Picking up Nickels

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Home Depot sweetens winter clearance discounts

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned my surprise that the mild winter in the Northeast encouraged Home Depot and Lowe's to cut snow blower prices by 10% and %20, respectively in early January. I was happy to see that Home Depot upped the ante this week by matching the 20% discount offered by Lowe's.

That brings the clearance price of the Ariens 926LE I've had my eye on $799, which would work out to $719.10 before tax with the 10% off Home Depot coupon that I have been hanging on to. That's a pretty good discount, but I'm wondering if a benign mother nature will continue to encourage additional discounting.

Since we haven't hit February yet, I am going to hold out at least a week or two with the hope that Home Depot will up the discount to the 33% off they offered last year. I have also heard rumors of a 50% off sale last year, but I'm guessing that the selection gets a bit limited at that point.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Update on HSBC Direct 6% APY promotion

The Citibank e-Savings rate cut discussion at the Bank Deals blog (a must read, btw) contained an interesting nugget of information that I was not aware of:

HSBC Direct has attracted about 300,000 customers with $7 billion in deposits since it launched in 2005. By comparison, ING Direct, the largest direct bank in the U.S., has more than 4 million customers and more than $60 billion in assets.

Although they have been around longer, I was very surprised to hear that ING Direct has such a large lead over HSBC Direct considering that HSBC has consistently offered a better rate of return over the past year on what is essentially the same product.

When I wrote about the survey HSBC asked me to take in November, it appeared that HSBC was trying to attract new deposits for accounts with higher balances. They apparently decided to add to their coffers by instead giving all new money the 6% promotional rate.

Perhaps HSBC is trying to increase its assets by "Being like ING", since they are effectively copying the Winter Save Up Sale that ING Direct offered last year (4.75% APY on new deposits from 1/19/06 - 4/15/06)? Although HSBC did follow up with a "me too" promotional rate of 4.80% APY on all money from 1/30/06 through 4/30/06, they have really set the bar higher this year with this new 6% APY promotion.

My hope is that once May comes around, HSBC will continue to aggressively pursue new money by offering market-leading rates and perhaps re-institute the $25 account sign up bonus that they offered early in 2006. Either way, I will be enjoying the 6% APY until then...

Monday, January 29, 2007

Return of free Gillette Fusion Razor at CVS Pharmacy

This is a reoccurring deal that I last reported about last week.

CVS Pharmacy has an in-store deal for a free top-of-the-line Gillette Fusion Power Razor this week through January 31st.

CVS has the Gillette Fusion 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.

Please note that the $4 coupon from the Proctor & Gamble coupon booklet expires on 1/31/07, so this razor must be purchased no later than Wednesday, January 31st to make this deal a freebie.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

HSBC Direct 6% APY promotion for new money

I noticed this new 6% promotion at the HSBC Direct web site today.

Here are the details:

From January 29 - April 30, New Money in your account earns 6.00% APY.

By “New Money” we mean funds deposited during the New Money Period, less any withdrawals, that were not previously held by any member of the HSBC Group. New Money excludes your Starting Balance and must be in available funds for the promotional rate to apply.

Your Starting Balance is the available balance in your account as of the close of business on January 26, 2007.

Keep in mind that your HSBC Direct account is designed to hold balances up to $2,000,000. Don't worry, we'll give you notice if you go over that amount.

This is a nice deal that will give you a 6% APY on liquid funds for up to three months, which will make it the rate leader for a three month investment unless another bank matches HSBC's rate.

Next week I will be moving some cash from a maturing T-Bill and my Bank of America Cash Maximizer® Savings account into my HSBC online savings account and get me some of that 6% interest. I encourage everyone reading this to do the same. :)

Friday, January 26, 2007

Did you know Comcast HSI has an "Economy" tier for $24.95/month?

I recently received my "annual price hike" statement from Comcast, and noticed that Comcast High-Speed Internet now offers an Economy tier @ $24.95/month for Digital Voice and Cable TV customers ($39.95/month for others). While the downstream bandwidth is a bit limited (384Kbps up/384Kbps down), it is a feasible low cost broadband internet option for people who are currently using dialup internet access.

My parents are a great candidate for the Comcast HSI Economy tier, since DSL service is not available in their area and they refuse to pay Comcast $42.95/month for their next highest tier. I'll definitely be giving mom and dad the hard sell to take the plunge since it will be a pleasure to actually be able to call them without getting a busy signal for hours at a time.

I also may try to sweeten this deal by getting them to purchase a Comcast cable modem self-install kit at retailers like Best Buy and Circuit City, since they frequently offer it for free after rebate when you activate High-Speed Internet through them. A nice bonus would have been the $75/$100 rebate and free month of service that Dell used to offer when ordering High Speed Internet Access through a link on their web site, but it looks like that deal has dried up.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Free Gillette Fusion Razor at CVS Pharmacy

This is a reoccurring deal that I last reported in December.

CVS Pharmacy has an in-store deal for a free top-of-the-line Gillette Fusion Razor this week through January 27th.

CVS has the Gillette Fusion 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.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Do you pay medical bills with credit cards?

There's an interesting article at Boston.com today about the increasing use of credit cards to pay medical bills:

Patients piling medical costs on credit cards

I've seen my health care premiums increase by more than 50% over the past five years, and often wonder how the average family is able to handle the annual double digit increase in health care costs. Sadly, it appears that many low and middle income people are forced to shift these expenses to their credit cards.

I've read several reports that President Bush will start to push for tax incentives to help make health insurance more affordable during his State of the Union speech tonight. That at least seems to be an admission that the United States has a growing healthcare problem on its hands, but is that enough?

Friday, January 19, 2007

2006 Grocery spending up 13%

I just imported the rest of my 2006 credit card data into Microsoft Money, and found that grocery spending is once again our second largest annual expense after our mortgage payment. I've already shared my grocery shopping strategy that I've used to cut our grocery spending, so let's look at my actual grocery spending numbers for 2003 through 2006:

I actually started to actively reduce my grocery spending in August of 2003, and it still cost us more than $7000 for groceries and personal care items for a family of four that year! After I refined my shopping strategy through increased use of coupons, sale prices, and stockpiling, I was able to reduce our 2004 grocery spending by about $2000 followed by an additional reduction of about $300 in 2005.

Our 2006 grocery spending bucked the downward trend of the previous two years as it increased by roughly 13% (~$650). While I have attributed some of this increase to grocery price inflation, we also have increased grocery spending by choosing to purchase more organic and "natural" grains, produce, meats, and dairy items. I believe that such a dramatic increase in spending will not continue to be the trend moving forward though, as I don't expect to make any major changes in spending habits in 2007.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

TJX Warns of Customer Data Breach

TJX credit data stolen; wide impact feared

TJX is the latest bumbler to mishandle personal data for thousands of customers. According to the Boston Globe, customer credit and debit card information was stolen from its computer systems in mid-December.

So far TJX said it has identified "a limited number of credit card and debit card holders whose information was removed from its system." Also, TJX said "a relatively small number of customer names with related drivers' license numbers" was taken.

If you have done business with any of the TJX companies (T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, Bob's Stores, HomeGoods, and A.J. Wright in the United States) in the past couple of years, be sure to keep an eye out for any suspicious credit card, debit card, and credit report activity.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

US auto execs: gasoline $4 per gallon by 2015

An article at CNNMoney.com discusses a study conducted by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), which predicts that gas prices will average slightly more than $4 a gallon by 2015 and just over $5 a gallon by 2020.

While it is encouraging to see that the automotive industry publicly admitting that sharp energy prices increases are in our future, it doesn't seem that much is being done to address the issue:

The survey also said the U.S. Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard for cars is expected to increase to 33 mpg in 2015 and 38 mpg in 2020 from the current 27.5 miles per gallon, while the standard for light trucks is expected to rise by 25 percent by 2015 and by 44 percent by 2020.

The $2.17/gal I paid for regular unleaded two days ago seems like highway robbery when compared to the 97¢/gal gas I bought eight years ago in January, 1999. It's also hard to believe a gas price of $4/gal in eight more years will make current prices seem like a bargain.

I often wonder what will it take for someone to step up to the plate and offer a practical alternative to the "business as usual" attitude at large oil companies and auto makers. How long can the United States continue to line the pockets of oil rich countries that hate us and our way of life?

Monday, January 15, 2007

Mild winter fallout: snow blower clearance in January

I did some shopping at Lowe's and Home Depot this weekend and was surprised at what I saw near the 75% off Christmas accessories clearance area: a snow blower clearance sale in January!

My local Lowe's had a good selection of snow blowers in stock, with all units marked down 20%. Similarly, a nearby Home Depot had all snow blowers marked down 10%. Although I remember seeing a 33% off snow blower clearance sale last year at that Home Depot, it occurred much later in the winter season. I was disappointed that I didn't end up picking up a discounted snow blower last year, but it appears that I might be able to score a similar deal again this year.

After some initial research, I've narrowed my purchase down to two choices:

I am leaning toward the Ariens unit due to its longer warranty (three years instead of two for the Husqvarna) and the reputation of the Ariens brand equipment among the enthusiasts at the iVillage GardenWeb Forums.

I have a 10% Home Depot coupon that I could use to bring the price of the Ariens unit down to $809.10 (before tax), but I am hoping that Home Depot will continue to discount their snow removal equipment if the mild winter continues. If Lowe's and The Home Depot don't sweeten the pot a bit, I will be content to continue clearing my driveway with the undersized snow plow on my lawn tractor. In the worst case, I figure that I can hold out long enough for my children to take over all of my snow removal duties in a few years. :)

Friday, January 12, 2007

New Google Checkout $10 bonus

For those of you that didn't take advantage of the Google Checkout bonus and discounts in 2006, Google is now offering a $10 new customer bonus to spend towards a future Google Checkout purchase.

$10 new customer bonus link

The terms of the $10 bonus are as follows:

Limit one per buyer only. We will apply the $10 bonus to your first purchase of $10 or more (before shipping & tax) from participating stores. To receive the bonus, sign-up before February 15, 2007. The bonus expires March 31, 2007 and cannot be combined with other Google Checkout promotions. The sign-up confirmation page will display a full list of participating merchants.

Google Checkout has also extended the $5 bonus for Citibank credit or debit card purchases that I first mentioned in August for Google Checkout purchases through January 31st, 2007:

$5 Citibank bonus link

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Ebates.com $5 Signup Bonus

How does a $5 bonus on your first purchase through shopping site ebates.com sound?

I can personally vouch for this program, as I have been shopping through Ebates for six years now and have saved a few hundred dollars through their Cash Back program on various purchases through the years.

The Ebates business model is pretty straight forward:

You click on store links at ebates.com and shop at over 800 stores including Barnes & Noble.com, Gap, Target, Buy.com and Expedia. These sites pay Ebates a referral credit, which they share with you in the form of a quarterly Big Fat Check (for balances greater than $5).

Sound Interesting? Here's how to get your $5 bonus (and I will also get a $5 bonus) on your first purchase through Ebates:

  1. Click on the link below to sign up for an Ebates account:

    Ebates Referral Link

  2. Make your first purchase through Ebates and earn the cash back offered by that vendor (like 3% off a Dell PC) plus your $5 bonus.

  3. Ebates will mail you a Big Fat Check on a quarterly basis as long as your account balance is greater than $5.


January 2007 Financial Asset Roundup

Here are my current financial assets as of the market close on January 10th, 2007:

Asset Dec 2006 Jan 2007 Change
Checking 366 514 148
Money Market 25,462 28,184 2,722
Savings Bonds 11,972 4,461 -7,511
Treasury Bills 20,000 7,000 -13,000
CDs 40,380 56,629 16,249
Brokerage 88,051 88,777 726
401k 94,943 94,408 -535
Roth IRA 26,470 31,172 4,702
SEP IRA 152,935 152,753 -182
529 Savings 30,906 31,420 514
Total Assets $491,485 $495,318 +$3,833 (0.8%)

The strong stock market gains have tapered off a bit over the last month, but I still managed a nice gain over the past month. I finally finished my rotation out of I Bonds, and added that cash along with the proceeds from maturing T-Bills into my HSBC online savings account and 6.25% APY Penfed CDs.

I added a $4,000 contribution for the 2007 tax year to my Roth IRA since my last update, and I still have to fund the final 20% of my 2006 SEP IRA contribution so I will be fully funded before I file my 2006 corporate tax return. I am also planning on funding Mrs. Frugalson's 2007 Roth IRA contribution in Q1 2007.

Finally, the march toward my 6 month financial goal of getting my financial assets over the $500,000 level is really getting close. Even if the stock market stays flat for the next month, I may be able to get there in February if I can make my final 2006 SEP IRA contribution by then!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Requesting a check from Upromise

Do you have cash languishing in your Upromise account because you don't have a linked 529 college savings account? Did you know that you can withdraw your entire balance at Upromise by writing them a letter requesting a withdrawal from your account?

From the Upromise Account FAQ:

You can withdraw your Upromise contributions at any time during your membership. To withdraw company contributions from your Upromise account, submit a letter in writing to Upromise requesting a withdrawal from your Upromise account. The letter must state your full name and exact amount that you would like to withdraw, up to total amount available in your account, pending contributions are not eligible for withdrawal.

For the protection of our members, we require that your letter either be notarized or contain a Signature Guarantee if the withdrawal request is in excess of $200. A Signature Guarantee is a guarantee you can obtain from a financial institution, such as your bank, that your signature is yours and that it is genuine.

Withdrawal letters should be sent to:

ATTN: Customer Care
P.O. Box 55555
Boston, MA 02205-5555

Checks are sent once per calendar quarter, so you should typically receive your check within 12 weeks of your request being received.

I make my Upromise withdrawal requests with a letter similar to the one below:

Upromise Customer Care
Boston, MA 02205-5555


Dear Upromise:

I am writing this letter to request a withdrawal from my Upromise account.

Full Name: Frugal F. Frugalson
Account Number: 999-999-9999
Withdrawal Amount: $33.33


Frugal F. Frugalson

Monday, January 08, 2007

Is E*Trade service always this poor?

I've been an E*Trade customer for more than eight years now, and while my experience with their customer service had been pretty positive in the past, it has really been lackluster for the past year or so.

My frustration with E*Trade began in December 2005, when I decided to dump my worst stock pick ever for tax purposes. I submitted my sell order a couple of weeks before the end of the year and my transaction was processed quickly. The settlement date for my whole shares occurred on three days after my trade, but the sale of my partial share (from DRIP purchases) was stuck in limbo.

After several phone calls to E*Trade, I was told that "the back office is very busy due to heavy end of year transaction volume, but we have escalated your request and guarantee that the transaction will appear on your 2005 FORM 1099". I was satisfied with that answer, but was less than pleased when my partial share was liquidated in January 2006 and therefore didn't appear on my 2005 tax records.

Unfortunately, E*Trade decided to stick it to me again in late 2006. For each of the past two months, I have been charged a $10 low balance fee for my E*Trade money market account, even though I have maintained the required average monthly balance. E*Trade has twice credited the fee when I've asked, but the point is that I shouldn't be charged this fee in the first place since I have met their account minimums.

I opened this money market account with Telebank in 1999 (before E*Trade bought them), and while its check writing and fast ACH transfers are convenient, my patience is wearing thin with E*Trade. I've already overlooked an unpleasant encounter with a rude loan officer, being lied to about my partial share liquidation, and two months worth of false account service fees. It's starting to feel like I'm dating a woman that I need to break up with.

So E*Trade, do you think we should start seeing other people?

Friday, January 05, 2007

2006 Grocery price inflation

Groceries are our second-largest household expense, so I have spent a good amount of time trying to understand what things cost and what I can do to reduce grocery spending.

I've noticed over the past year that quite a few grocery items that we use have increased in price and/or decreased in size. Of course, there are many legitimate reasons for rising prices (hurricane damage to crops, increased energy and transport costs, etc.), but the price increases passed along to the consumer really jump out at me.

Let's start by checking out price increases for a couple of discretionary items that we use:

Item Store Non-Sale Price Range Change
Boboli Pizza Crust Shaw's $3.19 - $3.89 70¢ (22%)
A1 Steak Sauce Shaw's $3.89 - $4.29 40¢ (9%)

I've used A1 sauce since I was a kid, but I'm now at the point where I won't buy it for more than $2 per bottle (after sale & coupon). The Boboli pizza crusts are very handy to keep in the freezer for a quick and easy meal, but their high price (and shrinking size) have finally pushed me toward dumping them in favor of $1 frozen pizza dough.

Now let's look at price increases for a few items that we use on a weekly basis:

Item Store Non-Sale Price Range Change
Tropicana Orange Juice (64 oz) Shaw's $2.89 -$3.79 90¢ (31%)
Columbo plain low-fat yogurt (32 oz) Shaw's $2.19 - $2.99 80¢ (37%)
Eggo Nutri-Grain frozen waffles Shaw's $1.99 - $2.59 60¢ (30%)
Nature's Promise organic milk (64 oz) Stop & Shop $2.99 - $3.69 70¢ (23%)

I am able to find decent sales and coupons for orange juice and plain low-fat yogurt at times, but the organic milk price increases really add up since milk coupons are not allowed in Massachusetts.

I typically buy six half gallons of milk, one half gallon of orange juice, and two 32 oz containers of plain lowfat yogurt every week. That equates to me paying an additional $6.70 per week (about $350 per year) at the regular prices for these nine items. I can reduce this cost somewhat by taking advantage of sales and coupons or making an extra trip to Walmart each week (yuck, not always worth the $2 savings), but I am stuck paying the full price more often than not.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

My name is Frugalson, and I am a Penfed-oholic

OK, so I already gave the Pentagon Federal Credit Union some love last week for coming through with yet another market-beating CD promotion.

This week, I put my money where my mouth is and shifted some cash into a 5 year Penfed CD @ 6.26% APY. In fact, I even convinced Mrs. Frugalson to put a bit of her cash in a Penfed CD too.

I now have a 5 year CD ladder with an average yield of 6% invested as follows:

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

My new Amex SimplyCash Business Card

I was watching late night TV a few weeks ago and saw a commercial for the American Express SimplyCash Business Card. Targeted at small businesses, the SimplyCash card offers some nice benefits in addition to the ones typical of American Express cards:

  • 5% cash back on gas, wireless phone bills, and office supplies and equipment
  • 1% cash back on all other purchases
  • Cash back is unlimited and is automatically credited to the statement each month
  • No annual fee
  • 0% APR on purchases for the first 12 months
  • Open Savings discounts

I applied for the card online at open.com/simplycash, which was a straightforward process that only took a few minutes. I should disclose that the application asked for personal and business information (including my SSN and my S-Corp's EIN), and this did result in a hard inquiry from AMERICAN EXPRESS TRS on my personal credit report.

Considering the holiday season, I was pleased with Amex's turnaround time: I submitted my application a few days before Christmas and my card arrived 10 days later with a generous credit limit in excess of $20,000. I have to say that I'm pretty impressed with my SimplyCash card so far.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Read the Wall Street Journal Online today for FREE

The entire Wall Street Journal Online web site can be read for free today courtesy of Charles Schwab. Head over to online.wsj.com to take advantage of this freebie.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Time to cash in October issue I Bonds


I finished my
I Bond liquidation today and cashed in the I Bonds that I bought in October 2003 and October 2005.

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% for the October 2003 bonds and 2.21% for the October 2005 bonds, while keeping all interest earned at the previous rates of 6.83% and 6.93%, respectively.

I already have plans for this money, which will be moved into 6.25% CDs at Penfed later this week.