Friday, May 15, 2009

Verizon Frustration

Hello, Thrifters,

I haven't written since last winter--more on that another time.

Wanted to quickly share an absurd encounter that ultimately validates the worth of hanging in there with customer service issues.

I recently signed up for a mobile broadband account with Verizon Wireless. I now own a cute little (overpriced) USB wireless modem and for $60/month, I can use it to download 5GB of data each month.

The gizmo had a 30-day money back guarantee, so I waited until it ended to pay my bill as the jury was out until the last minute.

I then tried to go online to pay, but in order to set up an account, I had to have a temporary password. The only way to get a temp pw was to receive a text message.

Verizon has set up their mobile broadband service as though it's a mobile phone service. I have a phone number attached to my account. But, remember, I don't *actually* have a mobile phone, just a little USB dongle/router.

Since there was no way around the temp pw text situation and my bill was due, I put a check in the mail.

I then got my next bill, which included a $5.00 late fee and a .20 cent charge for the text.

It's the kind of eye-roll inducing big-sigh moment when you wonder if it really is worth it to make a phone call and navigate the phone trees and talk to at least one person just to get your money back.

I decided it was.

Luckily, I was able to convince the automated voice to give me a human being fairly quickly. Three selections and an assertive "speak to a representative" command later, Lisa came on the line.

At first, my dilemma puzzled her. "Did you post-date your check?" she wanted to know.

"What?...Post-date? No." I couldn't think what else to say.

Turns out, the check was received and credited to my account nine days after it was due, so she thought I had post-dated it.

At any rate, she was nice and after I explained the reason for my late fee--couldn't pay online because couldn't get a text message--she refunded me for the late fee and also for the text message, which was supposed to be free.

After a short while on hold, she then connected me to Collette, who took me through a circuitous pre-determined script for setting up my online account. Turns out, I *can* receive text messages to my modem (who knew??) via the management software. She showed me how to find the password.

A few frustrating Verizon.com loop-de-loos later, and I was in. I paid my next bill early.

But, we'll see if the two additional texts with two new passwords that Collette and I sent to my modem result in forty more cents on my next bill.

Collette, by the way, confirmed they are supposed to be free. What a racket, right? If Verizon is forcing any customer who wants to pay their bills online to receive a text message and pay .20 cents for it...those cents would really add up.

For another Verizon encounter, read this blog post from a colleague of mine.

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Saving Money at the Holidays

It's no secret that the--well, "secret"-- to having more money is basically to earn more and spend less. But knowing this and doing this is very much like knowing the secret to weight loss is essentially to eat less and burn more calories. It's easy to comprehend the math; it's difficult to figure out how to change your life in order to incorporate it. Our American lives have so much capitalist momentum--so much STUFF--and we've developed such bad habits, with both food and money, that stopping ourselves and making changes feels a lot like trying to stop a supertanker going full tilt at an iceberg.

The secret, by the way, to saving the Titanic was to accelerate, not slow down. The oceanliner couldn't stop in time to avoid the iceberg. What Captain Smith needed--apart from heeding the iceberg warnings in the first place--was to accelerate in order to fuel the powerful turn that was needed. It's against our instinct, though, to step on the gas when headed for a crisis. So, of course, he ordered the opposite of what was needed, and the ship slowed down, couldn't turn fast enough, and it grazed the iceberg all along the side of its hull--a fate more deadly that if it had simply hit the thing head-on, it would seem. Well, you know the rest.

Hindsight, of course, is 20-20. Mostly.

Where am I going with all of this? I'm going to Christmas. Or, to other holidays, if you celebrate them at this time of year and if they tend to wear you out and cost you lots.

Reduce, re-use, recycle

I just finished wrapping what I think is my last Christmas gift of the season. I may still have one more to go, depending on whether we can find the wireless doorbell my brother and sister-in-law are hoping for.

I'm the world's worst wrapper, I confess. But all of the gifts are wrapped, labeled, and some of them even have lovely bows. And I wrapped them all--about 20 gifts in total--without purchasing a single ribbon, bow, or sheet of paper this year.

Every year, I carefully unwrap and save paper when possible--at all occasions--and I gather up and save bows, ribbons, and gift bags. I also planned ahead and bought six rolls of wrapping paper 75% off on clearance after Christmas last year. This allowed me to get away with not spending a single penny on wrapping this season. And, I still have four and a half rolls left for next year.

I made a point of buying some paper last season that was not exclusively seasonal--silver with polka dots for instance and red and white striped and solid green. I used these throughout the year for birthday gifts and other presents and they worked just fine. So, my total wrapping costs this year? About $2.00, if you count what I invested in paper at the end of last season.

Do you gift wrap?

This question is one of the best ones you can ask this time of year.

"Do you gift wrap?" And "Is it free?" come out of my mouth at any retailer where this seems even remotely likely.

It turns out that a surprising number of stores offer free gift-wrapping, but it's been my experience that almost none of them advertise it.

I got free gift bags with tissue for two gifts I purchased at Silkweeds in Bucksport. I also got gifts wrapped at A Different Drummer's Kitchen in Northampton. Ten Thousand Villages will give you free gift boxes with informative inserts, if you ask. Barnes and Noble also gift wraps, I think.

Set limits and stick to them

Rather than going pell-mell at Christmas, take a firm and reasoned approach. When I spoke about accelerating in a crisis, I did not mean you should accelerate your spending.

It may be too late now, but whether it's this year or next, before you buy one single, solitary gift, figure out what you can really spend. This should be your first step, always. Proceed from there.

Don't think about what others will spend on you. Don't think about what you wish you could give, or--God forbid--what you feel you should give. Don't let guilt guide you. Think about what you honest-to-god can afford to buy, in cash, right now, for Christmas.

I am hear to tell you that it IS possible to buy or make wonderful Christmas presents without breaking your bank.

Finding good deals

I always seem to manage somehow to get by at Christmas and stick to my budget. In the years when I was really broke, it made me super-sad and super stressed out to try and find gifts for measly amounts. Now, I have slightly more freedom, which really does help. Nevertheless, it is possible to spend as little as $5 or $10 and get a nice gift--and by nice, I mean one that will make the recipient happy.

A few tips:
  1. Start early. Start planning, searching, thinking, researching, saving, and hording gifts as early as September.
  2. Pay attention. If you are a true thrifter, you spend time at discount department stores, thrift stores, yard sales, and the like. Pay attention all year round and you can pick up things that will be beloved by your Christmas gift recipients, but that would be hard to find for such a low price on short notice. Store them someplace safe. If you pay attention to prices and what you can usually find on sale, then when it comes time to buy later in the year, you'll know how much a digital picture frame or your mother's favorite candy usually costs and you won't be taken in by hyped up sales. You'll know a good value when you see one. Last, but not least, pay attention to the people in your life and notice what they really want. This year my boyfriend is unemployed again. Last year, I showered him with gifts thinking it would cheer him up. And he liked them and was sweet about it. But this year, he let slip that Christmas sucks when you're poor. I know this all too well, but I couldn't resist the urge to give last year. This year, I realized that it made him feel crummy that he wasn't able to match my gift-giving. So, this year, even though I wanted to give him the moon, I spent only a fraction of what I spent last year. I got him a few gifts that I know he'll love and spent only about $30. My biggest gift to him was to resist the urge to give. I also paid attention when my stepmother started saying a few years ago that she just can't stand the idea of having any more stuff. For her, gift certificates, edibles (or drinkables), or experiences are much better gifts than another sweater or pair of earrings.
  3. Do due diligence. Don't buy anything unless you're sure it's a good deal. Make sure you know return policies and warranty information where applicable. Research all purchases online to see if you really are getting the best deal. Googling the product name will get you started. You can also go directly to the retailers you'd be likely to buy from. And shopping bots, such as MySimon.com and PriceGrabber.com, are also useful tools.
  4. Use Half.com. I've come to rely on Half.com, which is now owned by eBay, for books and DVDs. You can find new or gently used copies of books, CDs, and DVDs for as much as--and sometimes more than--half off the retail price. I bought my mother a cookbook, for instance. And I bought myself Seasons 1 and 2 of Futurama. All together, I saved about $50 combined just on these three purchases by using Half.com. Just keep in mind that unless you pay for a shipping upgrade, it could take as long as three weeks for your item to arrive. And be sure to read the comments and check up on your seller's feedback--and ask questions if you have them--before you buy.
  5. Look for free shipping--and also beware of it. When shopping online, I have a firm policy never to pay for shipping. Every now and again I make an exception, but in general, if I can't get free shipping, I won't buy online. Lots of times, though, the free shipping depends on consumers spending a specific dollar amount, usually $50, $75, or $100. Be sure to calculate the cost of shipping into any product research you do online. And really think carefully about spending up in order to get the free shipping deal. I recently spent $19 on a candle so that I could get free shipping from Aveda.com. There was an item I wanted there, very badly, that I could have ordered through my local Aveda salon without paying shipping, but for some reason I was so intoxicated by the instant gratification of it showing up at my door without my having to drive almost an hour round-trip to the salon, that I went ahead and spent up in order to get the free shipping. It seemed to make sense at the time. Rather than paying $8 for shipping, I paid $19 for a small (and lovely) candle. And I also got a free sample. It wasn't the thriftiest choice, but in terms of quality of life, it worked for me. I didn't have to call the salon to make the order and I didn't have to drive 45 minutes to get it. I regret having paid $19 for a candle--that's just absurd--but I don't regret taking care of myself. I love the scent of the candle. I burn it during meditation and yoga every day. And I'm glad I didn't have to go to the salon. In the math that is thrift, QOL is always the dominant variable.
  6. Employ coupons and leverage sales. If you have paid attention and planned ahead, you can really make smart choices and get good deals. Let's use yesterday as an example. Because I have been paying attention to digital picture frames for a year, and because I researched online, and because I knew there was a sale at RadioShack, yesterday I got a good deal on a frame. Regularly $79.99, I got it for $49.99. I also got a phone on clearance. We've needed one for months, but I waited until I could get the exact right deal on the one I wanted. Replacing the whole phone was cheaper than buying new batteries. I also got a compact flash card reader for a fair price because ours has stopped working in my computer and I need to figure out if it's the USB port or the device. I then went to a kitchen supply store and bought three items, all of which I'd researched. One of them was a very fancy blender, which I had spent hours researching online and in-person at the gourmet store. Because I'd done so much research and spent so much time contemplating the purchase, I knew I was ready and that this was the right one at the right price. I could have saved $15 and gotten one online using a coupon at Macy's, but (I hate Macy's for this!) the Macy's site was not clear about the product model number and getting help was difficult. So, in the end, I spent more money, but put that money into the local economy and was certain that I'd gotten exactly what I wanted--which I couldn't do at Macys.com. I got free gift-wrapping on all three items that I bought, and while they were wrapping, I picked up dinner at our favorite (very affordable) Mexican place--and saved 10% using a coupon.

An alternative to Christmas

I'll say more about this in another post, but I also want to mention that the bloated and frenzied spending ritual that has become Christmas is not really what Christmas is all about--you do have alternatives.

If you are a practicing Christian, perhaps it's time to turn Christmas into a more spiritually-based event? Scale back the buying and spending and invest in service, charitable giving, church attendance, or other forms of worship and observance. Establish new rituals--light of candles, eat special (biblically traditional?) foods, spend time with your family reading the story of Christmas, singing, or making themed arts and crafts.

If, like my family, you are not Christians, or not practicing Christians, you might do what we do. For myself, I celebrate the solstice. I conduct a pagan spiritual ritual and host a gathering for friends where I serve traditional food and drink (such as glog). The focus of the event is an appreciation of darkness and a celebration of light. It's beautiful and costs next to nothing.

With my family on my mother's side, we have the Annual Family Winter Games. My mother hosts--on any day other than December 25th. We gather to eat and drink together and compete in a series of clever games and projects that my very creative mother devises. There are scavenger hunts, craft projects, riddles, puzzles, and an amazing assortment of contests appropriate for almost all ages. We exchange small gifts and there are also lots of little prizes for the winner of each game. (I hope to write more about these alternatives to spend-heavy Christmases in a future post.)

Iceberg dead ahead

The Titanic sank--and most of its passengers and crew perished--because of the greed and hubris of its makers and its captain. It's time for American consumers to remember that we are the captains of our own financial ships. We do not have to cave in to pressure to behave recklessly. We can stock our ship with plenty of lifeboats and we can chart a course through dangerous waters that will allow us to reach our destination safely.

And we can start with our approach to Christmas.

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Friday, December 5, 2008

My Favorite Things

If I were a billionaire talk show hostess, this season I would offer my audience the following things:

1) LL Bean Holiday Flannel Pants ($29.50). These pajama bottoms are so comfy and scrumptious I literally have worn them every day since I brought them home from the store.

2) BUST magazine ($19.95/year). Feminism, fashion, crafts, smart writing, independent artists--even the ads are great.

3) Burt's Bees Radiance Night Creme ($15/2 oz). It's gooey and delicious--and natural enough to eat. I apply it every night at bedtime and I think my skin is better for it.

4) Earth shoes. In vegan and non-vegan varieties, mine are funky little Mary Jane alternatives that are cute, comfy and feature Earth Shoe's inverted heel (which is hard to get used to, but is supposed to be really good for you.) They don't seem to sell mine any more, so I would give my audience these ($119), the next closest thing.

5) Lexie Barnes totes ($130). Sturdy comfortable straps, striking fabric pattern, water-resistant taffeta, deep, spacious, belly lined with pink! I LOVE my Lexie Barnes tote. I want a hundred more, but they don't make them like this any more. Next best thing--maybe even better, I don't know: The Lady B.

6) Netflix Player by Roku ($99). Oh, Netflix Player, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. If you love Netflix and have a broadband Internet connection at home (and, ideally, 802.11n Wi-Fi), run out and get this NOW. Read my full review here.

7) Futurama, Vol 1 ($39.98). Every season is great, but the first one is maybe my favorite. At any rate, it's a great place to start. Studio audience: enjoy.

8) Canvas Panels (45 cents) and paints ($3.78 each). One of the best things I did all year was paint a picture at Anna and Heidi's east coast wedding reception. I want to supply myself and paint some more. I haven't done it yet, so I don't know which paints or panels are best yet, but the experience was so great, I'd rather give my audience these to get started--and then maybe by next year, I'll have a favorite brand, color, or type of paint to share.

9) Harry Potter books on CD ($454.75). The entire collection, unabridged. Even though the reader mispronounces "Voldemort," it's still fantastic to listen to these books on CD, especially on long road trips.

10) Mead Five Star 2 Subject notebooks ($4.89). My favorite notebook to journal or write in. I'm currently writing a novel by hand in them. Hopefully my audience will love them as much as I do!

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Heat Yourself First

Among the best winter heating tips I can offer is this: heat yourself, not the air around you.

It's much more affordable to invest in a good pair of long underwear or cozy socks than it is to turn the thermostat up another five degrees.

I've found these things to be very helpful:

--Sleep in your socks.
--Wear layers, including long underwear top and bottom.
--Don't be afraid to wear scarves, neck warmers, or hats at home.
--Leg warmers and arm warmers make a surprising difference. I got my black leg warmers at Target and my arm warmers at Sock Dreams. Sock Dreams is a woman-owned, independent business based in Portland, OR. Their mail order business offers free shipping on all orders and their customer service is excellent. I wear my chenille arm warmers when I'm working at my computer. They keep my palms and arms warm while I'm typing without interfering with the keyboard or my typing.
--Put extra blankets on the bed and tuck in your top sheet.
--Snuggle. :-)
--Keep cozy blankets any place you find yourself sitting. We keep several on the couch and stuffed armchair in the living room so that we can be comfortable when watching TV or reading, etc.
--I find that wearing long socks helps me, so that my ankles are never bare and there's no gap between the bottom of my pants and my socks.
--I also find that tucking in my bottom layer--usually a tank top--helps me a lot. Keeping my abdomen covered makes a big difference in my overall warmth and comfort.
--Keep your trunk warm--wear a light fleece vest, for instance, as your outer layer at home.

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Bundled Services

While I think it's creepy to have mega-conglomerates or single corporations owning all of my telecommunications dollars, I'm also not about to refuse the opportunity to get a better deal by bundling, if the savings are substantial.

I've been using Verizon for my phone service, both home and office, and Charter for cable TV and Internet. (I tried Verizon's DSL with disastrous results a few years ago and will never go back.)

While my initial foray into VoIP was TERRIBLE with Vonage, I'm game for giving it another go because of the savings--and the office landline as a backup.

My introductory rate with Verizon was up a few months ago. I called them to see if they'd extend it--or even just match the Charter rate, but they declined.

So, tonight, I invested half an hour and got the switch to Charter taken care of.

It took some time to sort out the best deal. I could save by using a coupon that came with my bill, by using a bundled purchase option online, or by calling. A few minutes spent sorting the options and chatting with a rep got me my new deal.

I'll have everything I have now (all my cable channels and the same Internet, plus voicemail and unlimited long distance, etc.), but it'll cost me a total of $119.97/month versus the $162 I've been paying since my Verizon rate went up.

It was a nuisance sorting through the various options. And I was misinformed by the online chat rep about being able to use my $50 coupon. So there was an extra phone call involved to sort that out.

In the end, though, I invested less than an hour in the project and will save $42/month for the next 12 months, a total savings of $504. Not a bad hourly rate.

Moral of the story: It's worth it to take the time to research options and combinations when shopping for TV, Internet, and phone services in order to get the very best deal.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Credit Card Horror Story

A friend told me a cautionary tale:

He had a credit card on which he carried a significant balance at an introductory rate. That card was bought by Bank of America, the bank he uses for his personal and business banking. When his mail came, he stacked the B of A envelopes and didn't open them immediately, thinking they were only bank statements.

Au contraire. His oversight cost him $200 in late fees. He said that was a one-time fee and not accrued late fees over several statements. (I find that shocking--even for B of A--but it's what he said.) They also jacked up his rate.

He placed a phone call to the bank and they returned his rate back to the introductory one, but the whole experience cost him--by his estimate--several hundred dollars and a lot of stress.

Moral of the story? Open all of your mail promptly, just in case. And work on liberating yourself from credit cards.

I would also advise being aggressive about pursuing a refund in situations like this. This has happened to me a few times in my life--particularly during times of transition when my statements didn't catch up a a move in time, or when i lived with roommates and a statement got misplaced in our group mail experience. In almost all cases, the fee was reduced or removed.

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Avoid Finance Charges

Even if you pay off the balance of your credit card every month, you may find yourself paying finance charges if there is no grace period. It's important to know your card.

On the back of your statement, in all that fine print, there should be specific details that outline your card agreement. (I keep all of my statements on hand in a filing system so that I can check on them if I need to. I kept paper statements for five years when I was self-employed. I advise keeping them for at least a year--and to always keep the initial card agreement and other relevant documents.)

Look for a section labeled Grace Period. Also read the sections on Finance Charges.

Also keep in mind, that many cards use an average daily balance, so that even if you pay off your balance in full before it's due, you may find yourself paying a finance charge.

I recently paid off the balance on a card, but because it was a balance that had been sitting on the card for more than one billing cycle, there was no grace period. I paid $4.74 in finance charges for the month AFTER I had paid it off. My balance was zero, but I owed $4.74 in interest.

This is another reason why it's important to always open and look at your statements immediately. I almost didn't bother to open that statement because I knew I had paid off the card, but if I hadn't, I wouldn't have known that there was a small balance due--and I would have been dinged for late fees of more than 600% of that balance.

The moral? Know your card(s)--and always open your statements promptly, even if you're afraid of what's there and even if you think you don't owe anything.

If you have the ability to schedule e-mail alerts for things such as approaching your limit or a new statement, I also recommend doing this.

And, of course, the best practice is to liberate yourself from credit cards entirely.

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