Posts from the ‘Stuff’ Category

Do-It-Yourself Pottery Barn Knock-Offs

2010 May 4

Like the Pottery Barn style, but not the Pottery Barn price?  You are not alone.

Here are some cool ideas for creating Pottery Barn style decorations and furnishings and for all your spare time.  Check the bottom of the page for a list of many other pottery barn style ideas:
Pottery Barn Knock-Off Party

Running the Ooma Numbers

2010 April 10

Update: For a limited time, save $50 off Ooma and get free shipping!

The Ooma Telo has potential to save you lot’s of money, even with the high initial cost.

Let’s look at a hypothetical scenario, which is probably common:  you already pay for a high-speed internet connection, and you’ve also still got the ol’ analog land-line service that you’re paying for.  You’ve got your cell phone for long distance calls, but you still like the land-line because the call quality and the cordless phones scattered throughout the house and … well, let’s face it, you are old school.

As long as you have a DSL or cable internet connection, you’ve probably got enough bandwidth for good voice quality using Ooma or any other VoIP service.  Just to be sure, head over to to verify that your internet connection is sufficient for VoIP service.

How much will Ooma save you?

Let’s stick with the basic Ooma setup.  $250 for the new Ooma Telo box, and you are going to use your existing home phones (no need to buy the Telo handset).  $40 to have Ooma port your existing home phone number.  No monthly fees with basic Ooma service, but $11.75 per year after the first year.

Ooma Land-line
Year 1 $290 $300
Year 2 $312 $600
Year 3 $324 $900

Hopefully that is pretty clear. You start saving a bundle of money after the first year. Even if you must pay an extra $10-$15/month for a higher-speed internet connection to support VoIP, you still are saving money by year 2.

Ooma Telo Review (Free phone service?)

2010 April 10

Update: For a limited time, save $50 off Ooma and get free shipping!

Ooma Telo offers free phone service, with no monthly fees!  It uses VoIP technology, using your internet connection to handle phone calls, similar to Vonage.  Unlike Vonage, there are no monthly fees.  You pay up front when you purchase the hardware, for around $250.  Ooma has been around since 2007, and this is the second generation VoIP hardware.  It is easy, easy to set up, and voice quality is very good as long as you have a half-decent internet connection.  And you can keep your existing phone number!

Really Free?

Yep.  All domestic US calls are free.  International calls are cheap, if you care.

But there are two asterisks to free**.  First, there is an annual fee of $11.75, beginning in your second year of service.  This is to cover regulatory fees and taxes.  Notice that is annual, not monthly.  So less than $1/month after year one.  No biggie.

The other potential cost is an optional premier service, called Ooma Premier. It costs $10/month and offers some extra phone service goodies.  For some people, the extra features (such as 3-way calling and caller blacklisting) are worth the cost.  But beware: when you first sign up for Ooma, you are automatically enrolled in Ooma Premier.  The first 60 days are a free trial, which is nice, but if you don’t opt-out before the trial is over, you will begin to be charged for Ooma Premier.    No biggie, you have 60 days, just don’t forget to opt-out if you aren’t interested.

Porting your existing phone number to Ooma will cost $39.99, or free if you subscribe to Ooma Premier.

Overall Impression

I really like this phone service.  It is my first VoIP experience.  Well, I guess that’s not totally true… until recently I have been doing the triple play deal with Time Warner Cable for phone, TV, and internet.  Their phone service is actually VoIP over the cable connection.  I’m quite happy to say goodbye to $30/month for local phone service.  Yes, the initial cost of the Ooma Telo is a bit steep, but it will have paid for itself in less than 1 year.  See my post running the Ooma numbers for more details.

Call quality is good, and a standard high speed internet connection will be fine, such as DSL or cable.  For more details on if your existing internet connection is sufficient, see my post running the Ooma numbers.  You can use your existing phones.  I plug in my cordless phone base station directly to the Ooma.  You can also have Ooma take over your whole home phone line circuit by plugging it into a wall jack.  I think you have to disconnect from the telephone company first, though.  You get caller ID and call waiting.

Other Cool Things

The Ooma dial-tone has short musical tone when you first pick up…  it’s a pleasant touch, I think.  You can also change the tone.

I really like our current answering machine/cordless phone setup.  Got a great price at for 3 cordless phones + answering machine (AT&T Digital BlueTooth Cordless Answering System (TL92378)).  This phone system also integrates with your cell phone over bluetooth, so you can take/make cell phone calls with the cordless handsets.  Nice.

One thing has annoyed me about this phone, however.  It tracks recent calls and makes it easy to redial or save a number, however, just like a cell phone, long distance calls are logged as 10-digit numbers, without the leading “1”.  Try redialing a 10-digit phone number on a regular land-line and you will fail.  Annoying.  Works on a cell phone, why can’t land lines figure this out?  Well, Ooma figured it out, and has fixed my #1 annoyance with my cordless phones!

Ooma also seems to have some nice voicemail features, including google voice integration, but to be honest, I’m not using that stuff right now.  I’m not motivated enough to learn a new system, and we have a decent answering machine currently that works just fine.  So I just have our answering machine set to pick up after 4 rings, and Ooma set to 5.

That’s my impressions so far!

Klean Kanteen (Stop Using Plastic Water Bottles!)

2010 March 22

Disposable plastic water bottles are probably one of the worst ideas that most of us don’t think twice about.  Even if you are one of the 20% who recycles these bottles, many “recycled” bottles end up in a trash dump anyway. Even reusable plastic water bottles are not so environmentally friendly.  Within a few years, they are worn out or out of style, and you can’t recycle them. You put orange juice in there once, and it still smells like orange.

Enter stainless steel.  Tough as steel.  Recyclable as steel.  Lightweight as … steel? Actually they are surprisingly lightweight, though they will be a few ounces heavier than a Nalgene. You’ve got lots of bottles to choose from. But you should check out Klean Kanteen.

I’ve got several of these bottles, had them for years, and love them. Water tastes great. Dishwasher safe. Several sizes to choose from, from 12oz to 40oz. And if you use it 10 times, it’s already paid for itself, compared to bottled water.  Take one small step toward redeeming the environment.

The story of bottled water?  Manufactured demand.  How did they do it?  Check out the story of bottled water.

ShareBuilder (Free) Roth IRA Review

2010 March 3

Roth IRA Investing Can Be Free

Maybe you’ve heard that a Roth IRA is a good way to start saving for retirement.  A Roth IRA is a great way to start your retirement savings, or supplement your current investments, with tax incentives.  Basically, you invest after-tax money (Roth IRA investments are not an income tax deduction), however any gains are tax free, and withdrawals are tax free.  That’s what we call a “tax advantaged” way to invest for retirement.

So who offers these things?  Just about every bank will offer an IRA product, but fees are common and often the selection of investments are limited to bonds and CDs.  If stocks and mutual funds are available for investing, there are usually investing fees attached.

After some research,  I think ShareBuilder offers a great Roth IRA (or traditional IRA) program.  Bottom line:  it’s free.  Truly free. No monthly fees.  No transaction fees.  Even investing in mutual funds is free!

Before You Invest in an IRA…

Consider these investment opportunities first:

  • Have you paid off your credit card debt?  (That’s expensive money!)
  • Does your employer offer 401k/retirement matching, and have you maxed out their contribution?  (That’s free money!)
  • Do you have at least $1000 in savings for a rainy day?  (That’s liquid money!)

A few things to consider when choosing a Roth IRA provider, and how ShareBuilder’s IRA program stacks up.

  • What fees are assessed to the account?  (None!  If you do it right.)
  • Are automatic contributions possible?  (Yes, and they’re free!)
  • Is there a minimum initial investment? Minimum contributions?  (Depends on the fund, but typically $100 or less.)
  • What investment options are available? Stocks? Mutual funds? Bonds?  (Yes, yes, and yes.)
  • Is online investing over the web easy and clear?  (Their website is good, but a bit more complicated than some others I’ve used.)

Wait… is investing in a ShareBuilder IRA really free?

Maybe you’ve already noticed their advertisement, “$4 trades.” $4 is cheap, but not free.  Totally free is totally possible, if you follow three totally simple steps.

1)  Sign up using the “basic” plan, with no monthly subscription fee.

2) Use automatic investing, not real-time investing.

3) Invest only in the no-load, no-transaction fee (NTF) mutual funds.

That’s it!

Automatic Investing

You are not day trading stocks, so you don’t need real-time investing.  Investing automatically on a particular day of the week suits you just fine.  Automatic investing is set up to invest whenever there is cash available in your account.  All you have to do is choose which funds you want to invest in.  How to get cash into your account?  Just setup a one time transfer from your bank account anytime you have extra cash ready to invest.  Or set up an automatic reoccurring transfer.

NTF Mutual Funds

ShareBuilder is now owned by the ING DIRECT bank, so all ING managed mutual funds are NTF, as in fee free.  Check out the list of over 20 available ING (NTF) mutual funds.  (NTF funds are also available from PIMCO, American Century, and Dreyfus, though they typically require a minimum initial investment of $1000.)

Over 20 ING mutual funds are available, offering plenty of diversification options for the average retirement saver.  They’ve got the small cap, mid cap, and large cap funds, international funds, bond funds, and money market.  They’ve also got some decent tools to help you choose a fund if you’re not sure what you are looking for. (Tool 1 and Tool 2).  Also, try entering a fund symbol into google finance for a less cluttered interface to research past performance.  For example, here’s a fund I like currently: IGBOX.  Pretty safe for conservation of capital, but high interest dividends.

Ready to Get Started?

Head on over to ShareBuilder’s retirement website to sign up!

ING DIRECT Orange Savings Account Review

2010 February 27

ING DIRECT is an online-only bank, and they offer some of the highest savings interest rates around.  Unless you are already banking with an online-only bank, you probably don’t realize how pathetic your savings rate is.  Actually, everyone’s savings rates are fairly pathetic these days, but still, if you’ve got to put your money somewhere, you may as well earn the best interest you can.

So I’m happy with ING DIRECT.  There may be a (very) few banks which offer slightly higher rates, but ING’s Orange Savings Account offers a savings interest rate about 4X the national average, and better than most online-only banks as well.  No minimum balance to earn the great rate.  Here’s the skinny:

The Orange Savings Account

  • High Interest, No Fees, No Minimums – All your money goes to work for you.
  • No Changing Banks – It electronically links to your current checking account. Transfers are free and easy.
  • FDIC Insured – Your deposits are FDIC–insured up to $250,000 per depositor.
  • Quick Application – Start saving in less than 5 minutes.

Their website is really nice and make is easy to move money around.  Creating sub-accounts is a unique feature that I like. It is easy to open to open these sub-accounts.  I give the sub-account a nickname, setup up monthly transfers, and of course get the same savings rate.  Just helps me organize my money into different pots.

If you’re interested in opening an account, leave a comment here and I can “refer you” with an offer: $25 free when you open your account.  Full disclosure, I will get $10 if you sign up.  Then you can refer the same offer to your friends if you like.

Oh, and they offer free checking accounts that earn interest also.  For more in depth and history of ING, you could check out this review.

ING DIRECT Easy Orange

2010 January 4

ING DIRECT is my new favorite bank.  It’s an online-only bank, and that suits me just fine, I prefer banking online.  Allows them to offer savings accounts at rates 4X the national average.  Their website makes saving money really straightforward, money transfers are free, and lots of other nice features.  I recently wrote a short review for ING’s savings accounts.

This post is about ING DIRECT’s unique Easy Orange Mortgage.  I’ve had this mortgage for 6 months now and am quite pleased.  They are conservative about who they lend to, so if you don’t have good credit or don’t have 25% down payment / equity in the home, don’t bother.  They are conservative so they can pass the savings on to you, in the form of a very low interest rate, easily a full 1.00% less than the average 30-yr mortgage, and significantly lower rate than most 5-yr ARMs as well.

The mortgage is sort of a hybrid between a 5-yr ARM and a 30-yr fixed mortgage. Similar to a balloon/reset mortgage, for those who know what that is. Here’s the skinny (as of this posting):

The Easy Orange Mortgage

  • Low Rates – You get a low 5-year fixed rate with payments that are based on repaying over 30 years.
  • Rate Renew – No need to refinance and pay full closing costs. You can relock your rate and extend your fixed rate period for another 5 years at the Easy Orange rate offered at that time – all for one payment which is equal to 2 of your bi-weekly payments (maximum payment of $2,500).
  • Self Service = Low Cost – We can offer low rates by keeping our costs low. So we ask for a little help from you. All applications are done quick and easy on and all payments are done electronically. You’ll save money, we’ll save some trees in the process.
  • Low Closing Costs – Unlike other banks, we don’t charge application fees or points.
  • Bi-weekly Payments – You make electronic payments every two weeks instead of once a month. By doing so, you’ll pay your mortgage off sooner than 30 years.

Just a few comments about my own experience with this mortgage.  ING DIRECT had their act together at the closing.  Everything went as planned.  I had a lot of questions as I prepared for this mortgage, and phone support throughout the process was great.  I spent very little (typically none) time on hold, and the associates on the phone were friendly and knowledgeable.  And every time I spoke with someone who clearly spoke and understood English… you have no idea how nice this is, and how much faster a support phone call can be with someone who understands what you’re talking about the first time.  Probably the best phone support experience I’ve ever had.  Granted, other companies have set a pretty low bar.

Cons: there is one thing I don’t like about this mortgage compared to most other lenders.  They don’t escrow.  That means you pay the property/school tax bills yourself.  I imagine it is all part of keeping their costs low?  It is a bit inconvenient, but isn’t a big problem for me to write a few checks a year on my own.

You really should check out the Easy Orange mortgage at ING DIRECT to get more details and see if it is right for you.  If not, they do have other, more standard ARM mortgages available, and fantastic savings accounts. You can click on the above banner to begin an ING DIRECT savings account, then click here to get details on the Easy Orange Mortgage.

Update (Feb. 2010):  In January, ING’s mortgage rates dropped 0.5% since my mortgage began, so I paid to do the rate renew.  The cost to renew at the lower rate was 2 bi-weekly payments (basically 1 month’s payment), but I did the math, and with 0.5% lower rate, I will save much more than that over the 5 years.  I was a bit nervous because before I put the paperwork in the mail, the rate went up a bit, but they stayed honest and everything went smoothly as expected.

Update (July 2010):  By the way, use this promo link to open a new savings account with ING DIRECT, and you can earn $25. Just open it with a minimum of $250. That’s an instant 10% return! You’re welcome!

Cards by Mariah West Designs

2009 December 20

Very nice greeting cards.  We love the bold colored designs and the scripture references.  Everyone loves getting an old-fashioned hand-written encouragement note or thank you card via the snail mail.  These beautiful cards make great gifts, too.

Strong Mini-Magnets

2009 December 20

Refrigerator magnets.  Everyone’s got ’em.  You gotta stick up the occasional picture of your niece & nephew, or a free car wash coupon.  Or maybe a quote from your favorite poet or Napoleon Dynamite.

Most magnets are frustratingly weak.  And usually ugly.  There’s two things I’m looking for in a good refrigerator magnet:  1) Strong enough to hold up at least 5 receipts/coupons/pictures with a single magnet.  2) Not ugly.

These are the only magnets that fit the bill for me.  They look like pushpins for a cork board, they are small, but they are the strongest magnets I have ever used.  Get them as a gift for that refrigerator display artist in your family.

You can even get one free in the mail!

The Best Stuff

2009 December 18

Basically this is a list of some of my favorite stuff.  Gifts, products, things that I like that make my life more pleasant, usually in a small way.  But little things can add up and make a difference.

So far, I’m tracking 3 categories:

1) Stuff.  As in physical stuff or products/services that are useful.

2) Software.  I’m a programmer geek, so my list is mostly along those lines.  Programming or productivity tools are mostly what I’ll link to.

3) Audio podcast.  I listen to a lot of audio.  Driving to work, doing the dishes, painting a room; these are all excellent opportunities to fire up the iPod and listen to a message.  I usually try to redeem the time by listening to a sermon or conference message from some of my favorite teachers/pastors.  Like John Piper, Matt Chandler, RC, CJ, or “Rev Kev” DeYoung.  Follow if you wanna know what I’m listening to and being impacted by.