Category: money

How to Use Reviews of Products

I’ve always been a firm believer in the power of product reviews. I don’t write too many myself, but I love looking at what other people say about something before I buy it. If there’s something I need to buy, I’ll scour the Amazon reviews before I pick the thing that looks Just Right.

At least, that’s what I’ve done in the past. Over the last few months, however, my faith in those Amazon reviews has really been shaken. Right now, I’m at the point where I no longer firmly believe a product with a ton of great reviews must, by default, be good. Why not?

First of all, it’s clear to me that companies are gaming the system somewhat. More and more after I buy a thing through Amazon, I get a follow up email from the company begging me to review their product. (In so many words.) It’s disguised to be “helpful.” They just want to make sure I know how to properly use the microfiber dust cloth I bought. (Really? If I need directions on how to use a dust cloth, maybe I’m not qualified to write a review. Have you considered that?) But then they also say how important reviews are to them, and how they’re a small company and blah blah blah.

Fact. If you send out emails to everyone asking for reviews, you will inevitably get more reviews than otherwise. If you include “helpful tips” and a good reason why you need a review, you’ll get even more. Not because your product is any better than another, but just because you asked. At that point, Amazon pushes your product more than others. People see all the reviews and assume it’s superior, and you’re off and running, with no real need to even pay for extra reviews. (Though I do think that happens as well.)

It used to be fairly easy to identify the shills in Amazon reviews. Poorly written smear pieces or praises. It was easy to discount them and just focus on the ones that seemed to have merit. These days, it feels to me more and more like companies have caught on to that. The shills write better, if that makes sense. I also feel like companies pay people to write poor reviews of other products. The “complaints” that show up are just bizarre and non-sensical, and (more importantly) hard to prove.

Case in point? I’ve been looking at bluetooth headphones. I went to Amazon, and some products received glowing reviews. Others, not so much. But when I went to actual paid sources like PC Magazine (that review those products) the ones they rated highest are middle-of-the road on Amazon when it comes to reviews. Complaints are “quality control” and “doesn’t hold a charge.” Things that might theoretically get by a professional reviewer. Maybe. But which *might* show up after people have used a product for months.

Except I really don’t believe professional reviewers wouldn’t catch a lot of those things. I’m much more inclined to trust a professional review than I am to trust a random Amazon review. (Especially now that my overall trust of Amazon reviews is becoming shaken.)

So what are your thoughts? How are you using reviews these days? Do you still trust Amazon? Where do you go to decide what you want to buy? I love using reviews, but I want to make sure I use the right ones. Ones I can trust and believe in.


Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Save Money by Shipping with Paypal

I’ve had to send a few packages over the last week or two, and I was looking for the cheapest way to ship them. Now that we’re in the holiday season, my gut told me some of you might be in the same boat, so I thought a post on the subject might be helpful to some of you.

My specific goal was sending Magic: The Gathering cards across the country. Since I was selling a large quantity of these cards, I wanted to save as much money on shipping as I could. More money saved there meant more profit for me. Time wasn’t an issue. I didn’t need the cards to get to their destination the next day or anything like that.

Do Magic cards count as Media Mail? If so, then I’d be in luck. But Media Mail is very specific. Books (at least 8 pages), CDs, DVDs, manuscripts, printed music, and the like. No advertising. No comic books (they don’t count, randomly). No letters. No board games. Magic cards don’t count, sadly.

They’re also quite heavy. 1.75 grams per card, give or take. Which doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up quickly. The best vehicle I found for shipping a large number was the flat rate boxes with the USPS. I can fit 7,000 cards into a large one of those, and that weighs over 26 pounds. Cost? $13.65 at the post office. Not ideal, but honestly better than anything else I found.

Except you can save even more by shipping it at a commercial rate. (It lops off 80 cents, or 5.86%, bringing it down to $12.85.) You can do this by shipping it with PayPal. Except PayPal makes it obnoxiously difficult to find out exactly how to do that.

No worries, friends. Just click this link to be taken straight to the spot on PayPal’s site. You log in with your PayPal account, select the shipping address, and then select what kind of shipping you’re going to use. You pay online with whatever method you use to pay PayPal, and then you print off the postage. Tape it to the package, and drop it off at your local post office.

It seemed complicated to me the first time I did it, but now that I’ve done it a few times, it’s much more straightforward. The pain point is just remembering how to get to that PayPal page. I’ve got it bookmarked now, though, so I just pull it up automatically.

You can ship all sorts of things via that link. Media Mail. First class parcel. Anything you ship in a box, I think. I highly recommend it, especially since this way, I can just go to the post office knowing all I need to do is drop something off. (I stress about silly things sometimes. Go figure.) And have I mentioned I’ve now shipped over 17,000 Magic cards off? The bulk of them are cards I bought for 1 tenth of a cent per card, and I’m selling them (after paying for shipping) for 3.55 tenths of a cent per card. That might not sound like much to you, so how about I just say I’m selling them for 3.5 times what I bought them for. That sounds much better, right? And that’s after I took a ton of them out that were worth much more. If I’d just sold them all at this rate, I would have made $255 off a $100 investment.

(Just don’t pay any attention to how much time it’s taken me . . .)

Anyway. Maybe that helps some of you. Happy shipping!


Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Credit Card Hacking Update

largeBack at the beginning of November, I let you all know I was going to dip my toe into the world of credit card churning: applying for credit cards one after another to get their sign-up bonuses and rack up points and miles. The goal was simple: I use my credit card almost exclusively for everything I buy, and I pay it off in full each month, religiously. So why not put all that credit card usage to work for me? I read all about how easy it was, and how it wouldn’t hurt your credit score, yada yada yada.

So here I am, four months later, and I have a bit of experience in the area now. (Not a ton, but enough to give some feedback.)

Basically, if you fall into the same category that I described myself above, then you should be doing this. Flat out no brainer. I applied for the Chase Ink Business Preferred card for my first one. I used my author job as my business, but they’re quite flexible on what they count as a “business.” Basically, if you do anything where you’re buying or selling stuff on the side, you can count it for the purposes of Chase. Ebay sniping? Sure. Antiquing? Why not. Selling eggs? You betcha.

Signing up qualified me for 80,000 free points IF I spent $5,000 in the first three months. I had already done the research to know I spent more than that on credit cards on average, so it seemed like a low enough risk. And sure enough, I spent the money and got the bonus. I then referred Denisa for the same card. (They give you 20,000 free points if someone else uses your referral code to get the card.) She got the card. We used it as our main card for the next bit, and now we just completed our spend for that. I got the 20,000 free points for her signing up, and she’ll get the 80,000 free points.

I now have something in the neighborhood of 200,000 Chase Ultimate Reward points kicking around. (If you’d like to sign up for the same card, please use my referral code by clicking here. But please only do it if you’re going to spend responsibly.) Do be aware that this card has a $95 annual fee. At the end of the first year, you don’t cancel it. (That’s bad for credit scores, and largely unnecessary.) Rather, you downgrade the card to an Ink Business Cash card. That has no annual fee. So even though I’ll have paid $190 in annual fees for a single year, I’ll have gotten 180,000 points out of the deal, which can be turned into $1,800 of cash at the least. (More on that in a minute.)

One of the big concerns was what this would do to my credit. I had excellent credit to begin with, and for the first month or two, my credit score did indeed dip by about 50 points. However, as of just now, my credit score is actually up 10 points higher than it started. It recovered and even improved. So it looks like having more credit available really does outweigh applying for more cards. And that’s even after I applied for another card yesterday.

My next card is the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which should indicate my confidence level in this. See, that card has an annual fee of $450. Earlier me would have said I was nuts to get a card that you have to pay that much each year to keep. But now I didn’t just apply for it, I’m planning on keeping it active year after year. Why?

  • Each year, it credits you with $300 to go toward travel expenses. So if you fly or stay at hotels at all that year, that basically covers $300 of the $450 right there. $150 sounds much more reasonable, doesn’t it?
  • Better still, when it comes time for me to redeem my points for airline tickets, it gives me a 50% bonus on those points. So that turns my 180,000 bonus points that I’ve earned so far into 270,000 bonus points. (Which is why I’m not turning them in for cash back. Since I fly so often, it makes so much more sense to just use those points for travel.)
  • Beyond that, it has awesome travel insurance perks, airport lounge access, and other nice bonuses. Back in September when my brother in law’s flight was canceled because his airline went insolvent, I was left hanging out to dry. If I’d bought those tickets with the Chase Sapphire Reserve, I’d have gotten reimbursed. I’ll pay a bit of money each year for that peace of mind.

To get the 50,000 free points for signing up with this card, I’ll need to spend $4,000 in the next three months. I’ve got trips to DC and New Orleans planned that I have to pay for. I’ve got that covered.

What do 270,000 Chase points get me in airfare, though? Well, let’s look at that trip to New Orleans I’ll be taking in June for ALA. Right now on Kayak (my typical go-to source for flights), I can get a roundtrip, non-stop ticket from Boston to New Orleans for $187 on Spirit Airlines. Or, if I’d rather go with luggage and fly Delta, it would be $224. I can buy the exact same flights through Chase’s rewards sites, only using points instead of dollars. So my 270,000 points would buy me 14 round trip, non-stop tickets to New Orleans on Spirit, or 12 on Delta. (Multiply the price by 100, and that gets you the approximate point price. So 270,000 is about $2,700 in flight value.)

It doesn’t just have to be flights, either. I could rent cars with those points. Buy tickets to Universal Studios in Orlando. There are some restrictions, and I might be able to find a better deal outside of Chase’s site, but that’s okay. I don’t have to spend all those points by a certain date. They don’t expire.

I could also transfer those points over to United or British Airways or any number of other programs, so I can shop around for the best redemption value of the points as well.

What I mean to say is, these points have real value.

There is a learning curve involved. I did some research on what cards to get and in what order. (Chase in particular can be finicky about what they let you get, and how many cards.) I personally felt like the Ink Business Card was the way to start, since its reward is the best, and that might go down at any point in time. If you decide to go with the Chase Sapphire Reserve, I’ll have a referral link for that in about a week. (EDIT: Here it is.)

Anyway. There you have it. I keep track of all these cards in a simple spreadsheet. I set up automatic payments on all of them. It’s a slight pain to juggle the different pieces of plastic, but not overly burdensome, and I really feel like it’s worth the hassle. If you have any questions, I’d be happy to answer them.


Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. I’m looking to get to $10/month to justify the amount of time I spend on this blog. I’m at $8/month so far. Read this post for more information. Or click here to go to Patreon and sign up. It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

The Great Stock Experiment

Back at the end of 2015, I had about $500 kicking around. I’d watched the stock market from afar, particularly the tech stocks. I felt like I had seen so many tech stocks skyrocket in price, and that I’d known ahead of time those stocks would do well. I knew the tech was good, so I figured the stock would be solid, as well.

I decided I’d finally put my money where my mouth was.

Square was a company I’d followed for some time. They made little portable registers that people can use on their phones to take credit card payments, and they’d recently branched out to making full fledged devices. They were brand new on the market, and I bought 40 shares of their stock with my $500, resolving to see how things went.

For the first while, they didn’t go so hot The stock that I’d bought at $12 went down to $9, and I felt kind of dumb. But I held onto it, and eventually it rose back to $12. Then it hovered at $14.

Earnings were good. People gained faith in the stock. The company branched out into new areas. And the stock kept going higher.

Today it broke the $45 mark, and I was faced with a new decision. The company has branched out into Bitcoin, and I am quite skeptical of that currency. I feel like that’s the reason the stock has gone higher the last bit, and I don’t feel like it’s sustainable. I had first bought the stock expecting to hold onto it for ten or twenty years, but I had about tripled my money in two years. Did I want to bet that the stock would keep going up, or did I want to get out while the getting was good?

In the end, I got out. My logic was as follows: it’s like I’d gone to Vegas and put all my money on Red for a couple of spins. And I’d gotten lucky. Red was hot. So now I could either let it ride or walk away. There’s certainly a chance Square will keep going gangbusters. And perhaps in a couple of years, I’ll be looking back and wishing I’d kept it in.

But there’s also a chance the stock goes down a ways, and then won’t I feel good about myself.

So anyway, I’ve taken the money out, and now I have to figure out what I want to do with that money next. Maybe I’ll celebrate and buy $1,800 of Magic cards, but something tells me I’ll put the bulk of it into a safer investment and then take that initial $500 seed money and pick another stock to invest in.

I’ll have to mull it over some. But in any case, it’s certainly been a fun (and profitable) experiment.

Churn, Baby, Churn: Credit Card Rewards

First off, a disclaimer. Credit cards are potentially very dangerous to your financial well being. Credit card debt is one of the easiest debts to get into, and it’s one of the hardest debts to get out of. The credit card companies know full well what they’re offering, which is why they’re willing to offer such outrageous incentives to sign up with them. So if anything I end up describing in this entry seems appealing to you, I’d first recommend you take a good long look at your finances. Have you ever held a continuing balance on a credit card from month to month? Have you ever paid late fees on a credit card? Do you struggle to stay on top of paperwork? Do you  have iffy credit already? Are you planning on taking a loan out to buy a car or house in the next year or two? If you answered “yes” to any of those, I don’t think this is for you.

But the other day, I had yet another friend recommend I look into taking advantage of credit card reward offers. It’s called “churning”. Signing up with a series of credit cards, meeting their minimum spend requirements for the first few months, and then reaping the miles and points you can get for jumping through that hoop. I’ve had multiple people tell me in the past that this was something I should be investigating. This time, I sat my friend down and asked her for the details. How much had she really saved? What had it *really* done for her?

Free flights to Orlando. Free hotel stays in downtown New York. Free flights to Paris and South Africa. All in a few years of doing it. All of it firsthand, she did it herself.

That was enough to tip me from “mildly interested” to “going to seriously investigate this.”

She recommended I start with a free online course that gives a good overview of the process: travelmiles101. I signed up for the course later that day, and I went through it in five days. At the same time, I googled the concept extensively, reading up on the pros and cons.

I signed up for my first new credit card last week. The Chase Ink Business Preferred card. It comes with an 80,000 point bonus if I spend $5,000 on it in the first 3 months. $1,666/month. I took the time to look at my credit card statements for the past year. It’s always been well above that. I pay with almost everything by credit. I always pay the balance off in full each month. Getting to $5,000 over the holiday season?

Easy peasy.

Two things have always held me back. First off, I was under the impression getting a bunch of credit cards would kill my credit score. My research into the matter finally persuaded me otherwise. (Beyond that, what was I keeping a great score for? My last car I paid for in cash, and I have no plans on moving or refinancing any time soon.) Second, all the talk of “miles” and “points” made me want to go cross-eyed. I was convinced it was a gimmick, and I didn’t feel like investigating further.

Except when I looked at the Chase card, those 80,000 points were the same kind of points I’ve been accumulating on my regular credit card all these years. And I know from experience those can be turned into cash. 80,000 would turn into $800 of cash, though everything I was reading now told me trading in for cash was the worst exchange you could make, value-wise. (Great. Exactly what I’d been doing for 5+ years.)

If someone told me, “I’ll pay you $800 to open this credit card and use it for 3 months to buy stuff you were going to buy anyway,” I’d think they were trying to scam me. But the credit card companies are willing to put out those benefits because they know full well people will screw up. They’ll put on a bunch of purchases to get the “free” $800, and then they won’t pay them off on time. All the companies have to do is sit back and profit.

This first card is an experiment. I’m dipping my toes into this. If all goes as I believe it will, there will be more cards after this. Denisa has a business. We can sign her up for the same card, and that will be another 80,000 points. Other cards have bonuses of 50,000 points. There are whole spreadsheets devoted to which cards to sign up for when.

I’ve never met a spreadsheet I didn’t like.

Anyway. We’ll see how it plays out. I’ll let you know. But if I can score free vacations for doing things I’m already doing, then I don’t see a good reason to not do that. Anyone else out there already doing this? Had experience? Feel free to chime in. I’m all ears. Or eyes, I suppose the phrase should be in this case . . .

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