Monday, April 19, 2010

Personal Finance - Keeping Track of Bills on Google Calendar

I used to be an fervent user of Quicken. I'd load all the detail in there and even maintained a cash account to track every single last dime.

I did this up until a couple of years ago when it started getting more complicated, and also around the same time that Mint came on the scene and I started loading everything into that. I've never really had any issues using Mint to store info that's available everywhere else anyway.

Mint has slowly evolved to be an online competitor to Quicken. It's still not as full featured, but it's got basically everything I need - namely budgeting and trending tools with the ability to categorize transactions.

Mint works more seamlessly than anything in quicken ever did. I do have to review transactions periodically to ensure they are in the proper categories - it has a tendency to mis-categorize certain things, though you can give it rules to fix that stuff. For example, I bank with USAA and also use them as an insurance company. I tend to get emails that I exceeded my spending on Auto Insurance for the month when really I just made a big transfer to my USAA savings account that it classified as Auto Insurance when really it was just a Transfer. The only other issue currently an issue with my 401k provider not able to be accessed by mint after it was available for a while due to a provider change. Hopefully they'll fix that. In the meantime, there's not really a good way to track that info short of entering it as an asset and manually updating it. It's not ideal, but at least it allows me to still track all my assets in one place.

But other than those small things, mint's served my needs quite well. One of the things I used to use Quicken for was the ability to schedule transactions ahead of time. Like a lot of people these days, I don't "balance a checkbook" in the traditional sense since we hardly write any checks. But I still have a need to ensure that there's the appropriate amount of money in my account to pay scheduled bills. I have most of our bills on ACH withdraw with the respective companies, and have our mortgage on a bi-weekly schedule to coincide with both me and my wife's pay schedule (we work for the same company).

About 2 months ago, my wife was complaining about how she didn't know when bills were due and how much money was left in our joint account, so I decided to create a new Google Calendar called "Bill Calendar" that I'd share with her. I've used Google Calendar for several years, and stepped up my use about 2 years ago when I got a smart-phone that could sync to it via exchange. My wife has also become a regular user of it and we use it to coordinate schedules quite regularly, so it was a good option for me to share this information.

The calendar I created for Bills also helps me to better track our upcoming expenses at a quick glance. It's really simple - I simply put the bill name and amount as an "all day event". It looks like this when it's done:
I do this for all of my bills as well as any regular post-paycheck investments, of which we have several. For the investments and some of the recurring bills that are always the same amount, same due date, I make it a recurring event.

It's working very well for me and is a simple way at a glance to plan expenditures. It also helps me to not forget one time things that I pay for and do a better job of managing our balances.

Friday, April 16, 2010

On Target Field

The view from my seat on Twitpic
I managed to snag some tickets to the Twins Home opener a few weeks ago, that small chance that I talked about here panned out for me - as I had the opportunity to purchase tickets from a guy that always gets us tickets for the opener. His allotment was way down so I couldn't get as many tickets, but I was still able to get some.

I got down to Target Field early, about 1pm, after doing some work in the morning on my couch while watching the countdown coverage. I parked in the NorthStar ramp and walked down 6th street, being told it was the best and most dramatic way to come into the park. I hadn't really been downtown near the Target Plaza in a while (though I had seen lots of pictures), but I was still impressed by how it melds right into downtown so seamlessly. (the bridge that starts close to the Target Center seems like it's always been there). And it really is a dramatic entrance - the park is quite visible from a few blocks away - and walking there in my Twins garb among the people working downtown was pretty fun.

I got into the park and found my seat. There were not many people there yet, but for almost 2 hours before game time, there were quite a few. I decided to walk around the concourse once. It reminds me a lot of the newer ballparks I've been in - Miller Park and Minute Made Park come to mind - the open concourses are pretty similar. Target Field seems like it's the most open of all - pretty much all the way around on the first concourse it's open to the field. Even at those other parks there are stretches where it's not. The attention to detail is really striking at Target Field too - the art, the granite, the perfectly sculpted canopy (which looks awesome at night when they are not playing, all lit up), the way the lights are integrated into the canopy. I could go on and on. And the fan friendly features - such as the area where you can look right down into the bullpen, the number of seats they put into the first level bowl, the rail in left center where you can have a drink and watch the game from basically fieldside, the area in right field right off of Target Plaza where you can congregate.

We sat in the right field bleachers - one of the only places where the seats are benches instead of plastic seats. I didn't mind it one bit, as people were coming and going the whole game and there was plenty of room by the end. The view was great - you could see everything but a very small part of right-center field and the scoreboard behind the wall there.

The ceremonies before the game were great fun as well, and it was fun to be a part of a historical moment in Minnesota sports history. In recent years at the dome, I only went to a couple of games every year because of how stale of an experience it was. I only have tickets to one other game at the moment for this season, but I'm sure I'll end up going to at least a half dozen games - you almost have to if you're any kind of baseball fan and live in this town. I can go outside and watch a game, like I did for the vast majority of my childhood. And there's really no other sports experience like that for me.


Katie and I did not become fans of this show until a couple of years ago. We've managed to find a way to watch most of the past seasons, the only ones I haven't seen are the 2 or 3 seasons prior to China (which was the first season I watched as it aired).

It's really interesting that we never watched it until 3 years ago, because it's in our reality show wheelhouse. I'm mildly embarrassed to admit that I've probably seen close to every episode of the MTV Challenges featuring former Real World and Road Rules cast members. And we've watched shows like the Amazing Race for a long time (even if I'm utterly bored with it) and I was a fan of other Mark Burnet productions such as The Apprentice (back in the day, not now).

This season of Survivor has been great. They hand-picked a fabulous cast. Boston Rob! Coach! Tyson! Parvarti! Amanda! Rupert! and on... Some of the best people to play this game over 19 seasons. And of course, Russell Hantz, the most egotistical SOB to ever play the game.

Like a lot of people, I started off hating Russell during his season last year. And slowly, I started to build admiration for him, only to be blown away in the finale when I realized he'd gotten a really good edit from the producers and had ultimately failed to play the social game - alienating just about every single jury member. I was let down by this.

So in this season, Russell is at it again. He took down Boston Rob a few episodes ago, in a rather epic turn of events which started when Tyson stupidly created his own downfall while Russell made a gigantic bet by giving Parvarti the hidden immunity idol.

What some people may not know on the surface is that the Samoa season and Heroes vs Villains were taped only a few weeks apart in the same relative locations on Samoa. Russell went home for less than a week and then returned. This was well before his season aired, so the people on his team did not have the benefit of seeing his gameplay. Boston Rob thinks that he would have been voted out first "without a doubt". At the same time, Probst points out in his blog this week that they were well aware that Russell was one of the most evil of all time. But it's clear there's a benefit there - if the players had seen Russell's season, there's probably no way he gets to the point last night, and there's absolutely no way JT gives him the idol. No way.

Still, here we are, with Russell holding an idol about to go into a merge with a seemingly strong alliance. Sure, there are cracks showing - Parvarti is clearly supportive of him but at the same time doesn't fully trust him - that was clear from her holding back the information about the idol she holds.

I gotta confess though, I'm tired of Russell. He makes bold moves but he doesn't play the social game very well. I don't want him to get all the way to end, because the same thing would result. Andy Denhart nails it at Reality Blurred a few weeks ago. The same thing is happening this season - he's getting a favorable edit because they love him, but there's no way he'll win it all.

I've never been a huge fan of Parvarti. She's like that popular girl in high school that you couldn't stand because she was so evil to everybody behind their back. But I'm even finding myself hoping that she would win over Russell.

Ultimately, I hope Amanda finally wins one. She deserves it. And was the only one that they showed questioning giving the idol to the other side. She plays a much better social game than a lot of the people and is strong in challenges. Rupert, JT and Colby need to go.

But I've been extremely entertained and that's an accomplishment for a show on its 20th season.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

My relationship with Apple

I can take or leave a lot of the over the top bloviating over the latest iWhatever device that Apple cranks out. The latest was on display as the iPad was released. I had several friends and family members get caught up in this and be among the first to buy it. That's nice for them and the people that have the money to spend like that.

I have a love/hate relationship with the "i-product". I am the owner of a 2nd gen iPod Touch that I've had for a year and a few months. It is a great device. It's more or less an iPhone without the phone or constant network connectivity. There are very few apps that don't work on it (mostly ones with microphone applications, since it doesn't have one) - so it's probably a pretty good representation of the iPhone, when you can get a network signal. It was a Christmas present from my wife and at the time, I was debating between the iPod Classic, with it's much larger hard drive and the Touch, which was smaller and more expensive, but more fully featured. That the choice between the two was even a dilemma is funny to me now. Because now, there's no dilemma - I'm locked into a product I use every day.

I think having a Touch has kept the iPhone jonesin' somewhat at bay. Well, that, and also that it's only available on AT&T. Which, no thank you. Verizon is probably the only carrier I'm willing to switch to right now.

There is downside to the iPod Touch. The main thing for me is having to use iTunes on a Windows PC. It's a fucking bloatware piece of shit. It takes forever to respond/do anything, it constantly needs to do things like check the library, and locks up on a regular basis. It takes forever to sync my iPod. Which I wouldn't have to do so often if the damn thing could sync podcasts on the device. But I'm willing to put up with this part of the experience for the device because I like it that much.

All that said, I'm sold on getting an android phone for my next phone. I currently have a Windows Mobile device that sucks the life out of me. (it's not really that bad, we just miss out on a lot of stuff). I like what I've seen out of android and the open nature of their platform is more appealing to me.

The next generation iPhone/Pod interface is being unveiled tomorrow
. It'd have to be a crazy leap to get me to change my mind. And the iPhone needs to come to more carriers, because I'd rather not deal with AT&T.