Earn more. Save more. Those are the two ways to get out of debt and build wealth. I’m a big proponent of doing both, but for many people it may be easier to cut back on some luxuries rather than land a higher-paying job, start a side business, or become an investing wizard. It’s also more effective due to marginal tax rates. Let’s say you are single resident of California and your (taxable) gross income is $50,000 a year.
If you were to go out and earn another dollar as an employee, here’s how that additional $1 would get broken down:
You’d only keep 58 cents. On top of that, a lot of extra or freelance work is done as an independent contractor. That means you’re self-employed and get the happy task of paying another 7.65% of payroll taxes (the employer share), which brings your total tax hit to 49.6%! So in order to keep $1 in your pocket, you’d have to get someone to pay you $1.99. In that case, your choice becomes:
This relationship helps me visualize the power of spending less. Now when you save $1, you can feel good knowing that you’d have to have earned $2 of income to equal that. But on the flip side, when I get a check from a side project for $500, I know I’ll only keep $250 of it.
When redeeming towards hotel stays, you can get 2-6 cents of value per point, more than often the value you’d get from airline miles/
Rather have miles? You can convert 20,000 points to 25,000 miles, which is 1.25 miles per dollar spent, 25% more than most other airline-specific cards.
You can “top off” a variety of frequent flier accounts to get to that coveted reward ticket level. Your miles aren’t worth anything until you actually use them!
You can convert just a few miles to keep your other miles from expiring.
Current Sign-up Bonus For New Accounts
American Express has been bumping up the sign-up incentive for the Starwood card once a year recently, so now is a good time to apply if you don’t already have the card. They are giving out up to 25,000 bonus Starpoints – 10,000 bonus Starpoints with your first purchase and another 15,000 points when you spend $5,000 within 6 months. The required spending in the past has been as high as $15,000, and the total bonus has been as low as 10,000 Starpoints. The annual fee is waived during the first year, then $65 a year after that.
(Note: If you don’t see the 25k offer, try clearing your cookies or using the Private Browsing / Incognito Mode of your web browser. Try right-clicking on the link to find this option.)
Either I’ve had one, or my wife has had one, or I’ve had the business card version of this card for the last 5+ years. Transferring points within between household members is quite easy and free. The Starwood Preferred Guest® Business Credit Card from American Express also has a similar offer good for another 25,000 bonus points – 10,000 after your first purchase and an additional 15,000 when you spend $5,000 within the first 6 months – enough for up to 6 free nights at a Category 1 or 2 hotel. Annual fee waived for the first year.
Starwood Points Convert Easily to Frequent Flier Miles
The first reason why this card is so useful is that Starwood points (or Starpoints) can be converted to miles to major domestic airlines and several international ones, including Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, United, and US Airways (full airline partner list). That means 1 Starwood point = 1 frequent flier mile. The ratio is lower (2:1) for United.
Imagine that you’re only a thousand miles short of a free ticket, but you need to buy a ticket and would really like to make it free. Although there may be other options that involve spending money, you can simply “top off” your balance by transferring as little as 1,500 miles to the specific airline programs that you want. You can even convert a specific number of points. Just need 2,854 miles here and 1,567 somewhere else? No problem.
With most airlines, your miles expire after a period of inactivity. But since any activity counts (not only flying), I could quickly transfer 1,500 miles over in order to save 20,000 hard-earned miles from expiring.
For every 20,000 points you convert, you get an additional 5,000 point bonus. So 20,000 Starwood points = 25,000 miles on the airlines listed above. That’s 25% more miles per dollar than those airline-specific credit cards (although the waived baggage fees are appealing).
Great Hotel Rewards Card
Starwood is a growing collection of over 1,000 mid-scale to very-upscale hotels in nearly 100 countries, from the business-oriented Four Points and Sheratons to the upscale W and Westin hotels. This card has come in very handy for travel to international and bigger US cities.
Short-notice and emergency stays. All room taxes are included when you use points, and there are no blackout dates unlike other hotel programs. I’ve used them in a pinch, burning just 3,000 points for a last-minute $120 a night room at the Vancouver Airport Four Points (Category 2).
Luxury international hotels. I’m usually happy with a Holiday Inn Express by the airport for a business trip, but when traveling for leisure it can be very convenient to stay downtown near the action and sights. In a city like Paris or Rome, this can mean big bucks. With this card, I’ve stayed at $300 a night hotels like the W New York, Westin Madrid, and Westin Venice. Being able to stay up late into the night in Venice instead of having to leave was amazing. If you redeem for 4 nights in a row in a Category 3 or higher hotel, the 5th night is free.
Cash and points option. If you want the best value for your points, don’t miss “cash and points” opportunities. For example, I found a $400 room at the Westin Rome in Italy or W Hotel New York Times Square for 8,000 points + $150 a night. Run the numbers yourself using the booking engine at SPG.com and look for the “SPG Cash & Points” option. The value of 30,000 points can be easily greater than $500.
Finally, as a baseline 9,500 Starpoints = $100 gift card at Amazon.com.
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The standard fee to cash in coins at a Coinstar kiosk is 9.8%, which I think is way too high, and you should explore other options for depositing loose coins. However, if you redeem for one of their gift certificates there is no fee, and there are often promotions that make it even better.
From 8/27 to 9/23/12, if you pour in $20 of coins and redeem for a $20 Amazon.com gift certificate (no fee, good for anything at Amazon), you’ll get a free additional $5 code good only for Amazon MP3s. The code prints automatically on the bottom of the receipt, so if have a lot of coins you can break them into $20 increments and get multiple $5 Amazon MP3 credits. That’s not a bad deal if you shop at Amazon regularly and also like digital music. The bonus code expires 10/31/12.
I still prefer getting my coins deposited at my local bank with no fees, as I can get 6% off any Amazon.com gift certificate anyway with my American Express Blue Cash Preferred which gets 6% back on anything bought at a grocery stores – including gift cards. If you have a rewards card with a grocery bonus, don’t forget this option when buying gift cards.
Library Elf is a third-party website worth checking out that helps you keep track of library books that are due soon, overdue, and ready for pickup. Their free service offers basic e-mail reminders on borrowed items that are either due soon or overdue for a single library card.
Their premium service features text message alerts, alerts for holds that are ready for pickup, and the ability link up multiple library cards (handy for families) for a $20 annual fee. New users get a free trial. If you’re really lucky your local library might be listed as a subscriber, meaning they’ve paid a bulk fee so that all of their patrons get premium service for free.
If you really want to manage multiple cards with basic alerts while still avoiding the annual fee, there is a simple workaround. Simply sign up each person’s card with a unique e-mail address (don’t all kids have their own e-mails now?), and then make a filter to forward the Elf e-mails to your primary desired e-mail. Even simpler, if you use Gmail you can use “email@example.com” and “firstname.lastname@example.org” to sign up for separate accounts, but all incoming e-mail will end up at the same place.
I love my local library, but their online library software leaves a lot to be desired. Hold notices still arrive only by snail-mail which I think is wasteful since they could just use e-mail. Until a few months ago, I had to call in to renew any titles; finally at least I can do that online. I only get overdue notices if I’m already late by over a week. I guess I’m just frustrated because I know that this type of thing is not very difficult to program and implement. I know that returning late library books are my responsibility, but a better system would prevent overdue books overall and thus improve book availability for everyone.
Passenger air travel must have one of the most complicated, opaque pricing systems known to man. The price of a ticket depends on date of travel, date of booking, time of arrival, time of departure, one-way or roundtrip, how many seats are left, the price of oil, and who knows what else. I mean, this is an industry that overbooks on purpose because they gamble on how many people will miss their flight, and will start to charge for restroom access by the second any day now.
Sites like Travelocity and Expedia have made buying your own airfare much more simple, but if you’ve every tried to make a complicated booking with an extended layover, open jaw, multiple cities, or international transfers it’s still quite a maze. In the old days you’d ask a travel agent and hope they were good, but now you can ask the crowd at Flightfox.com. Thanks to reader Mike for the tip.
Simply enter your trip details and offer a bounty ($19 minimum) for the best flight booking in your own opinion. In addition to a low price, you may prefer a certain airline, have a lot of baggage, require no stopovers, or be willing to endure extra stopovers if it saves money. Ideally you’d choose the best option, pay the bounty, and walk away with a better result than you’d have gotten otherwise. If you don’t like any of the options, you owe nothing.
If you’re already a savvy frequent flier, then you can sign up and earn money as a Flight Expert deal finder. Flightfox takes 25% of the fee and you keep 75%. According to Techcrunch, about 5-10% are indeed moonlighting travel agents, and the rest are just well-versed travelers.
I definitely plan on trying this the next time I have a multi-city trip. Anyone use it yet?
Update: About to fly? Get 25% off Flightfox with this link!
Every Friday this summer from now until August 17th, you can get 2-for-1 movie tickets from Fandango.com if you have a Visa Signature card and use it to buy the tickets. You can also get $5 off $25 in Fandango Bucks gift cards which can be used any day of the week and are instantly redeemable online.
Tickets must be purchased on a Friday for a Friday show time. Limit 1 movie ticket per Visa Signature card purchase, per 30 day period following the date of a purchase in connection with this offer.
Check out your credit cards, you may be surprised to have one and not know it. If you’ve gone after some of the juicy $500+ sign-up bonuses this year, you probably have one of these cards.
There are lots of places to backup your files online – Dropbox, Box.net, Microsoft SkyDrive, Google Drive, SugarSync, and Picasa all give out free cloud storage on the order of 5 gigabytes (often more with various promos). If you’re like me and wish you could combine all those free buckets together into one, you should check out a new service at Otixo.com that lets you manage multiple cloud services with just one login. Hat tip CNN Money.
Otixo links up with each service and makes it easy to organize and view all your files across various platforms. You can even transfer files directly between services. The free version of Otixo promises 2 GB of free bandwidth (not storage) per month forever. Upgrading to unlimited bandwidth costs $10 a month. Personally, I intend to use Otixo to track the long-term archival of pictures and documents across lesser-used services, and keeping my precious Dropbox space for real-time automated backups. This way, I can keep everything backed up safely – even in case of a house fire or burglary – without adding another monthly expense.
If you sign up through a referral link (that’s mine), both the referred and referring person gets an additional 100 MB of bandwidth (up to 4.9 GB max). Refer your family and friends for more bandwidth.
Vonage Mobile is an Android/iPhone app that now allows you to make free outgoing phone calls over WiFi/3G/4G to landline and mobile telephone numbers in the US, Canada, and Puerto Rico. Limited time offer with no stated end date, up to 3,000 minutes per month. You do not need to be a Vonage VoIP customer to use the app.
In addition, you can make free calls to anyone else in the world with the app. Think Skype, but it uses your phone’s existing contact list. You must link the app to an existing cell phone number, and when it makes calls it will show that number in the caller ID. I’ve used the app and the voice quality is good over WiFi. Should even work with iPod Touch or iPad if you have a Bluetooth headset. Hat tip to GudSpellur of FW.
Here are some ways that I can imagine the app saving people money as opposed to paying for an “unlimited everything” plan.
Cell Phone Only, Limited Minutes
If you’ve ditched the landline and are a cell-phone-only household with limited minutes, you can use this app over WiFi to make outgoing calls that won’t count against minutes. The people you call will never know the difference. If you do get your friends to install the Vonage app, both sides can make app-to-app calls for free using your existing address book (still uses data plan or WiFi).
Basic Prepaid Plans
If you have one of these plans that offer basic prepaid service for under $10 a month, then you can use this plan to make more calls without using minutes when in range of WiFi (home, work, cafe, Starbucks, McDonald’s, etc).
Unlimited Data, Limited Minutes
If have a plan like the $25/$30 Virgin Mobile Beyond Talk plan that offers unlimited data but only 300 mintues a month, you can use this app with the unlimited data to make additional voice calls.
If you don’t want to pay for any recurring phone charges, you could link this up with a free Google Voice number and just make outgoing calls on an iPod Touch or cheap inactive smartphone. Incoming callers would just have to leave a message on Google Voice, and you’d call them back.
Update, added FAQ. Can you finally get the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S on a cheap prepaid plan without having to hack your phone? Straight Talk, a prepaid MVNO that is a joint venture between Tracfone and Wal-mart, is now offering the ability to buy Straight Talk SIM cards that you can pop into any AT&T-compatible, T-Mobile-compatible, or unlocked GSM phone. They even offer a micro SIM card that is compatible with Apple iPhone 4 and 4S, for a one-time cost of only $14.99 with free ground shipping currently:
The plan is cheap too. For $45 a month you get unlimited minutes, unlimited text, and unlimited data with no contracts and no credit checks. So you can bring over any AT&T iPhone 4 that is no longer in a contract (it does NOT need to be unlocked or jailbroken!), and you’ll still be using the AT&T or T-Mobile network with 3G and even 4G (HSPA+) data speeds. You’ll need the $45 a month plan card to activate the SIM, as that is the only plan that works with the SIM card. The data plan is not truly “unlimited” if you are an especially heavy data user, but a reported soft limit of 2 gigabytes per month should be enough for casual users.
Buy a SIM card (micro for iPhone 4 and 4S, regular for 3G and 3GS) for $14.99. You will also need a $45 unlimited plan card to activate your SIM, which will include your first month of service.
Activate new sim card by calling in and getting a new number or porting old number (have your old phone company info ready)
Install SIM on iPhone and wait for activation process to complete by giving it maybe an hour to a couple hours.
You can find cheap off-contract iPhones at Cowboom.com, such as the iPhone 4 AT&T for under $300 (also in white version) that is compatible with this plan. Also, after activating and making sure you like the $45 a month plan, you can buy a 3-months-at-once Unlimited card for $126 at Walmart, shaving another $3 off per month from the regular price.
The baby shower is over and we’re on the home stretch. As a follow-up to my baby registry comparison, here’s our experience using both the Babies R Us and Amazon.com baby registries at the same time. We are blessed with lots of generous friends and family, and as a result have more stuff than we ever imagine a baby really needing! Baby Girl MMB isn’t even born and has more clothes than I do already.
Babies R Us (BRU) Baby Registry
We chose BRU since we have one of their big box locations nearby and it was best for people who wanted to buy something at a physical store.
Ease of use. We went to the store and used their “gun” to scan all the items we wanted, and then we could go online to edit the registry further. Overall, the process went smoothly. However, the only way to discover if someone bought an item off the registry is to check the website regularly. You don’t get any notification e-mails, and you don’t get told who bought the gift until it arrives.
Returns. If the item is on your baby registry, then they take it back for store credit without a receipt or questions. If the item is not on the registry, then a gift receipt is required. If you don’t have a gift receipt, then I believe you get credit for the lowest price on that item for the last 30 or 60 days. With items like clothing that goes on sale frequently, that can result in a greatly reduced refund.
(Tip: You can add things on the baby registry at any time. Since we were juggling two registries, to avoid duplicates we would have to delete things on the other registry. However, sometimes we weren’t fast enough or someone bought it without removing it from the registry. Therefore, we just made sure we added the item back onto the registry again before our BRU return run and that minimized any potential hassles.)
Completion Discount. We received the 10% off completion coupon in the snail mail as promised. It works on only one purchase, so make sure to bring a list of everything else you wanted. You can also use the 10% discount online the same day you used the physical coupon.
Amazon.com Baby Registry
We chose Amazon as it had lower prices, wider selection, and free shipping on most items.
Ease of use. Adding items to the registry was easy, but Amazon can be quirky as the default buying option isn’t always the cheapest after you factor in the free shipping. I noticed that some friends paid too much for shipping, even though we always looked for items “sold by Amazon.com”. They don’t offer notification e-mails either, but if you check online they do tell you who bought what. It’s even condensed into a handy “Thank You list”.
Returns. Even though they offer free prepaid shipping labels, we didn’t return anything to Amazon. Whenever we had a duplicate, we just returned the one from Babies R Us. However, looking back I think I might have preferred Amazon.com credit since we really have too much baby stuff.
Completion Discount. When you become eligible (30 days before event date), the 10% completion discount option shows up on your registry page. The fine print was pretty vague, but didn’t really list any specific restrictions. However, we discovered that even though you could add anything to the baby registry at any time, only items that were deemed baby-related were eligible for the 10% discount. So no 10% off Macbook Pros or power tools (I tried).
Baby showers and the baby gift-giving custom is a nice cultural tool to help expectant parents defer the cost of babies. Really, you can view it as a payment plan of sorts since instead of one big lump sum we just have to continue giving baby gifts for the rest of our lives.
Home improvement chain Lowe’s just announced a new “smart home” system called Iris where you can monitor and control your home through your smartphone or computer. The DIY system can be installed with just an ethernet broadband connection and a screwdriver.
You can either buy everything a la carte or via three bundles. The “Safe & Secure” kit includes the central hub, a motion sensor, keypad, and two door/window sensors for $179. The “Comfort & Control” kit includes the hub, a smart plug, and smart thermostat for $179. You can get both kits for $299 (includes range extender but only one hub). However, if your going to outfit an entire home, you’ll probably want to add some extra sensors. The good part is that the basic service has no monthly fee, while the premium service costs a flat $9.99 a month. Available online now, or in 500 stores by August.
The ability to turn lights on/off and your thermostat up/down remotely has always seemed a little bit overhyped to me, more an amusing feature than money-saving necessity. I see commercials about it, but I guess I just don’t think about light switches when I’m not at home. Otherwise, a simple programmable thermostat works well enough for me. I do like the idea of real-time power usage reporting though (here it requires a $150 meter reader).
Cheap Home Security?
Mostly, I was interested in the home security aspect of Iris because of the lack of monthly fees. Such monitoring fees can add up to hundreds of dollars every year and quickly make up the bulk of the system’s overall cost. I recently installed a somewhat similar Simplisafe system (review) that is also based on using various wireless sensors with 5-year lithium batteries (and costs $15 a month for monitoring). Is my investment outdated already? Read the rest of this entry…
Last week, New York City mayor Bloomberg announced a design competition for new “micro-unit” apartments ranging from 275 to 300 square feet (press release). The goal is to address the increasing demand by smaller households, as the average rent for a studio in Manhattan is now $2,065 a month. Here’s a sample proposed layout:
I’ve always been intrigued by small spaces, from tiny homes that you could buy with P2P loan instead of a mortgage, to the capsule hotels of Tokyo. Even if you don’t live in such a place, I think everyone can still learn from them new ways to use their own space more efficiently.
Go vertical to maximize space.
The NY Post did a profile of a young couple who live in a 240 square-foot studio in Brooklyn Heights. The picture below pretty much includes the entire place, with the ladder leading up to their bedroom:
Just like bunk beds and college dorm design, raising a bed is often the easiest way to get more storage or desk space. This concept doesn’t just apply to beds though. Put new shelving and storage up higher – look for wall space above toilets, above sinks, above your bed headboard, above desks. In your garage or carport, store bicycles and more in the space above your cars.
Buy one thing, get rid of another.
The free gym at my last university was always quite crowded, leading to a “one out, one in” policy where you had to wait for a person to leave before you could enter (also used at nightclubs, or so I’ve heard.). If you want to avoid stuff overload, you should implement the same policy when buying new things. Throw away, donate, or sell. New pants in = old pants out. New toy in = old toy out.
Use creatively-designed furniture.
Raising beds can get tricky for those with physical handicaps. I’ve always like the idea of Murphy wall beds as an alternative, and am thinking of installing one in my current office to be an extra guest bedroom with this DIY kit. There are a lot of other cool multi-tasking furniture out there as well. Some can get pretty expensive, but it may be worth depending on the cost/square feet in your area.
Here’s another video of an apartment in Hong Kong that uses sliding walls to transform one big room into either a bathroom, kitchen, living room, or a bedroom. Very innovative, and all in 32 square meters (~345 square feet).
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