I caved.

Last Friday I was in the Downtown LA Fashion District to reload on some jewelry supplies (much cheaper than getting it at Michael's, that's for sure). It happened to be the last Friday of the month, which also meant there were sample sales going on.

As I said before, I've lost my appetite for buying clothes. I'm having a great time working with stuff in my closet, so the only thing I was looking for was a good black or white crewneck t-shirt to replace the ones that wore out. The one I got from the LA Made sample sale last year was great--the fit is perfect, it hasn't gotten all stretched out after numerous washes, and it doesn't pill like crazy in the way that cheap t-shirts do. Too bad I got one in a bright teal color instead of something sane, but I'm definitely getting a lot of return on my $7. I was hoping that maybe I'd find something nice like that again this time.

I didn't find what I was looking for, and I was proud of not caring about any of the cute clothes I saw. Of course, my resolve had to fail at the last stop. I went to the Tarina Tarantino showroom to look for Hello Kitty stuff for my sister. She loves my big honkin' Hello Kitty ring, so I know that she'd want one for herself if I found one. I walked in there for this:

$20 for this thing, but my sister will pay me back. I should have left it well alone, but I also walked out with this for myself:

Somewhere down the road I'll probably say that it's $10 well spent, because this is one nice flat hair flower that's good for everyday wear (for me anyway) or for special occasions. Besides, it won't fall off when I go dancing (I have a couple of bulkier hair flowers that won't stay on when I'm bouncing around). Finding appropriate hair clips is actually difficult for me, since my hair is fine and tend to slip out of clips a lot, but when I do manage to secure my hair, my scalp hurts and my hair just doesn't look good bunched up. The lever-style clip manages to keep my hair back and looking decent.

There are lots of reasons why this clip isn't a completely frivolous purchase (though it is just a little), but none of those reasons excuse my lack of discipline. Having lapsed, I'll be staying out of stores for a while. Let's see if I can go a full 2 months without shopping this time. I used to be able to do that...what happened? Back then, I didn't care about fashion or shopping, but it's not necessary to buy things in order to become fashionable. I'm not the type of person who has to run out and buy something every week, so I don't have a shopping problem in that sense, but I do tend to buy little things here and there. No matter how I try to rationalize, that is a problem when I'm tight on cash. I'd like eliminate the potential "snowball" effect before it even has a chance to develop.


A $30 Cup of Coffee

Lots of ideas, and too little time to write them down. It's been a really hectic week--I'm just so tired. I don't even want to think about what more work I have to do later, and the production deadlines I have to meet (for my editorial position at school). My pace of posting will slow down a bit these next couple of weeks, but rest assure that fresh content will be available on a regular basis.

How many of you have overdrawn from your checking account? I admit to having done it twice. Once I was slapped with a $10 fee, and the next time (a couple of years later) was quite a bit more (though I can't remember how much). Being a cheapskate, I felt the sting from those fees. This was before online banking existed. Now that I can check my account balances regularly, it hasn't happened again, though it came awfully close when I was in Vegas last month. I knew exactly how much money I had in my account at the time, so I knew I would barely skate by. "Barely" was $2.26. I blame it on post-exam mental confusion, but nevertheless, lesson learned again.

A lot of people rely on their debit card these days, since they could be used as a check or a credit card. That piece of plastic has rendered the checkbook moot in brick-and-mortar stores; no longer do we have to take the time to write out a check in order to pay with checking account funds. There's no denying that it's easy in other ways--if you're out of money, you can use cash back at the supermarket instead of trekking to the nearest ATM; if you're online, you can punch in your debit card number and pay for stuff.

But there is a price to pay for this ease of use. First, debit cards offer much less protection for fraudulent charges than credit cards do. After all, the money comes straight out of your bank account, so if a thief decides to drain it, there's very little you can do about it. Second, it's even easier to incur overdraft charges than before. I didn't learn about this until a news story popped up on my TV screen yesterday, but apparently your debit card won't be denied for the lack of funds. Instead, the charge authorization will go through, and you'll be slapped with an overdraft charge. The example used by the reporter was this: suppose you buy a $3 cup of coffee at Starbucks and you overdraw. The overdraft fee for a particular bank is $27. Ergo, your cup of coffee comes out to $30. That's not even the scary part--what's really scary is that the fees can be multiplied by several folds if you charge it again later, since there's nothing to tip you off to the problem. Before you know it, fees might reach 3-digit figures.

It doesn't matter if you overdraw by $1 or $10--the high fee is the same. So, before you whip out the plastic, ask yourself how much money is in your checking account. Otherwise, you'll literally throw money away.

[Ed.--A couple of readers said overdraft protection is the way to go. I totally agree! It's a great way to avoid those ridiculous fees. Still, it's important to keep track of your account balances, since you don't want to drain your other account now, would you?]


Oldie but a goodie

[Edited 1/25/07 because 1) parts of my writing was just bad and 2) I realized the order of photos didn't correspond with what I was talking about. Now it looks right.]

It's been a few weeks since I've shopped for clothes, and I'm happy to say that my appetite for shopping has dulled. In fact, I've walked into 2 retail establishments and came out with no clothing purchases! I only bought what I actually need. My latest credit card bill finished off any remaining impulses to shop, which is great!

Ever since my shopping embargo started, I've dug out a lot of clothes that I haven't been wearing much because 1) they were way too big, 2) too boring, or 3) too cutesy. Instead of having to "settle" with wearing clothes just for the heck of it, I didn't have to sacrifice style all that much as long as I made an effort to incorporate them into daily wear. In some cases, the resulting outfits were so "me" that I actually liked wearing them to school or elsewhere. Playing around like this has been so much fun that I could honestly say, "screw shopping!" (Well, for now anyway.)

Let's start with the too-big. Years ago, when I paid no attention to what I wore, I bought outerwear that were a few sizes too big in order to accomodate layers of sweaters and so forth. Sure, that sounds reasonable enough, but I live in Southern California, not the frickin' North Pole! Once I started favoring a more streamlined sillouette, bulky clothes fell out of favor. I've gotten rid of some ugly bulky things that I would never wear again, but I hung onto a few things. Now I'm glad I did. Since the weather's been very chilly lately, big warm jackets come in handy, especially because I've been wearing the same 2 pieces of outerwear during the last few months.

To make the jackets utilitarian again, I started off by throwing them over some casual outfits when I didn't care to dress up, then worked my way up to more creative outfits. I'm definitely liking my black pleather jacket again--now that hooded leather jackets are popular, it even looks trendy! I'm still "meh" about my mom's old blazer--the shoulder pads make me look like a linebacker--but at least I tried. I'm not liking the results, which is why I'm not posting them. Still, the blazer is very warm and just too nice to get rid of. I'll just have to work at it some more.

What's considered the too-boring for me? Turtlenecks. The collar makes my neck feel restricted and itchy, even though it's really not that bad. On top of that, they're just plain and hard to dress up; I tried wearing necklaces over them and things just don't look right. I'll admit that they're very useful, but I hardly ever wore them. Nowadays I'm happy to say that I've made them work for me. Layering a graphic tee or a cute blouse on top makes a t-neck much more appealing. Piling on a chunky scarf works, too!

Lastly, the too-cute:

The last two pictures above feature an impulse-buy--a puff-sleeve top with apples printed on it. As much as I hate to admit it, it's just way too cute for my age. A lot of people tell me I look very young, which is a double-edged sword--good in the sense that I can get away with a lot of things I wear, but bad because as a soon-to-be lawyer, it's hard to get taken seriously when I look too young. I found that wearing cutesy things with "tougher" accoutrements makes for a playful yet age-appropriate outfit.


Shopaholism: nature, not nurture?

Shopaholics, rejoice! You might be able to blame the inability to resist purchasing useless things on your brain chemistry.

An fMRI study conducted by Stanford U. revealed that images of coveted items activate the dopamine receptors in the nucleus accumbens, which responds to the experience or anticipation of pleasant things. Conversely, the insula of your brain is activated when you see something bad (like a hefty price tag). When your insula is a weakling, you end up buying that neon pink elephant lawn ornament.

Before any of you tightwads start feeling uppity in the face of the impulse shoppers' (naturally?) weak resolve, get this: the study also shows that tightwads aren't any more rational than the spendthrifts. Bummers. There goes my sense of superiority.

You can read John Tierney's NYT article and blog for more. I just summarized the article above, but both are really fun reads.


I Heart Fred Flare

I'm trying to avoid buying frivolous things with my own money, but it's so hard to do when there are so many cute things out there. Before implementing my New Year's resolutions, I spent $27 of my Christmas money on 2 pairs of jeans and 2 pairs of vintage pumps. I'm happy to say that after 3 years of searching, I found the perfect pair of dark wash jeans...that is, if it doesn't shrink. Instead of paying boutique price ($100+), I got mine for $10. The price was so good that I got another pair of dark wash jeans, though in a different style--totally not a "need," and totally unjustified.

Now that I'm quite serious about my resolutions (haven't walked into a clothing store for almost 2 weeks), I pass my time doing school work, working on a utilitarian-cum-academic project outside of school, and doing some electronic window shopping. If I were to buy anything, they would be truly practical things (namely a comfortable low-wedge shoe for lots of walking and a warm short jacket when coats are not practical--dang near froze the other night when I went out in a denim jacket!). Alas, the cuteness of so many things on sale makes it hard to resist. Good thing they're so expensive such that I can't afford them!

Fortunately, I can still indulge in my want of frivolous accessories without spending money of my own. My brother got me a gift certificate from Fred Flare, which is awesome, but now I have to watch out and not spend more than the gift certificate amount. Since I want to make the most of the gift certificate, the first section I headed to was the sale section. A few things are cute (like the stripey mittens and bling safety pin), but overall the selection isn't too appealing to me.

I normally wouldn't pay full price, but the only items that I really want to get aren't on sale yet. Hopefully they won't sell out while I wait:

The $24 mini dachshund clutch is simply adorable. Love that little dog zipper handle!

This heart necklace/watch reminds me of the Marc Jacobs fruit watches. I thought about buying this, but then again, it's a bit silly even for me. Not worth my $20.

Fred Flare's got this thing going on with hearts--I'm guessing it has to do with the upcoming Valentine's Day. I really want this duffle, also $24. Not that I actually need another bag, but the shape of the bag is rather practical, as I don't have a small duffle. I'm a geek at heart (to give you an idea of just how nerdy I am: the other night I hung out with a couple of people and we spent time talking dot product, cross product, and angular momentum), so pixelated hearts are perfect.

Unfortunately I don't have the money to buy them all. Picking and choosing is so hard to do. Maybe I can nab all of them on sale in the near future.


Credit Controversy

An article in the New York Times finally got me to write on a topic I've mulled over for a long time--the credit vs. cash debate. The article talks about women who pay for big-ticket items (or something smaller) with cash instead of credit. The underlying theory for this behavior is that some women want to keep such indulgences off credit card statements, so that their spouses or significant others would not find out (and disapprove). Some women use cash so that they won't feel the guilt of seeing a large expenditure on the credit card statement.

I know that a lot of you won't like my opinion, but that's exactly why I prefer credit.

Keep in mind that my preference is NOT the way to go for a number of people, such as those with a history of credit problems, those who do not at any given moment know how much money is in their bank accounts, and who have problems with controlling their spending (including impulse shoppers). If you fall into this group, or think you do, stick with cash. Otherwise, you run the risk of spending money that you don't have. Don't EVER run up a credit card debt unless it's a life-or-death, on-the-verge-of-homelessness situation.

Before you start booing, just hear me out. For those who exercise fiscal restraint and sound financial practices, there are good reasons to use credit instead of cash in the ordinary course of business.

First of all, I minimize the amount of cash in my wallet for safety reasons. I don't live in a good area, but sometimes I dress up. On top of that, strangers who believe in racial stereotypes would assume that I carry a boatload of cash on my person (they'd know better if they saw what my car looks like). Hence, whether I like it or not, there's always a risk that I'll get robbed. In fact, months ago, I was told that someone was robbed at gunpoint or knifepoint a block away from where I live, and then there were various violent crimes that were serious enough to make the local news. That's reason enough to be concerned. I take many precautions to protect myself, and one of them is to carry as little cash as possible. If I do end up getting mugged, I can cancel all my cards and not lose much money.

Second, the credit card statement operates as an accounting tool as well as a spending deterrent. If I pay for various things with cash, sometimes I lose track of what I'm using the cash for. By paying for most of my needs and wants with credit, I'd be confronted with a list of all spendings at the end of the month, indulgent or not. There's no getting away from it, no elaborate ruse. Seeing all the expenditures on one document helps me spot the "problem areas" easily, and the guilt induced by the large dollar amounts is enough to make me change my ways for the following month.

Finally, I like to take advantage of incentives from the credit card company. I see the credit card as the equivalent of writing out a check--I don't ever charge an amount greater than what's sitting in my bank account. Since I pay for my credit card bill with cash from my bank account, why not accrue points while I'm at it? Credit card companies hate people like me because I always pay my bills in full and on time. They don't make any money off of me, and I won't let them.

Of course, almost every good thing has its caveat. Credit card fraud and identity theft are huge problems, and unfortunately, I've had to deal with it. I'll discuss this in detail another time. Meanwhile, be very vigilant in checking your credit card statements for any suspicious entries. Some thieves start with small purchases, then they move on to big ones if they discover that you aren't paying attention, so nip the problem in the bud before it grows. Also, check your credit report for strange accounts that you didn't know existed.


A Saving Grace

I'm gonna wrap up the New Year's resolution miniseries, since we're a couple of weeks into the New Year and maybe half the country has already broken their resolutions. If you haven't, congratulations! If you have, you can always get back on track.

"Save more money" has got to be an item on most peoples' resolutions list. It seems easy enough to do--just stick money into the bank. However, it's not so simple. Some people don't make enough money to meet the minimums of standard bank accounts, or even if the minimum can be met, it can't be maintained--which is a problem, because banks will charge fees for going below the minimum (for example, Bank of America charges a $3 fee per month). Even if the minimum isn't a problem, the average bank account yields so little interest that it's laughable.

If the minimum is a problem, saving money will require more discipline. At least have a checking account, since it's typically free. Since all of your money is in the same place, there's no real segregation between your rent money and the entertainment fund. Hence, you'll have to keep tabs and not overspend whenever you swipe your debit card. Even if you can afford to save $20 a month, it's still something. Obviously it'll take a long time before it'll come to be a meaningful amount, but you gotta start somewhere, right?

If you have a bit more extra, you can opt for a number of strategies. Since I don't know as much as I should about stocks and mutual funds, I won't go there. There are plenty of financial sites out there (such as the Motley Fool, recommended to me by a savings-savvy friend) that are very instructive. The more risks, the greater the return--those are the two sides of the coin.

The traditionally less-risky-but-higher-yield approaches are the savings bond and CD (certificate of deposit). The yield is far better than the ordinary savings account, and there are no huge risks associated with the market like stocks, but your money is locked in for a certain amount of time, ranging from 6 months to 5 or more years. Of course, the longer you have it locked away, the greater the return, but you'll be penalized for pulling out the money too early. Since I wanted to keep what money I had (not that much, but not exactly chump change) as fluid as possible, I decided against these approaches. In retrospect, it was probably not the smartest decision. One of my friends liked the ladder approach for CD's. For example, you can start with a 5-year CD and get another one the next year, then another, then another, then another. That way a CD will mature every single year after the first 5 years are up. Again, I'm oversimplifying things and I'm not an expert by any means, so you should do your own research.

I wish I did this sooner, but high-yield online accounts such as ING Direct, Emigrant Direct, and HSBC Direct (as covered by Cap at Stop Buying Crap) seem to be a good way to make money work a little harder. The return is around 5%, there's often no minimums, and money isn't locked away for extended periods of time. Here's how it works--you open an account, link it to your checking account, then transfer money from your checking account into the high-yield account. My pet peeve is that sometimes it takes a few days before money is actually transferred between the accounts, but it's not that big of a deal for me. It's not a good idea to put everything you have into such accounts, especially if you need money fast at any given moment, but I think it's much better than leaving it in a regular savings account.

This is simply an introductory primer. Please do your homework carefully and talk to people you know and trust. I think your friends and family who have done this before will be happy to help you out.


There IS Redemption for Buyer's Remorse--Party Tops

Here's a problem that I find myself in quite a bit, and I know I'm not the only one: I'd see a cute party top on sale and think it'd be great for the next party or night out to a club. After I buy the said top, which is a really good deal ($20 or under, instead of the $200 or so retail), I realize that I'm a professional student who doesn't have time to go out much. Oops. To make matters worse, I already have like 6 other such tops. What now?

I was raised to save my "nice clothes" for "special occasions," but if I continued to do that, I'd never get around to wearing a lot of clothes I have. A deal is only a good deal if you're able to use it. To lower the cost-per-wear ratio, the only thing to do is to casualize the fancy tops.

One of the "problem pieces" in my closet is actually a beauty. It's a Jak and Rae silk top in a beautiful yellow--the one that is the backdrop for my blog's header. I loved it when I bought it, but once I got it home, I changed my mind. It is way too low-cut, but there was no way I could have fitted into it if I got a size smaller. I thought that I'd use some double-sided tape, but it is clear that it won't do. I contemplated returning it, but after receiving compliments from my friends who saw the garment, I took the tag off and decided to keep it. After all, it's not everyday that you can find a beautiful top like this for $12 at Loehmann's.

What a foolish decision! I let the prettiness of the top overcome all reason. I knew that it didn't fit me very well, but I felt compelled to keep it. However, I decided that I would redeem myself by finding ways to layer it. I have to say that I'm very pleased with the results and I'm glad I didn't take it back for a refund.

Here are pictures taken when I played around with the silk top a couple of months ago. I have a system when it comes to trying out new combinations, which I'll present here in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. First, I'd start with the basic and/or obvious--layering the top over something simple, nothing crazy about the color schemes.

I like this one the best--tone and tone is matching but not too matchy:

After that, I venture out a little further with prints and sharply contrasting colors

I kinda like how the gold foil print on this next t-shirt works with the satiny texture of the top. The colors are very similar, but the gold parts seem to blend together. Coincidentally, Agathe from Style Bytes did something similar today by wearing a gold dress over a print tee.

Now comes more variations with the neckline and other elements of the underlayer...

Hmm...necklines are too matchy. Let's break it up a little...

The silk top has a somewhat frilly hem, so let's layer it over something that's also frilly! Meh...don't like it much. Looks better than pictured, but it's still bleh.

More recently, the weather got colder, so I decided to add a layer on top. The following are outfits that I've actually worn to go out; the preceding ones were merely experiments, but I plan on wearing half of those.

Here's how it looks like in the back. Fits right in with the jumper craze right now. And yes, those are the same ugly pants featured last time. See what a long top can do for ugly pants?

Experimenting really is the way to go to get more wear out of clothes, to get the bang for your buck. That's why I don't believe in buying outfits--what's the fun if I can't play around? Outfits can go out of style in a blink of an eye, but individual pieces endure long after the craze is gone.


They're so out that they're back in

Whenever I clean out my closet, there are some things that I know would never be worn again (and out they go), while certain others are spared with the understanding that they could be useful but won't be worn very often. The clothing in the latter group probably stay in my closet a lot longer than they should, but since there's a good reason why I kept them (even if they were known only to my subconscious mind), I make the biggest effort to eek more life out of them. Trends come and go...and come back. You never know--they might be so old that they might be back in again. However, if your "on the fence" items can no longer be worn in a satisfactory manner, it's time for them to go.

Three pieces that have been in my closet for 10+ years are a pair of skinny pants, a flannel 3/4 shirt, and a long black vest. I have varying reasons for keeping them.

1) The skinny pants are something I'd never buy for myself because they're hideous--the high waist and back side were too big for me, the tapered cut is dangerously close to "mom jeans" status. However, they are insanely comfortable. They've been in the banishment pile following several closet cleanouts, only to be rescued a couple of times. The first time I saved them was because I was going on a ski trip and needed a warm, comfortable bottom layer to battle against the cold. After its purpose was served, the pants went back to the banishment pile. Then the skinny jeans-long tunics trend came around, and I thought the skinny legs of the pants would be perfect. Sure, the fit at the waist is terrible, but a long top would cover it up.

2) The flannel shirt isn't a fashionable item, but I see them around every time Fall rolls around. Perhaps its endurance is attributable to its utilitarian nature--rugged and warm. Also, it's plaid. Plaid can be in sometimes, and even when it's out, it's never truly out. It's just hanging around in purgatory, waiting to return in its modest way.

3) I bought the vest back when I was in high school. Have you seen the show "Ugly Betty"? Yup, I used to dress much like that. Not in such an exaggerated way, but pretty close. The vest languished in the depths of a closet in my family's house for years. When vests recently became trendy, I dug it out, hoping that I'd milk something out of it. Through a little bit of experimentation, I got some wear out of it, but I was hoping it would do something more.

As I said last time, one way to update old items is to mix them with something newer. In my case, I used a newer tunic sweater and my Mike & Chris hoodie. Another way is to wear old items in trendier ways, such as tucking the pants into the boots, wearing a long tunic with the skinny pants, or belting at the waist. Finally, it doesn't hurt to throw all the trends together at once and see what happens. However, this approach is to be used with caution, as sporting too many trends at once may end up making you look like a "fashion victim."

That's my boring little experiment [yes, I actually wore these out to go about my daily business]. Next time it'll be marginally more exciting.


Workin' the Wardrobe

After the first, rather serious installment of my New Year's resolution mini-series, I decided to brighten things up with a funner topic--why, it's fashion, of course!

Following up on my last post on discretionary spending, many women (including myself) devote a sizable portion of discretionary spending to clothing and accessories. One way to reduce that discretionary spending is to work with what you already have. I know, I know, you have nothing to wear. But think about this: the longer clothes sit in the closet unworn, the less likely they'll ever be worn, and the more likely you'll run out and buy new stuff.

A new strategy and/or fresh pair of eyes might turn the tide in your favor:

1) Think about what's old and what's new in your closet. Mix the old with the new and see what happens. You never know--since "old is the new new" (think "vintage"), some things in your closet might be so old that it's back in style. You'll see what I mean at a later date;

2) Think about how you've worn your old clothes in the past. Did you always wear that top with jeans and the same shoes? Did you always wear the same colors together? Keep those in mind and see what new combinations you can come up with. Sometimes switching accessories in or out of the recurring outfits can make a huge difference. Likewise with changing color combinations;

3) Get a friend to help you out. You may have seen your old clothes one too many times and became too bored out of your mind to see any conceivable possibilities, but a friend might be able to come up with new outfits. If that friend has a different style than yours, he/she might think of combinations that you would never have considered on your own. Better yet, if your friend knows you really well, he/she will know what works for you and what won't. I was supposed to show up to my friend's New Year's Eve party a couple of hours earlier in order to help the Hostess with the Mostest assess her wardrobe. Unfortuately, an unexpected road closure killed those plans. Still, we intend to do this in the near future. It's going to be fun playing stylist!

The next couple of posts will feature the results of my experiments with particularly problematic pieces. Stay tuned!


Spending Less: The Philosophical Divide

One of those common New Year's resolutions is to spend less. I'm always trying to do that, but I find that it's harder and harder to do it with each successive year. Today my textbooks cost me a pretty penny, but fortunately it's not nearly as much as previous semesters. On top of that, one of my other resolutions (keeping in touch with friends more) will cost me more money. When we go out to do things, or celebrate birthdays, or see long-lost friends, dinner is usually involved. Remember that episode of "Friends" when half of the buddies talked about how the other half seem to pick expensive restaurants when they go out? Yup, it's happened to me before, though thankfully rare.

It goes without saying that having a budget is important to achieve the "spend less" goal. If you're pretty good about keeping the numbers straight in your head, there's no need to write things down. When I started college, I also started a budgetary spreadsheet, but I gave it up eventually because I hardly spent at all--other than a few necessary expenses, everything stayed in my savings account. It's easy to set aside money each month for recurring, necessary expenses such as utilities and rent, but the biggest pitfall for the "spend less" plan is "discretionary spending" (e.g., eating out, entertainment, and shopping). As much as I've tried to minimize my spending, I found myself buying a lot of non-necessaries last year. To scare myself straight, I want to establish better written records so that I can see what I'm doing. I'm going to crack open one of the unused journals I've received from years past and start writing down every single expense I've incurred. Writing things down helps in another way--we can identify "junk" we've been buying but didn't think about before, and then work on eliminating wasteful spending.

Before devising a discretionary spending bill for 2007, I think it's important to figure out how we want to live our lives. Consider the schools of thought embraced by various members of my family:

1) Enjoying life to the fullest--the thinking is that money is limited, but so is youth, so why not indulge and have fun? Using what limited money is available, buy what you want, go to concerts, have fun. Pro: life is fun; Con: not much money in the savings account;

2) Pulling an Ebenezer Scrooge--"Bah, Humbug!" all year round. The dollar sign is the bottom line, always saving for the rainy day. Scrimp and save, spending little or nothing on things other than necessary expenses. Even the necessaries like food or clothings are kept cheap and minimal. Pro: money (sometimes lots) in the bank; Con: work and no play = dull, boring, and maybe friendless;

3) Various shades of gray--something in between the two. Sometimes it's skimping on food and more on other purchases, sometimes it's the other way around.

Finding that middle ground is really hard to do. I used to be an Ebenzer Scrooge, but I've come to learn that life really is short and we should enjoy it while we still can. Still, we have to live within our means, to think of what we're willing to sacrifice. After all, if we're spending more on one thing, then less has to be spent on another. Ultimately, we have to examine what we value more than others, allot the budget accordingly, and figure out creative ways to make up for the shortfalls.

When it comes to clothes or groceries, there are lots of options to keep costs down because there are so many retailers, discount and otherwise. When it comes to transportation, public transportation and carpooling helps. Sometimes driving slower or taking out unnecessary things out of the car will help you get better mileage. But there are situations when we have less say in the matter. Socializing is one of them. Maintaining your sanity is another.

Friendships shouldn't be taken for granted--you have to work for it. It's possible to avoid a couple of social occasions, such as an out-of-town wedding, for the sake of saving money, but when you keep saying no to invitations, people may stop asking. One of the solutions is to skip a few expensive events but send a nice gift (not my idea, but I read it a few days ago from an article on wedding etiquette). Another is to take the initiative--choose a cheaper form of entertainment, or entertain people in your own home. No matter if you're supplying all the food or having a potluck, it's still cheaper than eating out. Having movie or game night at your place can be more fun than going out--you can laugh and cheer and cry as much as you want (as long as you don't keep the neighbors awake, of course).

Another consideration is personal sanity. When I started writing this post earlier tonight, I told my friend about what I was writing. I was arguing that there are times when one has to be a Scrooge, but I think he had a point--sanity and productivity goes hand in hand. If shopping a little or eating out a few times a month will help you feel better, by all means do it. Yes, R&R costs money, but you can't get any work done if your mind isn't in the right place. Life sucks if you have all the money in the world but lack happiness.

If your funds are meager but still want to maintain a certain standard of living, you'll have to think of a way to enhance your income (legally, of course). Getting into debt is just not worth it. With eBay and yard sales, you can recoup cash for things you no longer want. It may not be much, but it's something. Another thing you can do is to make your money work harder for you by making better investments (after lots of homework and using lots of caution) or using high-yield saving accounts. Finally, if you have some kind of talent, it might be worth it to go into business on the side. This is obviously difficult and not for everyone, but if you can make it work, all the power to you.


New Year, New You: In Defense of the New Year's Resolution

Hope everyone enjoyed the holiday festivities. I spent New Year's Eve and New Year's Day hanging out with friends and family, and eating nonstop. Food was good, but I feel like such a glutton. Now that the overindulgence is over, it's time to get back to business.

Many of us want to change something about ourselves but can't muster the necessary motivation to do it. The start of a new year gives us some impetus to finally get started. I've made a few New Year's resolutions: spend less (I could always do better), work out more, study more efficiently, cook more often/eat healthier meals, keep in touch more frequently with friends, learn to network, keep a closer watch of my finances, learn how to make my money work harder, take care of things right away instead of letting it linger until the last minute, etc. These are mainly aspirational, since many of them (especially the working out part) do get broken eventually, but it's better to have something to work toward than not. Even if I only stick to them for 5 months, that's 5 months' worth of life going in the positive direction, 5 months' worth of feeling good about myself, or 5 months' worth of money saved.

In the next couple of weeks, I'll address some common resolutions on frugality, fashion, and shopping.