This Is What I See When I Look at Shopping Mall Directory Maps

Here’s my attempt at humor that came to mind while being dragged shopping again, in the name of baby gear research. (I get really whiny when made to shop…)

500 stores, and nothing to buy. Am I the only one?

WSJ on Lowering Your Cable Internet Bill Through Negotiation

Looking for some financial improvements in the New Year? Why not get rid or lower a monthly expense that you don’t need? Do the yard yourself – it’s good exercise too! Sell that extra car (and the insurance payment with it)? Or trim that ever-growing cable bill? It appears the Wall Street Journal has caught onto what many people (including me) have been doing for years with it’s article Customers Say to Cable Firms, ‘Let’s Make a Deal’.

Want cheaper cable television? Try asking for it. Every three to six months, when his most recent promotional deal expires, Carey Anthony blocks out an hour of his day to negotiate with his cable company. Each time, the president of a software company in Los Angeles says he can knock $20 to $30 off his monthly bill. “Negotiating works every time,” says Mr. Anthony, 46, who estimates he has saved more than $350 a year over the past decade. “Sometimes you have to threaten to cancel service, or switch to another provider, or sit on hold for an hour, but I’ve never failed to get a discount,” he says. “You just have to be diligent.”

This sounds just like my own experiences in cable bill and internet haggling since 2005 with updates from Comcast (2007) and DirecTV (2009). Similar to Mr. Anthony, I’m probably ahead hundreds of dollars using this tactic, although I’ve moved around a bunch and thus taken advantage of new-customer perks as well.

In behavioral finance terms, what Comcast and other businesses are doing is called price targeting. If Jane is willing to pay $50 a month and Jill is willing to pay only $30 a month for my product that only costs me $15 a month – I would love to have both Jane and Jill paying me whatever they are willing. But if Jane finds out I’m offering Jill the same thing for $20 a month less, she’ll get mad even though she was fine without that knowledge. So, Comcast waits until Jill complains and offers her the $30 a month plan quietly:

Many providers offer less-expensive packages with fewer channels but don’t advertise them widely. Providers often will allow customers to continue cost-saving promotions well after they expire. Other providers will cut you a new deal every six months—but you have to call and ask. Often, if customers threaten to cancel service, they are transferred to the “retention department” staffed with representatives who are trained to offer customers deals to stay put.

Now, some people are offended by these tactics. I suppose that is partially cultural; in many countries such negotiations and haggling are a part of daily life. Price tags (and thus common prices for all) were an invention of the chain store as it grew from small shops.

Verizon Wireless $2 Payment Fee: Another Public Relations Fail

On December 29th, Verizon Wireless announced via official press release that “Starting January 15, a new $2 payment convenience fee will be instituted for customers who make single bill payments online or by telephone.”

A day later, on December 30th, after a barrage of consumer complaints and a possible FCC investigation, Verizon retracted their fee.

Verizon said it listened to its customers and made the decision based on customer input after many complained and some threatened to leave the service if the fee was instituted. A spokesman said that the company had just wanted to encourage consumers to pay their bills via different methods such as autopay, where they give Verizon permission to charge their credit card or bank account automatically each month.

Sigh, Verizon. You do realize you’re charging us to pay you, right? Just like Bank of America wanted to charge people $5 to access their own money? Maybe read one of the 17 behavioral economics books on the shelves right now. Suggestion: reward customers with a $2 discount for enrolling on monthly autopay instead. Yes, you could quietly jack up the monthly bill by $2 later on, but at least that way it’s easy to see when comparison shopping between carriers.

Practical Gift Guide: A Few Of My Favorite Things

Not done shopping yet? December 16th (today) is Free Shipping Day for many merchants who are offering free delivery by Christmas Eve. Also, the last day for things bought with Amazon’s Free Super Saver Shipping to arrive before Christmas is Monday the 19th. I’ve noticed they spring for 2-day air more often this time of year.

In that spirit, I’ve seen a lot of silly gift guides floating around, so here’s a few things in different price ranges that I actually own and found to be good value:

Quality Jackets With Lifetime Warranty ($50-$200)
Given how long good outerwear can last, I don’t see why you wouldn’t spend a little more for the good stuff. I have a mix of different jackets that have all lasted over 10 years and also have lifetime warranties in case they don’t last another 10. First, I had a soft fleece jacket from REI that went 10 years before the zipper broke. I took it into the store and they fixed it for me free of charge. I have an outer jacket from L.L. Bean that is now 15 years old and hasn’t given me any cause to return it. (I’m actually more proud that it still fits since it’s a graduation present from high school, but still.) Finally, I have a Gore-Tex jacket from North Face that has gone 10 years and still repels snow and water. Even their own fabric instructions say you can just wash them like anything else.

Sales are everywhere, but I noticed that REI currently has 30% off any REI-branded item with promo code REISAVE. Also don’t forget your favorite cashback shopping portal.

Enamel Dutch Oven ($45)
We got a Le Creuset dutch oven as a gift, and we think it’s a great product even though they retail for $200+. You get all the benefits of cast-iron (great heat retention, works on stove, works in oven) but with a nice, durable enamel coating (easier cooking, easier cleanup, looks nice). Did I mention it lasts forever? However, you should know that the respected magazine Cook’s Illustrated did careful testing of various competing products and found the $45 Tramontina dutch oven to be of comparable quality at a fraction of the price. Seems like a great value. If anything, replace the plastic knob with a metal one for high-temperature baking.

Travel Underwear & Socks ($10-$20)
Didn’t see that one coming, did ya? Frequent travelers always talk about packing light. When packing for a longer trip, I found it hard to fit everything in a carry-on if you’re packing 7 pairs of socks and 7 pairs of boxers. The trick is to buy quick-drying underwear and socks, so you really just need a minimum of two pairs – one to wear while the other is trying. (Or theoretically even just one pair if you like sleeping commando…) I like the ExOfficio Men’s Give-N-Go Boxer Brief and these J.B. Expedition Adventure Travel Quick Dry Socks. (Ladies’ versions available as well.) I actually pack 3 pairs as they are also lighter and thinner than my regular clothes.

Drying tip: Wash them in the sink with your soap of choice. Wring dry by hand. Now place a dry towel flat on a bed, and then place the damp clothing onto the towel. Roll the towel up with the clothes inside, and then wring the towel again tightly. You should have removed enough of the water to finish hang-drying overnight.

What practical gifts do you recommend?

Capital One Bank Really Doesn’t Like Inactive Checking Accounts…

Banks aren’t as wildly profitable anymore, and thus are looking for ways to bring back the bucks. They’ve added new “features” like debit card fees, and are dropping unprofitable customers. For example, people with zero balances and little activity still cost money in the form of generating statements, 1099s, and such. Well, MMB reader Mike experienced firsthand how much Capital One Bank doesn’t like inactive checking accounts.

Even though he has biweekly direct deposits into his account, his account suddenly disappeared one day from online banking. It’s the primary fear of online-only accounts; what happens if they simply say my money doesn’t exist? After contacting them, what was the reason given for closing without notice? A $0 balance for just five consecutive days. Here are some excerpts of his exchange with customer service:

We understand you are inquiring about the status of your checking account. Your checking account ending in XXXX was closed on 08/19/2011 after an extended period with a zero balance. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause. To have your account reactivated, please confirm you mailing address and phone number by secure message.

In regards to your question of $2,000 deposit once a month, our records indicate this last deposit made into the account was on 08/12/2011 for $2,278.44. Following this deposit on 08/12/2011 there was a withdrawal of $2,278.44, followed by a $20.00 ATM withdrawal on 08/15/2011 leaving the balance of this account at $0.00. Once the account has a zero balance for five consecutive days, it will close automatically and no longer appear in your online banking profile.

In the past, banks like EmigrantDirect also closed zero balance accounts without warning, but only after at least a month of inactivity. Watch out, banks are becoming even less friendly than before.

E-Trade Baby Doesn’t Like Market Volatility Either

Has the stock market turbulence from the last few weeks got you pooping in your diaper? You’re not alone. Here’s a parody video of the usually confident E-Trade baby facing some portfolio losses. Warning: Some bleeped-out curse words.

CollegeHumor via Allan Roth.

When The Lottery Is Actually A Winning Proposition

There was a very interesting story from the Boston Globe on Sunday about how a few folks managed to virtually guarantee winning hundreds of thousands of dollars on a Massachusetts lottery ticket game due to how the jackpot rolled over if it went unclaimed long enough. The statistics worked out well if you bought at least $100,000 in tickets during a 3-day window every few months.

Just three “investment groups” collected 1,105 of the 1,605 prizes statewide after a May drawing – two of which were run by former Computer Science students at MIT and Northeastern University. One couple bought over $600,000 worth of tickets this year and have won over $1,000,000 in return. See kids, math is cool!

Also of interest was the fact that state officials have known about this “loophole” for years, but have only done something to stop it after negative media attention arose. After the story broke, it was quickly announced that any lottery sales agent could only sell $5,000 of tickets in a single day. Finally, the entire game was announced to be phased out next year.

Infographic: How We’re Preparing For Retirement

The Onion shares their scientific poll results for the ever-important retirement question:

Some quick online research reveals that what I thought was just another funny option is all too real – lotto tickets. According to a 1999 survey by the Consumer Federation of America, 40% of Americans with incomes between $25,000 and $35,000 thought their best shot at paying for their retirement was winning the lottery. Along the same lines, a recent Consumerist article has low-income households spending a whopping 9% of their annual income on lottery tickets.

I wonder what would happen if on a certain number of the losing scratch-off cards, scratching off the latex ink won you free personal finance and budget management services.

In most states that have them, lotteries are justified because the revenues goes towards education. But what I’ve seen happen is every $1 that comes from the lottery just means the government can cut $1 of funding from somewhere else. The quality of education stays the same, if not worse. According to this article, a study found that states without lotteries maintained or increased their education spending more than states with lotteries.

Hmm… I got sidetracked on this “fun” post and landed in sad town. Doh!

Yet Another Housing Bubble Video: Hitler the Flipper

We’ve all probably seen enough YouTube videos about the housing crash to last us a lifetime, but this one still made me smile. Hitler as a real estate flipper? It’s embedded below, but here is the direct link for those RSS readers who can’t see it. Via LH on Bogleheads. Over 2 million views!

Apparently, this is a popular meme based on a scene from the movie Downfall about the final days of Hitler.

Housing Bubble History: Book Covers From 2005-Present

I ran across this funny image on Imgur and just had to recreate it with a bit more detail. All of these books are by the same author, David Lareah, along with the publishing dates of each book. (The first two books are essentially the same book with different titles.)

Hover your mouse cursor over each book cover below to see the full titles, the progression is both funny and sad. Or, you can click on each book cover to see the corresponding Amazon book page. Comparing old and new reviews for the books can also be a nice lesson in investor psychology.

All Real Estate Is Local: What You Need to Know to Profit in Real Estate - in a Buyer's and a Seller's Market  Why the Real Estate Boom Will Not Bust - And How You Can Profit from It: How to Build Wealth in Today's Expanding Real Estate Market Are You Missing The Real Estate Boom?

Now, which popular books of today will be the jokes of tomorrow?

Side Business Idea For Geeky College Students: Hacking iPhones

WaPo has a story about a college student who makes $50,000 a year from jailbreaking iPhones for strangers. By opening up the operation system to tweaks, “jailbreaking” allows iPhone users to do some cool stuff like share 3G connections, switch to T-Mobile, and install non-Apple-approved apps. I can see how non-techy iPhone owners would happily pay money to enhance their iPhone, given that they are already paying $70-$100+ a month for service.

The article doesn’t provide proof or details, but with some simple reverse math, here’s how it might work. $50k a year is about $1,000 a week. If he says he can do 40 unlocks a week, that means he had to charge $25 a pop. Not bad for a cash business with zero overhead besides having an iPhone. Now, there are some risks of data loss, but I’m pretty sure that with some careful reading any college student could figure it out. There are plenty of sites that will guide you through it. In case you’re wondering, in July 2010 the courts ruled that jailbreaking was legal.

This reminds me of when I was in college, I supported my gadget desire by taking advantage of the dot-com boom and the emergence of eBay. A new start-up would offer up stuff with a “we-lose-money-but-make-it-up-in-volume” discount, and I would sell them on eBay for a profit. For example, a Palm Pilot (remember those?) might be on sale for $100, and I could sell it for $150. If I bought three, that meant I could sell two and keep one for free. If I was more motivated by actual money then (I wasn’t) I should have bought 10 or 20, and made some real money.

The main problem with this plan? Supply and demand. Just one day after this article hit, a guy is offering to jailbreak your phone for just five bucks in San Jose. I guess that’s where you’ll have to start using stuff like marketing and finding a good location to stand out. Hello real-world experience!

XKCD Remix: The Secret Life of Personal Finance Bloggers

XKCD is a popular online comic strip, and recently there was a funny one about what really goes on behind time management and productivity blogs. I decided to take advantage of their creative commons license and adapt the original comic to personal finance blogs.

Sometimes it just seems like we just compete on how frugal we are. Sometimes I like to imagine in reality we’re squatting in McMansions and driving our leased luxury SUVs to buy shiny toys with our Kardashian-themed credit cards. Hey, somebody has to do it.