Picking up Nickels

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Penfed does it again: Annual high yield CD promotion

Last week I wondered if the Pentagon Federal Credit Union would offer a first quarter high yield CD promotion for the third year in a row, and today they did just that (kudos to the Bank Deals blog for getting the early scoop on the rates and terms).

History has shown that now is a great time of year to start or add to a Penfed CD ladder, as they offered market leading yields for 5 year CDs in January 2005 (5.25%), January 2006 (5.75%), and January 2007 (6.25%).

Since I will be cashing in some I Bonds next week, I will be adding a 5 year Penfed CD @ 6.25% APY to the 4 year CD ladder I built in the fall. I you have some idle cash available, I highly recommend taking Penfed up on their generous offer.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas

For the Christmas holiday, let's have a little fun by enjoying this Saturday Night Live clip of Horatio Sanz, Jimmy Fallon, Chris Kattan, Tracy Morgan singing their Christmas Song.

Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 22, 2006

More DIY repairs on my clunker

I took my 8 year old clunker to the Nissan dealer the other day to take advantage of the $79 radiator flush coupon that expired at the end of the year, and was told that my oil pressure switch was leaking. I was quoted a price of $150 for the repair, so I decided to replace the part myself.

I headed back to the motorvate.ca web site, which was useful when I saved more than $500 by replacing my knock sensor myself, and found that a leaking oil pressure switch was a common problem with my car that was easy to take care of.

I picked up a new oil pressure switch for $11.27 and had the part swapped out in less than an hour. I did drain my engine oil before the repair, so I had to add the cost of a few quarts of 5W-30 oil (about $2 each) to the job. When all was said and done, I was able to get the job done for less than $20, which is quite a bit cheaper than the $150 I was quoted at the dealer.

As I've mentioned before, I find the repairs that an older car require to be emotionally draining. While my Nissan had spoiled me with trouble free service for several years, I have had to perform repairs on my car four times since July to the tune of about $250 in parts. That cost would easily have topped $1000 in parts and labor charges if I had not been able to do the repairs myself.

I also have another repair coming up on the radar screen, since my front and rear brakes will need to be serviced in the near future. Hurray for me...

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Life in D-E-L-L: Trying to find a good deal on a desktop computer

I've spent a few weeks trying to find a good deal on a pretty loaded Dell desktop computer (Core 2 Duo processor with 4MB L2 Cache, 2+ GB RAM, 250+ GB RAID 1) and haven't been able to find a deal that was attractive enough for me to jump on (like the loaded Dell E1505 laptop I bought in November). In an ideal world, I would like to find a 25% or 30% off deal on a Dimension 9200 or XPS 410 desktop.

Here are the web sites that I have been using as part of my Dell deal-finding strategy:

  • FatWallet.com - I have visited this site every day for a few years now. I found the laptop deal last month by searching for keyword Dell in the FatWallet forums.
  • got apex.com - Dell coupon and deal search.
  • Techbargains.com - desktop deals and forum deal search.
  • dealighted.com - aggregated deal site search.
  • DealCatcher.com - Dell coupon and deal search.
  • currentcodes.com - Dell coupon search.
  • Dell Outlet - Search for deals on refurbished and scratch and dent Dell equipment. I picked up a refurb Dell 3010cn color laser printer here for $199 a few weeks ago.

This computer would be a work-related expense, so I would prefer to purchase it by December 31st for tax purposes. I just need Dell to cooperate a bit and offer a great deal. COME ON DELL!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Outsourcing Christmas

Would you pay someone to put up your Christmas lights, shop for and wrap gifts, or address and mail your Christmas cards? According to an article at MSNBC (More cash, less time means holiday outsourcing), some Americans are paying hundreds if not thousands of dollars for other people to hang lights, unpack decorations, stand in line at the post office, even shop and wrap their gifts.

For Darla D’Amato, lightening up means letting someone else climb a ladder to hang Christmas lights on her family’s new 5,600 square-foot home in Katy, Texas. She paid $2,200 for a crew of people to hang Christmas lights and later take the lights down and store them until next Christmas. She said her new house is too tall for her husband to hang the lights, but having Christmas lights is a tradition in her family.

Most of the clients who hire Books aren’t necessarily wealthy families or busy executives, but rather middle-class stay-at-home mothers. “It’s difficult to take a child to the store to go shopping, and they realize they just can’t do it themselves,” she said.

Has Christmas really become so impersonal that it is now acceptable to have someone do all of your shopping and decorating for you? It is particularly sad when the "tradition" of having Christmas lights has devolved into paying someone else $2,200 to put them up and take them down for you.

Some people really need to get over themselves.

"Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas."
Calvin Coolidge

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Fixed-income outlook for 2007

If you're reading this blog, you already know that cash has been a good place to be in 2006. This year I've received a 5%+ return on my cash by moving into high yield money market accounts, a CD ladder, and Treasury Bills. The question is, will the party continue in 2007?

The Bank Deals blog addresses this topic today, and states that the consensus on the 2007 rate environment is that there is no consensus. Of course, he is exactly right as Certificate of Deposit and Treasury markets have priced rate cuts into their yields even though the FOMC has given us no indication of pending cuts to the discount rate.

I've already locked in some cash at high interest rates via a CD ladder, so I will probably keep my remaining cash liquid in money market accounts and 4 week Treasury Bills unless a better opportunity presents itself.

However, one potential opportunity to lock in high rates could come from the Pentagon Federal Credit Union, which has offered a first quarter CD promotion with above market rates for each of the last two years. If Penfed offers this deal again in 2007, I believe that it would be a great hedge against FOMC rate cuts by locking in attractive rates with a high yield CD ladder.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Our 2006 charitable donations

As I finalize our charitable donations for this year, I wanted to give a shout out to Jim at Blueprint for Financial Prosperity for his American Cancer Society Charity Drive.

We have a few charities that we have supported for several years since their goals match up with people that have touched our lives:

  • American Cancer Society: This charity is near and dear to us due to loved ones that have faced the horrific diagnosis of cancer. Chief among these is my wife's mom, who lost her battle with lung cancer at a very young age.
  • Dana-Farber Cancer Institute: Unfortunately, the cancer theme is a reoccurring one for us. A family member diagnosed with leukemia and a friend diagnosed with multiple myeloma have both received wonderful care at Dana-Faber.
  • National Multiple Sclerosis Society: This charity is important to me since I lost an aunt to MS and my cousin was diagnosed with MS last year.
  • A local church food share: This food share was started and run by my wife's late grandmother. It's primary focus is to help struggling local families keep food on the table.

On a side note, we have donated to miscellaneous charities over the years, but one touched my heart this summer when a friend related a personal story of the ongoing financial struggles of organ transplant recipients:

Friday, December 15, 2006

Who keeps calling me?

Don't you hate it when the phone rings and caller id shows a phone number from an area code that you've never heard of? The next time that happens, try searching the online database at whocalled.us.

A while ago I received a call from (309) 829-3366 during dinner, and the caller hung up when the answering machine picked up the phone. I plugged "3098293366" into Google Search and found a link to whocalled.us, a cool site that has a database used to track callers when you don't recognize the phone number.

Based on the data at whocalled.us, it appears that Verizon is the guilty party at (309) 829-3366. I guess that they don't feel like they're getting enough of my money every month...

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Do I give enough to charity?

According to this article at MSN Money, Americans contribute 2.2% of their after-tax income to charity. I seem to be a bit behind the curve though, since (according to Schedule A, Line 15a of my tax return) I donated about 1.4% of my take home pay in 2005.

This number does not account for quite a few "off the books" donations made throughout the year (food and clothing drives, cash donations at stores, etc.), which probably push the total closer to 2.2%. But is that really enough?

To be blunt, I have to say that my favorite charity is me. I don't spend my money on frivolous things of course, but my saving, investing, and spending is clearly focused on providing for the needs and security of my family.

How exactly is one supposed to reconcile the "give vs. save" internal debate anyway?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Free Gillette Fusion Razor at CVS Pharmacy

Stocking stuffer alert!

CVS Pharmacy has an in-store deal for a free top-of-the-line Gillette Fusion Razor this week through December 16th.

CVS has the Gillette Fusion Manual or Power Razor on sale for $9.99 this week. They are also offering a $6 Extra Bucks bonus (available 2 days after purchase), bringing the cost down to $3.99. This price combined with the $4 off any Gillette Fusion or Fusion Power Razor coupon from the 12/3 Proctor & Gamble coupon booklet will make this razor free.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

December 2006 Financial Asset Roundup

Here are my current financial assets as of the market close on December 11th, 2006:

Asset Nov 2006 Dec 2006 Change
Checking 602 366 -236
Money Market 23,295 25,462 2,167
Savings Bonds 14,172 11,972 -2,200
Treasury Bills 19,000 20,000 1,000
CDs 40,237 40,380 143
Brokerage 88,326 88,733 407
401k 91,799 95,120 3,321
Roth IRA 26,363 26,509 146
SEP IRA 146,603 153,134 6,531
529 Savings 29,886 30,967 1,081
Total Assets $480,283 $492,643 +$12,360 (2.6%)

The strong stock market once again gave my investments a nice boost over the past month and I have continued rotating my cash holdings out of I Bonds and maturing T-Bills and into my HSBC online savings account. I also bought another 28 day T-Bill on November 16th (5.37% APY) since yields peaked a bit last month.

I added an $3,000 contribution for the 2006 tax year to my SEP IRA since my last update, which accounted for half of my SEP IRA gain this month. I have funded about 80% of my 2006 SEP IRA contributions so far, and will be fully funded before I file my 2006 corporate tax return.

I am also within striking distance of my 6 month financial goal of getting my financial assets over the $500,000 level. If Mr. Market can accommodate me, I may get there one month from now!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Restaurant holiday gift card promotions

As a family with young children, most of our restaurant dining occurs at child-friendly national and regional chain restaurants. Many of these restaurants are offering gift card deals, which can give you a decent discount on future dining.

Here are a few of the deals that I have run across:

  • Chili's - Receive $5 bonus card with every $25 gift card purchase through 12/31/06. Bonus card is valid 1/1/07 - 2/28/07. Combine with Chili's Pepper Award coupons (received in-store) for a free Kids Meal with adult meal purchase.
  • Bertucci's - Receive $10 thank you card with every $50 gift card purchase. Combine gift card with $5 off $30 food purchase coupon from direct mailer.
  • Uno Chicago Grill - Receive $5 gift voucher with every $25 gift card purchase. Gift voucher is valid 1/1/07 - 3/31/07. Combine gift card with $5 off $15 food purchase coupon from 11/5 Valassis coupon booklet.
  • T.G.I. Friday's - Receive $5 bonus bites card with every $25 gift card purchase.
  • Smokey Bones - Receive $5 gift card with every $25 gift card purchase through 12/31/06. Combine gift card with $3 or $4 off food purchase coupon from 12/10 SmartSource coupon booklet.

Friday, December 08, 2006

How much do you spend for Christmas?

In October, the National Retail Federation reported that the average shopper is expected to spend nearly $800 this year on holiday merchandise.

Although we have significantly downsized our Christmas spending over the past four years, the spending for this year should be even lower due to a reduced shopping list: One side of the family has eliminated the Christmas gift lottery for adults, and we've unfortunately lost a few elderly family members in 2006.

By my estimates, we spent approximately $1900 on Christmas gifts for about 23 people last year. While a decent portion of that is spent on toys for an army of children, nieces, and nephews, most of our "in house" spending tends to be for practical items (clothes, winter coats, household items) that we would have purchased anyway.

And while our $1900 bill appears to be much higher than the national average, I'm glad that we're fortunate enough to be able to share what we have with others while continuing to aggressively save and invest our money.

So... How much do you spend on holiday purchases?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

How many of you are there?

Have you ever wondered how many people have the same name that you do? HowManyOfMe.com is a fun site that tries to answer that question using statistical and demographic data from US Census Bureau.

According to their data, there are 49 people out there that have the same first and last name that I do. How many of you are out there?

LogoThere are:
people with my name
in the U.S.A.

How many have your name?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Grocery Deal: return of free Malt-O-Meal cereal

This is a reoccurring deal that last popped up in October.

Free Malt-O-Meal breakfast cereal can be had at Stop & Shop supermarket until December 7th.

Stop & Shop has all varieties of Malt-O-Meal cereal (12 - 16 oz. bags) on sale for $1 each this week. The sale price combined with Save 50¢ on ANY Malt-O-Meal Cereal double coupons from the 9/17 or 10/29 SmartSource coupon booklets will make this cereal free.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Warning: HSBC Direct/Mozilla Firefox compatibility problems

A couple of weeks ago I dutifully created my new "Security Key" that is now required (along with a username and password) to log on to the HSBCDirect.com web site, and all was well until I attempted to log in to my account this morning. After a few failed login attempts, a message appeared indicating that my account had been locked and that I should call HSBC's Customer Relationship Center at 1-800-975-HSBC (1-800-975-4722) to resolve the issue.

I initially was connected with a CSR whose spoken English was, to be kind, a bit difficult to understand. Fortunately, he seemed to understand my issue and promptly transferred me to a knowledgeable (and well spoken) CSR. When the second CSR asked what web browser I was using (Mozilla Firefox 1.5), he immediately knew what the problem was.

According to this CSR, Firefox 1.5 (and Firefox 2.0 to a lesser degree) has intermittent problems reading HSBC's new Security Key. I was told that the Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape web browsers don't have this problem, and that one of them should be used to access the HSBC web site until the issue is resolved in Firefox. Fortunately, all was well after he reset my Security Key and I logged in to HSBCDirect.com using Internet Explorer 7.

I immediately bit the bullet and upgraded Firefox to version 2.0, and I will continue to hold my nose and use Internet Explorer when accessing the HSBC web site. I encourage all other HSBC customers to do the same to avoid being locked out of their HSBC account.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Holiday Shopping: Are you holding out for a better deal?

Once of the purchases that I want to make before the end of the year is a new loaded desktop PC, and I have already been holding out for a few weeks with the hope that Dell will offer a more attractive deal. It turns out that I'm not the only holiday holdout though, since today CNNMoney.com has an article about shoppers waiting for a better deal.

According to the article, a survey by America's Research Group found that about one third of shoppers will wait until the day before Christmas to finish their shopping. Approximately 82 percent of those shoppers said they're looking for discounts to reach 50 percent.

Although I did take advantage of some 50% off deals and coupons at Kohls, the majority of my savings has been due to free shipping deals and the Google Checkout Discount at toysrus.com. Hopefully my 2006 shopping will be finished off by scoring a 30% discount on a Dell Dimension computer (Dell, are you listening?).

Friday, December 01, 2006

Time to cash in September issue I Bonds

I continued my I Bond liquidation today and cashed in the I Bonds that I bought in September 2003.

Since I haven't held them for the required minimum of five years, I had to forfeit the last three months worth of interest. I cashed them in today because I end up sacrificing three months worth of interest at 2.11%, while keeping all interest earned at the previous rate of 6.83%.

Since I moved some cash to 6% CDs when they were more readily available, I began cashing in my I Bonds in October due to the low rates that they are currently earning. My October 2003 and 2005 I bonds are the only ones I have left, and I will be cashing them in on January 1st.