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Get Your Starbucks Fix On…

Written by Tony Marrone

Starbucks is in trouble. You probably don’t realize they’re in trouble because every morning when you go in there the line raps around the inside of the store and you pay $4.79 for a small latte. However, based upon several factors, including increased frugality by Americans (yay!) and an influx of market competition from big names like McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks near global domination is retreating just a few steps.

I try to avoid Starbucks, but I walk by and its hissing espresso machines beckon me. As a Starbucks shopper, I’ve been generally happy, although several things have bothered me about the store, the beverages and the way the business is run.

Ed at Serious Eats has some great recommendations for revitalizing the Starbucks machine. I have a couple of my own, and invite you to share your suggestions in the Comments. After we put together a list of about 100 comments, I’m going to send them to Starbucks and see if we can’t get the readers some free Starbucks gear (Please leave original comments and e-mail me your comments as well, so I can keep in touch with any potential Starbucks response).

1. Turn on the Heat
For stores in the Northeast, the combination of the large windows and poor building insulation makes for a chilly place to study. Starbucks should take a page out of Panera’s book and consider installing electric fireplaces, or changing the heating scheme of their outfits.

2. Include Nutrition Information
I’m on a diet for the upcoming wedding, and as much as I love a Pumpkin Spice Latte I only know how bad it is for me because I researched online. They should provide a pamphlet with nutritional information for all their drinks.

3. Enough With the T-Mobile Hotspot
This is 2008, you need to offer free wi-fi like most other coffee shops.

4. Ditch the Sandwiches and Most of the Unhealthy Snacks
For such a globally and environmentally-conscious company, Starbucks has no problem helping people destroy their bodies. I know they’re delicious, but do you know how many calories are in that cookie you just got with your Chai? Starbucks would be better served offering fresh, healthy snacks and some soups then dishing out the gross breakfast sandwiches and tremendously good, yet tremendously bad-for-you snacks.

5. Lower the Music Volume
I know it serves as dissonance to prevent you from hearing nearby conversations, but the music should not also prevent you from thinking. I’d also like Starbucks to have some bands come and play (softly!) in the evenings and perhaps on weekends.

Let me know what else you think would help resurrect Starbucks.

15 Minutes Could Save You 15% or more…

Written by Tony Marrone

On your next cell phone, cable, internet or home phone bill.

Like any good frugal law student, I’ve been crunching the prospective numbers for 2008 and determined that I pay far too much for all of the above services. In light of the upcoming wedding and our desire to be in a new house before graduation next year, it seemed that it was time to dust off the old negotiating tactics and take to the phones.

Cut Back on Your Cable/Internet/Home Phone Costs
First up on the list was good ‘ole Time Warner. The media conglomerate has been charging a monthly fee which hovers dangerously close to fraud-like levels. After haggling with the representative and vowing to switch my cable/internet/home phone service to a DirectTV/Verizon Fios combination, I finally was rewarded by having my monthly bill reduced 27% and only giving up four HD channels we never watch.

Streamline your Cell Phone Bill
After conquering Time Warner, I moved on to Verizon in an effort to lower our wireless bill. I chose to take a non-confrontational approach with the Verizon representative. After a brief review of the usage numbers, we were able to reduce our monthly cell phone bill by approximately 22%. However, when I asked if she could throw in some free text-messages for the next couple of months, the representative admitted that if I had called and threatened to cancel my service, she could have done this no problem. Who says it pays to be kind?

Eliminate Pesky Old Accounts via Technicality
Finally, I was prepared to begin what I felt would surely be a battle to cancel two old Sprint PCS lines that have been hanging around. BFP posted today about cashing in on a great offer usually only distributed to Sprint employees. Unfortunately, the great offer is not available to existing Sprint customers, and the two lines remaining of what used to be my family plan are not eligible for conversion to the cheap SERO plan.

However, there is a loophole for all of you wanting to get out of your Sprint contracts without paying the hefty $200 early termination fee. Sprint sent a letter to its current customers about fee changes effective January 1, 2008. What Sprint does not disclose in the letter is that the cancellation of the Federal E911 fee of 40 cents per line and the Federal Local Number Pool and Portability fee of 15 cents per line and the addition of the two new fees actually results in a “net increase in fees”. Technically under most contracts, the net increase in fees creates a loophole which allows you to cancel your contract and forces Sprint to waive the Early Termination Fee.

After I went back-and-forth with the representative, she agreed I was right, and could get out of the two-line account and save the $400 in Early Termination Fees, but would have to call back when I received the bill in order for her to apply the credit. I made sure to get the representative’s identification number before I hung up.

All told, with a little bit of time on your hands and the willingness to have customer service representatives try to convince you why only Time Warner can deliver you the best in high-speed internet or ESPN HD service, you can successfully trim your cable/internet/phone budget by at least 20%. That’s not bad for just 15 minutes…

11 Free Video Games That Will Develop Your Business & Personal Finance Skills

Written by Brett McKay

I love simulation games. Ever since I played Sim City on the Super Nintendo back in 1990, I’ve been addicted. In fact, I feel simulation games gave me my first lessons in economics. By playing SimCity I learned about taxes, spending, and budgeting. While the real world is a bit more complicated, SimCity gave me a basic understanding.

I still think simulation games have a lot to offer as a way of introducing people to basic financial principles. About.com has put together a nice list of free business simulation games. Play these and you’ll increase your business savvy or at least motivate yourself to become more business savvy. If you think you’re too old or already know enough, have your kids play them. It’s an excellent way to teach your children business and personal finance skills.

  1. Simutrans. The goal of Simutrans is to build a network of railroads and bus connections. Think Railroad Tycoon.
  2. Food Force. The United Nations helped develop Food Force. The object of the game is feed 6 million people on an island in the Indian Ocean. Food Force will help develop budgeting and planning skills.
  3. Lemonade Stand. Lemonade stands are most people’s first introduction to business. Now you can do it online. The object of this game is to make as much profit as possible in 30 days.
  4. Chart Wars. Ever wanted to manage a band? Now you can with Chart Wars. You hire bands, plan road trips, and sell albums. Harness your inner Rick Rubin.
  5. Fantasy Stock Market. The best way to learn about investing is to actually do it. But if you’re afraid of losing money while you’re learning, check out Fantasy Stock Market. It’s online game in which you compete with other investors to see who can develop the best portfolio.
  6. GameBiz. It’s 1983 and you’re video game developer. Try to outperform other well known video game companies like Atari and EA.
  7. Industry Player. This game is played online with other registered players. You start off with a set amount of money to be used to grow a business empire.
  8. MiniMogul. You take the part as movie producer who invests in future movie releases.
  9. Musical Manager 3. It’s the similar to Chart Wars. In this game you’re band manager trying to help your band make it big.
  10. Rich Man Game. Perfect the art of the corporate take over in this massive multiplayer game.
  11. The Second Chance for Mankind. This is very similar to SimCity. You goal is to build a successful metropolitan area.

If you go through all these and still haven’t satisfied your craving for simulation games, you can always play old school SimCity for free.

Free Magazines For The Rest of Your Life

Written by Brett McKay

I love reading magazines, but subscriptions or just buying a single issue can get expensive. However, I haven’t let money stop me from reading my favorite magazines. I do it for free.

It’s simple. Just go down to your local Borders or Barnes and Noble, grab all the magazines you want to read, sit down in the cafe, and read. When you’re done, put them back where they go. Walk out the door. Free magazines.

I haven’t bought a magazine ever since I’ve started doing this. I’ve realized that it’s really pointless to buy magazines. You can read them in one sitting, so spending $5 for maybe 45 minutes of reading is a big waste of money. Plus, by not buying magazines, you keep your life clutter free. No more old Time’s hanging around in the bathroom or taking up space on your counters. Nice.

Start your free lifetime magazine subscription today at your local bookstore. Your retirement account will thank you.

Cheap Peer to Peer DVD Rentals with Playinterchange.com

Written by Brett McKay

What do you get when you combine Netflix, Craigslist, and Amazon? PlayInterchange.com. PlayInterchange is a new web service that allows users to buy and rent DVD’s and video games from each other.

I really like this idea for two reasons. First, by using a peer to peer format, prices for rentals should be pretty cheap because so many people will be competing against each other. Additionally, you don’t have to sign up for a monthly membership as you do in Netflix. You just pay for the rentals you want. However, like Netflix, there are no late fees.

Second, one can make some money from renting your videos out to others. It might not be a lot, but it’s something.

Sign up with PlayInterchange is free and transactions are $.50 each.

My concern, though, is how long before the movie and video game industry will use their legal clout and shut this thing down. I’m sure they’re not going to like this. Additionally, for this to work people will have to trust that renters will return the videos. I can see a lot of scammers paying $1 to rent Gears of War and keeping it. We’ll see how it turns out. Until then, enjoy some cheap movie rentals.

Is Netflix worth it?

Written by Brett McKay

Over the past year, my wife and I have been on again/off again Netflix subscribers. The idea sounds great in theory- unlimited movie rentals for a pretty decent price with no late fees- but in practice it never worked out like we thought.

Netflix is great if you plan on watching lots of movies. However, if you aren’t an avid movie watcher, it might be better just to go to your local video rental store. The problem was that some months my wife and I didn’t rent any movies, but we were still charged the $10 a month subscription fee. Because the amount is automatically deducted from your checking account, it’s easy to forget that you’re being charged. We finally decided to give up Netflix. We don’t have the time to watch the amount of movies that would make the service worth it.

We found that a better alternative to saving money on movie rentals is checking out movies from the local library. You would be surprised the types of films you can find. Best yet, it’s completely free.

Lifehacker has a great post on whether or not Netflix is worth it. Check it out.