Penny Pascal

When did I get so boring? (or, Yay, finance!)

Warning: book report ahead. I rarely get so passionate about a book that I declare that everyone I know should own it, but this time that is exactly what I am going to say.

I’ve just finished reading my first ever personal finance book. It was absolutely fantastic. I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi, available at Amazon for like $10. Trust me, as someone who is practically allergic to numbers and was previously terrified and mystified by finances, I can vouch that all 20-somethings should read this book. It has a pretentious title, which is the same name of the blog on which it is based, but the wisdom and advice in the book is perfectly suited to my generation and other folks new to managing their money. Plus, it was published after the giant financial clusterfuck of 2008, so it is up-to-date with the realities of the market today.

Filling out the FAFSA back in March for the first time ever, and after having sent in my NYU deposit, I realized that it was time to stop ignoring personal finance in the hopes that it would go away. I’m moving to New York City in three months and I want to be well-prepared for the financial whiplash that I am about to experience. Not only that, but grad school is going to be my transition into financial independence going forward. This is exciting, but scary. So I finally acknowledged that there were things I needed to know. I asked a good friend of mine (who also happens to be my boss and who is a few years ahead of me) to borrow any personal finance books she has (she is like a self-help/theory book library) and, among a couple of others, Ramit Sethi’s book ended up in my lap.

He covers everything you will ever need to know about your financial life, including: how to optimize your credit cards/get or keep good credit, how to chose wisely which banks to use (not ones you would expect), how to spend consciously (as opposed to budgeting – gag), how to automate your payments and synch your accounts so your money flows how you want it to without any effort, and the ins and outs of investing and why it is so important to start early.

I sound like slash am a total nerd, but this book has empowered me. I finally not only understand finances, but I am excited by it all (this feeling will go quickly away once I am destitute in NYC). But seriously, I feel like I’m one huge and important step closer to become a grown-ass woman just by understanding personal finances.

But understanding is only the beginning. Starting to act on my new knowledge has been, quite frankly, fun. Earlier this week I called my credit card company and requested a credit line increase. I have had a $4,000 credit line the entire time I have had my credit card (since sophomore year of college). Based on the advice I received from the book, I had the good sense to call up and see if I could increase that in order to reduce my credit utilization rate (Utilization rate = your monthly spending on your card divided by your limit, i.e. $400/$4000 = 10%). The lower the rate, the better your credit. I requested the limit be increased to $10,000. And based on my good credit, I was approved! So now I’m looking at a rate that will hover closer to 4-5% intead of 10-12%. Fancy! It’s not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things, but every little bit helps. And honestly it was just fun to sew my financial oats a little just to prove to myself that I could.

So now I’ve got a whole list of things to do to get my finances in order in preparation for moving:

  • Work a little bit more on my credit card. I’m thinking I’m going to change my rewards program to one that will work better with my lifestyle in NYC. The one I have now gives cash-back primarily for purchasing gasoline on it, but thankfully I will be carless and thus gasless in NYC.
  • Transfer my current, SC-based checking account to a new account. Right now I’m thinking of doing a combination of a checking account with credit union in NYC (I believe NYU has one) and an online high-yield savings account. I’ll have to look into my options. This will be taken care of when I’m in NYC in June.
  • Get with mom on transferring my Roth IRA to my own control. It’s currently run by a financial advisor that my parents have been unhappy with, and I’d like to manage it myself. Time to be a big girl. I have a feeling transferring it from its current investments to those of my chosing will cost a hefty fee, but it’s such a tiny account now that it won’t really matter.
  • Get a part-time job in NYC. One that will let me work as many hours as possible without forcing me to flunk out of grad school. I’m hoping something approx. 20 hours a week. I imagine that being a grad student in NYC with a part time job will be like trying to plug the Hoover Dam with my pinky finger as far as expenses/income goes, but every little bit counts. And if there is one thing I know about myself at this point in my life, it is that I just don’t do that well being anything less than kind-of-stupidly-busy, so I’m ready for the hours.
  • Once I’m all moved in and working and going to class in New York, get all of my accounts linked up and automated so things run without me having to think about it. I’m going to do my absolute best to save 5% and invest 5-10% into my Roth each month, even with NYC living expenses. Both pathetic figures, based on the peanuts I’ll be making, but better than doing nothing.
  • Graduate to the high life and start hanging out with Jay-Z.

So let me tell you about Italian food.

It’s something that is both incredibly simple to explain, and incredibly complex – a paradox that reflects the ingredients themselves. The thing about it is that, when all is said and done, there really isn’t much to say about Italian food. See, there are noodles. About 300 different kind of noodles, granted, but they are all noodles. There are sauces, a list of combinations that could go on for days and that vary widely – but then the common denominator is that they are all sauces to be served on noodles. Yes, different sauces work well on different noodles, and there is of course merit to understanding the subtleties, but for the sake of our argument let’s just simplify it by saying that it’s about noodles and sauce, which it is. And then there’s pizza, which tastes (like everything else in this country) much cleaner, fresher, more original and organic than its American version. But it’s still all pizza. And of course there are dishes that I haven’t gotten to, and many I probably won’t because I’m just a culinarily simple American girl with a highly un-trained palate; but the thing about my experiences with the food here is that, even though I’ve had a lot of seemingly standard pizza, noodles, and sauce, I keep getting bombarded by so much to say about it all, that a lot of times I just end up speechless.

The other night, after a particularly rough, sobering, and downright strange first week of classes of our semester here in Rome, Lauren and I went to our favorite restaurant for a late dinner because we knew that if anything would save our morale for the night and turn things around for us, that was the place would be the ticket we needed. We were right, and I don’t think I’d be overstating to say that what resulted was the best meal of my life. It sounds dramatic, yes, but I’m in Rome, so you will have to forgive me if I adopt this city’s innate penchant for dramatics. Anyway, the food.

I should start by saying that there are a lot of factors that contribute to my love of the Italian dining atmosphere that have nothing to do with the food itself. To me, a great meal is of course a result of the actual food you’re putting in your mouth; but it also is a result of this sort of mystical equation equaling the product of the company you’re keeping, the tone of the event, the timing, the collective and cohesive mood of the duo or group, and of course, the flow of spirits. To me, there is no better way to spend a night than to have a group getting together spending lazy hours ordering food, waiting for it to be prepared, refilling each others’ glasses, having great conversation, and savoring the food that comes their way. To me, it all results in appreciation – of the food, of the time together, of the conversation, of each other.

This country has solved the equation to perfection – creating a formula that they heed religiously. Dinner here is a most-of-the-night event, which I love. Dinner is not seen simply as one necessary step in a line of events for the night; mostly it is itself the main course, the whole night’s activity. One does not sit down in an Italian restaurant at 6pm and expect their orders out within a reasonable amount of time. One instead strolls into the ristorante at 9pm, orders wine by the liter, and takes time with everything from the deciding, to the ordering, to the consuming. Of course the food usually comes relatively quickly, but it doesn’t really matter. Waiters do not stop by every 10 minutes to ask if your water or sweet tea needs refilling or if there is anything else you need or how is the meal or want more bread, hun or will you please just give me a good tip so this ass kissing will have been worth it. Instead, the waiters stop by only to deliver something you’ve ordered, to clear your plates long after they’ve been emptied, or three hours later when you’re finally ready to leave and you’ve made eye contact long enough to mouth “il conto, per favore.” Tipping is not necessary here, and waiters do not work for them. This results in a much less rushed, much less interfered with, much more intimate and organic experience when dining out.

And of course I haven’t even mentioned the food itself. I’m no different than anyone else in my position. Any American who has spent time in this country gathers identical stories: My goodness, The Food! The Food! The Wine! My God, The Wine! For those of us used to rushing through most things in life, and thus denying ourselves the simple exercise of pleasure for the sake of pleasure, to be in this place for an extended period is best described as an awakening. To be fair, most travel results in similar awakenings, as each new culture takes you out of your own and exposes those hidden and underlying aspects of life that you otherwise do not experience. But something about Italy seems to be famous for awakening this pleasure gene that we Americans have seemed to repressed over the years. The flavors here are richer than anything I’ve ever tasted, the meals are slow and deliberate, every course has its purpose. It’s beautiful!

The ristorante I mentioned earlier that Lauren and I visited the other night also happens to be the first Italian ristorante we visited on our first night here. This time, though, we knew a little more about Italian meals, and were able to really maximize our experience. We ordered a half-liter of the vino rosso de la casa, some bread to start with, and una insalata verde (green salad) to enjoy after our main course. For my primo (first course, or for those of us who don’t have never ending pits for stomachs, the main course), I ordered a pasta dish the name of which I cannot remember, but which I won’t soon forget. I think it said spaghetti, but the noodles seemed closer to a fettuccine, and a cream sauce with minced sausage. Holy wow…the only thing I can say is that I have never enjoyed a dish more than I enjoyed that one. I couldn’t tell you if it was simply the food that was delicious (which it was), or if the entire situation was what had me as happy and satisfied as can be, but I will remember this meal for some time. I was telling Lauren a story while I was finishing my last few bites, and I literally stopped, excused myself for a minute while I savored each fork-full, and resumed my story after I had finished. The funny thing is that this ridiculous request didn’t seem so ridiculous to Lauren, who had just finished her own pasta, but who was having her own sensory experience due to the fresh pizza being served to our neighbors.

During our conversation, and somewhere between our insalata and our crème caramel, Lauren and I started thinking about the name of the restaurant, which as you might remember from my photo, is decorated with torture devices, chains, and other scary items, and is situated in the basement of an ancient building. “La Gattabuia” reads the sign outside, and according to my pocket dictionary, this translates to “clink” which seems like a strange word, I thought, until it occurred to me that, hello, “the clink” is slang for prison. We decided that the place was a former prison, a guess that was confirmed when our waiter stumbled through the building’s story with a mangled “much much years back” which I helped him turn into the prettier English phrase of “many years ago.” “Si! Si! Many years ago,” he repeated, filing it away. A former prison AND the best food we’ve had so far in Rome in a very non-tourist and non-pretentious environment? Twice as badass.

Our waiter, as most here are, was a young and handsome Roman who enjoyed the opportunity to practice his English on a couple of blonde and bright eyed American girls, who in turn enjoy the opportunity to practice their Italian on their patient and flirting waiter. On this particular night I, moved as I have described by either the wine, the food, the mood, or that magical combination of all of the above, felt particularly chummy towards our young waiter, and at one point in the night gave him a grin that as it formed itself on my face, immediately felt a little too much. I realized immediately that perhaps it was one that could be understood to be communicating something I wasn’t necessarily attempting to communicate. Lauren and I had a good laugh right after it happened, and I worried a bit about how it might have been interpreted, but the night ended innocently enough.

After we had paid and were ready to leave, he attempted to communicate in very broken English/Italian something that we were sure included the word “telefono,” and we played dumb until he gave up, settled for “uno momento, uno momento,” disappeared into the kitchen, and returned with two Limoncello shots for us, on the house. Limoncelli are these horrible little liquor shots that Italians enjoy as a dessert that are sickeningly sweet, and so alcoholic that it stings your nostrils to sniff. We choked them down, already well on our way with the few glasses of wine we had each had, and slipped out of the ristorante. It was almost midnight, and we got back to the apartment, popped into bed, and I’m sure I speak for Lauren too when I say that I slept like a baby. It’s really as simple as that for me: good food, good wine, good company. Here there are the added bonuses of language practice, the occasional grin, and the satisfaction of learning: both the intricacies of the seemingly straightforward Italian menu, and the words necessary to order it. For these reasons, I like Italy quite a bit.