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.

Winterizing – Sealing Up Old Windows With Plastic Shrink Film

shrink_film_kits

Extended review, updated prices, added tip using painter’s tape. Every year as winter arrives, search engine visitors find their way to this post about how we used to winterize the single pane, very drafty windows in the 90-year-old house we rented. We had electric baseboard heaters, which meant our electric bill doubled to quadrupled in the winter months. On a recommendation by a neighbor, we decided to install some simple plastic shrinkwrap insulation. You can find kits in hardware stores and online for only a few dollars per window. The film creates an insulating air pocket that keeps your heat (and thus $$$) from flowing outside.

Installation preview. Here’s how nearly all of these kits work:

  1. Measure your windows and cut the plastic sheet to the size of the wooden frame you’ll be sticking it too, being sure to leave a 1″ extra buffer on all sides.
  2. Apply one side of the double-sided tape to your window frame (indoors).
  3. Carefully apply your plastic film to the tape. Do it slowly from top border, then sides, then bottom border. It doesn’t have to be perfect but try to keep things taut.
  4. Use the hot air from a hair dryer to “shrink” the plastic and remove all the wrinkles.
  5. Trim away excess plastic film.

The result: you can still see out your windows, but it reduces drafts and you have an insulative air pocket. Here are some quick pictures of my handiwork:

ShrinkWrap Window Insulation    Plastic Window Insulation
(click to enlarge)

The first one is after I put up the plastic and took out the wrinkles, and the second one is after I removed the excess plastic. I was a bit skeptical of the product beforehand, but it turned out pretty good. The wrinkles all came out, and the tape seems to be pretty airtight, at least for now. I can even tell where cold air came in by seeing where it fogs up the plastic. You can tell there is plastic sheeting there if you look closely or hit the glare just right, but overall it’s pretty unnoticeable especially if you use blinds or drapes.

Cost. Here are some prices along with average review ratings as of December 2015.

The 3M kits tend to be the most expensive amongst the popular brands. Some reviews state that the 3M brand is worth the extra cost as they stick to the windows longer and with cleaner removal (3M = Scotch tape brand). I was happy with the cheaper Frost King brand, but I didn’t try the 3M brand so I can’t offer a direct comparison myself.

Quick buying tip. Measure your windows first, and then compare it with the kit before purchase. Some kits come in separate sheets, while others come in a big roll. If you have odd size windows like myself, the single sheets may not fit your windows.

Use painter’s tape for easier removal? A few people had questions about the sticky tape removing paint from windows and/or leaving a residue. I just happened to get a good tip regarding this via e-mail from reader Ron:

If one uses “painters tape” before applying the two sided sticky tape, before applying the plastic film, there is NO problem removing in the Spring! I just wish I can eventually find a “clear” painters tape! THAT would be great! Are you listening 3M??!![…]

So, it goes like this… a layer of the painters tape, neatly trimmed…. the sticky tape on that, then the plastic film on top of the sticky tape. […]

I can’t believe the utter savings I enjoyed as a benefit! A 2/3rd savings over the previous year! It was nice not hearing my furnace come on very often.

I had concerns that the painter’s tape would come loose, but Ron assured me it stayed up for him. Other readers have indeed reported that the double-sided tape came loose from the painter’s tape, so you may want to do a test run with one window first.

Summary. I did the all big windows in our house for a total cost of under $25 plus a few hours of weekend labor. I don’t have exact numbers, but over the course of the season, this added insulation definitely paid for itself in heating bills. If I owned the house as opposed to renting, I might have tried to justify new double-pane windows, but otherwise this was a quick way to save on heating bills.

OBi200 Adapter + Google Voice Installation Review + Current Deals

obi_bow

Updated, new limited-time Black Friday deals for under $30. Want the features of landline phone service at a drastically reduced price? How about under $50 upfront and then $0 a month? Perhaps you want to drop your landline bill, or you already have but also want to cut back on cellular minutes. Obihai boxes are now officially supported by Google Voice to provide unlimited free USA to USA calls and free USA to Canada calls. Low international per-minute rates as well.

As a result, I bought myself a Obi200 in order to try out their free calls, and also compare the voice quality with my Ooma device. Obihai adapters have been around since 2011, but this is the first Obi product I have purchased. I don’t know that the installation procedure was in the past, but I believe the official integration has made the installation even easier than before. Supposedly the authentication method is also more secure and your Google password is no longer stored. I thought about making a video, but it turned out to be unnecessary.

  1. Open the box and plug in the cables. AC adapter, telephone line, and ethernet cable to router. All ports are clearly marked. All the cables are included except the phone cable which you should already have. The image below says it all:

    obi200a

    Here is the back of the box, showing the ports:

    obi200_ports

  2. Write down your unique Obi number. This is clearly printed on the bottom of the Obi200 box. Mine was 9 digits like “123 456 789”.
  3. Go to your computer and visit ObiTalk.com. Click on the link that says “Register” in the top right corner. Then just follow the directions. Dial a test phone number when it asks. It is easiest to use the “Sign in with Google Account” button since you already have one if you use Google Voice. I didn’t even have to type in my password (as I was already logged in by cookie). They didn’t require name, address, or credit card number. A few confirmation clicks, and that was it.

    obi200b

  4. Use your phone. I turned on my phone, listened to the dial tone, and called my cell phone. Success! Traditional phone service with unlimited calls within the US and Canada for the great price of $0 a month. The voice quality was fine, and continued to be quite good for the few months that I was using it before giving it away. (I already have the grandfathered fully-free version of Ooma. The voice quality between the two was comparable.)

Total set-up time was under 10 minutes. If for some reason my directions don’t work, check out the official Obi200 Starter Guide [pdf] or their extensive set of tutorials. You can also add e911 service for $15 a year.

Which Obi box model should I buy? I think the sweet spot for most people will be the Obi200, which supports T.38 faxing and has a USB port which can be used to connect to your router over WiFi using an OBiWiFi adapter. (It is the #1 selling VoiP adapter on Amazon.)

The Obi202 offers two independent phone ports so you can use two different VoIP providers simultaneously (or you can have two Google Voice phone numbers). But if you can find one on the cheap, the older OBi100 still works too. Here is a handy comparison chart of the OBi100, OBi110, OBi200, and OBi202.

obi200compare2

Current deals, updated November 2015. The manufacturer often subsidizes some limited-time deals, and I’ll try to keep this section updated with the most recent offer.

Charlie Munger: The First $100,000 Is The Most Difficult

There used to be a series of ING commercials where people would carry around their “Number”, which was usually over a million dollars. I think such large numbers actually discourage most savers, so what if we had an alternative goal that was both more achievable yet realistic?

I’m currently reading a new book called Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor by Tren Griffin because, well, I like to read anything about Charlie Munger. There is a lot of good stuff related to investing inside, but it didn’t mention one of my favorite personal finance quotes from Mr. Munger. I can’t seem to find an exact reference anymore, so here are two paraphrased sources…

First, here is an excerpt from the 2003 book Damn Right!: Behind the Scenes with Berkshire Hathaway Billionaire Charlie Munger by Janet Lowe (my review):

Munger has said that accumulating the first $100,000 from a standing start, with no seed money, is the most difficult part of building wealth. Making the first million was the next big hurdle. To do that a person must consistently underspend his income. Getting wealthy, he explains, is like rolling a snowball. It helps to start on top of a long hill—start early and try to roll that snowball for a very long time. It helps to live a long life.

Second, here is another version of the quote credit to Munger, per Conservative Income Investor:

“The first $100,000 is a bitch, but you gotta do it. I don’t care what you have to do—if it means walking everywhere and not eating anything that wasn’t purchased with a coupon, find a way to get your hands on $100,000. After that, you can ease off the gas a little bit.”

$100,000 is certainly a nice, round number. But is it a worthy goal? Consider these points:

Most people will never achieve $100k in portfolio assets. Forget a million bucks. Consider this chart from the Quartz article America is full of high-earning poor people. On average, even a person earning close to six figures will struggle to reach $100k in financial assets by age 55.

The figure below plots financial assets held by the upper middle class (household income from $50,000 to $75,000, and $75,000 to $100,000) aged 40 to 55. Financial assets are any assets a household owns that isn’t a house, car, or business, which means it includes all retirement funds.

networth100k

If you reach $100k quickly, that means you have high earning power. Let’s say you start a successful small business or are in a well-paid professional field. Well, you have the saving potential to reach the millionaire level, you just have to keep it by not increasing your spending accordingly.

If you reach $100k gradually, that means you have built up a strong habit of spending less than you earn. Let’s say it takes you a decade of steady saving to reach $100k. That’s okay, as you’ve shown that have both consistent earning power and spending restraint. You’ll be able to save another $100k over the next decade for sure, meanwhile your first $100k is going to keep on growing.

At the $100,000 level, compound interest become significant. At 5% return, your $100,000 will grow by $5,000 in just one year. That’s $5,000 for doing nothing but waiting around for a year. The year after that, you won’t just have another $5,000. You’ll have $5,250 due to compound interest. At the end of five years, that $100k is already $127,628.

Add in the additional money from your continuing habit of saving, and things start to improve quickly. Your snowball is growing. I no longer automatically reinvest my dividends from my taxable mutual fund and ETF holdings because I love seeing the money show up in my cash account. A few clicks and I’ll reinvest them, but I like the feeling of “cashing my dividend checks” and knowing that one day I’ll be waiting for them to arrive instead of my paycheck.

Now, I still think savings rate is a better measuring stick than portfolio size, because someone who can earn $60k and spend $30k every year is going to be able to retire much sooner than someone who earns $180k and is stuck in a lifestyle spending $150k. But if you are in the phase of your life where you love watching your account balances grow every day, even by a few dollars (been there, done that), $100k is the biggest goal you need.

Related: Munger: Work For Yourself An Hour Each Day and Munger on Parenting and Childhood.

Free Morningstar Analyst Reports Via Public Library Card

mstar_logo2Let’s say you are a DIY investor and doing some research on municipal funds. You decide to learn more about the Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt mutual fund. You pull up the Morningstar quote pages (ticker VWITX and VWIUX) and find some useful numbers, plus an analyst report hidden to the public as a “premium” feature.

mstar_quote

You see a 14-day free trial and after some more clicking around, you discover that a premium membership to Morningstar costs $199 a year or $24 a month.

mstar_premium2

Now, I’d like to read the rest of that analyst report, but I’m not sure if it is worth the fee. Well, you may already have access to those analyst reports through your payment of local and state taxes. Yup, the good ole’ public library!

Many public libraries have a subscription to what is called the Morningstar Investment Research Center database. Most offer instant, online access via your library card number and PIN. You should look under the “Databases” or “Resources” section. Some only have a limited amount of offsite licenses, so you’ll have to either ask for a password or you’ll have to read them in a branch. Here’s a screenshot of my free report accessed from the comfort of my home, with all the good stuff blurred out of course:

mstar_fullreview

You can access their analyst reports for stocks, mutual funds, and ETFs, as well as the premium version of tools like Portfolio X-Ray.

Now, if your local library system doesn’t provide this access, you can also look around for other libraries in the region for which you are eligible. Finally, there are some public libraries that offer library cards to non-residents for an annual fee. For example, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library in North Carolina offers library cards by mail for $45 a year (Seniors 62+, $35 a year).

Non-residents of Mecklenburg County can obtain a Charlotte Mecklenburg Library card for an annual fee of $45.00. This amount is approximately equal to the annual property tax a Mecklenburg County resident pays to support the Library. A non-resident library card entitles you to the full services of the Library at all locations.

They also offer access to the Morningstar database. $45 a year is still significantly less than $199 a year, and you’ll get all the other library benefits like access to Overdrive eBooks. Also check out the Library of Fairfax County, Virginia which offers non-resident library cards for $27 a year.

mstar_charlotte

Consumer Reports Car Brand Reliability Rankings 2015

cr_carcoverConsumer Reports recently released the results from their 2015 Annual Auto Reliability Survey of over 740,000 vehicles owned by its subscribers. Below are the complete rankings from Consumer Reports, including the change from last year. Taken from this CNBC article. Lexus and Toyota remain on top. In terms of big movers, Honda went down 4 spots, while Kia moved up 4 spots.

One of the trends they note is that fancy infotainment systems and complex transmissions (including CVT, 8+ speeds, and dual clutch) are a growing source of complaints. Many brands, including Acura, were significantly hurt in their rankings due to issues in these areas.

cr_reliability_2016

Here’s another view that takes into account the range of scores taken from individual models (the brands are ranked by averages). Taken from the public version of the Consumer Reports page.

cr_reliability_2016_2

Jaguar, Land Rover, Mitsubishi, Scion, Smart, and Tesla were excluded due to a lack of data on two or more of their models. However, Tesla’s Model S was individually given a reliability rating of “below average”.

SubscriptMe App Review: Watch Those Recurring Expenses!

subscipt_logo

“Subscriptions are forgettable by design.”

That is the opening line for the app description of SubscriptMe, a free iPhone/iOS app that help you track your recurring expenses.

How true. All the behavioral psychology-based personal finance tips out there have been used by advertisers forever. Automate your savings? The newspaper and telephone company has been automating the spending of your parents and grandparents for decades. Giving them the ability to automatically charge your credit card is icing on the cake.

Have you added up much your Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify, and Dropbox subscriptions are costing you every year? Subscript.me can scan your phone for apps as well as your emails if you let them. They then present you with a pretty list of your subscriptions, letting you set alerts for upcoming bills if you like. The only paid subscription that I have that it found was my $99 annual fee for Amazon Prime. (I have the free versions of Dropbox and Evernote.) Some screenshots:

subme3   subme1

Ideally, if you are constantly reminded of what you’re paying for, you’ll only keep what you really want. Of course, the free app is paid for by showing you other new services that would like your money.

My main concern is that even if you let it rummage through your e-mails (which already makes me uncomfortable), the app still doesn’t do a good job of finding traditional monthly bills like telephone, cellular, cable, DSL, electricity, gas, trash, etc. It found none of mine. More screenshots:

subme4   subme2_fixed

A neat concept, possible useful for those with a lot of these hip new monthly services like Dollar Shave Club, Blue Apron, or Birchbox. However, since I don’t have many subscriptions, it feels a little niche.

Manage Your Cell Data? Disable Wi-Fi Assist in iOS 9

wifiassistoffI usually don’t upgrade my iPhone to the latest OS right away, as you know there is going to be 9.0.1 and 9.0.2 and so on in the upcoming weeks. But since the Discover Apple Pay promo required it, I upgraded immediately this time.

One of the new features of iOS 9 is something called WiFi Assist. Previously, your iPhone would try to cling onto that WiFi signal as long as it could before finally giving up and switching to cellular data. Sometimes it would interrupt your Netflix or Spotify streaming. If you found that annoying, the good news is that WiFi Assist will now seamlessly transfer you earlier onto cellular 3G or 4G data.

However, I liked the old way. If I have weak WiFi and my ESPN3 video won’t stream, I don’t want it to seamlessly switch to my cell data. I want it to cut off and let me know. Video streaming at high-definition can use up 1-2 gigabytes per hour. That’s $15 to $30 an hour at my overage rates. Some folks argue an early handoff won’t cause a “massive” overage, but I want the choice of either moving to improve the WiFi signal or turning it off. (With WiFi Assist on, your only indicator will be a greyed-out WiFi icon, if it is even visible)

WiFi Assist is turned on by default in iOS 9. You might like this feature, or you might not. If you also manage your cell data somewhat carefully, you may decide to turn off this feature off. Here’s how:

  • Open Settings.
  • Tap on Cellular.
  • Scroll down to the bottom.
  • Turn Wi-Fi Assist off.

More: Ting Blog, Houston Chronicle

Save Money on Pet Costs: Splitting Larger Doses of Frontline Flea Medication

frontlineplus0

Updated details for 2015, but it still works! Now that we have two dogs (three for a while), we’ve had to keep a closer eye on pet costs. One regular expense is flea medication, for which we have found Frontline Plus to work acceptably. If you buy it straight from the vet or in a retail pet store it can be around $15 per monthly dose. Here, I’ll show you how we get it down to between $1.50 and $3 per dog per month. That’s nearly $300 a year in savings for us! We have dogs so that is what I’m using for my numbers, but it would work the same way for cats.

Online shopping savings. In the past, we’ve found that the cheapest price has been on eBay, getting costs down to about $8 per dose for the exact same 6-pack product packaging. Here’s an example of the cost comparison for their “Orange box” meant for small dogs (22 lbs and under).

Store Cost (w/ shipping) Cost per 0.67 ml dose
1800PetMeds.com (“retail”) $75 for 6-pack Orange $12.50
Amazon.com $66 for 6-pack Orange $11
eBay (sample listing) $50 for 6-pack Orange $8.33

 

Online shopping + DIY savings. For a while, eBay sellers were selling the biggest size (Red box) made for 89+ lb. dogs along with with glass vials and syringes. The idea is that the consumer could split the medication fluid into smaller doses themselves. I’m not sure what happened, but I believe that the manufacturer Merial pressured eBay and/or their authorized sellers to stop the sale of such kits. I don’t see any such kits available for sale any longer.

I still believe the DIY method can be efffective and safe if done properly. I can understand why the manufacturer can’t officially condone such actions. But I’ve seen articles from licensed vets and also multiple reader comments saying their own vet approves this practice. Pet shelters and rescues also commonly do this.

You can also achieve more accurate dosing for your pet. By default, Merial categorizes dogs into four broad categories: 0-22 lbs, 23-44 lbs, 45-88 lbs, and 89-132 lbs. This corresponds to vial sizes of 0.67 ml, 1.34 ml, 2.68 ml, and 4.02 ml. I don’t know about you, but I see a pretty big gap between 45 and 88 pounds.

They have to make sure even the biggest dogs in the range are adequately dosed, so if you divide the vial size by the largest size for each category in pounds, you get 0.0305 ml per pound every time. So if you have a 25 lb. dog why give them double the dose of a 22 lb. dog? Just give them a bit more (0.76 ml) and you should be fine – and save even more money!

Here’s an estimate of your savings for smaller dogs. For math simplicity, I’ll assume you have exactly a 22 lb. dog. Remember, if you go by the boxes and have a 25 lb. dog, you’d need to get the bigger and often more expensive size of a 44 lb dog. I’ll assume you buy the biggest size (Red box) made for 89+ lb. dogs and split it into the exact same 0.67 ml doses as the 22b size (Orange box) using a glass vial and plastic syringes.

Store Cost (w/ shipping) Cost per 0.67 ml dose
1800PetMeds.com (“retail”) $75 for 6-pack Red
(6 x 4.02 ml = 36 x 0.67 ml doses)
$2.08
Amazon.com $66 for 6-pack Red
(6 x 4.02 ml = 36 x 0.67 ml doses)
$1.83
eBay (sample listing) $54 for 6-pack Red
(6 x 4.02 ml = 36 x 0.67 ml doses)
$1.50

 

Online shopping + DIY savings + Generic brand savings. In 2011, the patent for the main active ingredient in Frontline (fipronil) expired. Generic options now include Sentry FiproGuard Plus and PetArmor Plus. If you bought Pet Armor Plus for 4-22 lb dogs (Orange equivalent), that would cost $57 per 6-pack on Amazon, a savings of 7%.

For some odd reason, you can also find PetArmor Plus for 89+ lb dogs on Amazon for roughly $38 including shipping for a 6-pack of their 89+ lb (Red equivalent). That’s less money for a bigger size!? If you split this package for 22 lb dog, that would work out to $1.06 per 0.67 ml dose.

Proper precautions. Here are some tips to make sure you split your doses safely and effectively.

  • Use protective gloves. You’d ideally want to do this with the official product anyway, but you’ll be handling it more when splitting doses so a box of latex or similar gloves is a good investment.
  • Keep medication away from light and air. You can either use a dark, glass vial or keep it an airtight syringe in airtight bag in a dark, cool space. When using a plastic syringe as the applicator, remove any needle! You’re just drizzling the stuff on your dog’s skin surface. You can buy kits of glass vials and plastic syringes on eBay for around 5 bucks.
  • Do not mix and match dog and cat Frontline. The ingredients may be the same, but sometimes they aren’t. Also, even if the ingredients are the same, the ratios are not and that is also important.
  • Don’t overdose! As with all these flea medications, you can do some trial and error to see what brand and dosage level works for your dog. You might need more or less than indicated, but I would avoid going over the max manufacturer recommendation.

As you can see, you get most of the savings from simply doing the splitting. You can get some additional savings by buying online and/or going generic. eBay is often cheapest online source, but I know some folks may be wary of authenticity so Amazon or your local warehouse store may be another option.

Ting GSM SIM Cards: Bring Your Own Phone + Referral Credit

Updated September 2015. New Ting customers now get a $50 credit with a referral link (normally $25). GSM SIM cards for bring-your-own-device are also on sale for $5 with free shipping sitewide (I paid $9 + $4 for shipping). Both offers end September 30 at 11:59 ET. More details below.

tinglogTing provides mobile phone service with a “pay-only-for-what-you-use” structure. Think “a la carte” instead of Golden Corral buffet. :) For the last few months, I’ve been beta-testing the new Ting GSM program in my out-of-contract iPhone 5. Just popped in their SIM card and off I went. Supposedly 80% of smartphones now work with GSM service and have SIM card slots. Their GSM SIM card service uses the T-Mobile GSM MVNO network, while their original service is a Sprint CDMA MVNO.

For the month of September 2015, Ting has upped their refer-a-friend bonus to $50 off a device or $50 in Ting credit if you buy used or bring your own phone to Ting. This applies to both GSM and CDMA service. The standard referral offer is $25 off. Here are the highlights:

  • Ting interactive rate calculator to see how much they would charge you. If you are not a power user or have a lot of variability in your usage, Ting can often save money over time. (Tip: You can set alerts or even hard usage caps, so you’ll never exceed a certain level.)
  • Ting phone compatibility checker tool. Bringing over a used GSM or Sprint phone is the best deal in my opinion. You can find a lot of good, cheap GSM phones on the secondary market now, like the Galaxy S series or iPhone 5 or 5S.

Here’s a screenshot of their rate breakdown:

ting2

Here is my referral link. Thanks in advance if you use it! You’ll be saving my parents some money on their bill, as I set them up with Ting service and an old iPhone.