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Square stainless steel water bottle review: opens at the top and the bottom

Would you pay $45 for a really good reusable water bottle?

Clean Bottle Square

The Square is a stainless steel bottle, and the main feature that makes it different is that it opens at the top and the bottom. This makes it much easier to clean. It holds about 560mL (20 ounces). Currently (February 2013), you can only purchase it online.

Square bottle parts

This is what the bottom of the bottle looks like when the bottom cap is twisted off:

Square bottle bottom

Clean Bottle, which is the company that makes The Square, makes a cheaper, $10 plastic bottle that also opens at the top and the bottom.

The concept is rather brilliant yet simple. Clean Bottle owns a patent on the design; on the one hand, this is fair, but on the other hand every reusable bottle could benefit from that! Cleaning regular water bottles is hard because of the small-ish spout and the inability to reach to the bottom. It can get quite disgusting at the bottom of a bottle. There are of course alternative cleaning solutions, such as using a long-necked scrubber:

Long-necked scrubber

The square design of the bottle is also intended to help it pack better and prevents the bottle from rolling on the ground when it is dropped. There are other self-proclaimed features about the bottle, and you can find out more about them in the promotional video, which might seem unintentionally farcical.

There are a couple of potential drawbacks regarding The Square. The durability of the plastic elements — the lip and the bottom — is questionable. However, it’s supposedly “guaranteed for life”.

Also, due to the fact that the inside of the bottle has square corners, it is difficult to get the last drops of water out.

Square bottle top

The Square is indeed easy to clean, it’s comfortable to port around, and it fits in car and side pocket cup holders. If you care a lot about reusable water bottles or if you’re a hipster, this could be the bottle for you. Most people probably think that $45 is a crazy amount to pay for a bottle, but arguably it is still a bargain if you compare its cost to regularly buying throwaway water bottles.

Wave Payroll review: ADP Canada alternative

My 5-employee small business had been using ADP Canada for payroll services for many years. Nearing the end of 2012, I decided that I was ready to find an alternative payroll service provider for a few reasons:

  • Inconsistent service: Most of the time, customer service was good. However, normal modifications to employee deductions or employee information was input incorrectly about a third of the time. Sometimes the error was by a large factor (as in a couple of extra zeros added to taxable benefits) and, after I pointed it out, it was only corrected for 1 payroll run. Other small issues included being disconnected when being transferred over the phone to a different internal department and not being called back (and thus being required to sit in an hour-long hold queue again).
  • Technological inconvenience: To review payroll numbers online, I was forced to use Internet Explorer 6 or 7. Despite repeated requests to have this updated, at the end of 2012 I still had to load a virtual machine or use an old computer that had software updates turned off in order to access the online interface.
  • Nickel and diming with fees: The $26 + tax per-payroll (at 4 employees) fee was relatively reasonable. However, with extra fees for processing and sending year end review forms, T4 forms, schedules of payroll input dates, and so on via courier (without an option to have this sent via regular mail or electronically), the total cost added up to more than $800 every year.

When I indicated to ADP that I wanted to cancel my account, I was put in touch with a retention specialist who assured me that all 3 main complaints could be addressed. However, she followed up to say that neither the Internet Explorer requirement nor the courier requirement could be changed.

The end of a calendar year is a good time to switch payroll service providers since there are no accruals that need to be ported. The employees and deductions simply need to be set up in the new system before the start of the new year.

Alternative payroll service companies in Canada are more numerous than I would have originally guessed. I evaluated a few of them, including PaySavvy, Payment Evolution, and Wave Payroll. Most of them seemed quite adequate, but I ended up switching to Wave Payroll: it differentiated itself based on its intuitive interface, ability to schedule several payroll runs in advance, and strong enthusiasm for customer support.

Wave Payroll is a service by the makers of Wave Accounting, which is a free online accounting system (that I haven’t tried). They also have an invoicing application and a personal finance application (similar to Mint). The Wave company itself is relatively new, having started in 2009, focused on small businesses. Wave Payroll was officially launched in February 2012. Wave has been quite active in the past year: they’ve announced a major round of funding, website changes, the integration of Wave Accounting and Wave Payroll, the expansion of Wave Payroll beyond Canada and into the US, and much more.

Wave Payroll’s pricing starts at $5 per employee per month; it drops if you have 6 or more employees. All other features are included, such as direct deposit, tax remittances, and T4 forms. For my company, this means our yearly payroll fee cost will be less than a third of what it was with ADP.

Your entire Wave Payroll account is managed online. You can set up an account for free, add employees and their taxable benefits and deductions, and preview payroll runs before you have to pay. You can have multiple management logins, and employees can log in to access their deposit slips online. I found that setting everything up was incredibly simple. I’ve used their e-mail support a few times, and they’ve responded within 1 business day in a friendly and efficient manner. They also have phone support, although I’ve only spoken to them to inquire about features before I decided to use Wave.

I have found that direct deposits from Wave to ING Direct sometimes arrive 1 day late. I have not yet figured out whether that is a Wave Payroll issue or an ING Direct issue. (This was resolved; to correct the issue, Wave ended up submitting payroll through VersaPay for ING Direct employees 1 day earlier.) Other than that, Wave Payroll’s ease of use and straightforward features have been a big payroll administrative relief.

June 2013 update: all is going well with Wave Payroll. ADP, meanwhile, has managed to run two accidental, automated payrolls this year (1 in May and 1 in June!) even though our account was disabled at the end of 2012.

Vancouver to Seattle Amtrak train review

In an area where medium distance train travel is uncommon, the Vancouver, BC to Seattle, Washington Amtrak train is a refreshing — and arguably the most relaxing — way to travel.

The Amtrak Cascades route actually goes beyond Seattle, with a stop in Portland and ending in Eugene, Oregon. I’ve only taken it between Vancouver and Seattle.

Schedule and route

Amtrak Cascades runs 7 days a week. The journey between Vancouver and Seattle takes about 4.5 hours on the train, compared to 3.5 hours on the bus and 2.5 hours by car (excluding border line-ups).

Going south, the train leaves downtown Vancouver at 6:40am or 5:45pm at the Pacific Train Station, which is 1 block from the Main Street / Science World SkyTrain station. You are supposed to be at the station at least 30 minutes beforehand to check in. If you are taking the SkyTrain to get there, note that on weekends, the Expo and Millenium Line SkyTrain routes do not run early enough to take you there for the morning departure; the Canada Line between Richmond and Vancouver starts running at about 5am every day, so that will take you most of the way there.

There are no stops between Vancouver and Bellingham, Washington; therefore, if you live south of Vancouver, to get to the train station you have to travel in the opposite direction of where you want to go. If you know the Metro Vancouver area, the train takes a rather meandering route through North Burnaby, New Westminster, Surrey, and Delta, and takes about 1 hour to get to the US-Canada Peach Arch border crossing.

Going north, the train leaves downtown Seattle (King Street Station) at 7:40am or 6:50pm.

Cost

As of January 2013, it is $58-$100 for a regular price round trip coach / economy seat per person between Vancouver and Seattle. There are a few discounts fares, such as a 10% AAA / BCAA / CAA discount, as well as periodic sales.

Depending on how you do the calculation, the cost of taking the train is equivalent to gas and operating costs for 2 people if you own a car. You can of course also take the bus, which is faster but not as comfortable or scenic!

Customs

A benefit of the train is that you do not have to worry about getting stuck in a border line-up or traffic. You don’t even have to disembark the train at the border to go through customs. Going south, customs agents board the train and visit each passenger at their seats. Going north, you have to clear customs when you arrive at the station in Vancouver.

General comfort

The route is comfortable and scenic. It is mostly forested, with fields, water, and some highway. Of course, you get the general benefits of being on a train instead of on a bus or in a car: you can get up, walk around and stretch, and go to the bathroom. You don’t have to worry about driving stress or potential car issues.

There is free WiFi and power outlets so, if needed to make up for the longer journey, you can be productive. (Hopefully, however, you can enjoy the scene outside the window!) The Internet connection is more than adequate for e-mail and general browsing. I have not used it continuously throughout the trip, but I did not notice any outages. I wouldn’t suggest using the connection for voice calls or videos (YouTube is blocked), but I was able to check in code and connect to servers. The train is not too fast or shaky. I am generally only mildly susceptible to motion sickness, and did not have any trouble reading.

There is a cafe on board with tea, coffee, other drinks, and some mediocre food.

You can store your bags in the seating areas or you can check in up to 3 bags.

Other notes

There is a business class section of the train, where 1-way fare is $10-$20 more expensive. In addition to bigger seats and a less crowded train car, you get free newspapers, $3 off food, and priority boarding and disembarking. In my opinion, coach class is adequate.

Consider buying Amtrak Guest Rewards points and paying for your trip with points. It can often be cheaper.

Lastly, mudslides are common in the winter. Because it rains so much in this area, large sections of the track are often closed for several days. I’ve taken the train twice in December and both times mudslides disrupted service. Thankfully, and probably because this happens often, Amtrak does have a good, well-organized bus backup service. It will take you part of the way if trains are still running further along the route, and all of the way if necessary.

Tax Free Savings Account year-end tips

The end of the calendar year is a good time to think about Tax Free Savings Accounts (TFSA) for a couple of main reasons:

  • You get an extra $5,500 contribution room on January 1, 2013 (up from $5,000 in previous years)
  • The end of the year is the best time to withdraw money from a TFSA if you want to minimize the time until the contribution room created from the withdrawal is available again. A more concrete example of this: it is easiest to move money from one TFSA to another TFSA by withdrawing from one TFSA at the end of the year and depositing to another TFSA at the beginning of the next year

Rules

Tax Free Savings Accounts have caused some confusion since they were introduced (as evidenced by some of the posts in this forum). For a comprehensive overview about TFSA rules and benefits, check out the Canada Revenue Agency site.

The biggest confusion around TFSAs is typically regarding withdrawals: you can withdraw money from a Tax Free Savings Account to a non-TFSA account during the year, but that does not create contribution room to deposit money back into a TFSA until the following year. As such, frequent withdrawals and deposits (unless in small amounts) can bring you over your contribution limit.

Technically, your available contribution room (in other words, the amount of money that you can deposit) for the current year remains fixed all year, and is made up of:

  1. New contribution room available on January 1 ($5,500 in 2013)
  2. Unused contribution room from the previous year
  3. Withdrawals made in the previous year (including any interest earned that you withdrew)

A very simple example: Suppose you had never opened a TFSA before, and deposited exactly $20,000 into a TFSA in January 2012, maxing out your contribution room. Then, you withdraw $5,000 in February 2012. You cannot re-deposit that $5,000 into a TFSA without penalty until January 2013.

You can transfer money between Tax Free Savings Accounts at different institutions during the year without adversely affecting your contribution limit, although some institutions will charge a transfer fee.

There are some good example scenarios out there that go beyond the basics, such as here, here and here.

Unfortunately, due to the fact that you can open a TFSA at almost any financial institution, there isn’t an easy way for the government give you a real-time report of your contribution room during the year. (I remember seeing such a report once, and it was inaccurate.) Therefore, you have to keep close track of your contributions and withdrawals yourself.

Beware of teaser interest rates

Because it is not as easy to move money in and out of a TFSA as with other bank accounts, you are slightly more locked in to a financial institution’s TFSA account. Thus, you are more vulnerable to fluctuating interest rates. Some banks have, in my opinion, abused this fact by offering higher rates at the beginning of the year and then dropping the rate a few months later for more reasons than just “market fluctuations”. You and your money are a bit stuck at that point. I am not predicting that this will happen again, but it is definitely something to be suspicious about when you see a higher than usual TFSA rate at the beginning of the year.

Some examples:

  • Canadian Tire Financial TFSA:
    January 8, 2010: 3.15%; May 7, 2010: 2.15%
    December 30, 2010: 3.50%; March 31, 2011: 2.50% (even though they had advertised that it was “not a temporary promotional rate”)
    December 29, 2011: 2.75%; March 31, 2012: 2.00%
  • ING Direct
    Jan 1, 2010: 3.00% (was 1.20% on Dec 15, 2009); April 28, 2010: 2.00%
    Dec 30, 2010: 2.00% (was 1.50% on Oct 2, 2010); August 20, 2011: 1.50%
    January 1, 2012: 2.00%; April 1, 2012: 1.60%; March 20, 2012: 1.40%

See this comparison chart for some historical data on rates.

More than just a savings account

You can open a TFSA trading account for investments (such as in stocks) and you won’t be taxed on the gains made within the TFSA. However, you are also subject to more volatility compared to investing outside of a TFSA: you aren’t able to deduct capital losses within a TFSA from other taxable gains, while you are able to deduct capital losses outside of a TFSA.

You can also open other accounts, such as a GIC, within a TFSA. See this thread for some discussion around this.

Originally published November 25, 2011; updated December 22, 2012

British Columbia prescription drug price comparison tool

Pacific Blue Cross, a health insurance company, has released an online tool called the Pharmacy Compass:

http://pharmacycompass.ca

Pacific Blue Cross Pharmacy Compass

The Pharmacy Compass is a price comparison tool for prescription drugs in British Columbia. Basically, you type in the drug name and your location, and it returns you a list of pharmacies and the corresponding price per pill, dispensing fee, and generic or brand name equivalent price. It is straightforward and easy to use, with a clean interface, auto-completion on fields, and a map view.

It makes business sense for Pacific Blue Cross to offer such a tool, since the less their customers have to pay for drugs, the less Pacific Blue Cross has to pay! And of course they have access to all of this price data through all the reimbursement claims submitted to them.