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Medicare NOW Enroll or switch

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NORTH PALM BEACH, Fla. (10/31/11)--If you're enrolled in or are about to enroll in the Medicare Part D (prescription drug coverage) program, you have until Dec. 7 to decide on your 2012 coverage.  Unless you switch to a five-star Medicare Advantage Program, you will have to wait a year before you can enroll if you miss that deadline ( Oct. 19).

The open enrollment period--the window during which you can join, switch, or drop your plan--has increased by a week and ends almost a month earlier than last year's Dec. 30 deadline.

Whether you're searching for the first time, or considering changing, start your fact-finding at Click Find Drug and Health Plans and use the Medicare Plan Finder to compare deductibles and co-pays for your prescriptions under various plan scenarios.You can do a general search or, if you're already enrolled, a personalized search. Websites can make mistakes, so take the time to verify that your drugs will actually be covered.

If you like, you can get help. The State Health Insurance Assistance Programs (SHIP) have volunteer counselors in every state to help you pick a Part D or Medicare Advantage plan, either over the phone or in person. Start your search by typing "helpful contacts" in the search engine and find SHIP in the dropdown menu. Do it now, because counselors are getting busy as the deadline approaches.

You also might get help at drugstore chains such as Walgreens or CVS. Your favorite pharmacist may even be able to help you.

If you're already enrolled, review the coverage, co-pays, and out-of-pocket expenses, as well as plan premiums. Plans are in flux due to changes in the health-care law in 2011. For example, your Part D plan could be changing the drugs it covers.

You'll find information about changes in enrollment and coverage, benefits, costs, or service area in your "Annual Notice of Change," which you should have received by Sept. 30. If you don't have it, go to and click Check Your Enrollment.

Before you do anything, follow these steps to save yourself potentially thousands of dollars:

  • Narrow your choices. When you use Medicare online tools, you most likely will see between 30 and 40 Medicare Part D Options, along with several Medical Health Care plans--including Medicare Advantage Plans--with or without drug coverage. Pick the best three plans and compare total annual costs side by side.
  • Know what drugs are covered by the plans you're comparing. The list of prescription drugs preferred by a particular plan is known as a "formulary." Costs for drug formularies can change every year and vary widely from plan to plan.
  • Explore ways to maneuver around the doughnut hole. The Medicare Part D coverage gap known as the "doughnut hole" is getting smaller each year, but you still want to avoid it. In 2012, you'll pay half of the cost of brand-name drugs covered by your plan when your total retail drug costs (not what you pay, but what the drugs cost retail) reach $2,930, until you reach the out-of-pocket threshold of $4,700. Avoid this by using generics or by checking wholesale clubs. Type "lower costs in coverage gap" on to learn more ways to reduce the costs.
  • Sign up for Medicare Part D on time. Sign up during your initial seven-month enrollment period centered on your 65th birthday--whether you think you'll need it or not. If you wait until your eligibility period ends, you may have to pay a penalty to get it later, and you may have to pay it each month for as long as you have Medicare drug coverage.
For related information, read "Review Insurance to Ensure Proper Coverage" in the Home and Family Finance Resource Center.

HandFF Radio Why how to switch to a CU

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WASHINGTON (10/28/11)--Sunday's Home & Family Finance Radio program addresses consumer choice and Bank Transfer Day, set for Nov. 5, and travel deals.

The 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:

  • "Credit Unions: More Than Lower Fees." Credit Union National Association Board Chairman Harriet May reflects on how social media and traditional media attention generated by Bank Transfer Day have more consumers thinking about switching to a credit union. May, CEO of GECU in El Paso, Texas, comments on the trend and explains the key differences between credit unions and banks--it's so much more than just lower fees.
  • "Breaking Up Is Not So Hard to Do." Susan Tiffany, certified credit union financial counselor and director of consumer periodicals, Credit Union National Association (CUNA), Madison, Wis., examines myths about credit union services and shares easy steps to switch to a credit union.
  • "Hot Travel and Vacation Ideas." Bob Diener, travel veteran and founder of, Dallas, advises that you plan early and use "flash sales" to save big cash if you're planning holiday travel or vacations.
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; and the Defense Credit Union Council and member credit unions, serving those who serve the country worldwide.

Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. ET 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.

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.

For more information, watch the video "Top 10 Reasons to Belong to a Credit Union" in the Home &;Family Finance Resource Center.

Your newborn could be a victim of ID theft

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LONDON (10/24/11)--When a Social Security number is assigned to a child, there's no way to check if that number already has been used by criminals or used by mistake by other adults. Organized cyber-criminals know this, and have turned what used to be a minor domestic crime into global ID trafficking (eWeekEurope Oct. 17).

The new twist on "old" child identity theft--a family member using a child's Social Security number to get around having poor credit--makes children even more vulnerable. Thieves are eager to get their hands on children's Social Security numbers because there's no credit history, and they can pair the numbers with any name and birth date. Inactive Social Security numbers, most of them assigned to children younger than age 18, can be found online; crooks then can sell those numbers under different names with the intent of helping people establish fake credit.

How bad is the problem? According to research by identity theft protection service AllClear ID, Austin, Texas, and consulting group Carnegie Mellon University Cylab, Pittsburgh, Pa., children are 51 times more likely to have their identity stolen than adults ( Oct. 13).

Unless parents take the initiative to check for child identity theft, the crime can go unnoticed until the young adult applies for credit after turning age 18. By then, she could have hundreds of thousands of dollars of bad debt racked up in her name or Social Security number--an unwelcome surprise to her and to her parents, who had no idea their child's sensitive information was vulnerable.

Take these precautions:

  • Never use your child's Social Security number to open accounts. This may be tempting if you have bad credit, but not paying those bills on time now could keep her from getting school loans, an apartment, or even a job in the future.
  • Watch for preapproved credit offers in the child's name. Investigate further to see if your child is a victim.
  • Don't request a regular credit report to check for signs of child identity theft. Since most child identity theft now occurs by attaching the Social Security number to a new name and birth date, credit reports that check for a full match of name, birth date, and Social Security number won't detect the fraud.
  • Use ITRC Letter Form 120 to request a child's credit report. Visit and enter "120A" in the search box. Identity Theft Resource Center's Fact Sheet 120A has information about what to include in your request of the three credit reporting agencies, and a template you can use.
  • Sign up for ChildScan. This free service from AllClear ID and TransUnion is a safe and secure way for parents to check if someone is using a child's Social Security number. There's no trial, and no fee unless you subscribe to the premium service. Visit for more information.

To find out if you're at risk of identity theft, take the National Foundation for Credit Counseling Identity Theft Risk Check Quiz. And for more information, read "ID Theft Thrives by Surprise" in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

HandFF Radio Fight financial fatigue

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WASHINGTON (10/21/11)--Sundays Home & Family Finance Radio program covers Free Shipping Day, mortgages, and ways to fight financial fatigue and stress. The 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:
* Free Shipping Day. Luke Knowles, founder, Free Shipping Day, Windsor, Colo., shares ways to take advantage of free shipping for online purchases on this day. * Walking Away From Your Mortgage. Leonard Lee, researcher,, discusses survey results revealing that most Americans are opposed to homeowners walking away from mortgages. * Sleep On It. Susan Tiffany, certified credit union financial counselor and director of consumer periodicals, Credit Union National Association (CUNA), Madison, Wis., explains how to avoid making financial mistakes due to decision fatigue. * Mitigating Severe Financial Stress and Distress. Lise Van Susteren, psychiatrist and author, Washington, D.C., offers strategies for coping under financial pressure.
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; and the Defense Credit Union Council and member credit unions, serving those who serve the country worldwide. Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. ET 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. 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. For more information, read Understand All Your Options for Dealing With Debt and watch the Refinancing Your Mortgage video in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Small splurges sweeten financial stress

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McLEAN, Va. (10/19/11)--With incomes down and the possibility of another recession looming, you might think few people would be splurging on luxuries. Not so, if the luxury is small. Among the tiny splurges: Halloween costumes for pets, nail care, and gourmet goodies ( Oct. 3). Consumers are indulging in things that mean a little something to them during a time of economic uncertainty. Small splurges are one way to help beat frugal fatigue. So even if you can’t afford that new car, you might be able to treat yourself to something less expensive such as a great set of new bed sheets. Here are more ideas to re-energize yourself and conquer financial burnout:
* Make saving fun. By setting savings goals and actively working to achieve them, the process of saving can become rewarding. Make the process enjoyable by setting up a separate savings account for something special such as a vacation, new dishes, or a down payment on a different vehicle. Share goals with family members so everyone understands and supports savings priorities. To get family members involved, have a contest to see who can save the most. * Budget for something fun. When they hear the word "budget," most people think only about the mortgage or rent, car payment, cell phone bill, utility payments, or other day-to-day expenses. Successful budgeters give themselves “treats” along the way. These treats are planned, accounted for, and built into their budgets. Think of treats as rewards for good financial behavior. Only you can decide what reward would make you happy and motivate you to stick to your spending plan. By rewarding yourself with modest but meaningful treats, you won’t feel like you’re being deprived while budgeting. * Design a realistic spending plan. If your budget is too extreme and leaves little room for anything enjoyable, there’s little chance you’ll stick to it. Be realistic when creating a budget and design a plan with a little leeway. * Think outside the budget box. Saving money, staying out of debt, and sticking to a budget means more than achieving a financial goal. It also means that your life in general will be less stressful.
For more information about managing money during times of economic uncertainty, read the “October Financial Fitness Challenge—Get Ready for Recession Redux” in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Open jobs provide alternatives to college

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WASHINGTON (10/17/11)--If attending college isn’t for you, don’t fret: Now could be an opportune time to pursue a career that doesn’t require a four-year degree. There were 3.1 million job openings in August, and many were in trades or other skills-based fields, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) most recent Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, released Oct. 12. That number is slightly fewer than the 3.2 million job openings reported in July. However, the total number of openings is up 26% since the end of the recession in June 2009, according to the survey. The survey listed job openings in areas such as construction, manufacturing, trade, transportation and utilities. Many employers are struggling to fill these positions because they are unable to find workers with the skills to do the job (CNBC Oct. 10). Think you’re up to the task? Use these guidelines to prepare for a rewarding career off the traditional college path:
* Learn what’s out there. Use CareerOneStop, sponsored by the Labor Department, or the Occupational Outlook Handbook from the BLS to research alternative occupations and the skills and requirements involved. Many jobs may not call for a college degree, but they still might require special certification or training. * Talk it over. Reach out to companies or workers in fields that interest you. Consider setting up an informational interview or a job shadow to get a better idea of what the occupation entails. If the career that interests you requires some extra training through a technical school or certification program, make an appointment with a counselor to learn more about the process. * Consider an apprenticeship. Apprenticeship programs allow you to receive paid, on-the-job training for specific careers. Lengths of apprenticeship programs can vary, but most programs take about four years to complete. When you complete your apprenticeship, you’ll be nationally certified to work in your industry. The Labor Department’s Registered Apprenticeship program can help you get started.
For more information, listen to “Where the Jobs Are Now” in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Make one call cut your cable bill

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SAN MATEO, Calif. (10/12/11)--Cable companies and cable services earn a lot of grousing from consumers, and the cable bill adds salt to that wound. If your cable bill is out of hand, you’ll welcome knowing that you can trim that expense with a little research, followed up with a phone call or online chat ( Sept. 19). First, collect those offers you’ve been discarding from your cable provider and its competitors. See how the offers stack up to the service package you’re using now. Consider how long you’ve been a customer and how consistently you pay your bill on time; knowing these details can improve your leverage. Prepare to call with your current bill at hand for reference; use a highlighter to focus on the parts of the bill you want to question or try to sweeten. Make a short list of the benefits you want to ask about: reduced bill, premium channels, or some service bundle. Anticipate that the service rep might point out that the offers you’re seeing are for new customers--be prepared to point out that your loyalty deserves some consideration as well. If you’re concerned about having to be aggressive to get a deal, remember that silence is your friend. Don't answer offers immediately--a well-timed sigh can lengthen a pause and prompt something better (Home & Family Finance Resource Center September 2011). If a service rep tries this, hold tight and don't negotiate against yourself. suggests this five-sentence script:
* State your goal. "I'd like to make changes in my cable service because I can't afford my current payment." * Point out your alternatives. "I'm thinking about switching-- I got an offer from [rival company] for [list the services, such as cable and Internet] for [how much]." Or explain that "my brother across town only pays [price]." * Point out your loyalty and payment history. If the representative mentions benefits you get, such as virus protection, explain that you already have those services from other sources. Politely repeat that you're thinking of switching or even canceling to save money. Then wait quietly. Many times, the representative will offer specials, or, you can prompt with, "What can you do to help me cut costs?" If you’re getting nowhere, asking to speak with a supervisor may get you closer your goal. * Ask for a better offer. If necessary, ask again. "Is that the best you can do?" If the offer isn't enough, say, "I don't think that's going to make enough of a difference." If the deal is an introductory offer that expires after six months, ask for a longer term or ask what to do to keep your rate from bumping back up. The cable rep might decline an extension and say you can call back in six months and ask to have the introductory offer extended. If so, note the date when the rate hike goes into effect. * Confirm the details and payment specifics. Show some gratitude. "You've helped me, and I really appreciate it. Can we confirm the details--and can I have your name so I know whom I was talking to?" Remember to ask for e-mail confirmation.
If the representative has been helpful and you participate in an automatic customer service survey later, give the rep a good review. For more ideas about ways to reduce your costs for goods and services, read “Negotiate Your Way to a Better Price” in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Avoid new debit-card fees Switch to CU

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CHICAGO (10/11/11)--Bank of America (BoA) made big headlines when it announced it will begin charging $5 a month to some customers who use their debit cards for purchases. Some big banks, such as Wells Fargo, are considering imposing similar debit fees. Others, such as Citigroup, plan to leave debit cards alone but will raise some checking fees (Chicago Tribune Oct. 1). If you’re wealthy, you probably receive debit card and other services from your bank at no cost. But most Americans will face new fees on debit-card transactions, increases on existing fees, and more difficulty in avoiding fees. You can avoid these fees and even come out ahead:
* Switch to a credit union. “If you're upset, you should do something about it," said Bill Cheney, president/CEO, Credit Union National Association (CUNA). He invited upset bank customers to “take advantage of credit unions' emphasis on service over profits, typically with no or lower fees overall.” Surveys by CUNA show that eight out of 10 credit unions still offer at least one free checking account with no minimum balance requirement and no maintenance or activity fees. * Keep all your accounts in one place. If it’s convenient, move different accounts such as credit cards, auto loans, mortgages, checking, or investing accounts to one financial institution. You may be able to avoid monthly checking account fees if you maintain a minimum balance in checking combined with other accounts. Before you switch to a new financial institution, scrutinize all of its fees, not just those for using a debit card. * Use credit instead of debit and pay the balance every month. Although the cap for interchange fees for debit cards was effective Oct. 1 (the reason BOA says it’s raising rates), financial institutions still can make some income from interchange fees when you use your credit card. Consequently, they are sweetening the rewards for customers who use credit. Check the fine print on your credit card statements to be sure your credit card rewards are still effective, and that no new fees have been imposed. Most important, pay the full balance every month to stay clear of high interest-rate fees. * Pay with cash. The new debit-card fees will be imposed only if you use your debit card. Cash won’t trigger transaction fees; some retailers will even reward you with discounts for using it. Just be careful how you get your cash. Frequent ATM withdrawals could cost you even more than using a bank debit card. * Look for deals. Now that merchants are paying less for debit transactions, some offer rebates. The rewards could be as much as 10% for buying a specific purchase (similar to Groupon) within a limited time (usually a month). You’ll find out about these offers on your statements and in e-mails. Just be sure the items you buy are needs, not merely wants, and are already in your budget.
For more information about using your debit card, listen to “Debit and Credit Card Liability, Protection From Fraud” in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Avoid scams when buying vehicles online

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LOS ANGELES (10/5/11)--New-vehicle sales forecasts for September are better than expected, which may indicate the U.S. economy is improving, or at least not slipping back into recession ( Sept. 27). According to J.D. Power & Associates, strong retail sales over the Labor Day weekend, coupled with other vehicle sales such as fleet purchases, helped boost new-car sales figures, resulting in a seasonally adjusted annualized rate for total vehicle sales forecast to be 9% higher than September of 2010 ( Sept. 22). While new-car sales are improving, many consumers opt for buying used vehicles. The internet allows consumers to research options and buy used vehicles through online classifieds. Unfortunately, scammers also are finding internet classifieds a ripe hunting ground. These tactics can help you avoid scams if you use the internet to buy a car:
* Background check. Learn more about your seller. Many online classifieds offer feedback tools. Review the comments and ratings from other users and insist on speaking with the seller on the phone to get a better understanding of the person on the other end of the deal. * Vehicle visit. Avoid buying a vehicle sight unseen. Visit the seller and the vehicle, or ask a friend or relative to check out the vehicle if it’s located in another area. Inspect the car’s condition and obtain the vehicle identification number so you may review the title and investigate the car’s history. * Mechanic’s inspection. If the visit shows the car to be promising, insist on a professional mechanic’s inspection. And if the seller balks, you walk. * Pay in person. Never send money through a wire service to pay for your vehicle, and be careful paying with cash. Your best bet is to visit your credit union to obtain a cashier’s check or to use a personal check to make your purchase. Pay for your vehicle in person and be sure to get a receipt and transfer of title.
File a complaint with the Federal Bureau of Investigation via the Internet Crime Complaint Center if you suspect you’ve been the victim of a scam when buying a car online. And for more used-car buying guidance, read “Best Used Cars: How to Find a Dependable, Affordable Vehicle” in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Singles less confident about retirement readiness

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SAN FRANCISCO (10/3/11)--The single life definitely has its benefits--making decisions on your own, planning around one busy schedule instead of two--but a new survey reveals that retirement readiness may not be one of them. According to the Charles Schwab Retirement Survey ( Sept. 13), 69% of singles and 53% of married Americans say they believe it’s easier to make retirement decisions without a spouse in the picture. However, only 67% of singles reported that they are already saving for retirement, compared with 85% of married people. The respondents also noted some of the difficulties associated with planning a single retirement. Fifty-seven percent of singles and 65% of married people say that not having a spouse’s additional income and investments as a safety net could be a challenge. In addition, 47% of singles and 58% of married people say not having a spouse to rely on for health insurance or long-term care could be challenging. “At a time when the number of single adults is at a historical high in our country, our survey shows that this group has ground to make up in terms of retirement readiness,” said Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, senior vice president of Charles Schwab & Co., Inc., San Francisco. It may be challenging, but singles can take important steps to prepare for retirement. Use these strategies to get on the right track:
* Save, save, save. If you have a 401(k) plan through your employer, you should contribute at least enough to receive your employer’s match. If you don’t have access to a 401(k), a traditional or Roth IRA (individual retirement account) is an excellent savings vehicle. Your credit union adviser can help you decide which type of IRA is the best fit for your situation. * Pad that emergency fund. Without a second income, you need funds to fall back on in case of tough times. Aim to save at least three months of expenses in an easily accessible account at the credit union. * Don’t forget disability and long-term care insurance. It’s better to do this sooner rather than later, since health problems down the road could disqualify you from obtaining them. Check options available through your employer first; they may be more reasonably priced than other plans. * Live within your means. If you’re like most singles, you have less wiggle room with one income than you would with two. That means it’s particularly important to create a budget, monitor spending, and diligently set aside the money you need to fuel your savings. * Start now. You won’t do yourself any favors by putting off a savings plan. The earlier you start to save, the better off you’ll be when it’s time to retire.
For more information, watch the “Investing in an IRA” video and use the “How to Calculate Your Retirement Needs” calculator in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.