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Preparing for Black Friday via BlackFriday.GottaDeal.com

October 31, 2008 · Filed Under Random · 14 Comments 

I have to admit, for the past few years I’ve been venturing out on Black Friday to check out the sales.  This all started a number of years back when we lived in Tucson.  I discovered ACE Hardware’s BF sales one year and was amazed at all the really inexpensive stuff I could get there.  I was hooked and I’ve been back to ACE most every year since.  I can usually at least pick up some useful tools for basically nothing after the mail-in rebate.  I was quite disappointed last year, however, because I think the sales were exactly the same as those from the year before.  (I’ve got my eyes on you this year, ACE Hardware!).  Since I know there are a lot of people out there who do serious shopping on Black Friday, I thought I’d share a tool I’ve been using to make planning for BF a little less hectic.

What is Black Friday?

Black Friday, which has been raised almost  to the level of a holiday in the US, is that magical day where we as Americans exhibit rampant consumerism at its height.  It got its name as the day of the year that retailers typically become profitable for the year (going from the red to the black in their accounting).  There typically are great sales on certain items, but unfortunately some people take it a little too far (see my story a few paragraphs down) either by over-spending or pushing and shoving to grab the latest toy or hot item.

Getting a head start

There are a number of websites that "leak" the ads before their official release during the week of Thanksgiving.  I usually check out BlackFriday.GottaDeal.com .  Of course, they have the ads up there but they have some other nice features as well.  I like that for most of the items they usually have links that take you to the retailer’s site to get more details on them.  Another very useful feature is the forums they host on the site.  There are usually some discussions going on about different items and techniques and various rumors floating around.  I have subscribed to their email list and they usually send an email when they post a new ad – so they’re not flooding me with emails.  I’m sure there are other valuable sites as well (for instance, Prime Time Money recently did a post on blackfriday.info ).  It’s just that I found GottaDeal’s BF site a few years back and have been using it since.

Getting carried away….

Ahhh, I remember the year I first discovered the black friday site at gottadeal.com.  I was living in North Carolina at the time and, for whatever reason, I became obsessed with Black Friday that year.  Frankly, it was quite unhealthy.  I ended up spending hours pouring over the ads and making lists of exactly what I’d go looking for.  Of course, I ended up spending quite a bit of money.  Sure, the stuff was on sale but let’s get real: buying things is still spending money, not saving it.

We had friends visiting for Thanksgiving and I ended up dragging the husband out very early Friday AM for an entire morning of shopping.  We hit Best Buy, Circuit City, Panera (needed a little break and some munchies), Radio Shack, Sears, Costco, and ACE (of course).  This is the list of stuff that I bought that day:

  • TV (ok, bought that a few days before but it still counts)
  • Surround Sound system
  • DVD Recorder (at Radio Shack which I later returned)
  • Roomba (robotic vacuum cleaner)
  • Computer Software (free after rebate)
  • DVD Recorder (liked this one better)
  • Blank DVDs and CDs
  • Miscellaneous tools (of course)

Proceed carefully!

I have reformed my ways since that year.  I still usually go out on Black Friday…still usually by myself…but not usually until a little later in the morning.  Now, however, I am more cautious about my spending.  Last year, for instance, I bought some Christmas presents that were on my list and was able to get better quality items as a result.  I feel that is really the best way to approach BF.

If you are going to venture out, don’t just buy items for the sake of "saving money." Be prepared, have a list of what you need to get as Christmas presents or whatever, find those things on sale, and stick to your list! Since there are so many sales going on during BF and the crowds are quite large, I definitely feel it is helpful to plan ahead via the ads or a "pre-release" site like gottadeal.com.  But take caution – it is very easy to get carried away as I did a few years back and start the Christmas season a lot poorer than you ended Thanksgiving!

So what about you?

Does anyone else out there shop on Black Friday?  Or do you stay away from all the stores and blatant consumerism that day?  If you do shop it, have you ever camped out the night before to snatch one of the big deals?  (I have never done that).  Do you have any interesting  BF stories?

Check out Costtodrive.com

October 29, 2008 · Filed Under Random · 3 Comments 

This is why I hate traveling for work.  I’m supposed to be in the air about half way home right now.  Instead, I’m sitting in the airport waiting for a flight to arrive from Atlanta so their flight crew can hop over to our plane and fly us to Richmond.  Could be worse, of course, we were already on the plane when they decided they needed to do this and at least they let us get off and sit at the gate.   I travel so infrequently that I get caught up in the novelty of staying at nice hotels and eating restaurant meals….then something like this happens.  I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for someone who travels regularly (especially via flying).

"I should rent a car and just drive myself"

Did you ever sit in an airport and wonder how much it would cost to just make the trip by car?  Well, a friend of mine turned me on to a pretty cool site the other day called costtodrive.com. It’s a simple and useful site where you can get the approximate cost to drive your particular car to various places around the US.

You start off by selecting the starting and ending points for your trip.  Then you select the make and model of your particular auto and it will "galculate" the approximate (obviously) cost to complete the trip.  It even takes into account the lowest available price for a gallon of gas along your route and the EPA MPG rating of your car to calculate the total cost.  All in all, it’s an interesting little site. Here is how much it would cost for me to drive my wife’s Civic home from Orlando right now.

Now, when he first showed it to me, this was a terribly interesting site as gas cost almost $4 per gallon around here (well, not here in Orlando but back in Virginia).  Now that the price is nearly half as much, maybe people won’t care nearly as much about how much it costs to complete various trips.  But I would suggest that we don’t let up!

When gas prices were so high, Americans consumed less

When gas prices soared, Americans made real changes to their driving habits.  They drove less, cared about things like getting good gas mileage (I even read about hyper-miling), and tried to be more aware of needlessly wasting gas.  SUV assembly lines were shot down or retooled to create more efficient cars and even hybrid cars.  Overall, consumption dropped significantly (I can’t find the exact % right now).

So why not continue to consume less?

Of course that was mainly financially driven but there is no reason that we all have to change back to our gas guzzling ways.  It may not hurt as much at the pump now to fill up your car (at the height, I paid nearly $60 to fill up my minivan, this weekend I filled it up for less than $32), but America is still too dependent on foreign oil.  During this election season, there has been much argument back and forth about how to address that dependency but the takeaway here is that we all (ok, most of us) agree that it is a concern.  So, make your changes permanent and continue to reduce your personal dependency.  Let’s see how far we can get in reducing our overall consumption.  Besides, it still saves you money!

16+ Free Software Applications I Couldn’t do Without

October 27, 2008 · Filed Under Random · 9 Comments 

I spend a lot of time on my computer.  I work all day long on my work laptop and then spend a few hours most evenings on my personal computer as well.  So you might think that someone like myself invests heavily in the best software tools available to increase my productivity.  Well, if you did, then you’d be wrong.  It’s just that I don’t really like to spend money that I don’t really have to spend.

That being said, I do in fact use a lot of different software applications to improve my efficiency – it’s just that most of them are free.  Now, I’m not talking about illegally cracked or copied software acquired by devious means.  All of the applications I use are free and above-board (thank God for the open source movement!)  As an aside, I’m actually sitting in a airport right now waiting for a flight to Florida – so there’s another great productivity tool – free wifi!

These are the applications I use (or have used) and recommend in 16 different categories – I hope that you will find some useful!

  1. Email client – Thunderbird or gmail
    • For the longest time I relied solely on my hotmail account for my non-work email.  When I started blogging, however, I was turned on to the power of Thunderbird and I love it!  It’s  powerful and easy to configure and I have it as my primary email client on my personal computer.  I do also have gmail configured to receive my blog-related emails for when I am not on that computer.
  2. Office software – Open Office
    • I am really happy with the Open Office suite as a replacement for Microsoft Office.  I find the features quite comparable and the price is much (much!) better.  I even had Open Office installed on my new work laptop for a while until running into a situation where I needed Excel.
  3. Creating PDF files – PDFCreator
    • This is a great tool for creating PDF files.  It has come in very handy for me on multiple occasions.
  4. Anti-virus software – Avast
    • Avast has a "Home" version of its software that is free for non-commercial users.  It purports to shield instant messaging, internet email, computer-based email, network traffic, web traffic and P2P (I’m not sure what that is).  I have used it for years and it has proven quite reliable.  It has even stopped me on a few occasions from visiting certain websites that could infect my computer.  The virus database is updated automatically (and frequently).  One drawback is that you must go to the Avast website every 12 months or so to download a new (free) license key – but let’s not get nit-picky here!  I have also heard that AVG Free is recommended as well though I have not used it.
  5. File editing – SciTE
    • SciTE is a fast file editor.  I have tried a few different ones but settled on SciTE because of its features but especially its speed.  It does have context highlighting for a host of different languages which is a nice bonus.  It is configurable as well but requires you to edit a configuration file instead of doing it through the GUI.  I use it on both my work and personal computers.
    • As a side note, I do not think that it has the capability to edit files on a remote server like Homesite does.  I really like that feature instead of the current process I use of File | Save | FTP | Upload.  If anyone has any suggestions for an open source or at least free replacement for Homesite I would love to hear it!
  6. Mind Mapping – Freemind
    • This is a cool tool.  According to Wikipedia, Mind maps are used to generate, visualize, structure, and classify ideas, and as an aid in study, organization, problem solving, decision making, and writing.  I find that using Freemind to organize information just makes sense to me.  I guess it matches the way my brain works.  It’s hard to describe in prose (and I’m not going to write a poem) so If you have never used a mind mapping tool, I would suggest you play around with it to see if it works for you.  I use Freemind for so many things now from keeping todo lists to organizing post ideas to brainstorming projects.
  7. File Compression – 7-Zip
    • I started using 7-Zip when my company stopped providing a compression utility.  It works well and handles all the file types that I ever use.  I found out the other day it even decompresses rar files.
  8. RSS Reader – RSSOwl or Google Reader
    • I used to use RSSOwl but switched to Google Reader since I routinely use different computers when reading.  Both work really well and I recommend both – just choose which (computer-based or web-based) works better for your situation.
  9. FTP software – FileZilla or FireFTP for FireFox
    • I really, really like FileZilla.  I have been using it for a few months and am very pleased with its speed and ease of use.  I recently was turned on to FireFTP which is an add-on for FireFox.  I have tried switching to FireFTP, a very good tool, but have not been able to rid myself completely of the FileZilla habit.
  10. Image manipulation – GIMP
    • In light of the price of Photoshop, I was very happy to find GIMP as an alternative.  I had not used Photoshop before, so I didn’t have any transition issues when using GIMP.  There is a flavor of GIMP called GIMPshop that is supposed to make the transition easier for Photoshop users.  I don’t think that GIMP is as powerful as Photoshop, but the price is a lot better and I wouldn’t know how to use all that power anyway!
  11. Vector graphics – Inkscape
    • I use Inkscape quite frequently and have been very pleased with it.  It can be viewed as an Adobe Fireworks replacement.  It is very easy to create and edit graphics using it.  I am a design newbie, so the easy-to-find tutorials for Inkscape (and GIMP for that matter) were very helpful for me.
  12. Screen casting – Jing
    • I started playing with screencasting as a way to convey information and am fairly pleased with Jing so far.  I have used it for a blog post and to give some howto information to friends.  It is very easy to use though probably not as powerful as the more expensive tools like Camtasia.  It also comes with an account on screencast.com for storing and sharing your screencasts.  Currently, the account is free but I’m not sure if it will always stay that way.
  13. Bible study – e-Sword
    • I have only been using e-Sword for a few weeks and am still figuring out how best to use it.  That being said, I can certainly see the power in this tool.  It is a Bible study tool in which you can simultaneously view multiple translations, investigate definitions of most words, view multiple commentaries, take notes, etc.  You can download many different Bible versions, Biblical dictionaries, commentaries, and more.  Some plugins are free while others cost money.  It is a very powerful and flexible tool.
  14. Audio editing – Audacity
    • I do not do much audio editing but whenever I do, I always turn to Audacity.  It is great for editing audio files as well as recording audio.  A nice feature is its capability of exporting mp3 files.  I have barely tapped into its power.
  15. Blogging/CMS – WordPress (of course!)
    • For my blog, wordpress.org is naturally my first choice.  It is very flexible and the huge open source community producing themes (free and premium) and plugins make it an incredible tool.  I have even used it as a CMS for a non-blog website.
  16. Software Development – Eclipse
    • When a basic text editor is not nearly enough, I turn to Eclipse.  For large and/or complex software development projects, Eclipse can easily handle the job.  For my day job, members of my team actually use Eclipse or a premium application based on it.  Its main drawback is that it is so powerful that it tends to be very, very complex when you first fire it up.

So check out these applications if you’re looking for some good tools at a great price (free).  I use most of them quite frequently and would recommend them to you.  If you have any other suggestions for good free tools – please add them below.

Time to board my flight…

A Credit Card is Not a Free 30 Day Loan

October 24, 2008 · Filed Under Random · 10 Comments 

I exchanged some emails and comments with a reader after my previous post on credit card usage .  It was a good discussion and I wanted to share with you some of his concerns and clarify how and why I currently use credit cards.

He pointed out valid concerns

He rightly pointed out that using a credit is actually taking a short-term loan.  And as with any loan, you are incurring risk by doing this.  Also, using a credit card is not free. You are not really taking a free 30 day loan and getting ahead by receiving some cash back.  As I pointed out in my previous post, people tend to spend more money when using a credit card compared to using cash.  But even if you are very careful and conscientious about it and do not overspend, there is still a cost involved.  Credit card companies charge a service fee to the merchant you are paying.  And the stores then pass this cost on to you in the form of higher prices.

So why do I use a credit card?

The overriding reason that we use credit cards in my family is convenience.  In the past, I spent time thinking I was smart by taking out the "free loan" and stocking up the cash back – but I’ve moved away from that line of thinking because it is a risk you are taking that is not worth that marginal benefit.

I do, however, feel that my credit card provides convenience to me and I mentioned the reasons why in the previous post.  So, does it cost more?  Yes, it does but I feel that the small extra cost is worth it.  All conveniences cost money and I view a credit card the same way.

All conveniences cost money

So many things in life are conveniences and not strictly necessary – and that’s fine with most people.  I own two cars and they are very expensive to own and maintain (well, just maintain because I already paid for them).  Do I really need them?  No, probably not (though I do live in the suburbs).  I could probably figure out a way to get around without them (or without one).  Thus, they are a convenience and though they are expensive, they are worth it to me due to the value I get from that convenience. Maybe a car is a bad example but what about eating out at a restaurant or having air conditioning or an electric (or gas) stove – they’re all technically conveniences.

So, is it worth it to pay 3% (or so) more on goods when I use a credit card?  Yes, for some things I’d say it is.  I’d pay 3% more so I can get my gas quicker right at the pump.  I’d pay 3% more to not have to carry hundreds of dollars in cash to the grocery store.

My rules for using a credit card

Here are my rules for using a credit card (I’m sure you’ve heard these many times):

  • Understand that credit cards introduce risk and extra cost
  • Do not carry a balance – if you do, stop using your cards and pay it off
  • Do not use the card for short-term loans – if you do not have the money to buy something then do not buy it (in other words, only buy something you already have the money to pay off)

So what’s the point?

I do use a credit card but I want to make it clear that I am NOT advocating that everyone should use one .  If you have trouble controlling your spending or think the convenience is not worth the risk or just don’t want to use one, then don’t.  And if you tend to trust someone like Dave Ramsey more than little old me, then you will cut up your cards and throw them away immediately.

I have made the conscious decision to use a credit card.  That being said, I am slowly moving us towards more of a cash-based system to see what advantages that presents.  If you use a card as well, please consider all of the ramifications of its use.  Ensure that you are not being deceived into thinking you "need" one or you will make boat-loads of money via the rewards.  Again, we use a card for convenience and I am aware we pay slightly more because of this decision.  In these circumstances, I feel that the convenience is worth the extra money (just like the plumbing in my house).

My goal in writing this post was to add more to the list of pitfalls associated with credit cards and to ensure that, if you’re using one, you understand the issues that are involved.

What’s your take on this debate?

If you use credit cards, do you use them for the convenience or the cash-back or what?  Or do you believe that using a card is not worth the risk and cost incurred?  Debit cards present some differences but still have some of the same pitfalls – do you feel that using a debit card is a better idea?

Photo Credits: The Consumerist

The Credit Card Question – Employ or Eschew?

October 22, 2008 · Filed Under Random · 5 Comments 

If you’ve read many personal finance blogs (say, more than two), you’ve no doubt seen very different philosophies out there regarding the use of credit cards.  Some say that credit cards are no big deal – they are just a tool to be used.  Others might say that if you were smart, you would put everything on a card for the rewards.  On the other end of the spectrum, you have people like Dave Ramsey who say that you should not even have a credit card.  So, I’ve decided to weigh in on the situation.

Borrow From None, eh?  Aren’t you one of those "credit cards are evil" guys?

Well, no.  Remember that, as stated in my About page, "Borrow From None" does not refer to a rule that I live by.  Rather, it is a reference to the blessings that God bestows.  Blessings that make it unnecessary to have to borrow from anyone else.  It is not a mantra about how credit cards are evil or anything like that.  To be transparent, I do have some credit cards (ok, a lot of them – but mainly because I don’t know what closing them will do to my credit score) and use one regularly.

The pros and cons of credit cards

The cons are easy:

  • Interest rates can be very high
  • Card lenders can increase your rates seemingly at a whim
  • Credit cards are too easy to use and lose track of your spending which can lead to big trouble by the end of the billing cycle.

But to be fair, you could also argue that there are some pros to using credit cards for certain purchases:

  • Convenience (going into the gas station to pay is such a pain!)
  • Rewards
  • Buyer protection (buyer protection, rental car insurance, extended warranties, etc)

Now the reality…

Sure, convenience and rewards are good, but you have to take an honest look at the entire picture.  If you are carrying a balance, stop right there and forget about any rewards.  You are wasting more money in interest charges than you could hope to receive back.

But what if I don’t carry a balance?  Even then you have to be careful.  I’m sure we’ve all read the statistics that you pay more when you use a credit card compared to when you use cash.  I don’t have specific references but I’ve seen different sources that quote anywhere from 10% to 30% more.  So, even on the low end, if you really do spend an extra 10% on each shopping trip, that 2% you get back is not looking so hot anymore.  I honestly don’t know if I do this or not,  but you certainly have to be aware of it.  If you are falling into these traps and spending more money than you normal would, you are losing money each time you use the card instead of earning rewards.

How I use my credit cards

As I stated above, I do have a rewards card (well, 3 to be exact) (well, i actually have a bunch but I only ever use these three and use only one of them the vast majority of the time).

I do pay off my full balance every month but I can’t really tell if spend more because of using the card.  We use credit cards for the necessities like gas & groceries.  We recently starting using cash for "fun money" and discretionary purchases like going out to eat and other "extras."  Since I pay it off every month, I honestly do not even know the interest rates on the cards I use; I only care about the cash-back I receive.

Recommendation: be careful

I am obviously not as vigilant about credit cards as Dave Ramsey.  I would say that if you carry a balance, you need to stop doing that.  Pay it off ASAP and put nothing more on it that you don’t have the money to pay off.  And if you have ever gotten yourself into real trouble by running up credit card debt, then to you I would say do not even use a credit card (ever).

zero percent credit cards
Obviously, most people use cards (as do I) for convenience.  If you decide to use a credit card, you should get one that provides good rewards or has a low interest rate.  Don’t just sign up for whatever one was handed to you on your first day of college or the latest one to come in the mail.  Like anything else, you might as well be an informed consumer and search for the card that best fits your lifestyle and credit rating (whether you have excellent credit, poor credit, or Fair Credit ).

Credit card companies make lots of money

Keep in mind that you are not outsmarting the credit card companies by taking their 2% cash reward.  They have really big buildings and lots of employees and they are in the business of making money (and they seem to make lots and lots of it each year).  Keep that in mind if/when you decide to use a credit card.

Photo Credits: Urthstripe and SqueakyMarmot

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