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.

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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?

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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.

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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:

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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)

NYT Financial Tuneup Day 4: Retirement

nyt_ftuDay 4 of the NY Times 7-Day Financial Tuneup is about retirement. (Sign up for your own personalized tune-up here.) This assumes you are eligible for a 401(k) or similar retirement plan. The key action point is bumping up your retirement contribution rate by 1% and perhaps adjusting your asset allocation if necessary. Here’s a simple chart showing you why:

nyt_tuneup_ret1

If you’re making $50,000 annually and contributing 5 percent of your salary to your retirement account, assuming an annual return of 6 percent and a 3 percent annual salary increase, in 25 years, you will have about $198,000 in your retirement account. If you start to increase that percentage by 1 percentage point annually however, you will have over $550,000 in that same account in 25 years. By increasing the amount you save by 1 percentage point each year, you’ll save an extra $354,940 for retirement.

Increase Your Savings

  • Log into your retirement savings account. (Baby steps…)
  • Increase the amount of money taken out of your paycheck by 1 percentage point annually. Also check to see if you are taking full advantage of any company match.
  • Make it automatic. If you have the option, set it to automatically escalate in the future.

Rebalance Your Account

  • Log into your retirement savings account.
  • Determine how you should rebalance your account. What is your target asset allocation? Here’s mine but it’s probably more complicated than most people need. Consider a target-date fund, especially if it is a low-cost, passive version. Fidelity, Vanguard, and Schwab all have solid versions. I put my own mom in the Vanguard one.
  • Make it automatic. If you have the option, set it to automatically escalate in the future. My provider calls it “Auto-Increase”.
  • Rebalance your account. Basically, make sure your portfolio is still what you want it to be, as it may have shifted over time. You only need to do this once or twice a year, or you can set “bands” to rebalance when things get too out of whack.

Action, action, action. This move won’t make you save enough for retirement by itself, but it’s something tangible. If you are really going for financial freedom, you should use this as a platform to do even more. We have our 401k savings rate already set at 60% (max allowed by one provider) since we are working part-time (“semi-retired” sounds better!) with a lower income but still want get as close to the annual 401k limits as possible.

Financial Tuneup Recap (still in progress)

NYT Financial Tuneup Day 2: Trim Your Budget

nyt_ftuDay 2 of my NY Times 7-Day Financial Tuneup is called Trim Your Budget. The key here is to take action, not just do research and then put it off again. (If you just want to daydream, Day 1 was Optimize Your Thinking.) Again, the NYT doesn’t have direct links, but anyone with a (free) NYT account can get their own personalized list of tasks.

Reviewing your monthly budget annually is a simple way to keep your spending in check. Don’t worry, we’re not going to ask you to cut anything you love, just to trim your spending in places you may not even notice. After all, if you benefit from your weekly yoga class or truly enjoy your restaurant night, have at it. Just be honest with yourself about the services that you truly use and enjoy. In comparison, if you have a languishing gym membership you never use, it may be time to cut that $50-a-month membership fee.

Round 1: Find an Easy Item to Cut

  1. Gather your credit card and checking account statements from the last month.
  2. List your spending. “…list any expense from the last month that occurs routinely: daily, weekly, monthly. From the cup of coffee you buy every morning, to your weekly manicure, to your monthly gym membership or magazine subscription.”
  3. Find an easy place to trim. “…most commonly-cut expenses are subscriptions to gyms, credit bureaus, newspapers and audio services.”

Here is rundown of recurring expenses with some commentary.

  • Mortgage – thankfully paid off a few years ago.
  • Property tax – yes, but not really negotiable. I suppose I could contest the assessed value of my house, but it seems pretty reasonable.
  • Car loan – none. My measure of car affordability is whether I can pay for it with cash. I’ve paid cash on every car, from $2,000 on up to 20x that.
  • Student loan – thankfully paid off that $30,000 a while ago.
  • Insurance – feels like we have so much insurance, but they have high deductibles to protect against catastrophic events. Car, homeowners, life, long-term disability, and umbrella insurance.
  • Food/grocery/take-out/restaurants – I’m sure we could trim something, but not in a clear-cut way. No coffee shop habit.
  • TV/internet – yes, this is a target for trimming.
  • Cellular phone – Still at $6 a month with Sprint for two lines.
  • Gym – yes, just barely worth the cost.
  • Gas
  • Medical
  • Clothing, gifts, etc – yes, again I’m sure we could trim something but we are okay with it overall.
  • Charitable giving – yes, but already thoughtfully budgeted for.
  • Credit monitoring, Netflix, magazines, music streaming, etc. – I pay for Amazon Prime and feel it is worth the money. No to Netflix, Spotify, HBO, Lifelock, paid credit monitoring, etc. A few magazines at $5 or less per year.

Round 2: Lower Your Bills

  1. Pick a bill to start with
  2. Find and review your latest bill
  3. Call your service provider
  4. Ask for a reduction in your bill

The hard part: Pick up the phone and call my cable provider. I’ve done it before, but it’s never fun. This tune-up did motivate me to do it, so I suppose that’s something. I called my cable provider and after 26 minutes, I was only able to squeeze about $5 a month in concessions by having them re-arrange my bill around to a “new plan” from my “old plan”. Even that required me to get past the initial lie that my “old plan” was “already a great deal”. ($60 a year in savings is not bad for 30 minutes of time, I suppose.)

I did not go all the way to setting a cancel date, as I wanted to avoid interruption in internet service. If you are ready to cancel, see Tips on Reducing Cable and Phone Bills From Ethically Ambiguous Experts.

In the end, I called up the duopoly DSL provider to get the new customer promotion for TV and internet. I confirmed that their was no credit check required. If it all works out, switching should save me around $50 a month ($600 a year). Switching back and forth isn’t fun, but it does save money!

Financial Tuneup Recap (still in progress)

Study: Working Longer vs. Saving More

savebuttonbankHere’s a working paper titled The Power of Working Longer by Gila Bronshtein, Jason Scott, John B. Shoven, Sita N. Slavov which compares the effect of working longer (delaying your retirement date) and increasing your savings rate while working.

The basic result is that delaying retirement by 3-6 months has the same impact on the retirement standard of living as saving an additional one-percentage point of labor earnings for 30 years. The relative power of saving more is even lower if the decision to increase saving is made later in the work life. For instance, increasing retirement saving by one percentage point ten years before retirement has the same impact on the sustainable retirement standard of living as working a single month longer.

Update: I read the full paper and here’s my view. For most households earning less than $100,000 a year with average savings rates, Social Security changes matter more than returns on investment portfolio. What really matters is delaying Social Security and getting the resulting higher monthly income for life. For most people, that’s the same as working longer as they can’t just wait around without a paycheck.

If you are close to retirement, chances are that working longer is the best practical solution to improving your financial outlook. Working longer means your portfolio grows a bit more hopefully, your Social Security check gets bigger, and your retirement length gets shorter (annuities pay more).

However, if you are young, it is quite easy to tell yourself today that you’ll simply work a bit longer far in the future. When the time comes, you may not be given the option of working longer either due to job loss or disability. If you take this too far, you could just tell yourself that you’ll simply work until you die and you won’t have to save anything at all.

You can pay $5 for the full paper, or you may be able to get free access if you have a .edu or .gov e-mail address.

NYT 7-Day Financial Tuneup: Free Customized Advice

nyt_ftuThe New York Times has a free 7-Day Financial Tuneup that asks you a few quick questions and then sends you a series of (somewhat) customized e-mails containing financial advice. I did the survey twice with different answers to reveal more possibilities, telling it that I had credit card, mortgage, and student loan debt. Here’s what came with my introductory e-mail:

Thanks for signing up for The 7-Day Financial Tuneup. Based on what you told us, we selected the seven tasks most relevant to your financial situation that we recommend you complete this week to optimize your individual financial situation. We will send you an email every day with a task that you can complete immediately, or choose to leave until later in the week when you have more time. These tasks will help you take important steps to educate yourself, trim your spending and determine your financial priorities. Check your inbox tomorrow for the first day’s task.

I haven’t gotten any e-mails yet, but here’s what I have to look forward to:

  • Day 1. Optimize Your Thinking. Prepare for the week ahead by taking a few moments to figure out how you think about money. (Good news: There are no wrong answers.)
  • Day 2. Trim Your Budget. Cut costs on things you don’t use, and lower your spending on the essentials.
  • Day 3. Find the Best Credit Card for You. Make sure you have a credit card that matches your needs.
  • Day 4. Plan for Your Retirement. Take a moment to save for retirement, your future self will thank you.
  • Day 5. Understand Your Credit. Learn how to read your credit score and figure out how to make it better (if you need to.)
  • Day 6. Save on Health Care Costs. Make sense of your flexible spending plans and figure out the right amount to set aside tax-free.
  • Day 7. Student Loans. Organize your existing loans and set a reasonable plan to pay them off.
  • Other possible topics include “Compare Insurance Rates” and “Funding your Emergency Funds”.

Altogether, I would think of it as a free, short personal finance book. Sounds good to me.

The Fall of Landlines and Rise of Cell Phone-Only Households

Here’s an interesting chart from Statista showing how landline telephones are slowly dying away and being replaced by cell phones only.

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In 2004, more than 90 percent of households in the U.S. had an operational landline phone – now it’s (significantly) less than 50 percent.

We use our cell phones almost exclusively, but we technically have a home phone line (though not a landline). If you still want home phone service, consider purchasing an Obi200 VoIP box and use it with Google Voice to get free home phone service over your internet at the great price of $0 a month and no taxes. Setup takes under 15 minutes and you can use your existing landline phones.

We should be thankful that long distance phone calls no longer cost so much, as I still remember the days of calling cards and when 10 cents a minute was cheap. (I’m getting rather old…) Heck, we are only paying $6 a month for unlimited cell phone service this year.