Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Five Ways the 2011 San Diego Chargers Are Like Debt

These guys are true fans.
I received some positive feedback on my post a few months back about how this year's Colts compare to finances.  As I basically write on this site for love and affection, I thought I'd take another shot at that style of article.  Please feel free to love and affect me in the comments.

Let me start by saying that my favorite football team is the San Diego Chargers, and so it is with fear and trepidation that I liken my team to the pernicious "d" word of the personal finance community.  That "d" word, of course, is debt.

But how, you ask, can a real, actual team be compared to an abstract idea?  Gather around, my children, and I'll tell you a tale.

1)  Both may be fun, for a while - The Chargers started this season with a record of 4-1.  "Four wins and only one loss?", we fans asserted incredulously.  "Can life get better?  I submit that it cannot!"  Following several seasons of 2-3 starts, we finally had a team that gained momentum early, and it was difficult not to be optimistic.  That was a good time to be Chargers fan. 

In a similar way, when a person is getting into debt (especially credit card debt), it's probably a pretty good time.  "What's that?  I can buy the 70" television AND the Playstation 3 right now and only worry about paying it off in the future?  Sign me the crap up!"  Let's be real: it feels amazing to be able to gratify yourself instantly.*  It's only when the bills start to come that our purchases feel a little less like smart choices.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Thanksgiving Update and a Financial Bucket List

Turkey knows your thoughts
and judges you.
Be afraid.

Happy Thanksgiving tomorrow to all my readers in the lower 48 (I'm pretty sure there aren't any turkeys in Alaska and Hawaii, so how can they celebrate the day? :-) ).

Today, I am thankful that, after a month, Norwegian Cruise Line has finally refunded my money from when they double-charged me for an excursion I took on my cruise that ended over a month ago.  FINALLY!  That's $178 that I have again.  Take that, suckas!

Secondly, I am trying to win the $500 Give Me Back My Five Bucks Competition, sponsored by Life Insurance Finder, the life insurance experts.  To get some extra entries, I need to list some items on my financial bucket list.  Here goes nothing!

1)  Get my money back from Norwegian Cruise Lines.  Check, check, and double-check.  I know that this was a very small goal, but it was super annoying to try to connect with the right department at NCL and I've also been checking my bank statement nearly every day to make sure that the money got credited back. I am glad to put this behind me!
2)  Max out my Roth IRA contribution every year until I can't anymore.  My wife and I are close to bumping up against the maximum income level a married couple can have and still be eligible to contribute to a Roth, so I need to contribute now while I am still able.
3)  Take full advantage of my very generous company 401(k) match.  My company matches 100% of my contributions, up to the specified limit of $16,500.  I am ineligible to contribute until January, however; they want the employee to work at the company for six months before starting to match.  Come January, look out!
4)  Save more money for traveling.  I really want to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro with my dad and two brothers.  My dad's getting older (aren't we all?), so I want to be able to go while he's still able.
5)  Produce and direct a play.  I haven't done this yet, but I'd like to mount a small-scale production with paid actors while shelling out approximately $5,000.  I just need to do it!

What items are on your financial bucket list?  Let me know in the comments, or, better yet, leave a comment over at Give Me Back My Five Bucks and enter the contest yourself!  (You'll just have to give me a kickback if you win. :) )

Photo by techvt

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Arts Can Help the Economy?

In a recent article at the Denver Post, it was revealed that nonprofit theatres (read: not commercial for profit theatres on Broadway) contributed 1.9 billion dollars to the national economy in 2010.

The article states:

"The $1.9 billion impact estimate, based on surveys of 171 member companies and analysis of tax records filed by 1,636 more, accounts only for salaries, benefits and payments for goods and services. The actual impact is much greater, the theater group says, when you take into account dining, parking, babysitters, hotels and more. "
The study also asserts that, generally speaking, communities in which theatres pop up are communities that are then revitalized by the presence of that theatre, which further encourages the growth of local economies.  One researcher is calling this the "arts ripple effect."

So, not only is the theatre good in qualitative ways (enrichment of mind and soul), but it's also good for America (and Canada [and...the world!]) in down and dirty monetarily quantifiable ways.  Good to know.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How I'm Saving Money the Next Few Days on Travel

This is me after plowing through a snow
bank last Christmas while being pulled
behind my father-in-law's tractor. 
This is, literally, how I roll.
Based on the number of posts that I write about it, you would think that I travel a lot.  While I suppose this is true, I certainly don't feel like I travel that much (of course, I spent most of the last two years making weekly flights to and from grad school, so perhaps I don't have a good base reading on just what constitutes "a lot" of travelling).

Nevertheless, over the next few days, the wife and I are taking another trip.  For this one, we'll be leaving our beloved San Diego sunshine to face the icy, frozen northern tundra that is Fargo, North Dakota.*  My wife's family lives in North Dakota, and we're making a trip out there to visit and see our new nephew. 

Here are a handful of ways that we're fortunate to be able to save money over this time.

1)  Staying with Family - While this is not as exciting as getting a hotel, it's also much less expensive.  We are flying out of LAX tomorrow morning, and, fortunately, my brother lives pretty close to LAX, and he's offered to let us stay at his place AND take us to the airport in the wee small hours of the morning.  Additionally, we are able to stay at the home of the relatives that we're visiting in North Dakota, so we'll save there too.  This leads right into...

2)  Saving on a Car Rental - Because we are able to stay with family, we will not need to rent a car to get from our hotel to our family.  This is awesome, because, as much as I like fish-tailing all over the road, I'm not the hugest fan of driving on snowy roads.  You might argue that this makes me a sissy, and I agree with your assessment.

3)  Saving on Flights - One of the primary reasons we chose this weekend to fly north for the winter (birds got it all wrong, man!) is that the price for our flights was so low.  While the airline that we're flying has stiffed us before (at least they pass on the savings incurred from treating customers badly!), we're flying Allegiant Air again.  Our tickets were approximately $250 round trip, per person.  This is almost unheard of for flying from California to North Dakota, as flights can easily be that much just one way.  However, apparently the weekend before Thanksgiving is not prime travel time, so we were able to take advantage of the cheaper tickets offered through the website.

How do you save on travel?  Let me know in the comments.

*Here's hoping nobody puts me through a wood chipper.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Two Thoughts on Timeshares

Little Miss Moneybags has a great post on things to consider when or if you are considering buying a timeshare, and I wanted to add two additional points that come from my own personal experiences.

1)  Timeshare Salesmen Are People Too - If you've been to a timeshare presentation, you probably have made a note to yourself to never go to another timeshare presentation again.  Why is this?  Timeshare salesmen have a reputation for being pushy (and I suspect many of you have much a much less diplomatic word than "pushy" when it comes to describing timeshare salesmen).  While I deplore how many salesmen conduct themselves (see below), I do my best to see it from their perspective.  They are trying to make a living by selling something that almost nobody wants to people who are probably just there to jerk them around by seeming just interested enough for long enough that they can collect their "free" prizes.  I'd be pretty pushy too.

2)  Timeshare Salesmen Need to Learn to Back It Up, or the Guy from Pinch That Penny Is Going to Cut a Fool - Having said the above, I've never felt more lied to, or misled, in my life than I have when I've talked with timeshare salesmen and/or reps from timeshare companies.  For instance, on a Vegas trip a couple of years ago*, my wife and I were talked into going to a supposedly hour presentation under the guise of free show tickets for our time (for what it's worth, I believe it was to some timeshare that was being built by Planet Hollywood in Vegas; I'd put out a call to boycott Planet Hollywood in response, but I mean, let's be real -- Bruce Willis needs money for toupees).  By the time we finally sat down with a salesperson, that salesperson refused to even go through the presentation with us because we told her that we had been told that the presentation would only take an hour.  She insisted that she needed at least an hour and a half to two hours.

So, all we got out of it was close to two hours lost from our vacation.  They didn't apologize for jerking us around, and they didn't give us our show tickets.

Having said all that, I'm not entirely averse to the idea of timeshares.  My in-laws bought a timeshare many years ago, and they are vigilant about using their weeks of vacation (the live in North Dakota, so, particularly in the winter, it's nice to have a week at a resort somewhere that's sunny).  I think if you buy a timeshare, the key thing to consider is whether you'll end up using your weeks of vacation that you've purchased.  If that's not realistically a very easy "yes," then you probably shouldn't buy one.

How about you all?  Do you have any experience with timeshares?  Let me know in the comments.

*I know it seems like I go to Vegas a lot, but it's a decent vacation destination when you live in Southern California like I do.

Photo by marbla123.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Money and a New American Musical

As it has become something of a pop-cultural punchline, I imagine some of you have heard that somebody thought that it would be a good idea to have a Spider-Man musical on Broadway.  These people are named Julie Taymor,* Bono, and The Edge (yes, the latter two are of U2 fame).  This musical's development has intrigued me for the last couple of years, and I wanted to share a couple of thoughts.

What you may not have heard is just how much of a disaster the whole thing has turned out to be, particularly in regards to its (former) director and writer Julie Taymor.  Basically, it boils down to this: the show cost twice as much as any other Broadway show in history to mount (around $75 million), it started receiving horrible reviews, the producers told Julie Taymor to fix it, Taymor refused, Taymor was fired, and huge swatches of the musical were re-written.

Now, Taymor has brought suit against the producers claiming that she was only paid $125,000 five years ago for her work on the show.  She also alleges that she should be paid royalties for performances that continue to take place as she estimates that around 25% of the show as it stands now came directly from her ideas and input.  Considering how much the show cost to put on, this is a very low amount for the head writer/director to make.  Still, it's very surprising to me that whatever contract that she had didn't stipulate, you know, that she should be paid for her work.

From an outsider's perspective, one could argue that Taymor ran the production into the ground, and that, while she should be compensated for whatever work she did prior to her departure, it is odd to pay her for a production that was substantially changed after she left the show.  Still, if it's true that 25% of the show came from her artistic vision (though, one wonders just how such a percentage can be substantiated), one would think that her intellectual property ought to be worth something.

To top the whole thing off, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark** has been making buku bucks since it opened (pulling in as much as $1.6 million gross a week, which is HUGE by Broadway standards), but any optimism that the production could have in making that money is hindered by the fact that it costs well over a million dollars a week to put the show on (salaries and elaborate special effects are expensive, it turns out), which leaves the producers somewhat cash-strapped.

I guess what makes this interesting to me is that, for better or worse, Julie Taymor really had a vision for the show.  She wanted to create something new and exciting.  She invested several years of her life in putting it together, and, even so, this well-regarded and brilliant director still managed to created something that people thought was ridiculous and awful.  As an example, after seeing one of the preview performances, the main critic for the New York Times wrote in his review, "I’m not kidding. The sheer ineptitude of this show, inspired by the Spider-Man comic books, loses its shock value early. After 15 or 20 minutes, the central question you keep asking yourself is likely to change from 'How can $65 million look so cheap?' to 'How long before I’m out of here?'"***

Look, I appreciate that Broadway is about making money.  In America, success is inextricably linked to how much money can be made.  That's fair enough.  The producers needed to put out a saleable product, and Taymor wasn't as interested in making money as she was in staying true to her vision. That is also fair enough.

But it continues to fascinate me that somebody so talented could spend so much money and be in cahoots with two of the biggest rock stars in the world, and still put out something that people seemed to only like for its camp value.  Having more money is not always the answer when it comes to creating great art, it seems.

While the motivational rallying cry for many nowadays is "Go big or go home," Julie Taymor is one of the few who got to "Go big and go home."  I'm curious what she'll come up with next.

*Julie Taymor is, perhaps, most famous for her work on the Broadway version of The Lion King.
**This is maybe the worst name for anything I've ever seen.  How exactly does one turn off the dark?  Is it the same as turning on a light?
***At the time he saw it, the production had "only" cost $65 million.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Cruise Advice - Check Your Invoice

If you've gone on a cruise, you are familiar with receiving an invoice for everything you've purchased on the cruise that arrives, tucked so delicately, under your stateroom door on the last day.

For those of you who haven't been on a cruise, here's how it works.  As part of the check-in process at the port, the cruise agent asks for a credit (or debit) card to link in with your room key.  Cruises do this so that you only have to carry your room key around; all purchases on board are done through your room key to (allegedly) save you the inconvenience of carrying around cash.

As you can imagine, when your wallet isn't literally getting lighter with each transaction (there is a bar around every corner on a cruise ship, and, what, I can't have a mimosa on vacation!?), it gets difficult to remember just how much you're spending (it is very easy to spend as much as you spent on your ticket to the cruise while on board the ship).

So, just from that perspective, it's a good idea to keep the receipts that you receive with your drink orders (or duty free purchases, or art purchases* for you big spenders) to make sure that you haven't been double-charged.

My problem, however, had to do with excursions (somewhat obviously, this is how the cruise ship refers to tours or activities off of the boat while you're at a port).  You see, there are a finite number of spots for any given excursion, so my wife and brother and I decided to purchase at least one of our excursions beforehand to ensure that we got to go on what we figured the most exciting excursion would be.**  So, a few days before the cruise, I booked three tickets for this excursion through the Norwegian Cruise Line website with my rewards credit card.

Fast-forward a few days.  On the cruise, I was trying to be a thoughtful consumer, so, about halfway through the trip, I asked for a copy of the invoice in order to check upon how much I had spent.  The items on the invoice all matched up except for the fact that I saw a charge on there for the Tulum tour (which I thought I had already paid for).

The next day, I marched to NCL's excursion desk on the ship and declared, "Behold: I have been charged twice," to which they replied, "Uhm, no, I don't think so; it looks like when you booked the excursion previously, you just created a reservation, and you weren't actually charged at that time."  I accepted this explanation (having no way to verify it on my own -- there is internet access on the boat, so I could have checked it that way, but internet usage costs a stupid amount [I think it was four dollars to set up an internet account (!) and then it was a dollar a minute after that), and I went on my merry way.

When I got home, I checked my credit card statement, and, lo and behold, I found that I had been double-charged.  This was disconcerting, as excursions are not cheap (this one cost $89 per person).

So, all that to say, I called Norwegian's customer service line  (which is open until 9 pm on the west coast), only to be told that I needed to call a different department (which is only open until 2 pm on the west coast).  When I finally spoke to the correct person, he saw that I had, in fact, been double-charged, and he promised to credit my card back during the next billing cycle (which could take up to a month).  I spoke with him two weeks ago, and I still haven't seen the credit, but I will give them another two weeks before I call back.

So, my advice is, if you're going on a cruise, make sure to check your invoice.  In the future, I will probably print out a copy of my credit card statement prior to the cruise showing any excursions that I have pre-purchased so that I can get my account credited right away.  This waiting around for a month business is for suckers.

Have any of you faced similar monetary issues while on cruises?  Let me know in the comments.

*I'm always surprised that they have art galleries and art auctions on cruises.  While I suppose cruise customers have extra income (as is evidenced by the fact that they are on the cruise), it seems really weird to me that people would drop several thousand dollars on an (apparently) impulse art buy.  But, maybe the art auctions are THE reason some people go on cruises (me, I just go to the art auctions for the free champagne).
**This excursion was for the Mayan ruins in Tulum.  It was awesome.  The ruins also overlooked a beach with beautifully blue water (which is pictured above).

Photo by jjjj56cp.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

A November Goal - Nothing Comes from Nothing

If you're a blogger, then you are probably somewhat familiar with NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month.  For the last several Novembers, people around the country (and the world) have made the commitment to themselves to put 50,000 words (an average number of words for a novel) of prose onto the page (or, more likely, into Microsoft Word).

I admire the people who sign up for NaNoWriMo -- both those who finish and those who strive valiantly in attempts to finish.  However, while it is on my bucket list to write a novel, it is actually playwrighting that more captures my fancy of late.  So, in the spirit of NaNoWriMo, I'm committing to writing a play during the month of November.  I am not signing up with the site, however, as the word limit is pushing it for a play (Hamlet "only" has 32,241 words).

What this means is that I will be looking to you, my reading public, for accountability in the coming weeks.  If you think of it, please feel free to drop me a comment or send me an email to ask how I'm doing.  I'd very much appreciate it.

Long time readers may remember that I have a goal of finishing and submitting a play to a contest by December 1st.  However, the contest in question requires the work be about very specific subject matter, and that subject matter has been something of a stumbling block for me over the last few months.*  So, I may write for the contest or I might not.  I'm using this month as a kick in the butt to get writing again, and I don't need to give myself any excuses.

After all, nothing comes from nothing.  If I write nothing, then nothing of mine will get performed, right?  At least if I write something, there's a chance, and that is encouragement enough for me.

*The contest wants plays that aren't necessarily historical, but the plays need to have something to do with science.  However, these plays should not be science fiction (which, to me, begs the question: if the play isn't rooted in history, isn't it in some way science fictional?  This is part of the stumbling block in my mind about the contest).

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Is Price Synonymous with Value?

In a recent article over at, a story is told about Ernest Gallo (whom you may remember from his and his brother Julio's wine commercials in the 80s).  In the story, Ernest conducted an experiment in which he would pour two glasses of wine for his customers.  He would say that one glass was worth five cents, and the other glass was worth ten cents.  He found that every single person he did this to claimed that he or she enjoyed the ten cent wine more than the five cent wine.

The kicker?  Both glasses contained wine poured from the same bottle.  His customers had been fooled by the price, and not by the actual quality of the wine itself.

This got me to thinking about other items whose apparent value had a comparable price point.  When I think about the first generation iPods, for example, they had high price tags because they didn't have much in the way of cometition.  However, even when other companies got on the portable digital music player bandwagon, iPod prices remained high even while Zune and other comparable devices sold for much cheaper.

You might argue that the consistently high price for iPods was a product of the infrastructure that Apple had built in the form of iTunes when compared with the sparser resources for purchasing music on the other devices, but at the end of the day, an iPod and a Zune are basically just the same thing: a very portable hard drive.  The only real difference is the branding.

I guess my basic question for us is (and I'll use Apple as my example), is it the intrinsic value of an iPod what drives up the price?  Or, is it the high prices of Apple products in general that make us think that they're more valuable?  Let me know what you think in the comments.

Picture by kevin dooley

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

It May Not Be So Easy to Close Your Chase Bank Account

Here's a story about a person who closed down his Chase account one day, only to have reopened a few days later to the tune of over a hundred bucks in overdraft fees.

"Remember how I said closing my account at Chase was really easy? ... A week or two later, I'm going through the mail and there's all this mail from Chase—overdraft notices for my Chase checking account. Which is supposed to be closed. The notices are for two debit card transactions and two auto-pay electronic checks. Instead of the payments not going through, like you would expect of a closed checking account, all four were paid by Chase, which then added an overdraft fee of $34 to each one, meaning $136 in overdraft fees."

I guess the banks want to make sure we all stay their customers.  It's enough to make me want to close my own Chase account (even though I love how easy it is to deposit checks).

Will any of you be switching to credit unions on November 5 as a part of National Bank Transfer Day?  If so, follow the above article's advice and cut out debit card transactions as soon as you can to avoid any overdraft fees of your own (debit card transactions can take a few days to post to your bank account).  Also, if you're switching banks, let me know in the comments.


Since getting back from my trip, I'm having a little bit of difficulty prioritizing what I want to do next.  In some ways, the trip was a goal in itself, and a lot of other things were pushed to the wayside as I prepared for it.  Now that it's past, there are many things that I'd like to/should do, but I don't know what steps to take first.

Part of the trouble for me right now is deciding whether or not I want to apply to continue in grad school.  Getting my M.A. was illuminating, and I suspect that I would enjoy and get a lot from further study, but going for a Ph.D. is an even bigger commitment as it would likely take at least 3 to 4 years to complete (as opposed to the two in which I received my M.A.).  Additionally, while there is always the faint lure of becoming a teacher, the more I read about humanities jobs in higher education, the less it seems like the degree would help me find a job.  While I, old-fashionedly, cling to the idea that getting a job is NOT the most important part of getting a degree, I'm having difficulty rationalizing expending the effort without at least some promise of career prospects.

On a concurrent note, the Mrs. and I will probably start having kids soon, so if I ever wanted a Ph.D., it would be a lot easier if I started this fall (thus knocking some classes out of the way before having the additional responsibilities that come with parenthood).*

Another item that's struggling for priority dominance is the idea of losing weight (I say "idea" because this has remained a theoretical prospect over the last few years).  While I have not yet achieved my goal of becoming the world's fattest man, I think it's about time that I threw in the towel.

Still another priority is finding time to be a creative person.  I recently reported that I received an offer to be an understudy in a play early next year with a great local theatre company (which I accepted), but I think I should be out there, auditioning more in an effort to get more roles.  I also need to make time to get my butt in a chair and start writing plays again, as I have had some success with that in past, and I enjoyed the time and effort I've put into it.

In short, I guess I need to just stop being lazy.  I'll work on that.

*All of this assumes I would even get in at this point, as it is fairly late in the application game for next fall.