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? 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Quick Sale Update: All J.Crew (Including Coats) 40% Off!

J.Crew is doing a huge 40% off everything sale today, including all coats, with no promotion code needed, and Ebates is doing 10% cash back at J.Crew on top of that too! That's a significantly better deal than when I was mulling over coats yesterday, when the J.Crew Stadium Cloth Cocoon coat I was eyeing was 30% off and Ebates (referral link, which I imagine no one needs now, but it would yield a bonus $10 for you, and $25 for me as the referrer) was only offering 1.5% cash back. 

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 normally wouldn't post just to update about a sale, but this is timely and relevant to a purchasing decision I only just posted about. (I often post about sale purchases after the promotional period has ended... Though with many of these retailers, another sale is, inevitably, always around the corner.) This price drop of almost $25 off the price I would have paid upfront, with an additional $19 dollars cash back? That's huge! It may almost enough to change my decision calculus about whether it makes more sense to wait and try for the extremely similar Ellen Tracy Stadium coat (likely much cheaper eventually after the post-Christmas sales, but not on sale yet) versus the J.Crew. Spoiler alert, it may not be enough to actually change my mind (as I really, really don't need another coat), but I'll likely be making the decision only after ordering and trying on the J.Crew coat again at home. 

Oh, and Nordstrom is price-matching J.Crew, though they only have the "Deep Violet" and "Sandstone" shades of the J.Crew cocoon coat in stock. With their Ebates rebate at only 6% and many sizes and colors still in stock at J.Crew, though, I'm not sure Nordstrom is the preferred source. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

Thinking About: Colorful Cocoon Coats

J.Crew Stadium Cloth Cocoon Coat, Deep Violet

Last fall-winter season, I purchased three new coats, which felt rather indulgent. Nonetheless, each proved to be fantastic, from a cost-per-wear perspective. I originally had some doubts about how useful the Everlane cotton trench coat (my review here) would be, as autumn and spring are traditionally very brief in NYC. As it turns out, we've had unseasonably warm fall-winter seasons for two years now, which allows for several weeks of trench coat weather. The Elie Tahari down coat (old, this year's version, but it's definitely not worth that ludicrous full price!) was my go-to coat once true winter set in. That bright orange Ellen Tracy cocoon coat (exact color no longer available) was purchased on a whim, at the tail end of the post-Christmas sale season, but it's been very useful these past few weeks, once temperatures started dipping below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. 

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 certainly don't need another coat. In addition to those three, I have another wool-cashmere blend single-breasted Calvin Klein reefer coat (similar Lauren Ralph Lauren, similar Kristen Blake, similar but very pricey Fleurette), which covers the temperatures in between cocoon coat weather and down coat weather. Still, my workplace wardrobe is so dominated by somber black clothing that brightly colored coats become very tempting as one of relatively few ways to add some interest and variety to my winter-time work outfits. As early as September, I was wondering if I might add a bright cobalt blue or hunter green coat to my wardrobe this season.

If I end up deciding to indulge this impulse, the candidates are the J.Crew Stadium Cloth Cocoon Coat pictured above ($245 with the 30% off code "FESTIVE" until the end of today) or the Ellen Tracy Wool Blend Stadium Coat I bought last year (currently $198, but I'd absolutely wait for a sale, I like both the "Kelly Green" and "Cobalt" shades pictured below). I was at a brick and mortar J.Crew store this weekend to make a return, and was able to try on their Cocoon Coat. I found that a size 4 regular at J.Crew fit essentially the same as my size 6 petite in the Ellen Tracy (seen on me here). As for which one is actually "worth it," if any? At today's $245 sale price, I'd take the J.Crew version over the Ellen Tracy coat's nearly $200 full price. But, when the Ellen Tracy at sale price is likely to end up at half the price of the J.Crew one on sale? Then I'm not so sure. The only certain conclusion is that I'm probably not ready to actually purchase a new coat right now.

The Ellen Tracy coat is noticeably lower quality, with a slightly thinner fabric that can be a bit scratchy, though I only notice it at the spot where the collar meets my chin when it's zipped completely up. There's also a tiny gold decal, on the left pocket, that can look a little cheap. I'm going into my second year of moderate wear with this, but it isn't actually showing much wear and tear at all, just a tiny pill in one random spot, near one shoulder, which I picked off. I wouldn't be too surprised to see another small pill or two in the coming year, and while it's no big deal, it's not something I've ever experienced with my old Calvin Klein coat, which is going into its third year of heavier wear.

Common wisdom has it that the J.Crew coat, like most J.Crew items, is likely overpriced for its quality, and I don't doubt that. The wool blend material feels nicer, but only barely, and it doesn't feel special or luxurious to the touch. The lining also feel smoother and better than the lining on the Ellen Tracy coat, for what that's worth.

How many coats do you own? Do you own any J.Crew coats, and have they proven to be a good value? While I think they're nicer (and certainly have prettier designs and colors) than a lot of the more moderately-priced wool-blend coats at, say, Nordstrom (in the Kenneth Cole, Tahari, and well, Ellen Tracy range) that often end up around the $140 price point on sale, I've not familiar with whether the J.Crew coat prices drop much lower than $220ish. Comparing those prices, it doesn't seem like the J.Crew coats are generally worth it, but I may be wrong!

Friday, November 18, 2016

At a Loss for Words

The United States Supreme Court, via.

I've struggled for days to figure out what to say. One obstacle was that, as a judicial clerk, I have an ethical obligation to abstain from all political activity (save for voting), as well as any commentary that suggests a lacks of neutrality regarding issues that may come before the court. I'm bound by that obligation for several more months. My writings that predate the start of my clerkship may strongly imply how I feel now.

This is an unsatisfying post, and I know it. I thought, for a while, about whether I should or could say more, but concluded that it would not be proper. Over the course of the past few months, with all of the election discussion on social media and elsewhere, I've realized that I am perhaps overly strict in my reading of the ethical canons, more cautious than the rules require. There are clerks who, doubtless with their judges' permission, post political articles on social media with the disclaimer that they themselves "have no opinion" on the contents, for instance.

The ethical canons had affected my writing before this. I read them so broadly and take them so seriously that, between when the clerkship began and this moment, I've been refraining from touching anything that could be remotely construed as political. I've stayed away from topics beyond my shopping and personal finance management.

I believe in the importance of our judicial institutions, in the values embodied in our laws, and in the ideals of what our laws could or should be. It isn't much of an exaggeration to say that I do, in my heart of hearts, believe the federal courts' role to be nearly sacred. This is true even if I do object to some (many, even) of the resulting outcomes, which means that I know all too well that the institutions are fallible. A courts' role is, after all, typically to apply the law (no easy feat, oftentimes), not to create it.

The Constitution, as it is written, stands against racism, hate, and bigotry. It stands for tolerance and equality under the law. That much is explicit, even if I know - as does everyone else with the barest knowledge of American legal history - that there have been so very many times throughout our history where the law has nonetheless fallen short of the ideals that we now know they should protect. That much, I think, is fair for me to say. Anything more will have to wait.