Saturday, April 26, 2008

Free ice cream, free money, ethical consuming links, and a vacation!

So long, folks, I'm off on vacation until next Sunday night! I may get a post in while I'm traveling, but if not, I'll be back and posting again on May 5th. In the meantime, have I got some great stuff for you to peruse while I'm gone! Read on:

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Eco-actions big and small for Earth Day

Happy Earth Day! Here are a few things you can do in honor of the day:

Quick Things:

  • E-mail your bank and tell them to stop funding climate change
  • Subscribe to fun daily eco-tips from Ideal Bite
  • Read Michael Pollan's "Why Bother?" ("It’s hard to argue with Michael Specter, in a recent New Yorker piece on carbon footprints, when he says: “Personal choices, no matter how virtuous [N.B.!], cannot do enough. It will also take laws and money.” So it will. Yet it is no less accurate or hardheaded to say that laws and money cannot do enough, either; that it will also take profound changes in the way we live.")
  • Watch the 20-minute The Story of Stuff
Big Things:

Monday, April 21, 2008

Monday link round-up

Happy Monday. I hope you had a better money week than I did last week; a $20 bill fell right out of my pocket, and boy do I feel stupid!

Anyway, here's your round-up of links from the past week:

Saturday, April 19, 2008

A Beginners' Frugal Genealogy Guide (Prologue: Why Do Genealogy?)

Recently I've picked up genealogy as a hobby-- tracing my family tree-- and have found it very rewarding. And although it is very easy to spend lots of money on genealogical research, I've managed to dig up a lot of information while spending almost no money (so far!) So I figured I'd share some tips about how I've done it and you can too.

But first, I thought I'd list some reasons why genealogy is such a fun and fulfilling hobby:

  • Brings you together with family: As I've started to dig into genealogy, nearly all of my relatives are interested and excited about hearing what I'm finding-- and about sharing with me what they know about our ancestry. Listening to them talk about the family folklore and tell stories about relatives who died before I was born is fascinating; and it's very cool to watch their reactions as I'm able to share new details that I've discovered about the childhoods of people they knew and loved in old age. Plus, there are a few people-- especially my dad and my maternal grandmother-- who are especially excited about the process and want to work on it with me, and it's been a great way to feel closer to them. (Although there's something a little funny about being able to say to my dad, "Everyone that you're related to, I'm related to also; but half the people I'm related to aren't related to you at all!")
  • Makes history and heritage come alive: I'm half Irish and half Eastern European Jewish. Learning about my relatives who were born abroad-- even those who I haven't figured out precisely when and from where they came-- gives me a very vivid connection to the lives people led in those areas a century or two ago. And tracing their lives and their children's lives-- their neighborhoods, families, occupations, educational status, and more-- brings to life the experiences of new immigrants in this country. I keep stumbling across pieces of information that illuminate bits of history I studied in school (in ways that are much more interesting than history books!)
  • The fun and challenge of solving puzzles: Genealogy can actually be quite intellectually challenging and fascinating just from an objective stance; it's about guessing and searching and putting together the pieces, making intuitive leaps and then connecting the dots to back them up. So when you add in that solving the puzzles leads to insight about your family's past and your heritage, it's quite an addictive hobby for someone like me.
Coming up next, I'll show you the tools you can use to find out information about your family's genealogy absolutely free. (After that are the non-free-- but still pretty frugal-- options.)

Monday, April 14, 2008

Monday link round-up

Posts from last week you should check out:

Friday, April 11, 2008

Staying frugal on the road

Sorry for the light posting this week; I'm out-of-town for work, pulling long days and feeling exhausted enough at the end of them that it's hard to muster the energy to post.

Despite the long hours, stress, and tiredness, I'm still remaining relatively frugal. A few things I'm proud of on this trip:

  • Planning for snacks and treats. I've been craving the salty and the sweet, potato chips and chocolate bars. On previous trips I've told myself I shouldn't eat that junk, then ended up spending over $15 in a week on a series of over-priced teeny-tiny bags of chips and a couple of candy bars. This time I've stretched a $2 bag of chips and a $3 bag of candy out over days and days.
  • Asking advice of locals. A few of the people I'm working with live in this area, and they've been very valuable. For example, I learned that most convenience stores here sell reasonably tasty, filling pretzels for cheap (the ones I've found are 50 cents so far)-- way better than a $2 pastry. And they've pointed me to cheap yet quality eats that I'd never have found on my own.
  • Bringing my water bottle. Bringing it from home saved the couple bucks on buying the first one; refilling it and toting it around instead of buying beverages is saving more every day.
  • Buying large lunches that will last. I don't have a refrigerator, but when I pick big meals for lunch that can safely last a few hours, they can serve as snacks or even dinner.
What do you do to keep costs down while on the road and/or under hectic circumstances?

Monday, April 07, 2008

Link roundup, plus 3.30% APY for a socially/eco-conscious savings account

Below are some of my favorite posts of the last week, but first I just wanted to keep you posted on the rates you can get at ShoreBank, my favorite bank (because it invests in community development and improving environmental impacts)-- the APY for the ShoreBank Direct high-yield online savings account is now 3.30%. It's sad to see the rates go down, but I continue to be impressed at how ShoreBank is staying at the head of the pack, since only a handful of savings accounts are offering above 3.00% at this point. Read what I've written about them before, and sign up here!

Now, on to the posts...

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Travel by bus: save hundreds of dollars, the environment, and your sanity!

I am posting this while riding a bus.

No, not writing it while on a bus and posting it later-- there is wi-fi on this bus, so I am hitting "Publish Post" in the middle of the Jersey Turnpike somewhere in the vicinity of Newark. (And with my laptop plugged into the power outlet on the seat in front of me, too.) It is pretty darn cool, and just reinforces for me all the benefits of traveling by bus rather than driving whenever possible...

  • Cheaper. I haven't run the numbers for all common bus routes, but DC to NYC (which I do a couple times a year to visit relatives) is about 450 miles round-trip. On gas alone that's around $50, not to mention about $40 worth of tolls, so $90ish out of pocket-- and if you use the IRS mileage rate to factor in wear-and-tear on the car, the real cost is over $250. Even the priciest round-trip tickets for this route are about $50 per person, and the BoltBus (which I'm riding now) and MegaBus (starting soon; I took this between Chicago and Milwaukee a few times) have tickets starting at $1 (!) depending on how early you buy. So taking the bus can save you over $200 if you're driving alone, and is still a good deal even for a packed car of people. The math may work out differently for your trip, but I'd bet that for a lot of routes you'll find similar results.
  • More relaxing. I hate driving. It stresses me out and makes me nervous. I don't enjoy it emotionally or physically-- both the driving position and the stress leaves me sore and tense by the end of a multi-hour drive. So taking a bus is a no-brainer for me whenever feasible. But even if you're less anti-driving than me, it's still hard to beat kicking back on a bus and being chauffered to your destination. You have the ability to read, do work, take a nap, eat and drink, or nearly anything else your heart desires (car passengers can already do that, of course, but it's a bonus for the would-be driver.)
  • Better for the environment. Fifteen gallons of gas for the DC-NYC roundtrip, versus 45 or so for the bus split among forty or fifty passengers.
  • And now... better features! Okay, this is brand-new and not available everywhere, but I certainly can't get wi-fi access while driving up in the car!
Obviously there are some downsides to taking the bus. It can be challenging and/or time-consuming to get from the bus stop to your final destination, especially if you have a lot of luggage to haul. And nobody likes a bus bathroom. (Although rest-stop bathrooms aren't much better!) But if you can work it out, the bus is a really great alternative.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Carnival of Ethics, Values, and Personal Finance

Hi, and welcome to the April edition of the Carnival of Ethics, Values, and Personal Finance! Go ahead and explore the posts we've got this month...

Being a Conscious Consumer/Investor

Business Ethics

Personal Priorities, Values, and Ethics


That's it. Please submit for the next edition using this form; it'll be up on May 1.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Looking at I Bonds for protection against inflation

For the last few years, with my savings in high-yield savings or money market accounts, I haven't worried too much about interest rates and inflation. "All I want is to keep my savings safe and beat inflation," I kept telling myself, "so I'm doing fine." But with my bank account's APY dropping (from 5.00% to 4.15% to 3.30% in the last six months) and inflation climbing, I am starting to feel rather nervous.

Part of why this money is important to me is because it will give me the freedom to make the best choices for a happy and fulfilling life in the short term (not just decades from now at retirement age.) When I leave my current job (probably in the next couple years), I want my options to be wide open: I want to be able to take some time to travel-- to be able to take whichever job I think I'll like best, regardless of salary-- to consider working part-time and/or trying to work as a writer. The cushion of savings I've built up (about $50,000 at this point) is vital to giving me those opportunities, but I'm starting to worry about inflation, which could shrink the amount of time I'd be able to live on my savings if the interest I earn doesn't keep up. This would probably only happen to a relatively small degree, so it's likely that I'm feeling more anxious than I ought to be, but of course there's always a chance that there'd be more dramatic inflation.

So I've been looking at I Savings Bonds. They're sold by the federal government, and this is how they work:

  • Interest rates:
    • When you buy an I Bond, one portion of the interest rate is fixed for as long as you hold that bond. Right now the fixed rate is 1.20% (anyone buying I Bonds between November 1, 2007 and April 30, 2008 gets that fixed rate), but they announce a new fixed rate every six months for new buyers.
    • The other portion of I Bond interest changes every six months for everyone, based on the Consumer Price Index. So it's basically designed to neutralize the effects of inflation for you.
    • When you put the two portions together, theoretically you get a guaranteed, fixed return over inflation. (The only problem would be if the published CPI-U doesn't reflect the actual inflation you experience.)
    • The current rate is 4.28%, but that will change in May.
    • More about I Bond rates from
  • Term:
    • You have to hold I Bonds at least 12 months.
    • If you sell your I Bonds before you've had them for 5 years, you forfeit 3 months' worth of interest as a penalty.
    • You can hold the bonds for up to 30 years.
  • Taxes:
    • The interest you earn is exempt from state and local taxes.
    • You don't have to pay taxes on your interest until the year you redeem the bonds.
    • If you cash out the bonds to spend them on qualified education expenses, you don't have to pay taxes on the interest at all.
    • More on I Bonds and taxes from
  • Miscellaneous:
    • If you buy your bonds before the last day of a month, you get the full month's worth of interest. (It also counts as a "month" for the 12-month holding requirement.)
    • You can only buy $10,000 in I Bonds a year ($5,000 max online and $5,000 max in person), although this was lowered only a few months ago and apparently some people are still having luck buying up to $30,000 online.

With those factors combined, I think buying some I Bonds is a good financial choice for me right now. (I'll probably wait another couple weeks and see if people are guessing the fixed rate will go up or down on May 1, before I decide whether to buy in late April or late May.) They'll give me the peace of mind of knowing that, barring some serious governmental collapse, the money I put into I Bonds today should be worth as much or more to me when I access it in the future.

The biggest drawback for me isn't financial, it's having to withdraw a big chunk of my money from my community development bank, knowing that less of my money will be invested in doing good for communities and the environment. Because of that, I wouldn't pick I Bonds if we were talking about a small, fixed difference in interest rates-- but major inflation could create a big difference, and so it's worth it to me to protect some of my money against that.

What do you think about my plan? Do you own I Bonds, or are you planning to buy some? What do you think about them? Do you try to protect against inflation in other ways? Do you have any predictions or expectations about inflation?