Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Reviewing Online Personal Finance Tools

For a few months now I've been messing around with some of the online finance apps, mainly Yodlee, Mint, and, as of today Quicken Online, which is now free. I've also looked at Wesabe and Geezeo.

I've gotten fed up with the Quicken desktop application. They've forced me to upgrade to an inferior version which then corrupted my data, forcing me to do far more work than I'm willing to do to fix the data file. I'm a long-time user of Quicken, but it provides more features than I use, and I didn't always trust the results it gave me.

My main financial goal is to live within our means. I want to be able to enter recurring and other upcoming bills and find out what's left to spend. I want to be able to use this information as a decision-making tool when I have the gimmes for a new outfit, a GPS, or a trip to Aruba -- can we afford it this month? This is the tool that I've had tremendous difficulty finding, but today I discovered that Quicken Online does an adequate job. It doesn't seem to use the current credit card balance(s) to calculate it's Real Balance (R), but at least it's on the right track, showing me, on the first page What's Left. True, it's completely wrong, but if I look at the Checking account, it shows me upcoming bills and income and the balance at each date so if I input the amount of the upcoming credit card bill(s) I do see the checking account balance that includes all the bills that have to be paid.

Rudder seems to have an app that does what I'm looking for, that is, calculate What's Left based on balances and recurring bills input by the user. But I haven't tried it. It doesn't do much else (not even show you transactions, much less categorize them), and I've scattered our financial information over the web widely enough already. Still it does look like it has the one feature I think every other application is missing. Hopefully one of the other services will snap it up and include its features in their application.

No other online tool that I've found even attempts to show me if we're living within our means this month. Some of them (Yodlee, for instance) are happy to show me how my income and spending compare in past months, but to my knowledge I cannot enter recurring bills and paychecks to calculate something similar to Quicken's What's Left number. Mint doesn't even do a good job at comparing income and spending, showing me a chart where spending appears below the axis, and income appears above, making it visually difficult to compare the two numbers. Geezeo and Wesabe don't seem to have even a chart of spending vs. income over the past few months.

Quicken Online has a long way to go. For instance, it does a terrible job of importing transactions from my bank (same as the desktop version). There is absolutely no identifying information -- I have to open my bank's site and manually enter information for each transaction into Quicken Online. Yodlee manages much better, so clearly the information is available and Quicken is just not using it. Also, Quicken seems terribly slow.

Yodlee has some strengths compared to Quicken Online, which is the current but beatable frontrunner for me. It has a lot of good tools, charts, etc. and categorizes my data well. It also stores our investment information and gives some stats about it. Quicken Online does not appear to handle investments. At least that's what I've read, and so far I haven't been able to link to our modest Sharebuilder account.

I've played a little with the budgeting tools in Yodlee and Mint, and find them inadequate. For instance, Yodlee doesn't add up the various budget categories to give you a total. So if I want to know if I'm budgeting more than our actual income, I have to use a calculator! And I find Mint barely worth discussing. It's pretty, and it tells me what's in each account and gives me a list of transactions, but as for doing any analysis, fergetabowit. I don't understand the buzz about Mint at all -- it's not useful to me.

I looked at Mvelopes a while back, but hated the cost, and found it too labor intensive. I don't feel the need to allocate each dollar of income to a category of spending, although I can see how that would be useful. My needs are of a lower level.

So in the end I'm still looking for the right tool. And I'm willing to pay -- say what I'd pay for a new Quicken over three years. I think that works out to about a dollar a month.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Parenting though the storm

Last Friday, along with much of the rest of Central Massachusetts, we had no power. In retrospect, our emergency was minor compared to others, but our electricity was out for 10 hours and the house was cooling off. The radio news I was able to listen to warned that it might be days before the power was back on. For us that was not true, thank goodness, but some people are still without power a week later.

The hardest part of our own little disaster was parenting well through it. I was single parenting, by the way. My husband is on the fire department, and he left at midnight and worked for twenty-seven hours. However, he wasn’t far away, and I bothered him with phone calls a few times.

Mid-morning the house was getting cooler, and especially as we didn’t know when the power would come back on, I wanted to get some wood to burn in the fireplace. Despite all the ice on the trees, in our neighborhood at least, the ice and damage were minimal, and the roads were clear. Other parts of town were a drastically different story. It was a storm where a degree or so difference in temperature made a huge difference to the result of the weather.

Two of my three kids didn’t want to get in the car when I was ready to try to find firewood. During the day I found there was a lot to do – I wanted to use the light to get ready to be in the dark, so I was getting candles ready, hauling wood, taking food out of the fridge and trying to plan no-cook meals, all in the midst of trivial interruptions. Part of me thought there should be no fighting because of the emergency. But kids don’t work that way.

Anyway, it left me with some insights about emergencies and parenting. An emergency is a lot of work, and parents don’t have a lot of slack in their days. So if you know a parent in an emergency and you want to help, you might offer to take care of their kids. Alternatively, you might offer to take care of some other part of their work, even a routine part, like laundry, meals, or dishes. If you can help call needed professionals or do other work, that is likely to be helpful also. Realize that they probably have a To Do list in their head and are running from one task to the next, and probably don’t have much time to chat. Hopefully they will have time to thank you, but sometimes embarrassment at even needing help make expressing gratitude more difficult. Give what you can; don’t expect much in return. Hopefully they will pay your help back or forward at a later date.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Get a better deal with Charter

We recently got a letter notifying us that our Charter TV rates were going up. The amount we pay for TV strikes me as ridiculous and I decided to see what we could do about it. I started with the online chat, and spent 40 minutes (time I don't have to spare, btw) trying to discover what channels I get for each plan at what cost. Really, pretty simple, right? I'm shopping -- what does this cost, what does that cost, is that a better deal, does this give me what I want.

Well good luck, 'cause Charter doesn't deal in information. And they won't tell you anything without knowing your account number. Well, I wouldn't give it to them. I said I was happy to tell them what market I was in, and eventually gave them an address where there is not actually a house. They quoted me a rate $25 less than what our new rate will be. Finally, I coughed up our account number and asked why we were being charged so much more. Oh, you are getting different channels, was the answer. Well, which different channels, I wanted to know. They wouldn't tell me, but instead transferred me to a different rep who also wouldn't give me the information I wanted. And I had to leave, but honestly, there wasn't a straight answer in sight. I could even show you the transcript, because I saved it.

When I got home, I looked into Dish TV. It's confusing too, but far more upfront about the channels provided at each level. I'd like to be able to put in the channels I want and be quoted a price. Even if they tease me with channels that I could get at the next higher lever, that would be okay.

Later, I called customer service to try to get the skinny. She says they have three tiers, the lower two separated by about $40. I tried to get info from her without coughing up my account number, but finally succumbed. She gave me a price, and I said it was too much, that I was looking into satellite. She said there was a promotion she could give me, adding HBO and Cinemax, adding more HD channels and lowering our monthly price by about $8 (from our current price, not the higher one). Really? More product for less price? Sure, for twelve months. Sounds good, I said. Sign me up. So we're still with Charter. But really, what's with that? Isn't it illegal to price discriminate?

The moral -- push them, ask for more for less $. I wish I'd done it earlier. I wonder if i could have done even better. I have to remember it to do it again this time next year.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Crafts and such for the Homeschool Fair

Our homeschool group had a holiday fair at the beginning of the month, and we all made things to sell. Mason made some earrings. He has a good eye for design, I think. Parker made some little bundt cakes which sold very well, and I made a variety of things.

These are some of Mason's earrings:

And I used the opportunity to use up small pieces of fabric. So here's a girl's poncho made with this tute. I hemmed the bottom edge because figuring out a fringe with the corners was beyond me.

My big seller was flannel hankies in a reversible drawstring bag. I made the bags reversible using this tute from Yarn Monster. I've struggled with drawstring bags, embarrassingly, and I love this approach, which I find easy and clear. It is lined, so it uses more fabric, but the little ones stand up even without interfacing, which is kind of cool. The hankies are 10x10 (or four across the width of the flannel), and serged with a three-thread rolled hem, which came out faboulously, if I do say so myself. The corners are curved to make the serging easier.

I also made some bags without the hankies.

I also used this tute from Dragon[knit]fly which makes a very cool zippered box bag. I recommend starting by sewing around the two pieces of fabric, right sides together, leaving a hole and turning them right side out. Then I eyeballed sewing on the zipper on an already finished edge, and didn't have any raw edges on the inside.

The purple batik tote is made with pre-quilted fabric. I used some awhile ago to make my niece a zippered lunch bag -- this bag used up all the leftovers.

Two no-sew projects: I made a fleece shawl by cutting a rectangular piece and fringing the short edges with a rotary cutter. I cut a ruana from lightweight fleece (used the directions here -- search the page for Dragonmama). I have one like this that I wear often.

I have some wheat berries and since that is a bit unusual, I used them for some other products. I mixed up the grains for the Blender Pancake Mix from Urban Homemaker, and sold that with directions. I made some no-knead bread with some freshly ground whole wheat flour (and some All Purpose white flour also), and some 100% whole wheat bread with another Urban Homemaker recipe. I love this bread but have found it too crumbly for sandwiches. But with soup or as a snack, it's super, and I've had lots of compliments on it.

Some other good tutes that I thought about using but didn't are these:
Cute patchwork basket:


Tote Bag: http://www.sewmamasew.com/blog2/?p=514

Coasters: http://allsorts.typepad.com/allsorts/2006/11/crisscross_coas.html

(Please excuse the bizarre formatting. I have much to learn.)