Money Matters


Special offers! Coupons! Preferred Shopper Rewards!

This time of year, retailers use every marketing tool they can think of to lure shoppers into their stores and persuade them to spend more. Given the volume of sales this month generates, it must work, too.

Actually, in the interests of full disclosure, I have to say that I am one of the shoppers who happily takes the lure. I take advantage of coupons, discounts, and sales whenever possible, including Christmas shopping. I always hope my loved ones never have to return any gifts I buy them, because I would be embarrassed to have them discover how little I actually spent.

But one sales technique confuses me. BOGO.

I don’t know whether to call it textspeak, an acronym, or a catchphrase, but it’s an abbreviated way of saying that, if you buy one thing you can get a second one at a discount: half price, maybe, or even free.

There’s just one problem. BOGO, read literally as an acronym, just means “Buy one, get one.”

Um—isn’t that what’s supposed to happen? If I buy a blouse, say, I expect to get a blouse. I’ve paid for it, after all; I’d better walk out of the store with it in my hot little hand.

BOGO really ought to be BOGOF, for “Buy one, get one free.” Except, of course, that the second one isn’t always free.

BOGOC, maybe? For “Buy one, get one cheap?” Oh, no; that would never do. Marketing people may love to use words like “sale” and “discount” and “value” and maybe even “bargain,” but they hate to use the word “cheap.” No store wants that connotation of “this shoddy piece of junk will fall apart the first time you use it.”

BOGOFL? “Buy one, get one for less?” Accurate, perhaps, but too long and not catchy enough.

Never mind; I give up. This must be why all those clever advertising copywriters settled for BOGO.

I still reserve the right to roll my eyes when I see it. But if you happen to be behind me in the checkout line, don’t worry; I’ll be nice. At least until I get the discount on my second item.

Categories: Money Matters, Words for Nerds | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

The Most Expensive Knives in the Kitchen

The woman on the phone was friendly, polite, and persuasive. Her company sold air purifiers and would like to come to our house and show us one. The demonstration, she promised, would take no more than half an hour. There would be no pressure to buy. Oh, and by the way, just for taking the time to evaluate their product, we would receive as a gift a set of steak knives. "The same ones they use at Outback Steakhouse."

Having a fireplace, a wood stove, and some allergies, we had been considering getting an air filter. Besides, we could use some better steak knives. We made an appointment.

The young man who showed up at our door two days later was enthusiastic, friendly, and very good-looking. Also, apparently, strong, based on the number of big boxes he hauled in from his car.

The first thing he unpacked was the air purifier, ultrasonic or ionic or ironic or whatever it was. He also pulled out a handy-dandy little air quality meter. Its blinking red numbers, he explained, revealed the alarmingly high levels of unhealthy particles in our air.

He set up the air purifier in the bathroom, shut the door, and left it to scrub the air. I hoped it might scrub the tub and the sink while it was at it.

While we were waiting for the air to become pure, he started unpacking the remaining boxes and assembling—a vacuum cleaner. The nice young woman on the phone had not mentioned a vacuum cleaner. We had expressed no interest in a vacuum cleaner. Oh, but this one, he said, was actually a multi-filtration, super-sensitive, supersonic, sanitizing cleaning system.

We politely told him that was very interesting. We also pointed out that (a), we have mostly hardwood floors and (b), we employ a wonderful woman, with a vacuum cleaner of her very own, who comes in every other week to clean house. So (c), we were not even remotely interested in buying a vacuum cleaner.

He was undeterred. His machine was so spectacular, so much more effective than any merely mortal vacuum cleaner, that we simply had to see how it worked. It would only take a few minutes.

My partner, as he admitted after it was too late, was curious. Not about the machine itself so much as the sales pitch. I wasn't curious. Not in the least. But I was trying to be polite. Besides, I hadn't seen any sign of the steak knives yet.

So we let the nice young man demonstrate. He cleaned spots on the underside of the rug. He cleaned spots on the couch. He used up a couple of dozen white paper filters to prove to us just how dirty our house really was. (I've always wondered who decided that telling people they live in filth and squalor would be an effective sales technique.)

After a long, long time, he took his air quality meter into the bathroom, where the air filter had been working away. The meter—surprise, surprise!—showed almost no nasty particles in the air. I was disappointed to see that the sink and tub had not been scrubbed along with the air.

By now the 30-minute appointment had stretched to more than two hours. My partner's curiosity had long since been satisfied. Dinnertime was approaching. I was getting hungry, and when I get hungry I get irritable.

So maybe it wasn't the ideal time for the salesman to quote us the price. It was high. We said sorry, no. He went outside to "let us talk it over." We still said no.

He got mad. Turned out he was upset because we wasted his time. Excuse me? I didn't remember hearing us beg him to drag out his vacuum cleaner.

At least, before he packed up his stuff and left in a huff (well, actually, he left in a Honda Civic), he plunked the steak knives down on the table.

We've used the knives several times. They're okay. But next time we need any kitchen utensils, I think I'll just go to Wal-Mart.

Categories: Just For Fun, Money Matters | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

The Dark Side of the Geek

I don’t get computer viruses.

Well, I do, unfortunately, in one sense. I got one on Monday. A nasty little beast sneaked past my antivirus software to infect my operating system, mark all my files as hidden, and create false error messages intended to generate panic and scramble files.

I consulted a specially trained professional who looked young enough to be moonlighting his way through middle school. He suggested that the fee for wiping the computer clean and reinstalling everything would be more than the value of the computer, given that it was four years old, which in computer years made it a doddering ancient. Seeing the sense in this, I decided to buy a new computer.

After one frustrating day of waiting for the new computer to be ready, followed by another frustrating day of transferring files, reinstalling software, and rounding up email addresses, I was cautiously back in business. I had lost a bunch of email files, a bunch of time, and a couple of software programs; I had gained a large dose of aggravation and stress.

I know how much the new computer cost me in dollars and cents. I don’t even want to think about what this virus cost me in terms of time, lost information, frustration, and aggravation.

What I don’t get about computer viruses is why. Most of them have no purpose other than to destroy. The only gain for the twisted minds who develop them is the vicious satisfaction of sowing destruction and chaos. It obviously takes a certain level of brilliant geekiness to create viruses in the first place. All those intelligent minds could be building and contributing something useful with their skills. For whatever reasons, they choose to destroy instead. It’s sheer maliciousness.

If I were in charge of such things, I would sentence the creators and disseminators of computer viruses to spend part of their days in bare rooms with nothing but plain paper and dull crayons. They would be required to write over and over, for hour after hour, “I will never do another bit of computer harm.”

The rest of their time would be spent doing hard physical labor, preferably cleaning out pigsties or sewers. They would be fitted with devices that would give them severe electric shocks if they so much as touched any type of electronic device. And, of course, they would have to repay in cold, hard cash everyone who had lost valuable time and data as a result of their evil creations.

Maybe, by then, they would have some understanding of the trouble they had caused. Maybe then they could explain to me why they thought creating computer viruses would be fun. Because I just don’t get it.

Categories: Money Matters | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

The Leg and the Egg

There they were, glowing softly under the spotlight, appearing together for the first time. Dedicated fans, serious researchers, the envious, and the merely curious crowded closer to get a better look. The Black Hills' two biggest gold nuggets were side by side in the same display case.

First, the leg. This famous nugget found by Potato Creek Johnny in 1929 was a crooked strip about four inches long, looking a bit like the back leg of a skinny horse, minus the hoof. It was a solid, gleaming chunk of yellow metal looking just the way we non-prospecting types assume gold ought to look.

The egg, named the Ice Box nugget, was discovered in the fall of 2010. Roughly the size and shape of a hen's egg, it looked like a fairly ordinary rock at first glance, until you noticed the thick yellow veins bulging out of it on all sides.

The two nuggets were surprisingly small, considering that they added up to some $15,000 or $16,000 worth of gold at today's prices. A person could have held both of them in one hand. Theoretically speaking, a person might have even been able to sneak them out of the museum in the same jacket pocket—as long as no one noticed it sagging under their combined weight.

Theoretically or otherwise, I doubt that many of the people who came to the Journey Museum to see the nuggets had any serious urges to grab them and make a mad dash for the door. Several of them, though, were clearly prospectors themselves and were trying their hardest to pick up any clues as to exactly where the Ice Box nugget had been discovered. Gold fever in the Black Hills is still alive and well.

I didn't catch it myself, though. Listening to the discoverer of the Ice Box nugget was an effective inoculation. He was dressed in his work clothes—possibly for effect, I suppose, but also because, as he explained, this time of year when the snow is melting and water running, a placer miner needs to spend every available minute working his claim. His forearms were ridged with muscle, his hands were scarred and battered, and his fingertips were so abraded that it was doubtful he had any fingerprints left.

"Yeah, we move rocks the size of that desk all the time," he said. I don't have a clue how much money he may have made over the past couple of years working his claim, but he obviously had earned every penny. Getting rich quick by finding gold looks a lot like plain old-fashioned hard work.

Categories: Money Matters | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

Not Worth the Paper It’s Printed On?

There it was, in the grass right beside the road. Cash. A bill that, even at first glance, was obviously larger than a one, a five, or even a ten.

Maybe some of you take your daily walks in the kind of neighborhoods where people go around with so many hundred-dollar bills in their pockets that they're likely to lose one every now and then. That doesn't happen where I live.

Oh, it's a nice neighborhood, a wooded, hilly area on the edge of town where the deer consider front-yard flower beds a place to go for lunch and where walkers are more likely to encounter mountain lions than muggers. Still, people don't scatter cash around with reckless abandon. The most money I've ever found during a walk was a ten-dollar bill, and I felt guilty about that.

So seeing what looked like a hundred-dollar bill in the ditch was the most exciting thing that had happened to me that day. (True, it was only 7:15 in the morning, but still.) Until I picked it up and realized it wasn't a hundred-dollar bill.

It was a million-dollar bill. It looked reasonably real, too, with the funky shaded color of new U.S. currency, official-looking seals and signatures in the right places, and an appropriately offset picture of our 19th president, Rutherford B. Hayes.

I might have gotten a lot more excited, except I happen to know that the government of the United States doesn't print million-dollar bills. The largest denomination that's been printed since 1969 is the hundred. The few remaining $500, $1,000, $5,000 and $10,000 bills that might still be around are taken out of circulation whenever they show up. These are still legal tender, though, so if you happen to find one in a ditch be sure to check it out carefully.

Fake or not, I stuck this one in my pocket to take home. Without my reading glasses, I couldn't make out the two scroll-like areas on the back that were filled with teeny, tiny printing.

Actually, reading glasses weren't enough. It took a magnifying glass. I learned that the "million dollar question" was whether I had a prayer of getting into heaven. The answer was no, unless I would repent and turn from sin—said sin being specified as lying, stealing, blasphemy, and adultery.

This inspiring little diatribe raised several questions. First, since meanness, violence, and murder weren't listed, are those behaviors okay? Or, even with the teeny, tiny print, was there just not enough room to list them?

Second, if I'm walking along minding my own business, and I pick up a fake million-dollar bill that's lying by the road, does that make me a thief?

Third, if a religious organization prints fake million-dollar bills, hoping to entice people into picking them up, isn't that more than a little bit like lying? Wouldn't it also qualify as leading people into temptation?

Fourth, is it really a great idea, once you have people's attention with a fake million-dollar bill, to print your message so small that they have to use a magnifying glass to read it?

And finally, why pick on Rutherford B. Hayes? The man never got a chance to be on our genuine currency. Using his image on a fake is only adding insult to injury. Maybe his descendants should sue. They might get a settlement. It might even be paid in million-dollar bills.

Categories: Just For Fun, Money Matters | 3 Comments

Jumping Into a Bigger Pool

This isn't my usual focus, but I've been getting very frustrated with a topic that has nothing funny about it—health insurance.

In the debate about whether we should move toward a government plan or whether that would just make a bad situation worse, there's been some discussion of "portability," or making health insurance more transferable between employers. To me that doesn't go far enough. I'd like to see health insurance coverage separated from employment altogether.

The whole idea behind insurance is to spread the risk and the cost across a large group of people. The problem with keeping health insurance connected to employment is that in many cases, those groups simply aren't large enough to keep the premium costs down. They become even smaller when you take into account the number of people who don't need coverage from their employers because they have it through their spouses' jobs. And, of course, those like me who are self-employed don't have much choice except expensive individual plans.

Requiring employers to provide health insurance doesn't make any sense for smaller companies, because it doesn't do anything to solve the small pool/large premium problem. (Here is how the current plan before Congress would affect one small business.)

One way to separate insurance coverage from employment could be for the federal government to set up large pools or groups of people that would be covered under one plan. These groups could be regional, but with the technology we have available they wouldn't have to be. Then insurance companies could offer various coverage plans to those groups, perhaps through competitive bids. There would need to be a way for people to transfer easily from one group to another, so family members would be part of the same pool.

I may be missing something here; perhaps there are drawbacks to such a plan that I simply haven't thought of. But I'd certainly like to see it become part of the discussion.

Categories: Money Matters | 2 Comments

Going Cold Turkey

It all started with the turkeys. No, not the “wild” turkeys that hang out in our neighborhood to raise their families and provide meals for mountain lions. These are city turkeys: cheap, tempting birds with plump thighs and improbably rounded bosoms. They are the November loss-leader turkeys at Safeway: only $4.99 (under 16 pounds) or $6.99 (over 16 pounds) with a $25 purchase.

Turkey just happens to be one of my favorite foods. It’s not in the category of chocolate chip cookies, brownies, or fresh bread, of course, but it’s right up there in the second tier with baby carrots and leftover meatloaf. So this time of year, when turkeys are such a bargain, I’d like to stock up on three or four of them.

Unfortunately, what with the tomatoes from last year’s garden, the hamburger that was on sale last week, a couple of loaves of homemade bread, some bags of frozen vegetables, a handful of breakfast burritos, an oversized gel ice pack, several containers of vaguely recognizable leftovers, and three over-ripe bananas, there wasn’t room in the freezer compartment of the refrigerator for even one small turkey.

What the heck. I’ve been wanting to get a freezer for a while now, anyway. It was time for a trip to Sears. They had a cute little five-cubic-foot upright freezer, just what I wanted. On sale, with tax, it came to $228.95.

There was one in stock. We bought it. We hauled it home. We lugged it up the steps and into the house. We freed it from its carton. Funny, it seemed a lot bigger in our kitchen than it had there in the store, where it had looked so slender surrounded by its 17-cubic-foot cousins.

Nevertheless, it fit nicely into the spot in the kitchen where I had planned to put it. What I hadn’t stopped to consider was where to plug it in. The refrigerator, the electric teakettle, the microwave, and the telephone were all plugged into the two available outlets on that same wall. The question was whether the 35-year-old wiring would be able to handle a freezer as well.

You never know until you try. So I moved the phone into the next room, rearranged the kitchen, crossed my fingers and held my breath, and plugged the freezer in. Then, while it was cooling itself down, I simultaneously heated water in the microwave and the electric kettle. Everything worked. No circuit breakers tripped. So far, so good.

It was time to go buy turkeys. When I came back from the store, I did the math. Three 18-pound turkeys at $7.00 each, that’s 54 pounds and $21.00. Adding that to the $229 for the freezer makes $250. Okay, $250 divided by 54 pounds equals $4.63 per pound. What a bargain.

While I’m stocking up on cheap meat, maybe I should consider bigger game than turkeys. Deer, maybe. Or elk. Or what about a trip to Canada to shoot a moose?

Of course, then I’d have to buy a bigger freezer. I’m not sure I can afford to save that much.

Categories: Money Matters | 1 Comment

The Economy and Corbin Morse’s Cows

With a little luck and a lot of hard work, Corbin Morse became successful as a rancher in western South Dakota in the early days. The story is told that he was waiting out a snowstorm in the lobby of the Harney Hotel in Rapid City one bitter cold night. A half-frozen cowboy stumbled through the door with the bad news. Morse’s entire herd of 10,000 purebred Hereford cattle—over half a million dollars’ worth of livestock—had perished in the blizzard. The loss meant financial ruin.

Morse looked at the cowboy. “Well,” he said, “Easy come, easy go.”

I thought about Corbin Morse this week when I opened the statements from my retirement accounts. I looked at them, stuffed them into the file drawer, took a deep breath, and told myself, “Easy come, easy go.”

I didn’t really mean it, of course. Neither, I suspect, did Corbin Morse that long-ago winter night. But remembering his response to bad news helped me put my own losses into perspective.

Admittedly, it’s relatively easy for me to be optimistic. Unlike Corbin Morse—and many others before and since—I’m not facing financial ruin. I’m fortunate in that I don’t have any debt and I can easily live within my means. I can afford to leave my retirement savings alone until they recover.

And I do believe they will recover. Rick, my friend and financial planner, lives, breathes, and preaches “invest for the long term.” That means holding on through bad times as well as good. I trust him and believe him, so that’s what I’m doing.

Even so, the recent upheavals (or maybe a better word would be “downheavals”) in the economy are frightening. I have friends who are talking about whether they should keep cash under their mattresses and whether we’ll all end up raising chickens in our back yards. They wonder if it’s going to be the Great Depression all over again.

I don’t mean to minimize the Great Depression. It was a terribly hard time, with losses and suffering that were all too real. My parents grew up during those tough years, which here in South Dakota meant drought and dust storms. I've heard their stories about living as a family of 11 in a three-room house, wearing patched hand-me-down clothes, and sometimes going to school with nothing in their lunch pails but cold pancakes.

But all of them got by. They managed, one day at a time, and eventually, times got better. Those hard times helped shape their lives, certainly, but didn't define them. They went on to build successful, productive, and happy lives.

I visited my parents last weekend. It was my sister’s birthday, and we celebrated with a four-generation family party. The gathering reminded me again about what constitutes real wealth. My parents haven’t accumulated any financial fortunes. But they have children and grandchildren who care deeply about them, who enjoy their company, and who would gladly help them out of love rather than obligation. The legacy of integrity and competence and humor that they will leave to all of us who love them is beyond price.

Will we have to scrimp and patch and make do through economic hard times like the Dirty Thirties again? Who knows? My own belief is, probably not.

But I also believe that, if things truly do get that bad, most of us will do what we have to do. We’ll work together and help one another out. We'll get by, one day at a time. We’re a lot tougher than we think.

For me, knowing it’s possible to survive hard times and come out the other side helps keep today’s fears in perspective. It reminds me that there’s no point in fretting over things—like ups and downs in the stock market—that are beyond my control. It helps me remember all the ways in which my family and I are truly rich.

And when all else fails, I remember Corbin Morse’s cows and his “grace under fire” response to disaster. “Easy come, easy go.”

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Please, Go Ahead and Spend It

When my Uncle Ernie, a life-long bachelor, was in his 80’s and in declining health, he moved into an assisted living facility. He complained to my mother that living there was going to use up all his savings. Her answer was, “What do you think that money is for?”

A close friend’s elderly mother is currently in a similar situation. Nearing 90, she has enough money to provide comfortably for her needs—including assisted living or nursing home care, if necessary—for the rest of her life. Yet she frets about spending it. She tells her two sons, “That money is supposed to be for you.”

No, it isn’t. That money is supposed to be for her.

All sorts of investment options, from IRAs to 401(k) plans, are described as “retirement funds.” We talk routinely about “saving for retirement.” Providing for our needs in old age is one of the most important reasons for saving in the first place.

Yet, when retirement comes, it’s not easy to start spending that money. Such reluctance is understandable. When you’ve been in the habit all your life of saving and putting money away, it’s hard to make a 180-degree turn and start spending it instead. It may feel like jeopardizing the security you have from knowing that money is there. In addition, many people want to leave a legacy to their children or to charity.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to leave money to your children. But the money you’ve saved for your retirement is yours. It’s there to provide for you. Your children aren’t automatically entitled to it, and you don’t owe it to anyone.

Speaking as a middle-aged daughter of elderly parents, what sort of legacy do I want from them? When it comes to material things, all I really care about are the family keepsakes which are valued for what they mean rather than what they are—such things as my mother’s handmade quilts and my father’s books. What I want most, though, is to have my parents in my life for as long as possible. I want them to be comfortable, able to have more than they need and to do things they enjoy. I want them to use their resources for themselves so they can be an active presence in my life and the lives of my children.

If it’s hard for you to think about spending your life savings on yourself, you might consider this: Taking care of yourself is not taking anything away from your children. Instead, it’s a way of giving to them. When you have—and use—the resources to provide for your own needs, your children don’t have to take care of you. That leaves them free to build their own savings.

So please, when you get to a point where it’s time to start using what you’ve saved, go ahead and use it. After all, as my mother would remind you, what else is it for?

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