Wednesday, November 21, 2007

New job ahoy

My sister is IMing "post to the blog about your job!," and since I've now pretty much spread the word internally and externally to all relevant corners, I can: another of the Big Changes I'm navigating right now is a move from my current magazine to a new one, where I'll be editing the Web site.

I'm excited about the switch for a bunch of reasons, but one especially cool aspect of the new gig is that it's with Time Inc. Readers with long memories may remember me writing about my annual wrangle with the company over my subscription cost for Time magazine. Let's see if being on staff makes it any easier for me to keep my subscription current! Pricing standoffs aside, Time Inc. has always been of my journalistic pantheons, along with the Washington Post Co., so it's pretty nifty to be headed there as a staffer.

Birds & Bills started two years ago as I was in the midst of a job change and working my way through all the bureaucracy of arranging health coverage, retirement plans, and other benefits elections. I'm once again working my way through the fine print and weighing choices, so expect a flurry of posts ...

(The post about divorce and finances is sparking lots of discussion; I'll try to expand on it later this week. In the meantime, happy Turkey day, everyone!)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Women, money and divorce

It's been an eventful fall here, with all sorts of big changes on the horizon (more details later this week -- I'm about to have a lot of finance blog fodder). One of them has been a really sad, frustrating change: One of my best friends is getting divorced.

It's painful on all fronts. I'm kind of stuck standing by helplessly, knowing there's not a lot I or anyone else can do to cushion the grief and misery that comes with losing the partner you've been with for more than a decade and had expected to be with for the rest of your life.

It's also been painful financially. I've had other friends go through major breakups and even divorces, but we're all young enough that these usually fell into the "starter marriage" camp: two people splitting who had little in the way of Major Complications, in the form of kids or significant assets. It's still an emotional wrench, but it at least clears one major hurdle to separation when you each have a job and don't have any big investments to wrangle about dividing.

This wasn't that. It's what previously, naively, seemed to me an almost antiquated kind of divorce: the kind where one partner's earning power so outstrips the other's that the financial imbalance creates its own big nasty complication. There are many other issues at play here, but what it boils down to is: because my friend jointly signed financial papers when they were married -- loans, the mortgage on their house, etc -- she's going to be on the hook for payments to maintain the lifestyle of a partner she is no longer with.

That is ... wow. Ouch.

I suppose this is no different than what men historically went through with alimony, watching part of their paychecks disappear to an ex-spouse they were no longer with and may not have remained on anything resembling amicable terms with. But it's a shock to me to see the same dynamic play out now, in an era in which I've grown accustomed to greater independence in marriage.

It's also a nasty wake-up call. I know marriage is a serious legal commitment. I know joint-signing financial obligations is a serious legal commitment. But it's sobering to see how much those decisions can bite you when things turn in an unexpected way with the person you're committing to and with. And I hate that in so many of the breakups I've seen this year, the women consistently get screwed.

It seems like this is the odd dark side of our relatively comparable earning power. I remember a smattering of divorces among my parents' friends -- a few, in particular, that were the classic cliché of Man Throwing Over Steadfast Wife for Shiny New One. In those cases, alimony and other financial obligations made sense: if one partner had no opportunity to have a career and was left stranded without one, then yes, the departing partner should still have obligations. And obviously, it's a whole different game when kids are involved, since there's no question that parents have responsibilities, financial and beyond, that persist even if their marriage does not.

But in the breakups among my friends, what I'm seeing is a trend of women left on the hook for obligations incurred by boyfriends or husbands who are simply failing to be fully functional, financially responsible adults. (I'm not saying that judgmentally. God knows I have been through periods of being Fiscally Unsound, and I'm fully aware that a lot of luck is involved with me being as relatively financially secure as I now am.) For example, many of my friends have co-signed loans for partners with weak credit -- and then, when the relationship dissolves, they're stuck with that obligation.

I don't know exactly where I'm going with this train of thought, or what the answer is. I suppose the flat reality is that divorce is messy and inevitably unfair, in any era or set of circumstances. But it has driven home the point that before you put yourself on the hook for any major financial obligation, to anyone, even your spouse, you need to think through all the worst-case-scenario ramifications and make a conscious decision about your willingness to risk them.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Getting scammed in Vegas

Or, "how I managed to (almost) lose money in the casino without so much as playing the slot machines."

I'm in Las Vegas this week covering a software conference. Vegas is, under the best of circumstances, not one of my favourite places, and for an assortment of reasons, this week is far from The Best of Circumstances. Feeling nauseous and mildly flu-like this morning, I decided to briefly escape the conference to hunt down some soup and hide with my book.

A minute or so after I sat down at The Noodle Shop (it sounded like a promising place for finding soup), another solo diner was seated at a table behind mine. Thirty seconds later, she was descending on mine.

"I don't want to eat alone!" she announced loudly. "Girls shouldn't eat alone! Can I sit with you?" she asked, as she sat down.

Well, ug. It had been a yucky morning. I was feeling sick. My brain was screaming "I'm an introvert in a cranky mood! No! Go away!"

But I am a polite introvert. So I sighed, forced a smile and said ok.

She proceeded to generally be loud, demanding and talkative. I said as little as I could get away with, trying to will the food to arrive fast so I could eat and escape, as she rattled on in a spacey way and I tried to melt into the carpet.

Here's where I should have twigged sooner something was up: She kept trying to involve me in her scene. Touching my arm. Trying to foist an appetizer on me, despite my strained insistence that no, really, I was feeling ill. Overall, creating the impression that we were actually dining together as a party.

And then, after the dishes arrived and she'd munched through most of hers, she stood up, announced she had an appointment, and walked out.

With me sitting there with a check.

Arugh. I was at that point so worn out and startled that it took me a full minute to realise what she'd engineered.

And then the feeling of stupidity set in. I live in New York. I have heard variants of almost every possible scam tried out on street corners and subways. I don't fall for them. But I'd managed to fall for this one.


My first inclination was to just pay the damn bill and be done with it. I'm traveling for work, most of my costs are being expensed, I could either find a way to write it off or just eat the $20.

But the principle of the thing annoyed me. I decided to see what would happen if I asked the waiter for a separate check. I think the restaurant staff saw what the woman had pulled, and the waiter brought me a check for just my side of the bill, quietly cleared away her side, and ignored it. I left a very nice tip.

So, in the end, the restaurant ate the loss, not me. But still. Just the kicker I needed for my Annoying Frustrating No Good Very Bad Day. And now I have learned the unpleasant way: If someone plants themselves at your table in a restaurant (especially in a place like Vegas), ask for separate checks straight off -- or fight down the polite impulses and tell them you intend to eat alone.