Holiday PSA: Re-check the prices for gifts you already bought RIGHT NOW (Regarding refunds)

I was poking around Amazon this morning and noticed that a gift I bought last week had gone down in price.

…by thirteen cents.

Now, that’s not enough for me to go to war over (My minimum is $4 worth of Chinese food), but it did present the opportunity to show off one of my favorite holiday shopping tips in action.

On getting refunded the difference when a store drops its price

OK, so back to the title: Go back right now and check to see if the prices have dropped on any gifts you’ve already bought. Plenty of stores have an official policy, but many will refund the difference between what you paid and the new price if you just ask nicely.

Why would they do this?

Think of it this way: Stores know that if the difference is big enough, you’ll just return the item, then re-buy to get the lower price. Besides buying themselves a little bit of goodwill with the favor, they’re also saving themselves the potential hassle.

Amazon in particular makes it easy with items they sell if you get in touch with them within seven days of taking delivery. Just go to their contact page:


Then, click chat and ask nicely:


Best of luck getting those refunds! :)


My simple real estate investment philosophy: Don’t lose money

Berit Watkin via Flickr

I’ve mentioned before that investing in real estate has been a long-time hobby of mine and one I look to as a future source of passive income.

Admittedly, I’ve slowed down while focusing on other personal finance goals — namely my huge student loan debt — but still keep a finger on the pulse of it.

Value investing in real estate

There are tons of investment styles when it comes to buying real estate. For mine, I borrow methods made popular in equity investing by hunting for “value.”

With stocks, value investors chase prices that are low relative to some fundamental such as book value, earnings, or dividends. With real estate investing, the fundamental I’m most concerned with is the amount I can reasonably expect in rent.

Along this dimension, an ideal investment property is one where the rent I can charge is sufficient to leave me a little bit of profit after paying all the costs involved in owning — these include interest, insurance, and taxes.

Besides positive cash flow, which is always nice, value investing in real estate has also provided me with one other big benefit made obvious over the last few years: because I’m making money, I can just hold onto the property while the real estate market recovers without ever being forced to sell.

Quantifying it

Alright, so there are a bazillion properties up for sale at any given time. How do I do anything in my day besides crunch all those numbers? Let’s start with some estimates about cost:

Obviously, these percentages can be higher or lower depending on the state you’re in, neighborhood realities, and so forth, but they’re close enough.

Take note of the monthly recurring cost of 0.8%, which has an arrow pointing at it. If you never ever rented a rental property, then every month, you could expect to lose 0.8% of your purchase price.

Thus, to make the math easy, to make a small profit, and to account for months when my rentals are empty, I only start to become interested in rental properties when their monthly rent is at least equal to 1% of their listed price. Call it a One-percent Rule if you want something that rolls off the tongue.

A New York example

All those numbers sound simple enough, right? You’d be surprised how often people tell me I should go below that number….

As an example, in Brooklyn where I live, properties that can be rented for $4,000 a month cost at least $1 million — a ratio of 0.4%!

And that’s why I’m not interested in buying here….

Alright then, what am I doing wrong? And how do you invest in real estate?

What’s the right amount for uh…a friend… to spend on an engagement ring?

Daniel Lee via Flickr

Last week, I sat on a panel led by Farnoosh Torabi to discuss money in relationships.

The conversation was a ton of fun! I’ll post a link when it’s up. It touched upon money deal-breakers and warning signs in relationships, but it stopped just short of engagement rings so I’ll share some thoughts here.

On how much other people should spend on engagement rings

I’m not going to say that it’s foolish to spend a significant amount on a ring.

It’s not my place to determine how much a couple should value something. It’s not a stretch to think that some couples could put a lot of value into a ring that they’ll ostensibly keep forever and want to spend a lot on it.

I will say that my own values are that I’d rather spend more on

  • The wedding (an experience shared with friends),
  • The honeymoon (an experience shared between the couple), or
  • Saved for the future (Any amount saved in your late 20s will likely have grown 10 times by the time you retire).

What I will say is that the decision should hinge on communication. I imagine there are lots of men who don’t communicate and grossly overestimate how much ring their partner will want. If they DID speak with each other and perhaps even shop together, maybe he’d find she would actually prefer a stone other than a diamond, a vintage or heirloom ring, wholesale diamonds, or that she too would rather spend it on the wedding, honeymoon, or save for the future.

After all, if you’re about to get married, then you’ll be connecting finances soon enough, so in a way, she’s effectively paying for half of her own ring anyway.

As for being worried that not spending a lot on a ring is a symbol that you don’t care, think of it this way: Your love gives meaning to the engagement ring, not the other way around.

On how much I will spend on engagement rings

I imagine you want a hard number here. Instead, I’ll dodge by suggesting that when I get to that phase, we’ll figure out that number together by forcing ourselves to have the tough conversations about individual and joint personal finance goals.

Maybe those conversations will expose that she’d rather have an engagement guitar rather than an engagement ring anyway. Or maybe an engagement unlimited travel pass. I think either of those would be pretty cool.

As a closing thought, I’ll point to this white paper, written by researchers at Emory University, which found — after correcting for other factors such as household income and length of time dating before the engagement — that generally, the amount spent on engagement rings had no significant association with the likelihood of the marriage staying together, although the study did find specifically that men who spent between $2,000 and $4,000 on an engagement ring were 1.3 times MORE likely to end their marriage than those who spent somewhere between $500 and $2,000.

Anyhow, have you got useful thoughts or anecdotes about engagement rings?

Happy belated Giving Tuesday! May I suggest giving to Voices from War to help veterans explore their creativity?

Voices - Logo

There’s a pretty good chance you took part in a good bit of decadence over the past week — perhaps you over-ate on Thanksgiving day, went wild with consumerism on Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, or Cyber Monday, or you over-drank on Thanksgiving Eve.

Over the past couple of years, a movement has been growing in response to all this hedonism: Giving Tuesday, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, is a national day dedicated to giving back.

If you’re still searching for a worthy Giving Tuesday charity, I suggest taking a good look at Voices from War.

Voices from War is a free writing workshop for veterans in the New York area that:

  • Offers veterans the opportunity to express their experiences of war through writing workshops
  • Builds a community among veterans that cuts across different writing levels and generations; there is much to be gained when vets who served in Iraq or Afghanistan interact with those who served decades earlier in Vietnam, Korea, and elsewhere
  • Builds bridges between veterans and civilians by creating greater opportunities for dialogue about war

The program groups experienced writers with veterans seeking to write stories for themselves or a broader audience. These can be remembered, factual stories or fictitious. Finally, through public events, conversations, and publication, the program shares those stories with a general public that often feels removed from the experiences of those who have served.

If you’re interested in learning more about the program, go to:

If you’re ready to give, you can go directly to Voice from War’s donation page on Fractured Atlas:

Please share this post with veterans you know and veteran supporters.


December 2014 net worth update: Up $2,500 thanks to free money

Source: Pic Blag

Good morning, everyone, and welcome to December!

Here in the big City, the cold has finally caught up with us meaning hot chocolate, bundling up in puffy jackets, and that 2015 is just around the corner. But before the time of new beginnings, I’m looking to finish off 2014 as strongly as possible as I continue to fight to pay off debt and save for retirement.

The numbers

Here’s what I did in November:



Uf. One number should jump right out at you as soon as you look at this; my debt didn’t go down at all this past month. Of course, this doesn’t mean that I didn’t send any money toward debt — quite the contrary, in fact. With a $105,200 balance, I have to send over $600 a month to my student loan servicers just to break even.

What’s annoyed me the most about paying off debt this year has been my inconsistency. Check out this chart:


Some months, I’ll manage to knock many thousands off my student loan debt and other months — like this past one — I’ll barely make a dent in it.

I don’t mean to look past this coming month — during which I plan to roar back to make huge gains — but I’d very much like for my 2015 performance to not look this splotchy.

Retirement savings

Of course, this begs the question: Where did that money go last month? Did I use it to buy a sweet rocket cat? Did I use it to buy 99 iPhones on Black Friday to use in a tone-deaf proposal?

Sadly, no.

Rather, nearly $200 went into my emergency fund as I completed weekly deposits of 45, 46, 47, and 48 as part of the 52-week savings challenge and $550 went into a Health Savings Account, which was immediately matched by my employer.

Neither of these do anything to pay down my debt, but having an emergency fund that is now bigger than $6,000 sure does give me a whole lot more peace of mind and I’d be a fool to turn down any investment that doubled immediately after making it. Who turns away free money?

That matched $550 plus my matched contributions to my 401(k) plus market gains put me up $2,500 for retirement savings.

Net worth

My net worth is finally above -$50,000 meaning I’m ever so slowly inching toward $0. And from this vantage point, $0 seems like a pretty sweet place to be.

And that’s that; how was your personal finance November?


4 Ways a Master’s in Healthcare Informatics Can Boost Your Income

[A friendly reminder that you should read my disclaimer -Ed.]

Do you want more money? Not many people would answer no to this question. If you currently work in the healthcare or IT fields and do not feel that you are making quite enough, consider pursuing a master’s degree in healthcare informatics. Sure, it will cost a bit to earn your healthcare informatics degree, but what you pay now in tuition could mean great rewards in the future. Here are four ways that a master’s in healthcare informatics can boost your income.

It Places You Into a Fast-Growing Industry

Image via Flickr by IntelFreePress

Image via Flickr by IntelFreePress


As the name suggests, healthcare informatics merges the healthcare and information technology fields. If you already have these skills, the coursework that you would encounter pursuing your master’s should be relatively easy. You will also be able to immediately apply the knowledge that you gain in graduate school. Once you graduate, you will enter a rapidly growing workforce, one that is growing more than 20 percent in the next several years. That means that finding a job should not be difficult. It can be quite lucrative as well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median average salary will be more than $88,000. That should more than pay off your student loans.

It Provides a Variety of New Career Paths

The Affordable Care Act requires that all medical records become paperless. This may sound like a great deal of data entry, but that certainly does not encompass all that healthcare informatics is. In addition to system security and database administration, you will find yourself performing analysis and interpretation tasks, and even quality control. Because you are exposed to these important tasks, your career prospects grow beyond the healthcare provider and into the world of pharmaceutical and insurance companies.

It Can Fast-Track You Into Management

So the career path is broad, but how can a master’s degree make it better? The answer is simple: A master’s degree opens you to career advancement, and with it, more cash. Management and executive-level position salaries can approach six figures, with executives making more than $110,000 per year. The salary jump between an employee with an associate degree and one with a bachelor’s degree is about $8,000 per year. Salaries further increase more than $13,000 per year as employees earn their master’s degree. With such an immediate advancement in income, pursuing a master’s is an easy choice.

It Makes You More Knowledgable

If you love learning and growing within your career, a master’s in healthcare informatics is ideal for you. Those who hold this degree learn skills such as finance, management, systems, and policy. These skills can be transferred to a variety of careers inside and outside the healthcare industry. The unemployment rate among those holding a master’s is relatively low. Employees with the degree need only 15 CEUs per year, meaning that they will constantly remain on the cutting edge of the industry.

With all these reasons, a healthcare informatics degree seems like a fast track to career success and a larger bank account. Make the salary that you deserve in one of today’s hottest career paths.

Why I’m glad I broke my addiction to Black Friday and my plan for Black Friday 2014

djLicious via Flickr

There was a time not too long ago before I started this blog when I treated Black Friday as one of the most important days of the year.

I went all in with Black Friday too, researching for weeks or even months to find the best deals, laying out a plan as to exactly which deals I needed to hit from each store, and lining up just like everyone else. I would feel like a failure if I couldn’t get to a store in time for the door-buster deals and experience untold amounts of regret if I found out something I bought was even the tiniest bit cheaper.

The Blackest Friday

The event that really made me start to question Black Friday came in 2008.

Upon opening the doors at a Long Island Wal-mart on Black Friday, an employee was trampled to death underneath the flood of people trying to get the limited-quantity deals.

Not only that, when people were asked to clear the store for emergency personnel, they refused, or as one shopper observed, “When they were saying they had to leave, that an employee got killed, people were yelling, ‘I’ve been on line since yesterday morning.'”

Robert D. McFadden and Angela Macropoulos. “Wal-Mart Employee Trampled to Death” The New York Times, November 28, 2008.

I certainly never saw anyone get killed in all my shopping, but stores that crowded people into tight spaces, forcing them to compete for manufactured scarcity really seemed to bring out the worst in people. They were rude, entitled, angry, and very frequently, stinky.

Perhaps others saw this in me as well.

But was I saving money?

Not only did I treat Black Friday with the reverence I normally reserve for holy days, but I let Black Friday become a part of me all year long. Friends knew to come to me first when they were looking to make a big purchase — so confident were they that I was keeping a finger on the pulse of any deal out there.

I certainly paid the price in sleep, thanks to the sleepless nights spent agonizing over whether or not to pull the trigger on a deal that expired at midnight — or 3 a.m. for online stores that operated on West Coast time.

But as to whether I personally saved money back then, I’ll say that my bank account and retirement savings Certainly don’t reflect as much. I wasn’t so concerned with paying a small amount for things, so much as I was concerned with paying less than other people. It often was less important that I really needed or even wanted the thing I was buying so much as I got a good deal on it.

Eventually, I arrived at having to ask myself the unhappily paradoxical question, “If I’m ‘saving’ so much money, then how did I get this broke?”

When I took a step back, I started to realize that there would always be “can’t-miss” deals out there. I was crestfallen when I missed my first Black Friday, but then realized that the last-minute Christmas deals were just as good. And if I missed those, the after Christmas clearance deals were also pretty spectacular. And then there were the electronics deals before the Super Bowl, President’s Day sales, Memorial Day sales….

In short, if I really needed something, I could always get it at the same price by waiting for the next sale.

But perhaps more importantly, when forced to wait and make do without the new toy, it made me realize that if I could go that long without it, maybe I didn’t truly need it.

My plan for Black Friday 2014

Remember that you need a plan to make the most out of Black Friday.

Sure, money’s still tight for me, but what I’ve come to realize is that the one thing that is truly scarce is time.

So here’s my plan: I’ll wake up with the sun to have some tea and do a bit of writing. At 8 a.m. sharp, I’ll grab my cousin who’s recently been certified as a fitness instructor and see if my old bones can keep up with him.

After we eat leftovers, I’ll grab as many of my younger cousins as I can to have a huge snowball fight. My godson is among the group so he’ll get to be on my team… if he’s lucky ;)

I get to see these little guys but a couple times per year so I really want to make the most of my time with them.

Hope you all have a Happy Thanksgiving :)


The simple steps I took to go from a $90 monthly cell phone bill to $18

Pixtawan via

Pixtawan via

An important step to saving money is finding ways to cut out the recurring charges you see each month.

And while I like to think I’m pretty good at finding deals, I am still frequently — and pleasantly — surprised to talk to people who are doing just a little bit better than I am. The surprise is even better when I find out that I can reproduce what they did and get the same low price.

It just goes to show that there are always ways to improve.

So let’s do that for cell phone service. Let me know in the comments what you paid and what features you get for that amount. If it takes a little extra hustling, share your steps and whether or not someone else could get the same deal.

I’ll go first


I’m with T-mobile and get:

  • Unlimited voice calls
  • Unlimited text messages
  • 2.5 GB of 4G data
  • Unlimited 3G data after those 2.5 GB of 4G data are used up
  • Unlimited international text messages
  • Unlimited international data
  • No contract :)

As I mentioned in the title of this post, I paid $18 last month — or to be more exact, $17.50.

How I got there

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you might know I was paying around $90 last year with Verizon before I made the switch. Here’s how I got from $90 to $18.

  1. Switched from Verizon ($19 savings brought me down to $71)
  2. Went down from 3 GB of data to 2.5 GB of high-speed data, which is included at no additional charge ($10 savings, down to $61)
  3. Asked for the Veteran discount ($8 savings, down to $53)
  4. Asked six members of my extended family to join my plan ($35 savings, down to $18)


As for whether these steps are reproducible, (1) and (2) definitely are.

Step (3) is reproducible if you’ve got a few years to spare  and don’t mind eating a lot of dirt. Ha! But seriously, the Veteran discount is actually a government discount, so lots of people are eligible for it.

Step (4) is reproducible for anyone because the people you add don’t actually have to be members of your family. However, the friends you pick should be trustworthy enough that you’re confident they’ll pay you on time. Of course, because T-mobile has no contracts, if your friends end up being deadbeats, you can just cut them out of the contract after a month of not paying.

And that’s that. Who paid more and who paid less?

A reader asks, “Is it good to use a balance transfer to pay off credit card debt?”

John Britt

Good morning! Let’s check out a reader question from Mimi:

I got about $4000 in credit card that I paying off about 3 hundred every month. It should take about 15 month right? I got checks in the mail from another credit card that say I pay 1% interest for a year. I think my card now is 16. Is this a scam? If it real should I do it?

Hi Mimi- Thank you for your email.

Without seeing them myself I can’t judge whether they’re real — and if you’re concerned, contact your credit card company directly — but what you’re describing is a real thing called a balance transfer.

A balance transfer is exactly what it sounds like; you use the checks (or fill out a form online) to pay off your high-rate balances, which transfers your balance to the new company. While you’re paying off the credit card, you pay a lot less interest so it can be a good way to save money.

Check out the fine print, though. These generally come with a balance transfer fee of 5% of the total balance you transfer. For you, that would be $200.

The numbers

If you kept paying away at your 16%, this is what your payoff would look like:

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

If you paid a $200 balance transfer fee to get that 1%, here’s what your payoff would look like:

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Since you’re not paying off as much interest along the way, your total payments are $120 less. That’s a good amount of money for not having to do anything!

Wait, so what’s the catch?

There are a few catches.

The balance transfer fee adds a little to your starting balance. The lower interest rate makes it worth it over the long run, but if you can find an offer without a fee, you’ll be better off. I believe the Slate card from Chase still has no balance transfer fee for new sign-ups.

Besides that fee, the other important number to look for on the offer is the penalty rate or the rate the credit card will reset to after the one-year 1% teaser rate expires. This should tell you how important it is that you stay responsible and keep to your plan to pay off this debt.

The most important thing is to be self-aware. I don’t know you personally, but many people with credit card debt got there because they like buying things. The most dangerous thing that a low-interest rate balance transfer can do is convince you that you should keep buying stuff because you’re not going to be paying much interest on it. And if that happens, you may find yourself stuck at the same point one year from now.

In other words, as Barry Choi from Money We Have suggests, “Pay off debts first before taking an expensive vacation!”

Remember that debt-free is the place you want to be. Think of this balance transfer offer as a cheaper way of getting there.

Also, in the meantime, maybe you should ask your credit card company if they can lower your rate.

Hope that helps and feel free to get in touch if you have more questions.

And to everyone, have a great weekend :)

Veterans eat free at these restaurants on Veterans Day 2014

The U.S. Army via Flickr

Here is a list of restaurants around the country who are offering free meals to Veterans and current service members on November 11, Veterans Day.

Please share this list widely with the Veterans you know and if you have time, maybe accompany them if they have no one else to go with. It’s the least we can do for those who have given so much.

November 10 or 11

At Bar Louie, get a free appetizer or entrée up to a $12 value.

Tuesday, November 11

At Applebee’s, get a free entree from a special Vets Day menu.

At Bob Evans, get free all-you-can-eat hotcakes.

At California Pizza Kitchen, get a free entree from a special Veterans Day menu (PDF).

At Chili’s, get a free entree from a special menu.

At Denny’s, get a free Grand Slam before noon.

At Hooters, get a free meal with a drink purchase

At IHOP, get free red, white, and blue pancakes.

At Krispy Kreme, get a free doughnut.

At Olive Garden, get a free entree from a special menu (PDF).

At Red Robin, get a free Tavern Double burger with bottomless steak fries.

At Sizzler, get a free lunch before 4 p.m.

At Starbucks, get a free tall brewed coffee.

At Texas Roadhouse, get a free entrée from a special Veterans Menu and drink for lunch.

At TGI Friday’s, get free lunch before 2 p.m.

Monday, November 17

At Bonanza Steakhouse, eat from a free buffet.

At Golden Corral, get a free dinner.