Amazon Echo, Revisited

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Last year (by a few hours), I reviewed Amazon Echo (read the review).

The Echo is an odd device that doesn't seem to sit any existing category of consumer electronics. It is a digital information assistant like Apple's Siri, Google's "Okay Google", or Microsoft's Cortana. However, it isn't designed to be portable. It also wasn't released with a large base of knowledge. It is still far, far behind of the those Big Three phone platforms.

Instead of being portable it has very good speakers and microphones. It's always listening for the key word, "Alexa" that tells it to pay attention to the next command. I've had it work from over 30 feet away when there are no other distracting sounds.

When I last reviewed the Echo, I was one of the first people to receive it. It couldn't do too much more than play music. And the music was mostly limited to Amazon's Prime library. It has Bluetooth, so I could pair it with my phone and run music through that. It works fine, except when you do that Alexa (the Echo) becomes kind of dumb. I can't tell it to find the Aerosmith MP3s on my phone and play them.

You could do a few other things such as tell Alexa to set a timer or add an item to a shopping list. (Unfortunately, the shopping list wouldn't work with Wunderlist, where I keep my lists).

In short, the Echo could do quite a few different things, but nothing particularly great. I bought in because I liked the concept and put some faith behind Amazon's engineers being able to expand what it can do.

Since that review, Amazon has sent me regular updates of what they've added. Here's a few of them:

  • Sports scores - This was kind of a no-brainer. I'm almost surprised it didn't launch with them.
  • Traffic information - You have to set up your standard commute online first, but then you can simply ask, "Alexa, what is the traffic like?" Since I work from home, this isn't particularly useful to me, but it could be handy for a few people.
  • Link Your Pandora account - This was a big one for me because I listen to Pandora more than my own music collection of MP3s.

I want to expand on that last one a bit. It is so much easier to ask Alexa to "play my Pandora" station than in it is to use any app. When I use the Amazon Fire TV Stick in my bedroom, I have to turn on the television, switch the source to the TV stick, and then navigate to the Pandora application. While the Fire TV stick has other advantages, score a win for the Echo for playing my music as soon as I can think about it.

These are all small changes to things that the Echo could do out of the box.

There's one more big addition that has come about since my original review. The Echo can actually controlling items in your home.

For example Echo now works with Belkin's WeMo Switch to allow you to turn on and off appliances. That might not be the most exciting thing in the world, but has been the basic building block of home automation for years.

The other thing that Echo can do is work with Philips Hue Lightbulbs. These bulbs are clearly for the "early adopter" audience. The bulbs change colors and can even sync with shows like 12 Monkeys on the Syfy network (which you should definitely catch). It's out of my budget for the novelty, but it would be interesting to see my room's change lighting with the action of my television. The Red Forest on the show was freaky enough without my whole room turning red.

The Echo can't change the colors of the light bulbs right now. It is limited to turning them on and off and dimming them.

Again, this isn't super-exciting, but it is baby steps. I don't think locking and unlocking doors is too far away. If you have a lock that is wifi enabled, I would expect it to be coming down the pick any day now.

What I'm really hoping for though is for Alexa to read my email to me as I make breakfast. (If you are concerned about the privacy risk here, there are ways that it can be implemented without that issue.) I'd like it to work with my calendar. Tell me what appointments I have when I ask and add appointments when I tell it what to add.

If the Echo can work with my Pandora station there should be no limitation to working with my other accounts. Maybe in 6 months, I'll be writing another review to tell you about it.

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Last updated on June 2, 2015.

Cinch Financial Could Put Me Out of Business…

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... and I don't mind one bit.

This young generation has it so well. In my day, there were no websites to help you pick all the best financial tools. Of course, we had to walk uphill to class through 5 feet of snow (both ways!). And we liked it... we loved it!

My Grumpy Old Man is still a work in progress. I'm no Dana Carvey.

Nowadays, it seems there are new websites popping up all the time to help you with your financial decisions. I'd say that I get somewhere between 40-60 emails a year by companies.

However, a couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by one company who stood out from the pack. Yes they are based in the suburbs of Boston, and we know how I love the city of Boston. When I lived in Silicon Valley, I could throw a rock and hit a dozen start-up companies creating websites to help you with your finances. In Boston, there are very few.

The company that contacted me was Cinch Financial. They are new. It's rare for any new company to have everything figured out. It's laughable to compare what Mint was like in April of 2007 when I first saw their unreleased beta to what it is today. That said, there's a lot to like about Cinch.

Cinch gives you recommendations in four areas: credit cards, banks, mortgages, and auto insurance. They start with thousands and products and whittle them down based on factors like availability where you live, reputation, customer service, good deals, and more. It's worth watching going to their website to see the animation of all the companies disappearing through their screening process.

I particularly liked how they score credit cards. Instead of giving you a few hundred to look at like many credit card sites, they start at 2,300 and knock out 97% of them. So there are under quality "Cinch Pick" cards. Their software asks what's important to me and directs me to the appropriate cards.

So How Does it Work in Practice?

When I took it for a spin, it recommended three cards for me. Two of them I already carry in my wallet. The third was essentially an equivalent to what I already had. In fact, I'd recommend that card to my own mom. (Seriously. Mom, it's the Citi Double Cash Card and it beats the Fidelity Retirement Rewards card by Amex I use because you can use it in more places. It'll give you the equivalent of 2% cash back on everything you buy.)

I couldn't ask for it to do any better.

With banking, it suggested Capital 360 and Ally Bank. I have heard good things about both. However, I'm not moving away from USAA any time soon. I asked why USAA wasn't recommended and it was because you have to be military to be eligible and their software wasn't quite at the level of asking that at this early stage.

I wasn't looking for a mortgage and the tool didn't mention refinances, so I didn't give that software a try. I did notice that there were no Cinch Picks yet in my state. The auto insurance also lacked Cinch Picks. I'm happy that they up-front with an "I can't help you" message rather than just passing me to a nationwide company that may be less than ideal.

That brings me to an important point. They could easily have recommended Geico after Geico dropped off a bag of money on their door and I don't think anyone would have batted an eye. However, on the front of their website in the center they make it quite clear, "We only show you the best financial products, and we don't get paid by the companies on our site."

An obvious question would be, "How does Cinch make money?" Typically companies such as Mint and Credit Karma do make money when they refer you to a finance service. In my experience, those companies send people to sound, reputable financial services such as an American Express credit card or Vanguard brokerage services.

Cinch doesn't make this way. The person I was talking said, "Today, we focus on building the best possible product and user experience, and we figure the revenue model will become clear once we have something that users love."

BillSnap: An Interesting Feature

They have a feature called BillSnap where you take a picture and upload it to the website. They analyze it and tell you how you can save money. It sounds good in theory, but I'm going to reserve judgment for a few reasons:

  • Is It Helpful? - A number of bills like utilities can't be negotiated that much.
  • What About Privacy? - I don't know if I want them to be reviewing my purchases. Are they going to give me lifestyle feedback such as "Hey you eat out too much?" What if a rogue employee got the account number on a credit card and was able to use it? They would likely need security codes and expiration dates to do any serious harm. However, there's a reason why I (and many, many other people) shred their bills. It feels like it defeats the purpose to upload them over the Internet.
  • What are Paper Bills? - Cinch suggests uploading mortgage and insurance bills. I have put insurance bills on auto-pay and paperless statements long ago. My mortgage is also on auto-pay, but I do get statements every month because I want to see the progress made. This leads me to...
  • Is Any of this Going to Help ME? - I'm not the typical Cinch client. I'm weirdly obsessed with personal finance and I know that. So am I going to upload my 15-year refinanced mortgage at 2.75%? I just wrote 600 words on why switching from Straight Talk to Cricket Wireless may save me 8 dollars a month (article not published yet).

    Someone else may get good value from the BillSnap feature and maybe I would under the right set of circumstances. For me, personally, getting a bill to test and any privacy concerns outweigh the value I expect to receive. The average consumer will be different, but these are the kinds of things I think about. (See, weirdly obsessed with personal finance.)

I'd love for a reader to try out the BillSnap feature and tell me how it works. If you do, please contact me.

Conclusion

I saved what I liked best about Cinch for the end. You don't have to login or create an account. It is probably helpful to create one to save your progress, but I could get a bank recommendation quick and easy.

The most interesting thing for me is that they are focusing on creating value and growing mindshare. I think when you do that and help people, you'll find that the opportunities for money will follow.

The only problem I have is that if Cinch Financial is successful, they might not need personal finance bloggers like me to review banks and brokerages. I'd be happy with that outcome, because it means that everyone is great service.

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Posted on March 18, 2015.

Things I Like: Amazon Fire TV Stick

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It seems like has been forever since I've done a "Things I Like" article. I did a quick search and the last one was my NutriBullet Super Blender nearly 18 months ago.

Fortunately, a deserving product showed up at my door a couple of days ago: the Amazon Fire TV Stick. I like my tech gadgets, but it's extremely rare that one gets "wife-approved." The Fire stick is one such winning gadget. It's the exact opposite of the $60 Ball I bought.

These TV sticks are all the rage, ever since Google ChromeCast wowed everyone with it. These sticks allow you to Internet-enable your television. It makes it easy to watch Netflix, listen to Pandora, even play games. Roku and even even Mozilla Firefox have gotten into the act. So of course Amazon had to join the party.

I jumped on Amazon's Fire TV Stick when it was offered at $19. Now it is $39. I won't lie, the introductory price gimmick got me. Paying $20 today hurts a lot less than paying $40 in a week from now.

It also didn't hurt that I had a perfect use-case for a Fire TV Stick. My home has two televisions, one in the living room which gets most of the use, and one in the bedroom that rarely gets used. The living room one has a computer instead of a cable box eliminating cable box renting fees. The bedroom has the coaxial cable plugged into it. It's essentially "good enough" considering how little we use it.

On rare occasions, such as when one of us is sick, the television can get a lot of use. For not a lot of money, and no additional subscription fees, there are now a ton of movies available via a handy remote control. Now if my wife gets sick she can watch a whole season of Orange is The New Black while she gets better I serve her chicken noodle soup.

We are more of a Netflix family than an Amazon Prime movie family. I think it's because I never know what's going to cost me more money on Amazon. With Netflix, I know there's no pay-per-view. With Amazon Prime, I could see a movie, click into it, and find that it costs me money to rent (or in some cases buy) it. Of course Amazon wants to push these purchases and, as you'd expect, they give their own movies and television shows most of the screen real estate. However, it's easy enough to go to the Netflix application and use that to watch whatever I want to.

I found a couple of interesting things with the Fire TV Stick that are worth mentioning. The recommended movies, at least to start, seemed to be those late night Cinemax adult movies. I don't know if everyone gets this or if it's just what Amazon thinks of me. (Thanks Amazon.) Maybe Amazon knows it's a bedroom television and is giving my wife and I a subtle hint. In any case, my wife found it very weird. She quickly found the more mainstream movies.

The other thing that is worth mentioning is that there are a number of applications that I haven't gotten a chance to try yet. There's Plex, which is a media server. I have it on my living room computer/television, so there's the chance I can stream videos upstairs. It's a little more research to see how that works. There's a Pandora app as well that I want to get set-up. It'll be handy while I do laundry (on the list for later today) or maybe even when I'm in the shower.

You can do most, or perhaps all, of this stuff with ChromeCast or Roku. Google's ChromeCast is even a little cheaper than the current $39 Fire Stick price. My friend had an issue with ChromeCast's wifi. I don't remember the exact issue, but it was something about it not working at the 5ghz that the rest of his gadgets did, or the 2.4ghz getting blocked with baby monitors/wireless phones. In any case, he couldn't use it. Amazon's stick is a more advanced processor and has more memory, so I presume it is a little snappier. Roku's stick is about as expensive as Amazon's. I'm sure it is great, but for a cheapskate like me paying $19 made it an impulse buy vs. $35 or more the competitors. In hindsight, it is probably well worth that money... I just didn't realize it until I used it.

And that's really the weird thing about this review. At $19 the Fire TV Stick is a screaming buy if you have a use case for it. At $39, it is a fair price for the functionality and probably a very good purchase... but psychologically it feels "expensive" given the previous much cheaper price.

So what do you say? Buy or don't buy? Let me know in the comments.

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Posted on December 3, 2014.

Things I Like: NutriBullet Super Blender

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As I mentioned in my fruit dehydrating article, I have a slightly unhealthy addiction to kitchen gadgets. This makes me slightly susceptible to late night infomercials. Such was the case a couple of months ago, when I saw an infomercial for NutriBullet. The infomercial was over the top with its health claims, even blurring the lines (no I won't link to the video) of what I consider legal. In short, they were pitching making the fruit shakes with their blender as a way to unlock the nutrients that will prevent diseases... at least that's how I interpreted it.

I decided that it might be worth writing an article about this marketing that I considered deceptive. However, the infomercial was hypnotizing. Since my weakness for infomercials only extends to products that are very highly rated on Amazon, I went there to check out the reviews. That's where I found that consumers really liked the product - there were 1,000 reviews with an average of a 4 rating. This wasn't like MonaVie distributors saying that they like the product, these people weren't getting paid to leave a good review.

After review after review mentioned that people lost 15 pounds after getting the NutriBullet, I figured I was going to give it a shot. The NutriBullet might claim to have a special blade that unlocks nutrients, but I think that's just marketing-speak. It's a blender, with high-powered motor. I don't know how it compares to VitaMix or BlendTec, but having seen those blenders at around $400, the $100 price is closer to my blender budget. One of the keys for me (and my wife) was that it was easy to clean. The reviews were spot on in this point, the NutriBullet is easy to clean.

At the end of the day, the NutriBullet can be used for many things, but it really does one thing well... shakes/smoothies. I picked up a bag of frozen fruit from the local BJ's (a New England regional warehouse like Costco) and typically have two fruit smoothies a day. I mix it up with some fresh bananas and some frozen berries (kick up the antioxidants!). I also add either Fage or Chobani Greek Yogurt (high protein, low carbs, no fat) or whey protein to make it a heartier snack. I tried adding kale and spinach when I first got it, but I added too much and didn't like the result. I need to get back to that. I also experimented very briefly with adding ground flax-seed for omega 3's and even some almonds. I think I need to blend more for them to really reach "smoothie" consistency, if they ever do. I expect it to be a little gritty. Overall, it's a much cheaper and easier alternative to buying really expensive ViSalus shakes.

It's been a couple of weeks and I'm down about 5 pounds. Like anything else, the trick is to consistently use it. In the heat waves that we had a couple of weeks ago it was a lifesaver. Even my wife, who is skeptical about any new kitchen gadget, has taken to it. So far, it's like the Sodastream, a great product that worked its way into our lives and helped us be a little healthier than we would otherwise.

If you are looking for Nutribullet recipes, I recommend this website for further details on that.

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Last updated on October 13, 2015.

FlightCar: Get Paid to Park at an Airport?

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I love the new sharing economy. Don't know what that is? It's websites that allow you lend and trade something that you have excess of for straight cash homey. For example, if you have a spare room in your house, you can list it on Air BNB and get some money. It's a win-win, the person renting the space out gets a little mortgage help and the person staying at the place typically saves money from hotel prices. The room that was going to waste isn't wasted any longer.

I recently wrote about a dog boarding service, DogVacay that does something similar with dog owners taking on other dogs for extra cash. Last week, I used it with my dog and the young lady had a small business set up around it.

On that trip, my wife and I decided to try a sharing website called FlightCar. Here's how it works. It's like typical airport parking except it is free. Why free? Because they'll be able to rent out your car to someone else while you are gone. If they actually rent out your car, you make a little money (depending on the car and how old it is). If they don't, well, you got free parking. Genius, right? They take care of cleaning and insurance. There are some larger questions like the hit you take in the value of your car once it has been in an accident (even if repaired).

Parking around Login airport in Boston can set you back around $15 a day, so for our 5-day trip, this was going to save us $75 even if no one rented our car. We were driving a clunker, so we only stood to get another $10 for the entire trip if it rented. I'm all-in for saving $75 and getting a cleaned car out of it.

When we left the house, our GPS had us at FlightCar's destination at around 4:50PM, but by the time we got there, we were bumped right against the 6:15 check-in time that FlightCar gave us for our flight. Traffic and accidents were not in our favor. We pulled into the FlightCar location at 6:14, except for the fact that there was no FlightCar there. The address was some dead-end street and nothing resembling any kind of parking lot was there. We called FlightCar to get further directions. No answer, just leave a number. My wife called again, this time trying the emergency roadside assistance line - we were desperate as we our flight was leaving soon. No answer, just leave a number.

Tensions rose, I'm fairly sure we accused of FlightCar for all that is wrong or will ever be wrong with the world. We gave up on FlightCar and headed back to the terminal to park. The fastest parking I could find was in their premium parking area. On most days, it would have been really fast, but since it was so close to the terminal each car needed to be inspected. There was only car in front of us, which was fortunate. What was unfortunate is that the young lady couldn't open her trunk for the inspectors. It seemed to have gotten stuck. It was at this point that my wife had to comment on her apparent lack of intelligence. Being the eternal optimist, I tried to focus on her incredible aesthetic qualities. After a few minutes, it seemed like the inspectors either gave up or fell for those qualities as they never got the trunk open (not sure how she was going to get luggage out to fly, that will forever be a mystery).

The premium parking area was $27 a day. FlightCar had gone from saving us money to costing us money. The wild-goose chase left our flight in doubt and it was the last of the evening (Virgin America doesn't have that many flights to SFO a day). With baby in his stroller and all our luggage we managed to rush to the counter with literally one minute to spare... until the "good" news hit. Our flight had been delayed two hours due to clean up work of the plane from the crash the week before. I don't know if anyone had been so happy to see their flight delayed. We had enough time to go move our car to cheaper parking, and at least save about $35. Little did we know that this delay would still cost us money, but that's a story for another day, maybe later this week.

FlightCar did call us back and confirmed that we had the right address, but were in the wrong place. Maybe it was a problem with Magellan's GPS data. If so, the only thing I can really be upset with FlightCar about was not manning their phones. We've decided that we may give them another shot at some point. If we do, we'll give ourselves even more time and check the address with Google and Bing Maps to ensure we are going to the right place.

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Posted on July 22, 2013.

Fitbit: Product of the Year 2012

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Back in 2010, I introduced to SodaStream, a product that allows you to make your own soda at home. I loved the product so much that I dubbed my Product of the Year. In a twist of irony, I almost never make soda with the SodaStream. I mix the carbonated water with True Orange for a refreshing zero calorie drink with no chemicals or artificial sweeteners.

Since then, I have listed a few things that I like, but nothing was quite enough to be a Product of the Year like the SodaStream. I'm going to go out on a limb and close the polls early on 2012...

It is the year of the Fitbit Wireless Activity/Sleep Tracker. Had someone clued me in a year ago, it would have one then too.

What makes a pedometer a Product of the Year? I'm going to with a combination of superior usability, great design, and the motivation through accountability. I'll give you a run through of how it works and then circle back and address these in more detail.

The Fitbit activity tracker (which I call Fitbit for short) is about the size of a USB thumb drive and in a shape of a money clip. You can put it your pocket, but most people wear them on a belt. (The website suggests that women wear them on a bra.) It weighs almost nothing, so you'll never notice it is there. You can wear it for 3-5 days at a time without charging it. I like when technology fits my lifestyle instead of me having to adapt my life to technology.

The Fitbit tracks daily steps, stairs climbed, distance, and calories burned. I haven't found that the distance is that important to me. The calories that it keeps track include your daily metabolic rate. This gives you a good estimate of how many calories you burn for the day. That's much easier than trying to figure out that if I do an hour of hiking I burned 300 calories and adding up my exercise for the day. The step tracker is a key motivational tool. Fitbit sets you up with a goal of getting 10,000 steps in a day. In the two weeks that I've had it, I've found myself saying a dozen times, "Time to take the dog for another walk, we need to get our steps in." I'll do other things like purposely park far away from the store or take the stairs when the elevator is an option.

My wife saw how Fitbit changed my routine and wanted one herself. So I bought her one too. She's now taking the stairs and walking more too.

The other thing that the Fitbit has is a flower that grows as you are more active. My wife and I will occasionally ask our each others' flowers are. It sounds silly, but whatever works to get you going, right?

Every 15 minutes or so, Fitbit's wifi connects through your computer to upload your information to their server. You don't do anything to make this happen, it just does. This gives you great charts to compare daily, weekly, and monthly progress. The website has a food log, which allows you keep track of whether you are on the plus side of the minus of calories for the day. The Fitbit website has a number of partnership with other related companies and websites. Instead of using Fitbit's food tracker, I use LoseIt.com that will import the information to Fitbit's website. Loseit.com has a more robust food tracking database, smartphone apps, and their community seems to more active. I also have my activity synced with Earndit.com, a website that rewards people for being active. The rewards don't seem to be particularly great, almost all of them are like Groupon's, such as $25 off when you spend $50 on some product or service. I'm doing the exercise anyway, maybe there's something of good value in there if I dig a little deeper.

The Fitbit also comes with a sleep tracker. I've only used it a few times and my sleep was at 97% efficiency. My wife has used it as well as similarly efficient. For me, this information isn't very helpful, or maybe I just haven't figured out how to make good use of it.

There is one last feature of the Fitbit that I've found handy. It has a built in stopwatch/trip counter mode. This is where the distance traveled comes in handy for me. It's handy to know how far you've gone. While smartphones with GPS can do this as well, the Fitbit is very easy and accessible at your side.

There is one thing that the company needs to work on. It is almost impossible to read in direct sunlight. That's an inconvenience, but it is not a deal breaker for me. Creating a shadow with your hand is a quick fix.

I'm still missing one piece from the fitness puzzle. The Fitbit Aria Wi-fi Smart Scale is to bathroom scales what the Fitbit activity tracker is to pedometers. At $130 it isn't cheap. However, it completes the feedback cycle that you get with the food tracking and the activity tracker. When you put in the effort you get rewarded with better numbers on the scale and that pushes you to continue the effort. Maybe next month we'll see if the Aria makes an appearance in our home.

Lastly, I know this article isn't focused on personal finance, but maintaining healthy habits does pay off financially through reduced health care costs and not having to buy bigger clothes. For a couple of days, I like to switch up the topic, when I find something that I feel is worth sharing.

Do you have a Fitbit? Are you thinking of getting one? Let me know in the comments.

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Last updated on November 26, 2014.

Safeway Home Delivery Service Reviewed

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As part of the Safeway gift card giveaway that I wrote about Friday, I agreed to review Safeway's Home Delivery Service. Before I get to the review, let me remind you to go to that post and get some free groceries!

To get started I went to Safeway's home page and signed in just as I would for their Just For U program. I then clicked on the "Grocery Delivery" link in the top navigation bar and then preceded to "shop by aisle". I drilled through several layers of sub-menus and added some eggs to my cart... well not really. As I tried to add those eggs, I was asked to sign in. Turns out that being signed into Safeway's Just For U program doesn't get you signed into the delivery service. So I registered for the delivery service and started over again.

Again, I tried to buy some eggs by aisle. I clicked on the "Dairy, Eggs, and Cheese" aisle. Then I'm giving choices like butter, cheese, eggs, etc. I click on the eggs. The next screen makes me choose between eggs and egg substitutes. I click on eggs again. Finally I have a list of 16 egg products, a good variety of different brands and sizes. The default order of the eggs is alphabetical - reasonable enough. I can sort the list in five ways: alphabetical A-Z, alphabetical Z-A, price highest-to-lowest, price lowest-to-highest, and Club Card Specials first. The two that make the most sense to me are price lowest-to-highest and Club Card Specials first as I'm just looking for the cheapest eggs I can find. There are no Club Card Specials, so that doesn't help me at all. The lowest-to-highest price helps, but shows me a 6-egg package at the beginning. Fortunately, since eggs typically come in a standard dozen size, the second listing is perfect. As you might imagine, I wouldn't be as lucky if I was looking to buy a gallon of milk. The most helpful missing sort is the sort by unit price. They have this information for every item on the list, but they don't allow you to sort based on it. Boo Safeway, boo!

That was my next task, buy some milk. I decided to use the search option this time. That was a mistake. There are some 60 products or so with milk in it. They range from things like milk chocolate to Milk Bone dog treats. Fortunately there are "shelf matches" in the left navigation, but that is ordered by alphabetical order instead of most matching products. So the shelves that you see are Athletic & Health, Baking, Candy, Cheese, etc... you have to "more" to get to the shelf of Milk & Cream. I can then see that there's a sub-aisle with fat-free milk. I pick that and find a good set of options... but no organic milk options. For that I would have to click the organic milk and then look for the fat-free milk option in there. This is an issue at the technical level, it seems that Safeway doesn't allow for a single product to be mapped to two spaces. As a software engineer, I will declare this the result of poor data architecture.

Aside from the problems I had finding the products I wanted, I found that the prices were not very competitive. Some products seemed to be priced at what I'd find in the store, but most of the time things seemed a a good 20% more expensive. Of course, since I wasn't shopping from inside the store, I was just using my memory... don't quote me on saying the prices are different.

So what did I purchase? It looks a little something like this:

Errr... but it looks more like this:

The order came through with no substitutions (which are always a possibility). The quality of the bananas and the onion is as good as if I picked it myself (maybe a little better if you ask my wife). The date on the milk was an acceptable 13 days away. The price came in a little cheaper than the estimate (weight of chicken and fruit can make the final price fluctuate), which was nice. Also I managed to save 44% ($26.67) by using my Safeway card... I consciously bought items that were on sale.

Use or Don't Use?

I like to go grocery shopping, so I might not be the best judge. When you add in the complex navigation and the pricing, I'd personally skip the home delivery. However, for those that dread the grocery store or have a medical reason that makes getting to the store a hassle, it could be well worth it.

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Posted on December 20, 2010.

Money Magazine July 2008 Highlights

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When I was going through my mail last week, I noticed something interesting. It seemed like I got a flier that was thicker than usual. Wait, it was this month's Money Magazine. It feels like the slimmest edition of Money Magazine I've seen... yet, I happen to have the July 2007 copy handy and they are both the same 128-pages. So much for my conspiracy theory that advertisements were down and Money Magazine might be undergoing some financial issues of their own. Either July is just a light month in general or I'm just crazy thinking this copy was thin.

Anyway, here are some of the highlights from this months issue. If you have a copy, you can follow along with me. If you don't, here are some of the things you might be missing.

- Save money on drug prescriptions with the advice on p. 19. The hint: go shopping at Wal-Mart.
- Women want to talk more about money (p. 20). True.com survey says that 33% of women want to talk more about money while only 21% of men do. This goes against almost every female I know who would rather have a root canal than talk about money. My wife fits in that group. What do men wish the talked more about... big suprise, but it's sex.
- Frank Boucher, certified financial planner learned he could save money on baseball games by bringing his own food (p. 20). He could have learned this months earlier if he read my article on Saving Money at Baseball Games
- It's only a good idea for a select minority to get the $100 unlimited cell phone plans that some providers are making available. (p. 26)
- Jean Chatzky says driving a little greener can save you money on gas (p. 28). Five Cent Nickel found out the same thing first hand.
- Interesting article about taking care of your finances for couples always on the run (p. 33). Maybe it's just me because I'm experienced, but much of my finances take care of themselves most of the time. Online banking shifts money into almost all the right places. I pay credit card bills online, but I have a back-up set up with Chase so that they would get paid in full if I forget. About the only thing that I remember is to write the rent check.
- The Right Way to Take a Pension (p. 40). What's a pension ;-).
- Are you paying your financial adviser 3% (p.44)? It seems that many are. This is one reason why I spent time to learn to invest myself. By limiting expense ratios and diversifying with exchange traded funds, I often pay closer to 0.5% in expenses. That adds up to a lot of money compounded over the years.
- Walter Updegrave says that your retirement number is a moving target. I came to this conclusion with my My Ever Expanding Retirement Goal.
- Inspiring entreprunal highlight (p. 53). I love reading about people starting their businesses and the troubles they have with them.
- How do you protect your idea from being stolen by a big company (p. 53). I'm surprised to see that it doesn't mention anything about writing out your idea and sending it to yourself via certified mail. You'll get a date stamp on the sealed envelope. If it has to go to court, handing the judge the envelope should be great evidence.
- Learn how artificial materials can be better than the real thing in your home (p. 62-64). If I was to redo my home, I would definitely heed all these suggestions. It looks like they'll last longer and in some ways cost less to begin with.
- Invest globally with one fund (p. 69-70)? I say no, but I like reading about investments. You might not be like me.
- Invest in networking companies (p. 78)? Is it 1999 again?
- Six pages on Inflation (83-89), this is a major article in the issue. This is one my biggest financials fears. If I had to guess it's probably yours as well.
- Pages 91-95 - Feature on People Living Without Plastic... This was the article that featured two personal finance bloggers I previously mentioned.
- Do you know your spouses finances? This a 5-page feature.
- College Loan article that I won't read from pages 102-105
- Page 106 - OMG, full size, close-up picture of Suze Orman... If I had a mustache like the one she's showing, I wouldn't allow a close-up like that to be published.
- Page 107 - This Suze Orman article is the first one I've read of hers that was good. Check it out.
- A family looking for a simpler life quits their high paying jobs and moves out to the farm. What about their finances? Page 109-113
- Looking for a Home Security system? See the review on page 115-117.
- Getting a lightweight PC? Look for the round up on 118-119. They left out my Asus EEE.
- The last page is an article on carbon offsets. I didn't find it that interesting.

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Product Review

Posted on July 2, 2008.

iiProperty Tracks your Rental Properties

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Occasionally readers will write me about a product or service that I might not have found otherwise. I review all of these products and try to figure out if and how they fit into the Lazy Man and Money theme. A large percentage of the ones that don't seem to fit very well are pre-alpha sites looking to get some traffic. Last week, an unprecedented treat arrived in my mailbox - an invitation to from the CEO (of a company I have actually heard of) wanting to introduce me to their product. I jumped at the opportunity to speak with Allison Atsiknoudas, CEO of iiProperty, perhaps best known for their Rentometer product.

The Rentometer tool gives both landlords and renters a view into the marketplace. I used Rentometer to price my investment property in Massachusetts. It's extremely simple to use which is a joy after using sites where one can get lost in feature after feature. Really, the only thing I'd add is a graph of rental prices over time. It's great to know that I'm priced near the area's median, but I'd like to know how that median is changing.

I was a little surprised to learn that Rentometer wasn't iiProperty's core product. That core product may best be described as a Quicken for landlords. For landlords with a couple of properties, iiProperty's biggest value is the ability to quickly advertise the properties (and track the results of the advertising). It can push one ad to multiple venues, two notable ones being Craigslist and GoogleBase. Lastly, you can create a WebFlyer, which is a simple description (with picture) of your property at its own URL. I imagine this makes it handy for e-mail - just send someone a like to the WebFlyer.

As one might imagine, owning multiple properties adds more complexity. It's not that unusual for some real estate inventors to own more than 25 properties. It's in this scenario that I think iiProperty really shines. It has a variety of tools to track rents and keep you on schedule. It will not only alert you to when something is due, it can alert the tenant directly through e-mail and/or the old US postal service mail. It gives great overview reports such as your portfolio value and the loan to market (LTV) value. There are other tools such as tracking income and expense, monthly cashflow, and tax report, etc. These are all tools that I didn't explore in full detail.

For beginning landlords, those with just a few properties, iiProperty has a free option. That won't get you ever feature, but it's looking over the list, it's really all me and my wife would use. If want to start to manage multiple properties, there is a fee (I imagine that the employees at iiProperty like to earn a living to pay for their own rent). The fee looks to be reasonable, or maybe even on the small side - you can manage 11-25 properties for $40/month.

This product can grow in many ways. I had hoped it would allow me to find reputable and reasonable repairmen. I don't know if that particular offering is in the pipelines, but Ms. Atsiknoudas said that they were rolling out new tools in the upcoming weeks.

I invite readers to leave comments and/or suggestions for iiProperty and/or their Rentometer product. It's rare you get give feedback directly to the CEO, but is one such case. If you have questions leave them for me and I'll see if I can get them answered.

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Product Review

Posted on August 14, 2007.

Save On Razors? Let’s Find Out…

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The kind folks at Save On Razors were nice enough to send me a sample of their product. I assume it was because for a time my post on using Ebay to buy razors was the #1 Google search term for "Save on Razors." The product that Save on Razors is selling is the RazorMate.

Here is how it works. You simply put your razor on the RazorMate when not in use and the magnets will pull the blades back into shape when not in use. The pitch is a compelling one. Here are a few of the key points:

  • "will extend the life of your razor up to 20 times"
  • "Requires no maintenance"
  • "Lasts a lifetime"
  • "was invented by an engineer who designed the product after working with and manipulating metals in the aerospace industry"

So on February 3rd, I started the test with a new Gillette Fusion blade - one of the blades they specifically mention. I can usually get 3 weeks from these blades. Doing some math, this could extend the razor life up to 60 weeks - over a year. That would be outstanding, but if it could just get me to 6-8 weeks then this product would be a winner.

Before I give the results, let me say that I was pulling for this product. If it works, I was thinking SaveonRazors.com might want to sponsor this website or there might even be some affiliate network possibilities. Not only that, but this is a legit way I could save a lot of money and help other people save money. If it works, it's a win-win for all.

Unfortunately, it didn't work for me. The new blade lasted me 22 days. I think the last couple, I really should have switched it out, but as I wrote, I really wanted this product to work.

If you are interested in other ways to try to make razor blades last longer, I found this wonderful thread, but unfortunately, I didn't see any proven solutions.

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Product Review

Posted on February 26, 2007.

 
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