October 3, 2012

The $250 Experiment Follow-Up, A Recipe for Pasta Salad and Lessons In Valuation

Back in August I reported that I was partaking in a $250 budget experiment, the experiment being could I eat and socialize on a mere $250 a month.

The short answer is, no.

Of course, you say, who can eat and socialize in Chicago, matter of fact, anywhere in this day and age, on only $250 a month? It seems impossible, but things were looking good for me the first two weeks; I was maintaining my weekly budget and I wasn't feeling deprived, well, almost didn't feel deprived. Then, something happened on the 17th and I found myself falling off the wagon. (Of course this aligned nicely with the weekend). I could blame it on a well known hip-hop song, but I won't, I take full responsibility for my actions.

Here's what I learned:
  1. Staying on budget takes time and planning.
  2. People can high-jack your plan with their fun, social ideas.
  3. There’s a lot that you can do with a box of pasta, mushrooms, grape tomatoes, a can of olives and a can of artichokes -- I mean, a lot.
  4. Cooked pasta doesn’t freeze well. (See #3)
  5. Organic anything goes out the window when you are comparative shopping.
  6. There's soy in like, everything packaged, I mean, everything. (See #5)
  7. Whiskey on the rocks for $10 a pop will last through your friend’s two $12 craft cocktails.
  8. Travel items that you snagged from hotel rooms become really useful.
  9. You have no qualms telling the cashier - "We're working with $40 here, just fyi." You do a high-five when the total comes in at $38.00 + change.
  10. You get really good at negotiations.
  11. You get really pissed off at your cell phone company for not being more competitive.
  12. Quarters, in vast quantities, can buy you lunch or a cheap beer and this brings you joy.
  13. Speaking of change, your loose change jar, half-full, makes you feel rich; this is what excitement looks like.
  14. You know you’re in deep when you start planning dates -- which come with a free dinner -- into your budget.
  15. #14, and the fact that you can wear heels and make-up and bring life into this world, is the only time you might have reveled in being a woman.
Would I do it all again, yes, but I'm going to wait until the winter when it's easier to hibernate over a bowl of chili and movies and the impending harsh winter we will have hit us in Chicago. (It's happening folks, last year was a breeze).

What's more important though, is that I learned a lesson on valuation. Many times in life we look towards that next moment -- when I finally get that job, lose the weight, find the one, get my shit together, to define who we are at a current place in time and consequently, our definition of success.
For me, at the moment I took a budget diet I was working on the "when I finally pay off those medical bills." Unknowingly, I was evaluating myself on a balance sheet perspective. Being financially responsible is a must and definitely something to strive for, but we are humans, not organizations - last time I checked we didn't come with a ticker symbol; when did we start acting like we did.

Bottom line: It is possible to stick to a budget or anything that you embark on but easy to make excuses (time, work, friends, etc). Exercises in discipline require making hard choices and unattractive trade-offs, and anything that requires discipline takes time and planning; you shouldn't fault yourself for having neither when you embark on a goal. Next time you notice that you are "valuating" yourself keep the thought as a guide but also try measuring the things that we often overlook -- that which you give to the people in your life and your community. You can try to find that on a balance sheet, but why.

Lessons in valuation to be continued . . .

$250 Budget Pasta Salad for a Week

I didn't break this one down by costs but it's safe to say this lunch is less than $3.00 a pop. Wasn't fab but wasn't that bad either.

1 bag of pasta (Don't skimp here, get the good stuff!)

1 can of black olives, sliced
1 jar of marinated mushrooms
1 can of artichokes (preferably marinated)
1 box of cherry tomatoes
1 large (hormone pumped) chicken breast, cooked and diced
Heavy dash of white balsamic vinegar (you can use red but you'll get red pasta, yum)

Mix all together and toss in a little Italian dressing if your artichokes and mushrooms didn't come marinated. If you want more suffrage, throw in some broccoli. This easily lasted me about a week, but warning, you can't freeze it. . . well, you can, but it ain't pretty.

PS. I'd recommend you try the experiment just for a week if not a month to see how creative you get. Who knows, it may just finance that thing you must have oh so dearly.

PPS. Medical bills paid off. Bam!

Thanks for reading!

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September 5, 2012

Back to School - What's the Value of a Degree?

At the tail end of a recession, education has taken a hit as college enrollment has decreased and those previously thinking about going back to school have put that thought on hold. Those holding degrees, even multiple degrees for some, are looking forward and wondering what they got themselves into by pursuing the "righteous" path while they work underpaid, underutilized jobs.

I came across a Forbe’s interview between publisher, Rich Karlgaard and Jeff Joerres, CEO of ManpowerGroup about the situation we are currently in as an economy where the talent pool doesn’t match the available job pool and became intrigued by a statement made by Joerres:

“Parents want to send their kids to college, not a trade school. That the kid might end up waiting tables with his history degree is, weirdly, considered a better result than if the kid had gone to a technical school and become a master plumber, even though the plumber will earn four times as much.”

This stuck with me because it’s oddly true. I went to school for the performing arts with a specialty in dance and after college, armed with a four-year degree, I found myself making a living (to support my very expensive educated liberal arts profession) through serving and bartending. Sure I had a degree, but I really didn’t need one at that point. And yes, I looked better on paper but my bank account didn’t reflect. Little would I know also that while I was grinding away getting an MBA, I would fall into a market that no longer cared about master degrees.

As a culture that has spent decades promoting a society of four-year degrees, MBA's and PhD's and pumping thinkers into the economy, we have forgotten about the manufacturing industry and while we saturated the service industry yet lobbied to bring manufacturing back to America, we faced a trade industry complaining that it can’t find skilled workers in a time of high unemployment.

Something is wrong with the system when the available jobs don't match those seeking them. Whether or not this was a product of the "invisible hand" or economic and social policy we are in a cultural shift where getting a degree doesn’t imply anything anymore, especially the one thing it's supposed to guarantee -- a job. While an culturally educated and skilled worker is necessary to global competition and national progress, it’s no longer true that our existing institutions provide the sure ticket. This puts higher education under a serious spotlight and the institutions that have strategically structured like a for-profit company verses a learning institution will have to adapt to compete as demand dwindles.

As Jeeves mentions, the fact that we celebrate a person who goes to college yet ends up working a job that doesn’t require a degree because the economy doesn’t need this person’s skills yet don’t celebrate that person who doesn’t and fulfills a place in the workforce, potentially even becoming a craftsman in his/her trade is a nod to the imbalance between economic truth and cultural truth.

We are in a place where the two are colliding and it looks like 8.2% unemployment. (Or 15% or 22% depending who you are talking to). The problem is, we are starting to wake up.

Thanks for reading!

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August 17, 2012

Why Amstel Light's Savor Complexity Campaign Makes Me Giddy

I never considered myself an ad geek until I got all giddy about Old Spice back in 2011. Amstel Light’s new campaign,Savor Complexity, by Droga5 New York, has reinforced this geekness.

As a brand, Amstel Light hasn’t been known in the past for shelling out great ad campaigns. Its popularity in the market I would argue was based on the premise that it wasn’t Miller or Bud Light, and that it was "imported" making it a better product by default. Actually, I couldn't even recall an Amstel Light campaign if you asked me but apparently, they've had them.

Their most recent integrated campaign, however, created to move the beer away from it's low calorie yet full body positioning and posit it as a complex, sophisticated and multi-dimensional beer, or in other words "deep", via the well-crafted storytelling of commonly simple things like hamburgers, darts and pigeons, got me giddy like a schoolgirl.

Here’s why the campaign is likeable.

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August 7, 2012

The $250 Experiment

It was on the second floor of a heavily trafficked building in downtown Chicago as I was deeply contemplating the menus of Jamba Juice and McDonald's that I started to realize what I had gotten myself into. It was Day 2 of “The $250 experiment” and there I was, standing amidst the morning rush crowd debating the cost/benefit analysis between a 16 oz. Jamba Juice pure fruit smoothie and the McDonald’s counterpart – the former probably healthier, the latter substantially cheaper.

I was on a budget.

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July 26, 2012

[TOMs] -- Dude, What Happened to all the Socks?

When TOMs shoes first came out they were little more than a product extension of something you might find off the hemp rack in Whole Foods -and Blake Mycoski, for the most part, was just another name. The shoe, based off the design of the popular Argentine shoe, called the Alpargata, seemed like nothing more than an overly priced piece of oddly shaped canvas following in the footsteps of the Chuck Taylors and Vans before it, differentiated by this new Buy One Give One Model.  It wasn’t odd to see 1 out of every 200 people wearing a pair last summer. But then something happened recently, and like UGG's, everyone had a pair. And then there were 2 inch wedges (which I heart), then bling'ed out ones (which a friend wore to her wedding); to most teenagers, they have become what Doc Marten’s were to my generation (which I never had).

Blake first got attention with this unique buy-one-give-one model unheard of from previous for-profit companies; giving away product for free seems like the obvious way to bankrupt a business. Then he got attention from the business world for being a successful for-profit that actually carried out a non-profit mission. Call it a business model hybrid. It seemed Blake had unearthed the holy grail to business success - win consumer's over, be a humanitarian and still net a profit, and consumers were loving it.

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