From online shopping to gifting devices, technology plays a huge role in the holidays, this Houston expert says. Getty Images

Like clockwork, the holidays are here again. Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday have all successfully come and gone, but yet, many of us are still left with presents to purchase and to-do lists to complete. Houstonians are expected to spend $1,562 this holiday season completing their holiday shopping. That is up three percent from last year.

While Houstonians expect to spend over $500 on gifts for loved ones, a whopping $606 will be spent on "experiences" and $421 on non-gift items such as clothing and home furnishings as they gear up for the holiday season with parties and houseguests.

What are Americans planning to buy this holiday season? Nationwide, 74 percent of Americans are expected to spend $97.1 billion on technology gifts this holiday season. According to a survey, the number one technology gift for this year is content-related gifts such as video games or streaming services. The days of buying discs or consulting the TV Guide are long gone. Americans are looking for ways to stream music, movies, and TV shows.

Other hot technology gadgets include smart speakers, smart phones, TVs, laptops, tablets, and wearables. Smart camera doorbells, which allow residents to see who is at their door, and smart lightbulbs, which enable lighting to be controlled remotely through the internet, continue to climb the gift-giving lists.

Technology is playing a significant role in how we make our purchases. Fifty-six percent of Americans are planning to buy their holiday items online, with only 36 percent obtaining gifts and other seasonal items in brick and mortar locations. Many of us are ordering gifts right from our smart phones.

All this spending on others, while thoughtful, is bound to get some of us in financial hot water. The key is to budget. Set a budget for each person you plan to shop for, such as family members, colleagues, friends, even for service providers such as your hairstylist. Once your budget is set, stick to it. I have found that using a spreadsheet to track expenses is helpful, or good old-fashioned pen and paper works well, too. You may be surprised how quickly your expenditures add up, even the small ones. Tracking is an excellent way to stay accountable to your budget.

Last year, the average consumer racked up over $1,000 in debt as part of their holiday shopping. By budgeting wisely, you can avoid debt. While credit cards are convenient, sometimes they make it a little too easy to spend more than planned. Not staying within your budget can give you quite a spending hangover in January. To combat credit card overuse, use cash whenever possible.

Additionally, limit your shopping days. The less you visit stores or malls, the less likely you are to be tempted. Moreover, purchasing online can help you stick to your budget, just be careful not to spend more than your budget allows. Another smart strategy to cut costs is to select items with free shipping over fast shipping.

With the holidays quickly approaching, ensure you are smart about your holiday spending. Technology is a fantastic and convenient avenue for shopping. And, our smart phones have provided us another avenue in which to compare prices and look for deals. Whichever channel you choose to shop — bricks and mortar or cybershopping — ensure you stick to smart spending.

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Dominic Cellitti is a financial adviser with the Wealth Management Division of Morgan Stanley in Houston.

Think about the power of impact investing this Earth Day. Getty Images

Impact investing is shaping the future of the world, says this Houston expert

Earth day

For almost 50 years, Earth Day has been recognized as the largest civic-focused day of action in the world. Since April 22, 1970, Americans have sought out ways to be stewards of the environment through planting trees, riding a bike to work, or cleaning up a community garden. While these actions are admirable, other strategies and tools are also available that can have a positive impact on the environment.

Investors are getting behind companies that put environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors as priorities in their operations. According to a 2018 survey by the Morgan Stanley Institute for Sustainable Investing and Morgan Stanley Investment Management, 84 percent of respondents are considering or currently pursuing ESG investing.

ESG policies may include issues such as safety policies, human rights, and climate change. These policies may not be part of the traditional financial analysis but can still have financial applications. Investors have the opportunity to financially support and affect change in companies that are taking the lead on ESG policies. This is impact investing. With impact investing, companies and individuals can shape the future with money that is already slated to be invested.

According to the Morgan Stanley survey mentioned above, more than $22.8 trillion is invested sustainably. As the impact investing movement continues to grow, we are seeing an increase in funds dedicated to social and environmental change. According to the 2018 survey, 77 percent of asset owners believe they have a responsibility to address sustainability through investing. And, 31 percent of the respondents said climate change is their leading focus.

If you are interested in incorporating impact investing into your portfolio, the first step is to choose your social and environmental investment criteria. In honor of Earth Day, you may be interested in focusing on green investing in industries or causes such as clean water and alternative energy. Or, you may be interested in investing in corporations that have made strides in environmental sustainability and clean technology.

Next, determine the best way for you to invest. Whether by debt, equity, or assets, impact investing can involve making the kinds of investment decisions that regular investors are generally making anyway, such as buying stocks and bonds in Fortune 500 companies or broadly diversified mutual funds. According to respondents in the Morgan Stanley survey, public equities and real assets, such as infrastructure and real estate, are the most attractive asset classes for sustainable investing.

A common concern with impact investing is whether investing with a strong focus on ESG will give investors a rate of return needed to meet their investment goals (i.e. retirement, college savings). According to a study by the Global Impact Investing Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping break down barriers to impact investing, 82 percent of respondents said their investments made an impact and 76 percent were pleased with the financial performance. Additionally, another 15 percent reported outperformance across each of these dimensions.

As investors are pursuing ESG practices and investments, a large number of companies are continuing to incorporate measures such as water and energy conservation into their ESG policies. Corporate boards and investors are incentivizing their CEOs to provide high-quality, diverse workplaces that lead to greater employee satisfaction, retention, and productivity while having a social and environmental impact. Whether investing in organizations or corporations, impact investing provides a way for investors to tackle big problems with their money. This Earth Day, on Monday, April 22, you can identify investments that can help you achieve your financial goals as well as satisfying your desire to have an impact.

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Dominic Cellitti is a financial adviser with the wealth management division of Morgan Stanley in Houston.

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2 COVID-19-focused research projects happening in Houston

research roundup

While it might seem like the COVID-19 pandemic has settled down for the time being, there's plenty of innovative research ongoing to create solutions for affordable vaccines and tech-enabled protection against the spread of the virus.

Some of that research is happening right here in Houston. Here are two innovative projects in the works at local institutions.

UH researcher designs app to monitor best times to shop

A UH professor is putting safe shopping at your fingertips. Photo via UH.edu

When is the best time to run an errand in the pandemic era we currently reside? There might be an app for that. Albert Cheng, professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is working on a real-time COVID-19 infection risk assessment and mitigation system. He presented his plans at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference HPC for Urgent Decision Making and will publish the work in IEEE Xplore.

Cheng's work analyzes up-to-date data from multiple open sources to see when is the best time to avoid crowds and accomplish activities outside the home.

"Preliminary work has been performed to determine the usability of a number of COVID-19 data websites and other websites such as grocery stores and restaurants' popular times and traffic," Cheng says in a UH release. "Other data, such as vaccination rates and cultural factors (for example, the percentage of people willing to wear facial coverings or masks in an area), are also used to determine the best grocery store to shop in within a time frame."

To use the app, a user would input their intended destinations and the farthest distance willing to go, as well as the time frame of the trip. The risk assessment and mitigation system, or RT-CIRAM, then "provides as output the target location and the time interval to reach there that would reduce the chance of infections," said Cheng.

There's a lot to it, says Cheng, and the process is highly reliant on technology.

"We are leveraging urgent high-performance cloud computing, coupled with time-critical scheduling and routing techniques, along with our expertise in real-time embedded systems and cyber-physical systems, machine learning, medical devices, real-time knowledge/rule-based decision systems, formal verification, functional reactive systems, virtualization and intrusion detection," says Cheng.

2 Houston hospitals team up with immunotherapy company for new vaccine for Africa

The new vaccine will hopefully help mitigate spread of the disease in Sub-Saharan Africa. Photo via bcm.edu

Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital have teamed up with ImmunityBio Inc. — a clinical-stage immunotherapy company — under a licensing agreement to develop a safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccine.

BCM has licensed out a recombinant protein COVID-19 vaccine candidate that was developed at the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development to ImmunityBio. According to the release, the company engaged in license negotiations with the BCM Ventures team, about the vaccine that could address the current pandemic needs in South Africa.

"We hope that our COVID-19 vaccine for global health might become an important step towards advancing vaccine development capacity in South Africa, and ultimately for all of Sub-Saharan Africa," says Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor and co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

ImmunityBio, which was founded in 2014 by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, is working on innovative immunotherapies that address serious unmet needs in infectious diseases, according to a news release from BCM.

"There is a great need for second-generation vaccines, which are accessible, durable and offer broad protection against the emerging variants," says Soon-Shiong. "ImmunityBio has executed on a heterologous ("mix-and-match") strategy to develop a universal COVID-19 vaccine. To accomplish this, we have embarked upon large-scale good manufacturing practices and development of DNA (adenovirus), RNA (self-amplifying mRNA) and subunit protein (yeast) vaccine platforms. This comprehensive approach will leverage our expertise in these platforms for both infectious disease and cancer therapies."

Elon Musk taps into Texas workforce for out-of-this-world bartender gig

DRINKING ON THE JOB

Can you mix a mean margarita? Are you capable of slinging a superb Aperol spritz? If so, Elon Musk wants you to become a "spaceport mixologist."

Musk's SpaceX, which builds and launches rockets, is hiring a "passionate, experienced" mixologist for its "spaceport" near Brownsville. The ideal candidate possesses at least two years of "superior" mixology experience at resorts, bars, and full-service restaurants, including the ability to pair drinks with themed menus.

Among other duties, the mixologist will prepare drinks, including handcrafted cocktails, and will ensure "consistency and compliance with the restaurant's recipes, portioning, and waste control guidelines."

The new mixologist will concoct alcoholic beverages for SpaceX's launch facility in Boca Chica, a Texas Gulf Coast community about 20 miles east of Brownsville. The job posting indicates the mixologist will work on the culinary team serving the SpaceX workforce.

According to Austin-based job website Indeed, the average mixologist in the U.S. earns $13.53 an hour. The SpaceX job posting doesn't list a salary, but you've got to imagine Musk — by far the richest person in Texas — would fork over more than $13.53 an hour for a spaceport mixologist.

By the way, in case you're not a master mixologist, SpaceX also is looking for a sous chef in Boca Chica. The sous chef will be tasked with cooking up menus that emphasize seasonal items and "creative" options. The chef's duties will include sourcing high-quality ingredients "with a focus on local, sustainable, and organic items."

Musk, who spends much of his time in Austin, is developing what the Bloomberg news service describes as an "empire" in Texas. Aside from the SpaceX facility, Musk-led Tesla is building a vehicle manufacturing plant just east of Austin and is moving its headquarters here. If that weren't enough, the Musk-founded Boring Co., which specializes in developing underground tunnels, lists 20 job openings in Austin on its website. In addition, SpaceX tests rocket engines at a site in McGregor, about 17 miles southwest of Waco.

"Texas has had its share of characters over the years, and many have been larger-than-life, wealthy risk-takers who came from elsewhere," Waco economist Ray Perryman tells Bloomberg. "There's still a wildcatting mentality here, and there's still a mystique about Texas that Elon Musk fits well."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.