Sunday, November 30, 2008

12 Guilt-Free Things You Should Be Stealing From Work

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 67 - confession

Let me preface this by saying that I do not in any way condone stealing things that don’t belong to you. I do, however, thoroughly condone stretching the definition of “belonging to you” to include some things which don’t really belong to anyone, like love and air, but not things like national monuments (I’m talking to you, Carmen Sandiego).

There’s always a bit of a gray area when it comes to taking things that are “free.” Yes, those apartment guides in the grocery store say they’re free, but does that mean you should take all 47 of them? On the one hand, it would be kinda funny to do it, and you’d have a little less competition for apartments which might impact rental prices in the long run. On the other hand, don’t be a dumbass; just take five or six copies like everyone else.

There’s probably no grayer area in the “free stuff” world than in the workplace. After all, there’s just tons of stuff lying around, begging to be absconded with. And if you’re like me and you work for a large, faceless multinational corporation, none of that stuff really belongs to anybody per se. In fact, if you own stock in your own company, then technically some of those computers and light fixtures and floor tiles belong to you. And who would blame you for taking your fair share?

Well, apparently a lot of people would because stealing things from work is generally considered to be illegal. If you try to walk out the front door with a dozen desktop computers under your arms… your grotesque, inhumanly powerful arms… you’re probably going to get stopped by security. At the very least, when someone notices they’re gone, you’ll probably show up on no less than 28 surveillance cameras walking out with the stolen goods.

That said, there really are some workplace items you shouldn’t feel bad about walking away with on occasion either because they’re worth so little or because everyone else does it. Here’s a list of some of those things you practically have a duty to gank from your job.

  1. Electricity. Are you still charging your cell phone at home like a stupid hobo? (No offense, hobos.) If so, and you use your phone to make even one work-related call a year, you should be charging it at your desk instead. In fact, I don’t think anyone will blame you if you just ran an extension cord a few miles down the road to your residence since you wouldn’t have all these electrical gadgets to begin with if your job didn’t pay you the money you used to buy them!
  2. Water. If your workplace has free exercise facilities, chances are it also has showers. Even if exercising isn’t your cup of tea, you can still take advantage of workplace shower facilities to cut down on hot water consumption at home.
  3. Housing. Still renting or paying a mortgage like a stupid hobo? (Really, I don’t mean to offend you hobos.) Why do that when you’ve got a perfectly good office or cubicle that just sits unoccupied each night while you’re at home in your so-called “comfy bed.”
  4. Internet. Let me be totally clear here: internet surfing during work is a big no-no; internet browsing at work after hours might not be so bad. Now if you’re gonna be looking at the pornographies, do yourself a favor and use someone else’s computer in case your network admin logs that kind of stuff. Just be sure to clean up after you’re done. Clean up your browsing activity, that is. Ew.
  5. Disk space. While we’re talking computers, I bet your work computer has gobs of unused disk space on it. After all, how much space can a few dozen spreadsheets take up? Assuming it’s not against company policy, you could use some of that extra space to backup your important personal files. It’s cheaper than using a commercial backup solution. But again, keep your dirty pictures somewhere else… like at my house.
  6. Desk candy. Some of your co-workers may be nice enough to leave small dishes of candy on their desks for people who walk by to take a piece. If your company has you working until 9pm without giving you a break for dinner, those candies can serve as a handy substitute for real nutrition.
  7. Storage. This doesn’t apply to those of you who actually use your office or cubicle’s space for storing work items. But I know plenty of you administrative types have nothing but empty lockable drawers that you like to pretend are full of important papers. Why not use some of that space to store books, old clothes, and other stuff you don’t want cluttering up your house? (Not that you even need a house if your office is that spacious…)
  8. Scrap paper. If you have young, artistic kids, you probably have to buy them a ream or two of copy paper every other week to satisfy their scribbling habits. (You know: draw draw draw, throw paper away. Draw draw, erase, rip up paper.) Stop wasting perfectly good new paper on them and just bring home whatever you can fish out of the workplace recycling bins. Just be careful what scrap paper you decide to give to your kids as you wouldn’t want them showing off their doodles to classmates drawn on the other side of top secret engineering schematics.
  9. Toilet paper. In general, you should be doing about 75% of your toileting at work anyway. You’ll find that doing so will really cut down on your household’s TP consumption. I’m pretty religious about my workplace potty break; stop by stall #2 on the third floor around 12:15 some day and say hi!
  10. Old magazines. Sure, they’re a little used and out-of-date, but those three-week-old magazines sitting in your office building’s lobby or waiting room would just get thrown away eventually anyway. Take them home instead and catch up on world events with such first-class publications as Time, Newsweek, and Soap Opera Digest.
  11. Expired holiday decorations. Does your workplace decorate for the holidays? And if so, does it throw out those decorations every year? A quick trip to the dumpster on December 26th could save you a boatload on Christmas decorations next year. Heck, stop by work early on December 25th and pick them up before someone else gets the same idea!
  12. Landscape. You may not realize it, but that finely groomed campus landscaping you see outside your window at work probably costs more money each month than you make in a year. I think that entitles you to make off with some posies and maybe a few small bushes.

What, were you expecting me to say that it’s okay to walk out with reams of stationery and a truckload of LCD monitors? Sorry to disappoint you, but I bet you’ll still save a lot of money if you pilfer these items. Plus you probably won’t go to jail… unless you’ve got one of those psychotic bosses who constantly inventories the toilet paper in the restroom and chastises everyone for using too much. And if you have one of those bosses, you may want to quit and find a better job.

Oh, and don’t forget to steal everything that isn’t nailed down on your way out.

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.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Be Your Own Vending Machine At Work For Fun and Profit

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

comic 53 - vending genie

Long-time readers will know that I have a penchant for eating. In fact, I just finished eating the entire country of Denmark. Okay, perhaps not Denmark, but a much smaller country nobody really cares about. Suffice it to say I like the yummies.

Usually around mid-afternoon at work, I’ll get the craving for a snack. Over the years, I’ve dealt with this craving in a variety of ways, including:

  • Ignoring it. This is what I do about 98% of the time. Part of this is due to my desire not to gain 300 pounds, and part of it is due to my desire not to lose 300 pounds… sterling. Get it? It’s a currency joke. That would have killed at the World Bank. Anyway…
  • Being prepared for it. A couple of years ago, I usually made sure to have a supply of snacks on hand at work for when this craving called. My favorite emergency food supply consisted of a six-gallon tub of assorted snackery including pretzels, cheese puffs, and other stuff with no nutritional value whatsoever. I had to give up this plan, however, as I would sometimes polish off the entire tub in one day if things weren’t going well at work.
  • Giving in to the vending machine. This is probably the worst way to deal with mid-afternoon snack cravings. I’ve only done it a few times in nearly five years and always because my brain and stomach just wouldn’t shut up otherwise. I try to keep my wallet low on cash just so I’m not tempted to go the vending machine route at work.

There’s one more snack-attack counterattack tactic that I’ve been employing for the last couple of years: giving in to the communal snack box. Working in a computer lab environment, the head of the lab often goes out and buys snacks for everyone else who works there, usually asking for a small donation put into a change bucket to cover the cost of the snack. For instance, our current “Lab Daddy” purchases boxes and boxes of packages of pretzel bites and requests a donation of 28 cents each time you take a bag to help cover his costs.

It occurred to me earlier today, while eating my sixth bag of lab pretzels in as many days, that this little enterprise is quite ingenious and perhaps a bit profitable. Where does the profit come in? Consider how the normal computer lab pretzel exchange works:

  1. Choose your snack. Several varieties are available!
  2. Put 28 cents in the Pretzel Fund.
  3. Oh wait, all you have are dollar bills.
  4. The Lab Daddy just saw you take some pretzels. You better put in something or you’ll look like a cheap jerk.
  5. You repeat this each time you go for a bag. The 28-cent requested donation becomes 72 cents of profit for Lab Daddy.

Now I know Lab Daddy isn’t really out to make a profit on this; he’s just being really nice and saving us from having to spend a dollar on the same bag of pretzels in the company vending machine. And despite the “honor system” in place, I’m sure not everyone is putting in their 28 cents per bag. A more sinister person, however, such as yourself, might see this as the perfect opportunity to squeeze a few extra pennies out of your day job. Assuming you have trustworthy co-workers, it just might work too!

Oh, and in case you ever find yourself on the other side of this delicious scheme, here are a few strategies to help make sure you’re not putting extra pennies in your Lab Daddy’s pockets:

  • Use exact change, or take more than one. For pretzels that run 28 cents a bag, either put in a quarter and three pennies, or take three bags and hide the other two for later.
  • Announce your intentions. If Lab Daddy is watching your pretzel pickup, and you only have large bills, toss one into the donation bucket in plain sight and say something like “That should cover me for the next X bags.”
  • Bring your own snacks. This way, you know you’re paying 28 cents a bag for your pretzels. Just don’t forget them at home, and don’t go through them faster than you would the communal stash.
  • Open a competing snack shack. Beat Lab Daddy at his own game by starting your own vending service. If necessary, price below your cost to start and you’ll drive Lab Daddy out of business. Of course, if you ever need Lab Daddy’s help with your work, expect him to change your account passwords and delete your files at random.

A word of caution before starting a communal snackateria at your workplace: Be sure to keep it on the down-low. Otherwise you might risk people from other departments sneaking through for a freebie. Or you might earn the ire of your workplace’s vending contractors who could see you as stealing their business; don’t blame me if you leave work late one evening only to be blocked in by 12 Coca-Cola machines.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The U.S. Gold-Medal Olympian Salary: Zero Dollars… Plus Bonuses

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 52 - olympic spending

Shawn Johnson, 2008 gold-medal Olympic gymnast and pint-sized jailbait, will be taking home a whopping paycheck of zero from the U.S. Olympic Committee this year. The same goes for swimming sensation Michael Phelps, beach volleyball vixens Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, and fencing champ Mariel Zagunis.

Yet somehow, despite the cost of blowing tiny countries like Georgia off the map, Russia is still finding the extra dough to cough up a $150,000 cash prize to any of its Olympians who bring home the gold. Even Afghanistan just gave the country’s first ever medal winner a free house! In fact, the U.S. is one of few countries whose government provides no regular subsidies or payments to its Olympic athletes.

Somehow, though, I suspect Shawn Johnson and her fellow American gold medalists won’t have to worry about keeping roofs over their heads. Johnson, who attends a public high school in Iowa, is expected to score around $1 million in endorsement as a result of her accomplishments in Beijing. Michael Phelps already has six- and seven-figure deals with companies like Visa and AT&T.

For the typical American, a million dollars can go a long way. In fact, if invested wisely, a person of any age could live a decent life off the interest alone. Of course, tell that to any of the thousands of bankrupt former superstar athletes who may have once owned cars more expensive than our houses. Sadly, for Olympians like Johnson and Phelps, endorsements tend to fade as quickly as the Games themselves. And for gymnasts like Johnson, many of whom only get one shot at Olympic gold in the face of ever-increasing competition from the next generation, the sponsorships that follow from Olympic glory rarely guarantee an easy life.

Remember Kerri Strug from the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta? She still scores the occasional tiny commercial deal, but she’s held a variety of “common” jobs since her valiant performance on the vault that led Team USA to gymnastics gold. She’s been everything from an elementary school teacher in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. to an Olympic news correspondent. Shawn Johnson, despite her gold-medal performance on the balance beam in Beijing, probably won’t see endorsement deals quite as grand as Strug’s. Worst of all, by the time the London Summer Games roll around in 2012, Johnson will be 20 years old—ancient in the world of women’s gymnastics.

At least Johnson’s family has indicated that any money from commercial deals would go straight to her college education. But if she wants to keep living the life of a million-dollar Olympian, Johnson may want to consider a high-paying career track like medicine… or software engineering. How about it, Shawn? Get your comp. sci. degree and we can code the night away together…

Monday, July 21, 2008

Is Working Overtime Killing You Too?

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

comic 45 - ninja attack

Japan—that island super-nation that gave us such innovations as karaoke, Super Nintendo, and Ice Cucumber Pepsi—has a bit of a problem. You see, the people in Japan just work too damned hard. Whereas the typical American 40-hour work week consists of 20 hours of coffee breaks, 10 hours of unproductive meetings, 7 hours of sexually harassing your gorgeous secretary, and 3 hours of actual work, the Japanese work week averages 60-70 grueling hours. What happened was, a while back, Japan realized that the only way it was going to overtake the United States (a country with more than twice its population) in areas like technology, education, and pornography was to work roughly 17 times harder. And that’s just what they did then and continue to do to this very day.

Sadly for Japanese workers, working yourself to death has the unfortunate side effect of sometimes actually killing you as one unlucky engineer at Toyota found out recently. The occurrence of overtiming oneself into an early grave has become such a frequent happening in Japan in the last half-century that they’ve even invented a word to describe the phenomenon: karōshi which, roughly translated, means “happy fun hard-working death time.” There have been dozens of well-publicized karōshi deaths in Japan since the phrase was first coined around 1970, though many other cases likely go unreported as companies pay surviving family members quiet settlements. The typical karōshi death is a direct result of a heart attack or stroke caused by sheer overwork.

While 80-hour work weeks aren’t as common on this side of the Pacific, there are nonetheless plenty of Americans who are prime candidates for exiting this life karōshi style. You might know a few people like this yourself. Heck, you might even be someone like this—toiling thanklessly for the good of your employer with little regard for your own self-preservation. If that sounds like you, then there are some steps you might want to start taking right away to help ensure you don’t drop dead from overwork.

  1. Um, stop working so much, eh? If you don’t realize this is the best option, then you’re probably too far down the karōshi path to turn back now. Don’t worry, I’m sure your boss will take good care of your spouse after you’re gone, if you know what I mean.
  2. Get paid more. Believe it or not, knowing that you’re fairly compensated for your job can make it less stressful. If you’ve got plenty of money coming into the household, you won’t have as much to worry about outside of work, which means you’ll be able to pull off a few 80-hour work weeks here and there without dissolving yourself into a puddle of overworked goo.
  3. Get paid overtime. If you already get paid well for your first 40 hours, but you’re working 70 hours a week, then you’re giving away 30 hours of your time for free. Ask your company for overtime pay or work somewhere else that already offers it. You’ll still be working as hard, but you’ll know in the back of your mind that there’s a small reward for your efforts.
  4. Use your vacation time. Another good sign that you’re on the karōshi death spiral is if you have a habit of never using vacation and/or letting vacation time expire without using it. There are very few workplaces that give “too much” vacation time, so you should be using most or all of whatever you’re given.
  5. Change careers. Maybe your current job is too conducive to overwork. You might want to start looking for a job somewhere more relaxed. And if your line of work is such that you’ll be overworked no matter who your employer is, then it may be time to completely change careers to sometime a little less suicidal.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go show those Japanese that us American engineers won’t take their 80-hour work weeks lying down! Oh no no no, I’ll be sitting upright in my comfy chair, sipping my coffee… maybe take a long lunch, leave a bit early… take the rest of the week off…