Saturday, June 5, 2010

Before Getting a Roommate

B and I have lived by ourselves for the last two years, but three weeks ago we moved into a two-bedroom with a new roommate. Most of our coworkers gave us funny looks when they heard we were getting a roommate, but not only are we saving money, there are social benefits (B gets another video gaming buddy around). We fully understand the situation could turn sour. We have paid our dues with a list of terrible roommate experiences behind us. Here are a couple of ways to find any red-flags before you move in with someone.

Discuss Financial Situations 

Getting a roommate is like getting financially married to someone, at least for the length of the lease term. In the same conversation when you discuss how much monthly rent you are willing to pay, you should also talk about how you are going to pay for it. If your future roommate is unwilling to talk about sources of income (or if you don't share that with your roommate), it is a red flag for trouble times ahead. I am not saying to share tax returns, but a general understanding is required. Full-time job, part-time job, a monthly allowance from Mom&Dad, part of their financial aid package...? You should not be in the dark. If your roommate refuses to talk about finances and you do move in with them, don't be surprised when you discover they're a drug dealer or paying the rent with money from online gambling.

Put Your Faults and Pet Peeves Out Front

Better to make the decision not to move in, than to get into get stuck in a bad situation.  Go through all the details up-front, don't be worried about being awkward or rude. If you don't deal with issues now, you will have to deal with them after there is a problem. Here are a few issues that have caused problems in the past:

- Is sharing food ok? Alcohol? Cooking supplies? Milk?
- Is there limited cabinet/fridge/freezer space? How to divide it up?
- How soon do dishes and pans need to be clean after use?
- What's the cleaning policy? Just clean up after yourself? Cleaning everything together? Or “assigned” cleaning days?
- How do you feel about main room electronics? Need to ask permission first? Ok as long as owner doesn't want to use? Free-use of TV, DVDs, and game consoles?
- What time is “bedtime” or “quiet time”? Does anyone work or have class early in the morning?
- What temperature should the thermostat be set at? How hot does it need to get before we turn the AC on? Is saving electricity a high priority or no?
- What is the guest and party policy? Do we need to give a heads-up before inviting people over? How many people? How late?
- Pets?
- Smoking?
- Drugs?

Think of your own answers to the questions. Be honest with yourself and with you potential roommate. If there is more than a couple of items where you are not seeing eye-to-eye, that is a red flag. Do not ignore the red flags and sign the lease anyway. However compromise is a part of life, so recognize the issues you feel care about from those you don't. Compromising on everything will make you miserable, compromising on nothing will make you an ass. 

Share Stories about Previous Roommates (the Good and the Bad)

You want to get to know your future roommate's past and they can know yours. It can reveal previous problems that did not come up directly before. You could learn why your potential roommate is looking to move, and it is also a way you can be honest about your habits you know could potentially cause a problem. “Other roommates got annoyed with me about...”

Most importantly, by agreeing on how ridiculous the other people you have lived with has been, it can be a bonding experience. Here are a few good roommate stories I have heard (or told) throughout the years...

Parties without your permission, nudity in the house (during parties), physically assaulted over laundry, reporting illegal drug use to authorities, having a homeless person living on your couch, leaving food on the counter for 5+ days, living with Roaches, a 38 year old male roommate that watched Hannah Montana, leaving passive aggressive notes, counting individual strands of spaghetti....

Final Words
The time before signing the lease with a new roommate is an awkward one. You are trying to put your best face forward, and you both want the most mutually beneficial relationship. However, it is better to decide against it in the beginning, than to get into a horrible living situation. There have been times in the past where I ignored the red flags, and it turned very ugly.

Good luck and be Honest!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Beware of New Speak

…the dangerous language of corporate America.

The setting is a Mexican restaurant/bar over margaritas. It’s Friday afternoon with colleagues after a hard week. Current events eventually drift into the conversation.

“What do you think about the losses from the recent oil spill?” one colleague asks another who used to work in the energy industry.

He almost jumps to cut her off. “Now let me be clear: there are no losses.” He pauses for emphasis, “We just won’t be able to get as much out of the reserve as we thought we would.”

A beat goes by and the junior associate couldn’t help but chuckle, “Did anyone else just catch that new-speak? ‘We aren’t losing any, we just aren’t getting as much as originally planned’?”

Most in the group ignore or didn’t hear the junior associate and attend to their drinks. Only one disillusioned older colleague smiles and nods in agreement.

New-Speak seems commonplace in our corporate culture. Re-phrasing, branding, imaging, whatever you call it, another universally accepted term is bullshit. In George Orwell's 1984, newspeak was the term for the ever-shrinking "official" vocabulary of the society and was used as a method to control thought. If a word did not exist, the thought could not be expressed.

Growing up means adjusting yourself to values you did not create, but does not mean abandoning your own nor taking all you’re given at face value. We went to college to expand our critical and analytic mind, but the “real world” deprograms us to speak the dangerous language of New-Speak. Being able to say half-truths with a straight-face is an artful skill we are expected to master. This phenomenon was recently put into better focus for me by a book, Bait and Switch, in which Barbara Ehrenreich details her experience with corporate new-speak and the world of white-collar unemployment.

In the particular anecdote above, the older colleague no longer works in the energy industry or a related one. No one at the scene was about to judge him if was critical of the situation, but yet he does not abandon his loyalty to his former industry. I would like to think this form of loyalty is unique to the older generation and as ours grows up we have more realistic view of corporate America and what it can (and can’t) do. A job gets you what you need, a paycheck, a lifestyle, and a future (depending on how you use it). “Yes, sir” is necessary, but with how much submission? Does it deserve our intellectual compromise? Does it deserve us to re-program ourselves to fit the for-profit mold? 

 We don't have a lot of time on this earth. We weren't meant to spend it this way. Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements.
- Peter, Office Space
But as we weather this economic downturn and recovery, and as our parents' generation faces layoffs, canceled pensions, and depressed home values, how much can you expect the younger generation to take it with deference?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Gen Y: Doomed to a Constant State of Debt

I am at a total loss as to how our generation is “supposed” to progress through a financial secure life. All of the conventional steps seem to commit us to a constant state of debt 

When I think about the “typical” life progression of a person would go through between 18-35, I see all of the conventional steps we are supposed to go through and I can only come to one conclusion: Do most people just simply live bound to debt for the majority of their adult life? Let's look at the steps together... 

Congrats, you are on the road to bettering yourself. You went to the best school you could get into. Well, your parents can’t pay for all (or maybe any) of it. There are loans available. FAFSA not satisfactory? There are private loans for that.

But you are starting to get statements… pay off some of the loan now? That's crazy, you are young, time to enjoy life. You don’t have to pay that off till graduation.

On campus one day, “hey, fill out this credit card application for a free sub sandwich” Hey, sure why not?  Drinks at the bar? Open a tab. Shopping spree on new clothes? Put it on the card.

Graduation, finally. Only took five years, but it took you an extra semester or two to declare your major, and then there was that semester abroad. No matter, now it’s time to make money.

Young Professional
Congrats, on your first real job. But a new life needs an updated image. Get a new car. You deserve it. And the dealer says you can afford it with your proof of income. No problem, they wouldn’t let you buy it if you couldn’t afford it, right? Note, that many of people have their first car before graduating college (or high school), but stay with me on the illustration.

But where are you going to live? Well you’ve got to get something nicer than that ratty apartment from college. Forget roommates, you need the space to yourself. So how much can you afford? 1/3 of your gross income, no problem, they wouldn’t let you rent if you couldn’t afford it, right? There are so many nice places out there. You need a happin’ place. In the city, near clubs, with a pool, and other hot singles hanging out at the pool…

I could use some professional clothes and maybe a computer. Where’s that credit card?

Marriage, Baby Carriage, House

Maybe you’re ready to get married, or maybe she’s been dropping hints you can’t ignore, either way, you need a ring… “three month’s salary,” oh don’t worry, you can buy that on credit as well. “No interest for six months.” No problem, they wouldn’t let you buy it if you couldn’t afford it, right?

But now there’s a wedding to plan! Dress, flowers, hall, food, music, and 100+ guests. Parents will pay for some, right? Maybe, but they set a limit on the budget, oh well, you can make up the difference. And so many things to buy… “But the $7 invitations are just so much nicer.” Your friends don’t want to think you are cheap, right?

Maybe you were living together (in a bigger apartment than when you were single, you both need your space right?), or maybe not. Either way, you need a house now. Isn’t a house just something people buy when they finally get married? No down payment? No problem! They wouldn’t let you buy it if you couldn’t afford it, right?

Baby time! Maybe a surprise, maybe expected… either way, you need some baby furniture, right? And clothes, and books… what else, a wipe warmer? But a baby will take up your time, how can you afford that? You both need to keep working to pay the mortgage, and now there’s daycare costs...

What are you now… 35 years old?
Congrats, according to the repayment plan you are just now paying off your college debt. Your house will be paid off in your fifties, unless you take a home equity mortgage to pay for your kid’s college....

Am I crazy or are most people living in a constant state of debt from 18 till old age? If you get student loans, buy a car and a house before they are even paid off, is there ever a period of adult life when you are not owing someone money?

I know that debt is not completely avoidable, and I know that debt aversion is not particularly advisable. I am not advocating never opening a credit card and some purchases need to be financed (house?). But if people continue to finance purchases today and spend the extra “rewarding” themselves, there is never any extra to finally pay the constant debt we are incurring.
Doing what everyone else is doing is not the answer. 

If we justify our lifestyle because of what we perceive is “normal” we are setting ourselves up for a life of financial hardship. What is “normal” is not financially secure. What is “normal” is not being prepared for big life expenses (car, medical, house). What is “normal” is not being prepared for retirement. And I fear what “normal” will become for our generation that works till our 70+ and retires in poverty.

The only way to get ahead must be to break convention. Obviously what is conventional is not sustainable. You cannot have freedom in your career or life if you are so dependent on your job because you have put yourself in so much debt. You can avoid the debt if you simply don't spend money on something unless you weigh it against the other things you want in life. Prioritize what you really want in life, while preparing for the unexpected.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Never Trust Your College Adviser

Use them, meet with them, listen to them, but do not trust them.

If your college was like mine, you can hear dire warnings against self-advising. Rather than figure out your own college plan, you needed to go to advisers, powerful people in offices with inconvenient meeting hours, who would tell you what classes to sign up for the next semester. At the end of the meeting, you would leave with a little piece of paper and a promise and hope that this would keep you on track for graduation. Sometimes it works out perfectly, however my experience and that of my peers was far from perfect. My program took most people 5 years or more to complete. I finished in exactly 4, only because I trusted myself more than my advisers.

Problems with advisers are more common at large universities. They had a steady stream of incoming students so there is always demand. They have generic advice about what an incoming student should study and make recommendations for specific classes based more the needs of the university than the student’s individual interest. They cannot have all freshmen put into Psychology 102 and they have to make sure the classes remain at a fairly balanced enrollment. However, advisers and public universities are not necessarily motivated by having students walk out the door. They are served better by keeping students within the system than producing graduates. Therefore, you cannot expect to get the advice for the most efficient and concise track for graduation.

Example of a Common Problem:
You may need 3 credit class to fulfill a science portion of a general Bachelor’s requirement, while also needing to take a specific Geography class as part of a special program’s requirement you might happen to be in. Your adviser may (knowingly or unknowingly) suggest you take a Chemistry (or some other science) class first to fulfill your “gen eds” and then advise you later on requirements for the special program. Problem is, that perhaps that Geography class could have fulfilled both the special program’s and Bachelor’s requirements at the same time. You might not find that out until you are a sophomore or junior, that you could have saved yourself that time and money.

Why to Go to an Adviser – I do not want to say to never go to an adviser. I met with one every semester before registration, just to be sure. Here are things you will need to go to them for:
Declaring major/minor
• Getting the permits to get into certain classes

• Applying for special programs and classes
• Double-checking your self-advised degree plan

How to Self-Advise
Course Catalog – A course catalog should include all of the courses offered by the college and the degree requirements for each major. Degree requirements can change from year to year. If you declare your major in 2010, you may have different requirements than 2011. In my case, they were changing the requirements for the major’s capstone project. If I had declared my major a year later I would have had to take an extra class. Look at the complete requirements for your major and degree. Are you on track to take all of the prerequisites necessary? Do you see any extra classes you have taken that are not required? Note the difference between MAJOR requirements (usually dictated by the department) and DEGREE requirements (dictated by the college).
Degree Audit Report – if you are already in college or transferred in with credits, you should be able to obtain a Degree Audit Report (DARS). This is tailored to your course accomplishments and is necessary to see if you have truly completed your degree requirements. This should match up pretty evenly with the course catalog. However, the DARS report will not usually include what classes you need to take in the future, only what you have taken, what you are currently enrolled in, and what area you earned that credit for.
Future Course Plan - Make a chart with the Fall and Spring semester from now till graduation. Fill in the classes you will need to and want to take. It might be useful to work backwards from your intended graduation date. This is exactly what your adviser will do with you, so why not try it on your own first and then Are you on track? Can you save any time by taking classes in the summer? Can you complete an additional minor without delaying graduation too much?

Before You Go to an Adviser – walk in armed with information. Self-advise before you meet with them. Bring the course catalog and degree audit report with you if you can (however sometimes special programs do not have their requirements listed in the catalog). If there are an unclear requirements, get a hard-copy list of requirements for a specialty or certification program.

Note: If an adviser ever refuses to help you plan out your course plan for more than the upcoming semester, simply refuse to leave their office. I only stayed on track because as a second semester freshmen, I sat in my adviser office and insisted she lay out a course plan for the next three years with me to be sure I would be absolutely every requirement within four years. I was able to take a lot of my gen eds in the summer (cheap at a local community college) and focus on my major classes during the traditional year.

Bottom line: No one cares more about your college career than you. It costs your money, your time, and your effort. You want the best deal possible. So you should take a vested interest in your plan to the finish line.

Monday, April 19, 2010

5 Ways to Instantly Boost Your Mood

There are times throughout the day we need an instant boost. There are same moments we can give to ourselves to raise our spirits and recharge.

Open the Blinds
Natural sunlight triggers a response in our brains for a "wake up." There is also a source of inspiration and optimism found in the beauty of the outdoors.

Give a Hug
To your honey, your kids, your pets. They remind you what you are working for and that our relationships are what really matter in life. Best part, they will hug back.

It releases tension and changes your body posture. Humans are designed for physical activity, and the moment and breathing will relax and alter at the same time.

Pop a Mint/Gum
Something sweet will give you an oral fix and get creative juices flowing. Besides, peppermint is linked to better brain function. But watch calories because serial mint-popping can add up.

Switch Gears
Go from typing to a phone call. Get up to make your copies. Make a list of the rest of your tasks for the day. Break up the kind of work you are doing. Take care of a different aspect of the project when things are slow.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Workplace Weight Loss Challenge: Maintaining

The yo-yo dieter is a cliche because it is true. And there's little real success in weight loss if you can't keep it off.

Weight loss and weight maintenance take nothing less than a lifestyle change. This painful reason is why so many don't achieve it. Some people find it is easier to succeed if they change their eating habits when they have another big event in life, like moving, getting married, starting a new job, etc.

The real keys to weight maintences are the same tricks that got you there. Count your calories, though you can be happy to know that 2000-2500 calorie diet will prove very fulfilling for most people. Active lifestyle will improve your mood and health and includes things as simple as taking a walk instead of watching tv. Family & friends will be inspired by your progress and you may find yourself in their cheer section instead. Regular fitness goals that a tangible and measurable will always keep you working toward something (lowering cholesterol, marathon, rock climbing trip, etc). Finally, take joy in the successes of others and channel it to your own motivation.

This is the last of a three part series on
my personal success, motivation and maintence after a workplace weight loss competition.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Workplace Weight Loss Challenge: Motivation

Success in the challenge didn’t come without motivation. Week after week I would see other people in the weight loss challenge at work grow discouraged and quit. I knew from the start that I needed a plan for motivation, so here are the lessons learned that I hope prove useful for you.

Cheer Section
Your friends and family, the people you live with and spend your time with, need to know what you are doing. Instead of hiding that you are on a diet, let them know. They will understand why you are eating light or avoiding snacking. They will help and support by split dishes at restaurants and skip the tempting food at the grocery store. It also adds to your accountability, and you may find them reminding you of your goal when you are tempted. Everyone needs a cheer section.

High Stakes

You need an external source of motivation with a time-factor involved. The time limit will keep up the pressure so you do not slack off, lose interest, or put off the hard work. Make a wager with friends of yours also trying to lose such as putting a pot together and whoever loses the most wins. A more supportive version would be to plan a group trip (or event) that could only happen if everyone met their goal. Time limit should be eight weeks minimum; ideally You include a "maintanence" challenge every couple months or so too. For my motivation, the contest cost $20 to enter and I’d be damned if I was going to lose that money so I set out from the start to win.

Put on Blinders
Do not grow discouraged by other’s successes. People may lose motivation when others succeed, and this in turn may lead them to quit. They make excuses for themselves (under stress, slow metabolism) or find a reason why the other’s success is not legitimate. If this is you, put on blinders and stick to your plan. Regularly there were weeks I did not lose as much weight as others, but by keeping up the habits I succeed over time. Slow and steady wins the race.

This is the first of a three part series on my personal success, motivation and future after a workplace weight loss competition.