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.”
I feel like every January, most personal finance columns encourage us to kick off the New Year with a fresh set of financial resolutions that involve finding ways to streamline our budget and save more. At the top of almost every list: give up that daily Starbucks latte.
I’m kind of tired of hearing that same tip, and feel that if at this point people haven’t gotten the message then writing it one more time isn’t going to persuade them to change their habits.
So let’s assume that we all know it’s not the smartest move to spend several dollars on that higher-priced cup of Joe every day when you can brew a less expensive version at home and put it in a go cup. This year, what else can we do to get our financial house in shape?
Bob Stammers, who heads up investor education for CFA (Chartered Financial Analysts) Institute, offered a few other ideas that I found pretty helpful:
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.
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.
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.”
Youthful engagement: CSB and the Youth Underground Railway Theater teach money skills through a new production, “Money Matters”
I was invited to attend a play at Somerville High School yesterday called, "Money Matters." Produced by the Underground Railway Theater, the theater-in-residence at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, the production was written by its 16 youth members as part of a Cambridge Savings Bank-sponsored financial education initiative.
The young actors and actresses took part in CSB’s Smart Financial Education Program to help them understand some money managing basics, and then went out and interviewed at least 80 individuals of various ages, ethnicities and professions to get their thoughts on key money issues.
The students took actual quotes from the interviews and wove them together into a series of conversations that talked about everything from spending one’s paycheck every week ("I love the feeling of having made a purchase, but I hate the feeling of having no money ...") to the fiscal inequities that people sometimes face when they go to college. ("Economic diversity is something that I have to learn to live with … I’m at college and I care about community, but where does caring about community end?")
The storylines were linked together by one central character – the tooth fairy – who was prompting the conversations by engaging in a “tooth fairy stimulus package.” Each character received $100 per tooth and then the tooth fairy watched their responses and actions to having the money.
Why the tooth fairy? According to the organizers it was because across the board, people who were interviewed said that their first memory of dealing with money was when the tooth fairy paid them a visit. The tooth fairy was also apparently the cause of a lot of discussion about money and equity since many people had different opinions, and experiences, about the value of a tooth.
While the play was interesting, what really caught my attention was the Q&A period after. The kids in the audience needed a little prompting to talk about the topics brought forward, but it was interesting to hear what had made an impression on them. One student said that she had never really understood the difference between a debit and a credit card, and the impact that interest can have on one’s budget.
“The world of credit is a mysterious world to kids of this age,” said Evan Diamond, an assistant vice president and Financial Education Program Manager for Cambridge Savings Bank. “They need to understand that every time you get a credit card you are taking out a loan. Showing them how much interest you will pay if you fall into the trap of minimum payments is a real wake up call.”
Several other students said they were struck by a monologue about a student who went to Haiti and learned the meaning of money for survival’s sake as opposed to just pure spending.
“We try to connect the emotions with the action” through the community program, Diamond said.
CSB started its Smart Financial Education Program in 2010 in response to the financial crisis, Diamond said. The bank has a team of educators who visit schools as well as a variety of community centers to provide an overview on a core curriculum of four modules: Budgeting and Saving; Managing a Checking Account; Credit Smarts; Fraud Smarts. They also customize their classes to fit a particular area, for example they might discuss finance to students interested in entrepreneurship and business, or they might discuss interest rates and mathematics concepts in a math class.
The team has taught more than 300 sessions, reaching 4,6000 participants at high schools in towns including Lexington, Arlington, Belmont and Concord, as well as non-profit groups such as the Community Learning Center in Cambridge and the Somerville Homeless Coalition. This spring they’ll be reaching out to kindergartners at a variety of schools in order to encourage kids to think about saving starting at a young age. Diamond emphasized that the group does not provide promotional materials on CSB at these events since “we don’t do this to sell accounts.”
“Managing money is tricky,” Diamond said. “It’s nice to be able to give them good advice.