Monthly Archives: April 2010

how to find disability insurance

Disability insurance is something everyone should have, yet some employers simply don’t offer this important kind of coverage that takes care of you financially in the event you become disabled. Privately purchased disability insurance isn’t cheap, but if you ever need it, its definitely worth the initial outlay. Even if your employer does offer disability coverage, make sure it provides adequate coverage. If it doesn’t you can ask your employer to upgrade to a higher level of coverage, with you paying the difference. If they don’t provide coverage at all, begin to research the popular health and life insurance coverage companies.

Buying private disability insurance does provide some advantages over an employer’s disability. Probably the best advantage is that you can carry your disability insurance anywhere you go, including if you choose to be self-employed. Also, private disability benefits are provided to you tax free, giving you a bit more income than if you had used employer’s insurance. Finally, if you have a specialty or premium skill such as a surgeon, you can choose to purchase disability insurance that provides a comparable income level if you should find yourself disabled.

When shopping for disability insurance, there are several things you should keep in mind. Make sure you won’t find yourself without coverage by making sure the policy you choose states that it is non-cancellable. Choosing this type of policy also locks in your premium at a set cost. Most non-cancellable policies will cover you up to the age of 65, but check before you sign into the policy. Also avoid policies that only provide accident coverage or limited term coverage. these kinds of coverage are simply too specific to provide you with peace of mind.

Gap benefit coverage, also known as residual coverage is also important. Just as with health insurance gap coverage, residual coverage fills the gap in your salary during employment and the salary you will receive on disability. This will keep you and your family from scrambling to adjust expenditures in the event of disability, allowing them and you, to focus on your health. Similarly, you can add a rider to your policy that will maintain your disability benefits at the cost of inflation. Otherwise, you will only receive a disability benefit equal to the salary you received when you signed the policy.

Disability insurance can be purchased through almost any of the major insurance carriers. The costs vary widely, so its a good idea to shop around and ask questions before deciding on a carrier. Keep in mind, just as with other types of insurance, there will be a certain amount of time you will have to wait before receiving your disability payments after you have applied. This is a good reason to always have at least a few months of salary saved, so that the waiting period doesn’t leave you with unpaid bills.

the question that can only be answered one way

Both Bubelah and I have one surviving grandparent apiece. Until I was a young adult, I had all four; three of her grandparents had died either before she was born or when she was much younger.  But now we both have a single grandmother left.  It’s tough, of course, to lose relatives or friends but I think there’s something to watch the people whose genetic makeup pumps through your own veins pass away.  The loss of health is sad; the loss of mental health is despair-inducing.

My own grandmother, though, will be one of the last people to see her way through retirement with the following: her pension; Social Security; survivor benefits from my grandfather’s pension; and finally, the remnants of my grandfather’s aggressive and carefully planned investment strategy.  He began investing as a young man and was still studying stocks and monitoring his portfolio until the end of his life in his eighties.  My grandmother was typical for those days, too – she understood very little about their financial situation.  Like many women of the Greatest Generation, she focused on the expenses, not the income.

Once my grandfather passed, my parents took over my grandmother’s finances. I gave some advice but not much more than that.  Nonetheless, my grandmother has continued to rely on my opinion simply because I do work in a field related to finance and (vaguely) economics.  Speaking to her the other night, she asked a question which began to haunt me as a young man and these days has started to keep me up at nights.

“Do I still have enough to last until I die?”

A gambler or a credit card addict doesn’t think about that question. Tomorrow is tomorrow.  Somebody will be there to help:  daddy, adult children, the government, the market, the bank, Batman… but there is no scenario for most people that involves lying in the street freezing.  I imagine that in the worst case most people imagine being stuck in a government nursing home, but consider what a safety net even that is:  people expect the government to guarantee old age care.  Yet the same people complain about communists like me who’d like to see government-provided health care for all ages.

That question can only be answered one way:  yes. The question has two levels:  will I have enough for basic cable and fresh milk and the occasional new sweater on one level, and ‘is there a future where I am aged, infirm, helpless, cold and hungry’?

I don’t spend enough time around the elderly in general – I think we have a lot to learn, good and bad, from them – but I have spent enough time to realize that the question ‘do I still have enough to last until I die’ is going to be a scarier and scarier question in the years ahead. I used to worry about the first part:  would I have enough for me (at first), and then later, for my family:  enough to do a little traveling with Bubelah, send my grandkids a Transformers XIII action figure and so on.  But in my darker moods, watching the slow steady decline of the middle classes’ standard of living, the second part of that question creeps in, latches its claws into my lizard brain and stays.  That’s when I remind myself that there’s only one possible answer to that question; I have to make sure that answer is ‘yes.’

photo by Eleaf

draft, drift and dreft – and links

I had a sudden inspiration on that title and realized that these words summoned up my past few days in a nutshell. The draft – the NFL draft consumed a good piece of my attention for a few days.  My Jets didn’t need much current-year help, so I wasn’t too worried about their picks, but the draft was interesting overall.  Here in Florida the Tebow watch was unbelievable.  The drift?  I managed to spend another week – in a long series of weeks – without really managing to do anything about the increasingly-likely-to-end consulting contract I’m working on.  This blog provides minimal income, and my other business ventures are a victim (sob story) of the poor economy.  I’d like to start a landscaping design business, but it’s hard to set aside the six-figure consulting gig.  And Dreft?  We were up to our ears in baby-and-kid tasks this weekend; cleaning up the house, running kid-related errands and simply serving the needs of The Kids.  Exhausting.  Very fun, at points, don’t get me wrong:  I loved chasing down a  soccer field with my 2-year old daughter who has shown an amazing ability to kick and direct an adult-sized soccer ball; she caught me with a crossover misdirection that had me dreaming of MLS contract money (hah).  It’s all good, but it’s all tiring!

Some links.  Someday I’ll start summarizing them again, but for now, just pick a couple at random and go there!

What is the Point of Saving, the World May End Tomorrow?

“Beware of little expenses. A small leak will sink a great ship.” –Benjamin Franklin

More than 200 years ago, this great statesman, inventor, and philosopher was well aware of the power of saving. He knew that without attending to spending and expenses, saving won’t happen.

Live for today or save for tomorrow?

I have a friend named Judy (not her real name) who truly lives for today because the future is unknown. She thinks, “I may get hit by a bus, or get struck with a disease so why should I focus on saving?” But Judy isn’t stupid, she realizes there is some fallacy in this thinking as there is also a chance that she may live to a ripe old age. So, Judy struggles with the question, “how do I reconcile these competing beliefs”? She confides, “I don’t want to live my life totally focused on the future, and miss out on the fun of today. But I also don’t want to live only in the present and have no money saved if I live a long life.” Consequently, Judy has some really great stuff, a huge house, lots of beautiful furniture, but not much in the bank.

Now that she has all this stuff, the initial newness and excitement of her purchases has worn off!

Judy is also beginning to worry about the future a bit. This is a real philosophical question and a difficult one at that. “Live in the Moment,” is a wonderful tactic for enjoying the present.

But, how does one reconcile the practicality of living in the moment with the fact that we all need some money for future emergencies and spending?

For Judy and the rest of us grappling with this issue, how do you figure out how much to save? I confess that I have been struggling with this issue for many many years. It was very confronting to me last year when my husband and I went to a Monte Carlo night fund raiser. In exchange for our entrance fee we were given $10,000 worth of pretend money to gamble with all night. I was so terrified of running out of money that I only made very small bets. Consequently, I didn’t win too much………… although I didn’t lose too much either, and at the end of the night I had preserved a lot of pretend money. But the down side of my conservatism was that I FELT VERY ANXIOUS AND WORRIED ABOUT RUNNING OUT OF MONEY pretend gambling chips.

So why am I telling you this? Because at one point my husband admonished me, “Why don’t you stop worrying about running out of chips and have some fun? You know this isn’t real money!” For me, that was a wake up call, I was sacrificing the enjoyment of pretend gambling due to a fear that I would run out of PLAY money. I certainly would have been better off and had more fun if I had made some bigger bets and let go of my fear of “running out of pretend money.” Obviously, I couldn’t spend the pretend money I had at the end of the event as it was WORTHLESS! I had gone to the extreme at a party and even at this fun event; I missed the opportunity to live in the moment.

In sum, there is a fine balance between overspending and spending an appropriate amount to allow for today and tomorrow.

Practical Application

Your personal challenge is to find the best balance between spending now and saving for the future. Start simple and try saving 10% of your income. You can’t go wrong with saving 10%! And if you find it’s too much or too little, you can always adjust in the future.

Do not despair if you can’t save 10%; save as much as you can now, even if it’s just 2% of your income! In fact, it’s better to save something NOW, no matter how small an amount rather than give up and save nothing.

If you want to get a bit more specific, there are lots of calculators to help figure out how much to save for certain situations; down payment on a home, retirement, college etc. My favorite site for savings calculators is here at

Assume that the world will go on…….. and not end tomorrow. Of course, fun and enjoyment are important and you need cash for the present, but to have a satisfying life, keep some cash stored away for future expenses. Don’t stress out about being really technical and calculating!

Start a saving HABIT! The amount of money is less important than beginning the habit.

Action Steps:

  • Get a notebook and label it: “(your name) Personal Finance” and keep it by the computer. Use it to keep all of your personal finance goals, thoughts, activities, and plans.
  • Tomorrow visit your personnel office at work and your bank. Follow their instructions to set up an automatic payroll transfer from your paycheck to your savings account.
  • If you can’t transfer cash directly from your paycheck, then set up a regular automatic transfer from your checking to your savings account.

Today’s guest post was from Barbara Friedberg. Get more saving and goal setting motivation and information from her blog; a good post to get started on is “How to Get what you Want Out of Life and Have the Cash to Pay for it“.

green shame

I wasn’t ready for the poop. Or the diarrhea, the green stuff, the smells and even the appearance of a steady stream (sometimes literally) of crap.  I liked to think of myself as a ‘green’ consumer, but after a couple of days in the hospital after the birth of my son I knew I would be a disposable diaper parent.  He had me at ‘meconium.’

Using disposable diapers was slightly inconvenient in New Jersey. First, they were expensive:  but problem solved, order in bulk online.  Second, we had a townhouse and we weren’t going to run the diapers down to the garage at midnight.  Problem solved:  buy a diaper genie-type thing that had an “airtight” seal.  Third, I did have to trundle them over to the community trash compactor, which was fine in the summer but a bit of a pain in the winter.  But in general, disposables seemed to work.  I felt bad about tossing that much garbage away, but not really:  if you throw away two or three diapers a day, it doesn’t seem like much in the grand scheme of things.

Jump to 2010, and clan Brip Blap relocated to the outer edge of a small town in a fairly rural county in Florida. No more community trash:  just a once-a-week trash pickup service.  One kid off diapers but another stubbornly clinging to the last luxurious days of poop-on-the-go diaper service.  And finally, one papa, flinging plastic bag after plastic bag (and yes, I know that’s bad too) into the trash waiting for Wednesdays.

That’s a lot of poop from one small toddler; that poop (and pee) is wrapped up in even more vaguely scented, children’s-TV-brand imprinted diapers.  The first time I looked at the trash can on a Wednesday morning as I dragged it to the end of the driveway for pickup I was appalled.  Almost four years of diapers in landfills.  The thought of it made me realize that, along with continuing to drive my ten-year old poor-MPG Pontiac on a long commute daily, I’m not nearly as green as I should be – or would like to be.

It’s a tough choice on many levels and, of course, not being the stay-at-home parent it wasn’t really my call anyway. But like with many life lessons – learning to control spending, eating well, staying away from drugs, and learning to root against the New England Patriots – it’s worth reflecting on for a while.  I won’t be having any more children, and now that my daughter, Pumpkin, is almost trained it won’t be an issue in my family again.  But there will be a poop-and-diaper equivalent, and hopefully someday I’ll develop the backbone to match rhetoric and actions.

recurrent greed

A little more than two years ago I made one of my twice-a-decade stock purchases. During the early days of the financial crisis I bought what I thought was a severely underpriced General Electric (GE) at 19 per share. I allowed myself to fall into groupthink; working at a huge Wall Street client (which was almost about to collapse itself). All of the frequent traders I worked with were clamoring about ‘bargains’ and ‘steals.’ I let myself get seduced by the idea of blue chips on sale and snatched up a fairly substantial chunk of GE stock.

Soon I had unrealized losses soaring up to more than 50% of my original investment. GE bottomed out at a little more than $7 per share. As the market tumbled, I berated myself for being so foolish and set an alert to notify me if it ever rose about $19. I swore I’d get out of that position and get back into funds (or frankly, simple cash accumulation).

Time passed. The crisis thrashed around for a bit, then quieted down. Health care ‘reform’ replaced financial reform on the headlines and the market began a slow steady climb back up to 2008 levels. I forgot – as I like to do – about my portfolio and turned my attention to more important things like Season 2 of Mad Men.

Then suddenly, earlier this week, my phone pinged with a text: GE is above your notification limit of 19. More than two years later, I was reminded of how arrogantly I had crowed about my bargain purchase. I remembered how, with consulting work drying up and my portfolio bottoming out, I had bitterly regretted that purchase and told myself I would get out if I could ever just break even.

And I stared at the message. I could almost imagine the little angel on one shoulder (‘now you can get back to sensible investing’) and the little devil on the other (‘keep it just a little longer… this time it will be different’). I wondered if I should hold on to it just a bit longer… and deleted the text, and returned my attention to my work. I hoped this time things would be different.

Out of this mindset, of course, investors become speculators and Wall Street snickers. I know I’m supposed to be in it for the long term, and I know my investing strategy is now firmly centered around broad-based low-fee index mutual funds.  But I still remember the “go-go” days and hope that I’ll get one more lucky strike.

economic patriotism, and links

I spent this evening watching “What Would Jesus Buy” and found it thoroughly entertaining – and sobering. One of the issues I’ve grown increasingly aware of is where the things I buy come from.  I am still an awful consumer in many ways, but I’ve started making the effort to at least glance at the “made in” labels on things I buy.  If I have a choice I’ll buy American.  If I have a choice between buying an item at a national chain or going to a locally owned store, I’ll go local.  It’s a bit of economic nationalism, and you have to make a commitment to it on many levels.  It’s not always as convenient and it’s very often not at all frugal.  I often blur the two:  I’ll buy American-made tools at Home Depot if I can, although maybe I’d do more for my community going to the local hardware store and buying Malaysian-made tools.  But I do try to be a bit more conscious of what I’m buying and where it’s from.  Supporting local stores and domestically-produced goods is a good way to show patriotism – far more so than, say, buying a “support the troops” magnet for your bumper that was made in Thailand.

A few good links:

how to enjoy a meal

Experts tell us that the design of a wineglass — from the shape to the height to the width of the rim  — can affect the way you taste the wine. Supposedly at the high end of the scale, a wine that might taste perfect in one glass would be less than perfect in another. From an old New York Times article (I had the quote but the link didn’t work anymore):

“We started with a typically full-flavored California chardonnay, from Kendall Jackson. In Riedel’s Vinum Chardonnay glass (Steve’s note – cost: approximately $95 – the glass, not the wine), notes of tropical fruit wafted up and expanded lusciously in the mouth. We transferred the wine into the Vinum Sauvignon Blanc glass, where it seemed to lose depth. Creamy oak and vanilla overpowered the other flavors. It also seemed unpleasantly tannic. Finally, we poured the chardonnay into a “joker” glass — those miserly little wineglasses that you can barely fit your nose into. In this glass, alcohol burned on the nose, and the tropical fruit disappeared.”

This all sounds crazy, right?

I drink red wine. Probably the best glass of wine I ever had was a Chianti (Peppoli 2000) at a Roman restaurant, San Teodoro, in May of 2004. Probably the beautiful restaurant, the view on the Forum and simply the fact that Bubelah and I were in Rome had something to do with my pleasant memory of the evening, the meal and most particularly the wine. My recollection of the day includes spending the morning, a clear spring day, in Hadrian’s Villa and then a long evening after dinner walking through a rose exhibit near the Circo Massimo and enjoying some campari in a café while listening to jazz.  At home, I usually use a small tumbler for my wine, and I seldom get out the wine glasses.  I drink inexpensive wine for the most part, and can’t remember the last time I spent $20 on a bottle unless it was a gift for someone else.

I guess my point is that – at least for an unsophisticated wine drinker – the atmosphere surrounding the Peppoli at San Teodoro made the wine fantastic rather than any magical combination of earthy vanilla tones. I doubt the Peppoli was a particularly impressive wine, strictly speaking. I suspect if I drank it sitting at home while eating a plate of leftovers it would not have made such an impression on me. So the surroundings, which might include a fancier glass than normal, probably made the difference in taste and perception. The goal for all of us, then, has to be to create the atmosphere and environment in our lives around us to make the mundane seem transcendant.

Trying to create an atmosphere of beauty in your daily dining – or any part of your life – can have more of an impact sometimes than actually upgrading the things in your life. Imagine, for example, these two scenarios:

  1. Fresh slices of tomato, slices of buffalo mozzarella, olives, bread and olive oil. Glass of red wine, candles, tea after dinner and music – classical, jazz, or whatever works for you.
  2. An expensive filet mignon steak, carmelized onions, butter, rolls, a side of creamed spinach, a glass of expensive red wine with brandy after dinner – eaten on a TV tray while watching the last 15 minutes of Wheel of Fortune.

The first dinner would be substantially cheaper and some would say less satisfying than the second. However, the atmosphere it is delivered in would make it infinitely more satisfying to me. Coming full circle back to the question of drinking wine from $100 glasses, I can say with some certainty that I am sure that if I knew they were $100 glasses, I would enjoy the experience more. I would probably savor the wine, remember the moment, talk about it, and enjoy it. If I drank the same wine out of a paper cup, it would still taste the same, but some of the beauty of the moment would be lost.

I am not recommending anyone rush out and buy $100 glasses, but I would recommend that you take a few minutes when eating (or doing anything, really) to consider how you will undertake your meal. Will it be rushed, on paper plates and with a TV blaring? Or will it be in a calm, pleasant atmosphere? Making your dining more pleasant can transform the mundane into the excellent, just as drinking a wine – according to the New York Times – can be changed from “burning” to “luscious” by using the right glass. Just make sure someone else buys the $100 glasses!

photo by delphaber

learning how to let go of clutter

When you look at a mug, do you see a mug? Or do you see a gift from grandma, a souvenir from that charming bistro in Paris, the cup that your daughter used for her hot chocolate when she was little? Whether you see just a mug or an object that “emits memories” probably makes a big difference in the level of clutter in your life.

Why shouldn’t you have sentimental attachments to “stuff?”

1. Stuff is not memory-magnetic. If you still own a childhood teddy that your father gave you, you probably tell people it has “memories attached to it.” It doesn’t. If the bear is given away to the neighbor’s kid tomorrow, your memories will not disappear.

2. Stuff packed away in boxes is not sentimental. I have a couple of keepsakes, knickknacks, doodads, etc. I have my Star Wars baseball-style cards from my childhood. They are in a box in the garage. If someone threw them away tomorrow, I wouldn’t notice for years. If you pack something away in a box and never take it out, you aren’t sentimental about it.

3. Some of the things you keep are not attracting good memories. If you have something that makes you sad, but you hang on to it because you feel it had some significance in your life, you aren’t doing yourself any favors.

4. You can’t take it with you. I guarantee that within 100 years either your stuff or you will be gone. You’re leaving your stuff behind sooner or later.

I like my stuff. I like my childhood toys. But I don’t like clutter. Something has to give at some point. That collection of Star Wars cards is one more shoebox packed in one more big cardboard box taking just a little more storage space out of the garage and making me grumble that we have no room for the bikes. So what to do?

1. Be brutal. Throw out stuff. You may be tempted to put it in a pile ‘for donation’ or ‘for the neighbors’ or ‘for my future grandchildren.’ Unless you go directly to the Salvation Army right after assembling a pile of unneeded memorabilia, toss it. I know that’s not the environmentally sound thing to do, but at some point you have to admit that your beloved stuff is worthless to anyone but you.

2. Be honest. If you have a sentimental coffee cup, fine. If you have three… OK. If you have 16, you might want to winnow down a bit. You don’t need 16 coffee cups.

3. Take pictures. If there’s something you don’t need, but you want to remember it, take a picture. Put it in a screensaver. You’ll see it, the memory will trigger but you’ll still have less clutter.

4. Sell it. If you can move promptly – see rule #1 – sell your stuff. You may love that 1964 “I Love Lyndon” coffee mug but face it – wouldn’t you rather have the $8 it could fetch on eBay?

5. Just refuse it, baby! The next time you go on a trip to Cabo Wabo, don’t get the “I partied with Sammy Hagar” memorial tequila shooters. Take some pictures instead.

6. Put it in circulation. I have about a dozen nesting dolls I brought home from Russia. I treated them like they were holding the Hope Diamond for a while. Then I suddenly realized that Little Buddy and Pumpkin would get a lot of fun out of them. I have a twinge thinking about them breaking, but then again it’s not like I’m going to forget I lived in Russia. If you have wedding china, use it! If you have an antique chair, sit in it!

I am a sentimentalist. I fall somewhere in the middle of the scale between Mr. Spock (emotionless rejection of all sentimentality) and people who keep their cremated pets in urns. I do, however, try to eliminate the least sentimental pieces I own, and more importantly to minimize the new ‘stuff’ I buy during ‘a moment.’ Learning to let go isn’t easy – but we have to do it.

the last space shuttle launches, and links

I haven’t managed a links post in a while – posting’s been a bit of a struggle what with daily life, a visit from my brother and his family, and laziness… anyway, here are a few posts worth checking out.  I’ll be up early for the space shuttle launch tomorrow, so wish me luck; we don’t have many left.

spy story

There’s an interesting part of my career that I haven’t shared before on this blog, for what should be obvious reason. In April 1996, when President Clinton visited President Yeltsin in Moscow, I was approached at a business seminar by  someone I’ll call Alex.  I was surprised that Alex seemed to know who I was.  After all, I was just a supervisor at a Western consulting firm.  The only thing that set me apart from the other 300 or so expatriates at the firm was my command of Russian; at the time only 2-3 of us spoke anything close to passable Russian.  But Alex eventually revealed why he was talking to me:  to gauge my level of interest in joining the Central Intelligence Agency as a “commercial agent,” providing information on Russian enterprises I audited.

That may not sound like a critical matter of national security, but at the time most Russian enterprises were closed books to the rest of the world. My clients might appear, for example, to own a chain of grocery stores or hotels.  On auditing the books, though, I would find evidence (for example) of subsidiaries who were satellite surveillance equipment makers.  One client of mine was closely connected with the Russian mafia.  Another was an advisor to a senior politician.  I had access to a lot of information that helped untangle the scary mid-90s chaos.

I had a fairly lengthy and surreptitious interview and acceptance process. I wasn’t able to disclose my status to anyone, of course.  I never visited an office, and other than Alex at first and my handler, who I’ll call Ben, I never met anyone who was outwardly identified as CIA.  I didn’t get compensated much, but if you’ve seen the movie “The Russia House,” you’d understand when I say it wasn’t about money at all.  It’s an odd thing when your country asks you for help:  no matter how much of a cynic you may be, it’s a hard call to resist.

I don’t have any cool stories about being chased down a dark alley in a hail of gunfire. I never fired a gun.  The biggest nervous moments were drops.  I left coded notes for Ben folded into newspapers which I’d leave in a space behind a booth at a local diner (yes, there was a diner in Moscow).  I’d have a small heart attack each time, and I did it about 12 times.  I’d go have breakfast in the diner on weekends, leave the drop and shortly before I’d get up and leave Ben would walk in.  I met him for conversation even fewer times.  We’d have brief conversations of the “everything OK? No troubles at work?” type, but any agency-specific conversations were usually held in crowded, loud bars (for example, changes in my schedule due to travel).  If I needed to speak to Ben, I moved a chair on my balcony from the right side to the left side.

When I left Russia, I left the agency – they didn’t need a New York-based operative, obviously (or legally). I haven’t been contacted in the last ten years except recently when I was released from my top-secret clearance.  The only regret I had about my service was the fact I had to keep it secret for so long.  My parents always noted that there were curious coincidences about my movements in Moscow; I attended far too many diplomatic events considering I was just a consultant with a private firm, for example.  I laughed it off.  My mom even made cracks about how I must be working for the CIA, which I guffawed away.  Since she reads this blog, she’s probably stunned right about now.

So if you’ve ever wondered what a spy’s life is like, that’s it.
Written reports.  Paperwork.  A tiny bit of thriller – drops and signals to meet.  One of my clients was killed (the mafia-connected one) and that’s the one time I was truly nervous.  What if they were trying to figure out where the information about his connections had gone?  But nothing happened – I did my bit, and moved on.  Maybe something I did helped someone in Washington get a foot up on the Russians, but most likely it didn’t.  But I’m left with a good story, and that’s worth something.  Maybe I can punch it up and option the movie rights 🙂

photo by Argenberg