Pinecone Research Downgrades Rewards

Formerly one of the best online survey companies because it paid $5 cash via PayPal for each completed survey, Pinecone has decided to follow the trend set by its competitors and lower its survey incentives. Pinecone will now offer $3 plus an entry in its cash sweepstakes (does anyone ever win these?) as a reward for completing each survey.

For me, $5 was barely worth it. Some of the surveys I took were tedious, requiring me to answer what felt like way too many questions about my propensity to use a particular product. To me, the downgrade in Pinecone's offerings says that they do not think highly of their panel participants and want to pay them as little as possible. $3 is still a higher payment than offered by many other survey companies, which only offer points that can supposedly eventually be redeemed for cash or other prizes, but with an incentive that doesn't even allow me to buy a gallon of gas or a gallon of milk, I don't feel compelled to remain part of the panel.

Photo by eflon

Kiva Changes

Last Monday, I received an email from Kiva announcing a major (positive) change to their program. Instead of having to wait the whole 18-month loan term to get your loan money back, you can withdraw it or relend it as the loan is repaid. Here's the text of the email:

"We are happy to announce that Kiva will now return repayments to lenders as soon as those repayments are received by Kiva. Because of
this change, you'll be able to re-lend funds right away instead of waiting until the end of the loan term. We hope you enjoy this new feature!

As a result of this change, $39.09 in Kiva Credit has been released to you and is now available for you to use. You can re-lend these funds, donate or withdraw them."

If you choose to withdraw the funds, you can get them via PayPal. I withdrew my funds and had them within a few days, but the website says it can take up to a couple weeks!

I think this is a great change. It means more loans can be made, and it also means that more people may be encouraged to lend money since they won't have to wait to long to get it back.

Photo by Swami Stream

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Making Home Ownership Affordable

All the number crunching I have been doing in preparation to buy a house has revealed that this proposition is going to be far more expensive than I initially thought.

As a result, I've been contemplating ways I can cut back what I think is already a bare-bones budget even further (granted, my idea of bare bones includes cable TV and Tivo). Here's what I've come up with to save money both now, while I'm still waiting to find the right house, and later, once I've found it and am living there.

Actions to take now

1. Don't run the air conditioner during the day (I like to be cold when I sleep, though). Wear shorts and use fans instead.

2. Turn off the computer while I sleep. Maybe there's a reason my dad has always done that.

3. See if I can find some compact fluorescent bulbs I don't hate once I've used up the light bulbs I already have. (I love my GE Reveal bulbs, which really do create natural-looking light. Regular light bulbs look so dingy and yellow in comparison. I swear I'm not being paid by them to write this. I wish there were a Reveal compact fluorescent bulb. GE, are you listening?)

4. Shower at night so my wet hair will keep me cool and allow me to set the thermostat higher (obviously, this one will only work in the summer).

5. Stop insisting on sleeping under heavy blankets during the summer (but they're so cozy!) so I don't have to set the thermostat to 74 all night.

6. Use up as much of the food currently in my fridge, freezer, and pantry as possible. Plan meals and future shopping trips around using up what I already have. (I can't believe how much junk food there is in my house--I could make cookies and cakes and brownies for months!) As an added bonus, the more of this food I use up, the less of it I'll have to move. I really hate moving food--it seems like something that can be avoided with proper planning.

7. Sell everything I don't use on eBay and save the money for my down payment, closing costs, and possible remodeling costs. (A move-in ready house in my price range is unlikely--filthy, pink carpet, anyone?) (Note: I'm rethinking this eBay thing--I've had three nonpaying bidders in the last five months, versus 0 in the 8 years before that, not to mention the various ways eBay is becoming less seller-friendly--what is happening to eBay?)

Actions to take as a homeowner

1. Minimize water usage indoors: As a homeowner, I will have the joy of paying a water bill for the first time. Ideas to reduce my water usage: shower every other day, take shorter showers, or turn off the water while I lather up. Or do all three. Use a low-flow shower head. Only do full loads of laundry. Learn how to do dishes in the sink without running the water the whole time.

2. Minimize landscaping and yard maintenance costs: Create a landscape suitable for my climate in the front yard to minimize lawn care costs and put in a large patio in the backyard so that my only outdoor water usage is for my garden (which should save me money on groceries, even after the water bill, or at least give me tastier food and cause me to eat more fresh vegetables).

3. Figure out how to avoid having a land line while still getting inexpensive Internet access. This is going to take some research (or some helpful tips from my readers!).

4. Install ceiling fans, if it can be done inexpensively, to minimize air conditioning use. I've read that ceiling fans can also help lower your heating bill by helping to recirculate the warm air that tends to rise to the ceiling. Also, tape shut the AC vents in the rooms I don't use as often (if I'm lucky enough to get a house with central air, that is!)

5. Do more of those frugal cooking things, like making extra food and freezing it and cooking from scratch instead of buying frozen food. My grocery budget stands at $350/mo. for two people, but I know it could be lower. At the same time, I've always considered food to be an affordable luxury--I may not have a new car or fancy gadgets, but if I want some $8 lavender honey and some $5 Greek yogurt, I'll allow myself those small pleasures. Of course, those things add up.

6. Line dry my clothes outside (something I've never been allowed to do in an apartment).

7. Work more. Since I am self-employed, my earning potential is not limited by a salary. (Heck, even if it were, I'd find a job to do on the side.) Getting an extra client, generating more assignments from existing clients, or selling a few freelance articles will give me more breathing room. I haven't maxed out my work hours or earning potential, so this is very doable. It's less a question of earning more and more a question of balancing work with continuing to enjoy my life (and leaving enough free time to engage in my other frugal plans, like cooking and gardening, which also happen to be things I find fun).

8. Try to avoid the temptation to go to Ikea, and spend several months searching for new (to me) furniture at garage sales and thrift stores instead. I am just dying to get new furniture. It's terrible. It's a classic first-time homeowner mistake--buy a new house and blow a bunch of extra money on new furniture to put in your new house. But there are all these furniture purchases I have been intentionally putting off until I get a house so I won't have to move the new furniture (which always results in it getting banged up or broken)--new bed, new couch, new desk . . .). I think I have watched too much HGTV and now my mind is poisoned by this vision of a beautifully designed interior that I cannot afford because I do not have the free labor from Designed To Sell.

I realize that many of you reading this blog probably do all these things already. Even though I am quite frugal in many respects, I will admit that I do have some wasteful habits. I may be a personal finance writer, but I am still human (if I weren't would you even listen to me?).

Photo by daryl_mitchell

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Investopedia Followup: Ten Ways To Tell If You're Getting A Fair Price On A Home

Don't let buying a home bust your budget - make sure the house you choose is worth the price you pay. My latest Investopedia article, 10 Tips For Getting A Fair Price On A Home, discusses ten ways to evaluate the price of a residential property you're interested in buying to make sure you're getting a reasonable price.

In addition to the tips in the article, here are a few more:

-What time of year is it? If you're buying a home in the spring or summer, prices will generally be somewhat higher because of increased demand. Families with children want to move when it will be least disruptive to everyone's schedules or may be trying to get into a neighborhood with a good school district before the enrollment for the new school year.

-Has the seller already lowered the asking price? If so, you can probably get the property for less than the asking price because the property is not in demand and the seller knows it.

-Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether the price is objectively fair or not. If the seller doesn’t want to accept your offering price, they don’t have to, no matter how solidly researched and how close to fair market value it is. And if someone else is willing to pay more than what is “fair,” you may have to up your price too if you want to win the property.

Photo by rvaphotodude

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Save Money By Road Tripping

I recently took a road trip with a friend--something I hadn't done in years. I'm pretty amazed by how little money we spent compared to what it normally costs me to travel. My five-day vacation only cost me about $250. Here's what that money bought:

-Split cost of gas to drive about 1,000 miles in a car that gets about 20mpg city/30mpg highway
-Two nights in a hostel (spent the other two nights with friends)
-Three low-budget restaurant meals (Thai food, half an expensive hamburger and an Italian deli sandwich)
-Four beers
-A few high-budget picnics (gourmet cheese, gourmet bread, gourmet chocolate)
-Grocery store food and snacks for the rest of the meals

Our trip was based around viewing natural scenery and visiting state parks, so there were no expensive activities to pay for. We didn't have to buy plane tickets, and unlike plane tickets, the cost of gas can be shared. We didn't have to rent a car, because we took mine.

I virtually never pay for lodging when I travel, because I base my vacations around visiting friends, so that expense was actually higher than usual for me.

I took tons of photos, but I don't get them printed anymore because I like viewing them large and backlit on my computer screen better. However, some of the photos I took will probably make great, inexpensive gifts. I also picked up some other gifts on my trip for upcoming birthdays and Christmas (not included in the $250). People always seem to like it when you bring them something unique that you found while traveling.

The road trip had some nonmonetary benefits as well:
-No airport stress
-No being packed into a plane like sardines for hours
-No car rental stress (I always worry about the thing getting damaged, because those new cars are so much more expensive than my ten-year-old car)
-No adjusting to driving a vehicle that's unfamiliar to me
-Ability to take more stuff with me than usual
-Very little stuff carrying required (no lugging it on long walks through the airport)
-Got to sleep with my own pillows (a great source of comfort for me)
-Ability to take stuff home with me without worrying about fitting it into my luggage or complying with airplane regulations

I enjoyed taking a road trip so much that I'm not even excited about using my frequent flyer miles anymore. I am even wondering if it might be worth it to start driving to the more distant places that I usually fly to.

Photo by Jasmic

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Micro Condos in San Francisco

Cubix Yerba Buena is a condo building in San Francisco offering tiny condos: 250-350 square foot studios for $279,000-$330,000. The building has 98 units, a cafe on the ground floor, a roof deck with killer views of the city and the water, and a Whole Foods next door.

I used to live in a studio apartment this size. Seeing this condo layout makes me appreciate how well designed that apartment was. I had a large floor-to-ceiling closet along one wall with storage cabinets above it, another closet in the hallway about the size of the armoir shown here, and a full-sized gas stove and full-sized sink (albeit no double sink), an almost full-sized fridge (it had a functional freezer, which most mini fridges do not, even if I did have to take the frozen pizzas out of their boxes to make them fit). I didn't have a couch, but I did have room for a double bed, recliner, full-sized desk, nightstand, small TV stand and 16 inch TV. I also had a regular-sized bathtub, and there were real doors on the bathroom so I could actually have people over. The kitchen had no counter space, so I bought a narrow table from Target that was meant to be an entryway table or something and used that as counter space/a place to sit and eat. (I could have also bought a drop leaf table from Ikea to solve the counter space problem, but I didn't want to install anything onto the wall.)

I didn't find the lack of space to be a problem, but having all shared walls was. One wall faced the alley (garbage trucks, car noise, crazy people), one wall faced the courtyard (I could hear everyone coming and going--granted, I did not have double paned windows), and the other two walls were shared with neighboring units (college boys on one side, baby on the other). And yes, it was insanely expensive per square foot, but the location was worth it. This design is much more open than my apartment was, though, which makes it look more spacious. It also has a tiny dishwasher.

Personally I don't think I would spend that kind of money on a condo of this size, but I think it's nice to create the option to buy for people in high cost of living cities who want to live alone. You could go in with another person, spend twice as much and get at least twice the space, but what if you want to live alone? Of course, you'd have to make, what, at least $90k to afford this place, including the HOA fees? But think how low the utility costs would be. The HOA fees are a pretty standard $270. If you're the type of person who's never home, you could even go in on this place with someone else, buy a loft bed, and get started investing in real estate for as little as $140k . . . no small feat in San Fran.

To learn more about these new condos, read James Temple's SF Chronicle article on the subject and check out the Cubix website.