As featured in The Wall Street Journal, Money Magazine, and more!

May 2007

I, for one, am looking forward to the good weather over this “long” weekend. Here are some personal finance nuggets from around the blogosphere to keep you busy over the weekend.

There are Almost 1 Million Accidental Millionaires. FMF points out an article describing the mass of individuals who have high net worth — mostly unusable — thanks to equity in their home. Another reason why net worth isn’t always the best measure your financial well-being.

One Man’s Trash: Free Televisions and Computers! Jim from pfBlueprint talks about his best hauls from other people’s piles. It’s classier than one might expect.

What the Heck’s Wrong With a Pre-Viewed DVD? Well, that would depend on what movie is on that DVD. Mighty Bargain Hunter has no problem with buying used DVDs. My problem with used DVDs is if you want to get them from a major store, they still cost almost as much as new DVDs.

Help Needed: Multiple Employers and the 415(c) Limit. Is there a tax expert in the house? Nickel is looking for some advice when it comes to his myriad retirement plans.

How High Do Gas Prices Have to Go to Justify Getting a New Car? AllFinancialMatters crunches the numbers as usual. In order to convince JLP to buy a Honda Civic, gas would have to reach $7.55 a gallon. Now the gasoline companies have a price target.

Why I Backslide and Spend Too Much. Sharon Harvey Rosenberg, the Frugal Duchess, admits she’s not perfect when it comes to spending money. She has three specific reasons, so check them out.

Switched to Vanguard E-Service to Eliminate Account Fees. Back in April, Vanguard announced they were changing their fee structure, but it wouldn’t be too difficult to avoid all fees. Sun has done so as well by opting out of paper statements.

Couples and Money Survey. Are you one member of a couple? Do you have thoughts about money? If the answers to both questions are “yes,” take a minute to fill out this completely anonymous survey from Personal Finance 101. The purpose of the survey is to provide information for a course that will be taught about money management and communication.

Why Talking About Myself Is Important When Writing About Personal Finance. Trent from The Simple Dollar explores a bit of his writing philosophy and the importance of being open with his own finances.

Enjoy the holiday weekend!

{ 4 comments }

Editor’s Note: Thank you for your interest, these offers have expired and are no longer available.

Updated: Here are 15 Credit Cards With the Best Rewards.

This month’s issue of Money Magazine contains an article with credit card recommendations for a variety of spending types. Here’s the run-down.

For big spenders: Blue Cash from American Express.

This card offers an introductory 0% APR on purchases for six months, but the best feature is the cash back reward program. The program offers 5% cash back on purchases made at supermarkets, drugstores and gas stations and 1.5% on everything else if you spend $6,500 within twelve months. That’s what makes this card good for people who can put a significant portion of their expenses on the credit card. Without spending $6,500, the cash back terms are only 1% and 0.5% respectively. One other good point is that there is no limit to the amount of cash back you can receive.

If you carry a balance: Discover More Card.

I don’t know. If you’re carrying a balance, you’re paying interest. The interest you pay would offset any rewards you could earn. That’s why Money Magazine suggests a card with an introductory APR of 0% for an entire year. The good thing about this card is while you’re taking time to pay off your purchases with what is in effect a free loan, you’re also earning 5% cash back. Here are five more cards offering 0% APR on purchases. Warning: use of leverage should be reserved for those who do not have problems managing their money.

If you are an active driver: Citi Driver’s Edge Platinum Select MasterCard. This card is no longer available; try the

This card offers 3% cash back on purchases at supermarkets, drug stores, and gas stations and 1% back on all other purchases. You also earn $1 for every 100 miles you drive, but the total rebate is capped at $1,000 a year. To make the most of rebates, this card can be used in conjunction with another cash back card.

If you are an active driver: Discover Open Road Card.

Here’s another option for drivers. After passing a $3,000 threshold, all purchases earn 1% cash back, except for gas and auto maintenance, which earn 5%. You also receive 5% cash back on purchases through Discover’s merchant network. I’m not a fan of having to pass a minimum spending amount first, but depending on your spending patterns, this card could pay off well.

If you are a traveler: Discover Miles Card.

This is not a cash back card. The Discover Miles Card rewards the credit card holder with one mile for every dollar you spend. Miles can be redeemed as gift card for merchant’s in Discover’s network in addition to the traditional airline tickets. The miles are accepted with any airline and there are no black-out dates. By the way, they’ll give you 12,000 bonus miles the first year.

The article also mentions Capital One No Hassle Mile Rewards Card, which earns you 1.25 miles for each dollar, but has a complicated redemption system. One might even say it’s a hassle to redeem the awards.

If you’re a “skinflint:” Chase Freedom Visa Card (no longer available).

This card doesn’t seem as impressive as some of the other cash back rewards cards. It does offer a 0% introductory APR for 6 months and 3% cash back on supermarkets, gas stations, and fast-food restaurants. I suppose therein lies the strength of this card. However, after you spend $600 during any monthly billing cycle, the reward drops back to the default for all purchases, 1%.

All in all, Money Magazine made some good recommendations. It’s getting more difficult to lock in great cash back rewards as credit card companies continue to cut back. But free money is still free money. These are companies that will pay you to use their money for free. Why do they do this? It’s not out of the goodness of their hearts. Companies offer these benefits for two very specific reasons. One: they think you will slip up and start paying interest fees. Two: the merchants pay the credit card company a small percentage of each transaction.

This translates to big bucks for the credit card companies. The least they can do is throw you some money as you help them make their annual profits goals.

{ 6 comments }

When I put together my monthly financial reports, I tend to get questions about how I decide what to include and what not to include in my balance sheet.

The purpose of determining your net worth is not to compare yourself with others. The real reason to do these simple calculations each month is to track your progress from one month (or year) to the next. Once that is established, the details behind the calculation don’t matter as much as the consistency. As long as you’re calculating your net worth the same way each month, you will get a good idea of your progress.

That being said, your net worth is one thing only: the value of all your assets reduced by the value of all your liabilities. If you exclude the house in which you live from the calculation, that’s fine. In fact, doing so may even give you a better picture of your financial well-being. But if you do, the number on the bottom line isn’t your net worth, it’s your net worth minus primary residence.

CalculatorAfter establishing that your net worth by definition is one specific calculation, the question that remains is which measurement do you really want to track. What are the components that would have the most meaning for you? Your household inventory would be included in your true net worth (though I admit I don’t include it in the reports I publish for myself), but you’re unlikely to liquidate clothing, so the number may be meaningless for you. In the same respect, your car is not a *financial* asset the same way money in the bank is, so there may be no reason for you to track its value from month to month.

What about your primary residence? If you own the home in which you live — a major asset — the only way you’ll ever see the real value is when you sell. In most cases when that happens, you’re buying something else with the cash right away. On the other hand, the liability associated with the house, a mortgage, might be a good candidate for tracking since it is debt that you’d like to see disappear.

Some like their calculation to reflect the closest value that would result from liquidating all assets to cash in hand. That would mean that in addition to your 401(k) account (an asset), you’d have to include a related liability which would contain the amount you would pay for taxes and early withdrawal penalties. Not only would your house needs its associated mortgage, but an estimate of fees that would be paid to a broker to market and sell the house.

Personally, I think some of this detail goes too far. While it’s a great idea to treat your personal finances somewhat like a business, it shouldn’t have to be an excessive chore.

Since the purpose of the calculation isn’t to compare yourself with others, it doesn’t matter what you choose to include as long as you’re consistent each month, and the numbers are meaningful to you. For a starting point, here is an Excel template for a net worth report (balance sheet) that I put together almost a year ago, based on the reports I use. It can easily be customized and adjusted to include or remove financial lines depending on what you feel is important to include.

{ 5 comments }

Whenever the US Mint comes up with a new concept for circulating coins, it inspires a new bunch of collectors and investors. That has certainly happened with the Presidential Dollar Series, which began earlier this year.

First impressions of the George Washington $1 coins were luke warm, but then collectors started discovering errors. In some coins mostly originating from northern Florida, the lettering on the edge was missing. Whether intentional or not, the Mint’s lack of quality control helped fuel a frenzy on eBay, in which people were selling error coins for well over face value. In the latest auction to close while writing this post, a certified error coin sold for over $164. Uncertified error coins are fetching over $50 a piece.

Even rolls in which there only *might* be error coins are selling for a slight premium, usually around $30 a roll when the face value is $25.

Ben from Money Smart Life wrote in with a question about the next coin in the Presidential Dollar Series, the John Adams $1 coin:

Being the opportunist I am, I just bought $150 of John Adams dollar coins today. Any suggestions on the best way to sell them on eBay? Should I try and sell all 6 rolls at once or one at a time? Should I sell them right away or hold onto them for a while? Is there any value in breaking apart the roll and selling them individually?

John Adams dollar coinI am still waiting to hear from my bank after putting myself on the waiting list for the John Adams coins, but I’m not expecting to make much money from them. There are a couple of issues that are working against the possibility of making money on John Adams $1s:

* General feeling among collectors seems to be the Adams coin has a nicer design than the Washington, which makes it more collectible. More people will be hoarding the coins, keeping the supply among collectors strong.
* The attention given to the Washington coins, whether about the series itself or about the errors, has inspired more interest among new collectors.
* The Mint has supposedly stepped up its quality control to reduce the number of errors, the main driver behind the frenzy over the Washington dollars.

Despite this, I’ve already started hearing about doubled edge lettering on the John Adams coins. This seems to be a less frequent error than the Washington smooth edge (no lettering), so this coin will probably be the best bet for those looking to make money. But since it is more rare, it’s unlikely that you have one.

I suggested to Ben that he open any rolls he’s not interested in collecting for himself and check for errors. (Here’s a list of known errors on John Adams $1s so far.)

If you do have one of these error coins and want to sell it rather than collect it, I would put it up on eBay as soon as possible for a guaranteed return, as fervor over errors is still strong. If you find more than one and want to make the most of your money, wait in between selling them to catch any short-term price increases that may crop up due to the unpredictable market.

Since the Washington error was so common, it will likely always be available for collectors, and it’s unlikely that there will be much upside to the prices they are fetching now. It’s still too early to see how common the doubled lettering Adams dollar will be.

While this isn’t particular to Adams dollars, if you go through your rolls and find a coin struck through grease at the mint, which is considered by some as an error, you may have some luck making a profit with it on eBay. One recent auction for this type of John Adams $1 sold for $41.

Without the errors, these coins would never be worth much more than face value thanks to the sheer volume of mintage and interest to collectors.

All this being said, you could probably make a small profit on each unopened uncirculated roll by selling them now on eBay, especially if you tend to overcharge for “shipping and handling” like most eBayers. For me, this small profit (maybe $5 a roll) wouldn’t be worth it, plus I would feel like I’m ripping someone off by selling them something they can easily get at their own bank for face value. (On the other hand, perhaps people who are on a waiting list, like me, may be willing to pay a little extra.)

Before getting into selling coins on eBay, it may be worthwhile to lurk the Collectors’ Universe Message Boards. These forums are run by the third party grading service PCGS, and you will quickly learn from some of the best collectors and dealers in the world the right and wrong ways to sell coins on eBay. Watch out for spam with forum members chiming in only to tout their auctions. Mostly, the regulars criticize misleading listings and other scam-like eBay tactics and give great advice to the increasing number of “newbies” who stop by every day.

{ 21 comments }

Where to Put an Unexpected $5,000, Part 3

by Luke Landes

If you’ve been lucky enough to come across $5,000 for which you haven’t been planning, you may be wondering what the best plan would be. Considering CNN has 43 suggestions for you, there are many options. I’ve had some thoughts on CNN’s list which I’ve shared so far here and here. Here is the next […]

0 comments Read the full article →

FNBO Direct 6.0% APY Savings and Media Blitz

by Luke Landes

A few days ago, I received a press release from the marketing company representing the First National Bank of Omaha, which recently created FNBO Direct to compete with online outfits like ING Direct and HSBC Direct. The new FNBO Direct account, with no minimums and no fees, offers 6.0 percent APY through September 28. The big […]

15 comments Read the full article →

Where to Put an Unexpected $5,000, Part 2

by Luke Landes

CNN Money has 43 suggestions for those who come upon an unexpected $5,000 based on the market right now. I didn’t particularly agree with each suggestion I’ve looked at so far. Let’s see how CNN Money does with the next batch of suggestions. 8. Best reality check: Eight hours with a financial planner 9. Best […]

2 comments Read the full article →

Where to Put an Unexpected $5,000, Part 1

by Luke Landes

Unfortunately, I don’t have this particular “problem” at the moment. But if I had, CNN Money can provide some suggestions (43 of them) for dealing with the unexpected income. 1. Best return with no risk: Pay off your highest-interest credit card debt 2. Best 12-month return (risky): Vanguard Growth Index fund 3. Best 12-month return […]

2 comments Read the full article →

Roth IRA Phase-Out in 2007

by Luke Landes

This year, if you (as a single tax filer) earn more than $99,000 (modified adjusted gross income — MAGI), your eligibility for the tax-advantageous Roth IRA phases out until you don’t qualify at all at $114,000. Couples are at a little bit of a disadvantage compared to two single tax filers as eligibility starts to […]

8 comments Read the full article →

Comparing a Lump Sum With an Annuity

by Luke Landes

Every since I wrote about the variable annuity sold to an 86-year-old, I’ve been trying to come up with some sort of situation in which this makes sense. Actually, I haven’t been putting effort into this issue at all, but this article from Charles Schwab happened to appear at the right time. Inside is a […]

3 comments Read the full article →
Page 1 of 3123