Friday, October 29, 2010

At All Costs

When my hairdresser - my hairdresser - announced that she was getting into the mortgage business in the early years of this decade, I knew something was wrong.

What was actually wrong was far beyond my wildest imaginings.*

This relentless drive by corporate CEOs to maximize revenues, cut expenses and enrich themselves and their shareholders at all costs is disturbing. Frontline's expose of BP, and its culture of cost-cutting and ignoring safety, is another example.

It's nothing new, and probably not even surprising, but it is dangerous for the future of our society.

*h/t to my longtime source, John Bates of Avalon Advisors, for passing along the book excerpt

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Bully Pulpit

Have you ever worked for a bully? I have, and it made my life truly miserable.

For some perverse - and sad - reason, women in journalism back in the '80s tended to be much more difficult to work for then male editors. Maybe the women were trying to prove that they were tough and mean enough to ride herd over newspaper staffs. Whatever the reason, female editors tended to bully more than males did (in my experience at least).

My bullying editor demanded that I produce long, weekly feature stories, despite the fact that I also was expected to produce several stories every day on a busy, complex beat. I had a long, unpredictable commute downtown every morning, but if I checked in even three or four minutes late, she would direct a diatribe at me.

The stress of working for her contributed in large part to my decision to leave full-time employment and become self-employed 21 years ago.

I guess I should thank my bully, since I have carved out a successful career for myself as a freelancer and have been extremely happy working from home all these years. But at the time, thanking her was the last thing I contemplated doing!

Business owners who tolerate or ignore bullying managers put themselves at risk of lawsuits, employment actions and high turnover rates. Read this week's Smart Answers column for more.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Fall Garden

My son and gardening apprentice, Andy, was home from school last weekend. So we took advantage of the cool drizzle to reinvigorate our soil and do our fall planting:

Some of these beds have been resting since the end of summer, with compost mixed in. Those we turned over and beefed up with organic steer manure.

The others still had the remnants of tomato and pepper plants in them. We removed those, dug up the soil, lined the beds with dry leaves, then layered back in topsoil and manure, moistening as we went along.

Here's what we have planted: Lettuces, rainbow chard, kale, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, basil, Italian parsley and jicama. An artichoke plant that barely survived the hot summer seems to have rallied, so I have high hopes for it to produce by the spring.

In the center washtub, you'll see the blueberry bush I bought at the L.A. Arboretum plant sale last spring. It produced about two dozen berries and made it through the summer. It has about doubled in size, so I hope all those new canes will be loaded with berries next year:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Right to Dry

It's one of life's frustrating ironies: As many of us try to reduce our energy consumption, we live in old homes with rusting clotheslines hulking in the backyard. Like the ultimate Southern California irony, the Los Angeles Red Car line, these metal contraptions were allowed to rust over or removed altogether when clothes dryers became the rage.

When I rented a house in Monrovia, we had something like this clothes tree in the backyard:

Just picture that contraption 50 years on, creaky and sagging in spots. But I had no dryer at the time, and hey - it worked great! If I did my wash strategically (which I seldom did), I could even peg up the unmentionables on the inside and hide them from view of the house in back (which shared a lot with ours) by stringing the sheets on the outside.

Although I did eventually get a dryer, I continued using a clothes line, especially on hot days, until my kids came along. With the volume of laundry that little kids produce, the dryer really was a savior at that point.

But now that I'm washing for two again, I've been wanting to get back to line drying and I rigged up a short line near my garden this summer. The notion was reinforced when I interviewed an advocate for the right to dry movement a few months ago.

So how fortunate was it when I whizzed past a little hulk of metal and wood on someone's curb yesterday? I turned my bike around and discovered a fold-up drying rack that I slung over my shoulder:

It was in great condition except that one metal rod had come loose from the wooden rack. A hot glue gun, a nail and a bit of packing tape, et voila! Good as new.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Politics of Disgust

Everyone in this season of "enthusiasm gaps" is asking the same question: Why are Americans so disgusted with politics and the democratic process?

I think the political media plays a big part in the answer. At least it does for me.

After the 2008 election, I swear not three weeks went by before I started hearing about "repercussions for the midterm elections." Not three weeks.

In the next two years, huge policy initiatives were introduced, haggled over, debated and eventually passed - or not. But more likely than not, the bulk of the media coverage revolved not around the substance of legislation, but around the political and reelection prospects for the legislators involved.

It's all about the horse race. I understand that certain reporters are paid to cover politics and it's a very legitimate beat. But isn't there anything more to politics than elections? How about the long-term policy implications of legislation - rather than the short-term political?

We're all pretty sick of the horse race. Or at least I am.

And now, right on cue, comes the first glimmer of the next leg. Coming around the far turn, heading for the home stretch, two weeks before the midterms: There's this.

Let the handicapping for 2012 begin. I, for one, am hoping that the starting gate gets stuck.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Skim Chance

I have swiped my debit card many, many times. Thousands, probably. But never before have I been "skimmed."

Then I had the audacity to spend an afternoon downtown last week. Met a source for an interview at L.A. Live, hung out at the L.A. Public Library and had dinner with some friends.

By the time I arrived back home, there was a message waiting for me from my bank's fraud department. Some "unusual activity" on my card had been detected. I've gotten the message before, usually when I've made a purchase or withdrawn money in an unusual spot (turns out I'm deathly predictable), so I ignored it.

I wasn't worried until they called back the next morning. Three $75 to $125 charges at gas stations in Colorado that evening had triggered the red flag. Gas stations? I hadn't gotten gas in more than a week, and when I do I use my Chevron card. And Colorado? I can't remember the last time I've been in Denver or Aurora.

The fraud claim has been filed and my card has been shredded. It could have been much worse. I'm particularly grateful for the nervous Nellies at my bank, who obviously have darn good algorithms.

I can't help but think that my card and PIN number were skimmed at one of the two downtown garages where I parked. Convenient as they are, I've never liked those swipe-your-own-card machines. First off, they're eliminating jobs for parking attendants. And now, I know how easy they are to defraud. I think I'll have to avoid them whenever possible.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Finance Resources

Most of us learn little to nothing in school about basic financial life skills. Either our parents teach us good habits (or not, in my case) or we have to teach ourselves later in life.

Many people learn the hard way. This week, my friend Barbara sent me a very interesting article about how "soft addictions" can ruin people financially.

My mom certainly was not alone. In fact, I know people to this day (including some family members!) whose shopping or day trading "hobbies" have gotten way out of hand. While these things used to be seen as moral failings (like alcoholism, smoking and so many other "vices") today we know there is a psychological or perhaps even physiological component involved.

We're fortunate to be more enlightened. Plus, there are so many great tools we can use now to help us with our finances.

Two women, Jo Bittof and Nancy Gehring Lowery, have recently founded one aimed at helping people learn to better manage their money. “If you can make time to buy coffee in the morning everyday, you can make time to organize your finances for five minutes the end of each day, so you have enough money to continue buying coffee,” Nancy says.

Other sites I recommend that you check out include the AICPA's 360 Degrees of Financial Literacy, which breaks down tips for various stages of life, and FeedThePig, which is aimed at teaching financial literacy to young people ages 25-34, when they really need to establish good habits.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Just A Tiny PR Problem

An epic fail at a Florida aquarium.

This reminds me of the time we are at the old Steinmetz Aquarium in Golden Gate Park and we saw an alligator eat a turtle, crunching the shell and all. A couple kids nearby started crying while we whisked ours away before they figured out what was happening.

Jazzin' Saturdays

My mother was a wonderful, loving, fun, generous person. She sacrificed a lot as a single, working mom to make sure we were loved and cared-for. But had she lived to a ripe old age, it's likely she would have been diagnosed as a compulsive shopper.

The idea was unheard of during my childhood. All we knew was that Mom loved to shop. She loved to buy things more than she loved her marriage, her financial security or her peace of mind (or ours). Clearly, there was more going on than just shopping.

She and her sister called their every-weekend forays "jazzin'." As in, "We're goin' out jazzin' today!" Mom had really good taste (nothing like mine) but she didn't buy anything we truly needed or anything particularly valuable. She wasn't a collector or a connoisseur.

She just loved to acquire nice things. I remember the naughty look of delight on her face when she would display her latest take: Clothes, shoes, home decor, toys, furniture. It was the thrill of the chase more than the actual purchases that kept her going.

Her hobby was, unfortunately, also her downfall. Constantly in debt, she played a shell game with creditors, paying down one account while charging up another, opening new accounts here and getting fresh credit there. She hid bills from my father until one memorable day when he opened some unexpected mail and she got caught. She got older and did not have a penny of savings set aside.

To this day, I dislike shopping. It just flat-out bores and exhausts me. I avoid debt and save more than most Americans. Undoubtedly, part of my aversion is the negative conditioning of my childhood. But there may also be more to it than that.

Knowing there may have been some kind of predisposition (Mom often talked about her own mother's impulsive shopping sprees) makes it easier to understand what Mom went through. I adored her and still miss her, nearly a decade after she died way too soon. I just wish we could have had more insight into her behavior back when. Maybe we could have spared her some of the considerable anguish she went through feeding her compulsion.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Bad Old Days

The telephone calls would usually start before dinner. The ringing phone would trigger an odd reaction from my mother: She'd begin waving her arms wildly, panic on her face.

"I can't answer it! I'm not home!" she'd yell frantically.

The voice would be unfamiliar when I picked up, gruff and insistent. But the call was easy to recognize. The voice wanted to speak to Mom and didn't accept my feeble excuses. "Where is she?" "When is she going to be home?" "Tell her she'd better get in touch with us right away!" Sometimes the conversation deteriorated into threats, real or implied, at which point I hung up.

This was back in the '70s, and we didn't know about creditors' rights. We only knew that Mom was going through another rough patch, and that her overspending had caught up with us again.

My personal financial philosophy can be summed up in a simple bit of advice I got from a source years ago: "Live below your means." You don't have to live like a rat, he told me, or deny yourself quality things that you really need - or even want.

But you don't necessarily have to buy a brand new car if a good used one will do. Just because you want that shiny new gadget doesn't mean you can't wait until the price comes down - and the bugs get worked out. Just because you earn some money doesn't mean you have to spend every last dime. If you can - and I know in these days many can't - try to adjust your lifestyle so that you can cover your expenses, sock away some savings and stay out of debt.

There's no doubt that my frugal ways are a reaction to living with my mother's chronic overspending and its negative repercussions. But I also have a suspicion that there's some genetic input involved. My dad was so frugal you might have called him a miser, and sometimes we did. But savings and bargain-hunting comes naturally to me, too.

Next time: How we coped with mom's "hobby."

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Fleecing The Sheep

Aside from a televangelist addict with a pension, there's no one more vulnerable than a budding entrepreneur with a nest egg.

Worried about someone stealing your idea? You should be much more worried that someone will steal your money while you're pursuing your idea.

There are an abundance of crooks preying on folks who come up with new ideas. Patent scams, marketing scams, start-your-own-business scams - everywhere new entrepreneurs turn, they run into them.

And if they're not careful, rather than competitors, they'll bump into someone who'd love to take their funds before they have a chance to even invest in their businesses.

How to avoid being robbed - and profoundly embarrassed? Get educated. Be cautious. Do your research. Do not send anyone money in advance. For anything.

It sounds simple, but you'd be surprised how many bright people fall for dumb schemes. They're anxious to cash in on their great ideas, but they're more likely to stumble on the way to the bank.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Second Generation

What's a business owner to do when the next generation isn't interested in taking over? Turns out there are options.