Umicon 2014 Photos

Photos from Friday, 2014-09-05 at Umicon Daytona 2014, an anime convention that ended on 2014-09-07, have been posted by me on Facebook. I set the album to “public” so anyone who has a Facebook account can see the photos, regardless of being friends with me.

[Update 2014-09-10: Saturday, 2014-09-06 and Sunday, 2014-09-07 photos have been posted.]

[Update 2014-09-26: I finally posted some of the photos on Thripp.com from each year: Umicon 2012, Umicon 2013, Umicon 2014.]

20140905-202902rxt

20140905-205913rxt

20140905-221119rxt

20140905-222250rxt1

20140906-025102rxt

Please see more photos here and look for more photos from Saturday, 2014-09-06 and Sunday, 2014-09-07 over the next few days. [Update 2014-09-10: Saturday, 2014-09-06 and Sunday, 2014-09-07 photos have been posted.]

Here is the description of the album for Friday, 2014-09-05:

Title: 2014-09-05 Umicon Daytona, Day 1 of 3 (Friday)

568 photos from the 1st day of the 3rd year of Umicon Daytona on Friday, Sep. 5, 2014 at the Plaza Resort & Spa at 600 N. Atlantic Ave., Daytona Beach, FL!

Please tag your friends. :)

Album privacy: Public

Photos were taken from 12:55:40 to 11:42:16 PM EDT on 2014-09-05.

Subtract 04:00:00 from timestamps to find local time, which was Eastern Daylight Time (UTC-04:00).

Coupon Codes and Online Shopping

While some consumers do not know this, shopping online presents as many opportunities for saving as traditional, brick-and-mortar shopping, if not more. Before making any online purchase, it behooves almost any person who intends to maximize the value of their time to investigate what discounts, coupon codes, cashback offers, and promotions are available for their intended purchase.

Recently, many new websites have sprung up to analyze and aggregate coupon codes and promotional offers, for the mutual benefit of the operators of said websites and their customers. One such new startup is Frugaa, which presents coupon codes for websites in an appealing and easy-to-use format that helps its users save time and money.

With Frugaa, it is easy to search for savings by store, by category, and/or by budget. There is also a highly useful system of ratings and comments on coupons which helps you to quickly sift out the non-working or expired coupons based on percentage of “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” votes and by glancing at comments from other users.

While Frugaa should be part of a comprehensive money-saving system to reduce the ultimate cost of all items you purchase online, for a newbies and experts alike, I highly recommend checking it out and it is a great place to start if you are new to the field. I expect to see great things from this service and others like it in the future.

AT&T’s Landline Billing Practices

[This post is in reference to AT&T's pricing in the Central Florida region.]

On our AT&T landline bill for 8/13/2014 – 9/12/2014, they prorated the “Federal Subscriber Line Charge” and “Federal Universal Service Fee” to a higher rate for 7/1 – 8/12—$7.28 instead of $6.78 and $1.14 instead of $1.12.

I am looking back at bills from 2013 and 2012 and they did this in those years too, but the fees increased by 22¢ and 26¢ instead of 52¢ this year. Also, the “Residential Line” rate is $24.00 now, was $21.00 in Aug. 2013, $18.00 in Aug. 2012, and $16.00 in May 2012.

People are getting rid of / have gotten rid of landlines in droves, and now the pricing is less regulated so AT&T’s solution is to jack up the rates much faster than inflation. They have to pay for maintaining a network with fewer and fewer customers, after all.

It is ironic that our bill for local phone service without long-distance, call waiting, caller ID, or any other features is now more than my cell phone with unlimited nationwide calling, call waiting, text messaging, and data—about $37 vs. $35 per month (MetroPCS at $70 for two lines on a family plan—it would be $40 for one line). We only keep the landline for family and so my step-mom can call her friend in Canada, and that is by dialing my local Google Voice number first and using it to dial out for free calls to Canada and free domestic long-distance (yes, local numbers in the Daytona Beach area on Google Voice are long gone, but they weren’t when I signed up in 2007—also, the service was called GrandCentral then and Google had not yet acquired it).

While the “federal” subscribe line charge (which actually goes straight to AT&T) is merely at the maximum rate allowed by law—if the FCC says they can double or triple next year, they will invariably do that—the base rate has also increased by 50% between May 2012 and Aug. 2014—from $16.00 to $24.00 per month. This is to use a network that already exists and hasn’t had major changes in decades.

In Central Florida, we are actually seeing the same practices with cable Internet with Bright House Networks as well. The base rate is now over $50.00 per month for 10 Mbps compared to $5 to $10 less a couple years ago, and a $3.50 modem rental fee now applies—but this “rental” was provided for free not long ago, and for $2.00 even more recently than that. The fee is closer to $4.00 since it has taxes and fees stacked on top. I have managed to pay less by buying a used modem for about $20, and by disconnecting and reconnecting as a new customer every six months or year with a new promotional offer—a ridiculous practice that involves them sending someone out to physically cut the cable at the pole and me relying on my phone and free Wi-Fi for up to a week while waiting for new service to be connected.

It is amazing in a period of such great technological innovation and upheaval that the pricing for basic services continues to increase while quality stays flat or declines, and is arguably an example of the declining standard of living in the United States. Based on observing ongoing trends, I believe we will only see more of this in the future.

23rd Birthday

Today is my 23rd birthday (2014-08-17). I was born 23 years ago in Daytona Beach, FL.

I am not going to write a long and arrogant essay like I did for my 17th birthday. I would like to think I’ve grown beyond that, but in truth my writing style and photography from when I was 16-18 were more prolific, spirited, and probably more interesting to people in general. It is ironic how getting older and wiser often makes one more cautious and less interesting. However, this is ideally a temporary condition which leads to a higher level of reason and understanding.

My 23rd year was the most significant to date and was highlighted by these events and accomplishments (yes, when you are 22 that is your “23rd year” and when you are 0 that is your “1st year” just as the 2000s are part of the “21st century”):

2013-08-22: 1st day of face-to-face classes at University of Central Florida, Daytona Beach (did one year online previously). Met Allie (friend).
2013-08-24: Received a wonderful letter of recommendation from Dr. Katherine Urquhart (psychology instructor).
2013-09-04: Last day working at Winn-Dixie as a cashier and bagger.
2013-09-06 / 2013-09-08: Attended and photographed Umicon 2013 in Daytona Beach, FL. Photographed Quinton Flynn and others.
2013-09-18: Visited the main campus of University of Central Florida in Orlando for the 1st time with Maya (friend).
2013-10-07: Took the Graduate Record Examinations and scored highly (V: 160, Q: 164, AW: 4.5).
2013-10-10: Completed “Communication Challenges Between Foreign Inmates and Norwegian Prison Officers” presentation (and presented it on 2013-10-17 for a class).
2013-11-02: End of my engagement and long-distance relationship with a woman in California.
2013-11-12: Joined the UCF Daytona Beach Psychology Club.
2013-11-15: Met Malinda (friend).
2013-11-17: Finished writing “Connecting Gender Inequality to The Muslim Next Door” (essay for a class).
2013-11-23: Grandma in China passed away.
2013-12-05 / 2014-01-07: Visited Mom in the Bay Area of California for the 3rd time. Visited Los Angeles, San Diego, La Jolla, and Las Vegas for the 1st times.
2014-02-15: Visited the Harry P. Leu Gardens in Orlando, FL for the 1st time with Iliana (friend).
2014-02-18: Got my 1st smartphone (LG Optimus L9, Android OS) and 1st tablet computer (Samsung Galaxy Note 8, Android OS).
2014-02-28: Interviewed for the Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology program at University of Central Florida, Sanford/Lake Mary.
2014-03-04: Photographed the Scooter Babes and Mardi Gras Parade in New Smyrna Beach, FL.
2014-03-08: Met Jackie (friend).
2014-03-10: Rejected from Clinical Psychology M.A. at University of Central Florida.
2014-03-10: Wrote “The Dark Side of Service to Others” (philosophic essay).
2014-03-18: Visited an Islamic mosque for the 1st time.
2014-03-21: Volunteered at Megacon 2014 (Friday only). Photographed Allison Mack, John Glover, and Laura Vandervoort.
2014-03-27: Finished writing “Changes in brain structure and emotional arousal in studies of subjects with amygdala damage” (scholarly review essay for a class).
2014-03-29: Visited Gainesville, FL for the 1st time to visit Cheyenne (date).
2014-03-30: Went to Universal Islands of Adventure “Universal Knights” for UCF students with Allie and Sam (friends).
2014-04-11: Attended and photographed Relay for Life (American Cancer Society) in Daytona Beach, FL with Amanda (friend). Heard Dr. Rick Doolin speak (shortly before he passed away).
2014-04-15: Attended and photographed a flute recital by Nathalie (friend) at Stetson University in DeLand, FL.
2014-04-30: Saw a live broadcast in DeLand, FL of the dedication of the Ft. Lauderdale, FL temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
2014-05-01: Conferred a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology from University of Central Florida.
2014-05-11: Decided to stop attending the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after three years of membership.
2014-05-13: Began writing poetry and prose.
2014-05-17: Created new webpages for my photography portfolio.
2014-05-18: Accepted to the Master of Arts in Applied Learning & Instruction program at University of Central Florida, Orlando.
2014-05-18: Wrote “Nemisis” (prose-poetry).
2014-05-31: Recorded and published videos of me playing piano for the 1st time in over a year.
2014-06-03: Began learning to play “Pirates of the Caribbean: An Original Medley” by Jarrod Radnich and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Jon Schmidt on piano.
2014-06-06: Received a nice recommendation letter from Lisa (former supervisor).
2014-06-16: Interviewed to be a Financial Aid Specialist at Stetson University in DeLand, FL (was not hired).
2014-06-19: Began photographing Taylor (friend).
2014-06-27: Attended the Flagler Beach, FL drum circle for the 1st time.
2014-06-29: Wrote “Beyond Hipocrisy” (philosophic essay).
2014-07-01: Bought lighting and umbrellas for indoor photography for the 1st time.
2014-07-02: Joined Toastmasters of Port Orange, FL.
2014-07-12: Visited the Woodlawn Chartes Labyrinth in Gotha, FL, the Mall at Millenia, and Universal CityWalk for the 1st times with Allie, Sam, and Lindsay (friends).
2014-07-23: Gave my first speech in Toastmasters.
2014-07-27: Visited art galleries in St. Augustine, FL for the 1st time with Juliona (date).
2014-07-29: Wrote “Personal Finance” (philosophic essay).
2014-07-30: Attended and photographed the UCF Leaders Panel / Alumni Networking event in Daytona Beach, FL.
2014-08-03: Painted my 1st painting with instruction from Maya (friend) at her birthday party.
2014-08-06: Wrote “Establishing Positive Self-Talk” (philosophic piece).
2014-08-11: Started working out in a gym for the 1st time since 2011.

Over the past year, I have made many important decisions, found new friendships and strengthened existing ones, traveled more than in any previous year, completed my Bachelors degree, and greatly advanced in photography, piano, and writing. It has been an amazing year with many sorrows and heartaches, but also many achievements and adventures.

I was blessed to be unemployed for almost the entire year, and while this had a negative impact on my finances and future job prospects, it has also allowed me to pursue diverse interests and have far more free time than a normal person my age. While much of this time arguably was wasted, I do feel I was more productive overall than in any prior year—only 2007-08 comes close.

As I look forward to starting my graduate studies tomorrow, I am sad that summer break is over, but also excited to have new classes and textbooks to dig into, a long commute to Orlando on two days per week (I enjoy driving), to meet other students and people, to attend UCF in Orlando, and to be involved in a program that is so closely related to personal development and self-improvement. I am particularly looking forward to the “Motivation in Learning and Performance” class after having read Dr. Bobby Hoffman’s introduction and first chapter of the textbook he is working on, Motivation for Learning and Performance: Lessons from Leaders.

I am finally getting a sense of where I want to go in life and developing the habits and methodologies to make that direction a living reality. As a natural consequence, this is a time of change and upheaval. Many beliefs, practices, friends, acquaintances, and rituals will fall away during this time, but new friendships, schemas, and philosophies will also be developed and refined through reflection and observation. I am excited to decide where this takes me and embrace my 24th year with earnest appreciation.

Establishing Positive Self-Talk

Some ideas I wrote today for the 2014-08-06 meeting of the Toastmasters club of Port Orange, FL tonight:

Establishing Positive Self-Talk

Self-talk is the ongoing stream of private thoughts that run through your mind. The self-talk of many people focuses on anxieties, imperfections, shortcomings, and “what if” questions. However, just because pessimistic self-talk is common does not mean it is healthy or beneficial. If we make an effort to change our self-talk to be more positive, optimistic, forgiving, and encouraging, we will have more success and happiness in life.

Here are three examples of negative self-talk and positive replacements:
• “I’ve never done it before.” – “It’s an opportunity to learn something new.”
• “It’s too complicated.” – “I’ll tackle it from a different angle
or “I’ll chip away at it over time.”
• “I could never be as good as so-and-so.” – “So-and-so inspires and motivates me.”

One way to improve your self-talk is to make a conscious effort to replace negative thinking with positive thinking. Don’t beat yourself up for not being perfect. Celebrate your hard work rather than dwelling on times when you were lazy or needed rest. Think more about your accomplishments and less about your mistakes.

We tend to be hold ourselves to a higher, harsher standard than acquaintances and even close friends and family. However, doing so is often counterproductive because it prevents us from taking risks and causes us to sell ourselves short. Instead, try being as uplifting and supportive to yourself as you are to your best friend.

[ Quotes copied or adapted from a Mayo Clinic article ]

Personal Finance

There are many opportunities and techniques with personal spending and promotional offers that can allow you to save or receive credit or money. I am always surprised at how many people do not take advantage of these opportunities despite having sufficient free time and technical ability. One of the most obvious is buying gift cards at a discount from personal resellers or intermediaries. While there are varying degrees of risk doing this, if you use a credit card you can always request a chargeback, and for discounts of over 10% at stores you were going to shop at anyway, they are often worthwhile. For example, Gift Card Mall on eBay used to commonly offer OfficeMax gift cards at 20% off (a $50.00 card for $40.00), which I purchased and used at OfficeMax to buy U.S. postage “forever” stamps at 46¢ each, just days before the increase to 49¢. With the 20% gift card discount, I was effectively saving 25% and the stamps were costing me about 37¢ each.

Using cash is anathema to me. Besides avoiding being tracked, there are no hard advantages to using cash for the buyer. The buyer is at the mercy of the seller’s refund policy if sold a defective item, yet is usually paying the same amount that a credit card user who is receiving 1-2% or more cashback, buyer protection, extended warranties and insurance, and an interest-free loan from the lender. Except in the cases of receiving cash discounts, avoiding credit surcharges, or haggling, any benefits the buyer receives by using cash where credit is accepted are purely psychological—such as spending less and avoiding high interest rates due to poor repayment habits. People who are able to pay their statement balances in full before the due date 100% of the time are better off using credit. Of course, with a typical interest rate of 18%, carrying a balance even one month costs 1.5% of the principal, which immediately negates the cashback earned. Every month after that is a loss.

Many credit cards and bank accounts offer financial incentives for opening accounts and using them. These are primarily one-time bonuses but there are also some continuing bonuses that you can receive every month or quarter. For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card typically offers a waived annual fee and 40,000 point bonus after spending $2000.00 in the first three months, and the points can be worth $400.00 cash or up to about $600.00 if transferred to Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, Amtrak, etc. for traveling. $2000.00 in spending can be “manufactured” by loading money to your American Express Serve account, sending money to your spouse or a family member using Amazon Payments, or it can simply be reached by buying things you would have bought anyway. [2014-09-11 Update: Amazon Payments is ending person-to-person payments on 2014-10-13.] In March 2014, First Niagara bank of Buffalo, NY was offering a $250.00 bonus to new checking account holders after they received $250.00 in direct deposits, made five bill payments, and used their debit cards 10 times. These were easy requirements to meet even for people who are unemployed and not receiving pensions or social security, because transfers from PayPal or other services and banks were counted as direct deposits. Accounts can be opened by customers residing anywhere in the United States through correspondence—which requires providing information online and mailing a copy of your signature. While Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and U.S. Bank typically offer modest bonuses that require jumping through more hoops, Chase Bank and Citibank commonly offer a $200.00 bonus for opening a checking account with easy requirements, albeit redeeming the Citibank reward points at face value requires redeeming them for a check to your mortgage or student loan issuer (they send the check to you, written to the lender, but do not verify the existence of the loan—so you can deposit the check to your account with the institution it is written to, such as another bank).

Examples of continuing bonuses on credit cards include the Bank of America Better Balance card and Discover It card. The BoA BB card pays you $30.00 every quarter provided you have a statement balance greater than $0.00 every month and pay more than the minimum payment each month (or only the minimum payment if the statement balance is below ~$25.00 and is equal to the minimum payment). I have had this card over a year and have received $120.00 in bonuses. While this pales in comparison to many credit cards which offer $500.00 or more, hopefully the Better Balance card will continue for years, and the card has the added bonus of typically coming with a 0.00% promotional interest rate for 12 months. The Discover It card offers 5% cashback on up to $1500.00 in purchases in rotating categories each quarter. The current quarter offers 5% back on purchases at gas stations, and I was able to find a gas station that allowed me to buy $500.00 OneVanilla Visa prepaid cards using credit. These prepaid cards have only a $4.95 fee and can be used to purchase money orders at Walmart or Winn-Dixie, or loaded to an American Express Bluebird account and used to pay bills such as credit cards and mortgage payments, thus reducing their opportunity cost. Thus you can make $60.15, or more if redeeming your Discover cashback for gift cards that offer a 20% redemption discount (i.e. a $25.00 Staples gift card for $20.00 in Discover cashback rewards). ShopDiscover also offers cashback for online purchases at participating retailers that is often higher than other cashback sites, such as 5% at Target.com, TigerDirect.com, and Staples.com.

Examples of continuing bonuses on bank accounts include the Extra20 Checking account by Santander Bank of Boston, MA (formerly Sovereign Bank) and the Discover Bank Cashback Checking account. The former bank offers a $20.00 monthly bonus when you have both a checking and savings account with them, receive $1500.00 or more in direct deposits to the checking account per statement cycle, and pay two or more bills per statement. The bonus is deposited to your savings account each month. Accounts can be opened through correspondence (mail/web) nationwide and Santander is liberal in what they count as direct deposits (transfers from PayPal, Amazon Payments, and other banks currently work). As with the bill payment requirement for the First Niagara bonus, the bill payments could just be a couple dollars toward your credit card bills—you do not have to pay an entire bill. The Discover Cashback Checking account offers 10¢ back on every debit card purchase, bill payment, and check written per month, up to a maximum of 100 items ($10.00 back), though prior to July 1, 2014, the bonus was unlimited. Before August 1, 2013, the Chase Freedom credit card offered 10 extra points back on every purchase, which was then eliminated. The Discover offering is a suitable (though less potent) replacement, and I typically use it for purchases below $7.00 that would only earn 1 point per dollar on my credit cards. You can also pay a couple dollars to all of your credit cards several times per month to get closer to the $10.00 monthly maximum.

There are many offers which I would like to take advantage of but don’t have the equipment for or am unable to be approved for. Isis Mobile Wallet (which is soon to be renamed) offers $1.00 back on up to 50 purchases of $1.00 or more per month and many other significant offers that can be used to make hundreds of dollars, but is not compatible with my smartphone or carrier (Metro PCS). I would love to get the Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express credit card which offers 2% cashback on all purchases, but it is too difficult to get approved for. The Chase Ink Plus and Ink Bold credit and charge cards offer opening bonuses of $700.00 and $500.00 with $5000.00 spending and 5% back on utility bills and office stores, but I have had no luck being approved for them by claiming my photography or reselling hobbies as businesses. There are also many bank account bonuses that are regional and unavailable to Florida residents.

While bank account bonuses in the United States are considered income by the Internal Revenue Service and you will usually receive a 1099-INT or 1099-MISC form in the mail in January of the following year, credit card rewards and bonuses typically require spending a certain amount. Thus, the IRS considers them a discount on purchases made, which is not income. Thus, no income tax must be paid on most credit card bonuses.

Credit card and bank account bonuses require successfully opening the accounts you are applying for. Many bonuses are unavailable to people who have poor credit or banking histories, because credit card issuers and banks will not even allow such individuals to open the accounts the bonuses are offered on, if any accounts at all. Obviously, many damaged credit histories and permanently overdrawn bank accounts result from poor decisions and negligence by the account holders, institutional errors, and disgust with penalty APRs and cascading overdraft fees which result in borrowers giving up completely. It is best to avoid these issues completely by never missing a payment or overdrawing a bank account. However, you should also regularly check your Experian, TransUnion, Equifax, ChexSystems, and Early Warning Services reports for incorrect data, and even correct negative information can sometimes be disputed. The burden of proof may be on the institution rather than you, and the negative information could be removed if your creditor fails to produce supporting documentation. This is particularly true with fraudulent medical bills (hospitals are notorious for over- and double-billing).

Next month, I am becoming a graduate student at University of Central Florida and am taking some face-to-face classes which will require me to drive from the Daytona Beach, FL area to the Orlando campus approximately 25 times next semester. This will require 2800 miles of driving, and I drive a van which only gets 18 miles per gallon of gas on the highway. This means I will use about 156 gallons of gas to commute next semester, at a cost of about $545 at $3.50 per gallon. Even a used, modestly-priced, fuel-efficient car would probably use half as much fuel at best, which would save me only $272.50 on gas for my classes next semester. I considered buying a car, and some friends say they would to avoid wasting so much gas, but it would actually be more expensive to replace the van with a car, especially considering the van has low mileage, has been very reliable, and lacks resale value due to nonfunctional air conditioning and cosmetic problems. Plus, I am safer in a van and can carry up to eight passengers or 1536 lbs. of cargo if needed. It would be financially unwise to replace the van, but many people would make this decision with a flawed mathematical analysis, or none at all. Basic arithmetic skills are essential to effective personal finance.

I am using a service called Savings2Go which provides gift cards at 20% off for Home Depot, Target, Best Buy, Applebee’s, and other stores and restaurants. You can buy up to $75.00 in gift cards per store per quarter, and they offer a $15.00 rebate on grocery purchases each quarter, for a $14.95 monthly fee. When I called to cancel after the end of my 30-day trial, they offered to reduce the fee to $29.95 per year and to increase the grocery rebate to $25.00 per quarter. Having agreed, I have already received $50.00 in checks which exceeds the $29.95 fee I paid. I enjoy using the Applebee’s gift cards to eat out with friends, and have bought other gift cards for personal use or to share at-cost with family and friends. Another service called LeisurePlus, also administered by Stonebridge Benefit Services, offers 20% off on restaurant gift cards and gas gift cards for BP, Shell, and ExxonMobil, for up to $75.00 in gift cards per store per quarter. They charge $9.95 per month and have a 30-day money-back guarantee, so I signed up in mid-June and bought a total of $450.00 of gas gift cards in June (2nd quarter) and early July (3rd quarter), paying only $360.00. Then, I canceled before the 30 days ended and got my $9.95 monthly fee back. I found out about these services through telemarketing calls, and while there was a class action lawsuit against Stonebridge in 2011 and there are numerous complaints against them, I have only saved money with them. I am also in a trial period with Everyday Bargains to get 20% off on up to $75.00 of Walmart, Publix, and Winn-Dixie gift cards. However, I cannot recommend Savings Galore, Advantage Plus Legal, Family Saver, or Magazine Rewards Plus, since they never sent the membership packets or gifts and I ended up having to complain or request chargebacks against them with my credit card issuer.

One cool fact about credit cards is they can actually be leveraged to provide an indefinite, interest-free loan to the cardholder. Consider that Amazon Payments allows anyone to send $1000.00 per month to another person on credit with no fees—and the recipient can be a spouse, significant other, family member, or friend who could remit the balance and also send $1000.00 with his or her credit card, or even as an authorized user on the initiator’s credit card. [2014-09-11 Update: Amazon Payments is ending person-to-person payments on 2014-10-13.] The “Serve” prepaid card by American Express also allows anyone to load up to $1000.00 per month from a credit card to their Serve card (as $200.00 per day) and immediately withdraw it to their bank account, with no fees. Credit cards provide grace periods of at least 21 days after the statement ends to pay the statement balance without incurring interest, and to avoid interest, only the balance accrued during the previous statement must be paid before the due date. For example, if your statement ends on July 18 and payment is due on August 12, you could have charged $4000.00 from June 19 to July 17, and subsequently charge $3000.00 more between July 18 and August 12, yet only pay $4000.00 before August 12. In this example, the $3000.00 charged between July 18 and August 12 would post to the August 18 statement and not have to be paid until September 12. Thus, you could always owe $2000.00 or more yet never pay interest, and additionally be earning 1-2% in cashback every time you borrow more. Some new credit cards offer a 0.00% promotional APR for up to 24 months, so you can just max them out and make the minimum payment every month until the promotional rate ends, while leveraging the interest-free credit line into low-risk investments or no-risk certificates of deposit and Kasasa checking and savings accounts. While this practice may increase your credit utilization above 30% and negatively impact your credit score, the impact is far less than a delinquent account and disappears when you pay the balance.

I definitely recommend the “Hot Deals” forums on Slickdeals.net and FatWallet.com for finding good deals on many items. They are particularly good for electronics. There are other forums for finance, coupons, and drugstores which can also be helpful. It is easy to end up buying things you don’t need, so it is important to only search for things you actually need, but it is also important to recognize opportunities that are too good to pass up, and to get in on them before they expire. Make sure to use cashback sites such as Ebates, FatWallet, BeFrugal, Mr. Rebates, Plink, ShopDiscover, Chase Ultimate Rewards Mall, BankAmeriDeals, and American Express Offers to “click-through” and get money back, but also be careful to read the terms and confirm the items you are buying are not excluded. Also, many cashback sites have minimum thresholds to reach before you can cash out, and inactivity fees if you forget about your cashback balance. You should probably use LastPass, KeePass, or another password manager to keep track of all the email addresses, usernames, and passwords you are using for various websites.

If you do a lot of printing at home, one really basic thing you can do to improve your finances is to buy a Brother HL-2140 or HL-2240 black and white laser printer (which go on sale for $49.99 commonly). Particularly if you print a lot of documents that don’t require color, using re-manufactured toner cartridges in these printers can cost as little as $10.00 to print 2500 pages. When I see friends spending $50.00+ on ink cartridges that cost them upwards of 15¢ per page, I always try to convince them to make the switch.

Usually, banks and big businesses rape consumers with fees, high margins, and shady tactics. However, they use some of this money for marketing campaigns and loss leaders that you can actually make money on. It is very satisfying to be part of the small percentage of smart consumers who cost these institutions money through offers and mechanisms that they freely advertise.

While there are many avenues I did not touch on in this post, I find banks and credit cards exciting because they provide large rewards with less time and effort than more intensive practices such as rebates and coupons. However, that is not to say this should be an “either/or” proposition. Depending on the value of your time and what you like to do with it, it is possible for you to pursue all these avenues and more. Sometimes, you can even get back more than you paid for an item with a mail-in rebate. If an item is offered for free after rebate at Newegg or Staples, and you have a 10% or 20% off coupon, you can get back 10% or 20% more than you paid. Usually, even rebates that say “rebate value must not exceed purchase price” do not enforce this stipulation. There is always a difference between the terms in writing and in practice, which can be more lenient rather than strict. You can always argue against interpretations that are overly strict, while quietly accepting grace periods, courtesy offers, and other gifts without complaint. If this bothers you, just think of all the other people who have no issue with it.

Financial literacy is barely taught in grade-school or college, yet people who lack it have a lower quality of life and squander much of their labors. The unidirectional nature of time means you cannot give advice to your younger self or modify the past in any way. Like any area of life, if you want to improve your finances, accepting and making peace with your prior mistakes and ignorance is an unavoidable step. It is always better to make a positive change now than later or never. There are many notions, beliefs, and myths you will have to dispel, replace, and overcome on this path. I can promise you it will be worth it.

Inspirational thought on priorities

For the 2014-07-23 meeting of the Toastmasters club of Port Orange, FL, I will give the inspirational thought and the theme of the meeting is “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.” Here is what I came up with:

Fellow Toastmasters and guests, for tonight’s inspirational thought I will share two quotes and my thoughts.

Quote from Robert Heinlein, science fiction author (1907 – 1988):

“In the absence of clearly-defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily trivia until ultimately we become enslaved by it.”

Quote from Tony Robbins:

“The path to success is to take massive, determined action.”

My thoughts:

In the theme of not “sweating the small stuff,” it is important to regularly take a good hard look at your daily routine. Ask yourself—are your actions bringing you closer to who you want to be, or are they of no long-term consequence? Do you spend too much time reading the news? Do you spend too much time responding to mundane emails, texts, and Facebook posts? Do you spend too much time organizing things that really don’t need to be organized? Do you spend too much time helping friends, family, and strangers, while neglecting your own goals and projects? Practice saying “NO!” more often, and reclaim this time to pursue your true creative desires. Then, you might find yourself gaining confidence, respect, and momentum.

Toastmasters table topics for “Singing in the Rain” theme

For the 2014-07-16 meeting of the Toastmasters club of Port Orange, FL, I was the table topics master and the theme was “Singing in the Rain.” Here is the introduction and topics I came up with:

The purpose of table topics is to help improve members’ extemporaneous speaking skills by giving them an opportunity to practice impromptu speaking on topics they do not have advance knowledge of.

1. Talk about a hurricane, snowstorm, or other bad weather that affected you. What was it like to go without electricity for several days? Did you have a lot of cleanup work to do after the storm?

2. Talk about a time when you’ve had a party or beach day rained out, OR talk about a day when you were worried it would rain but the storm passed over.

3. Have you ever kissed someone in the rain? Share your thoughts on how bad weather can be romantic.

4. Discuss how trying to use an umbrella can actually be counterproductive, especially over short distances where you have to extend and collapse the umbrella in the rain to avoid getting water in your car.

5. Have you or a friend or family member had any close calls with lightning? Share some tips to stay safe in a thunderstorm.

6. Do you sing in the shower? Why or why not?

7. Share some tips for hurricane preparedness or disaster preparedness in general. Feel free to include tips about cutting down dangerous tree branches and securing doors and windows.

Overcoming Narcissism

Whenever people suggests they “deserve” to be treated better, an interesting question to ask is: “What are you basing that on?” If we look at how they treat others and it does not measure up, perhaps they deserve to be treated no better than their worst behavior toward others? If their expectations for respect are based on accomplishments that do not exist, then such respect cannot be deserved without commensurate achievement. If their expectations are based on their innate worth as human beings, regardless of their diligence or lack thereof, then we should be dealing with an issue of human rights. More often however, we are dealing with a symptom of narcissism (namely, an unearned sense of entitlement).

Moving forward, I would like to discredit the just-world hypothesis and its manifestations, such as karma and destiny. There is no empirical evidence that people get what they deserve at a universal level. I also propose that it is empowering to believe that people who unfairly hurt you are not bringing “bad karma” upon themselves, nor are they any more likely to experience hardships in their lives, except to the extent their behavior endangers their property, relationships, or freedom, or the extent to which you seek justice against them. The reason this is more empowering than believing they will “get what’s coming to them” is because it is closer to the truth. The truth does not have to be encouraging to be empowering. Discarding your belief in fairness allows you to recognize that regardless of your wishes, nothing good will come without continuous, definitive action by you.

I would also like to instill the belief that past events are the best predictor of future events. If you expect to be successful in the future, ask yourself what you are basing that belief on? Nearly 100% of the time, looking at a person’s actions in the past year is an excellent predictor of their future accomplishments. Your stated goals and intentions are meaningless. Everyone is very “busy,” and it is very easy to say that you are going to write a book without writing anything, that you love travel without going anywhere, and that you are a visionary without having produced any fruits. It is far harder to accurately assess your track record and acknowledge that reaching your aspirations will require fundamental changes in the habits and behaviors that govern your life. Without fundamental changes, you cannot expect dramatic improvements.

Although this is seemingly unrelated, Pual Arden’s quote, “it’s better to regret what you have done than what you haven’t,” is often wrong. You can interview anyone who regrets committing a murder, having an affair, or making a bad investment to see evidence of this. As an impetus to overcome fear and pursue your truest desires, this belief is wanting at best. I find it is far more motivating to look at trailblazers in your desired field who do not allow sociocultural disapproval to inhibit their lives. Become envious—even jealous—of them, and let your competitive instinct drive you to become better and faster than them. I find this strategy to be far more effective than worrying about hypothetical future regrets.

Overcoming narcissism does not necessarily require “settling” for something less, nor eliminating your love of power and adulation. An alternate route is to prioritize actual achievement rather than the illusion of achievement. Then, you can enjoy admiration as a byproduct of your accomplishments, and avoid descending into madness. It is very important to do what you love for intrinsic reasons rather than for prestige and authority. Only then will you have the motivation to work continuously despite many years of being unnoticed.

A great predictor of what you love to do is what you have loved doing. If you have spent the past year watching TV shows, despite professing a love for writing, perhaps you should become really good at watching TV shows and teach other people how to notice details and predict the plot of new episodes of their favorite TV shows? If you say you want to do something but never get around to doing it, despite having available time and resources, what does this say about you? That you are a pretender, misguided, deranged, or a lout? Perhaps you should immediately cease telling yourself and others of your aspirations, until you take even one small action to bring them to pass?

Who am I to point out flaws, to criticize, or even to make suggestions if my life is not in order? Do not make the mistake of believing that you should only listen to people who are shining examples of success. It is not—nor has it ever been—about me. Good ideas can come from anywhere. People are entitled to care nothing about you and everything about what you can do for them. To say that you “deserve” better is a misnomer. You have no rights. Whatever you have is a gift. People who say they “deserve” better are like spoiled children who cannot understand they have already been given parents who are far more generous and permissive than average.

Life is a gift. Friendship and politeness are gifts. A gift cannot be earned. A gift cannot be an exchange of value. A gift cannot be deserved. A gift can be withdrawn at any time. Value and treat gifts accordingly, and you will be better able to see the truth about yourself and others. Paradoxically, you will also be more forgiving, because it is easy to be angry at someone for betraying your expectations, but far more difficult to be angry at someone for being true to him- or herself.

Thomas Jefferson quote on friendship

I have started attending the Toastmasters club of Port Orange, FL, and was assigned to give the inspirational thought for the 2014-07-02 meeting. The theme was sunshine, so I found this quote from Thomas Jefferson on friendship, which is also fitting since Independence Day is coming up:

In a life where we are perpetually exposed to want & accident, yours is a wonderful proposition, to insulate ourselves, to retire from all aid, & to wrap ourselves in the mantle of self-sufficiency! For assuredly nobody will care for him who cares for nobody. But friendship is precious, not only in the shade but in the sunshine of life; & thanks to a benevolent arrangement of things, the greater part of life is sunshine.

October 12, 1786

This quote is from his “DIALOGUE BETWEEN MY HEAD & MY HEART” love letter to Maria Cosway, an Italian-English artist who was living in Paris at the time.

I had written these comments about the quote, but decided not to say them at the Toastmasters meeting:

Good friendships should be nurtured and developed, not only because they are mutually beneficial and supportive, but because they allow us to share and be vulnerable without fear of judgment or ridicule. We should especially endeavor to be true friends to our significant others and families.