Friday, September 28, 2007

Stuff Worth Reading, Because I’m Approaching Retirement Age

Author: Nick
Category: Money

so close, and yet so far

That is to say, I’m approaching my desired retirement age of 25 in a couple of months, but seeing as I’m a few dollars shy of my $6 billion savings goal, I’ll just retire for the weekend and catch up on some great reads from across the personal finance internet-o-sphere.

  1. Lazy Man and Money, who also has an eye on retirement, begs the government to tie Roth IRA contribution limits to regional costs of living. This would be great for us in D.C. where an apple costs $12 (a.k.a. six cents Canadian).
  2. Poor Poorer Than You. Living a frugal life is taking its toll on her. She could just do what one of my co-workers does to live a happy frugal life: drink herself silly by lunchtime so she’s too smashed to eat lunch and dinner. Money savings galore!
  3. This weekly roundup is in memory of Clever Dude’s ability to see his feet while standing up.
  4. Financial Dominance is a negotiating machine. Somehow he even negotiated five bucks out of me for the privilege of linking to his article.
  5. If your 401(k) plan sucks, here are some tactics for dealing with it courtesy of Advanced Personal Finance. Bonus tip: if your 401(k) consists of a tissue box someone put in the office break room with “401(k)” magic-markered on it, you might want to go with a Roth IRA instead.
  6. Money, Matter, and More Musings has some wild financial fantasies. As for me, I already fulfilled my crazy financial fantasy by going to Vegas and winning a million bucks from a rich Texas oilman at Blackjack. Unfortunately it was shortly followed by my worst financial nightmare of losing a million bucks to a five-year-old girl at Candy Land.
  7. Moving will increase the quality of life for the My Two Dollars family. Another great way to improve your quality of life: stop eating thumbtacks.
  8. Cash Money Life exposes the hidden costs of cruising the high seas. Another hidden cost: shipboard prostitutes run five times as much as their landlubber counterparts.
  9. And finally, The Digerati Life suggests you tear down your fences so you and your neighbors can benefit from larger yards. I would do this myself, but one of my neighbors is really fond of wandering the backyard naked.

Have a great weekend! Don’t forget that next week we’re starting a 135-part series on ways to amuse yourself while in line at the grocery store. (You’ll really enjoy Part 72 entitled “Flirt Your Way to Grocery Discounts by Hitting on the Cashier.”)

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Greatest Credit Cards You’ll Never See

Author: Nick
Category: Money

Sure, Citi might have the best reward cards, and Discover has some great balance transfer offers, but the best credit cards never see the light of day. Here are just a few cards that you won’t soon be swiping at the grocery store but you’ll wish you could.

voosa awesome card

Voosa Awesome Card
This card is designed for all of the awesome people out there, mainly circus acrobats and readers of Punny Money. The Awesome Card features an amazing reward program unlike any card you’ve ever seen. For each dollar you spend using the Voosa Awesome Card, Voosa will donate three cents to the American Society for the Awesomely Challenged. Please do all you can to help those out there who just can’t be as awesome as us by signing up for the Voosa Awesome Card today.

masterbate rewards

MasterBate Rewards
The MasterBate Rewards card makes using credit cards feel good. Not only do you earn a 1% cash rebate on all purchases made with the MasterBate Rewards card, but you’ll also earn 5% cash back on purchases made at sex toy shops, strip clubs, and hookers equipped with credit card sliders in their boobies. So keep your cash at home and put the MasterBate Rewards card in your pants pocket… if there’s any room left in there.

card of darkness

Card of Darkness
This is the perfect credit card for goths, heavy metal fans, and people suffering from depression. The Card of Darkness comes with a zero-dollar credit line which will reinforce your lifestyle of sadness and despair because it’ll be rejected every time you use it. And if you’re tempted to overspend using the Card of Darkness, you won’t need to take a pair of scissors to this card; it comes with the patented Emo-Sense™ Technology that lets this card cut itself!

iranian express

Iranian Express Gold Card
If the Israeli Express card isn’t your cup of tea, then you’ll absolutely love this Gold Card from Iranian Express. Redeem reward points on this card for a variety of merchandise including restaurant gift cards, airline tickets, and nuclear weapons. If you want this card, you better hurry; Iranian Express appears to be the target of a hostile takeover by American Express, and you know how things turned out for Iraqi Express.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007 Launches iTunes Killer: DRM-Free Music Á La Carte

Author: Nick
Category: Money

amazon mp3: play anywhere, except your ipod, screw apple

For all you foes of Apple and restricted digital music out there, you’ll want to give Amazon’s new MP3 download service a try right away. With single tracks running about 89 cents and most full albums at $8.99 or below, it definitely looks like Amazon is trying to break into the digital music market Apple has had cornered for a couple of years now.

The selection at the moment is a little more sparse than what iTunes has to offer. I randomly selected a dozen tunes from my own MP3 library and could only find six of them in the Amazon library. The reason for the smaller initial selection may be the fact that the music you download from Amazon has no digitial rights management (DRM) software embedded to prevent you from burning it to CDs, loading it on your favorite MP3 player, or sharing it with a friend. A lot of people have been asking for a music download service like this, and it seems Amazon is more than eager to meet the demands of the market.

From the Amazon MP3 FAQ, here are some of the features you’ll get with the music you download from them:

  • Variable bit rate, averaging 256 kbps
  • All downloads are in MP3 format only
  • Over 2 million songs to choose from
  • Also includes music catalogs from many independent record labels
  • Amy Winehouse not included with your download of her songs

Give Amazon a few months to work out the DRM issues with the major record companies, and I’m sure their library will balloon to a size similar to that of iTunes (currently over 6 million songs versus just 2 million at Amazon). You heard it here first, folks: Amazon will take a big bite out of the music download market from Apple, possibly even surpassing them by 2009.

Monday, September 24, 2007

More Buffet Strategies: Olive Garden’s Never-Ending Pasta Bowl

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

olive garden never-ending pasta bowl strategies

On the way home from a short road trip on Saturday with my wife, I had an intense craving for all-I-can-eat something. Seeing the sign for Exit 41A-B on Interstate 95 just south of Baltimore, I recalled there was an Olive Garden not far from the exit. After cutting across four lanes of traffic in less than three seconds, we arrived at the Garden and were promptly seated (30 minutes for an Olive Garden is prompt in my book). When our waiter appeared, we issued our orders for the holy grail of Italian buffets: the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl.

But by the end of the night, my wife and I would know this menu item by a different name—the Never-Ending Bowl of LIES.

A Journey of Noodly Anguish

For those of you unfamiliar with the way the Olive Garden Never-Ending Pasta Bowl works, here’s a quick rundown.

  1. A mere $8.95 per person gets you the following:
    • Unlimited salad.
    • Unlimited breadsticks.
    • One large bowl of a pasta and sauce of your choice.
    • Unlimited helpings of any other pasta and sauce in smaller bowls.
  2. For $1.95 more, you are entitled to “unlimited” meatballs and Italian sausage.
  3. For the late-Summer 2007 Never-Ending Pasta Bowl event, available pastas include:
    • Penne
    • Fettuccine
    • Spaghetti
    • Angel Hair
    • Linguine
    • Whole Wheat Linguine
    • Orecchiette (looks like a nipple)
  4. Available sauces include:
    • Sausage and Peppers Marinara
    • Smoked Mozzarella Alfredo
    • Marinara
    • Five Cheese Marinara
    • Alfredo
    • Meat Sauce
  5. The Never-Ending Pasta Bowl is a limited-time offering, but it pops up once or twice a year and runs for a month or two. Be sure to call your nearby location or check the Olive Garden website before setting out for the restaurant.

So for $10.90 a person plus tax and tip, you seem to get a whole lot of food and quite a bit of variety—salad, bread, pasta, and meat.

Unfortunately for my fellow buffet champions and me, the Olive Garden stacks the deck against you. I bet this is one of the most profitable all-you-can-eat offers in the country, which explains why it keeps coming back again and again.

Sprinkling Sauce in Your Wounds: How I Lost to the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl

omg you spilled the pasta, nooooooo

I will be the first to admit that I fell for the Olive Garden’s trap on this one. Despite following all of my usual all-you-can-eat buffet strategies, I still came up far short of eating my money’s worth; I had just one large and one small bowl.

After returning home and contemplating my horrendous failure for many hours in the bathroom, I discovered the secrets to the Olive Garden’s Never-Ending Bowl of Lies—secrets I will eventually use to defeat this buffet once and for all.

The Olive Garden has established an ingenious system of attracting buffet-loving customers and parting them from their money for little in return. Here’s how they do it in nine easy steps:

  1. They build a sense of anticipation and desire. As a limited-time but recurring offer, the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl is like the Olympic Games of low-cost buffets. The Olive Garden makes sure to bombard you with television commercials when the Bowl returns, once again triggering your dormant primal urges for unlimited pasta. The Bowl would not be nearly as successful if it were a permanent menu item. It’s a time of great joy for buffet fans—a veritable Hanukkah for pasta lovers.
  2. They price it cheap… but not too cheap. At just $8.95 for the Bowl and $1.95 more for the meat, you’re getting a fabulous deal, right? I mean, $8.95 is miles away from ten dollars, and you have $1.95 sitting in your couch right now. Seriously, if you can’t afford $11 for some never-ending Olive Garden goodness, you’re probably on welfare!
  3. The rest of their menu is overpriced. Around here, a bowl of Olive Garden spaghetti and meat sauce is $10. Ten freaking dollars and you don’t even get meatball one! For a dollar more, you can get the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl with its unlimited spaghetti and meat sauce and switch to a different dish on your next serving. The fettuccine alfredo has a menu price of $11! Seriously, if you order a plate of fettuccine alfredo at the Olive Garden during their Never-Ending Pasta Bowl events, you suck at math.
  4. The salad and breadsticks of evil. Like a judge’s gavel sentencing a guilty man to death, so does the bowl of salad and basket of breadsticks that comes with the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl as they land on your table. These two genuinely tasty items—especially to a man who skipped lunch and ate pizza for breakfast—will be the undoing of any buffet-goer on a mission to defeat the Bowl. Probably made for a grand total of 36 cents, the salad and breadsticks will cut your stomach capacity by as much as half.
  5. The first bowl. Your numero uno pasta and sauce selection comes in the same bowl used to serve most entrees at the Olive Garden. If you’re thinking of sampling all seven pastas and six sauces in one sitting, you may be out of luck; your Garden waiter won’t give you a second helping until you finish your first.
  6. One wrong move and you’re done. Some of the sauces on the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl menu are sub-par. Hitting just one of them can kill your appetite on the spot and derail your buffet train far from your destination. (The new Sausage and Peppers Marinara sauce was my downfall.)
  7. No easy victory for the carnivores. Those seeking to get their money’s worth by hopping on board the meat trolley are out of luck—you get one or two meat portions at most with each pasta dish. That means you’ll have to power through five helpings of fettuccine and penne just to get near a pound of meat.
  8. Service slower than chunky meat sauce. Ready for another bowl of pasta? You may have to wait for a while since you can’t even place an order for another plate until your current one is done. Olive Gardens are notoriously understaffed, and the extra attention required of table-served buffets means their workforce is stretched even thinner. The long waits between servings means you’ll be more tempted to fill up on leftover salad and breadsticks.
  9. The dessert menu of destruction. The buffet menu, detailing the available pasta and sauce choices, is printed on one side of a separate menu. What’s on the other side? That’s right—all of those luscious Olive Garden desserts. Just a quick glance at the other side of the menu and you’ll be tempted to save room for a plate of ridiculously overpriced tiramisu or gelato.

Hindsight Is 20 Bowls of Pasta: How to Get Your Money’s Worth Out of the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl

noooo, not the red sauce!

I may have gone down once against the Bowl, but I’ll be back… and with a buffet of knowledge to help me squeeze every last dime out of my eating experience. While my stomach continues its recovery, I’ll share with you what I’ve learned so you can fight the Olive Garden in the name of all buffet lovers everywhere. Here are some strategies for countering each of the clever tactics the Olive Garden uses to make sure you walk out after eating pennies on their dollar.

  1. Ignore the hype. Don’t let the TV ads push you into the Bowl challenge before you’re ready. Make sure you’ve had enough time to recover from your last buffet. If possible, wait until the Bowl event is three or four weeks in. Yes, you run the risk of the limited-time offer ending at any moment, but those extra weeks will give the wait and cooking staff more practice with the buffet system so your service is faster and your food is tastier.
  2. Don’t let the low cost fool you. If you go into the Olive Garden thinking you have an easy victory ahead, then you have already lost. That tiny price tag may seem simple to beat, but it’s going to take no less than five or six finished helpings to call yourself a Never-Ending Pasta Bowl champ.
  3. Don’t compare to menu prices. You might think you’ve eaten your money’s worth with just one bowl of fettuccine alfredo since the same dish has a regular menu price of $11. It probably costs the Olive Garden about a dollar for the ingredients. You could just buy some packages of alfredo pasta mixes in your grocery store for a couple of bucks. Be sure to use one of these more realistic measures as your buffet metrics baseline.
  4. No salad. No breadsticks. The salad fills you up with needless calories and nutrients. If we wanted healthy food, we wouldn’t be going to buffets in the first place! And breadsticks are just pasta in thicker, cheaper form. You’re best off asking your waiter to keep these items off your table. If he still brings them anyway, make sure your tip reflects your dissatisfaction. And if you must have a bit of salad with your pasta, bring lots of friends so the salad bowl is stretched across more people.
  5. Go for your favorite in the first round. Since it’s the biggest helping, you want to go for your favorite pasta and sauce combination right off the bat. If you have no particular favorite, you might want to go for a long, thin noodle like angel hair to start because you’ll expend less energy on chewing.
  6. Know your sauces. While variety is the spice of life, you don’t want to hit a sauce your palate doesn’t like. Find the sauce you love the most and stick with it. You’ll likely find that one of the alfredo sauces goes well with everything. Save the heavier marinara sauces for your later helpings (or skip them altogether).
  7. Don’t try to beat the meat. As tempting as it is to go for the $1.95 meatballs and sausages, you’re better off passing on them. Every ball and sausage you stuff in your mouth is another pasta bowl you’ll be too stuffed to eat—and fewer pasta bowls means less meat. Unless you’ve plowed through six or seven pasta bowls in the past, your chances of getting your money’s worth in meat is slim. That’s why it’s so cheap.
  8. Time your eating carefully. First and foremost, remember Tip #1 and come in later during the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl promotion so the staff has some practice with the faster pace of service. To help keep your eating momentum going, try to time the finishing of your current bowl with your waiter’s patrols through your dining area. Have your next order ready to save yourself and your waiter some time.
  9. BYO menu. Do not touch the Olive Garden menus your hostess hands to you. The back of that Never-Ending Pasta Bowl menu is especially dangerous with its pictures of tempting desserts. You’re best off printing or handwriting your own copy of the pasta and sauce menu and bringing it with you to the restaurant. Even better: write out your pasta line-up beforehand and save time when ordering.

Is the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl Worth Your Money?

would you like some whine with your pasta?

I’m calling the Olive Garden out on its false advertising. That pasta bowl of theirs totally ended when I walked out of the restaurant. I came back the next day, sat at a table, and ordered my third bowl and they charged me another $8.95! It’s a Never-Ending Bowl of LIES, I tell ya!

In all seriousness, I’m confident I could tackle the Bowl with enough preparation and the above strategies; but because of the difficulty of eating your money’s worth on this one, I’d have to recommend taking your monstrous appetite elsewhere. If you’re set on tackling a noodly challenge, look for similar pasta buffets at local Italian joints. Even at higher prices, you might get a wider variety of pastas, better sauces, and faster seating and service than you will from the Olive Garden and its Never-Ending Pasta Bowl.

See also: Eat Your Money’s Worth At Any All-You-Can-Eat Buffet

Friday, September 21, 2007

Stuff Worth Reading, Because Interest Rates Are Falling Through the Floor!

Author: Nick
Category: Money

warning, no dancing to YMCA near a cliff edge

In the time that it will take you to read this paragraph, the interest rate on your bank account will have dropped 0.5%. That’s because the Federal government is doing some stuff that makes interest rates go down. What sort of stuff? I don’t know. It’s secret government stuff that stupid people like me aren’t allowed to know. I’m told it involves penguins somehow.

Perhaps some brilliant advice from the smartest minds in personal finance can help fight these falling interest rates. Unfortunately the smartest minds weren’t available, so you’ll just have to settle for these guys.

  1. Cash Money Life sets sail with some great tips for scoring deals on a cruise. Unfortunately your cruise ship crashes into the Federal Reserve and interest rates drop another half a percent.
  2. As if things weren’t bad enough already, Financial Dominance says that big cities will soon be even more unaffordable. To help with this situation, the government drops interest rates one full point, allowing even the poorest of prostitutes to set up shop in big cities.
  3. Be sure to look over Money, Matter, and More Musingsfinancial awareness checklist to see if your money is in good shape. Actually, it doesn’t matter, because interest rates just dropped again, this time by seven points.
  4. If anything can save our economy, it’s advice from My Two Dollars on making your old IKEA furniture look less old. Success! Interest rates rise two percent!
  5. Oh, but then along comes The Digerati Life to spoil the fun by reminding us just how high prices have risen in the last few decades. Interest rates drop 14 percent, and Big Macs now cost $37. Fortunately Diggie also has advice for protecting yourself from inflation such as investing in commodities and hiding in your Cardboard Box of Fear.
  6. Surely the joy of people being united in holy matrimony can counteract this financial calamity. Of course, the average wedding costs $18 trillion, but The Frugal Law Student shares some ways to help keep that cost below $32 billion. Interest rates send you a crock pot that wasn’t on your registry. You return it to the store for the cash, but interest rates find out and drop themselves another 30 percent to spite you.
  7. The Simple Dollar offers ten tips for cooking at home. You burn yourself trying to make Jell-O, so interest rates drop 12 percent.
  8. While the leak in your wallet is probably a bigger problem, We’re in Debt helps you find window leaks. You patch your window leaks and interest rates climb 14 percent.

As you can see from this highly realistic simulation, a little creativity is all it takes to save our failing economy. Now if banks would just add a little creativity to their mortgage loan products, we could go back to giving homes to people who can’t afford them.