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.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Punny Poll #31: Worried About College Tuition?

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 11 - tuition

The previous Punny Poll asked you to forecast when gasoline would hit $4 a gallon in the U.S. With the average price still under $3.50 a gallon, the 30% of poll-takers who predicted the price milestone would be hit by Memorial Day 2008 will likely miss the mark; thank you, 30% of people, for being wrong. My vote, which pegged gas at four bucks next year, only garnered 13% of the vote. Another 17% selected “This is the stupid answer for this poll. Please don’t pick it or you will mess up science” which explains why the U.S. is losing to countries like China and India in the fields of math, science, and following directions.

Speaking of educational woes, I recently attended a recruiting event for my alma mater at which several parents expressed their concern over the rising price of tuition. This is good news for cheaper, state-run universities like mine, though some parents were even alarmed at the prospect of shelling out just a couple grand a semester for their child’s college education. As poor as I was, even without scholarships I could have afforded that much to help secure my financial future. When speaking to these worried parents, I tried to link to these articles on getting paid to go to college or at least getting a degree without taking on loans; alas, it’s hard to click on spoken words and open them in a web browser, so they’ll just have to keep worrying for a while.

But what about you? Does the high price tag of a decent college education have you worried about your child’s financial future? Or do you have a clever plan for handling the $317,000 per semester your kids will end up having to pay (and that’s just for textbooks!)?

[Read more...]

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Financial Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics:

hello! i would like to eat your wallet!

Bonjour! Je voudrais manger votre portefeuille!

If you understand French, you are likely running away in fear while clutching your wallet for dear life (and perhaps questioning my bizarre dietary habits). The rest of you non-Francophones out there will just have to trust that I wasn’t coming on to you.

For us English-speakers, learning a foreign language can seem pretty difficult. It takes years of study to become fluent in a new language, and even then we still find a way to mispronounce a type of cheese so that it instead sounds like a male body part. But that’s okay, because there are many benefits of being able to understand, speak, and write in a foreign language.

Before you decide that taking up a foreign language course or ordering instructional videos is a waste of time, consider some of the ways knowing a foreign language can help your bottom line:

  • New business and employment opportunities. It should be obvious that having a foreign language on your resume can only help you score higher-paying and cooler jobs. And if you’re in business for yourself, knowing another language increases your potential customer base.
  • Foreign website deals. There is some crazy stuff in the various internet shoppes out there, and some of the craziest stuff is on websites in languages you don’t understand. Learn a foreign language today and order all the Russian brides, Japanese robots, and French toast you want at incredible prices.
  • Live in another country. News flash: America is expensive, Zimbabwe isn’t so much. Why spend $300 on an MP3 player in the U.S. when that same $300 can buy you an entire rock band in some third-world nations?
  • Write better. People learning foreign languages tend to also learn the intricacies of their own language even better. I learned most of my English grammar skills in my high school French class. And regardless of your career, better writers make more money.
  • Talk in “secret code.” You and your business partner are about to close the deal of a lifetime, but you need to discuss a couple of important details with him in private. Unfortunately you’re in their corporate headquarters, so they’ve likely bugged every room. Good thing you both learned Swahili back in college. Now your private conversations can be truly private, and eavesdroppers won’t be able to get an unfair competitive edge.

Once you decide to take up another tongue, the question then becomes which foreign language should you learn? For Americans, the following languages will have the biggest benefit to your finances:

  • Spanish. This is a real no-brainer. It is estimated that, by the year 2050, over 300% of America’s population will be of hispanic origins. Understanding Spanish may become as basic as learning English in grade school. Today, knowing a bit of Espanol can help you snag new business clients, make social contacts, and understand more Mexican restaurant menu items than ever before.
  • French. The only truly global languages are English and French. It’s an official language of most world governing agencies and organizations like the United Nations, NATO, and the International Red Cross. And if you’d like a job with the U.S. State Department, more positions require or prefer French than all other languages combined.
  • Japanese or Korean. As Japan and Korea continue to dominate the world in many industries, learning their languages opens up a world of trade and business opportunities. Plus you can get lots of awesome videogames months before they come out here!
  • Chinese. More than a billion people speak it. ‘Nuff said. Or try Hindi; 700 million people in India can’t be wrong!

Whichever language you pick, be sure to stick with it. Read books, take classes, try immersion–whatever works for you. Once you’ve learned one foreign language, the next one is even easier to learn. Soon enough, you’ll be able to walk up to any person on the planet and say, “Can I interest you in some quality Tupperware products?”

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Offbeat Money-Saving Tips for College Students: Beyond the Conventional Wisdom

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

one piece of paper - 50 thousand dollars

By Michele Stillwell

After reading Punny Money for a couple of years, you college students out there might know that you can save lots of money avoiding the school bookstore and flashing your student ID at area businesses for a discount. But for today’s college student on a shoestring budget, sometimes you have to go beyond conventional wisdom to make it through your four (or five, or ten) years of college financially intact.

Credit Cards

Conventional Wisdom: Get the Citi mtvU Visa and receive 5 ThankYou Points for each dollar spent at the college bookstore (including textbooks, clothing, and other necessities), and at restaurants and movie theaters. Send in your transcripts each semester and get up to 2,000 points for good grades.

Beyond CW: When you’ve accumulated some points, rather than getting a gift card that you’ll spend on things you don’t need or trading it in for cash at a less that 1 point for $1 exchange, use it for student loan rebates and get the full value of your points in a check to your student loan bank–it’s easy to do and the check comes quickly.

Textbooks

one pile of books - seven hundred dollars
Conventional Wisdom: Look online (Amazon and AbeBooks, among many others) for used books at a fraction of the price. See if there are any student co-ops or book swaps for getting cheap textbooks. At the end of the semester (or better yet at the beginning of the next semester), sell your books online and avoid the bookstore buyback at all costs.

Beyond CW: Many college bookstores hire temporary cashiers for two weeks at the beginning of the semester during the textbook buying rush. Contact your bookstore to see if they’re hiring. Not only will you get paid an hourly rate, but you’ll get an employee discount (as much as 15%) on your books for the semester.

Many professors get free textbooks sent to them by publishers hoping they’ll choose to use it for their class (thus putting more money in the pockets of the publishers). Often the professors don’t need or want them and they’re relegated to recycling or a box in storage. Ask your professors for their unwanted books or check recycling and you might come across some brand new, most recent edition books that will sell very well online.

If you see your book online for extremely cheap and then realize it’s an earlier edition than the one on the booklist, don’t immediately dismiss it. Textbook publishers often come out with new editions after only making minimal updates or adding one chapter. If you have a classmate with the newer book to fall back on, you can usually save a huge amount by getting an older edition. But make sure to do your research on the changes because occasionally there is a major update and you’ll be lost with an outdated book.

As soon as you have your booklist, check out the books from the school library (do it quickly before someone else beats you to them). After you attend class and get a syllabus, you’ll have a better idea of which books you really need and which ones the professor put on the booklist only because he wrote it and gets a cut for each book sold. Plus, if you decide to buy it online, having a copy from the library will ensure you don’t get stuck without the book when you have an assignment. Your library doesn’t have the book? Check out the inter-library loan or consortium program–they’re often really easy to use and give you access to a huge database of books.

Using the College Discount

Conventional Wisdom: Use your college ID to get discounts at the movie theater, on transit passes, and in other places. Get a Student Advantage card to save money with companies like Amtrak, Greyhound, Target, and more.
one slightly used car, no engine - nine hundred dollars
Beyond CW: If you live in a city that has a car sharing company like Zipcar or Flexcar, most universities have organizational memberships which give affiliated members–including students–discounts. If you use a car share instead of the costs of parking, maintaining and fueling your own car, your savings will soar.

Many universities, usually the department in charge of student activities, have Costo/Sam’s Club memberships and make the cards available to student organizations. Use the card to access one of the warehouse clubs and save money on buying soda, veggies, and more in bulk.

Many first-run live theaters offer half-price tickets (or even less–I’ve gotten $10 ticket to Broadway-esque plays in the past) to students if you go to the box office on the day of the presentation and ask.

Unite With Your Fellow Students

Beyond CW: Many universities have not-for-profit, student-owned-and-operated coffee shops, book co-ops, convenience stores that offer books, clothes, food, and more at prices cheaper that surrounding businesses. If your university doesn’t have one, consider starting one up and gaining amazing business experience while saving your fellow students money.

Share expenses with floor/dorm/apartment mates. For example, rather than buying separate cable for your room (and wasting time in front of the TV when you should be out experiencing college life), see if you can get people on your floor to contribute a few bucks for cable in the common room and make TV watching a social event.

Be creative and have fun with your friends for free rather than paying for theater tickets or cover charges. Have a unique costume party or pot-luck–the crazier the theme, the better.

Other Tips for Saving or Making Money

Conventional Wisdom: Before buying anything new, check Craigslist, Freecycle, local thrift stores and moving sales to see if you find it cheap or free.

If you’re eligible for work study, find a low stress job at an academic department or office and use down time to study.

Beyond CW: Instead of visiting Blockbuster, check your college library’s DVD collection–there might be something you want to see. Often libraries have some great independent and arty films, and occasionally more popular hits.

Check out bulletin boards for notices of science or psychology studies that will pay you to answer questions, drink green juice, or something similarly harmless.

After You Graduate

graduating with honors when you paid your nerdy little brother to write your senior thesis - pricey
Conventional Wisdom: Consider consolidating your student loan. Try to avoid lifestyle inflation. Oh, and find a job.

Beyond CW: See if your university has an alumni association that you can join. Many offer numerous discounts, cheap membership to the university gym, and use of other university facilities that can come in handy even if you move to another city. Careful though, you’re also likely to get calls and letters asking you to donate all the money you’ve saved and more to your alma mater.

If you’re a member of United’s Mileage Plus program, take advantage of their 10,000 mile graduation reward and you’ll be almost halfway to a free air ticket.

Above all, make sure you utilize all the amazing facilities available to you. Never again will you have so many resources–the library, the gym, the career center, the mental health center, and activities, events, speakers and student organizations–available for free (well, free after you or your parents paid thousands of dollars for the access).

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Michele Stillwell is a communications associate for a nonprofit in California. She’d love to hear from you by email.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

If You Don’t Buy Your Teenage Daughter $800 In New Clothes RIGHT NOW, You’re A Bad Parent

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

seriously, you are going to buy her all of this stuff, and it is going to cost you a lot of money, and she will not even thank you for it

It’s late July, and we all know what that means: back-to-school time is right around the corner… down the street about half a block… make two lefts. Here, let me draw you a map…

Today, Yahoo! Shopping tried to explain how to make back-to-school clothes shopping time less painful for you and your pocket book. Unfortunately for you, everything in the article is wrong. To start, the article uses the term “kid” when it is fairly obvious they mean “girl.” (How to shop for a boy: buy five t-shirts and two pairs of jeans. Let him wear them until the smell causes them to disintegrate. Cost: under $100.) Let’s look at the flaws in each piece of girl-shopping advice offered:

  • Yahoo! says to sort through existing clothes and throw out what is “outgrown.” Outgrown is simply a synonym for small or tight, which is exactly the size your daughter wants her clothes to be to accentuate the womanly parts she thinks she has. If you try to throw out that four-sizes-too-small skirt, your daughter will be highly unattractive to boys and could end up sexually conservative or even (gasp) educated.
  • Yahoo! says to identify your child’s favorite items to help avoid wasted purchases in the future. This won’t work because, as it has been scientifically proven, any clothes you buy today will be uncool and outdated three weeks later. Your child’s favorite pieces of clothes are, invariably, the ones you haven’t bought her yet.
  • Yahoo! says to talk to your kids about the latest clothing trends. You can try, but they will likely have changed before you finish your sentence. Nice job forcing your daughter to buy uncool clothes; she’ll be sure to return the favor by sticking you in an uncool nursing home. The same point also recommends telling your daughter that showing her belly button is not a good idea. Sorry, we’re way past belly buttons. You’ll be lucky if your daughter keeps her butt crack half covered.
  • Yahoo! says to explain the difference between wanting something and being able to afford it. Considering more than half of adults don’t understand this difference, you better get a second job before having this conversation.
  • Yahoo! says to have your child wear comfortable clothes while shopping. No no no! This makes it that much easier for her to try on 30 different outfits in each shop. Pile on the layers so she’s passed out by the second store.
  • Yahoo! says to let your kids window shop, then do the buying with you. Better idea: give them pre-paid credit or gift cards, let them loose in the mall, and when the money’s gone, they’re done shopping. Maybe they bought 10 outfits with the money, maybe they bought one iPod and will be stuck with last year’s wardrobe. This way, there’s no “Mommy, just $20 more.”
  • Yahoo! says save some of the shopping for later in the school year, particularly so you can buy winter clothes. This is no longer relevant since, according to your daughter, “winter clothes” means eight inch skirts instead of six.

In summary, home school, and don’t let your children out of the house before they’re 35 (cost: $30 every other year for pajamas).