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.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Best and Worst Times to Go Grocery Shopping, Proven By Science

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

comic 55 - 10 items or less

Over the course of the last several months, I’ve been conducting an informal study on when the best time is to go grocery shopping. The purpose of this study was to determine exactly when one should go grocery shopping in order to obtain the best combination of fresh produce, smaller crowds, fast service, and cheaper prices.

In order to make this a genuine, science-y study, we decided to make the comparisons between shopping trips as standardized as possible. So for each time period, our crack team of scientists (i.e. they were on crack at the time) went to a series of grocery stores and purchased the same five items at each location:

  1. A gallon of milk
  2. A loaf of bread
  3. A roll of toilet paper
  4. Five red delicious apples
  5. The trashiest news tabloid available

Today, the Punny Money Analytical Institute of Lasers and Mathematics is proud to announce the results of this study. Here is a sample of the results broken down by time of experiment.

Tuesday at 6pm

Tuesday at 6pm was determined to be the worst possible time to enter a grocery store due to a variety of factors. Tuesday evening appeared to be a popular time for homemakers to give cooking dinner from scratch the one-finger salute and instead opt for a trip to the nearby grocery store’s hot food bar.

Upon arrival at the grocery store, our scientists discovered that parking spaces were a rarity—scooped up by rabid soccer moms and agitated businessmen within 2/10ths of a second of becoming available. Three scientists and one Nissan Sentra received minor injuries on one trip during this testing period.

Inside the store was no better; check-out lines often extended back into the shopping aisles, making it difficult to locate and obtain the toilet paper and magazine. However, most fresh items were still relatively fresh, and dishes at the hot food bar were being continuously replenished.

Average Shopping and Checkout Time: 24 minutes
Average Checkout Price: $15.37
Average Product Quality: Fairly good, though most news tabloids were previously leafed through by customers waiting in long lines.
Pros: Hot foods were freshly made. Several dinnertime meal specials were available.
Cons: That bitch who had 14 items in the 10-item-or-less lane. Who does she think she is?

Thursday at 2pm

Most grocery stores were discovered to be eerily empty at 2pm on any given weekday other than Friday. Our scientists determined that this may be due to people who have real jobs (unlike grocery store scientists) typically are at work at 2pm on a weekday afternoon. The only exception to this rule proved to be people who work at grocery stores, as not only were the stores devoid of most customers, but it was pretty damn hard to find more than one employee in the whole place. This resulted in seven times the normal wait for assistance in locating hard-to-find items.

In some instances, as few as half a dozen customers in a store at 2pm proved to be overwhelming to the lonesome store clerk, sometimes resulting in multiple customers being queued in the only open checkout line for 15 minutes or longer. The typical customer shopping at this time was an 80-year-old woman doing her shopping for the next 5 years and paying by personal check.

At the same time, shopping aisles were easy to navigate, and most fresh items were still fresh from being stocked earlier in the morning. If anything, selecting the trashiest tabloid available was difficult because many new ones had just arrived at the stores only hours earlier.

Average Shopping and Checkout Time: 26 minutes
Average Checkout Price: $16.08
Average Product Quality: Decent, though that one old lady must have molested every apple on the stand before deciding to get oranges instead.
Pros: Empty store. Great time and place to have a laser tag fight if you could manage it.
Cons: Most of the store staff was likely in the back room watching soap operas.

Friday at 1am

Just 11 hours after the Thursday afternoon shopping excursion proved enough to produce an entirely different shopping experience. Of the grocery stores involved in this experiment, only two were open this late (24 hours a day, in both cases), so the results only take into account averages from those two stores.

Weekday late-nights proved to be just as futile a venture for those requiring customer assistance as shopping on a weekday afternoon but for entirely different reasons. That’s because late-night grocery stores are typically manned by stoned teenagers. In fact, in one instance, our grocery scientists determined that they could have walked out of the store without paying even after loudly announcing “I am stealing all of the items in my cart” within three feet of several checkout clerks, all of whom were busy gazing pensively into the lasers of their checkout scanners.

There was no such item as “fresh” food at 1am on a weekday night. After all, most stores restock later on in the morning, so pretty much everything had been sitting out for at least 20 hours at that point. Most produce shelves were bare, save for a handful of midget unripened bananas and bruised apples. The only available milk gallons typically expired within the next 3-6 days instead of the usual 10-12 days. And for some inexplicable reason, the toilet paper just wasn’t as soft as it is during the day. For this reason, several more marked-down items were usually available.

Fortunately the shopping aisles were all but deserted, and the stoned teenagers had some sort of pre-programmed, almost robotic ability to scan items twice as fast as normal.

Average Shopping and Checkout Time: 10 minutes
Average Checkout Price: $14.97 (or zero, if they’d gone through with it)
Average Product Quality: Miserable. The oranges were, in fact, browns.
Pros: A lightning-fast shopping experience.
Cons: Produce you wouldn’t feed a hobo. Plus, it’s one in the freaking morning and everyone else with any sense is in bed.

Saturday at Noon

This is not the time you want to go grocery shopping for five measly items, our scientists determined. In addition to the normal crowds of weekday evenings, most parents also bring their school-aged children along, and most of these children would have rather been in school than being dragged around looking at candies and toys their parents won’t buy for them.

Checkout lines were always horribly long because the typical customer on a Saturday afternoon is there to buy most of the next week’s groceries. Navigating shopping aisles was like tip-toeing through a mine field of screaming children and other once-a-week shoppers.

Item freshness varied, as some produce appeared to have been restocked that morning while many others would likely sit there unreplenished until Monday morning. Specialty departments, such as Meats or the Bakery, were unmanned. Most of the tabloid magazines were starting to look raggedy.

Average Shopping and Checkout Time: 27 minutes
Average Checkout Price: $16.52
Average Product Quality: Varied from good to awful.
Pros: Uh… none really.
Cons: There are a million better things you could be doing with your Saturday afternoon. Everyone’s children misbehave more than your own, especially in grocery stores.

Wednesday at 8am

Bingo. The grocery shopping jackpot.

Specifically Wednesday morning, more than any other weekday morning, proved to be the optimal grocery shopping time. Parking, shopping, and checking out all proved to be quick and simple. Grocery store staff were rested, friendly, and helpful. Most fresh items had been restocked in the previous few hours and were still at their freshest.

Perhaps another point worth noting is that most of the grocery stores examined started their new promotion week on Wednesday, so hitting the store on a Wednesday morning provided the best opportunity to stock up on sale items before they started disappearing from store shelves.

On occasion, the express checkout lanes would fill with people purchasing just one or two items—typically store-brewed coffee and a lunch item for later that day. In these instances, a person with five or more items was sometimes served quicker stepping into a standard checkout lane.

Average Shopping and Checkout Time: 11 minutes
Average Checkout Price: $14.12
Average Product Quality: Freshest and best.
Pros: Super-fast shopping time, and items as fresh as can be.
Cons: Most people leave for work at 8am, so this might not be the best time to go shopping for you.


Our scientists also made another shocking discovery during the course of their investigation. According to several of the grocery store tabloids they purchased, Bigfoot seems to have secretly married Keira Knightley in a wedding ceremony atop the Empire State Building. Stay tuned for more developments in this breaking story, just as soon as our scientists get back from the store.

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.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Food Poisoning on a Budget, Or A Review of Dining Options In and Around the Baltimore Convention Center

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 49 - convention center food

Another anime convention weekend away from home is another opportunity to live a few days the way mother nature intended us to—shelling out tons of cash at destination hotels and restaurants. This past weekend marked our first trip to the Baltimore Convention Center in three years, and boy how things have changed. Instead of being a noisy, obnoxious tourist trap, Baltimore has quickly transformed itself into a noisier, even more obnoxious tourist trap. Seriously, I expect Baltimore will be annexed by Hell itself within the next decade.

With home a 90-minute drive away, we had to rely on whatever food-like entities we could procure in the area for three days. We sampled a broad spectrum of culinary creations ranging from the barely edible to the questionably legal. Here now is a review of some of the food options we explored that await travelers hitting up Downtown Baltimore and the surrounding areas for a weekend of conventiony goodness, starting with the best and working our way down the depths of the Baltimore food abyss.

BWI Embassy Suites Continental Breakfast

We ate there: Friday, Saturday and Sunday for breakfast

I’ll start things off with the best of the food we encountered over the weekend, and it was just steps from our hotel room near BWI Airport. Included in the price of the room was a complimentary assortment of breakfast dishes served for several hours each morning. Options included typical fare such as eggs, sausage, chipped beef, cereals, breads, coffee, and juices as well as cooked-to-order omelets and—my favorite—make-your-own Belgian waffles. Oh man, those waffles were amazing. You just pour in your batter, close the lid, turn it around, and you’ve got yourself Waffle Heaven in two minutes. Available toppings included a giant barrel of butter, strawberries drowned in syrup, and a few other fruit choices that varied by day. My only complaint was that the timers on the waffle makers were kind of flaky. Sometimes they wouldn’t go off at all, while others they went off too early. Of the seven waffles I had over three days, three experienced minor issues. But still, this was a great treat that got our days started right.

Nick’s Rating: Completely un-poisonous!
Cost: $0 (approximately $30 value)

Burke’s Restaurant and Cafe

We ate there: Saturday for dinner

By late Saturday afternoon, around 20,000 convention-goers had mobbed every single restaurant within half a mile of the Baltimore Convention Center. We tried to get a table for seven at The Cheesecake Factory adjacent to the Inner Harbor, but the wait would have been nearly two hours. After walking a few more blocks, we stumbled upon Burke’s, a restaurant on the lower floor of some sort of comedy club. They were busy too, so our party was seated at two separate booths. The hostess quietly muttered that we guys were killing her.

The food at Burke’s was pretty good, though anything would have tasted good after eight hours of hard convention labor. I had a soft crab cake sandwich which turned into more of a two-pieces-of-bread-that-I-ate-first-and-then-I-ate-the-soft-crabs deal, but it was still tasty. I also ordered a side of potato pancakes with applesauce that rocked out in my mouth. My wife and I washed it all down with a bottle of white zin. Having become accustomed to the cheapest bottle of restaurant wine anywhere near DC running at least $20, we were surprised that this one only ran $12. We wished we had had two!

Nick’s Rating: Largely edible!
Cost: $25 for food (though our convention paid for that), $12 for alcohol

Potbelly’s Sandwich Works

We ate there: Friday for lunch (carried out)

Having been sent on an errand to the nearby Best Buy (which wasn’t as nearby as we’d thought), I swung by the Potbelly’s across the street to snag some lunch in an attempt to avoid eating whatever the Baltimore Convention Center itself was serving. The line was long, as Potbelly’s lines usually are at lunchtime. After 20 minutes or so, I finally emerged with two chicken salad sandwiches on wheat and a bottle of IBC Cream Soda. My wife loves that cream soda, so I got her one so she wouldn’t mind my flirtations with convention-going costumed catgirls as much. The sandwiches themselves were all right but a little light on the chicken salad. But at least it wasn’t Convention Center food…

Nick’s Rating: It was food!
Cost: $11

7-Eleven

We ate there: Friday for dinner

After a hard day at the convention, we were rewarded with a short walk to the nearby First Mariner Arena and a concert of my favorite Japanese band of all time, JAM Project. Before standing in line for the general admission seating, we took a walk across the street to the only quick-service food joint we could see—7-Eleven. I tried out the 2-for-$2.22 hot dogs while my wife went with the Polish Kielbasa which appeared to just be a hot dog painted gray. The one saving grace of these 7-Eleven hot dogs came in the form of my favorite button of all time—the “Push For FREE Chili” button. I’ve never pushed a button so hard and for so long in my life. Really, 7-Eleven would have made more money off of me selling the chili with a “Push for FREE Hot Dog” button. The dogs and chili themselves were mediocre (what do you expect?), but they kept us going for the next few hours of line-standing and concert-watching.

Nick’s Rating: Food was blah, button was fantastic
Cost: $5 (including a bag of chips)

Baltimore Convention Center Refreshment Stand

We ate there: At the brink of starvation—I mean, Saturday and Sunday for lunch

In the deepest, darkest depths of the BCC sat a seemingly innocuous refreshment booth serving a limited menu of burgers, hot dogs, fries, and other demi-foods. I traveled there first on Saturday mid-afternoon as work at the convention was furious and further journeying for food was not an option. I went for a pre-packaged Caesar salad while my wife had the “chicken tenders with fries.” The salad was mostly green and brown lettuce with a few stale croutons and two cherry tomatoes. It was a chore to finish, but I ate it all fearing that I’d malnourish myself and be rushed to a Baltimore hospital whose food would be about twelve miles below the bottom of this list. My wife indicated that the chicken and fries were, indeed, chicken and fries. I tried one of the fries and wished I hadn’t.

I returned Sunday just before takedown of the convention began looking to try the burger. When I arrived, I was told that the only remaining items were the cheesesteak subs. I ordered two, at which point I was told the following ingredients were no longer available:

  • Sub rolls
  • Cheese
  • My dignity

Desperately hungry, I ordered it anyway and ended up receiving giant piles of processed shredded steak-ish meat covering hot dog rolls. It took almost 30 minutes to get through the whole pile, at which point I realized just how terrible the steak-ish meat really was. I mean, it was horrible. I spent the next 20 minutes in the restroom regretting the day that cow was ever born. The fact that the kind lady in the refreshment booth gave me over a pound of the stuff normally would have kept me quiet no matter how bad it was. But it was a new breed of bad, sort of like murderous gangsters who go on to become serial rapists who target blind people.

Nick’s Rating: Stomach-shatteringly awful
Cost: The usual BCC rip-off-because-we-can prices—about $25 on Saturday and $16 on Sunday for two people


The next time you find yourself in the Baltimore Convention Center area, be sure to carefully choose your dining options as there are plenty to pick from at a variety of price points. And if you’re planning to eat at the BCC itself, don’t forget to update your will first… or at least stay away from the Sunday leftovers.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Five Incredibly Stupid Ways People Are Trying To Save Money on Gas

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 42 - gus station

In case you hadn’t noticed in your X number of years on Earth, people are generally pretty dumb. Situations of alarm, such as skyrocketing gas prices, only tend to make matters worse. Case in point: people are reaching new heights of idiocy in a feeble attempt to combat rising fuel costs. Here are five superbly retarded things I have personally witnessed or overheard people saying they are doing to save money on gas.

  1. Riding on empty. Apparently if you wait until you’re just about out of gas (or worse—until after you’re out of gas), it makes gas less expensive somehow. A select few morons are even running out of fuel on purpose—just to get that free gallon of gas their automotive club or roadside assistance program provides to get them going again. True savings: -$100 or more for a tow truck, plus hours of lost time.
  2. Refilling more frequently. While not quite as asinine as running on empty, I know at least one person who preaches constantly running on full. His thinking: it doesn’t seem so bad when you’re buying $5 or $10 worth of gas every other day instead of buying $50 worth of gas once a week. True savings: With gas prices going up about a penny a day, you save… about a penny a day!
  3. Stealing it. Some experts are predicting that, once gas hits $5 a gallon, almost 90% of drivers will resort to stealing gas. And I’m not talking about simple gas-’n'-gos either; expect to see lots more high speed chases on TV between police and stolen fuel tankers. True savings: Lots if you get away with it, which you won’t, because you’re too stupid to get away with anything bigger than swiping cans of green beans from Walmart.
  4. Buying merchandise that comes with “free” gas cards. Several stores have recently offered gas-related incentives for purchasing merchandise. For example, buy $100 worth of jeans, get a $20 gas card. If you didn’t actually need those $100 worth of jeans (or if you overpaid for them), then you just turned $4 a gallon gas into $20 a gallon gas. True savings: Hundreds of dollars worth of crap you don’t need.
  5. Replacing a $40,000 gas-guzzling SUV with a $40,000 sedan. Yay, you get 10 more miles per gallon! That $100 you save per month will definitely help with your new $800 a month car payment. Genius! True savings: Go try it and see for yourself, schmuck.

So if you have a friend or family member who’s been doing any or all of the above, don’t even bother telling them about things like conservation. Chances are they can’t even spell the word, much less practice it.