Apple Calls – and Raises? – Staples’ Back to School Deal

Two weeks ago, I wrote about Staples’ current offer of a $100 prepaid card for students buying select laptops, which has since become the most popular post on this blog. As I argued on that post, despite all the hype, I don’t think it’s such a great deal, particularly since the offer is limited to 4 laptop models. But here’s a similar offer that might be worth getting excited about if you’re already Mac fan: Apple is giving a $100 Apple gift card to any student who buys a Mac (except for the Mini) by September 20, 2011.

The downside of this promotion as compared to the Staples’ one is that you get the reward as an Apple gift card, which can only be redeemed on the Mac App Store, the iTunes Stores, and the iBookstore, while the Staples deal offers a Visa prepaid card, which can be used anywhere. On the other hand, Apple’s offer applies to all new iMacs, MacBook Pros, MacBook Airs, and Mac Pros – both laptops and desktops – while Staples’ deal is much more limited.

a screenshot of Apple's deal: Who qualifies? You might!

Then again, even the cheapest Mac is more expensive than any of the laptops that qualify for the Staples offer. But let’s be honest: if you’re an Apple fan, you’re likely not in it for the money. So if you’re going big anyway, you might as well get the $100 gift card with your purchase.

To qualify for the gift card, you must use the Education Pricing discount that Apple usually offers to college students, parents, and faculty, which means you’ll get the discount plus the $100 card. To get the deal, you can buy your new computer online through the Apple Education Store, at an Apple store, or at your campus store. If you buy your new computer through one of the first two, the gift card will come with your purchase. If you buy on campus, just visit www.apple.com/promo within 90 days of your purchase to claim your gift card. There’s a limit of 2 gift cards per person during this promotion.

While Macs are definitely not the cheapest computers out there, I’m highlighting this offer in Money Under Your Futon because this blog isn’t just about saving; it’s about finding ways to save so you can live in style. If you’re a Mac fan, you clearly care about style. And if you’re eligible for this offer, you need all the deals you can get.

Just Because Staples and Dell are Offering $100 Off Doesn’t Mean You Should Jump for these Laptops

While I was watching TV the other day, a Staples commercial advertising a $100 prepaid Visa card to students buying specific laptops caught my attention. Qualifying for the rebate card is fairly easy, as you only have to show a valid student I.D. or acceptance letter, and the prepaid card will be mailed to you eventually.[1]

This seemed to me like a great deal at first, so I decided to check out the eligible computers. There are only 4 models eligible for the prepaid card promotion, though to Staples’ credit they all come from different manufacturers – Dell, HP, Samsung, and Toshiba – and are of different sizes, giving buyers some options. However, they are all at least $579 without the rebate. I am not a computer expert and I can’t evaluate the specifications of each of the models in this promotion, but I think that while $499 (including the rebate) isn’t bad at all for a laptop, it doesn’t qualify as an amazing deal unless you are looking for exactly one of these 4 laptops. Even Staples is selling some other laptops for less than that, and I’m guessing most people don’t need more than a simple laptop for school or post-school work.

Along the same lines, Dell is offering $100 off its XPS 15 and XPS 17 laptops (promo code 932N$0ZCCHWZB9, sent to my inbox). These, however, are fairly advanced laptops with 3D capabilities and HD screens, starting at $799 without the discount. Chances are that, unless you work with graphics or are a computer aficionado, if you’re looking to save money these are probably not the computers for you – as enticing as a $100 discount may seem.

With all the back-to-school deals around, flexibility will likely save you more money than a $100 prepaid card or discount on these select laptops ever could. That said, if you’ve been eyeing any of the 4 laptops eligible for the Staples prepaid card, or Dell’s XPS series, this may be a good time to buy. Neither promotion has a published expiration date, but acting soon is probably better.

And if you do make a trip to Staples to check out their laptops, here’s another published offer that’s actually a good deal, albeit less flashy:  300 free printed labels with the coupon linked here. This could be useful for labeling your own stuff (including your new laptop!), or for making return address labels for job applications, thank you letters, and “please send money” requests sent to family.


[1] The terms and conditions for this offer seem to have been hastily written, and the exact timeframe in which the card will be mailed is unclear. Per the T&C: “Visa prepaid card will be mailed 15 days 4 to 6 weeks after submission of easy rebate.” Also, the webpage listed on the Staples website for the easy rebate redemption, http://www.StaplesEasyRebate.com, is incorrect and leads nowhere; the correct page is www.StaplesEasyRebates.com (with an “s” in the end).

Sales Tax Holiday 2011 is Underway

This post comes a little late, but we are right in the middle of Sales-Tax-Holiday Season! Many states had their sales tax holidays this past weekend, but Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Texas still have theirs coming up. Take a look at the table below and mark your calendars if you are a resident of any of these states or live close enough to one that it may be worth the trek.

Virginia’s tax holiday has already passed and DC did not have one this year, but if you’re a resident of either of these two places, Maryland’s tax holiday next week may be worth a visit. Likewise, New Yorkers may want to take a trip to Connecticut, and those living New England may find next weekend to be the perfect time to visit Massachusetts.

This year was Arkansas’ first year hosting a tax holiday, while Illinois residents will notice that their usual holiday has been canceled for 2011.

Also note that although the 17 states that are having a tax holiday this year scheduled it to coincide with the back-to-school shopping season, you do not have to be a student or have children going to school to take advantage of the offer. As long as you are buying a qualifying item (see the list below), be it clothing or computer supplies, your purchase should be tax free.
 

State Tax Holiday Dates Tax-Exempt Items
Alabama Aug 5-7 Clothes priced at $100 or less. School supplies priced at $50 or less. Books priced at $30 or less. A single purchase of up to $750 for computers, computer software and computer school supplies.
Arkansas Aug 6-7 Clothing and footwear priced at $100 or less. Accessories and equipment priced at $50 or less. School supplies, art supplies, and instructional material – no price limit.
Connecticut Aug 21-27 Clothing and footwear priced at less than $300. *Note: until very recently, clothing and footwear under $50 was tax-free year round; this was repealed on July 1, 2011, making this tax holiday an even better deal than usual.
Florida Aug 12-14 Clothing, footwear, and certain accessories priced at $75 or less. School supplies priced at $15 or less.
Iowa Aug 5-6 Clothing and footwear priced at less than $100.
Louisiana Aug 5-6 The first $2,500 on the purchase price of most “tangible property” for personal use, excluding vehicles, meals, and services.
Maryland Aug 14-20 Clothing and footwear priced at up to $100.
Massachusetts Aug 13-14 Most tangible items priced at $2,500 or less, excluding vehicles, motorboats, meals, utility services, and tobacco.
Mississipi July 29-30 Clothing and footwear priced at less than $100.
Missouri Aug 5-7 Clothing priced at up to $100. School supplies under $50 per purchase. Computer software priced at up to $350. Personal computers and computer peripheral devices priced at up to $3,500.
New Mexico Aug 5-7 Clothing and footwear priced at less than $100. School supplies priced at less than $15. Computers priced at up to $1000 and computer hardware priced at up to $500.
North Carolina Aug 5-7 Clothing, footwear, and school supplies priced at up to $100. Sports and recreational materials priced at up to $50. School instructional materials priced at up to $300. Computers priced at up to $3,500 and computer supplies priced at up to $250.
Oklahoma Aug 5-7 Clothing and footwear priced at less than $100.
South Carolina Aug 5-7 Clothing, footwear, computers, printers, computer software and printer supplies, and various bedding and bath items – no price limit.
Tennessee Aug 5-7 Clothing, footwear, and school supplies priced at up to $100. Computers priced at up to $1,500.
Texas Aug 19-21 Clothing, footwear, backpacks, and school supplies priced at less than $100.
Virginia Aug 5-7 Clothing and footwear priced at less than $100. School supplies priced at less than $20.

Check Again: A Look at Current Checking Account Options

After finishing a harrowing first year of graduate school, I finally have time to pick up Money Under Your Futon again. Kathy and I both had crazy (academic) years, but we are glad to be back here, learning and writing about personal finance tips for people with entry-level jobs (or stipends) who want to live the good life.

Kathy posted her “I am back” post a few weeks ago, in response to some of the craze going on over TLC’s Extreme Couponing show. As for myself, this is my “welcome back” post.

I reviewed some checking accounts a long while back and, given all of the regulatory changes in the banking system over the last year or two, I think it is time for an update. Here is a summary of the most basic checking accounts offered by some of the largest brick-and-mortar banks. While banks warned that the recent and ongoing regulatory changes might translate into the end of free checking accounts, not all of them have actually banished free checking yet. Some, such as Chase, HSBC, and Wells Fargo, have certainly delivered on the warning, putting stringent requirements on customers, who otherwise must pay up a monthly fee for their accounts. Other banks, however, have come out on top. PNC’s Free Checking does not have any monthly fees at all, while Bank of America makes it fairly easy to avoid its maintenance fee.

  • Bank of America’s eBanking account: this account is great for young, internet-savvy customers with uncomplicated finances. There is no monthly fee nor minimum balance as long as you don’t use a teller for any of your transactions. And BofA has one of the best ATMs that I know of, since the machines actually count your cash and scan your checks when you make a deposit, and the amount posts to your account immediately. If the range of your checking needs is usually limited to withdrawals and deposits, this is a great option for you. And when you do need a teller, the monthly fee is $8.95.
  • Chase Total Checking and Chase’s College Checking: the Chase Total Checking account has a monthly fee of $10 which is waived only with (a) a direct deposit for $500 or more, (b) a minimum daily balance of $1,500, or (c) an average daily balance of $5000 or more in all of your Chase deposit and investment accounts. Personally, I think this is a pretty bad deal given other options. Even if you can satisfy the requirements now, consider the worst case scenario – you don’t want to lose your job, have to deplete your account, and then also get hit with a fee. If you’re in college or grad school though, you can avoid that through the College Checking account. With this account, the $6 monthly fee is waived for 5 years while you’re in school, though after graduation you’ll need to set up a monthly direct deposit to continue the fee waiver.
  • Citibank’s Basic Checking account: there’s no minimum balance for this account, but you have to jump some hoops to avoid the $8 monthly fee. The fee is waived for every month you have 5 transactions in the account, including direct deposit, ATM withdrawals, debit card payments, and automatic payments. This may seem like an easy set of hoops to jump, since any 5 transactions in a month count, be it 5 ATM withdrawals, 2 direct deposit and 3 debit card payments, or any other combination of transactions. However, keep in mind that while on a day-to-day basis it may be easy to satisfy this requirement, it might not be the case when you go on vacation. If you travel abroad and don’t use ATMs or your debit card in a given month, you may easily come back to find a fee on your account. But perhaps $8 isn’t all that bad.
  • HSBC’s Choice Checking and Basic Banking: HSBC’s Choice Checking is a less strict version of the Chase Total Checking, also with a slightly lower fee. The $8 monthly fee can be avoided with (a) a monthly direct deposit, (b) at least $1500 in personal deposit or investment balances, or (c) at least $5000 in broader total monthly balances, which includes personal deposits, investments, and certain credit balances. On the other hand, if you don’t want to bother with the requirements or can’t meet them, HSBC also offers a Basic Banking account. With this account, you are always charged a $3 monthly fee, but at least there are (almost) no other surprises. That is, as long as you write less than 8 checks per month. If you go over that, there’s another $0.35 fee per check you write.
  • PNC’s Free Checking: this is a truly free checking account, with no minimum balance or transaction requirements. Although PNC does not have as many ATMs as other big banks, it makes up for that by reimbursing ATM fees when you use a non-PNC ATMs as long as you maintain a balance of at least $2000. As I see it, this is a great deal. If you’re going to meet a minimum daily balance, instead of just doing that to avoid a monthly fee, you might as well get something out of it. Here, PNC rewards you by making every convenient ATM a free one too.
  • U.S. Bank’s Easy Checking and Student Checking: there are two ways to avoid the $6.95 monthly fee on the Easy Checking account: (a) having direct deposits with a combined value of at least $500, or (b) maintaining an average daily balance of $1500 in the account. This is a pretty standard, middle-of-the-road account nowadays, with average requirements and an average fee as well. You could do better – but you could certainly also do worse. If you are a college or grad student, though, you may also want to look into U.S. Bank’s Student Checking account. There is no minimum balance or transaction requirement for this account, and you get reimbursed for up to 4 ATM fees a month when using a non-U.S. Bank ATM.
  • Wells Fargo Value Checking: to avoid the $5 monthly fee on this account, you must either (a) have a direct deposit of at least $250 a month, or (b) maintain an average daily balance of at least $1500. While I think one should avoid any account that requires direct deposit or minimum balances since these are the first to go when your finances go under, this checking account does have the one of the lowest monthly fees out of those reviewed here. So if you find you are going to be inevitably hit with a fee, then this might be a good option for you.

When I reviewed checking account options 2 years ago, I had PNC’S Free Checking in a close second place after a Bank of America account. This time, it’s a tie, and the breaker really depends on convenience. If BofA ATMs are convenient for you and you can’t remember the last time you actually stepped into a bank, you can’t go wrong with the eBanking account. On the other hand, if you have a PNC ATM close by or are planning to maintain a balance over $2000, PNC’s truly Free Checking is a great option – not having to ever worry about ATM fees certainly pushes it ahead.

And if you don’t have BofA or PNC ATMs nearby and cannot maintain a balance of at least $2000, think carefully before just choosing the bank closest to you. If you are just starting out and your job isn’t stable – and most aren’t nowadays – it is best to avoid accounts that have minimum balances or direct deposit requirements. The last thing you need is a bank working against you, using fees to chip away the balance you do have. Check your local banks and credit unions as well. As this review shows, despite all warnings, there are still free or almost free checking accounts out there.

A Look into the Tuition and Fees Deduction (vs. the Education Credits)

April 15th is fast approaching, and you still haven’t figured out which deductions or credits you can take for education?  Here at Money Under Your Futon you can find the summarized, cramming-two-days-before-the-exam version of the IRS publication 970, which explains in detail each of the education benefits available for 2009 income taxes.

Last week we wrote about the three education tax credits offered this year: the American Opportunity, the Hope, and the Lifetime Learning credits (to read the article click here).  Today, we add to it a break-down of the Tuition and Fees deduction.  The general rules for this deduction, in terms of what qualifies as an educational institution and payments on whose behalf can be deducted are the same as for the credits.  As explained in the previous article:

An eligible educational institution [is defined as an] institution eligible for the Federal Student Aid (FSA) program administered by the Department of Education. 

Continue reading

A Break-Down of the Three Education Credits Available this Tax Season

With taxes due in just 10 days and the recent political debate on how to support higher education, many Americans are left wondering whether there might be anything in this year’s tax form that might help them out.  Several of you have probably heard of the American Opportunity credit, the Hope credit, or the Lifetime Learning credit, but given their differences in eligibility and benefits, we are guessing many Americans are confused about which ones they can take and for which purchases. 

If you want to know all the nitty-gritty about the education credits available to you, check out the IRS publication Tax Benefits for Education (publication 970), chapters 1-4.  Or, if you just want a summary of those 30+ pages, continue reading this post.

First things first, all three credits cover eligible expenses associated with education in an eligible institution.   The eligible expenses vary by credit and may be expanded for students in the Midwestern disaster relief area, but for all three credits, an eligible educational institution has the same definition: institutions eligible for the Federal Student Aid (FSA) program administered by the Department of Education. 

Continue reading

The Treasury and the IRS Get Creative on Savings Incentives

A few weeks ago the Treasury Department and the IRS announced an important change to the 2009 tax form: the inclusion of a box that allows tax filers to receive their refunds as I Savings Bonds.  If you have been looking to buy Treasury bills or bonds to protect your assets or this option appeals to you, it is never too early to find out more about it.

I Savings Bonds are similar to the relatively new (and popular) TIPS in that they are protected against inflation, but that is where their similarities end.  While the inflation adjustment on TIPS comes through coupons – i.e., the value of the coupon is paid out every 6 months and is based on the principal, which is adjusted according to inflation – interest on an I Savings Bond is calculated as a combination of a fixed rate and inflation, but is accrued and only paid out when you cash the bond (for other comparisons, see TreasuryDirect’s comparison chart).

I Savings Bonds are also non-transferable.  That is, you cannot sell them to someone else, though the IRS claims that for I Savings Bonds issued via 2010 taxes, joint- or co-ownerships will be available.  But for now, you can still cash out I Savings Bonds whenever you want after holding them for at least 12 months and up to 30 years.  If you cash them before 5 years, you lose three months interest, but there is no penalty otherwise.

Tax Considerations.  There are two important tax issues to consider as you decide on whether to opt in for I Savings Bonds.  First, the interest accrued on the Bond is generally subject to federal income tax, through not state and local income tax.  You can choose whether to claim interest every year or to defer it all until you cash in the Bond.

Second, if you are 24 years old or older when the I Saving’s Bond is issued, using its earnings for qualified higher education expenses may earn you the exception to the rule above.  If you are single and have a MAGI of up to $82,100 (or $130,650 if married filing jointly), you may be eligible to exclude from federal taxes all or part of the interest earned from I Savings Bonds.  Note, however, that if you are receiving the I Savings Bond as a refund for your 2009 taxes, you will only be able to redeem it in early 2011 at the earliest (12 months after issuance).  This exclusion is therefore only relevant if you are at least 24 years old in early 2010 and expect to be in school in 2011 or later, particularly since this first batch of I Savings Bonds can only be issued in the taxpayer’s name and cannot be transferred.

If you have been interested in buying a Treasury bill or bond for a while, getting the I Savings Bond as a tax refund may be a convenient option since, unlike buying a bill or bond directly, it does not require a pre-existing account with the Treasury.  And if you think you will be in school in 2011 onwards, this may be a great opportunity to boost your savings.

To learn more about this tax refund option, visit the IRS’ FAQs page on I Savings Bonds.

Combining Education Tax Benefits?

If you are thinking of going back to school but dread the prospect of having no income for 2-5 years, I have at least two reasons to look forward to returning to the classroom.

  1. Previously MUYF has discussed the value of investing in qualified tuition plans to pay for further studies.  Also known as 529 plans, your contributions grow tax-free and can be used to pay for any college, university, vocational school, or other postsecondary educational institution.  The list of qualified education expenses under 529 is pretty broad and includes money used for books, room and board, and transportation.  But for the money you did use to pay for tuition or any required education expenses, you can also claim it back through the lifetime learning credit.  This is a pretty nice combo: your money grew tax-free and you get to claim it back as a dollar for dollar reduction on your total tax.
  2. If you had to take out a loan, you can still claim the lifetime learning credit for the amount of the loan that went towards tuition or any required education expenses.  This is not as good a deal as #1, but think of it this way: you are already getting a tax break and you haven’t even started repaying the loan yet.  And when it’s time to repay the loan, any interest you have paid are tax deductible.

Looking into Your (Financial) Future as You Get Ready for School

As we approach back to school time, many students and families are balking at the prices of supplies, textbooks, computers, and other gear.  But don’t forget that Uncle Sam encourages people to further their education and may have tax breaks waiting for you soon down the line.  Besides the upcoming sales tax holidays in some states, here are two other tax breaks you can get for higher education:

Hope credit: The Hope credit is an income tax credit for qualified tuition and related expenses associated with higher education.  In this case, “qualified tuition and related expenses” are defined as payments made to an eligible educational institution and that are required for attendance (i.e., tuition, any mandatory activity and enrollment fees) as well as course materials needed for a course of study (i.e., books and supplies).  For 2009, the Hope credit has been expanded to cover the first 4 years of post-secondary education on up to $2,500 per student per year for individuals with a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) of $80,000 ($160,000 if married and filing jointly).  It is phased out for individuals with a MAGI between $80,000 and $90,000 ($160,000 and $180,000 if married and filing jointly).

Lifetime Learning credit:  Just like the Hope credit, the Lifetime Learning credit covers “qualified tuition and related expenses” and is an income tax credit.  However, the Lifetime Learning credit is available for all years of post-secondary education (including graduate studies) and there is no limit to the number of years for which the credit can be claimed.  Also, one does not need to be pursuing a degree or other credential to be eligible for this credit, as it also covers “courses to acquire or improve job skills”.  The credit is slightly smaller – up to $2,000 – and is only available for individuals with a MAGI of up to $60,000 ($120,000 if married and filing jointly; phased out for individuals with a MAGI over $50,000 and couples filing jointly with a MAGI over $100,000).  For each eligible student, you can only claim either the Hope or the Lifetime Learning credit, and you should choose the one that gives you a higher value.  For more information on these credits and on special circumstances for students in Midwestern disaster areas, see this IRS announcement.

As you see yourself putting down a lot of money for college and graduate school, or raking up those student loans, don’t kick yourself if you have not gotten the best deal out there on a set of sheets or if your state does not have a tax holiday.  Compared to these credits that await you when you file your taxes in the spring, that 5% off coupon for a pack of notebooks may look like small change.

Burn the Fat, Not the Cash

The recessionary lifestyle has led many folks to trim the gym membership from their budgets.  But it is precisely now that everyone should focus on preventative care and stay as healthy as possible, because it doesn’t take much more than a trip to the emergency room to drain your rainy day fund.  And while most health insurance coverage leave a lot to be desired, several offer a benefit that very few people take advantage of – discounts and savings for health club memberships.  The Blue Cross Blue Shield PPO Plan, for example, reimburses up to $150 in membership fees  for each calendar year.  CIGNA also offers numerous discounts to various health clubs, such as the Sports Club and Bally Total Fitness.  A one year membership at Bally with nationwide access will cost around $590, while the same membership will cost around $395 with CIGNA’s discount.  This is a huge $200 in savings.  So check out what kind of healthy club membership discounts and savings your health insurance has to offer before you decide to quit or join a gym.

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