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.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Omens on the rack at the thrift store's half price sale?

I counted 100 cars in one of our neighborhood thrift store's fog shrouded parking lot when the doors opened 7 a.m. Monday for a half price Labor Day sale. One day later, the Federal Reserve reports the biggest drop ever in consumer borrowing in July. I don't think it's a coincidence.

Consumers are tapped out, writes commentator Jason Kelly. And there's more anecdotal evidence that frugality is becoming more than a passing fancy, reporters Jeff Harrington in St. Petersburg, Fla. and Ashley Heher in Chicago found in their one-year retrospectives of the nation's financial near meltdown.

We don't yet know how main line retailers fared over the holiday. Many were sweating it though, reports's Janine Poggi. Labor Day is one of the last big holidays before Christmas shopping starts and August's back to school sales weren't booming.

But business is getting brisker around the nation's 25,000 thrift shops, according to the National Association of Retail and Thrift Shops. About one in six shoppers, something between 16 percent and 18 percent - surveyed by the group has either visited a thrift shop or plans to this year. That's more than factory outlet malls are expected to draw and almost as many as the 23 percent headed to big name department stores.

Thrift store buying also is a potential second income source, eBay coach Suzanne Wells writes on She offers advice on reselling your thrift store treasures online. Just be aware that shopping thrift stores is labor intensive whether you plan to resell or not. Here are some tips Parade magazine recently offered to help get you started.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Keep your hands on the wheel if your retirement plan goes on autopilot

President Obama made a big change in how workers save for retirement over the Labor Day weekend.

Here are some of the details. Briefly, more employers will be offering automatic enrollments in 401(k) and other retirement plans, taxpayers get new opportunities to use tax refunds for retirement savings or to buy Savings Bonds, and some workers with unused vacation or paid sick leave can throw that money into the retirement pot too.

Automatic enrollments have been around - and generally applauded - for several years, but making them nearer to universal makes it more important for savers to watch for potential problems too. One of the advantages that employers may like, for example, is that the new rules make it potentially easier to offer smaller matching contributions and to cut back on traditional pension funding that they also might be on the hook for.

Meantime, back at the payroll window, the changes also may hurt some lower income workers that are supposed to be helped, writes's Emily Brandon. It's tough to save for retirement if you need payday loans to buy groceries. You can unenroll from the plans if needed, but that just makes it tougher to save.

Also, while more of us might be saving money by being automatically enrolled, there is no guarantee any of us will be saving enough. We probably won't, Vanguard, the mutual fund company, found in a 2007 study. Many of us will need to increase our contributions to more than the automatic enrollment offers.

The 401(k) Help Center offers links to lots of specialized Web sites that may be helpful when the new rules kick in.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

IRS cops taking a closer look at home mortgages

IRS will be watching those deductions we take for interest on our home mortgage payments more closely, the Treasury Department's Inspector General said recently.

The service's aim is to catch tax cheats who either don't file or who report low incomes but are making McMansion-sized mortgage payments with money they may be hiding. There already is a Form 1098 that will help track these discrepancies, but IRS hasn't been using it much, Treasury investigators found.

This could get complicated for all the estimated 51 million home owners making mortgage payments though. That's because no one appears to know how to accurately calculate how much we should be deducting, the Government Accountability Office reports. An estimated 12 percent to 14 percent of the taxpaying public writes off either too much or too little, GAO found. But IRS, the tax industry and individual taxpayers often don't have enough information to catch those errors when they happen.

Tax audits are rising again, Syracuse University reports, so keep good tax records and file accurately. And if you are among the small contractors, free lancers and other non W-2 workers whose returns may be watched most closely, remember your Sept. 15 estimated quarterly tax payments need to hit the Post Office in just less than two weeks.