Holding My Breath — Investment Pains

I know the economy is suffering lately, and had I not been paying attention to the news I would have figured it out by looking at my bank account. My Roth IRA, which had $4000 in it, is now worth $3762, and my regular Vanguard mutual fund, which had $5100 invested in it, is now worth $4662. Ok, so I’ve lost about $700 thus far on my investments. Ouch.

I’ll stick it out because I know investments have to be a long term sort of deal, and hopefully at some point our economy will recover and so will my piggy bank. It’s just tough to watch $700 disappear so quickly, and I’m sure this isn’t the end of the downturn. I’m prepared to lose all the money I invested, although it will surely SUCK to lose $9100. But if I lose all of that money, you can bet that I’m done with the stock market and mutual funds for good.

Who Needs $90 Wine?

Apparently the price of wine heavily influences how much people enjoy it. A team of researchers at Stanford and CalTech set out to prove this, and gave testers two glasses of wine to try. One was a “$90” glass of wine, and the other a “$10” glass of wine. What the subjects didn’t know was that these two glasses of wine were actually identical.

“Specifically, the researchers found that with the higher priced wines, more blood and oxygen is sent to a part of the brain called the medial orbitofrontal cortex, whose activity reflects pleasure,” reports CNET.

Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan, Paris Hilton, and the Destruction of America

When I was little, and when I was not so little, all I dreamed about was being a celebrity. It was the end all of success. As a celebrity, you’d be praised for being unique (albeit slightly unique), and everyone would love you.

Fast forward to a reality check… those celebs that find themselves on the covers of the gossip rags often once were the same ones that I’d envy, except their lives and careers had spilled sour.

Poor Britney Spears. She certainly has some kind of mental condition, and it’s obvious that it’s not helped by being smothered by Paparazzi everywhere she goes. Her family (that is, parents and sibling) are apparently not the most stable bunch, but Britney made it big with some spunk and rock hard abs. Could she sing? Well, not really. She could hit the right notes and had a voice that you couldn’t forget, for better or worse. But Britney had what we all wanted… innocence with a serving of sex appeal. Even if we hated her music, we wanted to be Britney… or like Britney. Same goes for Lindsey Lohan. We saw both of these girls when they actually were young and innocent (well, so they’d like us to believe). And then… well, they’ve grown up in the spotlight, and it seems that spotlight was just a bit too bright.

It’s unfortunate, but I think we need celebrities like that to use for public floggings, as otherwise the rest of us minions would think that their lives were perfect because they were rich. Apparently, money doesn’t heal all wounds. Sometimes it’s pouring fuel on an already painful flame.

I feel for Britney and Lindsey. They feel like it’s part of their job and their image to go out and party. To be a young celebrity in Hollywood. Only when drugs enter into the picture, you lose control. I’ve seen friends get eaten up by drugs, and it certainly is just as much a problem in Hollywood… where celebrities have enough money to overdose daily on the most gourmet offerings of the latest designer drug batch.

But who could blame them for needing that rush? If as Americans we hold celebrities on the top of the totem pole of what we wish we could be (which I assume is the case for other people too, since celebrities are still featured on the covers of magazines, and talking about celebrities has made stars of once-Internet-nobodies like Perez Hilton, those GoFugYourself girls, etc) then once you’ve made it to stardom… what’s left? Better party it up when the going’s good.

Not all celebrities turn into psychotic drug addicts, of course, but those that do surely get the most press. Is it good for their careers? If they can make a sober comeback, possibly. Everyone wants to root for the fallen celebrity, despite how much he or she may make fun of this person. If a celebrity truly falls from their divine status and cannot return, then that pops the fantasy of flawed perfection.

Truth is… Britney, Lindsey… they’re just human. Sure they happened to have been born with extra lovely looks, and with some luck and being in the right place at the right time, they guaranteed themselves a future in show business.

It’s funny how easy it is to forget that what they do is their JOB. Sure it’s a pretty awesome job that pays well, but so is being the CEO of your own corporation, or a successful venture capitalist. The job comes with a lot of negatives as well. Privacy? Forget it. You’re working around the clock as a celebrity. From the moment you leave your house to the second you shut the door and close the curtains.

Accepting this changes my extreme, almost obsessive desire to become famous. Or, now I’d like to become famous for writing something brilliant… doing something interesting… but I don’t know if I’d want to be so (un)fortunate to be one of Hollywood’s young actresses. If you’ve got one life to live, there’s not perfect way to live it. If you’re rich, you have nothing to work for. You’ve been raised on attention, so you need to work for the attention. Look at Paris Hilton. She doesn’t need to work, but she does because without work she’d be just like any other NY socialite.

A few months ago I spent some time with my grandmother who lives in Las Vegas. At breakfast one morning, she spent some time complaining about Hollywood today, saying that everyone these days is ugly. I went through a list of celebrities and she said they’re all ugly (except she liked Halle Berry for some reason). Anyway, I know the idea of “beauty” has changed over time, because a lot of these actor and actresses she found ugly happened to be my personal idea of aesthetic perfection. Still, I get her point — beauty is no longer about health and youth exactly. Sometimes people admire the beauty of those who do lots of coke because Kate Moss chic is unbearably still in.

And all of that makes us, the American public, especially the female half of that, spend oodles of money trying to make ourselves look like these people who have lots of money. It’s a vicious cycle of consumerism that is at the heart of America. Capitalism would still exist without celebrity, but what would it look like?

I’m not sure of the answer. In college, I took a class called the “sociology of celebrity” and it was by far the best class in my four years at school. Dissecting celebrity culture, both from the side of the everyman and the celebrity, is understanding America.

I actually read the entire textbook from cover to cover…

Can I Prosper… using Prosper?

When it comes to investing, I say I lean more towards the conservative end of the spectrum. I’m not much of a risk taker in general, so the thought of losing heaps of money that I worked hard to save causes enough anxiety to keep me out of the stock market beyond basic mutual funds.

That’s why I’m taking it very, very slow with Prosper.com, a popular site that basically lets anyone be their own bank. Most of my readers have probably already heard about this site (they advertise on a bunch of PF blogs), but for a quick rundown of what the site is for those who haven’t heard — Prosper makes it easy to lend money and earn back a fairly high interest rate on those funds. But, of course with “high interest” there’s risk involved.

Business & Personal Loans. Great Rates. Prosper.

Anyone can borrow money on Prosper, but the good news is that they check the credit scores of the borrowers so lenders can determine how much risk they want to take. For instance, someone with a perfect credit history would have an “AA” score, but the interest rate you’d earn on lending the money would be less (around 6 to 7 percent). Lending to people with poor credit ratings might earn you a much higher interest, but the chances of them defaulting are also much higher.

The site is kind of hard to understand when it comes to determining the exact interest rate that the lender will earn. To be honest, I’m still a little clear on the details. Basically, the Prosper folk want you to lend a large sum, but break that into $50 per person. Just like with any financial portfolio, diversification = less risk. Still, it’s unclear what the actual risk with any of this is. There’s a reason banks exist… they have tons of money to lend, so if a few loans default they can deal. But investing $100 or even $1000 into loans at $50 each might never provide the necessary diversification to ensure you won’t lose most of your money.

While I realize I might lose some money in this experiment, I decided to try out Prosper and invest $100 in the site. First I signed up for their auto-loan deal, where you chose your level of risk and they pick someone on the site to lend your money to. So I ended up lending $50 to someone who is trying to study abroad, with a B credit score and a 13 % interest rate. I wasn’t so happy with my money ending up going to someone with a B score (though admittedly, that was my fault, I chose the second highest “non risk” auto-invest plan)… so I decided to loan my other $50 to someone with a perfect credit score, in case I just lost $50.

What I do like about the site is that you can read a person’s story and decide what you want to loan money for. It feels good to loan to someone who needs money for their kid, or who needs to pay off a credit card bill because their interest is ridiculously high. Ideally, they pay you back within three years and everyone is happy.

I’ve read a bit about other people’s experiences with the site on various PF blogs, and it sounds like they have a lot of happy users for now. Sure, loans default and lenders get screwed over, but generally people seem to be getting paid. Everyone seems to recommend keeping the amount of your entire portfolio investing in Prosper low, but it’s a decent investment for a few hundred dollars.

Someone owes me their first payment on Feb 11, so I’ll let you know if I get it. The good thing about Prosper is that if the borrower doesn’t pay, they get a collection agency to stalk them for a few months, and then their credit score ends up sucking and they’re not allowed to borrow on Prosper ever again. Also, they sell off these defaulted loans (I’m not really sure how this works) but you might get, like, 1 percent of your investment back. Or you lose all your money. But that’s a risk everyone takes investing in anything… whether that be a stock or property.

I’ll keep you guys posted on my experiences with Prosper in the coming months. You can bet that if I lose money, you’ll get to hear all about it. 🙂

If you’re interested in signing up, click here or on the button below to get an extra $25 in your account to get started, all for free. I did this when I signed up on another PF blogger’s site, and a few days later I had that $25 in my account. Sweet.

Business & Personal Loans. Great Rates. Prosper.

Vibrators are Too Expensive (and they break easily)

I once spent $100 on a vibrator. It was a glorious instrument of pleasure, to say the least. At first glance, the purple translucent dong filled with “pearls” and adorning an attached rabbit head made me think of anything but sexy. Turned off, it looked like a foolish child’s toy meant to be fetched in the deep end of a pool. Turned on, it sounded like a continuous fart meets an earthquake.

But then, as bunny ears blurred into ecstasy via vibration, despite the symphony of mechanical buzzing, I couldn’t help but revel in my overpriced lump of plastic.

A few months later, my beautiful toy broke.

“Noooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!” I screamed.

(Well, I didn’t actually scream that, but I like the sound of it for dramatic effect.)

I couldn’t run off to purchase another $100 vibrator. Besides, by that point I found myself a boyfriend and I felt he ought to replace my purple friend.

But, come on, can a boyfriend really work such magic?

I searched the Internet and local sex stores (which make me feel totally awkward btw — either they’re meant for dirty old men, or they’re designed like mini museums for women and gay men seeking out their masterpiece butt plug) and spent another $30 here and there trying to buy something cheap that would do the trick. I learned quickly that in the world of sex toys, the pricetag matters.

So… I called out my inner child… the one who discovered the wonders of the waterhead massager in the shower and the amazing vibrations of an electric shaver once the blade had been removed. Oh, and yes, the joys of the electric toothbrush, sans bristled head. Those were the days when in order to get off, money was not an issue. It was my fingers or whatever object I could find that would vibrate.

(Don’t tell me I’m the only girl out there who went through that “phase.”)

Since I wasn’t going to spend another $100 on a vibrator that would break in a few months, I instead went to the local drug store and bought myself an electric shaver for 5 bucks. And you know what? It was heaven. It wasn’t exactly the purple phallus of joy I had spent my money on during college, but it worked.

Moral of the story is… I highly recommend that when you have the money, you should try a quality sex toy at least once in your life. But if you’re in the mood for some self-pleasing fun and you don’t have a few hundred dollars a month set aside for a special “masturbation budget,” there are plenty of cheaper items you can use. Get creative! Just be sure to properly clean said item(s) in order to avoid icky bacteria infections. Store-bought sex toys are often designed to be cleaned easily, so you might have to spend extra time on the cleansing portion of your, uh, alone time.

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Death to COBRA and Car Thieves.

I have a follow-up to my last post regarding my saga with the doctor’s office and the collection agency, but first I feel it is more important to rant a bit about my recurrent car break ins.

My apartment is in a safe neighborhood. Of course, no neighborhood is perfect, but I live in the fairly wealthy burbs of San Francisco. My exact area isn’t exactly upper class, but it’s a cute little apartment complex where I have the illusion of security.

I have a carport spot right under my apartment. Last year, around this time, thieves broke into my car (they smashed the window) and took about $80. You think I would have learned my lesson after my car got broken into twice in San Francisco, but I figured that in the burbs it was a different story.

After the thieves broke the window and stole the $80 they came back about once a week going through my things until I got the window fixed.

Following that incident, I decided to stop locking my doors and to keep valuables out of the car. It seemed smarter to let them go through my thing and find nothing than to smash the window every other week. I even signed up for the full comprehensive coverage for my insurance just because I knew that they might break the window again regardless. But it’s just such a hassle to bring the car in to get fixed. I don’t have the time. So I let them go through my car if they want.

After a year without any problems, I started getting slightly careless again. My fault. I put two checks in my car that I had planned on cashing today. One was for $50 the other $400. They were in a closed compartment. The car was a bit of a mess but nothing else valuable was in there (except at $180 jacket that I’m so glad they didn’t take.)

So two nights ago they (or he or she) came and went through my stuff. They took $4 and the two checks and made a mess of everything. They made my car smell like smoke. I am not happy about this. But at least I don’t have a broken window.

Now I have to deal with telling the two people who sent me those two checks (it just so happens they’re married and my aunt and uncle) to cancel the checks. At least I found out they hadn’t been cashed yet. I just feel awful asking my aunt & uncle to cancel the checks when the stupid thieves took them. But what can I do about it???

I’ll update on the health insurance situation in a bit. I have to get back to work.

Health Insurance Hell — And I thought this part of the saga was over!

In 2006, I was covered under COBRA. My father was paying the bills to help me get started out after college, and he paid those bills on time until I got my first full-time job with health benefits.

During the time I had COBRA through Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, I went to see a gynecologist for a standard yearly exam. She had me get bloodwork done at the local lab. I filled out all the appropriate paperwork and thought I’d owe a small co-pay and that would be the end of it.

Two years later, I’m still dealing with this never-ending drama of trying to get health insurance to pay this bill. There is absolutely no logical reason why they should not pay the full amount (minus a co-pay), but I’ve been harassed by J & L Teamworks (a collection agency) on and off since my appointment, saying I owe about $1000. What???

Finally, after speaking on the phone to about 20 billion people, I thought I had everything settled in November. I wanted to be done with the mess for good, so I walked into the billing office of Mills Peninsula Hospital, where the lab services were done and apparently where the gynecologist bills her visits through if they haven’t been paid on time (they weren’t paid on time because they billed the wrong insurance and/or because my address (which I updated on my account by sending in a hand-written letter as requested) was added to my account incorrectly.) I’m still unclear what actually happened. All I know is I started getting calls from the collection agency, and they’ve barely stopped since.

In Nov of 07, I really thought the saga was over. I fixed my address on my account, I walked into the hospital’s billing office and spoke with a nice woman who promised me that everything would be fixed. She even called the collection agency while I was there and said they won’t be bothering me again… that they have to wait 30 days before legally being able to call me, and by then everything should be processed.

Fast forward those 30 days and without fail, those calls started up again. I didn’t want to deal with it. I was hoping it would all clear if I just ignored it. Of course, that never works.

So today I called J & L Teamworks. They told me that insurance paid for about $200 of the entire bill, but I still owe something like $700.

That doesn’t make any sense! If insurance paid for any of it, why are they only paying $200? I would understand if this was one of my newer insurances, but this was full COBRA of the policy I had since I was a kid. They couldn’t even knock me for pre-existing conditions, had this been something that they might have got out of paying that way. But this was for a routine gynecological exam and bloodwork. I was on a PPO. My father paid something like $230 a month to keep me on it. I know I was covered. And that bill should be paid.

Of course since I live on the West Coast now and all of my records are back East, I have to deal with the time difference when calling. So it’s too late to give a call to Highmark today. I’ll have to call first thing in the morning and find out why the fuck this didn’t get paid.

What really pisses me off is that I’ve racked up about $200 in interest on these bills… part of it is my fault because I did at times want to just ignore it because I knew insurance should cover the bill… but othertimes I was told by different people that it was all taken care of, then a month would go by, or two months, and then I’d find out it hadn’t processed. Or it only partially processed.

All of my trouble with health insurance makes me kind of glad that I’m finally on a high deductible plan. It’s nice to have the safety net (costing $1350 a year) in case I get into a major accident or something, but otherwise I’ll just pay for everything that I need to do out of my pocket. I’m a little worried about how expensive that will all be… but I figure if I check out the services offered by Planned Parenthood, I might be able to get by without spending gobs of money, and without having to deal with any more bs-talking health insurance agents and collection agencies!

Define Gold Digger.

Long before I was born, the term “gold digger” had not been coined. Instead, it was acceptable to pursue a significant other of reputable financial status. At that time, women of worth did not have to work, so gold digging was probably the hardest job they’d have their whole life, especially if the woman came from a lower class family. Always marry up.

(This post is largely about heterosexual relationships, though it can be applied to homosexual relationships as well… except since gays & bi’s in same-sex relationships can’t get married, the money issues become even more complex.)

In today’s world, gold digging has such a negative connotation. There are definitely different levels of gold digging…

1. Date only for the money. Go on some reality show about dating a millionaire. Expect your boyfriend to buy you everything. Luxurious trips. Spa treatments. Jewelery. Clothes. A car. A mansion. You name it, he’s paying.

2. Date because you like the guy, and because he happens to be successful. Well, you say you are attracted to him because he is successful, not because he has money, but… you know that’s not entirely the truth. Life is expensive, and although you may work and bring in significant dough yourself, you know that in the long run you will have a dual income household and that second income will either help you buy a house… or a teeny tiny condo… or keep renting your whole life, depending on how big that income is. You want stability, and a future. You’ll date a guy who makes a good salary over one who doesn’t any day.

3. You date whoever. You don’t care what they make. Still, you like it when they pay for your date every once in a while. You enjoy nice gifts. You’re happy with whatever gifts you get, yet still like to be spoiled a bit every once in a while. Like on your birthday. But you don’t care about the cost of living in the future and you figure if all else fails, you’ll take care of that on your own.

Well…

I’d say I’m more or less #3. Or a cross between 2 and 3.

Let me back up a bit. A few years ago, I started to date a law student. I dated him because he had a good personality and I liked the guy. We became good friends fast and eventually we decided to give it a go. During the relationship, he was a student and then a law clerk, so he wasn’t what you would call “rich.” But I found out that he covered his law school tuition thanks to mom and dad before even enrolling. So he had some spare cash to spend. After he started his life in the professional world of law, I was a poor intern making about minimum wage. But he wouldn’t so much as buy me a movie ticket. Eventually, I got tired of his stinginess (because I am a gold digger?) and decided to move on. There were other reasons I made that decision, but I felt like if he had the money, he should want to help his girlfriend out.

Now I’m dating a guy who will probably always be in the middle class, like me. There’s nothing wrong with being in the middle class. I love this guy more than anything, and I can see spending my life with him. He’s just getting started out on his career… and while he dreams of making gobs of money and considered going to law school for that reason, he is probably going to end up in a less profitable career. If he ever decides to go to grad school, his mother is footing the bill. If he doesn’t, that money exists for such things as… oh… a down payment on a house.

So… in the back of my mind, I still feel comfortable dating this guy because I know there’s money there. I’m not dating him because of his money, but it’s kind of a safety net… in case my own career doesn’t work out the way I plan.

Meanwhile, my earlier boyfriend, the lawyer (who is still my good friend) now takes in over $200k a year at 29. He owns a condo. He still lives frugally (he loves buying things on sale at the supermarket) and he’ll surely save up lots of money to buy a huge house one day.

Sometimes I think of what my life would be if I ended up with him. I know in my heart that would be the wrong choice, yet to give up a life of financial security (although I’d definitely have to earn enough to cover what I wanted in life, but at least things like house and food would likely be covered) is tough to give up for the sake of love.

We’re all taught that love is what we should be looking for. But when it comes down to it, life is about the survival of the fittest, and the survival of the richest. Healthcare… yea, get married to someone who has good healthcare if you want to freelance on your own. That will make your life affordable.

Money has to play a role in relationships. Otherwise it becomes a giant problem later. So many relationships dissolve because of money issues. It doesn’t even matter how much you have, what matters is how you decide to spend it.

What do you think about gold digging? Is it bad? Do you do it? How does money define your relationships?

Hello 2008!

2008, here we all come. I’m actually excited about the coming year. I feel like things are actually falling into place. I love my job (here’s to hoping I can keep it past the date my contract expires) and I’m finally directing a show on my own. I’m equally excited about both of these opportunities.

My health is getting better by the day. My new obsession are vitamin supplements. I spent most of New Years Eve at Longs Drugs as I studied the vitamin aisle. I spent too much on vitamins and other things. But to be honest all of these random pills of vitamin bliss make me feel better. And hopefully in the long run they will help my health, which will make my medical bills cheaper.

And… I worked out at home yesterday on my new stability ball and my arms and belly are in pain. Yeay! I love how being in pain is a good thing when you’re trying to get fit. My arms are just killing me. So much for “free” workouts, but stability balls cost about $20 and they basically provide you with all you’d need for a workout. I ended up buying some weights, resistance bands and the ball, so I’ll have no excuse to avoid working out in the coming year.

I hope, by 2009, I will have a flat stomach and a lot less fat on my thighs. I guess that’s a New Years resolution. But I’m seriously going to keep it.

I vow to start focusing on actually saving my money, and not spending it on needless things. I’m going to be on time (10 minutes early) to everything, unless its like a party that I should be late to. I will be a good girlfriend… no more mood swings and being afraid of a long term relationship and trying to push my bf away. No more alcohol (besides the occasional glass of red wine with dinner). No more giant desserts. Focusing on the now, not tomorrow, or the next day. Making friends and keeping friends. Not hitting on my friends. ;P

It’s going to be a good year. A great year. And I’m ready for it.

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