Friday, May 8, 2015

Little Animal Instincts

When I was in 13 and in the 8th grade, there wasn't an episode of Pokemon I would miss.  I had a Nano Pet, a Giga Pet and a Tamogotchi.  The classmates I had were the same 40-ish or so classmates I had since kindergarten as we had all gone to a private Christian school.  I also had a really pretty red spaghetti strap velvet dress styled a la 90s.  I would pair it with a white mesh overlay that had a feather maribou trimming that made me feel really pretty, girly and glamorous.  I was lanky and thought nothing more of this outfit other than these things.

I wore it once to an 8th grade mixer (our Christian school didn't allow dances) and then I wore this to a Vietnamese wedding reception one night with my family.  It was the typical Asian wedding with the 8-12 family styled course meals served on top of a spinning tabletop so everyone at the round table could get their share without having to reach over or ask someone to pass it over.  Everyone was having a jolly good time and I just hung out with my sister and other kids my age if I wasn't obligated to sit at the table with the family.

Some time in the middle of the night, I noticed two older Latino men working in the kitchen peek out and look at me constantly.  At first it was just one guy, but I guess he must've told his friend because then the both of them would talk to one another and I had the feeling that it was about me.  I couldn't avoid their stares from where I was sitting with my family.  I still remember how far they were from me and it was about 20 feet or so.  I felt weird but I wasn't sure what to make of it yet.

When we were finally able to move around the restaurant after speeches, they tried to get my attention.  One winked, while the other made a "come here" gesture with his hands towards the kitchen door, as if they wanted me to come into the back with them.  In that very moment, I felt bad about myself and I felt scared.  When you're young, you don't have an extensive bank of vocab to fully explain how you feel.  But "bad" and "scared" were simple enough for any child to easily pinpoint.  I ignored them and pretended that I didn't see them as I scurried deeper into the party's dance floor so I could blend in with the guests.

After the wedding was over, and my family drove home, I threw the dress and my maribou trimmed cardigan into the corner of my closet, hated them, and never wore them again.

I never told anyone and I also never wanted to remember that particular moment of my life.  I wasn't sure if it was something you would anyways.  We didn't have Olivia Benson back then.  And so I didn't.  For over more than a decade even.

And yet, I don't know why all of a sudden, that dormant memory has decided to awaken itself recently.  I cried for that Isabelle.  I cry because as an adult, reaching to that stage where my friends are getting married and having their own children, I can now explain what that young Isabelle had felt.

I felt...creeped out,
disgusted and disgusting,
angry at myself,
objectified and


Their efforts, lustful. 
I felt like older, rather than the child that I was.
But more than anything, I felt violated.
Not just violated, but sexually violated and like some sort of little animal.

I was the prey.  They, the predators.  The kitchen, their wilderness.

Something frightening could have happened that night.  But even little animals have instincts.  And although I was unable to fully comprehend the situation, my instincts kicked in to stay away.

That Isabelle has grown up but there's parts of her that still remain with me today.  I know, because she's still the same one that keeps me safe.  Part of me wants to make this lead into my thoughts on women's issues.  Because let's face it, this  SHIT  happens all the time.  More of us deny it and will blame the victim than to really accept and understand it.  The other part of me just wants to keep it as a reflection, meant to be shared and taken in.

I'm still trying to understand what I need to know from this memory.  Maybe there's a reason why I'm supposed to remember it now.

Or maybe, it's meant for someone else out there.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Being compared to Kathy Uyen.

Like most college students, I didn't know what the hell I wanted to know, for life.  I kind of did.  But really, I didn't.  I just knew that I had to be creative and somewhere in the entertainment industry.  I didn't know where exactly, but I knew.  The only thing that would cause me more uncertainty of it were my parents.   But that's a whole 'nother story all together.

So I applied for every internship I could think of. 
Including ones that weren't even looking for interns. 

VAX TV was one of them.  Vietnamese American Xposure was an MTV styled program on SaigonTV just trying to live up to its name.  It seemed promising and I wanted to be a part of it.

I got a quick reply back from a guy (whose name I wish I could remember) who told me that I should come down to the studio, check out an episode taping and we would take it from there.  I was thrilled.  This is 2004, mind you.  I wouldn't start modeling for another 2 years.  So the closest thing I had been to any sort of shoot was as an audience member for the Friends' spinoff Joey.  I still have a t-shirt from that taping by the way.  I'm also trying to ebay it, ha.

I drove myself down to Little Saigon, and it was a small studio now that I think about it.  But at the time, it was a large intimidating space, filled with a bunch of people I didn't know.  I remembered stepping in and no one even took notice of me.  No one even realized that the door had opened.  I seriously could've been a real life villain of some sort and still, no one would have turned around to see who just came through.  But at the same time, I didn't expect them to either.  I was so awkward and shy and had no idea what to do, especially in that moment.  I barely knew what the word "networking" entailed but I wanted to so badly, try.

I secretly hoped that guy (whose name I wish I could remember) would emerge out from the corner with wide open arms and exclaim, "You must be Isabelle!  So glad you could make it!" followed by him enthusiastically introducing me to people, "This is Isabelle, she might be interning with us soon."  And I would be all smiles, completely energized by the idea with working all of these movers and shakers.

But no, that didn't really happen.  Instead, everyone was completely zoned in on one person.  Because I was standing from a distance, she wasn't immediately stunning.  But there was definitely a beautiful charisma about her.  They weren't shooting.  It looked like they just finished actually.  Damn, I missed it.  She was now in the middle of a conversation with someone while everyone watched.  She had these patient, receptive nods accompanied by pretty smiles and animated hand gestures.  She was set against the backdrop with all of the lights shining on her.  By default, it made the rest of the place dark, making me feel even smaller than I should've felt.

And her name?  Kathy Uyen.

I didn't officially get to meet her that night.  But that was the moment I officially knew of her.  I had to ask around to find the guy (whose name I wish I could remember).  And when I did, he seemed to have forgotten that he had invited me to come that day.  I believe his response was something along the lines of, "Ohhhhhh, yessssss, that's right.  Isabelle.  You wanted to intern right?  Sorry, we're so swamped, but feel free to check out what we're all about and you can go when you need to."  He introduced me to a few people, who all seemed preoccupied with something.  One guy barely even looked up at me from his papers.  And then finally he casually introduced Kathy to me from a distance.  "Do you know Kathy Uyen?  She's one of our hosts."
I shook my head.

(The other host was Joey Nguyen.  I didn't see him that night but funnily enough, I would later cross paths with him and work with him even)

Then the guy (whose name I wish I could remember) kind of just left me be and I remember just standing in the midst of it all.  I'm cringing at the thought of how awkward I felt. Everyone would breeze by me with something to do while I stood there for what felt like honestly, half an hour.  Looking back, it easily could have been 5 minutes though.  I didn't know how to start a conversation with these people that I wanted to work with.  I also didn't want to interrupt or intrude and was afraid to just step into a conversation and act like I was part of the group.

I didn't feel like I was a part of the group.  But if I could go back to that 2004 Isabelle, I would tell her that you let yourself feel that way -- so, don't.

But until time travel is fully understood and invented, that can't happen.  So I left.  Quietly.  Just as quietly as I had came in.  Just as no one had noticed me come in, no one noticed me go out.  I felt so embarrassed that I didn't make a bigger impression on...anyone, including myself.

Very shortly after though, I wouldn't be able to intern with VAX anyways because the show got cancelled.  They had done a story about a guy who refused to take down a photo of Ho Chi Minh at his workplace and pretty much the older folks of Little Saigon protested how communist images were broadcasted.  VAX kept their neutral stance on the story, but in my opinion, the public was being unreasonable and accused them of being communist for even doing such a thing.  They were too ahead of their time.

But Kathy's name continued to pop up in my life.  She was well known in the Vietnamese community for her acting and hosting work and I had to google her.  Turns out she was also from San Jose and also came down to Orange County for college.

I ended up getting internships with some pretty amazing places.  From Paws for Style (a fashion show for celebrities and their pets) to 13 Minutes Magazine (which later on, I ended up modeling for even) to well-known entertainment conglomerates like Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon and E!
Overtime, I broke out of my networking shell and learned how to work the room, meet new people and take matters into my own hands.  I also learned that I wanted to do it all and how to admit that I wanted to be in front of the camera more so than behind it.  I wanted to write.  And won a magazine cover contest because of that want along with a lot of love and supportive friends who voted for me.  That's when I got a taste of being a model.  Sure, it was creative but it wasn't exactly entertainment.  However, it was a start.  I remembered thinking to myself that this could be my foot in the door.  That I could work my way up to it.

My modeling took me places.  Like, physically took me places.  I was getting rejected all over in LA but then I got a contract in Thailand.  And from there, I worked all over Asia as a model and decided to make a move to Vietnam where I stayed for 3 years.

Kathy Uyen had moved to Vietnam too.  She had piqued Vietnamese audiences' interest with her supporting lead role in Chuyện Tình Xa Xứ (Passport to Love) and so it must've been a career choice to go there.

I remember talking to one of my friends who was working on the movie Để Mai Tính (Fool for Love) and how they initially wanted another actress for the lead role.  For some reason it didn't work out, and they gave the part to Kathy instead.  From what I heard, they rewrote the script to accommodate her Việt Kiều accent. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the term "Việt Kiều" (sometimes abbreviated as VK or VQ), it refers to Vietnamese people who are born outside of Vietnam or have lived abroad for a long period of time.  The majority of VK have imperfect Vietnamese because of cultural assimilation.

Because Vietnamese was my first language, my English was pretty fobby.  I had kids call me retarded because of it.  I had to take intense ESL classes when I was 6 and soon enough I had a perfect American accent in my English, and my Vietnamese became diluted.  The Việt Kiều are forgiving when it comes to our generation's Americanized accent within our mother tongue, but the local Vietnamese can be so cruel.

I have had my fair share of insults from my own people when it came to how broken my Vietnamese sounded.  It was pretty elementary because the only people I conversed with were my parents.  And of course they would speak to me as a child because, well, I was their child.  It wasn't until I was completely immersed in Vietnam where I started to pick up more vocabulary because I had local friends that were my age.

I slowly improved but I also came to accept that my Americanized Việt Kiều accent was very much part of me.  When I first moved to Vietnam, everyone I met would always tell me, "You sound just like Kathy Uyen!"  And then later on, when her Vietnamese had improved, "You sound just like Kathy Uyen when she first moved here!"  If I didn't get the "you sound like her", it was a "you look like her!"  And it was easy to why people made the comparisons.  Both her and I were Việt Kiều girls born and raised from California, who then moved to Vietnam, and had the same accented Vietnamese while working in showbiz. 

Generally, people didn't know what to do with us.  There were a few people who would love my accent and thought it was "so cute", but there were more who made me feel bad about it.  Being VK was exotic but at the same time, you had these expectations to still be very much so Vietnamese to the roots.  In fact, there would be other Vietnamese celebs who claimed they were VK from other countries, but really, they had spent maybe a few years abroad and came back to Vietnam and were just re-branding themselves as such.  They still had perfect Vietnamese.  No one ever insulted them for it. 

But Kathy and I...well, the way people spoke about us made it seem like we were wannabes.  I've gotten spiels to the effect of how I couldn't make it in the States, so I'm trying to make it out in Vietnam where it's easier.  Which by the way, couldn't have been more untrue.

Later, as time would have it, a few other Việt Kiều girls would come along and try the same but Kathy really was the pioneer for us.  She made it seem easy.  I'll confess, a part of me did envy her at times because she seemed like she was always ahead of the game.  I think Kathy and I could have been even better friends.  But that awkward 2004 Isabelle from that VAX studio always stepped in.  And maybe, subconsciously, I kept a distance because I didn't want to be compared to her.  I wanted to be known for...well...just being me.

The biggest difference between us though was that she was a legitimate actress while I was known as a model who kind of just fell into acting.  It was bound to happen though, I think.  It was my third year in Vietnam and my good friend Nathan Lee got me a casting for an upcoming soap opera action series.  (Yes, there is such a thing apparently).  I barely knew what it was about, who was involved, and what I was about to get myself into.  All I knew was I'll take pretty much anything and everything when it came to modeling, hosting and acting.  I was hungry for it.  Figuratively and literally speaking.  Much like it would have been in LA, there were days I just wasn't sure when the next gig or paycheck was.  Thank goodness for 25 cent bánh mì sandwiches. 

I went in at 4 pm for the casting and by 6 pm, they called me and told me that I got the part.  It was for the lead role for Nữ Vệ Sĩ (Female Bodyguard) and I would be...tah dah, the female bodyguard.  The 40 episodes were slated for 2 months of filming (it actually ended up being 6 months) and we started production the very next day.  I couldn't believe it, I just snagged a huge role -- just like that.  Never mind that they had two other girls for the same role before me and were fired-- I was just beyond excited because finally I had a big project to look forward to.  Finally, whenever someone asked me what I was up to lately, I could spit out this and people would be satisfied with that answer.
At one point, Kathy got to be one of these people who asked what I was up to.  I can't remember whether she was the one who told me or perhaps, I heard it through the grapevine, but I had found out that they had considered Kathy for the role as well.  To the point where I think they may have even offered it to her, but she passed up on it instead.

My heart fell.  I couldn't comprehend why at the time.  But writing all this out, I can explain it now.  A lot of it had to do with my pride.  I felt like I was always going to be second in line after Kathy.  And although I ended up with the role, I did feel a tinge of jealousy that Kathy was a big enough star to be able to turn down projects.  I didn't earn that luxury yet.  Để Mai Tính had become a blockbuster hit in 2010 and I would always hear the name Kathy Uyen with it.  (They even had a sequel, but she wasn't in it because it was more of a spinoff).  It was around 2011 though, and press-wise, it was quiet for Kathy.  I asked her what she was up to lately and she tells me that she's writing a script.  And that she would be the lead role.

I was absolutely impressed.  But I was also upset with myself.  Writing is my first love before everything and here I was, with nothing to show for it while Kathy took action.  Kathy revealing her script was just one sign among many others that pushed me to write again.  So I applied for the Stegner Fellowship at the end of 2011, Stanford's exclusive creative writing program.  Just to reiterate how exclusive their program is, only 10 people are accepted - no matter how many people apply.  They get about 2000+ applications every year.  I might as well have tried for their undergraduate program.  But I wanted to write.  And I wanted to be validated by the greats.  Only five people knew about my application.  I never told any more than that, in case I failed.  If I could go back in time, I would bop past Isabelle on the head because it was an oxymoron kind of mindset.

After I turned in my application, I flew to Singapore for a month to film the competition reality show Supermodel Me.  I didn't win.  When I returned to Vietnam, I felt more lost than ever in my life for a lot of reasons, including financially.  It was January 2012 and I literally just woke up with, "Fuck it.  I'm moving back to LA."  Booked my ticket and left Vietnam in 7 days.  I left so prematurely that my show Nữ Vệ Sĩ didn't even finished airing.  I didn't even really announce my leaving after living there for 3 years.  I was so fed up with myself, Vietnam, who I had become, what little I had and just had to get out of there.  I was so selfishly preoccupied with my failures and losses that I didn't even really see that people were starting to recognize me from the show.  Even the Lunch Lady, famed from Anthony Bourdain's show, asked to take a photo with me.  Yeah.  That was a high moment for me because let's face it, her food is pretty legit.

You'll hear me call 2012 a dark year for me for a multitude of reasons.  A few of them included having over $20,000 in debt (student loans and credit card).   I had to go back to doing non-union extra work in LA.  I had no car.  I stayed with my friend's family because I had no idea where else to live, let alone what to do in life now.  I wasn't in Vietnam to reap all the publicity and everything I had worked so hard for Nữ Vệ Sĩ. My best friend, and longtime roommate, Brittany had moved to Australia.  I had received my rejection letter from the Stegner Fellowship.  And I had to start all over again.  I'm used to starting over but this was the mother of them all.  Some of the models I had modeled with BEFORE I left for Asia were now far into their acting careers while I was away.  One of them even starred opposite of Justin Timberlake.  I couldn't help but wonder, where would I be now if I never left for Asia.  But then I also wondered, where would I be, if I never moved back to LA.  It took me awhile, but I realized that I was just beating myself up so damn hard.

But it all worked itself out, as it always does and always will in life.  I'm now down to $4,800 in debt (just student loans), with my goal of paying it completely off by this June.  I still do extra work here and there but only for really good rates -- otherwise, I've been booking pretty well, including principal roles, for commercials and various projects.  Thanks to a recent mishap, I have a Prius now.  Brittany now also lives in California.  I live happily with Dennis, who I've been with for 3 years now and who I recently embarked on an incredible adventure with for CBS The Amazing Race.  And I plan on reapplying for the Stegner Fellowship again; but better yet, I just plan on writing more.
Kathy's script ended up becoming the film How to Fight In Six Inch Heels (Âm Mưu Giày Gót Nhọn) and received commercial success and awards.

It recently made its way here in the US and I went to go see the premiere in Orange County with Brittany and her boyfriend Allen.  Kathy was pulled in different directions throughout the event.  There was no shortage of people wanting to get a photo with the woman of the hour.  She's immediately stunning.  She wore a high low crimson red trench dress that went finely well with her high low bobbed hair and ruby red lips.  If you weren't taking a photo with her, you were watching her.  She still had glowing charisma about her and she stood out so beautifully.  I felt like I was in that VAX studio all over again.  Not in the insecure, awkward 2004 Isabelle way, but more like I got to be a part of the crew that admired her so.  Her script came to fruition and she's more than deserving to soak up all of its success.

While waiting at the event, I stood with Suboi.  A famed Vietnamese rapper who I used to manage for some time while I lived in Vietnam.  She's always been successful from her own right.  As of late though, she's had her own major breakthrough success, including a performance at SXSW, and she had her share of fans asking to take photos with her at the premiere.  I felt...happy for everyone.  More than happy.  I felt proud.  Proud to even know such ambitious and talented people.

Kathy spotted me from the step and repeat and waved at me while mouthing a "Hi!" It's a funny thing to think, but I thought, "Oh wow, she remembers me?" Sure, we're Facebook friends and we've talked here and there while we were in Vietnam.  But we've never hung out one-on-one and it had been 3 years since I last saw her.  When she finally had a nanosecond of a chance, Kathy came up to me with a big hug and asked how I was doing and how The Amazing Race was.  I felt flattered that she even knew what I was up to.  We could only catch up for a few before she was rushed off into the theaters for her premiere.

The movie itself was, hands down, amazingly entertaining.  Not just as a Vietnamese film, but just as a movie it was good.  I was thoroughly impressed.  And I'm really not just saying this.  I'll be honest, with Vietnamese movies, I will always find something cringeworthy.  Even with my own soap opera.  Usually it'll be the blatant product placement, unfinished story lines, poor character development, cheesy lines, cheesy plot and/or cheesy acting.  How to Fight in Six Inch Heels had none of that.  NONE.  Sure, they had product placement, but they were placed appropriately and subtly.  I still see mainstream American movies do a sham job of this.  Kathy's acting was even better than I remembered and her Vietnamese was perfect.  She may have the accent still, but that doesn't mean it was any less perfect. 

And the craziest part?  I felt like I could relate to a lot of it.  From Kathy's character Anne who thinks she has her whole life planned out to a Vietnamese girl proclaiming her love of Anne's Việt Kiều accent to one of the models confessing that she feels like modeling has its expiration date.  Kathy did an amazing job of putting everything together.  Brittany, who sat next to me, did plenty of film production in Vietnam.  She and I gushed on about how blown away we were by it.  And to think, I still remember the day she told me that she was writing the script.

The after party took place at R3 and there were plenty of old run-ins there.  I wasn't planning on staying for long from the get go.  Heck, I wasn't even planning on going to the after party.  The only reason why I went was because Suboi was going to perform and I wanted to watch.  She has grown so much as an artist and it was really awesome to see how far she's come.  After she finishes, I say my goodbyes to everyone, including Kathy.

The music is loud and it's hard to hear anything, but she pulls me in for a close hug and tells me some strong parting words closely into my ear before I leave.

Keep doing what you're doing.  You and I are the same and it's going to be harder for us.  I read your financial blog and it was so relatable.  Don't give up.  Keep doing it and don't be afraid to do it.  You can do it.

I wanted to break down in tears but it wouldn't be right to ruin her moment.  All I could muster instead was a "Thank you so much, that means so much to me."  Because it really did.  Her parting words couldn't have been more perfect and couldn't have come at a better time in my life. You'll hear "don't give up" and "you can do it" all the time from Disney shows, Nike ads and Thought Catalog blogs. To actually have these very words come from someone who has done it, and someone who has been at it much longer than you have, and someone people make comparisons with, is something even more powerful than one can imagine.

I'm in awe right now of how much I've written already.  The epiphany took over though.  Ever since moving back to LA, I don't get the comparisons anymore.  But I now understand that I shouldn't have been afraid to be compared to Kathy Uyen, it's an honor to be compared to her. 

Kathy Uyen and her creative success is such an inspiration.  No longer did I feel insecure with my own accomplishments.  Seeing her and her work makes me feel like everything is possible and that I can do it too.  Maybe she's kind of like that future Isabelle I keep wanting to be, and has come back through time to give me a few needed words and a bop on the head.  If I could go back, I would tell myself that it's better to support each other than to be alone and afraid.

I wish I could post a photo of both Kathy and myself, together, from back then and today to finish off this piece.  But I can't.  I don't have one.  Or at least I can't seem to find one.  I've been too afraid to be next to just her and I've been too shy to even ask.  So the only ones that I do have of us are where we're in group photos together. 

2009 Clash Premiere
2015 How to Fight in Six Inch Heels afterparty L to R:  Myself, Kathy, Brittany, Suboi

But the next time I see her, I'll make sure to ask for a photo of just me and Kathy Uyen.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Plot Twist.

I drove a distance to my casting yesterday and found that no one was there.
Instead, I was greeted by a bevy of confused faces.

"Hi there, how can we help you?"

"I'm here for the casting."

"Oh, we actually cancelled that.  You didn't get the e-mail?"

"No...I didn't."  Instantly, I was bummed out because I felt like I had a good chance and had wasted gas and would have to wade through traffic on my way back.  But then...

"Because you actually got the part! CONGRATULATIONS!"

Seriously, the only thing missing in that moment was confetti and balloons ecstatically falling from the ceiling to a retro game show soundtrack with Bob Barker showing me my BRAND - NEW - CAR!

Friday, May 9, 2014

FINANCE FRIDAY: How to negotiate balance transfer fees or how to NOT EVEN PAY for them at all!

I still remember as a college sophomore walking through the campus during that first week of school.

There was no shortage of Greek booths recruiting for rush week; club booths to just be there; clothing and jewelry vendors who would've rather been a mall kiosk; kids (who probably didn't go to school there) with clipboards who were either with Greenpeace or making sure you were registered to vote; and oh yeah, credit card booths.

I only remember one that day and it was CitiCards.  They were offering free t-shirts but had ran out of mugs.  I would've preferred the mug, but hey, what's another sleep shirt right?  Heck, maybe they never even really had mugs to begin with!  Hm.  Clever.

I don't remember the spiel, but I do remember a lot of smiling on the other party's behalf.  Young guy.  Dark hair.  Bright eyes.  A salesy type.  Might be making 6 figures by now. 

And there I was, a naive girl who thought she had life on a handle and was responsible enough to get a credit card despite her father's warnings.  This is the thing, my dad would only say, "Don't get a credit card, it's bad.  People get into debt with it.  It's bad."  And I don't remember my mom ever really talking about it.  And that was that.  There was never any real full depth discussion about personal finance, credit cards and its workings.  It was like telling me, "Don't eat junk food.  It's bad.  People get fat.  It's bad."  I ate plenty of junk food, especially as a McDonald's aficionado, but I never gained weight.

I figured, how bad could it be?  It can only be as bad as the person using it and clearly, I was responsible enough to have a credit card.  I was walking 4.6 miles to and from my Limited Too $8/hour sales associate job everyday, duuuuh.  I'll be fine, I thought.

Fast forward a bit, I was in debt for $7000, paid it off.  Then got back into it again for $10,000.  And that was just on one card.  I never had any other cards to deal with.  I wasn't fine, I wasn't responsible enough...therefore, I didn't deserve to have another credit card.  If that was my situation for just having ONE card, I was afraid of what might happen if I had SEVERAL of them.

And that's why I was so hesitant about doing balance transfers in the first place despite it being one of the most common steps people take to get out of debt. 

With a balance transfer, you're basically paying off Credit Card A with Credit Card B.  If you're truly serious about paying down your debt, it's a great way to do it.  If you're going to do any new spending on it, then, well, kinda defeats the whole point of getting it in the first place, no?  So CUT those new cards as soon as you get them in the mail.

If you're going to go for it, then here's what I did.


Most cards will transfer balances for the cost of 3-5% of the balance or $5--whichever is greater, they say.  (I laugh aloud every time I see that by the way).  But there are only two offers that I know of that don't charge any kind of balance transfer fee which I've personally used myself:

1.  CHASE SLATE:  0% APR for the first 15 months and no balance transfer fee for the first 60 days.  So you can potentially, transfer balances several times in the first 60 days without paying for a fee.  

2.  CAPITAL ONE PLATINUM:  0% APR until January 2015 (8 months) and no balance transfer fee but it's 22.9% APR after that time period and there's a $39 annual fee on this card.  

When I had the Capital One Platinum, I didn't have an annual fee, so this might be new.  But I would try to waive it actually, doesn't hurt to ask.


I have a funny story about this which has made me realize that when a credit card says "NO", it really means, "NO FOR NOW".  I got approved for the Chase Slate immediately but only for about $3000.  I googled other offers and found Capital One and called in right away. 

Me:  Hi there!  I found your balance transfer offer online for 8 months with 0% APR and no balance transfer fee and would like to apply for it.

Capital One:  Great!  I would be more than happy to help you with that.  Let me get some information from you.

She grabs what she needs from me and a couple minutes later...

Capital One:  Unfortunately, you were not approved for this offer.  But I can offer you insert terrible balance transfer offer.

Me:  Oh.  I see.  Well, actually, I was interested in the first one because was there no balance transfer fees, do you have anything else similar to that?

Capital One:  No, we don't.  

Me:  Okay then, thanks for your help!

I was bummed out but guess what.  A few days later, I get in the mail that I was pre-approved for the SAME offer I had inquired about and was supposedly not approved for.  I did this with Discover (except theirs wasn't a no balance transfer fee deal) and same thing.  As an experiment, I recently inquired with Citi Cards about a balance transfer offer that they used to offer but no longer do.  On the phone they told me that the promotion is over, but in the mail, somehow the promotion was back on again for me.  Oh happy days.


If you can't get approved for a "no balance transfer fee" offer, then negotiate the balance transfer fees.  ALWAYS ASK!  Just like how I ask for discounts wherever I shop, I always ask if I can lower or waive fees altogether.  I don't do it in an entitled manner, but more like a curious, inquisitive sort of way.

It's slightly more uneasy than say, reducing your interest rate (see previous blog entry), but it's not not possible.

Most cards will transfer balances for the cost of 3-5% of the balance or $5--whichever is greater, they say.  (I laugh aloud every time I see that by the way because are people really transferring over $167?)

Ask if you can get a cap on your fee.  Know that there are places that have caps on their fees but the majority I have seen nowadays don't.  For example, if there's a cap, they'll charge you 3% of your balance but only up to $75.  So technically, your total balance transfer fee can potentially be less than 3%.

If I were to do this, I'd ask the rep: 

"I'm planning on doing a balance transfer and was hoping to get a reduced balance transfer fee.  The thing is, I want to pay down my balance from my other card.  But at the same time, I want to take advantage of the 0% APR promo rate because I need to make a large purchase very soon and will do it on the same card as well."

First of all, let's get something straight here friends:  you are NOT making a large purchase on this card.  You are simply giving off the idea that you are not just there to sign up for a card to do balance transfers.  You are giving them an incentive to lower your balance transfer fee because new spending will offset it.

They are more likely to take a chance on you knowing that you have been paying interest before on another card and that you're just as likely to do it here too with the new spending.

If they say no, ask them:

"I understand.  Could you look into setting a maximum cap for the balance transfer fee then?  It looks like I would be paying $90 if I were to transfer $3000 and American Express offered to cap it at $75 but they have higher annual fee"

If they say they can't, ask to speak to a supervisor and repeat the dialogue.  It's all about persistence.  If they simply cannot budge, I'd say hang up, wait a week to see if you receive anything in the mail, and if you don't--call again.  If the same situation happens, then just go for the lowest balance transfer fee with no annual fee on the card.

By breaking up my debt with more manageable rates, I was able to pay down the amount faster and so will you.  Be confident and good luck!

Monday, May 5, 2014

MONEY MONDAY: Get to know your credit score NOW and how to raise it INSTANTLY.

I signed up for Credit Karma after Dennis had found out about it from his friend.
And then shortly after that, Credit Sesame.

With these sites, you can constantly check your credit score for free and I became addicted.  I had a girlfriend who never knew what her score was but she only had one credit card that she was on top of. I urged her to sign up for it ASAP and both her and I were shocked to when we saw her account.

First of all, she had a higher score than mine (and I thought I had it pretty good already) but secondly, she actually had TWO CREDIT CARDS in her name.

One was, of course, the one that she had but according to Credit Karma, she has had the second credit card for 15 years!!! That means, she got it when she was 8 years old!  How's that possible?  Well, I told her that sometimes parents will open cards in their kids' names to build their credit up and not tell them about it and this might be one of those situations.  She went home and asked her parents and guess what, it was exactly that situation.

Lucky for her, I've heard horror stories.  You know, the ones where kids don't realize until they're adults that their parents opened a credit card in their name and then defaulted in their name as well. This woman was already a homeowner at 25 years old, but on paper, she has been a deliquent since she was in the 5th grade! 

Her mummy dearest bought the house in her name.  Identity theft is already bad, but when it's your own parents that commit the crime?  That's the worst kind of identity theft there is!

Which brings me to my next point, you should always know your credit score and why it is the way it is.

I never really knew what my FICO score was or what it even stood for.
(FYI it's Fair Isaac Corporation.  The firm that invented the formula.  Just saved you a Google search)

I didn't think it mattered because it's not like I was planning on buying a house in college.  But it's pretty much your report card for life.  Let's be real here, it's not the best report card out there. 

I know people who have never had an any debt, don't have any credit cards, pay cash in everything and have a terrible credit score.  It's flawed on that count in true responsibility, but it's how people and institutions will determine how responsible of a person you are based on what they can actually keep track of.  It's how landlords will trust that you'll be paying rent on time or how you'll figure how much you'll really be paying for your car in the end.

These days I use my credit score as a persuasion tactic and to sign up for credit cards for bonus airline miles.  After all, you want a good, healthy credit score to get the best rates in town for whatever it is that you need.  If you have a poor credit score, you become even poorer!

Let's use a 30 year fixed mortgage in California for $200,000 as an example from's Loan Savings Calculator.

A poor credit score will cost you an extra $69,784 from the best credit score's rate!  That's 4 years of only one of your kids' college tuition!  That's an extra year and a half of working full-time!  That's 69,784 reasons to keep up a good score.  

And what's considered a good FICO score?  I've taken this range from here.


But I do feel that mint has the best elaboration on the score range.  
I just wished they made a better graphic out of if.

A lot of people have these misconceptions of what lowers their credit scores and so below is a chart that sums it up quickly and then my elaboration on it.

35% of it is based on how many on-time payments you make.  You make one late payment and this will ding you.  SO DON'T BE LATE!  It's that easy.  Automate your payments.  Even if it has to be the minimum.  I used a simulator of what would happen to mine if I had a 30 day late payment and it knocked it down by 56 points!  I did it by 60 days, it was still 56, but with a 90 day late payment, it jumped down by another 47 points to a total of 103.  OUCH.  (By the way, these are my numbers, yours may be different based on your score)

30% is your debt-to-credit ratio.  In other words, the total amount of your debt (from credit cards and other loans) compared your total credit limit.

15% is the length of credit history.  They actually use the average of all of your credit cards' ages.  The oldest one I have is now 9 years, there's no way I'll ever close it only because of that.  However, because it's only worth 15% of my score, if I was to close it, it would only lower my score by 5 points.  Not that big of a deal for me.  If you're going to close any other card, close your newest accounts first because if anything, they'll help your average.

10% are based on the number of hard credit inquiries you've had.  Every time you apply for a credit card or loan, or even for housing situations, you'll have an inquiry show on your credit report.  Too many of these and it sends a red flag to lenders that you're credit happy and cash sad. 

If you're looking for a house, your real estate agent may have even told you to not apply for anything to avoid hard credit inquiries because it'll affect your credit score which will in turn affect how much you can afford a house.  True, during that sensitive process.

But of course, this has a really low impact on your score.   I've had 3 inquiries this past year and it's only dinged 2 points each time.  The fact that I've made consistent on-time payments (which remember, accounts for 35% of my score), it offsets my inquiries.

And thanks to Suze Orman for this bit:  Let's say you're shopping around with 5 different mortgage lenders and each one of them is going to ask to check your credit. It doesn't mean you're going to have 5 different inquiries on your report.  If you do it within a 2 week span, it'll show up as ONE INQUIRY.

10% is based on the mix of credit cards and loans that you have.  The more diverse, the better.  As in, student loans, credit card loans, mortgage, auto loans, etc.  I know, you would think it's a bit counterintuitive.  However, in the lenders' eyes, they see it as how you've obviously been soooo fiscally well-behaved, that you have been approved before for other fun things.

On a somewhat irrelevant but analogous note, this reminds me of how as a model, clients and agencies love to see a portfolio full of tearsheets (published work that you tear out of magazines, hence "tearsheet") rather than a portfolio full of pretty photos.  Because what that means is that you've been hired before, and they'd rather go with someone who's experienced and has been seen as desirable.  Even if you didn't get paid for certain tearsheets, lol.


1.  Sign up for Credit Karma: 

This checks on your TransUnion score and updates it weekly.  Its shows you a report card of how you're doing in all the categories above and my favorite feature on the site is the simulator.  You can see how your credit score is affected by selecting different scenarios, whether it's closing your oldest credit card, adding a new loan, being on time with your payments, not being on time with your payments and so forth.

2.  Sign up for Credit Sesame:

This checks on your Experian score and updates it monthly.

There are 3 different credit bureaus:  Equifax, TransUnion and Experian.  Some places will check one, some will check two of them, and others will check all of them.  Knowing 2 out of 3 scores will give you a general idea of where you are.  There's a 22 point difference between both of mine.

These sites are secure and checking on them will not incur any hard inquiries on your report.  They're merely soft checks and a close reflection of what your FICO score is.  And use these as reference guides.  For example, if I was to buy a new car and had to take out a loan, I'll negotiate based on those scores.  But if I was gearing up to buy a home, I would buy my actual FICO score (a compilation based on the information from all 3 credit bureaus) so I would be armed with the actual number for better negotiation.

AND, they're truly FREE.  Can't beat that.


MANIPULATE YOUR DEBT-TO-CREDIT RATIO:  This formula accounts for 30% of your score.  Pretty meaty.  This is the one thing you can control right away because it's simply a numbers game.  If for example, on a card you have a $7000 credit limit but you owe $5000 on it, you're using 71% of your credit limit.

You want to ideally be using less than 30% across all of your credit cards.

So call in your credit card(s) and ask them to see what's the max you raise your credit limit to.  This DOES NOT give you permission to spend more, otherwise, it's defeated the whole point.  The whole point is to make it mathematically advantageous for you.

So if you raise it to $10,000 with the same debt of $5000 on it, now you have a 50% debt-to-credit ration.  The lower the ratio, the better.  Pay it down more now and help it out.  And I've been there.  So I'm going to throw in a screenshot of an old e-mail and attachment I sent to my boyfriend about my debt-to-credit ratio at the time.

Also, if you do a balance transfer, you're also manipulating your debt-to-credit ratio by default because you've given yourself more credit limit to work with.  But go with a balance transfer that has 0% APR and no balance transfer fee such as Chase Slate so you don't have to pay any interest or any fees to do this.


PAY ON TIME:  If you're late on a cell phone bill, your credit card will still know about it.  If you're late on Credit Card A, Credit Card B will raise their interest on you even though they're separate entities.  That's just how it is. 

To avoid this, automate all your payments a week before it's due.  All of my bills are automated.  I still look over them to see if there are mistakes, but I'd rather call in about the mistake and have them refund me money than to be late and owe them the money and some change.  The more consistent, back to back, on-time payments you have, the higher your score will be because this accounts for 35% of your score.

DON'T CLOSE YOUR OLDEST CREDIT CARDS:  The older the card, the better.  Keep it.  Once you close it, you wipe away all that history.  Sure, it might have not been a pretty history for you but you might as well make the most of it because over time it's what's going to help you.  My 9 years with CitiCard hasn't always been the best, but now it is and lenders can see that.  If I close it now, lenders can't anymore.

However, when I started doing balance transfers, I had all these new cards that hurt my score a bit.  But because I was paying off my card on-time, it offset that by a lot.  And then when I was done with those cards, I noticed that when I closed my newest card (it was only 9 months old), it actually HELPED my credit score because now the average age of my credit history was higher.  I thought that was interesting.

So now when someone asks you what your credit score is, you'll know exactly where you stand.
When I became aware of my credit score, I felt more sure of myself and confidence is just one of those things that helped me thatmuchmore in chipping away at my debt.

Thanks for reading and check again every Finance Friday and Money Monday. 
I'll be honest though, I'm about ready to throw in a random fun entry in between.  Till then!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

FINANCE FRIDAY (aka Sorry Saturday): I've lowered my interest from 21% to 9.24%. And in 13 minutes, from 9.24% to 7.99% The script you should be using.

A very belated Friday entry.
If this was a credit card payment, my interest would've went up to 29.99%.  Ha.

At a former job, I once had a co-worker who mentioned that he was burdened by his credit card debt but in the calmest manner.  The kind that's like, well, I know I have debt, but what's the big deal when everyone has debt.  IMPO, I think that's an even more dangerous school of thought than ignoring your debt altogether.

Because in this situation, he acknowledged the debt but didn't feel the urgency to do anything about it.  I figured that maybe the only reason he didn't feel the need to was because he must've had a super duper lower interest rate.  When I asked, "If you don't mind me asking, do you know what your interest rate is?"

He replied, "I'm not really sure, I think 18%.  Not too bad huh."

NOT TOO BAD?!?  I was freaking out in my head FOR HIM. 

Suuuuure, it wasn't too bad when you compared to the highest I had ever paid for interest (which was 21%).  However, by the time this conversation took place, my interest had been lowered to 9.24%.

I was excited that I could share with him how he could lower his interest rate, but he didn't seem to care.  I couldn't tell if it's because he thought 18% was an average interest rate one could have, or if it  really was indifference, or maybe just hubris at play.  Either way, it's hard to help someone if they want to help themselves first.

Do you know what you would be paying in interest over time and how long it would take?!
Use this nifty credit card calculator for an idea.  However, if you've signed up for like I had talked about in my last entry, their calculator works with your numbers and you can make it a goal for it to track your progress.

If I had my $10,000 debt at 21%, this is how much I would be paying:

It would have taken me 10 years and I would've ended up paying more in interest than what I would have actually owed!  No wonder my $200 payment a month barely made a dent.  Then I was able to lower it to 15%, which made a difference:

I saved myself 3 years of time down to 7 years and the interest is now a little over half of what I owe.
(Just so you guys know, over time, I went down from 21% to 15% to 12% to 10% to 9.24%)

So how did I go from 21% in interest to 9.24%? 

Easy.  I just asked the credit card to lower it.

If you pay regularly, and it's been at least a year since your last late payments, it's really that simple.  You know that saying, "You never know unless you asked?"  I almost think it was invented for these situations!

At first, I used scripts to talk to credit card reps.  There's plenty out there.  The first time I came across one was from Oprah's Debt Diet

I've modified mine over time and have used improv skills to get super creative, so I'll post my dialogue here too.  In no time, you'll see how fun it is to see how low you can get away with it.  I do love a good game, especially one I can win at.


1.  Awesome credit card offers:  Either get these from your junk mail or look up a few online.  These should either say something along the lines of 0% APR for the first 13 months.  Have it in front of your face.  Or you can make it up.  Let's be real here, EVERYONE has these offers.

2.  Confidence/improv skills:  Think...THEATRE.  You can make up whatever scenario you need to get what you need.

3.  Your sweetness: The person on the other side is just like you.  He/she probably has credit card debt and is working to pay off that debt.  They have a family and maybe a few kids.  Little ones.  With super cute puppy eyes.  And maybe their mom is living with them because she recently got into an accident.  Be nice to them.  People are more likely to help you if you sound relatable, down to earth and you mean well in life.

4.  Your current APR:  You've got to know the exact number that you're trying to lower here.

5.  15 minutes of your time:  I swear, it doesn't take long.  For the purpose of this entry I actually called CitiCards to see if I could lower my already really low interest rate.  Below is a screenshot of how long the conversation took--13 minutes with 2 reps.

If this was past Isabelle, I just saved myself $629 in interest paid for every minute I was on the phone with them!  (I breakdown everything in my life like this now by the way, lol)


What you're going to do is call up your credit cards and tell them that you've had other credit card offers (be specific) and you were thinking of transferring over your balance to them.  But before you want to do that, you wanted to see if you could lower your interest over here first.  They'll look over your account and if they say no, you ask for the supervisor and repeat the conversation.


I've done my share of cold calls on the phone and when I first start out, I would write out what I would say beforehand and then use it as a reading reference.  Notice how I say "reference".  Try your best not to read it word by word off your script only because you want to sound natural and not like you're reading off of a prompter here.  Feel free to use my basic script.

To me, there are two gates within the credit card customer service realm.  The first is within their outsourced call center, usually the Philippines.  I've come to realize that they're really not authorized to lower your interest.  I've never ever gotten my interest lowered with my first rep.  Sure, they'll say they've spoken to "their supervisor", but they too are also in the same call center and don't have that power.

The supervisor you'll want to speak to afterwards is someone they'll transfer you to in the States--your second gate.  I usually always get South Dakota or Kentucky.  And this is where I always have my interest lowered.  I have a feeling that this person usually doesn't have any higher of a status of the previous rep, but because they're on the home turf, they have more authorization.


So again, feel free to use the following.

Credit Card:  Hi there!  How are you doing today?

You:  I'm great!  How are you doing? (I always ask about the other person even if I know the answer)

Credit Card:  I'm great!  Thanks for asking!  What can I do for you?

You:  I actually recently received an offer from the Chase Slate card that offers 0% APR for 15 months and no balance transfer fee.  I was thinking about transferring over my balance over there.  But before I do that, I wanted to see if I could lower my interest over here first. 

***BONUS:  If you've had this credit card more than 2 years or have been paying it on time for at least a year, say this:  "I've been with your guys' credit card the longest actually" "If you look at my account, you can see that I've been making regularly on time payments"

Even if it really isn't the card you've been with the longest, say that they are anyways.  The reason why you would bring this up is because it shows loyalty and gives them more reason to trust that you'll stay with them and continue to pay.  And like any business, they like that.  They'll be more likely to lower your interest.

Credit Card:  Unfortunately, it looks like I can't lower it anymore.  I'm not authorized to do so.

You:  I see.  The thing is, we both know that after today you guys will send me another offer for a lower rate.  Could you look into it again or ask a supervisor?  (Repeat the BONUS statement sweetly to kindly remind them of your loyalty)

Credit Card:  I've asked and it looks like we can't do anything about it, insert their explanation here.

You:  No worries, I'd like to speak to a supervisor please.

They'll transfer you to the second gate, and you repeat the above conversation.


It's rare, but maybe a recent late payment or low credit score may be a factor.  If they really really can't lower it, then two things you can do:

1.   Call again in a month.  They might even say they review accounts every 6 months and may lower it then, but no-- take this into your own hands and call every month.  I did this and I went from 21% to 15%.  15% to 12%.  12% to 10%.  10% to 9.24% where it's been pretty stable. And I still do this pretty often even with no balances on my credit card.

2.  Time to transfer some or all of your balance.  And depending on your numbers you should do this anyways even if you do get approved for a lower interest.  When I say numbers, I mean:

Interest paid in (# of months) of the 0% APR offer from the other competitive credit card offer
Balance transfer fee paid to transfer from Credit Card A to Credit Card B

Right now, the best balance transfer offer is Chase Slate's 0% APR for 15 months and no balance transfer fee whatsoever for the first 60 days.  Typically the fees are 3% of the balance, so to not pay a fee and no pay any interest on it for 15 months is AMAZING and RARE.  By the way, I'm totally not getting a kickback for advertising that. (I wish!) I'm only mentioning it because I've personally used this card myself to help me get out of credit card debt.


Below is a conversation that took place yesterday.  Don't use this if you're trying to lower your rate on your current balance.  The sole purpose of this dialogue is to show you guys that you can easily negotiate your rate with credit cards for whatever reason or situation you want.  Get them to work for you.

Nowadays, I'm pretty confident with my credit card negotiation skills and with no balance, I omit things in the above script.  Some people are satisfied with their already low interest rate and assume that it can't get any lower.  Oh yes it can people.

You'll see that I'm more vague because it gets them to ask me questions.  When that happens, it means you're the one who's in control of the conversation.  And that's where it gets fun, you get to play house.

GATE 1:  Hi there!  How are you doing today?

Me:  I'm great!  How are you doing? 

GATE 1:  I'm great!  Thanks for asking!  What can I do for you?

Me:  I wanted to call to see if I could lower my interest rate.

GATE 1:  Sure.  I could look into that.

Me:  Thanks! (I hear typing on her end)

GATE 1:  Ma'am.  You're aware that your prime rate is 3.25% and that the bank's margin is 5.99% giving you the variable rate of 9.24%, yes?

Me:  Yes.

GATE 1:  Okay, let me see what I can do.  (more typing, silence, more typing)  Ma'am, I have exhausted my resources and unfortunately that's the lowest it can go.  You have no balance on this card, is there a reason why you would want to lower it?

She realizes that I'm not here to do a balance transfer.  The lower your current balance is, the more curious the other party will be about as to why you'd want to lower your interest rate.

Me:  The thing is, I'm getting ready to make a big purchase and I'm calling all of my credit cards to see what the lowest rate is.

By saying this, I will pique her interest that there will be money to be spent on the card regardless.  Which equals, money to be made for the company.  But at the time same time, she knows that I will spend it with the card that has the right rate.

GATE 1:  Oh, what kind of big purchase are you trying to make?

Me:  I need to buy new furniture.  And so far Bank of America has given me 8 and something percent but I wanted to see if I could get anything lower than that even.

I say furniture because 1) it's a big purchase 2) it may mean that I'm a new homeowner and I say BOA with 8% because it's a realistic lower rate from my current rate at this point. 

GATE 1:  I see.  Well, what I can do is this, we have a promo offer right now where I can send you a check and you can use it to pay whatever you like with it for only at 1.99% APR for 8 months.

Me:  Yeah, no, it's okay.  I don't want to get involved with that.  That's okay, thanks for your help.

Just as you would haggle at a flea market, pretend to "walk away"

GATE 1:  Actually, let me transfer you to my supervisor, maybe he can help you.

Me:  Great, thanks!

GATE 2:  Hi there Isabelle!  This is Andrew from the call center in South Dakota.  How are you doing today?

Me:  I'm great Andrew!  How about yourself?

GATE 2:  I'm great, thanks so asking.  So I heard from my rep that you were planning on making a big purchase and you wanted to lower your rate.

Me:  Yes.  And I called around my other cards and Bank of America gave me a lower rate.

GATE 2:  If you don't mind me asking, what was the rate?

Me:  I can't remember it decimal wise, but it was 8 something percent.

GATE 2:  Okay.  I see.  Well, what I can do is this.  I can't do anything about your current balance because it's already at 0.  But I can offer you a promo rate of 7.99% on any new purchases for the next 6 months.

Me:  That's perfect.  Sounds good to me.  Thanks so much!

Voila.  I went from 9.24% to 7.99% in 13 minutes.  And why would they do that?  In this situation, it's because they'd rather have me pay a large balance at 7.99% over time than a $0 balance at 9.24%. 

In your situation (and Past Isabelle's situation), they would lower the rate because they'd rather have you pay the debt at any interest rate than to lose you as a customer altogether to another credit card.

If I had other cards with balances on them, I would actually go to them and use this new rate of 7.99% as ammo to see if I could negotiate even something lower than that.  You should already be doing this in life anyways.  Whether it's car washes or an electronics store, see if people can match their competitor's pricing.  You'll be pleasantly surprised that they will.

And there you have it.  Try it and see what you get.  And call again in a month. Break a leg!

Come back on Money Monday for another personal finance entry!

Monday, April 28, 2014

MINT.COM MONEY MONDAY: What if someone took $25 from your pocket each month and you didn't even know it?

If you got a chance to read my entry "Finance Friday:  My $10,000 debt story", you'll know how terrified I was to open my mail and to just simply look closer at the numbers of what I owed.

In this entry, I'm going to give you two kinds of scenarios that I've personally dealt with:

1.  Getting charged a fee for something that I forgot that I was enrolled in (my fault)
2.  Having magical "accidental" charges that appeared from  out of nowhere on my credit card (not my fault)

There are so many fees that you could miss that shouldn't have happened in the first place.  And right there my little hamsters, is how you'll save more money without compromising your much needed daily morning coffee from the overrated Starbucks.  (By the way, the Vietnamese in me says go get a Vietnamese iced coffee for half the price and double the energy)


When Suze Orman instructed me to do this in her book, I racked up my courage to do it.

And she was right.  I had a big fat $40 charge on my credit card.

It was for for what was called credit card protection, or something to effect.  The previous month it was slightly less than that, maybe around $30-something.  And the month before THAT a little something less.  I scoured through my past statements and found that this charge had been growing monthly.

(Keep in mind, I've never had a late payment as much as I was in debt.  That was probably the most responsible thing Past Isabelle kept up with, but if it weren't for automated payments, this last sentence would cease to exist.)

I was confused.  I didn't understand what these charges were exactly for and why I had them so I called up Citi Cards to inquire about them.  Apparently, I had enrolled myself in this credit cart protection and the reason why I was getting charged more and more was because it was based on how much my debt was.  And my debt was growing because I kept spending, spending, spending.

But wait a minute.  I don't remember enrolling in something like this?!

And then it clicked.  I did enroll in something like that.  But it was such a distant memory.

You know how when you're shopping at let's say, Von's or your local grocery store, and you're at the conveyor belt with your items because you're finaaaally done with the shopping list.  The cashier is ringing you up and when they're finished ringing up your pack of Lunchables, they ask if you would like to donate to a children's charity or to buy a reusable bag for future supermarket trips.

That's an upsell.  They're trying to get you to add-on to your purchase.

I don't know about you guys, but I have plenty of reusable grocery bags.  Problem is, I bring my groceries in and I leave the bags at home and never back to the car and thus, I never have them when I need them at the supermarket.  Lame.

Well, that is the perfect analogy for my Citi card situation.

I was on the phone with Citi Cards in regards to a different issue and after the rep had resolved it, she asked if I wanted to enroll in the credit card protection which was at no charge to me for the first something months.

Me:'s okay, I don't think I'll need it, thanks anyways."

Citi Cards Lady:  "But Miss, something something something about PROTECTION blah blah blah ID THEFT something something something FRAUD something something something FREE CREDIT SCORE."

Me:  "Yeeeeah...I don't really want to commit to anything though."

Very-Persistent-Citi-Cards-Lady:  "Something something something you can cancel at anytime for no charge something something TO JUST BENEFIT YOU something something something JUST TO TRY OUT TO SEE IF YOU LIKE IT."

Me-With-White-Flag:  "Okay, okay, fine.  Sign me up.  But I'll probably cancel it right after!"

Will-Probably-Get-Promoted-Next Week-Citi-Cards-Lady:"Thanks fine, Miss!"

But I never did.  We all have our human flaws and mine is my poor ailing memory.  I totally forgot to cancel it and so I was charged monthly without ever even realizing it.  It was such a nonchalant and casual moment that I never made the mental note to myself.  Yes.  Shame on me.

When I did try to cancel it, they put on another spiel to convince me to NOT cancel.  After what seemed like an hour (but was probably only really 5 minutes), they pretty much BRIBED me to stay.

With $50 worth of pre-paid gift cards. 

I figured, HEY, why the hell not and recouped some of what I had paid.  I got my $50 pre-paid gift cards in the mail, waited a week and then FINALLY cancelled.

And how many usernames and passwords have you made up to log in to check on every one of these?
  • Checking
  • Savings
  • Credit cards
  • Student Loans
  • Investments
  • 401k/IRAs/Retirement
  • Auto Loans
  • Personal Loans
  • Mortgage
I even put my PayPal account on there.  All of these would be hard to keep track, no?


This is like having your very own personal assistant/bookkeeper, I promise!  You enter in all of your accounts' information in there and now you only have to log into ONE place to see ALL of your accounts. 

It's FREE.  EASY.  Your information is SAFE & SECURE.  And it's CONVENIENT

I have been actively using this since 2012 and this is where I turned my fear around.  I was no longer scared to look at my finances, in fact-- it was the opposite.  I became addicted to looking at my finances and seeing how it improved. does the legwork for you.  I was able to see how long it would take for me to pay off my credit cards, or how it would be affected if my interest rate and monthly payments went up or down.

I made budgets for myself.  If I allotted $100 for clothes shopping per month and I overspent it by $30, then next month it says I only have $70 in my budget.

And here's where I started to really appreciate Mint.  They would give me alerts BEFORE the financial institutions I had accounts with would give me alerts.

Here's what I mean.  I had an online personal savings account with American Express for a year that had an APY of 0.90%.  Mint sends me this e-mail:

I never received any notice from American Express.  But recently last month (about a year later from that other e-mail), Mint sends me this:

Again, I never received notice from American Express.  But it doesn't matter because of this:

"Rates are subject to change at any time without notice..."  Yup.  They stayed true to their word.

I would've noticed eventually looking at my statements but how nice is it that Mint alerts me immediately? 

Here's another scenario.  My Bank of America credit card is paid off and I have a $0.00 balance on it.  Mint e-mails me this:

Wait.  Why was I charged $1.50 in interest when I have a $0.00 balance?  I called BOA and they apologized for their mistake and quickly took it back.

Imagine if this was Past Isabelle.  (Well, Past Isabelle wouldn't have had $0.00 on her credit card but for example's sake here)  She would have not looked at her statement and realize that $1.50 was taken out of her account to pay for a non-existent interest charge.

Next scenario.  Something to keep in mind is that I'm enrolled in automatic payments.  I noticed that Bank of America had withdrawn $25 from my checking account, despite having had a $0.00 balance.

Again, if it weren't for Mint, I wouldn't have called Bank of America to return my $25 back into my checking account.  And then about 2 weeks later, the same thing happened!  They took out $25 from my checking account again!  So I called and got my refund.

I asked them why this happened and the rep that helped me seemed confused himself and mumbled about how being enrolled in e-bill is different from setting up automatic payments and that I would have to cancel for it to not happen it again.

I thought that was strange because I thought that automatic payments or not, if you have $0.00 balance on your credit card, nothing should taken from your checking account to "pay" in the first place.  None of my other cards did that and I still have them automated to pay the full balance at the end of each month now too.

Plus, why would it happen in span of 2 weeks?!

This is the thing, there will be mistakes and accidents can happen.  And we, ourselves, need to be on top of things to catch them.  This could have happened to ANYONE.

And if you're too scared to look at your finances, then you would've been out of $51.50 within 13 days.  That's a tank of gas right there!  Well.  75% of it at least, lol.

Now it's your turn to stay on top of it!

1.  Sign up for and start inputting your accounts.
2.  Download the app onto your phone (I check my Mint on my phone more than my laptop actually)
3. Watch this video for a QUICK over explanation of how it works and how to use it:

4.  Set goals, budgets, monitor your spending as you go, see how your net worth changes!  Start making it a habit!  You'll find yourself addicted in no time.

Also, if you're wondering how Mint makes money, they offer ways to save money or suggests credit cards and accounts to sign up for and gets kickbacks basically from these services.  You are not obligated whatsoever to sign up for these.  But if you are interested in signing up, definitely do as much research as you can outside of Mint before doing so.

Feel free to post comments on the blog and ask any questions you might have! And finally, thank you for the kind words, support, and love and sharing what I've posted so far.  It means a lot to me!

For more of my personal financial stories and strategies I've used, come back to my blog every Money Mondays and Financial Fridays!

Friday, April 25, 2014

FINANCE FRIDAY: You might be richer than you think. I found $ 200 for a co-worker, $ 400 for my best friend and $ 500 for an old boss.

Around 2006 or so, I was hired as a waitress at RA Sushi in Corona right before their grand opening.  Training was for a week and consisted of (I kid you not) consuming healthy amounts of sushi, sashimi, entrees and sakes from their menu.

 (Wait, getting paid to EAT???  SUSHI?!?  Ummmmm, hellloooo, how could a poor college student say no?)

But after a week I realized that the commute was too far and decided to quit.
Prices of Gas > Sushi Consumption

And for some reason, whether it was the embarrassment of not going through with the job and so I didn't follow up; or my assumption that I had to forfeit the pay because I didn't commit to the job-- it simply slipped my mind that, well, I never got paid.

Trust me, I know what you're thinking-- dumb, right?
I agree.  You couldn't exactly label me as "fiscally responsible" at the time.
And I stayed like that for awhile.

--> In 2012, my boyfriend Dennis who is fiscally wiser than me, tells me that I had about $43 in my name on the State Controller's Unclaimed Property website.

Turns out, it was the pay from my short stint with RA Sushi!

And although it really was my money to begin with, I was excited because that's $43 I didn't have before.

(I once found a $50 bill in a purse I had stopped using and that was like, winning the lottery until I realized how the hell I could've missed $50 in the first place, sighs)

I printed out the paperwork, sent it in, and got a check for $43 about four weeks later.  I got sooooo excited that I decided to look up my co-workers, friends and family.  For one of my co-workers, I found about $200 from stock dividends.  For my best friend Brittany who lives in Houston, Texas, I found about $400 from the Texas State Controller website.  Both were over the moon and that made me genuinely happy that I could be a part of that.

The biggest score though had to be my old boss.  I found $500 from old rental properties.  I was so excited that I told them the next day.  With a smoker's raspy voice, they urged me to show them quickly what I meant.  They ignored me and I tried to pipe up with a joke about how I should get a little spiff (finder's fee) for find it.

And to that they responded,
"I ain't giving you shit."

Well then! 

I think I may have left with an awkward chuckle but I was more frustrated that they weren't as appreciative as other people.  I'd like to think that they were joking but they never even said "thank you".  It slightly made me wish that I hadn't shown them that too.

That's one of biggest pet peeves by the way, when people don't acknowledge your efforts.  Listen, I'm not looking for a ceremony here, but thank you's are common courtesy and I would have been just satisfied with that.  To this day, I can't forget how they never said thank you.  But whatever, there's a reason why the universe does these things.

Most recently in March, I spent a weekend at my dad's in San Jose and he handed me a letter from the State Controller's office.  He received it in early January.  AAA had my premium refund of $63.61.  It's been awhile since I've lived in San Jose and it never showed up on the website for me to claim so I was surprised to even something like that.

Luckily it was still with AAA and not the State (not that that's a big deal, it just takes a little longer to take your check). I wrote in to send the check to my new address with a smiley face and faxed it in.

And here's the check!  Yay!  I got it in 2 weeks!

So what's unclaimed property?  All you really need to know is this:  it's your money that you need to claim.  Sometimes it's an overpayment to a business, or refunds, royalties, or if you're lucky-- inheritances.  It could be a number of reasons, really.  And then people move all the time so businesses couldn't get in touch with you but you never realized that you needed to be in touch with.  I know, I know.  Governments.  They're not going to go out of the way to track you down to GIVE you back your money but they will however track you down if you OWE them money.  Ha.

Where does my unclaimed property go?  The business will hold onto it for a certain period of time.  After that time period, they have to turn it over to the State for safekeeping until you realize, oh hey, I've lost my money aaaaaand I kinda want it back.

Now it's YOUR TURN to see if you have any lost money you need to claim.
Who knows, maybe you have thousands from a lost inheritance.
But don't be disappointed if you don't though, it just means you're on top of things.
(My dad has $1.95 from Paypal he's not planning on claiming, lol.  I would've solely on the principal that I like to stick it to the man though, but whatever.)

1.  GO TO HTTP://WWW.UNCLAIMED.ORG and click on your state.  

Usually these will take you to the State Controller's or Treasury website.  You want to find "SEARCH UNCLAIMED PROPERTY" on their sites or keywords to that nature.  You could also go onto to search all states if you've lived in multiple states over your lifetime.  However, I've tried to cross reference them with individual state records and they're not always accurate.  As in, I know that someone's missing money in California but their name didn't show up on the website.  I'd say the best thing to do is to just look up records for each state.

If your name is unique enough, you'll find your record quickly.  If your last name is like, say, I don't know, Nguyen, and you're from California, be prepared to go through pages of results.  Match up your middle name, maiden names, and all the addresses you can think of that you've resided in the past.

2.  FILL OUT THE PAPERWORK & SEND IT IN:  It's short and easy.  I promise you.  It looks daunting at first but listen, it's money that you're getting back for a few minutes of filling out blanks.

3.  AND NOW WAIT:  How long you wait for your beloved check depends on where your unclaimed moola is located.  So if it's still with the business/organization that is responsible for the claim's origin, then it'll be quicker 2-4 weeks.  But if it's being transferred to the State or it's with the State, then it may be longer.  But who cares.  Clearly you waited for years for it without even knowing about it in the first place.

4.  PUT IT INTO YOUR SAVINGS OR CHIP AWAY AT YOUR DEBT:  Don't treat it like how every American treats a tax refund and spend it on new fixings for a car or as an Amazon gift card because apparently you get 10% on top of your return, FREAKIN' SAVE IT or reduce your debt with it.  It all adds up!

5.  NOW GO LOOK UP PEOPLE YOU KNOW & BE A HERO:  You know that feeling you get when you find like a dollar bill on the ground or when you even win just $10 from the lotto?  Well, you can pay it forward to someone else with those warm, fuzzy, feelings!  People can always use an extra dollar in life, right?

Plus.  It's hilarious when you find a friend's old address and start out by asking them like,"Hey, did you live on 637 Hamsters Road, Cute City, California, 78787?" and they freak out because they wonder how the hell did you know about their old address and why are you stalking them.  If you're a cute girl, you can get away with it.  If you're a guy (cute or not), I'd say resist.

And there you have it!  Hopefully some of you guys have hit the jackpot.
If you guys found something good, post it in the comments, that would totally make my day!