Weekly Carnivals

I got off my virtual tush and participated in some Carnivals this week:

The Carnival of Personal Finance was run by We’re In Debt. It’s organized nicely by topic, and my post on my current bank setup was an Editor’s pick. Woohoo!

The first part of my Zecco broker review was also included in the Festival of Stocks, hosted by the Stock Market Prognosticator.

Sprint SERO Plan Review: Affordable Cell Phone Plan, Free Data, Currently Open To All

If you are currently out of or nearing the end of your cell phone contract, be sure to consider the Sprint Employee Referral Offer, or SERO, plan. Although it has been heavily discussed for a while on many cellular enthusiast forums, actually getting on the plan used to require a referral from a Sprint Employee (duh), some smooth-talking over the phone, or the “borrowing” of a random employee e-mail from the internet. However, right now they have opened it up to the public, and I have gone ahead and jumped on it myself as it probably won’t last forever. Here are my experiences:

How to order
» Visit the Sprint SERO site.
» Type in either “savings@sprint.com” or “savings@sprintemi.com” in the box for Sprint Employee E-mail Address, along with your zip code.
» You should be greeted with the default offer shown to the right. However, you can choose from a variety of phones and plans to suit your needs and do all the ordering online. (If you don’t, the e-mails may have expired.)
» When you order, please note that you will be subjected to a hard credit pull just like with other carriers.

The plans all include such perks as free long distance, unlimited Sprint mobile-to-mobile, Unlimited Weekends and Nights starting at 7pm, and unlimited Power Vision (web, IM, e-mail). If you talk enough to make a prepaid plan too expensive, 500 anytime minutes for $30 plus taxes seems like a very good price. Two-year contract required, no activation fee.

The prices on phones are sometimes a good deal, but not always cheaper than other places. Although I have seen them offer free phones, I think they start at $20 now. You can compare with other sites, taking into the account the monthly savings on this plan.

I splurged and bought the Motorola Q for $100 because, well, I’m a geek and wanted to take advantage of the free data! Unlimited data alone costs $20-$50 a month on other carriers. It’s not quite a Treo and there is no touchscreen, but I can check my e-mail and also internet in a pinch. It’s quite thin, and overall I’m very happy with my new toy. 😀

Although they do send it out via 2-Day FedEx, it took me about a week before they actually shipped my phone. However, there is a status website that keeps you relatively well-informed. It should be noted that InPhonic (WireFly.com) is the outsourced provider that you’ll actually be dealing with during the initial purchase, not Sprint. They aren’t the best from what I’ve read, so if you are going to port your existing number, it may be a good idea to do it yourself through Spring customer service once you’ve gotten the phone. It took me only minutes and I just needed my old account number. In the meantime, they’ll just assign you another number.

As for Sprint’s service, they’ve been very good so far. My hold times have been pretty short, the CSRs have been nice. Coverage will vary for everyone, but mine has been adequate. There is also a 30-day guarantee just in case it isn’t.

Other notes
» You can still add any corporate or student discounts to your plan, bringing the overall price down even lower. If you are a student, call 1-866-853-4931, hit 1, and ask about your specific university. I ended up with 10% off.
» You can’t add a cheap 2nd line on these plans. This is important to note for non-single folks, because our old Cingular family line plan was actually very comparable to the SERO price. We used to share 800 minutes for $68 total a month after discounts. Now we have 500 minutes each for about $64 total per month. ($30 x 2 – 10% discount + $5 taxes per line.) The only real difference in service is the free data.
» If you experience a dropped call, you can dial *2 on your phone, say “dropped call”, and they will credit 50 cents on your account.

» After you get the phone, you can also call in for a free $25 debit card if you give them your new phone number and another referring person’s Nextel/Sprint PCS number. The other person will get $25 too. I referred my wife and we both got $25. If would like a number to use for a referral, you can contact me with your new cell phone number.

For more information, you can join the (long and often tedious) ongoing discussions at SprintUsers, Slickdeals, Fatwallet, or Howard Forums. If you are currently in a Sprint contract, you may want to read this post for some tips.

The Average American’s Spending Breakdown

I’ve been trying to find a pie chart listing the spending breakdown of the average American to provide a frame of reference for our spending pie chart last year, and here is the closest I could find. It’s in terms of pre-tax numbers, and I added the percentages for clarification:


The chart was taken from an article by the Tax Foundation think tank, whose stated mission is to “educate taxpayers about sound tax policy and the size of the tax burden borne by Americans at all levels of government.” However, there is some argument about the accuracy of these numbers.

Note that there is no slice for Savings, as our savings rate is negative according to their calculations. 🙁

Got Good Credit? Rent It Out For Cash!

You have bad credit. You want to buy a house. Why bother with such old-fashioned ideas like paying off debts and slowly building back your credit? You want that McMansion now! All those other sub-prime defaults are just crimping your style. Well, now you can simply buy good credit! Or more accurately, rent it.

It’s been a well-known practice for parents add to their kids as authorized users on their credit card accounts. Besides letting them buy textbooks, this can boost their credit scores because that larger and long-standing credit line will show up on their borrowing history as if it were theirs. Now add three critical facts:

1. Authorized users don’t have to be related to you.
2. There is no limit on how many authorized users you can.
3. There is no law against the rental or sale of authorized-user designations.

You see where this is going? From a recent Washington Post article titled Credit Scores for Sale:

Exploiting that loophole, numerous companies have popped up on the Internet offering to buy and rent out the credit card “trade lines,” or accounts, of credit card holders with high limits and perfect payment histories.

The person seeking a higher credit score does not obtain access to the credit card. Within 30 to 90 days of being added to the account, the national credit bureaus incorporate the primary cardholder’s ongoing account information into the files of the authorized user. The score-raising attributes of the primary cardholder’s stellar payment record then flow through to the new user.

One example site mentioned is AddaTradeLine.com. The site screams shady. Still, I wanted to see how much my “seasoned” credit lines were worth.

2) How much will I get paid?

The amount varies, and it depends on the age of the card, and the credit limit. We pay the most for old cards (30-40 years old) and high limits (100k or more) We do pay for any cards you have with a limit of at least 1k, and at least 6 months old. If the card is less than 6 months old, but has a credit limit of $5,000 or more, we can rent that as well. We are currently offering 25% payout on what our customers pay. Based on our current pricing, you would receive anywhere from $125 to $625 per transaction. To get paid at the higher tiers, you need to have a more attractive credit card account. An example would be a 30 year old Visa card with a reported limit of $150,000. A typical example of an $125 tradeline payout would be one 3months old, with a limit of $7,500.

They report people adding upwards of a hundred authorized users per card on a desirable credit line! That’s over $10,000, with no direct hit to your credit score.

But is this really safe? (Let me put on my evil thinking-cap.) If you add a stranger as an authorized user, they can get your credit card number from their credit reports (some have them partially blocked out, but not my old Transunion one). Since you’re having the extra card sent to your own home, your address may even show up on their credit reports as an alternate address. If they do a reverse phone book lookup on that address, they would have your name. So now they have your name, address, and credit card number. There are a very finite amount of possible expiration dates. And they are an authorized user. Hmm… even with ethical considerations aside, this doesn’t seem like a good idea. Thanks to Nathan for the tip.

Besides, I already profit from my good credit score by sacrificing a bit of it to borrow money for free and earn interest off it.

Vanguard Simplifies Low-Balance Fees, and Even Eliminates Them With Electronic Statments

Vanguard has just announced some changes to their fee schedule, which includes some great news for us smaller investors who like Vanguard but kept getting dinged by their low-balance fees.

Before, you had to dodge the following $10 fees:

  • The maintenance fee on index fund accounts with a balance of less than $10,000.
  • The custodial fee on traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, and SEP?IRAs with a balance of less than $5,000.
  • The low-balance fee on all nonretirement accounts with a balance of less than $2,500.

These have all been replaced with a single account service fee of $20 annually for each Vanguard fund with a balance under $10,000. Okay, that’s not too special. The good news is that if you agree to get electronic versions of statements and other documents, all the fees are waived!

The waiver is available immediately, so switch now 🙂 If you have $100,000 in total balances, you’re also fee-free. I already have everything set to deliver electronic format, so I’m all set. (Also you save lots of trees! Those prospectuses are thick.) In addition, you can still choose the “E-delivery and mail year-end-statement” option and get the fee waiver. That’s perfect for me.

I’ve always felt the $10 fees were justifiable, as if you were paying for things a la carte, because otherwise at 0.20% of say $5,000, that’s just $10 a year for IRS filings, paper, printing, postage, great customer service, and so on. Still, they were annoying. Even though my wife and I together have over $60,000 invested with Vanguard, we were still being hit with fees.

Now I’m less likely to switch to Vanguard’s ETF offerings, as I was considering for the future when I start putting money into taxable accounts. I prefer the simplicity of mutual funds.

Morningstar Investor Returns: Another Reason Why Chasing Past Performance Is Bad

Traditionally, when you look at the historical return of mutual funds, you are getting what is called a time-weighted return. For example, the 5-year return is what you would have gotten if you bought the fund five years ago and held it continuously until today, all the while reinvesting dividends.

Last year, Morningstar rolled out what it terms the Morningstar Investor Return, otherwise known as a dollar-weighted return. This measures the returns that investors actually achieved in that fund, based on dollar inflows and outflows. It’s actually pretty interesting: If investors as a whole timed their purchases correctly and bought more shares when the fund was low, then their returns would actually be higher than the time-weighted returns. If, instead, investors waited until the fund performed well before buying in, and then sold their shares when the price was lagging, then their dollar-weighted returns would be lower than the time-weighted return. Guess which one happens almost all the time?

To find these numbers, go to Morningstar and type in any symbol in the quote box. Let’s take my very first mutual fund purchase, Janus Mercury (now Janus Research), symbol JAMRX. Then click on Total Returns, and then finally on the Investor Returns tab on the top. You should find this:


Yikes. If you take the 10-year historical return, which includes both the big Tech bubble and crash, instead of the happy 10% annual return number most people see, the average investor actually lost 2% annually during this period. They tried to time it, and lost tons of money in the process. (I was one of them.)

Now, don’t think this performance chasing doesn’t apply to index funds. It does. Check out the Investor Returns for the classic Vanguard S&P 500 Index Fund, VFINX:


Not quite as bad, but the average owner still lagged the fund’s performance by over 1% a year. What do we learn from seeing these Investor Returns?

Making a decision on which mutual fund to buy based on past performance is simply not a good idea. What happens when the performance starts to lag? Since you’re making decisions based on past performance, then you’re probably going to find another fund that’s been doing well recently, and then jump on that ship instead. It’s just a never-ending cycle of losing money.

This is why when I am looking at mutual funds to purchase, I completely ignore recent performance. I couldn’t tell you the recent returns of any of my fund holdings. The things I do look at are – the asset class and what index it follows, the expense ratio, and the tax efficiency. Maybe the fund minimums too, but that’s it.

(I also ignore the Morningstar Star rating system as I think it’s pretty useless as well, but that’s another post.)

2. Volatility matters. Buy-and-hold works… if you hold! You keep hearing that people shouldn’t own too much in stocks if they can’t tolerate the risk. You can see why by viewing the Investor Returns on the more volatile funds. They stink! According to this CBS MarketWatch article, the funds with the greatest relative volatilities had dollar weighted returns of just 62% of time-weighted returns.

When people see ups and downs on the Great Stock Market Ride, as a whole they are horrible at timing when to get on and when to get off. When (not if, when!) the market crashes again, people who aren’t prepared will panic and get off the ride. But when will they get back on? The result is lost money.

Here, the lesson is that even if you do plan on sticking with index funds, you must remind yourself during the rough patches that staying the course will be most profitable in the end.

Our Spending Breakdown For The Last 12 Months

Several readers shared their own spending breakdowns in the comments of my previous post, so that inspired me to dig up the numbers for ourselves. I don’t have exact stats, and our income varies each month, but I did the best I could by averaging everything over the last 12 months. The percentages are taken from after-tax, or “take home”, income.


Quick explanations for each category:

Food is both eating out and groceries. Car means gas, maintenance, and insurance. Insurance means everything but car insurance: Health, Dental, Disability, Renter’s, and Umbrella. Utilities are all monthly recurring expenses like natural gas, electricity, trash, cell phone, VoIP, and water. Travel includes both visiting family and sightseeing. Savings includes both short-term savings for a house downpayment and putting away for retirement. Other is everything else – pet-related, clothes, gifts, donations, etc.

Things look pretty manageable for us right now, but soon our housing slice will probably double or more in size, and we have no kids right now, so the pie will definitely evolve over time. Of course, hopefully we’ll be earning more too. I also want to add life insurance and maybe better disability insurance to the mix soon.

This was an interesting exercise, perhaps just as illuminating as tracking your expenses for a month. Even if you guesstimate, you’ll likely end up with something that may inspire some change or simply reinforce your efforts so far.

Just like with my net worth tracking, I’m not here to compete with anyone else, I think we all have our own goals to work towards. However, feel free to comment with your own numbers.

Spring Cleaning: More Painful Than Watching Reality TV

It’s spring cleaning time. On top of the usual build-up, we are moving in a few months to a place where there (gasp!) probably won’t be a basement! I’m not the best at organization, but here’s what we’ve done so far:

Made two big boxes labeled Sell and Donate. If it has a chance of selling for $10 or more, I’ll eBay it. Hard-to-ship stuff will go on Craigslist. For clothes, we’ll do a run at Buffalo Exchange (used clothing store). Everything else will be donated. I might try FreeCycle, but to be honest I will probably just follow my neighborhood’s common practice of leaving a box outside labeled Free Stuff and let people go at it. We get a decent amount of foot traffic. Now that’s recycling locally 😉

Implemented the one-year rule for clothes. If you haven’t worn it in a year and it isn’t formalwear, it’s gone. That means you’ve gone through all four seasons, cold, hot, wet, dry, and not found a reason to wear it. This can be pretty painful for my wife, but she gets dibs on the clothing credit at Buffalo’s so maybe it’ll work out. If I could fit all my clothes besides winter coats into two large suitcases, that would be awesome.

As a certified pack rat, I really need to let go of certain things. I just have to accept that it’s okay to once in a while buy something again that I already owned once 15 years ago… Sure, keeping 500 ft of old ethernet cable might come in handy someday, but really, it probably won’t. I’m not the only one with 300 blank 4x CD-Rs that I got free after rebate ten years ago… am I?

I really want to simplify and de-clutter my life. Any other tips, if only psychological, to help me do so?

Redeeming Citibank ThankYou Points For Free Flights: A Great Option

I just redeemed a bunch of ThankYou points and I think I got some great rewards for doing things I would have done anyways. Consider this:

I have had the Citi Driver’s Edge MasterCard (one of my main rewards cards) since July, which gives you a 6% rebate back on supermarkets, drugstores, and gasoline for the first 12 months. These are everyday needs, not frivolous items. The Purchase rebates can either be redeemed by sending in auto care receipts, or converted directly to Citi ThankYou points by calling 1-800-308-4158. $1 in Rebates = 100 ThankYou Points.

In addition, you can also get Drive rebates for miles driven, at the rate of 1 mile = $0.01. You have to send in an enrollment form to start the counting, and then a mileage update form whenever you get an oil change or other service that logs the odometer. You can only redeem as many Drive rebates as you have Purchase rebates.

For us, we have averaged $400 per month in groceries and gas so far, racking about $220 in Purchase rebates on $3,670 of spending. We just send in a mileage update for 6,000 miles, adding another $60 in Drive Rebates, for a total of $280 or 28,000 ThankYou points. My original plan was just to convert ThankYou Points to Target gift cards (already getting me ~7% cash back), but then I discovered their Fixed Flight Travel option:

Eligible Citi? cardmembers can also take advantage of our fixed flights option for air travel by calling one of our ThankYou Network Travel Specialists. You can count on getting a ticket for the date you want to fly. For example, only 25,000 points are needed for flights anywhere in the continental U.S. and Alaska, any time of year. With no black-out dates. Simply book 14 days in advance and plan for a Saturday overnight stay.

Am I eligible for fixed flight options for airline tickets?
Currently, ThankYou Members with the following Sponsor accounts are eligible for fixed flight airline tickets at fixed ThankYou Point amounts: Citi PremierPass? Card, Citi PremierPass? Card – Elite Level, Citi? Diamond Preferred? Rewards Card, Citi Simplicity Rewards Card, Citi Professional Card with ThankYou Network, CitiBusiness PremierPass Card, CitiBusiness? Card with ThankYou Network, AT&T Universal Rewards Card, Citi? Platinum Select? Card with ThankYou Network, Citigroup Chairman? Card and Citi? Driver’s Edge? Card. This Sponsor Account list is subject to change without notice. Fixed flight option Travel Rewards are only available when you call the ThankYou Service Center. Agents will work to offer you the best deal on available flights ? you are not required to select the fixed flight option.

I am eligible for fixed flight option Travel Rewards. What are the current prices and destinations?

Fixed Flight Option Travel Rewards
(Restricted, Round-Trip)
Coach Business Class
Continental US & Alaska 25,000 60,000
Canada 25,000 60,000
Mexico 35,000 60,000
Hawaii & Caribbean 40,000 75,000
Europe 60,000 165,000
Asia 60,000 165,000
Middle East & Africa 80,000 130,000
Australia & South Pacific 100,000 180,000
Central America 35,000 60,000
South America 60,000 160,000
Puerto Rico to Continental US 40,000  

This is actually a lot better than using regular frequent flyer miles, as basically if there is a flight available, they will let you have it for 25,000 ThankYou points (You pay any taxes and fees). You can book the flight for anyone – yourself, friends, or family.

After calling 1-877-773-3336 and talking to their travel agents, I found out that they won’t let you have any flight, but restrict you to the cheaper options for the dates you want to fly. I wanted a cross-country flight in July, which cost anywhere from $500-$1,000 online depending on the schedule and number of stops. They let me pick basically from the flights $600 and under. Still, this was a time period with no 25,000 mile award flights using normal frequent flier miles.

In the end, I got a flight that would have cost me $560 on Expedia for 25,000 ThankYou Points and $40 in taxes. I still get to earn frequent flier miles for the flight, too. So I saved $520 after spending $3,670 on groceries and gas we needed anyways. That’s a cashback return of 14.2%! (And I still have 3,000 points left.) On top of our recent Vegas winnings, I’m pretty happy with myself right now 8)

If you have ThankYou points and fly at all, using the Fixed Flight option can be a much better redemption rate than gift cards or even putting it towards student loan balances. Also, if you want a flight less than $250, you can book via their Variable Flight option; a $150 flight would cost only 15,000 points.

Predicting the New I-Bond Rates For May 2007

Just like last last April, using the newly released March CPU-I data and the information in my How To Predict I-Bond Savings Bond Rates post, we can now try to predict the upcoming I-Bond rate announcement on May 1st.

The CPI-U in September 2006 was 202.9.
The CPI-U in March 2007 was 205.352.

205.352/202.9 = 1.012085, or a semi-annual increase of 1.2085%.

Total rate = Unknown fixed rate + 2 x Semiannual inflation rate + (Semiannual inflation rate X Fixed rate)

If we assume a fixed rate of the current 1.4%, we get

Total rate = 0.014 + (2 x .012085) + (.014 x .012085)
Total rate = 1.4% + 2.43%
Total rate = 3.83%

For those with existing I-Bonds, the variable rate is about 2.43% on top of your fixed rate. Note that the rate on your bonds changes every six months from the date you bought it, so it might not change immediately in May.

Overall, if you buy in April and lock in your 1.4% fixed rate, you’ll get 4.52% for 6 months and then 3.83% for another 6 months. If you wait until May, even if the fixed rate portion rises to 1.6%, the total rate will barely break 4%. Either way, as a short-term safe investment it’s not a very competitive rate. Unless there is a big jump in the fixed rate to make this an interesting long-term investment, I’ll see you in six months…

Zecco Free Trades Broker Review, Part 1: Introduction and Opening Process Overview

I decided to open a brokerage account with Zecco.com. This is not going to be my main brokerage account just yet, but I do plan on using it. (I’m going to revive my Play Money account, for those that have been reading for a while. More on this later.) For now, since I think a lot of people are curious about this account, here are my experiences with the account itself.

Introduction: Why open a Zecco account?
Two words: Free Trades. As of 10/1, they offer 10 free market/limit trades per month, if you have $2,500 in total account equity (stocks + cash). There is no minimum balance to open, but if you have under $2,500 trades will cost $4.50. Finally, with no inactivity fees it seems like a great account even for someone who doesn’t trade frequently. Some other brokers offer free trades, but none with such a low balance requirement. There is a $30 annual fee for IRAs.

Why wouldn’t you open a Zecco account?
This is also simple – free trades aren’t everything. Zecco has been around almost a year now, and I don’t see Chuck Schwab declaring bankruptcy. Trust and customer service are big. Can Zecco execute the trades in a timely manner, and can the online interface and customer support match the other brokerages? (Or at least come close enough.) Hopefully, this review will help answer some of these questions.

Also, can they make enough money off of ads and margin interest to stay in business? If not, you’ll be faced with a $50 transfer-out fee and possible commissions elsewhere if you need to sell.

Opening Process Overview

1. Sign up for your MyZecco account. It is important to note that there are two parts to the Zecco website. First is the myZecco layer, which a more informal area that allows you to post on blogs and forums without an actual trading account. They will actually e-mail you this username and password, which I think is fine because no financial information is included in this layer. You don’t even need to enter your name or address.

2. Apply for a trading account. This seemed like a pretty standard brokerage application. One thing to note is that you may want to apply for a margin account, even if you don’t plan on trading on margin (borrowed money). Here’s why:

In a cash account the proceeds of a sell order will not affect your buying power until settlement, which is T+3 (trade date plus three business days). To avoid this situation you may want to consider establishing margin on your account. With a margin account the proceeds of a sell order will update your buying power immediately. To establish a margin account you can request it at the time you open your account or if your account is already established you can complete the Combined Customer Agreement Form…

3. Wait for application approval. You’ll get an e-mail saying that your application is approved, mine arrived the next morning. You will get information on how to set your Trading Key. This separate password gives you access to the second part of the Zecco website, the Trading area. This layer is a secure encrypted area and does contain sensitive information. I wouldn’t make your Trading Key the same as your myZecco password!

4. Send in your new account paperwork and copy of government ID. You should mail this in as soon as possible, as without it they will assume that you are subject to backup withholding. (Update: Now, it appears they have implemented system that allows most people to get their paperwork processed electronically.)

Still, you need to make sure it is processed before you can start trading. To check, log into your trading account at myInfo tab > Customer Info > Outstanding Paperwork. You want it to say “No” as shown below:


5. Fund your account. If you want to fund online (which is what I did), you need to first link up your bank account first if that’s how you will be making your deposit. The popular 2-small-deposit verification system is used, and takes a couple of days to show up. Other ways to fund include via check or bank wire.

6. Request money market sweep. By default, free cash in your account only earns 1% APR. But you have the option of setting up a money market sweep account by sending in this form. There are three options by Scudder Investments, and I think the symbol for the taxable money market is CSAXX, currently with a 4.38% yield. Why they don’t make this higher yield the default in the first place is beyond me. 😕 The Treasury Money Market option might be a good bet for those with state income tax rates.

7. Next Steps. After you fund and your paperwork is processed, you should be ready to trade. I’m currently waiting on my opening deposit to arrive, and will report back once I’ve done more with the website and maybe made a few trades. Here are some things I’ve noticed so far:

– The administrative back end of Zecco is clearly provided by Penson Financial Services, as it looks identical to the back end of MB Trading, another broker that I have used which is popular amongst active traders. This actually provides me with some familiarity, although the contrast between the “Web 2.0-style” Zecco website and the bare-bones Penson interface is very stark and makes the site overall feel a bit unpolished.

– Zecco does not receive payment for order flow. All orders are routed and executed by Penson Financial Services. Hopefully this will lead to good fills.

– Zecco is insured by the SIPC, like most other brokers.

– You can set up dividend reinvestment if you wish, although you can’t buy partial shares:

Dividend reinvestment is a feature that is available to our clients and can be setup during the account opening process. If you would like to add this feature after the account opening process is complete, you must submit the request in writing to our customer service department.

For the rest of my experiences, see the second part of my Zecco Review.

Zecco Review, Part 1
Zecco Review, Part 2

Las Vegas: Getting Lucky, 1000x Slot Jackpots, ATM Fees

I’m back from Sin City and I am exhausted. Let’s see what kind of money-related and non-incriminating stories I can tell 🙂

Not quite whales, but… we did stay in the Player’s Room Suite at New York New York.

It’s the ultimate players retreat…our Players Rooms promise to please with a marble entry, two queen-size beds, a whirlpool tub, chaise lounge and magazine table, two TVs, and a bathroom with enticing marble counter tops and enclosed shower and tub. Take advantage of these 700-800 square foot rooms’ winning layouts when visiting with family and friends!

Of course, there were six of us. The sleeper sofa was perfect so we didn’t have to break out the sleeping bags we brought.

I played Blackjack and won over $300 overall. We visited almost every casino on the strip and played a little here and there. I stuck with whatever table was cheapest, either $5 or $10 minimum bets. My actual bets probably averaged $15. I usually do my best to find the table which offer the rules with the best odds (see WizardOfOdds), and try to play basic strategy with a smattering of very crude (and probably useless) card-counting. I know that my $300 was a result of luck and not skill, but it was fun as well.

Poker is definitely the new hot thing, with packed tournaments everywhere. I considered entering a $50 buy-in Hold ‘Em tournament, but decided against making a fool out of myself.

My wife also won a big jackpot on the slot machines! She mashed the button and won 1000… pennies. Yep, she played the penny slots. I’m happy for her, but she wasn’t too amused when I said that I just lost that much in one hand while listening to her tell me about her jackpot. 😕

ATM fees were insane. Although I thankfully didn’t need to hit the ATMs, I did check out the fee schedule. Regular ATM withdrawals were $4 inside casinos. Better yet, they also have a feature that I think charges your credit card instead of doing a cash advance. I feel this is because the cash advance limits are usually much lower than the overall purchase limits. The price for this convenience? $12 on a $100 withdrawal.

No coupon runs. The only coupons we used were to get free drinks when we couldn’t track down a cocktail waitress. I’m pretty sure I drank at least five of the worst $1 frozen margaritas ever while down there. Guinness from a bottle on the other hand, is actually pretty tasty. I didn’t hit any celebrity chef temples or non-free shows, although some in our party did get some discount tickets to Ka and Mystere. Garduno’s in the Palms is a good New Mexican restaurant.

Anyways, this should be the end of Vegas talk for a while… Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.