Monday, June 30, 2008

A Formal Dilemma: Should You Rent Or Buy A Tuxedo?

Author: Nick
Category: Money

comic 40 - wedding

If you’re a man like me, and undoubtedly you are unless you have boobies, you’ve probably had the occasion to wear a tuxedo at least once in your life so far. Maybe it was your high school prom or your wedding or that time you played James Bond’s stunt double. Buying a tuxedo when you’re still young and growing just doesn’t make financial sense, especially if you’re only going to need to wear one every few years or so.

But now that I’ve reached adulthood and have hopefully finished growing, it’s time for me to consider if I should buy a tuxedo. The reason this is coming up now is that, by some weird misalignment of the stars, I’ve been asked to host a very large formal ball next year. “Formal ball” means men wear tuxedos. Thus, I’ll need to either rent or buy one.

The decision to buy a tuxedo should not be made lightly. After all, a tuxedo is likely to be one of the most expensive items a man will ever add to his wardrobe. When deciding if the time is right for you to buy a tuxedo, consider the following:

  1. Will I need to use it at least three times in the next decade? Plan to make your tux last for a good 10-12 years, maybe more. If you know you’ll need one at least three times in that period, you might be able to save money buying instead of renting.
  2. Is it likely that I’ll grow significantly in the next 10 years? I would say that the mid-20s is a great time to buy a tuxedo. You’ve had your major growth spurts, you’re probably at a weight you can maintain easily, and the risk that you’ll outgrow the tuxedo is at a minimum.
  3. Do I take good care of my clothes? If you’re the type of guy who doesn’t like to wash his clothes, iron, or even put them on a freaking hanger, you might still be better off renting a tux instead of buying one that will just be abused before you wear it for a second time.

And if you know you’ll be using a tuxedo on a yearly basis or even more frequently, buying is definitely in your wallet’s best interest. But before you head down to the nearest penguin shop, here are some tips that’ll help you score a better deal on a tux you’ll actually enjoy wearing.

  1. It should be dark. Yes, you could get the neon purple one and be the pimp of every party, but black is a much more widely accepted tuxedo color. Or if not black, go with midnight blue. The Washington Post recommends that color because it’ll actually look blacker than black at night.
  2. Keep it light. Dancing and tuxedos go hand in hand. Don’t burden yourself with a heavy tux that’ll have you sweating by the second song.
  3. Don’t just walk into the first tuxedo shop you see and buy one. As with any major purchase, you’re going to want to shop around. Even if you fall in love with a tux at the first store, force yourself to try others. You might find an even nicer one at a better price.
  4. Consider buying a former rental tux. Rental shops usually take good care of their tuxes and sell them after a year or two of use at deep discounts. Just be sure to try it on first and closely examine it for wear and tear.
  5. Go for something simple. Tails and vests and other accessories just overcomplicate a tux. Go for the simple but stylish bow tie plus cummerbund combination and you’ll never look out of place.
  6. Buy the whole set together. The coat and trousers should come from the same designer and match each other perfectly. You’ll probably want to buy the shirt in the same place so you can make sure it goes well with the rest of the outfit.
  7. Don’t spend too much. You may be shown more expensive tuxes by high-pressure salesmen when all you really want is one priced between $200 and $500. Be ready to stand your pricing ground, and don’t let the fancy labels sway you into parting with more of your savings than necessary.

Oh, and men, I don’t want to hear any complaining about buying a tuxedo. After all, women need to buy their big fluffy dresses too, and they can’t get away with wearing the same one to every event as easily as you can with the same tux. So if you have lots of formal events in your future, take a day to do a bit of shopping and you’ll be ready for any fancy shindig on a moment’s notice and for a lot less money than your rental-only friends.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

How I Lost 20 Pounds in Two Months on the Krispy Kreme Donut Diet

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 39 - donuts

You may recall from waaaaay back in the early days of Punny Money that my wife once held a part-time job at a Krispy Kreme, maker of some of the finest donuts in the world. What you probably don’t know is that she only kept the job for two months, in between college semesters. During those two months, I ate about 500 Krispy Kreme donuts of assorted varieties… and I lost 20 pounds doing it. Here’s how it happened.

One of the great benefits of working at Krispy Kreme is that, every day you go in to work, you’re allowed to bring home a dozen free donuts. (Correction from my wife: that’s the only great benefit of working for Krispy Kreme, unless you consider smelling like donuts constantly no matter how much you clean yourself a benefit.) It only took a few days of the smell of glaze and toppings to turn my wife off the donuts forever, but she still happily brought home a dozen for me each day she worked.

At first, my wife only worked a couple of days a week at Krispy Kreme. But as her manager realized her superior skills over the other workers—i.e. speaking more than two words of English, and not constantly trying to rob the cash register—she was asked to work nearly full time. That means she could bring home a dozen donuts five days a week for free. I could have just asked her not to bring home the donuts, but I pretty much never refuse free food. So she brought home around 60 donuts a week… and I ate them all.

It wasn’t just the regular glazed donuts, either. While the policy varies from one Krispy Kreme location to the next, my wife was allowed to take home any of the more expensive donuts with toppings and frosting and other yummy things. My favorites were any of the donuts with sprinkles, especially the orange and black Halloween ones (which were still served well into December there). According to the Krispy Kreme nutritional information (PDF), each sprinkled donut comes with about 270 calories, 12 grams of fat, and some other numbers that would give any decent dietitian a heart attack just reading them. And yes, I ate 12 of those five days a week.

So how in the name of chocolate glazed crullers did I lose 20 pounds eating 60 donuts a week? Well, it’s really quite simple:

  • I have an active metabolism. I generally eat around 3,000 calories a day anyway, and I’m a relatively healthy weight for a person my age and height. I’ve had several doctors look at me and say I’m perfectly healthy, so I guess it’s sort of like having a superpower (though I’d gladly trade it in for x-ray vision).
  • If you eat 12 Krispy Kreme donuts, you don’t feel like eating anything else for at least 24 hours. Here’s the key to the Krispy Kreme Diet that can make it work for anyone. If you’ve ever had more than a couple of them at the same time, you’d know that multiple Krispy Kreme donuts can really fill your tummy… and then some. After eating my dozen a day, I didn’t want to look at food again… until the next batch of donuts came home.

In the end, it’s probably for the best that my wife left Krispy Kreme after only a couple of months. I’m not sure how much longer I would have lasted without vegetables, protein, and arteries full of blood instead of glaze. I will admit that I do sometimes still long for my daily dozen, and my wife has caught me once or twice sneaking a sniff of her old work uniform that still has a hint of that donutty aroma on it.

Oh, and I should probably mention that I’m not a licensed anything, and if you try to duplicate this diet on your own, you will probably die before you get to the third day. Then again, if any of you emo cut-yourself-all-day MySpace losers out there wants to end it all with some style and flair, I could think of worse ways to go that drowning your vital organs in a bucket of warm, delicious Krispy Kreminess.

I’m just saying…

Monday, June 23, 2008

EMS Fees May Scare Sick Into Skipping Life-Saving Treatment

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 38 - ambulance

In an era where getting from Point A to Point B is costing more and more with each passing year, it can be reassuring to know that if you get hit by a bus and need to go to the hospital, you won’t have to pony up $4 a gallon to pay for the gas the ambulance uses to get you there. At least, it used to be reassuring.

Unfortunately for all you accident-prone and sickly individuals out there, your next ambulance trip may feel more like a taxi ride thanks to many politicians’ sudden realization that there was something they weren’t taxing. All over the country, many counties and jurisdictions are writing legislation to charge fees for Emergency Medical Services (EMS). Currently, most EMS operations get their money indirectly from taxpayers, from hospitals, or from voluntary fundraising. Under the new legislation, various fees may be charged to patients who make use of EMS. Some of the proposed fees include:

  • A basic transport fee. Need an ambulance to cart your bloody body to the nearest hospital? That’ll be $300. Or maybe $800. Or maybe more!
  • A mileage surcharge. In one county, the EMS fee proposal calls for a $7.50 per mile charge in addition to the basic transport fee. Heaven forbid you live more than a few miles from the nearest emergency room.
  • An initial response fee. Not content to charge the sick and injured for the ride, some places will charge you just for getting checked out by paramedics on the scene, even if you don’t need a trip to the hospital.
  • Charges for services provided. If the paramedics use some gauze and staples to reattach your limb en route to the ER, they’ll charge you for those items and anything else they use to keep you in one piece.

The EMS fees have some very obvious benefits. For one, it is good for EMS to have money so they can afford to keep you from dying. It would suck if the next time you called for an ambulance, they told you: “I’m sorry. Our ambulance got repossessed. We’ll have a rickshaw out to you in 30 minutes.” With tax money and hospital payments fluctuating constantly, direct billing may be the best option to ensure EMS operations can stay afloat.

Nonetheless, the drawbacks of charging for EMS may far outweigh the benefits:

  • The poor and uninsured may suffer. While some jurisdictions are including caveats to their EMS fee legislation granting waivers for financial hardship, other places will happily tax the impoverished and elderly just as much as they charge celebrities who O.D. on crack.
  • Insurance companies may be unfairly targeted. A few cities say they’ll only charge EMS fees to insurance companies, waiving the fee entirely for the uninsured. As little sympathy as most have for fat-cat insurance companies, is it really fair only to go after insurance providers for fees?
  • People may forgo necessary medical treatment. Rather than pay $1,000 or more just for an ambulance trip, some sick or injured may skip the EMS ride or find alternative transportation that isn’t meant for emergency transit. Even if only insured people get the charge, some may not understand this and worry that they’ll be on the hook for the fee if their insurance company doesn’t pony up.
  • Insurance rates will go up. Some cities are touting their EMS fee plans as having “no cost to residents” if they only bill insurance companies. But not so fast! Who pays the premiums to insurance companies? You do! And when your insurer starts getting socked with EMS fees, they’ll pass the cost right on to you, the customers.

Personally, I’m conflicted on this issue. On the one hand, I wouldn’t mind seeing all taxes based on the services people use when logistically feasible (e.g. if you send your kids to private school, you don’t pay taxes to send others’ children to public schools). On the other hand, poor people are more likely to need more assistance from EMS, and I don’t think it’s morally correct to burden them with these costs. Even limiting the charges to insurance companies still poses ethical dilemmas.

Maybe our best bet is to commercialize EMS services. When you call for an ambulance, you get to pick your service provider. Some providers will be cheaper than others, while higher-end providers will offer ambulance rides with a touch of luxury—sequined gurneys, relaxing music, and really hot nurses. And if your ambulance ride doesn’t get there in 30 minutes or less, your ride to the morgue is free!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Gas Price Sign #4 Lettering Shortage Continues

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

There’s no denying it anymore. What I thought was a fictionalized story of gas stations running out of number fours for their price signs has turned into a horribly hilarious reality.

Reader Mike sends in this photo snapped at a Sam’s Club fueling station:

sams club gas price sign with handwritten four

Maybe if Sam’s took a lesson from its own stores and bought the fours in bulk, they wouldn’t have this problem.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Do You Like Running Water? Enjoy It While It Lasts!

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 37 - water wizard

It seems that even one of the richest counties on the U.S. East Coast isn’t immune to massive water main breaks. Thanks to some shoddy pipeline materials, Montgomery County, Maryland (home of yours truly) is now under mandatory water restrictions and boil water advisories for the third straight day. What has this meant for area residents?

  • No tap drinking water. Because of the break, water pressure is low. For some residents and businesses, this means a higher risk of contamination; thus the water restrictions and boil advisory. For others, it means no running water at all.
  • A run on bottled water. In less than 24 hours, most area grocery stores ran out of bottled water due to expectations that the water advisory will last until the end of the week. That means those who got to the stores first have been hoarding whatever they could grab, leaving others high and dry.
  • Water use restrictions. Prohibitions you normally only see during severe droughts were immediately enacted, including bans on outdoor watering, car washing, and even flushing your toilet.
  • Restaurants ordered closed. Nearly every restaurant in the county was ordered closed for two straight days. There are also rumors that grocery stores are removing some produce stock they normally use water misters to help keep fresh.
  • Everyone smells bad. Today is the first day I’ve been grateful that most of the people I work with come from the counties north and west of this one. I bet there are lots of smelly places in Montgomery County today!

Fortunately I live in the one city in Montgomery County with its own water system, and it isn’t affected by the break. Unfortunately, while my workplace is in the same city, it gets its water from the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) which is impacted by the break. That means we’re stuck with bottled water, hand sanitizers, and a closed cafeteria. But at least I can go home and suck on the kitchen faucet like I normally do.

We’ve had plenty of similar water main breaks in Maryland over the last decade. Most have been small and only affected a few blocks at a time. Others have been as large as this one, but they typically struck poorer towns where residents drink beer instead of water and only shower for major holidays. The fact that a break of such magnitude has hit the wealthiest county in the state may finally push Maryland to confront the need for serious utility infrastructure reform.

For half a century, utility operators in Maryland and most other states have generally taken a “wait and see” approach to maintenance. If it isn’t broke, they ain’t fixin’ it. This has been especially true for water and sewer lines which, being buried underground, have been out of the sights and minds of utilities, residents, businesses, and politicians. As a result, a good portion of water and sewer lines running throughout the U.S. is approaching triple-digit years in age.

So whose fault is this watery mess? Well, I’d share the blame equally between three parties: local and regional utilities, local and state politicians, and you. Why is this partly your fault? It’s because we whine and complain whenever our utility rates go up. Water, the cheapest of all public utilities, has been dirt cheap for far too long. As a result, most utilities don’t have the money necessary to perform regular maintenance and reconstruction of major water and sewer lines.

With utilities’ wallets empty and the suddenly realized need for massive water main replacements, that can only mean one of two things: either our water utility infrastructure will experience even worse breakdowns, or your super-cheap water utility bills are going to skyrocket in ways that’ll make rising gas prices look like normal inflation. And if you’re a fan of regular running water, you better not complain one bit when your $50 a month water bill becomes $500 a month.

Whatever happens with your bills and utility lines, any solutions are going to take a while to implement. In the meantime, we’ll all experience more utility breakdowns—possibly even worse than this one. So stock up on bottled water (larger containers are cheaper), keep some hand sanitizer nearby, and figure out the best places to install a waterless outhouse on your property.

Oh, and if you’re in Montgomery County and can’t find any water, feel free to stop by my house. I’ll sell you some for 50 cents a gallon—a steal compared to those 16-ounce bottle prices.