Friday, January 30

BofA gives out $78, free taxes

Sorry that things have been quiet today. I got a MRSA infection, and it makes me extra tired. With a little extra craziness (next week I'll be guest posting on Ms Money Savvy about IRAs, with a tied-in post on this blog) I've been busy and worn out.

But here are some things that you need to know sooner, rather than later.

If you were a customer at Bank of America between 2000-2008, you may be eligible for $78 back, thanks to a class action lawsuit settlement. This is for extraneous fees that were charged on overdrafts. Find more information here.

And for all you diligent people who are already attacking your taxes (we are e-filed as of this morning!): Don't forget about IRS's Free-File. Under this program, you may get access to tax software for -- you guessed it -- free. In addition, if you qualify, you can e-file without being charged.

The tax software is legit -- one of the participating companies is H&R Block, so we used TaxCut gratis. And if you're not sure which one to choose? The IRS can guide you by asking a few simple questions.

Also, be sure to check that you received the correct stimulus payment last year. For example, based on my 2007 return, I only qualified for $300. This year, I earned income, so we got an extra $163. Check the amount you should get here.

If, like me, you can't for the life of you remember how much your check was, the IRS has a page to help you figure out your payment.

And never forget: The IRS has a 1-800 number. Use it. The times I have called, I have found the workers to be helpful and polite. But call earlier rather than later. The closer to April, the more likely it is that you won't get a call back for up to three days. (Though they will call you back. I speak from experience.)

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Tuesday, January 27

Free Dillyeo $10 GCs!

Today only, you can get a $10 GC to Dillyeo. It will be good through February 8th.

To receive it, you must refer someone. But surely you have a friend who is a fellow bargain hunter.

If you have more than one thrifty friend, log back on in a day or two and refer another friend for a $5 GC.

Also don't forget that, through the end of January, you can get 5% back using the promo code "Jandeal09."

Most of the deals I've seen hover around $20-30, so this is a chance to get a big discount!

Monday, January 26

How to know you've gone over to "The Frugal Side"

Sam's Club offers business members early hours -- including some coffee and some snacks. (Mom got a membership back when freelance writers still qualified. I'm her secondary on the account.)

Walking in to get some milk, I noticed they had still-green bananas instead of the usual donut holes. Wouldn't be good for another day or two. But on the way out, I grabbed one.

Walking out, I prided myself on grabbing a banana. Sure, it wouldn't be ready to eat today, but it was free food. Then, a sudden realization hit me: I could have had two bananas. I didn't ask Tim to grab one. I started mentally kicking myself.

About five seconds into a "Dumb, dumb, dumb!" rant in my head, I realized that I was castigating myself over something that sells for about 99 cents per pound.

That was when I realized: I am definitely losing my perspective... And yet, I was still irritated at the missed chance.

Very worrying.

Worse is that I would see the banana while walking into the kitchen to get some water or whatever. And I would think, "Oooo! Free banana!"

Yep. That's right. I'm excited to eat a banana.

I think the important part is just acceptance of this facet of my personality. And to stay away from monkeys.

What was your moment of realization? What is your favorite thing you've gotten for free?

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Saturday, January 24 As free as it claims to be

Moolanomy recently posted a very upset piece entitled is NOT Free.

Very incensed, he wrote that it cost him quite a bit of money. He didn't notice the charges on his credit card bill for a few months. But, then, he wasn't looking for them: He was under the impression that it was a free site, not a free trial offer.

He admitted to giving the site his credit card information, but says it wasn't made clear why it was needed.

And I'd like to stop there for a moment...

Here's a basic rule: If you're not clear why a site needs your credit card information is needed, don't give it out.

If you're confused, stop typing and find the "Terms and Conditions." If you're still confused, open a new window and go back to the company's homepage to review the information presented there.

If, after all that, you're still not clear why you have to give your credit card information, you really don't want to sign up.

It's either a scam or you've misconstrued a free trial offer as simply "free." Whichever it is, it's clearly not what you wanted.

Just remember: No free site would ever ask you for your credit card information. Assume that, if you give your credit card information, there's a good chance it will be charged.

But for a moment let's disregard all that. Moolanomy is basically complaining about the lack of transparency on the website. He felt the site wasn't clear that it was selling a product, not providing one free of charge (and free of contingencies).

Personally, I recall the site being pretty straightforward when I signed up about four months ago. I had to read through a few paragraphs, explaining that it was a trial offer, the length of the offer, the charges that would be issued if I didn't cancel, and cancellation policy.

Since then, it's added a front-page disclaimer: "When you order your free report here, you will begin your free trial membership in Triple AdvantageSM Credit Monitoring. If you don't cancel your membership within the 7-day trial period, you will be billed $14.95 for each month that you continue your membership."

To be fair to Moolanomy, he didn't sign up recently. From the way he phrases it, this all happened at least a year ago. Over time, businesses refine websites, as they get feedback from customers. So the site may have been more opaque when he signed up.

In my experience, however, bigger businesses strive to be clear. Since this is a subsidiary of Experian, a well-known organization, I tend to assume it will follow that tradition. At the very least, by being crystal clear and upfront in the terms, the companies are able to resolutely stick to their no-refund policy.

Still, it's also worth mentioning that my recollection may be biased. I signed up for this service through Inbox Dollars. I was doing trial offers for money -- in this case, $8 -- so I was well aware of the fact that this item was only free for a 7-day window.

Of course, all this is speculation. I don't know what Moolanomy saw or didn't see -- what was or wasn't on the site when he signed up.

Honestly, my best guess is that he mistook for ACR is the site you go to for your once-per-year free credit report from each of the three credit agencies. But advertises on many sites, offering a free credit report. Given the similarity in promise and name, it's easy to see how confusion would occur.

I want to be clear: My disagreeing with Moolanomy isn't the same as my endorsing

There are hidden dangers in sites like this:

  • It promotes the idea that you need someone to monitor your credit for you.
  • There's the danger of getting charged instead of getting a free trial.

Okay, the first point: Just send off for your credit report. You send a request to each agency. This saves you the worry of cancelling a trial offer, and it gets you more actively involved in your credit.

The second point: I don't like the company's message. You don't need someone to monitor your credit for you. If you choose to pay for that service, that's up to you. But there are plenty of resources to help you keep an eye out. Credit card companies are pretty diligent about calling to check on strange activity. Many now also offer you an approximated credit score. If that score changes significantly, you can contact the agencies and find out why. Overall, I just don't like the idea of being so passive about your credit.

Finally, and perhaps the most dangerous, there is the possibility that you will get a charge on your card instead of a free trial offer. is actually run by, which is an Experian company. In and of itself, that fact isn't a big deal. What is a big deal is that there are several other companies that both run. And most of them are offered right alongside on various rewards programs.

These are the other companies I could find:

  • Credit Check Total (also Credit Check Basic and Credit Check Premium)
  • Triple Alert
  • Credit Manager
  • (it offers Triple Advantage, like

Because of so many different names, it's pretty easy to try to sign up for two free trial offers from the same parent company.

And that's a big deal because, according to the "Terms and Conditions"

Please note, if you have ever been a member and received a free trial, [] may refuse to give you another free trial offer. Returning members will be billed the membership fee immediately upon renewal.

So does this mean that you'll be simply refused? Or does it mean that your credit card will be charged instantly if you've already had a free trial?

Honestly, I don't know. I've read and re-read these lines. Personally, I think it could go either way.

All I can say for sure is that it seems like a plausible way to worm in a credit charge. When you call to complain, the company simply needs to point out this is in the "Terms and Conditions" and then stand by its no-refunds policy.

Maybe the company isn't really that devious. Or maybe it is. In the end, I decided not to take the risk.

If, after all this, you're angry just like Moolanomy and are sure they're out to trick you... Well, yeah, of course they are!

It's the most obvious play in the book, and companies tend to be pretty upfront about their intentions. They state everything in the "Terms and Conditions." If you choose not to read them thoroughly -- and I am certainly guilty of this at times -- you're tacitly accepting the consequences of the inaction.

For anyone not paying attention before now: Businesses want something from you. They're out to make money, and yours will do just fine. On the other side, you're trying to get something from the businesses, whether it's a free credit report, a sample of a product or making money from a rewards program.

You're both using each other. You are hoping that you can sign up, get what you came for, and cancel in time to not be charged. The company is hoping that you become a convert to whatever it's selling -- or, at the very least, forget to cancel for a month or two.

Finally, if you aren't clear on a particular item in an offer? Don't sign up. Definitely don't give the company your credit card information. Wait until you can get ahold of a customer service representative and get your questions cleared up.

Informed consumerism -- even on "free" things -- is key to being frugal. And to avoiding nasty surprises on your credit card bill.

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Carnivals (belatedly)

I've been a tad distracted this week, plus keeping a very late schedule. (Bad Abby!)

But there have been some fabulous carnivals this week -- several of which were kind enough to include me -- and the great thing about the Web is that, well, once stuff is up, it tends to stay up.

So please do check out the following:

On "One Family's Blog": Carnival of the road to financial independence #3

On "Cultivate Positivity": Carnival of Inspiration and Motivation, 18th edition

On "MoneyNing": Festival of Frugality#161 -- Frugal Businesses?

Also, my friend Dory over at Can't Remember Diddly did a really wonderful, well-written piece. Usually I love her stuff because it's funny, entertaining, stream-of-consciousness stuff. This is actually a 180-turn from that. But impressive nonetheless.

Turns out this is the second Jan 20th that was filled with hope for her. The other one was all the way back in '93. I won't say anything more because I don't want to mess with the power that comes with the unfolding story line. But I would really appreciate everyone taking two or three minutes to read it. I think you'll all be glad you did.

Afterward, in case you're in need of a bit of humorous escape, be sure to check out her other post, a realistic Valentine.

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Friday, January 23

Fun with balance transfers?

Tim and I just performed some mathematical circus acts. We made the numbers sit, stay, roll over and even jump through a (flaming) hoop. Maybe we'll take it on the road.

And as all the most financially savvy folks do, we started this conversation late at night.

Okay, so this is generally a big no-no, but we were both feeling alert. And there's been a looming threat for the last couple of months.


Like most Americans, we got a nice little letter in the mail about our credit cards. They weren't cutting our limit. (In fact, our MyPoints card keeps upping the ceiling.) The company was, however, informing us of potential rate hikes. The cap was 31%.

Now, so far, nothing has happened. But given that both the cards we're carrying balances on have APRs of 15%, we decided to go ahead and play the balance transfer game. Here's where things get fun.

The players

We have three credit cards right now:

  • Citi, which I've been paying off monthly, so our new charges don't earn any interest.
  • MyPoints, which has a current balance of just about $5300. (Slightly rounded)
  • Chase, with a current balance of $3300 (slightly rounded). We've been concentrating on it, since the rate could go up at any moment.

The offers

Ideally, MyPoints would offer us a balance transfer, so we could clear out Chase's balance and close the damn thing. (Mom and I each opened one to earn free airline tickets for my and Tim's honeymoon.)

Alas, no such luck. But the other two cards have some good offers:

  • Citi -- 0% until August 2009 or 6.99% until May 2010.
  • Chase -- 0% until September 2009, or 4.99% until January 2011.

Both have a 3% balance transfer fee.

Mapping it out

So I picked up the white board and some handy-dandy markers my mom got me for Christmas ("Same debt -- but now in color!" she wrote). I wrote all three names down. Underneath I wrote balances. Under that balance transfer offers. Under that, end dates for the promotional

Citi MyPoints Chase
$0 $5,300 $3,300
N/A 15.00% 15% (31%?)

Then I started drawing arrows from one card to another, to represent our options for balance transfers. (It quickly started looking like a football coach's playbook.) Then, we just had to go through the steps to evaluate our choices.

1. Short-term vs. long-term

Most balance transfer offers will give you two choices: 0% for a short time (usually 6 months or less) and a low-interest rate for a longer period. Your choice will depend on what your overall goals are, your salary/job, and how you are faring in the world of personal finance.

If you are on track to be out of debt in a short time, 0% may work for you. If you are secure in your job, which I suppose is rare these days, you may feel okay going for a short-term 0%, which allows you to throw everything you have at the principal.

If, however, you're not sure about your job, you may want to choose long-term stability. If you're still in the early to middle stages of debt reduction -- in for the long haul -- you may want to choose the low interest rate.

The main deciding factor, in other words, is just how certain you are that you'll be able to pay it all off before the APR goes back to normal. If you choose 0% and then have a ton of unexpected expenses, you will have to deal with the rate jumping back to a normal level. It can be jarring, not to mention disheartening, to have your rate jump 10-15% and still have a balance.

This may lead to yet another balance transfer offer. Besides the fee, you should also know that your credit score can take a hit from habitual balance transfers.

As for us, we're well aware that our future is uncertain. Tim will get unemployment through April or May. And he is working with the Dept of Vocational Rehabilitation, but they're still in the assessment phase. So he doesn't know what sort of career he wants to have. That means we have no idea if he'll need schooling or whether his potential job market is saturated.

Given how much of our future is a toss-up, we decided a longer-term, low rate was better than a shorter-term 0% rate.

2. What's the effect of a lower rate?

So, the obvious choice would be to take the $5300 from MyPoints and shoot it over to Chase at 4.99%, right?


As I explained to Tim, credit cards like to use little tricks. One of the best ones, of course, is double-cycle billing. But another dastardly one involves balance transfers.

Since our Chase card already has a balance ($3300 at 15%), the new balance transfer offer ($5300 at 4.99%) would actually make it harder for us to pay down debt.

When there is more than one APR on a card, the company applies payments to the balance with the lowest APR. So if, right after the balance transfer completed, we got a windfall and threw $5,000 at the card, our new total would be $300 at 4.99% and $3300 at 15%

Why do they do this? Well, it's simple: They make more money this way. By applying the payments to the lowest-APR balance first, they get to keep more of your balance at the higher interest rate. That means more finance charges for them, which means more debt for you.

So, if we simply transfer the $5300 over to Chase, our current balance will be untouched and grow larger each month. After 9 months, the $3300 will be over $3700. At 12 months, it will be nearly $3900.

Not a good option. Instead, we agreed to send Chase's balance over to Citi at 6.99%.

3. Make sure the math works out in your favor

One of the most important things about a balance transfer, of course, is about saving money. By cutting your interest rate down (or eliminating it) you can put all your funds against the principal. That can mean big savings.

But balance transfers always come with fees. In the best scenarios, there is a cap on the fee. In the past, I have had ones that topped out at $75. Unfortunately, those seem to be increasingly rare. Nowadays most are just a straight 3% of the transferred amount.

So it's important that you do the math. You want the balance transfer to be negated by the interest you save. Personally, I prefer for the equilibrium (fee paid vs interest saved) to come by the third month. But it can be difficult to calculate interest, since your payments may vary paycheck to paycheck, and double-billing cycles can make it hard to accurately predict interest accrual. In the end, you have to find your own comfort zone, and remember that many of these numbers won't be exact.

For us, the Chase-to-Citi transfer would cost just under $100. But on the Chase card, there'd be over $100 in interest by the third month. It made mathematical sense to shift Chase's balance over to Citi.

Frankly, I was all for transferring the MyPoints balance to Citi, as well. That would allow us to close the Chase card once and for all. Tim frowned and studied the white board for a moment. (He's a visual fellow.) He then very gently explained that my idea didn't make good financial sense. After all, 4.99% until 2011 is pretty obviously better than 6.99% until May 2010.

Talk about feeling dumb. Here I was, the financial head of the household, and my knee-jerk reactions were about to cost us money. It was fear pure and simple.

I hate uncertainty, and that's the threat that Chase presented. We don't know if/when the APR will go up. That makes me nervous, which makes me want to just jettison whatever is causing the stress and uncertainty.

Logically, though, my reaction didn't make any sense. Even if the APR did change, we wouldn't be affected, since we would have balances with promotional rates.

In fact, the only way we'd be affected is if the APR changed and if we were late with a payment. I make payments every time Tim or I get paid, so the latter is unlikely -- and it would still depend on the APR having skyrocketed, which still isn't certain.

Once I thought about it more rationally, it seemed like a pretty silly fear. But it was an excellent reminder at how easily our feelings can get in the way of financial decision-making.

With that in mind, we devised a new plan: Transfer the MyPoints balance ($5300) to Chase, where it will be at 4.99%, and then send Chase's balance ($3300) over to Citi, where it will be at 6.99%.

I once again checked the balance-transfer math: It would be around $150 to transfer MyPoints' balance to Chase. But the 10.01% difference in interest rates will make that up in under 6 months. The first month alone we'll save over $40.

We also discussed doing one more transfer, from Citi to Chase, so that everything was at 4.99%. That would save us 2%. But it would also incur another $100 balance transfer fee. And since there will only be $3300 on the Citi card, the 2% is negligible. It would save perhaps $5 a months, if that, and so it would take nearly two years to just make up for the balance transfer fee.

That's a good reminder to always do the math. Sometimes it's more than worth it. Other times, you're just costing yourself money -- money that could be going to debt.

4. Balance transfer timing

Whenever you do a balance transfer, you have to watch the account very closely. If it's close to a statement due date, you'll want to make at least the minimum payment. Otherwise, if the transfer doesn't complete in time, you'll owe a late fee.

As I already mentioned, we currently make payments just about every week. So there's no worries about missing a due date. However, there was another concern about timing.

I was paranoid about doing the transfers simultaneously. Different companies complete them at different speeds. I was worried that the MyPoints-to-Chase transfer would complete first. Then, when Citi completed its transfer, it would ask Chase for $3332. But would Chase give it $3332 from the original balance -- which was my goal -- or would it give up some of the money at the lower, promotional rate?

I decided not to take the chance.

Instead, we're going to simply complete the Chase-to-Citi transfer first. Then we will initiate the MyPoints-to-Chase balance transfer.

Then I can wipe our white board clean and get some pretty colors to represent our new lower-interest balances. After these mental and mathematical gymnastics, it should be a welcome exercise.

What experiences have you had with balance transfers? Did you pay off the balance before the APR reverted? Did your credit score suffer? Would you do another one?

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Wednesday, January 21

A good dillyeo...

Today's Dillyeo special is pretty durn good: A 90% goose down jacket for $19.99 ($5 for shipping).
And with the promo code jandeal09 you'll get an extra 5% off. Bringing total cost down to $23.74 for a great, warm winter coat.

Sure, it's a tad late in the season for this year, but smart frugal shoppers know that shopping end-of-the-season sales yields the best deals.

Monday, January 19

Tools to grow your blog (and profits)

When it comes to debt reduction, frugality is only half of the equation. Most of the time, we're also told to try and find alternate sources of revenue.

For a lot of folks, that means blogging.

Of course, not everyone blogs for profit. Some do it to make themselves accountable, which helps them stick to their goals. Others just need a place to vent. But, by and large, most bloggers will admit that some profits would be welcome.

The real question, of course, is how to go about that.

The larger blogs make money primarily through advertising. That sounds great, in theory, but it's not terribly useful for those of us still building our blogs. With low readership numbers, we simply can't demand much for advertising -- assuming advertisers are even showing interest in your site.

That's why most bloggers' first love is AdSense. It gives you some advertising while you build your numbers.

Unfortunately, you can only have three AdSense units on any given page at a time. So what to do with all that white space?

Affiliate marketing networks:

Probably the best-known example of affiliate marketing is You put up a "Deal of the Day" ad, or simply choose a category of items to show. Whenever someone clicks through and makes a purchase, you get a commission.

And, of course, you can go through to your favorite stores and find out if they have affiliate programs to sign up for. But that's a little time-consuming, no?

Luckily for all of us busy, capitalistic bloggers, some companies spend their time gathering stores together for us. These are affiliate marketing networks.

A few different sites recommended me to try out Pepperjam Network. I have been a member for about 3 months now, and in that time at least 30 new partner stores have been added. Needless to say, the variety keeps growing. Whatever your blog is about, there should be some retailers for you.

Some of the stores offer you a commission on any purchases. The rates can vary from 1% (eBay) to 50%. Most of the stores seem to hover around 10%.

Alternately, you may get paid just for generating leads for the company. You get paid for each person who signs up, either for a service or simply to receive more information. Just like commission, leads rates vary from company to company. They can be as high as $65, or as low as $1.

The fact is, you won't get rich with affiliate marketing, especially while your readership is low. It's simple math that the more people look at your page, the more likely it is that one of them will complete a transaction. In other words, it's important not to set your hopes too high for your first few months. As your readership grows, however, you may see an increase in profits.

Right now, though, Pepperjam is willing to give you a leg up on making money. Any new members who sign up through the correct banner ad (I've inserted one below) will get $10.

You can also earn up to $50 a month blogging about Pepperjam. For each post about the network, you'll earn $10 -- and you can post up to 5 times a month. Unfortunately, we blogspot folks don't qualify. I'm not sure if the same policy applies to WordPress, so it will be worth checking out. But for anyone who's purchased a domain name, you can make some easy money.

Interest piqued? Well, then click on through and register.

PJN Promo

Another affiliate marketing group is Linkshare, which I discovered through The Body Shop. I figure that, since we spend so much money there for Tim's skin, we may as well get a little bit of it back. As of yet, I haven't completed the registration process, but I will keep people informed as I learn more about the network.

Referral programs:

One of the best-known ways to make a few bucks on the Internet is by referring others. You generally get a set rate per referral, with some sites giving you a commission as your referrals earn money.

Perhaps the best-paying referral program is ING. Unfortunately, Tim and I don't have the required $250 to qualify for the program. But for anyone who has an emergency fund, this is a great option. The most obvious benefit of ING is that it tends to offer slightly better rates than brick-and-mortar banks. But the referral program is fab, too: You'll get $25 to join (when an existing member refers you) and then $25 per person you refer.

Another site you often see hyped is Inbox Dollars. When you first sign up, you get a $5 bonus. You also get 10% of your referrals' earnings. So far, I've referred four people. Based on that, I've made $2.78. It doesn't sound like a lot, but if I keep referring people, it will eventually add up.

You can also earn points at Inbox Dollars through simple activities, such as reading email, taking surveys or participating in various free offers. If you shop through their merchants, you can get a percentage back.

Allegedly, you can also make money playing games, but that's a bit of a misnomer, honestly. What happens is this: You sign up for World Winner (a game company) and for each cash game you play, you receive some credit at Inbox Dollars.

Still, World Winner does have a policy that will allow you to play games (and potentially win a few bucks) for free. The first time you deposit $20, the company matches it with game credits. So, after playing a couple of games, I went back into my account and transferred my $20 back out of the account. This gave me some free money to play (and potentially win) with.

CashCrate is another popular program. On this site, you can take surveys, try out offers, or shop. (If this sounds like Inbox Dollars, try to remember that all these programs are mainly using the same companies. There is some variety in retailers, as well as payout amounts. Still, it's a good idea to pick one or two sites and concentrate on those. That way, you aren't overly stymied by a lack of new offers.)

CashCrate doesn't have as many options as Inbox Dollars, but it has a pretty decent referral system. There is no sign-up bonus, but you receive 20% of your referrals' earnings -- plus 10% of their referrals' earnings. Additionally, when your referrals get to the $10 mark, you receive a $3 bonus. So if you get even a few motivated individuals, you will see some real progress.

There are a couple other programs you'll see, such as Squishy Cash and Vindale Research. Frankly, they didn't impress me much.

Squishy Cash has a lot of free offers, plus a lot of specials such as "Earn $3, get $1 bonus." But it often takes awhile for the offers to be verified, which can mean you miss out on bonuses. In addition, the payouts for the program struck me as a tad low. On the other hand, if you think you can earn referrals, you'll get 20% of their earnings, plus 10% of their referrals earnings.

Vindale Research has much better payouts -- some of the highest you'll see. But the program struck me as restrictive. Also, at $50, it has one of the highest limits for cashing out. (Although the cash-out process is automatic, which I thought was a nice touch.) Each person you refer nets you $5. So, again, if you feel confident in your ability to refer, you could make a few bucks.

All in all, referral programs are good for money coming in dribs and drabs. Unfortunately, like affiliate marketing, you probably won't get a ton of referrals while your readership numbers are low. Still, as all you Dave Ramsey fans can attest, even a little extra money can have a big impact.

Also, don't forget that you don't have to actively recruit referrals. So if all you do is put up a couple of ads on your site, who cares if it takes more than a month to get your first check? How much effort did you have to expend for those funds?

In other words, you may never be able to buy your own jet, but the money you make can be a dent in debt or padding on an emergency fund. It can be extra money where it counts the most.

Acting the part:

If you want to make your blog into a profession, you have to first act as though you are a professional blogger.

First and foremost you will probably need to pay for a domain name and hosting company. I am somewhat reluctant to leave the free hosting of blogspot behind. But, since appearances are everything, it will be a leap I have to eventually make. My personal goal is to get my own website once I hit 400 readers.

In the meantime, I am a little shocked by how expensive some of the web hosts are. For this reason, I thought I would spotlight two hosting companies that have much more reasonable prices.

Lunar Pages is currently offering a $4.95/month rate, when you sign up for a 12- or 24-month plan. This deal includes free set-up, plus unlimited storage and bandwidth. You also receive a free domain with your account. There is a 30-day money back guarantee.

1&1 Hosting also offers a free domain with its hosting services. Packages start at $3.99 per month, but probably the best deal is the small- to medium-business website: 3 months free (normally $9.99). 1&1 does not offer unlimited space, like Lunar Pages. However its money-back guarantee is for 90 days. Even the lowest package comes with vouchers for marketing programs: Microsoft adCenter, Google AdWords, Yahoo! Search Marketing and City Search.

So now you have a professional-looking site. But you have to make sure other people hear about it.

One of the first things to do is make up business cards. VistaPrint offers 250 business cards for free, with a shipping costs of $5.45. These will come in handy as you network, especially if you decide to attend any blogging conferences. (And, as an added bonus, you'll have a card to enter those "free lunch" drawings that so many restaurants have.)

If you want a little more control over the style of the card, try Overnight Printing. The company is currently offering 100 free postcards with any business card order (promo code: 100FREEPC17). The rates are a bit higher here -- $9.95 for 100 business cards -- but with the postcards, it works out to be a pretty decent deal.

Now, you'll be all set to network at conferences and any other meet-up occasions. Since those don't happen every week, though, you need more ways to get public attention.

Of course, the traditional way to do that is through comments. By getting your name and website out there, you're increasing the odds of being noticed. The one caveat here: Leave substantive posts. No one will click through to your site based on, "Yeah, great post!"

Beyond that, there's basic social networking, through places like Blog Catalog, Technorati and Twitter. Through these sites, you can get to know other bloggers. If they know you, they may start to read you. And, if they like what they read, they may link to you.

Another opportunity to watch for are guest posts. If you can secure one of these, you are being spotlighted for a whole new crop of readers. Even if they don't immediately subscribe to you, they have seen your name. The next time they come across it, there will probably be a glint of recognition. Slowly, as you repeatedly get your name out in the blogosphere, you will build a broader reader base.

Still, most bloggers -- especially PF bloggers -- don't take a lot of trips. So guest posts can be hard to come by. You need another way to get people to read your posts.

Enter the blog carnival.

Blog carnivals are collections of submissions that tend to center around one or two main topics. These are free to enter and happen as often as every week. There is a catalog of blog carnivals, so that you can peruse at your leisure. You can check them out by category, but I also recommend reading through the whole list. There are always a few I would have missed if I had stayed strictly within the PF category.

Keep at it

Overall, the best advice for any goal-driven blogger is simply to keep plugging away. Endurance counts for a lot. As you go through various blogs, you'll find that people lose interest or post irregularly. The successful bloggers tend to be the ones who don't get discouraged -- or distracted.

Also remember that this isn't a comprehensive guide. I am still learning, right along with all of you. There will be more discoveries as time goes by, which I will be more than happy to share with you. And I hope you will return the favor.

What is the number one tip you would give a blogger looking for more readers? More profit? What techniques aren't mentioned here?

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Congratulations to Mrs. Accountability, the winner of the Amazon gift card giveaway!

Thank you to everyone who participated -- and helped spread the word. I plan to do more giveaways in the near future, so stay tuned!

Saturday, January 17

Marketing logic

Over the past few months, my mom and I have discussed switching cell phone plans.

It's been an on-again, off-again conversation. Originally it came about when Tim needed some form of PDA. We considered a smartphone, since we could get a discount by signing a new contract. That, however, became moot when a kind and generous reader gave us her old PDA.

Since then, the discussion has surfaced from time to time. Tim's RAZR was giving us fits, and we wondered if it was about to shuffle off this mortal coil. But we went to a T-Mobile store and, after installing a new SIM card, the phone is functioning relatively well again. (Though Tim maintains its ability to get a signal is continually degrading.)

We discussed the option in depth when, for the first time in four years, we had an overage. A severe overage, to the tune of about $60 -- doubling our usual bill. Since I was suggesting AT&T for rollover minutes, this did seem to be the universe urging us to get on with the switch already.

Then Mom made a point: Did a once-in-four-years overage of $60 really make a new plan (costing $10 more a month) worthwhile?

Technically, no.

Rollover minutes seem like a great option. We rarely use all of our minutes, yet we pay the same rate regardless. So, the marketing logic goes, let's keep those minutes for up to a year. Then, we can be less careful, since we'll have a buffer in place. This would be great, since we have the lowest minutes plan (500) and are thus pretty strict about usage.

I was getting pretty enthused about this idea of "saving" minutes from one month to the next. The commercials were right -- I pay for the minutes, I should get to use them. Right?

Uh, maybe not.

At some point in this process, I stopped and asked myself, "If we rarely use all of our minutes, how likely is it that we'll actually use these rolled-over minutes?" It's pretty unlikely, actually.

You can argue (and I certainly have) that we could be less strict in our usage. This would allow us to take advantage of rollover minutes. Much like belongings swell to fill available space, our use could grow to fit our allowances, rather than our actual needs.

But once again, real logic has gotten lost in the shuffle. If we get used to using more cell minutes, won't that necessarily mean fewer minutes are left to roll over? Either way, it means these rollover minutes probably won't get used. The fact is, if we do change plans, we're mostly going to be paying for a perceived need, rather than a real one.

Perceived needs are how wireless companies make the big bucks. They try to convince us we need to be able to surf the web or check email anywhere for just $25-35 per month. They offer us 4 channels of TV on a 3" screen for only $15 a month. Or GPS for $10/month. (Because, if you're paying that much for the Web, you wouldn't want to just use Mapquest!) Whatever the latest technology, commercials tout it as the most convenient, conveniently forgetting to mention it's also the most expensive. But those bells and whistles get us into the store, if only out of morbid curiosity, and customers leave with far more than they thought they wanted -- and a helluva lot more than they needed.

But that's marketers' specialty. It's how they earn their pay. Their job is to create a need where there is none. If cell phone sales drop, they just add more gadgets and convince people to trade up. And that requires, not just skill, but their own brand of logic.

They've gotten us used to the idea that phones should do more than receive calls. They should have cameras. And play music. And sync to your computer. And have a day planner. And surf the web. And compare prices. And give directions.

But maybe the biggest coup is that they've convinced us that we need cell phones. The average person doesn't need a cell phone. Few folks do.

Okay, resident managers find it very useful. And salespeople who are in their cars a lot. But for the average person? It's a convenience. A very alluring one. And marketers have gotten so far inside our heads that now we almost do the work for them.

Think about it: Do you buy so many minutes because you need to make calls? Or do you make calls because you're already paying for the minutes?

Even if you're not willing to give up your phone, here's a trick that might get you to at least rethink the value of your rate plan:

First, add all the used minutes together -- including nights, weekends and mobile-to-mobile. Divide this sum by your monthly fee. You have an overall cost per minute used. Chances are, this comes out to a pretty good deal.

But, here's the catch: How many of those calls would you still have made if you were watching your minutes or didn't have a cell at all? Probably quite a few less.

Now, think about the fact that you may be using a lot of mobile-to-mobile and night minutes simply because you have them.

So now take only daytime minutes (no night, weekend or mobile-to-mobile) and divide that by your monthly fee. My bet is this is a much closer representation of your real use of your cell phone. And I bet it's a lot more than the last figure.

Of course, I'm presuming here that all those other calls could be avoided -- which isn't probable. But do consider how many of those calls could have waited until you were by a landline, and just how much you could be saving that way. (This is the last math exercise, I promise.)

Add up the minutes of your local calls. Multiply that by the last per-minute rate you found. Now compare that to a no-frills (no caller ID, no call waiting, no nuthin but a ringing phone) landline. Here in Seattle, that costs about $15-20 after taxes.

Still, that doesn't help you on long-distance calls. But, for around 4 months before our wedding, I was on the phone with my best friend/maid of honor in Florida at least twice a week, each call a minimum of 30 minutes, and our phone bill was still only $33. That included local service and a $6 monthly charge for a cheap long distance plan.

Okay, so if we were all perfect frugalists, we'd toss our cell phones out the window right now. But judging by the lack of clattering noises, I'm going to say that most of you are hugging your phone, telling it you won't let the mean blogging lady hurt it. And that's fine. Well, all except talking to your cell phone.

I'm not saying you have to give up your cell phone. Mom and I may still switch to AT&T for the simple fact that a) $10 isn't that much to pay for peace of mind and b) the reception has to be at least marginally better than what we're getting from T-Mobile.

What I am saying, in fact, is that we need to start thinking realistically about our spending, especially on things like cell phones. We've been immersed in marketing logic. We've been trained by marketers to think of all the value we can get from our plans.

All those 'unlimited' minutes on nights and weekends? All those calls we can make to other folks with our carrier? To paraphrase my favorite, ranting, cartoon squirrel, "If all this stuff is free, why are you paying $70 a month?!"

We're trained to think of all the items we get to have at our disposal, instead of what we're actually using. And it seems to me that marketers go to great lengths to keep us from figuring out the actual cost per use.

For example, Tim and I don't text. We don't particularly like texting and see no need to pay for it. No one ever remembers this. (Once, we even got a "Merry Christmas" text from a relative that we were due to see two hours later!) And so, with forgetfulness and spam, we pay anywhere from 20 cents to $1.80 a month in text charges. Yet whenever we mention this to someone, usually to remind them not to text us, they advise us to just get a texting plan (starting at $5/month) to avoid the headache.

For the record, I actually have a friend that got so sick of trying to budget for the random texts, he actually decided to pay the extra $5 a month. Now, of course, he told me, they're getting their money's worth, since his wife has become addicted to texting. Talk about marketer's math!

I guess the real question here is whether we're paying these prices because the value is there, or whether we're finding the value because we've agreed to pay the prices. It seems like we rationalize an awful lot of things -- always with the help of commercials, telling us what new technology we need -- in order to feel okay about paying $50-100 a month.

How many people would text at the same levels (or at all) if they were charged 10 cents a pop? But since you're paying for an unlimited plan, you figure you may as well get your money's worth. Except, and maybe this is just my eternal question, if you wouldn't normally use it, are you ever really getting your money's worth?

Or is it just marketing logic at its finest?

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Tuesday, January 13

Murphy's Law: 1,764. Us: 0.

This may be a tad disorganized. I'm sleep-deprived -- Restless Leg Syndrome kept me up til 4 a.m. and then woke me up again at 10:30 a.m.

Suffice to say, it's not been a good couple days.

Saturday, I checked our bank balance, and had a nice little heart attack when I discovered we were negative nearly $200.

After a minor bout of apoplexy, I checked the transaction history and found that Tim's health insurance had taken out $502. This was news to us, given that last month the premium was $336.

Sure that it was a mistake, I went to the website to check premiums... And discovered that Tim's rates had been raised by $60ish because he just turned 30. Combine that with the new, 2009 rates ($100 more than last year) and voila, you have an impeccable charge that nevertheless screws us over big time.

Luckily, a relative recently offered us a no-interest loan -- with payments not starting til June. So I zoomed over to the bank and threw the check in the ATM, thereby avoiding about $90 in overdraft fees for that day alone. (Another $60-90 for Sunday/Monday, too.)

Okay, fine, so (more accurately) the title should be Murphy's Law: 1764, Us: 1.

Point is, now we don't get to put the full check amount toward debt, which was disheartening to me. Also, $100 of mine that was in the bank from Christmas, waiting to be spent, was sucked up by the $502 charge.

Meanwhile, on Monday, Tim ran a couple of errands, including going to the bank for quarters for laundry. (He'd used the last one that morning. I skipped a shower so that he wouldn't have to.) Turns out, despite the fact that our relative also banks at WaMu, the check is still being held. According to Tim, they said something about it having to go downtown, since I put it in the ATM and not the night drop box? I don't get it. Nor do I care to.

The upshot is that we have nothing in checking, despite having a ledger balance of nearly $2000.

So I woke up today not just sleep-deprived and seriously considering leg amputation, but also desperately in need of a shower. Seriously, it's a good thing my cat's part Persian, so she can't really smell much. Otherwise she'd be scampering away, yowling in odor-agony.

I went and borrowed some towels from mom so that I can stand to be in the same room as myself. (Yes, you read that right.) And we will probably have to borrow some quarters from her too -- which we can pay back along with the cash I had to borrow from her yesterday for my therapist.

See, it turns out that we're out of checks. Of course, I didn't know this last Monday, when I messed up on the check to my counselor. In case you're wondering, you can mess up a check several ways -- which I have proven in the past -- but this particular time it was by writing the amount of the check on the "Pay To" line.

So, having promised to mail her a corrected check, I get home to discover that's impossible. The next day, Tuesday, we went to the bank and ordered new checks. But, of course, they didn't make it here by yesterday evening. And my balance was rather high, given a few missed sessions from snow and icy conditions. (I grew up in Anchorage. I can drive on snow and ice. But Seattle drivers in those conditions? Terrifying.) So I begged some cash off mom, promising to pay her back as soon as WaMu stops being an idiot. Or, at least, once the check clears.

So, just to recap briefly:

  • Out of towels
  • No laundry money to do towels
  • Very stinky Abby
  • Very exhausted, grumpy Abby thanks to RLS
  • No checking funds available
  • Ledger balance of nearly $2000
  • Check being held, despite being drawn on a WaMu account and being put into another WaMu account.
  • Health premiums up by $156 in the span of 30 days.

The only moderately hope-inducing item in this tale of woe is that the Washington State Health Insurance Pool has a low-income application. If you make sufficiently little, they will give you a discount on your premiums.

I had Tim call and find out whether there was a distinct cut off or if each case was evaluated individually. The operator said they hadn't yet been told the 2009 income cut-offs, but 2008's was $2900.

Given that this is what I thought we were making, I did a little happy dance. Then I froze mid-dance.

My Social Security went up by $46/month. And I had been rounding Tim's unemployment down a bit in my head calling it around $1200 instead of what I now realize is $1364. Add $1364 and $881, you're up to $2245. Now realize that I make $900 a month for my contract work. We're up to $3145.

Of course, since the premiums went up by around $100, chances are that the cutoff rose by around that much. But that would mean I may still have to earn $145 LESS a month, just to save some undetermined amount.

You have to love bureaucratic math.

So, we're going to go ahead and apply, with a letter attached from me saying that we have these debts and list them. Then mention that my work may be getting cut down to $750 or $800 a month. If that lets us qualify, then I'll just have to invoice for less. Assuming the premium goes down by a sufficient amount.

Don't get me wrong, if absolutely necessary, we can pay $502. But it's really a big chunk out of our debt-reduction budget.

And there's always that fun experience of being just over the arbitrarily-determined bureaucratic cut-off. $2899 a month? Sure, of course you can't afford the premiums and here's some help. Poor thing. $2900 a month? Pssht, you'll be fine. Whiner.

Okay, okay. I know the government has to draw the line somewhere. But it's still a very strange concept, when you get right down to it. One dollar either way and you're either indigent or middle-class.

The only thing keeping me going is the idea that, even if we are over the cut-off, there are sometimes loopholes in the system. Provided you appeal enough to the right people. Which I plan to do -- as much as necessary.

For example, when Tim went into the hospital while we were dating, the financial aid people could only count me as a dependent if we were married. So we fibbed a bit and said we were engaged. (A couple of months later, we actually were.) It still didn't really count, since we weren't actually, legally married.

But once we explained that I was on disability and that Tim covered pretty much all expenses other than rent for the two of us, the lady agreed to take that into consideration. We ended up paying nothing for the hospital stay -- which, by a lucky coincidence, is exactly what we could afford at the time.

This kind of stuff just reinforces my very basic belief that there's generally a way around the rules -- so long as you ask repeatedly and are stubborn enough to wait until you get the answer you want.

So, we have had a veritable cavalcade of bad luck, lately. We have a plan to move foward, which helps a little. Meanwhile, we're just trying to get through it and shrug off most of the bad feelings.

I wish I could say that, at the time this all happened, I handled myself with quiet dignity. In fact, I had a mini-meltdown. Just one of those straw-the-broke-the-camel's-back moments. One of those straws being that I lost $100 of money I was supposed to spend on myself. Since the only money left in the account will be loan money, which is supposed to go directly to debt, I was having trouble with the idea of still spending as planned.

Both the lender of this money and Tim have scolded me. They told me it's not my fault the premiums went up. (Perhaps if it had been as a result of my actions, such as an overdraft, they might feel differently. Now they're just telling me to shut up and indulge myself.)

So, I have that to look forward to. In addition, I can always look backward, meaning I can take comfort from the fact that I have been in far worse situations. For example:

I was earning $1200 a month working at a part-time job (quickly digging myself into the hole on energy, no less). My part of the mortgage had just gone up to $600, since I had kicked out a no-good boyfriend. And in a three month span, I experienced the following:

Had the ex threaten me (in the hearing of tenants who then called the cops.) In Washington, if you've lived together, a threat is enough to be arrested for domestic violence and get a one-year restraining order slapped on you.

Three major appliances died. First the stove in the Mother-In-Law apartment downstairs. Replaced for around $350. Then the dryer. Around $300. Then the wall oven/stove top in the main house. That was a little pricier. Had a guy rip out the stovetop/island and put in a stove; take out the wall oven and put in more cabinets. Why, you ask? Because wall ovens start at around $1100.

Right at the end, I secured a full-time job. (I, of course, ended up having to quit from fatigue a couple months later, but at this point I was securly entrenched in denial.)

The last day of training before officially starting the job, I came home to find everyone standing in the street. There had been a fire and everyone had to be evacuated for what turned out to be over a month.

I just listened to the news, shrugged and said, "Well, we were running out of appliances to have break, after all."

It's all about keeping that bitter, ironic sense of humor, I tell ya.

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Carnival season

The Carnival of Money Stories #93 is up and running! Check it out. There's a great rant about hating Macy's (not a man after my own heart, but everyone is entitled to his opinion) and one about the joy of the lottery. If you're reading this, J Money @ Budgets Are Sexy, I'm still waiting for my chunk!

Also, the Carnival of Debt Reduction is up. It also features tips via Twitter. So you can read articles but also get little nuggets of wisdom.

Sunday, January 11

Financial decision-making

*** To my readers, this is what's known as a green vegetable post. It's not terribly appetizing, but it's good for you. So while the subject matter may be a tad dry, just force it down. Dessert will be along soon enough. ***

I don't know a single person who likes being presented with choice. Don't get me wrong -- we like having options. We're often frustrated if we feel we don't have enough options.

But choice? Choosing implies that you are giving up one item for another. Choosing brings to mind trade-offfs and compromises. And, really, who wants to accept that if they don't absolutely have to?

Still, frugality is all about choices. It's about deciding what is a priority and what is not. As we all like to remind the rest of the world, being frugal isn't about depriving yourself. It's about choosing how and where you want to spend your money.

The angst of choice

When I started talking about choosing, I'm betting that at least a couple of you felt a quick hint of dread. Why wouldn't you? Choosing often means research and critical thinking. It's tiring and can lead to arguments, if two people have different priorities.

But lately it feels like all I have done is make choices about various things. Even items we end up not buying can require a conscious decision to abstain from purchase.

And all that can feel pretty onerous, until you realize that it's just a larger scale of what you already do automatically.

Making the choice

Decision making is actually a pretty simple process. It's the same steps, whether you're considering buying a house or just choosing between generic and name-brand canned fruit.

The stress of the choice is entirely added by us. And, sometimes, for good reason. Certainly, there are much bigger consequences to buying a house than choosing to spend 50 cents more for the name-brand peaches.

Still, it's good to remember that the complex emotions come solely from your own head. Because if you can step out of that momentarily and look at the facts in an unbiased way, you will often find the choice is a lot simpler.

  1. Identify pros and cons of each option
  2. Compare these to your priorities/needs
  3. Decide which one is closest to that need

It sounds simplistic, but it's true. If you are looking at the store-brand peaches vs Dole, you note the follow:

  • Dole is a known quantity (or, rather in this case, quality)
  • The generic is cheaper by 50 cents
  • You then consider any past experiences you've had with that store brand.

You then assess your goals:

  • To have a can of peaches to eat
  • To spend as little money as possible.
  • To have the peaches be something you enjoy (or you've wasted the purchase price)

Once you compare all that, you come to one of two conclusions:

  • The other store-brand items were perfectly tasty; you want to save fifty cents. You buy the generic.
  • The last store-brand item wasn't as good as the name-brand. You'll pay the extra fifty cents to ensure quality. You buy the name-brand peaches.

That's it. Those are the only steps you ever have to take to make a decision. The only variable is how many options you have and the pros/cons of each scenario.

Below, I go ahead and use an example of a real-life, more-than-two-options, decision. If you're already sick of financial decision-making talk, feel free to stop reading here. If you're curious to see just how my twisted lil mind works, read on. (Though in this case, it was a relatively straight-forward deal.)

On Thanksgiving, I had to make a decision about whether to take advantage of Black Friday computer sales.

Our computer was running increasingly slowly, thanks to a virus that we thought had been removed. (You get what you pay for, I suppose.) The computer refused to defrag, which is probably why it was running more and more slowly.

I had to decide whether to try to buy a new one, which would solve our computer problems but exacerbate our financial ones, or to try to stick it out with the old one, which might be fixable.

If we chose to buy, there were three choices: a laptop for $300 (after rebate), a desktop for $500, or just buy a new hard drive.

The pros of keeping the computer we had:

1. Not spending any money. This had a lot of weight.
2. We have some Microsoft support time, so there was a chance it could be fixed for free.
3. It has Windows 2000 on it, which Tim needs to play his Magic game online. None of the computers on sale offered anything but Vista

The cons of keeping the computer we had:

1. It was running like molasses, causing aggravation for Tim
2. It is already 4 years old, and who knows when it will choose to die completely.
3. Waiting until it dies might mean missing out on a good computer sale now.

The pros of the laptop:

1. It was much faster and nicer than our current model
2. It was very affordable
3. It would fill a need we had -- namely, a good working computer

The cons of the laptop:

1. We would have to put it on a credit card.
2. Laptops are harder to get fixed except by professionals
3. It was a limited-quantity item, which would mean getting to Staples at around 4 a.m.
4. It ran Vista and we weren't sure if there was an option for Windows 2000 to be installed instead.

The pros of the desktop:

1. Much faster and nicer than our current hardware.
2. Easier to fix than a laptop
3. Was available all day online
4. Came with an LCD monitor and a printer we could sell to off-set cost.

The cons of the desktop:

1. We'd still have to put it on the card
2. It cost more than the laptop, and we couldn't be sure the monitor & printer would sell
3. It also ran Vista and there was no way to request Windows 2000.

The pros of buying a new hard drive:

1. Much cheaper solution than the other two.
2. Would still get us a much better computer.
3. We could install Windows 2000 on it.

The cons of buying a new hard drive:

1. Still spending money
2. We were visiting the in-laws, so there was no way to know what would be compatible with our current hardware.

In order to compare more easily, I drew out a table because, yes, I am that nerdy. I made a category for cost (to buy or fix), the chance of getting Windows 2000, speed/memory space, and a few other points, such as potential resale value of the monitor and printer with the desktop.

In the end, I decided to risk waiting. I simply couldn't justify putting more money on the card without seeing if the computer could be saved. Also, with the economy in the shape it is, I figured there will be plenty of sales to take advantage of, if we do have to replace our desktop.

But until I sat down and compared, line-by-line the pros and cons of each scenario, I was unable to form a decision. Once they were written down, the choice was relatively clear. (I say relatively because it was very tempting to just get the desktop. So it was hard to not rationalize buying it.)

I hope this example helps you with future decisions. I know it's a little dry as subjects go, but it's an important one nonetheless.

In the end, I decided to wait and not put anything more on the cards. It took a few hours of staring at my table and comparing the different scenarios.

So that's it, folks. The veggies are done. So stop trying to feed them to the dog under the table. And I'll try to get some ice cream posts in soon!


If you need a nice palette-cleansing course, may I suggest checking out the Carnival Debt Reduction, which includes a piece of mine.

Frugal tip for couples

Most frugalites have long known the value of reading -- especially with books borrowed from libraries rather than purchased at stores.

But one practice they may not have tried: Reading to each other.

I found the value in this back when Tim's eczema was flaring up regularly, requiring oatmeal baths. Problem was, Tim's ADD makes him restless and thus bath-averse. To keep him in and soaking as long as possible, I started reading out loud.

Eventually, this turned into a great way to get him to enjoy books he might otherwise not read. I'm a big fan of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. The books make me laugh, but also provide an interesting, almost third-party look at modern society. I knew Tim would enjoy them, if only I could get him to actually open one up. In the end, I just made him a captive audience. Sure enough, he was laughing out loud within the first few pages.

Nowadays, I try to save up the energy to read at least a few pages each night before falling asleep. It's a great way of both winding down from a stressful day and spending some quality time together. It's also helped our schedules, as it gets us in bed at a reasonable hour.

Oviously, depending on your partner's tastes, you may choose books that are more light-hearted. But if you both appreciate great literature and want to go for Moby Dick -- well, then, more power to ya.

Whatever you end up reading, it's a great way to get someone outside of his or her literary comfort zone. It's a wondeful shared experience, to boot, and an excellent way to end the day.

Of course, plenty of people have trouble going to bed at exactly the same time their spouses do. They might decide this tip isn't for them, because they'd never get through a book by the library due date. But remember: Some libraries will let you renew your books, so long as no one is waiting. Or you can try programsl ike Freecycle or Paperback Swap. There are even programs like that act like a Netflix for books.

Even more importantly, it is so soothing to be read to, or fun to be the reader and share your books with your partner, that you will probably find yourself making time in your day. You'll be looking forward to the time spent together, as well as finding out the next plot development.

It's a bedtime ritual you can look forward to -- one that cost you absolutely nothing but be completely priceless.

To get you started, I'm doing a giveaway for a $25 Amazon gift card. Most of you should know the drill by now. You can receive an entry:

  1. If you are a subscriber. (Anyone who's let me know they subscribed in the last is already entered.)
  2. If you mention this on your blog.
  3. If you refer anyone to this blog. (They need to let me know in a message.)
  4. If you post this on any social bookmarking site.
  5. Leave a comment on any post -- but please something more than "Great post" or "I agree."
  6. And, now, if you tweet it. (Let me know if you do.)

Contest ends 1/17 at 11:59 p.m. PST. I will draw a winner using

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Tuesday, January 6

Another sale of interest

Given that I'm snarky to my lil core, I can't help but broadcast Busted Tees' sale.

There are 100 shirts for only $10, and three new shirts for $16.99. (Regular price $20)

The sale ends Sunday, the 18th.

Check it out!

Goals or resolutions?

I'm a little late in stating my resolutions for the new year. That's probably because it's been years since I've bothered with New Year's resolutions.

I make goals all year-round. I revise old goals as needed, try to undo bad habits and create new, better ones. Why let the calendar dictate when I try to better myself?

Frankly, I agree with I've Paid For This Twice Already: Resolutions are just goals with a fancier name.

But, you say, surely there's no harm in making resolutions for the new year. It's a blank slate. It's inspiring.

Here's the problem though: There is a difference between resolutions and goals in most people's minds.

Goals are long-term. It's expected that you'll stumble -- you'll succumb to that piece of cake despite the diet, spend too much for the perfect pair of shoes, or have a cigarette on a particularly stressful day. You may not be perfect, but then you're expected to get back up, brush yourself off, and get back on track.

Resolutions, though, seem to be made to be broken. It seems to me that the moment people break a resolution, it's a goner. They toss it away with the pointy hats and noisemakers.

One of my big overall projects is to be nicer to myself. And being nicer means less self-criticism, more understanding. It means giving myself permission to not be perfect. (Please don't misunderstand me: I know quite well I'm not perfect. The trick is in accepting that that's okay.)

In that spirit, I don't want to nail down resolutions that are quickly broken or forgotten. I want to set goals.

Goals are something you work toward. They're fluid and can be changed as needed. And, in my mind, it's far more satisfying to reach a goal than to not break a resolution. One is passive. You're winning by not doing something. The other is active and acknowledges that you put in hard work.

So, while I may not have made any resolutions, I have been pondering some of my goals. Here's what I came up with:


My ultimate goal is to get to the point where the blog can bring in a reasonable income. That's a long-term goal, though. In the near future, I need to work on increasing my presence in the blogosphere.

So my goal is to have just about doubled my subscribers by this blog's first anniversary. That means 300. As an alternate measure, I want to average 200 visitors per day.

To this end, I have to pay more attention to blog carnivals and actually commenting on more people's blogs, rather than just reading them. I've been slacking in these areas for the past couple of months.

Personal (physical)

I want to lose weight. I probably should quantify this, as vague goals are unmet goals. But right now, between the cold weather, an extra few pounds from tasty holiday treats, and needing new shoes, my knees have been aching pretty frequently.

Not good.

So, I've got two pairs of new shoes. I'm cutting down my calories. And I need to start taking walks again, now that the weather has stopped icing up the roads.

I want to walk every day, but that's not realistic. So let's say that I will walk at least 3 times a week. By the end of January, I want my clothes to be fitting like they used to. By February, I'd like my pants to have a little slack in them. (I don't use pounds because I lift weights. It's hard to track pounds lost when you are adding muscle.) After February, I'll assess how I did and set more weight goals.

Personal (mental)

Tim is working with me to be sure I don't end up completely out of medications. He calls them in for me, when I alert him that they're low. (It's simple, yes, but I procrastinate about it something fierce!)

On the subject of being nicer to myself, I want to continue learning to lighten the hell up. For someone with a pretty good sense of humor, I am pretty damn uptight. And I'm very naturally self-critical. I'm learning (slowly) to give myself room to be human. But my mind still has fun little tricks. One of its favorites, during downtime, is replaying scenes where I messed up or embarrassed myself in some way.

It's exhausting, it gets me nowhere, and it's gotta go! So this year, I will work on erasing that little mechanism, even if it means I have to occasionally say "Stop!" out loud. (I've had to do it in the past. Try explaining that one to someone sitting in the same room without sounding completely insane.)


Tim's unemployment runs out after May, so it's hard to plan too far into the future. But since we've been able to eradicate $4,000 of debt since mid-June, I'd like to match that for May. Depending on what our tax return is, this may be an easy goal to exceed. But for now, I'm trying not to count too much on any one thing.

So that's it. Those are my big goals for the year. By writing about them, I suppose I've installed you all as my task masters. It's the grand thing about blogging: you get free life coaches.

Now it's your turn: What are you reaching for this year? This quarter? This month?

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Monday, January 5

Are Americans really learning?

There's no question that we are in a recession. The job market is ugly. House values are worse. And it's best to not even mention stocks.

And so many articles are offering up all sorts of evidence that Americans have officially learned their lesson (for now, at least) and are attempting to be frugal and struggle out of debt. I can't count how many articles I've seen on this. Anecdotal evidence swoops in, and suddenly we're all back to the hard-hitting Depression-era.

I'm not convinced.

Before you start yelling, I know that many Americans did finally wake up and smell the $5 coffee. Certainly Americans are suddenly more conscious of their debt and where, exactly, past excesses have landed them. There are many people out there who are severely cutting down: selling off designer items, becoming a one-car household, and even (gasp) planning meals around what's on sale that week.

But, by and large, has America really into this frugality thing? I think that most citizens grasped onto frugality as a life preserver in their sea of debt. Now, though, they're realizing just how far away the shore is. Don't get me wrong, they'll keep holding on to the life preserver as long as necessary. But not a second more.

For example, the business world decried the holiday season as awful. What was so terrible? Well, total holiday retail sales were down 5% for November, 8% in December, compared to last year.

Remember how many people said they were severely cutting back this Christmas? If even the majority of them had followed through on this intent, wouldn't we have seen double-digit declines overall?

It's pretty easy to do, really. I was catching up with a friend today. I asked what he got/gave for Christmas. Originally, they weren't going to get each other anything, since they are in debt. But his wife told him she had her eye on a $90 present for him. So then he had to go out and find things for her. I'm guessing that was a common story in many households.

Of course, some areas did take major hits, mostly the high-end items.

This looks pretty dismal, but remember that all these negatives average out to around 6.5% ((5%+8%)/2) for the total period. So about a quarter of the would-be iPhone buyers opted out. Fewer cell phones and other gadgets got purchased.

But most of us read stories about the phenomenal season for video games and their consoles. November saw a 10% jump in video game sales. And game console numbers weren't exactly bad, either.

And, today, at the mall for the second time in two days, we had to fight to get a parking space. (I needed new shoes.) The mall was full of plenty of folks. Not all of them had bags. In fact, perhaps every 5th set of people had them. But it's hard to use this as a gauge, since people all enter and leave and different times.

What I do know is that the retailers keep hawking the sales. And it seems to at least be getting people to the mall out of curiosity. Whether they succumb to the temptation, I don't know. Only later data will let us figure that out. But they're there, and that's certainly dangerous enough, given how recently people were charging to supreme excess.

Old habits die hard -- cliche but true. If Americans are so wed to this new frugal lifestyle, they would know to avoid temptation. Malls can no longer offer entertainment, just more debt. Deep down, they probably know this. But the sales are just too alluring.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with bargain shopping. The day after Christmas, Tim and I went to the malls to hit some good deals. We got a silver ornament for $3 and got it engraved with our names and anniversary for $19 more. At the same store, we got four silver frames that we can use as future gifts. At 75% off, we spent under $10 for each.

I think we're already seeing the beginnings of frugal burnout. For upwards of 6 months, people have had to scale back severely and suddenly. Holidays made them chafe under the leash of a budget. But after-holiday sales are just the proverbial straw.

My guess is more and more people will start to backslide. Of course, this is normal. But in this economy, they can't afford to.

Time will tell if my predictions are accurate. And what effect it will have on the economy -- retail sales, credit card companies, and bankruptcy rates.

In the meantime, what trends have you noticed? What sales have you hit and what items did you actually buy?

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Saturday, January 3

I warrant you'll be wantin' a warranty

"Extended Warranty, how could I lose?!"
--Homer Simpson

Okay, fine, so we all know about the dreaded 'extended warranty' on a car. It ranks up there with 'undercoating.'

But in this increasingly electronics-filled society, aren't warranties becoming almost second nature? And shouldn't they be?

Some say no. Liz Pulliam Weston believes that, other than laptops, extended warranties aren't a good use of your money. That's because laptops are far more difficult to fix yourself. On the other hand, I suppose, most people know someone who can help with a PC.

I guess this makes sense, but a lot depends on your situation. When my computer went kablooey, I was doing contract work to make ends meet. (Or, to be more precise, to make the ends be less far apart.) The state of Washington was giving me $330 a month; my mom was helping me with the rest of my rent; and I had about $100 in food stamps each month. So that contract work, even when it was only $60 a week, was a big deal.

In other words, I couldn't go without a computer. I found Best Buy had some eMachines with incredible rebates. But since I needed the money upfront, I opened a 0% Best Buy card, giving me a 6-month window to get the rebate checks and slowly pay down the balance. The end cost was around $250 for the actual computer.

But because even $250 was difficult to cough up, I knew that if this computer died I'd be in big trouble. I wouldn't be able to get 0% a second time, and I didn't know anyone who was PC-savvy. So I invested in the 2-year warranty.

Just the peace of mind the warranty offered was worth it.

But if you are in a position where you can save up relatively quickly for a cheap computer -- or you know someone who can likely fix it for you -- you probably regard the extended warranty with suspicion.

Then there are things that aren't so easily fixed: MP3 players, audio equipment, video game consoles.

I guess the question is: How much do you need to spend before you're willing to protect it for an extra two years?

For me, the decision comes down to how much a replacement would be, versus the assurance I have that the item will last. For example, my vacuum cleaner came with a three-year warranty. I think that's acceptable. On the other hand, if it's only going to cost $10 to get an extra year or two out of a $20 MP3 player, why not go for it?

A lot of people (including some store employees) encourage you to take advantage of the warranty process. Some warranties aren't pledging to fix items -- they are pledging to replace them. So if your camera spontaneously "breaks" toward the end of your warranty, you'll get a gift card for the purchase price. And then you have a brand new camera. Personally, this kind of thing makes me a little queasy. But I'm a tad too honest, I suppose.

Have you ever taken this approach? Do you buy warranties on your electronics? Are PC warranties a total waste of money?

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Thursday, January 1

Starting the new year off right...

Happy New Year, all!

I'm happy to say that we are officially starting off 2009 with under $10,000 in debt!

That means that, since mid-June, we've paid down approximately $4,000 between student loans and credit cards. It's a pretty awesome feeling! I'm not quite sure yet what 2009 has in store for us -- Tim's unemployment only lasts through May for now -- but at least for the next five months we are planning on staying the course.

Also, I managed to parlay a local mess into a nice little discount: Fisher is a local parent company for the ABC affiliate and the contract is up. It is now asking Dish Network for a fee that is about 80% higher than its current one. So Dish is nixing ABC until things can be resolved. Just ABC, from what I can tell.

We pay $5.99 for our local channels, but the only show Tim and I like on ABC is Eli Stone. (And that's available as streaming video on ABC's website.) I used to watch Lost, but it's been ages since last season's finale. Frankly, I may just wait for the whole thing to be on DVD. It seems easier, somehow.

Anyway, thanks to a tip from Tim's mom, I called up and asked for information. The operator explained everything and then offered me a $5 discount on our next bill. I politely informed him that my mother-in-law had received that same discount for 10 months. The operator agreed to honor it, and so we're essentially getting our local channels for $1 for most of 2009.

I also dropped the insurance on our equipment. This may sound like a bad idea, but I've been assured by two operators and a couple of Dish subscribers that you can restart it at any time. Which means that you can call up, start the protection again, then call back and tell them you need something fixed.

That brings our Dish bill down to around $40 after taxes!

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