Thursday, October 30, 2008

Forgot The Candy? Here Are Some Do-It-Yourself Goodies for Trick-or-Treaters

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics:

comic 65 - trick or treat

If you’re like me, you have mixed feelings about Halloween. On the one hand, it’s a fun little holiday where you can dress up your kids in all the different outfits of occupations you wanted to be when you grew up like doctor, call girl, and werewolf. You also get to let your kids run around the neighborhood dodging traffic for a couple of hours while you do more important things, like dress up in a sexy costume and get ignored by your spouse.

Of course, there are drawbacks to Halloween. First, it’s expected that you’ll give away candy to other people’s children. You don’t even like giving candy to your own children! And then sometimes you get those teenagers who are way too old for Halloween and think they’re entitled to candy just because they poured some fake blood on their t-shirts. (At least you hope it’s fake blood.)

Now you could try hiding in your basement or pretending you’re not home—or actually not be home—but then you risk having your property egged and toilet papered and painted pink (I’m trying to start a national trend with that last one). And what happens if you only purchase enough candy for 30 kids and 60 show up? Or worse—you forgot all about Halloween together, and the only candy the store had left was off-brand stuff like Horshey’s Malk Choco-like Substitute and packages of Ms—just Ms; the M&Ms are long gone.

Fear not, boils and ghouls! Having either forgotten the candy or had my wife eat it all three days before Halloween for years, I know exactly what it’s like to be short on Halloween treats. That’s why I’ve come up with a series of do-it-yourself goodies you can assemble from things at home to help stave off the eggers and TP-ers. Read on for a frightfully brilliant list of ghetto ways to get yourself through another Halloween trick-or-treat when the candy runs dry.

  • Money always works. Of course, this is probably going to cost you a bit more than candy would as giving anything less than a dollar is going to get your house covered in more unborn baby chickens than not giving anything at all.
  • Nothing says Halloween quite like thick, juicy steaks. I know that if I were a kid, I’d be thrilled to have a nice Porterhouse dropped in my treat bag.
  • You’ve been meaning to donate those old books to charity. Just give them away on Halloween night and use them to educate the future generation in how to be just as lame as you!
  • Kids don’t get enough veggies in their diet. Whip out a bag of frozen peas from the freezer and start pelting those kids until they run away crying.
  • You know all those action figures you have sitting in a box in your attic? I’m sure kids today would still appreciate G.I. Joes and Barbies, even if they are missing a few limbs. And if they are, paint on a bit of fake blood to really freak them out.
  • Is your wife hot? If she just happens to “accidentally” answer the door naked, I think that counts as a treat.
  • Studies show that kids as young as five are now sexually active! Do your part to fight teenage pregnancy and STDs by handing out condoms instead of candy this Halloween.
  • One in ten houses still has candy left over from last Halloween. One in two kids can’t tell the difference!
  • At the same time, Playboy magazines never get stale.
  • If you still have last Sunday’s newspaper, you could clip out coupons for 35 cents off two bags of $6.00 candy to give away.
  • Bacon bacon bacon bacon bacon bacon! Or does that only work on dogs?
  • Confuse the kids by giving out Valentine’s Day cards instead of candy and insisting it’s already February.
  • If you’re desperate, you can break into your own kid’s room and start giving away his or her collection of Pokémon cards. Your kid will hate you forever, but they’d start doing that eventually anyway!
  • And if you’re really desperate and have nothing left to give away, you can start taxing candy from the kids who have a lot and giving it to everyone else. I mean, if it works for the government…

Everyone have a happy and safe Halloween! And all you pretty ladies out there be sure to stop by my house if you want an extra-special treat. Heh heh.

I’m making s’mores.

Hey, get your heads out of the gutter!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Charitable Giving At Work May Rob Your Charities

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 64 - charity

You may be an employee of one of the thousands of companies throughout the United States which organizes workplace charitable giving campaigns—company-sponsored fund drives designed to encourage employees to donate their own money to various worthwhile charities. These campaigns come in many varieties, including charity-specific efforts (where all donations go to one charity, such as the United Way) as well as so-called “charity of your choosing” campaigns where employees can choose from many listed charities or write in their own.

For businesses, the purpose of these campaigns is two-fold. First and foremost, it allows a business to demonstrate its genuinely philanthropic side. Second, it gets them some good press. If your business can brag that its employees donated millions of dollars of their own money to charities last year, you’re going to score some free publicity one way or another. At the very least, you’ll get people to forget for 30 seconds that your company makes death-bringer missiles or cons people into buying houses they can’t afford.

For employees—those who do the actual giving—as well as those on the receiving end of contributions, workplace giving campaigns bring two benefits. One, they actively encourage and remind employees to give a little bit back to their communities. Two, some employers will provide matching funds for their workers’ charitable contributions during annual campaigns. A few employers will even match every employee charitable dollar with two more dollars! Wow! And even if they don’t match your funds, most employers will cover the administrative costs of running the charity drive. Giving through your workplace must always be a no-brainer decision then, right?

Well, not quite.

You see, there’s something your boss won’t necessarily tell you about your company’s annual charity campaign. While your company will always loudly and proudly trumpet the facts that they either provide matching funds or cover the costs of running the fundraiser, some companies neither match donations nor cover the administrative costs. But since those operating the charity campaign (either employees at the company or, more and more often these days, an outside vendor) have to get paid, and it costs a good bit of money just to make everyone in your company aware of the campaign, there are always administrative costs. And if the company isn’t paying those costs, who is? That’s right… you and your charities.

I was startled to learn this year that my own employer is no longer covering the administrative costs of its annual “charity of your choosing” campaign. This wouldn’t necessarily be so bad if they provided matching funds, but they’ve never done that. In past years, all materials advertising the campaign were sure to note that the “company covers all costs of running the campaign.” When I didn’t see that writing on their campaign literature this year, I had to poke a little harder to find a new statement in its place: “95% of your contributions go straight to the charity of your choice.”

“Whoa whoa whoa,” I said out loud in my office. I was shocked to learn that the company would be quietly shaving off almost 5% off every charitable dollar that passes through its campaign in order to cover the costs of its materials as well as paying the third party charity payment processor, America’s Charities.

This was the first year I decided not to participate in my employer’s charity campaign. Instead, I just went to my favorite charity’s website, found their mailing address, and sent them a check. Bam. The charity gets 100% of its money, I feel 100% better about myself, and my company sends me 83 reminder e-mails urging me to donate through them.

While I find it reprehensible that a company would skim from charitable donations to pay its own costs, I will admit that charities still stand to benefit more than they would without these campaigns. Because many people will only give if prompted to by their employers’ annual charity drives, the charities will get more money than if those employees didn’t donate at all. Indeed, 95% is still much greater than 0%. That said, I hope that anyone who bothered to read through the fine print of the campaign saw the 95% warning and decided to send their donation straight to their charity instead.

If you want to make sure your workplace charitable contributions are helping the people who need it most, follow these simple steps:

  1. Research your charity first. Just because your company offers a list of thousands of “worthy” charities doesn’t mean those charities all make the best use of your money. Use the Charity Navigator website to determine just how much of your charity’s money is put to use directly helping others. Or just donate to my favorite charity, The Save the Idiot Personal Finance Writer His Own Sense of Self-Righteousness Fund.
  2. Check for company matching funds. If your company will match your donations to a charity of interest to you given through their campaign, you should pump as much money as you can spare through your employer. This way, you’re helping your charity even more than you could just by yourself.
  3. Find out who pays the fees. Even without matching funds, a company that sends 100% of its fund drive donations straight to the charities is still worthy of recognition. In this case, whether you give through the company or not is your choice; it may just be easier to do it through your employer as it may offer features such as payroll deductions to spread your donation pledge throughout the year.
  4. Whatever you do, just give. If your company is like mine and takes even a dime of that charity money for its own costs, just write a check and send it straight to your charity instead. (Try not to pay by credit card, as up to 2% of your donation may end up going to the card processing company instead.) They’ll get the full benefit, and you’ll be telling your company that you won’t stand for its dipping into donations to cover administrative costs.

And of course, don’t forget to take the tax deduction to which you’re entitled for eligible charitable donations; there’s no point in giving the government a free donation too when it already funds itself quite well out of your paycheck each week.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Five Brand Name Products I Swear By (And Five I Swear At)

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics:

comic 63 - store brands

Those who know me well tend to describe my financial style using words like “frugal” and “budget-minded” and “cheap-ass tightwad.” And I will very readily confess to being all of the above. While my friends are out buying giant televisions and laser-guided hovercraft, I’m just as content at home playing with my ball on a stick. And while everyone else is purchasing the 12-dollar organic whole-grain cereals harvested by Buddhist monks, I’m totally fine sticking with the generic brand cereals like Fruity Rings and Marshmallow Remnants.

But there are a few cases where I’ve totally dedicated my wallet in an almost cult-like fashion to the following of a particular brand name item. I mentioned one of these brand names a few weeks ago—Shell gasoline—but there are a few others to which I am particularly loyal, as well as a slew of others to which I am so disloyal that, were they my wife and we were in a loveless marriage, I would not hesitate to cheat on them with a product a few shelves down the shopping aisle. Let’s take a look at some of the good and the bad items that have made their way into (and sometimes quickly out of) the Punny Money Family household over the years.

Razors

My brand name choice: Schick. It’s taken me nearly a decade to find a semi-disposable safety razor that lasts a long time and gives me a good, clean, comfortable shave. I finally found it a few months ago when I received a free sample of the Schick Quattro Titanium. I’ve been using the same replaceable blade for nearly two months now, and it still shaves as close as the first day. I know I’ll have to replace it eventually, and the nearly $20 price tag for eight more blades stings a bit at first until you consider that those eight blades will likely last me over a year at this rate.

I stay far away from… Gillette and store brands. Gillette, your safety razors just suck. They wear out after a few uses, they always miss spots the Schicks don’t, and they’re just as expensive. And don’t even get me started on store brand razors; you might as well just shave with a chainsaw instead.

Bug Spray

My brand name choice: Raid. Living in an old 1940s house, there are numerous tiny holes that equally tiny bugs sometimes manage to worm their way through to get inside. It’s by no means a big problem, but we are sure to keep a can of bug spray nearby anyway just in case. Raid’s slogan that it “Kills on Contact!” may be a little bit of an exaggeration, but it does seem to kill bugs after a minute or two of horrendous torture that’ll teach them terrorist critters to stay outta our home.

I stay far away from… Black Flag. This crap just doesn’t work. There could be a tiny little fly sitting on the wall and I could empty an entire can of Black Flag onto its diseased little butt and it would just sit there and act like it’s a refreshing summer rain.

Beer

My brand name choice: Sam Adams. I was not much of a beer drinker until a couple years ago because all of my previous beer drinking experiences were with crappy American beers. Then someone gave me a fancy imported beer and it tasted pretty good. One day, I tried one of Sam Adams’ seasonal brews and thought that it must have been imported from some country who also had a revolutionary war hero named Sam Adams. Fortunately I was mistaken, and now I’m a Sam Adams fan for life. I’m especially fond of their Oktoberfest brew, especially when it’s served by a sexy lady in one of those tiny beer girl outfits.

I stay far away from… any other American beer. Seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever been drunk enough to tolerate the taste of Miller Lite or Budweiser or any other domestic beer. I would sooner drink water or the girliest drink available than an American beer other than Sam Adams.

Chocolate

My brand name choice: Hershey’s. Hershey’s makes Kit Kats, Mr. Goodbars, and the best dark chocolate around. That’s all the chocolate I need.

I stay far away from… Store brands and “home made.” Sure, those store brand chocolate bars might cost 50% less than their Hershey’s counterparts, but I think that 50% cost savings comes from the fact that they use a blend of chocolate and crap. As for home-made chocolates… unless your home is in a chocolate factory, chances are you have no business making chocolate meant for people to enjoy.

Batteries

My brand name choice: Energizer. I’ve tried all of the other brands over the years as well as a variety of store brands, and Energizer always seems to have the best cost-to-life ratio. Yes, they’re pricier than all the rest, but their long life and reliability more than make up for the added cost.

I stay far away from… Duracell and store brands. Yes, those Duracell commercials say they’re what powers the space shuttle and Walt Disney’s cryogenic chamber, but they’re just not as long-lasting as Energizer in my mind. The difference is even more apparent when comparing Energizer rechargeable batteries to other brands of rechargeables.

I hope you’ll forgive me for indulging in a “Nick’s Favorite Things” list, but I also did this to strike up some conversations with you to see what some of your favorite products are. So please feel free to share with the rest of the class, and if anyone knows a particularly effective hair regrowth product… please share that with everyone else too. You know, for everyone’s benefit.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

How to Cure Obsessive-Compulsive 401(k) Checking

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

comic 62 - retirement party

If you’re like me (you poor, depraved soul) then you’ve been checking your retirement accounts rather obsessively over the last few weeks thanks to headlines like “Dow Drops Below 10,000!” and “Is the Next Great Depression Right Around the Corner?” and “Lindsay Lohan Comes Out of the Closet.”

Some anecdotal evidence is suggesting that many people have lost 5-10% of the values of their retirement accounts in 2008. Others have been even less fortunate; some folks heavily invested in their own companies only to see them go under and take their nest eggs with them.

I’ve been moderately more fortunate than others as my own company’s stock is still in the vicinity of its all-time highs and is countering losses in the other parts of my 401(k). When I checked this morning, I confirmed that I’ve actually netted 13 big dollars on my investments this year. And that brings me to the point of today’s rant discussion: why am I obsessively checking my 401(k)? Is there something I think I can do about it by watching its value decline day by day? Perhaps my subconscious believes that by keeping a close eye on it, I can magically reverse its course.

Well, it’s time for me to come clean: today was the first day I’ve checked my 401(k) balance in over four months, and it’s at nearly the same value as it was four months ago. I realized early on that obsessively checking my 401(k)’s balance every day would only cause me needless worry. After all, I’m at least 35 years from the normal retirement age, and the balance of my 401(k) is relatively small enough that it’s hardly worth worrying about in the long run. If anything, I’ll only cause myself pointless stress checking it during this time of economic turmoil.

Unfortunately just about everyone I know has not been as successful in fending off the “401(k) OCD.” I frequently walk down the hallway at my work and see people logged on to our retirement account management website to check how their money is doing. And many of these are workers that are my age or younger! Even worse, there are those who have shifted most or all of their retirement funds to non-stock assets. If you wanted to sit on the sidelines while the market takes a nosedive, the time to do that was months ago! Now many of them will likely leave their 401(k)s parked in “safe” investments and will miss out on any rebound the market makes in the coming months and years.

Lucky for them and you, there are ways to fight 401(k) OCD. Talk to your doctor about prescription Cialis… oh, wait, that’s for an entirely different problem. Here are some ways you can keep yourself from obsessing over your retirement accounts that have worked for me:

  1. Lock yourself out of your accounts. Call the company which maintains your retirement accounts and change your access passwords. When they ask what you’d like to change them to, say “I don’t care. Pick something and don’t tell me.” Just make sure you have a way to unlock your account a few years down the road.
  2. Stop watching financial news. Call your cable provider and cancel CNN, MSNBC, and everything else that isn’t Cartoon Network and Playboy.
  3. Dump your company’s stock. If you still wanna stick in the stock market at this point, make sure your retirement accounts are diversified. Having 90% of your retirement wealth tied to the success or failure of your company is not diversified—it’s stupified.
  4. Make smarter investments. Perhaps when you first set up your 401(k), your friends told you which investments you should pursue. If your retirement account is down 30% this year, you may want to switch your investments around a bit to include a nicer variety of investments like commodities and foreign stocks. And also find new friends.
  5. Temporarily stop contributing to your accounts. This move probably only makes sense if you’re in the 50+ crowd. If you’re contributing $300 to your 401(k) each week, and your 401(k) in turn loses $3,000 a week, you may want to temporarily halt your contributions and stick your money into conventional savings. But if you’re young and/or your employer matches your contributions, you’ll need to do the math to see if contributing still makes sense.
  6. Mind your debts and cash savings. You’ll feel a lot better about your plummeting retirement account balance if your debt is also plummeting rapidly. Paying off debt quicker is one of the safest investments you can make because you’ll know exactly how much money you’re saving as you do it.
  7. Address the real financial issues in your life. Perhaps your obsessive 401(k) watching is merely a symptom of a much bigger personal fiscal problem. If you’re worried about your retirement funds drying up while you’re buying Mercedes and vacationing in Tahiti, then your priorities may be a little mixed up.

Follow those steps to relieve your retirement account stress and your 401(k) OCD should be cured in no time. And now that you have an extra 5 or 10 minutes a day that you aren’t watching your retirement funds crumble, you can put that time to good use by fortifying your house and stocking up on supplies for the coming Even Greater Depression.

Hmm, saying that probably didn’t do anything to ease anybody’s anxiety. Sorry!