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Consumer

Avoid drowning in the mortgage storm

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NEW YORK (2/2/09)--Brace yourself. Experts warn there’s a wave of foreclosures that hasn’t yet hit the market (CNNMoney.com Jan. 23). Last year, U.S. homes lost $2 trillion of their value. That’s a nearly 10% decline, and it means that more than 11 million homeowners have mortgage balances larger than their homes are worth, according to Zillow Real Estate Market Reports (third quarter 2008). If you’re in that position, or foresee being in that position if conditions don’t improve soon, it’s important to take charge. Homeowners whose mortgage balances are greater than the market value of their houses are said to be under water. In that case, the longer you can put off dumping your house, the more likely you’ll be able to weather the current recession. That’s because until you sell, your home’s depressed value remains theoretical. So if you don’t have to sell, sit tight. Do whatever you can to stay on top of your payments. If you have to give up your house, you want it to be on your terms and with your creditworthiness intact. Before you delay a payment or miss it entirely, talk to your lender. Bill Merrill, director of nonperforming loans for Freddie Mac, clarifies that it's not just communication, but early communication, that's key to avoiding foreclosure. The earlier the lender and borrower work together on a solution, the greater the chance of avoiding default. Merrill says that a "couple of payments can make all the difference. It's a lot easier to fix a situation if you're contacting the lender when you're two payments behind than it is if you're already four payments behind." Of course, your situation might become worse before it improves. Be prepared to sell less-valuable assets, such as a second car, to keep your house. If you must move because you’ve lost a job or must relocate for work, consider renting your current house instead of selling it. There are plenty of former homeowners looking for rentals, and their lease payments can help pay your mortgage. And that might keep you afloat until the price of your house gets back on solid ground. For more information, read “Tough Times Series: Lenders, Counselors Help Homeowners Avoid Foreclosure” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Treasury official explains ABCs of credit card reform

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WASHINGTON (1/30/09)--If you’re confused over reports of recent credit card reforms, one of the guests on this week’s H&FF Radio show—from the Treasury Department—explains how the reforms will affect you and what you need to know. Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. EST on the Radio America Network. The show also is carried on American Forces Radio Network. The one-hour program devoted to consumer finance issues is brought to you by America's credit unions and their 90 million members, and is presented by CO-OP Network. The Credit Union National Association (CUNA) and Radio America are podcasting Home & Family Finance through iTunes, Podcast Alley, Odeo, and other popular podcast library sites, as well as on Radio America and CUNA’s websites. Sunday’s show, which you also can hear later via the Internet, features Paul Berry, Washington, D.C., journalist and broadcaster, discussing these topics with special guests:
* “Turning Points--Think ‘Future’ When Starting a Business,” with Susan Tiffany, director, personal finance information for adults, Center for Personal Finance, CUNA. Madison, Wis.; * “Sustainable Home Ownership: Future Role of Government,” with Lisa Ransom, vice president of federal affairs; Center for Responsible Lending, Washington, D.C.; * “Low-Income and Minority Financial Services Concerns,” with Stephanie Bittner, consumer credit counselor and National Foundation for Credit Counseling’s “Counselor of the Year,” Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Delaware Valley, Philadelphia.; and * “Credit Card Reform,” with April Breslaw, director, Consumer Regulations, Office of Thrift Supervision, Department of the Treasury, Washington, D.C.
Home & Family Finance is a resource center for personal finance information at CUNA. The radio show is sponsored by CO-OP Network, the national credit union ATM network; Cabot Creamery Cooperative, maker of award-winning cheddar; Western Corporate FCU, also known as WesCorp, and its member credit unions; and the Defense Credit Union Council and member credit unions, serving those who serve the country worldwide. For more information, watch “Financing Your Small Business” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Excellent credit score tougher to attain

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NEW YORK (1/28/09)--Experts warn that to get the best rates in these tough economic times, you need a credit score--a three-digit number that reflects your creditworthiness--of 760 or higher. Previously, that number was around 720 (MSNMoney.com Jan. 22). The credit crunch is putting the squeeze on your credit score, and one tiny slip-up on your part could come back to haunt you—possibly costing you thousands of dollars over the life of a loan (Kiplinger’s February). Tighter credit standards mean new rules for consumers. Take car buying, for example. No-money-down deals are difficult to land if your credit score is less than around 720 (CNNMoney.com Jan. 16). You may have to ante up at least 10% to 20% of the price, or take on a shorter loan period; six- and seven-year loans are hard to find and getting pricier as the recession deepens. The upside of shorter loans, though, is you’ll pay less interest. How can you boost your credit score?
* Pay all bills on time. Responsible bill payment makes up about 35% of your credit score. * Ease up on “charge-its.” Big balances will hurt your score. Keep balances less than 25% of your available limit. Track charges with a check register, or check account balances frequently online. The total amount you owe makes up about 35% of your credit score. * Keep--and use--old cards. The older and more established your credit history, the better. If you lose or don’t use old cards, some issuers stop updating those accounts with credit bureaus or don’t give as much weight to them. Charging even a small amount every few months will help boost your score as long as you pay on time. Length of credit history makes up about 15% of your score. Another reason to use old accounts now and then is that some card issuers are charging inactivity fees. * Follow up on goofs. If you slipped up once and paid late, but otherwise have been a good customer, write and ask that the ding be deleted from your file. It’s worth the time and effort to solicit a “goodwill adjustment.” * Mix up your credit. By having, say, a mortgage, a credit card or two, a personal loan, and a charge card, this “mix” sends a signal to lenders that you can handle credit responsibly. Having a mix of credit makes up about 10% of your score. * Watch those new-credit offers. If you’re about to apply for a mortgage or other form of credit, don’t open a flurry of new accounts. Too many inquiries--except those batched together while you’re shopping for, say, an auto loan within a few weeks’ time--can hurt your score. Keeping new-credit requests to a minimum accounts for about 10% of your score.
Experts note that trying to boost an already-high credit score won’t have much of an impact, particularly if your score is 760 or higher. Once you hit that mark, you’re already getting the best rates available. For more information, read “Act Quickly to Correct Credit Report Errors” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

This year two no-cost options to file taxes

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McLEAN, Va. (1/26/09)--The fastest way to get your tax refund is still with electronic filing, but this year--for the first time--you have two options to file free, and one of them does not have an income constraint (USA Today Jan. 20). Nearly 90 million taxpayers--58% of all returns--used e-file for their 2007 returns, according to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) (irs.gov). By e-filing and using direct deposit, you could have your money in eight to 10 days, as opposed to four to six weeks when filing a paper return. While some software can cost more than $80, there are ways to file electronically for free, if you know where to look:
* IRS Free File. This free federal tax preparation and electronic filing option is for taxpayers with adjusted gross income of $56,000 or less in 2008. There are varying Free File options, each carrying its own eligibility requirements: Some have age restrictions, apply only to certain states, or have an income cap lower than $56,000. Free File at irs.gov helps you choose a program. Note that some include free state tax preparation, while others carry a fee. If you don’t qualify for one of the Free File programs that include a free state return, 26 states offer their own free e-file option. Check your state’s offerings at taxadmin.org/fta/edi/etalinks.html. * IRS Free File Fillable forms. New this year, this option opens up Free File to all taxpayers--even those with incomes exceeding $56,000. In contrast to the full-service Free File option, Free File Fillable Forms is more of a “self-service” option. Taxpayers self-prepare and file IRS forms electronically, similar to paper filing, but the program performs the basic calculations. For example, the program won’t tell you whether to itemize or take the standard deduction, but it will crunch the numbers once you enter them. Fillable Forms does not support state forms or State e-file.
For tax information, including how to use Fillable-forms and all available Free File offerings, visit irs.gov. For more information, read “Year-End Tax Planning With Some Twists” and “Don’t Miss Out on Tax Breaks” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Earned income tax credit Boon for struggling families

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WASHINGTON (1/23/09)--Two guests on this week’s H&FF Radio show--from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and FinancialEdge Community CU, Bay Ridge, Mich.--discuss the benefits and new eligibility requirements of a popular refundable federal income tax credit for low- to moderate-income working families. Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. EST on the Radio America Network. The show also is carried on American Forces Radio Network. The one-hour program devoted to consumer finance issues is brought to you by America's credit unions and their 90 million members, and is presented by CO-OP Network. The Credit Union National Association (CUNA) and Radio America are podcasting Home & Family Finance through iTunes, Podcast Alley, Odeo, and other popular podcast library sites, as well as on Radio America and CUNA’s websites. Sunday’s show, which you also can hear later via the Internet, features Paul Berry, Washington, D.C., journalist and broadcaster, discussing these topics with special guests:
* “Countdown to Conversion: An Update on the Switch to Digital TV,” with Dan Rumelt, outreach adviser, Federal Communications Commission, Washington, D.C.; * “Crisis at the Shelter: Pets and Foreclosure,” with Betsy McFarland, director of communications, Companion Animals Section, Humane Society of the United States, Washington, D.C.; * “Earned Income Tax Credit,” with Eric Smith, spokesman, IRS, Washington, D.C.; * “Community Outreach for Earned Income Tax Credits,” with Pam Swope, marketing manager, FinancialEdge Community CU; and * “My Credit Union Helped Me With My Taxes,” with Lee Ann, member, FinancialEdge Community CU.
Home & Family Finance is a resource center for personal finance information at CUNA. The radio show is sponsored by CO-OP Network, the national credit union ATM network; Cabot Creamery Cooperative, maker of award-winning cheddar; Western Corporate FCU, also known as WesCorp, and its member credit unions; and the Defense Credit Union Council and member credit unions, serving those who serve our country worldwide. For more information, listen to “Conversion to Digital TV: Coupon Program Roll-Out” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Fight frigid temps save on home heating bills

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CHICAGO (1/21/09)--Despite the recent fall in energy prices, it’s estimated that, on average, home heating costs will fall only 2% below last year’s prices as winter tightens its icy grip across the country (Chicagotribune.com Jan. 12). If you heat your home with natural gas, you even may end up paying more than last year. And a survey released by the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association suggests a record 7.3 million households will seek fuel aid from various energy assistance programs this season (Forbes.com Jan. 13). Because the price to heat your house may not be heading south for the winter, there are several ways you can reduce heating costs and save some cold hard cash:
* Turn down your water heater temperature. The higher the temperature, the more energy it uses. Adjust the setting to 120 degrees, which still keeps your dishwasher cleaning effectively, allows for comfortable showers, and saves you money. It also helps reduce the dangers of hot water scalds. * Wrap it up. Use a special insulation blanket for your water heater, available at your local hardware store. Blankets will prevent heat from escaping and help the unit run more efficiently. * Avoid the thermostat shuffle. Save up to 1% on your heating bill for every degree you turn down your thermostat. Set your thermostat in the 66 degree- to 70-degree range while you’re at home and awake, and in the 60 degree- to 65-degree range while you’re away or asleep. Turning the heat much lower when you leave your home and then cranking it back up when you return actually makes your system work harder, reduces its efficiency, and costs you more; contact your local utility and ask what a “safe” low temperature is for your region. * Check for leaks. Can you feel cold air around windows, doors, and even electrical outlets? A small investment in caulk, weather stripping, door sweeps, or insulated outlet covers for drafty areas will block heat from escaping and save you a bundle. * Cut shower time. The more hot water used during a shower means more energy use and money down the drain. * Check insulation. Installing the proper amount of insulation material to attics, basement ceilings, and exterior walls keeps the heat in and the cold out. * Service your system. A furnace, heat pump, or other heating equipment in top operating condition will heat your home more efficiently. Clean or replace dirty air filters. Clean and tune up your gas furnace, if you have one. This also helps ensure your equipment lasts a long time and prevents costly repairs.
For more information, read “Tips to Cool Down Your Hot Water Bill” and “Longevity on the Home Front: How Long Will That Furnace Last?” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Apply now for federal student loans

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WASHINGTON (1/16/09)--It’s crunch time for parents of college students. If you haven’t applied for student loans, this week’s H&FF Radio show features a guest who explains what to do and when. Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. EST on the Radio America Network. The show also is carried on American Forces Radio Network. The one-hour program devoted to consumer finance issues is brought to you by America's credit unions and their 90 million members, and is presented by CO-OP Network. The Credit Union National Association (CUNA) and Radio America are podcasting Home & Family Finance through iTunes, Podcast Alley, Odeo, and other popular podcast library sites, as well as on Radio America and CUNA’s websites. Sunday’s show, which you also can hear later via the Internet, features Paul Berry, Washington, D.C., journalist and broadcaster, discussing these topics with special guests:
* “Apply NOW for Federal Student Loans,” with Anne Barton, regional director for business development, National Student Loan Program, Lincoln, Neb.; * “Organize Your Finances for the Year,” with Jason Alderman, director, issues management, VISA USA, San Francisco, Calif.; * “Shopping Secrets to Save You Big,” with Sue Perry, deputy editor, Consumer Reports’ “ShopSmart,” Yonkers, N.Y.; * “Green Savings: Save Money, Save the Planet,” with Ethan Ewing, president, Bills.com San Mateo, Calif.; and * “Listener Q&A.”
Home & Family Finance is a resource center for personal finance information at CUNA. The radio show is sponsored by CO-OP Network, the national credit union ATM network; Cabot Creamery Cooperative, maker of award-winning cheddar; Western Corporate FCU, also known as WesCorp, and its member credit unions; and the Defense Credit Union Council and member credit unions, serving those who serve our country worldwide. For more information, read “Paying for Graduate School” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Nest eggs get a break--only for 2009

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NEW YORK (1/14/09)--A new tax law gives some beleaguered investors a break from having to take required minimum withdrawals from their tax-deferred retirement accounts--but only for 2009 (The Wall Street Journal Dec. 26). Suspending required minimum distributions from traditional individual retirement accounts (IRAs) and 401(k)s allow you to leave your nest egg alone in 2009--if you can afford to--so you can recover some of your recent losses. Make sure you follow the rules:
* If you choose to take advantage of the new law, you must voluntarily request that the payment be suspended. * If you turned 70 ½ in 2008 and planned to take your first withdrawal by April 1 of this year, you’re not off the hook; you’re still bound by the rules effective for 2008 withdrawals. * Beneficiaries of inherited IRAs and retirement plan benefits also get the same limited reprieve--just for 2009--from receiving required minimum distributions (J.K.Lasser.com Dec. 22). * For required minimum distributions under the five-year rule, the five-year period is determined without regard to calendar year 2009. For example, if the person died in 2007, the end of the five-year period is 2013 instead of 2012.
Contact your provider and ask about the requirement to waive the 2009 amount. If you don’t take any action, you’ll continue to receive the distribution.

Revamp your rusty resume

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NEW YORK (1/12/09)-—Reports of layoffs have many people thinking about dusting off their resumes, just in case. If yours is in need of an overhaul, you have two options: Use a professional resume writer, or follow these tips to do it yourself (Wall Street Journal Dec. 31). When hiring someone, shop carefully and compare prices. Ask for sample resumes and seek reactions from previous customers. If you prefer to update it yourself to save money, consider starting with an objective statement that specifies what kind of work you’re seeking. You can include this on your cover letter instead but, by formulating it now, you can better structure your resume writing. Experts generally encourage highlighting your strengths or qualifications at the top of your resume followed by your professional experience. Also include a brief educational background and a section that highlights technical skills (computer or language skills.) Resume-help.org recommends using one or two pages and no smaller than a 10-point font. Career builder site Monster.com offers more tips:
* Research your target job. Whether you’re switching to a new position or a new field, thoroughly research your target industry by searching job postings online or from other ads. Look for recurring keywords and incorporate them into your resume to match employers’ needs. A custom resume is more likely to land you an interview than a generic one. * Focus on achievements rather than descriptions. In today’s job market, simply rehashing job descriptions won’t impress hiring managers. Instead, use bulleted action verbs and phrases to express how you have helped employers. Be specific—use numbers, dollars amounts, percentages, and other quantitative measures to detail your accomplishments. * Edit, cut, condense. In the education section, experienced professionals can simply list their university and degree obtained—coursework, honors, and extracurricular activities are not necessary. Also, consider condensing work experience more than 10 years old into an “early career” section. Delete references to outdated technology. Remember, only give employers what they need, don’t make them sift through useless outdated information. * Start a “kudos” file. Copy and file away all performance reviews, complimentary e-mails, and other congratulatory memos. Keep files of completed assignments, committees you join, accomplishments, and quantifiable results. Tracking your successes will help keep your resume up-to-date.
Finally, after you have revamped and proofed your resume, have someone you trust look it over for grammar, punctuation, and clarity. No matter where you are in your career, keeping a professional, updated resume is critical and can save you valuable time if you need it in a hurry. For more information, read, “Tough Times Series: Steps Before, During Layoff Make It Easier to Cope” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Consumer expert offers tips to pay off holiday debt

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WASHINGTON (1/9/09)--A nationally recognized consumer expert shares valuable tips on paying off holiday debt on this week’s H&FF Radio show. Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. EST on the Radio America Network. The show also is carried on American Forces Radio Network. The one-hour program devoted to consumer finance issues is brought to you by America's credit unions and their 90 million members, and is presented by CO-OP Network. The Credit Union National Association (CUNA) and Radio America are podcasting Home & Family Finance through iTunes, Podcast Alley, Odeo, and other popular podcast library sites, as well as on Radio America and CUNA’s websites. Home and Family Finance welcomes KWKA AM 680, Clovis, N.M. As of Dec. 29, KWKA began airing H&FF Radio on Sundays from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. MT. Sunday’s show, which you also can hear later via the Internet, features Paul Berry, Washington, D.C., journalist and broadcaster, discussing these topics with special guests:
* “What to Do When Your Income Decreases,” with Catherine Williams, vice president of financial literacy, Money Management International, Chicago; * “Credit Card Reform,” with Gerri Detweiler, consumer advocate and credit adviser, credit.com, Sarasota, Fla.; * “Going Green With Financial Transactions,” with Caroline Lane, senior vice-president, business development and marketing, Co-op Network, Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.; and * “Pay Off Holiday Debt,” with Jean Chatzky, award-winning journalist, best-selling author, and motivational speaker, Westchester, N.Y.
Home & Family Finance is a resource center for personal finance information at CUNA. The radio show is sponsored by CO-OP Network, the national credit union ATM network; Cabot Creamery Cooperative, maker of award-winning cheddar; Western Corporate FCU (WesCorp) and its member credit unions; and the Defense Credit Union Council and member credit unions, serving those who serve our country worldwide. For more information, read “Tough Times Series: Steps Before, During Layoff Make It Easier to Cope” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Know how to spot a Ponzi scheme

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NEW YORK (1/7/09)--With widespread anxiety plaguing investors these days, the promise of high returns to make up for recent losses is enticing. Ponzi scam artists are all too happy to lure you in, as evidenced by Bernard Madoff’s alleged $50 billion theft from unsuspecting investors (The New York Times Dec. 27). Increasingly sophisticated con artists are replicating a type of fraud first documented in 1719 when John Law promised stock returns of more than 40% a year in a French company trading up the Mississippi River. And in the 1920s, Charles Ponzi bilked investors by promising a 50% return on their investment in postal coupons. Ponzi schemes fall apart when the initial operator--instead of investing victims’ funds--pays “dividends” to early investors with money from subsequent investors (www.FBI.gov). In all cases, either the operator flees with all the proceeds, or the pyramid collapses when the operator cannot pay investors who enter the scheme later. Know how to avoid becoming a victim of Ponzi or other investment schemes. On Dec. 18, the Ohio Division of Securities offered these tips:
* Don’t buy in to promises of high returns. When stock prices in general are suffering, be skeptical of anyone promising high or unrealistic returns. * Do due diligence. Take time to understand what you’re buying--that includes appliances, automobiles, electronics and—yes--investments. Is the brokerage firm, securities salesperson, and/or investment adviser licensed? Have there been any enforcement actions taken against them? Are they registered with the state division of securities? * Watch for red flags. Are family members or friends singing the praises of a particular investment or securities salesperson? Be cautious, because the euphoria may be short-lived. * Check your balances. Make sure your mailed account statements jibe with your online account. * Take notes. When you speak with anyone about your investments, keep detailed notes from those conversations.
To check out an investment professional or broker, or to file a complaint, visit www.sec.gov and click on Investor Information. For more information, read “Sizing Up Your Financial Adviser” and listen to “Investment Scams Targeting Baby Boomer’s Retirement Savings” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Get your finances new-year ready

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NEW YORK (1/5/09)--You’re not alone if you’re still putting finishing touches on New Year’s resolutions. And in today’s troubled economy, there is one resolution worth fighting for: Getting your finances in shape (SmartMoney.com Dec. 15). Now is the time to improve your financial fitness and manage your wealth. Use these steps:
* Take control of your investments. The worst investment move is to panic and pull all your money from investments. Regularly review and organize your portfolio, and talk to a financial professional about rebalancing. * Bulk up your emergency fund. Having a back-up fund may prevent you from having to tap or max out credit cards if your refrigerator dies or your car needs major repairs. * Improve your credit score. As lenders continue to tighten standards, even credit-savvy consumers are feeling the crunch. Having a clean credit history is more important than ever. First, obtain your free credit reports from annualcreditreport.com, review them, and dispute any errors. Next, work to improve your score: Pay all bills on time, maintain a healthy mix of credit, use less than 25% of your credit limit, and be sure to pay all fines and tickets—even unpaid library fines or parking tickets may be viewed negatively by potential lenders. * Stay on top of your accounts. To avoid overdraft fees, account closures, or other unexpected events, regularly monitor your credit card and other account balances. * Make a budget—and stick to it. Bottom line: Expenses should not exceed income. * Get organized. Consolidate accounts, organize financial documents, and consider online banking, which can simplify your finances and reduce the likelihood you’ll miss a payment. Centralize your clutter by designating one space in your home for processing paperwork. Personal finance websites and software make it easy to track your spending and manage your records, some with services that alert you when bills are due or balances are close to their limit. * Pay down debt. Attack your high interest credit cards first by paying more than the minimum balance each month. Once you get your debt under control, make it a goal to pay off the balance each month to avoid accumulating interest. * Do direct deposit. If you still get paper checks, think about switching to automatic deposit. By having all or some of your payroll check directly transferred to your credit union account, you’ll be less tempted to spend what you could be saving.
For more information, read “Act Quickly to Correct Credit Report Errors” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

HandFF Radio Organize your finances for the year

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WASHINGTON (1/2/09)--The start of the New Year is a convenient time to clear out clutter, fine-tune files, and get organized. One of this week’s H&FF Radio guests offers timely tips on organizing your personal finances for the coming year. Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. EST on the Radio America Network. The show also is carried on American Forces Radio Network. The one-hour program devoted to consumer finance issues is brought to you by America's credit unions and their 90 million members, and is presented by CO-OP Network. The Credit Union National Association (CUNA) and Radio America are podcasting Home & Family Finance through iTunes, Podcast Alley, Odeo, and other popular podcast library sites, as well as on Radio America and CUNA’s websites. Sunday’s show, which you also can hear later via the Internet, features Paul Berry, Washington, D.C., journalist and broadcaster, discussing these topics with special guests:
* “Apply NOW for Federal Student Loans,” with Anne Barton, regional director for business development, National Student Loan Program, Lincoln, Neb.; * “Organize Your Finances for the Year,” with Jason Alderman, director, issues management, Visa USA, San Francisco, Calif.; * “Shopping Secrets to Save You Big,” with Sue Perry, deputy editor, Consumer Reports’ ShopSmart, Yonkers, N.Y.; * “Green Savings: Save Money, Save the Planet,” with Ethan Ewing, president, Bills.com, San Mateo, Calif.; and * “Listener Q&A.”
Home & Family Finance is a resource center for personal finance information at CUNA. The radio show is sponsored by CO-OP Network, the national credit union ATM network; Cabot Creamery Cooperative, maker of award-winning cheddar; Western Corporate FCU (WesCorp) and its member credit unions; and the Defense Credit Union Council and member credit unions, serving those who serve our country worldwide. For more information, read “Paying for Graduate School” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.