Archives for March 2018

Tip: Buying Amazon Gift Certificates with an American Express Prepaid Rewards Card

amexprepaidMany promotions will offer a “$50 cash card” sent to you in the mail. I recently received such a $50 American Express Prepaid Rewards card that looks exactly like the image shown in the top-right corner. I am horrible with gift cards and coupons (basically anything to do with shopping in general), so I prefer to consolidate them and buy Amazon gift certificate codes. We buy certain food items via Subscribe and Save, and that eats through the balance over time.

Usually, I can just take a $50 prepaid card and buy a $50 Amazon gift code with it, but this time the purchase was declined. I called up the American Express customer service number on the back of the card, and they told me that Amazon put a $1 hold on the card and that I could only charge $49 on it at Amazon. What about the $1 balance? The CSR told me to spend it at a local store. (If you do this, ask for a split tender transaction from the cashier.)

$1 balance hold solution. However, I figured that Amazon just puts a $1 temporary hold on any new credit card on file, not on every purchase, and I was right. I waited for the $1 hold to expire after a day or so, and then I was able to buy another $1 Amazon gift code with the same card, finally zeroing out the balance. (You can buy an Amazon gift card for any amount of at least $1 and you can reload your Amazon balance for any amount 50 cents and above. Look for the “Enter Amount” blank form.) Here’s a screenshot below.


Anyhow, I’m sending this out into the search engine void in case it helps someone else out.

Spending More Money Is Easy. Finding “Enough” Is Hard

Starwood Hotels sent me an e-mail with the subject “Family Traditions at St. Regis with Nacho Figueras”. I had no idea who Mr. Figueras was, but you mention “family traditions” and I’m going to click on that like a sucker. It turned out to be a 2-minute YouTube video for a fancy hotel in Aspen, Colorado. Embedded below:

Don’t get me wrong. I have my chosen luxuries, and some of them probably seem stupid and overpriced to others. (I did recently downgrade from Charmin Ultra to Costco toilet paper though. Kids don’t appreciate the good stuff…)

My observation is that there is always a “nicer” version of everything. You can add a zero to the end of any price tag. A meal can cost $5 or $50 or $500. A purse can cost $30, $300, or $3,000. A car can cost $10,000, $100k, or $1 million. I looked it up and found that the St. Regis Aspen runs $1,500-$3,000 a night during the ski season! Likewise, I can have a ski day followed by a board game and s’mores for 1/10th of the cost.

This is why achieving financial freedom is not only about earning more money (although that is certainly important). There are lots of people with high incomes that will work forever as well. You are also challenged with finding a level of spending where you stop look for nicer things. You need to find balance, peace, enough. Otherwise, you will never take control of your time because you’ll stay on that treadmill, going for that something “better” that is just out of reach.

(In case you’re wondering, a standard room at the St. Regis Aspen can be had for 30,000 Starpoints per night.)

Dinnertime: Which Meals Offers The Most Nutrition Per Dollar?


Here’s another interesting Priceonomics study, this time analyzing the cost and nutritional content of common American meals.

For each meal, we then derived a health score based on domain experts and the the nutrient-rich foods index (NRF9.3), which encapsulates a food’s nutritional density (i.e., the extent to which it provides a balance of essential nutrients like protein, fiber, and vitamins).

As you might expect, on average the more nutrition, the more it costs. A corn dog is cheap but unhealthy. A chicken salad costs more, but is also healthier. However, there were outliers in the nutrition per dollar metric, as shown in the chart above.

Meals above the line, like Falafel and Chinese Chicken Salad, are healthier than one would predict given their cost. Nutritionally speaking, they’re bargains: you get more nutrients per dollar when you choose these options. Conversely, meals below the line, like Cheeseburgers and Shrimp & Grits, have lower health scores than expected based on cost; they’re nutritional rip-offs.

This analysis was done for a new food prep company called Wellio. An important missing factor is the time and energy needed to prepare these meals. Even if a kale salad is a good nutritional value, I’m less likely to make it if it takes a lot of effort to prep and the ingredients will spoil within a couple days.

Previous related posts:

Readwise: Turn Your Kindle Highlights Into a Personalized Email Newsletter


I love physical books, but my favorite thing about Kindle books is the highlight feature. It’s really hard to remember everything that you read. This is why I try to condense my handwritten notes in my book reviews. I’ll let The Atlantic explain Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read.

Readwise syncs with your Kindle highlights and then sends you a daily digest with five highlights taken from books that you have read. You’ll need to install a browser extension. It can include Kindle highlights done outside of eBooks, iBooks, Instapaper, and PDFs.

Here’s an example of what I was sent the other day. (I scaled it back to weekly emails.) Much of my reading is about either finance or biographies. A lot of personal finance is in the “simple but not easy” category, so it’s helpful to keep things fresh. Some of the highlights lack context, but I have found most to be useful.

The Elements of Investing by Burton G. Malkiel, Charles D. Ellis.

Rebalancing will not always increase returns. But it will always reduce the riskiness of the portfolio and it will always ensure that your actual allocation stays consistent with the right allocation for your needs and temperament.

Skating Where the Puck Was by William J Bernstein.

To complete the picture, the traditional source of portfolio diversification, international equity exposure, has likewise tarnished; with increasing market globalization, the correlations among equities around the world have crept ever higher.

The Most Important Thing by Howard Marks.

Risk means uncertainty about which outcome will occur and about the possibility of loss when the unfavorable ones do.

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow.

“…The brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.” I was a thirty-seven-year-old bachelor when Jai and I met.

How does Readwise make money? From what I can tell, right now it is free during “beta”. They have a VIP level that cost $5 a month or $50 a year. I don’t think I would pay that much, to be honest. My suggestion? At the end of each email, they provide a book recommendation along with a quote. They should make that an Amazon ad, seems like a perfect fit.

Bottom line. If you have a decent library of Kindle highlights, check out Readwise and let it dig up nuggets of gold and send it to you daily or weekly. Get more mileage out of those notes and highlights.

Equifax Lock & Alert: Block Access to Equifax Credit Report for Free

eq_lock2In case you missed it (as I did), Equifax extended their credit freeze fee waivers through June 30th, 2018. A credit freeze is regulated by your state, and generally prevents access to your credit reports to open new credit accounts. To unfreeze, you must notify them directly by mail/phone/website and provide a 10-digit PIN. However, unless there is new legislation, eventually state-specific fees will apply.

Equifax also rolled out Lock & Alert, which allows you to instantly lock and unlock access to your Equifax credit report. A lock also generally prevents access to your credit reports to open new credit accounts. One difference is that this service is run by Equifax and not regulated by the government. The benefit is that you can lock/unlock instantly via website, iOS app, or Android app. Equifax also promises that this feature will be free forever. Embedded below is their explainer video:

Exceptions. The following places may still access your credit report even if frozen/locked:

  • Companies like Equifax Global Consumer Solutions that provide you with access to your credit report or credit score or monitor your credit file
  • Companies you have an existing account or relationship with
  • Federal, state and local government agencies
  • Collection agencies acting on behalf of companies you owe
  • For fraud detection purposes
  • Companies that wish to make pre-approved offers of credit or insurance to you
  • Companies reviewing your application for employment

My experience. I installed the Lock & Alert app and it’s pretty barebones. Basically a toggle switch with no additional features. To sign up, you’ll need your Social Security number but no credit card is required. The “Alert” part doesn’t mean they tell you if someone tried to check your Equifax report, it just means they’ll let you know when it is locked and unlocked. I was a little confused by that part. Why do I need an alert for something that only I can activate/deactivate?

The recommended practice is to keep it locked by default and then unlock temporarily when you apply for a mortgage, credit card, car loan, or some bank/credit union accounts. I personally prefer using locks over freezes, but am disappointed that it took so long for such a simple feature to be rolled out to consumers.

TransUnion has a similar service called TrueIdentity with free locks. Experian offers locks only as part of their $19.99/month credit monitoring plan. I guess we’ll have to wait until (our information stored on) Experian servers get hacked too, and then maybe they’ll be so kind as to allow us free access.

Bottom line. I plan on using the Equifax instant lock/unlock feature. You may still want to consider a freeze. I think consumers should get both locks and freezes for free from all three credit bureaus as it is our information they are selling and we are the ones impacted if it is incorrect or hacked.

Keep Your Hilton Honors Points From Expiring with a $1 Amazon Gift Code

hiltonhonors0My relative lack of travel these days means that I am constantly keeping miles and points from expiring. Here’s the official policy of Hilton Honors point expiration:

Hilton Honors Points do not expire as long as Members remain active in the program. To keep an account active, Members can stay at one of Hilton’s hotels, or earn or redeem Hilton Honors Points within 12 months. [For Hilton Honors credit card holders, Hilton Honors Points will not expire as long as the Member is a cardholder in good standing.]

You need to earn or spend Hilton points every 12 months, which is on the short side. My usual strategy is to use Hilton Honors Dining to earn a few points at my neighborhood burger joint, but I was running short on time. I found that you can redeem Hilton points at Amazon through their Shop with Points program. The redemption ratio is 500 Hilton Honors points = $1 on Amazon.


First, link your Hilton Honors account to Amazon. The easiest way to just spend $1 without waste is to buy a $1 Amazon gift certificate. Checkout and choose to pay with Hilton Points. You can redeem the gift code into your account and spend it later.

The activity should show up in your account the same day as the purchase:


Bottom line. If you have Hilton points expiring soon, you can redeem 500 Hilton points for a $1 Amazon gift code and create qualifying activity that posts the same day. If you are generous with the valuations, 500 Hilton points could be worth about $2.50 to $3 in room rates. Minus the $1 value from Amazon, and you might consider this a $2 net cost. However, if you have a lot of points expiring and/or limited time, this option can be worth it.

Amazon Prime + American Express Promotion: Fire Tablets from $20

fire7Updated. Here’s a targeted deal for Amazon Prime members that also have American Express Membership Rewards points. First, all Amazon Prime members can get the following prices today (20% off all Alexa-enabled devices):

However, if you have American Express Rewards, first link your American Express card to Amazon. Then check eligibility here for up to a $40 discount when you pay with at least one AmEx point. The final prices would be:

Finally, here is another targeted coupon link that checks your eligibility to save $30 off $60 at Amazon when you buy anything (not just Fire Tablets) with Membership Rewards points. You may have done this older offer already, but the expiration has been extended if you missed it.

Be sure to select your linked American Express card as payment method, select the option to Pay with Points (you can use just 1 point), and apply the promo code to trigger the discount.

PSA: Check Your Facebook Privacy Settings and Third-Party Apps


If you use Facebook regularly, you should read this Buzzfeed article about how to check your third-party app settings. It’s completely separate from your privacy settings. Even though I use Facebook very sparingly, I was surprised to find that I had linked 54 different third-party apps and shared varying levels of personal information with them. You get distracted by a giveaway (free miles!) or trivia game and quickly forget that they can keep collecting (and selling) your data forever. Here’s how to find them:

[Visit this link, or] on the desktop interface, click the downward arrow in the top-right corner and select Settings. Then select Apps from the menu. On the apps page, you’ll see all the apps where you’ve logged into Facebook. On mobile, tap the menu bar (bottom-right for iOS, top-right for Android), and select Settings > Account Settings > Apps > Logged in with Facebook.

I just deleted them all; I figured I can always add them back later. You can also the apps and request your existing data to be removed. The same author Nicole Nguyen also wrote about other ways to limit your Facebook data gathering. I decided to remove the Facebook app itself and only use their website when needed. I suppose I’ll have to do something similar with other social media sites, but Facebook and Google seem like the scariest by far in the amount and types of information they can analyze together.

Related: Beware Recurring Preapproved Payments on PayPal – Skype Account Hacked

Updated “About Me” and “My Money” Pages

beachy200We’re in the midst of an extended Spring Break vacation, so posting will be light for the next two weeks. I have some pre-written content scheduled, but the comment moderation may be delayed.

I also updated the “About Me” and “My Money” pages, as part of a greater overall plan to clean up the site and make it easier to navigate past content. I think the last time I did this was 2013. Thanks to those that cared enough to ask about it, and thank you even more for your patience. I have grand plans, but recently other priorities have won out.

Audible Promo: 12 Audiobooks + Echo Dot for $99.50


audibleaz2Do you enjoy audiobooks? Check out this Audible promotion. Membership usually costs $14.95 per month (1 audiobook per month), or $149.50 if you buy an annual membership upfront (12 audiobook credits). New members can get a 1-month free trial. With this promo, you can get the annual membership (12 audiobooks) for $99.50 total ($50 savings) and $50 off an Echo device. For example, you could redeem this $50 credit and get a free $49.99 2nd-gen Echo Dot. So basically, if you wanted these things otherwise, the promotion is worth nearly $100. Offer ends 3/25/18.

(Update: There is also an alternative offer of $25 off any Echo device if you start an Audible membership for $14.95 per month. In other words, for $15 you can get one audiobook $25 off an Echo device. Also open to past Audible members.)

New member? Past member? I was eligible for this promotion even though I am a past Audible member (but not currently a member). If you are a new member, perhaps you can get your free credit from the free trial, see if you like it, and if you do cancel and then get this promotion. If you’re an existing member, you could also use up your existing credits, cancel, and then try to get this offer. Note that it will auto-renew at $149.50 after the first year. I think you can turn off the auto-renew without losing any credits, but I would double-check. Otherwise, use up all the credits first and then turn off auto-renew/cancel.

The way that Audible works is that you can redeem each credit for any audiobook in their library (regardless of retail price), and you get to keep them forever even if you later cancel your membership. If you start an audiobook and don’t like it, you can exchange it for another book for free.

Most of the audiobooks I’ve chosen so far have been personal memoirs: Shoe Dog (Nike origin story by Phil Knight), When Breathe Becomes Air (Paul Kalanithi), and I Can’t Make This Up: Life Lessons from Kevin Hart.

My most recent audiobook was The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis, a great story about how Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky helped create the field of behavioral economics.

Modern Newspaper Delivery Boy = Kid’s YouTube Channel?

paperboyWhile reading the intriguing autobiography of successful investor and mathematician Edward Thorp, it was mentioned that he was a newspaper delivery boy. Warren Buffett was famously a newspaper delivery boy, and still conducts a newspaper-throwing contest at annual Berkshire shareholder meetings. Coincidence?

Newspaper delivery boys and girls had to develop responsibility, dependability, self-motivated, and people skills (they often had to do the bill collecting). I don’t know if there are any such paperboys/papergirl positions left in the country. Here’s a nostalgic write-up about what it was like: Whatever Happened to the Newspaper Delivery Boy?

According to various sources, these famous business leaders, actors, activists, scientists, and even presidents were also paperboys. (I guess gender stereotypes applied? Kathy Ireland is the only girl on the list.)

  • Walt Disney
  • H. Ross Perot
  • Bob Hope
  • Ed Sullivan
  • Danny Thomas
  • John Wayne
  • Bing Crosby
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower
  • Herbert Hoover
  • Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Harry S. Truman
  • Ed Sullivan
  • Isaac Asimov
  • Tom Brokaw
  • Wayne Gretzky
  • Jackie Robinson
  • Kathy Ireland
  • Tom Cruise

I wasn’t a paperboy, or especially entrepreneurial when I grew up. Sometimes I would hoard my lunch money and just go hungry until I got home in the afternoon, but that was about it. I suppose I didn’t have a lot of wants, so I didn’t need a lot of money. I do remember being impressed by the kid in our class who bought candy in bulk from Sam’s Club and sold it individually to students.

What is the modern equivalent of a paperboy? I propose the YouTube video channel. If you are an entrepreneurial kid who wants to develop the skills that will help you navigate the business world in the way that newspaper carriers did in the 1970s, these days you probably have a YouTube channel. A lot of them seem to review toys, but others act out skits, cover travel destinations, or discuss current events. Here are the applicable skills:

  • Responsibility and dependability. You may not have to show up every day at 5am, but if you don’t create content regularly, you won’t grow an audience.
  • Self-motivation. There are probably some pushy parents out there, but I think your passion for the subject will show through in the videos.
  • Media creation skills. You will learn the technical skills required to set up equipment, edit audio/video, and all that behind-the-scenes stuff.
  • Talking in front on a camera. You must communicate clearly with your audience. This is similar to talking in front of a group of people.
  • Advertising negotiations? Some of the bigger channels have brand sponsors beyond just the pre-roll YouTube ads. The kids may have to get involved with these discussions.

There is a lot of inconsistent information about YouTube revenue. From the shocking This 6-year-old makes $11 million a year reviewing toys on YouTube to the more balanced Can Vloggers Really Make a Fortune? to the buzzkill ‘Success’ on YouTube Still Means a Life of Poverty. I’m sure a small percentage are doing awesome, but most are not. Isn’t that how it always works for creative pursuits? JK Rowling is rich, but most fantasy authors are not. But hey, if you’re a kid and making $100 a month and having fun creating something (all while learning useful skills shhhhh), isn’t that a pretty nice accomplishment?

Any readers out there with children who have earned money from YouTube?

PSA: Spend Your Toys R Us & Babies R Us Gift Cards and Rewards Dollars

tru0Well, it’s official, Toys R Us (and Babies R Us) has announced that it will close all of its 700+ US stores by the end of the year, while other reports have the business running out of cash by May. They stated that they “expect” to accept gift cards and rewards dollars for another 30 days. However, I would spend any gift cards or store credit as soon as possible. We went over the weekend to do just that, and most of the “commodity” items like food, formula, and diapers were already starting to sell out. According to AOL, about 17.7 million in Borders gift cards were left outstanding when they shut down in 2011.

I’ve been reading a lot of nostalgic stories about Toys R Us, but my wife and I both commented that we hardly ever went into Toys R Us when we were kids. Even counting my visit this weekend, I’m pretty sure I’ve been inside one less than 10 times in my life. Sure, we saw the commercials on TV, but we never visited the physical stores. I guess I was never a “Toys R Us kid”.

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