Digit Review: “You Won’t Even Notice” Automated Savings Account

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Want to save more, but don’t want to actually think about it? Digit is a fintech start-up that combines a free FDIC-insured savings account that want you to give it permission to tuck some of your own money away for you. There’s mindless eating, mindless spending, and now mindless saving.

How does it work? Instead of rounding up your card purchases or getting you to commit a regular savings schedule, Digit is like a helicopter parent sneaking into your wallet/purse and taking out money when it thinks you won’t notice. Okay, so it’s more about an algorithm that tracks your income and spending patterns… and then takes out money when it thinks you won’t notice. It keeps on depositing that money into a savings account until hopefully one day you have something substantial Here’s a nicely-illustrated video about it:

SMS Text-based interface. After you link up an existing checking account, ongoing interactions with Digit can be done almost completely by text message. If you prefer apps, Digit now has an iOS app that offers a little bit of extra polish to your normal text message program. I thought it might be redundant, but I actually prefer using the app now. A few screenshots:

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Free. Digit does not charge any fees directly. They make money by keeping any interest that might be earned on your savings balance. Given that the top savings accounts pay roughly 1% APY, that means for every $100 in the account you’re losing out on $1 a year. (Technically less, given the new Savings Bonus outlined below.) They also promise not to sell your transaction data.

New features: Minimum balance protection, Savings Bonus. I actually started using Digit a few months ago, but turned it off when I found out they didn’t (at the time) have a minimum balance protection feature. For example, you might have a bank account that requires a $1,000 minimum daily balance to avoid a $10 monthly fee. Digit used to have no way of knowing that, although they did promise to refund any overdraft fees. Now, you can set a minimum value that Digit will not allow your account to go below.

Digit also offers a “Savings Bonus” now:

Every 3 months you will receive a Savings Bonus from Digit. The Savings Bonus is based on your average balance over the previous 3 month savings period. For every $100 you keep in Digit for 3 months you will earn a 5 cent Savings Bonus.

The math roughly works out to 0.20% APY interest rate. Not exactly awe-inspiring, but I suppose it is something. I’d still rather just withdraw my money once the balance got big enough.

My personal experience. Every few days, random amount like $5.22 or $11.35 would be debited from my checking account. Honestly, for some who likes to be in control, having all those extra entries on my bank statements got to be a bit annoying. After a couple months though, I had over $300 saved up. Was this amount more than I would have saved anyway? Would I be better off with a formal budget? It’s hard to say. I can imagine some people really liking the feeling of “found money”, though.

Recap. Digit offers mindless saving, which is definitely a unique proposition. As it is free, I would place it under the “Try It Out” category, as long as you are okay with giving a start-up app access to your main checking account. You might like giving someone else the steering wheel. You might not. I’m still on the fence myself. If previously-reviewed Qapital was “set-your-own-rules”, Digit is more “leave-it-up-to-the-robots”. You could even use both apps at the same time.

Infographic: New York City Median Rent vs. Subway Stop

rh_nycsignWe all know that the longer the commute from where everyone works, the lower the rent. In many cities during the housing boom, the saying went “just keep driving until you can afford something”. But what if the relationship between commute time and rental price wasn’t steady? What if a few minutes of extra commute time would save you several hundred dollars a month?

There are indeed some great relative values in New York City, according to the results of a study by apartment listing site Renthop, via This Is New York. Here are the median rents for one-bedroom apartments nearest every subway stop in New York City:

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Highlights from their analysis:

The extra few blocks from 66th St to 72nd St could save you $845 per month. Granted you might really like the Lincoln Center area, but that’s enough extra dough for a trip or two to the NY Philharmonic, the Met Opera, or even dinner at Jean-Georges.

A good rule of thumb is that each stop is about two minutes apart (except express stops and when crossing a bridge), assuming there’s no “debris on the track” or “train traffic ahead”. Consider this when calculating what your time and commute is worth to you. An extra stop on the J/M/Z train past Marcy Ave will save you about $175, and each subsequent stop saves another $100 or more. The same holds true heading into Queens.

Someone should make a similar graphic for all the of the major cities with high usage of public transportation: Washington DC, Boston, San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, and Philadelphia. From Wikipedia:

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Swappa Review: Selling Used Republic Wireless Moto E Phone

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I set up a cell phone line with Republic Wireless (RW) in October 2014 for my parents, but they eventually chose to switch over to used iPhones. This meant we had to move off of Republic Wireless and sell their Moto E phone as it wasn’t compatible with their new carrier. As I had heard some good things about buying and selling phones on a new marketplace called Swappa.com, I decided to try them out.

Republic Wireless requires special software on their phones enable their WiFi-calling features, which means that RW users either need to buy a new phone directly from them or buy a used RW-modified phone on the secondary market. You can find phones on cellular forums, eBay, and Craiglist, but it can be a headache to deal directly with individual people with no intermediary assistance.

Here are some highlights of selling on Swappa:

  • Similar to eBay, Swappa is a connecting marketplace. The seller is still taking payment directly from an individual buyer.
  • Swappa relies on PayPal to provide certain protections. Seller gets paid before shipping. Swappa does not provide any escrow-type service.
  • Users can link eBay account ratings to encourage trust from prospective buyers.
  • No listing fee. No fee to cancel listing, as long as it hasn’t sold yet.
  • No seller fee (technically) but there is a $10 sale fee. If the list price is $100, then the seller gets $90 and Swappa gets $10. Featured listings are extra.
  • Standard shipping is also included in the list price, paid by buyer. So that’s another $6 to $7.
  • Depending on your PayPal account, you may have to pay transaction fees at PayPal.

Here’s a brief overview of the selling experience:

  • Your device must meet their requirements (fully functional, clean ESN, and no outstanding financial obligations).
  • You must provide a valid ESN to avoid “bad” phones with blacklisted ESNs. ESNs are kept private from buyers until sold.
  • You must upload a picture with your phone and any accessories, including a handwritten note of your listing number. I just used another smartphone to take a picture and was done in minutes.
  • Depending on the situation, you may have to provide additional verification pictures. I had to provide a photo that included the ESN screen of my phone.
  • You can see the historical selling price of the phone, and then set your own price.

According to their historical charts, the average selling price was $70. I was more interested in a fast sale, so I listed my phone for $65. Here was the pricing history for the Moto E (1st Gen):

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It sold within 6 hours of listing, and was paid via Paypal immediately. I bought our Moto E for $99 brand new in October 2014. My net was $65 – $10 fee to Swappa – $7 shipping = $48. That worked out to a phone depreciation rate of just $3.20 a month. For comparison, the 2nd generation Moto E is currently $129 new and is running about $85 used on Swappa.

In general, as a seller, I was very satisfied with the process. I could have probably sold for roughly the same price on eBay, maybe eeking out a couple more bucks, but I felt the listing process was faster at Swappa. The $10 sale fee may be a little more than the 10% fee that eBay charges on a cheap phone, but much less than eBay charges on an expensive phone (ex. 10% of $400 would be $40). There was a little confusion in the beginning regarding my ESN, but the online support from the staff was prompt and courteous. I would sell my phone using Swappa again.

Bill Fixers: Let Someone Else Haggle Your Cable and Phone Bills For You

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Successful haggle update, April 2016. Shortly after the NY Times profile of Bill Fixers came out, I submitted a request for them to help me lower my Time Warner cable bill. I had haggled with Time Warner in the recent past, but was currently back on regular pricing, so I figured I’d give them a shot. It took them about two months to get around to my request due to the flood of interest they got after the NYT article, but here were my real-world results:

  • $263.52 reduction of bills over the next 12 months, verified.
  • They gave me a 20% discount on their fee (half of first year savings) due to the delay, so I owed them $105.41.
  • One of the discounts they haggled for me ran for 24 months, which added up to another $83.26 in savings on which I owed no fee since they only charge for the first 12 months.
  • My total net savings: $241.37

The only work I did was to scan and upload a copy of my cable bill, and provide a personal security question and answer (not sure if it was right, or if they had to use it). I understand that some people may not feel comfortable with this, but I did not have to supply my bank account number, credit card information, Social Security number, or birthdate for this situation.

Original post:

I’ve written about haggling your cable or satellite TV bill for years, with hundreds of comments sharing both success and failures. I’ve certainly negotiated with a healthy share of customer service reps myself. But I don’t like doing it. I do it because unlike say the electrical company, who tells me “you pay based on how much power you use”, the cable company tells me “if you bother us, we’ll give you a discount, but if you are nice and quiet, you’ll pay double”. Big Data is tracking whether you compare prices or not, so it is in my best interest to announce that YES I COMPARE PRICES!

But what if you could just pay someone else to haggle for you? Deal with the long hold times, the “accidental” hang-ups, and the multiple transfers between supervisors? Enter brothers Julian and Ben Kurland of BillFixers.com, who will do just that. I came across them in this Businessweek article:

Despite all the various life-hacking sites that will teach you how to reduce your cable bill, a recent Consumer Reports survey found that fewer than half of people who attempted to do so were effective. Services such as BillCutterz have been offering some relief, but the Kurlands say their success rate—94 percent—is higher. It usually works out because they’re annoyingly persistent. Calls can last several hours as the brothers are passed among operators, managers, and various departments. The Kurlands often call companies multiple times, looking for different representatives who will cut a deal. “You’ll talk to three people who won’t offer anything, and the fourth one will magically have a discount that no one mentioned,” Ben says.

Which companies will they negotiate with? According to their website, they’ll take a shot at any recurring monthly bill you have. They don’t do things like credit cards and medical bills.

  • Television (Cable, Satellite, IP TV)
  • Internet (Cable, DSL, Other)
  • Landline
  • Cellular (AT&T cellular bills are one of the “easiest”. T-Mobile is one of the hardest.)
  • Satellite Radio

How much does BillFixers cost? They work on a contingency basis. If they don’t save you money, you pay nothing. If they do, they charge you 50% of the first year’s savings. You can pay via lump sum or in monthly payments (which in theory would match up with your monthly savings). Some stats from USA Today:

– Of the 650 clients, 94% receive savings
– The average reduction in bills is greater than $300 per customer
– About $155,000 has been saved for customers since 2014

I don’t doubt that someone with the right skills and motivation can be a good hired negotiator. I suppose the only concern would be giving out personal information like Social Security Number. However, if you give them the right information like account numbers, they shouldn’t need that kind of sensitive information.

If you’ve been thinking about haggling but have been putting it off due to either dislike or procrastination, why not give them a shot?

I’m going to add BillFixers to the growing list of services that will help find you money for free (but if they find it, they may take a cut).

  • CoPatient: Negotiate your medical bills. They take a cut of any successful savings.
  • AutoSlash: Helps you track price drops on rental cards. They make money when you rebook at a lower price with them.
  • Paribus: Helps you automatically request price adjustments on all your online retail purchases. They take a cut of the price drop savings.
  • AirHelp, Refund.Me, AirTaxBack: Get fees refunded for certain cancelled or missed flights to/from Europe. They take a cut of the refund.

Big List of Auto Insurance Premium Comparisons for All 50 States

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The standard advice for saving money on auto insurance is to shop and compare prices. You could use a comparison website, but they may not include every insurance carrier listed in your state. A lesser-known fact is that auto insurance is regulated on the state level, where each company must submit their rates for approval. Many states in turn share this information with consumers. Some states also provide complaint data, so you can also view which insurers have the most complaints relative to their market share. Here is an example report for the state of California:

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For the hypothetical scenario above, the difference between the cheapest option (Wawanesa) and the 17th cheapest option (AllState) is over $1,100 a year.

Using this information, a consumer can more efficiently choose to get quotes from the insurance companies which will likely offer them the lowest rates. Individual companies often choose to focus on certain areas of the market – drivers with clean records, drivers with tickets/accidents, teen drivers, and so on. Credit scores are another newer area of focus. Try to find the comparison example that fits your situation the closest.

These premium comparison reports can often be hard to locate, so I manually searched for all 50 states and the District of Columbia and shared my results below. (I used the same template as my free state income tax e-filing post.) Some states share very specific data down to zip code, some share only a few broad example rates, and others share essentially nothing. In alphabetical order (just click on the state):

State Notes
Alabama Click on “Compare Premiums” for the scenario that best fits your own.
Alaska Personal Auto Insurance Premiums Comparison Guide > Premiums Comparison Guide.pdf
Arizona 2015 WEB_AutoPremiumComparison_Publication.pdf
Arkansas Insurance Cost Comparison > Private Passenger Auto
California 2016 Automobile Insurance
Colorado Private Passenger Automobile Premium Comparison Report.
Connecticut None found.
Delaware Automobile Insurance Rate Comparison
Florida Auto Rate Comparison Tool
Georgia Automobile Insurance Rate Comparisons
Hawaii Motor Vehicle Insurance Premium Comparison
Idaho None found.
Illinois No premium info, but some guidance provided including complaint ratios.
Indiana None found.
Iowa Auto Insurance Pricing Guides
Kansas Auto Insurance Shopper’s Guide.
Kentucky Auto and Home Insurance Guide with Disaster Guide and Premium Comparison. [PDF available]
Louisiana Automobile Rate Comparison Guide.
Maine Auto Insurance, Comparison of top 10 policies.
Maryland Auto Insurance – A Comparison Guide to Rates.
Massachusetts Auto Insurance Premium Comparisons.
Michigan Comprehensive Guide to Auto Insurance.
Minnesota None found.
Mississippi Personal Auto Rate Comparison.
Missouri Auto Policies – See policies of insurance companies ranked by market share.
Montana Auto Insurance Price Comparison (pdf).
Nebraska Auto Rate Guide (direct link to PDF).
Nevada Consumer’s Guide to Auto Insurance Rates.
New Hampshire New Hampshire Auto Cost Premium Rate Comparison.
New Jersey Auto Insurance Premium Comparison.
New Mexico None found.
New York No premium comparison, but there are complaint rankings and discount list (pdf).
North Carolina No premium comparison, but there is a Consumer Guide to Automobile Insurance and complaint ratio list for insurers.
North Dakota Cost Comparison Survey
Ohio Shopper’s Guide to Auto Insurance, with example premiums and complaint data.
Oklahoma Rate Comparison Chart.
Oregon No premium comparison found, but the Oregon Consumer Guide to Auto Insurance has helpful info
Pennsylvania A rate comparison guide for Automobile Insurance in Pennsylvania.
Rhode Island Could not find rate comparison, but see Consumers Guide to Auto Insurance for helpful info.
South Carolina Quick Links – Automobile Price Comparison Guide.
South Dakota None found.
Tennessee Limited market share and other info at Personal Auto Policies Rate Changes.
Texas Automobile Insurance Price Comparison
Utah Auto & Homeowner Annual Comparison Tables with Complaint & Loss Ratio Info.
Vermont No premium information found, limited info in Consumer’s Guide To Auto Insurance.
Virginia Auto Insurance Sample Premium Table.
Washington None found.
Washington DC None found.
West Virginia 2011 Annual Survey (see bottom right).
Wisconsin No premium information found, limited info in Consumer’s Guide To Auto Insurance.
Wyoming No premium information found, limited info in Wyoming Personal Automobile Insurance Guide (last updated in 2000, ack!)

 

I have tried my best to locate the information for each state, but it is quite possible I’ve overlooked something or the websites have since changed. Please let me know if you find any errors or broken links.

RingPlus: Basic, Free Cellular Phone Service – 1000/1000/1000 Talk/Text/Data

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Update March 2016. It has been six months and I have been enjoying my free cell phone service from RingPlus with no hassles or unexpected charges. I still don’t use it for my primary business/personal line, but at this point I’d be comfortable using it as a kids’ or grandparents’ low-usage line. It’s tough to beat $0 a month (not even taxes!). Some quick points for prospective new customers:

  • They are still rolling out new plans all the time. As of today, a new member can still get 1000 minutes, 1000 texts, and 1000 mb of data for $0 a month ongoing with a one-time $25 upfront balance top-up. I still have my initial $10 top-up sitting in my account. Be sure to read the rules.
  • Starting April 17th, you can no longer buy a new prepaid phone and activate it on RingPlus. Up until now, you could for example buy a $50 Moto E meant for Boost Mobile but activate it on RingPlus instead with no problems (assuming it was brand new and had never been activated on Boost Mobile). The Moto E is a very decent phone for fifty bucks. But starting April 17th, Sprint won’t allow this anymore. The good news is that if you activate before that date, Sprint has agreed not to retroactively kick phones out. If interested, get yours before the deadline! Details here.
  • You can still buy eligible used, off-contract Sprint phones. Be sure to verify eligibility with this BYOD checker. Right now, you can get a used Sprint Samsung S4 for about $100 or a used Sprint Apple iPhone 5 for about $130 on Swappa.com.
  • In general, the customer service is spread quite thin, so you should be willing to navigate their forums for some self-directed help.

Original post:

RingPlus is a Sprint MVNO that offers cheap cellular phone plans, starting at… $0. You can bring over an off-contract Sprint phone (check eligibility) or you can buy one from them (slightly more expensive that on secondary market). They make money partially from ads – ads play whenever you call someone instead of the normal ringing. When your friend picks up, the ad stops immediately. You also pay for any overages past your free allotment. There are no contracts and no activation fees.

Recently, Ringplus has been aggressively courting new customers with limited-time plans. RingPlus free plans are usually only open a for a limited window, and then it closes for a while. But recently, their plans have been getting more generous, with special super-generous plans available for a few hours only. These have very little notice, but it’s worth checking their site daily if you are very interested. For example, I was able to jump on a plan with 1000 min, 1000 text, and 1000 mb every month for free. The fine print states that I must keep a non-zero balance, otherwise I will be charged a $10 top-up that will apply to any future overages.

Here are all their current plans and details on promo plans. Be sure to read the whole page for the rules for each specific plan. If you miss one round, be on the lookout for future phases. The most important thing is to find an eligible phone and activate it during the window. It can be an ancient flip phone from Virgin Mobile (Sprint MVNO). Later, you can swap the phone out for 99 cents and keep the free plan.

You will need a credit card on file, although some of their plans don’t even require a credit card (but come with much fewer free minutes). No additional activation fee. Not even additional taxes are due on the zero plans (taxes are due on top-ups). Here’s a screenshot of their current plans, but again they change daily.

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Here’s a screenshot of my dashboard that tracks your usage:

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Are there any catches?

  • You have to sign up for their free plans during certain availability windows. That means you’ll need the ESN of an eligible off-contract Sprint phone waiting around, ready to go. If you’re like me, you have to resort to asking all your friends if they have any old Sprint phones you can have.
  • In the past, RingPlus has discontinued their free plans without much notice if they can’t line up enough advertisers in your calling area. That would be annoying, especially if you invested good money into a Sprint phone. Have a backup plan.
  • Honestly, I don’t know if giving away this much free talk and data is a viable business model. They are definitely trying to grow customer base and sacrifice short-term profitability. Again, know that they may cease operations with little or no notice. Plan ahead as to how you would quickly port your number to another cheap service.
  • If your phone is not eligible, then they may de-activate your plan in the future, even if you manage to activate it initially.
  • You must maintain activity on your plan. If you don’t make a call every 60 days (may differ by plan), they will de-activate your account and you’ll have to pay a fee to re-activate.
  • If you do sign up and decide to link your credit card, know that overages cost 2 cents per text, minute, or MB. MMS picture messages are at an additional cost (4 cents each). Roaming is available, but those overages are much more expensive. I would disable roaming completely on your phone to avoid such surcharges.

In case you were wondering, this is not a VoIP-only service like FreedomPop as normal calls use the Sprint voice network. However, free WiFi calling is an option so you can save your minutes. I know there are some RingPlus users out there as readers, so please share and discuss in the comments!

OpenSignal and Sensorly: Free, Crowdsourced Cellular Coverage and Data Speed Maps

sensorly_logoA common frugal tip is to lower your cellphone bill by switching to a cheaper provider. Many of the cheaper options use the T-Mobile and/or Sprint networks, which in general have fewer cellular towers and coverage density. But what should really matter is the quality of coverage where you actually need to use it. If T-Mobile, Sprint, or a T-Mobile/Sprint MVNO serves your needs adequately, why not switch and save hundreds of dollars per year?

OpenSignal and Sensorly both crowdsource their coverage maps directly from individual network users. You can drill down to your home, school, workplace, or commute route. It’s free to see their coverage maps online, but you should consider downloading their free smartphone apps so that you can also contribute anonymous information and improve the data quality for everyone. You can also see how often you connect to 4G data, as some MVNOs are cheaper if you stick with 3G data only. OpenSignal evens helps direct you if you want to walk towards a better signal.

From Sensorly (Android /iOS):

Precise and daily updated coverage & speed maps: with more than 300 wireless networks mapped across 50 countries available in the app, checking a carrier’s coverage & speed has never been easier for all 4G/LTE, 3G, CDMA, GSM and Wi-Fi technologies.

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From OpenSignal (Android / iOS)

Based on our community-generated data we are able to help keep you better connected by giving you a practical solution to the problems of slow mobile internet and dropped calls. Simply follow our signal compass to walk towards better phone signal or see our in-app coverage maps to work out which carrier is best for where you are, especially useful if you’re thinking about making a change. Our Wi-Fi maps help you to find local public-access wireless networks, helpful if you’re travelling abroad or just want to find a local cafe with free wifi.

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Got Annoying Monthly Subscriptions? Let Trim Cancel Them For You

trim_nologo2You’ve heard the financial media (and me) talk about the importance of automated savings. Things like recurring 401(k) contributions that don’t require flexing your willpower. Well, the other side of the coin is automated spending. Companies love love love it when you buy their stuff on auto-pilot.

A new start-up called Trim helps you identify your recurring charges automatically and cancel the unwanted ones for you, for free. That sounded like a great idea. You’ll have to provide them the login credentials to your credit card or bank account, or you can snail mail them your statements. (I’d say yes to credit card before bank account.) This is going to sound like a humblebrag, but I wanted to test the service out but don’t have any services that I want canceled. Instead, I had a quick e-mail exchange with Trim CEO, Thomas Smyth:

Me: Trim sounds very interesting. Instead of a phone call, do you mind me asking just how exactly do you cancel the service on behalf of customers? I can understand the algorithmic finding of recurring charges, but wouldn’t you need some detailed personal information in order to perform the cancellation? If so, what type of info would you ask people for?

Thomas Smyth, Trim CEO: Absolutely – it just depends on the biller. For some, like Hulu, we simply send a form email that has the user’s account info (email, name) and the most recent charge on the credit card. For others, like credit reports or gyms, we’ll ask the user for more info, like DOB and account number.

We never ask for confidential info like SSN or full credit card numbers — those are NOT safe to send via text message. Sometimes we do run into billers that require this info — for example, LifeLock. In those situations we can’t cancel it for you (sorry!) but we do send you detailed info on how to cancel it yourself.

So they will try, but it won’t work for every biller. In those cases, hopefully them pointing out your wasteful ways will nudge you towards action. The good news is that the NY Times profiled Trim recently and found it to work pretty well. They even broke down the recurring subscriptions with the highest overall cancellation rates by Trim. Here are just the top 10:

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You could read this as the most overlooked services, or the hardest to cancel, or a combination. People tended to want to get rid of their credit monitoring services, gym membership, and Gogo Air the most. The vast majority of people kept their Netflix and Spotify. The New York Times itself gets canceled 10% of the time it is found, so I suppose it is rather brave of them to even point this service out!

Amazingly, they don’t have an app! Trim has an online web interface, but the original service works simply over text messages.

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Free identification and cancellation services are nice. But canceling will always be harder than signing up, so I try to avoid them in the first place. Automate your savings, not your spending.

Related: SubscriptMe is an app that identifies recurring subscriptions by scanning your phone. There are also haggling services like Bill Fixers which charge a finder’s fee based on how much money they save on your behalf.

Best Mosquito Repellent Study 2015: DEET vs. Non-DEET

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The World Health Organization has declared Zika virus an international public health emergency. If you are concerned about exposure to mosquitos due to Zika, West Nile, Dengue, or other diseases, read this NPR article about a 2015 Journal of Insect Science study that tested various commercially-available mosquito repellents in a sealed chamber with a treated hand.

We spend a decent amount of time outdoors and are regularly bit by mosquitos, so we have also been experimenting with various bug sprays in the last few years (especially for kids). I was pleased that our anecdotal results very closely matched those found by this study. First, here are the numbers from the scientific study:

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Takeaways:

Don’t buy by brand, look for the active ingredient. For example, the Cutter brand has repellents with many different active ingredients. Some of them hardly work at all (“Cutter natural insect repellent”) while others work great (“Cutter lemon eucalyptus insect repellent”).

DEET works well, but you should use the lowest concentration possible. In the first hour or so, the chart above shows that mosquitos were repelled the same amount by 7% DEET and 98% DEET. Even after 4 hours, the 98% DEET was only a little bit more helpful. Why expose yourself to that much extra chemicals if you don’t have to? Sleeping overnight in the rainforest is not the same as a morning trip to the zoo! Just reapply if you need to.

For kids and infants older than 2 months, these Cutter Family DEET wipes have the relatively low 7% concentration but also allow careful application (you aren’t inhaling DEET or spraying into eyes or on little hands which end up in mouths). The single serving packages are easy to carry. (Note that on Amazon it is under three bucks as an Add-on with Amazon Prime.) While effective and supposedly rather safe, I simply don’t like the smell of DEET products, so we try to limit our use.

Oil of lemon eucalyptus works just as well as DEET. Look at those turquoise chart bars above. This stuff is just as good in the first hour, and actually better than most DEET sprays after 4 hours. Lemon eucalyptus oil is the only plant-based repellent recommended by the CDC. However, in most products it is synthesized (re-created in a lab, not squeezed from a plant). Still, we have found it to work quite well. It does have a strong lemony-herbal scent, but I actually don’t mind it since it smells natural. The only problem is that officially it is not recommended for children under 3. However, I couldn’t find a solid reason why, other than either (1) possible skin irritation or (2) it simply hasn’t been tested on children under 3.

Our adult and older-kid repellent of choice is the Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus insect repellent.

Try some others for yourself.. Just like how some mosquitos like certain people more than others, I believe different mosquitos hate different repellents. Our last “favorite” mosquito repellent is the Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard with IR3535 (cheaper here for some reason). It is does not appear to be the same Avon tested by the study above, which lists an active ingredient of citronella oil. While we found this stuff not as effective as the two listed above, it does repel bugs for the first hour or so. Label says it is for children 6 months and up.

This last one is our “stealth 2-in-1” bug lotion + SPF 30 sunscreen, with no chemical or herbal smell. This white lotion goes on just like a high-quality sunscreen with a light fragrance.

(The mosquito repellents that depend on “organic, essential oils” like rosemary or lemongrass will work a little initially, but literally become useless within 30 minutes. Look at the full study results at the 30 minute interval. I wish they worked too… maybe if I was just going to check the mailbox.)

I know this isn’t especially financially-related, but I wanted to share our experiences. Hopefully you won’t waste money on stuff that doesn’t work.

Free SAT Test Prep from Khan Academy

khan_satWhile catching up on some reading, it was refreshing to see Bill Gates offer a more positive spin with his Top 6 Good-News Stories of 2015. One of them was that the College Board announced free, high-quality SAT practice at Khan Academy.

This past June, the company that created the SAT helped the Khan Academy launch a free online learning portal for any student who wants help getting ready for the SAT or PSAT. Check out the site for yourself. If you’re like me, you’ll look at these interactive tools and video lessons and wish they had been around when you were in high school. I’m very excited about this development because of what it means for kids who can’t afford expensive test-prep classes and tutors.

The interactive software offers both short diagnostic quizzes and full exams, along with feedback and interactive tutorials to make improvements. Apparently, the SAT is being revamped again in March 2016 and reverting back to the older 1600 point scale + optional essay. Ah, fun times.

Sick in the Head by Judd Apatow: Comedians and Financial Freedom

apatow_book160I’ve never really identified with comedians. I’m not funny, and I always avoid large crowds. But after reading the fascinating notes at The Waiter’s Pad, I had to read the new book Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, This is 40, Freaks and Geeks). It is not an autobiography, but instead a collection of intimate conversations with famous comedians including Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, Roseanne Barr, Louis C.K., Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, Seth Rogen, and Lena Dunham.

Comedians are virtually required to be nonconformist and view the world differently than everyone else. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be funny. Those are also important traits to have for a person who want to be financially independent, at least before the Social Security checks start arriving. I found myself relating to their stories on many different levels. Here are some selected quotes and my takeaways from this book.

Find people who encourage your voice and originality. Find your tribe. Judd Apatow started working at comedy clubs when he was 15 and spent several years as a stand-up comic before becoming a well-known director and producer. He knew he was different, and so he started interviewing his idols for his high school radio station. After high school, he moved to the LA comedy scene and became roommates with people like Adam Sandler. I often see “tribe” defined as “followers” or “hardcore fans”, but I think it is enough to find people with similar interests and passions.

For example, most people will never really consider financial freedom. Most people just want to be like everyone else, except maybe a bit richer. That or hit the lottery. The reality is that you have to be different and embrace it. The good news is the internet allows you to find people who are different just like you, or at least close enough that you can learn an enormous amount.

Hard work with focus. To be successful at anything, you need a combination of hard work, talent, and the ability to maintain the proper focus.

In the book, multiple comedians use Jerry Seinfeld as an example of the rare combination of very talented and very hard-working. Most comedians try to get by with only one or the other. As shown in an early 1983 interview, he also showed his high standards for where to point his energy.

Judd: And what kind of vehicles are you looking for?

Jerry: Quality. That’s my only real consideration. It could be anything, as long as the people are trying to do something good. I don’t want to do a piece of junk. I’m not starving, you know.

This was before the TV show Seinfeld, which started in 1989, so he wasn’t rich or famous yet. Yet he was already using the word quality. In a later interview, he reveals that the reason he ended the show was also quality. He couldn’t keep on going without compromising the quality, so he ended it.

In a 1984 interview, Garry Shandling laid out every single thing he intended to do the rest of his career. Looking back today, Apatow realized that Garry Shandling went on to accomplish everything he said he would. Apatow:

The lesson here, for me, was that you have to have a dream before you can execute it. That the people who succeed are the ones who think through what the next stages of their careers might be, and then work incredibly hard, day after day, to attain their goals. They don’t just flop around like fish. They have a vision, and they work their asses off to make it a reality.

Jay Leno is another example of a comedian known as a hard worker. It’s hard to appreciate how difficult it is to produce good material. Here I will paraphrase Leno from a 1984 interview:

To find the really good jokes, you have to go somewhere awful and if they laugh there, then they will laugh when you use them on Dave Letterman. You just get better the more you do. Throw out what doesn’t work, and keep refining what does work.

Motivation, keeping the spark, and being true to yourself. In a 2014 interview with Jerry Seinfeld, they landed on the topic of motivation.

Judd Apatow: “I wanted to be a comedian and I wanted to work from a very young age because I was afraid of being broke.”

Jerry Seinfeld on his motivation: “To never have to do anything else. I learned very young in this business that you bust your ass or you get thrown out of the kingdom. My motivation was not wanting to leave the kingdom. Plus, I just love the life of it. I love my independence and the joy of hearing laughs and making jokes. It’s as simple as that.”

Again, paraphrasing Jay Leno:

It’s a job, but you should have fun doing it. If you can’t get up for it, then get out of the business. It [Comedy] doesn’t get boring for me. I really like it.

From a 2013 interview with Eddie Vedder:

I just try to always remember where that initial spark came from. It’s like a pilot light, and you try to make sure it doesn’t go out.

Even Judd Apatow recently went back and started doing stand-up just for fun. He doesn’t have to. He doesn’t do it for money, he doesn’t do it with a career goal, he just does it because he wants to. He wants to get good at something that he loves, something that he was only okay at before. He calls it “unfinished business”.

Here’s an excerpt from a 2015 interview with Jimmy Fallon about the early stages of his show:

We just went in knowing that we might get canceled. And if you’re going down, you have to go down going what you like doing and what’s fun for you, because I don’t ever want to do something painful and then have everyone go, “Hey, that works. Keep doing that painful thing for years.”

How many of us went down exactly down that route, or at least could have? “I’m reasonably good at this, even though I don’t like it much, but it pays the bills so I guess I’ll have to do it forever…”

Low overhead. Here’s Sarah Silverman (2014):

I’ve always kept my overhead low so I could do whatever I want. I think of myself as lazy with spurts of getting a lot done. I find myself rooting against things sometimes because I get excited at the thought of a clean slate. I also really like sleeping. My friends make fun of me because, you know, I love hanging out but I always hit a point in the night where I just want to get home and sleep. I have a very active dream life and I have to be there a lot.

This last bit wasn’t in the book, but Jay Leno never spent any of the paychecks he received from hosting The Tonight Show. He only spent the money from his other jobs – stand-up comedy, paid personal appearances, and endorsement deals. His philosophy was Bank one paycheck, Spend one paycheck. From USA Today:

I had two jobs as a kid, one at a fast-food restaurant and one at a Ford dealership. And I’d put the money from one job in one pocket and spend it. And the other paycheck I’d save. I do that now. I have always banked my Tonight Show money and lived off the stand-up. I have one credit card, no mortgage, and I don’t lease.

Flexible Spending Account Reminder: Use It Or Lose It!

rxbottleHere’s my annual reminder to use up your Healthcare Flexible Spending Accounts before the end of the year. Here are 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 2014 funds, but it may only apply to claims and not late purchases. Check with your employer.
  • Alternatively, employers can allow participants to carry over up to $500 in unused FSA funds into next year. Check with your employer.

Need ideas? If you didn’t exhaust your funds with insurance copays or deductibles, check out these well-organized lists:

As of January 1, 2011, items such as cough medicines, pain relievers, acid controllers, and diaper rash ointment now require a prescription and a manually-submitted claim for reimbursement. These FSA items are still available over-the-counter without a prescription:

  • Eye care (contact lenses, solution, drops)
  • First aid supplies (bandages, gauze, tape) for emergency kits
  • Wheelchairs, walkers, & canes
  • Family planning products (birth control, pregnancy tests)
  • Home testing aids (blood pressure, diabetes, thermometers)

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.