Archive for the ‘Finances’ Category

I’m at a point where I’m about ready to surrender to the circumstances that be and leave my growing menagerie of houseplants to their fate (which is to say, to an aggressive white mold, swarming fungus gnats, and possibly some type of mite). If it were up to me, I might just scrap it, toss everything and maybe eventually think about getting something new. Of course, it really isn’t up to me, because they aren’t solely my plants, and people who care about me have been generous to support my habit to its current point. Which leaves me with the option of dealing with it.

I first decided I wanted a plant in my dorm room (or I think this is why I wanted the first one) because I had enjoyed growing things in an outdoor garden, I had heard that certain types of plants could purify the air, and I liked the idea of adding some life to my dorm room (beside my roommate).

While I was at school, I’d say this remained the general idea, and it was relatively healthy. When I came home for the summer, though, the space available to me exploded, and my mom provided just enough tentative encouragement to push me to doing it more.

Buying plants, though, has become a replacement for buying stuff, which is not such a healthy habit. I’ve been doing my best to ignore the occasional bouts of gadget envy in the hope of saving money. However, because I had a plausible excuse – plants are beneficial, after all, right? – I was okay with buying more plants. If there’s any doubt that I’ve switched into a consuming mode, I needed only stop and actually listen to my thoughts. “If I could just have this plant and this one, I’ll be happy with my little collection.” And after I bought those plants, “If I could just get that new plant, then I will be happy.”

I recognize this line of thinking; it’s the reason I have an iPod I don’t use.

Now, the problem has been compounded (since otherwise, I could simply reign in my new habit and do my best to enjoy the plants I have) by the health problems of the plants themselves. The mold is, I’m fairly sure, not healthy for us to be around any more then it can be healthy for the plants. But there it is, on the surface of all the soil and now even on the terracotta pots after every watering.

So, fungicides are used, and I try to get the plants on some sort of watering schedule that lets them dry out more between waterings.

The fungus gnats, wherever they came from, buzz around our house, never in a swarm, but gnats will be gnats, and they are annoying as hell. Not to mention the list of potential damage they (or their larva) can do to the plants themselves (including, but not limited to, eating new roots or delaying the creation of roots in young plants).

Pesticide naturally follows, in increasing doses that correlate to just how frustrated I am feeling (and how many gnats I saw) the day I apply it.

Which leaves me, where, exactly? With a number of moldy, bug infested, and now also highly toxic plants (did I mention one of our oldest plants is a trusty basil plant, now soundly rendered inedible) and still the nagging feeling that a Fisiulera would make it all better.

You can see why I am frustrated.

However, as I said, surrender is no option. So what is? Well, for the time being, more fungicide and pesticide, plus any and all other semi-mythical cures we can concoct. Also, accepting the abandonment of any side projects (like our silent avocado pits), and the salvage of any of those project’s materials as possible (meaning, if the pots, but probably not the soil, can be considered anything but hazardous waste), all on the premise that less dirt should mean less problems.

I think the plants can probably pull through. I hope they can, because I am starting to get back to my original mindset, plants as pets, and (when I’m done feeling bad for myself) I feel awful for what I’ve let happen to them. Make no mistake, there is a decent chance still that we’ll lose more plants. I’ll have to hope thats not the case and look forward to the day (say in about three or four months) when the various toxic chemicals have been sufficiently flushed from the soil that I can once again play in the dirt, which was the whole point in the first place.


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At the beginning of July, I was approached by a company to write a post recommending their company to you. First of all, I thought that was a little strange, since I’d been on something of a hiatus for, oh, two months or so. I inquired further none the less. It would seem I asked too many questions, because they stopped talking to me. I now oblige them in their request (and don’t worry, this one is free of charge).

The site was National Payday. Payday loans, for those who don’t know, are very short terms loans (usually issued one pay day to be collected on by the next). Unfortunately, the quick approval process is balanced by truly atrocious interest rates (I’ve seen them worked out at nearly 200% annually). Get Rich Slowly has more on that.

What really makes me laugh, though, is the sweet-talking spin Darell put on their product when he e-mailed me. “Most of our customers are making ends meet on a small budget and require short-term loans and may not even qualify for more traditional loans.” I fail to see how taking advantage of people falling on hard times is admirable. What good is it to be able to pay off a credit card if the loan you take out has ten times the interest?

Regardless, here’s a simple lesson for you, dear reader: Any company which has to pay people to say something nice about it, is a company you don’t want to do business with. In the case of payday loan sharks, I would call them evil, vile, and disgusting.

There you are Darell. I hope my brief post was not too “vilinizing” for you or your company. And as I said, it’s on me.

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Where I Am

I have about three weeks (er, two and a half?) until the end of another school year. I’ll be a junior, technically, but still have three years to go as a consequence of switching majors. In that regard, I’m going for a Bachelor of Fine Arts, with a photo concentration, and probably an Art History minor. I have classes, housing, financial aid, etc. Scholastically, I am pretty well set, and feeling more confident about my choices then ever.

This summer is a different story. No job, yet. I’m not terrible concerned about what the job is, which hopefully will make finding one easier. I’m still not exactly sure how people come back from school with jobs already in hand. I must be missing something.

Lots of artistic ideas, but no darkroom in which to execute them. Not sure what to do about that, but I keep trying.

In other ways, I’m also on unsure footing. Maybe more on that some other day, though.

A little bit of positive news though, to bring this to an optimistic close. I am receiving some sort of award from a scholarship show (that I didn’t enter) in the art department. What this award is or why I was chosen, I have no idea. Oh well! Recognition is recognition.

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This post originally ran on my old blog, the Sensdep Experience. I’m reproducing it here because a cold has shut down the writing portion of my brain, and I’ve eaten through my back log. Hopefully I will have something new for you tomorrow, but until then enjoy this classic!

So, since June 27th (The post originally ran Augusut 15th of the same year) I’ve been signed up with a company called SurveySpot to take on-line surveys for a cash reward. The idea is simple but I thought I might talk a little about my experience in case anyone wants to consider doing it themselves.

As I said, the premise is simple. The company contacts you with survey opportunities from various market research groups, and you can accept or decline each survey. Also, most surveys will have a few introductory questions to ensure you fall into the demographic they want to poll, and you may be told politely “no thank you” after doing those. However, if you are accepted, most surveys take between fifteen minutes and an hour and pay between $2 and $5.

These surveys work great for people who have a little bit of free time and want to make some extra cash. It wont come quickly, as there are long processing times between the research group and SurveySpot as well as between SurveySpot and you, but it’ll get there eventually. There are some surveys with no reward (though SurveySpot offers instead an entry into a quarterly $25,000 raffle), but you are under no obligation to do them.

The downsides are pretty straightforward. A lot of the surveys are boring, unless slight changes to product packaging really catches your interest. Some weren’t so bad though, so don’t expect every time to be drudgery. There is also the ever present chance of internet failure. Should something time out just before you finish, tough luck. I think it only happened once to me, though.

Being turned down for surveys can be frustrating. I’ve probably spent an hour getting rejected by six surveys to be accepted by one. However, I also had one day where I was accepted by all five, so it comes and goes.

The big things to watch out for are as follows:

A) Any company that asks for a sign up fee is a scam, flat out. Don’t bother. SurveySpot is free.
B) Any company that uses points instead of real cash is probably a scam. I was signed up for one of these before (Harris Poll Online) and after a ton of surveys could just manage a $5 gift card. If a company uses points, do the math. How long is each survey, how many points per survey, and what can points buy you. You might find it works out to an agreeable amount per hour, or, as I did, you might not.

That said, it’s not bad, for working from home on your own hours. It’s never a career, and not even really a second job, but not bad to pad the wallet a little. As I said, I signed up on June 27th, and the last survey I took was June 30th, about a month later. In that time I took 19 surveys at $3 a piece, for a total of $57 dollars. If I could keep it up, that’s $684 a year.

Unfortunately, I’m writing this because I couldn’t keep it up. It’s mind numbing work. It will never go on a resume, and I decided I’d rather do some other form of low paying work (like an online store) which will hopefully pay dividends later on. Still, I can’t complain too much about the experience, and I’ll have a check for $57 no later then four to six weeks after September 10th.

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On Advertising

The short story, of course, is that advertising sucks: it is a carefully crafted way to separate you from your money. It makes you feel uncool, afraid, or in need when you aren’t, and then tells you what you can consume to make it better.

The long story is a little more complicated. Not because advertising has great redeeming virtues (I don’t think it’s even as funny as it used to be anymore), but because I would be doing you an injustice without mentioning some ways to avoid advertising’s influence.

The most obvious, of course, is to cut yourself off from it. If you don’t see it, it can’t effect you. Unfortunately, that usually isn’t an option. I know I am not willing to make the sacrifices I would need to make. So what can you do?

One way is to become a savvy consumer. I didn’t realize it until I recently read this article on Get Rich Slowly, but I think my parents did a fairly good job of preparing me. Learn a little about economics and advertising. Think critically about commercials, at least occasionally. What are they selling? How are they selling it? Quite often, thinking about it is enough to break the control. You’ll question, and usually advertising’s arguments can’t stand up to questioning (unless it’s a genuinely good product). I know I feel good every time I notice what the advertiser didn’t say about a product. One guess why that car commercial didn’t mention fuel mileage? Or safety features?

Viewing them as humor works too. Frankly, a lot of the commercials out there are funny, but not for the reasons the advertisers intended. One recent car commercial, for example, explains that recent research showed that cup holders are the top priority when most women choose a new car. The commercial then goes on to deny that as silly and explain how big the engine is. I’ve got to hand it to them, they are apparently experts at alienating their demographic.

Perhaps the best way to fight advertising, though, is to keep personal goals in mind. If you know what you want, and how to get there, you wont be as easy to sway. Before you buy another new TV, remember your financial goals. Before the Oreos, remember your diet. Advertisers typically don’t sell you on a product, but on what the product will do for you. Not cars and diet pills, but popularity and a sexy body. If you already know what you need and how to get there, you wont even hear those commercials.

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Repaying Student Loans

For a college student without that many huge expenses, I am surprisingly concerned about money. One of my biggest problems is that I hate being in debt. (Ironically, I love lending people money; my friends are always good for the money, but in the meantime my lower bank balance is an incentive not to spend more.) As you might expect, my mounting student loans, small though they are, annoy me endlessly. I want to pay them off quickly, but I know thats not always the best option. After all, they do have a ridiculously low interest rate, relative to credit cards and other forms of credit, and about half of them aren’t actually accruing interest until 6 months after I graduate. Still, I’d like to attack them pretty aggressively when I graduate, as long as my financial situation allows it. But where to start?

Get Rich Slowly has a very interesting guest post on the subject that focuses a lot on consolidation. However, the author, SJean, starts with the most basic question you will probably need to ask yourself: What do I owe, and to whom? To answer this, he recommends speaking with your school’s financial aid department as well as checking with this site.

Once you know what you have to pay, it’s time to consider consolidation. In short, this means combining all your loans (in my case, I have several from each year of college) into a single loan. This can often get you a lower rate, especially if done during the 6-month grace period after graduation, as well as making it easier to manage your loans. When picking a lender to consolidate, SJean recommends looking for the following:

  • interest rate (will likely be the same for all lenders)
  • discounts for auto-payment
  • discounts for on-time payments
  • website and user interface for payments
  • ability to pay with credit card with no fee (to get cash back bonus, not to convert to credit card debt!)
  • ability to use Upromise rewards to pay back the loan (Sallie Mae)

These qualities make it easier and sometimes cheaper to pay back your loans. Which is good, because with the exception of some very rare circumstances, your loans are with you until you pay them off or die.

He goes on to cover some measures you can take if you cannot pay back your loans. Luckily, student loans are eligible for forbearance (delaying payments), but interest continues accruing and it negatively hurts your credit score. (You may also be able to defer payments or arrange a different payment plan with your creditor, but both require some luck and pretty special circumstances.)

Luckily, if you can pay back your loans early, there’s no harm in doing so. However, it’s often possible to save money by paying the minimum balances and investing extra money in a high yield account. You may also have other, higher interest debts you should pay down first. However, if you’re like me and want to pay them down quickly (who wants to still be paying for college when they are forty?) you usually can.

Aside from that, paying off student loans is pretty much like all loans. The debt snowball can still apply. You should still take the approach that works for you, balancing financial and psychological concerns. As for me, I’m still hoping to be able to ditch a lot of my loans when I graduate, but I’ll have to see where I am in three years. Good luck!

Read the full article here.

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Faster, Better, And Cheaper!

I see lots of commercials (typically the local car lot or furniture store, home made variety) that claim to offer a product “faster, better and cheaper!” I’m always a little appalled that people think consumers are gullible enough to believe such a thing exists, but just in case it isn’t clear, a quick rule of thumb.

Any product or service can be measured three ways: quality (better), convenience (faster), and cost (cheaper). Quite often, you’ll be able to find a service or product that offers one of these, but you’ll never find something that offers more then two. It breaks down like this.

Better, faster, but… it will cost you.
If you can afford it, you can get high quality goods or services fast. Emphasis on, “if you can afford it.” You have to pay not only for the most skilled workers but for them to put in long hours, or to pay extra to get materials in a rush. It’s possible, but it’s expensive.

Better, cheaper, but… not till late next year.
Another option. You pay for quality, but save on delivery time. Maybe you hire a really skilled carpenter, but he only works when he has spare time. Or else you order the good stuff, but take the cheapest delivery option. The reason the merchant, whatever they’re selling, can offer such a good product at such a low price is that they take no risks by stocking the product ahead of time; your quality product isn’t ordered from the source until you order in the store.

Faster, cheaper, but… well, you get what you pay for.
Of course, you can always find someone willing to sell you a product or service with a minimal investment of time or money. In fact, I’d say this is the predominant business model in the US. Think Wal-Mart, K-Mart, etc. It’s not bad, if it works for you, but you have to know what you’re getting in return. It will be low quality. If it’s a service, the work will be shoddy and rushed. You save in the short term, but in the long term you lose out on quality.

Is one option better then the others? It depends on your situation. If it’s a service or product which will strongly effect you or your family’s safety, I might advise buying quality, and paying for it however you can. Otherwise, you have to decide what’s right for you. The important thing is not to be suckered by people who claim to deliver everything.

There is always a cost.

What you get one place, you pay for another. If one company found a way around that rule, they wouldn’t need to advertise: their competition would already be out of business.

(There is one exception I can think of to this rule, and thats buying – typically services – from people who are desperate. Students, young people, etc., who don’t have a lot of options. I know I’ve worked hard and fast for little pay before. However, it’s important to note that this is limited to low-skill jobs. Here, “quality” means hard work, not skilled work. So, to some degree, you still lose out.)

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