Published on September 18, 2008, by

If you’re planning to buy digital converter boxes for your TVs (or your parents’ TVs) before the February 2009 deadline, the good news is that Amazon makes it easy to do online without having to drive around looking for the DTV boxes in stock.

First, if you haven’t yet ordered your government-funded $40 discount coupons, you can do that here.

Then, just visit this Amazon DTV Conterter Box Coupon page, enter the numbers off your coupons, and shop for converter boxes online with free shipping. It sure beats dealing with Best Buy and the like.

Finally, if you’re still confused by the whole digital TV process and not sure whether you should care, be sure to check out our previous entry explaining everything you need to know about the digital TV changeover — including some free and nearly free alternatives to expensive monthly TV bills.

 
Published on August 2, 2008, by

Amazon now lets you expand your wish list beyond Amazon’s own inventory to include products from just about any online store. Once you install a bookmarklet in your web browser you’ll be able to quickly identify products in non-Amazon stores and add them to your Amazon list.

Amazon’s site walks you through the rest of the process — automatically pulling in product images when it can or asking you which one to use from those it found on the product page. The system works even better than you’d expect and is surprisingly useful for those of us with spouses who have trouble finding gift ideas. Just visit your wish list on Amazon (mine is linked below — hint, hint) and follow the simple instructions for adding it to your browser’s toolbar. And while Amazon doesn’t mention it, you can also just add it as a regular bookmark if you don’t want to clutter up your toolbar area.

 
Published on June 23, 2008, by

Nearly every day I read an article on The Consumerist about massive late fees or talk to a friend about the hassles and fees associated with paying bills, and I’m consistently dumbfounded. How is it that so few people take advantage of the free, online bill-paying that their bank undoubtedly provides with their checking accounts?

Of course no payment system is likely to help much when you’re truly short on cash and falling behind on paying your bills, but it seems most of the time the headaches and exorbitant fees could have been easily avoided if something — disorganization, procrastination, or shady changes in terms or due dates — hadn’t caught the hapless bill-payer off guard.

The antidote, for me, is the online bill-pay. My run-of-the-mill Chase checking account includes free, unlimited bill-paying, and yours most likely does, too.

This is not to be confused with expensive wire transfers, e-checks via phone, or other fee-heavy bill payment “services” credit card companies like to push. Don’t fall into that pit of fees masquerading as convenience.

Note that I’m also definitely not talking about the much less desirable automatic debits offered by most monthly billers. Those are fraught with potential problems since once you go through the pain of signing up using a completely independent system for every bill payee, you’ve given each of them unlimited access to debit your bank account or credit card at will. You also have to manage umpteen different logins, taking pains to log into each site monthly and find out whether they made any errors when they yanked money out of your account. And don’t get me started on checking account direct debits for places like health clubs. Avoid these arrangements like the plague.

Instead, we’re going to let all these companies think we’re living in the stone age. Just arrange to have them all bill you monthly via old-fashioned mail. Some companies are starting to charge for paper bills, so it may not be worth it in every occasion, but the system works best when there’s a nice, orderly paper stack of bills to deal with.

Here’s the system that works for me:

  • Throughout the month, bills arrive via mail and they’re placed in a (hopefully) short stack next to the computer — sorted in order by due date if I’m so motivated.
  • If any payee is new, I first create a new payee in the bill payment system by entering the company’s mailing address, phone number, and my account number for that payee. This takes only a minute and doesn’t require you to contact the payee at all. If they normally accept checks via the mail, they’ll have no problem accepting payment this way — I promise.
  • Then, two or three times a month, I spend literally a few minutes paying a manageable group of bills — without stamps, without writing checks, and without paying a single penny in fees. Pick the payee, enter the amount to pay, enter the due date, and you’re done. The bank decides whether to pay the bill electronically or via a check on your behalf, but you don’t have to worry about that. The bill will be paid, and the money will have stayed in your checking account until the last possible day.

It’s painless, efficient, and free. It also makes unexpected fees nearly extinct as long as you have money in your bank account.

Now why isn’t everybody doing this?

 
Published on January 24, 2008, by

It should be an embarrassment to the TV industry that so few folks fully understand what HD television is, how to get it, or why they should care. Do I need a new TV? Do I have HD already and not know it? Or do I mistakenly think I’m already watching HD because I bought a new TV but didn’t upgrade my cable box?

The answers are different for different folks, but if you’re one of the millions of homes that’s not fully HD-ified, don’t fret. There are cheap options that may make you perfectly happy even though the cable and satellite companies might say otherwise.

First Scenario: You have a modern HD-ready TV (most often plasma or LCD with what’s called an ATSC tuner) purchased in the last 4 or 5 years and you subscribe to cable or satellite service. To get HD channels you’ll generally want to ask your provider for a new HD-capable box, which could also mean a new dish if you’re a satellite customer. This will usually bump up your monthly fee, but not by much. And this is the kind of situation where satellite customers should hold out for free upgrades of all hardware since you’ll be paying more monthly in the long term and making the satellite provider happy. Also note that while the major networks and some of the cable networks will then be arriving in HD, many if not most of them will still be the same old channels until every channel is available in HD.

Second Scenario: You have a modern HD-ready TV but don’t want to pay any more monthly or are ready to give up pay service entirely. This is actually a better option than ever now that crystal clear HD signals are being broadcast in every major city. It may seem antiquated, but if you live within about 30 miles of your local TV towers you can usually use an inexpensive indoor antenna to pull in full HD broadcasts of the major networks (NBC, CBS, etc). With zero monthly fee you’ll be watching full HD that exceeds the signal quality of most satellite and cable HD signals. There won’t be any Comedy Central or MTV unless you also pay for standard cable/satellite, but you can’t beat free.

Third Scenario: You have an old TV, no interest in HD, and don’t subscribe to cable or satellite service. Starting in February 2009 (unless they delay it again, which is always a possibility), you’ll need a small analog/digital converter box connected to your TV since the old signals TV stations have been sending for 50+ years will be turned off. This box will probably cost around $50 and the price can be offset by coupons the government is handing out here. You may also want a slightly fancier antenna, but if you get clear over the air signals now you may not need it.

See? That wasn’t so bad.

Helpful Links:

AntennaWeb.org – Type in your street address (you can leave all the other fields blank) and get a detailed survey of digital (HD) broadcasters in your area. They’ll also recommend an antenna type and tell you which way to point it.

Phillips HD Antenna – This cheap antenna at Amazon.com is highly recommended and will pull in beautiful HD signals for folks in most U.S. metropolitan areas.
Update: It’s often out of stock at amazon. Here another decent option by Philips.

DTV2009.gov – Request free coupons that will get you a cheaper converter box for old TVs that aren’t HD ready and won’t be connected to cable or satellite service.

 
Published on July 15, 2007, by

Update: The article below was written in July 2007. As of late 2008 Prosper has suspended most lending activity and seems to be struggling. I would no longer recommended them for borrowing or lending.

The Original Article:
I recently read about person-to-person lending site Prosper and was immediately fascinated with the idea. We’d already experienced the similar but non-profit microloan site Kiva.org, but Prosper has a different angle. They solicit requests for loans from average folks — many of whom are overwhelmed by credit card debt — and then take bids from other regular folk willing to lend that person some money. Loan amounts are generally in the $5000 to $15,000 range and the actual funds are provided not by Prosper but by people willing to pony up as little as $50 each. The result is that people with non-stellar credit get out from under their personal debt with simple, moderately-priced loans and lenders make a nice profit over the loan’s 3-year term.

Prosper handles all the details and even sends out the debt collectors if borrowers fall behind in their payments. And best of all, you get to read the prospective borrowers’ life stories and decide based on their details and credit history whether you’d like to help them out by bidding at a specific interest rate. Your personal risk as a lender stays relatively low since the money you invest is spread across multiple borrowers in small increments. You can also increase your profits as a lender by re-loaning money to someone else as it’s paid back just like the banks do.

I’m just now getting my feet wet as a lender, but so far I’m hooked. Whether you’re looking for financial help or can afford to invest some money to help folks get back on their feet, I say give it a try.

 
Published on August 14, 2006, by

May 2009 Update: Albertsons just announced the end of home delivery service. If you have Vons delivery in your area, try code SAVE447 for free delivery through May 27, 2009.

January 2009 Update: The Albertsons HCC33 code in the original article below is now dead, but try HOLIDAYSHIPPING (free shipping) or EMAILSAVINGS ($10, $15, and $20 off your next three order) instead.

Update: First-time Albertsons/ACME customers can contact us and ask for a referral that gives you free delivery your first order.

I fall in love again with grocery delivery every time the truck pulls up in front of our house. Yet when I recommend it to friends they seem frightened of the idea — having decided in advance that it’s some sort of overpriced luxury for people rich enough to have other people do their shopping. The truth is that grocery delivery is available from at least one major chain in pretty much all major cities in the US even after the high profile death of dotcom flame-out HomeGrocer. As far back as 1996 when I lived in Boston I discovered grocery delivery from a company called Homeruns, and lugging my own crap home from the store has seemed an unnecessary chore ever since.

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Published on March 28, 2006, by

eBay LogoMy 3-year-old Samsung cell phone was starting to show its age by way of a barely functional volume button, so I decided it was time to upgrade. Sprint has been my provider for about five years and I’m grandfathered into a discontinued $30 plan that gets sweetened every year or two with more minutes thrown in (see the previous What Have You Done For Me Lately? entry). The downside of this no-longer-offered plan is that I’m ineligible for most of the new phone discounts Sprint offers to customers willing to re-up. That’s where our good friend eBay comes in, though. While there are some pitfalls to avoid when buying a phone from a third party, it’s not at all something to fear — and it can be a great deal. I upgraded to a model that was current a year or so ago but is now discontinued and easy to find on eBay. You can do it, too. Just keep these tips in mind:

  • Beware the fine print. There are unscrupulous sellers who rope you in with a seemingly good deal on a brand new phone — with tiny print indicating you’re actually being signed up as a new Sprint/Cingular/FlyByNight customer with a lengthy contract. If you’re really a new cell customer looking for a contract, you’re probably better off dealing with the cell provider directly.
  • Get a phone you know works on your provider. While there is such a thing as an “unlocked” phone that can be made to work on multiple providers, there’s really no need to go that route. Just get a phone that’s previously been used on your provider (ideally within the last year or so) and you should be fine. Be sure to confirm with the seller that the phone has previously been active on your provider’s service — but is not any longer (see below).
  • Make sure it’s free and clear. While you want to know the phone has been used on your provider, you also want to be sure that it was deactivated since then. In other words, you don’t want the hassle of trying to activate a phone that’s still activated on someone else’s plan. Before bidding, confirm with the seller that the phone has been used with your provider but is no longer activated. Also find out whether the phone has ever been reported to the provider as lost or stolen, which could make it unusable.
  • What’s a SIM card? Many providers use SIM cards, which let you move your phone service from your current phone to any other supported phone simply by moving the little plastic SIM card. Sprint uses a different system without SIM cards, so this isn’t always a consideration.
  • Make sure the auction includes what you’ll need. Don’t buy a phone that doesn’t include at least a working battery and the original AC charger. These can both be replaced (also via eBay), but it’s best to get a complete package to start. If the seller is willing to thow in more accessories, all the better.
  • Get anything else you’ll need separately. Even if your phone includes the basics, you may want to also get a car charger, extra battery, etc. Again, eBay sellers will have anything you need — just search on the phone’s model number. And the accessories need not be OEM. I’ve been using knockoff batteries and accessories for my phones for years and haven’t had a dud yet.
  • Don’t get charged for saving a company money. Sprint and others try to charge a fee every time you activate a new phone whether you got it from them or not. Customer service reps are generally allowed to waive the fee, though. If you see an activation charge on your next bill, call them up and remind them that you just saved them a ton of money by obtaining a replacement phone yourself.
 
Published on January 31, 2006, by

IRS LogoYou wouldn’t know it by visiting the home page of any tax filing site like TurboTax or H&R Block, but there’s a government-endorsed program that coerces these companies to provide completely free tax preparation and filing to many low- and mid-income folks. The TurboTax version is called Tax Freedom, but there are many others — each with different qualifying criteria. It’s all spelled out at the IRS site, which includes links to each of the programs. Since you can expect to pay at least $30 to prepare and file your federal return with most sites or retail software (and much more for a human preparer), this method offers some nice savings for anyone who qualifies.