I’ve been working on my taxes this year and was sadly disappointed to see that I would have to pay an additional $5,000 on top of the $70,000 I have already paid in taxes for 2016.    It seems that I was hit with multiple bonus taxes for Medicare and the AMT for some reason.  I’m still haven’t received all my tax documents so that number may fluctuate but it looks pretty gloomy nonetheless.

Since the majority of our income comes from W-2 (i.e. our employers), there aren’t too many things we can write off.  Worse than that, our son will start college soon and I doubt we’ll qualify for any tax deductions for higher education as our income limits our too high.

I hope Congress will do something to fix this taxation mess soon.  Having a tax system that penalizes people for hard work is just insane!   Think about it, if I just got lazy and quite my job, I’d be eligible for all sorts of tax deductions and credits.   What the hell kind of system is this?

This past weekend I watched the Super Bowl.  It was the ONLY NFL game I saw the entire season in its entirety and I thought it was the best game ever and I can’t wait till next year to watch this ONE NFL event either.   So why doesn’t anyone want to watch NFL games anymore?  Well it’s not just NFL games, neither I nor my family watch any “commercial” television anymore.

As you recall, a few years ago, my kids begged me to get them iPhones.  At the time, I gave them an ultimatum: You can have iPhones or you can have cable TV – you can’t have them both.  The kids chose the iPhones.    Immediately after cancelling the cable, I decided on trying to get lower cost solutions.  Over the air TV signals was the initial choice but the kids and I hated the commercials and the inability to time shift shows without having to buy a DVR was a deal breaker.

As a compromise, we went with Hulu Plus Commercial Free service, Netflix and Amazon Prime.   Between these three services, we get plenty of TV and the best part was that there were ZERO commercials on these services.    Over time I have added and removed HBO and Showtime whenever the shows I watched (Game of Thrones, Homeland) ended their seasons.   Everyone gets to watch the shows they want when they want too and without commercials!

This brings me back to the Super Bowl.  Watching George Takei plugging Pizza Hut was funny the first couple of times I saw the commercial but by the 10th time I saw the exact same commercial again, I wanted to take a baseball bat to George’s poor head.    The only commercials I could tolerate were the ones for T-Mobile which varied quite a bit over time throughout the game.

The commercial free experience in our family has now extended to radio.   My daughter begged me to get Spotify and they had recently came out with a family bundle that was pretty cheap so we gave it a try and ever since then, I’ve abandoned SiriusXM and all the commercial radio stations.  I simply hook up my cell phone to my car speakers via blutooth and turn on commercial free Spotify and listen to the music I want when I want it!

I will say this right now but the dimwits at the NFL won’t listen to it for years.  Offer a commercial free experience for a nominal cost ($9.99/month?) and watch the viewers come back to the NFL.  It’s just not fun watching a 15 seconds of play action followed by 5 minutes of commercials.  Until then, the young whipper snappers are moving to an entirely different experience that doesn’t include stupid and pointless commercials.

Christmas is just around the corner and I have been struggling with what to buy for others and myself.   I don’t really need nor want a new 4k TV since what I have now is fine – I even have TVs that I don’t use in the house!   The new MacBook Pro that I’ve been waiting years for turned out to be a gimmicky garbage laptop.   The new 3.5mm jackless iPhones are a no-go for me until the wireless technology can give me a FULL day use without needing recharging.  Heck with 3.5 mm headphones, I never need charging!

In talking to a friend about some ideas, he told me he had just bought a new Sonos 5 and that he absolutely loved it.  I read the reviews on Amazon and everyone seems pretty happy with the device.   I was set to buy a few of these for my home but decided to do just a bit more research and then I found a deal killer – this device has TWO built-in MICROPHONES.    Why on Earth does a speaker system need to have microphones?    This isn’t a recording device, it is a sound distribution node so WTF!

History and court decisions have already shown us that any device that has any kind of snooping technology will inevitably fall into the use of government agencies and bad actors.   Worse yet, to get the most out of this device, you need to connect it to the internet so how many of you want live microphones all throughout your house being broadcast to a government agency or criminal bad actors 24 hours a day seven days a week?     We’ve already seen baby monitors, OnStar systems, telephones, and probably a thousand other things we don’t know about yet but I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to add Sonos devices to that list.

Sadly, I won’t be buying any Sonos products anytime soon until this issue is addressed so in the meantime I am looking at alternatives that have more security in mind that stupid features that serve no real purpose.

I write to you with very sad news….I am no longer a Costco fan.   I fell in love with Costco many years ago, they always seemed to have great stuff and great customer service but my last few visits reminded me of why I stopped shopping at Walmart many, many, years ago.    The Costco store is always packed, filthy, disorganized and the worst part – very long check out lines.    What exactly is the point of having 12 check out lanes if only 3 or 4 are ever open?    What’s the point of self-serve check out lanes if they are always closed?     Gee Costco, can’t you do better?   What happened to the promise of running your cart through an RFID reader and have it automatically total up your goods and breeze through checkout?    If there is any store that is ripe for automating checkouts it’s Costco but they just don’t seem to care anymore.

Truth be told, the entire retail experience everywhere is horrible.   There is never enough parking, too many people walking around, not enough sales clerks so why would anyone want to deal with this nonsense?      I now do about 80% of my shopping on Amazon.com where in two days it’s at my door.    I recently discovered Boxed.com which is a Costco clone but sells entirely online.  Unfortunately it doesn’t offer free shipping like Amazon but it does sell many of the bulk items Costco has without the hassle of the store.

What should Costco do?   Well they need to offer online delivery of ALL OF THEIR PRODUCTS not just a few of them.  They need to hire more people and open more check out lanes or just automate the process.   They should probably raise their membership fee if they can’t attract enough people to work there and pay them better.    Until Costco makes their retail experience more pleasant, I’ll just order more and more online.

I came across Robby Soaves “Fired Yelp Millennial  earned what young workers are worth” and it boiled my blood.   What these so called “financial journalists” often fail to realize is that people like Talia Jane are victims of a grander failed policy plan of an organization called the “Federal Reserve” which is THE key enabler of destroying modern society and creating these wage problems from the start.

You see what Robby and Talia both fail to understand is what “young workers are worth” can’t be known until you evaluate the financial ecosystem they live in day to day.    Talia believes she’s worth $15/hr while Robby thinks she’s worth $8.25/hr or maybe even less so what’s the real truth?

Let’s get down to the brass tacks and evaluate this financial ecosystem.    What is Talia worth as a minimum wage employee?

If we use 1980 as a starting point (Minimum Wage History) and pull information on  minimum wage at the time it was $3.10/hour.   If we then assume an annual inflation rate of 3 percent per year then in 2016, the minimum wage should be $8.98/hour.    Is this the correct answer?   In short, no because inflation doesn’t always grow at an exact 3 percent per year.  Inflation can be higher in some years and lower in others so I pulled the actual inflation rates from 1980 through 2015 and calculated the minimum wage based on actual inflation rates.   By doing these calculations, I came up with a minimum wage value of $10.12/hour.  SEE CHART BELOW!

What is Talia worth as a minimum wage employee?  The truth lies somewhere between $8.98/hr and $10.12/hr however there is one last adjustment that needs to be made and that is the calculation used in making the inflation rate calculations (yeah iterative pun intended).    The Federal Reserve and the US Treasury has a vested interested in debasing the currency much like every empire has done so over the past 2000 years so it can continue to spend money that doesn’t exist.

I’m not sure what the Fed fudge factor would be but it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that minimum wage should probably lie somewhere between $10/hr to $15/hr as it is what most people expect it to be.   After all isn’t inflation an expectation of reality?

After spending some time looking at the minimum wage rates, over the last 30 years it would behoove both Republicans and Democrats alike to simply tie the federal minimum wage to inflation rates and leave it at that because in the end not raising the wage rates regularly causes hate, angst, rage and eventual civil disobedience and makes for miserable living.  How is misery and resentment affecting your business lately?

Is it any wonder that the two leading candidates for President this year are very anti-establishment?  One candidate offers all sorts of goodies and freebies with a higher minimum wage because people can’t survive on their wages while the other hopes to make america great again by building walls, kicking out H1-B visa holders and everyone else, and in essence lowering the population volume which will naturally drive up wages.  It all makes perfect sense to me that those polar opposites are actually different sides of the same coin.

1980 to 2016 inflation

This Labor Day weekend I decided to stroll down memory lane and catch up with some personal finance bloggers that I enjoyed reading over the years and much to my surprise I find that most of them have either sold out and moved on or have left their blogs hanging out to dry in the Internet sun unattended.

I must admit that I’ve been a very infrequent blogger but I have very valid excuses:

  1. I have been traveling the world
  2. I am at my career peak and I am in very high demand
  3. I am trying to make the most of my time left with my teenage kids before they head off to college
  4. I am trying to make plans for the future (more global travel) over the next few years and that takes considerable planning

First up is My 1st Million at 33 which I read rather regularly a few years ago seems to be sporadically posting now.

I just clicked on Free Money Finance and see that his blog was abandoned about a year ago but seems to potentially be starting a new one.

Classics like The Simple Dollar and Get Rich Slowly have both sold out and posts are now more “advertainment” than anything useful.  There are many more but I won’t list them here since many are simply defunked.   It is good to see Lazy Man and Money going strong still though.

I remember the great debates around “frugality vs capitalism” or “buy new vs buy used” or “spend less vs earn more” and all that seems dead now.     I can only surmise that many of the finance bloggers were in a similar situation to me…started blog in 30s and is now in 40s and have better uses for free time than blogging.

On this Labor Day weekend I had hoped to write something a bit more optimistic but the truth is that holidays are usually a time for me to reflect on what has been happening with close friends and family.   As I do this on Labor Day weekend I come to the inescapable conclusion that the rich get richer and the poor are getting poorer.

Case in point, I’m doing just great financially.  In January I will have a tranche of stock options that I’ll be able to cash out.   It’s not a giant sum of money (around $30k) but it’s 30k that I honestly don’t need but will have coming my way anyway.    Add to that another $30 to $50k in bonuses right after that stock tranche and you’ll quickly add up 60k to 80k of income coming to me that I honestly don’t have any use for at the moment.   Sure I’ll bank it and save it for the kids college fund or maybe buy a new car that I really don’t need.   I’ve also considered upgrading my TVs from 1080p to 4k but what’s the point, I’ll have to then upgrade them to 8k or whatever the new standard will be in a few years anyway and everything works fine now anyway.

On the flip slide, I have quite a few family members that are now having more financial difficulty than ever before.   A few of my family and friends have now resorted to becoming Uber drivers to supplement income.  It seems every time I see someone I haven’t seen for a while their new “thing” seems to be driving for Uber as a driver.    So many people tell me they are doing it that I seriously considered doing it but not for the money but because I am so bored.

I haven’t been blogging because this dichotomy of riches and poverty is really making me depressed.   I know what you’re thinking…”why don’t you just GIVE that money to those poor friends and family?”

Well the answer to that is quite easy, these people are poor because, in my view, they CHOOSE to be this way.   These are all people that have a horrible work / career advancement ethic.  Study?  Go back to college?  Earn a certification?  Nah…why do that when you can go out drinking with your buddies in the evening or go watch that <insert baseball/football/basketball/soccer> game in the evening while you drink?

The people I see getting richer are the ones that do just what I suggest, continue to learn, re-education, advance, network, and grab the endless mountain of money out there to be earned.   The truth is that at work I’ve had a very difficult time finding qualified people to do the work that needs to be done.   We have too many “one trick ponies” coming in with a single or very limited skill set unable to meet the leadership and management demands of the modern business world.    Worse yet are the young kids that just want to text and click on Facebook all freaking day long…. oh well enjoy your poverty…in the meantime I’m planning trips to Thailand, Chile, Costa Rica, and Europe over the next 12 months so I won’t be too bored for too long….

It has now been a little over three years since I cut the TV cable cord and I figured I’d give everyone an update on how things have changed and progressed over that time.

First and foremost the most exciting thing to happen is the final realization from companies like HBO and Showtime that there is money to be made by offering stand alone streaming services.   In the past you could only get streaming if you had some type of cable TV subscription to HBO or Showtime but in 2015 that has all started to change!

Let’s take a look at my setup and I’ll run you through some other options.

Step 1 – Hardware

When I cut the cord a few years ago there were many limited device options.  At the time the two major devices were the Apple TV and the Roku devices.   At the time I owned both and each had their pros and cons.   Today there are many more devices with a few other options.   Google Chromecast and Amazon Fire Stick/TV have started to garner larger acceptance.   To read reviews you can click here.   You can now also stream content to gaming devices such as a Playstation 4 or Xbox One.

Personally I have most of the devices listed above and use them for different reasons.

The Roku is my family’s primary device.  The Roku device itself I always considered rather primitive but it does the job well enough that I can’t really complain.   You essentially setup “apps” inside the Roku that will stream content to you from a particular provider.

The Amazon stick is great if your traveling and you can plug in to a hotel TV to stream content while you’re sitting in a hotel working.

The Apple TV is what we use to watched purchased movies through iTunes.    We don’t buy DVDs or BluRay discs anymore just keep everything in the cloud and stream it to the device.  There is no danger of a disc getting scratched and it will live forever in the cloud as I plan on passing on my iTunes account to my kids or grandkids!

Step 2 – The Streaming Services

We stream content from HuluPlus ($7.99/month), Netflix ($7.99/month), Amazon Prime (Free with Prime),  I recently added Showtime to my HuluPlus for an additional $8.99/month.   So for $25/month I have access to more content than I will ever be able to watch because these services are constantly adding new shows as time goes on.    Compare this to paying $65+ or more on a monthly basis for cable channels that you never watch and it makes complete and total sense to cut the cord.   What really annoys me though are the superfluous charges for “HD service”, “DVR”, “cable rental fee” that simply don’t exist with streaming services.

I also currently have HBO go as part of my Internet service under a 12 month plan.  When that offer expires I plan on adding the HBO Now service for an additional $15/month or hold off until it rebuilds their content warehouse and switch between Showtime and HBO year over year.

The Limitations

There currently are some limitations to this system though.  The most blatant one I get grief about are sports.  ESPN currently doesn’t offer a stand alone streaming service that is comparable to what is on cable so if you are a huge sports fan you’re a bit out of luck with this system.    The second one are specialty shows like HGTV or Disney that the wife and kids may want to watch.   There are services that do fill a partial gap such as Sling.com that offers a $20 bundle that gives you a few of those channels including ESPN but the major limitation is that it only offers streaming on one device at a time so you won’t be able to watch ESPN on one TV while watching HGTV on another.

I suspect that cable companies are going to have a “come to customer” moment and be forced to offer a-la-carte channel selections or better bundles more competitively priced in 2016 if they wish to keep more people from cutting the cord.

The Future

Rumors are that Apple will release a new Apple TV with some exciting content streaming services so the playing field will become even more competitive than ever just stay tuned and watch…

 

I’m a big fan of Amazon but this Black Wednesday in July sucks.    I just tried to buy Amazon gift cards for the $10 promo and got a message that the deal is no longer available.  Really?   You ran out of gift cards already at 8:30 a.m?   The day has barely started and Amazon doesn’t have any more gift cards!

Almost all the other items I am interested in are sold out.  What a huge let down.   Oh well at least I got some baby wipes that I really don’t need….

amazon sucks, sold out!

amazon sucks, sold out!

 

I’ve been a big fan of Costco but lately I am starting to have serious doubts about their entire business model and practices. The latest thing may not be Costco’s fault or then again maybe it is so let’s run through what happened and you decide.

I got a call from a Norwegian Cruises agent out of the blue about a deal on European cruises. I am interested in cruising Europe this summer so I listened to the sales pitch. The agent told me I could get a mini-suite for about $5,000 for two people. I said I would think it over and call her back. I then went on to CostcoTravel.com to check the prices of that exact same cruise. The first time I just clicked through the various options and was presented with these choices:

img1

The price for the cruise mini-suite is about 5k but Costco will grant you a $215 shipboard credit.   The “deal” the agent was giving me wasn’t that much of a deal it seemed.  When I went back to check prices again, I then noticed a little tick box that read,

Past Cruise Traveler Fare

So I clicked that little box and was hoping to get a better deal but boy was I disappointed.   The prices for the exact same cruise actually INCREASED!

img2

The prices essentially went up $500 for being a loyal customer!   At first I thought maybe the price of the cruise had just gone up due to demand but I cleared my cookies on my browser and started the search again WITHOUT clicking the “At least one traveler in my stateroom has cruised before” button and got the same low prices as before.

I’m not sure who is to blame here, Costco or Norwegian for trying to scam customers like this but it certainly isn’t right.

As of right now, I feel disgusted by the whole thing and will probably just decide to do a river cruise with another outfit altogether (and NOT book through Costco) but it just goes to show you that it pays to do multiple searches in multiple ways to get the best deal.    Sorry Costco but I think you’re starting to get downright lazy in not looking out for the best interests of your customers.  I’ve had other issues with Costco that I may write about later but for now we’ll call this issue strike one.

 

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