Free or paid online services: which should you choose?

flickr logoThere are a bunch of free services on the internet. There are services like Google Drive (formerly Docs) which is basically a free online word processor, spreadsheet app, and presentation app. There is Flickr which is a free photo sharing service. There’s Tumblr which is used for many types of sharing, but is most similar to a free blogging service.

All of these services (and many more) are great, and who doesn’t want free? Well, free isn’t always the best option.

Free support = no support

First, free usually means you are on your own if you need help. There is no 1-800 number to call for tech support. There might be an email address, but you may not get a response. If you are lucky there is a forum where other users go online to help other users who need it.

If you are paying for a service, you should be getting customer service also. There is usually an email address and/or a phone number to help when you need it. Now some place might have tiered service and give quicker responses based on your membership, but you should be getting some type of support if you are paying. For example, I use SmugMug for sharing photos and videos. This is a paid service. Not only do I love the site, but the customer service is fantastic. I usually get a response to my emails within an hour.

Lack of features

In addition to not having support free services usually come at a price of features. Many free services will offer the basics for free and when you want more you have to start paying. Some services might be thought of as a free demo or “lite” version and the full version comes with a fee. For example, you might be using a free online word processor that lets you type and save all of your documents. However, when you want to share or print a document or save in another format you have to pay. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this, but make sure you are aware of limitation before you start using a service and get hooked into it.

Free is still good

I’m not saying you shouldn’t use free services on the internet. There are a bunch of great ones out there, and I use several. For example, I use Dropbox and iCloud. Both are fantastic services and both are free. However, if I want more storage out of both services I have to start paying an annual fee (yes, there are ways to get more storage in Dropbox for free, but at some point that runs out too). If I needed to I would be happy to pay, but I know the limitations and make sure I don’t get to that point.

In the end, it is a good rule of thumb to do some research before jumping into a free service. Make sure it meets your needs. What are the limitations? Are you willing to pay a membership fee if you have to? Just remember, you get what you pay for and don’t start complaining when that free service isn’t enough.

Holiday Gift Guide 2011: Shopping on a Budget Edition

In case you haven’t been following the news over the past few years, the economies of most countries around the world are failing. This means a lot of people will be tightening their belts this year as they seek to hold onto what little they have left in the way of assets.

This means those extravagant, expensive gifts such as televisions and laptops bought in previous years may be out of the question this holiday season. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still buy a gadget which will brighten the heart of any geek you have in your family. It’s all about choosing your gift wisely in order to remain under your budget.

Headphones & Speakers

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An expensive desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone, or MP3 player is pointless without the right audio equipment. Buying a set of headphones or speakers can make all the difference to the geek in your life. And you don’t have to spend a fortune to do so.

High-end speakers and headphones are fantastic, granted, but who has $100-and-up to spend on the latest ‘Beats by Dr. Dre’ or Altec Lansing speaker systems? Logitech and Creative are recommended for budget 2.1 systems, while capsule speakers outperform for their size and stature. Sony, Sennheiser, and JVC all come highly recommended for affordable but classy headphones.

Smartphone Cases & Covers

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You may not be able to afford to buy your loved ones the latest smartphone such as the iPhone 4S or Samsung Galaxy Nexus, but you can help them deck their handset out in style. Covers for smartphones cost just a few dollars but can help make them stand out from the crowd in a big, bold way.

The options available are virtually limitless. Classic one-color designs which give a smartphone a classy look and glossy feel; pink, shiny, sequined affairs for the most glamorous girls; retro covers to make a modern-day phone look like it belongs in the 1980s; a design for the zeitgeist, from Angry Birds to fashion labels.

USB Flash Drives

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OK, so a USB flash drive isn’t exactly the most inspiring or exciting gift someone could open on Christmas day. But it beats socks and toiletries. It’s also an essential weapon in any computer user’s arsenal. Most people will be able to back up their most important data – photos, documents, bookmarks – to a flash drive without any problems. And doing so regularly could save a great deal of anguish should their hard drive ever fail.

Prices of USB flash drives have dropped so much that you now need only spend a few dollars to get 8GB, and doubling the price will pretty much double the amount of memory.

Tablet/eBook Reader Accessories

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An iPad or Android-based alternative is an expensive item by anyone’s standards. A Kindle or eBook Reader is more affordable, but still possibly out of range for most people in these times of austerity. Thankfully there are accessories aplenty available for this hardware. All of which cost just a few dollars but which make great gifts.

These range from covers and cases, through sleeves and skins, to reading lights and power adapters. Oh, and wireless keyboards which gives tablet owners the option of turning their device into a notebook. All completely unnecessary but desirable additions for these mobile form factors.

Video Games

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Gamers come in all shapes and sizes these days, and more importantly, in all age groups. Which makes video games a worthy purchase for all who like to spend time staring at a screen for hours at a time. Assuming they actually own a console or high-end PC, of course.

The latest releases on PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii retail at anywhere between $30 and $60 from new. Which is relatively cheap for an item that can literally provide hours of entertainment. But there are bargains to be had by buying older games. All three home consoles have now matured, so there are classic games released around launch that can be picked up for just a few dollars. Or you can buy pre-owned software and lower the price even more.

Blu-rays

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Blu-ray players are still relatively expensive to buy. Unless you’re also a gamer and have the luxury of one being built into your PS3, which, incidentally, is one of the cheapest top-end Blu-ray players you can buy right now. But the actual Blu-ray movies themselves have come down in price considerably, meaning they’re a viable gift idea for anyone on a tight budget.

Even the latest Blu-ray releases are highly affordable, retailing at around $20. Box-sets can be more expensive, but classic and highly watchable series such as The Lord Of The Rings, Star Wars, and Harry Potter are all available for under $100. Just check that the recipient actually has the hardware in place before you start updating their movie collection for them.

Conclusion

As you can see, you don’t have to spend a fortune in order to give someone a present from the technology category. So what if none of the above compete with a new 50-inch LED TV or iPad 2, I’d be ecstatic to receive any of them wrapped up and sitting under the Christmas tree. And your bank manager will stay nicely contented as well.

Image Credits: TheDarkThing, kaeru.my, emilydickinsonridesabmx, Nedko, bfishadow, Rad Jose, Michael_Spencer.

How to Make Money Online as a Cha Cha Guide

So here I sit, finishing my last semester of college and dreaming about the future and all it will bring.  Money, income, cash, cabbage, cheese, wonton… ok, I’m not entirely sure if that last one is an actual slang for money, but if it’s not it should be (and I will be collecting a small royalty).

Until that happens, I sit here and scheme. How can I make some wonton without actually having to get a job? Ah yes, the magic of the internets.

Turns out there are quite a few different ways to make a little extra cash on the side with the help of the internet. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be reviewing a few sites and services offered free of charge to make money right from your home without that sinking feeling that you’ve just invested in a pyramid scheme.

Working as a Cha Cha Guide

Ever needed a quick answer for something but didn’t know where to turn? Well, typically I would turn to Google and figure out the answer. But what if you’re outside data coverage and a $1 bet is riding on the outcome? Simple: text the question to 242242 and get an answer in return.

So how do you make money off this? (Besides winning that oh-so-shiny dollar?)

The answer is by becoming a Cha Cha Guide. Instead of being the guy asking how many square feet in an acre (45,360) be the guy answering such questions.

Orientation

The orientation process is the most intense out of the methods I’m going to cover. There are a few different videos filled with information needed to pass the final test. Yes, test. These required videos will take about 45 minutes to 1 hour to get through. They are also interactive and need some user input to move on, so listen up!

When you get through the videos, you can move onto the final test. You only get one shot at the test, so make sure and take in all the introductory videos have to offer you. I kind of listened to it all in the background, but I got through all the same. The test is a series of sample questions you need to answer exactly as if you were answering real, user submitted questions. Your answers and methods are then reviewed and you notified after a few days if you are in or out. A lengthy process, but simple enough.

Work Required

The work required in being a Cha Cha guide is easy but tedious, and there is a lot of it. An endless supply really. As a Cha Cha guide, your responsibilities boil down to basically three actions: answer a question outright; answer a question using the answer to a previous, similar question; or pass the question along to “Answer Specialists,” people that delve deeper into complicated questions. One of your main responsibilities as a guide is to do one of those three functions, and do it fast.

The Pay

Cha Cha pays per each answered question. There are quite a few variables as to how much you get paid, but it all starts at $100 per 20,000 processed questions. That might sound like a lot of work, and, don’t get me wrong, it is. Especially when even at your fastest you might be able to answer 120 questions an hour, the leader boards show people answering as many as 300+ an hour, which just seems non-human to me.

But, this is where the variables kick in. First, if Cha Cha as a whole answers a set amount of questions during the month you can earn as much as $140 per 20,000 answered questions. There are also various contests where you can earn an extra $1 or $2 dollars per 200 questions answered. Those same contests will reward an additional $25 to the person who answers the most questions. So, if you’re diligent, you could actually accrue $100+ dollars in bonuses by the time you hit the 20,000 questions answered. And, on top of all of this, the top answering Guides of the month earn double what they would have.

So, by looking at some recent numbers on the website, the top earner has answered some 68,000 questions. That is about $350 there, add to that maybe $100 in extras and double it because that person is far and away the highest earner during the month of January and you get $900. That’s a pretty good chunk of wonton.

Conclusion

The thing that makes Cha Cha unique in this series is that the money is guaranteed. There is no competing, no special skills required, just hours of work. And, hours of work it is. I joined to leisurely pick up a few dollars here and there a week. But, the way the payment method works is that if you work diligently and often you get paid almost handsomely, but if you don’t the payment is quite low for the amount of work done.

At a rate of 100 questions/hour it will take you 200 hours to make $100 – $140. But, if you put in the time and make it to the top spots that make double, and take advantage of the contests you can reap some hefty rewards from right on your couch. The work is easy and pretty enjoyable if you’re the type that loves useless knowledge. So, if that sounds like your gig, I would recommend giving Cha Cha a try.

Images courtesy: James Thorpe, woohoo_megoo

How I Used the Internet to Save Time and Money While Shopping

As I believe I’ve stated on most (if not all) of my past articles, I am kind of lazy. I did not line up at 2:30am on Black Friday in hopes of scoring huge deals. In addition to that, I am in college, therefore I am, let’s say, not as financially well off as I would like to be. An obvious fix for this would be to become less lazy and stand in line on Black Friday and get things for cheap. Or, I could just shop online.

Shopping online has made bargain shopping not only easy, but almost hard not to do. In the past you drove to Best Buy to look at a TV, and if it was in your price range you probably picked it up. You did this because Wal-Mart was on the other end of town and you didn’t want to risk going all the way there only to find it was more expensive and have to drive back. What a pain.

Or, you could wait until Sunday and compare sales ads. These babies told you what the hot deals were, but really nothing else. Sure that TV is only $400, but how many HDMI input ports does it have? Does it even have HDMI? Is it HD as in anything that’s not 480p or is it true 1080p HD?

Add to all of this the fact the abysmal odds of two ads from different stores showing the exact same product on sale, and it’s pretty easy to see that shopping this way also had its drawbacks.

Then came the internet

(Insert angelic voices and rays of sunshine here)

Now, going to Best Buy only takes 5 seconds. Running over to Target to check their deals only takes another 5 seconds. In 15 minutes you have run all over town and checked out every deal available. All without having to put pants on.

This obviously has its advantages (seriously, who wants to put on pants on a Sunday?), but there’s more! Ever find it a bit coincidental that the floor salesman always recommends the most expensive of whatever you happen to be looking for and, that for whatever reason it is better from their place than it would be from another store? No more!

Probably one of the best things I like about shopping online is the customer reviews. I pay a lot of attention to customer reviews because they usually point out incredibly good aspects of the product I’m looking to buy, or some potential problems about them that I might otherwise miss. Some things I take into consideration are manufactures warranty and mail-in rebates. A website may list the price of an item as $20 off with mail in rebate, but if a look at the reviews informs me that getting said rebate is a hassle, I’ll try a different product.

Another way to save money is to take advantage of sites like Woot.com. If you haven’t Wooted yet, I would strongly recommend it. Woot sells one item a day (unless a Woot Off! is going on in which they sell a product until it runs out and then move to another one). This one item they sell is usually hugely discounted from what it normally runs.

The important thing to remember with Woot is that the only way you’re saving money is when you’re buying something that you would have had to buy anyway at a higher price. If you bought every good deal that was available on Woot.com you would probably make a purchase every day (and have about 394 Roombas). Another thing to note with Woot is that sometimes they will sell refurbished products (which accounts for a better-than-average deal). It is always stated on the product information if they are new or refurbished, so it might be worth checking if the warranty is still intact, etc.

Another great place to find deals is with Gizmodo’s Dealzmodo. Once a day, the Gizmodo team puts together a list of great deals from all around the internet. The deals come in all shapes and sizes: TV’s, game consoles, iPhone apps, etc.

Gain an advantage with research

One great, money-saving way to use the internet is to educate yourself. Exactly what about that laptop makes it so expensive? Maybe it’s because it has a dedicated graphics card and a quad-core processor. It doesn’t take a lot of research to figure out that you don’t need that if you’re just going on the internet and writing Techerator articles.

The same thing applies to almost any item. If you do some research, you can often find exactly what you need and not have to pay for extras you aren’t going to use.

Research can also let you in on some secrets such as how marked-up the prices of some products are in department stores.  For instance, talk to anyone that works at a Best Buy and ask them how much mark-up is added to cables and accessories. It’s ridiculous and might make you a bit nauseous. Online sites that make their own cables and sell them without ridiculous mark-ups can literally save you hundreds of dollars.

Last time I checked, the cheapest HDMI cable I could buy at my local Best Buy was around $25 (for a 6′ cable). I recently bought a 25’ HDMI cable to go from my Xbox 360 to my projector and paid $27 at www.monoprice.com. That same 6 foot cable you buy at Best Buy will cost you about $3 at monoprice.com.

Conclusion

The internet has saved my wallet over the years. I pride myself on getting good deals, especially on electronics, and I know I’ve saved hundreds of dollars just by buying all my cables online.

What are your online money-saving secrets? Do you have a site you like to frequent because of some great money-saving deals? Let us all know in the comments.

Stay connected & save: 6 tips for padding your bank account in the New Year

With the New Year just around the corner, saving money seems to be on the minds of many people. Being a graduate student, I am not among these people, because Academia pays huge sums of money for almost zero work.

Let’s be serious, I’m broke, and I need to save some dough.  New Years is just the time to start padding my savings account and cutting my costs.

I had an interesting conversation recently with my friend Brianna that went something like this…

Brian: “Bri, buy me pizza.”
Brianna: “Buy it yourself.”
Brian:  “I can’t. I don’t have any money.”

I think this exchange goes a long way in describing my need to slash some expenses. I spent the rest of my evening making a plan for January 1st that will dig me out of my financial sinkhole. The only rule is that I don’t want to live like a monk—I need some entertainment and, of course, Internet access.

So where do I plan to make the cuts? *Straps on helmet* Come with me.

1.  Choose your connection—Mobile Device vs. Cable Internet

At the moment I have a cell phone with Internet access as well as high-speed cable Internet access in my apartment. I’ve got to face the facts…I can’t afford both. Your situation may differ, but I personally don’t use my mobile device for much other than convenient email and the occasional Tweet, so my choice is obvious, sack the data plan on my phone.

However, if you’re the kind of person that doesn’t need super bandwidth at home, you may opt for a data plan that allows you to tether your computer and phone. There’s a swanky deal that will save you $40 or better. In my case, by shedding the data plan on my mobile device (and downgrading my anytime minutes), I’ll be saving $45. Cha-ching.

Worried about losing your ability to text? Fear not. Gmail and Google Voice allow you to SMS your contacts from your PC.

Pro-tip:  If you require mobile device Internet and Email access for work, ask your employer if they would be receptive to a co-pay plan. Some of my friends have had success with this.

2.  Choose your entertainment

Entertainment overload can be surprisingly stressful.  I have an Xbox Live subscription, Netflix, an enhanced Cable package, and I’ve been toying with the notion of Hulu Plus. Seriously, there aren’t enough hours in the day to enjoy each of these in the way the creators intended, so why cut yourself short?

I have a pile of Xbox 360 games still in the cellophane (including Dragon Age, ARGH!) so there is no question that I’ll be ditching my Live subscription. With all the free TV and movies available on Hulu and Netflix, is there really any reason for me to have enhanced Cable that I don’t watch?

By dropping Xbox Live and ditching my cable package (aside from internet), I’ll be saving $41 per month. Huzzah!

3.  Join a food co-op

After looking over my monthly expenses, I was shocked to see how much I spent on food. Between going out to eat and spending a small fortune at my local coffee house, my monthly food bill was approaching $450 each month.

I wept. I swore. I found an alternative.

Local food co-ops will help you pinch your pennies by providing you with a place to buy bulk commodities, such as grains, rice, soup mix, and basically any other dry food you can imagine. Bring your own container and taste the savings. Better yet, many co-ops offer year-round selections of local produce, such as tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, and so on. You know what that means? You’ll be forced to be healthier and more attractive as you save money. The nerve of these people.

Most co-op purchased fruits and vegetables are organic. Organic?! Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!!

The co-op in my city costs $100 to join, but it is a fee that will be refunded when you leave the co-op. Plus, it gives you part ownership of the co-op. Pretty good deal. Aside from the initial cost, my new carefully planned food budget has slashed my culinary deviance by $150. Yeah, that’s right. You don’t like that–do ya, gut?

4.  Park the car. Leave it parked.

I drive too much. You drive too much. We as Americans (and some Europeans) drive too much.

We pay tax dollars to support a public transit system that we almost never use. At the moment I spend $75 on gas each month (3 tanks). As a student, I get free access to all city buses. Also, during the summer I’ll be riding my bike and hopefully getting some sun on this dreadfully pasty skin of mine.

My goal is to cut out one tank of gas each month, and I think that’s very conservative–a savings of at least $25 each month. Bazinga!

Pro-tip: Driving less will save on regular car maintenance, like oil changes. On a related note, don’t be tempted to skimp on car maintenance, as you already know deep down that it will bite you in the ass eventually.

5.  Save power AND quarters—a laundry tip

Some people may think this is silly, but take a second and think about your laundry. How many loads do you do in a month? How much electricity does it eat up to dry them? Or worse—how many quarters?

My parents recently purchased a drying rack to accompany their washer, and between the two of them, they save $6 each month on electricity. Pretty cool! I did some thinking and realized that I probably spend more than that each month in quarters drying my clothes at the laundromat. For shame!

A friend was quick to inform me that letting your clothes hang dry is a good way to increase their lifespan. That’s $6 per month in savings, and probably more. Let it rain!

6.  Ice those credit cards and make a friggin’ budget

We’ve been hearing this forever, but few of us actually do it. The average American has over $8,000 in credit card debt with an average APR of 14.4%. No need to bust out those calculators, that’s over $1100 that we hand over each year…

Studies have shown that people who stick to a monthly budget and limit their credit card usage usually pay off their credit card debt within 18 months. Are you up for the challenge? I am, because I’m tired of paying for Citi-branded Corvettes.

Head over to Google Docs and grab some of their pre-made Budget templates and tailor it to your own expenses. Then, set up an account at Mint to closely monitor your spending and upcoming bills. We can’t fail, amigo.

As an average American, a clean credit card balance means a savings of $96 per month. Bonzai!

Conclusion

If I follow my plan closely, I’ll be saving $363 each month. That’s $4356 in a year! My friends, that’s a lot of cheddar. What could you do with that kind of cash? A mattress of dollar bills, perhaps?

With a little discipline, the savings from these small lifestyle adjustments will alter the course of my ‘pizza’ conversation by this same time next year.

Brian: “Bri, buy me pizza. Psych! I’ll buy it myself…With real money. And guess what—you don’t get any. Ok, you can have ONE PIECE…but I get to choose the toppings. And I’m taking the toppings off your piece.”

Sorry, Bri, the wealthier Brian is insufferable.

Happy savings, and happy holidays, everybody.

The Month That I Had Cable TV

For some reason, there seems to be this impenetrable wall between myself and accumulated money (this wall may be made up solely of beer and video games, but it is a wall none the less). Because of this unfortunate, seemingly impossible-to-avoid situation, I constantly find myself in, I find that I must cut back in other areas in my life to keep my head above water. My last big endeavor (and one seeming to rise in popularity) was to say good bye to cable television.

That was some time ago, probably around March or April, and it was hardly even missed, especially in summer when I moved out and my roommate spent most his time working. But, since school is back in session and more importantly the NFL season started back up, we decided we wouldn’t mind spending a few bucks a month extra to be able to watch football and Weeds every week.

So we scoured the mail looking for a promotion we could jump on to save a few bucks and make the switch back to cable. When we found it: the deal was DVR theatre suite and internet for $79.00 for 6 months (I’m not even going to get started with the $123/month it was after the 6 months were up). My roommate and I both decided that after the 6 months were up (around May 2011) we would cancel it because summer would be upon us again. Sounded like a pretty good deal.

Then we got the first bill.  We had been getting internet from this company for quite some time so we took a look to see how much more each of us had to pay from what we already were. What was the grand total of our first month’s bill? $79.00? No, that would be pretty hard to expect. Try $133.34. I actually found that a little harder to believe, especially because free installation was part of the deal!

We promptly did some digging.

There was:

  • $79.00 for the Bundled Services
  • $3.00 for Additional Cable Services
  • $9.95 for Other Charges & Adjustments (AKA Installation)
  • $12.23 for Taxes, Surcharges & Fees

Oh yeah.. and $29.16 for Partial Month Services.

$29.16 for 8 days? Oh and free installation.. Except for the $9.95 they charged for installation.

Now I usually wouldn’t gripe about all these extra fees because everyone expects them by now. But, the part that got me was the “Partial Month Services” because we specifically waited until the end of the month to get it. So after looking a little deeper we found the “partial month” was from Oct. 29 to Nov. 7.

$29.16 for 8 days of cable TV

To me that was a little ridiculous. Never mind that $29.16 is 37% of the $79.00 advertised price, but add on top of it the fact that we had already paid for internet for that month, and yeah I felt it was a little much (especially because we couldn’t even watch it for the first few days as we were rounding up an HDMI cable to run to our projector from the DVR).

I suggested a call to the cable company. We had been long time customers for internet and the circumstances did (I thought) warrant some kind of change or even a pro-rate of our last month’s internet bill. They would probably be willing to work with us.

They didn’t. And because of that, we no longer have cable TV.

Now, I don’t honestly believe that anyone at the cable company really lost sleep over their loss of 5 months of service from one customer. But, maybe they should. My roommate and I are both young guys and could quite possibly live in the area for years to come. Maybe after college, when I have money and the beer/video game wall is slightly smaller, I wouldn’t mind spending $100 a month on TV. But, after this, it definitely won’t be with that company. And, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard of people canceling for reasons just like this.

In some areas there aren’t much else for options. There’s always Dish, but that has contracts of usually 2 years. Personally, I’ve gone to watching a lot of streaming movies/TV series on Netflix and that’s not bad. I’ve been pretty interested in checking out Hulu Plus and I’m excited about the rumors that Xbox Live will get a subscription based, cable-esque service. Hopefully in time options like these can make a big enough impact to see a change in the way cable companies treat their customers.

What about the rest of you? Have any of you had enough with your cable/satellite/internet provider and given them the boot? What’s your story, and what options are you utilizing instead? Let us know in the comments.

(Update: As I’m posting this article I feel like I must include the fact that since we canceled the Bundled Services and switched back to just internet, they insisted they needed to send a guy out to physically install the internet at our apt.. for $35. Even though we own our own modem and router and the entire setup has not changed since the Bundled Services were canceled. Apparently it is possible to disconnect services remotely, but not so much to turn them on?)

Image Courtesy of Collin Anderson

Create Budgets, Visualize Expenses, and Reduce Debt for Free with Mint.com

mintdotcomWhen I got my first glimpse of a “big kid job” by taking an engineering internship in 2008, I quickly realized that my strategy of “save enough money for food” wasn’t going to cut it anymore.  Since I was earning significantly more than I was at my previous part-time jobs, I needed a way to track my income (and more importantly, my newfound city expenses like higher rent).

Mint.com is a free, secure way to manage your bank accounts, visualize your spending with graphs and charts, set budgets, and save money for the future.

(Note: For obvious reasons, I’ll be using stock images of Mint.com account pages instead of my own in this article.  These images are identical to the ones you will see if you use the service.)

All your accounts in one place

Now that I’m out of college and working full-time, managing my accounts with Mint.com is even more important.  I can import information from my bank accounts, credit card, retirement savings accounts, and student loans.  This takes all the information that’s spread across 4 or 5 websites and shows it to me on one single screen – I can’t tell you how much time that saves me.

You aren’t limited to just bank accounts and student loans, you can add vehicles, mortgages, and real estate using nearly every popular financial institution.  Mint.com will automatically sync data from your accounts too, so you’ll never be able to say “I had no idea my account was that low!” ever again.

Easily create and manage budgets

Mint.com‘s fantastic budget system is the single most useful feature for me.  When I first considered making a budget, I was overwhelmed by trying to figure out what amounts were realistic to spend but not too high.  Mint helps you right from the start by suggesting budgets based off your spending history in every category.

You can also compare your spending month-to-month, year-to-year, or even against the average US citizen (I’ve since discovered that my “electronics” spending is a bit higher than most…).

Visualize your spending

Ever have that feeling at the end of the month when you realize that you spent way more than you thought? Mint can take your entire spending history, categorize each transaction, and show you exactly how much you’ve spent.

As you can imagine, it isn’t possible for Mint to categorize every transaction properly.  When I buy lunch at my work cafeteria, for example, it has no idea what I’m buying there.  Mint has a very simple method to review your transactions, where you can edit categories (or even create your own).

Security

When I heard about Mint.com over two years ago, I didn’t get an account at first because I was concerned about giving a website access to my financial information.  I’ve been using Mint for two years since, and I’ve never had a concern about how they handle my information.

Mint accounts are anonymous and only require an email address and password for you to log in, meaning they don’t require any personal information like social security numbers or PINs to be kept on file.  Mint also employs technologies from TRUSTe, VeriSign, Hackersafe, and RSA Security to ensure your digital safety.

Most importantly, Mint.com is a read-only service.  You can’t transfer, withdraw, or do anything with you funds through the website – it’s only for viewing and analyzing data.

For more information, check out Mint.com’s security and privacy page.

Mobile apps and notifications

Mint has great applications for both the iPhone and Android, giving you access to your spending reports, budgets, and account statements on the go.  Out on the town and want to make sure you have enough money in your checking account to foot the bill? Just open up Mint and you’ll have an overview of your entire financial situation.

Don’t have a smartphone?  Mint can send you alerts and messages via text message!

Since you can’t always check in on your Mint account, you can set it to notify you about any changes to your accounts.  It can notify you of banking fees charged (great if you’re prone to overdrafting or ATM charges), if you’re using a certain percentage of your total credit, or if you have a payment due.  Personally, I have Mint set up to send me weekly notifications of my account statuses and alert me immediately if I exceed a budget.

Conclusion

Mint is one of the most popular ways to personally view and analyze your finances, and is owned by Intuit (the same company that makes TurboTax and Quicken software).  Even if you’re great at managing your own money, you can always do better by leveraging Mint’s fantastic budgeting and graph software.

Check out Mint.com and let us know what you think!

Save Energy and Lower Your Electricity Bill without Losing the Tech You Love

Most people are worried about how much power they are using and what their carbon footprint might be. Most people think, “I am just one person, what can I do to help?” I have said this same thing before, then I realized a few easy steps can help me save money and help save the planet at the same time.

You might not already know this, but every gadget you have with a little glowing LED light is using electricity even when you aren’t using them, as do cell phone chargers and clocks.  In this article, I’ll give you some great tips on how to cut your energy use and save some money.

Saving Electricity in the Kitchen

The stove, microwave and coffee pot all have clocks on them. There is not much you can (or should do) about the microwave or stove top clock, but you should keep the coffee pot, toaster, and any other appliance unplugged when not in use. Unless you need the coffee to wake you up, the clock doesn’t need to be set with a bunch of extra clocks in the kitchen.

Saving Electricity in the Office

Computer monitors, even energy star monitors, suck power all the time whether on or off.  Speakers being shut off doesn’t mean they are “off”, either.  Phone chargers are another common culprit.

How can you deal with these devices? It is as simple as using a power strip with an on/off switch. If you have two outlets available, I suggest using two power strips. One strip will have the computer tower and anything else need to stay on all the time. The other strip can hold your monitor, speakers, cellphone charger etc. When you leave for a few hours, just flip that switch and you can completely turn off 3 things while the computer and external hard drive can stay on.

Belkin sells remote control power strips for a nicer version of this same technique. When you need your monitor back, just turn the power strip back on and they will come to life as if you pushed the power button on the screen.  They can also be set to turn off after a customizable period of time, and can make your home safer for devices like heaters and coffee makers.

            

Save Electricity in the Bedroom

Most people my age they have a computer in their bedroom and the same tips I write in the Office section can be applied.  Unplug devices like laptop and cell phone chargers when not in use, and consider setting your computer to automatically go to sleep after a certain period of time.

Save Electricity in the Rest of Your Home

Utilizing natural lighting in the day is a great way to save electricity, along with using compact fluorescent bulbs. These bulbs are more expensive than standard incandescent bulbs, but you should not have to replace them for a long time and will use 1/5 of the electricity.  I don’t really like the color of light compact fluorescent bulbs give off, so an idea I have came up with is to use one of each – a fluorescent and a regular bulb in one light fixture.

Basic window insulation can also save on heating and cooling. On hot summer days, keep the shades drawn to keep heat out even though that goes against the previous natural light statement (running a few bulbs is nothing compared to using the AC all day).

Conclusion

While I am not a professional or an expert in the field of saving electricity, I’ve taken the steps I presented in this guide and was able to substantially reduce my electricity bill.  Most of these tips are easy to start doing, and can have long-term benefit for your wallet and the environment.

Image credit: Karl Baron, Jay Reed, Patrick Denker, Eliot Phillips, Dan McKay

Surf the Web, Better the World

You’re busy. You work for a living and when the 9-5 ends, you relax, have fun and do things that you care about (or, work more). You don’t always have time to give back as much as you want.

BetterTheWorld.com changes all that. It’s an online social change community that strives to make it easy and free for people to earn money for non-profit organizations they support. By creating an account on their site and downloading their browser add-on for Firefox, or Internet Explorer, you can start earning points that add up to cash for the organization of your choice.

BetterTheWorld even has monthly contests where you can earn extras for you and your cause — like an Apple Macbook. And all of this is while you do your daily web routine. Nothing changes except the sidebar on your browser, which shows socially conscious, non-intrusive advertisements and updates from the Better The World blog.

This is a perfect add-on for anyone like me who spends the majority of their days on a computer. I’ve racked up a considerable amount of points and after a few weeks I forgot the sidebar was even there. You can also shop online and if the company is supported by Better The World, a percentage of every dollar goes to your chosen cause.

No matter what your ideals, Better The World has nonprofit partners for every techie do-gooder. From getting kids specialized medical equipment to gifting clean water to the third world, they’ll be sure to have a project that you’ll be proud to support. Causes also organically evolve and organizations create new projects relative to current events. When the Haiti and Chile earthquakes struck, you could help give back almost immediately, even if you couldn’t be there in person. The same was so for the Gulf Oil Spill Disaster.

So before you Google, Bing, or Yahoo one more jQuery, MySQL, or CakePHP question (which you can probably find right here), give a little back and download this app.