Monthly Archives: March 2009

6 1260

Citi sucks.  Not as bad as Best Buy but pretty darn close.So in yesterday’s spending report, I mentioned that I’d been dinged for $1.87 in finance charges.

I’m not happy about it.

In my opinion, I never should have been assessed finance charges.

My statements come out on the 26th of the month. On February 25th, the account balance on my Citi AT&T Universal MasterCard was $0.

On February 26th, they assessed a finance charge of $14.97.

That was legit, I assumed, as I’d carried the a good chunk of the balance of the baby furniture purchased in January. It made sense — I wasn’t going to argue.

So I paid it right back down to $0 on February 28, you know, to make my monthly net worth update look nice with a $0 balance.

My balance on the card remained $0 until I bought gas on March 11.

The next morning, on March 12, I paid the card in full. Again, my balance was $0.

That was the last time I used the card so it came as a total surprise when I logged in to my account on March 26 to see that they’d charged me $1.87 in finance charges.

Huh?

My balance was $0 before the billing period began. They charged me $15 in finance charges, which I paid two days later. Then I charged $18 in gas and paid the bill one day later.

At my due date, the balance was $0.

At no time was my balance higher than $18.

And they charged me $1.87????

What?

My initial reaction was to just let it go. It’s a couple of bucks — who cares, right?

But then I recalled all of those horror stories I’ve heard of people struggling to get their balances to zero when the bank just keeps nickel-and-diming them with finance charges to prevent them from ever reaching that point.

Time to contact customer service…

I sent them a message through the website explaining politely that I was confused as to why I’d been charged any finance charges at all when my account balance was zero before the billing period and zero at the end of the billing period.

Here’s the canned response I received:

Finance charges for purchases, balance transfers and cash advances will begin to accrue from the date the transaction is added to your balance. They will continue to accrue until payment in full is credited to your account.

This means that when you make your final payment on these balances, you will pay interest for the time between the date your last statement prints and the date your payment is credited to your account.

Was this message helpful?

Seriously, the last line was really there. And my answer was “No.”

Thanks for the canned answer.

I know what finance charges are — I was just under the impression that when you had a $0 balance, you know, you kinda “earned” a 20-day (or so) grace period. Apparently, I’m mistaken even though that’s how every other card I’ve ever carried has worked.

The more I read into that canned response, the more I began to think that I was in the initial stages of being nickel-and-dimed.

It’s as if I was hit with finance charges on finance charges (not a “purchase, balance transfer or cash advance”) during those two days at the start of my billing period — though $1.87 for two days seems a little steep…

I frantically tried to make a payment of $1.87 to Citi to prevent it from happening next month.

Their horrible web interface told me that the earliest I could make a payment was March 30 — at the time, that was 4 days away! Oh no!

I began to stew.

And then I sent them a less-friendly response:

Okay — so it’s all but impossible to get my balance back to $0, huh?

Your website doesn’t allow me to “overpay” my bill so as to “pre” pay the looming finance charges — something I’d like to do — so you’re basically telling me that I’ll continued to get hit with minuscule finance charges indefinitely until I somehow “luck out” and am able to submit a payment seconds after the finance charges are debted from my account?

Is that how it works?

Seems pretty crooked.

And here’s how they responded, to their credit, pretty quickly:

The finance charges for purchases will begin to accrue from the date the transaction is added to your balance. They will continue to accrue until payment in full is credited to your account. This means that when you make your final payment on these balances, you will pay interest for the time between the date your last statement prints and the date your payment is credited to your account.

So apparently a $0 balance isn’t “payment in full” to Citi. Okay, whatever…

A few days later, on Sunday, still steaming (yes, over $1.87), I logged back into my account.

Though I check my account balances on a daily basis, this was the first time that I’d noticed that my rate had jumped to 16.99%

I would never apply for a card with a rate like that so why should I continue to use one?

I took the card out of my wallet.

And then it hit me, this was also the one credit card in my arsenal that earns reward points — yeah, those things that I think are a total joke.

Thinking about it some more (yeah, I couldn’t let it go), back in December, I remembered receiving one of those “change of terms” letters from Citi. Good thing I blogged about it — that’s where the 16.99% figure came from — but what I was recalling was some additional literature enclosed with something about them reserving the right to suspend the awards program or take away my reward points whenever they felt like it.

That did it…

I’m done with Citi,” I told myself.

I logged into their ThankYou network and started shopping and you know what?

I managed to spend all but 28 of my ThankYou points last night.

Wanna see what I selected?

Allie G, the singing alligator.

Yep. A singing alligator. (you need to click on him. I beg you.)

Silly? Yes.

Frivolous? Perhaps… but hopefully the baby will find it as hilarious as I do.

I should also mention that I very frugally used ThankYou points to pick up the ever-elusive telephone (a Panasonic KX-TG6432M) that I so struggled to find over the weekend too…

Thanks Citi — and good riddance.

9 1997

For some reason, I'm really into alligators lately...Last month I followed Debt Destroyer‘s lead and listed out all of my monthly expenses.

I found it to be a pretty good exercise and it opened my eyes to a few holes that I still have in the my grand scheme to reach my financial goals so I’m going to do it again.

Now, it may not quite be the end of March just yet but I don’t have any expenses looming in the next couple of days so these numbers will be accurate.

I should also say that after last month’s $4133 total, I said that I’d try to keep my expenses under $2500 this month.

That didn’t happen.

I’m not sure what I was thinking, actually…

Here’s what I spent my money on in March:

  • $1575.00 : Mortgage
  • $905.00 : Hockey Jerseys
  • $460.00 : Federal Tax
  • $305.01 : Business Expenses
  • $250.98 : Natural Gas
  • $135.87 : Electricity
  • $109.26 : Cable/Internet
  • $80.00 : Cash
  • $68.81 : Gas
  • $53.33 : Phone
  • $26.48 : Baby Stuff
  • $1.87 : Finance Charges (I’ll have something to say about this at a later date…)

That adds up to $3971.61.

An improvement over last month, yes, but certainly not something to be proud of.

I’m genuinely embarrassed by the hockey jersey expenditures. I can’t adequately justify it except to say that the last two months have been my last hurrah when it comes to this hobby of mine.

Once the big day arrives, I won’t be nearly as active in the hobby. Of that, I’m sure.

And if you’re keeping track at home, and I sincerely hope that you’re not, you might have noticed that my utility bills have started to fall… By next month, they’ll drop by another 50% or so. I love summer.

And you know, I think that $2500 limit is do-able for April.

I’m gonna try it.

Again.

6 1127

Best BuyIt may be a few months too late but I’m just now beginning to feel the effects of the demise of Circuit City.

My wife and I are in the market for a new telephone. Our local Walmart — if you can believe it — doesn’t carry anything but cell phones now. No joke.

If I wanted an honest-to-goodness telephone from there, I’d have to tear down one of those customer representative phones mounted to the walls. Unfortunately, I’m not exactly looking for a phone that will allow my voice to be heard throughout the entire house (clean-up in aisle, err, bathroom two), so…

I was beside myself. How could Walmart not have a single phone?

For heaven’s sake, you can buy a GUN there but you can’t buy a telephone? What does that say about the direction society is headed?

So off we went, reluctantly, to Best Buy.

I’ve always hated this store.

First of all, their aisles are too narrow. Many of the folks who play video games (and frequent the store) are a little bit wider than the rest of the population and if you get bookended in an aisle, there doesn’t seem to be a discreet way of escaping. I’ve found this situation unique to Best Buy often fearing for my life should these two huge people attempt to cross paths with me innocently stuck in the middle.

Secondly, I don’t think the employees work on commission but they certainly act like it. The entire time in there I feel as if I’m being circled by sharks.

“No, I’m just looking, thanks… And really, you were standing close enough to hear that I was just questioning out loud why anyone would want to pay over $100 to have their cellphone mounted to the side of their head? I think it’s pretty apparent that I’m not in the market for a bluetooth headset…”

Of course, I usually keep that second part to myself.

So we finally find their limited phone section in the back corner of the store.

They very conveniently put one of those sets of stairs on wheels right in front of all of them. I tried to move it, but apparently it was locked in the “brake” position. Nice… So far this has been a wonderful shopping experience.

So climbing through (not up) the steps, I finally got my hands on some telephones. Since they’re apparently such low budget items, none of the employees disturbed us. That was nice. We settled on a sufficient Panasonic model that had a answering machine built in for around $70.

Looking below, under the samples, were the boxes would have been, there was just a jumbled mess of random phone boxes. We went through every box and came up empty handed.

Naturally, they did have the same phone we wanted available in a package that came with four receivers but I wasn’t about to spend that much for what is essentially our secondary phone. And what would I do with three extra receivers?

Ugh.

Disgusted, we left the store — and this brings me to what I HATE most about BestBuy.

They treat every single customer as if they’re a shoplifter.

The minute you walk in the door, you may have noticed that they don’t have a greeter like other stores do.

Instead, they have a loss prevention person right up front, semi-greeting you, but more often than not, they’re just following the most attractive woman in the store using the cameras or spying on the shady looking guy with the baggy pants on that hardly cover his ass.

Now I’m not against having a loss prevention employee (like the fake shoppers that department stores have) or even an effective use of the camera system but in full view of the public? C’mon? The first thing I see when I walk in the store is some pimple-faced teenager with an authority complex spying on people.

It’s not very inviting. To shoplifter or the law-abiding customer. I’m pretty sure the latter outnumbers the former by at least a 500:1 ratio.

Their “out-in-the-open” methods just might deter a few criminals, sure, but they also turn off a good number of customers too…like me.

I don’t like feeling like a criminal.

So when you attempt to leave the store without buying anything, the look this employee gives you as you try to cut past the checkout — it’s like the stink-eye — is what puts this store lower than any other store out there.

If I were the type to make a scene, I would.

Hey pizza-face — If I were a shoplifter, guess what, you missed me cause you were too busy playing your Peeping Tom game.

That’s right, I saw you checking out the bimbo with the artificial d-cups who is old enough to be your mother when we walked in, which, if you’re unaware, and you obviously are, every single person walking in the store can see exactly what you’re up to because there’s a window behind you…

Embarrassed? I thought so.

And the real reason that I’m walking out of your crappy store empty handed is because you never have what I’m looking for in stock, your prices are too high, and your overly aggressive service sucks.

Oh, and are these big magnetic alarms at the exit just for show or are *you* the alarm system?

Then I’d just stand there waiting for a response.

I really hate Best Buy.

Wanna know what’s even funnier?

We drove to a second Best Buy in search of the phone and repeated the entire process.

Seriously.

6 1463

The Haunting in ConnecticutYeah, whatever…

Sheesh, another embarassing showcase of the state I call home.

First we have a pet chimpanzee maul someone and now we’ve got a creepy haunted house movie with a kid barfing on the poster…

I’ve driven by the house portrayed in the movie. Many times.

No joke, as the crow flies, it’s less than 5 miles from my house. I was going to drive by today and snap a picture for this post but apparently there’s a police car out front in an attempt to keep the curious away so I’ll describe it instead…

It’s a dumpy multi-family home on a busy road surrounded by a bunch of very similar dumpy multi-family homes. The kind that’s had all of its porches enclosed so as to be listed to have more bedrooms for rent than it actually should.

Unfinished attic? Put up a rickety staircase on the exterior, toss a dirty mattress up there, and you’ve got yourself another room to rent.

Can you picture it in your head now?

(I’ll admit, I’ve exaggerated slightly — but it really is a dumpy looking multi-family that I wouldn’t ever consider living in — and look what the inside of my house looks like!)

It’s also not, as I’ve heard reported by the national media, in Northern Connecticut.

Seriously, the town’s name is Southington.

Would they name a town Southington if it were in the northern part of the state?
Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Anyway, I’m officially declaring that it’s not haunted.

It’s not even scary looking!?

It’s just a dumpy multi-family home that they current owner, through no fault of their own, will now be able to charge an arm-and-a-leg to rent out. Bonus for them.

And all this talk of orbs or anomalies in still photos — well, being a pro photographer, let me straighten this out once and for all…

It’s called dust on the sensor or a smudge on the mirror… Oh, and that prism hanging from a hook over there in the corner of the room where the “contact” occurred isn’t exactly helping the situation…

Yeah, that’s right, I’m a skeptic.

If you believe that this movie is based on a true story, you’re either a teenage girl who thinks that vampires with messy hair are “Hottie McHott” hot or you’re just a weirdo. My mailman is actually one of the latter.

He asked me a few months ago to take a look at some of his cemetery photos taken during one of his, um, “expeditions”.

The photos were taken with a piece-of-crap Sony point-and-shoot and then enlarged to a point where, well, you could see every jaggedy pixel. Basically, to him (and his cohorts), there were ghosts all over the place.

To me? Well, the photos were overexposed, over-enlarged, and the sensor on the camera obviously had some crap on it. The lens was scratched too…

Of course I didn’t have the heart to tell him, just nodding my head saying, “Yeah, that’s kinda neat…” as he eyed my camera equipment.

Then I turned him down when he asked if I’d be interested in going out for the next investigation…

Please don’t waste any money on this terrible movie.

Here’s a photo of another local home that I’m pretty sure *is* haunted.

Now this house is creepy...

Well, at least it looks the part…

For the curious, I can even give you the street address — no police cars outside or anything. Just creepy-goodness.

And maybe it’s just me, but I find it hilarious that the movie’s tag line is “Some things can not be explained.”

That’s certainly true — a lot of things can be totally fabricated though…

3 1019

Smurfs are cool.  I don't care what you say...  they are.  That's a fact.One year ago today, following a $508.13 payment, I posed that I’d eliminated $28000+ worth of credit card debt.

I even included a neat little graph to show how awesome my progress was.

That’s right — I said “awesome”.

In a four month span, I absolutely destroyed over $13k in debt. That was awesome.

(In reality, it was just a ton of momentum… Once I saw the debts falling, things started moving faster than I ever could have imagined…)

The good news is that my total credit card debt is still $0.

The bad news is that I don’t feel like I’ve progressed very much since then…

Sure, I paid off my auto loan in full (no car payments! woo-hoo!), I knocked nearly 10% of my mortgage balance out, I finally secured conventional homeowners insurance, and I somehow even managed to grow my savings account to 5-figures but for whatever reason, I dunno, I thought that once the credit cards were under control, I guess I thought I’d have, oh, say, a couple grand each month to spend on whatever I fancied.

It hasn’t worked out that way.

I wonder if that’ll kick in when I polish off the mortgage? Hmmmmm…

Either way, that’s still a long way off…

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Fun PIAC Financial Factoid: Sure, the past week has been pretty kind to everyone’s investments but even without the recent uptick in the markets, my investments have done better in 2009 than they did for the same time period in 2008. Crazy, huh?

From January 1 through March 22, my investments were down $1098.85 in 2008.
This year, not even including this week’s gains, from January 1 through March 22, they were only down $120.40.

Perhaps that says something about my personal investment strategy but I still think it’s clear that things aren’t nearly as bad as they might seem.

7 2393

MBAOh man, I was almost giddy when I read this this afternoon.

I’ve been saying this exact same thing about MBAs and folks considering going to “business school” or even “back to school” for nearly a decade.

The truth is that the relevance of the technical training allegedly offered by the MBA was always overblown.

The empirical evidence on the contribution of the MBA to individual career performance … doesn’t exist. In fact, if the relevance of an M.D. to the performance of doctors were even half as unsubstantiated, we’d probably be fantasizing about tossing a few physicians in jail, too.

They don’t even mention what a rip-off it is too…

My most recent “rant” along these lines was in a comment on Trevor’s Financial Nut blog from a few months ago where I laid it out pretty bluntly:

This is a touchy subject for a lot of folks…

For me, I am *so* thankful that I never had to resort to student loans… I certainly wouldn’t find myself in the same situation that I am now — and it’s been over 10 years since I’ve been out of school. Student loans would have crippled me financially.

That said, going into debt for a degree isn’t a bad idea but it’s not a great idea either.

Going into debt for grad school or an MBA, on the other hand, is stupid. VERY stupid.

Here’s why — there is NO guaranteed return on that investment. None.

Anyone bantering around the idea of “going back to school” years after they’ve already graduated is kidding themselves, really, let’s be honest.

They’re not going to be handed a better job or a higher paying job just because they have another degree. It doesn’t work like that…

It’s almost as if people in their 20’s are under the impression that an MBA is like a ticket to a six figure salary and a signing bonus… Sure, it may work for some, but most of them will find themselves working alongside schleps with BA’s in Art History — except they’ll also have a 6-figure student loan balance that they’ll spend the rest of their lives paying down…

Worth it?

Not to me.

Anyway, not that stuff on CNBC or Slate.com are worth paper they’re not even printed on anymore, it was refreshing to finally see something in such agreement with my perspective of things.

I’m gonna quote the whole thing since I’ve found that CNBC likes to update (and remove) content on a pretty regular basis:

RIP, MBA
The economic crisis has exposed the myth of business-school expertise.
by Matthew Stewart

Put your ear to the ground near any business school campus, and you will hear the sound of another bubble about to pop. The MBA will soon be joining equities and house titles in the museum of formerly overvalued pieces of paper.

The problem in the short term begins, like so many other fine things these days, in the financial sector. Over the past two decades, about one-third of graduates from top business schools took jobs in finance. But banking will never be what it once was (we can only hope), and consulting—the other major consumer of MBAs—is reeling, too. Couple declining demand with the fact that at the onset of a recession, the supply of students actually rises as the prospectively unemployed look for ways to fill in gaps in their CVs, and “shorting” the MBA looks like a compelling near-term trading strategy.

The really grim news for the MBA, however, is about more than short-term trends. Isn’t it just a little suspicious, after all, that the sector that showed the greatest appetite for MBAs was the most grotesquely mismanaged? In fact, the economic crisis has exposed long-standing flaws not just in the modern approach to business education but in the very idea of business education.

The truth is that the relevance of the technical training allegedly offered by the MBA was always overblown. The idea that there is some body of knowledge pertaining to business management that can be packaged up and distributed to the business universe in two-year course-lets—well, it sounded good about a century ago, when it was first conceived. Maybe it still had merit when the schools were turning out only a few thousand graduates per year. But it certainly stopped making sense well before the schools achieved their current level of production of a whopping 140,000 or so graduates per year. The empirical evidence on the contribution of the MBA to individual career performance seems to bear this out—mainly because it doesn’t exist. In fact, if the relevance of an M.D. to the performance of doctors were even half as unsubstantiated, we’d probably be fantasizing about tossing a few physicians in jail, too.

The other truth helpfully revealed in the throes of the crisis is that ethics and integrity and social responsibility aren’t just optional extras for good business management—unless by “management,” you mean “looting.” Managers don’t need to be trained; they need to be educated—in the sense of “civilized.” Unfortunately, a business degree isn’t just irrelevant to that purpose; it’s positively detrimental.

Now, to be fair, people don’t behave like jerks just because they spend two years in business school. After all, as many of my business school friends have pointed out, most of the first year goes into heavy partying, and the second year is really a marathon job fair. No, for the most part, people behave like jerks because nobody stops them from doing so. The charmers at AIG walked away with multimillion-dollar second homes as a reward for exposing their institution and the entire financial system to outrageous risks because it was (so far as we know) a perfectly legal way to make money. The whizzes at Goldman Sachs hedged their supersize profits with underpriced, implicitly publicly backed insurance from AIG for the same reason.

If we ask why no one stopped these people, however, we come right back to business school. It was the market fundamentalism that dominates business school thinking that assured us that markets are self-regulating. It was the management myth—the idea that there is some specialized, teachable body of expertise that constitutes management—that confirmed the strange notion that these people were capable of regulating themselves. And it was the shareholder-value model from Business 101 that said all you need to do is load up managers with tons of stock options and they’ll be sure to do the right thing. These aren’t just ideas that happen to be taught at business school; these are the ideas that provide the rationale for the existence of the schools. The only semblance of a theory behind modern business education is that it purportedly produces “experts” in shareholder-value maximization who are capable of forming an ideal, self-regulating market.

It’s a neat theory, of course, and pretty radical, too. But not since the fall of the Soviet Union has a system of belief woken up with so many parking tickets on its windshield.

The reality is that business school is now chiefly a community of intention. It brings together people who share certain career aspirations—for the most part, to make big bucks—and occupies their time teaching them a few technical things that they don’t need to know, along with a code of conduct that says, in essence, whatever is legal is ethical; and if it makes money, it’s a positive duty. It’s now clear that we would have all been much better off if, instead of cloistering these people on fancy campuses with world-class golf courses, we’d have sent them off to do two years of national service.

For the benefit of beleaguered business school academics, it’s worth pointing out that a world with fewer MBAs is not necessarily a world without business studies. On the contrary, once researchers dispense with the idea that they have to package their material for the purported benefit of junior managers everywhere, they could actually study business. Maybe they could even learn to criticize it. Maybe they and their students could even learn to report on it, the way that journalists used to do.

In the meantime, since the national-service idea probably isn’t going to gain much traction, I suggest that it’s time to go long on the humanities. Now that we’ve tried business with savages, perhaps it’s time to give the educated a shot.

Overvalued pieces of paper… Ha! I love it…

3 846

Tim GeithnerCrazy how public opinion can turn on a dime.

The attitude went from “He’s a bum — get him outta here!” just yesterday to “Master of the Universe” this afternoon following the 7% surge in the markets.

I don’t understand it all — I never do — but from the reports that I’ve heard, the US Government just made a really terrible investment and as a result, everyone else’s investments went through the roof.

Kinda like they “took one for the team”…

I suppose that’s good?

Except… they made a really terrible investment, right?

Wait. How is that good?

Isn’t this going to just come up and bite all of us later?

5 4886

Traffic LightI’ve been driving now for just over half my life and in just that span of time I’ve noticed the rules of the road aren’t exactly what they used to be.

Yeah, road rage has definitely been on the rise during my time on the road. I’m pretty sure it existed before I got behind the wheel but I doubt that was as prevalent.

There seem to be a lot more able-bodied folks out there driving around with handicap placards hanging from their rearview mirrors too. All of the fakers and frauds aside, simply being overweight shouldn’t allow you to park right up front either. You’re fat. Not handicapped. Get over it.

Now before someone posts a rude and obnoxious comment about how inconsiderate I am towards the handicapped, well, if you’d seen the things that I’ve seen in just the past week, you’d understand. I’d estimate that one out of every 10 cars in Connecticut has a handicapped placard. That’s messed up.

And all of the people driving and texting, or even just talking on the phone while driving, well, all of that has definitely been introduced since I first picked up my drivers license in 1992.

I can barely type and watch tv at the same time… The idea of even attempting to thumb-type while actually driving is completely foreign to me — I’d never do it.

But the most troubling thing that I’ve noticed since I began driving, and predominantly in the past 5 years, is the number of drivers who flat out ignore red lights.

I mean totally ignore them, as if, if you lay on your horn while you ignore the red light, it’s okay.

Beep-beep-beep… Yeah, that’s right, I’m coming through. Beep-beep-beep…

I see this happen usually two or three times per week.

And it’s not just teenage boys in their “Too Fast, Too Furious” painted Mitsubishi with a do-it-yourself spoiler or balding men trying to look tough in their t-top Trans Am with the bird on the hood.

Both genders, all age groups, all styles of cars. Even box trucks — it really doesn’t seem to matter.

Is this isolated to my area? Is it a New England thing? A Connecticut thing?

I hope so but, either way, it’s really freakin’ scary.

In my life, I think I’ve run one, maybe two red lights. Yeah, nearly 17 years of driving and well over 300k miles and my total is two. Both were instances where I probably should have stopped for a yellow but didn’t.

Now, occasionally I’ll stop for a red light, you know, because it’s the law and stuff, and I’ll see the driver behind me in my rearview go into a tirade throwing me numerous finger gestures.

My thought every time is, you know, “I barely would have made that light… You’re 3 car lengths farther back — you never would have made that light. So…up yours.

For the record, I’m in full favor of the city or state installing cameras on every single traffic signal.

Tickets these idiots — the “oh-no-we-can’t-have-big-brother-watching-our-every-move” argument doesn’t work for me anymore.

And I don’t consider it an invasion of privacy either. They’re public roads and the only people having their pictures taken are the ones breaking the law and endangering others. Don’t want your picture taken? Don’t run the red.

Best of all, from a personal standpoint, by ticketing them all, my taxes will go down. And on that note, I’d like to thank all of the smokers out there too.

– – – – – – – – – – 

Yep, I know, another post that doesn’t relate to personal finance. It’s weird, now that my finances are in order (and I’m a little too chicken to invest right now), there doesn’t seem to be much to talk about.

I did pay my cable bill this morning though. Exciting stuff, huh?

Can You Dig It?

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