1. My Third Computer Build

    It’s been almost three years since I built my first custom PC and discussed it on this here money blog. In recent time, that Intel i5-2500K-based desktop has been used almost exclusively by our middle-school-aged daughter (as our old Dell PC, circa 2003, eventually went bye-bye). Should’ve seen that coming, right?

    Lisa and I have our own laptops, so we’re covered if either of us want to do basic home and office stuff. But if we want to game, we’re again relegated to the PS3 or PS4 … unless we feel like pushing Dear Daughter off the PC for a while. (Never fun for anybody, really.)

    The obvious solution, if you’re a geek like me? Build a new PC! Merry Christmas to me!

    Why Build? Why Not Buy Premade?

    Because it’s fun, mostly. And because there are certain features I want on (and not on!) my PC. And, yes, because sometimes your inner geek needs to come out and play.

    But beyond that, let’s consider my First Rule of PC Building:

    The more performance-heavy you want your PC to be, the more money you’ll save by building it yourself.

    Put another way: If you’re someone who’s only into light gaming, office apps, and watching videos on the ‘net, then odds are good you’d be better served (if price is your main consideration) to simply buy a Dell refurb unit and perhaps add a low- or mid-range graphics card to it. (That’s assuming you need a discrete graphics card at all. The integrated graphics in today’s Intel processors are pretty good.)

    I built a budget PC like this for my mother-in-law earlier this year, and when all costs were tallied up (she had no need for a discrete graphics card), it cost her a smidge under $460. (That’s parts only; my handful of hours of labor to research and build were gratis. She also reused her current monitor, keyboard, mouse, and printer.)

    Could she have gotten a Dell refurb more cheaply? Yes.

    Would we have known the quality of the parts Dell used? Nope.

    Would it have come with a bunch of useless, memory-clogging bloatware? Yep.

    So that $460 got my MIL:

    1) Good, quality PC components;
    2) A known level of expandability down the road; if required;
    3) A crapware-free PC; and
    4) The knowledge that if something goes haywire with the machine, or she just has a question, she can contact the dummy who built it and he can be on site pretty quickly if needed.

    If she’d gone the Dell route, it wouldn’t have hurt my feelings. But she seems quite pleased with her custom-built, budget PC. And I think she got a pretty solid Intel-based machine for her money.

    Building My New Gaming Machine

    New BuildAlas, because I want to play current games at high settings, building a sub-$500 PC was not in the cards for me. I also needed new peripherals (monitor, keyboard, and mouse) and had pretty specific desires in those areas. Which means more costs to tack on.

    Here’s my build list, as completed, with my prices in parentheses:

    CPU: Intel Core i5-4690K 3.5GHz Quad-Core Processor ($184.99)
    Motherboard: Asus Z97-PRO ATX LGA1150 Motherboard ($152.99)
    Memory: G.Skill Sniper Series 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1866 Memory ($56.99)
    Storage #1: Samsung 840 EVO 500GB 2.5″ Solid State Drive ($209.99)
    Storage #2: Western Digital Caviar Blue 1TB 3.5″ 7200RPM Internal Hard Drive ($49.99)
    Video Card: Asus GeForce GTX 970 4GB STRIX Video Card ($339.99)
    Case: Phanteks Enthoo Pro ATX Full Tower Case ($89.99)
    Power Supply: Rosewill Capstone 450W 80+ Gold Certified Semi-Modular ATX Power Supply ($34.99)
    Optical Drive: Asus DRW-24B1ST/BLK/B/AS DVD/CD Writer ($16.99)
    Operating System: Microsoft Windows 8.1 – 64-bit (OEM) (64-bit) ($84.99)
    Monitor: Dell S2340M 60Hz IPS Panel 23.0″ Monitor ($119.99)
    Wireless Network Adapter: Gigabyte GC-WB867D-I 802.11a/b/g/n/ac PCI-Express x1 Wi-Fi Adapter ($32.99)
    Keyboard: Razer Blackwidow Ultimate 2014 Wired Gaming Keyboard ($99.99)
    Mouse: SteelSeries Rival Wired Optical Mouse ($54.99)
    Freebie: Far Cry 4 Game (Bonus w/Video Card; Value $45)
    Total: $1,530

    All parts except the keyboard and mouse came from Amazon and Newegg, as I have free shipping from both. Prices shown include all rebates, including the mail-in variety. (I despise mail-in rebates with every fiber of my being, but money’s money. When it’s there, you take it.)

    Importantly, I was able to take my time with this build. I spaced out the purchases over several weeks to take advantage of Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales. I also used other offers which came my way during this time. (Newegg, in particular, is all about email coupon codes, if you didn’t know. So if you’re going to build a PC, get on their email list pronto. And be sure to use PCpartpicker.com to line up your components, compare prices, and sniff out any incompatibilities. It’s an insanely valuable resource.)

    Notes and Comments

    Space wasn’t an issue, so I had the luxury of choosing whatever size case I wanted. The Phanteks Enthoo Pro is about as big as PC cases come. It has no fancy, colored LEDs to make it look like a blinged-out spaceship (as my Cooler Master Storm Enforcer case did, which I used in my 2012 build). But the Enthoo Pro has crazy-good fans, terrific cable-routing tools (like built-in Velcro straps), and best of all, it has four easy-to-remove, easy-to-clean air filters. Since this PC will sit in the same room as our kitty-litter boxes, such filters are VITAL.

    Having a solid-state hard drive wasn’t in my plans originally. However, I took the leap, thanks to the many positive reviews I read on PC-building message boards. For those who care about such things, with Windows 8.1 and other startup software on the Samsung solid-state drive, this PC goes from power-on, to BIOS, to Windows 8.1 log-in in a brisk 16 seconds. Desktop is ready immediately thereafter.

    While I did purchase a Wi-Fi network card for this machine, that turned out to be unnecessary. In the week leading up to my build date, I worked up the guts to go crawling in our attic, where I wired several rooms in our house with Cat 6 cable. So my new PC’s connection is land-line fast, and the wireless card’s only job is to take up a small bit of space on the motherboard. There’s another $33 I might’ve saved.

    No, It Ain’t Cheap

    Fifteen hundred bucks is a bunch of money, to be sure. But drop the monitor, keyboard, and mouse (which lots of less-picky folks would reuse from old systems), and that’d shave the total down to $1,255.

    When I used these same parts to piece together a built-for-you machine at a couple of online places, their prices for a near-copy build never got below $2,000. And it still wasn’t an even comparison, as those places offered only no-name, cheaper monitors, and lower-quality power supplies. And no freebie Ubisoft game.

    At Dell/Alienware, it took $1,999 to get a PC with the same graphics card (GTX 970) and a slightly better CPU (i7 at 3.8GHz, vs. my i5 at 3.5GHz). But even at that $1,999 price, the Dell/Alienware machine was without a solid-state hard drive. It also had no monitor, no gaming keyboard, and no gaming mouse. Though the Alienware machine’s appearance certainly was, uh, nonstandard. I’ll give it that. If you’re into that sort of thing, maybe it’s worth the markup.

    In the end, I once again had a great time building a Windows-based PC for our household. Barring breakdowns, I feel pretty strongly that my $1,500 or so outlay will keep me in gaming bliss for years to come … and that I got quite a bit more for my money than if I’d gone the prebuilt route.



  2. Survey: Many Expect Student-Loan Forgiveness

    Well, can’t say I find this to be any surprise:

    NBC News: 25pct of Millenials Expect Student-Loan Forgiveness

    Note to those of you who run political campaigns: If a quarter of those Millenials with student-loan debt expect it to be dumped off on the taxpayer, well, I’m pretty sure they’ll line up to vote for anyone who promises to make it so.

    I’m also fairly confident that there’s a word for folks who borrow money without the intent to repay.

    (Doesn’t apply to governments or super-large automakers, of course; we’ve established that. But you know what I mean.)



  3. Still Here!

    Wow. Just checked in this here blog to find that I haven’t made a single post since June. Ack. How the time flies.

    Well, rest assured that you haven’t missed anything exciting in my world. And also that yes, I’m still here!



  4. Survey: 25pct Have No Emergency Savings

    In the latest non-shocking financial survey conducted by Bankrate, we find that roughly a quarter of respondents said they had NO emergency savings. Zero, zilch, zip, nada. A further 25 percent had less than three months’ worth of expenses saved, so altogether, about half of respondents had less than three months of expenses saved up.

    Bankrate: Financial Security Index, June 2014

    A cursory glance of my “Statistics” category of previous posts tells me that the dismal figures Bankrate reports here aren’t far off from what we’ve seen from other sources lately.

    Also from the poll: Among those earning $75k or more per year, only 46 percent have at least six months’ worth of expenses saved.

    Readers know that I love polls and stats like these, but gosh darn, how come these polls never seem to ask the ancillary question: For those with any savings, how much are they also carrying in revolving credit-card debt?

    Because something tells me that if these same respondents divulged THAT as well, then their “true cash savings” would emerge … and savings rates would be significantly worse.



  5. College Debt Comes Home to Roost

    A really fun article which I stumbled upon late Saturday evening:

    NY Times: Boomerang Kids Won’t Leave

    ShacklesI could go on and on about the scam that college debt has become, but I promised myself I wouldn’t do that again. Fact is, this country just moves from one bubble to the next, and Today’s Bubble™ is college debt.

    The article itself is a hoot. But I also highly recommend that you take a look at the 14-photo slideshow which accompanies it, because there you’ll unearth gems like this one from Alexandria, 28 years old, the proud owner of a $90k student-loan chain around her neck:

    I feel like I had no idea what I was doing when I took out those loans. They didn’t really sit us down and talk to us about financial aid or what our options were. I wish they would’ve had a class before you graduate high school, or like the first semester of college: ‘Let me teach you about basic student loans, math, finance, anything that you’re going to need now that you’re 18.’ I wish somebody would’ve been like, Alex, it is not a good idea to take out a loan that has 12.5 percent interest.

    Oh, Alexandria. As Upton Sinclair so succinctly put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.” The same goes for education: Don’t expect colleges and the rest of the “Big Education” industry to teach you all that basic financial and debt stuff, because their salaries depend on you NOT learning it.

    At least, not until you’ve run up student loans to the hilt and paid off all your bursar and textbook bills.




    For a 40-minute freebie financial documentary, Spent: Looking for Change sure got a lot of publicity. And really, I’m not sure why. Was it directed or bankrolled by someone I should know? (I’m not a film aficionado, in case you hadn’t noticed.)

    Spent: Looking for Change (Movie)

    I’ve watched Spent twice now, and found it to be a well-done film. Definitely worth viewing if you’re a money-dork like me. If you’re coming to it looking for answers to tough financial issues — yours, or our country’s — you’ll get none.

    What’s the Message?

    What does Spent: Looking for Change try to convey? Well, mostly, that there’s a huge segment of our country’s population which is “underserved” by Greedy Nasty Corporate Taxpayer-Backed Profit Machines, also known as banks.

    I’m sure lots of readers have taken me for a banking apologist over the years — check out my blast on overdraft whiners, for example. But the fact is that I have little sympathy either for banks OR for the people they regularly fleece. Am I a cold, heartless bastard? Yes, quite possibly. But one thing I know is this:

    The financial system in the U.S. isn’t set up to allow for people who either (1) make repeated poor decisions, or (2) hit a Big Misfortune in life (think major illness of a family’s breadwinner) to easily recover from those situations. If nothing else, Spent: Looking for Change makes that fact crystal-clear.

    But there’s another message I picked up from Spent, and I’m wondering if it’s what was intended. That message was:

    Everyone needs, and should be provided, the ability to borrow at low cost.

    Oh, how I vehemently disagree with this message. Every “victim” in the film eventually turned to debt as a “solution,” for whatever reason, and every one of them found that the debt they “needed” was either unavailable or came at a high cost.

    Okay. So where’s the problem?

    If you want to borrow money, and the bank pegs you as “high risk,” then high risk equals high cost. Period. That is basic economics. That is life. The earlier we learn that, the better. And if you as the director/producer/funding agent of this film believe that the “high risk equals high cost” precept is wrong or unfair, then I invite you to throw copious amounts of your own hard-earned money into the pile from which high-risk and/or low-income customers can borrow at rock-bottom interest rates.

    Let me know how it turns out, if you don’t mind.

    So I’m a Meanie.

    Would I prefer that the single mom from Texas, who lost her only means of transportation to a title-loan company, have found another way to come up with the funds she needed? Definitely I would. Would I have been willing to loan her that money myself, at low rates? No. Should someone else be forced to do so? No.

    Would I prefer that the young female entrepreneur in the film, who apparently cannot make leather bags fast enough to keep her customers’ orders filled, be able to manageably kick her business into the next gear? Yes, I would … in my heart. But in my head, I wouldn’t loan her the money to do it, nor would I ask anyone else to do so, because the $100k of student-loan debt she took out will always be first at the table when push comes to shove. (Those student loans appear to have been be a TERRIBLE HORRIBLE LIFE-CRUSHING decision here, by the way. But the film says little about this. Nor does it mention the fact that the “huge student-loan problem” we have is because WE HAVE SPENT DECADES HANDING OUT EASY-TO-GET LOANS IN THIS VERY ARENA.)

    Like so many things in life, there aren’t any easy answers here. But I am quite positive that “Let’s make debt more available!” isn’t any kind of an answer, easy or not.



  7. Capital One 360 and P2P Payments

    Many moons ago, I penned a personal review of the Capital One 360 Checking Account. Actually, I’d opened the account when it was still managed by ING Direct, but then Capital One came along and bought ING Direct’s U.S. assets, and so one of my most beloved bank accounts fell into the hands of a Nearly Too Big To Fail bank … and one for which I’ve never really cared all that much.

    I still have my Capital One 360 accounts (savings and checking), and I use them more than any other non-credit-card accounts I have, save one. To date, Capital One has given me no reason to look elsewhere for similar, online-only accounts.

    However, an email from reader “K” hit my inbox yesterday which other readers might find interesting:


    I just finished reading your review of your Capital One 360 account. Although I’m sure it’s wonderful for the account holder, there’s a little problem with outside account holders.

    I have an issue with all the online “toys” my husband insists on signing up for, mainly because I’m getting very much aware of how much “ME” is out there and available, and I’m trying to avoid volunteering more information if I can.

    Enter “Person2Person” transfers! Hubby owed me some money; nothing major, but since we’re in the same household, mere feet from one another, I kinda would have preferred he just cut me a check. “I just wanna try it.” Okay, fine, ignore my request and play with your internet crappola, because “…they only need the last 4 digits.” Yea, okay.

    So you already know how THAT went; they need the whole account number and routing number, I’d rather they did NOT have access to my checking account, but since he already used that one, that’s the one I have to give them. Fine. I tell him, he apologizes, whatever honey, they already have my information now, thanks.

    Oh, but it gets better, and here’s the part I’m guessing you were unaware of — the credit inquiry! A day or two after the transfer just happened to be the day I receive my monthly credit update from Experian. It shows me any changes in the last month, such as negative information, new accounts, closed account … and credit inquiries! There was one new inquiry: Capital One.

    I am anxiously awaiting their reply of my angry Nasty-Gram. I did NOT ask them for a line of credit, I did NOT open an account with them, and there were more than sufficient funds in my husband’s account. They had NO BUSINESS sticking their noses into MY credit rating! Pretty much everyone is aware that, of all the things that can lower your credit score, top of the list is “Credit Inquiries,” not so much as how MUCH it dings your score as the fact that it can happen a LOT and most people were unaware for a very long time. I am VERY aware, and they did NOT have authorization to do so by me.

    Just thought you’d appreciate the additional information. Thanks for listening to my rant.

    — K.

    Now, for my part, I’ve used the Person-2-Person transfers mentioned by “K” precisely one time, and that was a test transfer to my wife (whose account info ING Direct/Capital One already had). So if slinging out credit inquiries is a matter of course for Capital One in these transactions, they’d have had no reason to do it in my case.

    If this is what they do for new not-really-a-customer customers, well, it fairly sucks. I haven’t utilized the P2P transfer feature for anything more than a test, and won’t be doing so now, either.

    UPDATE: It Wasn’t a Capital One Inquiry.

    Turns out that upon closer inspection, the credit inquiry which K. saw on her report was from HSBC, not Capital One. The fellow from Capital One who’d responded to K.’s “Nasty Gram” had told her as much — that Capital One did not perform credit inquiries on the accounts related to P2P transfers.

    When K. traced the phone number associated with the inquiry, it pointed to HSBC. Their inquiry (for an unrelated card) just happened to coincide with the timing of the P2P transfer at the center of this here blog post.

    So Capital One 360 customers and P2P transfer users can rest easy. No willy-nilly credit inquiries here!



  8. Redux: About Half Have 3 Months’ Expenses Saved

    We just keep coming back to the same dismal stats on savings, over and over again. This time, the 2014 Scorecard from the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED) informs us that, among other tidbits, 44 percent of us have less than three months’ worth of savings tucked away.

    CFED: 2014 Assets and Opportunity Scorecard

    The figures aren’t far off from those released in June of 2013 in a similar report from U.S. News. We hit the same savings ballpark in an Allstate survey, too.

    From a summary article:

    Nearly half (44%) of households in the United States are “liquid asset poor,” meaning they have less than three months’ worth of savings — conservatively measured as $5,887 for a family of four, or three times monthly income at the poverty level.

    I’m not sure what world these folks live in, but $5,887 doesn’t seem to be anywhere close to a reasonable measurement for a three-month cushion for a family of four. Which suggests to me that the figures are, in fact, really worse than what’s reported here.

    CFED also says that one quarter (25%) of middle class households (those earning $56,113 to $91,356 annually) have less than three months of savings. In a related note, they divulge, about 56 percent of us have subprime credit scores. Also, in 2012, the average college debt level for graduates was $29,400.

    You can grab a PDF copy of the 2014 report — chock full of fancy graphs, graphics, and (of course) admonitions for government-policy intervention — right here.



  9. Annual Holiday Missive

    It’s that time of year again — the time where I wish my readers a great holiday season, and suggest that those who aren’t already doing it should make Christmas gift-giving a regular monthly bill. In other words, save up for it throughout the entire year.

    Now, we save up for gifts (all of them — not just Christmas) every month inside our regular Freedom Account saving. We save up for gift-giving the same way we save up for our six-month car-insurance payments. I know about how much we spend each year on gifts, so I just take that amount, divide by 12, and set aside that much each month … same as we do for every other non-monthly, recurring bill.

    For me personally, I cannot emphasize enough how much less stressful it’s made holiday budgeting and spending.



  10. Wee Little Status Update

    For those three or four folks who may be wondering what’s happened at this here money blog, well, the answer is: Not much.

    If I had any gripping tales of financial abandon to tell, I’d do it. I scan the news every couple of days to see what’s going on in the world of personal finance; certainly nothing life-changing has popped up. (Well, ObamaCare is about to kick in. That ought to be good for a few million laughs. Or tears.)

    The Federal Reserve is still doing its best to ensure that “saving” remains a four-letter word, that savers must be well and duly punished, and that stock markets cannot be allowed to drop more than a few percent at a clip. Nothing new there. This is what happens when you have an economy that “grows” only when debt expands and risk-asset prices rise. No “growth” if people/entities/governments don’t keep taking on more and more debt and risk. What could possibly go wrong?

    On the personal front, our family savings got about $20k lighter in September. That’s what getting a new roof, new siding and windows throughout, and gutter installation will do to you. Until this month, the largest check I’d ever written was for our home central A/C system back in 2007. I can tell you that the A/C payment felt like a sneeze compared to the exterior repairs. However, we had well more than enough liquid savings to cover it, and I’m mighty thankful for that. (‘Tis also nice to pull up in your driveway each day after work and NOT cringe at the outward appearance of your home. The old homestead looks pretty nice now, if I do say so myself.)

    And that’s my little roundup, for now. Back to your regularly-scheduled nap, kids!