How much do you give for the office collection?

“May your charity increase as much as your wealth.” – Proverb

Way back when, I wrote a post about what to do when friends or co-workers ask repeatedly if you’ll sponsor them in their charity walk, ride or run. It shouldn’t seem that hard to wish someone well, and in the same breathe explain that you unfortunately can’t give this time. This is harder than you might think for most people. Just take a look at the comments if you need help.

In the same post, I mention a column at Money magazine where the writers advise that people shouldn’t be soliciting others for donations. Period. Don’t ask!

That seems a bit harsh… doesn’t it? Or not? I’ve worked remotely from home for a decade, but when I did work in an office, I remember the constant stream of requests from co-workers and their children. Girl Scout cookies, gift wrap, you name it. People were always peddling something for a cause.

In the virtual world, the request is now often sent by mass email which presents its own set of complexities. The Shifting Careers column offered a creative spin on the fund-raising email. The “office collection” of the old-fashioned variety was handled beautifully by MyOpenWallet last week:

Over the years, I have contributed to many a collection in the office. Whenever the hat is passed for a baby shower, bridal shower, going-away party, charity walk sponsorship, etc., I always pitch in. But until now, I have never been the one responsible for doing the collecting, and I found the experience quite fascinating!
It’s worth clicking over to read the post and learn why she was surprised at the amounts and reasons given. The 30+ comments are fascinating too. Her conclusion:
I think the factor that correlated most to the donation amount was age, but contrary to what you’d think, the younger people were the ones who tended to chip in more… the younger people in the office have perhaps grown up in a culture that is more inclined to over-spend. They are used to excessiveness in weddings, parties, home sizes, cars, etc. They are used to the idea that everyone spends beyond their means and has credit card debt. They like to live large– not just in selfish ways, but in generous ways. The older generations are perhaps not quite caught up with inflation, and still remember the days when $5 was a very generous contribution, because most people only gave $1! But also, the older people in the office may just tend to have slightly different values or norms about how money is spent.
Hmmm… the age factor is an interesting observation and makes sense about why there is a shift in the giving habits of Gen Y. Funny too, the point about older generations. I guess I’m considered “older” now. This was apparent, when I recently realized I hadn’t increased the tip for the valet or car wash guy in twenty years… two bucks is not enough these days. I guess I’d be the one still giving 5 bucks for the office collection.

So what about you? How much do you give for a co-worker’s gift? Have you ever been the collector and if so, what were your observations? And does the occasion, rank or popularity of the co-worker play a factor? Please feel free to comment over at the original post at Queercents.

Photo credit: stock.xchng.

Ten Money Questions for Davey Wavey

Davey Wavey maintains a popular blog at Break The Illusion where he charts his stories, experiences and reflections as a young gay man on his journey of exploration and discovery. A couple of times each week he posts talky blogs. When he volunteered to participate in our Ten Money Questions at Queercents, he suggested answering in his trademark video format.

Between his blog and videos, he reaches some 600,000 people a month. I suspect that since 99% of his videos are produced shirtless, most of the 600,000 viewers are gay men. But money, as he demonstrates, transcends gender and sexual orientation… so I hope all of you enjoy this installment at Queercents!
Mosey on over to continue reading or catch other interviews in the Ten Money Questions archive.

What Would Oprah Do? The price of 365 days of discipleship.

“Follow then the shining ones, the wise, the awakened, the loving, for they know how to work and forbear.” – Buddha

On Sunday, The New York Times pointed readers to Robyn Okrant, a 35 year old writer, performer and artist living in Chicago. She’s living Oprah for a year. What does that mean exactly? She’s spending a year following the advice Oprah dishes out on her television show, in O magazine, on the airwaves and website. Of course, she’s blogging about the experience. The experiment is reminiscent of the Julie/Julia Project so it’s likely she has a book deal coming her way:

But Ms. Okrant says she won’t cash a check from any deal that materializes before the end of year, so as not to skew her year as everywoman with an infusion of money.
After all, it requires cashola to be an Oprah devotee. She estimates she has spent over $2,000 on her Living Oprah project:
There’s almost nothing Ms. Okrant doesn’t consult Oprah about. If she has a fight with her husband, she looks up “conflict management” on the Oprah Web site. When she needs to cover the gray in her now glossy curls, she uses the hair dye that was recommended in the August 2008 issue of Ms. Winfrey’s magazine.

A representative for Ms. Winfrey’s company, Harpo Inc., said Ms. Okrant “certainly takes brand dedication to new heights.”

Ms. Okrant says she embarked on the project because she saw many women believing that every word of Ms. Winfrey’s was gospel. She hoped to learn why her words carried such weight, even when they were contradictory at times. In the show’s celebrated “Favorite Things” episodes, the audience is showered with stainless steel refrigerators and flat screen television sets. Yet, against these displays of materialism, Ms. Winfrey also freely dispenses spiritual advice.
The Guardian also noted how Okrant is putting Oprah’s lifestyle tips to the ultimate test:
“I am not attempting to prove Oprah wrong or right but I am trying to encourage women, highly susceptible to the media’s influence, to question the sources,” says Okrant, who posts her thoughts at

Celebrities don’t come more influential than Oprah. Sales of whatever she blesses with her approval soar, from the novels of Toni Morrison to Blue Planet DVDs. Unfortunately she has expensive tastes (currently she is advocating a $1,500 biophysical and an $850 grill) and Okrant is already $2,000 poorer.
Money well spent? What will be the return on investment? I would love your thoughts on if it pays to channel Oprah -- feel free to comment over at Queercents.

Are local businesses adding fuel surcharges to their services?

“Bad excuses are worse than none.” – Thomas Fuller

The young couple that supplies our home cleaning service announced last week the price was increasing from $80 to $90 per visit. The reason: rising gas prices.

Our plumber recently came by to free the clog in the bathroom sink. His service call was $98. In 2005, a similar event produced a charge of $80. Reason for the increase: rising gas prices.

Are gas prices really the culprit or is this just an excuse for service businesses to give themselves a raise?
I figured more people would be asking this same question, but I had to surf the superhighway to Tucson in order to find a newspaper online covering this fuel surcharge trend:
Whether Fluffy needs a trim, you broke your key off trying to get into your car, your toilet is leaking or you are having an appliance delivered, the rising cost of gas is eventually going to cost you.
But you’ll see in the comments that one reader does that math and thinks the reasoning doesn’t compute:
If a van gets 10 mpg and gas has gone up $.50 gallon, that means the van has to travel 100 miles before costing the owner $5 extra. It’s just another way to raise the prices and blame gas costs.
Umm, he makes a good point. But this business of a fuel surcharge isn’t just for mom and pop type companies. UPS uses an index-based fuel surcharge that adjusts monthly. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance urged the Bloomberg administration to impose a fuel surcharge on taxicab fares. They cited soaring gasoline prices and argue this makes it harder for cab drivers to earn a living. Of course, they want the cost passed on to consumers.

What do you think? Well, if you think this is hogwash, you’re not alone. Slate magazine questioned this practice with its usual eloquence:

At first blush, fuel surcharges seem like transparent, mathematically determined means for companies to recoup their expenses for the unexpectedly high price of gasoline. But as they spread into other industries, fuel surcharges more and more seem as if they’re just an au courant way of raising prices, while duping customers into thinking they’re not paying more.

More recently, fuel surcharges have been spilling over into other services where they’re even more absurd. Today, I sorted through a month’s worth of bills from the service providers who visit my slice of suburban heaven each month. The company that fertilizes my lawn charges a $2.50 fuel surcharge every time it visits, but the tick-control sprayer (this is Connecticut, where fear of Lyme disease runs rampant) doesn
t. Both are based in the same town. The landscaper, whose Ecuadorean employees arrive each week in a gas-guzzling pickup trick and then spiff up our lawn with gas-guzzling mowers and blowers, imposes no fuel surcharge. Neither does the pool guy or Peapod. But the garbage carter does – $3 per month. Does it really require that much extra gas for the truck to travel the extra 200 feet from our neighbor’s house twice a week?
Leave it to the writers at Slate to tell it like it is. I love those guys. And that article was from 2006 when gas prices were averaging $3.03 per U.S. gallon across the U.S. I can only imagine the biting wit if the article had been written today.

But some companies are doing just the opposite… using gas prices as a way to entice customers to come back:

But there’s one industry – one you probably never would think of as being impacted by the price of oil – which is now using gas cards to lure customers back. Are you ready for this? It’s prostitution.

Yes, the ladies at the Shady Lady Ranch out near Beatty, Nevada, where prostitution is legal, have also seen a downturn in business due to the high cost of gas. It seems that the truckers who normally frequent their spread have stayed away since gas rocketed past $4.00+ a gallon, and diesel even more.

And the entrepreneurs they are, they now tout a “July Special” on their website: spend $300 (for one hour) and you’ll receive a $50.00 gas card, a $100 card for spending $500 (two hours) and a $150 card for a $800 (three-hour) rendezvous. It’s an interesting twist on the value of providing added-value.
What have you seen from your local businesses? I’d love to hear your thoughts over at Queercents. In the meantime, I’m writing a check to the cleaning service for an extra ten bucks this week so our house can continue to sparkle.

Photo credit: stock.xchng.

Five Things Not Worth Repairing

“Don’t throw away the old bucket until you know whether the new one holds water.” – Swedish Proverb

In the last year, my iPod died, my Blackberry broke, 8 (yes 8!) of our 12 new Riedel wine glasses shattered, Jeanine’s pricey camera lens cracked, and today the coffee maker seems to be on the brink.

When does it pay to fix things? Or should we toss and replace? Obviously, we can’t fix the wine glasses, but often things can be refurbished. But it’s not always worth repairing. AOL Money lists the Top Five Things Never to Repair. Check out the article to understand why. But here are the items:
  • Computers
  • Digital cameras
  • MP3 players
  • Microwaves
  • Cell phones
Do you agree? Disagree? What else is on your list? Coffee maker is on mine. Before I can replace, I’m out the door for a Starbucks run this morning. Please feel free to comment over at Queercents.

Photo credit: stock.xchng.

Unlimited Vacation Policy: the flip side of flexibility

“No vacation goes unpunished.” – Karl Hakkarainen

These days, many companies are experimenting with what is described as an unlimited vacation policy but career writers are asking if this is nothing more than corporate-speak for no vacation at all.
Marci Alboher at Shifting Careers gives these details:
One of the trendy perks at progressive companies is unlimited vacation time. The pitch is that responsible adults are capable of managing their own time so why not allow them to decide which hours and days to work as long as the work gets done. It’s yet one more way that the employed are starting to resemble the self-employed.
She points readers to this article in The Boston Globe Magazine that contemplates if this policy is really such a good thing. At first glance, it rings of work life balance, but does it actually result in people taking less time off?

I’ve worked at companies that offered unlimited vacation time and I prefer having the number of weeks noted upfront in my employment contract. After all, when you have a set number of vacation days, it gives you permission to really take them.

But an article in BusinessWeek thinks vacation policies are antiquated:

Counting days and hours is a holdover from the industrial era that makes no sense for information workers who can do their jobs without being at their desks at set hours, proponents of such changes say.
The tethered 24/7 connection to work brings up another great point. Here a Microsoft employee calls it unlimited time off with a side order of guilt by asking this question:
What would you rather have, unlimited vacation time with your laptop riding shotgun or a set amount of vacation time when you are seriously expected to be out of the office?
So is unlimited time off becoming a best practice for HR? Some argue this perk helps attract and retain motivated workers. Consider the Gen Yers who are known for not wanting to punch a clock and therefore expect more vacation time upon entering the rat race.

I doubt as Americans, we’ll ever get the same vacation time as our European counterparts, but do you think this trend is helping? Or is it creating the opposite effect? Please share your comments and experiences over at Queercents.

Photo credit: stock.xchng.

Ten Money Questions for Vicki Wagner

Vicki Wagner is a funny girl, but she gets serious when it comes to dating. A comedian since 2001, Vicki wrote “Get a Gay Date Today, How to Market Yourself for Love” to offer vital strategies for gays and lesbians on the quest for love and connection. (There’s also a straight version!) The book boils it down to the game of “selling” to the right kind of “buyers” and this is the guidebook with how-tos.

Vicki is also the host of “Lesbian Knows Best,” a tell-it-like-it-is Internet talk show about relationships in which she freely dishes out advice. Sometimes though, the best advice comes with a price ($29.95 to be precise!), but the return on investment is pretty hard to beat. By the end of the book, you’ll be getting dates. Of course, the love part is up to you.

Mosey on over to Queercents to read more or catch other interviews in the Ten Money Questions archive.

The Top Personal Finance Blogs by Women

“Rank does not confer privilege or give power. It imposes responsibility.”– Peter F. Drucker

Yesterday, Wise Bread put together a list of Top Personal Finance Blogs by Women. The post was prompted by Lynn Truong’s attendance at the BlogHer conference in San Francisco last month where she expected to run into quite a few personal finance bloggers… after all, there were over a thousand women bloggers attending the event. The conference planners set aside a room for a personal finance meet-up and nobody showed except the host, sponsors and contingency of writers from Wise Bread. I attended BlogHer 07 and AOL sponsored a lunch with Mary Hunt, AOL Money Coach and author of Debt-Proof Living. The turn out was about the same.

So where are all the women personal finance bloggers? And why are women afraid to write about money? Or are they writing about money but their blogs are classified as something besides personal finance blogs. Here are a couple of comments from the Wise Bread post:

I think the fact that women write about personal finance (mostly) from a personal perspective causes a lot of PF blogs to get classified as other sorts of blogs- family or mommy or giveaways etc- in the minds of the authors. Almost as if there were the attitude that I’m a mom, so it’s a mommy blogger talking just about money.
I consider my own site a hybrid between personal finance and mom-blogging, even though I almost exclusively write about finance and frugality.
I think it’s interesting what one commenter said about women financial blogs being written from a personal perspective giving the impression that they are mommy blogs or whatever. I find it interesting because Trent from The Simple Dollar writes from a personal perspective but people just accept it as is, without putting him in the same camp of personal blogs.
A year ago, I looked at this topic in a similar way by noting how few women rank in the Top 100 Personal Finance blogs. Only two blogs written by women made it into the Top 25. In a follow up post, Kay Bell at Don’t Mess with Taxes weighed in on the topic. She writes:
I do believe there are gender differences in how women and men approach finances… Even today, some gender-specific societal expectations manage to persist. That’s a topic for a whole ’nother set of blogs. But perhaps some of these antiquated ways are partly behind a trend I’ve noticed. That is, a lot of women take a more “supportive” fiscal approach, focusing on money maintenance, holding on to what they have, instead of taking steps to advance it.

We need to get over that right now and get more aggressive when it comes to money — making it, saving it, investing it. The go-for-it approach seems to be more typical of male financial bloggers. Men, at least in my anecdotal observations, are more apt to be risk takers with their money. They embrace the idea that to make more money you sometimes have to take some financial risks with what you’ve got.
Okay, so men and women think differently about money. Why is that? Perhaps this classification stems from something broader and we can partly blame the media. Look no further than the magazines lined up at the newsstand. Women get touchy-feely encouragement and men get hard-hitting advice.

Do you find this is the same with personal finance blogs? Those written by women focus more on the emotions around money while the guys are writing about what we should be doing with our money. I’m certainly guilty of this. For every post I write about creating an alternative revenue stream, there are three about my fears with spending or my emotions around not saving enough.

Am I over simplifying this topic by making such a broad statement: women are one way and men another? Agree or disagree? Let me know what you think in the comments section over at Queercents.

Photo credit: stock.xchng.

Preservation: balancing personal choice with property rights

“No person shall… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” – Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

This summer there has been hot public debate in my community about the future of a medical office building. It’s not just any office building. It’s been deemed as having historical significance because it was designed in 1963 by Richard Neutra, one of modernism’s most important architects.

The building’s owner had submitted permits for a new building project on the site which meant the Mariners Medical Arts Center was destined for the wrecking ball:

But after local architects and community members protested the project, city officials looked into documents referencing the building and new construction. After doing so, they decided to put a suspension on the building permit.
They cited the California Environmental Quality Act that requires a study to determine environmental effects. Historical significance (due to its noted architect) is included in this category. Architecturally speaking, the building is spectacular and representative of the pure, clean look of the period when it comes to design and construction. That said, the building in its current state is a mess. It’s still in use, but in dire need of some TLC.

So what does this have to do with money? Well, quite a bit. The building owners can’t do what they want with their building. Yet at the same time, it’s a shame that a piece of history will be destroyed if they’re allowed to follow through on their project.

What is the balance between personal choice, property rights and all the good that architectural preservation represents?

Let me use a different scenario to make a similar point. Remember when Bill over at Queercents questioned government regulation as it relates to consumers being required to switch from incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescents (CFLs):

As a gay man, I’m very sensitive to government attempts to micromanage my life. I don’t want the government telling me how I should live - and that includes who I can sleep with, what sex toys I can buy, what goals I can save for, and what light bulbs I can use. I want the freedom to make my own choices, and I want to let other people make their own. Light bulb laws are a heavy-handed way of achieving a very narrow goal, and they remove individual choice and values from the equation. The cultural cost of light bulb laws is that they reinforce the idea that it’s ok for the government to make personal decisions for us.
On another post I asked him how we balance the reach of government with rules. Should there be one standard for business and another when it applies to our personal freedom of choice? He replied:
As a libertarian, I usually draw a line based on property rights. The basic principle is that an individual should be able to do what he wants with his own property, on his own property, so long as he does not infringe on the property of others in so doing. As applied to my Light Bulb Laws post, this means that if I’m not polluting with my incandescent bulbs, I should be able to use them. This was the also underlying principle for my argument that power generation should have cleanup costs built-in, because otherwise the pollution is a violation of property rights regardless of what kind of light bulb you’re using. If we all had to pay for our pollution in the first place, it would not only encourage use of CFLs, but it would make clean power more economically viable. That’s why I see the CFL laws as short-sighted and ultimately rather pointless - they do nothing about the million other ways to waste power, while restricting individual choice.
Here’s another example. Think back to the landscaping company that refused to perform work for a gay couple building a home in Houston. Do business owners have the right to choose to do business with anyone they like even if it is discriminatory?

I’m all for preserving personal choice. After all, personal freedom is one of the great things about this country. But it’s a tricky issue in my opinion… especially when restricting choice impacts our pocketbooks.

Bill concludes his light bulb post with this thought:

If we leave these decisions in the hands of consumers, we reinforce the notion that this is a country of individuals with different values, and that it’s ok for people to choose different approaches to solving problems. If we take these decisions away from individuals, we can look forward to the day when someone lobbies for a ban on tampons and wants to force women to use the Mooncup to reduce waste.
So what do you think? I’m looking for your views about property rights, rather than tampon use, but I welcome all comments over at the original post at Queercents.

Shifting your 401(k) on the Shifting Careers blog at

“The question isn’t at what age I want to retire, it’s at what income.” – George Foreman

Remember when I asked the question at Queercents, “Why did you cash out your 401(k)?” Your comments were my inspiration for a guest post yesterday over at the Shifting Careers blog.

Marci Alboher, the Shifting Careers columnist for The New York Times, invited me to post about work and money. While our 401(k) might lack the sizzle of other financial topics, the treatment of these funds throughout our career is what will set us apart in retirement.

If you
re not familiar with her Shifting Careers column and blog, Marci is also known as the author of One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model For Work/Life Success (reviewed here). We were introduced last year when I was writing for BlogHer and she participated in the Ten Money Questions series.

Yesterday’s post begins with this:

In the last decade, I’ve had six different employers. I work in technology where it looks like 18 to 24-month stints will likely be the norm for the foreseeable future. Try explaining this to my mother who has saved every business card of my illustrious career. Each time I’ve changed jobs or ahem, been “smartsized,” I’m confronted by the decision to “cash out, leave put or rollover” funds from my 401(k). Apparently, I’m not alone in this dilemma.
Continue reading at Shifting Careers.