Recently I’ve been buying a lot of baby stuff online, which means I’ve been added to several email mailing lists. Some of them I asked to be added to. The rest added me without asking me when I bought something.

Online Buyers Aren’t Always Your Target Market

It drives me nuts. Ask me when I checkout if I want to get your email pitches. Don’t just assume that I want to be added because I bought something. That just means I have to go to extra work of sending an unsubscribe message. This is especially true of Christmas purchases. I have teenage cousins. Sometimes they want things from stores I don’t shop at. If I’m buying a one time gift, I don’t want to get daily emails promoting your specials. I want to get the item I purchased and then I want you to leave me alone. If I want something else, I know how to find the website.

That one was especially hard to unsubscribe from, too, which made the whole thing even more annoying.

Don’t Email Me Daily
The other emails that annoy me are the daily offers from chain stores. I don’t need  a daily update on your sales! Email me once a week. If you’re having a super-duper one-day sale, fine, send me a special email (if I’ve signed up), but I don’t need a daily reminder of your 30% off sale that lasts all week.

It also seems that services I’ve signed up for are now getting in on the daily deals and have started sending me daily deal offers without asking me. Angie’s List and Amazon: I’m looking at you. I don’t need more daily deals in my email. I’m especially wary of the Angie’s List offers. If the service provider is so good, why are they offering 50% off to Angie’s List members? It actually reflects poorly on Angie’s List and the service provider.

What Do I Do About the Bombardment?
Since I check email usually from my phone, I’ve started using that unsubscribe button. If I’m downloading email at home, all of those messages automatically go into a “coupons” folder that I never remember to look in, so I don’t even know I’ve received an offer. If I’m checking webmail from the office, the first thing I do is delete all the various ads.  I get so few actual emails these days that these ads have become as bad as the junk mail in my mailbox during election season. Guess what happens to those mailers, too? So that’s a big hint for email advertisers: if I’m lumping you in with political mailers, you’re emailing me too often. STOP!

 

 

This weekend, my husband and I went to Las Vegas and encountered the most ridiculous resort fee ever. My only previous encounter with a resort fee occurred at an actual resort and included “resort” items like two free bottles of water per day (useful at a Disney resort), towel service at the pool, and similar amenities. The fee was still somewhat ridiculous, but at least it provided something of value.

This weekend’s resort fee was nothing other than a way to increase prices without actually increasing prices, and that makes me stabby.

You WILL Receive Business Services
I stayed at the New York New York hotel, but most of the hotels have similar ridiculous resort fees. Especially for weekend travelers. I could sort of see a reason to charge these fees Monday-Thursday when lots of business travelers are in town and might have use for these services. Weekend gamblers are NOT using these services:

Free in-room internet access (I didn’t bring a computer or tablet, because I was on vacation)
Free incoming faxes (seriously, who gets faxes these days?)
Free newspaper (that I had to go pick up. They didn’t even bring it to my room)
Free fitness center access (again, I’m on vacation. I’m not going to work out)
Coupon book (I made sure to use at least a couple of of the coupons, but most were useless)

For all that, I paid an extra $18 a day. Then, to further add to the insult, they charge tax on the resort fee!

Where’s the Resort in this Resort Fee?
I found a list of resort fees, and only a few of them included amenities that were remotely resort-like, such as pool towels. One included in-room bathrobes. Just put robes in the rooms if you want to offer robes! Don’t charge me $25 a day to use it. Several of the hotels with popular pool parties don’t charge resort fees, or don’t list pool access in the resort fee description. That probably means they make enough money off their parties to avoid charging hotel guests ridiculous fees.

Just Raise the Price
I didn’t fight the fee because it was disclosed when I made my reservation. It was not, however, included in the quoted room rate. If you’re comparing rates, check out the resort fees to make sure you’re comparing prices properly. A $65 room becomes an $83 room with the resort fee. Or, hotels could just be honest and raise their prices. There is really no difference between hotels tacking on resort fees in order to raise the room rate without raising the price and airlines adding fuel surcharges to raise ticket prices without raising prices. Frankly, this sort of chicanery makes me feel that the hotel thinks I’m too stupid to recognize a price increases when I see one. How is a mandatory fee anything except a price increase? Especially when that fee is charged the same tax as the room rate?

And if you are going to make me pay $18 a day for a newspaper, bring it to my room! Don’t vaguely wave to an area where I can pick up my “free” paper as if that’s some sort of benefit. All it means is the hotel can buy fewer papers because most people won’t go pick them up, so they get to keep more of that $18 robbery fee.

Yesterday, Good Morning America featured a story explaining how you buy a house for half price. They kept touting it as half-off or 50% off. Except it wasn’t. At one point they did explain that the homes were 50% from their last sold price at the real estate peak. But that doesn’t mean the house is half-off. That means it reached an unreasonable price and is now being sold at an appropriate price. GMA’s claim is no different than a department store doubling the price of an item on Monday, and then putting it on sale for 50% off on Tuesday. They’re still selling it for the regular price!

Stop Lying in Headlines and Ads
And that brings me to the thing that makes me stabby: lying in news headlines. I understand they’re trying to get ratings, but don’t repeat a blatantly misleading claim in a segment that is supposedly about saving money. Homes are not 50% off what they once were. They are now selling for a price the market can support.  You could only say a home was half off if the exact same house on the exact same block was selling for double the price of this home. That would probably indicate, however, that the severely discounted home had major issues.

I’ve seen other financial headlines pull shenanigans like that. For example, an article about a family cutting their expenses by 50% usually reveals that the family ate out every night, owned three cars even though only two people drove, and regularly purchased overpriced, big-ticket items. Sure, they can cut their expenses by 50% simply by switching to common-sense spending, but most of us don’t go to those extremes and can’t expect to see similar results.

Those H&R Block refund review ads that tout people getting an additional $8000 back on their taxes also irk me. If you’re getting an $8000 refund a few years after you filed your taxes, it’s not because H&R Block was able to “find” money. It’s because you filed your taxes incorrectly in the first place, and didn’t take the appropriate deductions that you were entitled to. And you were probably withholding too much money. I would question whether any of the people in these ads used tax prep software to file their taxes or did them by hand. I strongly suspect it’s the latter.

Frankly, it’s becoming very frustrating to watch or read news. Ads have always been annoying, and I expect some lying there, but it seems like the news shows and networks are so desperate for ratings that they’ll stretch the truth to get eyeballs. The news should always tell the truth. It is, after all, the news.

Yesterday, I received a medical bill that is a perfect example of what is wrong with health care costs in this country. Several weeks ago I had an ultrasound as part of prenatal testing. The ultrasound was performed in a perinatologist’s office on one of their high-tech ultrasound machines. The scan took about 20 minutes, and was performed by a sonographer. The bill for that portion was $378. That part seems reasonable to me.

Here’s the part that makes me stabby: after the initial ultrasound, the perinatologist came in. He put the wand back on my belly for about 30 seconds to take a quick look, then said everything was fine. I saw him for three minutes, at the most. The bill for that portion was $370!

I’m fortunate that insurance covered the cost, for the most part. The scan ate my entire deductible, so in that sense, I had to pay $250 for it, but I would have had to pay the deductible at some point with this pregnancy.

Why Do Doctors Get to Bill Twice?
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of this. A woman I know had a D&C with hysteroscopy to remove uterine fibroids. Although her doctor only dilated her once, she was billed for it twice – once for the hysteroscopy portion and once for the fibroid removal. When she challenged her doctor, she was told, sorry, that’s just how it’s billed.

Um, NO! That should not be okay. You don’t get to bill twice for only doing one thing. That would be like a deli charging me twice for a sandwich that they only made once.

And that is what is wrong with this country. In order to cover their costs, providers have to create creative ways to bill knowing that the insurers will only pay 50% of that cost, at most. So, if the true cost is $370 for the machine, sonographer, and perinatologist, they find a way to bill twice for it in order to make sure their costs are covered. (And actually, the total after insurance was $259.92, so it was only covered at about 35% of the charge.)

I’m not blaming doctors, I’m blaming the system. There has got to be a better way to come up with realistic costs and realistic payments than to just ask doctors to pad the bill and hope. I can definitely understand why some doctors are opting out of the insurance/medicare system and simply taking cash-only patients at a reasonable price that adequately covers their costs.

This has nothing to do with personal finance, but I was so mad when I heard this report Tuesday, that I had to say something. Congress is pushing a bill that would continue to allow school lunch programs to count the two tablespoons of tomato paste on a slice of school pizza as a vegetable. Under the recommendations set to go into effect, pizza must be accompanied by an actual vegetable in order to be served.

What is wrong with Congress? This is just ridiculous. Pizza is NOT a vegetable. It may have veggies on it, and yes, the sauce is composed of tomatoes, but two tablespoons is not a serving of any vegetable. These new rules, which also limit starch vegetables like potatoes, are meant to improve children’s health. We have a major childhood obesity problem in this country. For some kids, school breakfasts and lunches are the only meals they have. What is wrong with serving them a healthy meal, without the influence of lobbying groups? Studies have shown that kids do better in school when they eat nutritious food. If we want to be competitive in the marketplace, our kids need to learn.

If Congress wonders why they only have 9% approval, they need only look at idiotic acts like this.

Lobbying Under the Guise of Austerity
Why is Congress doing this? Lobbying. The National Potato Council and the American Frozen Food Institute are worried that these new regulations will cut into their groups’ profits. Which they might. However, they were able to get it attached to a spending bill because the USDA rules would increase the cost of school lunches by $7 billion over 5 years, or $1.4 billion a year. When you consider how many children that feeds and how important early childhood nutrition is, that’s not a huge number. One DAY of the war in Iraq cost $720 million. So, this is two days’ worth of war. Aren’t our children worth sacrificing two days of war?

Here I go with another controversial topic guaranteed to result in flaming comments. My flame retardant suit is donned, so here I go.

One of the goals of Occupy Wall Street is to forgive all outstanding student loan debt under the premise that it would inject money into the economy by helping the real people, rather than banks and corporations that received bailout funds.

TARP Funds Were Repaid
So let’s start with the basic premise: banks and corporations got free money, so we should, too. First, the TARP funds were loans. The money has largely been repaid. Corporations that received money, like GM and AIG, granted the US stock in exchange. The US will get the money back when it sells the stock. It’s not a loss. Forgiving student loan debt would result in a net loss.

Student Loans Are Unfair
I will grant this argument. As I stated in an earlier post, college costs are wildly out of sync with future incomes, and the system needs to be fixed. But simply forgiving all student debt won’t change the system, because the people repaying loans have already finished school. Those costs have already been paid. You have to fix the system by changing the way student loans are issued. Colleges can raise costs as much as they want because student loan issuers know that loans can never be discharged in bankruptcy. They have no incentive to deny a loan.

Restore the ability to discharge student loans in bankruptcy (this didn’t happen as often as student loan lobbyists claimed) and there will be instant pressure to reduce college costs because loan limits will be enforced.

In addition, Congress mandated ridiculously high interest rates, especially compared to today’s low interest rates. Student loan rates should be re-pegged to current interest rates like they used to be. That would instantly alleviate some of the burden. By allowing anyone who hasn’t consolidated their loans to do so at 1 or 2% interest would be a boon and restore fairness to a system that Congress made unfair.

Forgiving Student Loans Will Result in Spending Increases
How is that exactly? Will I suddenly go on a shopping spree because I have $1200 extra dollars a month? No, that money would go into our retirement fund along with our other excess income. The most recent college grads probably won’t increase their spending either. They’ll probably just reduce the amount of credit card debt they accrue because they’re unemployed or their first jobs don’t cover the cost of other living expenses.

Student Loans Are Predatory
Yes, this is true, but here’s the thing: no one is required to get a student loan. If you don’t want student loan debt, do three things: 1. Go to a cheaper school. Spend two years at a community college and live at home to save on rent. 2. Work during the summer, after class, or take a year off to work and save up the money for college. 3. Keep your grades up and apply for scholarships or grants.

Should All Taxpayers Pay for Your Student Loans?
At this point, all federally subsidized and unsubsidized student loans are owned by the government. Once Congress removed the fees provided to banks to carry these loans, the loans were sold back to the government. I recently received a notice that my loans had been sold to Sallie Mae. My husband’s were sold as well. He may have a small private loan outstanding still, but all the rest are owned by the government. So, for the most part, it would just take a few keystrokes to wipe out student debt.

But, the money is used to issue additional student loans to new students. Are we also going to make college free for current and future students, or does this immediate student loan forgiveness only apply to past students?

Part of me would love to have my student debt and my husband’s student debt forgiven. We’d be able to put the money into our retirement funds. But I still don’t think it’s fair. I knew what I was doing when I took out my loans. I don’t deserve to have them forgiven just because the economy is bad. What will people do during the next deep recession? Forgive all mortgages? Forgive whatever bill someone has that they don’t want to pay?

 

Last week, Chase sent me a notice about their “new and improved” checking accounts. The enhancement? My free checking account is no longer free. That may be improved for them, but not for me. I will be closing that account shortly because it was primarily a pass-through account for freelancing income, which I have little of.

Now, there’s word that Bank of America is testing four new checking options that will make it difficult to avoid a fee unless you have the most basic account with direct deposit, paperless statements, and no teller visits. I actually don’t have a problem with that particular account, because we already do all of that. Other than the no teller visits rule, it’s not a big change from their current basic account, which we have. We might visit a teller once a year to cash in collected change, but we can also cash in change for free at Coinstar if we opt for a gift card rather than cash.

Customers “Want” a Fee
The part of the Bank of America story that makes me stabby is their claim that they’re doing this not to recoup the revenue they’ll no longer receive once interchange fees are capped, but so that we can “compensate them” for the cost of checking accounts. And, this is the best pat, one of their spokespeople says, “Many of our customers choose to have a monthly fee. They like that predictability.”

I have never met one person who liked paying a bank fee. Customers don’t “choose” to have a monthly fee. They either aren’t in a position to receive direct deposits or can’t maintain a high minimum balance, so they’re forced into a fee-based account.

Banks Make Plenty of Money Despite Free Checking
In fact, free checking accounts still make the banks money. They do this in three ways:

1. Bounced check fees. Those fees aren’t going anywhere and banks rake in lots of dough for those, especially since they charge the person who bounced the check AND the person who received the bounced check.

2. Interbank loans. They take our deposits and use them to make overnight interbank loans. The interest is small, but when you’re moving millions of dollars, it adds up.

3. Customer retention. Free checking accounts are basically a loss leader. Consumers are more likely to choose other financial services from the bank where they hold a checking account. This includes mortgages, car loans, credit cards, savings accounts, CDs, money markets, and in some cases, investment accounts. The bank might lose 50 cents a month on a free checking account, but they’re certainly making up for that with other products.

Look, I understand that banks are in the business of making money. I don’t begrudge them that. I’m not even get angry with them for wanting to make more money – that’s the nature of business and their duty to shareholders. The part that angers me is their insistence that customers “want” those fees. No, we don’t. In some cases, we accept them because we have no other option, but no consumer wants them. Banks should just admit they need to make up for the lost money from other fees somewhere and not try to convince the public that they’re doing this for us.

So, you may have noticed that I’ve been absent a few weeks. I’ve been very busy, both at work and in my personal life. However, that’s given me plenty of time to get stabby about a whole bunch of things!

Magazines.com Auto-Renew
Last year we bought a magazine subscription as a Christmas gift. I received noticed earlier this week that it had been automatically renewed, even though I specifically opted out of auto-renewal when I placed the order last year. We decided to let it ride, but I called to have auto-renew removed from the account for next year. They were nice about it, but it shouldn’t have happened in the first place. If a customer opts out, then that’s that!

McDonald’s Happy Meal Toy Ban
These nanny state tactics have gone too far, San Francisco. Sure, happy meals are bad for kids and most kids want them just for the toy, but guess what? Buying a happy meal is the parent’s choice, not yours. If you don’t like them, don’t buy them for your kids. Sometimes a parent opts to reward their child with a Happy Meal and toy, sometimes they say no. If parents can’t say no to their children, that’s a parenting issue, not a McDonald’s issue. Stay out of it, city council!

When Exactly Does Black Friday Start Now?
I’ve seriously been seeing Black Friday ads since late October. No, scratch that, they started in July. It’s gotten ridiculous. Retailers, just admit your desperate and stop calling every damn sale leading up to Christmas a “black Friday” special. If it’s a Tuesday in October, it’s not Black Friday.

The funny thing is, the deals weren’t even that awesome, including those offered on the official Black Friday. My husband and I were already planning to buy a new TV during a Black Friday sale, especially given our awesome laptop score last Thanksgiving. So, I started doing my research about a week beforehand. We wound up at Costco the Saturday before Black Friday buying a better TV at almost the same price as one of the lesser Black Friday models that would have required us to get to the store at 4AM. Sorry, I’ll pay the extra $50 for the convenience and free extended warranty. (Costco extends electronics warranties to two years, so take that into consideration when shopping.)

When Will the Politicians Stop Fighting?
The election blessedly ended a month ago, and the Democrats and Republicans are still bickering out of one side of their mouths while vowing to work together out the other. STOP! Clearly the people aren’t happy, but continuing to fight and get nothing done isn’t going to solve that. Start working together. Preschoolers cooperate better than Congresspeople these days!

Claims about Frugal Fatigue
This fall’s news stories are all about people getting “frugal fatigue” and starting to spend big again. They were spouting the same stories last fall. It wasn’t true then, and it’s not true now. Sure, people are buying more now. They’re a little more comfortable spending, but they’re not buying just for the sake of buying and they’re not mortgaging their homes to do it. Most people aren’t so burned out on being frugal that they’re rushing out to buy fur coats and diamond rings! Instead, they’ve learned how to save money and shop based on value – that’s pretty frugal!

You could say that my husband and I went on a buying spree the last half of this year. We bought six dining chairs, one dining table, three sofas, two club chairs, and one TV. We had the cash to cover all of it because we saved up and shopped carefully to ensure we got a good deal. And even though we were planning to buy a new TV anyway, it just so happens that the sound on our old TV started to go out just three weeks before our target date, so we hit the replacement schedule right on the head!

Chase Airport Commercial
This commercial ticks me off every time I see it. In case you’re not familiar, it depicts a family going to the airport. The husband hands the wife his credit card and tells her to visit the shops while he parks. Then there is a montage of her going on a shopping spree while he’s held up at security. Is this the 1950s again? First of all, why does he have to give her a credit card? Is she not responsible enough to have one of her own? Second, who goes on a shopping spree at an airport? Third, why does he have to give her permission to go shopping? This whole commercial is so 1950s “aw, that little woman” that it makes me glad I don’t have a Chase card anymore.

So there you go, six things that make me stabby. I’ll try not to be absent again for three weeks!

I read a story on NPR’s Marketplace today that really made me stabby. Apparently some banks are now charging fees for customers to receive monthly paper statements. Sure, most of us can access our accounts online and have opted out of paper statements, but that’s not everyone. Banks shouldn’t charge you a fee for providing a core service, like statements.

Who Needs Paper Statements?
I’m sure that’s the question that wealthy bank executives ask themselves. They forget about their poor customers, their rural customers, their elderly customers. Of course, they probably don’t want those customers anymore, but they can’t close the account if there’s money in it, so instead they charge ridiculous fees.

The fact is that some people don’t have internet access, or have unreliable or insecure access. The elderly are a case in point. Although there are some Facebooking Grandmas, most still prefer to do their financial business on paper. It’s how they learned it and how they feel comfortable. They shouldn’t have to spend some of their meager income on a piece of paper that is mailed to their home.

Internet access is also a challenge in rural areas. In these regions, there is no cable or DSL access. Some areas don’t even have landline telephone access, so dial-up isn’t an option. Satellite internet exists, but it’s expensive and unreliable. Why should rural customers have to pay for something that used to be free just because banks have decided that most customers use the internet?

And what about the poor? They might not even have a computer. Sure, they can go to the library, but do you want to print your bank statement at the library? Yeah, me neither. Not to mention that they may be working during rapidly decreasing library hours, which means they couldn’t even print statements there if they were willing to take the risk.

It’s Time to Tell the Banks No
I’m glad that at least one Senator is aware of the problem and urging Elizabeth Warren to do something about it. First it was fees to see tellers, then it was fees to speak to someone on the phone. Now it’s a paper statement? Those are printed by a computer, stuffed by a machine, and mailed by a machine. It’s not costing them that much in salary or benefits, unless those computers are cyborgs, I suppose.

I understand that banks are a business, but they also make money off our money. It doesn’t just sit there in our accounts. They use it to make loans or collect interest on it. Then they collect monthly fees and other ancillary charges. They can spend a few cents a month to send me a statement if I want one.

Charging a business $9.99 a month for a piece of paper and an envelope? I’m sorry, but that’s highway robbery. Pure greed. We shouldn’t stand for that!

My cousin recently went on her college tour and she looked at my old school. When I learned what they now charge for tuition, I was shocked and angry. In fact, I was stabby, for the first time in almost three months! I went to a good school, and enjoyed my time there, but it is simply not worth what they’re charging anymore. The education was good, but not amazing. In fact, some of the classes were downright awful.

The Rapid Rise in Tuition
It seems that colleges these days, even the non-profit ones, are more interested in bringing in money and earning acclaim than they are in educating their students. I graduated 15 years ago. At that time, tuition plus room and board was around $18,000. Steep, but not ridiculous. Now, that same school is asking an astounding $47,500 for tuition plus room and board. The cost of room and board has doubled in fifteen years. Meanwhile, the tuition has tripled. The total is 379% more than it was fifteen years ago.

If the cost had risen with inflation, it would be $25,000. That’s a pretty sharp difference. Almost a whole year of tuition different!

Where Is the Money Going?
According to an article in this weekend’s Los Angeles Times, the money usually isn’t going to academics. At the major schools like Yale and Duke, it’s going to sports, higher salaries for non-teaching professors, additional administrators, and infrastructure.

I don’t take issue with infrastructure improvements – certain things are necessary in today’s schools that simply didn’t exist in 1995. However, my old college does not have a single world-class athletics team, although they did rebuild the gym, maybe in hopes of getting one? The professors there actually do teach. They’ve remodeling several of the buildings and expanding the campus rapidly. However, I’ve also learned that their endowment has ballooned to over $400 million and they’re not giving as many tuition grants as similarly endowed schools. So what’s with the money grab?

Honestly, if it were my child, I would not send him or her to that school. It’s not worth it. Instead, he or she could go to a UC, which offers a similar, in some cases better, education for less cost. Yes, the rates at UCs have also gone up over 300%, but they started out pretty low so the total isn’t as steep.

Is This Fair to Our Children?
Sure, student loans make it easy to afford the education while the student is in school, but what happens once they graduate? An engineering grad may earn enough to pay back $188,000 in loans (total before interest), but what about an English major? They will spend the next thirty years paying off those loans. What happens if they want to buy a car or a house? What happens when they want to send their children to college and are still paying off their own loans?

The current system isn’t sustainable. We have to do something to contain these costs before they spiral any further out of control. The very idea of my old school charging a freshman living on campus $47,000 a year makes me irate. Harvard costs $50,000. Believe me, my college is not in Harvard’s league. In fact, I told my cousin it wasn’t worth it.

If we keep going this way, only rich students or students who plan to be engineers will have any hope of paying back the cost of their education and then eventually being able to retire. Is that fair? I don’t think so.

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