Here’s a Way We Can Help the Economy: Buy Stuff Made in the USA

Trivia question: For the 2012 model year, which motor vehicle model uses the highest percentage of North American labor? (Note: This is a trick question)

Toyota Avalon – made in USA (mostly)

According to Todd Lipscomb of MadeInUSAForever.com, that would be the Toyota Avalon, with 85 percent of its labor occurring in North America*. Say what? Hey, why not? After all, most U.S. flags are made overseas, aren’t they? So why wouldn’t foreign automakers make stuff, or buy parts, here in order to save on supply chain costs? Globalization means just that – anything can come from anywhere in the world.

Wondering which American vehicle brands include the most North American labor? They would be the Chevy Express Van and GMC Savana at 82 percent, the Chevy Impala,

2012 Chevy Express

Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator at 80 percent. But Honda’s Accord and Crosstour use that percentage as well. Using between 79 and 77 percent North American labor are the Chrysler 200 convertible and Chrysler’s two large minivans (an oxymoron if ever I wrote one).

The point is this; a lot of American-made stuff is at best mostly made in America. The Consumer Gal and I recently bought a set of Tramontina made-in-America pans at Costco. So far, we really like the pans. Tramontina USA is located in Texas. It makes its cookware in Wisconsin. Its parent company is in . . . Brazil. So while the manufacturing jobs are in Wisconsin, and the office jobs are in Texas, the profits go to Brazil. This is the definition of globalization.

As far as I am concerned, the most important aspect of this is where the jobs are, especially in this economy.

A few years ago I got a call from Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa. Unable to answer the trivia question on their Live! TV show, I received a set of All-Clad cookware. It’s made in Pennsylvania. But the package did not say “Made in USA.” Why? Because the handles are made elsewhere and the Federal Trade Commission requires that almost all – as in 95 percent – of a product’s value must have been created in this country in order for it to wear the Made in USA label. So, the Pennsylvania cookware is not “Made in USA,” while the Brazilian cookware is.

We recently bought a memory foam mattress topper that was made in the America and put it on top of our new memory foam mattress that came from Southern California but, alas, we soon learned, came from China.

What to do? Well, if you give a rat’s behind about where stuff is made, read the labels. Appliances, for instance, are often made here. Whirlpool, Maytag and Kitchen Aid, all from Whirlpool Corporation, are mostly made here, (with the exclusion of all their microwave ovens). Some Fisher and Paykel (a New Zealand company) laundry appliances are made here, along with the upscale Viking, Wolf and Sub-Zero brands.

If you are looking for American-made products, here are some sites to try:

www.StillMadeinUSA.com

www.MadeInUSAForever.com

www.madeinusa.org

As for me, the next time I need jeans (or dungarees, as we used to call them) I’m going to bypass Costco’s 14-dollar pants and try a pair of Texas Jeans, made, ironically, in North Carolina. And I’ll be happy to spend 30 buckaroos on them.

Sometimes patriotism comes at a (retail) price.

Happy shopping.

 

*I use North America instead of just the United States as a criterion since Mexico and Canada have no auto industries of their own, U.S. automakers do some assembly in those two countries. It’s a matter of, “since you buy our cars we’ll do some assembly over the border.” It’s quid pro quo.

 

 

 

 

 

Online Reviews are Great . . . Maybe

When you check product or service reviews online, whether at retailer sites or through rating services like Yelp!, how can you tell if they are honest or just a lot of hype? You can’t for sure. But there are ways to parse what’s being said and maybe get a better view of the purchase you’re considering.

If you are the proprietor of, say, a restaurant, how likely are you to ask friends and relatives to post glittering reviews of your establishment? Plenty. How can any normal person resist the temptation to juice the results unless their ethical standards are so high as to make Nelson Mandela jealous.

Ah, you say, at least I can trust the negative reviews. Not so fast. How do you know the competition isn’t writing bad reviews?

According to an article in the Bottom Line Personal, February 15, 2012 edition, 80 percent of Internet shoppers change their minds about what they’re spending their money on after reading online reviews.

In the article, Jeffrey Hancock, a professor at Cornell University’s communications department, recommends that readers look for certain indicators that are most likely to indicate a legitimate review. His tips are the result of a recent study.

  • The review makes reference to space, size or distance. For example, the distance a hotel or restaurant is from another site. That a product was large or small. That a hotel room is tiny. Lacking distance or dimension references is common among fabricated reviews.
  • When you see a reference on a site that indicates how many shoppers found a particular review helpful, look for ones with high percentages..
  • Go to other sites and see if their reviews are fairly consistent. If they are incompatible, be suspicious.
  • “Beware of reviews offering strong opinions but few specifics,” says Hancock. And without specifics, you cannot tell if what bothered a particular reviewer is something that would be important to you.
  • Be most willing to trust reviews from folks whom the site confirms as verified customer. For example, Amazon (a company of which I am not fond for a series of unrelated ethical reasons) labels a review “Amazon Verified Purchaser,” at least you know that the reviewer actually bought the product. Some travel web sites that book hotel reservations allow only purchasers to review hotels. Trip Advisor, on the other hand, has no such requirement.
  • I always read the negative reviews looking for specifics, even if there are mostly good ones. It could be that what displeased just a few people just might be the flaw that you are trying to avoid.
  • According to Jeffrey Hancock, you can pretty much trust the overall score if at least 50 people reviewed the product or service.
  • Balanced reviews are not always honest. Savvy fakers will sometimes give four out of five stars and mention a minor flaw just to look legit.
  • Hancock warns that rating sites for doctors are not yet up to snuff. So don’t trust them. I prefer to use healthcare providers or trustworthy friends for referrals. If you live in a city that is serviced by the Checkbook nonprofit, as I do, that’s a good place to start as well.
  • Don’t trust reviews from folks who are labeled as among the site’s “Top Reviewers.” According to Hancock, marketers target these reviewers with freebies. If the marketers’ products don’t get good reviews, the handouts halt. So how do you know?  Look at other reviews by these reviewers. They should be balanced fairly well between positive, middling and negative reviews. On Amazon, click on “See all my reviews.” If the review is labeled “Amazon Vine” it means the product just sprouted up in the reviewer’s backyard; that is, the reviewers got the item free.

There are no guarantees that what you read is what you get. So caveat emptor for products, services, and reviews is a good idea.

For more stuff on this topic, visit www.ReviewSkeptic.com. You can perform an automatic evaluation of  Trip Advisor reviews there. The site intends to expand this service soon.

A Web Site for Reporting and for Researching Dangerous Products

I am a devotee of Whirlpool appliances. Until recently, I had never owned a Whirlpool, or Whirlpool-made, product that needed to be replaced. Our Kenmore refrigerator was manufactured by Whirlpool. I do not, however, have an opinion on Kitchen Aid or Maytag – also Whirlpool brands – one way or the other.

Last year the Consumer Gal and I bought a Whirlpool gas range and microwave oven/hood. Both products worked well until the mounting blocks that attach the microwave handle to the door began to crumble after a few months. Whirlpool replaced the door.

A few more months and the bottom handle block repeated its demise. Once again Whirlpool replaced the door. When a piece of the bottom block on the third door fell into a frying pan just below it on the range, I had had enough. Wheat if I weren’t watching and the plastic piece, about the size of a nickel, had gotten mixed into the food I was cooking?

I concluded that this was a hazard caused by hit rising from the range and making its way around the pots and/or pans, rising up to heat the plastic blocks, thereby inducing their disintegration. I reported the incidents to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. It found no similar complaints, which dismays me. I know I cannot be alone with this problem. I can only surmise that other folks with this experience just allowed the plastic blocks to go their separate ways and decided to live with the attachment screws, which the blocks hid from view, to show between the handle and the door.

When I applied heat to Whirlpool, it allowed me to exchange the Whirlpool microwave for a similar Maytag model, but one with a steel handle (and a nifty turntable that works with oblong baking dishes).

Recently I discovered a government web site that allows consumers to easily file complaints about unsafe products and to look up products with which consumers may have had dangerous experiences. It’s at www.saferproducts.gov.

Fron CPSC web site
Consumer Product Safetwy Commission recalled items

Here are a couple of caveats: Don’t assume that every reported complaint will be posted on the site. My oven handle complaint is not. On the other hand, don’t assume that one or two posted complaints mean that an entire product line is unsafe. When hundreds of thousands of a particular product come off production lines there is always the possibility of a fluke or two.

My own preference for checking the reliability of major products like cameras, TVs, cars, and the like is Consumer Reports. You can all check retailer web sites for customer reviews.

The buysafeeatwell.org blog gives the example of a particular child’s ball that has a tendency to burst and release a toxic liquid. Now that’s something you’re not going to find in Consumer Reports.

So, if you are a consumer maven like me, you might want to bookmark the government site for your own sake and that of others. Remember, that reporting you own experiences with unsafe products you may be saving others from a lot of grief. And if you are looking for a nifty way to waste some time, the site has a monthly roundup of recalled items.

“Green” Vehicles, “Mean” Vehicles, and the Ones in Between

I am not a fan of the term “green vehicle” unless we’re talking about an electric bus or train. They all use fuel and contribute to a variety of pollution in some way. But the nonprofit American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) has nevertheless put out its latest report on those passenger vehicles that do the least harm to the environment overall.

It is important to remember that it’s not just about the amount of energy the car sucks up that counts toward a green rating. It’s also about the amount of pollution that comes out, not only when you’re driving it, but while it is being manufactured and deconstructed when your jalopy meets its heavenly (or maybe Detroit, Japan or Bavaria) maker at life’s end.

Not every model, by far, in ACEEE’s top ten list of greenest cars is a hybrid or an all-electric. Have you heard of the i-MiEV? I don’t even know how to pronounce it. It’s from Mitsubishi. And it’s the highest rated set of wheels, with an ACEEE Green Score of 58. I find this ironic because

Most fuel-efficient vehicle

The Mitsubishi i-MiEV has an estimated driving range of 62 miles.

Mitsubishi is a mega-conglomerate that has had its share of controversy for not being a very green company.

You’re probably thinking that Nissan’s all-electric Leaf has to be somewhere near the top of the list. It’s actually tied with – no, not the Prius, the Honda – no, not the Civic Hybrid, but the Civic Natural Gas, with scores of 55.

The Prius trails them by one point (54 – but the new Prius V station wagon gets a 51), followed by the Honda Insight and the Smart FourTwo (53), the Civic Hybrid (52) respectively. Then come a few surprises. The Toyota Camry Hybrid ties the Civic and the Lexus CT 200h trails them by only a point.

Here are some very important variants to consider, however. The Smart ForTwo is the least expensive of the bunch but it’s slightly more roomy than my home recycle bin and Consumer Reports is not fond of its performance. Hybrids sell at a premium and electric cars cost even more – a lot more.

Only three of the 27 hybrids tested have a total cost of ownership over a five-year period that would make them less expensive to own than their all gasoline brethren. For me, that’s not very important because I keep my cars until they plead to be euthanized. The three are the Camry, the Insight and, hold onto your hat, the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid. The latter is so only because it saves on operating costs compared to other luxury vehicles.

This stuff can be more complicated than you might otherwise guess. So allow me to guide you to the Green Cars site, where you can peruse the data in detail: www.greenercars.org.

If you are looking to do the right thing environmentally speaking, that’s the place to go.

Oh yes, the worst offenders? The Chevy and Ford big trucks and the Bugatti Veyron with its 8 liter engine (really?). I guess the Bugatti is vying for a role in the space program.

My advice? Check out a two-year-old Prius or Insight that’s still under warranty. Happy shopping.

 

 

 

Buy a Starbucks Prepaid Card: Give up your Rights as a Consumer

I think I just figured out the meaning of Starbucks’s name. Buck$ are its star. Several public interest groups, including Public Citizen, Alliance for Justice, National Association of Consumer Advocates, and National Consumers League, have started a campaign to protect consumers who purchase Starbucks gift cards.

Personally, I think that while they’re at it they should protect consumers from Starbucks’s coffee itself. Have you ever had drip coffee that was left on the warming plate so long it tastes like someone had taken a blowtorch to it? I believe Starbucks has used that method to sell overpriced coffee to America. But I digress. It’s not about my taste.

Starbucks now not only burns its coffee (at least they came up with their “blonde” roast, so you can get not-burned overpriced coffee); it potentially burns its prepaid card customers. When consumers pay for such a card, they are agreeing to settle any disputes concerning the card by arbitration. And if a dispute arises that concerns thousands, or even millions, of its customers, those caffeine junkies are precluded from joining together in a class action lawsuit. You would have to argue your own trivial case before a Starbucks-chosen arbitrator . . . in Seattle! Good luck with that. This constitutes grounds (I couldn’t resist) for outrage!

As you may be aware, more and more contracts contain corporate language that says the customer may not sue and may not join lawsuit classes that pursue unified redress. As Public Citizen News puts it in the January/February issue: “If Starbucks rips off every cardholder by a few dollars, it would mean millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains – with no accountability for Starbucks.”

Public Citizen even circulated an Internet petition for those who were foaming at the mouth about this injustice. Unfortunately, that petition is now closed.

        So what’s the big deal? Forced arbitration clauses mean that the consumer has to rely on a would-be impartial arbiter to make a judgment. The trouble is that these deciders often depend on the businesses that selected them for repeat business. So, let’s say, Starbucks charges a hidden fee on the use of the card. If each customer buys several cards per year and there are millions of such customers, the company reaps the benefits knowing there is virtually no chance that any one customer – no matter how much anger is percolating in his bean – will initiate an action for arbitration.

In case you think that such a contingency is unlikely, you should know that last November Massachusetts fined the caffeine conglomerate for unlawfully charging customers a hidden $1.50 fee on bags of coffee of less than one pound.

So here’s the upshot . . . make that a double shot: If you are about to sign any agreement or contract, read it first, especially if it involves your money. Second, don’t sign it if you are not comfortable with the terms. And (this makes it a triple shot) always check the receipt to be sure you were not overcharged (or undercharged – c’mon, be ethical).

And one more thing for you to get steamed about –skip the venti mocha cappuccino with whipped cream. It’s fattening, sugar-loaded dessert, not a beverage.

 

Frequent Flier Miles About to Crash? You Might be Able to Save Them

Who ever thought that over the decades frequent flier programs would become so expansive and complicated? And with time limits on accounts becoming so common, many airlines are adopting use-it-or-lose-it policies.

If you are concerned about your hard-earned (read: “paid for”) miles flying away, here are some tips for clipping their wings.

Be sure that each frequent flier program to which you belong has your up-to-date email address. If the programs are unable to notify you of expiring miles, you may forget about those miles before they leave the nest.

My Delta Airlines SkyMiles program has a list of the two credit cards (debit cards work as well) I commonly use. If I charge a purchase at an eatery affiliated with SkyMiles, the program is notified by the credit card company and the miles accrue to my account. By having semi-regular activity in that account all my miles stay active.

As Tim Winship of www.FrequentFier.com advises, if you use multiple accounts – including ones in various family members’ names – consider assigning each of your cards to a different dining program. Then you can pay with various cards in order to extend expiration dates as needed.

Some programs also include chain retailers in their programs, making it easy to add to – and update – accrued miles.

Airlines also partner with banks to offer credit card programs with the airlines’ name and affiliation, but operated by the banks. But unless you spend more time in the air than an albatross, their annual fees could be prohibitive. If you are not that frequent a frequent flier, you might want to take the airline up on a first-year-free offer and then dump the card by your first anniversary. You’ll get the promotional miles, which will extend the expiration date in your account.

Market research companies are another way to earn miles or, better yet, revive about-to-expire miles. The reason I say “better yet” is because these sites require you to take marketing surveys that can be time consuming because you have to take a lot of surveys in order to reach a certain threshold before they will credit your mileage account. e-miles.com, for example, is affiliated with a whole bunch of airline programs. A five-minute survey might earn you 15 points or miles. You’d have to take about 33 such surveys in order to hit their 500-point threshold. It’s a time-consuming way to earn about five bucks worth of points. But if it will save you thousands of already-accrued miles, that’s a plane of a different feather.

Another way to keep your mileage boat afloat (or is it a-wing?) is by taking up the airlines on reducing your miles by using them to purchase something from their “store.” I have done that by buying a one-year subscription to Conde Nast Traveler. It cost me very few miles. I thereby preserved the rest of the miles in that account until the next deadline. Some airlines will allow you to make minimal donations to charities as well.

For lots of tips on frequent flier programs, check out that www.frequentflier.com site.

Santa Clara County, California to set Healthful Nutrition Standards

I live in San Jose. It’s a city of almost one million people. If you don’t know it, San Jose accounts for most of the population of Santa Clara County. Most of Silicon Valley resides in this county. You may have heard of some of the corporations that reside here: Apple, Cisco Systems, Intel, HP, eBay, Netflix. The list is almost endless. There is a lot of money in this area. And while there are a lot of vegetarian and vegan eateries in which the more-educated and health-conscious can chow down, people here seem to be getting fatter, just like the rest of America.

County facilities themselves have not been doing a great job of limiting junk –or at least junky – food. Until now, that is. The county board of supervisors is embarking on a policy to reduce the county’s role as an enabler of people’s bad dietary habits. The idea is to set nutritional standards for any edibles or potables that are offered at county facilities.

Can vending machines become a source of good nutrition?

Vending machines at government facilities already have a 50-percent minimum healthful content requirement. In a pilot program, officials had a vending contractor load one machine in the county building with only items meeting the better nutrition standards. Over the course of a year this machine generated the most revenue by far of any machine in the building. While revenues from all other vending devices dropped, the income from the pilot machine more than compensated.

Starting next July, jails, probation facilities, and even the county fair will have to clean up – or at least tidy up – their acts. In an article in February 28, 2012 San Jose Mercury News, reporter Tracy Seipel quotes Supervisor Ken Yeager, who introduced the regulation: “When you think of how any meals are served to people under custodial care, particularly younger people, and in hospitals, why not give them more nutritional foods?”

Santa Clara County serves four million jail meals annually. The senior nutrition program serves 1.2 million meals. County probation provides about half a million meals and the medical center sells almost that many in its eateries in addition to the 300,000 it provides patients. In all, the county generates about six million meals.

Even event producers at the fair grounds will have to bring in food concessions that offer selections meeting the more healthful guidelines.

California is famous – and sometimes notorious – for being innovative. In keeping with that tradition, this local reform could set the standard – or at least start the ball rolling – toward better nutrition nationwide.

This isn’t the first time the county has been at the forefront of healthy living. In 2005, it adopted a healthful food and beverage vending policy. In 2008, it adopted a very effective menu-labeling ordinance for chain restaurants. In 2010 the state passed a similar menu labeling law.

Also in 2010, Santa Clara County became the first in the United States to enact an ordinance requiring minimum nutrition standards for food offered as part of restaurant so-called “kids’ meals.”

Funding for the new program is paid for by a 2010 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to the County Public Health Department. The new nutritional standards are part of the county’s obesity-prevention efforts that support public health goals of reducing obesity, increasing physical activity and improving nutrition.[*]

According to county public health officer Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, more than half the adults and more than a quarter of the middle and high school students in Santa Clara County are overweight or obese.

The idea behind this new policy is to offer better nutrition options for everyone. That means hamburgers and pizzas offered at county venues will contain more healthful ingredients. Vending machines will contain fewer fried chips, sugary sodas and candy.

Among the nutritional standards are:

  • Increased  fresh fruit and vegetable offerings
  • Milk with one percent or lower fat content
  • Lower fat-content foods
  • No beverages with added sugar
  • Minimal or zero processed foods
  • Low sodium content
  • Reduced amounts of fried foods
  • No trans fats

As a commissioner on the county’s volunteer Advisory Commission on Consumer Affairs (I do not speak for the commission in this article) I applaud this progressive and meaningful effort.

Now perhaps someone can explain this to me: The state does not charge sales tax for potato chips, candy, and 10-percent fruit juice beverages because they are “foods”, but it does charge taxes on vitamins, nutritional supplements and over-the-counter remedies like aspirin, antacids and allergy medicines.

It’s my hope that the county in which I live will set a new standard for California and, subsequently, the country, by being a role model for government sponsored nutrition programs. With wise leadership, such efforts should cost governments virtually nothing and save them money in the long run by reducing healthcare costs.

I can dream can’t I?



[*] For anyone interested in the details of the nutrition standards, here you go:

http://www.sccgov.org/keyboard/attachments/BOS%20Agenda/2012/February%2028,%202012/203860359/TMPKeyboard203876916.pdf

 

Here Come the Tax Scams

It’s that time of year again. No, I am not referring to George Washington’s birthday. Nor those of Drew Barrymore, Vijay Singh, Dr. J, Ted Kennedy, or Lord Baden-Powell (dudes . . . he founded the Boy Scouts!). It’s time to prep your bits of paper and checkbook registers for your tax returns. Each year the Internal Revenue Service does us all a favor by offering a dirty duodeciscam (as in a dozen scams) list. “Taxpayers should be careful and avoid falling into a trap with the Dirty Dozen. Scam artists will tempt people in person, on line and by email with misleading promises, about lost and free money. Don’t be fooled by these scams,” Says IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman.

1) Identity theft: If you suspect that your identity has been stolen, notify the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit at www.IRS.gov/identitytheft.  If you do so in time you might prevent a rogue from reaping a refund in your name, even if you do not have a refund coming.

2) Phishing. As many of you know, this is not a typo. And it is not related to Price-Pfister, the faucet company. It’s a solicitation that looks exactly like an official email from a government agency or a legitimate company with which you might have done business. The phishing email asks for personal information about you and various account numbers. If you receive an email that appears to be from the IRS and asks you for any personal information, do not respond. Instead, forward it to phishing@irs.gov. It’s a good idea to not provide such information to any business that asks for it in an email.

3) Illegitimate Tax Preparers. If you use a professional to prepare your taxes, check that person or business out before hiring. As the IRS puts it: “Questionable tax preparers have been known to skim off their clients’ refunds, charge inflated fees, and attract new clients by promising guaranteed or inflated refunds . . . In 2012 every paid preparer needs to have a Preparer Tax Identification Number and enter it  on the returns he or she prepares.” Here are some indications that preparers may not be on the up and up: They don’t sign the return or include their tax preparer number; Failure to give you a copy of your return; Promise of a larger-than-expected refund; Charges you a percentage of your refund as a fee; Asks you to split the refund; Adds forms to the return that you never filed before even though your status has not changed; They encourage you to place false information on your return.

4) Hiding Income Offshore. This usually applies to taxpayers (or cheats) with substantial resources. Many people have evaded taxes by hiding income in foreign banks, brokerage accounts and other schemes including foreign trusts, employee-leasing schemes, annuities or insurance plans. Now we all love the IRS, so we’re happy that they have lots of investigators who pursue taxpayers with undeclared accounts, as well as the enablers who assist them in their nefarious undertakings. If you have such offshore holdings, you are required to report the. If you don’t and you get caught, you will most likely have to pay through the nose or some other orifice.

5) Free Money From the IRS. Come on, what other kind of money can be given away? Money that you have to pay for? Scammer have been circulating flyers at community churches or spreading word among low-income people and the elderly. Here’s how the scam works. They let folks know that the government has a money giveaway program. All you have to do is apply. They charge the dupe a fee, help them fill out a form and then disappear. One of the scams involves having the victim apply for a Social Security refund that doesn’t exist.

6) False Income and Expenses. This is a really good way to be called in for an audit. I went through a small such audit a long time ago. I ended up owing nothing but it was a pain in the neck and several other body parts. And if you owe money as a result you will be very, very unhappy. This scam works thus: You claim more income than you actually made and then make false claims about your expenses in order to maximize refundable credits and then get an increased refund. In addition, says the IRS, some taxpayers are filing excessive claims for the fuel tax credit. Doing so could result in having to repay the refunds plus interest plus penalties. Good luck with that.

7) False Form 1099 Refund .Truthfully, I don’t quite understand this. But if you are thinking of filing a false information return like a 1099 Original Issue Discount (OID) to justify a false refund claim, don’t do it.

8) Frivolous Agreements. “Promoters of frivolous schemes encourage taxpayers to make unreasonable and outlandish claims to avoid paying taxes they owe. The IRS has a list of frivolous tax arguments that taxpayers should avoid.” They have been thrown out of court, so don’t bother.

9) Falsely Claiming Zero Wages. Typically, a filer submits a Form 4852 or a “corrected” Form 1099 that reduces income to zero, sometimes submitting statutory language as an explanation as to why the filer does not consider certain income as wages. Sometimes they blame a paying company for not issuing a corrected 1099. In addition to other penalties there is a $5,000 penalty.

10)  Abuse of Charitable Organizations and Deductions. In a nutshell, here’s what not to do. Don’t claim deductions for contribution to charities over assets that you still control or from which you still make income. Don’t overvalue non-cash assets that you donate. If you donate non-cash assets, make sure you are not claiming the value on one set of donated items that other entities are also claiming.

11) Disguised corporate ownership. In this scheme, third parties request employer identification numbers and form corporations that obscure the true ownership of a business. Then they underreport income, claim fictitious deductions, avoid filing tax returns and pull off all sorts of other scams, like money laundering. The IRS is now working with state authorities to identify such cons.

12)  Misuse of Trusts. Trusts serve all kinds of use purposes, including some that legitimately aid folks in reducing tax burdens. But – and here comes my big but – the IRS has seen an increase in the use of trusts like private annuity trusts and foreign trusts in order to shift income and deduct personal expenses. If you are planning to use a trust, seek the help of a legitimate attorney who specializes in such vehicles and include advice from a financial professional as well.

 

A Couple of Controversies Concerning Conventional Car Care

Part 1

You are Probably Changing Your Oil too Frequently

How frequently do you change your motor oil? Every 3,000 miles? 4,000? 5,000? Your local oil change shop probably advises you to change your oil every 3,000 miles. They are so thoughtful they even put a transparent sticker on the corner of your windshield telling you to bring your car back in when the odometer hits certain mileage.

Listen to your manual, not your oil change retailer
Photo: Wikipedia

I used to do it every 4,000 miles because calculating 4,000 requires no brain power. But since the California Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery launched its Check Your Number campaign, I have been reformed. Check Your Number urges drivers to go with manufacturers’ recommendations for oil changes. Many newer vehicles, in fact, have devices built in that calculate when your next oil change should take place. My 2007 Honda Element has an indicator in the odometer that tells me the amount of oil life remaining based on how I drive and how many miles I have gone. For me, it’s at about 5,000-mile intervals. If I did more long distance driving it would extend the oil life even more. My 2001 Toyota Solara does not have that feature. The manual allows me up to 7,500 miles, but that applies to ideal driving conditions. Since most of the Consumer Gal’s and my driving in that car is of distances ranging between one and seven miles, I recently switched to oil changes at 5,000 mile intervals.

Why is all this so important? There are three reasons.

1) Nearly 40 percent of the pollution in America’s waterways is from used motor oil. One gallon of used motor can pollute one million gallons of water.

2) Changing oil less frequently saves the consumer money. If you change your oil, as an example, every 5,000 miles instead of 3,000, you get two-thirds more for your money.

3) Consuming petroleum products adds to the demand for fossil fuels, which our country can ill afford for a variety of reasons.

So check your owner’s manual and follow its recommendations. For more information, go to the Check Your Number web site at www.checkyour number.org. It’s aimed at Californians but you most of it applies to you no matter where you live.

The ten states that prohibit credit card surcharges are :

California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Oklahoma and Texas.

 

 Part 2

Credit Card Surcharges at Gas Statiions

How do gas stations get away with charging more for credit card purchases? Sloppily written laws, that’s how. Ten

Gas prices higher for credit cards
Photo: KPBS, San Diego (Glenn Batuyong)

states prohibit surcharges, also called checkout fees (see below). Under California law, for example, a retailer may not charge a fee for using credit cards. But with a loophole the size of the Van Allen radiation belt, they may offer discounts for using cash. This is what I call a scam, especially when the huge price sign required for gas stations in the Golden State sometimes show the discount price, with a tiny sign below showing the “full” (read “credit card”) price. Adding insult to injury, ARCO stations in California do not accept credit cards. They do, however, accept debit cards if the consumer pays a flat fee (35 cents the last time I looked) for using the debit card.

According to the California Department of Consumer Affairs, the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACSO) makes the case that credit card companies charge gas merchants about two percent for each transaction (Duh!), so they need to pass that cost along to their customers. The fallacy with this argument is that most gas stations, as well as printers, plumbers and pizza parlors, just figure the expense of credit cards into their prices without passing the costs along to just their credit card customers. Look at it this way; if you were to purchase a $500 TV set with a credit card at Best Buy, and the store were to charge you an additional 10 bucks for using the card, you’d be pretty ticked off. You might even leave in order to look around for a better deal. And, after all, credit cards bring more business into the stations and simplify their accounting by automating those purchases and generating computerized bookkeeping. On its web site, Visa explains that it does not allow its merchants to surcharge customers for using its card, but does not have a policy on cash discounts. My advice to you: skip retailers that charge extra for credit card usage and find stations that even the playing field. Here are the ten states that prohibit checkout fees: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Oklahoma and Texas.

Coupons: Money Makers or Cash Costers?

Lots of folks use coupons. They save you money, right? Sometimes. Manufacturers of retail items, with the exception of the U.S. auto industry, have typically been pretty smart. So they are not giving away the store. The idea behind coupons is to lure you to their products, or to create demand for new ones.

Photo: U-Haul Trucking Rental

I seldom use coupons because they are usually for stuff I don’t need, stuff that’s overpriced to begin with, or “foods” that are bad for me.

The Consumer Gal and I enjoy tea. My wife especially likes herbal teas. I recently came across a one-dollar coupon in the Sunday newspaper for Celestial Seasonings tea. When I saw that my supermarket “club” card price gave a dollar discount, I piled on my coupon and got the $2.99 box of tea for one buck.

On the other hand, I have a one-dollar coupon for “WhoNu?” cookies. It’s a new line of cookies from Suncore Products. They‘re marketed as a nutrition-rich treat, containing fiber, protein, nutrients, yada, yada, yada. My Consumer Guy curiosity (and my sweet tooth) has gotten the best of me. So I will take that tooth to the market and check it out. But here is the caveat. I’ll check the after-coupon price. If I’m not going to save a buck compared to my normal gamut of after-dinner, low-fat goodies, I ain’t buying. And I’m not sure that WhoNus are low in fat.

The primary source of food in our home is Trader Joe’s. Excellent prices and a great array of healthful, vegetarian items are why. TJ sells a huge percentage of stuff bearing its own brand, which allows it to keep prices down. As for name brands, TJ accepts coupons.

We rarely buy foodstuffs we wouldn’t ordinarily buy just because we have coupons. If you don’t stick to that commitment, you could be in for a world of financial hurt. (Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration.)

If I can buy a can of beans at TJ or Safeway that bears the stores’ labels and pay 89 cents for them, but I can get 25 cents off a can of S&W beans with a coupon, which way should I go? That depends. If the S&W beans cost a dollar with the coupon, you know which way I’m going. But if you simply like the taste of the S&W’s better, enjoy yourself! Of course, coupons don’t only apply to grocery items. I collect coupons for restaurants from the Sunday paper. On occasion I buy a Groupon. But I make it a point never to do so for a restaurant or other establishment where I would not otherwise be spending my money (unless I’m interested in trying a new place.

I have about 150 old LP and cassette music albums (for the youngsters out there, they are ancient forms of recorded albums from the days before CDs came along). Kohl’s was selling a device that allows listeners to play their LPs and cassettes and to record them onto CDs. It cost almost $170, a very good sale price. But for each $50 spent, Kohl’s issued the consumer $10 in Kohl’s Cash, which is essentially a coupon. So, with my $30in Kohl’s Cash I bought a $25 plush bathrobe and a $12 pair of slippers – both on sale (of course). They came to about 40 bucks, including sales tax. I ended up forking over only $10 out of pocket for stuff I needed. By the way, man, I’m really diggin’ listenin’ to my old vinyls and trippin’ back to the days when most of rock was real music.

That’s the upside of coupons. Here are some downers:

  • They induce us to buy junk foods and beverages like potato chips, candy, soda and juice drinks;
  • They induce us to buy additional stuff we don’t need or really want;
  • And, according to financial journalist Faroosh Torabi (www.farnoosh.tv) using coupons often seduces us into spending the money we saved, and more, on other stuff. In the September 1, 2011 issue of Bottom Line Personal¸ she refers a Harvard Business School study that show online shoppers who use a $10 coupon tend to spend $1.59 more than those who don’t use the coupon.
  • Bed Bath and Beyond offers 20 percent off coupons which are frequently a great deal. But you need to compare the pre-coupon price of what you’re buying. While some stuff at BBB is priced well, I have also seen items there for two or three times the price I have seen at Target or Costco.

Here’s something else to watch out for – coupon web sites. I find that frequently they offer coupons good at vendor web sites, which are nothing more than the same offer already available from the vendors. I just ordered a ladder from the Home Depot site that was selling for $168. I checked with several coupon sites. They offered me free-shipping coupons for Home Depot on products that cost at least $45. That’s the exact same deal that Home Depot was offering with no coupon requirement. The best way to get the best price on a particular item is to use one of the discount price comparison sites like Buy.com, ebates.com, or one of the many others. I bought the special- order ladder from Home Depot’s web site because there is a Home Depot store near my home and I can return it there if it doesn’t meet my expectations. Plus, they deliver it right to my house.

In summary, a coupon is only a bargain if it’s for something you already want and you can’t get another, equivalent item for less.