Sunday, April 27, 2008

Rebate debate

I bought something at Rite Aid a little over a week ago, and it came with a $4 rebate. I finally got around to submitting the rebate form a little while ago. Rite Aid allows rebates to be submitted over the internet; I'm not sure if this is advanced techonlogy or whether it's already become commonplace, but I suspect that if I had had to go through the standard rigmarole of finding an envelope and a stamp, addressing the envelope, circling the price and date, cutting out a UPC code from somewhere, and enclosing a rebate coupon, I probably wouldn't have bothered.

Rebates are an interesting form of discount. On one hand, they're a legitimate way to save a few bucks from time to time in an increasingly costly world. On the other hand, there's a certain amount of jumping through hoops required to get the rebate, along with four to six weeks of wait time.

Therein lie the key reasons why rebates generally aren't the discount that stores promise: They're just too much dang work, and they take too long to get the refund.

Rebate terms often require that users do a number of different tasks in order to get the rebate, and these terms vary from store to store, manufacturer to manufacturer, or offer to offer. It's pretty easy to get something wrong. If you do, guess what? No rebate for you! In addition, it's not unheard of (though admittedly, I don't have any statistics) for rebates to be completed properly and still never get processed. I've read (again, no documentation at moment) that stores actually factor consumers' failure to collect on rebates, either through inaction or through store policy to refuse to issue rebates under any circumstances, into their financial forecasting.

Yow.

On top of all that, rebates irritate me for another reason: They're an interest-free loan to the store or manufacturer offering the rebate. The one I sent in tonight was for $4, but for big-ticket items, rebates can easily be over $100. Would you lend $100 interest-free to a complete stranger? If you submit a big-ticket rebate, that's exactly what you're doing.

Despite all of these drawbacks, rebates are powerful incentives to the consumer because buyers generally focus on the amount of refund offered instead of what they have to do to benefit. Even for my stupid $4 rebate from last week, if the rebate hadn't been offered with a not-very-painful way of collecting, I would definitely have bought something else. As it is, I went for the product offering the rebate and now I have to remember to go back to Rite Aid's website and request a rebate check, which is not something I can do at the time I actually enter the transaction details.

I would rather have just gotten the discount up front, but for the reasons I just described, it's not in Rite Aid's interest to do it that way. The end result is that they made a sale they might not have otherwise made, and I had to do some stuff I wouldn't have done otherwise for the sake of a few dollars, which I may or may not end up seeing back in my pocket at some point.

Welcome to life in a recession, folks. It doesn't get much better than this.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

In it for the long run

The US's repuation as a nation of slack-jawed couch potatoes notwithstanding, marathon running has hit an unprecedented level of popularity. In 2007 alone, the Philadelphia Marathon sold out for the first time ever. The Chicago Marathon (infamous debacle that it was) sold out weeks before it normally does. More than 100,000 people applied to enter the New York City Marathon, with a record number of 39,265 people lining up on race day. Despite fairly rigorous qualifying standards, last week's 2008 Boston Marathon reached its cap of 25,000 registrants in early February.

How much does all this cost?

The short answer is. . . a lot. Marathon entry alone follows the law of supply and demand: when the demand is high, entry costs skyrocket. Case in point: The last time I ran the New York City Marathon was in 2006, and the entry fee was about $85 for local running club members and about $100 for non-members. In 2008, the entry for local running club members is $136, and non-members get stiffed to the tune of $165. In a more recent example, the 2008 Boston Marathon was $125. If the New York City Marathon costs $165 this year, will next year's Boston Marathon crack $200? I don't think it'll get quite that high in 2009, but in 2010 I'd bet on it.

Other costs I paid for the privilege of slogging through some of the toughest hills I've ever experienced:

1. Shoes
I went through two pairs of shoes during this training cycle. That's cheap because I wasn't training enough; I should have blown through three. The shoes I wear retail at $135 a pop, but I've been fortunate enough to score multiple discontinued pairs for $79.99 plus about $4 shipping each, so two pairs come out to $167.98.

2. Runner food
My nutrient of choice during a long run is Gu, which is about $1.50 a packet. I bought twenty packets for this training season. Didn't use them all, but it's still a sunk cost that works out to $32.48 including tax.

3. Plane ticket
I took the Delta Shuttle (also known as the Puker Plane) for about $165 in total.

4. Hotel
My traveling companion and I took advantage of a marathon tour company's group rate at a very nice hotel a quarter of a mile away from the finish line. Two nights in Boston split between two people came out to $246.72 each.

5. Meals
We had one lunch and two dinners out. I was on the wagon owing to the race and my traveling companion isn't much of a drinker, so we stuck to water. Total cost: $58 each.

6. Boston Marathon jacket
The official jacket of the Boston Marathon makes no apologies. It's black and royal blue with the Boston Athletic Association insignia and 2008 Boston Marathon emblazoned all over the front, back, and both sleeves. It was my one marathon souvenir other than a medal that I've already put away in a box, and I dropped $90 on it.

I didn't spend money on new duds or socks for the event, because wearing new gear the day of a marathon is just asking for trouble. Most of the other necessities (like Body Glide, sunscreen, sunglasses, Tylenol, etc.) were things I already had. Gatorade and water were free before, after, and during the race; bagels and bananas were available before and after. The hotel unwittingly contributed a roll of toilet paper. My traveling companion confiscated a Boston Marathon cowbell that another spectator had dropped, so that was free as well.

Altogether, I paid about $885.18 to do the hardest race I've ever run. It took four toots on my emergency inhaler to ward off an asthma attack at the start. 26.2 miles of pounding pavement hurt so much that I had to gulp Tylenol to mask some of the pain halfway through. I ran my worst time ever, 37 minutes slower than my qualifying time (but ten minutes faster than I expected). I got a horrible sunburn on the one spot I missed with the sunscreen, and another runner barely missed me while throwing up in the family reunion area.

So how much was running the Boston Marathon really worth?

Priceless.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Cheap and easy, because that's how I am

This is a sponsored post.

Between a serious management shakeup at work and the fact that the Boston Marathon (yes, I'm still doing it; no, it's not going to be fast) is just around the corner, things have been a little frantic around here. It's during times like this that it's easy to lose sight of my frugal ways to some extent, so I thought I'd pull together an off-the-cuff reminder of a few easy ways anyone and everyone can reduce their spending today.

1. Food
Take your lunch to work. Heck, take your breakfast or maybe your dinner to work, too. If you need snacks during the day, as I usually do, bring those as well. Food made at home is generally healthier than food bought on-site at work. Unless you're making caviar sammiches or something, it's almost always cheaper as well.

2. Drink
Sugared pop is unhealthy. Even diet pop is unhealthy; my doctor told me that it leaches calcium out of my bones, and that's not a good thing for anyone, much less an already calcium-challenged individual with a broken thyroid gland. If pop is your thing and you can't break up with it, it's much cheaper to buy it in bulk and on sale and then take a can or two with you as you commute back and forth to work. A much better alternative, however, is water: it's is healthier, cheaper, and less insulting to the environment as long you eschew the bottled stuff and carry around your own reusable container instead.

Drink and be merry.

3. Coffee
This is a topic near and dear to my heart. Not drinking coffee is cheaper than drinking coffee, so if you're not a coffee drinker I don't recommend that you start. Being one who puts on her pants backwards without it, however, going without is not a happening thing for me. Rather than drop close to $2 for drip coffee and who knows what for the fancy stuff, I've trained myself to instead wait until I get to work and drink it for free all day long. If you can't do that, then the next best thing is to make it at home and slap it in a travel mug.

4. Shopping
Shopping is a common American hobby, but it's a harmful one. For many people, myself included, shopping for entertainment opens the door to the gimmees. The best way I've ever found to deal with it is to keep shopping at the level of necessity and find something else to do for entertainment.

5. Socializing
Going out with friends is another huge drain on many people's budgets because it often involves eating, drinking, and increasingly costly entertainments, like movies and concerts. One of my favorite things to do with friends is go running: sweating together is both cheap and healthy, and it's a level playing field because everyone looks their absolute worst at the end.

If exercising with your friends isn't a realistic option, there are plenty of alternatives. Here are just a few:

--Many colleges offer free admission to concerts and plays
--Walking is underrated (except during rainstorms, when it may be overrated to some extent)
--Libraries are fun!
--A fine evening can consist of a cheap bottle of wine at a friend's house
--No one HAS to have popcorn at the movies or at any other entertainment venue. Eating before you go is a great way to avoid seriously overpriced concessions.

6. Transportation
This is a painful one given the run-up in gas prices. For urban residents, walking or biking are worth exploring. Public transportation is also worth considering for anyone, especially since many employers subsidize or outright pay for mass transit. Carpooling is a viable alternative for many people. With the advent of better communications technology, telecommuting may also be an option worth pursuing.

It took me longer to type that out than it did to come up with the ideas, but I'm always looking for more ways to squeeze a penny until it cries for mercy. Which of these things do you already practice to manage your money, and what can you add to the list?"

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

The good, the bad, and the ugly

The good: I had two interviews for the new job last week, and they both went well. The candidate pool has been narrowed down from a large group of external and internal candidates to a group of two or three, and apparently I'm in that group. One hour after the second interview finished, I got a request from HR asking for some information (that they should already have, but that's beside the point), so it looks like I'm still in the game.

The bad: The management shakeup at work is pretty serious, and it's in my reporting line. My job is safe and there are other heads that will roll before mine if we do end up losing headcount, but it doesn't bode well for promotions if this other application doesn't work out.

The ugly: The Boston Marathon is next week. During this training season, I've been away from home for a total of eight weeks, I was out really sick for a week and had respiratory problems for a month after that, and my dad died. 'Nuff said, but I'm still going.

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Monday, April 7, 2008

Dilemma

A few hours ago, I received some questions from a reporter at the New York Times. I started happily tapping away my responses and was just about to hit the Send button, and then a wave of galloping paranoia hit:

Just about everyone I know reads the New York Times. I think I'm about to out myself.

Millions of people live in New York. How many of them are thirty-somethings whose fathers just died and who are paying off their mortgages in the next few months?

Put another way, is it reasonable to think that hometown publicity would blow my cover?

I'd like to turn over the reporter's questions to you folks to answer. Please post your answers in the comments, along with:

a. Yes, you're paranoid; it's not all about you

or

b. No, you probably don't want your business ending up in the New York Times; it's too recognizable.


Thanks muchly.

*****************************************
Hello,

I'm working on a story about the new willingness of people to talk about their salaries in public (both in person with friends and family, and online) and was wondering if you ever see people operate "open wallet" blogs with their real names attached, or if it's always anonymously.

Also, I was wondering when/why you started, why you do it, etc.

I'd love to hear from you.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Reorg!

Ick. We're having a reorg at work.

Late this afternoon, I got pulled out of a meeting with one of my overseas clients for an unannounced all-hands meeting for our group. I didn't really think we were having a layoff, but my stomach tightened up and I watched senior management come in because I was looking for the severance packets. Fortunately, there weren't any.

It seems that my large umbrella group is being split into two. Although no one is getting fired or laid off, people are going to be moved around according to where they demonstrate strong ability, whether it's the area in which they're currently working or not. Preferences matter, so we're all being encouraged to think about what we're doing now and whether we're happy, and speak up if there's something else we want to do instead.

This could actually be a good thing: it sounds like some work that gets dumped on us from other groups is going to be reassigned because there's acknowledgement that we already have too much work to do and there's just going to be more coming in the next fiscal. In addition, instead of getting rid of people, we're actually going to expand, although we don't yet know to what extent. Finally, the change is expected to open some upward mobility and career growth for people who really deserve it.

Do I believe all of this? Not entirely. While it sounds like a net positive, there are far too many unknowns to take anything on faith. The bossman called me tonight at home to assure me that I am very valuable to the organization and will do well by the change, but until the formal structure comes together over the course of the month, I'm not making any bets.

On a more positive note, I applied for another job within the firm some time ago and have an interview next week. My management knows about this and according to the bossman's boss, word went up to the really big boss that it would be a major blow to my group if I left. I actually think this was a good turn of events: instead of treating me as a flight risk, my management decided to demonstrate f.z. appreciation and put me up for a large promotion (which is by no means guaranteed, especially with the reorg). I don't know yet what I'll choose if I'm offered the other job, but next week I'll be interviewing my potential new manager every bit as much as he'll be interviewing me.

There are no guarantees in this frightening economy, but I don't think I'll be on the unemployment line anytime soon. That's comforting.

Today, by the way, marks a special day in the f.z. mortgage chronicles. Today, my mortgage is 89.6% paid off.

I'm thinking of paying it off in three or four months instead of seven depending on how the reorg plays out. Dumb idea or not? Let me know what you think.

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