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

October 2007

Money Magazine has tips for getting the most out of a Best Buy shopping trip, which reminded me to share my story of yesterday’s experience.

In my circle of friends, the big box retail store known for its bright blue and yellow logo is known as “Worst Buy” thanks to the multitude of headaches their shopping experiences have caused. I’ve never had a problem with them, but I do recognize that they rarely have the best prices on smaller items. Many times I’ve ended up going to Circuit City for eletronics at a better price, for other random items, and Monoprice for cabling.

Nevertheless, I finally found a low-cost surround sound receiver and speakrers that matched my budgetary, audiophilic, HDMI, and spatial requirements. Circuit City and Best Buy were selling the system for the same price online, but only one local Best Buy location — the one closest to my office — had it in stock. I stopped by the store yesterday on my way home.

ht-ss2000.jpgI came into the store knowing exactly what I would be purchasing and that they had three of them in stock. When the salespeople stopped chatting and decided to help, I confirmed I could pay the online reduced price, and they fetched the system from the back.

The system, the Sony HT-SS2000, was no longer on display, presumably because the discounted price doesn’t provide the store with a profit margin as high as the margins on the more current items.

While one salesperson was bringing the system to the front, I asked the other about the 30 or so Blu-ray players stacked in boxes. I have seen refurbished or reconditioned players at the Sony Store for half price, so I asked if they had any “open box” or reconditioned items for sale.

They had no such deals, but they did offer me 10% off a new Blu-ray player on the spot. I declined as that wasn’t in my budget for the day.

If they would have offered me a $499 player for $250, I would have adjusted my spending limit, but that was not to be. I am disappointed that movie production companies are increasingly aligning with only one high definition format. Unlike the VHS vs. Beta debate, I think this could take much longer to hash out, and there may never be a clear winner.

The salesperson wasn’t eager to sell me add-ons and accessories. He probably recognized I was a fairly informed shopper. After declining the extended warranty, overpriced accessories and installation service, I made the purchase on my cash back rewards credit card, and proceeded home to install the system myself.

Money Magazine has the following suggestions for shopping at Best Buy. These tips could save anyone a few dollars and some headaches.

* Salespeople don’t work on commission, so be friendly to receive the best service.
* They will try to sell you overpriced accessories to recoup the margin lost on competitively-priced main products.
* Weigh the cost of installation with your ability to do it yourself or have someone do it for you.
* Read the fine print on the return policy and watch out for restocking fees. In other words, be sure of the product you want to buy so you aren’t returning it unless it’s defective.
* Best Buy will match competitor’s lowest price by refunding 110% of the difference if you find a qualifying advertisement within 14 days. There may be some disagreement with what counts as “qualifying,” so watch out.

It took some time to get my new surround system working properly with the HD DVD player. I wasn’t getting an audio signal occasionally, and I think the problem may have been related to the HDMI signals not synching properly. By the end of the night, everything was working well, and I was certainly enjoying the sound.


It has been my tradition over the past few years, I will be traveling to visit my family in California over Thanksgiving. As usual, I waited too long to purchase the airline tickets. I checked prices a few weeks ago, was discouraged by the high rates, and procrastinated even further. A few nights ago, I decided to take a look again, and surprisingly, my waiting paid off.

TurkeyMy search started with SideStep, a very configurable flight search engine. I made some adjustments to the dates and airports, and started to get a good idea of which combinations would save me money. I eventually decided on a round-trip flight with Continental Airlines, leaving the Saturday before and returning the Friday after Thanksgiving. Yes, it’s probably the worst date of the year for traveling, but I’m pretty sure I can handle it. Plus, I’ll have the remainder of the weekend to recover at home before returning to the day job.

I was hoping to pay for the trip using the miles I’ve accumulated over the past few years. Normally that would be possible with 25,000 miles, but unfortunately, the trips around the holiday are more expensive when it comes to using points. However, the price of the round trip flight is about $270 plus taxes and other fees. I believe this is the least expensive coast-to-coast flight I’ve ever purchased.

While my initial search took advantage of SideStep’s features, I always switch over to the airline’s site for buying the tickets. Usually, more options become apparent. For example, there are flights available on Continental’s website that are not available on partner sites like SideStep or Expedia. From what I can tell, the primary reason for this is overbooking. Both flights would not allow me to select my seating preference, which is an indication that the flights are already full and they’re counting on some customers changing their plans.

I was faced with a similar situation last time I visited California, earlier this year. For one direction, my girlfriend and I were able to select our seats online within a week of the flight, and for the return trip, we had to arrive early and hope that some other customer booked for the trip would not show up. A few minutes before liftoff, we were ushered onto the airplane. In that case, there was no option for us to catch a later flight, so it worked out. This time, if I get bumped to a later flight, I have the flexibility.

Image credit: jonwatson


I’m a regular reader of this blog, Get Rich Slowly, Five Cent Nickel, Cheap Healthy Good, and a number of other blogs which encourage me to live more frugally, to save my pennies for retirement.

Save, save, save, they say. And so I am.

Like a squirrel storing up nuts for an endless winter, every spare dime beyond my basic living expenses and occasional indulgences gets ferried into the hidey-hole that is my FNBO Direct account. Granted, there’s not a lot left over, since I’m only barely living below my means at present, but no matter – regardless of its size, I guard my hoard fiercely, watch over it daily, and, occasionally, like today, wonder what it’s all truly for.

Banking Deal: Earn 1.30% APY on an FDIC-insured savings account at Synchrony Bank.

Saving patterns are fabulous things to train oneself into, but what is this elusive retirement for which I’m saving? What does it really mean?

The very phrase “retirement” brings to mind a time-worn face looking over a horizon colored by a splendid sunset, over either waving fields of grain or hordes of beaming grandchildren. I’ve seen too many commercials, perhaps, and I like sunsets and all, but I have to tell you, none of it excites me. The very thing I’m working for seems like something I wouldn’t really want at all.

Now, don’t get me wrong – the whole not-working thing seems quite appealing. I’ve got plenty of “take this job and shove it” fantasies to go around, especially on Monday mornings.

I’d love to not have to work, but I don’t really see myself retiring at 40, trading in all my suits for Hawaiian shirts and yachting around the Florida Keys. Though I try, I don’t see myself accumulating a great deal of wealth, especially considering inflation. I believe I will find a way to save enough to sustain myself reasonably well, but not to live some fabulous fantasy life, not here on the East Coast, anyway.

So in reality, I can imagine having a very nice, peaceful week or two off before I become bored and irritable, and I’d probably either be back at work or starting my own venture within a month’s time.

Even after I’m old enough to qualify for the senior citizen rate at the movies, I can still imagine myself craving excitement and wanting to fill my days with new wonders, rather than reliving old memories from my rocking chair. It’s just who I am.

Knowing this, I start to realize that I need a different kind of retirement to save for, a goal that reflects what I’m about versus some one-size-fits-all fantasy. It’s more geared towards gaining new experiences than reflecting upon the past, and that means that, given the very expensive area in which I live, maybe it’s not in the United States at all.

As you know from past entries, I love to travel and feel that I’ve not seen nearly enough of what the world has to offer. When I came across International Living’s article, 10 Exotic, Affordable Retiree Havens, I was intrigued. What if my dream vacation was also my retirement destination? And if the cost of living was cheaper, all the better!

While some spots sound better than others to me, there’s lots to learn about these exotic retirement meccas. The article lists out comparative prices for everything from a bottle of wine to a doctor’s visit, utilities, and rent in all ten locales, but I’ll summarize some of the things I found interesting:

A man, a plan, a canal…a high standard of healthcare. This plus access to both raw, compelling nature and more refined musical and theatrical events makes Panama a standout. The travel column the article links to outlines an alluring range of options from city-slicking to jungle exploration:

Panama is full of possibilities. Panama is really three countries: glitzy, supermodern Panama City; the cool, inscrutable, slow-moving interior (including jungle and cloud forest); and the varied, surfable, fishable coasts–backpacker-land. Like so many places that are at the center of their geographical area, Panama is a dream factory.

There’s another great article I stumbled across from International Living as well: Panama is a Paradise for Retirees. It mentions a 50% discount program off of just about every cost I can fathom, plus extra perks like a 20-year exemption from property taxes and no taxes whatsoever on foreign earned income. There’s a wealth of information on cost of living as well:

Panama has one of the lowest costs of living in all Central and South America: A U.S.-style home can be built for about $40 per square foot; unskilled labor costs $6.40 per day; a full-time live-in maid costs $120 to $160 a month; a beer at a bar costs 35 cents; a cup of coffee, 30 cents; a haircut and shave can cost as little as $2; an afternoon at a beauty salon is $8; electricity is about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour; water bills are $18 per year; telephone service costs roughly $30 a month; Internet access is $14 a month; wireless is available for a bit more; cellular-telephone service costs about $30 a month plus a per-minute charge of around 22 cents; and cable TV will cost you about $30 a month.

I’ve always dreamt of going to visit jungles, but not necessarily residing there permanently. (You know, hungry jaguars and all.) But it sounds like there’s so much variation between regions that one could live comfortably while still enjoying the occasional expedition. That sounds like a downright thrilling retirement, not passive at all. And with monthly rent around $600 for Panama City, it sounds reasonable as well.

Say “near-perfect climate” in the heart of the Mediterranean and I’m there, but the 15% income-tax rate for foreign residents, lack of property taxes, low crime rate, excellent healthcare and prevalence of English seals the deal. $80 a month for a maid means I can spend my time out enjoying everything and come home to a spotless abode, too. $25 doctor visits sound pretty sweet as well, though I can hardly imagine getting sick somewhere so beautifully temperate.

Yes, it’s pretty fair to say that my ultimate retirement could look something like this:
malta makes it all sound very simple and free of hassles, as I feel retired life should be, and the island is simple to travel to and from as well:

Travelling around Malta, whether to the beach, shopping in the city or a night at the theatre is simple. Wherever you are it shouldn’t take you more than 20 minutes by car.

The Maltese Islands are easy to get to from most major European airports, with flight times of 3 hours from London or Amsterdam, and 2 ½ hours from Paris, Frankfurt and Cairo. Flights are very regular and transport from the airport is easy and straightforward.

New Zealand
Imagine retiring in the land where the Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed! While it can be difficult to qualify for permanent residency, this English-speaking country boasts a low cost of living and tons of gorgeous countryside to explore. No capital gains tax and an average rent of $900 per month is a good incentive to keep my passport current.

I always dreamt of honeymooning there, but I could really see living in New Zealand, enjoying the sort of outdoorsy lifestyle I wish I had the time to live here in the U.S., but with less overhead costs to worry about. One could even follow the example of the Maori and build a mud hut to save even further. That’s not my plan, however. has some interesting information too about superannuation after retirement, which sounds rather attractive:

By law, you can work to any age you want to in New Zealand.

If you live here continuously for at least ten years, five of them after the age of 50, you get state superannuation at the age of 65. This is currently worth $249 per week after tax if you’re single or $383 per week after tax for married couples.

It’s not a windfall, but depending on your circumstances, you might be able to receive these monies in addition to your pension from a former U.S. employer. It could be a nice bonus, enough to bring your standard of living in retirement up a level.

This isn’t a bad view either, at any price:

New Zealand

Uruguay “feels like Europe but with Third World prices,” according to the article. Potable water is a must, but the stunning beaches are a definite plus. $35 doctor visits make it livable, but $5 movie tickets make it enjoyable when you’re not out in the great outdoors. has a nice piece on the pros and cons of retiring in Uruguay, and lists some of the following perks:

* Permanent residency is relatively easy to get, and new residents can import their household goods tax-free

* The cost of living is half what you’ll find in North America or Europe

* Healthcare is inexpensive and high-quality

All in all, there are some attractive elements to Uruguay as a retirement spot, however the cons mentioned in the article, including crime rates and lack of accessibility for the handicapped are definite concerns. [click to continue…]


Consumer Reports surveyed customers in an effort to find the best credit card companies when it comes to incidences of interest rate problems, incidences of bill-timing problems, and effectiveness of problem resolution. If you’ve paid for a subscription to Consumer Reports, you can view the results here.

At the very top of the list is USAA Federal Savings with a score of 95 out of 100. The first major credit card issuer on the list, American Express, scored an 84, and was followed closely by Discover.

Other notable scores include Citibank with 75, HSBC with 73, and Capital One with 71.

The only card I’ve ever had trouble with was a Best Buy card, which was actually operated by Household Retail Banking Services (aka. Household Bank, aka. HSBC). I had purchased a notebook computer many years ago with a 0% for 12 months offer to allow me to do some web work alongside by non-profit day job. I didn’t receive statements, and some of my payments were sent in late. I argued the point with customer service and was able to reverse the company’s decision to charge me back interest.

Many years later, I had some problems playing with 0% APR arbitrage using Discover and MBNA and didn’t attempt such schemes since. MBNA scored a 72 on Consumer Reports’ survey, just above Capital One.


Always Be Prepared: 5 Tips for Unexpected Job Loss

by Luke Landes

Whether you’re Joe Torre or Joe Cubicle, your at-will (more aptly, fire-at-will) contract may come to an end unexpectedly. If you’re smart, you may have seen the writing on the wall and given yourself time to prepare. Life isn’t always that obvious, so you should be thinking ahead and protecting yourself. Here are some tips […]

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Weekly Blog Roundup II: Middle Class, Investing in Yourself, and Jai Rodriguez

by Luke Landes

In case you missed them, I’ve picked out a few excellent articles from the MoneyBlogNetwork that were published last week, as well as a few from other blogs. I’ve now split my weekly roundup into two posts, spaced within a few days of each other, because there are many articles I’d like to highlight. Please […]

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Weekly Blog Roundup I, New Bank Account Edition

by Luke Landes

Here are some articles I’ve enjoyed from the MoneyBlogNetwork and beyond in the past week. I’m splitting my round-ups into two weekly posts, separated by a few days, as the network has grown and I’d like to highlight more posts without presenting an overwhelming post that begins to look more like the Carnival of Personal […]

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The Distraction-Free Workplace is the Path to an Unfulfilled Life

by Luke Landes

Anyone who knows me, or anyone who feels they know me after following Consumerism Commentary since 2003 or my personal blog since some time in the previous century, will know that I always turn a critical eye towards the so-called benefits of the “productivity” movement. Techniques like those popularized by Getting Things Done and thousands […]

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Opportunity to Buy A Dream Car For a Great Price

by Luke Landes

I get great satisfaction from reading personal finance stories from personal finance columnists. One columnist I usually like is Terri Cullen, who writes the Fiscally Fit column at the Wall Street Journal. Recently, her husband was offered a chance to buy his dream car, a like-new Chevrolet Corvette, for a too-good-to-be-true-but-is price. Gerry and I […]

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Don’t Tell Teens Too Much About Credit Cards

by Luke Landes

I wrote earlier about the JumpStart Coalition‘s highlight of the Citi Curriculum for children in kindergarten through young adults. I thought this curriculum had excellent suggestions for teaching students of a variety of ages about basic tenets of money management. Janet Bodnar, an author and seminar leader, thinks these lessons have too many details. I […]

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