Saturday, December 31, 2011

Feliz Año Nuevo

As 2011 comes crawling to an end we are stuck in that moment in between the past and the future. The future is close enough to ponder while the past isn’t quite far enough away to forget. Which seemed to be the general theme for 2011. All of us were constantly bombarded with news of diametric opposition. The economy would be on the upswing one day, only to fall flat to the news of the global economy and the Euro Zone falling apart the next. Unemployment rates would rise and fall with the same volatility as Kim Kardashian’s popularity with news that would often be just as inane and pointless.

But there were also a lot of positives that could be found in 2011 if you looked hard enough. 2011 gave rise to the “Protestor” and people who were fed up with the way things have been actually spoke up and found a voice. “Occupy Wall Street” was a movement that had lots of momentum but lacked direction, I have to admit part of me wished that I had both the time and the courage to join them in protest just to get it out of my system.

A good friend of mine once asked me if I thought, “this was the new norm”? My answer in short was I don’t know? Aspirations of obtaining the lifestyle that we, at some point in our lives thought we either deserved or were entitled to are taking a back seat to just being able to pay our bills, feed our loved ones and keep a roof over our heads. Opportunities that we used to scoff at have now become a privilege to have. If rearranging our “New Norm” makes us realign our values and priorities while making us more humble and gracious, as human beings then so be it.

Once upon a time I thought I had it all and still felt empty inside, only upon losing a lot of what I thought I wanted was I able to truly discover the things I need most in my life. If 2012 makes us realize that life is so much more than collecting things in an attempt to validate our own self worth then I welcome the New Year with open arms.

Pura Vida!

With Love,

From C.R.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Art of Bargain Hunting

Everyone likes a good deal, nowadays shoppers equipped with smartphones built with Applications that read barcodes on various retail items, which gives you comparable prices at different stores within a certain radius has elevated bargain hunters into a whole new level of savvier consumption.

Retailers are catching on — just in time for the holiday season, their make-or-break time of year. Once content to simply sell these electronic devices, merchants and mall operators are now recognizing the increasingly important role smartphones and tablets are playing for shoppers and are eager to tap into this electronic path to consumers' wallets.

Practices that used to draw eye rolls and snickers from the highbrow sect has now become an art form exercised by people from all across the economic spectrum. Whether you are rich, poor or somewhere in between everyone likes to save money. And just because Black Friday and Cyber Monday are behind us, that doesn’t mean that the deals are over, in fact, depending on who you ask, some say that they are just beginning.

I personally enjoy getting a good deal as much as the next guy, but it was not until the most recent economic recession that I started actually putting more effort into consistently getting more for less. The 3 inches worth of ads and coupons stuck in between the Sports Page and Business Section of the Sunday L.A. Times would often go untouched and dismissed as junk. Well the saying goes that “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.” Little did I know the savings I was simply throwing away, now I find myself saving that part of the newspaper for last so I can really hone in on all of the everyday things I can save on.

Just in the last 3 months or so, I’ve even let myself get coerced into applying for a credit card at my favorite clothing store after literally years of ignoring such sales tactics. The savings were just too good to ignore, and I’m glad I did. Not only did I get great deals upon applying for the card (which is how retailers entice you to apply for a card in the first place) but they just kept on coming. I would get coupons emailed straight to my iPhone ranging anywhere from 10% to 15% off all the way to 40% off or $15 dollars off on certain days of the month. And once I reach $900 of total purchases I get rewarded with free alterations on top of all the various coupons. If something from the store interest me, I would bookmark links from their website on my smartphone and I could opt to get notifications when that particular item goes on sale or when I can use one of my e-coupons to order the item directly from my smartphone without missing a beat.

Shopping with mobile devices and electronic coupons isn't for everyone, especially for you very brave folks who prefer to browse through a mall at a leisurely pace looking for gift ideas. Even some fans of online shopping like to stick to their home computers — the screens are bigger and they don't have to squint as much.

So whether you are an early adapter to new technology or just recently bought a smartphone or signed up for Facebook, here are a few useful digital tricks for saving some bucks, and perhaps some time, during Christmas.

Mobile shopping guides
Some big retailers such as Target Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. offer their own mobile applications for shoppers to individually download to their smartphones or tablet computers.

With these apps, shoppers can often get up-to-the-minute information about sale items, instant bargains, what's located where and what's in stock.

Mobile apps, as well as websites geared for mobile devices, often tweak the online shopping experience to fit smaller screens with fewer items displayed per page and an easy search function. The app popularized one-click ordering for breezy checkouts without the need to fill in billing and address information over and over again (also upping the likelihood of impulse buying).

Perhaps the most useful apps collect product data from several retailers and sort it so consumers can compare prices side-by-side from local and online merchants to find the best deal. These apps, which include EBay's RedLaser, TheFind and SnapTell, can be downloaded for free and work by simply scanning a product's bar code.

Apps can offer more features than a traditional website. Bluefly Inc., an online fashion retailer that deals in discounted designer goods, sends an alert to your phone when an out-of-stock item you're eyeing becomes available again. In the same way that EBay's auction app will send a notification when you've been outbid at an auction.

Mall giant Westfield, which operates shopping centers including Westfield Topanga Mall, Century City and Westfield Culver City, recently added a new feature to its app that lets shoppers pinpoint which stores carry a specific item they're seeking. Type in "Loafers" and the app will list the shops carrying loafers.

About 1 in 4 smartphone owners plans to use a mobile device for holiday shopping, according to an annual holiday survey by Deloitte. Of those, 59% will use their phones to compare or check prices, 46% plan to use them to check product availability and 41% will get coupons through their handsets.

Social media, such as Facebook and Foursquare, will also be popular with shoppers, with 44% of those surveyed reporting that they will use social networks to find discounts, check out friends' or family members' wish lists and browse products.

Like with all technology, most people take in the new without completely letting go of the old. Even though the shelf lives of most new gadgets are now measured in days, the very fundamentals of human behavior are difficult to change as quickly. Most of us are and will always be social beings and as the difference between shopping online or in line starts to fade, people’s shopping desires will always be the same…finding the right item at the right price.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Grand ol Time

(Left to right...Vic Leyson, Mark Segal and Jordan Rane)

With the overall consumer sentiment still at an all time low, people across America are, for the first time in a long time, saving more money than they are spending. We hear it on the news almost daily, that small to medium sized companies, which employ over 75% of our nations workforce are sitting on cash and doling out more responsibilities to skeleton crews rather than hiring new employees.

The same fear lies with individuals as well. People are simply afraid to spend money, and who can blame them? With the combination of the constant economic doom gloom that we are bombarded with along with the stress of just trying to make ends meet, what options does one have for an enjoyable vacation without breaking the bank? Well, the answer can be found in 2 simple words…”road trip”!

Of course it also helps to have a good friend who is a travel writer for the LA Times, who happened to pitch a story of 3 average guys (Mark Segal a busy Sales Manager with 2 kids who recently turned 40, Jordan Rane also a father of 2 and Freelance Travel Writer at large who just turned 41 and Me, a Freelance Business Manager about to turn 35, and in desperate need of a get-away of any sort) driving out to Arizona from Los Angeles to camp out and hike at… where else, but The Grand Canyon! A destination that I have heard of, read about and seen in numerous movies but have never actually been to. Having been dealing with the stress of work, a German Shepherd in her 8th week of chemotherapy and not taking a vacation in almost 3 years I jumped at the opportunity.

I knew very little about the history of this iconic landmark, before setting off. All I had to go on was the advice of my more seasoned fellow campers, and began my preparation a couple days before departure time. Preparations, which were relatively simple and consisted of 3 key visits: 1) A trip to Adventure 16 to rent a sleeping bag and pad- total cost for 3 days $36. 2) A trip to Trader Joe’s for food and snacks, total cost $24. 3) A visit with another good friend and old college roommate to borrow his camping back pack, cost -FREE. The backcountry permits and other logistics were handled by Jordy, total cost of the campground for 2 nights $54.

Upon loading all of our gear in Mark’s truck and taking care of our first of three fuel fill ups (distributed evenly among us) we were off and would soon be on the historic Route 66 which stretches from Santa Monica, CA to Chicago, IL, just one of the many, many facts I would learn while sitting in a car with 2 great friends who happen to be much smarter than me for 8 hours.

I have always believed that the main purpose of any memorable road trip is to try to enjoy the journey as much as the destination itself, and that we did. A myriad of topics made the 8-hour drive seem effortless. Politics, movie trivia, recent events in our lives and endless banter kept us thoroughly entertained.

Once we crossed the Colorado River and entered the Arizona boarder, one of the most majestic sights on the planet, that has been in existence for a billion and half years was just minutes away. We exited the highway and were now on surface streets, which allowed us to roll down all of the windows and enjoy the absolutely perfect October weather that would stay with us for the duration of our trip.

As soon as we arrived at the Grand Canyon Village, all Mark and Jordy kept telling me was that “the canyon is just past that hotel over there”. I felt like I was a little kid, trying to control myself from jumping out of the, still moving car, until I finally told them to stop and let me out. As soon I got out and walked 50 or so yards past a group of tourist taking pictures I was completely dumbfounded with what I saw. Every cliché that I ever heard about this place could not have been more true. I even remembered a comment that the kid at Adventure 16 told me when I was renting my sleeping bag…”Dude that place is sick! You are going to be blown away when you see it for the first time.” a statement that I half believed and half rolled my eyes at, but he was right.

I had to literally take a moment to let my brain process what my eyes were seeing. Then I had to acclimate myself to the enormity of the canyon itself, and even though I was standing safely behind a railing, I had to steady my quivering knees and sweaty palms, symptoms that were caused by the 7000 foot drop I was looking down at. A process that I would have to repeat several times over during the hike down and hike back up.

After Jordy took care of some preliminary interviews for the piece he would be

working on for the next couple of days, we set up camp, got familiar with our surroundings and were in bed by 9:30 in an attempt to give ourselves enough rest to wake up at dawn to begin the 9 mile hike down the South Kaibab Trail, through some of the most beautiful terrain I have ever seen. Hiking down with 40lb back packs would take us about half a day, during which we would encounter a lot of new faces that would become familiar to us as we constantly leap frogged each other through our trek down to Phantom Ranch, which would be our next campsite at the bottom of the canyon.

You can only casually say "hi" to someone in passing once, a second and third time warrants some conversation to ensue. During our decent we would run into a group of 3 sisters well into their 50’s and 60’s who were hiking down and back up on the same day. They would share stories of how close all 13 siblings are to each other, and how much they loved the Green Bay Packers. Jordy randomly got paired up with a young twenty-something engineer from Colorado who talked about not owning a cell phone, a story that I was both impressed by and jealous of.

Once we got to the bottom our efforts were rewarded with a quick dip in the cool and crystal clear Colorado River. After setting up camp we headed off to the Canteen, which was a cafeteria type place that sold $3 Snickers Bars and had some of the best Lemonade I have ever tasted. It was a place where people congregated to cool off and pass the time by playing a variety of games, like Trivia Pursuit and Scrabble which we took full advantage of.

We headed back to camp, and prepared our dinners, which consisted mainly of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, salami sandwiches, chips, string cheese and an endless variety of trail mix. We had more motivation to get to bed even earlier than the previous night since we were all pretty beat from the hike down and we all knew that the 11 mile hike up the Bright Angel Trail would be much harder. We planned to be up by 6, we were all up by 5am packed and on the trail by 5:30.

The hike up was definitely more difficult and strenuous. Even though the novelty and the beauty were both very much still there, the higher we climbed the more it took a back seat to the abuse that our bodies were beginning to take. Our feet would be the first to experience the pain, followed by our necks, shoulders and backs from the additional weight of our packs. We all had our own thoughts that would help push us to the top. Mine, were comprised of thinking about my sick dog getting better, and how badly I wanted to have a burger, fries and a soda as soon as I got to the top.

We all reached the top of the canyon at different times, but, most importantly, all 3 of us made it just fine. We made a beeline for the restaurant that was right at the top of the north rim and ran into a couple that we had become quite friendly with along the way. They invited us to join them. We all ordered the same thing, burgers and fries. And the couple would buy us a couple rounds of beers as we celebrated the end of our 11- mile hike.

Shortly after, we headed off to the local market to pick up anything that did not resemble dried fruit or PB&J’s for dinner, went to a coin operated shower facility to get cleaned up and cooked some hot dogs over an open fire back at our camp site. We drove back down to LA the next morning, talking about the very same things we talked about on the way up, with the addition of what we just experienced of course.

Once I got into my own car to drive back to my apartment, I thought that I would miss LA a lot more than I actually did. It seems as though the more places I go to, and the older I get, the less I want to come back to the hustle and bustle of LA life.

The price of gas for each of us was about $50 per full tank; the price for food was less than that. All in all I would say that we spent less than $200 each for this amazing trip, spending quality time with some lifelong friends and not having cell reception, internet access or email for 2 consecutive days…priceless.

A special thanks to Jordan Rane- some of the coolest things I've done has been because of you!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

An exception to every rule

For the few of you out there who consistently follow my blog in spite of my inconsistent posts knows that the very essence of what I attempt to write about is, for the most part, sound, practical and easy to follow financial advice. Whether it’s in regards to stocking your own at home bar to save money on alcoholic beverages or what’s better buying or leasing a car?

In my writings I often discuss certain rules and guidelines that one should follow in order to live a fiscally sound lifestyle without having to live a life of depravity. However, as most of us know all too well, that for every rule there is an exception.

My exception came just 5 short weeks ago on the heels of accomplishing a personal goal that I had set for myself in the beginning of the year of becoming absolutely debt free for the first time since high school. I have to admit, once I saw my last credit card balance read 0.00 -that I took the time to celebrate the moment by going on a little shopping spree to update my wardrobe and treated myself to a couple of nice dinners and even bought myself a new all-in-one printer that had a very cool E-print function that allows you to print documents wirelessly directly from your smart phone. None of the items I purchased were necessities by any means, but that’s what shopping sprees are for right, to purchase things that you want rather than things that you need?

I even took the opportunity to finally get my lovely German Shepherd Harley to the vet to have her annual check up. Everything on the surface checked out fine. Harley looked like a picture of perfect health, but a couple of days after her check up I knew that something was off with my baby girl. Her energy level was low and she was barely eating. Part of me chalked it up to the summer heat bearing down on a large breed with a lot of fur, while another part just knew that there was something wrong. Another trip to the vet and a chest x-ray later was when I got the paralyzing news that Harley had Lymphoma and the cancer was starting to spread to her lungs. I was absolutely devastated and inconsolable. The news hit me so hard that I only told a small handful of people when I found out. I did not want to be around anyone that may say the wrong thing without even knowing it, out of fear of how I might lash out or react.

The Vet’s diagnosis was to immediately start an 8 week long chemotherapy regimen known as the Madison, Wisconsin Protocol and hope for the best. Round one started on a Friday and I had no idea what would be in store for us. Upon carrying my once powerful and athletic dog out of my truck and into my apartment was when I realized just how violent of an affect chemotherapy can have on an animal. She was loopy and groggy at first, which was to be expected, then came the perfect storm of uncontrollable vomiting, panting, urinating and restlessness. The both of us were up every hour throughout the night for the entire weekend and this was only round one.

By the time Monday and Tuesday came, I hadn’t worked in days. I didn’t ask my clients for time off, I simply told them that I wouldn’t be able to make it in anytime soon. The only thing that mattered to me was to take care of my best friend and make her better. I vowed to myself that I would do everything and anything within my power to get her on the mend.

When Wednesday and Thursday came around, Harley was starting to show some signs of recovery from the treatment, only to have to go through it all over again come Friday. Friday would be a big day for the both of us. Not only was her next round of chemo scheduled, but an all important second x-ray was going to be done to see if the first round of chemo managed to get rid of any of the cancer that was discovered in the initial x-ray. Thankfully enough, the second x-ray was literally a night and day difference from the first. While the first x-ray reminded me of a cloudy sky, the clouds being the cancer, the second x-ray reminded me of how I reacted the first time I saw a high definition flat screen TV, the clarity was that noticeable.

This gave Harley, myself and the Vet hope. Had the second x-ray come back similar to the first the conversation I would’ve had with Harley’s doctor would have been far different.

Now, having just completed round 4 Harley will be on a 2 week break free from chemo treatments and medication of any kind. I will spend the next two weeks continuing to cook all of her all of her high protein no wheat no grains “Stay Cancer Free” meals which should get her back to her normal weight and strength in no time, not to mention the both of us catching up on some much needed, uninterrupted shut eye.

As I look around my apartment, I am reminded of the collateral damage that caring for a sick animal can leave behind. I have temporarily put away the bucket and wet rags and patched up a hole on my couch, which was caused by Harley’s reaction to the steroids, she received intravenously this last round. All of the little things that would typically drive a highly organized, borderline neat freak like myself to seek psychotherapy have been relegated to meaningless inconveniences. What is a couch, but mere fabric and thread. What makes a couch unique and comfortable is having her lying on it with me.

Now that the 0.00 balance on my credit card has been replaced with some larger numbers, I at least know that the charges did not stem from some shopping spree or an irresponsible moment of decadence. All the charges on my current credit card statement have all gone toward one goal, and that is to keep my exception to every rule around as long as possible.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Frugal Fatigue

There are so many sayings and catch phrases out nowadays that the media creates in an attempt to turn the mundane into something more memorable. Think “Carmaggedon” just a couple of weeks ago.

More, recently however, I read a phrase that I have never seen before. While I was reading last months “Money Talk” in The L.A. Times by Liz Weston who writes an advice column that helps average people like you and me on issues of personal finances- she actually diagnosed a reader who had written in to vent about how much he has cut back on his expenses and more importantly how frustrated he was by having to live a life of constant financial austerity with… “Frugal Fatigue”.

This phrase got me thinking about- where do we draw the line when it comes to living a sensible life within our means vs. living a life of depravity? Obviously this particular topic is as unique to each individual as our own fingerprints, but is there such a thing as being too frugal? In short, my answer would be YES. Cutting back on premium cable channels and switching from incandescent light bulbs to fluorescents is one thing, wearing scarves and a down jacket to bed and risking catching pneumonia in the winter time to save a couple of bucks on your heating bill might be a little much.

I think it is actually far easier now to get caught up in the whole notion of the “Less is More” approach than it has been in the past. Being thrifty and pennywise does not carry the same negative stigma that it once did, in fact most people brag about their cost cutting ideas rather than being embarrassed by them. I've witnessed it first hand, with family members comparing DWP bills to see who has managed to save the most that month. More and more people are trading in gaudy, ostentatious vehicles for more practical and understated means of transportation, with "savvy" becoming the new "bling" when it comes to consumer spending.

I recently had a mental tug-a-war with myself over an Ipad2 that was given to me as a gift from a very generous client. I kept it for a total of 3 months and used it maybe half a dozen times before I finally caved and sold it on eBay. I thought that I would miss it the same way that I thought I needed it, but in the end I think I enjoyed saying I had one a lot more than I actually needed one. I enjoyed bragging to all my friends about it and I liked adding it to my increasingly growing collection of Apple products, but the money I made from selling my iPad2 with its virtual keyboard will go toward sending me on very real vacation.

Being frugal or fiscally responsible is just like being on a diet. Those who try to do too much too soon often fail in the same way that a person who loses 25 lbs in one week by starving themselves will almost always gain it all back and then some. Setting obtainable and realistic goals over time is the best way to get a handle on your finances and treating yourself to that Latte or dinner out a couple of times a month as a reward for all of your discipline is the best way to stave off “Frugal Fatigue”.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sometimes remembering the past can make the present even better.

As the economy continually tries to pick itself up from crawling to stumbling to what will hopefully become larger, adult like steps toward recovery we need not forget what got us into this mess to begin with. We as humans often have very short-term memories when it comes to remembering the things we’ve promised ourselves we would never forget.

Signs of things getting better seem to be spreading like a rumor being whispered about in lunchrooms with cautious optimism. Everyone wants to believe it, but nobody wants to jinx it. Gas is cheaper; Real Estate might have finally hit bottom, 100 million dollar estates are being purchased in all cash deals and at the moment, one only has to throw a dart at a map of Silicone Valley to determine which internet company will go public next.

Even on a personal level, I have managed to pick up some clients and projects here and there that have made my own situation more promising. My bills are getting paid with a little more cushion to spare and I am starting to “treat” myself to occasional meals out and even set an ambitious goal of getting completely out of debt by the end of this year. In fact, just this past Saturday I, along with my brother, 4 sisters and 5 in-laws all met up at a nice restaurant for brunch in Downtown L.A. to celebrate my mother’s retirement after 27 years of working for the same company. The mood was joyful as it should be for such an event, even with all the planning and hassle that comes along with so many people meeting at a restaurant that does not take reservations. Even with some of my siblings with younger kids having to find sitters- all of us could not have been happier to be there.

Only one of us had been there before, while the rest of us were trying the place for the first time and we were not disappointed. The restaurant itself had a great vibe, it got us all out of our familiar zip codes, the food was very good and the prices were pretty reasonable – all things considered. Everything went off without a hitch until the check came.

For anyone who has ever been out to dinner with a large party where everyone is responsible for paying for him or herself… knows that this can become somewhat of an awkward moment. Everyone calculating what they had or more importantly what they didn’t have. Who ordered an appetizer? And who just had water? Are often the questions being thrown around. When all was said and done and the cell phones doubling as calculators were finally put away the bill was eventually settled. I myself handed over more than enough cash to cover what I had ordered and with a hint of arrogance made a comment to “keep the change”. Change that was returned to me by one of my in-laws with a sense of practicality that made me re-think the hubris in which I had tried to leave it.

It was then that I realized the irony of the entire situation. We were there to celebrate my mother’s retirement and the main reason why she was able to retire in such a fashion was not because she made a lot of money, hardly the case considering that her salary during her last year was a very modest $42,000. The reason why she was able to retire was because of how she handled her money. Change was something she always kept and saved rather than letting someone else keep it for her. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves, however cliché it might be to remember the bad times so we can fully appreciate the good.

The thought of telling someone to “keep the change” at some fancy restaurant would have been absolutely ridiculous just two short years ago when my clients were leaving in droves during which I was asking myself for the very first time in my life the question of “what am I going to do?” So why should it be any different now? Change, in hindsight was all I had not too long ago. I needed all the change I could get back then, not to pay for nice brunches at trendy restaurants but to pay for groceries and rent.

Now that things seem to be changing for the better, there are certain things that should remain the same. I made a promise to myself that, when things eventually got better that I would not take things for granted like I once did and there is no better time to keep that promise than now.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A modest life yields extraordinary results.

We’ve all heard the saying that “desire is the fuel of life” and that we, as human beings are innately programmed to be perpetually dissatisfied with our lives. We are trained to constantly want more. More respect, a bigger office with a fancier title and of course more money.

We hear so much about overnight dot com millionaires, professional athletes and team owners alike squandering away astronomical sums of money only to file for bankruptcy with nothing to show for their wealth other than a fog of memories of the way things used to be. I’ve witnessed it first hand with clients that have W-2’s well into the 6 and even 7 figures who don’t even have a savings account.

Then there are individuals like Victoria Ubaldo Antonio, an immigrant from the Philippines who made the 8000-mile journey to the United States back in 1979 to help her congenitally deformed son find the medical treatment that her home country simply could not provide. Making such a journey in your adolescent years is one thing, since children and even teens in general adapt to new surroundings with relative aplomb. Making such a transition at the age of 39 however makes it far more difficult to not only assimilate into a new culture but to learn an entirely new language as well, but that is exactly what Victoria did. Leaving behind a life that she had carved out for herself all the way into her middle age with a self sustaining bakery business, friends and an ailing mother in order to make her youngest son feel normal for the first time in his life and to provide opportunities that just did not exist for her other son and 4 daughters.

She got a job with an insurance company 27 years ago with a starting salary of $12,000 a year and retired this past Friday with a salary that topped off at $42,000. She would continually redefine the word “sacrifice” and did something that is almost unheard of in this day and age – she lived below her means. During her working years she depended on no one while so many depended on her. She would work well into the night, taking on part time jobs so she can make sure that the needs of her younger children were taken care of. She would come home after a 14-hour day to cook, clean and go to sleep only to do it all over again the very next day. She would always stress the importance of getting an education and did absolutely everything in her power to provide the very best for her kids. Even if that meant waking up even earlier than usual so she can prepare a hearty lunch for her youngest son and carpool to work so he can drive her car, to make up for the fact that his friends at school lived a life of privilege that she just could not match.

As her kids got older she would eventually quit her second job, but even as the load from her tired shoulders lessened her discipline remained in tact. She continued to live a simple life. She forced herself to save and eventually fulfilled her dream of owning a home and did so on her own terms. Now 66 years young, all of Victoria’s
hard work has paid off in spades. Victoria, my mom will finally be able to enjoy the fruits of her labor. Her house is almost paid off and she owns her 2007 Toyota Solara out right. She never believed in living a leveraged lifestyle and if she were in Congress today she would argue to lower the debt ceiling rather than raising it.

People like Victoria are among the unsung heroes that we rarely hear about. Stories like hers are not only inspirational but also remind us that the possibilities within our own lives can often exceed the circumstances in which we've been dealt. To me, however she’s mom. All that I am today is because of her and all of the lessons both taught and observed will be an integral part of what I will become and when all is said and done -I can only hope to be able to live a life as meaningful as the way hers has been thus far. Happy travels Mama! Enjoy sleeping in, enjoy being your number one priority and enjoy not doing anything at all if you don’t want to. You have quietly touched and inspired the lives of so many and this world is a better place because of you!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

How to pick a password that's hard to hack

We've all experienced the tedium and frustrations of constantly having to deal with all of the various usernames and passwords that we have to contend with on a daily basis. Passwords and usernames for our smartphones, email accounts, bank accounts, and a seemingly endless list of online vendors that all require us to commit our personal access to memory. In my line of work, not only do I have to be vigilant on my own usernames and passwords, more importantly I have to be extra careful on how I handle the many usernames and passwords of my clients as well.

As online stores and services continue to eclipse traditional brick and mortar facilities and with smartphones having built in POS applications (point of sale) our wallets are slowly taking a back pocket to our cell phones, a transition that makes consumers more vulnerable to being hacked and puts more of an emphasis on security than ever before. We all have our own routine and protocol when it comes to not only choosing usernames and passwords, but how we remember them as well. I personally have done everything from storing sensitive information on password protected USB flash drives to password protected digital folders and APPS on my computers and smartphone.

Here are some great tips on how to password protect your day to day life:

By Shan Li of The Los Angeles Times.

How to pick a password that's hard to hack

The latest LulzSec attacks revealed that most victims used email passwords that were easy to decipher. A good password doesn't have to be impossible to remember. Here are tips for protecting your accounts.

If there's one lesson to be learned from the rash of hack attacks recently, it's the value of a strong password.

Just look at what the hacker group LulzSec dug up. After hacking into the websites of the CIA, PBS and Sony, it posted on the Internet the email addresses and passwords of 62,000 compromised accounts.

A quick scan of the list showed that most passwords were easy to remember — and easy to crack. Sample: "wildwoman," "coffeecup," "peterp," and "kindle."

Of course, the ideal password would be long, unintelligible and nearly impossible to predict. Like this: !co4D4)f%d. But good passwords are hard to remember, which is why so many people end up with easy ones or reuse the same password for multiple accounts.

Nowadays, passwords are the keys to your digital life, and they safeguard everything from your email accounts to your bank accounts against cyber criminals. Here are a few ways to protect yourself online:

• Use mnemonics. Pick a personal sentence, as I did for my college account: "I am an NYU student!" and take the first letter of every word to create a password "1iaanyus!" (NYU requires its students to add a number for extra security. And no, that password doesn't work anymore.)

• Know that longer is usually better, but not always. A six-character password such as 7cG&!s is more secure than a longer password that uses a word or a phrase, such as iloveyou.

• Change passwords to your bank accounts every few months.

• Write down the passwords on a list without user names. Keep it with your passport, car title, Social Security card or other papers you are not likely to lose.

• If you truly cannot remember passwords and tend to lose scraps of paper, use password-managing software such as LastPass or KeePass that encrypts and stores all your passwords. Some will automatically plug in your password at the appropriate sites. They're usually free or charge a nominal monthly fee for extra features.

• If you want the ultimate protection — and have the memory of an elephant — consider using a "random password generator" that you can find by doing an Internet search. It'll spit out passwords depending on how complicated you want them to be.

And a few things to avoid:

• Never use simple words or phrases, even if you spell them backward and add a number. Hackers have software that can predict commonly used words.

• Never have the same password for every account, especially for bank accounts and sites such as that can store your credit card information.

• Never email passwords to yourself. If hackers gain access to your email, they would then have the whole kit and caboodle.

• Avoid using personal details. Do not include your name, birthday or home address, which can be easily guessed by someone who knows you.

• Don't share your passwords with friends or family.

• Don't log into sensitive accounts when using public Wi-Fi.

And finally, it's important to remember that no password is completely immune from being cracked, said Robert Rachwald, the director of security strategy at Redwood Shores, Calif., digital security firm Imperva. The best way to keep your personal information safe is to avoid providing it if at all possible.

Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The new look, of the newly rich: Living well below your means, even when you don’t have to?

(Joe Greenstein, who recently sold his company Flixster for about $80 million, still lives in the San Francisco studio apartment he has rented for the last 10 years. (Dave Getzschman, For The Times / June 18, 2011)

With Wall Street all abuzz with the recent IPO’s of various technology and social media companies like Linkedin and Pandora, garnering initial public offerings and valuations of 30 to 50 times annual earnings. Stories of overnight multi, multi, multi millionaires are garnering as much, if not more attention than the companies themselves. What makes this particular technology surge different from the Gold Rush of the last tech boom is what this crop of CEO’s and Titans of Industry are NOT buying rather than what they are buying.

A lot of today’s nouveau riche are choosing to forgo the mansions, yachts and collection of exotic cars in exchange for social awareness, non-profit endeavors and philanthropy. Aaron Patzer who just turned 30, lives in a 600 square-foot apartment, who up until recently drove a 1996 Ford Contour until it finally broke down at 150,000 miles which he then replaced with a Subaru Outback. Patzer lives a modest lifestyle by any standard, but when you take into account that his net worth is estimated at over $150 million from selling his internet start-up company to Intuit (the company responsible for such financial software such as Quicken and QuickBooks) you would think he was crazy. “Wealth needs a purpose greater than big houses and flashy cars.” Says Patzer, who prefers to spend his money on causes that he feels will make a difference in society and impact people’s lives rather than accumulating expensive toys.

Then there’s Joe Greenstein, who just last month sold his San Francisco based company Flixster to Time Warner Inc. for $80 million dollars. Greenstein still lives in the same $1000 a month apartment he has been renting for the last 10 years. The 33 year old says he feels fortunate to not be living paycheck to paycheck anymore and finds plenty of satisfaction in being able to pay for his younger brother’s college tuition.

Our fascination with stories of hitting it big and what we would do with new found wealth are about as common as society’s obsession with celebrity and realty television shows. Just think about anytime the Lottery Jackpot starts to reach the 8 and 9 figure mark and the water cooler talk that accompanies it. We often find ourselves daydreaming about what we would tell our bosses before abruptly quitting our job. We think about the houses and cars we would buy and all the exotic places we would visit. The biggest difference between some of these humbled entrepreneurs that we hear about vs. the, what I like to call “paycheck to paycheck ballers”. Those who make a lot of money but seldom have any savings put away and cannot wait until the 1st and 15th of every month, is passion.

Most of us can only hope to be lucky enough to one day find out how we would act or what we would do with such a windfall. I’d like to think that I would find solace in being able to take care of my family and having financial security. Those who know me best know that I live a pretty simple lifestyle, but they also know that, by no means do I live like a monk. I have an affinity for virtually anything sold at the Apple Store and I probably have one or two more watches than I need.

A lot of entrepreneurs who strike it rich enjoy the process of their endeavor and not just the end result. Often, their objective is to make a positive impact rather than just getting rich. The overall mindset seems to be different when your passion just so happens to make you wealthy rather than wealth being your ultimate passion.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"On the Media: The price of free journalism"

Great article from last Saturday's L.A. Times...worth reading for anyone who has their own Blog or writes for a living, or wannabe writers like myself. Make sure you know what your writing is worth!

On the Media: The price of 'free' journalism
Information at no charge abounds on the Internet, but at what cost to quality newsgathering?
May 14, 2011|James Rainey

It's been more than a quarter-century since futurist Stewart Brand said, "Information wants to be free." In about half that time, the founders of Google have accumulated fabulous riches by putting free information a mouse click away. Six years on, Arianna Huffington has shown that free content, assembled by a couple hundred paid journalists and thousands of unpaid bloggers, can pay off in a big way — at least for her.

In recent days, the second part of Brand's aphorism has also been proved. The technology enthusiast, who created the Whole Earth Catalog, also said, "Information wants to be expensive." He predicted that the collision between the high cost of producing good information and the technology that enabled the cheap spread of that information would create "endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, 'intellectual property,' the moral rightness of casual distribution."

Did it ever. Even as AOL's looks for 8,000 new bloggers to cover suburbia for free and a photo agency announces it will try to profit from images people freely post via Twitter, strong voices push in the other direction: One of America's top sportswriters, Rick Reilly, urges journalism school grads to insist on being paid. A survey finds some of the most popular Huffington Post bloggers would (surprise!) like compensation. Prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneur Bill Davidow urges Google to find a way to get money back in the hands of writers to preserve "reliable news — a national treasure."

Those morsels came floating over the Internet not long after a freelance writer and political gadfly, Jonathan Tasini, served up both a lawsuit and a boycott against Huffington Post, trying to get cash for himself and other writers who have posted on the site. The lawsuit, on behalf of writers who knowingly hopped on the freebie express, seems like a long shot. And the attempt to erect a virtual picket line around HuffPo has been "a little bit of a struggle," Tasini told me.

But the financial disparity continues to cause friction in the world of content creators, the people we once knew as writers, photographers and editors.

"There has to be a concern if free journalistic labor becomes normal and normative in the profession," Harold Meyerson, editor at large of the American Prospect and a columnist for the Washington Post said when I called him. "Eventually that would subvert newsgathering as we know it, and journalism itself."

So what to do?

High-tech investor Davidow, a onetime executive at Intel, is just the latest figure weaned in the Silicon Valley to assess the Information Age's collateral damage. His book "Overconnected" describes the Internet's culpability in everything from invasions of privacy to the recent financial calamity.

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor this week, Davidow argued that the unfettered flow of information means businesses can "externalize costs" (i.e. get someone else to perform the expensive original labor) while making huge profits.

Davidow asked why Google shouldn't also charge for its news aggregation service, then pass some of the revenue on to original content creators. That, he said, would support "high-quality news and investigative reporting that is the key to preserving our democracy."

In another venue, its video-sharing site YouTube, Google has shown a willingness to spread the wealth.

The YouTube Partner Program has 20,000 participants in 21 countries, the company reports. The independent video-makers get more than half of the revenue from ads sold alongside their creations. A company spokeswoman says "hundreds" of partners earn six figures in revenue a year. "Thousands" of video partners make at least $1,000 a month. The company declined to be more specific.

Couldn't that sort of pay-for-traffic system be extended to the top companies and individuals who attract eyeballs to Google and its ads? Maybe Huffington Post could reward its most productive bloggers with a cut of the revenue, as well.

A dollars-for-clicks system has its pitfalls. We know that the biggest payoffs would not always go to the best-reported, most-polished pieces. Not when they have to compete with Charlie Sheen's latest rant or a titillating photo gallery. (Celebrity boob jobs, anyone?)

A system that is more stable, less vulnerable to market fluctuation, would be required to prop up long-term reporting and less frothy subject matter. That system used to be known as a salary. News outlets paid and took on the risk that not every story would pan out, or draw a maximum audience. But the best newspapers and TV networks plowed some of their revenue back into newsgathering, knowing it took more than the quick and dirty to burnish their brands.

Not that up-front money is the end-all for writers. Some benefit by having a big-audience platform like Huffington Post to disseminate their ideas, promote their causes or sell their books. In some instances, the attention can lead to a paying gig.

It's just that those paying jobs are fewer and farther between. Freelance writing fees, for all but the highest- end magazines, have continued to spiral downward.

Academics at UC Santa Barbara said they recently contacted 60 of the most popular contributors at Huffington Post. They got responses from 26 of them, most of whom said they believed they should share in the $315 million AOL paid for the website. Good luck with that.

But the scribes also hope for something more modest — some kind of payment for their submissions. They said they might be willing to join a union to get a cut.

Michael Curtin, a professor of film and media studies who helped collect the information, said "sacrificial labor" has long been an issue in entertainment. Low-paid go-fers prop up many a multimillion-dollar film.

As news consumers become producers, the issue has leaped to journalism.

"In a more interactive media universe, there are wonderful opportunities but also opportunities for exploitation," Curtin said. "It seems like it's time to have the conversation about what we do about that."

Twitter: latimesrainey

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Pick a card but not just any card

With the economy on a slow and gradual path to recovery, people are starting to spend money again while banks are starting to lend it again as well. If I had to pick one lesson that the economic crisis has taught me, it would have to be debt management. When times got tough, people from all walks of life opted to forego the use of their favorite credit cards in favor of using the more prudent and disciplined option of debit cards for making day to day purchases. Allowing consumers to have better control of what they bought with the cash mentality of “if you can’t afford it now then you shouldn’t be buying it”.

Now that people are starting to show a little more confidence in the economy, credit card companies are offering a lot more products and programs designed to attract a savvier consumer. With all the funny and witty credit card commercials and advertisements that we are constantly bombarded with, deciding which credit card is best for you can be pretty confusing. The first thing one should think of before applying for a new credit card is- what is your primary objective? Are you looking for a card with a low balance transfer rate, which will allow you to pay off some debt quicker or are you looking for rewards or travel miles? Whatever the case maybe, credit, when used correctly can be a wonderful thing. You can earn miles and points, which can lead to discounted hotel stays and free airline tickets. Credit can even bail you out of emergency car repairs and buy you time in between paychecks. Here are three cards worth looking into:

1. The Chase Slate/ Mastercard with BluePrint (13.24% to 22.24% variable) with no annual fees- Perfect for those who want to make a balance transfer and are serious about paying it off- Chase Slate with BluePrint provides cardholders with very attractive rates (0% for 12 months and depending on your FICO score you can qualify for a fixed rate of under 6% for the duration of the balance transferred). The BluePrint feature lets you choose which purchases to pay off in full each month, enabling you to reduce interest charges and eliminate that balance faster. I actually have this card and use it specifically to pay off the only debt obligation I have left. Ever since Chase took over the now defunct Washington Mutual, the Chase Slate Credit Card has become a very convenient option for those who bank with Chase as well. Offering its customers a one stop shop so to speak, with all inclusive online access allowing you to move funds around from your checking account to your credit card with ease and the luxury of actually speaking to a human about your credit card account at any Chase branch.
Cons: The one downside: a 3% transfer fee with no cap.

2. The Capital One Venture Card- (has a variable 13.9 percent APR. There is also a no-fee version of the card—the Capital One VentureOne Credit Card—which offers similar benefits but pays only 1.25 miles rewards per dollar spent). Their commercials of displaced Vikings tooling around urban streets asking us "what's in your wallet" are pretty funny, but it turns out that their cards are pretty good too. Their claim of “no hassle” rewards seems to live up to its name. This card is ideal for those who have travel as their number one objective. The Venture Card offers double points on certain purchases such as gas and groceries allowing users to quickly rack up the points with everyday purchases garnering 2 points for every dollar spent.
Cons: Capital One ranks among the worst cards when it comes to customer service and has a $59 annual fee after your first year.

3. The American Express Charge Card –which is available in Green, Gold, Platinum and Black each color coming with various degrees of “Pomp and Circumstance” along with annual fees in the same ascending order. An American Express Charge Card is perfect for someone who wants to earn points and miles while keeping a firm grasp on their spending, since you have to pay off your balance in full every month. Each card has an option to enroll in their Membership Rewards Program which offers one point or mile for every dollar spent and occasionally offers double points if you use your card to pay for certain bills like your cell phone bill and other utilities.

I have been an American Express Card member off and on for the better part of my adult life and the fact that I have to pay off my balance in full each and every month is the very reason why I have been such a loyal customer. I use my Amex Green in combination with my debit card and Chase Slate card as my would be formula for disciplined spending with benefits. American Express has unparalleled customer service which can come in handy when planning trips and traveling abroad. Anytime you use an American Express card to purchase plane tickets you automatically get travel insurance for lost or stolen luggage and covers emergency trip cancellation.

A perfect example of such insurance coming to good use occurred when I, along with some of my closest friends took a trip to Costa Rica a few years ago. I used my Amex to rent an all-wheel drive SUV which at the time was a necessity to handle the country’s rough unpaved roads. By the time we returned the vehicle there was around $500 worth of damage on our rented Mitsubishi Montero which Amex paid for.

Cons: Not everyone accepts American Express, annual fees ranging from $90 all the way to several thousand per year depending on which color you opt for.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

You Lucky Dog

There are few industries that have been able to withstand the onslaught of all the economic doom and gloom over the last 3 years than the pet industry. It seems as though, pet owners would rather go without and make their own personal sacrifices to ensure that their beloved furry family members are continued to be spoiled rotten. I, for one happen to be a very willing participant of the demographic that treats their dog better than they do some humans they come across. When times got tight for me a little while back, I would easily opt for generic brands over gourmet items on my grocery list just to make sure that Harley (my German Shepherd pictured above) had plenty of her Science Diet Light and anything else that I thought her little heart desired.

Pet loving consumers have ensured that the pet industry’s sales of $45.4 Billion in 2010 have not been slashed by the dismal economy. According to the American Pet Product Association, there is hardly a scratch to be seen in spending on pets as all 5 categories have increased over 2009 numbers. While high-end specialty stores will see profits decline, there are gains in spending on quality foods, beds, and leashes. Value for money is what the public will be looking for in 2011.

Stores like PetSmart, still #1 in the market, with Petco following at #2 are still the staples when it comes to our pet’s overall needs. As much as children do not go without toys in a recession, neither do our or dogs.

In the same way that groceries have started to carry healthier, organic alternatives for humans to consume -pet stores both big and small have added more expensive organic and natural food brands to their product lines as well. In fact, not too long ago me and a friend of mine walked from my apartment to grab a bite to eat in Studio City and within a one mile radius on Ventura Boulevard we counted half a dozen high end pet stores, selling anything from gourmet dog biscuits & ice cream to deep tissue massages for the four legged.

The $45 Billion are US numbers only; I can hardly fathom a guess as to what the international numbers would be, considering that according to Dogs Decoded (a PBS/Nova documentary) anywhere in the world where there are humans there will most likely be dogs as well. Yet, most shelters will tell you, it costs around $1200 a year at the low end of the scale to keep a dog if you live in an urban area, and that’s only if nothing much goes wrong and you don’t use daycare and other perks. Here’s how we pet people spend all that money:

For 2010, it estimated that $45.4 billion was spent on all pets in the U.S. in these 5 categories:

1. Food……………………………………………………… $17.4 billion
2. Supplies/OTC Medicine…………………………………..$10.2 billion
3. Vet Care……………………………………………………$12.2 billion
4. Live animal purchases…………………………………….$ 2.2 billion
5. Pet Services: grooming & boarding…………………… $3.4 billion

The question of why we love our dogs so much is an interesting one that scholars have been thinking about and studying for years (maybe even centuries). It’s largely a philosophical question that is interpreted or answered differently from one dog lover to the next.

If someone were to ask me that very question, my answer would be far from simple. I rescued my baby girl exactly 3 years ago come May 8th of this year. I have been led to believe that I am at least her 3rd owner and I am absolutely certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt that I will be her last. Anyone who has ever met me has probably met my dog as well. If she’s not physically with me, I seldom go more than 10 minutes without showing off pictures of her on my phone and talking about how much she means to me. In fact looking back at the last 3 years it's hard to tell who rescued who.

I found her during a time when things in my life were starting to unravel; she kept me sane when everything else drove me crazy. She has lived with me at 3 different places and 2 different cars, some of them fancy some not so fancy and she couldn’t care less either way. As I approach an age when friends and family alike are pressuring me to settle down and start a family- I often reply by saying that my life is simple right now and that is how I like it. I come home to something that is unbelievably excited to see me day in and day out and until my time of domestication comes, $1200 a year is a heck of a lot cheaper than diapers and private school.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Art of the Loan Modification

By now just about all of us have either heard of or experienced first hand the effects of the housing boom and bust that started to unravel in 2008. Even though 3 years may seem like a long time ago, the collateral damage that was left behind is still as relevant as ever. With more than 30% of American Homeowners underwater on their homes (meaning that their homes are worth far less than what they owe) more and more homeowners are faced with the very difficult decision of whether to walk away and face foreclosure or try to swim through the sea of bureaucracy and red tape that is known as a loan modification.

A loan modification, to put it simply, is the process in which homeowners work with the bank or banks that carry the note on their mortgage to try to modify the terms of their loan to make it more affordable for the owner. The definition itself might be simple but going through the process is anything but. In fact, out of the millions of homeowners who have tried to get their loans modified, less than 12% have been approved.

Having been through this process myself on two occasions, once for my own home, which was declined and more recently on behalf of a good friend of mine, which was approved, I have experienced first hand the many, many, many frustrations that come along with trying to get a home loan modified. The lost paperwork, the complex financial statements that you have to generate, the threatening letters in the mail, the lost paperwork, having to explain then re-explain your situation to a different person every time you call and of course the lost paperwork. For those of you out there who have been discouraged or reluctant to try for a loan modification, now might be the right time to do so. Banks are under a lot of pressure from Congress with programs such as H.A.M.P aka Home Affordable Modification Program that strongly urges banks to move swiftly and more willingly when it comes to modifying upside down home loans in order to speed up the economic recovery. Before you begin the near David vs. Goliath battle with your bank, I suggest you roll up your sleeves, summon every ounce of patience you can possibly muster and follow these 6 steps I have learned through my own experiences.

1. Do the math- get all your facts and figures in order. Read through your mortgage statements; make sure you know the terms of your loan backwards and forward. Know what your LTV or loan to value is of your house and do your best to assess just how far underwater your home is and answer the following questions as honestly as you can. Do you really want to stay in your home? How much of a monthly payment can you afford? And …do you feel that your home will ever be able to recoup the loss of its original purchase price within your lifetime? Depending on your age, with the average drop in housing prices in some States as high as 40% or more. If you took a very generous 3%-5% annual appreciation of your home, factor in property taxes and commissions, it could take decades just for your house to get back to even. Your answers to these 3 questions should be the determining factors as to whether or not you should even begin the arduous task of loan modification.

2. Make your bank notice you- contact your bank and ask for help. Each and every financial institution has their own specific requirements and loan modification packages. Some of the more commonly required documents are a hardship letter, which is a description as to why you have fallen on hard times. Pay-stubs or tax returns if you are self-employed and profit and loss statements, which is basically a summary of your monthly income vs. your monthly expenses. There are some banks out there that make it more difficult to begin this process if you are current on your mortgage payments, thus forcing some homeowners to intentionally miss payments before they can even be taken seriously by their bank.

3. Dot your I’s and cross your T’s- once you know what documents you have to complete, make sure you complete them as accurately as possible. Keep copies of every item you send, whether it be via fax or email. Be meticulous in your record keeping, take notes of whom you spoke with and when and always make sure that every thing you send is the absolute most current information.

4. Don’t cry poor- a common misconception is that the less you make, the more likely you will get approved. That could not be further from the truth. The fact of the matter is- the bank wants to see that you are financially solvent enough to make timely payments on whatever your modified loan turns out to be. If you plead poverty your application will get denied because your bank will think that you will be unable to pay for any mortgage, modified or not. Keep your mortgage payments within 30% of your total monthly income as a standard barometer. On the flip-side, there is no such thing as making too much money to qualify for a loan modification. Most banks look at your debt to income ratio and not just how much money you make.

5. Persistence pays off- always follow-up with your bank. Call them after sending them any documentation to confirm receipt. Call them at least once a week to see how far along you are within the process and whether or not there is anything else that they need from you. Always negotiate with a stern demeanor and a soft voice rather than with a heavy hand and a loud mouth. Getting angry or yelling over the phone will get you nowhere fast. As you read in my opening paragraph, the most common frustration I experienced was lost documents. The last thing you want to do is give them any reason to lose your docs again. If your modification is approved you could save yourself thousands of dollars a month for the next 2 or more years, which is well worth the effort!

6. If at first you don’t succeed hire someone to do it for you- there are a number of professionals that you can pay to go through this process for you. Some attorneys, mortgage brokers and various finance consultants specialize in loan modifications. If you decide to go this route, make sure the terms of what they are or are not guaranteeing are crystal clear and be prepared to pay up. Most of these “professionals” charge anywhere from $2500-$7500 with little or no guarantees.

**What are the most common modifications made to a home loan if approved?**
1. A reduction of interest rate
2. A forbearance on missed payments to be added to the principle balance of the loan
3. In more dramatic cases, an actual reduction of the principle balance of the loan
4. The most common would be the combination of 1 and 2.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Dodger Blues

Over the past couple of weeks the main topic of discourse between family and friends alike has been the tragic, brutal and inexcusable beating of Bryan Stow a 42-year-old Paramedic and father of two who is currently in a medically induced coma and is hanging on for dear life. His only offense was wearing a Giants jersey to this year’s season opener at Dodger Stadium.

These types of incidents at Chavez Ravine that used to be considered isolated seem to be happening with more regularity. Catching a ballgame with friends, while cheering for your favorite team and eating a Dodger Dog is as American as Apple Pie, and for all intents and purposes was a great way to spend a day. Nowadays however, cheering for the Dodgers has taken a back seat to ridiculing and insulting anyone who isn’t. Before writing this post I typed in “Dodger Stadium Fights” on You Tube and was taken aback with what I saw and heard. The types of insults that were flying around were off the charts and were aimed at anyone, man, woman or child. It seems as though that some unruly Dodger fans are determined to pick up where the Raider Nation left off.

Being a proud Angelino for almost 30 years now, I have been to my fair share of Dodger games and have enjoyed every one. I have even attended Dodger games in San Francisco with friends in full Dodger regalia without incident. Does that mean that Giant fans are any better than Dodger fans? Not at all. I know it’s not fair to judge an entire city by the actions of the inane few. Unfortunately, in the world of 24-hour news that is updated by the minute negative headlines are what garners the most attention. I am all for supporting and cheering for your favorite teams with great zeal. One can bleed Dodger Blue without having to make opposing fans bleed in the literal sense. When leaving the ballpark one should say, “what a great game” not “well at least nobody got killed or beat up.”

During the many conversations I had about what occurred on opening day, one question kept coming to mind. “What would you have done if you saw this happening to someone?” I don’t expect anyone to put his or her own life at risk to help a total stranger, but the one thing that I hope no one does when confronted with this type of moral dilemma is nothing at all.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A little perspective...

A little perspective can go a long way. As I look through the various titles of my Blog posts that discuss topics like how to save money on your cable or satellite bill, whether to buy or lease your car and which is better a BlackBerry or an Iphone, sometimes we are reminded that there are people out there who can only wish to be in a position to make such comparisons in their daily lives.

For the millions of families who were hit the hardest by the housing crash and recession that started in 2008, their day to day decisions are far different from the ones most of us make. While we think about where to go for dinner on any given night, there are families and children that cannot afford the very bare necessities of life and go to bed hungry.

The next time I complain about not having enough counter space in my kitchen, or how my washer and dryer are too close to my stove all I have to do is watch the 60 Minutes video above to remind me of how good most of us have it in life. It's true that things can always be better, but things can also be far worse.

The saying goes that persevering through life's many difficult challenges builds character and makes us stronger, but try telling that to a child who's only wish is to be like all the other kids.

The maturation process of teenagers transforming into young adults is a right of passage, children being forced to act like grown-ups however often leads to a tragic loss of innocence.

Monday, March 28, 2011

When fuel prices go up…get a new car?

With the average cost of a gallon of regular unleaded at over $4.00, along with the civil unrest in Lybia and Egypt- compounded by the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan…is now the best time to buy a new fuel efficient car?

Well, like anything else, it all depends on whom you ask and what your current situation is. There have been very few occasions in recent history that I can remember when there have been so many good deals and favorable financing when it comes to shopping for a new car than now. From 0% financing for 5 years, to leases offering no down and payments under $200 a month. It seems like nowadays you can find yourself in a brand new Honda Civic that gets 40 mpg for around the same price as what some people pay for their cell phone bill.

However, the very reasons I just mentioned in favor of buying a new car right now, ironically enough are the same reasons why you should hold off on purchasing that new set of wheels. Purchasing something in the midst of frenzy is like going grocery shopping when you haven’t eaten anything all day. Emotion trumping logic is almost always a formula for buyer’s remorse.

We need to remind ourselves that gas prices could drop just as easily and as fast as they went up. The rise and fall of crude oil is not always directly correlated to supply, but rather on the overall sentiment of those who trade it as a commodity. Just because the price of crude oil is at a whopping $105 per barrel (the highest its been in years), that does not mean that there is a shortage of it. It ‘s merely a nervous reaction to what is going on around the world that is causing prices to rise.

So if global calamities and high gas prices are the reasons why you want to buy a new car, I suggest that you wait a couple of months, you will thank me for it later. However if your car is on its last leg and you’ve already been thinking of purchasing a new vehicle for sometime, then now is the time to buy. There are a plethora of reliable, fuel-efficient cars in the marketplace today. Toyotas, even with their recall issues still have a very loyal following and seemed to have garnered a favorable verdict in the court of public opinion. Sportier options are also aplenty with the Mini Cooper, Volkswagen Jetta and the return of the Fiat 500- are all stylish alternatives for those who want a little fun to go along with their practicality.

Living in L.A. where we are often judged by what car we drive, it can be very easy to succumb to notion of constantly wanting to be seen in what is the latest and greatest just so we can impress the valet or the person next to you at a stop light. I have always considered myself to be a "car guy" and I sometimes miss the days of weaving through Laurel Canyon in my sporty Audi Quattro, with its 6 speed manual transmission and all its Teutonic glory. Whenever that longing tries to become a new reality, I remind myself that there is no better way to hedge or balance out high gas prices than not having a car payment.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Inside Job

For anyone out there who is the slightest bit intrigued by the financial crisis of 2008- "Inside Job" The Academy Award winning documentary is a must see. This has been a topic that I have been borderline obsessed with for the last 2 years. I have read countless articles, books and have seen pretty much every interview or documentary available and few tell the story in a more clear & understandable way than this movie.

Why should anyone care about a bunch of finance geeks with their fancy degrees who seem to speak a language that only other finance geeks can understand? Because what happened in October 2008 was the financial equivalent of the "Cuban Missile Crisis" minus the "almost". With subprime mortgages instead of nuclear warheads that were launched on a global scale.

How exactly does a "simple" home mortgage that originated in the United States ultimately bankrupt a country as far away as Iceland? What ever happened to regulation? And why didn't anyone see this coming? All these questions were asked and no one seemed to have any answers.

The film is narrated by Matt Damon and does an excellent job keeping its audience captivated about a topic that few people understand by breaking it up into 5 parts.

1. How We Got Here
2. The Bubble
3. The Crisis
4. Accountability
5. Where Are We Now?

"Inside Job" looks at the financial meltdown of 2008 as a product of the human condition and not just as a numbers game. It delves into the ever expanding breadth & influence of the world of Wall Street on Government and education which shapes legislation in its favor.

While watching this movie, a midst all my feelings of betrayal and outrage, I kept asking myself one simple question, if I was in the same position as some of these Wall Street titans making obscene amounts of money by just being in the right circle of influence "Would I have acted any different?" Morality is often more or less ambiguous depending on which side of the transaction you are on.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Not so basic cable

With cable and satellite providers still charging a premium price for not so premium content, even the least technologically adept consumer is becoming savvy when it comes to getting more T.V. for less. Nowadays devices that offer Internet content and downloadable programming are becoming more and more commonplace, a gradual yet significant sea change that may one day force cable and satellite companies to restructure the model in which they charge subscribers for their service.

I myself was once a cable company’s easiest target. For the better part of my young adult life I opted for the “all inclusive” packages that included the many different variations of HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Starz and God knows what other channels were included that I seldom watched. As I graduated from my twenties and into my thirties I started to realize that television in general was becoming less of a focal point in my life and when I was watching TV, I was primarily watching news programs, sporting events and other shows that were on basic network cable or network TV. While following some of my favorites such as the hit British automotive show Top Gear online and renting other movies and documentaries from Netflix.

I have long heard of Blu Ray Players and game consoles like the Nintendo WII and Sony Play Station offering Internet connectivity directly to your TV, however not being “gamer” by any stretch of the imagination and since I primarily watched independent movies and foreign films, the idea of getting a Blu-Ray player just so I can watch subtitles with life like clarity did not appeal to me. So when I heard about the unveiling of the latest Apple TV offering Internet connectivity, Netflix and Youtube directly to your TV- all for a little over a hundred bucks I was more than just a little bit interested.

I have to admit however that I am a bit biased, as I sit here typing away on my iMac, while owning a MacBook, 3 different iPods and an Apple Time Capsule, that Apple TV with its low price was probably review proof and for all intents and purposes had me at “Apple”. But after purchasing one and bringing it home, it did not disappoint and fulfilled almost everything I was hoping for. Here is the breakdown:

At a Glance

Apple TV
Apple Inc.
Price: $99
Dimensions: 3.9 x 0.9 x 3.9 in.
Video output: 720p HDTV
Audio output: W5.1 surround sound
Remote control: IR remote, iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad apps
Connectivity: 802.11a/b/g/n, Ethernet, HDMI out, optical audio out
Basic media channels: YouTube, iTunes
Premium media channels: Netflix, iTunes store movie and TV rentals

PROS: It’s very reasonably priced at $99 and its size (which resembles a square hockey puck) is very sleek and unobtrusive. Its functionality is simple and very easy to install only needing a power cord (included) and an HDMI cable (not included) and connects directly to your home WIFI network. Once you get the install out of the way the set-up phase is almost as easy. By using the remote control that is literally the size of a stick of Juicy Fruit, you can navigate through the process of accessing your Netflix account by simply typing in your username and password.

You can also sync your various computers Mac or PC, to wirelessly play your iTunes library, showcase pictures and video directly to your TV. Syncing all other Apple devices such as the iPhone, iPod, iTouch and iPad are a snap as well. Once the device is recognized almost anything you see or hear from it can be seen and heard directly from your television set. You can even download the free “Remote Control” App that allows you to use that device to control Apple TV.

Sifting through the Netflix library is pretty intuitive and mimics the way you would look through titles directly from the Netflix website. You can even rent movies and television shows from iTunes for 99 cents for older episodes and up to $4.99 for newer releases. YouTube can be accessed straight from the Apple TV as well, allowing you to watch YouTube videos on your television from the comfort of your couch rather than watching it on a computer screen.

CONS: for those looking for a complete and comprehensive way of surfing the Internet through your Television Set, Apple TV is not the right device for you. There are other devices that offer a more all around web experience like Google TV that comes with a wireless keyboard but costs three times more. The remote control that comes with the Apple TV might almost be too small and sleek and can easily be lost. Another somewhat annoying feature is that the remote control not only controls the Apple TV consul but it also controls any MAC computers you may have in your home as well. So if you happen to have either an iMac desktop or MacBook in proximity to your Apple TV you will end up controlling both simultaneously.

Bottom Line:
My modest needs were met by Apple TV at a modest price. Just this weekend I cancelled all of my premium movie channels, which brought my cable bill down from almost $140 a month to less than a hundred. In just two months time, purchasing the Apple TV will almost pay for itself. The bottom line does not get much clearer than that.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Wanna get away?

With the cold and rainy weekend we just had, it’s hard to believe that the Spring and Summer months are just around the corner. And along with that come planning vacations and road trips alike. Vacations are what we work so hard for during the year. Here are some tips & suggestions that will help prevent the current economic climate from putting a damper on the beautiful weather ahead.

1. Ask the pros- with all the hand held devices out there equipped with WIFI and too many G’s to keep track of you can literally be researching your next vacation while sitting at a drive thru at a fast food restaurant. But the DIY (do-it-yourself) approach isn’t always the most prudent way to go. Sometimes planning your vacation through a certified travel agent can present options that you never knew existed. Especially when traveling abroad. Using a travel agent can be the best way to customize your overall experience, while cutting through all the red tape and providing some invaluable advice and guidance along the way. It can save time and add value for an often, surprisingly reasonable fee. Check with your credit card company, some may provide a similar service that is built into the annual fees of the card.

2. The all inclusive deal- when it comes to traveling the “less is more” philosophy is usually reserved for soul searchers trying to find themselves by back-packing through Europe while, throwing both caution and personal hygiene to the wind. For those of us who left those days behind after we graduated college the “Package Deal” is often a cost saving and convenient way to travel. Bundling all of your major expenses such as flight, lodging, rental car and even food and activities often costs less than paying for each item individually. Top travel sites like Orbitz and Expedia often let you tailor your vacation right down to your scuba gear and massage treatments. This method will give you a grand total to work with and will help minimize any surprises.

3. There's no place like home- sure everyone wants to stay at a 4 star hotel, but staying at one for an extended period of time can leave you with a 4 figure bill as well. Paying considerably less for a house or apartment with kitchen amenities can not only save you money on lodging, but will save you money on food as well. Preparing your own breakfast or lunch and treating yourself to a nice dinner out can be a lot more forgiving on the wallet than ordering room service or dining out for all 3 squares. Home exchanges have become more and more popular with sites like craigslist and

4. Hit the road- some of us don’t have to travel very far to escape the daily grind. Even with gas prices at an all time high for the month of February taking a road trip could be just what the doctor ordered. Take the scenic route where you can. Road trips are designed to have a little bit of the vacation built into the journey itself. Bring plenty of snacks and even more good music. My plan for my next “mini” vacation is to take a day trip to Santa Barbara. A seed that was planted when one of my best friends was generous enough to offer me his very nice Porsche for the day. Stay tuned…

5. Get insured- an added expense (roughly 5% of the total cost) that is well worth the piece of mind that it provides. A few years ago, my mother had planned an epic 3 week trip through Europe and had fallen ill just one week prior to her departure. Had she not opted for the insurance she would’ve been out almost ten thousand bucks. There are three categories of coverage when it comes to insuring your trip: 1) Trip cancellation/interruption 2) personal belongings coverage 3) Health insurance (in the event that your current medical coverage does not cover you abroad. Again, check with your credit card company to see if any of these insurance options are built into the benefits of the card.

**A special thanks to Jordan Rane-Travel writer at large and an all around good guy**

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The dot com re-boom?

Having seen "The Social Network" for the second time on DVD this weekend got me thinking. With all the attention and news surrounding start up internet companies like Facebook, Twitter, Groupon and most recently The Huffington Post, with their insane buyouts and even more insane valuations reaching well into the billions. Are we re-inflating a bubble that burst almost ten years ago? A burst that was as far reaching as the eruption of the Icelandic volcano with a name that no one could pronounce.

Michael Hiltzik of The L.A. Times poses the question: Are we having a relapse of tech sector insanity?

The last time valuations soared so high for companies with modest track records, or no track records, the trend line heralded the dot-com crash.
By Michael Hiltzik

I am now officially terrified.

Groupon, a coupon-hawking website out of Chicago with less than two years of history to offer, is heading toward an initial public offering that may value it as high as $15 billion.

Facebook, the popular social networking and privacy-wrecking website, is valued at somewhere between $50 billion and $80 billion by private-market reckonings.

So it looks like Arianna Huffington sold herself cheap — she got only $315 million from AOL for her Huffington Post. (Or is it she who acquired AOL?)
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What's scary about all this, you ask? Simply that the last time valuations soared so high for companies with modest track records, or no track records, the trend line didn't herald a "new world" or a "new paradigm" or whatever they're calling it today. It heralded a crash.

Sorry to reopen old wounds, but after years of increasingly insane valuations the tech-heavy Nasdaq composite index topped out at just over 5,000 on March 10, 2000. It never saw that handle again. Today it's still shy of 2,800.

It's not just the numbers that transport one to bygone times; it's the familiar trappings of frenzy. There are the same explanations that what's important isn't actual revenues, but eyeballs, and the lionization of venture investors who thus far have proved themselves wholly capable of shoveling the money out, not yet of shoveling it back in.

Today's golden boy is Yuri Milner, whose Moscow-based Digital Sky Technologies has taken big stakes in Facebook and Groupon, among other firms. A recent article in the San Jose Mercury News contended that Milner has "rewritten many of the rules of start-up investing," although it sounded to me as though he's just a very aggressive venture guy, not unlike the types who used to get written up in the exact same style in the late 1990s.

In fact, Milner has partnered with Ron Conway, a lion of the dot-com era, to invest in start-ups nurtured by something called Y Combinator, which claims to have developed "a new model of startup funding" but on the surface looks very much like what we used to call an "incubator."

The model incubator was Idealab, the Pasadena outfit founded by the entrepreneur Bill Gross in 1996. Idealab is still around, although for some reason its website still brags about founding EToys, which went public in 1999 and bankrupt in 2001. (Like FAO Schwarz and KB Toys, it's now just an appendage of Toys R Us.)

Even today's young entrepreneurs seem like retreads of the start-up founders who used to troop through our offices at The Times showing off their supposedly novel iterations of search engine sites — except that today they're working novel changes on social media sites. They have the same studied scruffiness, the same social maladroitness that contrasts so charmingly with the decor of the four-star restaurants where they're being interviewed for glossy magazines, the same twerpish approach to old-world marketing. (Groupon is still apologizing for its tone-deaf Super Bowl ads.)

All that aside, the numbers are still what count. And by any standard except those of the dot-com boom the valuations being tossed around for social networking sites and other investing flavors of the year look ridiculous.

Facebook's purported valuation on the private marketplace site SharesPost, where insiders can supposedly shop their tied-up shares in not-yet-public companies, reached about $80 billion at the end of January. That made it potentially the nation's second-most-valuable Internet company, behind Google, which has a market cap of about $190 billion.

Facebook recorded revenue of about $1.2 billion in the first nine months of 2010, Goldman Sachs recently told prospective investors. Google's revenue for the same period was $21 billion.

Then there's Groupon, which has been aptly described as an online version of those fat coupon books offering discounts at local shops that are still flogged door-to-door as school and church fundraisers. In what will go down either as the peak of early 21st century hubris or a heck of a canny move, the company turned down a purported $6-billion acquisition offer from Google, opting for an IPO instead.

Is Groupon a good candidate to own the future? No one knows how long the group-coupon craze will last. Thus far, it's been driven by a few eye-popping offers — Groupon made its name with a half-off coupon for Gap back in August, but it was outpaced by a half-off coupon offered by a new rival, LivingSocial, last month. These promotions aren't cheap; either Amazon or LivingSocial took a loss of about $14 million on those coupons, which offered $20 in merchandise for $10.

On the other hand, Amazon owns a $175-million stake in LivingSocial, so maybe it's a wash. If Amazon chalks that loss up to advertising, it comes to all of 1.4% of its annual $1 billion in marketing expenses.

That deal also tells you that Groupon faces lots of competition. It seems every day brings a new social-couponing pitch to my e-mail box; even Facebook is reportedly getting into the act.

What really makes these 2010 deals sound like the second coming of 1999 is that nobody really knows how these companies are performing, because their financial results haven't been subjected to public scrutiny. In the absence of firm numbers, the basis of the frenzy over social media companies is their "story." This one's the "brand leader," that one's got critical mass, a third is moving smartly into Europe.

I've heard it all before. In 1999, Morgan Stanley dot-com analyst Mary Meeker, then dubbed the "queen of the Net," was talking up Yahoo because "it's international … a brand leader on a global basis." This sort of cheerleading had driven Yahoo to a price-to-earnings ratio in the stratospheric 900s by mid-1999. Yahoo's P/E today is about 18.

The frightening thing now is that people are talking about the outsized value of Facebook and other tech upstarts as if their valuations were perfectly normal. That's what we heard about Yahoo and other dot-coms — just before the Nasdaq crashed and made fools of everybody. From the Nasdaq peak to the end of 2000 Yahoo lost almost 85% of its value.

Today's holy grail, of course, is the next Google. The Internet search giant went public in 2004 at $85 a share and hit $700 about three years later. But that's its peak; it's currently in the low $600s.

Anyway, you can go broke fast chasing the next Google — it's like the first hit the smack dealer offers for free, or the blackjack you draw the first time you ever play 21. It's an outlier, and for most investors the prelude to tears, or insanity. Maybe one of these hot companies is the next Google. But it's more likely that these prices are insane.

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at, read past columns at, check out and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.
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