Slow But Steady She Goes!

MovingIt’s really going to be a weird winter.

After my posting last week, I picked up my new glasses and then spent much of the rest of the weekend looking online for a new apartment. It was a discouraging experience because it became increasingly clear that I would have to settle for a one-bedroom given how much prices for rent have gone up. And all the while, I kept thinking about how much I hate the logistics of moving, made all the more complicated by the fact I won’t be allowed to drive starting this coming Tuesday.

And then I fell onto something I couldn’t ignore: a huge two-bedroom apartment in a sixplex, at the right price, only a few blocks from my current place. But the catch was that it was available three months too early. So I began consulting with family and friends to ask if it was crazy to consider paying two rents for three months to secure what seemed like the ideal spot.

I calculated that I could afford doing that. But more importantly, it would allow me to stay in a neighbourhood I love and would eliminate the stress of moving on a very fixed date and not having a car. I could carry a box or a suitcase of unessential stuff every evening and consider keeping the personal and office move separate. The more I thought about it, the more I felt this convenience was worth the high price.

I did investigate getting out of my lease a month or two earlier than scheduled (given that I’ve been an otherwise model tenant and all of that and the building managers would probably gut this apartment before leasing it to someone else), but I was refused. Worse, I will not be allowed to keep renting my garage space, something I didn’t anticipate given that I know of at least two people who live outside the building who rent at least three spaces. It makes me wonder what’s the point of being an excellent tenant for six years if you end up being treated the same way as a troublesome tenant. But no point being bitter, I suppose.

I’m going to sign the sublease at 6:00 pm today. Earlier this afternoon I spent some time looking again at Kijiji and, for a brief moment, I wondered if I didn’t go too fast. But what keeps coming back to my mind is not only the hugeness of the new place but also the convenience of its location given my circumstances this winter. What’s more, I will no longer have neighbours above me, and the area will be much more quiet than where I am now. So, reminding myself that I have literally months even after the move to come up with a permanent parking situation, I’m saying to myself that there are times when it’s okay to be a bit impulsive.

And you know what? Given how time goes by so quickly, I know that on April 1st (when everything will be done and over with), I’ll look back at December 1st (today) and feel like it was just a month ago. Plus now, as I imagine myself living in the new place as of mid-January, I’m getting excited about something that I would normally dread.

So now I’m off to run a few errands to take advantage of my last 30 hours of driving for the next three months. I still think that’s going to be weirder than the odd move I just concocted for myself.

Big Changes in the Works

PlanningLast week’s news is forcing me to come up with a new plan.

I have to admit that, each time I drove this week, I thought to myself, “Man, I’m really going to miss this!” I think 10 days is the most I’ve gone without driving since September 1991 (when not travelling outside the country, of course), and that would have been when the motor of my previous car had blown up. But I’m determined not to get into more trouble by risking driving without a valid permit.

I spoke with my sister earlier this week about leaving my car with her, but I got the sense that with winter and snow removal and so on, that’d be a big pain in the ass for her. However, I wasn’t warm to the idea of simply leaving my car keys with my nephew here in Montréal in case the car had to be moved on very short notice. What if he was out of town or just not reachable? Hence today I woke up with a bunch of ideas that constitute a plan.

  1. Last Sunday morning I bumped into my (very sexy, by the way) Venezuelan neighbour in the garage and I confided to him what’s happening. And this morning it dawned on me: Why not leave the car keys with him? I don’t doubt his honesty but, just to be above board, we could sign a piece of paper saying that I’m confiding my keys with him from December 3 until my permit is reinstated and that he is not to give me the keys under any circumstances until then. That would prevent us from appearing one day on L’Arbitre (Québec’s equivalent of Judge Judy) to argue that no, I didn’t lend or give him my car. However, if the car needs to be moved, he could move his and then mine. So that would save me a trip to Chelsea next weekend and not encroach the plans my sister had nor impose a PITA on her this winter.
     
  2. Given the span of time my suspension will cover, I won’t bother getting the winter tires installed, which they have to be by law in Québec from December 15 to March 15. However, since my tires are stored at Canadian Tire and the storage fee is seasonal, I’ll just pay the storage renewal before December 3. Then, when I’ll be back on the road mid-March, I’ll renew it for another season and get the oil changed.
     
  3. I just got word that the three pairs of glasses I purchased two weeks ago are ready. Good thing: The place where I bought them is a bit out of the way by public transportation. So this afternoon, I’ll go get them, go to Canadian Tire, and possibly get my hair cut.
     
  4. Some errands are just more easily done with a car and I have until December 2 to get them done. I just have to think about what those errands might be. But the biggest pain I obviously won’t be able to do before then is the next point…
     
  5. Last weekend I also got notice that my rent is going up $10/month. The amount doesn’t really bother me (although there’s a story I won’t get into that should make me bothered about it), but it’s giving me the little push I needed to get off my duff and move on April 1. Since that falls on a Tuesday and I have to think about the impact of moving on my job, I’ll use that extra week of vacation I plan to purchase for the move. And since I’ll have to rely on public transportation to view apartments, it’ll be a great test of suitability for my new digs. If a place is hard to get to by métro and bus, it’ll have to have a lot of counter-balancing positives to make it rise to the top.

    My first line of attack will be to call the new building managers to see if they have some vacancies coming up for April 1. I know I would be changing landlord but, from what I’ve seen in the last few months, these people take very good care of the buildings they manage. It’s crazy that I’m just on that line where I can’t get a mortgage but will have to pay as much as a mortgage payment in rent, but whining about this fact won’t change it.
     

It’s all very boring but I have a lot to think about and do in the next four to five months. And there I was wondering what life without debt would be like? Sheesh!!! I forgot that there are other curve balls in life than being in debt up to your eyeballs!

Some Things Just Bite, But What Can You Do…

Cop LightsIt looks like I’m going to have a “different” winter.

Remember when this happened in December 2011? In addition to the fines, that speeding infraction cost me 14 demerit points. Then, last month around Drummondville, QC, en route to Moncton to celebrate Mom’s 85th birthday, I got pulled over for a much lesser speeding offense that added 2 demerit points. But, in Québec, when you reach 15 points (for the first time), your license gets suspended for three months. Or so it says in the registered letter I just picked up this afternoon…

My suspension begins December 3, 2013, which falls on a Tuesday, and ends on March 3, 2014, which falls on a Monday. But “ends” simply means that’s when I can apply for a new license after passing a written test. Now I know the feeling of humilitation my father felt when he had to reapply for his permit, although he had lost his on grounds that his illness may have had rendered him insufficiently alert to drive.

Thankfully I live a block away from a métro station and there’s a grocery store right next to it. I don’t really need a car in Montréal. It’s just that, for me, not having a car is like a cowboy without a horse. It’s going to take some getting used to.

I also know myself well in some respects: As much as I have the willpower to accomplish some things and avoid others, I’m not convinced I can swear off driving with the temptation of a car downstairs in the garage. So, I’m thinking that I need to remove that temptation, and the first solution that came to mind is to bring my car to my sister’s and leave it in her driveway for the winter, if she’s willing.

As for the rest of my plans, I even figured out how to get by transit to the place where I will need to write my exam, and how will plan weeks in advance to take a vacation day from work or make arrangements to accumulate a day’s worth of overtime because, of course, that exam is only given on weekdays.

I’m not tickled about any of this, but I’m not totally miserable about it, either. Being miserable about it wouldn’t change the facts. Of course, if I’m reading the documents correctly, had those two extra points that pushed me over the edge appeared on my record two months and three days later exactly, I wouldn’t be in this situation since the points from December 2011 would have dropped from my record. It’s all the more unnerving given that I’m still not convinced that I was going the speed I was alleged to be going back then, but didn’t have it in me to contest.

So, it is what it is — and an even quieter winter than I was expecting.

Is Home Really So Sweet?

Home Sweet HomeSo I’ve been living in the same apartment for five years now. It’s not unusual for me to remain in the same place for that long if not longer, even though I did do more than my fair share of moving in my 20s. Indeed, in February 1995, I moved into my 6th apartment in Halifax since September 1987, but then I stayed in that place for 10 years and my 7th place was one storey down in the same building for the three years up to my move to Montréal. So, frankly, I haven’t given serious thought to moving from my current pad …until about a few weeks ago.

In September 2012, I wrote about how the old woman who’d been the super of the building for decades left. She was replaced by a middle-aged woman from Cape Breton who, I’m afraid, didn’t live up to expectations: this September, we learned that the owner hired a property management company and she was replaced by new supers a few weeks later. What’s more, for the last month, I’ve endured major noise as the apartment directly below me is being gutted and renovated.

That’s only one of the numerous projects that have been undertaken: the garage has been hosed down to an inch of its life, the front of the building has been landscaped, “emergency plumbing work” requiring the water supply to be turned off a whole day was completed, and minor repairs were done in my bathroom to stop water from leaking downstairs which, I’m told, has probably been happening but left unreported for years. What’s more, the west side of the building — fortunately I’m on the east side — has been plagued with a resurgence of bed bugs. The furnace will be replaced before winter and apartments are going to be renovated as the tenants vacate.

In the six weeks or so since the company took over, more work has been done to the building than in the five years I’ve been here. I spoke to the workmen on a few occasions and they’re clearly intrigued by what’s been happening (or, more precisely, not happening) around here because, as they put it, the whole place is in sad, sad shape. My bathroom is considered shot, but it’s difficult for them to gut it while someone is living here. I expect the rent will start going up considerably and, considering all the work that’s being put in, it’d be quite justified …except that it doesn’t look like I’ll be seeing much in the way of improvements in my own apartment. What the people at management companies like this one don’t get is that, except for real emergencies, tenants tend not to rock the boat even if they see things going south if it means the rent doesn’t go up, which mine hadn’t until last April.

As a result of all of this, I’ve been thinking that perhaps I should move. It’s ironic because things are finally looking up for this place and I had been thinking of doing some improvements of my own once out of debt as I am now. But now I’m wondering if it’s even worth it.

What’s discouraging, however, is looking at the cost of rent in Montréal these days. When I first started toying with the idea of moving here in ’99, rent was amazingly cheap; now the prices have caught up with other major Canadian cities (except Toronto and Vancouver which remain very expensive). It’s starting to look like the odds of my getting another two-bedroom around the price I’m paying now that’s not in a neighbourhood I’d feel isolated or unsafe are pretty slim. For roughly the same price, I’ll probably have to settle for a one-bedroom apartment, which I’ll consider provided that it’s large enough to create a comfortable yet separate area for my office and includes a garage space.

I find $1,000/month in rent paid by one person is getting to be a little bit much. Rent is not like a mortgage where you have something to show in the end. My rigorous approach to budgeting in the last two years has shown me that I can afford $1,000 and still put some money aside for emergencies. But I’m considering finally joining a savings-matching program for retirement contributions that my employer offers, so I’m worried the combination of the two will get me to cross that line where I’ll have no wriggle room left even though participating in such a program is a sound investment.

Should I consider moving in a part of town I wouldn’t like as much but where the rents are better? Should I consider getting a roommate? Neither option turns me on, and a huge part of me feels I shouldn’t have to be considering such options.

Indeed, Now What Do I Do?

Now What?Haven’t we all wondered what exactly a dog expects to do if it should catch the hubcap of a moving car? Of course, the answer is that the dog doesn’t know; it just feels compelled to run after the car.

This notion came to my mind last Thursday morning — October 17th — when I reached my financial milestone of complete debt elimination, except that I’m not totally clueless as to what I’m going to do next, but more about the order of my next milestones. However, without a doubt, reaching this point has been quite a ride.

After giving much thought during my three-week sick leave from work in September 2011 to the notion of when did I last feel content and in control of my life, I got up on Saturday, October 1, 2011, one week after returning to my job, and began working on a spreadsheet. Indeed, it occurred to me during the time I was putting everything about myself into question that one of my many bad decisions in the previous years had been not to pay attention to my finances, for I was very fortunate in that there seemed to always be enough money coming in to cover all the bills and simply glide by. Of course, having the bailiff show up at my door on the morning of my very first appointment with Lucy brought home that I wasn’t really doing such a great job at gliding by.

So, that October morning, I mustered up the courage to look at my accounts online to see how bad things were. I found just over $21K of debt which I immediately consolidated onto my line of credit, and tried to think of all the unusual expenses I would have to cover in the coming months, like weekly appointments with Lucy and the divorce. But then two questions popped into my mind.

  1. From March 2006 to August 2007, somehow I had managed to clear almost that much debt. Mind you, my monthly expenses are somewhat higher in Montréal than they were in Halifax back then, but not insurmountably higher. Why can’t I do that again? Have I allowed my list of wants to grow into my income?
     
  2. Why is it that, when someone is paid every two weeks, there really isn’t two “extra” paycheques per year?

That second question in particular is what brought me to think about cash flow for an entire year rather than month by month and Gail Vaz-Oxlade’s “magic jars” in which she gets people to put cash for a specific purpose (food, transportation, etc.). I combined and adapted those two notions by listing all my recurring expenses like rent, phone, insurance, steady debt repayment and so on, figuring out how much they each cost per year, and dividing each of those figures by 26 — the number of pay periods in one year. This exercise confirmed that I was very lucky to have more than enough money left over for food and vices, and with some trimming back here and there, I could put even more on debt repayment.

So, after resetting the counter at zero and figuring out my expected cash flow for the next two years, I implemented my plan starting with my paycheque of October 6, 2011. My best-case scenario, which included paying for my (failed) therapy to quit smoking and my divorce lawyer, projected total debt elimination by the beginning of 2014. “Best-case scenario” was the operative term; I hadn’t thought through vacation travel and couldn’t anticipate hefty fines, car breakdowns, or the need to buy new tires or dress clothes. However, I also assumed no salary increase, no extra pay for overtime or no better-than-expected year-end bonus, and no elimination or reduction of recurring expenses (e.g., getting rid of my land line in favour of a MagicJack, closing the account I no longer needed at my backup web host, closing dormant resold accounts with my web host that I’d simply left open for no good reason, etc.).

In the end, in precisely 743 days (or 2 years, 1 week and 5 days), I paid off just shy of $28.5K. To achieve this, though, I placed exactly one-third of all income during that time on debt reduction and I don’t recommend that anyone else do the same because, unlike myself, people have a life. I had lived below the poverty line for the 10 years prior to March 2006, which is how I got into debt in the first place, and my best gross income before that was one exceptional year in the early ’90s when I made a hair over $30K. In other words, I’m accustomed to getting only what I need and not what I want — within a few exceptions, of course, owning a car being one of them.

Now that’s not to say that I think I’m more virtuous than everyone else! I just think that most people, when they attain a level of financial security, quite naturally allow themselves to indulge more in what they want. I mean, despite appearances, I feel I’ve done quite a lot of that since 2006, at least by my standards. But just like a diet will fail if you’re depriving yourself to the point of always feeling hungry, an aggressive approach to debt elimination as the one I adopted is doomed if it makes you feel resentful for depriving yourself so much when you know there’s in fact enough income coming in that you shouldn’t be feeling deprived.

At any rate, now that my debt is finally at zero, I still have about two months left for my plan to be finalized, for now I have to refill the virtual “jars” from which I borrowed to get out of debt faster than anticipated. However, by New Year’s Day, I’ll have a few Ks of savings with which I can do whatever I want, which brings me to the dog chasing the hubcap. I know what’s first on my list: buying an extra week’s vacation for 2014, assuming my boss allows me to do so. As for the rest, well …that’s a topic for my next blog entry.

Another Kind of Anger Management

Remorseful ManUsually, when we hear the phrase “anger management,” we think of someone who is set off easily as a result of someone else’s actual or perceived actions. Also, when that phrase is used, it often serves to indicate that the violence or destructiveness of the person’s outbursts need to be put in check. However, I believe there are cases when one’s anger is triggered by one’s own actions and, once called out on them, the “management” that’s required is in fact to take a long, hard look at one’s self.

In his blog entry last week, Torn referred to his feelings of sadness as a result of “a falling out of sorts with [his] longtime friends,” adding that he “take[s] such things particularly badly since I don’t have very many friends and the ones I do have I keep forever.” Little did I know I would find myself in a similar situation a few days later, although I choose to hope that not all is lost and that we will be able to talk things through eventually.

That being said, I am, for now, extremely angry with myself. Some of my actions that have caused the rift simply can’t be explained away, and that’s what’s causing the anger in me. Some other of my actions, compounded to those that are inexcusable, were interpreted in a way as to give them intentions or meaning they didn’t carry. But my anger with myself has been eating at me all day and will probably continue to do so for a while because, as I work on identifying the root causes of my actions in order to avoid them in the future, I can’t help shake the feeling that this exercise in itself may seem like a massive rationalization. Not even this blog can provide me a safe environment to expose the many, many thoughts that have been roaming through my head all day.

Along with anger at myself, there’s a huge dose of sadness for having made some friends feel as they do. Sadness and shame, actually. While never my intention, the consequences are the same. And the many thoughts I can’t expose here or to anyone are pushing me to look far beyond the situation at hand.

Life on Hold

I have had a series of highly geeky musings in the works for over a month now that I’ve obviously neither completed nor published yet, and I’ve had several other “bloggable” thoughts (or rants) in my mind that, for whatever reason, I never firmed up. I hope to get to those eventually, but for now I offer you this musing for the simple fact that I’ve gone far too long without posting anything at aMMusing.

On HoldI don’t like to admit it but I have to: I’ve pressed the Pause button on my life.

That statement sounds depressing, doesn’t it? Yet strangely enough, it isn’t …at least not for me. When I think to how I felt two years ago, I can assert that I’m perfectly fine. Back then, I couldn’t even stand myself; I felt like I wanted to escape by crawling out of my own skin. But three unrelated and quite trivial events that occurred in the last few days have brought the phrase “Life on Hold” to my mind as a “bloggable” topic.

First, I was sitting having a coffee in a park in the Village a few nights ago when this guy, also named Maurice and also born in ’65, sat in front of me to see if I recognized him. I did. We had — or actually, he had — struck up a conversation with me about a month ago. Some things he said back then made me not like him very much, so when that happens, I find it difficult to sustain a conversation with that person afterwards. Clearly having forgotten that he had already posed me the question, he asked me the other day if I was “with someone.” When I repeated my answer that I wasn’t, he asked me for how long I have been by myself. And that’s when it hit me like that proverbial ton of bricks: it will be four years soon! It doesn’t seem that long ago, yet the facts and the calendar can’t lie. At the same time, NowEx does seem like a distant memory but a memory nonetheless: just last night, I had another nightmare in which he featured.

Second, last Thursday evening, I discovered that my bank unceremoniously lowered the rate on its so-called “high-interest” savings account from 1.2% to 1.1%. It’s not a really big deal, except that now I can claim that the bank gives me less than a quarter of what it takes from me in interest on my line of credit. I then figured out that, based on my projections, this tiny 0.1% decrease could represent between 50 to 60 dollars less in incoming interest by the end of 2016 (although I wouldn’t really have the balance being projected since I intend to spend some of it along the way, except it illustrates well the difference ten basis points can make on compound interest). Peanuts, really, but this calculation made me realize the futility of continuing to save as I have — at least for the next few months — while I’m still carrying some debt even if it’s now well below 5K or nearly 85% less than my total reimbursement of so-called consumer debt since Thanksgiving 2011.

Third — and certainly the most trivial — I finally got around to submitting my first reimbursement claim at work for my Internet connection, to which I’m entitled since I work exclusively from home. I’ve said it before: I’m my own worst advocate when it comes to money; I didn’t even submit a claim for my hotel room and train ticket to Toronto in 2009 even though the trip was entirely work-related. So, upon receiving my first reimbursement on the same day I got confirmation that I’m receiving less interest on my savings account, I fired up my uber-complicated but highly effective budgeting spreadsheet and spent hours rejigging it because 50 bucks a month represents more than two years’ worth of power bills …or a very decent dinner out, or a few bottles of non-plonk wine, or a tank of gas, or …well, you get the picture.

As I was doing that — slowly, methodically, yet realizing no sane person would spend as many hours as I have on this thing — I kept hearing one thought in my mind: “Life on hold, life on hold…” Ever since I reconstructed my spreadsheet in late-October and especially after my net debt finally fell to a mere four-digit figure in mid-December, I seem to have declared 2013 as my “last year of sacrifices.” A few months ago I complained that I might be pushing myself too hard on that front, but it seems that I just can’t stop myself. I don’t remember a moment in my adult life when I had no debt AND a realistic hope of staying bad-debt-free, so with that target only four-and-a-half or five months away, I’ve chosen to cut out anything that is absolutely not necessary so that, for the first time in seven years, every cent of my year-end bonus will be all mine and not going right back to the bank.

I’ve developed the discipline of putting aside at least one out of every four dollars I take home without even breaking a sweat! When I first started cleaning up my act nearly two years ago, I knew that my whole budget was a best-case scenario but I told myself that any unlucky break would merely push the target a little bit further. But the bad strokes of luck that did fall onto my path were met with some lucky strikes of almost equal magnitude, so, in my mind, with the target so close, what’s a few more months of austerity if I can gently coast to it? The fact the target is a full four to five months SOONER that my best-case scenario of October 2011 is only egging me on.

Therefore, air-conditioning for the apartment this summer? Forget it; I’ll suffer a bit for one last summer. A nice trip overseas or even to the bloody USA? No, not yet. Finally getting decent furniture? Next year, and that’ll be cash, thank you very much. If I can’t pay for it right then and there or within four to six weeks, it ain’t happening. But, starting in July, I will be using a budget line I haven’t used yet, namely having someone come in to clean my dump once every two weeks. And because I find having only three weeks’ vacation per year isn’t enough, I’ll start buying myself an extra week’s vacation starting in 2014 because I believe my sanity depends on it.

So truth be told, I met the line “life on hold” with a kind of ambivalence when it kept echoing in my mind this weekend. On the one hand, it’s rather pathetic that I should be doing so little these days and I wonder if it’s a mistake to defer living as I am right now. But, on the other hand, the prospect of living well and travelling as so many of my friends and family are able to do, all within my means, is just too damn enticing.

Feeling Like Your Skull Is Crushing In On Itself

Palm FaceThat’s been me all week.

I’m in a situation at work where how we do things has to change. No one is arguing against that premise. But then, not only is the proposed remedy strike me as bad and unworkable; so is the way it’s being proposed.

Someone with some power to make decisions comes up with a plan. By now, that someone is completely sold to the idea. However, knowing that it’s a big shift in paradigm, that someone decides to “consult” the workers who would be directly affected by it.

Sounds good so far, but there’s a problem. What problem? Read above: “that someone is completely sold to the idea”, and the scare quotes around the verb to consult.

Everyone who’s been “consulted” has expressed doubts about the plan working. However, each argument presented is dismissed by “that someone [who] is completely sold to the idea” as merely “negative,” or “showing resistance to change,” or “not demonstrating that the idea would not work.” This does beg the question, “Why consult?” But worse, “that someone [who] is completely sold to the idea” thinks this IS consultation, where the alternative would have been — which I’ve been told in so many words — unilateral, overnight imposition of the new paradigm.

Un dialogue de sourds is what we call it in French. A dialogue among the deaf. Talk for talk’s sake. But the decision has already been made. Just like most legislation passed by the federal Conservatives since they gained majority status in 2011. And almost as clueless and detached from the reality of those on the front line.

I, like everyone else, will work toward implementing the stupid idea and, no, I, for one, will not do anything to sabotage the idea. It’s a bad enough idea to sabotage itself on its own lack of merit.

One problem is that those who will bear much of the brunt of the bad idea crashing down in flames will be those who’ll implement it, not “that someone [who] is completely sold to the idea.” Another problem is that I truly don’t wish harm to “that someone [who] is completely sold to the idea.”

And the insult that’s added to the injury: I compiled stats that demonstrate clearly what brought on the situation requiring the change to how we do things, but they’re being ignored.

Why?

Because they prove that a previous decision was also bad. If we had lost only one person instead of two last November, we’d be very busy but we’d be managing.

And now the irony. The pro-union guy that I am knows that the previous bad decision would not have occurred in an unionized environment.

You know… that bad decision that brought us into that bad situation we’re in? Yeah. That one.

Sensing

Mind ReaderWith all the horrible things happening in the world lately, it seems terribly shallow not to comment on those events. But who am I to comment on the Boston bombings or the collapse of a garnment factory in Bangladesh? I’ve read some thoughtful analyses and some dreadful statements about those events, and my comments would just add to the cacophony. So, better to stick to topics I know something about…

Three weeks ago tomorrow, a story started hitting the news in Canada and remained at the forefront of the news cycle for a whole week: how my employer was outsourcing 45-50 Toronto-based IT jobs to a company in India. However, the whistleblower’s spark that ignited the media shit storm was his revelation that he and his colleagues were expected to train the very people who would be taking their jobs which would remain in Toronto (i.e., not to go India) for at least a few years. It seemed, on the surface, that my employer was using, perhaps quite legally, the federal government’s temporary foreign workers program to reduce costs which, as we know, is a sacrosanct imperative intended to (always) increase shareholders’ dividends.

Record scratching

  • Just 24 hours earlier, I blogged about lemons being squeezed. I even wrote, as though to reassure myself, that “I do believe my job security is pretty damn good.” However, while it’s true that my performance record gives me confidence that I’m not about to lose my job overnight, I’d be lying if I said that I’m confident about my current position. I toil within a “cost centre” and big employers like mine aren’t the best at grasping return on investment (ROI) in intangible terms like “goodwill” because it’s nearly impossible to come up with a mathematical formula to express the following: “We spent X on service without charging the clients for it but the clients were so pleased that it generated Y in additional sales over an unspecified amount of time and Z in lower on-going support costs.” That’s just too wishy-washy for an organization whose attention deficit leads it to only understand hard numbers (i.e., cash) over one quarter or one year to the next, especially since there has to be a leap of faith that those desired consequences WILL really occur.
     
  • When the news hit, I immediately thought of my father. He was more of a foot soldier at work than I have ever been, and he worked nearly 40 years for the same large company but endured numerous slights because he was francophone and, yes, more of a foot solider. However, when he decided to take his retirement, management decided to technically abolish his position and create a new position that melded his with some other position. Fine… except he had to spend his last work weeks learning that other position in order to train the person who would be replacing him. Apparently that’s one of the only times my father ever spoke out: “You’re bent on grossing people out right to the end, aren’t ya!”
     
  • I need to give credit where it’s due: my employer, unlike others of its type, has kept client-facing call centres in Canada. But shortly after I started, our in-house tech support was outsourced to India and we’ve collectively come to call it the “useless desk” rather than the help desk. I learned a useful trick which I’ve share with many of my colleagues: if you need to call our in-house tech support and you understand just enough French to follow a few prompts, start by selecting French as your language and you’ll end up with someone in our call centre in Montréal where they all speak English as well. In other words, lucky for us that the British tried to colonize India and there is currently no emerging economy in a country that was colonized by the French or the Belgians! And it certainly beats having to deal with a dud of an agent who can only read scripts and is forbidden to think for him/herself, let alone truly listen to the caller’s request.
     

What really got to me about this whole debacle is the disconnect. Whether it’s this or other situations to which I’m privied (but obviously can’t disclose publicly), I can’t count the number of decisions that are taken “higher up” that confirm a kind of tone-deafness. I mean… generally speaking, the public hates banks; therefore, you would think that those with decisional power would bear this fact in mind. I’m not advocating giving away the farm; no business, big or small, can do everything for free. Even I, in my own household, am always trying to find ways of cutting unnecessary costs. Aside from being a responsible, respectful, and law-abiding citizen, I have a personal responsibility to live and hopefully prosper within my means, not to feed an economic machine beyond my means.

I also got a kick out of the public outrage — in a good way and in a bad way. For instance, many declared they would be closing their accounts at the bank. My thoughts on that were mixed: I appreciated the sentiment of taking a stand, but doubted it would translate into concrete action. For one thing, closing a chequing or savings account is easy enough, but not loans, insurance policies or mortgages. What’s more, all banks are guilty to some degree of the practice that produced such outrage, leaving only credit unions as the only alternative.

Coincidentally, I’ve been a client at the bank that eventually became my employer for nearly 30 years. It has made a great deal of money on me over those years given the amount of debt I’ve carried until recently, but I take full responsibility for that debt. It’s not like I would suddenly get a bill for an arbitrary $20K that I had never spent but had no choice but to pay. Plus, whenever something bad happened (like when illegal charges were placed on my credit card in February 2003, or last year when my building’s super deposited two rent cheques on the same day), the bank always fixed things in my favour.

Let’s say I weren’t employed by the bank. For one, I still owe it money. For another, would I really have the strength of character to go through the whole hassle? As laughable as it is, this bank currently offers the best rate on savings than any other bank in Canada. Do I sacrifice this on principle? Do I buy or not buy that lovely and inexpensive shirt manufactured in Bangladesh? I’d like to answer “Yes” without hesitation. Am I morally bankrupt for hesitating, or is it that our whole market economy is stacked in such a way that it’s too hard to take a stand? I mean, it’s easy enough not to buy the cheap shirt from Bangladesh or the fried chicken from the homophobic business, but giving up electronic payments and stuffing cash in my mattress doesn’t strike me as feasible for the sake of taking a stand.

Also, do you think a bank CEO gives a flying fuck if Joe Q. Public closes his measily account? Put it this way: a CEO might only care about those individuals who fall in the one percent and uses the bank’s wealth management services, or those companies that generate huge revenues. Granted, if thousands of Joe Q. Publics close their measily account, the CEO might notice, but what would happen next? The Joe Q. Publics who also work at that bank might lose their job — possibly more Joe Q. Publics than the number of people affected by the decision that caused the initial outrage.

Speaking of whom: The bank did state by the end of the bad-press week that those 45-50 people would be offered jobs elsewhere in the bank. I have no reason to doubt the validity of that statement. However, I do wonder about the whistleblower. I have no way to verify, but I’m more inclined to think he was paid off to leave and shut up forever …but I could be wrong.

Banks are, after all, non-unionized environments. They offer employees work conditions designed to keep unions out. As for those of us who work in a bank: our jobs are not about screwing people over. We’re mere specks standing low within a huge hierarchical bureaucracy.

I sleep at night because I know that I, personally, do no harm in the performance of my job. And that goes for more than 99 percent of us.

Squeezing the Lemons

Squeezing the LemonSeveral lemons are being squeezed these days — some by myself and some by others. Optimists might say that this is a great opportunity to make lemonade, but I, while risking lapsing into Clintonesque rhetoric, am thinking these days that it all depends on what one’s definition of “lemonade” IS.

Those Squeezed by Others, Take 1
Ever since one of my colleagues at work was let go suddenly and another was shifted to a new position last November, almost every day at work has been utterly draining. I just don’t understand what “they” (whoever “they” are) were thinking back then, trying to squeeze as much if not a bit more work from four people that used to be done by seven just a year earlier. Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind earning my wage for 7.5 hours per day; in fact, I prefer it over being idle. But there comes a point where there’s just no more juice to be squeezed out of the lemon.

I’m not talking about my own energy level. Rather, I’m referring to how there’s no time left for anything in case of those inevitable emergencies or those numerous secondary but required tasks. Add to this the fact that I’m the only person in the entire organization who can do what I do in French, and I can’t help but find it odd that this could be occurring in a place that otherwise has pretty strong contingency plans. So yeah, I worked last week despite having a massive cold because I felt that pulling myself out of circulation would have caused too much chaos.

Meanwhile, the organization reported record profits in the last quarter…

Those Squeezed by Myself
Ever since I got my budget to work flawlessly last November — coincidentally a week or two before the big changes at work — I’ve figured out ways to be even more aggressive in my debt-elimination plan. Truth be told, I could never do it if I weren’t single. It’s fine to impose austerity on one’s self when it has no effect on anyone else. But only an inconsiderate asshole would impose such draconian restraint on a significant other or dependents.

It’s as though I have a gut-feeling that I must do this because I might not be able to if I procrastinate. I’m not sure why I feel this way, because I do believe my job security is pretty damn good. But it’s also as though I’m getting a rush out of the exercise. It excites me to be able to say to myself, “I will have put 70% of one year’s net wages over only 25 months to reach Debt Zero.” Obviously it helps that the net wage is a comfortable one, but I personally have not known anyone who has been able to make such a claim — acknowledging, mind you, that it’s so un-Canadian to make that kind of claim publicly.

Mykonos suddenly seems closer than ever (if only I could find a travel companion), without getting back into debt…

Those Squeezed by Others, Take 2
The recent banking crisis in Cyprus has somehow brought those two points above to converge in my mind. On the one hand, it’s becoming clear that, if everything else remains equal, I have proven to myself that I have the discipline to reach on my own in about a decade the maximum savings covered by the Canada Deposit Insurance Corporation (CDIC), suggesting that I may one day need to rely on more than one bank. On the other hand, who’s to say that Canadian banks, and indeed the CDIC, could withstand an unprecedented economic tsunami should several other major economies fully and finally collapse?

I find it weird to be thinking this way. It’s not in my usual nature. But when the news came out that some Cypriots may lose up to 60 percent of their money in the bank bailout, I couldn’t help imagine how awful that must feel. Many of them, like myself, are not in the league of offshore tax havens; we’re just honest working people socking away so that we have some security until our final curtain call.

Maybe I should have taken up a sugar daddy while I still had the chance…

The Last Drop
I hate money. I hate how it drives everything, how it’s so necessary. I hate how it can cause so many ulcers.

I hate how something that consumes us so much in life will be so utterly meaningless when we’re gone.