Dr. IM.

Just for the record, I defended my doctoral dissertation today! I guess that means Mr. IM is now Dr. IM? Sounds strange….

Don’t worry, I’m not so pompous as to actually change my name on this blog to “Dr. IM.” After all, a very wise man once told me: When you get your Bachelor’s degree, you think you know everything. When you get your Master’s degree, you realize that you don’t actually know anything. When you get your doctorate, you realize that you don’t know anything… and neither does anyone else! 🙂

Desperately Seeking a Job (No Longer)

Note: This is a follow-up from a previous post (Desperately Seeking a Job).

As some of my readers (both of you) may remember, I’ve been on the job market for some time now, furiously and desperately trying to land my first job as a university professor. Times have been tough. My wife and I have been scraping by on laughably pitiful salaries as graduate teaching assistants while I finish my dissertation and send out application after application to any and all available positions. We watched in horror as the recession took its toll – most universities announced budget cuts and hiring freezes, and the already-dwindling number of faculty job openings in my field (within the Arts) completely dried up.

Finally, that search is over. As of yesterday, I accepted an offer for a faculty position in the great state of Texas.

If you will forgive me this one sophomoric bout of glee: OMG! Holy crap! I got a job! No more Ramen noodles and plain rice! What a monumental relief! OMG!

Ahem. Pardon me.

The Longer Story

I knew since my second day of college that I wanted to teach at a college or university. I applied to college as a pre-med major, but quickly switched to the Arts. Yes, I knew that by dedicating my life to a career in the Arts, I would likely severely limit my potential to earn income. I also knew that I would severely increase my chances at finding happiness and fulfillment in my career (nothing against the medical field, I just knew it was not for me).

A full decade has gone by since I made that decision. Countless hours of practice and study have gone by. Years of frugal and careful existence as a graduate student and teacher have passed. I’ve jumped through flaming academic hoop after hoop – all to rigorously prepare me for life as a college professor… I think.

Then I emerged at the other end, ready to claim a hard-earned job and a paycheck that totaled more than 8k a year. Yes, I’m ready to admit that now – my teaching assistantship stipend totaled an amazingly pitiful $8,000 a year. Ouch. Granted, my tuition was covered, but it’s still difficult to live on a salary that totals fewer than five digits. If you had a salary at all, I hope it was higher than mine. Though I do my best to stifle any bitterness, i confess that I feel some rising bile to think that other graduate students at my university earn upwards of four times my stipend… and complain about how low it is. Grrr!

Imagine my dismay when, at the end of my decade of toil and poverty, the recession rears its ugly head and the list of available jobs in my field disappears practically overnight. The prospect of NOT getting a job grew from a passing thought to an accepted certainty. I admit that it became more and more difficult to fend off despair. There I was, having spent (or wasted?) nearly all of my 20s in a hard-fought attempt to get an education and earn the highest degree available in my field, and for what? To watch my dreams fade beyond sight? To take a job paying minimum wage just to survive?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m certainly not above doing whatever it takes to keep the bills paid and the mortgage current, and would have gladly accepted a job stocking shelves or waiting tables just to make ends meet. If that were to come to pass, I would only wish that I hadn’t spent so much time getting an education when my Bachelor’s degree (or even my high school diploma) would have sufficed.

How It Happened

At the end of February, I got a phone call out of the blue from this university. They wanted to bring me in for an on-campus interview. What? Are you kidding?! I practically somersaulted down the stairs after I hung up the phone. The sheer prospect of actually getting a job in my field after all these years of preparation elated me.

The interview went well, obviously. I certainly enjoyed mingling with the students and faculty. My teaching demonstration was well-received, and I left the entire interview feeling like I did the best I could. I had no regrets, nor did I feel like I made any obvious blunders. 🙂

Almost exactly one week later, on Friday the 13th actually, I got a phone call. My phone did not recognize the number, and like a moron I had forgotten the area code of that city. So, thinking it was a telemarketer, I answered the phone with a coarse Hello?!

No, it wasn’t a telemarketer, and upon realization of who it was, I sheepishly and rapidly changed my tone. The following line from the department Chair made my ears ring with dulcet tones: We would like to offer you a faculty position at the rank of Assistant Professor at our university. How glorious! How wonderful!

I accepted immediately, but the department Chair chuckled and told me to take the weekend to think it over, and I could give them my final decision in a few days. I said, That’s fine, but I’m planning to accept the position. I almost guarantee it!

So, yes, dear reader. I finally landed a job, and it’s during a time when there are literally no more jobs open in my field. For the past few days my emotions have sent me on a roller coaster through glee, relief, jubilation, and humility.

The Role of Karma in a Job Search

About a month ago, when all seemed the most dire and bleak, I came to a decision. I decided that if I could not have a job in my field, I would at least try to help other people I knew in a similar situation. I started monitoring job vacancy lists for openings in related areas. Whenever I found an opening that seemed to fit a friend or colleague of mine who was also seeking a job, I sent them a link to the announcement.

This continued for a couple weeks, and I sent at least a dozen announcements to friends in related fields. Lo and behold, my phone call with the on-campus interview notification came in out of the blue. Coincidence? Yeah, maybe, but perhaps karma played a role, too.

Shortly before I left for the interview, a good friend who is also on the job market approached me and asked if I would consider writing a letter of recommendation for him. Sure, no problem. I wrote and dispatched four letters for him to various colleges.

On the same day that I received the job offer, he called and told me that one of the places where I sent a letter contacted him about an interview. Again, coincidence? Perhaps, but maybe not.

My main point here is: don’t dismiss the role of karma in a job search. Even if you don’t necessarily believe in the idea of karma, no one can argue that the desire to help others is harmful. Any act of generosity that you provide for another person will ultimately help YOU, even if it only manifests itself in a feeling of fulfillment or satisfaction. If you want to receive, be sure to give as well. Though I’ve landed a job now, I’m still scouring the job vacancy lists for opportunities for my friends.

Now that I’ve landed a job, I get to look forward to packing up and moving. There are a lot of issues that my wife and I need to cover, such as whether to try to sell or rent our house. Hmm, I suppose these are issues for another post!

Avoiding the Passport Photo Ripoff

My passport recently expired, and since I’m planning a European trip this summer, I need to renew it ASAP. I grabbed the passport application from the Post Office and zipped over to Kinko’s since I knew they took passport-approved photos there. It can’t cost more than a couple bucks for two small photos, right?

Wrong!

My local Kinko’s did not have a price listed underneath the large “Passport photos taken here!” sign. As the modestly-hot Kinko’s girl grabbed her digital camera and asked me to have a seat in front of the white backdrop, I casually asked, “How much will this cost?”

“Thirteen dollars,” she coolly replied, “and that’s just for the two photos. We don’t handle any of the paperwork or shipping.”

“Gasp! Hrgpt! Croak!” I wheezed as I blindly stumbled toward the exit, garnering the attention of the remaining customers and leaving the modestly-hot girl scratching her head in confusion.

Someone wants me to pay $13 for two lousy photos? I don’t think so. Some quick checking around found that Walgreens, CVS, and other competitors ALL wanted at least $8 for the same crappy service. No thanks.

An Alternative

If you have a digital camera (or can borrow one), you can take your own photo. Of course, it must adhere to certain guidelines, which means that you can’t use a LOLCAT or Hello Kitty as your passport photo. Bummer.

Seriously, the US Department of State has published the guidelines for passport photos, and they aren’t too hard to follow.

Once you’ve taken your photo, use a free service such as ePassportPhoto or 123PassportPhoto. I tried both, but liked ePassportPhoto better because it includes a nifty tool to crop the photo, keeping the distance from your chin to the top of your head in the proper ratio with the rest of the photo.

ePassportPhoto - Ensure compliance

Here’s my picture! See how my chin and (um…) ears are solidly within the green bars?

Passport Kitteh

Both ePassportPhoto and 123PassportPhoto will generate a 4×6″ photo containing six 2×2″ passport-ready photos.

Printing

To print my awesome new photo, I simply sent the single 4×6″ print to Wal-Mart’s online photo center and requested one color copy. Heck, I even splurged on their 1-hour service. Of course, any other competing online photo service should work just fine.

The grand total price, including tax? $0.20. That’s 20 CENTS! As you can see, 20 cents is clearly lower than 13 dollars. In your face, Kinko’s.

I even paid with a credit card. 🙂

Oh, for you tinfoil-hat-wearing types, new passports now come with a radio frequency identification chip (RFID). If this makes you uncomfortable, a quick smack with a hammer should permanently disable it.

How I Save $780 Per Year

no-cell-phone.jpgWhat it I told you that there was a way you could easily save upwards of $500 every year? Sound nice? What if I told you that you could also increase the general happiness of people around you at the same time? Sound unbelievable?

It is… almost. Most people are simply unable (or unwilling) to fathom what I am about to say. Are you ready for this? Brace yourself, because my idea is so revolutionary and counter-intuitive to the way you’ve been programmed by society that it may actually cause your eyes to bleed. Here goes….

Get rid of your cell phone. Yes, I actually said that. Disconnect your cellular service. Alright, most of you can now stop reading and happily surf to another site, convinced that I’m a complete lunatic. Those of you who want to see how deep the rabbit hole goes, read on. 🙂

For several years my wife and I both had cell phones. We paid $65 every month for our service. The phones worked fine and we had nary a complaint about the service, but we possessed the phones simply because we both commuted. In case of an emergency, we could contact someone for help. The other benefits of owning a cell phone were ancillary.

Fast forward a few years – we had moved closer to our school/work, and we had downsized to one vehicle. Since we no longer commuted, the primary benefit of our cells phones was null and void.

The Cancellation

One day we walked into Cingular with the intention of renewing our service contract for another two years. On a whim, I asked my wife if she thought we really needed the phones anymore. She looked at me inquisitively for a moment to see if I was serious, then said, “Actually, we probably don’t.” Just like that, we decided to cancel our service and go back to living the old-fashioned way – sans cell phones.

Canceling the service itself was actually a Zen-like experience. I calmly explained to the cheery service representative that we no longer wanted our phones. She was taken aback (they must not get that request often), but said I needed to call an outside office in order to cancel. She offered me a phone and I called the cancellation “hotline.”

The CSR on the cancellation “hotline” asked me a series of questions about my experience with them. Finally, I had to answer a question on WHY I wanted to cancel. She read the options to me, which included such answers as “unhappy with the service” and “switching to another provider.” None of them remotely considered the possibility that I simply no longer wanted a cell phone. When I tried to explain that to the CSR, she seemed confused, and read the options to me again. It dawned on me that she (and probably cellular providers as a whole) simply could not fathom the idea that a person would no longer WANT a cell phone. Syntax error – does not compute!

The Aftermath

Since canceling our cellular contract, we have saved $780 in cell phone bills every year. I never have to worry about disturbing a meeting or annoying the people around me because my cell phone went berserk. It’s a wonderful feeling, though there are probably very few people left in this country like me.

Are there occasions when I wish I still had a cell phone? Yes, of course, but those occasions are becoming more and more rare. For instance, I drove 1,000 miles one day to help a friend move into a new house, and when I made it to the town (late at night), I couldn’t find his house. A cell phone would have been handy, but I simply stopped at a nearby hotel and briefly borrowed the desk phone. Was that instance inconvenient? Sure, but was it worth $780 a year? No.

Of course, some people legitimately have a good use for cell phones, such as commuting, or their phones are provided by their jobs. Fine. Other people have ditched their landlines and rely exclusively upon their mobiles. I can’t argue with that, as long as you think it’s cost-effective. Other people I know have cell phones that are an extension of their hands, and they call one another from different rooms of the same house. Inexcusable. These are often the same people who go through their ringtone collection while dining at a restaurant. No, it doesn’t make you look cool, it makes you look like an idiot.

Before I stray too far from the subject, allow me to say that separating myself from my cell phone took discipline, but I’m much happier (and $780 wealthier each year) as a result. 🙂

My Three Personal Best and Worst Financial Decisions

Over the years I’ve done a few things right and lot more that’s wrong. Here are a few of each with relation to personal finance:

Worst Decisions

1) Checking Only

For several years of my early adult life my finances were extremely simple – my girlfriend (now wife) and I only possessed a single checking account with a debit card. We were poor students, so we did not have much anyway, but any income we earned went straight to the checking account. Most of our purchases went onto the debit card, and we spent zero time keeping track of exactly how much cash was currently in the account. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right?

Thankfully, it wasn’t. Despite our low incomes, we were naturally thrifty enough not to ever bounce a check or create any overdraft. I feel like we dodged a bullet!

Unfortunately, we gave up several years of potential interest by failing to have some type of savings account.

2) Waiting to Start a Retirement Fund

I was 27 years old when I opened a Roth IRA (I’m now 28). While it could have been much worse (I could have waited until I was 45!), I still wish I had started saving for retirement sooner. In my early 20s I was far too poor to maximize my contributions, any little bit would have helped. By waiting until I was 27, I gave up several years of compounded interest.

3) Excessive Spending – Computers

I’ve always been a sucker for new toys, especially computers. I did not own my first computer until 2000, but ever since, I’ve been hooked. In those years I tended to purchase a new computer every year or so. No matter how new a computer I had, after about six months I’d start getting an itch, and ogling at sites such as Newegg and Zipzoomfly would ensue. Soon thereafter, a new processor or hard drive (or both) would be on my doorstep, and I’d find some way to justify it to myself.

Computers are still a hobby for me, but my viewpoint has changed. I no longer care about the “high end” hardware, and refuse to spend more than $100 on a processor. My wife and I have a few computers between us, and the average age is roughly 3.7 years old. A couple of them are prehistoric computers that I refuse to let die. Six or seven years ago I would have been mortified to say such a thing. 🙂

Thankfully I’ve never had that kind of itch about more expensive toys, such as new cars! Yikes!

Best Decisions

1) No Student Loans

How can I say this without smiling? I am now at the end of my doctoral degree, and I have made it ALL the way through my education without borrowing a single dollar in student loans!

How did I manage to do so? As an undergraduate, I opted to attend a decent state school instead of a more prestigious (and expensive!) private college. Secondly, I maintained scholarships that covered my tuition. Third, I worked in the college bookstore, which provided me with a $400 credit each semester that (usually) covered all of my textbook purchases. My meager salary went toward meals and housing.

As a graduate student, I’ve been lucky enough to have a teaching assistantship that has covered ALL of my tuition, plus provide me with a stipend. Finishing my formal education without a mountain of student loan debt is in itself a dream come true.

On the other hand, if I could do it again, I would take out as much money in subsidized, deferred-payment loans as I could. Why? Because I would stick it all in a CD, earn interest on it, and pay it all back as soon as I graduated. Suckers.

2) Only One Vehicle

My wife and I used to own two cars. While it was convenient, it also meant that we spent more on repairs, on insurance, and at the gas pump. In 2005 we decided to downsize to one car and buy a couple of good bicycles. It was a hard adjustment – we even spent two weeks pretending that we only had one car before we actually downsized, just to make sure that we wouldn’t kill each other. 🙂

The end result? We got used to it quickly, and the bikes have paid for themselves several times over in reduced fuel expenses. Plus, we get more exercise. 🙂

Our plan probably won’t work forever. If we have kids, we’ll more than likely have to buy another one. In the meantime, I must admit that it’s quite satisfying to zoom down the bike path past a line of stopped traffic during rush hour.

3) Taking an Interest in Money

This is critical – my life changed forever when I consciously decided to take an active interest in my finances. I even remember the day it happened. On October 8, 2006 I received an e-mail from a friend informing me about E-Loan’s 5.5% APY savings account. I almost disregarded it, but something made me surf to the website. I did a quick calculation to see how much money I would earn per month if the contents of my checking account were in the savings account. I was dumbfounded and furious (at myself). How could I have waited this long to open a decent savings account?

From that point, my interest grew (pun intended). Of course, the E-Loan rate has dropped, but I’ve since opened several other accounts in order to “chase” the highest rate. I also opened an account at Vanguard, starting a Roth IRA plus some non-IRA mutual funds.

Then came the realization that I could earn money from credit card rewards, so I tossed my well-worn debit card into the sock drawer and applied for several credit cards, creating a usage plan for maximum rewards.

I even started this website. Naturally I hope it is useful to you, dear reader, but it certainly helps me maintain my interest in money.

How about you? What are some of your financial successes or blunders?