Monday, June 16, 2008

Don’t Let High Fuel Prices Stop You From Volunteering

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , , ,

comic 36 - volunteering

If it seems like every article here is related to gas prices lately, that’s because the price of gas influences so much of what we do with our puny American lives. Want a vacation? Need gas. Want to work? Need gas. Want to drive downtown and pick up a few hookers? Need gas. Well, here’s another one: want to volunteer to help others in your community? Need gas. And unfortunately for a lot of those on the receiving end of volunteer work, high gas prices are pushing some people to reduce their hours spent volunteering or to stop altogether.

While every type of volunteer—from scout leaders to soup kitchen operators—are feeling the pinch at the pump, there are many less fortunate folks out there who need the help of unpaid, unreimbursed volunteers just to get by. And when volunteering includes lots of driving—perhaps taking patients to required medical treatments, or delivering food to shelters—the price of fuel can greatly impact a person’s ability to be generous. Worse yet, with the price of everything going up, more and more people who have never needed a helping hand are finding themselves in positions of need. Put together, that translates to more needy, but fewer volunteers to serve them.

Having driven over 1,000 miles this year alone to perform volunteer work (including 450 miles this past weekend), I have a great appreciation for the hardships volunteers are enduring due to high gas prices. What I don’t have is a lot of sympathy for their excuses if they choose to cut down or quit their volunteering. That’s because Uncle Sam is more than happy to help you pay for your gas that you use in the course of your volunteer work.

In case you don’t already know, mileage incurred that is directly related to volunteering for qualified charitable organizations is tax deductible. For 2008, you are allowed to deduct 14 cents from your taxable income for every mile you drive for charity. So if you drive, say, 2,000 miles a year for charity in a vehicle that gets about 30 miles per gallon, you’ll pay $280 for gas priced at $4.20 a gallon. But if you take the time to carefully log your mileage each time you take a trip for volunteering, you could deduct 14 cents for each of those 2,000 miles, or $280. Isn’t that nice how that math worked out!

While I’ve tried to convince others I volunteer with to log their mileage for the tax deduction, many of them choose not to—even if they itemize their deductions anyway—because it’s “too much trouble.” On the contrary, logging volunteer mileage is incredibly simple:

  1. Create a mileage log book. Take a small notebook, and throw it in your glove compartment along with a pen.
  2. Log your miles for each trip. Record your starting and ending mileage for each trip you make to volunteer for qualified charities.
  3. Add ‘em up. Whip out the old calculator (or use a spreadsheet like me) at tax time and take a deduction for your charitable miles driven.

Of course, you’ll want to be careful whenever you try to tell the IRS you don’t owe them tax on every dime you make. You may wish to consult a tax accountant or attorney before deducting your charitable driving, and you’ll want to confirm that your volunteer work is being performed for a qualified charitable organization. But as long as you document your volunteer driving well, you should have nothing to worry about.

On a side note, I will mention that the Federal government has not seen fit to increase the deduction rate for charitable work mileage in over a decade. While deductions for business, medical, and moving mileage have all risen steadily (and are all at rates higher than volunteer work), volunteers have been stuck at the same deduction rate since 1998 despite rising gas prices. I think news of waning volunteerism will finally help to spur a rate bump for volunteers soon.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

What Sort of Lunatics Bought the 55,000 Hummers Sold Last Year?

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 17 - miles per gallon

It should come as no surprise in these times of high gas prices, environmental crusades, and rampant judgmentality that sales of large, gas-guzzling automobiles are slowing. People seem to finally understand that they can just as easily fit two kids in the back of a Honda Fit as they can in a 12-door SUV. Well, most people seem to understand this. Somewhere in this country are 55,986 people who bought Hummers in 2007.

In case you live under a rock big enough that a Hummer hasn’t crushed it yet, Hummer is a brand of personal battle tank created during the 1980s to fight Nazi zombies. This vehicle, known as the “Humvee” or “Human-crushing Vehicle,” was so successful at repelling the zombie invasion that Hummer decided to modify it and sell it for general civilian use. Unfortunately this meant that all of the useful features of the Humvee, such as the armor and weapons emplacements, were removed leaving only the less useful features such as low gas mileage, high maintenance costs, and the inability to fit the damn thing into a garage.

Still, Hummer’s H1 vehicle sold quite well during the 1990s and early 2000s; and when Hummer rolled out its slightly smaller and more practical H2 and H3 models, those too went flying off stores shelves. Today, Hummer only produces H2 and H3 models, the latter of which is a full ton lighter than the former. Those extra 2,000 pounds on the H2 translate to abysmal fuel economy—an average of just 13 miles per gallon—though the H3 doesn’t do much better at just 15 MPG. Thanks almost certainly to the skyrocketing price of gasoline, H2 sales fell by over 50% from the previous year in 2007, and there are rumors that the H2 will be discontinued altogether within a few years.

As I pumped that $3.60 premium into my 32-mpg MINI Cooper this morning, I saw an H2 and two H3s go by in less than five minutes. It occurred to me that those drivers would be paying almost $7.50 to go the same distance I go on $3.60. This just begs the question: why did anyone by a brand new Hummer last year, much less 55,000 of them? I would think you could get a used Hummer from someone tired of paying through the nose for gas for about $50; but even then, why would you sentence your wallet to a slow, painful death by driving?

Some people might argue that they need a Hummer for hauling around heavy objects or keeping their families safe. Sure, a Hummer could pretty much carry the population of Rhode Island from Point A to Point B, but so could a much cheaper pickup with significantly better gas mileage. And as for the safety features of the Hummer, they’re severely overrated; something that big takes forever to bring to a stop, and there are several now-standard safety features missing from many Hummer models.

So this leads us to only one possible conclusion: 55,000 eco-terrorists bought Hummers last year and will use them to collapse the ozone layer and kill us all… assuming we don’t kill each other over high gas prices first.

Which we will.

And soon.

Like, by Tuesday.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Idiots Who Cause Car Accidents and Block Traffic Cost You $18 Million A Year

Author: Nick
Category: Money

okay, so in this case, you might not be able to move your car out of traffic

On the ride to work the other day, I was treated to an all-too-familiar sight around these parts: the aftermath of an automobile accident. This time it was sedan vs. sedan. Not too much damage to either car, and certainly not enough to disable the vehicles. But for some inexplicable reason, both drivers decided that the proper thing to do immediately following the accident was to leave their cars in the middle of busy travel lanes.

Okay, perhaps it’s not so inexplicable. It seems that many drivers have been taught by their parents, driving schools, and insurance companies not to move their vehicles following an accident until police arrive. That’s because the folks from CSI: Miami are going to show up at the scene of your accident and use fancy chemicals and green lasers to determine exactly who is at fault. And if you move your vehicle after the accident—even an inch!—then David Caruso is going to put on his sunglasses in a dramatic fashion and say something like, “There’s nothing more we can do here, Detective.”

I’m here to tell you that keeping your car in the middle of traffic following an accident is wrong, dangerous, and possibly illegal. If you don’t believe me, perhaps you’ll believe these intimidating bullet points:

  • It’s wrong. Assuming the police even bother to investigate your accident, they can normally determine all of the information they need from two things: the damage to the vehicles, and the testimony of the drivers and passengers. Even if one party of a two-car collision completely lies to the investigating officers, they’re usually keen enough to weed out the lies and piece together what really happened. Another reason leaving your car in the middle of traffic is wrong: all you’re doing is inconveniencing hundreds, possibly thousands of other drivers. Even if you’re not the one at fault, that’s just a jackass kind of thing to do.
  • It’s dangerous. When you block travel lanes with your accident-involved vehicle, you disrupt the normal flow of traffic. And when you disrupt the normal flow of traffic for commuters who are used to the same driving pattern each day, you’re dramatically increasing the probability of more accidents, possibly one that’ll turn you into a pancake while you’re busy yelling at the other driver.
  • It’s possibly illegal. At any other time, stopping your car in the middle of travel lanes would be illegal. Any police officer in his or her right mind would ticket you, tow you, or just plain old arrest you. Does being involved in an accident make it any more legal to park in the center lane of your local expressway if you can help it? I don’t think so. Unfortunately law enforcement doesn’t seem to punish this sort of behavior, possibly because it’s been ingrained in them as well.

So if you’re a driver involved in an automobile accident, what should you do to prevent yourself from doing something wrong, dangerous, and possibly illegal? Simple: move your freaking car out of traffic if you can. The only reasons you shouldn’t move your car out of traffic following an accident is (a) your car won’t move, or (b) someone in, near, or under your car is seriously injured.

Got it? Good. Time for a pop quiz!

Question: You were just gently rear ended at a traffic light, and now your car is sitting across three travel lanes. The other vehicle shows no significant damage and has pulled out of traffic. You’re not bleeding or dying or anything, and your vehicle is still operational. What should you do?

  • A. Keep your vehicle in the middle of three busy traffic lanes until the police arrive which they’re not going to since nobody is injured and neither car needs towing, get out of your car, dodge traffic, yell at the other driver for 10 or 20 minutes, exchange insurance information, walk back into traffic, take 79 pictures of the damage to your vehicle with your digital camera, call your spouse from your cell phone and complain for another 15 minutes, and then continue driving to work.
  • B. Get the hell out of traffic you dumbass. I don’t care about what you do after that.

If you answered A, then congratulations on disproving the theory of human evolution.

You might be wondering where I got the “idiots blocking traffic costs you $18 million a year” figure, so allow me to explain. Back in college, I had an internship with the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT). When I wasn’t busy designing sky highways for flying cars, I was fortunate enough to be invited on tours of interesting facilities like the area below the Baltimore Inner Harbor Tunnel, the place where they make street signs, and the top-secret facility where MDOT can view 30 bajillion cameras placed on highways around the state.

That last tour was the most interesting because the guide explained that the state and local police asked for permission a while back to monitor these video feeds MDOT had installed all over the place. MDOT said sure, but only if the police promised to work harder to move accident-involved vehicles from travel lanes. The police agreed, and now one of their top priorities when showing up at the scene of an accident is getting cars out of traffic and then investigating what happened.

Why did MDOT want those vehicles out of the way so badly? As the tour guide explained, cars that stop in travel lanes following minor accidents cause commuters to lose hundreds of millions of hours of productivity each year. That costs the state of Maryland a lot of tax money, and that tax money is how MDOT is funded.

At the end of the tour, I asked just how much these stupid drivers are costing me each year.

The tour guide responded, “If it weren’t for idiots stopping in traffic after every fender bender, you’d be making $18 million more each year.”

I gasped, “$18 million a year? Can you prove that?”

He replied, “Sure! Just as soon as everyone stops blocking half the road every time they get side-swiped, your salary will jump to $18 million a year.”

I laughed and said, “But that’s never going to happen.”

“Then I guess I can never be proven wrong,” he said with a smile.

So the next time you see a stupid driver stopped in the middle of traffic after getting tapped on the bumper, send them a bill for $18 million. Or just flip them off, which can be just as satisfying.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Ten Ways to Save Time and Money on Thanksgiving Travel

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

stay home this thanksgiving and avoid pumpkin pie rain and crashing world war 2 airplanes

Over the next 72 hours, Americans will travel the equivalent of 16 light years around the country to visit relatives, exchange family gossip, and pass out from turkey overload while watching football. If the thought of squeezing the spouse and kids into the car for a four-hour drive to grandma’s has you down, consider these options for making that Turkey Day commute a little less painful.

  1. Stay home. Make no excuses. Just tell everyone you’re staying home. “No, gas isn’t too expensive. No, we don’t hate you. No, we’re not converting to the Cult of Turkey Protectors. We’re just staying home and having a small, inexpensive Thanksgiving celebration on our own. Just us, our children… and the Nintendo Wii which is the real reason we can’t afford to drive to see you all this year.”
  2. Meet them halfway. You live in Boston, they live in Atlanta. Both of you could travel half the distance and enjoy the holiday where you meet. So what’s a good halfway point for Boston and Atlanta? Pancake, West Virginia, of course!
  3. Celebrate with closer relatives and friends. There’s no need to drive seven hours to visit your parents back home when you’ve got perfectly good cousins 90 minutes away that you haven’t seen in years… maybe even never! For that extra Thanksgiving surprise, don’t tell them you’re coming and waltz right through the front door. Just be sure to bring a copy of the family tree to prove you’re entitled to half their turkey.
  4. Host family at your place. Bring your travel costs down to zero by guilting everyone into coming to your home for Thanksgiving this year. Don’t let relatives crying “But Grandma’s hosted it every year for 25 years, and she’s in a wheelchair so she can’t drive down here, and this could be her last Thanksgiving” deter you. You’re hosting Thanksgiving… and you’re giving away free DVD players to the first five relatives to arrive!
  5. Go shopping instead. Kmart is open on Thanksgiving and has some great deals on GPS navigators and… oh wait, that’s not really going to save you any money. It’ll save gas money, maybe.
  6. Set up a Thanksgiving videoconference. That fancy video communications equipment they have where you work is just begging to be borrowed to help bring together distant families this Thanksgiving. Now you don’t have to worry about Great Uncle Fred eating all of the sweet potatoes, but you still get to hear his amusing yet slightly insulting stories about all the dames and broads he’s known in his 80-some years.
  7. Purposely book the worst flight possible. Check which airline in your area is notorious for delays, bumping passengers, and causing extreme frustration in its customers during Thanksgiving week. Then book your plane tickets on them, show up late, and pray that they bump you to a flight that doesn’t leave until Christmas Eve.
  8. Cause a family feud. You’ve got less than 24 hours to do it, but you could get the ball rolling by telling Aunt Kelly that you overhead Aunt Sally say she was getting fat. Eventually long-repressed opinions will spread like wildfire, and your family won’t want to be near each other until at least Easter 2012.
  9. Disown family that lives more than 100 miles away. It’s not your fault they decided to stay in their inexpensive country farm home on 50 acres of gorgeous meadow while you and your family decided to take up residence in a ridiculously overpriced 600-square-foot apartment in the middle of downtown. You can have an amazing Thanksgiving feast at home… well, except you don’t have an oven to cook it in… or a refrigerator… or a dining room table. But nothing says Thanksgiving like an Arby’s roast beef sandwich!
  10. Convince yourself it isn’t Thanksgiving. Several of my co-workers and friends were confused by the extra Thursday this month; they were thinking that Thanksgiving was always the last Thursday in November when it’s really the fourth Thursday. Play dumb and make this “mistake” yourself. Then enjoy the James Bond marathon on Spike TV with Pussy Galore and all her friends.

As for me, since my family is only 60 miles away, we’ll be spending the day there tomorrow with relatives, friends, and the biggest turkey you’ve ever seen (wait, I forgot Uncle Fred isn’t coming this year because he has to work).

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Save Money by Watching What You Feed

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

feeeeeed me

By Rhonda Jones

Do you know how many things in your life eat? Things that eat–and that includes carbon-based life-forms and metallic “life-forms” alike–are essentially black holes. Money pits. A very good rule of thumb when it comes to saving money is to avoid having things in your life that eat, to the extent that you can avoid them. For instance, if you already have children, you can’t exactly trade them in for house plants. (You really can’t. I’ve checked.)

You can put all the munchers in your life on diets though. And here’s how.

Tip No. 1: Don’t run out for a quick anything. These days, your car is eating up more of your cash than ever before. It has a very clever way of forcing you to feed it all it wants, too: by refusing to take you home until you do. It’s like mechanical kidnapping. However, you can tighten up its belt at least a little by driving less. Don’t run out to the store for one item. If you can’t make pancakes for dinner because you don’t have eggs, then cook something else. Every time you step out for a little ingredient, you are throwing money away. Keep a detailed grocery list, and shop once a week and only when you’re on your way home from work, if possible. If you need specialty items from specialty stores, limit that shopping to once a month, and visit all the stores you need to in a particular area at the same time. No zigzagging around town.

Tip No. 2: Beware of things that eat. Like kids and pets. If you don’t have them, don’t get them. If you simply must nurture something, get yourself a needy boyfriend or girlfriend, and then go on Dutch dates. If you already have kids, don’t get pets for them. It sounds mean, yes, but saving money is a dirty business. If they cry and insist, then make them share their food allotment with the pet. You can even put them both on a diet of Krunchy Kibbles. Or at least threaten to.

Tip No. 3: That means you, too. You are one of those things that eats that you should beware of. If you’re a big eater, then stop it. Too much food isn’t just bad for your waistline and your heart, it is also bad for your wallet. So if you don’t want a doctor to perform a walletectomy in your future, curb your lust for slabs of meat, desserts and snacks. Enjoying potato chips is fine. Eating an entire bag in one sitting is unnecessary. Remember, walletectomies are very, very painful procedures.

Tip No. 4: Do not, under any circumstance, supersize.

Tip No. 5: Stop speeding. Such a simple concept, yet so hard to do. Because not speeding makes you a wussy, doesn’t it? No, it makes you broke. It uses a lot more gas to go from Point A to Point B faster than it does to follow the speed limit. And you know what’s going to happen when that nice man in the blue uniform pulls you over? He’s going to hand you a big, fat bill. Some people spend enough money on speeding tickets every year to have a really nice weekend of fun. Pocket that ticket-money for five or 10 years and that’s a pretty nice vacation you can now afford. Not speeding is another great way to put that car on a diet.

What are you feeding wads of cash to on a weekly, or even daily, basis? If you put those things on diets, you may be very surprised at how much you can save. All it takes is just being conscious of where your money goes.

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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