Making Use of Credit Card Benefits, Part 1: Rental Car Insurance

You may not know this, but your credit card provides a lot of additional services in addition to letting you postpone payment on purchases and earn cash back or frequent flyer miles. One of these services is rental car collision insurance. Car rental companies will always try to sell you insurance options that can add an extra $30 a day or more to the cost of your rental, but most people don't need to buy this coverage. If you're worried about the liability you take on when you're driving a rental car, read on to learn the important details of the rental car insurance you are eligible for when you pay for a rental car with your credit card.

Discover's travel protection program includes $25,000 in car rental insurance. According to their terms and conditions, if you rent a car for 31 consecutive days or less with your card, pay for the entire rental with your card, and decline the rental car company's loss/damage waiver, you are eligible for the $25,000 in car rental insurance. This insurance applies to collisions only. You must first use your own insurance to cover the accident, and then this secondary coverage kicks in. You probably won't be surprised to learn that Discover's insurance does not cover personal injury (which can very quickly exceed $25,000) or personal liability (which is why it's great to have an umbrella policy), but you may be unpleasantly surprised to learn that this insurance does not cover damage to other vehicles or property -- it only covers damage to the car you have rented. You also must have rented the vehicle in the United States or Canada (and driven within the area allowed by the rental agreement) and it must be a basic vehicle -- no trucks, no antiques, and no high value vehicles are eligible for coverage. If the accident is a result of your being drunk or high, don't expect any coverage, and if you're the only person listed on the rental agreement but your friend drives the car, once again, you're not covered. Impressively, the policy covers your deductible from your primary insurance -- so if you have a $1000 deductible through your policy with State Farm and you get into an accident, you won't be responsible for the first $1,000 worth of damage, Discover will. Discover's policy does not explain whether they will cover you if you do not have your own primary auto insurance, and I was unable to get a response from them on this matter. Discover's insurance coverage is provided by a company called Chubb.

Mastercard's MasterRental program only covers your car if you rent it for 15 consecutive days or less, which is still sufficient to cover most people's vacation rentals, but may not be adequate if you're renting for other reasons (say, because your own car was totaled in an accident). Again, you'll need to pay for the entire rental with your Mastercard and decline the coverage offered by the rental car company. The vehicle must have an MSRP of less than $50,000 and must not be a truck, pickup, sport utility truck, full size van on a truck chassis, camper, antique, offroad vehicle, or other recreational vehicle. MasterRental will cover physical damage to or theft of the vehicle, towing if your vehicle is in a collision, and reasonable loss of use. Again, they expect your primary insurance to pay first, but they will cover your deductible. If you have no other insurance (for example, because you don't own a car), MasterRental will act as your primary form of insurance. So even if you don't have your own insurance, you don't need to buy the rental car company's collision insurance if you're paying with your Mastercard. Keep in mind that Mastercard's insurance does not cover personal injury, personal liability, personal property, medical payments to others, or damage to other vehicles. Unlike Discover, Mastercard's coverage extends to most of the world, with a few exceptions. Overall, it seems to be a more comprehensive policy.

American Express explains their policy fairly clearly on their website, but the kind of coverage you get depends on which American Express card you have (i.e. Green, Platinum, Blue, etc.).
You can read about Visa's coverage here. Since most policies are fairly similar overall, I won't get into an analysis of each major companies policies.

It's important to note that all of these policies have more fine print than I've been able to outline here, and the policies vary slightly from company to company. The overall gist is similar, though: if you're renting an ordinary vehicle for an ordinary purpose and pay for it with your credit card, you'll probably get collision coverage automatically, which means that you can save a good chunk of change by not buying the rental car company's collision damage waiver insurance. Whether you will need the other types of insurance offered (which may include personal accident insurance and supplemental liability insurance) depends on what kind of coverage you already have through your regular car insurance policy or lack thereof. If you have any concerns or unusual circumstances regarding your car rental, read the fine print or call the credit card company with your questions before you rent (and take notes, including the name of the customer service rep). It can be a challenge to track down these policies online, but if you contact your credit card company, they should be able to mail you a copy of the policy.

Car accidents can be very expensive, so it's important to know what you're getting into and make sure you're protected before you rent.

Photo by shrff14

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Bank of America's Payment Holiday

If you have a credit card with Bank of America and you access your account online, you may have noticed a message that says, "Take a payment holiday. This month's payment is optional." Sounds great, doesn't it? Here's a good rule of thumb: any time a credit card company offers you something that sounds great, it is probably a great deal for them and a terrible deal for you.

When you click on the link to learn more, Bank of America tells you that "[a] payment holiday allows you to skip a monthly payment on your credit card, GoldOption, or GoldReserve account. If you omit a payment, finance charges will continue to accrue on your balance."

And that's all they tell you. There's no more fine print or further explanation. I'm horrified by this. Why? Because I think that unsuspecting consumers will get themselves into trouble with this offer, and I think that's exactly what Bank of America is hoping for.

If I didn't know better, I would read that and think I could just not pay anything for a month with no consequences.

But I know better, and I know what questions to ask. I notice that they don't tell you whether you have to specifically request a payment holiday, or whether it will kick in automatically if it's shown as available and then you don't pay your bill. It doesn't say whether omitting a payment will cause your interest rate to go up. It doesn't say anything about late fees. It doesn't say what happens the following month. Will your minimum payment go up since you skipped the minimum payment for a month?

My best guess as to what a payment holiday is, from the limited information available and my own experience and knowledge, is that if you don't send in any payment for a statement where you've chosen to take a payment holiday, which you better call them up and ask for, get the name of the person you talked to, then send a letter by certified mail that confirms your conversation, you won't be hit with a late fee, they won't hunt you down for not forking over your $15 minimum payment, and they won't report your account to credit reporting agencies as being late. However, you might have to call them later and argue about whether they gave you a payment holiday or not because you might one day discover that your payment is "late." Also, during the payment holiday, you will rack up interest on the entire amount you owe.

I suppose that if you are already carrying a balance on your credit card, this would kind of be a good option. Presumably, if you are already in debt, you might be having trouble making ends meet and getting all of your bills paid, so being able to skip the minimum payment for a month might mean being able to pay the cell phone bill and that you're only paying interest on another $15 (or whatever your minimum payment is) that you wouldn't already be paying interest on. I don't know if Bank of America is extending this offer to customers that fit this profile, though.

If, however, you are the type of customer who normally pays your bill in full and on time but you see this offer and decide to take advantage of it because you're having a tight month, you might suddenly find yourself in a world of trouble because of the finance charges you will accrue. The finance charges, the current bill, and the regular expenses you will put on your credit card in time between your current statement and the next statement will make it even harder to pay your next bill in full and on time. You might suddenly find yourself in credit card debt almost completely by accident.

If this deal actually benefited consumers, Bank of America would be a lot more forthcoming with the details. In reality, they only give consumers a bare minimum of information, and that smells like trouble. Bank of America's supposed payment holiday is a raw deal for consumers. Just say no.

Wasting Money on Cheap Jewlery

Many people buy brand-name or higher priced items under the belief that you get what you pay for. While this saying is valid in many situations, it's just as often invalid. Unfortunately, you usually can't tell if you're getting what you paid for until, well, you've already paid for it. This is definitely the case with jewelry.

I don't buy expensive jewelry because it's too easy to lose it, have it stolen, or get sick of it. It doesn't matter if a necklace I buy will still look as good fifty years later as it did the day I bought it if I'm unlikely to still own and like that necklace in fifty years. I also don't want to give anyone a flashy reason to mug me. So I buy cheap jewelry.

I used to buy my jewelry at Claire's, where jewelry is priced for teenage allowances, until I started feeling embarrassed about being the oldest person in the store. I don't have much use for neon pink hoops and frog earrings, anyway. I was also tired of my jewelry falling apart or turning my ears green.

So now I buy department store jewelry, but only the stuff that hangs on the display racks--nothing that's expensive enough to lock up in a case. I also get some jewelry from Target, Old Navy, and Etsy. Instead of paying about $6 for a pair of earrings, I pay about $15. Unfortunately, I'm still having to stop wearing my jewelry long before I get sick of it because it is changing color or losing its sheen. I have a jewelry polishing cloth that does a brilliant job of removing tarnish, but it can't fix cheap construction. A few of my "silver" earrings have started turning copper, which I'm guessing is because the "silver" coating has worn off. I'm surprised that using copper saves the jewelry companies any money, though, since last time I checked, thieves were still going into abandoned buildings to steal the copper wires and pipes and the metal in a penny was worth more than the penny's face value.

It's disappointing to find a pair of earrings I like only to have them become unwearable after as little as a year. I guess if I want my jewelry to last, I will have to pay enough to get real silver. Of course, I have other jewelry that looks just fine after several years that I spent very little money on, so it's not a cut-and-dry situation, which makes it hard to choose how to spend my money. Do I spend $10 on a bracelet and hope that it will still look nice after a year or two, or do I spend $50 or more and hope that I still like it enough after a year or two to make the extra money I spent worth it?

For now, the only clear solution I have is to stop buying "silver" jewelry made by Guess, because I don't have anything made by them that hasn't turned copper. (If I end up writing them a letter, I'll let you know what happens.) I could also try to buy more beaded jewelry, since it doesn't seem to have the same color-changing issues. For special occasions when nothing but elegance will do, maybe I'll ask for some sterling silver jewelry next Christmas.

Photo by eek the cat

JC Penny Coupon Code

Use this link to get a coupon for 20% off at JCPenney, both in stores and online, on Sunday, February 10.

Fifteen Ways Being Uncool Saves You Money

I've never been "cool" or "popular." In certain situations with certain people, I can fake it for short periods of time, but the truth always comes out soon enough. Thankfully, I managed to get over this complex at the relatively young age of 16 and I've been benefiting from it ever since. In addition to all of the psychological benefits that come with not pretending to be someone you aren't or trying to meet others' expectations all the time, I've also found that being uncool can save you a whole lot of money.

As an uncool person, here are a few of the many things you won't have to spend your money on:

1. A fancy car, or anything nicer than a functional junk bucket (if that).Other people may laugh at my car behind my back, but I'm laughing all the way to the bank. Not only did I save on the purchase price, I also save on insurance year after year.

2. Name brand clothes, shoes, and accessories. There are times when a name brand gets you a higher quality product, and in these cases I will certainly buy brand name products. However, I don't buy them just to impress other people. Why spend $300 to carry around free, unlimited advertising for Louis Vuitton?

3. Fashionably up-to-date clothes, shoes, and accessories. I have no idea if my pants are in style this season or not. All I know is that they fit well, and I got them for 75% off on eBay. If you don't have to wear the latest styles or the hottest brands, your clothes will cost less initially and you'll be able to wear them for longer.

4. Name brand groceries. Unless you're really attached to the slight difference in the flavor of Oreos over store-brand chocolate sandwich cookies, you can save a bundle while still getting perfectly good food if you avoid brand hype. Many times, even if you use a coupon to purchase a national brand, the regular price of the store brand will still be a better deal.

5. Bottled water. Bottled water is just purified tap water. If you don't trust your local government to provide you with clean water, get a water filter and be done with it. You'll save a ton of money, and it's much better for the environment than manufacturing and throwing away (or even recycling) all those bottles. There's no point in bragging about your hybrid car if you're still drinking bottled water. That being said, I do like to have a couple of water bottles on hand that I re-use over and over again. Taking my own water to sporting events and carrying an empty bottle with me through airport security saves me lots of money on the other side of the gates.

6. The latest cell phone. If your old phone has quit working, get a new (to you) one on eBay for pennies on the dollar instead of getting stuck in another two year service contract or blowing $200 or more on the latest and greatest toy that's full of fun but unnecessary gadgets you've successfully lived without for years. (How many people use their camera phones regularly?)

7. Expensive cosmetics. The same companies often make both an expensive and an inexpensive line of cosmetics, with virtually no difference in quality between the two, so go ahead and buy your makeup at the drugstore. For cosmetics that are best tested before you buy (like lipstick), go for the less expensive lines at Sephora or hit the Clinique counter. Also, some companies will give or sell you samples (like Mary Kay or Paula's Choice).

8. Anything at full price, because you don't think you are too good for the sale rack, eBay, Craigslist, garage sales, or thrift stores. Just because an item is on sale or has been used before doesn't mean there is anything wrong with it. Thrift stores, even places like Goodwill and Salvation Army, are generally fairly picky about the quality of merchandise they'll actually put on the sales floor (try donating a broken desk to them and you'll see what I mean). Most of their merchandise comes from nice upper and middle class homes and has been well cared for, but the original owner has simply gotten tired of their item, upgraded to something nicer, or had to get rid of non-essentials when they moved.

9. Frequent haircuts and/or stylish hairstyles. I'm not advocating getting one of those $15 haircuts to save money - that's a good way to get a hack job done on your hair and have to spend more money to get it fixed then you would have had to spend to get it done right the first time. For women, hairdressers and magazines will tell you that you need to get your hair cut every six to eight weeks. Maybe that's true if you want to have perfect looking hair all the time, but I find that I can stretch out the time between haircuts a lot by simply wearing my hair up or curling the ends under when my hair is getting scraggly. Avoiding highlights, salon dye jobs, and complicated haircuts that require lots of styling products will also save you lots of money.

10. An overpriced luxury apartment or an expensive home in a prestigious zip code. Whether you're renting or buying, you can often get more bang for your buck if you're willing to live in an average or slightly below average neighborhood. As far as luxury apartments go, with every overpriced rent check you hand over, you're putting yourself further and further away from owning a nice home instead of owning just a mediocre one, owning more than you can comfortably afford, or having to keep renting.

11. Vacation homes. Vacation homes come with great bragging rights, but they're not a good use of your money if they're sitting empty when you're not there. If that's your MO, you're better off renting your vacation lodging. Owning a vacation home isn't necessarily a bad use of your money, however, if you make lots of rental income off of it while you aren't using it.

12. Dry cleaning. Sure, it's nice to not have to do your own laundry or ironing, but at several dollars per garment, it's an incredible waste of money. Shop carefully to avoid buying dry clean only clothing, and don't let yourself be too busy or important to do your own laundry. Even hiring someone to do your laundry for you in your home or apartment once every two weeks is probably cheaper and faster than dropping off, picking up, and spending money on dry cleaning.

13. Constant home upgrades. I spend a lot of time in an upscale residential neighborhood, and I'm stunned by how much construction goes on there. Don't live in a neighborhood where competing with your neighbors is the norm, and you'll also get to avoid all that construction noise.

14. Going out. If you don't feel the need to say you've been to the latest trendy restaurant, bar, or club, you'll save a ton of money. Eating at your favorite local Thai hole-in-the-wall will allow you to enjoy the pleasures of eating out while spending far less money.

15. Alcoholic drinks. If you're willing to fulfill your craving for a drink at home, or sneak a flask or some hotel-bar sized bottles of liquor in with you when your friends want to go clubbing, you won't have to blow $10 a pop on bar drinks -- instead, $10 or less will allow you to drink for the whole night. A well-stocked home bar can be purchased for the cost of several bar drinks, but it will last a lot longer.

The truth is that most financially successful people are very modest in their spending habits and don't flaunt their wealth, according to Thomas J. Stanley's excellent book (and audiobook), The Millionaire Mind. Their money is largely socked away, providing them with security and peace of mind, instead of being spent on showy things that will make them look cool to other people. If you make your purchasing decisions based on what really fulfills your needs and wants instead of based on what you're told to purchase because it will make you cooler, you'll not only save money, but get more personal satisfaction per dollar spent.

Online Coupon Code Sites Reviewed

It's easy to get more bang for your buck when shopping online. Sales tax does not apply to many purchases, and shipping is often free with a certain minimum purchase. On top of that, you can get cash back through Ebates or Fatwallet or earn frequent flyer miles for your purchases. Finally, if you're willing to spend ten extra minutes looking before finalizing your purchase, you can often find a coupon code that will save you a few extra bucks. To save you much of the time and hassle that I've spent prowling for codes, here are my thoughts on which coupon code sites are worth your time and which ones are not.

Retailmenot is my favorite site because if there is a coupon code to be had, I will almost always find it there. The site relies on users to submit codes they've received. The site's interface is user-friendly, their coupon codes frequently work, you can leave and read comments about whether and how a coupon worked, and you can remove from your screen coupon codes that you tried but didn't work. Users can rate whether a coupon worked for them or not, which gives you a good idea of whether you should bother to try it in the first place. Some stores, like Old Navy, have requested that Retailmenot not post coupon codes submitted by users. When you see a notice like this, it generally means that you'll have a hard time tracking down coupon codes for that store anywhere on the web, which can save you some time and frustration.

Dealcatcher is another favorite site of mine for their ease-of-use. However, they only seem to have coupon codes that are officially sanctioned by companies and widely available to the general public. This site seems to be more for letting users know about sales. This doesn't help me, because if a store I want to shop at is having a sale, I probably already know about it.

CouponCabin likes to brag that they have been featured all over the press, from NBC to USA Today. This is supposed to give the site credibility, but I've never found it useful. It is one of many sites that wants you to click on their links to "activate" savings. The truth is that these savings are often available to anyone, outlined on that retailer's website, and do not require any supposed activation. The "coupon" company is likely just collecting affiliate revenue from people who click on the links because they don't know any better. That's not a business model I want to support.

The Bargainist is most similar to Dealcatcher. It also has an attractive layout, but their offers usually aren't very up-to-date and aren't very plentiful compared to what you can find on Retailmenot. Still, the Bargainist is a valid site with a clean design and may be useful for some people. (To me, this seems like a site geared towards shopaholics. That's probably just my interpretation, but I can't think of any other reason why one individual user would want to see coupons for everything from cutting boards to camcorders on the same page unless they wanted to be tempted to impulse shop. I don't like Amazon's Goldbox deals for the same reason.) and other bulletin board coupon sites seem to be worthless for finding coupon codes. Whenever I come across a link to one of these sites through Google, I end up on a page with a coupon code from 2004. Not helpful.

CouponAlbum is basically the same site as Coupon Cabin and has an equally stupid name. Albums are for photos.

Dealtaker is basically the same as Coupon Cabin and Coupon Album, but with a more annoying user interface. Don't waste your time.

MyCoupons is similar to Retailmenot, but it doesn't seem to have as many codes and the interface looks more cluttered.

As you can see, there are really only a couple of coupon code sites worth visiting, despite what you might think from simply googling "(insert store name here) coupon code." If you happen to find a useful code somewhere besides Retailmenot or MyCoupons, consider yourself lucky (and let me know about it!).

Screenshot by Torley

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Book Review: The 4-Hour Workweek

Timothy Ferriss, a twenty-nine-year-old, self-proclaimed member of the New Rich, recently published his first book, The 4-Hour Workweek. In his book, Ferriss proposes that retirement should be worst-case scenario insurance and that we'd all be better off taking mini-retirements throughout our lives instead of postponing true freedom until age 65 or later, calling retirement the "deferred life plan." He sets forth a detailed four-step plan designed to get us to live more and work less now, not later. Each chapter contains several action steps to take and questions to answer for yourself, preferably in a journal. This format, if you actually follow it, will put you closer to defining what you really want to be doing with your time and figuring out how to get there. The book assumes that, as part of achieving this new lifestyle, you can either negotiate a remote work agreement with your current employer (preferably, an agreement that has you out of the office all five days a week) or that you're willing to become an entrepreneur.

The four steps to achieving this lifestyle are:

Definition - What components characterize the lifestyle of the New Rich, and how does this lifestyle differ from (and work better than) what most people do?

Elimination - Expands upon Pareto's 80/20 principle and teaches you how to do more work in less time.

Automation - Putting your cash flow (income generation) and life management (bill paying, business management, etc.) on autopilot.

Liberation - Avoiding being confined to one location due to work, whether that's a particular office, geographic location, or both.

In the Definition section, Chapter 2 gives you new rules to live by, like "less is not laziness," explaining that "our culture tends to reward personal sacrifice instead of personal productivity," and "the timing is never right," whether it's time to quit your job or to make any other major decision in your life. Chapter 3 conquers the fear of leaving your job by helping you define the worst-case scenario that could occur when you quit and determine how you would handle it. Chapter 4 proposes that unreasonable and unrealistic goals are easier to achieve because you have less competition and more adrenaline. (While I think there's some truth to this idea, I don't think it should be presented as a fact.) This chapter also defines boredom, rather than sadness, as the opposite of happiness, and excitement as what most people are really seeking in their lives.

In the Elimination section, Ferriss says that instead of trying to be as busy as possible (efficient), we need to learn to be as effective as possible (getting as much truly necessary work done in as little time as posible). Doing your hardest task before 11:00 every day will make you feel a lot more relaxed throughout the day and help you accomplish difficult tasks more quickly (it really works). He points out that the typical 9-5 workday is an arbitrary schedule that doesn't really have anything to do with working effectively (Amen, brother!). Chapter 6 provides an excellent crash course in speed reading and shows you how to stop the inflow of useless information into your life (because it takes up time and mental space that could be put to a better use), while chapter 7 gives extremely valuable information on how to get others to stop wasting your time by managing emails, phone calls, and in-person interruptions more effectively.

In the Automation section, Chapter 8 explains how to outsource your life to surprisingly inexpensive virtual assistants in order to free up your time as well as teach you how to be a boss if you've never done it before, so that you'll later have one of the skills necessary to run your own company. I found this to be one of the most fascinating chapters in the book. Chapter 9 teaches you a method for making the amount of money you need to pursue your dreams with as little time and effort as possible so that you can pursue excitement with the rest of your time instead of slaving away in someone else's office for 40+ hours a week. This chapter is much more detailed and action-oriented than I expected after reading similar suggestions about being a business owner in books like Rich Dad, Poor Dad. In fact, Ferriss's plan extends for a full three chapters. However, he fails to address some of the additional stresses of being a business owner or the tax implications.

In the Liberation section, chapter 12 outlines step-by-step how to convince your company to let you work from home. Chapter 13 attempts to allay your fears about quitting your job if working from home in your current job just isn't an option, and chapter 14 is all about traveling cheaply and well overseas, again with quite a bit of detail and suggested outside resources, but also with the assumption that traveling overseas is how you would prefer to spend your free time. Chapter 15 seeks to help you avoid the depression that can seep in when you're having a hard time figuring out what to do with your newfound time, and chapter 16 lists thirteen "slipups you will make," which is a great way to head off discouragement before it even happens.

If you're not sure if this book is for you, Ferriss's blog will give you almost as much information as the book itself (for free). Impressively, Ferriss, or someone acting on his behalf, actually manages to reply to all comments left on his blog and provides easy ways for readers to contact him with questions. The website also contains reader-only resources that can be accessed by entering a specific word from a specific location in the book.

Probably the main gripes I had with the book were how easy it makes totally overhauling your life sound and the strong emphasis on using your newfound free time to become a world traveler. For Ferriss, taking advantage of what other countries have to offer that the United States does not is clearly the preferred way to spend his time, and his point about spending time abroad in order to break yourself of the workaholic American mindset certainly has merit. As someone who likes to travel myself, I appreciated his detailed advice on how to travel cheaply and well, but as someone who also has people at home that she doesn't want to spend extended periods of time away from, I would have appreciated some insights on what someone might do with all this free time if they would rather stay right where they are. Volunteer work and taking classes immediately come to mind for me, but I'm sure there are other options that most people wouldn't come up with on their own.

Though I disagreed with some of the author's points and don't find all of his advice trustworthy, I am still glad I read this book. In fact, I am re-reading it. The book both made me feel amazing by reminding me of all the possibilities that are out there (once you've been in the same routine for a few years, you start to forget) while also making me feel sick to my stomach that I wasn't living my life to its fullest. The book's warning, "Don't read this book unless you're ready to quit your job," is dead-on. But I think you should read this book even if you don't want to quit your job. Reading about all of the possibilities this book presents motivated me to take significant steps towards achieving some of my goals, like taking classes and going on a trip to Europe, and it will motivate you, too -- which makes it well worth the $12, if you ask me.

Stock photo from

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Gap Coupon Expiration

One of the main reasons I signed up for my Gap credit card was to get 5% back on my clothing purchases. They give this cash back in the form of reward certificates, which are issued in $10 increments. After my first billing cycle, I had accumulated $20 in reward certificates. I received the certificate in late September or early October. When I went to use it in late December, I was stunned to discover that it didn't work because the expiration date was October 31. Why would Gap send me a reward certificate that expired in one month?

Figuring it was either a mistake or a poor business practice, I wrote Gap a letter expressing my displeasure and enclosing my expired certificate. They wrote back promptly but sent me only $10 as a replacement, saying that it was not customary for them to reissue expired certificates. They basically ignored the issue I was upset about, which was that the coupon expired so shortly after the date it was issued to me.

To add to my frustration, the next reward certificate I received had an expiration date of December 2008! So it doesn't seem like Gap's policy is to send out certificates that expire faster than people can use them. If that's the case, why wouldn't they just replace my expired $20 certificate with a valid $20 certificate?

It does make a person wonder if the company might have intentionally sent out a bunch of expiring coupons, knowing that a few people would use them before they expired, most people wouldn't and would do nothing, and only a couple people would complain. The company could save thousands of dollars this way, and most people would suspect nothing, especially if the company only did it occasionally.

Between this incident and the hassle I went through last time I returned an item, Gap is starting to fall out of my good graces.

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Grammar and Writing Tips for Better Work Documents

When it comes to resumes, work documents, and other professional writing, the quality of your writing directly impacts your success. Poor quality writing can lead to missed opportunities and negatively affect your earning power or financial well-being. When you don't write correctly, you can come across as ignorant or careless and confuse your readers.

Many people aren't writers, but still have to write important documents at work that will be read by many people. In my work as an editor, I've found that most non-writers tend to make the same easily correctable mistakes over and over again. If you'd like some tips for making sure the work that you spend so much time and effort writing will be clearly understood and respected by your co-workers and clients, these simple tips will go a long way.

Tip 1: Clarify unfamiliar terms. When using jargon, make sure that all members of the document's intended audience will understand your terminology. For terms that may be unfamiliar, be sure to define each one the first time it appears in the document. This can be done seamlessly using parentheses or dashes. If you're not sure if a term will be understood or not, err on the side of caution.

This tip is especially important when creating a company website -- make sure you write in such a way that even newcomers will understand what your company does.

Tip 2: Use complete sentences. For some reason, business people like to write in incomplete sentences. However, for the sake of clarity and correctness, in formal documents you should always avoid using incomplete sentences. Your documents will come across as more polished and professional this way.

Tip 3: Use punctuation correctly. Some of the most common punctuation errors that people make are underuse and overuse of commas, incorrect use of apostrophes, and misunderstanding of when to use "its" instead of "it's."

Incorrect example: "Some of the most common punctuation errors that people make are underusing, and overusing, commas."

Correct example: "Some of the most common punctuation errors that people make are underusing and overusing commas."

Correct Example: Use commas to set off introductory words. "Sometimes, I like to have fish for dinner."

As far as "it's" and "its," most people know this rule but simply don't proofread carefully enough to catch their typos. "It's" is an abbreviation for "it is," while "its" is possessive.

Correct Example: The store is in its final days before going out of business.

Tip 4: Make your verbs agree with your subjects. In order to do this, you have to be able to clearly identify the subject. This sounds easy, but when the subject and the verb of a sentence are separated by a phrase that doesn't require commas, people often make the wrong verb choice.

Correct Example: "The survey covering several topics reveals a consumer bias." The mistake that people tend to make is to have the verb be "reveal" in order to agree with "topics," which is not the subject. "The survey" is the subject, and therefore the verb must be plural to agree with the singular subject.

Tip 5: Avoid Excessive Capitalization. I don't know what it is about the Corporate World, but people sure do like to capitalize Stuff to make it seem More Important Than It Really Is. Stick to the normal rules of capitalization to avoid coming off as a Pompous Bastard.

Tip 6: Be consistent.This tip applies to all the stylistic choices you make in your writing. However you do something the first time should be the same way you do it every subsequent time. Attention to details will help your work appear purposeful and coherent. For example, when using commas in a series with "and," use the optional comma before "and" every time or never. Another situation where people are commonly inconsistent is when making a list with bullet points. Here, make sure to use periods after each point or not at all. Complete sentences merit periods; sentence fragments do not.

There is so much bad and sloppy writing in the world that just by learning and using these six simple tips, your work will easily stand out far above the rest. When you write well, people assume that you are intelligent and highly competent, which will help you get hired in the first place as well as advance in your career. Everyone is bound to make the occasional mistake, but brushing up on your writing skills in order to minimize those mistakes is a simple step towards furthering your career or business, and it should be common practice for anyone who needs to use writing in their work.

Housing and Net Worth

The part of the country you choose to live in, as well as the type of dwelling you select, can make a major difference in your net worth over time. Once you've already put down roots somewhere, you may not be interested in moving, regardless of the possible financial benefits, but if you're looking for a fresh start or you're about to graduate from college, the financial implications of moving to different areas should factor into your decision. The chart below shows the cost of entry-level home ownership in three cities with varying costs of living.

Example 1: Los Angeles, California
Single, claiming 2 exemptions

$40,000 per year salary
$2593.95 monthly take home (source:

$100,000 per year salary
$5436.26 monthly take home

Starter condo in untrendy part of town
2 bd, 2ba
Purchase price: $300,000
Down payment: $15,000 (5%)

30 year fixed mortgage rate: 6.0% (source:; December 13, 2007 rates)
Monthly payment: $1708.72
Points: 1.185

15 year fixed mortgage rate: 5.75%
Monthly payment: $2366.67
Points: 1.028

Starter house in untrendy part of town
2 bd, 2 ba
Note: this is considered a jumbo mortgage, and the rate is substantially higher.
Down payment: (5%, or $25,000 since even 10%, or $50,000 is not a reasonable down payment for most people)

30 year fixed mortgage rate: 7.375% (source:; December 16 rates)
Monthly payment: $3280.71
Points: 0.952

15 year fixed mortgage rate: 6.75%
Monthly payment: $4203.32
Points: 1.046

Note: The house payment is impossible in any of these scenarios if you make $40,000 per year.
You wouldn't even qualify for the loan.

Example 2: St. Louis, Missouri
Single, claiming 2 exemptions
$40,000 per year salary
$2594.58 monthly take home (source:

$100,000 per year salary
$5627.44 monthly take home

Starter condo in slightly trendy part of the city
2 bd, 2ba
Purchase price: $125,000
Down payment: $12,500 (10%)
Note: condos are not as common here because houses are so affordable.

30 year fixed mortgage rate: 6.125% (source:; December 13, 2007 rates)
Monthly payment: $683.56
Points: 1.035

15 year fixed mortgage rate: 5.875%
Monthly payment: $941.76
Points: 0.966

Starter house in most parts of the city (in other words, you'll have plenty of options at this price point)
2 bd, 2 ba
Down Payment: 17,500 (10%)

30 year fixed mortgage rate: 6.125%
Monthly payment: $956.99
Points: 1.035

15 year fixed mortgage rate: 5.875%
Monthly payment: $1318.46
Points: 0.966

Example 3: Houston, Texas - no state income tax, so your paycheck automatically goes further
Single, claiming 2 exemptions
$40,000 per year salary
$2727.58 monthly take home (source:

$100,000 per year salary
$6057.44 monthly take home

Starter condo in untrendy part of town
2 bd, 2ba
Purchase price: 75,000
Down payment: $15,000 (20%)

30 year fixed mortgage rate: 6.25% (source:; December 16, 2007 rates)
Monthly payment: $369.43
Points: 0.998

15 year fixed mortgage rate: 6.0%
Monthly payment: $506.31
Points: 0.863

Starter house in a nice part of town $200,000
3 bd, 2 ba
Down payment: $20,000 (20%)

30 year fixed mortgage rate: 6.125
Monthly payment: $1093.70
Points: 1.153

15 year fixed mortgage rate: 5.875
Monthly payment: $1506.81
Points: 0.960

You'll notice that these scenarios are not perfectly comparable. The square footage of these condos and homes is not identical and neither are the neighborhoods I chose. These are all cities I am pretty familiar with and in some cases types of neighborhoods don't really compare well across cities because the size and character of the cities are so different from one another. Instead of trying to create perfect comparisons, I thought about where a financially savvy young professional might choose to live in each of these cities and chose home prices relevant to those areas.

Another reason why it is difficult to make exact comparisons is that a starter home in LA is likely to be 1,000 square feet or less and have no more than 2 bedrooms, while a starter home in Houston is likely to have 3 or 4 bedrooms and be close to 2,000 SF.

Finally, the down payment amounts I used for each city are different. I tried to choose an amount that a young professional in each purchasing situation might be likely to put down, but I don't have any hard data showing the average down payment amount for these types of dwellings. I tended to assume that someone buying a condo would not have as much money saved up for a down payment (because if they had more income or more savings, they might go for a house) but that if 20% of the purchase price was a small enough amount, as in the Houston condo example, that the purchaser might still put that amount down.

As you can see from these numbers, home ownership is easier in some areas than in others. If the idea of being monthly-payment-free in a short amount of time appeals to you, choosing a city with a low cost of living can allow you to quickly save up money for a down payment, get a fifteen year mortgage, and own a home free and clear for the rest of your days. Since the cost of housing is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, expense for most people, it can have a massive effect on both your short and long-term net worth. If the benefits of living in an expensive city are worth the trade off to you, go for it, but know what you're sacrificing in the process.

Things You Should Carry in Your Wallet/Purse

I recently wrote about things you should avoid carrying in your wallet or purse to minimize your financial security risk in the event of theft. Here are a few things you'll want to make sure to leave in. Carrying these items with you will make your life easier, both financially and emotionally, in an emergency or on an everyday basis.

1. A list of emergency contacts
. If your body is rescued from the scene of a terrible car crash and you're whisked away to a hospital, this information will allow emergency workers to contact those most important to you. Parents, children, significant others, close friends, and close relatives are all good candidates for your list. Make sure that some of your contacts are local--there's only so much your parents can do if they live 1500 miles away. Try to include home, work, and cell phone numbers for each of your contacts. Type your list if possible, or print it very neatly.

2. Health insurance card. Unfortunately, you never know when you might wind up in the emergency room. Having your card with you when you check in will make it easier to get your hospital bills processed, which will decrease the overall stress of an already painful situation.

3. Important medical information. Create a list (again, preferably typed) of any important information that you would want medical personnel to know in an emergency situation and keep it in your wallet near your health insurance card and emergency contact list. Your medical information list should include medications and supplements you're currently taking, important medical conditions, and medications you're allergic to. You may also want to include the location of important documents relating to your health (i.e. your advance directive for health that gives instructions on things like whether you want to be kept on life support) and whether you are willing to donate your organs. None of this personal information is the kind of stuff you'd want a wallet thief to have, of course, but it will be a greater asset to you an emergency than it would be a detriment in a wallet theft.

4. AAA Card. It's too easy to open the envelope with your card in it and forget to actually put the card in your wallet. If you have a roadside assistance service card and it isn't in your wallet, stop reading this and go put it in there right now. This article isn't going anywhere.

5. Small notepad and ballpoint pen. Target sells a great little notebook set at a cost of two notebooks for $2.50. The notebooks have a hard cover and a snap closure that keep the pages from getting wrinkled, and a spiral binding that's the perfect size to store a pen. You don't want to write down anything sensitive (like internet passwords) in this notebook because it could get stolen, but I find it indispensable for keeping track of to-do lists, grocery lists, and random things I think of during the day that I need to remember for later. Always having your grocery list on you will help you minimize trips to the store and save time and money when you shop, and an ongoing to-do list will help keep you on top of bill payments and other things that are easy to forget when life gets busy.

6. High value coupons. I like to carry around coupons for $1 or more off on a product I definitely want to buy so that I won't forget to use them. Instead of adding bulk to my wallet, I just paperclip them to the front page of my notebook.

7. Car registration and proof of insurance. These aren't things you'd want a thief to have if your car got stolen, so keep them in your wallet instead of in your glove box. You'll definitely want to have them on you to minimize the hassle and possible fines if you get pulled over or have an accident.

8. Just One Club Card. If you have lots of club cards that you use regularly, this website will help you consolidate them into a single slip of paper. Another option is to get keychain versions of the cards you use regularly and keep the rest at home, or link your phone number to your cards. If you plan your shopping in advance rather than doing it spur-of-the-moment (another good way to save money), you can easily store all of your club cards in a file at home and add them to your wallet only on days when you're actually going to use them.

9. Enough cash to cover a small emergency. Credit card companies will occasionally freeze your account if they suspect fraud (does this ever work the way it's supposed to?), and some gas stations only accept cash and debit cards. It's a good idea to keep enough cash on hand for things like putting some gas in your car or buying a meal.

10. Stomach medicine. If you're out to eat and the food makes you sick, enduring the rest of the meal or making it home can be a miserable experience. Most upset stomach medications come in pill or tablet form and can easily be slipped into your wallet.

While not all of these items may seem essential, when the need for them comes up you’ll be glad you have them, and the rest of the time, they don't take up much space or compromise your security. There’s a reason why the Girl and Boy Scout motto is “Be Prepared.” It’s prudent to plan for life’s little eventualities ahead of time, and while you can’t predict everything that’s going to happen to you (and you can’t carry everything you might ever possibly need with you), these ten items will help you maximize your chances of being able to handle any situation.

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Gap/Old Navy Return Followup

In a post earlier this week, I complained about not receiving a full refund for a sweater I purchased from Old Navy using a Gap Rewards certificate. After putting off dealing with it for a week, I realized that I could send an email to customer service rather than calling or paying a visit to the store, so I did. I feel like it's much easier to explain things in writing than over the phone, and going to the store is a pain. Here's what they said:

After reviewing your account, we have verified that when you placed this order,you applied a $10 Reward Certificate. As such, you were only charged $25.70 for the sweater. Please note, the discount that was applied to the returned item will be applied back to your GapCard account in the form of points.

My thoughts on this response?

1. A well-educated, articulate CSR! Sweet!

2. They appear to have some way of dealing with this situation so that no one
gets ripped off. I still think that it would make more sense to just apply the
$10 discount to the whole order instead of pro-rating it for each item purchased,

I'll have to watch my next statement or two now to make sure I get the points that are owed to me. 380 points. As you can see, this point system is kind of a pain. Gap used to do a $1=1 point thing, where 200 points equaled a $10 reward certificate. Then they changed it to $1 equals 5 points, where 1000 points equals a $10 reward certificate. The rate of return is the same, but the point structure is more confusing. I wonder why they did that?

Related Posts:
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How I Get Coupons For Organic Products
My Thoughts On The Gap Store Credit Card
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Don't Let Your Domain Name Expire, Especially With GoDaddy

I used to recommend GoDaddy to people for domain names and hosting because their rates are very cheap and on top of that, coupon codes are usually available online, making purchases even cheaper. I have bought multiple .com domain names from them for about $7 each.

Initially, there were a couple of things I disliked about the company. First, they are always trying to upsell you something. When you sign up for a .com name, they also want you to buy .net, .biz, .info, and so on. They also want you to buy your domain for two years, not one (two years is their default setting). There are many more upselling options offered at the time of purchase as well, but these are too numerous to list here. Second, the website is a nightmare to navigate. It contains so many ads for other GoDaddy products that it's difficult to actually find the links to pages related to your account.

Now, I have a much more significant reason to dislike GoDaddy because of what they do when your domain name expires. I accidentally let my and domain names expire. I wasn't getting my gmail forwarded to my personal email account for a period of several months without realizing it. As a result, I missed all the renewal notices they sent me. This is completely my fault, and I take responsibility for that, but what happened next was pure bad will on the part of GoDaddy.

After the domain names expired, there was a grace period of about a two and a half weeks (fairly generous, I'll admit), and then my domain names went into a holding pattern. GoDaddy said that in order to get my domain names back, I would have to pay an $80 "redemption fee" for each one on top of the usual $10 annual domain name fee. I was still technically the owner of the domain names, but I could not renew them while logged into my account, and my websites no longer showed up when people went to those addresses.

Looked at another way, I suppose I am lucky that GoDaddy hung on to my domain name after it expired, giving me some extra time to straighten out my no-forwarded-email mess. If the name had simply expired, it might have been purchased automatically by some company's software that is in the business of buying expired domains and then trying to sell them back to the owners for many times what they paid for them. Of course, GoDaddy is engaging in a similar practice. They have found a way to take advantage of people who forget to renew their domain names by charging them an exorbitant ransom fee to get them back. Now I know how they are able to charge so little for the rest of their products.

I called and asked if they could do anything about the fee; they couldn't, of course. Admittedly, I hate conflict, and a more contentious person than I perhaps could have gotten the fee dropped. I also did some research online and found that GoDaddy is not the only company who engages in this sort of practice; in fact, their ransom fee is lower than some others I read about. I was able to feel less upset about the whole situation when I considered that charging a "reconnection fee" is a common practice. Phone companies, the cable company, and utility companies also do this. Ultimately, I paid the fee, but they did let me use a coupon code for 10% off, which I felt was fairly lucky for me given the circumstances.

Based on this incident, I recommend avoiding GoDaddy. I didn't really like them to begin with, and this incident was the straw the broke the camel's back. I don't know much about how other companies handle similar situations; perhaps GoDaddy actually offers less of a raw deal than anyone else. Also, during this process, I was grateful that my site was hosted by Blogger, where hosting is free and does not expire. So though I'm sure many people were unable to visit my site for a few days while I straightened out the mess, at least my site was still up, and those who read via feed or knew the blogspot address could still access it.

If you'd like to avoid problems like this yourself, my recommendation is to set your domains to renew automatically and keep your credit card information up-to-date. Another option is to buy your domain for several years at a time instead of just one year. I wish there were a lifetime domain name purchase option, but I can see how that could get complicated.

A friend of mine who is considerably more knowledgeable about all things computer-related than I am recommends a company called 1and1 for domain names and hosting. He says they have excellent customer support. I've checked out their user interface, and it's fantastically simple. They are cheap, too. So if you're looking for an alternative, you might want to go there.

I wish that all of the trickery involving domain names (this is merely one example) were illegal, but I don't have any good ideas on how to legislate it. We are still in what will probably be looked back on as the wild, wild west days of the internet, where didn't charge sales tax and whatnot.

If you have a snarky comment about how this whole situation is my fault, keep it to yourself. I'm trying to help people.

Be Careful When Returning Items Purchased With Coupons

Recently, I bought some clothes online at Old Navy and used one of my Gap credit card reward certificates to get $10 off my purchase. Looking at the receipt, the $10 was not deducted from the total; rather, it was deducted as a percentage of each item I purchased. I know I've seen this practice at other stores as well, such as Best Buy. I can't remember the others.

So when I went to return the item, I kept this in mind and waited to make sure I received the true, full price I paid for the item. I thought I had, until I got home, and realized that the original price of the sweater I returned was not $25, but $29.50. Argh! Old Navy refunded $4.50 less than they should have! Keep in mind that I did not use a percent off coupon; I used a dollar off coupon. Since my total purchase was more than the amount of the coupon, even after the return, there was no reason not to refund the full $29.50 (plus tax).

I am sure that this sort of thing is happening to many other people who also aren't realizing it and are getting ripped off in what are usually small, fairly unnoticeable amounts of money that don't seem worth going back to the store or calling customer service to argue about. Since I hate calling people, I am tempted to just blow it off, but condoning corporate theft from consumers just isn't my style. I'll let you know if they are willing to refund the difference when I call them.

Is this problem occurring because of the way the store's point-of-sale software works? Is it just a glitch, or is it an intentional "mistake" designed to fleece consumers and pad companies' corporate coffers? I don't have the answer to that question, but I encourage you to be aware of this issue and make sure companies are refunding 100% of your purchase when you return an item.

Note: This problem has been resolved.

Photo by clemente

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The Two Pennies Earned Philosophy

In case you were wondering about the name of this website, Jonathan over at My Money Blog has explained it beautifully. Check out his post, Save More vs. Earn More: A Dollar Saved is Two Dollars Earned.

New Coupon Code

Use code DINE to save 50% off your purchase from January 15 through January 20, 2008.

Things You Shouldn't Carry in Your Wallet or Purse

Here are some items you should think twice about keeping in your purse or wallet, or avoid carrying at all, in order to minimize potential problems in the event of a loss or theft.

1. Social Security Card: In the age of identity theft, we all know that this is the last piece of information you want a thief to have. The best place to keep this card is in a safe deposit box at the bank. It's a hassle to go and get it when you need to make a copy for something like your new employer's records or an apartment application, but if your wallet is ever stolen you'll be glad you weren't carrying this. On those rare circumstances when you are carrying the card around, be extra careful, and return the card to a safe location as soon as possible. It's easy to just think of it as a piece of flimsy cardstock when it's your own card in your own posession, but in the hands of the wrong person, it can become a major problem.

2. Business cards: If someone steals your wallet, they're already going to get your home address (if you have it on your driver's license, or if you have a name they can easily look up in the white pages), credit card numbers, and other information that you don't want ill-intentioned strangers to have. Do you really want them to know where you work, too? A business card not only gives away your work address and phone number; it also gives thieves an idea of how much money you rake in and whether that address on your driver's license might make a good target for a home burglary. Leave the business cards at home unless you will specifically need them for an important meeting that day, or keep them in a separate holder in your pocket rather than in your wallet or purse. Most of the random people that you like to give your card to will never use it, anyway.

3. More cash than you would feel comfortable losing. When you can pay for virtually anything with a credit or debit card, there's no need to carry around more than $50 in cash for everyday expenses and minor emergencies (like if you need to buy gas and your credit card won't go through). It's fine to add extra cash to your wallet for occasions like going out to eat with a group where you'll need to split the bill several ways, but don't carry lots of money with you every day. You can get credit card transactions cancelled, but you'll never retrieve stolen cash.

4. More than two credit cards. Minimize the damage thieves can do by limiting the number of cards you actually carry around with you. One card should always be from a major cardholder that is accepted everywhere (Mastercard or Visa) and the other one can be something like Discover or American Express if that is your card of choice.

5. Checks. Checks contain your name, address, checking account number, routing number, and bank name, all of which can help thieves set up online transfers of money out of your account and into theirs. How often do you need (and I mean need) to write a check, anyway?

Unlike wallet toters, who have to empty their pockets when they take off their pants at the end of the day, any woman who carries a purse can attest that a purse will continue collecting items until it can barely close. Not only do women carry more stuff around, but we're also easier targets because a purse is generally easier to grab than a wallet that's been stuffed into a pocket. (One exception to this rule is that if you expect to be in the presence of professional pickpocketers, you'll be better off keeping everything in your purse and money belt where your valuables can't easily be slipped away without your notice.) If you carry a purse, here are some additional items you should consider leaving out.

1. Glasses. If you're a contacts wearer who likes to carry around her glasses just in case, carry an older pair. This way, you'll have your glasses in an emergency, but if your purse gets stolen, you won't lose your newest and best pair. With any item like this, its importance in an emergency will always be a bigger deal than replacing it if it gets stolen. If you don't have an older pair of glasses, or they're just too weak to be useful anymore, get an inexpensive second pair.

2. Keys. When my friend had her purse stolen, her keys were in her pocket. This meant that she could still get in her car and drive home, which made the whole experience a lot less stressful. Keep your keys in your hand, in your pocket, or on an elastic wrist bracelet (yes, they're dorky, but you won't lose your keys this way). Also, give a copy of your house and car keys to one or two people you can trust who live nearby, so you'll have an accessible spare for emergencies. (Make sure they don't label your keys with your address or full name.)

3. Flash drive/USB drive/Thumb drive. People tend to use these to back up or transport their most important data. You're better off keeping crucial information deep in a front pocket or on a string around your neck. That hook on the end of your USB drive is there for a reason.

Thinking about my friend's stolen purse incident gave me a whole new perspective on a topic that I already had plenty to say about from the time I've spent traveling internationally in countries where pickpocketing is rampant and I had to constantly watch my stuff like a hawk. Once you've been abroad, even when you return you can't help but retain habits like keeping your purse on the table in front of you at restaurants instead of hanging it off of your chair, or carrying your wallet in your front pocket with your hand over it instead of your back pocket where you can easily forget about it. Yet, my friend's purse was stolen in broad daylight, in a busy grocery store parking lot in a safe part of town. This is a friend who, for as long as I have known her, has always been very conscious of her safety and very cautious. She was walking to her car, purse on her left shoulder, holding onto the strap with her hand. She heard a vehicle approaching from behind and noticed the vehicle moving close to her, which she thought was just to make room for another oncoming vehicle. Then a man leaned out of the passenger window of a pickup truck and grabbed onto her purse. Though she was aware of what was happening, the driver started to accelerate, and she knew she could be seriously injured if she didn't let go of her bag. She lost her purse, along with her wallet, reading glasses, sunglasses, and a host of other things that are really just minor inconveniences but that no one would want to lose. The theives only got about $20 in cash and made some fairly insignificant charges on her credit cards at local stores, and she was able to quickly cancel the charges.

This story just goes to show that anyone, no matter how cautious, can become a victim of crime. The best we can do is to act in ways that will minimize potential losses, but we can't expect that taking precautions will always allow us to avoid loss altogether.

Now go clean out that wallet!

Photo by djloche

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Two Pennies Earned Has Joined Forbes' Blog Network!

A few weeks ago, I received an email from someone at Forbes saying that they loved my blog and wanted to include it in their new blog network launching in January. This means that my articles will be featured on from time to time, and in exchange, I have to put some ads on my site, which I'm sure you've noticed. The ads are served by Adify.

I get part of the ad revenue, but not as much as I earn from other advertising partners. I look at this as Forbes taking their cut for promoting me on their site and letting me ride the coattails of Forbes affiliation (which I personally already have from Investopedia, but which my website, as its own entity, did not have). Of course, Forbes also gets something out of being able to say they have a blog network, and they need me for that. I always get a kick out of traditional media actually admitting that bloggers are a force to be reckoned with.

In the time I've spent blogging, I've tried out more advertising programs than I can remember, and most of them haven't been worth the space they take up, so I'm not holding my breath on this one. However, I am looking forward to being able to reach more readers, and if I happen to get some more ad revenue, that will be great, too.

If you have a personal finance blog and you're interested in applying to this program, click on the banner ad in the sidebar (about halfway down the page).

My Thoughts on the Gap Store Credit Card

In general, I don't do store credit cards. I have enough credit cards to keep track of as it is, so I don't see the point of adding to my wallet these store cards that usually seem to have very little to offer (meager signup bonuses and rewards and the ability to use the card in only one or two stores). However, since I buy virtually all of my clothing at the Gap and Old Navy, I decided it might be worth it to get one of their cards. To get the most out of the signup bonus of 15% off my first purchase, I waited until I needed to buy several expensive items and was able to save about $25 on that purchase alone.

I find this card to be particularly valuable because Gap sends out rewards certificates every time you spend a certain amount of money. The rewards are equivalent to 5% back, and I don't know of any other way to consistently get 5% back on my clothing purchases. The rewards are sent promptly with each credit card statement.

The card can also be used at Old Navy and Banana Republic, though I assume you can have all three store cards if you want to get three signup bonuses. Along with my initial signup bonus also came coupons for 10% off my next in-store purchase with the card and 10% off my first online purchase with the card (both deals were for each of the three stores). That's a lot of coupons.

There are also sales and coupon codes available throughout the year exclusively to cardholders, though many of them encourage what I consider to be high spending (for example, I recently received a coupon for $10 off a purchase of $75, but I don't often spend $75 on clothes all at once).

Normally, I just try to find coupon codes online, but Gap's coupon codes for cardholders don't work unless you pay with your card, and there don't seem to be many other coupon codes floating around out there. Some sites even say that Gap has specifically contacted them and asked them not to post and coupon codes not available to the general public.

Of course, right after I signed up for my card, Gap decided to change its terms so that cardholders no longer get free shipping for online orders at $50--I now have to spend $100 to get free shipping, a deal which used to be available to the general public. If I want to get free shipping on all my purchases, I have to spend $800 in a calendar year to achieve Gap Silver status and then spend $800 in each subsequent calendar year to maintain the free shipping.

If you want to try to reach that goal, sign up for the card in January to give yourself the most calendar days to reach the $800 threshold. But don't buy things you don't need just to get free shipping! That doesn't really save you any money. Or does it? Some might argue that, if done right, you're just converting shipping dollars to clothing dollars, which is a better use of your money, but you don't get free shipping on the first $800 you spend unless you purchase in $100 increments, and anyway, that's a math problem problem with too many variables that I don't feel like solving. (If you do, feel free to share your conclusions in the comments section.) For me, if my normal spending habits get me to $800, great, and if not, no biggie.

What is a Money Market Fund?

A money market fund is a type of mutual fund that is legally required to invest in low-risk securities including government securities, certificates of deposit, commercial paper of companies, and other highly liquid and low-risk securities. It is similar to a high interest savings account in that it returns about the same amount of interest and is considered to be just as safe and stable.

A money market fund should not be confused with a money market account at a bank.
While a money market account at a bank (or any other type of account at a bank) is covered by federal deposit insurance (up to $100,000), the money you put in a money market fund is not insured. Despite what you might initially think, though, that doesn't really mean it's less safe. It is technically possible to lose money in a money market fund, but it is rare. Jonathan of My Money Blog did the research on this subject, and he learned that the Investment Company Act of 1940 protects the money you invest through brokerage firms such as Vanguard or Fidelity.

Barring some sort of major disaster that none of us could adequately prepare for, your money is actually more at risk if you don't save it and don't invest it. Inflation and taxes whittle away the value of your money over time, so it's important to invest in tax advantaged accounts (like IRA's and 401k's) and earn an interest rate that, at a bare minimum, keeps up with inflation (historically, about 3% a year).

To learn more about money market funds straight from the horse's mouth, check out this page on Fidelity Cash Reserves.

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Investopedia Followup: Six Major Credit Card Mistakes

My latest Investopedia article is up. If you're struggling with credit card debt, the tips in this article will help you get things under control.

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Credit Card Interest Repayment Calculator - enter in information for your current credit cards and a pay-off schedule will be calculated for you.Credit Balance Transfer Calculator - input your current credit card details (balance and interest rate) and the details of a card you're looking to transfer to, and calculate your potential savings.