Airbnb vs. Hotels Price Comparison Chart

airbnbMary Meeker is a partner at famous venture capitalist firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Many people follow her annual presentation about internet trends, and you can view the entire 294 slide deck here.

It’s a lot of information, but there are some interesting links that she makes that relate to personal finance. For example, you can start with the observation that housing costs are an increasing portion of household spending:

Next, you might notice that new houses are getting bigger while the number of people living in them are actually shrinking:

Finally, the success of Airbnb shows that there is a ready supply of people willing to rent out part of their property to help pay for the mortgage. The fact that it’s often cheaper than hotels helps the demand:

Airbnb can estimate your income as a host if renting out a private room, in-law unit, or entire house. You can share a spare room in your apartment or do a pseudo-“home swap” by renting out your whole home the next time you’re out of town. You can open your space for one day or all year.

I like how Airbnb helps connect people displaced by natural disaster and those with open rooms. Right now, they are helping to shelter people affected by the volcanic eruptions in Hawaii.

We stayed at Airbnb’s in Europe and it was great for a family with little kids. We could cook simple meals in the kitchen and eat around a real dining table. You felt more like a local family. If you’ve never stayed at an Airbnb, you can get $40 in travel credit towards your first rental with my referral link. I believe I will get $20 of credit after your first booking. Thanks if you use it.

Before booking, I would definitely read review and look for a “Superhost” if possible. Here is a NY Times article with Airbnb tips from a former Superhost.

Republic Wireless Review: New Phone + 3 Months Service $89 or Free SIM + Free 1st Month

rw2018freesimUpdated 2018. Republic Wireless is a T-Mobile MVNO that reduces costs by using WiFi for calls and texts whenever possible. They have settled into the simple pricing structure below, with no contracts.

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The best value plans allow a single user to pay $20/month for unlimited talk/text/1 GB LTE and $25/month for unlimited talk/text/2 GB LTE. The nice thing about these pay-for-what-you-use plans is that you save money on the months where you use very little data, as opposed to always buying the plan where you know you won’t pay for overages.

Buy new phone, get 3 free months of service (phones start at $89). Get 3 free months of service if you buy a new phone and activate a new line. This is with the Unlimited Talk/Text + 1 GB Data plan, so that’s $20 x 3 = $60 value for free. New phones start at only $89 for the Alcatel A30 Android phone. Moto E is $129.

Bring your own phone + Free SIM card + 1 free month of service. Right now, they are offering a Free SIM card + Free Shipping + Free 1st Month of Service. This is with the Unlimited Talk/Text + 1 GB Data plan ($20 value). If you use more data, you pay the difference. Taxes and telecom fees are not included. The idea is that you can swap out the SIM card in your phone and try them out with no obligation. You must activate by 6/30/18.

Phone options. You can either buy a phone from them or bring your GSM unlocked phone and use their SIM card. There are still no Apple phones on the list. Below is a partial list of eligible phones. The best thing to do is use their phone checker.

  • Google Pixel
  • Google Pixel XL
  • Google Pixel 2
  • Google Pixel 2 XL
  • Samsung Galaxy S8
  • Samsung Galaxy S9
  • Samsung Galaxy J7
  • Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge
  • Samsung Galaxy S7
  • Samsung Galaxy J3
  • Samsung Galaxy S6
  • Nexus 6P by Huawei
  • Nexus 6 by Motorola
  • Nexus 5X by LG
  • Moto X Pure Edition
  • Moto X4
  • Moto G5S Plus
  • Moto G5 Plus
  • Moto E4
  • Moto E4 Plus
  • Moto G4
  • Moto G4 Plus
  • Moto G4 Play
  • Moto Z
  • Moto Z Play

Bottom line. Republic Wireless now allows you to bring your own unlocked GSM phone for use on WiFi and T-Mobile LTE networks. Right now, they are offering a free SIM + free month of service to try them out for free. Apple phones are not eligible. The cost is straightforward: $15 for unlimited talk/text and $5 per GB of data used, making it best for modest data users.

If you are willing to buy several months of service at once (or have an Apple phone), also check out Mint Mobile (formerly MintSIM).

Homeowner’s Insurance: How Much Can You Save By Comparison Shopping?

In an ideal world, you would always comparison shop every product or service. But in the real world, that takes time and effort. Is is worth the bother? To estimate the potential benefit of shopping around, Priceonomics analyzed homeowner’s insurance premiums across 12 states (for a similar level of coverage).

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They ranked each state by taking the difference between quotes in the 25th and 75th percentiles.

We found that the difference between the premiums was substantial, and shopping around can lead to dramatic changes in pricing. Of all the states we looked at, Texas had the biggest discrepancy in prices — there was a $2,182 range in insurance prices between a 25th and 75th percentile quote. Even at the low end, in New Hampshire the price ranges between quotes at these percentiles was $363 per year.

The article does a deeper analysis for California and Texas:

It’s night and day between California and Texas. Texas is one of the most expensive states to get home insurance in the country, owing partly to the frequency of catastrophic weather events and partly due to higher insurer expenses. Not only does zip code 78521 in Brownsville have a 25th percentile of premium greater than San Francisco’s 75th percentile, but it’s 75th percentile is more than double that!

Basically, you should shop around everywhere as you could save hundreds per year at a minimum. But you should really shop around in Texas. You know, unless you don’t want to save potentially $2,000 a year.

Frequent Flier Miles: Which Airlines Are Easiest To Redeem Economy Awards?

Cashing in your frequent flier miles for a free flight can be hit or miss, especially around a holiday. Which airlines are the most generous with making seats available? Each year, IdeaWorks tries to run a fair comparison of all the major airlines to keep them honest. This WSJ article discusses the results:

During March, IdeaWorks made more than 7,000 trip searches among 25 airlines, looking for two seats at the basic “saver” award level—25,000 miles for a domestic U.S. round-trip, for example—on 14 specific travel dates June through October. Each airline’s 10 busiest long routes and 10 busiest medium-length routes, both domestic and international, are queried to get the fullest picture of award availability.

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Most improved goes to American, which admitted that they significantly increased their overall seat availability, especially to Hawaii and Europe. Worst decline goes to Alaska, which says it didn’t change the amount of seats released, so perhaps there is simply more competition and usage of the program. Note that the survey focuses on economy tickets (not business or first class).

Southwest and JetBlue remain on top at close to 100% availability, but that is a bit misleading since both of their points are revenue-linked with no blackout dates. For example, 25,000 Southwest points will buy you basically any “Wanna Get Away” ticket that costs up to about $340. So the results are really just saying that Southwest’s busiest routes almost always have a flight that costs under ~$340. Southwest doesn’t fly to Europe at all, but they do have plans for Hawaii soon (which I look forward to, but will probably hurt their numbers).

Tipping Chart: Low vs. Average vs. High Tipper Survey

Tipping. Everyone’s got an opinion. The thing I hate most about tipping is the feeling of “I’m not doing this right”. To better understand it, I read a book about tipping by a veteran waiter. There are now several “tipping guides”, but I like Everything You Don’t Know About Tipping via Abnormal Returns because the author has a similar perspective. He’s not ranting about how tips should be abolished or how we should tip every person we meet 30%. He just wants to understand expectations and avoid the “dreaded Ambiguous Tipping Situation”. Am I under-tipping? Am I over-tipping? Should I tip at all? Here are the results:

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I put on my Weird But Earnest Guy Doing a Survey About Something hat and hit the streets, interviewing 123 people working in New York jobs that involve tipping. My interviews included waiters, bartenders, baristas, manicurists, barbers, busboys, bellmen, valets, doormen, cab drivers, restaurant delivery people, and even some people who don’t get tipped but I’m not sure why, like acupuncturists and dental hygienists.

Later in the post, the author explores how being a low, average, or high tipper means for your budget in terms of dollars. Keep in mind that the numbers are for New York City.

tipwhat2

I’m probably in the “low spender” range, as my little-kid lifestyle doesn’t include frequent visits to establishments that involve tipping. On the other hand, I have discovered the joys of tipping a skycap at the airport and seeing 3 car seats and multiple suitcases disappear at the curb. For the most part, I think that tipping on the “expected” level shouldn’t break your budget. These are mostly optional services; It’s not like you have to tip the grocery store cashier, the gas pump, or your landlord.

For me, tipping goes in the bucket of “I would change if I was omnipotent, but in reality I’m going to waste my life energy on it.” I simply aim to keep everyone happy (or at least satisfied) and move on with my day. This guide may not be perfect (there’s always someone with a gripe) but it helps.

Georgia Tech Online Master’s Degree Update: Computer Science $7,000, Data Analytics $10,000

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Maybe I’m foolish, but I remain hopeful about the potential of software leading to more affordable, accessible education. In 2014, Georgia Tech launched an Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) with the goal of offering an accredited, top-tier education at a surprising price of $7,000. The program has been regularly ranked in the Top 10 by U.S. News & World Report, and the traditional residential program costs $28,000 two years of tuition (out-of-state, not including housing).

OMSCS offers the same lectures from the same professors, the same homework assignments, and the same exams. A few other top universities have online versions of their masters programs, but they charge the same tuition as in-person ($40,000+). The diploma is exactly the same as those of on-campus graduates, with no special “online” designation.

Would there be enough interest from qualified candidates? Would it remain financially viable? Would the online program cannibalize from the traditional on-campus program? Would employers discriminate if they found out that this was an online degree? Would the careers prospects be different due to the lack of in-person networking opportunities?

EducationNext recently published an article An Elite Grad-School Degree Goes Online addresses some of these questions. InsiderEd has a an article Online, Cheap — and Elite that summarizes the findings.

Analyzing the first six cohorts of the online program, from spring 2014 to fall 2016, the report found that the typical applicant to the online program was a 34-year-old midcareer American, while the typical applicant to the in-person degree was a 24-year-old recent graduate from India.

Of the 18,000 students who applied to the in-person and online degrees, less than 0.2 percent applied to both, the report said.

Students admitted to the online program typically had slightly lower academic credentials than those admitted to the in-person program, but they performed slightly better in their identical and blind-marked final assessments — a finding the study hailed as “the first rigorous evidence that we know of showing that an online degree program can increase educational attainment.”

Overall, the program has been a success in terms of expanding access to high-quality computer science education. Total enrollment is now over 6,000 students. The questions about career effects will be addressed in future studies.

In 2017, Georgia Tech announced a new Online Masters Degree in Analytics for under $10,000. This is also a nationally-ranked Top 10 program where the traditional in-person tuition ranges from $36,000 for in-state students to $49,000 for out of state. The data analytics program is an interdisciplinary collaboration between the College of Engineering, College of Computing and the Scheller College of Business.

Tip: Buying Amazon Gift Certificates with an American Express Prepaid Rewards Card

amexprepaidMany promotions will offer a “$50 cash card” sent to you in the mail. I recently received such a $50 American Express Prepaid Rewards card that looks exactly like the image shown in the top-right corner. I am horrible with gift cards and coupons (basically anything to do with shopping in general), so I prefer to consolidate them and buy Amazon gift certificate codes. We buy certain food items via Subscribe and Save, and that eats through the balance over time.

Usually, I can just take a $50 prepaid card and buy a $50 Amazon gift code with it, but this time the purchase was declined. I called up the American Express customer service number on the back of the card, and they told me that Amazon put a $1 hold on the card and that I could only charge $49 on it at Amazon. What about the $1 balance? The CSR told me to spend it at a local store. (If you do this, ask for a split tender transaction from the cashier.)

$1 balance hold solution. However, I figured that Amazon just puts a $1 temporary hold on any new credit card on file, not on every purchase, and I was right. I waited for the $1 hold to expire after a day or so, and then I was able to buy another $1 Amazon gift code with the same card, finally zeroing out the balance. (You can buy an Amazon gift card for any amount of at least $1 and you can reload your Amazon balance for any amount 50 cents and above. Look for the “Enter Amount” blank form.) Here’s a screenshot below.

amexprepaid1

Anyhow, I’m sending this out into the search engine void in case it helps someone else out.

Spending More Money Is Easy. Finding “Enough” Is Hard

Starwood Hotels sent me an e-mail with the subject “Family Traditions at St. Regis with Nacho Figueras”. I had no idea who Mr. Figueras was, but you mention “family traditions” and I’m going to click on that like a sucker. It turned out to be a 2-minute YouTube video for a fancy hotel in Aspen, Colorado. Embedded below:

Don’t get me wrong. I have my chosen luxuries, and some of them probably seem stupid and overpriced to others. (I did recently downgrade from Charmin Ultra to Costco toilet paper though. Kids don’t appreciate the good stuff…)

My observation is that there is always a “nicer” version of everything. You can add a zero to the end of any price tag. A meal can cost $5 or $50 or $500. A purse can cost $30, $300, or $3,000. A car can cost $10,000, $100k, or $1 million. I looked it up and found that the St. Regis Aspen runs $1,500-$3,000 a night during the ski season! Likewise, I can have a ski day followed by a board game and s’mores for 1/10th of the cost.

This is why achieving financial freedom is not only about earning more money (although that is certainly important). There are lots of people with high incomes that will work forever as well. You are also challenged with finding a level of spending where you stop look for nicer things. You need to find balance, peace, enough. Otherwise, you will never take control of your time because you’ll stay on that treadmill, going for that something “better” that is just out of reach.

(In case you’re wondering, a standard room at the St. Regis Aspen can be had for 30,000 Starpoints per night.)

Dinnertime: Which Meals Offers The Most Nutrition Per Dollar?

wellio1

Here’s another interesting Priceonomics study, this time analyzing the cost and nutritional content of common American meals.

For each meal, we then derived a health score based on domain experts and the the nutrient-rich foods index (NRF9.3), which encapsulates a food’s nutritional density (i.e., the extent to which it provides a balance of essential nutrients like protein, fiber, and vitamins).

As you might expect, on average the more nutrition, the more it costs. A corn dog is cheap but unhealthy. A chicken salad costs more, but is also healthier. However, there were outliers in the nutrition per dollar metric, as shown in the chart above.

Meals above the line, like Falafel and Chinese Chicken Salad, are healthier than one would predict given their cost. Nutritionally speaking, they’re bargains: you get more nutrients per dollar when you choose these options. Conversely, meals below the line, like Cheeseburgers and Shrimp & Grits, have lower health scores than expected based on cost; they’re nutritional rip-offs.

This analysis was done for a new food prep company called Wellio. An important missing factor is the time and energy needed to prepare these meals. Even if a kale salad is a good nutritional value, I’m less likely to make it if it takes a lot of effort to prep and the ingredients will spoil within a couple days.

Previous related posts:

Keep Your Hilton Honors Points From Expiring with a $1 Amazon Gift Code

hiltonhonors0My relative lack of travel these days means that I am constantly keeping miles and points from expiring. Here’s the official policy of Hilton Honors point expiration:

Hilton Honors Points do not expire as long as Members remain active in the program. To keep an account active, Members can stay at one of Hilton’s hotels, or earn or redeem Hilton Honors Points within 12 months. [For Hilton Honors credit card holders, Hilton Honors Points will not expire as long as the Member is a cardholder in good standing.]

You need to earn or spend Hilton points every 12 months, which is on the short side. My usual strategy is to use Hilton Honors Dining to earn a few points at my neighborhood burger joint, but I was running short on time. I found that you can redeem Hilton points at Amazon through their Shop with Points program. The redemption ratio is 500 Hilton Honors points = $1 on Amazon.

az_hilton

First, link your Hilton Honors account to Amazon. The easiest way to just spend $1 without waste is to buy a $1 Amazon gift certificate. Checkout and choose to pay with Hilton Points. You can redeem the gift code into your account and spend it later.

The activity should show up in your Hilton.com account the same day as the purchase:

az_hilton2

Bottom line. If you have Hilton points expiring soon, you can redeem 500 Hilton points for a $1 Amazon gift code and create qualifying activity that posts the same day. If you are generous with the valuations, 500 Hilton points could be worth about $2.50 to $3 in room rates. Minus the $1 value from Amazon, and you might consider this a $2 net cost. However, if you have a lot of points expiring and/or limited time, this option can be worth it.

PSA: Spend Your Toys R Us & Babies R Us Gift Cards and Rewards Dollars

tru0Well, it’s official, Toys R Us (and Babies R Us) has announced that it will close all of its 700+ US stores by the end of the year, while other reports have the business running out of cash by May. They stated that they “expect” to accept gift cards and rewards dollars for another 30 days. However, I would spend any gift cards or store credit as soon as possible. We went over the weekend to do just that, and most of the “commodity” items like food, formula, and diapers were already starting to sell out. According to AOL, about 17.7 million in Borders gift cards were left outstanding when they shut down in 2011.

I’ve been reading a lot of nostalgic stories about Toys R Us, but my wife and I both commented that we hardly ever went into Toys R Us when we were kids. Even counting my visit this weekend, I’m pretty sure I’ve been inside one less than 10 times in my life. Sure, we saw the commercials on TV, but we never visited the physical stores. I guess I was never a “Toys R Us kid”.

NYT Financial Tuneup Day 5: Your Credit Reports

nyt_ftuDay 5 of the NY Times 7-Day Financial Tuneup is about your credit reports. (Yes, I’ve been taking this at my own pace. Sign up for your own personalized tune-up here.) This one felt a bit basic, so I also recommended a bunch of additional sites that are hopefully also helpful. Let’s start with a summary of what the NYT says:

  1. Understand what your credit report means. Your credit report includes data on your credit card payment history, mortgages, student debt, new loan applications, and bankruptcies.
  2. Get a copy of your credit report. AnnualCreditReport.com is the official government-mandated site. You can get one of each of the three major bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) once every 12 months, so one tactic is to stagger them every 4 months.
  3. Check for errors. You can dispute errors using sample letters from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Instructions are included for disputes with both the credit bureau and the lender.
  4. Improve your habits, if needed. Credit repair 101… Pay your bills on time. Keep card balances well below your credit limit.
    Hold off on opening new accounts for a while.
  5. Freeze your credit. The NYT says that it is “generally a good idea” to freeze your credit. You will have you unfreeze your credit next time you apply for a credit card, try to rent an apartment, apply for a mortgage or do anything else where a company may need your credit report. You may need to spend $5 to $10 each time as well.

More free consumer data reports. I would also add my Big List of Free Consumer Reports, Part 1 and Part 2 if you want a complete picture including things like rental history or insurance reports.

My take on credit freezes. Freezing your credit may be a reasonable step if you rarely do anything that would require a thaw. However, between my wife and I, we probably get 10 credit pulls a year. (Don’t worry, zero credit card debt, zero car loan, zero mortgage debt. Credit score is still good too.) Every time I apply for a new credit card or join a new credit union, I might would have to thaw and then re-freeze the bureau, and that’s if I already know ahead of time which one of the three I need to thaw. That adds up to both a lot of time and money.

I would add a free credit monitoring service instead. A timely example – just yesterday on March 5th I decided to apply for a new credit union membership at Sharonview Federal Credit Union. Some preliminary research indicated that they would probably pull a credit report (probably TransUnion), but I wasn’t sure. After making the application, I was notified right away by multiple free credit monitoring services that it was TransUnion (and only them). I’m writing this post on March 6th. If a credit freeze had blocked their check, I would have to manually ask them to check again, which would have delayed my application on a limited-time offer.

Here’s a screenshot of my free alert from CreditSesame.com:

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Here’s a screenshot of my free alert from CreditKarma.com:

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I think you’ll agree that the ability to receive a free alert within a day is a lot better than checking in at most once every 4 months. CreditSesame tracks TransUnion, and CreditKarma tracks both TransUnion and Equifax. There are other options and most are advertising-supported, so you’ll see ads for mortgages and credit cards on the site. There may also be some “premium” features they try to upsell you, but I’ve never had to pay a cent.

Financial Tuneup Recap (still in progress)