Saving Money on Food While Traveling?

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I don't like to do back-to-back "Ask the Readers", but today I'm going to break the (unwritten) rules.

Our family is going on road-trip vacation soon. We are hopping from hotel to hotel bringing the kids to Sesame Place, Hershey Park, Crayola World, and the Philadephia children's museum.

We are looking to be frugal on this vacation. The idea is to avoid spending a hundred dollars a day on food at restaurants. I'm sure we are going to spend some money on them, but we don't need to eat all three meals at them.

So the question is, "What can we buy in advance and bring with us to make meals?"

I'm going with the assumption that either a refrigerator or microwave would be a nice surprise at the hotels. We tried to research it, but got conflicting information from the pictures on the web and the TripAdvisor reviews. So we'll bring some canned food (it can't hurt), but we can't rely on being able to heat it up. Also, I'm years removed from my college days of microwaving canned green beans as a snack.

Let's also assume that for a week we aren't too concerned about eating healthy. Bringing fruit is a no-brainer, but beyond that everything is in play... even Chef Boyardee. The only thing I'm taking off the table is peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I'm just not a fan.

So far I've been focusing on drinks. It's low-lying fruit. We don't need to pay $2 for a soda when we can bring them. I hit our local warehouse store (BJ's) and found Horizon Milk and Honest Kids juice boxes. It's perfect for the kids as neither require refrigeration.

I also set aside some nutrition bars and peanuts. They are good snacks, but it is hard to build a meal around them.

So what do you think? Any suggestions?

P.S. Road Trip was a greatly underrated movie. I miss those kind of American Pie genre movies.

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Posted on August 20, 2015.

Ask the Readers: Umbilical Cord as a Form of Health/Life Insurance?

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I have mentioned it a couple of times previously, but in a few months, if all goes well, I'll be the father to a baby boy. This brings a bunch of difficult questions like whether to get a Patriots or Red Sox diaper bag and what is the proper age to introduce him to Firefly/Serenity and Buffy the Vampire Slayer? (It was Patriots in a landslide and the Joss Whedon masterpieces is still open for debate.)

However, there's one question that I never anticipated... should I save and freeze the umbilical cord for later? My wife and I didn't even freeze our wedding cake for our anniversary and now people are asking us about freezing human flesh? Fortunately, they won't be using my freezer. I don't need that mess getting in my ice cream.

I'm new to this, but the idea seems to be that you freeze the umbilical cord and giving you access to stem cells in the event that they help you later should you develop a medical condition. I haven't done much research on the topic. I have only a small knowledge of stem cells and I couldn't tell you what they've been shown to help or where it is headed. What I do know is that the stem cells "could" be helpful not only to our baby, but for me and/or my wife as well. It's not like health insurance in the form of covering medical expenses, but it has the potential ensure you live a longer life.

The price of this protection is around two to three thousand dollars upfront and anywhere from $125 to $250 a year for maintaining this umbilical cord in a frozen state. Perhaps there are cheaper prices if I shop around, but I'm quoting the place that contacted us.

It's very rare that I instinctively don't know which way I'm leaning on an issue. This is one of those cases. Perhaps when I get more information the decision will be easier. I know that a majority of society pokes fun at those who have their heads or bodies frozen with the hopes of being thawed out later. However, I think George Carlin had it right:

"I want to live. I don't want to die. That's the whole secret of life...not dying! I figured that [expletive] out alone in third grade...

Leave my plug alone. Get an extension cord for my plug. I want everything you got, tubes, cords, plugs, probes, electrodes, IVs. You got something (click), stick it in me man. You find out I got a hole I didn't know I had, put a [expletive] plug in it."

With that in mind, maybe I am leaning towards doing it. Give me your thoughts in the comments.

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Posted on June 5, 2012.

Ask the Readers: What’s Your Take on Paid Book Reviews?

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I got a request a couple of weeks ago from a company to see if I wanted to review a business book. I get a lot of these as my email address seems to have gotten out on some public relations circles. Usually, the pitch goes something like:

PR Person: Would you like a copy of [Insert Writer X]'s [Insert Book Title]?
Me: Sure, but I must warn you, I get a lot of books and have little time to read between a full-time job, this blog, and other side projects.
PR Person: It's okay, we'll ship you out a book and if you get to it, you get to it.

They are almost always happy to send out the book. They figure that if they get 100 potential maybes, it's worth it. Anyone who subscribes to Paperback Swap knows that media mail is fairly cheap and the physical cost of the book is cheap. If a few influencers write about the book it is likely to generate more sales and thus be more successful. (I feel like Malcolm Gladwell in the Tipping Point)

The request, I got recently was a little different. It was still a request if I wanted a book. However, the company wanted me to read it and review it within a certain time in a "book tour" with other bloggers. Out of curiosity I decided to visit this company's website as they didn't seem to be the usual PR folk. The company had a "Services" tab, which always draws my attention. This is where I learned that this company is basically the middle man between the author and bloggers. They charge authors around $40-45 (depending on bulk pricing) to get bloggers to review their books.

This left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. However, before I go down that road, I will lift a curtain and let you see a little behind the scenes at Lazy Man and Money. I get dozens of requests a day and it's not possible for me to service them all. When that happens, one of the first things you get really good at is asking two questions 1) "What's in it for me and my readers?" and 2) "How much time/effort is this going to take from me?" If it's giving away tax software to readers, that benefits you and indirectly benefits me (hopefully you become slightly more engaged or loyal readers and spread the word of how you won terrific tax software from this awesome blog). It's also easy to give away tax software. It's difficult for me to review books. It will often take me 8-10 hours to read a book and then another couple of hours to write the review. In those 10-12 hours, I can write about 7-8 posts. Unless it's a book that I'm really excited about reading such as The 4-Hour Workweek and Malcolm Gladwell's What the Dog Saw, it's not a really efficient use of my time and doesn't (IMO) maximize value of the content for the reader. You, the reader, get one post on a book that you may or may not like, versus 7-8 posts on other topics that you may or may not like... at the odds are more likely you'll find something useful in those posts.

So back to the bad taste in my mouth. I see what's in it for the author (more promotion). I see what in it for the company organizing the bloggers. They get paid for their time and effort. However, at the end of the day, the product provided is the blogger review... so isn't it natural to ask what's in it for the blogger? It seems to me like there should be. I posed this question back to company organizing the bloggers.

Their take was that they can't offer to pay bloggers, because then their reviews would be likely be biased and thus not honest. That seemed to be a very reasonable explanation. For instance, if you knew that an author paid for a review in a book review column in the NY Times wouldn't that cloud your judgment a bit? I think it might cloud mine.

I've gone back and forth on this a few times. If I was watching Siskel and Ebert (assumes I have access to a working time machine), I would have expected that they aren't paid by the movies themselves for their movie reviews. I think there's a difference between my website and Siskel and Ebert. (Well, there are a pile of difference, but one important, relevant one). If Siskel and Ebert weren't reviewing movies they'd have no sponsorships and no show, right? No one seems to care if I don't do book reviews. I still tend to get advertisements and have content (at least at times) for the "show."

So I went back and thought about it some more. Here was the workable solution I proposed... knowing full well that it wasn't going to happen as it's against the public relations' business model. I suggested that they paid bloggers a reasonable fee for their time to read to the book... not for a positive review. Any blogger looking to attract an audience is not generally selling their opinion for a reasonable price anyway. Bloggers would have to disclose that they've been paid for their time to read to the book. I figured this payment is a bit like bumping the book to top of my priority list. If you don't want to pay it, then you are free to give me the book anyway, but I make no promises on where it will fall with the dozens of other books that I received last year (which again fall after the books that I actually WANT to read).

As expected the company balked at that proposal and simply said that there are hundreds of other bloggers that would be happy to review it if I didn't want to. That kind of response seemed a little Grapes of Wrath-like, but it was truthful. With probably more than 100 active personal finance blogs out there, there should be no problems in finding 10 or 15 that will accept the terms.

So I ask the readers... what do you think? Was my proposal fair... on a scale 1 (completely off-base) to 10 (dead-on) where would you rank it?

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Posted on January 28, 2010.

Readers: Ask Jean Chatzky a Personal Finance Question

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While I know you believe that I'm the best personal finance guru on the planet, I'm going to let you in on a secret... There are some people out there who are also pretty good at person finance. One of those people is Jean Chatzky. Here's a brief list of some of places you might have seen her:

  • SmartMoney
  • Money Magazine
  • Live With Regis and Kelly
  • NBC's Today Show
  • Oprah's "Debt Diet"

I've been in contact with Jean and she's agreed to do an e-mail interview with me. While I could come up with questions myself, why not get everyone involved? Submit your personal finance question in the comments below. If I like it, I'll add it to my interview.

P.S.
Congrats to Jean on her recent marriage. (Yet another reason why I love Wikipedia.)

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Posted on May 6, 2009.

Getting Answers To Your Financial Questions

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Every so often, I get questions from readers. I'd love to get more (contact me) but sometimes the questions I do get deal with topics that are a little outside my level of expertise. When this happens, I often try to direct the person to place that I think can help them find an answer. It may be a specific blogger that I know writes about the topic fairly often. However, it might be some very helpful forums. I've been spending some time on Wesabe Groups and find that there's a nice community there. While I haven't spent much time there, I've also read a lot about the Get Rich Slowly Forums. These are two places where you can ask questions and get a variety of answers - surely some good and others bad. As always, you'll have to be your own judge on the best path to choose.

The question that spurred this comes from "Jonathan Papelbon" (a name I've picked to protect the original writer's identity):

I bought a house a year ago, and now Zillow shows that it has lost 12% in value!!! I am paying an interest-only loan for 7 years (6 years left), and I don't know what to do. Should I start putting money toward the principal so that when I want to sell, I will be able to break even? Or should I continue to put $$ toward other debt and savings? This is not just a decision for me, my wife does not want to be stuck here for too many more years, in case we need to move into a bigger place if we start a family.

I made an attempt to answer the question, but mostly I cautioned him about the dangers of interest-only loans and using Zillow as a guide (though it works well for many properties). The other thing that I wanted to note is that extra money saved in a bank account might be better off than put towards paying off the loan. Why? Well if you use up this buffer and then run into a few bad months, lenders will have no sympathy for you. However, if you can make the regular payments and keep that buffer money for a future rainy day, the lender won't know it's raining for you.

This is kind of an open question and I'm sure if we had full information someone could really give great advice. However, perhaps you've found something here that I missed. I'll be the first to admit that I don't follow interest only loans because I've always avoided them. If you have some good ideas please let them in the comments.

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Posted on September 30, 2008.

Best Credit Card for Foreign Travel? (Ask the Readers)

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Last week, I mentioned how my wife and I are going on ambitious trip to Phuket (and Australia). It's been a little while since I went outside the US. Last year, we went to Aruba, but I'm so familiar with saving money in Aruba, that I didn't feel the need to conserve every last cent. More importantly, they accept US Dollars so there's no conversion.

Australia and Thailand are two different monsters entirely. I have no clue what to expect for prices. I've heard that credit card companies can play some tricks with conversion rates and fees. For example this article from Bankrate says that there are a couple of fees, one from Mastercard and Visa and another from the issuing bank. I'd like to be able to use my credit as a savings tool like I do in the US earning cash back when possible.

It looks like Capital One may have one of the lowest fees, but I don't feel comfortable with them since they hate the environment.

In the end, we'll probably take advantage of the USAA and their debit card. They promise no fees even abroad. Seeing how they are affiliated with the military, I think I trust them to get me a good exchange rate since they aren't for big profits like other banks... Or else I'll just check out some of these credit card reviews.

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Last updated on October 27, 2008.

Angie’s List: Any Good?

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Longtime readers know that while I live near San Francisco, my wife and I own rental properties in Boston. We didn't set out to buy them as an income stream. She owned her place before she met me. I bought my place soon after we started dating. While neither one of us intended to move to San Francisco, my wife's career stood to significantly benefit from relocation.

As you may have heard, it's not a good time to sell homes. Having bought out homes in 4 and 7 years ago at near market highs, there wasn't a lot of money to be made by selling. In fact, my condo would sell for about $20,000 less than what I paid for it. As such, we decided to keep the properties and instead rent them out. My theory is that in 30 years, we'll have no mortgage and a nice income stream - even if things look "break even" today.

Unfortunately being a landlord 3000 miles away isn't easy. While we've been blessed with good tenants, the place is going to need maintenance from time to time. Bath tubs don't caulk themselves. It's not very economical for me to fly back, so I'm in the search of a good handyman in the Boston Metro West area.

This is when I saw an ad for Angie's List. I'm already a huge fan of Craig's List, so why not give Angie a shot? When I got to Angie's website, though, there was a surprise. It wasn't a free service like say 1-800-Dentist as I suspected. You have to pay monthly fees to be a member and find a handyman. The first month they even hit you with set-up/activation fee. I've joined a lot of websites in my time, and I can't imagine what set-up/activation they have to do. It seems clear to me that this is a way to get someone to spend around $25 up front when they just want the name of a handyman (as in my case).

I'm not against paying for something, but give me a demo or something so I can see what the service does and how it works. Let me know how many handymen are in the area that I want. My wife's place is close to Worcester, MA which is a good hour from Boston. Angie's List's Boston community may or may not be helpful in that case. They should at least tell me that up front.

To Angie's List credit, they offer a 110% price protection... if you are not satisfied you get your money back... and then 10% on top of that. However, I'm always skeptical of those deals. It seems like there would be a lot of hoops to go through and if they decide not give you your money back, are you going to hire a lawyer to recoup your $25? Of course not. It's much easier to keep the $25 in your wallet until you know what you are buying.

I'm starting to think that Angie's List isn't very helpful and that I should look other places for my handyman. Before I give up, I thought I'd put the question out here. Do you use Angie's List? Where do you find a good handyman if word of mouth fails (as it has for me)? Perhaps Craig's List is the answer for this too?

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Last updated on December 4, 2008.

Finovate Start-up: What Would You Ask Vestopia, SmartHippo and other companies?

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finovatestartup.gifThis Tuesday, I'm heading to Finovate Start-up hosted by Jim Bruene of NetBanker fame. There are a ton of companies presenting there. Some of the highlights that I'm looking forward to are Buxfer, Loanio (are they ever going to launch), Mint, Prosper, SmartyPig, Wesabe, Zecco, Zopa. I'm disappointed that Geezeo isn't going to be there. Lending Club bowed out, which is reasonable considering their quiet period.

I'd like to single out Vestopia and SmartHippo (not to be confused with SmartyPig or my upcoming start-up SmarterBoar). These companies have contacted me for one-on-one interviews. I've been able to secure a time with Vestopia, but I'm still waiting to hear back from SmartHippo. Other companies have tried to set up meetings with me, but since I don't know what to expect, I'm trying not to over-extend myself.

I could really use your help coming up with questions for Vestopia and SmartHippo. I'm not very familiar with them, other than what I read on their websites, so you can figure out what I can. As best I can tell, Vestopia let's you follow what Investment Directors are buying and selling - alerting you about the trade right away within 15 seconds of them doing it. There is a whole community aspect to the site as well. SmartHippo seems to be a community reporting mortgage rates from community members. I look forward to finding the value that this community provides, I found that I did extremely well doing a search for mortgages on Bank Rate. Maybe I got a lucky though.

So if you have questions that you want me to ask these companies - or any others, leave a comment or contact me. If there's a company that you'd like to know more about, let me know and I'll try to attend their product demo.

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Last updated on August 1, 2011.

Travel Computer Project: I Need Your Advice

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I'm finding myself doing quite a bit more traveling that I have in the past. Since I spend a good deal of my time on the Internet, as a software engineer as well as writing this blog, I developed a bit of a dependency on it. It's probably not a good thing in terms of my social development, but it hasn't been all-together bad either. Either way, that's a question for another day. Today, I'm looking for straight-forward technical advice.

I read an article yesterday about Palm and how it's business has always been a roller coaster. It reminded me of something that I haven't seen someone use in over two years - the PDA. It's a business on the decline as people turn towards smart phones. I am one of those people who have adopted smart phones for 4 or 5 years now. However, since my Treo 700P is on the Sprint network and doesn't have wi-fi support, it can't connect to the Internet overseas. It occurred that a few years ago several made PDAs with wi-fi built-in. All I would need is one of those and I could be on the web as long as that country has some kind of public wi-fi network for me to sign onto. Such companies include the aforementioned Palm, but Dell and HP make Windows-based PDAs as well.

So here's what I'm looking for out of my travel computer:

  • It has to have wi-fi - at least 802.11b. That's key to whole concept.
  • It must have an SD slot. I have a lot of SD cards and with my camera and phone already taking them, I'm sticking to this standard.
  • It should have a fast processor. I've found that my 700P can connect to the Internet fast, it often is slow to render a page from the web. When I use the connection for laptop it's nearly broadband speed. The Treo has a Intel XScale 312MHz processor
  • It should have a very nice screen, a size that could make those with a video iPod jealous. This is most so I can load some entertainment on an SD card and watch it on the flight to and from my destination. It will also help with the browsing experience.
  • It should be easy to learn. In an ideal world, my non-tech-savvy fiancee could bring it on her business trips as an option instead of her laptop.
  • I'm leaning heavily towards a Windows-based PDA for one reason, but it's a biggie. Being able to use Skype (via SkypeOut) to make phone calls in an foreign country would save me some solid cash.
  • I'm not looking for something like the OQO Handheld Computer or this Sony Handheld Computer. They are marvelous devices and would be perfect, but their price is way too high for what I need.
  • I've touched on the main uses, but they are more or less the following: update this blog, check and respond to e-mail, web browsing, some small word processing, some multimedia applications - MP3 player, Video player, Skype calling, etc.
  • Battery life is more or less unimportant. I don't envision needing to use it for many, many hours without a power source. The longest would be on the plane traveling. The rest of the time I would imagine the use to be intermittently.
  • Portability is important. One thing that I hate about bringing laptops when I travel is that they don't fit into any hotel safes. This solution would do that.
  • Some PDAs may come with a thumb-board, I'd rather have bigger screen.
  • It must have bluetooth. In order for this to be a real useful computer on the road, I'd like to be able to use a bluetooth portable keyboard with it.

While on the topic of the portable keyboard, I'll need one of those as well. Here's what I'm thinking:

  • Something like this Fabric Keyboard is of interest to me. It seems extremely portable and it can connect through bluetooth. I'm nervous that it might not feel like a keyboard though.
  • This Wireless Foldable Keyboard is also of interest to me.
  • Those are the two main options that I'm considering. Feel free to give my your opinions of each.

Budget: I'd like to get this under $250 for keyboard and PDA if possible, but I can go to as high as $300. I'm willing to convert my Sony points into spare cash using a method that I outlined here. I think this is very possible since Ebay and Craigslist are relatively full of these devices. If I can get 90% of it done for a lot cheaper, I will consider it as well.

Are there are features I should consider that I missed?

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Last updated on August 1, 2011.

Tenant Troubles: Update

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I want to thank those responding to my article on Friday. I had some tenant troubles, and you helped me out by giving your advice. In fact, it was the most advice I've ever gotten. Overwhelmingly you said what I thought was right - let my tenant break her lease without penalty. A few of you mentioned that karma would make it right. I don't believe in karma, but perhaps you were right.

I had my real estate agent list the property and in less than 24 hours we had four prospects. One of them dropped out, and we were able to narrow it down to the top two. I liked one particular couple, but the other possibility had almost as good financing and asked to sign a two year lease. This is a great surprise as I won't have to pay the agent next year - if all goes well.

It's always a stretch to think that things will go according to plan, but I will be better off if it does.

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Posted on May 22, 2007.

 
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