Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Great Value Bacon Breakfast Bowl (Walmart)

It gets kind of old after a while, but it's good while it lasts.

This story starts the way virtually all my stories do: Was in a store—this time, namely Walmart—needed something to take to work but didn’t want something boring like sandwiches. So I went to the frozen section, which has sadly become my go-to place lately. I had nothing specific in mind when my eyes caught this breakfast bowl from Great Value. I’d never had the name brand before, but I did have similar offerings from Aldi, so I had a good idea of what I was getting into.

This looks pretty much exactly like I was expecting it to, having had Aldi’s version of the same bowl, even down to the overly large plastic container, which makes the contents inside seem meager by comparison. Cooking it up in the microwave is quick and simple, requiring just three-and-a-half minutes, with the ensuing meal coming out piping hot within that time.

The taste, at least initially, matches what you would expect from looking in the bowl, which is to say that everything tastes like it’s been coated in a large layer of grease. Seriously, you can feel your arteries clog in real-time after finishing the bowl, with a thin layer of the stuff sinking down to the bottom, where it creates a slick-looking glossy surface that’s almost enough to make you slip and fall just from looking at it. In other words, if you've ever eaten at Waffle House, this is the frozen food equivalent of that experience. (But at least you get a whopping 31g of protein, which is great for people who like to load up on that.)

Once the grease layer dissipates on the tongue, the dish tastes like it’s a mix of scrambled eggs, potatoes, cheese, and bacon, because that’s what it is, and all of those tastes are pretty straightforward. I would have liked the cheese to be spread out a little better (it clumped together in one corner of the bowl, with many bites missing out on the stuff) but that just meant I had a huge glob of it left at the end, which was worth the wait.

Unfortunately, with no accompanying gravies or additional “sauces”, this bowl does suffer from the standard issues of similar frozen breakfasts: It’s pretty dry, thanks to the potatoes and bacon, and as hard as the grease seems to try to prevent that, it can’t quite overcome it. As a result, it gets pretty boring to eat after a little while; it would greatly benefit from something that could give it a little shot of flavor, or other unexpected kick. 

That’s not to say this is a bad product—quite the contrary, I do like it and would get it again—but it’s one that could be easily improved upon with just a couple minor tweaks, that could take it from the good bowl that it is now, into truly great territory. (Something like the sausage and gravy bowl, where the gravy prevents the potatoes from drying everything out, while also adding a much-needed difference in texture.) 

Overall: 6/10. Thanks to the inclusion of potatoes and bacon, things can get a little dry and “boring” after a little while. There's also a rather concerning layer of grease that sits at the bottom, a constant reminder that you will probably die soon after finishing it. Despite these issues, though, it's essentially a breakfast sandwich in bowl form, with a proven combination of flavors that work well together, when they're not drying out your mouth. And the shit-ton of protein (a whopping 31g!) doesn't hurt. It's not the best breakfast bowl out there, but it's quick, inexpensive, and tasty, and one that I would get again in the future.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Great Value Sausage and Gravy Breakfast Bowl (Walmart)

A delicious breakfast bowl at a delicious price. (Img source: Walmart.com)

My Lord am I getting senile in my old age: At a quick glance during a frustratingly long (and overly expensive) trip to Walmart, I half-blindly grabbed a couple of these breakfast bowls as an option for lunch at work. In my exhaustion, I thought I was grabbing one bacon and one sausage, but as it turns out, the second kind was actually a sausage and gravy breakfast bowl! I don’t know why I’m telling you this long-winded story, because the only moral of the story is that I’m even more excited to try it now.

Prepwork consists of popping it in the microwave for 4 minutes (thirty seconds more than the bacon version), letting it sit, then enjoying. Pretty straightforward and simple; perfect for a quick breakfast on the go—and smart to eat as a breakfast food because it gives you all day to work off the excess calories.

Oh yeah, this one hits the spot. The gravy is a delicious country gravy that doesn’t really taste like “standard” sausage gravy even when mixed with the sausage crumbles, but it does add quite a bit to the flavor that the regular bacon bowl is missing. And speaking of sausage, there is a ton in this bowl; there’s enough that you can get some in every bite all the way up until the end, which is a somewhat welcome surprise, considering some of them tend to be skimpy. Also, even though each bowl is technically 7 ounces of food, I still feel like sausage is a much heartier, more substantial and filling breakfast meat than the little scraps of bacon served up in their other variety, so I walked away feeling much fuller. And fatter.

It’s also apparently “healthier”, with “only” 340 calories, 25g of fat, and 215mg of cholesterol per bowl. High numbers, to be sure, but somehow still smaller numbers than those found in the bacon bowl. The excessive grease of the bacon bowl also didn’t seem to be much of an issue here, although it’s possible that maybe I just didn’t notice it thanks to the coating of gravy. Either way, it didn’t feel as “heavy” as the bacon did, giving me just enough food to fill up for breakfast.

The more I eat of it, the better it gets: I’d go out on a limb and say that this is better than most fast food breakfasts, and certainly better than almost all fast food sausage gravy’s…the texture is perfect, and although it looks like it might be a little “snotty” and off-putting when first looking at it, actually comes off as much more smooth once it's all mixed together and the bites start ending up in your mouth.

As someone with borderline high cholesterol, these don’t fit into my diet very often at all (though judging from my other reviews, it certainly doesn't seem like I pay much attention to it, haha), and it’s going to stay that way. But as a once-in-a-while convenient breakfast, or for those in a much better health situation than I am, these are a delicious concoction that are way tastier than I would have expected, and for a pretty solid value.

Overall: 8/10. These are surprisingly good, and coming in at just $2.00 per 7 oz. bowl, offer up a decent value that at least rivals fast food breakfasts in terms of taste and “quality” (term used loosely). The gravy is the difference-maker here, adding in some additional texture that prevents the potatoes from being too dry, while also contributing an extra flavor missing from the bacon bowl. I won’t get these all the time, because they’re pretty horrendous for you, and I should probably at least start taking my health into consideration, but as an occasional treat, I would definitely grab these again if I find myself at a Walmart store. God forbid.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Marketside Refrigerated Double Sausage Egg and Cheese Muffin (Walmart)

It's like a cheese crime scene in there...
My wife and I were out at Walmart shopping for groceries, something we never do, when I realized I needed stuff for my work lunches. Rather than doing the smart thing, and grabbing some bread and sandwich fixin’s, I decided to search around for some frozen things to take with me. And that’s how I stumbled on an entire array of “Marketside” foods, which are designed to look like they were made fresh in store (they are refrigerated instead of frozen), but are actually mass-produced, like everything else inside a Walmart store.

Prepping it for human consumption is very easy: pop it out onto a paper towel, stick it in the microwave, and cook for a minute on each side, flipping it after 30 seconds. Well, that’s what the actual directions stated, anyway; as usual, I took an even lazier way out, keeping the sandwich in the plastic (but opening one end), and just cooking the whole thing for a minute, with no flipping. Sure enough, the sandwich came out piping hot and ready to eat, without any cold spots or otherwise noticeable issues.

The first thing that caught my attention was that this thing is absolutely loaded with cheese: if it were the real stuff, it would be stringing out all over the place. But since it’s the pasteurized junk (which, honestly, you have to accept at this price point), it instead just falls all over the place and sticks to the packaging, making an absolute mess of things. Either way, I have to say that it made my mouth water, and was an enticing way to start the festivities.

Wow, this has a pretty interesting flavor. I thought maybe they’d be trying to emulate a fast-food breakfast kind of taste, but this has a taste all its own...for better and for worse. It definitely doesn’t taste the way a “fresh” one would, which is to be expected from a supermarket sandwich, but the overloaded cheese certainly steps it up and presents a delicious artificial flavor that I have to admit to loving. Curiously, although the sausage should be front and center (this does, after all, feature two patties), the sausage taste is surprisingly “muted”, at least in comparison to what I was expecting. In fact, just trying a piece of sausage on its own revealed just how uninspiring they are without the other ingredients there to pick it up. It's lacking the typical “bite” of most sausage patties...a flavor that's pretty much a required component of sausage, and that drags things down a little bit.

Rather surprisingly, the english muffin works well here. In fact, now that I think about it, english muffins are the perfect kind of bread for frozen sandwiches, because they're already kind of chewy and tough on their own. And since that's how frozen bread will almost always come out of the microwave, it translates very well, without the softness or even occasional sliminess of biscuit-based breakfast sandwiches.

How’s the price, you may be wondering? Unfortunately, I have failed you by forgetting exactly what I paid, but I’m pretty sure it was in the ballpark of $2.25. While that might sound like a lot, this is a pretty big 6.1 oz. sandwich; by the end of it, I was pretty full (not to mention sick of the flavor), so there’s plenty here that it should be enough to satisfy most hungers, and for a price that's cheaper than a lot of similar fast food sandwiches. If only that sausage tasted better...

Overall: 5.5/10. In a world that’s always trying to go more expensive and gourmet, sometimes it’s refreshing to step into a Walmart, until you are instantly reminded of why you never set foot in a Walmart…it’s like a hellish alternate universe where you exchange a little piece of your soul for cheap corporate goods. Enter this breakfast sandwich, which doubles the sausage yet somehow doesn’t even single the sausage flavor, leaving some non-descript patties of near-nothingness that lack the signature bite of the normal breakfast meat. The pasteurized cheese is here to steal the show, though, so whether or not you’ll like this depends on your affection for fake cheese products, with large amounts of the stuff falling all over and sticking to everything. The microwaved english muffin comes out semi-tough and chewy, which is pretty much an accurate texture to regular english muffins. It’s honestly a pretty decent combination, though nothing at all like a fast-food breakfast sandwich—which can be a good or bad thing, depending on your stance. I’m not sure I would get this again, and I was pretty sick of it by the final bite, but it represents decent value and a whole lot of convenience.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Season's Choice Shoestring French Fries (Aldi)

A no-frills fry at a no-frills price.
I’ve had quite a few of Aldi’s private label fry offerings (and there are quite a few), but I’ve never really sat down to review any. Why? Because the very thought of doing it makes me feel like I’m up against a wall. What can you really say about fries, especially ones as boring and straightforward as shoestrings? Nevertheless, I feel it is my duty to help you make informed decisions on what to buy and what to avoid, and so I’m going to do my best, though this will probably be shorter than most.

For starters, the size of the bag is pretty impressive, considering it retails (if memory serves me correctly) for $1.79. It’s true that you can also get bags of shoestring fries from Dollar Tree, for a dollar, but the bag is much smaller. I don’t have the exact weight or dimensions of the DT brand fries (which taste fine, by the way) but it’s noticeably smaller. With just about any bag of frozen sides (be it French fries, or onion rings), I generally toss in about a third of the bag, and that’s just the right amount for me. With these, I put in probably about a fifth and it was still way too many, so you really do get a lot for the money.

Now how do they taste? Well, like fried potatoes. Shoestring fries are never really that good or interesting by themselves, and these are no exception (if you don’t believe me, get the plain fries from Steak n’ Shake, and if you think they’re delicious, try it again when you’re sober). But they do provide a nice foundation for whatever toppings/condiments you enjoy. For me, I sprinkle them with a barbecue seasoning (that was actually intended for grilling), and then dip them in ketchup. That livens them up a little bit, and gives them a little added punch that would otherwise be missing.

So, if your fry budget is small but you have a lot of mouths to feed, this is a great way to go. The only downside: it's curiously only available as a special buy, so be sure to stock up if they happen to have them!

Overall: 7/10. If you want a lot of fries for not a lot of money, these are a good option. Now, keep in mind, these are shoestring fries, which are the French fry equivalent of math class: Completely, and utterly boring. They’re essentially thin-cut fries with some salt, and that’s it, so you’re not getting a lot of flavor right out of the bag, which is true of any shoestring fry I‘ve ever had. But you can always add condiments and seasonings to liven them up, which can help you stretch your grocery dollar farther, and isn’t that what this is all about? One fairly big negative: These are curiously only available as a special buy, so be sure to stock up on them when they are available!

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Eat! Southwestern Style Vegetable Burrito Bowl (Dollar Tree)

Not a bad way to go for $1.
As I have mentioned in a previous review, Eat! is a frozen meal company that, as far as I can tell, seems to exclusively supply Dollar Tree stores. The products are manufactured by Bellisio Foods, a factory located right here in Ohio; the combination makes sense, considering Bellisio also makes the name brand single serve frozen meals that Dollar Tree carries. Is Bellisio eventually going to pull the name brand products from DT stores and replace them with these private label products instead? It's a complete guess on my part, but one that makes potential sense; only time will tell.

Technically, this dish is doomed to me from the beginning, because I don’t much care for beans, nor rice, and those two items make up about 50% of this entrée. Obviously, however, I’m taking a look at it for what it is, rather than my own personal affection for it, if that makes sense. Which it doesn't. Either way, I was in the mood for something different, something I wouldn't normally get, and this fit the bill quite nicely.

I don’t think there’s a nice way to say this, but upon heating it up, this dish looks like someone ate beans and rice a little too soon after drinking a large quantity of alcohol, and then regurgitated their stomach contents into a small cardboard tray, where it was flash-frozen to preserve freshness and placed on store shelves. I mean, seriously—that weird white sauce on top (which I have just learned is, in fact, cheese, despite having the consistency of something that’s not cheese) certainly doesn’t help, especially when everything is mixed together. It’s quite an unappetizing appearance.

But you know what they say: never judge a book by its cover, and so I ignored my own stomach’s pleas for mercy, loaded up my fork with a bite, and crammed it into my mouth…

…and it’s really not that bad. It’s certainly boring to my palate, with a muted, monochrome flavor profile that’s expected of a bean and rice combination, but the weird cheese “sauce” (that’s much thicker than my definition of what constitutes a “sauce”) does give it an extra kick in the tastebuds that makes you wish there was more of it to go around. Meanwhile the “corn” is in there just to fulfill the absolute minimum requirement for something mass-produced to be considered “southwestern”…it really doesn’t add much to either the flavor, nor the texture, and is a pointless inclusion overall. In fact, I didn't even notice them at all as I was eating the dish, only realizing they existed after taking a closer look at the packaging.

If you are a fan of beans and rice, you're a boring person. But you might also quite like this. Ditto for fans of the “southwestern” flavor profile, which is in noticeable abundance here. It’s another example of America taking ingredients that are naturally healthy, and overcheesing and salting it to ridiculous extremes, but it does have an interesting combination of flavors that's outside my norm, and that managed to hit the spot. And for only $1, the price isn’t too shabby, either.

There's “only” 7.5 oz. of food in here, which is on the lower end of the Dollar Tree frozen food spectrum for similar meals (which are usually in the 8-9 oz. range), but it's not enough of a drop-off to really affect the value proposition all that much, and there's enough here that those with smaller stomachs should feel full afterwards; for everyone else, it should suffice as a satisfying snack.

Overall: 6/10. For the third time (at least), I’m not a big fan of beans and rice, but wanted to give this a chance because I was in the mood for something different. And I'm certainly not upset that I did: It’s expectedly boring in flavor to me, save for the cheese sauce, which adds a much needed kick in the tastebuds, but the overall combination of flavors and spices was a welcome change of pace. The rest is about as you would expect, and while the $1 price point isn’t really all that noteworthy (most frozen meals at major supermarkets can be had for the same price), it certainly isn’t bad. For a quick meal on the go, you could certainly do worse, especially inside the Tree.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

RE-REVIEW: Fast Bites Breaded Chicken Sandwich (Dollar Tree)

NOTE: This is a re-review of a product that I unfairly criticized, rather harshly, for being unhealthy. The original review can be found here.

What a difference 4 years can make: from delicious, to dog food.
In my original review, I noted that the flavor of this sandwich was good, but was offset by the negative nutritional value. While it’s true that the vitamin content is rather lacking (and the sodium, fat, etc. departments are bountiful), this isn’t a health blog, and I would venture to guess everyone purchasing a frozen chicken sandwich is already aware of the potential health ramifications—it was a completely illogical review, especially considering that I actually liked the taste. So with that in mind, I have sat down to re-review this item from the ground up, hoping to right my previous wrong.

And now, it would appear, that I am right, although it would also appear to be as a result of a recipe change: just looking at the old packaging—which shows a deliciously lopsided, enticingly crunchy patty encased between two pieces of bread—compared to the new one--which depicts a perfectly circular patty completely devoid of all character--tells you all that you need to know. This is a rather flavorless, overly salty patty that is nowhere near the same level it reached all those years ago. In fact, back then I would have compared it to a fast food chicken sandwich, courtesy of an addictive flavor, ridiculously low price point, and easy 60-second prep that made it a solid choice for a quick meal on the go.

That is not the case any longer, as this hunk of “chicken” needs some serious dressing up to even be remotely palatable. The original version I hold in my mind cooked up almost crispy, with a delicious blend of spices within the patty that gave it a solid taste on its own, with minimal dressing up needed. This time, I tried throwing some mayonnaise on it one day (I’m trying to keep things simple so as not to ruin the original flavor), and then discovered a packet of Arby’s Horsey sauce at work on another day; neither condiment did much to make the sandwich any more appetizing.

This is just a slab of a tasteless thing that appears to be chicken in appearance only, but has very little resemblance to the actual animal in taste. It's almost like eating a vegetarian version of the meat, only it's the real thing, so you're left wondering where all the flavor went. As alluded to earlier, I got one of these, was so underwhelmed and disappointed with it that I thought it might have been a prep error on my part, or a batch error on the manufacturer, so I grabbed a second one, only to be let down in a very similar way. I might have been wrong in the past, but in attempting to correct that, the only thing I found is that I seem to be pretty adept at predicting the future.

Overall: 1.5/10. It's not as bad as my original review made it seem—it's far, far worse. The deliciously-spiced patty from yesteryear, where adding condiments and vegetables was simply a way to take the flavor from “good” to “delicious”, has been replaced with a listless slab of would-be chicken that now requires you to smother it in as many different things as possible in order to get any enjoyment out of forcing it down your throat. It's a shame, but my attempt to wrong a previous review has completely backfired, because I wouldn't even feed this to my dog. The only genuine pluses are you'll only waste a dollar and a minute of your time if you ignore my advice.

Monday, October 7, 2019

From Summit, To Spend and Save, To Worthless: Why You Shouldn't Waste Your Time With Aspiration

They don't do much of either those things any more.
I always hate it when I've spent a long time drafting a review, only to have the service (or app, or product, etc.) in question do a complete 180. For months, I (and apparently a lot of other people) have been inundated with ads for Aspiration's Spend and Save (formerly “Summit”) account on Facebook, which harped on all the great benefits of the non-checking “checking” account (in quotations because, since Aspiration is not a bank, they cannot legally offer a “checking” account, though it functions a lot like one). And every time, the comments section would fill up with people scoffing at the idea, calling it “too good to be true”, or other things along those lines, without apparently having done any research.

I always resisted the urge to respond to comments—mainly because I do not have a Facebook account and only use my wife's, so I would have to respond under hers—and instead set out to review it as a way to set the record straight. While it might not technically be a budget-saving product or service, Aspiration's touted 2% APY was potentially be a great way to earn some “free” money. Sure, 2% might not be much at all (translating to just $50 per year on a $2,500 balance), but that's probably around the average amount most people can expect to earn from using receipt-scanning apps, or survey sites—only here, the money is just given to you without having to do anything to earn it.

In the interest of full disclosure, they didn't screw me out of money, or lock me out of my account, or personally affect my money in any way; this isn't going to be that kind of rant (although there are no shortage of those kinds of stories online if you're really interested in reading some). Nor do I even think they're necessarily a greedy or evil company; they just seem to be very shittily run, and terribly disorganized, the two qualities most people don't want anywhere near my money.

Instead, my main motivation is meant as a counterpoint to all the inexplicably positive reviews floating around out there from affiliated sites who clearly have never actually banked with them, and who must get cash from influencing sign-ups. As such, this won't be a typical review so much as a warning for anyone interested in signing up, as well as a throwback to the brief period of time I used them when they were actually exciting and didn't completely suck asshole.

FROM “SUMMIT” TO “SPEND AND SAVE” 
I first opened my Aspiration account back in 2017, as a place to store the money my wife and I had earned from a federal income tax refund. I could have just opened a savings account with my bank, but between the low interest earned on those accounts, as well as the fear that I would be much more tempted to use the money if it was easily and readily available, I decided that storing it elsewhere would be smarter.

Back then, it was known as the Aspiration Summit account, and its main selling points were unlimited free ATM withdrawals (if you were charged a fee, Aspiration would refund whatever amount you paid, an unlimited number of times per month), 2% APY on balances over $2,500 (with balances under that earning 1%), and no fees of any kind, short of services offered that incurred a fee for them (such as international wire transfers). These were some pretty good benefits, though it was the APY that really piqued my interest. After all, it was money that I would just be storing until we decided to do renovations or to have in case of an emergency, so I figured I might as well try to get a decent amount of interest out of it in the meantime.

Once you sign up, you are issued a debit card, which comes within the standard bank timeframe of 7-10 business days, or thereabouts. Again, I didn't really mind it because it was money we weren't planning on touching right away, but it would be worth factoring in if you needed immediate cash access to your account.

They do have some pretty snazzy debit cards, I'll give them that.
A couple of months after signing up, I received an email that there would be some changes to their program, but all would be for the better: the main one that really got me excited was that the minimum balance for the 2% qualification was waived, meaning whether you had $1 in your account, or $10,000, you would still get 2% APY. There were also some more additional perks added, but seeing as how I rarely used the account, none of them really pertained to me. Additionally, they were leaving their partner bank, Radius, and instead partnering with Coastal Community Bank, who issued their debit card; the money itself would be dispersed to a network of partner banks, who were each FDIC insured up to about $250,000. Honestly, things were looking pretty solid. But, of course, in the digital age, it's all too easy to polish a turd long enough to sucker people in before the rosegold wears off, leaving people with...well, a turd.

Fast forward to the beginning of 2019, where yet another big change was taking place: This time, it was no longer called the "Summit" account; instead, every account was split into two separate ones: a Spend and a Save account. This is just about the exact time when things started to get a little less rosy, and a lot more confusing. Basically, the two accounts worked in tandem, with only the money in the “Save” account eligible for accruing any type of interest (which was still up to 2% APY at the time); likewise, you couldn't spend any money until you moved it to the “Spend” account. Transfers from between the two Aspiration accounts were instantaneous, but money being transferred from other sources to either account could take a couple of days to post, per the norm for financial institutions. The most annoying trait was that at least $1 had to be transferred into your “Save” account every single month in order to qualify for the 2% interest, otherwise, your account would get a reduced rate of nothing. That's right, 0%, which is even worse than the national average of .01% that Aspiration always loves to compare themselves to. It was frustrating to have to remember to deposit money into that account every month—in fact, a couple of months I completely forgot—but the more I thought about it, the more I grew to like the idea. After all, it was encouraging me to add more money to an account I rarely looked at or touched, and so if I deposited even $50 a month, that would be an extra $600 per year—with an extra 2% APY tacked on to the entire total for good measure. That would at least encourage me to keep the account growing, instead of keeping it stagnant.

More changes in early, 2019, but no hints the rug was being pulled out from everyone very soon...
They were also adding unlimited cash back on all purchases made using the Aspiration debit card, as well as some other cool features, like cell phone insurance (up to $600) if you used your card to pay your monthly cell phone bill. While I rarely used my Aspiration card for anything, the thought of accruing cash back on all purchases—even if it was a paltry 0.5%--was again, a little bit more than I would have had otherwise (companies they deemed to be good for the environment would net an additional 0.5%, for a total of 1% back).

The number of hoops one had to jump through in order to get the promised high yield interest rates were becoming slightly more annoying, but I certainly wasn't expecting the death blow that was right around the corner. At least, I wasn't expecting it to come so quickly.

FROM “SPEND AND SAVE” TO WORTHLESS
Then, early in August, 2019, an email was sent to users claiming that, due to a cut in interest rates by the Feds, there would be yet another change to the APY: in order to qualify for the full 2% interest, users had to direct deposit at least $1,000 in each calendar month to their Aspiration account. If this could not be met, then you could qualify for a reduced 1.5% interest rate by maintaining a balance over $10,000. If neither of these requirements could be met, then the APY went down to 0%. That's right, ZERO. And these changes were effective immediately.

I'm mad I deleted the August email with the drastic, terrible changes that took effect that day, with no prior notice. Instead, here's one sent less than a month later that proved somehow their service could still get even shittier.
That wasn't all, though: the much-touted unlimited ATM reimbursements were being dropped down from “unlimited”...to just five per month. Although this personally didn't affect me at all, it was yet another red flag of the direction the company wanted to head in. Their reasoning? Because a "small number of people" were taking advantage of the offer, with one user receiving 113 reimbursements within a single month period. Okay, so then how about flagging and/or limiting the egregious offenders instead of making everyone else pay for a few people taking advantage of a company's generosity? There just wasn't a whole lot adding up; the only thing that made complete sense was getting the hell out of there as soon as possible.

CUSTOMER SERVICE ISSUES
Let me preface this by making it perfectly clear: I've personally never had to deal with Aspiration's customer service. So I do not have a personal anecdote to relay to you about how much I hate their support, or how they screwed me over out of money by locking me out of my account. However, the internet is chock full of complaints that seem to be stemming from a company that is growing too quickly to keep up with customer demands: Accounts are completely shut down without warning, business reps are almost impossible to get a hold of, deposits taking longer than a day or two to clear, and accounts frozen with no way for the user to access them all seem to be within the realm of normalcy here.

There were also a good number of people who experienced issues accessing their account during the sudden switchover from Radius to Coastal Community, which resulted in an even higher workload for the apparently meager support staff to handle. The end result: even more customer service issues, and a greater number of people quickly growing disillusioned with the company.

I understand that the whole idea, per the email that was sent out informing clients of the changes, was to ensure that the people being rewarded with the highest percentages were people that were focused on making Aspiration a larger part of their lives. That meant people like me—who were just letting the money sit to accrue interest—weren't really welcome at the “new” Aspiration, and that's all fine and good. But by the same token, if there are widespread complaints of constant issues, what incentive do I have to make Aspiration a part of my daily life? The higher the number of transactions I would make, the higher the percentage chance I would encounter a problem would go up; and from the sounds of things, customer service wouldn't be too interested in helping me out.

No matter how you look at that, that just isn't good for building trust, which should be a foundation of any successful business, but especially a bank. And, obviously, I realize it's impossible for any large company—and again, especially a bank—to have a perfect customer service track record. In fact, banks probably have it worse than many other companies, because generally, when something goes wrong at a bank, you're directly messing with someone's money...and that's something people don't take too kindly to.

In the sake of fairness, it's an alarming trend across many online banks--actually, a lot of start-ups in the digital age, period, who see their ideas catch on way quicker than anticipated and become victims of their own success. Unfortunately, that doesn't make it any easier to take for people who simply have questions that need answered, and are unable to contact anyone able to provide that information.

DO WELL, DO GOOD
It's amazing just how quickly things can turn, because when I originally sat down to type up this review a couple short months ago, it was actually in defense of the company; then, literally within the span of just one email, everything changed.

In fact, if you can somehow believe it, things have even gotten worse since that August email: their maximum APY is now just 1%, while the above hoops (minimum of $1,000 deposited monthly, or minimum balance of $10,000) are still in place. The cash back rate has gone down to just 0.10% for “normal” businesses, with a boost to 0.5% for businesses that have the highest AIM ratings for sustainability (down from 1%). Granted, some big name companies are on there, such as eBay, Target, and Walmart (a couple of those which shock me quite a bit), but it's still a small list compared to the billions of other options out there.

They do an excellent job of presenting their philanthropy without making it sound like a PR stunt.
And that's very unfortunate, because Aspiration really does seem to be a company founded on doing more for the environment. For example, they donate 10% of every $1 they net through the “Pay What Is Fair” program to charitable organizations that work to make the lives' of struggling Americans better. Furthermore, they also encourage and allow customers to make their own donations across a variety of respectable charities targeting specific issues like poverty, human rights, education, and many more. This is the one field where Aspiration still has an advantage over competitors, though I'm wondering if all that comes at a cost: are they giving away too much that it's eating into their ability to offer more attractive yields?

Aspiration also offers higher cash back rewards for companies that they deem to be some of the best for the environment, such as Warby Parker, where you can earn 5% cash back, with others, like Blue Apron, netting you 3% in cash back rewards. Little touches like this really do help to make the whole company feel like a community, rather than a greedy bank trying to take advantage of their user base by screwing them over with excessive fees (which again, is the one area where they haven't compromised their original vision). As much as their actual “banking” aspect fails, I have to say that their marketing is pretty top notch, and no doubt intrigues a good number of the nay-sayers and skeptics enough to at least get them to check the service out.

It's just a shame that the success of their marketing team doesn't carry over to their finished product, or their web presence: The top, non-advertisement result for almost any Google search string involving Aspiration is a link to their old, outdated Summit account, which did update the APY to 1%, but claims all that's needed to receive that is a minimum balance of $2,500—with no mention of the direct deposit requirements (or actual minimum balance of $10,000 if the direct deposit rule can't be met). It also touts “Unlimited ATM fee reimbursements!” which is entirely untrue, as well as a minimum deposit of $10 to start (it has since gone up to $50, at least for a "Save" account, according to the fine print). Why hasn't this hugely misleading info either been deleted, or blocked from Google results? It's almost as if the original creator of the website was fired during the transition, and he was the only one with access to edit the site. And sure, you can read the fine print at the bottom (which, curiously, has been updated). Either way, it doesn't paint a solid picture of trustworthiness, when the things you're advertising in big bold letters are shamelessly contradicted in tiny letters just below.

A top search result for "Aspiration Bank" takes you to this page, with outdated and completely misleading info...including the wrong current name for the account.
In terms of their “Do Well, Do Good” motto, it's taken on a much more ironic tone in the past few months, with the bank itself needing to heed their own rallying words. In short, until they get their acts together, there is simply no reason to open an account with Aspiration: aside from their commitment to the environment, they offer nothing that other online banks can't match or better, and thanks to either disorganization, mismanagement, incompetence, or a healthy combination of all three, seem hellbent on destroying the endless potential they once seemed to have.

A different link I found from a basic Google search that still has outdated information.
OVERALL


PROS (+):
+Uh...great marketing?
+Uh...donates 10% of all earnings to charities that help struggling Americans?
+Uh...focuses on promoting companies that promote the welfare of the planet?
+No fees or overdraft charges...the only two things from their original banking plan that haven't changed (yet)
+Pay what you want in fees, including $0, across all services.

CONS (-)
-Constantly changing terms and partnerships that signal a company that has no idea what its ultimate goal even is.
-Currently offers a mere 1% APY (down from 2% just a few months before)...and even getting that meager return (compared to many other online banks) requires jumping through hoops.
-Reportedly terrible customer service (can't personally vouch for this).
-So many other online banks offering much higher APYs.
-Previously unlimited ATM refunds cut down to just five per month.
-$50 minimum balance required to open an account
-Still have outdated links in Google searches, with misleading information, about their old Summit account.
-Outside of people who value nature over their own money, I can think of literally no reason for anyone to even bother opening an account.

Aspiration was, admittedly, a great “bank” for about the first year and a half I used them, but have taken a sharp downhill turn in just a couple short months: so sharp, that I can't understand why all the major reviews for them online are still positive. (Unless the "review" companies are getting a kickback...? Nah, I couldn't see an American corporation doing that...) Quite simply put, there are dozens of online banks that offer just as lousy customer service, but at least almost all of the rest offer higher annual percentage yields. Unless you care so much about the environment that you'd marry a tree, and don't care about your money in the slightest, there are literally zero current reasons to open an Aspiration account. And given the company's constant backtracking and sweeping changes, I don't see that changing within the foreseeable future.

OVERALL: 1.5/10.




Friday, October 4, 2019

Assured NiteTime Liquid Cold & Flu Relief (Dollar Tree)

Would you believe me if I told you this worked just as well as the national brand?
Many of us have certain things that we refuse to get from dollar stores. For me, it's certain foodstuffs, like cereal, or even macaroni and cheese. Sure, some of the things in those aisles are decent quality, and can represent good deals, but I've been burned more often than not by their foods in the past, and unless it's a name brand, or something I trust, I generally won't go anywhere near it.

For many, I would assume medicine would be another area of hesitancy. After all, living in America we are trained to believe that healthcare has to cost a fortune in order to “work”; offering multi-packs of pills for just a dollar certainly goes against that method of thinking. And if they can't even get decent-tasting cereal for a dollar, how can they make functioning medicines?

I still can't answer that question, but what I can say is that Dollar Tree medicines are, generally speaking, every bit as good as the brands you would pay up to 20x more for. But even despite knowing this helpful tidbit of information, we nevertheless always find ourselves without medicine when we need it, and of course the only time we think about it is when it's too late and a sickness is already running through the family. In this case, it was a weird conglomeration of everything but the flu (thank goodness for those flu shots!) with sniffles, fevers, coughing, tears, and phlegm being shared by everyone.

Vowing not to let this happen again, I went to DT and stocked up on all the essentials we already should have had: by the end of the trip, I had no fewer than five cold, flu, and allergy medicines in my basket, and one of those was Assured Nitetime Cold & Flu relief, a liquid take on the famous name brand liquid cold medicine that handles a bevy of symptoms “so you can get your rest.” That medicine always knocked me on my ass when I took it as a younger adult, and so Assured's version had some pretty large shoes to fill. How did it stack up?

First of all, even though no one reading this will care, the reason I chose the liquid over the others that I bought, is because I have an irrational anxiety of taking pills. And I don't mean because I think the government's chipping them to track me, or there are weird unnatural ingredients that cause more harm than good (though, if proven true, I wouldn't be shocked at either of those): I just have a weird fear of choking. I don't know where it came from, because I know of no one else in my family that has this issue, but I pretty much refuse to take “large” pills (and what constitutes “large” for me, others would probably scoff at), and so I generally just prefer to take liquids, where applicable.

The only problem with that is, I hate the taste of liquid medicine, too. This one is no different, and is pretty much exactly how I remembered the flavor as a kid: a bitter combination of licorice and metals that immediately made me pucker and want to gag. But then there was a final component that I don't remember: a weird, soothing feeling of mint. Oh, you don't get the benefit of actually tasting it: it just slowly flows over your tongue, as if offering itself as an apology to the atrocity you just tasted. It's completely weird, but does no harm, so whatever.

I didn't even take the medicine until after midnight, and made the conscientious decision only to take around half of the recommended 30mL dose (it was closer to 20), knowing that our baby would probably be up early in the morning, and that my wife—who was worse off than I was—was in even less condition to watch him. About fifteen minutes after taking the medicine, I settled into bed.

All I remember is waking up, semi-groggily, around 4 a.m. just to use the restroom, after which point I fell back asleep almost immediately—and didn't fully wake up until 8 a.m, just in time to hear baby rustling around in his bed. A solid 8 hours of rest, from around half of the recommended dose. But the amazing thing was, I didn't feel groggy...in fact, I honestly felt kind of refreshed! As to how the medicine itself worked (aside from putting me out for eight hours), I had a ridiculous cough that just would not stop prior to taking it, as well as some chest congestion, so it managed to suppress all those long enough to put me to sleep. In other words, it's every bit as good as the name brand!

Now, this being a product from Dollar Tree, there are a couple things worth noting: The bottle is a mere 4 oz., which is 1/3 the size of the typical 12 oz. bottles found in most other retail stores. This equates to just four full-size servings. Still, all you have to do is buy 3 for $3 total, and you'll still be well under the cost of even most store brands for similar sizes elsewhere (just as a reference point: as of this writing, Walmart sells 12 oz. bottles of their Equate store brand for $5.97). This is a great product, and one you shouldn't be without when the cold (or flu) eventually storms its way through your household.

Two other things I feel are worth noting: it still contains the 10% alcohol found in the national brand, so if you're looking for an alcohol-free alternative, you'll have to grab the pills instead (which are also available at Dollar Tree); and the licorice-y “original” is the only flavor available, either in-store or online, so if you prefer cherry or whatever else they offer, you're out of luck. Other than that, it performs as it should, and for a truly outstanding price.

Overall: 10/10. An outstanding product at an outstanding price, that's easily on par with the national brand. It tastes every bit as awful as the original, with a weird, minty finish that completely caught me off guard. But once you get past that, you're most likely on a crash course with peaceful sleep and slumber, even with strong symptoms. I had a cough that kept both my wife, as well as myself, awake the previous night, and for eight hours (on a smaller than recommended dose), this took care of that like it was nothing, putting me to sleep for eight hours and without leaving me feeling groggy upon waking up. The bottles are small, but even buying three to equal a normal 12 oz. bottle only comes out to $3, far cheaper than even most store brands. Maybe the biggest drawback for some will be that the 10% alcohol content of the original is kept intact, so if you need an alcohol-free alternative, you'll have to grab the pills instead (which are also available at Dollar Tree). Outside of these small issues, this is a fantastic product that should be in everyone's medicine cabinet in preparation of cold and flu season.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Eat! Asian Style Beef with Broccoli Frozen Meal (Dollar Tree)

Don't even bother.
“Eat!” is the name of Dollar Tree’s new frozen food line, and from what I can tell from the very limited collection of information available online, it’s manufactured exclusively for them. Now “Why?” is another question that begs to be asked, given the fact Dollar Tree already has plenty of name brand frozen meals available—perhaps the plan is to eventually phase those out and stick to “their” brands...but this is nothing more than conjecture at this stage.

Anyway, your dollar gets you either 7.5 oz. or 8 oz. of food (depending on the entrée), which is either slightly below, or right at the “norm” for frozen supermarket fare (as a comparison, the national brand carried by DT has 8 oz. of food; Main Street Kitchen, manufactured by Kraft-Heinz and available here, as well as other national retailers, offer up 9).

Initial observations: The sauce looks pretty delicious and inviting, a dark brown “thickquid” (thick liquid) that strongly reminds me of the sauce in Aldi’s delicious noodle bowls; my mouth immediately began watering when my mind went to that, and I was hoping this would be able to deliver a similarly tasty experience. The noodles also heightened by expectations a bit, by being appropriately soft, but without the sliminess of some brands…in other words, this has a rather inviting texture given its frozen nature.

Ooh, look at those appealing chunks of meat-flavored sponge.
Digging in, I found that the sauce actually does have a nice little injection of “sweet” that seems like it’s trying to counterbalance the soy sauce-style saltiness that’s prevalent, but it ends up being overwhelmed by both the sodium, as well as the finishing blast of heat that slowly overtakes the tastebuds the longer the sauce-soaked noodles linger in the mouth. The heat isn’t strong enough that most people will be making a mad dash to the fridge for some milk, or blotting away the sweat from their face with tissues, but it’s stronger than some mainstream fare. Personally, I would have liked a little more sweetness in there, just to strike a better balance between the two opposing flavor spectrums, but despite falling short of my hope/expectation combo, it’s still a palatable sauce, and one that I would voluntarily eat again if it were a part of something else.

The beef, meanwhile, is where everything falls apart; it’s exactly the reason why no meat of any kind should ever be sold inside dollar stores. It looks almost identical to the meat found in wet dog food, and has a flavor to match, with a weird taste that comes off like a lifelong vegan’s attempt to replicate the taste and flavor of meat using Google as their only research tool. Even the texture feels off, with an almost sponge-like consistency that will leave even the most discerning eater questioning what it is they're actually eating.

Take that out, and you have a more palatable meal, although “Noodles with Sauce” just doesn't have much of an attention-grabbing ring to it. It's quick and convenient, but this is something that I will never eat again, short of an apocalyptic scenario where this is somehow the only thing available after survivalists have raided all the good food.

Overall: 4.5/10. Take out the beef—which looks and tastes like wet dog food, with an eerie sponge-like texture--and you’d have a more palatable meal here, although that would also only leave you with wet noodles and sauce. So really, it's just best to stay away from this one, which is probably the worst entry in Eat!'s very limited resume. Will these be replacing the name brand frozen meals available inside Dollar Tree stores? If this is a good indication of what we can expect, we can only hope not.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Deutsche Kuche Harvest Potato Soup (Aldi)

Pretty darn good, as far as canned soups are concerned.
Those Germans are at it again! I’ve mentioned in another review that I’ve really started shying away from canned soups because of the ridiculously high sodium content. However, suddenly being thrust back into Poorville for a little while (don’t worry…won’t bore you with the details) my wife and I found ourselves once again pinching pennies, and buying things that we got away from, and in many cases, never really wanted to go back to.

And that’s pretty much how we ended up with a can of Deutsche Kuche’s Harvest Potato soup: It looked good, it was pretty inexpensive ($1.99 for a large can), and would be quick and easy to just heat up and serve. Sadly, this stuff doesn’t skimp on the sodium…in fact, it’s even worse than most soups, so don’t let the plain packaging make you think you’re getting something light and healthy…one serving of this contains a disgusting 42% of your recommended maximum daily sodium intake. What does that mean? Eat a whole can (which are three servings), and you’ve just absorbed 126% sodium…hope you weren’t planning on eating anything else that day!

I was a little hesitant to try this, because I have to admit I’m one of those men that like their soups chunky…I want to feel like I’m getting something of substance with my soup, whether it be large chunks of potato, or chicken. I like soup as a meal, and this clearly did not fit the bill, with barely-noticeable chunks of carrots and potato drowning in a sea of broth: It was a definite step in the opposite direction. There also wasn’t any meat in it, another thing I favor in soups; again, probably to make me feel like I’m getting something of actual substance in it. This has none at all.

Yet surprisingly, it’s a pretty flavorful soup. My wife hates canned soups of just about all kinds, but she really “warmed” up to this one (haha!); we bought two cans, and she ended up eating half of it with me for dinner one night, and then made the second can for herself a few nights later. We’ve been married for over ten years, and I can literally count all the times I’ve seen her eat canned soup on one hand, so this is a pretty big deal.

I see what she sees in it…it’s not super-flavorful, so it’s light enough to appeal to those that don’t need a kick in the taste buds, but it’s also not bland, like many canned soups tend to somehow be, despite the massive salt content. It’s got a nice potato soup base, with just the right amount of additional spices to make it a tasty little soup. It’s hard to explain, so you’ll just have to try it to see what I mean. I will say the can claims it is “thick and creamy”, but both times we made it, it’s actually very thin; other than that, it’s easily worth the $2 asking price.

Overall: 7.5/10. I don’t usually like thin soups, and I especially don’t like thin vegetable soups, but this one really hit the spot. I always worry when “potato” is the main feature on a soup product, because potatoes on their own tend to be very boring. Thankfully, they’re anything but boring here, combining with carrots and spices to make it a delicious, but still fairly light, flavor. Downside is the excessive sodium content, which is even massive compared to most other canned soups…eating one whole can (which admittedly, is quite a bit) amounts to a whopping 126% of your recommended daily maximum sodium intake. Ouch. Regardless, it's one of the few Deutsche Kuche products that are available as part of Aldi's permanent inventory, and there's good reason why.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Daily Basics Soft & Strong Bath Tissue (Aldi)

A good product for the non-discerning asswiper.
My wife and I have differing viewpoints on what constitutes a “good” toilet paper: She prefers to have the pillow-soft, multi-ply paper that caresses the privates as it delicately cleans; I say, as long as it wipes without tearing, either itself or my asshole, then it's a winner. Why spend more for “luxury”? After all, even the more expensive stuff still performs the same function in the same manner: manually cleaning your privates after you use the toilet. Where's the luxury in that?

Our compromise? Since we have two bathrooms, I buy her whatever kind she wants from Aldi (she's thankfully not “above” private label brands, as long as it's appropriately more expensive), and I usually just get the dollar-store special to keep in my personal toilet room. I don't have a “favorite” brand, so I tend to try whatever's available wherever I happen to be when I remember (generally too late) that I'm out of toilet paper. And on one occasion, that happened to be at Aldi, where they offer Daily Basics Soft and Strong Bath Tissue.

Many stores have their own private label toilet paper brands, and in almost all instances, you're going to be looking at around a $1 price tag for four rolls. Aldi's version is noticeable because it's cheaper...much cheaper. We're talking to the tune of just $.59 for four standard-size rolls. But is that price even worth it to an indifferent man like myself? Or is it even too cheap for me? Let's take a look, shall we?

You can tell it's cheap the moment you take it out of the packaging: even though it's 2-ply (I guess I do have a preference after all: two-ply TP tends to be stronger), the two layers are very loosely attached to one another. This gives it an overall sloppy appearance that tells everyone that comes into contact with it that you're a cheapskate, even if it's on a roll and the packaging is hidden. The cheapness is even more apparent when you to use it: the cardboard roll in the middle is not synchronized to move with the rest of the roll, almost threatening to fall out at any moment. I don't typically use it on a roller (I'm a man and too lazy to take the 2 seconds required to set that up) so I can't speak as to how they perform on there, but I'm sure it'd be fine...just maybe a little bumpy and aesthetically displeasing.

On to “performance”: despite the evident cheapness, it functions as well as any other toilet paper I've tried, at least in accordance with my weak standards. That is to say I've never had it tear in mid-wipe, or cause any other issues that have lead to...unpleasant situations. As can be expected, the “comfort” level is certainly lacking, so don't expect it to feel like you're caressing your anus with satin bedsheets, or anything, but it's still not even the worst toilet paper I've tried in this regard.

“Bottom” line (pun intended) is that this is a pretty solid TP for the non-discerning family members, or for those on a strict budget, or a great paper to have on hand for guest rooms, or as an emergency backup for when you run out of the good stuff, or a restroom that doesn't see much action. Because, let's face it, you can't really expect much when you're paying $.15 a roll—and “not much” is exactly what this delivers. But in a good way.

Overall: 7/10. It certainly looks cheaply made, with wobbly cardboard rolls that look ready to fall out at any given time, two layers that seem to be held together with a single dab of glue, and it's nowhere near the softest tissue paper on the market, but for a ridiculous $.59 per 4-pack, it's worth all those tradeoffs for the non-discerning asswiper. Even if it's not for you, it functions as an emergency backup for when you run out of the good stuff and forget to replenish, or as a cheap option for guest bathrooms. It might not be a great toilet paper in any sense of the word, but it's great for the price, as I've used far worse that were nearly twice the price.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Elevation by Millville Chocolate Meal Replacement Shake (Aldi)

A tasty and affordable way to help lose weight.

I was a pretty big fan of Fit & Active’s chocolate diet shake, which they sold in four-pack bottles for $3.19 (if memory serves me right). It was never a constant purchase for me, because I never diet, but I liked having them on hand for their intended purpose: as a meal replacement, for nights that I was either too lazy to make something, or got so focused on a task that I didn’t realize until 10 p.m. that I hadn’t eaten anything since lunch. Hey, it happens.

Well now, the Fit & Active shakes are gone, and seem to have been replaced with a similar product from Elevation by Millville, the line that tackles high-end energy bar and supplement knockoffs (and generally very well). Since there are six of them, the price has understandably gone up, but it’s a comparable per-bottle price, with 6 bottles retailing for $4.79 (edit: it's now $4.99, a hike that isn't drastic enough to affect the final score). It’s a little pricier than I’d normally like to spend on diet supplements, but again, it’s a nice option to have around for when the only other option is “nothing”.

It’s been a little while since I’ve had Fit & Active’s version, so I don't feel like I can accurately compare the two flavors, but from what I remember, that one was much smoother and more chocolatey. Elevation by Millville’s version has a slightly stronger chocolate flavor that isn’t very sweet, and even threatens to enter “bitter” territory as it slides down the throat, but thankfully it never does. There’s also a certain graininess to it that tells you you’re drinking something that’s supposed to be healthy…it’s the same style of “tongue grain” found in protein bars. (After drinking about two packs of these over a three-week span, I will say that I barely even notice it anymore.)

And that’s appropriate, because one thing Elevation’s drink has that Fit & Active’s didn’t (again, if my memory serves me correctly) is some added protein: 10g of it, to be exact, per 11 oz. bottle. Aside from that, there are decent-to-moderate amounts of 24 different vitamins and minerals, which can also make this great as a "breakfast on the go"

It might be my award-winning metabolism, but I never actually get “full” from these, and I’m not even sure if most people do, either (despite their “meal replacement” marketing stance), but I do like drinking one at least a couple times per week to help keep the vitamin counts up, if nothing else.

Overall: 8/10. I don’t quite like the flavor as much as I remember liking Fit & Active’s version, but Elevation by Millville’s chocolate shake provides a plethora of twenty-four different vitamins and minerals, while also providing 5g of dietary fiber, and a respectable 10g of protein (with 230mg of sodium, 6g of fat, and 19g of sugar, with 5g added.) Those are some pretty respectable numbers. The $4.79 $4.99 price tag (for six 11 oz. bottles) also offers pretty good value compared to other diet/nutritional products, and is closely comparable to Fit & Active’s $3.19 per 4-pack. On the downside, there is a certain graininess to it that prevents it from being ultra-smooth, but you won't notice after a couple bottles. If you’re dieting or just want to get a vitamin boost between meals, this is a great product at a great price.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Here's Why You Should Never Change Your Domain Name, From Personal Experience: A Rant

Well, after three months of nosediving traffic (and therefore earnings), yet the most work I've ever put into the site, I finally confirmed why my little blog's health is somehow in steady decline: my change, on a whim, from budgetfoodreview.com to thebudgetreviews.com.

That might be common sense to some, especially those familiar with SEO and rankings and the like, but as a casual blogger, I figured the move would just be more or less lateral. After all, I already defy the common sense advice of every marketing person out there, by never promoting this blog, instead allowing Google and other search engines to naturally lead interested parties to me. After all, that's mainly what inspired me to start this site: constantly searching for reviews of Aldi (and other store brand) products, and finding little to nothing for many of them. 

At the same time, I thought (and still do) that the change in title was necessary. Sure, it's always had reviews of non-food products (like Special Buys from Aldi) even under the Budget Food Review moniker, but the focus was mostly on food and budget items. Now, with reviews of apps, services, and other things that (occasionally) break away from the whole original idea of reviewing physical items from grocery stores, I thought it needed a broader name that tried to encompass all of that.

Since I was relying on organic traffic, and had decent search rankings up through July (even during long periods of blog neglect), I figured all of that stuff would just translate to the new blog. Nothing was changing except for the name, so it seemed like perfect common sense! Of course, "common sense" and "internet" are not two words that often go together, which is something I probably should have stopped to think about. My loss.

Moral of the story, my blog is more or less considered "new" within the Google ecosystem, with search results that were ranking at or near the top ten in the blog's previous iteration, dropping to the second or even third page, on average. That makes this site much harder to find, even when the content is more relevant to the needs of the user than some of the other results. And that's with absolutely no changes to the actual blog, outside of a simple name change! It's also where my complete reliance on organic traffic has failed me: with little-to-no outside links, and no prior push to create a small-but-loyal group of followers, pretty much all references to the old site - which would have redirected people to the new site - are gone, leaving no trace of the blog's golden era. Ouch. Now we see why all those marketing people have jobs after all, eh?

Honestly, the entire point of this post is merely to rant, and I'm sure I'll take it down at some point in the future. I'm also fairly certain (though not as much as I initially would have been) that, over time, all of the work I've put into it these past few months, will eventually reap some form of rewards, once my site re-establishes "tenure" and continues to grow in post count, search rankings (hopefully), and organic traffic (hopefully).

But it can also serve as a cautionary tale: If you are planning to make changes to your site's branding, please do some research first on how to lessen the impact. As someone who will obsessively research a $20 purchase to make sure I'm getting the best possible bargain, it's kind of ironic that the one time I didn't see a need to do so is probably the one time where I absolutely should have.

At any rate, there are still many more posts to come, and I will still retain my frequently-wavering attention to this site, which will probably come and go in spurts, as it always as. Aaaand, I think that's enough of that.

Sincerely,

Aaron


Saturday, September 21, 2019

Assured Pediatric Electrolyte Maintenance Solution (Dollar Tree)

An exceptional value.
I'm in my mid-thirties as of this writing and I can't recall a prior time that I've ever tried the national brand of children's electrolyte solution. Of course, I probably had some when I was way too young to remember, as that's the time most people receive it, but lately there's been a massive increase in sales to adults, thanks to its marketing as a hangover “cure”. It's also been used by athletes as a replacement for sports drinks, something I never thought about (or really needed) when I was playing rec-league hockey.

I think a big part of why it probably never landed on my radar is simply because of how expensive the national brand is. It's absurd. Especially when you compare it to sports drinks, where 32 oz. can frequently be had for $1 or less. To put that into perspective, a liter of the national brand oral rehydration drink, which amounts to roughly 33.8 oz., is $5. Thanks, but no thanks. Even as a hangover cure, I wouldn't touch the stuff at that price, no matter how miserable I felt.

Then a curious thing happened. I was at Dollar Tree one day when I happened to see little bottles of this for sale. Not really needing it for anything at that point in time, I made a mental note of it, simply because I didn't recall having ever seen it at Dollar Tree before. Well you know how life is full of strange coincidences? Well this happened to be one: Not a week later my wife got really sick and requested that I pick up the national brand electrolyte solution on my way home. At first, I was thinking about how expensive that was going to be...until I remembered it sitting on Dollar Tree shelves! I went there instead, and picked up a couple of bottles.

Now, of course the bottles for sale at Dollar Tree are not “full size” bottles. Quite contrarily, they look almost embarrassingly small, and I began to wonder if I was being had. After all, that is sometimes the tactic employed by discount stores...offer smaller quantities for a pro-rated price that's actually more expensive (relatively speaking) than buying the normal-size product elsewhere. So was I getting a deal? The answer in a nutshell: absolutely. You see, the national brand seems to be available only in liter bottles. One liter equals approximately 33.8 oz. Each of Dollar Tree's bottles are 16.9 oz. Multiply that by just two and you get...voila!...33.8 oz. That means for $2, you're getting the same exact quantity as the national brand, which is generally $5 or more at other retailers.

But how does it taste? This was something that I legitimately wasn't sure about, because I'd never had it. Apparently neither had my wife, as she immediately winced and basically said she would rather die of dehydration than drink another drop, as it was too sweet. I felt like that left it in my wheelhouse, because I love sweet drinks...and I found that it is indeed overly saccharine, with a kind of syrupy taste that's more akin to cough syrup than any sort of mixed fruit.

However, that observation was just in a situation where I was sipping it as if it were a fine wine, with no real need for it. On another day--tired of the lackluster taste of water, yet feeling dehydrated—I reached for a bottle of this, and chugged it down in about ten seconds flat, my body absorbing the nutrients and leaving me feeling refreshed and rejuvenated within minutes. The flavor certainly didn't bother me then; in fact, I quite liked it, its taste much better than the stale nothingness of water, and the sweetness factor diluted by my body's intense need for liquids. It goes down smooth and easy, with no bitter notes.

Taste aside, this is great stuff just to keep on hand, and at a ridiculous price that makes it one of the best deals inside Dollar Tree. It's a good cure for hangover, sickness, and just regular dehydration, for kids and adults alike, and the $1 price point is insane.

Overall: 10/10. I've never had the national brand before, and only purchased it at the request of my wife, who wanted to replace liquids she lost after being very sick. As it turns out, it was too sweet for her, so I inherited the two bottles I purchased...and it was way too sweet for me, too. But that was just under “casual” drinking scenarios...and I don't think anyone drinks this for fun. Flash-forward to a time when I actually needed it—after staying active a little longer than planned and without water—and I downed a bottle of this stuff with no issues, feeling better within minutes. At $1 per 16.9 oz. bottle, this still represents phenomenal value, as it only takes two bottles to equal the average bottle size of the national brand (which is generally at least $5). Fantastic product for the price, and one of the best values to be had inside Dollar Tree stores.

NOTE: I've seen (and tried) this under two different labels at Dollar Tree: under the brand name "Ready Case", and under "Assured". Both are the same thing. I'm assuming they are doing a re-branding, as the last couple times I've gotten it, it's been under the "Assured" label, which is their umbrella name for medicinal products.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Turn Your Downtime Into Cash: An In-Depth Look at InboxDollars (App/Web)

Everyone, meet Billy, InboxDollars' cute little dollar bill mascot.

WHAT IS IT? 
InboxDollars is one of the top "paid activity" sites, probably second only to Swagbucks, that offers users the chance to make small amounts of money by taking company-sponsored surveys. What makes it great though is that, like Swagbucks, there are a variety of other ways to help you raise your balance to the minimum $30 payout requirement, which prevents things from getting overly boring. Because, let's be real here, answering the same questions over and over again can get to be quite a drag after a short amount of time.

INTERFACE/NAVIGATION
My, oh my is that an ugly site.
Visually speaking, InboxDollars is a very ugly site that, in my opinion, feels about five years out of date. I promise not to make this a comparison between the two similar services, but especially compared to Swagbucks's pleasant, clean look, InboxDollars feels like walking into a Goodwill when you were expecting Old Navy: The ugly orange and green color combination, paired up with a focus on “spammy” offers that take up at least 60% of the page, make visiting the site an almost depressing experience. (I must say their dollar-shaped mascot, Billy, is pretty darn cute.)

From a navigational standpoint though, the site is set up fairly well, utilizing the now-standard practice of having all of your available options spread out horizontally across the top of the page. The main screen highlights three top surveys, supposedly catered to you, while a vast majority of the remaining space is used to highlight the mostly-crappy “cash offers” they have available. These are actions you can take to make money, but many of them either require payment, are shady as hell, or have some ridiculous threshold that must be met in order to meet the obligations for payout (such as becoming an Uber driver and accepting your first “job”). Sure, these are great for the small percentage of people who are already planning on doing it, but they certainly aren't worth going out of the way for, and thus will only apply to a very small percentage of people.

There are so many options across the top that they have to “hide” some things under a “more” banner, which aside from taking an extra click to get to (oh no, think of all the wasted time!) does keep a couple useful tools out of plain sight, but they are tools most people won't use very often, so this is just a minor quibble.

Overall, if you can get past its ugly look, it won't take long to acclimate yourself to where everything is, which can help you figure out a routine that will maximize your cash flow.

REWARDS SYSTEM & ACTIVITIES
InboxDollars relies on the tried-and-true system of “what you see is what you get” in terms of total balance, where your accrued amount is shown in actual dollars and cents. This, at least in my opinion, is much preferred to earning “coins”, or “points”, or some other form of fake currency that other sites use, because you can tell exactly how much you have at any given time, without having to refer to a FAQ to figure out the conversion rates between units and actual cash payouts.

While there are quite a few different paid activities, which I will dig into at length in a separate post, the “highest” payouts are generally answering surveys. If you've ever used another survey site before, then you already know what to expect here, namely lots of time reanswering the same demographical questions and getting disqualified from a large number of surveys, but InboxDollars does tend to pay a little better than some sites, with a $.25 minimum on every survey. Some even go up near $5, though in my experience those ironically tend to require you to be in a high-ranking position within a large company; I can't see many people like that, who are mostly making at least $60,000 a year, dedicating what little extra free time they have left to filling out surveys, but maybe I'm mistaken.
Get used to this page, because you'll probably be seeing it a lot more than you want to.
Conveniently, there is also an “estimated time” column presented right next to the payout amount for completed surveys, so you can weigh out the ratio to see which ones work best for you. Personally, I try to keep the quarter payouts for surveys that take ten minutes or less, and will only go for longer ones if they pay more, but that's just what works for me—if you have more time to kill, the longer ones tend to have a higher success rate (because many people, like me, tend to avoid them).

Awww, thanks Billy!
Even though you will more than likely be disqualified from dozens upon dozens of surveys on a monthly basis, each of your failed attempts will result in a spin on “Billy's Spin & Win”, which can reward you with scratch and win progress, a $.25 survey token (which tacks $.25 onto the total of your next completed survey), or instant cash in the amounts of $.05, $1, or even $5! Surprisingly, even though there's a “No Win” tab, you'll win something more often than nothing, even if that something is just a small little fraction of scratch and win progress. Regardless, seeing that bar constantly moving can be pretty encouraging to help you keep going.

What is this “Scratch & Win” I keep speaking of? At the top of the screen, there is a bar that stretches vertically the entire way across, and is broken down into three sections. This is the Scratch & Win bar. Doing a variety of tasks fills up the bar, such as watching videos, playing games, or reading PaidEmails. The more the bar fills up, the greater the potential cash payout: fill up the first tier (a very simple task), and you can win up to $10; fill it up to the second and that goes up to $25; or fill it up all the way and you could stand to win $100! But you probably won't.

I've scratched these off dozens of times, and used to let the bar fill all the way up constantly, but realized the effort just really isn't all that worth it for the small odds. I don't doubt people have won—there is a rolling banner that shows you the big winners from the past couple of days—but I've scratched off dozens of tickets, and can't recall winning anything over $.10. But the thing that's really nice about the scratch-off is that you're guaranteed to win something...there are no losing tickets. And the minimum amounts tend to go up as you work your way through the tiers: for the first tier, you'll win at least a penny; second tier will grant you at least $.03, and the third tier is usually around $.05. Keep in mind the more you scratch, the more they may limit your winnings, so these numbers can change, but you still won't ever lose.

The much-discussed "Scratch & Win" bar.
These are just some of the main earners, but there are lots more where that came from, including games, watching TV and videos, WinIt codes, referrals, and so much more which, again, I will cover at length in a separate post. While there aren't as many things to do as Swagbucks (there goes that comparison again), there should be enough options to keep most people entertained and earning cash for at least a few months.

HOW MUCH CAN I MAKE?
As with any similar site, putting a precise number on things is virtually impossible, because earnings rely on a wide number of variables that will vary greatly from member to member. As a general rule, though, I'm able to cash out about once every 1-2 months, using the site for 30 minutes to an hour (on average) most days. Weekdays, when I work, I don't spend much time on the site at all, but I'll set aside an hour, or sometimes more, on weekends to try to earn a couple extra bucks. When all is said and done, I can typically make around $5 per week; those with more free time can probably make quite a bit more, but no matter what, you're not going to make anything resembling a living wage.

At any rate, this is actually my preferred platform for earning extra money out of any cash-earning site that I've tried so far. Sure, there are other sites that offer higher payouts, and fewer survey disqualifications, but those sites tend to have far fewer survey opportunities, or require you to complete more labor-intensive tasks that would require you to leave the house (gasp!). Of course, everyone is their own unique person, so your mileage may vary, but personally, I consistently earn more here than I do anywhere else.

MOBILE APP
The main page of the app is somehow even more spammy than the website.
Like many survey sites, InboxDollars does have a mobile app, and while I mostly use the site on PC (easier to fill out surveys, a wider variety of games available, and no suckage of battery), I still keep the mobile app around. Navigation on there is even simpler than the PC interface, and while part of that is because there are some missing options (you can't print coupons, for example, from a mobile device), there are also a couple of additional ways to earn cash that are only valid from a mobile device.

The first one is known as “InMarket”, and it's an easy way to earn a nickel almost any time you're out and about. Just make sure your location services are on, and when you pass a company advertising in this way (currently for me, it's Walmart, but I've had Target and MAC Cosmetics pop up in the past) you'll receive a push notification (if you have those activated). Simply wait for the ad to load, and then click out of it (the site says you have to click into it, but you don't) to receive your $.05 reward. It's that simple. I don't even have push notifications for InboxDollars activated on my phone, but I've found as long as I open my app within the hour, it typically still pops right up, even if I'm no longer near the advertising business.

An example of their new feature, called "Scansense".
The second way was just added in August, 2019, and it's called “ScanSense”, which pays you a nickel per item you scan at a specified store. In the top right corner of the home screen is a barcode icon with a number beside it. Tap the barcode icon, and a list of participating nearby stores will pop up, along with the number of items they have available for scanning. Simply head into the supermarket, scan the barcode of the specified item(s) using the app, and voila! A nickel will be credited to your account for every item scanned.

I just tried this for the first time last night, and it was as easy as expected: click on the item you want to scan, and a camera pops up (you'll have to give InboxDollars access to your camera) with a barcode field inside. Just line that up with the barcode on the product, an ad for that product will pop up, and then you'll receive a verification message that you earned $.05, which is added to your account immediately. That's not too shabby, and the perfect task for me to do while my wife is taking forever at the supermarket.

CASHING OUT
When I first used InboxDollars in the middle of 2018, there was only one option for getting paid in cash: a paper check. While I'm not going to complain about free money no matter how I get it, I have to admit that limiting users to just a paper check in this day and age was pretty absurd. But after recently opening a new account (accounts lapse after 6 months of either not attempting a survey, or checking PaidEmails) and hitting the payment threshold again, I was surprised to find that Paypal is now a supported option, which is a huge deal, and one that addresses my biggest complaint against the service.

Good news...Paypal is now a payment option!
One thing I have seen users harp on about the payout process is that there is a $3 processing fee, which was presumably to cover the costs of issuing the check (and now is more understandable as Paypal presumably charges fees to process the payment through them, as well). But the thing that I have not really seen covered anywhere is that there's a way to avoid paying anything at all to get your money, and it's actually fairly simple.

If you go from $30 to $40 within 30 days, they'll completely waive the processing fee for you, and pay you the entire amount you have accrued. I've cashed out my account three times now, and have hit $40 every single time, which has saved me $9 in processing fees. Sure, $9 is not a lot, especially considering if I would have accepted the fee, I still would have made at least $81 in “free” money. But by bringing my account balance up and saving that $9, I've made a little over $120 total within that same time period, which is an even better deal.

Funds take two weeks to process for first time members, whether you request Paypal or paper check, and are processed on Wednesdays. But you're also automatically given free access to another perk, which is a "Gold Membership"!

Cash out once to become a "Gold Member", which pays you out a week earlier in the future.
As the slightly-misleading table above shows you, Gold Members can get "weekly payments", which almost makes it sound like you can cash your balance out weekly. But before you get excited, just know that it's much lamer than that: You still have to hit the $30 minimum, but from that point on, your payments will be processed on the following Wednesday, instead of having to wait the full two weeks for first-time payees. And that, as you can see, is the only perk.

I don't want to sound ungrateful, because really I'm just happy to earn some extra cash, but it would be nice if there was some other kind of perk for Gold Members, such as the ability to deposit directly to a bank account (which I believe would be free for InboxDollars to do anyway), or even some kind of timed “boost”, like a 2x increase on Scratch & Win progress for your first week after cashing out. Or even Gold Member-only social media contests...something that would be a little more enticing and encouraging for people to keep going. Or, you know what else they could do? Just ax the whole program entirely, and pay everyone out within a week.

You're also given your $3 processing fee back (even if you didn't pay one!), in the form of a $3 balance credit once you're cashed out and your . I don't know if it's a psychological tactic, but I have to be honest: it's one that more apps should use. There's nothing more depressing than taking a few months (or in some cases, multiple years) to raise up enough funds to be able to cash out, only to have your balance go down to zero and realize your only reward is getting to do it all over again, only this time from scratch. (And I speak from experience: my excitement for Ibotta went down the tubes in this fashion, when I went from cashing out $110, down to nothing.) But wait! The first time you cash out, you're also given the chance to take a quick two-minute feedback survey, which pays you out an additional $2! That puts you a sixth of the way toward your next cashout goal, all with a minimal amount of effort.

$5 is a nice little bonus for cashing out for the first time. (Every other time it's $3).
SUPPORT/COMMUNITY
There are no message forums to speak of, so not much in the way of a community, and I've never had a need for support, so I can't really vouch for it from personal experience.

Their support page.
One tip that I will offer for not just this site, but any similar site: The use of a VPN will get you immediately banned, and I wouldn't be surprised if this was the reasoning behind at least a quarter of the people who were booted from the site. Survey sites in general often use your location information to corroborate your identity, which could be the reasoning behind the bans: if you're saying you're living in Ohio, but your IP is showing another state, then that's enough just cause for them to feel that you are not being honest. Also, the site (along with most other such sites) are only available to users in the U.S., so if your IP is linked to another country, that would be cause for immediate termination. I'm not at all saying all, or even most, of the people that do this were intentionally trying to manipulate data (I got banned from Swagbucks immediately after signing up simply because I forgot my VPN was on), but in their eyes, it's a pretty unforgivable no-no.

You can also be booted if you are caught constantly speeding through answers, or if you consistently fail “attention check” questions that are peppered throughout some surveys. Again, this is to weed out the people that are trying to take advantage of the system (although it is pretty ironic that the scummy, dishonest corporations that sponsor many of these surveys will ban you for being just like them; I'd think lying would earn you a chance to sit on their board of directors.)

A quick search of InboxDollars on the internet (or a quick glance at their Facebook page) does show a large number of users whose accounts were terminated, and who can't seem to get in touch with customer service. Again, they more than likely violated a policy, either intentionally or by accident, but it's still pretty concerning that customer support seems to ignore them rather than give them an explanation; it's also par for the course with many such websites prone to these kinds of actions virtually all across the board. With no specific details on why these people were terminated, it's hard to say who's in the right, but there are enough complaints that one should approach with caution, and actually spend some time reading the site's terms of use before signing up.

All I can speak to is that I was able to cash out twice within two or three months in 2018, and then again in mid-2019 after about a month of use, with no problems.

InboxDollars' admittedly enticing Instagram feed.
On the social media front, InboxDollars are pretty active on almost all major social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even Pinterest (which is one of the least pinteresting social media sites ever made). Through these channels, they alternate between offering up some motivational words (for “Motivational Monday”), Win-It codes (which are single words that can be redeemed either on the website, or in the app), and other fun money-earning contests, so if you're active on social media, they're probably worth a follow.

OVERALL

PROS (+)
+Quite a varied mix of paid activities beyond surveys that can keep you entertained as you make some money.
+Active on social media, where they have fun contests and hand out Win-It codes that can earn you some extra cash.
+Generous $5 sign up bonus gets you off to a good start.
+$3 “refund” of your processing fee (even if you didn't pay one!) upon cashing out ensures you should never see a balance of $0.
+Paypal support recently added to paper checks as a way to get “cash”; gift cards to various retailers also an option.

CONS (-)

-Some activities that paid out direct cash (PaidEmails) now only contribute to “Scratch & Win” progress.
-Accounts can be banned with little to no warning, leaving you unable to cash out your balance.
-Can't speak from personal experience, but many users online complain about being ignored by their support staff after facing issues with their account.
-Interface is ugly.
-Many “cash offers” are unclear about what is required to earn money, and also opens you up to loads of spam emails.

InboxDollars is, in my opinion, a very underrated survey site that doesn't really get much attention. Sure, it's prone to the same issues that plague other sites (frequent survey disqualifications, slow/no payouts on completed offers, etc.) but if you go in with realistic expectations, and have a bit of time to kill, you can make a decent chunk of extra cash. Not at all to brag (because in the grand scheme of things, it probably equates to pennies per hour), but as a real-world example, I've made a little over $120 in about four or five total months of use, using the site about an hour per day, on average. It's not going to pay all your bills, but hey, that's an Amazon Prime membership right there! Or it can go into checking/savings accounts, toward gifts for friends or family, or toward your own growing list of wants and/or needs...the possibilities are endless.

You can always go back to wasting time here if this doesn't work out.
And if it doesn't work out for you, all you're really out is a few hours (or minutes) of your time, which you were probably just going to use to look at porn anyway.

OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10.