Healthy Food Rankings Map: The Most Under-Appreciated vs. Over-Marketed Foods

The NY Times surveyed Americans and a panel of nutrition experts about which foods they thought were good or bad for you. Everybody agreed that apples and carrots are healthy food. Everybody agreed that soda pop and cookies are unhealthy foods. Where the experts and the generic public disagreed is where things got interesting. Check out the graphic below, in which I have altered the original a bit (click to enlarge):

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Although the NYT did not say this, I would label the foods that were considered healthier by the general public than nutritional experts as heavily-marketed and usually branded. These are foods that businesses would like you to think are much healthier than they really are. This would include granola bars, coconut oil, frozen yogurt, SlimFast shakes, and highly-processed orange juice. You often associate them with a specific brand like Nature Valley granola bars or Tropicana orange juice.

Along the same lines, I the foods that were considered healthier by nutritional experts than the general public are under-marketed and under-appreciated. These include quinoa, tofu, sushi, hummus, and shrimp. Not surprisingly, these items are less processed and I can’t even come up with a brand for quinoa or tofu. Sabra for hummus, I suppose.

Finally, hovering in the 50% range for both groups are things like steak, pork chops, whole milk, and cheddar cheese. These seem to be the “not junk food, but only eat in moderation” category.

Where Should You Focus Your Energy? Earn , Save, Grow, or Preserve

While I often talk about your savings rate as an important metric for reaching financial freedom, I also follow that up by talking about managing both parts of that formula: earning more and/or spending less. Focusing your energy on a specific task is often better that trying to do everything perfectly and getting frustrated when you can’t juggle all the balls at once.

Financial planning expert Michael Kitces has come up with a helpful framework called The Four Phases Of Saving And Investing For Retirement that is related and also takes into consideration your portfolio size. This graphic he created explains it well:

fourphases

Here are my own notes and paraphrasing (please read original post for his own words):

  • Earn. First, you need income. Focus on your human capital to help you earn more. Invest energy into your education, career skills, and network (surround yourself with good people). If it fits your personality, take a risk and start a business.
  • Save. Once you have significant income, be sure to save a big portion of it. Create systems and habits to help keep your spending modest. A 30% or 50% savings rate for above-average earners is not out of the question.
  • Grow. Once you have significant savings, spend some time developing a set of solid investment beliefs and a written plan. Devote time specifically to learning about investing and/or find and hire a trusted advisor. Your money should always be making more money.
  • Preserve. You should only need to get rich once. Do you have proper insurance in place? Create a long-term plan to preserve and ultimately live off the income from your investment portfolio and other assets.

You can pay attention to the other areas, but I like this lifecycle method of prioritizing your finite time and energy.

I Tried Harry’s Free Razor Trial and This Is What Happened…

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…that’s the ad text that they used to target me, apparently someone who may be interested in bright-orange, modern-looking razor blades. I couldn’t find the exact ad again, but a similar one is to the right. (Alternate title: Harry’s Free Trial Review: Bendy Razor Blades, Easy Cancel)

Well, they were right. I decided to try the Harry’s “Free” Trial which includes a razor and some gel for $3 including shipping. If you don’t like it, just remove the subscription plan in your online account and you get to keep everything else.

Okay, so what happened? The primary reason that I will not be buying any more Harry’s Razors doesn’t involve cost at all. I simply don’t like their design. The blades are proprietary and have a unique “bendy” hinge that I describe as like having a tongue lick you. A tongue that makes it impossible to get the firm shave that I prefer.

I created an animated gif to help illustrate:


via GIPHY

After doing this trial, I found that the Wirecutter review site had a similar opinion:

Rather than clipping to a pivoting axis, the way most modern razors do, Harry’s cartridge attaches with a flexy rubber pseudo-hinge that bends when you press it into your skin. Harry’s claims that this design yields an effect that, like “a paintbrush on a wet canvas … flexes to the contours of your face for precise control.” In fact, the opposite is true: The cartridge yields too much, resulting in a sloppy shave.

I don’t consider myself a picky razor user, for a while I’ve been using a basic Gillette Mach 3 bought from Costco for $1 or under each. (I was surprised to see The Wirecutter also chose a Mach3 blade cousin as its winner.) As I can last more than a month with each razor (dry after each use), I am already spending less than a dollar month on razors. I have not tried the Dollar Shave Club. For me, buying a bulk pack of razors once every two years requires less mental bandwidth than having to manage an online subscription.

I’ll keep the rest of this review short and simple:

  • Ordering was easy, site design is nice, and the trial shipped promptly.
  • Canceling the trial was also easy with no hard sell.
  • I did not like the razor design, and for that reason will not be ordering any more Harry’s razors.

Shaving preferences are very subjective. I would still recommend the Harry’s trial itself.

Follow-Up Review: Costco Freezer Meal Plan From 5 Dollar Dinners

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A while ago, I wrote about a meal planner service called $5 Dinners that provided instructions on how to make 20 slow cooker meals for $150 at Costco. You go to Costco, buy exactly what is on the provided shopping list (6 pack of chicken breasts, 15 lb bag of potatoes, massive tub of BBQ sauce, etc), and then chop and separate all the ingredients into 20 separate freezer bags. When you want an easy dinner, pop a bag into your slow cooker in the morning and you’ll have dinner ready by the time you’re done with work.

I paid $5 for complete instructions including grocery shopping list, assembly videos, and label template files. The exact meal plan that I bought is now called Slow Cooker Freezer Packs, 1st Edition Complete. It took me a few months to get around to actually making all the meals, but I did make them all in November 2014. Here are some pictures of my final product:

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Why did it take over a year to get this review out? Well, part of the reason is that it took us a year to actually finish all the meals! Unfortunately, the reason why it took us a year to finish the meals is… we didn’t enjoy the meals very much. I didn’t want to write a negative review for an entrepreneurial idea that I thought was really cool that was based on my own tastes, but they are doing quite well so allow me to use this as another opportunity to provide you helpful information based on my own failures. :)

Takeaways

  • Cook and eat a sample recipe first before making 5 of the same recipe. I was distracted by my own excitement of being able to knock out 20 meals in one day, I just jumped straight in. I found the recipes to be a bit bland in flavor and boring in texture when followed exactly. You may feel differently, and their newer recipes could be much better, but again you won’t know until you try it.
  • Set aside an entire afternoon. Making all 20 freezer packs in one day took about 4-5 hours, and it was pretty exhausting. Set aside plenty of time, as it takes a lot of chopping and portioning.
  • Make sure you have adequate freezer space. Even if you follow their tips to lay them flat, these take up a lot of room! We have a standalone freezer and it was still a tight fit. You may also want to place them in a tub in case of leaks.
  • Use the plans as a starting point for your own customizations. Adding your own herbs and spices, as well as some lemon juice or hot sauce at the end can really perk things up. Personally, I prefer to season and brown my meat before putting it into the slow cooker. I love me some Maillard reaction!
  • Try using your own recipes first. A more gradual way to start your own “backup dinners” is to simply double-up on one of your current recipes, and freeze the extra portions.
  • For the price of $5, I still think it is worth a shot. There may be different and/or improved recipes now. I still think it is a great entrepreneurial idea.

Optimize Your Bank Account Setup: Megabanks, Credit Unions, Online Banks, and Prepaid Cards

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Consumer Reports is getting more into financial products, with their January 2016 issue cover article on Choosing The Best Bank For You, most of which was also made available to the public without a subscription. If you haven’t optimized your bank account setup recently and you missed it the first time around, the article is worth a read. Perhaps it was just anecdotal, but I read somewhere that most people are still with their first bank account out of high school.

Here are their high-level conclusions:

  • Mega Banks: Best for Convenience, Technology, Security
  • Credit Unions: Best for In-Person Customer Service, Lower Costs
  • Primarily Online Banks: Best for Online Customer Service, Higher Savings Rates, Lower Costs
  • Smaller Regional and Community Banks: Best for Personal Service
  • Prepaid Cards: Easier to get than a bank checking account but some are loaded with gotchas.

It appears that Consumer Reports is still keeping their specific rankings and numbers behind a subscription paywall. But they do agree with me about the idea of spreading your wealth and choosing your financial accounts a la carte to get the best deals.

Now, I am not the ideal person to emulate as I have too much complexity in my financial accounts. The only good news is that I have tried so many of them. Here are the accounts that I currently have open, and what I think about them. For the most part, my experiences align with the Consumer Reports findings.

Megabank: Bank of America

  • Pros: ATMs and branches everywhere nearby. Good online and app user interface (Touch ID). Good perks when combined with brokerage and credit cards.
  • Cons: Basically-zero interest rates.

Credit Union: Local, Community CU

  • Pros: Free notary, low interest rate HELOC.
  • Cons: Small ATM and branch footprint, poor online and app user interface, current low interest rates (used to have a rewards checking account).

Primarily Online Bank: Ally Bank (see Ally review)

  • Pros: High interest rates, fast and flexible interbank transfers, good customer service, good online and app user interface (Touch ID).
  • Cons: No physical branches.

Prepaid Card: NetSpend (see NetSpend review)

  • Pros: 5% APY on $5,000 balance if card kept active. (Update: 5% APY on $1,000 starting 7/1/16.)
  • Cons: Certain fees and fine print to work around.

In terms of the convenience factor, my new favorite feature is Touch ID with Apple iPhones. (Android has their own version, I’m just not familiar with it.) BofA, Ally Bank, Mint, Fidelity, and Robinhood supporting this app feature, I can now get full access to transaction history and even initiate online transfers in under 10 seconds. I hope Vanguard adds this soon (cough, cough!).

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:

digit1   digit2

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:

rh_nycsubway_full

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:

rh_commutewiki

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):

swappa_1

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.

rplus_20151003

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

rplus_dash2

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.

Bottom line. You could save a lot of money on RingPlus free/cheap plans if you are willing to devote some sweat equity into figuring it all out. I currently use them for my non-critical, light-usage phone lines without issue. However, I would NOT be surprised if they discontinued or change the rules of their plans very quickly, maybe even without any notice. Enjoy it while it lasts, but have a backup plan.

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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