Grey Charge That Appeared Out of Nowhere

free-with-fish-hookSome time ago, I wrote about grey charges. These are charges where people thought they were signing up for something they thought was free and accidentally signed up for a recurring charge. The charges keep recurring on whatever credit card the consumer signed up with.

Due to things like this, as well as identity theft, I make it a habit to check our credit card charges at least once a week. Last week I saw a recent charge from macaffe.com for $24.99 that should not have been there. Macaffe Software sells anti-virus and anti-malware software. Our workplace has installed an enterprise version of Macaffe anti-virus software on all of the corporate computers.

However, my family does not run any version of Macaffe software on any of our computers. I called the phone number shown on our credit card statement and after going through several menus to get to a billing agent, I was eventually connected with a live person.

I told the billing agent that there was a $24.99 charge to my credit card that I wanted removed because we do not run any Macaffe software on any of our computers. He responded by asking what my Macaffe user number was. I told him I did not have a user number because I did not run the software. I then gave him my credit card number.

He eventually linked that to a “free” copy of Macaffe anti-virus software that I had downloaded from Fidelity Investments about a year ago. It occurred to me that I had downloaded the “free” Macaffe software from a link on the Fidelity website. A free version of their software seemed like a pretty good deal. I could never get the software to install correctly on my laptop running Windows 7 so I just reinstalled the free version of Avast anti-virus software that I had been running.

I never gave my credit card number to Macaffe to download or install their “free” software. Here’s the kicker, our main credit card is also tied to Fidelity Investments. Macaffe was apparently given my credit card information when I downloaded their software from the Fidelity site. The first charge to appear for the Macaffe software was the $24.99 grey charge to renew their software one year later.

Anyway, I got the billing agent to refund the $24.99 and to cancel any future subscription grey charges. The bottom line is to make sure you check your credit card statements before you pay them. I like to check our credit card charges online at least once a week to make sure all current charges are valid.

How often do you check your credit card charges? Have you found and canceled any grey charges?

Cheap Technology Geek

Apple-techLots of people I know are all atwitter about what Apple will announce on September 9th. The pundits think it will be a larger iPhone. Some people are wondering if we will hear about the next generation iPad. And many are wondering when they can get their hands on the new iPhone.

My take on this, as it is for most all new technology, is “Meh. Do I really need this stuff?”

My cell phone is a dumb Tracfone. I can use it in emergencies and it can take pictures if I am ever in an accident to help prove who hit whom. I typically pay $100 per year for something like 1,200 minutes, which is way more than I ever use. Our 13-year-old son also has a Tracfone that we pay $11/month to give him more minutes than he uses. He broke his phone last year, and a replacement only cost $12 from Tracfone. That’s the type of technology that I like.

Sure, it would be nice to have Google maps on my cell phone, but we already have navigation built into our car, and my wife’s Galaxy 3 phone does have Google maps when we are out and about. Her Samsung Galaxy 3 phone was bought at Walmart along with Straightalk’s unlimited service for $45/month. If I had the need or desire to have a smartphone, I would also use Straightalk’s phone’s and service.

The newest, latest and greatest technology is almost always going to be the more expensive than slightly older technology. There is a point in the cost versus technology curve where you can get the most technology for the least amount of money. I typically do not try to purchase technology when it is at its minimum cost because it is bound to become obsolete and unsupported in a short period of time. I try to buy technology that is just above the cusp. That is, I look for technology items that are perhaps a year or two old that will likely still be supported for some years to come, but are not on the bleeding edge of technology, where you almost always pay a premium price.

cost-vs-technology

The server that hosts saveandconquer.com is running Linux on an old Core 2 Duo with 4 GB of RAM. For what our family is using it for (hosting websites, email, and video), the server does not have to be any more powerful. We buy affordable technology to fit our needs.

Do you purchase the latest and greatest technology gadgets? Or do you wait a year or so to get an optimal price?

Happy Labor Day

labor-dayHappy Labor Day!

According to Wikipedia, “Labor Day in the United States is a holiday celebrated on the first Monday in September. It is a celebration of the American labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of their country.”

What this really means is that it is a day to celebrate trade and labor organizations (i.e., labor unions).

Neither my wife nor I are associated with any labor unions, but I feel that most workers in this country owe a debt of gratitude to some of the major labor unions. Collective bargaining between the unions and employers, as well as occasional strikes, led to decent wages, workplace safety, child labor laws, the 40 hour work week, lunch breaks, and paid time off for vacations and sickness.

The AFL-CIO, which is one of the largest labor unions in the country, lists the following 36 reasons why we should thank a labor union.

  • Weekends
  • All Breaks at Work, including your Lunch Breaks
  • Paid Vacation
  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
  • Sick Leave
  • Social Security
  • Minimum Wage
  • Civil Rights Act/Title VII (Prohibits Employer Discrimination)
  • 8-Hour Work Day
  • Overtime Pay
  • Child Labor Laws
  • Occupational Safety & Health Act (OSHA)
  • 40 Hour Work Week
  • Worker’s Compensation (Worker’s Comp)
  • Unemployment Insurance
  • Pensions
  • Workplace Safety Standards and Regulations
  • Employer Health Care Insurance
  • Collective Bargaining Rights for Employees
  • Wrongful Termination Laws
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967
  • Whistleblower Protection Laws
  • Employee Polygraph Protect Act (Prohibits Employer from using a lie detector test on an employee)
  • Veteran’s Employment and Training Services (VETS)
  • Compensation increases and Evaluations (Raises)
  • Sexual Harassment Laws
  • Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)
  • Holiday Pay
  • Employer Dental, Life, and Vision Insurance
  • Privacy Rights
  • Pregnancy and Parental Leave
  • Military Leave
  • The Right to Strike
  • Public Education for Children
  • Equal Pay Acts of 1963 & 2011 (Requires employers pay men and women equally for the same amount of work)
  • Laws Ending Sweatshops in the United States

So when you enjoy this Labor Day holiday with family and friends, please take a moment to realize what the day is about, and how organized labor improved the lives of most all working people.

Earthquakes, Tornadoes, Floods – Where Is Your Emergency Kit?

There was a 6.1 magnitude earthquake late Saturday night near the city of Napa, which is about 60 miles north of us. We were woken up by the quake, and felt our bed move back-and-forth for about 15 seconds. It was nothing new for long-time residents of California, but it did have us thinking of the people who suffered damage and injury in Napa. It also got us thinking about the status of our home emergency kit.

napa-earthquake

My wife put together a nice emergency kit some years ago, but a can of chili exploded in the kit and covered everything with moldy chili. Everything had to be thrown out. This latest earthquake has us thinking that it is time to renew our home emergency kit.

A good home emergency kit should have

  • Water—one gallon per person, per day (3-day supply for evacuation, 2-week supply for home)
  • Food—non-perishable, easy-to-prepare items (3-day supply for evacuation, 2-week supply for home)
  • Flashlight
  • Battery-powered or hand-crank radio (NOAA Weather Radio, if possible)
  • Extra batteries
  • First aid kit
  • Medications (7-day supply) and medical items
  • Multi-purpose tool
  • Sanitation and personal hygiene items
  • Copies of personal documents (medication list and pertinent medical information, proof of address, deed/lease to home, passports, birth certificates, insurance policies)
  • Cell phone with chargers
  • Family and emergency contact information
  • Extra cash
  • Emergency blanket
  • Map(s) of the area

Additional supplies to keep at home or in your survival kit based on the types of disasters common to your area

  • Whistle
  • Dust or surgical masks
  • Matches
  • Rain gear
  • Towels
  • Work gloves
  • Tools/supplies for securing your home
  • Extra clothing, hat and sturdy shoes
  • Plastic sheeting
  • Duct tape
  • Scissors
  • Household liquid bleach
  • Entertainment items
  • Blankets or sleeping bags

Besides having an emergency kit, the American Red Cross says you should

  • know what emergencies or disasters are most likely to occur in your community.
  • have a family disaster plan and have practiced it.
  • have an emergency preparedness kit.
  • have at least one member of the household trained in first aid and CPR/AED.
  • have taken action to help your community prepare.

We know that earthquakes will happen in California. We also know that fire, floods, and landslides may happen in California, as well as anywhere else in the country. Tornadoes and hurricanes typically occur in other parts of the country. Everyone needs to be prepared for the types of disasters that may happen in their communities.

Please check your emergency kit now to make sure the supplies are still good. And if you do not have an emergency kit, please purchase or put one together. (A search for “home emergency kit” on Amazon came up with 20 pages of kits and supplies.)

Another Appliance Repair

Back in March, I wrote about several appliances that went on the fritz and needed repair. Our most recent appliance to go out was our dishwasher.

The dishwasher is a Maytag Quiet Series 300. A replacement would cost on the order of $600, plus tax, installation, and haul away fees. The dishwasher has a touch button control panel on the front of the door.

Maytag-dishwasher-front-panel

The problem was that the Start/cancel button stopped working. All other buttons on the front panel seemed to operate–at least the correct lights would light up when they were pushed–but the Start/cancel button did nothing.

After some Googling on the problem, I came to the conclusion that the flex cable that attaches the front panel to the controller box was the likely culprit. It appears that some of the leads in the flex cable can experience corrosion after many dishwasher cycles. I took the dishwasher door apart and found that, sure enough, the leads on the flex cable that attach to the Start/cancel button were corroded.

corroded-flex-cable

 

There was one online description of a person scraping the corrosion off the leads and then using conductive glue to repair the flex cable leads. I doubted my ability to make a long-lasting repair using conductive glue on a flex cable, so I instead opted to purchase a new front panel with cable. (You cannot just purchase the flex cable all by itself because the end in the picture above  is soldered to the front panel electronic traces.)

The new front panel cost $170 after tax and shipping, but it arrived quickly and in good shape. I put a bunch of clear silicon seal over the part of the flex cable that could become corroded, and put the dishwasher back together the next day after the silicon seal had dried.

My wife and I are very happy to have the dishwasher working again. Of course we hand washed the dishes for the week or so that the dishwasher was out of service. We realize that many people do not have dishwashers and wash all their dishes by hand, but we have become spoiled with the conveniences that modern appliances provide. We are OK with that.  :-)

Have you had to recently repair an appliance?

5 Indicators a Home Buyer Can Risk Making a Low Offer

ChecklistBy Tali Wee of Zillow

Buying a home is an incredibly expensive purchase that all home shoppers hope to make with confidence. The best way for buyers to feel assured about their purchases is to get a great deal. So, house hunters should look for homes where they’ll get the most quality home for their money.

As the housing market recovers and home prices appreciate once again, it’s difficult for buyers to find affordable homes. Most markets are intensely competitive since inventory of for-sale homes remains low. Therefore, the current real estate market is a seller’s market.

House hunters looking to score homes below asking prices should watch for these five instances where sellers might entertain low offers.

1. When Listings Are Stale

price-reduced-againIn most cases, home shoppers completely overlook listings sitting on the market for numerous days. Even if properties fit all buyers’ criteria for their dream homes, the fact that no one has expressed interest tells buyers the properties are not wise purchases.

Maybe the home wasn’t staged properly for it’s first open house or perhaps the marketing photos exaggerated the spaciousness of the home. In any case, when a home doesn’t receive offers in a competitive market it indicates to buyers that something must be wrong with the home. Stale listings are nightmares for sellers. However, discouraged sellers become ideal opportunities for buyers to offer less than asking price.

2. When Comparable Homes are Much Cheaper

Another instance where home shoppers might gamble offering less than asking price is when homes are clearly overpriced. Part of a buyer’s due diligence is to understand the market value of properties. After months of reviewing homes’ sale prices, buyers begin to understand the current value of homes. Then, they can judge fair pricing and justify paying costly mortgages for potentially the next 30 years.

For-sale homes should list at prices similar to the selling prices of comparable properties. If a buyer notices the home he or she plans to purchase is more expensive than properties in the same area, built about the same time, with similar lot sizes, square footage and number of bedrooms/bathrooms, then the house is likely overpriced.

When homes are priced competitively, multiple buyers make offers. Buyers sometimes engage in bidding wars where sale prices end up above asking prices. Overpriced homes receive fewer offers, so sellers might be motivated to accept slightly lower prices. When listings are overpriced and stale they’re even better opportunities to risk making a low offer.

3. When Shoppers Are Unimpressed

House hunters should pay close attention to other shoppers at open houses. The quiet conversations between husbands and wives might indicate the overall competitiveness of a property. Are shoppers excited and interested? Or, are shoppers disappointed and complaining? Homebuyers should review properties with their own judgments first, checking off their lists of must-have qualities and then spend time watching for cues from other shoppers. If no one seems interested a property, the seller might not receive many offers, making it a good option for low offers.

4. When Properties Are Not Staged

In general, prospective buyers should avoid fixer-uppers that require loads of time, hard labor and money. However, house hunters should pay careful attention to the type of upgrades properties need. Homes requiring a few cosmetic improvements are great opportunities for buyers to make low offers. In many cases, sellers don’t have time to make upgrades, and proactive buyers can sometimes make minor updates during ownership for less than $10,000.

Busy or lazy sellers often leave chipping paint and overgrown landscaping on home exteriors and stained carpet or overcrowded layouts inside. These eyesores distract shoppers from the positive elements of properties, limiting the number of interested parties.

Additionally, shoppers should visit homes with poor-quality online marketing photos. Even though unprofessional images might make properties seem undesirable, many buyers will overlook these properties, leaving the door open for lower offers.

foreclosure-house

5. When Sellers Are Motivated

Lastly, bargain shoppers should look for desperate sellers. When owners are motivated to sell they tend to accept their first offers, even those below asking price. At open houses, buyers can eavesdrop on conversations between sellers’ agents and other shoppers to measure the sellers’ desperation. Socialize with other shoppers; sometimes neighbors peruse open houses and share details about the history of the community and sellers.

Did the seller recently relocate for work or a divorce? Is the owner juggling multiple mortgages? Did the owner recently pass away and his or her heirs are trying to offload the property as soon as possible? In many of these instances, the current owners are rushed to sell. These are the perfect scenarios for buyers to make low offers.

Since home shoppers are preparing to make the largest purchases of their lives, they want to feel like they’re getting the best bargain. When trying to strike the best deal, consider these circumstances to submit a lower-than-asking offer.

A Broken Sprinkler Head Coupling

We live in California where we are experiencing an unprecedented drought. Whether the drought has been caused by global warming, changes in off-shore ocean temperature, or is just some sort of harsh weather cycle is anyone’s guess.

In an effort to keep our property value and landscaping alive while saving water, we use an automated watering system. To get the best water flow, the system is split up into 6 zones. There are 3 zones in the front yard and 3 in the back. Some zones just cover lawn sprinklers, others turn on drip irrigation for bushes and trees.

The system runs at 5:00 AM on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Each zone gets 10 minutes of water. We set the system to turn on that early so that the water has a chance to soak into the ground before it evaporates.

Every now and then, a part of the automated watering system will develop a leak. This can be due to squirrels gnawing on the drip irrigation lines, or a broken sprinkler head. A large leak, such as that from a broken sprinkler head, can waste a lot of water, as well as rob the other sprinklers on the same circuit from supplying water.

broken-sprinkler

Due to the drought, the local water provider is seeking to levy fines of up to $500 if a watering system is allowed to run with a broken line or sprinkler head, and excess water is seen flowing onto the sidewalk or street.

Imagine my surprise on Saturday morning when I noticed one of our sprinkler heads lying on the sidewalk in front of our neighbor’s house. It was pretty easy to see that the sprinkler head had broken off due to getting stepped on or run over a number of times by a lawn mower. There is a threaded plastic coupler between the buried pipeline of the sprinkler system and the sprinkler head that is a weak link in our automated sprinkler system. It’s actually a good thing to have a weak link, so that the entire underground line will not get ripped up if something, like a lawn mower snags a sprinkler head and tears it out.

It was already getting very hot when I noticed the broken sprinkler head on Saturday, so I put it off until Sunday morning. I don’t know if my wife woke up at 6:00 AM when I got up, but I know she was up when I turned on the watering system to flush out the bottom part of the sprinkler line that I had dug down to.

Over the years, I have assembled a bunch of sprinkler repair parts in a container in the garage. After removing the broken ends of the weak link from both the sprinkler system piping and from the sprinkler head, I cut a new piece of threaded pipe to the correct length. I then threaded the weak link piece into the sprinkler head, and threaded that assembly back into the underground piping.

The whole repair job took about 20 minutes, and I am assuming I saved us from a $500 fine, not to mention that our lawn will be happier. Now if only I can get our gardeners to avoid breaking the sprinklers in the first place.

Money May Carry Disease and Other Things

dirty-moneyHave you ever wondered if the very wrinkled and dirty money you receive as change may carry a communicable disease?

Researchers from the Wright Patterson Medical Center in Dayton, Ohio, asked people standing in line at a grocery store checkout and at a high school concession stand to trade a $1 bill from their pocket for a new one. Then the doctors analyzed 68 of those old, worn bills.

Five of the bills contained bacteria that can cause an infection in perfectly healthy people, and 59 of them (that’s 87 percent) were contaminated with bacteria that could cause an infection in anyone with a compromised immune system, such as people with HIV or cancer.

Only four of the bills were relatively clean.

I used to stop at a bagel store on my way to do consultant work at Lockheed-Martin Missiles and Space. There was often a homeless lady in the store that the owners would shoo out after awhile. I was pretty sure that she kept her money and other treasures stuffed into the crotch of the old dirty long johns that she often wore. I suppose I took my chances every day that the money I received as change did not come directly from the homeless lady’s crotch. Yes, I know, ewwwwww. I never really thought about it at the time.

Drugs may also be found on paper money.

In a study reported in Forensic Science International, A.J. Jenkins, at the Office of the Cuyahoga County Coroner (Cleveland, OH), the author reports the analysis of ten randomly collected one-dollar bills from five cities, and tested for cocaine, heroin, 6-acetylmorphine (also called “6-AM”), morphine, codeine, methamphetamine, amphetamine and phencyclidine (PCP). Bills were then immersed in acetonitrile for two hours prior to extraction and subjected to Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) analysis.

Results demonstrated that “92% of the bills were positive for cocaine with a mean amount of 28.75+/-139.07 micrograms per bill, a median of 1.37 μg per bill, and a range of 0.01-922.72 μg per bill. Heroin was detected in seven bills in amounts ranging from 0.03 to 168.5 μg per bill: 6-AM and morphine were detected in three bills; methamphetamine and amphetamine in three and one bills, respectively, and PCP was detected in two bills in amounts of 0.78 and 1.87 μg per bill.” The study confirmed that although paper currency was most often contaminated with cocaine, other drugs of abuse may also be detected in bills.

This is nowhere near enough drugs to adversely affect a person, but it is something to think about.

With the convenience offered by credit cards, I see little use for paper money any more. I charge everything these days, right down to a single dollar for two bagels at the Safeway store. Heck, I even get 2 cents cash back.

Do you still use paper money and coins?

Paying Bills for Adult Children

There has been much written in the media about sandwich generation, in which people are paying expenses for both their children and their parents. An interesting take on this is what to do about adult children who want to keep living with their parents. This was the subject of a short article at MarketWatch entitled, “Paying bills for adult children? Try tough love instead.”  It was also recently the focus of one of the forums at Early-Retirement.org.

The MarketWatch article noted that “Social norms have shifted so that accepting help from Mom and Dad well into your 20s is ‘OK.'” The article then went on to quote a paper by psychologists, Eileen and John Gallo.

Eileen Gallo and Jon Gallo note in their paper “How 18 Became 26: The Changing Concept of Adulthood,” for a certain socioeconomic set, growing up and moving out—permanently—means downgrading your lifestyle. The authors quote sociologists Allan Schnaiberg and Sheldon Goldenberg as stating:

“The supportive environment of a middle-class professional family makes movement toward independent adulthood relatively less attractive than maintenance of the [extended adolescence] status quo. Many of the social gains of adult roles can be achieved with higher benefits and generally lower costs by sharing parental resources rather than by moving out on one’s own!”

Parents Supporting Adult Kids-coins

I have to admit that I moved back in with my parents after I finished my 4-year stint in the Air Force. I always got along well with my parents, and they lived within easy bicycling distance of the University of California, Santa Barbara. The old GI Bill paid for my tuition, but little more. I am sure my parents would have kicked in for the extra cost of room and board at any other state university, but I was happy with the engineering program at UCSB, and living with my parents meant it was less expensive for everyone.

My parents recognized that I was fully an adult attending college full time. They gave me a lot of leeway in how I handled my schooling and friendships during the 4 years I was in college. I was on the dean’s academic list, but did not graduate with any outstanding honors. I still did manage to graduate in 4 years, which is pretty fast for a mechanical engineering major.

Since engineering jobs were in short supply in the Santa Barbara area in 1985, I immediately loaded up my possessions into my pickup truck, and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. I lived with my older brother and his family while I looked for my career job. I found that job within a couple months and I moved to my own place shortly after. I have been working with the same employer ever since.

I somewhat agree with the MarketWatch article, as well as many others, that there comes a point where parents have to show tough love and launch their adult children into the world on their own. At the same time, such as in my case, if your adult child or children have a plan for gaining professional success, such as completing college on an aggressive schedule while living at home, there should be room for parents to provide support, as long as it does not unduly reduce retirement savings.

I am not sure how we will feel if our son wants/needs to move back in with us after college. We have saved enough that he should not be in debt after college. We might still let him move in with us for a short term while he actively looks to gain employment. There would definitely be a limit to how long he could live with us after college.

Some of the responses to helping adult children on the early-retirement.org forum were interesting.

NW-Bound said, “I have given money to my children after they started working, but will not pay their recurrent bills. The have good jobs that make use of their degrees so do not need my help, but even if they had a lower paying job, they must learn to live within their means.”

Mulligan replied, “A buddy of mine had a classic line a few weeks ago…His son saw his and his wife’s paychecks and says ‘Dad I didn’t know we were rich.’ He replied to his son… ‘No, your mother and I are rich, you are not'”

Cobra9777 wrote a good post that sort of tied back to my college days,

During college, we paid tuition, fees, room and board. We also paid for cell phone service and auto insurance, but that’s it. We intentionally did not provide daily spending money, as a way to start educating them on money management. Our son was an engineering major at a very tough school. So rather than work during school, he worked full-time during the summer and started the school year with around $3000 in the bank. We also gave cash gifts for birthdays and Christmas, so he had a comfortable budget of around $300-400 per month for gasoline and other misc spending. He eventually learned to NOT spend it all by November. Our daughter was always able to work during school with several lucrative nanny jobs. She tends to spend a lot more, and had a less demanding major, so this worked out well for her.

I’ll add this… when the kids moved off campus (which is inevitable at some point in year 2 or 3), we continued to pay for housing cost, but not food and other bills, like utilities, cable, internet, etc. They both knew this going in, and had to adapt their working hours and spending habits to make it work. It was tough, but college kids are quite inventive when strapped for cash, like going to campus gatherings where there’s free BBQ.

For us, the answer was a balanced approach, both during college and after. No hard-line tough love, but no free ride either. We have friends who took one of the more extreme alternatives with their kids and it always ended badly. The balanced approach seems to have worked well for us, as both kids had the freedom to explore their dreams, finished college on time with no debt, and have a solid understanding of money management and the value of hard work.

How would you handle the needs of your adult children if they want to live at home while going to college, or move back home after college?

 

Beating Those Summertime Budget Blues

This is a post from Mrs. Save and Conquer:

Summer Time

As the long days of summer approach, so do endless hours of “Mom! I’m bored! There’s nothing to do!” Some people pay thousands of dollars in expensive activities (camps at $300-$500 per week for 12 weeks! Holy cow- that’s up to $6000!) just to make those words go away.

Now, I know how frustrating those long, seemingly empty hours can be, and I am actually more likely to get cabin fever before the kids do, but I just can’t see paying thousands of dollars to find a little fun when I know it can be had for so much less. Here are some budget activities that we (my self, my son and my two nieces) have done in summers past:

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