My book is out! Get it for free.

DWYD cover2013Deal with Your Debt” is now available, and I’m giving away five copies this week.

To enter to win, leave a comment here on my blog (not my Facebook page).

Click on the tab above the post that says “comments.” Make sure to include your email address, which won’t show up with your comment, but I’ll be able to see it.

If you haven’t commented before, it may take a little while for your comment to show up since comments are moderated.

The winners will be chosen at random Friday night. Over the weekend, please check your email (including your spam filter). If I don’t hear from a winner by noon Pacific time on Monday, his or her prize will be forfeited and I’ll pick another winner.

Also, check back here often for other giveaways.

The deadline to enter is midnight Pacific time on Friday. So–comment away!

Book giveaway! Free! Free!

DWYD cover2013My new book “Deal With Your Debt” will be released in a few days (you can order it here), and I need to make some room on the bookshelf. So I’m giving away five copies of my previous book, “The 10 Commandments of Money.”

To enter to win, leave a comment here on my blog (not my Facebook page).

Click on the tab above the post that says “comments.” Make sure to include your email address, which won’t show up with your comment, but I’ll be able to see it.

If you haven’t commented before, it may take a little while for your comment to show up since comments are moderated. But rest assured, it will.

The winners will be chosen at random Friday night. Over the weekend, please check your email (including your spam filter). If I don’t hear from a winner by noon Pacific time on Monday, his or her prize will be forfeited and I’ll pick another winner.

Also, check back here often for other giveaways.

The deadline to enter is midnight Pacific time on Friday. So–comment away!

The death knell for hotel rewards cards?

credit card detailed 1Rewards card ninjas have long loved hotel rewards cards because the associated loyalty programs tend to be a lot more generous and easy to use than airline cards.

That may be changing.

Brian Kelly at The Points Guy has an excellent series of posts on the coming changes in hotel rewards programs, and there’s not much good news. (You can start with his post “The State of Hotel Loyalty Programs: A Devaluation Story.”) Starwood and Marriott are diluting their programs, but some of the most dramatic changes are in the Hilton HHonors program, which will not only require more points for most stays but will upgrade a bunch of properties to higher, more expensive categories. Hotels like the Conrad Tokyo will go from 50,000 points per night to 80,000 to 95,000 points.

In a warning to hotel loyalty programs, Kelly says these changes could come back to haunt them:

As you hack away more and more of the value proposition, I think you’ll realize that consumers are actually pretty smart and will start shifting their spend towards chains that actually reward loyalty and not punish it. This may not come in the form of traditional points, but many boutique hotels offer far more enriching experiences with more amenities and at cheaper prices. This Hilton devaluation was so brazen that I do think it will hurt them dearly in the end when Amex and Citi cardholders reduce their spend or cancel their cards. In fact, if the impact is so negative, I could see those issuers coming after Hilton since there are likely clauses in the contracts that state that Hilton can’t materially change the program (since the credit card companies are buying millions of dollars worth of points that their cardholders can use at a later time and date). I’ll be complaining to both American Express and Citi about the Hilton changes and hope everyone else considers doing so as well if you don’t like the changes.

Even if you plan to stay loyal to your card, the program devaluations underscore what has always been true: you don’t want to hoard rewards. Earn ’em and burn ’em to make sure you get the most value.

Avoid tax refund ripoffs, and think twice about getting married

Tax refundMy recent MSN Money columns, in case you missed them:

How to avoid tax-return rip-offs Beware of promises to get your refund faster. Refund anticipation loans are gone, and what’s replaced them isn’t worth the cost.

Gay marriage can muddle finances Gay and in love? You might want to wait to marry.

‘Boomerang’ kids: Moving out again Household formation is on the rise and the kids who moved into their parents’ basements are finally able to move out on their own. Here’s what they, and their parents, need to know to avoid future boomerangs.

Simple retirement can be satisfying If you haven’t saved much for retirement, all is not lost as long as you’re willing to pursue a much simpler lifestyle than what you’re probably living now. One man who lives just such a life is happy he does.

 

Graduating without student loans is tough

Education savingsA few months ago I gave a verbal spanking to a woman who equated college loans with handouts. She wondered why people didn’t just delay college for a year and earn enough money to pay for their entire education, as she did back in the day.

I pointed out that there weren’t many jobs available to newly-minted high school graduates that paid $60,000, which is about the minimum you’d need to pay for a four-year degree today.

Apparently my reader isn’t the only one having trouble keeping up with the times. A recent New York Times story quoted Virginia Foxx, a Congresswoman from North Carolina who heads a House subcommittee on higher education and work force training, saying she was bewildered why people went into debt instead of working their way through school the way she did.

Here’s what Times writer Ron Lieber pointed out:

But students nowadays who try to work their way through college without parental support or loans face a financial challenge of a different order than the one that Ms. Foxx, 69, confronted as a University of North Carolina undergraduate more than 40 years ago. Today, a bachelor’s degree from Appalachian State, the largest university in her district, can easily cost $80,000 for a state resident, including tuition, room, board and other costs. Back in her day, the total was about $550 a year. Even with inflation, that would translate to just over $4,000 for each year it takes to earn a degree.

A plucky, lucky few manage to get through college with no loans or parental support. But many of those who try wind up dropping out, unable to balance the work hours required with the demands of school.

If you’re one of those who may be stuck trying to pay your own way, Zac Bissonnette’s book “Debt Free U” can provide helpful guidance. If you’re a parent or a policymaker, however, you should check your views about the viability of kids’ working their way through college with today’s realities.

Protect those who look after your kids

NannyA woman who works as a nanny and housekeeper wrote into the Wall Street Journal recently. Her employers had paid her under the table for years. As a result, at she’s facing retirement with only a miniscule Social Security benefit.

This drives me nuts. If you can afford to hire a nanny or a housekeeper, you can afford to pay her taxes.

Yes, you can.

The employer half of payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare is 7.65%. The cost of hiring someone to do the paperwork is around $500 a year. (I use the Nanny Tax Company, which charges a $100 one-time set up fee and a $475 annual preparation fee. Each additional employee after the first one is $125.) Those aren’t exorbitant sums. If you can afford to hire help, you can afford to pay the taxes that are legally required as a household employer.

(I’m assuming that your household help can legally work in the U.S. If that’s not the case, well—that’s a matter for a whole different column.)

There’s a line between frugal and cheap. You cross that line when you force other people to pay the price while you save money. The people you entrust with your children and your home deserve better.

Free money advice

Offering AdviceYou have questions about money–everybody does. Now you have the opportunity to get answers from some of the best financial planners in the business.

Fee-only planners from NAPFA, the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, will be answering your questions from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday, February 7 and Tuesday, February 12, 2013.

The events, hosted by Kiplinger, will include four chat rooms focusing on:

  • Taxes and retirement
  • Saving for retirement
  • Income in retirement
  • Other financial challenges
You’ll also be able to post questions on Twitter using the hashtag #JumpStartRetire.

 

Will surcharges kill rewards cards?

credit card detailed 1More gas stations in Los Angeles seem to be charging a premium to use a credit card. One 76 station near my home charges 20 cents more per gallon, to be precise.

I only noticed the difference after I swiped my card and was about to press the key to start the pump. I checked the station’s signage, and noticed the display advertising the “cash” price was a lot bigger than the one showing the “credit” price.

Technically, California has a law that’s supposed to prevent surcharges for plastic. But as my buddy David Lazarus has pointed out in his column, Section 1748.1 of the California Civil Code has some big fat loopholes. Gas stations get away with double pricing because they’re supposedly offering a discount for cash, not a surcharge for plastic.

Now that retailers elsewhere in the country can add surcharges to Visa and MasterCard transactions, the question is: will they?

Those of us who love our credit card rewards programs—including the rewards card ninjas I highlighted in my column this week—hope the answer is no. It wouldn’t take much of a surcharge to wipe out the value most people get from their rewards cards.

Brian Kelly, the founder of The Points Guy, says retailers who add surcharges could be shooting themselves in the foot.

“High-end consumers love their rewards,” Kelly said. Retailers who don’t add surcharges will have a competitive advantage, which could make attempts to impose the fees short-lived.

I know that I’ll vote with my feet. Once I noticed I was about to pay $4.09 cents a gallon, rather than the $3.89 I expected, I hung up the nozzle. I didn’t have to drive far to find a Mobil station that charged $3.89, cash or credit. Guess where I’ll be gassing up in the future?

 

 

The one money book you must read this year

pound-foolish-170x281You may not agree with everything Helaine Olen writes in her new book, “Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry.” That’s particularly true if you’re an uncritical fan of one of the personal finance gurus she skewers so effectively.

For the sake of your wallet, you should read the book anyway. She’s a friend of mine, so I’m biased, but the following sources are not:

  • The New York Times, which called “Pound Foolish” one of the rare “realistic and readable” books about personal finance.
  • The Washington Post’s Michelle Singletary, who says the book “provides a cautionary tale that you need to read.”
  • The Economist says it’s an “excellent book, a contemptuous exposé of the American personal-finance industry.”

Helaine articulates what too many of us in the financial media took too long to figure out: that your money problems may not be entirely your own fault. Most Americans have been fighting economic headwinds for decades. Incomes have stagnated or even fallen while costs for education and health care spiral relentless upward. People can work for years to build up economic security only to have it wiped out when they lose their jobs, get divorced, suffer disability or illness or simply retire at the wrong time.

Here’s how the New York Times reviewer summarized it:

What most advice fails to factor in — and what we often choose to overlook ourselves — are the costly realities of things like job loss, protracted unemployment, medical bankruptcy and high-interest debt. Even when we do save, plummeting interest rates, falling home prices and other economic events imperil our best efforts.

Yet some of the best-known financial advice-givers make millions pretending that anyone can save his or her way to financial security. Meanwhile, legions of commissioned salespeople posing as advisors fleece people out of billions more, selling overpriced insurance and investment products to people desperate for financial guarantees.

I’m not saying, as some commentators have, that saving is pointless or impossible on modest incomes. That just plays into the hands of those who contend that financial issues are entirely a matter of personal responsibility, since they (and I) can provide plenty of examples of people who have saved prodigious amounts on small incomes, even in high-cost areas.

What the “personal responsibility” folks are missing is how easy it is to lose those savings in the 21st century, especially if you weren’t born to the right parents or are otherwise are on the wrong side of the growing wealth and income disparities.

Simply put, there are limits to how much personal finance advice or “financial literacy” efforts can help people who don’t make much money, don’t have a lot of education or aren’t just plain lucky in the lottery of life.

Personal responsibility alone isn’t enough; we need some corporate responsibility and a government capable of enforcing regulations that ensure fair play. We need affordable, available health insurance to protect people from catastrophic medical bills; we need a strong Social Security system to prevent us from ending our days in poverty. Our kids need affordable educations so more of them have a shot at staying in the middle class without drowning themselves in student loan debt.

In short, we need to stop acting like we’re in this alone. We should continue contributing to our 401(k)s, but we—and those who advise us—shouldn’t pretend that’s all we need to do to ensure our financial futures.

Kids, ignore your elders: college is worth it

CollegeOld folks can offer wisdom about many things, but you might not want to trust them when it comes to 21st century economics.

I’m hearing too many older people espouse the view that college degrees aren’t as valuable these days because more people have them. They need an Econ 101 review. It’s true that the price or value of something may drop if the supply increases—but only if the demand for that thing does not increase as well.

In the case of college degrees, demand has risen dramatically. Part of that is because so many jobs that didn’t require degrees have been made obsolete by technology or been outsourced overseas. (When Grandpa says he knows lots of people who made good livings without post-high-school training, ask him what they did—and if those factories and union jobs still exist.)

But employers are pickier as well, using college degrees as a screening device for jobs that in the past didn’t require them.

It’s true that incomes for college graduates dropped during recent economic hard times and unemployment rose. But the situation was a lot worse for folks without a college degree, according to a Pew Charitable Trust report released yesterday.

Back to supply and demand: The demand for post-secondary educations helped push up the net cost of college during the 2000s. The College Board says the net price of college tuition (the sticker price minus financial aid) rose 75% between 2002 and 2011.

But now demand seems to be softening, according to a Moody’s Investor Service report, thanks to a tough economy and a smaller pool of high school students. As a result, more schools are freezing tuition costs or at least holding down the increases and offering more financial aid. That’s good news for those heading off to college in coming years.

None of this means a college degree is worth any price. Too many families are overdosing on debt to get educations they really can’t afford. Getting a good value also requires college students to pick their majors carefully, since some degrees are worth a lot more than others.

But college degrees are and will remain all but essential in the 21st century if you want to get ahead financial, or even just remain in the middle class. That wasn’t true in Grandpa’s day, but it’s true now.