Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Thinking About: Camel Coats

Photo from
Master of None. Though I never watched this season of the show, I still find the Francesca character's style quite inspiring. Style Dtour did a lovely roundup post!
In the last two years since I graduated, coats have proven to be my biggest shopping vice. I just can't seem to stop myself from window-shopping for more, and that was the start of the trouble complying with this year's budget. By now, I have a robust collection of coats for all seasons, mostly purchased in the first six months after graduation. Nonetheless, I often find myself struck with the desire for another, this time a camel-colored coat.

I suppose all these coat cravings come because the rest of my work wardrobe, the only clothes I wear five days out of every week, is so static. There's almost no variation to it throughout the year, the same items are used year round, except that the tights and warmer sweaters only come out in winter. I suppose this could lead one to an interest in shoes or handbags instead of coats, but I've never been a shoe person and have realized over time that I'm inclined towards keeping a smaller collection of less fussy and more practical handbags, so coats it is.

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The camel coat is a genre I also shopped for last winter, though my primary coat craving back then was for bright colors, eventually resulting in the purchase of that Ted Baker long wrap coat in oxblood when it went on sale at the end of the season. I didn't see many camel coats with designs I liked back then, only ordering a Calvin Klein single-breasted cashmere-blend style, which was the slightly tweaked, newer version of a design I already had in black and still wear often. I don't love most of the changes they made, including narrowing the lapels and removing the pocket flaps. More recently, I've tried again with the J.Crew Parke Topcoat, though the color wasn't at all what I wanted. Nor should I have been surprised by that, as the shade was called "dark chestnut," which hardly suggests a camel color.

I'm not sure of what design elements I'd want for this type of coat. It'd likely be single-breasted, as that's been my general preference for wool and wool-blend coats that I've tried on or ultimately bought in the last several years. (Double-breasted coats can look very odd on me because I'm on the curvier side, I find they can emphasize my chest more than I like, and the two vertical rows of buttons can seem distorted depending on the spacing between them.)  It probably will have visible buttons and be on the longer side. Outside of that, I really don't know. I'd love to find one with a waist tie like Francesca's in Master of None, but those seem to be a rare feature in the ones available this year.

Most of the camel coat styles I see while online window shopping are a bit boxier, more menswear-inspired. That's fine in theory, but often doesn't actually work on me because I'm so busty. Some of the more androgynous coats hang right, and some just don't, and it's generally not possible to tell upfront which it'll be when online shopping. I almost wonder if I'd end up really wanting the same Ted Baker wrap coat in camel (which Nordstrom stocks, but with no corresponding photo). That would make me feel really silly and extravagant as (a) I already have one in a perfectly lovely color and (b) it is an expensive coat for me.

With the more menswear-inspired styles, there are a few in my more typical price range for coats. There's a Lauren Ralph Lauren reefer coat and a Kristen Blake walking coat that fit the general bill. Just for fun and as an illustration, I've also included a mishmash of additional styles in the widget below, most of them at a price point that's entirely unrealistic for me. You can hover over each item to see the brand and price without clicking.

Do you have any shopping vices that you can't quite tear yourself away from, even if the type of item is already well-represented in your closet? What does your coat collection look like? P.S. I'll probably be doing a lot of shopping-centric posts in the next few weeks, as my mind is rather focused on the task of getting my work wardrobe up to scratch for my new job. Also, er, it helps that I'm back to earning a more biglaw-like salary, though my new position is not in that exact genre.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

August Shopping Reflections

It's official now,  I've lost the plot on this year's shopping budget. With a whole quarter of the year to go, I could still get back on track, but given certain changes associated with my new job, I'm not optimistic. Specifically, my work wardrobe needs to be more formal. I won't be keeping a running tally anymore of how far I've fallen behind. I'll write about it in an end of year analysis, whatever happens. Given the rest of what's going on in my life, personal finance-wise, being over budget for fashion purchases isn't a huge deal. In truth, this year's $1800/year (~$150/month, but flexible month-to-month) was a bit of an experiment, and well, it's one that hasn't panned out.

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The recent cause of this year's budget failure is a Marc by Marc Jacobs "Too Hot to Handle" Hobo bag (identical, for less, with "Marc Jacobs" branding here). I could try to retroactively categorize it as an "off-budget purchase", but that wouldn't be consistent with my past practices. It's a category I've used on rare occasions for items such as a suit or a bridesmaid's dress, items I knew I would need far in advance, but for which it was difficult to set a limit upfront. This purchase doesn't fit that bill. It's a gift to myself to celebrate my new job, but well, I couldn't have anticipated that in advance!  

As an aside, back when I was a college student, Marc by Marc (or "MBMJ") was one of those brands that was highly aspirational for me, something I desperately wanted but couldn't afford. (Except that, unlike the linked blogger, teenaged Xin had little taste and was highly susceptible to marketing, so my longing was reserved for various specific and sometimes really ugly items, possibly just for the sake of the brand name and the fact that the items seemed widely coveted. I don't think I ever got attached to any one consistent aesthetic or "look".)

These days, MBMJ has shuttered, its old stock fills the physical racks at Nordstrom Rack, and the brand's been rolled into "Marc Jacobs", hence the er, current selling of this item with a new label only a month after I bought mine. Nostalgia goggles on top of the Nordstrom Rack price for this bag when I bought it (roughly 50% off original retail), may have contributed to this purchase, though I really do like the look and how unfussy it is to carry. 

Fashion - (TOTAL: $ 315.12)
  • Marc by Marc Jacobs "Too Hot to Handle" Hobo - $239.34* - (lower price, identical style with "Marc Jacobs" label at Hautelook and Gilt) - My current handbag collection, omitting purely utilitarian bags like my backpack, is here. Most of my bags are for work, and I had almost nothing for casual wear that could hold much more than say, my Coach City (cheapest used on eBay). I frequently use my large Longchamp Le Pliage totes for the weekend, but they're a fairly boring look. After I got my new job, I started looking at bags that might be more fun to carry with my casual outfits, and partially because of nostalgia, I looked specifically at MBMJ bags. (Nordstrom Rack has tons, both in store and online.) When I first ordered this, I was so sure I would return it, but the leather was nice and soft, and I really liked the idea of a slouchy hobo bag for casual use. It fits with my general preference for unfussy bags.
  • Uniqlo Rayon Key-Neck Sleeveless Blouse, pink - $19.90 - For months now, I've been in the market for machine-washable blouses or shells to go under suits. Most of my current items in that category are polyester tops from Loft, which I mostly purchased at deep discounts while I was a summer associate in 2014. They've served me well over the years, but, in my experience, various fabrics from Loft have an unnatural tendency to acquire mysterious stains that all of my usual laundry tactics (spot treating with The Laundress All Purpose Bleach Alternative and the Stain Solution before soaking in Stain Solution, a combination that has helped many white tops that started to turn gray and dingy over time) are entirely unable to lift. So my collection has dwindled. I've tried so many blouses from Uniqlo, focusing on their rayon items, but none worked until now. 
  • Uniqlo Rayon Key-Neck Sleeveless Blouse, forest green - $19.90 - Please note that these are rayon and poly blends. (I'm not sure if this was the case in previous years, but if not, the change is unfortunate.) The fabric may get wrinkly if not hung up. They're also fairly boxy, which I don't mind for work. I'm often a size S in Uniqlo sweaters, but for non-stretchy tops, a M is a better fit, and that's what I went with. I also ordered the Rayon Long-Sleeve button down blouse, but they were much looser and longer than expected, and it just wasn't the right look. 
  • H&M V-Neck Jersey Dress, red - $17.99 (on sale now) - I never got around to shopping for more linen dresses this summer, once work got busier and the season wore on. I'd cut a few summer dresses out of my wardrobe last year, and even with my once-weekly laundry schedule, I've often run out of casual summer dresses between laundry days. The easiest way to fill the niche seemed to be with one of those ubiquitous swing dresses (like from Loft, but so many places have them). Back when I was shopping in early August, it seemed like none of my usual retailers had one in a summer-friendly fabric like cotton, linen, or rayon (why would anyone ever want a summer dress in polyester? I'm looking at you, Old Navy, and many others). Now that I look again, I'm not sure how I searched, because it seems like many of Loft's swing dresses from this past summer were done in 95% rayon, 5% spandex. 
  • H&M V-Neck Jersey Dress, black - $17.99 (on sale now) - Regardless, in the moment, I ended up at H&M after other avenues failed. I like the v-neck and find it more flattering than the round necks that are more common with swing dresses, though the v-neck is a bit deep and makes the dress feel skimpier than most. Because I'm busty, the front hem does sit slightly higher on me than the back one, adding to the, er, sense of slightly greater skimpiness than with my other summer dresses. (The partial lining at the top, from the neckline down to around where a typical bra sits, is slightly odd, though not in a way that's generally visible when wearing the dress.) It's not the highest quality, and as with this silhouette in general, I don't see the shape being especially flattering on almost anyone, but it's comfortable. I really like wearing these to run errands on non-office days. I've already gotten a lot of use out of both, and I expect them to last at least another two seasons. 
*Includes sales tax. 

How are you doing with your shopping budget for the year, if you keep one? Have you had times in your life where a big transition, job-related or otherwise, required fairly large changes to your wardrobe? Were there any inaccessible items or brands "of your dreams" for you when you were young? Do you shop from those brands now?

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sunday Reading: On Data Breaches and Credit Reporting

John Oliver's very educational, pre-Equifax data breach segment about the American credit reporting system.

By now, if you're American, you're probably painfully aware of at least some of the messy facts and many remaining unknowns surrounding the recent data breach at Equifax, one of the three major companies responsible for recording individuals' credit histories in the United States. (The others are Experian and TransUnion.) If you're unfamiliar with the system, John Oliver's 2016 segment above offers an entertaining and accessible explanation. Heck, even if you are already familiar, I'd still recommend the clip, as it certainly taught me a few things I didn't know about the downsides of the system. As the clip progresses it's strongly implied that these companies are really very, shall we say, "amateur hour" in their handling of certain things, including by getting people with similar names mixed up or accidentally declaring someone dead. 

Most recently, and perhaps most catastrophically, Equifax suffered a security breach that compromised the personal information of an estimated 143 million individuals. I've read that this is roughly 44% of the U.S. population, which would pretty much mean that one has a rather close to 50-50 chance of being affected (by 44% do they mean of the adult population? regardless, the odds are really bad). It's unclear how much information was compromised, but the credit reporting agencies definitely have SSNs, address histories, essentially everything that's needed to open accounts in a person's name, which seems worse than just the loss of credit card information (as in the Target breach).  By the way, Equifax discovered the breach in late July, but did not inform the general public until early September. In the meantime, several Equifax executives sold some of their Equifax stock. 

To my knowledge, Equifax has not reliably confirmed who is affected, i.e. is it only people who had "hard" credit inquiries run on them in the last year, or something like that. They had a website for checking if one was specifically affected, but, at least at one point, it gave inconsistent results to people checking the same information multiple times. P.S., Equifax was originally charging fees for customers to use some of the tools (credit monitoring or a credit freeze) that could help protect those affected by the data breach. Oh and also, when that site for checking whether one was affected first opened, using it to sign up for certain protections also meant agreeing to a waiver limiting one's ability to participate in a hypothetical future lawsuit against Equifax. To be fair, Equifax has since publicly stated that the clause at issue will not actually preclude future legal action. But let's be real, has anything about this mess given you reason to trust this company? 

I have not, to my knowledge, been affected by previous high-profile data breaches (and there are many). With this one, given its size, I think it's safe to assume that I was affected, or have such a high likelihood of being affected, and that I must seriously consider preventative measures. At present, I'm not sure what I plan to do. I already conduct my own credit monitoring by logging in frequently to CreditKarma. While their information on your credit reports is not not quite as comprehensive as you'd get from running your own credit report, which Americans can do for free three times a year (once each from each of the big three), I've still found CreditKarma a reliable way to monitor my credit. Its reports have generally been consistent with the information I received when I formally ran my credit on rare occasions (no exact FICO score, but that might be an unrealistic expectation). As far as I can tell, the only other, stronger step to take is a credit freeze, which costs money, though not in certain states. (Even if public pressure has forced Equifax to waive fees for a time, one likely should initiate a freeze at all three agencies to be safe, so fees could apply elsewhere.) 

At this point, I'm dragging my feet on the credit freeze step because it sounds like a pain and a half. (I open new credit cards somewhat frequently to take advantage of new cash back or bonus travel points offers.) Still, I am somewhat likely to ultimately choose to take the step. One note from my research: Because a freeze requires a PIN number to un-freeze one's credit, one should sign up very carefully and make sure to record the number, which might, in the case of at least one agency, be delivered only over the phone.

Are you taking any steps to respond to the Equifax data breach? Have you previously been affected by one of the other major data breaches? How often do you check your credit reports? I only realized today that I'd never written about CreditKarma here before! It's been a constant, but less-used (compared to YNAB and Personal Capital), tool in my personal finance arsenal for years now, and they're fairly well-established. Totally not sponsored or anything, they don't offer referral or affiliate programs, and it wouldn't really make sense under their likely business model. (They promote credit cards and other financial services to users on their site, but I find that information easy to ignore if its unhelpful to me.)

Please note that, as with everything else I write here on this blog, nothing in this post should be construed as legal advice. I write about these topics purely from my personal perspective as a fellow consumer. If you're interested in any of the steps I've mentioned, I encourage additional research before taking the plunge. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

Biggest Purchase of 2017: Urgent Dental Care

Put another way, unless I suddenly turn around and do something completely ridiculous and out of character sometime in the next three months, I've now made my most expensive purchase of 2017. And it wasn't any fun, nor particularly voluntary. As a precaution, content warning on this post for those who are squeamish about dentistry. No gory details here, but some of my friends found even a bare-bones recounting of what happened rather icky.

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I'm probably clumsier than average because, about once a year, out of the blue, I'll trip and fall right in the middle of a city sidewalk. This time, instead of skinning my knee, the majority of the impact hit my upper lip and front teeth. The result was $2650 in urgent dental work to repair the damage, which affected two teeth. This was all pre-insurance, with an out of network dentist, so I paid up front and will be filing claims with my dental insurance.

The bill reflected a total of:
  • $250 - for x-rays;
  • $100 - for the initial exam and consultation, which included pushing a tooth that was knocked loose back into place;
  • $1200 - for the root canal on the broken tooth; and
  • $1100 - for the reconstruction of the broken tooth.
Dental insurance is not generous, so I can recoup at most 20% (for the root canal) to 40% (for reconstruction) per line item on the bill. There are probably additional policy terms that will decrease my reimbursement. I may eventually need another root canal, for the formerly loose tooth, but that remains to be seen. There may also be other, more expensive cosmetic work that I could need later to get closer to what my teeth looked like pre-accident. 

One lesson from all this: Thank goodness for emergency funds! I'd saved a good-sized one while at my previous firm, and managed not to touch it all year long despite the substantial pay cut I took for my clerkship. Then this happened. Womp womp. 

So there we have it, my most expensive purchase for 2017, particularly if we consider all of the financial consequences of my fall as one purchase, including the dental care and a few other related (but, thankfully, significantly less substantial) medical expenses. The exact total impact of the accident is still up in the air, but it's definitely already a fearsome number, even if all goes well on the insurance front. Alas!

As an aside, when I first read that Refinery29 article about several women's biggest purchases for 2016, I had found most of the examples difficult to relate to and inconsistent with my experience of my biggest purchases for each of the years since I first started law school. None of mine were designer items, despite my fondness for shiny, fancy things and my tendency to get attached to the "idea" of them. At the same time, I also knew, from personal experience, that judging others on big ticket purchases is unfair, as the circumstances and context surrounding each particular purchase are unique, and generally very personal. From an outside perspective, most of my biggest purchases could have been worthy of judgment or criticism.

While my biggest expense in past years was generally education-related, the full extent of each was often far greater than strictly "necessary". Each of them happened in a context that might make me seem frivolous (like when I bought a new MacBook the day before an exam when my old one died only a month after Applecare expired, and by the way, I was two months in arrears on my student housing rent because I was waiting on my law firm summer associate salary... I swear it wasn't as bad as it sounds, and that similar things happen to people much more frugal than I, but it was still... foolish). As for this year, when one really gets down to it, who else trips on a sidewalk and ends up with a bill for more than, say, the cost of a Burberry trench coat? That's a long way of saying I don't believe in judging big ticket purchases, and darn, I wish this hadn't happened.

What is, or will likely be, your biggest expense of 2017? Do you regret the purchase? Any thoughts on American dental insurance? Some of my friends have done the math and consider dental insurance not worth it. I don't agree, even if I have significantly worse than expected outcomes with my claims. (My employer-offered dental insurance has always been affordable, less than $15 in pre-tax deductions per paycheck.)