Personal Finance 
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My Best Financial Moves in College

When Patrick at Cash Money Life tagged me for this meme, he said that I probably had a couple little “hustles” going on the side when I was in college. I have no idea how he knew, though I had hinted about them in the past (selling stuff on ebay, online poker and blackjack), I don’t think I ever really wrote them all out in their full glory. I had some pretty lucrative things going, in college student terms, and it certainly easily sustained my lifestyle. However, the number one best financial move in college made the rest pale in comparison.

The number one best financial move I did in college was to graduate a semester early. That one move alone saved the cost of one semester’s tuition at Carnegie Mellon University, located in Pittsburgh, PA; which amounted to somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000 plus room, board, food, whatever. I was able to do that because I always loaded myself up with classes, with AP classes in high school and then regular classes in college, and always pushed myself to the limit for those three and a half years. I don’t think all my little side projects, in total, earned close to that.

Of course, that financial move isn’t at all interesting and is borderline boasting (“oh look how smart Jim is!” we won’t go into what my grades were, shhhh!), so let me tell you about the most interesting of the side jobs I had:

Selling on eBay: eBay had started to get big and the whole “Buy Hot Deals from Fatwallet and resell on eBay” was still in its nascent stages. Whenever I see someone trying to make money, I try to figure out how that person is making money and then try to do it and then improve on it. So I saw these great deals on eBay for brand new products and so I investigated where they must be getting these great deals. Some were getting them wholesale (I didn’t want to get a tax ID and go through that process so I skipped it) but some were just buying stuff that was cheaper after rebate and then selling it on eBay. I did that a couple times before I realized the effort wasn’t worth it.

Eventually, I realized that what you needed to do was find products on sale where the eventual buyer wouldn’t be searching the Fatwallet forums or other deal sites. Computer and electronics shoppers are savvy enough to search the forums for a deal so eBay margins on those items is much lower. If you want DVDs, hats, and sports jerseys… those shoppers go to eBay first. Over the course of a year or so I sold maybe a eighty Michael Jordan Wizards jerseys, fifty John Deere hats (this was after Ashton Kutcher made them popular on Punk’d), and who knows how many DVD sets (my fiancee likes telling the story about how we ripped open a package from Canada of Band of Brother Gift Sets and then shoving them into packages for the post office because I was late on shipping them).

Eventually it got to the point where I was tired of looking at the eBay completed sale pages to try to figure out how much something could sell for and I put that Carnegie Mellon Computer Science education to good use. It took a few hours but I put together a Java application that went onto the eBay website and screen scraped the text off the completed auction pages. It collected the last two hundred auctions and then ran some simple statistic numbers. It told me percentage sold, average sale price, standard deviation, range, and who knows what else. I just wanted to know, in a few seconds, whether I could make money with a deal. It eventually started collecting the names of bidders, repeat bidders, losing bidders, and other information that would tell me how many people out there still want this stuff. So if someone was a losing bidder many times, I know at least one person is going to probably want this.

I actually sold the tool, after converting it from a Java app with a GUI to strictly command line, to a PhD candidate friend of a friend for $500, the first, and only, time I had sold a piece of software for money. It was pretty cool! Now eBay’s systems make the tool useless as they now require login, sanitize much of the bidder information, and otherwise make data collection difficult for people who don’t use their API. It was still a ton of fun though and I learned quite a bit from doing it.

So there you have it, both the smartest and the most interesting financial move I made in college. The smartest overall move, of course, was meeting my lovely wife! :)


 Personal Finance 
2
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Craziest Foods Sold On eBay

When I heard that two enterprising sisters were had sold a cornflake shaped like the state of Illinois, I was curious about some of the other crazy foods people have sold. The first that popped into my mind was the infamous piece of toast with the face of the Virgin Mary, purchased by Canadian-run, Antigua-based GoldenPalace.com Casino in 2004, but there are many many others (GoldenPalace has bought a ton of them). The requirements in order to make the list are only that it’s an “original,” so not a spinoff of an existing idea unless a significant amount of time has passed, and it had to have sold for a relatively significant amount. What’s significant when a cornflake costs a fraction of a cent? Well in that case, $1,350 is.

So, if you’re looking for some ideas as to how to make a few extra bucks, hopefully this list will provide some inspiration! And a word of advice, eBay forbids the selling of food (probably for good reason) but you can get around that by selling a coupon for food or billing it as something else other than “food.” (calling it ‘not for consumption’ or an ‘artifact’ or whatever)

Virgin Mary Toast: $28k

Probably the most publicized eBay auction for a piece of food was this little gem sold by Diane Duyser of Florida in 2004 for $28,000 to GoldenPalace.com. Duyser claimed she made the sandwich in 1994, saw what appeared to be the face of the Virgin Mary, and then kept it around in a plastic case! Not surprisingly, she then said it gave her good luck, including winning $70,000 at a casino in Florida (are there casinos in Florida?). Burn some toast until you get a famous face, then call up GoldenPalace.com because buying crazy stuff on eBay has become one of their primary advertising and marketing strategies. [BBC]

k-Fed Egg-Salad Sandwich & Corn Dog: $520

GoldenPalace has bought a lot of other ridiculous food and this time it was a vacuum-sealed half-eaten egg-salad sandwich and corn dog dinner. [PRNewswire]

Jesus Shaped Fish Sticks: $79

Victoria Landis of Elyria, Ohio, sold fish sticks fused together “in a way that made three mini crosses, and the way they fell on the pan it looked just like the hill where Jesus was crucified.” She managed to get score $79, which included next-day shipping in dry ice, for her discovery. Unfortunately no picture exists and not much more information is available on the sale. [UPI, Clevescene]

Illinois-shaped Cornflake

The most recent entry into the group comes from Melissa and Emily McIntire of Virginia. They sold a cornflake shaped like Illinois to Monty Kerr of Texas for $1,350 in March 2008. Money Kerr runs TriviaMania.com and wanted to add it to a traveling museum… or just trying to get some affordable advertising by way of crazy eBay auctions! This isn’t the first time Kerr tried to buy a cornflake, he bought “world’s largest” in the past but it broke! So he was left with three pretty big cornflakes, poor guy. [CNN]


 Shopping 
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My Microsoft Points Buying Strategy

I’ve owned an XBox 360 for nearly a year and I’ve never once purchased anything in the XBox Live Marketplace because there was never anything I really wanted – until I bought Rock Band. With the music games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, the producers are releasing new songs via the XBox Live Marketplace and, if my memory serves me right, Rock Band songs cost 160 Microsoft Points a piece (they also bundle them in packs of 3 for 440 MS Points).

The math on how much a Microsoft Point is worth in the retail market works out to be 1.25 cents per point in the US, with prices slightly higher abroad (not on purpose there, it’s just exchange rates). You can get them slightly cheaper elsewhere and so you never want to pay retail price for points. There is always a cheaper alternative, unless you absolutely have to have points right now.

My goal is to pay, at most, a penny per point, and often times you can get them for even less if you’re willing to look.

Amazon.com

Amazon sells two point valued cards, a 1600 and a 4000 point card. The 1600 Microsoft Points Card is currently going for $18.99, making it 1.1869 cents/point, and the 4000 Microsoft Points Card is going for $47.99, making it 1.1998 cents/point. Yes, right now the 1600 point card is better than the 4000 point card (go figure). However, with a penny per point being our benchmark, Amazon.com doesn’t cut it in this case. Also, Amazon.com has to mail you the card so there’s a shipping delay between when you buy and when you can use the points. The card itself is meaningless, all you need is the code on the back… therein lies options #2.

eBay

I love eBay for these types of commodity goods and eBay has a ton of listings of Microsoft Points. You have your typical 1600 pointers for $17.99, 1.124 cents/point, and the 4000 price varies in the high $40 range, which puts it in line with Amazon.com prices. However, if you’re willing to do a little extra work, look for the 200 point cards that come bundled with some random game. Specifically, look the for the 200 pointer bundled with Robotron 2084 and you’ll see a whole bunch of them for 99 cents – that’s a whopping half cent per point (plus Robotron 2084). The downside is that you have to enter all those codes, not a big deal if you have a keyboard but infuriating if you’re typing them in by hand (plus the downside of buying from a stranger on eBay, so do your due diligence). The upside is that the seller will often email you the code and you can get it immediately.

Stores (with Coupons)

Lastly, your final option is to go to a store like Best Buy, Circuit City, etc. armed with a coupon that lets you take dollars off your purchase. If you happen to be buying something else, throwing on some Microsoft Points at retail value so you are eligible to use a coupon might be a good idea. Short of that, going to a retail store without a coupon is the absolute worst thing you can do because you pay for gas, pay for tax, and you pay full price. Yuck.

There you have it, my brief guide on where to get the best prices on points. I’m not a seasoned point buyer so if anyone else has some good tips, please let me know so I can feed my Rock Band addiction on the cheap! Thanks!


 Personal Finance 
10
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Giving Subscriptions as Gifts

For some odd reason, my brain is programmed to think that when you’re giving a gift, you’re usually giving something finite. Whether it’s straight cash (think Chinese New Year red envelopes), a stupid gift card, or some sort of product or service, I generally think of a gift as something that happens “once” and then never again. When I rack my brain for gift ideas, I often think of these finite type things when you can give something that lasts a whole lot longer – a subscription. Whether it’s a magazine subscription (the more common one) or a service subscription (membership to some organization they really love), giving a gift that actually keeps on giving is something that I only recently though of and it’s a phenomenal idea.

I’ll use magazines as the example run with it…

Magazine subscriptions are dirt cheap. You can find basically any magazine off eBay for a fraction of what they cost directly and for a microscopic fraction of the newsstand price. Most of the eBay sellers are reputable but if you don’t trust them, you can always turn to reliable powerhouse Amazon.com or some of the other smaller magazine shops online like NetMagazines or Magazines.com.

Magazines come every month and every month your recipient gets reminded how you got them such an awesome gift. Sure, if you got a product as a gift you get reminded every time you use it (I remember getting a knife two years ago, I still use that knife today – thanks Mattybo!), but a subscription is recurring, regular, and lasts for at least a year.

Dollar for dollar, a magazine provides the most time per dollar… if you pick the right subscription. When I read a magazine, it usually takes a few days before I actually make it all the way through. In fact, some magazines will take weeks as I will often set it down, forget about it, and then pick it up later. Magazines are nice because the articles are so bite-sized, unlike an entire book, so you can really enjoy it in manageable chunks… for a long long time.

So, next time you’re thinking about getting a gift, consider a subscription!


 Shopping 
3
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Don’t Think It’s A Scam? Request A Fifth Opinion

The human brain is notoriously good at sniffing out fraud, but every so often something comes along that, for whatever the reason, sneaks by our fraud detector and makes us do something we will later regret. That’s why you should do what NASA scientists to… build in redundancy for your fraud detector by getting another fraud detector: your friends. If something sounds too good to be true and you haven’t smelled fraud, get your friend to take a whiff and let you know what he or she thinks. If they think it’s okay, get a third, fourth, or even fifth opinion. If you have an especially cynical friend or one who is a domain expert (or more of an expert than you), make sure you get his or her opinion as one of the first five. If everyone says thumbs up, then go for it!

Let me give you a real life example of this situation. Back in college one of my friends was dreaming up schemes to make millions of dollars and fell upon a scheme where you could buy twelve XBoxes gaming systems off a seller on eBay and then flip them on the local school message boards for a handsome profit. He had convinced two of our friends to go in on the deal and was searching for a fourth when he asked me. I listened to his plan and everything sounded fine until he told me that the source of his XBoxes gaming systems off eBay and that he was getting a great deal. Immediately my fraud detector went off. It’s not suspicious to find a great deal on eBay, it’s suspicious to find a great deal on twelve $200 gaming systems. I told him that the auction sounded fraudulent and that I didn’t want to become involved financially but I’d do what I could to give them advice on how to protect themselves in case there was a problem. Well, eventually the whole scheme broke down as the three of them came to their senses but I was the fourth opinion (counting his own as one) and the first that sounded off the fraud alarm. Had the deal gone through with only three people (say, if the auction was for six XBoxes instead of twelve), it would’ve gone through and perhaps someone would’ve been defrauded (or not, there are plenty of legitimate bulk auctions on eBay).

There’s a reason why Ponzi schemes and the Nigerian scams are still alive and well today, they work well enough that the folks running them still turn a profit. Ponzi schemes are now called HYIP or High Yield Investment Plans (oh, 23049823094% return in one day? Sure!) and Nigerians are still getting people to cash fake million dollar checks and sending back legitimate ten thousand dollar checks. So, the next time you think something is way too good to be true, request all the way to a fifth opinion. If it ends up being a scam, you can at least rest with the psychological benefit of knowing four of your friends would’ve been duped too. :)

(Incidentally, some folks are turning the tables on the scammers in a hilarious way)


 Shopping 
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Use eBay for Pricing Information

About to start comparison shopping for a new digital camera? How about a new memory card for an old digital camera? Well, whatever you’re looking for, the best way to find the average price something is going for is to check the completed sales lists on eBay. eBay is a better gauge of prices than comparison shopping engines like PriceGrabber because you can typically find better prices on eBay for the exact same products because those sellers have less overhead and are typically extreme bargain hunters, able to get low prices though creative use of coupons and promotions. Remember though, only look at the Completed Listings (and filter out on price to filter out accessories) and be sure to account for any accessories the seller is throwing in.

Let’s take an example, if you look at the completed listings for the CASIO EXILIM EX-Z70 that have an end price over $50 (to cut out accessories), you’ll see that the CASIO EXILIM EX-Z70 plus a 1GB memory card will cost you around $200 (including shipping); no memory card and the price drops about $10-$20 less. If you try PriceGrabber, the CASIO EXILIM EX-Z70 isn’t even listed! If you check Amazon, the CASIO EXILIM EX-Z70 goes for about $250… so, the moral is that eBay is a good price benchmark if you want some quick and dirty information.


 Education 
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Buying College Textbooks Online

Biology TextbookOne of the biggest scams in education, besides shelling out thirty grand a year for a private university (just kidding Mom and Dad!), is the college bookstore. They sell textbooks at full price and then, at the end of the year, offer to buy back that textbook at a fraction of the price. Buy a copy of Machine Learning, new, for $153.44 and then they’ll offer to buy it back for around $20 at the end of the semester! It’s a racket!

What you should do instead is buy a used copy of Machine Learning for a 79.99 and tell the university bookstore to go screw themselves and their monstrous profit margins.

(Click to continue reading…)


 Personal Finance, Shopping 
5
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eBay Seller Auction Terms & Conditions Template

I used to sell stuff on eBay (from Wash. Wizards Jordan jerseys to Anime DVDs) and had my process down to a pretty good science so that wasted activity was put to the absolute minimum. One of the key things I did was to use a standardized auction template that included all my shipping information and payment information so that prospective buyers wouldn’t ask me any needless questions. The key to a good boilerplate terms & conditions is that it’s description but not so large and cumbersome that buyers gloss over it. After the jump you’ll see my template (and it’s associated code).

First off, ignore the colors, they look much better in eBay. :)

(Click to continue reading…)


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