Archives for November 2014

State-by-State Guide to Pregnancy and Work

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

babygate2The laws regarding pregnancy and employment can be confusing and are often misunderstood. Via the NYT, the group A Better Balance has put together Babygate, a free, easy-to-use, state-by-state online resource for working parents and soon-to-be parents.

Know your rights regarding pregnancy discrimination, paid and unpaid family leave, temporary disability insurance, breastfeeding, and more. The guide also breaks things down into the periods when you are pregnant, leaving work, and returning to work.

There is also a book which helps with “managing the realities of parenthood at work, from handling morning sickness, to figuring out maternity leave, to securing time and space to pump breast milk.”

Capital One Consumer Bank Black Friday $100 New Account Promo

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Cap One 360 Checking Banner

UPDATEThis promotion is now EXPIRED.

Capital One Consumer Bank has a few Black Friday weekend deals including …

  • $100 bonus for their 360 Checking Account
  • $100 bonus for their 360 Savings Account

This has to be your (or your joint account holder‘s) first 360 Checking Account (including Electric Orange Checking). Additionally, this has to be your (or your joint account holder‘s) first 360 Savings Account (including Orange Savings Accounts).  Good from Black Friday, November 28th at 12am ET to the end of Cyber Monday, December 1st 11:59pm ET.   This is usually the biggest bonus they’ll offer all year.

Top 10 Most Commented Posts All-Time

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

In case you feel like some extra reading while digesting that turkey (or tofurkey), here are not necessarily the best posts on this blog, but the ones that generated the most discussion. Certain posts may contain some outdated information.

Do You Make A Six Figure Salary? Share Your Story (413 comments)
Lots of people sharing their situations and how they achieved $100,000 or more in annual income. Sure, it’s a bragfest but there are still some interesting information and trends to be found inside the comments.

Straight Talk SIM Card + iPhone = $45 Unlimited Prepaid Plan (398 comments)
It was a big deal with Straight Talk started selling SIM cards which allowed people to bring their any GSM phone onto their $45 plan with unlimited talk, text, and 2 gigs of data. This post helped guide iPhone users to move from their existing $100+ plans and save some serious bucks over time.

DFA Funds: The Porsche of Index Funds (276 comments)
Dimensional Fund Advisors are still not very well-known outside of the investment industry, but every year they seem to grow in popularity amongst both retail and institutional investors. A bulk of the comments on this post are other financial advisors debating DFA-related topics with each other.

Is Costco Executive Membership Worth It? (269 comments)
This post needs to be updated a bit as the membership levels now cost $55 an $110, but the overall principle remains the same. There are other wrinkles, but in general if you spend over a certain amount per year, the 2% extra cash back can make it worthwhile to upgrade to Executive Membership.

Millennium Bank: Perhaps Not A Scam, But Not Safe Either (243 comments)
This was a case of pointing out that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. In 2007, I said “Bottom line, I hope you’ll agree there’s absolutely no reason to put your money anywhere near this institution.” In 2009, the SEC shut the bank down and charged it with being a $68 million Ponzi scheme. A lot of people lost their hard-earned money.

MagicJack VoIP Review: 1 Year of Phone Service For Only $40? (225 comments)
MagicJack was one of the first devices to make voice-over-internet accessible to the average consumer. These days, there is the improved MagicJack Plus that doesn’t require a computer, Ooma, and also Obihai + Google Voice. Paying $25+ a month for a landline seems so expensive now.

Rewards Checking Accounts: Higher Interest Worth The Extra Trouble? (196 comments)
These gimmicky checking accounts were a great source of high interest with the safety of FDIC-insurance in their heyday. The field is a lot more sparse now, although there are still some out there.

ShareBuilder Promotion Codes: Free Stock Trades (195 comments)
I keep this post updated whenever someone sends me a promo code that works for any Sharebuilder account. Who doesn’t like free money in the form of free trades?

Bank of America Overdraft Fee Refund (191 comments)
If you know the right number to call, it can be significantly easier to obtain a refund of those painful overdraft fees. I still get a steady stream of comments from thankful BofA accountholders.

U-Haul vs. Penske Moving Truck Rentals: Share Your Story (184 comments)
I’m grateful that it has been a long time since I’ve had to deal with moving, but this post still gets some traffic from Google. Renting from both U-Haul and Penske in the past definitely provided me with different experiences.

10 Reasons You Should Never Pay Off Your Mortgage (170 comments)
It is not actually my position that you should never pay off your mortgage, but I enjoy considering both sides of an argument. Lots of strong opinions in both directions here!

No-Thanks-giving: The Things You Hate The Most

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Before we get into being all thankful for family and friends and caffeine and stuff, let’s complain about all the stuff you hate dealing with.

From a WSJ article on why we still hate the airline industry (shocker!), here is a list of what good and services Americans are least satisfied with. Based on the American Consumer Satisfaction Index survey.

nothanksgiving2

Let’s see what I think about the top 5:

  • Internet Service Providers: Well, they do charge a lot for very mediocre speed and the reliability has been spotty recently. Not to mention they keep fighting Net Neutrality. I wish I had Google Fiber.
  • Internet Social Media: I’m not really sure what this means. I am not very active on Twitter nor Facebook. MMB commenters are all smart and good-looking, but reading the internet comments on major news sites like CNN does make me sad about humanity.
  • Subscription Television Service: My inability to let go of live sports is certainly costing me a bundle, but cable TV hasn’t actively pissed me off… this year. Well, wait, my laggy DVR does appear designed in 1994 with a 386 processor.
  • Airlines: I know that there are hardworking folks in the airline industry, but I just had an entire conversation with a Delta gate agent and they didn’t make eye contact even once. Why provide good service when everyone hates you anyways seems to be the attitude. The problem is that selling cheaper airfare with lots of gotcha add-ons is that it works and they are now making good money. Sigh. I can’t believe people haven’t revolted yet on how seat pitch keeps decreasing every freakin’ year.
  • Wireless Telephone Service: I have no real complaints. There are many options now if you want to avoid full-price, full-service cellular carriers. Basic cell phone service can be pretty darn cheap these days. I guess I’m just still amazed by what my smartphone can do with a data plan while I’m in the middle of nowhere.

Dinner: The Playbook Book Review – Preplanning is Critical For Success

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dinnerplaybookWe hit consecutive 10 weeks of cooking at home x 5 times a week! (Now we’re going on vacation so the streak must end.) Some days are fun, some days you just want to get it on the table.

Since I liked the first book by Jenny Rosenstrach so much, I also bought her second book Dinner: The Playbook – A 30-Day Plan for Mastering the Art of the Family Meal. While the first book was more autobiographical, this one is more focused on what you need to make home-cooked dinners happen. First, you need the right recipes:

I can’t stress this enough: You will cook more regularly if you choose simple recipes. By choosing simple recipes, you will get dinner on the table more efficiently and you will not end up with a pile of dirty dishes that makes you want to chug a bottle of beta-blockers. By minimizing the prep work and the cleanup (and the beta-blockers), you will be far more likely to do it again the next night. And that is the goal. Sustainable routines. Pleasant tableside experiences. Success. Which for our purposes right now will be defined as “a fifteen-minute period of time during which food is consumed without drama.” In short: The best home cooks choose the easiest recipes.

The book contains over 80 such recipes. But even with a dead-simple recipe, if I am faced with another trip to the grocery store after work, I’m going straight to the frozen lasagna (or worse, my kid’s chicken nugget stash!). You’ll also need to incorporate some structure and pre-planning for success.

The best tip that I learned from Jenny Rosenstrach’s books was to plan every week’s dinner out in advance. I plan for 5 nights cooking, 1 dinner-from-a-box (frozen dumplings, lasagna, premade burritos, etc.), and one dining out each week. Every Saturday night or Sunday morning, I pick out 5 recipes that I want to try. (Usually three come from a Rosenstrach book or blog!) I scan the recipes and (1) make sure that it really is doable with my limited culinary skills and (2) note what ingredients I need. Once you get better, you can pick the ones that share ingredients to save money, but I wouldn’t worry about that in the beginning. Just pick whatever sounds both tasty and easy.

My older kid wakes up at 6 am every single day, so on Sunday morning at 7am we hit the grocery store and Farmer’s market (in the same complex, sweet!). The world is still quiet, the man at the farmer’s market stand with the good salad mix always gives her a free banana, and I never have to go decide if I want to go to the store at 6pm on a Wednesday just for one ingredient.

Why is this important? See my flowchart. If you get arrive home from work and you don’t have all the raw materials in front of you and a plan to make into a meal, you will fail. Remove all roadblocks! Fail to plan, and you plan to fail! Insert other cliche here!

In addition, try to do whatever prep work you can each morning. My thing is just to double-check that I have all the ingredients, like making sure the spice containers aren’t nearly empty or the herbs aren’t yellow or rotten.

Finally, you need a 30-day challenge to get you going. By committing to 30 days and 30 dinners, you will hopefully be able to break out of your current rut and have enough momentum to make homemade dinners a regular habit. I suggest taking her option of backing this off to 20 dinners in a month, making each week 5 days on and 2 days off.

Bottom line: Good book, similar ideas to first book but less about her and more clear on purpose. I bought it mostly for the additional simple recipes. Cooking at home saves us so much money each month, this book easily pays for itself.

Cooking Dinner At Home: The Flowchart

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I believe that most people would like to cook their own food at home, but sometimes the best intentions still end up with me eating Panda Express with those darn little splintery chopsticks! After many weeks of trying to cook meals at home, I’ve tried to identify my roadblocks and organized them into a geeky flowchart:

dinnerflow2

The flowchart helped me identify ways to minimize failure points, like planning meals ahead of time, shopping for all ingredients ahead of time, and slowly building a repertoire of quick meals that I know I can pull off with minimal fuss. Right now I’m still riding a wave of initial enthusiasm, and our food bills haven’t been this low in a long time.

Chart: Stocks and Bond Returns Tend To Move In Opposite Directions

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Inside this AllianceBernstein post about the more complex concepts of levering bonds and risk parity strategies, there was a reminder about simple portfolio construction. For a very long time now, holding both stocks and bonds has been considered a “balanced” portfolio. Why is this? Because stocks and bond returns tend to move in opposite directions.

This behavior can be summed up using the finance term Beta. The 5-year rolling average beta of the S&P 500 return to the 10-year US Treasury return has consistently ranged from negative 0.1 to negative 0.3 over the past decade. This means that when when stocks went up, bonds tended to go down (but not too far down). When stocks went down, bonds tended to go up (but not too far up).

bondsbeta

Always good to have a reminder of the benefit of holding both stocks and bonds.

How to Win the Loser’s Game: Free Documentary

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SensibleInvesting.tv recently released a free documentary about the fund management industry and the effect of their high fees on the returns of everyday citizens. “How to Win the Loser’s Game” includes interviews with Vanguard founder John Bogle, Nobel Prize-winning economists Eugene Fama and William Sharpe, author and wealth manager Larry Swedroe, amongst many others. While the publisher is UK-based, most of the concepts are widely applicable to all fund management. The film is broken down into 10 different parts, each about 8 minutes long.

If you are a visual learner and rather watch an educational video than read a book, this documentary is definitely for you. The brief episodes gradually cover the benefits of a low-cost, long-term, low-maintenance, diversified investment strategy. Here’s the trailer, which ends with links to all 10 episodes.

Best Frugal Chicken Broth: Most Flavor For The Least Money?

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

betterthanbFor me, cooking at home means using a ton of chicken broth and chicken stock (yes there are technically differences between broth and stock but mostly the terms are used interchangeably in recipes). It comes in handy in all kinds of recipes, and basically makes everything taste better (assuming you’re not vegetarian).

At $1 per cup the cost can add up, so I perked up when America’s Test Kitchen ran a Chicken Broth Taste Test. They tested various brands by drinking them straight-up, used in a plain risotto, and reduced in a gravy. The PBS cooking show America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) – which also publishes with Cook’s Illustrated magazine – can be thought of as the Consumer Reports for cooking in that they do not accept any advertising and are entirely subscriber-supported. I learned a lot of things I didn’t know about chicken stock:

  • It’s okay to buy chicken broth. Yes, every single food “expert” will tell you that homemade stock is best and it’s so stupid easy you should do it yourself. But did you know that ATK themselves use boxed chicken stock for most of their own cooking? Since their last chicken broth test in 2005, they have used Swanson Certified Organic Free Range Chicken Broth on a daily basis. So don’t fret about it. Apparently it isn’t that stupid easy. Making my own chicken stock all the time is one of those things I’ll save for early retirement. (I admit homemade does taste better.)
  • Most chicken broth is “a science project of flavor enhancers and salt”. Not necessarily something you’d like to hear, but apparently adding nucleotides and glutamates do indeed make things taste more umami and meatier. Many of these additives are considered “natural flavors” because they are made from extracted from things like yeast or soy protein. Also, too much salt may not be good for you but having too little means any broth will taste bland.
  • Brands can change their formulas. As mentioned before, the 2005 taste test winner was the Swanson Certified Organic Free Range Chicken Broth. However, that product was recently reformulated with a new recipe and was no longer recommended in this 2014 test.
  • It’s okay to buy chicken stock concentrate. Most chicken broth in stores is made by the same behind-the-scenes company (International Dehydrated Foods) in the form of a concentrate. Water is then added before final packaging by retail brands. Of course, that makes it heavier and bigger, so it costs more to ship and thus raises the store price. Therefore, a concentrate isn’t necessarily a more processed or more artificial product.

In the end, there were only two fully recommended products after performing the taste test.

The Better Than Bouillon Chicken Base (jar) is their Best Buy as it costs 85% less at $0.16 a cup vs. $1.06 a cup for the Swanson. In addition, the concentrate will last for two years stored in the refrigerator. When you need it, just add water to reconstitute. It has things like disodium inosinate and guanylate which probably interact with the naturally occurring MSG inside the hydrolized soy protein. Curiously, the label specifically states that no MSG is added.

The Swanson Chicken Stock (box carton) is the overall winner regardless of price, and it does not indicate any added glutamates on its ingredient list for those that don’t like that sort of thing. The issue for me is that my regular grocery store doesn’t sell Swanson Chicken Stock, only the cheaper and more popular Swanson Natural Goodness Chicken Broth (which was still rated relatively good but not as good as the stock).

ATK Founder Kimball said the worst one was Pacific Organic Free Range Chicken Broth, which tasted like “possum” or “roadkill”. Ew. I have personally been buying the Costco Kirkland Signature Chicken Broth, which I don’t believe was tested. But I’ve seen the Better than Bouillon at the store, so next time I will try it out. Sounds like a good thing to have as a backup.

(Note: All of this info is available via ATK’s freely-available text and video content at the time of publishing. If you register for free on their website (e-mail required), you’ll get more details on their review rankings and other tested products. There is also a paid subscription level with even more access.)

Also see: Best Value in Chef’s Knives?

Top 1% of Income at Age 30 = $135,000 a Year

“The editorial content on this page is not provided by any of the companies mentioned, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. Opinions expressed here are author's alone.”

I’ve never been into the whole 1% politicized debate, but Derek Thompson at The Atlantic has put out another chart that just begs for a glance.

The richest percentile of Americans makes many hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. So how could a $135,000 salary make you a one-percenter? If you’re 31 or younger, that figure puts you ahead of 99 percent of your age group.

Here’s what salary it takes to be in the top 1% (red) and 0.1% (blue) of wage and salary income, separated by age bracket.

top1age

Okay, so some people I know apparently were in the top 1%e at age 30. But as the author points out, the really rich don’t make their money from earned income, they make it from investment income. In other words, their money is doing the working, not them. However, that all likely started with someone (perhaps them, but perhaps a father or grandmother) deciding not to spend their salary on consumer goods and instead putting it towards an income-producing asset.

Remember kids, it’s not what you make that matters, it’s what you save! 😉

PNC Bank Card + Visa Checkout $10 Bonus

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Get a $10 statement credit via this link when you enroll in Visa Checkout with a PNC Bank Visa debit or credit card by 12/31/2014. You don’t actually have to buy anything for this promotion.

Visa Checkout allows you to pay at participating online merchants without having to type in your card numbers every time, although you’ll need to remember your username and password (like Paypal).

Offer valid 10/20/14-12/31/14. Within 3 statement cycles after enrollment in Visa Checkout, customer will receive a $10 statement credit to either the enrolled PNC Visa credit card account or the primary checking account associated with the enrolled PNC Visa debit card, whichever card is listed as the preferred card in Visa Checkout. Business cards excluded. Limit of one $10 statement credit per customer.

Bank of America Card + Visa Checkout $10 Bonus

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This offer is EXPIRED.  Get a $10 Prepaid Reward Visa® Card via this link when you enroll in Visa Checkout with a Bank of America Visa debit or credit card by 12/4/2014. You’ll need to be a new Visa Checkout account customer and add a BofA consumer card, but the promo doesn’t require you to actually buy anything.

Visa Checkout allows you to pay at participating online merchants without having to type in your card numbers every time, although you’ll need to remember your username and password (like Paypal).

To qualify for this offer, you must (1) create a new Visa Checkout account for the first time by [12/4/2014] via the “Enroll now” link above, via http://promo.bankofamerica.com/visa-checkout/ or the Visa Checkout link in Bank of America’s Online Banking, AND (2) add at least one consumer Bank of America issued Visa credit or debit card to the new Visa Checkout account during the initial account set-up (other cards do not qualify for this offer). Allow 60 days from Visa Checkout account opening for delivery of the Reward card to the billing address of the Bank of America issued Visa credit or debit card first added to the Visa Checkout account. Limit one (1) Reward card per customer.