interview-appropriate….

 3.     I try my best to follow the 50/30/20 rule to allocate money. 50% of my money goes to needs, 30% to wants and 20% to savings. If you live in NY you might need to adjust the needs due to housing costs.  But since I walk to work I can re-allocate my transportation cost elsewhere, like to housing or savings.

Sometimes, though, a little planning goes a long way. This week I went to dinner with a good friend. Usually I do a little comparison shopping between restaurants, but this time I briefly looked at Le Singe Vert’s menu before deciding it was the right choice for us. We chose the restaurant due to its location and had a fancy salad and steak frites. Everything was delicious but I couldn’t help thinking we could have done better price-wise if I’d taken the time to look at other menus. I was right. Upon further review I found that most bistro-esque places (Café Cluny, Bar 6) were the same price but one was drastically different. Les Halles has the same meal we had for only $20.50! Our version was double the price at $46! It pays to remember that expenses can be controlled with a little pre-planning. 

YUM!

The rest of the week was filled with free fun. My favorite neighbor invited me to an Ian Hunter concert on Friday night. My initial response was ‘Ian who?’ but I’ve got to tell you, this guy rocks!  I also saw my favorite beau in a free show that he produced. It was the first time he’d been on stage since 1999 and I was happy to be there to support. It’s amazing how many free things there are to do in the city. All were wonderful and helped me stay within $250 for the week.

Girl On A Budget is taking a break from her true confessions blog–but she challenges YOU to find a weekly allowance you can live with and stick to it!  Let us know how you do with your comments on this blog and our Facebook page!

Crazy for Greek Yogurt

Are you obsessed with Greek yogurt like everyone else?  Last week it was reported that the founder and owner of Chobani Greek Yogurt,  Hamdi Ulukaya, is America’s newest billionaire.  Mr. Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant to the US,  bought an old Kraft factory in 2007 and had 5 employees to start; five years later his yogurt brand controls almost 50% share of the Greek yogurt market and 17% of the total US yogurt market.

Chobani Greek Yogurt

Before 2007, most Americans had never heard of or tasted Greek yogurt which is strained more than regular yogurt, resulting in a richer, creamy taste.  As the daughter of immigrants from the Middle East, this was a staple in my house when I was growing up. My mom used to make yogurt from scratch, hovering over a simmering pot of milk and stirring it for hours, storing it in the refrigerator overnight and then straining it in cheesecloth.  As the yogurt strains, it solidifies; the result was our Arabic version of a yogurt cheese called labne.  You can spread labne on bread and top with honey, or drizzle it with olive oil and eat with boiled eggs, olives and pita bread.

The breakfast of champions

These days, my mom is a busy retiree, hustling from her volunteering job to lunch with her friends to walks on the beach, visits with grandkids and ending the day with a glass of wine while watching “Celebrity Apprentice.”  She doesn’t have time to make labne from scratch.  Luckily, you can buy labne at Middle Eastern groceries.  This weekend I was in Astoria with a friend and did a little immigrant shopping on my walk back to the train, stopping into get Syrian cheese, labne and Arabic cucumbers.

Astoria has everything you need for immigrant shopping–and cheap too!

Once in a while, I make labne myself, and even though it’s not the old-fashioned way that requires blood, sweat and tears, it’s still healthy and cheap.  You take a pint of regular plain low-fat or full fat yogurt (be careful not to get vanilla flavored and avoid nonfat yogurt).  Pour in a teaspoon or so of salt and stir it.  Put a paper towel in a colander and then pour the mixture carefully onto the paper towel (be sure to put a bowl under the colander to collect the draining water).  Let the yogurt strain overnight.  The result is a creamy yogurt cheese that you can eat for breakfast or snacks–it’s super healthy and super cheap.

Girl On A Budget: Week 3 “Iphone Drama”

We’re at Week 3 of a new blog series called Girl On A Budget, which chronicles the weekly challenges and victories of my friend Pamela Penny-Pincher who is on a budget.  Every week she can’t spend more than $250 for food, clothing, transportation, emergency expenses or entertainment.  Does it seem too easy or too tough?  You try it!

This week, Pam-Pen-Pin had to deal with an emergency expense–a busted Iphone!!!  Here’s how she handled it…

September 10

It was a successful within-budget Labor Day weekend at Kinderhook Lake. Great company (my friends rock!), amazing food, lots of fun. Too bad I dropped my iPhone in water during a midnight booze cruise when I got there.  No, I didn’t drop it  in the lake.  I dropped my phone in a glass of water on the boat…while in the middle of the lake! Not only did it put a damper on my weekend sexting (a speciality of mine), but replacing it was probably going to put me over budget.

Tragedy in a glass of water in a boat in the middle of the lake!!!

My original iPhone cost me $50 so you can imagine my surprise when AT&T told me the same phone was now $350! Apparently, in order to get a deal, you have to be a new AT&T customer or a long-time customer. Before putting myself on a budget, I easily would have paid for the phone with a credit card since it’s a necessity–but not anymore. Now, I have $250 a week in cash to work with and not a penny more. My plan was to let the cash keep me honest and work a little harder for a price tag I could be happy with.

 Although I looked at cheaper phones, in the end I decided an iPhone was still for me. So I took the phone to Tekserve to see if it could be repaired. They said there were no guarantees they could fix it because it fell in water. 

I’d already checked with a large corporate AT&T store that wasn’t helpful, so the next stop was a small franchise. The guy there wasn’t able to lower the price but did give me a good tip. He recommended a Verizon in the neighborhood that “might be able to do something” for me.  Hmmmm…

So I walked one block to Verizon and it was a whole new world! They wanted my business so badly they offered a $220 credit to my AT&T account to cover my AT&T cancellation fee of $185 and  to cover Verizon’s initiation fee. That means I only had to pay for the phone. Now this I was liking! It got even better when I realized they had a better selection of iPhones at Verizon. I took the deal and paid for a new iPhone 4 for a total of $100.00. I saved $8.00 in sales tax because I paid cash (that’s a Happy Hour cocktail!) so that totals $258 in savings just for taking the time to shop around – and I got a better phone!

I was proud of myself for not succumbing to the lure of using credit to deal with my problems, and that my super-sleuthing lead me to a great deal- that I used cash to pay for too!  And despite the minor setback, the rest of the week looked pretty good.  My fridge was full, and I even had a bottle of wine so the only thing I needed to fund was a social life. Was I going to have to live like a hermit to accomplish my goal? The answer is no. I used a pre-budget purchased Groupon with a friend for salsa class (4 classes for $19.00), I had a second date with a cute guy, and one of my girlfriends (oh my uber fabulous friends!) had people over for a smashing paella dinner. A wonderful week and new phone all for $250–good for me!