By Erin Flesch on December 15th, 2008 • Giving, Life

This time of year it’s a common practice for many people to give donations to charity. Opportunities are abundant during the holidays, with local organizations holding food drives and enthusiastic bell-ringers positioned outside most major stores.

But what if you’re interested in doing more than just dropping off a few cans of green beans or unloading your spare change into a red pail? How do you know which charities are legit? Just like with anything else, we want the most bang for our buck. In charity-speak, this means having the most of our donation going directly to the people and causes that need it. To find out what charity is right for you go to charitynavigator.org, an independent website that works to “guide intelligent giving."

With the click of a mouse you can view ratings of thousands of America’s largest charities (view the methodology behind the ratings here). There are top-ten lists that group charities into different categories, such as 10 Celebrity-Related Charities (see what rating the Lance Armstrong Foundation recieved). Or go to 10 Inefficient Fundraisers and see what organizations you might want to avoid this year.

For more information, you can also evauluate charities with the Better Business Bureau.

It feels good to donate to charity--especially when you know exactly where your money is going. So give smart and sit back and enjoy a glass of eggnog. Your holiday karma just went up a notch.

--Erin

The photo is taken from this photostream and used with permission of a Creative Commons license.

By Jens Odegaard on December 12th, 2008 • Cost Saving, DIY, Internet, Video, Life

Sometimes I find myself just staring at my laptop, iPod, camera and USB drives wondering where it all went wrong. At first it all seemed so simple, but now photos aren't converting, my laptop (with a certain glitchy operating system) is acting up again, and my USB drive is super slow. You get the idea. It's times like these that make me wish there was a simple how-to guide for optimizing my digital life.

Say hello to lifehacker.com. It's like the Costco (or whatever big box store is in your area) of digital tips. If you're like me, it will definitely open your eyes to tons of ways to save yourself time and money and get the most out of your technology. The information can be overwhelming at first--just like that 5-gallon bucket of dill pickles--so start by checking out their Most Popular How-To Features of 2008. You can always use their search function to narrow down your results, too.

If your tastes aren't techie (I like to build furniture too) head on over to instructables.com. This site is awesome--what other place offers detailed how-tos on everything from making dill pickles to making things taller to making a cardboard cantilever chair? And if you're looking to make a unique gift for Christmas, check out the gift idea page. Personally, I think the pinball coffee table looks pretty awesome. Whatever you're interested in, there's probably a how-to website out there. Check out these other ones: monkeysee.com and if you're really crafty, cutoutandkeep.net.

With the economy the way it is, right now is the perfect time to save money by optimizing previously-purchased technology and by making some sweet gifts. One last tip, don't be afraid to do a little Dumpster diving (just don't trespass). My wife and I recently found a stand-alone cabinet out next to the Dumpster in our apartment complex. With $20 worth of materials (paint, brushes, wood filler) and a little time, we were able to refinish it and now have a perfect place to keep our books and magazines. Get your thrift on, make something yourself and inject a little originality into this name-brand world.

By Cody Wetmore on December 10th, 2008 • Auto, Economy, Life

Congress is about to pass a U.S. auto industry bailout, but it appears that American auto makers aren’t the only ones in trouble. Hybrid sales dropped 50% in November. This mainly affected foreign car companies like Toyota and Honda, who have accounted for the largest number of hybrid cars sold. Toyota’s Prius and Camry Hybrid sales dropped 48.3% and 57.5% respectively, while sales of Honda Civic Hybrids dropped 67.8% since last year, according to information posted on Green Car Congress.

The failing economy and falling gas prices seem to have tag teamed “green” cars.

--Cody

The pictures are taken from this photostream and used with the permission of a Creative Commons license.

Now that December has come barreling upon us, I’m sure you’re probably starting to feel a bit of a chill… if not, then you’re probably feeling the burn on your wallet. Winter heating costs have been on the rise for the past few years, and this year is no exception.

Now, I know a thing or two about struggling to stay warm. I have been dubbed the “Ice Queen” by friends, due to the fact that my hands and feet maintain a negative temperature at all times. Once, after shaking my abnormally frozen hand, a stranger inquired if my heart was ice cold as well. Ouch. That was a burn.

The point is, we all need to stay warm and it would be nice if we didn’t have to spend all of our holiday spending money to pay our heating bills. It's tough enough out there already. There are tons of ways you can cut down on heating costs that don’t require you to burn your living room furniture or wear 50 layers of long underwear at all times.

Here are a few easy tips to help you stay warm:

  • Heat Where You Live: Don’t crank the thermostat throughout your house if you’re spending the entire night in your bedroom watching the best that YouTube has to offer. Close off rooms not in use.
  • Mind The Gaps: Walk around your place and carefully examine doors, windows, etc. and check for air flow. Sealing these with caulk or tape can prevent cold air from getting in and warm air from getting out.
  • Stop The Fans: A bathroom or kitchen fan can easily suck all the warm air out of a room, so use sparingly or not at all. Extra credit: After cooking, leave the oven door after its been turned off for an added heat boost (make sure kids or pets are a safe distance away).
  • Make A Clearing: Radiators, floor vents and baseboards that are blocked by furniture or rugs are less efficient in circulating air flow, which makes them work harder and costs you more money.
  • Fight Window Pain: Heat loss from windows accounts for 1/3 of your heating bill, so insulate your windows by plugging up cracks with caulk, placing shrink plastic on inside panes and keep curtains and blinds closed at all times.

--Erin

The pictures are taken from photostreams 1 and 2 and used with the permission of a Creative Commons license.

By Jens Odegaard on December 5th, 2008 • Books, Budgeting, College, School

It's dead week at a lot of colleges and universities, which means that next week you'll wish you were dead when you sell your textbooks back at the campus bookstore only to find that your $150 biology book is only worth $30 now. I might be exaggerating things a bit, but I know how you feel. The good news is that you don't have to sit there and take it. You have other options. You can sell the books yourself and cut out the middleman: Check out campusbookswap.org (it's run by students for students), or use the big boys like amazon.com or half.com. You can also use ecampus.com--they'll give you a quote on how much they'll pay for your books, and will even pay the shipping costs if you choose to sell to them.

But here's the real scoop on how to get through college without having to sell your shoe collection to pay for an econ book. Don't buy from the campus bookstore unless you absolutely can't find the title anywhere else. After my first few terms in college started off with huge book bills, I started looking for a different approach to the whole textbook scheme. Get the syllabus from your professor at the earliest possible point in time. Then scan the book list in the syllabus, and buy the books from an online wholesaler like the ones I listed. You'll save a ton of coin.

Then, if you didn't pay the exorbitant markups at the bookstore in the first place, their buyback prices will actually look pretty good. One term I even made money selling my books back.

So, this term make sure you get the best possible price for your books by comparing prices online or selling them yourself. Next term, buy online from the start. When buyback rolls around you'll be grinning like the Cheshire Cat while everyone else mopes around like Eeyore.

The photo is taken from this photostream and used with permission of a Creative Commons license.

So apparently, we’ve had an unwelcome guest lurking around the U.S. for the past year. We ignored it for as long as we could, but now after months of it leaving dirty socks on the floor, putting empty milk cartons back in the fridge and embarrassing us in company meetings, we are finally acknowledging its presence. Yes, a U.S. recession is here. Not only that, but it’s making itself comfortable on our new white couch and has informed us that its planning on sticking around for awhile. Oh goodie.

Across the United States, people everywhere are dealing with this intruder in their daily lives. In October, the national jobless rate rose to 6.5% and companies cut 240,000 jobs (bringing the total job loss to 1.2 million this year). The economy is projected to shrink at a 3.5% annual rate by the end of this year and at a 2% rate for the first quarter in 2009. 

It gonna be a rough few months at least, maybe even a couple of years at most. Unwanted visitors are a pain, but we're ready to help you out. My advice? Prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and keep reading brass for more tips, tricks and resources to handle your money wisely. Oh, and if you've got any thoughts on how to stay ahead in the money game, leave 'em below. It feels good to share.

--Erin

These pictures were taken from this photostream and used with the permission of a Creative Commons license.

By Jens Odegaard on December 1st, 2008 • Budgeting, Sports, Investing

Summer is warm and alive and the sports are so carefree--beach volleyball, swimming, flag football, and surfing in shorts and bikinis. But in my opinion, winter sports are what separate the men from the prima donnas and the women from the Botox crowd. Sports in the winter become more about survival and less about fun. Beach volleyball? Try playing that on a crisp coastline while sand is driven into your corneas by gale-force winds. Swimming? You try jumping into 33 degree water. Flag football? How about losing your footing and face-planting into the frozen tundra that was a warm, forgiving, park lawn in the summer. Surfing in the winter? Forget the shorts and pull out a wetsuit and booties. Winter makes you count the costs.

That's why I've always loved winter (also because my birthday is December 10th). Winter offers plenty of opportunities for cheap recreation activities. With winter comes snow, which is right up there with sunshine in my book of awesome natural gifts. Snow leads directly to skiing. And skiing and snowboarding are awesome winter sports. Even better, if you go at night, you can save a lot of dough. Check out Night Chill, More Thrill for all the details. But skiing and boarding aren't the only things that you can do in the winter. Grab a sled, inner tubes, cafeteria trays, some buddies, two or three Thermoses (Thermii?) of hot chocolate and head to the nearest hill. It's free and fun--just read up on safety guidelines before you head out to keep a snow day from turning into a bad day.

For all of you who live in warm climates, surfing has the summer connotation in our cultural lexicon, but the waves are often better in the winter. So, put your wetsuit on and get out there--I'll be waiting in the lineup. Remember, if you're not cold, you're not having fun.

The photos are taken from photostream 1 and  photostream 2 and used with permission of Creative Commons licenses: license 1, license 2.

Blackbeard, Henry Morgan, Captain Kidd, Captain Jack Sparrow--the list could, and probably should, go on. People love pirates so much that there's evenLook, that's a Jolly Roger. an International Talk Like A Pirate Day. Throughout history, pirates have been known for their audacity and complete lack of respect for maritime law. Pirates were so off the Hook (pun intended) that they even kidnapped Julius Caesar. Heck, back in the day, governments of various countries even sponsored pirates to wreak havoc on their enemies' trade ships. The French, English, Spanish, and even us Americans were particularly fond of this phenomenon known as privateering.

Over time, pirates gained their own mythology. Bigger than life. Today, we think of pirates as a thing of the past, just like Vikings and Romans and the rest. But, if they've been owning people since 75 B.C., why would they stop now? And now, a short scene from The Adventures Of Modern-Day Pirates:

Somewhere on the coast of Somalia... In a land stricken with poverty and lacking a central government for more than 20 years. No food. No industry. No way to make a living. The average life span is 46 years.  But the Gulf of Aden--a key shipping route--is just offshore. Ships pass close as they leave the Suez Canal...

PIRATE CAPTAIN: In the last year we have attacked more than 90 ships. We've made more than $150 million. Are you ready for the most audacious theft of all?

PACK OF PIRATES: Shouts of glee.

PIRATE CAPTAIN: Today, we take the Sirius Star.

PACK OF PIRATES: Stunned silence.

CABIN BOY: But Captain, the Sirius Star is one of the largest super tankers in the world. It's size is greater than three aircraft carriers.

PIRATE CAPTAIN: That's what makes it such a prize. It can carry up to 2 million barrels of oil... worth close to $100 million.

PACK OF PIRATES: Gasps.

PIRATE CAPTAIN: We will be rich beyond our wildest dreams...

--END SCENE--

The pirates pulled off the heist--the largest ever--and are now asking for a $15 million ransom. This has left the international community confused over how to deal with the ongoing piracy. Meanwhile, Somali pirates have enabled a new economy to spring up along the Somalian coastline. Shop owners supply the pirates with food etc., and towns that were once dead are teeming with life.

Even though the pirates are costing the global economy millions and causing shipping companies enormous headaches, the micro-economy they inspired has brought stability to a region that's been shaky since before the Berlin Wall came down.  The pirates themselves are living it up like pirates always have--beautiful women, money, grandiose houses and extravagant vehicles. Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me.

 

The term “deflation” has been thrown around a lot lately, enough that a chart on the Economist’s website highlighted the term’s frequency of use in financial publications like the Wall Street Journal. Use of the term increased fivefold between August and November 20th. This number is expected to rise even higher, since a 1% decrease in consumer prices in October signals that deflation is happening in our economy. What is deflation, you ask? Deflation is a decline in prices, which is usually caused by a decreased supply of money or credit, or lower government, personal or investment spending. Now, you may think that because inflation is bad, deflation is good. Lower prices are always good, right? Sadly, this is not the case. The downside of deflation is an increased rate of unemployment. Companies don’t lower prices out of the good of their collective hearts. Lower amounts of available credit and decreased personal spending have drastically decreased the level of demand in our economy. These realities force companies to make cutbacks. So, while lower prices may help the average consumer, the slowdown in the economy and cuts in business expenditures mean that many more people could lose their jobs. --Cody

This picture is taken from this photostream and used with permission of a Creative Commons license.

By Cody Wetmore on November 21st, 2008 • College, Free, School, Video, Life

The Internet can be a great place to find free stuff and free music. Now you can add free lectures and coursework from some of the world’s top universities to the list. I’m not sure what their game is, but you should take advantage. Educhoices.org lists universities' free online content. This can range from course syllabi to downloadable audio and video lectures. They have pages listing universities with best overall free content, tech courses, science courses and business courses.

One of my teachers in high school used to tell us about sitting in on lectures around Boston when he was younger. He enjoyed this because he didn’t have to pay and, better yet, he didn’t have to turn in any work. Without the spectre of the dreaded “grade” hanging over you, you can focus on actually learning. If you’re in high school, these lectures can help you decide which university you might want to attend. Those already in college can use free lectures from Stanford and Berkley to sound extra smart in class, and everyone else can use them for their personal edification.

--Cody

This picture is taken from this photostream and used with permission of a Creative Commons license.