Mint: Budgeting made easier

Does your checking account run low and leave you wondering “Where did that last paycheck go?” Do you know whether buying that snowblower will leave you with enough money to pay the gas bill next week? If you have trouble with these kinds of questions, there’s a solution: budgeting. In other words, making a plan for where you money goes each month.

If the word “budget” fills you with fear, you’ve come to the right place. I’m not talking spreadsheets and graphing calculators here. I’m talking about a free online service that will help take the stress out of budgeting. It’s called Mint.

mint logoMy wife and I have been using Mint for two months now. Here’s why I love using Mint: it makes creating and keeping track of a budget quite easy. The hardest part is actually following our budget. (And by the way: no, I’m not being paid by Mint for this review.)

What is Mint?

Mint is a free online budgeting service run by Intuit, the company that also runs TurboTax and Quicken. It includes a website and companion mobile apps for almost any device.

Overview of all your accounts (left side). Click on a category to see all those accounts.
Overview of all your accounts (left side). You can click on a category to see all those accounts.

When you sign up, you give Mint the login information for your accounts and debts. (If that makes you uncomfortable, read on. I’ll address that below.) Mint updates your information for all those accounts every time you log in, and gives you a picture of all your accounts at once. Checking, savings, credit cards, CDs, loans, mortgage, investments…Mint can show you all of them on one screen.

I used to try to log into the individual websites of all our accounts regularly to keep track of balances and make sure there was no unusual activity. I’m a numbers-y kind of guy, so even though it was a hassle I was okay with it. Mint saves me a lot of time and helps my wife stay up-to-date with the broader picture of our finances.

In addition to account overviews, Mint also allows you to track transactions for your accounts (did that check get deposited?), set up a budget (more on that shortly), and even set and track goals (paying off the mortgage, vacation, etc.).

Setting up a budget

It’s great to know where your money is, but it’s also important to know where you want it to go. That’s where the budget comes in.

I recommend setting up your budget on Mint’s website rather than the mobile app. The app is better for keeping track of your budgets, but I felt the website gave us much more control over the categories we were creating.

Under the Budgets tab of, the first thing to do is enter your monthly income. If your income varies from month to month, I’d try to put in the amount from an average month.

This is how you create a new budget category.
This is how you create a new budget category.

Some categories are very inflexible, such as mortgage or rent. I’d enter those first, then move on to other categories that will vary month to month.

One of the great little features Mint includes is rollover. For example, I can budget $40 for clothes shopping and check the box for rollover. If I only spend $30 this month on clothes, next month’s budget will start at $50. If I spend $45 this month, next month’s budget will start at $35. This really helpful in many categories.

You’ll also have some categories with large, irregular payments, such as auto insurance. If I expect my auto insurance payment to be $300 every 6 months, Mint takes that information and automatically sets aside $50 for auto insurance out of every month’s budget.

Also, if you don’t see a category that fits what you need, feel free to create your own. You can make your budget categories as broad or as specific as you’d like.

Keeping track of your budget

Once you’ve created your budget categories, you’re off to a great start! As you spend money, Mint will do it’s best to guess what category each transaction should be in. Sometimes it’s right, but often it’s not. To make your budget work, it’s important to periodically check back through your transactions to make sure they’re being categorized the way you want. If they’re not, just click on it and change the category.
Mint app budgetsThe mobile app is great for this. If you’ve a couple minutes to spare, you can quickly swipe through the list of recent transactions and re-categorize any of them.

In addition, the mobile app also lets you easily see where you stand in all your budget categories, plus it shows you which categories you need to cut back on to meet your goal for the month. If you’re at the store, you can glance through and see if you’ve got enough left in your entertainment budget for that movie.

Mint app transactions
Notice how the Meijer purchase is split between two categories.

Another feature I love about Mint is the ability to split transactions into multiple categories. If you shop for groceries at a supermarket like I do, there’s a good chance you’ll buy something besides groceries while you’re there. Mint allows me to buy dog food in the same transaction with my groceries. Later, I can split that transaction into $45 in the dog supplies category and $70 in the groceries category.[1]

Throughout the first month or two you’ll quickly get an idea of which categories you over- or under-estimated. You can always go back to and tweak them, making sure that if you add to one category you take the same amount out of another.


Even with all these useful features, you might be unable to get past the idea of giving Mint access to all your account information. How do you know they won’t get hacked or get bought out by a company that wants to sell your information? Although there’s no way to eliminate risk altogether, there are a few things that make me feel safe trusting Mint with my information.

One thing I take some comfort in is the fact that and the Mint app give me read-only access to my accounts. I (or someone who’s borrowing my phone) can’t withdraw money though it. If someone were to log into my Mint account, they could see how much money I have in my accounts, but they wouldn’t be able to see my account numbers or my login information.

Mint is owned by Intuit, who makes software including Turbotax and Quicken. It’s a large company and handles financial data on a regular basis. According to Mint’s website, Intuit uses the same security encryption for as banks typically use. I’d say if you’re comfortable doing your tax returns or your banking online, you shouldn’t feel any different about Mint.

In addition, the mobile app has an extra layer of protection. You can create a 4-digit PIN within the app. Every time you open the app on your phone, you must type in your PIN to use the Mint app, even if your phone is already unlocked.


If you don’t feel comfortable giving your account information to Mint, there are other good budgeting options out there. You Need A Budget is a program I haven’t tried but have heard great things about. It’s available for $60. You’ll have to enter transactions manually though, since it doesn’t have access to your accounts. $60 may seem like a lot, but setting up and following a budget will save you a LOT more than $60.

Speaking of price, how can Mint be a free service? The website and the app actually show you advertisements (or “advice”) for financial services Mint thinks you might be interested in. This can range from a bank savings account to a credit card to a mortgage lender. These pop up every now and then, and you can dismiss them, but it’s still annoying to me because I don’t plan to use them.

One last quibble I have with is that there are still some financial institutions it can’t connect with. For example, U.S. Treasury Bonds can’t be saved with Mint. The vast majority of American and Canadian banks and card services are compatible, but if you’re not in North America, you may run into trouble syncing your accounts.


Really, these are all minor issues compared to the benefits my wife and I have seen over just two short months using Mint. Our budget categories feel realistic, flexible, and understandable. It took less than a half-hour to input my account information, and then only another hour or so with my wife to set up our budget. I love using the app on my phone for keeping track of things, and when we make changes to our budget the website is easy to use, too. Overall we’ve been very impressed with Mint.

Do you use software or an online service for budgeting? I’d love to hear about it below!


1 – You can categorize a transaction before it officially posts to your account. However, for some reason, you can’t split a transaction until it officially posts. That’s annoying to me, and I can’t see a reason for it.

Windows 7 users: Don’t pay for Windows 8

Microsoft has traditionally sold operating systems for a hefty price…currently a full upgrade to Windows 8.1 costs around $100. This meant that most people don’t upgrade to the newest operating system until they buy a brand-new computer. But Microsoft seems to be trying to change that.

Windows 10 logoMicrosoft last month announced the upcoming release of their newest operating system, Windows 10. (Yes, their previous OS was Windows 8. They skipped Windows 9 apparently.)

Along with announcing the new features of Windows 10, Microsoft also announced that Windows 10 will be a free upgrade for users of Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 within the first year after Windows 10 is released.

So if you’re using Windows 7, don’t fork over your money to pay for an upgrade to Windows 8.1. Wait a bit longer and get a free upgrade to the newest version — Windows 10.

Microsoft hasn’t officially announced a release date for Windows 10, but it’s rumored to be a summertime release in 2015, and that makes sense so they could have Windows 10 installed on new computers in time for back-to-school shopping.

So it seems the one-year window (see what I did there?) for getting your free upgrade won’t start for at least several months. This means if you buy a new PC before then, it will most likely have Windows 8 installed, but you’ll soon be able to upgrade to Windows 10 for free. 

Also, if your computer is pre-Windows 7 (XP or Vista), you can feel free to buy a new Windows 7 or 8 computer and will soon be able to get the newer Windows 10 upgrade for free.

Windows 10 desktop
Windows 10 desktop and Start Menu (Photo courtesy of and Andrew Cunningham)

Some of Windows 10’s new features will include automatically installed updates, a new web browser to replace Internet Explorer, and Cortana (Microsoft’s version of Siri). And the Start Menu seems to be returning to its more traditional form after being changed for Windows 8.

Got a topic you want me to blog about? A comment or suggestion? Let me know below!


My Life Without Cable

Old TV with rabbit ears
Remember when you WERE the remote control?

The first time I ever had cable TV was my freshman year of college. When I was growing up, our TV came through the finicky rabbit-ears on top of the TV. I’d watch shows on PBS and during the summer the FOX MLB Game of the Week (when I got my chores done in time). My TV experience changed dramatically in my freshman dorm room: SportsCenter in the morning, Tom and Jerry during my lunch break, and frequent Seinfeld reruns in the evening.

It’s easy to become accustomed to having such a variety of content available to watch at any time. Then I moved out on my own after college and, wow! I was hit by sticker shock when I saw how much even basic cable would cost me. I went to RadioShack (now out of business) and got my own rabbit-ears for my Indianapolis apartment.

My setup has changed since then. I’m not advocating going without a TV, although I admire that if you’re able. I’m talking about finding alternatives to cable. Most of them aren’t free. But I’m not burdened by a pricy monthly cable bill, and you don’t have to be either. Here’s how.

Over-the-air TV channels

When you think of a TV antenna, do you think of rabbit-ears sitting on top of the TV or a gigantic rooftop antenna that looks like it communicates with UFOs? Modern antennas are often much less unsightly than these. And if you live in or near a city, you can get some TV channels free…and in high definition if you have an HDTV.

Mohu Sky 60 antenna
The Sky 60: certainly not invisible, but I think it looks a lot better than rooftop antennas of yesteryear.

I live about 50 miles from most of the transmitters in Indianapolis, so I’ve installed Mohu’s Sky 60 antenna. It’s designed to be outdoors or in an attic, but it’s far from an eyesore (in my opinion). It’s only about 3 feet high and maybe 1.5 feet wide. Since I’m near the edge of this antenna’s range, a few of the channels don’t come in cleanly, and this is made worse when storms move through the area. But we usually get FOX, CBS, ABC, and PBS in high definition, plus some secondary channels like 24/7 radar or oldies TV shows.

Mohu Leaf 30 antenna
The Leaf 30: very inconspicuous. Not sure why they didn’t install it with the white side facing out though!

For those of you who live closer to a city than we do, there are cheaper and less conspicuous options available. For example, Mohu’s Leaf 30 indoor antenna is about the size of a sheet of paper, only 1/16th in. thick, and can be painted to match its location. Its 30-mile range should be plenty for folks living in a city or suburbs.

I’ve had mixed results with reception at the edge of my antenna’s advertised range, but I’ve been impressed with Mohu’s customer support. There are certainly other options available for HD antennas as well.

Streaming options

If you’re a cable user, you probably have favorite shows on cable channels like History or ESPN. Well, you won’t be able to get those with your antenna. But there are ways to see many of those shows after they’ve aired.

The most common of these are streaming services Netflix and Hulu Plus. Both are monthly subscriptions, and they include episodes of current TV shows, shows that aren’t currently airing, and lots of movies. (We had Netflix for a while, but after some months decided we didn’t watch enough to justify our subscription.)

Other streaming services are also available, such as Amazon Instant Video (free to Amazon Prime members).

Roku 3
Roku 3 streaming media player

Streaming services are available directly through smart TVs or through streaming boxes like a Roku or Amazon Fire TV, which plug into your TV through an HDMI cable. Netflix and Hulu Plus are available through almost every smart TV or streaming box, but often you’ll find “channels” specific to a cable network, such as Fox News Channel. Some of these channels will require you to sign in with a cable provider, but others will let you watch recent episodes or clips for free.

Often you can also watch the most recent episodes of cable shows in full online after they’ve aired. You’ll have to keep up with them, because they usually only keep the few most recent episodes available.

Sling TV from Dish will stream certain cable channels for a monthly rate.
Sling TV from Dish

If you’re willing to pay more, there are more options coming in the months ahead for “cord-cutters.” HBO, a “premium” cable channel, recently announced it will soon allow people without cable to pay for access to its shows. In addition, Dish TV announced a new standalone service offering live streaming of cable channels such as ESPN, CNN, and Food Network for $20 per month.

Don’t forget discs

Remember when Netflix sent DVDs by mail? Well, they still do! You can sign up for a Netflix DVD or Blu-ray plan separately from a Netflix streaming subscription or along with one.

My wife and I rarely watch more than a few movies per month. For us, Redbox is also a nice option for one-night DVD rental. allows us to find a location nearby that has the movie we want in stock.

Free options

If going without cable is starting to sound almost as expensive as cable, don’t forget about great free options! Your local library should have plenty of choices of DVD and Blu-ray movies and TV shows available.

And of course there’s a good chance if you don’t own a movie, you might have a friend who does. We’ve often borrowed movies and TV shows from our friends, and vice versa.

Have you quit cable? What’s your setup like? Let me know below!


Do You Know What You’re Installing?

Ask Toolbar in action
The Ask Toolbar is highlighted in red here. Totally unnecessary to have in your browser.

Do you have little random popups in the bottom-right corner of your computer screen? Does your internet browser have a random homepage you didn’t pick, or a strange toolbar along the top that you never use (like the one highlighted in red on the right)? Has your desktop filled up with app icons that you don’t recognize?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you’ve been installing junk and malware without even knowing it. Read on for tips on how to be more careful as you install new applications.

Operating systems with app stores (Mac, iOS, Android, Chrome, etc.) theoretically check to make sure that every app in the app store gives you just what it advertises[1]. No junk bundled with the app, no malware, no viruses, no harmful things hiding where you can’t see.

Windows, in contrast, has no app store. So when you want to download Skype, for instance, you go online and find a place to download the Skype installer package. These installer packages are where malware and other junk lurk.

For more details, this week I’m pointing you to an article by the How-To Geek. The article explains how you can avoid installing junk programs on your PC.

Go slowly through the installation

First of all, downloads often have tricky options in their installation screens to try to get you to install stuff you weren’t wanting. 

An example from The How-To Geek: When you install Oracle’s Java software, you get asked to install the Ask Toolbar (not made by Oracle) in your browser. As far as I know, the Ask Toolbar isn’t going to harm your computer. But even if that’s true, “junk” is probably the most generous description I can give. It’s unnecessary and annoying, and it is another thing using your computer’s memory and processor.

Ask Toolbar installer
Think twice before clicking Next. If you leave the box checked, you’re installing junk on your computer.

You should always have the option to decline bundled software like this while installing an app, but the install packages make it as tricky as possible. There’s often a tiny checkbox at the bottom of a screen (checked by default), or the software you’re installing says it “recommends” you install this additional program. Well of course they recommend it; they’re getting paid to recommend it! Always go slowly while installing new software; make sure you’re only agreeing to install the software you’re intending.

ArcadeGiant installer
This “Special Offer” page will install malware called ArcadeGiant unless you click Decline (the greyed out button you didn’t notice).

Or sometimes the installer will show you a screen about a “Special Offer” with a bunch of legalese and the option to “Accept” or “Decline.” If you’re in a hurry or just aren’t prepared for it, you may click “Accept.” After all, who has time to sort through all this legalese, right? Voila! You’ve just installed junk that’s either bad for your computer or just unnecessary. Don’t assume that every step is necessary for installing your desired software; some steps are only trying to get you to install junk.

Sometimes the checkbox to install junk software is right on the website where you download your legitimate software. Adobe’s Flash Player website, for example, includes the option to install an additional program you didn’t ask for. Always keep an eye out for these kinds of offers and decline them.

Fake download links

Head to The How-To Geek’s original article for details on another trap you should look out for: fake download links. There are often multiple links that say “Download” on the page where you download your program. One of them is the correct link, and the others are all advertisements taking you somewhere you don’t want to be.

The How-To Geek article tells you how to know which link is legit. Plus, it’ll get you started on cleaning out junk you may have previously installed.

Let me know below what topic you’d like me to hit next!


1 – This of course isn’t always the case. There are so many apps submitted for approval on app stores, there’s no way the folks checking them can thoroughly review every app. Still, it’s a lot better than the situation for Windows.

Deal or no deal: scratch-and-dent and open-box items

A really bad gadget
Who really wants a fan, speaker, and microphone all in one product? (Photo courtesy of

Christmas has passed once again, and many of us will be heading back to stores to try to return gifts that just aren’t quite what we were hoping for. (Although the gift you’re returning probably isn’t as bad as this one.)

A lot of those items, if opened, can’t be put back on the shelf with their unopened brethren, so they become open-box items. Open-box items (and those with similar labels like “scratch-and-dent”) are taking up shelf space the retailer wants to use for newer products. So you can usually get a significant discount, and perhaps even the chance to haggle.

You’ll see more and more open-box items as you walk around stores over the next few weeks. Clearance, open-box, scratch-and-dent, floor model…what do these terms mean, and how do you know if you’re really getting a deal? Read on.

What’s in a name?

As Shakespeare once said, “…a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Well, it may be true for roses, but not necessarily for discounts.

The meanings of these terms often vary from retailer to retailer. So it’s best to clarify with a sales associate exactly why a particular item you’re looking at is being discounted. There are four main categories, regardless of what each store calls them. I’ll detail each below, along with what “gotchas” to look out for in each category.


The most straightforward (usually). Clearance is a pretty universal term for items that are no longer being shipped to the stores by the manufacturer (usually because a newer model has been released). The product has never been opened, but just isn’t the latest and greatest model. This is ideal for products that you don’t replace often or without frequent innovation (laptop case, headphones, washing machine, etc.).

For bigger purchases, I’d recommend checking online to see when that particular model was released. Clearance items are usually at least a year old. I’d be more cautious buying clearance items in categories that change a lot from year to year, such as computers or cell phones. Clearance items have the same warranty and return window as non-clearance items, so this can be a great deal if you’re willing to get a year-old product (but new to you!)

Floor model

Floor model items often aren’t labelled as such; sometimes they’re simply called “Open-box”. Sometimes you can tell an item is a floor model because it has no box and has the manufacturer’s stickers on it pointing out features. I would always ask to make sure that is indeed the reason for the discount.

This is basically a product that has been used as a display in the store. Once the store needs that display space for a newer model, the display is often sold. This means the product has usually been on clearance, and has now sold out in the store.

So my advice on floor models is very similar to my advice on clearance items, but with a couple additional caveats.

First, consider the way the floor model has or hasn’t been used while on display in the store. For example, items like speakers or TVs are often on at all times the store is open. If the TV has been on display for a year, that’s probably close to 4,000 hours the TV has already been used by the time you take it home. That’s probably more than you’ll use it during your first three years with it!

Our Electrolux vacuum
This was a great deal for us at 60% off. (Photo courtesy of Electrolux)

On the other hand, my wife and I bought a floor model vacuum recently for 60% off the original price. After looking in the vacuum aisle, I realized there were no outlets nearby, so I doubted this particular Electrolux vacuum had been operated much, if ever. In addition, I confirmed with a sales associate that their floor models had the same return policy as new items. We bought it, and have been extremely satisfied so far.

Second, make sure that you check as I did to make sure of the return policy. Since the product has been on display for months, there may be no box and you may find other parts missing or not working when you get it home to use it. For example, floor model TVs sometimes have missing remotes.


There can be some overlap between open-box items and scratch-and-dent items (the category below). When I refer to open box items, I’m thinking specifically of items that have been opened and returned, but have no visible damage.

Products are returned for all kinds of reasons, and most of the times sales associates have no way to tell you what the reason was for the return. This time of year, many products are returned not because of any defect, but because they simply didn’t quite meet the needs of the gift receiver. Maybe the Bluetooth speaker wasn’t loud enough, or was blue instead of red. You get the idea.

Sometimes the product is returned because the quality isn’t satisfactory or there’s a defect of some sort. Instead of contacting the manufacturer to solve the problem, it’s easier to simply return it to the store. And so these problems can pop up in open-box products on the shelf.

I recommend two things. First, check the ratings and reviews on the product. This will usually tell you if the product is usually of quality construction, or if there are common flaws people are noticing after purchase. Second, check on the store’s return policy. (Sound familiar yet?) If there’s a problem you didn’t notice in the store, you’ll want to be able to return it.


By scratch-and-dent, I refer to items that are discounted because of physical damage or cosmetic defects. This damage or defect shouldn’t affect the function of the product, otherwise it shouldn’t be for sale and you shouldn’t buy it. Most often, this appears in the form of a scratched refrigerator that was damaged in transportation, or some similar scenario.

First, talk to an employee to verify exactly what damage is causing the discount, and make sure it is documented on paper. If you have to return the item for some reason, you’ll need to be able to show that every bit of the damage was there when you bought it.

Second, check to make sure that the damage isn’t inhibiting any normal functions of the product.

If you’re satisfied with both of those checks, then the only question is whether you are willing to live with seeing the cosmetic damage on a regular basis. If the damage is to a side of the product that won’t be visible, all the better! If you’re willing to accept cosmetic damage, you can get fantastic discounts on great products this way.

Final thoughts

If you haven’t yet picked up on this theme yet, double-check with a sales associate or manager to make sure of the return policy before you plunk down your money.

For obvious reasons, all of these items (except clearance) won’t have the same inventory from store to store. Some stores (like Best Buy) have begun allowing you to search their open-box inventory online, specifying by stores near you.

Do you have a topic idea for me? Let me know below!


Amazon Prime: Is It For Me?

“10 to 14 days?!? I don’t have 10 to 14 days!!!”

Yes, it’s that time of year again, when an item you buy online with free shipping probably won’t get delivered before Christmas. So do you pay extra for the expedited shipping, or do you hope Uncle Larry is okay with getting his Indianapolis Colts Santa light-up hat a few days after Christmas?

If you do any of your shopping on Amazon (and who doesn’t?), you’ve surely seen the option in the checkout window for “FREE Two-Day Shipping with Amazon Prime.” As you finish your Christmas shopping, it looks very tempting. (And you can actually try it free for 30 days, which might help you get those last gifts delivered on time.)

But Amazon Prime is actually a lot more than just free two-day shipping. What does it include? And most importantly, is it for you?


Amazon Prime logo
Amazon Prime checkmark logo (Image courtesy of

The first and most well-known benefit to Amazon Prime is free two-day shipping on countless items on the Amazon website. Not every item is eligible, but most are, and they’re clearly indicated with the Prime checkmark icon you can see here. If you’re used to waiting over a week to get a package, you’ll be amazed how quickly your packages from Amazon arrive (and frankly two-day shipping across the country is a logistical marvel).

If you own a Kindle, you’ll also have access to borrow from Amazon’s collection of over 500,000 Kindle ebooks.[1] You can borrow a book per month, with no due date. Once you return it, you can check out another next month. (There are ways to borrow Kindle books and other ebooks through your local library, as well.)

Amazon Prime also gets you access to stream unlimited movies and TV shows through Prime Instant Video. This is similar to Netflix, so there are some well-known titles and plenty of titles you’ve never heard of. Also, there’s some content overlap with Netflix, so be aware of that if you subscribe to Netflix.

In addition to on-demand video, a Prime subscription also gets you access to Prime Music, a service that gives you access to unlimited music without ads. This is very similar to Spotify, although with a much smaller selection of music (for now) and you do get the ability to download music for offline listening.

Need more? How about unlimited cloud storage for all your photos? Prime Photos is yet another service Amazon includes for all Prime members. It allows you to upload unlimited photos to an Amazon cloud storage account. Photos add up to a lot of storage space, especially if you take them with a smartphone. Storing them in the cloud allows you to access them from anywhere you have Internet access.


These many perks aren’t exactly free: Amazon Prime costs $99 per year (a recent price increase from $79). So as you consider the many benefits mentioned above, weigh them against the up-front cost to decide if Prime is worth purchasing for your family. This works out to $8.25 per month. In comparison, a standard subscription to Netflix costs $8.99 a month.

If you’re a student, you can get some of the great benefits of Amazon Prime free for six months, namely the free two-day shipping and unlimited photo storage. After that (or instead), you can get all the benefits of Amazon Prime for half-price ($49).

Ease of use

Amazon shipping boxes
Amazon shipping boxes (Photo courtesy of

Free two-day shipping is easy to take advantage of with Amazon Prime. Once you’ve signed up for Amazon Prime, just buy stuff like normal and choose free two-day shipping at checkout.

Kindle books, video, music, and photo storage will depend on your familiarity with similar services. Amazon has a very helpful support section of their website, and this can ease your transition as you learn the ropes of downloading ebooks, watching movies, etc.

Is it for me?

Amazon Prime might be great for you, if:

  • You frequently purchase from
  • You would often watch movies or TV shows or listen to music through Amazon’s streaming services
  • You take lots of photos, and often run out of storage space
  • You own a Kindle

You should probably stay away from Amazon Prime, if: 

  • You rarely use
  • When you shop online, you are fine with free shipping that takes longer than a week
  • You have little interest in Amazon Prime’s non-shipping perks

If you have Amazon Prime, what’s been your experience?

Do you have a topic you’d like to know more about? Let me know below. Thanks!


1 – Kindle ebook borrowing only applies if you have a Kindle device. It won’t work with the Kindle app on an iOS or Android device.

Google Chromebook: Is It For Me?

Welcome to the first of a recurring series here on my Making Technology Simpler blog: “Is It For Me?” I’ll explain a product or technology, then help you figure out if it meets your needs. This week’s subject is the Google Chromebook.

Chromebook laptops
Google Chromebooks (Photo courtesy of

Google Chromebooks are a series of inexpensive laptops with great battery life, strong integration with Google, and little maintenance needed.

Chromebooks use an operating system created by Google called Chrome OS…the whole operating system is basically the Chrome Internet browser that many people use on Windows and Mac computers. The computer hardware is made by companies like Acer and HP.


Here’s another thing that makes Chromebooks unique among laptops: the whole operating system is designed to be used with Internet access, and the hard drive in the computer is tiny.

Google intended for these computers to be used in conjunction with Google’s cloud storage, so photos will need to be stored in Google+ and documents stored in Google Drive. (I wrote about cloud storage here.) With everything stored in the cloud, there’s no need for a big hard drive. The benefit of this is the computer will boot up very quickly.

This reliance on cloud storage has a couple other ramifications. On the positive side, no data backups are needed, since almost everything is in Google’s cloud. And once the computer needs to be replaced, you can sign into your next Chromebook with your Google account, and all your emails, documents, etc. will be available immediately. No file transferring necessary.


On the flip side, you will be limited in what your Chromebook can do without Internet access. You can do some document creation, for example, and the document will save to Google Drive when you connect to the Internet again. Internet access is becoming more widespread, however, and some Chromebooks will allow you to also connect to a 4G network through a carrier like T-Mobile.

Because almost everything you do on a Chromebook involves Internet access, the speed of the computer itself will be heavily influenced by the speed of your Internet connection. If you regularly use a slow connection, be prepared to pay for faster speeds to really enjoy a speedy Chromebook experience.

The other main limitation of Chromebooks is that you can’t install PC or Mac programs on it. So if you really need the full version of Microsoft Office or some specialized accounting program for your work, a Chromebook isn’t for you (unless it’s as a secondary computer). You’re limited to using Google’s apps and others available through the Chrome web store.

Ease of use

Chromebooks are low maintenance devices, partly because they update automatically and Google says they’re very secure and have no need for antivirus software.

Setup is also easy, to the degree that you’re already part of Google’s services. If you already use Google for email, documents, photos, and music, your new Chromebook will be ready to go as soon as you open it and sign in with your Google account.

If you use iTunes for your music and store documents or photos on your current computer, you’ll want to transfer all of it to Google’s appropriate online service before you make the switch to a Chromebook. (And if you have an iPhone, iPad, or iPod, know that they won’t sync with music on your Chromebook.)

Remember, third-party apps like iTunes or Microsoft Office can’t be installed on a Chromebook. So you’ll need to use a Google service or a third-party service that can be accessed online (such as Pandora for music streaming or the online version of Microsoft Office).

Is it for me?

A Chromebook might be great for you, if:

  • You use Google for all of your email, documents, photos, media, and calendar (or are willing to move all those things to Google)
  • You have Internet access almost all the time
  • You need a very portable computer with a battery that lasts all day
  • A low up-front cost is important to you

You should probably stay away from a Chromebook, if:

  • You need an application that only runs on a PC or Mac, like Adobe Creative Cloud, Microsoft Office, or iTunes
  • You prefer to store your documents, photos, or media locally (i.e. on your computer’s hard drive)
  • Your computer needs to handle intense tasks, like games or video editing

Have you seen or heard about another device or technology that’s made you ask, “Is it for me?” Let me know below, and I’ll write about it soon.



A week for giving thanks

Those of you who have read my blog for a while know I love helping people find technology products that meet their needs and their budget. This Friday is “Black Friday” here in America, meaning lots of normally sane people do relatively insane things like standing in lines for hours in freezing temperatures…to get awesome products at awesome prices.

That’s the idea at least. But before you go Black Friday shopping (or Cyber Monday shopping for that matter), check out this warning from The Wirecutter about Black Friday “deals”. Your purchases may not be the awesome steal you think they are.

If you need help finding the right purchase for you or a loved one, check out my TV buying guide and my computer recommendations.

And finally, let’s all remember that even without the biggest TV on the block or the newest phone in the office, we each have many things to be thankful for — and the greatest of these don’t run on electricity. So let’s linger on thanksgiving this week, and appreciate all the blessings we have around us this week and every day.


Mac keyboard shortcuts

In last week’s post, I gave a list of keyboard shortcuts that are helpful for Windows users. Mac users: you may be in the minority, but I haven’t forgotten about you. Today I’ll share some of the most commonly used and most useful Mac keyboard shortcuts.

Mac shortcuts in the menu
Keyboard shortcuts are listed next to commands in Mac OS X.

One thing I find very helpful on the Mac operating system is that the menus at the top of the screen include keyboard shortcuts for many of the commands in the menu. For example, in the photo to the right, you can see that to open a new window in Safari I would press Command (⌘) and N. The Command key, incidentally, is labelled with its symbol on Mac keyboards, but none of the other modifier keys are labelled with the symbols used in the menu lists. So below I’ve included a list of the symbols used for the most common modifier keys. (In the shortcuts I list below, I’ll use the written names like you see on the keyboard, but if you’re learning shortcuts from the menus this list will help.)

Command key
Control key
Option key
Shift Key
Caps Lock
fn Function Key

Common commands

  • Control + mouse-click   —–>   Right-click
  • Command + X   —–>   Cut the selected item
  • Command + C   —–>   Copy the selected item
  • Command + V   —–>   Paste the selected item
  • Command + Z   —–>   Undo an action
  • Shift + Command + Z   —–>   Redo an action
  • Command + Tab   —–> Switch between open apps
  • Command + Q   —–>   Quit the current app
  • Command + W   —–>   Close the current window (without quitting the app)
  • Command + M   —–>   Minimize the current window
  • Command + N   —–>   Open a new window in the current app
  • Command + F3   —–> Show the desktop
  • fn + Delete   —–>   Delete text like the Windows Delete key (the Delete key on a Mac normally acts like the Backspace key in Windows)

Working with files

  • Command + spacebar   —–> Open Spotlight to search your computer
  • Command + A   —–>   Select all items (or all text if in a document)
  • Command + Delete   —–>   Send selected item(s) to the trash
  • Return (or Enter)   —–>   Rename selected item
  • Click an item, then hold shift and click another item   —–>   Select all items in between the two you clicked
  • Click an item, then hold command and click other items   —–>   Select all items clicked

For a more comprehensive listing, check out Apple’s list or this list compiled by Dan Rodney.

Got one I missed? Let me know below.


Windows keyboard shortcuts

Douglas Engelbart mouse inventor
Douglas Engelbart with his newly invented mouse in 1968. Check out how big it is! (Photo courtesy of The New York Times)

Using a computer would not be nearly as easy as it is today without Douglas Engelbert’s most famous invention: the mouse.

We take for granted today how much more intuitive computers are because of the mouse. It was a remarkable invention.

Nevertheless, for certain tasks it’s still quicker to just use a keyboard, thanks to keyboard shortcuts.

Below I’ve compiled a list of the most common and helpful keyboard shortcuts for Windows. Feel free to print out this list, or copy it to a document on your computer for easy access. Once you start using the shortcuts more often, you’ll begin to memorize them, and that’s when you’ll really start to be able to work more quickly.

Windows logo key
The Windows logo key is circled in red.

By the way, “Windows logo key” refers to the key pictured to the right. Unless otherwise noted, press all keys in the combination at the same time.

Note: This list applies to Windows 8. Most of the shortcuts apply to previous versions as well, but if you use Windows 7 you may appreciate this list specifically for your version.

Common commands

  • F1   —–>   Show Help menu
  • Ctrl + X   —–>   Cut the selected item
  • Ctrl + C   —–>   Copy the selected item
  • Ctrl + V   —–>   Paste the selected item
  • Ctrl + Z   —–>   Undo an action
  • Ctrl + Y   —–>   Redo an action
  • Alt + Tab   —–> Switch between open apps
  • Alt + F4   —–>   Close the current item or page
  • Windows logo key + D   —–> Show the desktop
  • Windows logo key   —–>   Show/hide the start screen

Working with files

  • Windows logo key, then start typing   —–> search your computer
  • F3   —–>   Search for a file or folder
  • Ctrl + A   —–> Select all items (or all text if in a document)
  • F2   —–>   Rename selected item
  • Click an item, then hold Shift and click another item   —–>   Select all items in between the two you clicked
  • Click an item, then hold Ctrl and click other items   —–>   Select all items clicked

Give some of these a try, and I bet you’ll find you can save some time on the computer. If this list whets your appetite for keyboard shortcuts, check out Microsoft’s full list. Mac users: don’t fret; your list is coming next week.

UPDATE: A reader let me know that F11 will take an Internet browser fullscreen without having to find the little “Maximize” button in the corner. Handy!

Do you have any favorite shortcuts I’ve missed? Let me know below.


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