Complacency Will Cost You

A few years ago, I went to the Verizon store with my mom just after Christmas. After years of resisting technology, she had just spent several days in the house with me and my sisters as we all shared photos and texts among one another. Mom felt a bit left out, and decided she was ready for a smartphone. We were thrilled.

Once in the store, we helped mom pick out a phone that would best suit her needs. The salesman then described the data plan. He offered her the same data plan that I had, but for $20 less a month.

“Hey, wait a minute,” I said. “I have those same levels of talk, text, and data, only I’m paying X.” The salesman got my mom set up with her new phone and then took a look at my plan, and found a way to match her deal. By speaking up at the right time, I scored a plan that was $20 cheaper each month, for the same amounts of service.

Fast forward to this year. I went in to the Verizon store because I was having an issue with my phone and needed some help. The salesman was able to help me with my concern, and then asked if he could look up my plan. I thought for sure he was going to try to sell me some new expensive deal. Instead, he offered the opposite.

Plans had changed over the previous year, and he could offer me the same amounts of talk and text (unlimited, for both) with more than double the data, plus monthly carry-over data, for less money each month.

I had my skeptical face on as I asked for the catch.

“No catch,” he said. The plans had changed since I last checked in, and as long as I stayed on auto-pay billing, I could have the cheaper rate.

Granted, I don’t have the latest model phone, but I bought it new (and for cheap, since it’s an older model) just a few months ago so it should last a good while. And I now have an even less expensive cell phone bill than when I matched my mom’s rate.

Lesson learned. Every year I’ll check in with my cell phone carrier to inquire about current plans and see if I’m eligible for any changes. I may not always be eligible for a discount, and there is certainly no secret or rocket science involved here, other than the importance of being vigilant and the willingness to have a conversation and ask about my options.

Finance Series: Step 1 – Open an IRA

So, you’re well into adulthood and have saved nothing for retirement? Don’t worry; you are not alone. According to the Economic Policy Institute, more than half of Americans have saved $0 for retirement. According to Time magazine, the number is more like 1 in 3 Americans who have saved nothing. Either way, that sounds awfully bleak, doesn’t it?

Do not despair. Believe it or not, there is still time to get started on saving for retirement, regardless of your current age. Can I tell you exactly how much you need in what types of accounts so you can retire at X age? No. That’s what financial planners are for. But I can tell you about my first steps towards saving for retirement and how they helped propel me forward.

The one main and true key to any investment strategy is to internalize this one fact:

The key is to save early and save often.

I know. I just acknowledged that you are no spring chicken. So how, you may be wondering, does this “save early” thing work for you?

Easy. The key isn’t to jump into your TARDIS and start saving from childhood (though that would be great. Also, who wouldn’t want a TARDIS?). The key is to realize that today, right now, you are in the best possible standing when it comes to saving for retirement, more so than any other time yet to come in your life. And if you don’t start saving today, that’s okay, because tomorrow is the next best possible time to start saving for retirement.

See what I did there?

The point is to embrace and accept that the amount of money that you save and where you put it are just the details. The important thing is that you begin. Today, if possible. Even if a little. Because you and I both know you can spare $5 a week. Or $20 a month. Or $5 a month if that’s where you are in life. That’s okay! The amount doesn’t matter. What matters is that you open the account and set it up to automatically have money go into it.

Now, where should you put your precious dollars? I’m so glad you asked.

Get thee to your nearest bank or credit union and open an IRA.

Yep, it’s that simple. No research needed. Sure, there are lots of details to be learned later about different IRAs and investments and yada yada. Do not worry about that today. Money can be moved all around, there are all sorts of options, you are not tying your hands by doing this. Instead, you are doing two things:

  • Creating a habit
  • Putting your money somewhere safer than the stock market but not as low-interest as a traditional savings account – perfect for developing that habit and saving something meaningful without losing your shirt.

Big bank, little bank, credit union – doesn’t matter. Wherever you currently have a savings or checking account has IRAs that it offers to members.

IRA stands for Individual Retirement Account and it’s a type of savings account for money you don’t plan to need for a long, long time. It generally has a higher interest rate than a regular savings account, and has some rules where you can’t easily withdraw your money. That’s a good thing, because it forces you not to spend your money until much later.

There are two kinds of IRA: Traditional and Roth. At this stage of your savings game, it really doesn’t matter which you pick. I started with a traditional because when I started investing, Roths didn’t exist. Yeah, I’m old. These days I have both a traditional and a Roth IRA, plus some other things. It’s good to diversify and have money in different places. But when you are just starting to save for retirement, don’t worry about that. Baby steps, friend. Baby steps.

The difference between the two has to do with whether you pay taxes on the money now or later. That’s really up to you, but you wouldn’t be reading this post if you already knew everything about IRAs. I’ve included a few links below to some good sources for more information, if you’d like to read up, but in all honesty, it doesn’t matter which you pick. The key to is to get started building your new investment habit, and both Traditional and Roth IRAs are a great way to do that.

So, your homework: Go to your financial institution. Tell them you want to open an IRA. Tell them you want to set up automatic deposits into the IRA in the amount of $X every $X (how about $10 per paycheck to start?).

They’ll have you fill out some forms. You’ll sign a bunch of things. Be prepared to show your driver’s license, and name a beneficiary for the account. Then, every month, watch your statement and see your account balance grow. You won’t even miss the money you’re putting in there, I promise. You’ll thank me for this when you’re old. And in coming blog posts, I’ll go into more detail about other things you can do with IRAs and other ways you can invest and earn a bigger return, but one thing at a time, grasshopper. One thing at a time.

To do a bit more reading on Traditional vs Roth IRAs, here are some reputable sources:

https://investor.vanguard.com/ira/roth-vs-traditional-ira

https://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/investing/roth-or-traditional-ira-account/

https://www.fidelity.com/retirement-ira/ira-comparison

Additional sources for this article:

https://www.cnbc.com/2017/06/13/heres-how-many-americans-have-nothing-at-all-saved-for-retirement.html

http://time.com/money/4258451/retirement-savings-survey/

 

My Journey to the PhD

Every so often, I am asked about my experience earning a PhD. Typically, the questioning comes from someone who wants to embark on earning the degree himself or herself. I feel an obligation to be honest, and to say that, given my experience earning that degree, I do not recommend following that path. That advice is usually met with surprise and disappointment. The truth is that earning a PhD was one of the most – if not the most – negative and unsatisfying endeavors of my life.

In one important way, I grew from the experience. I am a stronger person now, and have much more confidence in my own intellectual and professional abilities. But I learned those things in spite of my journey to the PhD, not because of it.

Earning the degree sounds so romantic and important, doesn’t it? Along the years it took me to earn the degree, I would try to talk to people about my concerns, my fears, and eventually, my nearly soul-crushing experiences. I was always met with, “But then people will call you Doctor!” and the even more frustrating, “But who wouldn’t want to hire you with a PhD.”

Here are two truths about having a PhD:

  1. Most people do not call you “Doctor,” and the people who insist upon being called Doctor by others are generally self-important jerks.
  2. Many, many people will not hire you because you have a PhD. The degree is overkill for a lot of jobs, and there are so few that do require it that getting one of those jobs in your field is virtually impossible. I know an awful lot of people with PhDs who are underemployed or who left academia altogether because they needed to earn a living and couldn’t do so in their chosen field.

Sure, I’m now in the top 2% of Americans in terms of education*, but so what? I also lost ten years of earning potential and career-building time while I put life on hold to earn that degree.

If the path to earning the degree had been satisfying in some way, that would have helped, I think, but the endeavor was fraught with frustration, red tape, insecurity of others, and lack of program structure and leadership. For a long time, I thought that my experience was unique to me and to my program.

In hindsight, though, I have met with plenty of others who have similar stories at different institutions. There is a whole community of us who love English language and literature, who went into the advanced study of our favorite subject out of love of story and humanity, and who are now limping towards creating a professional life that tries to reclaim that love. I feel it is time to write about some of those experiences, to share the truth of that experience, and in doing so, to move forward from it.

I do not write these stories to cast a negative light on my university, which I will not name in this space. This is because I do not believe that the challenges I experienced are unique to my institution. I also do not write these stories to influence anyone to making one decision or another. Pursuing an advanced degree might be the right path for you. My purpose here is to share my own experience in an effort to shed some light on it. Do with this information what you will.

*http://thehill.com/homenews/state-watch/326995-census-more-americans-have-college-degrees-than-ever-before

I Saved 25% on my Internet Service. You Can, Too.

I think often of the man I met at my former job, who told me about his efforts to simply be nice and ask for what he wanted and how that usually worked in his favor. I also know, from my experience in nonprofit fundraising, that the number one reason why people give money is because they were asked. And offering a discount isn’t that different than writing a check for a donation.

So, when my new resident promotional rate ended after a year, I knew it was worth asking for a discount. And, by simply calling my internet company and asking for what I wanted, I got it. Here’s how I did it:

I was strategic: Even though my internet provider has customer service representatives available 24/7, I made sure to call during regular business hours. I knew that the authority to offer a discount would likely need to be made at the manager level, and the manager was most likely available during the business day. I also chose to call at the end of the business day, knowing that customer service reps generally have angry people calling at all hours, so I knew if I was the nice voice at the end of a long day, it might make an impact.

I was patient. I called the 800 number on my bill, knowing it would likely take many steps and probably several minutes, minimum, before I spoke with a live person. The automated system that “answered” the phone tried to get me to say what I wanted so it could route the call appropriately, but I have a strong aversion to talking with robots. I simply kept saying “I want to speak with a person,” each time I was prompted to speak until I was connected with a live human. It took maybe half a dozen tries.

I was polite. When the woman who answered the phone asked how I was doing today, but she was working from a script. I wasn’t, however, and my kindness was sincere. I said that I was just fine, thank you very much, how are you? And when I asked that question, I meant it. I think my friendliness surprised her, and set the tone for the rest of the interaction. Would she still have been willing to escalate my request had I been rude? I do not know, but I have a hunch, given my experience working in customer service, that my politeness made an impact.

I was direct: After we exchanged pleasantries, I simply told her why I was calling: “My one-year new resident introductory rate for internet service has expired so now I am being billed at the higher rate. I’m calling to see if there are any promotions or other ways I can reduce my monthly bill without reducing my level of service.”

That’s right – I told her I wanted the exact same product, but for less money. I made sure to say it nicely. I knew that she was likely not someone who could authorize such a thing, but that someone there could. I was right.

I was prepared to repeat my request. The nice customer service lady asked if I would mind if she transferred me to the Customer Solutions department. I said not a problem, that that would be terrific. She placed me on hold for a few minutes, and then a new person was on the line. I repeated my request to him, again just as nice as I could be.

I used all available information. I had recently received a promotional letter in the mail offering service with this company at a steep discount than what I was currently paying. I did see the fine print saying this promotion was for new customers only, but I knew that if they offered this deal, perhaps there might be other deals for which I did qualify.

My new customer service rep asked me a few questions to clarify what I type of service I wanted (nope, I’m not interested in adding cable or a landline to my service, thanks). He confirmed that the that promotion I received in the mail is for new customers only and involves internet access at lesser speeds than what I currently use, but that he would be happy to see what else may be available.

I continued being patient. He then placed me on hold for a few more minutes. I took the time to pace around the room and get in some more steps for the day. When he came back, he said he found a much cheaper plan, though it was for slower speeds. However, he could include an upgrade to my current speed for an additional charge, making the total price, with fees, about 25% less than my current bill. I said that sounded perfect.

The breakdown:

  • Total time spent on phone: 22 minutes
  • Customer service representatives: 2 (3 if you count the robot)
  • Times placed on hold: 3
  • Original monthly bill, with fees: $97.95
  • New monthly bill, with fees: $72.99
  • Monthly savings: 25%
  • Product received: Exactly the same

This rate is good for one year, after which my rate will go back up again. The customer service representative did say it’s a good idea to call each year to see what promotions or packages might be available. I intend to do just that. It’s more than worth 22 minutes of my time once a year to save $299.52 in monthly expenses!

Finance Series: Introductory Post

I’m 41 years old, and I have been saving money for retirement for roughly half of those years. I thank my dad for that. He would talk to me about saving and investing so often that it was a normal topic of conversation for me. Thanks to him, I took two key pieces of action when I was in college: I opened an IRA and I started investing in a mutual fund.

I have had both of those accounts ever since, and over time, I have taken other steps to save for retirement, and while I am on track to meet my retirement goals, it is not uncommon for me to meet others in their 30s and 40s who have not started saving for retirement, and who aren’t sure how to start.

I am not a financial planner and have no credentials that qualify me to dispense investment advice. What I do have is personal experience and a low tolerance for being unprepared. I’m also a big fan of money and like finding ways to balance saving as much as possible while living my best life. In a series of upcoming blog posts, I will share some of my personal decisions and the information I have learned along the way.

My upcoming topics include:

  • Open an IRA: I’ll talk about what an IRA is and why (and how) you should start one
  • Invest in a mutual fund: I’ll talk about what that is and how it can be a great way to save a little extra money that you won’t miss and then watch it grow
  • Avoid debt like the plague, except when you shouldn’t: I’ll talk about the difference between good debt and bad debt.
  • Your FICO score: what it is and why it’s important, as well as how to build and maintain your credit history
  • When to co-sign a loan. (Hint: you should never co-sign a loan)
  • Car-buying: How to choose wisely
  • How much to save for retirement: are you wondering how to save for retirement when you can barely make ends meet? It’s possible. If I could save money when earning $9/hour without benefits, so can you.
  • Change your mindset, change your future: How to maximize the retirement benefits from your employer. There is no such thing as not being able to afford to get the full match from your employer.
  • When to hire others to help manage your money. Why have an accountant and/or financial planner, and how to afford them.
  • First steps: I’ll share the first, second, and third steps you should take toward saving for retirement, regardless of income.

What other topics would you like to see in this space?

A quick note on customer service

A colleague and I like to trade customer service stories. He loves Plated and recommended them to me. So far, I haven’t had any issues with them that required resolution, but my friend has. Little things, like once they forgot a minor ingredient, so they credited him a few dollars to cover the cost. Or, recently, his box was delivered to the wrong house. It took a few extra hours and some confusion before the error was revealed, and in the end, all was well, but Plated took the extra step of crediting my friend the cost of the box. He did not expect this, nor did he request it, but Plated’s response was, “You were inconvenienced. That is not okay. This box is on us.”

In return, my friend tells others about this, and then they want to use Plated, too. It’s a win all the way around. Plated empowered it’s customer service representatives to consider how customers might feel in a given situation, and made an adjustment. Plated gets it right.

Recently, I experienced the opposite of Plated’s customer service, from Amazon.

I reached out to Amazon because a book I had ordered was not delivered on time. Did I need the book that exact second? No. But I didn’t like the pattern of delivery issues I have been having with Amazon, and this book coming late did not help.

In the last year, I have had four items either not delivered per their “guaranteed” delivery date, or not delivered at all.

When I did reach out to Amazon to address these issues, I struggled to reach resolution. I filed an electronic complaint, and was rewarded with five – count them, five – robo-calls from Amazon’s customer service department. It was the weirdest thing; I would answer my phone only to hear a recorded message saying, “Thank you for calling Amazon’s Kindle services…a customer representative will be with you shortly…your estimated wait time is…”

Seriously? First, I didn’t reach out to Kindle services. Second, you called me, Amazon. Why on earth do you think it’s a good idea to ring someone’s phone only to force them into being on hold? Whose idea of customer service is that?

While I do think the company should refund items that never arrive (which they did), and I do think they should be held accountable for their so-called “guarantees” without customers chasing them down (after all, what does “guaranteed” delivery mean otherwise?), what will keep me a loyal customer of any business is some acknowledgement that the company actually values me as an individual. I want to shop with businesses that empower their staff to keep their word, stand behind their promises, and deliver as expected. And mistakes happen, own it. Stand behind the promises you make to your customers, and don’t make excuses. And for the love of all things sacred and holy, don’t make them chase you down (or sit on hold) to make it right.

 

Because Nice Matters

Several years ago, I was the manager on duty at a large cultural attraction during our biggest fundraising event of the year. Thousands of people came through our gates that day, and my job was to keep things running smoothly. That involved managing the main gate ticket sales, keeping the flow of guests running without issue, and addressing all of the various and sundry issues that come up over the course of a busy day.

By the time we were within an hour of closing, I was tired. I loved my job, but it’s amazing how demanding people can be once they have bought a ticket to something. Suddenly, “the customer is always right” echoes in their minds and typically reasonable people let their rude flags fly.

I was standing near the main gate, saying goodbye to guests as they left, when a man walked up to the ticket window. He wanted to renew his annual membership to our attraction. The ticket agent offered the standard discount for an early membership renewal – 10%. The gentleman politely asked for a 20% discount instead. The ticket agent said she could only offer 10% off. The man, again politely, asked to speak with someone who could authorize a larger discount. The ticket agent pointed at me.

The man walked over. He explained that he was a member and would like to continue to be a member. He was interested in renewing his membership that day, but would appreciate a 20% discount instead of the standard 10% discount for early renewals. I explained that that was not our policy.

He then told me about his strategy. Over the last year or so, when he would go to places like home improvement stores or other attractions, he would see rude customers harass customer service agents and get their rudeness rewarded with whatever they demanded, whereas the people who didn’t speak up did not receive the same concessions. So, he made a decision. He was going to try being nice and simply ask for what he wanted, on the theory that people who were used to taking abuse would appreciate being treated with consideration and he could then get what he wanted without being rude. Everybody wins.

Over the last year or so, he had been able to receive discounts for all sorts of things, simply by being nice. He was right; being nice was a great strategy. He knew that I had likely been beleaguered by rude people all day long (I had), and that if he spoke with me at the end of the day, I might appreciate speaking with a nice person (I did). He was straightforward and transparent. Of course I gave him a bigger discount than the standard one. He saved a bit of money, I had an enjoyable conversation with a nice person, and the attraction kept a loyal member.

Over time, I find that being nice is generally the way to go, as a customer, as a service provider, or as a human being in general. We can all stand to err on the side of kindness and transparency in our personal and business dealings.