Getting ready for spring break? Many families are heading out this weekend for a holiday as schools take their annual April vacation. I remember a year ago, after a long spate of sitting at my desk way too much, I was in dire need of a getaway but feeling conscious of a strict budget because we had some fun summer plans that took higher priority for the family funds.
In trolling around for deals, I realized that a credit card that I had been using exclusively for business expenses had racked up enough points for a week’s accommodations in Florida. With a quick click, we were on our way.
It was such a nice surprise to be able to take that trip without breaking my bank. Apparently I’m not the only one who tends to let those balances accumulate without paying much attention. Almost three in four Americans have forgotten about frequent flier miles or credit card rewards points that they’ve earned.
“For people who don’t take advantage of points, you’re leaving money on the table,” said Brian Kelly, author of “ThePointsGuy.com,” a website dedicated to teaching the ins and outs of maximizing the use of points for travel and other benefits.
Kelly worked with Princeton Survey Research Associates to find out how many people are actually taking advantage of points programs and how many are letting them expire. “I was amazed when I would go into a Starbucks how many people would use debit cards or cash,” he said in an interview. To Kelly, who is able to travel business class internationally because of his prolific use of points and spent just $2.50 on a ticket to Brazil last week, not taking advantage of a rewards program for even the smallest purchases is puzzling. Even if you don’t want to travel, Kelly reasons, “you should at least be getting cash back.”
Last year, my New Year’s Resolution was to go paperless. I succeeded, but not in the way that I expected.
I began the year trying several new online applications that aimed to help me organize tasks ranging from setting up a snapshot of all my bills and reminders to pay them, to creating a family system that would allow my kids to track their allowances and chores.
As I often discover (and re-discover) when I embark on an effort to create new habits, starting simple is best. As such, I found that a lot of these applications fell by the wayside, probably because I tried to integrate too many of them into my busy routine at once. Collectively they were too new, and therefore too difficult to master, in an efficient amount of time.
I ended up laying the foundation for my paperless life – and eliminating literally bags upon bags of clutter - with three simple steps:
1. Assign one email address as my contact for reminders from banks and bill companies, and then sign up for paperless statements.
2. Create a filing system on my computer to organize all documents, back it up twice with an external hard drive and a cloud-based storage system, and set quarterly reminders on my calendar to download statements.
3. Buy a desktop scanner that’s also portable for when I travel. As silly as this may sound, having the big all-in-one printer/scanner/fax machine that sits at the opposite end of the room was simply too much effort when I could more easily throw a piece of paper into the scanner to file online while talking on the phone or finishing an email.
2013 is going to be another good year for borrowers, and a lousy year for savers, as interest rates remain low amidst a slow-growth economy, Bankrate Senior Financial Analyst Greg McBride said in an interview.
McBride forecasts that the U.S. economy will expand by about 2 percent this year, tempered by an unemployment rate that will decline very slowly and gains in wages that will be “nothing to write home about.”
Those consumers looking to purchase or improve their homes or upgrade the cars will have a window of opportunity as borrowing costs remain low. Auto loans, for one, are at record lows and are still falling, making 2013 a favorable year from a financial standpoint for anyone looking to buy either a new or used car, McBride said
A few years before my mom passed away, she had knee replacement surgery and needed some help in the weeks immediately following her operation. It was always tricky figuring out the best arrangement at times like these – she lived across the country, which meant we had to put together a patchwork of support for her care during those times when immediate family weren’t in town.
She was fortunate to have a strong network in her hometown, and the kindness of her friends at these times of need was heartwarming. But in one unfortunate incident my mom learned the troubling lesson of how even those who have the best of intentions can sometimes succumb to their own life stresses and take advantage of someone who is disabled.
She had hired a friend who had recently lost their job to be her nurse for a week. Longstanding confidence, built on years of friendship, led my mom to trust this individual with her debit card to make some grocery purchases. Unfortunately, the friend did more with the card than just buy groceries. A couple of weeks later, my mom happened to check her bank statement and discovered several other amounts that she had not authorized.
The friend, who was feeling the pinch from her own financial strain, had used my mom’s bank account to take her children on some excursions. My mom speculated that the friend had thought she would get away with it because my mom was distracted from most paperwork and the chances were slim that she would check her account closely.
I have to admit, I found this infographic from creditsesame.com cute, festive, and relevant to the holiday shopping season ... A nice way of reminding all of us to watch our credit even as we spend it ...
What’s in your wallet? Whatever it is, identity thieves still see it as the easiest way to get your information.
As concerned as we all are with an online or other technology-related data breach, the vast majority of identity theft happens from stolen or misplaced items such as wallets and pocketbooks. The second most common cause is a compromised license, Social Security card or other form of personal I.D. Burglaries rate third.
These top three causes accounted for 73 percent of cases involving identity theft, according to a study of 2011 claims data by Travelers Insurance. The thieves often acquired the personal information through less obvious means, from sorting through trash for bank statements to stealing pre-approved credit card applications in the mail. Only 10 percent of those surveyed could identify the perpetrator of the identify fraud made against them.
Last week we learned that much of this year’s growth in the balance of consumer loans came from borrowing for school expenses. As we head into the fourth quarter, Moody’s Analytics is noticing an additional trend: a rise in auto lending.
In fact, auto lending is growing at the fastest pace in seven years, according to a recent report by Moody’s Analytics. Total outstanding debt on loan and leases increased last month by more than $50 billion, or 7 percent, to $767 billion from year-ago levels, said the company, which provides research and other financial tools to help companies measure and manage risk.
“Auto lending is on fire,” Cristian deRitis, senior director of consumer credit analytics for Moody’s Analytics, said in an interview. “It’s pent-up demand that built up during the recession.”FULL ENTRY
Consumer borrowing is up, but not for shopping – The cost of education is going to make this holiday a tough season for retailers
This week the National Retail Federation, the retail industry’s main voicebox, released its annual forecast for holiday spending, and not surprisingly the results indicate that consumers are going to continue to be cautious during the fourth-quarter buying season.
Discount stores will be the biggest beneficiaries of streamlined holiday budgets, with nearly two-thirds of consumers saying they will shop there to seek the best deals, the NRF said. Department stores ranked second. Clothing retailers were a close third, while electronics stores ranked fourth among the almost 8,900 individuals polled. Total budgets are forecast to barely edge up to an average $749.51 on gifts, décor and greeting cards, from the $740.57 they actually spent last year, the NRF said.
Consumers are also showing an interest in controlling the way they spend their money, an adjustment to the “new normal” that is evident in not only their adherence to budgets and avid pursuit of discounts, but their reduced use of credit cards. As a result there is more interest in using layaway programs (hence the already large number of TV commercials airing to promote this practice) with many consumers saying that they plan to begin their shopping this month, even before Halloween, in order to make sure they are able to grab the season’s “must have” items before it’s too late.
“Consumers have more credit available to them, and have more cards in their wallets that they did a year ago, but they have not been willing to take them out and charge up,” said Cristian deRitis, senior director of consumer credit analytics for Moody’s Analytics. “This year’s holiday season will be tough. People are worried about issues such as the fiscal cliff and the impact of Europe on the U.S. economy. Consumers are still quite cautious.”
Earlier this week a study by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) showed that the number of American households opting out of the banking system grew steadily from 2009 to 2011.
About 17 million adults don’t have a checking or savings account at all, representing about 8.2 percent of U.S. households. Another 51 million are so-called “underbanked” adults, which means they have a bank account but may also consistently frequent higher-risk services such as pawnshops and payday lenders. The FDIC said it partnered with the U.S. Census Bureau to conduct the survey in June 2011, collecting responses from almost 45,000 households.
The purpose of the report was to assess the inclusiveness of the banking system since, as the FDIC said, “public confidence in the banking system derives in part from how effectively banks serve the needs of the nation’s diverse population.”
After almost two decades reporting and writing financial stories, I’ve seen my fair share of shocking news and hard interviews on challenging issues. So when someone brings up a potential story idea to me, I often approach investigating an issue from a position of intellectual curiosity, thoughtfulness, and sometimes skepticism.
But last week was one of those times when my breath was taken away as I listened to the story of Axton Betz, 30, who is an assistant professor of Consumer Studies at Eastern Illinois University. Axton is the victim of identify theft – unfortunately a common predicament in our digital world today – but what’s different about her story is that her identity was taken, unbeknownst to her and her parents, when she was 11 years old.
She discovered it as a sophomore in college when she rented her first apartment. The electric company required her to send in a $100 deposit in order to open an account because of her credit rating. Thinking that it was because she was 19 with no credit history, she called the credit bureau out of curiosity for a copy of her report. A 10-page package arrived six weeks later with the bad news that the person who had stolen her identity had left her with a rating of 380, in the second percentile.
“I thought to myself, I’m never going to have anything,” Axton said. “How am I ever going to be able to buy a car, buy a house – To this day, I still don’t know who did it.”