Conscious Spending: Things vs. Experiences

It’s official: Experiences make people happier than possessions. Okay, not really, but it is the conclusion taken from a recent psychology study as reported in this CNN Health article:

The study looked at 154 people enrolled at San Francisco State University, with an average age of about 25. Participants answered questions about a recent purchase — either material or experiential — they personally made in the last three months with the intention of making themselves happy. While most people were generally happy with the purchase regardless of what it was, those who wrote about experiences tended to show a higher satisfaction at the time and after the experience had passed.

This would suggest that in general, experiential purchases such as eating out, watching a musical, or traveling would produce greater happiness than material purchases. I wouldn’t say this qualifies as a landmark study, as it only surveyed 154 young Californian students (not exactly a large and diverse sample size). However, it should encourage us to look back on our own past purchases and consider carefully which ones had the most value to us. Prioritizing is the first step to spending consciously and cutting out the excess purchases.

A related note is that the researcher also stated that people adapt to a new purchase in six to eight weeks, up to a maximum of three months. That means the initial pleasure we get from a new possession generally fades in a matter of months. That darn hedonic treadmill again.

Hey, doesn’t this just about coincide with Apple’s product cycle? Just in time after the buzz from your new iToy starts to fade, there is another iToy 5G+ to make you happy again. Here’s a quote straight from a recent BusinessWeek article about why Apple is still going strong:

“For many people in this economy, Apple is what makes them happy,” said Shaw Wu, a senior analyst with Kaufman Brothers LP in San Francisco. “Its products make their lives easier and provide some entertainment, at a time when people don’t feel good about a lot of other things in their lives. It sounds silly, but it’s not that far from the truth.”

But again, perhaps buying some happiness every six months is fine, as long as it fits your financial priorities.

Better Financial Motivator: Stick or Carrot?

We all have financial goals that we want to reach. Some of us do better with a reward attached to reaching our goal (carrot), while others may actually try harder if trying to avoid a punishment (stick). We are motivated by personal desire, by our family, by our friends… but how about a website?

For the those that need that extra bit of discipline, check out Stickk.com, which lets you create a “commitment contract” which have real penalties attached to them. For example, you could commit to saving an extra $150 each month in a separate savings account for 6 months. You could set a penalty of $250 if you don’t follow through – send to a friend, enemy, or donated to an organization that you dislike (NRA, PETA, whatever… dubbed anti-charities).

The site is serious, and started by economics professors who all agree that incentives make the world go ’round. You choose a third-party referee (input their e-mail), as well as give them your credit card information. If you don’t follow through, your card is charged!

If you do better with carrots, you can always set that up yourself. If you reach your savings goal, go out and get a manicure or a nice steak dinner.

Deluxe Rent-a-Car of LAX: Worst Car Rental Agency Ever?

I need to rent a car in Los Angeles next month, so I went onto Kayak.com and ran a quick search. The cheapest option at LAX was through a place called Deluxe Rent-a-car, at only about $20 a day including all taxes. It seemed so cheap, I instinctively ran a quick Google search for some reviews of this unknown company.

Wow, I have never seen such bad reviews for a rental car agency before. “Don’t do it!” “Stay far away from this place!” “Worst car rental agency in the galaxy!” “Economic Terrorists!” “They wiped my account clean of over $5,000″ And those were only the first 5 entries. I kid you not.

What did the LA Better Business Bureau have to say? Oh, just their worst grade possible of F:

It’s almost comical, as if there was a competition to run the absolute lowest cost car rental agency possible without being shut down by law enforcement. (They’ve somehow been in business for 9 years.) Check out these user reports, including direct quotes from Yelp, TripAdvisor, and other review sites:

  • They don’t seem to actually check that they have the actual car you want before accepting the reservation. They just take all of them to get your business. Then when you arrive, if they have it, great, otherwise, they just give you whatever is available and refund you any difference. “My “standard convertible” became a Toyota Corolla with 65k miles with the check engine low tire pressure lights lit. It also had not been cleaned on the inside.” If they actually have no cars left at all, then oops – too bad!
  • They charge everyone a $400 deposit, which is actually charged first onto your credit card, and then they have to reverse it later if they deem everything acceptable. If you get a parking ticket, they’ll charge you $125 + the cost of the ticket.
  • The shuttle doesn’t actually arrive in the Rental Car pickup section of LAX. It picks you up in the Courtesy shuttle area, with a “Johnny Park” sign instead of Deluxe Rent-a-Car. Does one area cost more to use or something? Finally, they only promise to run every 15 minutes instead of every 5 minutes like the other major agencies. Users complained of 45-minute actual wait times. I lost count of the reviews from confused customers.
  • The cars are dirty. Lots of pictures of stains on Yelp, and also claims of broken glass and bad smells. Don’t expect your “non-smoking” vehicle to actually be that way.
  • Multiple instances of the car registration being expired, yet the car was still rented out. Nice.
  • Rude employees. Too many stories to generalize any other way.
  • Gas policy: You get whatever the last renter left in the car. They apparently don’t have gas pumps at their facility. So you might pick it up empty, 1/4 full, or whatever. If it’s nearly empty, they generously tell you whatever is left is yours. If it happens to be half full, they tell you to bring it back half full.

Let this serve as a warning for potential renters, and entertainment for everyone else. Caveat emptor. As for me, after some more searching I found a coupon for Enterprise that resulted in an even lower rate than “Deluxe” per day. (I also grabbed an additional 2% cash back from Mr. Rebates.) Kayak should really remove this company from their price comparison engine!

Short Film: The Cheapest Man in the Room

Do you think you’re cheap? Or know someone who is? Well, unless you’ve brought supermarket cheese samples on a date, they may not be when compared to The Cheapest Man in the Room.

Ross Carter lives a normal life … for a guy on a budget. Some people call him thrifty, or economical, or even a money saver – Ross is all of those and more. He is surrounded by hilarious people, including his cheap old mentor Harold, his all-knowing roommate Dwayne, and the glamorous lady at the Country Time Senior Center – Geena. Life is good for Ross and his coupons, 2 for 1 sales, and free car washes, but that all changes when he meets the lovely Jenny Shree, an intelligent young woman and world traveler. Jenny is not impressed with Ross’s cheap ways – which includes bringing a bag of old wine to a date – and she challenges Ross on his cheapness.

This is a fun short film that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Stealing public toilet paper, and then splitting them from 2-ply to singly-ply in order to make it last longer? Nah… I can’t give up my Charmin Ultra. :) Found via Guzzo.

Depositing Loose Coins and Coin Jars

Coins Image

Like a lot of folks, I don’t like carrying around change and whenever I get the chance it gets deposited into a jar on my desk. Coinstar has somehow created a publicly-traded corporation (ticker CSTR) worth over 1 billion dollars based on converting these coins back into… cash? (Okay, they now also own Redbox.) I still don’t get it. Occasionally, Coinstar has a promotion that gets you a little bonus, but other than that I really don’t see why people choose to pay a 9.8% fee to get their own cash handed back to them.

[Update: A lot of people point out that you can convert to several gift certificate options with no fee. This is true, and can definitely be a better option if you shop at those stores. But you lose the ability to get credit card rewards on your purchases, which can be up to 5% on certain places like grocery stores. In addition, at several places like Starbucks I can buy gift cards for 80 cents on the dollar at places like Costco ($40 for $50 gift card). Even for the most popular Amazon.com, I can get 5x rewards back by buying things with my Citi Forward Card.]

Every single bank that I’ve asked accepts coins as deposits to a checking account. Seems like that would be a law or something. Bank of America, regional banks, and local credit unions. Some used to request that you roll them, but within the last five years they’ve all just accepted them loose. They simply place them along with a blank deposit slip into a plastic cash bag, seal it, and send it off to a central coin-counting place. Within a couple of business days, a deposit shows up in my account.

I suppose you might worry that they’ll steal some of your coins, whether through the human operator or the counting machines. However, even if you go to a place like Coinstar, the counter might also be off as well. The Wall Street Journal even investigated the accuracy of Coinstar machines and found them both off.

First try:

For consistency, we began with equal piles of $87.26 worth of pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters that we had gotten from a local bank in coin envelopes. Talk about a tough economy. The machines at both Commerce Bank and Coinstar gave us less back than we put in — Commerce Bank missed by a whopping $7.02, while Coinstar was off by 57 cents.

Second try:

Alarmed at the results, we decided to give the machines a second chance. This time, we painstakingly counted out two batches of $68.23 in change. But once again, both Commerce Bank (82 cents) and Coinstar (14 cents) were off — in the machine’s favor.

Of course, that $7.02 miscount was still less than the new 9.8% fee of Coinstar (as of March 1st). Perhaps the Commerce Bank counters open to the public aren’t maintained very well.

If you’d like to estimate the amount in your coin jar without counting, try this Coin Jar Calculator. You simply grab a handful of coins, input the breakdown along with the weight of the coins, and out pops an estimate of your jar’s value. I would say it’s only accurate to maybe 10-15%. For me, it estimated $86.73 based on a large handful, with an actual result of $94.07.

Looking for something more scientific? Check out this little dissertation. With some basic assumptions, the author figures mixed loose coins should be worth about $12.96 a pound. My jar worked out to closer to $11 a pound. I do occasionally fish out quarters for parking meters though, so that likely skewed my results.

How do you deal with your loose coinage? Share in the comments.

Library Sent Me To Collections!

People usually agree that checking your credit report regularly is a good idea, but after downloading all my credit reports just now I found out that I had overdue library fees of $40 from my old city and they sent me to collections! I am 99.9% sure I returned them. I received no mail notices and have received no phone calls from any collection agency either. It’s dated April 2008, although I’ve opened several bank accounts, brokerage accounts, and credit cards since then with no indication that my credit was anything but flawless. It’s only on my Experian report as well.

I’ll have to follow up on this later. Meanwhile, for you library users, I found this NY Times article Late Library Books Can Take Toll on Credit Scores. Well, not a big toll… :P

Sports Authority $25 off $100 Coupon: Too Bad It Excludes Nearly Everything

In trying to spend some Sports Authority gift cards thoughtfully given to me, I found a nice $25 off $100 coupon at sportsauthority.com/save if you sign up for their e-mail newsletter (which you can cancel immediately afterwards) . I thought that was a pretty good deal, until I read their coupon exclusions, which disallowed the first five things that I could think of buying…

Discount excludes the following:

Adams Golf, adidas Golf, asics, Atec, Baby Jogger, BagBoy, Bauer, Bowflex, Bridgestone, Callaway, Carhartt, Cat Eye, Championship Merchandise, Cleveland Golf, Cobra, Coleman, Columbia, Daiwa, DeMarini, Diamondback, Dye, E-Force, Easton, Ektelon, Escape, Fitness Quest, Footjoy, Fred Bear Equipment, Gorilla, Head, Heavy Putter, Horizon, Huffy, Hunter Dan, Jugs, K2, Kettler, K-Swiss, Lobster, Louisville Slugger, MacGregor, Magnum, MBT, Merrell, Miken Sports, Mission, Mizuno, Mongoose, NBA Jerseys, Nextt Golf, NFL Jerseys, Nike, Nike Golf, Oakley, Odyssey, Parkland Heritage, Prince, Pro Feet, Rawlings, Razor, Rollerblade, Salomon, Schwinn, Skechers Shape Ups, Skycaddie, Sole, Speedstik, Spring Step, TaylorMade, Ten Point, The North Face, Thule, Tippmann, Titleist, Top-Flite, Tour Edge, Trend Sports, Trikes, Under Armour, Wilson, Worth, Yakima

All bike racks, electronics/optics, select fitness, exercise bikes, ellipticals, treadmills, home gyms, weights, benches, trampolines and accessories, select Fan Shop furniture, select camping products, canopies, scooters, table games, fishing and hunting products, and select basketball systems.

Other exclusions may apply.

It looks like this has been going on for a while, with the Consumerist writing about this two years as well:

Sports Authority misses you so much that they sent out a 20% off coupon that doesn’t apply to sports equipment or 68 named brands. You might, might be able to get 20% off a pair of socks.

Ha! Or I can buy $100 of overpriced electrolyte drinks…

Wanna Buy A Beer Company Together?

Pabst Brewing Company, makers of Pabst Blue Ribbon, is currently owned by a charitable trust that must sell it by 2010. Forza Migliozzi and The Ad Store want to use crowdsourcing to buy the company for $300 million through their website BuyaBeerCompany.com.

From this CNN article:

Anyone over 21 can go to the site and pledge a minimum of $5 toward the reported $300 million sales price for Pabst. So far, would-be beer moguls have pledged more than $20 million in about a month. If the collective raises enough money, Migliozzi says contributors will get enough beer to match their pledges and ownership in the company.

While living in Portland, I definitely noticed the rising popularity of PBR. Shrug, I pledged $25. You don’t actually pay upfront, so we’ll see what happens.

From The “You Get What You Pay For” Department…

During my trip a few months ago to New York City, I picked up some “I Heart NY” t-shirts as souvenirs. After some haggling at one of the hundreds of tourist shops near Times Square (cheap enough so I felt like I didn’t have to take the subway to Chinatown), I happily packed up about 10 of them, brought them home, and doled them out to family and friends.

This is what they looked like after one washing:

See anything missing? Caveat Emptor!

Should I Buy This Gadget? Here’s a Helpful Flowchart

Click below or on the thumbnail above to see the whole thing.

[Read more...]

Sell Your Halloween Candy Back To Dentists

Have you heard of this? A network of dentists will buy back your Halloween candy for $1 to $2 per pound at HalloweenCandyBuyBack.com. After a few zip code searches, there actually does seem to be a few dentists in many metro areas. They are then encouraged to donate the candy to be sent to troops overseas.

Seems like an idea with good intentions, but somehow seems funny to me. Candy is bought by my neighbors, which is given out free to kids in costume, which gets sold to dentists for cash, and then is finally donated?

As a kid, the best part was trading candy between friends afterward. (I’ll add that I was always made to brush regularly and have never had a cavity in my life.) What was your favorite Halloween candy? I still love Dum-Dum lollipops.

Piggy Bank That Helps You Save & Spend

This might be cool for kids. The Spend Save Bank randomly deposits coins into either the ‘Save’ or ‘Spend’ section. It’d be even better if there was a option to set what percentages you want to split between spend and save, but I guess that would be a lot more complicated than a swiveling tray. Via Gizmodo via bookofjoe.

“Like a slot machine that never loses.” Ha! Here are some more funny piggy banks I’ve ran across.