Fitness Resolution? Don’t Join A Gym Until February

New year, same old goals. :) This January, don’t sign up for an expensive gym membership with a contract, or buy a $500+ treadmill that ends up collecting dust. Yes, these might really help you achieve a healthier body, but they could also be a huge waste of money. What people should really figure out first is if they really have the discipline and motivation to stick with any exercise program.

Before dropping any cash, try one of these free fitness programs first. You don’t have to finish, just follow it for all of January. Studies have shown that it takes at least 30 days to create new habits. If you can’t even run around your neighborhood three times a week for a month, why would you buy yourself a treadmill?

I’m sure there’s more good stuff online, please share in the comments. To better health!

Peer-to-Peer Renting: Lease Your Stuff to Strangers, Hopefully Buy Less Stuff

Recent articles in the New York Times and BusinessWeek magazine talked about the growing emergence of websites where individuals can rent out their belonging to other strangers, coining the new term “collaborative consumption”. I like the idea. Not only can you make some extra money renting out your stuff when you aren’t using it, but as a borrower that means you need to buy less stuff as well. In addition, people can use it as a “test-drive” to try out things like a certain model car or an iPad. Here’s a list of websites in this area, please let me know any that I’ve missed.

Peer-to-peer car rentals! Rent your car to strangers by the hour. Started in Boston and now available in San Francisco Bay Area as well. Free to join, and renters start with $25 free driving credit. Prices are cheaper than competitors like ZipCar, which owns their own private fleet. Claims that owners can make $250 a month on average renting out their vehicles. Rates include gas and insurance.

Similar: Spride Share (currently in SF Bay Area), WhipCar (UK),

Rent out extra rooms in your house (or the entire house, a castle, or private island…). Free to sign up. Set your own prices and availability. Airbnb facilitates all bookings and financial transactions. They already have over 50,000 properties in 10,000 cities.

Similar: ParkatmyHouse (rent out driveway or garage space in crowded areas)

Technically you can rent out anything on this site, but it has specific categories for cars, vacation sites, power tools, and event rentals. You can rent from businesses or individuals. Looks like a PS3 is going for $20-$25 a day.

Similar: SnapGoods (newer, but more polished website), Rentalic

Share Some Sugar
Can I borrow a cup of sugar? You can also rent out anything on this site, but SSS seems to promote borrowing between people in the same neighborhood for free (with a refundable security deposit). After browsing a bit, I realize that I could use a lawn aerator, if only there was someone nearby with one available.

Similar: ShareZen (more for collaborative ownership of a plane, home, or boat), Skyara (a marketplace for “experiences”)

I suppose the main concern would be either theft or breakage of your property. Most sites have a user rating and feedback system similar to that of eBay, as well as security deposits. The car rental agencies do provide insurance, but I don’t believe the other sites do. In many cases, you can restrict your lending to members of your social network of friends via sites like Facebook.

Of course, the hardest thing about these sites is often getting the critical mass of adequate inventory to rent out to interested customers. Let’s hope one of these gains some traction. The one I want to use right now would be ParkatmyHouse. Combine their inventory with a real-time iPhone/Android app, and you could search for cheap parking almost anywhere. If you live where parking is scarce, you could profit from what is usually just a headache.

‘Tis The Season For Giving… Away Your Extra Stuff

It’s the Season of Giving, so why not give away the things you don’t need anymore? I think right now is even better than “Spring cleaning”. We just spent a chunk of this past weekend making a box of stuff to give to various charities. Here’s why, along with some tips:

  • Get started. In order to break out the Christmas or other holiday decorations, you’re already rummaging around the attic, basement, or garage. Don’t stop there! One helpful tip I read about recently was to get three big boxes and mark them Keep, Undecided, and Toss. Then you can just barrel through quickly without getting stuck on any single semi-sentimental object.
  • Full Closets? Most people probably have gone through all four seasons of 2010 and not worn a lot of their clothes. If you haven’t worn something in an entire year, it’s seriously time to consider donating it. This time of year, places are always looking for winter clothes like coats, gloves, and boots. If you need some extra spending money, sell your trendier stuff to vintage and thrift shops like Buffalo Exchange.
  • Getting kids involved. The young ones are probably very exciting about the incoming gifts. Now that they are a “big boy” or “big girl”, isn’t it time to look through their toy box and see what they don’t play with anymore? Santa may not bring them as much stuff if they don’t have any more room… 😉 Gently used toys can easily be donated, even if you can’t re-gift directly.
  • End-of-year tax deductions. If you donate by December 31st, you can claim any charitable donations as a tax deduction for your 2010 taxes and reap the benefits sooner (assuming you itemize). Here are a few donation valuation guides from a Salvation Army, another Salvation Army, and a Goodwill branch. I used ItsDeductible from the Intuti TurboTax folks last year and liked it.
  • Use the internet to maximize your effectiveness. Sites like Freecycle and Craiglist allow you to give your stuff away to someone who can actually use it. There are also many niche charities popping up here and there, specializing in redistributing everything from sporting goods to business clothes for job-seekers to partially used gift cards.

Take a break from the holiday accumulation frenzy and declutter instead. Even though I put it off as well, it always feels great afterward.

The Rat Race: Does This Cartoon Look Familiar?


Let’s get out of the race!

Image credit to artist Polyp. There’s also an animated version that made me nauseous (perhaps that was the point?).

Could You Own Less Than 100 Things?

Another topic I’ve been interested in is the 100 Thing Challenge started by Dave Bruno. If you read a lot of simplicity blogs you’ve probably already heard of it, but it’s a pretty simple idea: Live with only 100 personal possessions. You can always quibble about what is a “thing” – a pair of socks, or all your socks? Your nail clippers, or all toiletries? But you get the basic idea.

The goal of the 100 Thing Challenge is to break free from the confining habits of American-style consumerism. A lot people around the world feel “stuck in stuff.” They feel like their closets and garages are too full of things that don’t really make their lives much better. But how to get unstuck?

Reduce (get rid of some of your stuff)

Refuse (to get more new stuff)

Rejigger (your priorities)

Press coverage has included Time magazine, USA Today, and The Times (UK). Here are some lists of folk’s sub-100 inventories:

Seems like clothes usually take up at least 20 items. Since this challenge basically requires that as many things as possible be digitized, I’ve been eyeing out this $400 Fujitsu bulk scanner out… even though that would be a new thing.

Selling Back Really Old Textbooks Online

In the process of trying to minimize junk, I sold off some pretty old textbooks this week. It’s been over ten years since I first bought any of these books, and the last time I used them was probably about 7 years ago. I had saved them initially for the qualifying exams that PhD students must take early on in graduate school, and then later thought I might go back to school or use them as references at work. They also looked nice on my bookshelf and made me feel smart. 😉

I was about to throw them out since I figured they’d be five editions behind by now and wouldn’t be worth anything, but a quick search ended getting me about $10 per book.

Compare Offer Prices
After looking around, the easiest place to start seemed to be the price comparison engine at You simply enter all the ISBN numbers at once to your virtual “bookbag”, and then click “Start Price Comparison”. The site then looks up the price offered by buyback sites like TextbooksRus,,,, FirstClassBooks, Valore Books, and eCampus.

They also look up current lowest asking prices at sites where you can sell it yourself, like TextbookX Marketplace,,, and TextbooksRus. In some cases like the one below, a buyback site actually offered more than these middlemen before their commissions.

Another option I considered was to drive to the nearest college campus bookstore and run the books through each of their databases, but I decided it wasn’t worth the time and gas for me. This would obviously be much easier for current students.

Book Buyback Online
I just wanted to get rid of them in bulk and didn’t feel like maximizing my price for something that might never sell, so I just went with the highest offers from each of the buyback sites. In some cases, I had to group purchases because some sites had a minimum purchase amount (i.e. they won’t buy less than $15 of books from you).

All the sites had a similar process, and were very simple to deal with. You add the books you want to sell, and then print out a packing slip and prepaid mailing label. Most pay for USPS media mail, although some offer FedEx or other faster service. I just had to drop them off at the post office since they weighed more than a pound. Once they receive and process the books, they then cut you a check (some offer bank direct deposit or PayPal). I haven’t received my checks yet, but the sites listed appear to be reputable.

Let me know if you know of a better way to offload your unwanted old textbooks.

Planned vs. Perceived Obsolescence

I recently watched the film Story of Stuff, which is a film about the lifecycle of material goods. While the video has its biases and has thus become politically controversial, I still think the video is worth viewing with a critical mind. There is some good debate on the film’s Wikipedia page, I don’t want to get into it here.

One thing that I did like was her discussion of planned vs. perceived obsolescence. Here are the definitions from the film glossary:

Planned obsolescence: designing and producing products in order for them to be used up (obsolete) within a specific time period. Products may be designed for obsolescence either through function, like a paper coffee cup or a machine with breakable parts, or through “desirability,” like a piece of clothing made for this year’s fashion and then replaced by something totally different next year. Planned obsolescence is also known as “design for the dump.”

Perceived obsolescence: the part of planned obsolescence that refers to “desirability”. In other words, an object may continue to be functional, but it is no longer perceived to be stylish or appropriate, so it is rendered obsolete by perception, rather than by function. Fashion is all about perceived obsolescence, and it could be said that perceived obsolescence is the number one “product” of the advertising industry.

Non-Consumer Alarm!
This made me think about how companies have made easy it is to identify “non-consumers”, which usually leads to them being mocked somehow. Let’s take cars. Models change very often, even if just slightly, so it’s very easy to tell that my car is 10 or 15 years old. My wife and I are often told by our friends and family that our cars don’t match our job titles/income levels. Same with cell phones. If your phone doesn’t have at least a QWERTY keyboard these days, it’s a freaking antique.

As for clothes, I’m always happy that I’m a guy because my closet of long-sleeved dress shirts, cotton polo shirts, slightly baggy jeans, and cargo shorts have managed to last me for over a decade now. Meanwhile, to be a mainstream woman, you went from flare jeans to low-ride jeans to the new thing – skinny jeans. I won’t even go into shoes (UGGs??).

Try it next time you’re in a crowded area, at work, or visit someone’s house. See if you can pick out who hasn’t bought the newest version of something in the last few years.

[Read more…]

Creating a Completely Automated Financial Household

Meet Bill and Jan. They are my imaginary couple that loves putting their personal finances on auto-pilot. They don’t worry about bill due dates, they never visit the bank, and only check their balances online once a month if there are no e-mail alerts sent to them. (Apparently they also don’t have lips or eyes, so it works well for them…) Let’s take a look at how they do it!

Bill and Jan both elected to receive their regular income via direct deposit, so there are no checks to deposit. Even though Jan does some freelancing, she gets paid via PayPal, which she sets to automatically sweep any money into their bank account at the end of each business day. This feature is called Auto Sweep and is not heavily advertised, you must contact PayPal directly to enable it.

Long-Term Savings
Like everyone else, their 401(k) plans are funded via an automatic deferral each payday. For their Roth IRA, they simply take out $500 per month via an automatic transfer from their checking account for 10 months, which can be set up easily at or any other major mutual fund provider. If you like individual stocks or ETFs, try automatic investing at ShareBuilder.

Short-Term Savings
For their annual vacation and other savings goals, they have an automatic transfer from their checking to an online savings account like the original Capital One Consumer Bank.

They do keep a certain buffer amount in their checking account, similar to this simple budgeting method. If the balance falls too low for any reason, an e-mail and text message alert are sent to both of them.

If they had a mortgage, most lenders will happily set up an automatic ACH from bank account each month. If they wanted to set up a biweekly payment plan and it isn’t free, they could simply take out 1/12th of their monthly mortgage payment each month automatically into Capital One 360. Once a year, they send one full mortgage payment to their lender.

If they rented, they would set their Online Billpay service to send a snail-mail check automatically each month and deduct the amount from the bank account.

Most utility companies will allow to you sign up for them to automatically withdraw the full bill amount from your bank account. Contact them directly, and when available use your credit card to earn some extra rewards.

Instead of dealing with large payments either annually or semi-annually, they have signed up for State Farm Payment Plan (SFPP), which groups their insurance premiums and divides them into one single monthly payment which is taken from their bank account. Check with your insurer to see if they have something similar.

Credit Card Bills
Most large credit cards issuers allow you to sign up a service like Citi’s AutoPay, where you can have the full amount sucked out of your bank account each month. Since the Citi Forward Card gives you 5x rewards on restaurants and, this most of their disposable income as well. To find it, go to> (Login) > Payments Tab > Enroll in AutoPay.

What else?
With all this set up, all Bill and Jan have to do is show up for work and spend their money wisely. Is there anything else that could make their life even more easy? I thought about using an online grocery store like Peapod, where you can access past orders and possibly create default orders which you only tweak slightly each month.

Motivational Mental Accounting: Work More, Play More?

After a busy long weekend*, I am now a PADI Open Water “certified diver”. It was nice to check off a “To-Do Before You Die” item, although it did cost nearly $500 if you include all the related costs. The cool thing was that while talking with the dive shop folks, I learned that they needed some website help, and they were willing to pay me with some free dives/gear in exchange. Barter! This was interesting, because diving is a very expensive hobby. I was mainly looking to dive the Great Barrier Reef someday, but now I might be able to dive even more than that.

Now, I can directly exchange (extra) work for play. This begs the question: Is it a good idea to use your desire for something enjoyable in order to motivate yourself to work harder? For example, you may try to follow all of the common advice:

  • Pay off all credit card or consumer debt.
  • Have emergency funds for cushion.
  • Spend less than 30% of income on housing.
  • Max out your 401k and IRA.

For most people, this doesn’t leave all that much left for other stuff. At the same time, most of my friends are so tired from the daily 8-5 grind that they have no interest in doing anything “extra” for more money. This might be as small as doing a paid survey for a few bucks, or as big as starting a new business on the side.

When I start lacking motivation, sometimes I try and focus on something short-term and luxurious that I want. In the past, it might have been a gadget. These days, it’s mainly an experience like travel or some sort of lessons (ex. ski, scuba, flying). I tell myself “$1,000 will buy me a flight to Thailand.” I am starting to label my “real job income” as taking care of the current basics and the long-term future (retirement), while my side income pays for the “fun”.

Does anyone else do this? Isn’t this another form of mental accounting? If money is fungible, then you can’t really assign labels to specific income sources. To me, it is using mental accounting, but I’m twisting it to my advantage. :)

* I was going to use the term “action-packed”, but given the circumstances I just hope all the Gustav-watchers are safe and sound.

Spring Cleaning: “One Year Rule” For Reducing Clutter

photo: sindesign

I spent most of today going through all our stuff to see what would go in the house. The one negative of having your employer pay for relocation costs is that you are less motivated to fully purge all of your belongings…

As I went through all our things, I wondered – What if we were forced to toss anything that we hadn’t used in one year? Clothes, sports gear, electronics, books, magazines, trinkets. Either sell, donate, freecycle, or throw it away. Critical things like birth certificates or anything that would fit on a hard drive would be exempt. Imagine what your home would look like if you did this…

I don’t know if I could pull off that “One Year Rule”, so instead I made up an alternate one for myself: Once every May I will unpack every single item in storage, consciously make the decision to keep it, and inventory it. Theoretically this would be for insurance records in case of loss, but realistically I am hoping this actual process of having to go through 10 boxes of stuff annually will make me less sentimental about things like my old textbooks.

A few years I ago banned all travel souvenirs except for photos and one postcard from each place I visit – instead of those odds and ends I used to keep accumulating – and it’s been very liberating.

Forget carbon footprint… What kind of tips or tricks do you have for convincing yourself to reduce your stuff imprint?

Sandy and Jott: Create Your Own Free Virtual Assistant

Nobody has ever accused me of being the most organized person. I don’t carry a PDA, a dayplanner, or even a notebook/moleskin. It’s pretty much just Outlook at work, and a lot of Post-Its at home. But recently I’ve discovered two applications that help me remember all the thoughts that flit in and out of my mind. This is in turn saves me money indirectly with less late fees and missed opportunities. Both have been around a while, but were new to me:

First up is IwantSandy, which is an assistant that you can interact with by sending e-mails. She communicates back to you via e-mail or SMS text messages.

Say you want someone to remind you for your doctor’s appointment at 4pm next Monday. No problem, just send an e-mail to Sandy:

Remind me about Dr. appointment at 4pm next Monday.

Sandy will send you an e-mail or text message to do just that, both in a daily digest and a specific reminder 15 minutes (by default) before the event. Most casual language is recognized. You can set repeating reminders easily:

Remind me to pay off Citi 0% credit card on 4/24 @monthly

You can also tag items for easy organization, add contacts, and or create To-Do lists.

Remind me to call contractor back in 3 hours @newhouse

Remember Melissa Valiant (415) 555-1212

Remember my United mileage number is A4362215 @travel

Remind me to refill my prescription tomorrow @todo

You can even “snooze” by replying to a reminder with “snooze 4 hours”. Lots more examples here. I live by my e-mail and I have unlimited text messages, so this system has been working out well for me. (Text messages can be better if you are under e-mail overload.) I basically just shoot Sandy an e-mail anytime a thought pops into my mind.

Remind me to blog about Sandy @daily @blogposts

Remind me to sign up for Citibank 25,000 mile banking bonus @daily @todo

Try it! It’s free and even a bit fun at first. I’m not quite sure how or even if they intend to make money. More organized people might not need Sandy, but I learn a new feature every day. For example, if I e-mail Sandy from any computer with “lookup blogposts”, I get a reply with all my post ideas. Very handy while traveling.

Now what if you’re away from your desk? Jott is a service that convert your voice into text and sends it as an e-mail. It’s like having your own secretary transcribe your thoughts.

On top of that it, even integrates with Sandy. Just add Sandy as a contact, and call her. From the EfficientMD:

Let’s say you’re on your mobile phone and a colleague tells you about a meeting you have to attend tomorrow at 3pm. You’re walking quickly and don’t want to slow down, so you call Jott’s toll-free number and have this conversation:

“Who do you want to Jott?”
“Sandy. Is that correct?”
“Remind me about meeting tomorrow at 3pm.”

And that’s it. Sandy/Jott will email you a confirmation to ensure that they’ve heard you correctly (which in my experience, is practically 100% of the time), and then tomorrow before 3pm, you’ll receive a text message reminding you about the meeting.

Together, it’s like having your own personal administrative assistant. She’ll remind you about stuff, remember important contact and numbers, and you can just e-mail or call her like a regular person. You don’t need to install any new software or buy any new gadgets.

More Reviews
LifeHacker posts on Sandy and Jott
Mrs. Micah on Sandy
Efficient MD on Sandy and Jott

Remove Your Information From Junk Mail Lists For Free

My 5-year-old shredder is dying from all the junk mail I’ve fed it over the years. I’m totally hyped about buying a jumbo 12-sheet shredding beast. Coincidentally, I just ran across a free service called that supposedly helps you remove your name and other information from a variety of different lists, including Coupons & Weekly Circulars, Snail-Mail Marketing Lists, Mail-order Catalogs, Telemarketing Lists, and Credit Card and Insurance Offers. From their FAQ:

How does ProQuo help consumers?
ProQuo helps consumers remove their personal information from marketing lists, data brokers, and other organizations responsible for a large amount of junk mail. ProQuo does this by helping people request removal directly from these sources. In many cases, ProQuo will send these requests electronically to the specific organizations that consumers select. For companies that don’t accept electronic requests, ProQuo helps consumers to print out forms for mailing or directs consumers to third party web sites.

I’ve been trying them out, and many of them do require you to print out and mail in a form to request removal. Still, many accept electronic requests, and I had no idea any of this was even an option. ProQuo also incorporates other removal services like the National Do Not Call List. Here’s a screenshot from their interface:


If the service is free, how does ProQuo make money?
In the future, ProQuo will allow consumers to request offers that they do want in addition to eliminating the offers that they don’t want. ProQuo will make money from the advertisers that provide these offers. ProQuo will only provide these offers when requested by consumers.

Hmm… I’m kind of skeptical but their Privacy Policy looks okay at first glance. “We will never release consumers’ personal information without their express consent – ever.”