Unimpressed with Starwood Preferred Guest credit card from American Express Review

We're always on the search for the *best* rewards credit card.

The weak have fallen.

We take our credit cards seriously here at LevelUpHouse – we pay our balance in full each month and we love watching rewards pile up.

We were Chase Freedom customers for years. Those were good times: a nice, fat $250 cash back check arrived every so often and reinforced our love.  Then the nerf hammer fell and Chase began that revolving categories BS.

Oh, is it finally “gasoline season”? Great, because I’d been holding off on fueling my car…  

But we don’t take credit cards seriously enough to play “the game”. Lots of people like to get fancy with milking rewards from multiple different cards, but we keep it simpler: one card for “everything”, and another for backup.

Three years ago, we selected the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) American Express card because it kept coming out on top in our research for a new rewards credit card. It’s been three years, and we’ve put nearly $100k worth of purchases onto this card.

How’d it do?

Starwood Preferred Guest credit card from American Express Review


Disappointing rewards took forever to accumulate.

It sucks. There’s no sugar-coating it: the rewards are disappointing and limited. The rewards are the whole point of getting the SPG AmEx card. There is no other advantage unique to this card – all other perks can be found elsewhere.

After three years of commitment to this card it’s pretty disappointing to find that my 94,000 Starpoints aren’t good for anything I actually want to buy. It’s all awkwardly timed flights, expensive hotels, and gift cards to stores I don’t shop at.

So we’re giving SPG AmEx the big middle finger this month, and I wrote this review in honor of its eviction from my wallet. We’ll be switching to the Fidelity Investment Rewards card (read more about our new Fidelity card at the end of this review).

Here’s why we’re switching from the SPG AmEx to the Fidelity Investment Rewards AmEx:

Poor flight redemption options

SPG’s flight redemption options are a mixed bag. I’ve tried to use points to book trips a few times in the last three years, but the flights offered all sucked for some reason or another.  Poor departure times and stops in other cities are common.

I don’t travel often, but when I do, I don’t stop in LA on my way to Chicago.

At Starwood’s points:miles conversion rate, we can get 2 “free” round-trip flights every 3 years. Flying from Seattle to Chicago costs somewhere between 25,000 and 45,000 Starpoints (depending on which airline I select). Let’s say I fly Alaska Airlines, which is the cheapest non-stop available at 30,000 points. To fly me and my husband to Chicago on points alone would require 60k points – two-thirds of what we accumulated in three years.

That’s a lot of spending for one measly flight each.

Pricey luxury hotels = !savings

The hotels offered by SPG are by and large a huge disappointment. They’re expensive, they’re in cities, and they’re not where I would normally stay.

Maybe this one’s my fault: maybe I should have known that SPG only deals in high-end hotels? I was all excited to book some hotels using points on our West Coast Road Trip, but there weren’t any SPG hotels in the little towns we stopped in!

  • “Fifth night free” doesn’t cut it with me. In eight years of traveling for vacations, the only time I’ve stayed at one hotel for more than one night was when I went to Disney (and there aren’t any Disney-owned properties in SPG’s hotel offerings).
  • Using points to get 50% off the rack rate of a luxury hotel doesn’t save me money. It still costs more than staying at a budget hotel!

Gift card redemption options are lacking

Let’s say you decide to cash in your Starpoints for a gift card to a retailer. Not only do gift cards get the worst Starpoint to dollar conversion rate, the merchants available are almost exclusively high-end retailers. There isn’t much for high level frugalists like me in here – no Home Depot, Safeway, Target – so forget about using your rewards for everyday necessities.

Starpoints conversion rate:

  • $25 card = 2800 Starpoints
  • $50 card = 5000 Starpoints
  • $100 card = 9500 Starpoints
  • $150 card = 14,000 Starpoints

You can get a gift card to these retailers:

SPG’s gift card options are almost exclusively high-end yuppie retailers. I don’t shop at these places. Going out of my way to shop at these retailers isn’t “saving money”, it’s spending money I wasn’t going to spend in the first place.


3years of points hoarding and I’m only halfway to this $2,000 Williams-Sonoma cookware set. (Now I know why I don’t shop at Williams-Sonoma.)

The only retailer on this list that I do shop at is Amazon.com, so that’s where my Starpoints went – into a pile of Amazon.com gift cards, at a poor conversion rate. That’s pretty disappointing.

The gift cards get left on your porch!

I cashed in a bunch of my StarPoints and waited a few weeks for them to arrive. Why can’t the SPG gift cards be awarded digitally?

The physical cards come in a slim FedEx envelope, which has to be signed for. Do most people with this card have a butler attending to deliveries? Because I don’t. I’m at work, earning the money I spend on this card.

So I signed the FedEx form and took the gamble of leaving the gift cards out on my porch all day because the alternative is driving 45 minutes out of my way to Issaquah during business hours to pick the cards up at the FedEx distribution point.

Hey, SPG – get with the times! I don’t want hundreds of dollars in gift cards sitting on my front porch, and I don’t want to drive 30 miles out of my way to pick them up, either!

Starpoints Are Just Really F***ing Confusing

Starpoints, miles system, etc are all built to confuse people. When money is abstracted into “points” and “miles”, people can’t rely their sense of what things are worth. Classic example: why does it take 25,000 miles to fly from Seattle to Chicago? That’s more than the distance around the EQUATOR!

The upsells to buy more points are everywhere. If the points I have are already borderline useless to me, why would I want to turn more perfectly good real money into more Starpoints “play money”!?

Good riddance, Starwood.

New “Everything” Card: Fidelity Investment Rewards


Our new “everything” credit card: the Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express card

The Fidelity American Express rewards card will be our new card henceforth.

This card’s premise is simple: spend money as usual, and Fidelity gives you a whopping 2% cash back in the form of a deposit directly into your Fidelity investment account. You don’t even have to do anything once you’ve set your account up. If you spend 2,000 on your credit card, you’ll get $40.

I like getting money for doing nothing, don’t you?

Behold the Fidelity card’s badassery:

  • No ever-changing categories (eat it, Chase Freedom)
  • No confusing redemption options (take that, SPG AmEx)
  • No annual fee (SWEET!)
  • Cash back money goes into your investment account!! There it’ll sit just being awesome, earning more money for you without any effort on your part.
  • You’re free to remove the cash, too, but I think anything that helps put money into savings and investment accounts is a good thing.

There’s a Visa version of the Fidelity Investment Rewards card, but it only offers 1.5% cash back. We’re going AmEx again and keeping our Chase Freedom as a backup for the one-off places that don’t take AmEx.

American Express also offers some built-in consumer protections, which we like but have never actually used:

  1. Purchase Protection: If something you just bought gets broken or stolen, if you’re still within the 90 days of your purchase AmEx offers some protection. Coverage is limited up to $1,000 per occurrence, up to $50,000 per cardmember account per calendar year.
  2. Extended Warranty: American Express extends the warranties on things bought with the card, up to a value of $10,000 (not to exceed $50,000 per cardmember account per calendar year). One great example: an iPhone comes with a 1-year warranty. Buying it on AmEx gets your phone covered for two years.
  3. Car/Roadside Assistance: Book your U.S. car rental with American Express and the car is insured in event of accident. (Which is why we decline coverage at the rental car desk.)

So that’s our new credit card – the Fidelity Investment Rewards card. I’ll update later this year and let you know how it’s going.

12 Home Luxuries that are Totally Worth the Money


Don’t waste your money on a gaudy throne – get a nice mattress and a quiet computer case instead!

When I buy something nice, I cross my fingers and hope that it’s not actually a waste of money. After all, a lot of luxury goods are just fluff whose magic wears off after they’ve been around a while.

Being frugal doesn’t mean living a bare-bones existence. Instead, it’s all about spending money where it counts.

So where does it count? Which luxuries are worth the cost?

I took stock of everything I own and figured out which things I’ve bought were worth the money spent. Here are 12 home luxuries that are totally worth the money.

1. Artwork for your walls

You’re an adult now – time to get some classy art for your walls! Hanging up artwork that represents your own taste is pretty awesome, and art on the walls does wonders for a space.

I’ve had poor luck finding original artwork that both adore and can afford, but there’s a decent selection to be found at home decor shops (even Bed Bath and Beyond supplied a few nice pieces around our abode). Look for art that comes on an actual canvas (probably printed with some embellishments made by hand), preferably with some metal hooks on the frame to assist with hanging.


Art transforms even blah spaces. Have fun choosing!

The only downside to art? Pick carefully – there’s virtually no resale value in anything aimed at the mass market, and even inexpensive printed canvases are usually $100+ at home decor shops.  Amazing pieces are closer to $300+, even when they’re just prints.

Fitting it into your budget: Shop sales and end-of-season clearance at stores like Bed Bath and Beyond and Fred Meyer. I found some of my favorite artworks at these two stores!

2. Thermal drapery liners


Action shot of my bedroom’s Eclipse thermal liners.

Keep heat out in the summer and in in the winter with a set of heavy-duty thermal liners for your existing drapes. Your room will stay dark, even in broad daylight – great for sleeping late in July or napping in the middle of a summer afternoon.  Just hook them onto the backs of your existing drapes and enjoy! Eclipse Thermal Liners the the ones I’ve used in a couple homes and apartments now, and they’ve held up well.

The only downside to thermal liners?  They’re a bit heavy, so if your existing drapes are light and wispy they won’t be able to support the weight. Consider full-on thermal drapes instead.

Fitting it into your budget: Get them for your bedroom first, the rest of the house can wait (or doesn’t need them at all, depending on your climate).

3. Great big plushy mattress

You spend 30% of every day on your mattress, so make it great!

You don’t need to splash out on an adjustable $5000+ mattress, a pillow-top can get the job done for around $2000.

Home luxuries that are totally worth the the money good mattress

Factory photo of the same mattress I have, a Simmons Beautyrest. So cozy, I just melt right into it.

Oh, and go big – did you know that sharing a queen size bed with someone else gives you about as much space as sleeping on a twin? My king size bed was worth every penny! I sleep like a sleeping rock.

The only downside to a great mattress? No other mattress will be good enough for you. You’ll be ruined by your luxurious mattress.

Fitting it into your budget: Forego fancy headboards and nightstands if it means you can afford a better mattress. We still don’t have a headboard, but our mattress is amazing.

4. High thread-count sheets


High thread-count sheets are super luxurious – and not as expensive as you might fear.

If you’re still sleeping on junky 150 threadcount sheets, it’s time to stop that nonsense right now and get a decent set of sheets.  You’ll wonder how you ever slept in anything less.

The set I like to recommend is Fieldcrest Luxury damask sheet set, 450 threadcount 100% cotton. These sheets come in a bunch of colors and, if you find them on clearance, cost as little as $35 at your local Target.  (They’re normally $70 for a king set, which is still way less than those highfalutin mall stores want for their sheets.  I bought expensive $150 set of bamboo sheets from Bed Bath and Beyond once – and they were crap! Wrinkled and baggy!

By contrast, my Fieldcrest sheets from 2007 survived six years of daily and weekly washes before they started to wear thin.  To replace them, I bought another set of Fieldcrest sheets, this time at 500 threadcount. They are like sleeping in a pillow of dreams.

If you’d rather shop online, check out these well-reviewed Pinzon Hemstitch 400 thread-count cotton sheets on Amazon.com. The biggest problems with sheets tend to be wrinkles and pills, and reviewers say these sheets are prone to neither.

The only downside to awesome sheets? They make it hard to leave the bed.

Fitting it into your budget: Look for clearance sales, both in brick and mortar stores and online, especially if you aren’t in a hurry to replace your current sheets.

5. Amazon Prime membership

Amazon sells everything and at great prices, so if you love to shop online you’ll enjoy Amazon Prime! You can even try before you buy: the first 30 days of Amazon Prime are completely free.

Amazon Prime membership goodies


The benefits are great:

  • Free 2-day shipping on loads of stuff
  • Access to Amazon video streaming (and Amazon’s upping their movie and TV game, getting exclusive access to more shows)
  • Book borrowing with Kindle

The only downside to Amazon Prime? You’ll start buying everything through Amazon!

Fitting it into your budget: If you buy a lot of heavy things, Amazon prime can pay for itself pretty quickly. The free shipping adds up over the course of the year, too.  If you make one purchase a month and it costs $5 to ship each purchase, you’re at $60 – almost at the cost of a Prime membership.

6. Smart thermostat


Smart thermostats:  living in the future is awesome! Thermostat pictured is the Honeywell Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat.

A smart thermostat makes heating and cooling your house a no-brainer by learning your preferences and nudging you towards energy efficiency. Depending on how lazy you were about adjusting your heating temperature, you could save a fortune with a smart thermostat.  Also: it looks really cool.

The highest rated smart thermostats are the Nest Learning Thermostat and the Honeywell Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat.

The only downside to a smart thermostat?  You might spend a lot of time geeking out over a thermostat.

Fitting it into your budget: Smart thermos are pricey – $200-250 a piece, but a good chunk of the cost might be offset by savings in your heating bill.

7. Space heater


Warm just the room you’re in for big savings.

I like being warm, but I don’t like high heating bills. With a space heater, you can have it both ways! It’s much cheaper to keep your house cool and shut yourself into one room and heat it up with a space heater.

The only downside to a space heater?  None, space heaters are awesome. Modern models come with temperature regulation, auto-shut off, and safety features that kick in if the heater gets knocked over.

Fitting it into your budget: Most decent space heaters will run you just $40-60. Depending on your climate, a space heater can pay for itself in a matter of months as you run your furnace less.

8. Powerful toilet

Home luxuries that are totally worth the money a good toilet American Standard Cadet

The American Standard Cadet’s slogan should be, “Go ahead, do your worst”.

It’s an incredible luxury, to just flush and forget!

When you flush, is your plunger already in hand just in case? It doesn’t have to be that way! Replacing a toilet is easy and takes about two hours start to finish. Toilets are heavy, but they come in two pieces so as long as you can lift 40 lbs, you can probably replace a toilet yourself.

As long as we’re talking about toilets, a heated toilet seat is another luxury well worth the price of admission. Just get one, you’ll see.

The only downside to an awesome toilet?  Disposing of the old one can be tricky.

Fitting it into your budget: Toilets are cheaper than you might think. I installed a $140 American Standard Cadet just one year ago and it’s a beastWorth every cent!

9. Quiet computer case


What’s that sound? It’s the sound of a QUIET COMPUTER!

No more noisy computers! I’ve built/maintained a lot of computers, and the Antec Sonata is the only case I recommend.

  • Dead quiet – Is it even on? You’ll have to touch it to know.
  • Easy to open/close the side panel – It even has a lock feature.
  • Quiet EarthWatts 500W supply included 
  • Removable/washable air filter – Much easier than trying to stuff the vacuum nozzle into the case
  • Gummy silicone grommets to cushion and dampen your internal drives.
  • Four hard drive bays, three external bays (CD drives)
  • Front-panel USB – Because the’s the 2000’s, man.

The only downside to a quiet case? You might forget your PC is on.

Fitting it into your budget: It’s a good $50 more than junkier cases, but it’ll last you forever.  Jim’s Sonata is on its third set of “guts”, mine’s on its second.

10. Uninterrupted power supply


I own two of these CyberPower UPS mini-towers.

Why didn’t I get one of these a decade ago?!  Oh, that’s right – I didn’t even know uninterrupted power supplies were a thing.

An uninterrupted power supply is basically a huge battery that keeps your computer going through power dips and outages.  I hear mine click every so often, usually whenever the lights flicker, – and I think, There’s another sudden restart that didn’t happen.

Even if the power goes completely out and stays out, the battery gives me a good 10 minutes to finish what I was doing and shut down properly.  For maximum benefit, just put the essentials on the battery – the main computer, your monitor(s).  Everything else (printer, scanner, speakers) can just go dark when the power goes out.

The only downside to a UPS? It beeps when the power goes out in the middle of the night. You’ll have to get up and silence it.

Fitting it into your budget: Don’t buy more battery than you need – UPS models come in a range of sizes, and the price goes up as the battery gets bigger.  Get one that’s a bit more powerful than your power supply and you should be good to go.

11. Heated car seats (or blanket)

Take it from a Midwesterner – if you’re choosing between two otherwise equal vehicles, you want the one with heated seats. What was once a luxury car feature has trickled down into the mainstream as more and more consumers demand this awesome feature in their cars. The seats heat up quickly and winter becomes just a little bit nicer.

The only downside to getting heated seats? Requires you to buy a car.

Fitting it into your budget: No new car on the horizon? That’s okay, just toss a fleece throw blanket over your lap and legs.  It’s almost as good as a heated seat, and you get to feel stylish as all get out. My car blanket looks kinda like this.

use a car blanket

Winter? What winter? I feel like royalty riding around in my butt-toasting seat and blanket.

12. Dual shower head

home luxuries that are totally worth the money dual shower head affordable luxury

Dual shower heads = you won’t want to leave the shower.

A dual shower head is a cheap way to live in luxury – for under a hundred bucks you too can shower in a warm gentle rainfall – or pounding hail, there’s a bunch of flow settings!  Showering with water on your head and back at the same time is amazing.

The water flow can be turned off to either head, making it possible to just the detaching head by itself. I use the detachable head to wash large things in the tub (these are great for dogs) and to quickly wash the shower walls themselves.

The only downside to a dual shower head?  The shower’s soooo nice, you won’t want to get out.

Fitting it into your budget:  Mine was just $70, this luxury is totally within reach!

13. *Bonus* Good TP

You’re worth it!


More Luxurious Upgrades

  1. Upgrade Me (Ask MetaFilter)
  2. 30 Life-Changing Things that are Worth Every Penny (BuzzFeed)
  3. What luxury item is actually worth the money? (Reddit)

Thing I Like: Amazon Locker Review

Amazon locker review locker structure

Amazon Lockers provide a secure way to receive packages.

Depending on where you live, if you’ve bought something on Amazon.com lately you might have been offered an “Amazon Locker” as a delivery destination. Instead of selecting your home or office address, you pick a nearby locker and it gets delivered there instead – no signature required.

What is this sorcery?! A magic box I can ship things to and it’ll stay safe and not-stolen until I show up to get it?! Well, okay, that sounds incredible – so I gave the Amazon locker a try.

Verdict: Amazon Lockers are awesome.

Here’s why:

Why use an Amazon Locker?

  • Discreet – don’t want to ship that embarrassing thing to work? Now you don’t have to!
  • Safe – your package doesn’t sit on your porch all day begging to be stolen
  • Flexible pickup times – lockers are available as long as the business is open, which in some cases might be 24 hours a day
  • Plenty of time – the locker will hold your package for 3 business days (plus any weekend those days might encompass)
  • Free – Amazon lockers don’t require an extra fee (or even an Amazon Prime membership)
  • Heck, you can even return certain items to Amazon Lockers

I don’t have a reliable, discreet way to receive packages. Shipping to my house sucks because the package sits on porch all day getting cold and/or wet (not to mention broadcasting to every passerby that my house is currently vacant).  Shipping to the office isn’t discreet and there’s nowhere to comfortably keep a package at my little desk. Plus, everyone wants to know what’s inside it.


Amazon Locker was extremely easy to use. Get this:

  1. Amazon emailed me a short code
  2. I entered it into the touch-screen attached to the lockers
  3. The matching locker popped open automatically
  4. The locker stayed open until I manually closed it
Amazon Locker review Amazon Locker pops open

The locker pops open – and stays open until closed by the human using it.

At 5’8” I was able to reach into even the tallest lockers, but very short people or people with limited mobility might experience some difficulty reaching the top row of lockers, which were face-high for me.

Amazon Locker review height and usability

At 5’8″, I’m able to reach the highest lockers. Your mileage may vary.

Locker Locations

The locker locations are as (or as in-) convenient as the locations they’re installed in.  See if Amazon lockers are in your location by clicking here.

If they’re not near you yet, just sit tight: Amazon is adding more lockers like crazy right now.  If you want to tell Amazon to hurry up, log into your Amazon account and go to Amazon’s Locker page and suggest your zip code.

I shipped my item to a Rite-Aid pharmacy a couple blocks from my office. Rite Aid’s hours, as well as most other businesses participating in the locker program) go late enough for me to drop by and pick up my package after my workday ends.

My only gripe is the locker I used was positioned in the back of the store.  I actually had to spend a few minutes looking for it – the locker is a huge grey metal structure, but it was around the side of the pharmacy and there were no signs inside the store directing me to it.  Obviously, this is designed so that I walk past a lot of Rite Aid merchandise on my way to the locker… but it wasn’t fun to search the store for the lockers.

Delivery Speed

I placed my order on Monday and my item arrived Wednesday. The estimated delivery was Thursday, but Amazon seems to under-promise and over-deliver as a matter of routine as this happens with packages delivered to my house or office as well.

Amazingly, the locker would hold the package from Wednesday ’til Monday. Amazon promises to keep your package available for 3 business days, but I had six full days to come by and get it.

Any Restrictions?

  • Items must weigh less than 10 lbs
  • Items can’t be more than 1 cubic foot or so in size
  • Can’t be a Subscribe & Save item

Amazon doesn’t restrict use of lockers to Prime customers.

To add a locker to your Amazon.com account:

  1. Log into your Amazon.com account
  2. Go to “Search for lockers in your area” and type in your location
  3. Add whichever locker(s) are convenient to you
  4. Next time you order something, that locker will appear as a possible shipping address

PS: If you’re wondering what I bought – it was a flexible Joby camera tripod!

Read More

Note to readers: This article is about Amazon.com.  Some of the links are my own Amazon Affiliate links – if you purchase something from Amazon.com after clicking one of my links, a small % of your purchase helps support this site.  As always, I encourage you to shop around and price compare to be sure you get the best deal!

Get Fit at Home with a DIY Garage Gym

As we start a new year and everyone resolves to get fit, gyms are on everyone’s mind these days. If you’ve got a bit of space in your garage, here’s what you could do with it!

Setting up a home gym in the garage weight lifting cardio

Home is where the gym is!

Lifting is one of our favorite hobbies (both of us!), and we’ve always wanted to set up our own little home gym. Home gyms don’t have to be expensive or huge – ours cost less than $2500 for everything in it, thanks to buying our major equipment on Craigslist. (If $2500 sounds crazy, the home gym we priced out at Precor’s store was well over $6000.)

In this lengthy post, I’ll show you everything that’s in our gym, why it’s awesome, and where we got it.  If you’re interested in setting up a home gym in the garage, read on!

Setting up a Home Gym

We like to lift. Everything else is fluff! Obviously, the thing we both wanted for the home gym was a squat rack, a bench, a 45 lb Olympic bar, and a collection of plate weights to go with it.  Throw in a set of adjustable dumbells and you’ve got all your major lifts covered!

Lifting Equipment

Power Rack + Olympic Bar + Weights

setting up a home gym in the garage lifting rack

I don’t think the dude comes with it, which is too bad, because a built-in spotter would be sweet.

Power racks are awesome: this simple cage positions the bar so you can do squats and bench presses.  You can also do deadlifts, pull ups, and dips – heck, you can even stand in the rack doing curls. (Don’t do curls in the rack at a commercial gym. :P)

This PowerLine Power Rack isn’t the exact same rack I have, but it’s got the same features that make mine awesome:

  • pull up bar
  • adjustable safety bars
  • separate set of hooks for squat mode
  • plus, it’s well-reviewed on Amazon!

The only thing I’d miss are the numbered stickers, but you could easily add your own with some tape.  (My power rack is a discontinued Tuff Stuff brand power rack.)

Find your 45-lb Olympic bar and weight plates at any local used sporting goods store.  These equipment pieces are durable and easy to find secondhand for big savings.

Power Rack Workouts

A power rack is extremely versatile, and a safe way to set yourself up for the three biggie lifts: squatbench pressdeadlift(Links go to YouTube videos showing proper form). A rack is also good for pull ups, barbell lunges, and tricep dips.

Bowflex SelectTech Adjustable Dumbells

setting up a home gym in the garage bowflex adjustable dumbells

My Bowflex SelectTech Adjustable Dumbells are absolute treasures. Quickly switch between different weights, from 7.5 up to 52.5 lbs.

Adjustable dumbells rule because they take up so little space.  It’s like collapsing that long row of dumbells at the gym into just one set.  Bonus: the only sweat on them is yours.

I have a set of Bowflex SelectTech adjustable dumbells and they’re worth every penny.  They feel great in my hands, change easily, and haven’t broken after several years of near-daily use. (The pictured dumbells are a slightly newer version of the set I use.)

  • Go from 7.5 lbs to 52.5 with the turn of a dial.
  • They take up almost no space
  • Rugged as hell (though I don’t make a point of dropping them)
  • Flat “bottom” edge so they don’t roll away on you
  • Safe to hold over your head – the plates won’t fly or fall off the dumbell

Dumbell Workouts

There’s literally no shortage to the variety of workouts you can do with dumbells:

  • dumbell bench presses
  • bicep curls
  • flyes
  • upright rows
  • tricep kickbacks
  • lunges
  • one-armed rows

… the list goes on and on, it’s ridiculous.  Check out www.dumbbell-exercises.com for like, a billion dumbell exercise ideas, complete with cute animations.

One last note: Don’t buy those “hand in a box” dumbells, they’re too restrictive on your range of motion and the variety of exercises you can do. You want dumbell-shaped dumbells.

Body Vision Power Tower


Body Vision Power Tower: get a hardcore core workout!

At first glance a power tower it looks sort of like a seatless chair, but the power tower is a versatile and efficient piece of equipment for your home gym.  Back at the commercial gyms, I’d see ripped guys doing dips and chin-ups on these things with weights hanging from their waist – you never outgrow a power tower. It doesn’t have any moving parts – that’s because you’re the weight.

Do push-ups, pull-ups, knee-raises, and dips to give your upper body and “core” muscles a pretty brutal workout. When I first got the my Body Vision Power Tower, I could barely hang from it for more than a few seconds – now I use it for pull-ups and dips.

  • chin-ups and pull-ups with multiple hand positions for arm strengthening workouts
  • leg and knee raises for leg and core workouts
  • dip station for tricep dips, working your triceps and chest muscles
  • foot grips / push up bars near the bottom for pushups (not that you can’t just do these on the floor…)
  • just plain hangin’ around because even that’s pretty tough after a while!

This power tower is height adjustable on assembly – it’s not adjustable once it’s put together.  At 5’8″ and 170 lbs I fit on it great, but my 6’4″ husband at 210 lbs finds it a bit rocky.

PS: I can’t believe I got to write “power tower” in complete seriousness!

Home Gym Cardio Equipment

Precor EFX 5.23 Elliptical

Precor is basically the king of elliptical machines, owning most of the patents and the best commercial models.  Precor is by far my favorite brand: I’ve tried other brands in gyms and on showroom floors, and they’re just not as good.   They wobble, or feel weird, or are missing great features like adjustable incline. My Precor 5.23 is a commercial model with static “arms”.

Here’s an official photo of it:


My Precor elliptical has seen hundreds of hours of use, and it’s still going strong. Sturdy and rugged, I love this thing.

And here’s mine in the garage, looking quite a bit more cluttered (but you get the idea!).  I set it up to face a multi-tiered shelf, which used to hold a TV (until the TV mysteriously stopped working).  Also on the shelf are my speakers, weight lifting gloves, and some household storage.


It’s not as cluttered as it looks, I swear. :)

If you’re shopping for an elliptical, plan to spend a good deal of time figuring out your preferences.

These are my preferences:

  • Adjustable incline – Good way to get some variety into your workout
  • Adjustable resistance – Don’t even consider an elliptical without the ability to crank up the resistance
  • Sturdy design – When testing, get on an elliptical and go full speed – half the models I tested wobble in a good HIIT workout, but my Precor is solid
  • No swinging arms – I’ve been smacked by swinging arms enough, and they become especially dangerous on high speed “runs”.  I often carry weights when using the elliptical, anyway.
  • Water bottle / iPod shelf – Essential for a $1500+ piece of equipment, I think
  • Magazine shelf – for leisurely workouts :)

Home Gym Accessories

Cyber Acoustics Subwoofer Satellite System

This Cyber Acoustics speaker system is the same one I bought for my garage gym 2 years ago.  It’s been a #1 best seller on Amazon forever, and for good reason: the base is thumping, the volume goes louder than most noise ordinances allow for, and it sounds fantastic.  The deluxe speaker system hooked up to my computer cost 5x more than this system, but I’ll let you in on a little secret – this one’s better!!

My favorite features:

  • AWESOME BASE – my #1 requirement in a sound system. I hate flat sound!
  • Volume adjuster “pod” is on a long wire, making it accessible unlike, say, a knob on an out-of-the-way speaker
  • Base can be adjusted separate from volume
  • Works with iPod/iPhone/smartphone – plug one end of an aux-in cable into your device’s headphone port and the other end into the control pod’s “AUX IN” port

Badass sound and all the best features.

Resistance Bands

I collected a number of resistance bands over the years, but if I was starting from scratch I’d get this set of resistance bands by Black Mountain Products.

This set is awesome because multiple bands can be combined with one handle.  If you’ve ever tried to use multiple handles at once, you know how frustrating (and silly) it can get trying to wrangle ’em into alignment.  If you’re new to working out with bands, you’re in for a treat – bands are great at working smaller groups of muscles that get overlooked in larger lifts, travel easily, and can be used while idly doing something else (I often use mine while watching TV or going for a “float” on the elliptical).

  • Multiple resistance levels
  • Combine bands with one handle
  • Convenient storage / travel bag
  • Ankle strap for leg workouts

Black Mountain Products makes an awesome set of resistance bands – use ’em alone or combine them for a tougher workout.

Bowflex Adjustable Bench

This adjustable Bowflex bench is the exact same one I have in my home gym.  I think it’s awesome – if you’re considering a bench, invest in an adjustable bench and open up a huge variety of free weight workouts.  Combine with a set of adjustable dumbells and there isn’t much you can’t do with just these two pieces of equipment.

  • Four positions – straight upright, leaned back, flat, and decline
  • Sturdy with a rugged vinyl cover – if you’ve read this far, you know how obsessed I am with durability!
  • Leg pad attachment – holds your legs in place, essential for some lifts

Adjustable benches are worth it for the variety of inclines.


I got mine free – I found ’em in a neighbor’s remodel garbage heap. Try yard sales or back-to-school season sales for cheap mirrors.

Cork Bulletin Board

I mounted this simple cork board near our home gym to hang lifting logs and write down rack settings, and a weight cheat sheet.

Advantages of a Home Gym

There are sooo many advantages to having a home gym.  Here’s just a few:

  • Always open – I used to get mad when I couldn’t work out on a holiday!
  • Private – I can make all the silly lifting faces I like, no one’s watching.
  • Shower and dress at home – Showing at the gym sucked, especially for Jim because the showers were open. EW.
  • Eat breakfast at home – I used to have to eat breakfast at the office because it wasn’t economical to drive back home before work.
  • No waiting for equipment – That guy curling in the squat rack is not my problem anymore! :D
  • Use it for as little or as much time as you like –  Sometimes I go down for just 10 minutes – not worth driving to the gym for, but easy to do at home.
  • Post logs and records on the wall – A cheap cork board mounted on the wall near our rack gave me a place to record workouts

Disadvantages of a Home Gym

Nope, none.

Naw, just kidding – the biggest disadvantages of a home gym are the cost to set it up and the space it requires.  At $2200, we were essentially buying a 3-and-a-half-year gym membership upfront.  I do not recommend building a dedicated home gym unless you are already an avid gym-goer.  We were somewhere in our fifth year of near-daily gym use when we put our home gym together.

Some other (minor) disadvantages:

  • Negotiating gym time – There’s only one of each thing and two of us, so Jim and I coordinate who is using what and when
  • Less space in the garage – Many people here in the Pacific Northwest use their garages the way people in the Midwest use their basements – packed to the brim with stuff!
  • Garage can be kinda cold – but that’s just motivation to lift harder!

But I’m on a Budget! (Or In a Tiny Space)

I feel for you – I used to work out in my little apartment with equipment that could be tucked away when not in use.   Here’s what I used – for less than $300 you can put together a respectable home gym with the following equipment:

The best part?  All this stuff is super durable – you’ll use it for years, even if you put together a larger home gym later on.  I think small equipment like the above is a great way to get started with home gymming – start small, and work your way up to a larger gym.  If you don’t already like to exercise, jumping right into the deep end of a $3000+ home gym might not change that. I’ve seen much nicer home gyms than ours going unused, and I’ve seen crazy buff people whose only equipment is the sidewalk and a few dumbells.

Where’d you learn all this?

Bodybuilding.com’s forums are my absolute favorite resource for nutrition, lifting techniques, equipment recommendations, and motivation.  I’ve been a regular reader for six years and I highly recommend this community.