Monday, November 26, 2007

ATM Surcharges

I've been so intrigued by the no-fee ATM promotions that have been floating around that I recently signed up for the program at my bank, PNC. My wife and I tap the ATM a few times a month and sometimes use a non-PNC ATM. I figured this program would save me money. And for a few months, it sure looked like I was saving a ton of cash. ATM fees would be reimbursed immediately as long as the minimum balance in my checking account remained at $2500. By the way, the checking account only yields a few tenths of a percent in interest.

I don't know what I was thinking, but I could easily put the $2500 in a high yield money market account and just go to PNC bank ATMS. If I put it in my ING account, that would yield $107.50 a year...much more than what I spend on ATM fees. I think I'm going to re-think my decision to sign up and go back to the way things were. Are there any banks that have no minimum balance no-fee ATM programs?

Cyber Monday

The term Cyber Monday refers to the Monday immediately following Black Friday, the ceremonial kick-off of the holiday online shopping season in the United States between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas. Here are just a few tips that I use when shopping online to find the best deals. It basically comes down to doing 2 things:

1. Doing a competitive product search
2. Searching for online coupons or promo codes

I use Google's Product search to compare prices on items. I recently used it to find competitive prices for a book that I'm buying as a gift for someone. I think it has one of the most comprehensive searches than any other shopping site. Yahoo Shopping is another good alternative.

Once you find the price you're looking for, go to checkout for that particular merchant. In another window, do a Google search for online coupon codes for that particular store. For instance, if the lowest price you find is at Amazon, then do a Google search for "Amazon coupon codes." More than likely, you'll find some kind of discount. Any other tips?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Holy Shih Tzu!

My wife came home the other day and said that we're getting a dog. Now, I have nothing against dogs or pets, but I've just never been a pet guy. However, my wife has been begging for a dog for the longest time. We don't have any children, and I just didn't want to deal with the increased responsibility. Over time, she's been wearing me down and insisting that we get a dog. So, she came home from work and told me that there is a 4 year old Shih Tzu at the pound that will be put to sleep if no one claims her.

I know the Shih Tzu is not the most masculine dog to own, but I'll entertain the idea for my wife. My main concern was the cost of owning a dog. I've read reports that owning a dog can cost upwards of $10,000 over the life of the dog. That's a lot of money! This includes costs from everything including premium kibble, medical care, toys, treats, etc.

Obviously I'd rather invest that money, but there's something about the dog's story that rips at my heart. She had a kidney stone which moved to her bladder. The owner's eventually could not deal with the surgery so they gave her up. She's had the surgery and is recuperating, but will be put to sleep if no one claims her. How could I let that happen when my wife has been asking for a dog and this is exactly what she's looking for? So, I think I'll give her the green light to start the process. I'll keep you posted on the progress, but is there anything else that I should be asking?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Home Rebate Credit Card

For those of you out there with rental properties, I found a great card that can earn you fantastic awards for at least 6 months. Its the Citi Home Rebate Credit Card. You can earn a full 6% rebate per dollar spent on telecom services; computer network/information services; cable, satellite, and other pay TV and radio services; and utilities for the first six months of membership, and they earn 1% per dollar spent after the introductory period and on all other purchases. The rebate is earned in the form of "Home Mortgage Rebates" that will be applied against the outstanding mortgage principal. There is no limit to the amount of rebates that may be earned, and rebates do not expire.

Obviously I use this for all utilities in my primary residence, but I also pay for water, gas, and electric in my rental. I spend about $500 - $600 per month on utilities for my primary home and rental. I used to use the convenience of online banking, but I wasn't getting anything back. With this card, I should be receiving $30 - $36 per month for 6 months which comes out to $180 - $216 for doing nothing. Give it a try.

Cable A La Carte

When I moved to my house in Delaware, I signed up for Comcast's Triple Play where you get phone, Internet, and basic cable for $99. After I hit the 1 year mark, my bill went up to $160 dollars! I called up Comcast to see if there is anything I can do. I couldn't say that I'm switching to another cable provider because there aren't any. The best they could do was offer me a similar triple play that also includes HBO, Showtime, and Starz for $129.

I reluctantly accepted the offer, but it really bothers me that there is absolutely no competition for these cable companies. I know that Verizon is now muscling into certain areas with the FIOS system, but it is not here yet. Another option would be for these cable companies to offer a la carte service. I have about 800 station and only watch 10-15 stations. If there was a way to pay for the station that I watch, I'd jump on it right away. In fact, there is an initiative to have a carte available to customers. Click here to see how much you may save with a la carte service. Let me know if you'd actually save money!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Gym Membership vs. Home Gym

About this time last year, my wife and I were paying close to $70/month on a gym membership that we hardly used. Like everyone else, we made a resolution to work out more at the beginning of the year, but over the course of several months, our frequency went from 4 times/week to zero. There were several causes:

1. No time
2. Not motivated
3. Crowded
4. Long drive
5. Too comfortable at home

I decided to take action and, rather than blow $70/month on a gym membership, I bought gym equipment for my basement. I figured that this would pay for itself in the long-run. I went out and spent about $250 on a weight bench, $100 on a dumbbell set, $300 for a treadmill, and a few bucks for a Swiss ball and yoga mat. With less then $700 bucks, I started my own gym. If I continued my gym membership, it would have cost me $840 over 1 year and would have nothing to show for it. I'm now going to purchase an elliptical for about $300 which will pay for itself in 4-5 months. So, here are my tips for a successful home gym:

1. Make sure you have room! I've always wanted a home gym, but never had the room until we moved last year. We have an unfinished basement which is perfect for a home gym. It stays cool so I stay cool while working out.

2. Buy quality equipment. You can skimp on a treadmill, but you'll pay for another one in about a year. I bought a Pro-Form from Sears with a digital display, incline, and shock absorbers. It's a decent brand and have not had a problem with it.

3. Add entertainment. Whether it's a TV or a radio, you'll need something to pass the time. Trust me, time goes a lot slower when you're just staring at the wall. My mom gave me an old 13" TV that I threw down in the basement.

4. Be prepared for repairs. Although we have not had any problems with our equipment, you never know if the belt on the treadmill will break or just stop working.

I know some of you would rather go to the gym, because once you're there, you're motivated to work out. That being said, this is not for everyone. You have to be able to get up from the couch in the family room and be motivated to work out. Also, the equipment usually comes unassembled, so it takes some time and a little bit of elbow grease to put it together. Tell me your stories!

Most Reliable Cars

You'll be surprised who is on the list of the top 5 most reliable cars, according to the most recent J.D. Power & Associates Vehicle Dependability Study.

Top 5 most reliable cars
1. Buick
1. Lexus
3. Cadillac
4. Mercury
5. Honda

That study looked at the number of problems reported by 53,000 original owners of 2004-model-year cars to see how well they held up over time. Can you believe that 3 out of the 5 most reliable cars are American made? I thought Toyota built a decent car...where is it?

I have a buddy who always is negative towards American cars because of the reputation they've had in the past. He thinks that foreign cars run better and last longer than their American counterparts. To a certain extent, he's right, but as you can see from this study American cars are getting better and many surpass their foreign counterparts. Ever hear of Mercedes Benz? Seven Mercedes-Benz vehicles are among the least reliable vehicle according to the Consumer Reports reliability survey. So we should think about a few things when it comes to money:

1. Don't rely on reputation: Do your research and find the best built car for the best value. I've seen advertisements for Chrylers with lifetime powertrain warranties!

2. Keep reliability in mind when it comes to resale: If you're the type who gets bored of cars every few years, keep the reliability data in mind. Reliable cars obviously have a much better resale value and you won't lose much from depreciation.

3. Do your research: Although this particular survey showed that American cars are very reliable, it could be an anomaly. You'll need to look at several sources to determine the most reliable cars.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Cash under the Mattress

I just collected some rent money from a rental that I own and was paid in cash. I currently don't have any cash stashed away in a safe place in my house and I've read that I probably should just in case I'm in need following a major disaster. Now, I don't know what kind of disaster I might experience in Delaware, but I'm considering this option. Obviously the downside to this is the losing value of the dollar.

If I keep say $500 in a safe, I will be out $276.48 over the course of 10 years. In other words, if I took that money and put it in a high yield money market account earning 4.5% interest, I'd have $776.48 in 10 years. So, my debate is whether the comfort of knowing that I have cash on hand is worth the loss. I'm thinking that it is as I've always been the type to prepare for the worst. That being said, I'm putting the $500 in my safe. Anyone else doing the same thing?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Just got a Nintendo Wii

The last system that I ever owned was the Atari 2600. When EVERYONE got the Nintendo system back in 1989, I waited. When everyone got Sega, I waited. I waited on SNES, and waited on Nintendo 64. I waited on Playstation, Playstation 2, Xbox, Playstation 3, and Xbox 260. When I saw the Nintendo Wii, I had to have it.

Being very conscious of my spending, I found it hard to part with the $250 retail price then another $60 for an additional controller. So, my new idea is that whenever I want to buy something frivolous, I will need to sell something of similar value on eBay. I looked around my house for something worth approximately $250 and came across my old alto saxophone. I posted that bad boy up on eBay and a few days later, it sold for $225.

I don't have any other purchases planned in the near future, but will look to give this system a try for a little longer. It accomplishes 2 things:

1. I get instant gratification from my purchase
2. I'm de-cluttering my house

What should I buy next?

Cell Phone Text Messaging

I don't know about you, but I'm getting more and more text message everyday. I also recently read that many carriers are increasing their per-text fee from 10 cents to 15 cents. That can really add up when you're sending and receiving over 100 texts per month.

You really have 3 options:

1. Do nothing and hope that the amount of texts you receive will decline
2. Add a text plan to your wireless package
3. Call your carrier to see if they offer text blocking. Apparently some carriers do offer that option

Please take a look at your bill do something today, if you haven't already. Personally, I don't foresee a drop off in the amount of texts so I'm going to add a text plan to my AT&T package. Hope this helps!

Track Your Net Worth

I've been tracking my net worth over the past 5 years, but only recently tracked it almost everyday. I know people might think this is a little compulsive, but I find the data that I get very valuable for forecasting net worth. With this data on a line graph, I can run forecasting models (linear or exponential trend lines) in Microsoft Excel.

It literally takes me 3 minutes to retreive my net worth on a daily basis. For the most part, I am receiving real-time data. For anyone who has a Fidelity account, you can do this. The first thing you need to do it create online accounts for all your assets (401k, brokerages, bank accounts), and your liabilities (credit card, mortgages, car loan, student loans). Once you've set that up, you then go into your fidelity account, click on Accounts & Trades>Full View. Here you can set up Fidelity to pull data from all your accounts. If Fidelity doesn't pull data from your particular bank, credit card, etc, you can enter a custom manual account. You can also put in the value of you home to offset the mortgage liability.

Once you've set that up, you literally just click on the single refresh button on the top of the page for Fidelity to pull your data. Once that is complete, you can see your net worth at the bottom. Pretty cool! Let me know how it goes!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Dollar Is Slip Slidin' Away

This morning I went into my Fidelity account (like I do everyday) to take a look at where I'm at. I noticed that my traditional IRA has lost money this year! I guess that I haven't been keeping a close eye on it. I noticed that I had it in a horrible value fund. I looked at my other investments and noticed that I was up almost 70% on a southeast asia fund. I decided I had to take some action.

Everyone knows that the dollar is losing value which means that any money that we have in cash is worth less and less each day. This is increasingly important when planning for your retirement. Hurt most from the dollar's descent are folks whose income is derived solely from fixed-income investments such as bonds, annuities. Those who also invest in equity US stocks or mutual funds (case in point above) are also at risk.

So, what I've done is sell my position in the value fund and bought an emerging markets fund. I'll let you know how it goes!

Hello All!

My name is Jake and I decided to start this blog because I have an interest in personal finance and continually read articles, websites, and blogs on personal finance. I’m constantly looking for ways to increase my assets, and rate of return on those assets.

So what makes me qualified to talk about personal finance? Nothing! Well, I started this blog because I am always the go-to person when someone has a question about planning for retirement. Early on, I saw the importance in compound interest and shoveled money into my 401k, IRAs, and real estate. I also started this blog to gather feedback from users.

So, my plan is to discuss what I do, comment on things that I could be doing, and answering your comments and questions. So, look out for future posts and I hope you return soon!