US Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Stats 1978-2012

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The U.S. Census Bureau just released its 2012 annual report on Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States. A good recap of the data can be found via the charts in this slide presentation [pdf]. Below is my even-briefer summary.

The US median household income (inflation-adjusted) was roughly $51,000 in 2012. This number has decreased or remained stagnant each year since 2007, and is actually about the same as in 1989.

The 2012 official poverty rate was 15.0 percent, and roughly the same amount of the population was without health insurance coverage, 15.4%.

I think this report provides some perspective about the realities of many families today. As a household that earns more than average, this reminds us that it is quite possible to spend less, as many others already do out of necessity. I am not one of those money gurus that tells everyone that they can get rich and retire early; it will always be very difficult for most people. I want to take advantage of my current situation, save money and use it to create future income and financial freedom, and then hopefully that will enable me to help more people down the road.

Cheapest iPhone Plan with Unlimited Data? Virgin Mobile $30 a Month

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Price drop! You can now buy an 8GB iPhone 4 for only $199.99 from Virgin Mobile. Even after learning about the new iPhone 5S, in my opinion the iPhone 4 is still not that outdated and still works fine with nearly every app out there.

Their Beyond Talk plans at just $30 a month will get you 300 voice minutes, unlimited text messages, and unlimited data (throttled after 2.5 GB each month). To get the $5 discount, you must sign up for automatic monthly payment with a credit card, debit card or PayPal account. No contract.

Virgin Mobile is a Sprint MVNO which means your coverage is coming from Sprint towers. Compared to a regular Sprint plan, paying $200 + $30 a month can save you more than $500 dollars over a 2-year contract when compared with paying even $0 for the phone and $60+ a month for service.

For $50 a month, you can get unlimited minutes. Here are all the plans:

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Famous Investor Benjamin Graham on Modest Living

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Benjamin Graham is considered the father of stock analysis and value investing, with his books Security Analysis and The Intelligent Investor (first published in 1934 and 1939, but since revised many times) still considered must-reads today. He has many well-known disciples, Warren Buffett being the most famous one. Relatively early in his career, he experienced the Great Depression. I found this quote from his memoirs via The Biz of Life:

The Crash reaffirmed parsimonious viewpoints and habits that had been ingrained in me by the tight financial situation of my early youth but which I had overcome almost completely in the years of success.I blamed myself not so much for my failure to protect myself against the disaster I had been predicting, as for having slipped into an extravagant way of life which I hadn’t the temperament or capacity to enjoy. I quickly convinced myself that the true key to material happiness lay in a modest standard of living which could be achieved with little difficulty under almost all economic conditions.

Security analysis is all about managing risk and keeping a margin of safety. In my mind, Graham realized that a modest standard of living is part of keeping a margin of safety for your personal finances.

Citi Bike Sharing Program – New York City (Free Day Pass)

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Update: Get a free 24-Hour Access Pass to Citi Bike with any Mastercard, which will get you unlimited short bike rentals (less than 30-minutes to avoid overtime fees) within a 24-hour period. Register by 9/30/13, use by 10/31/13.

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Cost of Convenience: Costco Rotisserie Chicken vs. Homemade Whole Roast Chicken

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Ah, the famous Costco Rotisserie chicken. According to this WaPo series on supermarket rotisserie chickens, Costco sells over 50 million of them a year. You could make an entire cookbook with all the recipes online on how to stretch this bird into multiple meals… quesadillas, salads, soups, sandwiches, and more.

But can you do better on your own? I’m going to tread carefully here because I know the Costco Rotisserie Chicken is beloved by many. I’ve bought my fair share in the past, but these days we prefer to roast whole chickens ourself. Is it worth the extra effort? Does it save money? Let’s take a closer look.

Costco Seasoned Rotisserie Chicken

  • Pre-cooked weight: At least 3 lbs, according to Costco.
  • Cost: $4.99
  • Unit cost: $1.67/lb.
  • Ingredients: Whole chicken, water, seasonings (salt, sodium phosphate, modified food starch, potato dextrin, carrageenan, sugar, dextrose, spice extractives).
  • Total cooking time including prep: None.

The added ingredient list besides chicken doesn’t look too bad, with no preservatives or artificial flavors. However, I would note that these chickens are “marinated” by injecting them with a saltwater solution with phosphates. That’s how they stay so juicy and tasty inside (and high in sodium). Other supermarket chains like Wegmans don’t do this to their chickens.

Homemade Roast Chicken

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Best Value Smartphone Plan For Multiple Lines? T-Mobile Simple Choice Family Plan

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A few months ago there was a flurry of newspaper articles about families with huge $300+ cell phone bills. I don’t have to deal with this yet, but here is a value option for those of you paying for multiple lines for parents, grandparents, kids, or just roommates sharing.

The T-Mobile Simple Choice Family plan offers a smartphone plan with unlimited talk, text, and data starting at just $100 for 4 lines with no contract ($50 for the first person, $30 for the second, and $10 for each additional person). That’s just $25 per line before any discounts, taxes, and fees.

How can this unlimited plan possibly be so cheap?!

#1. “Unlimited web” is broken down into 4G “high-speed” HSPA+/LTE data and their slower 2G data networks. The base plan includes 500 MB of high-speed data for each line (not shared). After that, you get punted to slower 2G speeds (~100 kbps reportedly) unless you pay for more. I actually think this is a good compromise. If you have kids that “need” the ability to check the web for “homework” (aka Facebook or Instagram) all the time, 2G speeds may be enough. Otherwise, just tell them to use the WiFi at home. If you want more high-speed data for your line, you can pony up $10 more for 2.5 GB of 4G data or $20 for unlimited.

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Multiple Uses For The Starwood American Express Card

Starwood Points Convert Easily to Frequent Flier Miles

The Starpoints bonus on this card has been changed to a 25,000 total Starwood points (10,000 with first purchase + 15,000 points when you spend $5,000 within 6 months). Annual fee waived for the first year. Read on below to see why one of us always has a Starwood card, helping me keep my entire family’s miles from expiring as well as stay in top hotels throughout Europe.]

Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American ExpressMy favorite travel rewards card for many years has been the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express. The reason is the combination of flexibility and value. This is the only annual fee card that I’ve kept consistently over the last 5+ years. Why?

  1. 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. Get free stays in hotels that otherwise charge $300+ a night.
  2. Rather have miles? You can convert 20,000 points to 25,000 miles, which is 1.25 miles per dollar spent, 25% more miles than most other airline-specific cards.
  3. Easy transfers mean you can “top off” a frequent flier account to get to that coveted reward ticket level. Your miles aren’t worth anything until you actually use them!
  4. 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 changing 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.

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Smart DIY Home Security Startups: Canary and Piper

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I’ve written about my Simplisafe DIY security system which I still use and like, but Canary and Piper are two new startups that are trying to disrupt the industry even further. Similar to what Nest did to thermostats, they use a combination of sleek software, internet access, and compact sensors to create a sleek solution to an old problem.

Each “home security in a box” includes an HD camera, motion sensor, microphone, thermometer, siren, and Piper even adds home automation abilities (say, to turn your lights on or off remotely). Both cost around $200 and won’t require installation or monthly fees. Both will offer companion smartphone apps. Both are asking for funding (including pre-orders) on Indiegogo, with Canary already at over a million dollars and ending in less than 24 hours. I’ll probably wait until these hit the market first, as it’s not exactly clear how they replace a conventional call center. I’m not sure if just sending me text alerts is enough.

Below are the pitch videos for each product:

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Toys R Us, Babies R Us Price Match Policy Update

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Toys R Us and Babies R Us recently improved its in-store Price Match Guarantee policy to include online retailer prices from select merchants (press release). Previously, it only matched price from other physical store. The eligible retailers include Walmart.com, Target.com, BestBuy.com, Sears.com, Kmart.com, buybuyBaby.com, Meijer.com, FredMeyer.com, diapers.com, BabyDepot.com and Amazon.com (excludes Amazon Marketplace items).

Customers can also receive a refund if they find an eligible lower price within a week of the purchase. If you have a smartphone, you can just pull up the website on your phone for price verification. Other exclusions apply, including 1-day sales and Black Friday promotions. Still, simply being able to price-match Amazon is a significant improvement. Here is the press release, plus full details at Toysrus.com/PriceMatch.

Prices are matched after deducting any Toys“R”Us coupons and all other offers from the price. In addition, shipping charges are calculated and factored into the cost of a competitor’s online price before a price match is completed.

I don’t usually shop at these places other than to use up gift cards and store credit, but due to their handy gift registries I do have a lot of those. This enhanced policy would have come in handy many times in the past year! See my baby registry comparison, and our baby registry experience.

RedBox Instant by Verizon Free Trial Sign-Up

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(Updated: Added details about newly-available Roku app.)

Redbox, famous for their $1 DVD rental kiosks ($1.20 now), recently launched a movie streaming service called RedBox Instant by Verizon. We like their kiosks and the fact that you can browse DVDs first and reserve them online before going to pick them up. There is currently a 1-month free trial that includes 4 free DVD rentals, so we paused our Netflix subscription (easy to pause, skip a month or more, and reactivate later) and signed up to try it out.

Redbox Movie Streaming Review

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Cost of Convenience: Homemade vs. Frozen Pizza

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Inspired by both the book Cooked and my Live Below the Line experiment, I’m doing a series of posts investigating how much extra trouble it is to cook at home. How much time do you really save? How much more does it cost? Plus all the intangibles like taste, knowing what’s in your food, the lack of various food additives, and the feeling of self-sufficiency. I’ll try not to be too preachy, as I’ve eaten my share of prepared food and take-out. In fact, don’t be surprised if the food-in-a-box wins sometimes.

So what’s a good place to start? Pizza! It’s quite easy to make your own pizza, but yet the frozen food aisle is packed with shrink-wrapped dough discs. It’s time for a showdown.

Making Your Own Pizza

Pizza dough only has a few ingredients, most of which are probably already in your pantry. Here’s one sample recipe that we worked off originally, but have adapted over time to our preferences. As for toppings, let’s start with a simple mozzarella and basil pizza with tomato sauce. Here’s a table of the ingredients and their cost for two medium pizzas. Unlike my poverty challenge, in real life I can buy things in bulk like a Costco jug of olive oil.

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Cooked: A Book About Why You Should… Cook

Consider the following questions that you may have asked yourself recently:

  • What can you do to consume fewer calories while eating healthier food?
  • How do you get your family to spend more time together, talk, and connect?
  • How do you get the public to care more about what they are eating, which in turns forces the food corporations to improve their standards?
  • What can modern super-specialized citizens do to feel more in touch with nature and self-sufficient?
  • How can you save some money?

I’m sure the title has given it away by now, but the answer is to cook! Specifically, cook at home for yourself and your family, as close to from scratch as possible. At least, that’s the lesson from the book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan. A previous post expanded on the health benefits of cooking at home, and the book examines cooking as broken down into the four elements: Fire (BBQ), Water (Braises), Air (Bread), and Earth (Brewing).

Indeed, why is it that we seem more obsessed by food than ever (Food Network, Cooking Channel, Yelp, Food Bloggers Everywhere) at the exact same time that fewer and fewer people actually know how to cook? The food industry is betting that the current generation of kids will have hardly any idea of how to cook even basic dishes, as it means even more $$$ for them! A quote from consumer researcher Harry Balzer:

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