Food Rankings: Most Protein Per Dollar, Caffeine Per Dollar

icedteamixA while back I did a post on What Does 200 Calories Cost? The Economics of Obesity, where I found that you can find the cheapest calories in things like flour, pasta, oil, bread, and doughnuts. Meanwhile, the most expensive calories included all the fresh fruits and vegetables.

Michael Kirk of Efficiency Is Everything has put together his own nutritional spreadsheets and come up with other rankings. Below is an excerpt of his list of foods with the most protein per dollar. While lentils and pinto beans aren’t a surprise, I did find it interesting that white bread had more protein per dollar than whole wheat bread. White pasta also ranked higher than whole wheat pasta. Obviously, there will be some variability in the actual prices at your local grocery store.

proteindollar

Below is an excerpt of his list of foods with the most caffeine per dollar. It’s good to know that powdered iced tea can give good caffeine pop for the buck (I’m saving this discovery for summertime), but I’d still rather drink a good cup of coffee than take a pill.

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I do like efficiency, although I don’t know if it is “everything”. I probably won’t plan my weekends around the alcohol per dollar list. 🙂

RingPlus: Free Cellular Phone Service Ending 2/11

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February 2017 Update. Well, looks like the party is officially over. As predicted, it ended quickly and messily. Ringplus sued Sprint. Sprint announced they were kicking R+ off the Sprint network on February 11th. Both announced that R+ users will be automatically migrated over to Ting if they don’t leave on their own. The timeline is yet unannounced. More details here and here. This is a soft landing as Ting has solid customer service has agreed to honor R+ balances. At the minimum, they’ll give you $35 in Ting credit. To activate service, you will need to put a credit card on file and agree to Ting’s terms of service online. My Ting Review here.

Ting will gladly honor the RingPlus Top Up balance that you had as of February 5, 2017. If you had $35.00 or less in RingPlus TopUp credit, you’ll receive $35 in Ting credit before your first bill. If you had $35.01 or more in RingPlus TopUp credit, you’ll receive $35.00 to start and then $5.00 each month until all of your remaining RingPlus TopUp credit balance has been honored.

I received over 1.5 years of free service on a secondary line for a one-time $10 fee and I’ll still end up with $35 in Ting credit, so it ended up bring a pretty good deal overall.


November 2016 Update. The most recent update:

Starting December 1, 2016, all Plans that are not Mad Plans will not renew at the end of their billing cycle. Members can change to any of the currently offered plans from our website. Phone Swaps will be free starting Wednesday (11/23/16) until further notice.

Realistically, this was always the type of deal that was not going to last forever, and hopefully if you participated you got good value out of it. I got over a year of Sprint-based cellular service with 1,000 minutes, 1,000 text, and 1 GB of data for an total cost of $10 (technically the $10 is still in my account). The party is winding down… in the meantime I recommend taking the following precautions:

Know that your plans can and will be discontinued with little or no notice. Don’t buy an expensive phone just to switch to R+. Don’t pay for their lifetime Member+ plan. To put it simply, commit as little money as possible. Have a plan to port your number elsewhere; Ting can use Sprint or there are many free or $1 SIM cards out there on GSM networks.


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Generic Epipen Alternative from CVS for $110 Cash or $10 with Insurance

epigen

If you are like me and have to purchase multiple Epipens every year, you may like to know that CVS has a new generic Epipen alternative with a cash cost of $110 with a cost of $10 for many people with commercial health insurance. In most cases, the discount can be applied right at the pharmacy counter. You have heard of Adrenaclick, but this is technically a generic version of Adrenaclick made by the same laboratory.

Patients can now purchase the authorized generic for Adrenaclick® at a cash price of $109.99 for a two-pack – the lowest cash price in the market. This authorized generic is a Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved device with the same active ingredient as other epinephrine auto-injector devices.

Many parents of children with allergies have to buy multiple Epipens. The school usually requires one to be stored with them at all times in the classroom. If there is an afterschool program in a different area, that’s another Epipen. You may also want one to keep one at home, one at the grandparent’s house, and more for your purse, “Go Bag”, or vehicles. On top of all that, they expire after only one year, so you have to buy them all over again every school year.

Even with health insurance, they may only cover one or two, or perhaps you have a high deductible. Epipen made the news when the cash cost reached $600, but even at lower prices it can all add up quite quickly. I haven’t tried to buy any of these CVS versions yet, but I will look into before the next school year starts.

CVS has the following advice for those switching over. Note that an existing prescription for “Epipen” may not work as that is a brand name, so you’ll need a new one written for “epinephrine auto-injector”.

How can a patient switch a prescription from EpiPen to the lowest-cost epinephrine auto-injector?
First, the patient should speak with his or her prescriber about whether the authorized generic for Adrenaclick is a good fit for their specific medical needs. The prescriber can then write a prescription for an “epinephrine auto-injector” to ensure the lowest-cost product is filled. Patients who already have a prescription on file with CVS Pharmacy can ask their pharmacist to check with the prescriber about making the change.

You may also want to print out this $100 off coupon and bring it in.

New Year’s Resolutions: Nudge Yourself Towards Success

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It’s now late January. According to “the internet”, over 30% of people have already failed at their New Year’s Resolution. Well, I say let’s have a do-over since I haven’t even got around to making mine yet. Jonathan Clements has an excellent post called Committed where he outlines some strategies to help improve our chances of success. I’ve re-worked them below according to my own tastes. In my view, all of them involve making failure painful and/or inconvenient (really the same thing, just different levels and frequencies of pain).

  • Tell everyone. Announce your resolution on Facebook, Instagram, or other widespread manner. Somebody (frenemy?) will likely follow-up. You’ll want to avoid the mild shame from lots of people you know sorta well.
  • Tell just one important person. Share your resolution and deadline with a person whose opinion you care about. You’ll want to avoid that acute shame from a close friend or relative.
  • Tell nobody, but bet money on it. You could set up a bet with a friend, or use a website like DietBet. You’ll want to avoid the financial pain from losing money.
  • Put hurdles between you and bad habits. Want to spend less? Use cash for everything. Institute a cooling-off period of 1 week for every $100 of cost. Cut up or freeze your credit cards in ice. Cancel any “bad” subscriptions, and make yourself pay for it manually each month. (Try Trim if you need some help canceling things.) Remove junk food from the house, so you’ll have to go out and buy it. Make it a hassle.
  • Make it automatic. Make “good” subscriptions. Set up (or increase) an automatic paycheck withdrawal for 401(k) and/or IRA retirement accounts. Set up an automatic transfer to your savings account. Sign up for a service like Digit. After the initial setup, the lazy thing is now the good thing.

You might use one, or you might use all of them, depending on your specific goal.

Photo credit: Angus and Phil comic by Annie Taylor-Lebel.

Flexible Spending Account Reminder: Last-Minute FSA Expenses Ideas

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Updated. Here’s my annual reminder to use up your Healthcare Flexible Spending Accounts before the end of the year. First, here are some possible exceptions:

  • Some plans allow a grace period until March 15th of the following year as opposed to a December 31st deadline to use your 2016 funds, but it may only apply to claims and not late purchases. Check with your employer.
  • Some plans allow participants to carry over up to $500 in unused FSA funds into next year. Check with your employer.

What are FSA-eligible expenses? Here are the large, well-organized lists:

Quick tip. Since 2011, certain over-the-counter (OTC) items such as cough medicines, pain relievers, acid controllers, and diaper rash ointment now require a prescription for reimbursement. In addition to the written prescription for the OTC medicine, you should obtain a detailed receipt that includes the following:

  • Date of service or purchase
  • Name or description of the item
  • Amount of purchase

Last-minute FSA-eligible items. If you didn’t exhaust your funds with insurance copays or deductibles, here are eligible items that you can still buy over-the-counter without a prescription. Examples included are the best-sellers in each category at Amazon.

Finally, only your FSA administrator can provide you with the exact guidelines for reimbursement according to your plan. I learned this the hard way when our FSA administrator switched one year from in-house to Conexis. Wow, Conexis was a pain in the butt. So many hurdles and rejections without good explanations. I had to submit some claims three times before finally getting approved. If you count the time wasted, I probably lost money by participating in the FSA at all. The other employees in the company must have also complained so much that the very next year, FSA reimbursement was again managed in-house.

Consumer Report Car Brand Reliability Rankings 2016

cr_car2016_coverThe December 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine includes the results from their 2016 Car Reliability Survey with over a half million data points. In this public-viewable article, CR shares the full 2017 reliability rankings by brand and the relative change from 2016. There were some significant moves up and down. Highlights:

  • Most reliable: Lexus and Toyota.
  • Most spots improved: Infiniti and Acura.
  • Biggest ranking drop: Volkswagen, Volvo, and Subaru.

A partial excerpt with the top rankings are below:

cr_car2016b

Consumer Reports also shared some commentary and tips:

  • Toyota and Lexus are on top again, which CR credits to their careful, gradual approach to vehicle feature changes to avoid any sudden drops in reliability.
  • Wait a year or two before buying a newly resigned model from most brands. It takes a while to work out the kinks.
  • Speaking of kinks, a common source of issues in new cars are their new infotainment screens and complex transmissions (CVT, 8/9-speed, dual-clutch, etc).
  • Despite providing these brand rankings, Consumer Reports recommends that you shop by vehicle and not just by brand. Some brands like Toyota and Lexus are reliable across the brand, but others like Ford have a wide range of rankings by model. Of course, you’ll need full print or digital access to get those numbers.

If you don’t see your brand listed, it is probably due to a lack of data points.

My thoughts. In terms of trends as compared to last year’s 2015 survey, I was disappointed to see Honda slip a bit again in the reliability rankings. They dropped 4 spots last year and another 2 spots this year. On an absolute basis, Honda now has the same reliability score as BMW, whose cars have more fancy features and a history of average reliability. On the flip side, both Hyundai and Kia moved up another 1-2 spots this year after both moving up 4 spots last year, earning a solid spot together in the Top 8 “More Reliable” brands.

List of Cheap Basic Cell Phone Plans on Every Network – From $1.25 a Month

phones7Updated. Cellular phone bills remain an area where many people can trim their budgets. If you haven’t shopped around lately, there are many new options available. All the major networks sell wholesale minutes to MVNOs (Mobile Network Virtual Operators), which they in turn sell at a significant discount to individuals. I would also observe that smartphone improvements are slowing, such that using your current phone for another year can also save you hundreds per year.

This post is restricted to talk & text only plans for both light and unlimited usage – no data (although some plans include some anyway). After looking at over 100 MVNOs and multiple comparison engines, and these are the cheapest I could find for each of the major carriers – Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, or T-Mobile. I organized in this way so that you can simply Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and avoid the hassle of selling your used phone. You can now either go minimalist starting at $15 for an entire year ($1.25 a month), or you can fully replace your landline with an unlimited talk and text plan starting at $15 a month.

mvno_tT-Mobile Network

  • Light Usage – LycaMobile. Their barebones prepaid plan requires a minimum top-up of $10. You must have some sort of activity every 90 days to keep your service (make a phone call, send a text). The rate is a flat 5 cents a minute for talk, and 4 cents per text. If you only used 100 minutes a year, that would be $15 a year for the first year and then $5 a year afterward ($10 minimum recharge).
  • Unlimited Talk & Text – Republic Wireless. You can now buy a SIM and bring over your own device on their eligible list (no iPhones) and get unlimited talk and text for $15 a month. They have a somewhat unique service, see my Republic Wireless review for details. Also worthy of mention is Mint, which goes as low as $21 a month for unlimited talk, text, and 2 GB of data per month. However, you’ll have to pay for an entire year upfront to get that price.

mvno_s
Sprint Network

  • Light Usage – RingPlus. Their plans change constantly, but as of this writing you can get 250 minutes, 250 texts, and 250 MB of data per month with a $10 initial top-up and a $0 monthly fee. In other words, your total cost could be $10 a year. I still don’t understand their business model, so be ready to port out your number in case the fun stops. See my Ringplus review for details.
  • Unlimited Talk & Text – Tello. Unlimited talk, text, and no data for $18 a month. I will mention that Republic Wireless has $15 a month plan for unlimited talk and text on the Sprint Network, but you can’t bring any used Sprint device over – you must buy a special RW-modified phone in order to use the Sprint Network (see above for their T-Mobile BYOD option).

mvno_aAT&T Network

  • Light Usage – Pix Wireless. Their GSM Blue service is on AT&T, and runs as low at $75 a year which includes 1,875 minutes, 3,750 text, and 938 MB of LTE data for 365 days. Overages are 4¢/Minute, 2¢/Text, and 8¢/ MB 4G LTE. Alternatively, H20 Wireless has a minimum top-up of $10 every 90 days, for a total minimum annual cost of $40 per year. At the flat rate of 5¢/Minute, 5¢/Text, that $40 would buy you 400 minutes and 400 texts over those 360 days.
  • Unlimited Talk & Text – Airvoice. Unlimited talk, text, and 100 MB of data for $20 a month (technically 30 days).

mvno_vVerizon Network

  • Light Usage – Selectel. $75 a year for a bucket of 2000 minutes and 2000 texts for the entire year (no data included, 3G phones only). The same plan costs $100 a year for 4G phones. Their website is very vague; call them directly at 877-218-5744. You can also try Page Plus Cellular for $80 for 2,000 minutes that last a year, but they only take 3G phones.
  • Unlimited Talk & Text – Boom Mobile. Unlimited talk, text, and 250 MB data for $20 a month. (Both 3G and 4G phones will work, but there is a separate plan for each.)

Let me know in the comments if you find a better deal.

List of Free Movie Streaming Sites Online

streamfree2If you are a cord-cutter but are still looking for some free movie content to stream, here is a collection of (legal) links. Shortly after I had kids, I dropped Netflix as I had no time to “binge” on anything. However, I still like to watch bits of movies now and then to relax and take my mind off of things.

Vudu Movies on Us. This Wal-Mart-owned service just announced that they will allow “thousands” of movies to stream freely online with ads. The catalog isn’t great, but sample titles include Margin Call, Mad Max, True Grit, Abduction, and School Of Rock. Streams at 1080p with Dolby Digital sound.

Yahoo View (formerly Hulu Free). This is where a lot of the free content that used to be on Hulu now resides. TV shows include Blindspot, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Chicago Med, and Empire. Limited movie selection as well.

Crackle.com. This one has been around for a while, and they even have a few original series of their own. Some Seinfeld. I always watch the newest episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

Popcornflix. An interesting collection of movies that you might not see elsewhere from independent distributor Screen Media Ventures, LLC. Lots of big stars in their movie flops. Several cheap Disney knock-offs. Also… Inspector Gadget!

Free Documentaries (various). Unfortunately, many of these free documentary sites have lots of sneaky pop-up ads while mostly just embedding YouTube and Vimeo videos. The least annoying ones for me were Documentary Heaven and WatchDocumentary.org.

PBS.org. PBS shows many independent films and documentaries in their Indie Film section. You can also find the classics here like PBS Newshour, Frontline, Masterpiece Theater, This Old House, and Antiques Roadshow.

Most of these are also available via their own smartphone apps (iOS, Android) and streaming box apps (Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Xbox 360). Please let me know if I missed anything good.

Amazon Problems: Fake Product Reviews

az5starqUpdate: As of 10/3/16, Amazon has changed their policy and now prohibits reviews in exchange for discounted products. From the Amazon Blog:

Our community guidelines have always prohibited compensation for reviews, with an exception – reviewers could post a review in exchange for a free or discounted product as long as they disclosed that fact. These so-called ‘incentivized reviews’ make up only a tiny fraction of the tens of millions of reviews on Amazon, and when done carefully, they can be helpful to customers by providing a foundation of reviews for new or less well-known products.

Today, we updated the community guidelines to prohibit incentivized reviews unless they are facilitated through the Amazon Vine program.

This the new language in their official Seller Policy:

Additionally, you may not provide compensation (including free or discounted products) for a review. Review solicitations that ask for only positive reviews or that offer compensation are prohibited. You may not ask buyers to modify or remove reviews.

Contrary to Amazon’s claims, incentivized reviews do not make up only a “tiny fraction” of all reviews. According to this ReviewMeta video, 50% of all new Amazon reviews are now incentivized! 20% of all the Amazon Reviews they analyzed are incentivized.

Will this make it better, or worse? In response, many sites still giving out free stuff but are now simply telling users that reviews are no longer “required” and you don’t have to add any disclaimer at all. But, the sellers can usually still CHOOSE which people are eligible to receive the discounted products. Do you think they will give out free products to people who leave mostly positive reviews, or those people who take stuff and do nothing? Hmmm.

Original post:

For while, I was convinced that one day I would only shop at two places: Costco and Amazon. But recently, I’ve been concerned that Amazon’s quest for growth has hurt their customer-centric reputation. Here’s one part in what unfortunately may become a multi-part series.

Discounts for reviews. In the past, I wrote about a few websites that provided you with discounted products from Amazon in exchange for an “honest review”. I originally felt that since Amazon itself does this type of thing with its Vine program, it should be fine for the makers of a product to send out a few samples for review.

In the months since, I’ve gradually changed my mind. This practice is no longer a way to “jumpstart” your product with a few reviews. Instead, it has basically resulted in a race to the bottom where other sellers feel they must give out tons of free product and end up with hundreds of 5-star reviews with the disclaimer “I received this product at a discount in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.” This screenshot from Reddit is a perfect example of the bottom of this downward spiral:

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ReviewMeta.com analyzed 7 million reviews and found that the reviews with disclaimers had nearly all 4 and 5 star ratings, with a much lower occurrence of 1 and 2 star ratings.

I think where I messed up was that when a regular website like CNET does a gadget review, they have a readership and reputation to maintain. An anonymous individual is probably busy and just wants to satisfy the review requirement in order to keep getting discounted stuff. There is no feedback system to keep them accountable.

Fake reviews. What’s worse is that some reviews are simply fake with no such disclaimer. As someone who has to deal with spam comments every day, I see the same language patterns in Amazon reviews. Another website called FakeSpot.com also analyzes the quality of reviews:

Fakespot utilizes numerous technologies to validate the authenticity of reviews. The primary criteria is the language utilized by the reviewer, the profile of the reviewer, correlation with other reviewers data and machine learning algorithm that focuses on improving itself by detecting fraudulent reviews.

Check out this Micro SD memory card, and see it’s FakeSpot analysis.

fakespot1

ReviewMeta adjusted their 4.8 star rating down to 1.3 stars:

reviewmeta1

Survivorship bias. As someone who has bought a few “discount-for-review” items in the past (I no longer participate), I can tell you that when I left a less-than-positive review and others did as well, the item simply disappeared from Amazon shortly thereafter. It’s quite easy for a factory to simply slap on another made-up brand name and thus create a separate, new listing. This makes it quite easy to just start over, seed with positive reviews, and keep selling until too many “real” reviews start lowering the average rating. Repeat as necessary.

As always, buyer beware. Amazon has already filed some lawsuits over paid fake reviews, but they still have a lot of room to improve.

Don’t Have Prime But Shop at Amazon? Read Those Prices Carefully

ProPublica has a new article Amazon Says It Puts Customers First. But Its Pricing Algorithm Doesn’t, which outlines how Amazon does not always list the lowest price including shipping as the first available option. Here’s an example they provide of how this works on some pruning shears if you don’t have Amazon Prime or reach the $49 Super Saver Shipping tier:

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Amazon really, really wants everyone to buy Amazon Prime. They do all kinds of little nudges to get you to join. For example, their Super Saver Shipping option went from a few days to oftentimes weeks to get to me. Another way they promote Amazon Prime is by promoting merchants that join their Fulfilled by Amazon (FBA) program, because that means customers can buy more stuff with Prime. ProPublica points out that Amazon used to be more blunt about it with this former language:

Because most FBA listings are ranked without a shipping cost, you get an edge when competing!

Bottom line: If you don’t have Prime and don’t qualify for Super Saver Shipping, the default buying option will often not be the cheapest. By using the term “algorithm”, that suggests to me some sort of complicated scheme. What Amazon does is simple but perhaps deceptive: They assume that their Prime-eligible items will ship to you free, whether you have Prime or not. If you don’t have Prime and don’t reach the $49 tier for Super Saver Shipping, you should remember this rule across the entire site. Don’t click on the “Add to Cart” button without closer inspection. Amazon is simply adding yet another inconvenience for non-Prime shoppers. (I can’t wait for the new Top Gear, er… Grand Tour to start though!)

Access from AT&T Review: Affordable Home Internet For Low-Income Households

accessatt0Access from AT&T is an affordable internet access plan for low-income households offered in certain areas with AT&T service. The cost is either $5 a month at 3 Mbps or $10 a month for 5-10 Mbps, depending on your area. According to their FAQ and press release, other features include:

  • No deposit required
  • No activation or installation fee
  • No contract
  • Free modem + WiFi router rental
  • Free access to the entire national AT&T Wi-Fi Hot Spot network.

However, note that AT&T will run a credit check. I don’t quite understand the reasoning though, as they state it won’t affect your eligibility. From their website:

As part of standard AT&T policy, all orders for new service are subject to a credit check. Results of the credit check will not impact your ability to obtain Internet service under the Access program from AT&T.

Qualifying households must have:

  • At least one resident who participates in the U.S. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and
  • An address in AT&T’s 21-state service area, at which we offer wireline home Internet service, and
  • No outstanding debt for AT&T fixed Internet service within the last six months or outstanding debt incurred under this program.

California residents also are eligible if:

  • At least one member of your household receives SSI benefits; and
  • At least one of the Access from AT&T Internet speed tiers is available at the address where you live.

You can apply for the Access by AT&T program here. You can also learn more by calling AT&T at 1-855-220-5211 for assistance in English or 1-855-220-5225 for assistance in Spanish.

I am not applauding AT&T for this effort, just promoting its availability. AT&T agreed to offer this service as a condition of their merger with DirecTV. I think people should take advantage of it if it works economically for them. However, I see no evidence that AT&T did this for charitable reasons. They are only doing the bare minimum required by law. I think they are rightly being criticized for not offering this affordable plan in areas where they have speeds lower than 3 Mbps.

Also see:

Secret Eaters: Fighting Your Unconscious and Semi-Consicous Choices

In my last Buffett post, I talked about the importance of tracking performance carefully when trading your own portfolios. Most casual traders “think” they are doing fine, but if you ask them their rate of return for the last year compared to a benchmark, they won’t be able to tell you. They may have a rough idea, something like “last year was bad but this year I did a lot better”. Alternatively, they may point out that they gained a lot on Apple but lost a lot on Valeant.

This reminded me of a British TV show called Secret Eaters. Along the same lines, most people “think” they eat relatively healthy. They remember the time they turned down that bacon cheeseburger and had a nice salad instead. Participants in this show had their eating habits quietly tracked by private investigators, hidden cameras, or by digging through their trash. Many were surprised to find that they ate an additional 1,000+ calories a day in snacks, desserts, and oversized portions. Here’s a sample episode (the intro shows you the general show structure):

Now, this is a TV show and thus more about entertainment than proper nutritional science, but the point remains that the people profiled did a lot of semi-conscious eating. After being presented with the hard evidence, they were quite surprised. Here’s a Mirror article that follows up on some of the participants and how they started tracking their diet more carefully using things like smartphone apps. In addition to better tracking, another tip is to change your environment. In my opinion, watching TV is the great enabler of mindless eating. I try to avoid eating in front of the TV or computer whenever possible.

The same fuzzy tracking is what gets us into trouble with spending. You get the credit card bill, and all these little charges here and there added up to an extra 500 dollars. To counteract this, you could use one of the many budgeting apps now available. Changing your environment also applies: unsubscribe from some daily deal e-mails, pre-plan your weekly meals, and only visit a shopping website when you have something specific to buy (no browsing).

If you consistently make poor eating decisions, your body will probably tell you. If you consistently make bad spending decisions, your bank statement will probably tell you. But unconsciously bad choices in investing are especially sneaky because you may never know how much potential money you lost on high fees or badly-timed trades.