Wednesday, October 19, 2016

First Steps: A Personal Finance Toolkit

Today's post is about some of the first steps one should take in one's personal finance journey: The selection of bank accounts and investment products that avoid unnecessary fees and maximize possible gains. I will also write a separate post later with some bonus tips about useful software tools and the credit cards I like. Although the month to month benefits of some of these choices are extremely small, they add up over time. These are all very basic suggestions, but important ones. Note that all of these suggestions are specific to USA residents. No referral or affiliate links here. None of my accounts or cards offer referral programs particularly amenable to sharing on a blog. 

Step 1: Get a checking account that is as close to no-fee as possible. 
  • Above all else, one should not be paying a monthly account maintenance fee, whether because the account is no fee or because one consistently stays above the minimum balance. 
  • Ideally, one should also never need to pay ATM fees either, at least in the US, whether because the bank has ATMs everywhere you need or because the bank refunds ATM fees. 
  • One might prefer a bank with easily accessible physical branches. I only end up needing to talk to a bank teller maybe once a year, at most, for something that can't be done online or at the ATM. 
  • As a traveler who likes using ATMs to get cash abroad, which has the advantage of allowing access to foreign currency at the prevailing exchange rate and without the markup one gets at a currency exchange, I require at least one account with no foreign ATM fees and no foreign exchange fees. (Bank of America started charging a 3% exchange fee on all foreign currency withdrawals in the last three years, which is awful.) 
  • Being interest-bearing could be a plus, though I prefer funneling savings into a higher interest savings account straightaway, so checking account interest rate is a negligible factor.
Many say that local credit unions are a good option for low or no-fee accounts, though that's never been a real option for me because I've moved so frequently. Many big national banks, certainly Bank of America ("BOA"), are terrible for fees, though I've stuck with BOA as my primary checking account nonetheless. (I have an "online only" type account that is no-fee if I don't go to a teller for any services that can be done at an ATM. They offered this in 2010 when I called to complain about being charged a monthly fee after I was no longer eligible for the free student account.) I don't know if my account type is available to new customers. (BOA has always been good about refunding any unreasonable fees that I called to get rid of, or else I'd have gone to another bank.) P.S. if your bank (or any other company) ever attempts to charge you a fee that is a complete surprise to you and/or that you didn't agree to, it can't hurt to call and try to get it reversed (politely)! It's always worked for me, even at the very unpopular with most other customers BoA.

As for concrete recommendations, I also use the Schwab High Yield Investor Checking Account, which has no monthly maintenance fee, no minimum balance, refunds ATM fees from anywhere in the world, has no foreign exchange fee, and is interest-bearing, with a variable interest rate currently at 0.06% APY. It requires opening a Schwab brokerage account, but that has no minimum balance and you don't need to use it. I've also seen recommendations for Capital One's 360 Checking Account, which offers similar no-fee terms. 

Step 2: Get a high-yield savings account (with no fees). 

As with checking accounts, one's savings accounts should also be fee-free. While interest rates for savings accounts will never be especially high, there's no reason not to maximize the interest one gets, especially when one makes the (very sensible) decision to keep an emergency fund with a few month's living expenses in savings. Many of the highest interest savings accounts available to the average USA-based customer are online-only. I use Ally, which I've been perfectly happy with (1.00% APY). The next most frequently recommended source of high-interest savings accounts is Barclays, which offers a 1.00% APY savings account as well as an up to 1.05% APY "Dream" Account that limits deposits to $1,000 a month and requires continuous deposits on an at least a monthly basis and no withdrawals (each for at least six continuous months) to reach 1.05% APY. 

Step 3: Make sure your retirement accounts are invested in low-fee investment products (likely with an emphasis on passively managed index funds if you, like me, are a cautious, relatively risk-averse investor). 

John Oliver explains the problem with high-fee investment products better than I ever could in this clip. Maximizing one's investment gains, especially for long-term investment goals like retirement, requires looking for the lowest-fee funds or products. Vanguard is typically a market leader when it comes to offering the lowest fees for many types of funds, though some companies, such as Fidelity may be competitive with them. Sadly, many company-sponsored retirement plans, such as the 401(k) at my previous firm, just aren't that great. Mine is okay, to be fair, offering a range of funds including a few Vanguard funds, but not the ones I wanted. There is, at least, a reasonably low-fee S&P 500 Index Fund in my 401(k) plan, which is what I'm invested in. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

On Sweaters, Being Bad at Minimalism, Etc.

It's no secret that I've always been more than a little ambivalent about whether the conventional wisdom regarding the precipitous decline of clothing quality in recent years is truth rather than canard, at least compared to many other bloggers in the "minimalism" or, put perhaps a bit less generously, the "buy fewer, but much nicer things" genre. Not to say that all or even most minimalist blogs are the latter (and certainly none of the ones I link or read, they're all great!), but I've always been fairly upfront about how I was inspired to begin my "almost-minimalist" blog because I wanted to buy some nice (and expensive) things in a way that wasn't entirely financially irresponsible. Assembled Hazardly puts this general thought much more eloquently than I can. When one has a fondness for shiny, pretty things, it can be difficult to disentangle a very consumerist desire to buy into "minimalism, the trendy aesthetic" from the laudable "minimalism, the ecologically conscious philosophy." Maybe I'm projecting, but that has been my lived experience.

Note: This post contains affiliate links that could result in a few cents commission for me if you click. Thank you for your support! I also do not recommend purchasing some of the items, which I link for illustrative purposes only. All the sweaters in the Shopstyle widget below are items I do recommend, to at least some extent, as described below.

Nonetheless, there is one category of clothing for which I'm increasingly convinced that fast fashion just won't cut it, if the goal is to get more than a season of wear out of each item: wool sweaters. There's no two ways around it, my record with attempting to pick durable 100% wool sweaters is worse than M. Night Shyamalan's movie-making record (during the period between Lady in the Water and Avatar: The Last Airbender, to be extremely precise). J.Crew merino wool Tippi cardigans (similar) circa December 2013 shrank basically upon first contact with cold water, even when handwashed; the 2014 version of Uniqlo merino wool cardigans that were fine for a few years, when previously purchased in 2008, soon developed mysterious holes that made me suspect moths in my closet despite only occasional gentle wear; and two January 2015 Madewell wool sweaters were somehow getting lumpy and dramatically pilled weeks into the first season of wear. While the Madewell merino wool sweater I bought last year is still fine, one understands why I live in fear of what it would look like if ever subjected to anything but the gentlest hand-washing. That's all of the 100% wool sweaters I've purchased since 2009. Of course, with my experience with wool being so troubled, I may not be that inclined to buying such sweaters ever again (especially when I do have a robust collection of sweaters in my closet, mostly in other materials).

Except that I also am perfectly fine with fast fashion for other sweaters. I have much better luck with even the cheapest fast fashion cashmere, for instance, i.e. H&M Premium Quality (similar) and Uniqlo, all of which is still in fine condition after a season of heavy wear and occasional machine washing in cold water with a mesh bag and drying flat, with no out of the ordinary pilling. Last year was, however, also my first time buying cashmere, so I can't speak to anything's longevity in this category.

Additionally, in the last year or so, I've come to appreciate the utility of a nice synthetic-blended machine-washable sweater to wear to work. Mine are all from Loft, and I have something like this open cardigan and these other sweaters in my regular office-wear rotation throughout the cold weather months. I do still prefer natural fibers for sweaters I wear on the weekends, but when it comes to work clothes, those synthetic-blend, machine-washable ones are some of my favorites. Nothing beats how low-maintenance they are, with just being able to throw it all in the wash and line dry without worrying about whether it will get misshapen. Of course, in any category, I encourage buying only what you need and will really use, with the intention of using it until it can be worn no more.

Am I just incredibly unlucky with picking out sweaters, or are all pure wool ones that fussy? Why do they keep letting M. Night Shyamalan make movies? Any thoughts on the marketing of "minimalism, the trendy aesthetic"? This particular discussion on r/femalefashionadvice touched indirectly on the latter idea, and I agree with the general conclusion that there are certain marketing buzzwords designed specifically to capture customers who fancy themselves "almost-minimalist," like myself.

Monday, October 10, 2016

July and August Shopping Reflections

This post is quite late, to say the least, but better late than never! I did an average amount of shopping in July and August, a period when I was fully swept up into my transition to my new job and commute, hence my dropping off the face of the Earth for a while, blogging-wise. Almost everything was a planned purchase, with the exception of the Everlane Scoop-Neck Linen Tee, which was inspired by a surprise $25 off coupon from Everlane. 

As I mentioned in my previous post, I've gotten into more of a habit of online window-shopping because my brain gets so worn out from my early morning wake-up calls and long train rides. I really should be using that time to read, though I'm having another one of those periods where it's been hard to find a book that feels worth reading. (I'm also still upset that the software on my Kindle Paperwhite doesn't keep track of my "last page read" in non-Amazon ebooks. My usual habit is to jump frequently between two to four different books at once, and this glitch or possibly intentional change seriously hampers that, probably enough that I should return it for another non-Amazon e-reader.)

July Fashion - (TOTAL: $158.90)
  • Free People Seamless Slip - $ 39.00 - I also tried another style, which was a little too low-cut and too expensive, given that I mainly needed a slip for only one dress in my closet, a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress (similar, but I got mine at The RealReal). The Free People Slip is stretchy, which results in a comfortable but fairly close fit from the chest all the way down to where it cuts off at mid-thigh. 
  • Cole Haan Tali Luxe Wedge - $119.90 - I mentioned this pair of shoes, and how much I loved the idea of subdued animal-print patent leather shoes, back in my Nordstrom Anniversary Sale post. These are not as striking as the pair I saw one of my very stylish firm colleagues wearing: They actually look more like they're solid dark-brown in some lighting, but I'd like to think that this trait is good for their versatility. Although I haven't had a chance to wear them out yet, I expect these to be as comfortable as my last pair of Cole Haan wedges, which are my current office shoe of choice. 

August Fashion - (TOTAL: $106.95)
  • Everlane Scoop-Neck Linen Tee, white - $14.95 - Full price on this is $35, but I had received a $25 off coupon from Everlane. I did, however, have to pay shipping. I'm really picky when it comes to white tees, but the relaxed fit of this one is nice, and I find the scoop neck flattering. (I don't like the Everlane Cotton V-Neck in white because the fitted look plus color don't work for my chest, though I like that design in black.) The full price may be a little high for this item, but this was a good value for me with the coupon. 
  • Porcelain and Stone Buoy Charm - $92.00 - It took me quite a while to decide which Porcelain and Stone necklace I wanted! As I mentioned a few months ago, Porcelain and Stone products are handmade in Boston by a woman who owns her own business and studio. She makes so many pretty pieces, including this new arc-shaped necklace and these bar-shaped necklaces, which I previously ordered but returned because it didn't end up being the right look for me. Moorea Seal also stocks some of her designs.

Off-Budget Fashion - (TOTAL: ~$290.00)
  • J.Crew Factory Suit in Navy (blazer, skirt) - ~$145.00 -  I wrote up a quick review of these wool-blend J.Crew Factory Suits here. I've worn these a few times, and I can affirm my opinion that these are a very solid choice when it comes to a classic, conservative suit at a new-graduate and graduate student-friendly price point. All my other suits are synthetic fiber blends, and I'm finding that this wool-blend fabric is nicer to wear than my other suits, even if this must be one of the cheapest wool-blends out there: The fabric still breathes better than my other suits, making it more comfortable, especially in warm temperatures or stuffy indoor settings, even if the lining is all-synthetic. I also get fewer mysterious blotches and spots on the suit, which is a regular problem with my synthetic fabric suits. Note that J.Crew Factory pricing varies wildly from day to day, depending on what promotion they are running.
  • J.Crew Factory Suit in Gray (blazer, skirt) - ~$145.00 - As someone whose business formal wardrobe formerly consisted entirely of black suits, I'm still not too used to wearing a light-colored one. Among other things, I don't quite know what color tights to wear with this suit in the winter! (Black tights and black shoes are probably the best choice, as almost any other color of tights would be too out-there for conservative business formal, but I don't think the gray suit plus black tights combination is the most conservative look possible, which means I'd stay away from this suit for a wintertime court appearance.) 

July and August Beauty - (TOTAL: $43.39)
  • Garnier Skinactive Micellar Cleansing Water - $6.99 - I'm a relatively recent convert to using micellar water after I bought a small bottle of the world-famous Bioderma Sensibio while I was in Taiwan. The Bioderma stuff is almost universally acknowledged as being one of the things to buy, beauty and skincare-wise, in France, but it can be significantly marked-up and difficult to find in the United States. For instance, there's often some basis for suspecting that many Amazon sellers of this product offer counterfeits. (My link goes to Birchbox, which I assume is a trustworthy source, and their prices seem extremely fair for a US-based source.) I've also tried a travel-sized bottle of the Koh Gen Do Cleansing Spa Water, which is also too expensive to become a regular part of my routine. The Simple Micellar Cleansing Water is a decent drugstore-priced micellar water, but I've found that it cleans makeup significantly less well than the Bioderma or the Koh Gen Do. I haven't actually tried the Garnier yet, but I'll report back when I do. I use micellar water either as a makeup-removing step before washing my face or, on days when I don't wear makeup, as an alternative to washing my face. (I use enough to dampen a cotton round and then wipe my face.) 
  • CosRx Galactomyces 95 Whitening Power Essence - $17.95 - This is my second bottle, and it's replacing the Missha Time Revolution First Treatment Essence in my routine. I do prefer the thinner texture of the Missa, as that one has the texture of water, which I find absorbs better and is better-suited to being part of an extensive routine. The CosRx essence is a thicker liquid, resembling the Hada Labo lotion (a moisturizing toner). I can't think of an equivalent American drugstore product to compare it to, as I don't think that texture is common here. However, the CosRx is much more affordable and about as effective, so that decides the question. 
  • Nature Republic Calendula Sun Liquid - $18.45 - I purchased this in-person at one of Nature Republic's NYC-area shops. It's a little expensive, and it can even be found a little cheaper at the Amazon link I provided. It's a good sunscreen, though I'm not sure if I prefer it to the more affordable Biore one I usually use. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

September Shopping Reflections

Although this isn't too apparent from this month's shopping, my new commute really brings out the urge to online shop. My train ride is an hour and a half each way, and while I am able to get online and work on the train, my brain is often a bit tuckered out and it's so much easier to browse online shops for entertainment instead. We'll see whether it results in more actual shopping, as I am also more aggressive about returning things that don't work, given my reduced salary.

Note: This post contains affiliate links that may result in a few cents commission for me if you click. Thank you for your support!

I have a few things on my radar for the upcoming fall/winter period. I've had my knee-high riding boots (the Madewell Archive boot in black, not yet available this year) for almost five years now, and I'm in the market for something similar, but with a zipper and a sleeker look. With my frequent trips to the cobbler for resoling and, last trip around, weatherproofing, my old boots are actually in fine condition, but I just don't wear them much because of the extra minute it takes to pull them on. I'm trying out the Tory Burch Jolie boots (thanks to a recently ended 30% off promotion), and we'll see if I like them. Although I bought plenty of new coats last season, I also find myself tempted to add another, in a design similar to the frequently recommended blogger favorite J.Crew Lady Day Coat, but I don't like the colors on offer this year. My ideal color is probably a bright cobalt blue or a hunter green, and we'll see if this idea pans out. This Kristen Blake coat in cobalt is a possibility. 

No beauty or skincare purchases for this month, though a few were made in July and August. Quite a few are upcoming as I think about whether to switch from the Paula's Choice 2% BHA liquid to CosRx's BHA and AHA offerings. The Paula's Choice was and is a game-changer for my resistant-to-prescriptions hormonal acne, but the CosRx is cheaper and a lot of people in r/AsianBeauty insist its better, so maybe it's worth a try. I can always go back to the Paula's Choice BHA if this experiment doesn't pan out.

Fashion - (TOTAL: $104.92)
  • Ann Taylor High-Low Cotton Cardigan - $14.99 - I needed more summer-weight cardigans, in colors that were not black or navy. This one is a little cropped, and it can look a little odd if worn with an untucked top, though that's not an issue with wearing it to work, with dresses or tucked-in tops.
  • Ann Taylor Linen-Blend Cardigan - $11.93 - This one is now fully sold out. This was another summer-weight cardigan, one with a more relaxed look and fit, which I like. 
  • Brass Clothing A-Line Dress - $78.00 - Brass is a fairly new woman-owned company with a commitment to ethical manufacturing (with factories based in China). I was mainly interested in trying out Brass's ponte pants, as I've vaguely been in the market for super-skinny-fit work-appropriate pants in black, but the dress ended up being the keeper. (The pants were, unfortunately, too much like leggings on me to fit the bill, even in my fairly permissive business casual workplaces.) This dress is also made of a ponte material, which feels nice on, but is a bit too heavy for NYC summers. I won't be able to wear this out until the weather cools down a bit more. I'll likely post a review with photos of this soon. Note that only the white color is lined. 

Beauty - (TOTAL: $0.00)

As always, I'm linking up with Franish and the Budgeting Bloggers this month. I'll be back soon with my very belated shopping reflections post for July and August!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Recommendation: J.Crew Factory Wool-Blend Suit

Long time no blog! The transition to my new job and my rather substantial new commute ended up being more intense than expected, and I’m only gradually starting to feel more settled in. The job itself is fantastic, though, and my first few weeks only confirm my previous sense that a judicial clerkship is basically one of the best legal jobs ever, at least for those with an interest in litigation and in law as an academic subject.

Note: This post contains affiliate links that may result in a few cents commission for me if you click. Thank you for your support!

One incidental effect of my new job is that I have far more business formal days than I used to. To that end, I recently purchased two wool-blend suits from J.Crew Factory, one in gray and one in navy blue. In terms of my super-conservative preferences for interview suits, these are the perfect design (two-buttons jackets, classic, the right colors, no trendy details). The material and quality are, as expected from the price, not perfect. Mine had a bit of loose thread in the stitching of one jacket pocket of and a tiny flaw in the fabric near the waistband of one skirt. I do, however, think the material is “good enough," as it feels similar to Ann Taylor’s wool-blend fabrics and the fabric is certainly more substantial than that of the paper-thin Super 120s J.Crew wool pants I tried last winter. I paid roughly $95 for each jacket and $50 for each skirt, for a total price of roughly $145 for each suit, making this an excellent value

This wasn’t how I planned to allocate the funds I’ve been setting aside for an “off-budget” suit purchase this year: I was supposed to buy one nicer one instead. A few factors went into this. First and foremost is the big pay cut associated with my new position. While I have a few month’s expenses saved, and likely will dip into those savings for not-strictly-emergency reasons at least a few times this year, doing so for any clothing purchase, even one as “necessary” as a suit, just doesn’t feel right. I had been saving separately for planned off-budget purchases, but didn’t have enough for, say, a Brooks Brothers suit. Second, I'm picky about suit design. Only the most conservative and “boring” of skirt suits will do, with two buttons on the jacket, no more, no less. This excludes offerings from a surprisingly large number of brands at the moment, including Theory and J.Crew. Third, given that I may well have needed more than one new suit, the price was right at J.Crew Factory. Ann Taylor’s suits fit me well, for instance, but their newer wool-blend offerings were not being included in some of the more recent rounds of additional percent off non-sale merchandise discounts, so those were off the table. (Note, however, that Ann Taylor is now having a 30% off full-price suit promotion.)

No photos for these, as they fit exactly as expected and are, therefore, boring. Fit-wise, I’m 5’3’’ and roughly 36’’-26’’-37’’ with shorter legs (petite pants necessary, but I prefer regular skirts so they hit at my knee) and shoulders and torso that generally fit regular tops and dresses better (but petite blazers are often a better fit because of sleeve length). I generally find J.Crew Factory sizing similar to Ann Taylor and regular J.Crew for tops, but a noticeable margin bigger for skirts. With fitted work dresses, I’ve been finding that J.Crew Factory runs consistently smaller than Ann Taylor in the bust, though that’s not especially relevant here. I took a petite 8 for the jacket and a regular 4 for the skirt, which is still a little big, but I find “just-right” pencil skirt fits a little uncomfortable sometimes if I eat a larger lunch or drink a lot of water. The stock photos for the skirt are misleading and make the skirt look longer than it is. It looks like they may have pinned the skirts in the back to make the waist seem smaller in the photos. 

As the J.Crew Factory suits are one of the better classic and conservative suit designs at a graduate student and new graduate price point that seen in years of being in that market, I really wanted to share. (Single button jackets have been standard for too long, in my view.) Be cautious of the pricing and wait for the right sale, though! Has anyone else noticed how often and dramatically the J.Crew Factory base prices change? When I ordered my suits weeks ago, they were $150 total at the J.Crew Factory price with no additional discount code needed, but two days ago, the base prices was $259 total, and $181 with a 30% off flash sale code. Such fluctuations!