Monday, April 24, 2006

A very annoying form of rebate

David got a new cell phone and plan last month from Cingular which came with a $20 rebate. We did all the usual annoying rebate stuff, including waiting close to two months for the refund, which arrived Friday. But here's a twist: Instead of the check I expected, what arrived is a prepaid Visa card, preloaded with the $20 rebate.

I think that's pretty obnoxious, because it'll be hard to use all $20. The letter it came with suggests that if you want to use the card for a purchase of more than $20, you request that the merchant run the purchase twice, once for $20 and then once for the rest of the balance, paid with cash or another credit card/check. I've occasionally split bills in weird ways at restaurants, but I've never tried such a thing in retail shops, and I can't imagine it would get a terribly favorable response.

The poetically just thing to do, ofc, would be to use the prepaid card to pay $20 of David's next Cingular bill and force them to handle the split payment. We have the monthly bill set to automatically charge to our Amex. I wonder if it's worth wranging with Cingular customer service to skip the autobill next month and pay with the prepaid card.

Probably not.


Friday, April 21, 2006

What do you really need in your 'emergency' fund?

The question came up this week in a chat area I frequent: When do you declare your emergency fund full? Financial pundits like to throw around suggestions about 'have three/six/eight/a bazillion months of cash on hand,' but what are people really setting aside as a cushion?

Here's an article on the topic I like: The $0 emergency fund. The author's argument is that these days, with easy credit and all sorts of savings and investment options available to regular consumers, what you really need isn't cash but flexibility.

Jonathan Clements of The Wall Street Journal drew a lot of heat a few years ago when he confessed to keeping only a month's worth of expenses in his emergency fund. He wanted his money working for him in the markets, not disappearing inch by inch as taxes and inflation took their toll.

But Clements' view is shared by many financially sophisticated folks who would rather take more risk -- in stocks, in real estate, in their own businesses -- to get better returns. And that approach can be perfectly legitimate, as long as you can quickly get your hands on enough money when you need it.

This makes a lot of sense to me. A 'real' emergency -- a job loss, a medical crisis, draconian rent hikes, etc -- is something that throws your usual life into chaos. You can't effectively plan for such things. What you can do is give yourself as much flexibility as possible. Having lots of savings is a great cushion for all sorts of unexpected life events, but you don't really need all that much sitting in a basic checking account or stuffed under the mattress in $20 bills.

There are a number of savings/investment options that give you near-immediate accessibility to your money, like money-market accounts or straight stock-trading accounts. A level up, there are vehicles like short-term CDs. I just checked my bank's rates, and the rate difference between a 1-year CD and a 5-year CD is less than 0.10%. With so little incremental difference, there's no reason not to opt for the shorter duration and have your money more liquid.

The real decision point comes when you're considering tying up your funds in something difficult to quickly liquidate -- like real estate or a business venture. There, I think the 'flexibility' comes into play. The investment may eat up an uncomfortable share of your 'cash' savings, but: do you have other ways of tapping cash if you need to, like lots of available credit, a home-equity line, a 401k loan, and so on? So long as you *can* get three/six/eight/a bazillion months of available money if you need -- and everyone will have to come up with their own comfort-level number to fill in that blank -- it doesn't seem essential that the money actually be cash.

So what's my own emergency-fund strategy? I'm trying to save up about $5,000 to put in a money-market account, where I can grab it instantly if needed. I have a significant chunk of available credit -- enough to pay most of my living expenses for about six months, I think. And I have about an equal amount available for borrowing against on my 401k.

My next 'major' cash-immobilizing purchase will likely be a primary residence. If we eventually get there, I expect the down payment to devour any 'emergency fund' savings we've accrued, but I won't fret too much about it as long as we have credit levers we can pull if needed.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Our best marriage decision: not pooling accounts

The best thing David and I ever did for our marriage is maintain separate financial accounts.

Decisions like keeping your own name when you marry (I did that too) are very common, but I have no idea what percentage of couples don't merge their checking accounts. For us, it was an easy decision. We each make very similar salaries. We're also both alike in our habits: we fritter away a lot of money on perks like books, travel and dining out, but we're also reliable about not spending money we'll need for rent and bills and such.

We're also both prone to spending on things the other would consider stupid. David recently dropped something in the high-two, possibly three, figures for his 25th "Dark Side of the Moon" copy. (He insists this one is somehow different and special. The distinction escapes me.) I recently spent three figures on a handbag, for the first time. (David doesn't understand why I didn't spend $20 and buy one off the street. The distinction escapes him.) If such purchases were coming out of our money stash, we'd be at eachother's throats about them. But because his personal spending comes out of his account, it doesn't faze me, and vice versa.

We could accomplish something similar by pooling all our money and giving ourselves allowances, as the Make Love Not Debt pair recently discussed. For us, though, there's no pressing reason to go that route. We don't have any big savings targets we're trying to hit right now. (We probably should, like saving for an apartment downpayment, but we're not there yet.) We don't have any joint debt. We're pretty good at shifting our resources around as is sensible. When I was trying to pay off my credit-card debt, David carried my student-loan payments for years. On a day-to-day basis, whoever feels like they can spare the cash for groceries, dinner out, etc., is the one to pick up the check. For major expenses, like a vacation or a sudden cat trip to the vet, we generally charge it to the Amex (our closest thing to a shared account -- I'm the primary cardholder, but David is an authorized user and has his own card) and split it up at bill-paying time. For us, it's a surprisingly stress-free system.

None of our financial information is secret from each other, and when it comes to big savings pools, I think we both consider them 'ours' -- I may be the only one funding my 401k, but I fully expect it to be used on us both, and I regard it as a shared asset. But I like the independence of each of us having our own accounts, and being able to indulge our own spending idiosyncrasies. Having kids is the one thing I can think of that would derail this independent-finances approach. There, the expenses are so big and so shared it would be hard not to have a joint pool to draw from. But for us, I think not going the typical joint-checking route has spared us a lot of marital discord.

Friday, April 14, 2006

At least it's less painful than having my debit card hacked

Some researcher, somewhere, must have calculated the odds of having your credit-card information intercepted and used fraudulently. In the typical consumer lifespan, how many times is one statistically likely to hit the problem, on average?

I'm now on go-round #3.

Both times before, it's been my Netbank Visa/check card that got nailed. The first (I can't remember exactly when -- perhaps three years ago?) was the ugliest: someone got hold of both my card number and PIN, and made a dummy card that was used to withdraw about $1,200 from an ATM in Queens, the entirety of what was in my account. No one has my PIN, and I had my card on me the whole time this was going on. What probably happened was that my card got hit in an ATM skimming scam. I'm not completely oblivious and would likely have spotted a suspicious device, but a hot new trend in fraud is internally rigged ATMs -- and I do pretty regularly use the kind of non-bank ATMs in convenience stores and whatnot that are most susceptible to this. (Well, I did. I *try* to stick with bank ATMs now ... but I fall off the wagon a lot ...)

Clearing that up entailed filing a police report, along with all the fraud paperwork at my bank, and waiting several weeks for my money to be credited back. To NetBank's credit, they didn't hassle me too much about "they used your PIN, you must have given it out!" or anything.

About a year ago, my NetBank account got cleaned out again, though this time it was a case of more "classic" credit card fraud. One morning a blizzard of charges appeared for expensive, out-of-town purchases at stores like Staples and Foot Locker. Call NetBank, file fraud paperwork, replace card, wait several weeks for a refund, lather, rinse ...

Neither incident ended up costing me money that wasn't refunded (although I did probably spend $10 or so tracking down and faxing police forms to my bank and getting things notarized, the first time). The most painful part each time was waiting the week or so it took for my new bank card to arrive, during which stretch I had no access to cash. Ug.

So this Tuesday, I stagger home at 9:30pm from a long day spent mostly at a hospital ... and find 10 messages on the answering machine. Nine were from merchants or Amex calling to say "Hi! We want to verify this large, suspicious charge on your card!"


I managed to ring back and connect to Amex's charge-verification unit about five minutes before it closed for the day. To Amex's credit, it seems like this is going to go about as smoothly as it can. They caught this early (a $500 online order from Nordstrom's was the first to set off their red-flags radar), proactively notified me, and it sounds like I don't have to file a pile of paperwork on this. They're taking care of contesting all the charges that came through on Tuesday from outside NYC, and of taking off the one suspicious charge I spotted that had already gone through. (Last Thursday, my Philly scamster apparently took the card for a trial run with a Domino's pizza order.) They also overnighted me a new card for free -- yay! It arrived Thursday.

(I initially thought that a particularly nice customer-service touch, that Amex was overnighting my card. If only my bank had done that ..., I thought. But then, on Thursday, I unexpectedly ended up putting several hundred dollars on my card -- and, lacking my Amex, I charged it to my backup Providian Visa. At which point it occurred to me that Amex has a strong self interest in getting me a new card as fast as physically possible. All those precious merchant transaction fees! Lost to a rival! Quelle horror!)

This time, the most painful part is going to be tracking down and changing all the things I have autobilling to my card. Grr.

So, three fraud-hacks in ... counts on fingers ... say about 10 years so far of active credit-using consumer life. Am I above average yet?

Friday, April 07, 2006

401ks, 529s .... when bad investment choices defeat the whole point

I'm in the process of setting up my 401k with my new job, which is going slowly since my new employer is also in the midst of moving its 401k services to a new vendor. I'm not sure yet what the new-new vendor's investment options will be like, but when I set up my fleeting enrollment in the new employer's old vendor's system, I was surprised to find few attractive options. The choices were limited to less than a dozen funds, many with high fees. Ug.

I'll post in more detail about 401k stuff when I finally get registered and settled with the new-new vendor, but the problem of limited choices reminded me of one of the most troubling aspects of the (thankfully, now apparently dead) privatize-Social-Security scheme: if mutual funds were used as a key savings vehicle for the plan, it would force a huge amount of money into a savings system that isn't particularly efficient or advantageous for investors.

This is the same problem that seems to be a very nasty catch in the well-intentioned 529 college savings plans, designed to let parents set aside tax-deferred dollars to educate their sprogs. The plans are set up state-by-state and vary widely. However, they've increasingly come under fire for carrying indefensibly high fees and being touted with insufficient disclosure. In some states, the ones with the poorest 529 plan investment selections and highest fees, the plans probably aren't worth using despite the tax advantages.

So, since this is an area I have no personal stake in whatsoever (the cats need no higher education to fulfill their duties, being cute and catching bugs around the apartment) and therefore know little about: Any parents out there want to recommend useful college-savings mechanisms? Upromise has made it through the dot-com meltdown and seems to get reasonable reviews ... anyone have a vote on whether it's useful or a gimmick?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

More on when bad debt goes, well, bad

A few good points came up in response to my debt-expiration-dates post, and I've done some more research to expand on it a bit.

-The FTC allows negative information to linger in your credit report for up to seven years. After seven years, you can request its removal. From an FTC FAQ on how the seven years is calculated: "Generally, the period runs from the date that the event took place." So, seven years after a debt was due, creditors generally lose the ability to put a black mark about it in your credit report. They may or may not also lose the right to sue you, depending on the nature of the debt and your state's statute of limitations. The credit-reporting statutes and the lawsuit statutes are completely separate.

-There's a big neon-flashing caveat to the limitations -- it dates to the period of "last activity" on your debt account. Making a payment, or agreeing in writing to do so, can reset the clock by moving your account back to active status. Tread carefully before paying or agreeing to pay anything on old debt. (Of course, you may still have a moral obligation to pay off an old debt. These policies only cover your legal obligations.)

-Some types of debt have no statute of limitations and never expire. Among them are student loans, past-due child support in most (possibly all) states, and most taxes.

-The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is actually pretty strict in regulating how collection agencies can approach consumers. For example, they're barred from calling outside "reasonable" hours, defined as 8am to 9pm. You can also force them to quit communication. If you notify a collector in writing that you want them to stop contacting you, they have to, except to notify you of specific remedies they're invoking. Forcing communication to stop does not mean they have to end efforts to collect the debt, but it does mean they can't keep up a barrage of calls and can only contact you further if they're filing a lawsuit or taking other remedy measures.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Our descent into the stock-market inferno

David recently called me with terrifying news: "I'm going to exercise my stock options!" My response -- you have stock options!?!

Turns out his company, A Giant Madison Avenue Ad Conglomerate, chucked a handful of options at staffers about five years ago. They've recently vested. Although Giant Conglomerate's shares are trading dead flat to where they were five years ago, David's options carry a strike price of about half the current value -- so, if he exercises the options and cashes out, he'll see a profit. (A fairly tiny profit. Like, a rounding-error-on-Google-shares size profit.

Since neither of us has ever mucked around with the tax implications of anything related to stocks, I promptly wigged out. "Exercising stock options" is irrevocably linked in my mind to complicated tax situations and debacles with the AMT. "Whatever you do, do not exercise and hold the options!" I fretted at David.

I don't pretend to have looked in any detail at the minutia of how it works, but my understanding is that when you exercise options, you're taxed on the 'profit' of the difference between your strike price and the market price -- even if you end up holding onto the shares and not realizing any actual-cash profit. If, as happened to so many during the dot-com smashup, the shares you own then tank, you still owe on what they were 'worth' on your exercise date. So why would anyone exercise shares and not immediately sell them? If your options are expiring but you want to gamble on the shares going higher, you can buy and hold. It can also result in a lower total tax burden if you hold the shares for more than a year, shifting the gains into the capital-gains category (which can come with a lower tax rate than you pay on your regular income).

But I have no interest in gambling on Giant Conglomerate's shares climbing, and given the tiny sums at stake here, trying to game the tax rates would save us about enough to buy an extra box of cat food. So my vote was firmly cast in the "exercise and dump" category.

My next fret was about the logistics of that -- would we need a brokerage account? An accountant? I just write about stocks, I've never tried to do anything so silly as selling them ...

Fortunately, David's company is apparently prepared for having a workforce with no clue about these things, and has an arrangement struck with the financial institution handling the stock-option deal. Employees can arrange for their options to be exercised and sold simultaneously, with the tax withheld. We'll just get a check for the net amount, and presumably some paperwork for the IRS next year around tax time.

I haven't seen any of the paperwork on this -- David and his company are handling it. It still feels rather nebulous; I'm viewing the whole thing as a rather novel experiment. Now if only my company would start talking about spin-offs and IPOs, it'd really feel like 2000 all over again. Maybe I too will eventually get some of these newfangled stock option things.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Seeking those low balance transfer offers

When I've taken advantage of offers like Providian's 'low lifetime APR on transferred balances,' they've all been offers that sought me out rather than the other way around -- those 'you've prequalified!' flyers that arrive by the pound in my mailbox. The rates on those offers seem to be better than those dangled for fresh prospects hitting various card-lenders' websites. But if you're not getting sacks of decent offers in the mail, is there any way to seek out good rates? I'm throwing this out to the floor -- I don't know the answer.

Bankrate maintains a chart of low-rate cards, but none are particularly fantastic rates. Google Ads, of course, is all too happy to kick up hits for 0% APR offers, but I rather worry about the idea of picking a lender based on "L0W R@T3!!!!!!!" ads.

Two caveats to watch if you're going to transfer a balance to save on the APR. 1) Most lenders charge a transfer fee. The standard seems to be 3% of the balance, with a $5 minimum and $75 max. That can still be a good deal if you're transferring a large sum you'll be paying off over time, but it's good to know in advance if you'll get hit with the fee. 2) Think carefully about time-limited offers. Right now, when I log into my Providian account, it's dangling a 2% APR till next October on transferred balances. But come November 1, the rate shoots up to Prime + nearly 10% -- making it currently a 17% APR. Ow. It's tempting to say 'oh, I know I'll have the balance paid before the rate goes variable,' but I found that my timetable for that sort of thing slipped a lot. I vastly prefer paying slightly higher APRs for a life-of-the-balance offer.

Actually, two more caveats: 3) If you transfer a chunk of money to a card with a low-rate offer, don't use the card for anything else. Your monthly payments go first to paying off the low-rate principal -- while that $100 you charged for the new purchases racks up a sky-high new APR rate. Another lesson I learned the expensive way. I was paying nearly as much in finance charges each month for a $200 purchase as I was for a transferred balance about twenty times that. And 4) try not to make the mistake I did of missing a payment and watching your rate skyrocket. Sigh.