Monday, July 26, 2010

The Wonderful World of eReaders

For my birthday a few months ago, Alpaca bought me an Amazon Kindle. I guess it was not difficult for her to find out that I wanted one - it was listed in my Amazon wishlist... Being the gadget lover that I am, I have been playing with my new toy quite a bit since I got it, and here are my thoughts on the subject:

Bad Financial Decision - if you are thinking of getting an eReader because you think that this will somehow save you money, think again. Alpaca bought this device for me for $269, before Amazon reduced the price to $189. Kindle books cost a dollar or two less than a paper book, so at that price you'll have to read about 100 books before you get to the break even point. I read about 10 to 15 books a year, which means that it would take me about 7 years to re-coup Alpaca's investment in the machine. If cost savings is the goal, buying a Kindle is probably not the best move.

There are a few exceptions to this rule. I am currently on a family vacation in Israel, and before getting on my flight on the way over I bought a copy of the latest issue of the economist. The news stand price is $7 and I picked up an electronic copy - on the spot - for $5 (and, of course, no taxes). If I do that every time I fly, the savings could potentially add up.

Another important area of savings are best sellers. Amazon sells kindle editions of NY Times best sellers for $9.99. If the average book costs $15 and you read a lot of best sellers, you could probably make up your initial investment pretty quickly.

Free Samples - with the kindle you can download the first chapter of pretty much any book you want, for free. I no longer decide to buy books by reading the back cover or just on the strength of reviews or recommendations from friends. I read the first 20 or 30 pages, in the comfort of my living room, and then I decide whether the book is worth spending my hard earned money or not. Speaking of which...

The Convenience is Amazing - people rave about how awesome it is not to have to carry a lot of books around. I find that pretty amusing myself, since I rarely carry more than one book with me and I am guessing most people fall into that same category. On the other hand, the ability to buy books ON THE SPOT is incredible. The other night I was reading a book review in a magazine after 1 am at night. The book seemed really interesting. 60 seconds later I had a free sample of it on my kindle. When I was done reading the sample, I had the full book on my machine less than a minute later.

No more waiting for boxes to arrive via USPS, no more paying for shipping. Presto. Book available.

Love the Dictionary - what does "eponymous" mean? Darned if I know. With a regular book I would vow to look up the word later. Of course, I would never actually get around to doing that. Not with Kindle. I move my cursor to the word and a definition just pops up: "giving their name to something". Ahhh, now that sentence makes sense.

I Never Worry About Battery Life - unlike a computer (such as the iPad), the Kindle doesn't use a typical screen, it uses something called eInk. Essentially the Kindle only draws power when you turn the page. Once the page is presented, it just stays there without consuming electricity. This means that I typically only have to charge my kindle every 2 to 3 weeks (assuming I turn off the wireless connection when not in use). It means I can go on vacation, and never worry about chargers or access to electricity.

But, Not All is Well in the Kingdom of Kindle - just so that you don't think I am completely in love with this machine, it's not perfect. It still has many flaws and little annoyances. For one thing, the screen is only grey-scale. No color for the kindle. This is not an issue for most books, but for magazines, where pictures are part of the fun, this is not such a great thing.

Another annoyance is the ability to sort and file your old books and magazines. Magazines are simply not filable and they just linger on your home page. Clutter, clutter galore. Books can be sorted into different folders, but the process is very cumbersome.

You like lending your books? Well, you're out of luck. The books you buy are stuck on your machine. Your friends have to buy their own. From my perspective, this is not such a horrible thing given that many of the books I lend to friends never find their way back home.

Perhaps the biggest problem of all is that Kindle is a closed system. You can only buy Kindle books from Amazon. You can get plenty of free books from other sources, but if it's a paid book you are after, only Amazon can sell you one. I think that this is patently unfair. It's like only being able to buy movies from Sony on your Sony television, or only being able to buy applications for your iPhone from Apple... oh, wait a second... I am tired of every technology company intentionally crippling their products to lock me in and get more of my money.

There are many other small and large issues and annoyances, but all in all, the Kindle is a really cool device. I am sure that in a few years, when I get a newer, better version of the machine I will be amazed at the primitiveness of this one, but for now, I really like my Kindle.

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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Car Dealers Suck - Part II

Last week I wrote the first part of this article, in which I described how I got a crooked car dealer on tape explaining how he likes to bait and switch his customers (I was also stupid enough to erase that tape rather than send it to the local TV station as one of my readers suggested). Today, I'll share another installment in the series.

Last Monday, at 4PM in the afternoon, I get a voicemail from an agent named Ron at Steven's Creek Hyundai. Saying something like "I got great news for you. We have found the car you want." I call back, and sure enough, Ron goes on and on about how he's finally found the car I have been asking about. Only problem is that it's in LA, but he's willing to ship it over - for a shipping charge of about $400. Awesome. Finally, I'll get my new car. I ask for a quote and he says, not to worry, he's already emailed me a quote. I tell him I will check my email and call him back later that evening.

In my email I find the quote, which includes the following excerpt (actual font sizes & highlights):

"Please note: The following price is good for the next 2 days.

Here is your Internet Pricing on the:2011 Hyundai Sonata SE with carpeted floor mats, cargo net, cargo mat, ipod cable, auto-dimming rear mirror.

MSRP: $23,845
Your Internet Price is: $20,597*.

!!This is an Internet Special Price only, You MUST Bring this Ad to qualify for this Internet Special Offer!!"

OK. Something is suspicious here. How can it be that the quoted price is so much lower than the invoice price? I send Ron an email reply which includes the following language:

"Thank you for the quote. 

Can you please clarify what other charges will be added to this quote?

Since I am paying cash (via BoA cashier's check) what would be the amount that I would need the check to be for?"

He doesn't respond to the email, so I call him. Over the phone he insists that it's all legit. This is the price, he says. There are no other charges, he assures me. I am still suspicious, but I decide to check it out. We agree that I would come to meet him onsite the next morning.

The next day, I print the quote, and I print the list of government taxes and fees (doubly so, after my previous dealer incident), and I take a break in the middle of my work day to drive to the dealership.

Ron greets me with a wide and friendly smile, asks me to take a seat, and says that he's going to print out the details and will be right back. He disappears for 20 minutes, which I spend doing my email and getting progressively annoyed. When he shows up, he has 3 pieces of paper in his hand. The first he shows me is a list of 5 cars he's located in California - this, he maintains, are all the cars in the state that fit my specifications. OK. Next, he shows me a poorly printed page with the vehicle specs. All seems to be in order. "Wonderful," I say, "how do we move this forward?"

"Let's talk about the price," he says and reveals the third piece of paper. The third sheet is a white piece of paper with three hand-written lines.

Ron points to the first line and says:
"Are you a member of the US military?"
I say, "Ron, you know I'm not. We spoke at length over the phone. You know I am a business executive."
Ron, with a note of triumph in his voice, says:
"well, you are not getting THAT rebate".
He crosses off the line that says: "Military Rebate - $500".

He points to the second line and says:
"Are you a college graduate?"
"Absolutely", say I with a grim smile.
"Ahh," says he, "but did you graduate in the last 24 months?"
"No", I admit.
A triumphant grin returns to Ron's face, and he crosses off the second line on the page, which says "College Graduate Rebate - $500".

Then he point to the third and final line. "Do you own a Hyundai?"
"No. I drive the crappy, old Geo Prizm that is parked on the street right there"
The third line disappears. When it was still there it said "Hyundai Loyalty Rebate - $400".

"Let me get this straight," I say, "you are expecting me to pay $1,400 more than the price you quote me in writing yesterday? Even though I asked you in email and you confirmed to me over the phone that this was the actual price you were asking for?"

Genius Ron looks at me with an innocent and injured face and fires off a volley of explanations in quick succession: "You have to understand, those rebates are not my money, I can't give them to you" and "how could I know that you are not a military man?" and so forth.

But I have no patience left. I cut him off at the pass, and I basically lose it. I say something like "Why the F*** are you wasting my time, Ron? I spoke to you over the phone at length. I asked you if there were any other charges. I asked you repeatedly if there is anything else I should know about your quote. You chose to drag me down here knowing full well that you had no intention of honoring the quote you gave me."

I then left, never to return.

I am still searching for a single, honorable car dealer, who will negotiate with me in good faith and honor his commitments. That dealer will get my money and will get a loyal customer who will gladly tell the world that honest dealers are not yet extinct. Sadly, so far, an honorable dealer appears to be an unfounded urban myth.

Don't shop at Steven's Creek Hyundai. They're just dishonest idiots who will waste your time and money.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Car Dealers Suck - Part I

I am in the process of trying to replace my 1997 Geo Prizm. Much has been written in this blog about the adventures of my wreck of a car, but it's time to move on. I have done my research and decided to buy a new  Hyundai Sonata 2011. For the past 3 months I have been trying to put this decision into practice, but to no avail. I have been doing my shopping and price comparisons primarily online, but that did not help me to avoid the antics, stupidity and plain ugly practices of Hyundai car dealers of Northern California. Below is the first of two posts on the topic.

My first incident happened about 3 months ago, and involved a quote I received from a Bay Area dealer. It looked good on paper and after comparing prices I was ready to do the deal. When the time came to close, the dealer tried to get me to pay significantly more than the price he quoted me by pretending taxes, registration and fees were higher than they were in reality. I'm not that stupid, I came prepared. I brought with me a complete list of all government taxes and fees, which I got from the California DMV website. When I confronted the dealer, he "explained" that the car he was selling me had more features and options than the one I wanted to buy and which he originally quoted to me in writing. I left, but that wasn't the end of it.

A couple of days after I walked out, one of the workers at the dealership left a voicemail on my cell phone, asking me to call back to do the deal. Thinking he hung up on the call, he continued talking to his boss, while my voicemail was still recording. In the recording the two are clearly heard discussing how it's a great strategy to give a low quote in email correspondence, only to change it later on. They called it "a hook".

Needless to say, I never called the idiots back. Incidentally, the name of that dealership is Magnussen's Hyundai, and it is located in Fremont California. I would strongly advise my readers to avoid those would be con-artists.

Now, if you can believe it, today I had an even more outrageous incident at Steven's Creek Hyundai. I would advise you right now to stay the hell away from those dishonest peddlers, but I'll tell you the details in part 2 of the story. Stay tuned.

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No "Means Testing" for Social Security

The social security system is broken. Pretty much everyone agrees on that much. In fact, even the Social Security Administration is upfront about its current fiscal prospects. From my own social security statement from earlier this year:
"Social Security is a compact between generations. Since 1935, America has kept the promise of security for its workers and their families. Now, however, the Social Security system is facing serious financial problems, and action is needed soon to make sure the system will be sound when today's younger workers are ready for retirement.
In 2016 we will begin paying more in benefits than we collect in taxes. Without changes, by 2037 the Social Security Trust Fund will be exhausted and there will be enough money to pay only about 76 cents for each dollar of scheduled benefits...."
Well there you have it. There's simply not enough money in the bank to pay for all the obligations. A solution must be found, and whatever proposal goes on the table is likely to raise serious objections from those whose financial interests will be harmed by the proposed solution.

Clearly, sacrifices need to be made, and a number of sound options have been put on the table, including raising the retirement age, indexing benefits to inflation rather than to salary increases and so forth. However, there has been one proposed solution that is really upsetting to me - the idea that Social Security benefits should be means tested.

My wife and I consistently pay the maximum annual amount in Social Security taxes - currently 6.2% of our salary, each. We make a decent living, and I am not going to apologize for it. It is already pretty clear that we can expect to receive far less in benefits than we pay out in taxes, and you know what, I am OK with that. I make more money, I will pay my fair share. This is part of the social contract - we should take care of those less fortunate in our society. However, I think that it is completely unfair to charge us hundreds of thousands of dollars over our working lives, claiming that this money will be used to guarantee us regular income in retirement, only to later take the money and run.

Alpaca and I work hard. We take take sizable chunks of our paychecks and save them - setting money aside for a rainy day and ultimately to give us the lifestyle that we want in retirement. And, yes, we also want to leave something to our kids when we are gone. The money which we save will become income generating assets. Under the means testing proposal, our hard work and propensity to save could be used to revoke or reduce our right for Social Security income. Income which we rightfully earned and paid for with our hard-earned, maxed-out taxes. We don't have to save. We could take the money and just spend it, but that would be irresponsible, wouldn't it?

Means testing is a pernicious approach that penalizes the saver compared to the spender. If instead of saving our money today we spent it all, leaving nothing for retirement, we would have no "means" that could be used as justification to reduce or eliminate our Social Security income. This policy would perversely encourage people to spend rather than save their extra income. Great for the economy today, horrible for our economic prospects as a nation.

I am willing to work a few more years before I am entitled to receive Social Security payments. I also think it's justifiable to index Social Security to inflation rather than to salary increases. I think that taking away our hard earned Social Security benefits for which we are paying over a lifetime of hard work is nothing short of robbery.

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Monday, July 12, 2010

Whale Watching in Monterey...

Spent the day whale watching in Monterey.

Not cheap, but we certainly got our money's worth. We saw at least 20 Humback and Blue whales.

Ended the day with some cotton candy and salt-water taffy. A good time was had by all.

California rocks...

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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Is It OK to Walk Away from Your Mortgage?


I came across this article in the NY Times yesterday, which seemed to imply that there was something wrong with walking away from a mortgage. A complete bunch of crock, as far as I am concerned. I know this position will likely draw some fire from those who believe that there is some sort of moral obligation involved here, but that's nonsense. Just like any other business transaction, a mortgage does not carry any moral obligation with it - it is merely an agreement between two parties in which they allocate the risks and the rewards of a  given business transaction.

The two sides enter into this transaction in a very deliberate way, each knowing exactly what risks they are accepting and each hoping to get as much out of the deal as they can. The written contract between them is all that binds them, and the types of re-course they agreed upon in it are all that they have a right to expect.

In a typical non-recourse mortgage agreement, the bank is fully aware that at most they will be able to take possession of the house. No one is forcing them to enter into this relationship, they are doing so of their own volition. If they so chose, they could protect themselves by insisting that the borrower put more of his own money into the transaction to make sure that the asset is worth more than the loan amount. If they underestimated the risk, or chose to enter into a losing transaction, it is their own bad choice.

The borrower can choose to continue to pay his mortgage even though the asset securing the loan is worth less than the loan amount, but that is not a rational economic choice. The government and the banks are running a morally bankrupt campaign to portray strategic mortgage defaulters as immoral. What's immoral is trying to get people to act against their own financial best interest, and grant the banks protection from what is nothing more than a bad business decision.

Defaulting strategically is simply the exercise of a contractual right negotiated by borrowers in non-recourse loans. Indeed that is the whole point of a non-recourse loan. Your exposure is limited to the capital you put into the deal. The lender willingly accepts the remaining risk. This is why the lender gets  his own appraisal of the asset value as part of the deal.

Moreover, in mounting their campaign to discourage strategic defaulters the government and lenders are protecting the more powerful side in the deal. The banks are the sophisticated party in the financial transaction. It is they who practically dictated the deal terms to their borrowers, who are in a vast majority of cases simple homeowners. They deserve no protection from their own economic choices.

There is no shame in walking away from a mortgage. No sense in protecting a sophisticated bank from their poor business decisions, at the expense of your family's financial security. There may be reasons to avoid walking away - the most important being the credit score hit - but there is certainly no moral obligation to keep throwing money down the drain.

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Thursday, July 08, 2010

Where Our Money Goes

Quicken Premier 2010 has many faults, but it does make it exceedingly easy to figure out how you spend your money, and that's what I did this evening. I ran a quick report that shows our expenses by category over the past 12 months.

Here is the report for your perusing pleasure:

One of things that immediately strikes me when I look at this list of categories is the fact that slightly over 50% of our spending goes towards rent and childcare. Together our spending on fuel, groceries and utilities accounts for another 11% of spending. That's over 60% of our spending that we have very little control over. On the positive side, my twins are starting kindergarten in the fall, so childcare expenses are about to take a major reduction.

Our third largest category is our vacation spending. My family still lives in Israel and we go to visit them once a year. Taking a family of 5 across the ocean is not a cheap trick. In addition we also go on a real family vacation, usually somewhere in the States, but last December we went to Costa Rica for 8 days. It was a blast. We spend a lot of money on vacations, but I am very happy to spend that money. We love traveling and those memories will be there for the rest of our lives. This is exactly what we are saving our money for...

Recreation is less fun than it actually sounds - at least for the adults. Most of the amount involves all sorts of after school activities for the kids: swim lessons, soccer league and so forth, but some of it is our weekend activities - museums, mini golf, bowling, and the occasional book or visit to Chucky Cheese.

Under dining I have both Alpaca and my work-day lunches, and any family restaurant outings we have. This category used to bother me, because it seemed like an obvious place to cut expenses, but the actual numbers aren't that high and we can afford this level of spending. I also enjoy leaving the office mid-day with my work buddies to go to a restaurant. Breaks up the routine.

Under the "other" category, we have several categories that are too small to stand on their own, including insurance (which accounts for about 1%), clothing (which accounts for about 1.5%) and cash spending (which accounts for about 1.1%). Cash expenses are the only uncategorized portion of our spending, and it's tough to know where that money goes. It is such a small amount of overall expenditure, that I don't concern myself with those amounts.

What do you think?

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Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Unemployment Benefits & the Economy: A Polemic

Earlier this evening, I read this post on Weakonmics - one of my favorite personal finance blogs. In this post, The Weakonomist makes a case against unemployment benefit extensions, against the stimulus package and against Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman, calling him "as crazy as Glenn Beck". I am not here to defend Krugman's honor - he doesn't need the likes of me to do so - but I disagreed with The Weakonomist's post so badly that I decided to publish a polemic against it, and let the readers make their own call about who's right.

I have many issues with the Weakonists' post, but I will focus my criticism on only a few of them - or else I will be here all night, and tomorrow is a work day, after all.

First point: in the post The Weakonomist criticizes the stimulus bill saying that "...the Obama stimulus was a bomb..." - that's opinion not fact. The stimulus bill was far from perfect, but it averted  the worst effects of the economic catastrophe. Don't take my word for it, check out this report from the Congressional Budget Office (which is a non-partisan body) about the effect of the stimulus bill. To save you some reading, here is a brief excerpt from this long and detailed document:
"[The stimulus] Raised the level of real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP) by between 1.7 percent and 4.2 percent,
Lowered the unemployment rate by between 0.7 percentage points and 1.5 percentage points,
Increased the number of people employed by between 1.2 million and 2.8 million, and
Increased the number of full-time-equivalent (FTE) jobs by 1.8 million to 4.1 million compared with what those amounts would have been otherwise. (Increases in FTE jobs include shifts from part-time to full-time work or overtime and are thus generally larger than increases in the number of employed workers.)"
Still think that the stimulus bombed?

But forget government studies. Let's talk personal experience. I work in the wireless industry, where I have seen first hand the impact of the $7.2B allocated as part of the stimulus to increase broadband penetration in unserved and under-served areas of the country. Without these funds, many companies in my industry would have gone under.

My own company hired another person to coordinate our response to this stimulus bill, and we didn't receive a dime of government money. We also hired consultants, lawyers and took trips to visit customers applying for these funds. Just like us, hundreds of other companies around the country increased their spending in response to the stimulus. That created jobs, economic activity and brought us all back from the brink of even worse economic disaster.

The stimulus was an unqualified success! Yes, there were some inefficiencies, but ANY large project, especially one attacked with such urgency will have some of those. That's the price of action.

Second Point - The Weakonomist says "First of all, extending benefits won’t do much for demand.  People still have to pay off their demand from a few years ago, via credit cards, HELOCs, and mortgages."

This is plain wrong.

I know very talented, hard working and qualified people who have been out of work for over a year in spite of aggressive job hunts. These people have exhausted their savings, and necessarily have to reduce spending. Any unemployment benefits that they receive will be used to pay for food, rent, fuel - you know, keeping their families clothed and fed. This money will not go into savings accounts. The unemployed will spend their unemployment benefits not because they want to, but because they have no other choice. Therefore, by necessity, unemployment payments will stimulate demand.

Third Point - The Weakonomist is concerned about the deficit. Well, so am I. But stopping unemployment benefits is an asinine way to try to fix it. The US Government's debt is so large (over $13 trillion dollars), that the cost of unemployment benefit extension, a mere $33B, would add a negligible - truly negligible - fraction to it.

The Weakonomist is giving props to the imbecile Republicans and Democrats in Congress who are the very ones responsible for the deficit fiasco. These are the same idiots that authorized two wars without paying for them - the cost so far, over a TRILLION dollars. These are also the same imbeciles that have only a few years ago cut taxes repeatedly without cutting spending, leading to - hold your breath - DEFICITS.

NOW, they are thinking about deficits, when it's time to extend the benefits for unemployed Americans who are unable to find a job?! How morally bankrupt can they get?

This is not only bad for the economy, it also shows a severe lack of compassion.

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Monday, July 05, 2010

Of Fireworks, Recessions and Teachers

Like many Americans, last night we went to see the fireworks show, as we do every year. However, this year we went to a different event than the one we usually go to, since the town where we normally go to see our 4th of July fireworks eliminated the program due to budget cutbacks. At a time when state and local budgets are strained and many Americans are struggling to find a job and pay the bills, is there still justification for literally blowing up tens of thousands of dollars in the form of fireworks, while eliminating jobs and cutting programs?

Yes, there is.

Even in the best of times, there is never enough money for all the programs a city or a state would like to run. There is always a case to be made for one more teacher in the classroom, one more road paved or one more dollar allocated to a soup kitchen. If you go by that logic alone, not a cent will ever be allocated to cultural events. It's rough to vote to eliminate a job or a program to balance the budget, while also signing a purchase order for fireworks, which after all is said and done will be nothing more than memories 30 minutes after the show starts, but that's not the whole story.

While the benefits of fireworks (or local theater, parade or park) are more difficult to quantify than the value of an extra fire engine, these benefits are just as real and important. Cultural programs and events strengthen the community, help folks break out of their daily routine and, well, they are fun. Fun is important too.

We can't afford to be completely utilitarian all the time. I understand that local budgets need to be trimmed. If there is no money, there's no money, but even fireworks should have their place of honor, especially on the 4th of July.

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Saturday, July 03, 2010

Companies Making a Comeback

I want to talk today about three companies who I had very negative opinions about until recently, but who are doing dramatically better these days, as far as I am concerned:

Domino's Pizza - talk about a crappy pizza, right? That's what I thought until a few months ago. When they released that shocking commercial in which they actually admit to having a crappy pizza and pledge to change their evil ways, I figured we'd give it a shot. Whatdoyaknow? It's true. The pizza is definitely better and the price is reasonable. Nice work guys!

BusinessWeek / Bloomberg - I started reading BusinessWeek about 10 years ago and over the years the quality of that magazine fell of a cliff. It got to the point where the only time I would renew my subscription was using airline miles, to avoid having them expire... well, no more. A few months ago Bloomberg bought the magazine from McGraw-Hill, and totally revamped it. Until that time, I used to leaf through the magazine in about 15 minutes on Saturday morning, spending most of that time commenting on the shallow and crappy quality of the stories (and the particularly large font used to fill up the pages). Now, it takes me hours to go through the magazine and there are actually a bunch of well written, interesting articles for me to read. Kudos!

Ford - These guys have made quite a turn around to their car line-up, haven't they? Now that I am in the market for a new car, I took a serious look at their Fusion vehicle - which looks pretty impressive. I think I will buy a Hyundai Sonata in the end, but still, a few years ago I never would have considered Ford.

Then you have the companies going the other way. Some doing well and clearly losing their way e.g. Apple (see my post from a few days ago) and Toyota, and others that have been giving consumers the middle finger salute for years now, e.g. every major airline in the country, with special recognition to United. The wrath of the consumer be upon you!

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