Friday, December 30, 2016

Goodbye 2016, Hello 2017

Personal photo from a long weekend in Cape Cod.

2016. What a year. I was getting really exhausted at the end of it, for various reasons. There's some amount of fear and uncertainty when it comes to what the next year will look like in the world at large. In general, I'm feeling less chipper about things than when I wrote last year's New Year's resolution post.  

Looking back onto last year's goals, things were alright. Although my financial goals morphed a bit, I consider my work on them to generally be a success. I wasn't great about reading books this year, despite the ample time that I now spend on a commuter train every weekday. I'm often too sleepy in the morning and too mentally drained in the evening, and I haven't found many books that really captured my attention. I stuck to a nearly three days/week gym habit for almost the entire year, though there were gaps. I continued doing substantial pro bono legal work, at least another 80 hours for my months at the firm. It's easier to prioritize relationships with friends, family, and K in my current job, as I'm able to completely disconnect from work after hours. So on this front, things are pretty good. 

I have a few personal goals for 2017:
  • Continue getting my financial house in order. Among other things, my food budget is maybe a bit excessive, even for a NYC resident. I'd like to cut that down. There may be a few other categories where I can also reduce my budget, though identifying which ones will take some more analysis. I'm expecting a fairly substantial tax refund this year, which will hopefully allow me to come through the last few months of my clerkship (and its attendant pay-cut) without having depleted the emergency fund I accumulated in my first ten months at the firm. 
  • Get back into the reading habit. I miss reading! I have so much time on the train, and that would be a better use of my time than just mindlessly browsing on my phone . I don't have that many books that I'm excited to read at the moment, so getting started on this goal might be tough. 
  • Take more ownership of my work and hit the ground running at my next gig. My first stint in biglaw was a bit of a strange in-between time, given that I had already committed to a clerkship due to start a little less than a year later. Especially with how much work there was, I didn't always do a great job of seeking out additional opportunities for more substantive work and to build skills that were new to me. I'd like to do much more of that at my next position, whatever that may be.
  • Focus a bit more on healthy eating. Throughout the year there were a few periods of time where I was eating too much takeout food and relying too much on Grubhub, which tends to result in meals with very low fresh vegetable or fruit content. It's not the healthiest way to eat, and not especially good for my wallet either. 
  • Write more. As I mentioned in this year's "blogiversary" post, I have so much fun writing here, and I am truly grateful to everyone who reads along with me. I'd like to stick to a more regular posting schedule this year, and hopefully write some things that are interesting and fun to read.

That's a fairly modest list of goals, I think. This time last year, 2016 looked like it was going to be an intimidating process of adapting to the "new normal" of working life. This year, I feel a lot more settled in and adjusted, even if some things are still challenging. Do you have any New Year's resolutions or goals for 2017? Any favorite books to recommend?

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

December Shopping Reflections

I hope that everyone had a lovely Christmas holiday and is looking forward to the new year! I'll soon be doing a year-end fashion and beauty roundup post that will also discuss my plans for next year's budget.

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!

This was a shopping-heavy month, especially with Black Friday sales factored in. That J.Crew Stadium Cloth Cocoon Coat I was so excited about ended up not working. It has a much more exaggerated cocoon shape than the Ellen Tracy "Stadium" Cocoon Coat I already own, and it just wasn't right for me. My substantial Uniqlo order included mostly "off-budget" items: most notably the normal and extra-warm Heattech leggings for use as long underwear. I used up my Grana referral credits (new customers who sign up with my link get 10% off their first order, and I get $20 referral credit, thank you for your support!). I also bought backups of a few items that are staples in my wardrobe, including the Sam Edelman Petty booties and two The Limited wide waistband pencil skirts. The Limited is going out of business in January, which is a pity, as their skirt suits work well for me, though I never shopped for anything else there.

As a general matter, I'm not sure that buying backups of favorite items while the originals are still in good shape is wise. It's not minimalist, as it involves buying something one doesn't need right now, and therefore may never need. I've previously done it once, nearly two years ago, for a pair of sandals (the several seasons-ago Sam Edelman Trinas, also here), and... Well, I haven't worn the newer pair yet, because I ended up preferring the more casual and comfortable Fitflops instead for the last two summers. 

Skincare-wise, I wouldn't normally shop at Soko Glam, as they are consistently more expensive than Amazon. Their Black Friday sale (30% off everything) did make their CosRx products a bit cheaper, however, so I picked up a few refills and some new things. The combination of CosRx BHA Skin Returning A-Sol and BHA Blackhead Power Liquid has continued working wonders for my skin since I first reported on them in October. At some point, I'll need to write a new post about my skincare routine, which now features drugstore or drugstore-equivalent products more heavily.

Fashion - (TOTAL: $221.13)
  • Sam Edelman Petty, black leather - $79.91 - These may not be the wisest purchase, as my old pair are still going strong, now in their third year of intense wear (with a few visits to the cobbler). They were a bit of an impulse purchase when Nordstrom added an extra discount for Black Friday. 
  • Uniqlo Fleece-Lined Sweatpants, dark gray - $18.18 - These are extremely comfy and fuzzy on the inside. I only had one pair of sweatpants, so I thought that having a second pair, for when the other was in the laundry hamper, would be nice. Based on the reviews, it's best not to machine dry these lest they shrink, but they come out fine when line-dried. 
  • The Limited Wide Waistband Pencil Skirt, black x2 - $69.94 - I bought two of these in summer of 2013, right before on-campus recruiting season, and they've been in regular rotation in my work wardrobe since then. Those are still in good shape, but because The Limited is going out of business, it felt like it was "now or never" if I wanted any backups of this. 
  • Grana - $53.10 - ($177.00 - $100.00 referral credit - $20.00 Grana Labs survey credit - $3.90 discount code = $53.10)
    • Silk Cap-Sleeve Top, Off-White, M - I received one of these in black for review this month (here) and decided I wanted more for my work wardrobe. 
    • Silk Cap-Sleeve Top, Mulberry, M - The Mulberry is a lovely color, and I've accumulated a few Grana silk tops in it. 
    • Cashmere Boyfriend V-Neck Sweater, Gray, S - I received one of these in black for review this month (here) and liked it so much that I decided that one in gray was just the thing. I like slouchy sweaters for both work and casual wear, and while I do have another slouchy gray cashmere sweater from H&M (old, worn here), this one is a bit more "classic" as it lacks the high side slits. 

Beauty and Skincare - (TOTAL: $75.97)
  • Soko Glam Black Friday Sale Order - $64.78 - (with 30% off discount, links are generally to Amazon as they typically offer better pricing) 
    • CosRx Acne Pimple Master Patch - These are a staple for me when my naturally acne-prone skin is misbehaving, as they speed up the healing of certain pimples when used correctly. My skin's been a lot better, so I don't need these as often as I used to.
    • Missha Mild Essence Sun Milk - This was the only sort-of impulse buy in the order. I don't have a "holy grail" sunscreen at the moment, so I've been rotating through a handful of different Japanese and Korean ones. This one is more a gel lotion in texture than it is a milky sunscreen. I've only tested it for a few days, but it's been alright. (I prefer the Biore Aqua Rich Watery Essence, as it has a runnier gel texture that's easier to blend into the skin.) 
    • CosRx Natural BHA Skin Returning A-Sol - I sang this item's praises two months ago after testing it and the BHA Blackhead Power Liquid for around four weeks, and I'm happy to report that things are even better now. The combination of the two CosRx products has displaced my previous favorite, the Paula's Choice BHA Liquid
    • CosRx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid - I use this in combination with the BHA A-Sol. Please do introduce these products into your routine slowly and carefully - this one has significantly more BHA "oomph" than the A-Sol, so I'd start with that first, for at least a few days, before introducing this one slowly. 
    • CosRx Advanced Snail 96 Miucin Power Essence - I'm thinking about switching the CosRx Galactomyces 95 Whitening Power Essence for this, as that one doesn't seem to do terribly much. I haven't been testing this for long enough to really report on it, but it works well in my routine and is more moisturizing and soothing than the Galactomyces product. This one is a sticky gel that feels like it might contain a lot of snail miucin or snail slime. 
  • Cerave Moisturizing Lotion - $11.98 - This is a refill on a longtime holy grail product. I use it as a morning moisturizer, and sometimes as my nighttime moisturizer in the summers.

I also received a few items for review this month. Grana was kind enough to reach out to me after reading some of my previous reviews, and they offered to let me select a few items, which I've since posted about under the "partnered post" tag. I received the Cashmere Boyfriend V-Neck in black, the Silk Classic Shirt in Rio Red, and the Silk Cap-Sleeve Top in black.

Do you buy backups of favorite items before the original one(s) wear out? Has it generally worked out for you? I have the option of returning the Sam Edelman booties because of Nordstrom's excellent return policy, but The Limited skirts are final sale, given the state of the company. 

Linking up with Franish and the Budgeting Bloggers this month, as usual. Please do go and check out what everyone else bought this month! 

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Sunday Reading: The Fashion Law

via The Fashion Law

Adina from Blue Collar Red Lipstick recently recommended the blog, The Fashion Law, which I had heard about, but never read in earnest. A big thank you to Adina for pointing me back to it, as it's fantastic (and educational) reading and I'd never have discovered that without the recommendation. Their coverage is broad, and though most topics relevant to fashion, marketing, and the law are not within my professional wheelhouse (I've done the smallest bit of false advertising work for another industry), it's fascinating to learn about. 

A few The Fashion Law articles I enjoyed from my recent browsing: First, there's this recounting of the Second Circuit oral argument in the case between Louis Vuitton and the parody-bag purveyors My Other Bag over trademark issues. As Judge Lynch apparently stated, "This is a joke. I understand you don’t get the joke. But it’s a joke." Second, this isn't as recent, but some of you may remember when Lord & Taylor arranged for the carpet bombing of social media with undisclosed sponsored posts about their Design Lab collection and that one paisley printed dress. The Federal Trade Commission ("FTC") did not enjoy that, and the whole event resulted in a settlement for an undisclosed amount for the lack of clear disclosure. The Fashion Law does a lot of coverage of the social media influencer scene and the related disclosure rules and practices (i.e. here), which I find particularly interesting. 

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! I'm home in California for the week and really appreciating having the holiday off to spend with my family. Hopefully, I'll go back to work refreshed and reenergized afterwards. Over the next few weeks, I'll be doing a lot of end-of-year reflection and roundup-type posts as I think about my budget and other plans for the coming new year. 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Review: Grana, New Silk and Old Silk

Necklace: (none) // Porcelain and Stone Buoy Necklace
Tops: Grana (c/o) Classic Shirt, S, Rio Red (other colors)// Grana (c/o) Cap-Sleeve Top, M, Black
Pants: rag & bone/Jean "The Skinny" jeans (similar) in 27 (both outfits)
Shoes: Sam Edelman Petty, 7.5, Black// Cole Haan Tali Luxe Wedge (similar with bow, also similar), 7.5, Tortoise

Today's post is my second partnered post with Grana (referral link, new customers receive 10% off their first order, and I receive $20 referral credit if a new customer signs up and make a purchase, thank you for your support!) featuring the other two items that they were kind enough to send me for my review (first post here). They let me pick out the items, and, as I've long been a fan of their silk tops, I chose the Classic Shirt in the now sold-out Rio Red and the Cap-Sleeve Top which, spoiler alert, I've since purchased in two other colors (partially with referral credit).

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

Picking these items allowed me to do a quick comparison between their "old" silk, the Crepe de Chine, and the "new" silk, the Georgette Satin. The Cap-Sleeve Top is one of the "new" Georgette Satin silk designs, while the Classic Shirt is made with the "old" Crepe de Chine. I like both equally and consider them similar, though I know this stance isn't universal. Elaine from Temporary Housewifey had more in-depth thoughts about this comparison here and preferred the Georgette Satin. She also did a more in-depth explanation of how to assess silk here, as well as a Grana Crepe de Chine versus Everlane silk comparison here. I've often mentioned that I'm not that discerning when it comes to fabrics: I can feel the differences between the two Grana silks, and that the Georgette Satin has a slightly more "plush" texture that suggests it may be a touch thicker. I can't really see visible differences in the two materials, however, and I like wearing both equally. Look in the item description on Grana's website to see which type of silk each design is made with.

Necklace: Porcelain and Stone Buoy Necklace
Top: Grana (c/o) Cap-Sleeve Top, M, black
Shirt: Ann Taylor Eyelet Skirt (old)
Shoes: Cole Haan Tali Luxe Wedge (similar with bowalso similar), 7.5, Tortoise

I can already tell I'll really like having the Cap-Sleeve Top in my work wardrobe. It's more suited for that purpose than the Grana Silk Raglan Tees that I purchased several months ago (discontinued, reviewed here), before the Cap-Sleeve Top was released. The Cap-Sleeve Top is more fitted, with less voluminous sleeves, and that makes it better for tucking in to skirts or pants and wearing under cardigans. The armholes are a little large, though, and a very full coverage bra may peek out at the armhole. For fit reference, I'm roughly 36''-26''-37'' with a "regular" sizing shoulders and torso and more "petite"-length legs.

As always, I found Grana's detailed product measurements to be accurate and helpful, with the caveat that, because silk has no stretch, the measurements for non-button-up tops (and certain dresses) need to be interpreted a little differently, at least if you have a larger chest measurement like I do. With silk tank tops especially, a chest measurement of around 38'' for the piece may still end up too tight on me depending on how it is designed to sit on the shoulders and chest (this happened when I ordered an Everlane Silk Tank Top that was supposed to fit based off the product measurements). With that experience in mind, I sized up to the M here, which was the right move, as the S in this top would potentially be uncomfortable at the chest on me.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

NYC Grocery and Food Budgets

Having lived in NYC for more than four years, I can attest to how expensive life is here, without even getting into things like rent, nightlife, gym fees, or the cost of dining out. From the perspective of someone living almost anywhere else, money just doesn't make sense here, and the idea that "[t]hings cost what they cost in a nightmare" is not that far from the truth.

I'm starting to review my spending for the past few years (old YNAB makes analyzing it all super-easy), and well, the craziest thing on it, particularly from a non-NYC perspective, is probably my food budget. I'm too embarrassed to ever share the real number. My food spending includes, of course, a generous dose of both grocery and restaurant spending. For today, I thought it'd be an interesting exercise to talk about grocery costs and food budgets in NYC and what a more frugal monthly food budget could look like, even if it's not an ideal I'm generally living up to.

Groceries and Budgets

For context, Whole Foods may well be one of the cheaper grocery stores here. Keep in mind that most others, whether independent or part of a chain, are distinctly not-great. Many other grocery stores in town are sort of grimy and dusty-looking, and quite a few regularly stock produce that's practically rotting right there on the shelf. As a general matter, Trader Joe's is one of the cheapest in town, though with the crowds and the finite locations, it's not feasible for everyone to do all their shopping there. Fairway is my second most-frequently relied on grocery store, and I've now found that they actually price some items cheaper than Trader Joe's. Fairway isn't great, particularly the produce, but it's apparently one of the better-value grocery store chains here, (cheaper than Whole Foods, unlike D'Agostino or Gristedes, and the latter is one those grimey-dirty chains, with poor labor practices to boot).

Accordingly, even the most frugal shoppers in NYC may still rely on grocery delivery services (most likely Peapod, rather than FreshDirect) because, when the added delivery expense (somewhat negligible) and saved effort (considerable) are evened out, it makes the most financial sense. Those bloggers' reported $350/month for two adults total food expenditure is, by the way, extraordinarily frugal. Understandably, for NYC, their ultra-frugal budget appears to have required that food from NYC's ubiquitous halal carts and $1.00 pizza slice joints play a large part in their diet. I can confirm that some of the cheaper food options in NYC, particularly when time and effort are factored in, do involve "eating out."

For additional NYC grocery and food budget context, this reddit discussion is fairly recent and includes some reasonably diverse perspectives. Somewhere around $300-$350/month per person for groceries seems to be somewhat low end of average there, with $200/month per person reported by the truly frugal. 

My Food Budgets

In my first year of law school, when I religiously cooked my own meals and was generally buying enough groceries to cook every single meal (I wasn't great about food waste), my grocery spending averaged out to about $350/month. Breakfasts typically were oatmeal with an egg and lunches and dinners generally included ~5 oz of meat or fish; with a side or beans, sweet potato, or squash for something starchy; and green vegetables. I sometimes bought organic, but only rarely. I also ate out with friends roughly once per weekend, sometimes twice, mostly at the most frugal sit-down places we knew, for an additional $150/month, including the occasional latte or Chipotle meal in the mix. Full disclosure, being the unfrugal student I was, my food expenses eventually ballooned in 2L and 3L year, as I started to get tired of cooking.

In the interests of having a diet that features fresh vegetables heavily, involves the semi-regular consumption of meat or fish, and with some awareness of the health and other benefits of organic versus conventionally raised animal proteins, $350-$400/month may be about the most frugal grocery budget I could imagine for myself now if I was cooking every meal and only had my own needs to think about. I could adjust things down by featuring less meat and more tofu, beans, and vegetables, but I think I'd start to compensate for that by wanting to buy higher-quality meat and fish in smaller quantities as a result and well, I like to indulge in fancy cheeses sometimes too.

Eating Out versus Cooking

As that ultra-frugal NYC food budget I linked to suggested, the most frugal approach to food in NYC might actually feature eating out, primarily at halal carts and dollar pizza joints, in a prominent role. For a sense of how that might be possible, I thought I'd also do a quick analysis of one of my favorite homemade lunches versus one of my cheapest eating out alternatives from when I was at the firm.

EDITED 12/2/2017 to correct certain numbers based off of my experience. I actually found that each week's quantity of groceries made only four salads, if I was to eat an amount that had a chance of keeping me full through dinner. (Alas, I seem to need a noticeable margin more in the way of food than many of my peers if I want to avoid getting hangry.)

My favorite homemade lunch at the moment is a riff on Sweetgreen's kale caesar. My homemade version involves almost exclusively ingredients that are purchased at Trader Joe's, with the exception of the dressing, as I prefer a creamy caesar over Trader Joe's vinaigrette-type caesar dressing, and omits the parmesan crisp croutons. The cost per serving is calculated below, using a shopping list that makes me four servings (each with a lot of kale and a little less than 7 ounces of chicken).
  • 16 oz. of grape tomatoes, chopped into halves or quarters depending on size = $2.69 
  • 2 bags, 10 oz. curly kale, I rip the leaves off the remaining pieces of stem and massage the kale with a little salt the night before, $1.99x2 = $3.98
  • 1 pack non-organic chicken breast (typically around 1.7 lbs total), oven-roasted and chopped = $8.50
  • 3 limes for a squeeze from half a lime on each serving = $0.87 total
  • 1 container shaved parmesan, romano, asiago blend (5 oz.) = $2.99
  • WEEKLY TOTAL at Trader Joe's: $19.03
Caesar dressing is purchased elsewhere. I like Ken's Chef's Reserve Creamy Caesar dressing with roasted garlic, which is $2.99 for a small bottle with around 10 servings, so I need about $1.20 worth of salad dressing for the four servings. This is not, by the way, particularly healthy salad. Raw kale does, in my experience, need a fair bit of dressing to taste good. The total cost for the week is, therefore, $20.23, divided by four that's about $5.06/serving. That's not bad, and certainly much better than the almost $10.00 or so it'd cost at Sweetgreen with tax. Sweetgreen is, admittedly, fairly "bougie" in its target audience, but those prices are typical enough for a salad from almost any deli or takeaway lunch place in any office-heavy part of Manhattan (it's notably cheaper than my Chop't order, though I only got that when the firm was reimbursing when I was working late). 

Still, my alternative lunch back at the firm, at our subsidized cafeteria (deli sandwich around $6.00 , a cup of soup around $4.00, and hot food and salads are sold by weight at one price per ounce), usually a salad with baby spinach, some vegetable toppings, cheese, and meat, was generally only around $3.75 to $4.25/serving. A dollar slice would of course, be cheaper than my homemade salad, as would quite a few lunches at one of those ubiquitous halal carts. (Except that my salad lunch, whether homemade or from the firm cafeteria, likely has significantly more nutritional value than those cheaper alternatives.) Of course, I could also make much cheaper lunches - peanut butter and jelly (not a thing anyone at the firm does, to my knowledge, though a lot of clerks and others at my current job outside of the city do that), something vegetarian etc.

How much do you pay for groceries per month? Are there any eating out options that would be cheaper than cooking in your area? I think it's pretty rare in the US for eating out options to be cheaper than cooking, but from my time in Taiwan and Hong Kong, eating out gets close to being more affordable than cooking there.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Commuter Bags, or, the Virtues of Miniwallets

The only professional product photo I can find of my current wallet, purchased from the now-defunct Kate Spade Saturday line in March 2015.

It's rather un-stylish, but my North Face Recon (current version) backpack from law school is my current commuting bag of choice, thanks to all the things I need to carry back and forth, namely my laptop, lunch, and binders of documents. Given the number of laptop-friendly totes for professional women out there in the market, I must be in the minority because I loathe carrying my laptop in a tote. Something like the Lenovo Carbon X1 I got at the firm was light enough (the Everlane Petra Market was my go-to office tote, and I carried the laptop in a work-provided non-bulky laptop sleeve with handle similar to this or this, either shoved into the tote or separately by hand). Anything even slightly heavier, like a Macbook Pro, just feels too heavy for carrying around regularly that way, so backback it is. For short trips, I probably wouldn't mind toting around my laptop as much, but I typically spend around 50 minutes walking to and from the train station for each day's commute.

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'm not sure most backpack commuters feel much need to have a handbag in addition to their backpack. Personally, I don't enjoy needing to shift my backpack off one shoulder to get at my wallet or work passkey, so a second bag is necessary. That Annabel Ingall Jojo bag (other color, but sadly not generally available from US retailers anymore), which I originally thought was a mistake-purchase has ended up being that go-to second handbag. It's crossbody, so it's easy to carry with my backpack and stays put and out of the way. It's also small and light, so it doesn't feel "too much" when carried with my backpack and the extra fabric tote I sometimes need to bring along for my lunch and/or a second binder of documents. It's still big enough for everything I need: keys, work ID card and keys, phone, headphones, Metrocard, a pair of knit gloves for winter, and...

Well, my previous wallet, the long Everlane Slim Zip (old version, reviewed, now revamped) just doesn't fit. The long Everlane Slim Zip has a few good years left, and I may yet return to it, but it's incompatible with my current commuting needs. I've turned, instead, to my mini card case and coin-pouch wallet from the defunct Kate Spade Saturday, which I bought while still at school for the few occasions when I carried a too-small handbag (typically the Rebecca Minkoff Mini MAC) on my rare nights out. That miniwallet is enjoying a bit of a second life as my primary wallet for now. I've been surprised that it has proven to be a sufficient size for everything I need in my day-to-day life, despite having a fifth of the card slots of my previous wallet.

This isn't a "minimalist" discovery per se, but I think it's related, insofar as it's a realization that I "need" much "less" than I used to think I did, even if it's just with regards to the number of cards I carry around daily. There's been some "growing pains" associated with the transition: I've headed to the ATM a few times, only to realize that I didn't have my debit card. That was before I figured out exactly which cards to keep with me. I've previously described my rewards credit card preferences and how I use them. I typically carry the Chase Sapphire Preferred for restaurants, American Express Blue Cash Everyday for groceries, and the Citi Double Cash Back for most other purchases, in addition to my driver's license and debit card, as well as a bit of cash in the coin pouch. I switch in items like medical insurance cards as needed. The only things that I sometimes want, but that don't fit, come up only on rare occasions, i.e. when I need many small bills (rare), when I want to carry a check without folding it (extra rare), or if I want to keep change in coins.

My actual wallet's no longer in stock, but I've linked to a few options below that I think would be similarly functional and that I'm reasonably confident would be a good value and durable, with reasonable quality leather based on my experience with the brand or a friend's experiences. Out of these, my favorite designs are probably the new Everlane Mini Zip Wallet (backordered) or the Comme Des Garcons half zip wallet (a good color is hard to find, a friend uses it in plain red leather that looks nice).

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Sense of (Financial) Possibility

Not especially topical, but, fun fact, the real-life Conde Nast Publications used to share a Times Square office building with one of NYC's largest biglaw firms.

Not too long ago, K hit a major financial milestone: He's officially halfway done with paying down his (substantial, ~$150,000*) student loans! He's only just completed his second full year in biglaw, and he did all that while saving for retirement and accumulating sizable cash savings. He's very close to having a positive net worth. This is a huge accomplishment!**

K is so many things to me: my best friend; a truly good, kind soul; someone who makes me laugh; someone with an unending intellectual curiosity, which I value greatly in all people; and super-handsome. With his hard work on personal finance management, he has also been an excellent financial role model. He graduated a year ahead, and I was initially shocked to find that he'd been able, during his first full year, to:
  • (a) accumulate ~$20,000 in "emergency fund"-type cash savings;
  • (b) without taking income-based repayment ("IBR") and therefore, by definition, making at least a monthly minimum loan payment of ~$2000/month;
  • (c) making more than his monthly minimum payments regardless, so he eventually exceeded the $2500/month I averaged out at, getting closer to $3000/month; 
  • (d) making good, though not maxed-out 401K contributions (5%, while I hovered around 6-7%; neither of us maxed out, as with our federal loan interest rates, paying down debt is more of a priority than investing);
  • (e) do all this while living and working in NYC, with all of its expenses, and having done some international travel (we traveled together).

My initial reaction was that I couldn't possibly get anywhere close to what he accomplished. Part of me made excuses: As a white-collar professional woman, I face certain expensive fashion and grooming demands that are practically a requirement, I started out with a larger student loan balance, around ~$180,000 from law school and an additional negligible number from undergrad (he attained his largely due to his own frugality in law school, by the way, which I did not exhibit), etc. In the end, though, I got pretty darn close, and would have stayed on that trajectory for my second year, were it not for starting my clerkship. The clerkship is worth it, but it's a career choice that comes with serious financial opportunity costs if the alternative is biglaw. Having his vivid real-world example encourages me to set ambitious personal finance management goals for myself. It gives me a sense of what's possible, and encourages me to save more, do better, because I know it's possible and that it doesn't require feeling especially deprived.

We are extremely privileged, and we also worked very hard, to be where we are. Even in this type of unquestionably high-compensation firm, we have many peers who express skepticism about being able to say, pay their loans down in 10 years, even while refraining entirely from larger financial outlays such as buying property. Notice the number of biglaw people who plan to ride out IBR in hopes of eventual loan forgiveness, tax bomb or no. I don't hear, in real life, about that many other biglaw or biglaw-adjacent attorneys who are extremely devoted to frugality and saving, maybe just this one tiny discussion thread at r/financialindependence, to be honest (a non-biglaw, but well-compensated, private sector attorney reporting a 65% savings rate if including loan repayment, 48% if not) and this more general one.***

For some (slightly depressing) fun, I calculated my savings rate for my time in biglaw using the methodology proposed by Ramit Sethi in I Will Teach You to be Rich: The denominator, or all income, is total post-tax income plus any "before-tax" savings one did. In my case, that's post-tax income, plus 401K savings, plus tax refund. The numerator, or the total amount saved, is well, everything saved. For me that's my cash emergency fund, my 401K contributions, and my Roth IRA contribution. I also ran a calculation including all the money I put into my loans as well. My savings rate is: 31.5% including loan repayment and 18.2% not including loan repayment. That's not as high as I wanted, so this calculation is useful food for thought that could affect my personal budgeting when I return to the private sector.

* He also had a scholarship. Mine was larger, though, I must confess, I still borrowed more.

**For context, biglaw salaries, especially in NYC, are standardized to this payscale following a recent industry-wide move to raise salaries this past summer. That payscale is NOT, by itself, a reason to go to law school, (a) given the extreme cost of attendance and resulting student loan burdens, and in my experience those statistics either exclude the substantial interest that accrues during the three years of school or are skewed by some very wealthy peers with considerable parental support (I had a substantial scholarship for a third of the total cost of attendance, and still ended up with a larger balance than even the highest "average indebtedness" numbers at the most expensive schools in the country, if I had no scholarship I would likely have owed $260,000 for law school alone); (b) given how demanding the industry can be (there have been several more "worked to death" biglaw stories in recent years that didn't even hit the news); and (c) as a general matter, those of us who leave biglaw (almost all of us, generally within three to five years) are very unlikely to get back to the same earning potential again for quite some time, if ever. 

*** A few other relevant, though not entirely on-point discussions: This ex-biglaw attorney did a Reddit AMA about her time at a western biglaw firm's office in Qatar. Personal finance was not front and center in that discussion, but I believe she was saving aggressively. Note that for most US-trained JDs, working for a US or UK biglaw firm abroad often results in extra compensation (a cost of living adjustment or "COLA," but certain international markets like Singapore don't have one) and, for US citizens, there's the foreign earned income exclusion, so a portion of your earnings is not subject to US federal income tax and it reduces your taxable income (and marginal tax rate) as a result. This Refinery29 Money Diary is likely from someone whose husband is biglaw-adjacent, if not in biglaw. This other Refinery29 Money Diary is likely a biglaw attorney, but I suspect some numbers are slightly fudged as I can't quite match the salary to a class year, either pre or post-raise. The extremely generous summer associate or business development food and drink reimbursement policy does make some strong suggestions about which firm it is, but who knows (and it's not really my business).  

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Blog Thoughts, Year Two

As of this weekend, Invincible Summer is almost two years old! 2016 has been an eventful year, to say the least. This time last year, I was barely two months in to my first full-time office job, at a NYC biglaw firm. The year before that, when I first started this blog, I was still in law school and had yet to take the bar. Now, I am going into my second full year of work as a graduated attorney, having gone from biglaw to clerkship, with another transition, from clerkship to something else, soon to come. (My first "blogiversary" post can be found here.) 

State of the Blog

Thank you so much, from the bottom of my heart, to everyone who comes by and reads along with me here at my little corner of the Internet! I am just so grateful and excited that people are reading, and always thrilled when people comment or otherwise reach out. With work, I haven't been as good about replying to comments here for much of this year, but I appreciate every comment so much. I also haven't been as good about commenting on your blogs (sorry!), but I've been having fun reading along, and I hope to be a more attentive commenter in the year to come.

I've been blogging, on and off, and in various places, for nearly half of my life now. For me, the most magical part about it all, the thing that keeps bringing me back, is how egalitarian a platform it is, how just anyone can put something of themselves out onto an Internet space and potentially have people from all over the world see it and engage with it. Through the blogs I've read, I've learned so many things about so many smart, interesting women. I've also gotten so much inspiration, both sartorial and otherwise.

These days, I sometimes think that blogs may be waning as a format. As reluctant as I am to accept it (I barely understood Twitter back in the day or even now, Instagram is still rather foreign, and I don't use Snapchat), it seems clear that other social media platforms are simply better ways to interact with a large audience. Still, blogging and reading blogs will likely always be one of my preferred ways of producing and interacting with Internet-based content. 

Affiliate Links and Income Report

In the interests of transparency, I thought it would also be good to discuss my experience with monetizing this blog. With all numbers, keep in mind that because I work full time, all additional income is taxed at my usual marginal tax rate (or possibly more, I've never previously had to do a tax return with additional "independent contractor"-classified income before). This means that, after all federal and state taxes are accounted for, any cash earnings I receive will likely be taxed at a rate of at least 40%+. Thank you again to everyone for your kind support throughout the year! 

As I mentioned in last year's blogiversary post, I found what limited discussions of blog income that were out there to be extremely informative, and I thought I'd add my own data point this year. Most of the information I had seen back then was on GOMI (which I no longer read as it's gotten dramatically more toxic). Incidentally, Carly from The College Prepster was kind enough to do a friendly and open AMA on r/blogsnark, which served as another data point, from the perspective of someone who has a particularly powerful personal brand. Another blog, Stylebee, recently did a thoughtful post about gifted items and sponsored posts that was also nice. Full disclosure: I have never posted on either GOMI or r/blogsnark in any capacity, though I do continue to read r/blogsnark. For a take on income and a very different blogging niche, there's also Pinch of Yum's monthly income reports. What would be fascinating is if any full-time, based in the USA, blogger out there also did a general discussion of the taxes and health insurance costs associated with being a full-time blogger, but that'd probably be too much oversharing for anyone to ever want to do. If my tax situation vis-a-vis blog income ends up dramatically different from what I expect, I will report back. 

For me, writing Invincible Summer is a labor of love, a fun hobby that occasionally generates a little bit of spending money (and now pays for the costs of my domain name with some extra). I don't spend any time optimizing my social media strategy or anything like that (which you can probably guess just from my largely inactive Instagram), and my Internet presence is very small. For the past calendar year, I average about 2,100 pageviews a month. Individual posts take me, on average, about an hour and a half to write, find or compile a graphic for, and edit. Some posts, especially the more serious ones, take significantly more editing time. As a general matter, I do not use, so the source of any affiliate links I utilize is clear when one hovers over a relevant link: "api.shopstyle" is shopstyle and something with "amzn" is Amazon, for instance.

Nitty-gritty details can be found behind the cut!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Unintended Style Inspiration: Gone Girl

This will probably be one of the odder things I ever confess here, but I have a strange fondness (not in a scary, "I'm secretly a vengeful murderess" way, I swear!) for Gone Girl, both book and movie. It's the kind of fondness that leads to having the film on as "comforting" background noise sometimes when doing household tasks or answering emails. In my defense, outside of a certain extremely violent scene, the film is generally relatively sedate in terms of the audio track, soundtrack, and even color palette, if not the subject matter.

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've also ended up having some of movie-Amy's outfits as common features on the fashion inspiration board in my head. I've refrained from putting any screenshots on my actual Pinterest board, as that may come across too strange, whether with or without context.

Amy Dunne's outfits in the movie were, according to the movie's costume designer herself in this InStyle interview, specifically designed not to stand out, so maybe a lot of my reaction is more to do with how good, how magnetic and always slightly menacing Rosamund Pike was in the role, rather than with the clothes. As the costume designer explained, Amy and Nick were supposed to be "really real and really authentic," with looks emphasizing "simple clothing" that seemed "like everyday life, like the people who shop at the mall and order things online." Amy, in particular, or "cool girl" Amy was kept in "simple classic pieces" for a look that was "not overwhelmed by fashion and clothing." Looking at the screenshots, the costume designer did an excellent job getting that across, I thought,

As a result of this entirely unintended source of fashion inspiration, I've been vaguely in the market for a gray and white fair isle sweater for several years now, specifically because of the film and the brief scene in which she wears it (pictured upper right, above). There's never been one that quite fit the bill, that had the spirit of the look I remembered from that scene and was in my general price range. I may try this Loft snowflake sweater to satisfy that urge (it's not actually visually similar to Amy's sweater). This Club Monaco Sarahfina fair isle sweater was the previous "best fit" (it too, is not visually similar) though too pricey, even with their semi-frequent additional 30% off clearance sales. Everyone else in the world must agree regarding the price, because it's never sold out in the years I keep seeing it in stock. The costume designer's take on Amy's (classic, leaning minimalist) approach to jewelry has also been influential to my own changing approach to jewelry, in terms of wanting fewer pieces that are closer to fine jewelry than costume jewelry. As someone who did watch this film quite a few times, often paying an unusual amount of attention to what Amy wore, I can vouch for the jewelry being subtle. Only when I looked for screenshots for this post did I really notice any of it. 

To get too much into why Gone Girl holds a certain deep-down appeal runs the risk of making me sound like a lunatic. Instead, I'll point to my favorite review of the film, a New Yorker article, "Marriage is an Abduction,"which identifies both Gone Girl and We Need to Talk About Kevin as movies that speak, with exaggerated and fictional darkness, about one theme that holds a tiny grain of truth: When it comes to what contemporary American society expects of women, there is a sense out there, coming from at least some (not insignificant) segments of society, that we and our achievements may never be seen as enough without the crowning achievement of marriage and a family.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Review: Grana Cashmere Boyfriend V-Neck

Sweater: Grana (c/o) Cashmere Boyfriend V-Neck in S
Jeans: rag & bone/Jean "The Skinny" Jeans (similar) in 27
Shoes: Sam Edelman "Petty" Booties in 7.5

Today's post is my first ever partnered post! I've previously received a tiny handful of other partnership opportunity offers (free product in exchange for a post), but this is the first one that I've accepted. I haven't had the need to develop a formal policy regarding potential partnerships or sponsorships, but I do have a few ground rules for myself.

  • First and foremost, I will not accept opportunities from brands and retailers I would not personally purchase from on my own. 
  • Second, any post that arises from a partnership or sponsorship will be clearly disclosed as such in the body of the post.
  • Third, if I received a product in relation to working with a company, I will disclose that again in every subsequent post in which the product is mentioned. 
  • Fourth, I would need to be in control of the written content associated with any such post, such that I could express my honest opinion about the product or brand at issue. 

A quick note on terminology: "partnered posts" in my case means that I received the product for free (or, potentially, at a discount), with the request that I post about the item on my blog.  I've adopted "c/o" as an abbreviation for "care of," which means that I received an item for free. "Sponsored posts," if it ever comes up (and I don't think it will, given my teeny-tiny Internet footprint), refers to a situation where monetary compensation was involved.

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

Now on to the product review: Grana (referral link, new customers receive 10% off their first order and I receive $20 store credit) reached out to me recently because of my previous posts about their items, offering me the opportunity to receive a few products for review consideration. As they're a brand I already enjoy shopping from on my own, I was happy to accept. At least one more post highlighting some of their more recently released silk tops is forthcoming soon. 

I chose the Cashmere Boyfriend V-Neck sweater because I'm fond of slouchy sweaters with an intentionally slightly oversized fit. In my photos you can see it both pulled down, where the hem rests a little past my hips, and hitched up a bit, like on the model. The design is on the roomy side for a slouchy sweater. I would still say that it fits true to most mall-store sizing when one aims for the intended slightly oversized look, and my usual size S was correct. For fit reference, I'm roughly 36''-26''-37'' and 5'3'' with a more "regular" sizing torso and shoulder width and shorter "petite" pant-length legs.

In general, I've found Grana's product measurements, which are offered for every item and size, to be accurate and helpful. Grana's silk products run a touch smaller than, say, Loft or Madewell sizing. I still take my usual size S for the most part, but get a less drapey look. This sweater seems to run true to size, in that light. The one unexpected fit-related quibble I notice is that the cuffs are knit a tiny bit thicker and more snug than I'd expect, so its a little more difficult and less comfortable to push the sleeves up to my elbows than I'm used to with various other sweaters. They may stretch with time as I keep pushing the sleeves up. Otherwise though, I'm very happy with this design, it's exactly what I had in mind for a slouchy v-neck sweater, one that I'd be happy to wear to work with slim-fitting dress pants as part of a more "casual business-casual" look.

Cashmere quality-wise, I'm also very satisfied. The cashmere feels noticeably thicker and a cut above that of comparable sweaters I bought last year at Uniqlo and H&M Premium Quality (the Uniqlo held up fine in the last year and the H&M proved rather prone to pilling).  It's more difficult to compare it to my deeply discounted, originally pricey White & Warren sweaters, as both were intentionally designed to be fine, thin knits, with little pointelle or lacy details. Texture-wise, I honestly find all the cashmere I own, including this Grana sweater, to be in a similar range of softness, with the caveat that darker colors feel a little less soft. The only difference I notice with the Grana compared to any of the others is that this sweater feels and looks a bit fuzzier (hard to explain, it's minor, but noticeable when putting them side by side for the first time), and I'm not sure if it's because the sweater is a little thicker than the others I have.

If you need more information regarding Grana's cashmere: Elaine at Temporary Housewifey has done a few Grana cashmere reviews, and she is able to compare them (as equally favorable) to their direct competitor, Everlane. She's generally done more research on how to assess cashmere quality, and rates both Grana and Everlane as superior to J.Crew

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Sunday Reading: On Desire and Shopping Budgets

via Vogue Japan

Today's post is a fairly light one as far as Sunday reading posts go. Recently, I've come across a few discussions relating to clothing budgets, whether monthly or otherwise, and as it's a topic I'm basically always interested in, I thought I'd share. 

First up are two semi-related discussions on r/femalefashionadvice about setting a budget and sticking to it. The first was about the experience of constantly wanting more than one's budget can accommodate, and how different readers dealt with that feeling. The second was a discussion of different readers' monthly shopping budgets and/or larger shopping habits, often with some context regarding their age and larger financial or life situation. Both discussions were interesting, and I particularly appreciated the second, as it was fascinating to hear about some very different approaches to building and maintaining one's wardrobe. I've personally found through experience that a flexible monthly budget (that sets a hopefully strict limit on the year's fashion expenditures) works best for me, as I can't stick to a more "minimalist" and "needs and careful wants only" shopping fast-type approach. My approach may be in flux, as I think many of my shopping habits and preferences have continued changing this year, but we shall see.

Up next is a series of incredibly thoughtful posts from Twelve: of Our, the blog of Wired's Senior Art Director, Olga Montserrat, reflecting on the marketing of fashion (particularly high-end fashion), the level and type of consumption and spending that can encourage, and various related ideas. This post reflecting on the 1994 Calvin Klein aesthetic that captivated her as a teen, for instance, and how that fed into a desire, a visceral want to buy something that felt like it would, it must "somehow imprint me with a sort of status and cred, making me untouchable in a way-"

It really struck me, because I know that feeling, or something like it, could always relate to that article about the "holy hell, what did I just do" purchase of a Rick Owens leather jacket even when most other people in my life would think it all deeply extravagant and baffling, the epitome of selfish "first world problems." Of course the things that captivated me, that I desired when I first became aware of fashion and style were probably significantly less tasteful and, well, un-classy. No lie, the first item I wanted that way was a $495 circa 2007 or 2008 Coach patchwork tote, and with the benefit of hindsight, it was really darn ugly (exact photo here, and it is a horror).

Her series of posts also includes a few reflecting on regret and big-ticket purchases, as well as on how those big-ticket designer purchases fits in with her larger financial picture, especially after making a subsequent commitment to get rid of consumer debt. Those latter posts are likely a cautionary tale that I should keep in mind when I eventually get in a position to pull the trigger on one or the other  "big distant future splurge," no matter how well-planned and reflected on the possible purchase proves to be.

What was the first designer item or aesthetic that really captured your attention, maybe initiated your awareness of fashion and style as a thing to aspire to? Any thoughts on whether a monthly budget approach or some other approach to allocating funds for fashion shopping works best for your wallet and your closet? 

Monday, November 28, 2016

November Shopping Reflections

Happy belated Thanksgiving to all US-based readers! I hope that everyone had a wonderful time, and for all those who are inspired to do a spot of shopping this time of year, I hope that was productive too.

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've put in more than my share of Black Friday online sale orders in the past few days, though it remains to be seen how much, if anything, I will keep. There was that J.Crew Stadium-Cloth Cocoon Coat I wrote about, at their fairly dramatic 40% off everything sale price. (The Ellen Tracy Cocoon Coat that was a possible alternative has also dropped down to close to the price I got on last year's version.) I also put in an Uniqlo order that just arrived, mostly for items I normally omit from my monthly budget, underwear (which holds up much better than Calvin Klein or Natori ones I purchased at Nordstrom at significantly higher prices in the last year or two) and Heattech leggings (extra warm or normal) as long underwear. I added some long-sleeve, boat-neck blouses (some rayon, some polyester, the rayon fabric feels nicer) for work, but the designs just didn't work for me, too boxy and sort of cropped. Nordstrom was also offering the black or brown leather Sam Edelman Petty booties at a very good sale price, and I may pick up a second pair identical to my first for when my current pair finally give out (not likely to happen this year or the next, so this may be a silly notion). I won't make final decisions about the on-budget items until later, so they'll appear in next month's shopping post!

At the start of the year, I set a $170/month budget ($2040/year) with the understanding that I didn't necessarily expect to spend it all, and that certain items (the J.Crew Factory Suits I discussed here) would be off-budget. I'm actually doing pretty well, with $715.13 technically remaining for December, though this does not, of course, give me license to use up the entire amount just because it's there! I don't expect to make any really large purchases outside of the J.Crew Coat, if I decide to keep it, so I'm hoping to be well "under budget" for the year in the end. The math is as follows: $2040.00 - ($77.88 + $49.50 + $158.90 + $106.95 + $104.92 + $109.37 + $127.00 + $252.99 + $65.27 + $160.00 + $112.09) = $715.13.

Fashion - (TOTAL: $77.88)
  • College Logo Tote Bag (similar L.L. Bean pictured) - $26.54 - I asked someone to pick up a canvas tote bag from my undergraduate alma mater when they were passing through, and they were kind enough to do so. I used to have the exact same tote, but culled it out of my closet as it was looking quite worn and I had other canvas totes at the time. These days, though, I'm a bit nostalgic for my undergraduate school, and I don't currently have another canvas tote for grocery shopping-type outings.
  • White and Warren Cashmere Wave Stitch Sweater (now sold out) - $51.34 - I got this during Gilt's extra 40% off Black Friday promotion, the way I did another White and Warren cardigan last year. Size S was sold out again, so I picked up a M, and it's likely that this will be an oversized casual-wear sweater on me. This one is final sale, so while I haven't received it yet, unlike with my other Black Friday purchases, I'm already committed. 

Beauty and Skincare - (TOTAL: $ 42.68)

I'm $180 dollars of spending short of re-attaining Sephora VIB status this year. Because the vast majority of my skincare products are now from other sources (mainly Amazon), I don't expect to get there. I can't exactly describe this as a minimalism or frugality-related achievement of any sort because my beauty and skincare expenditures were already well under control before. Also, I do still accumulate some backlog of skincare products and beauty products, I'm not just buying things only when I need them. This year, I've been tracking my beauty and skincare expenditures quite faithfully in these monthly budget posts, with the exception of the handful of items I bought while traveling in Taiwan in May, so you can see everything I've purchased domestically.

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

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

First Steps: Personal Finance Toolkit "Bonus Tips"

This post is a follow-up to my recent "First Steps: A Personal Finance Toolkit" post. Previously, I offered a few suggestions that any and every personal finance newbie could and likely should begin with: (1) ensuring that their banking is no-fee, (2) maximizing the interest rate on their savings account(s), and (3) having the lowest-fee investments possible.

Today, I offer a few "bonus tips" that are likely less universally applicable, but still helpful. Once again, no referral or affiliate links here! None of my accounts or cards offer referral programs particularly amenable to sharing on a blog. 

Bonus Tip 1: Utilize online tools and software to better manage your money.

Zero-Based Budgeting Software: One of my long-ago posts recommended YNAB Classic and extolled the virtues of zero-based budgeting software that (a) plans out one's entire budget and spending and (b) tracks all expenses in real time. That approach allowed me to truly understand where my money was going for the first time in my life, and in doing so, transformed my approach to money and opened the door to my building my savings fairly quickly while handling my extremely substantial student debt, not feeling deprived, and still regularly indulging in things like shopping, international travel, and dining out. 

I had thought I was "good with money," before: I saved almost 50% of my (modest, local students' Ph.D-stipend sized) monthly take-home pay while I was working before law school and always paid my credit card balance in full every month. In actuality, I wasn't good with money at all. In America, law school is an often-silly financial decision, though much of that wasn't in my complete control once I had committed. What was in my complete control was (a) not depleting my savings from before law school much quicker than I should have and (b) not living above my means while I was a student though, spoiler alert, I did neither.

I still use YNAB Classic to this day, but it is no longer available to new customers. Personally, I will probably never adopt "new YNAB," mostly because I object to its subscription-based pricing. Other bloggers do use and love it, however. If my copy of YNAB Classic ever stops working, I am fairly certain I will not be joining "nYNAB." Possible alternatives that also use zero-based or envelope-style budgeting, but that I have not personally tested, include Everydollar

Track your Net Worth: I'm a fairly new user of Personal Capital to track my net worth in real time, and I highly recommend it! I'm not certain of whether they are good for non-U.S. based users, but they're able to link up with every U.S.-based banking, investment, and loan repayment account that I maintain. While YNAB Classic also tracks net worth, it requires entering all information manually, which means that investment and loan balances are not tracked in real time, so it isn't as useful for that purpose.

Personal Capital also offers wealth management services for users with at least $25,000 invested, but I will likely never be tempted to explore that option, as I'm perfectly happy with managing my own investments by picking my own low-fee, passively managed index funds. 

Bonus Tip 2: Maximize credit card rewards.

I'm aware that keeping a wide array of credit cards on hand to maximize rewards is not everyone's cup of tea, but I've had a good run with credit card rewardss. When used properly (balances paid in full every month, so there are never any late fees or interest payments to contend with and balance transfer fees or interest rates are irrelevant considerations), credit card rewards confer many benefits or savings with very little additional effort.

I'm not a dedicated credit card "churner" and am unlikely to ever get, say, First Class international plane tickets or luxury hotel stays entirely out of my credit card rewards points. Nonetheless, I do have a few cards that reliably give me decent cash back and travel credit rewards every year with just my usual spending patterns.

Note that, as with many of my personal finance suggestions, these cards are U.S.-only. Also, all of these cards do require a fairly good credit score. If you don't have much of a credit history, you may not be able to start building your credit history with rewards credit cards. My current cards, and how I use them, are as follows:

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred (Visa) - $95 fee/year, after first year - travel rewards 
    • Chase awards one travel rewards point per dollar spent, with double rewards for dining and travel expenses. I typically transfer points to United's MileagePlus program and redeem the points for Star Alliance flights (one Chase point = one United mile). The 50,000 bonus for spending $4,000 in the first three months, by itself, got me two flights within Asia, worth about $400 total, with a few thousand points left over. One can cancel the card after that, before the $95/year fee kicks in for your second year. 
    • In a typical spending year I end up with roughly enough points for three ~$200 dollar flights every two years, which makes the $95/fee arguably "worth it."
    • Many of my peers would now get the Chase Sapphire Reserve instead, which  carries $450/year in fees that will not be waived even in the first year, but gives $300/year in travel credit as well as $100/year refund for Global Entry (includes TSA Pre-Check), which may make the effective fee, for even semi-frequent travelers, as low as $50/year. It also gives airport lounge access, among other perks. I'm considering this card, but I don't travel enough to make it a "sure thing" for me. Also, as a government employee for the year, the very hefty annual fee doesn't appeal to me, even if I plan to get most of it back. 
  • American Express Blue Cash Everyday - no fee - 3% cash back on groceries 
    • I use this card for all grocery store purchases. Cash back is best redeemed as a statement credit, and one must accumulate $25.00 cash back to redeem. At my current rate of grocery spending, I redeem $25.00 about once every three to four months. When I first got this card, there was a $100 cash back bonus for making over $1,000 in purchases in the first three months, but I'm not sure if that's still available.
    • If I ate out less than I do, I'd get the American Express Blue Cash Preferred (6% cash back on groceries, $95/year annual fee) instead. It currently comes with a $150 bonus for over $1,000 in purchases in the first three months. At the moment, I actually cook often enough to make the Preferred card worth it, but that will change when I go back to biglaw.
  • Citi Double Cash Back (Mastercard) - no fee - 2% cash back* 
    • *This card gives 1% cash back at the time of purchase and an extra 1% cash back at the time of repayment. 
    • Like with the American Express, the cash back is redeemed as a statement credit when one accumulates a minimum of $25.00. Some would say it makes more sense to just put all my spending on the Chase card instead as travel rewards can be more valuable than cash back, but I like having the option of having either cash back or travel rewards. 
    • Citi appears to be particularly annoying about verifying your identity when one applies for the card. They made me send in a paystub and my checking account bank statement, which was strange. That had never happened when I applied for other cards.

Other cards that I've considered include the no-fee Ebates card, for an extra 3% cash back on all Ebates-eligible shopping (which is a majority of the clothing, cosmetics, and drugstore product shopping I do), and the United MileagePlus Explorer Card, which is a fee card with the first year fee typically waived,  which I'd then plan to cancel after the first year, before paying the fee for the first time, after getting the bonus MileagePlus points.

Do any of you have favorite credit cards or personal finance software tools?