Saturday, February 23, 2008

This is an odd little wrinkle

One of the posts I've been drafting in my head for a bit and need to research further is about whether it would be advantageous for me to roll my old 401(k) into an IRA, rather than rolling it straight into my new 401(k). But a bit of weirdness popped up today that has me wondering if I should just leave the thing exactly where it is.

My old company had a five-year vesting schedule for its 401(k) match: It vested 20 per year. I quit in December, after about 20 months of working there. My 401(k) was, of course, only 20 percent vested. I figured I'd be walking away from the other 80 percent of the company's match - not fun, but I wanted the new job, and $2k in unvested 401(k) money wasn't really a serious factor in my decision about whether or not I should leave.

Now, one of my friends mentioned that when she left one of her past jobs, her 401(k) kept vesting. Every year, another chuck moved into the vested category, and when she finally moved the funds years later, she got everything - even the stuff that technically should never have vested, because she left the company prematurely.

I asked about this at OldCompany HR before I left: I walk away from my unvested 401(k) funds, right? Their answer: yes, of course.

Ok. Then why, when I checked my balance today, had another 20 percent vested? (My two-year anniversary would have been sometime in February.)

Is this a workflow breakdown? Did news of my termination not make it over to OldCompany's 401(k) provider (JP Morgan)? Is this going to keep happening every year, if I leave the 401(k) where it is?

I could call and ask these questions, of course, but that seems like poking the hornet's nest. But. Hmm. If the money will never vest (which is, I'm pretty sure, what should be happening), I want to move the account. If it is going to keep vesting, I should leave it. And, er, hope I'm not screwing up anything legally or ethically by not alerting either OldCompany or JP Morgan what's going on.

(And yes, I'm aware that posting on a public blog is not exactly a way to keep things subtle. I'm posting because I'm not really trying to hide this, and also because I'm curious about how common this phantom vesting is.)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Green shopping bags

The supermarket where I drop giant chunks of my paycheck, Whole Foods (in both my old and my new offices, there's one right next to the subway I take home), announced last month that it will stop releasing plastic bags. Starting in April, shoppers can bring their own bags, buy a 99c reusable one, or opt for paper.

Cynically, I wonder if the move is also going save Whole Foods money on buying bags. I just searched their SEC filings, and nothing is disclosed there -- so if the switch to "paper or pay" is going to be cheaper for them, they're not saying.

Being your standard-issue urban-liberal lazy-green mild-environmentally-guilt-stricken type, I'd long tried to switch to reusable bags. However, I fast hit a snag: I am incredibly forgetful. I could be walking out the door with the express purpose of going to the store to buy groceries and still manage to forget to take along one of the half-dozen reusable bags I'd bought over the years. And for impulse buys, forget it. I was managing to bring a reusable bag on about one shopping trip every eight weeks.

Until I came across the perfect thing for me, at the Union Square holiday craft market in December: Envirosax. These bags roll up and close with a snap, so you can stuff them in a backpack or purse, and they unfold to impressively large size -- I've stuffed gigantic grocery loads into mine. I've been road-testing my Envirosack for two months now, and so far, all good. It's rugged, hasn't torn, washes easily when I spill stuff on it, and fits easily into my purse, so I actually have it with me most of the time. About the trickiest thing I've encountered was mastering the fold-and-reroll trick to packing the bag back up, but I got the hang of it after a few tries.

Envirosax are $8.50 each on their website; I got mine for $13 or so, which means if you find it at a retailer near you, expect markup. (On the other hand, no shipping charges for buying locally.)

I'm not sure if BYO Bags really count as a frugality tip; most of the markets I shop at give you a 5c discount for bringing a reusable bag, but at that rate it'll take about 260 shopping tricks before I can claim my bag paid for itself. I suspect this is like buying a hybrid car: you can tell yourself the lower gas costs are worth the higher upfront expense, but really, it's a wash. Except that it'll help appease your nagging inner Al Gore voice, which is all good.

Envirosax is, of course, not the only company touting easily transportable reusable bags. Baggu Bags is also making inroads. Their bags fold up into a pouch. (I would lose the pouch. And probably fight with the bag trying to get it folded correctly and stuffed back in. The best part of the Envirosack, for me, is that it's one piece; the snap-rollup tie is built in.) Know of others? Tout 'em here.

(As a reminder, Birds & Bills doesn't take advertising; any products mentioned are things I legitimately bought. No ethics were harmed in the making of this blogpost.)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Stimulating things

Since I'm editing and occasionally writing coverage of the stimulus deal, I suppose I ought to stay Switzerlandish in my commentary on it. So. Er. $600 rebates. Hooray, the economy is saved?

When my check arrives, I'm going to have to be one of those naughty consumers who socks it away into savings or paying down debt, since I've already done some premature economic stimulating.

A few weeks back I went to Seattle with my sister, who had never been there. In addition to visiting friends, we had two express purposes for the trip: eat at the planet's best sushi restaurant (I have been to sushi restaurants on Tokyo; this one still wins - how can it not, with that URL!?) and go see a gallery show by one of my favourite artists. My intention was just to look, of course. It had to be - most of his paintings are priced around what my college education cost. But ... the gallery had prints ... and I have this theory that art you love is one of those things you never regret purchasing ...

So, um. I have a print now. Yay! And my art budget for the entire year is officially blown. Good thing The Planet's Best Sushi is so reasonably priced.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Tax prep: Giving Tango a try

Longtime Birds & Bills readers will recall that I have absolutely no loyalty when it comes to tax prep -- I'll use whatever program is cheapest and at least minimally user friendly. I used TaxCut through college, switched to TaxAct for a few years, and gave TurboTax a spin last year.

This year, just as I was starting to idly troll through discounts and figure out what to use, David mentioned a Second Life promotion offering free codes to use H&R Block's tax software. I assumed he meant TaxCut, and said sure, if he can head over to H&R Block's island and snag me a code, I'd be thrilled to use it. (David plays Second Life. I just snark at it.)

The Second Life freebie promotion code (well, "freebie" in the sense that it cost 100 Linden dollars, which is about 12 cents in U.S. dollars) seems to have dried up, but David got one before it did. But it turned out it wasn't TaxCut H&R Block was pushing, it's Tango, an entirely new option. It's kind of the in-between product. For basic, no-nonsense tax prep software, there's TaxCut. Tango has a jazzier interface, a more informal presentation, and access to tax professionals 24/7 if you need it. And, of course, for the full-service option, H&R Block has its walk-in offices.

Tango's slicker approach comes with a steeper price tag: it's $70, vs. about $35 for TaxCut. What does the extra cash buy you? Aside from on-call tax advice if you need it, it's paying for attitude. The Tango website gives you a pretty good idea what you're in for: it has a blog, and sells its multiplatform approach with the line "windows, apples, penguins - we love u."

I can see the Tango approach being useful for young and intimidated tax filers, which seems to be the demographic it's aiming at. It definitely has the Web 2.0-vibe. I couldn't decide whether I felt amused or condescended to by the quippy little messages it pops up throughout the prep process. Filling out my personal information at the start generated a bubble on the side saying, "This is kind of like when your aunt asks you when you're going to have children at Thanksgiving, isn't it?"

Like all version-one products, Tango is breakable. Because my company partially funded my HSA, they ticked a little box in 12c on the W2 saying they had. Tango popped up a note saying that meant I needed to file Form 8889, which it does not support. End message. Er? So does that mean I can't use Tango at all? Does it mean I need to file the form separately myself, if I completed the process with Tango?

I suppose this would have been the time to test out Tango's on-call tax-prep help, but I opted to forge on and deal with the problem later. Which ended up being a sound decision, because when I finished and was ready to file and put in my little Second Life code ... it was invalid. I tried a few times. Still invalid. Arugh.

So, Plan B. TaxAct apparently missed me last year. It sent an email Jan. 30 offering 30 percent off if I came back. Back I went, to reenter all the information I had already plowed into Tango. Luckily, my taxes are fairly straightforward, despite the vast pile of forms I seem to have every year (this time, it was 11, not counting charity receipts - three W-2s, an overpayment form from NY state, an interest statement from my bank, tuition and student loan interest statements, and several 1099s). About an hour later, my taxes were done - and, shock of shocks, the discount thingie worked, as last year's TurboTax discount totally failed to. My state and federal return e-filing and prep cost a grand total of $11.90. And, I'll note, TaxAct had no problem with Form 8889.

Yay TaxAct! All done, rebate en route. (Yes, I loan the government money interest free every year. This is a deliberate calculation, because David and I are crap at saving. It is much better for us financially for us to not stress about it and instead get a giant wad back at the end of the year. Plus, when I freelance heavily as I did this year, I don't have to worry about owing money at the end; it just comes out of the refund cash we've already amassed.)

Last year's tax-time surprise was discovering that I itemize, something I assumed I'd never do until we had mortgage expenses to deduct. But our state and local taxes now exceed the standard deduction, so we itemize and deduct them. Living in NYC cost us around $11,000 in taxes this year. Ow. When I briefly whinged about it, David told me to shut up and calculate what the subway saves me on car expenses. Hrm. Point.

Anyway, this year's surprise was finding that I file a Schedule C. Possibly I have had to do this before, but I don't recall seeing it come up, and I'm pretty sure I've had other years where I filed my freelance 1099 income. But this time around, when I plugged 'em in, up came the "hi you run a business, tell us about it" forms. Now I too get bitten by that self-employment tax all my freelancer friends gripe about! Ok, my bite was all of $106, but. I sympathize, my comrades.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

A rant about usurious long-distance pricing

I realise complaining about extortionate phone company pricing is like complaining about the sun rising each day, but -- ARUGH. I just got bit by pricing that has me very cranky at Verizon.

So, David is from Australia. At home, we have Verizon's international calling plan, where we pay $3 or whatnot a month and get a flat rate to call Australia of 14-cents-a-minute or thereabouts. Calling his mum's cell is slightly more expensive, 33 cents or so. Fine.

For Christmas, we went home to my Dad's. Dad has your standard no-frills Verizon package. I suggested David call his family to say hi, and told Dad we'd reimburse the cost. I figured it would be more than our discounted rate, but didn't think much about what it would actually be.

Just got the bill. 28 minute call. $105.56.


Are they @^&%@^%@ kidding?

I am horked off, cranky as hell ... and realise I have no recourse. We made the call. I didn't ask about the rate. It is what it is. But RAR. Even more infuriatingly, there would have been no real way to find the rate in advance. I just spent half an hour banging on Verizon's website. If there's a way to find international calling costs, I can't excavate it. I eventually found a customer service number, and planned to call them and ask about the rate. Except they're closed weekends.

This sort of blatently abusive shit pisses me off. I am totally fine with paying a higher-per minute rate than I get under my discounted plan -- but I would like that rate to have some sane basis. It obviously does not cost Verzion $3 more per minute to provide me service. If I'd known that was the rate, I would have gone out and bought a damn prepaid card and saved $100 or so.

Grr. I guess there's nothing really I can do except remember from now on to never, ever, ever make an international call without a prepaid card, but does anyone know if there's a regulatory body I can at least send off a complaint at? BBB? FCC?

Sigh. I guess $100 is the price I pay to be reminded that phone companies are heinous bastions of usurious pricing that one must be ever-vigilant about.