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December 2009

Although I’ve been tracking my finances publicly on Consumerism Commentary since 2003, this is only the fourth year I’ve outlined specific financial goals for the new year. The next year is a bit of a mystery for me. I feel like some changes are necessary, particularly in my day job. Although I have some big plans for the work I do outside my job, I have to consider the possibility that these plans simply won’t work out. I’ve been hedging my bets for a while, but I’m not sure that I can continue putting as much as I want into my projects, working 9 to 5 in a corporation, and maintaining my health and sanity.

So it will be interesting to see where I am able to go this year.

While I try to determine my immediate life plans, the least I could do is set some financial targets.

Income

While my “Other Earned Income” increased from 2008 to 2009, there was a trend throughout the year of less of that income being generated through advertising. That is both good and bad; while it means I’ve diversified my income somewhat, advertising is generally the main source. It is possible that advertising has had a slow year in general, and will pick up with the economy, but I’m not counting on it.

My goal for 2010 is to maintain a a six-figure income outside of my day job. I think I will need to keep conservative expectations this year. This will be difficult enough considering the trend of declining income in the second half of 2009.

Investing

I’ve been considering increasing my non-retirement investing, currently $1,000 per month in the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index. I am not sure the numbers make sense, though. The stock market has spiked up recently and I prefer to increase investing following declines. I will continue investing in my retirement accounts but I’m going to consider ceasing my automated monthly non-retirement investment in VTSMX.

The limit for investing in a 401(k) in 2010 will be $16,500, reflecting no change from the 2009 maximum. I’ll continue investing a percentage of my income for retirement that would hit that mark after 52 weeks. I will also fund my 2008 IRAs this year.

If you’re considering investing, ShareBuilder is offering 10 free automatic investment trade credits if you start an investment plan in January. Normally, these automatic purchases of stocks through ShareBuilder cost $4 each, so you could save up to $40 on transaction fees. Keep in mind it will still cost $9.95 to sell your investment.

Non-financial resolutions

The most popular New Year’s resolution, even more popular than to get out of debt, is to lose weight. I have no choice but to be like everyone else; my primary non-financial resolution is to get in shape this year. I am not significantly overweight, but I need to increase my level of activity and eat healthier.

I don’t consider myself to be very organized, and living by myself, I have a tendency to let entropy take hold. I will resolve to keep my apartment in such a condition that I could quickly prepare for visitors rather than needing a weekend to make my living quarters presentable.

And finally, I plan to continue doing things that I enjoy and that enrich my life. One of my favorite hobbies right now is photography. I signed up for a second photography class starting in January, but unfortunately the course might be canceled due to low enrollment. I’ll keep finding interesting things to work the creative side of my brain — in addition to writing.

What are your goals and resolutions for 2010?

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This article is presented by Kelly Whalen, Consumerism Commentary staff writer.

At midnight people around the world will be celebrating a new year with celebrations, parties, or a quiet evening at home. You may already have plans to party like it’s 2009, but if you don’t here are a few ways you can celebrate without breaking the bank.

Host a potluck with a twist
Having friends or family over is a great way to be social without having to spend a lot of dough. For adults have everyone BYOB. You will end up with a variety of choices for everyone to try, all you have to do is provide the party music, and the cups.

Throw a kid-friendly party
Instead of keeping the kids up until midnight (never a good idea unless they are teens), shout Happy New Year at the hour of your choosing, it’s a New Year somewhere! Best to combine this with plenty of snacks and crafts to keep the kids happy while parents chat.

Stay home with your sweetie
It may seem boring, but it’s good practice for your old age. A candlelight dinner (if you have kids, wait until they are in bed), a bottle of champagne, and watching the ball drop is a wonderful way to ring in the New Year.

Go out for drinks, but not dinner
Why not save your cash and dinner before you go out? You’ll save a ton since restaurants tend to have price fixed menus.

Be the designated driver
If you are going out, be the designated driver for your friends or family members. Everyone will be so appreciative they will buy you non-alcoholic drinks, you’ll wake up without a hangover, and you won’t spend a dime!

Have any other money saving ideas for New Year’s Eve? I’ll be staying at home with Mr. Whalen, enjoying a movie, and some champagne. However you choose to ring in the new year remember not to drink and drive.

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At the beginning of the year, I set a few financial goals and resolutions representing what I would like to accomplish by the end of 2009. Like last year, my progress is mixed. I’ll get to that in a moment.

I’m not a big fan of the concept of financial goal setting. Goals or targets evoke the image of an endpoint, the touchdown. If you keep running through the end zone, you will hit a wall. The financial goals I set and share each year are markers or milestones. The collection of money, even a certain amount of money like one million dollars, is not a goal. The goal is the kind of person you want to be and how you use the money you accumulate.

Nevertheless, setting time-based financial targets is helpful to measure progress against expectations, even when some variables are beyond control. Here is how I did in 2009.

Goals for 2009

Income: My goal for “Other Earned Income” in 2009 is $108,000, or an average $9,000 per month. My stretch goal is to surpass this year’s success with $132,000.

Result: success. Other Earned Income is basically any income I receive other than the salary from my day job. Surprisingly, I surpassed my stretch goal. However, the year ended weaker than it started. Just maintaining my income throughout the year required more diversity in income sources and much more work than I expected.

Investing: Contribute the full $16,500 to my 401(k). Contribute the maximum to a Roth IRA if possible; if not, contribute to a Traditional IRA and convert the account to a Roth IRA in 2010. Contribute the maximum to an SEP IRA. Invest $250 per month into an account to help pay for future children’s education.

Result: mostly a success so far. I did contribute the maximum to my 401(k) this year, a feat I would not have been able to accomplish (without a major lifestyle change) if I were working with my day job salary alone. I did contribute the maximum to my 2008 Roth IRA and SEP IRA earlier this year, and I plan to do the same before my 2009 taxes are due in April.

Now that my business has been reclassified, I may have more flexibility in how I determine how much I can contribute to the SEP IRA, so I won’t be able to determine the amounts until I work with my accountant.

In addition to retirement investing, I invested $1,000 in the total stock market index fund at Vanguard in a regular non-retirement account at the beginning of each month since May.

I did not, however, set aside $250 each month for my future children’s education. I am still undecided about how — and whether — to tackle this before having children.

Saving: After I pay my taxes, I’d like to take half of whatever I have left and earmark that amount for a down payment on a house.

Result: qualified success. The amount I have in savings accounts, including business accounts, has increased this year from $80,000 to $120,000. I consider that a success. I haven’t specifically earmarked half of that for a house. My “House Fund” at ING Direct holds about $14,000 while I’ve allowed my business savings account to accumulate.

One of the reasons I haven’t invested most of this is because, as I’ve been saying for a few years, I want to have the funds available for when I decide to purchase a house and need a down payment. I’m still not keen on the idea of settling down.

Overall result: mild success. I don’t set net worth targets any more due to the volatility of the stock market. I should end the year with a modified net worth of around $300,000. I have to extend great thanks to the stock market for recovering this year from lows at the end of 2008.

Although I earned more money this year than I earned in 2008, I also spent more money. Overall, my “savings,” what I have left of my income after expenses, decreased by about $20,000. If we take taxes out of the picture, the situation changes. I paid close to $50,000 in taxes this year, including a significant 2008 tax bill, compared to $20,000 in 2008.

Thankfully, I’m working with an accountant now who has already saved me $15,000 between 2007 and 2008.

Tomorrow, I will use some of these results to determine my financial targets for 2010. Did you meet your goals this year?

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I almost participated in a boycott of Amazon.com. This was almost a decade ago when Amazon filed for a patent for its 1-Click ordering process. The patent was struck down in 2007 but I didn’t notice. In the face of Amazon’s low prices and, in my state, exemption from sales tax, my convictions didn’t stand a chance.

Today, Amazon is still my retailer of choice. In almost all cases, anything I could buy elsewhere costs less on Amazon if it is available. I decided last year to begin paying the annual $79 fee for Amazon Prime which provides me with free two-day shipping for almost all products and one-day shipping for $3.99.

I have also added the Amazon application to my new cell phone. Now when I’m shopping without advance preparation, I can scan the UPC bar code and view the product information, including price, specifications, and reviews, if Amazon sells the same item. Often, if the price is lower and I can wait another day or two before using the product, I opt to save money and buy from Amazon. I can do this using the formerly-avoided 1-Click ordering from my phone while I am in the store offering the same product for a higher price.

Part of the appeal is that in New Jersey, the state in which I live and the shipping destination for most of the products I buy, I do not need to pay sales tax on internet-based purchases from Amazon. Most states do not require sales tax if the company does not have a retail presence in the state. Amazon in New Jersey falls into that category. If you live in New Jersey or in 44 other states, you do not have to pay sales tax when you purchase and receive items from Amazon. New York shoppers once received the same benefit, but the state, in need of money, has at least temporarily begun requiring sales tax payments.

If you live in Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, or Oregon, Amazon’s practices should not matter because you would not pay sales tax regardless of whether the company has a retail presence.

Theoretically, in states that do require sales tax, you are supposed to pay a “use tax” when you file your state tax return to cover any purchases for which you did not pay sales tax to your state. This would include out-of-state purchases as well as online shopping.

This seems, like the patent filing, to be a way for Amazon to slip through the cracks of the law in order to hold an unfair advantage over competing retailers. Even Target.com, operated by Amazon, charges sales tax in most states. The two sides of the argument are succinct:

  • If Amazon does not have a retail presence — physical, brick-and-mortar offices for the retail arm of the company — in any state, the law says it does not need to pay sales tax in that state.
  • Even if Amazon doesn’t have a retail presence in a state, it most likely has offices for one of its many subsidiaries in that state. Those subsidiaries require public services like police and fire protection, and should therefore pay taxes to support those services.

Amazon is getting around the sales tax requirement by compartmentalizing every aspect of its business into subsidiaries. Almost all large companies do the same thing in order to benefit from the most business-friendly laws, including those pertaining to taxes.

Here is the real problem, however. Online commerce has existed for over a decade and there still hasn’t been any great progress in determining how best to govern that activity. Until there are more uniform rules, Amazon will do whatever it can to avoid paying taxes, I will shop at Amazon to avoid paying taxes (although it is often the lowest-priced competitor anyway), and out-of-state friends will continue to ship their packages directly to my address to avoid paying taxes.

Should all Amazon shoppers pay sales tax? Money being spent on purchases from Amazon is money that is not being spent in local stores. Those states with sales tax laws are losing out on income, income that is much needed in a recession and when states are having budgetary shortfalls. These shortfalls are recovered through increased income taxes, property taxes, and perhaps roadway tolls, with a larger burden on individual taxpayers. But yet, tax-exempt purchases could be keeping prices down, encouraging spending and some level of economic growth.

Do you pay taxes for your Amazon purchases? If you have never paid sales taxes for products you buy from Amazon but your state’s law changed to require you to pay sales tax, would your behavior change? I do not think the addition of a sales tax on Amazon purchases in New Jersey would be enough to encourage me to buy more products in brick-and-mortar locations. My only considerations and total price and convenience.

Note: This article was updated after it was published to remove an incorrect statement about how retailers collect and pay sales tax.
Sorry, Shoppers, but Why Can’t Amazon Collect More Tax?, Randall Stross, New York Times, December 26, 2009

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Podcast 36: Being Financially Secure in Today’s Economy, Jane Bryant Quinn

by Luke Landes

Today’s episode of the Consumerism Commentary Podcast features Jany Bryant Quinn, author of Making the Most of Your Money Now: The Classic Bestseller Completely Revised for the New Economy. The book will be released this Tuesday, December 29, 2009 and here is a review. Tom Dziubek, Flexo, and Jane Bryant Quinn discuss the author’s revisions […]

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Weekend Reading: Buying in Bulk, Cool Nerds, and Diamond Rings

by Luke Landes

Happy holidays! If you’re like me, you are probably thankful that the holiday shopping season is coming to a close. Yes, after Christmas there are some sales that can’t be ignored: if you buy Christmas-related items, now is the time to find them for 50 percent to 90 percent off their regular prices. And as stores try […]

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12 Last Minute Gift Ideas

by Kelly Whalen

This article is presented by Kelly Whalen, Consumerism Commentary staff writer. With only one more day until Christmas you may still be in the market for a few last minute gifts. If you are like me, the idea of driving through traffic and elbowing through crowds to find gifts is not going to bring you […]

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Can You Ever Have Enough Money?

by Outlaw

This is a guest article by Outlaw, who lives and works in New York’s financial district and writes on the blog Credit Card Outlaw. When I first became fascinated with personal finance strategy, I was in serious credit card debt. I couldn’t find full-time work. I felt like an idiot. Every month, a new credit […]

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Wrapping Up a Decade: Better Off in 1999 or 2009?

by Luke Landes

This decade flew by. Ten years ago, I had recently graduated college and had been working for a non-profit arts organization. At this point in my life, I didn’t know it, but I was setting myself up for financial problems. Despite working 80 or more hours a week during the summer and fall, despite living […]

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Free Gifts From Lending Club’s DebtBuster Challenge

by Luke Landes

As I mentioned yesterday, the path to getting out of debt can sometimes be aided by consolidating your credit cards or loans. You might, for example, transfer your credit card balances to the one card with the lowest interest rate. With credit card issuers’ current practices, that will likely be a variable rate, subject to […]

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