Archives for September 2010

9/30 Only: 4 Movie Tickets from Fandango For $20

(Alive again for 10/5)

Today 9/30 only: Groupon is offering 4 movie tickets on Fandango.com or MovieTickets.com for $20. Valid for any movie up to $14, including iMax movies! Must redeem by 12/31/10. If you don’t have a Groupon account already, please use my sign-up link. It’s free for you, and I’ll get some Groupon credit. Then visit the deal link.

The offer is by WeeklyCinema, which usually offers 4 tickets for $19.99 but requires signing up for a subscription. This Groupon does not require a subscription. No strings attached. The four tickets can be split up for different movies or used all at once. The deal is for Pittsburgh, but anyone can buy it and you redeem online. I already purchased mine. Deal ends today (6 hours left as of this writing.)

Groupon is a popular group-buying site where in major metro areas you get one deal per day from a local retailer as long as enough people sign up for it, along with occasional nationwide offers.

Update: The same deal is available at similar site BuyWithMe.com under Boston, plus use coupon code SEPT10 for 10% off! Thanks to reader Cindy!

American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card: 25,000 Point / $250 Sign-Up Bonus

American Express Premier Rewards Gold CardAmerican Express has temporarily brought back their 25,000 Membership Rewards point offer for their Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express®, which is one of their upscale-oriented charge cards where you must pay off the balance each month. Offer expires October 12th.

  • Earn More: earn 25K Membership Rewards points after you spend $2K during your first three months of Card membership. MR points are very versatile, and can be converted to 25,000 frequent flier miles in a number of programs in various increments, or you can simply get $250 in gift cards at several stores like Home Depot, Crate & Barrel, or Macy’s. (The usual offers are for 10,000 or 15,000 bonus points.)
  • No annual fee for your first year. Another important feature, you can get the sign-up bonus and also try out this card for free for a year. If you keep the card after that, there is a $195 annual fee.
  • Offers 3X points on airfare, 2X points on gasoline at U.S. stand-alone gas stations and at U.S. stand-alone supermarkets, and 1X points on other purchases. The traditional versions only offer 1 point per $ spent, so these are an extra perk for those that spend a lot on airfare.
  • Earn an additional 15,000 Membership Rewards bonus points when you spend $30,000 within one calendar year. This means that if you spend $30,000 in a year ($2,500 per month) that you’ll get at least 25,000 for sign-up + 30,000 on spending + 15,000 bonus = 70,000 points total, plus any extra for gas/groceries/airfare.

For those that charge a lot, especially with reimbursed airfare, that’s enough for 70,000 frequent flier miles (possibly two flights to Hawaii) or $700 in gift cards. If you don’t, there’s still that $250 upfront bonus with only $1,000 minimum spending. Terms and Restrictions Apply.

Energy Savings: Investing In Energy Efficient Devices vs. Cutting Back

Environment Magazine has an detailed article about how the average household can conserve energy and thus reduce carbon emissions. An integral part of the discussion is about increasing efficiency (investing in equipment that lowers energy costs without sacrificing desired services) vs. curtailment (cutting back on normal and desired activities).

For example, replacing all your bulbs with CFL bulbs vs. turning of all the lights whenever you leave the room. Or buying a more energy-efficient furnace vs. lowering the thermostat. Which do you think saves more energy?

A comparison of energy saved by curtailment and by increased efficiency in Table 2 reveals that efficiency-improving actions generally save more energy—and reduce carbon emissions more—than curtailing use of intrinsically inefficient equipment. For example, buying and maintaining a highly fuel-efficient vehicle saves more energy than carpooling to work with another person, lowering top highway speeds, consolidating shopping or errand trips, and altering driving habits in an existing gasoline-inefficient motor vehicle. This general finding challenges the belief that energy savings entail curtailment and sacrifice of amenities. Not only is efficiency generally more effective than curtailment, but it has the important psychological advantage of requiring only one or a few actions. Curtailment actions must be repeated continuously over time to achieve their optimal effect, whereas efficiency-boosting actions, taken infrequently or only once, have lasting effects with little need for continuing attention and effort.

Also, here’s their “Short List” of the most effective actions you can take to save energy usage, based on initial upfront cost and potential energy savings.

Via TechCrunch via ELYM.

AT&T Wireless Class Action Settlement

I received a notice about a class action settlement for AT&T Wireless Customers after March 1, 1999. This is the AT&T Wireless was that was merged out of existence in 2004, before it became Cingular Wireless and then “Wireless from AT&T”. To receive benefits, Class Members must submit a Claim Form (available at www.awssettlement.com or 1-866-249-8109) by February 13, 2011. Details:

Subject to Court approval, settlements were reached of class action lawsuits against AT&T Wireless Services, Inc. (“AWS”) regarding challenges to: (1) charges for mMode Data Service (“mMode”) and ENH Discount International Dial (“EDID”), if they were unauthorized or not understood; (2) charges for cellular telephone calls during a billing period other than the one in which the calls were made (“Out-of-Cycle Billing”), if not understood; and (3) imposition of Universal Connectivity Charges (“UCC”), if not understood (collectively, “Settled Claims”).

You may be a class member if you:

* live in the U.S. or its territories, were an AWS subscriber after December 20, 2001, and were billed and paid, but not refunded in full, for mMode or EDID;
* live in California, initiated AWS service under a “One Rate-type” plan after March 1, 1999, and were charged for calls during a billing period other than the one in which the calls were made; or
* live in the U.S. or its territories, were an AWS subscriber after March 1, 1999, and paid, but were not refunded or credited, for UCC charges.

You may be a member of multiple classes.

If the Settlements are approved, Class Members may receive:

* mMode: $8 check
* EDID: $10 check
* Out of Cycle Billing: $8 check or 250 minute AT&T Phone Card
* UCC: $7 check.

ChoiceTrade: Free Options Trades During Expiration Week

Online broker ChoiceTrade recently announced that they are now offering equity and ETF options trades for zero commission during options expiration week. Expiration week is the week ending with expiration Friday — the week before the third Saturday of each month. Summary of details:

* Zero-commission option trading, once a month, for one week during options expiration week
* A maximum of 500 option contracts can be traded, per household, at the zero-commission rate each month.
* Program includes single-leg and multi-leg trades (spreads).
* Only equity and ETF options qualify.
* Index option trades do not qualify for zero commission option trades. Index option trades will be charged at the normal options commission of $5 per trade, plus $0.55 per contract.
* An account is eligible if the account holder has been qualified to trade options.

I’m not an expert on options trading, but I do know that some folks try to avoid trading as the expiration time nears. Here’s a post from TraderMike about why he doesn’t trade the last two days before expiration (Jim Cramer avoids Fridays). That still leaves Monday through Wednesday, though.

Regular price for options trades is $5 per trade, plus $0.55 per contract. ChoiceTrade recently revamped their website in August with a better web-based trading system, in addition to a platform-based system as well. Rated 4-stars by Barron’s. I’ve mentioned them before as they offer competitive $5 stock/ETF trades including unlimited shares and penny stocks (many brokers don’t).

Blink: Don’t Think Without Thinking When It’s About Money

Thanks to the discovery of free eBook rentals at the library, I finally read Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell over the weekend. It’s a short book and an easy read, which probably helped create its great popularity.

The book is primarily about the power of your “adaptive unconscious” to make quick and often-accurate decisions. By doing what Gladwell terms “thin-slicing”, the mind extracts the pertinent information out of a ton of available data. An expert on antiques spotting a fake within seconds, a researcher who has seen hundreds of couples being able to predict divorce, a veteran military commander winning a war game against a sophisticated algorithm overwhelmed with data, or someone who has studied facial expressions for years being able to spot hidden emotions. While interesting, I viewed much of this as an expected result of experts being experts.

However, in the end it also exposes how the unconscious can make bad decisions, full of prejudices and tendencies that you aren’t even aware of. Even if you think you are making decisions completely objectively, unless you truly strip out all the other variables then you can’t be sure. Although there is little mention of personal finance topics here, I would say this cautious side is where the book applies to money.

Other books like Your Money and Your Brain and Predictably Irrational have shown that a lot of our instinctual and/or unconscious tendencies towards money actually hurt us financially. We repeatedly find ourselves in speculative bubbles, our mind does quick relative calculations when it shouldn’t and we get used to a better lifestyle too quickly. Being aware of these hidden tendencies can help us become more successful.

Variable Annuity Fee Breakdown

Variable annuities (VAs) are deferred annuities that allow you to hold stocks and bonds inside their annuity wrapper. Since the investments are allowed to grow in a tax-deferred manner, it’s often marketed as “like a Roth IRA”. In reality, they usually only make sense for individuals only after they max out all available IRA and 401(k) options. Since we do this, I’ve been doing some more research into the area.

But even then, variable annuities might not make sense due to all the fees that are often included. A 2006 “Fee Factor” article [PDF] from Financial Planning magazine does a pretty good job outlining the many layers of fees that you might encounter. Here’s a summary graphic:

Fees can add up easily to well over 2% of assets annually, and after often hidden since consumers usually only see the net return. You’ll be purchasing some life insurance benefits along with it, but buying it separately via plain-vanilla term life insurance is often a better deal. Finally, there can also be hefty surrender charges if you take out money within the first several years. (The person who sells you the VA gets a commission, and the insurance company needs to earn that back through those annual charges over time.)

As with other financial products, it’s important to understand the different features, fee structures, and do comparison shopping.

Guest Posting Opportunities at MyMoneyBlog

I am taking some time off in October, and am looking for some additional content for MyMoneyBlog. I’m not looking for the usual “5 Ways To Save Money” material though. I want unique, original content. By this, I mean I want something that only you could write, something I couldn’t replicate after spending an hour researching on Google. Perhaps you don’t have time to start a blog, but did build a house by yourself. How much did it cost? Was it worth it?

I want personal decision processes. I want to hear if you scored a great deal, got ripped off, or retired early and read this blog from the beach every day. Here are some more potential topics that I would love to read about (will add more as I think of them):

  • My research for picking a high-deductible health plan (HDHP) and Health Savings Account (HSA) provider.
  • How I bought a used car off Craigslist
  • How I worked a nice stable federal/state job for 20 years and retired early
  • How I work only on an Alaskan fishing boat three months a year and take the rest off
  • How I started RandomWebsite.com and it now earns me $1,000 a month in passive income (not a personal finance blog)
  • Booking my around-the-world itinerary for under $10,000
  • Paying for college in real time and finishing with no debt at all.
  • How I retired to a country in SE Asia/Mexico/South America at age 45 (or 75)
  • How I built a solar-powered house that is off the grid.
  • How I built my own “go bag” or survival kit myself on the cheap.

Please contact me with your post idea. I’m flexible on length, but I reserve the right to suggest some edits. You will get full credit, an author byline, and a link to your website. If you want to remain anonymous, that’s fine too. As an additional push, I’ll even throw in a $25 Amazon.com gift certificate if your post gets published. If I get at least 10 guest posts, I’ll run a contest for the best one and that person will get $100.

I know there is some great experiences out there. Share it!

Update 9/29/10: I think I now have enough guest post offers for October, but may need some at a later time. If you’ve already e-mailed me, I’ll be replying shortly. Thanks!

Chase Commuter Cash – New York Metro & California San Francisco Bay Area

Chase Bank has some potentially helpful offers for users of public transportation and taxi cabs in New York City and the California San Francisco Bay Area – a potential savings of 7-10% cash back, up to $50 total. You must enroll your Chase debit or credit card beforehand, and only signed “credit” transactions apply. See the applicable link and details below:

Chase Commuter Cash – New York City Metro Area

Qualifying purchases made with your enrolled Chase debit or credit card (personal or business) include transactions made without using your PIN from 9/1 – 10/31/10 at MetroCard® Vending Machines, for EasyPayXpress™ MetroCard refills, LIRR, Metro-North, PATH and NJ TRANSIT fare purchases, and payments made at New York City yellow cabs. You must enroll your Chase card between 9/1/10 and 10/31/10 in this promotion. Chase reserves the sole right to make determinations of qualifying purchases for the fulfillment of the cash award for this promotion.

Chase Commuter Cash – California San Francisco Bay Area

Qualifying purchases made with your enrolled Chase Debit or Credit Card (personal or business) include transactions made without using your PIN from 9/13 – 11/30/10 through transit agency ticket vending machines, transit agency ticket offices, Clipper Add Value Machines, and the Clipper Customer Service Center for passes, fares and value used on Muni, BART, AC Transit, Caltrain, and Golden Gate Transit and Ferry. Also includes payments made at San Francisco Bay Area taxi cabs. Chase reserves the sole right to make determinations of qualifying purchases for the fulfillment of the cash award for this promotion.

Bank of America Small Business Checking $200 Bonus

I logged out of my Bank of America business account and saw this $200 bonus for new business customers with relatively achievable requirements. (New means you don’t have an existing business account, and must have closed your old account at least 90 days ago.)

  • Earn $150 when you deposit at least $750 per month into your new small business checking account for 3 consecutive months between September 20, 2010 and November 21, 2010.
  • Earn another $50 when you pay at least 2 bills during one of those same 3 months through Online Bill Pay, accessed through Online Banking. You can pay virtually anyone, anytime, anywhere in the United States.

Offer expires 11/21/2010 and is available only when you open a new business checking account using SBESP10. The $17.00 monthly maintenance fee can be avoided with one of the following:

* Enrolling in Business Fundamentals and making a monthly qualifying purchase with your Business Check Card
* $3,000 minimum balance
* $10,000 average balance
* $10,000 combined minimum balance with other biz accounts
* $20,000 combined average balance with other biz accounts

By the way, the same rules about sole proprietorships being valid businesses here also apply to business checking accounts.

Take Comfort in Rituals – Starbucks Propaganda

If you’ve walked by your neighborhood Starbucks recently, you may have noticed this new sign on the door:

I guess I was cranky – coffee withdrawal? – but I immediately blurted out:

“Translation: Even though you probably can’t afford it and may even be unemployed, please continue buying your $4 coffee.”

Too harsh?

Photo credit to timstock via Flickr.

How Do You Spend Your Day? And Why College Is Expensive

Here’s an interactive chart from the NY Times of how various groups of people spend their time over the course of a day.

Like many of you, I have fond memories of college. Here’s one reason why; The pie chart below shows the average full-time college student spends their day.

“Educational activities” only take up 4.5 hours a day (including studying!), and even if you add in work it totals only 6.5 hours a day. This paper says this is over 30% less than a few decades ago.

Full-time students allocated 40 hours per week toward class and studying in 1961, whereas by 2003 they were investing about 27 hours per week.

While college is more cush, like we discussed before tuition is growing more expensive at an alarming rate. And even while people say “tuition bubble”, this chart shows that it’s been going on consistently for a long time. Hat tip to Economix blog.

So it seems, we are either getting a lot less education for our money, or we’re just getting charged more for giving them more amenities for their paid vacation, or both. At this rate, my kids will just download course material directly into their brains from iTunes, spend the rest of the four years on vacation, and college will cost a full decade’s worth of income. That $100 auto-investment into a 529 just ain’t gonna cut it…