How I use online shopping to save money

Posted by Ginkgo100 | 2:05 PM

I love Babies 'R' Us.

I browse the baby care, clothing, and toy sections every time I go in. I just can't help it; I love baby things.

Unfortunately, I can't get out of the store without dropping at least a C-note — even if the item I was shopping for costs ten or twenty dollars. At the baby superstore, my impulses always get the better of my budget.

Big-box department stores are worse. I don't enjoy the shopping experience as much, but I still end up overspending every time I go in. Travis at The Simple Dollar recently explained why.

I do not have trouble with impulse shopping when I shop online, though. As much as online retailers try, they have a hard time getting to me; my tendency to add things to the shopping cart impulsively seems tied to my ability to hold and feel objects.

So lately, whenever I have to buy a specialty baby item, as I just did for a baby bath seat, I skip the brick and mortar stores and go straight to the Internet. I hate to pay shipping, but it's a lot less than the extra money I would spend at the superstore.

Image credit: basykes on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Improve Your Internet Security: Protect Your Identity Online

Posted by Ginkgo100 | 9:00 AM

I recently came across an article with the provocative title "How I Stole Someone's Identity," in which a baby-faced computer security professor details how he broke into the online accounts (with permission, all in the name of science) of a hapless acquaintance named Kim. He didn't use any programming skills or esoteric techniques — only search engines and cleverness. Here are three lessons I learned from his article:

1. Be aware of what personal information you share online. Blog posts, myspace pages, and even web forums can be sources of personal information for identity thieves to mine. Paranoia isn't necessary, but remember that not everyone who accesses the Internet is your friend.

2. Don't use personal information to safeguard your identity. Once information is posted on the web, you should assume it cannot be removed, thanks to caches and mirror sites. (For example, when something is "deleted" from Wikipedia by an administrator, it is really just protected from viewing. It can later be restored by any administrator.) Your phone number, your pet's name, your mother's maiden name, and above all your date of birth: none of these are private enough to be the basis of your online security.

3. Keep your e-mail passwords at maximum security. E-mail password security has to be your top priority because your e-mail account is the key to the rest of your online accounts. In the article, e-mail was the key to all of Kim's accounts because most sites reset passwords via e-mail. Security Focus has a great article on password-security best practices.

And here is a bonus tip that was not addressed in the article:

4. Be aware of sites that do not encrypt your password. If you receive (or can ask for) an e-mail with your password in it, then that site does not encrypt your password. Your password cannot be retrieved if it is encrypted, which is why most sites will reset your password but not send it to you. StumbleUpon is one major site that does not encrypt passwords.

Do you have any stories about a stolen online identity? Are there any tips you would like to share for keeping your accounts secure?

The Carnival of Debt Reduction

Posted by Ginkgo100 | 10:18 AM

The Road to Black won a silver medal at this week's Carnival of Debt Reduction! Check out the carnival to view other great posts on reducing your debt.

How to save money on bills

Posted by Ginkgo100 | 10:10 AM

I've discovered a very simple way to permanently reduce some of our bills: Call and ask nicely.

Last month, I called several car insurance companies. One of them has a discount program through my husband's employer, so combined with their already-low rate, we reduced the amount we pay by over a third.

Last week, I called the phone company, and a great customer service agent (wow, there is such a thing?) did some "bundling" voodoo that reduced our rate almost in half, with no contract or commitment needed. To top it off, we are getting a $50 Visa gift card as a thanks for them less money. I'll take it!

Today, I called Moriarty's bank, which reduced our rate by a percentage point. This will not make a huge impact, since we no longer use credit cards and are working to pay off that debt (as we travel our Road to Black), but it will probably change the order in which we pay down debts. Moriarty is our smallest debt, and according to Dave Ramsey's snowball principle, it should be paid off first. Now I think we may use Moriarty to pay off as much of Saruman as possible. Vader is smaller than Saruman, but has the lowest rate of all our debts.

So my money-saving tip is this: Call your utilities and creditors and ask nicely. What do you have to lose?

Google Maps Street View

Posted by Ginkgo100 | 9:00 AM

Google Maps Street View
The Road to Black has become aware that the road to our house has been photographed by Google Maps. They offer an option to report an "inappropriate street view." I would like to thank Google for photographing a very appropriate street view of our house, viz. that the grass is neatly mowed and trimmed. I am sorry to report that this is not the case much of the time.

Our neighbors' houses have Christmas decorations, which means these pictures were probably taken around the time our son was born. That explains the grass: my brother-in-law mowed it while I was in the hospital, and it does not grow fast during the winter. (In our subtropical corner of the world, the grass never stops growing altogether.)

Tips for a great sales tax holiday

Posted by Ginkgo100 | 12:06 PM

Our state's annual sales-tax free shopping weekend is a week away, and Living Well on Less had some excellent thoughts on whether you really save money on a tax-free weekend. Here are some tips for making sure you are better off at the end of the weekend:

Make sure you know what is tax free and what isn't. Texas will tax football pants, but not gym suits. Certain kinds of boots are taxed and other kinds are not. Be aware of what is excluded from the tax holiday.

Make a list. Figure out what you need, such as school clothes for your kids or new shoes for yourself, and write it down. Don't buy anything not on the list.

Make a budget and stick to it. Even if you don't usually use a cash budget, this would be a great time to make an exception. Leave your debit card and checks behind. (If you're like me, you don't credit cards at all; if you do, leave those behind too.)

Keep in mind that the tax-free weekend is equivalent to a 7% to 9% off everything sale. Don't pay full price for anything if you would not pay full price anyway. Shop in the same kind of stores you usually do — especially if you normally stick to discount, thrift, and consignment stores.

And finally... make sure you go on the right days. In most states, it's too late for 2008. Only Connecticut (August 17-23) and Texas (August 15-17) have upcoming sales tax holidays for school supplies. And unfortunately, many states don't have a sales tax holiday at all. Don't miss the boat!