Get Rewarded for Recycling

Printer ink cartridges can take up to 1000 years to decompose.  To encourage recycling (and cut costs by reusing), many ink companies include postage-free return envelopes with their ink cartridges.  But if you want a bigger nudge for helping the environment, try Staplesink recycling program.  Staples gives $3 in store credit for each ink cartridge or toner (any brand) dropped off at one of its stores, up to 10 per month.  The credit is not provided immediately; it is sent to your inbox within a month and you must show your Staples Rewards card (Staples’ free loyalty card) at drop-off to receive it.  But for $3 and helping the environment, giving your email address and waiting a couple of weeks is a small price to pay – and you have over two months to use the store credit once it gets to you.

Start Lining Up Your Date Nights

For the last quarter of the year (October 1 to December 31, 2009), Discover is offering a 5% cashback bonus on up to $400 in purchases made at grocery stores, restaurants, movie theatres and video rental services.  If you make the maximum amount of $400 in eligibile purchases, you will get $20 in cashback, which can be turned into a $25 gift card from certain retailers such as Banana Republic and Brooks Brothers.  So remember to sign up.  Then get out there and start making plans for some great date nights!

Double up on Travel Bonuses this Fall

As travel plans are cut out to save on personal and business costs, reaching a meaningful threshold in a travel rewards program has become less and less realistic for many people this year.  But to give you a boost and keep you traveling, some airlines and Amtrak are giving double points this fall.

Airlines typically have sales in which they give double miles for travel on specific routes.  But this fall, many airlines are also giving double elite qualifying miles (EQM) for travel to any destination.  In contrast to double miles, bonus EQMs cannot be redeemed for travel and expire in the end of the year, but they can help you reach elite status faster.  In most airlines, you need to earn 25,000 EQMs within a calendar year to reach the lowest elite tier, and more for higher ones.  Elite membership not only gives your priority in boarding, seating, and standby, but also entitles you to bonus miles for travel.  Most airlines give 25% bonus miles – which can be redeemed for travel – to members of their lowest elite tier and 100% or more to members of higher tiers on almost any flight.  So think of qualifying for elite status this year through EQMs as an investment for earning more redeemable miles next year.

As covered by Tim Winship from smartertravel, American announced its double EQM deal in early September, and was soon followed by United and Continental.  All three deals require pre-registration and run until December 15, 2009.  Keep an eye out for other airlines that may eventually take part in this competition.

Amtrak is also trying to draw in more travelers by making its rewards more attainable: until December 19, 2009, you can get double points for any travel through its “Double Days” promotion.  Pre-registration is also required, but, unlike the airline programs, the extra points earned can be redeemed for travel.  Amtrak’s program (explained in a previous post in more detail) awards points per dollar spent, which can then be redeemed for Amtrak tickets.  The number of points required varies by Amtrak line, with travel on the northeast corridor requiring the most.

Just because you or business has to cut down on travel this year does not mean you shouldn’t get a shot at reaching elite status or earning enough Amtrak points for travel.  Pre-register for these deals now to reach travel rewards goals twice as fast this fall.

Tip of the Week: When is the Smartest Time to Pay Your Bills?

Everyone knows that it is important to pay your bills on time, but did you know that it pays to pay your bills as close to their due dates as possible?

Your money works best for you when it stays in your savings account collecting interest.  Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to pay your bills now if they are not due until the end of the month, for example.  Interest accrues daily, so you can maximize your interest income by keeping the largest amount of money in your savings account for the longest amount of time possible.  Below are a few things to keep in mind though:

  • If you still pay your bills via snail mail, you should send your payment five business days in advance of the due date so there is enough time for the check to arrive.  Otherwise, you can schedule your electronic payment to go through on the exact date the bill is due.
  • If you have various bills due throughout the month, decide when is the best time of the month to pay your bills and call your credit card companies and cell phone, internet, cable providers, etc. to change your billing cycles so all your bills are due at around the same time.  That will help you keep track of them, and most places are happy to accommodate.
  • Keep in mind that transferring the money from your savings account to your checking account can take a few business days.
  • Also remember that many savings accounts limit how many times you can withdraw in a month, so figure out how much money you need for your bills and withdraw the whole amount in a few transactions.

Get a Gift for Transferring Your Drugs: a battle between pharmacies

Rite Aid and CVS are both giving $25 gift cards for each prescription transferred to their respective stores, as part of their efforts to draw in customers from each other.  Take advantage of that battle.

To get the deal, you should bring your empty prescription bottles/ boxes and present the coupon for a $25 gift card.  Click here and here for current CVS and Rite Aid coupons, respectively.  The Rite Aid coupon linked here expires on September 30, 2009 and the CVS one, on October 4, 2009.  But keep an eye out for newer coupons printed out with your receipts at CVS or Rite Aid or in newspapers or online – this promotion has been going on for months and is constantly being renewed.

There is no limit to how many CVS gift cards you can get, but Rite Aid limits its gift cards to 2.  The CVS deal is not valid fromNew York or New Jersey, while Rite Aid allows residents of New Jersey who are over 60 years of age to participate.

And there is no minimum purchase to get a $25 gift card.  Last week, for example, I took a prescription to CVS that cost me $10 and still got a $25 gift card (yes, CVS effectively paid me to get my prescription).  And at CVS, pay attention to the coupons you get with your receipt because some of them can also be used for new prescriptions.  When you are sick, these gift cards are at least one thing that can brighten your day.

Estimated Taxes Due Today

Third quarter estimated taxes, covering June 1 to August 31, are due today.  To learn more about estimated taxes, including due dates, penalties, and different methods for calculating it, see our post for the previous quarter.  But for today, here are the main things you need to know:

  • There is a penalty for underpaying estimated taxes. In 2008, the fine was a 5-6% annual interest rate compounded daily.
  • Generally, you must pay estimated taxes if (1) you expect to owe at least $1000 in taxes after withholdings and credits AND (2) you expect your withholding and credits to be less than (a) 90% of your 2009 taxes or (b) 100% of your 2008 taxes covering 12 months.
  • You still have time to file your estimated taxes today.  If you paid estimated taxes last quarter and did not use the annualized income method to calculate how much you owed, just pay the same as you did last quarter.  If you are not using the annualized income method, to avoid penalties, you only have to pay in estimated taxes the lowest of (1) 100% of your 2008 taxes and (2) 90% of the taxes you expect to owe in 2009.  Divide that amount by 4 and that is your quarterly estimated taxes payment.

If you paid last quarter’s estimated taxes using the annualized income method, however, you must do it the same way this quarter.  Use publication 505 to guide you and, if possible, find your calculations from the previous quarter to help you fill in the blanks.

  • Paying is easy. Estimated taxes have the same payment methods as regular taxes, but you do not even have to send in the forms you used to calculate them.  Rather, if you are paying by check or money order, you only need to enclose the Payment Voucher 3 from the form 1040-ES with it.

You may also want to check whether your state requires estimated tax payments as well.  As with the regular income tax, completing state estimated taxes may be easier once you have already calculated your federal one.  And penalties may actually be higher if you don’t file.

“The Deal is On”

We all know that shopping with one or more people can net some great benefits, since you can take advantage of all those offers that give you extra discounts when you buy one or more of a good or service.  This is the idea behind the groupon, scaled up so that the people with whom you are “shopping” are complete strangers.

The groupon works the same way as a coupon.  It offers a service at a discounted price for a certain amount of time.  But the customer actually has to purchase the coupon first, because merchants are willing to offer such deep discounts only on the condition that a certain number of customers will buy the groupon.  Once a certain number of customers has purchased the groupon, it becomes effective.  For example, the site recently offered the following groupon for Washington, DC: the choice of one facial or two mani-pedis at the Hela Spa, valued at $240, for $60.  Twenty people needed to purchase the groupon in order for it to be effective; 615 people ended up buying it.

I would advise that you purchase a groupon only if you are pretty sure you will actually use it.  You don’t want your money tied up in coupons that you end up not using.  But I would also suggest that you take a risk every once in a while.  The opportunity to buy a groupon is limited, but most of the groupons have expiration dates several months down the line.  And if you end up not using it, you can always sell it someone you know.

The Groupon site currently offers groupons in over twenty cities across the United States.  Simply subscribe to the site to stay updated on the latest deals.  And don’t just subscribe to the city you live in, check back regularly for cities you are planning to visit.  You never know what you might find.  New York currently has a groupon for rocking lessons and Chicago for tandem skydiving.

An Added Bonus to a Checking Deal

When we wrote about the ING Electric Orange Checking Account two months ago, it was offering interest rates of at least 1.60% (APY) on balances over $50,000.  Since then, those rates have fallen slightly to 1.50-1.55% (APY).  However, balances below $50,000 continue to earn 0.25% (APY) in interest, which might be low compared to the interest rate on ING’s savings account, 1.30% (APY), but is exceptional for a checking account.   Besides, it is over twice Bank of America’s interest rate on its regular savings account, 0.10% (APY)!

And as an added incentive, ING is now giving a $50 bonus if you make three “signature transactions” (i.e., transactions that require your ink signature) within 45 days after opening an Electric Orange Checking Account.  Just use reference code EM352 when applying.  But the end date for this deal is not given on its website or on its marketing emails, so if you are looking for a checking account that pays interest, act fast to get $50 to go with it.

For Deals on Hotels, Choose a Neighborhood and Follow the Stars

Negotiating hotel costs may be a great way to keep travel within a budget.  As people take fewer trips or look for cheaper fares and lodging in response to the recession, hotels are more and more likely to honor requests for discounts and accept lower offers.   And even if haggling is not your thing, you can still take advantage of that. 

Besides the standard hotel offers found in internet travel sites, priceline.com also has a “name your own price” option, which allows you to bid for a better deal on flights or hotels.  For flights, you can only choose the dates on which you want to fly and the price you will pay, and priceline.com commits to billing you only if it finds a flight with one stop at most.  But you do not get to pick the time of day for arrival or departure, airline, or length of the layover.

Using priceline.com for hotels is a much safer bet.  You can select the neighborhood in which you want to stay and the number of hotel stars, and, unless you really want to stay in a specific hotel (e.g., for a conference or wedding), that really is all the information you need.  The only catch is that, with both flights and hotels, you are required to give your credit card information when you make the bid, and, if priceline.com finds an airline or hotel that accepts your bid, you are billed immediately.  So this is not a website for researching trips; it is for when you are sure of where and when you want to go.

But if you’ve already settled on your destination and travel dates and are hesitant to make a bid, worrying whether your offer might be too high (overpaying for a hotel) or too low (being rejected and having to wait 24 hours to re-bid), check out BetterBidding.   This is an online forum where people discuss bidding tactics for hotels on priceline.com and guessing which hotels are featured in the site’s closest competitor, hotwire.com.  Importantly, users list the bids they made on priceline.com and whether these were accepted or rejected, enabling other users to make informed offers themselves.  Take advantage of that.  You may think that $120 per night on a hotel that is offered in other travel sites for $180/night is a great deal – but wouldn’t it help to know that someone else snagged a stay in that hotel for the same dates for $100/night?

So if you are planning a vacation and have already settled on your destination and travel dates priceline.com may be a good way to get a deal.  And knowing what other travelers have bid may help you make that into a great deal.

In Europe, Have Your Age Subsidize Your Travel

If you are planning a trip to Europe and are 25 years old or under, make sure to look for discounts not only at attractions that commonly offer student discounts such as museums and performances, but also on transportation.  In contrast to the American standard practice, in Europe most discounts are available for people aged 25 and under (with proof of ID) rather than for students regardless of age.  And transportation networks are usually included.

In England, for example, you can buy a 16-25 Railcard for £26, which gives you a 1/3 discount on virtually every train fare throughout the UK for a whole year (even once you turn 26, as long as you bought it when you were still 25 years old).  This includes the express trains to and from Heathrow and Gatwick airports.  Importantly – and this is not frequently advertised – if you get the Oyster card for transportation in London (and you should), your Railcard can also be linked to it and lower your daily cap.  For example, a single ticket for off-peak travel in zones 1-2 of the London tube (as a tourist, those are probably the only zones you will need) is £1.60, but if you use an Oyster card and take multiple trips in one day, you will be charged a maximum of £5.10 per day.  With the 15-26 Railcard, while you do not get a discount on the single fare, your daily fare is capped at £3.35.

For travel between European countries, the Eurostar and the Thalys also offer youth discounts.  A youth one-way ticket on the Eurostar from London to Paris departing this Friday (September 04, 2009) at 11:30, for example, is £72, compared to £84 for the standard non-flexible fare.  Prices are lower and discounts are larger during the week and if booked in advance.  And on the Thalys, a high-speed rail connecting Paris, Brussels, Cologne and Amsterdam (and several Belgian and Dutch cities along the way), youth fares are generally around half the price of the most flexible fare offered.  Travel from Amsterdam to Brussels on a youth fare, for instance, is as low as €29, while the flexible fare costs €57.

So whether your are planning on just visiting one city in Europe or backpacking throughout, remember to carry your ID and ask about youth discounts on transportation if you are 25 years old or under.  This will help you cut down on sightseeing costs and free up your budget for souvenirs, food, and even a splurge.