Monday, January 22, 2018

2018: No Longer Coasting

via Pinterest

Working hard to accomplish challenging goals isn't something that comes naturally to me. As a child, I was a "smart slacker" - which is definitely not "smart". Many things came easily, particularly standardized test scores. Plenty of things I valued did not, however, come so easily, including my overall academic performance, which often lagged behind my abilities. I was, at least, capable of learning, to see the writing on the wall when I was letting complacency get the best of me, and to sit down and work hard to reverse that. Except that I didn't learn that much, because I repeated this pattern in both college and high school. (I didn't repeat it in law school because first-year grades are of pivotal importance, for biglaw especially. One hopes to be recruited for a post-graduation job the summer before 2L year. Failure could be catastrophic.) All of which is a long way of saying, I have a history of "coasting", trying to take it easy or goof off, when I think I can get away with it. 

Until recently, I didn't think about this much in context of my personal goals, outside of school. I was great with my 2016 New Years' resolutions, for instance, though I picked them specifically because they were manageable. My concrete plans for my money were things I knew, from K's recent experience, to be realistic. My workout scheduling plans were less ambitious than I'd accomplished at other stages in my life, albeit less busy ones than when I was in biglaw. I saw them as "baby steps" to help me adapt to working life. 

For 2017 though, the less said about my resolutions, the better. I'd gone around commenting on other people's 2018 New Years' goals entries, earnestly explaining that although I did a good job, I still felt dissatisfied, and so I needed to overhaul my approach. Only the latter part of that was true. I didn't actually remember any of my broader, more thematic ideas for 2017, and I absolutely didn't remember the suggested applications for those broader goals. If I didn't even remember the goals, I obviously wasn't accomplishing them!

Regardless, throughout 2017, I often felt that I was "coasting", taking it easier than I wanted, or was capable of, like I wasn't challenging myself, and wasn't growing. I was satisfied with what I accomplished at the office, always dealing with new projects, but outside of that, I felt a bit stagnant. The most concrete example was in the physical fitness area. I generally worked out three to four times a week, often with fairly long cardio workouts, but that is often not the most efficient approach. And so, as my body changed (perhaps due to my age, I'll be 30 this year), and as I struggled with my "supercommute" (which required moving my natural sleep schedule up by about two hours), things... weren't great. I sized myself out of some clothes, among other things. I often felt sluggish, like I wasn't taking the best care of myself. 

All of that was a really, really long way of saying that I'm changing my approach to long-term goals this year. I need a longer list of very concrete goals, with more frequent check-ins, and some amount of flexibility, if an initial idea isn't working as well as I thought. So they're not just "2018 goals" or resolutions anymore, as I'll be working through different goals by the week, or by the month. I don't, therefore, currently have a full list of the things that I want to accomplish this year, and the list is subject to change at any time, but here are some of the things I'm working towards in 2018:
  • Starting now, rededicate myself to more conscious budgeting, likely using the "You Need a Budget" or "YNAB" method. Despite tracking every transaction for years now, I still felt like I wasn't being very conscious about my budgeting. I'd lose track of transactions, and had discrepancies of up to $100 in some accounts, due to my own accounting errors. I also wasn't following the "rules" of YNAB, as I entered my income at the start of every month and budgeted right away, rather than waiting for my paychecks. This violates Rule One, "give every dollar (that you actually have) a job" and Rule Four, "live on last month's income," a built in one month emergency fund or "buffer". Despite my efforts, I didn't feel in control of my budget. I've started following the YNAB rules, and will reevaluate if that isn't enough. 
  • By the end of January, refinance my student loans. This is a very obvious way to save money, for anyone with a substantial student loan balance.  When pooled together, my law school loans had an interest rate of approximately 7%. Refinancing tends to result in a fixed interest rate of 2.5% to 4.0%, depending on the company and the repayment term, or slightly lower variable rates. I couldn't refinance when I first graduated, as I needed federal income-based repayment while I was clerking. I've submitted my paperwork, so I'm all set. 
  • By February or March, start a workout routine that pushes me constantly. I've started by doing shorter cardio workouts, followed by a pilates session, currently one of Blogilates's/Cassey Ho's earlier beginner videos. (At this stage, because it's been so long since I've done pilates, getting through that is a challenge!) I'll likely mix in other things soon, follow some of the tips you've been kind enough to give me over the years, including by trying Fitness Blender videos. I might eventually hire a personal trainer for a few sessions. (I've proven time and time again that I'm terrible about attending classes, even expensive ones I prepaid for, so that method of adding to my workout routine is likely not on my agenda.) 
  • Identify and take steps towards being low-waste. This is something I move very slowly on, but I started late last year by stopping my use of disposable paper and plastic cups at the office. Planned next steps include using (a) wax food wraps instead of saran wrap and (b) washable, reusable cotton rounds for face cleansing. I'll be on the lookout for other things I can do. 
  • Keep on keeping on at work. I've always worked very hard to ensure that the bad habit of trying to coast doesn't sneak into my professional life. I put a lot into being a good junior attorney, and I'll continue to do so. 

What are your goals for 2018? Anyone else relate to the "smart slacker" thing? It was a common lament among my high school and college peers. We went to good, somewhat competitive public high schools, but weren't really challenged by the coursework, so we got used to relatively low effort for good results. College then proved to be a different animal, where putting in diligent hard work was a necessary component of the success we wanted. Learning how to focus wasn't always easy! There was much trial and error. 

Friday, January 19, 2018

Friday Link List: On Inclusiveness and Personal Finance Blogs

Though I prefer cold weather to hot, I'm starting to miss summer. This is a photo from somewhere in SoHo back when the weather was warmer. 

2018's off to a busy start so far, both at the office and otherwise! Lately, however, I've managed to blog more consistently than I typically do at other times in my life when work gets this busy. It's likely because I'm having a phase where I've been treating my writing here as more of a "job", albeit a fun one that I enjoy. At least two times a week, I try to have a serious writing session after I get home from the office, even if it's late. I feel like this pace of writing isn't as good at getting me to work on my more reflective, substantive entries, though. I might be better off scaling back a bit. 

1. // I've been exploring personal finance blogs more, and trying to be more open-minded in reading that genre. (I find most money blogs, outside of the ones I link, boring.) I've found a few more good ones to read, which I'm excited about. I wanted to highlight two entries that challenge some of the more unfortunate, discriminatory, and otherwise problematic tendencies behind some personal finance and financial independence discourse. Stacking Pennies talks about the "FIRE" (financial independence, retire early) community specifically, while Bitches Get Riches talks about the personal finance community more broadly, though because the "FIRE" people are generally the most extreme, it ends up being a lot about "FIRE" anyway. 

I don't have too much to say for now, except that I think these are important and necessary conversations. My thoughts on the subject are, as with my opinions on many things, complicated. As to possible financial independence for myself, there's no way I could work on "FIRE" because I have no inclination to do the math and projections required to identify the total amount I'd need to save to  live indefinitely on investment returns. (Both K and I also have very likely future financial obligations to our extended families and parents, beyond what obligations we'd have to our future children, which is another wrinkle that makes a "FIRE" number impossible to identify.) Without a "FIRE" number, I'm not, by definition, working on "FIRE", though I still find some of the ideas, the goal of a high savings rate, in particular, and an appreciation of how money is useful primarily because it can buy more freedom and free time, to be useful. 

I must also take a moment to commend the person from the Bitches Get Riches duo who replied so gracefully to a particularly incoherent and rambly troll. I'd struggle to react so calmly. 

2. // Pret a Porter P's post on her "Five Piece French Wardrobe" shopping year was a good read. I've always thought this approach was a particularly good way to balance a fondness for nice things with an interest in minimalism and in consuming less. I've never really been able to adhere to it myself because I get distracted too easily, though when I use the guidelines as a way of planning out some of my shopping, the resulting purchases tend to work well. (Daarboven is a longtime adherent to that approach, and also a highly recommended blog.) 

3. // The Fashion Law did an interesting piece on some of the reasons why the subscription box model works. As you might remember, I'm highly skeptical of subscription-type shopping services, but there's no denying that it's very successful for many companies. Though some of those companies may well derive some revenue from making it extremely difficult for customers to cancel.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Money Life Lately: Dental Work and an Actively Managed 401(k)

Tory Burch Georgia Card Case (affiliate link) - One of many knockoffs of that Saint Laurent Fragments Card Case (affiliate link) I've sort of been coveting, and I think the best-looking one by far. For the most part though, the knockoffs just make the original look much better.

Today's post is about a few small money-related details in my life from recent weeks. It's a bit of a boring post, though I think, after the initial learning and planning period, a lot of things about day to day personal finance management are rather dull. It's all just a matter of staying the course!

On Dental Bills

After my accident last year, the cause of a set of dental bills that were, collectively, my most expensive purchase of 2017, I'd set aside another $2000 for follow-up dental work. When my new  insurance coverage was activated a few weeks into my new job, I found a dentist to consult on what the next steps would be. As it turns out, I don't actually need a crown, post-root canal, due to the location of the injured tooth, and the previous work. The only bad news is that I need yet another root canal for another tooth that was affected by the accident. I'll be able to get this done in-network though, so I'm fairly certain it won't cost as much. 

I'll confess, because I'm a giant baby about going to the dentist, and because my root canal last year was done by a wonderful out-of-network endodontist with a very gentle hand, I have some fear of the unknown associated with going to a new dentist for my next one, I had even thought about putting about $1500 of what I'd previously budgeted for the crown into paying that out-of-network endodontist to do my next root canal. I decided against it, though, because that seemed a little irrational. 

On 401(k) Plans

This may be #smallcompanyproblems, or it may just be something that's unique to my workplace, but there's only one option for my current 401(k) plan, an actively managed fund holding primarily stocks for a range of large US companies, spread across most of the industries that are represented in, say, your typical S&P 500 index fund. This is not the way I'd choose to invest, but the tax savings are still worth my maxing out my 401(k), so that's what I'll be doing.

While I don't think I fully understand the fund's strategy, it doesn't look like something that will diverge from the market too, too dramatically, as best I can tell. Or at least, that's what I tell myself so that I can feel a little better about the situation!

Hopefully no one has any root canal horror stories to tell me, because that could make me change my mind about not going back to the known quantity of my wonderful (but expensive) previous endodontist, who doesn't take most dental insurance. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

Friday Link List

A photo from my New Years' weekend. K's mom was kind enough to prepare hot pot, using broth intended for curry laksa noodles. It's similar to the curry broth at Hometown Hotpot in Chinatown.

I hope that everyone is having a good start to 2018! I'm in the process of writing a post about my goals for the year, outside of the shopping budget context, though it's slow going. I found, in 2017, that my approach to New Year's resolutions - having several broad thematic goals, with a few suggested ways to carry them out - just didn't work. 

I had commented on several other blogs, in their posts about New Year's goals, saying that while I had fulfilled my 2017 New Year's resolutions, by sticking to, say, a roughly three times a week gym habit, I still felt dissatisfied. In that context, for instance, I felt I wasn't challenging myself with my workouts or  improving my physical fitness level, that I was "coasting", just checking the boxes without accomplishing much. As it turns out, the first part of that was a lie. In actuality, I was remembering 2016's more conservative and generally more concrete resolutions, not the broader, more thematic resolutions I actually set for 2017, which I had forgotten entirely. Oops! I also didn't remember most of the concrete applications that I proposed for each of my broad 2017 resolutions. The only thing I truly accomplished from the 2017 list was hitting the ground running at my new job, as I've been working hard. 

1. // This is an interesting profile of one of the federal judges based in the California Bay Area, who, due to his location and the operation of the local court rules, see Rule 3-2, naturally gets a high number of important technology cases. The article's probably made more interesting because it's rare for sitting judges to agree to be profiled and to speak at length with a journalist. 

2. // I shared a long-ago take on the #metoo themes a while back, something that was essentially about #metoo before it was known by that name, and today I thought I'd point out this more recent take by Rebecca Traister, on the complexity of the Post-Weinstein Reckoning, given just how pervasive the problems are. I really relate to it. 

3. // This kind of shopping-related discussion never gets very far because all we have to work with is, in the end, just our personal anecdotes as individual customers, but there was a discussion on r/femalefashionadvice about quality differences between the men's and women's lines at, say, J.Crew. I don't think this discussion gets much further than any other past iteration, and I think a lot of people who read here already know it might be fruitful to look to the men's section for sweaters or looser-fit button-down shirts for more casual wear. Still, I always hope the discussion will get further. 

4. // A few interesting blog links I recommend: Archana's 100 Notes on Style & Blogging is packed with an incredible amount of food for thought; Capsule Closet is a blog I've been following for a while, but keep neglecting to add to my blogroll; and there's a bit more discussion on anonymity and blogging over on Michelle's blog.

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5. // A quick update on my search for new jeans: It's very likely that I'll stick to Uniqlo or Gap this time around, thank you again for all of the comments and suggestions on my post! My body shape has changed a bit in the last year, in part because it's starting to handle unhealthy eating habits (brought about by stress and long hours at work) differently than it used to (maybe because I'm less than a year shy of 30), so I'm not ready to put down a lot of money on a pair of jeans right now. I'm hoping things will stabilize a bit later on, as I'm in the process of implementing some fitness and eating habits-related goals.

Unfortunately, after an in-person trip to Uniqlo, I don't like their current jeans selection much. I may be one of few women who actually prefers lower-rise jeans, so even their current higher-rise skinny jean, which are called mid-rise jeans in store, don't feel right to me. Their high-rise cigarette jeans, a straight-leg style, also didn't work for me, though I was surprised to find that they don't need to be hemmed on me, which may mean that they'd be unworkable on anyone with longer legs than mine, which should be most women in the world who are 5'3'' or taller! 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Bad Hair Day, or the Big Mistake

They generally style Constance Wu with the kind of hair I wish I had on Fresh Off the Boat

I'm bad at hair, like really bad. My ponytails are almost always a little sloppy. No Youtube hair tutorial has ever been equal to the task of actually teaching me anything. My younger sister once bought me an expensive flat iron as a two-birthdays-plus-a-Christmas gift while we were both still students, and I never figured out how to use it (the shame! the waste! sorry, W, for not putting it to use after specifically requesting it). Sometimes, a friend would even show me how, and it would seem easy, but I just couldn't manage. Besides, I'm also lazy, so even the effort of blow-drying my hair just doesn't regularly happen.

I've always longed for the sleek, pin-straight hair that's not uncommon with people of Chinese descent. My sister even has that exact kind. My own hair is mostly straight, particularly the topmost layers, but also partially wavy, and extremely prone to frizz. It requires styling to be worn down to the office. Because styling my own hair is just not happening, I've instead gotten Japanese straight perms. They're generally expensive, ~$120 at the low end, and I've historically gotten worse results at that range (generally through unnatural-looking, limp hair) than when I get one for $240 at a small salon back in California. Because my natural hair is mostly straight, I never touch up the roots. My hair stays straight and manageable, just wash, air-dry and go, until a good while after all the permed sections are finally cut off in a future haircut, generally eighteen months later with my one haircut per six months or longer habit. Or at least, that used to be the case.

I'd had straight perms done five times in my adult life. It was only with more recent sessions that I started to notice side effects, small chunks of hair growing in noticeably damaged, "completely fried"  to be colloquial, afterwards. The permed hair would stay lovely and smooth,  the exact results I wanted, but at some point after, some of the new growth (not all of it, and not immediately) would be weird and fried in a way I'd never experienced before. Mysteriously, this only happened after all the permed areas were finally cut away. Nonetheless, I kept going back to straight perms because the eighteen months or more of perfectly manageable, no-fuss hair were worth it. After it was all cut away I'd delay a long time, generally almost another year, before my next perm, thinking that maybe this time I'd learn how to style my hair, before getting annoyed and returning to the salon.

Last October, I had another Japanese straight perm, at the $240 price no less, and for the first time ever, it didn't have the results I expected. It came out perfectly, but within a few weeks, it was clear that something went wrong. After a few washes, I discovered that a full inch and a half wide chunk right in the middle of the back of my head, up near the roots, had gotten damaged. Just that chunk frizzes up into a rat's nest that can barely be tamed into a puffy, sloppy ponytail, but only sometimes. Some days, it'll dry up nicely on its own, sleek and smooth, but after I go to bed and wake up the next morning, the frizz may come back. It's all very confusing, and makes the perm an expensive mistake. I'll probably never get another.

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Obviously, from everything I've written, it's clear that anything I say about hair products must be taken with a massive grain of salt. Also, my hair is behaving in such an idiosyncratic way that anything that's working for it now couldn't be reliably predicted to work for anyone else, or even for me in another week or month. I've seen improved results and reduced number of frizzy days by switching from my normal OGX Keratin Oil shampoo and conditioner (it smells good! and works well enough with my unpermed hair). I purchased travel sizes or kits from Sephora, full sizes linked in the widget, and while each was only enough for four to five uses each, only enough to get a feel for whether I'd consider a full size purchase (and my hair's being so weird anyway that it reacts differently to the same product on different days). I've had the best results with the Alterna Replenishing Moisture set (which they've labeled as the "Anti-Aging Transformation" set) though it smells weird, the Living Proof Restore set is awful and seems to increase the frizz, and the Bumble & Bumble Hairdresser's Invisible Oil travel sizes are somewhere in between, but probably not significantly better than the OGX.

Has anything really strange ever happened to your hair following a salon treatment? Are you good about styling your hair? How did you learn how to style your hair?