Saturday, May 10, 2008

Keep More Cash

Clear Those Financial Hurdles

Was there ever a time when any one of us turned our backs on a bargain? Probably not. But today there's even more reason to hang on to your dollars. The U.S. economy is cooling down, according to the Federal Reserve Board. At the same time, Americans are piling up more credit-card debt than ever before, and our savings rate is negative, the first time since the Great Depression.

So we've rounded up ten financial challenges, and come up with solutions to help you keep more of your money.

1. That SUV of yours seemed like a good idea at the time, but now you're paying way too much to fill 'er up.

Solution: First, look for the cheapest gas prices in your area before you head for the pump -- they may vary by as much as 20 percent within a few blocks and can change frequently. collects price information for the U.S. and Canada from 173 websites. collects prices on 128,000 gas stations from 123,000 volunteer spotters.

Be careful about how you use debit and credit cards to pay for the gas. Sure, gas company credit cards offer rebates on gas, usually from one to five percent. But they often carry high annual percentage rates and limit you to a particular brand of gas. Some even offer teaser rebates of up to ten percent, which may be available for only 30 days. A better choice is a general-purpose credit card, with rebates wherever you buy gas.

Avoid using your debit card. When you buy gas on a debit card, your bank "locks up" as much as $100 for as long as several days or until the station owner processes the transactions. If your bank account is running low, you may bounce a check or two.

An easy way to save on gas? Properly inflated tires. Check them weekly and shave up to 9 cents off a $3 gallon.

2. You stop at the supermarket a few times a week to pick up something for dinner, tossing in pricey items as you go.

Solution: Order groceries and staples online and get them delivered to your door. E-grocery stores became one of the biggest disasters in the dotcom debacle a few years back. But a handful of them are beginning to resurface, with more sure to follow.

Some sites are still regional, but announced the nationwide opening of its grocery store this summer, with 14,000 nonperishable items, some hard to find and many discounted. Amazon offers free shipping on orders over $25. To see which e-grocer operates in your neck of the woods, check out,, and
3. Your daughter wants a clarinet, and you need to get rid of that old couch, but it's still got some life left in it.

Solution: Try freecycling. Community groups across the nation have organized to help consumers give away stuff they no longer need and find free stuff they could use. This isn't a barter arrangement. You give or you get, but not necessarily from the same person. Once you find a recycler who has something you want, you make arrangements to pick it up.

Nancy Castleman of Elizaville, New York, has given away Jerusalem artichokes from her garden, lawn mowers, a television, stereo speakers and a sewing machine. She's received computers, a stove, a lawn tractor and a 30-gallon pail of birdseed.

The granddaddy of online recycling is, a network of nearly 2.5 million members in 3,710 communities around the world. Also global is Members offer furniture, clothing, appliances, computers and more. Check out the list of other "sites like us." For a smaller, folksier site, go to Search by ZIP code for local garage sales and thrift shops.

4. Your son left for college, and you want to keep in touch -- without paying huge phone bills.

Solution: Talk for free on the Internet. Go to and download free software that allows you to make free domestic calls (and very inexpensive international calls) to other Skype users. David Kavaler, a junior at Northeastern University in Boston, went to Venice, Italy, for a summer photo program and used Skype to call home. "It was very cheap, so I didn't bust my budget on phone bills," he says. Google is also developing a network to handle calls and instant messages to friends anytime, anywhere. Google Talk is free. Go to to sign up. JAJAH recently introduced a free global calling plan. Go to, enter your own phone number and the number of the person you want to call. Your phone will ring and a recorded voice will announce that you are being connected to your friend's phone. Within moments, you are talking. Free. After this initial call, both you and your friend will need to register (no charge) at to continue the free chats. Most countries are in JAJAH's free zones, but check before calling. Take note: Some phone companies charge for incoming calls.

5. Your wife's birthday is coming up. She has champagne taste, and you're on a beer budget.

Solution: Get a cup of coffee, prop yourself up at your computer and take a look at some new online options. compares prices, warranties, dimensions, quality and other factors for the top five sellers in a specific category. It also provides buyer reviews and ratings. If you're looking for jewelry, for instance, you can search by material, stone type, style and store. A no-brainer for men short on patience. helps you earn cash back (two to three percent) when you make purchases through a Web retailer. Here's how it works: Go to to find the right product at the best price. Once you've made the purchase and jellyfish gets its commission from that merchant, jellyfish will credit your account or send you a check for at least half of what it's received. No fees, no hidden charges.

6. You'd love to get away over the holidays, but with fuel prices and airfares climbing, it doesn't look good.

Solution: New Internet travel search engines analyze data and update prices regularly to help you get the cheapest rate on airfares, hotels and rental cars. Objective price comparisons and no commissions. collects data and updates 6 million fares between 77,000 city pairs up to three times a day. For last-minute getaways, see the Top Deals list. Suppose you live in Denver, Colorado, and you would like to slip away for a long weekend. At FareCompare, you can see that it would cost you $158 round-trip to Chicago, $198 to Cancun and only $247 to Anchorage. gathers flight and fare information from hundreds of websites in real time to provide what it claims are the best travel deals available, including flight, hotel and rental cars. A recent check found that the cheapest nonstop round-trip fare between Boston and Pittsburgh was $139 on either United or JetBlue. Click on the airline of your choice and you will be linked to that site with the flight ready to book. charts the lowest fare between the departure and destination cities you choose, predicts whether fares are heading up or down and allows you to see what time of year is cheapest for travel. The site searches the airlines and provides links to each. Click "flexible search" to get a lower-priced option. This site is in beta testing, and for now, departure cities are limited. A recent search showed that the lowest price for a round-trip ticket between Seattle and Houston was $244. Twenty days later it had risen to $333. Farecast predicted that fare would hold for seven days.

7. You signed a two-year contract for a cell phone only to discover that the service in your area is unsatisfactory.

Solution: You're facing two years of dropped calls or a $150 termination fee to cancel the contract. But a new website -- -- can help you find someone to take over the remainder of your contract.

Click onto this bright red website; the screen is split between "Get Out" and "Get In." There are advantages on each side: The seller gets out of the long contract and keeps his old number. The buyer gets a shorter-term contract and pays no activation fee.

Once you sign up to sell your contract, you'll begin receiving e-mails from interested buyers. Pay the $19.99 registration fee and you'll receive their contact information. Celltrade does not guarantee that a potential buyer will be approved by your service provider. The company will check on the creditworthiness of the buyer, just as it did with you.

8. Your credit-card application was denied, and your mortgage rate is higher than your sister's. Ouch.

Solution: Improve your credit score and save thousands of dollars. These scores determine how much you pay in interest on your mortgage and credit cards, and how much you pay for auto and life insurance and more. Credit scores can even be the deciding factor in whether you get the job you want (some employers think it speaks to character).

The Fair Isaac Corporation was first to develop credit scores to determine how likely you are to be a good credit risk. A chart at lists mortgage interest rates, updated daily, and shows what interest rate you might get, based on your score. For example, someone with a score of 760-850 could get a 6.31 percent interest rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage of $216,000, according to the site. His monthly payment would be $1,338. For the same mortgage, someone with a score of 620-639 would get a 7.89 percent interest rate and pay $1,569 per month. That's a difference of $231 a month, or $83,160 over the life of the 30-year loan.

To determine your score, computers grind up a ton of information about your credit history -- and spit out a number. FICO scores range from 300 to 850; a score of 720 or more is considered good by most standards; above 760 gets you the best rates -- and the right to negotiate even better ones with some lenders. The fastest way to improve your score is to pay your bills on time and reduce the amount of debt you carry.

Go to for your free report -- you're entitled to one every 12 months from each of the three bureaus. You'll pay extra for your credit score.

9. You're living paycheck to paycheck, worried you'll never own a home, get a degree or retire.

Solution: Consult a financial planner. Time was when they refused to do anything short of a full financial plan, which cost thousands of dollars. Today a network of fee-by-the-hour planners will help you with one specific goal -- choosing investments for your 401(k) plan, getting out of debt, saving for college -- for as little as a few hundred dollars.

To find an à la carte planner, go to Participants in this network have been trained and approved by Sheryl Garrett, the planner in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, who set up the network and who has been named one of the most influential people in financial services. Michael Donahoe, a planner in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, met with a young couple who wanted to buy a home. They had $10,000, but they couldn't manage to save the remaining $10,000 needed for the down payment and closing costs. If they kept their $10,000 invested at 8 percent, Donahoe estimated, it would take them about 8 1⁄2 years to buy a home.

Donahoe set them up with a systematic investment program and reviewed their retirement benefits at work. As a result of his suggestions, they will probably be able to purchase a new home in two years, says Donahoe, who charged them only $370. Donahoe provides a fee estimate before he starts work. "And I don't bill above what I estimate," he says.

10. You'd like to go to the movies and eat out more often, but the "fun stuff" really costs.

Solution: Check out, a social networking site unlike the others: Folks actually get together. Over 2.5 million have joined local Meetups, and there are more than 4,500 interests listed, including dining out, movies, belly dancing, scrapbooking and ghost tracking. Join an existing group for free, or start your own.

But you'll have to check your neighborhood at to see which groups discount activities or offer them at no charge. A yoga instructor in Brooklyn, New York, for example, gives free lessons since she found a studio she can use at no cost; she asks for a $5 donation. A movies Meetup in Orlando, Florida, and a vegan group in Boston get group discounts.
Original here

How Viacom can sink the pirates

Sumner Redstone, who controls the twin media giants Viacom and CBS, is leaning on Internet service providers and online media outlets to do his heavy lifting. Speaking at the Seoul Digital Forum 2008, the 84-year-old media mogul came down particularly hard on YouTube, equating the video platform with piracy and demanding that ISPs and web sites do more to police content.

"Solutions turn on enlisting the aggregators—ISPs, device manufacturers, hosting companies, and site operators—this effort," Redstone said, according to the Associated Press. "We ask that companies that become aware of piracy using their facilities do something about it."

Redstone's statements make sense in the light of his long-running legal campaign against piracy in general and YouTube in particular (Viacom is suing YouTube for $1 billion at the moment). It's also far from a unique stance among studio bigwigs. But is it really fair to ask the service providers to beat piracy on behalf of the content producers, when the networks and studios already have much better tools at their disposal?

Game theory

Matt Mason, in his book The Pirate's Dilemma (look for our review next week), shows how a culture of piracy tends to grow up whenever and wherever a human need meets draconian restrictions—economic, legal, what have you. The establishment that gave birth to hip-hop, Wikipedia, disco, and YouTube must change in the end or risk losing out as new players monetize the new market staked out by the pirates. Rap and graffiti started out as rebel yells, then became accepted as art forms, and they have now been integrated into the multibillion-dollar pop culture machinery that once was the enemy. It happened to Dr. Dre because the record companies couldn't silence him and his fans with cookie-cutter pop, so hip-hop quickly became a business model instead.

Sumner Redstone

What Sumner is missing with his comments is the fact that pirates can be beaten—it happens all the time—but not primarily by means of legal threats and lawsuits. No, you subjugate these rebels with the tools of free enterprise. Piracy is just another business model, and the pirates will lose and go away when you come up with a better model (or they will become legitimate players themselves).

Stripped down to the bare essentials, consumers will choose the service with the most attractive balance of price, convenience, and quality. Piracy will always win on price, because you can't really beat free. The other two components are up for grabs, but the media companies are only now starting to seize the opportunity.


Take YouTube as competition for the Comedy Central cable network, for example. Redstone's Viacom has asked Google to remove clips of Colbert and Jon Stewart, time and again. But a YouTube search on "Colbert" today still returns more than 6,200 results. And if Viacom managed to shut YouTube down entirely, you'd see those clips moving to MySpace Video. Or perhaps Yahoo, MSN, or some platform that doesn't exist yet. The pirates will always keep a steady supply of free clips on hand, if you're willing to chase down the sources and deal with bad quality, clip length limits, and other flaws.

So Comedy Central eventually fought back hard, hosting the complete Daily Show archives online, and tagged the clips to make them searchable. NBC and Fox formed Hulu to distribute their shows with minimal commercials, and ABC and CBS are doing their own experiments with online distribution (ABC offers Lost in HD, for instance).

Make sure the videos are of high quality, preferably in high-def and surround sound. Don't skimp on the extras: if anything, there should be exclusive content online only, not the other way around. Remember, you're creating a new distribution channel, and need to promote it. There's the quality play.


If Redstone really wants YouTube to stop "stealing" his viewers, it's easy to do. In fact, his companies are already doing it. Start up a one-stop shop for all the Comedy Central content you want or, even better, everything you'd ever want to watch on any Viacom or CBS property. Some shows are produced by other companies—just tell them to put up with this, or they're off your airwaves. An industry-wide content portal would be even better, but it will take years to sort out the branding, control, and revenue sharing issues there.

Then promote this site. Relentlessly. If you watch just one episode of South Park or Tila Tequila, it should be impossible to walk away without the awareness of a convenient service that will fill you in on missed episodes, shows you never heard of, and all the classics, too. They start on demand and play stutter-free from any PC, Mac, or Linux box, anywhere in the US, any time. There's the convenience play.

So Viacom can concede the price point to piracy, having won the other two battles. Throwing in the towel entirely and charging retail DVD prices for a season of Family Guy may still be a mistake, but with any reasonable scheme, this should become a profitable venture very quickly. Figure out an ad-supported model if you can, or charge less than a dollar per episode. Let people burn it to DVD or play the file on iPhones for a buck.


In the end, piracy will force all the big-time content producers to move in this kind of direction. Capitalism, properly applied, will beat the rebels every time, and the odd thing is that the content companies are finally moving full-speed ahead with these new initiatives even as the bosses sometimes seem fixated on the "stick" half of the "carrot and stick" approach. Even Sumner Redstone is starting to understand this.

"Media companies need to make it easy for consumers to obtain our content in a legal manner," said Redstone. "We cannot let the lack of perfect antipiracy tools keep us from forging ahead in providing the best, most innovative, creative content to the consumer over whatever medium they prefer, whenever and wherever they prefer it."

Media companies think they're moving as fast as possible, but consumers are impatient creatures, and have moved even faster.

Original here

The 10 worst workspaces in tech

We've toured the top 10 workspaces in tech. Now, we've gone back to Office Snapshots to find the 10 worst. What makes them so bad? Some offend with exposed fluorescent lights, gray cubicles and a dystopian corporate sheen. But others, with their pseudo-hip graffiti, kindergarten toys and plastic decorations — all in a desperate attempt to seem "Internet-y" — come off even worse. We'll start with Yahoo's New York digs.
Think anybody's ever kicked the plastic white picket fence in Yahoo's New York office? How about one of the lounging employees? (Photos by skreuzer)

Most people who work on Mozilla's products don't get paid. Actual employees in Mozilla's Toronto office have it much worse. (Photos by menros)

Mahalo founder and CEO Jason Calacanis not only pays his "guides" between $30,000 and $35,000 a year, he also houses them in what appears to be a poorly lit, post-apocalyptic strip mall. (Photos by Conrad)

We listed the Googleplex as on of the top 10 workspaces in tech because of its amenities. But with its kindergarten campus color scheme, lava lamps, scooters, and ball pool, Google's headquarters often seem designed to to hide its most prevalent feature: gray cubicles. Anything to keep the drones from remembering that they're just one out of the corporation's 16,800 employees, we suppose. (Photos by titaniumdreads, emerce, tantek, revdancatt and yoz)

Microsoft's world headquarters in Redmond, Washington go the other way. Welcome to the Borg cube. No talking. (Photos by taguri and ilikeyesterday)

LinkedIn's offices are just like utilitarian and utterly boring. (Photos by LinkedIn Blog)

The poor souls at Internet phone company, Jajah. No one should have to suffer through so much purple outside of Sunnyvale. Also, when does corporate graffiti get added to (Photos by Jajah)

Food wrappers everywhere and a little smelly — Facebook's offices remind me of my sophomore hall. Except instead of drunks vandalizing the place, Zuckerberg paid a kid to go at the walls with a spraycan. This was done to reinforce Facebook's vibrant, youthful culture by ensuring any visiting adults would rather gouge their eyeballs out before ever returning. (Photos by Outer Edge Studio, fcb, eston and cavemonkey50)

Here is DoubleClick's office in Colorado. I've never been there, but I know for a fact there are more Cathy cartoons pinned against gray cubicle felt in this office than any other in tech. (Photos by Ben Saitz)

Adobe's headquarters are as warm and human as Photoshop's user interface. (Photos by Tom Ferris/Security-Protocols, nikonfans and glub)