Infographic: Income vs. Cost-of-Living For All 50 States

The NY Times has an article called What $100 Can Buy, State by State. You know I can’t resist a good 50-state infographic. The first chart is basically a cost-of-living comparison. The findings shouldn’t be too surprising.

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  • Stuff and services cost the most in District of Columbia, Hawaii, New York, New Jersey, California, and Maryland.
  • Stuff and services cost the least in Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, South Dakota, and Kentucky.

You would expect the states with higher cost-of-living to also have higher incomes. But the correlation isn’t always perfect. I found the second chart to be more interesting, as they adjusted for incomes. Some places had low-to-average income and high prices, while some states had average-to-high incomes and low prices.

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  • The states where per capita incomes have the most purchasing power were North Dakota, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Wyoming, Massachusetts, and Nebraska.
  • The states where per capita incomes have the least purchasing power were Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho, and Hawaii.

Ting Review: Bring Your Existing Phone, Referral Discount, Now Cheaper Data

tinglogTing provides mobile phone service with a “pay-only-for-what-you-use” and “bring your own phone” structure. I recently switched my parents over to Ting from Republic Wireless so that they could use our older iPhones (easier for them, easier for us to do tech support). Ting recently updated their pricing structure to include cheaper data, so I am updating my review.

Who can save money? Ting works best for overall moderate usage, especially spread across multiple users. Why pay for unlimited minutes and texts when you don’t need them? Why pay for 5 GB every month if you often use less? Sample rates:

  • $12.00 per line ($26 total) per month for 2 lines sharing 500 minutes, 100 texts, and no data. (This is the typical bill amount with my parents.)
  • $27.50 per line ($55 total) per month for 2 lines sharing 1,000 minutes, 1,000 texts, and 2 GB data.
  • $9.50 per line ($38 total) per month for 4 lines sharing 500 minutes, 1,000 texts, and no data.
  • $16.75 per line ($67 total) per month for 4 lines sharing 1,000 minutes, 1,000 texts, and 2 GB data.

Put your own numbers into the Ting interactive rate calculator to see if you can save money. Each line is a flat $6 and all lines share a bucket of either minutes, text, and data.

Here’s a screenshot of their NEW rate breakdown:

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Here’s a screenshot of their OLD rate breakdown. You can see that their data used to be much more expensive, working out to $19 for the first GB, $29 for 2GB, and then $15 per extra GB of data (billed pretty much down to the penny). As of 8/5/2016, the numbers are $16 for the first GB, $20 for 2 GB, and now $10 per extra GB of data (billed in $10 increments). The price drop applies to everyone and pretty much no matter what, the new data plan is cheaper than the old data plan.

Ting realized that they were being known as “good if you don’t use a lot of data”.

Ting uses both Sprint CDMA and T-Mobile GSM networks, so you can bring over any used Sprint phone, used T-Mobile phone, or any unlocked GSM phone. Use their Ting phone compatibility checker tool. If you bring your own GSM phone, you’ll need a SIM card. Prices change with time and promotions, but they currently cost $9 + free shipping via USPS Priority Mail.

Bring Your Own Phone. You can buy a refurbished iPhone 5 directly from Ting for about $200, but you can also buy a used iPhone 5 for about $109 from Swappa. A used Samsung Galaxy S4 from Ting costs about $180, but they are about $100 on Swappa.

Being able to bring over the same phone you’ve already been using is the best way to save money. We had an old Verizon iPhone 5, which is also GSM unlocked. We just bought a SIM card, popped it in, and starting using the service immediately.

Refer-a-friend discount. New Ting customers get a $25 credit with a referral link (that’s mine). Thanks in advance if you use it, you’ll be saving my parents some money on their next bill.

Bottom line. Ting’s strengths are transparent, metered monthly plans and a flexible bring-your-own-phone policy. They recently dropped their data prices. “Pay for what you use” means that you don’t need to pay for 3 GB tier every month if most months you only use 1 or 2 GB. The math works out best for shared plans. You can bring over any used Sprint, used T-Mobile, or unlocked GSM phone. Not everyone will save money, so use their rate calculator to compare your own situation.

Republic Wireless Review: New $20/Month Plan, Phone Options, SIM Cards

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Republic Wireless provides mobile phone service, specializing in making phone calls seamlessly over WiFi. They are not afraid to make big changes and take risks in trying to be more competitive in their offerings. While their 2.0 Refund plans received a mixed response (we switched out during this transition), they recently announced their new 3.0 Clear Choice plans with the T-Mobile network and a wider selection of phone options. Here’s a look at the changes.

Who can save money? Republic Wireless still works best for heavy talk and text users with frequent WiFi coverage. Data usage can be anywhere from none to relatively heavy (10 GB). The plans are priced per person, so they work well for individuals that can’t take advantage of family or shared plans. Here are all of their newest Clear Choice plan options:

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In their opinion and mine, the sweet spot of their plan is the $20/month offering, which includes unlimited talk, unlimited text, and 1 GB of 4G LTE data. For $15 a month, you can get unlimited talk and text with zero data.

Phone options. One of the weak spots of Republic Wireless was that they need to use special software to run their WiFi voice calls, so they restricted you to specially-modified phones. You had to either buy a new phone from them, or try to find another RW-modified phone on the secondary market.

With their 3.0 structure, they have introduced a large list of GSM phone options. Here’s their initial launch list, and they hint at more phones to come. I’ve highlighted the most expensive and cheapest options.

  • Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge – $799
  • Samsung Galaxy S7 – $699
  • Samsung Galaxy J3 – $179
  • Samsung Galaxy S6 – $549
  • Nexus 6P by Huawei – $499 (on sale from $599)
  • Nexus 5X by LG – $349
  • Moto X Pure Edition – $349
  • Moto G4 – $199
  • Moto G4 Plus – $299

In addition, starting 8/11/16, you will be able use a SIM card with your own unlocked GSM phone if the model number specifically matches their restricted list. There are still no Apple phones on the list (hopefully this changes one day).

Bottom line. Republic Wireless is making some big changes, so it’s worth taking another look at them. The cell network is now T-Mobile for new customers, not Sprint. The $20 a month plan for unlimited talk, text, and 1 GB of LTE data is very competitive. There are 9 new Android GSM phones available starting at $199, a new SIM card option, but still no Apple phones.

Google Photos: Unlimited Free Photo and Video Backup + Free Up Phone Storage

Updated August 2016. I have been using Google Photos as a free online backup for an Apple iPhone for a year, and it has worked very well and saved me money on iCloud. The app has a new-ish feature called “Free Up Space” that automatically identifies which pictures it has already backed up online for you, and will delete them off your Android or iOS device in order to save space. (I’m a bit paranoid about my photos, so I do a physical backup to hard drive as well.)

You may see this commercial during the Olympics (directed at 16GB iPhone users):

Original post:

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Google may already see all your search queries, have access to all your e-mails with Gmail, and now it wants to store all your photos. Why would you let them? How about unlimited space. Free. From the Google Blog:

Google Photos gives you a single, private place to keep a lifetime of memories, and access them from any device. They’re automatically backed up and synced, so you can have peace of mind that your photos are safe, available across all your devices.

Google Photos will store unlimited images for free, with a few conditions. You can choose from one of two options:

  • High quality – Unlimited free storage. Recommended for phones or point-and-shoot cameras that are 16 megapixels (MP) or less. Good for typical printing and sharing. Will be compressed using their special algorithm. Anything under 16 megapixels will have minimal degradation of quality, supposedly it is optimized so that visually you can’t tell the difference. Anything bigger than 16 megapixels will be downsized to 16 megapixels, which can be significant for DSLR users.
  • Original quality – Limited free storage: Uses your Google Account’s 15 GB of free storage. Recommended if you take photos with a DSLR camera and want to maintain the exact original quality. Recommended for printing large banners or to store your original files. Store your photos and videos exactly as you captured them.

Google Photos will store unlimited video for free at 1080p quality. This is pretty big for me, as my videos take up the most space and right now I don’t pay to back them up in the cloud – only on external hard drives. If you upload something 4K, it will downsize to 1080p.

As you might expect with Google, they have also tried their best to make searching through your huge image library as easy as possible:

VISUAL SEARCH: Your photos are now searchable by the places and things that appear in your photos. Looking for that fish taco you ate in Hawaii? Just search “Hawaii” or “food” to find it even if it doesn’t have a description.

There is even facial recognition that groups photos with the same face. The app automatically creates collages of similar photos, albums of photos taken at the same time and place, and even animations.

Amazon Prime members can get free unlimited photo storage, but only 5 GB of free video storage.

Here are the links for the Web interface, Android app, and Apple iOS app.

Parting.com: Funeral Price Comparison Website

parting0Talking about death is always an awkward topic (even though it will happen to all of us), but this is my version of the many similar PSA-type funeral articles you’ll come across in personal finance magazines and columns.

The standard advice: If you are in the unfortunate circumstance that you are looking for funeral services, you should compare prices and services. The same service and products from two different funeral homes can vary by thousands of dollars. Even worse, some funeral homes are quite aggressive at pushing optional services as “necessary”. It is best to shop around.

Here are some good resources committed to educating shoppers:

The problem with this advice: comparing prices is a big hassle. All these pages will tell you to compare prices, as I just did. The government even requires that funeral homes provide their prices upfront upon request. However, they don’t require them to post them in an itemized manner online, so it is still a hassle to call up multiple places and make sure you are comparing prices for equivalent services. Parting.com is the first “price search engine” for funeral homes that I’ve seen that has apparently manually asked thousands of funeral homes for their price disclosures through phone calls, e-mail, and fax. Here is a screenshot for Los Angeles, California:

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I have not actually used Parting before, but I wouldn’t mind using their work to help me get started. Hopefully their reviews database will fill out over time. I came across other pricing sites, but they either had limited quote coverage or they charge an upfront fee (FuneralPriceFinder and I’mSorryToHear).

You may also consider restricting your search to funeral homes that work with the non-profit Funeral Consumer Alliance, if they have affiliates in your area.

Lifetime Allocation Pie Chart: Learning, Earning, and Returning

You always see pie charts used to illustrate asset allocation for portfolios. Stocks, bonds, commodities, real estate, etc. How about a pie chart for deciding how to allocate your lifetime:

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This was one of the “life lessons” provided by entrepreneur Tristan Walker in his Bloomberg profile:

Spend the first third of your life learning, the second earning, and the third returning. I try to shorten earning so I can maximize returning.

Your time on earth is a finite resource. Let’s say you put your life expectancy at 84 years. That works out to:

  • From birth until 28 years old, you are Learning. You are building up your knowledge, skills, and experience. You are building human capital.
  • From 28 to 56 years old, you are Earning. You are converting your human capital to traditional capital – money!
  • From 56 onwards, you are Returning. Once you have enough, it is your turn to give back to your community.

Learning isn’t always done in school. For example, many people will tell you that in your early years, you should take on risks before you develop too many other responsibilities. Start a business, switch careers, or travel the world. Don’t worry about the money in your 20s; your basic food and shelter expenses can be barebones. Invest your time into yourself.

Along the same lines, you won’t stop learning completely at 28 years old, but your focus and priorities may change. As I get close to 40, I feel the growing pressure of providing security for my kids and the pressure of caring for aging parents. In practical terms, you’ll need to invest more of your time into making money. Well, I might change that to earning money and then saving a big chunk of it.

Then one day, hopefully sooner than later, you can move on to giving back in a way that aligns with your personal philosophies. Invest your time towards helping your family, friends, the local community, and the world.

This is a related concept to the Earn, Save, Grow, Preserve lifecyle.

Comcast Internet Essentials Review: Affordable Internet Access For Low-Income Households

comcastieComcast offers an affordable internet access program called Internet Essentials that provides high-speed internet service for $9.95 a month + taxes, a subsidized $150 computer with Microsoft Office, and free digital literacy training to eligible groups. Over time, they have expanded their eligibility rules and also added new features. Specifically, you now get:

  • XFINITY Cable Internet Service
  • 10 Mbps download & 2 Mbps upload speeds
  • No credit check
  • No activation or installation fee
  • No contract
  • Free modem + WiFi router rental

Here are the current ways to qualify for this program.

Low-income Families. You are eligible if you have at least one child who qualifies for the National School Lunch Program. If I read the income guidelines for the NSLP correctly, a family of 4 within the contiguous 48 states can’t make more than $31,590 a year to get free lunches during the 2016-2017 school year.

HUD Housing Assistance Households. You are eligible if you receive HUD housing assistance such as Public Housing, Housing Choice Vouchers (Section 8 Vouchers) or Multifamily Vouchers (Project-Based Section 8).

Seniors Pilot Program. You must be 62 years old and live in one of the current eligible areas. You must also be enrolled in an eligible state or federal public assistance program. As of mid-2016, the list includes Boston, Palm Beach County, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Seattle.

Community College Student Pilot Program. You must be enrolled in an eligible community college, and also be a Pell Grant recipient. As of mid-2016, the list includes select community colleges in Colorado and Illinois.

In addition, for all groups, you must not have any outstanding debt to Comcast that is less than a year old. Families with outstanding debt more than one year old may still be eligible. You must also live in an area where Comcast Internet Service is available but have not subscribed to it within the last 90 days.

Problems and controversy. If you are already a low-income family that stretches to pay for Comcast internet access, you would need to cancel your existing service and then wait for a full 90 days before signing up for Internet Essentials. If the idea is to give your children the educational benefit of internet access, then it may be difficult to go without internet for 90 days.

This program is not supported with government taxes. Instead, it is a way for Comcast to make happy with various government regulators when they want to merge with another huge company. Indeed, Comcast as a monopoly or part of a duopoly in most areas may be the reason why average people are being charged $40 or $60 a month for basic internet access in the first place.

In any case, it exists, millions more households are eligible that aren’t signed up, and I think it is worth spreading the word. Apply online at internetessentials.com or over the phone (1-855-8-INTERNET or 1-855-846-8376).

The Continued Decline of Cooking at Home

nocook0Quartz published an article with the provocative title No one cooks anymore, noting that for the first time Americans are spending more money eating out (including bars and restaurants) than at grocery stores. The trend has been very steady for the last 20+ years, per US Census Bureau data:

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Although not quite greater than 50%, a similar story is told by USDA data about “food away from home as share of US household food expenditures”:

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Obviously, some people still cook. A more accurate statement would be that only half of us cook on any given day, and when we do we spend about an hour doing it. That is my interpretation of the following data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and their American Time Use Survey (ATUS).

The average American spends 27 minutes a day on food preparation. Women on average spend nearly twice as much time as men, but for everyone it works out to about half an hour a day.

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But on any given day, only about 56% of people do any food preparation at all. (Again, women more likely than men; I took an average.) Therefore, when a person does cook at home, they are probably doing it for about an hour.

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The ATUS also tells us that the average American spends 3 hours a day watching TV. Therefore, it’s not that the average American doesn’t have “time” to cook at home, they simply choose not to. Perhaps they are exhausted from work and just want to rest on the couch. It is certainly understandable. Some people argue that the food media makes food appear too perfect and daunting to make. Others have observed that Food Network is become more and more game shows and less and less instructional. Either way, lots of people are watching strangers cook while eating take-out themselves!

If you don’t want to cook, the food industry will certainly help you with that. Heck, you can simply drink Soylent if you don’t want even chew. I must admit there are weeks where my family’s routine is consistent with the cook one day, buy pre-made meal the next day ratio. If you do want to cook more at home, then here are the things that have helped me.

  • Find motivation. Determine the core reason why you want to cook more. Is it health? Is it to save money? Is it for personal fulfillment? For me, I want cooking regularly at home with raw ingredients to be part of my children’s memories and thus future expectations. I don’t want “mom’s food” or “grandpa’s food” to be KFC buckets or Stouffer’s frozen lasagna.
  • Plan ahead. Learn from my flowchart and plan ahead on Sundays. Plan ahead. Plan ahead. Plan ahead.
  • Just jump in. There are a billion recipes out there, many specifically-tailored for quick weeknight meals. Just pick one that looks easy and try it out. After a while, you’ll get better at picking better recipes and/or altering existing recipes to fit your tastes.
  • Don’t aim for perfect nutrition. Go easy on yourself, at least in the beginning. I am a fan of the eat anything, just cook it yourself philosophy. If you want to eat a steak, make a steak. Bake a potato (start in microwave, finish in oven) and use this frozen steak method. The next time, expand and bake some kale chips.
  • Learn with short online videos. Sometimes I think I could build a car from scratch if I had the right YouTube videos. I doubt I would have ever tried making my own porchetta if there wasn’t an instructional video attached with tasty pictures. (It is delicious and very easy with a food processor. Eat as a sandwich with your version of salsa verde.)

Google Fi: Simple, Pay As You Go Cell Plan With High-Speed International Data Included

filogoWe recently returned from a family trip to Europe, and I found myself missing my data plan more than ever before. I kept thinking about the slow 2G data that T-Mobile includes in their postpaid plans and how it might power data-light apps like maps, weather, Uber/taxi, and public transit “when is the next one coming?” apps. (Oh, how it would have helped in the pouring rain in the middle of the city with a 1 and 3-year old…) Why couldn’t this be offered to the rest of us for a half-decent price? I didn’t even consider surfing the web fully, watching a video, or streaming GPS directions due to the fear of a huge bill.

If you are a regular international traveler, you may have heard of the Google Project Fi cell phone plan. Here are the basics:

  • $20 a month flat for unlimited domestic talk and text, unlimited international texts, and tethering. Non-WiFi international calls can get a bit expensive, $0.20 per minute inside the UK for example.
  • $10 a month per gigabyte of data used, either domestic or international. You pay only for what you use, down to the penny! So if you use exactly 1.4 GB of data, you end up paying $14.
  • No annual contract.
  • Taxes and fees not included, as with other postpaid plans.
  • You must use an approved Google phone. The new ones on sale are the Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X (starts at $199 with activation). The older Nexus 6 is also an option.
  • Once you have activated service, you can add additional tablets like select iPads using their data-only SIM card, all while sharing the same data plan.

In the United States, your phone will switch between Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular networks based on which has the best signal. You have full access to the fastest 4G LTE networks where available.

Previously, international data was throttled to 256 kbps, which is roughly 3G speed. On July 12th, 2016, Google announced that due to an agreement with Three, those speed caps will increased “10-20X faster than before”. That means you’d be getting close to full 4G LTE speeds for international data. They also announced a limited-time offer of $150 off the Nexus 6P, bringing the base model down to $349 with activation.

There are some cons. If you are a big domestic data user and/or you have a family plan, Google Fi can end up being more expensive than existing plans from the major providers. There also doesn’t appear to be any plans to support other phones like Apple iPhone or Samsung Galaxy.

Bottom line: Although it won’t work out as the cheapest for everyone, the simple elegance of this plan is the most intriguing feature. For you “digital nomads” out there, recent changes now make Google Fi one of the best plans for frequent international travelers that want high-speed smartphone data wherever they go.

UberPool vs. Public Transportation: New York City Promotion

It’s no secret that Uber wants to take over the world… or at least replace individual car ownership. Uber just announced a New York City UberPool promotion that offers unlimited rides this July and August:

  • Two-Week Unlimited Commute Card (July or August) for $49
  • Four-Week Unlimited Commute Card (July or August) for $79
  • Eight-Week Unlimited Commute Card (July and August) for $159

Trips must begin and end in Manhattan below 125th Street. Valid Monday–Friday from 7–10 AM and 5–8 PM. Valid for both new and existing Uber riders. A quick view of how UberPool works:

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Quartz ran some rough numbers that found that this promotion can make with UberPool cheaper than taking the New York City Subway:

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For now, this is a limited promotion. But I wonder about the future. Even as someone who lives in the suburbs, I have enjoyed the convenience and savings of Uber.

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:

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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.