Best Free Scanner Apps for iPhone and Android

tinyscanOne of the more useful apps on my phone allows me to take a picture of documents and receipts and convert them instantly into a PDF file. The apps automatically detect page corners and “flatten” the raw images into a high-quality scan with results that are very similar to a traditional scanner. From there, I can either e-mail the file or upload it to Dropbox, Evernote, Google Drive, etc. I find myself using it very often for both business and personal reasons.

This post was originally about a $5 app that was temporarily free, but the “sale” ended before I could publish it. Instead, while trying out the various apps I found that many offer really good functionality for the nice price of free. Try them out and see which one works best for you:

  1. CamScanner Free (iPhone / Android) – This one appears to have the most features available in a free app, but it does add a little watermark to the bottom of the PDF. 4.5 stars on Apple, 4.5 stars on Google.
  2. TinyScan Free (iPhone / Android) – Lots of positive reviews, 4.5 stars on Apple, 4 stars on Google.
  3. Genius Scan Free (iPhone / Android) – Lots of positive reviews, 4.5 stars on Apple, 4 stars on Google.

If you know of any better apps, please let me know in the comments.

PaperKarma App: Take A Photo Of Your Junk Mail and Say Goodbye

pkappI totally missed this app the first time around, but PaperKarma is an iPhone/iPad app and Android app that helps you stop junk mail. Catalogs, magazines, coupon books, flier, credit card offers, yellow books, etc.

You just snap a photo of any piece of unwanted mail, and that’s it. (Try to capture the address label and any tracking codes.) They scan the photo, grab the pertinent details, and contact the mailer directly to remove you from their distribution list. They’ll even contact you when you are successfully unsubscribed. For free. That sounds almost too good to be true.

Previously, I’ve had success with the websites CatalogChoice.org to stop unwanted catalogs and YellowPagesOptout.com to finally end delivery of those huge phone books (both free as well).

Citi Executive AAdvantage Card 100,000 Mile Bonus

(Update: The offer below has expired.)

The premium co-branded Citi Executive AAdvantage MasterCard has a special offer link that is showing a sign-up bonus of 100,000 American Airlines miles after you spend $10,000 within the first 3 months of opening. There is also a $200 statement credit, earned through $1 in statement credits for each $1 spent on purchases within the first 12 months.

There is a hefty $450 annual fee that cannot be waived, so you should be sure that you can get proper value out of those miles. In addition, the primary benefit of this card over lesser AA cards is that you get access to their airport lounges (Admirals Clubs) without having to even be on an American flight. You can get into any American Airlines lounges at any airports with you and your family (or two guests).

This is not the standard offer and so the link appears targeted, but the agent code they ask for is not required and people have gotten approved for the card without it. That doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t have some trouble getting the 100k bonus, so I would take screenshots or save all application pages to PDF format along the way.

Economy of You Book Review: Stories About Starting Your Own Microbusiness

Microbusiness. Nanobusiness. Solopreneur. These new terms were created to describe the one-person businesses which Kim Palmer profiles in the new book The Economy of You: Discover Your Inner Entrepreneur and Recession-Proof Your Life. Some people turn their business into a full-time job, while many keep their 9-5 jobs and run their ventures on the side. Palmer herself is a full-time editor for US News and World Report as well as a “side-gigger”, selling virtual financial planners on her Etsy shop Palmer’s Planners.

In terms of a synopsis, I would describe the book as breaking up the interviews of a number of solo entrepreneurs into major themes like:

  • How they discovered their idea or niche
  • How they built a support network for help
  • How they earned their first customers and grew from there
  • How they balanced their new business with a full-time job, family, etc.
    1.  
      Overall, the book is definitely more inspirational examples and idea generation than actual nuts-and-bolts guide on how to run a solo business.

      I enjoyed reading it, and here are my own impressions and takeaways from the book. Hopefully they will also help you decide if you should read it.

      A true microbusiness just needs one person and hardly any start-up money. This is my own definition, but I think it is appropriate. When I look at the people profiled in the book in addition to of all the business that my friends have started on their own, hardly any of them need more than maybe a few hundred dollars to get started. Website design. Writing a blog. Handcrafted jewelry. High-quality natural soaps. iPhone apps. Selling online coaching and e-books. If you need venture capital, it is not a microbusiness. Even if someone ends up owning a bakery, they often started by catering or baking custom cakes. You need enough personal ability and energy “saved” up to start, not money.

      You already know if you want to be a solo entrepreneur. Starting a microbusiness is definitely not for everyone. Do you have an itch in the back of your mind, an idea that you have been nursing for long time? Are you so enthusiastic about something that you wouldn’t mind it entering what used to be your free time? Many people are quite happy keeping their job and their play time separate. Finally, read this following book excerpt by Palmer after making her first few months of sales.

      As gratifying (and useful) as it was to earn that extra cash, it didn’t even begin to get at the satisfaction that my Etsy shop gave me. Each sale affirmed by ability to create something of value, a skill I sometimes doubted that I had as freelancing rates plummeted during the recession and writing jobs dried up. I had a new identity; I created and sold money planners. I began daydreaming about ways I could expand and new products I could design.

      There is no guarantee that your solo business venture will be wildly successful. But if just the act of doing it and getting a few readers or customers will give you great satisfaction, what have you got to lose? As noted, the start-up costs should be minimal. I started this blog with an $8 domain name, free open-source software, and web hosting for under $10 a month. 9 years later, I’m still doing it! 🙂

TradeKing $50 Referral Bonus 2014 + Transfer Fee Rebate

Updated.  If you are looking to open a new TradeKing stock brokerage account, don’t forget to grab both a $50 opening bonus and a $150 transfer fee reimbursement if moving money from another broker. TradeKing offers $4.95 trades with no minimum balance requirement. There is a inactivity fee if you have less than $2,500 and make zero trades for 12 months. Options are $0.65 a contract. I’ve been using TK for a while, they are a good basic broker for ETFs and dollar-cost-averaging. I am not an active trader or daytrader.

TradeKing $50 referral bonus
You can get a $50 opening bonus through their refer-a-friend program. You must open with $3,000 and make 3 trades within 90 days. I do have an account with TK and if you’d like a referral, please feel free to us my special referral link.

New referred client must fund their account with a minimum of $3,000 and place 3 trades within 90 days of opening the new account. Account types that don’t qualify include: Traditional IRA, Roth IRA, Rollover IRA, SEP IRA, Simple IRA, Solo 401K and Coverdell IRA. Accounts will be reviewed 90 days after account is opened to confirm that all of the requirements are met. At the time of review 3 trades must have been placed within the past 90 days and the account must have at least $3,000 in account equity.

TradeKing transfer fee reimbursement program
If you transfer an account of $2,500 value or greater over to TradeKing, they will also refund up to $150 in account transfer fees charged by your old broker. Yes, you can can combine with the above offer. Here’s how:

TradeKing will credit your account transfer fees up to $150 charged by another brokerage firm when completing an account transfer for $2,500 or more. Credit will be deposited to your account within 30 days of receipt of evidence of charge.

Open a New Account or if you already have an account, log in. Complete and print an Account Transfer Form. Mail or fax the signed Account Transfer Form to TradeKing along with a copy of your most recent statement from your previous broker. Request your account transfer reimbursement by faxing your transfer reimbursement form, along with proof of transfer charge, to 866.699.0563.

Prosper P2P Loans Class Action Settlement

P2P lender Prosper.com was sued because the defendants “allegedly violated securities laws due to Prosper’s selling securities without qualifying or registering them and acting as an unlicensed broker-dealer” (they later registered with the SEC). I was just notified that the case was settled without admission of wrongdoing for $10 million (1/3rd will go to lawyers of course). Details at ProsperClassAction.com.

You are eligible for a portion of this settlement if you purchased notes from Prosper between January 1, 2006 and October 14, 2008. This period is sometimes referred to as “Prosper 1.0”. You used to be able to bid on loans, and many early investors lost money while this new model was being tested out (their loan collection methods back then were horrendous). Accordingly, settlement payouts will be made “in proportion to the aggregate amount of losses”.

It appears that you don’t have to file a claim to get your share of the settlement. However, if you have changed e-mails since buying since investing in a Prosper loan, you may not have gotten this notice. Also, if you moved you should update your address on record to make sure you get that check.

Economic Mobility Studies: Will You Be Better Off Than Your Parents?

The idea that you wanted to do better than your parents was a strong one in my family and community. Two major studies on economic mobility were recently released, with the following findings:

  1. Children growing up in America today have the same chance of moving up (or down) the income distribution ladder as children born in the 1970s. No more, no less. However, the overall numbers remain lower than other developed countries.
  2. Upward income mobility varies substantially based on geography. They describe the U.S. as a collection of “lands of opportunity” that have high rates of mobility across generations, whereas in other places few children escape poverty.

If you want to see how the place where you grew up fared (based on where you lived at age 16), check out this interactive map from WaPo which tracks the upward income mobility of children of parents with income at the nation’s 25th percentile, or about $30,000 per year. Dark blue means no change from parents, light blue means they moved up to the national average, and darker yellow means they moved higher than average.

More: Paper 1, Paper 2, WaPo, Atlantic

USPS Price Increase Effective January 26, 2014

Here’s a quick reminder that the US Postal Service is increasing the price of a First Class stamp from 46 cents to 49 cents on January 26, 2014. I wouldn’t buy Forever stamps as an “investment”, but if you plan on using a lot of stamps in the next year or so you’ll save 6.5% if you buy in the next couple of days. My bills are all paid online besides my property tax, but I still go through a decent amount of stamps with holiday cards and baby-related announcements.

Here’s a chart from Wikipedia tracking the historical nominal (face value) of a stamp along with the inflation-adjusted value.

1994-2013 Callan Periodic Table of Investment Returns

Reader Ben shared this in the comments, and I think it deserves a separate mention. Every year, investment consultant firm Callan Associates updates a neat visual representation of the relative performance of 8 major asset classes over the last 20 years. You can find the most recent one below (click to view PDF), which covers 1994 to 2013. Each year, the best performing asset class is listed at the top, and it sorts downward until you have the worst performing asset. You can find previous versions here.

You can try to find some patterns, but I doubt you’ll find anything significant. Sometimes an asset class has a hot streak that last a few years, and other times an asset class is on top one year and bottom the next. Most recently, Emerging markets equities were on top in 2012, and bottom in 2013.

Also, while the table compares relative performance, you can also note that absolute performance changes all the time as well. In 2013 the best asset class returned +43% while the worst asset class returned -2%. Contrast this with 2008, when the best asset class returned +5% while the worst asset class returned -53%. Sometimes you just can’t lose, and other times you just can’t win.

So I won’t bother predicting what will happen in 2014, and will instead continue owning multiple, less-correlating asset classes using low-cost passive investments. Oh, and I make sure to rebalance them regularly.

Estimate Your Portfolio Personal Rate of Return – Calculator

Updated and revised for 2014. Some of you may be wondering how well your specific portfolio performed last year (or over any specific period of time). Let’s say you started the year with $10,000 and put in another $5,000 through 10 different deposits spaced throughout the year, and ended up with $16,000. What was your rate of return? Your main goal is simply to separate the effect of new deposits (or withdrawals) and your actual return from investments.

Figuring out your exact personal rate of return requires you to know the exact dates of all your deposits and withdrawals, along with a financial calculator or spreadsheet program with an IRR function (example here). However, for a quick and simple estimate of your returns, try this calculator instead:

Initial Balance: $
Total Deposits: $
Total Withdrawals: $
Final Balance: $
Time period:   year(s)
Your estimated annualized rate of return:   %

Instructions

  1. Get your initial balance. This is probably from your brokerage statements. Try January of last year.
  2. Tally up any deposits or withdrawals. For example, let’s say you know you put $3,000 in your Roth IRA and also 5% of your $40,000 salary into a 401(k). That would be $3,000 + $2,000 = $5,000. That’s it, you don’t need to worry about looking up the specific dates and amounts.
  3. Get your final balance. Your December statement is probably available already.
  4. Find the time elapsed (in years) between your initial and final balances.
  5. Hit Calculate. An estimate of your annualized return is instantly given.

How Accurate Is This Estimate?
The calculator assumes that the inflows and outflows are spread evenly around the middle of the year. I originally saw this method in the book The Four Pillars of Investing (review). However, unless the deposits and withdrawals are very large as compared to the initial balance, the estimates are actually pretty good.

For example, let’s say that you start with $100,000 on 1/1/13, and end up with $120,000 on 1/1/14. If you had net deposits of $10,000 during the year, the calculator above would estimate your return at 9.52%. If the $10,000 was actually deposited all at once on one of these specific days, you would get the following exact returns:

Deposit Date Exact Return
1/1/13 (very first day) 9.1%
6/04/13 (middle of the year) 9.5%
1/1/14 (very last day) 10%
Estimate 9.5%

 

Also check out the rest of my Tools and Calculators.

Another Reason Why Vanguard Target Retirement Funds Are Underrated

Index funds are growing increasingly popular. Yet Carl Richards tweets that over the last 15 years, the actual investor return for the popular Vanguard S&P 500 index fund (VFINX) lags nearly 2% a year behind the fund’s official return. That works out to a final balance that is 24% less. This means that if you account for the timing of actual dollar inflows and outflows, the average investor in the fund actually earned a lot less than they might think. (More explanation on investor returns vs. advertised returns here.)

Here’s the data taken straight from Morningstar. The longer the time period, the worse the relative performance:

As Abnormal Returns put it, “indexing is no panacea“. I think part of the problem is that people use the S&P 500 as a proxy for the overall stock market and thus trade it much more frequently… and poorly. If you were really afraid during the 2008 financial crisis, it was really tempting to sell your stock shares and keep it in something “safe” instead like bonds or cash. You may still be in cash today after missing out on the rebound.

But what about the Vanguard Target Retirement 20XX Funds, which are basically just a mix of different index funds? Specifically, let’s take the Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 Fund (VTIVX). It’s mostly stocks, and mostly US stocks at that, so it should behave similarly to VFINX. Check out the 10-year growth chart comparison with the S&P 500 fund:

However, the average investor returns for the Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 Fund are much closer to the fund returns. The investor return over the 10-year period is actually better than the fund return, although some of that may have to do with the small asset base in 2004.

Why is this? My opinion is that people who own the Vanguard Target Retirement fund trade a lot less frequently. Part of this is self-selection. If you buy this fund, you desire simplicity. Also, if you own an all-in-one fund that holds both stocks and bonds together, you don’t have the problem of seeing one investment drop while the other rises. This is the benefit of buying a “balanced” fund.

You won’t see Vanguard Target Retirement funds being touted very much in the financial media. Their returns are rarely at the top since they are index-based, so magazines and newsletters won’t write about them. Most advisors are supposedly charging you for their “expert” advice, so they will of course recommend something more complicated. Even index fund enthusiasts like myself often don’t invest in them because we like to fine-tune and tinker (sometimes to our detriment).

Despite their boring nature and lack of publicity, I have long recommended Vanguard Target Retirement funds to members of my family. They are simple yet diversified, have very low expenses, and designed to be left alone. You don’t even have to rebalance your holdings; it is done for you automatically. Could you do better? Maybe. Could you do worse? Definitely.

Omnivore’s Dilemma: Economics of Farming and Why Food Marketing Is Everywhere

I’d like to make a habit of reading a book every other week in 2014. My first book is The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. This 2006 NYT bestseller has already been well-discussed, but I saw it at my library’s donated book sale and wanted to read it for myself.

Instead of a regular review, I just wanted to share one financial concept inside about the special economics of food. We all learned in school that as prices go down, demand should go up. As demand goes up, the price tends to rebound until an equilibrium is found. But this doesn’t work for food producers:

The growth of the American food industry will always bump up against this troublesome biological fact: Try as we might, each of us can only eat about fifteen hundred pounds of food a year. Unlike many other products – CDs, say, or shoes – there’s a natural limit to how much food we each can consume without exploding. What this means for the food industry is that its natural rate of growth is somewhere around 1 percent per year – 1 percent being the annual growth rate of American population. The problem is that Wall Street won’t tolerate such an anemic rate of growth.

This leaves companies like General Mills and McDonald’s with two options if they hope to grow faster than the population: figure out how to get people to spend more money for the same three-quarters of a ton of food, or entice them to actually eat more than that. The two strategies are not mutually exclusive, of course, and the food industry energetically pursues them both at the same time.”

If farmers have a great year, they can actually make less money as prices plummet after product floods the market (due to our finite stomachs). Let’s look deeper into those two alternatives:

Convince people to spend more for the same amount of food. This is behind why everything is processed to the point of ultimate convenience with sleek packaging. Any cooking beyond using the microwave has been removed. Everything is in single-serving packages. Every new diet comes with its own line of ready-to-eat stuff in a box. Surprise, everything also gets more expensive! I just noticed that gluten-free pasta costs roughly 3 times as much as traditional pasta. Even terms like “organic” and “free-range” are twisted by marketing and may not mean what you think.

Convince people to eat more food. What we consider an acceptable portion size has increased over the years. From 1982 to 2002, the average pizza slice grew 70 percent in calories. Even the surface area of the average dinner plate expanded by 36 percent between 1960 and 2007 (source). Think of the “Upgrade” or “Combo” feature of many fast food menus. Why just order a sandwich and drink water, when for a little more you can get fries and a soda? Once you order the combo, why not “upgrade” to even larger fries and larger soda for just 50 cents?

This is why we are surrounded by food branding and food marketing. To fight back, we should buy food as close to their whole “raw material” state as possible in order to avoid the middleman (processing). Even though it does take more time, this makes the food we eat both healthier and cheaper overall.