First-Time Homebuyer Doubts and Fears

Since it's Halloween, let's talk about something really scary. By purchasing a home, I'm making perhaps the single biggest change I've ever made in my life. I, someone who likes to move around, travel, and be debt-free, am taking on a massive amount of debt and planning to stay put permanently. Here are some of the spooky thoughts that have been running through my mind during this process (particularly at night, when I am trying to sleep).

-Am I crazy?
-Is my loan ever actually going to close, or is this just a long, cruel, 50-day joke?
-Was it really necessary to buy a house now just to get out of my terrible apartment situation?
-Are we really going to be able to make this mortgage payment every month for 30 years?
-How can I pay this mortgage off early? The interest payments on a 30-year mortgage are insane.
-How will we pay the mortgage if one of us loses our job? Or both of us? (We're going to rent out the third bedroom, that's how, and the second bedroom, if it comes to that, and if we got horribly desperate we could even convert the garage, but we really don't want to do any of these things.)
-What if the economy keeps tumbling and we end up foreclosed on and bankrupt?
-Is this really a wise move financially?
-Are housing prices going to go back down to 2000 levels?
-What if I end up hating the city I'm moving to?
-Did I make the decision to move to that city too abruptly?
-Did I pick the right house, or should I have held out for something bigger?
-What if there is something horrible about the location that I'm not aware of yet despite talking to the next door neighbor and making multiple visits to the house on different days of the week and at different times of day?
-How will we be able to afford the major repairs that the home is going to need eventually, like new plumbing?
-Did I pick the right neighborhood?
-What if the neighborhood goes downhill and we can't sell because housing prices have plummeted and then I'm stuck living in the same unsafe neighborhood I've spent much of my life wanting to get out of?
-Am I going to have to deal with a bunch of unwanted people knocking on my door (Girl Scouts and other salespeople, kids who lost their ball)?
-How the heck am I going to make a living and remodel a house at the same time?

I think most people have worries and doubts like these when they're buying their first homes. If you haven't done it yet, be prepared for what you're in for!

Happy Halloween!

Photo by Teo

Related Posts:
Signing Loan Documents for Our House
How I Feel About Locking My Mortgage Rate
Looking At New Real Estate Listings When You're Under Contract
Making Home Ownership Affordable
Navigating Real Estate Listing Lingo
Why You Should Use A Buyer's Agent
Understanding Closing Costs

How To Send A Wire Transfer

In order to get my down payment and closing costs to escrow to complete the purchase of my home, I had to do a wire transfer for the first time in my life. It's very common to have to wire funds for closing, though sometimes you can use a cashier's check. In my case, that wouldn't have been a very good option, because the escrow company is 75 miles away (needless to say, I didn't choose the escrow company).

I was under the mistaken impression that wire transfers were fast: you call the bank, give them the wiring instructions (i.e., the name, routing number, and account number of the recipient along with the amount you want to send), they do it, and the money is transferred instantly. Right?

Well, that's not the case at all. In case you ever need to send a wire transfer, I recommend taking the time to learn about it now. Here's what I learned during my investigation.

WaMu (now JP Morgan Chase): Takes 2 days to do a domestic wire transfer, 3 days to do a foreign wire transfer, and you must visit a branch in person.

Fidelity - Different types of accounts have different wire transfer times. For my joint account, which is a money market account and one of my secondary accounts, I can do a same-day wire transfer. For my core individual account, which is also a money market account, it takes a day. You have to talk to their special wire transfer department and get an approval number, then fill out some paperwork and fax it over. Fortunately, that process is pretty painless, as I've found things with Fidelity generally are. The fee to send one is a reasonable $15.

Western Union - You can send money in minutes, but you have to charge it to your credit card. I assume that my credit card would count this as a cash advance. Cash advances commonly cost about 3% and start accruing interest immediately. So this would be a very expensive option given the large amount of money I needed to wire, plus I don't have any credit cards with high balance limits. Also, Western Union has its own fees: to send just $1,000 with their Money in Minutes feature would cost me $79. To wire money directly to a bank with a three day waiting period would cost $49. But wait! There are also limits on how much money you can send per 30 days, which may make the service useless for large transactions.

Not only was this learning experience disconcerting because it is going to cause my loan to close yet another day late, but because I always thought that in an emergency, I could quickly access or send funds with a wire transfer. But now I know that isn't true, which I guess makes credit cards the best option (albeit not a good one).

I really wish that someone involved in my real estate transaction had told me that there is a time delay with wire transfers long before it was time for me to do one. I'm kind of shocked that no one said anything about it! Of course, it is also my fault for not researching the issue sooner and assuming I understood it when I had never done it before. But if you're reading this, at least you can learn from my mistakes and avoid having problems with wire transfers yourself.

Photo by yonghokim

Why I Am a Major Fidelity Fan

In the investing world, there are a lot of people who are die-hard Vanguard fans thanks to the low fees the investment company offers on their index mutual funds. I've considered switching to Vanguard several times, but I've never done it. Here's why.

First, the two index funds that I have with Fidelity appear to offer better returns than any Vanguard fund I would be interested in. Past performance does not indicate future returns, of course, but it's still worth looking at. It's not a meaningless indicator.

Second, Fidelity does have some extremely low-cost funds with an expense ratio even lower than some of Vanguard's funds, so expense is not an issue for me in considering a switch.

Third, I have been nothing but impressed with the customer service I have received from Fidelity, and I am not particularly easy to please. Through the Fidelity website, I can log into my account and instant message a rep instead of having to call them whenever I have a question. The rep always knows the answer or knows who to transfer me to, and I never have to wait for someone to become available. My questions are resolved with absolutely no hassle, and then I have a written record of the conversation I can refer to later in case I forget anything that was discussed. And when I have to call them, the first person I talk to always has the answer. It's so refreshing these days to talk to a customer service rep who is well informed.

Also, when I went to open a self-employed retirement account late last year, they overnighted the signup documents to me at no charge and included another prepaid overnight envelope to send them back to make sure I would be signed up before the cutoff date.

What more could I ask for?

Photo by Paul Keleher

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Should You Get A Flu Shot?

It's that time of year when messages abound that it's time to get a flu shot. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that people get vaccinated each year as early as September because the vaccination takes two weeks to become effective and flu season starts as early as October. They say that anyone who wants to reduce their chances of getting the flu should get vaccinated. They also particularly recommend that people who are at high risk of getting the flu or having complications from it get the shot:

Children aged 6 months up to their 19th birthday
Pregnant women
People 50 years of age and older
People of any age with certain chronic medical conditions
People who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
People who live with or care for those at high risk for complications from flu, including:
a. Health care workers

b. Household contacts of persons at high risk for complications from the fluc. Household contacts and out of home caregivers of children less than 6 months of age (these children are too young to be vaccinated)

The flu shot is an inactivated virus and it is given in the arm. There is also a nasal spray vaccine, FluMist, that is made with live flu virus that the CDC says does not cause the flu.

Personally, I've always had my doubts about the flu shot. I used to get one as a teenager. One year I got the flu shot and still got the flu. I felt awful for the better part of a week and missed about the only days of high school I ever missed for being sick. And, as the CDC website says, the effectiveness of the flu shot depends on "the similarity or 'match' between the virus strains in the vaccine and those in circulation."

Flu shots are relatively inexpensive and easy to obtain. For example, at CVS Pharmacy, you can get a flu shot for $30 and you don't need an appointment. It is even possible to get flu shots at some airports - a scam if you ask me, the prays on people's fears of getting sick on the plane, because the vaccine takes 2 weeks to become effective.

But are they necessary? I'm not alone in thinking they aren't. Anne Marie Helmensteine, Ph.D., writes on, "The vaccine is a sort of one-size-fits-all solution, even though there are more types of flu than covered by the vaccine and the flu types vary according to region."

Most people would gladly pay $30 to not get the flu, but the shot is far from a guarantee. And while the cost is relatively low for one person, let's say you have a family of five. The $30 flu shot now costs $150. Perhaps more importantly than the money, though, all vaccines have risks, so you might not want to get a vaccine that isn't truly necessary, especially when it might not be effective. As reports via CNN, safety studies around the flu vaccine may not be sufficient, and the flu vaccine contains a preservative that contains mercury, a known neurotoxin.

Being sick is no fun, nor is it good for your wallet, but personally, I don't think the flu shot is necessary, and I won't be getting one. I think a lot of people blindly assume that it is a good idea because it is so widely promoted, but you shouldn't believe everything you hear without doing some research on your own first. The truth is that the flu shot is not necessarily effective, may not be a good idea for your body, and the cost may not be worth it.

Photo by IamSAM.

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Signing Loan Documents for Our House

I have been watching shows about buying a house on HGTV for the last eight months, and they often show a snippet of the (probably staged) signing. This always involves the borrower(s) wearing nice clothes, going to a bank, and sitting in a very large room with a very attractive conference table with a bunch of other people to sign all the loan documents. I don't know how common this situation is in real life, but my experience with signing loan documents did not resemble this at all.

We signed our loan documents in our apartment on a Saturday. Our real estate agent was not there and neither was our loan officer. The only person there was a notary, who checked two forms of identification (we were not told ahead of time that we would need two forms of ID, so good thing we happened to have them) and gave us each of the 100 or so pages that were part of the loan documents. Then she took everything to FedEx to get it shipped back to the escrow company, which is located about 60 miles away from where I live.

Not all of the 100 pages had to be signed or initialed. For example, the closing instructions, which were several pages long, were there for the benefit of the escrow company, not us. Of course, being the meticulous person I am and this being the biggest financial transaction of my life thus far, I insisted on reading everything, which really meant skimming it because there was just so much, and the whole process still took two hours, which visibly annoyed the notary. Aside from the fact that it's just plain common sense to read anything before you sign it, can we say subprime mortgage crisis? Don't we all have plenty of evidence surrounding us as to why you should understand exactly what you're getting into and make sure there are no significant mistakes in your loan documents?

Our closing is already delayed because one of the many parties involved in this process (not me) is not on top of things (I suspect the escrow company) so I knew going into the signing that there was really no room to get nitpicky over errors in the documents if I wanted things to close on time. This made me nervous, as did the fact that I did not get the loan documents to review in advance, as I requested, nor did I get my HUD-1 24 hours in advance, as is supposedly required by law. (The HUD-1 is the estimated statement of closing costs and other money that must be paid by the borrower, minus any seller credits, for the transaction to close.) I got a couple of good faith estimates, but because my loan officer (according to her) was not able to get numbers on certain items from the escrow company, there were lots of new and different numbers on the HUD-1. Most importantly, it did not show that we had already put down half of our down payment as a deposit. I compared the HUD-1 with the GFE, but it was difficult to compare the two in a short period of time since the two documents look substantially different, the numbers are totaled in different ways, and not all the fee descriptions or amounts are the same. And even the HUD-1 is actually an estimate--you overpay it by, in our case, $400, and then once the transaction is totally complete, you (hopefully) get a refund check in the mail with the final closing statement.

For the most part, I felt that my preparation for buying a home over the last year and a half had prepared me well for our document signing. I understood what almost everything was and I knew what to look for. I made sure the interest rate was correct, that it was a fixed rate, that the loan term was correct, and that there was no prepayment penalty. When I got to the form requesting copies of previous years' tax returns from the IRS, I made sure the form specified which tax form and which years they were asking for so they couldn't fill in the blanks later and ask for any old thing. And I knew to pay attention to every page and not just sign blindly. Of course, paying attention only helps to the extent that you know what you're looking for.

Being that the HUD-1 is only an estimate and can theoretically be updated before any funds are paid, I went ahead and made a detailed spreadsheet that evening to compare it to my GFE. I found a couple of issues, but overall my loan officer did a phenomenal job estimating the closing costs and the amounts were extremely close. However, I am still attempting to get the issues resolved before I fork over any money. For example, the escrow company somehow managed to get the monthly homeowners insurance payment wrong, and not in my favor. Also, the escrow company wants to charge me an email fee of $75, which is just a blatant junk fee. Couldn't they have at least tried to disguise it as something that might actually cost money to do? It doesn't cost $75 to email anything, ever.

I guess the biggest problem with the process is that there were all these little mistakes here and there, and I had to sign off saying the documents were accurate if I wanted to get my loan. The pages with the information used to qualify me, for example, had my last employer's name misspelled, my employment dates off by a couple weeks, things like that. I know those details wouldn't affect whether I qualified for the loan, but I simply don't see why I should have to sign off on something that is untrue. If I had been able to review the docs in advance, I would have been able to correct everything without further delaying the closing and putting the entire transaction in jeopardy. There was also a name affidavit page where I had to sign saying that I was the same person as A. Fontinelle, Amy Fontinelle, and, mysteriously, Ami Fontinelle. Now, I have never in my life, not even during a silly teenage phase, spelled my name Ami, so I have no idea what that's about, yet I have to sign this doc. According to the notary, my name probably appears this way on one of my credit reports. Last time I checked, which was about two months ago, my identity had never been stolen, so I had to assume that this was only a typo. If my last name wasn't so uncommon, though, I probably would have been particularly uncomfortable signing this page. I mean, who knows who Ami Fontinelle could be and how she might handle her finances?

I'll let you know what happens when all is said and done. This was my experience signing loan documents--maybe it will give you some idea of what to expect when it's your turn.

Photo by hortulus

Related posts:
How I Feel About Locking My Mortgage Rate
Looking At New Real Estate Listings When You're Under Contract
Making Home Ownership Affordable
Navigating Real Estate Listing Lingo
Why You Should Use A Buyer's Agent
Understanding Closing Costs

Do You Trust Warren Buffet?

Do you trust Warren Buffet, one of the most successful investors in history, when it comes to investment advice? Because he's not panicking about the market. He's advocating that you buy stocks in good companies while the market is down. Read his calming words in his New York Times op-ed, Buy American: I Am.

I sure wish I had extra cash to put into the stock market right now, but until my home purchase has closed and I've finished remodeling, I'm not moving a penny. I'm hoping the market is still down by the time I make my self employed retirement contribution for the year, which could be as early as late December.

Photo by MaynardClark

How I Feel About Locking My Mortgage Rate

I locked the interest rate on my house yesterday after weeks of waiting. I wasn't happy with the rate we got, even though it's actually the exact rate we were quoted on our original good faith estimate, and it's also better than the rate we originally budgeted for.

But when the government bought Fannie and Freddie and mortgage interest rates dropped a ton, I started to expect something better. But we didn't benefit from that interest rate drop at all.

At the time I put an offer in, I got a competing quote that was significantly lower. That was the day after the Fannie/Freddie takeover. It's very possible that the other mortgage company was just saying anything to try to get my business and that they never could have honored that quote. It happens all the time. Ultimately, I didn't go with that company because I knew nothing about them, and my instincts liked another lender better.

But not knowing much about the mortgage industry and interest rates myself, despite all the research I've done over the last year and a half (there's just so much to learn), I really don't know if I was offered the best interest rate possible, and I don't feel like I have any way of truly knowing. Try researching FHA mortgage rates online and you'll find a bunch of uesless, outdated, and wrong information.

If you've never bought a house, you may be wondering what the big deal is about interest rates. Current rates, which are in the 6-7% range, roughly, are historically low rates for mortgages and generally good rates for borrowing money for anything, period. But even a half point difference in the interest rate has a significant impact on our financial situation, both short and long-term. So when I was told that we were getting an interest rate that was a half point higher than what I had set my hopes on, I felt my heart sink. I basically felt like someone had just told me that I owed them an extra many, many thousands of dollars, money that I would no longer have for retirement because I would have to give it to an arbitrary banking system instead.

Then I found out that I had a couple of options. One option was to pay about a point to buy my interest rate down to the rate I wanted. The other option was to plan on refinancing in the next couple years.

My loan officer encouraged the refinancing option. Her reasoning was that if our home went up enough in value, we would be able to get rid of our private mortage insurance quickly. Since we are buying a foreclosure, we are theoretically getting a good deal and will see our home value go up significantly once the market improves.

However, with the market the way it is, I don't want to bank on our home going up that much in value that quickly. I actually expect it to go down for a while. Yes, home prices have dropped a lot, but the runup in housing prices actually started around 1999 if you look at the housing price charts, and houses in my area are only down to 2003-2004 price levels. That leaves plenty of room for further decline.

Also, the amount of our monthly mortgage insurance payment is similar to the amount our monthly payment would decrease by if we paid the point. So why not go with the sure thing that I can take care of now, then not have to think about refinancing? Applying for a loan has been stressful and time consuming, and I have no desire to do it again anytime soon. Further, refinancing isn't free--just like when you take out a loan, you have to pay closing costs.

So we decided to go ahead and pay the point. It's tax deductible, which eases the sting, and it will pay for itself in three years, which I think is very reasonable. I like the thought of having a loan that I can stick with for the long term if I want, and I love the thought of saving thousands of dollars in the long run by paying a little bit extra up front.

Photo by NCinDC

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Looking At New Real Estate Listings When You're Under Contract

Making Home Ownership Affordable

Navigating Real Estate Listing Lingo

Why You Should Use A Buyer's Agent

Understanding Closing Costs

Housing and Net Worth

Successful Complaint Letter to The Gap

To follow up on my recent post about how to write an effective complaint letter, I thought I would share a complaint letter I wrote that was successful.

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing because I am very unhappy with my experience with my Gap credit card.

I signed up for this card because of the points/reward coupon system. However, I have found that this system does not work well at all.

The first time the system failed me was when I received a $20 rewards coupon that expired within only 30 days. When I wrote in to ask for a non-expired coupon, I received only a $10 replacement coupon. I thought this was rather insulting and rather strange as the coupons I had received in the past had expiration dates quite far in the future, sometimes more than one year.

My next problem occurred when I used a coupon to buy a pair of jeans which I ended up returning. I was reassured by store employees that the 1,000 points I had to accumulate to get that coupon would be credited back to my account so that I would not lose the value of my coupon. That was in January and it is now June. I never received those points.

The only reason I signed up for the Gap card was because it of its rewards. I have plenty of other credit cards I could use, which offer other rewards such as cash back, frequent flyer miles, and points that can be exchanged for merchandise. If the Gap card wants to keep my business, it needs to do a better job of administering its program correctly so that customers actually receive and are able to use the rewards they have earned.

I hope that these problems will be rectified.


Amy Fontinelle


So how was my complaint resolved? They sent me a $20 coupon with an expiration date sufficiently far in the future. Problem solved. I'm happy and they kept me as a Gap credit card customer.

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How To Write An Effective Complaint Letter
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Looking At New Real Estate Listings When You're Under Contract

I know there is one school of thought that says I should have quit looking at new real estate listings the minute I went under contract (so I wouldn't see something better and feel like I'd made the wrong decision) but I couldn't resist the temptation. First, if something dramatically better did come along, I would have sacrificed my deposit on the other house to get out of the contract. Second, if the first house fell through, I wanted to be prepared to jump on whatever else was out there.

For the most part, I have been pleased with the results of my continued looking. I haven't found a single house that I would rather have than the one I am buying, largely because I am very happy with my house's location (and very picky about acceptable locations).

But when I started seeing much larger houses than mine coming on the market for the same price, that's when I felt some buyer's remorse. One of the few things I compromised on with my house is that it isn't quite as big as what I wanted. It's definitely big enough for my needs, but I really would have liked an extra 100-250 square feet. And now there are houses with an extra 700 square feet selling for the same price I'm paying for my house.

I'm sure it will only get worse. I'm fully expecting housing prices to fall even further, but I want to move now. There is so much turmoil in the markets right now that I think it's impossible to predict what will happen with mortgage interest rates, how easy it will be to qualify for a loan in the future, or what will happen with housing prices. We have a new president coming into office in a few months and that's likely to change things significantly. I know that I can afford a house now, I can get a loan now, I like interest rates now, I found a house I like now, and I don't plan on moving again (ever) so I can handle being upside down for a while if that happens. As the old saying goes, "un pajaro en la mano vale dos en el arbusto" (a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush--for some reason, I learned this expression in Spanish before I learned it in English).

The thing is, with a bigger house come bigger expenses--namely, heating and cooling, furnishing, and renovating (I can barely afford to put hardwood floors in the house I'm buying--I couldn't afford to put them in a big house). So really, the smaller house makes more sense financially. If it ends up being too small down the road, I can always move or build an addition. But if I buy a big house that's located near the train tracks or on a busy street, I can't move the house to get some peace and quiet. And peace and quiet was number one on my list (tied with safety).

Photo by JOEM500 (of a house I definitely cannot afford!)

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How To Write An Effective Complaint Letter

As you may have noticed if you've been reading my blog for a while, I like complaint letters. I have been writing them since I was a child. When I was 8, I filled out the comment card at a seafood restaurant my family went to complaining that their floors were dirty (little did I know that the concrete floor thing was just a decorating style, albiet one I was not fond of). They sent me a $15 gift certificate even though I had filled out the card with green crayon. With $15, I could order an entree instead of the kid's meals my parents usually made me get! Needless to say, I learned at a young age how effective a complaint letter can be.

In recent years, I've reinstated the habit of letting companies know when I'm not happy. I don't take it to extremes - I don't write a letter to the Gap every time another hole shows up in one of my sweaters (though it happens so often that I'm starting to think I should). I generally save the letters for times when I feel I've been particularly wronged. Examples include the refund I requested from Super Shuttle that I described in my last post and letters to the Gap when I got cheated by their credit card rewards coupons.

I have a high rate of success with these letters, so I thought I'd share my tips for writing a successful complaint letter.

1. Save your efforts for the battles that matter. I'll admit that I've been guilty of complaining about a bag of potato chips (I think I mostly just wanted to see what would happen), but in general it probably isn't worth your time or effort to write a letter if the problem cost you less than $10 (or whatever seems like a reasonable threshhold to you).

2. Always be polite and avoid "yelling" or profanity. When you're writing to a big company, 99.9% of the time the person reading your complaint letter is not responsible in any way for the problem you experienced. If you are rude to them, why should they help you? A better tactic is to be polite but firm. Everyone has experienced problems with a product or service they purchased and will be willing to relate to what you're complaining about if you aren't rude. Your complaint may even be received by a disgruntled employee who is more than happy to help you.

3. Clearly state the problem and provide as many specific details as possible. Include dates, times, names of employees, license plate numbers, coupon expiration date, a copy of the terms and conditions of your agreement, or whatever pertinent details you can. This helps provide a solid basis for your argument and gives the company a way to investigate your complaint further so they can make sure it won't happen again.

4. Clearly state how you want the problem to be resolved. If you don't ask for something, you're a lot less likely to get it. If you want a discount on the next time you use the product or service, ask for it. If you'd rather have a refund, request that. The company will not always decide to give you what you're asking for, but think of your request as a starting point for negotiations and as a way to give them an idea of what they can do to make you happy.

Occasionally, you may not want to request anything specific if you think the company might offer you something better than what you would have requested. In these situations, you should still say something indicating that you hope the company will find a way to rectify the problem and keep you as a customer.

5. End the letter on a polite note. Thank the person for their time and concern.

6. Include your contact information. I generally provide my address, phone number, and email address to give the company their choice of how to contact me. I figure that this increases my chances of getting a response since everyone has their preferred method of communication.

7. Follow up. If your first request is met without a response after a reasonable period of time (which might be several weeks if your contact was by mail), send a second request (and be sure to state that it is your second request). If possible, contact a different person than you did the first time.

The next time you're upset about a product or service, try using these tips to write an effective complaint letter. I bet you'll find that it works.

Related posts:
Ask and You Shall Receive: My Consumer Victory with The Gap
Letter Writing Works
Complaint Letters Work
Gap Coupon Expiration

Bad Experience with Super Shuttle Equals Refund for Me

As I mentioned on my last post on traveling to New York City, I decided to use Super Shuttle to get from the airport to my friend's place. I got into town at 10:00 at night, and figured I shouldn't take the subway that late (actually, it would have probably been perfectly safe - if only my friends had told me that in advance!).

Well, I had a terrible experience, so I decided to write a letter to Super Shuttle requesting a full refund. Here is the letter I wrote:

Dear Super Shuttle Representative:

I am writing to express my concern about the appallingexperience I had with Super Shuttle on Friday, September 26, 2008 in New York City.

I made a reservation online several days in advance. My reservation stated that my flight would be arrivingat 10:00. My flight arrived on time, and I followed the instructions in my booking confirmation to use the courtesy phone in the baggage claim area to call the Super Shuttle. The shuttle going in my direction did not pick me up until 11:00. Then, the shuttle went to two other terminals to pick up additional passengers. We were not actually on the way to our destination until 11:30. By this point, we could have already been home if we had taken the AirTrain and subway.

It then took another two hours to get to our destination, partly because the driver did not speak enough Englisht o understand the passengers and not drop thepassengers off in the most efficient order as a result. The language barrier was not the main problem; it only contributed to the greater problem of the service generally being extremely late and extremely slow. I can't say whether this is a problem with the driver or with something in the way Super Shuttle operates. Based on another experience with an extremely late shuttle in San Francisco, I am inclined to think the main problem is with Super Shuttle's system.

There is no excuse for 1) the shuttle to pick us up anhour late and 2) the service to take three and a half hours to accomplish what the subway could have accomplished in an hour and a half or two. I signed upfor Super Shuttle because I thought it would be afaster and more convenient way to get to mydestination. Instead it was slow, hot, cramped, and full of unhappy passengers bickering with a driver who could not understand their directions.

I am writing both to alert you to this problem and to request a full refund. This is actually the second bad experience I have had with Super Shuttle so I am particularly upset. The details of my reservation are below for your convenience.

Amy Fontinelle

Within a few days, I got a phone call stating that I would be receiving a complete refund. Hooray.

Interestingly, Super Shuttle does not seem to provide any way to contact them except by email and my refund phone call came from an unlisted number. At least they replied to my email. If Super Shuttle had not issued a refund, I would have taken the issue up with my credit card company. Credit cards will also sometimes issue refunds to consumers for faulty products and services as long as you attempt to resolve the issue directly with the company first. This is one of the many protections available to consumers from purchasing products with a credit card and one of a few reasons why I buy everything with my credit card.

It's always a good idea to write a letter to the company when you have a legitimate complaint about something. You'll probably end up with a refund or some free stuff. Unfortunately, even though they gave me a refund, after two bad experiences I will still not be using Super Shuttle in the future, which is too bad, because the idea for their service is a good one. Maybe another company will step into this niche one day and provide superior service. Until then, I will have to rely on friends, cabs, and public transit.

Photo by stevelyon

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Traveling to New York City For Cheap

Last week I took a weeklong trip to one of the most expensive cities in the world - New York City. Can you believe that I only spent $300 for the whole thing? Here's how I did it.

1. Bought my ticket with frequent flyer miles. Not frequent flyer miles that I accured slowly and painfully over several years through multiple flights, mind you, but frequent flyer miles that I earned instantly and painlessly through a combination of two credit cards: the Delta SkyMiles card, which had a signup bonus of about 20,000 miles, and the American Express Starwood card, which let me redeem some of my Starwood Points (also earned as a signup bonus) for another 2,000 Delta frequent flyer miles. The other 3,000 miles I did earn with an actual paid flight. Savings: at least $300.

2. Stayed with a friend. I actually have several friends in NYC, so I had my choice of places to crash. Some of them would have been quite cramped (though they still would have been free), but I have one friend who lives far enough out of the central city that she actually had a whole extra room I could stay in. I did spend a lot of time on the subway each day, but I didn't mind. I can't remember the last time I finished reading a book in only a few days, and since I was one of the first people on, I always had a seat. Savings: $900 (over a hotel room).

3. Limited myself to free sights. There are so many free things to do in New York City. Just walking around looking at everything and experiencing the energy of the city provides endless entertainment. And the one museum I wanted to see, MOMA, is free on Friday nights thanks to a corporate sponsorship (as are many other museums across the country) so I saved $20 there. Savings: at least $100.

4. Stayed away from high-end restaurants. There is a ton of good food in New York City, and one of my goals was to eat as much of it as possible. By sticking with "ethnic" restaurants instead of trying to eat at Per Se and Nobu, most of my restaurant tabs were only $13-$25. Then for several meals, I bought food at a gourmet grocery store. The food was expensive for groceries, but cheaper than going out to eat. I had a lot of the staples and a lot of other things I can't get easily where I live: New York style pizza, bagels and lox, rugelach, non-Americanized Chinese food in Chinatown, Malaysian, German, and more. Savings: hundreds of dollars.

5. Traveled alone. Since I am self-employed, I get as many days off work as I want. Unfortuantely, my boyfriend is not so lucky, so he stayed home. However, that did make the trip considerably less expensive for our household. Savings: at least $600.

6. Took a legal pad, a pen, and my laptop with me. I didn't do too much work on my trip (it was supposed to be a vacation, after all), but I did enough to avoid taking a major financial hit. When you're self-employed, there are no paid vacation days. The only way to not have a serious drop in income from not working for a week is to make up the hours before you leave, after you leave, or gradually over the year (for example, my dad worked 42 hours a week instead of 40 hours a week when he was self-employed in order to give himself two weeks of "paid" vacation a year). Me, I'm crazy and planning to make up all the time this week. While I was traveling, I had plenty of time on the bus and the plane to do wor, and I did a little more on the evenings when I got home early. Savings: a week's income.

7. Took public transit/got a ride from a friend/used Super Shuttle to and from the airport. Most people in New York City would probably tell you to take a cab to and from the airport, but I can't stand the thought of forking over that much money for something I could do for so much less. On my way out of town, I rode the bus to the airport (2 hours, but only $1.25 instead of about $50). Then when I got into town, I took Super Shuttle, a shared ride service that falls somewhere between the cost of a cab and the cost of public transit, depending on the city. (My experience with Super Shuttle was so awful that it ended up being free, but that's the subject of another post.) To get from my friend's place back to the airport, I took the subway and the Air Train, which cost $7 and took about two hours. Then I had a friend pick me up from the airport at home since I arrived at night and didn't want to be on the bus then. Savings: about $200.

8. Used the subway and my feet to get around town. I bought a $25 weekly subway pass, which was perfect since I was in town for a week. I'm sure a cab would have been easier and less frustrating in certain circumstances, but I did save a lot of money. I've actually spent more money traveling to the Midwest because I have to rent a car there. New York City is very cheap in the transportation department, and the subway is pretty easy to use (although it does have quite a few limitations and complications that Manhattanites never seem to reveal to the outside world - it's not as easy most European subway systems, that's for sure).

So roughly, the cost of my trip broke down to $32 for transit and $268 for food (and if I had been on a tighter budget or wasn't such an epicurean, I certainly could have spent a lot less there). I really like to travel, and it's because I make choices like these on every trip I take that I am able to do it so frequently. If you're having trouble finding the money for a vacation, take some time to brainstorm ways you can make it as inexpensive as possible. Who would let you stay with them for a few days? Where could you go camping? How can you get enough frequent flyer miles for a free ticket, or where can you drive to cheaply? What places have inexpensive things to do once you're actually there? You don't have to spend $1,000 or more to have a great trip.
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Am I Feeling the Recession . . .Or Not?

Despite the doom-and-gloom forecasts we've been hearing in the financial news for months, I've mostly found myself wondering what all the fuss is about. Maybe I'm just lucky, but I think that a series of major decisions I made right around the time the economy was heading south put me in a position to continue living life as usual (if not better in some ways). Here's what I mean.

-A few months ago, I left the nine-to-five world to work from home. As a result, rising gas prices have meant very little to me. My boyfriend's gas expenses have increased, and since our finances are almost combined, it does affect our household somewhat, but with my lack of driving, our overall gas expense has not increased (and I am more than happy to be off the road).

-Increasing food prices? What increasing food prices? I've been making a point to eat what's already in my pantry, fridge and freezer instead of going out and buying whatever strikes my fancy (currently I'm resisting the temptation to run to Whole Foods and buy some lavender honey). These behaviors happen to coincide with things people feeling the pinch would do to save money. I have been doing them to save money too, of course, but it's not that I'm feeling the pinch of the recession, it's that I've been saving all my pennies to buy a house. In the last two months, I've spent less on food than I normally spend in one month. I've also stopped going out to eat, as many do during a recession, but again, that's because a frozen pizza is much cheaper than one from Pizza Hut and I want my house money. The only increase in food prices I've noticed seems like it may be related to my neighborhood grocery store's renovation. News flash to store: Just because your floors are new doesn't mean I want to pay an extra $1.50 for a block of cheese. I've stopped shopping there as a result. Also, I cook more now, but that's because I like to cook and I actually have the time to do it now that I work from home, not because I am feeling poor.

-The housing industry is a mess. This is the golden opportunity I have been actively planning for over the last several years. Don't get me wrong, I was tempted to buy during the housing frenzy--not because I thought I'd get rich, too (I just wanted to live in a place, not flip it), but because I was afraid, as many others were, that I'd be priced out of the market forever. Thankfully, I could not afford property at that time and I did not go to the bank and try to get a loan anyway (in fact, the thought never crossed my mind), but I can now. I'm going to buy a bank-owned property, and I'm also going to get a killer interest rate thanks to the failure of Fannie and Freddie.

-Increased sinning. The sin industries are said to do well in times of recession. The idea is that people cannot afford expensive luxuries, so they buy inexpensive ones instead--a glass of wine here, a fancy chocolate bar there. For me, thriving on affordable luxuries is a way of life, so my habits haven't changed at all in this regard.

-Diversified income stream. Since I am self employed, I have several clients rather than a single employer. My clients are also spread across several industries. This means that if one of my clients gets hit hard and has to lay me off, I will only lose part of my income, not all of it. Same thing if a particular industry gets hit hard--only part of my income should suffer. The flip side is that unlike the average employee, I can't claim unemployment benefits, even if I were to lose all of my clients. And yes, I've been fortunate to have plenty of work, which is a blessing I have not taken for granted.

-Investment returns: My retirement accounts are down 15%. Is this scary? Not really. I just see it as interesting. I don't need that money for a few more decades, and since I'm not selling, my losses are only on paper. In fact, I want to put more money in since the share prices of my mutual funds have taken such a tumble. Now is the time for making the most of dollar cost averaging. Unfortunately, my ability to take advantage of this downturn in the economy is limited since I am about to put all of my money into a house, but I do plan to invest further in the stock market if I have any money to spare after all the renovations are paid for.

If you are feeling the effects of the recession, I'm truly sorry. This is not a "ha ha, I've got it good and you don't" article. My point is that it is possible to set up your life in such a way that you can be relatively sheltered from the effects of a recession, and also that if you live frugally day in and day out, you are less likely to feel the effects of a down economy. Of course, all this doesn't mean that I don't feel nervous too when I hear the analysts saying that this is the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, but I guess I just have faith that things will work out okay.
Is the recession impacting you? Share your thoughts in the comments.
P.S. I know it's geeky of me, but I'm so excited about the photo in this post--I took it myself in Times Square last week.