Monday, November 18, 2013

Net Debt - November 2013

Student loans: -$77,240.66 ($405.22)
Car loan: $0
Revolving Credit card debt: $0
Mortgage: -$132,430.62  ($256.12)
Total Debt: -$209,671.28 ($661.34)
Debt Jan 1, 2013: -$216,875.08 ($7203.80)

So this month ALL of the interest is paid off on the student loans!  Yay!
I've made a pumpkin spice porter beer for Turkey day.  Yay and Yum!

We have been putting together a list of items for the baby registry and it's exhausting trying to do research on everything, determining something that is safe, looks appealing, of high quality and at a reasonable price. And then of course trying to answer the question: Does baby really need this? I think (hope) so. Take for instance crib bumpers, they are cute and are supposed to prevent baby from bumping his head against the crib slats, only problem: They are also a suffocation hazard and their use (even the ones that claim to be breathable) is not recommended...

On another note, I hope everyone has a wonderful thanksgiving!

Monday, October 21, 2013

OpenVPN bonus

This post will mostly be technical material for the casual linux user and adventurous home user.
Disclaimer: I take no responsibility for anything breaking in your device. Please be careful!

Lets get the details of my server and how to discover them for yourself.

First, log into your synology through SSH as root. If you are using a windows computer, I recommend using PUTTY.  Next lets find out what version of OpenVPN you are using, type in openvpn --version  and you should get an output like below

OpenVPN 2.1.4  armle-unknown-linux [SSL] [LZO2] [EPOLL] built on Mar 9 2013
Originally developed by James Yonan
Next, you can find out what version of linux you are running by typing in: cat /proc/version From that we can find out it's linux  gcc version 4.2.1

One security feature that (should) already be in the configuration files is proto udp. OpenVPN can run using either TCP or UDP protocol, however, UDP will generally provide better protection against DoS attacks and port scanning than TCP.

Now, there are some advanced things you can do to your OpenVPN, the first is to increase the symmetric keys. By default OpenVPN uses Blowfish, a 128-bit symmetrical cipher. While Blowfish is relatively secure at 128-bit, we can change it to 256-bit AES cipher, Cipher-Block Chain.  One reason why I like this instead of Blowfish is that 256-bit is good enough for TOP-SECRET for the government.  To implement it you'll need to add the following to both server and client configuration files:

cipher AES-256-CBC

The server file can be found at this pathway:
cd /usr/syno/etc/packages/VPNCenter/openvpn

Also, there is a way to implement Google Two Factor Authorization on Synology.  Likewise, while there are some forums out there discussing how to get this service implemented from Synology to OpenVPN, it has yet to be successfully shown.  However, I might experiment with it and try to get it working on my own server.  If I do, I'll be sure to show you how to do it as well!  :-)

Check out Part 1 of 3
Check out Part 2 of 3
Check out Part 3 of 3
Check out the bonus stuff!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Net Debt - October 2013

Student loans: -$77,645.88 ($1,484.51)
Car loan: $0
Revolving Credit card debt: $0.
Mortgage: -$132,686.74  ($255.09)
Total Debt: -$210,332.62 ($1,739.38)
Debt Jan 1, 2013: -$216,875.08 ($6,542.46)

Great news! For my two student loans, Aspire and Discover, all of the interest will be paid off by the end of next month! There is currently around $350 of interest left, and we pay more than that each month for sure. Soon we will have to change gears and begin to pay the highest interest to get it paid off as quickly as possible.
The mortgage is slowly going down - one monthly payment at a time. We've been getting a lot of flyers from our mortgage company to refinance, so I'm not sure if it'll help pay down much faster, I'd like to investigate just to be sure. The wife doesn't like the idea of paying more closing costs though...

Likewise, next year will probably be a wild roller coaster for us as we will be adding another human to the household: Healthcare expenses (i.e. dependent coverage), childcare costs ($1k easy per month), and reduced income due to maternity/paternity leave will make things interesting to say the least. We will have to look at our budgets and discuss priorities, but we will make it work :).

However I'd like to share a couple of websites that I have found recently that might save you some green. For today, lets start with This website lets you put a bid on a popular item at retail stores to get a great deal.  They sell TV's, laptops, baby gear, etc.. I personally haven't purchased anything from them, but was intrigued by the concept. I will let you know when I know more!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


... we bought laminate flooring for "Rover's Room". Last November, our not so tiny kitten Rover had dug a hole in the carpet near the door. We had been meaning to replace the flooring in that room ever since, but had postponed it month after month.
It wasn't lack of money, more a lack of urgency. We kept telling ourselves that there was no rush, and really there wasn't. We covered the spot with a sisal scratching mat to prevent the hole from getting bigger and to provide Rover with something that was better suited for his little claws. And in the end, it is our kitten's room where he spends the day when we are at work so that he doesn't get into trouble or hurt himself (he's clumsy) and to give our other older cat a much needed break from the little bully. But now "Rover's Room" is awaiting a little bit of a re-purposing as in February a new (human) family member wants to move into that room - it is the nursery after all!
Another factor that lead to us postponing the flooring was that we were undecided about what kind of laminate flooring we wanted. We read reviews, got samples, tested the samples, and considered prices and availability. (I am sure the husband will go into detail about that in a later post.) But a couple weeks ago we made a decision and the husband is eager to start on this new project :) but the installation probably has to wait until Thanksgiving. But that's ok, no rush, right?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Cyber Monday - Setting up an VPN with Synology on your Android & iPhone Part 3 of 3

Setting up a VPN on your Android or iPhone device is just as easy as setting it up on your computer. To begin, you'll want to download the configuration files from the synology server, or if you've already done that, you can use the same ones you installed on your computer for your phone.

To set up the android, you'll want to navigate to the Android Play store and either download this version if you have a newer device (4.0 and higher) or this version for older devices (1.5 and up).  It's very possible that if you are installing the older version (and possibly the newer, I'm not sure), that you'll have to install TUN.ko Installer. TUN helps establish the virtual point-to-point IP link. If you have this problem you'll be notified like shown on the picture to the left and it will likely even open another page of details (like the picture below) giving you a link to install it. If it is installed, then you'll just open the program and load the drivers and all will be well again.  This does happen to me every now and then because the drivers aren't loaded.

However, before you run into those problems, you'll need to connect your device to your computer and transfer your ca.crt and your openvpn.ovpn into the necessary folders.  For me, it was under the /mnt/sdcard/Openvpn folder.  From there you can start up the vpn client and you should be good to go now that you know how to trouble shoot any potential problem.

Now that you're connected you can check out the data transfers in the status bar of the phone.  :-)

Currently the official OpenVPN (1.0.1 build 88) software is too buggy for it to be easily compatible with iOS 6.1.3 (10B329). When I attempted, I ran into many errors. The files worked on my desktop OVPN connection, however they failed when trying to work with the iPhone version.  If/when the next release of OpenVPN is out there, I believe they will be fixing many of these issues and I will attempt an easy guide at that point.  However, currently you would need to log into the server, run several commands modifying several files and start and stop some services then play with it on the iPhone as well, all far too dependent upon what version of Synology/openVPN you are running and iOS version.  No elegant solution is possible currently.  Sorry guys!  :-(

Check out Part 1 of 3
Check out Part 2 of 3
Check out Part 3 of 3
Check out the bonus stuff!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Net Debt - Sept 2013

Student loans: -$79,130.39 ($565.43)
Car loan: $0
Revolving Credit card debt: $0.
Mortgage: -$132,941.83 ($507.18)
Total Debt: -$212,072.22 ($1,072.61)
Debt Jan 1, 2013:  -$216,875.08 ($4,802.86)

A nice website I just recently discovered is the Chase Home Value Estimator, I know I don't typically post values of assets, but it is nice to some degree because while your value of the home may be an overestimate (like mine was apparently but only $3,635), you can see what a bank might value your home for. I know this
doesn't affect our "net debt" but it does affect our net worth and if you are interested in refinancing your home and the sort.

Also, I realized that we HAVEN'T been paying one of my student loans, so now we are catching up on the student loan payments.  This isn't a critical piece of news as my loans are in deferment, but it is important to us to try to get them as low as possible before they go into repayment.  So, you'll likely see some better trends in our debt going down soon, like this month!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Cyber Monday - Setting up an VPN with Synology on your computer Part 2 of 3

To begin setting up the VPN on your windows computer, you'll want to first go to OpenVPN's website and download the latest version: here.  As of this writing it's version 2.3.2 released on June 6, 2013 (2013.06.03). Once installed it'll create a nice icon on the start menu like so:

Now the easy part: Log into your synology server and go to the VPN section as described in Part 1 of this series (find the link below).  From there you should open the downloaded zip configuration files.  Unzip these files and navigate to C:\Program Files\OpenVPN\config.  Place the ca.crt and openvpn.ovpn files inside of the folder. 

Lastly, open openvpn.ovpn with your text editor, I like notepad personally, and on the third line it will say: remote YOUR_SERVER_IP 1194

This is where IP can be typed in; it can be found easily by going to or going to your router and see what IP address it has been issued.

To use the VPN, open up the program and you should be prompted for a username and password.

In this prompt you'll type in the synology username and password that has access and hopefully you'll connect right away. If you can't connect try closing your web browser and other things that access the internet and connect again.

Note: For mac users, you can use Tunnelblick to vpn as well.

Check out Part 1 of 3
Check out Part 2 of 3
Check out Part 3 of 3
Check out the bonus stuff!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Cyber Monday - Setting up an VPN with Synology Part 1 of 3

So recently, I was traveling abroad and wanted access to my files at home and wanted to make sure to have (more) secure access to the internet for the future. In doing so, I found out several things:

1.  PPTP is NOT secure due to its MS-CHAP v2,  PPTP's authentication protocol. Currently there are ways to penetrate them easily. (Side note: even its creator, Microsoft, has abandoned it!)
2.  OpenVPN is secure (at least for now), fast, reliable, and diverse (described below).
3.  There are a ton of ways to setup a VPN server and OpenVPN is available for apple products, android, and windows.

The two most interesting ways I found to setup OpenVPN was using Untangle. I really like Untangle for the reason that they can filter all of your internet traffic BEFORE it goes to your system, it can filter viruses out, install a secure firewall, intrusion detection system, spyware filter, phish filter, etc. It is absolutely amazing, free (or pay for premium), and easy on resources. I did install it on a spare laptop to see how exactly it runs and really enjoyed its ease of use and simplicity. However, you do need a dedicated system for it and it will slow your traffic down slightly.

At my home, I don't have the resources (i.e. a spare PC or laptop with 2+ nic cards) to run Untangle, so instead, I used my Synology server (DSM 4.2-3211) and opened a port on my router to the outside world for my VPN setup. So, lets get started!

Setting up the Server:

1. Log into your synology device and open up the Package Center and install the VPN Server

2. Once installed, it will create an icon on the dropdown menu.

3. Once open, select OpenVPN in the Settings Folder and enable it.  I chose to have a maximum of 3 simultaneous connections as I don't have many users in my home and feel safer limiting the number of instances possible. Likewise, I wanted the speed to be as fast as possible, so I enabled compression on the VPN link.  Next, you should go to the Privileges and choose who has access to the VPN. Under General Settings, you can also allow newly created users to automatically have access if you choose. Once set, export the configuration files and you're good to go.  

4. To be extra safe, you'll probably want to enable the AutoBlock under the General Settings as well. This will help prevent those nice people from China & Niagara from permanently gaining access to your server once they find it (Like they tried to do to a friend's synology server).  

5. Now you'll likely want to punch a hole into your router to allow for the server to have access to the outside world. If you're setting up a VPN you'll hopefully know how to do this, however, there are two ways, one would be to place your whole Synology server outside of the firewall using DMZ, sort of defeating the purpose of the work you just did, the other, which I HIGHLY recommend, is just port forwarding. Depending on your setup you'll type in the IP address of your synology server, and the port to forward (port 1194 & UDP only).

Congrats the OpenVPN server is now set up!  Next you'll need to setup the client side of it.  Check out how to setup the client for windows in Part 2, and for an android & apple iphone device in part 3.  Also a short bonus page of advanced things you can do to your synology with OpenVPN like IP forwarding.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Net Debt - June 2013

Student loans: -$79,695.82 ($259.96)
Car loan: $0
Revolving Credit card debt: $0.
Mortgage: -$133,449.01 ($252.097)
Total Debt: -$213,144.83
Debt Jan 1, 2013:  -$216,875.08 ($3,730.25)

This past month was my birthday, and as such, I didn't receive much, but the biggest and probably best gift was honestly a gift from my wife, $500 to knock down student loans.  It's a little depressing to know that we applied so much to the student loans (over $600 monthly, and this past month over $1k) and still only made such a marginal difference, however, I suppose a chip at a time helps it go down.

So far of the 2 federal loans I have, one of them is down to the principle and the other is close. Hopefully, if they can adjust how I apply my payments, it'll be down to the principle as well within the next 3 or 4 months (making my goal of paying the actual principle down by 2014).  However, my private loans, while we were hoping to have the interest all paid off before the year is over, currently it looks like it might go over by 3 months (Feb or March of 2014...Miscalculation?  I honestly don't know) unless I can compensate for it somehow (maybe my end-of-year bonus will go towards it, who knows).  I would really like for 2014 to be a year to knock down the principle payments, hopefully that dream of mine will still come true, but we've had and will continue to have some medical expenditures that we didn't quite anticipate.

Other than that, life is good here. We are doing some small upgrades to the house.  We just ordered a new fan for the guest room which I'll install this month sometime. In August we have a big dental expense, and in September, we'll probably FINALLY buy that flooring and hopefully install it as well. Perhaps in October we'll finally get a new couch as well as the one we have currently is a bit small, but that's sort of in the air and not an absolute necessity.

Also, I'm being good to myself by biking about 5 miles a day on most days with my exercise bike. It helps that while I'm doing this, I'm also reading on my kindle. I don't know about you, but this is the best kind of relaxing for me! Relaxes the mind, burns off the stress of the day, and helps keep the tonnage off.  I'm also feeling a little confident about my C++ programming, but I'm still in the beginning stages and learning a lot. Until next month!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Garage Door Opener - Amazon Gold Box Deals

I consider myself a relatively handy guy, relatively confident of installing most things, be it woodworking, flooring, or technology based things. In mid October of 2012, I installed a garage door opener for our 2 car garage, the Chamberlain WD962KEV Whisper Drive with a battery backup; it was a relatively easy installation and only took a couple of hours by myself (although I did need someone for a couple of minutes while I was holding the opener and juggling a few things). Keep in mind, I had never used a garage door opener, nor installed one previously. I had to do a lot of research into garage door openers looking at what features were available like battery back-up, how noisy it is, what safety features and anti-theft features are available, the warranty (lifetime motor warranty), and the basic stuff like what's included like car remotes and outside remotes, the HP to lift the door.

There were a couple of models I was considering based on different price ranges, and while this model is more of on the top end, it had everything I wanted and I wasn't going to settle for something I didn't like, especially if I had to deal with it every day!

This model was absolutely great, it has a battery back up which you don't realize how nice it is, until you need it. --Recently a transformer blew in our neighborhood and left 300+ people without power, I left the house without a single trouble because it had a battery backup, and it was wonderful... and I felt like a million bucks because I didn't have to worry a single bit or lift a finger--

Our garage is also next to our spare bedroom and I would hate to have our guests wake up rudely because I'm leaving for work, and because this drive is so quiet, I'm not afraid one bit. With the garage door well lubricated, honestly, I hardly hear it, unlike ALL of my neighbors garage door openers.

My wife and I are also worried about someone "hacking" into our garage because the codes don't change on some of the cheaper models, but not the case here. With this opener you have "Security+ 2.0 anti-burglary technology, which assures that a new code is sent every time the remote control is used, and PosiLock theft protection, which keeps the door locked once it's closed. A manual release handle allows you to open the garage door in case of a battery failure"  The manual release we also put a zip tie around so no one with a coat hanger can unlock it from the outside (a proven safety tip).  Also, it auto-closes within a few minutes in case we forget to close it for some reason, but don't worry, it has sensors to make sure no one is directly underneath it. It also comes with an outside remote which is wireless and two car openers.

It was a wonderful purchase and currently, amazon is having a gold box deal so, you can snatch one up for only $190, here and with the money saved, you can go and buy their surge protector for $10 to protect it from everything up to a lighting bolt strike.

DISCLAIMER: I have not been paid to do the review of this product.  It just kicks butt... which is why I love it.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Net Debt - May 2013

Student loans: -$79,955.78 ($1,281.69)
Car loan: $0
Revolving Credit card debt: $0.
Mortgage: -$133,701.10 ($201.25)
Total Debt: -$213,656.88
Debt Jan 1, 2013:  -$216,875.08 ($3,218.20)

FINALLY! Mint has updated their tracking software for one of my federal student loans, KSA Servicing. So now, finally, it has correct values. This is the main reason why my debt went down significantly this month, all of those months finally got updated in one fell swoop. Glad to know that it is decreasing.

This past weekend, we were planning to go to Ikea (and we actually did), and although they said that they had flooring in stock and it was not, so we shall have to go again in probably 2+ weeks. Likewise, we were going to try to pick up the couch, and although while we knew they did not have that in stock, we checked out the floor model, and liked it so we will definitely go and purchase it later on.

Also, speaking of home improvements, I installed the Strike Master Pro II to my front door. I'll post a short write-up on that soon as well. But needless to say, it looks great, and I can sleep better knowing that no one can kick in my front door. (Don't worry about my back door, I installed that one a while ago!)  Speaking of other home improvements, I also installed tire locks for my car since recently we had some tire theft in the neighborhood. Thieves are so odd, stealing tires or a couple of gallons of gas, just doesn't add up for me.

Cyber Monday: Wipe free space, a hidden function

Data security is becoming more and more important, may it be to prevent identity theft or other fraudulent activities. The first step in making you laptop or desk top more secure is to make sure that when you delete something, it actually stays deleted.

FACT: In windows when you delete a file, you only delete its header but all of the data remains intact until something else overwrites it. An analogy to this is having a cover of a book ripped off, but keeping the book on the shelf until you have a new book to replace it. You can still open it up and read inside if you want. It's the same with data, you can easily recover that file and so can thieves. Therefore, the first step is to erase (or wipe) any free space.

Recently, I needed to wipe a USB drive clean and in doing so I found that there is a built-in function in Windows 7.  The great thing is that this tool is available all the way back to Windows XP Pro and it is also available in Windows 8!

So here is how it's done:

1. Open up a command prompt by typing: cmd.exe at the run menu

2. Then in the command prompt type in command as shown:

cipher /w:X  where X is drive letter for wiping the free space of a whole drive (will take more time than below, but more secure)

cipher /w:X:\somefolder  where X is the drive letter and somefolder is a folder. This will wipe a portion of the volume instead of the whole volume (not recommended, will take less time, but less secure)

This command with erase the free space 3 times. In the first round, it will overwrite the free space with all 0's, in the second round it will overwrite it with all 1's, and lastly with random numbers in the third round.

There are, of course, more vigorous ways of wiping data, but this does meet at least basic standards of unclassified data from the military. However, to be truly erased, one should look into what is actually approved by NIST (National Institute for Standards & Technology), Computer Security Center. They have a very small list of what is approved outside of physically destroying the hard drive and/or gaussing them. One such option is called Secure Erase which was made by U.C. San Diego, found here.

I hope this helps secure your data a little more.

You can find the source of the syntax's shown above here:

Monday, May 13, 2013

Cyber Monday - Tell windows to alway prefer wired over wireless.

Windows usually does an alright job about pushing things through the wired connection if you're connected. However, sometimes it mucks up and here's how to tell it to always prefer wired connections.

For windows 7 (possibly older/newer versions this works as well, I haven't tested.) Go to run and type in ncpa.cpl or in my case, I searched for it. 

Once here, you'll want to navigate to the advanced tab on the top and go to Advanced Settings...

A new window will open and you'll want to be on "Adapters and Bindings" tab and move your "Local Area Connection" to the top of the list as shown here.

And that's it. Now you're computer will always prefer the wired connections of the wireless.

Any tips you're looking for specifically?  Let us know!


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Net Debt - April 2013

Student loans: -$81,237.47 ($885.92)
Car loan: $0
Revolving Credit card debt: $0.
Mortgage: -$133,902.35 ($849.81)
Total Debt: -$215,139.82
Debt Jan 1, 2013:  -$216,875.08 ($1,735.26)

Paying down debt is a daunting task, that is for sure, especially seeing these numbers. It has been 4 complete months since the new year has started and so far we have paid off $1,735.26 or about $433 each month.

While we are sticking to the plan and paying down debt, it has its challenges. We put $418 towards one student loan, and $100 towards another each month.  Soon, hopefully next month, we'll have the federal subsidized interest of one of the student loans paid off, and then we'll make a little more progress paying down the unsubsidized portion.  Note: I really hate how loan companies set up the payment scheme, especially when making extra payments. They always set it up to pay equally across everything and not put it all towards the one that will make you pay it off the fastest.  gah!

Due to the student loans we're trying to pay off, we've settled for only paying $250/month to the IRA. The plan is to gradually increase the payment each year until we max out 2 complete IRA's.

On another note, my final exams are now complete and in a few more days my wife will have finished her 6 month probation period at work. These two things make me very happy.  ^_^

Our trip to Germany has been booked and is approaching faster than we thought. It will be a great trip, but we still have to make arrangements for someone to take care the kitties. Our trip to NY has been postponed to a little later than desired but still in the plan.

Also, we recently purchased an exercise bike from a friend, which has been a lot of fun.  The past few days while I had off from work to study and work on my final exams, I would get up, drop off the wife at work, and come back and bike for 25 minutes or about 6.25 miles. During that time, I'd be checking my other blogs, IM'ing with the wife, etc. very efficient use of time.  :-)

Monday, May 6, 2013

Cyber Monday - Cell phone plans - a comparison

Previously, my wife and I were on a prepaid plan with AT&T which we used very sparingly to save as much money as possible. However, as my wife began her job and we purchased a home, and adopted another kitty, our cell phones became increasingly important to call other businesses, schedule appointments and in general coordinate our lives. For the past 6 months or so, I was seriously looking at providers to see who has the best deal. I looked at family plans, individual plans, and other prepaid plans for us. I know that our usage would increase if we had unlimited so I primarily focus on that since so many things are unlimited now anyway. However, I did look at how much we would realistically talk as well, and many of these other lower priced plans came with too few minutes. Also, since I recently upgraded to a smart phone, I looked at data plans for myself and installed an app to track how much data I was using over WiFi. Below are my results:

From my calculations we were spending about $979.68/yr ($81.64/month) on our cell phones plus another $143 on our skype plan, totaling $1122 ($93.53/month) a year between the two of them. If we are able to save anything less than that, we would be saving. So after much searching, GoSmart started their business, and we signed up. I am paying for their $35 plan and my wife is paying for their $30 plan + $10 international calling and texting. Our savings: $130.08 per year (after tax). Also a perk of this new plan is that calling quality is much better than Skype because it no longer depends on internet connection and we have unlimited everything. The internet is fast enough for my phone as I don't stream any video (internet radio is crystal clear) and email/IM is perfectly fine on 2G. Everyone is happier and my wallet is a little bit heavier, which is great. Feel free to check out gosmart plan and check to see if it is right for you.

DISCLAIMER: I am not collecting any incentives by gosmart by endorsing them. We are just really happy we decided to switch plans :)

Monday, April 29, 2013

Cyber Monday - How to check your car fuse....

Technology can be finicky at times, and sometimes fuses blow, cars are no exception. So here's a quick lesson on how to change them out.

There are lots of different types of fuses out there and sometimes when you're having car troubles, the fuse is the easiest and sometimes the right option especially when you're having electrical problems. But lets start from the beginning...

Fuses for cars are usually color coded and with each fuse a number is written across the top. These numbers represent the amperage for the fuse. Amperage, for those a little rusty on their physics or electrical engineering, is strength of electrical current. One way to think about it is akin to water flowing out of a hose. Water itself might be voltage, but how much water flows out or the force at which it comes out, is the amperage. Fuses can blow because parts are malfunctioning, a component got wet when it shouldn't have, or sometimes by a random power surge. It's important that the fuses are not blown for the car to operate normally, and when they are, are replaced with the proper fuse which really means proper amperage and size.

There are two main fuse boxes also known as relay boxes, one inside the car, the other, under the hood.  Both of these boxes can usually be found under the dash on the drivers side of the car or next to where the door opens and, from my experience, on the right side of the car under the hood (shown on the images to the left).  When you open the fuse box up, you should see a diagram for the fuses indicated what amperage is needed for that specific position along with what each fuse is tied to. It's like a map for the fuses, it shows you what fuse belongs to what part of the car and what type of fuse is needed. So when your radio randomly doesn't work, find it on the diagram or map, pop it out and check the fuse.   :-)

Usually checking to see if a fuse is blown is pretty obvious, there might be a burn mark along with part of the wire missing if it is a tubular fuse or if they are like a fuse shown above, part of the 'U' might be missing. Typically removing a fuse is a pretty simple act of just pulling it out, although some cars can be tough and actually provide little fuse tweezers.

First make sure that the car is turned off and the accessories are off as well.  Next, be sure to take out the fuse, if it is blown - trash it, and gently insert the new fuse in its place. Be sure that the new fuse is of the same color and rating as the old one. If you get confused, like my mom did once, don't start pulling them out and swapping them around by accident.  Look at the "map" of fuses on the cover and make sure you put the fuses in the correct spot. I usually try to find a spot that is easy to find on the map and on the fuse box and from there make sure it was the right spot. An example might be where a row of fuses goes from 4 in a row to 3 or 2 in a row, then according to that spot, find where it belongs. Once complete, you can turn the battery on and check that the piece of equipment works again. If so, then congrats! You've just changed your fuse! And no need for a mechanic either!  ;-)

Monday, April 22, 2013

Cyber Monday - How to speed up your old (or slow) Android Cell phone

Back in September I upgraded  my cell phone to an Android phone (the Pantech crossover P8000), however, as I soon realized, my phone lacked a lot of horsepower and was essentially slow as dirt.  So recently, I took it upon myself to investigate how to speed this little guy up and boy did it pay off!  This is what I did....

First: move as many apps as you can onto your SD card so you can free up as much space as possible on your actual phone.  While it is possible to do this manually by going to Settings then Applications then Manage Applications.  From here, you can select each application (which I'm sure there are a LOT of them) and tell them to move to your SD card, or you can just use an app called AppMgr III (App 2 SD).  This app will search out all of your apps, then tell you which ones are movable, which are on the SD card already, and offer to clear app cache. At the bottom of the screen it'll let you know how much space you have and what is available on your phone.

Next, because my phone is older and a little slower, I wanted to watch out for apps that aren't working properly. Watchdog Task Manager Lite watches how much CPU is being used in the background and make sure none of your apps are hogging too much of it, if an app is misbehaving, then it'll alert you and ask if you want to kill it or wait. This little guy will also let you know how much CPU and memory in real time each app is using.

After that, for the real speed up, I changed my desktop.  My phone gives me 4 default screens and no options on changing them. To my surprise, I was able to change how many screens I have and the whole feel of the "desktop" by using LauncherPro. LauncherPro allows you to change how many screens you have, I picked 2, it also modified the buttons at the bottom of the screen into a much more usable form along with an overhaul of the apps menu which I really enjoyed. This app alone improved the performance of my cell  phone the greatest.  Once installed, my tiny phone became much more reasonable, it no longer locked up from too many apps running and since then, it hasn't frozen and randomly restarted either. Plus I now don't have to charge my phone every day!

Lastly, I did my last overhaul on the widgets. Widgetsoid let me get rid of all of my old widgets and use only widgets that I would fully use. So at the top of my phone, I have one widget, that I use every button, force update, network settings, auto update, battery % indicator, cellular data on/off, brightness, and airplane mode, of course, yours can be different. I also switched the weather app with one I actually use and much more prefer, weather underground app.

So while the first few steps weren't absolutely vital, they are a good check for the phone and save a little bit of time, which is always helpful. For everyone though, I highly recommend checking out Launcher Pro and widgetsoid, absolutely amazing apps for the cell phone.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Two years later ….

Two years after moving into a brand new home, this is a good time to reflect.  

Major Life Changes:

  • We have adopted a kitten.
  • My wife has nearly graduated from school (finishing her last dissertation credits now).
  • I have changed degree plans (and majors). 
  • And the wifey has a real job besides what used to be just an on-campus job.

House Changes:

  • We've furnished it nicely and rearranged it as well. This took some serious time and incentive as we had family from out of the country coming and we wanted to make sure they were comfortable and that everything was within our price range. 
  • This coming month (or next at latest), we’ll be posting before and after pictures of new laminate flooring in one of the bedrooms. Our kitty decided he didn't want to see carpet anymore and he was upset we spent 8 hours away from home...  
  • And another nice improvement, although somewhat trivial was a garage door opener and no longer fearing of some break-in, theft, or someone just keeping an eye on us.

We've also had some repairs:

  • Our AC motor blew, this would have been a several hundred dollar fix, but luckily it was still under warranty and consequently, cost us nothing. 
  • And just recently, which I can’t ever recall happening in any of the past homes I've lived in, a light switch blew.  Luckily I have 2 spare switches since we swapped them out with electric timers (which we absolutely love), but regardless, it would have only been a couple of dollars.

Financial changes:

  • We are still on track to have all of the interest paid off by the end of the year. This was a huge undertaking as I haven’t been paying interest on my loans for some time now since they are on deferment. This wouldn't even be remotely imaginable if it wasn't for my wife’s new job.
  • Also, we are saving money for retirement! Currently we’re just trying to put back about $250 a month. I've spoken to many people about how to invest money, along with read MANY books and they all have such interesting perspectives.  So far, the best take that I have is this: diversify and try to keep costs low. How? Well, I’m currently investing in mutual funds, and I suspect that is what I will always invest in. Currently I've invested in core-large cap funds with very low costs and in due time, I’ll invest in small cap, international, bond (mutual funds), mid cap, etc.  Why own 1 stock or bond, when you can own MANY. Keeping the risk to a minimal, that’s the key.
What lies ahead:
  • Making the back yard look nice, which is very very challenging in Texas if you refuse to water every day...

Thursday, February 7, 2013

New Year's Resolutions! Update 1

So last month we made a resolution for the new year, mainly

  1. Open and max out 1 Roth IRA (-$5500)
  2. Pay down all of the interest in my student loans ($6216) 
  3. Make sure no more interest accrues on my student loans.
  4. Save up for a couple of trips to visit the family.
So lets see how we are doing...

     1.  Open and max out 1 Roth IRA (-$5500)
To max out one account we need to contribute $458 a month. It's a tough pill to swallow especially with our student loans goal, but last month we contributed $500 to open up the account. This month we are hoping to be able to continue this trend and we'll put forth the $416. We may need to pause it for a month when we buy our plane tickets to visit the family, but we shall see.

     2.  Pay down all of the interest in my student loans ($6216) 
My wife and I calculated how much interest is accrued each month for the year and added that on top what we already owe. This number comes out to be $518/mo. If we're able to maintain this, we'll be able to destroy the interest that has build up and really begin to tackle my student loan debt which is a huge number.

     3.  Make sure no more interest accrues on my student loans.
Once we are finished paying off all of the interest this year, we'll continue to pay the same amount towards the actual principle to start knocking them down as well. Our plan of attack, is to go after the ones with the highest interest (Federal loans) and hopefully take a bite out of them before we go back into repayment.

     4.  Save up for a couple of trips to visit the family.
Towards the end of last year, we had my in-laws come over and it was really wonderful seeing them. This coming year will be my mother-in-laws 60th birthday and all she wants is for her children and family to be there with her. So we'll do it!

Also, one of my family members recently and very unexpectedly passed away and every year we have a family reunion around July 4th time frame. I haven't gone to one of them in years and have been meaning to go to one with my wife so the whole family can finally meet her and to really connect with everyone again.  So this year we'll take that opportunity and visit them as well. Unfortunately, our time will be limited in my home town, so we probably wont be able to do very much, but we'll try our hardest to see everyone and enjoy the area and time there with them.

Lastly, my oldest brother has been bugging me about visiting him in Washington state and although he'll be at the family reunion, I'd really love to see him on his own turf this time around. So hopefully I can do that one as well, but not sure how that will fit into our budget.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

How I track my money

Many people track there funds several different ways. When I was younger, I used to use an excel spread sheet, however that became too cumbersome after having a couple of accounts and especially after having stocks where the number can magically go up or down without any funds actually going in or leaving.

Now, with the wonder of the internet, I primarily use  Mint is really a wonderful website, capable of tracking typical savings/checking accounts, credit cards, loans (student, car, and mortgage), investment accounts, and even retirement accounts! They also have a few really nice options as well. Because of the sheer quantity of people who use the website, they clearly have a vast amount of information. With that info, they are capable of comparing your information to the national and state averages (perhaps local as well, I think they've switched things up recently).

They also have a really wonderful way of setting goals and deciding how much you want to save and by when; they can predict dates, and how much you'll need to save by or in some cases, like retirement, how much money you'll need.  In my case, I'll need $5,374,523 to save for retirement. They got this number by my current age, retirement age, desired annual income (in today's dollar) for retirement and what type of investment style I have (assuming 3% inflation and that I'll live until I'm 95 years old).  

Or perhaps a better example of saving for a car fund; they give you a way of estimating how much money you'll need to save by either you entering it or typing in what type of car you want (new or used & estimating the sales tax). After that it'll tell you the sales tax amount, if there is a trade in you want to enter, and how much you'll need to save to have it by a certain date or how long it will take if you can only save a certain amount. Lastly, you'll link it to an account and they'll let you know if you're falling behind, jumping ahead, or just staying on track.  :-) 

Regarding the transactions, they do a great job of classifying how much I'm spending and where too. Only a handful of transactions ever get unclassified or miss-classified. From that, you'll be able to see what and how much you spend your money on.

The only downside to mint, in my opinion, is some of their 'suggestions' they offer.  Like the credit cards they recommend due to my spending habits, refinancing the house, etc. Many of them are not the best suggestions after digging into the deal and really seeing how it compares to what I have already, of course, that may be also because I'm not the typical person when it comes to money.

Overall, I really think mint is a wonderful site, perfect for keeping tabs on what you're spending by use of a budget and seeing if it's reasonable. Also, their blog is chalk full of great idea's, tips, and graphics. Definitely a must have for those who are in need of seeing what they have, trying to plan ahead, and get out of the rat race. Also, it's great for couples because you can really see what the big picture is and get both of you interested in what you have.  Side note, they also have iPhone/iPad/Android apps as well for those who are tech savvy.  And don't worry about security, you can't control any of your money or access your passwords in clear text from the website either, so if someone does manage to hack in, they'll only be able to see what accounts you have, but not actually control any of your money.  :-)   This is a perfect way for everyone to understand what's going on with their money for the New Year and maybe even make (money) New Year resolutions.

How do you keep track of your money?  What money New Year resolutions do you have?  For us, it's to open an (Roth) IRA (and max it out) and to really start paying down the student loans heavily. We know we wont be out of debt any time soon, but at least it is a start. Maybe in a year we can check back in and see how everyone really did?

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Net Debt - Dec 2012

Student loans: -$82,122.92 (-$804.71)
Car loan: $0
Revolving Credit card debt: $0.
Mortgage: -$134,752.16  (+$641.70)
Total Debt: -$216,875.08

So we begin the new year with a bit under $217k debt. However, this year we have a plan! YAY for plans!

This year we have financial goals of paying off all of the accrued interest, around $4,300 worth, and continue to keep it off. Once that is done, we'll begin paying down the principle on the federal student loans which are the highest interest amount at 6%. In total, we'll be paying about $600/month to accomplish this, keep in mind, around $189 accrue every month.

Likewise, we also realize that we aren't getting any younger. So we made an adult decision and opened up our first Roth IRA account with scottrade. We are behind the power curve a big amount (even though we aren't even 30 yet), so we'll try to max out one IRA account per year ($5500) and hopefully work that up to maxing two accounts eventually. This also means specifically saving ~$460 per month which we can't spend until we retire.

This year we're also trying to increase our cash reserve incase of emergencies and also plan a visit to Germany and hopefully New York as there has been a family death recently and it would be good to see everyone at this years family reunion.

With the wife having a real job now, we are finally able to really do this and hopefully help our financial situation in the long run. We'll continue to try our best with our money, meaning not getting the newest and shiniest toys, i.e. ipad mini/e-readers/etc, but we'll use what we have (until they die) and make use of the simple pleasures in life.

We hope your financial situation is getting better as well dear readers. And if you have any financial goals, please feel free to share and follow up in a year to see how you're doing!  :-)