Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Defacing Credit Cards to Save Money

When money is tight, plastic is cheap; or so they say. We've all been there, your checking account is low, but you see something that you just can't live without. You quickly whip out your credit card for an impulse buy with the intention of paying it off the next time you get paid.

Unfortunately for most people this happens much to often, and can quickly cause severe credit card debt. The Internet is riddled with ways to detour people from using their credit cards, like the classic freezing your credit card in a block of ice. I, on the other hand, have a more practical solution I call "Credit Card Defacing." If you are currently trying to pay off a credit card with revolving debt, take a sharpie and write something embarrassing like "I am an idiot for using this card", "emergency only", or "Don't let me buy this" in big letters on the front of the card. The next time you use the card, you will be scrutinized by the person behind the counter. They will probably laugh at you, creating an extra humility barrier between you and your purchases. In a true emergency situation, the graffiti will not hinder the use of the card. Although keeping a credit card for emergencies is ridiculous and unnecessary anyway. People should instead have an emergency savings account linked to a debit card, but that is their decision.

"Defacing your Credit Card" is a great deterrent that allows you to cater the card message to the severity of you spending habits. If you have a really big problem you could even try writing offensive stuff like "Screw You" on the card. If the cashier does not have the thickest of skin, he or she might not even do business with you.

Every time you feel the urge to buy something with that credit card, you will stop and ask yourself is it really worth having to deal with the clerk. That will ultimately help curb spending.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Anonymous Web Surfing with Portable Opera+Tor

*This information is for educational purpose only. Live for Improvement does not condone any illegal activity, or side stepping of security parameters.*

Many businesses allow employees to use the Internet during breaks to check email, or to safely surf the web. You may, however, not want your co-workers to know that you're considering hair transplant surgery, searching E-harmony for special someone, or paying bills using sensitive banking information. If you fit this criteria or similar, then check out Opera Tor.

Opera Tor is one of the securest portable browsers available, and its free. By downloading the file, and installing it on a portable thumb drive, you can surf the Internet anywhere with peace of mind and privacy. It uses data encryption and proxy servers to securely transmit data. It also prevents any data from being stored on the local computer. It is nearly impossible for anyone to know what you are doing or where you have been.

The only draw back is that Opera Tor is extremely slow, and should only be used when necessary. It can also make things interesting when you go to international sites like Google and the German version is displayed because it thinks you are in Düsseldorf.

So if you are extra paranoid that big brother is looking over your shoulder, this is the app for you.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Have a Family Duress Code

Whether it's signalling to leave a boring dinner party, or being held at gunpoint while answering your wife's phone call, it is a good idea to establish a duress code. Take a few moments with your loved ones to agree on a specific word, phrase, and body language that can be used during such occasions. It could really be the difference between life and death, or at least minimize the discomfort of attending a function where you don't know anyone.

Picking a Duress Code:
  • Words - Try picking words that don't come up regularly in conversation, and will not sound strange when used. Your friends might become suspicious if you start saying "Abbra Cadabara" every time you are about to leave. You might consider choosing a less conspicuous word like automobile, newspaper, heartbeat, or streetlight that can easily be inserted into a sentence. To be even more subtle, have a secret pet name for your significant other like hunny, or sweetheart to be used only in the perils of danger. It may seem silly to dedicate a special word, when most couples have a knack for reading each other, but it could be crucial in a telephone or email conversation. Its better to have a duress code word and not need it, than to need it and not have it.

  • Phrases - Using a phrase can simply be a sentence with your secret word in it, but it can also be a metaphor. Suppose your secret phrase is the "car trouble". This allows you to use the different words every time. You could say the cars making noises, having trouble starting, acting funny, or the battery is won't hold a charge. This gives you much more variety in dialogue, and could be used to interpret the severity of a situation. If you want to leave a party, you might say that you recently noticed the tires look low. If you are being held at gun point you might say that yesterday the car started making loud grinding noises during gear shifts.

  • Body Language - Simple gestures like scratching your elbow, or cracking your knuckles can also relay the message of duress. It doesn't have to be as elaborate as a major league catcher signaling the pitcher, just enough to get your point across to the intended recipient. Being able to signal your wife could come in pretty handy the next time someone invites you to attend their child's fifth grade piano recital, and expects an on the spot answer.

It is a good idea to incorporated all three of these methods when creating your duress code. This allows for the most flexibility for sending signals. Use some creativity to determine your own personal duress codes, and never tell anyone.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Is PMI Really as Bad as They Say?

The voice of Suze Orman rings out in my head warning me not to buy a house without at least a 20% down payment to avoid paying Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI). But, if we truly investigate PMI in regards to the average first time home buyer is it really that bad? Most of you probably feel that throwing away hundreds of dollars a month is crazy, but it might be the lesser of two evils when it comes to renting, and here is my rational why.

PMI is a fee that lenders charge to cover the risk of financing a home with less than 20% down. Once the home has accumulated 20% in equity, the fee can be cancelled, but not refunded. Since most first time home buyers don't have $59,000.00 laying around to put down on a $292,600.00 home [National Average used per Census.com], many of us resort to paying PMI.

I unfortunately have to pay PMI, which cost about $200.00 a month until the house appreciates 20%, or until I gradually pay off 20% of the principle which should take about 11years. This means that I am potentially throwing away $26,400.00. It may sound absurd, but lets see what would have happened if my wife and I decided to continue renting to save money instead.

Our old modest 2 bedroom apartment was nowhere near as nice as our home, but for the sake of argument it cost us about $1200.00 a month to rent. Like PMI, once that rent money was paid it would never be seen again. The longer it takes to save up for the down payment, the more we would be spending in rent. Just to break even, we would have to save $59,000.00 in 22 months. I don't know about you, but setting aside an extra $2600.00 a month for a down payment is not even feasible at my current pay scale.

Here is a closer look at the break even point:
$200[PMI] x 12 [Months] x 11 [Years] = $26,400.00 [Total Cost]
$1200 [Rent] x 22 [Months] = $26,400.00 [Total Cost]

Here is a closer look at the rate of money needed to be saved before the break even point to be beneficial:
$59,000.00 [Down Payment] ÷ 22 [Months] = $2,600.00 [Per Month]

Let me know if I am crazy, but it appears that it's better for first time buyers without down money to just pay PMI rather than spend years renting and saving. What do you think? Am I missing something?

Monday, June 22, 2009

DIY: Free Paint Color Chart

Some of my friends showed me a neat trick the other day. While painting and decorating their recently purchased home, they had the ingenuity to make their own color chart for free.

Anyone who has ever painted, knows the intricacy of picking paint colors, and has probably made countless trips to Home Depot or Sherwin Williams with handfuls of paint samples trying to match that perfect shade of sea foam green.

Since none of the nearby stores would simply sell or provide a color chart, they discreetly picked up one free sample from each of the shades covering the entire color spectrum. Back at home the samples were hole punched and bound together with a steal ring making their very own reusable color flip book chart for any future projects.

As a garage tool junky myself, this is a must have for my own home. After I get my samples, I plan on clamping the samples between to thin pieces of wood and trying to drill all the holes at once, instead of hole punching them individually, like they did. So if you are planning to do a bunch of painting, consider making your own free color chart. Even if it only saves you one trip to the hardware store, it's worth it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Open a Super Secret Swiss Bank Acount

Let me start out by saying that I do not condone money laundering, or tax evasion. This article is purely to show how you too can have your own super secret Swiss bank account for security or nostalgic reason's fairly easy.

Movies always depict the luxury and romance of having a Swiss bank account as being reserved for criminals, and the über-wealthy. And it is true that "top secret numbered accounts," require an in person visit to Switzerland with an $100,000.00 initial deposit, and a cost of about $300 a year to maintain [statistics by Fortune]. However, the average Joe can also open a regular Swiss bank account fairly easily. Start by contacting the bank, check the term and conditions, fill out an application, and send in a copy of a passport via postal mail or fax. Regular Swiss accounts are still very secure and kept secret from prying eyes under Swedish Law. That includes blood sucking lawyers, Ex-wives, and greedy family members, the repo-man, and even the U.S. Federal Government; unless you are involved in an ongoing criminal investigation. In Switzerland it is a serious crime to divulge any Banking information, and foreign monetary laws are considered a private matter.

According to howtoadvice.com "The Swiss currently charge a hefty 35% tax on interest earned in Swiss accounts, but Americans get 30% of that tax refunded by showing that they're not Swiss residents." Many Swiss banks also conduct transactions in multiple currencies, allowing members to take advantage of the exchange and interest rates of other countries.

Out of the enormous list of Swiss banks, here are some of the more popular ones:

Currently, I am focused on paying off my credit cards, but I do plan opening a Swiss bank account when I have the liquidity to dabble in Foreign Banking ventures. Until then, I will just have to leave the cloak and dagger repertoire to the professionals.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The 5 Year Question

Do you know where you want to be in 5 years? We've all encounter this question plenty of times. You probably thought about it briefly and then went on about your day, oblivious to the actual power of this question. In order to achieve goals in life, each goal must first be clearly identified, and that is the true nature of this question. It is not enough to "want to make more money," or "want to be happy." Goals must be defined on a granular level, and only then can steps be taken to achieve them. Here an example:

Suppose your answer is to "become a homeowner," that's fine and dandy, but unless you elaborate, it's not likely to come true. Ask yourself a series of follow up questions, like which neighborhood do want to live in? How many bedrooms can you afford? how does you credit score compare to what is needed? If you start thinking about these little details, you have already subconsciously started house shopping, and achieving your goal. You may be years away from owning a home, but it's a start and you're closer than you were a few minutes ago. The next step is to take action towards your goal. Since, you've already made up your mind to buy a house, taking action is now justified. You have a reason to pay down your credit cards, to improve your credit score, to save money, to begin looking at homes in your desired area, and to immerse yourself in housing culture. Learning about real estate, and house hunting will help you stay on track. The hardest part of achieving any goal is simply taking the first step, but eventually you can be a home owner.

By really contemplating the answers to this question, it will create a spark of hope and direction to better your life. So take the time right now and decide where in life you want to be in 5 years. Do you want to complete a marathon, start a family, start a business, learn a language, travel Europe, get a degree, get out of Debt? Strive to accomplish your answer and don't take no for an answer.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Shutterfly Photo Album Books

If your family is anything like ours, they take pictures of everything. My Dad once took a record 1400 pictures during a 10 day vacation overseas. My wife is also quite the photographer. She is known for taking pictures of her exotic cocktails and martini's when we're out for a night on the town. When we go hiking, she takes great macro pictures of plants and insects. At the aquarium she is the master of snapping tropical fish without using the flash. It seems like whenever a perfect photo opportunity arises, she always has our camera ready. So as you can imagine, we have ludicrous amount of pictures on our computer. Unfortunately, nobody ever gets to see them, unless they are using our computer, or receive them in an email.

That was until my wife opened a free Shutterfly account, and started making photo books. The first couple books were of our wedding and came out phenomenal. Shutterfly easily allows the sizing/placement of the pictures with capabilities inserting blocks of texts and selecting different backgrounds. The books were fairly inexpensive and gratifying to design. We decided to display under our coffee table for for visiting guests to see.

A photo book can also make a great gift, that is a little more personal and creative than shopping at the mall. Consider a photo book for birthdays, Christmas, Anniversarys or Valentines day.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Explore the Foods of Other Cultures

Do you tend to cook the same meals, or eat at the same restaurant, over and over? Do you constantly find yourself asking what to do for dinner, and end up settling for something familiar or easy? Most people never explore the endless options of cultural cuisine.

With the invention of the Internet, it's easier than ever to find recipes, or restaurant locations, for exotic food. Try your hand at making your own sushi, it's easier than it looks. After exploring some Szechuan Recipes, I found that I can make a mean stir fry. My wife and I enjoy getting $2 pizza doughs at Trader Joes, and making our own exotic pizzas. Consider visiting a Brazilian Restaurant like the Ipanema Grill in Seattle,WA; the Puerta Rican Restaurant Sol Food in San Rafael, CA; or the Flavor of India in Santa Barbara, CA.

The next time you're wondering where to eat, try spinning a globe and blindly picking a random country with your finger. Then, use Google or Yelp to find recomended restaurants in the area with similar styles or themes.

Be adventurous and spuratically try something new. Finding good places to eat in your area, and trying new receipies will not only broaden you horizons, but it can bring excitement to an otherwise routine evening.

Friday, June 12, 2009

No More Analog TV

Remarkably, the average American watches about 7 hours of TV a day. That might prove difficult for some, considering that analog TV will be shut off permanently today! Hopefully you already got your digital box, or an adapter.

What does this mean for me?
Most people have at least one TV with digital cable in there home, which will not be affected by this conversion. Any additional TV's without a cable box, like the one in your bedroom, will no longer receive signals without a digital box or Adapter. Comcast, the major service provider here in Seattle, sent me an adapter for free after I gave them a call. I believe they give up to 2 adapters per house hold is free, and charge for 3 or more.

Despite the hassle of converting, All digital TV is actually a good thing. It will give viewers a clearer picture, and even allowed the government to make some much needed extra cash. According to CNN.com, The federal government raked in $20 billion in auctions by selling licenses for the frequencies vacated by local television stations for other commercial uses.

Like all superseded technologies, the old ways will become a thing of the past. Future generations will never fiddle with positioning Rabbit Ear antennas. They will never use tin foil and coat hangers to increase a weak signal. They won't understand the concept of "snow," in regards to bad reception, just as many of us today are unfamiliar with terms UHF and VHF.

So long analog R.I.P!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Free Criminal Searches

The information found on the Internet never ceases to amaze me. In past articles I have talked about using search engines like Zabasearch to re-establish contact with long lost friends, but just the other day I found a new site criminalsearches.com. This site allows you to search people's criminal history. Crimalsearches.com lists individual case numbers the and categorizes the type of crimes committed. Now it's easier than ever to find out whether your next door neighbor is a chainsaw wielding serial killer.

However, the information doesn't appear to be completely accurate or conclusive. I tried to search some of my own brief encounters with the law, and could not find them. Try conducting your own searches and comment on what you find.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Open a Junk Email Account

Whether its signing up for a the newest social network, or posting a comment on your favorite blog, it seems like just about everything asks for your email address. It's no wonder we get so many spam emails trying to sell magic pills, online subscriptions, or "As Seen On TV" gadgets. Just like the regular junk mail from the post office, spam email are an unfortunate part of life.

However, it is fairly easy to set up alternate junk email account. Just go to hotmail, yahoo, gmail, or any other free email client of your choice. Open an account under some easy to remember name like yourjunkemailaddress@gmail.com. Start using this new address for all the random requests, and save you real email address for emergency contacts, banking, and personal correspondences. It will take you all of about 5 minutes to set up and your inbox will no longer be filled with spam.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Switch to Cheaper Dog Food

As featured in the Savings section of "Moneyunder30.com's 208th Carnival of Personal Finance."

The Internet is riddled with ways to save money by reducing your monthly bills. This can be applied to all of your monthly expenses, regardless of whether or not you receive an invoice. A perfect example is spending $50.00 per month on dog food, which cost about the same as many utility bills. Most people don't bother to shop around to for better deals on dog food or even considers using a cheaper brand. Ironically, if I said you could save $10.00 a month on all of your future cell phone bills by jumping once through a flaming hoop on a unicycle, you would probably consider it.

What to get?
Companies try to capitalize on our emotional attachment to our pets by competing for the title of healthiest dog food. They know we all subconsciously want that absolute best for our little fur ball. The reality is compared to all the other things that dogs eat when we aren't looking, I don't think kibble type really makes that much of a difference. Obviously this excludes recalls and food that makes your dog ill. Research and compare price vs. name recognition to determine what is appropriate for your pooch.

Where to get it?
The price of dog food will vary depending on where you live. Here in Washington I have found that the cheapest place to get dog food is Dells Farm Supply, which carries all of the top name brand foods at a fraction of the price of PetCo or Petsmart. Another good place to buy dog food is Costco. If your only option is to shop at the high priced pet shops, at least see if they have any deals like buy 10 bags over a year, get 1 free. Many Petshops are offering some kind of rewards program.

How to make the switch?
Your dog has probably become accustom to its food. In order to make a switch to a less expensive brand, you must gradually blend in the new stuff. Start by feeding your dog a split portion of 25% cheaper food and 75% regular food. Do this for a few days, and then increase to 50% cheaper food and 50% regular for a few more days. Next feed the dog 75% cheaper food and 25% regular for a few days. Finally start feeding only the less expensive food and you are on your way. The gradual switch should take about a week.

Your furry friend won't know the difference, but your wallet will.