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, May 27, 2008

Helping Your Wallet Survive a Science Fiction Convention

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 29 - sci-fi convention

I’m writing this article at a time and place where I never imagined I’d possibly write an article: from a sci-fi convention at four in the morning. The reasons why I’m here and awake at this stupid late hour are not important, but as I’m going through receipts and bar tabs and other bills that will come due over the next 48 hours, I can’t help but notice that these things cost a helluva lot of money. Here’s just a small sample of what we’ve spent money on here in the last few days:

  • Lodging. We are definitely learning to appreciate the value of sleep this weekend as we’re staffing the night shift of Convention Security/Operations. We’ve been sleeping 8am till 2pm for the last few days on a delightfully comfy bed—but the room costs $150 a night.
  • Food. We have tons of free food options (more on that later) but we’ve found ourselves paying for plenty of meals with friends too.
  • Drinks. Uh, yeah. I’ve had a drink or two this weekend. Okay, 42 of them.
  • Toys. These sci-fi cons come with big merchant rooms selling everything from books to props to jewelry to costumes to inflatable alien punchbags. Fortunately I’m actually not that into most sci-fi stuff (except for the occasional Trek foray), so our spending is usually light in this area.
  • Arts and crafts and auction prizes. We do, however, tend to go a little overboard in this area. Tonight was a charity auction that gave away all sorts of stuff I don’t need, except for a signed copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which I do need. Tomorrow’s the art auction; not sure how much damage that’ll do to me.
  • Registration for other conventions. Most sci-fi conventions will set up a table at other conventions to draw attendees looking to hit multiple cons each year. While we didn’t have to pay to attend this convention since we’re staff, we’ve been dangerously close to being convinced to attend some other area sci-fi cons for which we would need to pay to attend. But then we remember that we’re not really science fiction fans and that we’re just helping out at this convention as favors to friends from other conventions.

You’re probably thinking that a sci-fi dork can really rack up quite a bill from a four-day convention like this one. And you’re absolutely right. I’m sure there are people at this convention who are spending thousands of dollars just to be here and take home some junk. But not us. In the end, we’re probably going to walk away from this weekend just spending a few hundred dollars, almost all of it in those last two categories of discretionary spending listed above. Here’s how we’re saving tons of money at this and other similar sci-fi/fantasy/anime/whatever conventions while Joe Nerdboy is devoting all $6.25 an hour of his job at the video rental store to coming here.

  1. Work for the convention. This is, by far, the biggest money saver. Yes, this means you’re not at the convention just for fun, but most conventions aren’t going to be fun 24/7 anyway. After a while, you’re likely to get a little bored even if they’re showing all six Star Wars movies dubbed in Wookiee. Why not take some of that downtime and help keep the convention running. Full-time staffers like us generally put in six or more hours each day (except for a select few positions which are always on duty) and have the rest of the time to enjoy the convention, hotel amenities, and other area attractions. As a staff member, you’ll generally get free or discounted lodging, free or discounted meals, free admission, and maybe even an exclusive party or two.
  2. …Or volunteer. If being on the staff of a convention isn’t your cup of tea, Earl Grey, hot, then you can still reap some of the benefits by volunteering a few hours of your time helping out with odd jobs. I generally prefer to staff rather than volunteer, but both do have their perks.
  3. Follow the convention “chain.” Several conventions in the same geographic region may, in fact, be run by the same groups of people. For example, a lot of the people who staff this sci-fi convention also run the biggest D.C. area Japanese animation and culture convention. And if you’re a particularly helpful or distinguished staffer at one of them, you’re often treated to lots of free drinks or even meals by grateful folks at the next convention. Those 42 drinks I’ve had this weekend? I’ve only paid for two of them (though I’ve bought a few rounds for other folks too).
  4. Stay out of the merchant’s room. Even if you know that authentic Klingon bat’leth offered in the merchant’s room for $250 can be had on the internet for $175, you’re still going to be sorely tempted to pick it up at the convention because (1) you can show it off to your geeky friends, and (2) it’ll go great with the full ceremonial garb you’re wearing. So do your pocket book a favor and avoid the merchant’s room altogether.
  5. Bring food and drink. If you’re not willing to staff or even volunteer at a convention, be sure to bring lots of your own stuff to eat and drink. Hotel food is always pricey, and even eating out off site can set you back heavily. You can easily save a couple hundred bucks by packing your own snacks, nutritional staples, and alcohol. Yes, you will drink at the convention, so you might as well do it as cheaply as possible.
  6. Make lots of friends. Some people survive entire conventions feeding only at the inevitable room parties that pop up each night. Be social during the day so you get lots of invites to night-time get-togethers.
  7. Leave most of your credit cards at home. Just bring one with a credit line big enough to pay for your hotel bill and any other minor expenses you may occur, but not much more. This way there’s no way you can take home that $8,000 1:50 scale model of the mothership from Close Encounters of the Third Kind if you lose your monetary senses.

Of course, the biggest cost of all attending a science fiction convention is to your social status. Having never attended a true sci-fi con before this weekend, we were at least at the level of dork. Now we’ve been demoted to geek status, but at least we’re not leaving here with a massive black hole in our bank account.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Seven Unconventional Ways to Fight High Grocery Prices

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

comic 10 - gallon of milk

It all started a couple of weeks ago when I noticed a package of boneless chicken breasts at the grocery store that cost $9 a pound. Nine dollars for one pound of chicken—the slowest, stupidest, least tasty of all grocery-quality animals. I could get some real breasts for less than that. Fortunately there were some chicken nuggets in the next aisle on sale for $2.50 a pound, so those yearning for their chix fix would not have to go home hungry.

Unfortunately this was only the first of outrageous grocery store surprises that would greet us on that trip. Most produce items had increased in price by 20% since last year, milk won the race against gasoline to $4 a gallon, and even ramen noodles had gone up in price to 12 cents a package instead of 10. Even filthy rich people are not immune to these increases; fancy-food retailer Whole Foods recently announced that, in an effort to avoid raising its prices, it will now be known as Three-Quarters Foods.

If you’re feeling the pinch in your pocket book when you purchase your products at the supermarket, you’re certainly not alone. And if buying the necessities of life are keeping you from being able to afford your skyrocketing mortgage or raging alcohol addiction, here are some steps you can take to take back your grocery stores from high prices.

  1. Go on a diet. Statistically speaking, there is a good chance you are a fat tub o’ lard. (My apologies to the skinny bitches out there.) Take a close look at your diet and determine if you really need those 900 calories worth of potato chips you eat every day.
  2. Grow everything yourself. It’s not as hard as you think to be self-sufficient with just a little hard work, some packets of seeds, and 12 acres of rich farmland. And lucky for you, 12 acres of prime farmland in your town can be had for just $3.7 million. Kiss expensive groceries goodbye!
  3. Look at another store. I know a couple of people who haven’t been to more than one grocery store or supermarket in the last decade. In fact, my wife’s aunt has been going to the same corner grocery store for the last 32 years for all of her food and household needs, even after it became a post office in 1997. You might find that another store has the products you typically by for a little less than your usual place.
  4. Consider alternatives. Don’t just limit yourself to substituting fresh and wholesome chicken for processed chicken nuggets. Love milk but can’t afford $4 a gallon? Buy powdered milk by the boxful—enough for gallons and gallons of a milk-like entity—for pennies on the dollar. The possibilities are endless; of course, so are the price increases, so you’ll eventually have to substitute everything you like to eat with whatever you find in the day-old section of the bakery.
  5. Try online grocery shopping. One of the best parts of online grocery shopping is that it opens you up to a whole new world of deals and discounts that aren’t available in store. You’ll also find it can take half the time of in-store shopping without sacrificing quality.
  6. Cut out the middle man. If only you could buy your apples, bread, and dead cow parts directly from the farmer instead of having to pay extra for the supermarket middle man. Well, you can—just swing by your local farmers’ market where you can find some of the best produce and other all-natural food items, often for a good deal less than you’ll pay in a store.
  7. Join the shoplifting revolution! Okay, hear me out. If everyone starts shoplifting cartloads of groceries, supermarkets will have no choice but to drop their prices. Sure, some might call it looting, but I prefer the more modern term democratic price correction.

Yay! Now you can afford to eat again. Sadly, thanks to the high price of fuel, you can’t afford to drive to the grocery store anymore. But it doesn’t matter anyway because truckers can’t afford to deliver inventories to the stores. That $3.7 million for 12 acres doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?

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 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.