Grievances

We’ve all had crushes, right? You see someone from far and s/he’s totally dreamy. You get close enough to exchange the appropriate contact information of that era (facebook, phone, p.o. box), allowing you to confirm that the attraction is just as strong up close. You go out once or twice with starry, glazed-over eyes. L.L. and Boyz II Men sing in the back of your mind…”this is more than a cruuusshh.”

And then round about the third date you notice he ends most of his sentences with prepositions? Or her inside voice is not clearly distinguishable from her outside voice? Or he checks his work email more than once while you’re out? Not so much deal-breakers. But enough to raise an eyebrow and think, “really?”

Yeah, that’s where I am with Amsterdam right now. Please know that I’m not complaining. I’m still totally crushing. In fact, I see long-term potential here. I just uhhhh, have a few grievances.

It starts with the bank account. Hardly any stores accept the debit card that we hold so dear in the united states of america. And even though the visa sign shows up on various windows and cash registers, they don’t mean any kind of visa card that I’ve ever had. Unless you have a bank card that has one of these chip thingies, you need cash. Cash for everything. So I quickly learned that I would need a bank account in order to fully function here.

But I couldn’t apply for a bank account until I had an immigration/registration intake appointment with the university. 2 weeks – fine. After that, with a passport and student i.d. in hand, I walked over to ING, thinking I would walk out with a special place in the back to keep my money, like a bank account. But instead, I walked out with a one-page form letter explaining that it would take up to two weeks for them to review my application. I was instructed to wait for a letter in the mail that would provide further instructions.

Meanwhile, classes started and life continued to expect me to function. And as you may remember from earlier, existing in Amsterdam without a bank account is quite difficult. Professors expected multiple articles to be printed, which would require use of any of the printers in university buildings. And that would be fine, except those printers require one of those damn chip thingies found in bank cards. Another option would be to spend a bunch of money on a special card (with less value than what I would have paid) just for the priviledge of printing.

And as I’ve navigated around my lack of printing abilities, I’ve come home every night to an apartment lacking in both cable and internet (and a tv, but that’s clearly irrelevant). Although I found it to be annoying to be without the internet for a couple of weeks, I’m finding it harder and more irritating each day. Why haven’t I just contacted the cable/internet people and told them what I want? I tried. But without a local bank account number, I couldn’t even ask for an appointment. No one cared how much money I may have had in my U.S. account.

A letter and bank card arrived in the mail about a week later. I rejoiced. It was official, including a bank account number and everything. Since the guy at the bank told me I would take this letter to the nearest ING bank/post office (not sure why they’re often combined) as the next step, and since I couldn’t read any of the letter written in Dutch, I went to the post office first thing the next morning. I even had an extra pep in my step. But with a blank stare, the lady looked me up and down and said, “did you get the second letter telling you to come here for your pin code?” I thought she was joking. But she wasn’t. And it wasn’t funny anyway.

I walked home in defeat – yet still happy that the bank/post office was in short walking distance. I would have to wait a few more days for the next set of instructions to arrive. In the meantime, I went to an internet cafe to sign up for internet and cable. With a bank account number, I could at least get one thing accomplished. Going back and forth between their website and google translate’s version of it, I managed to get through 4 or 5 pages of the online form, ending with a confirmation page indicating I would receive an email. Well, I didn’t get the email until several days later – in my junk mail, and only after I had submitted a brand new request. Both follow-up emails basically said “thanks” and listed what I requested. Okay, now what? Do I get an appointment? Can you give me the internet now?

Meanwhile, the second letter from the bank did come. So three days after my first attempt, first thing in the morning, I was back at the bank/post office. The guy did something mysterious that may or may not have involved a machine. Then he handed me a bizarrely sealed envelope on what seemed to be carbon copy paper. This, he assured me, was what I needed to make my account official: my four-digit pin code. Okay, thanks and all. But why couldn’t I have just chosen my own pin code about 2 weeks ago?

Great, with a bank account, I was on the road to normalcy. Now I just waited for information on when/how the internet would arrive. I couldn’t call because the customer service charges 10 cents per minute, and I’ve been holding off on settling my phone matters until I had a bank account, of course. Then just yesterday (Friday), I received a notice from the post office that I had a package. I tracked it from my phone to learn it was from the cable/internet company. What could be in this package? A letter explaining what to do next? Are they just sending me the stuff to install myself? I was instructed to be at home between noon and 6pm today (Saturday) to receive the delivery. I planned my day around receiving this package. I refused to miss it. Yet, when I walked by my door this morning, around 10am (obviously before I was on alert), there was another notice that I had missed the delivery. My whisper of a doorbell and the lies of the previous notice conspired to leave me without a clue for at least another weekend.

A very long story just to say I’m annoyed. With so many things figured out, balancing the fine line of freedoms and regulations in a way that seems to mostly fall on the side of the people and happiness, how can this place tolerate such frustrating absurdity? I’m comforted by the fact that these are one-time issues. Once they’re resolved, I shouldn’t have to go through any of this again. Or at least I learned enough about these Dutch processes to have clearer expectations in the future.

And don’t worry. Although I’ve just noticed this minor flaw, when I think of Amsterdam, I still hear Dwele singing, “I know it’s early…I know it’s soon…but truth be told…I think I looove you.”

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Savings: Status Check

I figured a check-in on the savings account would make sense in light of my recent financial victimization. And fortunately, although my savings plan was disrespected and disregarded for much of the past few months, somehow I have managed to pull together a few dollars to inch up the bar on the grand total. With surgeries, moving expenses, cruel scams, and the desire to eat in restaurants competing against me, saving money certainly hasn’t been easy.

My preferred strategy has been to account for all of my expected expenses, then dump anything remaining from my paycheck into my savings account. A couple of times this has backfired.  Then I have a biweekly automatic deposit into savings. There’s also my bank’s “keep the change” feature, which rounds all of my debit card purchases up to the nearest dollar and adds that change to my savings. It’s not much. But every little bit helps.

Another piece of good news is I’m caught up on most of my expenses. So any money coming in right now goes to moving expenses and savings. I always expect a few surprises that will cost me money. But perhaps I actually have a chance to get at least halfway to my original goal.

Here’s the latest.

Savings: Status Check

It’s been awhile since I’ve given an update on my savings strategy. Mostly because it’s embarrassing.

I set the goal to save $10,000 by the end of this year, which will provide me with some cash to help me survive the student life while in Amsterdam. I started out pretty well, cutting back in various areas of my life and regularly adding to my savings account. Though it’s only ever been small amounts, the steady progress I was beginning to see was comforting.

But now, a few months later, progress has come to a screaching halt. After an expensive July, including car repair and travel expenses, I had an even more expensive August, with more car repair and unexpected medical costs. And September hasn’t allowed me to catch up. It seems like the more I lose control over what I’m spending money, the more I feel compelled to spend it voluntarily on things that are nowhere in the budget. My logic goes something like, “well, the budget is already shot. So I may as well buy these platform shoes with fish in them.” So as much as I’d like to blame my derailed spending solely on the cruel universe that doesn’t want me to succeed, I must take at least 10 percent of the blame….or 60.

Nonetheless, I’m still trying. And if anyone has ideas about how I can make some extra cash, I’m wide open.

Here’s the latest.

To Be a Fulbright…or Not So Bright

I’m sure you all know about the Fulbright. It’s a U.S. Government program that provides funding to teachers and scholars to teach, study and/or conduct research in all other parts of the world, spreading American joy and wisdom along the way. Putting the spreading of joy and wisdom thing aside, I would love to be a Fulbright scholar. Although the program wouldn’t provide the money for tuition (still looking for a benefactor to help me with that), it would provide enough to cover books, living expenses, and travel. Plus, I’d be in a network of smarty pants Fulbright scholars, who I imagine would become life-long friends and supporters. I’ve already got a table reserved for them at my wedding.

The funding is clearly desirable, which is why I, along with thousands of others, have had my eye on it for quite some time. When I first conceived of the idea to move to Amsterdam to study, my second thought was whether or not I could apply for a Fulbright. Could I be competitive enough? Could I come up with a genuinely interesting and compelling project? Could I even stomach the application process? So last year, with the hopes of starting school in Amsterdam right about now (I originally applied and hoped to start at the University of Amsterdam in the fall of 2010), I submitted an application for a Fulbright fellowship.

The first application (obviously) was not successful. To be fair, I had become distracted over the summer by a herniated disk in the lower part of my spine, which caused excrutiating pain and a numb right leg and foot for two months. That, among some other distractions, derailed my plan to spend two months working on my application. And although it would have been best to submit an application through my undergrad, incorporating their feedback and support, the campus deadline came and went while I was in the hospital having part of my spine removed (maybe one day I’ll share the story of the leaking spinal fluid and rush to the emergency room, which followed my surgery – but right now it would only distract you, as it did me at the time). Fortunately for me, I also had the option to apply as an “at-large” student. Sounds kind of menacing. But I was into it.

I became aware of the second deadline maybe two weeks before the date. And I mulled over whether or not it would be worthwhile to pursue at that point. So in my typical style, I left myself about 8 hours to complete my application, gather transcripts, request my recommendations (I had been in touch with professors about applying to school – so I hoped they would have something ready for me that could be copied and pasted), oh yeah and come up with an interesting project out of the ideas that had been stirring in my head for the past six months. Surprisingly, I was able to get everything in by the deadline. But, although I’m not certain, I’m pretty sure I submitted portions of it in crayon.

Now I have another chance. Having been accepted into the UvA Master’s program for 2011, I feel like I’ve been granted a pardon for my distracted ways of 2009. And this is my chance to make a real effort to make this opportunity my own. So I’m doing it right this time.

I’m almost finished with the project proposal. Well, if a jumble of paragraphs covering every thought I’ve ever had counts as almost finished. Regardless, I plan to wrap that up before this weekend ends. At that point, I will send it over to my professor friends for another round of (dreaded) recommendation requests. So I’m still on track for the campus deadline. Plus I’ve already reached out to my future academic advisor at UvA. He sent a delightful response which was very encouraging, indicating his excitement about my proposed research focus. He also referred me to a local Dutch organization, Ninsee, which could also potentially relate to my work. So in an extra bold and productive mood, I sent an email to Ninsee. You know, just trying to make some early friends. No response from them so far (it’s been less than a week). But that’s okay. Maybe they’re just playing hard to get friends. I still feel unusually inspired by this proposed study and the space that appears to be available for me to pursue it in Amsterdam. Something about all of it just feels so right. No matter where things end up with the Fulbright. And if you’re wondering what this research focus will be, please be patient with me as I continue to work through my fears of the jinx. I’ll let you know if and when it matters.

So yeah. The Fulbright. I’m really doing this. For real this time. Hopefully it’s good news. But if it’s not, at least I have practice dealing with the rejection.

Savings: Status Check

A few weeks ago I decided I would start saving money for the purpose of living a decent life while in Amsterdam. No matter how I do the math, I’m going to have to take out some loans – at least for the first semester (before tons of miraculous scholarships and grants come through). So accepting the seeping-further-into-debt scenario, I want to at least be grown up enough to pay for my basic monthly expenses on my own. If I can put enough money away, I might actually be able to live like a normal person while I’m there. The alternative will be to live on crackers and Ramen. And I won’t say I’m too old for that…but I’m definitely too tired.

So anyway, I officially started on my savings plan a little over two weeks ago. The first few days were just warm-up. I was paying closer attention to my spending habits, but not really curbing them. Each day went something like: “okay, it’s crazy that I’m spending $9 on lunch today. I’m gonna have to cut this out.”

Last week was the first full week of what I now see is an entirely new lifestyle. It was like I started on a new workout plan after never having done so much as a stomach crunch in my entire life. Each day felt like I was doing chin-ups. It became harder and harder to sustain. And sure enough, by Friday, I fell off the bar.

I started out the week by making dinner on Sunday and packing a sandwich for lunch on Monday. On Monday night I made dinner again (and please keep in mind we’re already over my typical cooking capacity for a week), expecting to have enough leftovers to create lunches for the rest of the week. Not quite – I barely had enough for Tuesday. So there I was on Tuesday night, cooking again. This lasted me through Thursday. While all of this cooking and lunch packing was going on, I was also actively resisting all urges to make impulse purchases throughout the day. Small stuff calls me more than I realized. A lemonade here. A used book there. A delicious cookie on the way…you get the gist. But come Thursday evening, between smarter eating habits and partaking in only free events, I had managed to avoid pulling out my wallet once all week. Not once! (Never mind the fact that I treated myself to a couple of very cheap happy hour drinks on Thursday night to celebrate my accomplishment.)

Despite my hope to make it through the entire week without buying my lunch, I couldn’t do it on Friday. My savings muscles were simply exhausted. My compromise was to buy a relatively inexpensive sandwich without any frills in the form of juice or dessert. I didn’t feel like I had failed by any means. But it was made clear that getting through the rest of this year on such a tight budget is not going to be easy.

This week has actually been a bit easier. Perhaps because I now know what to expect. So far so good on lunch everyday. And thoughtful grocery shopping has also helped, though I still need to work on the coupon thing. I opened my wallet a few times for some essential purchases – like cat food and a cupcake from Cake & Shake. But I think I’ve almost hit a stride.

Slowly, but surely, my savings grows. Here’s the latest.

A Savings Plan

Beginning in June, I am putting an aggressive savings plan into action. I’m hoping that between now and December I’ll be able to save $10,000. Assuming rent and tuition will be paid through some other means (hopefully a combination of scholarships and loans), I can use what I save for general spending and traveling. I also plan to find some type of part-time employment while I’m there. So that income can also be added to the general living fund. I’m thinking of this $10K as a useful starting point.

But considering I haven’t had much luck putting together savings for the past few years (I dipped into it once – and I’ve been dipping ever since), creating a solid savings will not be easy for me. My casual approach to money is typically supported by statements like “I deserve to treat myself” and “I’m living for today.” They’re really just justifications for irresponsible and unnecessary spending. So the first step in my savings plan will be to cut out the unnecessary spending.

As a compromise, I’ll set aside a certain amount each month for treats. I’ll need to establish some rules for the “treat fund.” For example, no treat for myself unless I have reached my savings goals for a given two-week period. This will allow for up to two treats per month. If I don’t reach a goal in a two-week period, the treat money goes into the general savings. If I have met my goal, but the treat fund isn’t big enough for the treat I want for myself, I will allow the treat fund to add up. A treat can range from a cupcake to a new pair of jeans. I’m kind of treating myself like a first grader. But I’ve got to meet myself where I am.

In addition to saving, I need to generate some additional income. From where? I’m not sure. If you know of anything, or have any ideas, let me know. Whatever it is, I’m hoping it can make me an extra $400-$500 a month. And ideally it won’t require much energy. Just because I’m trying to come up with a chunk of money, doesn’t mean I’m not still pretty tired most of the time.

In addition to saving and generating additional income, I will sell some of my stuff that I don’t plan to want or need once my long-term residence is established. The stuff I need will come with me to Amsterdam. The stuff I want will go into storage. The stuff I can live without will be for sale. Honestly, I’m not sure what stuff that will be. I’ve moved so many times it seems like I should be fully downsized by now. But I know that’s not the case. Once I take a moment to assess the situation, I should have a decent list of things that can add some money to the savings account.

In addition to saving, generating additional income, and selling myself…I mean my stuff, I’m just going to try being frugal for awhile. I’ve never been the extravagant spending type. But I know I can do better. I’ll be cutting coupons, buying generic brands, reducing Netflix to one movie at a time, and taking my lunch to work. I’ll need to be hyper aware of every dollar I’m spending every day. This won’t be easy for me. Holding myself accountable will be the most important part. To support the cause, I set up a Bank of America Portfolio to set goals and track my spending in all categories. It’s the new Facebook, people.

Saving, generating, selling, and trimming. This is what I’ve come up with so far. Hopefully it will eventually add up to an Amsterdam living fund. I figured I may as well track my progress here. So I’ll be updating my Savings (& Loans) page every couple of weeks with what I’ve been able to save so far.

Listen, I’m super insecure about money. So I hope you’re not judging me right now.

The Next Challenge

Now that the hard part has been accomplished (getting into school and having a reason to leave the country), I need to figure out the fun stuff. Well, wait. Not quite. There’s one more gigantic hurdle that I need to get over before I can think about finding an apartment, registering for classes, and meeting new friends – MONEY.

These are not the first thoughts I have given to the question of money. The worry has actually been looming in the back of my mind since I first had the idea to move to the Netherlands. Although I would never let worries about money stand in the way of pursuing something worthwhile, the statement “I’ll figure the money thing out” can only take me so far. I’m now at the point when I need to figure it out. I’m just thankful I have a bit more time than I expected to pull a few grand out of thin air.

A few grand. I just need someone to give me $100,000 and I’ll be more comfortable with my situation. People talk about wanting millions and millions to be happy. I really would be happy with $150,000. I don’t need to buy a beautiful house in the Oakland Hills (yet), drive a fancy car, or have a flashy wardrobe. All I need is $200,000 to pay off my loans, buy a few basics, pay for more school, and live comfortably in Amsterdam for a year and a half. So right, $500,000 and I should be straight.

Anyone have any ideas where I can find that? Anyone?