Tag Archives: rant

Useless Financial Advice

The June 2012 issue of Smartmoney magazine featured two popular types of finance articles – a how-to piece about saving money on health care and an interview with a policy expert about rethinking retirement.  Both of these are big topics in the world of finance; after all rising health care costs and inadequate retirement savings are two things that affect each and every one of us at some point.

I admit that the health care article was thoroughly researched.  In addition to standard advice about negotiating with your doctor and finding cheaper meds via mail-order or getting generics, it has some tips for questioning tests ordered by your doctor, going to physical therapy and timing your dental work in one calendar year to save on your federal tax bill (provided your medical bills exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income).

The interview with psychologist Laura Carstensen, an expert on aging, focuses on making the most of retirement.  She offers several “solutions” for overburdened social security system, from increasing the retirement age to creating a “phased retirement” based upon a moderately paced career path with more flexible schedules (assuming this will cause less burn-out and allow us to enjoy work longer).

In my opinion, these types of advice articles, and there are many similar ones that periodically crop up in print and online, are practically worthless because they ignore real solutions that would actually help the majority of people. 

I understand that there are times you can negotiate with your doctors and hospitals.  However, when you’re really, really sick or your loved one is truly sick and facing astronomical costs, are you in a frame of mind to negotiate care and bills?  Most people are not and should not have to. When my European friends have to undergo major surgery or treatments, all they have to focus on is getting better or caring for their loved ones.  When you’re scared and facing new and complex medical terminology, the last thing you want to think about is how you’re going to pay for care.   These types of articles ignore the human side of things, as if it’s negotiating for medical care is the same as a cable bill!  You can throw all the great advice about getting a detailed bill and scanning for medical overcharges but who the hell wants to deal with that during a time of crisis? (And while I’m ranting, who the hell has the time to figure out if their anesthesiologist is also “in network” like their doctor or hospital?)

A friend had a child in intensive care, racking up hundreds of thousands in bills.  Although she had insurance, she still had to pay quite a lot out of pocket.  The worse part is that she did not bring home a completely healthy child.  As she received mysterious bill after bill, she also had to focus on caring for her sick child.  I’ve read similar stories of parents desperately fundraising for their child’s care.  I can’t believe that anyone should have to worry about finances at a time like that.  It’s fine that some people pay more for cable or airplane tickets because they’re bad at negotiating or comparison shopping.  However, this should not be a consideration when it comes to essentials like health care.

In the retirement article, one key point is that we must work longer to make our finances last longer.  The interview states that 88% of people 65 to 74 are healthy enough to work.  Great advice, in theory.  The reality is that the majority of older people who want to work longer simply can’t.  While some climb high enough up the ladder to enjoy respect or can jump into consulting, many more people face age discrimination and are the first to be laid off.  It’s great that 88% of older people could work; however, how many companies are eager to hire these people? The expert also states that longer careers would be possible if we all didn’t work so hard in the “middle” years.   While  I do know people who have opted out to go back to school, which is not really a break, or to travel, most people who ramp down or opt out of work do so to care for kids or parents.   The majority of these people don’t find great jobs after their “break”.  I’m not saying that we can keep the current retirement age or benefits as is, but the typical solutions given in money magazines are not very realistic either.

The lack of reality is what bothers me most about discussions addressing health care in the U.S. and retirement.  They seem to be made by the upper echelons who have little or much less to worry about in terms of finances, with little regard for how the majority of people will be affected.

I’m even more bothered that many regular middle-income people I know seem to feel the same way, especially if they haven’t been personally affected by serious health issues or reached retirement age.  I want to know if they will feel the same if/when they face a serious illness or if they have a sick child.  And when they reach age 70, I wonder if they will re-think how great or easy it will be to work longer….maybe they’ll get lucky and Walmart needs a greeter.

Advice From Writers And Celebs

If you blog long enough, you probably start a section for rants. It’s evitable. You get more comfortable with your voice and you realize that you have an outlet, finally, to vent to the world no matter how small your readership is…  This isn’t my first real rant. I think I railed enough about our healthcare system and glossy magazines, but this could qualify as my first “pure” rant. 

On msn.com, I came across a section titled “Spring Cleaning Tips from Celebs” including the likes of Martha Stewart and Gwyneth Paltrow of Goop.com fame.  While I wouldn’t be surprised if Martha actually did clean just for the thrill of it, I think celebs advice can be summed up with: Ask the Maid(s) to do a deeper cleaner of my 10-bedroom mansion.  Please don’t pretend you’re like the rest of us in this category.

On the same note, I recently read 1 or 2 articles in Real Simple magazine about work-life balance.  I believe one wrote books while the other freelanced for magazines and newspapers.  Both had children but worked from home most days.  While they did have some good tips, I could not take their advice seriously.    If you work from home, you are not in a position to give work-life advice.  You have a lot more flexiblity than many people out in the work world.   Maybe I’m being a bit harsh but I want real-world advice from worker bees who don’t have that much flexibility or control over their schedules.  I guess that’s what blogs are for?

Simple Living, Italian Style: The Kitchen

This is a second in my series examining simple living, the Italian way.  I’m intrigued by the Italian outlook on life and find that it meshes well with the American simplicity movement, but with a zest for life (la dolce vita) that gives it a more joyful twist. 

I’ve written before about our tiny kitchen and 10+ year old dishwasher (the little dishwasher that could…) but I don’t want people to get the wrong idea.  We have all that we need and can afford a newer dishwasher when the time comes.  What got me thinking about the kitchen again was Frugal Scholar’s recent series on kitchen renovations.  During the process, she started pining for an $8,000 French stove…until she imagined a French friend rolling her eyes in shock at that silly indulgence.

This tale of French frugaliy reminded me of Italian frugality, which I think might be rather similar when it comes to cooking and kitchens.  The only difference is that the frugal French friend sets you straight with an eye-roll while an Italian would probably find a friendlier way to tell you.  Both cultures are known for excellent cuisine and boast some great home cooks, yet the “dream kitchen” of granite counters, stainless steel sinks, Viking stoves and restaurant-quality appliances is a distinctly American one.

During the recent housing boom, Americans were bombarded with glossy lifestyle magazines and TV shows that paraded dream kitchens and renovations. At the same time, the media touted kitchen renovations as fool-proofed investments and banks easily approved home equity lines of credit.  No wonder Americans started believing that bigger is better and more expensive is even better.  If you have a giant house, you want a giant kitchen, right?

In Italy, there wasn’t a massive housing boom brought on by easy credit. I believe it was and still is common to put more than 20% down on a house.  I’m sure that it’s easier to resist the allure of walnut cabinets and $8,000 stoves if no one around you is spending like mad on kitchen renovations.

Perhaps Americans subconsciously believe that a high-end kitchen will result in good cooking and fun dinner parties with friends and family (as pictured in the numerous glossy magazines). The thinking goes like this: “I hate slaving in the kitchen but if I had X and Y, I would cook more. And if I cook more, I’d invite people over and spend more quality time with friends and family.”  At least that’s my theory….

The kitchen is truly the heart of the Italian home and this cannot be bought.  Don’t get me wrong.  Most of the Italian kitchens I’ve seen have good cabinetry, nice appliances and excellent tilework (no cheap linoleum), yet very few are flashy or decked out like a restaurant kitchen.  If you know how to cook, you’ll realize there’s little need for a fancy dual-range double oven or mega-refrigerator. In general, due to history of home-cooking and food-loving culture, Italians are better able to appreciate a well-used kitchen over an idealized dream version.

As with all generalizations, there are caveats.  I don’t know if younger Gen-Y Italians are more likely to want a restaurant-style kitchen.  If Italians do brag, it may be about clothing, trips or other things.  My personal history has also affected my perception. I remember listening to a colleague brag about her expensive stove and other fancy appliances; she was the typical aspirational spender, with a house bought with zero percent down, a designer clothing addiction, and a lease on a luxury car on a middle-class salary.  A friend owned several high-end pots and pans that sat unused for years. I’ve known many who considered fancy kitchens a status symbol in the vein of luxury cars or a sauna.  Maybe what bothers me most is the huge disconnect between reality and fantasy!

It’s nice to daydream but I think we could all benefit from re-imagining our dream kitchens as a more functional, simpler place.  At the end of the day, it’s not about the expensive pans or appliances, it’s really all about the food.

Evil Health Insurance Company, Why Do You Bother Denying My Claims?

Over the past three years, I’ve gotten quite good at battling my health insurance company, or hereforth known as Evil Health Insurer, for their denial of office visits and diagnostic tests recommended by my doctors.  I have to thank the internet for my newfound expertise. When my insurer first denied a legitimate visit to a specialist, I did some research and found very helpful tips on letter writing and on navigating the process in general.  Using these tips, I wrote a letter and included documentation to back up my claims.  A month later, they said I was correct and paid for the visit.

Since that first victory, they’ve denied various claims (for the same medical condition) at least four times. I’ve lost count.  Each time, I pull up my letter template…yes, I now have a handy insurance letter template…fill in the blanks, and re-attach supporting documentation from my benefits manual.  I recently won my latest battle and I admit that I’m feeling cocky enough to post about this. I want to say or shout from the rooftops:

Dear Evil Health Insurer,

You may screw over millions of people just when they need healthcare the most but you’re not screwing me. In fact, the next you see a letter from me, why don’t you just approve the claim without re-reviewing the case because you know I’m right!!!

Or better yet, why don’t you stop denying legitimate claims in the hope that the victim is too illed, too uneducated, or too busy to fight back?  I truly cannot believe that each denial is an honest mistake. I saw Michael Moore’s “Sicko” and have read enough horror stories to know that this is simply how most insurers conduct business.

Hopefully this post will become irrelevant if healthcare reform actually goes through. In the meantime, here are my tips if you ever get denied:

1 ) Your letter should not be emotional.  Be as factual as possible. Throw in legal-ese if you can!

2 ) Send your letter via certified mail. Don’t bother calling more than once. A paper trail is critical.

3 ) Back it up! Copy pages from your benefits manual that support your claim.

4 ) Keep a copy of your letter and use it as a template if/when you are denied again in the future. This saves a lot of time and makes the process less of a headache.

You can also ask your HR department for help if you’re not able to resolve this on your own. Remember, most people don’t fight back and insurers know this. They are more likely to approve your claim if you’re one of the few who bother to fight back. I don’t know if fighting back counts in my “Just Ask! Negotiations” challenge.  After all, my company and I pay for health insurance and expect legitimate expenses to be part of the deal. It’s not the same as asking for a better deal on rugs or shoes.

I’ve left out the name of this Evil Health Insurer because they’re all pretty much the same so I don’t feel the need to single them out by name

Men Can Cook, Too (Or How Women Can Simplify Their Lives)

I’m very fortunate that my husband is the main cook in our household. We eat meals that are delicious, healthy and often better than anything you’ll find in a restaurant.  However, over the years, I’ve learned a fair share of recipes, too.  That way, if my husband has a busy month, is away for work, gets sick, or I just feel like it, I can whip up a decent meal too. I often help with the preparation or hang out and take pictures for this blog.

Even in this day and age, I know that my experience is unique.  Among my friends, co-workers and family, most of the cooking is done by women.  This is true even if she works full-time.  Whether due to real interest, societal expectations or a combination of both, once married or living together, most women embrace traditional wifely duties with gusto. The husband either appears less interested or overcooks one dish and is banned from the kitchen forever. It’s no wonder that woman often work a so-called “second shift” after coming home from their 9-to-5 jobs. 

The problem is that cooking requires more planning than say scrubbing the tub.  It’s also a lifelong daily commitment unlike, say, mowing the lawn every so often.  You have to plan meals, do the grocery shopping or write the list for your husband, and then do the cooking.  And those ten dishes you know get boring pretty quickly so you have to get creative and consult magazines and food blogs to keep your family happy.  Oh, and you have to pack lunch for yourself, husband and kids, too.  What happens if you’re busier that week or feel sick or just want a break?  

A Missed Opportunity

Unlike mopping, dusting or vacuuming, cooking is unique because it can be an enjoyable and rewarding “chore”.  If both husband and wife are relative beginners, it’s an opportunity to learn something fun together.  If one of you is already an expert cook (like my husband), you can still teach your spouse.  I’m the perfect example!

Truthfully, I’m more similar to the typical male when it comes to cooking.  I would have been more than happy to watch TV and wait for a delicious meal to magically appear at the table every night.  My husband, however, realized that this would not work well in the long-term. It took a mix of gentle persuasion and insistence to push me into cooking.  On a practical level, he wanted some nights off and didn’t want me to be completely helpless if he worked late or was out of town.   He also wanted to share the joy of cooking with me. So if you’re female and already undertaking all the cooking, try to include your husband.  You may be amazed at his creativity and skill in the kitchen if you give him half a chance.

If you’re still not convinced, here are some food for thought:

1 ) A newlywed friend of mine insisted on doing all the cooking for her husband. They both worked full-time and she had the longer commute. I gave her that same bit of advice.  Her response was that she loved to cook so I dropped the subject.  Many months later, she announced that she was “on strike” from cooking and grocery shopping. For several nights, her puzzled husband got take-out or made sandwiches for dinner.  When the fridge was empty, he finally asked her if anything was wrong.  After that, he tried to help more around the kitchen and did more of the grocery shopping.  To be fair, he could have taken the initiative sooner.  However, this entire drama would have been unnecessary if she hadn’t taken on all the cooking duties in the first place.

2 ) While returning from a work trip, my husband and a guy friend started discussing their home lives.   Like my husband, his friend was the main cook in the household. Unlike my husband, his friend never taught his wife to cook.  He lamented that he often returned from long work days to an empty fridge.  If he didn’t buy groceries or cooked, the wife went out or ate junk food.   My husband was amazed by this.  I may not be able to whip up risotto or leg of lamb.  However, if I know he’s working late, I know how to stock up the fridge and try to make several food that is easy to re-heat.

3 ) Recently I read an interesting article in Redbook about the importance of equality in marriage.  (I wish I could give you the source but I was browsing in a doctor’s office.)  Most women try to take over the household and childcare responsibilities, even if she is working and her husband has more egalitarian views.  As a result, the husband becomes an irresponsible “child” that she has to take care of along with the children.  This situation eventually takes a toll on the woman and places stress on the marriage. Although you would think that the man would enjoy his irresponsible role, most actually don’t enjoy being treated like a child in household matters.

Sometimes I think the real reason women are overwhelmed is the high expectations we put on ourselves to be the perfect wife, mother and career women (for some). Yes, our rigid corporate system, lack of paid mandated maternity leave, and lack of vacation time do play a huge role. However, if we took a step back and let men take on more responsibilities, we would find the work/life balance much easier.  It’s not just cooking. It starts from the moment she gets engaged.  The woman usually spearheads the wedding planning.  Soon she is writing the thank-you notes, planning the holidays, buying gifts for her husband’s family and friends, and of course, doing the cooking and most of the household chores.  Once children enter the picture, it’s no wonder that they feel like they must drop their careers.  Instead of dropping careers, how about dropping the apron and spatula once in a while?

 Obviously all this doesn’t apply to women who stay at home.  If you don’t work, you probably should do most of the household chores.  However, I would still encourage both spouses learn basic cooking skills so that the other isn’t completely helpless in the kitchen.  Unlike dusting or vacuuming, cooking can’t wait and it’s nice to have a spouse cook for you if you’re overwhelmed or ill. 

Just Ask…Saves Me $1,000 On Car Repairs

The title of the post is a bit misleading since the savings occur not so much to my negotiating savvy as to a momentary hesitation and near-tears panic…

I’ve been challenging myself to negotiate for discounts (or Just Ask!)  in all situations.  Nowhere is this more important than car repairs.  As I was leaving work on Friday, my car stalled.  AAA towed me to a nearby mechanic.  After an hour of diagnostics, they determined that the problem was a faulty computer, or ECM, that affects 2005-2007 Corollas. There is a technical service bulletin for a free replacement of this part as long as it is still under warranty; if you’re unfortunate to experience this issue after the warranty period, you’re screwed.  Toyota has kept this issue hush-hush despite the fact that the stalling can occur while the car is in motion!

When the mechanic showed me the technical bulletin, he quoted me a price of approximately $1,000. The ECM itself is $788 plus labor and taxes.  At this point, my recollection of events is a bit blurry.  I became upset about the $1,000 price tag.  I remember getting indignant about the pricing since the problem is clearly a defective product.  I blurted something about not being able to afford this and having to call AAA to tow the car again.  My parents live nearby and I figure I could get their advice and buy some time to make a decision.  At my hesitation, the mechanic said he’ll check again. After 1 minute, he returned and said that the repair should be covered under warranty and that I can get it fixed for free at a dealership.  I’m happy he told me BUT I was thisclose to authorizing the repair. If not for my hesitation, or what I would like to call my “Just Cry” moment, I may have been on the hook for an expensive under-warranty repair! 

The car was repaired by the dealership and is now working fine.  Unfortunately, the ECM issue has happened to me before on the same car.  This is something that is supposed to be a simple one-time fix so now I have to write some letters to Toyota headquarters and document the situation in order to protect myself (and warn others).

I guess the moral of the story is that even at your weakest moments, hesitation is a powerful negotiating tool.  I guess the near-tears tactic may not work if you’re a burly male but I’m an average-looking older female so you don’t have to be a cute young woman either.  And it helps that I was not faking my distress. 

Boycotting Whole Foods, And A Health Care Quiz

Note: I wrote this a few weeks ago after reading about a post against healthcare reform from John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods.  It may be a little late to the debate but I felt like I had to post this…

Healthcare is too important of a topic to leave to the political blogs, media and politicians. It’s an issue that affects everyone. If the U.S. were to offer universal healthcare, I would jump on it. Unfortunately, I have to endure this current system due to gun-toting protesters and big-time CEOs like that of Whole Foods.

His ideas for reform clearly shows that he is out of touch with middle America’s needs. This isn’t surprising. What is more surprising is that the average Joe, i.e. anyone not in top 1% earning bracket, is against any reform that would benefit him/herself and their families.

For example, he suggested removing legal obstacles which slow the creation of high deductible health insurance plans and Health Savings Accounts. What he clearly does not realize is that these high-deductible plans (he cites a $2,500 annual deductible) are cost prohibitive for the average worker. $2,500 is a drop in the bucket for CEOs but not for the average family.

He also suggests that our skyrocketing healthcare costs is due to government mandates and ruinous lawsuits.  While ruinous lawsuits can be a problem, healthcare costs are outrageous due to the greed of our pharmaceutical company, insurers and hospitals that benefit from high prices.  When everyone operates to make a profit, the consumer (us) pay the price.

He suggests making costs transparent. I agree with this. However, comparing costs  about cable bills is one thing; comparing these costs during stressful and possibly life-threatening situations is another. If you’re single and need to undergo surgery, how much energy do you have to compare the cost of surgery, in-patient hospital stays and the various aspirins and bandages that the hospital will inevitably lump into your final bill.

And of course he brings up countries with universal healthcare like Canada and the U.K. because bashing the Canada and the U.K. healthcare system has become a favorite game for the U.S.  However, ask any Canadian or European citizen, preferably one who has lived in our country, if they would abolish their own system and you’ll hear a resounding “No.”  Invariably they are shocked by our country’s health care system — a profit-making entity that favors the wealthy and healthy.

Lastly, don’t buy the myth that the middle-class or even upper middle-class will be paying taxes to support the “lazy” welfare class. The truth is, we can no longer rely on pensions or life-long employment or any sort of job security. Most of us will be in-between jobs at some point in our lives. Many people will strike out on their own and not have employer-paid health insurance. Many of us will be deemed to have pre-existing conditions that make insurance insanely expensive (if you can get insurance at all).  Finally, without any oversight, you will likely pay for insurance for years and then be denied tests and treatment just when you really need it. Reform isn’t only about helping the uninsured; it is also helping those who currently have jobs and health insurance.

Now I do think that some people should be against reform. Take this quiz and find out where you belong.

1 ) Do you like hearing “how are you going to pay for this” before seeing the doctor or receiving treatment?
Yes or No
2 ) Are you in the top 1% earning bracket?
Yes or No
3 ) Is your last name Trump or Hilton?
Yes or No
4 ) Are you the CEO of a major corporation?
Yes or No
If you answer Yes, go ahead and kill any chance of reform. Be sure to celebrate with your fellow CEOs in grand style.  If you answer No, you should write to your representative and make yourself heard in this debate.