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.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Ten Great Places To Do Last-Minute Christmas Shopping

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics:

merry christmas, i got you this bag and price tag

Reader Jack W. writes in about a dilemma of his that I’m sure will strike many holiday shoppers this year.

I don’t love my friends and family enough to start my Christmas shopping before Dec. 21st. On top of that, I’m really lazy so I don’t like to be out of the house more than 2 hours a month. Can you give me some tips on how I can get my last-minute gift shopping done with a minimum of hassle and dollar outlay? Thanks a lot!

Thanks for writing, Jack, and I hope you don’t mind me slightly rewording your e-mail to make you look like a mean old grinch.

The problem of last-minute Christmas shopping has plagued the human race for tens of thousands of years. Ever since Noah forgot to pick up a gift for his wife before hopping on the ark (he had to settle for giving her unicorn steaks from one of the two on board which explains why they’re not around anymore), people have been scrambling at the eleventh hour to check off those last few folks on their holiday shopping lists. In recent years, it seems this minor pinch has escalated into an epidemic, and now crowding shopping malls on December 24th is fast becoming standard holiday procedure.

But with a little advanced planning (and I do mean a little; if you were capable of a lot of planning, you’d have your Christmas shopping done on November 1st), you can save yourself a lot of suffering and line-standing-inning. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the easiest and best places you can score last-minute holiday gifts that won’t bust your budget or make it look like you totally forgot the other person until 8pm on Christmas Eve.

  1. The internets. Depending how last-minute we’re talking, you may be able to finish off your shopping list with a few quick trips to online retailers like Amazon.com or Bonsai Kittens. You may have to bite the bullet and pay for overnight shipping, and be careful about checking for retailers’ shipping deadlines.
  2. Gift specialty stores. You know those stores that pop up right after Halloween to cash in on Christmas gift sales? You can actually pick up some decent last-minute gifts at those things as they tend to keep their shelves stocked well leading up to the holiday. Personally, I like those sausage logs from Hickory Farms; give me one of those and I’ll be happy for hours.
  3. Museum gift shops. Sure, you could give them the gift of an actual trip to the museum, but that would require committing to a time investment in the future. You don’t love these people that much, so get the next best thing by spending $27 on a t-shirt that says “I went to the National Art Gallery instead of the shopping mall, so all you get is this lousy t-shirt.”
  4. Antique malls. When all the new and exciting gifts have been wiped out on store shelves, it’s time to turn to old and crappy. Antique gifts are especially appropriate for older folks who may mistake them for newer items. Some great antique gift ideas include record players, dishware, classic magazines and comic books, and butter churns.
  5. Sporting goods stores. Sure, you could get your soccer balls and jock straps a bit cheaper at Wal-Mart, but then you’d have to wait in those horrific lines and deal with cashiers who didn’t get past the third grade. Invest a bit of money in your sanity and stick to the smaller sports equipment retailers to satisfy the all-stars in your family. You know, the ones you almost forgot.
  6. Liquor stores. It’s certainly at the top of my Christmas wish list. Wait, it’s at the bottom. Edit! EDIT!!!
  7. Drug stores. It’s 11pm on December 24th and not much is still open. Fortunately it’s your local CVS or Rite Aid to the rescue with great gift ideas like store-brand cosmetics and six aisles worth of adult diapers.
  8. 24-hour supermarkets. If you’re lucky, there may still be a few gift cards hanging on a checkout display. If you’re not… just grab anything edible, drop it in a shopping basket, wrap the whole thing in cling wrap, and call it a holiday gift basket.
  9. Chinese takeout joints. Nothing says “I love you, but I suck” this holiday season like a large order of General Tso’s Chicken. Don’t forget the seasonal fortune cookies with witty prognostications like “Your grandma will get run over by a reindeer” and “You will receive a lame Christmas present.”
  10. Your basement. When all else fails, you can always take to the cellar and hunt down any never-used Christmas presents and do a bit of regifting. Just make sure you pull off the Ames department store tags since they’ve been closed since 2002.

You can also make your own gift for the almost-forgotten people in your lives. Here are some awesome last-minute Christmas gifts anyone can make:

  • A trip to the ATM machine for cash
  • A new iPod (requires one old iPod and an excuse about where the box went)
  • Fruit cake, except substituting money and cash for the fruit and cake

Now all those people you barely love will never know just how little you care about them. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Monday, December 3, 2007

Punny Money’s Christmas Wish List (a.k.a. Stuff I’m Too Cheap to Buy Myself)

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics:

ooh, i hope this is that small but resource-rich third-world country i have always wanted

A reader—we’ll call her Melissa since that’s her real name—recently sent me an e-mail proclaiming, among other things, that the information she’s read on Punny Money has enabled her to save a lot of money over the last few months by switching from Verizon’s expensive landline service to another carrier’s dry-loop DSL. This came as a pleasant surprise since I love saving people money, especially if it means sticking it to Verizon, my arch-nemesis.

Melissa was so thrilled with my advice that she even offered to buy me a Christmas gift! Wow! A reader offering to buy me a Christmas gift in thanks for all of my wonderful writing. That sure makes you free-loading readers out there look like jerks. Hahaha, just kidding. I’m as big a free-loader as anyone else, so I welcome it here.

Anyway, I hadn’t really considered what I wanted for Christmas this year, but here’s what I came up with, just in case anyone else is feeling generous:

  1. An army of maids. Perhaps I’ve been watching too much Japanese anime lately, but I really wouldn’t mind having a dozen or so ladies to tidy the house, prepare gourmet meals, and just stand there and look cute. Fortunately for me, I’m sure my wife wouldn’t mind this either. (Right, sweetie?)
  2. Laser security system. We’re not exactly in a dangerous neighborhood, so we don’t really need a security system. But because lasers are cool, we do need a laser security system. In case you’re not sure what the difference is between a regular security system and a laser security system, allow me to explain: a laser security system is a security system that has lasers. Lots of them. Instead of calling the police on intruders, it melts them. Perhaps I could use it to thaw snow or frighten neighborhood children. Or a laser light snow! Yeah!
  3. 90 square feet of solar paneling. This is about what I figured it would take for us to switch our house over exclusively to solar power. Oh, and we’d probably have to chop down a dozen trees so the sun hits our roof for more than 30 minutes a day.
  4. Catapult and parachute. I finally determined this combination would be the optimal method of transportation for my commute. Alternately, a hang glider and 30-foot runway could also do the trick. And no, a bicycle is not an option because too many people on those funny video shows injure their ya-yas on the handle bars.
  5. 20 fewer pounds. I’ve put on a bit of weight in recent months, though I can’t imagine why. It probably hasn’t helped that I’ve been lax on my Nintendo Wii exercise program. Too bad Wii Fit isn’t due out until next year.
  6. A minor superpower or two. I’m not asking for much. Maybe a bit of telekinesis or some fireball throwing. Ooh, X-ray vision would be nice too.
  7. Private blimp. Jets are just too gaudy and fast. I’d like to get there in style, maybe buzz over a few football games, do a little blimp fishing on the lake. Ah, having a blimp would be terrific, even—dare I say—blimptastic!
  8. A sandwich. Not for Christmas. Right now. I’m getting really hungry writing this list.
  9. An American Gladiators arena. I’m so happy they’re bringing back American Gladiators next month, but what I’d really like is to have an Assault court in my backyard. Atlasphere would be nice too, but I’m sure the waiting list for human-sized hamster balls is very long.
  10. World peace. This list item was originally an iPod, but I figured I better put this on here just in case various world leaders are reading this site for financial policy advice.

Of course, cash and booze are always welcome too.

If you’re wondering what I suggested Melissa give me as a Christmas gift… I actually had the idea to start a bulletin board with pictures of all of Punny Money’s biggest fans. And it’s entirely a coincidence that I came up with such an idea immediately after finding out she’s also saving money with one of my other popular tips. Wink wink. Nudge nudge. If you know what I mean.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Free Stuff From Charities: It’s All a Mind Game

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics:

i trade you large money bills for small flowers

Dear Friend,

I am writing to you today to request your assistance in [feeding the homeless / rescuing the rainforest / saving the endangered African spotted owl]. We desperately need your help to overcome this problem. We hope you can find it in your heart and your wallet to give generously to this worthy cause.

Enclosed with this letter you will find some [customized address labels / holiday greeting cards / money-saving coupons] as a thank you for your generosity. Even if you can only give [$5 / $20 / $27,000], it will go a long way toward helping those poor [homeless / rainforests / birds].

Sincerely,
Some Charity

Look familiar? You’ve probably gotten these kinds of solicitations in the mail many times—charities looking to guilt you into coughing up a donation. Sometimes they enclose a “free token of their appreciation” like those ubiquitous address label sheets, all in an attempt to pry a few dollars out of you. And perhaps you’ve given in to these “desperate pleas” and sent a couple of bucks to charities like the National Foundation for the Association of Agencies. If so, then I’m afraid I must inform you that you were fooled by one of the oldest psychology tricks in the book.

It’s a simple tactic, and charities have been using it for decades to “con” you out of your cash. Here’s how it works:

  1. Charity gives you something of nominal value for free.
  2. Charity doesn’t make it easy for you to refuse or return the gift.
  3. Your mind may trigger the irresistible urge to return the favor.
  4. You return the favor many times over with a gift far more valuable than theirs.

At least that’s how the charity wants it to work. And guess what: it does.

Okay, so maybe you’re not in the group of folks who send money to every charity that “gifts” you with address labels and greeting cards. But plenty of other people do it—more than enough to make it heavily profitable for these charities to send out labels and cards and all sorts of other crap to every mailbox in America.

Here’s another example you might recall from the late 1900s: airport Hare Krishnas. If you flew frequently, you’ve probably seen these groups of bald religious dudes in orange robes soliciting donations from weary travelers. Some of them would give away flowers, seemingly as an innocent gesture of generosity or perhaps as a religious practice. In reality, they were giving you something of little value in hope of triggering that psychological urge to return the favor with even just a dollar or two. And since frequent airplane travelers are typically of above-average wealth, they more often received fives, tens, and twenties. The Hare Krishnas raked it in, all for just the cost of a few bunches of flowers.

So what do I do when I get a free gift from a charity? If it’s useful, I’ll keep it. If it isn’t, it goes in the trash. Do I feel bad about keeping these gifts without sending in a contribution? Not one bit, and I’ll tell you why:

  • It’s all a clever ploy. Charities know what they’re doing by sending you these free items. They know all about how the mind works, and they’re really hoping to trick it into entering automatic generosity mode. If all they wanted to do was give you a gift, they could do that without enclosing a return envelope!
  • Most gift-giving charities are horribly inefficient. Whether by accident or by design, most of the charities who resort to this sort of bribery to solicit donations are just not that charitable. Too high of a percentage of your contributions will go toward employee salaries and administrative costs. I save my money for charities I know will use almost every dime to directly help those who need it.
  • If they don’t get the message, that’s their fault. There are charities to which I have never donated a penny, and yet they send me a fresh batch of address labels every year or so like clockwork. You would think they’d save repeat gifts for those who give in return, but they don’t. It’s just another sign of how poorly some of these mail-gift charities are run.

My advice to you: pick your own charities, and give to them like crazy. Do your research first to ensure they’re using your money wisely and that it’s truly going toward a worthy cause.

My advice to these mind-tricking, gift-bribing charities: Drop a 52″ plasma HDTV in the mail. Then we’ll talk.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Five Tips for Stopping Wallet Leakage

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

give the gift of stinginess

by Rhonda Jones

Everyone says they need to save money, but few people really know where most of the leakage in their wallet occurs. Sometimes it comes from just being too freaking nice. People who buy things from acquaintances so they won’t hurt their feelings, people who buy things from strange little girls because the Nice People’s Manual says they should, and people who equate spending money on someone to loving them all wind up with deadly hemorrhages in their wallet.

You must, however, be strong. Don’t spend money on someone just because they want you to. Everyone–television salesmen and best friends alike–is after your hard-earned money. It is your job to keep them at bay. Getting in touch with your inner Scrooge can help you do that.

  1. Don’t give at the office. When a coworker approaches you with a catalog full of things you don’t need that her child is selling, Run The Other Way. Seriously. Do not buy that stuff. If you absolutely must give away your money, fit a donations column into your budget. Then make sure you avoid everyone with a catalog or brochure and puppy dog eyes.
  2. Avoid Girl Scouts at all costs. Especially in February when they’re hawking cookies. They’re cute but they want to put their sticky little-kid fingers into your wallet. And they may want to eat your brain as well. Jury’s still out on that one.
  3. Cancel Christmas. Christmas presents are nice, as long as you are getting things you can afford for people you want to give them too, not signing up for a second mortgage so you can try to avoid being on Aunt Thelma’s List of People Who Don’t Mortgage Their Homes To Buy Me Gifts List. When it’s time to sign up for a gift list in the office, call in sick. Or dead. Or drunk. Or create a religion that prohibits gift-buying.
  4. Beware of other special-day gifts. Granted, it’s a little bit weird to show up at a bridal shower without a gift in hand. Get something good–not something you have to mortgage the house for, just something useful–for any friends who are having babies or getting married or having birthdays. For friends. People allowed into your inner sanctum. These people generally know things about you you’d rather pretend had never happened, so you may need to keep them quiet by getting them Good Friend Gifts. But, for crying out loud, don’t spend a bunch of money on gifts for people you barely know.
  5. Don’t spend a bunch of money on gifts for people you know really well, either. If you’re constantly spending money on your wife or girlfriend because she whines like a stuck kitten if you don’t, either get another partner or put this one on a serious spending diet. Explain things to her and then stick to your decision. This goes for mothers, fathers, cousins, children, hamsters and anyone else who regularly raids your pocket. If you need to purchase a set of balls first, consider it money well spent.

None of this means that you have to suddenly become a selfish, no-gift-giving, soulless individual. You can work up to that gradually. Scrooge may have had a lot of issues, but one thing he didn’t have was a second mortgage on the house.

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Eleven years’ alternative journalism. Freelancing in Europe. Vampires. Need I say more? Read Rhonda’s writing blog, One Writer’s Ridiculously Glamorous Life, at http://silkynightmares.blogspot.com.