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Credit card reward cap got me!

September 3rd, 2007 at 03:29 pm

I have a $300 cap on credit card rewards on my main credit card. I usually do a good job of switching to another credit card when I hit the cap, but I got caught. I was still charging to the same credit card even though I hit the annual cap sometime in July. I'm ticked off.. that was about $30 in wasted rewards!!!

It doesn't help that the monthly bill doesn't mention anything about how much in rewards points you've accumulated for the year... Just how much you've spent. An ethical CC company (I know -- there is no such thing.) would make it clearer that you're not accumulating any more points this year.

Declining customer service

August 29th, 2007 at 11:36 am

I recently criticized Bank of America's customer service for being very rude and sarcastic. But they're not the only company that has poor customer service. Usually the problem isn't so much that the CSRs are rude, just that they're clueless.

I tried to register at Walmart's online photo department so I could get some digital photos printed. Their registration page was messed up... it kept displaying "Servlet error" which as an IT geek I know is a problem on their end. So I called the 800 number and the CSR said it's a problem with my computer. That I should reboot my computer and/or install a new browser. I tried to explain that I think there is a real problem with their site, but instead he put me on hold and then hung up on me. WOW. So I just went with Target's photos (first 20 photos free, by the way) and had no problems.

Also since I'm still looking around at new banks (since BoA was so disappointing), I thought I'd send an email to Citibank asking them whether I am in area that qualifies me for ATM reimbursements. (If you look at the fine print on their e-checking account, you can get ATM reimbursements if you live in an area outside of their branch locations -- but it doesn't specify those locations.) The response from Citibank was one of those generic responses that tell me how I can search for branches in the area by clicking "Locations" or something like that. It's like these places are running a program that looks for a keyword like "branches" and then sends you Generic Email Response #37. That is really really annoying.

Reverse budgeting... not so easy.

August 21st, 2007 at 02:33 pm

So I've stripped my budget about as much as I can get (unless I go into true emergency mode -- we'll deal with that if God forbid that were to happen).

Anyway, now the tricky part is taking that and figuring out how much I need to gross in order to meet that budget.

One problem is not knowing in advance what benefits another company will provide and how much these benefits will cost. Another problem is figuring out the tax rate: You can't just plug in a number like 20% effective tax rate because it varies based on your earnings.

This is important because if I don't get laid off in this restructuring, I'm going to look at quitting anyway and finding a job closer to home. I need to know what the minimum is our family can earn and still be above water.

Do I detect a bit of sarcasm?

August 21st, 2007 at 06:27 am

Funny MSN Money article... Why save? 6 ways to waste money now!

Ch-ching! (In a bad way)

August 20th, 2007 at 06:47 am

Mailed in the second half of my property taxes today. OUCH.

I wonder if it doesn't register with most people how much they're paying in property taxes because they pay by escrow. I just don't see how people can be alright with paying this much money.

Students in the area should be getting picked up by limousine for this much.

BoA's customer service really is that bad

August 18th, 2007 at 11:02 am

I'd seen all the comments on the forums about how bad Bank of America's customer service is but I thought, nah, people are overreacting.

Anyway, I opened a checking account with them because they're nearby and I'd get a bonus for opening the account. Well there were problems from the get-go so I had to call them a couple of times. WOW. First of all the hold times were ridiculous. Second, both times I called I had to be transferred to 5 different people and re-explain my situation each time. Third and most importantly, the customer service people were not friendly and some downright rude.

So I figured if a new customer is treated like this, how do they treat other customers?! I canceled the account. They're response? "Ok." as if they were saying "Your loss." How does this bank stay in business???

Duh, why didn't I think of that...

August 17th, 2007 at 08:34 am

Video games in the movie theater

How to prepare for a layoff

August 16th, 2007 at 09:02 am

I'm getting some good suggestions in the forums for how to prepare for a layoff.

I think the key ones are:
1. Get your finances in order. Build up the emergency fund and start cutting fat from the budget.
2. Get your career prospects in order. Polish up the resume, start talking to your friends and contacts, maybe freshen up on your skills that would be desirable to employers.
3. Don't panic or feel bad. This is business and you can't take it personally. Take it as an opportunity to find something better that you wouldn't have otherwise taken the risk to find.
4. Find out in advance about resources available to displaced workers: unemployment benefits, outplacement services, social programs, etc.
5. Leave on a good note! You may need to get back in touch with your old coworkers in the near future.

Ants-in-the-pants investing

August 15th, 2007 at 12:35 pm

It's hard to sit still with all that's been going on in the financial markets. Volatility is up, and it seems that the stock market's going to do something big, I just don't know what.

But if I sit back and breathe into a paper bag for a little while, I know my investments are well-diversified. And regardless what happens, I'm in for the long, long run so this roller coaster ride is meaningless turbulence.

Still, it would be fun one of these days to put some money into commodities (gold or silver or oil perhaps), just for the excitement.

Cost of phone, TV, internet

August 15th, 2007 at 11:16 am

So anyway I'm a Comcast customer. A few months back I signed up for their "Triple Play" package which includes TV, phone and internet. They quote $99 as the price, but what they don't tell you is the tall stack of fees and taxes you have to pay on top of that. It's an extra $10 to get a reasonable selection of channels, $14 for HD DVR, $6 for the equipment that lets you get phone service, $3 for the equipment that lets you get phone service, $.50 for a remote (?!), and lots of other fees and taxes.

I know, I could go without... I could get basic vanilla cable (or just scrap TV altogether and read books at the library), or I could use my cell phone for my main phone, etc. but let's face it -- a home phone is convenient and I'm a hopeless TV and internet junkie. I'm looking at my options to see what I can do to trim these costs. Right now, it's bearable, but when my 1-year trial ends and the Comcast bill goes up $40, I'm going to have to switch to something else.

Red beans and rice didn't miss me

August 14th, 2007 at 05:47 pm

Actually they did. MSN Money has an interesting article about switching to a diet of rice, corn and beans -- not just for health but also to save money.

I'm not sure I could convince my family to switch to a vegetarian diet. Or a pescetarian diet.

The meaning of life... We're a video game

August 14th, 2007 at 06:42 am

This is fascinating stuff. But you have to question your life's meaning when you might not just be in someone's simulation, you could be in the simulation of a simulation.

Our Lives, Controlled From Some Guy’s Couch

10 Ways to Socially Manage Your Money

August 13th, 2007 at 02:23 pm

Interesting blog entry from Web Worker Daily:
10 Ways to Socially Manage Your Money

I think I want to check out Expensr in particular.

10 days of no eating out!

August 13th, 2007 at 12:34 pm

I've officially gone 10 days without eating out at all -- not even for lunch. Not even a bag of chips out of the vending machine.

I've easily saved at least $50, probably $100.

Missed the end of Big Brother

August 13th, 2007 at 07:43 am

The mindless reality TV show Big Brother is one of my guilty pleasures. I always look forward to summer because Big Brother is on.

Unfortunately my DVR cut off the last 10 minutes because some other show on CBS ran long (I'm guessing a preseason football game, but I'm not sure.) This used to happen to me all the time when The Amazing Race was on Sunday nights. (TAR is another one of my favorite shows -- at least this one is not totally mindless, you learn geography. Smile ) I had to set my DVR to record an additional hour every week to make sure I didn't miss any of TAR.

So anyway I went to the Big Brother blogs to read what happened and I ended up getting the next episode's spoiler too, argh! (CBS offers a 24-hour feed -- for a charge -- that people watch and find out what happens well before the episodes air. Then some blog about it.)

I know... as far as world problems go, this probably ranks a bit down the list. But this is my blog, and I can vent if I want to.

Gas prices keep dropping! Woohoo!

August 13th, 2007 at 07:01 am

Gas prices have been on their way down, thankfully. I noticed a gas station I often pass was at $2.92/gallon. That's down quite a bit from a month ago.

Keep going!

EDIT: It's pretty scary when $2.92 a gallon seems cheap! But I'll take it. Smile

Interesting cartograms

August 13th, 2007 at 06:54 am

This site shows world maps where the countries are sized based on different factors. Very interesting.

Target credit card

August 12th, 2007 at 03:20 pm

About half the time I go to Target (which is about once a week since I do my grocery shopping there), I'm asked if I want to sign up for the Target credit card.

The promotion is 10% off the day you sign up. Then you get a 10% off coupon for every $1,000 you put on the card. Well, let's say I buy $100 worth of stuff each week. After 10 weeks I will have accumulated $1,000. On the 11th week, I will get $10 off. (But only $90 will be applied to the credit card that week, which is a slight bummer.)

So we're roughly talking about a 1% reward. (Yes, you could tweak that a little bit by delaying a bigger-than-average purchase until a 10% off day, but the effect is small overall.)

For now I'll stick with my regular credit card for now which gives me 1% rewards -- in cash, no fuzzy math involved.

Does anyone ever win these survey contests?

August 12th, 2007 at 10:56 am

Just got another survey on my Super Target grocery receipt. Supposedly someone will win 4 Schwinn bikes and a $500 gift certificate. Does anyone really win these things?

At least I feel like I can express my opinion to the management. My biggest beef... Offer more coupons!!!

Overspending with credit cards

August 12th, 2007 at 06:48 am

I wonder if there any studies out there on how much more people spend by using credit cards instead of cash or checks. I know I have spent a lot more over my lifetime because of credit cards. I mean, let's face it, you think a lot harder about spending money when you're handing over real cash or you're looking at your checking account balance as you write that check.

It's very easy to just swipe the card and say I'll deal with it when the bill comes. I would venture to say that people using debit cards spend more than they would by using cash or check.

The credit card rewards are nice, but what have you done to your finances by spending 20% more just to get 1%-5% back on your purchases.

Time to buy a cow

August 10th, 2007 at 07:55 pm

Milk prices are going up again, averaging $3.80 a gallon now. This hurts for us because we buy a gallon a week. Fortunately we don't spend $3.80 a gallon, but we've noticed the prices rising.

I'm going to have to start doing what an old coworker used to do, pour Mountain Dew into his Cocoa Puffs.

Do you promise, 50 Cent?

August 10th, 2007 at 07:24 pm

50 Cent announced that he would quit making albums if Kanye West outsells him on the day their albums are released.

Go Kanye!

Career plateau

August 10th, 2007 at 02:41 pm

I'm in the information technology field, and have done fairly well with my choice of career. The problem is I'm in my 30's and I'm finding it increasingly difficult to keep my skills current.

Lots of reasons for this... I have a family now first of all. Obviously that takes up a fair share of time. Also technology is changing pretty fast these days. Since I'm busy with the daily grind at my job, I don't have a lot of time for training and learning of new things.

Maybe this is a temporary problem, I'm not sure. But I'm worried about my future career prospects. Anyone have thoughts on this... how to stay fresh, how to get past the career plateau?

Risky student loans

August 10th, 2007 at 02:02 pm

I borrowed Freakonomics from the library and just started reading it. Really interesting so far.

One of the major themes (even though the introduction of the book says there is no theme) is the power of incentives in our daily lives -- particularly financial incentives.

This crossed my mind when we recently discussed student loans on the forums. Many years ago before the federal government guaranteed student loans, lenders were very careful in giving out student loans. If the student didn't earn enough after college to pay back the loan, the lender was left holding the bag.

Because the banks were very cautious in making these loans, the argument goes, the nation was underinvesting in its education. The federal government's solution was to guarantee loans for anyone who wanted to go to college, for whatever course of study they chose.

This was great in that many more students were able to get a college education -- students who would otherwise have gone to go to work in a factory or on a farm or whatever.

But now the lender gets paid by the government regardless of whether the borrower can pay back the loan. There's no incentive for the lender to determine whether this high school senior has the potential to succeed after college and earn in a degree in a field that will make the student loan worthwhile.

This leads to a situation where someone majoring in English takes on $80,000 in debt and ends up becoming a struggling writer for a salary of $20,000 a year.

The federal government has applied its own incentive to get students to think twice before getting a foolishly high student loan -- making loan payback mandatory. Not even bankruptcy can clear a student loan. But let's face it, for a 17-year-old ready to get out of the house and live the college life, 5 years seems like an eternity. They don't think of the ramification of being saddled with a $400 minimum monthly payment on a student loan.

So the problem is we want students to be successful and get an education, regardless of financial need. But we have to be realistic and give reasonable loans to students based on their potential and career choice. The government (and ultimately taxpayers) foot the bill for bad loans, while young people fresh out of school have to deal with a crushing amount of student loans they can't pay back.

Solutions?

New grocery store strategy

August 10th, 2007 at 12:21 pm

As my previous blog entry notes, my wife and I need to cut our monthly food expenditure. We're trying out a new strategy, and so far it's worked.

Plan meals for the week. This is a biggie. We figure out what meals we'd like to have through the week and write it down. This prevents buying food items we don't need and not having enough of other things we need (which might entice us to eat out).

Write down a list of what we need and only what we need. After we have our meal plan we go through the cupboards and fridge BEFORE we go to the store. That way we don't do the "Do we have enough butter?" thing once we get there. Also we may find an item that's about to go bad (for example, eggs). We can tweak our meal plan to make use of that and save some money.

At the store, stick to the list! For many years, we've just strolled through the aisles picking up anything that looked good. (We're big suckers for ice cream.) Not only has sticking to the list saved us money, it saves a helluva lot of time too. We still pick up a few impulse items. Who can pass up ice cream when it's 50% off?

Don't be a brand snob. We shop at Super Target which makes this easier, but still it can be hard to break the brand habit. We've been saving a lot of money using the store brand. And it tastes just as good. But it's not a slam dunk. Some brand items are cheaper than the store brand. Crisco-brand cooking spray, for example, was much cheaper than the store brand.

Smaller size is sometimes better. We never go through sour cream before it expires. We used to get the bigger sour cream because it was a better deal per unit... BUT we never got our money's worth. So we get the smaller container and save money.

Be more vigilant at the checkout. My wife and I tag-team at the checkout. I'm responsible for unloading the groceries. My wife is responsible for closely watching the register to make sure everything is the right price. She is the master of finding incorrect prices. We could take this a little further by writing down the prices but we haven't gotten that Type A just yet.

Stick to the meal plan, and save the leftovers. Stick to the meals. Be sure not to use up food that was designated for the meal. Also save the leftovers for lunch the next day.

We've been considering making a longer-term meal plan (like a monthly plan or even a yearly plan) but we haven't done that yet. That would save time in meal planning since that can be a chore sometimes. But there would have to be some flexibility built in. Sometimes you're not going to be home for a meal, or sometimes you may feel like eating some red meat instead of Morningstar Chik'n Patties.

No more eating out

August 10th, 2007 at 11:42 am

A few weeks ago, my wife and I decided to clamp down on the budget. Our spending had gotten out of hand and we needed to bring it inline with our income. We went through a few months worth of statements and plugged it all in to Excel. Housing was by far the biggest category (mortgage, taxes, insurance, maintenance)... about 40% of our income. Wow. That's a lot but we really like this house and we plan on staying here a long time. And there's not much we can do about that item in our budget.

But one item that stuck out like a sore thumb: Food! 16% of our budget was going to groceries (which includes store-bought food, toiletries and household items) and eating out. It was a real eye-opener.

There are some things we can do about the grocery shopping, and I'll talk about that in a separate post. But the REAL killer was the eating out. We looked through and see what we spend at various places... Chili's, Olive Garden, Max & Erma's, etc. And it is way out of line from what we can afford. As I posted on the forums, the cost of food at these places has gone way up. When you tack on the ever-increasing tax (8%... grrr) and tip (20% minimum... double grrr), it's unreasonable. Let's not even talk about appetizers, drinks and desserts.

We've resolved to drastically reduce eating out. It will be for a special occasion. Also we are faithfully bringing lunch to work rather than eating out. The McDonald's/Potbelly/Chipotle cycle has been broken!

In fact, I'm really enjoying my PB&J and chips. I don't feel bloated the whole day like I do with a McChicken and Big n' Nasty from McD's.

How to fight ridiculously high property taxes?

August 10th, 2007 at 11:28 am

Does anyone have experience fighting high property taxes in their area? As I pointed out in the forums, my county (Lake County in Illinois, north of Chicago) is gouging us on our taxes.

My taxes aren't out of line with my neighbors', IMHO, so I don't think I will make much headway in trying to argue my individual tax bill should be lower. (In fact I've read of instances where people's tax bill went UP after they tried to dispute their assessment. Not interested in that.)

So the question is how does one fight these extreme taxes? The bulk of the taxes are for the schools -- do we start by lobbying the school board and voting for people on the school board who will be more fiscally responsible? Or do we focus on county and state lawmakers to do something about this?

At one time our governor, Rod Blagojevich, suggesting raising the income tax from 3% to 4% in order to give relief to property tax payers. At the time I was renting so I didn't pay much attention... I'd be interested in seeing what the results of such a law would do. It's probably not even on the table now because of an Illinois budget crisis.

Any others out there from Lake County or other suburban counties fed up? Or does anyone else have ideas and suggestions for effective ways of dealing with this?