Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Free Easy Bakeware, nonstick, no fuss baking

Store bought cupcakes. Cheap and delicious.Image via Wikipedia

Update: Available for April (for free): kitchen gadgets set, apron set, garlic press, various bakeware, grater, chopper, and more. Just click the link on the left.

So this deal has been around for a while, but I've suddenly gotten a bunch of queries about it. So, in short:
  1. Yes, you really can get 1 free item every month, no strings attached.
  2. Yes, shipping is really only a dollar when you sign up for a sister program--just make sure to call and cancel (quick and easy) before the trial period end, and you won't get charged.
  3. Yes, it's totally legit, and no, I can't believe it either. I've already received a round cake pan and two cupcake pans.

Also, I have a secret: if you have multiple e-mail addresses and credit cards (you have to have the shipping charged to a card), you can order multiple products per month. The free products available change every month, but there's always a plethora of choices.

How to get it: click the ad on the left side of this blog (you may have to reload the blog homepage a couple times to see it) and follow the directions.

Happy baking! I'm going to go eat some cupcakes.

If you've ordered and received your EasyBakeware of if you've just used it before, let us know what you think. Leave a comment below.
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Monday, March 30, 2009

Netbooks: Economical Computing Option or a Waste of Money?

macbook and dell mini 9 side by sideThe Mini 9 beside a 13" MacBook.
Image by InfoMofo via Flickr

"Your computer is so cute!"
This is what a random stranger on the train told me today. It is not the first time.

I wouldn't normally think of computers as cute, but in this case it's an understandable comment because my new computer is a netbook–tiny, functional, inexpensive, and yes, cute.

There are several good netbooks on the market now, but the cheapest one I could find with all the functionality I need is the Dell Mini 9.

It's no longer a big decision whether to take my laptop with me when I leave home because instead of nine pounds of computer and battery pack hogging all the space in my bag and killing my shoulder, it's a barely noticeable 2.38 pounds that takes up no more space than a book–why not bring it? I can do research on the train, take notes at the library, check my e-mail in between classes, chat with a friend if I get stuck in a waiting room somewhere....

By the way, this is not a paid post or a plug for Dell. It's just my own independent review.

Granted, the Mini 9 is no good for running any applications that use up a lot of memory, but when I'm traveling or just out and about, I don't tend to use those anyway. Besides all the standard package applications you'd expect a computer to come with, the Linux version I have comes with OpenOffice (pretty much the same as the MS Office suite), a decent music player, an easy to use browser (just like Firefox) and chat application, and some others that I haven't used yet. Really, that's all I need.

I was worried the keyboard would be too small to type on comfortably, but after a day or two I was completely used to it. I can see how it might be cramped, however, for people with large hands.

The screen is great, no different from my iMac, just smaller, but the touchpad is uber-sensitive and even seems to pick up my finger hovering over it. That might cause some problems, but since I much prefer to use a mouse anyway it's not really an issue for me.

The AC adapter is delightfully small and light, it charges quickly, and the battery holds for about 3-4 hours of steady use (so far). Also, the internal wireless works great–it can pick up a much better signal than my old laptop.

Obviously netbooks, with less memory and less capacity, have significantly less functionality than regular laptops, but as I've said that doesn't much bother me.

The Mini 9 has three USB ports and a multi card reader, as well as a VGA slot, and an Ethernet port, neither of which I'll ever use. The model I have only comes with 1 Gig of memory, so that may be an issue in the future when it starts filling up. But that's where USB jump drives and memory cards come in.

The only thing I've really missed so far is being able to burn to and read from CDs and DVDs (i.e. transferring music isn't easy and there will be no movie-watching on that long plane ride). I haven't tried to plug my iPod in yet, but I'm interested to see if it'll be compatible with the no-name music software.

And of course, the tiny display takes some getting used to. I definitely have to do more scrolling than usual.

Bottom Line
At just over $200 (including a nice sleeve), I think the Mini 9 is a steal. It's the portability that makes it worth it. And it's pretty sleek looking, so that doesn't hurt either. I'm really glad I didn't spend $1200 on a normal-sized notebook I'd only use for internet, music, and writing anyway. I wouldn't recommend it for a main computer–its functionality is too limited–but for travelers and people on the go, it's solid. By the way, guess where I'm blogging from? That's right. Roughly 55 sq. in. of adorable.

If you use a netbook or have considered one, let us know what you think about it. Leave a comment below.

Update: Thanks to Greener Pastures for including this post in The Money Hacks Carnival #59 - The Duct Tape Edition.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Tweet for Cash?

So, I've discovered this new(ish) company called Magpie that is pretty much an affiliate advertiser for Twitter. Meaning companies pay them to pay Twitterers to tweet their campaign messages. If you have a Twitter account, that could be you getting paid.

I've just signed up as a sort of trial run. I'm planning on doing a review on how well it works, i.e. if the pay is enough to be worth it. The thing is, though, that you don't even have to take the time to do the tweeting yourself--it's automated. You get to approve the ads you'll tweet and set how often they will auto-tweet.

I'm fairly new to Twitter also. So this whole advertising everywhere thing is a little overwhelming for me, not to mention brainwashingly capitalistic (media, media, everywhere). But really, Twitter's kind of ridiculous anyway. Admit it, you know it is. As a mass broadcast system, it's pretty much already just an advertising venue anyway--whether for companies or individuals. What's one more step in that direction, especially if it means a bit of totally passive income for us poor folk?

What do you think about ad networks like Magpie? Has Twitter become simply an annoying advertising venue?

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Monday, March 23, 2009

The Save Big Secret, Part Two

organic fruit and vegetablesImage by val'sphotos via Flickr

We've covered coupons and sales, but there's so much more to saving money on groceries and everyday items.

We'll cover the basics now (and stick to food items), but look for future articles expanding on the various tips listed here.

  1. A couple weeks back, Jane posted a very helpful article about where to find inexpensive meat, particularly chicken. However, if you really want to save money and help the environment (see footnote #1 on the Jan. 16 post), go vegetarian--or better yet, vegan. If you're not ready to go all the way just yet, start small and work your way to your goal. Eliminate red meat first (including pork), then poultry, seafood, etc. The process is easiest when you take it in slow steps, and it's perfectly fine to spend 6 months on each step. PETA's GoVeg.com is a great resource for learning more about vegetarianism and how it can help save your body, your wallet, and the planet.
    Beans, legumes, tofu and other soy products, textured vegetable protein (sounds gross but tastes good), vegan cheese, powdered egg replacer (amazing for baking) and wheat gluten are all tasty, economical replacement sources of protein. Get your soymilk with added calcium, but check the exact daily requirements. Many vegans especially need to take a daily calcium supplement, though your daily multivitamin may take care of that for you.

  2. Buy in bulk whenever practical. Dried beans from the bulk bins are almost always way cheaper than canned beans, and they make for a lighter load in your grocery bag. Rice, noodles, quinoa, and other grains are also best bought in bulk. Just make sure you store them properly. Weevils are not veggie friendly. ;)

  3. Stick with store brands/generic brands whenever possible. But don't feel the need to sacrifice taste or nutritional content for it.

  4. Buy ingredients for meals, rather than pre-made meals. Yes, it's less convenient, but it's usually much healthier and cheaper. When you make it yourself, you can be sure you know exactly what's going in it and what sort of standards it's prepared at. If you're trying to keep tabs on exact nutritional content or calorie-counting, preparing your own meals does make figuring their exact nutritional content a bit more involved than just reading the box after you pop it in the microwave, but it's easily worth the extra math.

  5. Speaking of ingredients, buy ones that are inexpensive and versatile and that store well. The idea is to be able to buy your ingredients in bulk, thereby saving money, and use them in many different recipes. Staple items like flour (don't neglect the whole wheat variety!), sugar, rice (go for the stuff with the highest fiber content), pasta (again, don't neglect the whole wheat stuff), various Asian noodles, potatoes, onions, frozen and canned fruit and vegetables1, and beans all fall into this category.

  6. Make sure you're actually getting the deal you think you're getting. When you're at the store, ignore the item prices. That's right, ignore them; they can be misleading. Instead, look for the per unit price (per ounce, per 100, etc.). If you're trying to see which brand of an item is cheaper, you can compare these to find which is the better deal.

  7. Make big meals, enough for leftovers. This saves time and effort (and keeps you from ordering out) for those times when you're too tired or busy to cook. This works especially well with soup or other one-dish meals; you can make a giant pot, set aside some for leftovers, and freeze the remainder. (No matter how good something is, you probably don't want to eat it every day for a fortnight.) Alternate leftovers with sandwiches, etc., to take to work to keep from spending $7 on lunch every day.

  8. Ditch empty foods. Stop wasting your money on junk food and empty calories--soda, chips, snack crackers, and maybe the toughest one to cut--alcohol. That said, if you want to have a drink now and then, you're much better off buying alcohol at the store and making your own drinks than going to the bar.

  9. Stop buying bottled water. All those bottles are bad for the environment (yes, even if you recycle them), and you're wasting your money anyway. In most cities in the U.S., tap water is just as healthful as bottled water, plus it has Fluoride, which many bottled waters do not. If you're really paranoid about your water quality, get a Brita pitcher. You can get super-cheap refill cartridges from sellers on Ebay, Amazon, etc. I've even found a boxful on Craigslist for $5. Also, hopefully this doesn't come as a surprise, but a lot of bottled water is just fancy tap water (Dasani, Aquafina, and others).2

  10. If you drink coffee, brew it at home and take it with you in a travel mug or thermos. Better yet, drink the free work coffee (unless, of course, it's really gross like my work's coffee). Alternatively, you could pick up a cheap little coffee maker at a garage sale or thrift store and keep it at work. If you drink tea, buy bags at the grocery, keep a mug at work, and brew it there.

  11. Speaking of free stuff from work, don't forget to take full advantage of free food for meetings, special occasions, etc. At my place of business, whenever there's leftover food from a meeting, we put it in the department kitchen for whoever wants it. I've gotten many a free lunch that way.

  12. A more time-intensive (and much more rewarding, I would say) way to acquire fresh, organic produce on the cheap is to grow it yourself. Even if you live in a high-rise apartment building, you can have your own garden; you'd be surprised what you can grow in containers inside or on a sunny balcony. Plus, you don't have to worry about pesky (but oh, so cute) bunnies and such nibbling at your lettuce. New to gardening? No worries. We'll be posting a more in-depth article about vegetable and herb gardening shortly.

[1] Contrary to popular belief, frozen and canned vegetables/fruit are usually no less nutritious than fresh, provided of course, that no salt or sugar has been added. For more info, see this article by Nutritionist Jane Harrison.

[2] For more info on drinking water, see the NRDC's Bottled Water FAQ
this article in Fast Company, and this article at Medical News Today.

Update: Thanks to WiseBread for including this post in the Carnival of Pecuniary Delights No. 2: Saving Money Edition.

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Save-Big Shopping Secret

Example of an American grocery store aisle.Image via Wikipedia

With the recession hitting harder all the time, more and more people are turning to sale shopping. Now I don’t mean going to a department or specialty store and buying stuff just because they sent you an advertisement about their huge spring sale. I mean buying the things you need and use only when they are on sale (a good sale—not that $0.12 off stuff). Furthermore, I’m talking about clipping coupons and using them in conjunction with store sales. (Usually manufacturers will release coupons 4-6 weeks before their promotional sales.)

I’m going to talk mostly about grocery and pharmaceutical items, as those are what you’ll most often find coupons for. So where do you find these coupons? Well, the best and most obvious source is your local Sunday newspaper. Where I live, that costs $1.50. That’s usually well worth the savings you’ll make in coupons, but of course, why spend it if you don’t have to? One of my roommates has the Sunday paper delivered because he likes to read the sports and news sections. He used to just toss the coupons and adverts, but now he passes them on to me. Before we had this arrangement, I had a similar one with a coworker. She would clip the coupons she wanted from her husband’s paper and then give the rest to me. When I was done, I’d pass it on to another coworker. Most of the time there are double inserts, so there was usually plenty of coupons to go around. Plus, the three of us tended to buy very different items, so it worked out well. You might also ask a neighbor who gets the paper delivered if they’d be willing to share the coupon inserts. The worst that can happen is they say no.

Other coupon sources include various online coupon sites (SmartSource, Coupons.com, RedPlum, P&G E-Saver, etc.) and forums (DealCatcher, BigBigForums). In my experience, though, the online printers sometimes don't have much of a selection, and the forums are hit-or-miss. Check out the ones above--I've found those to be the best--and see what works for you.

What to clip
Some coupon connoisseurs would tell you to clip coupons only for the items you already buy. I'm a little more generous with the scissors. Following that rule wouldn't provide much excitement for someone like me that only buys store brands, generic items, and absolute necessities. Most coupons are for name brand items. And if a coupon (+ sale maybe) would make the name brand item as cheap as or less expensive than the generic item you usually buy, then there's no reason you shouldn't clip away. Same goes for items that you usually consider too expensive to buy—a coupon might move them into your realm of affordability. So the rule is that you may clip coupons for:
  1. things you normally buy

  2. things you don't normally buy but foresee needing in the near future

  3. things you would like to buy but usually don't because without the coupon/sale, they're too expensive

Once you've clipped all the week's coupons, you need to sort them. Start by separating food/grocery coupons from pharmacy/non-food coupons. If you have babies or pets, you might want to make a separate piles for them too. Now for the fun part—date organizing. This is important so that you don't miss coupons' expiration dates. Filing your coupons may seem unnecessary at first, but once you're a few weeks in, you'll be wishing you'd organized sooner.

There are several very good options for organizing your coupons. My favorite is to use a mini filing system like this one. You can usually find these for a dollar or two at an office supply or dollar store. Look for one with 12 “files,” one for each month. You'll want one mini-filer for each of the piles you made in the last step. Label the files January through December.

Alternatively, if you have lots of coupons and 1-month files are too confusing, you can label the files January 1, January 2, February 1, February 2, etc. and just have six months per mini-filer. If you choose this method, the “January 1” file would contain coupons that expire 1/1 through 1/15, and the “January 2” file would contain coupons that expire 1/16 through 1/31, and so on.

In the interest of saving trees, I like to look at the store circulars online each week. Many stores, like Shaw's and CVS, let you browse their online circulars and print only the deals you're interested in, saving both paper and the time it would otherwise take you flip back and forth looking for the deals you circled.

Using the same rules you used for clipping coupons, mark the sales you want to take advantage of, and print the list. Then take out all the coupons from the soonest-expiring file in your organizer and look for coupons that match the sales. Then, assuming you didn't find coupons for ever sale, do the same for the next-expiring file. When you find a matching coupon, take it out and write “C” next to the sale on your list. You may also want to note here any qualifications; for instance if the coupon is for $1 off two, write “2” next to the “C” so that you know you need to buy 2 when you're at the store, without having to rummage through your coupons. This sounds more time-consuming than it actually is. The whole process only takes 5-10 minutes.

Lastly, if there's anything that you really need to buy that week that's not on sale, check to see if you at least have a coupon for it. If you do, write it in on your list with a C next to it, and you're set to shop.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Free E-book Contest Winner and New Contest

Congrats to MendaciousBeing, rcvjr, and Nicholas, winners of the free e-book comment contest. The next giveaway will be another e-book, The 3 Minute Balance Transfer, a great little guide to juggling your credit card debt in the most pain-free way possible. You can even make some money with it. I've used the method before, and though it takes some getting used to, it's easy and it works.

Again, the contest rules are very simple. Just vote in the poll at the top of the page (if you haven't already) and leave a comment on any post (except this one) from now until the end of the month. Winners will be announced on April 1.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy St. Pat's!

How to make an ICBImage by obeck via Flickr

Thanks to the Festival of Frugality for including Jane's post on buying cheap meat in their St. Patrick's Day Edition.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

12 Steps to Becoming Clutter-Free

KdV06FloatDetailYardSaleFridgeLeveesImage via Wikipedia

Spring is almost here, and instead of cleaning (which I really dislike), I'm de-cluttering. Even if you enjoy cleaning (and if you do, I'd recommend a nice, long vacation. . . perhaps at Bellevue?), you'll want to pay attention because it's much easier to clean when you don't have to dust around 300 knick-knacks or clamber around towering piles of books you'll never read again.

What does de-cluttering or cleaning have to do with money hacking, you ask? Two words: cash money, yo. (OK, that was three, but it's just more fun that way.)
Yes, YOU can make money from home now!
. . . Whew, sorry, got a little carried away there. Anyway, here's how to do it:

  1. Start on a room-by-room basis. Get 2 boxes (big ones if you're like me and tend to accumulate junk on an exponential scale). Label one "sell" and the other "give." If you want, you can even label a third box "upcycle."

  2. Starting at one corner of the room, go around and analyze every thing you see. Consider the following:

    • Do you really need this? Can you live comfortably without it? Would you miss it, e.g. Does it have sentimental or decorative value?

    • How long has it been since you've used it? Have you ever used it? (And no, moving it from one shelf to another is not using it. Neither is thinking about using it.)

    • Do you foresee needing it in the near future (the next year, say)? Is it worth the space it's taking up until then?

  3. Before you chuck it in one of the boxes, consider one more thing: Could it be used in a nontraditional way? Could you make something truly useful with it? Here's the tough part: Will you? If so, it goes in the "upcycle" box. If not, it's time to say goodbye.

  4. Decide which box, "sell" or "give," the item should go in. Do you think someone will actually pay for it? If not, toss it into the "give" box and prepare to feel warm and fuzzy from your new found magnanimity.

  5. When you're done with one room, move on to the next--unless your "sell" box is full already (in which case maybe you should consider whether your hoarding is psychologically diagnosable).

  6. Once you've gone through the whole house (or your "sell" box is full), it's time to make some cash. Put aside the other two boxes and start separating the things in the "sell" box into two piles: "internet" and "yard sale." Clothes or little things that don't justify their own listing on Craigslist/Ebay/Amazon should be put into the "yard sale" pile.

  7. Start listing! It just so happens that until March 23 (I believe) all Ebay listing are free. That's right, free. You have no reason not to try to sell your crap now. In my experience, Amazon is the best place to sell books and well-known, brand-name, like-new things. Everything else goes on Ebay (since it's free). Craigslist is a backup; you usually won't get as much for something on Craigslist as on Ebay. But if you're scared of the post office's long lines and grumpy workers or if your item is too big to mail, then stick it on Craigslist. In general, Craigslist buyers are expected to come pick up the items they want. If you've got a ton of stuff, no worries! Sell it in batches.

  8. While you wait for buyers, dream of swimming through a vault of gold coins, a la Scrooge McDuck.

  9. Whatever doesn't sell online, throw into the yard sale box.

  10. Once all your internet sales are done, it's time to have a yard sale. Buy a little pack of those round, colored stickers to write prices on, team up with a friend to pool your junk resources, grab some lawnchairs and lemonade, and you're set. I would advise waiting until it's actually warm to do this. That probably means at least another month for me.

  11. Remember your "give" box? After the yard sale, chuck whatever's left into that and drop it off at your local Goodwill or Salvation Army.

  12. Last step: tally your earnings and plan what exciting things you'll do with them. Anyone for a pint?

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Working at Home on the Internet

included my post Tax Hacks, Part 3: Self-Employment Taxes in their 128th Working at Home Blog Carnival. Thanks!

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Reviews: Online Money Mgmt Tools: Mint, Quicken, and Rudder

A couple weeks ago I reviewed Mint.com, but I've recently been trying out two other free online money management tools, Rudder and Quicken.

Here's the rundown:

Of the three sites, Rudder loads and updates the quickest, and it's also the fastest at adding new accounts. (Mint is the slowest--it's kind of a pain.)

Account support
As I mentioned in my review of Mint, I can't for the life of me add my Dollar Savings account, even though their support team says it's been fixed. It must be something with the DS login system because Quicken doesn't support it either. Rudder technically does support it, much like Mint, and it even found and added my account. The problem? None of the info loads. Obviously, not very helpful.

As for types of accounts supported, Mint still comes out on top. Mint and Quicken both support various types of bank accounts, credit cards, and even PayPal! Very cool. But Mint is the only one that supports my Nelnet student loans. Rudder again, falls short as it only supports bank and credit card accounts. I did manage to add my Nelnet account, but it shows up all wacky because Rudder categorizes it as a credit card.

Rudder's interface is the least intuitive, and incidentally, the least functional. It offers no budgeting capabilities, which is my favorite thing about Mint. Quicken has good budgeting features, but they don't display as nicely as Mint--you can't see all your categories at the same time. Also, the Trends section of Quicken seems to be off--at least in my case, the graphs are highly inaccurate.

My verdict: I'm sticking with Mint, at least for now. It's definitely the most functional. And I like the interface a lot more than Quicken.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

TAiMH's 4th Carnival--we're on a roll

MDT's post Another Tip for Tax Season: EZ ≠ cool was included in the Money Hacks Carnival, hosted by MoneyNing.

Thanks for including us!

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It's Not Quite Time for Stone Soup

chickenImage via Flicker

With all this talk about the recession it’s not surprising that websites like www.greatdepressioncooking.com have started becoming popular, even as a joke. I’m not suggesting anything quite as radical as boiled shoe leather, but thinking about where and how people used to get their food can give you some great ideas for ways to save money now.

Butchers are a dying breed in America today. As with many local businesses, butchers have become overwhelmed by giant box stores and grocery mega-marts. However, not only can butchers compete with the prices of your major grocery store, they often knock them out of the park. Take the time to compare prices—you can feel good about supporting local business and you’ll save a couple bucks along the way.

Yesterday at my local butcher I bought a whole chicken and half a pound of boneless chicken tenders for $7.01, plus tax.

Almost everywhere the cheapest way to buy chicken is as a whole, uncut bird. And so the whole chicken I bought wasn’t a deal; it was the exact same price per pound ($1.49) as most store brand chickens. But since it’s the same price at either store, the math, for me, is simple. Same price + convenience + supporting a small business = Purchase.

But the tenders! They were a steal. At the butcher I paid only $2.49 lb., while at the grocery store I would have shelled out $6.49 lb.

I’m also able to buy more economically at the butcher, with much less food and packaging waste. I can order half a pound if I don’t need a pound, while at the grocery store all the meat comes in pre-packaged, Styrofoam wrapped lots that are much more than one person (me) needs.

A butcher can normally tell you exactly where the chicken you are purchasing came from, and chances are it will be from much closer than the chickens shipped by the hundreds into your major chain groceries. Now, as Mother Jones recently discussed, local does not mean more sustainable; however, it can mean fresher. Don’t be afraid to talk to the people behind the counter and find out if you like the way they do business.

When you’re living on a budget don’t count out small businesses. Sometimes they’ll surprise you. Also, if you’re in the mood for some angry money talk, Forbes.com has a great article on small businesses and the recession.

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Steal this flyer.

The flyer is free use. Post wherever you'd like.

Steal this flyer.SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

These are stickers. Print 'em. Stick 'em. Deface your favorite neighborhood.

Steal the stickers.

These are stickers. Print 'em. Stick 'em. Deface your favorite neighborhood.SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

3, Oh, It's the Magic Number

My article on interning is featured in the latest Internships & Career Blog Carnival, held at Instant Internship.

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Make that 2 Carnivals!

The Penny Daily has included my review of Mint.com in the 5th edition of the Carnival of Everything Money.

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We're in a Carnival!

My post Economical Tax Filing Options from a couple weeks ago has been included in the Carnival of Personal Finance, held this week at Stock Trading To Go.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Review: Credit Karma

CreditKarma.com is a site that lets you check your credit score instantly for free--no strings attached. You don't get to see your actual report, but you can track your credit score over time by checking it as often as you'd like.

And no, contrary to rumor, checking your own credit score does not affect your credit score or negatively affect your credit in any way. No worries.

I for one can see no downside to using CreditKarma. It's quick, easy, completely free, and totally useful. I highly recommend it.

After you receive your score, they'll display a list of offers from various partner companies: credit cards, banks, internet service providers, etc. None of the offers are exclusive--you can find them elsewhere, but many of them are worth checking out. For instance, there's an offer from Comcast for cable i-net @ $19.99/month for the first six months. This is a great deal. I've done it before (it's ongoing), and it's totally worth it, especially if Comcast is the only cable company in your area. (I wouldn't recommend them otherwise. They've got lousy customer service and their normal rates are ridiculous. But if you don't have an alternative anyway and want a fat discount, there you go. My roommates and I rotate the bill into each of our names every six months to keep the deal going. This is somewhat cheating, yes, but we certainly don't feel bad.

CreditKarma's site also has some helpful credit-related articles that are worth checking out. Head on over, get educated, and keep an eye on your credit score.

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Friday, March 6, 2009

Credit Cards and Credit Scores: Setting the Record Straight

{{Potd/2008-03-06 (en)}}Image via Wikipedia

My whole adult life I've only had one credit card, a Visa, (unless you count the department store card I got for the promotion and used once). But I've just recently acquired two other cards, a Mastercard and an Amex. A friend and I were discussing credit cards the other day because she was rather miffed that a shop she went to didn't take Visa, the only card she had. That's why I have one of each.

"But isn't having that many credit cards bad for your credit score?"

Actually, the number of credit cards you have doesn't really matter. What does matter is the ratio of your used credit (debt) to your available credit. The lower the ratio, the better; it looks good if you're not maxing out your whole credit line. Getting another card can actually raise your credit score because it increases your available credit, thereby reducing your debt-to-available-credit ratio.

This is certainly not to say you should go apply for five more cards. In fact, applying for more than one credit card (or loan or other type of credit) every six months can hurt your score, so if you must acquire multiple cards, space them out.

Of course, one of the dangers of having lots of credit is that some people have a tendency to use more of it than they should, i.e. buy things they don't need just because they can. Another danger is simply keeping them all straight. Unless all your cards have exactly the same terms (and they won't), you're going to have to be very careful which cards you use for what. For instance, say Card #1 has 0% APR on purchases and no annual fee for the first year (but you've only got 2 months left of that); Card #2 has no annual fee ever, 13% APR, and a good rewards program; and Card #3 has 18% APR on purchases, no annual fee for the first year (which just started), and no fee 0% balance transfers. You could use Card #2 for all your regular purchases (in order to get max rewards), put big purchases that you can't pay off right away on Card #1, and then in 2 months transfer the balance from Card #1 to Card #3.

Great, but you better remember:
  1. to transfer the balance from Card #1 to Card #3 before it starts accruing interest

  2. not to put any purchases you can't completely pay off each cycle on Card #2

  3. not to put any purchases at all on Card #3*

  4. to call Card company #1 when the first year is up (in 2 months) and either A) ask for the annual fee to be waived and don't put anything on it you can't completely pay off each cycle, OR, failing that, B) close the account**

  5. not to transfer any balances to Cards #1 or #2

  6. that you'll be able to pay off Card #1's balance that you transferred to Card #3 when Card #3's first year is up OR that you'll definitely be able to get another card with fee-free 0% BTs

  7. to call Card company #3 when its first year is up and either A) ask for the annual fee to be waived and don't put anything on it you can't completely pay off each cycle, OR, failing that, B) close the account**

  8. Remember to pay all your bills--even when you have 0% APR, you still have to pay the minimum balance each month
*When you make a payment on a credit card, it always applies first to the balance with the lowest APR. This means that if you made purchases on and transferred a balance to Card #3, you can't pay off your purchase and then go on to pay the minimum payment on the transfer. You'll be stuck running up interest on your purchase until you've paid off the transfer.

**Now you don't want to close any credit card account you don't have to--it lowers your credit score every time you close a card. (Note: That said, you're better off closing a newer one than an older one. Maintaining an account for a long time boosts your score--you don't want to lose that.)

You definitely have to be organized to juggle several active credit cards, but depending on your situation it might be worth it. For instance, I've got a student loan that's going to start accumulating 6.8% interest in June, so I'm putting it on a 0% APR card: my monthly payments will be smaller and I'll avoid accumulating interest. (Remember, though, you should only do this if you know you can either pay off the remaining balance at the end of the introductory period or have another no-interest card you can put it on. Otherwise, you'll be stuck paying a way higher interest rate than 6.8%.) I'll continue to use my lower-limit Visa (at 16%) for regular purchases, and the remaining card is basically for keeping my ratio stable; the only thing I'll use it for is booking travel since it comes with an unusually good travel insurance plan.

How many credit cards do you have and how do you keep them organized? What do you use your cards for?

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Tax Filing Update: IRS has just announced free filing by online fillable forms!

No income limitations, no hassle, quick returns without having to use tax software. Yes! This is now my new #1 option for tax filing.

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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Coupons and Free Stuff Anouncements: Only on Twitter and Facebook!

Yet another reason to subscribe to TAiMH's Twitter: I'll be posting coupons, deals, giveaways, and freebies as Tweets and Facebooks status updates, but they won't appear on the blog. To subscribe to the Twitter feed, click the bluebird on the left sidebar.

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E-book Giveaway!

We've just gotten hold of a very useful and informative little e-book called "Escaping the Poor Credit Score," and we're giving away three free copies. To enter, leave a comment on any post from 2/15 - 3/15 (except this one). Winners will be announced 3/16!

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Monday, March 2, 2009

Thank you, new administration

In the first month of his presidency, Obama along with the Democrat-led Congress passed three major pieces of legislation, all aimed at protecting and helping segments of the American people that have been neglected by former administrations:
  1. An expansion to the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP) that will enable states to provide for children whose families earn above the official poverty level but still not enough to afford private insurance. (Similar bills were vetoed multiple times by W. and it continues to be denounced by Congressional Republicans like Steve King of Iowa who claim that it will lead to the dreaded socialized medicine. Let’s hope they're right!)

  2. A law lifting barriers, put in place by a 2007 Supreme Court case, to fighting unlawful sexual discrimination (including pay discrepancies between male and female employees) in the workplace.

  3. The final version of the economic stimulus plan (passed without a single vote from a House Republican and only 3 from Senate Republicans), which allocates $787 billion of the U.S. budget for certain tax cuts, public works programs, and added funding for necessities such as health care and education.

Number three will probably be of special, immediate interest to those of you still in school. Here’s why:
  • It increases the maximum Pell Grant, a federal need-based grant program for low-income undergraduate students, by $500, from $4,850 to $5,350 per year.

  • It expands and increases the federal Hope Credit (discussed in "Tax Hacks Part 1: Give Yourself Some Credit") for 2009 and 2010 to up to $2,500 a year for four years of undergraduate tuition, instead of $1,800 a year for just the first two years. The credit will now be 40 percent refundable (see the above post for information on refundable and non-refundable tax credits) and cover textbooks. Also, it will phase out for individuals with AGIs between $80,000 and $90,000 and couples with AGIs between $160,000 and $180,000.

  • It allows you to exempt (for 2009 and 2010) computer-related expenses under tax-advantaged college savings plans, like 529s.

  • It provides an additional $200 million of funding for the Federal Work-Study Program (FWS).

Obviously, there’s lots of work to be done yet, but let’s all say thank you to the new administration for getting off to a good start (and to the Democrats for finally growing a pair).

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