Thursday, September 3, 2020

Some Recent Money Wins (And a Really Wild Money Diary)

Tory Burch Perry Card Case (affiliate link)

Two good money things have happened recently, one small and one not-so-small. Both of these money wins came with essentially no effort on my part, I was just lucky they happened!

And there was also a truly wild Refinery29 money diary this week (see also the very active r/MoneyDiariesActive discussion) that I just had to share. Normally, when a money diary becomes controversial mostly because of the diarist's high income, I generally think much of the skepticism is unfounded or unnecessarily nit-picky. But the numbers in this one really don't make sense if the diarist actually derives all their income from a law firm, as described. 

Actual Refinery29 employees have confirmed on Twitter that their editor "worked extremely hard to protect this person's identity," but without specifying exactly what measures were taken, outside of - at a minimum - taking out "a whole lot of fun stuff... for security's sake." And even if they only subtracted and didn't actively change or add details, there's maybe a question about whether something becomes misleading because too much material information is removed. But I digress... 

Money Win 1: The Mysterious Unclaimed Property

By now, most Americans have probably heard it's good to check your state's unclaimed property listings once in a while, because various types of payments or reimbursements often get lost. I've never really thought it likely I'd ever benefit much from this advice. Because I closely track all my finances to a somewhat excessive level of detail, it'd be a shock to discover I'm owed any money I wasn't already aware of. I keep a close eye on everything, and am generally prompt and proactive about following up if I think I'm missing any payments or refunds, no matter how small. 

But recently, when I checked New York state's unclaimed funds page, I was surprised to discover I apparently had some unclaimed money to my name, apparently from CVS Caremark and associated with my law school apartment address. This was strange, as I didn't recall having any dealings with them during that time. Getting my unclaimed property was painless and quick: I entered some information on the state comptroller's website to confirm my identity and they promptly sent me a check, which I received within a week of making my claim. I had no clue what the amount would be until I received the check, and was pleasantly surprised to see it was $20. (I was expecting more like $5 or $10.) I still don't know what it was for, though... 

Money Win 2: A Better 401(k) Provider

I used to have no choice when it came to the investment of my 401(k) at my current workplace. There was only one actively managed fund, with shockingly high fees - approximately 1% - several orders of magnitude more expensive than anything I'd ever choose for myself. And, to add insult to injury, the fund more or less consisted of what's in a S&P 500 index fund, except in different proportions and it tended to underperform the index in recent years. 

Well, all that is over now because my employer is officially switching us to a better 401(k) provider! We'll now be investing through one of the "big three" providers known for offering a wide range of low-fee index funds (Fidelity, Schwab, or Vanguard). And we'll have access to a full complement of competitively-priced index funds, even more than the solid range of offerings available through my first biglaw employer's 401(k) provider at another of the "big three". I am super, super excited. 

And a Controversial Money Diary

One of this week's Refinery29 money diaries - by a purported 36 year-old Salt Lake City-area family law attorney making $700,000/year, as part of a $1,600,000/year household with 9 children - is truly wild. There's a lot that doesn't add up in this diary, as many people pointed out in the comments there and on Reddit. (I am, by the way, one of the many participants in the Reddit discussion.) 

Keep in mind I'm normally the type of reader where my first impulse is to say "well, actually, this income level is plausible" when I see money diary-type stories that many people decry as fake mostly because of very high income at a relatively young age. Do you recall that controversial - and most likely fake for other reasons - graphic that went around Twitter last year about the alleged $500,000/year two early 30s-lawyer, two-kids household that still felt "average"? One of my first gut reactions was that it quite frankly probably understated the real household income of two attorneys like that, given where the biglaw salary scale has gotten.  

It's difficult for someone like me to confidently state exactly what an accurate-ish income would be for a 36 year-old family law attorney - likely a partner - at a smaller law firm in a lower cost of living area. There's not much transparency in biglaw about how much the partners make, unless you're actually a partner or maybe a fairly senior associate in serious contention. In any case, biglaw in a major market like NYC is not going to be at all comparable to a small firm there, much less to one in a very different market. 

But I still believe I can reasonably say the $700,000/year is not realistic here. I know of quite a few reliable anecdotal data points suggesting that a good number of younger partners at highly profitable NYC biglaw firms make ~$400,000 to ~$500,000/year. And that's within a giant firm where even the most junior associates might bill over $400/hour, mid-level and senior associates over $700/hour, and partners over $1,100/hour at the high end, with the majority of attorneys trying to bill at least 2,000 hours a year (which generally requires significant late night or weekend work at some point). Biglaw-level family law attorneys and practices certainly exist, but they're not common. 

The more interesting issue raised here is the offhanded admission by at least one Refinery29 employee that certain editing work is done to "protect" a diarist's identity. And that apparently they do fact-check with "ID/receipts/documentation."

I doubt anyone from their team will ever share anything more than these vague comments, but this does lead to many big questions: How much editing do they do to "protect" the diarist's anonymity, and does it involve more than just taking out "a whole lot of fun stuff" for "security's sake"? Do they add or revise details, not just subtract? (Regardless, it's possible for certain omissions to be so drastic they render the entire story misleading.) What exact type of documents do they think make for adequate "ID/receipts/documentation" to confirm a $1,600,000/year household income? And why would a purported lawyer share such documentation with Refinery29, essentially just for fun, without even getting any clout or fame for it, if the diary is anonymous?

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