Saturday, August 27, 2011

I'll be back Sept 1, 11

Hurricane Gilbert, 1988 Landscaping and lawn decor
Photo credit: Newscom

It's looking like NYC will be out of power for a few days. H and I are making a few preparations and then will be hunkering down to hang out in our hallway until the storm passes. As a last post, I thought I'd feature my favourite hurricane photo. I know that sounds grim - who has a favourite photo of a mass disaster? Well, people about to undergo a mass disaster I suppose. This particular shot is brilliant, if not just because it looks like a giant hand picked up a boat and dropped it on this guy's front yard.

In anycase, all the best to you. H, I'll see you in a few minutes.


Friday, August 26, 2011

Natural disasters

Irene, extraordinary, expensive - high maintenance lady

As anyone has likely heard, hurricane Irene is on its way. It will hit the coast of North Carolina today as a category 2 hurricane - but, will pretty itself up for a trip to Manhattan, where it will pull out all of the stops as at least a category 1, possibly a category 3 storm.

Why is this a problem? Well, New York is low lying, and in the Northern end of a well traveled storm path known as the Gulf stream. We are particularly susceptible to storm surges - which are arguably the most dangerous part of a hurricane. Thing is, we get tropical depressions and Nor'Easters, but we haven't seen a landfall hurricane possibly ever...and certainly not one close enough to do serious, serious damage since 1938....and that was a glancing blow.

Irene promises to be different. It is a very large and slow moving storm that will move over, what I now understand, to be unusually warm water surrounding the city. As you likely know, warm water = hurricane speed up.

Irene is special for another reason. New York is in the direct path of her crapness. What does this mean? It means the stuff you saw in the ill thought out godzilla remake in the mid-90s is actually happening. The city is simultaneously shutting down mass transit and ordering mandatory evacuations AT THE SAME TIME. I'm not sure if you will see people running back and forth around a big green foot, but the situation is serious enough that we've had to do three I didn't think I would have to do.

We had to make a "Go bag", an evacuation plan and an emergency connection plan

H and I are still working on the evacuation plan. His employers and I are in disagreement about the risk of this hurricane. Right now, they want him to report to work. If he insists on being there, maybe we will hole up in that building.

We made an emergency connection plan - if we are separated, we will meet at specific, public location.

The Go bag - unexpected expense - we dropped about $80 on it yesterday. I'm budgeting it into "household expenses". Our go bag contains

a) all important ID
b) water
c) first aid kit
d) all portable hard drives
e) toothbrush, toothpaste
f) energy/granola bars and tin goods
g) pet food
h) cash
i) my laptop = my dissertation
j) underwear
k) flashlight, spare batteries
l) medications

Beside that, we stocked up on food and water, and have a blanket and pillows ready for an evacuation.

Now we just need to settle that evacuation plan. So far, leaving the city and living this out in inland Connecticut is very appealing, but will cost a pretty penny.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Short post today - Thank you Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs will stay on as Apple's Chairman

...but alas has given the CEO seat to someone else. I do feel bad for Jobs and his family - particularly since I can see his clavicle under his sweater in this photo. I deeply suspect, like many others, that he is stepping into the chairman position because he will soon be too ill to continue as any executive. An intermediate move to chairman will help keep the company stable during what will be a very rocky end of week and months for the market.

He has been lucky. While most patients with a pancreatic cancer diagnosis get a few weeks, he has been very fortunate to have nearly a decade. I didn't think I would feel like this, because, well, I don't know him. I do genuinely feel remorse for Jobs and his family.

While Mr. Jobs and his family and company are preparing for his move to the backseat, I can't help but wonder what this will do to the markets Thursday and Friday. Apple is a cornerstone of the American markets right now (more money than the U.S. Treasury apparently). Thursday was predicted to be a swell of trading and setting up positions ahead of Bernanke's speech Friday. The Jobs resignation might change that - hasten it, introduce additional instability. It's odd to think that such a horrible event for one person and their family could actually affect what the exchange rate will much money I will be able to put aside...what my retirement savings will be worth next month.

I'm not very consumerist, but I do enjoy having a stable and speedy laptop, a simple and tiny machine that carries my music, an apple store that I can walk into 24/7 to fix my computer problems no questions asked. My work life is easier because of simple perceptions of ease and subsequent alterations to personal electronics. It's kind of sad to see the master of taking the complex and sophisticated and making simple and accessible, step away from the helm.

Dear Mr. Jobs - my best wishes to you. In the last ten years, you have changed my life for the better. Thank you, and Mr. Wozniak and Wayne.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Breaking up on a really, really small budget

"You won't be needing that"

I've spent a lot of time writing about food and weddings on this blog. H and I are pretty tight with a couple who broke up a little while ago. The break up deeply shocked at least one member of the couple. I reminded me that I once broke up with someone I lived with in this city....and that, that break up almost financially ruined me.

Renting in NYC is damn pricey

It's no surprise that living in NYC costs a pretty penny. Rent is especially high, and tends to dictate a person's monthly allowance for "luxuries" like gym memberships and cable. I spend more in my rent monthly than my sibling spends in mortgage payments and insurance every month. Why would anyone ever do that?

Well, 55% of all New Yorkers rent their apartments. I would buy my apartment if I could, but alas a mere 350 sq feet in the cheapest neighbourhood South of 96th street will cost a body at least $200 000. Those 350 sq feet will cost you a lot more if you plan on living in any neighbourhood you heard about on Sex and the City or any other number of fluffy, syrupy television shows about New York. It costs a lot to buy here, about as much to rent. If you are low to middle income, it can be very difficult to gain financial ground. Many people live hand to mouth just to put aside an emergency fund, let alone a down payment.

Add to that the cost of moving - a minimum $500 for movers to schlep your stuff from 5th floor of the walk-up you can afford to the top for floor of the next walk-up you can afford, along with basic moving supplies, and the dreaded first and sometimes last and sometimes even an additional month's rent as security for the new apartment and a traditional move in New York for the lowest end studio or 1 bedroom apartment costs at least $2.5K, usually more.....definitely more if you include a broker's fee.

High rent +break ups = more to worry about than who is keeping the apartment

It's very hard to find affordable housing here. Until the 2008 market crash, most apartment dwellers earned their apartment by being taken to town by countless real estate brokers (15% broker's fees for low end apartments). It's even harder to find an apartment with a few desirable features like a partial kitchen, southern exposure or on site laundry. When you find that big apartment, with the echoey kitchen, short number of flights, southern exposure and maybe even a closet you can convert into an office, and slam down those broker's fees and down payments'll fight to keep that apartment.

Most articles about apartments and breaking up in New York focus on exactly that - who gets the apartment? Such articles gloss over the harsh reality of live-in couple break ups - that is the end of a long term relationship can be financially devastating, even if you don't share any assets.

High rent + sudden break up = WTF do I do now?

What do you do when the break up is sudden? In the case of our friends, one simply left the other with literally minutes worth of notice. Moreover, the one that left makes many fold the income of the other and had been paying the majority of the rent. What do you do when you are mid-lease and caught completely unawares? What do you do when you don't have an emergency fund?

I found myself in very similar circumstances 6 years ago. In my case, my ex and I were olympian credit card users as well. For me, the problem became managing consumer and student debt on 1/3 of my previous year's income AND keeping the apartment. My solution was pretty simple - pack and move to cheaper digs until things emotionally and financially settled down.

How I broke up on a budget in NYC

For me (and I'm not a financial advisor) the best approach was to cut losses and cut losses fast. How do you do that? I took a long hard honest look at my money and fought to preserve it. Here is what I did that first week.

1) Listed all of my basic costs
It was painful, but I sat down and listed out every monthly expense I had

2) Listed all debts and assets - shared or otherwise
This was a really awful but necessary experience. I owed well ~100K on my own. He owed money as well. If I intended to financially survive after this hiccup, I needed to know what debts were due right now and how much I owed for the remainder

3) Listed all of my income coming in.
I listed all income actually coming in..not income I thought might come into my hands

4) Basic costs + debt payments - income = could I financially get by without him?
Nope. I very quickly realized that I couldn't financially survive for very long without some support.

and then over the 1-2 months I...

5) spoke to my landlord about breaking my lease
I told my landlord what had happened and offered to help find a new tenant for a few months down the road. They were very understanding and I was spared the cost of my security deposit.

6) found a considerably cheaper apartment - without a broker
This is important - I skipped using a broker. That meant a lot more footwork for me. In the post-2008 real estate market, many management companies are simply renting directly to the consumer - no fees attached. I stayed in the new digs for about 6 months while I got back on track. The switch to a cheaper place made a big difference in my ability to financially recover. Had I been really been with it, I would have found someone looking for a roommate - still, my new digs were cheap enough to let me pay the immediately bills and get my footing.

7) did not use a mover
I needed that $500. Are you kidding me? I borrowed and rent vehicles and enlisted friends to help move what remained of my destuffed stuff. On the odd chance that my friends could not help me, I threw out or sold well over half of what I owned.

8) cut unnecessary costs
I dumped gym memberships, stopped eating out and (after a brief spurt of insane consumerism) I stopped shopping. It was time to gird the wallet

9) did not ask my ex for specific the beginning
I did not want to have to hire and pay a lawyer to fight my ex for my property, so I made the property a non-issue. I was not, afterall, fighting for the custody of a child or a major asset. I temporarily adopted the view that most everything could be replaced. Everything was packed up in storage and when we calmed down a few months later, we methodically went through shared property and decided who would get what.

10) sold and destuffed as much of my property as possible
Apart from being immensely therapeutic, selling some of the items that were just mine lessened the cost of my move (supplies, gas, vehicle rentals).

11) separated all bank accounts
I actually didn't do this right away. Perhaps I should have. It was done eventually though.

12) made a list of I owed him, and what he owed me
We were both very poor and very much in debt at the time, but we had both paid 1000s of dollars to each other for various expenses over the years. I had paid more to him than he to me. I knew that I needed to be repaid to settle some of the debt I still held from the relationship, so I made a list. When things calmed down a little between us I spoke to him about the debts and we set a repayment plan in place. This plan was only possible because our break up stayed above board - and very friendly.

13) increased my income
I quickly took on additional jobs so that I could repair the financial damage of my relationship and our break up. I searched craigslist, asked my current employers and aggressively put my name in at every place I could think of that offered pay and flexible hours. I took on odd jobs, contract name it, I did it.

14) started my emergency fund
Yup, it took nearly being homeless and bankrupted by a relationship gone wrong for me to do - but that's when I start paying myself that 10% a pay cheque.

And eventually, I....

15) read up on personal finance - specifically for single ladies
Along with various "For Dummies" books about stock investing and value investing, I read "The Everything Guide to Personal Finance for Single Mothers". I am not a single mother, but it was the only version of the "Everything" personal finance series that I could get as an ebook from the New York Public Library. It might be the best thing I ever did. I had been given most of the financial advice made in the book at other times. I can't say I followed all the advice the book gave. What really change my life was the book's bottom line descriptions of poverty stats - that most desperately poor people are women (often widowed women). It is worth reading just for the wake up call. It also contains descriptions of how wealthy people manage their own finances (i.e. buy used, not new etc.).

16) started aggressively decreasing my debt and conservatively investing
This took a little longer for me to get rolling on that I thought it would. Eventually, I started taking a more active hand in lowering my debt and preparing for retirement.

How did I break up on a budget? In short, I ditched the apartment, cut costs and increased income as quickly as possible.

Have I recovered? Emotionally - yes....years ago. Financially - almost. It took me about 6 weeks to recover from the immediate costs of a the break up (moving, the many phone bills etc), in part because I immediately moved to reduce day to day and break up costs. It has taken me a few more years to recover from the debt acquired during the relationship...but that's a story for another time.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Rooftop bar

I heart art museums and rooftop bars, together at last

As you know, my cash and my time budgets are pretty limited these days. Occasionally, my bosses and the last heaves of my dissertation drive me so nuts, I actually leave my dissertation behind and enjoy a few hours out. I try to make those hours count, because, well they and my dollars are few and far between.

This past week I made those hours and bucks count by visiting the rooftop bar on the top of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yup, the museum has a bar...on the roof. It has been there for many, many years and attracts a fair crowd. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to find it was not crowded - just happily full.

As you might expect, the drinks are pricey ($8.50 a beer - hardly a bargain), if you aren't a member you need to donate some amount of the recommended donation to enter. I happen to be a member, but if I wasn't I think I could justify $1 towards entry. The Met, after all, holds huge galas and gets big pay cheques for'd be okay with letting Hearst publications and the like pay my remaining $13 donation.

So the drinks are a little pricey, but the view is amazing - Park-wide, 5th avenue - and because the hours are 5:30 pm to 8:00 pm, beautiful sunset views to boot. The Met frequently features an outdoor sculpture exhibit on the roof as well.

Tasty drinks and views

I don't know why I expected the patrons to have attitude or be of the beer pong, blue shirt, black backpack, young trader ilk - but I was pleasantly surprised to find a really friendly and sweet mix of people. No shots, or giggling girls re-enacting Sex in the City, just groups of friends, all ages enjoying the sunset on their way to some other location. The bar had a really nice vibe.

Here how is how you get there. Pay your donation at the main entrance of the Met. Ask a security guard to guide you to the elevators to the bar (hang a left in the main lobby, walk behind the security desk and take an immediate left through two or three galleries and you will reach the elevator bank in about 2 minutes). The bar is open from about April to October, depending on the year - so the Summer offers the longest sunsets, and the Fall offers sparkly city views.

Be forewarned - it is a simple set up. The bar is set up like a backyard wedding bar. There is no food, and it's a $11.50 for a glass of basic red wine. My advice is to sip that wine slowly and wander the perimeter of the roof and wait for the sun to set.

In anycase, it's a lovely location for anyone craving a low key rooftop on which to spend a sunset. You get the same sunset as someone living on 5th avenue, for $1 + the price of a drink, if you are so inclined. It's a lovely way to grab a little piece of fancy schmancy NYC while on a budget.

Awwww shine on little sun. I'll see you tomorrow

Monday, August 22, 2011

If I were postdoctoral funding.....

.....where would I be?

Short musing today on the decision all doctoral candidates have to make at some point.

How many more years can you stand to be someone else's b#$%^ for very little money.

There are three options for any graduating doctoral student in the sciences

1) quit academia for the lush life of cube sitting at an NGO/gov office/corporation and using that statistics course you had to take first year

2) quit research and go for a lectureship or company-based R&D

3) go into research as a post-doc in someone else's lab.

Number 3 can further be broken down into

i) interview for positions where you will be paid ~37K annually out of someone else's grant or start up funds and spend the next 2-3 years completing that research relatively hassle-free (extremely rare).

ii) interview for positions where you will be paid ~37K annually out of someone else's grant or start up funds and spend the next 3-10 years desperately trying to meet the requirements of someone else's research program......someone getting paid much more than you, to go home at night, see their spouse and read to their children while you, underling-being-paid-annually-approximately-$3000-for-every-year-of-your-post-secondary-education, sleep with your head on a bench and are subjected to lectures about how only very special scientists can manage a career and a life/kids and that you are clearly not one of those scientists (very, very common).

iii) interview with P.I.s with explicit interest of bringing your own research money to their lab, thus granting yourself some research autonomy by at least providing for your own wage slightly above 37K (rare).

Option 3-iii is the ideal. If I'm going to spend another 2-4 years in graduate-style poverty, I might as well being doing research that I want to do.

First, I must find the grants.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Stocking a kitchen for $5 meals

I heart food

Hey All,

Part of learning to live on a budget is learning to spend money in the right places. The "right places" might differ from person to person. For me, and I think for most graduate students in NYC, this spending the money to make a number of cheap meals a week and budgeting to eat in restaurants a few times a month. Even the lowest end food is pretty amazing here. You wouldn't want to live here and miss it.

With that balance in mind, I post the occasional $5 and $10 meals for 2-4 people on this blog. Part of making low cost meals is gradually building a pantry and fridge with basic goods.

It occurred to me that my list of must haves might be useful for anyone cooking $5-10 meals for the first time.


Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Good for everything but deep frying. I prefer Greek, as I use Olive Oil in a lot of cold dishes

Sesame Oil
A little indulgence I keep for Asian recipes

Basalmic, White Wine, Red Wine, Rice and White Vinegar
I use the first three of these vinegars in salad dressings, sauces and marinades. I use white vinegar for candy making.

Soy Sauce
For Asian recipes and sometimes as a replacement for salt

A small luxury for Asian recipes

Tomato paste, Tomato sauce, Diced plummed Tomatoes (all canned)
I keep these stocked in the winter time for sauces, soups and stews where the featured ingredient is not tomato.

Black Olive Paste/Tapenade
Used for pasta sauces, sandwiches and entertaining

For baking, sweetening tea...stealing the occasional spoonful. I love clover honey, but I try to get wildflower (allegedly better for the bees).

Baking chocolate
For all kinds of bakey goodness


Anchovies in Oil
I used these in dressings and pasta sauces..the occasional homemade pizza

I try to get free range organic, cash permitting
Skim milk and greek yogurt
Drinking, baking and dressings

For Asian and Western soups and marinades

Red and White wine and beer
For cooking and entertaining

Bulgarian Feta, Sheep milk and Argentinian Reggiato cheese
For salads, snacks and pasta dishes. The flavours vary and these particular cheeses are very, very cheap. I usually only have one around at a time.

Butter (salted, unless a recipe really requires unsalted)
Baking, baking, baking

Dry Goods

Brown, Basmatic and Sushi Rice
For sides, main courses and - sushi, of course

Wheat berries
For protein rich salads and stuffing

Dry whole wheat penne and spaghetti
I often make fresh pasta, but some recipes really are better with dry pasta. Some of the top restaurants in NYC use dry pasta for some of their if it is good enough for them...

White Unbleached Bread Flour
For cookies, bread and biscuits

White Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
For cakes. If I make a chiffon or angel food cake, I might pick up a few cups of pastry flour

White, Confectioners and Brown Sugar
For baking, of oatmeal

Baking Soda and Baking Powder
For cookies and cakes

Cream of Tartar
I keep this around because I make candy and it is a good binding agent.

Cocoa Powder
ALL KINDS OF BAKING!! I usually have dutch processed kicking around, though apparently alkaline processed powder can be found easily now.

Oatmeal (traditional, not quick oats)
For breakfast and baking

Coffee beans
It is so much most cost effective to brew my own (50 cups for $14, versus $1.50 a cup at Starbucks). I have a soft spot for Dean and Deluca House Blend, but recently I've been getting the considerably cheaper Zabar's House Blend.


I accumulated these spices over the first 6 months of setting up shop in my own apartment in NYC. They get cycled out about once a year. The ones with a star beside them are the ones I bought on the first grocery trip - starter spices, I guess.

* Ground Cinnamon (occasionally cinnamon sticks)

Cloves (whole)

* Nutmeg (at the moment, ground)

* Coriander (ground and whole)

* Cumin (ground and whole)

Star Anise (a luxury)

Ginger (ground and occasionally fresh)


Green Cardamon (ground - whole when I can find it cheap)

Mustard (ground)

* Red Chili peppers (ground, whole and flakes)

* Cayenne pepper


Fennel seeds

Caraway seeds

Kosher Salt (and sometimes sea salt)

Black Peppercorns


* Bay Leaves

* Oregano

Garlic powder

Curry Powder (make my own)

Baking Goods


Dry Cranberries (on occasion)

Chocolate chips


Peanut Butter

Vanilla extract


Basic Fruit and Veg
(This is the basic stuff always in my fridge. I supplement every week with various berries and cool veg when it is in season or on sale. I'm on a kick about white nectarines at the moment).

Roma tomatoes

Grape tomatoes


Green Apples


a lime

Bulbs of garlic

Basil or Cilantro or Tarragon or Thyme or Dill



Onions (Vidalla or purple)

Sweet potatoes

Leafy greens - spinach, kale, red lettuce, mesclun mix and the like


Chicken and Vegetable stock
made during the winter from my scrap chicken bones and ends of various vegetables

Bananas (and other fruit on the verge)

Luxury Items that come and go

(We buy meats opportunistically)

Soda stream flavour mixes

All sorts of fantastic but seasonal fruit and veg - like figs, pomegranites, rhubarb, fava beans

Prosciutto, panchetta and cured meats of the like

Marscapone, various fancy cheeses

Heavy cream

Pita Bread, Wasa crackers of Finn Crisps - most bread products

Black cardamon

Special salts

Green and Red Curry Paste (for Thai dishes)

Fish Sauce (for Thai dishes)

Fenugreek seeds (for Indian cooking)

Coconut milk

Sweetened condensed and evaporated milk (for holiday baking)

Agave nectar

Maple syrup

Anything else? What do you keep on hand

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Wedding rings: make your own

Sometimes the most economic and heartfelt gesture is DIY

I promise to follow up with more on this later - there are a few services kicking around NYC that cost a pretty penny but allow you to make your own engagement ring. It occurred to me that there had to be workshops available through the fashion schools or a lapsmithing society that would teach a person much more about jewelry design and provide them with the opportunity to make an engagement ring.

So..if you are feeling crafty or want to test an interest in jewelry-making-for-real I wanted to let you know that Fashion Institute of Technology offers continuing education and workshops on jewelry design that would teach you a few of these skills.

For considerably less money, the 92nd street Y offers many different courses in jewelry design - from metal working to stone setting to lost wax work.

For more information on jewerly design courses near you, check out the information page of the Society of American Silversmiths.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Semi-precious engagement rings on Etsy

I had intended to post this note on Thursday, but I'm so excited about these artisan rings that I decided to write about them today.

I love engagement rings featuring semi-precious stones. With near limitless colours, cuts and size semi-precious stones open up so many more style possibilities than diamonds. When I was a kid, semi-precious stones were always found in these high, pronged settings, decorated by diamond chips that mimicked precious stones the way a 12 year old might wear her older sister's make up - "You look cheap. Be yourself".

That is, perhaps, why I love artisanal rings featuring semi-precious stones. The rings I most admire seem to follow the vibe of the stone, rather than trying to dress it up like a diamond. I really dig the current trend of putting large semi-precious stones in a bezel setting. To me, the setting lends a pure feeling to the ring - like it might have been excavated out of some long forgotten house foundation, and you are the first person to see it in over a thousand years. Specifically, the rings below remind me of Roman era jewelry and many endless and happy hours I've spent combing through museum displays.

I have not purchased any items from these vendors. I just love the spirit and design of their work so much I really had to share these sites with you. All rings feature semi-precious stones, use reclaimed materials and are made and sold by vendors on Etsy.

...and, of course, all are lower cost

Photo credit: Christine Mighion jewelry

Down right beautiful organic, clean designs with big stones. I love, love, love this big amethyst ring, which retails in the $300-400 range.

Photo credit: Erin Jane Designs

I actually mentioned Erin Jane Designs earlier this week. I adore her rings. They have a very clean design, some are more geometric than others and the stones are often cut in a "rose" cut - which is an unusual and very pretty cut. This is a beautiful champagne quartz set in reclaimed sterling silver retailing for under $100.

Photo credit: ESDesigns

Elizabeth Scott Designs (Botanical Jewelry)
This is actually precious stone (a ruby), but I love the simple and clean design of this ring. The ruby looks like a flower at the top of a stem. Love it. This ring can be stacked as well, if you are so inclined. ESDesigns has many botanically or water inspired rings and made with recycled metals. This ring retails between $200-$300.

Photo credit: Michelle Lenae Jewelry

I looooove blue stones, so I am a particular fan of this ring which features a rose cut blue topaz set in 14k gold. Michelle Lenae Jewelry works with recycled gold and conflict free gemstones. Many of her current pieces use semi-precious stones in light greens, yellows and blues...lending the rings a kind of ethereal quality. I adore the aquamarine version of this ring (below). Both rings retail for between $300-$400.
Photo credit: Michelle Lenae Jewelry

So - what do we think? Yummy or what?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Great sources for low cost and eco-friendly wedding rings

Finding a ring and keeping a clear conscience can be tough

H and I were determined to not spend more than $300 outfitting ourselves with various wedding and engagement rings. We also wanted to limit the ecological and human damage the purchase of our rings would promote. The easiest, low cost, ethical and eco-friendly solution to acquiring wedding rings is to use a family heirloom. My mother and brother gave H my grandfather's wedding band. It was a very touching gesture and H feels very honoured to have the ring.

Sometimes heirlooms aren't a real possibility. Other relatives might want or already have a grandparent's ring. The request for a family ring might spark a competition or fight. The ring itself might not be practical or the intended wearer may simply not like it.

The budget, ethical and eco-friendly alternatives are to either not have rings (perfectly viable) buy vintage, or buy artisan. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we landed my engagement ring on eBay. A couple might not be comfortable with auction or resale sites for a cheap wedding ring purchase. I thought I would share some of the sites we came across while searching for my engagement and wedding rings. Many are Etsy vendors. All offer some rings for between $50 and $300.

Very unique hand made rings. The artisans of this company try very hard to use reclaimed and conflict free materials......and the office has chickens. How awesome is that?

The makers of my wedding band. Materials are 100% recycled, and the designs are very organic. They do custom work as well - all for reasonable prices. My ring looks like it was batted by the sea..which is exactly what I wanted.

I adore the jewelry on this site. Rings are reclaimed sterling silver.

Some very beautiful organic styles, featuring reclaimed metals and unique semi-precious stones

My ring from Etsy vendor Sea Babe Jewelry is exactly what I wanted - an organic and delicate design, made from reclaimed white gold...and budget friendly

Monday, August 15, 2011

How I bought an engagement ring on eBay

"He's taking mess shifts the night before missions to pay for it, but it's totally worth it you guys"

I have a love/hate relationship with weddings. I love events, style and the little crafty things that come along with weddings. I certainly love my husband. I strongly dislike some of the expectations that come with weddings - particularly the expectations of big expenditures.

This is partly due to my own persnicketiness. I don't like being told what to do. I particularly do not like being told to spend my money on rituals and symbols I do not find meaningful.

The 3 month salary engagement ring is one of those rituals. Drop 5 months rent on a diamond some poor Indian child went blind over cutting ? Because De Beers says I should ? Are you kidding me?

When H proposed, he gave me ring. He actually gave me a very reasonably priced ring. Like with so many other couples, this ring was given to me with the explicit expectation that we would return it and look for one better suited to my tastes and lifestyle. Had he given me a family heirloom or something I had pointed out, I likely would not have returned the ring - but being able to return it gave me the option to look for a setting that would better fit under the many pairs of nitrile gloves I rip on and off every day.

I also knew I didn't want a diamond. I'll write a post on the non-diamond engagement ring another time. Suffice it to say, I was not about to drop a crap-tonne of money on a diamond ring either from Tiffany's, the diamond district or Macys.

For me, getting married to H was about being happy and starting a family. Spending money I didn't have on an engagement ring would stress our relationship, push us back from our financial goals and make me feel deeply, deeply fake. H wanted me to have an engagement ring and I wanted to be sure that it would fit our budget. In fact, I decided pretty early on that I would not spend more than $250 on an engagement ring.

Turns out, we spent less that $150.

My eBay engagement ring - $102. 50

Here is how we found and bought my ring on eBay.

We searched for a ring after the proposal

Obviously, finding and buying an engagement ring on eBay works best if the proposal has already happened. eBay shop rules differ from shop to shop. You don't want to get stuck returning something with a limited return period. H proposed with one ring, which we returned before searching for another.

We did away with conspicuous consumption

We immediately ditched the idea that the ring had to be a diamond. We did away with concerns about Harry Winston and Tiffany names. We thought more about practical concerns. I work with a lot of chemicals, so I wanted to be sure that the ring had a gold band and setting, because gold is very non-reactive.

We decided to not care about the ring's "real" value

No matter where you buy an engagement ring, unless you are an appraiser and gemologist, you are at a considerable disadvantage. Precious and semi-precious stones are always marked up, and resell for a fraction of the original price tag. The customer almost always gets less than what they paid. We decided that a very low price and prettiness mattered more than whether or not the stone really was an organic whatever, or rehabbed whats-it. This immediately freed us from concerns of being ripped off.

The steps we took before the search

1) Set budget of $250
We did not exceed it. I didn't look at rings over this price. Why tempt myself?

2) We looked up the eBay complaint procedure
On the chance that the item was very different than described or didn't show up at all, we reviewed the procedures for complaints.

3) I decided what features I wanted in a ring
I came up with a list of semi-precious stones. For a variety of ethical and environmental reasons, I decided I wanted an estate or vintage ring. I made a little list of cuts that I like (emerald, cushion, asscher). I knew that I wanted a white gold setting that would sit low enough for me to get a set of gloves over it.

4) Decided to only look at rings that had an auction date at least a week away
We didn't want to make a rush purchase and not have time to size up the shop or work out shipping costs.

The steps we took during the search

5) We looked at vintage and used rings
There are a lot of "new" rings on eBay, but I wanted an unique ring. The vintage and used rings on eBay seemed the logical place to search.

6) We avoided rings described by catalogue photos
I also wasn't comfortable buying a ring that was described using a catalogue shot - I was pretty sure no matter what I purchased from those vendors, it would not be the ring in that shot. I was most comfortable buying a vintage ring that had it's own clear, individual photo.

7) We stuck to sellers on own continent
This reduced shipping costs and would make a potential return easy as well.

8) We stuck to sellers with 99%+ approval ratings and a history of 25 or more sales
The approval rating is important because it can give you a sense of how well the seller describes their jewelry and turns around a sale. 25 sales may sound arbitrary, but new sellers need to move merchandise too - so we decided 25 sales was our lower limit for sales experience. Buy beware - all sellers on eBay deserve the same scrutiny, whether they are Top Sellers or not.

The steps we took before the buy

9) We looked up the seller's information at the Better Business Bureau and the state attorney general's office

10) In some cases, we asked/check to make sure the seller could provide an appraisal
Given that we very quickly decided to not look at precious stones at all, an appraisal became less of a concern for us.

11) We only looked at items from shops that used Paypal, or a similar service
I think all most shops on eBay use Paypal. Using this service or a similar is important because our use of it provided us with eBay payment protections. Never ever send a personal cheque to an eBay seller.

12) We checked the shipping costs
This can be a doozy. We wanted to be sure we knew how much it will cost to get the ring to our door.

13) We read the seller's feedback reports for "sales" as opposed to "buys"
This gave us a sense of whether or not customers were happy with the purchases/the items showed up as described/if anyone felt ripped off by the vendor.

14) Made sure the vendor promised to insure the package on their shop website
I've had jewelry go missing in the post before, so this was really important to me.

Steps we took when we found the ring

15) We sniped it
We found a ring with an auction date 8 days away. Making a bid at 8 days is just asking for everyone else watching the item to out bid you. Had I bid early, I could have started a bidding war that would have put the item out of my price range.

Instead, I checked in every day to see how the price was moving. I was very lucky. Only one other person put in a bid for the ring. On the day of the auction, we checked into our eBay account 10 minutes before the close time and placed a bid 5 minutes before the sale ended. We set an odd numbered maximum bid near the end of our budget, made the bid...and went about our business. We won the ring - for $102.50

16) ....but we could have bought it right away using "buy it now"
If we had found a ring we really liked that had a reasonable "buy it now" option, that's how I would have completed the sale.

After the buy

17) Sizing and polishing
I got the ring sized and polished for $40. All told, the ring cost us $142.50

Other things we might have done

18) Used an independent gemologist/appraiser to make sure we got the goods
I cared so little about the market value of the ring and it was so cheap that I didn't do this. I could care less. If I had purchased something more expensive, however, I would have taken the ring to an appraiser.

Final thoughts

I have the honour of being H's wife. Starting a family with him is more important to me that the jewels on my finger. People ask me about my ring all the time. They always love it and I'm proud to tell them that we spent so little money on it. Buying this ring on eBay allowed us to better establish our savings and start a home. Its low cost allowed us to focus more on being good partners and less on being good consumers. Really, during these rough times the ring is a citation of how much I love H and how I'd rather be budgeted with him than spending with anyone else.

Happy, happy, happy

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Kitchen Reorg: Cooking in a New York City Apartment #3

Dude - we are being plucked off one by one!

Making the best of an NYC kitchen without spending much money takes a bit of practice. I don't think I really hit my stride until 2007, when H and I moved in together and we suddenly had to combine a lot property.

I am of the mind that a body should purge as many of their belongings as possible before they move. I say this after moving 11 apartments in a 4 year period between 2003 and 2007. H having moved 3 times in that same period, did not feel the same way. Our apartment was doomed to be pretty crowded, at least initially - so I was particularly determined to get this last kitchen reorganization right.

In my previous kitchen reorg posts, I was really trying to point out really simple solutions to some pretty big structural problems. The 2007 kitchen had a small oven with four gas elements, a slimline fridge and walking room, but not a whole lot in the way of storage for cookware. Here I present my last kitchen reorg - which I consider my best reorg.

We needed three things 1) the pots to be accessible - no digging around 2) expanded dry food storage 3) more food prep space

Our pot accessibility solution? I stole an idea from my grandmother and Julia Child and painted a piece of pegboard a pretty blue, and hug some of the pots and utensils on it. I even cut a little door for the fuse box. Pegboard, wall kit, pegs and paper towel dispenser = $20.

$20 and now I can reach everything

I hung that same Ikea pot strip I used in 2004 near the 2007 stove. Ikea carries several variations on this set under the name of Fintorp and a super cute one under the name of Asker. Purchased new, this set costs about $20.

Pot accessibility, resolved

It seemed to me that we could resolve our food storage and chopping space problems at the same time by buying a kitchen rack. I actually really dislike kitchen racks. Most of the time, they are a repository for people's dusty pots and pans, and bunch of dustier kitchen towels. I was determined that our kitchen rack would serve two purposes 1) hold dried goods 2) provide counter space.

The kitchen rack: food prep space and storage

I store all of my food in glass. NYC is filled with mice, roaches and other food munching critters. It is really easy to bring these guests home from the grocery store. When we get home with groceries, I immediately transfer all dried goods to glass jars.

For the rack, we picked up Ikea Burken glass jars ($4) for items that we needed access quickly, 32 oz mason jars ($1 each) for items that needed to be sealed airtight and glass penny candy jars ($9 a piece) goods that we needed to scoop out with a measuring cup. I actually prefer the mason jars to the Ikea jars, so we will be gradually shifting the Ikea jars out.

All kitchen racks look more or less the same, so I very quickly settled on this one for $102. I favoured this one for its low cost and the inclusion of hooks for the bar below the highest shelf.

In NYC, glass food storage = critters walk past my apartments

Dry erase marker tells me what is inside the jar (though oatmeal is pretty easy to identify)

The hooks hold my mixer attachments, a thai vegetable grater and french press

That was that. Everything is neat and tidy and easy to find.

I am now developing a little gadget to allow me to store and pour drinks from this rack when we hold parties....but that is a matter for another post.

Cost of Kitchen reorg

Pegboard rack = $20

Pot strip + accesories = free (but originally $20)

Kitchen rack and jars = $102 + 36 + 13 + 25 = $176

Friday, August 12, 2011

Kitchen Reorg: Cooking in a New York City Apartment #2

I emerged from a small, dark kitchen triumphant!

In my continuing series of how to make the best of inhumanely sized kitchens, I'm posting the fix for incredibly terrible kitchen number #2.

When the year was up, I decided to leave my pretty little studio with the oven-challenged kitchen and look for something larger. This search actually led to a shift in career focus. I ended up in another city doing an entirely different job for 4 months. You would think that would mean my search for a reasonably sized kitchen would end....alas, I faced a new challenge.

My next apartment was in a national historic building, was 900 square feet, another faux fireplace with the most adorable-ly tacky brass treasure chest filled with "burning" glass "embers" that actually threw heat, a claw foot bath tub and tudor style windows with leaded glass......and a kitchen that had clearly been fit into a closet.

I'm really not lying about that last point. There were hinges on the door and everything. You couldn't open a cupboard door and the fridge or oven at the same time. I've never seen an oven like this - it had two elements, and was about 18 inches deep by 2 1/2 feet wide. It could actually fit a commercial pan, but this was at the expense of the sink..which was only about 6 inches in width and depth and length. I couldn't fit a dish into it.

This is a shot from down the hall. If you look to the right you can see the oven. The kitchen in this apartment was literally 3x4 feet before the appliances were installed.

So what to do, what to do....

I had to buy a portable dishwasher. I found one in the pennysaver for about $300. I bought a floating shelf from Ikea to hold my bowls and used an old card table the dishwasher to set up a kitchen set up area around the corner in the more than spacious living/dining area.

Unfortunately, I only took photos when I was packing to these aren't the most amazing pics (particularly because I had just finished dinner).

That floating shelf actually made my kitchen items pretty (please excuse the packed and donated items against the wall)

Not the best pic, but it bought me an extra 15 sq ft of kitchen prep space.

But that...that was totally worth this and 900 sq feet of cheap space (again...not the best photos)

Cost of reorg

lightly used Kenmore portable washing machine - $300
Ikea shelf - $30
Card table - free

Total cost of reorg: $330

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Kitchen Reorg: Cooking in a New York City Apartment #1

I was made in a tiny kitchen

I love to cook. I love being involved in every detail of this one activity that will produce something that I can share with H. When I am chopping and searing and whipping and baking, I don't think about my bosses. I don't worry about my financial future. I don't stress that my research will be scooped. I think about cooking and baking. All of life's stresses become a question of whether I overbeat flour, or if the crumbs of butter are big enough to make air pockets in the biscuits. If I could go back and rewrite the last 20 years, I probably would have ditched science and become a chef. when I moved to New York 8 years ago, I figured this part of me would have to die. My first roommate forbade me from using the stove or oven. I spent 5 months eating spinach salad, bananas and cheez its. My second apartment was in the pre-cool Long Island City. I lived across from a methadone clinic and adjacent to warehouses which, as it turned out, were being used for crack processing. Groceries had to be brought from Manhattan to I ate a lot of rice and beans, bananas and cheez its.

I landed my first studio apartment in Manhattan a year after I moved here. It was the most amazing 250 sq feet I've ever been in because it was all mine. It had an unfinished green marble fireplace, bright white brick walls, 14 foot ceilings, a dishwasher, tonnes of light....and no drawers, no oven...just two gas elements on the counter. It had been a year since I have cooked anything and I had had enough cheez its. The rent was cheap as hell and the apartment was pretty and in a good neighbourhood in Manhattan. A minor problem like "no oven" was not about to keep me out of this apartment. I bring you kitchen reorg #1 - hang pots and cutlery on the wall, buy a convection oven (Hamilton Beach).

Tiny kitchens are an NYC reality. Here is the first of my kitchen rehabs ca. 2004.

That oven cooked and baked everything I wanted to cook or bake - just in small portions. I lived alone and had a very busy schedule, so most times I was baking just for me anyway. My kitchen-aid mixer (not shown) fit in this kitchen, but was a little over the top given I could only bake six cookies at a time (granted, in 5 minutes). Total cost of reorg:

Hardware for pots: $20, Ikea

Wine Rack: $2, Ikea

Convection Oven: $100, Target

Total cost: $122

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Budget friendly dinner: Cucumber, Apple and Dill salad

Graduate students can eat healthily without racking up credit card debt on groceries. Every now again I throw up a recipe on this site that demonstrates my point. This is a quick and dirty meal for hot Summer days and tight wallets. It is budget friendly for two reasons a) I didn't have to heat up the house to make it (and therefore didn't have to turn on the air conditioner to cool it down and b) the total cost of the ingredients came to a little over $5.

I ate this on Sunday night with a microwave-poached egg.

Cucumber, Apple Dill Salad (serves 2-4)

2 cucumbers, deseeded and chopped into 1 inch by 1/2 inch pieces

1 green apple , chopped into similarly sized pieces

3 gloves of garlic, chopped

3 scallions, chopped

3-4 tablespoons of fresh dill, chopped

1 cup of 0% fat greek yogurt

salt and pepper to taste

As you can see, the recipe involves a lot of chopping :)

Mix the yogurt, scallions, garlic, dill and salt and pepper together. The longer you let this mixture sit, the more garlic-y it will become. I let it sit for about 5 minutes. Toss the cucumber and apple together in a separate bowl. Combine the two mixtures.

Warning: the salt will draw water out of the cucumbers, so serve right after you combine the two mixtures.

Damn tasty and it cooled me off to boot!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Graduate school and money : what I would do differently now

I think very few people make it to the end of a PhD as the same bright eyed and energetic student they were when they entered. Much of graduate school is jumping through hoops and stroking other people's egos. More generally, it is a draining experience that often rewards the less deserving and more apparently mediocre of its students.

I say all of this because despite my best efforts to be a cynical as possible, I entered my PhD program as a naive 20-something convinced that I would almost immediately do two things a) develop an innovative research career and b) lower my debt. I was here for almost 4 years before I made any headway on either of those goals.

My research career is a story for another time and different blog. I did manage entirely eliminate almost 20K in consumer debt in 2 years, and another 15K in student loan debt over the next 2 years. I would have been able to do both much sooner had I made better decisions at key moments.

Looking back - if I could change the past, I would do the following:

Lived with roommates longer

I lived with roommates during my first year in a PhD program. My first roommate was a 70 year old woman with an anxiety disorder and a dying dog with serious bowel problems. I guess that burnt me pretty badly, because when my second set of roommates (who were wonderful in every way) decided to move into a two bedroom, I decided to rent a studio. If I could back, I would have gotten over my strange city/what if apartment smells like dog diarrhea anxieties, looked for a new roommate and put the extra cash on my debt.

Paid off my credit cards before the first day of class

Self-explanatory. I did this ahead of my Masters. I put every dime I made the Summer after I graduated from my BA on my credit cards and cleared my debt. Ahead of my PhD, I bought a laptop on credit and about 12 pairs of discounted shoes that year. Big mistake.

Applied to schools with substantial graduate housing

I can't tell you how badly I wish I had the opportunity to live in graduate housing. A few schools in NYC have graduate housing, and the rent runs between 500-800 a month.

Gone over funding offers with a fine tooth comb

My particular graduate program has a bad habit of verbally offering money and not delivering when the student arrives. Actually, they have a very bad habit of offering money on paper and revoking it based on standards that neither the student nor most of the faculty understand. I did not have money revoked, but I certainly did not receive the money I was promised. As a result, I always had to have many "second" jobs which delayed my progress and ran up my debt. If I could go back, I would have been more confident that I was an asset to a PhD program and either demanded my money, or gone elsewhere.

Considered professional training (i.e. Medical, Law or Business school)

Did you know that there are MDs out there winning grants and practicing science while earning salaries between 100-500K? My starting salary will be about 37K for a post-doc and about 60K for a faculty position - both less than what I made before I entered graduate school. MD training would have been a good financial option, even with additional student loans.

Set a monthly budget/used a web-based expenditure tracking system

Had I been more financially organized, I would have found the spare pockets of money to set up an emergency fund early.

Started an emergency fund immediately

Yup. I really should have done this, rather than hang on to my last pre-graduate school paycheque. I have since established an emergency fund in a savings account detached from my chequeing account. Since they are detached, I don't feel tempted to dip into my emergency fund unless it is really necessary because it takes a long time to transfer the money. This method works for me the way that freezing a credit card in a block of ice works for credit card junkies.

Set clear, obtainable financial goals earlier

My goals were always "lower debt", "save money". I really should have said "save this much by this date, by doing a, b, and c" and then checking my progress at every pay period.

Bought thrift store clothing

I ran up a lot of debt when I first moved to NYC. A lot of that money was spent on new clothing. I lost a lot of weight when I first got here (long hours, walking everywhere) so I needed jeans that would stay up and shirts that fit. I spent a lot of cash setting up an entirely new wardrobe. Thing is, I live in a city with the richest zip codes in the country and the most comprehensive thrift shops in the world. I now buy rich people's casts offs at Housing Works and buy almost everything but white t-shirts, underwear and runners on eBay. I save $100s in clothes and put that spare cash straight on my student loans.

So - what do we think? Are their any financial decisions you would redo if you could?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Bad money habits a graduate student should quit: Part 1

Graduate school can break your spirit and your wallet. If the insane workload and outlandish and hurtful comments from faculty do not lead to a few tears dropping on the floor, the long term just-above-poverty-line income will. I'm in the middle of a doctoral degree, in the most expensive city in the Western world. After a lot mistakes and a lot of hard work, I've lowered both consumer and student debt while I've been here. As I look back at the last 15 years of my after-high-school life, I see that I developed many bad money habits. This bad behaviour took its greatest toll during my two graduate degrees - a time when I could see my non-graduate friends buying houses, eating out at restaurants and driving new cars, and I was counting the quarters in my change dish to see if I could do a load of laundry.

Below are some of the mistakes I, and many of my graduate colleagues, made. I want to emphasize that I am not a financial advisor and no investment, insurance or mortgage advice is made below. I am a graduate student who has learned and broken bad money habits the hard way.

Paying everything and everyone but your emergency fund/savings account

You should really work on developing this fund before you enter graduate school, but better to put money aside late, than never at all. When I get paid, pay myself first - I mean within seconds of getting paid. No matter what the amount, I put 10% into a savings account that is difficult for me to access (i.e. a savings account at a different bank than my chequings account). This account does not have an ATM card and takes several days to transfer money. Every little bit of cash counts. When you are pi$$ poor, that 10% might seem like a lot.....but budget around it and see how you do. I may be scraping by the next paycheque, but my reserve is growing. When I do have and emergency, I have a buffer to protect me. As a result, I don't have to use my credit cards for unexpected expenses.

Even if a student gets paid $1000 a month, 10% savings is $1200 a year.

Living alone

Just silly. In the cheapest areas of Manhattan the minimal cost of a studio is approximately $1400. You can find a reasonably sized two bedroom in areas like the Upper East Side or Morningside Heights for around $2100. That's a 21% savings in rent.

Roommates can be irritating, true - but there is the limit time in your adult life when living with a roommate is acceptable and a roommate is great way to save money on overhead. If your roommate is in your program or in graduate school in general, you'll have someone with which to brainstorm ideas. If they are in a different industry entirely, you'll get to meet new people who are not transient graduate students.

Recreational shopping

Simply put - this is a dangerous habit. Find something better to do. If you are trying to reform a bad shopping habit, an easy technique you might try is one I adopted. When I got the uncontrollable urge to buy something, anything I would first pick out items and then ask if the total price was worth the anxiety of purchasing it. Always, I realized that it wasn't. Almost always, I still wanted to shop.

If I still needed to buy something, I would buy one, entirely consumable item that cost less than $2. That would be my consumable item for the week. I usually settled on a votive candle by the Yankee Candle Company. In the beginning, reacreational shopping was a tough habit to break for me. I ended up with a little stockpile of about 10 candles and a really smelly apartment. Eventually, it became easier and easier to ignore the urge. Now I never crave shopping. In fact, I find it distracting and a little tedious.

Buy on credit

Big mistake. Credit should be for absolute emergencies only and even then you should think twice. Never, under any circumstances, buy something with a credit card that you can wear or digest. If you can outgrow it, rip it or eliminate it, it is not worth paying interest on nor is it worth an escalating credit card balance.

Buy on credit when you have cash

I've seen people use credit cards this way. When I first had credit cards I did this as well - I would use the card when I had cash in my account. I would do so rationalizing that it was somehow better to have that cash liquid, and to pay my veggie sandwich and beer + 21% interest rate when I next had money to pay it. Sheer idiocy. Some people rationalize that it is really important to have that $15 in their chequings in case of an emergency. You won't have to worry about that, because if you break habit #1 you will have an emergency fund. Go ahead, buy that sandwich and beer with cash. It's worth it.

Carrying over credit card balances

This is simple. Carrying over credit card balances does three things 1) leads to compounding interest 2) makes it more likely that your debt will grow to an amount that will be difficult for you to pay off with your limited graduate student income 3) damages your credit rating. Be smart. If you use your card, pay it down completely on the 1st of the month.

Rationalizing optional expenses with future money

This is a classic tactic of the over-spender. Olympic over-spenders will rationalize unnecessary purchases or even loans with income they think they will make they get out of graduate school. You don't have that income tax refund, tips from waitressing next week, birthday money or even your next paycheque until it has cleared your account. As anyone can tell you who has graduated since 2007 - you have no idea what the job market will be like when you graduate. There are two reasons to never buy something with the expectation that money will eventually arrive 1) people who do this have a tendency to underestimate their actual expenditures and spend more than the awaited amount 2) there is no guarantee that amount will arrive or arrive on time.

Pay full retail price

If you are the perfect doctoral student, you will be finished your degree in 5 years. If you aren't perfect, you'll be out in 8. Paying full retail price on anything, particularly clothing is just a waste. Buy on sale as much as possible. If you really think you can justify paying full price, buy on sale anyway and put the difference in your savings. Remember - graduate school is short term. Dropping $100 on a dress that you can get for $50 two months from now isn't worth it.

Buying books

Four reasons - 1) you live in a small apartment 2) the New York Public Library has every holding you can think of and more (and many e-books to boot) 3) most fields of study rely on articles published in peer reviewed journals - anything else, you can borrow from the library.
4) average soft cover book costs $15-20. Even if you only buy 2 a year, that's enough for a studio Coned bill or a reasonable contribution to your savings. Save book purchases for when you have a sprawling apartment with a dedicated library.

Any aspiration to live a Carrie Bradshaw lifestyle

This is a killer in NYC. Every year 1000s of women in their 20s flood this city with images of Sex in the City-like events, clothes, and shoes....and every year, those girls end up to their necks in credit card debt. This is hardly the fault of Michael Patrick King, HBO or any of the principals at SATC. While a often a fluffy, cupcake of a show the producers did repeatedly introduce Ms. Bradshaw's entirely consumer good driven money problems -including a rather humbling scene where a very well dressed Carrie explains to a mortgage broker that not only does she not have any investments, she only has $700 in her savings because she just paid off her credit cards......of course, the show does revert back to fantasy when not one but two people cut Ms. Bradshaw a 20K cheque to use as a down payment for her apartment - thus bailing her out of perhaps a decade of overspending, and presumably bypassing all normal procedures of ensuring that a co-op resident has a 10% reserve.

Carrie Bradshaw doesn't exist. The women that genuinely live this lifestyle here were either born, married or scraped their way into the top 10% of incomes in this country. Wake up - a pair of Manolos...or even a pair of discounted designer heels from Century 21 is not worth the 21% interest you are going to pay on them. You are a graduate student - smart enough to not be 35 and recounting to a mortgage broker how you have less than $700 to your name.

So...what do we think? Are there other money habits a graduate student should drop?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Great reception sites for cheap wedding in New York: Part 1, Brooklyn

Photo credit: Shaun Baker Photography

Intimacy = Low Cost Wedding

In my experience the key to a cheap wedding is intimacy. We knew that we wanted to spend time with each guest at our wedding. We knew we didn't want to be pulled from one person to another. We knew that we wanted to hang back, have fun and not work our own party.

60 guests or less = intimacy, low cost and more event space options

When it came down to developing a basic outline of our wedding day, the first thing we did was cap the guest list at 60 people. If I could have had my way, there would have been only 8 people at a friend's house. I can assure you we had some very unusual stresses in planning our nuptials. Every family makes a little bit of noise about the guest list. Please believe me that it is easy to set a limited guest list in NYC. The city resolves guest list arguments for you.

You see, it is very difficult to find a reasonably priced space in NYC where you can host more than 70 people. We both have large families. We have a large group of close friends. We had colleagues we would have liked to invite. It came down to how willing we were to be stressed out by the presence and provisions for over 100 people. We simply couldn't afford to drop $5K on the space alone.

A second consideration was that the food and drink bill are generally the biggest chunk of a couple's expenses. Since we could not find an accessible space where we could fully or partially self-cater (no parental backyards, or friends' apartments, or even campgrounds were found), we had to live with the limitations of NYC spaces and food/drink bills. Original iterations of our plan included dinner or brunch for 25, 40 or 60 people. Given our desire for something intimate, we were happy to host a maximum of 60 people.

Restaurant weddings = savings!!

I am big proponent of the restaurant-based wedding reception. Restaurants typically do not charge site fees. In NYC a lot of thought and effort goes into creating specific moods for restaurant interiors - so many restaurants have chic colour schemes, provide their own flowers and linens. Restaurants certainly provide their own tables, chairs, utensils, plates and glasses. They usually also have sounds systems, often partitioned by room, that guests may use. The restaurant industry here is do or die. By most other cities standards every restaurant with space for a celebration serves great food. If you want to go by NYC standards, every restaurant has been reviewed by critics harsher than yourself, more than once. It is easy to find great food and restaurant receptions can cut your wedding costs by 1000s and 1000s of dollars.

Brooklyn: land of tasty food and great spaces for small gatherings

We started our wedding restaurant search in Brooklyn. Before we settled on Bobo (in Manhattan), we had lined up quite a few restaurants that had beautiful spaces, tasty food and reasonable prices in the Borough of Trees. Many were locavore restaurants and all of them had separate spaces that could accomodate a gathering. When we started our search we started with very open minds - our only initial stipulation was that we did not want to buy out a restaurant (on a weekend night in NY that option can cost 10K+). That attitude opened up an entire world of restaurants with unique character and tasty food. Here is a list of places we fell for...starting with these three in Brooklyn.

70 Grand street, Brooklyn, NY

510 Broome st NYC, NY (Soho)

Photo credit: Aurora Ristorante

The Deets

Aurora specializes in rustic Italian and American cuisine. I've tried to put my finger on exactly what I love about this restaurant, and I think the best way to describe it is that the food and drink are inventive and homey, but still taste like you are in another country. Everything has homemade-by-an-Italian-chef-having-fun feel to it. There are two locations, one in Soho and one in Williamsburg. The atmosphere of the latter is divinely relaxing and rustic Italian. The garden is open year 'round to boot.

I had the pleasure of hammering out 4 or 5 reception scenarios with Aurora's extremely patient events coordinator. The coordinator and management were very flexible when it came to fulfilling our needs. We discussed everything from a weekday restaurant buy out, to a large dinner for 25 with other patrons permitted to wander in and out.

I really like Aurora Williamsburg for small affairs. When we priced a brunch with wine for 25, the cost fell to a fraction of what we actually spent on our wedding.

It is one of my favourite restaurants in the city and the price was incredible, so why didn't we hold our wedding there? Well, as I mentioned earlier we were really under the gun to hold a wedding in Manhattan and I really preferred the Williamsburg location of the restaurant.

This is a lovely and very special restaurant. I would recommend any couple look into holding an event at either Aurora location.


Divine rustic Italisn and inspired American food, romantic and yet farmhouse kitchen atmosphere, great outdoor space, very helpful events coordinator


We were strongly pressured to hold a wedding in Manhattan. I suppose that's okay. I'd rather save this place for our next special diner.

229 4th street,

Brooklyn, NY (South Williamsburg)

Photo credit: Traif

The Deets

Traif is a small, but powerful restaurant that specializes in breaking all the kosher rules. It was founded by two Jewish chefs who love all things unkosher. The menu is ripe with cheese and meat combinations, pork and shellfish. Bacon touches just about everything. It is singly the most joyful and deliciously devious restaurant I’ve been to in my many years in New York.

H is Jewish and especially loved the cream of bacon soup we had as an amuse bouche. The food is really divine and the restaurant has a very clean design with a very cute back garden. The GM discussed a few scenarios with us for guests. H and I sized the place up as being best suited to either canap├ęs and cocktails or a buffet for maybe 25 guests. That said, the GM outlined many other options. For our budget, this place really would have been perfect for a small gathering of friends and family after a Brooklyn wedding. I must confess, the restaurant had just opened when we visited. The specific requirements for parties are not clear to me - so I strongly recommend contacting the restaurant early in your search process.

Did I mention the staff is lovely and you can see the cooking in action?– all the more reason to visit. We had such a nice time at Traif I would recommend this restaurant for just about anything involving eating and socializing.


Great food, inventive menu, intimate setting, happy chefs


We didn’t know if some members of H’s family would be on board. Our loss.

246 Dekalb Ave Ste A

Brooklyn, NY

Photo credit: Ici

The Deets

Ici is locavore restaurant in Fort Greene with a reputation for very tasty food and a flair for beautiful events. We did not get out to the venue, but it is a beautiful, well reviewed and popular restaurant so I did not want to leave it off this list. The rooms and backyard of this restaurant can accommodate 40-120 people. Brunch and dinner pricing on the regular menu is beyond reasonable and the restaurant has a reputation for very reasonably priced and impeccably produced special events.


Well reviewed food (everyone raves about it), locavore, can accommodate small-larger parties, pricing. It is very popular. If you are interested in Ici, I’d recommend contacting the events coordinator early.


We were under the gun to hold a reception in Manhattan. This restaurant would be great for anyone without that restriction or with more of a backbone than I had at the time.

Happy searching.