Picking up Nickels

Friday, March 30, 2007

Why did my town cut my real estate taxes when we have budget shortfalls?

There's been quite a bit of hand wringing in my town about the state-mandated revaluation of all real estate performed last year. Our town has been dealing with budget shortfalls for a few years now, and many residents have expressed concern about how this town-wide tax reassessment will impact their property tax bills.

To make matters worse, the Board of Assessors has mismanaged this process by outsourcing the assessment function to an understaffed local company. This has caused a major delay in completing the revaluation, which has in turn delayed collection of tax revenue that our town desperately needs to run day to day operations.

I finally received my fiscal year 2007 tax bill this week (two months late), even though I came across a bumbling assessor wandering around my property in August 2006. While I was expecting a sizable increase in my property tax bill, I was shocked to see that it had actually decreased a little from what I paid last year! While I certainly don't have a problem paying less tax this year, I don't understand how that could be possible considering the budget shortfalls that our town is currently suffering through.

The stumbling point here is the way that the tax rate is calculated. Once the town determines the operating budget required for the coming year, a tax rate is chosen such that it will provide the required revenue to fund the budget. In my case, while the taxable valuation of my property increased by 13.5%, my actual property tax bill stayed relatively flat since the tax rate declined by about 14%.

I'm not sure how the town administrators figured that we would need less money in 2007, but it should certainly make for some interesting debate at the next town meeting.


Thursday, March 29, 2007

Legitimate "Work from Home" job opportunities

I bet that most of us have come across the shady "Work From Home, earn $xxxx per month signs, web advertisements, and spam emails out there today. These offers obviously seem too good to be true, but how do you go about finding a legitimate job that allows you to work at home?

As a frequent listener of his show, I've heard Clark Howard frequently recommended workingsolutions.com to his radio show callers as a company offering legitimate work at home job opportunities. Working Solutions uses a model where they offer virtual office call center representative positions that allow you to work from home using your computer and broadband internet connection.

Clark also recommends a few other work at home call center sites that he has checked out and found to be legitimate:

As a self-employed IT consultant, I have the good fortune of working out of a home office myself. As long as you can find work that you enjoy doing (and pays a decent wage), it is a great way to make a living while providing you with more flexibility for personal and family time and commitments.


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Taxman Cometh

My 2006 personal income tax returns are done, and for the first time in seven years I have to write checks to both the state DOR and the IRS.

Ironically, my newfound tax debt is pretty much due to the 5%+ yields on cash that have been available for about one year now. This led to me doubling my year over year personal interest income to ~$4400 for 2006 and made it more attractive to hold cash in my S Corporation's Capital One money market account.

Since my S Corp's cash wasn't wasting away in my business checking account, I focused on completing my 2006 SEP IRA contributions at the expense of giving myself a salary bump last year. That contributed to an increase in my 2006 S Corp income, which means I owe more tax on that income. Fortunately, there is a bright side to the way things unfolded in 2006:

  • Since I owe income tax to both the state and feds, I didn't end up giving them a tax free loan like I so generously did in 2005.
  • I have positive equity in my S-Corp and can take an equity distribution based on that amount. In a nutshell, I can write myself a modest check from my S Corp's checking account without having to worry about paying taxes on that money since they are already accounted for on my 2006 personal tax return.
  • I have a decent sum of cash earning 5%+ in a variety of CDs and savings accounts

I have one client that may have a bit more work for me to do this year, so that potential increase in revenue could mean paying estimated taxes in 2007 and perhaps even approaching Roth IRA income eligibility limits this year. While that might be a pain to deal with, I need to remember that those are the kind of problems that aren't so bad to have... :)


Friday, March 23, 2007

Does lawn service really cost this much?

I was a victim of sticker shock when I stopped by Lowe's for a bag of Scotts® Turf Builder® With Halts® Crabgrass Preventer this week. The price of the bag that I use (offering coverage for 15,000 sf) has now reached $40! I was surprised to see that even a similarly sized bag of the basic Scotts® Turf Builder® fertilizer now costs $25, where off-brand equivalents can be had for $15 - $20.

Once the budget-minded gardener in me settled down a bit, it did occur to me that I could still follow a DIY four or five step lawn care program (like the Scotts Annual Lawn Care Program) for less than $200 annually. Considering that I like having a nice lawn (and I enjoy doing the work), I have to admit that $200 is a pretty cheap price to pay for a nice looking lawn.

I am unusual in these parts though, since I live in a neighborhood full of people who pay others to perform all of their lawn maintenance. In fact, I often receive quotes from these eager landscapers who graciously offer to handle all of my lawn care needs.

I kept the following quote that I was given last year to remind me why I do this work myself:

When I consider the prices that I was quoted by these guys ($1046 for their basic five step program or $1795.76 for the five step program with grub control), I will happily spend $200 and about 5 hours of my time per year doing the work myself. While I admit that my knowledge of lawn care comes from reading a few books over the years, I can't justify paying these guys an $800+ premium to fertilize my lawn for me.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Web searches that lead to your blog

One of things that I find fascinating about blogging is seeing what route people take to get to your blog and what topics they are interested in reading about once they get there. Since I don't have a high traffic blog, I find that web searches (monitored with the free tracking tools at StatCounter.com) that pick up my blog to be the most interesting.

The most popular search path to my blog has always been grocery-related searches that lead to my grocery shopping strategy. I've also recently experienced a similar amount of traffic looking for information on the Scotts Turf Builder rebate that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago.

To a lesser degree, recent data shows people looking for information on:

This is pretty interesting stuff (to me at least) since it gives a blogger some insight into what types of entries drive traffic to their site. Based on recent developments, it would seem that I would be better off renaming this blog to "Picking up Groceries" or "Picking up Scotts Turf Builder". :)


Monday, March 19, 2007

Choosing a financial advisor the Dilbert way

This comic posted at dilbert.com on March 14th made me chuckle:

Does anyone have an email address for Dilbert's co-worker Wally so I can point him to some no load, low cost mutual funds at
Vanguard.com? :)


Friday, March 16, 2007

A convincing phish attempt targets credit union members

I got an email this week claiming to be from the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), alerting me that my credit union account had been accessed by a third party:

Official information for all Federal Credit Union

Dear Credit Union holder account,

NCUA is constantly working to ensure security by regularly screening the accounts in our system. We recently reviewed your account, and we need more information to help us provide you with secure service. Until we can collect this information, your access to sensitive account features will be limited. We would like to restore your access as soon as possible, and we apologize for the inconvenience.

- Why is my account access limited?

- Your account access has been limited for the following reason(s):

- * March 20, 2007: We have reason to believe that your account was accessed by a third party. Because protecting the security of your account is our primary concern, we have limited access to sensitive Credit Union account features. We understand that this may be an inconvenience but please understand that this temporary limitation is for your protection.

(Your case ID for this reason is THEFT-3150019066.)

- How can I restore my account access?

- This limitation cannot be appealed.

- We encourage you to restore full access as soon as possible.


Once you complete all of the checklist items, your case will be reviewed by one of our Account Specialists. We will send you an e-mail with the outcome of the review.

Thanks for your patience as we work together to protect your account.

Best regards, National Credit Union Administration Team

While this is one of the better constructed scam emails that I have ever received, there were a few warning signs that identified it to me as a fake:

  1. The email title was an incomplete sentence: Official information for all Federal Credit Union
  2. The email came from the NCUA, and not the credit union that holds the account
  3. The name of the credit union which holds the allegedly compromised account is never mentioned by name
  4. No contact phone number is included.
  5. The https link to ncua.gov is actually redirected to a third party web site (, which asks for things like account owner name, credit union name, and account numbers.

While this email was full of warning signs, I wouldn't be surprised if some trusting people fell for this scam. While anyone reading this blog entry is probably savvy enough to know that this is a fake email, it is worth noting that you should never click on a link in an email and enter sensitive personal information. The safest bet is to log on to your account directly from the official web site of your credit union or to call the customer service number listed on your account statement.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

TiVo reverses course and releases DST update for its oldest customers

Last week I complained about how TiVo decided to hang long-time customers like me out to dry by not providing an update to handle the new Daylight Saving Time rules.

There has been a new development on this issue, where a TiVo software enthusiast came up with his own fix for the problem. TiVo then stepped up to the plate and has released an official fix based on the work of one of their customers.

If you want to get on the priority list for the TiVo Series 1 DST software update, you can sign up on TiVo's web site.

My congratulations go out to TiVo Community forum user jberman for developing the fix, and to TiVo, Inc. for swallowing their pride and doing right by their customers.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

March 2007 Financial Asset Roundup

Here are my current financial assets as of the market close on March 12th, 2007:

Asset Feb 2007 Mar 2007 Change
Checking 298 293 -5
Money Market 35,340 36,015 675
Savings Bonds 4,477 4,493 16
Treasury Bills 0 0 0
CDs 56,923 57,133 210
Brokerage 87,330 87,064 -266
401k 96,964 95,398 -1,566
Roth IRA 31,937 31,740 -197
SEP IRA 159,826 158,595 -1,231
529 Savings 32,282 32,266 -16
Total Assets $505,377 $502,997 -$2,390 (0.5%)

The stock market giveth, and the stock market taketh away.

I had no money inflows our outflows of note since the last update, but still managed to come out in the red for the month. I suppose it could have been worse if I had looked at the numbers on February 27th, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average suffered its worst single day drop since 2001.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Online grocery coupon for $2 off Eight O'Clock Coffee

Have to keep it brief today, since I am still in "DST hell" this morning for a couple of clients with some older systems.

I came across a nice $2 online coupon with a 12/31/07 expiration date good for any Eight O'Clock Coffee 11.5 oz. or larger, courtesy of a commercial on CNBC.

To claim your free coupon, head over to mycoffeecoupon.com and click on "GET Coupon" to claim yours.


Thursday, March 08, 2007

TiVo washes hands over DST change for its oldest customers

Last month I mentioned how the changes to Daylight Saving Time (DST) have impacted me on a professional level. I just found out this morning that this change will also impact me on a personal level: watching TV on my TiVo DVR.

TiVo has released a bulletin on their web site, How Will Daylight Saving Time Affect My TiVo DVR, which documents how the DST change will impact the various incarnations of the TiVo DVR. I am a long-time TiVo customer, and as such, have a first generation ("Series 1") DVR that I bought several years ago.

According to the TiVo bulletin, there will be a "cosmetic issue" (is that like a wardrobe malfunction?) where my trusty TiVo will display the wrong time for several weeks. In addition, any manual recordings will also be recorded at the wrong time.

The part the bulletin that I really have a problem with is the following:

Can this DST problem be avoided?

Our engineers have been working on alternate solutions for the Series1, but unfortunately none exist. While we know that it is not ideal to adjust manual recordings for these three weeks, unfortunately it is the only alternative for those customers who rely upon VCR-style program scheduling. We apologize for this inconvenience.

While this statement implies that it is not possible to fix the DST issue on the older Series 1 units, I find that hard to believe considering that a DST fix for the Series 1 DirecTV with TiVo DVR's (which share a common hardware architecture with the standalone Series 1 units) has already been released. I believe that it boils down to this: TiVo was contractually required to provide DirecTV with an update, but isn't required to provide loyal customers with one.

To add insult to injury, former competitor ReplayTV has issued a DST patch for their platforms, even though they have not sold ReplayTV-branded hardware for several years now. Thanks TiVo!

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Homeowner Savings: Scotts spring 2007 fertilizer rebate

The Valassis coupon insert in the 3/4 Sunday Boston Globe contained a mail-in rebate for a free bag of Scotts® lawn fertilizer with the purchase of four eligible Scotts® lawn fertilizer products.

The rebate form can be found online at the Scotts web site: scotts.com/feed4getmorerebate. The details of the offer are as follows: buy 1 bag of Scotts® Turf Builder® or Southern Turf Builder® and 3 eligible Scotts® lawn feed products (same size or larger) and receive the lowest priced item FREE via mail-in rebate for purchases made between March 1, 2007 and March 31, 2007.

As always, this deal could be further sweetened with a Lowe's or Home Depot coupon courtesy of ebay.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Hey Dave Ramsey: Zero debt = zero credit history

A sad article in the New Bedford Standard Times yesterday reminded me of the Dave Ramsey zealot that I wrote about a few months ago.

The Standard Times article (link) tells the sad tale of Douglas Boice, a man who is about to lose his home due to physical disability and mounting medical bills:

"When my wife was sick (liver and heart disease), I took care of her, and all my money went to care for her, and then when she died, I took all our money and paid off the mortgage on the house," Mr. Boice, 62, said. "I've been to every bank in town and been turned down. Everything I have tried to do, I ran into a wall."

A fateful decision in 1980 stymies him two decades later.

"We joined Amway (a network marketing company that some allege is actually a lifestyle cult) and we adopted their cash-only method," he said. "We never used credit to buy anything. If we didn't have the cash, we didn't buy it."

The problem he faces now in seeking financing to pay his debts to remove the liens and fix his house is that he has no credit history, Mr. Boice said.

"The banks told me if I had bad credit, I'd be better off than having no credit," he said.

I realize that Mr. Boice doesn't claim to be a Dave Ramsey disciple in this piece, but his plight is a perfect example of the dangers of the All debt is bad! mantra that Ramsey preaches. When Mr. Boice paid off his mortgage and lived a cash-only lifestyle, he was essentially "off the grid" as far as lenders are concerned. While he did gain "financial freedom" for a time, that changed quickly when his wife's medical bills piled up and he was no longer able to work after suffering an aortic aneurysm.

Dave Ramsey states on his web site that "There is NO positive side to credit card use.". Wouldn't the credit history that responsible credit card use provides be a positive thing when it keeps a 62 year old widower from losing his home? Perhaps using a credit card for small purchases on a monthly basis (and paying the balance in full each month) isn't such a bad thing after all...

Friday, March 02, 2007

Wow, my blog is actually making a little referral bonus money

I guess my blog is starting to mature, since a few ING Direct signup bonuses and Ebates.com Double Signup bonuses have started to trickle in.

While the total amount of money is small enough (< $100) to make many bloggers chuckle, it at least means that someone out there is actually taking the time to check out my blog. My thanks go out to anyone who stops by from time to time. :)

What I really need to do is to figure out how to actually get some
Google Adsense and Amazon Associates referral income coming in. My blog started out with some good Google Adsense traffic, but that turned out to be due to the "FatWallet Effect", when my grocery shopping strategy was linked to. One step at a time I guess...