We’re about done waiting for the economy to get better, but if recent figures from the Commerce Department are any indication, we might have to wait just a little while longer.

While the GDP grew at the fastest rate in over six years, it was still 0.3% slower than the 5.9% that had been forecast for the period between October and December of 2009. Also, after-tax corporate profit rose 6.5%, which may mean that companies are ready to start hiring again.

And speaking of jobs, first-time jobless claims fell by 14,000 to 442,000, which is lower than the Labor Department was anticipating. Also, “the number of people continuing to receive jobless benefits decreased 54,000 in the week ended March 13 to 4.65 million,” according to BusinessWeek. So you’re probably thinking, “right on! What do you mean ‘bad economy’? This is great!” But not so for the 27 states in which unemployment actually went up. Mississippi, Florida and Nevada are just a few of the regions where double-digit unemployment was pushed higher still.

So what does it all mean? In short, more needs to be done. Maybe the jobs bill that President Obama signed on March 18 will help. It will give companies payroll tax exemptions for hiring workers who’ve been unemployed for more than 60 days. And while that rise in GDP is promising, it’s being reported that despite that, nationwide unemployment, currently at 9.7%, will only dip a tenth of a point to 9.6% by year’s end. In a time when every promising report seems to be bookended by two that are sour, it’s tepid comfort to know one thing: at least it isn’t all bad news. And I guess that’s a start.

March is that time of year where every student has something to look forward to: spring break.

Most families pack up and head to a sunny destination where they spend too much money on hot dogs at the amusement park, and students gather their friends and hit the beaches of Mexico and spend their entire savings. I strongly suggest looking into another option, one that doesn’t cost much and is an overall rewarding experience: Alternative Spring Breaks. All over the country people are taking spring break trips where they travel around to volunteer and participate in service learning.

Right now, I'm on the road on one of these trips, along with 18 other students from the University of Oregon and Oregon State University. I’m an employee of the Community Service Center at my school and have helped put together this trip. The focus of this year's trip is on rural poverty in Oregon, but you can find many different types of service trips with different focuses and activities. Check out MTV Think, Break Away, and Student Universe for more information regarding trips you can plan yourself or join up with.

During our week we have meet some extremely passionate and interesting people who are all dedicated to making their community a better place. We spent three days in a the town of Klamath Falls where we painted a youth center and learned about the Klamath Tribes who are working to rebuild their community after being restored in 1986 after termination.

Yesterday we spent an entire day learning about a group of individuals who are dedicated to building a sustainable community through renewable geothermal, solar, wind, and bio-mass energy in Lake County. Today we spoke with the city of Burns and will be helping the remainder of our break building a community garden for a domestic violence shelter and working with the children from the Harney County Kids Club. On top of all the great service projects we do, we also get the opportunity to explore places that we hadn't considered before.

I can only speak positively of this experience, and urge everyone to look into taking an alternative spring break next year. It’s a great opportunity to meet some amazing people--including those you travel with--and make a positive impact on other communities. Most alternative spring breaks don’t cost you anything, and if they do it’s around the cost of what it takes to provide your food for the week. I look forward to returning to my office at brass next week, but in the meantime I will continue to enjoy myself immensely volunteering this spring break.


The health care reform bill passed the House. Some people are happy about it. Others aren’t. But a portion of the bill that should please both sides seeks to reform the student loan industry.

The student loan portion of the bill ends the Federal Family Education Loan Program, where private lenders grant student loans that are backed by the federal government. Instead, the Education Department will eliminate the middleman, granting all federally backed loans and saving over $60 billion in subsidies over the next 10 years that would otherwise be paid to these private lenders. It makes sense, seeing as the government held all the risk on these loans in the first place.

According to the New York Times:

  • $13.5 billion will cover a budget shortfall in the Pell grant program, which helps low-income students afford college. This shortfall was created due to increased enrollment and requests for financial aid due to the recession.
  • Around $36 billion of these savings will be added on to the Pell grant program over the next 10 years.
  • The maximum Pell grant will increase from $5,350 this year to $5,975 in 2017.
  • Another $10 billion will go to deficit reduction.

So, no matter what you think about the health care reform bill, you should like the student loan reform portion… unless you enjoy spending more for college and a larger federal deficit.


When I first heard the folks at NPR talking about Foursquare, the new “geolocation service,” I immediately was pulled back to fourth grade. One yellow playground ball and three adversaries, each in our own territory marked by raised yellow lines on the playground’s asphalt. Good times.

But it seems that playground games weren’t what they were talking about. Foursquare is a new application that allows you to broadcast where you are, all the time. It was a finalist for the 2010 South by Southwest Web Awards in the “mobile” category, the same event that Twitter took by storm back in 2007.

So what’s the point? According to their site, Foursquare is a way to “check-in,” and “[tell] us your whereabouts.” By “us,” I’m assuming they mean Foursquare and its users who are, hypothetically, your friends who are also using it. It continues by saying it’s a great way to tell people where you are and what you’re up to, so that your friends can tell you if there’s a cool spot nearby or so that they can walk over and say “whatup” if they aren’t too far away.

Unfortunately, the “us” described on the site could also mean burglars. According to this cautionary tale, a man who Tweeted that he was on a road trip and subsequently announced when he had arrived returned to find his house had been ransacked.

Another somewhat creepy side effect of tracking your whereabouts (and where you're likely to spend money) is that advertisers will have that information too. If someone knows that you frequent a certain store, they could try to sell you their shirts. If they know you're big on delis, they might be interested in selling you sandwiches (or checkered tablecloths).

All told, Foursquare is just another application intended to make our life easier, more convenient, or more interesting. But it could also lead to dependence and complications. Facebook provides some poignant lessons into social networking gone wrong, from Facebook addiction to making yourself vulnerable to punishment for your posts.

The jury is out on whether Foursquare will be the next "it" app, but if you want to give it a shot, you can at least be the gal or guy who was there before it got big.


In continuation of our Modern Money Managers series, I tested out ManageME7. Previously we have looked at others including Mint, moneyStrands, Microsoft Money, and Buxfer.

Finding an online tool to manage your money is a great way to promote financial responsibility and understand where your money is going. Finding the right one for you is the key. Especially if you're a student, you don't need to be dragging financial stress around with you on top of academics. With ManageME7 I wasn't completely satisfied, mostly because the free membership didn't offer the service I was looking for.

ManageME7's free membership offers the bare minimum. It's so bare you have to enter each transaction yourself for each account you have. It is time consuming, and I wasn't willing to take the time to enter transactions I made in my many accounts. If I was to use ManageME7, I would definitely need to upgrade to a paid membership costing between $7 and $10 a month.

I will say though, if you used their upgraded membership, ManageME7 would be a great asset to your financial success. With the upgraded membership you can simply import your bank statements and transactions are automatically updated. The dashboard is easy to read and use with the option of managing an unlimited number of accounts. A calendar allows you to track all of your transactions and to see your reminders. A neat attribute is that it allows you to enter your transactions in any currency you choose. If you plan on traveling out of the country that would be a big benefit. Plus it has a nifty calculator that sits up at the top and is available to use at any time. Another ManageMe7 perk is that you earn cash rewards by referring people to them. For every person you invite who signs up, you get 10% of the sign-up fee. With ManageME7, you can manage your entire budget, set up categories and even track all your monetary transactions in generated reports for a ready reference.

If you are willing to pay for a money manager, then this one is worth checking out. If you are only looking for a free membership, I suggest passing it up.


Remember the good old days when people dressed in suits, wore fedoras, smoked, and drank at work? Ya, me neither. The closest I've come to a situation like that is watching parts of Mad Men episodes set in the 1960s. That depiction of work may look old-fashioned, but there's something us snippersnappers may still have in common with those times: a 40-hour, in-office work week.

According to this NPR story: "U.S. labor laws are perfectly suited to 1960, says University of Minnesota sociologist Phyllis Moen. The 40-hour workweek and 9-to-5 workday were all codified in an era when men went off to an assembly line and women stayed home."

But as Bob Dylan--another relic of the bygone era--once sang, "The Times They Are A Changin.'" About half of U.S. companies, according to this report, offer flextime (flexible work hours) and some form of telecommuting (working outside the office). The necessity to be in the office at all times, appears to be, as MXPX once said, "slowly going the way of the buffalo."

The shift is happening because more families have both parents working, meaning flexible hours are a necessity for families trying to juggle work and home life, and because our generation has grown up with technology (i.e. laptops and cell phones) that make flextime and telecommuting work.

I happen to fit both the family and younger-generation demographics. I'm working from home right now because my wife is due with our first child today. Pre-labor started this weekend and my manager told me to stay with my wife and get my work done when I have a chance. Once the baby is born, I will also have some flextime. 

Changing work patterns can be a good thing. Drinking coffee from my own mug has its perks (pun intended). However, there is also added responsibility. With telecommuting, the pressure to produce and get the work done, shifts from management squarely on to my shoulders. I don't have anyone checking in to see what I'm doing. If the work doesn't get done, it means that I slacked off.

Telecommuting is becoming more common and is a nice benefit of modern society, but the age-old proverb still applies: "Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth."

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jensodegaard/ / CC BY-SA 2.0

My focused goal lately has been to pay off my credit card, and I've been looking for ways to supplement my income to do just that. I thought I'd share a few of the websites I've come across where you can make a buck.

Let me know of other websites where you can make a buck.

Lots of people think the U.S. is the biggest and baddest country in the world. But it's also known that China is becoming a more important player in the world marketplace, and recent data supports just that.

China just released figures showing that its exports increased 46% from Feb. 2009 to Feb. 2010, and its imports rose 45% since last year. Oh, and on top of that, it was the third consecutive month that Chinese exports increased, and it did so faster than it had in three years. Compare that to the 23% drop in imports the U.S. experienced in 2009.

There are other, less formal ways of knowing that China is up and coming, if not already "here." They recently overtook the U.S. as the world's largest automobile market last year, as total car sales eclipsed 13 million, up 45% from 2008. This was pretty much unthinkable even a few years back, as they only had 6 million personal cars on the road in 2000. By 2008, they had 20 million. They're also poised to take over the U.S. in total miles of expressways by 2020, with 53 million miles.

Need more proof? In 2008, there were 600 million mobile phone subscribers in China. That's about twice the population of the entire United States (307 million).

Any way you slice it, China is coming, whether we're ready or not: and most signs point to "not." After all, China holds $755 billion worth of U.S. Treasury securities, about a third of the $2.37 trillion of Treasury debt held by foreign owners. That means they hold more of our debt than the entire GDP's of Puerto Rico ($67 billion), Ecuador ($107 billion), Sweden ($333 billion), and Israel ($205 billion) combined. Just be thankful that calling in all of that debt isn't in their economic interests.



I have a bad habit that I need to quit: collecting parking tickets. Since I started attending Oregon State University I have paid more in parking tickets than it would have cost to get a parking pass. A student parking pass per term is $59 and a year-long pro-rated pass is $118. My habit even gets worse. When I worked in Eugene (a nearby town) this past summer I used to have to move my car every two hours to avoid fines. Inevitably, I accumulated multiple parking tickets.

I don't know why I have such a bad habit, but I'm wasting a lot of money that could be used towards other expenses. $100 equals not only what I pay a month in my utilities, but I could also pay off some debt or buy a ticket to San Francisco! If you need to kick the parking ticket habit too, there are easy ways to do so.

  • Buy a parking permit. Many cities have parking permits in school, business and residential areas. Don't rack up dollar after dollar on tickets, just pay for the parking permit! Plus it saves you the hassle of having to go and pay each ticket. (If you are like me you forget to pay and then have extra fees added to the bill!)
  • Find different ways to commute to work. Bus systems are widespread and students often ride free. If bussing isn't your thing, ride a bike: you save money, get exercise and reduce your carbon footprint. This gets two thumbs up from me.
  • Recruit a buddy. Find co-workers or fellow students and start riding together--the more the merrier. Pitch in on one parking permit and cut your expenses.

There are many benefits to these parking alternatives and if you suffer from an addiction to parking tickets (like me), your wallet will be sure to thank you when the bad habit is kicked to the curb.

Update: Between when I wrote this blog and it was published, I ran into even more trouble with the Transit and Parking Services at Oregon State. I returned to my car the other day after work to find a boot on one of my wheels. I really should have taken my own advice, or paid attention to the parking rules and regulations. After my meter time ran out my car was booted for having unpaid tickets. I had to sheepishly walk myself to parking services to pay up and get the boot removed. Total cost: $350. That's a whole month of rent! I need to buy a parking permit. 


Goldman Sachs (GS) has been in the news a lot lately and is one of Wall Street's biggest players. For the past few months I've followed coverage of GS to learn how Wall Street works--I believe understanding Wall Street is an integral part of understanding our current economy and the state of the nation. 

In short, GS is the most profitable investment bank in the world. For years, former GS employees have held--and currently hold--positions of incredible power in the U.S. government. Whether that relationship affects both GS' balance sheet and how our government makes financial decisions is covered in articles by PBS, Rolling Stone and The Times articles (read them).

Detractors, like Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone, paint GS as the world's most succesful con men and part of a group of "the nation's six largest banks—all committed to this balls-out, I drink your milkshake! strategy of flagrantly gorging themselves as America goes hungry." 

Supporters, as explained in this piece by The Times of London, portray GS as "the overachieving child of globalisation..."  with "...the big brains and brutal work ethic help[ing] to give Goldman the edge when it comes to snagging the best, and richest, clients." 

No matter which side you fall on, the fact remains that GS makes a ton of money and has a massive amount of influence in the world financial markets. Here are some key highlights:

  • GS posted a record profit of $13.4 billion in 2009, according to the PBS Newshour production Unraveling the Profit Puzzle at Goldman Sachs.
  • GS had 2009 net revenues of $45.1 billion with operating expenses of $25.3 billion, leaving a pre-tax earning of $19.8 billion. Of pre-tax earnings, $17.3 billion came from trading and principal investments, $1.2 billion from investment banking, and $1.3 billion from asset management and security services -- FORM 10K Annual Report for The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc.
  • GS' market cap is $85.66 billion (source).
  • 32,500 employees work at GS (source). The list of former employees who now work or have worked in the U.S. Government includes: "the treasury secretary under George [W.] Bush (Hank Paulson); the current president and former chairman of the New York Federal Reserve (William Dudley and Stephen Friedman); the chief of staff to the treasury secretary Timothy Geithner (Mark Patterson)... the past and current heads of the New York Stock Exchange (John Thain and Duncan Niederauer); the chief operating officer of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s enforcement division (Adam Storch)," according to The Times

Perhaps this quote from The Times sums up Goldman Sachs best: "For Blankfein [CEO of GS], in the end, it all comes down to one thing: finding the best, fastest, and safest way to make money with money, then make some more money, with money on top."

http://www.flickr.com/photos/22240293@N05/ / CC BY 2.0