As featured in The Wall Street Journal, Money Magazine, and more!

November 2007

If your office is like mine, you celebrate the holidays (but primarily Christmas) with a gift exchange of some sort as well as a party. I’ve found the office holiday experience to be hit or miss. Now, with the help of NBC’s The Office, here are some pointers for making December in the workplace awkward, upsetting, and unfortunate.

If you’re the boss, take these thoughts into account, and you’ll be remembered as the guy (or girl) who inadvertently created the human resource regulation banning further holiday parties throughout the company.

Michael gets a Christmas tree

1. Destroy company property. In a characteristic case of poor planning, Michael Scott erects a Christmas tree taller than the height of the ceiling. The team later decides to saw off the top of the tree. You don’t own objects around the office, the company does. Don’t worry about any damage you might cause.

Ryan's iPod

2. Disobey gift exchange rules. When planning a “Secret Santa” gift exchange, it’s common to set spending limits such as $20 or $25 to ensure a little bit of equity among coworkers. As this is a “common” rule, it only applies to common coworkers. As the boss you are encouraged, even expected, to spend more than your underlings by a factor of 20. Michael presents his favorite employee, Ryan the intern, with an iPod, while others received handmade or inexpensive gifts from each other.

Michael's oven mitt

3. Be ungrateful. Effort means nothing if your Secret Santa presents you with a crappy gift. Like Michael, don’t attempt to hide your disdain. In fact, use your disappointment as an excuse to change the type of gift exchange from Secret Santa to “Yankee Swap” (also known as “Nasty Christmas” or “white elephant”), in which everyone has a chance to steal presents from the others. Optionally, use “reverse psychology” to convince your coworkers to take the crappy gift from you.

Swapping the iPod

The good news is that you’ll feel special when everyone wants your $400 gift rather than the gifts worth $20 or less. Don’t worry about upsetting the Party Planning Committee.

Bonus

4. Brag about your bonus. You can afford purchasing the iPod because as the boss, you were the only one to receive a holiday bonus. Make sure you mention the amount of your bonus loud enough for everyone in the office to hear. After all, you deserve the extra $3,000, and they don’t.

Doing shots

5. Provide copious amounts of alcohol. Nothing can get a party going like vodka, and more so in an office environment. With alcohol as a social lubricant, there will always be stories to tell. Alcohol will also help you win back favor from your employees.

When I started my current position last spring, everyone was still talking about incidents from the previous year’s holiday party involving an excessively drunk coworker. That party was off-site, but as the boss, bringing alcohol against HR’s warnings will allow you to provide this kind of opportunity for someone else.

The jerk

6. Invite a jerk. Perhaps he’s your friend from your pre-managerial days, or maybe he’s just the actor who frequently plays jerks in movies and television shows. He’s always inappropriate, even before he is drunk. There’s no reason for his presence at the party, but as the boss, you can invite whomever you like.

Making out in the office

7. Designate the break room as the make-out area. We all spend so much of our waking lives with the same people, cooped up in the same office, so sexual relationships are healthy and should be encouraged. Make sure you are vigilant; as the boss, it is your responsibility to know who is hooking up with whom. This information will come in handy for blackmail later. Also, award bonus points for inter-species relationships, such as this human/elf combination…

Angela crying

… particularly if it makes another human jealous.

Nudity

8. Encourage promiscuity. As the boss, it is natural for your employees to be sexually attracted to you. Most of the time the people who are the most forward are not the ones you’d like to see without clothes. Nevertheless, it is important to take a photograph for posterity or for “art for the sake of art.”

Follow these guidelines, and you’ll be the producer of an unforgettable and unrepeatable holiday event.

Thanks to NBC/Universal and Universal Studios Home Entertainment for the images.

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The stock market has certainly been all over the place lately. A few people have told me that the constant chatter about impending doom is pushing them towards pulling out or re-allocating their investments to expose themselves less to stocks. If I can stomach short-term losses like I think I can, I intend on using any upcoming doom as an opportunity to buy. In the long term, I don’t think the stock market will let me down.

Walter Updegrave fielded a question from a “fraidy cat” today:

Is it time to move our 401(k) out of stock funds and into bond funds? I did this back in 2000 and saved my 401(k) from huge losses. I’m getting nervous about the current market and wondering whether it’s time to make another switch.

The Money Magazine expert (in “Ask the Expert”) chided the investor and attributed her move in 2000 to luck. Selective memory attributes good results to skill and bad results to bad luck. Updegrave asked this question:

When exactly did you get back into stocks?… Ideally, you would have wanted to move back into stocks just as they hit a bottom in October 2002. Had you done that and stayed in stocks until now, you would have gained about 85 percent… But if you had waited until mid-2003 to re-enter the market — waiting until it felt safe — your gain would have been cut nearly in half to 46 percent.

Alternatively, if you had stayed in the market between August 28, 2000 and now, without purchasing while the market was down, you would have just barely recovered your losses. Dips are great opportunities for the long-term investor, but I wouldn’t suggest selling when the media is full of negative outlooks and all your friends are thinking about exiting the stock market.

Fraidy cat wants out of this stock market [Money Magazine]

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Ben Stein has been making the rounds through the media in support of National Retirement Planning Week, a celebration of preparedness. He recently met with Terri Cullen from the Wall Street Journal and sat down for a quick interview.

Ben shared his opinion regarding the three biggest mistakes people often make in regards to the topic of the day.

Ben SteinMistake #1: Not Starting Early Enough. Ben says the government should require auto-enrollment in 401(k) or 403(b) retirement plans, with an optional opt-out clause. He also suggests that teens with part-time jobs while going to school should have the self-discipline to save a small portion of their earnings ($10, $20, or $25 a week or month) into a retirement plan such as an IRA. The small savings will not dent today’s enjoyment of life, but the magic of compounding will do wonders for your quality of life by the time you’re 65. Start saving later, and it’s much more difficult to catch up.

Mistake #2. Not Being Diversified. Ben Stein’s advice is to diversify your investments among a number of different spectra: company size (large cap vs. small cap), company objective (value vs. growth), location (domestic vs. international), and level of market development (emerging markets vs. developed). I haven’t focused too deeply on some of these dimensions. He’s not a fan of target date funds because of the inclusion of bonds. He feels bonds are basically useless investments, especially if money markets are providing similar returns without the risk. Ben’s worried about terrorism or hyper-inflation, which would mean bad news for bonds.

Mistake #3. Not Curbing Your Spending. Lao Tsu said, “There is no catastrophe worse than lavish desires.” Ben admits this is his main mistake — it required constant effort to keep up with his lavish lifestyle. He has eight houses. Even he admits that is too much for one person. Is excessive spending overlooked as a threat to solid retirement? When it comes to spending in the present time, it comes down to a matter of personal choice. As long as one is educated so he understands that spending $x now will mean he will have $x · 1.08n where n is the number of years until retirement (assuming an 8% annual growth rate), he should be allowed to make that decision and not criticized. However, if expenses are accelerating at a higher rate then income, there will be danger ahead.

View Terri Cullen’s interview with Ben Stein here, after sitting through a commercial.

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No reason to give the same boring gifts this year. Our holiday gift guide offers creative and inexpensive gift ideas that your friends and family will love.holiday gift guide

Christmas is right around the corner. Do you have all of your gift shopping done yet?

If you’re anything like me, the answer is no. This isn’t because I’m a procrastinator, though. It’s because I would prefer to give a gift that’s unique and has meaning instead of some stereotypical consumer item that will probably wind up in the Goodwill pile at some point.

That’s why I’ve put together this list of ideas, so that you can change the way you give gifts this holiday season. Some will save you money, and some will be incredibly useful. Others will give you (and your recipient) a warm fuzzy feeling inside, which rivals that of any mug of hot cocoa.

Get out your gift-giving lists, and let’s get started!

Charitable Giving

There are some wonderful opportunities to do good while also giving to your friends and loved ones. Regardless of your budget, you can make charitable causes part of your family’s holiday season.

You can donate to one of your favorite causes, or one which aligns with the interests of the recipient. No matter which you choose, there are simple ways to make a doubly-impactful gift this holiday season.

Buy holiday cards that support your charity of choice

If you’re going to buy cards this year anyway, why not see if your favorite charity has anything to offer? Not only do you show your support, but you may find interesting, unique cards that stand out.

  • Children’s Art Project (from MD Anderson) offers various items, including holiday cards, that feature their young patients’ art. This gives kids a way to showcase their designs. And net proceeds from sales help to fund the hospital’s pediatric programs.
  • Holiday Card Center has a stunning array of cards in various designs. They partner up with a number of non-profit organizations, such as the American Humane Society. About 10% of the cost of each box goes to the charity.
  • The Make-A-Wish Foundation will actually personalize and mail cards out for you, if you wish to make a gift on someone else’s behalf. You can also order blank cards and send them yourself. Or send an e-card to let someone know you made a donation in their name.
  • The American Diabetes Association lets you personalize cards regardless of whether you are making a gift donation as well.

Buy gifts that provide a percentage to charity

Donate to charity as a gift

  • Oceana offers a holiday adopt-a-creature program. For $30, you can adopt a sea turtle, seal, or one of 16 other sea creatures. You’ll receive a cookie cutter in the shape of that creature and a special sugar cookie recipe. Spend a little more, and you’ll receive a cute plush of that animal, too. It’s a nice way to donate while still having a fun gift for the recipient to open and enjoy.
  • Oxfam America offers you the unique opportunity to present your friends and family with the donation of a sheep, goat, or even a toilet. Wait, what? With Oxfam, your funds help provide necessities to growing, impoverished communities worldwide. Then, choose from a number of humorous, fun cards to give to your recipient, telling them about the gift made in their honor. How else could you possibly gift wrap a camel?
  • Heifer International also donates livestock to countries in need. You can choose from a variety of animals, including a water buffalo for $250.
  • American Forests lets you plant trees in the name of a loved one for $1 a tree.
  • Alternative Gifts International offers truly impactful gifts of food, shelter, trees, gardens, and medicines to those in need around the world.

Not sure what charity would be most fitting? JustGive.org sells gift certificates recipients can redeem for any of 1,000,000 charities and nonprofit organizations.

Go Clutter-Free

Another unique holiday gift option if you want to avoid waste is to buy clutter-free gifts. These can be in the form of experiences or consumables. I usually opt to do both. In fact, in my family, we’ve opted to buy “experiences, not things” for our primary gifts to one another. Then we buy useful (consumable) items for stocking stuffers.

While experiences are great gifts that bring memories for years, consumables give you something to open and enjoy Christmas morning.

Eat, Drink, Be Merry

Unclutterer.com has some nice suggestions for theme-based consumable gift collections, such as bulbs and seeds for a gardener, spice collections for someone who enjoys cooking, and the always-popular bath sundries collection for anyone who enjoys self-pampering. There’s even a very utilitarian garage-themed collection idea with motor oil, work gloves, etc.

My tastes run a bit more colorful. I believe the holidays provide a great chance to give premium consumables, little luxuries life might not otherwise afford us.

My favorite food and drink gifts include:

  • Aged Balsamic Vinegar – It’s a surprisingly flexible gift, suitable for everything from salad dressings and bread dips (include some fresh loaves of bread for an irresistible gift basket), to marinades and even as a topping for ice cream. There are a range of prices and qualities available. You could even print out some relevant recipes and include them, too!
  • Wine–It’s even better when paired with a gift certificate to a BYOB restaurant and maybe a cute tote. But there’s so much you can do with wine gifts. Give a nice bottle you’ve tried and enjoyed, different vintages of the same wine, or a selection of bottles from a region with accompanying reading material on that region’s wines. These can all make a memorable gift. You can find nice, well-rated wines for less than $20 a bottle. Wine Club memberships are wonderful, too, if you have the budget.
  • Say Cheese!–Last year, one of the best gifts I got was a stylish, reusable tote filled with a variety of fine imported cheeses, candied nuts, and crackers. Food gifts made for sharing are perfect for holiday entertaining. Plenty of places out there sell pre-assembled gift baskets. But I think the best approach is to find a local cheese shop or market and try things out yourself. Add fresh or dried fruit and nuts, and you can make your own extravagant gift for much less than you’d pay at Harry and David or Williams-Sonoma.
  • Sweets–Who doesn’t love a little indulgence? Last year, I gave my father-in-law a set of dark chocolate bars made from cocoa beans from different countries, for a comparative tasting. Homemade cookies or cakes are always appreciated, and can provide a more economical gift alternative. I’m also partial to Dutch candy for a fun and inexpensive gift.
  • Citrus Fruit–Sweeter than candy, the juice from Temple oranges is a rare treat in the cold winter months. I order them now for delivery January through March from Nokomis Groves. You could make a fabulous gift basket around a citrus gift (think breakfast kit), or let its sunny glory stand alone.
  • Salumis, Seafood, and Special Meats–Salami, bacon, prosciutto, ham, smoked turkey, scallops, salmon… whether you spend a lot for a fine imported meat or seafood product or assemble your own basket from a local specialty shop, there’s much to choose from.

You may be seeking truffles from France or salumis from Italy. Either way, finding a great source is key. If you can’t find these imported items at a local market, you can find them at a markup at places like Dean & Deluca. You can also try your luck finding better deals and culinary rarities at sites like eFood Depot, Gustiamo (Italian), La Tienda (Spanish), and French Feast.

Amazon has a great collection of gift baskets worth checking out. You can also take a look at Food411’s Holiday Picks or browse Sur la Table for more inspired gift ideas.

Spoil Someone

If food isn’t your ideal gift (or you’re unsure whether the recipient has dietary concerns), you can always opt to pamper them.

  • Soap and Bath Products–Soaps make for a great gift basket but are easily used up, so they don’t contribute to clutter. One of my friends makes her own fantastic-smelling, all-natural olive oil soap and bath products. She had a home show this year where I bought soaps for just about everyone I know. I tried to select scents each individual will love. It should be fun to see how accurate I was predicting their fragrance preferences. And anything I don’t give away, I’ll just use up myself.
  • Massages, Pedicures, and Spa Treatments–Beauty supplies are a clear winner when combined with gift certificates for massages, pedicures, facials, and other spa treatments. In my book, there’s no such thing as too many massages, and it’s nice to look forward to some luxury. Pick a local spa, or visit SpaWish.com for a gift certificate good at over 1,000 day spas across the nation.
  • eSubscriptions, Media, and Content–With all the interesting videos, music, games, and books available via iTunes, it’s hard to imagine anyone not appreciating an iTunes Gift Card. I’ve heard great things about Audible.com, as well. Their electronic book and programming subscriptions start as low as $7.49 a month for the first three months with the AudibleListener program.
  • The Gift of More Time–Take a page from Tim Ferriss’ book The Four Hour Workweek and help someone “outsource” time-consuming or unpleasant tasks. Whether you supply a bevy of homemade frozen meals or set up a running engagement with a personal chef, your gift will directly benefit the recipient’s quality of life. Maid service, child care, and gardening or landscaping services are gifts they’ll remember all year. Plus, they can be accomplished by hiring out or (more economically) by helping out and doing it yourself.

Make Something With Love

Homemade gifts can be so much more than the sum of their parts, which makes them a great frugal gift option. They are redolent of effort, of “I thought of you all year and worked on this for you.” This is a nice contrast to “I realized I needed a gift for you ten minutes ago and picked this up as I was driving here.”

MoneySavingMom has an extensive collection of frugal gift ideas. Some of my favorite homemade gifts from her list include:

  • Homemade baking mixes
  • Embroidered pillowcases
  • Hand-stamped notecards
  • Personalized CDs (with music, family photos, etc.)
  • Custom-made photo calendars (every grandparent I know adores these)
  • Homemade food, including freezer-ready quick meals and baked goods (I am seriously asking my mother-in-law for a giant vat of her famous tomato soup for the holidays this year)
  • Canned vegetables, jam, pickles, etc.
  • Scarves, sweaters, and other knitted/crocheted goodies
  • Fleece throw blankets
  • Homegrown organic dried herbs (in a charming little jar, what could be better?)

I’ve been blessed with some very creative friends, so in the past I’ve received amazing scarves, jewelry, gorgeous embroidered pillowcases, and even original artwork. This year, one of my good friends knitted me some very chic, pure-white cashmere gloves.

My own talents are more culinary than crafty. So this year, I’m giving out tins of several varieties of homemade cookies and a few premade freezer meals, like lasagna, for those in my life who don’t enjoy cooking as much as I do. If you’re not inclined to create gifts yourself, you can buy amazing and unique handmade gifts of all sorts at Etsy.com.

From the Heart

This ties in a bit with the last section. But the ultimate “handmade” gift may not be a thing at all but, instead, a service. I love the concept of lending your personal services to someone else, especially in this age of so little free time.

If you’re good at sewing, what about giving certificates for mending and tailoring clothing? Or giving proofreading or resume help to someone still in school? Know someone who travels a lot? A few certificates for rides to and from the airport could be just the thing. Or create a scrapbook or photo album for someone with lots of memories and no time to compile them. Babysitting, yard cleanup, etc. are all gifts that cost little except your time.

What are the best gifts you’ve ever received (or given) that weren’t “typical” or even store-bought? Can you think of any other unique holiday gift ideas? Share them below!

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Retirement Income Rule of Thumb Debunked

by Luke Landes

To retire comfortably, you’ll need to have an income of 80 percent of your maximum pre-retirement income. That’s a common rule of thumb you hear trumpeted by financial planners. Unfortunately, it’s not accurate. It may give someone planning their retirement a basis for thinking about creating income during those years, whether from part-time work or income-producing […]

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Weekly Blog Roundup II, Market Crash Edition

by Luke Landes

What would you do if the stock market crashed tomorrow? While you’re contemplating that, here are some more articles from Thanksgiving week to keep you reading about personal finance. How Do You Calculate Compound Growth (or Interest)? AllFinancialMatters loves tackling these mathematical questions. Here he answers with an Excel function and the underlying formulas. Personal […]

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Review: Navigating the Financial Blogosphere by Russell Bailyn

by Luke Landes

A little over a year ago, Russell Bailyn, an investment adviser who crossed the barrier into the blogosphere with his Financial Planning Weblog, contacted me to let me know he was beginning work on a book. As Russell and I were both music education majors in our respective undergraduate universities, I was eager to support […]

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Black Friday and CVS Savings

by Sasha

My “Black Friday” shopping started yesterday at 8 a.m. after I’d readied my 26-pound turkey (we had 22 people planned for Thanksgiving this year) for its 6-plus hours in the oven. Instead of crawling back to bed whilst the scent of roasting turkey filled the house, I had a mission in mind. Earlier in the […]

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Year-End Tax-Saving Move: Time Your Bonuses

by Luke Landes

Here in the United States, it’s Thanksgiving. I hope all readers are able to spend time with their family or friends. I’m still in California visiting my relatives and enjoying a relaxing vacation. Well, it’s relaxing in some sense. I’ve actually been working hard at moving some of my major websites, like pfblogs.org and the […]

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Year-End Tax-Saving Move: Tax Breaks for Saving

by Luke Landes

The government, when not encouraging spending to spur the immediate economy, encourages saving to keep the future economy on target. This encouragement comes in the form of tax breaks given for directing money away from consumerism today towards retirement (consumerism later). The first tax break you can get, and generally should get, is for a […]

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