I was in the grocery store buying some cashews this week when I noticed a very strange pricing anomaly.
Buying discounted gift cards from online gift card exchanges is a great way to get a discount on anything you buy. I am often asked about buying gift cards from Kroger grocery stores. How does the discount you earn on gas from Kroger fuel points earned by buying gift cards from grocery stores compare to just buying discounted gift cards?
The answer is it depends. It depends on how many points you earn per dollar spent, and how many gallons of gas you normally buy. I have found sometimes buying the discounted cards is the way to go, and other times you are better off earning the fuel points.
To help you calculate which gives you the better discount in the end, we need a calculator. So here it is
Kroger Fuel Points
Kroger is a company that operates grocery stores under many names including Baker’s Supermarkets, City Market, Dillons, Fry’s Food, Gerbes Super Markets, Harris Teeter, Jay C, King Soopers, Owen’s Market, Pay Less Super Markets, Ralph’s, Scott’s, Smith’s, Fred Meyer, Price Impact Stores, Food 4 Less, Foods Co, and Ruler Foods.
They have a fuel point program where you earn points that can be turned into gas discounts when you fill up on everything you buy there. Gift cards are special though, because they earn you extra points. Sometimes you earn 4X points on gift cards, but more often you earn 2X. Either way, those points add up extra quickly and can get you big fuel discounts.
After you earn 100 points you earn a 10% discount. 200 points means a 20% discount, and so on with a max $1,00/gallon discount for 1,000 points. The calculator I wrote assumes a constantly increasing discount, instead of the 10 separate tiers of $0.10/gallon, $0.20/gallon, etc. So while my calculator is more accurate over the long term if you earn points on a regular bases, it will be off if you don’t buy an amount of gift cards divisible by $100 and have no other points. Don’t worry about that too much though, it still gives you a good rough idea of what kind of discount you are getting.
There is one special circumstance that may change things up a little. What if you have a credit card that gives you a higher percentage cash back at grocery stores than you would have earned at an online gift card exchange?
I left this situation off of the calculator because I was worried it would cause more confusion than it was worth, but it is fairly easy to factor in to the final answer. If you have a card that earns extra cash back at grocery stores, simply take the extra cash back you would earn and add it to the effective discount calculated above.
For example, I earn 6% cash back at grocery stores, and 2% cash back everywhere else. So I would add 4% (6%-2%) to my final effective discount percentage.
Lately I have been hearing a lot about Jet.com, and how it is the cheapest way to shop online. To see if this is true I decided to compare Jet.com’s prices head to head against Amazon, my long time favorite online store to score a deal online.
But first, a little about Jet.com. Jet.com is a fairly new website that was started with the idea of taking on Amazon directly by offering consumers lower prices.
To see how Jet.com compares to Amazon, I went through the old artofbeingcheap.com archives and found 10 items I had recommended buying from Amazon because I thought they could save you money. If you want a little context, I have included links to those articles. I then looked up those 10 items on Jet.com to see if the prices were really cheaper than Amazon. This isn’t a large enough sample size to be statistically significant, but I think it will give us all an idea of whether it is worth our time to open up another browser window when we are shopping to price things on Jet before we hit the buy button.
When you factor in shipping, this test can get a little more complicated than it seems. Jet.com offers free shipping on orders over $35, so I assumed their shipping was free. Shipping at Amazon varies, but is often free. I included the shipping charges when applicable to Amazon.com items.
All of the items and prices were accurate as of the time this article was written, but it is likely that things have changed since then. Here are the results:
Items I couldn’t find on Jet.com
|Item||Amazon’s Price||Jet.com’s price||Article where you can find recommendation|
|Chromecast||$38.25||n/a||Best devices to stream TV|
|Varidesk Pro Plus 36 adjustable standing desk||$350.00||n/a||A standing desk costs less than you think|
What makes Amazon so great is not necessarily that they always have the best prices, but that they will almost assuredly have what you need. Amazon’s selection is unbeatable, and in this case it beat Jet.com on 20% of the items. For these items, not only didn’t I find what I had recommended on Amazon, I also didn’t find an equivalent item I felt was substantially the same.
Items I found that were equivalent
|Item||Amazon’s Price||Jet.com’s price||Article where you can find recommendation|
|LUCID 3 inch memory foam mattress topper||$149.99||$124.79||The cheap alternative to a memory foam mattress|
|Certified Appliciance stainless steel washing machine hose||$6.29||$9.12||DIY Plumbing maintenance anyone can do|
|Ominpure JJ inline phosphate filter||$15.71||$15.74||How to save $40 every 6 months with a refrigerator bypass|
On these 3 items, I couldn’t find the exact item I had recommended on Jet.com, but I found something that looked about the same. Adjustments may have been made to the prices in cases when quantities were not the same.
As you can see, 2 of the 3 items are cheaper on Jet.com with a total average savings of 13% cheaper. Not bad!
Head to head comparisons
|Item||Amazon’s Price||Jet.com’s price||Article where you can find recommendation|
|Roku 2 streaming player||$93.95||$47.99||Best devices to stream TV|
|220 10” Dixie paper plates||$17.99||$20.90||10 things you should buy in bulk|
|Huggies 246 count size 2 diapers||$42.00||$37.59||10 things you should buy in bulk|
|48 AA Maxell batteries||$12.99||$12.40||Rechargeable batteries are the way to save money this christmas|
|Raindrip automatic drip watering kit||$20.53||$25.50||Maintenance free landscaping ideas|
For 1/2 of the ten items I chose for this study I was able to find the exact same item on both sites, so these offer the best comparisons. Two of the items were cheaper on Amazon and 3 were cheaper on Jet.com Overall, Jet.com saved a total of $43 or about 23%.
Most of these savings were for a single item though, so keep in mind that the small sample size of this study means the only real conclusion we can draw is that when are shopping online at Amazon, it is wise to compare prices at Jet.com just to see if maybe they will save you a couple dollars.
Disclaimer: Links to Amazon are affiliate links. Links to Jet.com are not.
This week I received an updated terms and conditions for a Mastercard credit card I have through Barclaycard. The procedure for converting foreign currency concerned me, because it struck me as sneaky and dishonest. I reached out to both Barclaycard and Mastercard about Mastercard foreign currency conversion rates and their response concerned me even more. There might not be much you can do to protect yourself from this sneaky practice, but I am going to go ahead and let you know what is going on.
A Brief History of Credit Card Providers Trouble with Foreign Currency Conversion
To put this problem in a little context MasterCard and other card issuers were recently sued in a class action lawsuit for charging non disclosed fees to cardholders who had transactions in foreign currency between 1996 and 2006. You can read the details of that lawsuit here.
I was one of about 10,000,000 involved in that class action lawsuit. Here is how it worked from my perspective:
In the summer of 2001 I went on a 4 month long backpacking trip through Europe where I used my credit cards countless times, and each time I was charged a sneaky hidden fee without ever being told about it anywhere.
Many years later I was informed of the lawsuit through the mail which included a calculator to estimate how much I was owed. I used that calculator and was told I was owed about $125 (to the best of my memory, this was many years ago after all).
Many years later, in 2014 I received a check for $18.50 and a letter explaining that so many people had been stolen from that the credit card issuers couldn’t possibly pay us all back, so we were getting just a fraction of what had been stolen from us.
So basically, MasterCard and other card issuers stole $125 from me and 13 years later had to pay me 15% of that money back. Obviously the only possible lesson to be learned here is that crime pays very, very well.
Now you know why I am concerned when I received the following note about MasterCard’s new foreign currency conversion procedures:
Mastercard’s Current Foreign Currency Conversion Procedures
This is the notice I received on my card’s foreign currency conversion procedures. The parts in bold were bolded by me because they are the parts that bothered me:
“For MasterCard accounts, we and Mastercard (or their affiliates) will convert transactions in foreign currencies into U.S. Dollars. MasterCard will use its currency conversion procedures that are current at the time of the transaction. Currently, MasterCard selects a rate from the range of rates available in the wholesale currency markets for the applicable central processing date, which rate may vary from the rate MasterCard itself receives, or the government mandated rate...”
Huh? The way I interpret this, MasterCard’s procedure is to buy foreign currency at one rate, and then charge its customers a completely different rate. If a government mandated rate doesn’t have to be followed, that isn’t much of a mandate, is it? Obviously MasterCard is going to buy foreign currency at the cheapest rate it can get. What rate do you suppose they are going to charge their customers?
I don’t know the answer to that, but the way I interpret their procedures is that there is absolutely nothing stopping them from choosing the worst possible rate available which would result in a foreign currency transaction gain for them at the expense of their customers. MasterCard says they don’t charge a foreign currency transaction fee (your card issuing bank might), but this is a lot like a fee isn’t it? You pay a higher amount and MasterCard keeps the difference as income. In my opinion, that is exactly like a fee.
Looking For Clarification
To see if I really am interpreting this correctly, I started by doing a bunch of web searches. I didn’t find much except that Visa has the same procedures. So if you are looking for away around this trap, Visa isn’t going to help you out.
I emailed my card issuer, which is Barclaycard. The response I got from them was that the question I had related to MasterCard’s procedures so I would have to ask MasterCard. Fair enough. They gave me a phone number to call MasterCard and I called it.
I had an extremely frustrating 15 minute phone call with MasterCard. The first person I spoke with didn’t have any idea what I was talking about so she transferred me to a second person. I asked the second person about MasterCard’s foreign currency conversion procedures, and she told me I wasn’t charged a fee for foreign currency conversion on my card.
I told her that was nice, but didn’t have anything to do with my question, which was about how MasterCard comes up with conversion rates. She again told me I wasn’t charged a fee. I realized the person I was speaking with didn’t understand what a foreign currency transaction rate was, so I explained it to her.
After explaining it about 3 times I think she finally understood. I asked again how MasterCard gets their rate, and was told it is done automatically by “the system”. I explained that MasterCard’s system doesn’t just randomly make up exchange rates so that it must have some kind of procedures for coming up with that rate and that I would like to know what those procedures were. She repeated that the system came up with the rate automatically because she didn’t have any idea. (Here is a tip from me. When you don’t know the answer to a question just say “I don’t know”. You will come off looking much smarter that way.)
After way more follow up questions than you would think necessary I was told that nobody at MasterCard had any idea how it worked and there was nobody I could possibly talk to who would have any idea how the system worked. I gave up, thanked the lady for her time, and hung up.
What I know about MasterCard’s conversion rate.
So there you have it, I learned nothing. MasterCard might be cheating you on foreign currency conversion rates, but maybe they are charging you a fair rate. There is no way to tell from information sources available to me. I hope that helps. If MasterCard would like to explain their foreign currency transaction procedures here I will gladly publish them.
Ever since Republic Wireless went out of Beta in November of 2013, they have been without question the best cell phone plan available. If you had Republic Wireless you knew you were getting the best deal in the industry. Ever since then there has been news story after news story about other phone companies dropping their prices.
Other cell phone companies publicized price drop after price drop, but none of them ever dropped low enough to really became competitive with Republic Wireless. So while RW users knew they were already getting the best deal, it kind of seemed like we were missing out on the fun of the price drops from all the other companies. It may not be logical since I was already paying much less to begin with, but if somebody else is saving money then I want in on that action.
Incredibly, now even RW is dropping their prices. The new plan doesn’t have the beautiful simplicity of the old plans, but the savings are big so going through one additional step is worth it. New RW customers will automatically be signed up for the new plan, but old customers can either change to the new plan or keep their old plan for a while.
How it works
Under the new plan, you only pay for the data you use. The base plan is $10 for unlimited calling and texting over either wifi or cellular networks, and then you pay $7.50 per 1/2 GB of cellular data. (All the data you use on a wifi network is still free of course).
You select how much data you want. We will look at how much you should buy further down, but I think the most common choices would be $7.50 for 1/2 GB or $15 for 1GB. Even if you go with $10 for the base plan plus $15 for 1 GB of data, you are still saving a bunch of money versus any other phone carrier.
If you use up your data, then your phone stops being able to access cellular data. At this point you can do one of two things. You can either go without cellular data until the next monthly period begins or you can buy another 1/2 GB for $7.50 right from your phone.
Here is the exciting part. Whatever data is left over you don’t use gets refunded to your account so you get a credit on next months bills.
How much data should you buy?
If you are an RW customer, you can check your data usage right in the RW app, like I did on the screenshot above. I looked at the last several months and saw the most cell data I had used was 855 MB, which is .855 GB. Since this was well below 1GB, I decided paying $15 for 1GB of data was perfect for me. Whatever I don’t use gets refunded, so buying extra is not a problem.
My wife on the other hand uses about 1.2 GB per month. However, I decided that she could easily cut down on the amount she uses so $15 for 1GB should be enough for her, too. See below for my plan to reduce her data.
If you aren’t a RW customer, look for data usage under your phone’s setting app, and that should let you know how much data you are going to need a month.
How to reduce your data and increase your refund
Now let’s talk about a few easy ways to use less data so you can get a big fat refund. The RW app will tell you which apps are using the most data. Let’s look at my wife’s phone which looks like this:
You can see that 2 of the top 3 data users on my wife’s phone are Audible and Amazon Music. These two apps are a great opportunity to move cellular data to wifi data, which is free. With Audible and Amazon Music, you can listen to audio by either streaming it on demand or by downloading it to your phone.
Downloading is the option you want. Download all the audio books and music you want while you are on wifi. Then the audio is already saved on your phone so you can listen to it whenever you want without using any more data.
If you stream the audio (which my wife did) then the audio is sent to your phone right as you are using it. If you aren’t on wifi, that means you are using cell data to pull that sound into your phone, and you are killing your RW data refund.
In the case of my wife, streaming caused her to use up 867 MB of data that she could have downloaded for free over wifi. That 867MB would have amounted to a $13 refund from RW had we been using this plan at the time. My wife now knows to download not stream.
So what kind of apps stream when they could download? Look for any apps that involve listening to audio. Audio books, podcast apps, and music apps are likely candidates. Some music apps such as Pandora, Spotify, or Stitcher stream music instead of letting you listen to it. That is fine if you are on wifi, but if you want to listen to music on the go you might want to check out Amazon Music which lets you download songs to your phone and take them anywhere, which will help you use less data.
Do you really need all your apps all the time?
There are some apps you might need wherever you go, but I’ll bet there are some apps that you could get by just fine by only using them on wifi. In the two cell phone screen shots above, notice the little blue slider to the right of all of the apps? With that slider you can turn off cellular data for all the various apps which will allow you to use the app over wifi just like normal, but will not let the app use cellular data while you are on the go.
My wife and I went through this list of apps and turned off cellular data for the apps we could use on wifi only. The first thing we did is turn off data for those streaming apps that were mentioned above. This isn’t a permanent decision. If I need an app I turned off to use cellular data, turning it back on takes just a couple seconds.
So what apps do you really need cellular data from? That will vary person by person. In my case, I decided I needed cellular data for navigation apps such as google maps, any travel related apps, email, and web browsing so I can do web searches wherever I go. Since I occasionally drive for Uber, I needed to leave that one on. Most of the other apps I turned off.
I have both facebook and twitter on my phone. I only check facebook every couple of days, so I turned that one off. I don’t need to get notifications that my cousin Stephanie wants me to play Candy Crush while I am out and about. That can wait until I am on home wifi. My wife on the other hand uses facebook to communicate all the time, so she went ahead and left hers on. I use twitter to read all the news headlines I want to see, so I went ahead and left that one on so I can have it wherever I go.
Even with as many apps as I left on, this should make a big cut in my cellular data and give me a nice big refund.
If you aren’t already with RW, you really should be. No contract Moto X from Republic Wireless. Plans starting as low as $5/month