Twitter to the Rescue

September 6, 2011 1 comment

I have never been a fan of Twitter. Facebook has been my social network of choice for quite some time now. I have always felt lost in the sea of tweets that bombard me every second that I am on Twitter. Information overload is something that I do not react well to :)

I realized the true potential of Twitter a few weeks ago. I was chasing my local car dealer for getting an extended warranty quote. Usually the dealer is very responsive and prompt but in this instance I never got a reply. As a last ditch effort, I tweeted this:

18 mins later I had this reply to the tweet in my mailbox.

Honestly, I was really shocked. I had been sending reminder emails which no one bothered to reply and a single tweet got the company’s attention in 18 mins! I always thought that the only way to really grab a big corporations attention was to jump off a roof, but things seem to be different in the Twitter era. A simple tweet had managed to give a customer the attention that he deserves.

So I replied providing the details about my issue and I received another prompt acknowledgment.

3 hours later I had the information that I had requested for sitting in my mailbox! The speed of response was phenomenal. Within a few hours, there was an issue that was escalated, resolved and responded to. Hats off to the Social Networking team@AutoNation for the superb job.

Vacation Homes – An alternative to hotel stays

July 11, 2011 1 comment

Vacation Homes are residential properties that are let out for short stays. On one of my recent vacations with 2 other families, we decided to give vacation homes a try. The whole experience was nothing short of impressive. We got a well maintained property a few miles from Orlando for prices much lesser than what a similar hotel would have cost.

We got a 5 bedroom palace with a private pool, jacuzzi and a game room. There was so much to do in the house that we end up spending most of the time in the house. Morning by the swimming pool; afternoon playing foosball, table tennis and pool; and in the evening drinking by the pool. That was the itinerary that we had planned and we damn well struck to it :).

Pictures courtesy Akshaja...Click for a larger image

Few pointers for locating and staying in a vacation home:

  • Finding  a place: If you google for vacation homes, you will get plenty of results. Most of the listings have photos to give you a view of the actual house. I recommend going though airbnb. Airbnb is a website which lists vacation homes. The property owners get an option to upload pictures and mention details of the property. Visitors get to review the property to give you an idea of if the property owners description matches the reality. The best part about airbnb is that all payments are processed through them/Paypal. Airbnb holds all the payments till 24 hrs after the start of the booking. I was much more comfortable with this system rather than transferring the entire amount to an unknown person. (Link to the property where we had stayed)
  • Watch out for hidden costs. Most of the vacation homes have a minimum number of days of stay required. Some impose a cleaning charge. Some have a tax component over and above the price quoted. Be sure to contact the property owner and verify the net cost of the stay.
  • Be sure to google and find restaurants that deliver to the vacation home. Though you have a full kitchen, some people prefer not to cook while on vacations.
  • If you are opting for a property with a private pool/jacuzzi, enquire about the heating charges beforehand. It takes a long time to heat the water, so if you need hot water in the pool, make that decision while booking and inform the property owner so that the water is nice and warm when you check in.
  • Most vacation homes have basic supplies available. There will be a few rolls of toilet paper, kitchen towel, garbage bags, soap etc. available. Any thing extra will have to be purchased separately. Instead of running around to buy stuff while on vacation, it will be a good idea to pack a few of those from home.
  • The place I checked in had the entire kitchen setup with utensils to cook for an army. But, it is a nice idea to check with the property owner for specifics.
  • Vacation homes, unlike hotel rooms, do not service the rooms during the duration of the stay. You get a clean house. You stay there like you stay at your home keping it clean to your liking. And the house is reset to its original state when you check out. There is no maid who makes the bed in the morning. Keep that in mind before you start messing up the house :)
  • After your stay make sure to write a review on airbnb. This will help future vacationers.
There are other websites which i had discovered. I have not tried them but they look credible enough.
Happy vacationing!

First step to getting your personal finances right


A wise finance professor, who used to teach me during my management degree, used to say that the first step to your managing personal finance is to know where and how much you are spending. And he had warned us that the task may seem very easy, but actually keeping track of your finances every day for months and years is not a joke. A few months back, I started keeping track of my finances. Why? Because every month end me and my wife use to sit down and wonder where our money vanished. We seem to be making enough, but periodically the pot seemed to dry up by the end of the month.

We started off by filling paper notes and note books with our expenses. Then moved on to spreadsheets. It was tough but I still managed to religiously update my finances to an spreadsheet at the end of the day. I have a poor memory (for the nerdy: low RAM not ROM!) and if I do not note down my expenses at the end of the day, there is a pretty good chance that I would have forgotten about it by the next day. So, I had a spreadsheet on Google docs, which was accessible from my laptop, home PC and my phone. After 4 weeks of note taking, I finally knew where, when and how much I was spending.

A lot of people I know equate expense tracking to expense cut downs. I track expenses just to answer the question – “I earned x this month. Why am I on the 20th of the month without any left?”. If I had an infinite income, I would not have bothered with this, but till then…The beauty of expense tracking is that you automatically identify where you are spending a lot of money and then cut down on it without any effort. It just happens…

I did expense tracking for another 2 weeks, missed a few days and then lost interest. It was just not practical to remember to open up an excel spreadsheet every single day. Fast forward a few months. I discovered Mint!

Mint.com is one of the best websites for people who have the remote desire to someday know/master your personal finance. Setting up an account is easy and free. Just enter your basic information, provide mint with login credentials for all your financial accounts and that’s it. What Mint does is simple. It aggregates all your accounts into a single view. Spent $10 on coffee at Dunkin Donuts on Visa and $500 on Delta on Amex. Fret not, they all come together into a single view on Mint. Mint automatically organizes and categorizes the  transactions for you. Comparing it to my earlier expense tracking method, the only thing that I need to do with Mint it to validate. Note taking, organizing, categorizing is automatically done.

I make it a point to log into to Mint atleast once in few days and validate the transactions. Mint automatically ports your expenses into reports and easy to understand displays. It just makes me want to come back. I have started using their Budget and Goals features, and I am loving that too.

Conclusion: I will keep it simple…Mint is a must try for every one!

Note: The flipside to Mint is that it only works with US banks presently.

Drivers License – The only ID you will ever need


Continuation of the Settling down in US series. Next comes the Drivers License.

The Drivers License (DL) process could be different across states. But as far as I understand it is almost the same everywhere. From a disclaimer perspective, I am describing the process followed in Broward County, Florida. If anyone knows of the differences with other states through personal experience, do add a comment so that it can help others reading this post.

The DL is needed for…you guessed it right…driving in the US! But above and beyond that it serves as the perfect form of ID. After getting the license done, that is the only document I have provided for address and identity proof. Everyone accepts it!

When: If you have an India drivers license, then you have upto 6 months to get a local drivers license. But, you will need a drivers license to buy a car and register it under your name. So, unless you plan to drive rental cars for 6 months, drivers license should be an ASAP commodity.

Where: There are numerous DMV offices across the state. You can goto any one in the state for the license. I have heard that getting a license without an appointment is time consuming. So, I took an online appointment for a Class E Drivers License. Again, not all DMV offices give out online appointments. So, figure out the one closest to you with an online appointment available.

Also, if your choice of date and time is not available, check back later. I have seen lot of cancellations happen and slots getting freed up. This is partly due to the fact that one just needs to provide the name and email address for booking an appointment. For my own license, I had 3 appointments blocked. The idea was that depending on the work at office, I will goto the one which is most convenient and cancel the others :)

What Documents: Two proofs showing your current address. The proofs have to be from different agencies i.e. you cannot get 2 address proofs from the same bank. Also, the address proofs have to be in original (if possible). The DMV is a little fussy about internet printouts which do not look like originals. Possible address proofs are your power bill, water bill, home phone, internet, other utility bill, insurance, bank letter etc. I had provided my renter’s insurance copy and the lease agreement I had with my apartment community.

If you are staying with a friend and don’t have any address proofs in your name, there is a form available on this website which can be used.

Procedure: (1) Be on time (2) Complete the vision test (3) Complete the two online tests (Road signs and traffic laws, I think) (4) Complete the driving test (5) Pay, get the temporary license printout and then head back home.

The original license comes in the mail in around 1-2 weeks.

Important Links:

- Florida DMV for online appointment: http://www.flhsmv.gov/

- Course material for the online tests:

http://cdn.nationalsafetycommission.com/handbooks/2011/florida_driver_2011.pdf

- Document requirements: http://www.gathergoget.com/

SSN – Your Passport for settling down in the US


As written in the last post, I am going to take you through the important and most confusing steps that are needed for settling down in the US. I will try to make things as simple as possible. If you need more details, head out to Google! First in the series is about SSN.

Just like you need your visa and I-94 to enter the country, the SSN is the first piece of official document that you need to get settled. The Social Security Number (SSN) is tied to virtually every piece of “credit” that is extended to you. Let me explain that further. In my home country, credit is when you take a loan from a bank etc., but in US credit can be service credit also. A postpaid cell phone is credit. A postpaid cable service is credit. In short, for almost anything you do, you will be asked for your SS Number.

Where to apply: There are Social Security Offices in every region. Look at this page, to locate the one nearest to you.

What will you need: Fill the SS-5 form and carry a printout with you. Along with the form, you will need your passport and I-94 in original. I was not asked for any other document. Remember to fill out the correct future address i.e. the address where you/someone else who can receive the SSN card on your behalf will be available after 4-40 days.

When to apply: There are mixed responses to this. Technically you can apply for an SSN the day you land in the US but, I have read it somewhere that 2 weeks is the optimum time after which you should apply. Why wait for 2 weeks? SSN gets processed after your documents are received from the port of entry. If you apply before the documents are received then you application goes into a different workflow. If you apply when the documents are already available in the system and the workflow is faster.

Though there is no official confirmation, I personally believe that it is true because of the time taken for SSN processing for my friends. A person I know applied the next day after reaching here and got the SSN after 4 weeks. Another person applied for it after 2 weeks and got the SSN within 4 days. This could have been completely a matter of chance…but I tend to steer away from that thought.

I applied, what next : Wait! That is the only thing that you can do. Presently there is no option to check for the status of the SSN processing other than visiting the SSA office physically.

Advice:
- Be early to the SSA office. There is a queue system and the earlier you reach, the faster you can leave.
- Don’t dress up. There is no interview/qualification process. You do not need to be in your best form.
- The form, passport and I-94 are the only things you are going to need. Skip the bulky certificates folder that you carry around with you.
- Once you get you SSN card, keep it safe. Memorize the number. You will need it at a lot of places. And, if you do are the kind of person who likes to play safe, then scan and keep a copy of the SSN card on some secure online storage that you have.

Note: My wife is on L2 visa and I tried applying for her SSN too but, I was turned down with the reason that unless she gets an EAD she will not be eligible for SSN. I know there are posts online which speak differently, but this was my experience.

Another Aggregator – This time for reward points

April 26, 2011 2 comments

If you travel frequently and like to milk the travel companies by making most of what they offer, then this post will be interesting to you. AwardWallet is an online aggregator of reward points. Have some points with Hilton, Kingfisher, Delta, Jet and Marriott? Bring them all together at AwardWallet.


The Pros:

- No need to separately log into the individual company websites ever except for redemptions.

- Single view of all your points across all the programs

- Weekly updates (if configured) of point changes.

- Notification of any points that are about to expire


I travel frequently and this website has been a blessing for me. I have added all my hotel, air, rental car rewards program to AwardWallet. When I am planning a vacation and need to redeem, I can see which points stack up and am able to make better informed decisions.

Moving to the US – One bit at a time!

April 26, 2011 1 comment

The last few months of my life is best summarized as re-settling. My organization offered me a position based out of the US for a few years and after a lot of deliberation, we decided to take the plunge. Why the deliberation – well, I cannot admit that I did not think twice, can I? :) Back to the deliberation part – If I was still single, I would have taken the call without even blinking my eye. Marriage brings with it its own set of worries. Some are direct worries like what happens to my home loan payment when my wife’s salary dries up. And, then there are indirect worries like what will happen to me if my wife is jobless, at home and has all the time in the world to think evil :D

To put a long story short…after all the deliberation, we decided to grab the opportunity and leave the rest to fate. Making the decision was the easiest part of “the move”. The logistical nightmare that followed was something that I was just not ready for. We pretty much sold off everything (that can be sold) that we had in India and bought similar stuff in US. The buying was very very interesting…but the selling part was hard.

It took me around 8-10 weeks to get fully settled in the new place. I have been enjoying the settled (read lazy) life every since. We now have a beautiful apartment (which my wife loves), a good car (which I love) and each other for company!

US is spoilt for choices. As good as it looks on face value, it is the biggest challenge that a new person will find in this country. For everything that you need there will be a hundred variations, produced by a million vendors and on sale at a gazillion retailers. In India, we just drove upto the “Supermarket” (Spar in my case) and bought everything from there. We tried to follow the same approach here too :) But unfortunately still haven’t covered all the supermarkets in our area!!

In the next few posts I will try to write about the basic things (like SSN, DL etc.) that need to be done to get settled. The main problem which I faced was with the amount of information available online. There is an overload of information already. Why am I writing about the same topics again? (Pick one or all relevant)
- Simply!
- To add to the online clutter!
- Because I want to share my personal experience!

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