Thursday, June 24, 2010

Walmart vs. United Supermarkets: a statistical breakdown

I, like most of you, sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and ponder the Walmart dilemma. If I factor in my time, is it actually cheaper to shop there? So, I decided to conduct my own little experiment. I bought the same items at each store and timed my trips. I started the timer when I entered each parking lot and stopped it as I exited each parking lot. If you think this is nerdy you should see my spreadsheets comparing the finances of various republican parties (here you go: Anyhoo, here are the results:

$3.88 1 Gallon milk
$1.99 1/2 lb Smoked White Turkey
$2.38 Peanut Butter
$1.32 Grape Jelly
$1.00 White Bread
$3.38 16 American Singles Cheese
$3.56 2.45 lb Red Seedless Grapes
$1.91 1.5 lbs Gala Apples
$1.20 2.45 lbs Bananas
$1.76 2 Bags Blueberry Muffin Mix
$1.18 1 Dozen Large Eggs
Total: $23.56
Total Time: 17 minutes, 45 seconds

$3.99 1 Gallon milk
$2.00 1/2 lb Smoked White Turkey
$2.97 Peanut Butter
$1.49 Grape Jelly
$1.29 White Bread
$2.39 16 American Singles Cheese
$3.18 2.45 lb Red Seedless Grapes
$2.00 1.5 lbs Gala Apples
$1.44 2.45 lbs Bananas
$1.98 2 Bags Blueberry Muffin Mix
$1.29 1 Dozen Large Eggs
Total: $24.02
Total Time: 17 minutes, 13 seconds

So, the numbers are suprisingly close. I expected Walmart to cost a ton less, but take a lot longer. I know what you are thinking: "But Josh, if my time is worth money, how much did the extra 30 seconds at Walmart cost?" Glad you asked. The average annual income in America is $52,029. That works out to about 43 cents per minute assuming a 40 hour work week with 2 weeks vacation per year. The extra 30 seconds cost 21.5 cents. 1 minute longer and Walmart would have been more expensive. For the average Amarilloan (who has this exact grocery list, who makes exactly $52,029 per year, who is cheap and buys generic brands, who wastes no time fraternizing with people at the store, who shops at exactly 9:15pm on a Sunday evening) it is cheaper to shop at United if Walmart is more than a 1 minute further drive. Praise God I'm closer to United.

One other fyi, I have heard rumors that United marks down name brand items at the first of the month and generic items at the end of the month.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

My reminder to myself to put down my cell phone.

I'm nearing the end of an exhausting week: crazy stock market, massive to-do list, restless sleep, lots of stress. I entered my house to a chorus of: “Daddy’s home!” My daughters whisked me away for an imaginary tea party. I sat there on the floor-exhausted & cranky, and wishing that I hadn't left my phone in the other room. Regardless, I accepted a refill of "rainbow flower" tea as my daughters adorned me with a pink feathery hat and a shiny necklace……and somehow my stress seemed to make a temporary exit.

It's a good thing that the constant chaos of parenthood forces me to forget my cell phone sometimes. It's hard to be stressed about your to-do list when you find yourself sitting on the floor, cell phone-less, half-cross-dressed, singing "Do Do Do Do Do Dora, Do Do Do Do Do Dora...". Accidentally leaving my cell phone inaccessible almost always leads to less stressful times. You should try it sometime. Just don't sing Dora whilst "accessorizing" unless you have daughters. Society will not like you.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Good news economy, the Wood family is single-handedly propping up the stock price of Walmart.

So, we ventured into a sad new world yesterday. June 9, 2010 will go down in the history books as the day when "remember that time when we only needed one shopping cart?" entered our vocabulary. As it turns out, kids eat a lot of food...A LOT OF FOOD. Even worse, I fear that our oldest is on the brink of a discovering that we aren't required to buy Great Value brand everything.

The dilemma: utilizing a two cart system requires two cart operators...meaning that my wife and I both have to go to the store...meaning that we either hire a baby sitter or take all six kids with us.

Last night, we opted for the latter. Fortunately for us, our kids are all very well behaved; but, there is something disturbing about eating vegetables that my 2 year old son has sat upon (I don't trust the thin plastic vegetable bag as a full-proof stank barrier)...and at least one loaf of our bread usually ends up with the imprint of some toddler appendage...and we sometimes end up with a few surprise items in our basket (it was 6 boxes of assorted fruit snacks last night-which, ironically, cost us more than a babysitter would have).

The massive load of groceries that we bought yesterday will be depleted in 2 weeks. What in the world are we going to do when the kids are teenagers? I'm thinking that a small farm and a dairy cow might be in our future. Donations accepted.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Switch by Chip and Dan Heath

I just finished Switch by Chip and Dan Heath. These are some highlights of the book, mostly for my own reference later. First off, you should read it. The book contains applications useful for anyone in any walk of life. The book, obviously, goes into great detail on all of this stuff. Buy it. You won't regret it. Ignore this post if you don't care.

The overall study of the book is "change". The authors were curious why we are happilly accepting of some changes (getting married, having kids, etc.) while begrudgingly opposed to other changes.

They agree with a psychologist's (I can't remember his name) assessment: we are all psychsophrenic when it comes to change (part of us wants to be healthy while the other wants a cookie/part of us wants to be wealthy while the other wants a boat). He uses the analogy of a man riding an elephant. The elephant rider is the rational side of our brain who desires to be healthy. The elephant is the emotional side of our brain that wants a cookie. To effectively change, both the elephant and it's rider have to move in tandem.

The author uses tons of great statistics and examples to illustrate how to accomplish this "moving in tandem". Here's an overview:

I. Direct the Rider
A. Find bright spots: Rather than focusing on what went wrong when trying to accomplish a stated objective, focus on what went right. i.e. if you have a painfully shy child, don't focus on how they won't make friends. Focus instead on where he/she is succeeding. Did he/she ask a waiter for a refill of water? Encourage the behavior.
B. Script the critical moves for change: the elephant's rider performs terribly with ambiguity. For example: a budgeter often fails because his/her goal is to "spend less money". Our elephant's rider requires extreme clarity. It is best to break down your goal: spend less money > get rid of the premium cable package > call the cable company > look up cable company's phone number.

II. Motivate the Elephant
A. Find the feeling. Our elephant doesn't react to facts and figures, it reacts to emotions and feelings. An example the book gave:
A man was trying to convince the executives of his manufacturing company to cut costs in purchasing by changing the way they purchased things. Rather than creating spreadsheets and pie charts, he appealed to the "elephant". He obtained one pair of every type of glove that the company had purchased for its factory workers. He attached large price tags (listing what the company had paid) to each pair and piled them on a table in a massive heap. The executives saw that some gloves were virtually identical for which they had paid drastically different prices. This "elephant appeal" led to an entire restructure of the corporation's purchasing policies.
B. Build an Identity. Our elephant often appeals to having an identity. For example, a group of Harvard researchers decided to tackle the drunk driving problem in America. Rather than the traditional means of attacking this problem, they decided to "build an identity". They convinced popular tv shows of the time (LA Law, Cheers, etc.) to mention and script "designated drivers" (a new term unknown in America) in their worked.
C. Build a "Growth" mindset. Book example: struggling students at a school were grouped into two groups: Group A, the control group, did nothing differently. Group B, the "brain is a muscle" group, spent two hours learning about how the brain is like a muscle: you can train it and work it out to produce better results. The "brain is a muscle" group showed much better improvement than the "control" group.

III. Shape the Path
A. Break the environment: if a guy is addicted to his cell phone, take it away.
i. Tweak the environment: if a guy is addicted to his cell phone, turn off cell phone notifications and alerts.
B. Rally the herd. Society tends to move toward social norms. If someone realizes that he/she is in the minority, simply being aware that he/she is in the minority will often motivate change. Publishing the fact that 80% of employees have their time sheets turned in on time will help motivate the lagging 20%. However, the opposite is also true. Issuing a scathing report that only 20% turn their time sheets on time will likely lead to more late reporters.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The IRS: A Model of Efficiency

So, I spent a good chunk of my day (11am-1:30pm to be exact) hanging out at the IRS. 2 reasons: problem #1 My refund was $2,000 less than it was supposed to be. Problem #2 I received a random refund check for overpayment of business taxes for $27. Two days later I received a bill for underpayment of business taxes for $27 + late fees. Awesome. Here are some observations during my time:

When I arrived at 11am there were two people in front of me. I foolishly hoped that this adventure would last around 45 minutes.

They have a police officer on duty at all times, but no receptionist. I asked the nice officer if she got bored. "Of course. We just sit here all day." She's a glorified babysitter. Fortunately, she got to "work" a little bit because I pulled out my cell phone to check my email. To her credit she was right on top of my malfeasance, immediately telling me to put up my phone. No phones allowed in the IRS office. During the time I was there she did a crossword and worked on what I am assuming was a solo version of Mad Libs. She did help two people figure out how to sign in. She told me that sometimes people sit and wait for 30 minutes because they aren't aware that they have to sign in...because there is no receptionist to instruct people to do so. She continually had to point out to people that she did not work for the IRS and could not answer their questions. She was always nice, which was impressive. If I had the same massive amounts of boredom engrained into my job I would probably resort to annoying people just for kicks...but I digress...

After I had been waiting an hour I asked the nice cop if she knew (from her experience watching this waiting room) how long it might take. She told me that they had 2 people working, but one of them was on lunch break. I still had 2 people in front of me. I decided to run home and grab a book. Don't get me wrong IRS, I appreciated the travel magazines you provided me; but, after an hour I am kind of an expert on Tuscany.

20 minutes later I return. There is now only one person ahead of me...but not because of IRS progress. The other person, who had been asleep in the waiting chair for 30 minutes prior to my errand-running, had left in disgust (so my newfound waiting room friend informed me). Fast forward>>>>An hour later my turn comes.

Solution to problem #1: The IRS informed me that I needed to file an amended return because someone who entered my return at the IRS messed up. Me: "So, you're telling me that I have to pay my CPA to file an amended return because someone at the IRS screwed up?" Him: "Yes." Me: "Sounds great. Thanks for your help. Let's look at my second problem." Him: "I guess you could come by with other documentation (copies of my return weren't enough) and we might be able to fix it that way." Me: "Can I set an appointment?" Him: "No."

Solution to problem #2: They don't know what happened or why, but they cancelled my refund check and applied it toward my account. I forgot to ask if they waived my late fees. If only I'd had more time to think through all of my questions.

Thanks, government, for the IRS. I look forward to your health care.