Thursday, June 29, 2006

Five Buck Club - Cheap Movie Tickets

If you're lucky enough to live in a state where there's a Kerasotes movie theatre (currently Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Ohio), you can enroll in the Five Buck Club.
  • After a particular film has played a certain number of weeks — at least two — but occasionally more, we are able to offer you a discounted price, so admission to those films will be available to club members for only $5.

I just signed up for Netflix last month, and I have access to HBO (a not so great use of my condo association fees). But there are still certain types of movies that I prefer to watch in the theatre. The Five Buck Club is an excellent deal for folks like me who don't necessarily need to see a movie opening weekend. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Extreme Generosity

Newsweek's cover story, 15 People Who Make America Great, profiles individuals who "through bravery or generosity, genius or passion, devote themselves to helping others." Of course the most prominent photo on the cover of the hard copy is Brad Pitt, as if he's being singled out as the best of the best. Newsweek must really be hurting for sales. But I digress. I found many of the profiles inspiring, especially the story about Rick Warren, author of the "The Purpose Driven Life" and founder of Saddleback Church.

  • Since its publication, "The Purpose Driven Life" has sold 30 million copies in English, making it by some accounts the best-selling hardcover ever. It is a phenomenon, a movement. It has given Warren access to world leaders at Davos, to corporate chiefs and rock stars. It has generated "tens of millions of dollars," Warren says—enough for him to pay his own salary back to his church, retroactively, for the past 25 years, enough to launch three foundations. "PDL" allows Warren to "reverse tithe": he gives away 90 percent of what he earns.
  • Another pastor might be content to diversify into "PDL" DVDs and gift books, but Warren is more ambitious. If "2.3 billion people in the world claim to be followers of Jesus," then why not take the next step and mobilize those people to do important things, like stop poverty, improve literacy, feed the hungry, heal the sick? Conventional relief organizations are fine, but why not tap what Warren calls "the faith sector," the armies of motivated religious volunteers who are sick and tired of polarizing rhetoric and professional crusaders? "The old paradigm was, 'You pay, you pray, you get out of the way'," he explains, but in today's global and wired world, troops of caring volunteers can be deployed to communities in need with the push of a button.

So Rick Warren gives away 90 percent of what he earns? Wow. And I thought Angelina Jolie was generous. This is one individual who puts his money where his mouth is.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Stars' Worst Jobs

Last month, Nickel over at Five Cent Nickel started a series in the pf blogging community called 'Worst. Job. Ever'. Well, someone over at Entertainment Tonight stole his idea! Read more about in Stars' Worst Jobs.

Anyhow, many of the actors who were asked about their worst jobs recalled working in the cleaning services industry, which doesn't really surprise me. The worst part about my worst job ever was having to clean the popcorn machine.

Unclaimed Baggage

Ever wonder what happens to unclaimed luggage? According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, some of it winds up at the Unclaimed Baggage Center which is "a retail outlet that buys lost baggage that has gone unclaimed for at least 90 days directly from airlines" and then sells the contents to the general public at substantially discounted prices. The store is inconveniently located in Scottsboro, Alabama. But selected items are also available for purchase online at

So, what are the odds of finding some of your own lost items?

Cantrell said that's a "nearly impossible task." That is, unless you're one lucky woman in Atlanta."There was one gentleman who ended up buying his wife's old ski boots that she had lost two years ago," Cantrell said. " She had gotten a reimbursement from the airlines and everything, but he bought them here for $45 and didn't even know they were her original boots until he brought them back home to her in Atlanta.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Wire Transfers

I successfully completed my first wire transfer yesterday. Welcome to the 21st century, right? The funny thing is that I'm usually okay with sending checks in the mail. But lately, I've had a couple of strange incidents with misdelivered mail. Factor in the risk of theft from idiots who have nothing better to do than steal blank checks from people, and you have recipe for disaster. So, rather than overnight the check to my brother (to help with the down payment on a house), I spent $20 to wire transfer the money instead. I figured, as an added bonus, he wouldn't need to run to the bank to deposit the check and then wait 5 business days for it to clear.

Of course, the transaction was a lot slower than I was led to believe. I initiated the transfer via a live teller on Monday afternoon at 2:55PM, but because the teller was too busy eavesdropping on her neighbors conversation, we wound up missing the end of day cut off by 4 minutes. Anyway, when I asked when the transaction would be completed, she told me by mid-morning the next day. Hmm. Well, by Tuesday evening, I was beginning to get worried. Did I give her the correct routing number and bank account number? But I checked everything before I signed the paperwork? So I told myself to give it another day. It finally showed up as a completed transaction Wednesday morning. Whew! Moving around significant amounts of money can be quite nerve wracking. Here's hoping that I never have to do this again.

Friday, June 16, 2006

IBM/Lenovo - Another Positive Customer Service Story

This has been kind of a crappy week for me. I woke up Monday morning with a huge headache. And when I reached for my much needed first cup of coffee, my hand wobbled, and I wound up 'pouring' it all over my new Lenovo ThinkPad. Although I reacted quickly and managed to drain most of liquid out of the darn thing, it fried the keyboard. The irony is that I bought a ThinkPad precisely because I love the feel of the keyboard. Anyway, I didn't have time to deal with it right then, so I waited until evening to call tech support. I know this sounds really cynical on my part, but I was expecting to get the run around from some call center rep in India. Instead, I was connected to an IBM Tech Support Center somewhere here in the U.S. I spoke to two separate individuals, and one had a Midwestern accent, while the other had a southern drawl. They opened a trouble ticket for me and then offered to ship me a new keyboard in 2 days, no questions asked! Now that's what I call good customer service. The only catch was that I had to install it myself. In the words of the tech support guy 'If I can do it, you certainly can.' Umm, yeah, okay, right.

Thankfully, he pointed me towards some excellent videos on the IBM support website that had installation and removal instructions. Honestly, he was right. It wasn't all that difficult, once I got the case open. Except that the sugar in the spilled coffee had carmelized and managed to glue one of the hinges shut. Yuck.

The funny thing is that once I had the laptop apart, I realized that I had spilled the coffee in the exact spot where it could have done the least damage because the drive bay was covered by a thin piece of sheet metal. Any further towards the middle or the left of the keyboard, and I would have fried the CPU, which surprisingly is not encased in a separate box. I guess my guardian angel was working over time that morning. I would have been really upset if I needed to replace the darn thing when I just bought it 2 months ago.

Anyway, no more eating or drinking near the laptop.

On a related note, the acid from the coffee managed to etch several visible lines into the metal case above the drive bay. It's making me think that I should cut down on the amount of caffeine that I drink. If a tiny bit of coffee can do that to sheet metal, I shudder to think what 3 cups a day is doing to my stomach lining.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Why Flat Stocks May Not Always Mean Flat Gains

When the market takes a nose dive (like it has in the past few weeks), it's a great time for bargain hunters to add to their holdings. Most of my retirement assets are invested in aggressive growth mutual funds. But when it comes to individual stocks, I take more of a long term, buy and hold approach. In short, I'm drawn towards the relative safety of large, well-known corporations that pay hefty dividends.

This afternoon, the Motley Fool published The Market's 10 Most Mediocre Stocks, an article that essentially validates my approach to stock investing. The authors explain why flat stocks (i.e., stocks that haven't increased much in terms of price), aren't really flat.

First, there are the hefty dividends that most large corporations pay to their shareholders. Second, if a shareholder reinvests the dividends, there's the larger ownership stake in the company, which translates into the potential for a greater reward when the stock price does tick upwards. "The greatest rewards will go to those who had regularly reinvested their dividends at the lowest prices. This is why Wharton professor Jeremy Siegel calls dividends a bear market protector and a return accelerator. Simply put, they can protect you from an unforeseen calamity." And in today's market, that's saying a lot.

So, just to give you an idea of the types of stocks that I'm talking about, I went ahead and bought some shares of Procter & Gamble today. It's a solid, diversified company that sells great products, including ones that I use on a daily basis. Do I think that the stock price will double in the next year or so? Of course not! But I'm counting on those nice juicy dividends to help offset some of my paper losses. And I'll be adding to my ownership stake by reinvesting those dividends.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Father's Day Gift

In the past, I've been fairly uncreative in my choice of Father's Day gifts. What do you get for a guy who doesn't have a lot of hobbies and has very simple tastes? So, I usually wind up buying an item of clothing or a book, plus a card and dinner at the restaurant of his choice.

But this year, I started early. And after much angsting, I decided to buy him a Homedics Therapist Select Quad Roller Massaging Cushion from Bed Bath & Beyond. I gave it to him a week early because I wanted to make sure that he liked it. And thankfully, he did. Apparently, he's been wanting one for a while now, but my mom kept balking at the cost. Unlike some of the cheaper models, this one has four rollers that provide a really deep massage. Personally, I think the motors are almost too strong 'cause they really dig deep into your back.

Anyway, I've been in sort of a pensive mood lately about my parents. Two of my co-workers lost their moms to cancer this past month. So, it's been a somewhat harsh reminder that my parents are getting up there in years. Life as I know it could change in an instant.

My dad just turned 65 last month, and he's been noticeably tired lately. He started a new job in February because his old employer sold all of their assets and the new company moved all of the operations to California. The commute to and from the new job is pretty brutal, but my dad feels the need to work for financial reasons. My mom keeps herself busy with church related activities and household chores. She has a lot of hobbies, such as gardening and sewing. But she's convinced that she's going to die 'young', so she keeps harassing me to get married. Like most traditional moms, her sole remaining duty and responsibility in this life is to marry me off. Anyway, all this to say that I'm trying to make every birthday and holiday with my parents count.

If you haven't told your parents lately that you love them, please take the time to do so this week. And if you're looking for a cool gift for Father's Day, try the massaging cushion.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Opposite Ends of the College Debt Spectrum

There's a depressing article in the Chicago Tribune entitled 'New college graduates get quick education about debt.'

  • The average graduate who borrowed for college leaves school with almost $20,000 in student loans and about $2,000 in credit card debt. About two-thirds of students borrow for school, said Sandy Baum, a senior policy analyst for the College Board.
  • People in their 30s are delaying home purchases and having children because their debts are too great.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there's a really heartwarming story about Robert and Jill Car, a wealthy couple who are giving back to their community by sponsoring full tuition scholarships for 18 lucky eighth graders in Lockport, IL.

  • Carr calculates it will cost $720,000 to keep the promise each year. He said he and his wife plan to commit $100 million of their own money to get the program going. The funding has been placed in a charitable trust."When I ask myself, what in the heck does a person do with $250 million, my best answer is to help disadvantaged kids break out of their depressing lives one by one," he said. "We won't change the world, but we will change the world for a few kids--as many as we can afford."

I was the recipient of a similar grant through my father's employer - full tuition and fees (but not housing or living expenses) at a specific state university. Unfortunately, the foundation that awarded the scholarship mismanaged the funds, so the 'guaranteed' scholarship wasn't renewed in my senior year. As a result, I made the difficult decision to graduate from college a semester early. Needless to say, it was a hectic four months, trying to cram in the rest of my required coursework. But looking back on that experience, I realize that I was lucky. I graduated with pretty much zero debt because what the scholarship and part time jobs didn't cover, my parents paid for.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Leftover Wine

What to do with leftover wine? Turn it into a tasty wine reduction sauce.

  • Pour half-empty bottles of wine into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until the wine reduces by three quarters. Most of the alcohol will be boiled out, and the flavor will be intensified. Cool, pour into ice cube trays and place in the freezer. When fully frozen, store in a Ziploc freezer bag for future use. Reduced wine adds lovely depth to sauces, gravies, soups and dessert syrups.
For additional party tips, check out this article from Clean Home Journal.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Free Ben & Jerry Ice Cream Cones in Chicago

One of the things that I love about working in downtown Chicago -- the abundance of free samples! You gotta love those marketing folks.

They were giving away free Ben & Jerry's ice cream cones just now on the corner of State and Madison. Chocolate Cookie Dough and Cherry Garcia, individually wrapped in tiny, insulated packages. They'll be handing them out all week, so catch 'em while you can!

Celebrity Status and Generosity

Personally, I'm not a big fan of either Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt. But I can respect what Jolie, and now Pitt are trying to do in terms of leveraging their celebrity status for the greater good. Jolie serves as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations. But beyond that, she also puts her money where her mouth is. According to Forbes magazine, Jolie is one of the 10 most generous celebrities in Hollywood.

And now, in an effort to circumvent the paparazzi, Jolie and Pitt "plan to distribute photographs of their newborn daughter, Shiloh Nouvel Jolie-Pitt, with profits going to a charity aiding African children." You can read more about the Brangelina pics here.

To whom much is given, much will be required. It's a principle that few people live by these days. So, it's inspiring to hear stories about people who are.

Fitness Club Fees

One of the advantages of working for a large corporation are the substantial corporate discounts that employees receive on a variety of products and services, including cell phone plans and gym memberships. A local fitness chain in Chicago just opened a club in my neighborhood, and they're running a special for corporate employees - no enrollment fees, free parking and savings of up to 43 percent off the regular club rates. Several of my friends belong to that particular club, and I'd been toying with the idea of joining the club for a few months on a trial basis. It'd be nice to have some accountability, to be able to work out with friends, and take some classes (e.g., pilates or running). But since I have a small workout room in my condo building, I'm not sure the benefits offered by the club would offset the cost. Even with the corporate discount, my guess is that the monthly fees would still be more than I'd be willing to pay. And now that the days are getting longer and warmer, I've been doing a lot more walking and biking. Sigh. Decisions, decisions.

Monday, June 05, 2006


There's an article in Sunday's edition of the Chicago Tribune about helping Retired Urban People (aka 'Ruppies') adjust to life downtown living after years of suburban living.

The interesting thing is that I've witnessed this trend firsthand. Several folks who live in my condo building are clearly retirees. Last year, I got to know one guy on my floor who used to ride his bike to work. We chatted about the pros and cons of public transportation vs. biking and/or walking. And then one day, he told me that he was moving out because his parents were moving in. Apparently, they'd finally decided to kick him and his brother out of their 'retirement home'.

Personally, I can't see my parents or any one of their friends retiring and moving into the city. They would be way too irritated by the noise and inconveniences of downtown living. But having acquired a taste for urban living, I might consider it.

Friday, June 02, 2006

New Baby Trend - Domain Names

Celebrities have taken to registering variations on their children's names as domain names to protect their children's privacy in cyberspace. For example, according to E!Online, the domain names, and were all registered by Jolie through her attorney in advance of her baby's birth.

But what's interesting to note is the trend amongst non-celebrity parents. According to the editor of Parents magazine, parents are snapping up domain names and setting up web sites devoted to their babies.

I did a quick search online, and there are already several companies out there that are capitalizing on this trend and targeting their ads towards expectant parents. So, my guess is that it's here to stay. Baby shower registries, and now domain names. What next?

From a personal finance perspective, it just seems like yet another way for the $7 billion baby industry to squeeze even more money out of financially strapped parents. But maybe if I had children, I'd want to document their every milestone for all the world to see as well?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Primer on Sheets

If you're in the market for bed sheets, read Ellen Warren's primer in today's edition of the Chicago Tribune. "The four big things you need to keep in mind are fiber content, weave, finish and--to a lesser extent--thread count."

In terms of fiber content, it's interesting to note that Egyptian Cotton doesn't necessarily guarantee a better feel than other types of cotton or even blends. It's all a matter of personal preference. Also, in terms of thread count, "you want to buy 180 or higher (which is called percale), but anything higher than about 300 in plain weave or 400 in sateen is meaningless. And those claims of really high thread counts (more than about 400 in plain or about 700 in sateen) are most likely not true..."

4 questions to ask when buying sheets
- Wrinkles really bug you? Then a blend's for you.
- Do you need color and pattern? The dye and finish will make it rougher.
- Pilling or fuzzy sheets drive you nuts? Go 100 percent cotton.
- What about long wear? Look for polyester content.

So, the moral of the story is that you should think twice about paying hundreds of dollars for 100% Egyptian Cotton, 1000 thread count sheets.