Thursday, October 27, 2016

October Shopping Reflections

This month was a somewhat shopping-light month when it came to clothing, though not for lack of trying. I was hoping to add a few more long-sleeved blouses (from Loft) to my work wardrobe, but that didn't pan out. I'm surprised because the floral-printed top I bought last year was one of my "best purchases" of 2015. I particularly wanted to love this paisley lantern sleeve blouse because of the print, but the sleeves were oddly proportioned, the bow is impractical. This collarless henley tunic was also strange: It was practically as long as a dress, but with very high side slits. I also tried on a few sweaters from Loft, and I had better luck there, as I usually do with their low-maintenance synthetic-blend sweaters.

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

New additions to my closet-wise, I was also grateful to receive a pair of riding boots as a generous birthday gift from my mom.  It was purchased during the Tory Burch Friends and Family sale quite a few weeks ago, with a 30% discount. A version of one of my birthday gifts last year, a gray 100% wool H&M Premium Quality scarf that has held up wonderfully (and seems to me to be a decent knock-off for those popular Acne scarves), is also back in stock. Note, though, that this year's version appears to be smaller than the one from last year, and less amenable to being used as a blanket-like shawl, one of the ways I use last year's scarf.

I also replaced quite a few items in my skincare routine. I've been using the CosRx BHA Skin Returning A-Sol and BHA Blackhead Power Liquid (Amazon is cheaper) for almost four weeks and three weeks, respectively, and I must say, I'm very impressed with both! Though I was a very old hand at using my former holy grail product, the Paula's Choice 2% BHA Liquid, on top of other fairly harsh treatments like prescription Retin-A Micro 0.1%,  the Paula's Choice still irritated my skin sometimes, causing occasional breakouts. Not so with the CosRx. Although I was previously skeptical about the CosRx hype (there are times when the r/AsianBeauty community seems to over-hype certain trendy products), their BHAs have proven both gentle and effective. My skin still isn't perfect, but these products, used in combination, have yielded fairly quick and noticeable improvements in my acne. They also seem to noticeably improve my skin's overall appearance, which was not a benefit I saw with the Paula's Choice.

Fashion - (TOTAL: $49.50)
  • Loft Chevron Sweater - $24.75 - Both of these sweaters run bigger than usual for Loft sizing and are designed to have a slouchy, relaxed fit that is definitely on the casual side of the business casual spectrum.  With this one, the relaxed fit would have been a surprise if I hadn't read the reviews. The picture on the website makes it look more fitted. This sweater is cut rather wide and flares down and out in an almost a-line shape and is wider than a similar design from, say, Madewell, might typically be. I think most people, especially those who are less busty than me, would want to size down, though I got my usual size S for that very "casual business casual" look I favor. 
  • Loft Stitched Tunic Sweater - $24.75 - This design isn't cut quite as wide as as the Chevron sweater, but it has more of a a-line shape in back. The overall slouchy and slightly flared out shape is made to look more dramatic because of that side seam detail that curves toward the front. Note that the fabric is quite thin, and most people may think of this as a spring or fall sweater rather than one suitable for winter. (I don't mind that for my office-wear sweaters as I tend to layer my clothing the winter and wouldn't get cold regardless!) 

  • Tory Burch Jolie Riding Boot - This was purchased at 30% off retail during the Tory Burch friends and family sale a few weeks ago, which came around at just the right time to shop for my birthday. As I mentioned last month, I've owned my other pair of Madewell Archive (similar) riding boots for five years now,  and while they're still in great shape (with a few visits to the cobbler for reheeling and once for weatherproofing), I think I'd get much more wear out of a zip-on pair. These also have a sleeker, dressier look than the Archive boots. I do feel a bit sheepish about getting such a generous gift from my mom, and I do wonder if a deeper discount would have been available if I had waited to get these as a late Christmas gift instead.

Beauty and Skincare - (TOTAL: $61.99)
  • CosRx BHA Skin Returning A-Sol - $13.45 - Other bloggers describe this, and other skincare products, much better than I ever could, by the way! I use this as the first step after washing and drying my face (often both morning and night, though sometimes just in the morning), before moving on to the BHA Blackhead Power Liquid. The actual concentration of BHA here is supposed to be quite low. The more prominent active ingredient is propolis. (I've previously used two different propolis serums that didn't do anything for my skin, so this is the best propolis product I've tried so far.) The A-Sol is a runny liquid that smells like tea-tree oil, which is also among the active ingredients, but in too low a concentration to be irritating.
  • CosRx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid (Amazon) - $17.00 - There seem to be at least two formulations out there, one that has a distinct smell and one that doesn't. (Either that, or at least half of users can't pick out the scent. I'm in that group.) Of the two CosRx BHA products I'm using, this one is supposed to be the real "workhorse" and the replacement for the Paula's Choice BHA Liquid. Please do introduce both of these products slowly if your skin is not used to BHA and other potentially harsh skincare products! I patch-tested both of these products for around two days before introducing them, once on my wrist, and then on my neck. I had been testing the A-Sol for a week before I started using this.
  • CosRx AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid - $16.00 - I haven't gotten around to trying this product yet, so a review may come in the future. 
  • Biore SaraSara UV Perfect Bright Face Milk - $7.30 - This used to be my holy grail sunscreen though, full disclosure, I think this may have been reformulated in the last year or so, or it no longer suits my skin as well. It's still good, but it doesn't absorb quite as quickly as it used to, and it sometimes leaves a white cast that takes 15 minutes or so to fade, which wasn't my experience before. 
  • Biore Aqua Rich SaraSara SPF 50+ Gel - $8.24 - This is maybe my third time buying this product, and I use it occasionally, on and off. More people actually prefer this over the Biore face milks because it is a gel that goes on clear, and is easier to apply. I personally prefer opaque liquid "face milk" sunscreens to clear gels, even if it doesn't have a practical basis, but I occasionally go back to this. 

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

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

First Steps: A Personal Finance Toolkit

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

Step 1: Get a checking account that is as close to no-fee as possible. 
  • Above all else, one should not be paying a monthly account maintenance fee, whether because the account is no fee or because one consistently stays above the minimum balance. 
  • Ideally, one should also never need to pay ATM fees either, at least in the US, whether because the bank has ATMs everywhere you need or because the bank refunds ATM fees. 
  • One might prefer a bank with easily accessible physical branches. I only end up needing to talk to a bank teller maybe once a year, at most, for something that can't be done online or at the ATM. 
  • As a traveler who likes using ATMs to get cash abroad, which has the advantage of allowing access to foreign currency at the prevailing exchange rate and without the markup one gets at a currency exchange, I require at least one account with no foreign ATM fees and no foreign exchange fees. (Bank of America started charging a 3% exchange fee on all foreign currency withdrawals in the last three years, which is awful.) 
  • Being interest-bearing could be a plus, though I prefer funneling savings into a higher interest savings account straightaway, so checking account interest rate is a negligible factor.

Many say that local credit unions are a good option for low or no-fee accounts, though that's never been a real option for me because I've moved so frequently. Many big national banks, certainly Bank of America ("BOA"), are terrible for fees, though I've stuck with BOA as my primary checking account nonetheless. (I have an "online only" type account that is no-fee if I don't go to a teller for any services that can be done at an ATM. They offered this in 2010 when I called to complain about being charged a monthly fee after I was no longer eligible for the free student account.) I don't know if my account type is available to new customers. (BOA has always been good about refunding any unreasonable fees that I called to get rid of, or else I'd have gone to another bank.) P.S. if your bank (or any other company) ever attempts to charge you a fee that is a complete surprise to you and/or that you didn't agree to, it can't hurt to call and try to get it reversed (politely)! It's always worked for me, even at the very unpopular with most other customers BoA.

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 17, 2016

On Sweaters, Being Bad at Minimalism, Etc.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 10, 2016

July and August Shopping Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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