News reports have mentioned more consumers turning to coupons as the recession continues. Reuters reported in March that coupon redemptions jumped 10 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008 compared with 2007. It's not just supermarket clippers, either. Coupons from mass merchandisers have taken a bigger market share compared with previous years.
I'm somewhat ambivalent about coupons. Sometimes they can save a bunch of money, especially those with 40-60 percent off selected items. On the other hand, one can end up buying about 12 items to save $2, with the sneaking suspicion that more was spent than was actually saved. I've also had trouble with printing off coupons — sometimes the printer doesn't work, or the coupon Web site crashes.
Finally, coupons can just run out on you — as several people experienced with the KFC free meal coupon publicized by Oprah Winfrey — scroll down to read the brief.
What's been your experience with coupons and promotions? Do you find them useful, irrelevant or just annoying?
Yes, you can still buy a house for no money down. At least some people can.
Sound like a middle-of-the-night infomercial? It’s not.
At least two mortgage loan programs have money to loan without down payments. One is through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program. The other is through the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.
Not everybody can get those loans. Income guidelines must be met, and the VA loans are for military veterans. The RD loans also are designed for people buying in a rural area, including towns of no more than 20,000 people.
Since the national downturn in the mortgage lending business began two years ago, interest in RD loans have steadily increased in Kansas. In 2005 there were $40.2 million in home loans in the state, according to the Kansas RD office in Manhattan. By 2008 that had increased to $118.5 million. Last year 1,444 loans were made.
“These are not subprime loans,” RD housing program director Tim Rogers said. “Our programs never did get into that.”
RD makes the money available to local lenders. There is no loan limit, but the amounts are determined by an income formula. Interest rates are negotiated between the borrower and the loaning entity. Most recently they were roughly about 5.5 percent on a 30-year, fixed-rate loan, Rogers said. The money comes from RD at no risk to the local lending institution.
“We fully expect the lender to give the borrower a discounted interest rate because we've taken the risk away," Rogers said.
In Douglas County last year only six RD loans were made. That isn’t necessarily surprising because most county residents live in Lawrence, a town of about 90,000 people, Rogers said.
By April 1 most of the nation’s workers will find the amounts on their paychecks a little higher than they used to be. That’s the date for implementation of the federal tax break known as Making Work Pay.
A few taxpayers, however, could find themselves owing more to the federal government next year at tax time if they aren’t careful.
New Internal Revenue Service withholding tables show some groups of workers may end up paying back next year what they got this year. Those affected could be dual-income households and individuals with multiple jobs.
The best way to find out the effect on you is to check with your employer and find out the steps to take to avoid owing extra money next year at this time. Or you can go to the IRS Web site, where there are new withholding tables. It may be necessary to adjust your W-4 withholding form.
Thieves looking for potential victims are conjuring up all sorts of tax scams. The No. 1 method is online phishing, according to the IRS. That involves sending e-mails to people designed to get them to reveal confidential information about bank accounts, credit cards and more. The IRS maintains it never uses e-mail to contact taxpayers about their personal tax issues.
More than 90 percent of the 52 million tax returns filed so far this year have been electronically filed, the IRS said.
At least some employers in the Topeka and Kansas City metropolitan areas expect to be hiring workers during the second quarter of 2009, according to a Manpower Inc. survey.
From April to June, 14 percent of companies surveyed in Topeka and 11 percent in Kansas City plan to hire more people, the survey found.
Yet another 14 percent of companies in Topeka and 13 percent in Kansas City plan to reduce their payrolls. Manpower found that the best job prospects in Topeka for the second quarter include construction, transportation and utilities, information, and leisure and hospitality.
Best job prospects for Kansas City include construction, nondurable goods manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade and professional and business services.
Manpower is an employment services company based in Milwaukee and tracks the employment situation around the nation.
Last week unemployed Kansans began receiving an additional $25 in their weekly benefit payments. Anyone who was eligible for benefits the week of Feb. 22 or later receives the funds automatically on the Citi debit cards, according to the Kansas Department of Labor. The additional money is part of the federal economic recovery package signed by President Barack Obama on Feb. 17.
I learned a valuable lesson recently when taking my secondhand car to an area dealership for servicing: Always beware if the mechanic comes out smiling.
It's even more frightening if the mechanic proceeds to say something like, "There's something very wrong with your car!" with barely concealed excitement.
In my case, it was twofold: 1) the engine — the completed valve cover gaskets leaking oil into the spark plug chambers, and 2) the steering — the inner tie rods becoming too loose to remain safe. From the way it was described, it sounded like the wheel could come apart in my hands during my next road trip.
To cover both repairs, I was told, would cost $1,220.95. The inner tie rods accounted for a good chunk of that at a hefty $686.
If I hadn't been so aware of my tight budget, I may have signed up for another appointment. My father, though, suggested that I check out the auto repair shop of a good friend. Neither of us had ever been to it, but we wanted a second opinion.
By the end of the auto repair shop inspection, the service director on duty turned to me without a smile, and I liked him better already. "You're probably not going to like my answer any more than the first place," he said, almost apologetically. "We agree that you should replace the tie rods, and we probably should look into replacing the valve cover gaskets."
His estimate? Overall — total — both jobs came to $488.55.
I emerged about $500 lighter, but grateful I wasn't a thousand bucks in the red. The whole experience, though, has rather turned me off dealerships. Has anyone else out there had a similar wake-up call? Or what kind of steps have you taken to avoid such scenarios?
Next week, March 1-7, is National Consumer Protection Week. Identity theft is at the top of the list when it comes to the need for consumer protection and caution.
Consider the following information distributed by The Associated Press:
The number of identity theft victims last year in the U.S. was 9.9 million, according to a study by Javelin Strategy & Research.
The total amount lost to identity theft fraud last year was $48 billion. The average consumer cost of identity fraud is $496.
What can you do? Call your local police if you are a victim of identity theft. Contact the national credit bureaus and request a fraud alert on your credit report:
Equifax: 800-525-6285; equifax.com; P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, 30374-0241.
Experian: 888-397-3742; experian.com; P.O. Box 9532, Allen, Texas, Box 75013.
TransUnion: 800-680-7289; transunion.com; Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton Calif., 92834-6790.
Early this afternoon the price of gold stood at $942.40 an ounce. Gold is still selling at near all-time highs. Because of the tough economic times many people are taking advantage of gold prices by selling their gold for scrap. Mail-in gold businesses are multiplying.
Therefore, a caution has been issued by the American Society of Appraisers. Consumers need to learn about the gold market before jumping in on the spur of the moment, the society says. People should become educated before selling their gold so they know they are getting a fair price.
The society offers the following tips:
1. Look on the back of a piece of jewelry for a stamp that lists the karats. Gold that is 24 karats is 99 percent pure. An 18-karat gold piece is 75 percent pure. Gold from other countries might be less pure than the stamp shows.
2. Find out the current price of gold by looking at Web sites like Kitco.com. The price is quoted per troy ounce, which is 31.1 grams.
3. Ask jewelers what percentage they take from the sale and what percentage the metal refinery takes and then you’ll have an idea of what you should be paid.
4. Broken or mismatched jewelry pieces are the best candidates to be melted down. Many pieces have more value, however, being sold to an estate jeweler or buyer. Pieces from well-known designers and well-crafted antique pieces should be valued, and melting them down may not be the best option.
5. To have a jewelry piece appraised, choose an appraiser who is an accredited member of a nationally recognized appraisal organization. For gold bars ask an accredited gold appraiser or numismatist and check their credentials.
The Kansas Attorney General’s office has started a new consumer mediation program to resolve some matters without having to bring the parties to court.
“Through my new mediation program we can return money to consumers without stepping foot in a courtroom,” Attorney General Steve Six said in a news release. “This program will help us efficiently assist Kansas consumers while saving on the cost of expensive litigation.”
People who contact the AG’s consumer protection division about a problem may have a chance to resolve the matter more quickly and it could limit costs to the state and to the businesses complaints were filed against, Six said.
The Douglas County District Attorney’s office also has a consumer protection investigator. District Attorney Charles Branson said his office doesn’t try to compete with the attorney general, but offers county residents with consumer complaints the opportunity to get help locally or at the state level.
“We both can handle any of the things that could go on through consumer complaints,” Branson said. “If we refer anything to them typically its going to be somebody who’s acting outside the county also. The AG’s office has a wider jurisdiction across the state.”
Branson said his people also try to mediate a consumer dispute.
“Typically the way ours work, a complaint made to our office is sent on to the business and it has an opportunity to get a response back,” Branson said. “We may mediate it at that point or we may decide there is no violation or we’ll decide it is a clear violation. A lot of times we’ll look at mediation, but we don’t have a mediation program just for that purpose. We mediate everything.”
If you want to call the attorney general’s consumer office, call 1-888-428-8436. If you want to call Branson’s office, the consumer number is 330-2849.
Kansas has a new Web site that is being used to put out information about the new federal stimulus package. Lt. Gov. Mark Parkinson announced it Tuesday, the same day President Barack Obama signed the stimulus plan.Parkinson said that as additional information about the stimulus and its effect on Kansas is known, it will be placed on the Web site.Right now the site lists the following benefits for Kansas:1. Kansas will receive an estimated $350 million for highway construction projects. Another $27 million is to be spent on transit projects throughout the state.2.Kansas will receive increased funding in a State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, which will be distributed to local school districts using existing formulas.3. Funds will be available to accelerate adoption of health information technology systems by physicians and hospitals. The technology systems are supposed reduce medical errors and improve quality.4. Kansas is also expected to benefit from a nationwide total of $30 billion dedicated to energy efficiency initiatives.
Many people are busy filing their income tax returns this time of year and the federal Internal Revenue Service is finding a large number of errors on early returns.The errors involve how to account on 2008 returns for last year’s economic stimulus payments.The stimulus payments affect taxpayers’ eligibility for the recovery rebate credit, a special one-time benefit that nearly 119 million Americans received last year in the form of the stimulus payment.“Taxpayers should not report the stimulus payment directly on their tax return,” IRS spokesman Michael Devine said. “They should only use that figure to calculate the recovery rebate credit and if they are not sure what number to use, let the IRS calculate the credit.”Most taxpayers who received a stimulus payment are not eligible for the rebate credit. People who earned more or less in 2008 than in 2007, added a qualifying child or ceased being a dependent in 2008, may qualify for some or all of the new credit. Seniors and retirees who did not file for a stimulus payment last year may qualify.Some filers think the stimulus payment received last year has to be paid back, is taxable or lowers their refund. None of that is true, Devine said.Be wary of car warranty phone callsThe Better Business Bureau of Northeast Kansas warns people to be extremely wary of telemarketing calls and mailers claiming that their automobile warranty has or is about to expire.Better Business Bureau research shows that the consumer is actually being sold an extended service contract and despite the impression given, the offer is not associated with the car manufacturer’s warranty.
CNN is carrying a story today about a man in New Zealand who recently found confidential U.S. military files on a used MP3 player he bought while in Oklahoma a year ago.That news comes at the same time the results of a survey conducted by Credant Technologies of Dallas were released. The data protection firm conducted the survey in the United Kingdom. Credant found that last year 9,000 USB computer data sticks were forgotten in people’s pockets as they took their clothes to dry cleaners. The sticks are used to transfer data from one computer to another.Credant conducted a similar survey last September among taxi drivers in New York and London and found that 12,500 handheld devices such as laptops, iPods and memory sticks were forgotten in the back of taxis every six months.Back to the London survey: One dry cleaner in the heart of the city said he gets an average of one USB stick every two weeks, and another said he found at least 80 last year.Other items found in clothes at the cleaners included Rolex watches, keys, money, credit cards and an envelope full of money.These devices being found by the wrong person opens the door, of course, to all kinds of security and identity theft problems.It should be noted that Credant will be exhibiting at April’s Infosecurity Europe 2009 in London, according to the firm's news release about the survey.