Archive for the 'Value' Category

Frugal Tip: Top 4 Free PC Tools

Utilities and tools that promise to make your PC faster and virus free are a very big business.  You will see countless infomercials and popup ads trying to sell you some product to rid your machine of slowness and nasty viruses.  Unfortunately, most of these tools are not worth their cost, and are effectively somebody’s way of getting rich quick on the Internet.  The good news is that there high-quality free PC tools that can get you all the same benefits at a much better value.  The following are the tools I use to keep my computer, and the computers of my friends and family, running smoothly.  To make this list the tools need to meet the following criteria:

  • Be free
  • Be high-quality
  • Not have spyware, spam or other nonsense
  • Say what they do and do what they say
  • Be easy to use

Here are the Below Your Means Top 4 Free PC tools:


Anti-Virus:  Microsoft Security Essentials

Skill Level: Novice

If you are running a licensed Microsoft Windows PC, then Microsoft Security Essentials provides simple and solid virus protection.  Virus protection subscriptions are a cash cow for companies these days.  This is why you see so many virus products offered and also why companies will give away their software. They are willing to give it away this year, with the hope you will buy a subscription next year.  From Microsoft:

Microsoft Security Essentials provides real-time protection for your home or small business PC that guards against viruses, spyware, and other malicious software. Microsoft Security Essentials is a free download from Microsoft that is simple to install, easy to use, and is automatically updated to protect your PC with the latest technology. Microsoft Security Essentials runs quietly and efficiently in the background so that you are free to use your Windows-based PC the way you want—without interruptions or long computer wait times.
Microsoft Security Essentials screenshot

You can get a link to download it from Microsoft here.

Tip: You only need one virus scanner, if you are going to use Microsoft Security Essentials, uninstall any other virus scanners you have.


Anti-Spyware: Microsoft Windows Defender

Skill Level: Novice

Just like Microsoft Security Essentials, Microsoft Windows Defender is free if you have a genuine copy of Microsoft Windows.  This tool detects and removes a continuously updated list of known spyware applications.  From Microsoft:

Windows Defender is software that helps protect your computer against pop-ups, slow performance, and security threats caused by spyware and other unwanted software by detecting and removing known spyware from your computer. Windows Defender features Real-Time Protection, a monitoring system that recommends actions against spyware when it’s detected, minimizes interruptions, and helps you stay productive.

Windows Defender screenshot

You can download it from Microsoft here.


System Cleaner: Piriform CCleaner

Skill Level: Novice to Intermediate

Piriform makes some of the cleanest and most straightforward PC utilities around.  Their products are well written and free.  Piriform CCleaner (originally this stood for “Crap Cleaner”) is one of the best PC tools out there, hands down.  This tool scans your machine and lets you remove unused files, temporary files, old cookies and browser history, log files and much, much more.  Note: this tool is free, however you can purchase Priority Support for $24.95.

CCleaner is the number-one tool for cleaning your Windows PC. It protects your privacy online and makes your computer faster and more secure. Easy to use and a small, fast download.

Ccleaner screen shot

You can download it from Piriform here.

Tip: When you install Piriform tools, you may be asked if you want to install a toolbar for your web browser.  I typically recommend against this as these tool bars tend to slow browsing down.  Removing excessive tool bars is usually the single easiest thing I do to fix my family’s computers.

Disk Defragment: Piriform Defraggler

Skill level: Intermediate

Piriform Defraggler is a high performance disk optimization tool.  It is better the than the defragment tool built into Microsoft Windows because it supports more advanced features such as a full visual drive map and the ability to moving frequently used files to the front of the disk drive for faster access.  Note: this tool is free, however you can purchase Priority Support for $24.95.

Use Defraggler to defrag your entire hard drive, or individual files – unique in the industry. This compact and portable Windows application supports NTFS and FAT32 file systems.

Defraggler screenshot

You can download it from Piriform here.

Tip: If you have a Solid State Drive (SSD) then you should not use defragmentation tools.  These tools may decrease the life of your drive.

There are plenty of other great free PC tools out there, but please be careful with ones you choose.  Many tools that claim to be free are riddled with ad or spy ware.

The Value of a Degree

Last week, Five Cent Nickel had a post about What’s Your College Degree Worth? Which was a report on a study by Georgetown University Center.  The article and study of course throw out a variation of every schools favorite statistic:

One of the big takeaways from this study is that college graduates can expect to earn 84% more over their lifetime (on average, of course) than someone with nothing more than a high school diploma. But what about difference between majors. Surely some degrees result in higher earnings than others.

This 84% statistic is similar to the oft mentioned “$1 million dollars more over a lifetime” statistic.  I haven’t personally done the research on either of these, but I am skeptical.  You can see why by reading this post and watching this video.  I have no doubt that the average person with a degree will earn more than the average person without one, but I think there are many exceptions to the rule and that the advantage is nowhere near as large as it once was.

The Five Cent Nickel calls out the top and bottom 10, but here are the top and bottom:

Ten highest earning majors

  1. Petroleum Engineer ($120,000)
  2. Pharmacy/Pharmaceutical Sciences and Administration ($105,000)
  3. Math and Computer Science ($98,000)

Ten lowest earning majors

  1. Counseling/Psychology ($29,000)
  2. Early Childhood Education ($36,000)
  3. Theology and Religious Vocations ($38,000)

Here is a graph breaking down the findings:

Degree value chart - Provided by Georgetown Education Center


This latest research doesn’t change my opinion of higher education and I think only furthers my point that the decision to take on student loan debt and get a degree needs to be treated entirely like a business decision.  Will you get a return on your investment (ROI)?  That is to say, will the time and money you put into the degree repeat you and equal amount or more in future compensation and happiness?   If the answer is no, you need to consider a different career choice, spending less on education or both.  For example, if you plan is to take on $120k of student loan debt to get a $29,000 a job as a counselor, I think you probably need to consider getting yourself some financial counseling.  This just doesn’t make sense.


What’s Your College Degree Worth? | Five Cent Nickle


Image Credit: Georgetown Education Center


One’s Frugal Fail is Another’s Frugal Success

Confused?A tricky part of living below your means is knowing a good value when you see one.  Recently we ran a Frugal Fail about McDonald’s $1 Sweet Tea, and how buying drinks out daily was a great way to spend a lot of money on something that didn’t have much worth.  Of course, just a few weeks earlier, we had posted that McDonald’s $1 sodas were a good value relative to buying a soda at a convenience store.

What gives?  Are we hypocrites?  Contradicting ourselves?

Not really.  Our philosophy is that money is a tool that one uses to achieve happiness, and you have to know what makes you happy in order to use it properly.  Otherwise, living within a budget is just a grind.  In other words, something is only a good value if it is worth it TO YOU.

If 95% of the time you don’t spend a lot of money on drinks, then the $1 McDonald’s soda is a pretty good deal, especially if you compare it to the $1.69 to $2.99 that you’re going to pay in a convenience store.  The $3-$4 drink at coffee shop with a few friends on a Saturday afternoon is a great way to spend some time in a pleasant atmosphere (especially if you consider the number of hours of enjoyment you are getting from the experience).  But if you’re spending that kind of money most days on drinks — especially the kind you bring back to your desk and hardly notice that you’re drinking — then it’s likely you’ve gone from spending your money on something that makes you truly happy, and paying an awful lot of money to avoid brewing your own coffee or tea and putting it in a thermos in the morning, or remembering to grab a soda out of the fridge to drink later in the day.

Now, there is also the argument to be made that you are paying for convenience.  Understanding the value of convenience is a great subject for living richly, and we’ll be exploring that question next week.


Photo Credit: San Drino

Quick 8 and 18 month review of the BMW 335d

BMW 335d 2011 Review

The Diesel Driver recently ran an 18-month review of the BMW 335d.  The review is pretty much all positive.  They call out that few people have even noticed its a diesel, meaning that anecdotal “average Joe” can’t see any of the classic diesel concerns such as smell, noise, etc.

Few if any passengers have guessed it’s a diesel although many have commented on the car’s power. The 425 pound-feet of torque is not only fun but has come in handy many times over.

And on fuel economy they note:

The best sustained fuel economy we’ve recorded was 40 mpg (5.9 l/100 km), although we’ve seen as high as 42 mpg (5.6 l/100 km) for brief periods of time. On a drive from Philadelphia to New York, the 335d used 6.0 l/100 km (39.2 mpg) with an average speed of 65 mph (105 km/h).

I have had the car for about 8 months now and have driven approximately 3,500 miles.  To put it plainly, I absolutely love this car.  On the highway, I have been able to get 40+ MPG, and my average city/highway driving has given me with an average of 31-33 MPG.  The car is fun to drive, handles great and has excellent pickup (especially at higher speeds).

My only complaints with the car so far are:

  • When I first took delivery of the car, there was definitely a noticeable smell.  I did some research and this apparently due to “Particulate Filter Regeneration“.  After about 2500 miles though, I haven’t noticed the smell.
  • The HD radio reception is spotty.  This seems to be a common issue with BMW’s and is not limited to the 3-series.
  • I still miss the old “wrap around the driver” feeling of the old E46 style BMW 3-series seats and dashboard.

You can read our other diesel articles here:

More of 18 month review at the source…

BMW 335d 18-Month Report and Review | The Diesel Driver

I just sold my PS3 – here’s why

Back in February 2008, when the Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD war was finally over I went out and bought a Sony Playstation 3 (PS3).  I didn’t buy it for the games; I bought it because at the time the PS3 was the cheapest and best Blu-Ray player around.  In fact, in the last 3+ years we haven’t played a single game on it… we only used it for DVD, Blu-Ray and Netflix movies.

My reasons for selling now:

  • The unit was 3+ years old – Systems with moving parts like fans and hard drives are more prone to failure
  • It used a lot of power (see table below)
  • PlayStation 4 is probably coming out late next year and resale value of the PS3 is going to drop
  • I was able to sell it for a fair price of $165 or about 42% of my original purchase price
  • The PS3 requires a Bluetooth remote and thus was the only thing that wouldn’t work with my universal remote.
  • Based on my families movie watching it cost us approximately $7-$10 a year to run the PS3.
  • The PS3 was a bit noisy and could be heard slightly when watching movies.

PS3 Power Consumption

With the $165 I got from selling my PS3 on Craig’s List, I purchased a new Panasonic DMP-BDT110 Wi-Fi Ready 3D/2D Blu-ray Disc Player.  This new player cost me approximately $135 including tax and shipping.  The result is that I now have a player that does everything I need, since I don’t use my PS3 for games.  I got this particular player because of its price and exceptionally low power consumption.  I also do not believe in paying a lot of money for “fancy” digital players.  The key components inside a $300 Blu-Ray player are basically the same as that of a $100 player… the difference is in the bells and whistles (Wi-Fi, styling) and, since it is all digital, the resulting picture and sound is identical.



Benefits of the switch:

  • I have an extra $30 in my pocket
  • I have a brand new player that will easily last another 3 years
  • The new player uses 97% less power in standby and 92% less power when playing a movie.  This will save approximately $6.75-$9.75 a year in power.
  • The new player uses IR and thus is compatible with my universal remote
  • The new player is entirely silent and has no fans
  • I got a “free” copy of Avatar
  • The depreciation of the new player will probably be on par with that of the PS3 I just sold – so this is a wash

If you are interested, the player I got is available at the following Amazon for a pretty good price: Panasonic DMP-BDT110 Wi-Fi Ready 3D/2D Blu-ray Disc Player

Note: If you have one of the original PS3s from 2006 or 2007, the amount of power that system is using may be significant.  These models typically use between 180 and 200 watts of power when on.  Newer “slim” models only use about 60 watts.

By Stock.Xchng #1223567

Coupons, with a Side of Obsession and Fraud

Coupon Crazy

Extreme Couponing is on the rise. TLC even has a TV show about it:

For those in the mood for a great review and entertaining rant about TLC’s Extreme Couponing, I recommend this post over at Extreme Couponing Induces Extreme Vomiting.  Matthew makes excellent points and I agree almost everything he has to say.  I particularly agree with the following:

  1. There is virtually no such thing as a coupon for decent food. There are no coupons for “bananas” or “organic chicken” or “fresh vegetables”. These extreme couponers are stocking up almost exclusively on packaged or frozen food, loaded with preservatives, salt, hormones, and a billion other horrible things. It’s all Franken-food, the absolute worst shit imaginable. Not a lot of salad in these people’s shopping carts, but a whole lot of things stuffed with cheese and/or skewered on sticks.
  2. The goal for most of these people appears to be not feeding/supplying their families, but accumulating the most stuff for as little money as possible, then shoving those things into every corner of their house, then building more corners in their house into which things can be stuffed. The line between “extreme couponer” and “hoarder” is extremely thin–if such a line exists.

Unfortunately, like many fast growing national obsessions, Extreme Couponing has its cases of scams and frauds.  Frugal Confessions has a interesting article on how relatively widespread coupon fraud has become.

Once I began researching, I was very surprised to find the problem is more widespread and costly than just a few consumers getting away with free products. Just in the month of May 2011 there were 25 counterfeit coupons posted on the Coupon Information Corporation (CIC) website with various rewards being offered from the manufacturing companies for the successful prosecution of individuals responsible for producing the counterfeit coupon.

For those that are new to being frugal at the grocery store, consider reading: 5 Sneaky Price Tricks Your Grocer Doesn’t Want You To Know.

Before you start going crazy with the coupons, you might want to consider Extreme Couponing? 5 Reasons Why I’ll Pass.  Here Paul, explains 5 big issues with the practice.  Of his five reasons, 3 out of the 5 have to do with time:

1. It’s a Full-Time Commitment

3. You Become a Slave to Coupons

4. You Spend Hours at the Grocery Store

I use coupons all the time, but I take a basic time/value equation into account when I do.  For example, if I spend 2 minutes finding a coupon that can save me $3 off something I was going to buy anyway, this is effectively like earning $90 an hour.  Or perhaps I spend 20 minutes digging for a 10% off coupon for a on a major purchase — if this saves me $150 off a $1000 purchase, my effective hourly rate is now $450 an hour.  It works for small purchases too.  For example, Redbox always has codes available at sites like Inside Redbox; here it will literally take less than 60 seconds to find a coupon that could save you a $1.  This works out to $60 an hour, which is definitely worth the time.

So please, go find those discounts, but don’t make it your full time job or obsession and be sure you make a time/value calculation when you do it.  Perhaps your time is better spend learning something new or working to get a promotion or better career or maybe even spending more time with your family.


Photo Credit: Dmdonahoo


What are Best Buy Reward Zone Points Worth?

One article we seem to get a lot interest in was our post on what My Coke Reward Points are worth.  Having recently gone to Best Buy, I figured it would be good to do a similar post on the value of Best Buy Reward Zone points.

The way the program works is straight forward:

  1. Join the program
  2. Earn 1 point per dollar spent at Best Buy
  3. Cash in the points for Best Buy certificates
  4. If you spend over $2500 a year, you get Premier Silver status and earn 1.25 points per dollar

The conversation ratio is presented in the following table:

Reward Zone point value

As you can see in the chart above, Best Buy Reward Zone points are worth about $0.02 a point, which means you are getting “2% cash back”.  This is actually decent, especially when compared to other points that are typical worth 1/2 of that at $0.01 per point.  In addition, when you combine this with a rewards credit card it is possible to get “3 to 5% cash back” when shopping at Best Buy.   While this may sound like a great deal, you should consider you are getting this “cash back” on prices that may not actually be that great of a price.

From my experience, prices at Best Buy tend to be 5 to 15% higher than they are online, even when including shipping.  The same is true when compared to club stores like Sam’s Club and Costco or discount retailers like Video Only.  This is not always the case, Best Buy sale prices usually match or beat some online retailers.  But, when Best Buy’s sale price matches online pricing, and you include the Reward Zone points, you may actually be able to get a good deal.


  • Points are worth about $0.02 each (effectively 2% cash back)
  • Silver status lets you earn 1.25 points per dollar (effectively 2.5% cash back)
  • No need to carry the card, just use your phone number
  • Free and easy to sign up
  • The Reward Zone Gamer’s Club provides 500 bonus points per $150 spent (effectively 6%+ cash back)


  • Points must be spent at Best Buy
  • You must spend at least $250 to reach the minimum cash back payout
  • Reward certificates are non-transferable
  • Points expire annually (unless you are Premier Silver, or use the Best Buy credit card)
  • Best Buy prices are, ironically, usually not the best buy available
  • Hassle of worrying about points

In conclusion, I believe Best Buy Reward Zone points are a great way to maximize the value you get when shopping at Best Buy.   If you spend more than $250 a year at Best Buy, you would be silly to not spend 30 seconds and sign up.  However, going out of your way to earn Reward Zone points, or earning Reward Zone points at other retails or with a Best Buy credit card is probably a waste of time.  Even though the points are worth $0.02 each, you have to use them at Best Buy and the higher price you pay over other retailers will probably negate the benefit.  However, if you can catch a good sale at Best Buy, negotiate a good price, or take advantage of a price match… it could be worth looking into.

One final thought.  The 6%+ on video games is actually a decent deal.  With this program you earn your base Reward Zone Points as well as get a bonus 500 points for every $150 spent.  The result of this looks something like this:

Of course, buying new video games at full price is hardly frugal living… I prefer to take advantage of pre-order sales (typically 10 to 15% off) or buy the game a few months after release.