Monday, August 31, 2009

Now, maybe Money for Manors?

It's tough to come up with a catchy phrase for potential government stimulated home-buying. Cash for Cabins sounds like vacation property development. Scratch for Shelter, which I used the last time I thought about who might be next in line for help, just sounds nasty.

No matter. Really smart people are having even more trouble coming up with real solutions to the underlying problem too. When economists Edward Leamer of UCLA and Brad DeLong of Berkely duked it out on The Los Angeles Times op-ed pages recently, the choices they offered ranged from praying that this year's $8,000 home buyers tax credit will work to drafting Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to convert every mortgage in America to a 30-year fixed.

Few of us realize how big and self feeding the problem is, reports Even Hugh Hefner lands on a list of senior citizens unable to pull all the equity he hoped from his house, the online magazine discovered. Meantime, even good borrowers may run into unexpected trouble buying home we want to sell, The New York Times found recently

And recovery may take awhile. Real estate prices in much of Texas still haven't recovered from tanking in the early 1980s, when J.R. Ewing was wheeling and dealing at Southfork. Southfork ironically wasn't hit as hard as other properties. A lot of fans so far are still willing and able to pony up extra dollars to live the dream everytime a tour bus stops.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Saving money in theory vs. real life

Quicken has come up with nine ways to really waste money. I think it's a hoot. I'm only guilty of one of them. I'm not telling which, though it's obvious from my picture that overspending on hair care or plastic surgery isn't the culprit.

But it points out something else I've noticed since I was downsized last year - the kind of money saving advice you look for changes when you've had a setback. I used to ride with some basic stuff financial planners recommend, which are still good rules to follow. But when you've been on both sides of the unemployment statistics, you can pretty much tell who has first hand experience squeezing a dollar and who doesn't.

I look for really practical tips and things I haven't tried already. is always a reliable source.

A contributor to recently echoed one principle I've been following almost without thinking. Pick reusable choices over disposable ones. I refill water bottles from the tap many times before finally putting them out with the recycling. And I just gave away which of Quicken's money wasters I've committed.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Debit card holders outspend credit card holders...and have more at risk

Thieves prefer stealing debit cards -or debit card identities- over stealing credit cards, reports NACSonline, an electronic newsletter published by the National Association of Convenience Stores.

The reason why, apparently, is approximately the same reason bandits Clyde Barrow and John Dillinger allegedly preferred V-8 Fords. They outran virtually every cop car on the road in the 1930s.

Debit card fraud is harder to detect because debit card companies by and large don't track suspicious transactions as closely as credit card companies do, writer Odysseas Papadimitriou reports on And with debit cards outnumbering credit cards 176 million to 173 million by one federal count, more than half the nation's users of plastic are taking greater risks.

If someone swipes your credit card or your credit card identity, current federal law currently limits your loss to essentially $50. If the same thing happens to your debit card and you don't report it fast enough, you could be on the hook for whatever the thieves spend, the Federal Trade Commission says.

FTC and other authorities outline a bunch of ways to protect yourself against debit card theft. But many of them miss what I think is an obvious solution. Forget about debit, use credit and pay off the balance each month. You get the same results as with a debit card and you're only risking $50.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

From cash for clunkers to greenbacks for green machines

Okay, the cash for clunkers car deals are history. Next up, forecasters believe, the next consumer cash incentive program coming out of Washington will be cash for appliances.

The prevailing predictions currently are that the plan will provide rebates of $50 to $200 to consumers who buy Energy Star rated fridges, freezers, washers or other appliances, Business Week and other sources report.

Details are still being worked out, but you don't have to trade in your old appliance to qualify for the cash, just buy a new one. Some Maytag owners of some potentially dangerous refrigerators might want to anyway. A national recall was expanded Tuesday.

You probably won't have to scramble for the shiny green replacements either. More than half the appliances on the market now are Energy Star rated.

Appliance rebates are a mixed blessing for retailers , reports an organization called the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. They boost sales and encourage conservation in the short run, but can also cause manufacturers to wildly misread what consumers want in the long run.

Sellers like rebates for two reasons. They make it easier to raise prices when sales improve - you just end the rebate. Plus many consumers haven't been claiming rebates much, before now at least, because they don't like the paperwork involved, US News and World Report found recently.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Converting your 401(k) into a pension

Old fashioned pensions look a lot more attractive after some of the damage our retirements took during the last couple years. And now some companies are looking to add some old-fashioned pension benefits to retirement plans, reports

You already can do this yourself if you've got time and can wade through some potentially eye-glazing insurance calculations. You can even do a lot of it more simply just by stopping the damage we inflict ourselves saving too little too late.

But Kiplinger outlines something informally known as a DBk plan, which is a 401(k) with a dollop of pension benefits. Employer matching would be more generous too in exchange for some streamlining that also would mean sweeter deals for upper echelon execs, writes Kiplinger's Joan Pryde.

It's too soon to tell how popular the new plans might become. But look for employers to restore some sort of improved retirement plans as soon as they can, suggests They value the plans as much as workers do, a new study found.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Out of cash, not clunkers. Now what?

If you think about it, you can still make a buck off the government's cash for clunkers plan, even though the formal program ends soon.

Just go back to what you were doing before. Wait for prices to drop or your income prospects to rise into your comfort zone. Your selection is smaller now, but better deals and bigger rebates are dead ahead, according to SmartMoney's Aleksandra Todorova.

The new cars will still be there. chief executive Jeremy Anwyl predicts sales may drop back to what they would have been anyway for 2009. After selling months' worth of cars in just a few weeks, traffic will become very s-l-o-w around your neighborhood car lot, according to forecasters from New York to Los Angeles.

The program has changed how cars are sold, at least for awhile, say analysts at who poked beneath the initial sales numbers. What's next, they aren't so sure.

It has probably hurt consumers, argues Steve Petty, a California clergyman who calculates consumers went $6 billion deeper into debt to pick up $2 billion in rebates. He likens the program to enabling an alcoholic --Detroit, not consumers.

Meantime, retailers who don't sell cars may be glad the program is over. Both the National Retail Federation and the International Council of Shopping Centers have reported dismal retail sales for July, when their customers started heading for car showrooms instead. Some believe that will be hard traffic for retailers to rebuild now that 700,000 motorists or so all have new car payments to make.

I thought about that when I bought some socks earlier today. I didn't need them right away, but I had a $10 use-it-or-lose-it coupon that was expiring. The $10.95 package of socks seemed reasonable. There were no lines at the checkout and lots of parking around the store. It could be another hard candy Christmas at the mall.

Friday, August 21, 2009

What's not in 58 million wallets and what you can do to fight back

Credit card issuers really whacked cardholders, FICO, the credit score people told the Associated Press recently. They've dropped some 58 million cardholders in the last year, including many with really good credit histories.

They're looking for a sweet spot in their customer base that will generate more profit with little risk, says the Gerson Lerhman Group consulting firm. Finding it is a bit tricky just now.

You can fight back, said John Ulzheimer, the consumer education chief at with whom we talked recently. If you've got a decent credit history and a card you don't use much, blow the dust bunnies off those cards and pop for a few things - gas for the car or a dinner out -that you would spend for anyway and put those on the cards.

Just be sure to pay off the balances on time. Even though some consumer friendly credit card rules kicked in this week, one thing has't changed.

"Due dates are due dates, not suggestions," Ulzheimer said.

If your credit records are really skimpy, you even might want to open an account or two to stake out a history before further reforms kick in next February. Whether you're doing that or just trying to recover what you lost in the 58 million card flush, brace yourself for more paperwork, says Florida financial adviser Jean Mascary. These are challenging times on both sides of the loan desk.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Freeloading is just one way to stretch a budget

I picked up a lot of free pens and other office gizmos at a job fair today. Picking up freebies gets to be a habit quickly when money is tight. Heck, I've even mapped out when our supermarket puts out free food samples so I know when to run grocery errands.

More important, though, there are a lot of free things you can do to save money more effectively too. You already know many of them: plan your spending, pay bills on time to avoid late fees, live within your means, and things like that.

Money pros know them too. And recently three of them - coming from widely different vantage points -popped out their lists of some of the biggest money mistakes many of us make. Some of the candidates may surprise you.

Forbes, once required reading for aspirants to the uber-rich, cautions against hitting the snooze alarm. Ken and Daria Dolan, nice folks who would welcome you to their upscale suburb, talk about managing your credit carefully. And, written by and for the kids that our kids went to school with, offers some timeless tips that some of us may wish we'd listened to.

Start planning ahead and you'll come up with your own list pretty quickly. Meantime, I've got to find someplace to stash the little paper cup that my chicken salad sample came in.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Use your credit cards or lose them

Watch your wallet - and the mail - if you keep a spare credit card for emergencies. Another round of new credit card reforms, kicking in tomorrow, may snarl your planned financial lifeline.

Most of the changes are consumer friendly, Massachusetts regulators and other authorities conclude. What we don't know is what rate hikes or other changes credit card companies might make to finish molding their customer bases before some final and stricter rules take effect in February.

"Think Play-Doh," suggests John Ulzheimer, consumer education chief at, an on-line consumer education and advocacy service.

Card providers basically will use the time between now and Feb. 23 to craft the most profitable customer bases they can, by cutting out slabs of their most likely-to-default overextended borrowers and their most unprofitable customers, who carry cards but seldom use them, Ulzheimer said.

Counseling, debt consolidation and other help abound for overextended borrowers. But hanging on to an emergency card you don't want to use requires different action. Your best bet will be to use the card enough to keep your account active but not enough to punch holes in your cash flow.

And if you do carry a balance, be conservative, authorities recommend. Two guidelines that are still good despite the change: Keep your total borrowing below 35 - 40 percent of your total credit limit. Keep your payments within 10 percent of your cash flow.

Keeping a card active won't take much, Ulzheimer said. Just a few transactions -and the fees they generate from merchants - will do the trick.

"We're not talking about buying a flat screen TV," he said. "Go out for dinner. Fill your tank. Then pay it off in full at the end of the month."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

To leave someone money, leave instructions too

Don't count on insurance companies to track down your loved ones to deliver a benefits check when you die. Insurers must pay claims as called for in the policy if beneficiaries ask, but no one forces the companies to hunt for beneficiaries if they don't know you are dead.

State treasurers across the U.S. offer one backstop of sorts. They all run unclaimed property programs in which, after enough time passes, they crack open dormant lock boxes and try to find lost owners or heirs for an estimated $33 billion of stuff accumulated there. The treasurers, including Missouri's Clint Zweifel, often use state fairs to highlight their programs if you want funnel cake with your share of the fortune.

Now Glenville, Ill., entrepreneurs Joe Palmer and Tej Shah offer another solution to the problem. They've set up a free online registration service, to leave instructions for our loved ones about where to find insurance policies and other important documents needed for them to receive the benefits we intend for them. When we die - and WeRemember verifies that independently - the service calls our beneficiaries and delivers the information we left for them.

Theoretically, we're doing a lot of this already in heart-to-heart conversations with loved ones or instructions we leave with trusted advisers. In real life, that doesn't happen as often as it should. "As a nation, we spend more time planning our next car purchase than dealing with estate planning documents," Palmer said.

We need to do some homework too. Our loved ones are going to need a ton of information when we die and some of it - where to find military discharge papers, birth or marriage certificates, or precise family information to reconstruct anything missing - won't be easy to find without help.

Taking time now to sort out what's important and organize an easy way for someone else to find it. That will make it easier for loved ones later.

Monday, August 17, 2009

My next home buying decision gets complicated

We hired a friend to paint some trim along the roof of our house last week. I'm not as good on ladders as I was a couple decades ago and Ms. Ktnomics is not thrilled with our medical coverage since the layoff.

We expect to face such decisions more frequently as time passes. Turns out that one logical solution -moving into a maintenance free retirement or continuing care community - may be more challenging than we imagined.

Canada's Atlantic Seniors Housing Research Alliance already reports that few communities are equipped to handle hordes of first wave baby boomers that are demographically projected to start knocking soon on the front doors. That's scary because other observers believe Canada may be better prepared than we are in the Lower 48.

There is a solution. Move in early to beat the rush. Some people already are starting, Coldwell Banker, the real estate concern, found earlier this year. Not many numbers have come in yet, but retirement communities appear to be becoming some of the perkiest real estate markets around. Just as in traditional suburbs, the most economically priced properities are going fast, say data base crunchers at Clear Capital, a Truckee, Calif., information seller.

Developers already are planning some big changes in the way future retirement communities will be built. Don't count on much shuffleboard.

How to pick a good retirement community when you are still relatively young and active gets interesting too. Web sites such as and the Gilbert Guide outline hosts of things to look for, including crime rates, personal safety, the proximity of colleges or other senior-discount friendly educational and social outlets, and good medical care.

Oh, and one other thing. Look for part time job opportunities in the area too, the mavens say.
Someone apparently has to pay for all this stuff.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Putting rejected clunkers back on the road.

This weekend marks the new model year for the people who buy cars we donate to charity.

The cash-for-clunkers program in Washington on Friday changed some of the models that qualify for the federally-created trade-in plan. The feds are scratching 78 models off the list for which they'll pay as much as $4,500 and adding 86 others in their stead.

Officials at also tweaked guidelines for consumers' rights and dealers' obligations under the program to keep things humming while dealers worry about how soon they'll be repaid for money they fronted to buyers.

Charities who previously relied on donated clunkers have been worried the last couple weeks that those contributions might nosedive because drivers will trade their aging bolt-buckets into the government program instead. Some low-income Californians even called a protest to call attention to harm they expect to suffer as a result.

Some donations have fallen off, but the Associated Press reports that other charities find some contributions are increasing because people are turning in vehicles that the CARS program rejects. More than 150 agencies, including at least three in the Kansas City area, count on clunkers to help low income families find affordable cars for getting to work and basic needs, says Opportunity Cars, a national clearing house for such groups.

Drivers looking for cash-for-clunkers trade-in money also need to watch out for a widening variety of scams involving the program, warn the Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau.

As always, do the math before you commit to any cash-for-clunkers deal and crank your changed insurance, tax and other costs into the equation. It's your best defense against disappointment at best or a ripoff at worst.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Are 401(k) matches coming back?

The short answer is maybe. Some new survey results reported by show that nearly two in three employers who stopped matching workers' 401(k) contributions are planning to restore them soon.

We can use the money. Market losses and last year's reduced contributions dropped the national average 401(k) balance to a five-year-low $26,578, according to the Employee Benefits Research Institute. Losing the contributions permanently would be potentially devastating for many savers' retirements, as Shelley K. Schwartz of reported recently.

Watson Wyatt consultant Laura Sejen, whose firm conducted the new survey, suggests that many of the new deals may not be as sweet as the old ones. Employers are still vague about when the cuts will be restored; some reportedly aren't even telling employees of the change just in case the economic recovery doesn't work out. And, as happened with our health plans, employers like the idea of us carrying more of the total load.

So when your employer announces its plans, be ready to push a pencil to recalculate what you need to contribute to hit your retirement goals. CNN's Jeanne Sahadi offers some guidelines to help calculate what you need to make up lost ground.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

When does it pay to stick with an expensive mortgage?

Nearly half the home mortgages in the U.S. will be underwater in less than two years, predicts Karen Weaver, a senior Deutsche Bank research executive. Her reasoning, outlined by Fortune's Scott Cendrowski, is pretty compelling. reported separately that 23 percent were already there when the second quarter ended, which puts the fall a tad faster than Weaver projected.

Ours won't be among them. Ms. Ktnomics and I already paid ours off in anticipation of what I expected would be retirement in a few years. We could still feel some ripples though. Declining home values that are feeding the mortgage tsunami, and which Yale economist Robert Shiller predicts may be with us a long while, will further shred one of our potential safety nets.

The more interesting question is how to brace for such a calamity. Turns out there may be times in this current economy where our first impulse - to shed debt by paying down the mortgage as quickly as possible - is wrong.

Briefly, we need to to think through all the alternative uses for the money we would plan to throw at the mortgage, as MSN Money contributor Liz Pulliam Weston outlined in a recent article.

And especially if your mortgage starts going underwater, it probably makes sense to first build up your emergency funds, make some extra retirement plan contributions or buy some health or disability coverage before you plump up your mortgage payments. That way you'll still get good out of money that otherwise would just go to the bank if you lost the house anyway.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Now credit card traps run two ways

Used to be you only got in a credit card jam if you ran up a tab and didn't pay. Now you can get in trouble if you don't run up a tab too. And you still have to pay. That's progress.

I know it sounds screwy, but that's one outcome of a bunch of changes that credit card companies have been making ahead of new reforms kicking in next February, according to USA Today's Kathy Chu,'s Mark Huffman and other reporters.

The reforms shut off a lot of ways that card companies have been making money off regretably improvident consumers the last several years. So the companies are working between now and February to rejigger revenue streams from our accounts and, more equitably perhaps, tap prudent consumers too. That's why, for example, some are adding annual fees and various inactive account charges on cards we don't use much.

I can see their point. It probably costs the people at one my credit card companies more money to mail me zero-balance-due statements than they'll ever make off that account. We pay in full on those rare occasions we use that card. But I don't buy the point either. I don't want to pay $30 just to carry a spare card. Nor do I want to charge something just to avoid the $30.

Blogger Jim Wang at offers one solution to this dilemma that seems emotionally satisfying if nothing else works. Order up enough of those hard-to-peddle circulating $1 coins from the U.S. Mint to meet your credit card company's transaction threshhold and pay with plastic. Then deposit the coins in your bank to help pay your credit card bill when the statement comes.

And don't forget your reward points on the way out.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Retail therapy...hook your kids now

Retailers have a lot riding on back-to-schools sales. They're hoping we'll stimulate their revenues by $17.4 billion this year, the National Retail Federation reports.

Both the Federation and America's Research Group say they expect consumers to cut back-to-school buying by about 8 percent this season. Good luck if you are trying, say the gnomes at Huntington Bancshares in Ohio, who are tracking the prices of stuff going into kids' back packs this year. Those are up $400 or more, according to Huntington's back pack index.

Resolving this conflict produces some some pretty interesting spin on dealing recession from folks interested in separating you from what's left in your wallet. Both Capital One and K-Mart, for example, point out that times like these provide good opportunities to help our kids learn to spend wisely. That's probably true, though you might also wonder what the coupon offers in the K-Mart package teach. All kinds of retailers are incorporating prudence into their pitches this year, writes MarketWatch's Andria Cheng.

Back-to-school shopping trips are the biggest annual commitment many of us make to our kids' educations, according to GreatSchools, an online advocate of greater parental involvement in education. That's wrong, says founder Bill Jackson. He lists more than a half dozen things we can - from simply meeting teachers to reading with our kids more often - that will have a far more significant impact.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Sex, money and sleeping on the couch

Who watches the money at your house? Reporting more than 300 feature stories involving couples and their finances over the years, I've found that generally one partner is more of a money maven than the other. Despite what tradition and old grade school primers imply, women seem the money hawks in more than half the households I know. Predicting who assumes that role remains a crap shoot, however.

Now a slew of new surveys in the last few weeks show that this recession we're going through is changing these new relationships, even before we have them completely figured out. More women are becoming their families' primary bread winners, reports the Center for American Progress, but that still doesn't always determine who calls the shots.

TD Ameritrade researchers report that 86 percent of women they recently surveyed have been cutting expenses in the recession, compared to only 78 percent of men. They've been cutting deeper too, some of the details suggest. Fidelity Investments researchers found that approximately half the couples they surveyed don't appear to be on the same financial planning page anyway; fewer than 40 percent believe their spouse could successfully take over their household finances if needed. Click here for a quick check to see how you might be doing.

Throw in a lost job, shattered retirement account or similar setback and those fragile foundations tremble. Nearly three Americans in 10 report recession worries have seriously hurt their relationships with loved ones, ING Direct found. The same thing is going on in Canadian, French and German homes too, but not as much as in the U.S., pollsters reported.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Give IRS a piece of your mind

I'm a bald guy, but my barber needs a license to trim the fringe. My tax situation is complicated by self-employment, part time W-2 work and big IRA changes, but my tax guy doesn't need a license to sort any of that out.

Does that make sense? I don't know. More interestingly, IRS doesn't know either. The service is formally asking us to chime in on that question this summer. It's already held one public hearing last month on the topic. Click on the witness names here to see what was said. Another one is in the works this week, and two more are in the works later this summer. Or if you can't make any of those, the agency will take written comments this month too.

The issue is worth following, even if it isn't your first choice for light summer reading.

Basically, more than half of us turn to someone for help with our taxes each year. But neither the IRS's enforcement arm, its consumer friendlier Taxpayer Advocate's office, nor its operations overseers at the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration office know enough about those preparers to know how to monitor them.

The enforcers want to put preparers like Joyce Marie Simmons out of business. She's a former Texas snow cone stand operator who went into the tax business and, IRS alleges, fudged about $13 million in improper deductions. She disputes the allegations and the matter may be in court for some time.

One danger is that clamping down on egregious abuses may make it harder for your tax pro or mine to claim legitimate deductions too. The definition of what's iffy moves closer to us.

So, speak up while you have a chance. And keep those receipts just in case.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Free advice and real value

Sometimes free help seems worth what you pay for it. One exception - and a real value if you are in the market- begins later this week. The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors on Aug. 7 is launching a series of free webinars designed to help us mere mortals get a grip on our personal finances.

NAPFA, as the organization is known, is an association of fee-only planners and one of many groups advocating stronger consumer safeguards in the profession. Members in the webinars starting Friday will be offering 40-minute courses in a variety of subjects you might be talking about around the kitchen table, plus 20 minutes of interactive questions and answers, the group promises. Sessions also will be archived if you can't tune in live.

Other financial planners groups have long offered free online help for consumers too. More recently, some new groups have launched as well. checks out three of them here.

And yes, some budgeting will be required if you aren't doing that already. A relatively new website,, that helps with budgeting has been getting good reviews from users.

There also are scams to guard against, of course. offers a half dozen basic tips for reducing potential exposure to those, but at least one of the tips - don't use credit cards - has limited value, I think. Planning your spending and being very wary of stuff you don't understand seems a more useful approach to me.

Good luck out there.