American Express Gift Chain: Free Gifts Each Time You Spend $25+ on AmEx

American Express really wants you to use your AmEx for shopping this season! They have thought up another creative promotion called the Gift Chain where if you register your AmEx first, then every time you spend $25 or more at a participating online store between November 28 and December 21, 2011, you’ll be eligible for a surprise gift worth between $2 and $500 each time (up to 10 gifts max). Thanks to reader Michelle for the tip. Update: Another reader tip is to buy gift cards of $25 from a participating store such as Walmart.com, and repeat as needed. Make sure you can use the gift cards at some point later, perhaps for a single larger item.

Here are the eligible retailers:

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Jemstep Review: Customized Mutual Fund and ETF Rankings

Jemstep is a new website that lets you track your investment portfolio along with providing advice on improving your mutual fund and ETFs holdings. In terms of existing products, you could call it a combination of the all-in-one view of of Mint.com plus the mutual fund ratings of Morningstar.com. However, the key difference from Morningstar is that their Jemscore ranking system is customized for your specific preferences. The weighting of different factors changes with your answers to the topics covered by their “goal preference” survey:

  • Demographics: Age, time to retirement, etc.
  • Risk tolerance: Common risk-questionnaire survey questions about return vs. volatility
  • Fees, Taxes, & Income: Sensitivity to fees, taxes and gains, preference for income vs. total return
  • Fund preferences: Active vs. passive, manager tenure, loads, etc.
  • ETF preferences: Liquidity (volume) preferences, bid/ask spread sensitivity

Investment Account Aggregation
I haven’t entered all of my brokerage accounts, but so far the aggregation service works fine and all my different holdings including individual Treasury bonds shows up fine. Jemstep uses CashEdge for account aggregation, which is well-known and the backbone of several big banks. Although anything with a ticker symbol is tracked, Jemstep only provides rankings for mutual funds and ETFs and not individual stocks or bonds. There isn’t much in the way of asset allocation breakdowns or volatility measurements. (Update: There is an asset allocation chart available in the Portfolio summary page, although it may not pick up all your holdings.) It does track the historical performance of your accounts, which you can compare to a few basic benchmarks like the S&P 500.

Mutual Fund Rankings
I certainly like the idea of a customized ranking system. However, if anything, I don’t know if it goes far enough. The main weakness I see in their ranking system is the same as for Morningstar. Despite my survey answers, overwhelmingly what matters most is recent past performance. The rankings change each month, so if you always want to hold the “best fund” you’lll be left chasing one hot fund after the next. The top-ranked fund will rarely ever be an index fund.

For example, let’s look at my holding of the Vanguard Emerging Market Index ETF, VWO. Instead, it recommends as #1 the iShares MCSI Malaysia ETF (EWM). Okay, the Malaysian market has been doing quite well recently, but would it really be wise to hold a single small country ETF with a 0.53% expense ratio as opposed to one that holds all the emerging economies from China to Southeast Asia to Latin America, all at 0.22% expense ratio? Likewise, Morningstar has EWM at a 5-star rating and VWO at only a 4-star rating. Screenshot (click to enlarge):

Another #1 fund ranked for me was the Yacktman Fund (YACKX). I actually kind of like this actively-managed fund as a “fun money” holding, as the manager takes concentrated bets and isn’t afraid to be different than the crowd (right now, its portfolio is 11% Pepsi and 11% News Corp). But again, right now the past performance of Yacktman looks really great. But some quick research shows that back in 2000, recent performance was awful, and the fund’s assets were only $69 million which means very few people owned it. The fund’s own board of directors tried to oust him (see 2001 Kiplinger’s article). Would Jemstep (or Morningstar) have been recommending it then?

Overstock.com $20 for $10 at Eversave

Groupon-like site Eversave has $20 to spend at Overstock.com for $10. If you are a new user, you’ll also get $3 credit instantly when signing up, but you can’t use it on this offer. Overstock.com has free shipping as well until 12/25/2011. Limit 1 per person. I think I bought some nice bed sheets from them at a good price a while back.

Mobility vs. Geography: Percent Born In State of Residence Map (2010)

I can’t stop posting map infographics! They’re just so pretty. 🙂 Richard Florida of The Atlantic shared the map above, which shows the percentage of residents of each state that were born in that state. He then goes one step further and concludes that this map backs up his theory that America is being divided into two economic classes – the stuck and the mobile:

The mobile possess the resources and the inclination to seek out and move to locations where they pursue economic opportunity. Too many Americans are stuck in places with limited resources and opportunities. This geography of the stuck and mobile is a key axis of cleavage in the United States.

If mobility was once considered to be a quintessentially American attribute, it is now one that only an elite sliver of the population can lay claim to. It is both a significant shift and a sobering one. (source)

He cites the fact that fewer Americans are moving now than before, ostensibly because they are stuck in underwater homes. Still, using this particular map as proof of such a class divide seems like a stretch to me. There are many reasons why someone may or may not end up living in the state they were born. This map is the result of decades of complex interactions, not just what happened the last few years.

Just to throw out some examples, perhaps some states simply created significantly more job openings than could be filled by existing residents (DC Metro area, Alaska, Nevada). Some are retirement havens (Arizona, Florida). Also, I can’t tell if this map excludes residents born outside the US. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants came from around the world to settle in America – they were often both poor and mobile. Immigrants also tended to settle in coastal areas, which would affect the results above as they obviously weren’t born in the state they currently reside in.

In the end, I bet this map would have looked very similar even before the housing crash. A quick look at the same US Census data from 1990 confirms that states like Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, and Louisiana also had “low mobility” over 20 years ago, and states like Alaska, Arizona, Florida, and Washington DC had “high mobility”. I’m afraid I don’t see the evidence that mobility has been limited to an “elite sliver of the population”.

Never Pay Full Price When Buying Gift Cards

Gift cards. Even though they are far from perfect – let’s face it, there’s a reason they have become so popular. They are convenient to buy, require minimal decision-making, and you get to spend exactly what you budgeted. While you may fall back upon a gift card, that doesn’t mean you have to spend full price on them!

Grocery Stores
You can now find gift cards from every store imaginable at your neighborhood supermarket, and certain credit cards give increased rewards at grocery stores.

Also, check for specific deals by your local chain stores. Safeway is popular in my area, and they are offering $10 towards your next purchase if you buy $100 in select gift cards from 11/24-12/6. In addition, through December 10th, Safeway also has 4x gas rewards points on all gift card purchases.

Gift Card Reseller Sites
A secondhand market for gift cards has sprung up on sites like PlasticJungle, Cardpool, GiftCards.com, and GiftCardRescue. You can buy both physical gift cards and electronic gift card codes. You might feel weird about giving a gift card for $48.44 instead of $50, but if you keep looking you can usually find a nice round number. Wrap that “used” gift card in a nice handmade card and envelope, or print electronic codes directly on the card. The good thing about these websites is that the transactions are guaranteed by the site and not some random person. I’ve bought a few cards from Plastic Jungle with no issues, usually Home Depot cards at 7% off.

eBay
The world’s biggest garage sale is another good source of discounted gift cards, although I would stick with sellers with excellent feedback ratings. Even as a former Powerseller, I haven’t been overly impressed with eBay’s customer service of late. Using a bid sniping service if you’re not using Buy It Now. You could even try Craigslist if you’re brave.

eBillme
These guys are trying to be the next PayPal payment service, and part of their business is selling discounted gift cards. However, read their terms and conditions carefully. New users can get 10% off a $100 Amazon gift certificate for a $10 credit, but you need $50 of credit to actually get a check mailed to you. Otherwise, you have buy something using eBillMe as the payment method from a participating merchant (like Sears or Buy.com) and apply that $10 credit to your purchase. Rather convoluted in my opinion, but may work out for you.

Cash Back Shopping Portals
When shopping online in general, there are now a bajillion cashback shopping portals that will get you cash, points, or miles of some kind. I usually prefer cash from eBates ($10 new user bonus), Mr. Rebates ($5 new user bonus), or BigCrumbs. You can use Evreward.com to compare them, however it doesn’t always keep up with the quickly-changing payouts during the holiday season.

Please note that for many merchants, purchases of gift cards are not eligible for cash back. You can always give it a try, but don’t include anything else in your cart because it might negate cash back on the entire purchase. One known exception: American Express Gift Cards. These are pretty close to cash, and BigCrumbs offers 1.6% cash back and there is a promotion code to waive the $3.95 purchase fee.

“Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the issuer. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the issuer. This site may be compensated through the issuer’s Affiliate Program.”

Prosper Holiday Offers: Free iPads & iPods for Lenders and Borrowers

Person-to-person lending site Prosper.com is running a few holiday promotions for both borrowers and lenders. If you have great credit, check out how your loan fees could be much less than the value of the iPod you get!

Free iPod Nano with Personal Loan
Borrowers who apply for a Prosper loan through this Monday, November 28th, 2011 get an Apple iPod Nano when the loan originates. I can’t tell if the iPod Nano is 8 gb ($129) or 16 gb ($149). Note that the fine print for this offer does not exclude AA loans with 1-year terms, which have very low origination fees of only 0.5% of the amount borrowed; a $2,000 loan would have an origination fee of just $10. There is no pre-payment penalty for paying off your loan early, so do the math. 🙂

Before committing to anything, you can get a free rate quote without affecting your credit score. You’ll even get a free credit score afterward unless you get the best AA rating, at which point you know your credit score is sky-high anyway.

iPad Nano, Bose Noise-Canceling Headphones, or iPad 2 for New Lenders
New lenders who register by December 12 and invest the minimum needed for each gift by December 23, can get the following:

  • $5,000 – Apple iPod Nano, 16 GB ($149 value)
  • $10,000 – Bose® QuietComfort® 15 Headphones ($299 value)
  • $25,000 – Apple iPad 2 32 GB WiFi model ($599 value)

“Lenders who receive promotional offers from Prosper may be subject to IRS Form 1099-MISC reporting requirements should the total value of those items exceed $599 in a calendar year.” Gee, look how nicely that worked out.

Vente-Privee $20 Credit With First Purchase Using American Express

Vente Privee is kind of a fancy Groupon-like deal site that sells designer things in 72-hour sales. That doesn’t sound like something I’d normally be interested in at all, but they are offering a $20 statement credit with your first purchase with an American Express by 12/31. (American Express is an official partner.) Check out this application page (my referral link) and you should see the offer. “American Express Cardmembers get a $20 statement credit with first purchase*”. Referring others to the site yourself after joining will also get you $20 in store credit.

As mentioned the sales rotate each day, but I was able to find a nice sugar shaker for $10 + $5.95 shipping and some kid’s clothing for $6 + $5.95 shipping. Not bad for some free stocking stuffers. Many of the cheaper items sell out fast… go figure. 😉

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List of Free MP3 Songs From Google Music

Google Music was opened to the public recently, and I finally got a chance to poke around. I’m not an especially active user of all these services where you save all your music in the cloud, as I’m pretty happy with my iPod Touch. I buy a few songs here and there, but mostly only redeem any iTunes gift cards or Amazon MP3 credits that land in my lap. However, I did notice that Google Music has a lot of pretty good free songs available, at least at launch.

First, they have a Free Song of the Day. Next, there are many free tracks sprinkled around the site. Here are some lists of free songs grouped by genre, let me know if you find more. You can download the songs directly onto your computer, and setup is pretty quick if you already have a Google account.

  • Free Pop & Hip Hop songs (Jessica Simpson, TLC, Usher, Whitney Houston…)
  • Free Rock Songs (Augustana, Train, John Mayer, Alice Cooper)
  • Free Country Songs (Kenny Chesney, Alabama, Brooks & Dunn, Dolly Parton)
  • Free Classical songs
  • Most popular free songs list (several repeats from above)
  • Free albums of live music from Shakira, Pearl Jam, Coldplay, Rolling Stones, Busta Rhymes,and Dave Matthews Band.

I found plenty to fill up the workout playlist. As a reminder, here’s a list of free MP3s from Amazon available as well, but I see more popular mainstream artists on Google Music.

Borrowing Library e-Books On Kindle Using Overdrive

I’m a pretty regular user of my local library, usually with 3-4 books out each month (with only 1-2 completely read + a few bucks in late fees). I bought a Kindle a few months ago* and was happy to hear that I can now borrow e-books from my library onto it. Overdrive runs the digital media portion of my local library system, and also runs it for many others. Previously, the DRM software restrictions made it impossible to get onto a Kindle. You can run a search for a branch close to you on Overdrive.com.

Unfortunately, so far I haven’t been impressed. The titles are very limited, and usually my city only has one copy of each. I’m still hopeful that a lower cost for distribution means it will this system more popular. Maybe libraries can even get a cut by offering a link to the book for sale. Here are a few stats:

  • Lending period: 21 days for me, which is the same as physical books. You can electronically return the book earlier if you like.
  • No late fees. The book is automatically removed from your Kindle device when time is up. You’ll get an e-mail warning, but this also means you can’t just keep it an extra day or two to finish up for $.50 in late fees. Poof!
  • Maximum checkouts allowed at one time: For me, this is 10. Plenty.

I do like not having to drive to the library, of course. Finally, for more free reading material, I now use Instapaper to transfer all long web articles (like Boomerang) to read on Kindle. Much less eye strain. My most recent clipping? The famous 1979 Businessweek article The Death of Equities.

* By the way, I would definitely go for the $30 savings for “special offers” Kindle version. I would honestly have paid the same price as without ads (but don’t tell Jeff Bezos that). The ads are not intrusive to the reading experience at all, and and the coupons offered regularly save me money. You can view a list of all previously offered discounts here. It seems like every month I either get a Kindle book for $1 or something like $5 off any $10 Amazon purchase.

Mastercard $20 Gift Card For $200 Purchase

Mastercard has a holiday offer going where if you register your Mastercard credit card number and spend $200 online with it, you’ll get a $20 gift card. Valid for first 80,000 – this promo started yesterday and I have no idea how long that’ll last, so just treat this like a nice surprise if it comes.

* Starts 11/15/11. Ends 12/31/11 or while supplies last. Offline, PIN-based & international transactions ineligible. Gift Card quantities are limited to the first 80,000 eligible entrants & maximum 10,000 other gifts to next 10,000 eligible entrants.

Spending and Saving Money Is All About Trade Offs

Author and professor Dan Ariely has gained fame from being able to make his behavioral economics research accessible to the general public. We all want to understand better why we do what we do. His newest book is The Upside of Irrationality. You can read sample chapters from his books for free via the eBook Taste of Irrationality.

One of the problems he’s trying to address is saving for retirement. Why do so many people save less than they need to? Here’s what Ariely says, via a recent interview on the Betterment blog:

The world around us (wants) us to spend money now. The incentives (to spend) are always very high. It’s hard to resist that, and sadly, after being tempted towards spending, spending, spending, what we have left for savings is not enough.

Investing is between now and later. It’s about the trade off, and because people are not making these trade offs correctly, we’re basically in the (bad economic) situation that we’re in.

Money is fungible. Any time you spend money on anything, it could be spent on something else. The $10 lunch, the $1,000 TV, the $20,000 car. We all know this is true, but in practice we tend to weigh things differently. Here is a thought experiment taken from a recent talking engagement (paraphrased):

Imagine being presented with the decision to either by a $700 Sony speaker set or a $1000 Pioneer speaker set. Most people go for the better and more expensive Pioneer speakers.

Now, what if the same people were instead presented with the decision between the $700 Sony set + $300 in CDs and DVDs or a $1000 Pioneer speaker set? Ariely found that now most people go for the Sony set and music package.

Why? It’s easier to imagine the value of $300 of CDs as opposed to the diluted value of $300 spread across all the possible things in the world to buy.

Perhaps it would help us to remember a list of things at different price points that are really important to us, so that we can better judge our daily spending. For example, if I really enjoy my daily $3 coffee, then I could think of other small purchases in terms of giving up that coffee. Now, getting everyone to agree to delayed gratification is something for which I don’t think there is a simple solution.

Compare Sales, Income, and Property Taxes By State – US Map 2011

(Update 2011: I ran a search for this topic and found my own site. Ha! The maps were from 2009, so I updated this post with the updated 2011 information. They appear to have actually taken some of the feedback from earlier comment and improved the general applicability of each chart.)

I ran across some nice visual maps from TaxFoundation.org today. Each one compares a different type of tax across all 50 states. How does your home state choose to extract revenue from its residents? (Yes, extract. They have to pay for things, but I doubt asking gently with a packet of free address labels would work very well for them.)

State Sales Taxes – State and Local (Combined) General Sales Tax Rates, 2011 (Greener is higher)

 

State Income Taxes – Top Marginal State Income Tax Rates By State, 2011

 

State Property Taxes – Median Property Taxes Paid by County, 2005-2009 (Darker is higher)

Click on the images for a bigger source version.