Monday, April 24, 2006

The Deal with Deal or No Deal

Channeling my inner Jerry Seinfeld: So, what's the deal with Deal or No Deal?

Question #1: Is there any show or job, even, that requires less skill? Does anyone know people who have tried out for the game? What the heck skill/qualities (other than stupidity and testosterone) are these producers looking for in contestants? I tried out for Jeopardy once. They hit me with some very impossible to answer questions and I floundered. So what do they do with DOND people?

Question #2: What's with all of the contestants being jocky, overtestosteroned idiots who do the fist-pump and the Hoo-Hoo-Hoo thing? There are these jerks, with an every now and then, got-it-together black woman thrown in.

Question #3: What's your Deal or No Deal threshold? It's easy to sit at home and scream at the TV, who do you think you are, you can't afford to pass this up-- take the money and run? What's the number at which you would say, buh-bye, I'm outta here? For me, it's probably in the 120k zone. Yes, I'm a cheap date.

Window Shopping, Literally

**And quite possibly the worst customer service I've had all year.
Avoid this place like the plague!**

Our 70-year-old house seriously needs some windows. I'd say about 12
of the however-many-we-have need to be replaced. This is a pretty
pricey undertaking, and surely one of the ways that we were able to
get a bargain (okay, if a half-million dollar house is really a
bargain) on our beloved abode. We fully plan to do these a few at a
time, because we just don't have that kind of cash to lay out all at
once. And we're psyched about the paltry but still valuable tax break
that new windows can bring us.

I'm pretty nervous about the window-replacing endeavor, because they
1. have to be done full-on, you know, not the glass but the whole
frame and everything and 2. this is just one of those things that we
don't fool ourselves that we could do. It just isn't. Gaping holes in
the house, removing siding, doing this on the second story…no thanks.
And then it's all about reconciling in your head whether $$$$X sounds
like a lot for a window and installation, knowing that it's just not
one of those things you'd ever fool around with yourself. I mean,
there's a premium on getting something done right, but how much of a

So I headed over to this place called Tri State Window Factory
(, which is, as you might guess, in the NY
tri-state area. They send flyers out in the paper. I am typically
suspicious of folks who do that, depending on which little local
papers they're sent out with, but I figured that this is an easy way
to get a ballpark estimate of what windows, installed, might cost. And
they advertise that they can come out to the house to do estimates,
which was great because I'm worried about whether we measured the
windows properly and all. But I started at the showroom.

So here's how it went: The showroom is tiny, in an office park. No
bells and whistles. The first person to approach me, a young woman,
asked whether she could help me and I said yes, I'm here because I
need to buy some windows and would like to learn about your products.
She then insisted that she get some "personal information" from me
before helping me one step further. I expressed confusion as to why
I'd need to supply a page worth of info (I could see the form on her
clipboard) if I didn't even know whether I'd be doing business with
them. She said, "Oh, it's our policy, we need this info." I still
resisted. She said she'd find someone to help me.

A fellow called Bob came out and asked what I needed. I said, of
course, windows. He said, I understand you wouldn't give us any of
your personal information. I said, why would I, if I don't know
anything about your product yet? I want to see what you have, what
your prices are, etc. He looked very stern. I felt very uncomfortable
and said, what? Should I leave or something? He said YES! I said,
you're making a mistake--don't you want to do business with someone
who needs 12 windows? You'd be losing a big sale. He said, I'm not
worried, I can afford it. I left saying, good luck getting any
customers with this attitude. I was literally there for about 90

I don't look like a scrub who was just going to waste their time. I
look like I could really be shopping for windows for a home that I
own. And this isn't a contractor-only place, either. But for the life
of me I can't figure out why they were such jerks. Also I'm quite
concerned that the prices that they would have quoted me would have
depended on the personal info that I supplied. Perhaps they thought
they could get more money out of me, if I had the "right" address or
last name? In any case, until a sale is made, they don't need any
personal information from me, apart from my first name, which I gladly

I gave this information to the Better Business Bureau, though I don't
know whether there's much they can do considering I didn't actually
have a chance to buy anything!

The morals of this story? 1. Don't bother doing business with people
who don't want your business. There are plenty of good people out
there who will treat their customers well. 2. Don't shop at places
that advertise in cheesy-looking, glossy circulars. They advertiser
there for a reason—no one else wants them! 3. When salespeople give
"It's just our policy" for a reason for anything they do and can't
really justify their actions, run for the hills. 4. Just when you
thought you've had really crummy customer service, someone else comes
along to take the cake. It always amazes me that people can behave
like that, and still have a business.

Any tri-staters have any reliable window places they can recommend? ☺

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

An incomplete financial picture

I realize that we haven't done the net worth spreadsheet yet, nor have we given an accurate picture of where we stand and what's in the bank. I have some of those figures handy, but not all. Truth is, as much as I read these blogs I have no idea how to determine how much our house is worth--more than what we paid for it, considering the changes that we've made. But I don't feel comfortable doing comps or just makin' junk up. So, I have no idea how to deal with the net worth chart.

Credit card balances:
The Amex from Hell: $13870.68, this down from about $15,600 earlier this month (yay, tax refund)
My visa: $498.61 (of which $300 will be reimbursed)
Spouse has another $500 or $600 on other credit cards.

Student loans:
$72,000 at 3%
$16,000 at, gulp, 8%

Money in the bank:
My 401k: $28,370.29
My IRA: about $2,600
Spouse's various 401ks/IRAs from three different jobs: about $60,000
Fidelity cash: $3,000
ING cash: $7,500
T Rowe price index funds: $880
Checking and money market accounts: about $2200, most of it put aside for part of the mortgage payment this month.

Our saving pattern, too, has changed since one of my earlier posts. I now put $50, not $60, twice monthly into T. Rowe Price index funds. I lowered the deductions for each because I may add a third fund, and the minimum deduction for each is $50. We still deduct $30 weekly from the joint account and funnel it to ING, but we now deduct an additional $400 monthly from spouse's paycheck, bringing monthly savings to $520. Maybe $620 in index funds and savings is high considering we owe so much on the credit cards, but it makes us happy to be saving. And we've gotten used to the money not being there, and being able to check our savings progress online.

We have a house. We have one car that's paid for. We're getting another car. Student loan payments amount to about $360 a month, and credit card minimums are another $330.

What else?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Car Buying and Financing: Capital One Blank Checks

The Spouse and I took care of some business this weekend, finally ordering our much-needed second car, which will be delivered on or about the end of May. Yes, we bought a new one against almost all of the professionals’ financial advice (“the value drops the minute you drive it off the lot,” etc—we know!), but we need maximum reliability, and lots of cargo space for all of those trips to Home Depot. Plus, the vehicle model has just been redesigned this year: It’s bigger, safer, and has the side airbags we need. Besides, one of the major things that affects a car’s resale value is whether there is a newer generation of the car available. If so, your older generation tanks in value.

So here we are, happy buyers-to-be. We did our research and found a great deal through a Costco and Capital One partnership, which amounts to about 5.1 or 5.2% on a 37- to 72-month loan. Capital One’s auto loan gimmick is the “blank check,” whereby you tell the bank how much you want to qualify for, they approve you (or don’t), and send you a blank check so that you can take it to the dealership and take it to the bargaining table as cash, and you don’t have to fall for any dealership financing smoke and mirrors.

Other going auto loan rates are in the 6–7% interest zone. Capital One was as good as it was going to get. So we went in to the dealership feeling good about already having financing. (We filled out a loan application through the dealer, just in case.)

Isn’t there always a bump in the road? A kink in the plan?

Our very reputable, upstanding car dealer doesn’t take Capital One’s blank checks, or any blank checks. They insist on real cashier-type bank checks—you know, the ones that are preprinted with the amount and the payee. And who could blame them? I mean, though the Blank Check auto loan must be well known to dealerships, isn’t it about as official-looking as one of those Mickey-Mouse “pay down your other bills” checks you get with your credit card statement? I’m not Daddy Warbucks. Or Donald Trump. Why would you take a personal-looking check from me?

We said, absolutely, no problem, we totally understand. And we do. I wouldn’t take a blank check for $20k that someone off the street handed me in exchange for a new car.

So I called Capital One, and spoke to not one but three different representatives (in two or three different departments). I asked if they could cut me a cashier’s check instead of sending me the blank check. No. What if I pay a fee for the official check? No. Can you do a wire transfer? No. Why? I got varying iterations of “It’s not our policy” and “because we don’t do that,” sounded in monotone by a bunch of by-the-hour-and-without-a-clue, unhelpful reps. My favorite comment was, “We give you the blank check to give you maximum flexibility.” BUT YOU’RE BEING INFLEXIBLE BY NOT GIVING ME THE CASHIER’S CHECK! Sigh. Click.

We surely cannot be the only people in the country who want a reasonably priced car loan and can’t use a blank check to buy one. But now we’re shopping for loans elsewhere, never to do business with Capital One again (I mean, what kind of bank can’t do a cashier’s check?). Please realize what we’ve gone through before you, too, are tantalized by the low interest rate. The fill-out-your-own-car-loan-amount works for many people, but not for everyone. And in the end, it’s not like we won’t get financing (high income, high credit scores, etc), but it’s frustrating having to go through the process again. And I hate spending needless time on the phone with customer service reps who have no interest in actually helping their customers.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

March/April madness continued...

Bathroom happiness did continue! Light fixtures arrived and were
installed ($99 for overhead light, $149 for triple sconce over
medicine cabinet). Spouse was not electrocuted by installing them.
Medicine cabinet ($89) also in, though service at is
pretty sucky. Two of the cabinet's glass shelves were chipped, and
they said it would take 5 to 7 business days to hear back from the
cabinet company, at which point they'd give additional instructions.
Point is, I still have brand new, chipped shelves.

A question about credit card payments

I know that the answer to "How should I pay off my credit cards?" is,
"as quickly as possible," but here's something that I don't remember
anyone having asked yet. Say you have 1k now, or during any given
month, to put toward the sufferin' ol' Amex, right? Does it matter to
Amex/credit bureaus/anyone else whether you put that all down at once,
or pay $250/week, or any other combination? (let me add to this that I
have a 0% interest rate for the next 6 months or so, so daily/monthly
interest implications are minimal). Why do I ask?

1. Tax windfall means I could put a big chunk down here and now,
though I did read one post about an article in which someone was
accused of nefarious business because their credit card payment was X%
larger than usual. Putting a chunk down would make me *feel* good, so
I will.

2. But I'm thinking, as I have done in the past, of whittling that
Amex down further, in a constant trickle of dollars, by setting up
automatic weekly tranfers from checking to Amex. But does it look or
register strangely to have "last payment, $50" when the minimum is
$300, even though I'm still paying a big minimum-covering chunk at
once monthly?

"Look funny to WHOM?" you might ask, re: my above comment about the
perception of a bunch of small but frequent payments. I don't know if
this is still the case, but I do remember some of my past credit
reports listing total balance, minimum, AND last payment amount. I
guess you look like a better citizen when you pay $500, and the
minimum is $300.

I guess it makes practical sense to just do one, maybe two, payments a
month and that is what many of your responses will probably be. But
for those of us who want to see progress toward the zero balance
happening all the time, what are the implications?