By John W. Schoen Senior Producer
msnbc.com

This week's departure of Richard Grasso -- as the very-well-paid chairman of the New York Stock Exchange -- has readers thinking about executive compensation. Herb in Milwaukee wants to know how to find out just how much a CEO is making. And Lisa in Washington is trying to negotiate a better pay package for herself. As always, if you'd like to write to us, please include your first name and hometown.

DIGGING FOR PAY DATA

Where can one find the amount of compensation a CEO and other officers of a corporation receive?
Herb S. —Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The answer is usually — but not always — available in public documents. Before you go looking, you need to ask a few more questions. For starters, is the company public or private?

For a public corporation — one that sells shares to the public on the open market — most of what you’re looking for can be found in the annual proxy statement that the Securities and Exchange Commission requires every public company to file and mail to shareholders. (Don’t bother with the glossy annual report showing happy company executives and workers, complete with management’s excuses for what went wrong.) The annual SEC 10-K report, which includes other financial data, also has some information on executive compensation, but it’s not as complete. For private companies that are about to go public, this information is required in the registration statement for the initial public offering. Quarterly financial statements, which are not audited, do not have to include executive pay information.

Then there’s the question of what exactly you mean by “compensation.” Just salary and cash bonus? What about grants of stock or stock options? Or interest-free loans? Or free use of the company jet?

Much of these items are covered in SEC regulations; some are not. In the case of perks, for example, these need to be reported only if the total cost to the company is more than $50,000 — or 10 percent of the CEO’s base salary and bonus (whichever is less). As for just what these perks are, the rules say that if any one of them is worth more than 25 percent of the total reported, the company has to come clean. Otherwise, you’ll never know unless the financial press starts snooping.

“Deferred compensation” — the item that made Mr. Grasso’s pay package look so huge — is also reported under these rules, along with any sweet deals regarding how that money is invested. (The big reason for deferring pay is to save taxes.)

To find out how much a specific CEO is getting, go to the SEC’s Web site, where you can look up the filings. (If you own the stock, you should have already gotten a proxy statement — usually in March or April — when you’re invited to the shareholders meeting and asked to fill out a ballot for directors. If you didn’t get one, call the company’s investor relations department and ask why not.) The SEC also has a useful, step-by-step guide to finding the disclosures on CEO’s pay packages and figuring out what they mean.

WHAT ABOUTMY PAY RAISE?
When negotiating for an annual cost-of-living adjustment, what would that percentage be?
Lisa S. — Granger, Wash.

You can ask for whatever you want. Tell them if Dick Grasso is worth $140 million, so are you.

Major Market Indices

But if you want to stick with what the government data suggests, the cost of living — as measured by the consumer price index — is up 2.2 percent for the latest 12 months That’s as of August, the freshest numbers available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The folks sitting across the table may counter that the inflation rate in your region is lower htan the national average, but in the Seattle area the number is just about the same.

You can counter with BLS data showing that -- regardless of what the price index shows -- wages are rising more quickly. If you're working in private industry, wages on average were up 3.5 percent over the past 12 months (as of the second quarter of this year.) If your a state or local government workers, you'll be able to make a better argument -- wages there have gone up 4.1 percent over the same period. (Your bargaining adversaries will almost certainly counter that wages have risen much more slowly -- 1 percent or less -- in the latest 3 months recorded by the BLS.)

The "official" Cost Of Living Adjustment -- pegged once a year to calculate how much to raise Social Security checks -- is due out next month. Over the past 25 years, that number has soared as high as 14.3 percent (a nice raise, but raging inflation ate up almost all of it) to a low of 1.3 percent in 1998. Last October, the increase was pegged at 1.4 percent.

In the case of wage data, the BLS also serves up the data sliced by region but they aren't as fresh. The latest data in your area is from Sept., 2002.

EARLIER ANSWERS

BUY CHEAP

Could you explain to me what it exactly means when a stock is overvalued and when it is undervalued? Which one of them is more attractive for investment considerations?
Ana R. -- Santa Monica, Calif.

You always want to go with stocks that are undervalued -- and sell when they're overvalued. The problem is trying to figure out which is which.

"Undervalued" is Wall Street jargon for "cheap." If Costco is selling your favorite new TV for $10 less than the same model at Wal-mart, you might say the Costco TV is "undervalued" -- the store has attached a value to it that's less than a comparable TV offered by another seller. On the other hand, if someone on eBay is willing to pay $50 more for the same TV, it's "overvalued" on eBay.

The tougher part is figuring out what the "right" value is for a stock. Most investors historically have used a company's earnings power as a measure of its value. If earnings are strong, and going up, chances are good the stock price will too.

So now you're trying to buy a stock with good earnings as cheaply as possible. That's what "earnings per share" data and "price-earnings" ratios are for. It's simply a way to compare how much you're paying for a dollar of earnings from one company to the next. Or one industry to the next. Or one month to the next. Stock prices may change on a daily basis, but the earnings -- the "E" of the P/E ratio -- are fairly easy to nail down (as long as you believe the company's accountants). The "P" represents earnings per share -- the total profit divided by the number of shares out there on the market.

So if you can buy a stock for 10 times earnings when the company's competitors are selling for 20 times earnings -- your stock may be "undervalued." (It also could be priced lower than its peers because its in serious financial trouble -- that's why these terms are so imprecise.)

When your broker tells you he wants you to buy a stock he thinks is "undervalued" -- ask him to explain why he thinks so. The answer could be very illuminating. (And don't buy unless you fully understand -- and believe -- the pitch.)

PROFIT LABELS

What is the difference between "gross profit margin" and "markup"?
Tom C. -- Statesville, N.C.

As the folks at Enron and WorldCom demonstrated, these terms can mean pretty much whatever you want them to mean.

Subtle differences in accounting practices used to be reserved for industries that had legitimate reasons for doing things differently. A bank, and airline and a software company keep their books in slightly different ways because of the nature of how they make their money. But the underlying concepts are the same.

"Gross profit margin," for example, refers to a company's profit as a percentage of its total revenues. But the devil is in the details. What expenses are deducted before you get to "profit"? How do you book revenues? Without a national accounting oversight board -- with teeth -- companies have been free to massage these numbers pretty much as they see fit.

"Markup" is more informal. It's usually used to refer to the difference between, say, a wholesale and retail price. If you manufacture office chairs, sell them to dealers for $180 each and they sell them for $200, that's a $20 markup.

KIDS UNPLUGGED

Sometimes it's more fun to ask the questions that answer them. Last week, in our response to Eric in Milwaukee, we asked if there was any way to rig our son's computer so he can only play an hour of PC games a day. Apparently, we're not the only parents with that problem. Here's a suggestion from a reader:

We use a program called WatchDog. You can set up privileges on a one-time basis (for good behavior / a project done well) OR daily time limits. You can grant internet privileges or grant access to only specific Web sites. You can block access to your programs (like Quicken). It's great with managing time between siblings too!

A word of caution for the wise: If your child is logged in and she/he is doing homework (e.g. typing in a Word doc), WatchDog does NOT send a 1 minute warning message, it just logs the child off the computer -- this can result in losing any work created since the last save -- AND if it's an unnamed file, IT IS GONE and there's NO backup created by Word because the work wasn't lost due to a power failure.
Mary Beth M. (Mom) -- Houston, Tex.

SLIPPERY INVESTMENT?

I have a good friend who's 34, has a good job and is thinking of investing some money. He looked on the Internet and somehow found some company in Florida that he has been corresponding with that is encouraging him to invest in heating oil. They want a minimum investment of $3000.00 for so many gallons. My friend is considering this investment even though it is a lot of money. I told him it sounds pretty fishy to me. I wouldn't invest that much money in a company based in Florida (we live in Oklahoma) over the Internet. I told him if he really wants to do something like that he should learn more about it and find a financial advisor here who should be able to do the same thing. What do you think?
Al C. -- Oklahoma City

Heating oil in Florida? Tell your friend to call me about investing in air conditioners in Alaska. Besides, sending $3,000 to someone you "met" over the Internet is not investing. It's more like buying meat from some guy on a street corner.

But if, by some chance, this company really is "legitimate," it sounds like they're pitching heating oil futures contracts. While perfectly legal, these contracts allow you to buy and sell large amounts of a commodity -- everything from coffee to pork bellies -- with relatively little money. If you know what you're doing, you can make big money on very small moves in the price of the commodity.

But these markets are very complex, dominated by professionals who trade them full-time, have access to research you don't and who've followed them for years. The companies that try to reel in novices like your friend are almost invariably looking for trading commissions and could care less whether you make any money.

And you're right about looking for a local expert: I can't think of a better place than Oklahoma to find someone who knows about oil.

PATENTLY SUSPICIOUS

I am the proud owner of a new Design Patent as of May 27,2003, Pat.# D0475090. My question to you is, in your opinion, what would my next step be? I've been receiving all sorts of information from different companies claiming that, if I paid them a fee, they would help find a manufacturer, and some prospective buyers for my product. Is this a scam versus being legit or what? I have obtained various targets for this product that's already in production as we speak, and I'm not sure what's in store next. I welcome your input.
Bennie M. -- Houston, Tex.

My father, who spent much of his career running manufacturing companies, used to say that a consultant is a guy who asks to borrow your watch, tells you the time and then sends you a bill.

There are plenty of companies that troll for business using public databases like the U.S. Patent Office, and some of them may be reputable. So are some of the attorneys who chase ambulances. Or "mortgage insurance" companies that flooded my mailbox after I refinanced.

The question you're asking, which I would be too, is: If these people are so good, why do they need to troll for unsolicited business using mass mailings? (Sounds a lot like e-mail spam, doesn't it?)

You did all the hard work: You came up with the idea (for a new ornamental design for signs, if I read the Patent Office database correctly); you invested in developing it, filing the paperwork, paying an attorney, etc. Now someone is offering you -- what, exactly?

Sure, you may need to hire someone with marketing skills you don't have to expand your patent's use. You may even want to hire a patent lawyer who specializes in licensing ideas like yours. But the old, reliable method of finding these people is best: Word of mouth, networking, maybe even a want ad in the paper.

And, if I'm reading this right, and your patent is already in production, shouldn't you be collecting royalties from the people already using it?

GOING HOME

I just read your column and I'm thrilled. I am a 35-year-old with 12 years experience in accounting. I have a B.S. degree in finance. I have wanted to open a daycare center in Carlisle, Penn. for years. I currently work in NYC and live in New Jersey but want to move back home to Pennsylvania, ever since Sept 11th. I realize I don't do anything to help people, and now I want out of the corporate rat race and want to help children and make a difference. How do I get started? How do I get grants or other means to start? I just don't know where to start.

Lisa A. -- New Jersey

Start by learning all you can about how a day care center is run: Staffing, finances, regulations, etc. You may be able to research some of this online or in your local library, but your best source will be to find someone who runs a daycare and is willing to show you what's involved. Try a local church or non-profit center in your area.

If that doesn't work, borrow a friend's kid and visit as many daycare centers as you can find, asking as many nosy questions as you can think of. (Well-run daycare centers are very accustomed to answering lots of questions from nervous parents.)

Fill in as many answers as you can and then come up with more questions: How much does rent cost? What about insurance? Where do you find good providers? How much are they paid? What are the biggest safety issues and how do you handle emergencies? How much do centers charge? What state regulations must be met?

Then, when you've become an expert on running a daycare center, go find a place that needs one back in Carlisle: a church, local government, corporation, etc. (This step shouldn't be too hard -- this country is has a chronic shortage of good day care.) You'll be in a much better position to get funding if you can generate enthusiasm from an existing entity that needs your service.

If you decide to set up independently and go after your own grant (which presents a new round of research), start with the U.S. Small Business Administration's grants page. You should also try your state's Department of Public Welfare. They have a program called Child Care Resource Developers that apparently helps people like you find grants and set up shop. The Bi-County Day Care Administration covering Carlisle is in Williamsport. Give them a call at 570-327-6949 or 1-800-346-3020.

And don't be shy about broadcasting your plans to hometown friends, relatives, former schoolteachers, etc. You never know who might have a good lead. Or an idea for a great name for your daycare center.

REALLY SMALL BUSINESS

Hello. I'd like to create an at home business for the after-hours from my normal job. A simple computer support service, which I go to the customers home to perform a large variety of tasks. Two questions which I can't find an answer to:

1. Do I need to "declare" myself a business with the state if I'm working from my home, or do I just start doing it?

2. What about business related expenses? Can I claim those for such a business?

Eric M. -- Milwaukee, Wisc.

You don't need to file papers with the state, though if you hire others and need to withhold payroll taxes, you should get a tax ID number for the IRS. Otherwise, your Social Security number is all you need.

The only thing the IRS cares about is that you declare your full earnings and that you deduct only legitimate business expenses. The simplest way to do this is to file a Schedule C with your personal income tax return. Here are the interactions, including guidelines on what you can write off as expenses.)

And, while I've got you, is there any way to rig my son's computer so he can only play an hour of PC games a day?

FAMILY FEUD

I work for a small family business with a total of 5 full time employees (4 are family members). My husband, the vice president and his father, the president, have struggled for 13 years over different philosophies about running a good business. They legally split the ownership 60/40 (pres./V.P.). After 13 years, they still battle it out constantly. My husband is effectively acting as president. He manages all the clients, the money and the daily aspects of our business. His father has lost interest in the business, and frequently plays computer games all day or goes to the movies while collecting a full salary. He also has a gambling problem. Discussions about these problems are met with hostility but he refuses to seek counseling with us. I believe the company should split to save the family relationships and our finances. What legalities are involved and how should we approach his parents about this decision? What do we do about current clients? I'd appreciate any advice. Thanks in advance.

Name and hometown withheld by request

The legalities of this one are beyond our expertise. You and your husband need to find a good lawyer who specializes in small business and then sit down and discuss your options. But is there a logical way to "split the business" so that each could continue to function? Who would own the name? Even if this works, your husband and father-in-law would still be competing against each other, which would do little to heal the family rift.

Small businesses usually don't divide cleanly into pieces; the more common solution to a falling out is for one partner to buy other out, so the seller can retire or use that capital to set up shop elsewhere. (Bringing along loyal clients to the new business is fair game.) Since you've already worked out a 60/40 split, it should be fairly simple to assess what the business is worth. The tough question, obvisouly, is who buys out whom. (If the buying partner can't afford it, the seller could finance the purchase with what would amount to a mortgage paid by the buyer.)

As for your in-laws, you should quietly explore all your options -- legal and financial -- and assess your enthusiasm and prospects for making a fresh start. Then decide what's best for your and your husband. Once you've come up with a plan, sit down with your in-laws and explain that you love them and can't stand to see the business dividing the family. If they agree, strongly consider negotiating the separation through your lawyers -- direct discussions over terms would likely be extremely heated. (If they don't agree, you may consider asking your lawyer if it's feasible to raise the issue of your father-in-law's competence. But that opens up a whole new can of worms -- and a painful one at that.)

In the end, you may not be able to repair damaged family ties. Coming to terms with fractured relationships with aging parents is beyond the scope of this column. But sometimes, despite your best efforts, parents just don't come around. As painful as it is, there are times when you just have to move on.

DEALING WITH DEADBEATS

I have a small business with past due accounts and some unpaid accounts. Do you have sample letters I could send, without having to go through a collection agency?

Steve -- Boca Raton, Fla.

There's a variety of software packages out there at office supply stores that offer sample collection notices to cover a wide variety of situations, but you're probably best off keeping it short and sweet. (Here's a free sample from the CCH Business Owner's Toolkit.)

The basic idea is to start out with a polite reminder and gradually tighten the screws. Send them out at 30, 60 and 90 days past due. (You might want to sign the last one "Tony Soprano" and see if that helps.)

At some point, though, you have to ask whether chasing a bad debt is just throwing good money (your time) after bad. If you're truly dealing with a deadbeat, you don't really have to worry about losing a paying customer.

If you do decide to use a collection agency, shop around. Their fees -- usually a big chunk of what they collect -- are very negotiable.

For more advice on collections, check out the Small Business Administration Web site.

NO FREE MONEY

I'm looking for free grant money to start a lawn care business. I've been searching different books to try and find a grant that would fund my start up, but have been unsuccessful. Can you help?

James T - Mechanicsville, Md.

We get this one a lot, and wish we had better news. If you -- or other readers -- find any "free" grant money lying around out there to help start up a small business, please let us know. As the Maryland Small Business Development Center explains on its Web site, "unfortunately the availability of general small business grants is a myth passed down from generations. We hate to bust the bubble, but yes, it is true."

Small business assistance, whether from state development programs or the U.S. Small Business Administration, comes in the form of loans or loan guarantees. Ultimately, you have to convince these folks that you'll be able to pay them back -- so they can lend that money to someone else trying to start a business.

Grants typically are offered by government and philanthropic agencies to deliver social services, fund research or subsidize community arts programs, not to help you make a buck. (Very rarely will you find grants for for-profit businesses -- they are usually for fund research and development.)

But there are plenty of other programs to get new businesses up and running. Maryland, for example, has a number of financing programs for small business start-ups. They also have a Small Business Startup Kit that might help point you in the right direction

And if you do find any of that "free" money, please let us know. The Answer Desk has been thinking about this franchise idea ...

LABELING DEADBEATS

We are a small label printing business. From time to time we have customers (businesses) that go bankrupt. As unsecured creditors, we usually receive little or nothing from the settlement. These same customers still want to purchase from us while the bankruptcy is pending. What are we legally liable to do? We currently have one customer in Chapter 7 and another in Chapter 11. How do I get information on the differences?
Kim W. -- Poway, CA

In a rotten economy, about the only people who benefit from bankruptcy filings are the lawyers. And when you delve into the fine print, you can see why.

Still, there are a few basic differences, in the various procedures for filing for bankruptcy. In Chapter 7, a "straight" bankruptcy, you "liquidate" - which means you give up almost all your assets except for some personal property -- the proverbial "clothes on your back." But you get to walk away from most debts and get a "fresh start". (Some secured debts -- like car loans -- remain. And don't bother trying to get credit for 10 years.)

In Chapter 11, the idea is to try to hang onto your business or property by "reorganizing" debts. Some debt may get paid with equity -- a piece of your business. Others lenders may take less than full payment to allow you to keep going, knowing that if they force you to close up shop, they'll get nothing.

So Chapter 7 is more or less the end of the road, while Chapter 11 is supposed to be an intensive pit stop that gets you back in the race.

As for your legal liability regarding customers going through bankruptcy, you have no obligation to throw good money after bad by selling them goods you have little chance of getting paid for. That's why vendors almost always demand cash up front before delivering an order to a company operating in bankruptcy. The only possible exception would be if your supplies are critical to your customer's survival and might help you recoup your back debts once they get back on their feet. But even in that case, assurances aren't worth the filing they're printed on. You should demand a piece of the business in return for supplying them.

BUSINESS MECHANICS

My husband, an automotive technician (aka mechanic), left a job he'd had for 10 years to work for someone else, for twice the money, three years ago. The new boss spends a whopping two to three hours a day at his shop, generally spent whining about not making enough money. In the meantime, about half of my husband's previous clients have followed him to the new shop. By himself, as one of three technicians, he completes fifty to sixty percent of the work. Lately his boss has begun "holding back" several hours of pay a week, claiming that he can't pay my husband for work done when the clients have yet to pick up their cars. I think the boss is in financial hot water.

So, my question is, how long should I expect to have to work to get my husband into his own shop? Or, how much money should we set back to be sure we make it through the business-building stage? Since Hubby's client's followed him here, I have no doubt they'll follow him to his own shop. I'm willing to return to work to support us; I have a professional degree and can make $30-40,000 a year. We've re-financed the house, and are carrying another $10,000 in debts. Our income is around $55,000 a year. We have $20,000 in investments and the equity in our home (which I'm against borrowing against). Is a small business loan appropriate? How do you decide how much to borrow? I truly believe our best investment right now, is in establishing a business of our own. Am I right?

Jenny M. -- Stillwater, Oklahoma

We have no idea, but the only way you'll find out is the take the plunge. But first, you need to come up with a very specific plan.: you can't decide whether a dream business makes sense until you kick the tires and look under the hood (sorry). Make your plan conservative, but reasonable. Wherever possible, use real numbers from suppliers or other businesses. Fill in the banks to some key questions:

1) Location: How critical is this to your husband's current employer? How much would it cost to duplicate? Find a commercial real estate broker in your area, tell her you're seriously shopping for a garage and pick her brains. Or it might make the most sense to buy an existing business. If so, you'll need a broker or lawyer who specializes in these transactions to make sure you're getting what you think you're paying for.

2) Capital costs: I've been to mechanics that performed magic with the just the tools they carried in their pickup truck, but a fixed establishment will require a little more equipment. How much would this cost?

3) Cash flow: this one does in many small businesses. How many customers can you reasonably expect to follow your husband? How much cash, on average, would that generate monthly? Is the cash flow seasonal?

4) Costs: What are your monthly expenses? Power, water, heat, insurance, supplies, etc. Add them up. Make a budget, just like you do with your own finances.

5) Staffing: Working solo has its own rewards (no boss, for one) but it also involves its own set of headaches. At a minimum, it seems you'd need at least another employee to answer phones, pump gas, hold the light for that hard-to-tighten nut way up on top of the transmission, etc. How much would that cost?

6) Timeline: How long do you want to give this before it takes off (or you decide to throw in the towel)? Set deadlines for financial performance: if you're falling behind, try to figure out what's wrong and fix it. Having a timeline will also help your personal financial planning: how long can you live off savings before you need the business to become profitable?

Etc., etc., etc -- you get the idea. You can't think of every contingency, but the more you do, the fewer surprises you'll face later on.

Is it the right time? Are you ready? Who knows? More important, does your husband share your entrepreneurial zeal? He may like working as a mechanic but hate running a business. Many of the most talented people in their fields are lousy managers.

For more info, check out the U.S. Small Business Administration web site.  It's got a ton of information.

Also, check out the Service Corp of Retired Executives.These folks help connect small business owners with retired businessmen and women who, for free, advise others.

COLLECT OR WAIT?

What makes more sense: to take early Social Security payments or to wait?
Barbara L. -- Derwood, Md.

As usual, the correct answer is: it depends.

To get the complete answer, call, write or e-mail the Social Security Administration and get a copy of your benefits summary. This statement will show how much you've paid in and what your estimated benefits will be -- depending on when you start collecting.

So the first question is: when do you plan to retire? If you begin withdrawals at 62, you'll get a lower monthly payment than if you wait four years. If you wait until you're 70, you'll get even more. The statement will provide estimated amounts.

The next thing to consider is whether you'll need money to pay for basic expenses. If so, the choice is easy: sign up at 62 and start collecting. But if you have additional sources of income, you may want to hold out for later, larger payments.

But there's one more major consideration that you won't find mentioned in the government's benefits statements: namely, whether Social Security payments will be cut in future years. Remember, the figures provided are only estimates. If you're years away from retirement, and the government keeps piling up trillions of dollars in deficits, you don't have to be an accountant to figure that something will have to give. With more people collecting -- and fewer people supporting each retiree -- it's a good bet benefits will be cut. In that case, you may want to take the money and run as soon as you can -- even if it means lower monthly payments.

COLLECTIBLE FEELINGS

What is your feeling about investing in collectibles as opposed to the usual stocks and bonds? I'm talking about everything from antiques to trading cards to music memorabilia, etc.

J.C., Coral Springs, Florida.

We try not to have feelings about investments: It just gets in the way.

But sure, over the long term, these can be profitable investments -- on occasion, even better than stocks, bonds or real estate. Or you can end up paying big bucks for worthless junk. It's very hard to jump in without detailed knowledge about the market for the specific collectible you're thinking of investing in.

While they can provide a hedge against inflation, collectibles can also be very "illiquid" -- meaning you may have a hard time getting a good price if you have to sell in a hurry. These markets are also subject to the whim and tastes of collectors, which can be very fickle. Just ask anyone who survived the Great Beanie Baby Bubble, which made the Nasdaq crash look like a mild pullback.

Still, there are active markets in many collectibles -- from stamps to souvenir spoons. For high rollers, auction houses offer a chance see what "the market" is paying for precious art and antiques. For the rest of us, there's eBay.

Most successful collectors simply enjoy learning about the objects they collect, which then brings a level of expertise that helps them spot gems at tag sales that others don't see. The more you specialize, the better you'll do. Eventually, after learning about different kinds of antiques, for example, you may develop an eye for, say, ancient Chinese porcelain.

Or not. Even when those experts on PBS's Antiques Roadshow appraise old, useless items for thousands of dollars, it still looks like junk to us.

GOT A QUESTION?

Got a question? Send it to the 'Answer Desk'
Ever wonder what a P/E ratio is and why it's so important? Are you confused about the official definition of a recession? And just what the heck is a derivative? We're here to give you the answers. MSNBC.com's weekly feature "The Answer Desk" helps you make sense of business, the economy and investing. So send along your questions to answerdesk@msnbc.com and we'll try to get you the answer. (Please include your home town with your question; we'll only include your first name if we use your question.)

Any question is fair game, with one exception: no questions about specific investment recommendations, please -- we'll leave the stock picking to the "pros."

Each week, we'll take some of the most-frequently-asked questions and answer them here. We may not be able to answer every question, but over the weeks and months we will provide a comprehensive resource for you, explaining some more puzzling aspects of business and finance.

You can mail in questions at any time and then check this column every Friday for the answers.

(All information will remain confidential in accordance with MSNBC's privacy policy.)

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