Archives for November 2007

Check Your Used Cell Phone Minutes For AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint

Since the Sunrocket demise in July, we have been living with just a cell phone – no landline or VoIP – and it’s actually worked out pretty well. I like the simplicity. We haven’t had any overage problems, but I did tend to check a lot in the beginning to make sure. Here are some easy ways to to check your remaining minutes for several cell phone providers:

AT&T (Cingular)
Dial *MIN# (*646#)
AT&T Firefox plugin (might currently be broken)

Dial #MIN (#646)
Verizon Firefox plugin

Dial #MIN# (#646#) or dial 611 + say “minutes”
T-Mobile Firefox plugin

Sprint Nextel
Dial *4 or dial *2 + say “minutes used”
Sprint Firefox plugin (not currently working for me)

Then there is the Windows desktop application WatchMyCell, which logs into your online account page for you and tracks how many minutes you have left. It will even send you an text message or e-mail whenever you’ve reached your chosen threshold.

Now, all of these automatic methods will require your username and password. Although I’ve done some digging and found nothing obvious, I can’t be sure none of them are doing anything shady. I would at least change your password to something unique to the site. Personally, I just program the number as a contact. Let me know if I missed anything.

Google Checkout Promotion: Free Frequent Flier Miles

Google Checkout is running a few holiday promotions for their purchase system. The first two tabs are for Savings and Free Shipping, with various coupons and free shipping on purchases over $50 at the stores listed.

In addition, you can earn 2 frequent flier miles per $1 spent:

Earn up to 10,000 frequent flyer miles when you shop with Google Checkout this holiday season.

* Once you register, you’ll start earning 2 frequent flyer miles for each $1 you spend with Google Checkout through December 31, 2007.
* You can earn up to 10,000 frequent flyer miles through this promotion.
* We’ll credit your mileage account and send you a summary of miles earned by January 31, 2008..

So if you’re going to shop at one of the listed stores anyways, use Google Checkout instead of the other options and get some free airline miles on top of your usual credit card cashback rewards. Be sure to register first at the site before making your purchase.

Help Your Family Buy A House – And Make It An Investment

Over Thanksgiving my parents and I discussed the possibility that one day my parents might retire and move near us. Of course, my parents live in a “normal” part of the country where a 2-bedroom condo doesn’t cost $600,000. So the idea of us helping them to buy a home sometime in the future came up. If my siblings and I all put in an equal amount, we would simply inherit an equal share when the time came.

Coincidentally, I also ran across this article by the “Mortgage Professor” which addresses a similar idea: A new take on gift of equity: Turn it into an investment. Instead of a parent simply giving their kids money for a down payment which may put a dent in their own retirement savings, they should structure it as an investment with multiple shareholders.

He has made an Excel spreadsheet which tracks the percentage of home equity that is owned by each party. It took me a while to figure out all the variables, but here are the basics of what you need to consider:

  • Ongoing investments. Sometimes you not only need help with a downpayment, but also the monthly payment. Or maybe you don’t need it but the investor wants to help out. Ongoing payments are also handled by the worksheet.
  • Interest rate. You’ll need to set an rate of return for the investor’s cash if they “cash-out” before the end of the mortgage. One suggestion is to simply make it the same as the mortgage rate.
  • Rent credit. If only one party is occupying the home, they should be required to credit to the investor a market rate of rent. The rent should include regular adjustments to keep in line with inflation.
  • Property improvements. It should be decided how property improvements will be decided upon and how to credit each partner.
  • Exit strategy. If you don’t plan to ever sell the house, then you should outline an exit plan so that the investor can get access to their money after a set period of time.

So let’s say an investors helps put down $25,000 on a $300,000 house. The assisting investor wouldn’t just be getting $25,000 + 6% a year, you’d also be collecting a portion of “rent” from the person you are helping. The occupant gets to buy their house with less money tied up initially, and would be sharing any potential profit or loss. Sure there is plenty of room for conflict, but I think for some families it might work out well.

Will Retiring Early Help You Live Longer?

There are lots of reasons to retire early, but will it help you live longer as well? One study seems to suggest so, and is often cited in websites discussing early retirement. Dr. Sing Lin wrote a paper in 2002 called Optimum Strategies for Creativity and Longevity which studied the relationship between the age of retirement and the average of death for retirees of Boeing Aerospace. The results are startling:


As the retirement age increases, the average age of death decreases almost linearly. The average person who worked until age 65 lived for only 18 months after retirement! In contrast, the person retiring at 50 lived for another 36 years.

There is some dispute as to the validity of this data, but I haven’t found anything solid either way. The author does make some very bold conclusions, though:
[Read more…]

eBates CyberMonday Promotion: Get Extra Online Shopping CashBack Today

Shopping cashback website eBates is offering up to double their usual cashback percentages today since it’s CyberMonday. Only 10 hours left as of this writing!

For example, get 8% back at (4% normally), 4% back at (2% normally), and 6% back at American Eagle, Gap, BabyGap, and OldNavy (3% normally). Obviously, don’t spend more just because you get more money back.


If you’re a new customer, don’t miss your free $10 Bonus from eBates if you join and make a purchase.

As for me, over Thanksgiving I got addicted to the video game Guitar Hero. 😉 Target had a nice sale of $85 for the Guitar Hero 2 3 + 2 guitars for PS2 on Black Friday, but it’s gone now. Circuit City has the game + 1 controller for PS2 for $60. Hmmm… you think my nephews and nieces will let me play if I buy it for them? Anyone know of any better bundle deals with 2 guitars?

Investment Gift Idea For Children: A Roth IRA?

A few very forward-thinking readers have asked me about ways to help their kids or other young folks by giving them a Roth IRA. This seems like an awesome idea to grab them some tax-sheltered action. I’ve thought about this in passing, but never really did the research into the technicalities of it. One good article on this subject is over at Fairmark called Roth IRAs for Minors. Combine this with official IRS publications and a few magazine articles about employing your children, and here’s what I found:

The Facts

  • There is no age requirement to open an IRA.
  • Many, but not all, IRA providers will allow you to setup an IRA account for minors.
  • The primary requirement is the child needs to have taxable earned income to make a contribution. So to make a $4,000 contribution, they would need $4,000 of income. Earned income means that dividend or interest payments don’t count.
  • An important difference between IRAs and 529s is that once the child reaches 18 or so, they get complete control over the money and can do whatever they want with it.

The Payoff
How much money are we talking about? Umm.. a lot! From the Kiplinger article:

Let’s assume you give your 15-year-old daughter $1,000 to fund a Roth IRA. If the money inside the account grows at an annual average rate of 8% — well below the long-term average return for stocks — that $1,000 will grow to about $47,000 over the 50 years it takes for today’s teen to reach retirement age. If you added another $1,000 a year until she turned 20 -? and never added another dime — that initial $5,000 investment would be worth nearly $250,000 by her 65th birthday. With a Roth IRA, the full amount will be tax-free when it’s withdrawn in retirement.

Now the question is how to obtain that taxable earned income?

Income From Non-Parental Employer
This is probably the most legitimate and straightforward way, also the hardest to get. Examples for small children might be acting or modeling from an agency not directly owned by the parents. For teens this could include money from tutoring, bagging groceries, or working at the movie theater. In addition, this income may be subject to payroll taxes like Medicare and Social Security Tax at 7.65%.

Income From Parents As Employer
Maybe you already run your own business, and could use the services of a child – web design? computer set-up or consulting? From the Fairmark article:
[Read more…]

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving rocks. I couldn’t care less about the arguments about the true origins of this holiday, I just like how we celebrate it now. You actually try to use your kitchen and are suddenly okay with inviting strangers (okay, friends of friends of friends) into your home. No gifts, no Hallmark cards, no crazy decorations, no costumes, no excess crap.

Most importantly, today you actually appreciate what you already have, instead of focusing on what you want. It’s very ironic that the day after Thanksgiving has been twisted into the exact opposite.

And yes, I love cranberry sauce from a can!!

UPromise Holiday Promotion: $25 Bonus With Purchase

UPromise is mainly a cash-back online shopping mall like eBates that deposits money into a 529 college savings fund. If you haven’t opened an account already, now may be a good time to do so if you were planning to do some shopping at the stores below anyways – They are offering a $25 bonus if you are a new sign-up and make one purchase at a qualifying cash-back store before 12/31/07.

Non-eligible retailers are:, Avis, Bed Bath & Beyond, Butterfield Blooms, Budget, Cryo-Cell, Eddie Bauer, Eddie Bauer Outlet,, Flowers U.S.A.,, Gift Sense, RedEnvelope, Ross-Simons, Sharper Image and Upromise Cruises.

Qualifying retailers are the rest, with some popular ones being,, eBay, Travelocity,, Nordstrom, and JCPenney. Lots of smaller ones too.

I’m not a huge fan of UPromise myself, having only earned about $5 since joining the program. I do link my Safeway Club card so each time I buy my nectar of life (Diet Coke) I get a few pennies back.

If you don’t like the idea of your money being swept into their 529 (no kids?), you can fill out this withdrawal form, mail it in, and have a check sent to you. Instructions are on the form. You need a signature guarantee if it’s more than $200, which is free at many banks and credit unions.

Update: You can also get a $10 bonus from eBates.

Multiple Jobs? Don’t Overpay Social Security Tax

Remember when you got your first paycheck and wondered why it was so small? All 16-year-olds hate FICA. 🙂

Even though it’s not included when we talk about marginal tax rates, all employees have to pay 6.2% of their gross income to Social Security and 1.45% for Medicare. (Double that for self-employed folks.) However, there is a limit for Social Security – the tax only applies to the first $97,500 of wages for 2007 ($6,045), no matter how many different sources it came from. The problem is, your employers have no idea what you’re making at your other jobs, or when you reach that cap.

I came across this WSJ article which tells you how to get any overpaid amount refunded back to you at filing time. Keep in mind it’s using cap values for 2006.

If you worked for two or more employers and had too much withheld, you can claim the excess as a credit.

Here’s a hypothetical example supplied by the IRS: Suppose you’re married and file jointly. Your spouse didn’t have any income last year. You worked for a company that paid you $58,000 during 2006 and withheld $3,596 (6.2% of $58,000) in Social Security tax. You also worked for another employer who paid you $47,000 and withheld $2,914 of Social Security tax (6.2% of $47,000).

Thus, the Social Security tax withheld totaled $6,510. That’s $669.60 more than you actually owe ($6,510 minus $5,840.40). So you’re entitled to a credit of $669.60. Enter it on Form 1040, line 67, or on Form 1040A, line 43.

I would assume that TurboTax or similar would catch this, but it’s definitely worth double-checking.

I was also trying to find online if you could direct your employer to stop withholding Social Security taxes if you “know” you’re over the limit already, but it seems like you can’t. They just keep withholding as if that was your only job. But what you can do is change your total tax withholding values (increase exemptions, etc.) in order to counteract this overpayment and reduce your future refund.

Free Book Giveaway: Your Money & Your Brain

I didn’t want to clutter up my review post, but I did get this book free from a PR firm, and they were also generous enough to provide additional copies to give away to readers. So if you are interested in getting a free copy of Your Money and Your Brain, leave a comment with your e-mail address (will not be shown or shared) to enter the drawing. I will take entries until Friday 11/23 at Midnight. I have three free copies, so the odds are pretty good!

No purchase necessary. Void where prohibited. Winners chosen randomly. One entry per person, and US residents only. Blah Blah Blah…

Your Money, Your Brain, and Your Happiness

In the book Your Money and Your Brain, author Jason Zweig explores neuroeconomics, which apparently is a mix of psychology, neuroscience, and economics. This book looked like it would be an easy read, but it turned out to be very densely packed with information and data from numerous psychological studies. Truth be told, it got kind of tedious and repetitive, which is why it took me over a month to finish reading it. I think more aggressive editing would have helped this book a lot.

Instead of trying to do an in-depth review, I’m just going to focus on a few interesting points brought up in my favorite chapter titled “Happiness”. Isn’t being happy our ultimate goal?

If I was rich… I’d be happy. Right?
When you are below the poverty line, then yes, making more money is correlated with happiness and even better health. But as long as you have enough to meet your basic needs, more money doesn’t buy very much more happiness. We think it will, but it reality it doesn’t. This has been shown in studies comparing African tribal herders with the Forbes 400 Richest People, ones comparing people with $500,000 net worth and those with $10M+ net worth, and even between different generations of Americans:

In 1957, the average American earned about $10,000 (adjusted for inflation) and lived without a dishwasher, clothes dryer, television. or air conditioner. But 35% of people surveyed said they were “very happy” with their lives. By 2004, personal income had nearly tripled after inflation, and the typical house was bursting with consumer goods. Yet just 34% of people now said they were “very happy”. Somehow, almost tripling our wealth has made Americans a little less happy – and still we want more.

Chasing Happiness
Similarly, people think that “splurges” or getting that next hot gadget will make them happy. In truth, studies reveal that the anticipation of obtaining that object makes your brain’s dopamine levels go nuts and you feel happy. Actually getting it? Not so much. Which leads you to thinking about the next hot gadget… and so on. The “thrill of the hunt”, eh?

Keeping Up With Those Darn Joneses
It turns out that your happiness is related money in one way – how much money the people around you have! Social comparison is a very primal instinct in humans and other animals. One theory is that such attention allowed people to imitate the stronger hunters and learn to be more like them.

For example, should you buy the nicest house in a middle-class neighborhood, or a below-average house in the richest neighborhood? Your real estate agent might point out that buying in the rich neighborhood offers the best potential for home value appreciation. But the data suggests that buying in the middle-class neighborhood and getting a bigger house than everyone else will likely make you happier.

A study of more than 7,000 people in over 300 towns and cities found that, on average, the more money the richest person in your community makes, and the greater number of neighbors who earn more than you, the less satisfied you will probably feel with your life.

The relationship between money and our brains is an interesting one. It’s good to learn about those innate tendencies, so we can recognize them and react appropriately.

TradeKing and Scottrade Promotion: Reimbursed Account Transfer Fees

Looks like TradeKing is trying to convert some customers from “one of the larger online brokers”… I wonder who they are talking about? From an e-mail today:

Due to the effect the sub-prime mortgage fallout has had on one of the larger online brokers, some investors have asked us if we’re at risk for similar problems. The answer is a resounding “No.” TradeKing does not invest in any mortgage-related securities, including sub-prime mortgages.

Furthermore, we protect your account against losses up to $25 million as a member of the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC), and with supplemental coverage from Lloyd’s of London. If you’re concerned about an account you hold with another broker, perhaps you should consider consolidating your assets with TradeKing. We’ll even reimburse any account transfer fees your other broker may slap on you between now and December 31, 2007.

This reimbursement offer may save you $50-$100 if you’ve been wanting to do an ACAT account transfer to them from your existing broker. Scottrade also offers up to $100 in fee reimbursements for inbound transfers [update: if your account value is greater than $25,000]. Read more about both brokers in my TradeKing review and my Scottrade review.

You’ll should also weigh the upfront benefits against the potential commission savings if you go with a broker offering free stock trades.