Saturday, January 24, 2009

Two chances to win Money

Here's an opportunity to win a couple of free gift cards.

Your Money Relationship is offering a contest for a $50 Amazon gift certificate.  You can increase your chances of winning by doing various things on the site such as asking a question, subscribing to the feed by email, leaving a comment, etc.  The contest runs until 11:59 PM on January 31st.

Single Guy Money is offering a $100 gift card to your choice of Target or Wal-Mart.  To enter the contest just leave a comment on his site describing how you would like to spend the money.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Novel device provides feedback to stop slouching

Now, here’s a gadget that I would really like to try out: the iPosture.

“The iPosture is an intuitive electronic device designed to improve posture. Just over one inch in diameter, the iPosture automatically senses when the body slouches, and it alerts the user with brief vibrations to correct it.“

I have no doubt that it’s just as tough as this reviewer says it is.  He actually had sore muscles from just a few hours of use.  Of course, as with any new habit, good or bad, it typically takes 3-4 weeks for good posture to become natural.

Like most people, I would like to improve my posture.  I remind myself several times during the day, particularly when at my computer keyboard, to straighten up, throw my shoulders back, etc.   So, I have decent posture for a few minutes and then before I know it, I find myself drawn in closer to the PC and scrunched over the keyboard once again. 

Even though, it may be distracting at first, I think the continuous feedback from an active monitor like the iPosture just might get me over the hump, so to speak.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Save Thousands in Taxes with an “honest” mistake

It has never been more obvious than now, that we live in a society of haves and have nots.  The nominee for Secretary of the US Treasury did not pay taxes for several years and when he got caught in an audit, he paid only the back taxes that the auditors found, not all of the taxes that he knew about.  On top of that, he was not fined, no penalty.  If you don’t think we have a double standard between public figures and regular, non celebrity-type citizens try that and see how you are treated in the federal pen.

But that is not the end of this guys sordid tale.  The WSJ points out a few more “goofs” of this supposed genius:

“Other tax issues also surfaced during the vetting, including the fact Mr. Geithner used his child's time at overnight camps in 2001, 2004 and 2005 to calculate dependent-care tax deductions. Sleepaway camps don't qualify.

Amended tax returns that Mr. Geithner filed recently include $4,334 in additional taxes, and $1,232 in interest for infractions, such as an early-withdrawal penalty from a retirement plan, an improper small-business deduction, a charitable-contribution deduction for ineligible items, and the expensing of utility costs that went for personal use.

The other cloud for Mr. Geithner involved an immigrant housekeeper whose work-authorization papers expired during her tenure working for Mr. Geithner. “

It takes some real audacity to try to deduct your kids summer camp.  Sure some accountant could have prepared his paperwork for him, but once again try that excuse with your tax  filings.  You and you alone are responsible for what goes on your tax forms. 

The other real kicker for me is the fact that this financial whiz took an early withdrawal from his retirement plan and lied about it to the IRS.  That action calls into question not only his honesty, but his money management skills.  After all this is no run of the mill, inconsequential nominee, this guy is going to oversee the IRS!!!  And all of our tax dollars in US Treasury.

His defense is simply that all of this was an “honest mistake”.

The guy can’t manage his own personal finances let alone oversee the finances of the country.  This is the change that we have been promised??  This is considered acceptable behavior by BHO??  What would be unacceptable?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Going cashless - against the grain

Forever the contrarian, it seems.  While others are opting for cash only transactions to avoid credit card balances, I am doing just the opposite.  I have streamlined my wallet to include only my ID, one credit card, an ATM/Debit card and a couple of insurance information cards. 

I have a few reasons for making this change:

  • Thinner, smaller wallet that is easier to conceal and carry
  • Faster transactions
  • Cash back on card purchases means more money in my pocket
  • Eliminate hassle of carrying change coins

 Some other potential benefits:

  • Reduce chances of overpaying.  For example, handing over a 20, but receiving change for a 10
  • Eliminate the handling of tainted and/or counterfeit bills

And of course, some of the cons might be:

  • Credit card not accepted everywhere
  • Vendor refuses transaction due to low purchase amount
  • More people handling my credit card could increase chances of ID theft/fraud

I decided to put the new system to test this past week while on a three day business trip.  At first, it seemed a little strange to use a card to pay for a 2 dollar and 17 cent item.  However, the cashier didn’t hesitate at all when I handed over a credit card.  The best part is that the deal is cleaner and much faster, since a signature is not required on transactions less than $25 and some vendors accept even larger amounts.

It all went smoothly, except for a couple of instances.  In one case, I stopped at a kiosk for a newspaper and coffee in an airport.  Payment was on the honor principle!  The kiosk had a container with a slot and a sign “please pay with correct change”.   Since I was so impressed with the fact that anybody would use an honor system in a large city airport, I just had to participate.  By throwing a couple of bucks in the pot, I wanted to show the vendor and the world that there is some hope for the future of humankind!  That’s right, some folks will pay for services simply because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s the law. 

Fortunately, I didn’t do this cashless experiment cold turkey.  I had three dollar bills and a twenty – just in case.

The next cash only situation occurred at my hotel. The hotel offered complimentary breakfast buffet and it was so good and the waitress so friendly that I wanted to leave a tip.  I could have asked to have a tip placed on my room bill, but who knows if the waitress would have received that?   Leaving cash on the table was the best way to make sure she got the tip.

From this trial, I can see that I still need to stash a few bucks for tips, especially when I travel.  So, my wallet may not be as thin as I would like, but then again, I just found another way to eliminate my ATM/debit card by turning my drivers license into a debit card!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

What’s working in your Investment Portfolio?

This past year has been brutal for equities across the board.  In times like these, when nearly everything is tanking, I can’t help but notice the miniscule portion of my portfolio in US savings bonds that is leading the way with positive returns.  I never thought I would see the day.  I have been purchasing savings bonds over the last 20 years mainly to keep my employer off my back.  Every year, the company recruits employees to canvass the masses and urge all to participate through payroll deduction.  I have been one of those canvassers and I can attest that convincing engineers of the financial benefits of bonds has always been a hard sell, so instead the canvassers tout patriotism!  Love America, buy a bond.

To track my bond holdings, I use a Savings Bond Wizard tool and it is currently reporting that many of my EE bonds purchased 10, 15 and even 20 years ago are yielding a whopping 5.6 %. I’m thrilled!  A snapshot example of the wizard screen is shown below.  For those of you holding savings bonds, the wizard software, available for download at the TreasuryDirect website, is an easy way to keep track of this newly, exciting asset class.  Once you have entered the serial number of each bond, the wizard will track it, provide accrual and maturity dates, automatically update to the latest rates and yields and provide the current dollar value of the bonds all free of charge.

This past year was a great time to be holding bonds, but what about previous years?  For some very interesting data check out this graph provided by The Savings Bond Advisor comparing the value of equal monthly investments in series I savings bond and the Vanguard Index 500.  The differences between the two over the last year are pretty dramatic, but the data also shows that savings bonds have been in the running over the last several years.  Hmmm, an investment paradigm shift may have finally arrived for at least one engineer.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Setting the Stage for a better 2009

Every year I set several goals that are typically related in some way to sports or athletic endeavors.  This year I have expanded that to include some other areas that need improvement.  Here are four of my goals:

#1 Goal 

More bonds in my portfolio!  I always have trouble adding bonds, it just seems to go against my grain.  For many years I have steered away from bonds and their boring returns with the argument that I was diversified in various equities, commodities and real estate.  That false sense of security worked for a long time.  It seemed that things balanced out because when one asset class was down another was booming.  That didn’t hold true for the bust of 2008 where equities across the board took steep losses with few exceptions.  The losses have gotten my attention and convinced me to reduce my overall risk.  I will not sell any assets, but will re-direct a large portion of new money into bonds. 

#2 Goal

Exceed my 2008 walking/hiking mileage.  Last year, I strolled along for just over 3 million steps or 1500 miles.  1.27 million of those steps were with my dog, Brownie Boy.  Dogs can be great motivators – how can anybody say no to a walk when the little guy is so excited about going?

#3 Goal

Read More.  I don’t care what the topic, just read.  I read twenty books last year ranging from personal finance to mysteries with romantic undercurrents.  I am giving myself free rein to read anything that interests me because reading something is better than not.

#4 Goal

Take off on an Adventure.  I want to live life with no regrets and one way to help make sure that happens is to do something every now and then that is frightening!  Okay, that may be a little over the top.  My aim is to do something that forces me to stretch in some way.  One of the possibilities for this year is a sea kayak trip, camping and fishing for 8 days along the coast.