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.