Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Consumer Confidence Lowest in 35 Years--A Bad Thing?

According to today's latest bulletin, consumer confidence data measures at a 35 year low. That means when boomers were wearing hiphuggers and halter tops, listening to ZZ Top and the Eagles and lamenting the hedonistic value of vacuum cleaners--consumer confidence was as bad as it is now. So it's the worse it's ever been for at least two generations of consumers.
We may be in for a Marathon rather than a 50 yard dash when it comes to economic recession. Before you assume that this is a hopeless race for which you are ill prepared, let's look on the upside of the downside of today's news.

  • The Stretch - When my husband and I married 20 years and five kids ago, I inherited $40,000 in consumer debt from his divorce. The upside was that I got two great stepdaughters out of the deal. But a total of seven kids to support and lots of debt was not fun for this broker-turned-bride. It was a stretch for me to give up my well paying career and take on the challenges of being a SAHM while trying to pay down debt on my husband's military salary. But being stretched isn't a bad thing, it gets us ready for the next phase.
  • Flexibility -- One of the ways this business backgrounded mom made ends meet was to become flexible in the way I managed money. I developed a sophisticated method of recognizing ways to save on everything from clothes to corn to cars--and it worked. Flexibility did not include miserly, cheapskate, wierd ways of saving money--like collecting tin foil balls or taking other people's leftover pizza home at a restaurant (my parents generation did that kind of thing). No, I preferred the savvy savings approach that didn't embarrass me or my family. I still wear Calvin Klein suits bought at the Nordstrom Rack for the same price as a Jacqueline Smith (disposible) suit other people would purchased at K-mart. (I don't shop at K-Mart--ever!) But... I do have a Wal-mart brocaded jacket that gets more compliments than my designer suits! It's all about savvy choices. In today's economy, there's a couple of generations of consumers who can step up to the starting line and learn this same kind of "saving money is cool" approach to life.
  • Endurance -- What did the easy-credit, low mortgage rates of the past few years do for consumers? Did it make couples stop arguing about money? Did it put their kids through college debt free? Did it improve their quality of life--especially NOW in light of today's recession? No, it didn't make life better, it only made it easier to get into debt by having a house that owns you (too much house) or escalating credit card bills that are cushioned with the idea that "my home equity can pay these bills if I get in a pinch." BAD, real bad. Now that the equity has deteriorated, it's time to learn the endurance part of running the great race. Learning how to cut back, curb impulse buys, be thoughtful and strategic in your spending and implementing a little-known thing called "self control" in money issues is a good possible outcome for a bad pronouncement. It depends on the choices consumers make at this point in time.
  • Finishing Well -- David Bach's best selling book, "Smart Women Finish Rich" is a must read for all consumers (guys can get in touch with their feminine side and make a buncha money in the process--just look at Tyler Perry). Finishing well, means finishing rich but being rich may not mean having a multi-million dollar home or a self-propagating portfolio. We all know miserable misers who saved themselves into delusional denigration (ever heard of Howard Hughes? Being rich can drive you nuts!) The kind of wealth I think most Americans want is to have a nice home that will be paid for at retirement, put their kids through college debt free and have the ability to pay the bills without worrying about nastygrams from creditors. That's rich, baby!
  • The Winners Circle -- OK, time for true confessions. My husband and I recently competed in the LA Marathon and finished. I didn't end up in the winners circle, but they create a similar circle for EVERYONE WHO FINISHES. You get a rose, a medal, & a sports massage. So, with my swollen toes, wilting rose, cramping calves and smiling husband, I could say as a forty-something year old mama of many--I finished the Marathon. Just don't ask me my time. There's a lot to be said about the finishing the process. If consumers will embrace the economic challenge that a 35 year low in confidence presents, then it can be a good thing. New generations of consumers, who have never had to put on their big girl panties (or big boy underwear) will have to step up and learn a thing or two about managing money and avoiding credit. It can be done and it can be done well so that we have a whole new circle of winners.

Run well, finish well, then celebrate!

Ellie Kay

America's Family Financial Expert (R)


Monday, March 17, 2008

Junk Mail Junkies

When Joshua was seven years old, he loved to check the mail for me, it was his "job." He would scour the letters, as most kids do, looking for mail for himself. I would ask my girlfriends to send him a letter, just so he could receive mail! One day, he was bringing in an arm full of junk mail and paused to sort through it, looking for that golden letter. All of the sudden, I heard a huge shout as he ran into the kitchen where I was working.
"Mama!" he was more excited than just getting a letter in his name, "Mama! We won! We won the publisher's clearinghouse! We won ten MILLION dollars!"

I looked at the junk mail in his hand, saw that it was the usual clever packaging, designed to fool adults with the IQ of a seven-year-old. It was just a chance to be entered into the contest if we bought magazines.

How many of us waste valuable time, energy, and effort going through all the junk in our e-boxes and mailboxes? Not to mention the phone calls that come in the middle of watching the fabulous HBO series on John Adams! If you're wasting effort in this area, it's time to stop the madness. Here are a few tips on how to keep the junk mail junkies from poisoning your life:
  • Listless - Get off mailing list by going to the Mail Preference Service registry of the Direct Marketing Association at http://www.dmachoice.org/ and select "Remove my name." This service is free and takes care of 80% of your problem with junk that arrives in the mail. It's good for three years at your current address, when you move, change it again.
  • Numberless- To stop telemarketing solicitors, go to the National Do Not Call registry at 1-888-382-1222 or go to http://www.donotcall.gov/ and register all your phone numbers. Don’t forget to register cel phone numbers as well because these numbers are now released to telemarketers and the consumer pays for the call. Telemarketers should not call your number once it has been on the registry for 30 days. If they do, you can file a complaint at this Website.
  • Formless - When you register a product, you are opening yourself up to a whole new realm of junk. Most of these forms are for recalls, so just don't fill them out, the same goes for contests and sweepstakes--those are like standing on the middle of a wildlife reserve with a piece of meat in your hand and a bunch of hungry lions under the nearby trees--you're just saying "come and get me!"
  • Creditless - Some of the most dangerous email are the preapproved credit forms you receive--these should be SHREDDED to avoid Identity Theft. If you call 888-567-8688 and give your social security number, you'll stop the mail and reduce your chance if ID theft.
  • Anonymous-When you sign up for your grocery store card or other frequent buyer programs, you can do so anonymously, without giving vital information. Use a different name, with no address, to protect your privacy.
  • Catalog-less-To opt out of catalogs (a frequent occurrance if you shop online), go to http://www.catalogchoice.org/ and stop the temptation from arriving in your mail.

A word of caution: the only instance in which you will give your social security info in order to opt out of junk is the credit card form. Do not ever release your SS # for any kind of other opt out.

Now, with all that extra time you have, go out and have a cup of coffee with a friend, take the time to enjoy those who enjoy your company because life is too short for high maintenance relationships or junk mail junkies!

Ellie Kay


America's Family Financial Expert (R)

Monday, March 10, 2008

Girl Time--Shop, Don't Flop

Girlfriends! You gotta love them. They are the ones who cry with us when we gain weight, have a fight with our hubbys or find out we paid full price for an item that went on sale the next day. They are also the ones who do the happy dance with us when we lose weight, have a nice date with our hubbys or find the world's best bargain on a new purse! I recently heard from my girlfriend, Brenda and she made me happy. You can see from the picture that she's prone to do that--a lot. She's a friend who I love to do three things with: shop, drink coffee and chocolate and have lunch! Shopping with our girlfriends can be a great way to save money, too, if you know how to shop and not flop when it comes to finding those bargains.

  • Clubbing – Warehouse clubs, like Sam's (my favorite) can be a great place to save but not if you overspend to get quantity discounts. Buy these items with a friend and each will take home half of the bounty with all of the savings.

  • Perishables –While you're at Sam's remember that produce is least expensive purchased in bulk and in season. For example, a bushel of peaches or flat of strawberries cost less than “by the pound” purchases. Go in on these big buys together and save even more.

  • Two Fers – Department stores often run “buy one item and get the another item for a discount.” One time Brenda and I bought a trendy shirt for $20 with the second one free—so we each only paid $10!

  • New Card Discounts – If you (or a friend) want to open a store charge account for convenience then do it on a day when you’re shopping together. There is usually a “first day” discount that can range from 10% to 25% off all purchases—including clearance items. Pay your friend the cash immediately for your purchases and encourage her to pay the charge account as soon as it arrives in the mail.

  • Coupons – After all that shopping and saving, it’s time to have lunch and rest. Go to http://www.entertainment.com/ for a coupon booklet that has local restaurant values or check the Sunday paper for the coupon inserts. When you use a coupon, share the savings and double the fun.

Happy Shopping!

Ellie Kay,

America's Family Financial Expert (R)