Monday, December 17, 2007

Solar Power Sucks: Cut Your Power Costs Up to 90 Percent With Inexpensive Home Wind Turbines

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

now if we could just figure out how to get earth, fire, water, and heart...

Wasn’t it just over a year ago I was saying that everyone should be using solar power because it’s so awesome and cheap?

Yeah, strike that.

More than a year later and there’s been no significant drop in the cost of solar panels and other equipment you need to get your home off the local power grid and running completely on natural, wonderful sunshine. I’m sorry, but when it costs $32,000 to install a solar power system, I think I’m going to stick with writing checks to the electric company for about $50 a month.

And while I don’t necessarily mind writing a $50 check to Pepco each month, I’m running low on checks, and a check reorder is expensive! Like, 12 bucks! Plus shipping! That means it’s once again time to reconsider alternative energy sources. And what’s the Punny Money energy du jour? Why, it’s Mother Nature’s other natural power source: moving air.

While I was sitting at home last night listening to winter winds pound our home at up to 50 miles an hour, it occurred to me that I could be running our whole home off those gusts right now if I had a turbine sitting on my roof. A quick trip to the internet later and I was pricing wind turbines and accessories. Here’s what I found:

Compare that to a solar panel which could set you back $80 with just enough power to run your night light.

So what’s stopping everyone from running out and slapping wind turbines on their homes right now? Not a dang thing. Except for these five things:

  1. Equipment and installation. Unfortunately you can’t just plug any of the above turbines into your home and start running your dishwasher and A/C off wind power. You’ll need to purchase separate equipment, like converters and wiring, and probably have all of it professionally hooked into your home’s electrical system. This could add a couple thousand dollars to the cost of getting your wind power system off the ground.
  2. Building permits. Many areas won’t allow their residents to install even tiny wind turbines because they look silly or for another reason we’ll cover in a minute. Because you’ll need to place your generator high, you might need to install a tower or large pole, and most places require you to obtain a special, hard-to-get permit when adding parts to your home that exceed certain height restrictions.
  3. They can be noisy. Small wind turbines are a lot quieter now than they used to be, but one that’s big enough to power your home will probably make at least as much noise as a well-tuned clothes washer. So unless your neighbors already do their laundry on their roof, you might get some objections to the noise levels coming from your turbine.
  4. They’re still not that cheap. Sure, you may be able to power an energy-efficient home off that $5,500 model, but it will still take you several years to recoup the costs of installation. Fortunately the typical wind generator lasts 20 years with little or no maintenance, and you’d be able to make most of that money back if you sold your home.
  5. You need wind. Here’s the kicker for about 70% of Americans: the average wind turbine won’t spin in anything less than 8-10 mile-per-hour winds, and you won’t reach peak energy production without sustained winds of 20 mph. That said, even if you go most of the year with just a gentle breeze running along your sidewalk, you’d be surprised how much the wind can pick up just 50 feet above your home. That’s why turbines are much more effective the higher you can install them.

Unfortunately for us, our off-the-grid energy possibilities are pretty much nil thanks to an abundance of trees (no solar power, lower wind power potential), lack of steady wind (no wind power), and retarded local governance (so no building permits for a 100-foot-high turbine). I guess that means I better tell the hamsters to get back in their wheels.

(For more information on residential wind power, visit the American Wind Energy Association’s Small Wind website.)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Seven Things That Barely Have to Do With Personal Finance, But That’s Too Bad Because American Gladiators Is Coming Back!

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics:

contender READYYYYY, gladiator READYYYYY

Faithful readers of Punny Money will know that I have a mild, unhealthy obsession with NBC’s hit TV show Heroes. I mention it here at least every three or four articles, but I assure you all that will certainly stop now that the second season kind of sucked and the Writers’ Strike means the show will likely never return. Indeed, I forecast that the demise of television in the early 21st century that was predicted on that one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation is coming to pass as we speak.

But before TV goes the way of the Betamax, it will squeeze out one last hurrah this January with the return of the greatest televised action game show of all time, American Gladiators. (Put your hands down; Double Dare is number two.) For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of American Gladiators, I invite you to read two detailed Wikipedia articles on the subject: American Gladiators and American Gladiators events. Or be lazy and read my summary:

  • The premise. Normal, everyday people (most of whom take steroids in the weeks before the game) take on super-powered demi-humans with individual muscles bigger than your entire body. The winner is the normal, everyday person who manages to survive being pummeled with pugil sticks and tennis balls the longest.
  • The events. Without a doubt, the brightest minds in the entire world converged in a Hollywood studio in the late 1980s to dream up the most brilliant sporting events ever created. In one event, challengers must shoot various Nerfitized weapons at a target above a gladiator’s head while the gladiator tries to decapitate the challenger with a tennis ball launcher capable of exceeding 100 miles per hour. Other events include giant wall climbs, upside-down Velcro race tracks, human-sized hamster ball rolling, and one last event called The Eliminator.
  • The Eliminator. Probably the finest two minutes of television in history. The two contestants race each other through an obstacle course suited for God himself. Reverse treadmills, zip lines, hand bikes… just thinking about it makes me all tingly.
  • The production. The set design, host personalities, costume design—really, everything about the show was perfect. Let’s hope the upcoming remake doesn’t screw it up.
  • The video game. I had the American Gladiators video game for the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was terrible. Let us never speak of it again.

At this point, you’re probably asking yourself one question: Has Nick finally gone horrendously off-topic with this post about the greatest TV game show ever made?

The answer is “almost.” I can still manage to salvage this article as on-topic by working in the following bulleted list which somehow ties together personal finance and American Gladiators.

  1. As a kid, I spent over $200 on American Gladiator action figures. And they’re all in the trash now. What a waste. Compare that to about $50 worth of G.I. Joe figures and around $40 for the complete Darkwing Duck figure set. Most of the expense was in the playsets; it ain’t cheap making miniature climbing walls and tiny human-sized hamster balls… though I suppose those would just be normal-sized hamster balls.
  2. Planning a trip to L.A.? Then stop by the CBS Studio Center where the original Gladiator Arena is still set up and available for tours.
  3. The biggest Gladiator prize during its original run? Just $30,000 for winning a later season’s grand championship. You could get more than that now being mildly retarded on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
  4. Worldwide popularity. American Gladiators was the chief U.S. export of the early 1990s, with versions running in Australia, the UK, and even Japan. Of course, it wasn’t called “American Gladiators” in those other countries… except for Japan whose show was named Gekitotsu Americane Kin-niku Battle.
  5. Kid’s version. In 1994, there was a version of the show called, of all things, Gladiators 2000 featuring teenage contestants. Events were similar but often incorporated lessons about nutrition and health. The show failed miserably after the producers realized you’re not supposed to mix education and American Gladiators.
  6. Set costs. The entire American Gladiators set for the original run, including all equipment and props for every event, only cost $12 because it was all made out of styrofoam and sponge. The skyrocketing cost of styrofoam in the last decade means reconstructing the set today would cost over $16 million.
  7. NBC putting all its eggs in one basket? With no end in sight to the Writer’s Strike, scripted television may be gone for good. You’ll see more and more shows like American Gladiators hitting the airwaves, but the most successful networks in 2008 may be those with existing strong lineups of reality programming. NBC has never been strong in reality programming. Case in point: right now, NBC’s top reality show is probably Deal or No Deal—a show that glamorizes the concept of “pick a number between 1 and 26.” AG could be NBC’s big hope for ratings in the new year, but it better make sure to stay true to the original series or it could alienate fans hoping for some nostalgic Gladiator fun.

To get you psyched for the upcoming American Gladiators series, here are some video clips from the original featuring plenty of ’80s hair and 100 mph tennis balls.

The Intro:

Assault: (my personal favorite event)

Powerball:

Hang Tough:

Gauntlet:

The Eliminator:

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Did You Know That CVS Stands for Crazy Values and Sales?

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

plus buy one, get everything else in the whole store forever free

If you’re familiar with one of my favorite personal finance writers, My Good Cents, then you know the author is in love with a little drugstore chain called CVS. At least once a week, you’ll see her shopping in her local CVS, loading her shopping basket full of mouthwash, razors, and cough syrup. Does she have some sort of over-the-counter drug addiction? No no, not at all. She’s simply taking advantage of some crazy CVS deals that allow her to purchase a variety of products for super-cheap or even free!

Take a look at one of My Good Cents’ recent CVS deals. For a net total of $3.11, she walked out of CVS with the following booty:

  • 3 Glucerna cereal
  • 5 CVS cough drops
  • 1 Gillette Fusion razor
  • 1 Cover Girl lipstick
  • 3 Febreeze products
  • Some Pringles
  • 1 box of South Beach Diet cereal bars
  • Assorted cookies and Band-aids

Obviously she won’t be feeding a family of four on this stuff; but considering the razor alone retails for approximately $8,000 (stupid rip-off razors that leave my face feeling sooo good), I’d say she got quite a bargain.

Inspired by My Good Cents and in desperate need of 72 AA batteries (but not wanting to pay money for them), I decided to set off on my own journey of savings to CVS. As I was first alerted to by this discussion on FatWallet, CVS is currently offering a $5 coupon on an 8-pack of Energizer AA batteries which are also on sale for $5.29. You might be thinking, “Ooh, 29 cents for batteries. That’s a good deal.” No it isn’t! It’s a sucky deal. As you’ll soon discover, if you don’t walk out of CVS with at least $15 of free merchandise and discounts towards your next purchase, you’re getting ripped off.

My adventure started at the CVS a few blocks from my workplace. I arrived armed with the following coupons that I easily printed from the CVS website:

  • $5 off a pack of Energizer batteries
  • Get one free box of CVS-brand facial tissue (my wife is sick and has been using about 900 tissues a day)
  • $5 off a $15 purchase
  • $2 off a $10 purchase

I pulled into the CVS parking lot and parked near the exit, in case I needed to make a quick escape. A few minutes later, I was in the store, carefully loading batteries and tissue into my hand basket. I was tempted by the cheap candy in a nearby aisle, but it would have cost me money, and I was not about to spend any.

I made my way to the checkout lane and was greeted with a pleasant “next in line please” from the lady behind the photo counter. She cheerfully scanned my Extra Bucks card (the Holy Grail of CVS savings) and my items—three packs of batteries and a box of tissues—and accepted my coupons. My initial total started at about $16. She scanned the first coupon—down to $11. She scanned the next—under $10. She scanned the third—knocking me below $5. She scanned the last one—leaving me at $3 total.

Then I realized I was out of coupons. The horror. The horror!

Oh but I was far from out of coupons. Indeed, the cashier noticed what I hadn’t: $1 off coupons affixed to the front of each battery pack. $3 turned to $2. $2 turned to $1.

I was overjoyed—24 batteries and a box of tissues, absolutely free. But she wasn’t done yet.

“You also get $5 worth of Extra Bucks back that you can use on a future purchase,” said the cashier, handing me a receipt printout proudly proclaiming “$5 off!”

“Thank you very much!” I replied, grabbing my CVS bag filled with goodies.

“Not so fast.”

I looked up at the cashier. My heart dropped into my wallet. That’s it, I thought. I’m going to deal jail.

“And you get these coupons for $4 off a future purchase of $20 or more.” More paper receipts were flung my way. “And this one for $3 off $10.”

“Thank you! Thank you!” I bowed, clutching my bag and slowly making my way to the door.

“Oh, and what’s your favorite number?” asked the cashier.

“Uh, two?”

“Then you also get this free jar of jelly beans. Plus it’s Monday, so you get 12 free Hershey bars and four tubes of toothpaste.”

“Uh, thank you–”

“I’m not finished yet, biotcha! And because you have brown hair, here’s a 1:16 scale replica of the U.S.S. Saratoga, three copies of the DVD Shrek, and 18 dozen eggs.”

“Uhhh. I just want to go home now.”

“You have a home! That means you get this free jug of Vaseline and two tickets to the Ice Capades. Plus this innertube that looks like Hillary Clinton. And since you’ve reached 10 free items, you also get 5,000 homemade chocolate chip cookies, a map to buried treasure, and the deed to this building!”

At this point, I ran to the car with my batteries and tissues, but the cashier was close behind.

“How dare you run before I can give you this free gift certificate for a two-hour Swedish massage.” The cashier leapt onto my car hood and transformed into a vicious monster with fangs for teeth and snakes for ears. “I just want to save you money,” came her blood-curdling voice.

As I put the key in the ignition, she punched through the car windshield. I reached into my CVS bag for something to fight her off. The batteries were ineffective. My only hope was the box of store-brand tissue. As I suspected, they were more than harsh enough to dry out her nose long enough for me to escape. In the end, I got away with my three packs of batteries, box of tissues, and $5 in CVS Extra Bucks for the low low price of zero dollars and one shattered, blood-stained windshield. Fortunately CVS has windshields on sale for $3 and a coupon for $6 off of that.

I repeated the same steps at two other CVS stores in my area and netted the 72 batteries I needed along with two more tissue boxes. All for more than free.

Does this mean I like coupons now? No, I still think they’re usually a waste of time, but I wouldn’t call what CVS offers “coupons.” They’re more like “free gift paper things.”

Friday, December 7, 2007

Stuff Worth Reading, Because Everything Tastes Better With Cheddar

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics:

please do not go, i camembert it

Cheddar on crackers. Cheddar on popcorn. Cheddar on sausage. Cheddar on squirrel. You name it, it’s better with cheddar.

The only thing that doesn’t go well with cheddar is personal finance, but that’s probably because personal finance is an intangible quality and the cheddar would just slide right off. So really you’d just have personal finance over here, and a pile of cheddar on the floor. And that just ain’t right.

Since there’s already cheddar in this roundup, the only thing missing is personal finance. Let’s correct that heinous oversight with a quick look at some interesting though cheddar-free articles that made their appearance this week.

  1. It seems that some credit card issuers pulled a fast one on consumers traveling and/or purchasing abroad. Advanced Personal Finance fills us in on the details of getting a chunk of the resulting class action settlement.
  2. Being Frugal shares ideas on how to keep your kids from being greedy little punks this Christmas season without having to beat them senseless. (Note: I do not advocate beating children, except perhaps at Candy Land, which I still haven’t managed to do.)
  3. Financial Dominance reviews a list of legal documents you should have. I would also add “Instructions to give Punny Money all of my assets” to that list.
  4. Watch out for I’ve Paid For This Twice Already. She’ll gladly lend you her grocery savings card, but then she’ll keep your rewards for herself. Hmm, I wonder if someone could turn this into a full-time job…
  5. Lazy Man and Money is having major issues with Monster.com’s job search. Perhaps he should try my method of finding a new job: ask a co-worker to sleep with your new potential boss. I am not kidding; this is how I got my current job. Of course, it helps if they’re already married to each other and wouldn’t mind doing that like in my case.
  6. Money, Matter, and More Musings defies conventional wisdom (and even gives the finger to unconventional wisdom) by saying that there’s no such thing as bad debt.
  7. Frank the Financially Savvy Atheist corrects a minor inaccuracy in my mortgage bailout rant by pointing out that many subprime mortgage rates are already ridiculously high.
  8. The Digerati Life satisfies your stoned teenager need to see shiny things this holiday season but without busting your budget.

That’s some very gouda stuff indeed. Oh man, now I bleu it with these cheese puns. Until next time, I swiss you all a happy weekend!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Straw That Broke My Camel’s Back: Rate Locks For Stupid Mortgage Borrowers

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

idiot-saving man to the rescue!

It takes a lot to make me really angry. Sure, I’ll get a little scary when I’m wronged by a retailer, and I’ll occasionally issue the one-finger salute to idiot drivers, but I haven’t been this infuriated in a long time.

And why am I pissed as a porcupine in a pig pen? It’s because of President Bush’s new plan to freeze the interest rates of dumbasses with adjustable-rate mortgages. Great, now I’m swearing. See what you made me do, Mr. Prez?

In case you haven’t heard the news yet, here’s the gist of this ridiculous bailout.

  • It rewards the stupid. If you were idiotic enough to come into a mortgage loan in the last few years that will soon (but not before the new year starts) adjust to a rate 30% or more above your current rate, you may be eligible to have that rate locked. Bye-bye rate jump.
  • It’s not for everyone. You have to be current on your mortgage payments to qualify for the rate freeze. In theory, those behind in their payments now could use this plan the most. Nope, they’re still screwed.
  • Some investors will get screwed too. Investors who bought these adjustable-rate mortgages from banks expecting to cash in on higher interest returns may get shafted. While the program is designed to benefit only those who would have trouble making payments if their rate adjusted (a good thing for investors who would otherwise lose money on defaulted loans), it will undoubtedly help out some people who can make their payments just fine in real life. That means investors will get lower returns on their mortgage loans, and that could discourage them from putting their money into lenders’ hands in the future. That means higher mortgage rates for everyone down the road. Yay!
  • It’s temporary. The rate freezes will only last for five years, which means we’ll have a repeat of the current mortgage crisis again around 2013. And with higher rates because fewer investors will want to fund these mortgages, these adjustable rates could then jump far higher than they would if they simply started adjusting now. In short, this plan postpones the bad but makes things worse later.
  • As for smart homeowners? If you’re like me and had the three brain cells necessary to see that a fixed-rate loan was a good idea… well, you get nothing. Actually, you get to continue paying a higher fixed rate, while people who took out riskier loans are rewarded for their foolishness with longer terms on their lower rates.

I would have been even more pissed if FDIC Chair-dumbass Sheila Bair had her way. She wanted to freeze rates on all subprime loans. Forgive me for purchasing a home I can actually afford, Ms. Bair, but I didn’t know you were planning to protect financial morons from the reality of their bad decisions.

I’ve heard all the arguments for why this is a good idea. People often blame predatory banks for forcing these horrible mortgages on poor unsuspecting homebuyers. (This is bull hockey. People who can’t do interest rate math shouldn’t be given six-figure loans in the first place.) Others won’t blame either side, but they point to economic doom should all these adjustable-rate mortgages end up in default. But regardless of who is to blame and what could happen, I hope you’ll agree with me that, in the end, this is a terrible idea. It’s demonstrating to people that the government will always bail them out of their financial messes, and that just encourages even more reckless behavior.

As I mentioned above, I was awesome enough to see that the 4.9% interest rate I was offered on an ARM mortgage could adjust as high as 9.5%, whereas the 6 percent interest rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage would remain at—surprise!—6 percent. What does that get me now under this government handout plan? Zero. Zip. Zork. Not. A. Thing.

Really, President Bush, how could you agree to this plan? You were so against government assistance in the subprime mortgage meltdown. I… I could stand by you when you started crazy wars and conducted slightly unconstitutional domestic surveillance. But I just can’t forgive this! You are so not getting my vote for re-election when you alter the constitution to allow dictator rule, I promise you that.

I’d like to take this time to address my mortgage lender.

Dear Bank of America,

Thank you again for agreeing to give me a whole lot of money to buy a really overpriced home a couple of years ago. Also, thank you for giving me an ethical mortgage officer who easily convinced me to go the fixed-rate path since it meant that I would not lose my home in a few years when faced with payments I cannot afford.

I hear you may soon be planning to lock in the rates of some of your less intelligent mortgage customers who thought an initial rate of under 5% that could adjust into the double digits was a smart idea. I’d like to remind you that I’ve been a loyal customer of yours for some time now; I’ve made every payment on time, and I even put a smiley face on the memo line of my mortgage payment checks. That said, I must ask you to give me the same handout as your less intelligent mortgage holders. If you decide to lock in any of their lower rates, I request that you reduce my rate to those same levels. In addition, I would ask that you refund me the difference in interest I would have paid had I instead opted for that lower-rate ARM.

If you are not prepared to offer me the same treatment as your lower-IQ’d borrowers, I will gladly sue you to get my rate lowered. Of course, we know that won’t accomplish anything because you will likely get a free pass from the federal government’s Offices of Thrift Supervision and the Comptroller of the Currency. So in the end, you get more of my money, you help stupid people not go bankrupt, and you get to continue being a giant ATM to math retards. I guess everyone’s happy! Oh wait, I’m not.

Respectfully asking you to suck it,
Nick

Phew! It sure feels good to vent, but I’m sorry I had to expose you guys to that. Don’t worry, I’ll return next time with tips for saving money on lollipops and rainbows.