Wednesday, January 27, 2016

January Shopping Reflections

Because I kicked off my shopping month by buying a coat, there wasn't room for other fashion purchases if I was to stick closely to my $2040/year or average of $170/month target. As was my general practice last year, I wouldn't sweat it if I go over $170 in any given month, but I do want to avoid going dramatically over at any point in the interest of staying on track for the year.

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With my monthly average spend at $170 rather than last year's $250, I have to be a little more careful about planning things out. For my needs and habits, my number tends to allow me either one larger purchaseor a handful of smaller ones each month. I don't have a Five-Piece French Wardrobelist for now (I largely wrapped up the last one and it's still winter), but I do have a list of things that I might be planning on in the near future. I'd like a pair of black leather flats, most likely ones that are more structured life loafers, rather than ballet flats, in hopes of the shoes having more longevity. The Dieppa Restreppo Dandy loafers (in black) are something I've thought about, though with my budget, I'm more likely to end up looking to the Everlane Modern Point shoes. I'm also eyeing a boatneck striped sweater from the late February release from Uniqlo's Ines De La Fressange line (but in white and navy, and I was only able to pin the awkwardly transparent linked photo). 

Although I do not have a strict beauty and skincare budget I'm trying to be better than I was last year. I ended up with a few splurge-y and arguably unnecessary skincare purchases while I was in Korea and then at the end of the year. Also, with the winter Sephora sales, I kept VIB status for 2016. I'll try to be more faithful about documenting my beauty spending this year, so you'll be able to follow along with how I'm doing on that count. Last year, I missed a few items here and there.

Fashion - (TOTAL:  $112.08) **Edited on 2/3 to reflect price adjustment.

  • Ellen Tracy Wool Blend Stadium Coat - $112.08* - Worn here. I bought the orange-red Pumpkin shade, which I really like. I started wanting a brightly-colored coat after I saw one of my friends wearing the J. Crew Stadium Parka, but that was out of my price range, especially given how many other coats I bought in the recent months. The quality is not the best, with the slightly-scratchy wool-blend fabric (though that doesn't affect the wearer because of the full lining), but I'm very satisfied. Nordstrom applied a further discount only a few weeks after I originally ordered it, but thanks to the insistence of Pret a Porter P and Dorigamii, I decided to give Nordstrom a call about a price adjustment, and their customer service was kind enough to grant it! That frees up a little extra money for future months.

Beauty - (TOTAL: $11.83)
  • Hada Labo Gokujyun Hyaluronic Acid Lotion - $11.83* - This is one of my skincare staples. When they say "lotion," they mean a moisturizing toner, which I apply directly to my face, using my hands, as the third step in my routine after cleansing and applying the Missha First Treatment Essence (I plan to try the CosRx version soon due to better price and Missha's recent reformulation). This item isn't too special because it's sole purpose is to moisturize, and many other products do the same thing, but it's well-priced. The Amazon price tends to fluctuate a bit so it is currently higher than when I bought it earlier this month. 

*indicates that sales tax is included in the listed price 

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

Monday, January 25, 2016

On Pretty Notebooks, Aspirational Consuming, Etc.

Things got a little crazy at work recently. I might even confess to shedding a momentary tear or two on one of those evenings, purely from being overwhelmed with six active projects going forward all at once. I must admit, given the nature of my workplace and what I signed up for, it'd be more of a surprise if things weren't crazy on any given day or week. As a very new first-year biglaw law clerk though, this was my first brush with how hectic things can get.

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Stress is one of my shopping triggers, but I'm still on track with my month's shopping budget. That coat I bought (seen here) will likely be my only fashion purchase this month. I did, however, give in to another one of my long-dormant shopping vices, a fondness for nice stationery, by buying the pictured notebooks from Rifle Paper Co. in a bid to be better-organized and better-equipped to handle the next crazy period. It wasn't completely silly. My system of using different company-issued legal pads for every project starts to fall apart when I'm fielding surprise phone calls and tasks on many things at once. Half my notes are in their rightful place while the other ends up split between post-it notes or the mini legal pad I keep by the phone. Combine that with my stream-of-consciousness compulsive note-taking style, where the important details are often buried in random places in the middle of a two to three page sea of for-my-own-information but not-that-important context, and things were messy. I'm using these notebooks to keep track of essential details: my daily to-do list and concise details about assignments, and it's working out so far.

That got me thinking about how I'm no stranger to shopping as a way of aspirational consuming, to try and buy my way to being some shinier or better version of myself. With clothing and shoes, the desire was often to look like and eventually be like someone who fit in with classmates or successful NYC professional women. With the steady stream of blank notebooks and journals I used to buy, the desire was to be this vision of a writerly person sitting and looking cool in this or that coffee-shop or cafe, writing thoughtful things in a pretty notebook that fit the aesthetic of a hip, creative person. Never mind that I've never really lived in a neighborhood (whether in California, NYC, or Hong Kong) where there were never any nearby coffee-shops that ever had free seating. Also, I get antsy when working anywhere but home, so coffee-shops and libraries have never been productive settings for me. Finally, I've never actually stuck with journaling for any extended period of time.

Part of the general process of decluttering and working towards an almost-minimalism that works for me (I continue to be reluctant to call myself an actual minimalist because I'm so focused on saving money as my primary motive) has been to question my consumption habits and try to limit myself to buying only what I actually use and is actually a "need" or a well thought out "want." To that end, I think I've been good about cutting down or out many spending categories that I used to deem natural or necessary but weren't: home decor and knick-knacks, most types of makeup because I don't particularly enjoy it, all those blank journals, hard-copy planners because that's what Google Calendar is for, and so on. This brief return to buying pretty notebooks is just a blip. It wasn't the most frugal way of addressing this particular need, but it was a "real" need.

Have you ever looked back and realized that certain things that you habitually shopped for weren't actually things you used or needed? Have you been able to stop buying those items? (And did it make any noticeable dent in your spending?) I generally spend less month-to-month in most of my discretionary categories now than I did as a student, though with my rent and student loan payments, my total monthly spending is higher. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

A Bright Orange Coat

Coat: Ellen Tracy Wool Blend Stadium Coat, Pumpkin, 6P
Scarf: unbranded, gift (similar via Chinese wholesaler
T-shirt: Forever 21, old (similar from Madewell)
Jeans: Rag & Bone/JEAN, The Skinny Mid-Rise Jeans, Coventry Wash, 27
Shoes: Sam Edelman Sara Flats, Leopard Print, 7.5

While browsing the post-Christmas sales, I was seized with another one of my sudden impulsive wardrobe desires: I desperately wanted a brightly colored cocoon coat, most likely in orange-red. I might or might not have been strongly influenced by seeing a friend who looked fabulous in a orange-red  J. Crew stadium cloth Chateau Parkas. At this point in the season, though, J. Crew was sold out of of pretty much every relevant design and color combination in my size. Furthermore, even with their semi-frequent discounts, their price point was a little high for something that was going to be a major style experiment for me.

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Both the shape and color are dramatic changes from what I typically look for. I've previously tried on an Aritzia cocoon coat (sold out, pictured) that was a distressingly unflattering look, though a big factor there was that it was meant for someone taller. Orange is also a color I have very little experience with wearing: I did know that coral clothes and lipsticks are not great on me, which potentially made orange-red not too promising, even if the colors are different. 

Does anyone else sometimes end up buying something because of direct inspiration from seeing a friend wear an extremely similar item, by the way? I've done so a few times and it makes me worry just a little that it'd be construed as slightly creepy. It only means that I think the person in question has excellent taste and looks fabulous in the item in question, but I suppose I'm a born worrier.

My shopping process came down to two choices: the Ellen Tracy coat I got and a Kenneth Cole design with a bigger discount but slightly busier design that didn't fit with the image of a simpler cocoon coat that I had in mind. The Ellen Tracy coat is probably not perfect: the quality is maybe not the best as the wool blend feels a little bit scratchy, though that doesn't affect the wearer because of the lining. Still, the price and the design are right, and as with the rest of my purchases, I plan to take good care of it. It should last me at least a good two to three years, and probably longer, with occasional wear from fall to spring, barring any dramatic changes in my size.

Size and fit-wise, this coat runs large, particularly around the chest and stomach, and maybe a little long, and not all of that is accounted for by how cocoon coats typically run a bit oversized. Most of my other coats are regular sizing, which is typically fine despite my 5'3'' height and short legs, and I'd typically expect the size 6P I'm wearing above to be a bit small in the chest. Here, the 6P is a bit roomy, though I like my coats to have room for thick sweaters and giant scarves and I do think the cocoon coat look requires the coat to be a touch oversized. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Getting Started with Asian Skincare: Sheet Masks

When I traveled to Korea last year, I purchased a slightly absurd quantity of sheet masks (more than half of which are not even in this photo). 

I've been an adherent of what many American fans would describe as an "Asian," "Asian-inspired," (by which we mean Korean, Japanese, and Taiwanese), or "K-Beauty" skincare routine for almost two years now, and it's been working out well. I once described my routine in very general terms while trying to calculate the hypothetical cost over the course of a year, though the numbers were always a bit off due to price fluctuations and the listed routine is out of date. I also posted a more recent list of products I've used and enjoyed. Today's post focuses on sheet masks, which can often serve as a relatively low-cost and easy to incorporate starter item for those interested in experimenting with Asian skincare.

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Sheet masks are typically thin sheets of cotton cut to fit around the entire face (with holes for your eyes, nostrils, and mouth) and soaked in moisturizing toner ("lotion" or "essence" in Asian skincare parlance) or lotion ("emulsions" or "milky lotions" in Asian skincare parlance). Hydrogels are also becoming popular. Those are made of thin sheets of solidified gel or jelly, which are still pliable and can fit around the face. Generally, they're more expensive than the traditional cotton sheet masks. I've tried a few hydrogels and I generally find them less moisturizing and, thus, not worth the price. Although I always worry about whether a new sheet mask will break me out or irritate my skin, my acne-prone skin has generally never had trouble with sheet masks. This is despite the fact that they do tend to be scented. I've only had one real dud in all my years of experimenting: the Missha Pure Source sheet masks are terrible. 

My approach to using sheet masks might be slightly idiosyncratic. I just don't think one is likely to get dramatic results from something that is single-use and sits on your face for around 20 minutes max, so all I expect from my sheet masks is a bit of extra moisturizing and soothing. I imagine that some masks have ingredients that allow for longer-term benefits like brightening up hyperpigmented spots, anti-aging, etc., but I already address those needs with other products in my routine. Thus, one of my main rules for sheet masks is to stick to cheap ones, generally ones that cost less than $2.00/mask. I like to keep a few types in stock at one time because it is fun to switch them around, though that makes noticeable extra benefits besides moisturizing or soothing even less likely. 

Here are some of the sheet masks I would recommend to someone just getting started with Asian skincare while residing in the US. As always, everyone's skin is unique and your mileage may vary. These are all products that fit my price criteria, are easy to obtain (typically via Amazon), and that I enjoy:

  • My Beauty Diary (MBD) Imperial Birds Nest, Black Pearl, Hyaluronic Acid, and Aloe Masks: MBD is an extremely popular Taiwanese brand and they make a wide range of sheet masks. The listed varieties are ones that I've tried and loved, though I'm also reasonably confident that any other variety of MBD masks would be reasonably effective and unlikely to break out most skin types. In the past, people worried a lot about getting counterfeits, but in my experience, each of the Amazon sellers I've tried (CP Cosmetics and G-Market) have sent me legitimate ones. They do update their packaging and change how the masks are cut very frequently, and the boxes and mask shape can differ depending on whether it was made for the US or Taiwanese market, so don't be too freaked out if yours look different from someone else's. One thing to be aware of, however, is that they've started cutting their masks extremely small, at least in Taiwan, such that the mask barely fits and leaves about a quarter to half inch of uncovered face all around. I do have a slightly bigger than average face, maybe, but I've never had that problem with any other brand of sheet mask.
  • Innisfree It's Real Squeeze Masks: These are an update to the Innisfree It's Real masks that are also on Amazon. The main option here is to buy a mixed set of 15, and it is unfortunate that you don't get to pick and choose, but I've liked every single mask in this set after buying it around three times over the years. A few of these masks (the Shea Butter for sure, and maybe the Manuka Honey) are soaked with what a US user would describe as lotion, rather than the more typical liquid toner, which might not suit oily skin types as well. 
  • Dermal Snail and Pearl Masks: I actually got my first set of Dermal masks from a friend who visited Korea. They're a little cheaper than the other two brands . As with the MBD masks, I'm listing the varieties I've tried, though I'm reasonably confident that other varieties will have similar good results and be well-tolerated by most skin types. I will say that they feel a little less moisturizing than either the MBD or Innisfree masks I mentioned above, so these are not my favorite, though they're a good "starter" sheet mask.

Have you tried sheet masks before? Which ones do you enjoy? I'm thinking of ordering a set of Tony Moly masks from Amazon once I've worked through more of the pile I brought home from Korea and Taiwan last summer. Dorigamii has also ordered Tony Moly and Etude House sheet mask sets from from Amazon, and you can read about her experience here.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Life Lately

I saw George Takei's Broadway show, Allegiance, a few weeks before Thanksgiving. It's a great musical, with both fun and very serious moments, and Lea Salonga is fantastic. I was sorry to hear that their Broadway run is ending soon. The story it tells is an important one. I've seen a decent number of excellent Broadway shows in my time (The Phantom of the Opera, Rent, Lion King, Wicked, Mamma Mia, An American in Paris, and Matilda), and I think as a matter of pure quality of the show overall, Allegiance held its own and was solidly in the middle of that very distinguished pack. Still, the tone and subject matter is substantially more serious than with anything else I've seen, and that probably doesn't appeal to most of the potential audience for Broadway musicals. For those who might have the opportunity to see a Broadway show in the extremely near future, I highly recommend Allegiance.

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Many of my purchases these days are arguably impulse buys. I suddenly decide I want something specific (a pair of pants for work, a trench coat, etc.), I identify and order a few examples of the item to try, and I eventually purchase one, all in the space of two and a half weeks or so. Most of the delay comes from shipping times. Sometimes the thing in question works out, and sometimes it doesn't. In the latter instance, I often get distracted by work, life, or something else, and I eventually realize that I didn't need it after all. 

One of my more recent attempted purchases was a pair of wool dress pants, most likely a pair of slightly tapered skinny-fit or straight leg ones, similar to what I already own from Loft or Uniqlo. I had the vague unfounded notion that wool dress pants would generally be made of thicker and warmer fabric and be better-suited for winter weather. I had some trouble finding even wool-blend dress pants in a price range I was comfortable with, and I ended up ordering the J. Crew Paley Pants in Super 120s wool to try because, with a sale promotion, they were just about the only thing that fit the bill in terms of material, design, and price. 

I didn't take photos, but wow, the Super 120s wool material was a major disappointment. The first thing that struck me when I opened the package was that the fabric was paper thin, noticeably less substantial than that of either my Loft or Uniqlo pants. Wool suits and dress clothes are probably not actually intended to be thicker and warmer than other suiting, but even in that light, the material was absurdly thin, and I would even worry about tearing them by accident. The fit and design was ok - it ran fairly true to size with what I expect from mall brands, with my usual size 4P being the right one and hitting right above my ankle as intended. With how thin the material was, I'd worry about things like a visible panty line and other awkwardness with how it drapes over my legs, which isn't an issue I've ever had with other pants. I sent them straight back and have since decided that wool pants are maybe not a wardrobe niche that needs filling right now.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

2016 Shopping Budget

My biggest fashion purchase for the year will probably be a suit, and a more conservative one than this one from The Good Wife.

One thing that surprised me while looking over my shopping posts for 2015 was that I actually managed several months where I bought very little, especially from a total number of items standpoint. As someone who realized early in the year that there might be no chance that I could ever stick to any kind of shopping ban for along, having a few very low-shopping months (and even one shopping-free month!) was quite a surprise. I do, however, often give in to impulse buys, though I try to frame them as "ideas for things that fill real wardrobe niches, just ones that I thought of very suddenly." Such impulse buys probably constitute roughly half of what I buy. It isn't the best habit, but one that is likely here to stay because new, unanticipated things will inevitably strike my fancy sometimes.

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For 2016, my budget for fashion-related expenditures (clothes, shoes, and accessories) will be $2040/year, which averages out to $170/month. As a general rule, I don't count activewear, socks, tights, and underwear as part of that budget because I'm reasonably confident that I only buy close to the bare minimum of what I need in those categories and am frugal about it, while still doing my best to buy things that last, even if some items come from fast-fashion retailers. I don't worry when I have a month that's a little, or even a lot over the monthly average, so long as I stay under my budgeted maximum for the year.

In 2016, I also plan to make a few major purchases that I will consider off-budget because they are intended to be one-time transactions and could be large enough to throw off the rest of my budget. I've been told that it's probably time to upgrade my business formal wardrobe of 100% polyester or other synthetic fiber suits (from The Limited and Ann Taylor) by acquiring one classic, conservative wool suit, possibly from Brooks Brothers (jacket, skirt not currently in stock online). The polyester suits are, in my experience, generally fine when one is a student interviewing for entry-level positions, including in large corporate law firms, but I've heard different things about whether some fields are rife with individuals who will judge a job candidate for wearing a "cheap" suit. It's also been a long time since I owned a pair of non-patent leather pumps, which means that a pair of basic low-heeled black leather pumps (maybe like this) for hypothetical future interviews is probably also a necessity. With those large purchases in mind, my fashion-related spending will likely still come out to around $3000/year, possibly a little more. There's a possibility that I'll add another item or two to that list of big-ticket, one-time purchases, and I'll report on any such purchases when they happen in the month's shopping budget.

What does your shopping budget look like for the next year? Is it different from last year's budget?

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Goodbye 2015, Hello 2016

Photo by K

2015 was a whirlwind of a year for me: I graduated from law school, passed the bar exam, moved in with K, went on my first real apartment hunt, and started my first full-time corporate job, among many other things. The last few months have been particularly hectic, and while I'm starting to get oriented to my new office-dweller lifestyle, I'm definitely not fully adjusted yet. 

Looking back onto my goals for 2015, I think I've done alright: I've been largely in command of my budget and doing well, though not perfect, with regards to my financial goals. I'm a more thoughtful consumer in terms of buying fewer total items and actually wearing the vast majority of what I buy. I don't read as much because of the new job and a commute that involves more walking than time on the train, but I got through 30 books this year. The healthy habits thing is a work in progress, but I've been on a two to three times a week gym habit since starting work. As for that goal of always striving to be a "good" or "better" person, I did some charitable giving this year and I've devoted 60 hours to public service since starting at my job. That goal also involved a component of being less cynical, which is still a work in progress and can be difficult, especially in times of high stress. 

For 2016, I'm setting a few goals, some of them quite abstract and a few that are more quantifiable:
  • Meet my financial goals: (1) save six months of expenses as an emergency fund and (2) finally get on that ultra-aggressive (monthly payments totaling 150% of my original minimum payment) student loan repayment schedule I kept talking about. More or this later, but I'm not currently meeting that student loan repayment goal. Another goal of saving a little extra in a Roth IRA on top of my 6% of salary 401K contributions also dropped off the map for now. It isn't entirely due to my discretionary spending either, at least some of it is just NYC life being expensive. I'm on track to have my six months of expenses saved by early May, mostly thanks to a generous tax refund (every paycheck is taxed as if I worked for the whole year even though I only worked for three months in 2015). I'm transitioning to that year-long fellowship-ish with its significant pay-cut by early September, which means I will only have approximately three months of ultra-aggressive loan payments, but every little bit counts. 
  • Healthy habits: stick to an approximately three times a week gym schedule and cook at least half of my meals on the weekday evenings I get to spend at home. My work schedule can be very unpredictable, but these goals are somewhat realistic, particularly the exercise component. The cooking dinners at home thing is more challenging. There are many weeks where I don't actually head home in time for dinner more than once or twice, making it difficult to know what accomplishing this goal would even look like. 
  • Prioritize relationships. This can be a bit more difficult for me than it is for most. I have a strong workaholic streak and I'm also an introvert who values and even needs ample alone time at home to recharge. Free time is, naturally, in much shorter supply now than when I was a student. The concrete things I can do are: (1) be better about unplugging entirely from work on nights and weekends whenever possible so that I can spend more quality time with K, (2) take advantage of all the opportunities I have to spend time with family and friends, and (3) initiate a few outings with friends and finally invite friends over to the new place. 
  • Keep working on being "good." I'd like to increase my charitable giving and continue devoting a decent quantity of my working hours to public service. 
  • Keep working on being a more ethical and mindful consumer. Although there's always room for improvement here, I'm not sure how much further I will get with goals in this category, given my other life priorities. I will continue to cut down on the total quantity of items I buy, both in terms of clothing and beauty products, and I'd like to look to consignment shops and secondhand items for a larger proportion of my clothes shopping. 
The overall theme of my 2016 goals is, in truth, probably the not-particularly-inspirational notion of adapting to "the new normal" of life as an intensely busy working professional. I was expecting the transition to be challenging, but a few things took me by surprise, especially how little energy I sometimes have when I get back home.

What are your goals or resolutions for 2016?