Things I Love: Instant Pot

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Editor's Note: It's been a long time I've written a "Things I Like" article. You'll have to wait a little longer, because this is a "Things I Love" article written by my wife. Any typos were likely introduced by my editing as I changed some sentence structure for clarity.

With two little kids, I don't have room for many hobbies. I tried scrapbooking and gardening, but they were too much attention taken away from supervising the kids. I tried canning, but it was too much time in front of an open flame. I love concerts and Broadway shows, but they aren't frugal and it's hard to find the time (kids). Then I met Instant Pot... and I might have just found my hobby.

Instant Pot is a 7-in-1 electric pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker, saute/browner, yogurt maker, steamer & warmer. Lazy Man bought it this Christmas on a Slickdeal and presented it as a "family gift." I did not want another appliance collecting dust on the shelf (I see you ice cream maker), so I decided to give it a whirl... and a new day dawned.

Using Instant Pot

With Instant Pot, you can make a restaurant quality dinner in less than 20 minutes. As Special Agent Oso might say, "Three Special Steps... that's all you need...":

  1. Place the meat and oil/ butter in saute mode until brown.
  2. Add the spices and vegetables
  3. Put Instant Pot on pressure cook for 15 minutes

The food never comes out under-cooked or burnt. The meat is so tender you can cut with a butter knife. Thanks to Instant Pot's automatic shut off, I am able to go give my 2 year old a bath and not have to worry about the food burning.

Lazy Man found this guy on YouTube using an Instant Pot competitor to make buffalo wings. It's worth watching just for former WWE wrestler Gene Snitsky's performance:

His pressure cooker looked like an Instant Pot, so I gave it another whirl.

Well, I was just as excited about buffalo wings as Gene was! They weren't crisp, but they had infused spice and the meat fell off the bone. I could not stop slurping them down!

The dinners are full of flavor and low carb. I ended up drinking the broth of my Thai red curry like it was a 2008 Zinfandel!

Cleanup is awesome as well, no burnt bottom , cleans up with a little water, a drop of Dawn and a Scrub Daddy! Like 2 minutes!

If I had anything negative to say the sauce does come out too liquidy. I add some cornstarch to thicken it up. (Well the dinners were low-carb.)

Let the Culinary Safari Begin

My first meal was from the Instant Pot cook book, but I found that the internet was full of recipes. I soon learned that any meal that simmers can be "Instant-Potted." In the last two weeks I have made, Thai, Italian, Indian, Chinese and Russian.

I look forward to Hungarian goulash and Mongolian beef. Thanks to my new hobby of being on a culinary safari with Instant Pot.

Everyday, I ask myself, "What am I going to make next?" I'm running our of countries.

Editor's Final Thoughts

I thought I'd finish up with some final thoughts from my own perspective.

  • While some of this may sound like a paid advertisement for Instant Pot, it is not. Maybe some of the excitement from my wife is a novelty that will lessen over time. I've experienced this to some degree with SodaStream and Fitbit - both great products that are simply less exciting after years of use. In the interest of full disclosure though, I will get a small commission from Amazon if you buy an Instant Pot using one of the links above.
  • I haven't learned how to use Instant Pot yet. I work from home which usually gives me enough time to plan something with the slow-cooker. It's easier for me to make dinner at 10AM than it is to make it at 4PM or 5PM when the kids are home from day care.
  • For some reason, I thought it was called "Instapot", but it seems that it is clearly "Instant Pot" and the vast majority of the public gets it right. I'm sticking to my guns, "Instapot" is a much better name.
  • The Special Agent Oso was my editing. With the kids, we have a fair amount of kids programming going on and Agent Oso's "Three Special Steps" is a key pattern to accomplishing any task in the show.
  • I do the "family gift" thing a lot. Am I alone in this? It's a way to recognize that something isn't exactly fun or exciting for either of us, but it may improve our lives. I saw a deeply discounted Black Friday deal on something that had nearly 6000 glowing reviews from fans. I made a judgment call and the gamble paid off.
  • I've read that you can crisp the wings by broiling them a few minutes afterward. They are great without doing that, so I'm not sure it is worth the extra work, so I'll leave it as a reader exercise.
  • I've been blogging for ten years and even my wife wrote "Lazyman" (one word, lowercase "m") before I edited this. Are people getting this from the logo?
  • It looks like I'm making ice cream in February. Little does my wife know that I've been looking up avocado ice cream recipes since it clearly gives Tom Brady super powers. Aldi has avocados on sale this week. Game on.
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    Posted on February 3, 2016.

How to Save $150 on Cable

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My husband and I are pop-culture nerds. We love chatting about the latest music, video games, and television shows. In the past, we planted ourselves happily in front of the TV for hours before and after work. But then, the bills started adding up.

Cut Cable Bill

Image from the WSJ

In 2013, we were paying an astounding $190 for cable, which did not include premium channels like HBO or Showtime. Even more frustrating was the horrible customer treatment and unreliable service, not to mention the dozens of channels we didn’t even watch but were paying for.

When we started saving up for our wedding, we looked for ways to cut costs. The cable bill was one of our biggest expenses, but much of what we watched was online anyway – even currently airing shows, which we often watched on Hulu or network sites. We realized that we could save $150 a month on our cable bill every month by doing something almost unthinkable for pop-culture nerds like us: we cut our cable service.

How We Still Tune In Without Cable

We’ve learned to get creative in order not to miss our favorite shows or programs. Here’s a quick rundown of what has worked for us (and associated costs):

Get an Antenna

Hi-def antennas are ubiquitous for anyone without cable. Costing anywhere from $40-120, these little devices, similar to the “bunny ears” our parents used to use, allow us to watch live local network broadcasts. This way, we don’t miss the shows we actually watch live, like The Amazing Race and The Good Wife. Depending on where you live, you may have to spend some time configuring the location of your television or the antenna’s receiver to get the best reception – but it’s totally worth it.

Stream for Free

Streaming services are already inexpensive – currently around $8-15 a month. But it’s even better if you can get it for free. For example, we nabbed a promotion from a local bank to get Netflix free for a year – and we have a coupon code from our internet provider for another free year, which we can redeem next year. If you can’t get one of these great deals, try asking for gift cards or subscriptions for birthdays or holidays. It’s a great way to reduce bills without cutting down on your TV watching.

[Editor: If you are going to stream television, the very best money you can spend is getting a PlayOn Plus account. It turns streaming television to a computer into a full DVR. See my review: PlayOn Plus Will Change How You Watch Television]

Split Costs

My dad loves cable; he’d never cut the cord. However, he’s more than happy to share his login with us, so long as we contribute to his bill. By splitting costs, we’re able to watch our favorite cable series like Game of Thrones and South Park, and he’s able to cut down on his overall cable costs. We can even stream live sports and children’s TV for our daughter!

[Editor: Show your father how he can eliminate his cable box (DVR) monthly fees! and he might let you have that login for free each month.]

Connect to Your TV

Did you know your TV was made for streaming? It’s true! HDTVs have connections for HDMI devices like Roku and Chromecast, and most laptops even have HDMI ports to connect to your television. These devices are all inexpensive and allow us to watch everything we want in stunning HD. All you need is an internet connection and a device, and you’re set to go!

So far, cutting cable has helped us save nearly $4,000 to pay off debt, travel, and pay for our wedding without going into credit card debt. While I still sometimes get jealous of my friends who have hundreds of channels at their fingertips, I honestly believe cutting the cord has greatly improved the quality of our lives. By reducing our cable bill, we have learned how to prioritize the things that matter in life.

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Last updated on November 3, 2015.

Cut the Cord With Tablo TV?

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A couple of months ago, I wrote about how you can kill your cable box DVR monthly fees. For me, the biggest thing about cutting the cord isn't necessarily losing the cable television*, it's the time-shifting of network television shows.

On a basic level, it seems pretty silly to pay a bunch of money each month for what should be solved by one-time costs of a hard drive and a television antenna.

Fortunately a commenter on that last post mentioned TabloTV DVR. I had looked at it a long time ago (perhaps before it was actually released), but had forgotten about it.

It's something that I'm considering again though.

Most people are probably wondering what the heck I'm writing about. TabloTV is the device that can bridge a high-definition antenna and a hard drive and give you DVR. The 4-tuner version is under $300 and the 2-tuner version is under $200. I don't watch a lot of television, but there are some nights when three shows I follow are on at the same time. Other nights, it's zero. For me it's worth spending the extra money for the 4-tuners.

Of course it requires that you have an HD antenna set up. It also requires that you buy a hard drive to store all the shows. Then you need something on your televisions to connect to the network with your shows. This can be an Amazon Fire TV Stick, Roku, etc. I happen to meet that requirement on my two televisions already.

In fact, there happens to be a big ChromeCast deal today. Amazon will give you a $10 gift card when you buy it for $30.

If you are starting from scratch, you can probably put together a set-up, my favorite antenna, TabloTV, a harddrive, and a couple of Chromecasts for under $500. I'd estimate the average basic cable television bill at around $60. It would pay for itself in about 8 months... and after that you'd save significant money, $720 a year.

There are times when you can make a switch and save money without losing any functionality. The Ooma Telo free home phone service is a perfect example of this. In this case, you are going to lose access to cable channels... so it's not an even trade. However, it's not as bad as cutting the cord and losing access to record your own television shows.

What do you think? Is this a smart plan, or does it stretch frugality a little too far? Let me know in the comments.

* Actually I've become quite enthralled by Pretty Little Liars in it's last season. I wouldn't say that I passively watched it while working when my wife had it on, but it wasn't something that I put the laptop away for.

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Posted on July 29, 2015.

Working on a $100 Computer

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A few weeks ago, I brought you 10 Hacks to Speed Up Your Browser. I explored how I hacked my version of Firefox to run very fast and consume much less memory (most of the tricks will work for Chrome as well). What I didn't know is that within a week, I'd be forced to put the hacks to the test.

My crazy computer purchase of February 2013 died on me. An ounce of drink hit the keyboard and though it worked for a few more hours, I had trouble getting it started after it went to sleep. It turns out that both the video card and the keyboard took major damage. I was able to rescue it long enough by plugging it in to television and using a spare keyboard. Getting that to work seemed nothing short of miraculous.

This put me in a position of needing a computer to work, but not having one. Circuit City is long gone. Best Buy moved out of my town years ago. I could get something cheap from Wal-Mart, but when you use a computer as much as I do, you don't want to make a 2+ year decision because of a day or two.

And this is when I cashed in on the best insurance I bought last year. During Black Friday I bought a ASUS X205TA Laptop at Staples for $100. My rationale was that it would be a great travel computer at 2.2 pounds with 12 hour battery life. The processor runs like it is powered by a hamster wheel. It has very little memory meaning you can only open up a couple of programs before it grinds to halt. The screen angle has to be just right. The 11.6-inch screen is a big difference from the 16-inches I used a few years ago.

However, I was able to get real work done. I could write articles, check emails, update spreadsheets and just about anything else I needed to do.

It made me think, "What if I could just pick up nearly any computer and get to work?" What if I could do the same things on a $100 computer that cost me $1100 two years ago? Computers are getting cheaper and cheaper, but my computing needs aren't necessarily expanding. The ability to retain my data and workflow are far more important to me than hardware itself.

I can't lie, my computing desires expand all the time. I look up all the latest laptops much more often than I should. There's sexy 4K screens and new processors that zip along using very little battery, all wrapped up in a package of around 2.5 pounds or less. As long as I can keep myself in check, being productive on a very cheap computer could save me hundreds of dollars.

Create a "Work Anywhere" Environment

Being able to work on any computer saved my bacon in this disaster. How did I do it? I simply looked at everything I do and tried to find a way to make it work on another computer. Specifically, these things came in particularly handy:

  • Firefox Sync - I was very nervous about syncing my browsing history with a third-party. It seems like a huge security risk. After reading about how the security was handled, I felt more secure. Being able to download Firefox (even on my Android phone and tablet) and have my browsing environment is about 80% of the battle.
  • LastPass - I use LastPass to store and secure all my passwords. If I can remember one password, I have them all. It seems like every site I use nowadays requires a login, so this is huge.
  • Google Documents - I have documents and spreadsheets that I want to have with me at all times. For example, I have notes on the articles that I am intending to write as well as a spreadsheet of earnings.

I'm sure I'm just touching the surface of what I could use. Feedly and Pocket are two apps that I'm looking to use more. I recently started to use NotePad++ which offers backing up data to the cloud via DropBox and similar services. I'm going to see if I can use this to sync files a little faster than dealing with Google Documents (it can be a bit of a resource hog to leave it open all the time).

I am testing my "work anywhere" environment by trying to work on my wife's computer with my own separate Windows login. (I offer the same to her on my computer of course.) So far it is working pretty nicely.

What I Learned From Using a $100 Computer

I learned two really valuable lessons from using a $100 computer:

  1. While the computer is functional, it is annoying enough to use that I found myself looking forward to doing errands rather than goofing off.
  2. Most people probably don't need nearly as much "computer" as they think they do.

There's definitely some kind of sweet spot of having a very functional computer at a relatively bargain price. In the past you might need to spend $500 to satisfy basic computing needs. I feel like that has shifted significantly and much of that money is more about wants.

That leads me to...

Should You Really Skimp on a Computer?

This is a difficult question and it really depends on the person. I use my computer so much, that I feel like any loss in productivity would be magnified. At the same time, my wife uses her non-work computer only about an hour a day, so it isn't magnified as much.

I'm going to cop out escape this question by simply saying that many people could save money if they wish to.

Next week, I'll review the new computer I bought. In writing this article, I've realized I might have made a several hundred dollar mistake.

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Last updated on June 10, 2015.

One Month of Solar Power

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I hit refresh on the browser for at least the 10th time only to get the same result as before... nothing. "Why won't they bill me?!?!", I thought.

Yes, I was anxiously hoping to get a bill. I had officially entered Bizarro World.

I've been writing about my solar journey for about a year now. This may be my last post for awhile. After getting solar installed and it starts paying, the hope is that I am in the "happy ever after" phase... until there's a problem. I'm going to be optimistic and presume that I have no problems to write about for a long while.

My wife and I learned one very important thing this month, but I'm sure you don't want to read it now... we'll get to it later.

Back to the bill. I would have to wait until the next morning.

When it came, it was almost exactly as I had expected... almost. The bill was for $-87.68. Yes that's a negative. Not only did I get all my electricity for free... the electric company owed me money. Our solar panels produced 1035 kWh and we used only 458 kWh. We had a credit of 577 kWh... which was worth $87.68 after a few taxes and fees were subtracted out.

Why was it only almost as I expected? When we buy power from the electric company there is a delivery charge of a few cents per kWh. When we produce our own power we don't need to pay that. However, we don't get a credit for delivering any extra power. Thus when our credit of 577 kWh is converted into cash, it doesn't buy as much power in the future... that cash has to pay for delivery as well.

That's not a big deal. It was unexpected, but not exactly a game changer.

Now for the reveal of what my wife and I learned. We conserved power like never before.

The Spring months are the best time to build credit. We aren't using huge energy draws like air condition. We are also producing a lot of power (as you can see).

We spent the month with a special mindfulness towards our electricity use. I'm not sure if it will carry into the future. I feel like it might because each day I check to see how much power our solar panels are producing. (For May, we are on pace to produce nearly 1200 kWh.)

That mindfulness is one of the hidden advantages in going solar.

So that's where we are today. We've eliminated our electricity bill (replacing it with a solar panel bill) and are even earning a sizable credit for this winter.

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Last updated on May 25, 2015.

Kill Your Cable Box (DVR) Monthly Fees!

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For the last 3.5 years I haven't paid the cable company a penny in rental fees for a cable boxes. I didn't sacrifice any features I use and actually gained quite a few.

Most people pay around $8/mo. for a dumb box (no DVR) or $16/mo. for (limited) DVR storage. I was one of those paying $16/month before I switched to my new system. It has saved me more than $650 over that time.

I'm going to tell you how you can do the same. However first, a little back story.

The Quest for Cable Box Freedom

A few years ago, I realized that I have been renting cable boxes for 7-8 years... and television technology hadn't changed much. There was the move to HD, but at the core, it was still a DVR. DVR was the innovation that TiVo popularized back in 1999, when it created software to pair with its computer hardware to record video to a hard drive for later viewing as well as pausing, rewinding, and all the things we love about DVR.

There's no good reason (other than a cable monopoly) for someone to have to rent a computer with a hard drive for the DVR experience. There's only one small ongoing cost and it's updating the guide... something that's been included with cable service for years.

Over the years, I had spent around $1500 in renting DVR boxes. They weren't getting any better.

To top it off, they are incredible power hogs adding as much as another $8 a month in energy bills. In total, we are looking at more than $275 a year for DVR.

The situation that consumers find themsevles in is crazy. It's like being forced to have to rent a television at insane Rent-A-Center rates to work with your cable company's service. How would you react if you had to spend $100 a month ($1200 a year) for a television that was very, very old technology? That's what most consumers get with their cable boxes.

And don't try upgrade your cable box, you'll lose all your content. If properly designed, they could make the hard drives swappable so that you could get your content, but they don't do that. They also don't offer a way to download the content so you could archive it.

With the exception of the cloud services, the whole technology is stuck in 2004.

There must be a way to stop the insanity, right?

There is.

CableCARD and HDHomeRun Prime

Back in 1996, it seems there was legislation that required cable companies to provide a means for people to not be locked into proprietary cable boxes. The result was CableCARD, a technology that was included in a few televisions, which very few people used.

Why did no one use them? Cable companies resisted it. The average consumer wouldn't know about it. In addition, it cost more for television-makers to implement the technology. Consumers naturally took the cheaper option. And by the time it was really effective (around 2007 from the Wikipedia reference), people wanted DVR. CableCARD doesn't give you DVR, just the ability to receive and decode cable without a set-top box. People weren't really getting the functionality they wanted, when they bought a television with a CableCARD slot.

CableCARD did find a home in Tivo boxes. The devices work well with CableCARDs and fans of the technology seem to love it. Unfortunately, TiVO is expensive. It comes with the same subscription fees just like your cable DVR's. You can get a "lifetime" subscription, but it is very misleading. The "lifetime" is of a device (which obviously has no "life") and not the buyer's lifetime as one would expect. Also the lifetime subscription is around $500, which will likely carry you to when your device is obsolete. Then you'll buy a new one with a new "lifetime" subscription.

It became clear to me that Tivo wasn't a good way to avoid subscription fees. It was a way to pay them at once.

The Winning Combination

You can avoid all these things by piecing together a few computer parts. I go into great detail here, but for the most part you need:

  1. A Computer
  2. HDHomeRun Prime
  3. Windows 7

The Computer

You don't need a very powerful computer, I bought the most powerful available Dell Zino nearly four years ago... and they were a little old at the time.

For those who care, it is a AMD Phenom II P940 Quad-Core with a PassMark score of 1674. It uses 35 watts of power. One of the lowest end newer chips today is this Intel Core M with a PassMark score of 2747. It uses 4.5 watts.

Much more power in at a fraction of the energy... isn't technology awesome!

The Zino has more than handled everything that I threw at it in terms of powering video on my television.

You could attempt to use an Intel Compute Stick, but at a PassMark of 878 I'd wait until the next version is released.

In the meantime, this Intel NUC for under $300 will give you more power than you'll need and it is a damn cute, wife-pleasing 5-inches by 5-inches (much smaller than that big cable box).

As as much storage space as your like... or as your budget allows. I wouldn't recommend a SSD, because you don't need that kind of speed... and they are pricy.

HDHomeRun Prime

This hardware (currently $99), allows you to insert a CableCARD and get all the live channels from your cable company. Sadly, satellite companies and fiber-optic companies (such as Verizon FIOS) don't need to adhere to the CableCARD standard and you are out of luck with those.

In technology terms it gives you the three television tuners so you can record three things at one time.

Windows 7

Finally, you'll want Windows 7. Why? Because it contains Windows Media Center (WMC), which is the only software on the planet that works with the HDHomeRun Prime to give you access to copy-protected channels like HBO. If you don't care about those, you could do it with Linux and Myth TV, but then you get into an especially techie solution.

You can also do it Windows 8, but Microsoft pushed WMC to a premium tier that cost more money and/or required an extra purchase that could cost as much as $100.

Sadly, WMC won't be offered in Windows 10 at all. Microsoft pulled the plug saying that there wasn't demand. There wasn't, because no one has made a particularly user-friendly version of this solution and marketed it. (I have a conspiracy theory that the cable companies are paying Microsoft big money to back down so that they can keep renting DVRs to people at crazy prices. It's the only reason I can think of why Microsoft isn't pushing their own cable box solutions like they push Surface.)

Getting Windows 7 isn't exactly easy, but ZDNet has a bunch of legal ways to get it cheap or even free. It's better to get it now, before all the options go away.

Show Me The Money!

You combine the three pieces (grab your nearest 14-year old if you need help) and you should be ready to go. Oh you'll also want this Windows Media Center Remote Control.

Since I went solar, I've been paying crazy attention how much power I use. It is shocking to me that cable boxes can use 500 watts. I think the whole solution would probably take around 20 watts or less. So you'd see that $8 monthly electricity bill drop to around 30 cents.

When you add it all up, that annual $275 or so comes to under $5. The hardware will set you back $400 or so to start, but it should pay for itself in under two years. I think that's a solid return on your investment.

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Posted on May 18, 2015.

Leasing Solar Panels Revisited

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Today over at Planting Money Seeds, there's a very good article about leasing solar power panels to save money on your electric bill.

This is a very smart thing to do in quite a few states with high electricity prices... BUT... we'll let's leave the big "BUT" for later.

The idea is this. You let another company put their solar panels on your roof and you pay less money for electricity. In a lot of ways, it's as if someone just offered to cut your electric bill in half. At least this is what happened in writer Rachel Gates' case.

It's a win-win, because you don't have to put down money upfront... and solar panels can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Even with subsidies my panels cost around $25,000. It's a win for the company leasing the panels, because they charge enough on the electricity they generate to make very good money on them.

When I first explored adding solar power to my house, I looked into leasing solar panels. This was based on an article by Evan from My Journey to Millions who looked into leasing solar panels as well. He reviewed the same company, Vivint, and decided against going for it. His reasoning was that saving $40 a month wasn't worth some of the thorny issues that come up if you decide to try to sell your home.

I think it's great to get both sides of the story, from someone who went for it and someone who didn't. In Evan's case, it was going to cost him 15 cents per kilowatt hour. In Rachel's case it was going to cost 11.5 cents per kilowatt hour. That's a big difference, and perhaps that's why it makes sense for Rachel and not Evan. I'm not sure how they figure out the pricing. It could vary by state or even based on the estimate of how much power they think your home will generate.

When I did my research into buying panels, the cost would be about 7 cents per kilowatt hour accoding to this awesome solar calculator. That's half of the average of Rachel and Evan's prices. Perhaps more importantly, that 7 cents stays that way for 20 years... while Vivint can raise the price 2.9% a year. Near the end of Rachel's contract, she could be spending nearly 20 cents/kWh. And while that will still likely be a bargain to what the power company is charging, it is certainly no match for paying 7 cents/kWh.

The "gravy" in owning panels comes in after 20 years. I don't know what happens with the Vivint panels after that time. I presume the agreement is over and they haul off the panels unless you want to extend it somehow. Even then, I bet they'd want you to enter into another agreement with the latest technology, which will surely be much, much then (solar power is advancing exponentially fast). My panels could provide power for 30 years. They may be less efficient giving me a price equivalent of 10 cents kWh, but that's still very, very good.

Perfect is the enemy of good. If leasing solar panels saves you good money, then go for it. However, I strongly urge you to look for the money to buy them outright, even if you have to finance them. It looks like the reason why Vivint is happy to lease panels is that they can do it at a price that makes them good money. If you have the means, why not keep the money for yourself?

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Posted on May 11, 2015.

LED Light Bulbs Are Now a STEAL!

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I've been on solar power for a whole 10 days now and it is amazing how it makes you think about energy use. The inverters I have are from Enphase and they come with a website that allows you track how much power you are producing at any given time. It produces a bar chart with production ever 15 minutes.

In the last 15 minutes (8:30AM local time) as I write this, the panels produced 497 watt-hours, enough power for 166 AA batteries.

In doing my regular reading of news stories and deals, I came across by far the cheapest LED light bulbs I've ever seen. Before I get to the deal, I feel like it's worth taking a stroll down Light Bulb Memory lane...

I feel like I've been writing about light bulbs forever now. Back in 2007, I wrote about how CFLs save the environment by using less power. This was back before the concerns about mercury in them was widespread. No one even called me out in the comments... and quite a few people said that they switched their whole house to them.

In any case, they saved people a lot of money. As long as they disposed of them properly, they were good.

A little more than 3 years ago, the idea of a $50 affordable LED light bulb was bandied about on The Soap Boxers (the author, Kosmo, contributes here from time to time). He made a great case that the total cost of ownership of the light bulb, when accounting for electricity favors LEDs over incandescent light bulbs. And while those compact fluorescent light bulbs still had low cost and high efficiency some people don't like how they require "warming-up" and the mercury issue with them.

It's interesting to note that a good case was made for a $50 light bulb three years ago, because you can buy two of them for $5 at Home Depot. At $2.50 a bulb that's 1/20th the cost back then. Instead of blowing $600 on a dozen to put throughout the house, you can spend $30.

There are a few minor catches, but I don't think they should be too concerning:

  1. They are back-ordered until June. This tells me that people are snapping up this deal.
  2. They are rated to last "only" 10 years while other LEDs are rated to last 20+ years.
  3. They aren't rated as dimmable, so you'll have to get a slightly more expensive LED for those fixtures.

There's a longer review of these at CNET's website, but they stack up well to competitors in performance.

Now some people may balk at the shorter lifespan of these light bulbs. I actually think it is an advantage. The shorter lifespan is the result of the cheaper materials and cheaper cost to you. We get LED technology at a price that's much closer to CFLs than they have ever been.

If they only last for 10 years, I won't feel bad about throwing them away for the next technology. When I think about how far we've come from 2007, it's fascinating to think about 2025. Maybe we will have OLED lighting then.

Am I really going to want to hang onto LEDs from 2015 in 2035? Light is light, so I probably won't mind too much, but my guess is technology is going to do what it always done... march forward.

Personally, I've transitioned almost entirely to LEDs and I still have some CFLs that I'd like to use up (not sure how), so I'm probably not going to jump on this deal. However, if you haven't jumped on LEDs, this is probably the best time to do it.

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Last updated on April 27, 2015.

My Epic Treadmill Desk Purchase

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The word "epic" is often way overused, but I think it is fair here. I turned a process that should normally take between 60 and 90 seconds into something that stretched hours. Today, I'd like to take you on a journey to show you how I save money on big purchases... and give you a little peek inside my crazy mind.

On Friday, I was in a funk. I'm going to blame it on the snow adding to the record breaking amounts we've had in New England. It was only an inch and if it wasn't the billionth inch of snow this year, would have been picturesque. In any case, I wasn't feeling myself and the snow is the only thing I can think of accounting for it.

My wife came to me with a question, "If I were to buy you a bowling ball for your birthday, would you be mad?"

In seconds my funk was gone.

I love when my wife tries to speak my language... it is even better when she does it successfully. She knows that I don't bowl. She was referencing an episode from the Simpsons where Homer buys Marge a bowling ball with his name engraved on it. It was her way of saying, "I am thinking of buying you something, but I want to use it too."

I knew she was looking at my Amazon wishlist. We danced this dance before.

I responded, "The bowling ball is expensive, too much for a birthday present. I was thinking that it could be a purchase for the family. The "gift" is simply to have the discussion on if we should get a bowling ball and if we have a suitable alley to bowl in."

And so we went and measured our office using the terms of "bowling ball" and "bowling alley", not mentioning the term "treadmill desk" for a good 15 minutes. At some point, I had to admit that while I found a very well-reviewed treadmill desk, I hadn't finished my research. Often I add items to my Amazon wishlist that represent ideas. This was a case where I was 80% sure of what I wanted, but I had to look and make sure of the last 20%.

Takeaway #1: The more expensive a product is, the more I research it to death. A $1500 purchase like this gets a lot of my attention.

At the time, I didn't look into the feature sets of treadmill desks. I simply looked at reviews to see if people were happy. I knew I wanted something that folded up. I'm a huge believer in using vertical space as much as possible. That's about all I had to go on.

Before I go too much further, I should mention that there aren't many treadmill desks out there. At least not as many as I would have thought. There are plenty of treadmills. There are some standing desks. There are many solutions that people cobble together with those two. There aren't a lot of pure treadmill desks. In fact every editorial review I read from CNET to the ReadWrite to the Wall Street Journal all used the same LifeSpan treadmill desk that I initially added to my wishlist.

That LifeSpan desk seems to deserve its great reviews and people seem to love how well it works as a treadmill desk.

(Can you feel the, "BUT" coming?)

But one thing raised a red flag for us. My wife is often a listening participant in a training or conference call. During those times, she isn't limited to a walking speed. She can run. If there's a "dirty secret" of treadmill desks it's that they often top out at 4 miles per hour. They are great for walking while working, but if you want to put your work away and get a workout in, it isn't going to work for even causal joggers. Also, that LifeSpan treadmill had no ability to adjust the incline.

The was something else that was important for consideration. My wife, being in the military, has to pass a fitness test every year. Half of the test is running. Our oldest child hasn't reached his third birthday and our youngest is 15 months old... there was a lot of downtime from strenuous exercise. The inclement weather that I mentioned previously doesn't help. As great as a walking-speed treadmill desk would be, we have a real need for a treadmill that can be used... as a treadmill.

I would want the same. Who has space for a specialty treadmill and multiple treadmills in their home?

I only found one product that:

  • Folded up
  • Could be used for running
  • Actually had a desk

It was this NordicTrack Treadmill Desk model #24951. The treadmill goes up to 10 mph, which is faster than I can run for any length of time. It also has a maximum incline of 10%. I think the incline will be a key feature. If I can't type while walking too fast, I might as well walk uphill.

Here's the video that sold my wife on this NordicTrack Treadmill Desk:

Often the most difficult part of buying an expensive product is making sure you made the right choice. For example, luxury SUVs is a pretty crowded field. The lack of competition made our choice much, much easier.

The next step was finding the best price. Again, the choice was fairly simple. I found two online retailers selling it, NordicTrack and Sears.

NordicTrack was discounting it from the usual $2500 to $1799. At that price, I'd buy it over the LifeSpan. When you are spending around $1500 anyway, it's worth an extra $300 to get the full running speed and incline. However, Sears had it for $1499. There was no price compromise at all.

I froze like a deer in headlights.

I had only heard of the product a few minutes ago. I couldn't possibly pull the trigger this quickly.

So I waited.

Later that night, I checked back in and it was $1489. I wasn't going to jump on the $10 price drop. I hadn't let the prospect of spending $1500 sink in.

I woke up the next day and the price had dropped to $1424. I think because it was the weekend some discount or special offer kicked in. My wife was running a few errands and popped into our local Sears store to see if they had it. They didn't. However, the saleswoman mentioned that there was a 15% off as part of a "Friends and Family" deal on Sunday and we should call the stores in bigger cities about their inventory.

On Sunday morning, I refreshed again and found that the price had dropped to $1350.

I couldn't helping thinking, "Sears, you sultry minx. Stop falling in love with me. You're just gonna embarrass yourself."

The Friends and Family deal was 10% off for fitness products. I read a little more about that discount and it was "up to 15%." I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

I was willing to pay $1799 originally based on the functionality and value. I think the discount that brought it to $1424 was discontinued and the F&F rate more than made up for it. It would have been great if I could stack them both, but they make the rules. I just follow them as best I can.

It was now a matter of how much money could I save. It's a competition. Game On!

I am going to empty the quiver to get the most money off I can.

The Temptations of Sears

Sears was pulling out all the stops with offers of discounts to get me to buy.

10% off vs. 20% in Shop Your Way points

The Friends and Family 10% discount is doubled if you take it as "Shop Your Way" points. Instead of getting $150 in a discount, I could get $300 to spend at Sears, Kmart, and maybe some other stores that had filed for bankruptcy in the past. My wife quickly reminded me of this possibility when I mentioned the points. We got many gift cards for our wedding and we went years before spending all of them.

Takeaway #2: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. This is figuratively, but literally in value, the game that Sears is playing. In hindsight, I like to think that with my frugal shopping we could have gotten the value of 2.3 birds. In my wife's defense, we are trying not to spend money unless there is a clear reason to do it. Given the caveats, we took the cash discount and run.

Let's Welcome CardCash Into the Arena

As I explained in Home Depot Gift Cards Make My Money Go Further, I like to buy gift cards on a discount to save money. I dialed up CardCash on my browser as I've bought from there in the past. I held my breath as I bought 13 gift cards totaling $822.77. They were an 8% discount so the full value of them was $894.31.

Why not buy more? I had soaked up most of the inventory of printable eCards and they were down to cards less than $30. I later found out that Sears limits you to 15 gift cards for online purchases, so that worked out well.

This trick saved me around ~$72.

Sears' credit card tempts me to get another 5% off

Sears has a standing offer that they will give you 5% off if you pay with a credit card. Normally, I don't sign up for store cards, but I've got a pricing battle to win. And 5% of $1400 is $70, nothing to scoff at.

It wasn't quite clear if the discount was on the purchase price or if it was on the amount billed to the credit card. Typically they are the same thing, but when you use nearly $900 in gift cards, they are very different. I hoped it was on the purchase price.

I decided to apply for the credit card. Then everything went downhill.

My application was declined. I was given a case number, a code, and a phone number to call. Citibank probably doesn't have a lot of staff working on Sunday afternoon and after entering a pile of information, a recording told me call back later. Citibank, that was very rude. If you don't have the staff, at least tell me that quickly and not ask me about my first grade teacher (I'm exaggerating a bit.)

Undeterred, I used the chat window that Sears had been annoying me with. I explained my issue with the credit card. The person was going to help me, but also gave me a new phone number to call. Now I'm working with her, the website's standard ordering, and Sears' credit card team at the same time. Fun!

God bless that support person. She was a saint. Whatever Sears is paying her, it isn't enough. She put the order through for me manually. However, she had to do it twice, because her 5% code (in leau of the credit card) had to be entered first. It wasn't an easy order, because there were 13 gift cards with 13 numbers and 13 pins.

Meanwhile, back on the phone, the Sears credit card person told me that there was a typo in my Social Security number. That was the reason for my denial. My bad. She happily approved it manually with the fixed information.

And she said I'd receive my card in about a week. I explained that I was applying for the sole purpose of getting the 5% on a very expensive item on the website. Unfortunately, when cards are approved manually, giving the numbers out is a security risk. More unfortunately, she didn't explain this before approving my credit application.

So I asked for an annulment. That wasn't possible, but she could send me to customer service to close the account. She did and I canceled it. I had $3000 of Sears credit for probably a total of 5 minutes. That's going to do wonders for my credit report (he typed sarcastically).

While the account was cancelled, it might have been long enough to trigger a card being shipped to my house. In a week, the mail may give me a reminder on how I wasted a half hour of my time.

By this time, Chat Window Saint had finished typing up the order (the second time). I had her quote me the price to see if I got the 5% discount that I would have gotten with the credit card. It didn't. I didn't have the heart to tell her that an happily gave her my credit card to pay the remaining $477.95 that wasn't covered by the credit cards.

The grand total, with sales tax was $1,300.92. (It included free delivery, which was a nice perk.)

We'll get 2% back on the Fidelity Retirement Rewards credit card that I used. We also got 1% on ShopYourWay points. That's $26 in cash back (I used it to by the gift cards at CardCash too) and another $13 to spend at Sears. That's a value of $39.

A few hours later, I went on the website again to get some detail for this post and the treadmill had jumped to $1748.63. Today as I am about to post the article, it has jumped to $1942.92 and it labeled as a "Hot Buy."

At the end of the day, I saved betwen $500 and $700 (counting the cash back value) by pulling the trigger when I did and how I did. The credit card fiasco ended up not saving me anything and just costing me time, but it is hard not to be pleased with the result.

When I get it and use it, I'll be sure to write up a review for you.

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Posted on March 24, 2015.

Getting a Television on Black Friday? Read This First.

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To get a television or not? That is the question.

Just two months ago, I wrote about the next television revolution which combines two upcoming technologies OLED and 4K. OLED is a huge improvement for everyone with typical 1080P televisions (yes even those with plasmas). We'll get to it in a bit, but 4K isn't likely to make as big of a difference.

So if you are looking to buy a television this season, you'll want to keep the following in mind: You probably shouldn't, unless you should, and it doesn't matter, unless it does and it doesn't matter, except for when it does.

Confused? You should be. This is the most confusing time to buy a television I've seen in decades.

Is 4K (Ultra HD) Worth It?

I've been seeing some 4K televisions in the Black Friday ads this year. Since everyone remembers the huge improvement in going from SD to HD, the expection is that it will happen again with the switch to 4K televisions.

Unfortunately, 4K is mostly marketing. Most people (those with 20/20 vision) can't tell the difference at a certain distance. It depends on your eye sight, where you sit and the size of the television. The bigger the television, the better your vision, and the closer you sit, the more it matters. There's no point in getting a 30" 4K television and sitting 15 feet away from it. However, if you are 7 feet away, you can probably tell the difference on a 70" 4K television.

Fortunately there's a great 4K television calculator here.

You want to start by figuring out your viewing distance. Most likely that's going to stay constant unless you are planning to move or do room redesign. Let's assume you aren't going to do that. Most people sit around 9 feet away from their television... or at least that's the popular Lecher distance median number.

The next question is how big of a television should you buy. CNET answers this question directly. THX recommends a 90" television for that 9 foot distance. The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) recommends a 68" television for 9 feet. CNET's recommendation was for a 72" television. Since you can't buy 68" or 72" televisions, let's just say that most people would be best suited with a 70" television.

I'm going to send to my wife the above paragraph.

Now that we know where most people sit and we have an idea of what size television they should (optimally) buy, we can plug these numbers into the handy aforementioned calculator to decide if 4K is worth it. Plugging in a 70" television with a 9' foot viewing distance and 20/20 vision, there is only a 29% improvement for 4K.

As if there weren't enough factors to consider, there is this. There isn't a lot of 4K content out there. In fact, there is almost none. So any kind of benefit you might see, may be masked by the source you are watching.

So in the typical case, even if you are spending a lot of money for a large 4K television, you aren't getting much benefit. If you drop the television size down to 55" (the most common 4K television size marketed on Black Friday) there is zero benefit.

However, if you have a nice little man (or woman) cave where your viewing distance is close and/or you have better vision than the norm, a 55" 4K television can make sense.

What About OLED?

As I wrote in the beginning of the article, OLED is where the best picture is. The problem is that only one company, LG, has been able to figure out how to make them efficiently enough to bring them to the audience. That's why a search for OLED televisions on Amazon gives you only choices by LG.

It's fun to read the reviews on the LG 55" Curved OLED TV... everyone is screaming about how incredible it is. You simply don't get that with all the 4K televisions. Of course, those 4K televisions don't cost $3,500 either.

If you are looking for something in the 55" range and want the best picture, you are better off skipping the 4K exercise above and going with this television. Of course it's going to cost you twice as much, but another way to look at it is that it would have cost you $15,000 last year.

And if you want the best of both worlds, you can get a LG Electronics 65-Inch 4k Curved OLED TV for only $9,999. I'd say that's my dream television, but there's a 77 inch version coming that's only $24,999. If you are wondering that's a better fit for my room size and seating distance (obviously not so much for my wallet).

What Do You Do?

It's impossible to give blanket advice on televisions. I can't say what's right for everyone.

However, the impossible hasn't stopped me before, so here's my two cents (which you get for free!).

The price of 4K televisions that are going to be big upgrades for most people is still too high - especially given the lack of content. OLED is really exciting, but again, the price is very high. I'm not sure Lazy Man and Money readers are the type to spend that kind of money. If you are, hopefully it's because you've been reading my site for years and made ridiculous amounts of money (if so, please share it with me).

If you have an older and/or smaller television and you can get a good deal on an upgrade that will keep you happy for the next 4-5 years (or longer) it might be worth taking that plunge. (As a preview for my next post, I am thinking of doing such a crazy thing!)

Otherwise, my best advice is to sit on the sidelines and wait for technology to do what technology does... get cheaper.

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Posted on November 24, 2014.

 
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