Archive for October, 2008

Eco-friendly Tips That Keep Your Budget In Mind

October 31, 2008

This post was written by Wesabe’s Community Manager, Allese.

I spent a good two minutes in the supermarket the other night debating instant cornbread mixes. Both the same brand. Both cornbread. Both instant. But a $2.50 price difference.

No, one wasn’t a Family Pack size or some deluxe version of cornbread. One was simply organic. The package smugly informed me of this in red, cursive letters across a steaming pan of cornbread.

Now, some people would have grabbed the cheap one and moved on to the eggs. However, I found myself seriously mulling over the merits of organic instant cornbread mix and whether or not it was worth $2.50.

Then I came to my senses and remembered I was buying instant cornbread for pete’s sake! I grabbed the non-organic, cheap one, and, with a quick pang of green guilt, moved on to the eggs.

This got me thinking about the organic versus non-organic battle and the quite high, price difference. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not knocking the merits of organic food. I am essentially on organic automatic in the fruit and vegetable aisle, the meat aisle too. I also think that paying a bit more to promote better farming practices is important. But an extra $2.50 for instant cornbread??!! It’s friggin’ instant! What’s next? Organic Pepsi? $4.00 a can?

So today, I took great interest in the daily green tip I get from this really cool website, called Ideal Bite that leaves an eco-living tip in my inbox every morning. This one, called, “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes: Scary High Organic Food Prices Freaking You Out?” quickly assuaged my cornbread guilt. It read:

“We’d love to buy everything organic, but we usually don’t have the cash to go all out. So if you’ve only got a little extra to spend on organics, put it toward the produce items that tend to have more pesticide residue. A few of us have pretty much memorized the Environmental Working Group’s pocket guide (see the list below) as a result.”

The Benefits of The List

Less bloodcurdling. Pesticides won’t actually curdle your blood (as far as we know), but more than 80% of the most common pesticides are potentially carcinogenic.

Not freaking out other animals. Pesticides aren’t just toxic to the intended pests – they can also harm other animals as well.

Averting bill-induced chills. Budgets are tight, so if you can only splurge a little on organic food, spend where it counts.

It then provided me with a nice list of the top-10 produce items that you should buy organic:

1. Peaches
2. Apples
3. Bell Peppers
4. Celery
5. Nectarines
6. Strawberries
7. Cherries
8. Lettuce
9. Grapes (imported)
10. Pears

Wesabe’s Frugal Foodies Group has had a lot of great discussions, so I posted this list and the organic vs. non-organic question there.  Stop by to join in the discussion!
I came across Ideal Bite on the web the other day, when my daily BBC check took me on an unusually long link journey. I found myself at Ideal Bite, “a sassier shade of green”, and read:

“Welcome! We know that you would just love to “do the right thing” for yourself and the planet if it were convenient, fun, inexpensive, and made you feel good. But until now you have lacked a good source of advice for real people leading busy lives.

Congrats. Now you have a free one. Easy eco-living tips are delivered in a short, sassy email each weekday.”

And every morning, like clockwork, a green minded tip greets me in my mailbox. You can also choose to receive tips catered specifically toward several different cities, San Francisco, New York City, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Seattle, Atlanta, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., as well as the UK and Canada.

The site is well designed and filled with interesting facts. When clicking on the San Francisco page I read that:

“If 10,000 SF Biters eat only locally produced food for a year, we’ll save enough gas to drive from SF to the Bronx and back nearly 30 times.”

I also found out about a new Farmers Market in San Francisco that happens on Sunday … nice!

So, if you want to become a “biter”, check it out here.

Twelve Tips for Landing Your Dream Internship (And Turning it into Your Dream Job)

October 24, 2008

As any college grad will tell you, the job market is tough. Plunging headfirst into the market with little to no experience when people are getting laid off in record numbers is not exactly an easy thing to do.

Internships often equal stuffing envelopes, filing, and other mind-numbing tasks. I’ve had plenty of internships and have fortunately been quite lucky in escaping that fate. A lot of this probably has to do with where I worked – I never applied for an internship at a big company. Looking back, I don’t think this was as much intentional as it was closely reading the descriptions and wanting to work in an environment where I got do cool stuff and had a chance to showcase my skills.

I’ve had a number of people ask me how I got an internship at Wesabe and how I turned that into a full-time job. Here are my top 12 tips for doing just that:

Consider Applying at a Start-Up
While working at a new company may not have the same name-brand appeal as working for an established company, start-ups are a lot leaner and chances are you’ll get to do much more “real” work. Also, because the company is trying to get its feet off the ground, the work you do makes an impact and the “big bosses” can see it. During my Wesabe internship, I interacted with the CEO (and most everyone else in the company) nearly every day, and attended company-wide meetings.

Be Crazy-Anal about the Details
After I was hired for the internship, Debbie (our head of communications) told me that one of the reasons my resume made it to the top of the initial pile was because I followed directions. When she filled out the intern request form at UC Berkeley (where I went to school), she could ask for just a resume or a resume and a cover letter, and asked for both. Believe it or not, she said that out of 25 candidates, I was the only one that sent both. Everyone else just sent a resume. She also told me that she didn’t really care about the content of the cover letter – she just did this to see who was paying attention to her request.

Do Your Homework
Prior to your interview, research the company you want to work for (spend time on their web site or see where their product is at in a store, read up on competitors, etc.). Takes notes and keep all this information in one notebook. During your interview, give some thoughts or feedback that shows you know how to do research and have analytical skills. Ask your interviewer thoughtful questions and try to transform the interview into dialogue. This can be really, really hard, often because you’re so nervous.

To ease those nerves and help with prep, I would suggest brainstorming and then making a list of questions you have about your prospective position and the company. Keep these questions in the same notebook you’ve compiled your research notes in. Bring that in during your interview and ask those questions! You can also reference your research notes in your chat about the company and its competitors.

Go Beyond the Facts
So you’ve researched how many people work at the company and their main products and services. Now, get curious about this company. What makes them special? Why are people passionate about working there? What problems do they solve and where do they want to go? Pretend you’re the CEO or the founder of that company; why do they want it to succeed, why are they so passionate about it? Tap into to this vision and speak from it at your interview.

Be the Go-to Person at All Times
Once you’ve landed your internship, aim to be that responsible, go-to person who can efficiently and quickly accomplish any task.

On my first day as an intern at Wesabe, the CEO left me at my new desk and said he’d email me my first assignment. I sat nervously anticipating the email and then one new message popped up. The subject line read: “Competitive Matrix.” I opened the email. The contents: “Please use this list as the basis for your model.” Attached was a list of the competition.

That was it. I friggin’ freaked out. What the $%#* was a competitive matrix? There was nothing else, no direction, no how-to, no example. What did I do? I got resourceful, I started Googling, I called everybody I knew about that might have the slightest tidbit of information about a competitive matrix. I checked out the competition. I tried to piece things together. When I had a grasp of what this competitive beast thing was and what our competition looked like, I headed back to the CEO’s office and asked if I was headed in the right direction. Turns out I had some things right and some things wrong. But my research made me look capable, responsible and like a self-starter.

Be Innovative: Think Before You Ask
I cannot stress how important this is. Before you say, “I don’t know” or “I need help,” really ask yourself, “Where could I find this answer? What else could I do to find resources?” Every single time that I stop and think before asking a question, I almost always find it’s something I could answer myself.

Additionally, instead of saying “I don’t know,” your answer is always better when you pose it as, “In response to X task, I checked A, B, and C resources and found D. Is this the direction you’d like me to follow?”

Think Like the CEO
I know I mentioned this before but I think this is the best piece of advice I’d ever gotten. When in doubt, think about what action you could do that would help the company succeed and how your work on your current project matches with the greater company vision. Go above and beyond without direction. Really think, brainstorm, about how you can expand your duties in the best direction for the company, and then do it without being asked.

Take Notes and Always Have Your To-Do List
Whenever you meet with your boss, bring a pen and notebook and take COPIOUS notes. After your meeting has finished, recap the major points, tasks and deliverables to your boss to make sure you both are on the same page.

Often after a meeting, I will brainstorm or summarize the contents of my notes and then try to think creatively. What other tasks are here that I am not thinking of? Given these priorities, what else can I do to help the company succeed? Again, critically think about this. If it’s a big meeting, I might even email my list and subsequent brainstorm over to my boss afterwards, titling the email “Recap of ______ Discussion.”

Do More than You are Asked
Showcase your skills. For example, Wesabe has an amazing community of users that share advice and tips in our Groups forum. Even though no one specifically asked me to, I knew the community aspect of Wesabe was key, so I jumped in and started asking questions in the Groups section and sharing my experiences. I think this level of participation really helped me get my job and my responsibilities as community manager (and it also gave me some great advice!). Along these lines, volunteer for extra assignments. Lunch with a member? Count me in! We need new copy for a web page? I’ll do it!

Constantly Ask for Feedback
When you finish a project, ask if you met the requirements of the assignment and what you could have done better. When you get feedback, such as “there was a typo in your email,” be sure to listen carefully and be certain not to make the same mistake again. Don’t be afraid to ask your boss how you are doing. During a quiet, non-stressful time, ask if he/she has a moment; if they say yes, then respond, “I just wanted to check in about how I am doing.” List off the major things you are working on, then ask if there’s more you could be doing. I try to do this about once every month.


Think about the Future

Be preventive, proactive and maintenance-level-driven rather than crisis-level, reactive, response-driven. This means you look to and work not just in the present but the future as well. Think about how your work can benefit the company in the coming months, anticipate and prepare for future challenges, and keep in mind the company’s priorities.

Be Interested! Be Curious! Be Grateful!
The last and most important advice I have is: Be INTERESTED! Be CURIOUS! Be GRATEFUL!

Maybe you end up with grunt work. The way out? Thinking creatively. Doing more than you are asked. Look around you, listen and really think about what you could do to benefit the company and to expand your job. If you don’t want to do grunt work, then you can choose to complain and ask for more interesting work (which will make you look ungrateful and entitled) or do some critical thinking and have a heavy brainstorm. What else could you do? Make a list, then start checking it off while still completing the grunt work. Show your boss you can do more interesting work without asking for more interesting work. Chances are, your responsibilities will increase!

(Note: A version of this post first appeared on Wisebread, which featured me on their site in the “Women of Personal Finance” forum. Thanks to Wisebread for including me in this series and for getting me thinking about this topic.)

Check You Out! Wesabe’s Community Featured on ABC

October 20, 2008

A great segment about Wesabe aired today on KGO-TV, the ABC station in San Francisco. In addition to talking about how Wesabe works, the piece looks at the kinds of discussions taking place on Wesabe and how the Wesabe community supports each other. You can watch the segment here – just click on the “watch video” link on the second picture (the graph).

marc on abc
One more thing while the horn is still in tooting position. Wesabe VP of Marketing Gabe Griego is going to be a guest on ReadWriteWeb Live today at 3:30 p.m. PT. The topic is Online Personal Finance. Details on how to listen in and participate in the call can be found here, and RWW will be archiving the audio on its site.

The Wonders of the Roth IRA

October 17, 2008

In August, I wrote a post detailing the benefits of the 401k, one of the best ways to begin building wealth at early age. The other? The Roth IRA. Like the 401k, if you start contributing to the Roth IRA at an early age, you will have a big ol’ chunk of change by the time you’re retirement ready.
The difference between the two types of retirement accounts? Remember how the money you contribute to your 401k is pre-taxed (which is what makes the 401k such a money-making machine), coming off the top of your paycheck? Well, the money you save in a Roth IRA is income that has already been taxed. Thus, you don’t have to pay any taxes when you withdraw it. You may remember that this is the downer with the 401k – because your money gets to grow tax-free for decades, when you finally withdraw it, it’s slapped with taxes.

From what I have found, this seems to be what makes the Roth IRA a better deal than the 401k. Both are plans that allow your money to grow tax-free, however, because the money you put into the Roth IRA is after-taxes, you don’t have to pay any money upon withdrawal, a time when you’ll likely have more assets. Having more assets means you’d have to fork over more money in taxes upon withdrawal. By saving part of your already-taxed income into mutual funds, stocks, bonds, or whatever investments your heart desires, it gets to grow rapidly and you won’t have to pay taxes on it when you take the money out.

One very important thing to note. If your company has a 401k match, meaning they contribute money to your 401k as you contribute money to your 401k – yes, true story, your company may give you money for your retirement – then a 401k is definitely, absolutely, the best choice. If your company matches your 401k contributions, make sure you max out the amount they match prior to opening a Roth IRA.

Back to the Roth. Ramit of I Will Teach You To Be Rich made the benefits of the Roth IRA crystal clear in an article called “The World’s Easiest Guide to Understanding Retirement Accounts” (you can bet I liked this guide) when he wrote:

Here’s how it works: When you make money every year, you have to pay taxes on it. With a Roth, you take this after-tax money, invest it, and pay no taxes when you withdraw it. If Roth IRAs had been around in 1970 and you’d invested $10,000 in Southwest Airlines, you’d only have had to pay taxes on the initial $10,000 income. When you withdrew the money 30 years later, you wouldn’t have had to pay any taxes on it. Oh, and by the way, your $10,000 would have turned into $10 million.

Think about it. You pay taxes on the initial amount, but not the earnings. And over 30 years, that is a stunningly good deal.

No Credit Needed posted a very short article titled “A Fully-Funded Roth IRA At Age 18 Could Net You 3.5 Million Dollars” with a very convincing graph that will help you visualize the benefits.

Now of course there are exceptions. If you make more than $95,000 a year, you’re not eligible for a Roth IRA. The maximum you are allowed to contribute in 2008 is $5,000 if you’re 49 or younger, and $6,000 for people aged 50 and above. It’s a very smart idea to max this out (meaning contribute the whole $5,000), but if you can’t, every dollar still counts.

As Ramit put it, “Even waiting two years can cost you tens of thousands of dollars… don’t care where you get the money, but get it. Put it in your Roth and max it out this year. These early years are too important to be lazy.”

And yes, I recognize that talking about investing at a time of economic turmoil may sound foolhardy, but remember – this is your retirement money. The magic of dollar-cost averaging means that when the market is down, such as now, you’re able to get more for your investing dollar.

NO Spend Month

October 14, 2008

Rock star Wesabean CymbidiumKelly kicked off a great discussion in Groups last week:

We are gearing up for a NO spend month.
We have worked really hard over the last few months, but our resolve is slipping, and we have virtually erased our EF [emergency fund].

So as a means of replenishing it, and saving up for the Christmas holiday (and 3 of our kids have birthdays in the winter), we are cutting out ALL spending for one month.

My goal is to start on 10/25 so we can end it right before Thanksgiving and enjoy a big Thanksgiving feast!

Basically we would only spend money on essential bills. Mortgage, credit card min. payments, life and auto insurance, car payment, school for our daughter, utilities, gas to get back and forth from work, and to our son’s school, and our cable “bundle”.

So no food, eating out, clothes, odds and ends, craft supplies, etc.

A lot of people seem to like the idea, and are joining CymbidiumKelly in her project. They’ve also added some fantastic tips for making it work. Think of it like a crash diet for your wallet — but with a difference. Instead of going back to your old habits at the end of the month, taking a break from your discretionary expenses can give you a real sense of just how discretionary they are! When my wife and I did something similar a while ago, we found that we were having a lot more fun and eating a lot better by cooking at home each night, rather than going out to eat so much.

Congrats to CymbidiumKelly and everyone joining her on a great project. We’re pulling for you! If you’re interested in joining in, drop by and add your name to the list. Ideas and support from others are a great help in making a project like this work. Add yours!

Five concrete things you can do to prepare for harder times

October 10, 2008

I’m not about to add fuel to people’s fears about the economy — there are plenty of other places where you can get your daily panic on if that’s what you really want. I don’t believe in that. I like having plans ready. Come what may, if you have a plan in mind, you’ll know how to handle it.

When Jason’s son was born with health problems, it was pretty quickly obvious to me that Jason was in a very tough spot and that he might need to leave Wesabe to take care of his family. I didn’t know for sure, and I knew it would take time for Jason and his family to figure out what they needed and how best to handle it. But, I knew his departure was a possibility. Since things were up in the air, I tried to get ready for whatever might come. I had a mental image of a shelf of three-ring binders, each with a label on the spine: “Jason takes leave,” “Jason departs,” “Jason’s son recovers,” and so on. Mentally, I prepared a plan for each of those scenarios — what I would do personally to help my friend, what we would do as a company, and so on. When Jason decided what he had to do, I simply pulled down the right binder of plans, and put them into place. I think Wesabe was able to recover and grow from a very tough situation — the loss of our first CEO — as a result of us having those plans prepared. (Fortunately, Jason’s son is doing well, too.)

You can take the same approach with your household finances. Depending on your situation, the changes to the economy may have you worrying about a lot of parts of your finances. You may have no idea exactly how things will turn out — I certainly don’t have any way to predict the future of the economy. (If you do, please post the future to Groups so we can all make better plans! 🙂 Instead of worrying, plan out what steps you would take if something bad were to come about. You might have one plan for “Loss of job,” another for “5-year recovery of retirement account value,” and so on. Make a plan, do what you can do now, and plan out what you will do if the scenarios that worry you most do in fact come about.

Here are some concrete ideas for steps you can take today to prepare for some of those outcomes. I’ve tried to make this list ideas beyond the standard personal finance advice — we should all know already to have an emergency fund and pay down debt. Those are great steps, but very general; the following are more dramatic, and hopefully more helpful for today, ideas for making it through a downturn.

  1. Go through your house and sell everything you don’t need now. Don’t wait for things to get really bad before selling off belongings that are gathering dust on the shelf. For one thing, people have more money to spend on used things today, so you might get more offers. Also, selling now when you don’t yet need the money will let you be patient and wait for a better price, instead of compromising on a quick, undervalued sale. This is a great time to get comfortable with Craig’s List, eBay, and Amazon Marketplace, if you aren’t already. Of course, these are all great sites for buying cheaply, too.
  2. Delete your credit card from Amazon. Amazon (just to use them as an example) makes it very easy — as easy as they can make it — for you to order impulse items at the click of a button. Amazon is a great merchant (in my view) and offers a lot of ways to save money on things you want or need, but right now the last thing you need is impulse buys. Delete your credit cards from their records, and re-enter and re-delete them each time you buy, and that will slow you down considerably. Think of it like putting up speed bumps on your discretionary spending. (As a less drastic measure, you can also turn off one-click purchasing and resign from Amazon Prime to make it harder to spend impulsively, too.) You can always add your card back in later, when you have more to spend.
  3. If you need to buy stuff, try not to buy the stuff itself — instead, try to buy stuff to make that stuff. For instance, since I’m preparing a baby’s room, I bought some furniture, but now I’m cutting that back, and instead buying some woodworking equipment to make some furniture for us myself. (Don’t worry, I’m not trying to make a car seat out of plywood!) Buying a sewing machine, some cooking equipment, or something for your particular needs or interests can be a big help, and good cheap fun, too. An up-front investment (at a reasonable level) might make it easy for you to save a bunch of money over a period of time by joining up with the Do-It-Yourself team. (If you get really good at a DIY skill, try selling what you make on Etsy to supplement your income.)
  4. Build a list of all your subscriptions and monthly charges, and figure out how you can get rid of as many as possible. Do you really need both cable and Netflix? (Netflix is probably cheaper.) Aren’t most of those magazines available for free online, or at the library? Do you need both a landline and a cell phone? Any chance you can get WiFi at a local cafe or your work instead of at home? Did you get caught in the “free”creditreport.com trap? Find those monthly fees and kill them dead — you don’t need ’em. (When you’re making plans, maybe draw up two or three lists: one for subscriptions to cancel today, one for a pretty bad situation, and one for drastic measures.)
  5. Find a way to freelance your skills — online if you can. This is a great time to create a profile on a freelancing site, and start to get some ratings for cheap, great work. Try Elance or Guru.com if you have skills that are easy to contract out online. If you’re a graphic designer, try Authentic Jobs. If you are willing to do phone customer service work from your home, try LiveOps. If you’re a programmer, build a free iPhone app and get some great ratings at the App Store. Whatever you do, you may be able to get contracting work, possibly online or at night or on the weekends, to supplement your income now, and sustain you through job loss if that were to befall you. (Tip: incorporate as a business to protect your personal assets from business losses when you freelance.)

Do you have suggestions for additions to this list? Add them in the comments below.

You could drive yourself crazy making too many plans for a rainy day — but then again, you could drive yourself crazy with no plans at all, either. Don’t wait for something hard to hit you before you think through how you’d get on your feet again. Choose two or three scenarios that worry you most, and build out plans for each of those. This isn’t a time to panic, but it is definitely a time to put some plans on the shelf, and take the steps you can to shore up your finances today.

The new Wesabe home page (and how you can make it better)

October 9, 2008

We’ve just launched the new Wesabe home page:

Home Page

The new design features a set of photographs showing people working towards their financial goals and dreams. Magera, one of our designers, did a fantastic job choosing photographs that speak to why we love working on Wesabe — not just to make charts and graphs (though those are fun, too), but to help people find the life they really want, by helping them control the financial resources they need to get there.

The first name I thought of for our company was “Inreach” — that is, bring your goals in reach (and a pun on “enrich”). Unfortunately, that name belonged to another company already, but that idea continues to be the reason I so love working on Wesabe. When you use Wesabe, your goals — the goals in the pictures on our new home page, for instance — become reachable, achievable.

The home page photos, though, are stock images, taken from libraries of existing shots. They’re lovely, but at the same time, they’re taken ‘off the shelf’. We’d love to see some pictures of your goals. Do you walk by a house that is your dream to own? Are you saving up for your child’s college education? Is there a credit card you’ll gleefully cut into little pieces the day you pay it off? Take your best shot of your goal, post it on your refrigerator, and send it to me at marc@wesabe.com. I’ll post the best ones here, and if you send us one that tells a beautiful story about your goal, we’ll add it to the home page and send you a thank-you gift in return. We’d love for our home page to tell the stories of our members’ goals.

I’ve found that my financial life improves the most when I’m working towards a goal. Right now, my wife and I are saving up for the baby we’re expecting soon — let me tell you, having a baby on the way brings focus to financial discussions like nothing else! What goal motivates you? If you don’t have the perfect photo, tell us your story in the comments — about the goals you’ve reached, and the ones you’re reaching for now.

Congrats to Magera and Andre for their great work on the new home page. We hope you like it. More importantly, we hope you’ll let us help you reach your goals — that’s why we work here, and that’s what we love.

Required Listening: This American Life Explains the Financial Crisis

October 6, 2008

At the beginning of this week’s episode of This American Life, host Ira Glass says, “One way you can tell that things are really bad is when you suddenly find yourself trying to understand things you never really cared about before.”

If you’re trying to figure out when and why the sub-prime mortgage crisis became a credit crisis, what “breaking the buck” means, and why Warren Buffett called credit default swaps “financial weapons of mass destruction,” you really should listen to this entertaining, enlightening and yes, frightening podcast that looks at the events of the past couple weeks and the bailout package. You can listen in or download the hour-long show for free this week (next week, it will cost $.95) here.

And if you’d like to learn more about the housing and lending crisis, an episode of This American Life that aired on May 9th does an amazing job of explaining exactly how and why those “toxic” mortgages came about. Called “The Great Pool of Money,” the show is $.95 to download. You can download a free transcript of the entire episode.

Another great resource is the Planet Money blog. The two main contributors to the above episodes, along with some other folks from NPR, explain what the ever-changing news of the day really means.

There have been some really interesting discussions on Wesabe looking at how the financial crisis is affecting people and changes they are making as a result.

Where do you turn for information about the current economic situation? Who are you talking to about what’s going on in the economy and your financial life?