Monday, August 3, 2009

Who doesn't love a good layer cake?

In the spirit of doing something new, I have decided to dust off my old, forgotten love for baking and resurrect it. So far I have made oatmeal-raisin cookies, banana-walnut muffins and just this weekend a lovely pineapple-flavored layer cake with whipped cream icing.

I really had forgotten how much pleasure (and near-instant gratification) baking can provide - it's a complete project, has a set start and finish, has an end goal that you can see/touch/taste, and if done right provides satisfaction to all stakeholders!

The best part is that even if you fail abysmally at your first few attempts to see your baking project through, the time and effort commitment isn't so exorbitant that you wouldn't want to try again. For example, the oatmeal-raisin cookies turned out less chewy than I would have wanted and the muffins were too dry, so now I get to go back and experiment with the recipes to make it just as I want. Even then, everyone who ate both end-products thoroughly enjoyed them.Wouldn't it be fantastic if projects at work could be this way too?

The food is long gone (even before I had a chance to take a picture or two) ... but I will be better about capturing my culinary attempts in photos for future posts.
Tip: to get really moist cake layers and a more intense pineapple flavor, pour the syrup from the pineapple cans onto the yellow cake. To ensure even absorbency throughout the cake, poke tiny holes all over with a toothpick (or a bamboo skewer).

I made the yellow cake layers based on a recipe out of a book called "The Modern Baker" by Nick Malgieri. It has some really great recipes for breads, quick breads, cookies and cakes that I cannot wait to try. Good thing hubby has a gym membership and I'm so pregnant I don't really care if I get a little fatter!

Here are a couple of sites that I enjoy reading and/or searching for recipes -

Thursday, July 30, 2009

4 simple ways to start managing your finances better

At the beginning of my first official week of being unemployed (I considered the previous two weeks to be paid vacation while my severance checks came in), I was still running high on positive energy but starting to feeling a little bit anxious. It has finally sunk in completely that I no longer have an income coming in. Add to that, we have started shopping for soon-to-arrive baby and it's hard to spend the money without wincing.

It was quite improbable that I would keep my high indefinitely, so it is actually a bit of a relief to worry a little bit. What has kept me going though is the knowledge that we had started to take positive steps in managing our money long before we got here.

Here are some of the things that I have personally done with my finances -
1. Building an emergency fund
Almost every financial advice article I have read in recent years talks about the importance of building up an emergency fund that is liquid, easily accessible and can cover anywhere between 3 to 12 months of living expenses (the time frame depends on the particular expert giving the advice). I chose to have 6 months worth of living expenses socked away. Obviously, your monthly expense calculations should cover essential items like rent/mortgages, utilities, groceries, cell phones, etc. and should avoid accounting for the new designer shoes that you MUST MUST have. Knowing that I have that money tucked away makes it so much easier for me to spend a little bit of money on myself from the single salary that we now have available to us.
2. Eating more home-cooked food
This one is also very popular advice from financial experts (along with kicking the Starbucks habit), and the fact that I love cooking/baking and have a spouse that loves eating made this one that much easier to implement. Eating home cooked food and carrying lunch from home to work for my spouse means that not only are we saving money we spent on getting lunch from outside, but we are also eating better. Right off that bat, I am saving close to $100. So in addition to a healthier bank balance, we now have a bonus of improving our own health. I don't cut corners on the type of food we buy, but I do make sure that I minimize or completely cut out any waste by using everything and doing so before it spoils.
3. Coupon clipping
I have to be honest - I was a coupon snob before being laid off. I loved a discount as much as the next person, but the idea of clipping coupons and then remembering to hand them over when buying stuff was just too much work for me. Well, all that has changed and am I happy about that! Last week alone, I saved over $150 by watching a movie with discount tickets on Saturday evening, getting a free entree for dinner and using coupons to subsidize some pretty big-ticket purchases for baby-to-come. It does take discipline to remember to cut out and carry the coupons with you, but with the kind of savings I am seeing, I have no doubt that this is one strategy I will continue to follow.
4. Cell-phone plan change
Now that I am no longer away at work all day, I've switched from an expensive contract-based cell phone plan to a pre-paid one. My immediate savings equal $30 a month! I didn't have that much usage to begin with, so this was an obvious area to save some cash. But it boggles me now to think that I could have been saving this much money over the past two years of my contract period.

Feel free to share your own tips with me!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Practicing what you preach

As easy as it is to dispense advice on dealing with being laid off, it is diametrically as hard to follow it yourself. So how am I doing? Pretty well, I think!

Advice # 1: Don't do anything at all for the first few days
I was lucky in that the weekend following my Friday lay-off was already booked full of fun activities that had absolutely nothing to do with work. So this was an easy one for me to follow. Friends and family were super-supportive too, and convinced me that this was the best thing that could have happened to me at this particular time in my life. So all I had to do was make a quick list of all the things related to being laid off that I needed to track (how much vacation pay will I get, when will my last check come in, what about the expenses that never got reimbursed, are there any people from work that I really want to keep in touch with ...) and then get on with having a good time.
When Monday morning rolled around, I was ready to face the prospect of not going to a job. I was able to have something productive to do because of my list, and the fact that family and friends knew and supported me kept me feeling upbeat!
What to do though if you don't have a support network? Be your own cheerleader! Talk yourself into a better state of mind, give yourself a treat (a good dinner with friends, the spa pedicure you've been wanting but didn't have time for, bake a cake and eat it all ...), and then look forward to the next week with the thought that it's all going to be OK.

Advice #2: Remove all the negativity before starting something new
I will be honest - I did spend some time on both Saturday, Sunday and a few days of the following week, cussing out the boss'es duplicity in being able to chat with me normally on Thursday evening when (s)he knew what was coming at me on Friday. I also spent a wee bit of time lamenting my fate, asking the heavens what I had done to deserve this and why had this happened to me. Fortunately for me, I realized that I had a lot more things going for me than not - the biggest and best of which is that I am going to be a brand new parent in less than 2 months. With something like that to look forward to, who would want to be in a negative frame of mind? Certainly not me!

Advice #3: Learn something new
This one is not something that I will be looking at from the point of view of a one-time deal. Along with my to-do list of layoff-related things, I also jotted down some things that I have always wanted to do/learn as a start to following my own advice. That said, I did try some new things and count that as a learning experience - grilled for the first time in my life, bought a sewing machine and made a baby blankie, baked some bread and just lazed around (which is a new thing to learn, believe me!). Some of the things I am planning for the future - learn a new langage or two, take some career-related courses, sew a whole lot more and just focus on being a calmer person and a good parent. It does pinch a little when you think about paying money when you know you won't be making any soon, but as I said before, ignore those feelings and go for it. You just might be opening a whole new life path for yourself!

Advice #4: Attitude really does matter
This one too is a keeper for life. I have met and heard of people who were completely crushed when life threw them a curveball, and met and heard of people who triumphed from the most dismal circumstances you could imagine. Putting your own situation in perspective with all the other things in your life really does help to boost you as I have found from personal experience. Viewing my layoff as a new beginning rather than a roadblock has already inspired me to do many things that I never had the time for (from being so exhausted by work) or never thought of doing at all (from being consumed by work).

On the whole, I am happy with having escaped from cubicle jail and enjoying the respite before I am tempted to jump back in. So keep on trucking my fellow escapees and of course let me know what you did/are doing to get through your own particular situations.

Laid off, Now what?

You never think it will happen to you until you get called into a meeting with your boss and the HR person on a Friday afternoon. They close the door and sit across from you and say the dreaded words that mean you no longer have a job. Then comes the escorted trek back to your cubicle to gather up your stuff and out you go - suddenly unemployed - to cope with it the best way you can.

On your drive home you may be feeling a lot of emotions - fear, anger, confusion, or you may just be numb because it hasn't fully hit you yet ... you no longer have to be at the office from Monday morning! On the bright side you can look forward to no longer getting the Monday morning blues, no more deciding what to wear for the rest of the week, what to eat for lunch or how to avoid that annoying co-worker who keeps dumping their unfinished jobs on you. On the other hand you may be worrying about how you are going to pay the bills, especialy if you are the primary breadwinner.

There is tons of helpful information on the web about things to do when you are laid off, a lot of it focused on advice to get you back into the saddle as quickly as possible. That is not the intent of what you are reading however. What this little article is about is how you can take this opportunity to completely change the direction of you life towards a better, more satisfying future whether that means getting back into the corporate world, becoming an entrepreneur or choosing to stay at home.

So here goes ...
Don't do anything at all for the first few days
The temptation to jump on the computer, redo your resume and start applying for every job that is open can be quite overwhelming. It gives the feeling of being back in control of your own destiny besides filling up the 8+ hours that you would normally have spent at work for the last so many years. Resist it! You've been given a golden opportunity to take time for yourself and re-think and re-evaluate your life, career, aspirations, talent and a whole host of other things that you normally never had the time to stop and think about. Questions that you may have buried in the back of your mind can now resurface and be given a fair hearing - is my life turning out the way I envisioned it would? Do I really want to be a widget maker for the rest of my life or a HR manager or a software quality assurance analyst or a ..... If I don't want to do this anymore, what do I want to do? Is there something in my life that I am passionate enough about to want to try my hand at turning into a money-making venture? There is of course a key assumption here about your particular situation and that is that you have some sort of cushioning that will allow you to do the above. This might be a supportive partner with a stable job, savings that amount to six- to eight-months of living expenses, a rich aunt who is willing to foot your bills, etc.

Remove all the negativity before starting something new
Even though you may have handled the actual news of your lay-off with class and poise in that awful Friday meeting, you are more than likely going to find that you are upset, angry and a little depressed when it finaly sinks in that someone evaluated what you do and decided they could do without. Give yourself a day or two (no more!) to wallow in your misery. Curse as much as you want to, think the nastiest thoughts about your boss/her boss/the whole company even, have a good cry, vent to a supportive partner/friends/parents, do whatever works for you so you can get rid of the negativity. Then take a deep breath and move on. Your goal is to create a clean slate by letting go of your frustration, disappointment, anger and whatever strong negative emotions are associated with being laid off. But remember, if you find yourself even remotely tempted to put any of your crazier thoughts into action, seek counseling immediately!

Learn something new
Budget some money towards a "new life fund" and use it to learn something new. Remember that interesting ad you read on your 50-minute train ride into work about learning how to be a pastry chef? Or maybe it was about a woodworking class or golf lessons or just something that you have wondered if you would like to do. This would be a great time to take the plunge and learn something new. Spending $500.00 to learn Italian might not seem to be the smartest thing to do when you know you don't have any income coming in, but who knows, it might even lead into a more successful career choice.

Attitude really does matter
Lastly, keep thinking positive thoughts. Sure there will be days when you will feel realy down in the dumps and feel like giving up. Don't let those days become the norm though. Surround yourself with positive energy ... and if that means cutting connections with people, things or places that bring you down, do it ruthlessly! Train yourself to look for the silver lining behind that dark cloud, while keeping on working at your goals, whether they are finding a new job or making your newly minted cookie business successful.