Thursday, April 20, 2006

102.62 Check Received as Pre-tax HSA Reimbursement

I just deposited a check for $102.62 for my health savings account benefits reimbursement. I submitted the claim form and supporting documentation a couple weeks ago. The check was in the mail last night.

A health Savings account is one of the benefits of my job
. I can pay for deductible expenses or non-covered expenses with pre-tax dollars and save 25%. If you have a plan and you're not taking advantage of it, take another look.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Keeping Your Computer Friendly -- Step 5: Encrypt Your Files

At this point you've done everything you can to protect your computer and wireless network from unauthorized access. Everything is secure, we're feeling good.

But we're not quite done if you're running Windows XP Pro and chose the NTFS file system (hopefully you did because it's more secure and more flexible than the FAT32 file system).

What happens when you take your computer, desktop or laptop, down to the local computer repair store to have a new video card added, a new hard drive or modem, or if you take your laptop with you when you travel and it is lost or stolen, or if someone breaks into your house and makes off with your computer?

All of your personal information stored on the computer is vulnerable to prying eyes unless your files are encrypted. Any files which contain your personal financial data (Microsoft Money, Quicken, files which hold account numbers and passwords, tax returns, etc.) should be encrypted, along with any other files you wouldn't want posted on the internet for anyone to see.

I don't encrypt all of my files, but I do encrypt those which, if in the wrong hands, could make my life (and my credit report) miserable.

Encrypting files is incredibly easy with Windows XP Pro . You can encrypt individual files or entire directories (so any file in that directory would be encrypted as well). I recommend encrypting at the directory level so any file added to that directory will be encrypted as well.

To encrypt a file or directory:
  • Right click on the file or directory
  • Select Properties
  • Select Advanced from the General tab
  • Check the box which says "Encrypt contents to secure data".

If you are encrypting individual files (and you can select more than one file at a time in a directory to encrypt them all at once) you will be prompted whether to encrypt the file and it's parent directory, or just the file.

The main difference you will notice when a file is encrypted is it's name is green in Explorer. Otherwise you won't notice anything as you open/close/save files -- the encryption/decryption process is automatic.

There are two more very important steps to take -- backup your encryption key and create a recovery agent. If your operating system is ever reinstalled, or your username is deleted and then readded (even if the same name is used), your existing key will be useless to decrypt your files.

It would take too much space to show the details for these two steps, but an excellent 5-part guide to everything you need to do can be found at Windows XP Pro: Using File Encryption . Highly recommended reading (and doing).

Bottled Water - Some Reasons to Buy

In a post I wrote about tips for buying at big-box stores, I mentioned the unit price of bottled water makes it a good buy. I got a comment questioning the merits of bottled water. While we drink mostly tap water, we do keep a case of bottled water on hand (spring water). Depending upon your water source and the treatment it requires to bring it up to standards, a filter is another option over bottled water.

There are some instances when quality bottled water is more than a convenience (make sure the water is good quality). For example:

1. Pregnant or nursing women and young children: When I lived in SW Oklahoma and was pregnant with my son, my doctor advised me to drink only distilled water rather than the highly chlorinated water that came from the reservoir. Standards for tap water are set for healthy adults, not small children.

2. Cancer patients or anyone with a compromised immune system: Again, tap water standards are set for healthy adults, not for anyone with a compromised immune system.

3. Emergency Supplies. In case of an earthquake (we live on the Pacific Rim), the tap probably won't be working. We have several gallon jugs filled with tap water and a case of bottled water as part of our emergency supplies.

4. Traveling. When traveling, I prefer to take my own bottle of water at .23 cents, rather than pay $1.50+ at airport or hotel shops. Depending upon the quality of water at my destination, I may opt for bottled water rather than the local tap water.

Know your bottled water and what you're really buying, if you have the need. Here are some definitions from

What are the different types of bottled water?

FDA has established a bottled water Standard of Identity to define the several different types of bottled water based on specific characteristics of the product. Bottled water products meeting the Standard of Identity may be labeled as bottled water or drinking water, or one or more of the following terms:

Spring Water - Bottled water derived from an underground formation from which water flows naturally to the surface of the earth. Spring water must be collected only at the spring or through a borehole tapping the underground formation feeding the spring. Spring water collected with the use of an external force must be from the same underground stratum as the spring and must have all the physical properties before treatment, and be of the same composition and quality as the water that flows naturally to the surface of the earth.

Purified Water - Water that has been produced by distillation, deionization, reverse osmosis or other suitable processes while meeting the definition of purified water in the United States Pharmacopoeia may be labeled as purified bottled water. Other suitable product names for bottled water treated by one of the above processes may include "distilled water" if it is produced by distillation, deionized water" if it is produced by deionization or "reverse osmosis water" if the process used is reverse osmosis. Alternatively, "___ drinking water" can be used with the blank being filled in with one of the terms defined in this paragraph (e.g., "purified drinking water" or "distilled drinking water").

Mineral Water - Bottled water containing not less than 250 parts per million total dissolved solids may be labeled as mineral water. Mineral water is distinguished from other types of bottled water by its constant level and relative proportions of mineral and trace elements at the point of emergence from the source. No minerals can be added to this product.

Sparkling Bottled Water - Water that after treatment, and possible replacement with carbon dioxide, contains the same amount of carbon dioxide that it had as it emerged from the source. Sparkling bottled waters may be labeled as "sparkling drinking water," "sparkling mineral water," "sparkling spring water," etc.

Artesian Water/Artesian Well Water - Bottled water from a well that taps a confined aquifer (a water-bearing underground layer of rock or sand) in which the water level stands at some height above the top of the aquifer.

Well Water - Bottled water from a hole bored, drilled or otherwise constructed in the ground, which taps the water aquifer.

$846 Earned to Date on my 2006 Roth IRA

This year I jumped on it and made my 2006 Roth IRA contribution on the first possible date: January 3, 2006. Fortunately, I had the money available to transfer from my money market account into my brokerage account. I'd done the research and had my buys scoped and staked. I set the limit orders and bought into two ETFs and one stock. The buys executed a few days later. Checking my brokerage account this week I found that the earnings on my 2006 Roth contribution to date are $846.85.

My timing for contributions in previous years ranged from March to May. If I'd waited until now to make my contribution, I wouldn't be seeing a tidy 20+% already. While the market is a fickle thing, I believe these picks will perform steadily. Bottom line: if you can afford it, contribute sooner rather than later.

Keeping Your Computer Friendly -- Step 4: Secure Your Wireless Network

If you have a wireless network at home do you want everyone in the neighborhood (or someone parked outside) to be able to access it and potentially your computer and it's data? Probably not.

Have you taken the necessary steps to prevent unauthorized access to the wireless network? Again, for too many of us, probably not.

Basic steps you should take to secure your network include configuring the router to:

  • Rename the administrator username and the administrator password (hackers know the default names and passwords for all the popular wireless routers).
  • Enable wireless security -- in order of most secure is WPA2, WPA, or WEF. When entering the network key make sure, just like passwords, it is a strong key (use a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters such as !@# -- and longer is better).

More advanced steps, but certainly worthwhile, are configuring the router to:

  • Use a different base IP address than the default (which is usually
  • Limit the number of subnet addresses to only handle the number of computers you actually have connected to the network.
  • Hide the wireless network -- often a checkbox which tells the router not to send out beacon packets to the wireless network.
  • Enable MAC Access Control where you tell the router which computers, via their MAC address, are allowed to access the router.

By performing these steps your wireless network will be significantly more secure. For more information on this topic, an excellent article is How to Secure Your Wireless Home Network with Windows XP.

Securing your wireless network is very important. If you can't do it yourself, hire a professional to do it for you.

Keeping Your Computer Friendly -- Step 3: Don't Logon As An Administrator

Unfortunately, in Windows XP, when you create a new user that user has administrative privileges by default. As mentioned previously, users with administrative privileges have full control of the computer.

For most of us, there are few instances when you actually need administrative privileges. These include installing some software, adding/modifying user accounts, and other "administrative" types of maintenance.

The rest of the time we can operate just fine with the limited privileges granted to the Users Group.

Why should we care about this? If your computer is compromised by unauthorized access (perhaps by the computer being left unattended, someone hacks into it via a wireless network, or more commonly by inadvertent downloads of viruses or other malware) that person gaining unauthorized access can easily have whatever priviliges the person currently logged-on has -- and that would be bad. An excellent discussion of the dangers can be found in the white paper Applying the Principle of Least Privilege to User Accounts on Windows XP. Read the introduction if nothing else.

Since you already have a good administrator account (from Step 1), change the other accounts to regular users either from the User Accounts module (Start -> User Accounts) or from Users and Groups in Computer Management where you can easily remove users from the Administrators group and add them to the Users group.

And there are ways to gain administrator privileges without having to log off and log back on as an administrator -- inconvenient especially when you're working with other applications. In a future post we'll show how easy it is (using a simple batch file) to get the privileges you need whenever you need them without logging off.

Carnival of Profligate Personal Spending #1 is Up

O No: I have run through a veritable carnival of personal spending this week. Maybe the blogsphere needs another carnival---The Carnival of Profligate Personal Spending. This would be a motivating site sharing where and how I blew the money and let others comment on the flagrancy, vagrancy and reckless wanton spending.

This week I spent a pile of money on spring-summer clothing and shoes for Bo and then some.

Let's see where the money went:

LLBean Online Sale: (Bo is built like a bison and wears Tall-XXL, so LLBean & Eddie Bauer outlets are great places to find sales on non-average sizes.)
3 T-shirts
1 canvas button-down shirt
1 pair Chinos
Total $77.00 (with shipping charges)

Old Navy: (Looking for baggy cargo shorts)
Three pair shorts
1 sleeveless T-shirt
2 T-shirts (for me $10.50 ea.)*
2 T-shirts (for me $2.97 ea.)*
Total $74.00* not counting my t-shirts

Birkenstock Store
1 pair size 49 Arizonas
Total $100.00
(Again, it's tough to find any deals on shoes. Bo wears a 15-16, so it's impossible to find flip-flops or much on sale. There's nothing in his size usually, except online at Footlocker.)
Total Spent $251.00 on Bo

And the profligate confession part: I bought three pair of shoes and sandals for myself--an added expense of $135. Ah spring.

Watching Over the Money - Vigilant Online Banking

Do you remember life before debit cards? I was working at US Bank headquarters in the late 80's when debit cards were introduced and employees were the first pilot group to begin using them. Now I rarely write a check and use my debit card instead. Financial innovation never stops---especially when it comes to products and services to keep us spending our money.

Fast forward a few years and now I use online banking to transfer funds, monitor my accounts, and reconcile balances. One thing that has helped me feel more secure with my online accounts is setting up email alerts. Most online institutions have an option to set email alerts to you when certain events happen. For example, I set up my checking account to send an alert when an amount $100 or over is deducted from my account. The email provides pertinent details of the transaction--enough to confirm the transaction while not compromising security:

Transaction Date: 04/18/2006
The following transaction completed: Withdrawal greater than $100.00
Transaction Amount: $147.00

Similarly, I've set alerts on my credit card accounts to monitor my balances. Because the alerts are set to trigger within a credit limit range, I can know through email if a credit account has been compromised immediately, well before a statement arrives or I log in to the account. Using online banking alerts gives me an added measure of oversight and security that only takes a few moments to set up.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Oil Prices Up: Think Savings Beyond the Pump

With oil prices up, and fully expected to reach $80 per barrel soon, there's understandable concern about saving money at the pump. However, with oil prices skyrocketing, whether through speculation or actual production issues, there are other ways to save some money beyond the fill-up at the pump.

Simply put: all goods with a substantial transportation cost will go up in price.

For me, this means a few areas to save money besides combining trips and driving less. For example:

1. Stock up on coffee, if you're a fan, and put store it in the freezer. Unless you live in Sumatra or Central America, the price for a cup-o-Joe is only going up.

2. Find your local Farmer's Market and shop it for produce.

3. Grow your own "salad bowl" if you don't have a local Farmer's Market. Get a pack of mixed lettuce seeds and grow in a container. All lettuce needs is a light (not heat), water and drainage. Harvest individual leaves, not whole heads, and plant in succession.

4. Carefully consider the costs of shipping. Even if you're offered free shipping, compare prices for the product. Most companies will be building the cost of shipping increase into the product price.

5. Any good or service that relies on transportation will see prices go up: think about items you use in your daily life (Stoli's Vodka? It's Russian. It will cost more.) and whether there is a locally available substitute.

6. Group your trips to maximize on the gas expended. Defer single-purpose trips until they can be grouped.

Oil Prices: Shock & Awe

Robert Kiyosaki's "The Rich Get Richer" column today is "The Coming Oil Crisis" and it's a scary read. Robert's writing (and probably investing) style is one I'd characterize as "shock & awe" since he's essentially a counterpoint to conventional personal finance planners and investing advice. (Kiyosaki never recommends Vanguard Index 500 funds, for example, not by a long shot.) This is a two-part examination of rising oil prices and the impact on global economy. Here's the scariest except:

"If energy costs continue to rise and our economy stops growing and starts shrinking, many stocks will crash, older Americans will not be able to retire, inflation may skyrocket, businesses will close or cut back, and jobs will be lost. Not only will we be facing global warming, we'll be facing civilized chaos."

We'll have to wait until his next column to see what strategies he recommends for surfing the energy gap, if that's possible:

"In my next article, I'll go into what I'm doing to prepare for the gap, as well as why I believe the gap can't be avoided. In other words, it will not be 1973-1974, or stagflation, all over again. I believe it will be the end of civilization as we know it -- and possibly the birth of a brave new world."

Protecting your Investments: Lock the Virtual Doors

Online banking, shopping, and investing can make conducting monetary transactions incredibly convenient: Log in to your checking account. Transfer funds to savings and transfer another sum to your brokerage account; Log on to the brokerage account and execute a limit buy. When you're out there doing your money business on the internet, have you taken every precaution to ensure your account information and access to your computer is locked down? When you leave your home, do you lock the doors?

DD is writing a series here to help you take the steps necessary to protect your online investments: 5 Easy Steps to Ensure Your Computer Is Your Friend, Not Your Enemy.

Steps 1 & 2 are up and 3-5 are coming soon:

Step 1: Change the Administrator Password
Step 2: Disable the Guest Account
Step 3: Don't Log on as Administrator group
Step 4: Secure your wireless network, if you have one.
Step 5: Encrypt your files.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Commodities are on Fire - Opinion on Oil

Today's Yahoo Finance poll about the future of oil and gold as red-hot and smoking commodities: today's poll question - what's next Oil or Gold?

Current Results:

Commodities have been on fire. What will we see next?

Oil at $80 a barrel - 50%
Gold at $700 an ounce - 25%
Neither - 26%

30161 Votes to date

Speculating in Bling: Gold and Silver

Gold and silver prices are amazing. I speculated in a few pieces last spring: 18k white gold sapphire ring bought at auction for $38 (informally appraised at over $800), gold chains ranging in the gram weight from 5-16 when gold was half the going price. Most of the pieces have been given as gifts, but the ring and a 16-gram 14k chain I'm still holding. I started wondering if it was time to consider cashing in.

Daniel Gross over at Slate.Com provides an overview of the rising prices of gold:

In other words, the eternal and largely immobile store of value is soaring, thanks to some newfangled trends in investment. Gold used to be incredibly valuable because it couldn't easily be destroyed and it was difficult to move vast quantities of it. Today, it's incredibly valuable—at least in the short term—because some of the fastest-moving cash in the world has decided that gold is the place to be, at least for now. When that cash decides gold isn't the place to be, the price may plunge faster than it rose.

Daniel Engber weighs in on my wondering whether it was time to sell the family silver or the jewelry pieces:
Casual consumers expect to pay a certain amount for a piece of jewelry. If the gold market forced jewelry prices higher, they'd stop buying. gas station owners aren't selling a luxury product that customers expect to buy at a certain price.

I think I'll keep holding for now.

Three Tiers of Discipline: Deciding How to Purchase

There are basically three ways to pay for ordinary purchases:

1. Cash only
2. Debit card (like cash)
3. Credit card ONLY if it's paid monthly and pays rewards

Each strategy carries with it some significant pros and cons:

Cash Only

Carrying cash and paying only in cash can be a double-edged sword. Some people are more likely to spend, because they have the money on hand; others are less likely, since they see the actual bills pass out of the wallet.

Debit Card

Like cash, except the debit card takes the payment directly out of checking. Again, this can help curtail excess spending by deducting the purchase from cash in a checking account, or make it less "real" than spending cash.

Credit Card

Paying by credit card is a bad idea unless the balance is paid monthly and the card carries valuable rewards for its use. I think the downside is evident here: the chance of interest charges if you can't pay, or a late payment fee if you're two hours late. My friend Dash pays for everything with a credit card: groceries, gas, and weekly lunch out. He pays the balance every month and racks up mileage points that upgrade his biannual trips home to Hawaii to business class. For him this system works and pays a tidy dividend.

The Discipline Factor

Each of the three payment methods corresponds to a degree of personal responsibility. Making all purchases with a credit card, like Dash does, requires a high degree of personal discipline and organization. Paying by cash or debit card require a bit less discipline than Dash's method, but both still require a disciplined tracking of expenses. As for me---it's far easier for me to use my debit card than part with cash. I'll swipe the card before I'll break the $20 bill. So along the continuum of discipline, there's less chance of me to overspend if I have to pay with the cold hard currency.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Carnival of Personal Finance #44 is Up

Carnival of Personal Finance #44 is hosted this week by Five Cent Nickel. Indie Mission posting this week features the 5 Rules for Shopping at Big-Box Stores.

Big-box stores like Costco can be big-time budget busters. Walking into a warehouse of merchandise and wandering around with an oversize shopping cart can lead to spending hundreds of dollars more than I intended when I walk out again. I've developed my own 5 rules for maximizing savings when I shop "Big -Box."

Keeping Your Computer Friendly -- Step 2: Disable the Guest Account

From Windows Help and Support -- "A guest account provides access to the computer for any user who does not have a user account on the computer."

Why would you want that? I can't think of any reason, especially if I have important information stored on my computer. And though a guest account has limited access (also from Windows Help and Support -- "Users who log on to the computer using the guest account do not have access to password-protected files, folders, and settings. "), any access is too much for my comfort level.

To disable the Guest account is very easy on Windows XP Pro.
  1. Login using an administrative account
  2. Start -> Control Panel -> User Accounts
  3. Click on Guest
  4. Click "Turn off the guest account"

Alternatively, you can find the account named Guest in the Computer Management module, select properties, then check the box for "Account is disabled".

Your computer is no longer available to anyone without a user account -- congratulations!

Keeping Your Computer Friendly -- Step 1: Change the Administrator Password

Why would you want to change the Administrator password? If your computer were to be compromised -- if it was lost, stolen, or hacked into, for example -- people could log into your computer using Administrator as the user and have free reign to do what they wish. Not a good thing.

The default password for the Administrator account when Windows XP Pro is initially setup is null, i.e., no password. Easy for someone to guess the name to use (Administrator) and the password (no password needed).

So there are two things to do here to help make your computer more secure -- change the name of the administrator account to something other than Administrator, and give that account a strong password. You will need to be logged-in with Administrator privileges to change these.
  1. Open the Computer Management module (Start -> Control Panel -> Administrative Tools -> Computer Management). If you have trouble opening the Computer Management module just go to Start -> Help and Support and search for Computer Management which will explain what else it is used for and how to get to it.
  2. Expand System Tools and then expand Local Users and Groups.
  3. Select Users.
  4. Locate the Administrator account (notice the description says "Built-in account for administering the computer/domain")
  5. Right click on the Administrator account and choose Rename. Name the account to something other than Administrator that would be hard to guess, such as "xAdmin%".
  6. After the account has been renamed, right click again and choose Set Password. You will be warned that some data might be lost -- you can click Help to see more information about what types of information are affected. Hopefully you don't log on as the user Administrator, so you shouldn't be affected (and if you are logged on as Administrator, you can still change the password from User Accounts in Control Panel). Change the password to a "strong" password. A strong password should be at least 8 characters long and contain a combination of upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and other symbols such as !@# etc.

You've just made your Windows XP Pro computer more difficult to break into. Might as well take the time to change your own password to a strong password while you're at it!

5 Easy Steps to Ensure Your Computer Is Your Friend, Not Your Enemy

Computers are a great friend to have. We travel the internet, can do online banking and shopping, keep our checking accounts in line, manage our investments, and so on.

But what if our computers turned on us and gave away, or lost, all of our important data? Obviously that would be bad, but most of us haven't taken the simple steps necessary to keep that from happening.

Here are five steps to help you make your computer (and data and account numbers ) more secure, even if it's lost or stolen.
  1. Set the administrator password (using a strong password), and change the name Administrator to something other than Administrator.
  2. Disable the Guest user account.
  3. Do not log on to your computer as a member of the Administrator group -- it's rarely necessary and opens you up to serious exploitation.
  4. Secure your wireless network if you have one.
  5. Encrypt your files.

I'll be covering each of these steps over the next few days on how to do these on a Windows XP Pro machine. Sorry, if you're on a Mac, running a different version of Windows, etc., I may not be of much help -- but some of the steps may still apply to you and it would be worth the effort to find out what similar steps might be taken.