on how much money uncle sam owes you
January 30, 2010, 4:11 pm
Filed under: advice, parenting | Tags: , , ,

Dear Spoonah,

I know that you are a money wise person, one who may be able to help me with a tax question, plus I trust you implicitly. I am filing as an employee this year. TONS of money was with held from my checks for tax purposes, its kind of exciting at this point. Is there a way I can calculate my refund based on those numbers and how many I claimed this year? Also is there a web site or other references I can use for deducting my truck and computer. Basically I want to know if I can see, even if its just a ball park, what my return might look like without actually filing.


taxation without representation

dear taxation without representation,

to answer your question in a word, yes! there are ways to calculate your refund without actually filing. Any of the major online tax filing sites (like TurboTax, or H&R Block) usually have some kind of estimator on them for free, with no obligation. One that seems really user-friendly is available here. It includes a section, also, for unreimbursed business expenses (such as your computer and truck).

this should be a good way to get an idea of your refund, but when you go to file, I highly suggest at least talking to a tax pro (there are lots of low-cost or free tax helpers for lower-income folks, check out this link for some in your area), since your taxes are getting a wee bit complicated (what with business expenses but filing as an employee, for instance). They can also suggest some ways that you can maximize future tax benefits given your unique situation of being an employee who has business expenses.

happy happy filing (I love tax season)! and when you get that refund, check this out!

sweet tax dreams,



on giving discounts to friends
January 22, 2010, 2:44 pm
Filed under: advice, career | Tags: , , , , , ,

Dear Spoonah,

I’m a freelance artist who does both personal and commercial work. I often have friends approach me asking if I’m interested in doing some work for them. As much as I love my friends, I dread getting these requests because a lot of people who aren’t familiar with my skills/industry assume I charge much less than I’m worth, and seem surprised at my costs. Of course I love doing what I do, but I’m trying to make a living here! I also have costs for my equipment, transportation, marketing, etc, and that doesn’t even include the actual labor. When I give friends discounts, I eat a lot of those costs.

When a friend is interested in hiring me, I always give a discount, but also explain what my usual rate is and what it covers, so they understand the deal they’re getting. My problem is that very rarely do people ever follow through once I quote them a rate. I’ve had a few great gigs working for friends, but mostly I find myself in one of these scenarios:
a) spending large amounts of time quoting and explaining rates to friends who never end up hiring me
b) working for almost nothing just to avoid awkwardness with someone who doesn’t really understand what my skills are worth
c) not doing my best quality work, because I’m rushing or cutting corners so I don’t lose money one the job

I know I charge a fair rate compared to colleagues, and the discounts I offer friends are HUGE (I probably overcompensate). I don’t want to undersell myself, but I would love the additional work or just an easier way to deal with the potential awkwardness of financial negotiation between friends.

Do you have advice on explaining costs and offering discounts to friends of yours when they hire you? And on the flip side, what you should do or expect for a discount if you’re hiring a friend? Also, do you have to offer discounts to EVERYONE you know? Does a mere acquaintance or a friend-of-a-friend count as discount-worthy? Thanks!


Rich in Friends But Broke in Business

dear rich in friends,

this is quite the conundrum, and one I’m sure a lot of people run into. I know I run into it sometimes when hiring friends and when doing things for or selling things to friends (or even just really friendly acquaintances). I do a lot of crafting and frequently get “hey can you make me one of those? I’ll pay you!” requests. the hard part, of course, is telling them that if they really want to pay me to make them X, it’s going to cost probably two or three times what they could buy it for at Target. I also do petsitting and dogwalking for work (and have for 10+ years) and sometimes get requests to do labor-intensive pet care for free because I’m a pal. it’s one thing if it’s a good friend, or you just need someone to look in on your cat a few times. it’s quite another to watch your aging dog with IBS for a week while you’re away and walk him every four hours–that’s a service a client of mine would pay upwards of $400-500 for.

being hired by friends

I think there are a few ways to combat this. the first and possibly most useful is to make a concerted effort to have your friends see you as a professional artist, and not just as someone who is good at it and who sometimes gets paid for it. invite them to your professional shows, maybe talk up how expensive your equipment is, give them business cards, etc. I know that I’m a lot more likely to approach hiring a friend who I think of as “just starting out” or doing that thing casually than I am friends who I think of as making a living doing something. personally, I make a point of referring to the people whose dogs I walk or whose pets I care for as “clients”, for instance, and to the actual work as a job. I used to get a lot more long-term petsitting gigs from friends and family before I did that, but I also used to get paid about 1/10th what I do now, doing the same work.

I think it’s also helpful to hire your friends for professional work and pay a fair price for it. that has the added bonus of getting you potential clients (who will likely pay fairly) as well as letting your friend circle know that you believe in supporting your friends with actual real money, not just emotional support.

a third option might be to have some kind of documentation (on your website, or a brochure, or something along those lines) that show your actual non-discounted rates and let them know if you’re able to give them a discount but don’t initially tell them what that will be. if they start with your regular rates, perhaps they will offer you a higher rate than you would have given them. I’d suggest if someone says “hey I’m looking to hire someone for this project/event/whatever” say “that sounds great, I’d be interested in talking to you more about it. my rate is $X, though I’m willing to give a 10% discount to selected friends. If that sounds like it fits in your budget we can talk further about what you’re looking for.” that way you don’t spend a lot of time talking about things that won’t pan out, and they know what’s up right away.

hiring your friends

I also have a number of super talented wonderful friends whose professional services sometimes I want to hire. this is a problem since even if I wanted to pay them a lot I often can’t, and they often know that. as a result I end up not hiring friends as often as I’d like, out of a respect for the fact that I don’t want them undercutting their prices just because they like me. when I do hire friends what I try to do is ask them what their actual costs are, and making sure I am paying them at least enough to cover those plus at least some labor expense. it also helps to tip. other things I do are to recommend them to other people (including people that aren’t friends of theirs and would therefore pay full price), use them frequently (if it’s the kind of service that it would be helpful to raise their profit margin on me to do it a lot), and generally treat this person like they are doing me a big favor to give me that discount. on a fairly regular basis, I hire a friend to cut my hair, another friend to do my laundry (someone who loves doing laundry), and occasionally I hire friends to do things like give me massages, run errands for me, or do whatever it is that they do for work or pleasure. I love so much to hire my friends that sometimes I pay friends to hang out with me while I run errands or clean my house. I hope to someday have all of my products and services provided by friends–the super-local economy. but as you know, the only way for that to be sustainable is for it to be done fairly.

oh–and NO you don’t need to give a discount to everyone! give discounts to close friends, or to whomever you please. there is no sign on your door that says “if we’ve met you get 20% off”. good friends won’t expect a big discount anyway, or will understand whatever you’re able to offer them.

ok, sorry that was such a long response. here’s hopin it helps!


on what to do with your tax return
January 18, 2010, 4:22 pm
Filed under: advice, financial | Tags: , , , , , , ,

dear spoonah,

it’s tax season. i’m getting scores of w-2s and other letter/number combinations of forms that i don’t understand. it would normally be frustrating, but i manage to stay un-stressed based on the possibility of getting a large return. so let’s just theoretically say that happens, and i end up with a pretty reasonable check from the government. do i:

a) buy those boots i’ve been wanting for oh-so-long?
b) finally purchase that sex toy i’ve been eyeing since aught seven?
c) follow my thrifty instincts, put it all into savings, and try to forget about it until an emergency comes up?
d) spoonah’s choice

please guide me. i am lost, bewildered, and need to be spoon(ah)ed.

in christ,

broke but eager, in portland.

dear broke but eager,

the answer to this is going to vary based on a few factors. namely, how much you get back and how much these things cost. according to the IRS website, the average personal tax refund was $2,345. however, the average American filing tax returns is (and I am just guessing here) married, with children, and has a family income of $50,233.00 (in 2007, via wikipedia). since you have not indicated that you are either (and since I know for a fact that you are neither) your tax refund is probably going to be pretty different (read: lower). I couldn’t find a lot about average tax refunds for single people with lower incomes and no children, but an article from 2005 by Intuit states that the average refund for people between the ages of 18-24 is $900. so let’s assume we’re working with somewhere around $1000, shall we?

I would like to think (but do not know) that neither the boots you want or the sex toy you want cost anywhere near $1000. if that is true, and you’ve been pining after them for years, then by all means, go at it. another thing I know about you (not included in your letter) is that you are an exceptionally hard worker, so you should learn to treat yourself. let’s say that between the two of them you spend, say, $300. that leaves you with $700 left to put in savings, pay off debt, or shred and bathe in. up to you.

but spoonah, you say. how do I know whether to pay off debt or put it in savings?

a good rule of thumb is this. if you have no savings and some (or a lot) of debt: take the first $500 you have beyond daily expenses and put it into an emergency fund. use the rest on debt. $500 is the smallest emergency fund I am comfortable recommending, though I feel a lot better about $1000 or more. However, since interest rates are such shit right now for deposit accounts, you’re undoubtedly better off clearing out some debt that you’re paying more interest on. especially if they are credit cards that you can then have available in case of a serious emergency.

happy spending!


on blogging and not offending people
January 9, 2010, 5:24 pm
Filed under: advice | Tags: , , ,

Dear Spoonah,

Love the site, from the nickname all the way to the gnome in his union suit. But lets talk about my favorite topic-me.

So I have a dream of being JPs foremost “celebrity” (I guess I could just follow ATKM around) blogger and I am the proud founder of the JPTattler as well as its blog, JustProcessing02130 (this site is just where I vent).
Anyway spoonah, my point is this, how do I create these blogs in a respectful way as to not offend, who am I kidding-I just want to gossip publicly and still have friends. suggestions?


the JP Tattler

dear tattler,

first let me say that I am glad you are enjoying the site. I pretty much just started it because I like hearing myself talk, but it’s important that other people like hearing me talk too, you know?

in thinking about an answer to your predicament I did a little googling. ah, googling, what did we do before thee? I found an article written by funny, funny blogger Penelope Trunk. It’s called “How To Blog About a Co-Worker (or Someone Close to You)”. I think it will be a good reference for you (she also has a lot of other great articles about how to make the most of blogging, and has humorous blunt thoughts about it).

Basically, what she says is this: be upfront about what you’re doing and allow people to tell you when to stop. Don’t be anonymous about it (your own name, that is–feel free to change theirs), tell people when you blog about them if you’re close to them, and let them know they have veto power. She also mentions knowing what is appropriate to mention and what is not–a fine line if there ever was one. You’re on your own there. Last, she suggests blogging about people who are already confident and likely to let your gossip-mongering roll off their backs without a second thought.

I have but one substantial point to add: get used to hate mail/comments. you will get them, they won’t be pretty, but unless they come from a friend they really don’t matter. as an example, this site has been up for all of about three days and I’ve already received criticism from several different people on it, for crap I don’t really care about. my other blog once had a post (about me getting a haircut at Wal-Mart because I’m a cheap kinda gal) make it onto reddit, instantly giving me approximately 150x more daily readers than I’d had previously. they hated me and thought I was an idiot. I got 40 comments saying exactly that, in various levels of mean-ness, in 24 hours of it being posted on reddit. after about 3 or 4 calling you a moron, loudly and strongly, you better get used to it, or get out of blogging.

in summary: the problem with blogging about anything is you are saying “here I am, and I know best about X”. inevitably, if you have any readers at all, people will disagree with you. you have two options. number one is to just suck it up and say this is what I’m doing and I’ll mitigate the pain from that as much as I can and just keep on goin’. option two is to just not blog at all. that’s up to you. I clearly prefer blogging in the face of disagreement, but I also have an unhealthy attachment to having an audience for what I think is my super clever wit.

on a personal level, I’d be interested in reading the JP Tattler, so I say blog away. just not about me. 🙂

on traumatizing your tween
January 6, 2010, 9:14 pm
Filed under: advice, parenting | Tags: , , , , , ,

Dear Spoonah,

I’m a mom of a 12 year old girl, and I want her to grow up feeling empowered and in control of her sexuality.  So I have been planning to buy her a vibrator so she doesn’t feel like she has to have risky (or pregnancy-inducing) behavior to feel sexual.  My question is: at what age do you think I should get her one?  And is there a way that I can give it to her without it being totally traumatizing?

Sign me,

Preteen Progenitor in Portland

dear progenitor,

I have a few things to suggest concerning this question but if you hear only one of them, let it be this.  do not give your daughter a vibrator.  do not do it now or then, do not do it here nor there.  do not do it in a house, do not do it in the shape of a mouse. do not give it in a box, do not give it like a fox.  you will absolutely traumatize her if you give her a sex toy no matter how old she is or how cool and hip you are or how close you are with her.

that being said, I think there are ways that you can help her feel comfortable, empowered, and in control of her sexuality.  the key here is that if you want her to feel empowered and in control, then she needs to be the one making the moves.  if she feels like you are acknowledging her budding sexuality, then all she is going to think about is that you have sexuality and that is just going to gross her out and make her withdraw.  if, however, she feels like she is discovering these things on her own in an environment where discovery and learning and growth are encouraged, then she will naturally feel empowered and in control.

here is what I suggest:  if you haven’t already, or even if you have, talk to her about sexuality.  I’d say try not to make it super formal because that will just make it look like you’re not comfortable with it either (as she certainly isn’t).  talk to her about sex and masturbation and maybe give her a book that has some information on exploring her new sexual feelings.  I would say don’t give her a book that is all “here’s how to have a lot of fun touching yourself” but more as a part of a whole “changing body” kind of thing.  I’d also keep having that conversation every time there is an opportunity.  when sex is on TV or movies, when her friends talk about it, that kind of thing.  she is at an age where she is still looking to you for what to do and how to act, so if you are empowered, comfortable, and in control of your sexuality, then she will be too.  just don’t tell her about how much play you’re getting or she’s going to puke.

the main thing is that right now, you’re probably more nervous about having this talk than she is.   she probably has a lot of questions and you’re who she knows as the best answer-giver.  if you give her a vibrator, though, she is going to think of you as a weirdo mom and talk to her friends big sister or something who is like 15 and is not going to give her the advice you would.

if you’re totally set on getting her a vibrator…I’d spend the next two years or so talking to her about sex and healthy sexuality and then maybe talk to her about if she is interested in exploring it any further in a non-partner-sex kind of way.  maybe she has a cool young aunt who can take her to Nomia.  Maybe you can just get her a $20 visa gift card and unlock the NetNanny for a weekend and tell her to “see what comes to her.”  perhaps you can drop hints that when you buy sex toys online they come in unmarked packages so no one would ever know what she bought.  you get the idea.

the key to empowering other people is to create a safe space where empowered people (i.e. you) are seen as cool and in control and like role models.  I suspect you’re already doing that.  keep it up, and good luck!

on gnomes
January 6, 2010, 11:23 am
Filed under: random | Tags: ,

dear spoonah,

what’s with the gnomes?


confused in Pittsburgh

dear confused,

the gnomes are pretty friggin’ great, no? they’re from maine.

cordially yours,


on college
January 5, 2010, 10:52 pm
Filed under: advice, career | Tags: , ,

dear spoonah,

I am a pretty smart person but am not sure what I want to do with my life. my parents and friends all think I should go to college .  what do you think?


pretty smart person in atlanta

dear pretty smart,

I guess my advice to you is “no, don’t go to college.”  I recommend college under two circumstances: you are going to college because you are really really sure you want to be a _____ (nurse, teacher, accountant, whatever) and you can’t do that thing without having gone to college first.  the other situation is that someone else is paying for college.

If you are like totally sure that you want to be a nurse, for instance, then go to college.  you basically can’t be a nurse any other way.  but be totally sure because if you take out a bunch of loans and go to school to be a nurse and then are like WHOOPS I WANT TO BE A PHILOSOPHER guess what? you’re not going to be a philosopher, and you are going to have to pay those loans back anyway.  believe me, I majored in sociology.  I love sociology, but how many people do you know whose job title is “sociologist”?

On the other hand, if someone else is footing the bill (parents, grants, work, or any other *free* money–loans do not count), then by all means.  go to college.  personally I loved college even when it was terrible and dramatic and I didn’t get a job after.  or at least not a good one.  college is a fantastic place to figure out who you are and what you like and don’t like, what you’re good at and bad at, and how much alcohol you can drink in 24 hours without having to call an ambulance.  It is good for teaching you to finish semi-long term projects, how to do things that matter, whatever.  I got really involved in social activism in a way that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.  I learned a lot about life and I use those skills in work situations (and now, in grad school).  but unless you’re not paying for college or going to a fantastic school, or going for something that is very likely to get you a job, it’s just a really expensive time out.

so, pretty smart, I’d say get a job, see what you do and do not like about it, change jobs, rinse and repeat.  It’s common for young people to change jobs a lot even if they’re not in school so this shouldn’t look too sketchy, especially if you are able to say that you were taking time to find the perfect job and learn about yourself.  you can always go to college later, if you feel like having $30-100K in debt and the same job you could have gotten out of high school.