Reviews 
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Sharebuilder Review

ShareBuilder - Welcome page Sharebuilder built its reputation buy having low commissions ($4 a trade) and completely buy-in into the dollar cost averaging mantra. Much like how you have regular retirement account contributions, Sharebuilder helps you cheaply buy into positions with individual companies (back then, ETFs didn’t exist) on a regular monthly schedule. They made a good name for themselves doing this in an era when trades cost at least twice that.

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 The Home 
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2009 Federal Energy Tax Credits

Energy Star LogoWhile many parts of of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (or what some call the $700 billion bailout) probably upset you, one aspect that did make me smile was the reintroduction of energy tax credits. (You thought I was going to point out the extension to the provision that allowed racetracks to depreciate their tracks over 7 years rather than 15, huh?) The federal energy tax credit for energy efficiency was a benefit I took advantage of two years ago whenever we replaced our aging windows and sliding doors. While it’s great that the credits have returned, one unfortunate aspect is that the $500 credit limit will apply to 2006, 2007, and 2009. We won’t be able to take advantage again.

With home improvements, you have to place the home improvement in service after January 1st, 2009 and on or before December 31st, 2009. If you do anything between now and December 31st, 2008, you’ll be out of luck. I would review the Energy Star chart for the specifics of each improvement, how much you can get from the credit, before making any decisions but I’ll highlight the major ones.

The biggest bang for your buck is in the form of replacement windows and, to a certain extent, doors. For windows and skylights, you can get a credit for 10% of the cost, up to $200, for Energy Star qualified or IECC meeting windows. Labor is not included. For exterior doors, if they meet IECC standards, you can get a credit for 10% of the cost, up to $500.

Insulation is another good way to reduce energy costs without costing you a lot of money and they come with a 10% credit, up to $500. The only requirement is that they must be expected to last 5 years or have a 2 year warranty. One great place to check your insulation levels is in the attic, it’s important to have at least 12 inches of insulation. If you can see your joists, you need more insulation.

Finally, there are a few home improvements that are afforded energy credits. Compliant HVAC systems and water heaters can get a $300 credit. If you happen to live in an area with plenty of sun, solar systems can get 30% off, up to $2000 (there is no $2000 cap if is it’s a Photovoltaic system!), and are not subject to the $500 credit cap. While the credits probably aren’t enough to get you to install it, they are nice if you’ve already made the decision.


 Government 
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How to Request Presidential Inauguration Tickets

US Capitol BuildingIf you’ve been thinking about going to the inaugural ceremony of the 44th President of the United States, wait in line. A week or two ago, scalpers were trying to sell tickets to the inauguration on sites like StubHub and eBay for thousands of dollars. No one told the prospective buyers that tickets hadn’t even been issued yet! In fact, no one has tickets to sell in the first place because they won’t be issued until early January. There are only 240,000 tickets for the West Front of the Capitol, where the inauguration takes place, but most of those seats don’t have much of a view either. 240,000 tickets – not many at all.

How do you get an inauguration ticket? The best thing you can do is submit a request through your state’s Senators and Representatives (each are supposedly getting 200-500 a piece), though that likely will not result in much as they’ve all been inundated with requests. Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, one of the Senators I requested tickets from, recently emailed me to say that they received 55,000 requests already and they are estimated to get only 400 tickets (some of which they will likely keep for themselves). All the names will be put into a drawing and winners notified in January.

While people recommend you locate the Senator and Representative representing your district, it probably doesn’t hurt to just ask them all. I don’t think it’d be worth it to ask those outside your home state though.

Expanding the area: The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, the committee overseeing the inaugural, is looking into expanding the number of people allowed in the official inaugural zone (that 240k area). We’ll see how that goes.

If all else fails, you can always go to the National Mall and try to catch the inauguration on a huge Jumbotron. You won’t need tickets to go to the National Mall but you will have to fight with huge crowds just to get there. Most will be traveling by mass transit, probably the Metro train system, so good luck. If you aren’t a fan of crowds (just to see it on a Jumbotron, no less), you can always just flip on the TV.

However you ultimately choose to view the inaugural, it’ll be historic all the same.

(Photo: martinstelbrink)


 Reviews 
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Quicken 2009: The Missing Manual by Bonnie Biafore

Quicken 2009: The Missing ManualQuicken 2009: The Missing Manual by Bonnie Biafore is part of the O’Reilly Missing Manual series and focuses on the popular personal finance application – Quicken 2009.

I’m not a Quicken junkie by any means but I have no idea how people were able to figure things out about Quicken before a book like this. Quicken has grown to be a very complicated and powerful personal finance tool if you know how to use it. Personal finance, in some respects, is complicated and so it’s understandable that a tool used to track your own finances would need to be equally complicated in order to be useful. What’s amazing about this missing manual is that it explains how to complete complex tasks with ease. It really lives up to its billing as a missing manual.

The book utilizes a lot of screenshots in its instructions (unfortunately, they are in black and white) on how to complete things so it’ll be difficult for me to pull out an examples to show you. I’m certain that if you were to visit your local bookstore, you’d probably find it there and can flip through it yourself.

As a testament to both Quicken and Bonnie, this book is remarkably specific in what it explains. Just looking at the Investment chapter, which is about 70 pages of the 550 pages, there are instructions on how to record stock splits, dividend reinvestments, mergers, acquisitions, stock options, etc. All those complicated situations that probably happen once or twice a year (perhaps not dividend reinvestments) that I would normally just figure out a hack for are explained very clearly in the book.

I think that if you want to get the most out of Quicken and don’t want to resort to little hacks, you’ll want to have this book by your side. I’m not a Quicken power user so I can’t really speak to the full utility of the book but I’ve always found O’Reilly books to be extremely valuable in almost any technical realm.

If you haven’t updated your copy of Quicken lately, don’t order it without checking out these Quicken 2009 coupons.


 Banking 
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Kiplinger’s Best Online Savings Account: FNBO Direct

FNBO DirectKiplinger’s put out their annual 2008 Best List and the best online savings account for 2008 is FNBO Direct. FNBO Direct is the online savings account arm of First National Bank of Omaha (FDIC Certificate #5452), a bank that’s been in business since 1857 (it’s only been “insured” since 1934 because that’s when the FDIC was created). It’s a bank that has weathered its fair share of financial and political storms in those 150+ years of existence and has nary a scratch.

The reasons why Kiplinger named them the best online savings account are the same reasons why I like them – a high interest rate (now 3.25% APY), a simple signup process (it took a few minutes), and a ton of helpful banking features including linking to up to three banks via ACH and online bill payment (with ATM access). The only minus I can think of is the plain and basic interface, but that’s hardly worth mentioning because I don’t need a lot of flash… I’ll take a higher interest rate.

Another bank that has a higher interest rate and similar online flexibility is E*Trade Bank. They offer a 3.30% APY that beats FNBO Direct by 0.05%, have an extremely versatile online system that lets you link up multiple banks, and has the added benefit of instant access to a brokerage account should you want it. The only downside that I see with E*Trade at the moment is that their future is uncertain. The stock price has sunk below a dollar given recent news that they require funds from the TARP in order to stay afloat. Your funds are always protected by FDIC insurance but the spectre of insolvency certainly gives one pause.

Undoubtably, the fact that FNBO Direct has not been in the news probably played a role in their being named the best online savings account. There is such a thing as bad press… especially if it’s about your potential demise!


 Personal Finance 
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Roundup: FICO vs. FICA, Slicing Up GM

Cap tackles a topic that I think people often get confused – the difference between FICO and FICA. In reality, I don’t think people confuse the two… they confuse FICA for FICO (as Cap explains), experts included. They are as confused as that monkey!

Matt at Steadfast Finances writes a post that I think will probably get him killed in Detroit – Should GM get chopped off like a gangrenous limb? I’m torn about it, on one hand I think we should let free markets run free and companies to fall based on their poor decisions. The financial bailout was palatable for me because their failure would impact regular Americans outside of the financial industry. The Big Three auto companies have known for years that their cars are unpopular and they should’ve been making more fuel efficient vehicles – they ignored the signs. The Prius has been out for many many years, you can’t tell me Ford didn’t have enough time.

Lazy Man asks readers how you should evaluate a gym membership. I like how his first pro was “forced workouts,” I know a lot of people with gym memberships who don’t feel that pro (ever!).

Finally, Consumerist linked to a story about how the government shut down the Liberty dollar (original story at Triple Canopy). The idea of Liberty Dollars is pretty clever though… but I suspect they’re difficult to tax. :)


 Your Take 
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You Take: Why Do People Like Gift Cards?

Gift CardsI think gift cards are stupid. But, rather than rehash why I dislike them (here’s a quick recap: you are forced to use them at a store, companies screw you with fees and expirations, easy to misplace or lose, and aren’t that much more “thoughtful” than cash), I’m curious to hear the pro-gift card folks out there on why they like them?

For the pro-gift carders, do you like giving them or receiving them? I can understand why people would like giving them – it shows you know the person a little bit, at least you know where they like to shop, but doesn’t force them into a particular item.

On the flip side, I cannot understand why someone would rather receive a gift card from store XYZ instead of cash. You can use cash to buy whatever you want wherever you want. You can use cash to pay off debts, you can use cash to light your cigars… you can’t do any of that with gift cards. If you’re pro-gift cards… please share with me your perspective.

After saying all that, we buy gift cards because that’s become the accepted norm. For wedding gifts, if we can’t find anything on the list because all the good stuff has been bought or because we were simply too slow, we get a gift card from the store where the registry is held. If it were up to me, I’d do the Chinese custom of giving money in a lucky red envelope.

(Photo: smcgee)


 Credit 
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Notifying Credit Cards of International Travel

My wife and I will be going to England to visit good friends of ours and so after researching the best international credit card, we settled on a Capital One card.

Now came the somewhat mind-numbing task of notifying our cards of international travel so that we wouldn’t get declined. The process for each was pretty straight forward but I’ve listed instructions for all the cards I called up. I imagine they all do pretty much the same thing but it’s always good to get concrete information.

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