Thursday, August 28, 2008

Those Economic Stimulus Checks Worked, Proved Americans Dumb As Ever With “Free” Money

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics:

comic 54 - mail thief

Think back to the olden days of May and June 2008 when all anyone could talk about were those blasted economic stimulus rebates. The general consensus at the time was, yes please give us money, but don’t expect it to help the economy one bit. That’s because everyone feared that the U.S. population would suddenly grow a collective brain cell and decide to save and invest their money rather than go out and spend it on giant TVs and Nintendo Wii systems.

Fortunately, us U.S. Americans proved to be just as stupid as ever with sudden influxes of cash, and the economic stimulus package seems to have worked exactly as it was planned: the economy grew by 3.3% in the second quarter of the year, pretty much putting a nail in the coffin of recession fears. It seems people really did blow their stimulus checks on skydiving lessons and Hannah Montana concert tickets, once again fueling my fears that any wacky crap I write here seems to come horribly true.

So what’s next for the economy? Is this the “all clear” signal we’ve been waiting for? Can banks go back to giving out $800,000 mortgages to Wal-Mart cashiers? Should you start direct depositing your paycheck at your local shopping mall again? The answer to these questions is a resounding… prossably, a word I just invented meaning both probably and possibly. That 3.3% figure may very well be a fluke, the eye of the hurricane that may soon leave the U.S. economy under 12 feet of water and I.O.U.’s to other countries. Or it might truly be an indication that the worst is behind us.

Either way, there’s little hope at this point that people have learned from their financial mistakes of the last decade or so, so I fully expect this economic crisis will continue to repeat itself every 10 or 15 years. Of course, if you really want to be one of those people who learns from their mistakes, then please make sure you’re walking away from this chapter of American history with the following notes on your cheat sheet:

  1. Don’t spend money you don’t have on things you don’t need. If you’re ever tempted to max out your credit cards with a shopping spree at your favorite clothier, please consider wearing the clothes you already own instead. Or just go naked, but only if you’re an attractive woman.
  2. You can’t afford that house. You know that huge house you want over there? Yes, that one I’m pointing at right now. You can’t afford the mortgage payments on it. Don’t ask me how I know; I just know. You can afford that house over there. Yes, the one next door to the crap factory.
  3. You need to save some money. Remember a few months ago when everyone was losing their jobs and lining up for unemployment and soup kitchens and living under freeway on-ramps? If you don’t, consider yourself lucky. The next time a financial crisis rears its ugly head, if you don’t have a cash cushion tucked away somewhere, you might be one missed paycheck away from being out on the streets.
  4. You can’t rely on the government to bail you out every time. There are likely a lot of people for whom those stimulus checks were the only thing keeping them from utter financial turmoil… at least for now. Don’t expect Congress or the President or the Tooth Fairy to save your broke ass every time your bank account is getting empty. Instead, learn to secure your own financial future, and assume for all practical purposes that the government isn’t even there at all—well, except when it wants its tax money.
  5. You need to stop listening to what everyone else is saying about the economy and start looking at your own economy. Employment could be as high as 20%, but if you’re in a high-demand job making good money, investing wisely and spending cautiously, you’ll likely be able to weather even the worst of nationwide financial disasters.

Stay tuned to see what the third quarter of 2008 brings for the economy. And since my prognostications of late seem to come eerily true, I’d like to forecast that July through September will see ridiculous financial growth brought on by me winning every major lottery jackpot in the nation and then spending all of the winnings on constructing the world’s tallest and longest sandwich extending across the entire length of the Mojave Desert (a.k.a. the country’s largest sandwich toaster).

Monday, August 25, 2008

Be Your Own Vending Machine At Work For Fun and Profit

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

comic 53 - vending genie

Long-time readers will know that I have a penchant for eating. In fact, I just finished eating the entire country of Denmark. Okay, perhaps not Denmark, but a much smaller country nobody really cares about. Suffice it to say I like the yummies.

Usually around mid-afternoon at work, I’ll get the craving for a snack. Over the years, I’ve dealt with this craving in a variety of ways, including:

  • Ignoring it. This is what I do about 98% of the time. Part of this is due to my desire not to gain 300 pounds, and part of it is due to my desire not to lose 300 pounds… sterling. Get it? It’s a currency joke. That would have killed at the World Bank. Anyway…
  • Being prepared for it. A couple of years ago, I usually made sure to have a supply of snacks on hand at work for when this craving called. My favorite emergency food supply consisted of a six-gallon tub of assorted snackery including pretzels, cheese puffs, and other stuff with no nutritional value whatsoever. I had to give up this plan, however, as I would sometimes polish off the entire tub in one day if things weren’t going well at work.
  • Giving in to the vending machine. This is probably the worst way to deal with mid-afternoon snack cravings. I’ve only done it a few times in nearly five years and always because my brain and stomach just wouldn’t shut up otherwise. I try to keep my wallet low on cash just so I’m not tempted to go the vending machine route at work.

There’s one more snack-attack counterattack tactic that I’ve been employing for the last couple of years: giving in to the communal snack box. Working in a computer lab environment, the head of the lab often goes out and buys snacks for everyone else who works there, usually asking for a small donation put into a change bucket to cover the cost of the snack. For instance, our current “Lab Daddy” purchases boxes and boxes of packages of pretzel bites and requests a donation of 28 cents each time you take a bag to help cover his costs.

It occurred to me earlier today, while eating my sixth bag of lab pretzels in as many days, that this little enterprise is quite ingenious and perhaps a bit profitable. Where does the profit come in? Consider how the normal computer lab pretzel exchange works:

  1. Choose your snack. Several varieties are available!
  2. Put 28 cents in the Pretzel Fund.
  3. Oh wait, all you have are dollar bills.
  4. The Lab Daddy just saw you take some pretzels. You better put in something or you’ll look like a cheap jerk.
  5. You repeat this each time you go for a bag. The 28-cent requested donation becomes 72 cents of profit for Lab Daddy.

Now I know Lab Daddy isn’t really out to make a profit on this; he’s just being really nice and saving us from having to spend a dollar on the same bag of pretzels in the company vending machine. And despite the “honor system” in place, I’m sure not everyone is putting in their 28 cents per bag. A more sinister person, however, such as yourself, might see this as the perfect opportunity to squeeze a few extra pennies out of your day job. Assuming you have trustworthy co-workers, it just might work too!

Oh, and in case you ever find yourself on the other side of this delicious scheme, here are a few strategies to help make sure you’re not putting extra pennies in your Lab Daddy’s pockets:

  • Use exact change, or take more than one. For pretzels that run 28 cents a bag, either put in a quarter and three pennies, or take three bags and hide the other two for later.
  • Announce your intentions. If Lab Daddy is watching your pretzel pickup, and you only have large bills, toss one into the donation bucket in plain sight and say something like “That should cover me for the next X bags.”
  • Bring your own snacks. This way, you know you’re paying 28 cents a bag for your pretzels. Just don’t forget them at home, and don’t go through them faster than you would the communal stash.
  • Open a competing snack shack. Beat Lab Daddy at his own game by starting your own vending service. If necessary, price below your cost to start and you’ll drive Lab Daddy out of business. Of course, if you ever need Lab Daddy’s help with your work, expect him to change your account passwords and delete your files at random.

A word of caution before starting a communal snackateria at your workplace: Be sure to keep it on the down-low. Otherwise you might risk people from other departments sneaking through for a freebie. Or you might earn the ire of your workplace’s vending contractors who could see you as stealing their business; don’t blame me if you leave work late one evening only to be blocked in by 12 Coca-Cola machines.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The U.S. Gold-Medal Olympian Salary: Zero Dollars… Plus Bonuses

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 52 - olympic spending

Shawn Johnson, 2008 gold-medal Olympic gymnast and pint-sized jailbait, will be taking home a whopping paycheck of zero from the U.S. Olympic Committee this year. The same goes for swimming sensation Michael Phelps, beach volleyball vixens Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, and fencing champ Mariel Zagunis.

Yet somehow, despite the cost of blowing tiny countries like Georgia off the map, Russia is still finding the extra dough to cough up a $150,000 cash prize to any of its Olympians who bring home the gold. Even Afghanistan just gave the country’s first ever medal winner a free house! In fact, the U.S. is one of few countries whose government provides no regular subsidies or payments to its Olympic athletes.

Somehow, though, I suspect Shawn Johnson and her fellow American gold medalists won’t have to worry about keeping roofs over their heads. Johnson, who attends a public high school in Iowa, is expected to score around $1 million in endorsement as a result of her accomplishments in Beijing. Michael Phelps already has six- and seven-figure deals with companies like Visa and AT&T.

For the typical American, a million dollars can go a long way. In fact, if invested wisely, a person of any age could live a decent life off the interest alone. Of course, tell that to any of the thousands of bankrupt former superstar athletes who may have once owned cars more expensive than our houses. Sadly, for Olympians like Johnson and Phelps, endorsements tend to fade as quickly as the Games themselves. And for gymnasts like Johnson, many of whom only get one shot at Olympic gold in the face of ever-increasing competition from the next generation, the sponsorships that follow from Olympic glory rarely guarantee an easy life.

Remember Kerri Strug from the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta? She still scores the occasional tiny commercial deal, but she’s held a variety of “common” jobs since her valiant performance on the vault that led Team USA to gymnastics gold. She’s been everything from an elementary school teacher in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. to an Olympic news correspondent. Shawn Johnson, despite her gold-medal performance on the balance beam in Beijing, probably won’t see endorsement deals quite as grand as Strug’s. Worst of all, by the time the London Summer Games roll around in 2012, Johnson will be 20 years old—ancient in the world of women’s gymnastics.

At least Johnson’s family has indicated that any money from commercial deals would go straight to her college education. But if she wants to keep living the life of a million-dollar Olympian, Johnson may want to consider a high-paying career track like medicine… or software engineering. How about it, Shawn? Get your comp. sci. degree and we can code the night away together…

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The REAL Olympic Games: Olive Garden’s Never-Ending Pasta Bowl Returns!

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

comic 51 - olive garden

As has been widely reported in all of the respectable financial media outlets, Olive Garden’s Never-Ending Pasta Bowl is back for a limited time. You may recall my last attempt to get my money’s worth out of Olive Garden’s Bowl of LIES.

This time will be different.

Much like an Olympic athlete in the months leading up to the Games, I’ve been preparing for this event tirelessly… sometimes eating up to seventeen meals daily just to ready my stomach for the most challenging task of its entire life.

You better believe I’m planning on walking away from this competition a gold-medal winner. Of course, my gold medal will be in the slightly less common composition of a giant wad of pasta sitting in my tummy. Hopefully gold-medal American gymnast Shawn Johnson doesn’t wander into the Olive Garden while I’m there; she’s so tiny that I might mistake her for an Italian sausage and eat her. I bet she’s pretty tasty too.

Tune in tomorrow as Punny Money Olympics Week continues, live from the stomach-pumping room at the hospital down the street.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Why The Heck Do We Keep Watching the Olympics?

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 50 - tiebreaker

It just doesn’t make sense. I’m not really a big sports fan at all. I mean, I’ll watch the occasional baseball or football game, and about the only sports I play are on a Nintendo Wii. So why have I logged over 20 hours of Olympic watching in the last 10 days?

An even better question: why are the rest of you watching so many Olympic events with me? The rest of the year, I bet 75% of you run out of the room screaming at the sight of a sporting event on your television. And I know that virtually all of you would never dream of spending even 10 minutes watching sports like rowing or synchronized diving or rhythmic gymnastics if they didn’t have the word “Olympic” prepended to their names.

And the sporting events that Americans actually watch outside of the Olympics? They’re barely mentioned at the Summer Games. Baseball is just an afterthought as the American team is composed of minor-league wannabes filling in for major leaguers who wouldn’t dare leave their teams for weeks or even months in the middle of real American baseball season. Basketball gets some decent Olympic coverage—but America stopped caring about professional basketball about 15 years ago. And football? Yeah, that’s what the rest of the world calls soccer, so don’t expect to see touchdowns and two-point conversions at any Olympics on this planet.

So if we don’t watch fencing and beach volleyball and table tennis the other 1446 days of every four years, why are we suddenly glued to our TV tubes for two straight weeks to watch these bizarre sports, most of which America sucks at? I’ll tell you why (and finally tie this article into something money-related, lest I waste my once-a-year off-topic permit): the Olympics are an escape from the financial woes of our everyday lives.

Most people will probably admit that the Olympics provide a nice diversion from normalcy. After all, the Summer Games only happen every four years, so the Olympics are something special—not just some ho-hum boring annual event. But notice that I said the Olympics provide an escape specifically from financial woes. How am I drawing such a conclusion? Well, how else do you explain why we watch 16-year-old girls in skin-tight outfits swinging around on bars and dancing on balance beams only once every four years? Am I still not making sense? Okay, let’s look at it this way:

  • The Olympic games are the most expensive sporting spectacles ever. Putting together a venue for the Olympic games is an expensive proposition. It’s estimated that China spent 12 yuan (approximately $293 gazillion U.S. dollars) to put together the Beijing games. Poor people like us, for some crazy reason, enjoy watching countries spend a ton of money on temporary things. In a few more days, nobody’s going to give a damn about the Beijing Water Cube or Bird’s Nest or Ping Pong Castle. Maybe we just feel good knowing that we use our personal money for more practical things like inflatable furniture and high-definition mailboxes.
  • Most Olympic athletes are, and forever shall be, poorer than us. Except for the gold-medal winners of the big sports who are pretty much guaranteed cushy endorsement deals, 99% of the athletes you see at the Olympic games are dirt poor. Heck, most of the American Olympians are probably making less money than your typical four-year degree-holder. So yes, that guy from Botswana can run 100 meters while you’re still saying “100 meters,” but at least you have food on your table every night.
  • Gold medals are shiny. Forget that many of these Olympic sports have National and World Championships that also award gold medals to top finishers. There’s something about the phrase “Olympic gold” that consistently pulls in those TV viewers. Perhaps if we awarded big hunks of precious metals to doctors, police officers, and sanitation workers, people might start caring about them a little more.
  • The Olympics are a free vacation away from garbage TV programs. While technically the Olympics are reality television, it’s leaps and bounds above the other reality television NBC has to offer (except American Gladiators which is awesome so shut up). Sure, we could do something crazy like turn off the TV and go outside, but why would we want to do that when we can get over 400 different Olympic events beamed halfway across the universe into our living rooms for cheap or free.
  • If you don’t watch the Olympics, you’re a Communist. The U.S. has so successfully commercialized the 2008 Beijing Olympic games—despite the fact that they’re being held in the most Communist country left today—that not tuning in and watching the Nike and United Airlines commercials would be like giving away your constitutional right to sit on your ass and watch other people exercise competitively. The Chinese are already trouncing us in the gold medal standings; you don’t want them to come over here and force their economic growth and prosperity on us, do you?

Essentially the Olympics become much less about the sport and far more about the spectacle—the super-expensive, gold-plated, sponsor-supported spectacle. I don’t know about you, but my wallet feels a little bit heavier just watching a few rounds of women’s floor exercises… well, at least until I start shelling out for assorted Shawn Johnson merchandise.