Monday, December 31, 2007

A Cure For Sleep: The End of the Economy in Pill Form

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

pajama manufacturers beware! the end is near!

Insomniacs rejoice! Scientists have discovered a hormone that may cure a person’s need for sleep. By 2020, we may very well be able to pop a pill a day instead of laying down for 6-8 hours of shut-eye.

Obviously such a development could have enormous consequences on the human race, but no aspect of society would be more effected than the economy. Our entire financial existence is built around the fact that everyone needs to be unconscious about once a day for one-quarter to one-third of that day, typically at night. The availability of a ten-second replacement for sleep would give everyone a couple thousands extra hours of “awake time” each year.

Let’s look at a best- (or maybe worst) case-scenario where the “sleep cure” pill is readily available, extremely inexpensive, free of side effects, and quickly adopted by just about everyone in the developed word. I predict that the end of sleep would devastate the world-wide economy simply because so much would change so quickly from how it’s been for hundreds of years of modern living.

Here’s a look at what the economy would look like in a sleepless society.

  1. People would work more. Regardless of what you might think you’d do if you had an extra six or eight hours a day, most people would end up using at least some of it to work more at their jobs. In fact, if everyone’s waking hours increased by 25-50%, it might be expected that everyone would work 10-12 hours a day. This might not necessarily mean more income for everyone; retailers might pull in more money, especially with shoppers out and about 24/7, but many other industries would not see a sizable increase in revenue to support wage hikes.
  2. Unemployment would go through the roof. While retailers might need more people to help work a 24/7 economy, other areas might not need as much manpower. If I can get two people to work 12 hours a day, why would I need three people to work 8 hours a day? That third person would be out of a job, which means unemployment in a sleepless world could rise to 33% or more!
  3. Traffic would ease. Thanks to that lovely new unemployment rate and the adoption of the graveyard shift as a much more common work schedule, traffic congestion on the road and in the air would drop considerably for a while. This would translate into even more free time for workers. Other effects of fewer traffic problems: taxes for highway widening projects would decrease, traffic accidents would decline, and middle fingers everywhere would eventually fall off from lack of exercise.
  4. Housing prices would drop through the floor. Part of this would be driven by that high unemployment rate, but another part would be due to the fact that people wouldn’t need to have a place to “live” anymore. Think about it. Virtually every requirement that a home fulfills has been replaced in modern society. We can eat all our meals out, keep in touch with family by cell phone and e-mail, store all our crap electronically (or in our car trunk, or in a storage space)—but we still need a place to sleep. With people able to move 24 hours a day, there’d be no need to return to a home for hours of horizontal unconsciousness. At the very least, a house with four bedrooms would become a house with four “wasted spaces.” Sure, not everyone would want to part with having a shelter of their own; but if even 10% of the population saw going homeless as a great way to save money, the housing market would be obliterated.
  5. Energy use would skyrocket. With people up all night, you better believe more lights would be on. This could end up being the most troublesome consequence of a sleepless society as many cities are already stretching the capacity of their power grids. As a result, while your awake time and energy usage may only rise 50%, you could see your utility bills double, triple, or go even higher.
  6. Food prices would soar. If your body is active for 50% more of the day, it will need 50% more energy to support that activity. And until they have a cure for needing to eat, that means we’d all be eating a new meal around one o’clock each morning. (I hereby officially call it nightmeal™. Now you have to pay me $10 a day to eat it.) Nightmeals would be even bigger than dinner since a third of our energy would need to be replaced by it. I feel sorry for the unemployed housewives (and househusbands) who would have to cook two large meals a day now, but even more concerning would be the toll on our food supply. You could probably expect prices at your local supermarket to increase exponentially as our waking hours increase.
  7. The price of just about everything would jump. When food prices rise, so too do the prices of everything else. This might be counteracted by the severe drop in housing prices, but it’s too soon to tell if the two would balance each other perfectly or not.
  8. Birth rates would decline. Outside of movies, people tend to have sex right before they go to sleep. Without the sleep aspect, people just wouldn’t have as much sex. That means fewer babies would be born—a lot fewer. I’d even go out on a limb and say that a sleepless world would see its population start to decrease as the mortality rate overtakes the birth rate.
  9. Lifespans would shorten. Even if scientists found a way to counteract the effects not sleeping would have on our bodies, we would still live shorter lives on average due to the changes to society that would result. For starters, more energy use means more pollution, and more pollution means more pollution-related illnesses. More work, higher prices, and no sex would all contribute to soaring stress levels, and we all know what that can do to a person. You might be awake 50% more often, but I bet the average human lifespan would drop one-third to compensate.
  10. The mattress industry would be bankrupted, as would many other businesses that make money off of your sleeping habits. We’d have to say good-bye to makers of sleeping pills, stay-awake pills, lingerie and other bedroom clothes, alarm clocks, sleeping masks, and even those dream interpretation books you keep buying at the checkout counter.

Of course, for any of this to happen, just about everyone would have to hop on board the “no more sleep” bandwagon. So let me pose this question: if you didn’t have to sleep anymore, would you do it anyway? My personal answer is no, I would not sleep if I didn’t have to, and I’d probably spend most of the extra time playing videogames and enjoying my nightmeals.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Employers: Save Money By Giving Workers Free Flu Shots So They Don’t Get Sick and Die

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: , ,

dear boss, please give me a flu shot or i will throw up on you

If you run a business with even a handful of employees, it makes financial sense for you to give all of your employees on-site, free flu shots. That’s what I figured out today as I sat in a conference room getting my free flu shot paid for by my employer.

What am I talking about this time? Consider the following statistics about influenza:

  • Each year, 36,000 people die from the flu in the U.S.
  • More than 200,000 people are admitted to the hospital due to flu symptoms.
  • Depending on the severity of the flu season, anywhere from five to 20% of Americans get the flu each year.

People dying and ending up in the hospital is certainly a horrible thing, but you don’t even need to look that far to see the consequences the flu can have on your business. If 20% of your employees are getting sick each winter, they’ll quickly rack up those sick days. Those sick days can have a heavy impact on your company’s bottom line.

Let’s do the math using some fairly conservative numbers. Say you run a company with 100 employees, and the average fully-loaded employee cost is $25/hour. Now say it’s a particularly mild flu season and just 10% of your work force (10 employees) gets the flu, and each one calls out sick only two days (8 hours/day × 2 days = 16 sick hours/employee) as a result because you’re a mean boss and they don’t want to get fired for using too many sick days (jerk). Finally, let’s peg the cost of a flu shot at $25 per person.

  • Cost of flu: 10 employees × 16 hours × $25/hour = $4,000
  • Cost of flu shots: 100 employees × $25 = $2,500

Now if one of those employees should end up hospitalized, you could find your company paying a lot more for health insurance the next year. And heaven forbid one of those employees dies, the price of employee life insurance will spike, not to mention the cost of hiring a replacement. Free flu shots would more than pay for themselves should either of those events transpire.

Sure, some workers get free flu shots through their insurance anyway, but many more have to cough up a co-pay or simply pay the full cost themselves. Add to that the inconvenience of driving to a doctor’s office or flu clinic, and many people just won’t spend the time and money to protect themselves from the flu. But if those flu shots are free and just down the hall, those workers are far more likely to get themselves inoculated.

Employees, tell your boss you want a free flu shot. You could even print out this article and place it on his or her desk with big red circles and drawings of little stick figures throwing up. If that doesn’t do the trick, then your boss is a schmo.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Freeze Your Butt Off to Save on Your Winter Heating Bills?

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

save money on winter heating without feeling like this

Packed snugly in a recent local utility mailing—somewhere between the return envelope and that electrical extortion invoice our supplier calls a “bill”—was their monthly newsletter offering sound advice to help keep us safe and save us money during the upcoming winter. (Sidebar: I’ve always wondered why utility companies send newsletters with tips for saving you money on your utilities; shouldn’t they send you tips for spending more on utilities or perhaps saving money on groceries and health care so you can spend more on gas and electric?) One of the tips in this newsletter was a little startling because it runs contrary to every American home in which I’ve ever set foot:

Set your thermostat at 68 degrees during the day and 60 degrees at night, if health permits.

First, let’s look at the 68 degrees during the day recommendation. Thinking of the homes of random family and friends, here’s a sampling of the various daytime winter temperatures I recall seeing on their thermostats:

  • 75 degrees
  • 74 degrees
  • 72 degrees
  • 72 degrees
  • 72 degrees

I cannot ever recall seeing any thermostat in any home set at below 70 degrees during winter days. The only exception is our own home whose thermostat currently sits at a cozy and warm 68 degrees. People who enter our house when it’s 68 often complain that it’s chilly. On the other hand, when we enter someone’s house at 75 degrees, it feels like a sauna.

So if you’re currently running your home at 70+ degrees in the winter, try dropping it a degree each week and be amazed at how well your body can adjust to the temperature change.

Now how about that 60 degrees at night recommendation? Once again, let’s look at a random sample of nighttime winter temperatures from the homes of friends and family.

  • 75 degrees
  • 74 degrees
  • 72 degrees
  • 72 degrees
  • 72 degrees

Holy crap, it’s the same list from above! For some inexplicable reason, these five households need their 70+ degrees while their bodies are in bed, asleep, inactive, totally unconscious. My utility’s advice to drastically lower the thermostat setting at night is a good one; it can save a boatload of money on heat your body doesn’t even need.

I’ll admit that the 60-degree recommendation surprised even us. We keep our nighttime thermostat set at around 64 during the winter months. We find that any colder than that is enough to wake us in the middle of the night.

If you’re a member of the 72 Degrees At All Times Club, you might be wondering how we survive in consistently sub-70-degree temperatures. It’s pretty simple, actually.

  • Lots of clothes. It’s not hard to pile on an extra layer or two. Each one seems to allow us to tolerate an extra degree or two below 70.
  • Mini heaters. We have a portable electric heater that we can set in whatever room we’re currently occupying. That way, we can keep that room as toasty as we like without wasting heat in other rooms. It’s fuel-free, simple to operate, weighs just a couple of pounds, and costs just pennies an hour to run.
  • Ceiling fans in reverse. Over the summer, we equipped our four most-used rooms with ceiling fans to keep rooms cool. When operated in reverse (clockwise motion), the fan blows the hot air that would otherwise rise to the ceiling and out the roof back down to the floor. Yes, it really works and can help maintain a room temperature a lot longer.
  • Smart thermostat use. While we have a programmable thermostat, we typically operate it manually, setting the temperature at 68 when we’re home and awake or 64 if we’re away or asleep. If you have a predictable schedule, you can use a programmable thermostat to boost the temperature just before you wake or return home from work.
  • Lots of cuddling. There’s nothing cozier in the winter than a warm body, and keeping one really close to you ensures you two are exchanging heat with each other rather than losing it to the air. Just be sure to ask before cuddling someone, though they’ll usually agree once you give a detailed presentation on the fuel savings cuddling can provide.

Now it’s your turn to provide your wintertime stats. At what temperature do you set your thermostat during winter days and nights?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Marry For Love. And Money. And Some Other Stuff.

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

you: will you marry me? her: can i see an ekg first, please?


I have the wonderful pleasure of being married to an extremely awesome woman. She’s sweet, smart, and fantastic in bed very forgiving. For all you single, dating people out there, perhaps there’s a special someone in your life you’d like to one day be joined to in marriage. If that’s the case, good for you.

But before you pop the question and become emotionally, legally, and financially bound to another person, make sure first and foremost that you want to marry this person out of love. Marriages without love are a sham. Without love, you might as well marry a piece of coal; it’ll still keep you warm at night.

Despite what the fairy tales and John Lennon may tell you, love by itself isn’t going to be enough for a successful marriage. Perhaps 500 years ago in simpler times it would have been. But today, in the year 20XX, where your breakfast pops out of a toaster instead of your farmhouse chicken, you need to look honestly at your potential spouse and make sure there’s more than just love in the air.

Love Is A Must, But Also Marry For…

Money. You heard me. Marry for money. To clarify, make sure the person you are marrying is in a similar financial boat to your own. If you’re both poor, unemployed, and homeless, then you’re all set! But if you’re a doctor bringing home six figures and you own your own home in six states, hopefully your spouse-to-be isn’t living paycheck to paycheck.

Also make sure that your intended’s financial behavior is like your own. If Mr. Frugal marries Ms. Credit-Cards-Are-Free-Money, there’s going to be a disagreement sooner or later.

Health. A healthy person who takes care of his or her body will make for a happier spouse than one who catches the plague and dies on the honeymoon. While you shouldn’t let people’s physical limitations deter you from loving and marrying them, you might want to watch out for someone who will enlist you to run a double marathon with her when your idea of exercise is blinking more than once a minute.

Companionship. You’re happy with that person you’re going to marry, right? That’s good, but how strong is that “with” part? Will yours be the kind of marriage where the husband is in the garage all night while the wife is upstairs reading? Or do you have enough in common and a strong desire to spend time together that your spouse will not just be your legally wedded partner but also your best friend?

Stability. It’s sad but true that the divorce rate in the United States is quickly approaching 150%. Soon, not only will all marriages end in divorce, but so will most first dates! Okay, so the situation isn’t that dire yet, but more often than not, a marriage is doomed to failure from the start. The best way to make sure your marriage ends up in the statistical minority (i.e. those that work) is to think about where it’ll be on your fifth anniversary, your tenth, your twentieth, your fiftieth… and if you can’t even comprehend still being with your spouse for those longer periods, then you probably won’t be.

Him or Her. Most of all, marry not just for yourself but for the other person, too. Live your own life for your spouse, and let your spouse live his or her life for you. If you each put the other first, then you’ll have two forces acting in unison to make sure the marriage is a happy, life-long union.

It’s a simple recipe for marriage, though all it takes is one overlooked ingredient to rip apart an otherwise joyful couple. But if you can find someone who shares the same longing for love, desire for stability, and financial discipline as you, you’ll be well ahead of most on the path to eternal matrimony.

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Health Insurance Terms You Need to Know, From "Health Care on Less Than You Think" by Fred Brock

Author: Nick
Category: Money

here are 100mg of awesome excerpty goodness from fred brock

Aren’t you a lucky duck? Not only do you get my fabulous review of Health Care on Less Than You Think, but you also get this lovely excerpt from Chapter 2 which explains some of those complicated terms your insurance provider loves to throw at you.

Know What Your Insurance Protects

by Fred Brock
Author of Health Care on Less Than You Think

Before selecting a policy from an employer menu (or shopping for an individual policy), you should be certain you understand the terms used by the health insurance industry. The meanings can vary slightly among insurers, so if a number or explanation doesn’t match up with the following definitions, press the insurance provider for more details; there may be costs or exceptions hidden in the differences in jargon.

  • Coinsurance is the amount you must pay after your health plan’s deductible has been met. It’s usually expressed as a percentage. For instance, you might have to pay 20 percent of every bill until the total of your own payments hits your out-of-pocket maximum.
  • Copayment is a flat fee you pay for health-care services, regardless of how much the doctor or hospital receives from your insurance provider. Some plans, especially HMOs and some PPOs, require a copayment, usually $10 to $30 for each office visit to a doctor and often higher copayments for emergency care.
  • Credit for prior coverage may be something you need to prove — normally with a letter from your former insurer — if you are switching employers or insurance plans and need preexisting conditions to be covered right away. This is especially important if you are buying an individual policy, which can have a waiting period for preexisting conditions.
  • A deductible is the amount you must pay for your medical bills before your insurance kicks in. Usually the higher the deductible runs, the less expensive the policy is.
  • EOB (explanation of benefits) is a statement from your insurance company showing what it has paid and not paid for a claim. Some companies resist supplying duplicate EOBs, so maintaining an organized file of your EOBs is important if you need to challenge a bill.
  • An EPO (exclusive provider organization) plan allows you to use any doctor or hospital within the insurance provider’s current network, without a referral. You have no coverage, however, outside the current network even if your doctor used to be included in the plan. There can be copayments similar to those for HMO and PPO plans.
  • A fee-for-service (indemnity) plan is the traditional kind of healthcare policy that allows you to go to any doctor or hospital you choose. Deductibles can range from several hundred to several thousand dollars. After you have paid bills totaling your deductible, the plan usually pays 80 percent of all bills; you pay the other 20 percent up to an out-of-pocket maximum that generally runs between $1,500 and $3,000. After you have reached the out-of-pocket maximum, the policy pays 100 percent of your medical expenses. In most states, fee-for-service is the most expensive health insurance you can buy.
  • An HMO (health maintenance organization) is essentially a prepaid health plan. For a monthly premium, the HMO provides comprehensive care. You likely pay a copayment for office visits, but most HMO plans have no deductibles. (The exception to the no-deductible rule is an HMO that is eligible for a health savings account.) There are usually no forms to fill out or bills to keep track of. You are, however, quite limited in your choice of doctors, hospitals, and other health-care providers. You commonly must get a referral from your primary-care physician to see a specialist; if you don’t, your treatment with the specialist is not covered. Though HMOs were designed to control costs, they have been the source of many consumer complaints. These complaints were often because of coverage limitations or the fact that some doctors were compensated for denying treatment or referrals to patients or punished for providing what was considered by the HMO to be excessive treatment, although both problems have lessened in recent years. Because of their comprehensive, deductible-free coverage, HMOs often compete with the most affordable health insurance options.
  • An HSA (health savings account) is a less expensive, high-deductible policy linked to a tax-free savings account that can be used to pay medical bills before the policy’s deducible is met.
  • Lifetime maximum is the maximum amount of covered expenses your insurance company will pay in your lifetime. Look for a policy with a lifetime maximum of at least $3 million.
  • Out-of-pocket maximum is the amount of coinsurance you must pay yourself before an insurance policy will pay 100 percent of your bills. It may or may not include the deductible. The term stop-loss is sometimes used to refer to the point at which you have met your deductible and paid your out-of-pocket maximum.
  • A POS (point-of-service) plan is like a PPO except that you need a referral from your primary-care physician to see an out-of-network doctor, for which you may have to pay extra. Without the referral, you will likely have to pay the entire bill for the out-of-network physician.
  • A PPO (preferred provider organization) plan is a cross between a fee-for-service plan and an HMO. You can see any doctor you choose without a referral, although if the physician is outside the insurance plan’s network you will probably be reimbursed at a lower rate. For network doctors, you usually have only a copayment for office visits. There can be varying copayments — as well as deductibles, coinsurance, and out-of-pocket maximums — depending on the policy. Most plans that are eligible for use with a health savings account are PPOs with a high deductible tacked on.

These terms, of course, aren’t exclusive to individual policies. Many employers offer a menu of plans for you to select from that usually includes HMOs, PPOs, and traditional indemnity plans. Increasingly, companies are offering HSAs and dropping indemnity plans because they are so expensive.

Reprinted from Health Care on Less Than You Think: The New York Times Guide to Getting Affordable Coverage by Fred Brock. Copyright © 2006 Fred Brock. Published by Times Books; October 2006; $15.00US/$20.00CAN; ISBN 0-8050-7980-7.