Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Welcoming the New Year.

Christmas is finally over, and with the New Year just around the corner now is the perfect time to not only take a look back on the year that was, but to plan for 2011 as well. Most people use this time of the year to start anew and make resolutions and promises to themselves such as eating better, losing weight or exercising more. Just as important, however is using the New Year as a blank canvass to paint a more fiscally sound portrait of yourself. Here are 7 financial resolutions worth sticking to:

1. Pay off debt. The cost of Christmas causes many families to use a credit card. For many of us “the joy of giving” often turns into sadness when we see our credit card statements in January. If times are lean pay the minimum amount due on each credit card before the due date so no late charges will add to the balance. Check the interest rate on the card and dedicate any money you have left in the budget to paying off the card with the highest interest rate.

Credit cards have a huge impact on your financial fitness. For each dollar charged on a credit card, the average consumer pays back 112 percent. That means for each $100, they end up paying $212 for principal, interest and fees. Paying off these debts will make a huge difference in your finances and will also ease the emotional stress that often comes with credit card debt.

2. Put aside an emergency fund. This maybe very difficult for a lot of individuals out there, especially with the unemployment rate still hovering around 10%, put aside as much as you can. The average emergency cost that causes consumers to use credit cards is $2,000. By having this much money in a savings account, you will save the interest and reduce further debt. Dedicate any money you can squeeze out of your expenses to this fund. Save $150 per month for thirteen months or $75 for 27 months to get close to that $2,000 target.

3. Make a spending plan or a budget. Knowing where your money goes is the first step to good money management. No matter how much you earn, you can always benefit from a spending plan. Keep track of where your money is being spent. Use a checkbook register, bills and bank records to organize expenditures. Then examine them to make sure this is how you want to spend your money. The beginning of the year is the ideal time to do this, since most credit card companies will be sending year –end statements that will breakdown all of your spending for the last year, often the charges are broken down by category and by month. It’s the perfect opportunity to look back on the things you spent money on in the previous year and will give you an idea on the things you can cut back on moving forward.

4. Reduce spending. After creating a budget, take a look at how much you are spending and see if you can reduce it. You might find you are spending money eating out, on movies or hobbies. Look for ways to reduce spending and you’ll have more to add to an emergency fund.

5. Improve your credit score. As money has tightened in our economy, your credit score is extremely important. Your credit score ranges from 300 to 850 with a minimum of 700 to apply for a credit a card or to get a favorable interest rate on a mortgage. Your credit score also can determine what you pay for insurance, cable TV and rent. Your credit score reflects whether you pay your bills on time, how much you owe, your credit history, the type of credit you have and the amount of credit you are using.

Three major credit agencies maintain credit records: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. You can request a free report of your credit record one time per year from each of these companies at annualcreditreport.com. I often tell people to get one company’s report now and work on improving your report. In four months, request a report from the second company and continue to work on your scores. In four more months, request a report from the final company. This will give you an accurate look at how your score is improving throughout the year.

6. Review your income taxes. If you have a change in the number of people in the family or your income, look at your tax withholding. If you take out too much, you are giving the government a tax-free loan. If you take out too little, you’ll be faced with a whopping tax bill and might even have to pay penalties and interest.

7. Be accountable! It’s easy to make resolutions; the hard part is keeping them. Take the time to actually type them out or write them down on a piece of paper and keep the list somewhere you can see it everyday. Also, share your resolutions with some of your closest friends and family, people that you see or speak with frequently, that way they can ask you about your resolutions as the year progresses keeping you more accountable.

I know, that for many of us 2010 came with a lot of ups and downs. Most people I come across are looking forward to seeing the many experiences that this year has given them in their rear view mirror. I am both hopeful and optimistic that the turbulent year that was ended with more optimism than dread. For the many that have seen some of their darkest days in 2010, I hope that 2011 will be a reminder that “The Sun Also Rises”. To my small handful of readers and followers, I want to thank you for supporting me and my blog that I started this year and will hopefully continue to go strong in 2011. I wish all of you a very healthy and prosperous New Year.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

When the going gets tough, the tough get creative.

In these tough economic times, when jobs are scarce and banks are stingier than ever …most people would agree that the idea of starting a company with a new product line would be foolish. While others are turning a deaf ear to all the naysayers and abysmal statistics and are attempting to pave their own way.

I have been friends with Jordan and Jemma Rane for more than 10 years and have always had a tremendous amount of respect for them as people, and have always admired their ability to make a living out of doing what they love. It is always so much easier to choose the practical path of least resistance than it is to follow your own creative compass. So when Jordy told me during one of our Griffith Park runs, that he and his wife have started their own company that makes travel kits for kids, not only was I all ears, I had to interview them and of course, write about it as well.

Jemma Rane is a Los Angeles-based designer whose ready-to-wear jewelry and boutique women’s and kids’ clothing collections are sold across the U.S. and Canada under the Jemma label. Jordan Rane is an award-winning journalist, travel writer and author, and the former senior editor of Escape and west coast editor of Travelocity magazines. They live in Los Angeles with their son and daughter, Jackson (9) and Quincy (4), and three cats.

DIS- You guys have never been the conventional 8 to 5 types, have either of you ever done the corporate America thing?

J&J- “Corporate” may be a stretch for working as a travel magazine editor for several years (Jordan) or supervising a treatment center for teens and serving as a veterinary technician at the SPCA (Jemma), but both of us worked our share of “regular” jobs (with or without desks and cubicles) before officially going freelance and deciding that self-employment was really worth pursuing. Okay, and at times enduring.

DIS- The two of you work primarily from home correct? How are you guys able to manage work life while raising 2 kids all under the same roof?

J&J- Mainly with caffeine and a sense of humor. It also helps that we’re both pretty type-A and have developed a unique, tag-team co-parenting style where one of us instinctually knows when the other is about to go crazy—and can step in seconds before that happens. In general though, one of us is on duty at any given time when the kids are home and we each have our own designated (sacrosanct) office/studio space.

The potential benefit of two parents working from home with equal work loads is that you can achieve a certain “dance” that enables you to juggle a lot of things together as a team. The potential pitfall when home is the office is that you have to know when to turn the “work” button off. Raising young kids without a nanny works wonders in that regard.

DIS- Ok, now for the original KidKit.com , you obviously have inspiration all around you (literally) for an idea like this, can you describe the “aha” moment that made you guys think, “hey we should really do this”.

J&J- The light bulb first appeared when our 9-year-old son Jackson was two and Jemma visited several kids’ boutiques and bookstores in search of an all-purpose travel kit -- before ultimately buying various items separately to keep him quietly occupied during the usual bouts of restless down time (in restaurants, at airport gates, the doctor’s office, even at a movie theater). Eventually she said—“We should really create our own great travel kit for kids.” Like many promising ideas sidelined by work, diapers and bills, it took seven years for the bulb to actually get flicked on. Fortunately, we still saw a real need for a great travel kit for kids when we finally got the project in gear.

DIS- Describe the process of taking the idea from concept to fruition; it’s one thing to have a great idea but turning that idea into something tangible is usually what separates dreamers from entrepreneurs.

J&J- Yeah, it’s much easier to sit on a “great idea” than to put it into action, but once you overcome the inertia and take the plunge things can happen pretty fast. Jemma designed an original template shortly before a family trip that we tried out with our kids and nieces and nephews. Even though the Original Kid Kit has evolved significantly since then, that was the real catalyst that got the ball rolling—because it worked, for kids and for parents, and we both got genuinely jazzed about it. Then we dove in and started writing and designing kids activity books and perfecting a way for kids to re-use them over and over again in a dry-erase jacket without marking up any pages (the whole Smart Sleeve concept). Once we started researching die-cut owl shapes, buying chalk cloth in bulk and deciding between black or white rainbow paper options we knew there was no going back.

DIS- At any point did you think it was crazy to try to start a company and launch a product line in this economic climate?

J&J- Not really. You can either absorb all the economic doom and gloom on the news and create yet another reason not to do something you really believe in or just forge ahead while trying to keep your overhead low and doing as much in-house as you possibly can—which, right now, is pretty much everything. Really, we’re just thankful we’re not opening a restaurant or designing a new minivan.

DIS- What kind of feedback have you gotten so far, and what strategy do you have for getting your product out there?

J&J- The feedback so far has been incredibly promising. Once you have school-teacher friends asking to invest and moms (and dads) approaching you at Starbucks while your 4-year-old daughter is engrossed in her Original Kid Kit and asking, “Where did you get that?” you know you’re onto something. Right now we’re in the “peddling” stage. Just getting the name out there, increasing web site traffic and trying to get into as many boutique kid stores as possible. So far, our batting average has been excellent. They’re in stores. They’re selling. We’re getting great feedback. We’re still in the beginning stages but we have reason to be very optimistic.

DIS- I know it’s still very early in the game, but what’s your vision for kidkit.com?

J&J- A nod from the Oprah world is one of Jemma’s Holy Grails in life. But we’d be satisfied seeing Smart Sleeves at the Barnes & Noble checkout, launching a recognizable brand that’s in every airport, train station, hotel gift shop and kid’s store in the country and being in a position to hook a great, battery-free educational product that kids love into various charitable networks all over the country, world and universe. Is that really asking too much?

The Original KitKit can be purchased on line at www.theoriginalkitkit.com and can be found in select boutique stores throughout Los Angeles.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

BlackBerry vs. Iphone

A topic that I have always wanted to write about was a featured article in today's Business Section of the L.A. Times. Being a BlackBerry user myself for many years, while recently converting over to Mac from PC 2 short years ago, this debate has indeed caught my attention. Cool vs. Function, Sleek vs. Bulky, Suit and Tie vs. Skinny Jeans...one proclaims fun while the other means business, do the two have to be mutually exclusive ? Below is what David Sarno of the L.A. Times had to say;

There was a time when BlackBerrys grew wild. They were everywhere: boardrooms, restaurants and kitchen tables. The dark little devices would vibrate every time a new e-mail arrived, delivering a tiny thrill that millions of employees came to both loathe and desire. It wasn't long before the device earned its enduring nickname: CrackBerry.

The famously addictive device popularized e-mail on the go and turned its Canadian maker, Research in Motion Inc., into a $34-billion company and the business world's leading supplier of smart phones. It has 41 million users worldwide, and BlackBerrys represent more than half of all corporate smart phone users in the U.S., according to research firm ComScore Inc. But now Apple Inc., the company that upended the music industry with its iPod and then the cellphone market with its iPhone, wants to gobble up a slice of BlackBerry's multibillion-dollar pie.

In September, after only three years on the market, the iPhone for the first time surpassed the BlackBerry in total quarterly sales with 14.1 million devices sold, compared with 12.1 million for Research in Motion, or RIM, as it is commonly known.

In its quest to become the de facto smart phone maker for business users — the company has already won about 23% of that market, ComScore said — Apple has hired a number of former RIM salespeople to help it sell its phones to corporate America.

Apple says the iPhone is more than a mere appliance for sending e-mail. The device, with its sleek touch screen and ability to run hundreds of thousands of Web-connected applications, games and utilities, can be used for nearly any purpose, business or personal, a line that Apple hopes to blur out of existence.

"Most people now want to use a single device to handle both their personal and professional lives," said Shaw Wu, an analyst at Kaufman Bros. "That's what Apple's really good at — and now RIM is playing catch-up."

For its part, RIM has begun appealing to consumers with an array of flashier, user-friendly devices. Newer models such as the Torch boast both an iPhone-like touch screen and a physical keyboard for die-hard Blackberry users accustomed to rapidly tapping out e-mail messages.

The company has also created an online app store, called App World, though it has only about 15,000 apps compared with Apple's 300,000. RIM officials declined to be interviewed for this report. For decades Apple has been the specialist in consumer electronics, with its iPod music player and Macintosh personal computers. It has never been more than a niche player in the corporate market.

Lately, though, the Cupertino, Calif., company is putting forth a novel argument: When it comes to smart phones and tablet computers, the distinction between a home and office device is becoming less necessary.

"We're not developing two different lines like many companies do with enterprise versions and consumer versions," Apple's chief operating officer, Tim Cook, said in an October conference call with investors. "This is another part of our simplistic approach to things that I think will pay us great dividends, and it's already starting to do so."

Apple says that 80% of Fortune 500 companies are trying out the iPhone to varying degrees, including General Electric Co., Procter & Gamble Co., Allstate Corp. and Pfizer Inc., though many of those are trials that involve small numbers of users.

Last year, drug maker Sanofi-Aventis gave iPhones and iPad tablet computers to 1,500 employees across the company and said it planned to continue moving employees to Apple's platform, giving workers the option of replacing their company-issued BlackBerrys.

With apps downloaded from Apple's App Store, Sanofi employees can use iPhones or iPads to monitor live data "dashboards" about sales of particular drugs and the performance of marketing initiatives. They can watch live Web presentations by colleagues, and they can communicate with groups of other employees via a company-specific social network called Yammer. "True mobility is now kicking in," said Vic Rupinder, a senior technology manager at Sanofi. "You're no longer tied to your desktop, so you can do work while you're moving around."

San Francisco software maker Salesforce.com Inc. broke from standard corporate information technology practice this year: Instead of assigning smart phones to its 4,800 employees, it lets them bring their own. Under this new model — known as BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) — the employee buys the device and the employer pays the monthly voice and data bill.

That approach is catching on in the business community and has tended to favor Apple, which is already a favorite among consumers. At Salesforce, BlackBerry was the standard device before the new policy. Now 40% of the employees use iPhones while 60% still have BlackBerrys.

RehabCare Group Inc., a private nursing specialist in St. Louis, has given out more than 8,000 iPod Touch devices to its therapists. (The Touch is an iPhone without the cellular transmitter, but it can still perform most of the functions via a Wi-Fi Internet signal.)

Therapists use a custom app to record patients' vital signs, treatments and other clinical information. Besides tracking a patient's progress, the company can use the data to determine whether caregivers are working efficiently. And when the therapists go home they're free to use the device however they like — to play games, send text messages, watch video or listen to music.

"With laptops we'd tell people, 'Don't take it home, don't let your kids play with it, don't download anything to it,' because as soon as they do it it's going to break, and they'll be calling the help desk the next day," said Dick Escue, the company's chief information officer. "But now that we've adopted Apple, we tell people, 'Please take it home and put all your music and photos and e-mail on it,'" he said. "And it turns out that as a result they'll take better care of the device."At the same time it is evangelizing about the business uses of the iPhone, Apple is positioning the iPad as a second corporate must-have.

At Hyatt Hotels, managers use iPads to showcase their hotels when they meet with customers looking to book parties or special events. If a bride wants to see photos of previous weddings the hotel has hosted, the Hyatt employee can use an iPad to thumb through dozens of images as well as videos and information sheets.

In earlier times hotel sales staffers had to choose a specific set of photos for each meeting, have them printed and then put them in a leather-bound photo album, said John Prusnick, Hyatt's technology innovation director. "Now they have a single, very light portable device that contains all of the images they could ever want," he said. "The iPad just seems to translate the experience better and helps us sell our hotels in a much sharper way."

Prusnick added that iPhones now account for 40% of Hyatt's mobile devices and are quickly catching up to standard-issue BlackBerrys. But even with Apple's apparent advantage in hype and consumer popularity, the BlackBerry is "still the gold standard" for mobile smart phones, said Ashok Kumar, an analyst at Rodman & Renshaw.

Also, displacing an incumbent takes time, particularly in the slow-moving world of corporate IT. Companies are often contractually bound to telecommunications providers for long periods, and skittish about any major changes that could interfere with day-to-day operations. "It's not the kind of thing that can happen overnight," Kumar said. Giving employees a completely different kind of mobile device is "much more of an open- heart surgery."

"So if it's a sunset for RIM, it's going to be a very long sunset."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Regarding Henry

Thanksgiving just wasn’t the same without you. From the moment I saw you looking up at me from your little cage at the spcaLA I knew I had to take you home. You helped get me through the tough times of losing KitKat and you were with me through 3 different moves to 3 different places. You demanded so very little, yet gave so much. You were the toughest and bravest cat I have ever met, even when I brought home a big scary German Shepherd to live with us you never cowered and quickly established who was there first.

I will miss your purr that was as loud as motor boat’s, even during the days in which you were too sick to eat, all I had to do was hold you and your unmistakable purr would battle through. You touched my life in so many ways, I’m sorry I couldn’t do more to keep you around. I simply could not watch you suffer anymore than you already have. The morning after you left on Thanksgiving I saw Harley jump up on your chair and dig through your blanket as if she was looking for you.

I had ice cream for the first time today since you’ve been gone; it’s just not the same without you kneading on my lap waiting for me to finish so you can lick the bowl clean. Ice cream was your absolute favorite; no matter where you were you always knew when I had ice cream.

Goodbye my Hanky Panky, wherever you are I hope you are as healthy as you once were, strong, feisty and so very affectionate. I take some comfort in knowing that you lived a good life and I hope you take some comfort in knowing that you made my life better.


Dad & Harley

Friday, November 26, 2010

Shopping Values

When it comes to identifying and branding our consumer values, what is most important to us? Reliability, looks, cool factor or could it be something more human and altruistic? In tough economic times, the criteria for making such decisions is in constant flux.

Here is a little history and perspective on Black Friday as told by Michael D'Antonio and John Gerzema in today's OP-ED section in the Los Angeles Times:

In days of yore — think pre-2005 — retailers fired a salvo of price cuts on the Friday after Thanksgiving and shoppers raced to spend billions on holiday gifts. The day was originally nicknamed Black Friday by police officers who dreaded the traffic jams, bumper thumping and misdemeanors that arise when so many people converge on shopping districts and malls.

Eventually the term came to describe the start of the period when retailers see profits for the year and a kind of retail gluttony so divorced from the true spirit of the season that it made all but the most benumbed consumers feel conflicted, if not ashamed, of the excess.

Then came the Great Recession. In 2008, we saw the weakest holiday sales since 1973. Gift buying was more like a marathon than a sprint, as people shopped the sales that began in October, applying a sober sense of how, when and why to buy.

The change actually began before the housing bubble burst, Wall Street collapsed and unemployment soared. Beginning in 2005, the quarterly surveys we conduct showed a shift in attitudes.

Like rabbits that run before humans feel an earthquake, consumers sensed the approach of the economic crisis and began to prepare by saving more and spending less. More important, they began to express different kinds of values as they shopped. Brands regarded as exclusive, arrogant, daring or trendy began to suffer severe declines in popularity, while those associated with quality, reliability and durability rose.

Experts have long understood that as we head to the marketplace to satisfy our wants and needs, we also pursue some unstated and often subconscious agendas. On a narcissistic level, we want to show the world we are smart, beautiful, powerful, wealthy, you name it.

However, we also vote with our dollars for certain social and political ideals. In this way we reward producers, retailers and service providers who meet our definition of "good." Lately this aspect of shopping has come to the fore, as people look for ways to exert their influence on the social landscape and ease their frustrations about problems that seem gridlocked by politics.

The biggest swing, when it comes to the issues we confront with our dollars, is related to civility. Starting in the middle of this decade, respondents began to tell us that they wanted to feel respected and appreciated by the people they do business with. Between 2005 and 2009, the value placed on the "kindness and empathy" expressed by vendors shot up a whopping 391%. The importance of "friendliness" went up by 124%, and the value placed on "social responsibility," which can be translated as "being a good neighbor and citizen," rose by 63%.

In commercial terms, all of this is good news for manufacturers that stress service and for proprietors who see every sale as a chance to build a long-term relationship with a customer. This is why Zappos' shoppers remained loyal even when it shifted away from heavy discounts. They are so happy with the attention they get when they contact the company's call center in Las Vegas that they are fine with paying full price for shoes.

With a solid majority telling us they'll pay a little more for durable quality, companies such as L.L. Bean, Levi Strauss and Red Wing Shoe can expect healthy sales even on higher-end items. The same is true for artisan-made items sold on the Internet by services such as Etsy, which connects individual artists and craftspeople from around the world with a global pool of customers.

Conservatives, moderates and liberals alike prefer to give their dollars to companies that invest time and money in local communities and are respectful of the environment. Though they may disagree on an issue like carbon emissions cap-and-trade, American shoppers generally prefer energy efficiency, eco-friendly packaging and sustainable production. Wal-Mart, a bellwether for retail trends, has signaled the rise of these values as it has reduced packaging and stocked more compact fluorescent bulbs as well as locally produced organic foods.

People reward Wal-Mart and others because they believe that by voting with their dollars, they can actually change the world. Indeed, two-thirds of the people we survey believe that "my friends and I can change corporate behavior by supporting companies that do the right thing."

Even those people who are skeptical about the effect they can have with their spending habits go out of their way to patronize companies "whose values are similar to my own."

We call the changes in the marketplace a "spend shift," and our recent tour of businesses across the nation and the data we have collected suggest that the shift has staying power. By big majorities, people say that they are more frugal than they used to be and that the economic crisis has had a long-term effect on the way they spend their time and money.

The biggest point of agreement? More than three-quarters say that "how many possessions I have does not have much to do with how happy I am."

The trends augur well for businesses that heed public sentiment and give people what they want. They're more consistent with the true values of the season too. Instead of Black Friday hysteria, the consumers we talked to are making more deliberate choices and seeking out retailers who demonstrate kindness, respect, honesty and concern for others. For our society, the trend suggests more modest but happier holidays to come.

Coauthors of the new book "Spend Shift," Michael D'Antonio is a New York-based writer and John Gerzema is president of Brand Asset Consulting, which conducts the surveys that provide the data they cite.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Thanksgiving on a budget

It’s hard to believe, but it’s that time of year again. The holidays are officially upon us, and with the stagnate economy and abysmal unemployment rate, people across all socio-economic classes will be looking for ways to celebrate Thanksgiving in a joyful yet penny-wise way. Having volunteered to host Thanksgiving for my family of 20 + people last year, that unfortunately never came to fruition. A brutal case of the flu forced an emergency change of venue and left me literally home alone watching “Home Alone” on Thanksgiving.

Prior to my getting sick however, I was very excited to host my first Thanksgiving dinner and did a lot of planning and prep-work, in fact, with the benefit of hindsight I feel as though I might have done too much. I wanted everything to be perfect, neglecting the cost involved with hosting such an event, and forgetting the notion that the food was merely an excuse to bring everyone together. Focus on the people you are celebrating with rather than the presentation of the celebration itself. Here are some helpful hints to enjoy turkey day without it gobbling up your wallet.

1. Before you start shopping take a good inventory of what you already have. More often than not you may have some key staple ingredients in your kitchen pantry. There’s nothing more wasteful than doubling up on items you seldom use, that eventually will have to be thrown away.

2. Ask for help! Don’t take everything on yourself; ask your guest and family members to bring their favorite dishes. Most people are more than willing to bring something to the table so to speak. It makes them feel like they contributed to the event in someway other than just showing up, and people also enjoy seeing other people react to the dish that they brought. Even asking someone to bring items that do not need to be cooked or prepared such as beverages and ice, plastic cups and utensils or even extra chairs or other things that can alleviate some of the stress from the person doing the hosting.

3. The turkey is the centerpiece for your Thanksgiving meal; however, the turkey can also be the most expensive part of your Thanksgiving meal. As Thanksgiving draws near, you should be able to find several grocery stores offering great deals on their turkeys – some stores even offer free turkeys if you purchase a certain amount of groceries from their store. While their minimum limits may be around the $100 mark, it will be no problem for the average family to spend that amount at their local grocery store over the course of the weeks and days leading up to Thanksgiving.

4. Before you head out to the grocery store armed with your shopping lists, don’t forget to hit your coupon sources for extra coupons that can help you to save a significant amount of money. Check out the circular flyers that your local stores send out in the mail so that you can have an idea as to which store currently has the best deals on the things that you plan on purchasing.
For great deals on your fresh produce, consider a visit to your local farmers market; not only will you be able to get great fresh fruits and vegetables, but you can often purchase them for much less than you could purchase the same products in your grocery stores.

5. Enjoy the collective effort! When all is said and done, do not lose focus on what the event symbolizes. Take the time to literally give thanks for all the blessings that surround you. In these tough economic times, it can be easy to over emphasize the bad and overlook all the good. Take solace in the little things and the fact that you are enjoying good food in the company of people that love and care for you. And most of all save your leftovers! A little creativity can keep you fed for many days after Thanksgiving!

*** To anyone who might be reading this post, I want to wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving! Thank you for your loyalty and continued support, there might not be too many of you out there, but I for one have always been about quality over quantity***

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Economy of Space

Having spent Halloween weekend moving for the second time in a year, I have now spent my first week in my new place. There are no more empty boxes lingering around and the blank canvass that was, is slowly but surely transforming into a representation of its occupants. Pictures on walls and furniture arranged in a fashion that is both functional and reminiscent of the way things used to be. You learn a lot when you move from one place to another; you realize that, there is often a big difference between what you think you want and what you actually need, a lesson that was made abundantly clear to me while I was moving from a 2 bedroom house into a 1 bedroom apartment.

The reason for the downsize? With the economy and job market still in the dumps, clients who can afford the luxury of having someone handle their finances for them are not lining up out the door like they used to. You know things have slowed down considerably when your cell phone becomes as much of a reminder of who isn’t calling as who is. So I, along with so many others out there have had to make sacrifices and cut back wherever I can. The idea of saving over $700 a month between rent and utilities was just too much to ignore. Moving into a smaller space has also enabled to me to purge some of the “stuff” I have accumulated over the years, stuff that had a sole purpose of filling a space or looking good. That is what we typically do with space; we fill it, and often the more space we have the more we have to fill. Sometimes having limited space can be the key to finding the balance between bare essentials and excess.

My 800 square foot apartment has everything I need for the time being. It’s a small building in a great neighborhood, and its Euro inspired kitchen gives me the unique ability to scramble eggs while simultaneously doing a load of laundry. How many people do you know can make such an offer to their guest? Living in a small space also serves as a reminder of what truly makes a house a home; it’s not the 50’ flat screen TV or designer furniture, rather it’s the people who come through your doors that add life to a room full of stuff. It’s the amount of footprints that is the true gauge of a happy home, or in my particular case the amount of paw prints as well.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The true cost of eating cheap.

With the beehive of activity that represents most of our daily lives, juggling family, friends and careers, all these things along with the constant urge to multitask…the most common phrase you tend to hear these days is “Who has the time to do that?” Which is usually in response to the question of “How often do you prepare a home cooked meal?”

Sure, eating out at fast food restaurants is, well… fast, cheap and convenient but at what cost? Almost 30% of the U.S. population is considered obese and more than 20% of all Americans eat fast food at least twice a week. Fast food chains whose popular combo meals contain more calories than what the average person should consume in an entire day (2000 calories), let alone just for one meal, which begs the question …Just how much cheaper is it to eat out than it is to prepare a healthy meal at home?

The catalyst for such a question came after having my dear friend Melissa and her 2 kids over for dinner not too long ago. I agreed to cook the main course, along with a couple of sides and a dessert while she brought over a salad that she prepared herself. I cooked a grainy mustard baked chicken dish with asparagus and roasted potatoes. All 4 of us enjoyed our dinner and ate heartily. And since I was the host, I was lucky enough to keep all the leftovers, which fed me for several days after. It wasn’t until I was cleaning up and loading the dishwasher that I came across the Trader Joes receipt and realized that I just fed 4 adults, with plenty of leftovers for under 30 bucks. In all likelihood we probably would've spent the same amount of money had the 4 of us decided to go to a McDonald's Drive Thru for dinner. All it took was an hour of prep, a little creativity, some good friends and good conversation to transform a bag of groceries into a healthy, delicious dinner and a good time had by all.

I know that meals like this cannot be prepared day in and day out and the idea of eating “from a drive thru” rather than “from scratch” is something that we all have to do from time to time, but thinking ahead along with a little preparation can be the difference between regularly eating at home and occasionally eating fast food vs. doing just the opposite. When it comes to food, not even the most “hoity toity” of restaurants can compete with knowing where your food came from and just as important, who prepared it.

***Below is a meatloaf recipe, that I am sure some of my loyal readers have tried and liked …I hope. Even though I have come a long way since my days of making an absolute disaster out of trying to heat up a frozen lasagna in the oven, I now consider myself to be a decent cook at best and even I was able to make this simple recipe work on my first try. It’s easy, healthy, very tasty and will keep meatloaf sammies coming for days!***

Meatloaf for Dummies:
Serves 6 or 1 for a whole week!
Total Cost for Ingredients: Around $20
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 1/2 medium yellow onion , diced (about 3/4 cup)
• 1 clove garlic , minced
• 1 medium red pepper , finely diced (about 1 cup)
• 1 bay leaf
• 2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
• 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
• 2 pounds lean ground turkey
• 2 large eggs , lightly beaten
• 3/4 cup dry breadcrumbs
• 1 cup ketchup
• 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
• 2 teaspoons kosher salt
• 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350°. Line Pyrex dish with foil and spray lightly with oil.

Heat the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Sauté the onions, garlic and bay leaf until the onions are tender, about 3 minutes. Add the red pepper and cook until the red pepper is tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the parsley and thyme and cook for another 2 minutes. Remove pan from the heat and let the onion mixture cool. Discard the bay leaf.

In a large bowl, combine the ground turkey, eggs, bread crumbs, 1/2 cup of ketchup, the Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper and the cooled vegetables. Use your hands to mix everything together.

Transfer the mixture to the center of the baking sheet and form into a loaf. Coat the meat loaf with the remaining 1/2 cup ketchup.

Bake for 1 to 1 1/2 hours (depending on the shape of your loaf), until the meat loaf is firm. Let set for about 5 minutes before slicing.

Monday, October 4, 2010

"She's just a cabdriver's daughter"

Having had a week filled more with reading rather than writing, I've decided to share to the loyal few readers out there a wonderful article written in the Sunday LA Times OP-ED section.

"She's just a cabdriver's daughter" is a beautifully written article about acknowledging where we came from rather than ignoring it. It's about being proud of a modest upbringing rather than embarrassed by it. It is a story that I and so many other people I know can relate to and be inspired by. Enjoy!

In the morning, before my father and I go our separate ways to work, we chat amiably. "Good luck on your day." "Hope business is good." And our one response to everything: "Inshallah." God willing.

I get into my mini-SUV and head off to the hospital, groaning about the lack of sleep, the lack of time, but also knowing that I am driving off to what has always been my dream.

My father gets into his blue taxi, picks up his radio and tells the dispatcher he's ready. Then he waits. He waits for someone wanting to go somewhere. He waits to go home to my mother, the woman he calls "the boss." Maybe today will be a good day. He will call her up and tell her he is taking her out tonight. He can do that now that we're all grown up; now that he doesn't have to save every dime for the "what-ifs" and the "just-in-cases."

There is very little complaining in his car. His day starts off with a silent prayer, then a pledge: Hudaya ba omaide hudit. God, as you wish. Then he hums or sings. Some songs are about love and some about loss. They are all about life. He sings. He smiles the whole time.
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My father is the type of person who is content to listen, but I love it when he speaks. There is wisdom there, although he does not intend there to be.

"What's new?" he'll ask over a Saturday morning breakfast.

"Not much," I reply. "My life revolves around these books, Dad; there is little to say unless you want to hear about the urinary tract."

"You know when Gandhi's minister of foreign affairs died, his only true possessions were books. It is the sign of a life worth living," he replies and begins to butter his toast.

Sometimes, the years of education and learning shine through the injuries and lost dreams. I get a glimpse of the man who once existed, and the one who never will. Who would he have been, I wonder, if the bombs hadn't come down in 1978? What if I could take away the time he spent in a coma, the years of treatment and surgery, the broken bones and disabilities. What if there were no refugee ghettos, no poverty, no fear, no depression written in his life history. Who could he have been? The thought saddens me, but intrigues me as well. Is it possible that he is who he is because the life he has lived has been filled with such tragedy? Perhaps these stories were the making of my hero.

Sometimes he'll tell me about his college days, about an Afghanistan I have never known and very few people would believe ever existed.

"In the College of Engineering, there was this lecture hall, with seats for 1,000 students," his says as eyes begin to get bigger. "At the end of the lecture, the seats would move. The whole auditorium would shift as you spun along the diameter. The engineering of the building itself was very interesting." He continues to describe the construction details, then sighs. "I wonder if it's still around?"

There is a pause. For 25 years I have tried to fill that silence, but I have never quite figured out what to say. I guess silence goes best there. He is the next one to speak. "You see, even your old-aged father was once part of something important."

When he says things like that I want to scream. I don't want to believe that the years can beat away at you like that. I don't want to know that if enough time passes, you begin to question what was real or who you are. I am unconcerned with what the world thinks of him, but it is devastating to know that he at times thinks less of himself.

We are the same, but we are separated. People don't see him in me. I wish they would. I walk in with a doctor's white coat or a suit or my Berkeley sweatshirt and jeans. High heels or sneakers, it doesn't matter, people always seem impressed with me. "Pediatrician, eh?" they say. "Well, good for you."

I wonder what people see when they look at him. They don't see what I see in his smile. Perhaps they see a brown man with a thick accent; perhaps they think, another immigrant cabdriver. Or perhaps it is much worse: Maybe he is a profile-matched terrorist, aligned with some axis of evil. "Another Abd-ool f-----g foreigner," I once heard someone say.

Sometimes the worst things are not what people say to your face or what they say at all, it is the things that are assumed. I am in line at the grocery store, studying at a cafe, on a plane flying somewhere.

"Her English is excellent; she must have grown up here," I hear a lady whisper. "But why on earth does she wear that thing on her head?"

"Oh, that's not her fault," someone replies. "Her father probably forces her to wear that."

I am still searching for a quick, biting response to comments like that. The trouble is that things I'd like to say aren't quick. So I say nothing. I want to take their hands and pull them home with me. Come, meet my father. Don't look at the wrinkles; don't look at the scars; don't mind the hearing aid, or the thick accent. Don't look at the world's effect on him; look at his effect on the world. Come into my childhood and hear the lullabies, the warm hand on your shoulder on the worst of days, the silly jokes on mundane afternoons. Come meet the woman he has loved and respected his whole life; witness the confidence he has nurtured in his three daughters. Stay the night; hear his footsteps come in at midnight after a long day's work. That sound in the middle of the night is his head bowing in prayer although he is exhausted. Granted, the wealth is gone and the legacy unknown, but look at what the bombs did not destroy. Now tell me, am I really oppressed? The question makes me want to laugh. Now tell me, is he really the oppressor? The question makes me want to cry.

At times, I want to throw it all away: the education, the opportunities, the potential. I want to slip into the passenger seat of his cab and say: This is who I am. If he is going to be labeled, then give me those labels too. If you are going to look down on him, than you might as well peer down on me as well. Close this gap. Erase this line. There is no differentiation here. Of all the things I am, of all the things I could ever be, I will never be prouder than to say that I am of him.

I am this cabdriver's daughter.

Waheeda Samady is the pediatric chief resident at UC San Diego's Rady Children's Hospital and a committee member of CAIR San Diego. A version of this article appeared in the anthology "Snapshots: This Afghan American Life."

Monday, September 27, 2010

“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps“

There are very few blockbuster movies that have come out recently that made me want to bypass my Netflix Queue for an actual trip to a movie theater. When I heard that “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” was going to be released in late September I, must admit that I was somewhat excited to see the sequel to a movie that most all Wall Streeters and wannabe Wall Streeters had memorized word for word, whether they want to admit it or not. The infamous “Greed is Good” speech and who could forget the line from Mr. Gecko about people not knowing the difference between “Preferred Stock and Livestock”?

From the very beginning of the movie, there was something very familiar and reminiscent of the original. The occasional split screen shots along with the soundtrack, which was once again done by former “Talking Heads” front man David Byrne, added a nice touch of nostalgia.

These unfortunately are where the similarities would end. While the original Wall Street had a precise and riveting story line that made you care for or hate its characters, the sequel, which could be and should be viewed as its own stand-alone movie (if only to preserve the legacy of the original) was a messy “hodge podge” of melodrama, remorse and art imitating life. Terms like “too big to fail”, “credit default swaps” and “sub –prime” are gratuitously thrown around to make the film seem more relevant than it actually is. Even the dark clandestine scenes of banks (ala Lehman Brothers) meeting with Timothy Geithner and Henry Pulson look alikes resembled more of a CNBC “American Greed” episode than it did an Oliver Stone movie.

Plot lines between Jake Moore (played by that guy from Transformers) Gordon Gecko (played by Michael Douglas) and Winnie (played by Carrie Mulligan) are off again, on again then just plain off. What I wanted to see, and what I believe the audience wanted to see was a lot more Gordon Gecko and a lot less of everyone else. Instead we got the exact opposite. A large chunk of this movie delves into the world of stocks, clean energy, derivatives and exotic investments, when all along the investment strategy on this movie is very simple, save your $9.50.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The perfect job interview

With the unemployment rate still at a staggering 9.6 %, job opportunities are scarce and the competition for the few that are out there is fierce. The “gold rush” of cushy jobs with fancy titles and fancy salaries to match that was brought upon by the housing boom has fallen just as fast as property values have. A job market that once had the interviewee sitting pretty, while he or she entertained offers of stock options, 401K's and break rooms stocked with vending machines and foosball tables is now lucky to get free parking and a thirty minute lunch.

With hundreds of applicants for every opening, how do you set yourself apart if you were one of the lucky few chosen for a face-to-face interview? Here are some tips that could help turn that “foot in the door” into something more permanent.

1. Be prepared- try to find out as much as you can about the company and the position you are being interviewed for. Research isn’t just for college term papers anymore. Gather as much information as you can about the company; make yourself familiar with their mission statement, business practices and general ethos- not only does this show effort on your part, it also shows the person doing the interviewing how important getting the job is to you. Don’t be afraid to practice the process with a friend, come up with possible scenarios and questions you think you might be asked. The better prepared you are the less chance there is of you getting thrown off guard. And always bring, at a minimum, a copy of your resume and a pen, asking the person interviewing you for either can make you look very unprepared.

2. Be on time- this might seem obvious but it is absolutely crucial that you give yourself plenty of time to get to where you need to be. If you are unfamiliar with the location of the interview check the Internet for directions or use your GPS system to make sure you know where you are going. Leave yourself plenty of time for unforeseen circumstances like traffic and other small roadside emergencies. Remember when it comes to interviews, no one has ever not gotten a job for being too early, and if you know you are going to be late, at least call and let them know why and that you are on your way. Calling in advance is all difference between “running a little late” and being just plain inconsiderate. Also turn OFF your cell phone before the interview begins, even the “Vibrate” mode can be a deafening sound when it serves as an interruption to the interviewing process.

3. Dress the part- know what the culture of the company is like and dress accordingly. If you are interviewing at a bank or a law firm then a proper business suit is a must, at least for the first interview. If you are interviewing at a place known for their casual atmosphere or a place that requires some heavy lifting outdoors then wearing a suit might make you look out of place. When in doubt, it’s always better to be overdressed than underdressed.

4. Relax and observe- Stay calm and even keeled. Play off the mood or temperament of the person interviewing you. Observe your surroundings, look for things that you might have in common with the person sitting behind the desk. A diploma from a college that you might have both attended, a sports team that you both like or pictures of vacation spots that you may have both visited. Briefly discussing topics other than the job at hand can provide levity and common ground just as long as you don’t over do it.

5. Follow up- Always follow up with a thank you note or email to everyone who interviewed you. Do this no later than 2 days after the interview. This shows gratitude for the opportunity and makes everyone else who didn’t send a “thank you” note look like an ingrate, which in turn makes you look better!

Monday, September 13, 2010

The printed word re-kindled.

As I sit here behind a computer screen, assuming the very same position that most of us take each and every day of our lives, I realize the irony in the subject matter that I am about to elaborate on. We live in a digital age that continually redefines how information is delivered to us; news that used to travel fast… now travels at the speed of light. We surround ourselves with the “necessary” gadgets of the 21st century that illuminate our faces with their back-lit screens and Qwerty keyboards. The one pure act that used to provide solace for those that still want to cling to the old-fashioned way of reading is slowly fading away into the analog days of yesteryear.

Kindles with their cute commercials and catchy tunes promising to “fly us away”. Ipads and their billboards that show folks ambiguously curled up in their Eames chair while reading Ipads in their apartment lofts. These devices promise variety, utility and if you should be so inclined, you can download a book to read as well.

Reading a book or a newspaper used to serve as a welcomed distraction from life, now the very same act has become the distraction from all the other things you could be doing other than reading. Hearing someone say, that on a cold and rainy day, all I want to do is “is stay in bed with a cup of hot chocolate and a good e-reader” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

There’s something inherently romantic about carrying around a book, with its creased cover, ear- marked pages and underlined sentences. You disappear, if not just for a brief moment in the space between its introduction page and “about the author” section, only to be interrupted by someone recognizing or asking about the very book you forgot you were even holding. Your bookmark reminds you of where you have been and how much further you still have to go.

You either labor through it begrudgingly, slowly turning one page to the next or you find one that resonates with you so deeply that you churn through each page so fast that you can feel the ink on your fingertips. A piece of you is left in every book you read, it conjures up memories in the same way that smelling something familiar does. You remember where you were in your life when you last read it. You write notes and dedications to the person you want to give the book to next. Whether you liked the book or not, once you’re done, you put it on your bookshelf which acts like a photo album of all the different journeys you’ve taken. When your friends come over, your bookshelf becomes a topic of conversation and some may even ask, if they too, could go where you’ve already been.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Dating on a dime.

With people throughout all walks of life feeling the effects of the dismal economy, families and individuals alike are cutting corners wherever they can. Just about everyone these days is trying to spend less and save more. Whether that means brown bagging your lunch to work or cutting coupons, every little bit adds up. So how does one date in this economy without breaking the bank? Well, a little research and some creativity can be the difference between making you look original rather than cheap.

The idea of dating on a budget can be a difficult obstacle for guys to navigate through, considering women expect men to pick up the tab especially on a first date. In this particular case men should try to find out as much as they possibly can about the woman they are about to go out with. There are plenty of other things to do in such a big city like L.A. besides dinner and a movie, which nowadays can add up to be 2 weeks worth of groceries. Planning an activity that the both of you can enjoy like a scenic hike followed by a simple picnic lunch or early dinner can take you out of the traditional first date “20 questions” routine, which often feels like the two of you are interviewing one another for a job rather than getting to know each other.

Seeking out creative alternatives like walking through a Farmer’s Market or a local festival can alleviate some of the pressure that comes along with a first date. It can also provide common ground and can stimulate natural conversation. If anything “people watching” is always free and can sometimes be very entertaining.

“There’s no correlation between a good date and an expensive date. If she thinks there is, she is probably not the right person for you” –says Marc Katz, a Los Angeles Dating Coach.

Museums can also be a more practical way to get to know someone. The most interesting museums in L.A. like The Getty, Norton Simon and LACMA are either free or practically free to get into, and almost always have small inexpensive restaurants or coffee shops that the two of you can go to if the night is going well. And if it doesn’t workout, at least you won’t be left feeling like you just spent a small fortune on a complete stranger.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Let's "rent it out"!

With reports of the housing market still in decline and an economic recovery still in limbo, what used to be a renter’s market is quickly turning in favor of the landlord. The days of renters negotiating on not only rent, but also on deposits and paid utilities are slowly becoming a thing of the past. Vacancy rates are currently at 7.8%, down from an all-time high of 8.8% last year. It may sound like a small shift but it’s enough to give landlords more confidence to stick to their terms and stand their ground.

With one more month left on my lease, I have decided to go back to apartment living. As much as I and my furry four -legged family love the privacy of a house and enjoy having a backyard, the monthly savings between rent and utilities are simply too much to ignore. With this being my second move in only one year, I thought I would share some strategies that I have learned along the way that may cut your bill and hedge against future bumps.

Long Term vs. Short Term
Signing a longer -term lease almost always ensures lower monthly rent and makes you much more of an attractive renter for landlords. Because the landlord has your tenancy secured for a longer period of time, you are also less likely to get outrageous rent hikes at the end of your lease.

Research the market and the neighborhood.
Location, location, location is a rule that not only applies to purchasing real estate, it holds true to renting as well. Pick a few areas that appeal to you and contact any friends or family that live in the same area or close to it, ask them how much they pay and how they like living there. Think about what is most important to you. Are you willing to sacrifice square footage for location or vice versa?

Don’t be scared off by rent alone.
If a landlord stands firm on the monthly rent, look at other avenues in which you can meet in the middle. According to Rent.com 44% of landlords say they are willing to reduce security deposits and 22% would offer upgrades to more desirable units. Other points of negotiation include covering more utilities within the rent; waiving pet security deposits or getting preferred parking spaces or extra storage.

Make yourself look good!
When meeting a landlord for the first time, pretend like you are going on a job interview. The way you present yourself can be a determining factor on whether or not you get the place you want. Besides your credit score, landlords need to feel like they can trust you. Most landlords have done this many times before and have developed an innate sense when it comes to sizing up potential tenants. There’s nothing wrong with hardball negotiating, but keep in mind you and your future landlord will have to “get along” for at least a year.

Don’t be afraid to ask.

It never hurts to ask for a better rate. When I first found my place I was able to negotiate my rent down by $100 a month. When I decided I was leaving I asked my landlord if he would be willing to lower my rent even further, since I have never been late on my rent, he offered to lower my rent by an additional $150 a month, which unfortunately was still not enough for me to stay. Just remember the worst that can happen is that the landlord says “no”.

Monday, August 16, 2010

“Giving college the third degree”.

With the economic recovery losing steam and states across the country experiencing budget cuts, public four-year universities everywhere are feeling the pinch. The once “affordable” alternative to anyone seeking higher education has become a bureaucracy of red tape; riddled with tuition hikes of almost 7%, fee increases and overpopulation. Recent high school grads looking to obtain a college degree are faced with more obstacles than ever before, which begs the question…is getting a college degree still worth it?

The fact of the matter is, that there are fewer jobs available and too many overqualified candidates. Government surveys indicate that the vast majority of job gains this year have gone to workers with only a high school education or less, casting some doubt on one of the nation's most deeply held convictions: that a college education is the ticket to the American Dream.

With technology advancing by the minute, education of the non-brick and mortar variety is becoming more of the norm. You can learn different languages in a matter of months with the right software and a computer. Do it yourself online courses and “How to do Anything for Dummies” are a high speed internet connection away. So what makes getting into thousands of dollars in student loan debt or working a full time job while going to college worth it?

I worked my way all throughout college and have many friends who did the same. Working 30+ hours per week while taking on a full academic load during my last 2 years. My parents had plenty of moral support to give, but not a whole lot of financial support. I paid out of pocket what I could and applied for aid for the rest. Going to college and working toward obtaining a degree should not only be about dollars and cents, think about all of the other things in life we buy or finance; cars, boats, houses, etc…shouldn’t an education be top on that list?

No one made me go to college, I did it, not only for the education and the knowledge, I did it because if I hadn’t, I knew it would be something I would always look back on with regret. The long days that turned into even longer nights. Getting home at 11pm after working all day and attending classes all night, when dinner was simply brushing your teeth and going straight to bed, only to wake up the very next morning to do it all over again. A college education allows you to discover interests you never knew you had. It instills confidence, builds character and demonstrates resolve. Foundations that will be built upon for the rest of your life, a foundation that can never be taken away from you.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Live each day to its fullest.

(Allen, Cindy & Nascar)

As I sit here typing away, getting a late start to my Monday post…I decide to change my initial topic of “Is getting a college degree still worth it?” to something much more personal and dear to my heart. We live in a world in which we are constantly multitasking. We answer texts and emails while pretending to be interested in what the person sitting right in front of us is saying. We surf the web on our laptops while watching movies we supposedly couldn’t wait to see. We approach each fleeting moment only to anticipate the next. We forget just how much life can change with such little notice.

We meet many people in our lives some come and go while others leave an imprint that forever changes the very nature of our being. They give us hope and reinvigorate our faith in humanity, they remind us that there are still good people out there. I had the pleasure of meeting Allen & Cindy Stockman 5 short years ago when I started working for a client who had been in the entertainment industry. Allen & Cindy worked as my client's estate managers handling all the goings-on if you will around the house and taking care of the needs of a very busy family. We were in the trenches together and quickly became close friends.

The 3 of us were constantly around people who were completely out of touch with reality and for all intents and purposes lived on a different planet than we did. While I would sometimes look at all of my client’s unobtainable toys with wandering eyes Allen & Cindy were impervious to envy and cared more about the simple joys of short weekend trips in their 5th wheel and quality time with each other.

They later left for a job managing a breath taking estate in Napa Valley to be closer to their aging parents. We managed to stay in touch and I was fortunate enough to have been able to visit them in a place that defined the term “getaway”. From the second you heard the sound of car tires on a gravel driveway you knew you were some place special. The mild, quiet evenings were so peaceful that speaking in your normal tone of voice made it sound like you were yelling.

I have never been the type of person who could easily impose on friends, no matter how close they are. I have even had friends of mine scold me after they found out I drove myself to the airport opting to pay a ridiculous sum for parking rather than asking them for a ride. So you could imagine how difficult it must have been for me to stay in someone else’s home for several days, surprisingly enough it was never that way with Allen & Cindy. There was just something about their generous souls that made me always wish that I could stay longer. Then, not more than a month after my last visit I received an email then a phone call from Cindy, Allen’s wife telling me that Allen hadn’t been feeling well and that he became so weak and sick that he admitted himself to the hospital. Days later he was treated for an infection and we all thought he was out of woods and I was already starting to plan my next trip. Then things started to take a turn for the worse, and Allen fell into a coma and came out of it paralyzed from the neck down with very little movement in his mouth and can barely even blink his eyes, his original diagnosis was MS and now his condition is simply a mystery to the doctors of UCSF Hospital in San Francisco. “Live each day to its fullest” Cindy would tell me before we got off the phone.

Allen Stockman one of my dearest friends, 49 years young, whom I rode ATV’s with through acres of vineyards cannot even blink his own eyes. His kitchen view of orange trees and jasmine have been replaced with monitors emblazoned with indecipherable images and numbers, how is it that a machine can tell you how a person’s heart is doing? His plans of living the remainder of his life traveling across the country in their RV with his wife of 25 years have been put on hold indefinitely. Allen, I pray for you each waking minute of every day. I will always treasure the memories that we share and look forward to making new ones. I cannot wait to be by your side this weekend and will be there with you when you wake up from this terrible nightmare. See you soon my friend.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Renting the "American Dream".

It’s something that has been ingrained in our psyche from the very beginning. Most of our parents did it, and they made us want it too. Work hard, do well in school, go to college, get a good job, get married and buy a house. Have a place you can call home, a place that you will one day own free and clear.

This was a dream that came true for many Americans during the housing boom of the early to mid 2000’s, a dream, which for a lot of people ended up becoming a nightmare. Now with the housing bubble that has long been burst and a real estate market still in the infancy stages of recovery, the word “RENT” is no longer viewed as a four-letter word but rather a sensible alternative. Myths about renting propagated by the housing market are slowly losing steam. Myths like:

• If you rent, you’re throwing your money away.
• Owning your home is a forced savings plan.
• Home ownership is a path to wealth.

Tell that to the millions of people who have had to foreclose or short sale their homes losing tens of thousands of dollars if not more on down payments. Yes, some of the blame has to be placed on those who made poor decisions or bought houses they simply could not afford, but the idea or maxim that home ownership is for everyone or defines the “American Dream” needs to be reevaluated.

There’s no question that there are a myriad of advantages to owning a home. You have stability, you can do whatever you like to the home, and you are not at the mercy of a landlord. These advantages however can come at a great cost. Buying a home in today’s market would require a minimum of a 20% down payment in most cases,that's IF you can even qualify for a loan. And if something breaks there’s no one else responsible for the cost of repairs but yourself. Can’t stand your neighbors? There’s not a whole lot you can do about that. And even though you are not at the mercy of a landlord, you are at the mercy of the housing market, which could be far more temperamental than any landlord can be. Renting on the other hand allows you freedom, depending on whether you are on a lease or month to month contract, you can pick up and move somewhere else if you don’t like where you live or need to follow opportunity.

With the unemployment rate higher than it has been in decades, traditional jobs are becoming more and more scarce, while non-traditional freelance and consultant jobs are becoming more of the norm. Pensions, tenure and company sponsored retirement parties are becoming a thing of the past. A white picket fence and 1.5 children no longer represent the “American Dream”. 40 acres and a mule have been replaced with an Internet connection and a Smartphone.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Getting out of Dodge.

With California being the epicenter of the housing meltdown along with a budget crisis so severe not even the Governator can save it, more and more people are getting out of Dodge and seeking refuge in places that were once considered simply “fly-over” states.

During the last fiscal year, 135,173 more people moved out of California than moved in from other states. Though just a drop in the bucket for a state of 38 million people, the trend remains significant because such declines usually occur when working Californians decide better opportunities lie elsewhere.

This was the topic of conversation when I met with my good friend Sara(Sara, Nate and Charlie shown above) for lunch at a local coffee shop in her neighborhood of Pasadena. The genesis of the subject matter, however took place years ago, well before the economic meltdown of 2008. Sara reminded me that we first discussed the idea of her and then boyfriend Nathan aka “Nate” moving out of L.A. around 2006 when everything was on the up and up and opportunities were a plenty. She also reminded me what my initial reaction was, when she brought up the topic. “Leave L.A.? No way kiddo, you guys are underestimating your ability to succeed here, you just have to be more ambitious, if you can make it in L.A. you can make it anywhere.” What a difference a couple of years and a stock market crash makes. The person who made that comment while sitting on his fuel injected high horse, has since been served a healthy slice of humble pie with a side of perspective. I decided to make our lunch into a lunch / interview with Sara’s permission of course.

I asked Sara to give a general bio of her and Nathan, how they met, how long they lived in L.A., etc. for the purpose of this post.

I'm 29 and Nate is 30. I've lived in L.A. my entire life and Nate moved here from Wisconsin when he was 5. We both grew up in La Crescenta and went to Monte Vista Elementary where we met in the third grade then we both went to Crescenta Valley H.S. and I went on to CSUN and he went to Sacramento State and then transferred to Utah State. We've been married for three years this Wednesday (7/28). I am an only child but my Dad is one of 7 kids so I have a fairly large extended family spread out around the country. Nate is the youngest and has two older sisters, one of whom lives in Colorado Springs. I am a stay at home mom and a Graphic Designer and Nate is a High School Science Teacher and varsity football coach. We've lived in Pasadena for nearly 6 years.

1. What are some of the things you guys love most about living in L.A.?
There is a never-ending availability of things to do. The good live music, amazing food, museums, parks, beaches, and cultural diversity can't be beat.
Also, we have a great network of friends here.

2. How has your attitude changed about L.A. in the last couple of years? And what are the reasons behind those changes?
When I was younger and in college L.A. seemed like the place to be. There was always a show to go to, a bar to hang out at or a diner open until 3am. It wasn't until we got married and not long after, became pregnant with Charlie that we realized what a difficult place L.A. is to achieve the goals we had set for ourselves. We want to raise healthy children, own a home and make a good living without having to work ourselves to the bone and sacrifice time with our family and it is near impossible to do that in L.A. now.

3. When we last spoke you talked about Nate signing a 1 year contract at the school he is currently teaching at…you said that the 2 of you have been thinking about leaving L.A. for sometime and that day may come at the end of his contract next year, where are you guys thinking of moving to?
Denver, Colorado is a definite possibility but we plan on taking the next year to really look into different cities around the country to find a good balance of low cost of living, a strong housing/job market, good schools, four seasons (Nate wants snow!) and at the top of our list is a place with clean air. Places like Portland (OR), Nashville, Madison (WI) and Seattle or all possibilities as well.

4. You guys are a very young hip couple that seem perfect for the L.A. scene and all it has to offer, what made you think about moving to a place like Colorado?
We think of ourselves more of the young boring types, but thank you. Living in Colorado near Denver would allow us access to things that only a big city can offer like good food, music, sporting events and museums without the insane cost of living that there is here in L.A. The air is clean, there isn't a shortage of good schools, and the winter brings snow one day and sunshine the next.

5. How much do you know about Colorado?
We both have family with young children in Colorado and they can't say enough about what a great place it is to raise kids. We've visited a number of times and have both really loved what we saw. We also frequently look at real estate in the suburbs between Boulder (which tends to be on the pricey side) and Denver and it's very affordable and Nathan has found that their educational system is fairly strong especially in comparison to California's. Colorado has been at the top of our list for a long time so we've looked into everything from job availability to air quality.

6. What are you guys looking forward to most about moving and how do you envision a life out of L.A. ?
Buying a house and not dreading every breath we take are probably at the top of our list. We hope that we can own a home and live comfortably off of one salary until Charlie and our future children start school.

7. What do you think you would miss most about L.A.?
More than anything it would be the people. Our friends and family here are irreplaceable but almost everyone we know is thinking along the lines that we are so being separated from everyone seems inevitable. Also, I would miss La Cabanita, there's no better Mexican food anywhere.

For the last 29 years I have been proud to call Los Angeles home. I love the weather, the diversity and the culture. But as I get older and my idea of “fun” shifts from the Vegas Strip to the Eastern Sierra Mountains I slowly realize the appeal of settling down elsewhere. A place where “Ed Hardey” and “Juicy Couture” are replaced with a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, and wearing sunglasses indoors is substituted with an offer of sweet tea with a southern drawl.

Monday, July 12, 2010

You did what?!

For the few of you out there who have followed my blog from the very beginning you may recall my second post titled “What do you want to be when you grow up?” in that post I wrote about having to go back to a traditional 8-5 job after nearly 4 years of being on my own and consulting. I wrote about how grateful I was just to be working at a time when so many were not.

Well 1 week ago today I did something that many people would consider crazy at a time like this and voluntarily left gainful employment to go back to the world of freelance and consulting. I made the very best out of the 4 month opportunity I was so very fortunate to have, but knew all along in my heart and mind that it was temporary. I did all that I could to wake up every morning with excitement and optimism. I would get into my car and use a combination of good music along with a short commute as wind to push my sails, only to have that wind completely die off as soon as I walked through the front door of my office building. Certain places are designed to be tolerable day in and day out, while others can only be endured in doses. This company was definitely the latter. One can only live in blind hope for so long, before you forget what you are even hoping for.

Lining up some additional work, procuring other clients and having a couple loyal clients who stayed with me was enough to give my highly anticipated two-week notice. Two weeks that was filled with relief, doubt and anxiety, none of which could negate the fact that this was something I simply had to do. I revisited avenues in my personal life that can be downsized even further and redefined “sacrifice” in other areas and will continue to do so. I would do whatever I had to do, to rediscover joy in what I did.

Within my first week of being back on my own, my flexible schedule allowed me to have friends over for dinner that I have not seen in ages, with music, cooking and conversation in the background that served as a reminder of what life is all about. I find myself smiling at the idea of having to meet a client on a Sunday evening at a Starbucks knowing that Harley, the most beautiful German Shepherd there is can ride shotgun during most of my commutes once again. For those of you out there who have given me guidance and support during this time of my life, I cannot thank you enough! To my dear friends who also happen to be clients, thank you for your patience, loyalty and understanding! As I sit here in my home office, which at the moment is chock full of banker’s boxes and file folders full of work, I realize that no amount of money or false sense of security can ever buy you more time.

Monday, July 5, 2010

"Reformation Hardware"

During the weeks and months after Wall Street and the financial markets were sent spiraling out of control in 2008, two questions loomed: Could this have been prevented? And what is being done to prevent it from happening again? The prior question was fueled by rage and betrayal, but for all intents and purposes was a moot act of pounding on sand. The latter however, would become and ongoing argument on how to restructure a broken system that devastated millions of lives with global repercussions that have never been seen before.

Government bailouts of financial institutions that were “too big to fail” with taxpayer money is no longer acceptable. When AIG was on government life support, taxpayers footed the bill to the tune of $578.00 per person for every tax paying man, woman and child in the United Sates.

The House and Senate finally reached an agreement on a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s financial architecture and reforming how banks do business. Now all Congress has to do is pass the bill and do it quickly. Here are some of the key points to financial reform and how they will affect everyday people like you and me.

Systemic risk regulation

Systemic risk monitoring: A new, council of regulators will both monitor system-wide risk and advise the Federal Reserve Board - the current primary systemic risk regulator.

Oversight and limits: For the first time, there will be higher capital, leverage and liquidity standards on the biggest, riskiest financial firms, as well as bank-like oversight for large "shadow bank" financial companies like AIG and the mortgage financers that were at the center of the crisis.

Banks will have to hold in capital reserves every dollar that they invest in hedge funds and private equity funds. Additionally, banks cannot bail out their funds.

Bottom Line: Banks and other financial institutions will have to have enough cash on hand to back up their own risky investments so the Government does not have to bail them out.

Taking on Bank Risk:

The final bill ensures that firms don't become too exposed to any single financial counterparty or to their own affiliates. Also, banks will have to hold capital in reserve that reflects all the off-balance sheet debt they could potentially be responsible for in the event of a crisis.

The final bill includes delayed implementation of rules to improve the quality of capital that banks have to hold and ensure that leverage and capital standards are higher in the future than they are today.

Bottom Line: This would regulate and monitor the type of investments and risk that any given bank would take. Making sure that firms do not become overexposed to any one particular investment, like with what happened with the toxic Credit Default Swaps and Mortgage Backed Securities that caused the collapse of 2008.

Abusive mortgage protection

Lenders cannot sell mortgages unless they determine that borrowers can afford to repay - even after teaser rates expire.

Prepayment penalties that can trap borrowers in abusive loans are banned for adjustable rate, subprime, and other risky mortgages, and limited for all home loans.

No more kickbacks for mortgage companies and brokers for steering customers into higher cost loans than they qualify for.

Limiting fees on all loans, and providing extra protections on high cost loans.

Bottom Line: One would need more than just a pulse and the ability to sign your name to get a loan.

How long this recession will last is still unclear. Reformation on the grandest of scales seems to be on its way, but there is no telling what modifications will be made before it gets passed. While we wait and see what transpires we must work on reforming our own foundation as well. If there were one silver lining in the ominous clouds of Wall Street in 2008, it would be the harsh wake up call that what goes up eventually comes down. Using our homes as ATM machines, in anticipation of property values continuing to rise indefinitely was simply irresponsible at any level. We have always been taught to save for a rainy day, and for many of us that rainy day is here. All we can do now is do our best to stay dry, and remind ourselves that what goes down will eventually rise again as well, what we do when it does will illustrate just how much we have learned from the storm that was.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Living a life of “Plentitude”.

“Plentitude” by Juliet B. Schor is a book that discusses the new economics of true wealth. She challenges the once common practice of economic growth by way of borrowing and overleveraging, which eventually lead to the near meltdown of the global market place and the collapse of several financial institutions that have been around for over a hundred years.

Juliet Schor and her book first appeared on my radar when she did an interview on National Public Radio’s daily afternoon show “Marketplace” in early April of this year. Schor’s book at first reads like a textbook, with a very philosophical and scholarly tone (not surprising considering she is currently a professor of sociology at Boston College), but eventually makes way to more fluid reading with theories and anecdotes that are both eye opening and refreshing. The basic fundamentals of Plentitude are to veer away from the business as usual or “BAU” approach and adhere to a less is more mentality. To lower one’s impact on day-to-day life by means of self-sustainability, support of local markets and community and the reassessment of our values and priorities. And in doing so, one does not have to put on a brown robe and clogs and live a life of depravity. In fact, Schor states that Plentitude does not make consumption less important nor should we even be consuming less.

Plentitude does not put the emphasis on how much or what we consume but rather how we consume it and what cost. Schor not only addresses the material side of consumption, she addresses the consumption of our time as well. A typical employee in the United States works an average of 2080 hours per year, which is the most out of any country in the world. Other countries in Europe work anywhere from 5-8 hours per week less than we do in the U.S. Basically the individual principles of Plentitude are: “spend less and work less, create and connect more.”

Over the past 50 years or so, we have become increasingly dependent on Wall Street and the financial markets as a means of growing and acquiring wealth. This has been driven by consumer debt and consumerism, practices that are proving to be unsustainable and not just ecologically harmful but, at times has proven to be unfulfilling as well.

Plentitude suggest; working less in a declining market, but to use the freed up time productively, to invest in new skills and activities. Some of the time should be deployed to replace higher priced food, energy, and consumer goods with homemade or community-produced alternatives. Schor states that freed up time should also be used to invest in social relationships, which is another form of wealth that we tend to overlook. And some hours will be spent in High-return leisure activities that require little or no monitory outlay; these are used as a substitute for the expensive commodities of the faster paced, higher –income lifestyle.

Schor’s Plentitude is a very intriguing and thought provoking book. I have never considered myself to be overly concerned with my own carbon footprint and use to scoff at the whole “green” movement as a trend manufactured by Prius driving celebrities who preach about lowering emissions and solar power while they travel from premier to premier in private jets. Plentitude goes beyond posturing, it raises awareness on how damaged the foundation of our current socio-economic system truly is, which was made abundantly clear in the stock market crash of 2008. Business as usual simply cannot continue; the days of stealing from Peter to pay Paul have finally caught up to us. The bottom line is that we need to interlace our dreams from the past with the courage to create a new future that focuses on achieving balance: “It’s how efficiently we produce, not how much we produce, that determines how well off we are.”
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