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:


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.

I Tried Harry’s Free Razor Trial and This Is What Happened…

…that’s the ad text that they used to target me, apparently someone who may be interested in bright-orange, modern-looking razor blades. I couldn’t find the exact ad again, but a similar one is to the right. (Alternate title: Harry’s Free Trial Review: Bendy Razor Blades, Easy Cancel)

Well, they were right. I decided to try the Harry’s “Free” Trial which includes a razor and some gel for $3 including shipping. If you don’t like it, just remove the subscription plan in your online account and you get to keep everything else.

Okay, so what happened? The primary reason that I will not be buying any more Harry’s Razors doesn’t involve cost at all. I simply don’t like their design. The blades are proprietary and have a unique “bendy” hinge that I describe as like having a tongue lick you. A tongue that makes it impossible to get the firm shave that I prefer.

I created an animated gif to help illustrate:


After doing this trial, I found that the Wirecutter review site had a similar opinion:

Rather than clipping to a pivoting axis, the way most modern razors do, Harry’s cartridge attaches with a flexy rubber pseudo-hinge that bends when you press it into your skin. Harry’s claims that this design yields an effect that, like “a paintbrush on a wet canvas … flexes to the contours of your face for precise control.” In fact, the opposite is true: The cartridge yields too much, resulting in a sloppy shave.

I don’t consider myself a picky razor user, for a while I’ve been using a basic Gillette Mach 3 bought from Costco for $1 or under each. (I was surprised to see The Wirecutter also chose a Mach3 blade cousin as its winner.) As I can last more than a month with each razor (dry after each use), I am already spending less than a dollar month on razors. I have not tried the Dollar Shave Club. For me, buying a bulk pack of razors once every two years requires less mental bandwidth than having to manage an online subscription.

I’ll keep the rest of this review short and simple:

  • Ordering was easy, site design is nice, and the trial shipped promptly.
  • Canceling the trial was also easy with no hard sell.
  • I did not like the razor design, and for that reason will not be ordering any more Harry’s razors.

Shaving preferences are very subjective. I would still recommend the Harry’s trial itself.

Follow-Up Review: Costco Freezer Meal Plan From 5 Dollar Dinners


A while ago, I wrote about a meal planner service called $5 Dinners that provided instructions on how to make 20 slow cooker meals for $150 at Costco. You go to Costco, buy exactly what is on the provided shopping list (6 pack of chicken breasts, 15 lb bag of potatoes, massive tub of BBQ sauce, etc), and then chop and separate all the ingredients into 20 separate freezer bags. When you want an easy dinner, pop a bag into your slow cooker in the morning and you’ll have dinner ready by the time you’re done with work.

I paid $5 for complete instructions including grocery shopping list, assembly videos, and label template files. The exact meal plan that I bought is now called Slow Cooker Freezer Packs, 1st Edition Complete. It took me a few months to get around to actually making all the meals, but I did make them all in November 2014. Here are some pictures of my final product:




Why did it take over a year to get this review out? Well, part of the reason is that it took us a year to actually finish all the meals! Unfortunately, the reason why it took us a year to finish the meals is… we didn’t enjoy the meals very much. I didn’t want to write a negative review for an entrepreneurial idea that I thought was really cool that was based on my own tastes, but they are doing quite well so allow me to use this as another opportunity to provide you helpful information based on my own failures. 🙂


  • Cook and eat a sample recipe first before making 5 of the same recipe. I was distracted by my own excitement of being able to knock out 20 meals in one day, I just jumped straight in. I found the recipes to be a bit bland in flavor and boring in texture when followed exactly. You may feel differently, and their newer recipes could be much better, but again you won’t know until you try it.
  • Set aside an entire afternoon. Making all 20 freezer packs in one day took about 4-5 hours, and it was pretty exhausting. Set aside plenty of time, as it takes a lot of chopping and portioning.
  • Make sure you have adequate freezer space. Even if you follow their tips to lay them flat, these take up a lot of room! We have a standalone freezer and it was still a tight fit. You may also want to place them in a tub in case of leaks.
  • Use the plans as a starting point for your own customizations. Adding your own herbs and spices, as well as some lemon juice or hot sauce at the end can really perk things up. Personally, I prefer to season and brown my meat before putting it into the slow cooker. I love me some Maillard reaction!
  • Try using your own recipes first. A more gradual way to start your own “backup dinners” is to simply double-up on one of your current recipes, and freeze the extra portions.
  • For the price of $5, I still think it is worth a shot. There may be different and/or improved recipes now. I still think it is a great entrepreneurial idea.

Optimize Your Bank Account Setup: Megabanks, Credit Unions, Online Banks, and Prepaid Cards


Consumer Reports is getting more into financial products, with their January 2016 issue cover article on Choosing The Best Bank For You, most of which was also made available to the public without a subscription. If you haven’t optimized your bank account setup recently and you missed it the first time around, the article is worth a read. Perhaps it was just anecdotal, but I read somewhere that most people are still with their first bank account out of high school.

Here are their high-level conclusions:

  • Mega Banks: Best for Convenience, Technology, Security
  • Credit Unions: Best for In-Person Customer Service, Lower Costs
  • Primarily Online Banks: Best for Online Customer Service, Higher Savings Rates, Lower Costs
  • Smaller Regional and Community Banks: Best for Personal Service
  • Prepaid Cards: Easier to get than a bank checking account but some are loaded with gotchas.

It appears that Consumer Reports is still keeping their specific rankings and numbers behind a subscription paywall. But they do agree with me about the idea of spreading your wealth and choosing your financial accounts a la carte to get the best deals.

Now, I am not the ideal person to emulate as I have too much complexity in my financial accounts. The only good news is that I have tried so many of them. Here are the accounts that I currently have open, and what I think about them. For the most part, my experiences align with the Consumer Reports findings.

Megabank: Bank of America

  • Pros: ATMs and branches everywhere nearby. Good online and app user interface (Touch ID). Good perks when combined with brokerage and credit cards.
  • Cons: Basically-zero interest rates.

Credit Union: Local, Community CU

  • Pros: Free notary, low interest rate HELOC.
  • Cons: Small ATM and branch footprint, poor online and app user interface, current low interest rates (used to have a rewards checking account).

Primarily Online Bank: Ally Bank (see Ally review)

  • Pros: High interest rates, fast and flexible interbank transfers, good customer service, good online and app user interface (Touch ID).
  • Cons: No physical branches.

Prepaid Card: NetSpend (see NetSpend review)

  • Pros: 5% APY on $5,000 balance if card kept active. (Update: 5% APY on $1,000 starting 7/1/16.)
  • Cons: Certain fees and fine print to work around.

In terms of the convenience factor, my new favorite feature is Touch ID with Apple iPhones. (Android has their own version, I’m just not familiar with it.) BofA, Ally Bank, Mint, Fidelity, and Robinhood supporting this app feature, I can now get full access to transaction history and even initiate online transfers in under 10 seconds. I hope Vanguard adds this soon (cough, cough!).

Infographic: New York City Median Rent vs. Subway Stop

rh_nycsignWe all know that the longer the commute from where everyone works, the lower the rent. In many cities during the housing boom, the saying went “just keep driving until you can afford something”. But what if the relationship between commute time and rental price wasn’t steady? What if a few minutes of extra commute time would save you several hundred dollars a month?

There are indeed some great relative values in New York City, according to the results of a study by apartment listing site Renthop, via This Is New York. Here are the median rents for one-bedroom apartments nearest every subway stop in New York City:


Highlights from their analysis:

The extra few blocks from 66th St to 72nd St could save you $845 per month. Granted you might really like the Lincoln Center area, but that’s enough extra dough for a trip or two to the NY Philharmonic, the Met Opera, or even dinner at Jean-Georges.

A good rule of thumb is that each stop is about two minutes apart (except express stops and when crossing a bridge), assuming there’s no “debris on the track” or “train traffic ahead”. Consider this when calculating what your time and commute is worth to you. An extra stop on the J/M/Z train past Marcy Ave will save you about $175, and each subsequent stop saves another $100 or more. The same holds true heading into Queens.

Someone should make a similar graphic for all the of the major cities with high usage of public transportation: Washington DC, Boston, San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, and Philadelphia. From Wikipedia:


Swappa Review: Selling Used Republic Wireless Moto E Phone


I set up a cell phone line with Republic Wireless (RW) in October 2014 for my parents, but they eventually chose to switch over to used iPhones. This meant we had to move off of Republic Wireless and sell their Moto E phone as it wasn’t compatible with their new carrier. As I had heard some good things about buying and selling phones on a new marketplace called Swappa.com, I decided to try them out.

Republic Wireless requires special software on their phones enable their WiFi-calling features, which means that RW users either need to buy a new phone directly from them or buy a used RW-modified phone on the secondary market. You can find phones on cellular forums, eBay, and Craiglist, but it can be a headache to deal directly with individual people with no intermediary assistance.

Here are some highlights of selling on Swappa:

  • Similar to eBay, Swappa is a connecting marketplace. The seller is still taking payment directly from an individual buyer.
  • Swappa relies on PayPal to provide certain protections. Seller gets paid before shipping. Swappa does not provide any escrow-type service.
  • Users can link eBay account ratings to encourage trust from prospective buyers.
  • No listing fee. No fee to cancel listing, as long as it hasn’t sold yet.
  • No seller fee (technically) but there is a $10 sale fee. If the list price is $100, then the seller gets $90 and Swappa gets $10. Featured listings are extra.
  • Standard shipping is also included in the list price, paid by buyer. So that’s another $6 to $7.
  • Depending on your PayPal account, you may have to pay transaction fees at PayPal.

Here’s a brief overview of the selling experience:

  • Your device must meet their requirements (fully functional, clean ESN, and no outstanding financial obligations).
  • You must provide a valid ESN to avoid “bad” phones with blacklisted ESNs. ESNs are kept private from buyers until sold.
  • You must upload a picture with your phone and any accessories, including a handwritten note of your listing number. I just used another smartphone to take a picture and was done in minutes.
  • Depending on the situation, you may have to provide additional verification pictures. I had to provide a photo that included the ESN screen of my phone.
  • You can see the historical selling price of the phone, and then set your own price.

According to their historical charts, the average selling price was $70. I was more interested in a fast sale, so I listed my phone for $65. Here was the pricing history for the Moto E (1st Gen):


It sold within 6 hours of listing, and was paid via Paypal immediately. I bought our Moto E for $99 brand new in October 2014. My net was $65 – $10 fee to Swappa – $7 shipping = $48. That worked out to a phone depreciation rate of just $3.20 a month. For comparison, the 2nd generation Moto E is currently $129 new and is running about $85 used on Swappa.

In general, as a seller, I was very satisfied with the process. I could have probably sold for roughly the same price on eBay, maybe eeking out a couple more bucks, but I felt the listing process was faster at Swappa. The $10 sale fee may be a little more than the 10% fee that eBay charges on a cheap phone, but much less than eBay charges on an expensive phone (ex. 10% of $400 would be $40). There was a little confusion in the beginning regarding my ESN, but the online support from the staff was prompt and courteous. I would sell my phone using Swappa again.

Bill Fixers: Let Someone Else Haggle Your Cable and Phone Bills For You


Successful haggle update, April 2016. Shortly after the NY Times profile of Bill Fixers came out, I submitted a request for them to help me lower my Time Warner cable bill. I had haggled with Time Warner in the recent past, but was currently back on regular pricing, so I figured I’d give them a shot. It took them about two months to get around to my request due to the flood of interest they got after the NYT article, but here were my real-world results:

  • $263.52 reduction of bills over the next 12 months, verified.
  • They gave me a 20% discount on their fee (half of first year savings) due to the delay, so I owed them $105.41.
  • One of the discounts they haggled for me ran for 24 months, which added up to another $83.26 in savings on which I owed no fee since they only charge for the first 12 months.
  • My total net savings: $241.37

The only work I did was to scan and upload a copy of my cable bill, and provide a personal security question and answer (not sure if it was right, or if they had to use it). I understand that some people may not feel comfortable with this, but I did not have to supply my bank account number, credit card information, Social Security number, or birthdate for this situation.

Original post:

I’ve written about haggling your cable or satellite TV bill for years, with hundreds of comments sharing both success and failures. I’ve certainly negotiated with a healthy share of customer service reps myself. But I don’t like doing it. I do it because unlike say the electrical company, who tells me “you pay based on how much power you use”, the cable company tells me “if you bother us, we’ll give you a discount, but if you are nice and quiet, you’ll pay double”. Big Data is tracking whether you compare prices or not, so it is in my best interest to announce that YES I COMPARE PRICES!

But what if you could just pay someone else to haggle for you? Deal with the long hold times, the “accidental” hang-ups, and the multiple transfers between supervisors? Enter brothers Julian and Ben Kurland of BillFixers.com, who will do just that. I came across them in this Businessweek article:

Despite all the various life-hacking sites that will teach you how to reduce your cable bill, a recent Consumer Reports survey found that fewer than half of people who attempted to do so were effective. Services such as BillCutterz have been offering some relief, but the Kurlands say their success rate—94 percent—is higher. It usually works out because they’re annoyingly persistent. Calls can last several hours as the brothers are passed among operators, managers, and various departments. The Kurlands often call companies multiple times, looking for different representatives who will cut a deal. “You’ll talk to three people who won’t offer anything, and the fourth one will magically have a discount that no one mentioned,” Ben says.

Which companies will they negotiate with? According to their website, they’ll take a shot at any recurring monthly bill you have. They don’t do things like credit cards and medical bills.

  • Television (Cable, Satellite, IP TV)
  • Internet (Cable, DSL, Other)
  • Landline
  • Cellular (AT&T cellular bills are one of the “easiest”. T-Mobile is one of the hardest.)
  • Satellite Radio

How much does BillFixers cost? They work on a contingency basis. If they don’t save you money, you pay nothing. If they do, they charge you 50% of the first year’s savings. You can pay via lump sum or in monthly payments (which in theory would match up with your monthly savings). Some stats from USA Today:

– Of the 650 clients, 94% receive savings
– The average reduction in bills is greater than $300 per customer
– About $155,000 has been saved for customers since 2014

I don’t doubt that someone with the right skills and motivation can be a good hired negotiator. I suppose the only concern would be giving out personal information like Social Security Number. However, if you give them the right information like account numbers, they shouldn’t need that kind of sensitive information.

If you’ve been thinking about haggling but have been putting it off due to either dislike or procrastination, why not give them a shot?

I’m going to add BillFixers to the growing list of services that will help find you money for free (but if they find it, they may take a cut).

  • CoPatient: Negotiate your medical bills. They take a cut of any successful savings.
  • AutoSlash: Helps you track price drops on rental cards. They make money when you rebook at a lower price with them.
  • Paribus: Helps you automatically request price adjustments on all your online retail purchases. They take a cut of the price drop savings.
  • AirHelp, Refund.Me, AirTaxBack: Get fees refunded for certain cancelled or missed flights to/from Europe. They take a cut of the refund.

Big List of Auto Insurance Premium Comparisons for All 50 States


The standard advice for saving money on auto insurance is to shop and compare prices. You could use a comparison website, but they may not include every insurance carrier listed in your state. A lesser-known fact is that auto insurance is regulated on the state level, where each company must submit their rates for approval. Many states in turn share this information with consumers. Some states also provide complaint data, so you can also view which insurers have the most complaints relative to their market share. Here is an example report for the state of California:


For the hypothetical scenario above, the difference between the cheapest option (Wawanesa) and the 17th cheapest option (AllState) is over $1,100 a year.

Using this information, a consumer can more efficiently choose to get quotes from the insurance companies which will likely offer them the lowest rates. Individual companies often choose to focus on certain areas of the market – drivers with clean records, drivers with tickets/accidents, teen drivers, and so on. Credit scores are another newer area of focus. Try to find the comparison example that fits your situation the closest.

These premium comparison reports can often be hard to locate, so I manually searched for all 50 states and the District of Columbia and shared my results below. (I used the same template as my free state income tax e-filing post.) Some states share very specific data down to zip code, some share only a few broad example rates, and others share essentially nothing. In alphabetical order (just click on the state):

State Notes
Alabama Click on “Compare Premiums” for the scenario that best fits your own.
Alaska Personal Auto Insurance Premiums Comparison Guide > Premiums Comparison Guide.pdf
Arizona 2015 WEB_AutoPremiumComparison_Publication.pdf
Arkansas Insurance Cost Comparison > Private Passenger Auto
California 2016 Automobile Insurance
Colorado Private Passenger Automobile Premium Comparison Report.
Connecticut None found.
Delaware Automobile Insurance Rate Comparison
Florida Auto Rate Comparison Tool
Georgia Automobile Insurance Rate Comparisons
Hawaii Motor Vehicle Insurance Premium Comparison
Idaho None found.
Illinois No premium info, but some guidance provided including complaint ratios.
Indiana None found.
Iowa Auto Insurance Pricing Guides
Kansas Auto Insurance Shopper’s Guide.
Kentucky Auto and Home Insurance Guide with Disaster Guide and Premium Comparison. [PDF available]
Louisiana Automobile Rate Comparison Guide.
Maine Auto Insurance, Comparison of top 10 policies.
Maryland Auto Insurance – A Comparison Guide to Rates.
Massachusetts Auto Insurance Premium Comparisons.
Michigan Comprehensive Guide to Auto Insurance.
Minnesota None found.
Mississippi Personal Auto Rate Comparison.
Missouri Auto Policies – See policies of insurance companies ranked by market share.
Montana Auto Insurance Price Comparison (pdf).
Nebraska Auto Rate Guide (direct link to PDF).
Nevada Consumer’s Guide to Auto Insurance Rates.
New Hampshire New Hampshire Auto Cost Premium Rate Comparison.
New Jersey Auto Insurance Premium Comparison.
New Mexico None found.
New York No premium comparison, but there are complaint rankings and discount list (pdf).
North Carolina No premium comparison, but there is a Consumer Guide to Automobile Insurance and complaint ratio list for insurers.
North Dakota Cost Comparison Survey
Ohio Shopper’s Guide to Auto Insurance, with example premiums and complaint data.
Oklahoma Rate Comparison Chart.
Oregon No premium comparison found, but the Oregon Consumer Guide to Auto Insurance has helpful info
Pennsylvania A rate comparison guide for Automobile Insurance in Pennsylvania.
Rhode Island Could not find rate comparison, but see Consumers Guide to Auto Insurance for helpful info.
South Carolina Quick Links – Automobile Price Comparison Guide.
South Dakota None found.
Tennessee Limited market share and other info at Personal Auto Policies Rate Changes.
Texas Automobile Insurance Price Comparison
Utah Auto & Homeowner Annual Comparison Tables with Complaint & Loss Ratio Info.
Vermont No premium information found, limited info in Consumer’s Guide To Auto Insurance.
Virginia Auto Insurance Sample Premium Table.
Washington None found.
Washington DC None found.
West Virginia 2011 Annual Survey (see bottom right).
Wisconsin No premium information found, limited info in Consumer’s Guide To Auto Insurance.
Wyoming No premium information found, limited info in Wyoming Personal Automobile Insurance Guide (last updated in 2000, ack!)


I have tried my best to locate the information for each state, but it is quite possible I’ve overlooked something or the websites have since changed. Please let me know if you find any errors or broken links.

OpenSignal and Sensorly: Free, Crowdsourced Cellular Coverage and Data Speed Maps

sensorly_logoA common frugal tip is to lower your cellphone bill by switching to a cheaper provider. Many of the cheaper options use the T-Mobile and/or Sprint networks, which in general have fewer cellular towers and coverage density. But what should really matter is the quality of coverage where you actually need to use it. If T-Mobile, Sprint, or a T-Mobile/Sprint MVNO serves your needs adequately, why not switch and save hundreds of dollars per year?

OpenSignal and Sensorly both crowdsource their coverage maps directly from individual network users. You can 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 so that you can also contribute anonymous information and improve the data quality for everyone. You can also see how often you connect to 4G data, as some MVNOs are cheaper if you stick with 3G data only. OpenSignal evens helps direct you if you want to walk towards a better signal.

From Sensorly (Android /iOS):

Precise and daily updated coverage & speed maps: with more than 300 wireless networks mapped across 50 countries available in the app, checking a carrier’s coverage & speed has never been easier for all 4G/LTE, 3G, CDMA, GSM and Wi-Fi technologies.


From OpenSignal (Android / iOS)

Based on our community-generated data we are able to help keep you better connected by giving you a practical solution to the problems of slow mobile internet and dropped calls. Simply follow our signal compass to walk towards better phone signal or see our in-app coverage maps to work out which carrier is best for where you are, especially useful if you’re thinking about making a change. Our Wi-Fi maps help you to find local public-access wireless networks, helpful if you’re travelling abroad or just want to find a local cafe with free wifi.


Got Annoying Monthly Subscriptions? Let Trim Cancel Them For You

trim_nologo2You’ve heard the financial media (and me) talk about the importance of automated savings. Things like recurring 401(k) contributions that don’t require flexing your willpower. Well, the other side of the coin is automated spending. Companies love love love it when you buy their stuff on auto-pilot.

A new start-up called Trim helps you identify your recurring charges automatically and cancel the unwanted ones for you, for free. That sounded like a great idea. You’ll have to provide them the login credentials to your credit card or bank account, or you can snail mail them your statements. (I’d say yes to credit card before bank account.) This is going to sound like a humblebrag, but I wanted to test the service out but don’t have any services that I want canceled. Instead, I had a quick e-mail exchange with Trim CEO, Thomas Smyth:

Me: Trim sounds very interesting. Instead of a phone call, do you mind me asking just how exactly do you cancel the service on behalf of customers? I can understand the algorithmic finding of recurring charges, but wouldn’t you need some detailed personal information in order to perform the cancellation? If so, what type of info would you ask people for?

Thomas Smyth, Trim CEO: Absolutely – it just depends on the biller. For some, like Hulu, we simply send a form email that has the user’s account info (email, name) and the most recent charge on the credit card. For others, like credit reports or gyms, we’ll ask the user for more info, like DOB and account number.

We never ask for confidential info like SSN or full credit card numbers — those are NOT safe to send via text message. Sometimes we do run into billers that require this info — for example, LifeLock. In those situations we can’t cancel it for you (sorry!) but we do send you detailed info on how to cancel it yourself.

So they will try, but it won’t work for every biller. In those cases, hopefully them pointing out your wasteful ways will nudge you towards action. The good news is that the NY Times profiled Trim recently and found it to work pretty well. They even broke down the recurring subscriptions with the highest overall cancellation rates by Trim. Here are just the top 10:


You could read this as the most overlooked services, or the hardest to cancel, or a combination. People tended to want to get rid of their credit monitoring services, gym membership, and Gogo Air the most. The vast majority of people kept their Netflix and Spotify. The New York Times itself gets canceled 10% of the time it is found, so I suppose it is rather brave of them to even point this service out!

Amazingly, they don’t have an app! Trim has an online web interface, but the original service works simply over text messages.


Free identification and cancellation services are nice. But canceling will always be harder than signing up, so I try to avoid them in the first place. Automate your savings, not your spending.

Related: SubscriptMe is an app that identifies recurring subscriptions by scanning your phone. There are also haggling services like Bill Fixers which charge a finder’s fee based on how much money they save on your behalf.

Best Mosquito Repellent Study 2015: DEET vs. Non-DEET


The World Health Organization has declared Zika virus an international public health emergency. If you are concerned about exposure to mosquitos due to Zika, West Nile, Dengue, or other diseases, read this NPR article about a 2015 Journal of Insect Science study that tested various commercially-available mosquito repellents in a sealed chamber with a treated hand.

We spend a decent amount of time outdoors and are regularly bit by mosquitos, so we have also been experimenting with various bug sprays in the last few years (especially for kids). I was pleased that our anecdotal results very closely matched those found by this study. First, here are the numbers from the scientific study:



Don’t buy by brand, look for the active ingredient. For example, the Cutter brand has repellents with many different active ingredients. Some of them hardly work at all (“Cutter natural insect repellent”) while others work great (“Cutter lemon eucalyptus insect repellent”).

DEET works well, but you should use the lowest concentration possible. In the first hour or so, the chart above shows that mosquitos were repelled the same amount by 7% DEET and 98% DEET. Even after 4 hours, the 98% DEET was only a little bit more helpful. Why expose yourself to that much extra chemicals if you don’t have to? Sleeping overnight in the rainforest is not the same as a morning trip to the zoo! Just reapply if you need to.

For kids and infants older than 2 months, these Cutter Family DEET wipes have the relatively low 7% concentration but also allow careful application (you aren’t inhaling DEET or spraying into eyes or on little hands which end up in mouths). The single serving packages are easy to carry. (Note that on Amazon it is under three bucks as an Add-on with Amazon Prime.) While effective and supposedly rather safe, I simply don’t like the smell of DEET products, so we try to limit our use.

Oil of lemon eucalyptus works just as well as DEET. Look at those turquoise chart bars above. This stuff is just as good in the first hour, and actually better than most DEET sprays after 4 hours. Lemon eucalyptus oil is the only plant-based repellent recommended by the CDC. However, in most products it is synthesized (re-created in a lab, not squeezed from a plant). Still, we have found it to work quite well. It does have a strong lemony-herbal scent, but I actually don’t mind it since it smells natural. The only problem is that officially it is not recommended for children under 3. However, I couldn’t find a solid reason why, other than either (1) possible skin irritation or (2) it simply hasn’t been tested on children under 3.

Our adult and older-kid repellent of choice is the Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus insect repellent.

Try some others for yourself.. Just like how some mosquitos like certain people more than others, I believe different mosquitos hate different repellents. Our last “favorite” mosquito repellent is the Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard with IR3535 (cheaper here for some reason). It is does not appear to be the same Avon tested by the study above, which lists an active ingredient of citronella oil. While we found this stuff not as effective as the two listed above, it does repel bugs for the first hour or so. Label says it is for children 6 months and up.

This last one is our “stealth 2-in-1” bug lotion + SPF 30 sunscreen, with no chemical or herbal smell. This white lotion goes on just like a high-quality sunscreen with a light fragrance.

(The mosquito repellents that depend on “organic, essential oils” like rosemary or lemongrass will work a little initially, but literally become useless within 30 minutes. Look at the full study results at the 30 minute interval. I wish they worked too… maybe if I was just going to check the mailbox.)

I know this isn’t especially financially-related, but I wanted to share our experiences. Hopefully you won’t waste money on stuff that doesn’t work.

Free SAT Test Prep from Khan Academy

khan_satWhile catching up on some reading, it was refreshing to see Bill Gates offer a more positive spin with his Top 6 Good-News Stories of 2015. One of them was that the College Board announced free, high-quality SAT practice at Khan Academy.

This past June, the company that created the SAT helped the Khan Academy launch a free online learning portal for any student who wants help getting ready for the SAT or PSAT. Check out the site for yourself. If you’re like me, you’ll look at these interactive tools and video lessons and wish they had been around when you were in high school. I’m very excited about this development because of what it means for kids who can’t afford expensive test-prep classes and tutors.

The interactive software offers both short diagnostic quizzes and full exams, along with feedback and interactive tutorials to make improvements. Apparently, the SAT is being revamped again in March 2016 and reverting back to the older 1600 point scale + optional essay. Ah, fun times.