Sunday, November 28, 2010

Hello world!

I went on inadvertent hiatus though the summer, while I intermittantly food blogged and readjusted to the tech beat's 27/7 news cycle. Today, to cap my four-day weekend (ok, technically, nine-day weekend. The spouse and I decamped to Las Vegas for T-Day, where I also food blogged-- there's a reason's auto-budget feature tags "Restaurants" as my biggest monthly expense, easily dusting Shopping, Clothing and Entertainment. "Groceries" is a close second), I tackled the giant stack of "paperwork needing doing" that had accumulated on my desk. Most of which was financial.

Over the course of two hours, I ...

-Filled out forms that will hopefully qualify the spouse for an extended life insurance policy. Typically, we've each carried just what our employers spring for, which is generally one or two times our annual salary.

But now, we have a mortgage. Which is scary large. His open enrollment ended a month before mine, and I didn't speak up in time about having him up his insurance. But I had the option of adding coverage on him to mine. To cover us each for an amount about equal to about 70% of what we owe on the mortgage cost me about $11 a month. I decided to spring for it; now let's see if he passes the underwriting. He had surgery for a deviated septum three years ago, and has a monthly drug prescription -- which means I had to check "yes" on an annoying number of "do you have any physical condition that indicates you are mortal and could eventually die!?!?1?" boxes on the insurance form.

-Mailed a defunct Metrocard off to the MTA in hopes of a replacement. Just days after one of my writers had his constant-refilled card journey to the Transmit Museum in the Sky, mine demagnetized. I have no idea what caused it, and in almost a decade of buying Metrocards, this is the first time it's happened.

I checked with a gate agent who confirmed, yep, demagnetized. "Call the customer service number on the back of the card," she instructed. Problem: This all happened as I was headed out of town for the week.

I finally got a chance to call, and was instructed to mail the card in. Now, online accounts suggest that if you paid for the card with a credit card (I did), the customer service line can refund you the remaining days. Bzzzt. I called twice, and was instructed both times to mail it in. I finally did today; we'll see how that goes.

-Mailed in a prescription. I'm still really pissed off about the monopolistic PBM practices that are killing neighborhood drugstores. But it would currently cost me $1,080 a year to fill our recurring monthly 'script locally, because my drug plan slaps a huge co-pay on things not filled through their mail-order. Doing Medco mail-order costs $260 a year. We cratered.

-Downgraded my Netflix plan. I mostly use the streaming these days, so with my current 3-DVD plan set to soon jump to $20 a month, I took the opportunity to swap to the 1-DVD, $9.99/month plan.

-And finally, I poured a stiff drink and eyeballed my Verizon bill. Remember way back in May, when I blogged about opting for Verizon's $89.99/month Triple Play and having no confidence whatsoever that the bill would be correct? The bill wasn't correct. Our first bill was $203.96. The next was $115.98. And the next was $148.59. Then $128.36.

Every single month, the day after the bill arrived, I called Verizon customer service. Every single month, the agent went "wow, that's weird!," applied some seemingly random credit amount to get my bill back into sane territory, and assured me the problem was fixed. And every month, when the next bill arrived, it was for some random amount. Waterloo came in September, when a bill for $346.18 arrived.

Eventually, after many phone calls, we zeroed in on the problem: Verizon had never turned off my old address in its system. I was being charged for two different plans at two different addresses, even though they were showing as one, and interacting in totally random ways.

This month, my bill finally seems to have just the right set of charges and taxes. My $89.99 plan actually costs $126.10 with taxes and surcharges, which is around what I expected.

I just ran the numbers, and when you average out the grand total of what I've paid vs the number of months I've been in the new place, it comes out to a $12.56/month overcharge so far. But I'm too defeated to fight with Verizon for a refund. I'm just crossing my fingers my $126 bill is here to stay.

So that's the State of My Financial Life. And I'm back to blogging just in time for the holidays, when all attempts at budgeting will inevitably be blown to smithereens!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Where I'm writing this summer (not here)

Posting has gotten light again, thanks to time-consuming other projects. I switched positions at work at the start of June (swapping off the smallbiz beat and onto tech coverage), which has been eating my brain, and I have two other writing gigs at the moment.

-On personal finance, you can find me weekly-ish at Make Love Not Debt. Recently I've chimed in why pet insurance is a rip-off, how money mixes dangerously with marriage, and why my cat no longer has teeth.

-I'm also foodblogging at the Red Hook CSA website. I've been tempted for years to join a CSA, but always lazed out because I a) wasn't sure I'd cook enough to justify it, and b) suspected I'd miss the pickup window frequently. But this year, my friend Amy lives blocks away from her neighborhood's CSA pickup spot, and offered to grab my share any week I couldn't make it.

So for $332.50, I got a 22-ish week share that gives me an assortment of veggies and a half-dozen eggs each week. That's about $15 a week. Is it paying off? At some point I'll crunch the numbers and figure it out, but for now, I'm swamped trying to keep up with the zombie hyssop and mountains of kale. The kale has already conquered the veggie drawer and sent out reconnaissance units to scout the cheese drawer for its territorial-expansion possibilities.

Which is a longwinded way of saying my PF brain will kick back in at some point, but in the meantime, hit those two sites if you miss my ramblings. My Twitter feed features occasional links to my postings around the Interwebs.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

AT&T jams one up the iPad's jacksie

We have what amounts to a religious war in our household: David is a Mac lover, I'm not.

There's irony in this, because I was a diehard Mac fan throughout my formative years. My Dad brought home an Apple IIG in 1989 or so, and for the next decade, I regarded those who didn't use Macs as vaguely inferior life forms.

Then, right around the time Apple seemed to be sputtering off into its grave, I succumbed to the ubiquity of Windows. (This did not stop me from plastering a "snail inside" decal on every Pentium PC I owned. I retained the sly snootiness of an Apple user.) Between office PCs, college computer lab PCs, my campus-job Windows laptop, and my own broke-student inability to afford a new Mac, I drifted off into Microsoftland.

And stayed there. When my job change two years ago brought with it a Mac desktop, I was the only magazine staffer to regard it as an actual work impediment. I fled whenever possibly to my alternate office 20 blocks north, in no small part because my desk there had a Windows machine and was the only place I could actually get work done. I couldn't help it; my brain now worked in c:\Windows\Desktop directories.

Meanwhile, David went full-bore in the other direction. For the first few years we were together, he used my backtop work laptop as his home PC. When I changed jobs, I bribed him to give it up by using my pay raise to buy him his first personal laptop. He chose a MacBook, and within less than 24 hours he was far more attached it to than me. "If I'd know it was this good, I would have skipped eating for a week and spent the money on this years ago!" was, I believe, a direct quote from him. I rolled my eyes.

But for many years now, he's been a Mac addict, with the iPod/iBook/iPhone combo, while I cling to my Windows desktop, archaic Samsung cell phone and Palm PDA. (Stop laughing. I cherish and coddle it. And am in deep, deep denial about it being the end-of-the-Palm-road when it dies.)

One reason I've resisted the siren call of Apple is that I don't like the company's closed tech ecosystem. The Apple experience works really well if you use its approved apps, on its approved hardware, to do approved create-and-consume things, on the network of its approved bandwidth provider. Wander off, and you get shooed back onto the path.

So I was pretty intrigued today to see AT&T make a subtle move with big ramifications: No more unlimited data plans for new iPhone or iPad buyers. Welcome to the world of metered billing.

Which, yes, will probably knock a few dollars of the bill of the average Apple gadget user, if they opt into a pricing tier reflecting the fairly casual data consumption most users have. Now. In 2010.

In a year? Or two? I don't see apps and devices using less bandwidth going forward. And once you're into the land of metered billing, you're not going back. Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, and all the cable/broadband/etc providers that have been itching to ditch unlimited bandwidth in favor of metered data have got to be doing the dance of joy right now. AT&T fired the first shot over the bow; now the way is cleared for them to launch their own fusillades.

I don't think it'll happen immediately, and I think the upward pricing pressure will be gradual -- after all, no telecom wants to spook Congress into doing anything rash or regulatory -- but I think we're edging toward a future where bandwidth costs are charged by consumption, like electricity or water.

Meanwhile, back on the home front, David has recently discovered the streaming, addictive joys an subscription for his iPhone. Guess who plans to cling to his grandfathered, unlimited data plan for as long as physically possible?

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The next lending crisis

The New York Times had a good column this week spotlighting the dangers of student loans through one family's story: an undergrad NYU education that left $100,000 of loan debt in its wake.

Almost everyone I know has student-loan bills, which vary in severity from "enh, it's not that bad" to "holy god, that's more than rent." But there's one clear similarity in all our stories: No one knew what they were getting into.

It's the undergrad debts that make me wince the most. You take those loans on when you're 17 or 18, and I don't care how academically smart you are, I've yet to meet any college-bound 18-year-old able to make sound judgment calls about loans, debt, estimated paychecks and so on. How can you? At 18, you haven't had the experience of trying to line up all your bills and make them fit within the bounds of one fixed monthly income number -- and until you actually do that, month after month, it's all hazily theoretical.

You can sign on a dotted line saying "yes, I understand that if I take on this loan I'll owe $200 a month to repay it," but is $200 a lot or a little? To me at 18, who considered $20 a windfall, it would have sounded staggeringly huge -- but me at 18 (circa 1996) hadn't ever had a job paying more than $6 an hour. I had no framework at all for making adult financial decisions.

I guess this is where parents enter the equation, but at 18, you're supposed to start making your own decisions -- and what 18-year-old is going to listen to the parent who says "this expensive school you got into and want to go to? Sorry, you can't." You spend all of high school hearing that college will be exciting, life-shaping, career-door-opening and so on. The last thing you want to think about at that point is what's cheapest.

I basically got lucky. My parents scrapped together the cash and took on the debt themselves to pay for most of my trip through the pricey college I wanted to attend. I helpfully repaid them by dropping out right before my senior year. (Thanks, Dad, for not driving up to NYC and strangling me when I told you that ...) The consolation prize is that I dropped out because the college basically did what it was supposed to: Help me get a good, full-time, decent-paying job in the career field I wanted to pursue. I left to take the job.

My three years at Barnard resulted in loan debt of $11,000, which required monthly payments of around $90. That was manageable.

But five years later, after a few halfhearted stabs at night classes, I finally decided to go back and finish off my degree. And once again, I didn't want to make practical-and-affordable choices -- I wanted to do what I wanted. Which, this time, meant going to the school best set up to deal with working students. That turned out to be New School University -- which cost about five times more than I would have spent finishing my degree at Hunter or another state school.

Result: Three years after graduating from New School (much to my Dad's delight -- I finally got the BA!), I'm currently sitting on a student-loan balance of $21,664.59. I now pay $250 a month for my loans, and have been paying that for almost five years. I have ten more to go. If I'd done the less-expensive thing, I would instead have my loans fully paid off about two years from now.

Was it worth it? In my case, maybe -- I can afford the $250, and my previous efforts to finish the BA hadn't actually worked. If New School was what it took to get me through, it was probably a sensible thing.

But really, all it boils down to is that I got lucky. I don't even remember signing the loan papers for my first set of loans, for Barnard. I definitely didn't do it with any "this will cost me X dollars each month" idea of what I was obligating myself to. The second time, when I took on the New School loans -- this time, as a working adult, and even a personal-finance blogger -- I again didn't do any precise monthly cost forecasting. I just eyeballed the total sum and said "well, it looks manageable."

Which is why I get nervous every time friends of mine talks about going back to grad school. There are, for sure, financially responsible ways to do it. You can use savings, go somewhere very inexpensive, or pursue a degree that has a very clear payoff in your chosen career field.

But you can also spend a small fortune on a degree that's hard to monetize -- or, worse, trains you for a field with salary prospects that don't align. To pick on my own alma mater and career field: A journalism or creative-writing master's degree at Columbia will cost you about $40,000. A typical entry-level journalist or any-level fiction writer would be lucky to make $40,000 a year -- and managing a $350/month loan payment on a take-home salary just north of $2,000/month starts to get pretty restrictive.

I don't see any obvious solutions, but it's scary to see a whole generation of 20- and 30-somethings (and on into their 40-somethings) chained to massive debts right out of the starting gate.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Serial bank dating

I always intended to come back to the story of how my attempts to abandon Chase are going, but kept getting distracted. So I wrote it up over at Make Love Not Debt: Taking a Break from Monogamy.

Meanwhile, as we prepare to pay our Very First Mortgage Payment, the kitty decided now would be a great time for a dental emergency. He's lost a tooth -- and unlike when five-year-kids do this and it's an exciting milestone, with five-year-old cats you end up feeling like a horrible, neglectful parent who didn't realise that your cat's teeth are dissolving. So poor Kea is getting hauled off to the vet tomorrow to have what's left of his teeth cleaned, and likely removed.

Because what we really needed right now was a random $500 bill. Sigh. At least he's cute.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Verizon for the fail

The first time David and I moved apartments, back in 2000, it took us four months to get a working phone line.

The problem was a fight between Verizon and MCI. For reasons I happily no longer remember, we were caught in a giant wrangle between the two over whose job it was to physically hook up our line -- one company owned the wires in our area, the other had our account, and resolving the standoff took me more than two dozen phone calls and countless hours of battling through Inferno-like levels of "customer service." In retrospect, I can't believe I didn't just swear off landlines on the spot and go mobile, but the whole thing eventually got so Kafkaesque that I was determined to pry a phone line out of these companies just to prove that I could.

It was good foreshadowing. Ever since, pretty much every interaction I've had with Verizon has been fraught with errors and incompetence.

I was all set to join the modern world and scrap our landline in April in our move. We'd be just fine with Skype and mobile phones, I figured, and hey, it would save us $50-$70 a month. That's what it was costing us to have a dial tone and an occasional phone call to Australia. (I was paying $10 a month for an international calling plan that gave us sensible per-minute rates, since I learned the expensive way how bat@%^! the rack rates are for overseas calls.)

But then we found out our new building was wired for Verizon FIOS. That meant that instead of kicking Verizon to the curb and consolidating our communications bills with the cable company, we could instead give Time Warner the boot and go all-in with Verizon.

Like every other cable customer, I've watched my bills creep up over the years, from about $100 six years ago (for cable and cable-modem broadband Internet) to more than $160 this year. On the flip side, Verizon was touting its "triple play" cable/Internet/phone combo packages for $89.99 a month.

I knew our bill wouldn't really be $90 a month -- fees and taxes always seem to add another 50% to telecom bills -- but it still seemed worth investigating. So I rang up, asked many pointed questions about the plan ("Are there installation fees? Equipment fees? Fees for extra computers? Required blood sacrifices every fortnight, which you charge extra fees for missing?"), and signed on. The add-on fees I agreed to were an extra $5.99 a month for equipment rental (which really should be part of the standard cost quote, but whatever) and $10 a month more for a 300/minute overseas international calling bundle. So, total bill each month should be $106 -- plus, I figured, an extra $20-$40 for taxes.

On Friday, the first bill arrived: $203.96. <insert primal screams here>

It wasn't just that the bill was too high that irked me. It was that I would now have to slog through "customer service" to untangle the mess.

And it was indeed a total mess. Despite email records confirming my order of the triple-bundle-package thingie, Verizon ran my bill for each service individually. The amounts listed didn't even reconcile -- random charges and credits skittered all around the bill, making no sense on their own and, even better, not actually adding up to the listed grand total. Instead of even attempting to sort it out, I threw up my hands and called Verizon.

Where it took half an hour to fight through the automated prompts and connect with a live human being. Happily, once I finally landed one, he looked at my bill for about 30 seconds before agreeing that it was fubared.

Twenty minutes of hold music later, I had my bill "repaired" (in theory) and knocked down to $140.56. That seems to include two months of Internet charges (prepaying May), which doesn't make sense to me if this is supposedly a level-monthly-billing plan, but I'm not inclined to battle about it.

I'm also not convinced this whole thing is actually fixed. We'll see what shows up in next month's bill.

And since my bill has been screwed up literally every single time I've signed up for new services with Verizon, I've got to assume this isn't actually incompetence. It's a business strategy -- mess up the bills and see what percentage of customers notice.


Thursday, May 06, 2010

When Wall Street breaks

During September 2008, I almost came to regard three-digit Dow swings as normal. But seeing them happen in seconds isn't normal, and 2:50 pm this afternoon was a pretty wild time to be in the middle of a financial newsroom. In a blink, you've got the Dow flinging itself from almost 11,000 to below 10,000, and stocks zipping crazily in both directions: Accenture (ACN) rocketing from $40 to 1 cent while Sotheby's (BID) zooms from $30 to $100,000.

And what was I doing this evening, after watching an afternoon of Wall Street chaos? Going to see Enron, which I got tickets to last month for David's birthday. Talk about timing. High finance explained with lasers and dinosaurs! Now I'm gonna be grumpy if we don't get to use lasers and dinosaurs tomorrow at work when we try to explain The Great Market Crash of 2:47 pm.

I see that the exchanges and market regulators are planning to void trades in 286 stocks from 2:40-3pm that swung more than 60% either way. That takes care of the wildly crazy prices, like Philip Morris plunging from $48 to $2 or EQIX flying from $95 to $999,999. But it leaves standing some of the trades that really hammered the Dow, like P&G falling 37% in seconds and 3M sinking 21% for a blink. Tomorrow's open should be dramatic.

Meanwhile, in financial news involving vastly smaller sums, I have a new outlet for some of my personal-finance writing: For the next few months, I'll be filing a weekly dispatch to Make Love Not Debt. It was one of the first pf blogs to catch my eye when I started Birds & Bills years ago; while I get pretty solipsistic in my ramblings here, MLND has always been finance and relationships. It'll be fun to shift my focus and think in that vein for a bit. Plus, like all journalists, I've realized the only sure way to get me to actually write is to hit me with a deadline. Generally one that's two or three days past.

So hop on over and check out my first MLND column, on the two-income pothole:

Keeping separate bank accounts with your spouse or similarly intertwined partner has a whole spate of logistical issues attached. How do you split the bills? How do you make sure none slip through the cracks? How closely do you track your partner's finances – and how do you ensure you'll have access in an emergency?

There's also the philosophical issues. Why are the accounts separate, and do you both have the same reasons, or at least understand and respect your partner's rationale if it's different?

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

I have to issue 1099s!?

Funny I just wrote yesterday about how I don't hate taxes. Today, I'm less enamored with 'em. Or, at least, with the paperwork they entail.

I spent most of today working with my friend Neil to piece together a major and underreported story he stumbled on over the weekend: Tucked into the 2,000-page health care bill is a significant tax-code change. Gotta love how Congress tacks riders and stealth legislation into totally unrelated bills (like tossing "hey, bring your guns to national parks" into the credit card act).

From the story:

An all-but-overlooked provision of the health reform law is threatening to swamp U.S. businesses with a flood of new tax paperwork.

Beginning in 2012 all companies will have to issue 1099 tax forms not just to contract workers but to any individual or corporation from which they buy more than $600 in goods or services in a tax year. The stealth change radically alters the nature of 1099s and means businesses will have to issue millions of new tax documents each year.

"1099 tax form" sounds like an eyeball-glazing thing, but anyone who has ever freelanced knows what it is. Companies send out millions of them each year, to any individual they pay who isn't a salaried staffer. The vast bulk of the money I make comes from my day job, but every year I end up with a few stray 1099s for freelance articles.

Because I have freelance income, in the eyes of the IRS I'm running a small business. That means I file a Schedule C and -- the painful part -- pay self-employment taxes on my freelance income. (You know those Social Security and Medicare taxes you see deducted on your paycheck, which typically add up to 7.65% of your wages? What you're paying is actually only half the tax. Your employer pays the other half. Those who are self-employed get hit with both ends and cover the full 15.3%.)

Like all freelancers, I offset this pain by deducting anything I reasonably can. If I buy a new computer or phone line to use exclusively for work, I write it off as a business expense.

Starting in 2012, the health-care law requires businesses (that means us too, freelancers) to send 1099s not only to workers they pay for services, but to any entity they pay more than $600 to in a year. The example in Neil's story: If you buy an iMac, you have to send Apple a 1099 reporting what you paid for it.

As Neil quipped in response to my shocked "they're kidding, right!?" noises: "It's the Accountant Full Employment Act."

After we thrashed out as many details as possible -- which is not many, considering the IRS is a long way off from issuing guidance on how this will work -- I calmed down a small bit.

On the one hand, while I've received dozens of 1099s over the years, I've never issued one to other businesses. That sounds ... daunting. On the other hand, this is why tax software exists. I imagine Intuit's TurboTax team is doing the dance of joy over this looming tax change. By 2012, when the law actually kicks in, tax software packages should be well-equipped to fire off the millions -- or, as a CPA the Cato Institute talked with predicts, billions -- of new 1099s this will require.

Still. I see why activists are really, really tempted to just chuck the U.S. tax code and start over.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

What your tax dollars buy

Like everyone else who has to balance a household budget, I flinch every so often when I see how much of "my" paycheck is disappearing toward taxes. Between that and my retirement/health care/etc deductions, I actually take home less than 50% of my gross pay. That's pretty common.

... and then I read stuff like today's news about the Johnson & Johnson drug recalls, which are fast getting ugly. The FDA did some serious smacking of J&J, especially for its failure to take action fast when it became clear something was amiss:

In its report, the FDA said McNeil did not initiate "corrective and prevention action" after it had received 46 consumer complaints from June 2009 to April 2010 regarding foreign materials and black or dark specks in its drugs.

Reading such things reminds me afresh of why I am happy to hand over a chunk of earnings to taxes: Because unfettered capitalism is actually a pretty crappy way to run a society, and I don't especially want to worry that over-the-counter painkillers are going to kill me or a nearby toddler because it was cheaper for a company to cut corners and ignore problems. I want regulators cracking whips over those who process meat, hold savings accounts, build bridges, fly airplanes and so on.

Sure, the government could be a more efficient steward of our cash -- I like internal watchdogs and get very cranky when they're hamstrung or ignored -- but in general, I'm a big fan of this whole "pay for an infrastructure that keeps society running" deal. It was a pretty clever system for us human beings to invent.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Things you learn along the way

At some point I will get my head together and start properly describing the real-estate adventure. Basically there's two things I learned along the way:

1) buying real estate is insanely complicated and involves an epic ton of paperwork and logistics; and

2) like having a kid, this is a really complicated and responsibility-fraught thing that anyone who wants to can manage, no matter how ill-prepared they are for the task. David and I knew nothing going in, right down to the basics of "ok, we want to make an offer ... um, how do we actually do that? E-mail the seller's broker and say 'hey, we'd like Apartment X, how do you feel about [insert made-up number here]?' Fax? Call? Send carrier pigeon?"

And yet, roughly 90 days after deciding we wanted to buy an apartment, we got to move into our newly owned condo.

Saturday is May 1, when we'd typically write our rent check. But one of the Things Everyone Apparently Knows But I Didn't is that when you take on a mortgage, you don't make a payment the first month. Because unlike rent, which you pay in advance at the beginning of the month, mortgage is collected in arrears, after it's owed. So because we closed in April (and at closing prepaid the interest the loan would accumulate in April), our first payment is due in June, to pay off the debt we incurred in May.

Practical upshot: A month in which we owe no mortgage or rent payment. Hooray!

Reality check: Like any new homeowner, we had a ton of stuff we had to buy to make the place functional. Including a couch, 7 chairs, a deck table, a bench, lamps, a bedside table, and roughly a dozen boxes of cleaning supplies. Our Amex bill for the month was about what the mortgage would run. So much for spare cash.

But hey, we did what the government hoped we'd do with the first-time homebuyer credit -- economically stimulated every retailer within a half-mile blast radius.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

I guess it's real now

Just as two of my friends are writing extolling the financial savvy of renting forever, we got our first "please to be sending the mortgage check on June 1, kthxbye*" [*'no really, please please send the check, we really need it'] letter from Bank of America.

So it's official ... we own now. Eeek/yay! I have economically stimulated half of Brooklyn's homewares shops, much to Amex's glee. We celebrated coughing up five figures at the closing table by immediately dropping almost as much again buying a couch, terrace table, chairs, groceries, and enough laundry detergent to last us eons, because I am celebrating having a washing machine for the first time in my adult life by doing approximately fourteen loads of laundry a day.

At some point the giddy euphoria will wear off and I will return to talking sensibly about finances. In fact, I'm gonna go take the edge off right now by wrapping up some day-job work and delving into corporate tax filings.

While listening to the background noise of my whirring washing machine.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010


... is what it costs to transfer one piece of residential real estate, the apartment David and I are buying tomorrow (if, *fingers crossed fingers crossed* the close doesn't get delayed again).

None of that sum is the down payment, or any piece of the actual sale price. It consists entirely of title costs, attorney fees, broker commissions, taxes, and every other bit of this transaction that some third-party is managing to carve a piece off. I knew going in that this was going to be pricey, but damn. I'm impressed. And boggled.

Happily, we're not on the hook for all of that cost (merely the vast bulk of it), and some we financed into the mortgage loan. But still. This is not some Donald Trumpian multimillion-dollar real estate deal. It's a standard-issue, six-figure home loan, one in which I fought hard at every step against junk fees and avoidable "extras" we could opt out of (I now speak fluent GFE, HUD-1, RESPA and TIRSA Rate Manual).

That is an impressive amount of price padding from what you see on the sticker.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Health care reform zero hour

For someone who both a) cares a ton about healthcare reform, and b) works in a newsroom, I've been remarkably out of the loop on the whole Washington slog this past year.

Basically, I followed the details of some of the early proposals, but things were changing so quickly I lost the motivation to keep up. The best quote I've heard about Washington's legislative process came from an SBA spokesman last year, when my reporter pressed him for comment on stuff being talked about for inclusion in the not-yet-passed Recovery Act stimulus bill: "You don't give farm animals names if they're just going to get slaughtered. We're taking the same philosophy with these provisions."

That's how I came to view health reform: Call me when there's a bill about to go to the President to sign. Until then, everything in it is in quantum flux and not yet real.

So imagine my surprise when suddenly this week everything started moving super-fast and dominating the news and journalists began assembling for an all-day "this is it" coverageathon on Sunday. My reaction: Wait, what? What's happening? Is this going to be a really final bill?

Here's the best, clearest description I've seen (hat tip to Neil for the link) of the process now unfolding: from the Wall Street Journal, "Health-Care Bill's Final Act: A Look at Possible Scenarios." The gist: Yes, this is really it. By Monday, we could have new law.

What's in that law? That's what I'm trying to find out next. (It'll be what the Senate passed on Dec. 24, but I haven't delved into the details of that bill yet.)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

How to celebrate the anniversary of screwing up your taxes: Do it again

"We have a letter from the IRS saying we owe them money!" is not what you want to hear when you pick up the phone to answer a call from your spouse.

Ten years ago, the first year we were together, David and I managed to short the IRS to the tune of three grand and unexpectedly owe it all come April 15. The culprit was W-4 confusion: We both checked "married," not realizing that would set our withholdings as if we were each married *and* the family's only wage-earner. Throw together two salaries and a higher tax bracket and you have an expensive oops.

Since then, I've been pretty meticulous about the taxes, and we traditionally come in for a hefty refund. (Yes, intentionally -- we both would rather use the forced savings of overpaying the IRS than cut it close and end up owing. I realise that's financially foolish, but so far, the money I'm "losing" this way isn't enough for me to care.) This year's refund landed in my bank account just three days before David's panicky phone call.

It turns out what we owed money for was our 2008 taxes. "The income and payment information that we have on file does not match entries on your 2008 Form 1040," the letter sternly informed me.

"Calm down, wait till I get home, and I'll go through the records," I told David.

"Please give the IRS money so nothing bad will happen!!!" he replied. I admit, I shared a bit of the panic -- stiffing the IRS sounds like one of those things the federal government takes a very dim view of.

The form had one slightly reassuring line in it, though. "If this information is correct, you will owe $508," it said.

Okay. Suddenly owing $508 is no fun, but it's not like we were being told "cough up $10,000 and prepare for a stint in the debtors' gulag, and by the way, we're now gonna audit EVERY FORM YOU'VE EVER FILED WITH US, you untrustworthy tax-dodging leech."

The letter's "summary of proposed changes" showed two income payments unaccounted for on my 2008 taxes, but apparently very accounted for in documents the paying parties sent on to the IRS.

The first was $1,200 from Time Inc. for freelance work I did before I joined the staff, and for which I'd been paid on a 1099. When I went back in my records, I realised to my chagrin that the IRS was right. The work was done in late 2007 and paid in early 2008, and I'd totally forgotten about it by the time I filed my 2008 taxes -- which I did before the 1099 arrived in the mail. I hadn't included it. Note to self: columnist Matthew might be on to something with his checklist manifesto.

The second entry in the IRS list was "taxable dividends" of ... $13. This came from the Sharesave account I cashed out just eight months after I started, because I left the company long before the shares vested. Apparently I made $13 in interest off it. I have no idea if that's true or not -- my dim recollection is that I got back exactly what I'd put in -- but since the taxes due on $13 are about what a cup of overpriced coffee costs, I had no interest whatsoever in digging out records or trying to fight that charge.

Happily, the penalties on stiffing the IRS -- at least for the three-figure amount I did -- are completely minor. The IRS says I owe $489 in taxes on the $1,213 I underreported, and $19 for a year's worth of interest. That's it. No "pay this draconian fine so you learn to never again shortchange the taxman" fees. I'd owe more interest and possibly some penalties if I didn't pay up straight away, but if I sent the check before March 31, I'd be back in Uncle Sam's good graces.

I cut the check that night. ("I will take this to the mailbox right this second," David said, sealing the envelope as he changed out the door.) The Treasury cashed it yesterday.

And I hope to never again be a tax scofflaw. I mean, I'm pretty sure the government (current debt: $12,644,040,577,175) kinda needs the cash.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

The cost of dying

Hello world. Sorry I've been so quiet; balancing apartment-buying (eeek) and work is brain-and-time consuming. The real-estate adventure has yielded a ton of blog material, but I feel like I need to sit on a fair bit of it until the closing contracts are actually signed and stuff can't suddenly go awry -- which it has been on a fairly regular schedule. So I'm stockpiling material and planning lots of updates in a month ...

Meanwhile, I wanted to drop in a link to one of the best magazines pieces I've read in years: "Lessons of a $618,616 Death," this week's BusinessWeek cover story. (The cover itself is also breathtaking, with its fade-to-white line "The End of Life." The whole package is a wonderful reminder of the unique ways design and writing can fuse together in print.)

Health care is a topic I frequently come back to in this blog. I can't think of any financial decision more urgent -- what wouldn't you pay when you life is at stake? I also can't think of any financial system more utterly broken in this country. You think the housing market got irrational during the last decade years? It's nothing compared to health-care spending.

Amanda Bennett and her reporting colleague, Charles Babcock, do an astonishing job illustrating both the micro- and macro-economic issues of our current health system. The story's eye-grabbing headline number, $618,616, is what it cost for a seven-year fight against the kidney cancer that in 2007 killed Bennett's husband, Terence Bryan Foley -- "father of our two teenagers, a Chinese historian who earned his PhD in his sixties, a man who played more than 15 musical instruments and spoke six languages, a San Francisco cable car conductor and sports photographer, an expert on dairy cattle and swine nutrition, film noir, and Dixieland jazz."

It's a vast number -- not to corporations and Fortune 500 CEOs, but to those of us who budget carefully each month to pull together rent or mortgage checks. "I think had he known the costs, Terence would have objected to spending an amount equivalent to the cost of vaccine for nearly a quarter million children in developing countries," Bennett writes. "That's how he would have thought about it."

It's a number with almost no basis in tangible costs. The list price on one chest scan was $3,232. Medicare pays less than $300 for that scan. UnitedHealthcare pays almost $2,600. Empire BlueCross pays $775. What does it actually cost? "The documents revealed an economic system in which the sellers don't set the prices and the buyers don't know what they are," Bennett reports. "Prices bear little relation to demand or how well goods and services work."

Was one life worth this investment? Bennett does a deft job illustrating how fraught and unanswerable that question is. "Who did the paying? The health insurance system depends on healthy people bearing the cost for sick ones like Terence," she writes. "Should you have had a voice in Terence's final days? Would I make the same decision with my money for your loved ones? These are things I think about now but can't answer."

And yet. The intensive medical intervention -- at a six-figure expense -- bought Terence some statistically improbable extra time. I'll leave it to Bennett to describe what those extra months meant to her family -- stop reading this, go read her article.

I have my own version of the story, which almost certainly colors my health-care views. My mother was diagnosed with cancer when I was 14, and died of it when I was 16. I'm almost 32 now, which means I've lived nearly as many years without her as I had with her -- but there still isn't a day I don't feel how strongly how who she was affects who I am (hi, pitch-black sense of humor and perfectionistic streak! Also, the financial geekery. I like reading SEC filings. There's no way that's not genetically influenced by my bookkeeper mom -- it's downright unnatural.) And four years ago, I spent most of a week haunting the ER and waiting rooms at our local hospital. It was a medical problem with a lingering aftermath, and a fresh reminder -- not that I needed one -- of how essential good health is to having a life you enjoy living. And how financially fraught trying to safeguard it can be.

Fixing our health-care system is a bogglingly complex undertaking. There's a thousand ways changes can go wrong, and just as many ways for those with vested financial interests to hijack improvement efforts. But there's also a giant cost to leaving things as they are. And even for those like me, like Bennett -- with top-quality health insurance and the financial resources to navigate the labyrinth -- it's a badly broken system.

We can't afford to maintain the status quo.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Notes from the trenches

I'm now midstream on the buying-real-estate process. Almost every email I've sent in the past week begins with "EEK!"

The status: We made an offer. We haggled. The seller counter-offered not just a different dollar figure but an entirely different apartment. (It's a big building, about 250 units, of which a bit more than half are sold.) We liked the new (cheaper!) apartment much better and asked why we hadn't been shown it before. Answer: Because the asking price was vastly higher than the one on our original target. But since the square footage is a tad lower, the developer will take a lower price on it -- despite it having various other advantages that made it, to us at least, more attractive.

NYC real estate is insane.

Someday I will have a proper blow-by-blow, but here's what I've learned so far:

-NYC real estate is insane but the closing costs are off the planet. My whole real-estate quest started because I got envious of my friend's story of buying a Baltimore townhouse with an FHA loan and total cash costs of $4,500. My cash costs? We will be damn lucky to get out for $40,000. That includes 3.5% down and -- the really ouchie part -- NYC's smorgasboard of closing costs. Corcoran has a breakdown that seems accurate in my limited experience so far.

-If you're buying NYC real estate, do anything you can to get a CEMA (Consolidation, Extension and Modification) from the seller. I'm told they're more work for the banks and the lawyers, but they also save you vastly on the tax costs. Originating a new mortgage costs you almost 2% of the sale price in New York taxes. A CEMA transfers the seller's existing mortgage to you -- you only own taxes on the difference between their mortgage and your new one. We got a CEMA, and it's saving us a five-digit sum.

-On other hand, even with a CEMA you'll still get hit in New York with property transfer taxes. In our case, that also equals just under 2%, which has to be paid at close. Did I mention how much NYC real estate bites?

-If you're planning to tap investment or retirement accounts, start setting things up as early as you can. I'm pulling money from my IRA (Fidelity) and David's IRA (Vanguard).

When we went to transfer funds to cash in his IRA, we found that Vanguard didn't have proof of his taxpayer ID. That required sending in a W9. We're now waiting for it to process.

In my IRA, direct deposit of funds you're withdrawing requires activating a connection with your checking account. Fidelity claims that takes seven days, but I activated last Wednesday and my account says it won't be ready for transferring until this Friday. Then the actual transfer can take up to five days to process. I imagine I'll be paying the $15 fee to wire cash, which I could have saved if I'd set up the electronic account connection sooner.

Selling investments to move the money to cash also takes time. I did that too last Wednesday and am still waiting for my VWO trade to settle.

-If you can avoid an FHA loan, do it. It's pricey, costing 1.75% of the loan amount upfront (you can fold the cost into your loan, but you still have to pay it) and a monthly premium of up to 0.55% of the loan amount (calculated annually, paid monthly). It takes the place of PMI, which you don't pay on FHA loans. In our case, the premium adds $260 a month to our payments. If you have the money for a more substantial downpayment (we don't), you can avoid all this.


Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Hold breath, leap

Last time I posted, I was consumed with changing bank accounts. (I'm trying Schwab now, btw. Will report back soon on it.) Life is odd in how damn fast it changes.

We're trying to buy an apartment.

I kind of don't want to say much in case I jinx it, but if this works -- or if it irrevocably doesn't -- I'll post all the gritty details. The short version: The annual lease on our apartment runs out Feb. 28, and we'd planned to move. I **loathe** moving, but after five years here, I can't pretend any longer that two people, two cats and 2,000 books fit into a glorified studio with one (ONE!) closet.

I grumpily started scoping out rentals. I pretty much assumed that these days, if you can't put up 20% for a downpayment (and in NYC, that means six figures), you're toast. But one of my friends recently bought a house (in Baltimore) with an FHA loan. And I'd been hearing about various Brooklyn condos getting FHA approval. So I did a bit of poking around -- and found, much to my shock, that it has suddenly become a somewhat viable option.

You lock yourself out of most listings if you need to go the FHA route. I'm told getting approval for single family houses is very hard (many still exceed the loan-size caps, even though they've been raised), and you flat out can't do a co-op, which is what vast swathes of the NYC apartment market are.

But there's a half-dozen high profile Brooklyn condo projects that now have the fast-track FHA approval. And there's one I'm really drawn to. And we found a unit in it that is really, really intriguing for us. And I spoke with the building's preferred lender, and he gave us the green light for a loan with his bank. (5.5% interest! at worst! he thinks maybe less!)

So after two days of incessantly banging on my HP 12-C to work out all possible fees, contingencies, etc ... we're about to ready to put in a bid.

EEK. This feels like jumping off the high diving board.