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Lionel at Target

On Sunday, I went to Target largely because I had a coupon, but I also wanted to get a gift for my son.

I had heard Target was selling Lionel trains again like in 2006, and I’d seen a picture of the endcap, which included a Lionel teddy bear in addition to the trains. I wanted one.

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My hot water heater: 1984-2008

I think my hot water heater died today. I thought my shower seemed colder than usual today, and in the late afternoon my wife reported no hot water in the kitchen.

It could be something simple, but even if it is, it’s time.Let’s consider this. In 1984, Ronald Reagan was president. The Kansas City Royals went to the playoffs. The big name in video games was Atari. People were predicting that video game consoles had no future. The big names in personal computers were (alphabetically) Apple, Commodore, IBM, and Radio Shack. Only one is still in that business. It was the year that Chrysler popularized the minivan. It was the year Apple introduced the Macintosh, popularizing the graphical interface and the mouse. Not only did MTV still play videos, but that was all they played. Not every home had a VCR. For that matter, not every home had a microwave. It cost 20 cents to mail a letter, and on average, a gallon of gas cost $1.21. (I remember it being a lot less than that in Missouri.)

The world that built that hot water heater is a lot different from the world we live in today.

About four years ago, a plumber came out to work on it. It was giving me problems then, but under the conditions of my home warranty, he had to bubblegum it back together. I asked how long it had. He said its realistic life expectancy was about 12 years, so it was about 8 years beyond that. It could last another six months, but it could last years.

So now the question is what to replace it with. The stingy Scottish miser in me sees tankless water heaters claiming to save you $150 a year and really likes that. I went to Lowe’s this evening and tried to buy one. There were several reasons why I don’t own one right now.

First, they don’t keep very many in stock. They had exactly one, even though their website said they had two of two different models. The one they had wasn’t the model I really wanted.

Two, they don’t install them. They’ll sell one to you, but then you have to find someone to install it on your own.

Three, they cost more to install than a conventional tank heater. Sometimes as much as the heater itself.

And then I found a controversial column that did the math, and said that a tankless heater might not actually save you any money anyway. I can’t find fault with his logic.

One thing I noticed is that the tankless heaters that the big-box stores sell are 85% efficient. The tank heaters are 76% efficient. The propaganda for the tankless heaters always assumes lower efficiency than that. As best I can tell, the heater I have is 67%, a little lower than the literature assumes.

So it seems to me that if a tankless heater that’s 18% more efficient than what I have now will save me $100-$150 a year, then a conventional heater that’s 76% efficient ought to save me $50-$75 per year, right?

The tank heaters sell for around $320, and installation is about $260. By the time you pay for taxes and the nickel-and-dime extras, it’s $600-$700.

Half the savings for 1/3 the price sounds pretty good. And I can buy one pretty much anywhere and have it installed tomorrow if I make the purchase before noon.

And it will pay for itself in 8-12 years. A tankless heater would pay for itself in about 13, if all the claims are true. If I make a mistake today, either way I go I’ll be likely to be revisiting it in about 12 years anyway. By then, tankless heaters will be more common and probably cost less than they do now (adjusting for inflation of course).

I’ll call the plumber who bubblegummed my old unit back together in the morning. Depending on what he says about the cost of installing a tankless heater, I’ll make a decision. But at this point, I think I’m leaning towards buying the most energy efficient conventional heater I can find.

If you have wireless, you need DD-WRT

I picked up a spare Linksys WRT54G recently, and tonight I finally got a chance to try DD-WRT, a free replacement operating system, on it.

Amazing is an understatement. The biggest complaint I usually hear about wireless networking is range (and when people complain about reliability, they almost always mean range), and DD-WRT offers several solutions to this.First of all, DD-WRT allows cheap, ubiquitous routers to serve other functions. Wireless repeaters cost $100. Wireless routers cost $50. DD-WRT lets you turn that $50 router into a repeater, among other things. So if there’s a dead spot in your house, you can pick up another WRT54G (be sure to get the WRT54GL version if you’re buying new; when buying used, you want version 6 or earlier, and version 2 or so is probably the best), load DD-WRT on it, use it as a repeater, and save 50 bucks. Some of the used units on Amazon or eBay already have DD-WRT loaded on them, which can save you some effort.

Second of all, once you load DD-WRT, you can connect to it, click on Wireless, then Advanced Settings, and scroll down to TX Power. The default value is 28. You may want to adjust that.

I was also happy to see that once when I configured my second WRT54G as a wireless bridge, the computer I was using to configure it gained Internet access through it. So a DD-WRT-equipped router can do double duty. If you have a video game console with an Ethernet port on it, you can put one of these routers in the same room with it, run a cable to the device to put the game system online, and at the same time configure the router to serve as a repeater, strengthening your wireless signal. So not only do you save $50 by not having to buy a repeater, it can also mean one less wireless card you have to buy.

The one thing I’ll say about DD-WRT is that when you load it, you need to take precautions. If you follow the instructions, loading it is a safe procedure that only takes a minute or two. But if you don’t follow the instructions, it’s possible to ruin the router. You never want to change firmware using a wireless connection; use a computer connected to a wired port. And with my particular router and the version of DD-WRT I was loading, I had to use Internet Explorer. For some reason Firefox has difficulty getting this particular job done. Also you have to load the factory default settings at one point or another during the configuration. So read the documentation at least twice and make sure you understand everything before you proceed.

I like DD-WRT a lot and I plan to load it on the WRT54G that I have connected to my DSL modem very soon. The main benefit I see is being able to crank the power of the signal up a bit, but there are plenty of other goodies in there that I may end up using. Perhaps more importantly, my WRT54G stopped working with DynDNS at some point, and Cisco/Linksys doesn’t seem to be revising the standard WRT54G firmware anymore. But DD-WRT has an active community behind it, so if something changes, I’m confident that there’ll be a new DD-WRT to take care of me, whether I need it next year or five years from now.

Pay DD-WRT.com a visit, find a compatible router (there are non-Linksys models that are compatible also) and pick one up. It won’t disappoint you.

Garage sale adventures: The treadmill

Earlier this year my wife asked me to look for a treadmill. So I started keeping an eye out. A month or two ago I spotted one at an estate sale, but everything was wrong about that deal.

Today, I pulled the trigger.Unlike the last one, this one wasn’t a hulking beast of a machine, and it looked like it would come apart fairly willingly. At $45, the price was in the neighborhood of what we were willing to pay, and the owner was willing to let us test it out. I called my wife to ask her to come look at it.

She liked it. Then she tried it out and still liked it. I whipped out a couple of twenties and a five, and the previous owner’s husband and I set about disassembling it enough to fit in the back seat of a Honda Civic.

They had mentioned to another patron a willingness to come down to $35. I didn’t try to talk them down. Why? I knew I’d need his help getting it apart and getting it into the Civic. If I nickel and dimed them, he probably wouldn’t be nearly as willing to help me out.

It wasn’t a good fit. After some manhandling, we raised up the machine, rolled down the window, put a towel over the window, and I drove home with about three inches of treadmill sticking out the rear window.

I reassembled it right after lunch. I wanted to get it back together while the memory of disassembling it was still fresh, since some parts of it weren’t quite obvious, at least not to me.

Once I had it all together I cleaned it up. Sometimes a little dish detergent and an old rag is all it takes, but this one had some black marks that required Purple Power. The Purple Power did a nice job for me for the most part.

But there were a few black marks (probably from shoes) that the Purple Power didn’t do so well on. For those, I pulled out another trick. I rubbed metal polish on them. The polish actually removes a bit of the surface of the plastic, so it can affect the texture or sheen, but the slight difference in texture or sheen will almost definitely look better than the black marks would. I’ve used this trick numerous times to restore old plastic train cars, computer cases, and video game cases.

There are some scratches on the painted surface that would require some touch-up paint if I wanted it to look new, but at least I got it clean. A sunny day, a willingness to either take it apart or drag it outside, and a can of Krylon primer and gloss white paint is all it would take to get the metal parts looking new again. It might be a while before we get that sunny day.

Now we have a machine that should last several years and that I know how to take apart if and when the motor dies. If that happens, a new set of brushes should be all it will take to get it going again. It may be time consuming but the parts will cost less than $5. A new one would probably cost $200 or $250, so I think we got a pretty good deal. And while it doesn’t look completely new, I think it certainly looks presentable now.

Replace your video game system’s power cord cheap

This weekend I found myself in search of a power cord for an original Playstation. It’s the same plug that the Sega Dreamcast and Saturn and Sony PS2 use, but it seems like online almost everyone wants $10 for a suitable replacement. I learned how to replace your video game system’s power cord cheap, and I’ll share the secret with you, too.

I found out by accident that the local Game Stop sells them for $4.99. I had to run an errand about four doors away from a Game Stop anyway, so I dropped in. It took me a little while to find, but I found the cable.

It’s not the same. What they sell as a “universal” AC power cable has two round sides on the plug, not a round and a square like the original Sony cable. I knew I’d seen the connector on the end of that Gamestop cable before, so I didn’t pay $5 for it. It turns out it’s universal because it also fits the original Xbox. An Xbox cable works on a Playstation but not the other way around.

Replace your video game system's power cord cheap. Look for this connector.

This super-common power connector fits most video game consoles. If you find one of these in a junk drawer, it can replace a missing video game power cord. Image credit: Miguel Durán/Wikipedia

I did some digging, and I found that the official name for the connectior the Playstation uses is IEC 60320 C7P. The “P” stands for “polarized.” The “universal” connector on the cable Gamestop was selling is the IEC 60320 C7. The nonpolarized plug fits the polarized connector, but not the other way around.

A ton of home appliances use the IEC 60320 C7. Every tape recorder or boombox I ever owned, for instance. It’s the most common connector used for devices that draw 2.5 amps of current or less. Well, my boomboxes are long gone, so I raided my wife’s. Hers just happens to be different. Rats. I ended up swiping the cable from a dead laptop AC adapter. Wouldn’t you know it, it plugs right in to the Playstation’s power port. That old laptop cable was probably made in the same factory as the cables Gamestop sells as universal video game power cables.

I’m happy. I saved five bucks. (The wasted trip to Gamestop doesn’t count because I walked there from someplace I had to go anyway.)

It wasn’t long ago that you could find this type of AC cable anywhere for a two or three dollars, tops. By anywhere, I really do mean anywhere–discount stores, Radio Shack, consumer electronics stores, maybe even dollar stores if you’re lucky.

Cables are high markup items, but even at $3, these things offer a healthy profit margin, so they should still be readily available at something near that price. I know sometime in the last decade I’ve bought one of these things at Kmart.

So before you pay even $5 for a replacement cable, raid the drawer where you keep all your stray electronics wires and see if you can find one that fits. Failing that, look around for something else around the house, like a boombox, VCR, or DVD player, that has a power cord that will fit. If not, hit the electronics section of your local discount store. Odds are it’s closer than the closest game store, and a suitable cable should cost less there too.

Don’t go into a store asking for an IEC 60320 C7 because they won’t know what you’re talking about, of course. The name may be listed on the packaging. The United States doesn’t require that name to be molded onto the cable, although some countries do. Study the image above and you should recognize the cable on sight in a store. If worse comes to worse, print out the picture above and bring it with you to compare. Miguel Durán drew it to be helpful, so let it help you.

So why does Sony use the polarized connector? Probably to fool people into buying a replacement cable from them at an inflated price to replace a lost cable. They fooled me, and I should know better.

Save energy and money with smart power strips

I stumbled across this money-saving tip today. A company called Bits Limited sells “smart” power strips. Here’s how they work: You plug a device into one of the plugs, and when you turn that device on, it switches power on to other outlets. The strip also figures out how much energy the device uses when it’s off, so when it senses you’ve turned that device off, it cuts power to those other outlets.

Here’s an obvious use: Plug your TV into the master outlet, then plug your VCR, DVD player, cable box (or powered antenna if you’re a cable-hating tightwad like me) into the autoswitching outlets.The reason these strips work is because most home appliances use power even when they’re switched off. A powered-off TV uses power because part of it has to stay on all the time waiting for you to hit the power button on your remote. The same thing is true of your DVD player, VCR, and anything else that has a remote. Any device that uses a plug-in “wall wart” transformer is also consuming power. The transformer chews up a watt or two even if the device it powers is turned off.

So if you can bring yourself to walk over to the TV to turn it on rather than using the remote, you can buy the cheapest $31 model for each TV in your house and plug your stuff into that. (To save more money, check for refurbs.)

The manufacturer states one of these devices can save you $11.55 a month, on average, when used with a computer.

The savings won’t be as high with other devices like TVs, but you can expect to save a few dollars and in the summer, you’ll save slightly more because those devices won’t be generating excess heat that your air conditioner has to dissipate. Each strip you buy should pay for itself in less than a year.

Plus, those wall warts will last longer if power is cut to them when they aren’t in use. I’ve come across numerous “broken” old-school video game machines whose only problem was a burned-out wall wart. Replacements can be pricey ($10-$20), so if these power strips save you from having to replace two of those over the lifetime of the unit, they pay for themselves right there.

The company also sells beefier units with more outlets and more protection intended for computers. The idea there is you can plug the computer in, and when you turn your computer off, it will automatically shut off your monitor, printer, and any other peripherals you have in order to save power.

I have mixed feelings on using these with computers. From an energy consumption standpoint, having a computer powered on all the time is comparable to having the lights on in the room all the time–and we’re talking old-fashioned incandescents here, not CFLs. So plugging your computer into one of these devices and turning it off when you’re not using it would save a lot of power. While computer monitors should be turned off when not in use, there’s nothing worse for the computer itself than turning it off and on repeatedly. I leave my computers on all the time, and in the last 10 years, I’ve had two hardware failures. One was a hard drive crash in a laptop (very difficult to avoid), and the other was a dead power supply in an HP Pavillion desktop after a power failure. As underpowered as that power supply was, that failure probably was inevitable too. Two failures in 10 years is a pretty good record.

Electricity is expensive, but computer failures are expensive too. I prefer to leave my computers on, save power where I can (I own several computers but they all only print to one printer, for example), and maximize my computers’ life expectancy.

I’m thinking very seriously about at least ordering one of these for the living-room television. It won’t pay for itself as quickly as the programmable thermostat did, but they only cost about $5-$10 more than a traditional power strip with comparable protection ratings. If I look at them as a $10 investment instead of a $30 investment, they’ll pay for themselves pretty fast.

I did go looking for other manufacturers. It appears that Fellowes made these in the past but has discontinued them. For now, it appears Bits Ltd’s offerings are the easiest ones to find. It would be nice if that changed.

A crude way to get some of the benefit of these is to use an electrical outlet timer. Plug the timer into the wall, plug your power strip into the timer (assuming the timer has a grounded outlet), then set the timer to cut the power off at night. The savings won’t be as dramatic, but if you happen to have a timer or two around the house to control Christmas lights, you might as well put them to use saving you some money during the other 10 months of the year.

How to find motivation to balance your budget

This week I read a story on Get Rich Slowly about a couple who refuses to budget. The conversation ended when the person who needed to budget bragged about getting five shrubs on sale for $10 each. She didn’t need them, but the deal was too good to pass up.Consumerism is an easy trap to fall into because of easy credit, and the messages are all around us. Most people who know me probably categorize me as an extreme cheapskate. Certainly there are lots of things I could be doing that I don’t, but even by doing a few little things you can improve your financial situation immensely.

Watch less TV. I think this is a really big one, because TV is the primary source of marketing messages. It’s not just the commercials either. The TV shows give lots of messages about how you’re supposed to live. It’s not a realistic picture.

At one point in my life I was able to go a year without watching TV, just watching the World Series each year. I watch more now. I try to catch This Old House on Sunday evenings and sometimes I’ll watch a show with my wife, so I probably watch 3-4 hours a week now. But that’s a lot less than average.

My advice to someone who wants to watch more TV than I do would be to watch older movies (1940s-1960s), as that would make it harder to compare your life to someone else’s. Plus, there’s a lot less product placement and other marketing shenanigans going on, and if you watch it on video, no commercials.

Have realistic expectations. A lot of 20-somethings seem to think they have to have furniture as nice as their parents. That’s unrealistic and sometimes impractical. The previous generation didn’t always have what they have now. Walk into the home of a 50-something, and some of the furniture will be new, but some of it will be 10-15 years old, possibly more. The furnishings were bought over the course of many years. Plus, nicer things are impractical when you have kids running around. There will be spills and stains and dirt. Kids need to be taught to respect things, but what’s the point of ruining a $1,000 sofa to teach the lesson? It’s better to put something older and cheaper in harm’s way instead–much easier on the credit card and on your sanity.

Budget. A budget isn’t some mystical thing. It’s a simple list of your money as it comes and goes. It can be as simple as a spreadsheet. In one column, list all your sources of income–your paycheck, plus anything you make on the side. Add up that total.

In another column, list your monthly expenses. That’s everything–your car payment, rent or mortgage, credit card bills, utility bills, gasoline, food, and entertainment. You may have to save your receipts for a month to do this realistically. Add up that total. Hopefully it’s a smaller number than the first total.

I first did this in college when I was treasurer for my fraternity. We were in serious financial trouble but nobody knew why. I grabbed the checkbook, did the simple analysis I described above, and figured out we were spending more than $400 per member every month. We were only charging $380 a month for people to live there.

When we couldn’t raise rates, I started cancelling things. I cancelled the Super Bowl Party. I cancelled cable TV in the lounge. If it wasn’t a basic necessity of life, it went. It made me unpopular and it didn’t balance the budget, but it cut the shortfall.

I’m guessing most of the people who voted against me raising rates are having more trouble paying their bills today than they need to.

The expenses involved in a personal budget are different than for an organization, but the principles are identical. You still need to have more coming in every month than comes out, and if you can’t figure out how to make more, the only way to have more money is to spend less.

Reward yourself. Practically. A few years ago my budget was tight and I’d taken on an expensive hobby. Then I realized what I spent on food every day. It started with $1 for a cup of coffee and a doughnut. Lunch was $5 at the cafeteria. And usually I spent another dollar or two in the vending machine. I let my ego tell me it wasn’t worth my time to pack a lunch.

Then I did this math equation: (365-52-52-10-10)*7 and came up with $1,687. I was spending $1,687 a year on (mostly) bad food because I thought I was too important to pack my own lunch.

I was also making about $15,000 a year less than I make now. Dice.com tells me I’m slightly underpaid now, let alone then. Who was I kidding? That $1,687 was a luxury I couldn’t afford.

So I went to the store, bought a Thermos and a big can of coffee, bought some instant oatmeal and some breakfast bars and granola bars, and started packing fruit and sandwiches. What was left became my hobby budget.

I couldn’t motivate myself to cut that expense just to have more money, but being able to afford something I otherwise couldn’t was enough motivation for me. Eventually I shrunk the hobby budget and started using that money to pay down debt.

But had my situation been different I don’t think it would have been a bad thing, necessarily, to keep using that to fund a hobby. It’s easy to get discouraged when it seems like everyone else is passing you by, even if they’re passing you by on borrowed money.

Look at opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is about the only thing I remember from college economics. The theory goes like this: The cost of a new car isn’t $20,000. It’s what else I could have done with that money. So the cost of a new car is a plasma TV ($5,000), a high-def DVD player ($500), a nice computer ($1,500), a new high-efficiency furnace ($4,000), a nice vacation ($3,000), all three current generation video game systems (roughly $1,000), a new living room set ($2,000), and you’d still have $3,000 left to replace two or three appliances with high-end models, or all your major appliances with new low-to-mid-range models.

Would it be worth driving an older car for a few more years to be able to afford to go on a home-improvement binge like that?

Or here’s the way I prefer to look at it. I could invest that money conservatively, using a no-load index fund that just does exactly what the Dow Jones Industrial Average does. Historically, money invested in the DJIA doubles every seven years. Some seven-year periods are better than others, of course. If I dump $20,000 into that kind of a fund, it will be worth $320,000 in 28 years.

The sticker price on the Honda Civic sitting in my driveway was around $15,000, but that’s not what it cost me. It didn’t cost $16,500 either (I paid some interest on it because I didn’t have the cash to buy it outright immediately). It cost $264,000.

I know some people look down on me for driving what’s now a five-year-old car, but I can build myself a very nice nest egg just by keeping my cars two or three times as long as everyone else does. Will they still be looking down on me if I retire at 65 and they have to work 10 more years because they still have debt to pay off?

If the cost of a secure future is driving a car typical of what 16-year-olds drive, I’ll pay that price. It’s a bargain.

Don’t pay interest. If you have a choice between financing something and waiting a while and paying cash, wait and pay cash. Paying interest is like paying rent. It’s paying money off and having nothing to show for it in the end.

I do use interest-free periods to buy things because that gives me a little more time to get the money together. I financed a furnace earlier this year because they offered 6 months same as cash. I probably could have paid cash on the spot but it would have been less comfortable. Being able to spread my payments out over six months allows me to pay more on the mortgage, which does charge interest.

Give me a little time to process what I just saw…

I finally got around to seeing Supersize Me, the documentary film where the filmmaker ate three meals a day at McDonald’s for 30 days to see what would happen.I need to think more about what I saw. But here are some random thoughts that occur to me after seeing it.

The first thing that comes to mind is Rod Carew. Carew was the second-greatest hitter of his era (since I’m a Kansas City Royals fan, of course he can’t be as good as George Brett). Early in his career, Carew was slumping. He asked his hitting coach what was wrong. He happened to be eating ice cream. The coach ripped the container of ice cream from his hand, threw it in the nearest trash can, and told Carew to quit eating junk. He tried it. He quit eating junk food and quit drinking soda. He was 38 before his batting average dipped below .300 again.

I know I’ve read several times on John C. Dvorak’s blog the comment, “Someone wants us fat.”

When I worked in fast food, if we didn’t try to “suggestive sell”–that is, when someone ordered a soda, ask, “Is that a large?” or something similar, we could be reprimanded. I didn’t upsell unless the manager was in earshot. I was always in trouble. I know for a fact the reason I didn’t get fired was because they didn’t want me talking–I knew lots of things that company didn’t want getting out. (None of that matters now; the company folded in 1993.)

In the film, Morgan Spurlock visited a school of troublesome kids. The school served healthy lunches–fresh fruits and vegetables and foods that were prepared fresh, rather than out of a box. The behavior problems largely disappeared. Television and video games get a lot of the blame for the rash of ADD and ADHD. And maybe kids do watch more TV and play more video games than we did 20 years ago when I was a kid. But kids today do eat a lot less healthy than we did. We ate out a couple of times a month, generally. Kids today eat out a lot more than that, and there are a lot more convenience foods in the grocery stores now than there were then.

Spurlock experienced depression. Depression is almost an epidemic. All I have to do to get hits on my web site is write about depression. In college I became a hero when I wrote about depression in my weekly newspaper column–professors were asking me to lunch, asking me to guest-lecture classes, and students I didn’t know from Adam were stopping me and thanking me. I thought I was the only one who ever felt depressed. Turns out it was the people who didn’t ever get depressed who were weird! And every time I write about depression here, I get tons and tons of hits. People are desperate enough to solicit advice from some guy they never met who isn’t a doctor and hasn’t so much as taken a biology class since Gulf War I–me. Maybe the problem is what they eat.

But hey. There’s big, big money in depression. I did a quick Google search, and 90 tablets of the low dosage of Paxil (let’s see what ads that gets me) costs $189 in Canada. Of course, in the United States, we pay more. Assuming 90 tablets is three months’ worth, that’s $2.10 a day. I know what GlaxoSmithKline’s saying: ba-da-ba-ba-ba, I’m lovin’ it!

And of course the fast-food companies want us fat. When we’re fat, we order more. We eat larger portions more frequently. The less healthy we are, the more they benefit. And the more the drug companies benefit.

Another symptom Spurlock experienced was fatigue. That’s another common problem. And who benefits from that? Coca-Cola, Pepsico, and Starbucks, mostly. Who can function anymore without that jolt of caffeine in the morning?

I’m not saying it’s a big conspiracy. I’m not real big on conspiracies. I’m perfectly willing to believe the fast-food phenomenon happened and the companies that sell drugs and caffeine were the lucky beneficieries.

I’ll tell you something: I gave up fast food at 25, when my dad’s cousin started having serious health problems. That was a reality check for me: my closest male relative died at just over twice my age, and then when another one of my closest male relatives reached that age, it was just a lucky break that he didn’t die also. I woke up one morning, looked in the mirror, asked myself if I wanted my life to be half over, and started eating turkey sandwiches from Subway (with just veggies and mustard–hold the fatty crap) for lunch pretty much every day.

And a lot of times when things have started going wrong, I haven’t been eating as well. I know that’s true for me right now.

I’ve seen Dr. Mark Himan on TV a couple of times the past few months. The things he says make a lot of sense. My wife and I have one of his books and another one on order. I think it’s time for me to read the one we have. I’m 31 now, and sometimes I feel like I’m losing my edge. Maybe I should do what Rod Carew did, and see if I get it back.

How to make more money, but more importantly, keep more of what you earn

Most GenXers don’t spend their money wisely.

That’s not an insult on my peers; there’s plenty of blame to go around. Yes, we want what our parents had at 50 and we want it at 25, but part of the problem is the images all around us tell us we have to have all that. And if my education is any indication, the only financial education I received in school was an aside in a U.S. History class.

Let’s talk about how to earn more to dig out of financial ruin, and how to stay out.First and foremost, usually when people get to the point where they start typing “earn more money now” or something similar into Google, usually they need immediate help. A year ago, I was in that situation. Talking it over with the higher-ups didn’t help–a few months later I lost my job. Ouch.

I’d be lying to you if I told you I wasn’t bitter. I still am. But in a way it was the best thing that could have happened to me, because it forced me to look for opportunities. I already had been, but it forced me to find others that I probably wouldn’t have, otherwise.

There are a few ways to make a little money but it won’t necessarily happen immediately. If you have a web site, put Google ads on it. Click my link to find out how. Whether you get your first check in a month or in a year depends on how much traffic you get. A faster way to make a little money is to sign up for some online surveys. You won’t get rich, but a dollar here and five bucks there adds up. Sometimes you’ll hit the jackpot and qualify for a $25 survey. That won’t pay the mortgage but it will pay for a few meals.

Here’s another idea: Become a mystery shopper. Google for it. But don’t pay anyone to become a mystery shopper, not when there are legitimate outfits who are willing to pay you. Just keep in mind some of them want references. That’s actually a good thing. It protects your reputation and theirs. Again, it’s not big money, but it’s fairly easy money.

But I’ll be blunt: If you’re in some real trouble and there’s a bill that’s due in two weeks and you can’t pay it, then it’s time to make some sacrifices. Do you have any recent video games? Any collectible CDs or DVDs or VHS tapes? Collectible toys, such as Star Wars figures? There are lots of places that are willing to buy things like that, but to get top dollar you have to sell it yourself. Search eBay, find out what your items or something similar are selling for, and think seriously about liquidating some stuff. Don’t sell your family heirlooms, but if there are things that you can sell now to get you out of trouble and replace later when you’re out of trouble, consider it. While collectibles do increase in value, I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret: Most of them are doing well to keep up with inflation. None will increase as quickly as your debt–not for a sustained period of time, at least. If you have something that is, sell now. The bubble will burst, and you’ll be able to buy it back cheaper later.

And something sobering will happen as you research what some of the things you own are worth. You’ll find a lot of them aren’t worth anywhere near what you paid for them. There’s a lesson there. It’s much better to spend your money on things that hold their value than on things that have bling factor but have no value once the 14-day return period is over.

So when you have money again, spend less on worthless things so you have more to spend on things that do hold their value. A big truck turns heads and lets you bully people on the road (and the ads to some degree encourage it) but can you really afford $40 a week to keep gas in it? Do you have to haul stuff often enough to justify that expense? For the majority of people, it’s much better to drive an economy car and put the money you save on the lower payment and less gas towards paying off debt. Borrow or rent a truck those occasional times when you need to haul something. So skip the Hummer and get a house. You need a house anyway, and while a Hummer will lose value when you go to sell it, a house usually will gain.

Let’s go back to the eBay thing for a minute. Ebay does a lot of good things. Once you’ve sold your stuff, you have the option to go buy more stuff to sell. Buy what you know and only what you know, and only if you can buy low and sell high. If you can’t either double your money or make $10, don’t bother. It’s best to find something that lets you do both. But if you have the ability to do that, you have an asset that stands a chance of turning your financial situation around within a few years.

But it also does something else. It teaches you how to sell. There is no better, more useful ability than how to sell. Not everyone sells merchandise for dollars, but everyone has to sell ideas. If you regularly find that people don’t listen to you, then that’s a good indication that you need more salesmanship ability. Yeah, but those people are idiots, you say. Even better. There are more idiots out there than smart people. Most rich people got rich by getting idiots to buy their junk.

I remember reading a line in a book once that asked me if I could make a better hamburger than McDonald’s. Of course I can. So why did Ray Kroc have more money than me?

By the way, I don’t mean any insult by any of this if people don’t listen to you. There are a lot of people who don’t listen to me either. I need to work on my sales skills as much as anyone.

I did something else before I started selling my stuff. I took a walk. I walked at least once a day. But I didn’t just walk. I was picking up aluminum cans. At 40 cents a pound, an aluminum can is worth about a penny. There’s no way I can pick up 100 cans in an hour, so it’s a lousy way to make money. But nobody else was paying me to do anything else during that time. I made sure I didn’t walk during working hours so I wouldn’t be out if the phone rang with a job opportunity. At least I felt like I was doing a little something. It was very little, but it kept my mind off things so I didn’t get as depressed. It also helped me watch for opportunity. Those cans aren’t worth anything, but the ability to quickly spot things of value from far off is worth something. It made a few house payments when I didn’t have a 40-hour-a-week job.

That’s enough talk about making money. I’ll admit that they’re just general ideas. I can’t give specific advice because something that works where I live might not work 100 miles away. Something else works there. The nice thing about the United States is that there always is an opportunity, no matter where you are. Although politicians seem to be trying their best to destroy that, they can’t destroy opportunities as quickly as you can find them.

I read a study this past week that said 70% of college graduates today can’t balance a checkbook, and when presented with a 20-ounce jar of spaghetti sauce for $1.99 and a 32-ounce jar for $2.49, they don’t know how to figure out which one is the better deal. That should scare some people.

But it occurred to me that I didn’t learn how to do that in school. I learned it from my mother. And I think she learned it from her mother, who must have known it because she managed to raise 11 kids and her husband didn’t have any money.

They don’t teach that kind of thing in school. To me, that’s the only thing math is good for. But I don’t know how old I was when I realized math was useful for that. Before that I thought math was just something teachers used to prove they knew something I didn’t.

There are lots of books out there that try to teach you how to make more money. But a more valuable skill is learning how to spot the good deal. Learn how to calculate the cost per ounce and use it. Carry a calculator with you if that’s what you have to do. There’s no shame in that. A calculator is also a useful tool for keeping a running total of the cost of the stuff in your cart. So it might be a good idea to carry two calculators. They’ll pay for themselves the first time you use them.

And if you have any influence with math teachers, please hand them this word problem. It’s the only good use of math I can think of for a non-engineer:

A television costs $199 at a store two miles from you. The sales tax rate in your town is 5.75%. The same television costs $179 at a store 100 miles away. The sales tax rate in that town is 6%. Your car gets 25 miles to the gallon. Gasoline costs $2.00 a gallon. Is it cheaper to buy the television at the store two miles away, or is it cheaper to buy it 100 miles away?

I’ll conclude with the secret of getting rich. The secret isn’t to make lots of money. It’s human nature to spend more money as soon as you make more money. The secret is to spend less.

I remember when the first of my college classmates bought a house. He told me that at the end of the paper, it told him how much money the loan was for, and how much money he would pay between then and the end of the term. “Am I really going to make that much money?” he asked. Then he laughed it off.

He will. So will I. So will everyone. Most people living in the United States will make a lot more than a million dollars between their first job and retirement. The question is whether Nike and General Motors and Phillip Morris and Coca-Cola get to keep most of it, or whether the wage-earner gets to keep most of it.

I really don’t like the tone of this rant–and it basically is a rant–because it sounds like someone who made it looking back. I’ve only started the journey myself. I started 14 months ago. But my wife and I already have something to show for it. We have no credit card debt, we own two 2002 Honda Civics outright, and if we can keep up our current pace, we will own our house outright in a little over three years. Five years is probably more realistic.

Remember, around 12 months ago there wasn’t enough money to pay the bills. So if I can do it, lots of people can.