Tuesday, September 19, 2017

August Shopping Reflections


It's official now,  I've lost the plot on this year's shopping budget. With a whole quarter of the year to go, I could still get back on track, but given certain changes associated with my new job, I'm not optimistic. Specifically, my work wardrobe needs to be more formal. I won't be keeping a running tally anymore of how far I've fallen behind. I'll write about it in an end of year analysis, whatever happens. Given the rest of what's going on in my life, personal finance-wise, being over budget for fashion purchases isn't a huge deal. In truth, this year's $1800/year (~$150/month, but flexible month-to-month) was a bit of an experiment, and well, it's one that hasn't panned out.

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The recent cause of this year's budget failure is a Marc by Marc Jacobs "Too Hot to Handle" Hobo bag (identical, for less, with "Marc Jacobs" branding here). I could try to retroactively categorize it as an "off-budget purchase", but that wouldn't be consistent with my past practices. It's a category I've used on rare occasions for items such as a suit or a bridesmaid's dress, items I knew I would need far in advance, but for which it was difficult to set a limit upfront. This purchase doesn't fit that bill. It's a gift to myself to celebrate my new job, but well, I couldn't have anticipated that in advance!  

As an aside, back when I was a college student, Marc by Marc (or "MBMJ") was one of those brands that was highly aspirational for me, something I desperately wanted but couldn't afford. (Except that, unlike the linked blogger, teenaged Xin had little taste and was highly susceptible to marketing, so my longing was reserved for various specific and sometimes really ugly items, possibly just for the sake of the brand name and the fact that the items seemed widely coveted. I don't think I ever got attached to any one consistent aesthetic or "look".)

These days, MBMJ has shuttered, its old stock fills the physical racks at Nordstrom Rack, and the brand's been rolled into "Marc Jacobs", hence the er, current selling of this item with a new label only a month after I bought mine. Nostalgia goggles on top of the Nordstrom Rack price for this bag when I bought it (roughly 50% off original retail), may have contributed to this purchase, though I really do like the look and how unfussy it is to carry. 

Fashion - (TOTAL: $ 315.12)
  • Marc by Marc Jacobs "Too Hot to Handle" Hobo - $239.34* - (lower price, identical style with "Marc Jacobs" label at Hautelook and Gilt) - My current handbag collection, omitting purely utilitarian bags like my backpack, is here. Most of my bags are for work, and I had almost nothing for casual wear that could hold much more than say, my Coach City (cheapest used on eBay). I frequently use my large Longchamp Le Pliage totes for the weekend, but they're a fairly boring look. After I got my new job, I started looking at bags that might be more fun to carry with my casual outfits, and partially because of nostalgia, I looked specifically at MBMJ bags. (Nordstrom Rack has tons, both in store and online.) When I first ordered this, I was so sure I would return it, but the leather was nice and soft, and I really liked the idea of a slouchy hobo bag for casual use. It fits with my general preference for unfussy bags.
  • Uniqlo Rayon Key-Neck Sleeveless Blouse, pink - $19.90 - For months now, I've been in the market for machine-washable blouses or shells to go under suits. Most of my current items in that category are polyester tops from Loft, which I mostly purchased at deep discounts while I was a summer associate in 2014. They've served me well over the years, but, in my experience, various fabrics from Loft have an unnatural tendency to acquire mysterious stains that all of my usual laundry tactics (spot treating with The Laundress All Purpose Bleach Alternative and the Stain Solution before soaking in Stain Solution, a combination that has helped many white tops that started to turn gray and dingy over time) are entirely unable to lift. So my collection has dwindled. I've tried so many blouses from Uniqlo, focusing on their rayon items, but none worked until now. 
  • Uniqlo Rayon Key-Neck Sleeveless Blouse, forest green - $19.90 - Please note that these are rayon and poly blends. (I'm not sure if this was the case in previous years, but if not, the change is unfortunate.) The fabric may get wrinkly if not hung up. They're also fairly boxy, which I don't mind for work. I'm often a size S in Uniqlo sweaters, but for non-stretchy tops, a M is a better fit, and that's what I went with. I also ordered the Rayon Long-Sleeve button down blouse, but they were much looser and longer than expected, and it just wasn't the right look. 
  • H&M V-Neck Jersey Dress, red - $17.99 (on sale now) - I never got around to shopping for more linen dresses this summer, once work got busier and the season wore on. I'd cut a few summer dresses out of my wardrobe last year, and even with my once-weekly laundry schedule, I've often run out of casual summer dresses between laundry days. The easiest way to fill the niche seemed to be with one of those ubiquitous swing dresses (like from Loft, but so many places have them). Back when I was shopping in early August, it seemed like none of my usual retailers had one in a summer-friendly fabric like cotton, linen, or rayon (why would anyone ever want a summer dress in polyester? I'm looking at you, Old Navy, and many others). Now that I look again, I'm not sure how I searched, because it seems like many of Loft's swing dresses from this past summer were done in 95% rayon, 5% spandex. 
  • H&M V-Neck Jersey Dress, black - $17.99 (on sale now) - Regardless, in the moment, I ended up at H&M after other avenues failed. I like the v-neck and find it more flattering than the round necks that are more common with swing dresses, though the v-neck is a bit deep and makes the dress feel skimpier than most. Because I'm busty, the front hem does sit slightly higher on me than the back one, adding to the, er, sense of slightly greater skimpiness than with my other summer dresses. (The partial lining at the top, from the neckline down to around where a typical bra sits, is slightly odd, though not in a way that's generally visible when wearing the dress.) It's not the highest quality, and as with this silhouette in general, I don't see the shape being especially flattering on almost anyone, but it's comfortable. I really like wearing these to run errands on non-office days. I've already gotten a lot of use out of both, and I expect them to last at least another two seasons. 
*Includes sales tax. 

How are you doing with your shopping budget for the year, if you keep one? Have you had times in your life where a big transition, job-related or otherwise, required fairly large changes to your wardrobe? Were there any inaccessible items or brands "of your dreams" for you when you were young? Do you shop from those brands now?

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sunday Reading: On Data Breaches and Credit Reporting



John Oliver's very educational, pre-Equifax data breach segment about the American credit reporting system.

By now, if you're American, you're probably painfully aware of at least some of the messy facts and many remaining unknowns surrounding the recent data breach at Equifax, one of the three major companies responsible for recording individuals' credit histories in the United States. (The others are Experian and TransUnion.) If you're unfamiliar with the system, John Oliver's 2016 segment above offers an entertaining and accessible explanation. Heck, even if you are already familiar, I'd still recommend the clip, as it certainly taught me a few things I didn't know about the downsides of the system. As the clip progresses it's strongly implied that these companies are really very, shall we say, "amateur hour" in their handling of certain things, including by getting people with similar names mixed up or accidentally declaring someone dead. 

Most recently, and perhaps most catastrophically, Equifax suffered a security breach that compromised the personal information of an estimated 143 million individuals. I've read that this is roughly 44% of the U.S. population, which would pretty much mean that one has a rather close to 50-50 chance of being affected (by 44% do they mean of the adult population? regardless, the odds are really bad). It's unclear how much information was compromised, but the credit reporting agencies definitely have SSNs, address histories, essentially everything that's needed to open accounts in a person's name, which seems worse than just the loss of credit card information (as in the Target breach).  By the way, Equifax discovered the breach in late July, but did not inform the general public until early September. In the meantime, several Equifax executives sold some of their Equifax stock. 

To my knowledge, Equifax has not reliably confirmed who is affected, i.e. is it only people who had "hard" credit inquiries run on them in the last year, or something like that. They had a website for checking if one was specifically affected, but, at least at one point, it gave inconsistent results to people checking the same information multiple times. P.S., Equifax was originally charging fees for customers to use some of the tools (credit monitoring or a credit freeze) that could help protect those affected by the data breach. Oh and also, when that site for checking whether one was affected first opened, using it to sign up for certain protections also meant agreeing to a waiver limiting one's ability to participate in a hypothetical future lawsuit against Equifax. To be fair, Equifax has since publicly stated that the clause at issue will not actually preclude future legal action. But let's be real, has anything about this mess given you reason to trust this company? 

I have not, to my knowledge, been affected by previous high-profile data breaches (and there are many). With this one, given its size, I think it's safe to assume that I was affected, or have such a high likelihood of being affected, and that I must seriously consider preventative measures. At present, I'm not sure what I plan to do. I already conduct my own credit monitoring by logging in frequently to CreditKarma. While their information on your credit reports is not not quite as comprehensive as you'd get from running your own credit report, which Americans can do for free three times a year (once each from each of the big three), I've still found CreditKarma a reliable way to monitor my credit. Its reports have generally been consistent with the information I received when I formally ran my credit on rare occasions (no exact FICO score, but that might be an unrealistic expectation). As far as I can tell, the only other, stronger step to take is a credit freeze, which costs money, though not in certain states. (Even if public pressure has forced Equifax to waive fees for a time, one likely should initiate a freeze at all three agencies to be safe, so fees could apply elsewhere.) 

At this point, I'm dragging my feet on the credit freeze step because it sounds like a pain and a half. (I open new credit cards somewhat frequently to take advantage of new cash back or bonus travel points offers.) Still, I am somewhat likely to ultimately choose to take the step. One note from my research: Because a freeze requires a PIN number to un-freeze one's credit, one should sign up very carefully and make sure to record the number, which might, in the case of at least one agency, be delivered only over the phone.

Are you taking any steps to respond to the Equifax data breach? Have you previously been affected by one of the other major data breaches? How often do you check your credit reports? I only realized today that I'd never written about CreditKarma here before! It's been a constant, but less-used (compared to YNAB and Personal Capital), tool in my personal finance arsenal for years now, and they're fairly well-established. Totally not sponsored or anything, they don't offer referral or affiliate programs, and it wouldn't really make sense under their likely business model. (They promote credit cards and other financial services to users on their site, but I find that information easy to ignore if its unhelpful to me.)

Please note that, as with everything else I write here on this blog, nothing in this post should be construed as legal advice. I write about these topics purely from my personal perspective as a fellow consumer. If you're interested in any of the steps I've mentioned, I encourage additional research before taking the plunge. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

Biggest Purchase of 2017: Urgent Dental Care



Put another way, unless I suddenly turn around and do something completely ridiculous and out of character sometime in the next three months, I've now made my most expensive purchase of 2017. And it wasn't any fun, nor particularly voluntary. As a precaution, content warning on this post for those who are squeamish about dentistry. No gory details here, but some of my friends found even a bare-bones recounting of what happened rather icky.

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I'm probably clumsier than average because, about once a year, out of the blue, I'll trip and fall right in the middle of a city sidewalk. This time, instead of skinning my knee, the majority of the impact hit my upper lip and front teeth. The result was $2650 in urgent dental work to repair the damage, which affected two teeth. This was all pre-insurance, with an out of network dentist, so I paid up front and will be filing claims with my dental insurance.

The bill reflected a total of:
  • $250 - for x-rays;
  • $100 - for the initial exam and consultation, which included pushing a tooth that was knocked loose back into place;
  • $1200 - for the root canal on the broken tooth; and
  • $1100 - for the reconstruction of the broken tooth.
Dental insurance is not generous, so I can recoup at most 20% (for the root canal) to 40% (for reconstruction) per line item on the bill. There are probably additional policy terms that will decrease my reimbursement. I may eventually need another root canal, for the formerly loose tooth, but that remains to be seen. There may also be other, more expensive cosmetic work that I could need later to get closer to what my teeth looked like pre-accident. 

One lesson from all this: Thank goodness for emergency funds! I'd saved a good-sized one while at my previous firm, and managed not to touch it all year long despite the substantial pay cut I took for my clerkship. Then this happened. Womp womp. 

So there we have it, my most expensive purchase for 2017, particularly if we consider all of the financial consequences of my fall as one purchase, including the dental care and a few other related (but, thankfully, significantly less substantial) medical expenses. The exact total impact of the accident is still up in the air, but it's definitely already a fearsome number, even if all goes well on the insurance front. Alas!

As an aside, when I first read that Refinery29 article about several women's biggest purchases for 2016, I had found most of the examples difficult to relate to and inconsistent with my experience of my biggest purchases for each of the years since I first started law school. None of mine were designer items, despite my fondness for shiny, fancy things and my tendency to get attached to the "idea" of them. At the same time, I also knew, from personal experience, that judging others on big ticket purchases is unfair, as the circumstances and context surrounding each particular purchase are unique, and generally very personal. From an outside perspective, most of my biggest purchases could have been worthy of judgment or criticism.

While my biggest expense in past years was generally education-related, the full extent of each was often far greater than strictly "necessary". Each of them happened in a context that might make me seem frivolous (like when I bought a new MacBook the day before an exam when my old one died only a month after Applecare expired, and by the way, I was two months in arrears on my student housing rent because I was waiting on my law firm summer associate salary... I swear it wasn't as bad as it sounds, and that similar things happen to people much more frugal than I, but it was still... foolish). As for this year, when one really gets down to it, who else trips on a sidewalk and ends up with a bill for more than, say, the cost of a Burberry trench coat? That's a long way of saying I don't believe in judging big ticket purchases, and darn, I wish this hadn't happened.

What is, or will likely be, your biggest expense of 2017? Do you regret the purchase? Any thoughts on American dental insurance? Some of my friends have done the math and consider dental insurance not worth it. I don't agree, even if I have significantly worse than expected outcomes with my claims. (My employer-offered dental insurance has always been affordable, less than $15 in pre-tax deductions per paycheck.) 

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Minimalist(ish) Skincare Routine


I'm now in the sixth month of my experiment with dermatologist treatment. My doctor has tweaked my prescription routine a few times, and in early June, she suggested that I dramatically cut down on the number of non-prescription products in my routine. Being a long-time adherent of an extensive, ten-plus step "KBeauty" or otherwise East Asian market-inspired skincare routine, and having seen a lot of success with that, I was extremely apprehensive. Still, when I decided to commence this rather expensive experiment, I promised myself I would fully commit. Also, if I'm paying well for professional advice, it'd be a foolish thing not to listen to it! So for the last nearly two months, this has been the full extent of my skincare routine:

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1. Cleanse: I use Cerave Foaming Face Wash morning and night. It's an excellent, no-frills facial cleanser that's quite gentle on my sometimes-dry and sometimes-sensitive (thanks to prescription topical products for acne) skin. I've even converted K to using it, instead of the Purpose facial wash he used to use. On the rare days when I wore makeup, I'll soak a cotton pad with the Garnier Skinactive Micellar Water (it's basically as good as Bioderma) and use that to remove my makeup before washing with  Cerave.

2. Prescription Product: In the morning, I alternate between Acanya and a compounded topical spironolactone and clindamycin. In the evening, I use Retin-A Micro 0.1%. The dermatologist actually recommended that I apply the Retin-A Micro after moisturizing, but it balled up and wouldn't absorb into the skin that way, so I've switched to applying it before.  

3. Moisturize: I've always looked to very basic drugstore moisturizers. In the morning, I use Cerave Moisturizing Lotion and in the evening, I use Vanicream

4. Sunscreen (Daytime Only): At the moment, I use the Biore Aqua Rich Watery Essence, though I may end up needing to find a new one soon, as it was reformulated in early 2017. While I've seen mixed reviews about whether the new one is worse or better, it seems clear that the new formula is noticeably different (other blogs compare the old and new here and here). Most of the Amazon sellers have, as late as June of this year, still been shipping the old version, but at some point, they'll run out. I'm open to trying the new version at least once, so I'll keep ordering until I get the new formula, and then try it and see. 

As for how I like my new routine? When I posted in June, I had added the new presriptions and stopped using my CosRx BHA (cheapest on Amazon) and Timeless C + E Vitamin C serum, but was still using the other moisturizing products in my original routine, such as the Hada Labo moisturizing toner (cheapest on Amazon), Josie Maran argan oil light, and the CosRx Snail Mucin Power Essence (cheapest on Amazon). Removing those items was another big change. As with the last time, there are upsides and downsides to the new routine. As is usual for me, alas, perfect skin is still not within reach.

The upsides: Removing all of the other moisturizing products from my routine has definitely made the prescription products more effective. The healing time required for my blemishes and bumps (took several weeks before I started BHA, shortened down to five days to a week on BHA) has become even quicker, usually taking about three days now, for most. They also don't swell up as much or come to a head. The dark spots remaining after blemishes also seem to heal about as quickly as they do when I'm using a vitamin C serum. My skin generally looks fine and is not overly dry despite the minimal moisturizing steps.

The downsides: I still miss my over the counter BHA! Acne-wise, I get painful, inflamed spots significantly more often than when my old routine was at its most effective, about once a week as opposed to once every six. (Most of those bumps go away much more quickly now, and don't get to quite as icky an extent as on my old routine.) The overall appearance of my skin is also less nice, the tone's a bit less even, there's more redness, it looks a little dryer, and I don't have quite the same "glow" I often had with my old routine. Whereas I sometimes didn't think makeup (thanks to my rudimentary skills) improved my skin's appearance on good days on my old routine, I definitely benefit more obviously from makeup now. 

My new job comes with a new insurance plan that doesn't allow me to continue seeing my current dermatologist, so my experiment with dermatologist treatment will end soon. I'll stick to this minimalist skincare routine for a while longer, while I think about which steps I want to add back in. While I miss a lot of my old products, I'm also sure that I don't need every single step in my old routine, and that some of thse were just "fluff" that wasn't bringing much benefit. 

How many steps are in your skincare routine? Have you noticed big differences when you either significantly cut down or added to your routine? Readers made some great suggestions on my last skincare post, including cutting dairy products out of one's diet, which does make a big difference for my acne, but isn't enough to get me to "perfect skin" status. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Selling to ThredUp: An Update


I recently sent in another bag of clothes to ThredUp, and because their policies have changed since I first wrote about the experience in 2015, I thought it was high time for an update. Information on my most recent bag, including total payout, can be found here. (Previous bags in reverse chronological order from January of 2016 and earlier can be found hereherehere, and here.)

First, some context. If you're a longtime reader, you might not recognize the vast majority of the items, despite how faithfully I've been documenting my fashion purchases since January of 2015. The vast majority of what I sent in predated the start of my monthly budget posts, with only three of the items they accepted having been purchased since (a Loft sweater from last year, a pair of H&M shorts from 2015, and a J.Crew lace bridesmaid dress that was an off-budget purchase last year). Most of the items were, therefore, quite old. That I still had so much to send in from that long ago probably speaks to how difficult it can be to do a serious closet clean-out (and the sheer quantity of items I was buying before I started embracing minimalism and being more careful about shopping). I'd done several rounds of closet cleaning-out before I started this blog, did a bigger round of KonMari-style closet decluttering in early 2015 before sending a bunch of things to the now-defunct Twice and ThredUp, and have done several smaller rounds since. One round of KonMari method was enough for everything else I owned, but not for my closet.

Given the age of the items and that many had been worn more often than things I previously sent in, I wasn't expecting much. I was actually pleasantly surprised by the $22 payout, which would have been $29 without the new per-bag shipping and handling fee. I also have another $40 in possible consignment earnings that I could still receive. As far as I can tell, these are the most noticeable changes  to the ThredUp reselling process since 2015:

  • They now charge a $6.99 shipping and handling fee per bag. They'll deduct this from your payout, rather than charging it upfront, and will waive the fee if they don't accept enough items to cover it. 
  • Processing time takes longer now, approximately seven weeks. They received my bag on June 29th, and only got back to me about my payout last week. Total time between the date I shipped it out to the date I'll actually receive my payout (via Paypal), instead of as store credit, is about ten weeks. 
  • They're more likely to put items on consignment now. That may not be a good thing for sellers of J.Crew or Ann Taylor-type items as a general rule, as the payout for consignment items is, of course, not guaranteed, and the per item payout isn't even much higher than the upfront payouts. Their policy on which items get upfront payouts and which will be put on consignment is not terribly concrete, with items that are "on-trend, in-season, in great condition, and likely to sell quickly" getting upfront payments and items that are "in great condition that may take longer to sell because of the unique nature of the items" going on consignment. Whatever process they use to determine what items go in which box, it seems generally accurate, as most of my "upfront payout" items throughout the years sold quickly. 
  • Selection process and pricing continue to seem a bit arbitrary. While I was generally very happy with my payout, given that many of my items were well-loved and on the older side, as with my previous experiences, I was somewhat surprised by some of what they took and what they rejected. I sent in a rarely worn J.Crew silk blouse (this style, different color), for instance, which they didn't accept, as well as some worn-once Ann Taylor pencil skirts. Those items were, likely, generally in nicer shape or otherwise nicer than many of the things they have accepted from me over the years.

Selling to ThredUp does, naturally, result in significantly lower returns than more high-effort ways of selling, such as Poshmark or Ebay. I definitely wouldn't send ThredUp anything particularly high value, as they can be quite stingy or arbitrary in their acceptance of individual items here and there. For my needs and work schedule, however, and given the fact that I generally don't have particularly "special" items to sell, just fairly generic items from the general price range between H&M and J.Crew, I've been very satisfied.