Lisa Rowan - The Penny Hoarder

Need a reason to stop your procrastination habit of endlessly browsing local real estate listings?

How about all the regrets homebuyers end up shouldering?

A June 2017 online survey of more than 2,200 adults by real estate website Trulia revealed that 51% of those polled who had a role in choosing their current home — whether they own or rent — have regrets.

That’s a decrease of just 1% since 2013, when home prices were at their lowest in the wake of the recession.

What is it that makes so many people feel such regret about where they live? There’s not just one aspect of the buying or renting process to blame, but Trulia did narrow it down to a few key factors.

Major Homebuying and Renting Regret Culprit: Size

Bigger isn’t always better, but when it comes to buying a home, it’s probably best to size up just a smidge.

The size of the home was a major factor in homebuying regrets. Forty-two percent of homeowners surveyed who said they had regrets admitted they purchased a home that was either too big or too small.

Anyone who watches HGTV could have told you that, as every homebuying episode ends with “Well, the kids will have to sleep on bunk beds since there aren’t enough bedrooms” or “There are zero closets in this house, but we’ll make it work!”

Buying a home can be a major triumph, especially if it’s your first. But if you don’t take a good look at your needs — and your expected needs a few years down the road — you might end up feeling cramped with 29 years left on your mortgage.

Financial Security vs. Homebuying

But the size of the home isn’t the only regret. The buyer’s wallet size can also cause some regret.

Twelve percent of people who moved into their home after 2012 “said they wished they had been more financially secure before they decided, compared to 6% of Americans who found their home in 2012 or prior,” Trulia's report explained.

If that rate of regret isn’t enough for you, consider this: Twenty-six percent of people in households with incomes of $100,000 or more said they believe they couldn’t afford to buy a home in today’s market.

Millennials Lead the Regret Parade

Isolate 18- to 34-year-olds, and a whopping 71% of those surveyed have regrets about their home choice or the process they undertook to choose it.

For college-educated millennials, student loan debt is a major factor in how a twentysomething settles into adult life. The intricacies of the housing market and the buying process are the major roadblocks for cash-strapped millennials.

And some millennials looked at the effects of the housing crisis and decided their American dream didn’t involve owning a home, MarketWatch notes.  

“Americans should be keen to avoid the issues that most commonly lead to regrets: picking the wrong size home, failing to get enough information about the home and neighborhood and, ultimately, making the right choice when it comes to buying or renting,” Trulia’s report concluded.

For now, maybe watching other people struggle through the homebuying process on HGTV is enough to satiate your homebuying dreams?

Lisa Rowan is a writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder.

Scott Angelo doesn’t have time to wait for a break in this Florida downpour.

He dashes from the car to the front door of Oceana Coffee’s primary location, the Roasting House, shakes off the rain and disappears.

A short while later, he emerges from a back storage room, pushing a plastic cart loaded with buckets of what looks like thousands of large green garden seeds  — and a laptop.

[caption id="attachment_61128" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] Scott Angelo makes roasting coffee an artform on the company's industrial roaster. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder[/caption]

The green seeds are actually coffee beans. The computer helps him keep a close eye on time and temperature.

He’s ready to roast some coffee, 11 pounds at a time.

“A Business Born Out of Desperation”

Oceana Coffee is a second career for Scott, formerly an engineer, and his wife Amy, previously a teacher. After they met in Florida’s Treasure Coast area, they hit the road together — or, rather, the high seas. They worked on the same private yachts, traveling for seven years before settling in Brisbane, Australia, for a while.

The coffee there? It was really good.

“We realized what a fresh roast really was,” Amy says.

[caption id="attachment_61126" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] Scott inspects freshly roasted coffee beans. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder[/caption]

When they got back to Florida in 2009, they just weren’t satisfied with the quality of the coffee they could get. So Scott started reading online forums and experimenting with roasting techniques to see if he could replicate the roasting style that was so popular in Australia.

“It was a business born out of desperation,” Amy admits.

Scott bought an air popper on eBay for $35, then reengineered it to roast coffee, a quarter cup of beans at a time. But that wasn’t going to work for long for a couple who admits they can easily drink four cups of coffee a day. Each.

So they started roasting small amounts of green coffee beans on the stovetop and in the oven. They tried several other methods that all “failed miserably.”

The next best solution: baskets on a rotisserie barbecue in Amy’s mom’s garage, where they could roast five pounds at a time.

Friends and family caught on to Scott and Amy’s coffee. They set up a simple website and would meet people in gas station parking lots to hand off their orders like “your local caffeine dealer,” Amy explains.

They spent Saturday mornings at farmers markets convincing people their coffee was worth the price, and handed out sample after sample at local events. The couple knew the rotisserie grill wasn’t going to do it anymore.

An Early Focus on Jobs — and Careers

[caption id="attachment_61117" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] Oceana employee, Audie prepares a latte for a customer at its roastery. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder[/caption]

The hulking, grass-green coffee roaster that sits by the front door of the roasting house has been a staple of Oceana Coffee since 2011. The Angelos bought it from a business that had closed in North Carolina, had it delivered, and opened up shop in Tequesta, Florida, after selling their house in Australia.

“It was always open to the public,” Amy remembers, “which was probably a crazy idea, because we had a 6-month-old and a 3-year-old.”

While customers would pop in during the day for by-the-pound purchases or a cup of joe to go, Oceana Coffee was perhaps busiest after dark.  

Scott still had a full-time job as a project manager, working long days before spending hours peering into the roaster at night. Amy would bring the kids and dinner to the shop so they could all eat together in the 900-square-foot space.

“As much as we would like to micromanage and get in and do it ourselves, we’ve never been able to because we have young kids,” Amy says. “That’s forced us from the beginning to hire people.”

Between their two locations (the second, a coffee lounge, opened in February 2015) and their wholesale business, Scott and Amy have about 20 employees, several of them full-timers on salary.

“If I have to make every cup of coffee here, we’re going to be a mom-and-pop shop forever,” Amy says. “But if we can create some great jobs for local people… we can grow this thing exponentially.”

“It Nearly Killed Us”

“I can pull money from all sorts of places,” Amy says. She and Scott got a loan to open their coffee lounge, which surprised her since bank lending has been so tight since the recession. “Much of the business was built on American Express,” she shrugs.

[caption id="attachment_61132" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] Audie checks out a customer who popped in during a rain storm. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder[/caption]

Amy doesn’t deflect or mince words when she talks about the brief period when Oceana had three retail locations.

“It nearly killed us,” she says softly. “It nearly put us out of business.”

Shortly after they opened their larger coffee lounge a few blocks away from the roasting house, Scott and Amy opened a third location, about 20 miles north in Stuart, Florida.

But it was too soon for such rapid expansion and it drained both time and money. They worked with SCORE small business mentors for a crash course in their financials and how they could turn that mistake into a positive experience.

The Angelos sold the location less than a year after they opened it in March 2015. “It was the best possible scenario, because we gained a wholesale customer,” she says.

Dropping the third location gave the Oceana Coffee team brain space to prepare for an increasing number of wholesale orders.

[caption id="attachment_61119" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] Audie prepares coffee for sale by the pound. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder[/caption]

More than a year ago, Whole Foods agreed to carry their coffee. The initial order finally arrived in May. They’ll start in Florida’s four Palm Beach County stores, with potential to sell to locations beyond their home base.

They spent $13,000 on a weigh-and-fill machine that packages coffee without human hands needing to scoop and weigh the beans. They bought a machine to pack K-cups, which will also be on the shelves at Whole Foods. And they have 60 other wholesale accounts.

Last year, they roasted more than 47,000 pounds of coffee. This year? Scott stays conservative, while Amy is willing to throw out bigger numbers. It’s going to top 50,000, for sure. Maybe 60,000. Maybe more.

Looking Ahead, 35 Pounds of Coffee at a Time

Oceana Coffee has won 11 medals, four of them in Australia where their preferred roasting style was born.

[caption id="attachment_61121" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] Scott hangs out near the roaster to monitor each step of the process. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder[/caption]

“I must be doing something right if I haven’t done any schooling for coffee and I’m entering and winning competitions,” Scott says.

In May, Scott and Amy welcomed a new roaster to help them speed up production.

It roasts 35 pounds at a time, and its laptop hookup allows for automation of the roasting process for various recipes. Scott’s apprentice, if he ever finds the perfect one, will be able to press a button to activate one of Scott’s tried-and-true roasting profiles.

They’re thinking about keeping the green roaster too, and for now, they sit side by side at the roasting house.

Scott and Amy both admit they’re still learning about the many ways to roast, brew and serve coffee. Scott would love to work with farms instead of a broker, to build relationships at the point of origin for the coffee he roasts. He’s been invited to visit farms, but has been too busy roasting to take them up on the offers.

More retail is on the horizon, which will require more jobs, he says. “We’re going to work together to teach people while delivering great coffee.”

Meanwhile, his original air popper-turned-coffee roaster sits in a basket tucked into a corner of the coffee lounge, a brushed-aside relic of desperation and determination.

Lisa Rowan is a writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder.

Heather Comparetto (IG: heatheretto) is a photographer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s exhibited her photographs internationally, loves the ocean, and enjoys coffee and tacos (but not together).

Do the labels on your groceries matter to you?

Or do you brush aside brand loyalty and grab whichever option is cheapest?

A new company is trying to meet you in the middle with a fixed-price selection of groceries, household and personal items in its online store, where everything costs $3.

Brandless, which launched last week, is trying to remove the “BrandTax” from the stuff you buy on a regular basis. All its products have minimalistic labels that explain only the product and nothing about Brandless itself.

Ignore that “BrandTax” is suddenly a compound, trademarked buzzword here. It is actually a real thing.

Brandless identifies it as “the hidden costs that come with buying a national brand.” A lot of the hidden costs come not from the quality of the product, but instead from the way the product is marketed to customers.

Big brands spend big money to get their products in front of customers, whether through ad campaigns, partnering with rebate apps, paying for prime shelf space at grocery stores or all of the above.

So instead of fighting to get its products on your grocery store shelves, Brandless is going directly to consumers by selling online. It’s disrupting something, right?

Not this time. Not yet.   

Grocery Shopping Is More Complex Than Ever

Online shopping and its myriad algorithms have had a major hand in upending the game where companies with big budgets get the most airtime. Seemingly endless options lead most shoppers to choose many items based on price alone, rather than their attachment to a certain brand. The glut of options online and savvier shoppers at grocery stores mean the only thing left to compete on is price.

“Brandless is about limiting the choice,” co-founder Tina Sharkey told Marketplace. “It's about curating the just what matters. It's overwhelming to use a web service with a database of millions and millions of products to figure out the ones you want, how to shop, how to identify the values.”

Brandless is up to 115 products so far, with categories for food, personal care and beauty items, and even office supplies and basic kitchenware.

Everything Brandless offers looks nice, but what market gap is it really trying to fill?  

The company isn’t even claiming that it’ll save you tons of money. It’s about getting quality without high prices. But that just-right Goldilocks combo does come with a catch. Orders don’t get free shipping until you’ve spent $72. Brandless B.More members who pay $36 per year only have to spend $48 to get free shipping.

Brandless will grow, but with current offerings of just more than 100 products, there’s no compelling reason to go online, choose $50 or more worth of home goods, and wait patiently for them to arrive.

Is Store-Brand Stigma Over?

Shoppers have already found ways to deal with the paradox of choice, a phrase coined by Barry Schwartz, who argues, “With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all.”  

Now, some store-brand products have cult followings (we see you, Trader Joe’s everything). Some entire chains, like Aldi, have built a whole business model on shoppers caring more about price tags than looks.

At warehouse clubs, part of the appeal is access to a lot of private-label goods. On Amazon, the company’s own lines are some of the fastest selling.

And grocers are relying so much on their private-label brands being moneymakers, they’re suing each other over naming rights.

People are done caring about what’s fancy. They have abandoned some of the need to keep up appearances. They’ve moved on to cheap and easy.

So the barbecue sauce you could snag from Brandless for $3 might cost less at your local grocery store. Same for the cotton balls, the dish soap and the bag of pasta. Brandless makes it easy to shop by values — organic, gluten-free, kosher, non-GMO — but elevated house brands have cropped up in traditional grocers too.

“Everything’s $3” is a nice calling card, but it may not be enough during these grocery wars.

Lisa Rowan is a writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder.

How closely do you read the fine print when you sign up for a credit card, bank account or payday loan?

By signing on a bunch of dotted lines without having fully squinted at all the legalese details, you may have given up your right to sue your financial institution as part of a class-action group.

But a new rule the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau adopted last week seeks to give you the right to sue.

Is Arbitration-Free the Way to Be?

By limiting customers to arbitration or individual small-claims lawsuits, financial institutions prevent customers affected by the same practices from pooling their power as a group. Arbitration can be prohibitively expensive, and filing in small-claims court can take a long time and comes with fees of its own.

The CFPB illustrates the issue with this example in a video: If your bank charges you $20 by mistake and won’t give you a refund, you probably don’t have the time or money to sue the bank on your own. You just say “Goodbye, money, nice knowing you” and resign yourself to the power of the bank. But who knows how many other people who use the same service have experienced the same inconvenience?

The new rule wouldn’t prohibit arbitration clauses as long as those clauses don’t restrict consumers from taking part in group legal action. Specific language for such clauses in new contracts will have to follow guidelines set forth by the CFPB. If you open a new account after the rule goes into effect, you’ll have this additional protection.

The new rule could go into effect next year, unless Congress blocks it using the Congressional Review Act, which allows lawmakers a final say on new federal regulations. If Congress doesn’t like the CFPB rule when it gets published in the Federal Register, members have 60 legislative days (days when Congress is actually in session) to vote against it by majority vote.

Why Big Banks Hate Class-Action Lawsuits

By limiting the ways consumers can take legal action against them, financial institutions almost guarantee they won’t have to answer to customers after messing up.

When the CFPB collected data for a 2015 report to Congress about arbitration practices, it asked consumers what they’d do in the event of noticing an incorrect fee on their credit card bill.

“Consumers rarely consider bringing formal claims in any forum, arbitration or litigation, as a response — even after exhausting more informal procedures, such as customer service,” the report noted.

Consumers were also found to be “generally unaware” of the arbitration clauses in their credit card contracts. They also don’t know about arbitration clause opt-outs they might have been able to sign up for. Only 2% of consumers with credit cards told the CFPB they would consider legal action to resolve an issue involving a small amount of money.

“By forcing consumers to give up or go it alone — usually over small amounts — companies can sidestep the court system, avoid big refunds, and continue harmful practices,” the CFPB said in a press release. “The CFPB’s new rule will deter wrongdoing by restoring consumers’ right to join together to pursue justice and relief through group lawsuits.”

Lisa Rowan is a writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder.

In May 2016, Walmart announced it would stop offering its Ad Match program at 500 stores. Then in August, it announced 300 more stores would get the price-matching service nixed.

Since Walmart wouldn’t disclose which stores or markets would see the change — which didn’t seem to be immediate — we forgot all about it.

That is, until Penny Hoarder readers started sending us notes about price match disappearing from their Walmart locations.

We checked in with Walmart this week about the status of the programming change.

The bad news is Walmart wouldn’t confirm which locations this change will affect or which stores still have the price match program.

Customers have reported blue signs popping up at their local stores stating the date the ad-match policy was or will be discontinued at that location. “Instead, we’re lowering our prices on thousands of items,” the signs state.

Why Walmart Axed the Ad Match Program

The good news is Walmart seems committed to lowering prices so you don’t need to scour the weekly circulars so closely.

“In select markets, we’re offering customers even lower prices on the national and private-label brands they trust and want,” Charles Crowson, senior manager for corporate communications at Walmart, said in an emailed statement. “As a result, and in select stores only, cashiers will no longer be able to price match at the register, from an ad or otherwise.”

How to Deal With the Changes to the Walmart Price Match Policy

Curious about what’s happening at your favorite Walmart location? If you don’t see the telltale blue signs at the register, Crowson suggests asking a store manager. He said store associates are knowledgeable about the changes to the program as well.

Meanwhile, it’s a great time to get to know the Savings Catcher app, which compares prices and automatically gives you a credit if Walmart spots a lower price for anything you bought.

The Savings Catcher app is also available by logging in to your account online and entering your receipt number, so if you’re not a smartphone user, you can still take advantage of the program.

Does your Walmart still allow price matching at the register? Let us know!

Since Walmart is keeping mum on the number and locations of stores dropping the Ad Match program, we’re hoping to map the change based on your feedback. We have a super-quick Google form you can fill out (it’s anonymous!). You can also email us at feedback@thepennyhoarder.com, or chat about it in our Facebook comments.

Lisa Rowan is a writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder.

Could a new kid on the meal kit block spark a price war?

That’s not the obvious objective of Dinnerly, the newest product by the folks at Marley Spoon. But the company is promising ready-to-prep meals delivered to your doorstep for $5 a plate — half the price of its competitors.

“Though there’s been innovation in the meal kit space over the last several years, the most clear and important customer need has gone unaddressed — affordability,” Marley Spoon CEO and founder Fabian Siegel said in a statement. “The next step is making easy weeknight cooking accessible to millions more. We are excited and proud to deliver a weeknight cooking solution that doesn’t force customers to choose between convenience, quality, and cost.”

How Dinnerly Cuts Costs for $5 Servings

Dinnerly is considerably less expensive than other meal kits. Pay $38.99 for three meals serving two adults, and $68.99 for three meals to serve four adults. (Shipping costs of $8.99 per box are included.)

The service promises five easy-to-follow cooking steps and “minimal chopping” for meals that take a maximum of 30 minutes to prepare.

“Dinnerly is able to keep costs low by offering a fixed weekly menu, and by cutting down on excess packaging and not printing recipe cards, which will in turn reduce packaging waste at home,” a fact sheet for the service explains.

Meals that are easier to assemble while being fit for families may run the risk of… well, being boring. Dinnerly's initial weekly menus have pasta as a frequent meal base, while more expensive meal kits seem to rely on potatoes, in our experience.

It’s Only the Beginning for Meal Kits

Meal kit pricing is one of the biggest barriers for people who have plenty of dinnertime options. At the lowest end of cost, there’s regular old fast food. Fast casual, takeout and delivery options can also typically get you an adult-size serving for under $10. And anyone who scours the grocery store circular each week knows that $10 per serving — the typical benchmark for meal kits — is generous.

Nobody’s signing up for meal kits to save money, though. It’s all about convenience: Not having to wait for takeout or haul your reusable bags to the grocery store week after week is a huge selling point. But as dinnertime approaches, you still have to cook the food that a subscription service drops at your door.

Maybe that actually having to cook element is part of the meal kit industry’s problem with customer retention. One study of new subscribers showed 48% customer retention after six months and 29% at the one-year mark. Combine poor retention with the tactics meal kit companies take to lure you back (Who doesn’t want 50% off one more week of meals?), and it looks harder and harder for meal box companies to maintain their profit margins.

Dinnerly could ignite some competition to merge convenience and cost for a better meal kit experience. Dinnerly’s service is available on the West Coast now, with expansion to other regions planned for later this year.

Lisa Rowan is a writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder.

While you’re busy making your shopping list for Amazon Prime Day, Consumer Watchdog is warning against the Amazon’s pricing practices.

"While Amazon celebrates its Prime Day, their pricing scams may make it more like Slime Day," said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog Privacy Project director.

Last week, Consumer Watchdog asked the Federal Trade Commission to prevent Amazon’s purchase of high-end grocery chain Whole Foods until it stops using pricing practices it alleges are deceptive and may violate the commission’s rules.

Consumer Watchdog conducted two studies this year. The first, in March, looked into market prices. The group says it found the “list” price Amazon showed alongside the site’s current price made customers think they were getting a deal.

The organization says those list prices were much higher than prices typically available from other retailers and created a straw man reference price that was basically fake.

Amazon refuted the report, claiming it used list prices when it had compelling info and the “was” price to show a discount off its own pricing.

In June 2017, Consumer Watchdog used independent price-comparison tool Nextag to conduct a second study of 1,000 products on Amazon’s site to evaluate the new pricing scheme.

The organization says it found that 61% of “was” prices were higher than any price observed on the site in the previous 90 days. It also claims that 38% of reference prices were higher than any price Amazon had charged for the product.

“In other words, in nearly four in ten cases, Amazon never appeared to charge the previous price from which it claimed to be discounting,” John Simpson, the organization’s privacy project director, wrote in a letter to the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice last week. “The ‘price’ was entirely fictitious.”

The bright spot in the latest report: “Strikethrough prices were found to be highly reliable,” the letter noted. “All prices with just a line through them (and no words suggesting what they referenced) corresponded to actual prices charged by Amazon in the recent past.”

Meanwhile… How to Shop Smart

Consumers looking for deals on Amazon shouldn’t take pricing at face value, Simpson said in a press conference today.

“Look online. If you see something you want and it’s convenient, you can make your own independent judgement about whether you should buy it or not,” he said. “Don’t believe the notion that these are great deals. You should be comparing the prices elsewhere yourself.”

Lisa Rowan is a writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder.

In a time when cursive handwriting is fading from many classrooms, calligraphy is making a surprising resurgence. While carefully hand-lettered invitations, place settings and envelopes tend to be reserved for weddings, many calligraphers find themselves working on a variety of celebrations and other projects.

Maybe you’ve always  received compliments about your handwriting or practiced calligraphy as a hobby over the years. The time may be right for you to hone your skills and start letting your friends and family know you’re taking orders. With rates for envelope addressing alone ranging from $2 to $5 each, calligraphy could be a lucrative side hustle.

Want to take up calligraphy as a part-time gig? Here’s how to maximize your success.

How to Get Started

Set aside $100 for supplies like nibs, ink and paper, but look for starter kits from well-known calligraphers. Laura Hooper offers a starter kit on Etsy for $65, with various add-ons as you build your practice. But be prepared to get caught up -- you’ll probably find yourself wanting more supplies rather quickly. Ink colors alone could be a budget-buster.

If you’re new to calligraphy but have a knack for cursive, start by taking an introductory class taught by a pro in your area. This training can set you back up to $300 for a half-day class, but it’s a worthy investment to get hands-on help and troubleshooting. You also usually get basic tools to take home. Once you know the basics, you can continue to learn through free online courses like Skillshare or by searching for YouTube channels dedicated to certain elements and skills.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Lynday Wright, owner of Lyndsay Wright Design, is a Dallas-based calligrapher who offers classes at local stationery shops as well as at chains like Paper Source. Wright has a professional background in architecture and design and started practicing calligraphy on the side while attending graduate school. She encourages novice calligraphers to exercise patience.

“I always see students who aim for perfection and are disappointed in their letter forms,” she said. “I tell them that we all have to practice, even those of us who do calligraphy professionally. One of the things that is so important in calligraphy is to increase your muscle memory by writing the letter forms often.

Beyond a beginner? Classes can still help you refine your style. “You’ll see other professionals in those workshops, too,” calligrapher Julie H. Geer said of the classes that those like Wright teach. “A lot of it is just practice, doing the stroke over and over. It’s something I’m still perfecting.”

Choose a Specialty

Use word of mouth advertising to your advantage and take time to evaluate the first few projects you complete for pay. Did you enjoy one type of task more than another? Many calligraphers focus on hand-lettering for events. Some take on unique projects like lettering wedding vows or a speech. Still some work on mastering their lettering style before creating it as a digital font.

“Calligraphing and designing wedding or baby shower invitations is always special because I feel so honored to be part of such an important event in someone’s life,” Wright said. “While I usually find addressing envelopes to be less intellectually challenging, I find the work to be a very rewarding, zen and centering activity.”

But when she wants to stretch her boundaries a bit, Wright can rely on one of her more prominent clients: the Dallas Mavericks basketball team. “Working on projects for the Mavericks is always challenging and exciting, because their desires and visions for what the lettering will be are usually a little out of my comfort zone,” she said.

Be Easy to Find

What’s your favorite social media tool? Use it to promote your work -- shamelessly and often. In fact, social media helped Geer notice the rising popularity of hand-lettering. Now, you can spy her works in progress on Twitter and Instagram.

While she has an Etsy shop, more of her work comes through referrals. “I've actually found social media to be even more powerful, and Etsy more as a payment source,” Geer said. “A lot of my orders have come through friends, and friends of friends, and then I point them to Etsy to do the transactional piece.”

Seeing tons of followers, but not a lot of transactions? Keep building relationships. When a friend or follower has a project to tackle, you’re likely to come to mind first.

“I sometimes get referrals from other calligraphers who don't do a certain style or project that I do, or if they're booked, they'll send a client to me,” Wright said. “Referrals really kept me busy enough while I was moonlighting that I was pretty much operating at maximum capacity.”

Seek a Community

Elizabeth Walker is an herbalist in Alberta, Canada, but still feels a pull toward the artform she first picked up as a child. “Join a calligraphy society or guild in your area,” she encouraged. “Don’t just learn from books. You can deceive yourself into thinking you’re better than you are at calligraphy if you work in a vacuum.” She suggested attending calligraphy conferences, if possible.

One of Wright’s favorite pastimes is participating in calligraphy exchanges. She explained how this pen-pal-type activity works:

“For each exchange, I design a card according to the exchange's theme, usually through a combination of calligraphy and painting or drawing. I send out roughly a dozen cards to other calligraphers around the world, and they each send a card to me. I love working on exchanges, because I get to design whatever I want, and I get the reward of receiving the artwork of others. There is something invigorating about being your own client every now and then, and it is amazingly inspiring to hold the artwork of other calligraphers in my hands.”

“Keep it fun,” Walker said, also advising that calligraphers supplement their paid work with personal projects. “If you aren’t having fun, then you won’t do as good of a job.”

Sounds like solid advice for any side gig.

How Much Can You Make?

If you’re invested and loving it, trust that you’ll make your investment back through your client work. The Art Career Project estimates that a full-time calligrapher can make about $50,000 per year, but that estimate might not include side offerings such as ready-made products or teaching classes.
And as a side hustler, your mileage is likely to vary. Varying demand for calligraphy services through the seasons (get ready for those summer weddings!) can result in busy times for your side business that can contribute heartily to your household income.

Lisa Rowan is a writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder. Hand-lettered titles done by Kristy Gaunt, Illustrative Designer at The Penny Hoarder.

What are your elected representatives doing to protect you from America’s growing student loan debt epidemic?

More than you might expect.

A national Student Loan Borrower Bill of Rights stalled in congressional committee a few years ago, and education policy is in flux. But states are pushing forward to provide their own protections for students.

The most recent: Illinois.

The Student Loan Borrower Bill of Rights passed in both houses of the Illinois General Assembly on May 31, and now waits for approval by Gov. Bruce Rauner.

The bill would create a student loan ombudsman in the state attorney general’s office, require student loan servicers to obtain a state license and require servicers to hire specialists to better serve student inquiries.

Illinois is poised to become the third state with similar protections for student loan borrowers, which apply to anyone studying in the state where a bill of rights exists.

Connecticut’s Student Loan Bill of Rights went into effect in July 2015, establishing the role of a student loan ombudsman. The Connecticut rule also requires student loan servicers to register with the state’s Department of Banking and the Office of the Student Loan Ombudsman.

Washington, D.C. (which is not a state, but… go with it) enacted its own borrower protections in February 2017. The Student Loan Ombudsman Establishment and Servicing Regulation Act of 2016 establishes a student loan ombudsman to monitor borrower complaints. The act also requires student loan servicers, whether they’re within or outside the District, to be licensed as such.

Washington, D.C. has not yet named an ombudsman.

Several other states, including Massachusetts, are eyeing potential protections of their own for students.

Student Loan Transparency Efforts

Alongside the push for state bills of rights for student loan borrowers, some states are voting for increased borrowing transparency to guide students through their loan-seeking years.

In 2015, Indiana legislators voted to require higher education institutions to distribute statements to those eligible for student loans. The statements provide an estimate of loans already taken out, the student’s estimated payoff amounts and estimated monthly repayment amounts.

Indiana University has been sending this type of notice to students since the 2012-13 school year as a part of its creation of an Office of Financial Literacy. In the office’s first four years, the school saw a 23% decrease in federal loan disbursement to its students — a reduction of $113.7 million in borrowed funds.

Nebraska enacted similar legislation in 2016. Starting in the 2017-18 academic year, students will receive a letter outlining the payoff estimate and monthly payment estimates for any federal loan they’ve been offered.

Washington’s Student Loan Transparency Act goes into effect in July 2018. It requires higher education institutions to provide detailed notices about loan balances and estimated monthly payments every time a school offers a financial aid package to a student. A borrower bill of rights has passed in Washington’s House and awaits a Senate vote.

Why Enact State Rules Instead of Waiting for National Legislation?

Since every state has an office that regulates banking, state legislation can establish rules to govern student loan servicers though those offices, according to Generation Progress’ report, "We Can’t Afford to Wait: How States and Municipalities Can Help Curtail the Student Debt Crisis."

In states where these rules already exist, those banking regulators can enforce the rules. Creating an ombudsman position at the state level to volley borrower complaints would mirror the same role at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The person in this role could work with the CFPB and the Department of Education to better assist borrower complaints.

“States contribute a lot of dollars to higher education. They have own grant and loan programs, and have a vested interest in making sure the students within their jurisdiction have rights and are protected,” Megan Coval, vice president for policy and federal relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), said.

State protections can be especially helpful in cases of fraudulent institutions or those who close their doors with little notice to students.

The Letter of Estimated Annual Debt for Students Act of 2017, known as the LEADS Act, is floating around Congress and has been in the House Committee on Education and the Workforce since March. It would require institutions to provide an annual cost estimate that includes cumulative balances, monthly payment amounts and interest rates each summer after a student takes out their first federal student loan.

But it’s more likely that increased federal transparency for student loan borrowers will come via the Higher Education Act, which is overdue for reauthorization, Coval noted. “The good news is that, behind the scenes, Congress is working on this,” she said.

Lisa Rowan is a writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder.

Love Chick-fil-A? Then don’t miss your chance to snag your favorite dish on Cow Appreciation Day — for free.

Mark your calendar to show your appreciation for cows (and chicken sandwiches) on Tuesday, July 11. Stores will celebrate from open until 7 p.m., and a full cow costume is not required.

Fun fact: Chick-fil-A launched its cow campaign in 1995, featuring billboards with three-dimensional cows holding now-iconic “Eat Mor Chikin” signs.

How to Get Free Food at Chick-fil-A

Gone is any pretense that you have to go horn-to-hoof on the cow theme to get rewarded.

Basically, wear “any sort of cow apparel” to receive a free entree. It’s good for the breakfast and lunch menus, depending on when you arrive.

Your little ones can also get a kid’s meal for their efforts.

Not sure what to order? Skip right to the sweets and redeem your free entree for a milkshake, iced coffee, frosted coffee or frosted lemonade.

Salads are no longer offered as a free entree option in a move to simplify the experience, according to the company.

Of course, you can’t go wrong with the Chick-fil-A classic chicken sandwich.

Now, About Your Cow Appreciation Day Costume

This annual event used to require donning an entire cow costume in exchange for a full free meal. Managers could, at their discretion, reward patrons partially dressed as cows (think hats and headbands) with free entrees.

But now, it’s a little simpler to earn your free food.

Even though you don’t need to be fully dressed as a cow, you might be tempted to order a cow costume just for the occasion.

But it’ll take you a few years of Cow Appreciation Day visits to earn enough free sandwiches to pay for the costume — unless you’re anticipating some serious time on the Halloween party circuit.

What’s a freebie-loving, party (farm) animal to do? We made this handy flowchart to make your dress-up decision a little easier this year.

[caption id="attachment_60697" align="alignnone" width="1200"]Cow Appreciation Day Flowchart Kristy Gaunt - The Penny Hoarder[/caption]

Lisa Rowan is a writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder. She hates waiting in line.

So much of our everyday lives take place online. But that online life, whether it consists of liking your friends’ posts on Facebook or checking your bank account balance, isn’t free.

Unless you dig up some free Wi-Fi from the cafe down the street or your next door neighbor. Then, it might be free. But it’s probably not safe.

A recent survey from Santander UK showed that people will do just about anything for a free connection. Five percent of people in Great Britain have “borrowed” Wi-Fi from their neighbors (with or without permission) because they can’t afford their own, the survey found. It also showed that 5% of people have hung out at a cafe for the Wi-Fi without paying for snacks and another 3% admitted to using “unknown, unsecured Wi-Fi when out and about.”

That last part is no surprise. Who hasn’t flipped on their laptop or whipped out their phone in a coffee shop or on the subway, immediately checking for a free connection?

We’re Worried About Public Wi-Fi Safety… Sort of

More than half the survey pool was concerned about the security of free or borrowed Wi-Fi, but “the need to ‘get online’ and take advantage of a free connection appears to take priority over concerns about unsecure networks,” Santander noted.

This is far from a uniquely British problem. AARP’s 2016 Cyber Security Survey found that 39% of  adults ages 18 and up think public Wi-Fi is “somewhat safe,” 27% think it’s “not too safe,” and 21% think it’s “not at all safe.”

Almost 70% of those surveyed said that locations with free Wi-Fi should “display information on the risks associated with using public Wi-Fi to shop, bank, or access social media sites.”

In the meantime, we’re still cruising whatever Wi-Fi connection we come across.

Some free Wi-Fi portals do provide warnings about protecting your personal information. But what’s personal these days? What might be routine browsing for one person might be a touchy subject for another. We go to coffee shops, McDonald’s and urban parks for access, but should it come with the expectation of privacy?

While you debate that with your friends over drinks at a bar that offers free WI-Fi, consider these ways to keep yourself safe while browsing that free connection.

1. Only Do Business on Secure Websites

Ever noticed the “https” at the top of your browser? That URL prefix is probably accompanied by a padlock symbol. Together, they indicate a secure website, meaning your connection is private.

Using an app on your phone? Visiting that company’s mobile website is probably more secure than using the app since you’ll still get that https protection on the mobile web.

And by business, we’re not talking about checking your bank statements. We’re talking about emailing your mom.

2. Make Sure You’re Using a Legit Network

Anyone can set up a Wi-Fi network, stick it out in public and call it something like “Free Candy.” OK, they’re more likely to call it “Sbarro Pizza Wi-Fi” or something catchy to make you think it’s legitimate.

If something doesn’t feel right, or a free Wi-Fi network doesn’t prompt you to agree to terms of service or log in, turn it off. It’s better to find a legitimate network or pick up your remote work setup and take it to another location. (Oh, you brought your extra monitor to the coffee shop? That’s nice.)

3. Update Your Devices and Get Encrypted

Whether you’re using a smartphone, tablet or laptop, make sure your software is up to date. Smartphone users are notoriously lazy about this, but routine software updates can ensure greater security on whatever device you’re using to check the lotto numbers out in public.

But don’t stop there. “A lot of people will have security software and even encryption on their home computers, but they don’t on their portable devices,” said Steve Weisman, who teaches at Bentley University. “It’s important to have security and encryption software on your mobile devices.”

Encryption software that protects your data can cost $20 to $40, but there are several free options available.

4. Use a VPN

Weisman’s best tip? Get a virtual private network. “This allows you to send your communication through a separate and secure private network even if you’re on free Wi-Fi,” he says. “I really like the VPN. It takes all the effort out” of protecting your data.

Weisman, author of “Identity Theft Alert” and blogger at Scamicide, said VPNs can be economical and noted that free options are also available. Expect a yearly investment of at least $30 if you plan to transfer a lot of data while you’re on the road.

Lisa Rowan is a writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder.

Ready for the next hot discount wine? Don’t look to Amazon.

King Vintners of Eugene, Oregon announced in a release that one of its new brands, NEXT, is “the first wine ever developed from conception to release with Amazon Wine.”

NEXT will start by offering a limited run of three varieties on Amazon: pinot gris for $20, a red blend for $30 and pinot noir for $40.

I don’t know about you, but I would put those wines in the “splurge” column. Tasty, but splurge-y.

Buying Wine on Amazon? Sort of a Pain

Buying wine on Amazon is not the easiest of tasks.

Because each state has different rules for online alcohol sales, it’s not just a matter of breezing through and picking a variety you like. You have to cross-check your preferred wine with your delivery state. And once you place your order, you need to have someone of age on hand to sign for the delivery.

Sometimes, Amazon offers 1-cent shipping on wine when you buy a certain amount, like six or more bottles from the same seller. Or cellar. Get it?!

Buying by the case or half-case is the best deal via Amazon Wine, as you have the greatest likelihood of snagging that super-cheap shipping.

Amazon has plenty of single bottles under $10, but shipping can cost $9.99 for a bottle. Want two-day shipping? Better tack on an extra $18.

Amazon has started to expand its beer and wine offerings to Prime Now orders, offering one-hour delivery for $7.99. It’s comparable to other delivery services, like Drizly ($5 per order) and Instacart (delivery prices vary), which go to your nearest liquor or grocery store to grab what you’re craving.

Amazon Wine, meanwhile, is best served for buyers who are stocking up for a party, or have a favorite brand or varietal they want to keep on hand at home — without having to lug cases of it from the store to the house.

Why the Pricy Wine, Amazon? I Like Cheap Wine

There’s plenty of competition out there for inexpensive wine.

Sam’s Club recently stepped up its wine game to go toe to toe with America’s largest wine retailer, Costco. The boxed wine offerings these days? They’re super-solid. Trader Joe’s has cultivated a loyal fan base around its Charles Shaw brand, aka Two Buck Chuck. TJ’s even has wine in a can, which offers superior portability at 99 cents per pop-top.

So why is Amazon getting deeper into wine sales if it isn’t trying to compete on price?

Because Amazon doesn’t care about saving you money. Amazon cares about convenience.  

Amazon uses an algorithm to determine which seller — and price — it offers as the default for a given item at a given moment. A study conducted last year revealed dynamic pricing, which can change several times each day, can cause large swings in an item’s price. We’re not talking about a few cents here and there. It’s a couple of bucks — or a couple dozen bucks.

Amazon and its third-party sellers can get away with charging higher prices because of the sheer quantity of items it can ship to Prime customers in two days.

If you’re firing up Amazon instead of getting in the car or walking to the nearest store, you’re not interested in getting something right now. You’re more interested in having it dropped on your doorstep at Amazon’s earliest convenience.

So its wine offerings? No, they’re not cheap. But that’s not going to stop Amazon from selling one more category of product with its own label on it.

Lisa Rowan is a writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder.