Monday, April 30, 2018

My Overall Financial Situation

Recently I started reading Refinery29's Money Diaries. Maybe I'm just super nosy, but I love hearing about other people's financial situations. Despite having participated in Franish's Budgeting Blogger series (RIP) for years, I realized that I have never fully disclosed my own financial situation. So if you have ever wondered how I can afford to live the kind of life I do on a grad student budget, here it is.

I am Chinese-American and an only child. My immigrant parents moved to the U.S. almost 30 years ago, and they have always emphasized to me the importance of hard work and higher education for getting ahead in life. When it was time to send me off to college, they generously paid for all of my tuition as well as room and board, even though they were not well-off at the time. Of course, I took summer jobs every year and used that to supplement what my parents gave me, but mostly I relied on their support. I finished college in 3.5 years, and because of their generosity plus a few small merit-based scholarships, I graduated debt-free. Then I went to grad school straight from undergrad for a master's degree in engineering, because I knew that having the extra degree would significantly increase my starting salary. During that time, I found a research assistantship, which paid me a stipend as well as generated a tuition waiver.

When I graduated with my master's degree in 1.5 years, I felt burned out from school, so I accepted a full-time engineering job at a company I had interned with previously. It was relatively close to home (within a 30-minute drive), so I decided to live with my parents. (Side note: they were thrilled about this arrangement. In China, adult children typically live with their parents until marriage.) Most of the people I knew at the time couldn't understand my decision, because the only people they knew who lived at home were people who couldn't afford to move out, and I made a good salary.

During this period, I saved a great deal of money on rent, although I paid for my share of utilities and food. Of course there were pros and cons to moving back home. I love my parents, we get along well, and it was very convenient (I had a reasonable commute, and my mom cooked for me every single day). On the other hand, I became socially isolated, because I lived too far away from my friends to see them regularly, and it irritated me whenever my sometimes-helicopter parents tried to interfere in my personal life.

After working full-time for several years, I realized I was disillusioned with my job. I felt bored, not challenged, and dissatisfied. I contemplated switching companies, but it wouldn't have made a difference, since the jobs I was most qualified for were basically identical to the job I already had. I started thinking about going back to grad school and began to apply to PhD programs. Once again, people kept asking me "But why? You have a perfectly good job." I couldn't answer them to their satisfaction, but I knew that I didn't want to wake up someday and realize I had wasted my life/career working at a job I didn't like.

I ended up being accepted into one of the top PhD programs in my field, which came with a research assistantship offer as well as an additional scholarship. Those two combined were sufficient to cover my tuition, fees, and living expenses with a little left over for the first few years. (Now that I am in my final year, my situation is a little different. More on that another time.) I haven't been able to save any money really during my PhD, but on the other hand, I've never had to worry about money either, which I realize is a luxury. I have been extremely fortunate that I can live in a safe neighborhood, eat at restaurants I like, buy clothes from stores I like, indulge my hobbies, and travel when I want (within reason of course). I also have the additional comfort of knowing that I could always fall back on my savings from when I had worked full-time (I haven't touched this money at all during my time in grad school).

Overall I realize I am very lucky, especially for a millennial. Thanks to my parents, I don't have student loans. I also don't have credit card debt. My retirement savings aren't quite where I would like them to be (thanks, grad school opportunity cost), but I know once I graduate, I will save aggressively to compensate for those lost years. In the meantime, I am just trying to savor these last moments of flexibility and freedom.

Anyway, this post is longer than I intended, so kudos to those of you who made it to the end. I hope you've enjoyed reading about my financial situation!

Are you interested in seeing more personal finance posts from me?

Friday, April 27, 2018


As you may have noticed by now, I am currently in the process of updating the look of my blog. I thought the old template was a bit dated, and I wanted to try something more minimalistic. I also updated some of the pages in the sidebar since they contained outdated information. Anyway, I will be making minor tweaks here and there in the coming weeks, so please pardon the (digital) dust in the meantime.

Have a good weekend, everybody!

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Charming Charleston

My boyfriend J had to go to Charleston recently for work, so we decided to turn the trip into a mini-vacation by staying a few extra days. Neither of us had been to the city before, so we weren't sure what to expect, but Charleston is very charming! A lot of the architecture dates back to the 1700s, and the city is well preserved. We loved wandering around the Historic District and admiring all of the pretty houses.

Rainbow Row

Because Charleston is surrounded by water, it offers a diverse range of experiences. We were able to do both "city things" (e.g. wine and dine at amazing bars and restaurants, go shopping at the city market, etc.) and "nature-y things" (e.g. go to the beach, bird watch, etc.).

Pineapple Fountain

We lucked out and got an Airbnb that was centrally located and reasonably priced, so we were able to walk to most of the attractions and restaurants. And boy did we walk a lot! My feet were sore by the end of the trip, even though I wore comfortable sneakers every day. Something I noticed about Charleston is that it has a number of cute manicured parks with plenty of benches to sit on. One morning we got our breakfast to go just so we could sit in one of those parks and enjoy the fresh air plus people watch.

USS Yorktown

J and I are both history nerds, so we had to go on a historical walking tour of Charleston, which I highly recommend. It provides context for why the city is the way it is today. We're also tech nerds, so we visited the USS Yorktown, an aircraft carrier built during World War II. It was extremely interesting! I have toured smaller ships and a submarine before, but the sheer size of the USS Yorktown was unbelievable (hard to tell from this picture but look at the jets on it for scale). It's bigger than many buildings!

Spanish moss

As a nature lover, I really enjoyed all the local flora and fauna. Walking around the city, you'll find beautiful spanish moss casually draped over live oak trees. Down by the water, you'll find a ton of birds (egrets, herons, pelicans to name just a few)! When we visited Magnolia Plantations, we also saw some alligators and turtles.

Jacket: Mackage (old, similarsimilar)
Cardigan: J.Crew (old)
Tank: Everlane (old, similar)
 Jeans: Hudson (old, same cut)
Shoes: Vans (exact)

Bag: Rebecca Minkoff (exact)

The weather was a bit cool when we first arrived in Charleston, but it got to be mid 80s by the time we left. Here I am wearing my leather jacket on the first day of our trip when it was kind of chilly. By the last day, I was just walking around in a t-shirt.

Lewis Barbecue

I consider myself a foodie, and even by my standards, the food scene in Charleston was amazing! Be warned: the hottest restaurants get so busy that you need to make reservations several weeks in advance. Unfortunately we didn't find out about that until a few days before our trip, so we could only get into my second choice places. Oh well. That just means we'll have to go back another time. Above is the food we got at Lewis Barbecue. I had the most tender and delicious brisket I have ever had in my life! It literally melts in your mouth. The house-made pickles and sauces were good too.

Anyway, these were some of the highlights from our trip. I hope you enjoyed following along. All in all, we had a great time in Charleston, and it was a much needed break for both of us. Hopefully we'll be back in the future!

Have you ever been to Charleston? If so, what were your favorite spots?

Friday, April 20, 2018

Sale Alert: Sephora Picks

It looks like Sephora is having their semi-annual sale again. For a limited time only, you can take 10% off your order as a Beauty Insider or 15% off if you are VIB or VIB Rouge. If you haven't already, please check out my last post on the types of makeup I spend on versus save on.

I own and love these products:
  • Urban Decay Naked Palette: I think if you can only get one eyeshadow palette, this would be it! These eye shadows are very pigmented in color and relatively neutral. Also there are a ton of makeup tutorials out there to teach you how to use it. One thing to note though is that most of the shades have a shimmer or satin finish, so if you like matte colors, this isn't for you.
  • Too Faced Chocolate Bar Palette: If you are a neutrals kind of girl (like me), this is a great palette. It's full of earth tones, and the shadows are a nice mix of matte/satin. Also, it smells like chocolate!
  • Kat Von D Tattoo Liner: This is my favorite liquid liner. The pen doesn't draw as well across my eyelid as I would like (or maybe the formula is starting to dry out), but it lasts longer than any other eyeliner I've tried. No fading, no flaking off. You do have to be a little careful to not smear as it dries.
  • Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eye Liner: This is my second favorite liquid liner. It's really black, has a fine tip, and applies well. It lasts an okay length of time but has a tendency to flake off by the end of the night. Also it's not that waterproof, based on my experience crying at weddings.
  • Urban Decay Eyeshadow Primer Potion Original (also comes in a mini trial size): This is my preferred eyeshadow primer (mostly because I like having an applicator). It's very creamy and helps my eye makeup last longer.
  • Too Faced Shadow Insurance: This shadow primer is a slightly more liquid formula than the Urban Decay one, but it also works well and keeps my eyeshadow/liner in place.
  • Anastasia Beverly Hills Brow Wiz: Maybe because my eyebrows are very light naturally, I don't like the heavy brow look on myself. This product is such a lifesaver, because it actually looks pretty natural on me (for reference, I wear taupe even though I have black hair).
  • Marc Jacobs Re(Marc)able Full Cover Concealer: This is the concealer I wear on my skin (I use a different undereye concealer). It's full coverage and matches my skin tone well. It looks like they might be discontinuing it though? If that's the case, I'll have to look for a replacement.
  • Moroccanoil (also comes in a mini trial size): I only apply a few drops to wet hair, because my hair tends to get oily pretty quickly. It reduces my frizz and makes my hair super soft/shiny. I recommend getting the smaller bottle since it lasts forever. Also, my stylist told me that it may not be great for people who are light blonde, because the oil is amber in color.

Here is what I am planning to buy:

  • Sephora Collection Wanderlust Travel Set: This travel set would make a great gift for a friend or family member who travels a lot. I've been eyeing it ever since Feather Factor posted about it a few months ago. I'm planning to get one for myself and one for my mom.
  • Urban Decay Eyeshadow Primer Potion Original (rebuy, see above)
  • Kat Von D Tattoo Liner (rebuy, see above)

What are your favorite beauty products? Anything you're looking to pick up from the Sephora sale?

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Makeup Girl

I've never really been a makeup girl. To be honest, I go to school bare-faced most days. Sometimes I'll wear light makeup (concealer, mascara, brow pencil, blush, and lip balm) for interviews and days that I look especially tired. I only ever wear full-face makeup for special occasions like date nights and weddings. Even then, I don't wear foundation, because it never quite looks like my real skin.

Despite not wearing a lot of makeup, I actually love researching beauty products and own an embarrassing amount of both drugstore and high end makeup (for someone who doesn't use it often). My goal is to one day master that natural oh-I-totally-woke-up-looking-awesome-like-this look that's actually extremely difficult and requires a lot of makeup to achieve. Having experimented with a number of products, I think there are definitely some categories of makeup that you need to spend more money on versus others where the drugstore counterpart is just fine.

In my opinion, the categories that you should SPEND on are (along with some favorites):
1) Eyeshadow
I find that premium eyeshadow is way more pigmented than drugstore eyeshadow and seems to have better lasting power (doesn't fade or crease as easily). This is a big issue for me since I'm Asian and have oily monolids, so my eyeshadow tends to move around. I like this palette, because it's full of neutrals and smells like chocolate!
Too Faced Chocolate Bar Palette

2) Eyeliner
Again it's all about the lasting power. Premium eyeliner seems less likely to smear and fade. I'm not sure if this is just an issue for me or everyone, but regardless you want your eyeliner to stay put and not leave you with raccoon eyes by the end of the night. I particularly like using liquid liner to draw cat eyes. It's quick, easy, and dramatic.

Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Liner (Jet Black)

3) Eye shadow primer
I'm starting to sense a pattern here... Anyway, without using primer first, even premium shadow/liner doesn't last long enough for me, especially since I tend to cry at weddings. There are a couple high end shadow primers that I really like, because they work super well at helping things stay put.

Urban Decay Eyeshadow Primer Potion (Original)

4) Concealer
I know that drugstore skin makeup has gotten better, but I feel like you still can't beat the pigmentation, number of shades, and staying power of high end concealer. I'm not sure if the same can be said for foundation since I don't wear it myself.

Lancome Effacernes Waterproof Protective Undereye Concealer

The categories you can SAVE on are (along with some favorites):
1) Blush
In general, drugstore blush tends to be less pigmented than high end blush, but in my opinion, that's actually a feature, not a bug. I like that drugstore blush actually looks more natural, because it's a little more sheer. Wearing super pigmented blush makes me feel like a clown with patches on my cheeks.
Current favorite: Milani Baked Blush (Luminoso)

2) Mascara
I know lots of people swear by their high end mascara, but in my opinion, I think it's not worth spending that much when you're supposed to toss it every 3 months. Maybe if I wore mascara more often, that would make it worth the money? Also I really haven't noticed any real difference between the two in terms of performance.
Current favorite: Maybelline Lash Sensational Mascara (Blackest Black)

3) Lipstick
Drugstore lipstick has come a long way! Gone are the days when lipstick makes your lips feel like sticky and wrinkled. Nowadays they're pretty moisturizing and more pigmented than ever before. And there are so many pretty shades for less than $10 each!
Current favorite: L'Oreal Colour Riche Shine Lipstick (Burnished Blush)

4) Nail polish
Obviously this depends on the exact brand/shade. In general, every brand has some super-pigmented shades where you only need one coat and some shades where it's semi-sheer even after 3 coats. Personally I don't think you need to buy Louboutin polishes at all (although I'll admit the bottle is pretty). I like OPI and Essie. They offer a wide selection of colors, are middle-of-the-road in terms of cost, and are reasonably opaque (depending on the color).
Current favorite: OPI Nail Polish (Koala Bear-y)

5) Makeup remover
I've never purchased high end makeup remover, but I have tried some samples I got, and there is literally no difference between them and say generic Target Up & Up makeup remover. My favorite is actually these Neutrogena towelettes, because I don't even have to wait for the remover to soak into my eyeliner/mascara. I can just wipe it all away and then wash my face afterwards.

What types of makeup do you spend/save on? What are your favorite high end products? What are your favorite drugstore products?

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Sale Alert: Kindle Paperwhite and J.Crew Sale Picks

I just wanted to post about a couple notable sales that I came across today.

1) I'm not sure how long this offer is good for, but I see that today the Kindle Paperwhite e-reader is only $79.99 with special offers and $99.99 without special offers for Amazon Prime members. This is the best price I've seen on the e-reader in a while. I own and love the Paperwhite (without special offers, because I hate ads). I use it all the time and even gave my boyfriend one for Christmas this year. Of course it's really handy for traveling, but I also just carry it around in my purse so I can read even when I'm in the checkout line at the grocery store. Ever since I bought one, I've been reading a ton of books (I check out free e-books from my library), and now I spend less time glued to my cellphone/TV (probably for the best). Anyway, if you've been thinking about buying one, I highly recommend it!

2) My favorite retailer J.Crew has been really struggling lately. I hope they don't go out of business since their clothes fit me so well, but I have to admit that they've been pretty off-base in terms of their overall design. I still see some cute pieces I want, but nothing like the days of yore when I lusted after everything. Right now they're running a sale-on-sale promotion, where you can take an extra 30% off styles that end in .99 with code TAKE2030. Here are my sale picks:

If any of these items are out of stock in your size, I would recommend checking the website early in the morning for popbacks!

What do you think of J.Crew's style nowadays? What pieces have you picked up from them lately?

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Long Time No See

Dear readers,

Long time no see. I'm not sure if anyone is still following this blog, but I apologize for vanishing off the face of the earth without even saying goodbye. Life got really stressful around Fall 2016, and I just couldn't find the energy to keep writing blog posts about shopping when more important things were going on in my personal life.

A few updates: I am still in grad school (currently working on my dissertation and looking for jobs on the West Coast), but I am no longer with my former fiancĂ© Engineer W. We decided to go our separate ways after many months of agonizing over what was ultimately a deal-breaker for us: I wanted to have children someday, and he didn't. It was an extremely painful situation since we loved each other, but there was also no compromising on the matter. The issue hadn't been so important when we were younger and had first started dating, but the older we got, the more resolute we each became on what was important to us. We ended things amicably since it wasn't anyone's fault, and we are still friends today. I decided to give him custody of our (now his) beloved tuxedo cat, which was the right thing to do but also broke my heart.

I have a new boyfriend J, who I have been dating seriously for close to a year, and now we live together in a tiny studio apartment. Because we have to share a closet, I had to purge the vast majority of my clothes, bags, shoes, and accessories before I moved in with him. I also can't buy too many things these days, because there'd be nowhere to put them. I kind of like the new forced minimalism since I can't accumulate too much stuff, and it's much easier to keep everything organized. I still feel the itch to shop though, especially when I am bored or under a lot of stress, but I usually end up returning most of it.

I am also in the best physical shape of my life. I started working out regularly (finally achieved my 2015 new year's resolutions, ha!) and picked up some new hobbies that I love: rock climbing, cycling, hiking, skiing, etc. These days you'll frequently find me doing something active outdoors if the weather is nice enough. Since I still like to shop, I've picked up a good deal of hobby-related gear, so probably my overall spending level isn't really any lower.

Anyway, I just wanted to drop in and say hi. I hope to start posting regularly again, but it may not be as shopping-oriented as it was before. I don't really have a roadmap at the moment. Let's just see where it goes.

Engineer L