Friday, December 20, 2013

Target Data Breach? No Big Deal

Wow, the news is giving me tons of blog fodder (blodder?) this week! You may have heard that some 40 million credit card numbers and associated data were stolen from Target during the beginning of the holiday shopping season. I'm not sure whether this news is being covered 24/7 on all news outlets in other places, but it certainly is in Minnesota. (Target's headquarters are here, and it's a major employer in the area.)

We shopped at Target at least twice during this time period and used a credit card for our purchases, so I am 99% sure that our information is included in the credit card numbers that are now in the hands of data thieves.

So what are we doing about it? Nothing.

1. These types of things happen all the time, either through hacking or employee carelessness, but most companies do not announce that information has been compromised for weeks or months. (Just off the top of my head - Adobe, Ubisoft, Global Payments, Sega, Nintendo, Sony, AT&T, Morgan Stanley, Citibank.)
2. When lists of card numbers are stolen they are often traded around on the black market and may not be used for weeks or months or years, if ever.
3. Target's early announcement of the theft means that a lot of people will be changing their credit card numbers, so part of the data will be useless. It may have even affected the value of the list on the black market, meaning it's less likely to be used.
4. We check our credit card statement frequently (at least once per month, usually more) and check it carefully against our spending log. We would notice fraudulent activity quickly.
5. Credit card users are protected from fraud, so if we do start seeing fraudulent charges, we can dispute them and there will be no real consequence for us.

Your card information is not secure, period. Every time you use the card, you are opening yourself up for the information to be compromised. Every time you buy something online, you risk it. Every time you use it at a cash register, you risk it. Every time you send it off with a waiter in a restaurant, you risk it. That's why there's such a strong consumer protection aspect to using a credit card - at some point it is almost certain that your information will be stolen, so there are stopgaps and protections built in. The companies themselves are watching for it, that's how much they expect it to happen.

This is not necessarily true of debit cards - because the money will come right out of your bank account, you are at risk of losing money immediately. That's why we don't use a debit card ANYWHERE unless we are required to do so (Aldi doesn't accept credit cards, Costco only accepts American Express. We use a credit card for almost anything else.) Anyone who used a debit card at Target during the compromised period should absolutely cancel the card and get a new number. But for credit card users, I'm not sure what all the fuss is about.

Would I shop at Target again using my credit card? Heck, yes. I'd do it today if I needed anything. My concern with using a credit card at Target has nothing to do with security, and a lot more to do with marketing: Target uses credit card information to track shopper spending and study their habits. I agree to this kind of tracking when I sign up for a store loyalty card, but I find Target using my credit card information for this to be creepy. Not enough that I always remember to stop at the ATM before I go shopping there, but enough that there are certain purchases I've made in cash just to avoid adding to my shopper profile.

Aside from the potential fine that Target may face for being hacked, probably the biggest downside to this for Target is that if people change their credit card numbers, all of their marketing data is useless.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Vitamins Are Not Killing You

Okay, this - this is ridiculous fear-mongering by the media.

The link goes to an article on The Consumerist that claims "Doctors Plead: Quit Wasting Your Money on Vitamin Supplements Already."

I've seen a lot of misinformation about the study that was recently released, and it irks me to no end how the news media and the general public do not COMPREHEND what they are reading.

The report collected the information from three studies, following white male doctors over the age of 50 (ie, not a sample remotely representative of the general population) and tracked the efficacy of supplements in three very specific scenarios: cardiac health, cognitive health, and cancer prevention.

The study did NOT have anything to do with multivitamins taken for nutritional support. It did NOT have anything to do with supplements recommended for pregnant women. It did NOT have anything to do with most of the reasons actual people take multivitamins, for which there actually is a lot of well-documented research. While most people today are not suffering from massive nutritional deficits (even junk food is fortified, after all) multivitamins used for general nutritional support and some other situations (Vitamin D to treat seasonal affective disorder, for example) are useful, and they are not necessarily a waste of money. (And even if they were, I would bet a year's supply costs less than $20, and we spend far more than that on things that are definitively proven to cause disease.)

Rant over. I just - most of that information regarding the limits of the study is in the AP wire story itself, and yet all people can spout is a headline "Doctors Say Multivitamins Are Useless!" UGH.

Three Thing Thursday

Thing the First: J$ has some hilarious suggestions for Christmas gifts for the toddlers in your life, and I have to back him up here. These things may sound like lame presents for anyone over 3, but seriously, babies - excuse me, "big kids" - love things like kleenex and toilet paper rolls and tupperware. I would add a 2 liter bottle half-filled with water to the list - it rolls in unexpected ways and Baby M just LOVES hers.

Thing the Second: Check out this amazing final project by a college student. Her series of advertisements claim Photoshop can give 50% longer limbs, all-in-one beauty, and successful marriages and they really drive home how warped our perception of normal is.

Thing the Third: 5 awesome gifts for the booklover in your life.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The furnace breakdown

So. For those who are interested, here's a breakdown of the furnace situation.

Our furnace was 14 years old (installed in 1999). I expected to get 2-5 more years out of it (many furnaces last about twenty years) but we don't know the maintenance history of it, and we discovered that the electronic filter on it was basically not doing anything at all so it probably got worn out quicker because of that. Also, the particular make and model of this furnace was part of a class-action lawsuit a few years ago for a faulty part that failed too early, and is exactly what failed on ours, so I guess it was just time for it to go. Luckily, that lawsuit resulted in a nice credit for us.

We went with one of the fancier furnaces - one that can modulate the amount of power it uses to heat the house, so it's more efficient. This was about $200 more than the mid-grade model, but I expect that over the life of the furnace we will save at least that much on our gas bill. We also upgraded to a fancy filter (which increased the labor warranty by five years) and took care of a code violation by installing a condensate pump to transfer condensation from the furnace and air conditioner into the utility sink. The water had been draining into a drain below the washing machine, using a hose just lying across the basement floor - a tripping hazard, especially since it was across the walkway leading towards the fuse box. And lastly we had electricians move the thermostat from its stupid location in the guest room to a central location in the living room.

Since this is our first home and we haven't used any of our energy or tax credits, we got quite a bit of money off, although those come in the form of rebates and didn't save us from the out of pocket expenses. We were offered 0% interest financing for two years, but I asked for a discount for paying in full up front and got 3% off the bill.

Here's how it breaks down:

Furnace, wiring, sheet metal, programmable thermostat: $6,060
Moving thermostat: $100
Condensate hose & pump: $220
Fancy air filter: $310
Total cost installed: $6,690

3% cash discount: $200
December promotion from installation company: $400
Gas company rebate: $425
Installation company rebate: $500
Electric company rebate: $100
Furnace brand class-action lawsuit credit: $492
Federal tax credit: $200
Total discounts: $2,317

Final out of pocket cost: $4,373

Things I learned from this experience:

* Do research on appliances BEFORE they break down. I'm not going to spend time worrying over whether we got a good deal or whether we chose the right furnace because it's water under the bridge now. But I AM going to do some research on our other large appliances. Water heater, oven/stove, dishwasher, washing machine and dryer. I want to have an idea of what I want and how much it will cost well before I need to.

* Maintenance is really important. Changing the air filter is something that will be done every 9-12 months. The inspector who checked the installation advised us to wait out the warranty period and then purchase an annual service package from an HVAC company. Doing so should make our furnace last a full twenty years.

* Keep track of manuals, receipts, and warranty information along with maintenance records. We have a lot of this information from the families who owned the house before us, which was very helpful in getting us the credit for the faulty part.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Saving little bits of money

After the furnace debacle of yesterday I decided to get serious about saving money on the bills that bleed my soul dry every month. I've identified three that have potential:

* Cell phone. I've been out of contract for a few years and while a new phone would be nice, I have no desire for a new contract. I thought about switching to Peanut's parents' family plan and getting a Minnesota number, but I'm kind of partial to my NYC number and also all of Baby M's doctor's offices have it so it would be a pain to change it everywhere. I saw a post from The Consumerist about a new $15 discount for out-of-contract phones from AT&T, so I'm going to call them and see if I qualify.

* Internet. I think our internet bill is outrageous at $72 per month. It started out at a reasonable $40 or something for the first six months, then jumped to $60 for another six months, and has now jumped to the highest tier. There's no significant competition for the speed we need ("need" being relative - mostly we like it for gaming, but Peanut does do some work remotely and he couldn't do that without the speed we have) which gives me almost no leverage for threatening to cancel. Last time I called, I was told we couldn't get any discounts without adding phone or cable service, which would lower the price of the internet but increase the actual amount we pay each month. I'm going to call again and see what they say.

* Cat wellness plan. When I adopted my cat last summer, I signed up for the wellness plan at Banfield vet in our local PetSmart. He's seven years old (elderly, in cat years) and if you use all the services provided in the plan, it is cheaper than paying for them a la carte. However. In all my life of having cats, I've NEVER used as many services as I have with this plan, and I'm wondering if it's really necessary. We dropped by a local independent vet a few months ago for a nail trim and I asked them for prices of standard services so I could compare them with the wellness plan. I never really sat down and looked at everything side-by-side, so I'm going to do that this week and see if I can save money by paying for services as we need them instead of using a wellness plan.

These dribs and drabs won't add up to the cost of the furnace, but if I can save $40 or $50 per month, that's a nice chunk of change at the end of the year. Any suggestions for other places I look to see if I can save some money?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Bad Luck Moneybags

Ugh, you GUYS. This year has been one long streak of bad luck. Between all the complex medical baby stuff and the basement flooding, I thought we had already had our share of nonsense, but this weekend our furnace went kerplooey and needs to be replaced. It has been below freezing for about two weeks, and most of that time it has even been below zero, with windchills in the negative teens or colder. The house is currently around 50 degrees indoors and our electric bill is going to be through the roof thanks to the space heaters that are keeping it at that temperature.

And now we have no hot water, although we're not sure if that's because the water pipes are so cold or because the hot water heater has gone south as well.

UGH.

UGH, UGH, UGH.

The furnace will cost us about $4,300 after rebates and credits, but we have to pony up more than $6,000 to get it installed today. We didn't have time to shop around, given how cold it is, and one of those rebates requires us to have the original installer remove the faulty furnace so it would have been a huge hassle to have them do one part of the job and someone else do the rest so we didn't even try to get competitive bids. That's frustrating, but I guess the furnace is not going to cooperate and let you know there's a problem when it's a balmy 75 degrees out and you have time to do the research.

I'm not even going to deal with the water heater until the house is warm again so we can see if cold pipes were causing the problem.

Oh, also - the car needs new brakes, new tires and an oil change.

On the upside, while none of these expenses are pleasant to deal with, and will wipe out a big chunk of our emergency savings - we do have emergency savings. We won't have to pay interest on these purchases, and we are getting a small discount for paying in full up front. At least we don't have serious financial stress on top of all of this - it's the kind of thing that's going to make me think wistfully of the retirement we probably won't be able to fully fund this year, the Caribbean vacation we won't be taking, and I'll be clipping a few more coupons and saying no to a few meals out. But I won't be laying awake at night worrying about it, so I'm thankful for that.