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Archive for the ‘Lifestyle’ Category

20 Saving Tips for the Lazy Single Man

September 14th, 2010 No comments

I think I am like most men in that shopping isn’t one of my favorite activities. If you are living out on your own, eventually you will need to get out there and buy some stuff. When you consider what it takes to be a good shopper (it’s a skill really), men are generally outmatched. Even my 13 year old niece already has well developed shopping skills because she has the interest and also because she works at it.

The tips I have here will help you to shop better, save time, eat better, all the while saving money without actually having to make the investment in time that a Pro would make. You can use these tips immediately. That’s why I call them Saving Tips for the Lazy Single Man.

These tips are culled from my own experience as a lazy single man.  There are a mix of ideas here, some are typical recs that help you to lower costs. Others are not typical, because they help you to realize how you are wasting money on stuff after you buy it. For example, a lazy man is never going to return an item so these related tips fall into the category of ‘buy it right the first time’.

  1. Buy a George Forman Grill. The GFG (‘George’) is one of those inventions that makes you wonder how single men lived without it. It will save you from starving in your apartment. It can cook almost anything quickly and easily (burgers, chicken, fish), and it will make you look like a Pro. This will save you money so you don’t have to go out to eat everyday.
  2. Buy Generic/Sale Items. When you are at the supermarket, you can save money simply by choosing different products in the aisle (no coupons required). Consider the generic versions of products or competitor products that are on sale.
  3. Buy the Large Size. For many items, particularly groceries, you can get a price break simply by buying the larger size. The tag on the aisle will indicate the ‘price per quart’ or ‘price per pound’. Use the tag to decide.
  4. Buy Clothing Out of Season. To buy clothes frugally, buy them at the right time just when they are about to go out of season. For summer clothes, this is typically after July 4th. For winter clothing, this is usually after Christmas. If you go to the store at this time, the clothes will be on sale without requiring any planning or action on your part.
  5. Mine the Dollar Store.  When you decide to clean the bathroom, you will need some cleaners. Or if you need a gift bag for your mother’s gift, the dollar store is a good place to get it cheaply. No sale required.
  6. Get a Grocery Store Card. Sign up for one of those savings cards at the grocery store. It will save you money at checkout without any action on your part when you flash it. You don’t want to be bothered with marketing mail, so give them your college room address. They don’t care. Really.
  7. Shop During the Week. Skilled shoppers know not only where to buy and how to buy but when to buy. Your time is valuable, you don’t want to spend the day fighting crowds and traffic particularly when you want to buy gifts during the holiday season. Go to the mall near the time it opens (yes, even on Saturday) and after work during the week. You will be surprised how quiet it is.
  8. Understand Store Types. There are different types of stores, know the difference to help steer you in the right direction. High Quality/Full Price (1), High Quality/Sale Price (2), Low Quality/Low Price (3), and High Quality/Outlets (4).  So, if you are looking for a pair of Levi’s you are generally better off going to TJ Maxx or Burlington Coat Factory (2) versus Macy’s (1) or Walmart(3). You may also find them at a Levi’s Outlet (4), but be suspicious. My sources tell me that outlets don’t always have the best prices.
  9. Host a Football Party. Going to a bar to get food and drinks can get expensive.  Pool with your friends to buy drinks and food and watch the game at home.
  10. Go Vintage. Here’s where you have one up on the women. At vintage and thrift shops you can find men’s clothing easily because men’s clothing doesn’t change that much over time, so it can still work today. While you are there, pick up that cheap nightstand that you need, too.
  11. Use Your Freezer. If you bought the bigger package of hamburgers to make on your George,  freeze some of it. It will last longer instead of going bad in the refrigerator. Meat/Poultry lasts for only a few days in the refrigerator.
  12. Get a Doggy Bag. When eating out save your waste line and get a doggy bag for half of your meal. I know your mother told you to clear the plate, but the meals that you eat outside are too large. Put the leftovers in the frig and eat it for lunch the next day at work.
  13. Learn to Cook. To eat economically, your best option is to make food versus eating out or even buying ‘ready’ meals at the supermarket. It’s not as hard as it sounds, if you start out using your microwave. Start off by cooking sides to go along with your hamburger you cooked on the George. Buy canned beans, green beans, corn, etc and heat them up in the microwave. Instant mashed potatoes are not much harder, mix in water/butter, then microwave. Next, try chili, it’s easy: microwave tomato sauce, can of beans and a chili seasoning pack (optional: add meat cooked on George).
  14. Go All Black. I’ve at times almost missed my train to work because I couldn’t match a pair of dress socks. Make it easy on yourself, just buy all black plain socks, they work with anything and also with each other. No matter how many of them you lose, you’ll always be able to find a match.
  15. Iron It Out. Take a look at your closet. A good look. Why don’t you wear that one pair of slacks? With women, they know exactly why they haven’t worn those well laundered slacks sitting in the closet: they are waiting for that day someday in the future when they will get to the right size to wear them. Since your weight doesn’t change that much, your excuse is simpler: you are too lazy to iron the pants. Admit it. I have a pair of nice slacks I wore once new. And then a second time when I was forced to iron them because I had nothing else clean to wear. Save yourself some time and money, buy shirts and slacks that are ‘no-iron’! A pair of slacks you never wear is wasted money.
  16. Check Expiration Dates. Check the expiration dates on the food and medicine you buy. If you buy a good that is stale you will be too lazy to take it back, so it’s lost money. I once found a bag of pretzels that was expired for 6 months. It’s a good thing I checked the date.
  17. Get A Discount. Retailers understand that there are a segment of customers who will pay full price as well as a segment that is always seeking a discount. You may be surprised that most retailers, even the high end ones, will give you a discount simply by signing up for a discount program. (Read why I recommend that you don’t sign up for a store credit card just to get a discount). Ask if they have one, you can then save every time you buy at the store. For a time, I paid retail price for clothes at Brooks Brothers until I found out that they have a discount program that saved me 10%.
  18. Hang It Up. If you really want to impress your girlfriend, don’t buy an Infiniti G37, learn how to use a clothes line. If you don’t have a clothes line hang them up spaced in your closet. First, try those heavy bulky items like jeans, slacks, and shirts. If you took my advice and bought the ‘no-iron’ clothes, then you are done! This will save you some quarters with the dryer.
  19. Automate Your Bills. It’s entirely too much work to buy stamps, write a check and mail payments. Use a bill pay service to automate your bills. I discuss how to do this here.
  20. Finally, Contact Your Seer. Sometimes, you need to ask someone close to you where to shop. Yea, I know, this is like asking for directions on the road: you don’t want to do it. Try it. In my case I go to my sister who is an excellent shopper, a confirmed Pro with decades of experience. She was the one who told me about the Marburn shops where you can get all the linens (sheet, blankets, and those covers you put on the pillows that nobody uses) you will need for your apartment at great prices. I never would have found such a store on my own.
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5 Technologies That Help Save You Gasoline (No Hybrids Here!)

August 27th, 2010 No comments

If you are in the market for a new car, you might think that hybrids are the way to go to get the best mileage. Hybrids in general offer the ability to get better mileage because they augment the standard gasoline engine with an electric motor that supplements that propulsion where gasoline engines are least efficient: at lower engine and driving speeds.

However, automobile efficiency in general has gotten much better than people realize over the years. The improvement in the quality, safety, and efficiency of automobiles improves all the time. This trend is about to get even more pronounced because new fuel efficiency requirements over the next 10 years will force manufacturers to increase efficiency even more than they have in the past.

So, you may ask another question: why doesn’t my car get better mileage than <insert your favorite car from 15 years ago>? The main reason is that efficiency improvements have been used to offer other benefits to consumers.

The constant fuel efficiency gains made by car manufacturers have been used primarily to add additional value to consumers over just increasing fuel economy numbers. The car from 15 years ago was lighter, less roomy, less powerful and significantly less safe than a similar car of today. Consumers have essentially demanded these improvements.

Adding to this equation is that the fuel economy estimates made by the Federal Government have changed a few times over the years, to reflect better actual driving patterns of today’s drivers. So, fuel economy numbers from 15 years ago are considered to be less accurate than the ones from today (error on the high side).

The good news is that efficiency will continue to improve due to new technologies like hybrids, as well as old technologies that have been given new life due to recent refinements. Look for these technologies that will become more popular on many vehicles because the benefits are substantial and cost effective.

Here are (5) technologies you will see more of in vehicles.

Diesel Engines

Diesel engines are as old as cars themselves. Diesel engines are very popular in Europe and are primarily used in the USA for commerical vehicles. When you look at their benefits, they have some characteristics that make them as appealing as hybrids: 30% fuel efficiency improvement over gasoline engines and more low end torque. Diesels had been falling behind due to increased emissions requirements and much higher diesel fuel prices over regular gasoline. Newer models from Mercedes and Volkswagen have improved the emissions issue. Estimated fuel efficiency improvement: 30%.

Direct Injection

You may be familiar with fuel injection (FI). FI has been around for decades (it was used in Corvettes in the 1950s). FI has really been improved with computer technologies that control it better than mechanical systems. Direct injection is a further improvement that places pressurized fuel directly in the cylinder as opposed to the intake. DI isn’t new either, but it has been optimized for commercial use by refinement. DI costs more to manufacture but those costs are getting lower. Estimated fuel efficiency improvement: 5%.


The basic trade-off that a typical gasoline engine makes is to seek a balance between low speed torque and high speed efficiency. The engine needs to typically be larger enough (higher displacement) to provide enough torque, but higher efficiency at driving speeds necessitates a small displacement. Enter turbocharging, which can increase the power of a smaller engine by forcing more fuel mixture into the cylinders.

Turbochargers of the past would typically exhibit lag, which delayed the extra power release. Newer versions have pretty much eliminated this problem offering a full range of power throughout in a smaller displacement engine. Estimated fuel efficiency improvement 10-20%.

CVT/Higher Gear Transmissions

Transmission have the job of matching engine speed to vehicle speed to provide efficiency, power and responsiveness to the vehicle. Typical transmissions recently were limited to only 4 speeds, I remember that some Toyotas from as recently as 10 years ago were only 3 speed. More speeds enable an engine to offer responsiveness as well as lower gearing at the top to improve efficiency. Now, 5 speed is very common, 6 speeds are available and transmissions that have as many as 8 speeds are found in some high end luxury vehicles. Continuously variable transmissions have not gears at all, they match engine speed real time providing a more efficient transfer of power. Estimated fuel efficiency improvement: 5-10%.

Electric Power Steering

Electric power steering (EPS) is one of those small improvements that can help to improve economy when taken together with other improvements. Instead of a hydraulic system of typical power streering systems, EPS uses an electric motor. Estimated fuel efficiency improvement: 1-2%.

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How To Buy Certified Diamonds

June 14th, 2010 No comments

In this previous article, I talked about when you would want to buy certified diamonds and when you wouldn’t. Today, I talk about what’s important in a certified diamond and how to get the most bang for your buck. First, here’s a recap of the 4Cs of buying certified diamonds. The certification process measures a lot of stuff, but these are the basic criteria (4Cs) that are the most important.

  • Cut – how well the diamond reflects light.
  • Clarity – how clear the diamond is, the inclusions (flaws) it has.
  • Carat – the diamond weight.
  • Color – the degree of color in the stone.

By far the most important characteristic you should key on is the Clarity. When you look at the diamond you want it to appear clear and shiny. Diamonds have different types of imperfections, such as inclusions or blemishes. Almost all diamonds have imperfections, but only some will be prominent enough that you can see them. So, the question is how can you buy diamonds such that you can be certain that they will look clear and shiny?

The easy answer is to go to the lowest certified level where inclusions will not be visible. Based upon my own research as well as the buying habits of others, that level is VS2. Here’s a summary of diamond clarity:

BlueNile has a useful tool that summarizes what most people buy. For demonstration purposes, I have listed stones in the 1-2 carat range, which is a typical size for a solitaire setting. By far the most popular clarity is VS2.

If you buy at that clarity you are virtually certain to get a clear diamond, even if you buy it sight unseen online.

This is the easy way out, you don’t need to spend any more money to get better clarity. If you want to save more money, you can go down to the S1/S2 clarity and still get a great diamond but you need to do a bit more work.

Based upon my research, this is the likelihood of getting a clear diamond, without any visible inclusions at each of these clarity settings:

  1. VS2 – virtually 100%.
  2. S1 – 70%.
  3. S2 – 30%.

Here’s how to buy diamonds in S1/S2 clarity. Keep in mind the percentages above and be prepared to consider different stones to get one that has good clarity. You may need to try multiple times to get a good one.

  1. Go to the diamond store and inspect it for yourself. Does it look clear?
  2. If you are buying online and the diamond size is less than 1/2 carat, try going for S2 and ask the retailer to confirm whether or not the diamond is ‘eye clear’. It’s harder to see inclusions in smaller diamonds.
  3. If you are buying online and the diamond size is greater than 1/2 carat, try going for S1 and ask the retailer to confirm whether or not the diamond is ‘eye clear’.

All images courtesy of

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For All The Men — How to Buy Diamond Jewelry

June 7th, 2010 No comments

I’m in the market for a diamond pendant for my girlfriend to celebrate her birthday. I’ve bought diamonds before, so I thought I would write a post about what I’ve learned about the purchasing process. Here’s what I will cover in this post:

  1. How to pick jewelry she will want to wear.
  2. What you need to know about diamonds to make an informed decision.
  3. How to buy quality diamonds without breaking the budget.

First, In the Old Days…

Before the information age, buying diamonds was harder because the sellers kept tight control of the buying process. Kind of like buying a car where the salesman controls which cars to show you, based upon what his opinion is about what he thinks he can sell you. It’s always been possible to make informed buying decisions if you were willing to do the research. It’s just that today, it’s much easier to get exactly what you want without dealing with controlling sellers.

Before you go all out and run the ‘specs’ in your search for the perfect jewelry, keep in mind that . there’s still one thing that hasn’t changed at all: you need to find out what she likes. It doesn’t matter how much you spend or how big the diamonds are, she still needs to like it enough to want to wear it.

Tips to find out what she likes…

  1. Ask her what she likes directly. Diamond jewelry is usually either trendy (‘knot’ and ‘journey’ pendents are currently fashionable) or traditional (a diamond on a simple mount). Find out what she prefers.
  2. Look at what she wears. If you haven’t been paying attention to what she wears currently, take a look. It can help to determine the kind of jewelry she likes.
  3. Find out what she already owns but doesn’t wear. If she has a bunch of stuff she never wears (most women do) you might want to steer clear of buying something similar. Also, you don’t want to buy a duplicate.

What you need to know about diamond jewelry to make an informed decision.

The two components that make up diamond jewelry are the mount material and the diamonds. Most of the cost of the jewelry is in the diamonds, though, the mounting materials vary in cost depending on how precious the materials are. Diamond jewelry is typically mounted in these material choices. I’ve listed them here by decreasing cost.

  • Platinum – expensive, has a silver color.
  • Rose Gold – gold mixed with copper, looks pink. Uncommon in the U.S.
  • White Gold – gold mixed with nickel/silver looks silver.
  • Yellow Gold – gold mixed with both copper and silver/nickel.
  • Palladium – low cost metal that is silver in color. Typically used in engagement rings to lower their price point.

When is comes to diamonds, they are offered either with a statement of their quality (certification) or without. There is a methodology used (so called 4Cs) to certify their quality created by the Gemological Institute of America (GIA).

Diamonds that pass the GIA certification process are “certified”. These diamonds typically will cost more because of the labor involved, and only the higher quality, less flawed, diamonds pass.

If you buy diamonds that are certified you should get a report that used the GIA methodology. The certification process measures a lot of stuff, but these are the basic criteria (4Cs) that are the most important.

  • Cut – how well the diamond reflects light.
  • Clarity – how clear the diamond is, the inclusions (flaws) it has.
  • Carat – the diamond weight.
  • Color – the degree of color in the stone.

How to Buy Diamonds Without Breaking the Budget

The secret to buying diamond jewelry cost effectively is to know when you need to buy the highest quality and when you don’t. This is not unlike other consumer purchases you make where you will make choices about cost/benefits and adjust your spending accordingly.

Here are the (4) main choices, ordered by increasing cost:

  1. Pave settings, or multiple small diamond mounts. Diamonds are usually un-certified.
  2. Un-certified large diamond setting
  3. Certified large diamond setting
  4. Signed diamond jewelry (by Cartier, Tiffany’s, etc.)

The most cost effective way to buy diamonds is to buy jewelry made of up ‘many’ diamonds. This is typically a piece that contains more than (3) diamonds, it’s sometimes referred to as ‘pave’ (pronounced paa-vah). So, for example, a heart shaped pendant may contain 10-20 diamonds. These will typically be sold using un-certified diamonds which also reduces the cost. The downside to this type of jewelry is that it does not hold its value as well as jewelry made up of one or a few quality diamonds. Here’s why:

  • Pave settings contain smaller diamonds. These are less valuable. For example, (4) 1/8 carat diamonds are less valuable than an equivalent 1/2 carat diamond.
  • Pave settings are more difficult/costly to ‘reset’ in another piece if you want to reuse the diamonds.
  • Pave settings are usually set in trendy designs that can go out of style.

Here’s what a pave pendant looks like:

Tip: I recommend that you steer clear of Pave settings, if possible. The downsides outweigh the cost savings.

For jewelry pieces that offer just a few diamonds, such as a pendent or earnings, these are offered with both uncertified large settings as well as certified large settings. Here’s an example of a very simple pendant with a prominent diamond setting:

Here are some tips on how to buy these.

  • Diamond Engagement Ring. The solitaire diamond is very likely to be scrutinized up close within inches. You want this diamond to be the highest quality you can afford, you will want to go ‘certified’. Here’s how to save money: keep it simple and buy only one diamond on the ring, and you can save money on the ring mount by using palladium instead of white gold or platinum.
  • Diamond Earnings. Earnings are rarely scrutinized less than, say, 1 foot away. They need to be sparkly, buy not necessarily visually without flaw. Buy these without certification or buy a lower quality certified diamond.
  • Diamond Pendant. These are more like to be scrutinized than earnings, but you can probably get away with going without certification, or a lower quality certified, if you pick correctly.
  • Diamond Bracelet. Similar to earnings. It’s important that the diamonds look similar in size, clarity and cut. As long as they match well, you can go un-certified, especially for the smaller carat sizes.

By far the most expensive option is to simply buy signed diamond jewelry, such as from Tiffany’s or Cartier or DeBeers. Signed jewelry from a famous dealer offers the assurance of getting quality diamonds without much effort. The bonus is that these pieces can often maintain or exceed their higher cost over the long term much better than other jewelry (the ‘signature’ has value in excess of the value of the components). I will leave it up to the reader to determine whether or not this is worth the extra expense.

My Recommendation

You can’t go wrong buying simple settings that display diamonds, either the un-certified large diamond setting or one that is certified. If you buy a fancy or trendy setting, there’s a risk that she won’t like it. I haven’t met a woman who didn’t like a simple beautiful diamond pendant or stud earnings. And even if she doesn’t like it, the diamonds can be recycled more easily into something else, whereas the jewelry with a pave setting usually can’t.

Diamonds are forever, and can even last longer than your relationship 😉

All images courtesy of

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An Investors View of Social Security

March 8th, 2010 No comments

There is quite a lot of controversy and politics concerning Social Security. In this post, I take on some issues concerning Social Security (SS) with a balanced take and from an investor point of view.

Myth or Truth: Is SS an Investment?

The supporters of SS generally claim that the program is an insurance policy and not an investment. Critics would generally agree it’s not an investment. Therefore, participants should not expect a ‘return on investment’ in the same way one would on a stock/bond portfolio or even a savings account. The structure of the program suggests that it in fact has components of an investment when it concerns the determination and funding of the retirement benefits.

Here’s how it works, with an indicator to each point as to whether or not it qualifies as an investment:

  1. You earn credits each year that eventually count towards your retirement benefit. These credits are based upon your earnings, not your taxes paid. So, increases in the payroll tax rate that have occurred do not offer a higher benefit because it’s not based upon a direct link to taxes paid. (Investors normally like to calculate an investment return based upon actual money contributed). Not an investment.
  2. To determine your initial retirement benefit, your historical earnings are brought forward using the historical growth rate of average wages. Wages tend to increase faster than inflation so this calculation offers a real rate of return. It’s an investment.
  3. Once in retirement, your benefit level increases each year at the inflation rate. This is unique, nearly all investments do not have this feature.
  4. An investment has a few basic features, including an asset value that can be measured and a legal right to ownership by the holder. SS benefits do not have an asset value and citizens do not have any legal ownership to an asset or benefits for that matter. Not an investment.

Myth or Truth: Is the SS Trust Fund Real?

Payroll taxes collected are immediately used to pay benefits for current retirees. For the past 25 years or more, the payroll taxes collected have been greater than benefits paid. This surplus has been invested in a Trust Fund that contains special issue Treasury Bonds that SS can use to pay for future benefits. Supporters of SS point out that the trust fund contains real assets that can be used to pay future benefits. Detractors note that the Trust Fund is a fiction because its claim against the Treasury is simply the money it owes itself, which does nothing to insure future benefits. Who is right?

It depends upon your point of view.

All sorts of people and institutions all over the world lend the U.S Treasury money. If you believe that lending the U.S. government is a worthwhile investment (meaning that they can spend the money efficiently to create future economic growth and opportunities), then the money that is lent through the Trust Fund could improve the ability to pay future SS benefits by higher taxes collected from future economic growth. If you do not believe that this a worthwhile investment, then you likely believe that this spending won’t improve future growth and therefore the Trust Fund may seem like a fiction.

Regardless of where you come across on this question, it is more important to realize that the existence of the Trust Fund (whether real or fictional) does not tie directly to your benefits. Congress can decide to change benefit levels independent of the Trust Fund; its existence does not insure your benefits. Far more important is the near and long term expected cash flow of the U.S Treasury.

Myth or Truth: Will You Get SS Benefits At All?

Most people can probably agree that it is unlikely you won’t get any benefit. The program is too large and has a large enough of a support base that would prevent the program from being dismantled.

The real question is how much will you pay in taxes during your working years and how much will future retirement benefits be reduced. Getting any benefit does not mean it will be a benefit at the same level of past generations. It is safe to say that taxes will likely go up and benefits will be reduced in the future to bring the system into balance.

A very rough estimate for SS retirement benefits for middle income workers is to multiply your income from your final working years by .25. This means that you will likely get about 25% of your working income in retirement benefits. There are rules that can further reduce your benefits (e.g., if you work prior to normal retirement age your benefits can be reduced).

It is prudent to add in a margin of safety to your expected benefits, depending on how far in the future you expect to get benefits. People who are perhaps less than 10 years away from retirement age will likely get their expected benefits in full. If you have more than 10 years to go, I would apply a discount of 25% or more.