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.


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Lots of roadside help is just a phone call away

Our seven-year-old Toyota's original battery died suddenly in the supermarket parking lot this weekend. And I found out that much has changed since the last time I called AAA.

For one thing, the auto club sells batteries roadside now, and have been doing that for a couple years at least, according to the technician who answered our call. It's a moderately pricey service; we paid $115 to buy a battery that costs maybe $75 at AutoZone, have it installed and the old dead one taken away for recycling. But paying the extra money also allowed us to finish shopping at the next supermarket on our list and get home before the frozen food thawed.

I also realized we're potentially covered by at least three auto clubs. One is AAA, which was the most universally dependable services when we first signed up four decades ago. AARP offers a slightly reduced price similar service, which we haven't signed up for. Progressive Insurance also throws roadside assistance in with an auto policy we have. Many other insurers do that too; Allstate ramps up the service a notch with a special plan for Blackberry users. Even Subaru offered free help for the first year after we bought that car.

So, is it dumb to continue paying AAA for coverage that overlaps what these other providers offer anyway? That apparently depends on what is most likely to go wrong when we hit the highway, writes Vivian Blackwell at

Roadside assistance plans are essentially insurance policies designed to help policy holders deal with what are usually minor emergencies. Some are part of lusher larger services, like GM's OnStar, which costs about $200 a year after a first year free trial. Others are barer bones plans that may limit which vehicles are covered or where you take your car if you need repairs. Some aim for niche markets, such as the Better World Club, which has a roadside plan that covers bicycles too.

Finding the right plan is like finding the best insurance deal. You basically read the fine print and compare the choices.

Friday, November 13, 2009

New Fed consumer protection rules need your help

New Federal Reserve banking overdraft regulations might help many of us avoid big penalties if we use our ATM or debit cards too enthusiastically after July 1.

It's a big deal. About three fourths of the nation's bank routinely sign up customers for automatic overdraft protection, and collect $37 billion in overdraft fees when we trigger it, reports Kiplinger Personal Finance's Joan Goldwasser. The new regulations stop part of that by ending the automatic enrollment and requiring us to sign up if we want that protection. Meantime, here is a rundown of what the Consumer Federation of America found the nation's biggest banks were doing last month.

But take a close look at the details when your bank mails you an explanation of the changes in a few months. There is less there than meets the eye for some of us.

For starters, the new regulations apply only to ATM and debit card transactions. Banks can still charge for honoring overdraft paper checks or covering automatic bill payments if your account drops too low. Plus, the new rules don't put caps on what banks can charge if you do sign up or prevent them from potentially tweaking the system to trigger more fee income, CFA reports.

So the best way to avoid overdraft fees in July is what is still the best way now. Avoid overdrafts. Basic tactics such as having your paycheck deposited directly into your account, keeping a comfortable cushion there and simply keeping track of what you spend aren't hard and go a long way, the American Bankers Association says.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Not maxing out your plastic gets tougher

Credit card reform doesn't always go smoothly, we are discovering.

Horror stories abound of how credit card users are being whiplashed by fast changing loan terms. The Federal Reserve reports 75 percent of the nation's lenders might not comply with new regulations that kick in in February. That echoes a Pew Charitable Trusts report two weeks ago that cards offered now by the 12 biggest lenders still fall short of snuff.

Lenders in general are tightening their credit card standards, reports Lenders are tightening other lines too, Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial, writes in that firm's latest newsletter; home equity loans have all but vanished.

Borrowers can still get relatively good credit card deals from credit unions, reports.
Even so, tight money and shrinking credit lines make it easier to hit credit limits before you mean to.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Freefalling into an unplanned retirement

Finding new jobs these days is tougher than it used to be, AP's Jeannine Aversa reports. But so is one of the alternatives - being forced into an unplanned early retirement. Among the nation's younger than 65-year-olds, anywhere from two to six times more workers are taking that route out of the job market than planned to, the Employee Benefit Research Institute found last spring.

Leaving the workforce sooner than you planned is never easy. You worry more about money, EBRI researchers report. Duh. But a small slew of surveys released in the last few weeks suggests more of us have good reason to worry. MetLife reports that more of us really are trying to live within our means these days. But a good three fourths of us aren't succeeding, says Wells Fargo.

But not saving enough money is only one of three reasons why retiring prematurely fails. Investing your savings unwisely or underestimating what retirement living really costs will sandbag you too. There aren't many roadmaps, I discovered last spring. Basically, you look at your resources and try to use them creatively. Or, you try to find a job, as Newsweek's Linda Stern found more 60-somethings are doing. Some 72 percent of the nation's retirees are planning that now, EBRI calculates, up from 66 percent a year ago.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Gimme a (tax) break - I don't want to buy a house

Now you don't have to be a first time buyer to get a tax credit for buying a home.

New legislation that President Obama is signing, probably today, also provides a potential $6,500 tax credit for homeowners who sell their current homes to buy another one. Get it done by April 30 if you are interested.

Huzzah, say the nation's realtors. Others' enthusiasm is more restrained. The New York Times editorial board calls it throwing good money after bad. Washington Post's Steven Pearlstein grumps that it's a better deal for sellers than buyers and also for real estate agents, appraisers, lenders, brokers and insurers, who also get cuts in the deals. Tha makes sense in a way because there still are a lot more sellers in the market than buyers, the National Association of Realtors reports.

Meantime, don't forget other potential tax breaks you can get without planting real estate signs in your yard. You need to get moving on those too, because the Dec. 31 end of the tax year for most of us is a scant eight weeks away.

If you've got some investments down for the ten count, for example, you may want to sell them and use the losses to offset profits on other stuff you sold. Or if you still have stuff that didn't move at your fund-raising garage sale, donate it to your favorite charity, get receipts and deduct it on Schedule A next spring.

Or if you've been job hunting or running a part time business to make extra cash, as many of us are these days, start rounding up and saving receipts for those expenses too. Many are deductible. And if you are snugging up the house to save energy this winter, don't forget to check out any potential energy tax credits you might qualify for.

If you are still working, you are a god to many of us. But check how the tax withholding in your paycheck may have changed by stimulus legislation flying out of Washington

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Savings Bonds warm up to back above zero. Why should I care?

Series I Savings Bonds, which have been paying some savers zero-percent interest the last six months, are back in the black again. The Treasury Department announced earlier this week that savers who buy the inflation-adjusted bonds will get 3.36 percent interest on any bonds they buy before May 1. Rates will change again after that depending on what consumer prices do.

Calculating what I-bonds pay can be mystifying. Buyers get paid with a combination of interest rates. One is a fixed rate that is calculated on the recent price for government securities when you buy the bonds and stays the same for however long you own them. The fixed rate is 0.30 percent now, but was as high as 3.6 percent a decade or so ago when financial markets were boomier.

The other rate, which changes every May 1 and Nov. 1, is based on the Consumer Price Index. It's 3.06 percent now, thanks in part to some recently spiky energy prices. It's been minus 2.78 percent for the last six months, so anyone with a fixed rate smaller than that has been earning zip.

So why do we care? Basically, now that I-bonds have a pulse again, they are an okay place to stash any emergency money you won't need for a year or more. Starting at $50, they are cheap to buy. And they currently pay better than money market accounts or comparable certificates of deposit.

Their biggest drawback is that you cannot get your money back for 12 months. Busting a CD and paying a penalty is easier. The second biggest drawback is that after those first 12 months are up, you still lose three-months' interest if you cash out before 5 years are up. I think that's a judgment call. If you really need your money that badly, you've still made better than bank rates for nine months or longer and three months interest at current market rates may not be that big a hit.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Blue Christmas - oldies and some not so goodies.

Christmas clubs are back. That can't be a great omen for retailers.

Christmas clubs, for those of you who don't remember a president before Ronald Reagan, are savings plans consumers use when they expect financially leaner holidays. Some people think the plans are kitschy and a bad deal. They're wrong.

Sears and Kmart, which are pushing the plans this year, are the same two retailers who resuscitated layaway plans last year. However, Walmart, the nation's largest retailer, phased out its layaway program three years ago and appears to be counting on cutting prices to win customers. Discounts and instant gratification are always winners.

Even that looks a bit dicey this time around. Some retailers ran into a new competitor during the just ended Halloween season, which has become sort of a warm up for Christmas. Home made gifts. Merchants are fighting back.

Plus there is one more Christmas shopping budget stretcher retailers worry about. Shoplifting, already a $30 billion dollar business in the U.S. by FBI estimates, appears to be on the rise, the National Retail Federation.

Remember to turn off the home alarm for Santa.

Friday, October 30, 2009

First time homebuyers get more time. Some will need it.

Both the U.S. House and the Senate seem likely to vote next week on extending an $8,000 tax credit for first time home buyers, Bloomberg News reports.

The credit originally was scheduled to expire Nov. 30. But at least some hopeful buyers are blowing that deadline already, because closing on a home often is a four or six week process, as contributor Elizabeth Weintraub spells out.

Lord knows Realtors want the extra time. September, which was effectively a beginning of the end getting the credit under the old deadline, was a bipolar month for the industry, writes's Phil Mintz. Existing home sales shot higher because the credit was ending, he found. New home sales tanked because the credit was ending.

Our heads spin. In any case, there were signs visible at least as early as last July that an extension might be in the works. And there are signs now that home buying will be different than before the economy free fell last year.

The biggest difference? You'll need more money. Lenders who got burned by bad mortgages before don't want to again. Plus, it's more important that you get the purchase right, advises You may see additional paperwork too. Federal auditors already have found more than a whiff of fraud in more than 100,000 claims for the credit already. They don't want to do that again either.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Angry Mob Platinum Diamond Card is hilarious, but look what's really going on

I thought John Hodgeman's Daily Show riff on Wall Street reform and the Angry Mob Platinum Diamond Card the other night was a hoot.

But a dead serious report from the Pew Charitable Trust the same day is even more droll. Online credit cards offered by the nation's 12 largest banks won't be legal when new credit card rules kick in next February, Pew found. Better yet, both the Hodgeman bit and the Pew report arrived almost exactly on the 80th anniversary of one of U.S. history's most spectacular market crashes.

You cannot make up stuff this good.

Credit card problems aren't a joke if you have them, I know. And some reform of the worst abuses is both necessary and laudable. But often, our best way out of such jams is mostly things we need to do ourselves,as Associated Content contributor Ray Harris pointed out a few years ago. last year looked at the pros and cons of 10 tools we might use to dig ourselves out of financial holes. And not long ago discovered, an online service that also is sort of a support group for the budget challenged. But what many of us figure out, after some trial and more error, is that you need to think beyond money to make it work. outlines one way to do that, starting with protecting what you have before you start messing with improvements.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Small savings and big mistakes

As savers, we're getting better at the small stuff, the Harris Poll reports. We're buying generics, brown bagging, sipping tap water from our refilled Evian bottles and generally watching pennies more closely.

We aren't doing as well with the big stuff, though. New research from Hewitt Associates shows nearly half of us still cash in 401(k)s when we leave jobs, which is not good if you prefer not to eat cat food when you retire. (Though I must admit that some cat food now on the market sound a lot swankier than what we brown bag some days.)

Blogger Maria O'Brien last year put together a list of Ten Financial Mistakes That Will Put You in the Poor House. I look at this and similar lists every once in a while hoping I haven't made more than half the blunders the authors list. So far, so good. Sometimes barely.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Life insurance is sexy again?

Life insurance was considered a kind of investment drudge most of the years I covered personal finance for The Kansas City Star. Markets were booming and you could make buckets of money investing in tech stocks and such.

No more. If ever. Insurance giant Prudential kicked out some new research this week that shows the recession has raised investors opinion of life insurance quite a bit since those days. Two thirds of us think it's a safe financial product and half of us now like it better than the stuff we lost money on, Pru reports. At this point, we'd probably like change we find on the sidewalk better than what we lost money on before, but I get the reasoning. In times like these, you can even borrow against whole life policies like one I bought to convert my GI life insurance to a commercial policy when I left the Army.

The Insurance Information Institute, an industry trade group, recently published a quick rundown of what you'll find in the market if you are looking for some of the security that coverage provides. The trick to buying well is figuring out first what you want coverage to do for you, then finding a plan that fits that wish.

Look at whole life policies if you like the idea of building a conservative stash of cash while buying insurance coverage to provide your family income if you die, say advocates such as John Girouard, in Bethesda, MD. Those are more expensive than other choices, but that's manageable if you are young enough. Check out term insurance if you're looking for economical coverage, but be aware of its limitations too. You get no money back if you outlive the policy. Happy hunting.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Winterize your wallet now

That's a great description I found on an ING website of some of the routine things blogger Jennifer Derrick reminds us we need to be doing about now to save money as weather turns colder. I wish I'd thought of it, but Ms. Ktnomics and I were outside most of yesterday winterizing before it gets nastier outside.

Now a recent jump in oil prices the last couple weeks makes winter preparation more imperative for both our homes and our cars. Here's an enduring list of some basics the federal government recommends every year. Some of the recommendations seem hard core, but take a look anyway. Even simple fixes, such as water damage from frozen pipes, can run a few thousand dollars more than any of us want to shell out right now, the Insurance Information Institute reports.

Friday, October 23, 2009

My credit card left home without me. Now what?

I try to never use credit cards to buy something that will be gone before the bill comes. It's a quirk, I know, but it probably spared me an awkward moment at the gas pump.

Citi apparently shut down a lot of its gasoline company credit cards without warning. That could be a nasty surprise if you just filled up as gas prices kiss $2.50 again. Leaving you with suddenlly worthless plastic is just one of many things card companies are doing before some new consumer friendlier regulations kick in, says Bill Hardekopf of And what is frustrating is that shutting off your credit unilaterally is neither illegal nor even among the worst things card companies can do before the new regulations take effect, consumer advocates say.

But what do you do if you've just pumped $30 in the tank, the only cash you have with you is small change in the ashtray, and your credit card is declined? Most immediately, if you don't have a second card to fall back on, talk to whoever is watching the gas pumps inside, have some photo i.d. ready that might convince them you aren't a deadbeat, and arrange to pay the $30 as soon as you can.

Next step, start some damage control. Cancelled credit cards will change your credit score, even if you didn't do anything to trigger the cancellation. Contributor W. Allen Morris to outlines some of the math you will need to do and some of the ways you can use existing cards to patch any damage. Jim Wang over at offers some additional tips, though I'm personally more uncomfortable with debit cards than he seems.

And think about paying cash for your next fill up too. In addition to heading off credit card hassles, paying cash for everyday expenses is great way to control spending too.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Pink slipping Santa's workshop

I think I just found the mother of all Christmas shopping omens. Santa's workshop pinkslipped its last three elves after disappointing sales last year. The Finnish government since then sold part of its stake in the enterprise to private investors who vow to cut costs further.

I also think my former colleagues still at The Kansas City Star can identify. But whatever the reason, it seems you can't swing a candy cane without hitting a pessimistic Christmas season forecast.

The National Retail Federation is already hanging crepe for the holidays. They've still got recession discounted Halloween stuff to move. Meantime, online comparison shopping provider reports that shoppers are hitting the stores earlier to stretch their even smaller budgets as far as possible.

Also, a K-Mart near Washington, D.C., last week threw a media party to promote layaway plans.
Not that long ago, stores threw those sorts of things to promote their credit cards. That cannot be a good sign, say retail watchers at the Motley Fool.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Our new health plan choice: bleed me now or bleed me later

If I still had hair, we've got some health plan choices coming up that would have me pulling it out about now. Our premiums for COBRA medical coverage, which have been softened for the last year by my severance benefits and federal stimulus money, are scheduled to jump just north of $1,057 a month after Thanksgiving.

We can't afford that. We can't afford not to be covered either. According to some recent research by the Kellogg School of Management, one good whack by a medical calamity puts maybe 50 percent of our savings at risk.

COBRA, which originally was created to provide stop-gap insurance for workers between jobs, gets hairier when jobs are really scarce. The paperwork is often a mess, says, which offers tips for dealing with some of the most frequent challenges. And for unknown numbers of unlucky job hunters, their former employers' upcoming open enrollment periods may jack the job hunters' premiums around in ways that few of us have imagined before, writes Chicago attorney Andy Anderson. Growing numbers of us already are looking for private insurance to replace COBRA coverage, says, a California advocacy website.

More workers worry about financial security than their medical plans, insurance giant Prudential reported last week. But in real life, that often isn't an either/or question.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Are the homeless better investors than the rest of us?

I know that sounds like a dumb question, but what for many of us is our biggest investment isn't a sure bet,'s Sheyna Steiner reported recently.

Far more people believe their homes are better investment than the stock market, even though the investment return historically is only half as large, she found. Home real estate prices aren't dropping as fast as several months ago, but they are still a long way from whippy.

Remember all that advice we heard about diversifying our investments to reduce risk? We've pretty much blown it, according to a study that researchers at Millman Inc. recently prepared for the Society of Actuaries. Many of have nearly 70 percent of our wealth tied up in one asset - our homes. And there are not many convenient ways to pull that money out, even in the best of times, writes MarketWatch's Robert Powell.

Even the optimists think we're maybe a year away from the bottom of the home and mortgage markets, writes Luke Mullins at US Meantime, we pulled so much wealth out of our homes when prices were rising that it may be a long time before our homes make us 'wealthy' again, says Bruce Bartlett at Forbes.

So what can a little guy do? Question everything, says Consumer Reports. What was good advice not long ago may be lame now. You may want to spiff up your place too. You may be there awhile if foreclosure doesn't get you.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Credit card reform, can it come quickly enough?

Junk mail makes for some pretty suspenseful reading these days. Those credit card company notices about fine-print changes in our card agreements that few of us read before, for example, now have more of us asking Congress to speed up credit card reform, a new survey reports.

Discover this week sent the Ktnomics house four pages of bifocal-challenging small print legalese. Turns out it's the latest changes in our credit card contract that are being made before new credit card protections kick in. I get the gist of them, but I still have no idea what they've done to the grace period. I'll look more closely later. Yeah. Sure.

Other people are getting more jolting news. Bank of America is 'testing' new annual fees for cards that didn't have them before. Other banks have made other changes too. Some even seem consumer friendly, because banks are thinking about how they can compete after the reforms kick in. Others, not so much, says Consumer Federation of America. Litigation has already hit the court system.

Yahoo Finance contributor Laura Rowley notes that just taking a second look at what seems to be junk mail can help you save a few dollars in these tough times. Push a pencil and you might even find some fees are worth paying.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Edsel is back

Auto sales took a big hit after the Cash for Clunkers program ended last month, the government confirmed today. That's no big surprise to analysts or anyone who's been following the post-clunker slump in sales figures for the top sellers.

What's interesting is what's going on inside those numbers too. Luxury car sales are tanking, reports the Detroit Free Press. And the numbers of luxury car buyers who trade up to better cars has dropped a fourth or more, according to Automotive News, which has been tracking some inside numbers. Maybe that's a tradition. Time magazine ran a nearly identical analysis a half century ago. It's 50 years next month since Ford announced it was killing the Edsel.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Join me at the welfare trough

We home owners are welfare bums. That's a startling thought implied by commentator Justin Fox recently in Time magazine in a discussion of some of the tax benefits available for those of who own the roofs over our heads.

The basic idea has been kicking around since a college professor named Christopher Howard described what he called a hidden welfare state kicking around in tax rules that benefit the middle and upper class.

IRS lists bunches of them just for home owners - mortgage interest, mortgage tax credits, real estate and property taxes, energy credits and more. And owning a home often lets you itemize your deductions, which opens up a whole new roomful of potential deductions, H&R Block points out.

Home owning isn't the only tax perk producer, of course. Owning real estate of any kind gets you some generous tax breaks, CPA Richard Lai found in 2003. Sending your kids to college works too. So does opening a business.

One person's tax boondoggle is someone else's support of a laudable social goal, I guess. Still, it's hard to think of Bill and Melinda Gates as welfare abusers just because they save a bundle on taxes by giving gazillions of dollars to good causes around the world.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

More homebuying tax breaks coming?

Giving away free money is a popular government program. Cash for clunkers boosted car sales this summer, though perhaps only temporarily. Now there are signs that a popular $8,000 tax credit for first time home buyers may be sweetened too.

The House of Representatives in Washington last week overwhelmingly to allow armed forces members in combat zones more time to qualify for the credit, which runs out Nov. 30 for other qualifying home buyers. Both the Senate and White House must also okay the idea before anyone gets any money, but it's hard to fault the logic. Home buying is often a long, complex, highly detailed process not easy to deal with when you are distracted by live ammunition.

Realtors want to extend or expand the credit even further, to all home buyers not just service members or first time buyers. It's good for their wallets too. It helps homeowners who aren't buying too. Our homes are worth more in stronger markets.

But let's check the math before we get too giddy. Contributors to the Calculated Risk blog calculate that each of the nearly two million home sales spurred by the incentives costs us $43,000 as taxpayers collectively. OK, that is split among more than 139 million taxpayers, but it's still way more than I paid for my first house 37 years ago.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Marry for money.

Marrying well is the smartest financial decision I ever made. Didn't know it at the time though. Young Army privates first class in 1967 earned $38.85 a week and received $12.25 for additional food and housing expenses if we were married. My bride is a saver, and squeaking money out of that income stream boded well for the next 40+ years.

But there is a lot of research out there that shows married people, and especially men, become wealthier than singles. One study finds the difference is as much as 27 percent. The researchers cheerfully admit they don't know why.

Thinking back over nearly 300 families and financial plans I've written about in The Kansas City Star Money Makeover series, I believe there's a bigger question. How? Some University of Michigan research earlier this year found that, as love would have it, tightwads and spendthrifts tend to marry each other. Opposites attract, or as research Scott Rick suggests, people look for partners without personality tics they don't like having themselves.

There's a ton of well meant advice out there about talking to your partner to head off money fights. Or you can learn ways to arrange your finances to keep peace. Good luck with that. Love may be eternal, but so it seems is the leading cause of married arguments - money.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Here's a farm program where we can all make money

A secret from a past life caught up with me today. I discovered that the University of Idaho Extension Service is launching a new free financial planning course online. Big whoop, you say.

Not many people realize that the U.S. Agriculture Department and a network of state colleges and universities that form what's known as the Cooperative Extension System offers top flight, free do-it-yourself financial planning online. Extension is a free, national non-degree educational network organized more than a century ago to show farmers ways to raise bigger crops and healthier animals.

Extension was just getting into financial planning about the time I switched from being a farm and agribusiness reporter to covering personal finance. The two disciplines aren't that different. People I meet in either one have lots to do and not enough time or money to do it. I just don't use the word bushels as much as I once did.

Rutgers - yes, it is still a farm school - did some of the early work and produced a classic curriculum that is yours for the click of a mouse.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Blue Christmas - credit, debit or cash

Retailers are bracing for a blue Christmas this year - a one percent drop in sales from last year's miserably low business, according to one report. Some blame part of that on debit cards, which are becoming many consumers' next line of defense against growing credit problems.

Using credit cards and paying them off monthly still seems a better plan, if you can swing it. Debit cards offer fewer consumer protections than credit cards and there are some rules that make easier to inadvertently wrack up huge overdraft fees, as outlined here by's Joan Goldwasser. And here's a longer list of pros and cons recently outlined in USA Today. Prepaid debit cards, which might seem the safest, actually can spring the worst traps, reports

Also credit card rules are changing and some lenders, including Bank of America, are pledging better consumer-friendly deals on both kinds of cards before the new rules kick in. One thing doesn't change though. You still need to read the fine print, advises Consumer Federation of America.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Big Oct. 15 tax deadlines coming up fast

Heads up, taxpayers. You've only got 10 more days to meet some important Oct. 15 tax deadlines.

About 10 million taxpayers who requested filing extensions last April face the biggest one. Oct. 15 is their last chance to file their tax year 2008 returns penalty-free. There are a few exceptions. Anyone serving in a combat zone and some disaster victims have more time. You don't want to qualify.

Oct. 15 also is the final deadline that taxpayers in Missouri, Kansas and many other states can qualify for property tax relief, sales tax refunds and other special tax breaks for the poor or elderly, if they haven't already. The applications are part of state income tax returns, due when federal returns are filed.

Oct. 15 also is the deadline for getting a do-over if you flubbed a Roth IRA conversion. Technically, the process is called recharacterization, but it's a chance to turn a turn your converted Roth back to a traditional IRA and get back tax money you paid when markets were higher. And if you have money stashed in a secret overseas bank account, Oct. 15 is your last chance to come clean with the IRS and avoid harsher penalties later.

Finally, there's a soft deadline to be aware of if you hope to collect a potential $8,000 credit for first time home buyers. You probably need to pick your new home by mid October to formally close by the Dec. 1 deadline and qualify for the credit.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

When good credit card strategies go bad

OK, we know don't put porn on plastic. Same way with booze, casino cards and even purchases down at the thrift store. Credit card companies in this recession are watching our spending patterns to see if any changes might suggest we may be bigger credit risks.

But what about inflicting damage on our credit scores the old fashioned way? recently ran a list of five ways wealthy people mess up their credit. They are things that any of us can do and probably have at some point.

Now it turns out that even going on the financial wagon can be a bad idea, reports Erin Joyce in a recent post to Even though some new, more consumer friendly credit card rules will be kicking in soon, staying out of trouble is still our best bet, advisers say.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Want a good buy on a dead car (brand)?

We sold our two Saturns - a '93 and a '96 - before the bottom fell out. There isn't much to gloat about, though. They had 115,000 and 153,000 miles on them respectively and were pretty much depreciated out.

But there are better ones out there, along with Pontiacs, Hummers, Plymouths, Oldsmobiles and other vanished or vanishing brands. Prices can be real bargains, as Sylvia Cochrane at Associated Content points out. Many buyers are reluctant to buy vehicles no one is making unless, perhaps, they delude themselves into thinking there is a potentially classic collectible in the bunch.

Orphaned car brands can be good deals for the right buyer, says Jim Henry of Parts and servicing won't be a problem, the auto industry tells U.S. News and World Report. Resale value likely will be if you plan to sell in a few years. That won't matter so much if you plan to drive them for as long as they last.

I think a bigger kitchentablenomics level casualty in the Lieutenant Motors meltdown may be home real estate prices in Spring Hill, TN. Good luck trying to move one of those.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Head 'em up, Social Security, and move'em out.

Look for some new free financial planning help from the Social Security Administration in the future. The agency, along with Boston College and the University of Wisconsin, are forming a $5 million Financial Literacy Research Consortium to help us plan more effectively for our retirements.

I wish they'd spent the money on cattle prods. Inertia remains a problem that investors around the world struggle with, reports a recent Harris Poll. Meantime, groups like America Saves, 360 Degrees of Financial Literacy and the National Endowment for Financial Education already provide tons of top rate information for free.

Much of their advice boils down to two principles anyway. Think through what you want before you act, but act. And be conservative. Presume retirement will last longer and take more money than you imagine now.

Five million dollars isn't a lot of money by Washington standards. But it's pretty impressive compared to the Social Security benefits many of us will get.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bracing for a boomer bust?

The stock market has fallen more than 100 points since breakfast. It's my fault apparently.

U.S. News & World Report's Emily Brandon recently looked at a theory that baby boomers - I'm in the 1946-born first wave - threaten Wall Street by potentially cashing in our life savings en masse.
Things are a little more complicated than that, she found. And, as others have been reporting for years now, we boomers haven't been model savers. I think there's a more immediate argument, outlined in the Journal of the American Planning Association, that we may smother real estate recovery for awhile.

Others already resent how boomers' decisions are complicating their lives, AARP found in a 2004 survey. Now discussions of aging America and boomer wars are showing up more frequently in scholarly journals and elsewhere. Skirmishing already is beginning in the currently tough job market, reports

But there may be some new career opportunities here too - putting on seminars about resolving generational conflict.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I know your credit is okay, but check anyway

Pro-consumer today unveiled a new version of its Report Card service, designed to give you near real-time feedback on how well you are managing your plastic. More information is available at

It's a broad look. You plug in a bit of personal information, including your Social Security number, plus some stuff that only you can answer. Report Card then scans your files, gives you a rough estimate of what your credit score probably is, plus some A,B,C etc grades for how well you handle of the biggest forces that move your score. The price is right. It's free. But you will get pitches to upgrade. It's the same situation over at, another site I checked out. They'll give you your precise score too.

These are both potentially helpful services as more of the credit card reforms enacted last winter start kicking in. Banks and credit card companies are rejiggering a lot of rules that they won't be able to change so easily later, the Consumer Federation of America and other advocates warn. Many also are rewriting your credit scores, which makes it tougher to be sure what your score is, reports USA Today.

Some things haven't changed though. The nation's only truly free credit report website,, still delivers one free copy of your credit history from each of three main credit monitoring company. It doesn't give you scores, just what's in your records about you.

And paying on time is still the most effective way to preserve or improve those records, says Consumers Union. They've got more tips and a handy calculator here.

Monday, September 28, 2009

How Mary Lou Retton saves me money

We use coupons a lot at Kitchentablenomics. Have for a long time.

We don't go back to 1895, when breakfast cereal baron C.W. Post first offered a penny discount on the new cereal Grape Nuts, but General Mills and a campaign featuring 1984 Olympics gold medalist Mary Lou Retton still cuts 25 cents off future boxes of Wheaties we buy. No-expiration-date coupons were a lot more common back in the Reagan era and before.

Knocking anwhere from a few cents to several dollars off the price of virtually everything merchants sell in America is a big deal. We consumers who clip coupons each get a sliver of what the Coupon Council of the Promotional Marketers Association calculates to be $3 billion worth of coupons redeemed annually. We toss even more, because vendors offer $400 billion, the association reports.

New York Times reporter Stephanie Rosenbloom over the weekend ran a story about a coupon clipping renaissance that's been blossoming since the recession hit. But there may be more than a recession reaction going on.

Nielsen Company, the global sales tracking giant, reports affluent shoppers are more likely than less fortunate ones to use coupons more heavily. That could just mean they are shopping more than the rest of us because they've got money to do that with.

But Mack Hoopes, an executive with marketing giant Henkel Consumer Goods, says that company's research shows shoppers fall into three categories - shoptimizers, mainstreeters and carefrees - who all use coupons differently. The shoptimizers are the most aggressive users and may simply be in the stores longer right now.

Back at Kitchentablenomics home base, meanwhile, our Mary Lou Retton coupon collection may be threatened. Technology is changing coupon clipping too and now J.C. Penney is looking to deliver coupons through cell phones instead of the Sunday paper.


Sunday, September 27, 2009

How do you save for an apocalypse?

Many people believe the world as we know it will end Dec. 21, 2012. Many more don't.

And predictably perhaps, the idea has spawned a slew of books, movies and other enterprises keyed to the event. There are even T-shirts designed for the occasion. I haven't seen any word yet on what might happen to Christmas shopping.

The potential end of the world makes for some interesting financial planning questions too. Planners conservatively try to help us stretch our money into our age 90s or older. But if we only need to hold out three more years, the calculations are different. About two out of three households don't have a financial plan, reported recently. It would be ironic if they don't need one.

Seven in 10 Americans worry they don't have enough money saved for retirement, found in one of its surveys. And thanks to the near apocalypse that hit our savings these last two years, more of us are getting serious about saving.

After all, 2012 may turn out as normal as Y2k. And FEMA will be on it.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Fuzzy math: it's the cloud in our retirement savings silver lining

I'm expecting good news when my next retirement account statement hits the mail box.

My retirement savings, which were evaporating by $7,000 a day during the worst of last year's meltdown, have grown back more than $40,000 since then, according to what I've seen following the portfolio online. We'll get the official word after the third quarter closes next week.

Whoopee, right? Not so much. It's tempting to think that if you lose, say, 30 percent of your portfolio when markets fall, you make the money back when they rebound 30 percent later. The reality is your investment need to grow twice as much, or 60 percent in this case, just to break even, says Investopedia contributor Doug Rice. He does the math here.

There aren't any shortcuts back up the hill either, reports Michael Maiello at He lists 11 you want to avoid. Meanwhile, contributor Marc Alexander lists some basic strategies you can follow. Basically you work harder and save more.

But there may be good news too. columnist Steven Goldberg reexamines some past recession market statistics and finds recovery may come faster than forecasters commonly think.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Free cars and and at least three legal ways to get one

My folks, who don't drive as much as they used to, recently decided to give my son the keys to a 21-year-old farm pickup truck they once used to take him on camping trips when he was little.

He's really happy about that. Besides the memories that are involved, the pickup will handle northeast Kansas winter driving challenges better than his Miata. And my parents and I are happy for him because free is a tough price to beat, especially when used car prices are rising.

Auto industry trade publications report that last month's Cash for Clunkers program cut the heart out of the normal seasonal flow of used cars to dealers' lots. That puts more pressure on dealers to sell new cars. It also hurts their profits because, counterintuitive as it might seem, dealers make bigger profits selling used cars than new ones.

But none of that answers another question; why pay anything if you don't have to? There are at least three ways to get a car for free without risking jail time.

You can accept one as a gift from a relative, friend or even an impulsive celebrity. That's hard to plan on, of course. You can go to work for someone who gives you a company car to use. Good luck trying that in today's job market, even if the recession is supposed to be ending.

Or you can go into advertising. There are companies that will either give you a free car emblazoned with their clients' ad messages or pay you to have yours decked out with the ad message and then drive your mobile billboard around town. Read the fine print before you sign anything though. The deals vary widely.

Financial self-help guru Dave Ramsey's organization insists there is another way to get a free car too. Buy the best used car that you can afford for cash. Stash the payments you otherwise would be making into a savings account. Use that cash and your trade-in to trade up in a couple of years. Repeat as needed. This isn't truly free, of course, but it is very thrifty.

Finally, before you do anything, do the math. As senior editor Karl Brauer points out, keeping even a relative gas guzzler can be thriftier than borrowing to buy a fuel sipper.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Free flu shots - it's more than being thrifty

We went scavenging for health care this morning.

Ms. KTnomics and I were about 36th in line for this free flu shot offering. Despite some heavy rain, and lightning that delayed the scheduled 10 a.m. opening, 500 doses were spoken for before the needle hit my arm. Hundreds of drivers and passengers who filled half the parking lot of a dead mall got zip.

Our experience is a trifle compared to what happened last month when Remote Area Medical opened a brief free clinic in Los Angeles. RAM is a non-profit volunteer's group originally organized to help desperately poor Third World citizens. They get way too much business here.

They aren't alone. Same thing happens in Maryland, outside Nashville and other places where volunteers set up shop. About 46 million uninsured Americans are looking for medical help where ever they can get it, the Census Bureau estimates.

Retail America offers one possibility. The Los Angeles Times reports that Walgreen's, CVS, Walmart and other companies are expanding some of the services they provide in kiosk clinics in their stores., an online news service, reports that the in-store clinics provide high quality simple services for less money than traditional medical facilities. The New England Journal of Medicine agrees, but with reservations.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Latte, schmatte - go for the budget jugular

If giving up pricey lattes at the coffee shop really worked, more of the millions of us who've lost jobs lately would be a lot wealthier. Lord knows, we've given up lattes and lots more to stretch our savings and reduced income as far as we can.

Actually, I always liked the latte factor idea that financial self help specialist David Bach created over at Little extravagances you indulge in really do count up in less time than you think. Here's a calculator Bach created to help you measure your damage.

But now that even senior discount half price coffee at McDonalds is a luxury - they pour a tasty Arabica blend - it's obvious that sterner stuff is needed. When you whack your budget, whack big, gaggles of gurus told Yahoo contributor Marcia Passos Duffy recently. Penny pinching may even be counter productive, says Jason Guthrie at Have a slurp to keep your morale up and make up the costs by cutting something you don't want, he writes.

But that debate suggests you have a choice. That may or may not be true, according to some mid 1990s research published by the Association of Financial Counseling, Planning and Education.
Researchers at Ohio State University found that your inclination to overspend or not more likely will depend on seemingly external conditions such as your age and whether you are married, own a home or have a job.

Cutting expenses is like dieting. The exotic stuff sounds intriguing, but in real life there aren't that many shortcuts.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Confidents, pessimists or realists - Who's talking to economic pollsters now?

Want to know how weird it gets on the recession front lines?

Dame Vera Lynn, an iconic World War II era vocalist, topped Britain's music charts last month, outselling both the Beatles and the Arctic Monkeys. It's not surprising maybe. Slews of recent surveys of our confidence in our economic future are all over the map. I think that suggests recession fighters on jobs and home fronts now feel as stressed out as the Greatest Generation was 65 years ago.

Consumer confidence rose in August, but pollsters find that many of us are still pretty edgy out here. We have reason to be, New York Times editorial writers declared recently. And six in 10 households surveyed by Country Financial fear their retirements will be as bad as or worse than what their parents are going through now, the Illinois insurance insurance and investment management company reports.

Plus, remedies that used to work don't seem to now, reporters Janet Novack and Stephanie Fitch find in an upcoming Forbes magazine piece outlining how the economy is roughing up the middle class. That in turn makes what we think is a traditional recovery all that more difficult, say researchers at the University of Michigan and elsewhere.

That brings us back to Dame Vera Lynn. If you are a movie fan, hum along with the final moments of the classic Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

So, first-time home buyers, do you feel lucky?

The White House is kicking around the idea of extending deadlines for this year's $8,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers. About 1.4 million home buyers already have applied for the credits, which essentially are super-sized tax refunds, the Internal Revenue Service said Thursday.

No big surprise there. The idea has been kicking around since Cash for Clunkers arced through the economy this summer. Bankers, builders and Realtors are all for it; they're sweating the recession too. And U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican and one of more than a dozen lawmakers proposing their own extension plans, wants to sweeten the deal by nearly doubling the credit, to $15,000. However, that may be tough to sell to deficit hawks, Bloomberg News' Dawn Kopecki reports.

But this leaves first-time home buyers - anyone who hasn't owned a home in the last three years - with an $8,000 wager to consider. Do you hustle now to catch a tax break you know is on the table? Or do you wait to get maybe either the same deal or an almost twice better tax break next year, or maybe nothing at all if the credit runs out?

There isn't much time to decide either. Taking the most conservative bet, and grabbing the tax break that's on the table now, requires closing the deal by Dec. 1. That's a daunting process for first timers, as outlined here by It's no picnic for those of us who've done it before either.

It's not a quick process either. Under ideal circumstances, buyers can close on their new homes in as little as two weeks after they reach an agreement with sellers, writes's Elizabeth Weintraub. But nearer 30 days is more common and it may take longer.

Count on longer. Tighter lending practices and recession-thinned financial services backshops are stretching the closing process to nearer two months in some places, reports The Wall Street Journal's Amy Hoag. You may want to aim for no later than the last week before Thanksgiving to be sure you don't miss out. Thirty day closings are still happening in the Kansas City area, where I live, but plan on 45 days just to be safe, suggests the Kansas City Regional Association of Realtors.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Falling inflation has some hidden traps too

Lord knows I don't miss $4 gas.

But the latest round of flat and falling consumer prices reported by the government may hold some perils for the unwary too.

Near-zero inflation means Social Security beneficiaries won't get cost-of-living increases for the next couple years, for the first time since COLA adjustments became automatic in 1975. Some Medicare prescription insurance premiums will rise, however, so some retirees will take a pay cut. The big question, outlined as clearly as I've ever seen by Felice Baker at Northwestern U.'s Medill Washington Project, is whether lower prices for other stuff will outweigh the higher premiums.

Your ability to put extra money in your 401(k) may be crimped too. Just as workers are feeling secure enough for the first time in nearly a year to increase contributions instead of cutting them, federal inflation adjusting formulas point to a $500 cut in maximum contributions, to $16,000. That won't make much difference to many workers, who only put maybe $4,000 or $5,000 a year into their plans. IRS is expected to announce Oct. 15 whether it will cut the limit or simply freeze it at the current $16,500.

And think about low inflation now when you next fill out your federal and state income tax returns. Senior economist Gerald Prante of the Tax Foundation says the current year-over-year monthly average 0.19 percent uptick in the Consumer Price Index effectively freezes personal exemptions, standard deductions, how much you can itemize, tax bracket boundaries, and virtually everything else on which you base your calculations.

This follows the largest increase in nearly two decades last year. You decide if the turnaround means stability or hitting the windshield.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Eating really gross food on a budget

We've missed the national canned Spam boomlet at our house. The precooked canned pork shoulder product is a hard-times staple, The New York Times' Andrew Martin reports. I just haven't really cared for it much since a lowest-bidder version, packed two years before I was born, showed up in an Army field rations kit I got 40 years ago.

But Ms. KTnomics put Velveeta processed cheese on our grocery list this week for what may be the first time in all the years we've been married. Velveeta, if you aren't familiar with it, is made of vegetable oil, whey, seaweed extracts and other chemicals and stabilizers. Its distinctive taste has been compared to cheddar, though not always favorably.

"Don't sneer," she told me. Our favorite Jaarlsberg costs $4.56 a pound at Sam's Club. Our Price Chopper card and a manufacturer's coupon knock the normally similarly priced Velveeta down to below $3. Plus it's good in casseroles and works okay in nacho dips.

But is it worth it? Foodies on budgets offer mixed opinions. Basically, when you calculate serving sizes and other variables, the economics blur a bit. And there are ways to eat cheap using the good stuff. Skip value-added prepackaged products as much as possible, suggests blogger Susannah Nofziger.'s Althea Chang recommends checking out the generic brands.

Planning ahead widens your choices and saves money, says's Fiona Haynes. And the simplest solution of all? Eat less. You'll lose weight and save money. Maybe that's how Spam and Velveeta will work for me.