Thursday, October 22, 2009
Don't believe me? Let's say you make a modest income of $30,000/year. One percent of that is $300.00, so seven percent would be $2100.00 and 7.5 % would be roughly $2250.00 (if you were watching closely, I just showed you how to do that calculation in your head because I was too lazy to open the Windows Calculator). If you make more than $30k/year, your threshold for deducting medical expenses goes up from there. And, that's just the threshold - you can only deduct expenses beyond that amount. Hardly worth the effort you'll put into trying to keep track of all those receipts all year and adding them up on April 14th.
An FSA is a back door around the 7.5% deductible threshold. You have money taken out of your check BEFORE taxes and put into the FSA. Then, you use the FSA money to pay for any medical expenses you incur during the year. You do need to keep receipts, but only until you're ready to submit them to your FSA provider. When you have a medical expense - virtually ANY medical expense - you send a claim form and a receipt in and they send you a check. It's like being able to deduct your medical expenses without meeting the 7.5% deductible threshold.
Here's another cool thing about the FSA. You decide how much you're going to put in for the whole year and equal installments are taken out of every paycheck. For example, let's say you decide to put $1200 into your FSA and you get paid every two weeks; they'll take $50 out of each paycheck for the whole year (which adds up to $1200). Here's the cool part: the entire $1200 is available to you right away! If you spend the entire $1200 in the first month, you can be reimbursed without waiting until the end of the year. So, besides the tax advantage, it's also like financing your annual medical expenses interest-free.
The only tricky part that I've found - and it's not significant - is trying to guess how much you'll spend on medical expenses in a year. You don't want to put too much in the FSA because if you don't spend it you lose it. So, I lowballed my guess. Basically I know I'm very likely going to pay out at least my individual medical deductible and some fairly regular prescription expenses. Plus, I know I'll send the whole family for two regular dentist appointments for which I have a copay. I just sort of added up a rough estimate of what that would cost and made that my FSA contribution for this year. If I underestimated, I can adjust later or just suck it up and pay with after-tax dollars from my pocket. Again, the important thing is not to over-fund your FSA because you'll lose the unused money.
What amazed me was the vast range of things I can pay for out of my FSA. For starters, any deductibles or copays on my medical or dental insurance, including prescription medication copays, can be paid out of my FSA. Virtually anything else that you can reasonably consider a medical related expense is also included: bandages, antiseptic, antibiotic creams, over-the-counter medications (with a few exceptions), etc.
You won't get wealthy by using an FSA, and not every employer even offers this benefit. But, if your employer offers an FSA (flexible spending account) as part of your benefits package, TAKE IT.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
First, the basics. Stocks are shares in companies which choose to be publicly traded. When you buy a stock, you own a part of a company. It's a very, very tiny part, but you're in there even if you own just one single share. Stocks are sold and bought on the stock market. There are actually several "stock markets," with the NY Exchange being the best known. The NY Exchange started under a tree at the end of Wall St. about 200 years ago, which has absolutely no bearing on anything but it's sort of interesting to think about how much things have changed.
Companies pretty much decide how much they will charge for a share of stock at first. After that, the price of a share of stock in any company is determined primarily by conjecture, mob mentality, and wild assed guessing. Really. There is some but very little correlation between the price of a share of stock and it's actual value. Occasionally, there is no correlation at all.
The value of a share of stock should represent how much money the company is likely to make over time. Let's say XYZ Co. Inc. has 100 shares of stock owned by various investors. Let's also say the company makes $100,000 profit this year. At the end of the year, that $100,000 would theoretically be split equally and each share of stock would earn $1000. If you owned 5 shares, you'd get $5000 in dividends. If XYZ invented a new product and expected to make $200,000 next year, the value of their stock would increase. If XYZ hired a complete idiot to run the company, the value of the stock might decrease because people would expect earnings to go down next year.
There are two ways to make money in the stock market: 1) Buy stock in good, solid companies which will earn profits consistently and hold onto these stocks for life. Every year, you'll get a nice dividend check in the mail. Or, 2) Buy stocks when their price goes down for whatever reason and sell them when the price goes up. It helps to have some idea of what might cause a stock price to go up or down. If you can figure that out, you're better than most Wall Street pros.
Wall Street people are very much like paranoid lemmings. If one fund manager decides to sell off ten-thousand shares of XYZ, Inc. tomorrow, other fund managers will likely assume that something is wrong at XYZ, Inc. and start selling their shares. The price of XYZ stock goes down. If somebody with some sense happens to be around to buy up the shares, the price will stabilize. But, then other investors may decide that XYZ shares are "hot" and start buying them up, causing the price to shoot up. And, so it goes. Day in and day out.
Sometimes stocks are bought and sold with the intent of affecting their share price. Sometimes information about a company is deliberately publicized to drive share prices up. That's what the Enron scandal was all about. With that sort of stuff going on, it can be very hard for Joe Middleclass to make good buy-sell decisions. Hell, that sort of stuff makes it hard for investment bankers to make good buy-sell decisions. But, even Joe M. knows that Wal-Mart is going to be in business for a long time.
So, my advice to anyone thinking of getting into the stock market (and this may be a very good time to do that if you have some money to invest): buy stock in good, stable companies that will continue to thrive in a sluggish economy. If the price goes down, buy more shares. Hold onto them until you don't need the dividend income any more. Or, if you're just not sure about all this, stick with managed funds where somebody else is getting paid to figure out what to buy or sell.
A side note (purely my opinion): When management of a company decides that Wall St. investors are more important than employees, you end up with a typical corporate sweat shop that treats its employees like crap. This is why I recommend buying stock in the company you work for - the profits resulting from having your pay cut, losing your bonus, getting no OT, and paying increased insurance premiums should come back to you in the form of dividends.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
I used to work with a guy who owned a Magnum. He went crazy if you referred to his car as a "station wagon." But, look at it. The Chrysler Magnum is a station wagon. It's not half the wagon my old Crown Vic Country Squire was, but it's a station wagon nonetheless. It's got 4 passenger doors and a tailgate. If it rode higher, it might be an SUV; SUVs are just station wagons with extra ground clearance and, usually, four-wheel drive. Since most SUVs never leave a paved road, the ground clearance and four-wheel drive are a waste. I don't know a single SUV owner who wouldn't be better off with a station wagon.
Years ago station wagons were considered "family-go-bowling" cars. Much like mini-vans are today. But, SUVs are just soooo cool. Yeah. That Pontiac Aztec is a slick ride. . . I'd like to have two of those. One to drive off a cliff and the other to cover up the mess. Porche's SUV looks like Pixar's Lightning McQueen with a lift kit. The Escalade looks like an overgrown hearse. Does anyone who thinks for themselves honestly think Escalades look good? Ick. I just don't like the whole SubUrban Vehicle concept. If you need a truck, buy a truck. If you need a big car, buy a station wagon.
Honestly, one of the greatest vehicles I've driven in recent years was a mini-van, but I'd still rather have a station wagon than any SUV ever made. I don't like the looks of the Magnum so much, but good for Chrysler for bringing back the most functional vehicle type of our time.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
My 1994 Metro goes from 35 to 50 miles on a gallon of gas. I hear ads for new cars touting fuel economies of 25 to 32 miles per gallon. So what? My Metro is 15 years old, has over 100,000 miles on the clock, and does better than that. Fifteen years ago this country was making a car that gets better fuel economy than just about any vehicle being made today. Yet, for no good reason, GM stopped making the Metro over ten years ago.
Compared to a Cadillac, my Metro is a bit of an "econobox." I suppose the interior is a little spartan. The cup holder is a kind of a cheap plastic deal that pulls out under the radio. And, the window regulators are weak; my driver's side window won't roll up without parts inside the door bending and making the window glass go off-track. So, I never roll down my window. This is mostly an inconvenience when I get to work and need to show my ID to the security guard. I have AC, and the rest of the windows seem to work fine. Both of these issues could have been easily and cheaply fixed by GM.
The heat and AC work great. There are no blind spots. And, there is a whole lot more room inside than you'd ever imagine. Four normal-sized adults can easily ride in my Metro. My freakishly tall step-son finds the back seat a little tight, but he'd find the back seat of virtually any car a little tight. Plus, on my hatchback version, the back seat folds forward, giving me almost as much room to haul stuff around as a small pick-up.
Have you seen ads for car tires where they have a super cheap price in big, bold numbers and then read on to find out that the tires for your car are significantly more expensive than the boldly advertised price? Well, the Metro uses the tires that actually sell for the cheap price in those ads. I recently put a whole set of new treads on my Metro for right around $150. Tires for my truck cost about $150 each.
Unlike most of the cars made in the past 10 years, the Metro is easy to work on, too. Plenty of room under the hood, and no plastic covers designed to scare off do-it-yourselfers. You know what I mean - the crap they put on top of engines now that make a simple car engine look like a small nuclear reactor. The three-cylinder engine in the Metro can literally be lifted out by hand. You can't more home-mechanic friendly than that. But, unlike many cars on the road today, you don't need to pull the engine out of the car just to change the belts. All in all, the Metro is a do-it-yourself mechanic's dream.
Handling in the Metro is stable, and the ride is acceptable. You'll feel bumps, but they won't shake your teeth out. Even with only 3 cylinders, the Metro moves. I've driven it on the Interstate at 70 mph with no problems. Around town, with a 5-speed manual gearbox, my Metro keeps up with anybody who isn't looking to have their license revoked. And, it's a fun car to drive. I call it my "go-kart." Like any car that can be lifted off the ground by a few fairly fit guys, the Metro will hydroplane. But, that's to be expected. Slow down when it's raining.
The bottom line is this: car-makers have spent untold piles of money developing hybrids and over-engineered economy cars which don't go as far on a gallon of gas as the Geo Metro, which first hit the roads nearly two decades ago. GM, what were you thinking?
Sunday, April 5, 2009
There's a lot of people here today.
There are a lot of people here today.
A lot is a single entity. So is a few, a couple, a bunch, and a dozen. Because these words represent groups of items, many of us try to treat them as plural nouns. We'll say, "There are a lot of people here today," thinking that we've done the grammatically correct thing. We make grammar harder than it is.
This is really a very easy rule to apply. It's just a matter of realizing that words like lot, few, couple, bunch, dozen and others like them are singular. A lot. A few. A couple. A bunch. A dozen. The "A" gives it away. Treat these words just like you would treat the word "group," and you won't go wrong.
If you want to use a plural verb, that's fine. Just add an "s" to words like "lot" and, presto, we have a winner. "There are lots of people here today," is correct. Too easy.
I've tried to limit my use of the word "lot." "There's a lot of trees across the river," doesn't really tell you much, does it? How many trees are in a lot? I don't know. Except on eBay and at other auctions, not too many things actually come in "lots." Plus, you can dodge the whole singular vs. plural issue by using other words which are more descriptive and less vague. I'm certainly not suggesting that we start talking like poets or snobs, just that we try exercising our present vocabularies. Even a third-grader knows the word "hundred." "There are hundreds of trees across the river," tells me that we're probably talking about a forest and not a city park.
Separate: think "pare" as in paring knife which is used to separate the peels from vegetables. It's not "seperate," even though that's how we tend to pronounce the word in speech.
Definitely: think "finite." Not "definate" or "definately."
"Reference" has apparently been another victim of incorrect and unnecessary "verb-ization." I actually saw this on a washing machine today. Inside the lid, the manufacturer cautions users to "reference the owners manual" before use. NO!!! Reference is a noun, a thing, something to which we refer for information. You don't "reference" something. You refer to it. Refer to the owners manual (which is a reference).
People who make a living writing warning labels should damn well check their spelling and grammar before they send a job out to print. It's their JOB. Somebody at the washing machine factory should be fired.
We can't rightly criticize immigrants for not being able to speak English if we can't speak or write English properly ourselves.
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
The shop we're working in is great. The whole National Guard center up here looks brand new - which is unusual because National Guard facilities are often pretty run-down. This one is great. Clean, new, nice. Stuff in the shop works, and the lighting is very good. Apparently we're in a former tank shop, so it's got plenty of room and big air. We can get three 5-ton trucks with trailers in each bay at a time, if we offset them a little from side to side. We have two bays available to us, so that's 6 trucks and 6 trailers we can work on at a time. That's almost unheard of - at least in my experience. By "big air" I mean the air compressors put out huge volumes of air, which is great for running big impact wrenches. Not that we've needed it, but it's impressive.
At Ft. Bragg I had a shop with a lube pit, which would have been really cool. Down in the pit there were separate hoses for grease, motor oil, gear oil, anti-freeze, and transmission fluid. That would have made services very easy, if the system worked. You could top up low fluids or completely replace fluids by just picking the right hose and pressing a trigger. Unfortunately, the system didn't work and hadn't worked as long as anyone there could remember. Here in Iowa at a National Guard unit, they have a similar lube system, and it works. No pit, but that's not really necessary with these trucks - a short mechanic like myself can duck-walk under an FMTV truck. I haven't pulled the hoses out to the trucks yet, but it's so easy to just fill an oil can or other container with what I need and pour it in that I'd rather do that than try to route hoses across the bays. We've had a LOT of trucks coming in low on power steering fluid and coolant. At this shop, we can take care of business very easily. At Ft. Bliss (El Paso), we had to hump a 5-gallon can of oil out to the lot and pour oil with a funnel. So, there's one way that Iowa is better than El Paso.
The soldiers (National Guard full-time technicians) are also great. They've been very helpful, especially with moving trucks to the shop from the holding lot and taking them back to the staging area where they'll be issued to units. In El Paso, we didn't even see soldiers, but that was an active duty post which is a little different. They've loaned us tools and helped in just about any possible way they could and really made us feel at home. One of the NCOs turned me onto a website his son uses to download games when I told him that the game I brought with me won't work on this computer.
So, the eight hours a day I spend working here are very pleasant. Since that's what we're here for, I guess that counts for a lot. Today we also had the bonus of finding a really great place for lunch - Cactus Bob's Bar-b-cue. The brisket sandwich basket was very tasty.
Part of what we do requires driving every single truck for at least 10 miles and making sure everything works properly. That's probably my favorite part of the job. At most Guard units, the road tests involve driving on local roads. It's a nice way to see at least some of the local area. Here we drive out through an area of new subdivisions scattered across farm land which is apparently being sold off gradually to developers. It's a very nice little drive.
I was going to go into some detail about road testing, but I got bored just reading what I wrote. I can't imagine anyone else would want to read it, so I'll just close this one out by saying that it's not all bad here. It's great to have a job that I enjoy.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Here's an actual listing I found yesterday on Craig's List:
96 chevy tahoeReply to: email@example.com
Date: 2009-03-13, 5:28PM
96 chevy tahoe dark blue, 153k miles wrecked on the front right side, wiring needs to be rewired to the tps system, stern collar needs to be replaced single mom cant afford to fix AS IS VORTEC ENGINE, NEW AIR COMPRESSOR, FUEL PUMP, TPS SENSOR, POWER STERN PUMP ALL THESE ITEMS ARE NEW ENGINE USED BUT REPLACED.
- Location: huntsville alabama
- it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests
Based on the assumption that "power stern pump" means "power steering pump," I'm just guessing that a "stern collar" might be a "steering column," although I cannot imagine why a steering column would ever need to be replaced - unless this truck is totaled. Maybe the seller is just referring to the plastic trim? Not everything is spelled the way it sounds, especially when you hear it pronounced with a heavy accent. . .
Again I'm just guessing, but my guess is that this truck has a new A/C compressor on it. I've never seen a passenger vehicle with an "air compressor" on it, but the listing clearly says that this Tahoe has one. This is why lawyers get paid to write contracts.
Ford: Fix or Repair Daily.
Until recently, when it came to domestic vehicles, I always had an unexplained preference for Chevys. It was probably just breeding. My grandfather was a Chevy Man and my dad drove a Chevy to work for years. My parents bought a brand new Volvo 144S in 1971, which nearly caused my grandfather to blow a head gasket. The Volvo was my mom's car. I myself currently own two Chevy's and a Geo. (And a Volvo, but that's our family wagon.) To me, Chevys always looked slightly more masculine than Fords. Dodges never appealed to me, and they seem to actually get uglier every year. Even among GM vehicles, Chevys always came out on top. Pontiac's Trans Ams had a "girly" flair while Chevy's Camaros looked muscular. This year, however, I find myself leaning heavily toward Ford.
My newfound affinity for Ford was foreshadowed by the bankruptcy and closure of Steve and Barry's clothing chain. At their liquidation clearance sale, S&B had some very nice hooded sweatshirts for, like, $2.00. I like to wear hooded sweatshirts to work and so looked through several racks of them to find one my size. Turned out, the only ones left in Medium had the Ford logo on the front. I've long ascribed to the "if the shirt fits, wear it" philosophy, so I bought the Ford sweatshirt. (I learned that from a guy named Greg Meyer, a phenominal guitarist who, nonetheless, sometimes wore a Bay City Rollers T-shirt.)
Phase Two of my Ford transformation was caused by equally random events. For various reasons, I have driven a number of rental vehicles in the past year. Two of these have been Fords. One was the new Ford Fusion sedan, which was a pleasure to drive and very easy on gas. The other was a full-sized Ford F-150 Supercab pick-up truck. The truck, with a V8 engine, actually went more miles on a gallon of fuel than the 4-cylinder Volvo my wife currently drives. It, too, was heaven to drive. Plus, there were drink holders, something the Swedes apparently don't use.
I have actually owned two Ford products which I generally enjoyed. One was a 1990 Aerostar cargo van. The other was a 1984 Crown Vic' station wagon, a full-sized land yacht which rode like an easy-chair on wheels. With a V8 engine. My Aerostar served me very well until I married and had a child. A two-seat cargo van just didn't have a place for a car seat. (Looking back, I'd have kept the van, put my daughter in the front seat, and made my now-ex-wife ride in the back.) Anyway, I sold the van. It had required minimal repairs and had only one really aggravating feature; there was a button under the steering column that you had to push to get the key out of the ignition. A few years later I found the Crown Vic on eBay and bought it as my "dad car." It was old and dirty; someone had used it as a hunting vehicle for a while. But, the cruise control worked and I absolutely loved to hear that 5.0 litre V8 engine purr. I also always appreciated the way Ford put distributors on the FRONT of their engines where you could reach them. That always made sense to me. Most distributors, including Chevys, are on the back of the engine which makes tune-ups much less convenient. The Crown Vic died unexpectedly of electrical problems which I didn't feel like tracking down.
Now the Big Three U.S. automakers are hurting. There's talk that one or more of them might tank. The government is throwing billions at GM and Chrysler to save those companies. Ford, to date, has told the government, "Thanks, but no thanks. We don't need the money to stay in business." That impresses me. I still won't go buy a new car because I don't want a car payment. But, I'll wear my Ford sweatshirt with a feeling that I'm promoting a company that seems to have it together. Good for them.
Ford: Fore-going Obama's Rescue Dollars.
The Army has recognized, so they say, that mental fitness is just as important as physical fitness. But, the Army's physical fitness program, as applied on a daily basis, is pretty lame. At Ft. Bragg (NC) in the late 90s, PT consisted of running for an hour on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and doing push-ups and sit-ups for an hour the other two days. According to the Army's own field manuals, flexibility, coordination, and balance are important parts of physical fitness, but those elements were completely ignored in actual day-to-day PT (physical training). I'd expect the Army's mental training (MT?) to be the mental equivalent of running up and down Ardennes Street every day for an hour. Even if the Army could launch an effective program, where would units fit an hour of MT into their training schedules?
Consider, too, the number of people in the military now who were raised to believe that spanking is child abuse, that virtually any misfortune is "unfair," and that every player on even the worst Little League team deserves a trophy. Forget having to try out for a team - everyone plays and everyone is a winner in this generation's mind. With that mindset, virtually any dose of reality could cause one to retreat permanently from the battle field of life. Wouldn't the Army be better off screening and passing on mentally "weak" recruits?
Before they launch an ineffective program to prevent something which will sometimes occur anyway, the Army needs to determine exactly why soldiers kill themselves. I don't believe the horrors of war are driving life-long video-gamers over the edge. Young soldiers probably saw more graphic violence on their computer monitors before they enlisted than they'll ever see in Iraq or Afghanistan. The stress induced by Army life in general has been driving recruits to suicide - or at least alcoholism - for decades. There's something else that is likely causing soldiers to take their own lives and mental toughness training is not likely to overcome it.
Jack and my mother dated in high school and my mother really wanted to marry him. Fortunately for me, Jack recognized that being married was not conducive to surviving in the jungles of Viet Nam during a war. He told my mother that he wouldn't marry her until he returned. To be married or even engaged would distract him and probably get him killed. He survived two tours in 'Nam as a Green Beret with only minor wounds. Smart fellow, Jack.
I tend to believe that worrying about spouses back home, especially unfaithful ones, leads to more soldier suicides than anything else. I don't have any numbers to back that up because I don't have access to the info, but I'm willing to bet that at least half of the suicides we've heard about are related to a soldier's wife packing it in or shacking up with someone who isn't deployed. (I haven't heard of any female soldiers committing suicide. I also haven't heard about any female soldiers coming home from a deployment and killing errant husbands.)
The Army has given impressive lip service to Family Support Groups, but at the end of the day the military is no place to be married or to raise children. If the Army is truly concerned about soldier suicides, they should go back to their old philosophy: If the Army wanted you to have a (spouse), they'd issue you one.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
The word "gift" is a NOUN. It is a form of the word "(to) give," which is a VERB. Why use an incorrect form of a word for the word itself? Have you ever "applicationed" for a job?
In many instances, the verb and noun forms of a word are the same. You can, for example, bicycle to work on a bicycle. You can target a terrorist group, thus making that group a target. You can petition Congress to do something by signing a petition. But, you simply cannot gift a gift. Two different words. Two different uses. You don't sound trendy when you talk about "gifting" a pair of Gucci shoes to someone. You sound retarded. Generous, but retarded.
An even more heinous abuse of English is the complete fabrication of words like "conversate" and "orientate." People don't "conversate." That's not even a legitimate form of the word "converse," which is almost always what people mean when they say "conversate." You don't "orientate." You just "orient." Would you "transportate" something on a ship? No. That sounds stupid. The only reason you probably don't think "conversate" and "orientate" sound stupid is because you've heard these made-up abominations so often that they sound normal to you. "Orientate" is so pervasive that it probably appears in the dictionary by now. It should not. It's an unnecessary word used by speakers and writers who got college degrees through the mail.
By the way, just because a word appears in the dictionary doesn't mean you should use it. My dictionary provides a definition for the word "ain't," but I don't say "ain't" in job interviews, and, apart from this sentence, I don't know when I've ever used "ain't" in a written document.
Back to "gifting." The thing you give is the gift - a noun. The act of conveying a thing to someone is to give - a verb. I can give you a scooter for Christmas. A demonstrator can give you a free sample of perfume at a department store. The scooter and perfume become gifts when they are given to you. The fact that one was a corporate come-on rather than a heartfelt display of generosity makes no difference. The scooter and the perfume were both given to you, NOT "gifted" to you. If you re-wrap them and pass them on to a distant relative next Christmas, you may be giving away used stuff but you will NOT be "gifting" or (worse) "re-gifting" your junk to someone else.