Amazon Brand Detector

Two months ago, The Markup — a big-tech watchdog site — published a piece about how Amazon prioritizes its own "brands" first above better rated (and/or cheaper) products. This came as no surprise to me.

I've found Amazon increasingly useless over the past few years. Its search results are cluttered with ads. Sometimes my searches fail to show products I know the company stocks and sells. And Amazon Prime has lost its luster as shipping times have lengthened and Prime Video has become increasingly superfluous.

So, to learn that Amazon cheats search results by crowding out better and cheaper products in favor of it own stuff was no big shock. Yet another reason for me to take my business elsewhere, when possible. From the article:

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More about...Apps, Shopping

How much does it cost to drive? Driving cost calculators and tools

My girlfriend recently bought a new car. After 23 years, she sold her 1997 Honda Accord to a guy who's more mechanically inclined than we are. Kim upgraded to a 2016 Toyota RAV4, and she loves it.

One of her primary considerations when searching for a new car was the cost to drive it. In her ideal world, she would have purchased a fully-electric vehicle but it just wasn't in her budget. The RAV4 hybrid was a compromise. According to, it gets an estimated 32 miles per gallon. (And actual users report 34.7 miles per gallon.)

Cost to drive a RAV4 hybrid

Kim's quest for a fuel-efficient car prompted me to revisit apps and online tools that help users track their driving and fuel habits. I've written about these in the past -- and, in fact, this is an updated article from 2008! -- but haven't looked into them recently.

Here's a quick look at some of my favorite driving cost calculators, tools, and apps.

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More about...Transportation, Apps

Why you should track your spending (and why Quicken sucks)

Last year wasn't good for me. Depression and anxiety reigned supreme. By objective standards, my life was pretty good. But subjectively, life sucked. Going into 2020, I decided I needed to make some changes. I'm pleased to report that the first five weeks of the year have gone swimmingly. Life is grand.

I've made three specific changes that I believe have contributed to this improvement:

  • I've rented office space outside the house. My office is for work only. I do not allow myself to play games (or engage in other shenanigans) at the office. Zero tolerance.
  • I've begun getting up early. I tend to be an early riser anyhow, but early for me means about six o'clock. This year, I'm generally rising at 4:00 or 4:30, which means I'm at the office by five.
  • I've curtailed my drinking. In fact, I didn't touch a drop of alcohol during January. I've had a few drinks in February, and it's been interesting to see how it affects me, both in the moment and then for days after.

Taken together, these three changes have mitigated my mental health problems and made me more productive. I love it. Over the next six weeks, I plan to integrate two additional changes into my life: I'm going to begin exercising regularly and I'm going to cut back on videogames. I expect this to provide an additional boost to my well-being.

There's been an unexpected benefit to my quest to become a better version of me. January was -- by far -- my best month with money in years.

My January 2020 Spending

As you know, I track every penny I spend. I've been doing this since 1993 (with occasional breaks). It's a valuable practice.

Earlier this decade -- after my divorce but before my RV trip -- my monthly spending averaged about $4000. After returning from our cross-country adventure, that number spiked. From 2016 to 2018, I was spending closer to $6000 per month. This led me to push for austerity measures last year, measures that worked. My 2019 spending averaged $4221.27 per month.

In January, I spent $3212.24. This is a fist-pumpingly fine number, one that I'm proud of. But I'm even prouder of how I achieved those cuts. My top financial goal for this year is to spend less on food. I did that. And because I didn't drink, I spent nothing on alcohol.

Because I was curious, I decided to explore my spending over the past few years. I think you might find it interesting too. Here's a snapshot:

My monthly spending

This spreadsheet shows monthly spending in select categories during the past five years. This spreadsheet does not show all of my spending. The 2016 numbers are for December only (because that's when I resumed tracking after our RV trip). The numbers for last year are only for the first half of the year. And, obviously, the numbers for this year are only for January.

Some thoughts:

  • Generally speaking, my vehicle costs are low. They were high in 2017 and 2018 because my 2004 Mini Cooper needed repairs. They were high last year because I spent $1900 to buy a 1993 Toyota pickup.
  • My entertainment spending is dominated by three specific expenses: my Portland Timbers season tickets, our subscription to Broadway in Portland, and my iTunes movie and TV purchases. The theater tickets are a one-time expense each February. The Timbers tickets (which I may not renew this year) are a one-time expense each August. I continue to work to keep my iTunes purchases under control.
  • I spend more on our pets than I thought. A lot more. I love our dog and three cats, but wow! I paid $142 to support them last month, and there were no vet expenses in January. Much of this spending is for pet-sitting when I travel.
  • Look at my food spending! Holy cats! I've been pushing hard to reduce this over the past five years, and January was a shining example of what I can get this down to if I try. Kim and I didn't feel deprived. We just made smarter choices.
  • Finally, when I'm not drinking, my spending on sin -- which includes alcohol, occasional tobacco, and legal pot -- falls off a cliff. Obvious, but also wow.

I know I'll spend more in February than I did in January. Our theater tickets renew and that's a $1500 expense, for instance. Still, I expect that I'll continue this trend toward reduced spending, and I'm glad. It makes me happy. It's yet another way that 2020 is off to a better start than 2019.

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More about...Budgeting, Apps

The best investing apps for 2021

It has never been easier to invest.

In only a few years, the rapid advancement of mobile technology has placed the power to invest at our fingertips and ushered in a wave of fintech startups, armed with new and innovative solutions for investors. Names like Acorns and Stash are now competing head-to-head with traditional brands such as E-Trade, and TD Ameritrade. (Imagine E-Trade being considered a "traditional" brand!)

With so many great options to choose from, it can be downright difficult to decide which investment app is right for you. To take out the guesswork, I’ve compiled a list of the best investment apps for 2021. From beginner investors to advanced traders, there’s something here for everyone.

Before we dive in, I should point out that this list of best apps is not a ranking. Instead, I’ve chosen what I believe are the best apps for a variety of situations - trading stocks, exchange traded funds (ETFs), no-fee, and micro-investing, you name it.

This means that the investment app I chose as best overall won’t necessarily be the top pick for every investor. Rather, it’s the one that I feel most clearly meets the needs of its target client. With that in mind, I present to you the Best Investment Apps for 2021.

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More about...Investing, Apps

Why NewRetirement is my favorite retirement planning tool

Over the past week, I've shared two terrific retirement planning tools. First, I explored the pros and cons of Personal Capital. Next, I looked at OnTrajectory, which is the best traditional retirement calculator I've found.

NewRetirement logoToday, I want to talk about NewRetirement. Since I discovered it two years ago, NewRetirement has become my favorite tool for retirement planning.

I like NewRetirement because it offers amazing levels of customization. Plus, it explains its assumptions and offers ample information about every subject it tackles. And it does all of this without ever becoming overwhelming. It's comprehensive and customizable, yet clear. Most importantly, NewRetirement is more than just a retirement calculator. When I say it's a retirement planning tool, I mean that.

NewRetirement offers three levels of service.

  • Planner, the basic level of service -- and the bulk of what I'll review in this article -- is free. You do need to provide an email address, but once you do, you're able to create a personalized retirement plan. (I'll show you what that's like in a moment.)
  • If you like the basic level of service and want more, you can upgrade to PlannerPlus for $6/month. This gives you access to advanced retirement planning tools, more detailed reports, and the ability to print your plan. (NewRetirement is offering GRS readers a 30-day free trial of PlannerPlus, by the way.)
  • At the highest level, you can pay NewRetirement for personalized advice from a Certified Financial Planner. Unlike Personal Capital, NewRetirement won't pester you over and over to use their advisors. But the service is available for those who need it.

As I mentioned, I've been using NewRetirement for a couple of years. In order to give an honest and complete review today, I created a second NewRetirement account and walked through the process of setting everything up from scratch. Do I still like the tool as much as I did in April 2017? Let's find out.

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More about...Apps

Is OnTrajectory the best retirement calculator?

OnTrajectory logoMy colleagues, who are money nerds just like me, know that I'm obsessed with finding the best retirement calculator. I've been on this quest for years. As you'll learn later this week, my favorite retirement tool is (and has been) NewRetirement. But there are other great tools out there.

"You really need to try OnTrajectory," Jillian from Montana Money Adventures told me last summer. "It's great." She's been telling me that over and over ever since. (Meanwhile, Gwen from Fiery Millennials has also been pressuring me to try OnTrajectory.)

Last week, at long last, I had a chance to chat with Tyson Koska, the founder of OnTrajectory. During a 30-minute call, he walked me through setting up an account and playing with the tool's features. I'm impressed. NewRetirement is still my favorite tool, but OnTrajectory is damn close. And I can see how for some people, the latter may actually be a better choice.

Today, let's take a look at what makes OnTrajectory one of the best retirement calculators available on the web.

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The pros and cons of Personal Capital

If you've read money blogs over the past five years, you've heard about Personal Capital. Personal Capital is a free money-tracking tool with a beautiful interface and -- gasp -- no advertising. (One of my big complains about Mint is that it shoves ads in your face.)

Many of my friends and colleagues promote the hell out of Personal Capital because the company pays good money when people sign up. (And yes, links to Personal Capital in this review absolutely put money in my pocket. But any Personal Capital link you see anywhere on the web puts money in somebody's pocket.)

I sometimes wonder, though, if any of my pals actually uses Personal Capital, you know? All of their reviews are glowing. While I like Personal Capital, I've been frustrated by the app in the past. Even today, I find that it's not as useful as I'd like.

What are my issues with Personal Capital?

  • For a long time, I was frustrated trying to get Personal Capital to connect to my accounts. It still won't connect to my credit union, but that's fine. I can enter my balance manually. It was frustrating, though, that for years I couldn't get Personal Capital to connect to my Fidelity investment accounts. They work now...but I'm always worried that they won't. The app still won't connect to my Capital One credit card -- and hasn't for over a year, which I find mind-blowing.

Personal Capital - Connection Issues

  • Personal Capital, as an investment app, isn't robust enough to replace something like Quicken or You Need a Budget. The latter tools allow you to track and manage your money on a transaction by transaction level. Okay, maybe you can track your transactions, but you can't do anything meaningful with them, the same way you could with Quicken or YNAB.
  • The phone calls! My god, the phone calls! Here's a not-so-secret secret: The Personal Capital app -- while beautiful and useful -- is actually bait. It's a lure. Its aim is to attract high net-worth users to connect their accounts. When they do, Personal Capital (the company) begins a phone campaign in an attempt to recruit the users as clients. Personal Capital isn't actually an app company; it's a wealth-management company. They want people with lots of money to sign up. (I can't comment on whether this is a good deal or not. I don't want a financial advisor. I ignore all of the calls from Personal Capital.)

Personal Capital - Advisor Popup

  • Personal Capital has pretty reports, but there aren't enough of them. My copy of Quicken 2007 -- ugly as it is -- has 23 different reports and 10 different graphs. (Plus, you can customize many more.) Personal Capital has maybe...nine ways to look at your money? (I can't tell for sure.)
  • The security is over the top. I suppose I should be happy about this, but I'm not. It feels like I'm constantly having to verify my identity via email or text message. Some of my other accounts make me do this occasionally, but it feels like Personal Capital does this multiple times per week. That's crazy!

Now, these complaints aside, here's a confession: I've been using the Personal Capital app for 5+ years. For real. I can't remember when I started, but I do remember being cranky because a Personal Capital rep didn't know who I was at Fincon 2013 in St. Louis. "I use your app," I told him. "And I have a big blog." (I wince now at the thought of my arrogance.)

Despite the drawbacks, there must be something to it. Right? Today -- using my current financial situation -- let's look at the pros and cons of Personal Capital.

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What are the best financial accounts and tools available?

As a personal-finance blogger, it's my responsibility to keep up-to-date on the latest in the financial industry. Whose advice is worth heeding? (And whose advice sucks?) What are the current tax rates? Where's the best place to save for the future?

In the Olden Days, it wasn't tough for me to stay informed. I paid attention. I read books and magazines and blogs. PR agencies sent me buckets of email. Plus, GRS readers constantly sent me tips and recommendations.

But I've essentially taken the past couple of years off from the world of personal finance. I'm out of touch. I no longer know which credit cards are best, where I ought to have my savings, or how to best track my investments.

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More about...Apps, Books