7 stores with an excellent return policy

Woman at a store with an excellent return policy.

After my mother passed, I was cleaning out her basement when I found a pair of new shoes in a Nordstrom box. These shoes had never touched the pavement and still sported the original price tag. I’d never returned anything to Nordstrom before, but I did to see if what all my friends said about their return policy was true. Indeed it was. They gave me a full refund with no questions asked.

Although most stores have a return policy in writing on their site, you can always ask if they’ll take back something that falls outside their policy. If the store prides itself on satisfied customers, it will usually try to accommodate you.

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BVC #3: NURU Personal Finance Cards Video Review [VIDEO]

The topic of the third Bargaineering VideoCast is a three-minute product review of the NURU Personal Finance Cards.

Since I read a lot of personal finance content, from blogs to magazine articles to Google Finance bboard pump-and-dump spammers, I’m not the target audience for these Nuru cards. My wife, who is also quite knowledgeable by osmosis, doesn’t spend all day reading this stuff so I asked her what she thought about the cards.

The cards are really good for someone who wants to learn basic personal finance, simple enough not to confuse and they’re good to educate you enough to get you on the path on learning. They’d be good for young people about to graduate college because you need to know all that information and you probably don’t know where to go to find it. It lets you know what you don’t know.

I posed my concerns about the $6.99 price point to Crystalee, one of the members of their marketing department, she made a good point:

One of the salient features of NURU knowledge deck cards is the fact that their hand-held size and key ring make them easily portable. They fit in virtually any pocket of a bag, jacket, jeans, etc. and are meant to be used as a quick-glance knowledge source, like a mini Personal Finance 101 class for anyone willing to pay a $6.99 tuition.

Although an introductory book could include the same information that is presented in our deck, it would not be in the same helpful portable shape/size, and nor would it have the upbeat tone that we make sure to use in NURU cards. We want our decks to reach people at different stages in life and commit to distilling the world’s best information for them.

Like I said in the video, leave a comment and I’ll give away the deck to one lucky commenter next Sunday (March 22nd)!

Please let me know what you think and thanks for watching!

 Frugal Living 

547 Ways to be Fuel Smart by Roger Albright

547 Ways to be Fuel Smart by Roger Albright547 Ways to be Fuel Smart by Roger Albright was last published in 2000 (with editions in 1990 and 1978, hmmm curious dates they are!) and does in fact contain 547 ways you can get the same out of life but consume less fuel. The book is old, so you won’t find it in bookstores (I found it walking the stacks at my local library), but it contains information that is just as appropriate today as it was in 1978 and 1990.

While you won’t be able to use all of the ideas in this book, some of them will be a bit out of date, you are sure to find some that you can apply. There are five hundred forty seven ways in here pal, you should be able to find one. 🙂

Here’s one idea I won’t be using: Albright talks about four huge windows in his home that he loved but were huge energy sinks. They were afflicted with the same condition many older windows are: they were very drafty. He realized that he could live without opening them, because there were other options, so he nailed them shut, caulked the seams, and sealed off the draft. He could still admire and enjoy the views through the windows but he wouldn’t have to pay the energy costs for the draftiness. I won’t be nailing down any windows but it’s a good idea for those who live in older homes.

Which chapter did I like the most? Chapter 7: Rake in Savings From Your Garden! While many of the suggestions in the book are for people with in-ground gardens (versus a patio/planter garden like we do), there are still great ideas in here that we can take away. One section explains the best way to store your harvest to make it last. For example, there are two ways to store and dry herbs. The first is to dry it in hanging bunches in a fine mesh onion bag in your refrigerator for a week. The second is to use a microwave to dry them (wrap in paper towels and zap for short intervals). Both are better than leaving them out in the air because that’s how they lose most of their flavor. I haven’t tried any of these ideas but they seem plausible.

If you’re interested in finding a few new ideas, check to see if your local library has it.

 Retirement, Reviews 

Suze Orman’s Will & Trust Kit Review

Suze Orman Will & Trust KitIt’s not easy thinking about Wills because doing so forces you to confront your mortality and that one day you will die. However, if you do not take care of this very important piece of business, the State will take care of it for you. In every state there are rules that dictate what will happen to your assets in the event of your death. Unfortunately, they may not match what you’d choose to do with it (chances are they don’t). Creating a Will is one of the most important and significant actions you can do for your finances and shouldn’t be put off. The preparation of Wills is big business too and can cost quite a large sum in lawyer fees, but there’s a way to significantly cut your costs – Suze Orman’s Will & Trust Kit.

My tentative plan is to create a Will with Suze Orman’s system and then get it reviewed by a lawyer. By having at least a draft, you save a ton of money on the hours that would’ve been spent preparing it. What makes this even better is that the kit is free for a limited time (meaning I have no idea how long it’ll last).

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 Banking, Reviews 

HSBC Direct Review

HSBC AdvanceHSBC Direct has usually had one of the most competitive interest rates, so I opened an account there. I didn’t open it because I was planning on moving funds from a 2.70% ING Direct account, I did it because the cost of opening an online savings account was near zero and because I could then start funneling income deposited into a 0% Bank of America checking account into the new HSBC Direct account. It doesn’t make much sense to move funds from ING or Emigrant to HSBC, but it does make sense to change the destination of funds from Bank of America.

There were a few other non-financial reasons for opening the account. First, there’s no marginal cost to opening another savings account. HSBC has a well known international name and has consistently been among the leaders in interest rates. I would be hesitant to open an account at a lesser known bank. HSBC’s international presence is also a benefit. When we were in China and Taiwan, HSBC was everywhere (along with Citigroup) and that’s a side benefit. Lastly, my mom has an HSBC account, in part because of the China and Taiwan presence, and having that link is convenient as well.

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 Investing, Reviews 

Review: The Intelligent Portfolio by Christopher L. Jones

The Intelligent Portfolio by Christopher L. JonesThere are thousands of books on investing, a point highlighted in a back cover quote by Peter L. Bernstein: “Books on personal investing are a dime a dozen. But if we add them up, all those dimes come to plenty of money.” It was Bernstein’s contention that Christopher L. Jones’ The Intelligent Portfolio was a cut above the rest with its “strong foundation in theory, the depth of its insights, the power of its message, the clarity of its exposition, and the value of its examples.” That’s quite a laundry list, but does The Intelligent Portfolio deliver? That depends.

About The Author

First, a little about the author. Christopher L. Jones is the Chief Investment Officer and Executive VP of Investment Management for Financial Engines, a personalized investment advice and management service. One of the bonuses of the book is that you get a free yearly access pass to Financial Engines through a code written on a card in the book.

At this point you might think – hmmm, this sounds a little fishy. He’s the CIO and EVP at a generic sounding financial company, what’s the big deal? Hold on, Financial Engines, Inc. provides advisory services to 109 of the Fortune 500 companies and its services touch the assets of 6.8 million employees. As of the end of 2007, they were managing over $16 billion in defined contribution assets on a fee basis. They’re a pretty big deal.

About The Book

It’s not every day you read a book written by an EVP of Investment Management of a financial advisory and management company that tells you question the advice of experts and to approach everything, especially investing, with a very healthy dose of skepticism. From the preface: “… many of the most important ideas from financial economics, promoted by popular media and advertised by financial services firms, are distorted or misused in order to sell more products and services.”

So, given that knowledge, what do we need to focus on, according to Mr. Jones? He lists the following ten basic concepts:

  1. Recognize the linkage between risk and reward
  2. Avoid being deceived by history
  3. Leverage the wisdom of the market
  4. Select an appropriate risk level
  5. Avoid the perils of stock picking
  6. Don’t spend too much on investment fees
  7. Diversify intelligently
  8. Select funds using relevant forward-looking criteria
  9. Understand how to realistically fund financial goals
  10. Invest tax-efficiently

At the 30,000 foot level, all those concepts seem pretty straight forward. “Avoid being deceived by history” likely refers to how you shouldn’t base investment decisions on historical returns. “Don’t spend too much on investment fees” probably talks about how you need to check expense and sales ratios on funds and manage advisor fees and such.

The chapter I’ll highlight below was the one about avoiding stock picking since I, like many others, can’t seem to avoid the perils of stock picking (I own shares of Yahoo FTW!).

Avoid picking individual stocks

The crux of the chapter is that for the last few decades, investing the stock market usually meant investing in individual stocks. Mutual funds, index funds (which are mutual funds), and ETFs are all fairly recent investment vehicles. The problem with investing in individual stocks is that it’s risky and investors underestimate the risk and return involved, thus making a disastrous combination. Jones contends that most investors think that the risk of an individual stock is comparable to a mutual fund, despite it being significantly riskier. Financial Engines calculated that, as of Jan 07, the risk level, or volatility level, of the Vanguard 5000 Index fund was 1.5 (a market portfolio has a risk level of 1.0), can you guess the risk level for Dell? How about Pfizer? Or Tivo? (Dell was 3.7, Pfizer was 2.6, Tivo was 5.5) This is expected, I think it’s how much they differ that surprises people.

The three risk types that affect individual stocks are market risk, company risk, and industry risk. With a mutual fund of many companies in numerous industries, company specific risk and industry risk are mitigated and often hedged by other holdings. Every domestic holding faces market risk, but the fact is that the company risk and industry risk effects on one stock are far more significant than on a basket of stocks in diversified markets.

Okay no big deal, we all know one stock is riskier than a fund of the five hundred stocks of the S&P 500. I think my stock pick is a winner and I’m comfortable putting that bet on the table. Jones then did a study where they randomly picked a single stock from each of the S&P 500, S&P 400, and S&P 600 (they represent large cap, mid cap and small cap US stocks), hold it for month and then buy something else, and then see if the stock would outperform its parent index over a 10 year period between 1995 and 2005.

They ran 100,000 hypothetical investors and the results were that the single stock monthly flipper lost. In fact, in the case of the S&P 600 small cap, the median cumulative return was 3.4% vs. the index’s 13.70% return, over 10% different. With the S&P500, 62.80% of the hypothetical investors lost out to the index itself. With the S&P400, 74.10% were losers and with the S&P600, $74.60% were losers. Do you think you’ll be in the top 30% each and every year?


I learned quite a bit about constructing a good portfolio and what the important factors are when selecting various investments. It was fun learning what alpha meant (manager alpha refers to how much a fund manager beats its underlying investment style) and get a few more factors to look at when comparing mutual funds. On the other, it did make a strong, indirect case for sticking to index funds because it mentioned the importance of managing fees very often and how it’s important not to let them eat into your returns.

I may give the Financial Engines a look over the next few months, as it was referenced very frequently in the book (you get a free annual membership with the purchase of the book, so it’s not like it’s a sales pitch or anything), and hopefully they have some more of the same type of interesting simulations and statistic analysis the book carried.

If you’re interested in what a more seasoned investor thinks of the book, here’s Seeking Alpha’s Geoff Considine’s review of The Intelligent Investor.


First Impressions of College Grad Money Guide

The College Grad Money Guide has been out less than a week and some first impressions have been coming in. If you are a blogger who has had a chance to read it and wrote a review on your site, please email me. If you are a reader and want to share your thoughts, you can leave them as a comment here or email me.

Nicki, who took a “personal finance” course in high school college (sorry!), sent me this email:

First, I wanted to say that both your blog and the mini-book for College Grads are great! I enjoy reading your blog on a daily basis. And I believe you achieved exactly what you wanted to with the College Grad Money Guide – it outlines the basics for those who are new to the world of personal finance! Your writing style/light humor made it a fun read as well.

In my “Personal Finance” course that I took, we covered a wide range of subjects (the textbook we used was Personal Finance – Turning Money into Wealth by Arthur Keown, 4th edition. We discussed the reasons behind financial planning, how to measure your financial health (using various ratios, etc), understanding the time value of money, tax planning/strategies, cash/liquid asset management (no mention of high-yield savings accounts there!), the use/role of credit cards and open credit, consumer loans, purchasing a home/automobile, life/health insurance, property/liability insurance (ie increasing this as your net worth increases), investment basics, mutual funds (my finance professors all made a huge emphasis on the importance of investing in mutual funds), retirement planning and finally, estate planning. […]

Everything that you say in the short book is great and to the point. I believe it is a wonderful basic tool for those who do not have much previous knowledge. Some things you mention, which was not covered in my course and I have since learned about via PF blogs include: High-Yield Savings Accounts, Online Bill Pay, the 120 Rule (though we were told that starting young, it is good to go with 100% invested in equity, split 80/20 between domestic/int’l stocks indices by using mutual funds) and how to actually set-up a Roth IRA (though we covered IRAs in a lot of detail and were recommended to set up a Roth). Essentially, the course just went into much more detail regarding all the topics. One topic you cover which we did not was that of student loans (we discussed consumer loans).

Sorry this was so lengthy! Overall, I think the guide is fantastic. I am already passing it on to a few friends who I think would certainly benefit from it. I do not think any changes need to be made at all. Thank you very much for creating it, it is a wonderful introduction on the basics of personal finance!! 🙂

Tim, who downloaded the guide for his brother in college, had this to say:

This is a good guide. I’m not sure how much interest a fresh graduate might have in the health savings plans, I didn’t follow through to the site for your write up. I feel like graduates don’t get a good idea of what their “usual” medical expenses will be until they’re out of school for a few years.

I especially liked the section which talked about planning for the big life events, marriage, first home, etc. I know I kick myself for not planning a little more on those things. For guys you’d like to think about having that engagement ring fund ready so that you aren’t stressing about it later when you decide to propose.

Great guide overall. Even for those that have established good habits, a good guide is handy because a whole bunch of new things happen after graduating which you don’t have experience with.

If you’d like to get your copy, the instructions are on the College Grad Money Guide download page. If you’re already a subscriber, just look below for the download link.


Review: Gotcha Capitalism by Bob Sullivan

Gotcha Capitalism by Bob SullivanIf The Consumerist were a religion, Gotcha Capitalism would be its Bible.

I think that every consumer in America needs to read Gotcha Capitalism by Bob Sullivan (he also writes for Red Tape Chronicles). Go to the library, head to the bookstore, jump on, but get yourself a copy. This isn’t a book about investing that appeals only to those with some extra income to invest in the stock market. This isn’t a book about relationships and money. Gotcha Capitalism will teach you how to identify how you’re being cheated by major corporations and what you can do about it. If you spend money, you need to read this book. (I’ve never given a stronger endorsement to a book) Heck, just get it and scan it, you’ll end up savvier than when you started. I bet that once you start reading, you won’t want to stop.

The book has three major sections. Section one describes Gotcha Capitalism, how ten industries are bilking you and every other American out nearly a thousand bucks a year ($946 on average, they calculated, and that on only ten specific industries), and how they get away with it. Section two describes exactly what they’re doing and how to defend yourself against it (and get your money back!). The third and final section is like a tool-kit of consumer tools – a collection of sample letters, emails, scripts, etc. for dealing with companies. In summary, section three is the hammer, section two tells you where to hit them, and section one charges you up with the fury you’ll need to drive that nail home in one shot.

The crux of section one is that the world is separated into myopes and sophisticates. Myopes are the folks who happily overpay for things and don’t comparison shop. Sophisticates are those who are savvier consumers, who read more of the fine print and comparison shop products so that you get a good, if not the best, deal available. I’d say all of you are sophisticates (no I’m not buttering you up, a myope wouldn’t be reading blogs about personal finance, they’d simply trust the first financial planner they met) and we’re the enemy to corporations. The solution to the busting the comparison shopper is to confuse them. While we do have savviness in abundance, we only have so much time. So they force arbitration clauses on us, and hidden fees, and ridiculous early termination charges. They hide where the true cost is (for printers, it’s in the ink, not the printer) so that you can’t accurately comparison shop. They deliberately plan to confuse and befuddle you to the point that you become a myope. Your brain can only process so much! Myopes are awesomely profitable, sophisticates are not… and so the game begins.

Section two goes into every one of the ten industries, and more, they identified (Credit Cards, Banks, Retirement/401(k)s, Mortgages and Rentals, Cell Phones, Home Phones, Pay TV, Internet Access, Travel, Groceries, Gift Cards, Rebates, Student Loans, Everything Else) and talks about all the fees and ‘gotchas’ they employ. A great one they discuss deals with retirement plans and 401(k)s. The ‘K’ in 401(k) stands for kickback. 🙂 Your HR contacts a third-party administrator to handle the fund options for your 401(k). Your company gets a great deal on the administration of the plan from the third party administrator because the third party gets a huge “revenue-sharing payment” (*cough* kickback *cough*) for including certain funds. They state that 90% of mutual funds use revenue sharing. 90%. Look to the person to your right and then the person to your left, chances are you’re all getting screwed. This section is nearly 200 pages long.

The last section is the toolkit section with sample phone scripts and form letters you can use to battle the fees described in section two. The sample scripts are great because they outline exactly what you need to do and they can help keep your emotions in check. If you’re listening and reacting, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get angry, flip out, and start screaming at the poor CSR on the other end. By having a script to follow, you can go through it like an emotionless killing machine to get the job done. Plus, yelling never helps.

That’s Gotcha Capitalism in a nutshell. I don’t really want to talk it up any more than I had in the first paragraph so I’ll leave with this suggestion. Give the book a chance by getting it at the library. When you realize you can’t put it down and that it could be a handy reference for a long while, you’ll understand why I was so positive about it. 🙂

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