How to NOT get lucky on Valentine's Day

I grew up in a small town outside of Cincinnati, and to this day, White Castle hamburgers remind me of my youth. We would often drop by the one at 8853 Reading Road on the way home from church and pick up a sack.

Is it any coincidence that the two teams playing in this weekend's Super Bowl both have multiple White Castle restaurant locations? I think not. Regrettably White Castle restaurants extend only as far south as Murfreesboro, TN, so I can only eat them fresh from the microwave or during a business trip up north.

For you romantics fortunate enough to live near a White Castle restaurant in Chicago, Cincinnati, Columbus, Detroit, Indianapolis, Louisville, Minneapolis, Nashville, Cleveland, New Jersey, New York, or St. Louis, you're in luck. White Castle has a special treat on Valentine's Day between 5pm and 8pm where you can enjoy, "hostess seating, candlelit dining, and your own server." Oh, and reservations are required, so check here for the special reservations telephone number in your city. Just don't forget the Beano!

The rest of us will have to fend for ourselves to get a dinner reservation. At least Yan has listed some websites where we can pre-order roses to save us from fighting the crowds after work on Valentine's Day.

Are you average and is your average mean?

When someone asks if I'm average, I immediately wonder if they're asking about mean, median, or mode? If math isn't your thing or you're intellectually lazy, skip to the bottom data elements. Since you're still reading, I'm going to take you back to junior high or high school math class and use Merriam-Webster to define these terms:

mean = a value that is computed by dividing the sum of a set of terms by the number of terms

median = a value in an ordered set of values below and above which there is an equal number of values or which is the arithmetic mean of the two middle values if there is no one middle number

mode = the most frequent value (or values) of a set of data

For those like me who read these definitions and go "huh?", here are the terms portrayed visually:
Practically speaking, let's compute each of these with a dataset of 5 numbers: 29,1,4,1,5.
29+1+4+1+5 = 40; 40÷5 = 8
The numbers in value order --> 1 1 4 5 26 ... and the middle number (or the median) = 4
With the data set 29,1,4,1,5... the most frequently occurring or repetitive number = 1

When dealing with statistics about finances and income, the press is often sloppy in their use of the term "average". While most do not use mode, many identify both median and mean as average, which is too imprecise. If you add a few zeros along with a comma or two, the numbers in my dataset could be housing prices or household incomes, and not knowing whether a number is median or mean can have a big impact on how the numbers are interpreted . Because outliers, such as the number 29 in my dataset above, can skew the calculation of mean, many cost and income-based financial statistics are computed as median so that half of all such costs (or incomes, housing prices, etc.) fall above this value and half fall below.

While statistics may not lie, liars use statistics, so know the difference between mean, median, and mode. And with that lesson, here are a few facts about average in the U.S. of A.:

Median home value = $167,500

Mean travel time to work = 25.1 (minutes)

Median age = 36.4 years

Average* household size = 2.6
Average* family size = 3.18
* - assumed to be mean, but it's not clear

Median household income = $46,242
Mean household income = $62,556

Median household income = $55,832
Mean household income = $72,585

Nonfamily household
Median household income = $28,050
Mean household income = $39,741

And if you're looking for a real-life example of an outlier, Bill Gates has more wealth than the bottom 45% of American households combined.

Note: All stats are from the economic profile of the 2005 American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau unless otherwise noted. This survey breaks the data down further into these other profiles: demographic, social, and housing.

[update added March 13, 2007] For a fantastic essay described as "the wisest, most humane thing ever written about cancer and statistics" read The Median Isn't the Message by Stephen Jay Gould.


The ultimate 99 cent value meal

After years of hearing my wife rave about how great the food is at Taco Bueno, I enjoyed my first meal there on a family trip to Dallas/Fort Worth at Thanksgiving. My wife swears by their bean burritos while I wolfed down a couple of crispy beef tacos. They were good--better than Taco Bell's, so I decided to have another after finishing my two. Fortunately at the top of my receipt was a "Free Beef Taco" coupon for completing a survey. It required me to call a 1-800 number, answer a few questions, and then enter a 4-digit code. I'm a cheap bastard, so I spent the 60 seconds punching responses into my cell phone and got my code.

I walked up to the counter and ordered my free beef taco. I handed the cashier my coupon, fully expecting that I'd missed the fine print and would be charged tax or be told I needed to order something else, but no. I was handed my beef taco along with... you guessed it... a "Free Beef Taco" coupon at the top of my receipt for the free beef taco I just received. It is the ultimate value meal--an all you can eat beef taco buffet for just 99 cents.

My family and I returned to D/FW just before Christmas to give my brother and sister-in-law a hand with their new responsibility. While there we had an opportunity to again eat at Taco Bueno. My wife was craving their bean burritos while I was eager to find out if they still had their 99 cent buffet. They did. It became a game to me, so after buying my first beef taco I used their "Free Beef Taco" coupons the rest of the trip to satiate my hunger. And perhaps because I was respectful to the cashiers, they never hesitated to take my coupon and offer a new one in return.


Free 2GB online backup with encryption

I got the blue screen of death as I was drafting a new post this evening. This required me to manually turn my computer off with the power supply switch as even the reset button wasn't working. I waited several seconds and hit the switch again to turn it on, but to my chagrin nothing happened. No whirring fans, no spinning hard drive, no blue LED light emitting from the case... nothing. I tried in vain to flip the switch off and on again in the foolish hope that the power supply would mysteriously heal itself.

Fortunately I have my critical documents encrypted and backed up online with my free 2GB account at Mozy. In full disclosure: if you click on the Mozy link, sign up, and perform a backup, I get an extra 256MB of free backup space--but so do you! Mozy has a lot of neat features, and I particularly like its ability to automatically perform a scheduled backup.

As for my PC, thank goodness for eBay. I'm assuming that my power supply is fried so I pulled it, got the manufacturer & part #, and ordered one on eBay for $30 less than what I was able to find from any retailer on Froogle.


Cost of bottled water vs. tap

I often buy consumables that I wouldn't otherwise when I travel for business. I'm not suggesting I splurge on extravagances, rather these purchases are circumstantial. For example, I seldom use breath mints at home, but I always have a roll of peppermint or wintergreen BreathSavers in my pocket when I'm on the road.

Another item that only gets purchased when traveling is bottled water. I support home town companies, so my bottled water of choice is Dasani. I usually buy the 20 ounce size for $1.06 with tax.

We've all heard that bottled water is 99% profit, but what does the water itself actually cost? I decided to grab my most recent water bill to find out.

My household consists of myself, my wife, and 3 & 1 year old children. Here is a typical month's water usage and costs:

Fully allocating sewer services into the cost, a gallon of tap water = $ .00784. Yes, a gallon of tap water is less than 1 cent.

How does that 20 ounce bottle of Dasani compare? Dasani is $6.78 per gallon, so its gross profit margin relative to my cost of tap water is 99.9%.


Saving thousands on furniture

I bought my first home when I was 20 and living in Dallas/Fort Worth. Well, actually my home was a townhouse, but it was mine nonetheless. I had flight benefits with my job and heard stories of coworkers traveling to High Point, NC, to save big money furnishing their house. As a bachelor, big money and furnishings were mutually exclusive. I went to a furniture liquidation warehouse and bought a matching couch, loveseat, and chair for under $300 which reflected my taste in decor... something Vern Yip would call bachelor tacky. This experience was my basis of knowledge for the cost of furniture.

Fast forward 10 years, and I'm married and living in Orlando. Informed that it was time for a new couch/sectional to go with our new home, I went furniture shopping with my wife. You can imagine my shock in discovering that a 3-piece sectional can cost more than a car... at least the last car I'd purchased (an '88 Volkswagen Fox wagon, quite the chickmobile). I was further surprised to learn that most people can't pick up furniture on the day it's purchased. Remembering, "Happy wife, happy life," we agreed on a style and fabric, and 6 weeks later the furniture arrived.

After moving back to Atlanta a couple of years later, I made a business trip to Greensboro, NC, and decided to make the 25 minute drive to High Point to see what was in the furniture capital of the world and if prices really were better. I visited two stores, Boyles Furniture and Furnitureland South (FLS), to check the price on a Stanley bedside table to match one we'd picked up at closeout from a Sears Homelife that was going out of business.

My first stop was to FLS, home of the world's tallest highboy and a showroom (+ Mart) with over 500,000 square feet of space. I spent an hour wandering around the Mart building and found the bedside table in the Stanley line I wanted. I was surprised to find it 40% off retail, and so I asked a salesperson to check the price. It was correct. She also asked my zip code and calculated that shipping would be ~ $60 but that there wouldn't be sales tax because I was having the item shipped out of state. I took the salesperson's card and left for my next stop.

I didn't have much time at Boyles because I'd spent more time at FLS than planned, but I knew the drill. Rather than going to find the furniture, I immediately asked for a salesperson and had her look up the price of the item I wanted. I was happy to learn that the price was closer to 50% off and that Boyles was offering free shipping on orders over $500. Shipping was about the same otherwise. I took her card, thanked her for her time, and left to catch my flight.

After returning to Atlanta, my wife and I decided to purchase the bedside table from Boyles. We also purchased a dresser and bed from the same line. We have since made several trips to the Triad (Hickory, Greensboro, and High Point) area to furniture shop, mostly at clearance and showroom sales. On our last trip we went to the Furnitureland South Clearance Center and paid less than $100 for a $600 mirror that came from the same Stanley line and completes our bedroom.

If you're out of the bachelor tacky phase and wanting to save thousands of dollars on nice furniture, it's worth a call or click to furniture shop in the High Point area. Here are some sites for reference:

And until the end of this month, Boyles is offering free delivery on orders over $2,000 for those east of the Mississippi. Those west may have free or discounted shipping depending on the manufacturer.


Ben Stein is wrong about Real Estate Investing

Ben Stein is an incredibly smart guy. You might know him by any one of these titles: actor (he was the boring economics teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off), host of Comedy Central's show "Win Ben Stein's Money", author of 16 books, speech writer for presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, or university law professor.

Ben also writes a financial column every other Monday at Yahoo! Finance, and it's usually full of sage advice. This week's article "A Home Truth about Real Estate Investing" was an exception.

As a part time real estate investor, the title of this week's column caught my attention. I was teased by the short description which reads, "Owning real estate brings great joy and even makes a good investment. For long-term gains, though, stocks are better." I was dumbfounded. I've owned stocks & mutual funds for 15 years, but the returns on my investments in several single-family rental properties have beaten my returns in the stock market, hands down. Could I be a smarter real estate investor than Ben Stein? This fleeting thought was unfathomable, so I read on.

It was only after completely reading his column that I realized the source of my disconnect: I can't recall ever hearing an economist, particularly one who is a "commentator on finance", consider the purchase of one's own domicile to be real estate investing. Mr. Stein's article does a disservice to the practice of real estate investing, which most consider to be the act of acquiring real estate for purposes of generating rental income or profit from resale after capital appreciation (my definition). My own real estate investing has delivered consistent positive cash returns each year, not to mention the huge tax benefit in being able to offset rental income with that most wonderful non-cash expense, depreciation. Once rented, without exception, each property has been cash flow positive while consistently showing a tax loss because of depreciation and section 179 expenses.

Considering his argument for a moment, however, I would challenge Mr. Stein to look at the alternative to purchasing a house/condo. I see a flaw in his logic because buying stocks on broad indexes isn't the alternative to purchasing a house/condo to live in; renting a house/condo is the alternative! I'm fortunate that I don't live in an expensive real estate market (metro Atlanta), but even still, I can't see how, with tax considerations, buying a house is less "profitable" than renting.

And on the topic of real estate, today I learned that Zillow has just begun providing Zestimates for many homes in metro Atlanta!


Give to God what is God's... but get a receipt

Today the freemoneyfinance blog addresses the subject of how to calculate a 10% tithe. Reading it reminded me of something I've noticed the last couple of Sundays at church during offering. While a large number of people write checks, there are plenty of others who still place cash in the offering plate (bucket).

Unless it's in an envelope with the giver's information or donated in some way that the giver can immediately receive a receipt, I find donating cash to a church or any charitable 501(c)3 foolish because such donations are not tax deductible. Understand that I have an accounting degree, so my brain is wired differently than most, but I believe in giving unto Caesar what is Caesar's... and not a penny more. When giving to God, I want the tax deduction.

In case you're wondering, I never put anything in the offering plate. I seldom carry cash or checks, so fortunately North Point Community Church offers scheduled ACH withdrawals which I use and like.

10 ways to travel smarter

Last year for work I flew over 60k miles on 4 different airlines and spent over 80 nights in various hotels throughout the U.S. and Canada. After years of this, I've established some habits and learned about little things that help make business travel tolerable.

I've condensed these down to a list of 10 and have interspersed my habits along with a few other tips to reduce the stress and inconvenience of travel:

  1. PACK: Bring along a roll of quarters. They come in handy for parking meters, vending machines, and even a valet's tip if you're out of singles.
  2. HABIT: When booking air, get the best seat on the plane. I always check LoveMySeat prior to making a seat selection, though I hate bulkhead which these sites tend to love.
  3. TIP: Maximize your frequent flier miles by not joining every frequent flier club. How? If you regularly fly US Air and only occasionally fly United, don't add the United miles to your Mileage Plus account; instead, because both carriers are members of the Star Alliance, have the miles credited to your US Airways Dividend Miles account. See also the oneworld alliance and SkyTeam for other airlines.
  4. PACK: If you travel with a laptop, keep a spare battery and power cord pre-packed in your laptop bag/backpack.
  5. TIP: If you're wanting a hotel room upgrade, check in as late as possible. In my experience, the later it is, the more likely the hotel will be to grant this request should you ask.
  6. HABIT: I print out reservation confirmations for every aspect of my trip and keep them in an 8.5"x11" envelope in my laptop backpack. As I accumulate expenses during the trip, I drop the receipts into this envelope to minimize the risk of losing these in the black hole that is my wallet.
  7. PACK: Buy & keep in your laptop bag/backpack a short 3-outlet power adapter since no hotel ever has enough electrical outlets.
  8. HABIT: Place travel-sized toiletries in a quart-sized zip-top bag to avoid checking bags if possible. Just last week a coworker had to wait 6 hours for US Air to deliver his checked bags after they weren't loaded onto his direct flight to SFO (an x-ray machine was out of service in PHL, which created a backlog in getting bags screened promptly).
  9. TIP: If you use a laptop when traveling then get a Sprint Mobile Broadband subscription, especially if you can expense Internet charges. It may even save you money because it eliminates the $9.95 daily hotel Internet charges. I just dumped my T-Mobile HotSpot Wi-Fi service because, despite the decent number of HotSpots, its coverage is limited. When you're sitting on the tarmac at DFW Airport because of a two-hour air traffic control delay in Atlanta, HotSpot will be of no use but Sprint Broadband will be.
  10. PACK: I've learned to keep a very small travel umbrella in my backpack. This gets used on at least 25% of my trips.
And of course I'd never travel without my Briggs & Riley luggage which I discussed last year. Any other suggestions?


It never hurts to ask

I'm often surprised at people who are willing to take what life gives them, which runs the gamut from "Well, I was born poor, so I'll just stay poor," to "I was given a dumpy hotel room, so I'll just take it." Nonsense. Whether it's learning how to get out of poverty or getting a nicer hotel room, it never hurts to ask.

I arrived into San Francisco last night during a month when hotel occupancies may hit 60% if they're lucky. Granted, knowledge is power, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist or a seasoned hotelier to know that demand for hotels in San Francisco is soft in the middle of January when temperatures are unseasonably cold (in the 30's), the midwest is covered in ice (limiting the ability or at least the desire of corporate road warriors to travel), and a nice 4* full-service hotel like The Argent is available on a Monday for just over $100 a night.

Upon checkin, the front desk agent asked the usual questions. As I offered her my credit card for incidentals, I asked one of my own, "Do you have an upper floor corner bay view room with a king bed?" I'd booked a room with two double beds because the rate was cheaper, but I prefer a king bed. The front desk agent's response was one I've heard innumerable times, "In fact we do. Would you like one key or two?"

And for those like me whose favorite hotel brand is Westin because of their heavenly beds, heavenly showers, and smoke-free air, you'll be happy to know that The Argent will soon become The Westin San Francisco Market Street.


Monetizing your frequent flier miles

What? I travel quite a bit for business, and these travels usually result in a premium status with an airline or two as well as accounts full of frequent flier miles at the end of the year. Having young kids makes it really inconvenient to travel by air for leisure trips, and you can forget about taking a spontaneous weekend trip to... well, anywhere unless it's within driving distance, so these frequent flier miles accumulate.

It's not unusual for one or more of my frequent flyer account(s) to have balances of 100,000+ miles. When I've accumulated 75k+ miles, I do what I've done for the last 10+ years--I contact my ticket brokers to convert my frequent flier miles into dollars.

Why? If you choose to embark on this path of selling frequent flier miles for cash, expect to earn 1.5 to 1.75 cents per mile, making a 25k redemption ticket worth $375 to $437.50. When load factors are high, your ability to squeeze more money out of the broker goes up. In addition, I've found that the more miles you have, the more bargaining power you have with a broker. And brokers can move your miles faster if they're from an airline with a global footprint rather than from a regional carrier. From miles earned through flying, airline rewards credit cards, dining, and airline affiliate partners, it's pretty easy to accumulate and sell over 100k miles in a year, worth over $1,500.

How? First off, understand that you're not really selling miles--you're selling a ticket which has been redeemed with miles from your frequent flier account. For this, you'll need a minimum of 25k miles and preferably 50k+ to make it worth the while.

Selecting the right ticket broker is key. Don't use just any ticket broker; I use brokers I've worked with for years who I trust and who I interviewed to ensure they only sell my miles/frequent flier tickets to those they trust so as to not raise the suspicion of airline personnel who can deem a purchased frequent flier ticket void and cancel it on the spot.

Should you choose to work with a broker by selling miles, here are some questions to ask:

  1. What is the broker's vetting process to ensure the traveler purchasing my miles/ticket (via this broker) understands they should be silent about how they acquired the ticket?
  2. Will I know/have the name of the individual traveling on my miles along with their itinerary information? You should. If you're ever questioned by the airline, you need to know who's using your miles.
  3. Has the broker ever been investigated by an airline for being a broker?
  4. Have any sellers (to the broker) ever had their frequent flier accounts suspended or penalized for working with the broker?
  5. How are the service charges for the frequent flier tickets paid? My recommendation is to have these charged to your (the seller's) personal credit card to be reimbursed by the broker.
Note: This is a work of fiction, since the practice described violates the terms & conditions of participating in an airline's frequent flier program. There is a good article here which summarizes the risks, and I can vouch for its accuracy (including the tenacity of the airline they mentioned to crack down on the activity).


Saving $ on telephone costs with VoIP

In 2004, Comcast was my telephone, high-speed Internet, and cable service provider. Because these three services were bundled we saved money over BellSouth, but the telephone bill was still ~ $45 + an average of $15 in long distance charges. For years I'd tried unconvincingly to persuade my wife to ditch our landline telephone and just use our cell phones to save money, but safety (being able to dial 911 & have them know our address) and inconsistent cellular coverage were always barriers.

I've used the Yahoo instant messenger voice feature since 1999, so I was aware of and tried to keep up with advances in voice over IP (VoIP) technology. One company I kept an eye on was Vonage, which launched in 2002. By 2004, Vonage had several hundred thousand customers and was reported to have good call quality along with the "best of the worst" in customer service and was the only VoIP provider able to handle 911 calls. Like most VoIP providers, Vonage also offered unlimited local and free long distance (for North America) calling. The one caveat to being able to use a VoIP provider is that you must have a high-speed Internet connection.

I ran the numbers and thought we could shave half off our telephone charges by switching to Vonage. I shared the information with my wife, and to my surprise, she agreed to switch as long as it had no impact on her when she picked up the telephone to make a call. Fortunately I'd installed a 66-block in the house earlier that year (using Phone-man's website as a guide), which was going to make it really easy for me to connect the VoIP router to my home telephone wiring.

On June 17, 2004 I submitted the paperwork to Vonage for transferring my telephone number from Comcast, and by July 1 the process was complete. My telephone charges fell from over $60 per month to just $27.24. And I never had a problem with Vonage.

Over the summer of last year, I was reading in one of the FatWallet forums about SunRocket having a $99 per year special. While I was happy with Vonage, my loyalty is in saving $, so I again ran the numbers. The $99 SunRocket special was for the first year only + a $39.95 equipment charge = $138.95 per year or $11.58 per month, a savings of over 50% vs. Vonage. It was a no-brainer--I switched and have been happy with SunRocket.

I bring all of this up because I read that via:talk is running a buy 1 year get 1 year free special for $199 with no equipment fee. From what I've heard, via:talk seems to have a good quality product, and telephone service for $8.29 per month is pretty hard to beat.


Midnight temptations

NO--not those kind of temptations! I wanted to follow up on my post 1 year ago today where I discussed Woot and a few other reasons I'm up after midnight. In the last year, much has changed.

Two of the 5 sites I previously mentioned, 1deal1day and SnapGone are no longer operating. Though both sites lead you to believe they'll be back soon, their landing pages haven't changed in 6+ months.

Fortunately Woot, MidnightBox, and steepANDcheap are very much alive & well, and in the last year there have been two new additions: StrongIdea and Tanga.

If you're looking to save your way to the poor house, these sites offer some swinging deals. Woot has gotten the lionshare of my $, though I've also made purchases from MidnightBox and StrongIdea. My sweet deals last year were a chest belt heart rate monitor and watch for $30, a Toshiba DVD player with HD upconversion and HDMI output for $40, and a pair of binoculars with built-in digital camera for $25.

If you're looking for an evening distraction and living in the Eastern Time zone, check out Tanga starting at 10:00pm followed by MidnightBox at midnight, and then Woot posts their new item at 1:00am. steepANDcheap lists a new item as soon as their previous one sells out, and sorry--I have no idea when StrongIdea lists new items.


2007: The year to de-clutter

My wife and I have decided that 2007 is the year to de-clutter and de-crappify our lives, and that starts in our basement & drive-under garage. Since picking up our first rental house in the fall of 2001, we haven't been able to park a car in the garage.

We have a lot more tools than we ever did before, so I'm content with only having one of the garage bays open, but the days of keeping stuff "just in case we'll need it someday" are gone.

I've already thrown away two large rolling trash bins of stuff, and I'm only half finished. In addition to better organizing the things I want to keep, I've also made three piles of things for: 1) Goodwill, 2) eBay/Craigslist, and 3) yardsale. The largest things I have to get out of the garage are a dining room table (going on Craigslist) and several large upright arcade games (eBay).

I've been buying & selling things on eBay for several years, and I'm often amazed at the value people place on things. I understand that I sold at the perfect time, but just before Christmas I unloaded a vibrating football game from my youth for $143 + shipping!

Here are my 10 eBay tips for those looking to de-clutter or just unload those Christmas presents which didn't come with gift receipts:

  1. List items Thursday night and pay the extra 40 cents for a 10-day auction, giving you two full weekends of eyeballs.
  2. Start with a low minimum and avoid setting a reserve amount.
  3. To speed up the transaction time, only accept PayPal as a form of payment and require payment within 24 hours of auction close.
  4. If you have a lot of small things to sell, invest in a postal scale to avoid trips to the post office.
  5. Use PayPal for creating shipping labels with postage, again avoiding trips to the post office.
  6. ALWAYS use delivery confirmation when shipping.
  7. Use LOTS of pictures to avoid any questions, and host the pictures free through Auctiva, Flickr, or anywhere other than eBay, which charges you after the first picture.
  8. Consider offering free shipping to encourage people to bid.
  9. As a seller, only leave feedback for the buyer once you know they are happy and have left positive feedback for you.
  10. If an item doesn't sell, don't relist it--donate it and take the tax deduction.
Is there anything I'm missing?