Sunday, December 28, 2008

Working with a FOB (friend of the boss)

Last summer, our President offered a friend of his family a permanent position as our HR Manager. Her original introduction into the company over a year ago was not handled well resulting in all sorts of problems. She was never given a detailed job description and our employees did not have a clear understanding of her role in the company. This allowed her to create her own job description stepping on many toes in the process. Over a year later, employees still do not embrace her or her ideas. They do not trust or respect her as an HR Manager. This is probably for good reason, her main objective since she arrived was to create a permanent job for herself and her loyalties clearly lie with the owners. Others feel she received special treatment, such as an extremely flexible schedule and a higher than normal salary that would not have occurred if she wasn’t a friend of the owner.

I am one of her few confidants, yet I have also had my differences with her. As I look back on 2008, I realize too much time and energy was spent by me and my department resisting her and her ideas. I have come to realize if I were to become her rival everybody loses; her, the company and especially me, since she is the family friend. In 2009, I vow to develop the best possible relationship I can with her.

As a peace offering, I am sending her a note (written on the note cards she gave me as a holiday gift) thanking her for her support and encouragement in 2008 and wishing her a Happy New Year and a successful 2009. Perhaps others will follow my example and as a group we will begin focusing our energy on the real problems at hand such as the lousy economy.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Stephen King writes, "Only 5% of writers can support themselves with their work"

Stephen King's book On Writing didn’t inspire me to quit my day job as it did Trent on The Simple Dollar, but I did enjoy the book.

For me, this paragraph alone made the book a worthwhile read:

"Another argument in favor of writing courses has to do with the men and women who teach them. There are thousands of talented writers at work in America, and only a few of them (I think the number might be as low as five percent) can support their families and themselves with their work. There’s always some grant money available, but it is never enough to go around. As for government subsidies for creative writers, perish the thought. Tobacco subsidies, sure. Research grants to study the motility of unpreserved bull sperm, of course. Creative-writing subsidies, never. Most voters would agree, I think. With the exception of Norman Rockwell and Robert Frost, America has never much revered her creative people; as a whole, we’re more interested in commemorative plates from the Franklin Mint and Internet greeting-cards. And if you don’t like it it’s a case of tough titty said the kitty ‘cause that is just the way things are. Americans are a lot more interested in TV quiz shows than in the short fiction of Raymond Carver."

FYI, King feels critiques given by fellow participants at writing workshops are useless and may even be detrimental to your writing process. He recommends writing the first draft quickly for yourself and the second draft for your readers. Questions and comments from others while writing the first draft breaks your concentration and could change the course of your book.

I haven’t read a lot of King’s fiction, but I am familiar with most of his work through movies. I enjoyed his autobiographical section, learned a little bit about writing and was touched by the moving account of his near death accident and the challenges he encountered in recovery.

I rate this book 4.5/5.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Scaling Back This Holiday Season

December is typically a busy month for me both at home and at work. In addition to holiday activities, I am closing my company’s books and finalizing next year’s budget. This year has been exceptionally busy; it’s my turn to host my extended family’s holiday meal. Last week, in the midst of shopping, decorating, and cleaning I realized I had three parties to attend over a two day period all of which required I bring a dish to pass. To save my sanity, I decided I had to scale back. This is what I came up with:

The neighborhood cookie exchange:
I am not going to participate this year. I don’t have time to make 5 dozen cookies, nor do I need to eat them. Plus, my husband doesn't particularly like the exchange. He can’t understand why I give away his favorite cookies only to receive ones he doesn't like.

Holiday cards:
I am not sending cards this year. This isn’t a new practice; I didn’t mail cards last year either. My thinking is if I don’t take the time to write a note, send something creative or purchase cards from a charitable organization what is the point. Hopefully, my friends and family don’t feel slighted by not receiving the token Hallmark card with just my signature on it. I love receiving their cards especially the ones that are handmade and include family photos.

Volunteer work:
I am not attending my professional organization’s mid-year board meeting. I am no longer on the board and am not sure why I feel obligated to travel across town during rush hour traffic to attend a meeting in which I most likely will be persuaded to chair another committee.

The work pot-luck:
I am bringing Frito snack mix as my dish to pass. A bag of Fritos is mixed with plain M&M’s, peanut M&M’s, peanuts, chocolate stars and chocolate peanuts. No cooking. No cleanup. No hauling of crock pots and no searching for room in the work refrigerator. This is my kind of dish.

Buying gifts for family:
Instead of spending hours searching for the perfect gift, I have asked for gift ideas from my recipient's spouses and their children. I have been surprised by their practical suggestions; slow cooker, gloves and socks. (Also, as a group my family decided to lower the spending limit for our gift exchange this year.)

Giving gifts to co-workers:
I am not going to rush out to buy a gift for my HR manager just because she gave me one. It's kind of weird; she gave only me and one other person in my department a gift. To reciprocate I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving a gift just to her; what about the other people in my department or the employees I work closely with in other departments. I've already participated in my company's gift-exchange. I am going to leave it at that.

Holiday Dinner menu:
After a failed trial run making slow-cooked wild rice, I've decided to serve Uncle Ben’s wild rice out of a box as one of my holiday meal side dishes.

Scaling back doesn’t always have to be about money, sometimes we need to step back, evaluate our situation and be realistic about what we can and can’t easily accomplish in a tight time frame.

Friday, December 12, 2008

"I hate my supervisor"

Alyssa asks:
Two years ago I was promoted to a different department within my company. I love what I do and have been performing very well. The problem is my supervisor; I hate her and she hates me. She inherited me as a subordinate when my department merged with hers last January. Things got pretty bad earlier this year, forcing me to file a harassment suit against her. HR performed an investigation and determined no harassment had occurred. They did, however, send her to an all day training seminar. Since then, we both go out of our way to avoid each other, but I am constantly on edge thinking she is plotting to get rid of me. My old department has sought me out and offered me my old job back. I hate the idea of giving up my current position, and salary, yet the thought of working for this woman another minute literally makes me ill. What should I do?

I think your best bet is to seek employment outside of your organization. Your company does not have your interests in mind. They have already demonstrated this by neglecting to help you work through the problems you are having with your supervisor. Keep in mind with the economy in the doldrums; it could take several months to find a new position outside of your company. Worst case scenario it may take a year to find a new position. Do you think you could work for your supervisor another year?

“2008 was the worst year of my working life. Working for her another whole year! No, I really don’t think I can.”

You have just answered your own question. Working for a boss who dislikes and harasses you affects your work performance and mental health. Go back to your old job where you are wanted and appreciated. Start networking with family and friends letting them know you are looking for position similar to the one you have right now. Enlist your former boss (the one that originally hired you for your new position) to give you a reference. Good luck. Hopefully, with your renewed confidence and the 2nd-quarter projected economic turnaround, you will have a new job before you know it.

As to giving up your position and salary, a few years ago I took a pay-cut and gave up a title to escape a bad boss and have never looked back. With-in one year I was making the same salary as what I had given up. As to the title, a title is just that a title, I was working on more interesting projects in my new position working for a "great boss" than when I had the fancy title.

Sunday, December 07, 2008


Greenatopia is the fictional start-up company Sara Walker works for on ABC's “”. In last week’s episode, Sara and her partners describe their company as follows:
We're talking about an eco-friendly company with an exciting revenue model. You input your zip code, the product you want, and voila! We give you all your local options. The customer base is there. Everybody's dying to buy local. The starting demographics of a site like Greenatopia are users with an income average of between $150,000 and $200,000 a year. This is a low-cost company with global growth potential. Not to mention, we might actually do some good for the planet.”
I think most people have good intentions and like the idea of buying local, green, and organic, but most do not go out of their way to seek out these options. Other than buying a few tomatoes at the local farmer's market, few people I know make an effort to buy local.

Why don't consumers seek out eco-friendly products?

First, the demographics listed above for Greenatopia users, family incomes between $150,000 and $200,000 a year, are probably realistic. A couple of months ago, I asked a group of women who were discussing healthy food options, whether they bought organic products. Not a one of them did. All of them were concerned with chemicals and food additives being in the food they fed their children, but felt their budgets were stretched just purchasing regular produce, let alone organic.

The second drawback is the time needed to sift through all the purchasing options available. Today's consumer is overwhelmed with choices. It's more convenient to shop at the local Wal-Mart or Costco where most of the items needed can be found and purchased at a low cost. Extra effort is needed to seek out green products.

I think as a society we need to start making more conscious decisions about what and where we buy. We can’t afford to buy the best of everything, so we need to make trade-offs. How many $7.00 shirts from Wal-Mart do we really need? By buying less and making decisions based on need rather than want, we might be able to fit more eco-friendly items into our buying mix. Greenatopia is a clever idea; if the information was easily assessable more people from all incomes would be able to make better choices.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

What I've been reading.

I am the type of reader who usually has two or three different books going at the same time. Right now I’m reading John Bowe's Nobodies and Reg Theriault's How to Tell When You're Tired in preparation for Citizen Reader’s Book Ménage which begins December 8th. The book ménage is an on-line book club where everyone reads a pair of related books (selected by vote on her site) and then discusses them in the comments section. The above choices are bound to generate a thought provoking discussion. I encourage you to participate or at least check it out.

Also, on my night stand is Stephen King’s, On Writing. This book has been on my reading list, since I read Trent's review on the Simple Dollar. He attributes this book as giving him the inspiration to quit his day job and become a full-time writer. I have never aspired to be a writer nor do I now, but I love reading books that inspired other people to pursue there dreams. Who knows I just might pick up a couple of writing tips.

Books recently completed:
To Love What Is by Alix Kates Shulman - I have been an Alix Kates Shulman fan ever since reading her memoir, "Drinking the Rain", so when I came across this post on Gretchen's blog "The Happiness Project" I knew I had to read, "To Love What Is", her latest book. Per Gretchen, the catastrophe began when:

Shulman's 75-year-old husband fell from a nine-foot sleeping loft in July 2004; he suffered a brain injury that keeps him from having a short-term memory. Her memoir covers the accident and the aftermath, and in flashbacks, the period during which they met, went separate ways, and years later, married.

I can't help but admire Shulman's spirit and patience; I can only hope if I ever faced a similar situation I would be able to handle it with the same strength and grace. The book is also a haunting reminder of how we need to be cognizant of our own physical limitations as well as those of our love ones. Perhaps, a 75 year-old man with signs of dementia should not have been sleeping on a nine-foot loft that didn't have a railing in a cottage without electricity on an isolated island without a road to get to it. The book also makes a strong case for purchasing long-term care insurance.

Kindred by Octavia E Butler - Dana, an African-American woman living in the late 1970s, is suddenly transported back in time to a Maryland slave plantation in 1819. It turns out that she’s been called back in time to save the son of the white plantation owner–a boy who, she soon learns, is one of her ancestors.

This book is considered a fantasy thriller, but is really so much more than that. Its depiction of slavery is one of the best historical fiction accounts on the subject I have ever read. I assure you, this book will stay with you for days.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – This book was a recommendation by my friend Dana who described it as a thought provoking worth while read she felt to be much better than, “Remains of the Day.” As children Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules where teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were. Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life. And for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them special–and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together.

I can't say I liked this book, but I did feel it was worth my time.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

"Bringing Home the Birkin"

In Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World's Most Coveted Handbag, author Michael Tonello impulsively moves to Barcelona, after becoming enthralled with the city while working there on assignment. His new motto is, “Work to live, not live to work.” Unfortunately, soon after he signs a five year apartment lease, he finds himself without a job. To make ends meet he begins selling his possessions on eBay. Noting the popularity of a Hermes scarf he begins scouring European boutiques for Hermes items. This leads to a customer request for a Birkin (a pricey status bag that starts at $7,500 and is sold in limited numbers) and his discovery of the magic Birkin purchasing formula.

This is a must read if you ever dreamed of working from home in your pajamas as a full-time eBay re-seller. Michael quickly learns there isn’t much you need to know about eBay in order to use it successfully. He would set an opening bid for an item, and also a reserve (the lowest price he was willing to sell for). He was partial to either a 7- or 10- day action, timed to end on Sunday evening when most people would be at home. (I based these calculations on “eBay time” aka Pacific Standard Time, since the greatest number of eBay users are in the USA).

The job isn’t as easy as it looks. Michael discovers the more you work the more you make. He made a lot of money, which meant he worked a lot. In 2005, he says he spent 1.6 million purchasing Birkins for resale. His life became a series of shopping excursions, emails and trips to the post office. In the end, after losing his mother, he comes to the conclusion that traipsing all over Europe buying overpriced purses for spoiled Americans is a shallow way to make a living and gives it up.

The book is a delightful tale/travelogue. While recounting his experiences, he gives the reader a glimpse into his exotic lifestyle; the gourmet food, wine, expensive hotels and luxurious shopping venues he visits and of course insight into all things Hermes. He does all this in an engaging style and dry down-to-earth wit.

Here are a couple of unrelated items I’ve procured from the book:
~ Barcelona and the island of Capri are now on my list of places I’d like to visit.
~ The following items have been added to my reading list:
- Lillian Hellman's novel Pentimento”
- Truman Capote's novel “In Cold Blood”
- Somerset Maugham’s short story, “The Lotus Eater”

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Consequences of Roth IRA Early Withdrawal

Dan asks:
My daughter, Lynn invested $2,000 (a gift from me) into a Roth IRA account in 2003. She now wants to use this money to purchase a car. What are the consequences of an early withdrawal?

Lynn was able to use your gift to open a Roth IRA because she also had $2,000 of her own earned income during 2003. Roth IRA contributions are made with after- tax dollars; once these monies are invested, earnings accumulate tax-free. If she keeps the money in her account until age 59½, she will then be able to withdraw money without incurring taxes or paying a penalty. If she withdraws money now, she can only withdraw money up to her original contribution tax and penalty free. She will owe income tax plus a 10% penalty on any withdrawal of account earnings. These earnings will be taxed at her marginal tax rate. The good news is with the recent market downturn she probably his little if any earnings in her account at this time.

Are there any possible scenarios in which Lynn could withdraw all her money, including earnings, without incurring a penalty?

Yes, Qualified Distributions are made both tax and penalty free. To be considered a qualified distribution, a Roth IRA distribution cannot be made before the end of the five-tax-year period beginning with the first tax year for which the individual (or the individual's spouse) made a contribution to the Roth IRA. This means even if you are age 59½ you must have held the money in the IRA at least five years for the withdrawal to be considered qualified.

In addition to the five-year holding period, there are several exceptions to the 10% federal early withdrawal penalty that generally applies to taxable IRA distributions taken prior to age 59½. These penalty exceptions generally apply to distributions taken for one of the following reasons:

· death of the IRA holder
· qualifying disability of the IRA holder
· certain medical expenses exceeding 7.5 percent of adjusted gross income
· health insurance if an individual has been receiving unemployment compensation for more than 12 weeks
· qualified higher education expenses
· qualified first-time homebuyer expenses
· conversion of Traditional IRA assets to a Roth IRA

Thus, if Lynn were to withdraw money to purchase her first home, her distribution could be considered a qualified distribution.

Also note Roth IRAs are different than Traditional IRAs in that they do not require minimum distributions. That is because Traditional IRA contributions are made with before-tax dollars. The IRS wants its money at some point, so they require you to start taking distributions by age 70 ½. There are no such requirements for Roth IRAs. You can keep the money in there until you die if you wish.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Saving Money on Window Treatments

One of the first things Karyn Bosnak did upon moving into her NYC apartment was to purchase (charge) expensive window treatments. Since I moved nine times between college and my current home, I feel somewhat qualified in telling you not to spend a lot of money on window treatments for an apartment, especially if you don’t plan on staying more than a couple of years. The curtains I purchased for one apartment were seldom compatible with the next apartment because the windows were never the same size.

How can you do to save money on window treatments?
1. Window treatments should not be the first purchase you make upon moving. Get your bearings in your new place before spending money on furnishings. Plus, if you’re just starting out, you probably don’t have a lot of discretionary cash left after paying for the move.

2. If the lack of window treatments really bothers you; the morning sunlight is blinding or you need privacy, hang a sheet or blanket over the window during the interim.

3. If you have the opportunity, ask the previous tenants if you can buy their window treatments or if you are lucky they may just leave them behind. If they aren’t totally hideous make due.

4. Look for bargains. Try the JC Penny Outlet Store, or the clearance section of JC Penney’s store. If you hurry you might be able to snag a deal at Linens N’ Things which is going out of business.

5. Use a neutral colored sheet as a curtain. If you can sew use sheets as cheap material and make your own.

6. Be creative. The curtains in the photo were purchased from JC Penney’s and are held in place with tacks and rubber bands.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Save your money. Pay down your debts. Secure your job.

Save your money, pay down your debts and secure your job is the advice financial gurus are giving lately to help us weather the storm in these turbulent economic times. I can't help but think this advice is timeless. I thought of it often while reading Karyn Bosnak's quirky book Save Karyn.

Karyn moves to NYC in May 2000. Over the next couple of years, she racks up $20,000 of debt and loses her job. Ultimately, she becomes a cult figure after soliciting donations from her website Save Karyn, where she asks people to help pay off her debt. Her plea: if 20,000 people each give her $1 she'd have enough money to pay off her entire debt. She also sells most of the stuff she bought incurring the debt on eBay.

How did "Not saving her money, paying down her debts and securing her job,” impact her situation?

Save your money:
Kayrn moved to NYC with virtually no savings. She didn’t even have enough money to make it to her first paycheck, forcing her to take an advance on her American Express card to pay for apartment necessities. Once she started receiving a paycheck, she began a downward spiral of excessive spending and charging; buying furniture for her apartment, designer clothes, expensive makeup, beauty treatments, a health club membership and a weekend summer vacation package she used only once. She didn’t save $1.

Pay down your debts:
She moved to NYC with unpaid balances on her credit cards. When she received her first paycheck she was surprised to see how much money was withheld for taxes. She hadn't budgeted accordingly. Instead of realigning her budget to her actual paycheck, she kept spending and charging. It wasn’t long before she couldn’t keep up with her monthly credit card payments and still pay her rent. She began missing minimum payments, incurring late fees, interest and over limit charges. Eventually, she finds a new job and begins earning over $100,000 a year. Even then, instead of paying down debt she continues her spendthrift ways thinking why shouldn't she, she makes over 100,000 a year.

Secure your job:
She remained in denial that her job was in jeopardy. After September 11th, the job market for TV production in NYC virtually dried up. Ratings for her show were low. New management was brought in; they asked everyone in her department to sign a new, less favorable employee agreement. Refusing, along with her fellow contending co-workers, she was let go. She hadn’t thought this through completely, she now firmly believes if she would have asked for her job back her boss would have given it to her. At the time, however, she didn't like her job and thought she’d be able to find another one within a month. She ended up being out of work for four months, when she finally did find a job it was at a substantially lower salary than what she had been making before.

The results:
She was no longer able to pay her rent and her credit card payments without overdrawing her checking account. She took steps to get control of her finances; consolidating her debt, finding a roommate, canceling her health club membership and even making her own coffee. Not making much progress and feeling overwhelmed she dreamed up the Save Kayrn website and the rest is history.

Overall, based on the subject matter (financial irresponsibility) I was surprised how much I enjoyed this book. It was filled with financial lessons. My professional organization is planning a workshop to teach financial literacy targeting college sororities. After reading this book, I can’t help but think perhaps they are right; young adult women do need financial literacy training. I know where they should start: Save your money, pay down your debts and secure your job.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Read "A Broom of One’s Own" for realistic insight into life as a writer.

A Broom of One's Own: Words on Writing, Housecleaning, and Life is a sublime little book of essays by Nancy Peacock.

In A Broom of One's Own, Nancy Peacock, whose first novel was selected by the New York Times as a Notable Book of the Year, explores with warmth, wit, and candor what it means to be a writer. An encouragement to all hard-working artists, no matter how they make a living, Peacock's book provides valuable insights and advice on motivation, craft, and criticism while offering hilarious anecdotes about the houses she cleans.

While reading the book, I couldn’t help but think maybe there is some truth to Penelope Trunk’s post five reasons why your should not write a book.

According to Penelope:
People who have a lot of ideas need a blog, not a book. A blog is more immediate, so you’ll get better feedback~
Nancy’s life as an aspiring writer was difficult. In her early years, a blog may have served her well. She struggled to get her stories published; writing and submitting 100’s of short stories to various publications in hopes one would sell. At one point, she even succumbed to writing fake true stories for True Confessions Magazine. A blog may have given her the immediate feedback she needed.

You'll make more money per hour flipping burgers than writing a book~
Nancy’s first book, Life without Water, did not bring her riches, immediate fame or prestige. After publication she still needed to clean houses to pay her bills. It wasn’t always easy, but she continued writing because she loved her craft. She says it best on page 53 where she writes:
"I think that in the beginning of my writing life I believed that writing, publication in particular, could, besides making me rich, also make me invulnerable. It might have been the stupidest thought I ever had, because there is nothing, with the exception of love, that has ever made me feel more vulnerable than writing and publishing."
Beautiful. I cannot give this book justice. If you have ever had any interest in writing or in an artistic career I highly recommend this book. Even if you don't have an interest in writing, I recommend this book. Her essays on housecleaning are thoroughly enjoyable; some of her cleaning clients remind me of people I know. This was both hilarious and scary.

Please Note, I am an Amazon Affiliate

Friday, October 17, 2008

401(k) Fees Rant

In addition to my recent angst regarding stock market volatility, I have just discovered one of the reasons why my 401(k) fund returns were always lower than I anticipated. My company has our plan pay for expenses such as our plan audit, which can run as high as $8,000 annually, plus the cost to transfer employee payroll files to the plan each pay period. Our payroll service provider tells me it is common for companies to have their 401(k) plans pay for these types of expenses.

What is included in 401(k) plan administration fees:
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the day-to-day operation of a 401(k) plan involves expenses for basic administrative services -- such as plan record keeping, accounting, legal and trustee services -- that are necessary for administering the plan as a whole.

As an employee whose benefit package includes fewer benefits each year, I was upset that my company would require our 401(k) plan to pay for expenses such as the ones I mentioned above. Aren’t these expenses a tax-deductible cost of doing business? Can’t companies pay for anything anymore? My lousy benefit package and measly company match, 50% of the first 2% of salary deferment, suddenly seems even worse.

High 401(k) plan fees is not news to me:
I have read in the past, over time 401(k) plans may earn a lower rate of return than other types of investments due to high fees. A good fund should have a total expense ratio of 1% or less. My 401(k)'s funds typically earned lower rates of return than the funds in my IRA. I did try to determine the expense ratio for each fund, but was unable to find any mention of expense ratios in the fund literature provided by our 401(k) provider. I now realize these fees are usually hidden.

In the Kiplinger article, “The High Cost of 401(k) Fees: How Much Are You Paying,” Mary Beth Franklin writes:
Mutual fund returns in 401(k) plans are normally reported as net returns, meaning that fees for managing your investments are subtracted from your gains or added to your losses before calculating the annual return. Other costs, such as administrative and record-keeping fees, are often divvied up among plan participants but are not explicitly listed on individual investment statements.

You can read Mary Beth Franklin’s informative article in its entirety here.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Top Salesman maxes out his 401(k) Plan

Our company’s top salesman, also known for his financially savvy, has requested our payroll department max out his 401(k) plan when issuing his commission check on Monday. He is under age 49, so he can contribute up to $15,500 for 2008. This check will include the majority of commissions he has earned this year; allowing him to take advantage of the plan's tax deferral in addition to the down market.

I cannot help but be comforted by his actions. This request comes at a time when I have been trying hard not to panic or do anything rash with my own 401(k). Over the past two weeks, many of my co-workers have stopped contributing to the plan altogether. In a year when this salesman is struggling to maintain his #1 position for the first time in 22 years, he has enough confidence and risk tolerance to pump a large chunk of his paycheck into the market. As he made his request, he said, “With twenty years remaining until retirement I would be crazy to stop contributing now; if the market were to completely collapse, which it won’t, the economy would be in such disarray stopping now wouldn’t make a difference in the long run anyway.”

"Enough Said"

Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Digital Camera Saga

For the second time in four years we have experienced problems with our Canon POWERSHOT S1 IS digital camera. Most recently, the image displayed in the view finder was completely black preventing any attempts at capturing a picture. This was a huge disappointment, since I first noticed the problem during a family outing where I very much wanted to take pictures.

Afterwards, I inquired with the camera store where we had purchased the Canon about the possibility of repair. I was told it would cost $140 for Canon to even look at the camera. Since this was the second time we had experienced problems with this camera, we decided to forego the repair and put the $140 towards a new camera.

We decided on the Nikon Coolpix P80. Unfortunately, you can no longer buy just a camera. The $350 purchase quickly turned into $450 with the addition of accessories. None of our Canon accessories: batteries, memory card or camera bag were compatible with our new Nikon.

After relaying my Canon digital camera saga to a co-worker who happens to be a photography buff, I decided to talk directly with the manufacturer about my camera. My co-worker’s experience with Canon has been that they always stand behind their products. Sure enough, Canon had recently issued a service advisory addressing my camera's problem. They volunteered to fix the camera for free. They emailed me a pre-paid UPS label and within a couple of days my Canon was back in our possession working like new.

This saga has worked out well in the long run; we now have a new camera we love plus a backup that works like new. That is, if we don’t think about the $450 were hadn’t planned on spending.

Lessons learned:
-Always contact the manufacturer directly if you are not satisfied with the distributor’s response to a service query. The camera store’s interest was in making a new sale not repairing our old camera.

-With technology constantly improving; items such as digital cameras, printers, mp-3 players and cell phones quickly can become obsolete. When replacing these items be prepared to spend money not only on the replacement item, but also on its accessories.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Don't let questionable work habits tarnish your reputation

I have encountered several workers who have recently begun reporting to new managers. Many of them are experts in their field and have been employed with their current companies for ten years or more. Unfortunately, these long-term employees are experiencing difficulties adapting to their new manager’s rules. They have been written up, reprimanded and even fired. Most of these instances relate to sloppy work habits and questionable behaviors that were overlooked by former managers but are unacceptable under the new regime. Here is a sampling of behaviors found to be unacceptable:

1. Continuing to submit expenses for reimbursement several months after the expense was incurred even after a new policy was put in place requiring all reimbursable expenses to be submitted within one month of occurrence.

2. Continuing to arrive a minute or two late every single day after being warned tardiness was no longer going to be tolerated.

3. Selling outside of the employee’s territory or product line. Don’t assume your new manager will continue your former manager's practice of not enforcing territory lines. Your new manager may have been brought in set up structure and accountability in the department.

4. Signing customer's name to legal documents. In order to save time and gas money, the salesman, with the customer’s permission, signed the customers signature to a document missed in the closing process. The salesman’s new manager viewed this as forgery.

5. Using company computers to send joke emails despite the company’s new policy forbidding it. Many employees forget computers are company property. Even without a company policy, think twice before forwarding a joke email; what you consider to be a funny a co-worker, customer or boss may find to be offensive, a waste of company time and resources. If you must forward joke emails do so to family and friends only from your home computer.

6. Refusing to attend required training because employee was too busy and felt his years of experience exempted him from further training. The new manager concluded this employee wasn’t a team player.

Your new manager will not care about your seniority and past sales records if you do not comply with his/her new policies and procedures. With the economy in the doldrums and new jobs increasingly hard to come by do your career a favor and clean up sloppy, questionable work habits before your new manager arrives.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Billy McLaughlin Is Truely Inspirational

Last night we attended an amazing performance called the "Acoustic Archery FTG" featuring Andy McKee and Billy McLaughlin at the Northern Lights Theater. We arrived late for the performance which provided us with an added bonus; the opportunity to meet Billy McLaughlin in person. He was standing in front of the theater's entrance with his ear to the door listening to Dean Magraw . He said, “This is the first time I’ve heard this guy. It seems almost sac religious to enter while he’s playing” My husband looked at him and said, “Your Billy McLaughlin.” It was, and DH began telling him how we had discovered him on public TV about ten years ago when his performance of "Fingerdance" was featured as a filler. We were so enamored with his innovative guitar playing we went out and bought not one but two of his CD's. He talked about his new DVD and an upcoming documentary to be aired on PBS. He was extremely personable and sincerely thanked us for coming.

During his performance he kept referring to how happy he was to be performing his music. Why was he so happy?

In 1997, he had suffered a hand injury resulting from a fall. He began having difficulties playing solo guitar. His performances received poor reviews; he was even accused of playing while under the influence. Finally in 2001, he was diagnosed with focal dystonia (a neuromuscular disorder with symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease) which had afflicted his hand. His doctors advised him to look for a different career; his career as a virtuoso guitarist was over. Billy refused to give up. In 2006, he began a comeback. He had relearned to play the guitar one note at a time left-handed. His documentary describes this retraining as learning how to speak every word in reverse - phonetically. His story is phenomenal. Watch it here.

“Many people fail because they quit too soon.”
Quote taped to Billy's dashboard

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Overpromise Worse than No Promise!

Late Thursday afternoon, Mr. B.S., the regional manager for my company’s business insurance called to offer me two tickets to Milwaukee's Harley-Davidson fest. The package included a two-day pass to the festivities plus concert tickets to the Foo Fighters and Bruce Springsteen's performances. I immediately said I'd take them and began contemplating who the lucky recipients would be. Mr. B.S. was to overnight them so they'd arrive at my office first thing Friday morning.

As I walked into the office Friday, I saw was my co-worker JB's harley parked right outside the main entrance. I immediately decided he would get first dibs at the tickets. You should have seen his eyes light up when I asked him if he was interested in the Springsteen tickets. He and his wife had wanted to go, but the $60 entrance fee plus a $40 concert ticket was too steep for their budget. He would need to know soon, however, so he could secure a babysitter. I told him the tickets were his and I'd let him know the minute the package arrived. I would find a recipient for the Foo Fighter tickets once I had them in my possession.

11:00 came around and I still did not have the tickets. I asked J.B. what time our Federal Express courier usually arrives. He said, “They should have been here by now.” This was not a good sign; my past experience with Mr. B.S. has been spotty. He repeatedly has over-promised and under-delivered. I called Mr. B.S. to request he place a tracer on the package. Of course he didn't answer. Of course he didn't call me back. Of course 5:00 came around and I did not have the tickets.

I know this could have been the fault of the express mail carrier, but past experience leads me to believe my express mail package is lying on the back seat of Mr. B.S.’s car. Plus in the eyes of J.B, I now appear unreliable. As I see it, once again this manager disappoints. This could have been a great opportunity for him to redeem himself, but instead I am now more annoyed than ever.

Life lesson:
People don't like being disappointed, so it's better to under-promise and over-deliver than the alternative.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Be Cognizant of Cover Letter's Purpose

In response to an advertisement for a territory salesman my company received a resume and cover letter submitted by one of our competitor's employees. The first paragraph of his cover letter was written as follows:

I am currently employed as a store manager at XYZ Company. They have three stores with their main office located in Milwaukee. I am employed at their Madison location. XYZ Company is managed in such a way that I am continuously working in a reactive mode.

The last sentence automatically disqualified this candidate from further consideration. Our owners perceived two things from this sentence.
1. Our competitors have the same problems we do.
2. This candidate most likely has a bad attitude, especially towards the management of XYZ Company.

The purpose of a cover letter is to explain why an employer should want to hire you. The above candidate had been promoted from salesman to store manager at his present company. He would have faired much better if he had written what a great salesman he had been, how he misses sales and would love to have the opportunity to sell for our company. He currently commutes from Milwaukee to Madison each day. By stating he would prefer a position with a shorter commute, although not a reason we should hire him, would have at least not eliminated him.

For an example of a great cover letter read Ask a Manager’s post "What Does a Good Cover Letter Look Like".

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Was opening the "Kabul Beauty School" A truly unselfish act?

The book Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil by Deborah Rodriguez is an engaging and insightful look into the lives of Afghan women. Debbie a hair stylist from Holland, Michigan travels to Afghanistan to assist with relief efforts after the Taliban was removed in 2001. Upon discovering she had no real skills to assist with the effort, she began cutting hair to keep busy. After talking to Afghan women, some of them former salon owners whose salons had been outlawed by the Taliban during the occupation, she discovers beauty salons are the only business a woman can control in Afghanistan without a man. Enthralled by the country and the people she met she returns to help open and run the Kabul Beauty School.

In the book, which is written as a memoir she writes about the lives of the women she meets. Afghanistan is a country where woman have no rights and can be killed for dishonoring their families. Marriages are arranged and it is commonplace for an Afghan man to take a second or even a third wife. Unfortunately, many Afghans still agree with the Taliban that beauty salons and any thing that make women stand out are an abomination; many believe beauty salons are fronts for prostitution. Debbie who likes to refer to herself as “Crazy Debbie” has just enough craziness to confront the obstacles the Afghans throw her way. She also picks up an afghan husband, “Sam” who in the book is portrayed as an ally in her mission.

After completing the book, I wanted to know more: Was Debbie still in Afghanistan? How were the women she wrote about fairing? Had their lives improved? Was the Beauty School still in operation? Was Debbie still running it? Was she still with Sam?

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long to discover things had not faired well. According to NPR and other on-line news sources when Debbie returned to Kabul after a book tour she discovered her husband, Haji Sher Mohammed (known in the book as Sam), had been sexually harassing the salon girls and was plotting to steal her money. She was forced to abandon the salon and flee Kabul after diplomats warned her she would be kidnapped if she stayed. The country was simply too dangerous for her now. More tragically, she may have endangered the lives of the women she wrote about. The book has caused outrage in Afghanistan, where websites have revealed the salon girls’ true identities. They have been denounced as prostitutes who have soiled the reputation of Afghan women. An American diplomatic source said Rodriguez was well meaning but “naive”. “It’s a bizarre feature of contemporary life that people can fly into Kabul, marry a warlord, set up a beauty parlor, get a movie deal and fly off to another life.

Perhaps the fictional character Joey in an episode from the sitcom “Friends” was correct when he set out to convince Phoebe there are no truly unselfish acts. Many sources claim Rodriguez wrote the book and actually opened the beauty school for selfish reasons. I can’t help but wonder why Rodriguez didn’t write her book as a fictional novel about Afghanistan women rather than a memoir.

The book is scheduled to be made into a movie starring Sandra Bullock as Rodriguez. Rodriguez apparently plans at some point in the future to give the women "a small part" of the book royalties, and 5% of the money from the movie being made. I hope so, but the money seems like such a small token after so much drama.

Enough said.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Accountants are required to work 45+ hours per week.

In a recent conversation with recruiter A, I asked whether she thought I was underpaid in my current position. Instead of inquiring further about my job's responsibilities or duties she asked, "How many hours do you work in any given week?” Typically, I work 40 hours a week. When the need arises I do work whatever hours are needed to get the job done. This has included working both Saturday and Sunday during year-end close and 10 hour days at month-end. Upon hearing my response she said, "Since you typically work only 40 hours a week you are probably not underpaid. The majority of accounting positions I fill require a work week of at least 45 to 50 hours."

Not pleased with recruiter A's response, I asked recruiter B if the companies she recruits for require accountants to work more than 40 hours per week. Instead of answering my question, she went into a tirade about two recent job placements that fell through after the candidates refused to work more than 40 hours a week despite having been advised of the hour requirement prior to hire. She wondered why these individuals even majored in accounting; everyone knows accountants are required to work long hours.

Conclusion: In my 20+ years of working as an accountant I have worked several jobs including the early years of my current position) where I have been required to work 45-50 hours a week. I have since come to the conclusion I cannot work 45+ hours a week every week, year after year and still be effective in my job. I think the only people who can do this are either very driven, very passionate about their work or both. If more money requires a greater hour requirement at this point in my life I think I will stay where I am.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Control what you can

Tuesday night we went to bed early looking forward to a good night's sleep only to be awakened around 11:00 to the sound of sirens; a car was on fire in our backyard. A 17 year old boy had taken his Grandmother's car for a joy ride without her consent. Driving recklessly he hit a tree on our lot line causing the car to spin out of control and come to a stop in our yard. According to witnesses, he was very lucky; the car went up in flames only seconds after he escaped. Also, based on the car’s damage it is a miracle he was not seriously injured.

Unfortunately, the life lesson in this situation appears to have been lost on the boy. His comment to the first officer arriving on the scene was, "That was so cool!" According to this officer, neither the boy nor his Grandmother has insurance; his father is in prison, at 17 he already has a record and is most likely headed for a life of crime himself.

In the incident’s aftermath, we are left with a mess in our backyard and will most likely lose our tree. We could easily be angry about this situation; the last thing we want to do on a humid Saturday afternoon is pick up charred auto parts and small pieces of glass.

I am reminded of the advice a friend received from her father when her parked car was damaged by a hit and run driver, “Incidents like this are going to happen in life. You are wasting your time getting upset. I know it is a hassle and the extra expense is unfair, but concentrate on controlling what you can, your attitude. Then get the car fixed and move on.”

Items I have gotten upset about in the past, but cannot control:
1. Other people. Their perceptions, problems, thoughts and actions.
2. The weather.
3. The economy.
4. Hassles such as travel delays, poor service or traffic.

Items I can control:
1. My thoughts and actions.
2. How I spend my free time.
3. Who I spend my free time with.
4. How I spend my money.
5. What I eat.
6. My appearance.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Hara Hachi Bu

I have a coworker who makes it a known fact that she dislikes exercise and strenuous activity of any kind. When the ladies in her department go for their daily walk she always refuses to join in, preferring to remain inside eating her lunch and reading her book. She doesn't seem to be overly conscious of eating healthy; her lunch usually consists of macaroni and cheese, noodles in a Styrofoam cup or leftovers from the previous night’s dinner, yet she maintains her weight. I have always wondered how she does this; if I miss even one week of exercise my weight shoots up a pound or two.

At a recent retirement party, I sat next to this coworker and must say I am now onto her secret. After eating only half her plate of food, she pushed the uneaten portion aside claiming she was full. She did eat one small appetizer and a half a piece of cake, but only because others forced it upon her. In comparison, I ate five or six appetizers, my entire plate of food and a whole piece of cake.

So there you have it, she is as disciplined with her food as she is with her work. Now that I think about it, I have never witnessed her eating a single treat others have brought into the office and I would know since I am usually the one eating the majority of these treats.

In Okinawa they have a term for this, Hara Hachi Bu, "eat until you're 80 percent full." In addition to maintaining their weight, Okinawans have the lowest rates of heart disease, cancer and stroke - and one of the highest life expectancies - of any population in the world. Stop eating when you feel only slightly full; within 15 minutes you should be satisfied.

I can’t say in the weeks since this party that I have changed my eating habits, but I have become more conscious of portion size and have made small attempts to quit eating before I am full. It’s a start.

Enough said.

Just wondering why?

1. The smudge proof mascara I buy is never really smudge proof.

2. My health club has to charge extra for Pilates and yoga classes. Isn't my monthly membership fee enough to cover the cost of these classes?

3. Every time I buy new eyeglasses, the only frames I like in the entire store just came in and are not on sale.

4. These same eyeglass frames looked much better when I was trying them on than when they contain my actual prescription.

5. Pottery Barn’s earthenware dinnerware is stamped microwave & dishwasher safe when in actuality it cracks if placed in the microwave.

6. Our local retail establishments refuse to keep extended hours and even choose to close early on a whim. I really do try to patronize our local Mom & Pop shops, but it is extremely frustrating to rush across town after work only to find they closed 15 minutes early. And they wonder why they can’t compete with the large discount retail chains.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Saving Money on Prescriptions

In most discussions concerning the rising costs of our company’s medical insurance, our agent gives the aging population of our workforce and their ever increasing quantity of prescription maintenance medications as one of the contributing factors. To help our employees manage these costs his assistant gave a presentation on “Ways to reduce the cost of prescription drugs”.

Suggestions given:
Ask the pharmacist how much the prescription would cost without your insurance card. I was utterly shocked to hear if a prescription costs $6.99 and you handed them your drug card, the pharmacist may charge you the $10.00 co-pay instead of the actual lower $6.99 cost. Employees at her firm discovered this was happening when their company switched to an HSA insurance plan and employees began paying the full cost of prescriptions out of their own pocket. (Later many of our employees did check the cost of their prescription drugs only to find the actual cost to be well above their co-pay).

Ask for free samples at your doctors’ office. Drug reps hand out samples to doctors weekly. Most clinics save them for the needy, so you may have to ask for your free samples.

Go Generic. When a drug loses its patent, other companies can sell the drug at deeply discounted rates. If there is no generic, ask your doctor if there is another form or an older form that is less expensive. Pharmaceutical companies continually refine drugs to keep customers on the brand name drugs longer.

Split the pill. Pharmaceutical companies often charge the same amount per pill regardless of its strength. (Example- Lipitor 20mg and 40mg cost exactly the same.) Buying ½ the number of pills and splitting them saves money. Note: not all medications can be split, ask your doctor.

Pharmacies are business – yes, you can negotiate pricing with your pharmacy. Shop around for competitive pricing. (Don’t forget Wal-Mart has $4 prescriptions on certain meds).

Mail Order – If you need your medications on an ongoing basis, check out your mail order drug program, save on co-pay and have them delivered to your front door.

I recently attempted to read the book, “Our Daily Meds: How the Pharmaceutical Companies Transformed Themselves into Slick Marketing Machines and Hooked the Nation on Prescription Drugs” by Melody Peterson. Unfortunately as much as I wanted to read this book, I wasn’t able to read more than 50 pages because it was just too darned depressing. What I did read helped me formulate a cost saving suggestion of my own:

Do not watch, read or listen to any advertisements for prescription drugs; not only are the pharmaceutical companies buying off our doctors but are using advertisements to convince us we have medical conditions we don’t have and to persuade us to ask our doctor to prescribe the latest most expensive wonder drug when a much cheaper generic version would work just as well.

Enough Said.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Dreaded Medical Insurance Renewal

My company has just completed our medical insurance renewal. Once again, our current carrier has increased our medical insurance premiums for the upcoming plan year. The 12% increase was not astronomical, but accompanied with the current soft sales forecast, an increase in our business insurance that was astronomical (40%), and increases in fixed costs; utilities, shipping etc. our owners felt they had no choice, but to pass the increase in medical insurance cost on to their employees.

They did look at alternatives:
- Switching carriers. Another insurance carrier submitted a quote with a similar plan design for a total cost decrease of 3%. Unfortunately, this new carrier did not offer adequate preferred provider organization (or “PPO”) coverage for all our locations. Also, this same group of employee’s medical expenditures would be subject to usual and customary charges. In the long run, our owners decided this carrier was essentially buying our business for one year. Most likely next year, they too would increase our premiums and we would be in the same situation we are in now.

-Our agent did use this more attractive quote as leverage against our current carrier in an attempt to persuade them to lower their original quote down from the 12% increase, but they refused to budge.

- Offering a dual plan choice; our current plan plus an HSA Health Savings Account. Surprisingly, the premiums for the HSA plan were not that attractive. That, in addition to the additional work involved in rolling out such a plan, they decided against it.

The Final Decision:
After much discussion, our owners decided to stay with our current carrier, tweaking the plan design so that the plan would be more affordable. The deductible was increased along with the maximum total out-of-pocket cost. And of course the % of premium the employee pays out of their own pocket was increased. To soften the increase a flexible spending account, was added to the total benefit package.

How the employees responded:
The employees accepted the announcement of higher medical costs with few complaints. I asked one of our more outspoken employees why he was so complacent this time around. He responded by saying, “This increase comes as no surprise. I read the newspapers. There are articles almost daily about the rising costs of medical insurance. Our company is not alone. I talk with my friends who work at other companies. They are experiencing increased costs and a reduction of benefits as well. I don’t like, it but there is nothing I can do about it."

Enough Said.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Tina Fey on "The Way Women are Perceived as Leaders"

In the article, “Tina on Top” found in the May 2008 issue of Marie Claire magazine, Amy Poehler asks Tina Fey to tell readers a little bit about a play she wrote while in Chicago in the early ‘90’s about Catherine the Great.

Yes. yes. I used to take playwriting classes, and I wrote a one-act play – I can’t remember the name of it, but it was really about the way women are perceived as leaders. In the play, Catherine the Great would say things like, "You know, John F. Kennedy had extramarital affairs and no one says anything. But I bang one horse and now I'm a horse-banger for all eternity? That's it? That's what I am? I think Hillary Clinton's got to relate to that.

Enough said.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Advice for the Accounting Grad

You may not make 65K your first year out of school, but the future job outlook for accountants is good. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) beginning in 2008, 22 million workers who are 45 or older will start leaving the workforce, primarily due to retirement. One of the job categories expected to see higher than average departures in that age group are financial managers as well as bookkeepers and accounting and auditing clerks. I have already begun experiencing this at my organization. As members of my staff retire or move on to better opportunities, I have found it increasingly difficult to fill their positions. Recent accounting grads do not even consider accounting clerk positions. I firmly believe they are holding out for better opportunities and are finding them.

How to be more marketable:
Don't overlook summer intern or seasonal tax preparer positions in hopes of a permanent job. If you perform well you will most likely be hired permanently in the fall or when a permanent position becomes available. If at all possible get experience in public accounting. More employers now require public accounting experience. Join business fraternities and professional organizations, and become an active participant. Recently during a CPE workshop sponsored by my accounting organization, a member practically hired a student attendee as a summer intern on the spot.

Get your Certified Public Accountant CPA or Certified Management Accountant CMA certification:
At this same meeting, an accounting student asked whether or not she should take the CPA exam; her boss had advised her against it saying she didn’t need it to be an accountant. Hello, maybe not to work for him, but a lot can happen over the course of a career. The CPA designation comes with a lot of honor and recognition. He is correct it is not a requirement in order to work as an accountant but it does make a difference. It has certainly opened a few doors for me. Also, don’t rule out the CMA exam. When I was in school, it was all about the CPA exam, now my boss wants to know why I never got a CMA.

Which Offer Should I Take?
One of my college professors advised that if you had the luxury of receiving two like job offers to take the one in which you liked the people the best. You will be spending at least forty hours a week with your new co-workers; if you don't like them, your working life has the potential to be miserable.

In closing, a respected CPA I worked with early in my career found the best accounting professionals to be highly motivated and committed to continuous learning. Remember, now that your classroom time has ended you are responsible for keeping your skills and knowledge current and for managing your own career, not your employer.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Do you type?

This morning, the President of my company popped his head into my office and asked, “Do you type?” When I responded affirmatively, he handed me a confidential form that needed typing. Taking the form, I walked to the empty cubicle that housed our old typewriter, sat down, aligned the form, and began to type. As I was typing, I became overcome with a sensation of deja vu.

When I was in high school I took several secretarial classes; Typing I, Typing II and Shorthand I. I'm not sure why I took these classes, I don't recall anyone telling me that I had to take them, asking me if I wanted to take them or even if I liked them. They were the elective classes girls in my high school enrolled in. I abhorred typing. I don’t recall my typing speed ever reaching much higher than 50 wpm. It was not unusual for me to turn in my assignment with a hole or two in the paper from attempting to correct my mistakes with a typing eraser. I found the entire typing class experience to be unenjoyable and stressful. Shorthand was worse. I dropped that class after one semester. It is hard to believe I was on a career track to do this every day for the rest of my life.

Then came career day; our guidance counselor stood in front of the classroom jotting on the chalkboard the future plans of myself and my classmates. We came up with four items. Here they are listed in order:
1. Get married
2. Get a job
3. Get a vocational degree (secretary or beautician for the girls, welder for the boys)
4. Get a college degree (engineer for the boys, teacher for the girls)

Luckily for me; shortly afterwards, I had a conversation with a kind neighbor concerning my lack of enthusiasm for a future career in typing. She talked me into attending a four year college and getting a B.S. degree. This same neighbor would eventually become the guidance counselor at my old high school.

After I graduated from college, with my new B.S. degree in hand, I went off to the employment agencies to find a job. At each agency, the first question the interviewer would ask me was, “Do you type?” which was followed by a typing test. Amazingly, I passed one of those tests, just squeaking by with 42 wpm. That led to a series of temp jobs, most of which involved typing letters and forms. Eventually, I would type an invoice or two, allowing me to add a new skill; Accounts Receivable, to my resume. Thus my accounting career had begun and the rest is history.

The following quote by James Burke of Fortune Magazine is appropriate: The typewriter also freed women from the drudgery of the kitchen to become involved in the drudgery of office work. And more important, it conferred on women the social power denied them by men and provided the dynamic to push for political emancipation.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

I picked up this book after reading the following in the Jan/Feb 2008 issue of Pink Magazine:

When asked what book IKEA North American President Pernille Spiers-Lopez would recommend to the 750 woman attending the latest Pink conference, she suggested not a business title but The Alchemist. It is an allegorical novel about a shepherd who leaves the world he knows for the great unknown in search of a promised treasure - and his own personal legend.Giving readers a New Year’s wish, Pink's editor Cynthia Good offers – that 2008 serves up a new opportunity to take chances, to transcend barriers and mistakes, and, as Coelho writes, to “remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.”

Always looking for inspiration to keep me on the path towards living my best life, I couldn't ignore a recommendation like this; I had to read this book. Unfortunately, although I enjoyed the fable, the book did not live up to my expectations. For me the tale was too simplistic to be inspiring, I did not find it to be amazing or life changing. I read this book earlier in the year, but I as did Florinda, I found it to be a difficult book to review. I would rate it 2.5/5.

What I did find inspiring, however, was Coelho’s biography written inside the back cover. Paul was born in Brazil in 1947 the son of an engineer and a home worker. He dreamed of an artistic career which was frowned upon by his middle-class household. In the austere surroundings of a strict Jesuit school, Paulo discovered his true vocation to be a writer. Paulo’s parents however had different plans for him. When their attempts to suppress his devotion to literature failed, they took it as a sign of mental illness. When Paulo was 17, his father had him committed to a mental institution twice, where he endured electroconvulsive “therapy.” His parents brought him back there once more after he became involved with a theater group and started to work as a journalist.

Now that is inspiring! Talk about having to face adversity; imagine being committed to a mental institution for following your dreams. And I thought I had it rough when at 17 my father refused to support my decision to go to college.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Do you review your Social Security Statement?

What is a Social Security Statement?
The Social Security Statement is a tool designed to help you plan for your financial future. It provides an estimate of the social security benefits you will receive under current law at age 62, your full retirement age, and at age 70. It also lists estimated benefits if you were to become disabled, family survivorship benefits and whether or not you are Medicare eligible. The Statement briefly explains what it takes to become eligible for benefits. Basically, you must work for ten years to earn retirement benefits, and you must work at least five of the last ten years to claim disability benefits. The statement is updated each year to reflect your latest report of earnings. When you get your statement, you should verify that your earnings record is correct for previous years.

When will I receive my Social Security Statement?
By law, social security statements are mailed out annually. You should automatically receive a statement if you have a Social Security Number, are age 25 or older, have any job earnings on record and are not already receiving benefits (including Medicare). You should receive your statement a couple of months before your birthday.

Why is it important to review your statement?
This is important because your earnings record is what the government bases your benefits on (for retirement, disability, Medicare, etc.) Verifying your earnings record is also important because if the numbers are off (especially if they are off dramatically) it could be an indicator of identity theft or fraud.

What if you didn’t receive a statement?
You can request a statement at any time; information on how to do so can be found on the SSA website.

What if you find an error?
If you discover an error in any of the earnings Social Security has listed other that last year, call Social Security's helpline at 800-772-1213, Monday through Friday, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Have your W-2's or tax return for the incorrect years available.

Why am I writing about this?
Because the earnings record on my latest SSA statement was incorrect as were the earnings record of every employee at my company who had received their statement this year. My earnings statement had zero earnings recorded for 2006 while my earnings for 2007 were listed correctly. 2006 was the year my company transferred our payroll processing to an outside provider, ADP. This switch, for year-end tax filing purposes, was a hellish nightmare (ADP issued our company's W-2's eleven times before they got them right). Our accounting department is still working through the tax implications of this fiasco.

Upon noticing this error, I called the SSA hotline on my own behalf and discovered not only my 2006 wages, but the 2006 wages for every employee in our company was being held in suspense. I then asked my boss if his statement had been correct; his birthday was earlier this year. He didn't know as he had shoved his unopened statement into a file. This led me to believe our employees are not reviewing their SSA statements. It turned out my boss's 2006 wages were also listed as zero, while his 2007 wages were correct. Come on people you need to review these statements. This is your money.

On a positive note, it looks like this will be an easy fix. I sent a copy of my W-2 for 2006 to our local SSA office. On the company's behalf, per SSA instructions, I had the entire correct 2006 wage file resent to SSA.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Managing the Second Half of Your Life

Have you thought about what you are going to do with the second half of your life? One of my co-workers retires in 27 days. When asked what she plans to do with the rest of her life, she didn’t have a clue, other than relax and have fun.

This conversation comes shortly after I had the opportunity to talk to two of our former employees. Both retired at age 62, both are comfortable financially.

Employee A worked as our company’s sales manager for 30 years. Upon retiring, he sold his home and moved to Northern Wisconsin where he and his wife run a seasonal souvenir shop. When asked how he was enjoying retirement, he emphatically stated, “I hate it." He misses the camaraderie of the office; his customers and the thrill of getting the deal. He manages to keep busy, but feels his life has no meaning. He inquired about our business; upon hearing we had just snagged an incredible deal, he was visibly upset. He had not even heard of our current #1 customer.

Employee B worked in our industry 30 years, 15 of them as Operations Manager for our company. He too sold his home and purchased a small fixer upper in Michigan (a lower tax state than Wisconsin). When asked how he is enjoying retirement, he enthusiastically replied “I love it.” He is busy working on his home; is active in his community (he was here as well). He and his wife own a motor home and are planning on traveling south this summer. He also volunteers at our state tech schools where he recruits high school students into the trades. This was an activity he performed while working with our company; enjoying it so much he agreed to continue after retirement. He is also planning on attending a company camping trip Memorial Day weekend.

Many of us long for the day when we can do whatever we want whenever we want. We put a lot of time and effort into calculating how much money we will need when we retire, but don’t put equal preparation into planning what we will actually do; other than travel, visit the grand kids, and maybe do a little volunteer work. Is that enough?

In the Harvard Business Review article, Managing Oneself, Peter R. Drucker discusses the importance of knowing yourself and offers valuable advice for managing the second half of your life: "The one prerequisite for managing the second half of your life: You must begin long before you enter it." Another, noteworthy point; "If one does not begin to volunteer before one is 40 or so, one will not volunteer once past 60."

In the above scenarios, employee B adequately planned for the second half of his life and is happy in his retirement. He continues to perform the aspect of his job he enjoyed the most on a volunteer basis. He is in contact with former co-workers, even attending work social events. Employee A has virtually cut himself off from all contact with former co-workers. He started a new business he does not enjoy. He did not adequately plan for his retirement never realizing how much he would miss sales. If planned appropriately, he could easily have taught sales techniques on a part time basis to entry level salespersons in our industry.

Do yourself a favor begin managing the second half of your life long before you enter it?

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Things that make me "Crabby"

1. Co-workers who habitually arrive late to meetings.

2. The personal banker who neglected to tell me I will be charged a .50 cent fee every time I use my new debit card until after I had signed all the paper work. This fee would be charged on debit purchases only not credit purchases. Just curious, isn't a debit charge the whole purpose of a debit card?

3. The gal in my aerobics class who wears so much cheap perfume I feel nauseated by the end of class.

4. The new schedule of aerobic classes; all my favorites are either cancelled, too early for me to attend or so late I won't get home until after 8:00 p.m.

5. My inability to read the signs at the Amtrak station which say, "Meters do not give change," until after I have submitted my money.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Communication is the key to successfully implementing change in your company’s policies and procedures. This was the message I took home from a recent seminar, "Implementing Lean in Administration/Office areas." In order to be successful, change must be communicated properly. It is a basic tenant of human nature to process under communicated change in the following manner:

1. Change is Discovered
2. Confusion & Rumors Ensue (Employees speculate; lean accounting sounds like layoffs. They begin wasting time developing lists of who they think should be laid off).
3. Fear Spreads
4. Resistance Generated
5. Resentment Develops
6. Interest Begins
7. Enthusiasm
8. Excitement

According to the presenter, if change is communicated properly, employees will go straight from step one when the change is communicated to step six where interest develops, skipping steps 2 through 5.

I was reminded of the importance of communication when our Human Resource Manager began a project to create job descriptions for all our employees this week. To kick off this project, she emailed a select group of employees requesting that they create a job description for their position. She gave them a two day deadline, and provided a sample format. She did not give them a reason as to why she was undertaking this project. Immediately, they were confused and fearful. Who could blame them, the media has bombarded us with talk of recession and our company’s sales have been lower than normal. With lighter work loads they assumed they were assigned this task because their job was in jeopardy. Every one of them resisted this project. Ms. HR Manager came to me complaining about our employees attitudes. I relayed my seminar's communication recommendation from above and suggested that she hadn’t explained her project clearly. She mulled my suggestion over for a couple seconds, decided that wasn’t the case stating our employees just couldn’t deal with change.

I disagree, ultimately she had to sit down with each employee, explain the purpose of her project; having a job description is a good business practice plus creating them was one of the tasks she was hired to do. She then had to convince them that by creating a job description they would not be putting their job in jeopardy and in many cases they would find the process beneficial. Only then did they enthusiastically complete the task.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Creative College Financing Triggers AMT

With the increasing cost of college tuition, more families are being forced to get creative with their finances in order to pay their children’s college tuition. In doing so, they may be in for a big surprise at tax time. Two years ago, a couple I know, struggling to educate their three daughters, sold a piece of property to help pay tuition costs. They knew at tax time they would owe a capital gain tax, but were shocked when the additional income also triggered an AMT tax. This past year, this same couple began drawing from a pension, in addition to earning their full time salaries, to help subsidize tuition costs. At tax time, they again found themselves subject to the AMT tax. As more middle class Americans are being hit with the Alternative Minimum Tax, I think there needs to be a better understanding of what this tax is and the impact certain financial decisions have on AMT tax liability.

What is AMT?
The Alternative Minimum Tax or AMT was designed in 1969. Its original purpose was to keep wealthy tax payers from using loopholes (many of which have since been closed) to avoid paying their fair share of income tax. Under AMT, once certain levels of income and deductions are reached; taxpayers are required to add back specific deductions, and pay an additional tax. This is to ensure all taxpayers pay at least a minimum tax.

What are some of the deductions that are required to be added back (disallowed)?
-State and local taxes.
-Medical costs are still allowed, but the AMT requires they exceed at least 10 percent of your adjusted gross income, rather than the 7.5 percent threshold of the regular tax system.
-Miscellaneous itemized deductions, although limited under the regular tax system, are disallowed under the AMT. This prevents the taxpayer from deducting large unreimbursed business expenses.
-Home ownership is not quite so desirable under AMT, while you are still allowed to deduct mortgage interest on both your main and second home, home equity loan interest is restricted. It can only be deducted if the money is used solely to pay for home improvements.
- Your home’s property taxes
- Personal exemptions. The more exemptions you claim the more likely it is you will have AMT liability.
- The Standard Deduction.

Why are more people subject to this tax?
Unlike regular income tax, the AMT tax was not indexed for inflation; AMT brackets have remained relatively constant at 26% and 28% while yearly wage increases have moved taxpayer income uncomfortably close or even into the AMT income bracket realm. To put this into context, AMT was originally created to target 155 filers with income of $200,000 who avoided paying any federal taxes, compare this with the nearly 4 million taxpayers subject to AMT in 2007, 80% of which had incomes between $100,000 and $200,000.

At what income levels are taxpayers affected?
Once you add back the AMT disallowances and run the numbers, AMT may be owed if your taxable income in 2007 was more than:
· $66,250 and you are married filing a joint return.
· $44,350 and you are filing as single or head of household.
· $33,125 and you are a married taxpayer filing a separate return

If the above income levels are met, how are you to determine whether you’re subject to the AMT?
IRS Form 1040 instructions includes a worksheet that may help you determine whether you're subject to the AMT, an electronic version of this worksheet is also available on the IRS website found here, but you may need to complete IRS Form 6251 to know for sure. Personally, I found Form 6251 to be confusing and relied on the IRS website results.

What are the more common AMT “triggers”?
Common AMT "triggers" include claiming a high number of personal exemptions, miscellaneous itemized deductions, and state and local tax deductions. In the example I sited above, the couple's increase in income along with their five personal exemptions and high state and property tax deductions (Wisconsin is a high-tax state) triggered AMT.

Bottom Line: As parents strategize to pay their children’s college tuition, it may me wise for them to meet with a good tax accountant or financial planner before making financial decisions that may seriously impact not only their income tax payments but their long term financial goals.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The costs of maintenance

I am a proponent of preventative maintenance and usually follow recommended guidelines; flossing my teeth daily, scheduling an annual physical, following the manufacturers’ recommended car maintenance, but I'm having a hard time believing the $304.65 I just spent for my car’s 30,000 mile maintenance service was really necessary. All of the money books recommend following manufactures' guidelines, plus the service technician at the dealership made a point of telling me not to miss the 30,000 mile service. He did say it could be a little pricy running somewhere in the range of $100-$200. Maybe if his estimate would have been a little closer to the actual cost of $362.46 (without coupons); I wouldn’t feel quite as ripped off. Sure they inspected everything tires, brakes, fluids, fan belt, you name it, but was it all really necessary. The results were great; everything passed inspection and no further work was needed.

With car maintenance I always feel at the mercy of the dealership or repair shop. I remember taking my previous vehicles to those quick oil change places. There were occasions they were so convincing I felt my car would not make it to the next block unless I spent hundreds of dollars for additional services. It was because of these high pressure sales tactics that I stopped going to those places.

One thing I know for sure:
With my next car (which hopefully will not be for several years), I will forego most of the 30,000 mile maintenance.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

New Salesperson Lacks Professionalism

Last fall, our company, which is in a male dominated industry, hired our first female salesperson. She was a recent Marquette graduate with a marketing/communications degree. Our current staff of twenty male salesmen had a lot to say about this, “She will never make it.” “Our customers won't take her seriously.” "She's not going to stay; she just took this job to puff up her resume, after getting a year or two of experience she will leave.” "The company will never recoup their investment in her.” In our industry, it takes approximately two years for a new salesman to build their client base and support themselves on commission alone. To help with the transition the company typically pays them a salary in addition to commissions for the first two years.

This particular salesperson has now been with the company a little over 6 months. So far, she has not sold anything to speak of, but this is not unusual considering her territory and the current state of the economy. She has brought new marketing methods to her position; baking brownies for potential customers and even dropping off a pan or two of her homemade lasagna. For the most part, she’s been moving along status quo and the sales staff if not accepting her have stopped being adverse to her presence. They too, have enjoyed a brownie or two.

This past week all of our salespeople converged at one of our locations for our annual spring sales meetings. They attend three days of presentations given by upper management and vendors discussing everything from current marketing trends to the latest products and services. The salespeople spend evenings with their managers at local restaurants and bars where there is always plenty of food and drink. The first night, our female salesperson got a little tipsy and was too hung-over to attend the second day’s presentations. Now, there is an unwritten rule amongst our salesmen, if you drink on the company dime, you show up the next day even if you have the dry heaves. Her absence at first was overlooked probably because she is young and female. But then, low and behold, after spending the day ill in her room, she recovers just in time for dinner and another night of partying.

Drinking problems aside, this salesperson is no longer in college where she may have been able to get away with this behavior. Unprofessional actions such as this may be just the proof that our salesmen’s initial impressions were correct.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Where is the real money made?

I am a regular listener of the Clark Howard radio show. One of his common caller issues is the listener who has recently attended a hotel ballroom seminar pitching strategies to attain great wealth and is concerned that they are about to be "ripped off". These strategies come in different forms; buying manufacturers receivables, purchasing foreclosed real estate, buying over priced investments, and home based-businesses to name a few. The common denominator amongst all of them is the request for further outlays of cash; payments of hundreds and sometimes even thousands of dollars are necessary to receive additional courses, books, tapes, mailing lists and other materials to make this money making endeavor successful. Clark’s response is always the same; if this was such a great money making idea, the presenters would be off making millions, not hawking their techniques in hotel ballrooms.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Clark’s response as I read Warren Buffett’s biography, “The Making of an American Capitalist,” by Roger Lowenstien. One thing that stood out from the beginning of Buffett's investment career was his aversion to giving stock tips. In the beginning years of Berkshire Hathaway he would not keep his investors informed as to where their money was invested and only provided return updates on an annual basis. Much of the investment purchasing he made for Berkshire Hathaway was accomplished by quiet accumulation.

Think about these questions the next time someone pitches a get rich quick scheme to you. Where is the money really being made? Is it by using the actual techniques being pitched or is it in the pitch itself? Warren Buffett became the richest man on the planet by investing in stock, not pitching subscriptions for stock tip guides in hotel ballrooms for a monthly fee of $19.95.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

"Enough With the Bottled Water"

I find my co-worker's bottled water in our work refrigerator and freezer; partially filled bottles are abandoned in the copy room and lunch room. Many of the members at my gym arrive toting their bottled water. I'm sure many prefer the taste, enjoy the convenience and feel it’s safer, but I never understood why anyone would buy bottled water if they had perfectly good tap water. I assume most are somewhat aware purchasing bottled water is not good for their budget or the environment. To further deter them, I recommend they read "The Blue Death", by Dr. Robert Morris where he points out the following:

Bottled water is immensely popular with Americans ~
Americans toss nearly 50 million empty water bottles into trash cans every day. More than 7 billion gallons of bottled water are consumed every year.

The bottles have a huge impact on the environment ~
The production of the bottles themselves requires more than two billion pounds of plastic per year, which translates into millions of barrels of oil consumed and a steady release of toxic waste into the environment. The manufacturer of a single bottle requires more water than the bottle will ultimately hold. The transport of these bottles over hundreds or even thousands of miles by ship, train & truck further adds to the disportionate ecological impact of bottled water.

Bottled water is not necessarily safer ~
Despite the fact that it costs almost a thousand times more than tap water, there is no guarantee that bottled water is safer. Bottled water is less closely regulated than tap water and is not required to meet stricter standards for purity. In fact, a major portion of bottled water in the US is nothing more than tap water in an expensive bottle.

To be sure, many brands of bottled water are superior to tap water and can offer a valuable alternative, particularly when traveling or after a local disaster threatens the water supply.

He closes with ~
But environmentally, economically, and in many cases even with respect to disease prevention, they fall short as a replacement for piped water.

Need I say more?

Saturday, March 01, 2008

"Open Every Door"

Networking is a continuous process:
I've been an active member of a professional organization for the last ten years. I maintain this membership for many reasons, but my primary goal is networking. What many new members do not understand is that relationships are developed over time. I have seen new recruits join our organization, attend a meeting or two, distribute their business cards to every member present, then quit when that great job offer does not materialize in a month or two.

I received a call this week from a recruiter whose membership I have mentored in this organization for at least three years. She was recruiting for a great position that paid an excellent salary with a company known as one of the best places to work in the Milwaukee area.

Why Me:
She thought of me, after the employer specifically requested someone with a pleasant personality. I was flattered, this was the second time a recruiter from this organization had thought of me for a position because of my personality. I attribute this to working closely with them on committees within the organization. It is not always easy for me to talk up my attributes, but it is easy for them to see my real personality and work ethic after working closely with me.

My Response:
Unfortunately I had to turn her down. This company is located 45 miles from my home; I am not fond of long commutes or in a position to relocate. I did refer her to two other accountants who would also make great candidates for the position. I asked that she keep me in mind for future positions. I followed up by thanking her again for thinking of me, and forwarding her my resume.

What else I learned from her:
While discussing her business, she mentioned one unsettling experience. A candidate she placed with a company nine months ago had recently called requesting she find her another position. Feeling this was unethical she refused.

This reminded me of the recruiter who placed me with my current firm nine years ago. Since then, I have pretty much entrusted her with my job search. We meet a couple times each year to talk about my current company and discuss my career goals. She is instructed to call me if she sees a position that may be of interest to me. In thinking back, her firm (not her) has called me only once in nine years with an open position. I can't help but think my recruiter’s loyalty is really with my employer who has provided her with a paycheck. It is a good thing I have not been overly serious about changing jobs, but by entrusting her almost exclusively with my job search I may have missed out on some great opportunities.

“Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door” Emily Dickinson