The holiday debt has racked up and the Christmas cookies have morphed into another inch for your waist size. The madness, however, wrapped itself up on January 1. If you're still in need of some resolutions, some local experts have some ideas to help you improve your lot -- from saving money to getting a karmic boost. And if you have no aspirations for the new year, these suggestions might just change your mind.
Peg Downey of Money Plans in Silver Spring has been offering financial advice to the metro area's gay community for more than 20 years. Some of the basics have not changed. Even today, with the economy lurching along, Downey insists her clients start the year not by thinking about 2006, but by looking further ahead.
"One of the most important attitudes to have for financial planning is to take the long view," says Downey. "Don't be over-concerned about the short term. Don't obsess about the economy. But accomplish your goals by regularly saving."
Downey adds, however, that with current talk of retooling the Social Security system, retirement saving could be something to keep a keen eye on this year.
"I do think people should be concerned about what might happen to Social Security," Downey advises. "If Social Security changes, we'll have to take even more responsibility for our futures. Whatever retirement benefits we get, it's not enough for retirement. People need to be putting money aside for themselves."
With many people having overspent on holiday shopping in December, people may not want to think about saving. Even Downey says she advises clients to hammer out a spending plan in November, not January. That doesn't mean, however, that November 2005 is a better time to start tackling one's finances.
"The best time to do it would've been ten years ago," she says. "The second-best time is right now."
A spending plan, says Downey, can be drafted in about half a day. She warns that ballpark figures are usually underestimated, so hunt for those old receipts and statements.
"This is so boring, but you need to have a spending plan," she explains. "The old word is ‘budget.' People have budgets that only look at what they spend every month, but they don't budget for the things that only happen once a year, like spending for the holidays, or car insurance. Those things ought to be planned for all year long. That would keep people out of trouble.... Look at income. There is this unavoidable rule that your outflow cannot be higher than your income. The way we all tend to live is bills come in and we pay them. We feel uncomfortable and we feel out of control because we haven't made decisions about how we spend."
Once you've laid out the ebb and flow of cash in your household economy, Downey says it's time to start assessing and planning.
"Take a very hard look at spending patterns and make sure you're spending for the future and not all in the present." Downey uses the financial planner's tried and true spin on savings: It's not about tucking your money away where it's no fun at all, but rather about paying yourself first. Don't give your money to someone else by buying that fab Banana sweater! Pay yourself first by sticking that money in savings. "Look at your cash flow and pay yourself first. Put money aside for the things that are important to you."
With the spending plan guiding you to getting the most out of your money, Downey suggests that people also take a look at their insurance coverage.
"Virtually everyone is under-covered for disability," she warns. "Nobody wants to look at insurance, because you're thinking about bad things, and it costs money. And estate planning -- again, we don't want to talk about dying."
Downey adds that same-sex couples should take special care with these particular financial topics.
"In the gay and lesbian community, people need to think about themselves in a couple differently," she says. "The approach is the same, but in my experience, lots of couples come in thinking of themselves as individuals. ‘This is what she's doing, this is what I'm doing.' But they are financially interdependent. It's true for straight couples as well, but we don't have the legal protections and legal structures [of marriage]. Our partners' Social Security or retirement benefits won't be there for us."
On 10th Street, NW, a block from the D.C. Convention Center, Tom Bell's house is both his home and a showplace. With three other owner-residents, Bell runs a portion of his Victorian house as the D.C. GuestHouse. Accordingly, he knows a thing or two about running a household.
For those hoping to improve their own homes in 2005, Bell says to start in the bedroom.
"Make sure the linens feel good to you," he says. "Make sure they look good and go with your décor. You can include white, but have variety. People think white is easy to decorate with, but it's not that easy." He shies away from any rules when it comes to individual taste, but he does have a rule when it comes to linens and quality. Sheets, he insists, must have a minimum thread-count of 300. They'll certainly cost more than the sheets you used in your dorm room, but will you feel a difference? "Absolutely," Bell promises.
Once you've got those crisp, new linens on the bed, it's time to make a fresh start of the bathroom. This is delicate territory. For people who appreciate a clean bathroom, no degree of clean is too much. But for them, any spot in your bathroom that's not up-to-snuff will look like an experiment from a germ-warfare lab.
"I'm a bathroom freak," Bell admits. "It's clean. You can maintain your bathroom by cleaning it just a bit at a time." This is assuming it's clean to begin with. For those who've let things go for too long, hiring a cleaning service to get you back on track may be within reason. "If you use the sink, wipe the sink. If you use the shower, wipe the shower. If you let it build up over time, it can be a horrendous task."
For the main living areas, the emphasis is on creating a mood. If you're surrounded by bare walls, 2005 is the year to pull out the hammer.
"If you have any art at all, take one piece -- I don't care what it is," Bell instructs. "Stick it up on the wall somewhere, off-center, and let that be the anchor. It can be anything: something sentimental, or a sconce with a candle. It should just grow from there.
"If you're going to have a print, have it framed nicely. You can have something extremely inexpensive, but put a nice frame on it and it looks like a million bucks. You can also have something that's very expensive and put a cheap frame on it and it will look awful."
The most important rule, says Bell, is not to be scared: "When you put that nail into the wall, you're always taking a risk, but you have to let that fear go. A hole can be repaired."
Aside from art, Bell also uses scents and plants to make his guesthouse homey.
"When it comes to scents, we tend to use candles. Candles help with ambiance, whether they're lit or not. A basic scent is vanilla. Cinnamon is great for fall. Clover is great for summer. Patchouli for winter though spring.
"Plants always help. Philodendrons are very low maintenance. Ferns, if you're lucky, do wonders in the right sort of light. They do tend to lose their leaves, though."
The kitchen, they say, is the heart of the home. Alex Serra, a private chef, says the most important tools to have in your kitchen are a big cutting board and a sharp knife. Serra grants that many people are afraid of their own kitchens. He offers a simple recipe for them to start the year off with confidence.
"The best point is to start cooking and not to be so afraid of the kitchen," Serra encourages. "A really good tip, because people are trying to be low-fat and low-carb, is roasted vegetables. It's something really fast, and it's tasty, colorful and healthy."
Toss sliced vegetables with a little olive oil and garlic, spread them on a baking sheet, sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes. "You can use asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, zucchini," advises Serra.
Regardless of the art on the walls, or what's baking in the kitchen, Bell says it's important for people to start taking an interest in their homes this year if they haven't before.
"Your home is like who you are -- your history, what's important to you," says Bell. "It gives you a sense of comfort. Some people's homes are so uncomfortable to them that they're out all the time, never bringing people over."
And if that's the case, who will try your new roasted vegetables and 300-count sheets?
A change of job may be the last thing on your mind in 2005. Barry Dunkin, a Baltimore-based career counselor says that should never be the case.
"You should always be challenging yourself," says Dunkin. "A lot of people get complacent. I don't think that's healthy for people. They don't necessarily need to be changing jobs, but they can look for new opportunities or additional projects.
"I think everybody can get closer to what their ideal job may be. I say to anybody, there's always something better. How do you know there's not someone out there willing to pay you $10,000 more a year for the same job?"
Then again, says Dunkin, if you dread the thought of going in to work most mornings, it's definitely time for a change.
"Everybody has days when there are things they're not looking forward to, but if those days are more often than not, you need to figure out what's wrong," says Dunkin. "In personality, skills and values, usually you can find something that's not congruent. The values one tells me a lot about the individual. I find out what their ten most important values are. Which are you getting at your current job? Often, it's only two or three. That's why you're unhappy. People tend not to look at the values of their job."
An example Dunkin offers is of an accountant working for a cutthroat company, when his values might find him better aligned with doing the same accounting job for a non-profit organization.
But whether it's a hard change or just keeping an ear to the ground, Dunkin says there is no substitute for professional networking.
"With most professions, you need to stay current," he advises. "One of the best ways is to join the association related to whatever field you're in. Networking is one of the most important ways to find a job. Some statistics say 75 percent of the jobs are filled with networking contacts. One of the misconceptions today is that I can sit at home and put my résumé on all these websites and the jobs will come to me. The Internet is a great source for research, but the best way to get a job is to make that personal contact."
And Dunkin says January is a great time to get the ball rolling. "You look at the business quarters, and that's when traditional hiring starts," he says. "Now is the beginning of a quarter. Companies as well as individuals think this is a good time to make a change."
Michael Radkowsky, a clinical psychologist who helps his clients improve their sex lives, among other things, urges people to meet the new year with their eyes wide open.
"Open your eyes, literally," Radkowsky instructs, regardless of the scenario or the partner. "Pay attention during sex. It's being present, not losing yourself in your head. Really pay attention to what you're doing and who you're with. Have some awareness that you're with a person and not just his dick. If your eyes are closed, you're probably thinking about some porn star or your last fuck, but not the person you're with. I think that sex is an act of connecting with another person. If you're solely on the pole of fantasy, you're missing out on something."
Radkowsky says that in his practice, he sees both male and female clients, couples and singles. He insists that the simple rule of trying to be more aware, more "present" during any liaison works across the board if the goal is hotter sex.
"I think sex is an interpersonal act," he explains. "Even if you're not having a relationship, but you're with someone sexually, to me it makes it hotter the more connected you can be."
Knowledge of your partner is important, he says, but he notes that "one size doesn't fit all" when it comes to improving one's sex life.
"I'm not going on an anti-open-relationship rampage," he says. "People really do have to think for themselves. There are disadvantages [to monogamy], too. You can miss out on more varied sexual experiences."
Although he says open relationships have some merit for some people, the biggest risk in those relationships is when one partner doesn't know just how open the relationship actually is.
"Secrecy and dishonesty really erode a relationship," Radkowsky says. "Anger, resentment and secrets all get in the way of having hot sex."
If Radkowsky's first rule for better sex in 2005 is to keep your eyes open and pay attention to what and whom you're doing, the second rule is to learn to speak up about what you want.
"Talk about your sexual likes and dislikes," Radkowsky suggests. "Doing so may not be easy, you may be uncomfortable at first, but you can get better at it."
Because gay people aren't raised to talk about their sexual needs, it's particularly important for them to learn how.
"Our earliest sexual experience is hiding our sexuality. For everyone it's different, but for gay people it's more because we're taught to hide our sexuality from the very start."
Radkowsky reckons that breaking out of that training can lead to more sexual fulfillment, despite the risk of possible embarrassment.
"If you start to talk about what you want sexually, with a pick-up or the love of your life, there's always the risk the other person will say, ‘No, sorry, I can't give you that.' But the benefit is that you might get clear with yourself what you really want and have a better chance of getting it."
The most common resolutions heard at the start of any new year are health-related. That's a loosely-defined "health," which could generally mean anything that involves sweating and looking better.
"This is the time of year when most people come in," confirms Michael Everts, owner of FIT personal training at 17th and Q streets, NW. "People also get a little out of control with eating at the holidays."
For those so resolved, says Everts, the first step is getting into a gym and getting started on a routine. "Don't try to solve all of your problems at once," he cautions. "Fitness takes time. You've got to have a steady goal."
Even though nobody walks into a gym looking like Drew Carey only to walk out an hour later looking like Matt Damon, Everts says a routine will begin producing results fairly soon.
"If you're working out properly, you're going to see a tightening of the waist," Everts offers. "You're going to feel more energy. Your body will feel tighter, even if you don't see a change. Your changes are going to be gradual. What you want to do is keep in mind how you feel and how you look."
Not everybody makes resolutions, though. Some people may be no more likely to walk into a gym on January 1 than on June 1. Maybe some of them should reconsider.
"Look at your posture," Everts suggests. "Do you slouch in your chair? That's a sign of poor body alignment. Are you out of breath from walking two blocks? Are you taking the elevator instead of walking two flights? Are you eating donuts for breakfast? Are most of your beverages alcohol and soda, instead of water or fruit juice?"
"Yes" answers to any of those questions are signs that you are out of shape and taxing your health.
A low-cost way to get on a healthy track, says Everts, is with yoga classes, flexibility classes or short-term personal training.
"It's best to avoid following your buddies' routines, purchasing a one machine do-it-all product from TV, or gyms that offer small-group discount personal training," he adds.
If even those ideas seem like too much of a commitment, there are even smaller pledges you can make to your health, says Everts. Some examples are getting off the Metro a stop early and walking the difference, delivering a message at the office on foot instead of by e-mail, or socializing with physical activity like bowling or tennis instead of just drinking at a bar.
Or maybe your 2005 health commitment would be to do nothing?
Actually, doing nothing is not that easy, says Andrew Hudson, founder of Mintwood Zendo. His GLBT group meets regularly in the Dupont Circle area for Zen meditation.
"It's much harder to sit still and breath than you think," Hudson shares. "Your mind gets very active. You want to itch or you have aches. You just have to sit through it."
Hudson's group is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and he estimates they've helped hundreds of people find some peace over the years.
"One thing I've noticed is...after some months, their faces change," Hudson observes. "It's not this disturbed, conflicted, knotted-up sort of face, but open and smiling. This is very evident. When you come regularly, you get something out of it.
"Anytime you sit, it kind of calms you down. Anytime you stop, you calm down. It's almost like the technology of today is so invasive and complicated and pushy, that we've gone beyond people with Walkmans in their ears, to people having phone conversations on the sidewalk. There is less and less quietness."
There is a place, however, where the Zen mind and the gym body meet, Hudson says sweetly: "Beautiful people are really a delight. One Buddhist teacher talked about being attracted to men. If he saw someone beautiful, he would thank God for a beautiful vision."
There are a few different definitions for "karma." Basically, it's a belief found in both Hinduism and Buddhism relating to good actions in this life that will help you in the next. Whatever the source of karma, there seems to be a universal respect for doing good deeds.
Burgundy Crescent Volunteers take this to heart regularly. The local group supplies GLBT labor to a number of worthy causes year-round. Eric Cohen and Jonathan Blumenthal, who are partners, founded the group. After a bit of discussion between the two, Cohen submitted a list of ideas would definitely be considered good deeds, and couldn't help but improve a person's karma in 2005.
"Clean out your closets," Cohen says. "Make room for next season's fashions and give your closets some elbow room by...giving your clothes to one of the many organizations that pass them on to needy folks in the area. If you haven't worn it in two years, it definitely goes."
Cohen says the same idea holds for unwanted holiday gifts and canned, high-carb holiday foods that may still be haunting your pantry.
Food & Friends can use food and other household items, while Green Door can use clothing and household items, says Cohen. Green Door helps people with mental illness lead independent lives.
A more intimate deed, says Cohen, is to make gifts rather than buy them. "Don't buy something that stands a good chance of making it to a landfill," he chides. "It doesn't have to be fancy. I'm not talking about sculpting a Venus de Milo. What I am talking about is making a card, baking a plate of cookies, or making a gift basket of gourmet foods or salon products. [Recipients] will cherish your handmade gift, and realize it took a lot more time, effort and love than plopping down your credit card."
With his obvious bias, Cohen's last suggestion for a Karmic New Year You is to volunteer.
"You'll meet lots of different people in relaxed social settings, and because you'll be working together you will instantly have something to talk about," he says. "Besides, you have to admit, drawing your next friend or lover from people who are nice enough to make the world a better place might be a very good idea."