Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Shopping For A Cheap(er) Phone

Sprint has been my cell phone provider for about ten years, and I kind of hate them.  Unfortunately, my hatred for them was only outweighed by my hatred for talking to cell phone salespeople and shopping around for what will likely be an equally shitty deal.  So, I've done nothing, for a long time.  Occasionally, I log onto Sprint's website and try to find a cheaper plan, but for what I want, it doesn't seem like there really is one.  See, I hate talking on the phone, but I like to text.  It seems that Sprint has figured this out, and there is no way to reduce the number of voice minutes I'm paying for, without reducing the texting or switching to a pay-per-text model (hell no).

So, I've been doing a little exploring to see if I can come up with a completely different plan that might better suit my unique cell phone needs.

Contender #1: Ting
Ting is actually powered by Sprint, but it is a pay-as-you-go model and is significantly cheaper.  It also lets you select your own kind of plan based on how you use your phone.  According to the website, you select your plan for the first month, and then after that, they just bill you for what you actually use.

So, if my above calculations are correct, I should be paying about half what I'm currently paying. Double bonus, since this is still the Sprint network, I may be able to keep my existing phone.  If not, a new phone would cost $98.

Contender #2 Republic Wireless
The way this phone works is that it hops back and forth between wi-fi and cell networks.  If a wi-fi network is available, it connects to that, if not, it uses Sprint's network.  According to their website, I'll end up paying $19/month plus applicable fees (vary by location) after paying the initial start-up fee of $10 and the $249 for the hybrid phone that can toggle back and forth between wi-fi and cellular.
The drawback to this one is obviously the initial cost of the phone, and the fact that I don't really want a smart phone, but for $19/a month, I might reconsider.  They do have a 30-day guarantee where you can return everything and cancel with no questions asked.

Has anyone out there had any experience with either of these companies?  The deals do seem to good to be true, but it may also just be that I've been hurt for too long by stupid cell phone contracts.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Retailers Are Shooting Themselves In The Foot

I worked at Barnes & Noble for five years in college and grad school, and because of the timing of that employment, I got to witness firsthand the changes of businesses transitioning to an online presence and dealing with the price undercutting of Amazon.  We, as a BN, were required by corporate headquarters to have all of this advertising up in the store for, but the manager was constantly warning use that was also our competition.  "We need to give excellent customer service, because people can get the exact same thing online" she kept saying, "And to keep our jobs, we need customers to keep coming back into the store."

But here's the interesting thing, you could get the exact same thing online, and often for cheaper, and if you buy enough you can get free shipping.  What you also get, which is the reason I and many other people shop more and more online these days: No upselling.

We were required to ask every. single. person, even in the cafe, if they had a BN member card.  "Oh, you're buying a cup of coffee for $1.40?  Would you like a $25 membership card as well?"  You can imagine how well that worked.  This was not only incredibly irritating to the employees, but also to the customers.  It slows down the line, it annoys people, and regular shoppers who didn't want the card were alienated every single time they chose to spend money there.  For probably every 50 people who I asked if they wanted a card, maybe one person got one.  So that's 49 pissed off folk, and one $25 membership card sale.  Doesn't really seem worth it to me.

I realize that upselling at the register must work  often enough that businesses see it as a worthwhile practice, but what they really should be doing is NOT PISSING OFF CUSTOMERS WHO CHOOSE TO COME INTO THE STORE.

Does anyone like being upsold?  Does anyone actually think, you know, you're right, cashier, even though I told you that I only wanted a medium popcorn, I actually do want a large.  You clearly know my mind better than I do.  I go to Target often enough that I know all about the Target card.  I've had one in the past, and you know what?  The interest rate was ridiculous!  Of course, they don't mention that at the register.

My most recent experience with upselling came at the movie theatre concessions stand.  BF ordered us a medium popcorn. "Do you want a large?" The eager cashier asked. "No, I want a medium, like I ordered," he told her.
If I can't finish a medium, why would I order a large!?!?!

So, upselling is rude because you're basically calling the customer stupid, but in this case too she was so eager to sell him a large popcorn, that she interrupted the rest of his order and failed to ring up the Raisinettes.  We stood there awkwardly until he asked, "Can I have my Raisinettes?"  Then she had to ring them up, he had to dig for more cash, and all the people in line behind us had to wait longer.

In cases like these, you want to be rude to the cashier, who is just doing her job.  She would get yelled at by her boss if she was caught not upselling, but she's also just as likely to get yelled at by customers for being incredibly annoying.  As if cashiering isn't already a thankless, soul-crushing  job.

I didn't go to business school, and I'm obviously not in the business of chasing profits, but I do shop out of necessity and for fun (sometimes).  I can honestly say that stores that engage in aggressive upselling will lose my business, and I bet I'm not the only one who feels this way.  When retailers are legitimately worried about physical stores turning a profit, they should not be irritating the customers who have made the effort to get in their cars and drive there.  Gone are the days when the store was the only game in town, if I have the option of avoiding annoying upselling, I'll take it, and it seems many other people will as well.

Sorry for the rant, but it just amazes me that people who study sales techniques don't seem to think that pissing people off is a poor strategy.  I long to live in a world without upselling, but I'm not holding my breath.

*I do realize that making purchase suggestions like online retailers do is a form of upselling, but it's less annoying and easier to ignore.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Boycott Black Friday

This is my worst nightmare
I have never shopped on Black Friday, and I've never been a fan of this "holiday," but this year I am extra super mad at retail giants and am not only not shopping myself, but actually asking that other people do the same.  I'm not going to just ask and hope that you heed me because you like me though, I'm going to give good reasons as well.

1. Store are opening this year earlier than ever before.  In fact, many stores are not even waiting until it's technically Friday, they're opening up Thanksgiving night.  Employees of these stores won't even have a Thanksgiving holiday.

2. Black Friday is dangerous. Maybe deaths and paralyzations will be down this year if the stores are open longer hours, but it seems unlikely.  Here's a list of the 13 Most Brutal Black Friday Deaths or Injuries.  I love a deal, believe me, but I would rather spend a little more money and potentially not get trampled to death by a bargain-savvy mob.

3. It supposed to be about family.  People get together over the holidays presumably because they love their families and want to spend time with them.  Why not just do that instead of staying up late/getting up early to hang out in a crowded store?  Play a board game, watch some movies, bring some distractions along when you go to your parents house and if you really need to get away from them for the sake of your own sanity, go for a walk.  Also, making people work on the holiday, whether by actually making them work or by appealing to financial need, shows disregard for their families.  I've worked in retail my whole working life, and often these holidays are the only days off that some people get at the same time as other people.  Retail workers frequently work long and scattered hours, especially during the holidays, and while the money is nice, sometimes you just want and need a day off.  Everyone should have that option.

4. Are you even buying stuff you want, or are you just buying it because it's a good deal?  Sure, it sounds great to pay less for a laptop or a plasma tv, but is it something that you actually need?  If it is, couldn't your money better be spent by getting a higher quality version of the same thing?  I'm awfully suspicious of a $200 laptop, and honestly can't believe that it's really a decent machine that's going to last or work well.  If you're buying it as a gift for someone, why do you need to buy something so elaborate?  Even at $200, that's an overly generous gift, and the recipiant would probably (read: should) be just as happy with something less expensive.  After all, it still should be the thought that counts.

This year, all the gifts I buy are going to come from local merchants, even though I may pay a little more for them.  On Black Friday, I plan to sleep in, go for a long run and then curl up with a book and my cat.  After that, I'm going to head down to the Rhode Island Statehouse, where there is a coat exchange taking place for most of the day.  Please Boycott Black Friday with me, and hopefully retail workers can get their holiday back.  There's also a petition at asking Target stores to take the high road and save Thanksgiving for everyone.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Holiday Challenges

I don't get super busy over the holidays, which I'm incredibly happy about, but I do still wind up doing a lot of eating.  Thankfully, this year, I only really have one job, which means only one work party, which I'm not actually going to attend.  Don't get me wrong, I like work parties, but they always end up costing far more than I'd like to spend to eat food that I'm never really totally jazzed about.  For those of you out there who have fully catered work parties--I salute you.

Despite not having that party looming, I know there will be others, and treats and large meals, so I am embracing two existing fitness challenges, and creating a financial challenge for myself to carry me successfully through this holiday season.

1. The Runner's World Holiday Running Streak.
This means that from Thanksgiving Day to New Year's Day, I'm pledging to run at least one mile every day. Normally, I never run every single day, but one mile is nothing and is only a ~9 minute commitment per day.  Hopefully, I won't stop after just one, but I am committed to doing at least one mile per day. No excuses.

2. The Yoga Challenge.
My yoga studio's holiday challenge starts today, and I have committed that I will try to do yoga at least three times per week until... sometime.  I'm not 100% sure when this challenge ends, but I've been trying to do yoga three times a week anyway, so this is just an added incentive.  Double bonus, my friend who has been away at Bikram yoga teacher training for the last two months comes back this week and I get to take a class with her on Tuesday!  Oh, also, if I'm successful at the challenge, I get a prize.  I do like prizes...

3. Financial Challenge
This is a self-imposed challenge, but I encourage everyone out there to come up with your own challenge and commit to it before Thanksgiving.  I'm lucky in that I don't have a lot of people I have to buy gifts for.  That's lucky because I don't have much money, and also because I'm a pretty lousy gift-giver under pressure.  BF's gift(s) are already purchased/ decided upon, so for the rest of the holiday season, I'm just going to focus on distracting myself with the above fitness goals, eat at home as much as possible, and try to do as much end of the year saving as I possibly can.  I have no idea what to expect from my taxes this year, so should I have to pay in, I intend to have enough of a cushion built up that it's not that big of a deal.

The rules for this challenge:
  1. Eat out a maximum two meals a week.  This is restaurant meals, not house parties or potlucks, etc.
  2. Stay on budget in all categories.  I've been consistently over budget in the groceries and alcohol categories for the past two months.
  3. Limit alcohol consumption.  It's far too easy to get sucked into the festivities and drink too much, which makes me eat too much.  I am limiting myself to two drinks per day, with at least two days off completely from drinking each week.
  4. Walk/bike to work as much as possible.  This is harder to do some days because I have yoga immediately after work, but on days when I can get to work without a car, I should.
  5. Save!  I still need to sock away as much as I can in my Roth IRA before the end of the year.
  6. Extra work.  I have a chance to pick up some freelance work, I just need to discipline myself and actually get started.  Oh why is it so hard to not be lazy after work and on your day off!  At least the days are short and I never want to leave the house, that should make it easier to stay on task.
Anyone else want to take on some challenges?  Or is life already too challenging this time of year?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Just Wait!

Instead of a compulsive spender, I've spent years trying to morph myself into a compulsive saver.  Saving gives me the same rush as spending--even a better rush sometimes because I rarely feel as good when I spend, there's often some guilt/letdown.  Unfortunately, the compulsive aspect is still the same, and I frequently find myself checking my bank balance daily; lamenting that I can't pay all the bills RIGHT NOW, and wishing my month away to get to the next paycheck faster.

Case in point:  I got paid last week, paid off my credit cards and then split the remaining money and put it into my various savings accounts: Emergency Fund, Travel Fund, and Regular Savings.  I haven't added to my Emergency Fund in quite a long time because I'm at my savings goal, but I figured I can slip a bit in there every now and then--nets me extra interest.

Almost immediately, I started regretting that there was no money left over to put in my Roth IRA, even though that's what this month's 3rd paycheck is for, and I've been mentally  planning on that for six weeks.  Still got the guilt for just not having/saving enough.

Then, a couple days ago, I went through this whole rigmarole with moving money around so I could send in a payment on my student loans.  My next paycheck is the 15th and my student loan payment isn't due until the 21st, but I started panicking because I always pay it early.  I don't have to pay it early, it doesn't really do me any favors if I do, and it's better that I put my money into savings like I did, rather than send it in to the government.

Still, I had a rather extraordinary mini-meltdown where I frantically pulled money from each account into checking, then realized I was acting like a moron and moved it all back.  Thankfully I get free transfers, but ING's automatic transfer robots must think I'm a crazy person.

Clearly upping the yoga has not made me any more zen, so I'm just going to actively try to stop being such a spaz.  There is no need to always pay things before the due date, unless I have the money and I'm not taking it from something else; and I can't expect to be able to save half my paycheck because I simply don't make that much money!  All I can do is focus on spending less, and saving what I can.  That's my new mantra.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Five Things Friday

This is one of a series of billboards along the interstate in North Dakota.
Others say Be Polite and Be Kind.  I love them.
I don't have much to say about personal finance these days. If you follow me on facebook and twitter, you will have seen this status update from yesterday: "Today I almost placed a $50 order from Old Navy (for free shipping) just because I wanted a fleece vest. Then I went for a run, and decided I can just cut the sleeves off of my fleece jacket instead. Savings!"

That's about the most exciting this to happen to me lately, but that's a good thing.

Since I, and most of Rhode Island got off pretty easy in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I'm going to take today to mention five things that I am grateful for.

1. Electricity
We briefly lost power this week when a Noreaster named Athena settled in over the region.  I moved the milk to the freezer immediately, and was just about to fill up some water bottles to set outside to freeze (the one nice thing about losing power during a snowstorm), but then the power came back.  While it was out, I hunkered down under a blanket with a book, flashlight, cold pizza and my kitty.  It was lovely, but I was still pretty damn glad when the power came back on.  So it's a simple thing, something we take for granted, but you sure miss it when you don't have it.

2. Health
My coworker is quite a bit older than me, though I'm not sure her exact age.  She has more health problems than anyone I think I've ever met, and it's constantly amazing to me that she's as cheerful as she is.  Honestly, she never complains even though she takes 25 (yes you read that right) pills PER DAY, has an inhaler that she uses frequently and her husband was just diagnosed with tongue cancer for which he is currently doing radiation and chemotherapy.  I've worked with her less than a year, and it seems like every month she or her husband have some new freak ailment.  It's exhausting to hear about, so I can't even imagine how exhausting it must be to go through.  Either way, it makes me glad that I have my health, and it makes me more determined to do whatever I can to keep that health.
Hell no.
Also, when I get old and inevitably start falling apart, I'm going to try to maintain the same upbeat spirit she has.

3. Wee Watson
Now that it's getting colder out, my little kitty, Watson has turned into a cuddling maniac.  It's always hard in the summer when he rejects my advances in favor of splaying out on the floor or hiding in the back of the closet.  Now that it's colder, it's all Watson all the time, and I love it.

4. Treadmill
Honestly, I kind of hate the treadmill.  It's boring, I go so much slower on it, I always have to plan in advance because I need something to watch while on it, and mine is located in the basement right next to the dryer, which is not a very fun part of the house.  But sometimes, like these days when we've had all this weather going on, and the days are short and getting colder, I am really really glad I have this thing.  It eliminates excuses I would make because of the weather/darkness; it takes away the guilt of watching tv; and if I feel like walking, no one can see/judge me.  Treadmill and I are getting along quite well these days.

5. Crockpot
I am becoming a crock-potting junkie, and I love it!  The other day, I made black beans and rice, which turned out amazing.  I initially froze half of it thinking that I wouldn't want to bring it to work more than two days in a row, but I seriously wanted it again this morning.  I've been scouring the internet for good recipes, and I'm fairly convinced that there is something magic in the crockpot that just makes everything taste extra good (and makes the house smell good).  I'll probably make another batch of the magical cabbage soup soon, and then I think I'm going to make a batch of hearty Bob's Red Mill Whole Grains and Beans soup.  Seriously, if it's not slow cooker--it's crap!  Not really, but everything I've made has been delicious, and dirt cheap.  No complaints from me.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Month of Reduction Final Tally

The plan this month was to reduce my spending, reduce my waistline and reduce my number of possessions. Let's take a look back at how I did, shall we!?

  • I reduced my spending quite a bit despite all those stupid car things that I had to pay for.  I had 15 no-spend days total for the month, and I did not go over my grocery budget!  Woot!
  • I also cut down quite a bit on clothes buying DESPITE there being an Old Navy 30% off Stuff and Save event.  Yeah, I'm pretty strong.  I did buy a couple shirts, but I used coupons + sales to get two long-sleeved shirts for $7.50.  Kind of a big deal.
  • I reigned in restaurant eating, which means I saved money and consumed fewer calories.
  • I'm really trying to drink less and drink lower calorie.  I've discovered that the Bota Box Table Red wine is delish, and so affordable!  It's only $18.99 (+tax) for 3 Liters of wine!  I'm so glad that drinking boxed wine is finally (somewhat) classy.  I've been doing it since college, afterall.
  • I've increased my exercise and variety of exercise.  I'm now doing Bikram yoga twice a week, and the outside temperature is perfect for running!  I've run more miles in October than any other month this year! I love fall!
  • I have lost no weight as a result of my efforts.  Highly scientific conclusion: I just can't lose weight.
Just kidding!  I didn't buy any Halloween candy, I'm too cheap

First paycheck of November will go toward credit cards, with just a wee bit for savings.  Next paycheck will be split between putting money in checking for December rent, student loan payment and saving.  Then, magical paycheck number three, should be all savings!

I am staying the course!

The month of November I should be able to maintain my relative austerity.  The days will be getting colder, and I have a ton of sweaters already, I have lots of Groupons for restaurants if I want to go out and the shorter days make me just want to hunker down.  I've also discovered that I don't hate exercising at night like I previously thought.  I can go to the 6:30 yoga class right after work, and the horrible heat of the Bikram room effectively kills my appetite til I get home (plus I can have a late afternoon yogurt if I'm feeling peckish); and the other day, I had a quick dinner, then got on the treadmill and it was great!  Plus, working out at night makes me likely to drink less alcohol (need to re-hydrate), which also saves me money--and calories.