Don’t Have Prime But Shop at Amazon? Read Those Prices Carefully

ProPublica has a new article Amazon Says It Puts Customers First. But Its Pricing Algorithm Doesn’t, which outlines how Amazon does not always list the lowest price including shipping as the first available option. Here’s an example they provide of how this works on some pruning shears if you don’t have Amazon Prime or reach the $49 Super Saver Shipping tier:

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Amazon really, really wants everyone to buy Amazon Prime. They do all kinds of little nudges to get you to join. For example, their Super Saver Shipping option went from a few days to oftentimes weeks to get to me. Another way they promote Amazon Prime is by promoting merchants that join their Fulfilled by Amazon (FBA) program, because that means customers can buy more stuff with Prime. ProPublica points out that Amazon used to be more blunt about it with this former language:

Because most FBA listings are ranked without a shipping cost, you get an edge when competing!

Bottom line: If you don’t have Prime and don’t qualify for Super Saver Shipping, the default buying option will often not be the cheapest. By using the term “algorithm”, that suggests to me some sort of complicated scheme. What Amazon does is simple but perhaps deceptive: They assume that their Prime-eligible items will ship to you free, whether you have Prime or not. If you don’t have Prime and don’t reach the $49 tier for Super Saver Shipping, you should remember this rule across the entire site. Don’t click on the “Add to Cart” button without closer inspection. Amazon is simply adding yet another inconvenience for non-Prime shoppers. (I can’t wait for the new Top Gear, er… Grand Tour to start though!)

Access from AT&T Review: Affordable Home Internet For Low-Income Households

accessatt0Access from AT&T is an affordable internet access plan for low-income households offered in certain areas with AT&T service. The cost is either $5 a month at 3 Mbps or $10 a month for 5-10 Mbps, depending on your area. According to their FAQ and press release, other features include:

  • No deposit required
  • No activation or installation fee
  • No contract
  • Free modem + WiFi router rental
  • Free access to the entire national AT&T Wi-Fi Hot Spot network.

However, note that AT&T will run a credit check. I don’t quite understand the reasoning though, as they state it won’t affect your eligibility. From their website:

As part of standard AT&T policy, all orders for new service are subject to a credit check. Results of the credit check will not impact your ability to obtain Internet service under the Access program from AT&T.

Qualifying households must have:

  • At least one resident who participates in the U.S. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and
  • An address in AT&T’s 21-state service area, at which we offer wireline home Internet service, and
  • No outstanding debt for AT&T fixed Internet service within the last six months or outstanding debt incurred under this program.

California residents also are eligible if:

  • At least one member of your household receives SSI benefits; and
  • At least one of the Access from AT&T Internet speed tiers is available at the address where you live.

You can apply for the Access by AT&T program here. You can also learn more by calling AT&T at 1-855-220-5211 for assistance in English or 1-855-220-5225 for assistance in Spanish.

I am not applauding AT&T for this effort, just promoting its availability. AT&T agreed to offer this service as a condition of their merger with DirecTV. I think people should take advantage of it if it works economically for them. However, I see no evidence that AT&T did this for charitable reasons. They are only doing the bare minimum required by law. I think they are rightly being criticized for not offering this affordable plan in areas where they have speeds lower than 3 Mbps.

Also see:

Secret Eaters: Fighting Your Unconscious and Semi-Consicous Choices

In my last Buffett post, I talked about the importance of tracking performance carefully when trading your own portfolios. Most casual traders “think” they are doing fine, but if you ask them their rate of return for the last year compared to a benchmark, they won’t be able to tell you. They may have a rough idea, something like “last year was bad but this year I did a lot better”. Alternatively, they may point out that they gained a lot on Apple but lost a lot on Valeant.

This reminded me of a British TV show called Secret Eaters. Along the same lines, most people “think” they eat relatively healthy. They remember the time they turned down that bacon cheeseburger and had a nice salad instead. Participants in this show had their eating habits quietly tracked by private investigators, hidden cameras, or by digging through their trash. Many were surprised to find that they ate an additional 1,000+ calories a day in snacks, desserts, and oversized portions. Here’s a sample episode (the intro shows you the general show structure):

Now, this is a TV show and thus more about entertainment than proper nutritional science, but the point remains that the people profiled did a lot of semi-conscious eating. After being presented with the hard evidence, they were quite surprised. Here’s a Mirror article that follows up on some of the participants and how they started tracking their diet more carefully using things like smartphone apps. In addition to better tracking, another tip is to change your environment. In my opinion, watching TV is the great enabler of mindless eating. I try to avoid eating in front of the TV or computer whenever possible.

The same fuzzy tracking is what gets us into trouble with spending. You get the credit card bill, and all these little charges here and there added up to an extra 500 dollars. To counteract this, you could use one of the many budgeting apps now available. Changing your environment also applies: unsubscribe from some daily deal e-mails, pre-plan your weekly meals, and only visit a shopping website when you have something specific to buy (no browsing).

If you consistently make poor eating decisions, your body will probably tell you. If you consistently make bad spending decisions, your bank statement will probably tell you. But unconsciously bad choices in investing are especially sneaky because you may never know how much potential money you lost on high fees or badly-timed trades.

7 Essential Money Questions from The New York Times

green_questionThe NY Times has a new essay called 7 Essential Money Questions Sure to Start a Conversation:

What follows are the seven best queries that I could find that tend to stop people cold and get them to open up about whatever money they have and the emotions that wrap themselves around their personal finances.

I found myself answering them in my head, so I figured why not share my answers.

What lessons about money did you learn from your parents?

I would say that I remember frugality being a part of everyday life growing up. We would live in apartments and duplexes, while some of my friends would live in big houses. We rarely ate in restaurants, except on birthdays when I got to go to Olive Garden or Red Lobster. I remember being scolded when I used a paper towel for a task that could have been done with a cloth towel. I was taught to use no more than a dab of shampoo. To this day, I have a visceral dislike of wasting food.

Another thing that stuck with me was that my dad worked hard at a career that he enjoyed, but he could have made more money elsewhere. I didn’t like that he seemed to work all the time, but at least he seemed passionate about what he was doing. Together, I feel like I have combined these characteristics. If you can control your spending, you can be more flexible in your work situation.

What does the word “money” conjure up for you?

Well, for starters money means survival. Food, housing, and personal safety. I am a conservative person that enjoys a feeling of security. By making clear what is need vs. want, I can be confident that I have enough in the bank to “survive” for a very long time.

Above that, money means freedom. Freedom to quit a job with management that cares about short-term profits or metrics more than long-term value or people. Forget you money. Freedom to have more kids without worrying.

How many children would you like to have when you retire?

Three. This is such a personal choice. What’s worse, with fertility problems and adoption hurdles you may not even be given a choice.

How do you think your children feel about that?

I think they’ll be fine. They may have to share clothes, books, toys, and later vehicles. They’ll have to share rooms. Every kid doesn’t need their own room… What’s wrong with bunk beds? I hope they appreciate having siblings.

Raising kids is both so more much difficult and enjoyable than I thought it would be. I used to idealize some ideal “future with kids”. Nowadays, instead of long-term planning, I just try to enjoy the process. Every day usually has a few precious moments and a few difficult ones that test our patience.

Tell me about your financial situation when you first met.

My wife and I met when we were both 18 years old and freshmen in college. Her parents had taken out home equity loans to help fund her education. My parents were also paying for a good chunk of my education, and in addition I was accruing what would end up being $30,000 in student loans. We both had part-time jobs (that’s actually how we met, while I was on the job). Our combined net worth was negative.

What are the most important things in your life?

Family, then friends, then community.

What does the prospect of retirement look like to you?

Here’s my ideal “early retirement” weekday from roughly age 40-60. Wake up early. Prepare kids and send off to school. Work at any job that I enjoy until noon. Eat lunch with spouse and run any errands. Pick up kids and play with/teach/chauffeur them. Have the time and energy to be present with them. Cook at home and eat dinner as a family. Put kids to bed. Read. Go to bed early-ish. On weekends, add in hiking, sports, backyard cookouts, festivals, etc. Travel together as a family for 3-6 weeks at a time in the summer.

Amazon Problems: Counterfeit Products

azbirky0In my previous installment of Amazon Problems, I talked about fake Amazon product reviews. This time, I talk about fake products themselves. Thanks to lax Amazon policies, buyers now have to worry about whether their products are genuine or counterfeits.

Amazon is now more of an open marketplace and less a “store” like Best Buy or Wal-Mart. Nearly 40% of Amazon’s total sales now come from two million third-party sellers. When you buy something, the website might still look like Amazon but the behind-the-scenes process could be very different. You basically have one of three options:

  • Ships from and sold by Amazon.com. The real “Amazon store”. Amazon buys the products wholesale directly from the manufacturer, keeps them in Amazon warehouses, and then Amazon ships it you.
  • Fulfilled by Amazon (FBA). This means a third-party bought the product from somewhere, claims that it is authentic, and then ships it over into an Amazon warehouse. You buy it, and Amazon ships it. This allows the merchant to make their products eligible for Free Super Saver Shipping and Amazon Prime.
  • Ships and sold by Third-Party. The sellers have to follow certain rules, but you are mostly dealing directly with a third-party seller with their own warehouse and order fulfillment. This is like eBay or traditional flea markets.

Because Amazon essentially allows anyone to ship them something and say “These are the real thing!”, that opportunity itself can encourage counterfeiting. In July 2016, Birkenstock announced that due to counterfeits and Amazon’s lack of response, they will no longer supply products to Amazon as of January 1st, 2017. In addition, they will no longer authorize third-party merchants to sell on the site.

According to another CNBC article, other brands with questionable authenticity include Michael Kors and Canada Goose. Amazon even commingles inventory from various third-party sellers, so you end up with no idea where your product really came from:

To unsuspecting consumers, fake products can appear legitimate because of the Fulfillment by Amazon program, which lets manufacturers send their goods to Amazon’s fulfillment centers and hand over a bigger commission, gaining the stamp of approval that comes with an FBA tag.

Furthermore, Amazon’s commingled inventory option bundles together products from different sellers, meaning that a counterfeit jacket could be sent to an Amazon facility by one merchant and actually sold by another.

I can only hope that Amazon’s own inventory is still kept separate from the Fulfilled By Amazon (FBA) inventory.

Per The Counterfeit Report, here are some other brand name items with reports of counterfeit copies online:

  • Converse Chuck Taylor All Star shoes
  • The North Face Denali jackets
  • Gillette Fusion Razor Blades
  • Giorgio Armani: Acqua Di Gio fragrance
  • Bose headphones
  • Otterbox smartphone cases
  • Duracell batteries

It’s really hard to tell between fake and real products. Last year, a detailed teardown of a $199 Beats headphone that revealed only $17 of cheap parts went viral. That pair of headphones turned out to be fake. But wait, they did a another teardown of authentic Beats headphones and found them to be still very similar, with $20 of cheap parts. It really says something these hardware experts didn’t even recognize a fake after tearing it apart (the boxes and internal materials are also excellent copies).

This counterfeit problem should be a huge concern for Amazon. Every time I look at a brand name product like Bose headphones, Nespresso coffee pods, or Ray Ban sunglasses, I have to pause and weigh the chances that I’ll get a fake product. Is the price too good to be true? Why is this other price so much lower? If another big merchant comes along with a good user interface and reliable product sourcing, then I would definitely consider shopping there instead. (You hear that, Jet.com + Wal-Mart?)

What can you do? One option is to only buy things marked “Ships from and sold by Amazon.com.” This may mean you have to voluntarily pay more for the same product – so painful! – but it may be worth a few extra bucks for the peace of mind. I would also consider third-party sellers if they are the original manufacturers of the product. For example, you could buy ExOfficio boxer briefs directly from the ExOfficio seller account (although sold by Amazon is cheaper right now).

Amazon’s return policies could still be considered “customer-friendly”, but only if you are an alert and active customer. It is your responsibility to examine your product for any inconsistencies. If you spend the time to contact them and complain, by most accounts Amazon will refund your money if under FBA, or at least pressure the 3rd-party merchant to refund your money. This isn’t good enough; I hope that Amazon becomes less reactionary and be more pro-active about this problem.

Store-Bought Rotisserie Chicken: An Economic Analysis

costco_chickenCostco’s $4.99 rotisserie chicken is about as famous as their $1.50 hot dog and soda combo. It’s cheap, but is it a good value? Priceonomics went out and did an real-world experiment using store-bought rotisserie chicken. You may have noticed that the rotisserie chickens are often smaller than the raw whole chickens you can buy in the same store.

To test out whether rotisserie chickens are still a bargain after you account for their size and reduced water weight, we ran an experiment. We visited seven supermarkets and bought a rotisserie chicken and a raw chicken from each. After draining each rotisserie chicken of the fluid that collects in the container, we weighed them. Then we cooked the raw chickens […] and weighed them.

Here are the results from Priceonomics:

rotchicken

At Costco and Smart & Final, the rotisserie chickens are actually cheaper than cooking it yourself. At other grocery chains, on a per pound basis you can save money cooking it yourself. You can save even more by stocking up when there is a sale. Whole chickens go for $0.99 or less per pound pretty regularly in my experience.

This analysis tried to focus on the numbers, but there are other factors to consider. Time is a big one – If you don’t like to spend your time cooking, you may prefer the rotisserie. Control is another – if you prefer to buy organic, avoid any “enhanced” flavorings and additives, or otherwise customize your chicken, you may still prefer to cooking yourself.

OpenSignal LTE Network Comparison: T-Mobile vs. Verizon

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OpenSignal (mentioned previously) crowdsources cellular coverage and speed maps directly from individual network users. They recently released the August 2016 update to their State of Mobile Networks USA Report, which was based on 2.8 billion measurements collected by 120,000 OpenSignal users. The results may surprise you.

Verizon is still first, but T-Mobile is now a close second in terms of LTE Network availability. Note the definition of availability is based on the percentage of time that users get a LTE signal; it is not directly based on geographical coverage.

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T-Mobile is now first (again, the difference is small) in average LTE network speed.

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Coverage is still location specific. At the bottom of the report, they list which networks have the best coverage in your metro area. For example, Verizon is tops availability for Boston and New York City, Verizon and T-Mobile are tied for top in Los Angeles and Seattle, and AT&T and Verizon are tied for tops in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Using their crowdsourced maps, you can even drill down to your home, school, workplace, or commute route. It’s free to see their coverage maps online, but you should consider downloading their free smartphone apps (Android / iOS) so that you can also contribute anonymous information and improve the data quality for everyone. The app will even direct you if you want to walk towards a better signal.

Bottom line. LTE is now the most important form of cellular data. T-Mobile has invested a lot of money into 4G LTE coverage, while Sprint has less complete and slower 4G LTE coverage. While Verizon still has the best geographical coverage, depending on your location the T-Mobile network may offer equally good LTE coverage and speed. This is good to know since T-Mobile is always offering some sort of promotion, while the MVNOs that use their network like Ting and Republic Wireless are the cheapest options.

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. You can either buy a phone from them or bring your unlocked phone and use their SIM card. There are still no Apple phones on the list (hopefully this changes one day).

  • Google Pixel
  • Google Pixel XL
  • Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge
  • Samsung Galaxy S7
  • Samsung Galaxy J3
  • Samsung Galaxy S6
  • Nexus 6P by Huawei
  • Nexus 6 by Motorola
  • Nexus 5X by LG
  • Moto X Pure Edition
  • Moto G4
  • Moto G4 Plus
  • Moto G4 Play
  • Moto Z
  • Moto Z Play

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.