Posts by Your Penny Blogmother

Serial list maker. Compulsive window-shopper. French fry addict. Pizza connoisseur specializing in taking selfies. I am a millennial who, through pure dumb luck, managed to be continuously employed during the worst recession this country has ever seen. I come from an immigrant family, making me a multi-lingual 3rd culture kid with incredible cultural baggage. I am a wife and a daughter. These are my thoughts on life, people and money.

Selecting a Photographer

Etched in Time 2

2014 Engagement Session at the Boston Public Library

A photographer can make your wedding day really special. After all is said and done, a lot of your memories of that day will be a bit blurry. Whether it is being pulled in a million different directions, being really excited, or being on your 5th White Russian, many things and people will come together to sabotage any sharp memories you may have of your wedding . All you will have left will be the pictures. And no matter how sharp your memory is, you can’t be every where at once so it will be nice to have an idea of what your guests were up to when you weren’t around. This is definitely an area I would recommend you don’t skimp on or delegate to just anyone. Since we loved our photographer, I think we can share some tips on what we found worked for us.

  1. Let their work speak for itself: You must absolutely have a wide enough sample of the photographer’s work. Don’t settle for a few pictures, particularly not random ones. Ask for at least one album made up of an entire wedding. Why? Because if you take 2,000 pictures at 5 weddings, you can easily find 10 of them that are top notch. This doesn’t tell me anything about your ability to have great shots from start to finish at one event, it doesn’t tell me anything about your photographic style (candid? journalistic? combination?) and it doesn’t tell me how you perform in a variety of lightings. But seeing a whole wedding tells me all of those things. I will know how open you are to taking candid shots, how well you adapt to the different lighting as a result of the sun setting after taking pictures for 5 hours and it pretty much tells me if you totally suck.
  2. All work an no play makes for dull pictures: Find out if they know to have fun. If you hire a stale cracker of a photographer, you could end up with a wedding album full of stiff poses, forced smiles and no real story being told. If you get a fun photographer like we did, you will seem more relaxed in your pictures, everything will look natural and you can transition from traditional pictures, to candids and staged but fun shots that allow the real you to shine through. Remember, you will not only have this for the rest of your life, your children and grand-children will also be looking at them. It will be easier to convince them grandma knew how to get down back in the day if your wedding album has a bit of personality. The pictures will definitely give you some level of credibility!
  3. Have an engagement session: I cannot stress this enough. No matter how many selfies you take for your Instagram, nothing compares to having a stranger follow you around with a camera asking your to kiss your significant other. Having it happen for 5+ hours on your wedding day as all your relatives watch is kind of creepy. This is where the engagement session comes in. This is your opportunity to get familiar with your photographer’s personality and style, get used to being followed around with a camera and learn what works best for you. You can learn a lot from your engagement pictures: your most genuine smile, your best side, new poses etc. They are usually an hour which is just enough time to get a good set of pictures but not so long that you feel overwhelmed. Just because those pictures will not end up in your official wedding album, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take them seriously. We got so many great shots that we ended up using our engagement pictures everywhere we could. They were on our save-the-dates, our programs, and large canvases we had printed as part of our reception decor.
  4. Make sure you have the copyright to the pictures: Some wedding vendors love to nickel and dime you. They will quote you a “great” photography price only for you to find out after it’s too late that you have to pay an additional fee for the copyrights to be released to you. Photographers will sometimes give you a CD or website full of watermarked pictures that become essentially useless unless you pay them more money to unmark them. Furthermore, be aware that unmarked pictures do not automatically mean you are in the clear. You need to make sure that your right to the pictures are noted in your contract. From my experience with Walmart and other printing stores, they will not print pictures that they believe are professionally taken without the explicit permission of the photographer. The contract stating that you have the rights to the pictures is your most readily available ‘permission’. Call it the work of the photography lobby if you wish, but there are now several hurdles to printing your pictures  at a reasonable cost. Not having that permission could potentially mean you have hundreds of digital files you can’t frame or you might be force to shell out some bucks for a photo-printer.
  5. Make sure you are aware of all their fees: and act accordingly. My photographer charged $150 an hour PER photographer for any time over the contracted time. I had 2 photographers which would have resulted in an $300 charge (plus tax) if we were behind schedule. Knowing this steep price motivated me to keep things on schedule. I communicated that to all interest parties and stressed the importance of being on time. As a result everything was ready on time, yes, even the bride.

 

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Florist Tip

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After unwinding from all the stress on a beautiful beach with warm blue water and bright white sand as far as the eye could see, I came home and started catching up on emails. One of them was from my venue asking me when I was going to pick up my flower vases. I was very confused why I still had 30, yes, 30! flower vases waiting for me almost 3 weeks after the wedding. I called the florist asking why they didn’t pick them up. Come to find out, they didn’t need to because I now owned them. Confused, I asked if I could return them for a refund because, let’s be honest, unless I open a glass shop, what am I ever going to do with 30 cylindrical flower vases? Absolutely not. I could not return them. They are now mine to keep.

It turns out that I contracted to buy rather than rent the vases. So my florist price, which I thought was so great, would have been even better if I had taken 5 seconds to ask: “Do you rent them or do I have to buy them?” Since I didn’t, I now have this tripping hazard in my basement waiting to cause an injury. It also means that I didn’t get the best price I could have. This goes to show that even if you’re normally a stickler about contracts and spending, you can never get too comfortable in the planning process. Towards the end, there is always something that can fall through the cracks because we are certainly way too busy to be on alert about every detail.

My tip today? Ask if you’re buying or renting the vase. Try and negotiate a rental (while keeping in mind that you’re on the hook if it breaks) to save money and storage space after the wedding. I promise that once, your registry items start coming in, the last thing you’ll want to waste space on are flower pots.

Do you know anyone looking for vases? I’m willing to unload mine for a marginal cost… Call me! 🙂

Solar Update – April 2017

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My favorite time of year has come! The days are longer, the snow seems to be gone for good, and birds are chirping on my way to work. Spring is upon us. I’ve always loved spring and summer, but now I have even more reasons to embrace the seasons. No, not just because the kids are out of school and there will be less traffic. Because it’s sun season! As you know, we got some solar panels last summer and we enjoyed many months of free electricity. It was truly a sad day when I had to pay for my first electric bill in months after the start of a frigid winter. These things will spoil you…

But the sun always shine eventually and, boy is it shining! My March 2017 electric bill was $38. We are retiring the heating for the season and thus expecting a much lower utility usage, until late June when we have to kick on the AC. Even then, I’m thinking that the 12-13 hours of sunlight that summers in New England graces us with should be sufficient to offset the worse of the damage. I might have reached the electric bill break even point. If so, I am looking forward to negative balances (I don’t say that very often) for many months to come so I can run my heat for free in November.

Let’s raise our glasses to sunny days, tax credits, and free electricity.

Question Everything

I don’t mean to speak for anyone but I’d like to think that we work hard for our money and we would like to keep it. That’s why I discussed fraudulent investments earlier and some of their tell-tale signs to help you recognize and avoid them. But people can be really crafty when it’s time to con you out of some cash.

If the proposed investment initially passes the smell test, here are three questions you can ask to further pull back some layers and determine the merits of the deal:

Does the dealer have a license? Even with the best of intention, the market has shown that it cannot be trusted to regulate itself. The best way of ensuring that people and organizations are doing the right thing is to have the threat of severe penalties (usually financial) hanging over their head. Unlicensed advisers are illegal and accountable to no one. Furthermore, we do not know what their qualifications are.

Does the risk/reward structure make sense? “High risk, high reward” is a common cliche, but it is true. If someone is offering a low risk guaranteed investment, the returns will likely be very low. The opposite applies if the rewards are significant. The risk is likely to be high and the returns will not be guaranteed. Anything different is likely a scam, or at best it is misrepresented.

Is the investment registered? It is similar to an unlicensed dealer. Who is tracking and regulating the security if it is unregistered? Personally, I do not like to rely on a company that is financially invested in me being uninformed for the truth. Registering a security ensures that the SEC, an independent government organization will ensure transparency by providing you with the necessary information to make good choices.

Why I Wanted A Sweetheart Table

I work full-time and so does my husband. We both travel for work regulary, me throughout the state and him all over the country. While we both are dealing with our professional lives, we had to juggle family and wedding planning. To add fuel to the “busy fire” I was in the last semester of an MBA program scheduled to be completed in May, mere weeks before the wedding. Now if you’re at all familiar with Type A personalities, you know that I couldn’t just graduate. I had to graduate with a certain GPA. I mean what’s a B anyway? So you can add “a crap ton of studying, homework, presentations etc.” to my already long list of commitments. Do you know what’s missing from that list? Time with my husband. I guess it’s time to stretch out my days to about 26 or so hours to make my schedule work.
As I anticipated, as the wedding date got closer, we saw each other less, we talked about us less, and we got alone time even less. In the beginning, we ran a lot of wedding errands together. But the busier we got, we had to split up to be more effective/efficient. We would talk on the phone more than we talked face to face. It was frustrating because it seemed as though we got so focused on planning this one-day party that we didn’t work on our relationship as much as we should have.

So the sweetheart table was my way of saying: “This day is not more important than you. I’ve missed you and I want time alone with you. And now that the planning is over, you have my undivided attention just like you deserve.”

No Rest for Dead Presidents: My Dollars aren’t Lazy Bastards

What an awful headline. But I’m not feeling particularly creative today so it will have to do.

money

In an introductory investment post, I liken dollars to employees who must work to make my life better. Money has a significant advantage over us when it comes to working and earning potential. We get tired, we need sleep, our loved ones want our attention. Money has none of those conflicts so what reason is there for it to not be working tirelessly to free you from the rat race? In my case, my little dead presidents’ only duty is to slave away to improve my quality of life. Here are some of the ways I make sure they aren’t being lazy little bastards.

I structure my bank accounts deliberately: Some days I can’t even keep track of how many accounts I have. But the complexities of both life and banking regulations do not allow me to simply have a checking and a savings. While I have a checking account for my every day use, that is the lowest yielding account there is. I can’t keep all my money in a checking account. However, the highest yielding bank account is a CD (learn more about CD’s here and here) and there are penalties for early withdrawals. Since emergencies do not wait for CDs to mature, I also have a money market account which provides me with quick access to cash at a much higher rate than a checking but without the potential for a penalty.

I only use cash back credit cards: Your bank is making money off your use of the card, shouldn’t you do the same? My credit card gives me 1.5% cash back on everything I buy and on a monthly basis, the bank runs some specials at various merchants where I get an additional 5-15% cash back. For example, my tail lights went out a few weeks ago. We have both an Auto Zone and an Advanced Auto Parts in our area. However, our credit card company was running a 10% cash back special at Advanced Auto Parts. When it was time for my husband to replace the tail lights, I told him to make sure he went there. He spent $40 and we ended up getting $4.60 back (10% special + the 1.5% we would normally get). Of course, since there is no annual fee and we pay the balance in full every month to avoid interest, we are being paid to use our card.

I get educated: It’s hard to make or save money when you don’t know what benefits or features are available to you. I’ve discussed my solar adventures in the past. We got thousands of dollars in rebates courtesy of the U.S. Government for our investment in solar panels (if you pay taxes, thank you!). Although we would have eventually taken the plunge, we might have missed the opportunity for our big tax credit if we waited too long. There is no guarantee that the program will be available indefinitely or even beyond 2020. We also learned about the energy credits which we are on track to receive quarterly for 10 years. While they are small amounts, they will be offsetting nearly half of the cost of the system. So not only did we get a 30% subsidy, we are also selling some of the credits we produce over a period of time to offset the remaining 70% of the cost. That does not include our actual energy savings which have been pretty substantial (my March 2017 electric bill was $38. I live in a 3,100 square foot house in New England).

I pay debt aggressively: Debt is slavery. It’s crippling because it’s expensive. The best way to handle debt is to get rid of it as quickly as possible. My student loan interest is 5.16%. It makes no sense for me to carry that balance for 10 years (standard repayment) if it’s costing me as much as a moderate investment portfolio would cost. So when I graduated from an MBA program with a balance of $47k and change, I was determine to get rid of it by any means necessary. Two years later, my balance is  $11,600. I have saved myself thousands in interest and the amount that I did have to pay, I have able to deduct it from my taxes. So I have used the money I have in the bank and the money I earned working both my regular job and real estate to cut my balance and reduce my interest.

I keep cash to a minimum: ‘Minimum’ is relative.  It doesn’t mean I only have $1,500 in the bank. I keep a fat emergency fund which correlates with my low risk appetite. The more risk adverse you are, the more money you want available to weather unpleasant unforeseen events. For me that number is a year’s worth of living expenses. Before the recession, the recommended amount was 3 months. After 2008, financial experts were recommending 6 months. I like to be cautious, maybe overly so, thus, I choose 12 months. Anything above that number is invested in various types of projects (or debt payments) that are meant to increase cash flow (or cut my interest expense).

Think of the ways you can make your money work for you. Idle funds are being eaten away by inflation and are not doing anything to improve your bottom line and get you closer to financial freedom. This is the value equivalent of throwing your money away.

Student Loan Update – April 2017

higher-education

When I graduated in May of 2017, I chose not to think about my student loans. It was a hot humid day but people traveled from different states to come see me complete another milestone. I was juggling full time work and a part time MBA program right when my husband was settling into a new job. I had a lot to be thankful for and a number of people were proud of me. The Department of Education was going to grant me 10 years starting in December 2015 to agonize over student loans but I was never going to get another graduation day.

I picked up my diploma after the ceremony and I sat in the front seat of my husband’s car running my fingers on it back and forth as my parents sat in the back. I was pretty impressed with myself. Not in a gloating kind of way but more so in a “I actually did it…” Almost as if I couldn’t believe it.

The next day, things went back to normal and I decided that the honeymoon period with the diploma was over. Real world responsibilities required me to know what my balance was and what my monthly payments were projected to be. It was nothing that I could not afford but it was painful. Over $350 a month a and $40k+ balance. I could get a whole new car with that! I devised an aggressive pay down plan as follows:

  1. Start paying immediately rather than waiting for the grace period
  2. Apply all raises to the monthly payment and all bonuses to the balance
  3. Apply all tax refunds if any to the balance

3 simple steps. The toughest part was the discipline of not eating out as much as we would have liked and not splurging at the mall. However, 23 months later, that plan has worked so well that I am dancing for joy.

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In case you are having trouble reading the small font, this says:

Current balance $11,641.17 & Due date 7/18/2020

While there are no guarantees, these numbers indicate that I am likely on track to finish paying the debt off by the end of the year if all goes as planned. That will be 8 years ahead of schedule. This is more than I could ever hope to achieve. When I said I was determined to pay and save myself an astronomical amount of money in interest, I was not joking.

I am grateful for the discipline I have that allows me to focus on long term independence goals rather than instant gratification. I’m also thankful that I have a supportive husband who understands my goals and can see my vision for our family. Some people would have valued the high life over a debt free life and it could have been a source of friction. Instead, he trusts my judgement and is happy delaying a little bit of gratification in favor of peace of mind.

Dear DOE, thank you but no thank you. I will decline your offer to take a 3-year hiatus from my obligation. You’re going to collect these payments and you’re going to like it. But better yet, you will set me free.