Archives for November 2009

80% off Restaurant.com: $25 Certificates for $2

Restaurant.com is offering a 80% off with the coupon code SAVE, resulting in a $25 “certificate” for just $2. Offer good until end of today, November 30th. I just checked it and it still works:

Despite my initial skepticism about these things, many readers responded that they indeed found these certificates very useful in savings some money.

Here’s a example positive scenario. You find a restaurant on the list that you like that usually runs around $20 + tip per person (~$48 for a couple). You buy a $25 certificate for $2, which usually comes with a $35 minimum purchase + 18% required gratuity on full price.

Dinner for two = $40 regular menu priceMinus $25 certificate = $15

Plus cost of certificate ($2) = $17

Plus 18% gratuity on menu price = $7.20

Total price w/ tip = $24.20, or $12 a person + taxes

In that case, you can save around 50% on the total bill. These might make good gifts to the right person, but I wouldn’t pass them off as worth face value! 🙂

$10 Off $100 in Gift Cards at Kroger Stores

Kroger and affiliated stores are offering $10 off for every $100 in selected gift cards bought until December 13, 2009. Limit five $10 rewards per household, need to have shopper’s card.

Participating stores include City Market, Dillons, Jay C, Food 4 Less, Fred Meyer, Fry’s, King Soopers, QFC, Ralphs and Smith’s. Valid retailers are: Applebee’s, Bass Pro Shops, Bath & Body Works, Best Buy, iTunes, Sears, and Spa Finder.

I would also check on eBay as I know iTunes gift certificates can be cheap there, but it would seem like 10% off of Best Buy or Sears gift cards could come in handy. [Source]

Taleb’s Thanksgiving Turkey

I’m still in a tryptophan coma, but here’s a timely mention of the story of the turkey from Nassim Taleb’s book The Black Swan which I am (supposed to be) reading. The following excerpt is taken from the transcript of a Charlie Rose interview.

——
CHARLIE ROSE: And what is the story of the turkey?

NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB: In the book, I have the story of a turkey that is fed for 1,000 days by a butcher, and every day confirms to the turkey and the turkey’s economics department and the turkey’s risk management department and the turkey’s analytical department that the butcher loves turkeys, and every day brings more confidence to the statement. So it’s fed for 1,000 days…

CHARLIE ROSE: Gets fatter and fatter and fatter.

NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB: Fatter and fatter. On the day when its comfort will be at its maximum, there is going to be a surprise. There will be a surprise for the turkey.

CHARLIE ROSE: Yes.

NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB: There will be a surprise for the turkey’s economics department, all those Ph.D.’s. Will it be — after all, there’s maximum (inaudible)…

CHARLIE ROSE: But it’s not a surprise for the butcher, is it?

NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB: Not a surprise for Charlie Rose as well. Not a surprise for humans. It’s a surprise for the turkey. So the whole idea here is we are not to be a turkey.
——

Who or what might be the next turkey?

Free $3 in Amazon MP3 Downloads

Amazon.com is offering $3 in free MP3 downloads with the code MP34FREE. No purchase required. See directions and details at this link. It should increase your gift card balance by $3, but the may be restricted to music purchases only. You must redeem the code by November 30, 2009 11:59 PM PST.

It may ask you to install the AmazonMP3 Downloader software, but you can go to “skip” this for individual songs. Entire album purchases may require installation.

Ditch Cable Experiment #1: Over-The-Air (OTA) HDTV Antenna

I’ve decided to go without cable TV for at least 6 months from January 1st, 2010. I actually don’t mind paying for cable that much, it is simply an entertainment expense and given the overall convenience, not that expensive in my mind (especially if you haggle every so often). Primarily, I want to cancel it as a passive barrier against my future kids don’t watch too much TV. Also, I want to experiment with ways of re-allocating that $50-$70 per month into other entertainment methods.

Potential Experiments. This gives me a little over a month head-start to find some solutions to fill the gap. I’ll probably start up Netflix again, and considering getting a PS3/Wii with PlayON or a WD Media Player-like device for viewing downloaded content on my TV. I’ll need to figure out a smooth way to stream internet TV like Hulu to the living room with remote control (Roku?). For live sports, I wanted to see if I could grab some network channels (ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, PBS) off the air using an HDTV antenna for those that have an HDTV.

I’m not really A/V-savvy, but after some reading all I got was that getting HD channels from an antenna is not necessarily like using the old rabbit ears, but also still similar. I mean, it’s digital, so with a good signal you’ll be getting HD-quality images that is just as good as cable TV. However, it’s still over-the-air, so reception quality matters; It’s not like you either get nothing or 100% clarity.

Finding what’s available. To see what broadcast channels are generally available in your area, visit Yahoo TV and input your zip code > Antenna > Broadcast TV. Next, visit AntennaWeb to get a better idea of what you’ll actually get, and tips on where to point your antenna if needed.

Buying an antenna. If you actually have “rabbit ears”, break them out and try them first. There is actually no such thing as an “HDTV-specific” antenna. I don’t have any, and to try this it out I wanted to buy an antenna from a local retailer so that I could return it easily if I didn’t get adequate reception. I stopped by Radio Shack and picked up their Amplified HDTV Antenna for $35. The online reviews were mixed, but there were some positive ones, so I gave it a shot.

Result. In a word, disappointing. I was only supposed to get ABC and FOX in my neck of the woods, but the reception wasn’t that great for either one. The image was widescreen and HD but was “blocky”. If I stood near the antenna or held it just right for a minute, it would get acceptable but wouldn’t stay that way. It may be just my antenna, review site HDTVAntennaLabs and Amazon users seem to like the indoor Antennas Direct DB2 at a reasonable $38 and the outdoor Winegard HD8200U at $140, not including installation poles and such.

I don’t know if it’s worth the bother for a few channels, but if you’re in a nice flat metro area you may be able to do much, much better.

Worth A Try: 1 Free Month of Amazon Prime

Amazon Prime, in case you don’t know, is a premium service where you get free 2nd-day shipping on most items with no minimum order amount, even if you’re just spending $5. Very convenient, especially since not all items qualify for the “Free Super Saver Shipping”. The normal cost for turning Amazon into your impulse-buying superstore is $79 per year (not available to Alaska, Hawaii, P.O. boxes, APO/FPO and U.S. territories).

Even if you’ve had a trial with them before, try signing up for their new 1 month free trial offer. I’ve had a trial before and I was still approved for a free month. Perfect timing, as it runs through 12/23. 😉 If you don’t qualify, you may try signing up with a new e-mail address + new credit card number.

You’ll need to supply a credit card, but you can set it so you don’t even have to remember to cancel if you take the following steps:

  1. Click on Your Account.
  2. If you’re not there yet, scroll down and click on More Order Actions > Manage Prime Membership.
  3. Look for green text. Click on the Do Not Upgrade button and you won’t automatically be charged $79 anymore. It’ll just end. You’ll still get the entire 1st month of free Amazon Prime shipping.

Gift Idea: Costco Membership Certificates w/ $50 in Free Costco Coupons

Update: Costco is no longer allowing me to sell these certificates. Sorry!

I was walking through Costco today and saw that they starting to promote the Costco memberships as gifts for the holidays. I got one last year, and I thought it was a nice, practical gift idea for these frugal times. But hey, why not give them a $50 membership and $50 in coupons good towards free Costco stuff? Read on:

I am happy to be able to offer special Costco membership certificates again to MyMoneyBlog readers. Available only online, they are $50 each with free shipping, and are good towards new Gold Star memberships and also upgrades to Executive Membership. Just bring them into your local Costco to redeem.

This is exactly the same price as you would pay at a Costco store, but with each membership certificate you order, you will also receive a coupon booklet worth more than $50 by itself, including a FREE rotisserie chicken, FREE 100-print digital photo processing, a FREE Kirkland Signature™ 2 lb. bag of coffee, FREE Kirkland Signature 48 pk “AA” batteries – and more.

  • Join as an Executive Member: Purchase two Membership Certificates at $50 each.
  • To join as a Gold Star Member or upgrade your existing membership with one Membership Certificate at $50.
  • Give the gift of Costco Membership Certficates for any occasion.

Follow-Up: Google VoiceMail Now Works With Sprint

Just a quick note that Sprint conditional call forwarding is now free of charge. This means that Sprint customers can now forward all busy and unanswered phone calls to Google Voice without incurring the previous $.20/minute for conditional call forwarding – normal minutes usage still applies. Thanks to reader Matt G for the reminder.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, see last month’s post on Using Google Voice To Enhance Your Cell Phone Voicemail.

I’ve been using it for the last few days, and I must say that I like it a lot. I can have unanswered phone calls to my cell phone number (not GV number) forwarded first to my home phone or office phone. Then, if still nobody picks up the Google Voicemail system kicks in, which records the message online and shoots me a transcribed text message about 30 seconds later. Transcription accuracy isn’t perfect, but for the most part it works well enough to get the point of the message.

Check out my post on Ways To Save Money With Google Voice for several other useful features! They seem to be giving out invites to everyone who asks right now.

Costco Auto Buying Program Experiences?

After having some more issues with our 15-year old car, we may be in the market for a new or lightly used car. We were looking at the Honda Fit (the newest gen looks even better than the previous one), and went to a local dealer for a test drive. I actually sat down to haggle prices for a bit (stupid me) and after being lied to about four different times, I just got up and left.

I went home, and remembered the Costco Auto Buying Program that offered a no-haggle pre-negotiated price. Ideally in true Costco style, they would offer a “good” deal as opposed to a rock-bottom pitted-six-dealers-against-each-other-in-a-deathmatch price. I figured, why not give them a try?

I filled out the form, and the person calls me back. I was surprised to hear that he was an employee of Costco, not of the dealership. He gives me the spiel about how Costco is all about volume so he can offer a better price than a salesperson. However, it turns out that my Costco-affiliated dealership is the same one I went to for a test drive, and since I met with a salesperson they were not allowed to talk specifics with me for a period of at least 2 weeks after last contact. If I start up negotiations again, the date resets. I’m not in a hurry, so I’m just waiting around because the original guy definitely isn’t earning a commission from me.

Has anyone out there used this program before? How did you like it? I found this link which offered a mix of experiences.

Berkshire Hathaway Stock Split, S&P 500, & Index Funds

Berkshire Hathaway’s (BRK) recent announcement that it was buying railroad Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNI) also included a provision for a 50-for-1 stock split of B shares so that smaller shareholders of BNI would be able to be converted to Berkshire shares and avoid capital gains. Warren Buffett has been trying to avoid this for years, so after some random web surfing — I mean… research, I figured I’d share my findings.

At the end of trading yesterday 11/18, Berkshire’s A shares currently cost $103,100 apiece and B shares were $3,430. After a 50-to-1 split, a B share would cost about $69. Several news articles are talking about how this brings the share price down to the “common man”. For a $69 investment, you should able to attend the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting in Omaha this May, although you could also buy tickets for $5 on eBay directly from BRK.

But wait, you may already own a piece of Berkshire… or you may soon.

S&P 500
Right now, Berkshire Hathaway is not part of the S&P 500. Many folks (including me in the past) thought the S&P 500 was simply the largest 500 companies in the US, but not quite. I’ve read that BRK is likely excluded due to inadequate trading volume of their high-priced shares. If the stock split occurs, it is possible that BRK will become part of the S&P 500 and thus be bought by every S&P 500 index fund out there. I’m sure Wall Street traders have already begun the speculating.

As of 1/18, the market cap of BRK was roughly $160 Billion. Looking at this chart of S&P 500 components sorted by size, BRK would actually be #9 on that list, as it is worth more than even Chevron or AT&T. If included, BRK would constitute about 1.65% of the index.

Total Stock Market
However, you may already own a piece of Berkshire if you own part of a mutual fund that tracks an index following the “total” US stock market. For example there’s the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund (VTSMX), which is held within all of the Vanguard Target Retirement Funds. By my rough calculations, BRK is approximately 1.3% of the broad US market. So for every $10,000 of VTSMX or VTI you hold, you own $130 of BRK already.

Sharebuilder
Of course, for years now you could own $1 or $50 or $500 of BRKB by buying partial shares of BRKB through Sharebuilder ($50 bonus). You wouldn’t want to go too small as the $1 to $4 commission would take too big a bite, but it can be one way to gradually accumulate BRK shares. I think I have about $45 worth right now, myself, mainly due to an opening bonus.

What? Kiva Is Not Really Person-to-Person Lending

I’ve written about Kiva before – They allows individuals to make loans starting at $25 to low-income entrepreneurs in the developing world, also known as microcredit. By doing so, you can provide affordable working capital for the poor (money to buy a sewing machine, livestock, etc.), hopefully empowering them to earn their way out of poverty.

However, Kiva may not work exactly like it suggests on their website. You’ll notice that they post up pictures and stories of people needing loans, and you get to pick the exact person you want to lend to. Back in 2007, I thought I loaned $25 to Vitolina:

Vitolina owns a set of beach fales that she rents out to back-packers or picnickers passing through the village and works hard to keep the structures in good condition. Fales are simple, small open huts with thatched roofs built in the style of the traditional Samoan house. Vitolina?s fales are situated on a white sandy beach on the Samoan coast. She readily welcomes guests and provides them with a simple roof, unbeatable views, and home-cooked meals. She will use the loan to renovate the beach fales.

However, chances are that the person you clicked on already got the loan months ago. Your money is simply going to the microfinance institution (MFI) who already lent to that person, and will use that money to lend to another future person or general project. The direct “person-to-person” link does not exist like it does, for example, at LendingClub.

There is a lot of recent discussion on the web on this issue. Thanks to the commenter who made me aware of it. Check out this NY Times article and the blog post by David Roodman that started it all.

After reading the posts and several follow-ups, it does make practical sense that Kiva can’t actually match a lender to a specific borrower – it would take too long for the borrower to get the loan. However, it does show that “good stories” do matter. Remember those “Save The Children” commercials where you’d get a letter from the child you helped? Same deal. Your money goes to the general organization, not any specific child.

As a result, Kiva has changed how it explains their loans and their homepage tagline went from “Kiva lets you lend to a specific entrepreneur, empowering them to lift themselves out of poverty.” to the more generalized “Kiva connects people through lending to alleviate poverty.”

The other common variable that is somewhat hidden away to new visitors is that while you loan money at 0%, the actual MFI will likely go on to loan money to the entrepreneur at around 30% APR. The difference pays the operational expenses of the MFI and may partially subsidize defaults in order to maintain the advertised tiny 0-2% default rates.

None of this means Kiva or microcredit is bad. Sure, it’d be nice if I could lend at 0% instantly to a borrower in Cambodia who could pay 0% interest too, but right now that’s not possible. I still plan on lending at both Kiva, but will no longer get the “warm fuzzy connection” feeling from Kiva and may direct more funds towards Microplace or Grameen Foundation.

LendingClub Offers No-Fee IRA

Speaking of LendingClub, I saw that they now offer a IRA with no opening fees and no annual maintenance fees. Previously, there was a $250 annual fee. However, it does now require an increased $15,000 minimum opening balance, which essentially restricts it to a 401k rollover or the transfer of existing IRA funds.

Since P2P loan interest is taxed at ordinary income rates like interest from savings accounts, the ability to place them in a tax-deferred account is attractive. But since person-to-person lending is such a new asset class, I would hesitate to make it larger than say 5% of my portfolio, which would require a total portfolio size of $300,000. So, I’m out.

It is interesting that the custodian EntrustCAMA allows a lot of options in their Self-Directed IRAs like holding physical precious metals, investing in private small businesses, and investing directly in real estate. I’m not sure if you can only hold LC notes in this free IRA.