Sunday, January 16, 2011

What would I do with a gift horse anyway?

When you work in a front-line administrative/customer-service oriented position, it's easy to feel under-appreciated now and again.

In my current position, I am often the first live person callers have been able to get through to after trying to navigate the labrynth of the school phone system or website. This means that as a rule, they're annoyed before I even have a chance to try to help them.

Heaven help me if they don't like what I have to say.

On the other hand, I've been told I should "go home every night to a husband who rubs my feet," (yes,please) that I'm "such an angel, you'll surely be present at the next birth of Jesus," (?) and other various and sundry sweet things from people grateful to have dealt with a friendly face or voice. These people make my day.

There is even the odd person who insists on buying me a coffee.

Then there's the guy who brought me a coat.

Apparently he owns a business purchasing overstocked items from companies and selling them in Africa or something, but I still felt pretty uncomfortable accepting such a substantial gift, especially as I barely did more than my job. He insisted, however, and as I couldn't think of a way to decline gracefully quickly enough, well, I added a ski jacket to my icy weather wardrobe.

I had hoped that would be the end of it, but recently this person popped by for some more information, and despite my protestations, promised to bring me a purse in return.

Sure enough, last week alongside the pens and sticky notes on my desk, was a new handbag.

Once again I was unable to dissuade this generosity, but I really don't feel like I can or should be accepting these gifts.

So what do you think? Is it ever all right to accept gifts at work, and if not, how do you decline without appearing ungrateful or offending the prospective giver?

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Barter Babes Project

With the exception of a lucky few, there is one thing that is a perpetual source of anxiety for young women (and men): money.

Unfortunately for 20-somethings, when it comes to getting the financial advice many of us desperately need, we are stymied by another 20-something: a Catch 22.

While we might be the demographic most in need of personalized budget counseling, we certainly can't afford it without the benefit of (oh, hey) budget counseling.

Enter Toronto's Certified Financial Planner with a heart of gold, Shannon Simmons.

I chatted with Simmons recently after a coworker raved about her. After hearing what she was up to, I had to meet her for myself.

While working at a high profile wealth management firm, Simmons noted the gap between the access to financial information available to her peers and the people she was helping on a day-to-day basis. "Hanging out with my friends I started noticing that money was coming up again and again. There was a lot of worry and people would say, 'Oh you're so lucky that you just know that stuff,' and I started realizing that I really am lucky to know this stuff because there is such a huge information gap. You can't really access that," she explains.

"There are investment and finance blogs, but they are intimidating and overwhelming even for me and I know my way around them, but I find it's just too much information."

And here is where things take a turn for the fantastic.

Rather than simply accepting this information gap, and this Catch 22 as inevitable, Simmons has decided to do something about it. To that end, she has thrown caution to gale force winds and set herself the daunting challenge of helping 300 young women get their finances on track through a little something she likes to call The Barter Babes Project.

The best part? In return for access to her wealth of financial knowledge and personalized advice, Simmons is accepting payment in the form of anything from lasagna to belly dancing lessons.

"I'm providing financial advice to young women starting out one barter at a time," she explains. "If I were to charge a fee, a lot of the people I want to help wouldn't be able to afford me and I would either be out of clients or they would be right back where they started."

Clients contact Simmons via her website, agree on the terms of the barter (which Simmons is extremely flexible on), and then provide Simmons with their financial information and goals to help them formulate a personalized plan using something called a money map which Simmons describes as "a customizable financial planning tool that's actually fairly basic but it's very telling and there's really important information that's there."

Along with this document, clients include their short and long-term goals and what they are hoping to get out of their session with Simmons, who than completes a full analysis based on the numbers and the goals she is given before meeting in person to go over the analysis together.

In dealing with the 20-something demographic, Simmons says a big challenge is helping people prioritize. "A lot of time people our age go 'I want to do this, this, this, this and this,' but our constraints are small because at this point in our lives our incomes are not as high as they will be in ten years and we're also struggling with debt," she notes.

"Sometimes you have people who don't want to pay the debt. they just want to travel. So what's the compromise there? And that's what you get meeting with someone face to face with an adviser versus going onto a blog."

According to Simmons, part of this challenge comes from the fact that this particular generation was given access to debt without being properly educated about the consequences of it.

"We're OK with our debt because -and I've actually done research on this- it seems to be age 24 where you go, 'Oh shit' and realize you're not going to get that $84000 job when you graduate, and if you want to move out of your parents' place you're going to have to sacrifice but what we do is we don't say 'OK, well I'm going to have to just live in this shitbox for a couple of years,' we go , 'you know what? I really want 800 sq. ft and my own balcony, so I'm going to do that.' because that's the lifestyle we're comfortable with," she explains.

"So that's where I like to come in and help, and provide some comfort that it's not all lost."

Providing that comfort is one more job for her money map. "I think a big thing is that people think 'Oh I'd only be able to save $50 a month, that's never going to do anything.' So on my money map I can say, look what that does...and then it provides motivation and that's the biggest thing that I want to provide," Simmons stresses.

Her golden rule? "Give yourself enough financial flexibility on a weekly basis for fun, and that's it."

While that might sound counter-intuitive to those trying to save money, Simmons likens having a fixed cost of living (ie, the things you can't live without: rent, car, etc.) that is too high to allow for any flexibility in your budget to someone on a lettuce only diet.

"When you see a pizza, you're going to binge," she sums up.

While Simmons' family and friends were immediately understanding of her ambitious plan to live off $35 a week and help 300 women rather than sticking with her rather comfortable former gig, Simmons laughs  when recalling the initial reaction of some coworkers.

"When I went to my office everyone was like 'what are you going to do for money?' First question. But then once I explained why and that I was only doing it for a year and that I was doing this because I feel like I can't stay here without doing it, then they were really supportive. So I have had support from everyone but there was definitely that initial jaw drop," she says. "People are like, why would you do this? The job market's tight, why are you leaving? And sometimes at 3:00 a.m. I'm like, "I don't know why!!!"

Still, Simmons is very obviously enjoying what she's doing. "I love working with this demographic. I do," she says. "There's something about coming in at the beginning and building that foundation and building a plan together that is way more exciting...There's just something about getting in the trenches and getting your hands dirty."

You might even say she wouldn't trade it for anything.

For more information about the Barter Babes Project, visit

Simmons barters on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the GTA and skypes with out-of-town Barter Babes.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year!

I survived my first Bikram class to ring in the new year with a lovely group of old and new friends. I hope you all had a chance to celebrate whichever way you like best. I have a feeling 2011 will be a good one!