Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Best and Worst Buys of 2015

Now that I'm looking back at all of my purchases for the year, I'm actually quite pleased. Although there are a decent number of items that I've yet to fully utilize, mostly because of season-specific needs that did not arise, I'm reasonably confident that I will eventually get good use out of the vast majority of what I bought. I don't have any data on my shopping from previous years, though with the many rounds of closet clean-outs that I undertook before reading Marie Kondo's book and my several additional rounds of closet decluttering after, my general satisfaction with what I bought this year likely means that I've seen some real improvement in terms of learning to buy less, buying things I'll use, and having a better handle on my personal style. 

I don't have one real methodology for picking out my "Best Buys" of 2015. There are other items I bought this year that I wear more often or that filled a more important niche. I suppose my main criteria here was that the purchase in question brought me an unexpected amount of joy, such that I find myself reaching for the item significantly more than I would have expected. So these best buys are more my "sleeper hits" of 2015 rather than my most used items.

Best Purchases of 2015:
  • Lou and Grey Ombre Waterfall Cardigan - When I bought this, I actually wanted a different color of the same sweater (a non-ombre grey and white), but it sold out. Even with that sticking point, I've gotten plenty of use out of this, in both my casual and business casual outfits. Although I've become a bit of a snob about avoiding synthetic fibers in my sweaters, which might make me reluctant to buy another mostly-acrylic sweater in the future, I have to admit that I don't actually notice many real downsides with many of my mostly-synthetic sweaters like this. 
  • Uniqlo Cotton Cashmere Sweater Tunic (similar in other colors) - Both tops I bought at Uniqlo in February ended up being great buys for me, and with the unseasonably warm winter, they continue to be featured in many of my weekend outfits. I didn't previously own anything in light gray, but I've now added a few other light gray sweaters to my closet. 
  • Skagen Freja Watch - I wear this almost everyday, in both my casual and business casual outfits. I like most of Skagen's women's watch designs and the quality has been great.
  • Loft Floral Peasant Blouse (similar in different print and solid colors) - It's strange, but I almost never wore long-sleeved blouses to work before I owned this top. I had a few long-sleeved silk blouses, but tended to wear them exclusively with my casual outfits, which is probably idiosyncratic. One of my main influences in starting to wear long-sleeved blouses to work was seeing some of Adina's long-sleeve blouse-and-skirt work outfits
  • Ann Taylor Lace Dress - This dress could potentially work for a wide range of occasions any time of year. I can even see myself wearing it in my casual outfits in the summer. For now, I mostly wear it to work with thick tights.
  • Madewell Northstar Pullover (similar in other colors, similar from Loft) - I'm still not sure about the quality of this piece: all my merino wool sweaters from everywhere-but-Uniqlo shrank the first time they encountered a machine-washing, even when I made sure to use cold water and a mesh bag to protect the items. This makes me too scared to ever machine-wash this sweater. It's still holding up okay though, and I just love the color and the casual, slouchy feel of the design. With this purchase, I'm realizing that some of my favorite colors are dark jewel tones like this forest green. 

It was much easier to pick out my "Worst Buys" of 2015. These were all items that I wasn't able to use as expected at all, or that I wore once or twice before realizing that the item just didn't suit me. See the list behind the cut:

Monday, December 28, 2015

December Shopping Reflections

Happy holidays! I hope that everyone has had a lovely holiday season. Work got a little crazy the weekend before Christmas, and then my mom and my sister came into town to spend the holidays with me.

Please note that this post contains affiliate links that could result in a commission, typically a few cents, for me if you click. Thank you for your support!

Most of my shopping this month actually came from online Black Friday sales. With this month's clothing expenditures, I've spent $2729 for the year, which at least puts me slightly under the $3000 absolute upper limit I set for myself. In the next few weeks, I plan to write up some reflections on my shopping habits this year: best and worst purchases, plans for next year, and a few other thoughts.

This month, I also tried on a few other things that didn't work. This Uniqlo x Lemaire wool and cashmere sweater with a knit-in square pattern was lovely and soft, but ran strangely large for a Uniqlo sweater which, when combined with the dolman-ish sleeve, just wasn't flattering. I also bought these Frye Erin lace-up boots from Hautelook on a whim, in hopes of replacing a well-loved pair of boots that I wore out early this year. While the leather was nice and soft, and I thought the boots were great quality, they were a little too narrow. My usual size was right on the edge of being too small and the next size up was definitely too big. 

Fashion - (TOTAL: $194.53)
  • White + Warren Cashmere Open Knit Cardigan - $53.40* - I bought this on Gilt during a fairly substantial additional percent off Black Friday promotion. I didn't realize that White + Warren sweaters run large, so the size M I bought has an oversized, boyfriend sweater look on me. I don't mind that too much, and the oatmeal color works well to add a tiny bit of variety to my mostly black and navy work wardrobe. 
  • Uniqlo Cashmere Crew Neck Cardigan - $49.90 - I also purchased this during a Black Friday sale. Uniqlo's cashmere sweaters are a good value when they're on sale, though I have sometimes balked at paying full price for them. This sweater also runs a bit larger/more true to size for a mall brand than I expected based on the size chart and some of the Uniqlo merino wool cardigans I've tried, so the M I got is also a little big. This is also primarily for my work wardrobe. 
  • Sam Edelman Sara Leopard Flat - $55.24 - This was my last Black Friday sale purchase from 6PM. It ends up filling one of my "Five-Piece French Wardrobe" slots as an alternative to the leopard print slip-on sneakers I initially wanted, but are less suitable for my new lifestyle as an office-dweller. 
  • Madewell Silk Retrospect Top, Brushstroke Plaid - $35.99 - This was one of my only in-person purchases in the latter half of the year. It was an impulse purchase, though I find casual-leaning silk tees like this (I also have one from Uniqlo from several years back) to be versatile because they work in both my work and casual outfits. 

Beauty - (TOTAL: $4.19)
  • Real Techniques Silicone Liner Brush - $4.19 - Pret a Porter P recommended Real Techniques brushes in a comment, and I decided to add this to a recent order when I was stocking up on household items. I previously used this Sephora eyeliner brush, but wasn't satisfied because it was difficult to clean and the bristles sometimes felt stiff and uncomfortable to use. The Real Techniques silicone brush is great, though it took two to three uses before I really started getting the hang of it. I get a significantly finer line than with the Sephora brush, and it is also easier to clean due to the lack of bristles. I think it also wastes less product because less excess product gets caught on it. 
*Indicates that listed price includes shipping fees, sales tax, or both. 

Linking up with Franish and the Budgeting Bloggers again this month! Be sure to check out what everyone else bought. 

Friday, December 18, 2015

Financial Picture, Part II: Lifestyle Choices

personal photo of Santorini, Greece

The idea for this post has been floating around in the back of my mind ever since Franish's monthly budget post in May, when she received a reader question about whether it'd be more accurate to factor interest into her shopping budgets because of her student loans. Her answer touched on the difficult balancing act between  living one's adult life and being in a profession that goes hand in hand with massive student debt. Now that I've been more explicit about my circumstances, I finally feel like I can write about this topic without sounding vague and maybe a little foolish.

Repayment of six-figure student loans is a marathon, one that will hopefully only take me seven years. Combine the time spent on repayment, the time spent in school, and the time spent planning for and applying for school, and the total number of years is likely to be more than a decade. For doctors or dentists, the timeline is, inevitably, even longer due to longer training periods. One would likely go insane if they spent the entire time weighing every single spending decision against how much extra time it would add to the repayment period and how much interest would ultimately accrue as a result. If one wishes to start a family, particularly as a woman, there are biological and other reasons not to put off that financially weighty decision for that long.

Harsh calculations about how much interest will accrue are useful, by the way, and I think everyone should try them, ideally before matriculating. The schools and lenders (even the US government) are, perhaps unsurprisingly, in no hurry to give applicants the nitty-gritty details. Sure, they provide all the information necessary to calculate everything, but I don't think these institutions are ever as upfront and blunt as they should be about the cold hard numbers, given how young and relatively inexperienced much of their customer base often is.

My point is, there are limits to how much one can sacrifice for the sole motivation of cutting down on repayment time (and reducing the resulting interest burden). Those limits are more relevant and concrete, I admit, when it comes to making room for things like weddings, having children, and buying property versus just making room for a shopping budget or for travel. Regardless, I believe that a young working adult who has a plan and is on track for eventual repayment and other financial goals should be able to indulge in fun things that makes them happy once in a while, within reason. As a student, I veered too far in that direction, and even now I question my own judgment on whether I am still too willing to go a little too far in favor of indulging myself, but I don't think my larger stance on this is right.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Been There, Done That: Fancy Body Products

Before I started getting really serious about budgeting and cutting down my beauty and skincare spending, I used to go a little crazy at Sephora, buying things I didn't need to get to the minimum for free shipping. Many of those impulse purchases were fancy body care products. At the time I tried to justify it: I have very dry skin that gets bad in winter, even with a humidifier running all day and night. If I could find a "miracle product," the experimenting would be worth it.

I'm realizing now that, for my skin at least, there is no miracle product: I'll always need to apply body moisturizer daily. Even then, my skin will almost inevitably get dry again well before the next 24 hours are up. I've sworn off the fancy things, none of which were ever that much better than your average drugstore body lotion, though they did smell nicer as a general rule.

These days I'll stick to Lubriderm (I grew up using Costco-sized bottles of it and it is my usual preference, though I find many other brands to be about the same). I've tried out jojoba and coconut oil too (both are cheapest at Trader Joe's). While both have some extra moisturizing "oomph" that drugstore body lotion lacks, I never stuck to either habit because I was worried that some of it could stain my sheets or towels if I didn't give it enough time to absorb.

Coconut oil has a lovely scent, and I might consider going back to it as a supplement to the body lotion, but I'd need to figure out a better way to store it: I briefly kept half a jar of it on my dresser for body and hair usage, and it got moldy and gross within two months. The culprit was my constantly sticking in my damp-from-the-shower hands to apply it. In hindsight, I should have been more careful, and if I went back to it, I'd have to find a smaller container for it, so that I won't lose too much of it in another mishap.

Note: the below text contains illustrative links, some of which are affiliate links that will result in a few cents commission for me if you click. Thank you for your support!

Without further ado, these are the fancy body care products that were definitely not miracle products for my persistently dry skin: 
  • Korres Body Butter in Jasmine: I've tried a few scents of this, and the Jasmine is my favorite. Korres is a drugstore product in Greece (~5€/bottle) , but a very expensive one in the US ($19/bottle). They really do make lovely products, and I also love the shower gels, which I bought in Greece. I just can't get over the American pricing when I know that it's very much a drugstore product in its home country. As for the body butter, it's nice and thick but absorbs easily and it is a bit more moisturizing than the Body Shop or Soap & Glory kind. It's probably most similar to Bliss body butter
  • Caudalie Divine Oil: I had a phase of thinking that dry oils might do a better job of keeping my skin moisturized than body lotion, which turned out to be an erroneous assumption. I might not have applied these products with a generous enough hand because of concerns about how expensive they were, but either way, they're definitely far less moisturizing than the same quantity of coconut or jojoba oil. The Caudalie is probably my least favorite of the three I tried: the floral scent is a little strange. 
  • L'Occitane Almond Smoothing and Beautifying Supple Skin Oil: I do love the way this one smells, but it suffers from the same lack of value for money problem as other dry oils I've tried in that it just doesn't moisturize very well for such a pricey product. This one doesn't absorb quite into the skin quite as quickly ro easily as the other two. 
  • Nuxe Huile Prodigieuse: I bought this in Taiwan when there was a nice promotional price. The scent on this one is probably my favorite out of the three dry oils because it is a little lighter and more subtle. 

I wouldn't say that the money I spent over a period of about a year and a half to try these products was a waste: Even if these products didn't work that much better for me than something from the drugstore, there is some value to something that feels fancy and smells nice. Still, when it comes to my personal budget, I'd rather put the funds towards my facial skincare routine. 

Do you have any favorite body products? Any suggestions for particularly awesome moisturizers? 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Wear to Work: Following the Rules (or Not)

* Photos from a Wall Street Journal feature that discussed fashion (for men and women) at the New York office of one prominent biglaw firm. Both women are partners, which puts them at the top of the law firm hierarchy. 

I was reading a Racked article about one woman's experience with stringent dress code rules for women attorneys, and while I didn't agree with most of what she was saying, it did give me some food for thought. There are certainly settings in which there are extremely restrictive rules about what one should wear, for both men and women, but I'm not sure that your average NYC professional, even in the more conservative industries, is unreasonably constrained in their day-to-day clothing choices. 

First things first, I don't believe that it's the social norm here for women at large companies to be "afraid" of their male colleagues' judgment regarding their sartorial choices, unless it's a toxic workplace or there are a few toxic individuals. I also don't think that choosing to dress conservatively, in business formal, means that one is dressing "like a man."

I speak from experience: By now, I am extremely familiar with many of the professional settings that are of particular relevance to NYC-based attorneys, including networking receptions, courthouses, and large law firms. I've described the dress code at the office where I will start work this fall, and I'm reasonably confident that it is more or less what prevails at a majority of large finance, consulting, and law-firm type workplaces in NYC. I'm also extremely sensitive to behavior suggesting sexism and racism, and would also be among the first to raise my voice to argue that things are still very bad for women and minorities in my field.

At the same time, although I am a major proponent of pushing the business casual dress code envelope often by incorporating bright colors, loud prints, and statement jewelry, the very mention of "wearing an Alexis Bittar statement necklace" in the same paragraph as a reference to judges and courtrooms makes me cringe. I strongly dislike many elements of the conservative business formal "uniform" (both suits and heels) and avoid wearing them whenever possible, but certain settings demand conformity to all the rules of conservative business dress. There's no room for argument. It's nonnegotiable. I don't know if it makes me closed-minded, but I would question the judgment of any attorney who wore a noticeable or flashy "statement piece" to court or another formal setting to advocate on my behalf. This goes for both men and women, though I'm much less in-tune to what constitutes a  "statement piece" on a man.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Financial Picture, Part 1: Going to Law School

I didn't attend University of Michigan's law school, but they have the most beautiful reading room. 
For me to continue discussing my finances, I almost certainly need to disclose my profession. Although law school is not the only type of crazy student debt professional school in the game in the US, the financial details associated with each program (JD, MD, or MBA) are unique. Being clear is probably necessary if I don't want my posts to be vague to the point of being borderline misleading. I get a little shy about these details sometimes because weird things sometimes happen to (generally women) law students in some internet spaces.

How Much it Costs, How Much I Borrowed*:

I chose law school knowing I had to go to the highest-ranking school I got into in order to easily obtain the private sector "biglaw" job required to pay for the endeavor. My $75,000 scholarship was an extremely pleasant surprise, and average scholarships for applicants with my qualifications have likely increased to closer to ~$90,000 because of certain application trends, though as you'll see, that doesn't take you far if you're not careful and/or don't have outside financial support. Lower-ranked schools actually gave me significantly smaller scholarships and would have been more expensive.

Attending law school in the US is extremely expensive. Add on the costs of living in NYC to my relative financial irresponsibility, and well, the cost of attendance was right around $86,000/year, inclusive of living expenses incurred during summer internships. I offset that with my scholarship and roughly $12,000 savings from two years' work (thanks to free housing and tax advantages from being abroad). I also earned a pretty penny and received a generous tax refund after one private sector summer internship. Some of my internship income and the tax refund were, however, needed for post-school expenses such as my recent move.

Despite my scholarship, savings, and income, I took out $165,000 in unsubsidized federal loans (the only kind available), on the very high end of average. Interest rates are standardized, and interest accrues continuously (but is not capitalized into the principle) while the student is in school. With interest rates ranging up to 7.9%, my total grew by ~$13,000 by the graduation and then another $2000 or so in the months before starting work. I'm fairly certain this list of law schools with the highest average indebtedness does not count interest accrual in school, but if not, more of my peers have considerably more familial financial support than I could ever imagine.

My total student loan balance, law school and undergraduate included, is actually a little more than the $180,000 resulting from the calculations above: I have under $10,000 in undergraduate loans that could have been reduced if I had been more of an adult while working, but the interest rate there is 5% with none accruing while I was in school. My law school balance indicated above may neglect some of my law school Perkins loans too, but those are tiny, at 5% interest, and did not accrue interest in school either.

More nitty-gritty discussion behind the cut, including a minor addendum to the above:

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Casual Friday

Necklace: Gorjana Taner Small Bar necklace
Sweater: H&M Premium Quality cashmere sweater, M
Tank Top: H&M Basics tank top, S
Skirt: J. Crew No. 2 wool pencil skirt, 4P
Tights: Mukluk fleece-lined tights, S
Shoes: Sam Edelman Petty booties, 7.5

I call my office dress code "casual business casual" because, in my experience, almost anything remotely reasonable goes. Jeans are almost the only item that is off limits. For further context, all of Adina's office-wear would work perfectly at my workplace. In fact, many of my colleagues like to push the envelope towards a slightly more casual direction. A majority of the work outfits on Nine-Thirty to Five are also on-point, though they might work in Southern California, so certain items they can wear wouldn't be suitable for NYC corporate offices.

I wore this outfit last Friday, though in practice, it'd be okay any day of the week. This outfit is about as far on the casual side of the business versus casual spectrum as I go. All of the elements: sweater, pencil skirt, even the ankle boots, are solidly in the middle of the spectrum for my office. It's the design of that H&M cashmere sweater (a birthday gift) that skews extremely casual, and it's made even more so by being slightly big for me on top of being designed to have a slouchy, oversized fit. The rest of it is fine and dandy: that pencil skirt from J. Crew sits a tiny bit higher on the waist and is a little slimmer than my other pencil skirts, which helps balance out the outfit a bit, but either way, none of the other elements would ever raise an eyebrow.

The sweater is one of those things that brings me joy despite being a less than perfect fit. I like that it feels like I'm wearing a cashmere blanket, and that's the only selling point I need to incorporate it into my work outfits. The cashmere is decent-quality for the price - a bit plusher and thicker than Uniqlo's. Some of the design elements might seem strange though, especially the very pronounced dolman sleeves and rather extreme high-low hem along with high side slits.

My Sam Edelman Petty booties are fantastic: very comfortable, true to size, and took absolutely no time to break in. I wore them to work all the time with skirt suits when I was interning in a very formal government workplace earlier this calendar year. After a full fall/winter season's worth of heavy wear last year, I had them reheeled last month ($22 at a moderately expensive cobbler), and they look almost new (there is a tiny scuff in one toe that couldn't be completely fixed, but can be covered when they're cleaned, shined, and polished). I wear them throughout the winter, avoiding only the very wet or snowy days. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

On Quality, Part II: Winter Clothing

I bought two of these wool Assembly sweaters at Madewell last year and really liked them, but they pill badly and haven't held their shape well. 

When I last posted about the general trend towards lower-quality clothing at various retailers, I wasn't fully sold on one part of the narrative: that there is a phenomenon in which most fast fashion is of such low quality that it would literally wear out or disintegrate within one season. My evidence was my experience with a wide range of Forever 21, H&M, and Target-type items, most of which was capable of lasting two to three years, if not more. Most of my "donate or discard" choices were because I got tired of the styles rather than wear and tear.

I might be changing my tune as to winter clothing, because I've recently started truly noticing the great difficulty associated with finding good-quality sweaters and warm tights and leggings. A few anecdotes from the last few weeks as I start bracing myself for winter, including one specific item (fleece-lined tights) for which I've noticed a definite decline in quality:

Note: the below text contains illustrative links, some of which are affiliate links that will result in a few cents commission for me if you click. Thank you for your support!
  • It's probably not news that not all wool sweaters are created equal. More often than not, pure wool sweaters that I've owned (from mall retailers like Madewell, if not cheaper sources) have held up to wear poorly when compared to my wool-blend sweaters that contain synthetic fibers. I find that most wool sweaters just don't hold their shape well despite my fairly careful hand-washing and drying flat. They start looking a little lumpy by the end of the season, for lack of a better word. Many also tend to pill easily. 
  • I'm clueless about different types of wool, but my Merino wool sweaters seems to avoid most of the issues I mentioned. All of my Merino sweaters have a thinner, smoother knit though, so it isn't a perfect one-to-one comparison, but they have held up significantly better than other pure wool sweaters.  Quality-wise, my Uniqlo Merino wool sweaters have generally been the most consistent, but I'm only comparing it to things from J. Crew (a Tippi cardigan shrank when machine-washed in cold water by accident) and Madewell (that sweater I bought in October feels like it'll pill a little by the end of this season).
  • NYC is having an unseasonably warm fall, but my legs are still feeling cold in the tights I used to wear in the depths of winter. Temperatures have yet to regularly drop into the upper 30s and low 40s Fahrenheit range that would lead me to swap my wool coat for down, but I always feel like my legs are freezing in my fleece-lined tights. Part of it the problem is that this year's version of my Mukluk fleece-lined tights are thinner than the pair I bought three years ago. 
  • I do have the same problem of being cold in the old pair (still holding up!), so some of it is that my tolerance to cold has diminished. I'm not sure where else to look: there are cheaper options at Target and the like, but I've heard that those are very much one-season items. There's one more expensive brand that does fleece-lined tights, but I'm not especially excited about $35/pair for ones of unknown durability. I also doubt that they'd keep me much warmer.
  • Some people might have very different experiences with what tights are weather-appropriate for fall, so I might well be unusually sensitive to cold. This review suggests that Uniqlo Heattech tights are too warm for anything but winter. For me, however, they're only good for cooler days in spring and fall, and not especially different from Uniqlo's regular tights in that regard. I also find the Heattech tights true to size, though with a sometimes odd fit (a little higher rise and longer legs than I'm used to, perhaps). 

Any thoughts on where to buy good wool sweaters or what materials to look for? Also, truly warm and high-quality fleece-lined or other winter tights are probably a bit of a unicorn, but any recommendations on those would also be very much appreciated! 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

My Minimalist-ish Graduate Student Kitchen

via Pinterest. My actual grad-school kitchen was, naturally, much less nice.

When I was a graduate student, I cooked almost all of my meals for the first two years. That habit eventually slipped, but I had a good grasp of the bare minimum of tools and supplies I required. I bought my kitchen goods piecemeal, often as needs arose, and that made it easy to keep my cupboards and drawers minimally stocked, even before I discovered minimalism and the KonMari method. When I went through and decluttered all my things KonMari-style, eleven months ago, I didn't do much in the kitchen except repurpose some boxes to serve as drawer organizers.

Shopping-wise, I bought most of my things at HomeGoods or TJMaxx, with an occasional trip to Housing Works, IKEA, or Daiso while I was home in California. When I was stocking my kitchen, I wasn't sure I would stay in NYC after graduating, so the quality of my pots and tools wasn't a priority. The cost of my stock of kitchen goods was probably well within the range of being frugal and reasonable for a student's kitchen. 

A few other notes: Now that I live with K and we combined some of our kitchen things, I have a little more of everything to work with. I cooked often, but didn't bake, which cut down significantly on my kitchen needs and wants. I generally made small, simple meals, cooking mainly for myself or one other person at the maximum, except for the occasional potluck dish. Thus, my kitchen felt fully stocked with just the following (links are illustrative only, some are affiliate, some are not):

Pots, Pans, etc.
1 mini (1 quart?) saucepan, w/ lid
1 3 quart saucepan, w/ lid
1 12-inch nonstick skillet
1 electric kettle
1 cookie sheet*
1 5-quart stock pot**
1 spatula
1 slotted spoon
1 ladle
1 set measuring spoons
1 meat thermometer
1 silicone pastry brush**

Tupperware, assorted sizes
1 oven mitt
2 kitchen towels
2 tea strainers
1 soy sauce bottle for olive oil**
Knives and Things
1 large cutting board
1 vegetable peeler
1 small cutting board*
3 medium-sized plates
3 cereal bowls
1 small rice bowl**
3 mugs
1 reusable water bottle
3 sets of wooden chopsticks**

*indicates things I didn't own or owned in a less efficient size, but that I would have bought 

** indicates things that are a bit idiosyncratic, and that I generally purchased for one particular recurring need

This might seem like a strange thing for me to write about, but well, I find reading about what's in people's kitchens and refrigerators absolutely fascinating. My more rambling thoughts on why I picked particular kitchen tools and in what quantities are behind the cut.