Spend Wisely

Frugal Tip: Top 4 Free PC Tools

June 21st, 2011

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.

Frugal Fail: Can You Put The Bags I Bought In a Free Bag?

June 16th, 2011


Because we don’t measure ourselves by the quality of our trash bags

Not only are we into spending wisely and saving money, but we are also into saving the environment.  Unfortunately, I don’t see how fancy biodegradable bags do either.  For those of you that live in areas with community composting or yard/food waste pickup, you need some sort of of biodegradable bag to put your food scraps in.

You can buy 125 of these for $12.99 + tax from Costco.  This works out to about $0.11 a bag.  Or you could buy them from Amazon at about $0.15 a bag.  Either way this is a whole lot more expensive than the free brown paper bags you get at the grocery store.

Spare yourself remembering the “environmentally sustainable” canvas or recycled plastic bags (which you should wash frequently, by the way) and use the free paper bags for biodegradable compost and paper recycling.

The Value of a Degree

June 14th, 2011

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


Below Your Means Basics: 10 Common Budgeting Pitfalls (and What to Do Instead)

June 10th, 2011

Don't Let Your Budget Become a Train WreckWrapping up our “Back to Basics” this week, here are some common pitfalls that can sabotage your budget.

Pitfall #1: Building a Budget with No Purpose

If you start to build a budget and don’t have any clear goals, you’ll just feel like you climbed into a straightjacket for no reason.  Even if you manage to stick to the budget for 3 or 6 months, you’ll find that you aren’t really any closer to where you wanted to be.  Remember your budget is all about understanding your values and helping you know if a purchase is worth it to you.

Instead: Set clear goals. These can be tied to paying off credit cards, paying off your house or car, retiring by a certain age, taking a vacation, etc.  If you’re just getting your hands around your finances, go with the envelope method or use cash.

Pitfall #2:  Using Credit Cards to “Bust the Budget”

If you use credit cards on a regular basis, it is very easy to overspend.  In fact, credit card processors will tell their customers that they should accept credit cards because the average buyer will spend more if they are buying with a credit card than if they are buying with cash.  Cash helps remind you to make a value determination.

Instead:  Pay cash or track religiously. If you’re going to keep using your card, you need to update the balance in your processing system (we highly recommend something like Mint.com or an Intuit product like Quicken) frequently.  Probably every other day, or every third day.  Weekly is as far as I’d push it, but if you’re new to tracking your spending, I think you’ll be surprised how much your can run up in one week

Pitfall #3:  Budgeting Alone

If you don’t share your goals and values with your spouse, family, or close friends, you probably won’t get the support you need to stick with it.  It’s hard to be the only one trying to cut back or make changes.   “Let’s all go out to eat” can easily blow your budget if you don’t add “hmmm… that place is pretty pricey, I’d like to keep it under $20.  How about we go to this place instead?”

Instead:  Enlist the support of family & friends. I am always on a budget and never ashamed to say so.  It’s smart to live deliberately.  Be proud of it.  When you’re making decisions in a group it helps to set your boundaries.  Expect some teasing, hold your head high, and move on.

Pitfall #4:  Leaving No Room For Error

Stuff happens.  The dishwasher breaks, the furnace goes out, you get a chance to score some tickets to an awesome show, you start dating someone wonderful, you forgot your anniversary, your child sprains an ankle, whatever. You can’t budget down to the penny, so make sure there is room for the unexpected.

Instead:  Leave a percentage of your budget for the unexpected.  Exactly what percentage depends on your circumstances, but 5%-10% isn’t a bad place to start.  One way to get to the bottom of this number is to look at your credit card statements and see what surprises went on your cards every month.

Pitfall #5:  Budgeting Against Future Earnings

You may finish your budget and find out that you’re short.  It’s tempting to say to yourself that more money is coming — whether you are picking up extra shifts at work, counting on a bonus, counting on business picking up, or planning to take on a room-mate or odd jobs.  You can’t count on that kind of money until you are consistently earning it, and you don’t want to wind up in debt because you were counting on that money and it didn’t show up (or showed up much later than you expected it to).

Instead:  Budget based on your current income (or less). You can always revisit the budget if your income rises to a higher consistent level.  One bonus or one good sales quarter does not make a consistent increase, by the way.  Use those one-time or infrequent bumps in income to accelerate your savings or debt reduction goals.

Pitfall #6:  Getting Too Detailed

A budget that is too detailed is flawed in a few ways.  One, it’s too hard to keep it up.  If you are scrutinizing every receipt to split it into dozens of inter-related categories, or tracking a 50 cent purchase of bubble gum, you’re probably not going to have enough time to track your spending and compare it to your budget.  Two, it probably doesn’t help you make any decisions.  Does it really matter that you went over your “Groceries” budget by $50 and were under on your “Toiletries” budget by $30, or is it equally informative to know you were over on “Groceries & Toiletries” by $20?  Either way, you still need to get $20 more of value out of your current spending, or realize that the things you bought weren’t worth it, and cut back.

Instead:  Consolidate categories by how you make spending decisions. If you typically make all of your grocery and toiletry purchasing decisions over the same couple of stores, lump them all into one category.  If you go over, you’ll be able to scan the receipts and see why without needing to keep track of each category independently.  Corollary – if you consistently go over in a single category even after analyzing it, you may want to split it up into multiple categories to get a better view of what is happening.

Pitfall #7:  Confusing Your ‘Wants’ and Your ‘Needs’

I need my coffee or I’ll never get through the day!  I need my massage after dealing with the kids / my job!  I need my movie time or I’ll go crazy!  I need my housekeeper or the place will never be clean!  I need my BMW if I’m going to work at this job!  It’s very easy to rationalize your additional spending. And these don’t have to be big purchases, either.  You can easily spend an additional $30-$50 at the grocery store each visit because of things you ‘need’ or ‘deserve’.  Don’t make the luxuries of the past the necessities of today.  And don’t confuse the values of others with your own values.  If your job really requires you to spend money on things that aren’t worth their cost to you, then you may be in the wrong job.

Instead: Stop yourself and re-assess your goals and values. If you build your budget with a business mindset – looking at what you want to accomplish and what you need to do to get there – then you should be able to figure out where you can let go and what you truly need.  The motivation to stick with it will come from working towards achieving your passions.  All your habits that help you make it through the day at a crummy job will pale in comparison to watching your progress at saving up for a career change.  And many couples have, after a dispassionate review of the math, realized that their 2-income life was no more profitable than a 1-income life after all their job expenses were taken into account.  Now, if you’re working two careers that you love, that could be a good decision.  But if one of you hates your job, you’re wasting your time.

Pitfall #8:  Failing to Review

The budget doesn’t DO anything.  It doesn’t change your spending habits.  It doesn’t track itself (although good software certainly helps).  It doesn’t make you care about your goals.  It should give you the information you need to see how you are performing and what progress you are making against your short, medium and long term goals.  If you think that you can spend a weekend getting a budget in place and everything after will be magically wonderful, you are on your way to disappointment.  And, if you don’t include in your planning setting aside the time to review your work, you’re planning to fail.

Instead:  Set aside regular time to track your spending and review your progress. Depending on whether or not you are using the envelope system or credit cards and an electronic system, this can be as far apart as once a week and as often as every two to three days.  You need to get it on your calendar and stick with it.

Pitfall #9:  Failing to Cut Your Spending

So, you’ve decided that you only have $75 in spending money for the month.  The second rolls around, and you hit a coffee shop in the morning and go through $5.  Lunch is $8 because you didn’t bother to pack it.  Dinnertime rolls around and you stay late at the office (unavoidable) and wind up hitting the drive through on the way home, going through another $8.   Once home, you buy 4 songs on iTunes at 99 cents apiece because your day was so lousy and you want new music to listen to at work.  You’ve now spent 1/3rd of your $75, and you’re only 1/30th of the way through the month.

InsteadRealize where you are going to need to change your behavior, and start immediately. There are lots of sites out there (ours included) with ideas to help you through your problem areas.  In this case, cooking a big meal on Sunday and storing the leftovers (to cover dinner when there was no time to cook), making coffee at home, and packing a lunch in the morning (which could also be frozen leftovers) could have lowered that $21 in spending down to near zero.  And since you were happy with your budget progress, the iTunes purchase might have been more deliberate…. meaning either you spent the $4 because you really thought it was worth it, or you didn’t buy the songs (or bought less).

Pitfall #10 (For Couples):  Trying to Agree on Everything

Remember, your budget is an expression of where you think it’s valuable to spend your resources, and it’s pretty unlikely you will agree on everything. Don’t lose the whole budget because you can’t agree on all of it.

Instead: Make sure there is money that each of you can use independently, and set thresholds for group decisions. Your independent money is yours to use however you see fit.  And, if you’re within budget, you should be able to make small decisions alone.  Many couples use the $100 mark for joint discussions.

Pitfall #11 (Use Carefully!):  Leaving No Room For Fun

If you are building a budget expressly because you are in a valley of despair over the state of your debt, it can be easy to tell yourself “I’m not doing anything else fun until I have this crap paid off!”  But you’ll break that promise to yourself soon enough, whether it’s at the bar, in line at Starbuck’s, during lunchtime at the office, or with the kids at the toy store. HOWEVER, this is not a free pass to blow your budget or do whatever you want whenever you want to.  Your “room for fun” needs to come in the form of a budgeted amount that is realistic and within your means.  It does NOT mean that it’s OK to run up credit card debt or skip out on your savings goals (or worse, monthly bills) just because.  Remember this is ALL for “yourself”… the reward is not the latte next week, it is a lifetime of debt free living.

Instead:  Make sure you have some money for fun. Again, how much is really dependent on your personal circumstances and your goals.  If you’re not sure how to start, pick 3 or 4 things you do for fun on a regular basis, and make sure you have enough money to do them once or twice a month.  You may have to drop some expensive habits (have your friends over and make drinks there instead of heading to the bar, or have family movie nights on a rental with homemade popcorn instead of at the theater). 

Thumbnail Photo: Blocks 1 by Crissy Alright

Story Photo via Wikipedia

What principles do you follow when budgeting?  What problems have undone your efforts, and how have you gotten past them?

Frugal Fail: The $2600 Bottle of “Lifestyle”

June 9th, 2011


It's hard to look smart when you spend money like an idiot

We present this one without comment.

$2,600 for a bottle of water… thirsty anyone? | Bucksome Boomer


One’s Frugal Fail is Another’s Frugal Success

June 9th, 2011

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

13 Ways You Waste Money on Your Car

June 8th, 2011

CBS Money Watch has a fun article on 10 ways to waste money on your car.  This article has all the usual tips, for example: “Don’t buy higher octane fuel than your car needs” and “There is no need to change your oil every 3,000 miles.  Most of these tips are good and if you are new to being frugal, you should definitely check them out.  However, I personally don’t agree with all the tips.  For example:

9. Buying expensive performance tires.

For the average driver, this is probably true, but it really depends on the type of car you drive and how you drive it.  It also depends on what you mean by “performance”.  For example, many modern cars require run flat tires.  Some cars require “performance” tires to maintain stability at highway speeds and in cornering.  So, I would say this tip is fine, as long as you get tires that are at least as good as the OEM or factory recommended specifications.

The second tip I disagree with is Tip #10:

10. Paying for built-in navigation.

Yes, the average built-in navigation system will set you back and additional $1500 to $4000.  However, what the author forgets is that in many cars the “navigation options” is actually the “computer controlled everything option”.  Many cars now integrate the radio, alarm, climate control, system monitoring, Bluetooth phone support, reverse camera / sensor and much more into their “navigation system”.  So it is important that you compare apples-to-apples when following this tip.  The $200 TomTom VIA 1505TM 5-Inch Portable GPS Navigator with Lifetime Traffic & Maps will give you great navigation, but it won’t tell you what song you are listening to or if something is behind you when you are backing up.

Finally, while probably good advice, Tip #3 in the article is pretty inaccurate:

3. Failing to change your air filter. “If you have not changed your air filter by about 40,000 miles, it is probably clogged and hurting your gas mileage,” says George Sadowski. That MPG penalty could be as much as 10% to 15%, he estimates. So if your mechanic recommends a fresh filter after about 25,000 miles, say yes.

The EPA released a study back in 2009 saying that in modern cars, with computer controlled fuel injection, the air filter only benefits acceleration and has no benefit on MPG.  However, for older cars with carburetors, there is a benefit as noted:

Tests suggest that replacing a clogged air filter on an older car with a carbureted engine may improve fuel economy 2 to 6 percent under normal replacement conditions or up to 14 percent if the filter is so clogged that it significantly affects drivability.


To replace these two tips, I will give you few quick tips of my own on how to stop wasting money on your car:

  • Make sure your tire pressure is correct – This is probably one the simplest and cheapest ways to save gas and increase tire longevity.
  • Skip the vanity plate – The extra $50+ is probably better in a savings account or paying off debt.
  • Don’t over insure your vehicle – Make sure you are not paying for more insurance than you need.  If you have an emergency fund, raise your auto insurance deductible and get rid of the rental car reimbursement insurance.  These quick changes could save you a few hundred a year.

10 Ways You Waste Money on Your Car | CBS Money Watch


Photo Credit: Stig Nygaard