Archives for the month of: January, 2011

Through my seemingly endless perusal of Hawaii hotels on Tripadvisor, I have noticed an alarming trend within the traveling community.  It’s a trend that may make you question a journey to the islands, or even the purpose of humanity.  What I’m talking about are people who take pictures of their feet:

Nearly every resort hotel review page on TripAdvisor is peppered with similar pictures.  The one above is from the Four Seasons on the Big Island.  As far as these pictures go it’s not terrible.  The color and composition are nice, which distracts from the feet.  The feet are okay looking–sort of well-groomed with flip-flops so the feet are not so present.  This one below (also from the Four Season’s review page) is far more typical:

Here the photographer is burdening us with an uneven, poorly lit shot…and his feet make him look like he’s a cadaver being wheeled around some tropical morgue.  Also, way too much leg…the viewer feels like they’re sitting on this dude’s lap.  Not a comfortable feeling.  The cliché continues on many other resort pages.   Here are some more corpses roasting in the sun at the Sheraton on Maui:

Also from the Sheraton page, see below. At least this person looks like they expended the energy to sit up for the shot:

This is from the Hyatt Maui page:

Also on the Hyatt page was this grossness. Feet and PDA…barf:

The below image is from the Napili Surf Resort in Maui, which apparently turns your legs into large beached fish:

 

From the Grand Hyatt on Kauai:

Ditto:

Okay, okay, why is this all so very wrong? Here are a few reasons:

1. It’s a contrived cliché

Considering the sheer amount of these types of pictures I’ve encountered, it should be pretty clear that there’s nothing original about the feet-up beach shot.  Why go through so much effort to show you’re relaxed?  Are you really that relaxed when you’re wondering how to best demonstrate your relaxation to friends and strangers back home?  This is right up there with people holding up the leaning tower of Pisa.  The picture is so staged that instead of creating envy, as it’s likely suppose to do, it forces viewers to question the taker’s insufferable lameness. Why bother?

2. TripAdvisor pictures should help others judge the hotel property

When I go through the effort of clicking through all the pictures on a TripAdvisor page, it means I want to see a hotel’s rooms, its views, its beaches and its other facilities.  I am not hunting for pictures of strangers’ feet.  Really, why post any pictures of yourself on TripAdvisor–we are strangers–we don’t really care to see your deformed body parts lounging about on the sand. If you must share such pictures, please inflict them on your Facebook friends.

3. Feet by themselves are pretty gross and weird-looking

There are few body parts that are as  unappealing as feet.  Although there are many people who love feet, there are whole cultures in which feet are offensive.  This blog is one of those cultures.

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When I was laid off last week, I experienced a whole range of emotions including fear, shock, confusion, anger, solemnity, relief (that I finally knew I was getting laid off after weeks of uncertainty), resolve, hopefulness, etc.  After a week of adjustment, 30% of me is still pretty panicked about the situation, but 100% of me is thanking the fates I planned ahead for this. Because I knew I was in a position vulnerable to lay off, the bunker-stocking-fatalist in me had been viewing my job loss as inevitable. It was still hard, but other than already having a new job lined up, I’m grateful that with some foresight, I’m in a about as stable of a position as could be possible.

For those of you who do not have a miserable little neurotic living in your skull (lucky you!), here are some ideas and suggestions to consider well before a potential job loss occurs, so that you, too, can be slightly better prepared should the worse case scenario take place.

1. Know that all jobs are vulnerable

If there’s one thing this recession has taught us, it’s that we can no longer bank on a job (or even an industry) being around 5 or 10 years down the road.  As the pace of technological innovation leap frogs over the past, jobs and markets are also evolving to meet our changing demands.  Although experts can take some educated guesses as to the types of jobs that will be in demand in 10 or 20 years (aging baby boomers need nurses, obviously–invest in bed pans!), there is great uncertainty in most predictions.  Jobs that even three or four years ago seemed protected (like public jobs), are now highly vulnerable to budget cuts taking place at nearly every level of government.  Although it’s easy to forget when the economy is humming away, layoffs and unemployment are very real and a  real possibility for every person at some point in their careers.

2. Be as flexible as possible

What about my car payments, mortgage payments, student loan debt, credit card debt? If you already have these concerns, I can’t  help you–I  am no expert on debt issues, because I don’t have any.  I fear debt the way others fear cancer and have made major life decisions so as to avoid incurring debt–i.e. living close to work so I could walk and wouldn’t need a car.  (I should note that I was very fortunate to have parents who supported my undergrad education–so long as I went to a school they approved of and could afford, which I did do because of the aforementioned debilitating fear of debt.)

If you can avoid debt-bringers, even just one form of debt–say credit card debt, you greatly increase your flexibility. This flexibility allows you take jobs in new cities (or countries), or meaningful jobs with lower pay (or internships with no pay) in order to give you the best chance of finding work that you actually want to do.  Chances are not having a car, or a house, or other debt also means that you have more discretionary money from each  paycheck, which also increases the amount you can save over time.

3. Save money

This should be a no-brainer, but it’s worth emphasizing.  If you ever find yourself earning a steady income, live low enough beneath what you are making to save up some emergency funds.  The general rule I learned growing up was to have three months worth of salary in a savings account in case I needed to quit, or was fired from a job.  Given this recession, probably a better rule of thumb would to be to save up as many months of salary as possible–maybe aim for six months at the very least.  Have a goal and build towards it with every paycheck.

An easy way to consistently set money aside is to automatically deposit a percentage of every paycheck directly into your savings account.  When I had an income, my percentage was 20%, which was automatically withdrawn into my savings account each payday–this I did via my electronic bank account.

Once you have your emergency reserve of funding saved, then start looking at other long-term savings goals, such as investing to build up a retirement account.  The point is, after your reach one savings goal, have another one ready.

4. Learn about possible unemployment benefits

When you’re earning money, an easy way to keep costs in perspective is to better understand what actually being unemployed will mean for your finances.  Unemployment benefits vary by state, but all states have a maximum amount that a person can receive per week and a maximum number of weeks that one can receive a benefit.  How much unemployment funding you receive is generally based on what you earned. Maximum unemployment benefits in Wisconsin are about $350 a week.

Depending on your circumstances and where you live, there may also be food stamps or low-cost, or even free, health coverage should you lose your job.  You may also want to price out how much COBRA would cost you (that’s when you keep your work insurance benefit, but pay for it out-of-pocket) and to see if you can afford your COBRA payment on an unemployment check.  If not, price out some other insurance options to see what might be affordable.

Also be aware that getting fired with cause, or quitting, and other circumstances may disqualify you from receiving any unemployment benefits.

5. Have a budget and keep track of what you purchase

Again, this is pretty obvious, but giving yourself a weekly budget may help you prepare for living life on unemployment and will help keep spending habits under control. Last year, an ever dwindling reserve of money in my checking account triggered a panic that my spending habits were ballooning out of control. And they were. At one point I was down to about $20 in my checking account.  Part of the problem was that I was paying for everything on my debit card, which allowed me to make purchases of $50 here, $25 there, all while never really keeping track of any total amount.  I would only check my account every couple of weeks, which was generally well after I had spent hundreds of dollars in smaller purchases.

If this sounds familiar, I strongly suggest trying to only pay for things with cash on hand.  Each week (same day every week), I  take out $100 for all of my purchases (groceries, entertainment, drinks, everything else).  Most weeks I am  able to stay in this budget. Anything I don’t spend, goes to the next week to make things a little easier.    With my unemployment payments, I will likely need to stay around $80 a week in purchases to avoid dipping into my savings.

In a similar vein, some online banking software allows you to track or categorize the types of purchases you make with your debit card.  This allows you to identify problem spending habits (such as eating out too much for your budget). Some banks may have tools embedded into your online banking account to help you track spending; if not, popular financial tracking tools can be found on Mint.com (including apps for your phone).  Because I prefer the cash method, I have not tried this software, but some friends have found it helpful.

6. Spend on priorities

All of this may sound like a bunch a finger wagging from a joyless cheapskate–and it’s true–spending money makes me uncomfortable and I’m sure I’m generally a  boring  person for that reason.  But even the shrillest scolds have a purchasing Achilles heel, and for me it’s traveling.  Since I was a teenager, the majority of  the money I’ve spent has gone into traveling. It’s what I love to do, and more than once, I traveled down to my very last dollar.  Even now, I’m planning a trip to Hawaii that will knock out at least 10% of my savings.

But I know that traveling is and will always be a priority for me above just about every other thing–right up there with friends and food.  I’m sure for many parents  (I am not one) spending on their children occupies the status that traveling has for me.  Maybe for others its living close to family, or working for a specific organization, or spending money on clothing or a hobby or a favorite car or electronics–who knows.  To each his own.

When faced with a limited budget, know your priorities and be willing to cut down on spending on just about everything else.  To me, sacrificing a car and a nicer, larger apartment have always been a fair trade-off in exchange for the budget to travel.   When you can’t have it all, know what you prefer to have and make it so.

7. Take advantage of opportunities

When you are lucky enough to have a job and a steady income you can still develop your resume as if you were about to face unemployment. This might mean taking advantage of training sessions offered at your work, such as advise on updating your resume and cover letter. Also, consider volunteering for a task at work that will force you to learn a new, marketable skill. If you have the time and money, consider taking classes at a nearby technical school to ensure you’re still up to date on the latest technology in your field.

Also, because few jobs are forever, it certainly doesn’t hurt to look for jobs when you’re employed.  Even if you love what you do, job hunting can help you be aware of the job market and what employers are looking for in your field.  If you had to reapply for your job now, are your skills up-to-date enough for you to be a top candidate?  Also, some markets hire at a very s l o w pace.  Currently, one of my best prospects for a job is one that I applied to over a year ago.  Feeling out a market can help you get a sense of the timing and tools you’ll need to be competitive should you ever find yourself out of work.

It’s been a long few weeks since this blog lost hope for infrastructure projects and went underground.  In case you missed it, in early December, all of Wisconsin’s train money got yanked due to willful sloganeering (that’s your tax dollars, Wisconsin, now going to other states, per usual).

Governor Walker also stopped a plan to burn biomass at a UW-Madison heating plant that is already under construction.  The whole point of the biomass plant was not to be a bunch of Madison treehuggers (jury’s still out as to whether biomass is even that much better for the environment) but to build up and support an emerging biomass industry in the state.  It’s industry is made up of farmers and local manufacturers who sell their refuse (switchgrass, wood chips, corn leftovers) to the state for burning.  It’s sustainable, Wisconsin-grown energy. Also it helps save jobs.

But, oh well, forget the future and all that making ourselves desirable stuff, we’ll just bury our heads in the sand. Or better yet,  we’ll continue to be really good at developing rabble-rousing, but meaningless, slogans.

Also we might lose our  jobs, as I did last week.  No train jobs.  No energy jobs.  No duchess jobs. But, don’t worry, it just means we’re open for business!