Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Frugal or foxy?

We seem to be driving retailers nuts this holiday season.

Last week, on what supposedly is the biggest shopping day of the season, we came, we saw and we demurred, the National Retail Federation reported. Crowds were up, sales weren't. The mixed messages continue this week. Electronics and jewelry sales are up from a year ago, reports MasterCard Advisors' SpendingPulse, but sales of clothing and luxury goods are trailing.

Maybe we are shopping for stuff that is easier to pawn, just in case. Or maybe we really are being more frugal than we were accustomed to before 2008, suggests's Allie Johnson, who has been tracking some conflicting signals.

Home cooking is suddenly chic again, say the Nielsen ratings people who track supermarket and restaurant sales and bunches of other things in addition to television ratings. And vacations, major home improvements and other easy to cut purchases have been taking hits all year, writes Michael Kahn of Chief Marketer.

So how serious are consumers about living more frugally? Economic consultant Bill Conerly predicts we'll start opening our wallets again when a little more time passes, but not as freely as before the recession. CNBC's Christina Cheddar Berk says it is more likely we'll get something nice for Christmas and then return to hibernation.

I know I may be heading to the mall more often as winter sets in. It's a good place to walk when the wind chill reads like sales reports.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Action heroes are lousy tax advisers

More tax trouble in Tinseltown this week. (That sounds like a line out of an old movie that I normally wouldn't admit liking as much as I do.) The Los Angeles Times and others are reporting that the IRS has filed a $79,000 tax lien against California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He's disputing the claim and insists he's paid his taxes.

Lots of celebrities seem to get into tax jams, of course. Wesley Snipes, who allegedly didn't file returns for a few years, is in a big one. Willie Nelson used to be, though that apparently is behind him now. Olympic swimming gold medalist Michael Phelps was thought to be, though that turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. It isn't just Hollywood either. All kinds of literati anad glitterati have been making some dumb financial moves, reports ABC News. It is even an international phenomenon; celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey reportedly is in hot water with British tax authorities too.

Watching celebrities getting into financial jams has become something of a cottage industry. There is at least one blog devoted to the subject, by Cincinnati law professor Paul Caron. Austin, TX writer and tax geek Kay Bell watches too. Even Roni Deutch, the queen of late night TV tax service commercials keeps a list. Though in her line of work, she may be able to write some of that off.

So, if you are starting to pull year-end tax records together soon - and you should be - just remember: action heroes can be lousy tax advisers. Here's a short list of things IRS definitely recommends avoiding and 15 pages of why. The short answer is, they don't work.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Ho Ho Ho or Humbug, What's your shopping plan?

Are Christmas shopping forecasters secret Scrooges? Some retailers think so. They contend mainstream media tends to deck the malls with doom and gloom in their holiday shopping forecasts.

Holiday shopping forecasts often are moving targets. The National Retail Federation, which last month forecast a basically flat shopping season this year, now predicts 134 million of us will be lining up outside discount stores at O-Dark-30 tomorrow.

What we'll be doing there is anybody's guess. Really. Relatively few of us plan to cut back our holiday spending, but we'll be watching our money more closely, we've told pollsters for Quite a few of us, though not as many as last year, plan to cut back, but will be freer with our money, we told a joint Consumer Federation of America/Credit Union National Association survey. If you do the math, some of us fibbed.

I think there's another reason it might not seem holiday festive yet. Even though the recession is over, according to the double domes, many communities are cutting back on holiday decorations this year because money is tight. Holiday event planners are feeling a pinch too.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Peaking mentally at this as good as it gets?

Age 53 is your sweet spot where handling money is concerned according to some Harvard researchers quoted by Ryan Sager at

That's about when you've picked up as much financial street smarts as possible before aging begins slowing your brain functions, according to the lead scientist, David Laibson, who incidentally is 43.

That doesn't mean best is good, though. I know I made some dumb decisions at 53; technology stocks were hot at the time. Many of today's 53-year-olds - who make up a big swath of the U.S. population -are apparently in the same boat.

Few of us handle all our retirement savings questions brilliantly, reports the online 401(k) Help Center. Throw in the trauma of a layoff or other collateral damage from the recession and we become even more unhinged, adds Prudent Money Financial Services.

Fifty three is a tough age. You are maybe nine years from retirement - planned or otherwise - and reaching your peak earning years, but with probably way too little in life savings. The Employee Benefit Research Institute calculates many 53-year-olds probably have about $44,000 stashed in their retirement plans, which is not a lot of money to stretch over two decades of retirement.

And pulling that money out early generally is not one of the most brilliant moves a 50-something can make, despite some attractions recently listed by John Credule in the New York Post.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Hang on, it's the only nest egg you've got

You've got three choices about what to do with your retirement plan money when you leave a job. And even though the recession supposedly is over, more of us may be making those choices, according to forecaster Nouriel Roubini, who has been distressingly accurate before.

Basically you can cash in part or all of the plan; leave it with your employer until you retire, even if you no longer work there, or roll it into an IRA of your own where you can tend your investments personally.

Financial advisers generally agree the first choice is the worst choice for most of us, because of the huge tax bite and potential penalties that may be triggered when you cash out too soon. They are more divided about the other two choices.

Hewitt Associate's Pam Hess is among a minority of financial advisers who find good things about leaving the money where it is. It's simple and your plan's investment managers probably know more than you (you hope) about investing as profitably as possible.

More advisers favor rolling the money into an IRA, as CNN's Walter Updegrave reports. It's easier to track and you've got more investment choices. Having more choices is important, because traditional 401(k)s often aren't cutting it anymore, say executives such as Putnam Investments chief executive Robert Reynolds.

Insurers such as Prudential have been imagining some of the changes savers need and are coming up with suggestions that would have been startling just a few years ago. Recently insurance giant Metlife and Fidelity, the nation's largest mutual fund company announced a plan to include annuities in mutual fund retirement plans.

Annuities sound complicated to many people. And we've all heard, or in my case, written horror stories about high costs and other jams investors have gotten into. But in many cases, annuities are getting second looks because lifetime incomes sound reassuring right now.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Belt tightening at Thanksgiving

"When an economist says a recession is over is different from when a hungry family says it's over," said John Hornbeck of Episcopal Community Services, one of many food assistance providers to hungry Kansas City area residents.

That shows up a lot right now, as supermarket Thanksgiving grocery ads hit our driveways. At least one store offers turkeys at 40 cents a pound with a $25 purchase. Another throws in a free turkey if you buy a featured ham.

Those are good deals, better than a year ago, the American Farm Bureau correctly reports, but the offerings might as well be Beluga caviar as far as many of some 17 million hungry households are concerned. Those are the ones that the U.S. Agriculture Department calculates experienced what delicately is called food insecurity last year.

Hunger is a noticeably growing problem in many suburbs once thought impervious to the problem, reports Newsweek. Count Johnson County, KS, home of the statistically not shabby 19th highest household incomes in the U.S., among them, says Linda Rogers of Johnson County Human Services. Requests for food assistance are up maybe a third from a year ago as more white collar severance packages run out before people find jobs, she said.

"There is a direct connection between rising unemployment and requests for food assistance," said Karen Heren, chief executive of the Harvesters Community Food Network in Kansas City. She's shopping for what's budgeted to be $4 million in additional food purchases to supplement donations.

"Two words that really scare us are 'jobless recovery' " Heren said. "This time last year, our shelves were bare."

Monday, November 16, 2009

There are some tax breaks you don't want

More than 15 million taxpayers may owe Uncle Sam another $250 next filing season, a Treasury Department Inspector General reports.

Lower payroll taxes passed last spring to pump money into the economy ended up putting too much money back into the checks of workers with more than one job, of which there have been many this recession. Social Security recipients who worked part time may be hit too.

IRS has a free calculator to help you see what your situation is. There are barely six weeks left in the tax year, though, which leaves little time to do anything other than brace for impact.

The recession has produced some really crummy tax breaks you need to prepare for if you qualify. My two favorites? The first $2,400 of unemployment benefits you collected in 2009 are tax exempt. You pay taxes on the rest. Forgiven debt usually counts as taxable income, but not if you lost your home or modified your mortgage.