Archives for December 2012

Why You Should Make a New Year’s Resolution

If you’re like me, you may wonder if a New Year’s resolution is even worth the bother. By chance, I was listening to an NPR interview today with a Dr. John Norcross, a psychology professor who decided to study this phenomenon. Listen, download the mp3, or read the transcript at Here are the highlights:

According to Norcross, 40-50% of people make New Year’s resolutions each year. How did they do when studied over time?

Dr. NORCROSS: In two of our longitudinal studies, 40 to 46 percent of New Year’s resolvers will be successful at six months. So, the half empty is it’s true, most people fail. But 40 to 46 percent is pretty impressive. […]

You know, I was tired of people saying resolutions never succeed, we shouldn’t even try them. And I said, well, wait a minute, these are life-sustaining behaviors. What’s the alternative? So, the alternative was to track people starting before January 1st with the same behavioral goals, with the same motivation to stop or to take the resolutions but who just weren’t going to do anything then. And that’s – and only four percent of them were successful at six months. So you go from four percent, all the way up to 44, 46 percent by taking a New Year’s resolution seriously and trying to do something about it.

10 times the success rate! So people who made resolutions had a 40% success rate as compared to 4% from those who had the same motivations but didn’t set resolutions. Definitely encouragement for would-be resolvers. More goods news is that the studies found that slips or short lapses in the resolution did not always lead to failure. Many people used the lapses to strengthen their determination.

How to set a good resolution. Norcross recommends setting attainable, realistic, and measurable goals. So lose 10 pounds instead of 50 pounds or “a lot of weight”. Save $100 more from each paycheck vs. saving an extra $15,000 somehow during the year. Grandiose goals set you up for failure, as you need to have inner confidence that the specific goal you set is achievable. This agrees with the popular SMART mnemonic that says that goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-sensitive.

So, resolutions are good, especially if you do them right. However, you may want to keep number of resolutions to a minimum:

FLATOW: So you do one thing at a time, you know? Don’t say, I’m going to diet and quit smoking at the same time, because you’ll never get them both done.

Dr. NORCROSS: Well, there’s some interesting research on that. And that is, it depends how much time and commitment you have. If the two resolutions are related, then it may make sense to do it together. For example, losing weight and increasing exercise – most people see those things as going together. But if there are two very different resolutions, you may just be overwhelmed with the amount of time and energy that they call for. So, we ask people never more than two. If they’re related, two is great. Otherwise, just do one at a time.

Use Up Small Balance Visa & American Express Gift Cards with Purchases

For some reason, cash is old-fashioned and now it’s common to give out gift cards in the form of prepaid credit cards. If you have a prepaid Visa, Mastercard, or American Express gift card and you want to use up an odd remaining amount like $3.34 or even $0.56, here are a couple of tips:

  • gift codes. Did you know that you can buy an Amazon online gift code for any amount, and for as little as 15 now 50 cents? Amazon gift certificates arrive instantly, they never expire, and you can combine many small codes into your account. I prefer this method because I don’t need to leave the house and I know I’ll use it up eventually. 🙂
  • Ask for a split tender transaction. Most modern POS systems allow purchases to be split into amounts of any size.
  • Pay your cell phone or utility bill. If you have a utility or cell phone company that takes credit cards, it’s often easy to pay the bill in small chunks. I’ve had some problems with these services though, as like gas station pumps they may ask for a pre-authorization before accepting payment. $2,500 Holiday Cash Giveaway (Winner Announcement)

Winner Announcement! The contest is now closed. The winning entry was picked using with the Timestamp: 2012-12-25 03:28:18 UTC. Congratulations to Anthony T (, the lucky winner of $2,500. You should have received an e-mail notification to your registered e-mail address. Thanks to all who entered, and I wish everyone a very happy holidays.

One of the great things about being a blogger online is that you’re part of a community.  Years and years of blogging have created a lot of good friendships, and today, five friends and I are able to put together a cash giveaway, totaling $15,000.  If you recall, we had a $10,000 giveaway last year that was a roaring success, so I’m hoping this year is even better.

To enter the giveaway this year, the following rules must be agreed to:

  • In order to participate, you must sign up for the RSS Feed and complete a short five question survey.  The link to the survey can be found HERE.
  • Only one entry per person (duplicate entries on the same website will disqualify you from winning the $2,500 prize on that site)
  • Winner must be a US resident
  • The giveaway begins Wednesday, December 12th and concludes Sunday, December 23rd at 11:59 pm ET.  The morning of December 24th, a winner will be chosen at random, (using, announced on the site and will have 72 hours to provide their name, address and social security number for tax purposes (yes, this $2,500 will count as miscellaneous income toward your 2013 taxes)
  • The email address you enter in the survey must match the email address you use to subscribe to the MyMoneyBlog RSS Feed.

Backup Your Music Library For Free Into Google’s Cloud Service

Google has just announced on their Google Play page that you can now upload your music library to Google Play, and they will scan them and keep a copy in the cloud for free and let you stream to your devices as needed. This “digital music locker” is currently limited to 20,000 songs and US users. Microsoft and Apple offer similar services, but charge $25 every year. Tech site AllThingsD suggests that the other companies charge money as this effectively “launders” pirated music into officially paid-for music, and Google probably just paid a big flat fee to make this happen for everyone.

Our new music matching feature gets your songs into your online music library on Google Play much faster. We’ll scan your collection and quickly rebuild it in the cloud – all for free. And we’ll stream your music back to you at up to 320 kbps.

I simply interpret this as a free way to back up all my music files online and not have to worry about a hard drive crash. I was able to upload all my songs overnight – sucked straight from iTUnes – and I can now see and stream them to my phone or computer (or download them). Pretty neat.

Free ShopRunner Membership

It may not work in time for Christmas anymore, but here’s another offer for a free 1-year Shoprunner membership. Enter offer code RUNNER. No credit card required, it is optional, just asks for an e-mail address. Shoprunner is similar to Amazon Prime in that it offers unlimited free 2-day shipping with no minimum order amount from a variety of online merchants. Via staff of FW.

After you get your free year, you can also get another free 90-day extension by going back to the home page and signing up for Shoprunner Central. This service scrapes your Gmail or Yahoo e-mail account to help keep track of receipts. You need to allow them access your personal information, which I was not cool with, so I just used my seldom-used e-mail.

How Do I Tip The Trash Collector?

Ah, holiday tipping. This little post still gets a steady stream of comments, even several years later…

Invariably this time of year, all the “tipping experts” of the world unite and tell us ignorant folk what to do. Is it just me, or is it a cushy job to tell other people how they should spend their money? I think they all just secretly copy each other. I’ve made a little collection of links below, and all of them say that you should tip the trash collector if your municipality allows it:

I appreciate the idea of tips as an annual “Thank You”, but my question is how do I tip the trash collector? I’m never around during pickup. Tape an envelope to the bucket and hope it doesn’t blow away or get overlooked? Nobody even gets out of the truck these days, it’s just a driver and a robotic arm. Am I supposed to wait around for when they come, which varies from 6 am to 1pm on a weekday and jump out when they finally arrive? Sorry, but I don’t like them that much.

I’ve read conflicting reports about USPS mail carriers. According to, they aren’t allowed to receive cash or cash equivalents, although physical gifts worth less than $20 are okay. Technically, gift cards that are not redeemable for cash and only good at a single store are also acceptable. Now I’m thinking lottery tickets (if they win, they’ll have broken the rules, but then they don’t need the job anymore :)). I don’t really have anyone else – nannies, gardeners, personal trainers…

Where I used to live, people left out a case of beer or soda for the trash collector. No idea why, but maybe because it’s pretty easy to spot. People have never heard of it here. Does anyone else do that?

Explanation For Recent Big Drop In Mutual Fund Values

Many people will log into their brokerage accounts in December and be surprised by some curious losses. Not to worry, most likely this is due to your mutual distributing either capital gains and/or dividends. Mutual funds and ETFs are baskets of stocks, so just like with stocks, they can create capital gains when they sell holdings for a profit. By law, mutual fund companies must distribute 90 percent of realized capital gains and dividends each year, and ’tis the season for passing these out.

If you invest with Vanguard, they have a nicely organized list of estimated year-end distributions for Vanguard funds and ETFs, with capital gains broken down into short-term and long-term. Most index funds have very low turnover, so for the most part they have very little capital gains to distribute. Many index funds and ETFs are however distributing dividends.

While your fund’s net asset value (NAV) will drop after a distribution, you’ll get an equivalent amount of cash in your account. Let’s say your NAV is $10 and they make a $3 distribution – you’ll end up with $7 in NAV and $3 in cash. If you have it set to automatically reinvest, then that cash will go back and buy more shares. If you hold them in a taxable account, this means you’ll have to pay the appropriate taxes on these gains on your upcoming tax returns. If they are in a sheltered account like an IRA/401k, then you don’t have to worry about taxes.

For example, the Vanguard Wellesley Income Fund Investor Shares (VWINX) went down $0.53 a share (–2.15%) on Monday 12/17/2012, and the Vanguard Health Care Fund Investor Shares (VGHCX) went down –$4.01 (-2.70%). But the overall market went up? We see though, that VGHCX had the following distributions:

$2.661 per share in dividends
$0.173 per share in short-term capital gains
$1.964 per share in long-term capital gains
$4.798 in total distributions

So the vast majority of the changes were in reaction to these distributions ($0.53 vs $0.54, $4.01 vs $4.80). The rest is the actual market value change of the underlying investments.

Find Your Specific Fund’s Distributions
The first place to look for past and future distributions is the website of your fund company, like I did above with Vanguard. If you can’t find it there, I use the Morningstar quote system a lot. Plug in your ticker symbol into the quote box and scroll down for a specific section called “Dividend and Capital Gains Distributions” which will provide you a past distribution history.

Free Experian Credit Monitoring from Credit Sesame

You may be familiar with Credit Sesame from my popular free credit scores with no trials post, as they offer you a free credit score based on your Experian credit report, updated once a month. They make money by presenting you with credit-related offers like mortgage refinances or auto loans. I’ve been happily getting my updates for years now… I don’t worry about the absolute number as much as the relative change each month to see if anything new has either hurt or boosted my creditworthiness significantly.

Per this press release, Credit Sesame is now offering free daily credit monitoring as well. No tricks, no trials, no credit card required. If you’re already a member, just log in and opt into the new feature. You can also get push alerts via their Android and iPhone apps. Here’s a screenshot with nothing exciting since it’s only been 5 minutes:

As opposed to the free monthly score, monitoring checks your Experian credit report daily and sends you an email alert if any activities have occurred – for example, if there was a credit pull by a lender or a new address added. This can provide early warning of attempted identity theft, reporting errors, or simply am overzealous lender checking your credit without permission. Many providers charge $10-$20 a month for similar monitoring, and while it’s potentially useful I’ve never recommended paying a hundred bucks a year for it. But hey, Credit Sesame already has my info, so I’ll definitely sign up for free.

(Note: You can get also free credit scores and similar monitoring alerts based on your TransUnion credit data at

From their FAQ, here’s a sample of events on your Experian credit report that may trigger an alert:
[Read more…]

Best Value in Smartphone Plans? T-Mobile $30/month Prepaid 4G with Unlimited Data

Even though I know you can get cheap, basic cell service for under $10, I do find value in having a smartphone with mobile data, for business reasons and mobile hotspot use if nothing else. My current contract is coming to an end, so I’ve been looking for the best current value in smartphone plans.

I kept hearing about a T-Mobile $30 a month prepaid plan that with a little “hacking”, you could turn into an unlimited minutes, text, and data plan for $30 a month with no contracts! Too good to be true? After many hours of research and tinkering around, I finally have it all set up and have been using it for a little over a week. Here’s a summary of what I discovered (ended up being a bit long):

[Read more…]

Would Meeting Your Future Self Make You Save More?

Behavioral economists are constantly trying to find ways to convince us do the “right” things like save for retirement. Why is it so hard to give up short-term perks for larger, long-term rewards? For example, take my True Cost of Holiday Shopping calculator and this Warren Buffett anecdote from a 2011 WSJ article:

Warren Buffett is one rare—and extreme—example. When he was a young man, according to Alice Schroeder’s biography “The Snowball,” Mr. Buffett often asked, “Do I really want to spend $300,000 for this haircut?” He was thinking about the vast amount of money he wouldn’t have decades in the future because of the small outlay he might make in the present.

I think it’s fair to say that most people don’t think like that. (It appears he did get haircuts at least once in a while.) According to Stanford researchers, one big reason is because we struggle to identify with our future selves. The researchers are quoted in this Wired article:

To people estranged from their future selves, saving is like a choice between spending money today or giving it to a stranger years from now.

In their study, they used advanced virtual reality goggles make some people see older versions of themselves. Afterwards, the test subjects who saw their elderly avatars stated they would save twice as much as those who didn’t. Merrill Edge, the brokerage arm of Bank of America, has created an online version of this aging process called Face Retirement. It takes your picture via webcam and ages your face to help you better visualize “old” you. I got to see myself at age 47 to 107, in 10-year increments.

Will it work? I’m not sure. My wife says I just look like a zombie, especially at 107. Maybe there would be more shock value if it showed me eating dog food or something.

DIY Gift Idea: Yummy Stuff in Trendy Glass Jars

Forgive me frugalistas, but I’ve only recently discovered the retro trend that I call YSIJ – Yummy Stuff in Jars. A friend of ours recently provided homemade passionfruit butter in classic Ball glass jar, which was awesome. Another friend gave us this cookie mix from Williams-Sonoma, which they sell for $19.95:

Upon closer inspection, it’s a Weck jar, which you can buy for under $4 at Crate and Barrel. Aren’t they sexy?

So for a nice DIY gift for well under $10, simply find/create/steal an awesome cookie or brownie recipe and leave out the butter and eggs. Layer the remaining dry ingredients all pretty-like in the jar, stick a nice rustic-looking label on it, add a bow from extra fabric, and you’re done. You don’t even need wrapping paper. Make them in bulk.

You could also bake something that keeps for a while and put it inside – candied nuts, toffee, trail mix, etc. Or cook something like grandma’s marinara sauce. Or actually preserve something, which I have never tried beyond some easy pickles. After they ingest your gift of love via food, they’re still left with a cool reusable jar.

p.s. These glass bottles with stoppers look like great gift ideas too, even better if you can add a homemade drink to put inside.

(End Martha Stewart Hipster mode.)

Target: Free $10 Gift Card with $50 Purchase

Back again… Target has a “Friends and Fans” promotion offering a $10 Target Gift card with $50+ purchase. Expires Saturday, 12/15/12. See all Target coupons here. If you are having trouble getting to print, the bar codes appear to be the same for everyone and Fatwallet member happysave shared a PDF version here.

Heavy Target shopper? Did you know that the Target REDcard debit card gives you 5% back on all Target purchases and sucks money directly out of your existing checking account?

Also: If you do cheap prepaid phone service, you can buy cards from many services at Target and lower your effective monthly rate.