Personal Finance 

Your Take: Your Cleverest Money Hacks

Throughout the years, I’ve seen some clever “money hacks” as a result of just keeping myself aware of the latest trends and tricks in personal finance. I’ve also had the great pleasure of reading all of your comments through the years and I know you guys are a very clever bunch, so I was curious what money hacks you use to get a little extra. You don’t have to be the inventor of the hack or anything like that, but we would love it if you could share it with the rest of us!

I’ll go first. My favorite money hack has to be buying coins from the US mint. I haven’t actually done this but I think this has to be one of the best money hacks out there. You can use this to get some easy cash back, to break through cash back tiers, or to just help the Mint popularize these $1 coins.

Here are a few more:

So what’s your cleverest or favorite money hack?


Buy Costco Gas without Costco Membership

Costco Gas StationsCostco has since closed this loophole so you’ll need a Costco Membership to get gas there.

A friend of mine just tipped me off on this trick where you can buy gas at Costco without a Costco membership. All you have to do is swipe an American Express card first, when you would normally swipe your membership card, and then swipe it again for payment. Afterwards, it will let you buy the sweet sweet nectar of condensed dinosaur bones at rock bottom prices without the $50/year membership. It’s that simple.

Normally, you have to swipe your Costco Card or the American Express Costco TrueEarnings card in order to authenticate in their gas station systems. It appears that you can simply use any American Express card in the authentication phase because the American Express Costco TrueEarnings card is just an AMEX with a Costco bar code.

I’ve confirmed that this works in Maryland and others have reported success in other states (except those that require an attendant to pump your gas, like New Jersey and Oregon). Locate a Costco nearby (check to make sure it has a Gas Station) and give it a try, Costco gas is usually many cents cheaper than local competitors.

(Photo by shindohd)

 Personal Finance 

Curb Spending By Writing Goals on Credit Cards

Some of my friends put a rubber band around their wrist if they’re supposed to remember something, like getting milk on the way home. Some of my friends send themselves email or schedule events in Outlook. Some of my friends draw treasure maps and hide them behind paintings in their attics (okay no they don’t, that was from Goonies). The point is, we all have little hacks we use to remind us about things we are supposed or not supposed to do in the future.

Here’s a hack: Write on your credit cards. If you’re saving for a new television, write “New Television” on your credit cards. If you’re saving for your kid’s 529 plan, write “College Education” on the front of your credit cards. If you are $10,000 in credit card debt and devoted to busting that monkey on your back, write down $10,000 on the front of your credit cards. This simple act alone has the potential to change your behavior for the better and, if nothing else, help you achieve your cash flow-related goals much sooner.

It’s a reminder. Every time you go to pull out that credit card to buy something, you are reminded about your goals. You are reminded you are saving towards a television, your child’s education, or cutting down that monster of a debt to Uncle Citi (or Uncle Discover, or Uncle American Express…). Do you really need what you’re about the buy? Do you really need it more than the television/education/debt? You may decide you do need it more, but at least you’ll have made a conscious decision.

Other people will see it (but not truly know!). When I recommend that you write $10,000 on your card because you owe that much, I don’t mean to embarrass you in front of others. That $10,000 could mean anything, however it will mean $10,000 in credit card a debt to you and that’s all it needs to mean. You merely need to remember how long and hard you’ll have to work to pay off that debt and decide whether that purchase is worth it.

It’s also a conversation starter that might net you some positive benefits. For example, did you know that the cashiers at Bed Bath & Beyond have a little binder of bar codes for competitor coupons? If you mention that you’re saving towards your kid’s education or paying off debt (or ask nicely, which my wife did once), maybe you get a discount on your purchase. (for those curious about the binder, cashiers scan a particular code to indicate a customer brought in a competitor’s 10% or 20% off coupon or something, I believe it’s a matter of convenience and tracking since they can’t actually scan the other store’s coupon)

Indicates its importance to you. By virtue of it appearing, in Sharpie, on your credit cards, you’re essentially declaring that to be the single most important cash flow-related financial goal that you have. It also forces you to think about what you will write down and in what order. Is the television more important than the $10,000 debt? If so, why? If not, why not? Is saving for a Roth IRA important enough to put down on your credit card? Why or why not? These are all questions you are forced to ask if you’re willing to take this simple step of writing down your goals on the one thing you are likely to see each day.


Avoid Comcast’s Internet Installation Activation Fee

Last November, the promotional rate on my Comcast Internet and digital cable service expired and jumped from a somewhat reasonable $70/mo rate to an ridiculously unreasonable $140/mo rate. We tried to do the Comcast cancel dance to no avail as the CSR said “I can’t do anything” and we said “I want to cancel” and the bozos at Comcast actually let us cancel. Almost the same day, Verizon started putting in signs around the neighborhood advertising their new FiOS service, fiber optic right to the house, and we were intruiged. Talking to the Verizon folks at their booth, it appeared that their rates would equal the promotional rates of Comcast so we decided we’d live without Internet for a couple weeks until they got the whole thing setup. Well, as expected, Verizon still hasn’t setup FiOS is our area so I’ve decided to sign back up with Comcast for their promotional rate.

So, how do you avoid that ridiculous $50 activation fee? Well, the activation fee is so that you have the pleasure of waiting at your home during a four hour window, where they will invariably show up an hour after the end of the window, just so the guy (or gal) can do one of two things:

  • If you live in an apartment, he will unscrew your coaxial cable panel from the wall, and connect the cable on the inside with the jack, or,
  • He will find the box outside, open it up (it’s hardly ever locked), and connect it.

So, to avoid the $50 charge, just connect it yourself and ask for the self-install kit (please do not steal cable and do not trespass on their property, I’m not advocating or condoning the theft of services that you aren’t paying for). If you have a cable modem, simply hook it up and try to open any website. A Comcast site will appear where you can download their installation CD software and you can do the installation yourself. If you don’t have a cable modem, wait for the modem to show up before you do all of this. If you’re patient, you can avoid the $50 fee but you can’t avoid a phone call, and the 30 minute wait because somehow they are always busy and they never hire more CSRs, to Comcast to activate your service.

The benefit is two-fold – not only do you avoid the $50 fee, you get internet the day you start paying… not two weeks later when their technicians are able to pencil you in for a four hour window they stand no chance of making anyway.


Your Tax Return as a Subtle Financial Planner

I forget what show I was watching, but it was one of those shows where you have all that Bloomberg ticker crap taking up 75% of the screen and little faces jibber jabbering in the leftover space, but the guy talked briefly about how your IRS 1040 (the full incarnation of the form everyone fills out for taxes) gives you subtle reminders of the things you should do to help plan your financial future. I didn’t watch the whole thing but I thought it’d be fun to go through each relevant line (yeah, I’m a sadist) and see how it could be used as a subtle yearly financial plan reminder.

Line 8a – Taxable Interest
Line 8b – Tax-exempt Interest
There are investment vehicles out there that are tax exempt at certain government levels. For example, an EE/E bond is exempt from State and local income taxes but not from federal taxes. This is a reminder that sometimes your most conservative assets may be better placed in a tax-exempt bond than in a savings account bearing 3.0%. Of course, you sacrifice flexibility but you should know tax-exempt investments are out there but you do keep Uncle Sam’s grubby little paws off your loot.

Line 13 – Capital gain or (loss)
This is something you can only capitalize on if you remember it before December 31st. If you have a loss and want to write it off, sell it to offset a gain you may have had. Just remember not to repurchase shares in the same company within 31 days or the “wash” rule will bite you (and you won’t be able to write off the loss). Did you buy shares of JDS Uniphase and got burned badly in the bubble? Yeah, me too, write it off now because they’re never going to break even for you.

Line 15a – IRA distributions
Line 25 – IRA deduction
Contribute to a Roth or any other type of IRA? These lines are a reminder that perhaps you should be planning for your retirement because Social Security won’t be enough to sustain a lavish retirement lifestyle! 🙂 Retirement planning, especially for young workers, is critical because it is something that benefits with the passage of time. The more you sow now, the greater the benefits you will reap in the future. You want to be living in luxury when you’re retired, not a cardboard box. (You cannot deduct Roth contributions on your return, I just intended for that line to serve as a reminder to plan for retirement)

Line 33 – Penalty on early withdrawal of savings
Tsk tsk! That IRA or 401k isn’t a slush fund you can withdraw on to buy that shiny [whatever]. Let line 33 be a reminder that you will be penalized for mortgaging a portion of your retirement for gratification now. Alright, I’m just kidding about the severity but you should be readily dipping into your retirement for every thing. Sometimes it makes financial sense, but most (90%) of the time it’s a bad idea. (Example of good ideas? In times of hardship, dipping into the retirement savings may be unavoidable)

Line 49 – Education credits
The government will help you educate yourself, even if your employer will not. Learn about Hope Credit and Lifetime Learning Credits and see how you or your dependents may benefit from them.

Unless I’ve missed anything glaring, those 5 “lines” cover a lot of the basic financial planning advice given out these days. Consider all investment opportunities with respect to the tax advantages, plan for your future, don’t mess up your future by needlessly borrowing from it, and always educate yourself. I’m not saying that the dreaded tax form should be your financial advisor, a human being almost always beats a piece of paper, but it gives you a couple subtle reminders for things you may have forgotten or conveniently ignored. Take a look at your return and see if you’ve taken advantage of everything you could’ve.

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