1. Tip for Takeout?

    Ah, yes, the age-old question: Do you tip for take-out orders?

    I’d be interested to hear readers’ opinions on this. Sure, I could go cruise Google, and I’d undoubtedly find lots of back-and-forth blog banter on the subject. But there are some regular commenters here whose opinions I’d like to get.

    I bring this up only because a couple of days ago, on a quick take-out visit to my local Domino’s, I noticed the “TIP: _____” line on the card receipt, and it occurred to me that this topic was one I hadn’t breached at Money Musings.

    Did I add a tip, you ask? No, in this instance, I certainly did not. For one thing, I had to verbally request our 2-liter of Coke, plus some cheese and red pepper packets, from the Domino’s employee … even though those things had been noted in my internet order. For another thing, it’s take-out pepperoni-and-pineapple pizza, for crying out loud. Take-out pizza ain’t some gargantuan culinary undertaking which requires exemplary levels of service to pull off and/or deliver. (I typically do tip for delivered pizza, though, unless the delivery took longer than expected.)

    Next question: Do I normally tip for take-out? I don’t have a hard ‘n’ fast rule on this, but I would say that I usually do not, unless I’m picking up a pretty sizeable order — say, for five or more people. Or something equally “complicated.”

    Also, I note that in the case of “tipping when dining in,” by the time the tip gets disbursed, you’ve likely eaten your meal (or whatever) and experienced the prompt or excellent service that the tip was supposed to ensure. With take-out, you probably have no idea what’s in those styrofoam or cardboard boxes, or whether it’s even edible at all, until you get home!



  2. Sales-Tax-Free Internet: Days Numbered?

    It’s a battle that’s playing out in state after state these days: Cash-strapped and budget-strained, what are your state lawmakers willing to do to goose tax revenues? And is that more important than, say, bringing in a few thousand new jobs?

    Folks in Tennessee are about to find out, it appears:

    USA Today: Tennessee Retailers Oppose Amazon Sales-Tax Pass

    Amazon wants to build a pair of new distribution centers in Tennessee, which would create roughly 1,400 jobs for the Rocky Top state. What they don’t want to do is to have to collect sales tax on purchases from Tennessee customers, which the distribution centers (by virtue of creating an Amazon physical “nexus” in the state) would bring about.

    Currently, the responsibility of paying Tennessee sales tax on Amazon.com purchases rests with the individual consumer. Just like all states with sales-tax mandates on the books, Tennessee has a counterpart “use tax” that’s required to be paid on all products purchased outside the state for use within the state.

    (My home state of Oklahoma approaches sales and use taxes the same way. Yes, I track my use-tax payables in Quicken, and pay all my online-purchase use taxes as required by law, and I keep all receipts each year to prove the same. As far as online consumers go, though, I suspect I’m in the, uh, minority.)

    Line 20: Use Taxes

    The Bigger (Online) Picture

    As I read the story above, it’s hard for me to think that we’re going to go much longer without some sort of sales-tax mandate applied to ALL online retailers (which, because I sell spreadsheets, includes me), even if it has to be done federally — think VAT.

    Given the ever-increasing funding needs of government at all levels — ain’t debt-n-promises wonderful? — I just don’t see how this can be avoided. The online-purchase world currently figureheaded by Amazon is just too big of an untapped money bucket for any self-respecting politician to ignore.



  3. $10 Million Goes Poof

    Here we have a delightful story which, if nothing else, enforces my theory that $14 $10 million just doesn’t go as far as it used to:

    NY Times: Family’s Fall From Affluence Is Swift and Hard

    What’s new here? Probably not much, if you’re familiar with what happens when people who suck with money actually get some. In this particular train wreck, the Martin family came into big money; they spent big money; they trusted what money they didn’t spend to “bankers and brokers;” they ended up broke and miserable.

    I’m not sure how many money rules they broke, but it was a bunch.

    From the article:

    That luxurious world was fueled by a check Mr. Martin received in 1998 for $14 million, his share of the $600 million sale of Martin Media, an outdoor advertising business begun by his father in California in the 1950s. After taxes, he kept about $10 million.

    But as so often happens to those lucky enough to realize the American dream of sudden riches, the money slipped through the Martins’ fingers faster than they ever imagined.

    Read the article, and tell me if you think this gentleman has learned much of anything from his trip to rich and back.

    And he [Mr. Martin] recites a quotation he holds dear: “The measure of a man is not whether he falls down, but whether he gets up again.” Still, Mr. Martin is prone to ruminate over the loss of so much money. He is furious at the banks and the bankers, who he thinks gave him bad advice, and he still sounds angry at his brother and others who decided to sell the company and who he says gave him little voice. Some of them got more than $100 million each, he said, while he got $14 million, as did his father and his sister Ann, because they were all minority shareholders.

    Because I don’t get the impression that he has.



  4. It’s Not a Bargain…

    … if you have to camp out on the sidewalk for nine consecutive days to get it.

    WTSP.com: “Black Friday” First Family Story #1

    13 News: “Black Friday” First Family Story #2

    Hmmm. So let me get this straight:

    If you’re homeless, and you set up a tent in front of Best Buy nine days before Black Friday, you get slapped with a complaint of trespassing, and thrown in jail.

    But if you’re a Shopper On a Mission, and you set up a tent in front of Best Buy nine days before Black Friday, you get free iPads, an award, and TV coverage.

    Yeah. In a country as off-course (“We have to spend more to keep from going broke”) as this one, that sounds about right.

    You know, I’m all about getting bargains and deals, too, but the stories above just make me want to scream. I’ve never once participated in Black Friday consumerism, and have no plans to do so, if I can help it. And I damn sure wouldn’t use it as an excuse to “spend more time with family” as the folks above try to do.

    Nine days ahead of time? Seriously?

    Everyone needs goals, I guess.



  5. Quicken: Cash Flow Forecast

    Over the years, Intuit has added lots of tools to Quicken — mostly, I would argue, to encourage its users to adapt an annual upgrade cycle of the software. While I adore Quicken for its performance at tracking accounts, spending, and net worth, I find myself using very few of the additional tools that its Deluxe and Premium versions offer. (As of this post, I’m using Quicken 2010 Deluxe.)

    One such tool — brought to my attention by an email a few months back — is Quicken’s Cash Flow Forecast. It’s meant to help with long-range (say, a year out or more) cashflow planning. Quicken’s Help Files explain it like this:

    For long term forecasting use Quicken’s Cash Flow Forecast feature. A cash flow forecast lets you project your cash flow for the future, based on scheduled bills and deposits and estimated amounts. Quicken can forecast your spending patterns for up to two years, and displays your account balances in a graph.

    You can get to the Cash Flow Forecast via the menubar:


    When I select that, Quicken displays a graph like this:

    That awfully smooth, upward-sloping line is meant to show me how my bank-account balances will steadily increase over the next year IF my monthly “Income Items” and “Expense Items” meet the parameters I’ve set up. (Displayed figures above have been certified by the Congressional Budget Office. So you know they’re, uh, reliable.)

    Forecasting: It’s a Lot of Work

    The graph is all fine and dandy, I suppose. However, it took me a patience-testing hour or so to get Quicken’s Cash Flow Forecast set up in a way that’d reflect anything close to reality. Initially, Quicken’s “brain” had taken my next year’s worth of Scheduled Transactions, combined it with my average monthly categorized income and expenses, and applied all of that to my household financial cash flow in a manner that I can only describe as MADDENINGLY RANDOM.

    Some “income items” appeared twice. Many “expense items” appeared three and four times. Now, I’m all for conservative planning, but come on. Those initial figures were a disaster, and way out of whack.

    I can’t imagine that any large chunk of Quicken users would be willing to plow through their incomes and expenses, category by category, Scheduled Transaction by Scheduled Transaction, just to get this thing running at a somewhat realistic clip. I did it, but only because I’m a money dork. The rest of you probably have lives.

    Just Start Over?

    The Cash Flow Forecast allows you to create and save different scenarios, which is probably pretty useful IF you have a few hours to kill. I wasn’t even willing to approach this feature, given what it took just to get the thing set up. (When making changes, income and expense items aren’t even listed in alphabetical order, for crying out loud. Who the hell came up with this?)

    I think that, if I were going to rely on the Cash Flow Forecast at all, I would start by scrapping ALL of the estimated items Quicken creates. I’d then simply enter the categories I wanted, by hand, starting with my largest categories (taxes, food, insurance, etc.) first. I’d likely keep the “Known Items,” as Quicken creates these from Scheduled Transactions, which ought to be fairly ironclad. (Ironclad, that is, IF you’re good about setting up all your recurring transactions as “Scheduled Transactions.”)

    Like a lot of Quicken “tool” offerings, there’s probably some value in the Cash Flow Forecast … but if you’re like me, it might take you so long to rebuild the Forecast data that you simply ignore it altogether.

    Sorry, Intuit. I’m opting instead for dumping a few months’ of Quicken report data into Excel, and working from there!



  6. K-Cup Prices to Increase

    It’s a good thing we have the Fed on our side, promising future “easy money” policies and thereby making sure that market prices don’t do something nasty, like decrease.

    Otherwise, you might have retailers and producers resorting to absolutely insane schemes, such as dropping prices on commodities and food and various necessary items. Obviously, in a credit-soaked economy like ours, price declines must be resisted at every opportunity. The last thing you want is for your present-day dollars to actually go farther (and past debts to grow more cumbersome).

    Heresy, for sure.

    Thankfully, the fine folks at Green Mountain Coffee have gotten the memo:

    Green Mountain Coffee: We’re Raising Our Prices

    I’m a big K-Cup and Keurig fan, so this eight percent increase (from $11.95 per box to $12.95) isn’t likely to dissuade me much.

    So go ahead, Federal Reserve governors. Threaten to flood the system with more money. And smile, why don’t you.



  7. Broke? Try Budgeting

    I’m not one of those guys who says that everyone needs to live on a budget. Not everyone does, because not everyone is broke.

    But if you’re broke, then yes, you need to budget your money. Heck, if you’re only semi-broke, you need to budget your money. In You’re Broke Because You Want to Be (review), Larry Winget explains it far better than I:

    You can’t survive spending more than you make. Make it fit. Keep slashing your expenses until you figure it out. Or earn more money. When you have cut the numbers until they fit within your income, live on what you earn. That is what responsible adults do. Be one.

    You’ll be fine. This budget won’t kill you. Will you die from doing this? No. Then don’t worry about it. It’s not forever. It’s what you have to do until you stop being broke.

    Why am I bringing this up? Because within the past week, I’ve had two admittedly-broke individuals tell me that (1) they hate living in the paycheck-to-paycheck club, and (2) they find budgeting to be too hard.

    So paycheck-to-paycheck is where they stay.

    In other words, while some part of them might actually prefer to not be broke, they defy all logic and refuse to actually work at not being broke.

    Sometimes, Reality Sucks

    No matter how you slice it, a successful budget is where you match your spending to your cash reality.

    This process of squeezing your outflows into your level of income will very likely show you things you don’t want to see, and really would like to flat-out ignore. But ignoring is presumably what you’ve been doing this whole time. And look how far that got you.

    I’m a guy who loves to be in control. I’m always happiest when I know where I stand with my money. Therefore, I cannot understand folks who dismiss budgeting as being “too hard” or “too much work.” Whilst my household no longer needs to follow a strict spending plan, and can get along just fine by utilizing Quicken’s cash-flow tab…

    Cash Flow - Click to Enlarge

    … the fact remains that I couldn’t have gotten to this point without having followed spending plans for years beforehand.

    By the Way: David Bach Is an Idiot

    I know David Bach says that budgeting doesn’t work. I know David Bach says that budgeting isn’t fun. I know David Bach says that just automatically slapping money into a tax-advantaged account is a path to untold riches. (I think he said something similar about house-buying, but I never bought that book.)

    I say that David Bach is an idiot. Well, maybe not an idiot, because he knows precisely how to sell financial books to a public that will pay damn near anything to be told that getting rich is easy.

    But he is wrong about budgeting. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

    Getting rich isn’t easy, and getting out of the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle is well nigh impossible if you’re not willing to work at it. And “work” means planning your spending and then tracking your spending. That much I know.

    There — I got that off my chest. I feel better now.

    Back to Civilization V for me!



  8. Quicken Users: What Do Tags Do For You?

    Reader Kelsey emailed me with a Quicken-related comment a few days ago. Buried in the middle of it was a question that intrigued me:

    Categories I get, but there’s these tag things … what would anybody even do with those?

    Personally, for my household, I haven’t really come up with a good use for tags in Quicken. To this point, categories have taken me everywhere I need to go. (I’m currently using Quicken 2010 Deluxe, and have reviewed it previously.)

    Quicken Tags: What’s the Point?

    Basically, tags give Quicken users a way to “categorize” transactions outside of, and across, categories. I guess you could call tags a “second level” of categorizing goodness.

    Suppose you wanted to sort of “sub-track” your grocery spending so that you could see how much of your grocery spending was attributable to unhealthy food. You could do something like this…

    … and then run a report as necessary to see how much you’ve been spending on foods that will kill you. But in reality, such a usage of tags wouldn’t be all that novel. After all, you could do the same thing with categories. Simply have a subcategory of “Junk Food” in your main “Grocery” category, and you’d be set.

    However, say you wanted to track all your “Nonessential” spending. That’s a “tag” that could span across categories because, after all, “nonessential” could apply to Groceries, Entertainment, House Repair & Remodel, and just about any other category you could think of.

    So keeping an eye on “Nonessential” spending, via a tag named “Nonessential” or something similar, is more along the lines of what Quicken intended tags to accomplish.

    Possible Use of Tags: Tracking Your BMF

    One “big picture” idea for tag-use that comes to mind — but which I’d be way too lazy to implement — would apply to anyone who wanted to follow Elizabeth Warren’s Balanced Money Formula, as described in her book All Your Worth (review).

    Warren advocates that folks classify their outflows as one of three types: “Must-Haves,” “Savings,” and “Wants.” Then track where your money’s going, and aim for the following percentages:

    BMF Targets: 50% Must-Haves, 20% Savings, 30% Wants

    I’m good with using those three “types” to track spending and saving, and to create a plan for such, but I’m a Certified Data Dork, too. I would also want to know what I was spending on, say, groceries, household consummables, mortgage debt, and so on.

    So, in Quicken, I’d categorize my spending normally as regards the groceries, dining, and so on. But then I’d also give my spending “tags” of Must-Haves, Savings, and Wants as applicable. That way, I could quickly generate a Quicken report (utilizing those tags) to show me how my BMF-style money plan was working out.

    Possible Use of Tags: Monitoring Use-Tax Expense

    For a while, I really thought I could make great use of Quicken’s tagging feature by assigning specific tags to my use-taxable online purchases throughout the year. By assigning a tag of something like “Use Tax” to all my online purchases on which I hadn’t paid sales tax at the time of purchase, I could, at tax time, fire up a simple report and see how much I needed to remit in use taxes to my state’s taxing authority.

    In the end, though, I decided to treat my use-tax liability as what it really is — an ongoing “debt” that I owe to the state, and which I pay off in April of each year. So I accrue for it in its own Quicken liability account, as detailed in my Quicken: Handling Use Tax tutorial.

    What Have You Made Tags Do?

    I’m sure lots of people have put Quicken tags to work for them — I’m just not one of those folks. To date, I’ve been able to make categories do ALL my heavy lifting.

    So what about you? Have you come up with a great use for Quicken tags that I’ve overlooked?



  9. School Supplies, 2010 Edition

    It’s been a while since I discussed the economics of school supplies. In fact, the last time I covered the subject was in 2006. In “Back to School Adventures,” I mentioned that a whole lot about the school-supply-buying process seemed to have changed since my wife and I were kids.

    Now that we have a daughter in elementary school, my perspective has shifted a bit. And this piece from the New York Times sort of touches on what many folks are seeing:

    NYT: Budgets Tight, School Supply Lists Grow…

    From the article:

    Pre-kindergartners in the Joshua school district in Texas have to track down Dixie cups and paper plates, while students at New Central Elementary in Havana, Ill., and Mesa Middle School in Castle Rock, Colo., must come to class with a pack of printer paper. Wet Swiffer refills and plastic cutlery are among the requests from St. Joseph School in Seattle. And at Pauoa Elementary School in Honolulu, every student must show up with a four-pack of toilet paper.

    For the retailers, back-to-school season is second only to the holidays, and parents’ longer school-supply lists are a bonus — especially at a time when shoppers are reluctant to spend. While the impact is not enormous, retailers are looking for anything to lift sales.

    Yeah. That’s one way to temporarily goose the economy, I suppose.

    Our List This Year

    The Times article notes that many back-to-school lists this year include items like cleaning supplies and packages of typing paper. Due to budget constraints, schools are now passing such expenses on to parents directly.

    Not that I’d care all that much, but there weren’t any such items on our daughter’s list:

    • Qty 1: 5-subject notebook
    • Qty 1: Wide-ruled notebook paper
    • Qty 2: School glue 4oz
    • Qty 3: Kleenex
    • Qty 2: Crayola Crayons (24ct)
    • Qty 2: Crayola Markers (10ct)
    • Qty 1: School box (small plastic)
    • Qty 1: Box gallon zip lock bags
    • Qty 1: Box bandaids

    And, because we must make every effort to ensure that “all are equal,” there’s this admonition at the bottom:


    You’ll note that the list doesn’t contain pencils or scissors. I’m not sure why scissors aren’t on there, but for my daughter’s grade level, pencils are supplied by teachers. (They’re some funky mechanical variety, or something.)

    And yes, the “No names on supplies” message bugs me. A lot. If I’m willing to send my kid to school with a nicer-than-average notebook, or at least one that’s better than what I’m willing to donate to the Community Stash, then all such a message is going to do is make me resent the “We’re all equal” implications it carries.

    Yes, I understand why the note is there. However, life isn’t about everyone being equal. And it never will be, no matter what agenda our public schools and federal authorities promote.

    I’ll leave my comments at that. (While I’ve considered starting a political-rant blog, this one ain’t it.)

    Supply-List Differences

    In my 2006 blog post linked above, several commenters mentioned that the supply lists you get straight from teachers can differ greatly from those provided by retailers.

    As for our experience (well, my wife’s experience, as she does the supply shopping), last year’s teacher-provided list differed from the retailer-provided list by only one item. And the difference was negligible. The teacher’s list asked for “washable markers,” while the retailer’s list specified only “markers.”

    This year, my wife tells me, there were no differences between the two lists. (Well, at least not from the list provided by Target. We didn’t check any other retailers’ lists.)

    Teachers Forking Over

    Another bit from the NYT article that I’d like to comment on:

    Ms. Cooper, the Alabama mother, spent her summer making the most of the school-supply stores’ new interest in classroom supplies. “Each week I go to the stores’ Web sites — Staples, OfficeMax, Office Depot,” she said, and posts the deals on a blog for fellow bargain hunters. “All three of these major stores are offering jaw-dropping deals every week,” she said.

    And as overwhelming as it might seem to some parents, she would rather buy the goods than expect Emily’s teacher to do so, she said.

    “We don’t expect Wal-Mart cashiers to buy the plastic bags for our groceries, or the mailman to pay for the gas to deliver our mail,” Ms. Cooper said.

    As a guy with two teachers in my immediate family, I’m sympathetic to this. I don’t want my child’s teacher paying for my child’s supplies, certainly, because that’s my responsibility as a parent.

    I also don’t want my child’s teacher forking over her own cash for other kid’s supplies, if I can help it, though I know this is going to occur. The standing order with whomever teaches my child’s class in any given year is to let me or my wife know what’s needed, if supplies run low. We’ll do our best to get it handled. (Hey — I have a Sam’s Club membership. I can get stuff. And as long as I’m just supplying for a single class, my monthly budget can handle it.)

    Anyone else have thoughts they’d like to share? I’m interested to hear others’ opinions!



  10. $100k Workers: Paycheck to Paycheck

    Well, for a minute there, I was almost felt a tinge of sympathy.


    CNBC: More Upper Incomers Living Paycheck to Paycheck

    The centerpiece finding of the above article, I’d say, is this juicy tidbit:

    Thirty percent of workers with salaries of $100,000 or more said they are living paycheck to paycheck, up from 21 percent last year, according to the survey of 4,400 workers nationwide.

    Overall, 61 percent said they always or usually live paycheck to paycheck, up from 49 percent in 2008 and 43 percent in 2007.

    I mean, those $100k salaries don’t go as far as they used to. Thankfully, we can be sure that the reason these folks are feeling stretched money-thin is that they’re cramming as much cash as they can into retirement savings, which can leave them FEELING as if they’re living paycheck-to-paycheck.

    Thirty-six percent said they don’t contribute anything to retirement savings, like a 401(k) or a IRA.

    As for short-term savings, 33 percent of those surveyed reported that they don’t put any money aside each month, up from 25 percent in 2008.

    Okay. Forget I said that.

    We’re screwed.