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Are you investing too much in company stock

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McLEAN, Va., (1/2/08)--No doubt you’ve heard this before: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. But despite the lessons learned from the Enron fiasco, six years later employees still are investing too much in company stock (USA Today Dec. 14). No matter what company you work for, you never know what’s in store. If the company closes its doors, you’ll lose your job. But you don’t want to lose your entire retirement portfolio as well. Still, Hewitt Associates, a human resources consulting firm in Lincolnshire, Ill., indicates that, on average, employees have almost 22% of their 401(k) assets invested in employer stock. More disconcerting is that one of five employees has at least half the retirement assets invested in the company. Besides not putting too much into company stock, About.com suggests these tactics so you get the most out of your 401(k) plan:
* Watch out for fees. The U.S. Employee Benefits Security Administration estimates that for someone with 35 years until retirement and a 401(k) plan valued at $25,000, fees can make a big difference. If the investments in such an account return 7% annually and fees are 0.5% of all plan assets, that 401(k) plan will grow to $227,000 by the time the recipient hits retirement age. But what if the 401(k) plan fees are 1.75% instead of 0.5%? Then the retirement landscape isn't so bright. Instead of $227,000, the plan participant would only earn $150,000. The 1.25 percentage point difference in fees cuts more than $77,000 (34%) of the 401(k)'s account balance at retirement. Ask your human resources department what your plan's fees are. * Diversify. Spreading your money over a variety of high-quality investments rather than putting it all in one place will help smooth out the ups and downs of the market. “Diversifying is the best way people can make money investing,” says Chad Winklepeck, an investment representative with Edward Jones in Oregon, Wis. * Contribute and max it out. If you don’t contribute to your employer’s 401(k) plan, you’re basically giving up free money. For one, there are substantial tax benefits to contributing. Also, some employers will match employee contributions up to a certain percentage.
For more information about calculating end results of your plan, read “401(k) Fees: Know What You're Paying, What You're Getting” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Foreign travelers and purchasers could see refund

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YONKERS, N.Y. (12/31/07)--If you used a credit card when you traveled overseas, or used the Internet to make an overseas purchase in the past 10 years, you might be eligible for a refund for exchange fees that you paid (ConsumerReports.org Dec. 10). More than 20 million people who used a Diners Club, Visa or MasterCard for travel or purchase between Feb. 1, 1996, and Nov. 8, 2006, will receive notices from a New York court about the refunds. The refunds are part of a class-action lawsuit claiming the card companies and seven issuing banks overcharged customers for currency exchange rates. If you’re eligible for the refund, you have three options, according to USA Today (Dec. 13):
* Easy refund of $25--If you traveled outside the U.S. for less than one week or made foreign transactions of less than $2,500 using the cards. * 1% of estimated transactions--If you traveled outside the U.S. for more than a week or had foreign transactions totaling more than $2,500. * 1% to 3% of annual estimated foreign transactions--If you can supply year-by-year information and traveled extensively overseas or made a lot of overseas transactions.
Refund amounts ultimately will depend on the amount of people who file. You have until Feb. 14 to object or opt out of the proposed settlement. If you don’t opt out, you’ll automatically be covered by the settlement terms, which include giving up your right to pursue future claims against the company. For more information, visit ccfsettlement.com/ or call 800-945-9890. Also, more information is included in “Arbitration Clause Denies You Your Day in Court” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

HandFF Radio Experts talk economy energy emerging scams

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WASHINGTON (12/28/07)--Listen in on Sunday’s H&FF Radio show as experts share tips and trends on a variety of hot topics--all of which could drain hard-earned dollars from your wallet. Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. EST on the Radio America 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. 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 a Weak U.S. Dollar Means to the Average Joe,” with Mike Schenk, vice president, economics and statistics, Credit Union National Association (CUNA), Madison, Wis.; * “Do Better, Do More With Your 401(k),” with Paul Merriman, founder and director, Merriman, Berkman, Next, author of “Live It Up Without Outliving Your Money,” and publisher and editor of the educational website Fundadvice.com, Seattle, Wash.; * “Make Your Home More Energy Efficient,” with Edward Pollock, acting supervisor for research, Office of Building Technologies, U.S. Department of Energy, Washington, D.C.; * “Identity Theft: Now What’s the 911?” with Adam Levin, chairman, Identity Theft 911, and former director, New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, New York City, N.Y.; and * Listener E-mail Questions
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, makers of cheddar cheese; and Visa. For more information, read “Start an Energy Diet: Save Money at Home” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Consumer brief (12/26/2007)

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* FRESNO, Calif. (12/27/07)--Thinking of buying or trading a gift card on an online auction site? Think twice: That discounted card for sale may not be legitimate, and the person trying to unload it may be a con artist. It’s estimated that 2% to 30% of all cards sold on secondary sites are fraudulent. The National Retail Federation recommends you buy gift cards directly from reputable retailers, although one site--PlasticJungle.com--recently beefed up security measures and reimburses customers for losses (FresnoBee.com Dec. 13)…

Store returns more complicated restrictive

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BOSTON (12/26/07)--Despite a decrease in holiday gift returns, more retailers are ratcheting up their return requirements, largely to curb abuse by serial returners (Bostonherald.com Dec. 17). Many returns are legitimate, but too many consumers abuse easy return policies, and some criminals who steal merchandise try to return items for store credit. Because of the abuse, everyone pays. When you return items, some retailers now use your driver’s license to see if you’re on a “blacklist” of serial returners. If you exceed the retailer’s return limit, the store won’t allow you to return the item. Some stores don’t disclose their return limit, and others do so inconspicuously on signs and on the back of receipts. An example of a return “cap” may limit you to five returns within any 90-day period with a receipt, or cap the amount at, say, $300 without a receipt. Between 4% and 6% of holiday gifts make it back to the return counter each year (National Retail Federation Dec. 11). But as gift cards continue to increase in popularity, the tide is turning: 64.3% of consumers didn’t return anything last holiday season, up slightly from 62.4% in 2005. The use of gift receipts also has helped reduce return headaches. If you think you’ll be standing in the post-holiday return line, keep these pointers in mind:
* Organize receipts. This is still the best route to a hassle-free return. If you don’t have one, or if you lost it, ask whether you can have merchandise credit. However, you may get credit for the lowest markdown price within the past 30 days or so. * Return sooner rather than later. You can take advantage of extended store hours immediately after Christmas. * Check time restrictions. Check state laws--you may have a choice of a repair, replacement, or refund. * Ask about restocking fees. It’s best to know store policy before you finalize the purchase. * Don’t open the box. Try to keep all the original packaging, all parts, and tags. Some retailers will reject the return if the item isn’t in the original package. If you know you’ll be taking the item back to the store, don’t use it or play with it. * Know where to complain. If you run into problems, start with the store manager or retailer’s customer service department. If those avenues don’t work, file a complaint with your state attorney general’s office or local consumer protection agency.
For more information, read “’Tis the Season for Trouble-Free Shopping, Returns” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

HandFF Radio Sure-fire tips to get off most junk mail lists

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WASHINGTON (12/21/07)—Tired of the onslaught of junk mail clogging your mailbox and inbox? There are steps you can take to get off those lists, and one of Sunday’s HFF Radio show guests will tell you how. Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. EST on the Radio America 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. 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:
* “How to Stop Getting Junk Mail You Don’t Want,” with Pat Kachura, senior vice president for corporate responsibility, Direct Marketing Association, Washington, D.C.; * “Kids.gov--The Official Kids Portal for the U.S. Government,” with Mary Levy, director, Federal Citizen Information Center Consumer Information and Outreach Division, Washington, D.C.; * “Building Credit With a Secured Credit Card,” with Linda Sherry, director of national priorities, Consumer Action, Washington, D.C.; * “Ways to Lower Your Utility Costs,” with Mike Wilson, marketing and communications coordinator, Eastern Illini Electric Cooperative, Paxton, Ill.; and * Listener E-mail Questions.
Home & Family Finance is a resource center for personal finance information at the Credit Union National Association. The radio show is sponsored by CO-OP Network, the national credit union ATM network; Cabot Creamery Cooperative, makers of cheddar cheese; and Visa. For more information, read “Start an Energy Diet: Save Money Around Home” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Consumer brief (12/19/2007)

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* MADISON, Wis. (12/20/07)--Tempted by 0% deferred financing for large purchases? Unless you’re disciplined and know you’ll pay off the entire amount before the stated period, you might be better off putting the purchase on a low-interest credit card or taking out a personal loan. Neglecting to pay off the balance in time--even if your final payment is received just one day late--means you’ll be socked with high interest charges back-dated to the date of purchase. If you decide to go the 0% route and the stated period is one year at 0% interest, divide the total purchase amount by 11 and make 11 monthly payments before the 12 months are up. But if you’re not sure your budget can handle those payments, just say no to 0% financing (Credit Union National Association Center for Personal Finance) …

Creative gifts Meaningful unique and cheap

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McLEAN, Va. (12/19/07)--With less than a week until Christmas, shoppers are scrambling to purchase last-minute presents. But an unsure economy is forcing many gift-givers to look for less expensive items and ideas (USA Today Dec. 13). One way to save: Put on your creative hat and make your own gifts or provide a service for the special people in your life. The Credit Union National Association (CUNA) Center for Personal Finance suggests:
Volunteer your time. Shovel snow or rake leaves for an elderly or disabled neighbor, or baby-sit for a friend. Heat up your oven. Get your hot pads ready and bake someone’s favorite holiday pie, frost cookies with nieces and nephews, or provide a home-cooked meal for those who aren’t up to doing it themselves. Hit the trails. Instead of worrying about individual gifts this year, take the family cross-country skiing or enjoy a day at a local park. Scrap it up. Present someone with an assortment of homemade greeting cards or a ready-made scrapbook or journal. Smile, you’re on camera. Consider making your own calendars, beach towels and mouse pads. With today’s technology, it’s easy to go online and make creative gifts using favorite family photos. Help the needy. Instead of exchanging names this year, pool your resources with siblings and friends and provide gifts and food for a low-income family in your community.
For more nontraditional gift ideas, read “Avoid the Red, Save More Green This Holiday Season,” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Study Americans who understand compounding boost savings

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WASHINGTON (10/18/07)--What gets Americans fired up about saving money? According to a survey released last week, it’s a simple message: Give examples of the miracle of compound interest (Consumer Federation of America Dec. 11). When told that saving $200 a month for 40 years at a 5% interest rate would grow to more than $300,000, four out of five survey respondents say this example of the miracle of compounding would help persuade them to save money. Compound interest is calculated not only on the initial principal, but also on the accumulated interest of previous periods, so you’re building savings at a much faster rate. The survey of more than 2,000 adult Americans, released by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and Wachovia, sought to understand why Americans do--or don’t--save money. Also at the top of Americans’ wish list is an attractive savings account. Respondents reported several factors that influence their savings: access to contributory retirement programs such as a 401(k) (75% important, 52% very important); easy access to savings accounts paying 5% (73% important, 39% very important); and automatic transfers from checking or payroll deposits to savings (65% important, 36% very important). Of the more than 1,300 savers in the study, nine out of 10 said that avoiding credit card debt was an important factor in saving money, and 82% said it was very important. Other factors cited as successful saving strategies:
* Planning and monitoring spending (93% important, 69% very important); * Making regular contributions to an employer’s retirement plan (80% important, 62% very important); * Transferring surplus balances to savings (78% important, 40% very important); * Saving a portion of financial windfalls (78% important, 45% very important); * Making mortgage payments to build home equity (76% important, 64% very important); * Automatic transfers from checking to savings or to other investments (75% important, 48% very important); and * Saving loose change (65% important, 31% very important)
One of the easiest ways to save for future goals is to take advantage of tax-deferred retirement plans. If your employer offers a 401(k) plan, contribute as much as you can; you’ll not only build savings faster with the employer match, you’ll also cut your tax bill. For those in the 25% federal tax bracket, every $1,000 socked into a 401(k) trims your taxes by $250 (MSNMoney.com Feb. 27). The earlier you start, the more savings you’ll build with the miracle of compound interest. For more information, read “Flawed Assumptions Sap Retirement Savings,” in Plan It: Retire Ready Toolkit.

Watch for phish bait when shopping online

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NEW YORK (12/17/07)--Online shoppers beware: Phishers are baiting their hooks this holiday season and hoping you’re too busy to take some necessary precautions (The Wall Street Journal Online Dec. 5). Be careful in the coming weeks as scam artists try to trick you into divulging personal information:
* Watch for financial institution look-alikes. If the e-mail asks you to verify a transaction by clicking on a link or using a phone number that appears in the e-mail, exercise extreme caution. Instead, call the phone number on your credit union or credit card statement to verify that the request is legitimate. * Watch for charity look-alikes. Scam artists send bogus e-mails that seemingly come from charities, hoping to lure you into giving personal information as they tug at your heart--and purse—strings. To make sure you’re accessing a legitimate charity, go to Charity Navigator’s website at charitynavigator.org. * Use caution with unfamiliar companies. If you’ve never heard of the company, check its reputation with Better Business Bureau at bbb.org to see if complaints have been filed against it. Look for the company’s address and phone number on the site for contact information if something goes wrong with your purchase. * Use caution when using auction and classified-ad sites. The National Consumers League cautions consumers that classified-ad and e-commerce sites--such as eBay and Craigslist--are particularly risky, generating a large proportion of consumer complaints each year. * Beware purebred puppy ploy. Some unscrupulous merchants are tempting their victims with promises of free--or low-cost--purebred puppies if the buyer pays the shipping. In this scam, any money you send goes right into the so-called seller’s pockets, and the dog never gets delivered. * Don’t wire money to a stranger. If the seller insists that you send your payment by wire service, that’s a big red flag. Steer clear. * Check account balances frequently. Online banking allows you to access your accounts 24/7, making it easier--and faster--to detect fraud as soon as it happens.
For more information, read “Stay Safe When Shopping Online” and “Online Banking Makes Money Management Simple and Safe” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

HandFF Radio Money sense for pre-college college savings

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WASHINGTON (12/14/07)--If you need help teaching money skills to teenagers or setting up saving strategies for college expenses, listen in as guests on this Sunday’s Home & Family Finance Radio show share their tips and expertise. Other guests share strategies for freezing your credit and for investing in today’s roller-coaster market. Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. EST on the Radio America 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. 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:
* “Saving for College,” with Joe Orsolini, president, College Aid Planners, Inc., Glen Ellyn, Ill.; * “Financial Education and the High School Student,” with Lisa Moore, teacher of the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) High School Financial Education Program, Arlington, Va.; * “Investment Strategies for a Volatile Market,” with Joe Saari, CEO, Precision Information, and publisher of The Educated Investor, San Diego, Calif.; * “Freezing Your Credit,” with John Ulzheimer, president, Credit.com Educational Services, Atlanta, Ga.; and * Listener E-mail Questions.
Home & Family Finance is a resource center for personal finance information at the Credit Union National Association (CUNA). The radio show is sponsored by CO-OP Network, the national credit union ATM network; Cabot Creamery Cooperative, makers of cheddar cheese; and Visa. For more information, read “Make Up for College Savings Shortfalls” and “A Step Toward Adulthood: An After-School Job” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Consumer brief (12/12/2007)

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* YONKERS, N.Y. (12/13/07)--If you want your Parcel Post package delivered in time for Christmas, you’d better hurry--it needs to be mailed by Dec. 14. Procrastinators pay extra for other options. Mail your items First Class by Dec. 19, Priority by Dec. 21, and Express Mail by Dec. 22. Consider a Priority Mail Flat Rate Box for $8.95--there are two sizes from which to choose, and you can send a package weighing no more than 70 pounds anywhere in the U.S. To avoid shipping charges on goods you purchase, seek out retailers that offer local in-store pickup for online orders. Some retailers post coupons online at http://www.shopping-bargains.com and http://www.judysbook.com, and others offer free shipping for orders of a certain size (Consumer Reports Money Adviser December) …

Dont fall for subprime credit cards

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McLEAN, Va. (12/12/07)--In an effort to improve their credit history, many consumers are unknowingly signing up for subprime credit cards--often with disastrous consequences (USA Today Dec. 9). Targeted to young adults with no or little credit history, as well as to those with a tarnished credit history, issuers of subprime credit cards--referred to as predatory by some critics--are taking advantage of vulnerable consumers who can least afford the excessive fees. How excessive? In one example, with a low credit limit of $250, some applicants were socked with an array of fees that totaled $178, leaving the user just $72 to spend on that card during the year. Instead of improving their credit history, victims are sinking deeper in debt. The National Consumer Law Center, Boston, issued a warning to consumers on Nov. 1 that these high-fee, low-credit predatory credit cards are merely a way for some issuers to extract as many junk fees as possible from consumers desperate for credit. What should you watch for?
* Low limits. If the card carries an unusually low line of credit--say, only a few hundred dollars--that’s the first clue it may be a predatory credit card. * Phrases that may not sound like fees. In the fine print, look for phrases such as account maintenance, account set-up, program, participation, and activation fees. * Fees that put you over the limit. Excessive fees--which add up quickly--reduce your available balance right off the bat. Cardholders who don’t deduct those fees from their available balance increasingly are slapped with over-the-limit fees. * ”Good-guy” claims. The issuer may make the claim that it’s going out of its way to help users get out of debt trouble and give credit to subprime borrowers. One issuer justified its predatory credit card by stating that its “mission” is to bring affordable banking services to minority communities. And with millions of cash-strapped homeowners facing foreclosure, claims like these may sound enticing.
Looking for an alternative? Get a secured credit card, says Susan Tiffany, director of personal finance information for adults at the Credit Union National Association's Center for Personal Finance. “You’ll have to deposit money with your credit union or other reputable lender, and then use that line of credit to build a good credit history. Repay purchases in full and on time each month. Then after a time, say six months to a year, apply for a traditional unsecured card with a higher limit.”

Energy audit can light the way to greater savings

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McLEAN, Va. (12/11/07)--Unless you have an extra $1,000 lying around, you might want to read this. The $1,000 is almost how much the average U.S. winter heating bill is expected to be for October 2007 through March 2008, according to the Energy Department (USA Today Nov. 30). Of course the amount of your bill depends on where you live. If you live in the Northeast and use heating oil, your bill may be as high as $1,900; if you live out West and use natural gas, your bill may only be $600. Regardless of the amount, you might reduce your energy expenses by taking advantage of an energy audit--either hiring a professional energy auditor or performing one yourself. If you decide to go it alone, the Energy Department suggests keeping a checklist of areas you’ve inspected and listing problems that you’ve found. Here’s what you should check:
* Lighting. Try to maximize the use of daylight. Task lights illuminate only the area you need to light. Shut off lights you’re not using and install motion detectors in your garage and other areas where you might forget to turn lights off. Consider switching to compact fluorescent bulbs--they’re more efficient and longer lasting than incandescent bulbs. It’s estimated that a compact fluorescent bulb that makes as much light as a 100-watt incandescent bulb would save about $63 during the bulb’s 4.5-year lifetime--assuming the bulb is on six hours a day. * Insulation. Inspect insulation in the attic, walls, and basement. Make sure that insulation isn’t blocking the attic vents and that the water heater, hot water pipes, and furnace ducts are insulated. * Heating and cooling equipment. Inspect equipment annually or as often as the manufacturer recommends. Check filters and replace as needed--most likely every month or two. Have professionals clean equipment annually. If your furnace is older than 15 years, consider replacing it with one that’s more energy-efficient. Insulate ducts or pipes that travel through spaces that aren’t heated.
For more information, read “Start an Energy Diet: Save Money Around Home” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Debit cards too risky for online shopping

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MADISON, Wis. (12/10/07)--Use the wrong payment method or the wrong piece of plastic when shopping online and someone you don’t know could zero out your checking account balance in a matter of minutes. Remember some simple cyber rules to avoid becoming a statistic (Credit Union National Association center for personal finance). It’s a fact: The safest form of payment online is a credit card, although there still are risks, particularly if you don’t know the reputation of the seller. But if you’re a die-hard debit card user and insist on using it for online purchases, you’re putting yourself at much greater risk than if you use a credit card for those same purchases. Why? Because debit cards are regulated by the Electronic Funds Transfer Act, which is weaker than the law that regulates credit cards. What you need to remember has to do with liability:
* Credit card liability. Federal law protects you so your liability is no more than $50 (per card) if a crook uses your card fraudulently before you report the theft. Report the theft before the crook uses your card, and your liability is zero. Even if you’re subject to the $50 liability, some issuers may waive that amount. * Debit card liability. Here’s where it gets sticky. If you report the theft within two business days, your liability is limited to $50, and again, some issuers may waive that amount. However, after two business days, your liability jumps to $500. And if you don’t report the loss or theft within 60 days of receiving your statement, your liability is unlimited.
To further compound the problem, remember that debit card purchases are deducted immediately from your account. If the debit charges are unauthorized or incorrect--such as double billing--they may be harder to recover; to get your money back, you’ll need to work it out with the merchant, which may be much more difficult for online transactions. On the other hand, if you file a dispute over fraudulent charges made on your credit card, the card issuer’s money is on the line--not yours--and it’s up to the issuer to get the money from the merchant. Bottom line: Don’t use a debit card for online purchases. Use a credit card on sites of reputable sellers. And follow more simple advice from the Federal Trade Commission:
* Get the seller’s phone number in case you have questions or problems. * Type the seller’s name in your search engine to see if there are unfavorable reviews. * Read the website’s privacy policy to see how your personal information will be used. * Understand the return policies. * When entering payment information, make sure the http:// changes to https:// in the site’s URL address line. * Don’t shop online unless your computer has antivirus and antispyware software, and a firewall.
For more information, read, “Stay Safe When Shopping Online” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Consumer brief (12/06/2007)

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* MADISON, Wis. (12/7/07)--If you're holding a traveler's check that someone other than your financial institution gave you, you may be holding a fake. Recently there's been another rash of counterfeit traveler's checks--similar to the ubiquitous fake check scams in which you’re asked to mail part of the money back--that leaves you, the consumer, in the lurch. According to Joan Jager, relationship development director, Travelex, Napa, Calif., you may be held liable for the amount--after the fact--if your financial institution cashes a fake traveler's check and then discovers it's not legitimate. To verify the legitimacy of a Visa Travelers Cheque, go to http://www.quickcheque.net. Jager also advises consumers, as well as merchants, to hold the Visa Travelers Cheques up to the light and look for the Visa dove watermark on the back of the check (on the right-hand side) and for the silver thread on the front which runs up and down just before the customer right-hand signature line. The National Consumer's League Fraud Center warns consumers that American Express Gift Cheques are not issued for amounts over $100, so if you see one for more, you know it’s a scam (CUNA Center for Personal Finance)...

HandFF Radio Dont let gift card blunders spoil your holiday

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WASHINGTON (12/7/07)--Confused by all the gift card do’s and don’ts? Listen in to this Sunday’s H&FF Radio show as experts sort out what you should look for, what you should avoid, and how to save yourself--and the gift card recipient--postholiday headache and hassle. Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. EST on the Radio America 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. 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:
* “Sixth Annual Gift Card Survey: Buyers and Users,” with Ellen Davis, senior director, National Retail Federation, Washington, D.C.; * “Gift Card Do’s and Don’ts,” with Jack Gillis, director public relations, Consumer Federation of America, Washington, D.C.; * “Debt Consolidation,” with Gerri Detweiler, author of “The Ultimate Credit Handbook” and credit adviser for Credit.com, Sarasota, Fla.; * “2008 Financial Challenge for H&FF Audience,” with Susan Tiffany, director of personal finance information for adults, Center for Personal Finance, Credit Union National Association (CUNA), Madison, Wis.; and * Listener E-mail Questions.
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, makers of cheddar cheese; and Visa. For more information, read, “'Tis the Season for Trouble-Free Shopping, Returns” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Consumer brief (12/05/2007)

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* SAN FRANCISCO (12/6/07)--High gasoline prices are pushing the standard Internal Revenue Service (IRS) mileage-rate deduction for business-related driving to a new all-time high in 2008: 50.5 cents a mile, up from 48.5 cents in 2007. Other variables affecting the rate increase include vehicle maintenance, repairs, registration and insurance. Remember that the standard mileage deduction only is for companies using four or fewer vehicles; other companies use the IRS standard as a benchmark to set their own reimbursement rates. If you plan to claim a deduction for medical or moving expenses, the rate--calculated differently than the rate for business driving--will drop to 19 cents a mile, from 20 cents a mile in 2007. And if you plan to claim a deduction for charitable-related driving, your rate will stay the same in 2008 at 14 cents a mile (http://www.marketwatch.com Nov. 27)…

Flex your money smarts and use up your FSA

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McLEAN, Va. (12/5/07)--Don’t get so caught up in the holiday hustle and bustle that you forget to use the remaining dollars in your flexible spending account (FSA). Now’s the time to consider purchasing cold medicine, pain reliever, and extra contact lenses if you have money left in your account (USA Today Nov. 27). FSAs let employees set aside pretax dollars to pay for things not covered by insurance such as certain over-the-counter (OTC)/drug store items, co-payments, and eyeglasses. The catch: If you don’t spend the money by the end of the year--or, in some cases by mid-March--you forfeit the money and it goes back to your employer. Check the list at fsafeds.com/forms/OTC_QRG000.pdf to see what items qualify. Simple things such as ointment and bandages qualify, so give the list a good look or you may miss out. Generic brands of items also might be eligible. OTC items purchased to treat a general medical condition that are not preventative or cosmetic in nature are eligible expenses to claim. No toiletries are allowed. For other ideas of how to tie up 2007 using sound money management skills, get registered and join the Home & Family Finance Resource Center’s Financial Fitness Challenge.

How--and why--to shop for lower-cost Medicare drug plan

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WASHINGTON (12/4/07)--Sticking with your current Medicare prescription drug plan could get costly. In fact, everything about prescription drug plans can change significantly from year to year, so health-care advocates are encouraging you to shop around now--before it’s too late (U.S. News & World Report Nov. 7). You can enroll, re-enroll in your current plan, or switch to any Part D plan--without penalty--during the enrollment period, which runs from Nov. 15 until Dec. 31. Whatever plan you have on Jan. 1, though, is the one you’ll have for all of 2008. But if you don’t take time to shop around now, you could be in for sticker shock in 2008, even if your plan had a reasonable premium in 2007. Since drug coverage is offered by private insurance companies, be on the lookout for significant price increases from year to year. But don’t just compare monthly premiums: Some insurance plans are cutting the monthly premium while increasing costs for the most common prescription drugs. Others are increasing your co-pay, or even limiting the number of pills covered. Consumers Union offers these tips for serious comparison shopping for a Medicare Part D plan:
* Make a list of all meds. Write down all the prescriptions you take now and those you expect to take in 2008. * Check local plans. Go to medicare.gov (use the “plan finder”), call 800-Medicare, or look through the “Medicare and You” book you should have received in November from the government. All three resources will have information on Part D plans for your area. * Understand the risks. Unfortunately, Part D plans can change the price of drugs they cover, as well as their formularies (list of drugs the plan does and doesn’t cover), even after you enroll. * Stick with unsponsored sites. If you conduct a Web search for Part D, most sites listed are sponsored by Part D plan sponsors and therefore are promotional in nature. Rather, use the Medicare Rights Center website at medicarerights.org for high-quality, easy-to-use, independent information. * Get a “drug check. Ask your doctor to review the drugs you take to make sure you’re taking medicines that give you the best value for your money. For alternatives to high-priced drugs, visit CRBestBuyDrugs.org. * Consider low-cost alternatives. Some discount stores offer a 30-day supply of some common prescription drugs--typically generic--for a standard price of $4 or $9 .
For more information, read, “Does Your Generic Drug Make the Grade?” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.