Self-Gift Guide: Five Things to Buy After the Holidays

Thought Black Friday was the best day to grab the hottest deals of this year’s holiday season? You may want to think again. For many retailers, including small and big box stores, the days and weeks following the holidays can bring the biggest deals, saving you up to hundreds of dollars at the register. If you’re shopping for yourself, or even for items you don’t necessarily need before the holidays, consider waiting until after the new year for some super savings on these five items.

Chocolate

Self-Gift Guide: Five Things to Buy After the HolidaysChocolate and candy are a few of some of the most popular items specific to holiday seasons. Box stores and even grocery outlets devote entire sections of stores just to holiday specific candy — especially during holidays when candy is a prime gift, such as Christmas (as well as Halloween and Valentine’s Day). If you’re stocking up on the sweet stuff for yourself, consider hitting the stores the days and weeks following the holiday to save at least half off on holiday candy, as well as other seasonal related items. This isn’t a secret (I have a long standing tradition of visiting Target the day after Halloween to make a run on the leftover candy), so be sure you visit retailers as soon as you can after the holiday.

Stores usually knock prices off of candy, as well as other holiday specific items (such as themed decor and gift wrap) up to 50% the day after the holiday. You can also usually find a 75% savings as soon as three days after the holiday and 90% off of holiday items, including chocolate and candy, as soon as a week after the holiday — that is, if anything is left on the shelves by then.

Linens

Self-Gift Guide: Five Things to Buy After the HolidaysMy favorite Black Friday tradition is not to hit the stores at 2 a.m. for seriously slashed prices on electronics, but on necessities like linens and towels. For those who would rather enjoy tryptophan induced sleep in warm, cozy beds, the next bedtime to get great deals on linens is after the holidays. Most stores hold “white sales” in January, which can offer discounts on linens and other home essentials of up to 75%, which encourages shoppers to stock up on towels and bedding. The tradition began in 1878 when Philadelphia’s John Wanamaker discounted all the white linens in his department store.

Many of these same items go on sale again in August when college students are shopping for dorm room essentials, and Target also tends to offer bedding, as well as placements and cloth napkins, on clearance every February.

TVs (and Other Electronics)

Self-Gift Guide: Five Things to Buy After the HolidaysIf you didn’t stand in line for an HD TV discounted 90% on Black Friday, have no fear; your chance to grab a television or other electronics at equally great prices is just around the corner. Many stores discount televisions the weeks prior to Super Bowl, not only to entice consumers to upgrade, but also as a result of manufacturers refreshing their line after announcing new models at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that is held in early January every year in Las Vegas.

After CES, consumers can expect the prices of older models to drop significantly to clear out room for the new models.

Furniture

Self-Gift Guide: Five Things to Buy After the HolidaysEveryone loves making New Year’s resolutions, and many often include intentions to redesign and remodel living spaces. If you’re thinking about refurnishing, consider shopping right after the holidays — and not before. You’re likely beginning to hear mattress commercials offering deep discounts for “this year’s models,” and like with consumer electronics, furniture companies need to make room for next year’s new models.

The new styles hit the showroom floor in the beginning of the year, so the last year’s models will be severely discounted. (August is another time furniture stores also refresh.) If you’re looking to remodel your home or apartment, consider waiting to give yourself this gift until after the holidays.

Toys

Self-Gift Guide: Five Things to Buy After the Holidays
If you have kids, you definitely don’t want to tell them Santa couldn’t make it for Christmas this year. However, if you can find a sneaky way to delay the delivery of some toys until after the holidays, many toys are often discounted immediately after Christmas, since the demand severely dies down. According to CNN, August is another promising month, according to Sheliah Gilliland, a spokeswoman for eToys.com. CNN explains that, according to Gilliland, summer toys, like swimming pools and playground equipment, take up a lot of space and retailers are willing to let some things go for up to 65% off to make way for the holiday rush.

If you have a safe and secret place to hide gifts throughout the year, shopping for toys off season can save you money during the actual holiday season.

Are you waiting to buy anything until after the holidays? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Dealing with Unwanted Holiday Gift Cards and Groupons

This holiday season, I’m making a list and checking it twice. I’m especially ensuring that my wish list includes very specific items such as designer rain boots and a Fitbit. The problem I’ve found is that asking for “anything from Target” either lands me anything except what I don’t actually need from Target, or a gift card — which is nice, but perhaps may not cover the cost of what I’m looking for. (Honestly — how far do you really think $15 gets you these days?) Similarly, the rise of group deals means many this holiday season will find themselves with stockings stuffed with two-for-one massages or subscriptions to magazines they will never read. For those gifted Groupons to restaurants where they’ll never (or can’t) dine, the idea of the gift is good at heart, but actually useless in execution.

Luckily, for those of you who receive unwanted gift cards or Groupons this holiday season, you can safely and easily turn these into cash that can be spent on holiday wish list items you actually desire or need. Unlike years prior, where disappointed gift card recipients turned to sites like Craigslist to pawn or exchange gift cards in sketchy scenarios, there are actually several legitimate services that broker the exchange or purchase of your unwanted gift cards. Other sites even facilitate the sale of Groupons that you may have been gifted, or no longer wish to give. These sites allow you to recoup almost the entire value of the gift card or group deal, exchange it for the equal value, or sometimes sell it for more.

If you receive a gift card for a major retail chain this holiday season and don’t want to use it, you have two options: hold onto the gift card in case you find yourself shopping at that retail outlet sometime in the future, or sell it. While in some states, gift cards hold no expiration date, you may want to use the value of the gift card immediately to purchase a gift for yourself.

Services such as Cardpool and and Plastic Jungle allow gift card recipients to sell gift cards directly to the service for nearly the entire value of the gift card — up to 92% of the face value. The process for “selling” a gift card to one of these services is super-simple: just choose the retailer, type in the value of the gift, as well as the gift card number and PIN. You’ll then be able to choose whether you want to be paid via PayPal, or receive an Amazon gift card. The latter option actually allows users to receive up to 97% of the value of the gift card, which is a great option for those who have something on their wish list from Amazon.com. (And who doesn’t?) Then, you just send in your card and, after it processes, you’ll see your payment in a few days.

Sell Your Gift Cards

We’ve also previously written about Lifesta, a service that allows users who have purchased group deals to resell them should they no longer want — or can no longer use — the deal. After writing about the service, I successfully sold a group deal for a case of wine after I decided I had no need for a dozen bottles in my apartment. However, the service also works well for those of you in the pre or post holiday spirit, whether you have erroneously purchased a group deal to give or receive one you can’t really use. For example, I thought a recent Groupon for a one-year subscription to O, The Oprah Magazine, would be a thoughtful gift for my mom. It was so thoughtful — and fitting — that I had actually purchased a two-year subscription for her last year, and I failed to notice the stack of magazines accruing under the coffee table at her house until after I bought the recent Groupon. Luckily, I was able to sell it on Lifesta and easily recoup the cost.

Of course, these types of services aren’t just limited to unwanted gift cards and group deals during the holidays. Anson Tsai of Cardpool says that the company accepts over 400 merchants, virtually all national brands, all year long. (Notably, Plastic Jungle offers similar prices for gift cards from most of the same retailers.) Tsai does encourage recipients of unwanted gift cards to take advantage of these types of services, though, especially if they reside in a state that enforces expiration dates on gift cards. Tsai says that “many consumers hold onto gift cards thinking ‘one day’ they’ll use them, but many gift cards never get used, up to an estimated $5 billion / year.” Rather than risk it, these services allow consumers who receive unwanted gift cards and Groupons (or other group deals) to actually use the cash to get what they really want.

Which, in my case, may or may not be a pair of expensive rain boots.

Would you use a service like Cardpool or Plastic Jungle to trade in unwanted gift cards for cash this holiday season? Let us know what you think of these options for unwanted gifts in the comments.

Can I Sell My Gamertag?

Can I Sell My Gamertag?Many early adopters of Xbox Live came up with some pretty unique and cool gamertags. Over the years, some gamers have auctioned off their gamertags on eBay or sold them on Craigslist to newer gamers — similar to website developers who buy highly sought-after domains on auction. But is this even legal? I recently stumbled across a message from a friend on Facebook who created a “cool” gamertag that had recently been freed into the wild. He wanted to know if he could auction it off to charity, but there were issues surrounding some trademark infringements in his new gamertag, so that was out. (The Xbox Live TOU states gamers can’t “use the Service or any material or information made available through the Service in any manner that infringes any copyright, trademark, patent, trade secret, or other proprietary right”.) The question remained — can I sell my gamertag?

The answer is no. You do not own your gamertag — it is just licensed to you by Xbox Live — so you can’t sell the rights to your gamertag. The Xbox Live TOU clearly states:

You do not have ownership rights to any software made available or accessible on or in relation to the Service, or any other aspect of the Service (except you may own your own submissions), regardless of how the software and Service are used, accessed, downloaded, or otherwise made available to you.

The auctions of gamertags on eBay have now been banned by both eBay and Microsoft on grounds of violating each company’s terms of service. Though gamers have found other ways around these prohibitions, such as offering gamertags for sale on forums and Facebook, any gamer who is persistent in pursuing a sale of their gamertag may find their Xbox Live account deactivated by Microsoft as a result of these violations of the Xbox Live TOU.

What do you think? Is this policy fair, or do you think that gamertags should be fully transferable by those who claim them to others who want them whether or not currency changes hands? Let us know your feelings here!

CC licensed Flickr photo above shared by Pablo Suzarte

Too Busy for March Madness? There’s an App for That

It’s that time of year again, when even C-level execs brush aside all notions of productivity to watch the 2012 NCAA Tournament. For several weeks, 24 basketball teams fight their way for the NCAA championship, and cubicle dwellers across the country bite their nails, hoping they picked the most accurate bracket predicting the winner of each game. Many offices hold pools worth both cold hard cash and bragging rights, which can often be won by the most unsuspecting person — such as the brand new secretary who might not know much about basketball, but got a 4.0 in her statistics course in college.

For those who don’t have the time for March Madness — or endless hours analyzing stats the way your secretary is secretly spending her evenings just to prove a point — there’s an app for that. (If you’re not surprised, don’t worry — we aren’t either.) PickMyBracket is a Web-based app that allows users to pick a stat to emphasize in picking the winning teams. These stats are notably limited, and your options only include offense, rebounds, defense, or assists. However, don’t worry; you can also choose a “random” stat to add to your bracket methodology including the type of mascot, the “hotness” of coeds, the partying reputation of each school, and SAT scores of the school.

After you choose your top stat from each category, PickMyBracket will generate a bracket for you. If you don’t like your results, you can click “try again” to see a slightly different bracket, which, of course, makes me question just how random this bracket is and whether your statistical choices even matter. That said, if you really don’t have time to make your own bracket, PickMyBracket does generate a reasonable bracket each time, and one that I’d be proud to show my friends or submit to my office pool should I have an office. While PickMyBracket users don’t have the option to win anything for using their bracket creation system (as you can’t join a pool using the app), users can enter for a chance to win a “brand new” iPad for “liking” the app on Facebook. (Though if you do decide to use PickMyBracket, you might not tell anyone how you made your picks anyway.)

However, if you still want to make your bracket the old-fashioned way, you have several options. If you want to join a pool online with friends or family, you can create a group online at FOX. However, as Gizmodo points out, the downside to this choice is the lack of full-bracket view; you can only see each round at a time. Its $1 million prize may be well worth the pain, however.

Other choices include ESPN, NBC, Yahoo!, and CBS. CBS, which Gizmodo also says is the best way to go about filling out your bracket due to its “most inclusive list of ways to invite your friends to join your illegal gambling group,” also offers an Android and iPhone app — a must-have since you’re probably not watching the games at home (and who wants to carry around their bracket in their back pocket for three weeks?). While you may want to do a little research about your teams, we understand that not everyone has time for March Madness yet still wants a chance at those bragging rights in the office. Just be sure not to announce to everyone that you picked your teams based on the school colors or mascot until you win.

However you choose to create your bracket, be sure to fill yours out ASAP — most brackets must be finished by the first game of the second round (which is tomorrow, March 15th) to be qualified to participate in a pool.

What is your favorite app to follow the NCAA Tournament? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

How To Use Your iPhone to Find Cheaper Gas

For the past few years, I have avoided driving as much as possible. After accepting an offer for a 9-5 job in 2010, I decided to move into an apartment in downtown Seattle, barely a mile from the office. Thanks to the safe location of both my apartment and the office, the availability of easy transit and the lack of need to ever venture outside downtown unless I was traveling with someone else, I didn’t need a car — so it stayed at my parent’s house. While I didn’t save money on car payments (which I continued to make), the lack of related expenses — such as parking and gas — helped me save and afford other things.

That was two years ago, and while I made the decision to “abandon” my car based on the associated cost of owning a car, I’m now driving regularly after moving back to the suburbs — and I’ll be the first to say that I slightly regret it. While I now work from home and don’t have to bear the brunt of a daily commute, I still feel the pain at the pump. A simple trip across town just to grab lunch can take two to three gallons of gas round-trip. If you live in the US, you’ve likely seen the skyrocketing prices at the pump, and know this pain, too. Last Friday night I paid almost $4.30 per gallon, and yesterday Jason Calacanis tweeted that in California, prices were nearly $5.

Local news sources have reported that gas prices have risen here in the Seattle area an average of 46 cents in just a month, and last week a Gallup poll announced that if gas prices creep higher than $5.30 gallon, Americans would be forced to make “major life changes.” These changes include altering spending habits.

However, just driving across town, it’s easy to spot a huge variance in gas prices; while I paid nearly $4.30 for gas last week, it was easy to find a gas station offering gas nearly 50 cents less just down the street. While you might not always have the option to drive an extra mile, knowing a cheaper option is close enough before you start running on fumes could help prevent you from reaching what Gallup calls the “tipping point” where you must cut back spending on other areas of your life just to buy gas.

Luckily for iPhone owners, several apps exist in the App Store that can help you find the cheapest gas nearby.

Local Gas Prices

This free app is a simple way to find a list of the gas stations nearby and sort nearby gas stations according to price or location. If you want help getting to the gas station, you can tap on your choice, which will open up Maps to help get you there. You can download Local Gas Prices from the App Store for free.

Cheap Gas!

Another free app, Cheap Gas! is powered by GasBuddy.com and automatically detects your location as soon as you open the app. You’ll be presented with a list of stations and prices, along with the last time these prices were updated. This app also allows you to tap on a station to open up Maps to help get you there. You can download Cheap Gas! from the App Store for free.

Gas Buddy

GasBuddy also has its own app for the iPhone, but unlike Cheap Gas!, it features many more options for helping you find cheap gas. Not only does it allow you to automatically find the cheapest gas from your location, but you can find cheap gas anywhere in the US — which is convenient when planning a trip or helping your sister in college across the country. Once you decide where to find the cheapest gas, you can sort by regular, midgrade, premium, and diesel — a feature nifty for those who are specific about the grade of gas they put into their car, or otherwise don’t have a choice. It also shows you when the price was last updated, and you can sort by distance if you’re running a little low. Tapping on a gas station will show you more details, including the option to report prices or just get directions. This app, like the others, is free, but much more comprehensive. You can download it from the App Store, too.

Fuel Finder

While the previously mentioned apps are exceptionally helpful in finding the cheapest gas nearby, you can also splurge for Fuel Finder, a $2.99 app from the App Store that is notably well designed and comes loaded with all the features you need to find cheap gas — and more. This app allows users to find gas by US ZIP Code as well as by your location, find gas based on the category of gas (such as regular, midgrade, or premium), and view gas stations nearby on a map. You can also view complete gas station information including extra services such as car wash, ATM, food mart, and more, which is an exclusive feature of this app, but not necessarily helpful in finding cheap gas. You can also upload your own gas prices, get directions to nearby stations, and get customized “savings calculations” based on your car’s MPG, tank size, and miles per year. One feature I did find particularly neat about this app is the ability to email a friend a good gas price find, though I’m not sure that’s worth the cost of the app, which is really about the same as the cost of a gallon of gas. If you’re a fan of bells and whistles, however, you can download Fuel Finder from the App Store for $2.99.

Have you made any life changes as the cost of gas is increasing? How do you save money on gas? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Is Your Computer Killing You?

I know exactly what you’re doing right now. You’re likely sitting in your computer chair, on your couch, or, if you’re being especially lazy, lying in bed and staring at your computer screen. You’ve probably been there for a several minutes, if not an hour or two. You’re even possibly at work, reading LockerGnome while stuck in a cubicle for a few more hours. I’ve spent several years prior to writing for blogs in cubicles and, between 9-5, there’s not a lot to do at work but sit. Unfortunately, while all that sitting and staring at a computer screen may be helping to keep your bank account healthy (or at least out of the red), it may be slowly killing you.

While simply staring at a computer screen is bad for your eyes (especially in the dark), using your computer all day has now been shown to produce other deadly effects — and may be slowly killing you. In a recent study by by Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, published recently in Diabetes Care (a publication of the American Diabetes Association), sitting down for long periods of time without movement can lead to an increased risk of diabetes. As sedentary cubicle dwellers sit at their desks for hours and hours without getting up to go for a walk to get lunch, coffee, or even just wander around the office for a few minutes, they reduce their ability to control their glucose and insulin levels. Overweight office workers and other types of employees that sit for long periods of time (like drivers and call center staff) are even more at risk for deadly diseases caused by using a computer all day.

Is Your Computer Killing You?Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute found that simply spacing out sitting time with frequent activity breaks can easily reduce the risk of getting diabetes from sitting at your desk and using a computer all day without moving. According to Baker’s website, “Repeated spikes in glucose, or blood sugar, are known to contribute to a number of negative health outcomes, including hardening of the arteries and cardiovascular disease. Insulin is important, because it plays a key role in controlling blood sugar levels.” When these sugar levels get out of control, people are at greater risk of contracting diabetes. Diabetes can be caused by too little insulin, resistance to insulin, or both. People with diabetes have high blood sugar because their body cannot move sugar into fat, liver, and muscle cells to be stored for energy.

Your computer can also contribute to other deadly diseases including heart disease. Lead researcher, Associate Professor David Dunstan, says: “When we eat, we get rises in blood glucose. With larger and more frequent rises in blood glucose, we gradually accumulate damage to the walls of our veins and arteries. This increases our susceptibility to heart disease. So, we want to minimise these rises in order to improve our health outcomes.”

However, he says that in his study that mimicked the typical office environment with those who worked in cubicles, participants who broke up their day with regular activity breaks “showed up to 30 percent improvement in the body’s response to a meal containing glucose.” This type of activity doesn’t even require a brisk walk down the street for lunch; it can just be light activity, just as wandering around the office or a slightly longer walk to the bathroom. (I’m personally a fan of taking the stairs to the bathroom up or down a floor if you work in a larger office building. Not only is it easy yet good for you to take even just one flight of stairs, but exploring other areas of your building can break up the monotony of your office environment and perhaps introduce you to new people, too.)

Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute also notes that this same research applies to those who work at home. Though telecommuting may seem like it gives employees more freedom to roam around and create their own flexible schedule, the reality for many people who work at home is that they, too, tend to sit in one place for long periods of time. (I often find myself surprised after focusing for hours on a project that the sun has set and the room is suddenly dark.) It’s critical for anyone who uses computers for long periods of time to routinely get up and move to keep their muscles from, as Dunstan says, “sleeping.” He explains: “When we’re up and moving, we’re contracting muscles and it appears that these frequent contractions throughout the day are beneficial for helping to regulate the body’s metabolic processes.” Keeping your metabolism high is a key component of maintaining your overall health; alternatively, a low metabolism can contribute to deadly diseases. For those who work at home, consider taking conference calls while walking around the block or go the gym in the middle of the day. Setting a timer to get up from the computer every 45 minutes (such as on the :45 of every hour) is one of my personal habits and a great routine for those who have control of their own schedule.

If you’re the type who does sit and stare at your computer all day, don’t worry; you don’t need to go out and buy (or make) a standing treadmill desk or commit to a personal trainer to offset the associated dangers of working in front a computer all day, every day. Dunstan’s research ultimately found that simply standing up and moving occasionally throughout the day was beneficial enough to prevent the deadly consequences of using your computer all day otherwise. (However, if you do decide to build that treadmill desk, we’re not stopping you — here at LockerGnome, we personally think it’s a great idea and it’s one option we’ve even considered ourselves.)

How do you cope with sitting at a desk all day? What tricks or tips do you have for other people who constantly use a computer? Share your thoughts in the comments.

CC image of ambulance via ibison4.

Keep it Simple with Google Logins

Keep it Simple with Google LoginsWe’ve all heard the mantra K.I.S.S. for “keep it simple, stupid.” With a high-tech world swirling around us at breakneck speed, we have to prioritize our time as carefully as we budget our finances if we want to get anything done in a day. Whether we’re trying to make sure we blog every day or efficiently manage our information intake, we probably have our own shortcuts that rely on some sort of technological innovation or another. But making sure we utilize these resources with maximum results requires re-examination of the K.I.S.S. standard from time to time. The way that you’re doing something today may not be the best way of doing it tomorrow. Just one example: We don’t use covered wagons to migrate our families across unpaved continents anymore when interstate highways and air travel make it a much easier endeavor nowadays.

Google grew to become the search engine of choice for most of the world mainly by offering its users a clean, simple interface that just got (and still gets) the job done with no fuss or muss. And while its services have expanded well beyond the realm of the search engine, it’s clear that Google constantly has the K.I.S.S. principle in mind as it unveils new goodies for the world to enjoy. Here, we try and make things simpler still by showing you how to do three common things with Google services: how to log in to a Google account, how to log in to Google Talk, and how to log into Google Mail (aka Gmail).

How To Log in to a Google Account

Google has several features to help manage your email, RSS feeds, calendar, and more. Once you have set up an account with Google, such as by creating a Gmail account, here is how to log in to your Google account:

  • Type the following into the URL bar of your browser: google.com
  • Click Sign in in the top right corner of the webpage.
  • On the next page, sign in with your Google account. Enter your email address (usually your Gmail address) and Google password in the blue box on the right side of the page. Click Sign in. If you are using a personal computer, you may also opt to check the box to Stay signed in. This is not recommended if you are using a public or work computer.
  • You will then be logged into your Google account and redirected back to Google.com. Choose which feature of Google you would like to access from the menu bar at the top — the list includes Videos, News, Reader, and Gmail. Other features are available from the More dropdown list in the menu bar at the top of the Google.com homepage.

Alternatively, you can log in to your Google Account from Gmail:

  • Type the following into the URL bar of your browser: gmail.com
  • Sign in with your Gmail account. Enter your Gmail address and your password in the blue box on the right side of the page. Click “Sign In.” You will then be directed to your Google Mail, or Gmail, account.
  • You will now be logged in to all of your other Google accounts, as well.

How to Log in to Google Talk

Google Chat, or Gchat, has evolved as one of the primary instant messaging tools, especially for professionals. For those maintaining several conversations using Gchat, it can be difficult to switch between windows or even apps. Google now has its own native chat client, Google Talk, so Gchat users can IM right from their PC desktop. Here’s how to log in to Google Talk:

  • Download Google Talk from google.com/talk/. You can also download the Video and Voice plug-in for Google Talk from this page.
  • Once downloaded and installed, open the Google Talk application.
  • Enter your Google username (without the @gmail.com) and password, and click Sign in.
  • Once you are logged in you can change your settings, status messages, or start chatting. You may want to log out of chat from your Gmail account, especially if you are logged in from multiple computers. This will both prevent duplicate messages popping up on the same computer, and the occasional incident of an IM being delivered to another computer while being set as away using Google Talk.

How to Log in to Google Mail

If you have a Google Mail account to manage your email, also known as Gmail account, or have a Google Apps for Domains account, there are several ways to access it. If you use Google for your email, here is how to log in to Google mail:

  • Type the following into the URL bar of your browser: google.com
  • Click Sign in at the top right of the webpage.
  • On the next page, sign in with your Google account. Enter your Gmail or Google account email address and your password in the blue box on the right side of the page. Click Sign in. If you are using a personal computer, you may also opt to check the box to Stay signed in. This is not recommended if you are using a public or work computer.
  • To access your Google Mail — or Gmail — once you are logged into your Google account, click on Gmail on to the top bar (located seven from the left). You will then be directed to your Google Mail, or Gmail, account.

Alternatively, to access only a Gmail account (this will not work for Google Apps for Domains accounts):

  • Type the following into the URL bar of your browser: gmail.com
  • Sign in with your Gmail account. Enter your Gmail email address and your password in the blue box on the right side of the page. Click Sign in. See above about the option to check the box to Stay signed in.
  • You will then be directed to your Gmail account.

No need to do the hokey pokey or turn yourself around, as this is pretty much what it’s all about. See? We kept it simple (and really, there’s no need to call anyone stupid — that’s just rude)!

Top Five To-do Apps for the iPhone

Life is busy, but luckily iPhone users have dozens of options for apps that can help them keep track of all the things they need to get done during the day. There are dozens of to-do apps in the App Store, but we took a look at a few of the best, saving you the time, hassle, and money of downloading all the others to discover which to-do app you should download. If you’re in the market for a new to-do app, here are the top five to-do apps for the iPhone.

Reminders

If you have an iPhone, you’ve likely (and hopefully) already upgraded to iOS 5. The latest platform for iPhone and iPad actually now comes with a simple to-do app, eliminating the need for users to visit the App Store for an app to help them get things done. Reminders is admittedly very simple, and lacks any type of bells or whistles that many iOS users love in their apps. However, if you want to avoid paying for an app, and simply need a few lists to manage your tasks, Reminders is an easy solution.

Clear

I’ll admit I was skeptical of Clear, one of the newest to-do apps on the market. Clear has been getting quite of bit of press lately since its launch a few weeks ago, but for good reason. This app, which functions entirely based on swiping, tapping, and other gestures, is beautifully designed and incredibly intuitive. The design of the app is essentially three layers: settings, lists, and tasks. By swiping up or down, you can navigate between these layers, or tap on an item to access a setting, a specific list, or a task. The app comes loaded with instructions to walk you through how to use it, so you’ll want to spend a few minutes playing around with Clear to understand how to pinch, pull, swipe, and tap to use Clear. While the app is well designed for iOS users, it does not sync with other platforms and lacks other features we found in other to-do apps, like Voice to Text. However, if you’re a fan of apps with great UX and UI, Clear may just be what you’re looking for in a to-do app, and can be found for $1.99 in the App Store.

Orchestra

While Clear has a beautiful design, Orchestra may be one of the most functional to-do apps. Recently named Lifehacker’s #1 “best to-do app,” Orchestra features the ability to add tasks by typing or by voice-to-text, which is incredibly useful when you can’t use your iPhone keyboard, such as when driving. You can also add tasks by email, or add other people to your tasks — even if they don’t use the app. Orchestra also syncs with your Web browser, which is a feature I find necessary as I’m not always near my phone (though everyone thinks otherwise). This to-do app also features the ability to organize tasks by category, filters, and due dates, making it easy to access the type of tasks you’re working on other than just by lists. For those of you looking for advanced features in a to-do app, or are looking for more organizational features more than a great design, Orchestra can be downloaded from the App Store for free.

Wunderlist

Another great option for those who love to sync their apps across multiple devices or the Web is Wunderlist. Unlike Orchestra, however, this to-do app not only syncs between your iPhone and the Web, but across devices, such as your OS X or Windows OS (as long as you have the app installed there, too). Wunderlist also features the ability to create lists, as well as specify due dates and add reminders for upcoming tasks. Users of the Wunderlist app can also track tasks via email. For those who don’t always have their phone nearby but don’t necessarily want to open their Web browser, Wunderlist is a great to-do app for the iPhone.

2Do

If you’re looking for a comprehensive to-do app for your iPhone that integrates a great UI, lists, categories, reminders, and the ability to sync with your calendar, 2Do may be the the app for you. This app can sync with Dropbox, use location based alerts, use Siri to add reminders, add password protection, and even schedule tasks. The UI is also impressive, with the ability to see lists as tabs, as if you were using a notebook. This app may be more than you need, but if you have a lot to do and need something comprehensive to manage your busy life, 2Do can definitely help you get the job done. Of course, an app like this isn’t free — be ready for the $6.99 price tag in the App Store.

Do you use a to-do app on your iPhone? If so, what’s your favorite? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Top Five To-do Apps for the iPhone

How to Use Pinterest as a Business

If you have a small business, or help manage social media for a business, you’re likely considering how to use Pinterest as part of your marketing strategy. Pinterest has quickly become the hottest social network du jour, and sites like Mashable have (completely incorrectly) cited that Pinterest is the “top traffic driver for retailers.” This might not be entirely true, but some business are seeing some success with Pinterest, driving some additional traffic to websites and even increasing client referrals for some. With a quick glance at recent coverage of businesses that are seeing success in the media, as well as by doing some research of our own, we see that most businesses that are enjoying the most traffic and new activity from Pinterest are related to food, fashion, and photography. However, this doesn’t mean that your business can’t see success, too. Here’s how to use Pinterest as a business, regardless of the type of product or service you offer.

Gather Your True Fans First

How to Use Pinterest as a BusinessJust as with any other social network, your content is more likely to be shared by others if you have a few fans or followers reading, watching, or in this case, “pinning” your content first. If you’re a business new to Pinterest, take the time to attract your existing fan and customer base to your Pinterest boards by following them on Pinterest, as they’ll receive a notification you’re following them — which will encourage them to follow you back. You can also announce your new Pinterest presence on other social networks where your customers and fans are already sharing your content. Having followers on Pinterest is critical for success as a business on Pinterest, as without anyone to share your content, you’re less likely to attract any new customers.

Share Interesting Content

As I mentioned earlier, most successful businesses on Pinterest are those involved with fashion and photography; by their very nature, they can inherently share interesting photos. Since Pinterest is very much a visual social network, many people like to simply share these pretty photos — even though they often link back to other content, such as a catalog or blog post. If you’re not in either of these industries, you can still leverage this platform to share content on Pinterest using a great photo that is linked back to your own interesting, relevant content. The trick to this strategy with Pinterest is that you’ll need to make this content count, as much like Twitter, the lifetime of a pin is short; if the content is not interesting, it will “die” relatively quickly. However, like Twitter, if it is interesting, you may find that Pinterest users share it for several days.

Allow Others to Share Your Content

One crucial step in assisting Pinterest users to share your content is enabling your existing readers to easily share your content so that you can drive new fans and customers from Pinterest back to your online store, website, or blog. Consider talking with your Web development team to add a button to your blog or online store so your existing fans can pin your content to Pinterest, which can be found at pinterest.com/about/goodies/. If you have visually oriented content, this is especially important to help drive new traffic back to your website. Recently, PayScale.com added the Pin It button to its blog, which allowed readers to share the content, and thereafter saw a significant increase in traffic back to its blog from Pinterest. (It didn’t hurt that the day it added the button, PayScale published a blog post that included an especially interesting infographic — which are very popular on Pinterest.) If you want to drive traffic from Pinterest, it’s clearly important to enable your existing customers and readers to share your content first.

Pin Content That Drives Action

Of course, just because you post an interesting pin on Pinterest doesn’t mean it will impact your business. That is, unless the content to which your pin is linked drives action. If you link your pin to your ecommerce site, this action could be a purchase. Alternatively, you can link your pin to a blog post that encourages engagement in your community, which can be very beneficial in building you brand’s reputation and maintaining a customer base. If you’re selling an e-book, or offering consulting services, you may also want to link your pin (if it’s appropriate) to these landing pages to drive conversions.

Define Your Own Success

How you define the action you drive from Pinterest is ultimately how you define the success of Pinterest. For some businesses, simply driving more traffic to their website is their definition of “success,” while others, like Swink Style Bar in Seattle (a blow-dry and makeup salon) and wedding planners such as Your Wedding Muse, have found Pinterest has allowed them to create “look books” for customers and inspired both new and existing customers. Before you, as a social media manager for a business — or even a small business owner — dive head first into Pinterest, consider defining your “ROI” of Pinterest. For example, what are your goals for using the social network, and how will you measure them? It is important to approach the time invested in this new social network much like the time you invest in any other marketing campaign — and also, as with any brand spankin’ new social network, with caution, too.

Are you using Pinterest as a small business? Have you seen success from using this new social network, and if so, how? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments.

What Social Media Users Can Learn from Justin Bieber

My apologies for the belated birthday wishes to Justin Bieber, who finally became legal turned 18 yesterday. I’ll admit, I’m not a huge Biebs fan — though you might be able to catch me on a sunny day with the windows open singing along to one of his bubblegum pop songs. Justin Bieber has filled in a gap long left behind by boy bands such as NSync and the Backstreet Boys (am I dating myself?) that teen girls just seem to need (and seemingly, older women, too).

However, while all I could do to show my appreciation for boy bands was attend a concert and try to throw a love note on stage, today’s teens and tweens have social media to interact with their favorite celebrities and popstars. Justin Bieber is currently not only the reigning king of pop, but also Twitter, holding strong as the #2 most followed person on Twitter with 18 million followers. (Lady Gaga barely leads at #1.) Justin Bieber also notably sets the bar on Klout with a perfect score of 100. Clearly, the Biebs is doing something right — not just as a celebrity, but as a social media superstar. So what can other social media users learn from Justin Bieber?

Be an Early Adopter

What were you doing five years ago? While most savvy Internet users were still hooked on MySpace and starting to feel out Facebook, Justin Bieber was starting to acquire a few thousand followers on Twitter. Someone (much more savvy than you or me) in Justin’s camp knew that Justin could be a big fish in a very small pond on Twitter, and that very smart marketing intern not only deserves a raise (if they haven’t received one yet) but proved a very critical point in being a savvy social media user. Many new social networks do burst and then bust, but some have amazing sticking power, such as Twitter. If you want to be be a social media rock star like Justin Bieber, it is essential to be an early adopter.

Know Who Your Audience Is

Justin’s career essentially started when Scooter Braun saw him on YouTube after Justin’s mother uploaded a recording of Justin’s performance during a talent competition. The rest isn’t quite history; Justin and his new team (which included Usher) helped Justin define his audience, which probably wasn’t that hard, but important. Justin couldn’t appeal to both 13-year-old girls and older, married men; these types of people have vastly different interests in almost every aspect of the world. Justin knew — or at least defined — his audience as tween and teen girls. This could help him shape his content and his voice both as a musician and as a social media star. As a social media user, knowing your audience will help you define the type of online identity you want to create for yourself or your business, which can help control your voice, messaging, and even ethics.

Create Content Specific for Your Audience

Ever turn on the radio and just know when a song is Justin Bieber — even if you haven’t heard it before, or rarely listen to his music? Justin’s songs admittedly sound very similar, and for a good reason: His defined audience loves that type of music. As a social media user, once you identify your audience, you will want to create the same defined type of style that your audience loves and comes to expect from you as well. While readers of other blogs, Twitter accounts, or Facebook pages may not like your content, your style, or your voice, that’s OK; readers of your social media channels do. While you shouldn’t necessarily write only for your readers, be sure to keep your audience in mind and remember why they choose to follow you or read your blog.

Create Social Media That Engages Your Audience

Justin Bieber may not be your cup of tea, but for millions of other Twitter users — and his adoring fans — they can’t get enough of his music or his social media content. He is an active musician, but also creates unique content that excites his fans and followers, which triggers replies from his fans. Then, Justin replies to and retweets his followers on Twitter, showing appreciation for their interaction with him. This creates a cyclical effect of fans that simply can’t get enough of the Biebs. As a social media user, you might not get the exact same effect, but you can create similar evangelists by creating content that others want to reply to, and as you share their replies, you can create a long-lasting dialogue that will allow your fans and followers to want to continue to engage with you on your social network of choice.

Make Your Audience Want to Share Your Content

Justin’s fans love talking about his content, whether it’s his music, a new YouTube video, or something he tweeted. You can count on anything he tweets getting hundreds of retweets and replies, especially if it contains a link to his #GiveBack campaign or a new photo. Justin’s trick to creating tweets that are shared and replied to by others is by including or discussing interesting content that appeals to his fans. Essentially, if you know your fans, and you know what content they’ll like, this final step will evolve naturally for a savvy social media user who isn’t also necessarily a rock star, too.

Internet Blueprint Project Aims to Give American Internet Users a Political Voice

After the recent failure of bills like SOPA and PIPA in the House and Senate, its been made clear that the American people do, in fact, have a voice — and we are especially passionate about our right to continue to have a voice with regard to new media. A new project started by Art Brodsky called the Internet Blueprint Project wants to ensure that the American People continue to have a voice in the type of legislation that will define how we use the Internet.

Internet Blueprint Project Aims to Give American Internet Users a Political VoiceThe Internet Blueprint project is essentially a portal for people to propose legislation that can eventually pass through Congress and become a law. Users can simply propose an idea, and other users can vote on it or submit the idea to their local congressperson. Art says that “This is the start of an ambitious effort to put forward a positive agenda for the rights of Internet users — people and companies. What makes this different is that we want to move from worthwhile concepts to actual legislative language that could be drafted and presented to Congressional staff for consideration [by their bosses]. That’s what makes the project unique.”

The project is very new, and does have roots in the recent attempts by Congress to pass the drastic bills that were SOPA and PIPA. Art explains this further: “The project started out addressing copyright and intellectual property issues, because those were the touchpoints of the debate around the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) that got everyone so angry at Congress earlier this year.” However, he adds that that was just the start. He says, “The beauty of the project is that people are free to submit their own ideas for consideration, for others and PK to evaluate, to determine whether they should be included as part of a package of bills.”

For those who have long forgotten their junior high history coursework, a bill becomes a law only if it first gets proposed. This is where the Internet Blueprint project comes into play. Art explains that an idea “could get proposed as a bill if a staff member and his/her boss thinks it’s a good idea to introduce it.” He adds that “It’s that simple and that hard. It happens all the time with industry-drafted legislation, not so much from our side of the world. This would give those [representatives] and senators some credibility to say that they introduced something (even with modifications) that came from an Internet-based discussion.”

Of course, anyone can propose an idea at internetblueprint.org — not just staff members or those inside the political world. Art says you can go see what’s there, support or oppose bills, and most important, think about other ideas. He says that “This is our way to open up the process for anyone and for the possibility of seeing some drafted legislation at the end,” and a way for voices to be heard.

Would you use a site like the Internet Blueprint Project to propose and submit legislation to your local congresspeople about Internet-related issues? Let us know what you think about this new project in the comments.

Why Your Blog Should Have an Email Newsletter

Whether you run your own personal blog as a hobby or help manage a blog for a business, attracting — and retaining — readers is a crucial component to your marketing campaign. Readers can help increase your ad revenue, drive more traffic to your website, or even generate more viral awareness of your existence. One easy way to keep these readers coming back for more is with an email newsletter, which can be created using free apps like Google’s FeedBurner or more complex programs like Aweber or Mailchimp.

I recently had a chance to talk with Chris Pirillo about how he has used email newsletters for nearly a decade to help promote not only this blog, but the LockerGnome brand. In this time, he has realized the potential for email newsletter to help drive traffic to the blog and brand, and is still adamant about sending this newsletter every day. As a result of our success, he believes it is crucial that every blog — no matter how big or small — has an email newsletter. Here are a few reasons why.

You Can Build Relationships

Why Your Blog Should Have an Email NewsletterWith an email newsletter, you can create a relationship with your audience much more easily than with just your blog. Chris explains that “LockerGnome started with my voice and perspectives (alone). In many ways, some people still believe this is true — which I suppose is testament to its staying power.” (It’s true — you’ll likely find that in many comments on my blog posts, readers will thank Chris instead of me.)

Chris explains that email has also been more personal to him, “but back when the newsletter started, we didn’t even have the luxury of using simple blog platforms to get the word out,” attesting to the power of email before even blogs. Now, he says,”while LockerGnome’s email newsletter has certainly changed over the years, it’s about as good today as it ever was in the beginning — fresh, useful, and a bit offbeat.” The ability for the newsletter to adapt and continue to build relationships with readers who care about the LockerGnome content — content they care about — has been key.

You Can Build Trust

With newsletters, you will undoubtedly get return visitors to your blog. However, Chris notes that what the purpose of email newsletters really boils down to is building brand recognition and trust. He says, “Why wouldn’t you want people to remember your name above most others? By sending an email to your community regularly, you’re remaining at the top of their mind. That translates into driving value in whichever direction you so choose. ”

You Can Drive Action

Another great feature of email newsletters, in addition to building trust, is the ability to drive instant feedback from your community by creating a clear call to action that will resonate with the audience. As Chris says, “If you don’t get any feedback, that’s either telling you: your current audience doesn’t care, or you’re creating and sharing things that are better shared elsewhere.” He adds that “the more you directly involve your community, the more likely they’ll be to return and support your endeavors because you’ve included them in the process.”

You Can Easily Share Your Content

Finally, don’t forget the purpose of your newsletter: sharing your content. However, be sure your content is worth sharing. Chris advises that “it boils down to having content worth sharing with others. If a reader finds no value in what you have to share, they’re not likely to read your newsletter (or blog) again.” If you aren’t sure what is worth sharing, Chris understands that “it’s difficult to guess what people do and do not want — you can only follow your instinct or listen to the kind of help your community is asking for — and then provide it in a way that nobody else has done before.”

Are you using an email newsletter in conjunction with your blog? Has it helped you increase the amount of readers to your blog or the amount of your content shared? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Five Ways to Get Rewarded for Exercising

It’s almost now March, which is a great time of the year to start asking yourself how well you’re doing with your 2012 New Year’s Resolutions. Was getting in shape one of them? If so, just how many times per week are you going to the gym, or going for a run? If the answer is not quite enough, you may need a little extra motivation to get off that couch and get moving. Luckily, several apps and services exist that actually reward you for exercising. We have compiled a list of our favorite five ways to get rewarded for exercise, so if you need a little extra motivation to get back to the gym, check out the options below.

EarndIt

If you use RunKeeper, FitBit, or similar gadgets to keep track of your physical activity, EarndIt integrates with your device to calculate just how much exercise you’re actually getting. You can link your device with a Facebook,Twitter, Google, Windows Live, or Open ID account, and then start working out. You’ll automatically earn points from thereon, which can be redeemed for gift cards to real stores. Not to mention, you’ll also get your name placed on a leader board for some bragging rights, too.

GymPact

Five Ways to Get Rewarded for ExercisingIf the idea of getting paid for working out intrigues you, you might like GymPact, an app we wrote about at the start of the new year that either pays you if you work out the number of times per week that you promise, or makes you pay if you fail to meet your gym quota. GymPact is a mobile app that allows users with gym membership to set a goal to work out a specific number of times per week, and and also place a financial stake on meeting those goals by setting a price on what you’ll pay if you miss a workout. GymPact then asks you to check in to your gym each time you work out to ensure you actually work out as you promised. Because you have to link a debit or credit card, the money you make from meeting your quota is pulled from the pool from those who miss their workouts. And don’t worry — if you set the bar too high, you can change your “pact” for the following week.

Fitocracy

However, if you’re more motivated by others (and bragging rights) more than cold, hard cash, Fitocracy is a popular fitness social network that allows its users to compete for motivation. Users of Fitocracy can essentially turn fitness into a game, creating challenges with other users, creating groups, earning points, and earning badges for certain achievements. Fitocracy has a heavy social component, so it’s easy to share your achievements with Facebook friends and Twitter followers. So if you’re the type motivated by being the best — and telling everyone — Fitocracy is a great choice for motivating you to get to the gym.

Switch2Health

Another site similar to EarndIt that rewards users for tracking their fitness and offering real, tangible rewards is Switch2Health. This site simply requires users to sign up to track and upload their activity every day, after which they can find great deals and rewards from businesses like Old Navy, Lowe’s, Netflix, and Amazon.com. You can track your activity using one of their devices, but the system will also soon be compatible with others you may already use like Nike+, Foursquare, and apps on your iPhone or Android.

Nexercise

If you have an iPhone, another popular service providing real rewards (read: gift certificates and coupons) is Nexercise, an app for the iPhone. This service not only provides badges for activity (Foursquare users will be instant fans), but can also foster some friendly competition. Of course, the app also promises the opportunity to receive coupons after working out that will be sent directly to your email address.

Would you use an app that provides monetary or social incentives to motivate you to work out? Let us know your thoughts about these apps in the comments.

#FellowesInc PowerShred 79Ci Paper Shredder Review and Giveaway

This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Fellowes for SocialSpark. All opinions are 100% mine.

Recently, we discussed 10 things that you should always and absolutely shred — including old tax returns, cancelled credit cards, and pay stubs. Shredding these types of documents, which contain personal and financial information, can save you the headache of potential financial fraud or identity theft. When you’re considering purchasing a shredder, it’s crucial to find a shredder that not only does the job, but does it well.

#FellowesInc PowerShred 79Ci Paper Shredder Review and Giveaway

I had a chance to recently test the Fellowes 79Ci PowerShred, which is an excellent choice for shredding personal and sensitive documents whether at home or at your office. The PowerShred features several cutting-edge technologies [Get it? Cutting-edge? Oh, never mind.] that make this shredder one of the best on the market — at least, for those in need of shredding without compromise. One of my least favorite experiences with paper shredders is the obnoxious paper jam you get when you try to shred too much at once – and then you’re just stuck. With the Fellowes 79Ci PowerShred, a sensor will let you know if you’re cool to keep shredding, or if you have (instead) reached maximum capacity and should reduce the amount of paper you’re trying to shred. This 100% jam-proof feature helps prevent those frustrating jams — and keeps you moving through your stack of bills much faster.

And, speaking of bills, it’s undeniably important for your shredder to destroy papers to a point where the original works can’t be pieced together again. The Fellowes 79Ci features cross-cut capabilities that destroy documents into 399+ particles — so there’s no risk of someone identifying your personal / financial information (at least, not from these shredded papers). Plus, in our tests, the 79Ci was incredibly quiet — thanks, in large part, to the automatic SilentShred technology. That’s a feature that I especially appreciate as an apartment-dweller (where it’s easy to disturb the neighbors).

Additionally, should you (or unattended children) accidentally get a little too close to the shredder blades, the 79Ci will automatically stop if it senses fingers in proximity with its SafeSense technology — a feature well worth the cost of the shredder alone for those concerned about safety.

Visit Sponsor's Site

If you’re looking for a shredder, I’d recommend looking closer at the Fellowes 79Ci — and while you are most certainly welcome to stop what you’re doing right now and buy one immediately, you could also win one that we’re giving away! You read that right — we’re giving away one of these awesome shredders to a LockerGnome reader. Just tell us what you would shred if you won the Fellowes 79Ci in the comments below. If you want to enter more than once, check out Chris Pirillo’s separate review.

For more information, check out the official contest rules.

How to Get a Refund from the App Store

Have you ever downloaded an app for your iPhone or iPad only to be severely disappointed because you found it not to be compatible with your iPhone or iPad (likely because it was designed for the other type of iOS device) or discovered it didn’t even download at all? You may have also accidentally downloaded a completely bogus app that somehow snuck its way into the App Store, such as the Fake Pokemon App.

How to Get a Refund from the App StoreThis app, called Pokemon Yellow, reached #2 in Top Paid apps, according to Gizmodo but wasn’t even designed my Nintendo. The biggest problem, though, is that this fake app — which, in case you missed what I just said, is a paid app — doesn’t even work. We won’t get into the problems about Apple’s app review process, but this app was downloaded by thousands of users who now are out cold hard cash for a useless app.

So what can you do if you unknowingly downloaded a fake app — or any other type of useless app — from the App Store? Luckily, Apple does have a little-known refund policy for iOS users who download apps that meet strict criteria, which we discovered thanks to Gizmodo:

  • I didn’t receive this application.
  • I inadvertently purchased this application.
  • This application does not function as expected.
  • This application is not compatible with my device.
  • I have another purchase or download-relation question.

To start the refund process, you’ll need to open your account in iTunes and then check your purchase history by clicking See All under Purchase History. Then, to report your specific type of problem, scroll down to find the button that says Report a Problem and then click on it. You’ll then choose the app for which you want a refund, and then select the problem you’re having from the list above. You’ll also need to explain the problem, so be sure you have a legitimate reason for requesting a refund and for selecting this specific reason.

Keep in mind, however, that if your real problem is fraud, this is not the way to report a problem. Fellow LockerGnome writer Matt Ryan has been fighting an uphill battle with fraudulent activity occurring with his iTunes account for several months after someone hacked his iTunes account and made hundreds of dollars in fraudulent app purchases. In this case, Matt says:

“In the case of fraud, Apple actually has a support line set up to deal with that issue. Though iTunes itself doesn’t have phone support (you usually have to submit a ticket via email on the support site), you can get resolution for fraud cases fairly quickly. At the very least, you can report the incident so Apple can have record of it if it comes to prosecution.”

These two processes are the best ways to get a refund from the App Store. Have you ever downloaded an app in error from the App Store and tried to get a refund? If so, were you successful? Feel free to share your stories in the comments.

Pokemon image via Kotaku.