The Devil I Know

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Just when I had found a way to go straight, which in my case is finding a fulfilling career where I get job satisfaction and enjoyment in addition to money, the old life sucks me back in! A bit hyperbolic I know, but the idea is still the same.

The career change didn’t work out.  After weeks of trying to accommodate all the demands of my new employer to be, I found myself incapable of fulfilling their demands to their liking.  I couldn’t help but think that had I discovered this path straight out of college, I would have been successful at it. I wouldn’t have minded the salary, the restrictions and would not have had too much to sacrifice. But I’m in my late 20s now with a 6-figure student loan debt, and a mortgage both of which I want to get rid of as soon as possible. Giving up a decent salary for a job that not only pays less but also effectively forbids me from finding alternative streams of income is not something I’m willing to do.

When I returned from my first trip to China, I immediately entered the interview cycle and pretty much made my rounds at all the usual establishments. As I’ve stated so many times, professional development is one of my career goals and it factored heavily in my search for a new job. But the idea that I can change my career into financial planning, a career that not only puts me in a position to help people but also learn so much that I can apply directly to my life was more than intriguing. It’s all I ever wanted. I think it was clear that I was excited about that field too. Which is why I had gotten that far in all the interviews and also gotten a job offer in the field. But ultimately, what I had to give up was far too much for what I would have gotten.

I was willing to give up my real estate business. I actually acted on this decision and put my license on inactive status per their recommendation.  I also made peace with the fact that I will have to get their authorization for every property I would purchase from now on.  I gave them my guarantee that I would not look for investors in their client base. I never wanted to do that anyway. I value control over my projects way too much to involve other people in them. In addition to these, I was willing to even put the China venture on hold. I was going to sell everything at a discount to some store owner and be done with it if it meant I could have a shot at a career in this field. These were essentially all of their demands.

But then I did something that they did not like at all. I tried to negotiate. I had gotten a job offer in my old field that included various benefits and thought I could leverage that to get them to pay for some of my tuition. A lot of companies provide money to go towards tuition expenses for their employees.  So in the middle of me giving up everything, I asked for this one thing. I wanted them to pay for the remainder of the tuition I would have to pay. They did not like that one bit. The response I got was not just a no, it was more like ‘how dare you?’ Well, I did not like that either. I would be paid half of my old salary, left with no way to make any side income and now I can’t even get a basic expense covered? At this point, I had enough.  The ‘how dare you?’ email was followed by another email in which they pretty much suggested that maybe I should just take that other job offer because I’m negotiating for things that I want and that is not something that’s encouraged at the organization. It gave me a pause; If they’re treating me this way before I even start to work for them officially, how will they treat me once I get in there?? What will my life look like getting paid peanuts and trying to stretch my funds to cover everything? Can I even live under these conditions without a side hustle? Can I afford a career change that demands so much? The answer was no. No, with a six figure student loan debt, a mortgage, and this much ambition, I cannot take up a career that will essentially have me Oliver Twisting for the foreseeable future.

So I went back to the dark side, I responded to the offer letter with a counter offer. I requested an increase in the salary they had offered and benefits related to tuition reimbursement. I also requested a guarantee that there will be a discussion related to increasing my salary to match my credentials once I have completed my studies and graduated with my MBA.  They were willing to negotiate. So now, with the potential to earn a high income once more, I have created a plan to tackle my debt and the F.I. goals are back on track.  The basic idea, no matter how complex the methods are is to increase income, reduce expenses, pay off debt with the surplus, then acquire assets.  I have a detailed plan. But I’ll save that for the next post.

No Labor Side Hustles

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If you’re anything like me, broke millennial with bills and a mountain of student loans that sometimes keeps you up at night, you can’t afford to not have one. I venture to say that even if you were a well funded, no student loan and no mortgage having magical mystical being, you need a side hustle. People with debt need one for the obvious reasons; to get out of debt and enjoy a life without money worries.  For the ones with no debt, the reason might be less obvious but just as pressing. Just like you would need to diversify your portfolio when investing in stocks, you also need to diversify your source of income and not depend on one source.  My logic is that if anything is possible, there is a chance that it will happen. Losing a well paying job is possible, especially in the world of “at will”.  If you had been relying on that one job to sustain you, then you’re in for a nasty surprise.  The only way to ensure that you will have some sort of income despite the circumstances is to have more than one source of income.  The problem is that side hustles are often perceived as something labor intensive, time consuming and generally difficult to get. But I’ve found that there are ways you can have a side hustle without selling your labor or spending too much of your precious weekend hours somewhere where you don’t want to be.  While a part time job at a local business might be the easiest way to get a side hustle, there are other ways that you can make a significant amount of money. Here are the ones that I’m trying currently.

  1. Filling out surveys about consumer products- There are sites like focuspointeglobal.com and others that will pay for your opinion as a consumer. Depending on which survey I participate in, I can get monetary compensation or free products that I usually use, which in turn will save me the money I would have spent purchasing it.
  2. Content writing- Part time content writers are paid roughly $15-$20 per hour for their work on posts for sites. So a 20 hour work week can get me $300 (minus tax) or more, x 4 and I got a way to pay all your bills without dipping into my paycheck.
  3.  Translation services – I know everyone can’t do this since there’s a clear requirement of a foreign language competency here, but if you do know a foreign language, please make use of your knowledge and get compensated.  I provide translation services for a local university project and get compensated about $16/hr for a 10-20 hr work week. I don’t even see this money. It goes straight to paying off my debt in the order I’ve decided to pay it off (Credit card then Student Loans, then mortgage) speeding up the process by leaps. If you don’t know any foreign languages, don’t despair! You can also do this with tutoring etc.
  4. Get a roommate- I love my roomie! Because she’s a good person but also because having her slashes my housing cost in half. My mortgage and condo fees total about $1300. I rent out my spare bedroom to a young professional like me for $650 and voila! I’ve cut my costs in half. This is not quite a side hustle in that it doesn’t require me to do anything to generate revenue. But it does serve as another source of income.

Most of the jobs I mentioned above don’t require any labor (unless you count typing) and allow me to make between $600-$650 a month. While all of them don’t consistently make me the same amount of money, they do make me enough to cover a significant portion of my monthly bills which I have reduced now to $2,000 (Including my mortgage). In a good month, I probably won’t have to touch my paycheck, and it can go straight to paying off my debt! My goal is to have about 3 more reliable side hustles so I can increase the amount I will pay towards my student loans.

Shanghai Pt. 3

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It’s all in the name of F.I.

Thursday was a day full of pivots, reality checks and tough pills to swallow. It was the most productive day of them all in no small part because of Sharon.  I had met her on my first trip to Shanghai when she worked as a tour guide.  She was charming, charismatic and an effective communicator. Once I discovered the existence of this market, I contacted her and informed her of my plans to take on this venture.  She was just as excited about it as I was and that’s how I knew I found a person I can work with.  From the first time I pitched the idea to her, she took it seriously and was willing to make concrete plans with me.   We met on Thursday morning and headed back to the market.  The night before, I had to rethink everything including the quantity of things I planned to bring back. The reality was that I would be lucky if I could get 50% of the items I planned to buy back to the United States with me. I’m not lucky. By the time we made the bulk of our purchases, the weight of the items we bought was about 10 kilos or 22 lbs.  I had to scale back and reduce the amount I’ll be able to bring back once more. I started out thinking that I’ll be able to bring 500 scarves, and 100 accessories, was forced to lower this number to 1/2 by Wednesday, and then down to 100 scarves, 40 robes and 60 small accessories.  I was not doing well on this front. I did however finally improve my bartering skills significantly.

It’s all a matter of who has the most leverage. So I had a few things going for me.  The first one was the day and time. Thursday morning is not really the busiest time for shopping. Most people come to this market on the weekends. That meant that customers are in short supply and vendors are willing to negotiate. The second one was the fact that I was there to buy in large quantities. Buying in bulk meant I can negotiate some sort of bulk discount. It also meant that the vendors did not want to lose me. They could more than make up for the “loss” of giving me a discount by marking up their price for the tourists that come along. Third and probably the most important was that I went there with a local. I’d negotiate the price down to 20-25% of it’s original price and Sharon would come in and insist that I pay even less. It was such a boost to my confidence. The vendors would protest and we would start to slowly walk out of their store until they begrudgingly call after us.

We were done right at the beginning of rush hour traffic and raced to the subway to avoid the crowd. The train wasn’t jam packed like it was on Monday but had a good amount of people. We boarded and took our bags back to the hotel. There was no way I could reduce the weight to be less than the allowable amount. I had already purchased a carry on and packed it full with some of the things I purchased. And I literally only packed 3 days worth of clothes. But the weight limit was still high and by the time I was done packing it, it felt like I had packed a corpse.  When I left on Friday, I realized that I should have just purchased a second luggage I can check in and filled it with the remainder of the stuff.  Prior to me having to pay the overweight fee, my total cost for this venture was about $3,000 including:

  • $1,500 for flight, hotel and stay
  • $1,300 for purchasing merchandise to sell
  • $200 for other costs including a small payment I made to Sharon for her time and labor

Unfortunately, the overweight baggage cost me an additional $200 bringing my grand total to $3,200. This is not sustainable.

The whole idea of this trip is to start a side business that will create another stream of income for me.  Yes, I’m buying at a relatively low cost and plan to sell the things I bought for profit. But I’m losing the money I saved on buying my merchandise on transporting it here. So I’ve decided to make a few changes to reduce my cost of doing business.

  1. I’m hiring Sharon to manage the purchase and shipping. I will pay for the cost of merchandise, shipping and compensate her for her time and labor.  Since she’s gone to the stores with me, she’ll know what my preferences are. I will also be sending her a list of the things I want to purchase. Doing it this way will certainly be lower than the cost to travel over there and bring it myself while making sure these items are still curated by me.
  2. I’m doing my research and buying in bulk ahead of the season. Prices are lower when the items are purchased in larger quantities. So I plan on purchasing at least 100 of each item I plan to have available at once to take advantage of that.
  3. While pop-up shops have been the least costly way of making in person sales, I’m going to have to consider other ways of distributing the merchandise including providing it to boutiques wholesale and creating a website to make my items available for sale 24/7. The latter is already underway.

This was an educational trip.  Even if the idea fails as a business, I would have learned so much from this whole experience that I would not have learned in class. If this works out, I would have combined two things I love, travelling and finding new ways to make money.

A few days in Shanghai Pt. 2

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The Stay in China

It’s true that one good decision leads to another.  After taking the train to my hotel instead of the taxi, I decided to keep the streak going. The objective is to spend as little as possible on personal consumption and use all of my budgeted cash for purchasing merchandise. With that in mind, I decided to take the subway instead of the taxi to travel to and from my hotel to the mall. So that’s 75 cents for each trip which is more than acceptable. Second, I decided to spend as little as possible on food. This is also not that difficult in Shanghai since there are stalls that sell a healthy helping of the local cuisine for less than $1 all within walking distance of the hotel. If I start getting tired of fried dumplings, I can also go to pizza hut, KFC or any other American establishment (which is a proper sit down restaurant over there btw) and get a three course meal for 80 Yuan which is the equivalent of $11. I can’t lose on this front.  The last thing I had to do to make sure I spent most of my money on the business was to stay in my room unless I was going to shop.  Good thing I had mountains of homework to keep me busy.

Tuesday afternoon was spent recovering from Jet lag and catching up on some required reading for one of the classes I’m taking.  At around 6pm I ventured out to check out the market. I got on the metro and immediately regretted it. I’m from D.C. How is it that I forgot that at 6pm, trains will be packed to the brim with commuters returning home from work?? In a city with 27million people, jam packed takes on a new meaning. I’m not going to describe what it felt like. That could literally be a post on its own. Just know, breathing was no small feat.  Five stops later, I was spat out at my station and made my way to the mall.  Almost instantly I was swarmed again with what I can only described as mall brokers. They don’t really work at any of the stores. What they’re hoping to do is get customers to go to one of the stores they’re collaborating with to make their purchases.  They have business cards, they’re extremely polite and extremely relentless.  I picked a broker who said his name was Mike (yeah ok), mainly because he spoke the best English out of all of them and went to the stores he worked with. I didn’t want to buy a lot of stuff because I was too exhausted to negotiate properly, I wanted to see what else was also out there and I wanted to wait for my contact whom I had planned to meet on Thursday to see if the prices I thought were fair could be further reduced.  I went around, looked at a few things and bought about 10 items, each of which I negotiated down to 20% of their initial price. I was exhausted at the end of it and made my way back to the hotel somehow still feeling like I got cheated. Mike promised that he will meet me here the next day as well and show me more stuff. I waived him off thinking that he’ll never see me again.

Wednesday was less adventurous. I spent a majority of the day finishing a paper for class and working on homework for a couple of other classes. I wanted to figure out what the optimal time was for using the subway system, optimal, meaning that I could breathe comfortably without sticking my neck up and out like one of those birds swallowing up fish on nature specials. I really wasn’t asking for much. I got on the train at around 2pm and it was only half full! Yes! I got to my station and got off at the stop. As I was going up the escalator I heard someone screaming “pretty lady! PREEEEEETYYYY LADYYYYYYYY!” Mike had found me! Damn it! I can’t get away from this guy.  I begrudgingly went to a few more stores with him and actually found some things I thought were really nice. I negotiated again but couldn’t get any lower than the price I paid the day before because stupid Mike had already told the lady what I was willing to pay. So I decided to purchase items I didn’t buy the day before to start off on a blank slate. I bought about 20 items.  On the train ride back, I started to feel concerned. 20 silk robes were surprisingly heavy! Am I going to be able to buy the quantity I wanted to without going over the limit?

A few days in Shanghai Part I

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The day came for the plan I hatched while sitting in class with my eyes glazed over to come to fruition. I got up early Monday morning and ran down the stairs with my purse and my large empty suitcase in hand.  The three days worth of change of clothes I packed fit in the front pocket of my luggage and that’s what I wanted. This is not a spring break vacation. I’m going so I can shop for great quality products and bring back a good amount that I could sell to recoup the cost of this venture and maybe even make a little profit. Off I went to the airport, checked in, and after taking a connector flight to Chicago, started my 15 hour journey to the other side of the world. The anticipation was killing me. What am I going to buy? How much? Will I negotiate a good price? What is a good price? What am I doing on a flight to China by myself? Oh MY GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE?!?!?! I had all 15 hours to think because there’s absolutely no way I could sleep crammed in economy class.  Mercifully, the flight attendant came around with some red wine whatever that means (in Economy, we plain folk are not allowed the luxury of finding out the type of grape we’re drinking. 🙂 Your options are red or white.). I calmed my nerves and tried to think clearly.

Best case scenario: I go to the market, I negotiate a great price on some nice products, I bring them back and sell them for a profit. I have tried to prepare as much as possible for this by creating a list of what I want to purchase, determining the quantity and how much I could afford to pay for it without feeling like I was scammed. I was going to buy 300 scarves, 50 pieces of accessories, 50 bags and some other sample products I was going to test out. I had also gotten in touch with my old tour guide from my MBA global study program. She sounded enthusiastic about my idea over the phone so I was encouraged.

Worst case scenario: I still go to the market, I negotiate to no avail and will not be able to get a decent quantity. I spend more money than I wanted to and purchase the products to bring back with me. My contact would not be as helpful as I initially thought and I would be left to my own devices.

Either way I knew one thing; its too late to turn the plane back now so I might as well make sure I do my best to get things to turn out the way I wanted it to.

It all starts when you hit the ground

Finally, at around 1:30pm tuesday, our plane landed safely and I was able to make it through customs by 2:15. Small victories. I collected my luggage and headed outside the terminal where, a huge swarm of taxi drivers and neatly dressed ‘airport employees’ tried to persuade me to take their taxi. The negotiation starts here. First of all, if you accept the first price they give you, you already lost. They start off at an absurdly high amount and expect you to negotiate.  The actual price is usually 30% of what they initially quote you.  The taxi ride ends up being the equivalent of $30 or so if you negotiate it well enough. Second, maybe this should be first, unless you have ridiculously heavy luggage you can’t lift, you shouldn’t take the taxi. Shanghai has one of the most amazing and well maintained subway systems I’ve seen anywhere I’ve traveled so far including Europe. The whole city is connected and the options are endless. The regular subway could easily take you anywhere in the city but the best thing about starting at the airport is that you also have the option of taking the ‘Maglev’ a high speed train that lets you bypass quite a few stations on the regular train route and drops you off at a point where two or three other lines meet. The Maglev costs 50 Yuan, which is the equivalent of $7.  You can then transfer to the regular lines and take them to wherever your final destination is for 4 Yuan or the equivalent of 75 cents. With my light luggage, this was essentially a no brainer. I walked straight past the cabbies who were negotiating their rates down to the train station. I was at the hotel in 45 minutes! So far so good. But the real work still lay ahead.

 

Complicated Women

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She was the first in her family to go to college, then grad school. She was the first person from her home town to leave the country. She was a pioneer in many ways and spent a great majority of her 20s building a career and establishing herself. Her accomplishments are made even more exceptional when you consider her background; born and raised in a remote village town in country where women’s rights was not even a topic of discussion, where practices such as female circumcision, and arranged marriages for child brides were the norm. She defied societal standards and overcame so much. She is awe inspiring.

But life, sometimes, beats the defiance out of people. The past decade or so have been so hard on her. She moved to the United States to provide her daughter a better opportunity for life. She dropped everything; the career she had painstakingly built, the lifestyle she had established and the status she had earned, to come to America and start from the bottom again. The minimum wage jobs, standing at work for 16 hours a day, feeling like a cog in the machine took a toll on her body and her psyche. Self doubt slowly seeped in and eroded her self confidence and her sense of worth. This time it was harder. Making it in America demanded more, more time, more energy, more resilience, more defiance. She was tapped out. She could not keep on fighting. She could not dedicate the same amount of effort to rebuilding her career. She gave up.  But worst of all, she let defeatism consume her.

I once idolized her. I beamed with pride every time I walked into her office and saw the respect and admiration her subordinates had for her. I pretended to be a career woman like her, wore her pearls, waddled around in her pumps and tried on her lipstick. She shocked me recently, when she told me how if she could go back in time, she would have dropped everything and had more children and spent her time raising them than build a career. She cared about image and subscribed to the accepted standards of beauty. She wanted social acceptance and was willing to soften her stance on the things I thought she was once adamantly against. She cared about other people’s opinions, even when they were not based on facts. She was not the woman I knew.  But I knew her! I’ve seen her speak to crowds and inspire other women to demand more in  that country where they were treated like objects. How can these two women exist in one person? Did the person I knew when I was a child ever exist? Was the facade torn off when she faced a new type of adversity? Did I really know her?

She’s not too excited about the road I’m taking. She wishes I had stayed at the company I was working in even if it meant I would never do anything of substance or get an increase in salary. She resents the fact that I do so much on my own and wishes I cared about what people in our community think. She wants to be consulted on my life choices. I wouldn’t mind getting her take on my decisions or even doing certain things the way she wants me to. But I want to hear it from the old her, the defiant her.

The image I had built of her as the defiant and ever resilient shero disintegrated over time. It kind of sent my sense of self into a tailspin. I always took pride in being from the same stock and expected so much of myself so I can measure up. But which stock is that? What do I measure myself against now that I know what I know? I guess the real questions are, does she owe me perfection? Has she not done everything she could possibly do to provide me with the opportunities I had? Should I not draw my motivation from within myself?

I think I’ve past the point where I can measure myself against her accomplishments. I now have to continue on setting standards up as I go. I’ve gotten this far because of her, or the idea of her. But I think it’s time to let go of the crutches and walk on my own.

 

Reality Check

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So, there I was interviewing for the position I have dreamed of ever since finding out that you can actually help people through finance. They can tell I really like being here. I literally enjoyed talking to the whole slew of financial advisers that came out to interview me. Their passion for the field, the family vibe and collegiate atmosphere is pretty much the stuff career dreams are made of. I fell so deeply in love with the future I could have there that I forgot to stop and think, “What’s the catch?”

Welp, I had a nice long chat with the firm’s general counsel. He’s actually very personable. He even had the whole “dad” vibe going which I appreciated since it mitigated the impact of the things he had to tell me. He comes in and does me the favor of knocking me back to reality. Apparently there are many restrictions for working in the financial advising profession. FINRA has all the characteristics of a jealous, possessive lover. You can’t do real estate, you can’t have a side hustle, you can’t make money in any other way that might come into conflict with the time and effort you put towards building your career in the industry. Oh and further more, while all the other avenues that you could earn an income are all shut off, you will also be making a less than ideal salary.  Have fun living like Oliver Twist for the foreseeable future!!

At a certain point during this reality check I had a flashback to one of my father’s sermons. Luke chapter 14 verse 26-27. Jesus says to the crowd “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be My disciple. 27And whoever does not carry his cross and follow Me cannot be My disciple. ” Really bro? FINRA demands more from you than the son of God himself!

Side bar, I wonder if my dad knew I was paying attention to his sermons as I sat in the front row with my eyes glazed over daydreaming about being anywhere but church. Even I didn’t know I was…Osmosis?

I was so sold on the idea of starting over and doing this again I didn’t even mind taking a 40% salary cut to get the opportunity to learn from people who seem to know so much about the field and everything I want to do. But I can’t even mitigate my brokeness by starting up a side hustle?

So why am I still interested in this? They’re literally telling me I will have to give up everything for a “potentially” rewarding career (Keyword potentially, albeit a potential I think could be realized) and I’m here grinning and  nodding in agreement like I’m not going to be lining up for hot soup sometime soon. Tell me, why am I still excited at that idea of being a part of this?? At least this whole revelation did not come after the fact. I really do appreciate the warning ahead of time. I always appreciate people who tell me the hard facts. But the decision just got so much harder.

So far, its looking like I’m heading down the straight and narrow smh. I must be a glutton for punishment.