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.

landlines

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.

Healthcare Flexible Spending Accounts: Last-Minute FSA Eligible Ideas

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Updated. Here’s my annual reminder to get back all the money you put into your Healthcare Flexible Spending Accounts (and other such accounts) before the end of the year. First, here are some 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 2017 funds, but it may only apply to claims and not late purchases. Check with your employer.
  • Some plans allow participants to carry over up to $500 in unused FSA funds into next year. Check with your employer.

What are FSA-eligible expenses? Here are the large, well-organized lists:

Quick tip. Certain over-the-counter (OTC) items such as cough medicines, pain relievers, acid controllers, and diaper rash ointment require a prescription for reimbursement. In addition to the written prescription for the OTC medicine, you should obtain a detailed receipt that includes the following:

  • Date of service or purchase
  • Name or description of the item
  • Amount of purchase

Last-minute FSA-eligible items. If you didn’t exhaust your funds with insurance copays or deductibles, here are eligible items that you can still buy over-the-counter without a prescription. Examples included are the best-sellers in each category at Amazon.

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.

Buy It Nice or Buy It Twice: Kitchen Tools and Cookware (Extended Edition)

rubber200 (Added some items.) When buying kitchen items, I am firmly in the “pay for quality” camp. Reader Chris sent in the following question (edited for clarity):

I read in your website about cast iron pans and KitchenAid mixers. I want to buy a small home and have nothing. What are some must-have kitchen items that will last a long time and be used most often? So they are an “investment”.

For me, it all started when filling out our wedding registry (now 13 years ago, ack!). Getting married meant I had to stop buying Hungry Man frozen dinners and really learn to cook at home. This led me to develop an appreciation for well-made kitchen items. When you “go cheap” on certain things, you not only have to replace it down the road, but you also feel a bit of annoyance and regret every time you use the inferior tool. In the words of Marie Kondo, owning high-quality tools “bring me joy”.

Here’s (an extended) list of high-quality items that are used weekly if not daily in my kitchen. I am not a professional chef, just someone who cooks at home often enough to suffer from cheap stuff. Some cost a few bucks. Some cost hundreds.

rubberpremier

Rubbermaid Premier Food Storage Containers
Cooking at home means lots of leftovers. One of the best decisions we made was to throw away the mishmash of cheap containers and lids to start fresh with these Rubbermaid Premier storage containers (not the other Rubbermaid types). They are thicker, sturdier, and have leakproof lids. They don’t stain or retain odors. They are a good example of designing something to be high-quality and reusable instead of cheap and disposable. They changed up the lid design recently but the grey lids are backward compatible with the original red lids. Warning: You might start out with a 30-piece set but it will include a lot of smaller containers. Add more of the larger ones specifically.

mmbcastiron0

Lodge Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Skillet
With over 8,000 reviews (!) and a 4.5 out of 5 star average rating, I know I’m not the only fan of these heavy-duty beasts. Great for searing and pan-frying, oven-safe, no worrying about scratches or dings. They will outlive you. Got a rusty one? They are easy to resurrect; here’s a quick video on how to season your cast iron.

lecreusetblue

Le Creuset Enameled Cast-Iron Dutch Oven
I cook multiple times a week with our Staub and Le Creuset enameled cast-iron dutch ovens. Cast iron isn’t a lot of maintenance, but you do have to keep it dry after each use to prevent rusting (and seasoning it again takes time). With enameling, you can just wash and leave it wet. The dutch oven shape also makes it perfect for braises, stews, and soups. (They also look nicer at dinner parties.) They do run $200-$300 but spread out over 30+ years of use it’s not that bad. But I’ll be honest, I don’t know how much better they are than this Lodge Enameled Dutch Oven which regularly runs under $80.

kitchenaid

KitchenAid Artisan Stand Mixer
We’ve used this machine regularly without any issues for over 10 years across multiple apartments, studios, and houses. We use it to beat eggs and knead dough for pizza, pasta, cookies, and bread. I don’t know what kind of motor is inside, but it is durable. The bowl has some small dings and there is a little rust on the exterior but nothing that prevents good operation. I notice a ton of different versions now, but I think the Artisan is the classic version. Pick a color you like because you’ll be stuck with it for a while…

allcladsaute

All-Clad Stainless Steel Fry or Saute Pan
I first heard about this brand when they kept winning comparisons by America’s Test Kitchen. However, they are quite expensive. Now, you don’t need All-Clad everything, but do I think a large stainless steel fry pan or saute pan from All-Clad is an important kitchen addition that will pretty much last you forever. (I’d skip the non-stick All-Clad and go with T-Fal for best non-stick value.) My advice is to keep your eyes open because they do rotate on sale. Right now the saute pan is on sale for $99, but at other times you can get the fry pans on sale.

nordicpan

Nordic Ware Aluminum Commercial Sheet Pan
It’s big, thick, and aluminum so it won’t rust. I must have roasted vegetables hundreds of times on this thing. Only about $10 and much better than whatever cheap, thin stuff is at sold at the grocery store. Buy 2 now so they stack and save space.

microplane

Microplane 40020 Classic Zester/Grater
The classic Microplane. I remember thinking it was expensive when I bought it over a decade ago, but I’ve never had to replace it since. Considering how many little thin holes this thing has, I have no idea how it hasn’t rusted away in over 10 years. This thing still works great to shave fine curls of parmesan and zest lemons and limes.

peelersingle

Kuhn Rikon Original Swiss Peeler
These may not last forever, but they have lasted a lot longer than my previous peelers and I’m still on my first one. (I also have a serrated version that I don’t use as often.) I bought these after seeing them recommended by America’s Test Kitchen and they peel much more easily and comfortably. Note: I see some Amazon reviews that say “I love my old Kuhn Rikon peeler but this one I just bought from Amazon is horrible.” My thought? Counterfeits. I would only buy these “Ships from and sold by Amazon.com”, even if it costs a few cents more. You’re still getting the best peeler out there for under 5 bucks.

wusthofclassic

Wusthof Classic Knifes
I remember wondering if Wusthof and Henckels were worth the price as I zapped them onto our wedding registry. Then someone actually bought us a set of Wusthof Classic knives and we proceeded to use them nearly every day for over a decade. They have been professionally sharpened a couple of times (less often than recommended), but they still work perfectly with no chips or rust spots. I bought a $40 Asian cleaver from a shop in Chinatown a couple years ago, and it only lasted a few months before large rust spots appeared. My mom told me I didn’t treat it right. Probably. I told her I’d rather spend $80 on a knife and have it last decades even after not treating it right. So I bought this one.

henckelssteak

J.A. Henckels Steak Knife Set
We also got a set of Henckels steak knives as a wedding gift. They’ve also lasted over a decade as our family’s only set of steak knives. They still cut great. Yes, they cost about double the price of the AmazonBasics steak knives set, but I wonder if I’ll ever have to buy steak knives again.

zyliss

ZYLISS Lock N’ Lift Can Opener
I’ve probably gone through 5 different can openers in the last 5 years. I guess I open a lot of cans? I’ve bought the cheap and popular one, but it rusted quite quickly. I’ve bought the battery-powered ones, but they got wet and stopped working. I liked the smooth edge opener, but two of them became dull and unusable after under 6 months. If I could go back, I would just buy this ZYLISS Lock N’ Lift Can Opener. Most of it is plastic, so it hasn’t shown rust yet. It’s got a good grip and is easy to use.

zeroll

Zeroll 1020 Original Ice Cream Scoop
Didn’t see this coming, huh? This is the best ice cream scoop, period. Once you try it, you will wonder why all the other ice cream scoops in the world are so bad in comparison. If you walk into an ice cream shop, this is probably the brand that they use. It has conductive fluid that makes it easier to get through rock-hard ice cream. It creates the perfect ball shape for placing on cones. The 2-ounce size makes a small/medium-sized ball, but other sizes are available. Why not own the best ice cream scoop in the world for about $15?

I’m sure I’m forgetting a few things. There are also many other items I on my wish list that I haven’t bought yet. What high-quality kitchen items would you consider a good “investment”?

Consumer Reports: Top 10 Cars Reaching 200,000 Miles (Updated 2017)

cr1704Consumer Reports has an updated for 2017 list of the 10 vehicles (including cars, SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks) that reached 200,000+ miles according to their big annual car survey. Here’s the list based on the total number of responses (ignoring model years), with the Toyota Camry the top model.

  • Toyota Camry
  • Honda Accord
  • Toyota Prius
  • Honda CR-V
  • Toyota Sienna
  • Honda Civic
  • Toyota Corolla
  • Toyota 4Runner
  • Toyota Highlander
  • Ford F-150

There are a couple of wrinkles to consider:

  • This is a raw list based on the number of responses, but the Toyota Camry is already the best-selling model in the US. It would be interesting if they adjusted for the overall number of vehicles sold. You might then find some hidden gems. What if Mitsubishi made a really solid car but nobody noticed since there are so few of them? Also, any new model names like the Buick Encore will not have been around long enough to get to 200,000 miles.
  • The demographics or other characteristics of a Toyota Camry or Honda Civic owner may be different. Maybe Toyota and Honda owners tend to be more frugal, more diligent at regular maintenance, and not buy new cars every 3-7 years. That would be a big factor in getting to 200,000 miles as a new car. Perhaps the more often a car is sold, the less likely it will reach 200,000 miles. If you only plan on owning a car for a couple years, why spend a lot of energy taking care of it?
  • As noted in the article, a specific car model can go through period of higher or lower reliability, especially when a new generation is released. A specific Toyota or Honda model year may have a known issue with transmission, etc.

I’ve been a participant in the online reliability website TrueDelta for a while. It uses crowd-sourced data, but it often needs additional data points to be accurate enough to be useful. I recommend contributing if you find it useful. To their credit, they do try to make the periodic reporting as quick and easy as possible.

Local Ethnic Grocery Stores: Why Are Fruits and Veggies So Cheap?

Bittermelon picture.  Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bittermelon_(5926208390).jpgMost cities have local ethnic food stores that sell produce for a lot less than the big grocery chains. I suppose they are called this because they are often started by immigrants to serve other immigrants (ex. Mexican, Vietnamese, Armenian). But why are they cheaper? One popular theory was that they bought the “ugly” stuff that the chains wouldn’t buy. (Driscoll’s became dominant by breeding beautiful strawberries, even though in my opinion it tastes like they crossbred with styrofoam.)

In the case of New York City Chinatown at least, the WSJ found (non-paywall link) that a major reason behind the lower prices are special, local supply chains.

Her discovery: Chinatown’s 80-plus produce markets are cheap because they are connected to a web of small farms and wholesalers that operate independently of the network supplying most mainstream supermarkets.

My personal theory is that these are family businesses and everyone pitches in. The article doesn’t directly address cheap family labor, but minimal overhead is discussed:

Indeed, Chinatown’s green grocers make Costco look like Dean & DeLuca. Some are mere sidewalk stands renting space in front of a nail salon or a drugstore. Shelves are typically made of plywood and lined with newsprint; prices are hastily marked on strips of cardboard. Shoeboxes serve as cash registers. The scales are still analogue, and good luck using a credit card.

All this translates into low overhead for the retailers—and low prices for shoppers. The typical Chinatown produce markup is just 10% to 12% over wholesale, said Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corp.

This special sourcing can vary. Unfortunately I don’t live near NYC Chinatown, but in my local ethnic market, some of the produce will also be from a local farm, often the lesser-known asian vegetable or herbs that grow like weeds but wilt quickly. However, some of these vendors also offer everything from watermelon to tomatoes in December. In that case, then they are probably buying some things directly from a commercial wholesaler. (It still might be cheaper than a chain.) I usually look for a sign that says “local” or simply ask them what is locally grown.

Absolute vs. Relative Standard of Living: What is Enough?

univ_brk

I’m currently reading University of Berkshire Hathaway: 30 Years of Lessons Learned from Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger at the Annual Shareholders Meeting by Daniel Pecaut and Corey Wrenn. As opposed to a rehash of the BRK shareholder letters, it contains highlights from listening to Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger live during the shareholder meetings in Omaha, Nebraska from 1986-2015. (The equivalent of a live Beyonce or Springsteen concert for investing geeks.)

I’ve always appreciated that Buffett and Munger are very rational and practical people, and one theme that I picked up from this book was the concept of absolute vs. relative standard of living.

What is enough? You’ve probably heard some variant of the phrase “live like a college student” when talking about how to save money. I certainly used this tactic successfully for many years, and Buffett explains why it makes sense:

Buffett contended that the average college student has the same standard of living as he does. Same food. No important difference in clothes, cars, TVs. After you have enough for daily life, all that matters is your health and those you love. Likewise in work, what really matters is that you enjoy it and the people with which you work. Munger concluded humorously, “What good is health? You can’t buy money with it.”

Ask yourself: Does this make me healthier? Does this let me spend more time with the people I love? Does it give me valuable knowledge? Think about how a large portion of the luxury world exists without actually improving your quality of life: luxury cars, designer clothing, fancy purses, fancy watches.

Stop comparing yourself to others. Buffett reminds us that envy is the worst among the seven deadly sins. You feel miserable with no upside at all. (The rest are gluttony, greed, lust, sloth, wrath, and pride.)

If someone else is getting rich, so what? Someone else will always be doing better. He asserted that the notion that an investor or investment manager should be “required” to beat everyone else is nonsense. The real key is to know what you really want to avoid and give those things a wide berth (such as a bad marriage, an early death, and so on). Do this and life will go much better, he advised.

I think this concept is under-appreciated in the investment world. You manage to lose a little less money than a benchmark and you still “win”? Think about the people who have quietly gotten rich with rental properties. They don’t worry about benchmarks, they just make sure the rent checks come in and the building is maintained. When they can, they buy another property. Over the long run, it works out just fine. You could do something similar by regularly buying a Vanguard Target Retirement Fund, Vanguard Balanced Fund, or even Vanguard Wellington Fund.

Money vs. Quality of Life. Make no doubt about it, Buffett enjoys having a lot of money. I imagine he treats it like a video game with dollars instead of points. However, he separates money and quality of life. That’s what has let him decide to give almost all of it away to charity. He’s donated over $27 billion already, with a total amount that could be over $100 billion (depending on the future value of Berkshire stock):

Buffett added that as far as he’s concerned, he hasn’t given up anything. He hasn’t changed his life. He couldn’t eat any better or sleep any better, so he really hasn’t given up anything. Someone giving up a trip to Disneyland to make a donation is the one making a real sacrifice.

These simple quotes can provide a basic outline for early retirement. First, try your best to stop comparing yourself to others, as that’s a game you’ll never win. Besides, if you act and spend like everyone else, then you’ll be working as long as everyone else. Next, decide what kind of daily lifestyle is “enough”. Does that require spending $30k a year? $50k a year? $80k a year? Now work to save 25 times that amount. $30k a year = $750,000. $50k a year = $1.25 million. (You might want to revisit the “enough” question after doing this multiplication…) That’s a nice rough number. Now work on the income side of the equation while keeping your spending side in check. In the meantime, enjoy your awesome quality of life. Appreciate the good stuff like nourishing food, hot showers, comfortable beds, nature, air conditioning, friends, and family.

Why Don’t More People Use Programmable Thermostats?

ecobeeThe hottest time of the year has arrived. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) shared some results from their 2015 Residential Energy Consumption Survey in regards to air conditioning.

A programmable thermostat can save you a ballpark 15% on your cooling bill, with the average household saving $10-$15 per month. A programmable thermostat will adjust based on a preset schedule of when you expect to be home, away, or sleeping. Various studies (Nest whitepaper) have shown that you can save about 10% on heating and 15% on cooling, with the averaging household bill going down by about $10-$15 per month.

Prices start at only $20 for basic models, but you could theoretically break even in two years even with a fancy $250 thermostat. This highly-rated touchscreen model is $45 and this basic Honeywell version is only $20. Newer smart thermostats like the $250 Nest Thermostat and $250 ecobee4 can learn how you like the temperature and also work with WiFi and Amazon Alexa so you can change the settings wherever using your smartphone or with your voice.

So… you’d think they would be quite popular, right?

ac_thermo1

Less than 20% of homes with central air conditioning regularly use a programmable thermostat. Heck, only 30% of folks who already have a programmable thermostat installed actually use them. The article doesn’t explore the reasons behind this behavior. Maybe it’s just too complicated to program? They tried it and didn’t like it?

In case you’re curious, below are the average temperatures at which other people report setting their air-conditioning thermostat. Hmm… is it weird that my house is usually around 78 or 80 degrees?

ac_thermo2

Bottom line. Using a programmable thermostat is a pretty reliable way to save money your electricity bill. But for some reason, people don’t use them! Using a smart thermostat is a less reliable way to save money (higher upfront cost, lower marginal benefit over basic programmable thermostat), but if the alternative is doing nothing, then it could be worth the additional upfront investment.

Landline Phone Replacement: OBi200 Adapter $40 Deal + Installation Tips

obi200Updated. If you still like the idea of landline phone service and multiple handsets around the house, Obihai VoIP boxes are officially supported by Google Voice to provide unlimited free calls to the USA to Canada. That’s totally free: $0 a month + $0 in tax and fees. Low international per-minute rates as well. All you need is a broadband internet connection and and a power plug (no computer).

Special offers. Get Obi200 for $39.98 when you use promo code OBIDEAL7 (expires 7/30/17). The seller should be Obihai Technology, Inc. at $49.99 before the coupon brings it down to $39.98 during checkout. There haven’t been many deals on these boxes recently.

I bought myself a Obi200 in order to try out their free calls, and also compare the voice quality with my Ooma device. 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.

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). If you can find one on the cheap, the older boxes work too. However, note that Obihai has stopped supporting Obi100 and Obi110 with new development. Here is a handy comparison chart of the OBi100, OBi110, OBi200, and OBi202.

obi200compare2

Bottom line. If you like the idea of having a landline-style phone service (multiple handsets around the house), this is a very good way to save money on your budget.

Money Buys Happiness… If You Outsource Your Unwanted Chores

happyfaceFirst, you were told that the best way to buy happiness was to buy experiences, not things. Other research then said happiness can come from buying the right things. Here’s another academic study making the rounds (WaPo, NYT): Buying time promotes happiness by Whilans et al, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Abstract:

Around the world, increases in wealth have produced an unintended consequence: a rising sense of time scarcity. We provide evidence that using money to buy time can provide a buffer against this time famine, thereby promoting happiness. Using large, diverse samples from the United States, Canada, Denmark, and The Netherlands (n = 6,271), we show that individuals who spend money on time-saving services report greater life satisfaction. A field experiment provides causal evidence that working adults report greater happiness after spending money on a time-saving purchase than on a material purchase. Together, these results suggest that using money to buy time can protect people from the detrimental effects of time pressure on life satisfaction.

The study found that spending money on time-saving activities was more efficient than material purchases in improving life satisfaction and decrease stress. This applied across different countries, careers, and income levels.

Here are some examples of time-saving activities:

  • House cleaner
  • Grocery delivery
  • Dry cleaning, laundry
  • Lawn care
  • Home repair
  • Cooking service
  • Shopping service
  • Shorter commute (taxi vs. bus)
  • Moving services
  • Junk removal services

For example, instead of spending $125 on clothes or gadgets, you’ll be happier if you spend $125 and the house is cleaned for you every two weeks. The more the activity is a chore that you dread doing yourself, the better.

This seems perfectly reasonable. I’m betting most of us have washing machines and dryers. Many also have dishwashers. That’s paying money to save time. I also paid more for a house with a shorter commute. This article about “extreme” commuting (4 hours+ total every weekday) sounded quite horrible. Amazon… enough said.

I must admit, I still have a hard time outsourcing many household tasks. I don’t love doing home repair, but I do like that after something breaks (and I spend a couple of hours on YouTube and trips to Home Depot), I have learned something new. I should think about what tasks I hate doing the most.

Bottom line: You can buy happiness by spending money to have more positive experiences. You can also buy happiness by avoiding negative experiences (i.e. having to spend your time on unpleasant tasks).