Thursday, January 17, 2008

Doing Everything When You Just Don’t Have The Time To Do It

Author: Nick
Category: Money

yeah, because stabbing an hourglass will give you more time, stupid

[I’ll finish writing this article when I have a chance. Just kidding…]

There comes a time in everyone’s life when, likely thanks to the screw-ups of nearby idiots, you have so much stuff to do that there’s no way you can possibly do all of it without violating the fundamental temporal laws of our time-space continuum (more on how to do that another day). I’ve had a lot of experience in this area. Thanks mostly to my inability to say no to people, I’ve found myself with a workload approximate equivalent to three full-time jobs. Fortunately I enjoy most of the work I’ve volunteered to do (in addition to my regular day job, which is work I have to do because I like to eat and not freeze under a bridge). Unfortunately my day now consists of waking up in the morning, working, sometimes eating, occasionally offering my services to the CIA as part of their international sting operation to take down the secret President of Antarctica, and then going to sleep for 43 seconds before repeating the whole cycle.

When faced with such overwhelming amounts of “stuff to do,” I find that normal strategies for “getting things done”. (about which there exists over 800 books of material) or “hacking my life” (as they say on the internet) just won’t cut it. But I have found the following strategies applicable to almost every occasion when I’m in a time crunch, so perhaps we’ll call this set of strategies something like “time-saving tidbits” or maybe “shut up Nick and get on with the damn list already; you’d probably have more time if you didn’t open all of your articles with such long introductions; we’re just here for the bulleted lists anyway.”

  1. Write your to-do list on a slice of ham. As you complete tasks, instead of checking off the items, simply eat that part of the ham slice. This way you’ll save time by managing your task list at the same time you eat. For writing on ham, I would suggest using either a sharp knife to carve the words or a squeeze tube of cake frosting to inscribe them.
  2. Set your e-mail to auto-reply with a more useful message. It’s always a good idea to ignore your e-mail when you’re trying to do real work, but you should consider going a step further. Try setting an auto-reply message to something like: “If you are receiving this e-mail, then I have been captured by psychotic kidnappers who won’t release me until you’ve performed the following tasks: 1. Go to the store and get some bread. 2. Pick up my kids from soccer practice. 3. Take out the trash. Please save me!”
  3. Learn to write or type two items simultaneously. It is a difficult skill to master, but it is possible to split your brain into two fully functional yet independent units, each one capable of addressing a separate task. I’ve gotten pretty good at it myself. For example, right now, while my left hand is typing this article, my right hand is writing a letter to the editor of my favorite magazine. Thanks to some advanced intelligence training I’ve had, I am able to perform both tasks at the same time without error.
  4. Dear Highlights Magazine, I’ve been a loyal reader of yours for 20 years, but I’m afraid I must finally address an issue with your magazine that has bothered me for quite some time. You see, I understand that your characters Goofus and Gallant are supposed to help children learn the difference between right and wrong. What I don’t understand is why Goofus, the character who is always wrong, looks exactly like me. I kindly request that you change the appearance of Goofus to a more accurate depiction of a person who is likely to be wrong all of the time. Included with this e-mail are several pictures of my friends, family, and co-workers so that you have a wide variety from which to choose. Sincerely, Nick.
  5. Do a half-assed job if possible. This strategy serves two purposes. One, it helps you get things done quicker. Two, it helps ensure nobody will ask for your help again in the future. This is not a strategy you should employ with any sort of paying job, assuming you are like me and are a fan of living.
  6. Do something else instead. Yes, you have a to-do list with 47 items on it. One of those items is definitely not “take up ballet.” So you know what you should do? That’s right, you take up ballet and you kick its ass. You’ll find that breaking out of the rigid structure of to-do lists and schedules can reset your mind, help improve your focus, and rebuild your resolve.
  7. Let fate decide. When you have enough time to do five things but you have seven things to do, simply write each item on a piece of paper, drop them in a hat, pull them out one by one, and leave it to chance what you get done. Of course, it took you two hours to find a pen, paper, and a hat, so now you only have time to do three things. Nice job, slowpoke.
  8. Give up. Okay, hear me out. If you really, truly cannot possibly get done everything you need to do in the time alloted, and there’s nothing you can do about it, then you must throw in the towel on some things so you can salvage the others. If your to-do list includes picking up the kids from school, going grocery shopping, and filing your taxes—you know what, those kids have legs and can walk themselves home.
  9. In the name of all that is holy, stop accepting more work. I wish I’d learned this one a lot sooner, but I’ve had to basically say no to any new requests for assistance until I complete the projects I already have. It helps a lot to have somebody (especially a spouse) help you enforce this. If you know you’re going to be in the position of being asked to do something, bring your helper along so he or she can interject when your assistance is requested and say, “No! You’re not allowed to take on any more projects, and that’s final.” And then you say “Yes, dear,” and everything is great.
  10. Ask for help. I have an even worse problem with this one, but I have a good reason: I am a hardcore “do it yourself if you want it done right” kind of person. So don’t learn from my example. Instead, find a group of people you trust to do at least as decent a job as if you were to half-ass it yourself, and ask them for help. If you ask them to paint your house blue and they paint it green, take into consideration that you probably would have fallen off the ladder anyway.

Now that I can cross “Write today’s article” off my to-do list, it’s on to the next item: shovel snow from sidewalk. Hmm… I think I’ll take up ballet instead. Watch me plié and pirouette!

(New item on to-do list: schedule doctor’s appointment for dislocated leg.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

How to Super-Size Your Boobies on the Cheap

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

message from alan, the picture-finding giraffe

Being a man, I can’t say that I have as much experience with the extra dimensions of a woman’s chest as, say, an actual woman might have. That said, I’ve been a big fan of boobies for many years, except for that brief period in elementary school when girls were yucky. Also known as breasts—though that sounds more like something that’s on my grocery list to buy in the poultry section—boobies have been mesmerizing men and some women for thousands of years, ever since man first invented foreplay.

As with anything entertaining, like a blockbuster Hollywood film or a pile of hundred-dollar bills, bigger is often considered better when it comes to boobies. While the exact reason for this concept is not fully understood, it is generally accepted that both men and women consider larger boobs to be a sign of sexual superiority. This may date back to the practice of cavewomen fighting for their preferred mating partner by wailing on each other with their ample, prehistoric breasts. Even though this practice has been largely discontinued today, many modern-day woman put great emphasis on their bust line, placing it in their hierarchy of importance somewhere between grocery shopping and kicking my butt for writing this article.

For evidence to support my statements, I need only point to the booming breast enlargement industry which last year grossed over $58 billion just from parental graduation gifts. Hopefully you’ll agree that spending that much money on bigger boobies is, at the very least, not particularly frugal. What’s worse is that the gap between the upper and lower income classes is directly proportionate to the size of the average woman’s breasts. As the graph below shows, a woman making less than $50,000 a year just can’t afford the boobies necessary to attract a man who makes $50 million a year.

average breast size by income, courtesy of the american boobilogical institute

Fortunately for all you ladies out there looking to augment your womanly protrusions, I’m about to show you how enlarging your bust does not require you to bust your bank account. Here are some frugal tips that may help take you from a microscopic double-A to a back-breaking D or F for pennies on the silicone dollar.

  1. Find smaller-chested women and always stand next to them. As everyone knows, men are not good at “eyeballing” measurement estimates. If there’s no ruler around, we’ll try to guess the length of something by comparing it to other nearby objects. This also works with breast sizes. If you’re a B-cup and you’re surrounded by AA-cups, we’ll think you’re a C-cup or higher.
  2. Choose the right stuff. Everyone knows the old “stuff your bra full of tissues” trick, but you just don’t get the right texture from something like that. From my own personal experience, I’ve found that sponge cake or densely-packed cotton candy not only gives one a more natural look and feel, but it also provides a handy mid-afternoon snack. (Just be sure to nibble evenly from each one.)
  3. Try some herbal alternatives. You’ve probably never heard of this stuff, but herbal remedies like fenugreek, saw palmetto, and fennel may help make your run to the dictionary to look them up a bouncier one.
  4. Augment your boobies’ muscles. While no exercises exist that’ll give you bigger boobs, you can lift what you have and create the illusion of a larger line-up with certain exercises that will enlarge the pectoral muscles directly underneath your chest. Here are some great exercises for your boob muscles.
  5. Breast massage. Assuming the multiple Japanese animation series that have mentioned it aren’t lying to me, massaging your breasts (called “nyuu-nyuu” in Japan) somehow makes them grow faster. This is something you could do with a friend to help make it less tedious and boring. I don’t know the scientific basis for this, but the Japanese must know what they’re talking about since they typically have such… small… breasts… wait a second.

DISCLAIMER: Nick is not a physician, professional finance-type person, or a woman. Do all of the above at your own risk. Especially the last one. Do lots of that one at your own risk.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Bought a Diamond in the Last 14 Years? Get Tons of Money From Class Action Settlement

Author: Nick
Category: Money

finally you can get something worthwhile out of that engagement ring purchase

Universal Law of Finance #37: Any company that makes a ton of money will eventually have to give some of that money back in a class action lawsuit settlement, usually because it did something painfully illegal.

Normally I don’t get too hyped up over class action settlements because an individual included in the settlement class typically only receives a few bucks or a worthless gesture of apology. This one is different. De Beers, the company which essentially has a monopoly on the world’s supply of diamonds, is settling a massive lawsuit brought against it under allegations of monumental price fixing. Whether De Beers is guilty or not will never be decided in court because it’s taking the usual big business way out of gigantic class action lawsuits and throwing out a small morsel of the $6 billion it brings in each year in order to make the whole thing go away. Fortunately, what may be a pittance to De Beers could translate into a sizable sum for you and me.

Under the terms of the settlement, consumers who have purchased a diamond in any form (engagement rings, other jewelry, or even mixed with other gemstones) between January 1994 and March 2006 could be eligible for a tidy refund—anywhere from six to 60% of the original purchase price. Depending on how much you spent on diamonds during the period in question, you’ll be eligible for a refund that you can estimate from the following table.

a chart with a bunch of numbers i am not retyping in this alt text

A lot of people married in the last decade could cash in nicely on their engagement ring purchases. For example, an engagement ring that set you back $5,000 would mean you’d be entitled to a settlement of about $1,600. Those shelling out twice that or more—$10,000 and up—will find themselves in a higher percentage bracket and entitled to $4,500 for every $10,000 they spend on their rings. Other types of diamond jewelry are also available, so good luck trying to remember all of the diamond jewelry you’ve bought since 1994.

Consumers have a few things going against them in this settlement:

  1. Lots of people could mean less money for you. The total amount De Beers will pay is capped at some obscene but finite nine-digit figure, so if enough claims are made, you might get less than that percentage listed in the table above. Hmm, maybe I should keep this to myself…
  2. You need receipts. While you probably won’t be asked to produce them, the settlement administrators reserve the right to request that you provide receipts for your diamond purchases, and certain large purchases will require a receipt before you get your settlement. Credit card statements should work too, so start digging for your documents before you file a claim. Don’t be an idiot and add an extra zero to your diamond purchases because you could find yourself getting nothing later.
  3. Don’t bother if you spent only a bit. If your total diamond purchases during that period were under $165 for mixed-gem jewelry or $95 for diamond-only jewelry, you can stop right now because your settlement chunk would be $10 or less. Such small settlement claims will not be paid due to “administrative costs.”
  4. Anything could happen between now and later. It’s likely that the settlement will go through as it’s currently written, but there’s always the chance that something could happen—anything from minor rewrites of clauses to total scrapping of the settlement due to objections or other legal maneuvers.

If you have your receipts and are ready to file a settlement, you can do it online in just five minutes right here:

I filed mine today for two pieces of diamond jewelry: my wife’s engagement ring (bought in 2004) and a diamond pendant (Christmas 2006). When I told her about it, her reaction was priceless: “That’s a diamond in that pendant?” (I wish I were making that up, but I’m not.) Yeah, she’s getting toy jewelry from those 25-cent dispensers in the supermarket from now on.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Wachovia, My Arch-Nemesis Bank, Offers Very Tempting 5% Plus Bonus Savings Account Deal

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

wachovia is on the prowl for your savings

I haven’t been chasing savings account rates as much as I used to lately, mostly because the bulk of our savings is sitting in a nice 9%+ APY 7-month CD that still has a few months left on it. We have since picked up a few more liquid bucks that have been bouncing back and forth between savings accounts averaging only 4.5% to 5% APY, waiting for the next wild deal to appear.

It looks like Wachovia, my banking arch-nemesis, has decided to issue that deal.

I used to have all of my accounts at Wachovia—checking, savings, CDs, safe deposit boxes. Then I realized they were shafting me with sub-1% interest rates and horrendous customer service, so I jumped ship and took all of my loot with me. Now it seems they’re offering a crazy savings account promotion that may even be too much for this hardcore Wachovia-hater to pass up.

More details are available on this FatWallet discussion and this Bank Deals post, but I will summarize:

  1. Open a Wachovia checking account and the new Way-2-Save savings account. You need both. Existing checking accounts are fine (including their Free Checking option).
  2. The base yield on the Way-2-Save savings account is 5.00% APY.
  3. You get an end-of-year bonus of 5% of your balance, up to $300. (Second- and third-year bonuses are 2%.)
  4. You can’t just deposit money at will into the Way-2-Save savings account. In order to get money into it, you can: (1) deposit up to $100 a month directly, (2) automatically have $1 moved from your attached checking account into the Way-2-Save account for each debit card purchase, online billpay transaction, or other debit deductions.

So say you have 100 qualifying purchases or billpays or other debits on your checking account each year, and you put $100 into the savings each month. That would be $100 x 12 plus $1 x 100, or $1300. The 5% bonus on that would be just $65, but that’s still a very nice bonus. Even if you don’t do any debit transactions or billpays, you’d still get a $60 bonus just doing the maximum $100 monthly transfers. And don’t forget the 5% APY that $100 a month earns, though that rate could change at any time, in theory.

Just how good is this deal? Well, on a scale of 1 to 50 million, I’d give it a 39,194,942, which is pretty good! I deducted 10 points off the top just because it’s Wachovia, but the rest of my deductions are because of Wachovia’s attempt to get you to use your debit card more. As everyone knows, debit cards are evil and should not be used, even for what works out to be a 5-cent bonus on each transaction.

Wachovia does give you one extra option that could allow you to make up to $300 a year just doing the $100-a-month transfers: you can have up to 5 Way-2-Save savings accounts at once, each hooked up to a separate Wachovia checking account. I don’t know what kind of weirdo has five Wachovia checking accounts, but I’m told it’s possible.

The deal officially starts on January 15, 2008, but some people have reported success opening the Way-2-Save account already by calling their local branch and getting transfered to a call center operator who helped them open the account. I might give this a try with one or two checking accounts to put some miscellaneous funds to good use. I’m just hoping I don’t get the customer service runaround from Wachovia as they were so fond of doing to me.

Monday, January 7, 2008

More Buffet Strategies: Going the Distance Against IHOP’s All You Can Eat Pancakes

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

if i were you, i would hop away from this one

Not unlike the Olive Garden and its transient never ending pasta bowl of lies, IHOP periodically offers a short-lived menu item geared towards us gluttons for food (and punishment)—the All You Can Eat Pancakes. Always a popular destination for poor college students looking to score breakfast treats at 9 o’clock in the evening, IHOP was a favorite of mine growing up due mostly to its Funny Face pancake: a chocolate pancake decorated with whipped cream, chocolate chips, and maraschino cherries arranged in the shape of a face that still haunts my waistline to this day. It was with youthful eagerness that I made my triumphant return to IHOP this weekend, but it was with utter disdain for my personal eating abilities that I left.

Choose Your Flapjack Battlefield

IHOP realizes that pancakes do not a meal make, so that’s why the All You Can Eat Pancakes meal always comes attached to an egg combo meal. At our local IHOP, the menu offered the following combos, all of which came with “unlimited” pancakes.

  • Eggs only. Two eggs, any style. Hash browns too, I think. The cheapest unlimited pancake option. $4.99
  • Eggs and bacon. The option I chose. Two eggs, a ridiculously large mound of hash browns, and four strips of bacon. $6.99
  • Eggs and sausage. My wife went this route. Two eggs, that mountain o’ hash browns, four sausages. $6.99
  • Eggs and ham. The eggs, the hash browns, and an unspecified quantity of ham. $6.99
  • Eggs, sausage, and bacon. Eggs, hash browns, and three each of bacon strips and sausages. The priciest option. $7.99

a color-inverted boobieSeniors of the Punny Money School of Buffet Tactics should quickly identify the first error we made at the IHOP table: we didn’t go with the cheapest option. We should have gone with the eggs only menu option. Instead, we each paid two dollars more for a tiny bit of extra breakfast meat. While meats are usually a goal item at buffets, they should not be at this one. Those strips of bacon and links of sausage probably took up two pancakes’ worth of stomach space. Lesson #1: Go “eggs only” at All You Can Eat Pancakes. For bonus points, slip the eggs into a purse and eat them later or the next day.

Pancakes Stacked A Mile High—In Midget Nautical Units

Accompanying your breakfast meat(s) will be the first round of unlimited pancakes: two flapjacks, each approximately four to six inches in diameter and 1/4 inches tall. I had heard complaints about the misrepresentation of the thickness of these pancakes in IHOP’s ads; while mine were a bit thinner than pictured, they were much healthier looking than some of the others I’ve heard people have encountered during the course of this promotion. On top of the first and subsequent stacks of pancakes is a wad of butter. Lesson #2: Don’t eat the butter. It’s heavy, and a few lumps of it will fill a pancake’s worth of stomach space.

you may need some extra ammo for this battleIn order to get your next serving of pancakes, you need to clear the first two from their plate. You do not need to finish your breakfast meats or hash browns to get more pancakes. Lesson #3: If you intend to eat them, make your breakfast meats last. I found keeping some eggs and bacon around for round two made it easier to get through more pancakes. Otherwise, if all you’re eating is pancakes, you may get sick of them pretty quickly. If you run out of breakfast meats, you may want to defy conventional buffet logic and invest in one of IHOP’s bottomless pots of coffee or another flavored drink to offer the occasional taste detour to endless pancakes.

The second and future stacks come in threes, but be sure to tackle each pancake individually rather than eating multiple layers of pancake at once. Lots of air can sit between pancakes, and that air can fill your poor tummy fast. Lesson #4: Take it one pancake at a time.

Service With a Smile, Eventually

As with any full-service unlimited food offering, you are at the mercy of the wait staff to bring you more pancakes. Another complaint I’ve read about IHOP’s pancake deal is that it takes forever to get subsequent stacks of flapjacks. There are some things you can do to increase the rate of service, even if you draw a slow server.

  1. Dress rich. Bling yourself out with gold, diamonds, and anything else that makes you look worth at least a million bucks. Sure, you’ll look like Donald Trump in an inner-city whorehouse, but the server may recognize the potential for a bigger tip and stop by your table more frequently.
  2. Make eye contact. If you need another stack o’ cakes and your server isn’t getting close enough to your table, you’ll need to catch his or her eye to draw them in. Give them that “come hither, my pancake slave” look and watch them come running.
  3. Go with a friend. It’d be awfully sad if you went to a buffet by yourself, but I won’t judge you, fatty. If you hit this deal with someone else, you’ll clear plates more frequently, and you can split the next stack while waiting for another.
  4. Activate your hash brown cloaking device. Those hash browns are especially useful for hiding your current serving of pancakes so you can show a clean plate and expedite your next round. Then you can dig out your pancake treasure while your next batch is cooking.

Be sure to make your tip reflect the server’s extra efforts (or lack thereof). If buffets are not the norm at a restaurant, 20% may not be enough to properly thank a server who keeps your plate full. Ours did a fabulous job and earned himself a 35% tip.

The Syrup Showdown

While a few folks may enjoy their pancakes au naturale, most of us will need a hefty dose of syrup to coat these wheatie wonders. Each table is normally equipped with four syrup dispensers; here were the choices available at our table:

  • Old-fashioned syrup. This is pancake syrup with no added bells or whistles. By far your best choice for pancake deliciousness.
  • Blueberry. I didn’t even try this one because I have bad memories involving blueberries and pancakes.
  • Butter pecan. Probably your second-best option. A little sweeter than the standard syrup, but not too overpowering.
  • Strawberry. Too sweet, and not a good substitute for putting strawberries on top of your pancakes. Maybe try one pancake with this, but don’t douse your whole pile in the stuff.

I also suggested to my wife that IHOP should offer alcoholic pancake syrup at a premium price. I bet your stomach could fit a lot more pancakes in it if the rest of you were numb.

The Endgame: Pancake Buffets are a Goldmine

even honest abe cannot finish off five dollars worth of pancakes in one sittingI’m too embarrassed to reveal our exact pancake figures because we just could not get through very many of them. I knew going into it that this would be even harder than the Olive Garden pasta deal to get our money’s worth. Now that I’ve crunched the numbers, I realize that it’s not just hard, it’s downright impossible to eat even five bucks worth of pancakes at once. That’s because you can make about a dozen huge pancakes of comparable thickness and flavor to IHOP’s with two cups of Bisquick (cost: 20-30 cents max.) and another 25 cents of ingredients. To eat $5 of those pancakes, you’d need to plow through over 100 of them!

You better believe that IHOP is welcoming even the most experienced buffet eaters with open arms to this promotion. Personally, I’m surprised they don’t offer it more often and try to charge even more for it. At its price, it’s still one of the cheapest unlimited food deals around. But experienced buffet tacticians may want to save their money and invest it in tastier, more diverse menu options somewhere else.