Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Search and Ye Shall Receive: Audit Freedom, Paperless Statements, and College Superstars

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , , , ,

comic 19 - tax return

You search for it, you get it here at Punny Money with our not-too-frequent feature Search and Ye Shall Receive. Today we look at three search engine queries that brought some people seeking financial enlightenment to this humble quadrant of the internet.

Since the IRS Gave Me a Refund, Will They Not Come After Me For Deducting My Hair Extensions?

If you get your tax refund, will you not be audited? (via Google)

Oh if only it were that easy. No, my friend, when you get that delicious little refund check in your hands, your IRS worries are only just beginning. Uncle Sam has three years from the day your tax return is filed (or the April 15th deadline, whichever is later) to audit your return. If it establishes that you owe money, it has up to ten years to come after you for it. And if it determines that you filed a fraudulent return (i.e. you claimed your weekly visits to the local brothel as a “medical expense”), there’s absolutely no statute of limitations.

So always live in a state of paranoia because you will get audited and chipmunks are waiting to steal your car keys when you go to work tomorrow.

What Benefit Is There to Not Having My Account Information Sent By Pieces of Paper Anyone Can Steal?

What are the benefits of paperless statements? (via Google)

Well, I kinda gave away one of the answers to this question in the snarky headline; getting your bank and credit card account statements sent to you online is about 83 thousand times safer than having them molested by half the U.S. Postal Service before being deposited in a mailbox that’s about as easy to break into as a papier-mache ATM machine. But there are other benefits than just security to keeping stacks and stacks of statements from hitting your home:

  • It takes up less room in your trash can.
  • It saves you time spent weeding out junk mail from important account information.
  • It’s easier to store electronic statements for years than shoe boxes full of papers.

I Can Has College?

Can I go to college? (via Yahoo!)

Without knowing anything else about your situation, and basing my answer solely off your question, I would say no.

Oddly enough, someone else searched for the phrase “I can go to college” shortly after this query was received. To this person, I say congratulations and I look forward to having my Big Macs served by you in the future.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Lettering Shortage May Help Thwart $4 Gas

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 18 - gas recipe

San Francisco, CA—Some U.S. cities may be only days away from hitting historic average gas prices. In California, where the average price of a gallon of gas is a country-leading $3.90, consumers are feeling the pinch every time they fill up their tanks. But it’s not a shortage of refined petroleum that has gas station owners in San Francisco worried.

“I’m out of fours,” says Bill Jacobson, owner of Jacobson’s Gas ‘n’ Carry on Route 1 near Golden Gate Park. The signs along the road next to his service station tell the story of just how high gas prices are in the area: $3.97 for regular unleaded, $4.11 for mid-grade, and $4.23 for premium. “Them’s the only fours I got.”

A recent shortage of gas price billboard lettering—those large plastic numbers that gas station attendants are now changing as often as three or four times a week—is about to have a big impact on gas prices nationwide. Due to supply-chain problems and higher shipping and manufacturing costs, makers of the plastic numbers aren’t able to keep up with the recent demand from service stations for certain digits, particularly the number “4″ which may soon be as ubiquitous on gas station signs as “1″ was during the 1990s.

“I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” mulls Jacobson. “I just found out I’ve gotta raise my prices four cents starting with Wednesday’s shipment, but I can’t do that.” He points to a pile of plastic numbers over in the corner of his storage room. There are plenty of most numbers, especially “1″s, but the number “4″ is noticeably missing. Most sign kits like Jacobson’s date back to the 1980s and were only issued with two of each number above three. That’s because sign makers didn’t anticipate prices ever reaching the four-dollar mark—at least not for a century or two.

“We just can’t keep up with the demand,” says Nancy McMann of Industrial Signs, Inc. “We used to sell maybe 1,000 individual fours a year. Now we have back orders for 100,000.” McMann continues by explaining that the complexity of the shape of the number four means that they normally only print gas station fours using a special and expensive sign-making machine two or three days a year. “We’ve got the four machine going twenty-four-seven now, but we just can’t get them out the door fast enough.”

McMann isn’t complaining though; the huge demand for fours has allowed her company to charge much higher prices for the numbers. Whereas the typical individually-sold gas price number goes for $20, Industrial Signs, Inc. has been charging over $700 for each of its fours. And gas station owners are paying up; on eBay, used fours have been selling at auction for as high as $1,500 a pop.

First Gas Theft, Now Gas Price Theft

In some cities, rising fuel costs have prompted a few fed-up consumers to turn fugitive. Nationwide, the rate of gasoline theft has nearly tripled since 2006, but a new type of crime has recently started striking service stations.

“Last week, I had to chase after some punks who were making off with my fours.” Jim Ferguson, owner of several gas stations along Route 101 in San Francisco, recalls his run-in with a group of price sign bandits. “I made the mistake of selling gas at $3.44 a gallon. I realize now I was asking to be a victim.”

Stealing the fours has become somewhat of a rebellious act in underground circles dedicated to fighting high gas prices. Websites like ShowYour4s.com and MovingFourward.com have started popping up in recent weeks, inviting users to showcase pictures of themselves posing with stolen gas station fours.

“I can’t afford to replace the fours if they’re stolen,” says Ferguson, who pursued his sign thieves down Route 101 at 11 o’clock at night. A police report filed by Ferguson says the crooks finally dropped the stolen signs after being chased by Ferguson for nearly 20 minutes. “Insurance will only cover the price I paid for those letters—about $7 each back in 1990.”

Other gas stations along Route 101 haven’t been so lucky. At least a dozen four-sign thefts have been reported in the area since the start of April. Most were taken during the brief period of three dollar forty-something cent gas prices earlier in the month. The surge of sign thefts prompted most gas stations to jump to $3.50 gasoline ahead of price increases solely to keep their fours safe.

LED Sign Sales Skyrocketing

Thanks to the four shortage and the recent rash of sign thefts, sales of LED (light-emitting diode) gas price signs have jumped in the first quarter of 2008.

McMann’s Industrial Signs, Inc. also makes the LED signs. She states that orders for the easy-to-maintain, all-electronic signs are backlogged through 2009. And for many gas station operators who have resisted the change from manual, plastic lettering signs to LED billboards due to the expense of the high-tech signs, the cost of replacement fours may finally push them to make the switch.

Ferguson ordered several of the signs for his stations back in January, but they won’t be installed until at least June due to high demand for the signs and a lack of skilled installers.

“I’ll just have to hold out with the handful of fours I have on hand until then.” Ferguson holds up two of the coveted plastic fours. “Once the new electronic signs are in place, I’ll sell these fours to help pay for them new signs.”

Five Dollar Gas Soon???

Bill Jacobson isn’t as lucky. He can’t afford the LED signs, even after considering the money he could make selling his used sign numbers. He says he may be faced with difficult decisions if his fours are stolen by price vigilantes.

“If my prices are at four and a quarter and someone makes off with the four, I may have to skip right to five dollars.” Jacobson shrugs and adds, “I’ve got plenty of fives.”

Such drastic measures may not be necessary in other cities where gas station operators can replace missing or stolen fours with temporary measures like numbers scrawled on cardboard. Unfortunately for San Franciscan gas vendors, a law dating back to the 1960s designed to prevent “the uglification of our fair city” prohibits adjustable lettering on commercial signs from being replaced with anything other than matching letters. Thus, number thieves trying to fight rising prices may see their efforts backfire as service stations are forced to substitute fives in place of fours.

Ferguson already has a plan for when his fours are, as he puts it, “inevitably stolen in the next few weeks. I’ll raise my prices to five dollars but give away dollar-off coupons on the corner. People will think they’re getting a bargain.”

Thursday, April 24, 2008

What Sort of Lunatics Bought the 55,000 Hummers Sold Last Year?

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 17 - miles per gallon

It should come as no surprise in these times of high gas prices, environmental crusades, and rampant judgmentality that sales of large, gas-guzzling automobiles are slowing. People seem to finally understand that they can just as easily fit two kids in the back of a Honda Fit as they can in a 12-door SUV. Well, most people seem to understand this. Somewhere in this country are 55,986 people who bought Hummers in 2007.

In case you live under a rock big enough that a Hummer hasn’t crushed it yet, Hummer is a brand of personal battle tank created during the 1980s to fight Nazi zombies. This vehicle, known as the “Humvee” or “Human-crushing Vehicle,” was so successful at repelling the zombie invasion that Hummer decided to modify it and sell it for general civilian use. Unfortunately this meant that all of the useful features of the Humvee, such as the armor and weapons emplacements, were removed leaving only the less useful features such as low gas mileage, high maintenance costs, and the inability to fit the damn thing into a garage.

Still, Hummer’s H1 vehicle sold quite well during the 1990s and early 2000s; and when Hummer rolled out its slightly smaller and more practical H2 and H3 models, those too went flying off stores shelves. Today, Hummer only produces H2 and H3 models, the latter of which is a full ton lighter than the former. Those extra 2,000 pounds on the H2 translate to abysmal fuel economy—an average of just 13 miles per gallon—though the H3 doesn’t do much better at just 15 MPG. Thanks almost certainly to the skyrocketing price of gasoline, H2 sales fell by over 50% from the previous year in 2007, and there are rumors that the H2 will be discontinued altogether within a few years.

As I pumped that $3.60 premium into my 32-mpg MINI Cooper this morning, I saw an H2 and two H3s go by in less than five minutes. It occurred to me that those drivers would be paying almost $7.50 to go the same distance I go on $3.60. This just begs the question: why did anyone by a brand new Hummer last year, much less 55,000 of them? I would think you could get a used Hummer from someone tired of paying through the nose for gas for about $50; but even then, why would you sentence your wallet to a slow, painful death by driving?

Some people might argue that they need a Hummer for hauling around heavy objects or keeping their families safe. Sure, a Hummer could pretty much carry the population of Rhode Island from Point A to Point B, but so could a much cheaper pickup with significantly better gas mileage. And as for the safety features of the Hummer, they’re severely overrated; something that big takes forever to bring to a stop, and there are several now-standard safety features missing from many Hummer models.

So this leads us to only one possible conclusion: 55,000 eco-terrorists bought Hummers last year and will use them to collapse the ozone layer and kill us all… assuming we don’t kill each other over high gas prices first.

Which we will.

And soon.

Like, by Tuesday.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Budgets Are Overrated

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics:

comic 16 - budget

(My apologies to the 17 people who just had heart attacks after reading the title.)

I’m sorry, but it’s true. While any personal finance expert will tell you that you must have a budget or else you’re going to spend all of your money and end up homeless and destitute, that’s not always the case. For example, I know for a fact that there’s a guy in Kansas who doesn’t have a budget and he has $8,000 in the bank right now. Shocked? I was too!

All right, I’ll stop being a smart-ass for a minute. (Stopwatch start.) It’s very possible to survive and thrive financially without putting together a detailed budget and sticking to it. I know a few people who do just that, but they’re either too rich to spend all of the money they have no matter how hard they try, or they work too much to have a chance to spend it all.

And then there are people like Stephanie over at Poorer Than You—someone who doesn’t have a budget or a million dollars, and she’s doing just fine, thank-you-very-much. Oh, and before you ask, I do have a budget, but if you promise not to tell anyone, I’ll let you in on a little bold-texted secret:

I totally ignore my budget.

If I fire up Quicken, you’ll see that I have a very nice little monthly budget that looks something like this:

Housing 35%
Groceries 5%
Dining 5%
Entertainment 5%
Utilities 5%
Education 5%
Charity 5%
Ceramic Rooster Collection 5%
Miscellaneous Expenses 5%
Straight to Savings 25%

When I first put this budget together a couple of years ago, I religiously checked it against our actual expenses every month for several consecutive months only to find out that we never came close to overrunning our budget numbers. So I stopped checking. And you know what? Looking back now, sometimes we went over our budget numbers. For example, in December of 2007, we spent 7% of our income on charity. And yet, we still met our savings goal for the month. How? Well, in my mind, I knew that we were giving a bit more to charity that month (though I didn’t know exactly how much), so I cut back on funding my ceramic rooster collection a bit.

Some other months, we only contributed 25% or 20% or even 15% of our income to savings due to unexpected or higher-than-usual expenses. But then other months, we contributed 30% or more of our income to savings.

For all intents and purposes, we don’t have a budget since having a budget sort of implies actively following it and trying to meet it consistently. In any given year, we do meet our budget—and with plenty of room to spare—but it’s not through excessive penny-counting or obsessive record-keeping. It kind of just… happens.

Well, maybe it doesn’t just happen. We do have some degree of natural financial discipline, so we’re not in the habit of dropping $3,000 on a whim. Plenty of people don’t have that sort of discipline, so a budget might help them guide their spending and meet their financial goals. But saying that everyone needs a budget is just plain wrong. Sounds like someone should rename their software to something not so insisting.

Perhaps a better way of putting it is you either need a budget or the financial discipline to function without one. (Stopwatch finish.) I guess that means only reckless people need budgets?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Five Great Legal Ways to Sell, Lease, or Rent Your Body

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics:

comic 15 - medical testing

Based on the frighteningly large group of people who asked for more details on my April Fools joke about how I whore out my wife, there are a lot of folks out there looking to make money with their bodies. And I’m not talking physical labor or traditional hard work. With these jobs, you’ll be using what your momma gave you to earn what your momma didn’t give you—lots and lots of cash.

  1. Surrogate mother. Is your womb sitting idly by, much like an unrented apartment unit? Lots of desperate mothers with malfunctioning girl parts will pay you big bucks to lease your lady property for nine months. Unfortunately you won’t be able to do certain things during that time like drink or bungee jump, but a well-qualified surrogate with a finer vagina can earn thousands of dollars per pregnancy.
  2. Medical guinea pig. Depending on your tolerance for exposing your body to mysterious chemicals and brand new treatments, you could make hundreds of dollars weekly letting science inject you, scan you, and poke you. In addition to taking home some dollars and maybe a few interesting side effects, you’ll also have the satisfaction of knowing that you’re helping to save future generations from horrible diseases like baldness and nine-fingeredness.
  3. Professional model. Whether your hands, your legs, or even your ears are your best features, there’s someone out there who will pay you to show them off, usually with some sort of clothes or jewelry on them. Photographic models can earn a couple hundred dollars per shoot. And if you don’t mind showcasing imaginary clothes on your body, you could earn even more!
  4. Food tester. Somewhere out there is a small set of people with my dream job—getting paid to eat and drink. Some such testers working for gourmet food manufacturers can bring in $50,000 or more a year. Unfortunately the requirements for getting such a job are pretty high; you’ll need a discerning tongue and a wide vocabulary that includes words like “pétillant” and “vociferous.”
  5. Stunt double. Do you like falling out of buildings and running around on fire? If so, and you haven’t been committed to a mental institution, then you may enjoy a rewarding career as a professional stuntperson. For risking life and limb to keep people entertained, you’ll take home a paycheck in the tens of thousands but far less than the actors and actresses you’re working to help keep safe.

Of course, if you’re particularly hard up for money, you could try all five jobs at the same time. I’m pretty sure a stunt-tasting drug-testing maternity-wear model could easily rake in eighty jillion dollars every 57 seconds… because you probably wouldn’t live much longer than that putting your body through all that abuse—I mean, fun!