Thursday, April 5, 2007

Search and Ye Shall Receive: Credit Card Jail, Inflated Salaries, and AP Exams for the Lazy

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , , ,

It’s time for a triple dose of Search and Ye Shall Receive. Here are some questions people have recently asked search engines that brought them to Punny Money.

And don’t worry, these are genuine answers, unlike my answers to a certain other set of questions.

Jail for Credit Card Debt?

hamster debtor in jail

Will I go to jail if I don’t pay my credit cards? (via Google)

I feel it necessary to reiterate that I am not an attorney, so this is not legal advice. The answer to your question is probably not, assuming you’re in the United States. Now most people would tell you “definitely not if you in the United States” since the U.S. no longer has debtor’s prison. That said, credit card debt can still land you in jail if you misrepresented yourself in any way to the credit card company. For example, if you claimed that you make $100,000 when you really make $15,000 a year in order to get a larger credit line, and then you proceeded to max out that credit line and can’t pay it back, you better hope the credit card company doesn’t find out because lying on a credit card application is a criminal offense.

If you don’t pay your debts and they’re sent to a collections company, you may be threatened with jail by heavy-handed collection agents. These intimidation tactics are illegal. You won’t go to jail simply for having an unpaid debt.

Now for the scary part. Even though there is no debtor’s jail in the U.S. anymore, you can still go to jail for certain unpaid debts, most notably child support and alimony. Thanks to the Child Support Enforcement Act of 1984, you can send your state’s attorney after a deadbeat spouse to garnish wages and tax returns, seize property, and suspend licenses. If these efforts don’t squeeze some cash from your ex, he or she can be found in contempt of court and thrown in jail for failure to pay child support and alimony.

Photo by SantaRosa OLD SKOOL

Pay Keeping Pace With Inflation?

picture of a pound, because it is british

Is my salary keeping up with inflation? (via Google UK)

We recently talked about income vs. inflation for the U.S. in a reader poll showing that less than half of people expect their 2007 incomes to keep up with 2006 inflation (4% for the U.S.).

Now since this search came from the United Kingdom version of Google, it might be more helpful to know the British inflation rate. Over there, the chief measure of inflation is the Consumer Price Index (CPI). As of March 2007, the annual CPI was 2.8%.

So if your British employer didn’t bump up your 2007 pay by a good 3% or so, and you’re not finding other ways to make some extra pounds, you might want to get shirty with your twat of a gaffer and throw a right jolly good wobbler at him so he can see how narked you are.

AP Exams Without Class?

take the class and avoid the evil red pen

Can you take an AP exam without taking an AP class? (via Google)

Advanced Placement (AP) exams are one of the best ways to get through college cheap. For just $83 (the cost of an AP exam as of 2007), you can test out of an entire college class (sometimes more than one!).

The short answer to this question is yes. There is no requirement that you take a course labeled as “Advanced Placement” before taking an Advanced Placement exam. The longer answer is I don’t recommend it, and here’s why:

  • AP classes can be much more challenging than regular or even honors classes. That extra challenge and the additional content you cover in the AP version of a class can mean the difference between a marginal and an excellent score on the exam.
  • AP exams have unique formats. Don’t think you can walk in from the street and ace the AP U.S. History exam just because you know your American Revolution. Certain AP exams have question formats you won’t see anywhere else like the dreaded Document-Based Questions (DBQs).
  • AP classes teach you how to do well on AP exams. I have seen AP classes that teach exactly the same material as their Honors or Gifted and Talented counterparts with one very important addition–AP exam skills. In my AP U.S. History class alone, we spent no less than four weeks of class practicing DBQs. You won’t get this kind of practice in non-AP classes unless you do it on your own… and kids don’t do schoolwork on their own.
  • Your teacher might not appreciate it. If you wanted to take the AP exam, you should have taken the AP class. That’s what the AP class teacher will likely tell you when you ask to take the AP exam with his or her students. The AP class teachers will look down on the fact that you didn’t challenge yourself throughout the year by doing the AP coursework, and they may be more reluctant to help you prepare for the AP exam now.

So if you’re a home-schooled student or carrying an A+++ in your regular classes, AP exams are still an option for you. Heck, they’re even an option for the dumb students too if they don’t mind wasting 83 bucks (but they’re probably bad at math and won’t notice the money is gone anyway).

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Five Easy Ways to Never Be Poor Again

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , , ,

easy ways to break the cycle of poverty

I used to be poor.

I mean, not starving-on-the-streets poor, but more like are-we-going-to-pay-all-the-bills-this-month poor. Our checking account balance never exceeded three digits, and every dime of income my family made was already ear-marked for rent, food, or bills. It would have been very easy for myself and my family to incur a lot of debt while I was growing up, but we managed to eak out a humble existence and keep ourselves out of the red.

Now that I’m starting my own family and handling all of the financial aspects that go along with it, I’m realizing there are some simple things my family could have done better while I was growing up to move us closer toward middle-class living.

  1. Complete college. Getting a college education is the #1 way to break the cycle of poverty, and it’s something neither of my parents completed. While it’s commonly known that college graduates earn far more than those who just completed high school, few people know that the average income of non-college graduates is dropping every year. So do whatever it takes to get that degree–night or weekend school, community college, work study (and you should be able to do it without student loans).
  2. Own your home. I’ll make this brief. Renters are throwing their money away. Stop paying someone else’s mortgage and start paying your own. Turn that roof over your head into an investment instead of an expense and you’ll be on the road to a better life in no time.
  3. own your home... but not this one

  4. Put whatever money you can in savings. Put $100 a month in a 5% APY savings account and you’ll have over $15,000 in just 10 years. Do it for 20 years and you’ll have over $40,000. Invest in stocks and you’ll likely earn even more.
  5. Wait to have children. If you are barely supporting yourself, you do not want to bring a child into the world to share your meager lifestyle. Do the first three things on this list, and once you’re in a financially stable situation with an optimistic long-term outlook, then start having kids. And if you’re poor and already have kids, don’t have more. And yes, that means stop having sex because that’s where babies come from. The only pleasure you should be getting is through hard work, study, and watching your savings account balance grow.
  6. Swallow your pride. This is one thing my family did right. If you’re trying to start a better life for your family but the expenses of living on your own are keeping you from making any progress, there’s nothing wrong with moving back home with your parents (if they’ll have you). Even if you contribute to their rent or mortgage, it’ll still be much less expensive than paying it all yourself, and you’ll have a couple of years to build or rebuild your financial well-being. Just don’t fall into the trap of staying at home forever; keep working hard, get that degree, and save money.

If you ever find yourself living somewhere between starvation and subsistence, you’re probably not doing at least one of these things. Once you start doing all five–and if I can do it, anyone can–chances are you’ll never be poor again.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Grate Carear Tip: Lern How 2 Rite

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

okay, please tell me you know how to write something other than a question mark

People often (i.e. twice so far) ask me what sort of skills they should focus on developing to be successful in their careers. It doesn’t matter if that person is a software engineer, teacher, fire fighter, or professional air hockey player; my answer is always the same: “Learn how to write well.”

A survey by the Associated Press revealed that writing is considered the most valued skill by company executives. The survey also noted that companies believe 80% of their employees lacked the necessary writing skills to do their jobs.

The sad truth is that, unless you’re in an industry where the primary job responsibility is writing in English, you likely work with a lot of people who are terrible writers. Heck, you’re probably not that great of a writer yourself. (My apologies if you are.)

There is probably no line of business where this is more true than the computer industry. Day in and day out, I receive e-mails and read reports that are so poorly written you’d suspect they were composed by newcomers to the English language. No, they’re not newcomers at all, I’m afraid.

Here’s an e-mail that arrived in my inbox a few days ago.


Can yuo look in to the problem Seatle with they’re [NAME of SUPER-SECRET COMPUTER SYSTEM OMITTED]. There saying its do to [NAME OF STUPID PERSON WHO BROKE OUR SYSTEM (AGAIN) OMITTED].

I fixed Seattle’s problem, but I might need to order a new monitor to replace the one I’ve been smacking my head against over e-mails like these.

Why Cant i Rite Good?

before attempting to write, make sure you are not a dog because dogs cannot write

So why do basic English spelling and grammar skills elude so many of our professionals? Is it something in the water at work? Is the English language just too hard to use? The real answers are simple but nonetheless shocking.

  • Schools don’t teach it. Sure, your child might pick up a bit of sentence structure here and proper punctuation there, but the state of English language education in our school systems today is pitiful.
  • Parents don’t expect it. Yes, I’m one of those people who likes to partly blame parents for the failure of our education system. Typically, without some intervening force (like tutoring or after-school programs), a child will never surpass the writing skills of his or her parents. Multiply this by several generations and you’ll see that writing in America has entered a downward spiral.
  • Jobs don’t require it. How can your boss ask you to be a good writer when he or she isn’t one herself? For all I know, the person who sent me the e-mail above may be a literary genius in his manager’s eyes.
  • The internet sure doesn’t help. I suspect 30% of teen-aged computer users have never once pressed the SHIFT key. And punctuation? I won’t even go there.

Learning How to Write Well

fix your writing with these tips

“Nick, I’m afraid I might be one of these people who can’t write well. What can I do to fix this?”

While there’s no quick fix that’ll make you a sensational writer overnight, there are some steps you can take to gradually improve your writing ability–at least to the level a mature adult should possess.

  • Write for fun. As is the case with many other skills, practice is the best way to improve your writing. You’ll also find that you learn best when you’re having fun at the same time. So if you can find something you enjoy writing about, try to set aside some time everyday to whip out a pen and paper or keyboard and screen. Starting a blog is also a great way to exercise your writing skills.
  • Read for fun. Learn by example. Pick up a book or magazine and just read. Pay attention to how writers structure their thoughts. Also closely examine their use of punctuation so you’ll know the rules of using semicolons and em-dashes for yourself.
  • Take an adult writing/communication course. Some larger workplaces will have classes geared toward developing effective communication and writing skills. If yours doesn’t have one, consider taking a writing improvement course at a community college.
  • Learn a foreign language. No, I’m not saying you should abandon English and start fresh with a new language. It can be hard for adults to pick up grammar rules that go against the way they currently write. But learning grammar becomes a bit easier when it’s taught in the context of a foreign language course. Most of what I know about English grammar was taught in my high school French classes.
  • Write with your kids. Hopefully you’re already reading to your kids. Now how about writing with them? Encourage proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar in their e-mails and instant messaging. Look over their written homework and suggest changes that will enhance the quality of their writing. This might not directly help your own writing skills, but it’ll reverse that downward spiral of writing in America I mentioned earlier.

Writing–The Communication Technique That Separates Us From Dolphins

good swimmers, bad writers

What if all you do is write in computer code all day, sending out the occasional report or e-mail? Why should you care if your writing is any better than that of an 11-year-old? Hopefully these reasons will convince you that the written English language is worth salvaging.

  • Good writing saves time. E-mails and documents that are well-written are easier to read and understand. You can save people (including yourself!) some serious time if you communicate your thoughts precisely the first time you write them. Otherwise, they’ll keep coming back to you for clarification.
  • People will think more of you if you write well. Top-notch writing is a sign of people who are well educated, serious about their careers, and always striving to improve themselves. You’ll come off as more persuasive if what you’re saying is written in understandable English.
  • Excellent writers stand out. Comparing samples written by good and bad writers is like setting night against day. If you have two potential employees of otherwise equal skill, good writing could make all the difference between who gets the spot and who will have to keep writing cover letters for job applications.
  • Writing is a permanent judge of your character. Unlike conversations which people start to forget as soon as they happen, your writing can be read over again and again. Make sure that anything written you give people ensures they’re taking away a true representation of your best work.

See, writing well is important! I’d even go as far as saying that good writing can make you more friends, more money, and better in bed. Well, maybe not that last one… unless you’re writing love letters. So yeah, good writing leads to great sex!

Monday, September 11, 2006

How to Get Paid to Go to College

Author: Nick
Category: Money

earn paper money while receiving paper knowledge

In an ideal world, everybody could afford to go to college. Unfortunately, the only way a lot of people think they can pay for college is by taking on massive debt. You may recall that we’ve already disproven the need for a debt-burdened education. Free Money Finance recently featured one reader who noted another way that anyone can afford college is by going for free.

A free college education. Sounds great, right? Not if you compare it to the college education I received…

You see, I got paid to go to college. I mean, a lot of money. Like, five figures over four years.

No, I didn’t join the military. And no, I wasn’t a research subject in any drug trials.

I got paid to sit in class, listen to my professor, and receive the education which landed me a well-paying job. No work study, no loans, just free money that was mine to keep.

How did I do it? In theory, it wasn’t hard.

  1. Hit the books in high school. This first step will disqualify about 90% of today’s high school population, and I won’t sugarcoat the reason why: they just don’t try hard enough. Since your performance in the four years prior to college is the basis of your admission, getting a good and cheap/free college education starts on day one of high school. Many teenagers blow a chance at a free ride their first year of high school while others perform strong throughout and “take off” their senior year. Getting paid to go to college absolutely requires four years of strong academic performance.
  2. Dominate the SAT/ACT. As someone who worked as an undergraduate college admissions representative, I can tell you that those standardized tests play a big role (perhaps too big of a role) in determining your admission and scholarship eligibility. I’ve seen cases where students lost thousands of dollars of scholarship money because of 10 measly SAT points. Parents, consider investing money in test preparation courses, even if your child already has solid scores. A few hundred dollars can mean 100 extra points, and that can mean the difference between a partial scholarship and a full ride.
  3. Search out scholarship programs early. You’re looking for a few different types of scholarships, and you will want them all. First, check out school-specific full-tuition scholarships at your colleges of interest. They’ll at least cover the cost of classes and perhaps also fees, books, room, and board. Next, look for school-specific side scholarships. Much like side dishes for a big meal, these little guys won’t fill you up, but they’ll go great with a larger piece of meat. Note that you’re only interested in scholarships that can be accepted in addition to those full-tuition offers. Finally, check out non-school-specific scholarships like those offered by private companies, individuals, or certain government agencies. Find and apply for every scholarship for which you qualify.
  4. Apply for state and federal financial aid grants. Many people associate the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) with obtaining student loans. While it’s true that the FAFSA helps determine eligibility for loans and work-study programs, it is also the application for free, need-based money like the Pell Grant. The best part of these grants is that they can be combined with full-tuition scholarships to pay all of your college costs… and then some!
  5. Pick a good school, but one that will pay you. So you’ve been offered free rides to several colleges with programs of interest to you, but one of them will also give you extra money. Where does this extra money come from? Well, if the sum of the amounts of your scholarships and financial aid exceeds your bill, you may be eligible to directly receive the excess. Just be careful–some scholarships or aid can only be applied to tuition, fees, and other related costs; they won’t be refunded to you if there’s anything left over.
  6. Collect your refund. If you’re eligible for a refund, you should receive it shortly after the school year begins. Contact your school’s financial aid office if you have any questions.

Sounds pretty straightforward in theory. But did I really follow all six of my own steps? See for yourself…

  1. I hit the books in high school. It took a lot of hard work and personal sacrifice, but I ended up as the valedictorian of my high school class.
  2. I dominated the SAT/ACT. I’ve tutored the SAT for years, and I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s the stupidest test in the world. Any school which bases its admissions on it should be ashamed of itself. That said, a 1560 (back when it was out of 1600) seemed to make my prospective colleges happy.
  3. I didn’t search out scholarship programs early. Oops, I flunked big time here. I filled out some school-specific scholarship applications, but I didn’t make much of an effort to find alternative scholarships. I might have found even more free money if I had invested some time in searching for it.
  4. I applied for state and federal financial aid grants, and I thank you taxpayers from the bottom of my heart for all that free money you gave me.
  5. I picked a good school, one that would pay me. Okay, decision time. Do I go with the full ride to the top-notch school with no money left over, or do I let the state university pay me gobs of cash to grace it with my presence? You guessed it. I picked a public university with an excellent program in my area, and I pocketed every penny of leftover scholarship and financial aid money.
  6. I collected my refund. Like clockwork, while other students would open their tuition bills each year, I’d open my refund check.

As it turned out, that extra scholarship and financial aid became critical in keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table during my college years, so please don’t think I squandered it.

Yes kids, you can get paid to go to school. I especially hope that those of you who do end up earning while you’re learning will make the most of your better-than-free education, commit yourselves to academic excellence, and do something you really enjoy with your lives.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Discover Announces 5% Back on Clothes, Office Supplies, and TUITION!!!

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , , , ,

pretend this is a discover card

If you have a Discover credit card which participates in the Get More program, you’re probably aware that Discover will periodically change what items earn 5% cash back. Up until July 1st, that item was gas and various automobile-related expenses. But through September, Discover will now give you 5% back on clothes and assorted home and office supplies at select stores. In addition, you can earn 5% back on your tuition bill! Here’s the full list of eligible stores:


Famous Footwear


Office Depot
Linens ‘n Things
Pier 1 Imports


Classes from preschool to college

Five percent back on tuition? I think that’s a hot deal. Thanks to Discover, now college students will have money left over with which to buy real food this semester! (In related news, ramen noodle company stocks plunged 50% today…)