“This year I PROMISE to…” (oh, spare us) Resolutions we can all follow

Consumer Courage on the first day of EVERY semester in college:

“This semester’s gonna be different! I’m going to every class…I’ll hit the library every night for AT LEAST an hour….I’ll make a review sheet every weekend…and I’ll read every page of every book that they give me”

Consumer Courage on the day before the finals of EVERY semester in college:

“Why didn’t I study more?  Next semester’s gonna be different!”

Editor’s note of backtracking to his parents:  Don’t worry.  I went to class.  I’m just saying these things for effect. (shhhh)

Unfortunately, most New Year’s resolutions last until about the second week of January.  Once we go back to work many of us forget the I’m-gonna-take-this-year-by-the-horns feeling that we had just a few weeks ago. 

    • “I’m gonna work out every day!” is replaced by “I’ve gotta hang my clothes SOMEwhere. Maybe they’ll fit on the treadmill?”
    • “I’m going to take a different good friend to dinner every week” becomes “I’m SO exhausted from work and that’s such a great new TV program…” 
    • The old favorite “I’m going to make some serious me-time” turns into “I’ve GOT to start getting to bed before midnight…”

In the spirit of making some resolutions you can stick to, here are some suggestions from Consumer Courage for you to consider as we melt into another New Year’s Eve.  This year, the self-help we pledge will be of the consumer and financial well-being nature:

  1. Make a budget and save (SOMETHING!)  This is really two separate ideas. Even if you are one of the lucky folks who don’t have to worry about stretching your pennies at the end of every month, you should have an idea of how much you NEED to spend and compare that with how much you WANT to spend – and what percentage of your income goes to each pile.  Take a month and write down where your cash is disappearing to.  Once you see how much you are spending on clothes, snacks, lunches, etc. you’re sure to change your habits. 
  2. Don’t get or use a credit card based on any rewards program or on the 20% discount you’ll get on that armful of gifts at the register!  (click here for the 10 worst credit card mistakes or here to see how that 20% discount could cost you some serious cash). 
  3. Switch to your local credit union and develop a personal relationship with your banker.   What’s the difference? Dig this article that compares banks and credit unions .
  4. Quit buying gift cards – it’s an easy (some might say lazy?) way to buy a gift.  But, 40% of gift cards that are purchased go unused, charge high fees, or have expiration dates that are unrealistic.  Why do stores love gift cards?  Because $1 Billion in GC value goes unused every year .  Which means that consumers are using gift cards to donate a Billion dollars to the retailers of America.  This year, make that donation to yourself.    
  5. Get your free credit report AND any other specialty reports that gather personal information about you, then take action to correct any mistakes that you find.  And, download the new brochure from Consumer Action about specialty reports.
  6. Get your kids interested in money management and keeping safe in the cyber-age (the FTC has some fun interactive games), encourage their schools to create a Lifesmarts team and enter competitions (or volunteer to be the Lifesmarts coach). 
  7. Rewatch the 60 minutes report on Data brokers selling our personal information then download the Disconnect software that they recommend. 
  8. While you’re at it, re-watch the 60 minutes report on Identity Tax Refund Fraud.  The story shows how con artists steal people’s personal information; file bogus tax returns under the victims’ names and get a big refund check.   They file as early as they can using all fake info (except for the stolen name and social security number) and trick the IRS into sending them a check for the giant refund.  When the victim files his return the IRS says “Gee that’s funny, we already gave you your refund.”  You’ll straighten it out for sure.  But, it will take months (at least) and cause you a bit of aggravation that you won’t soon forget.  File your tax return as soon as you possibly can!  This might just prevent some scammer from filing in your name and getting a bogus refund.    
  9. Read labels on food. Think twice before paying more for organic foods.  Ask yourself, why do I believe this label?  (many times, there’s no real difference between organic and non-organic) And terms like Natural, Local, Organic might not necessarily mean what you think.  
  10. Set up a system to pay all of your bills on time. Map out when your bills are due (each bill is usually due around the same time every month)  If you don’t already have a separate clean space in your house to put all of your bills when they arrive at your house – make one.  Whenever you sit down to pay the bills (once a week, until you get into a groove; once every two weeks once you have a system) look at your map of due-dates.  If the date arrives and you don’t see that particular bill in the pile – call the company, find out how much it is and pay it (just because you can’t find a bill doesn’t mean it’s not due).  While you’re at it, start something new with any credit card or bill that has a late fee OR an interest charge for past-due balances: Pay the minimum payment on the date those bills arrive.  After you pay the minimum put the bill into the “to be paid” pile so it goes into the rotation.  
  11. Plan for big expenses.  At some point in 2015, you will have an unexpected bill to pay that is hundreds of dollars (or more).  Is your dishwasher starting to leak?  Does the furnace sound like someone’s warming up a tank from World War II in the basement every time it kicks on?  Does your car eat oil?  These are all nature’s way of telling you that something’s wrong.  Start saving now juuuuuust in case one of those items decides to pass on during the next 12 months.  If you have money set aside, buying a new one will feel a lot less like a root canal, if you prepared even a little bit.  
  12. Take the financial power oath: (go ahead, raise your right-hand…..we don’t have all day) 

I [state your name]  will: 

    • NEVER take out a PAYDAY loan or an Auto-Title loan;
    • NEVER have my taxes done by any store that wants me to use my refund to buy something and NEVER pay anyone – other than a CPA – a dime to do my taxes (no matter how quickly I want my refund);  
    • NEVER pay someone to cash my paycheck;
    • NEVER pay money to anyone who calls me on the phone;
    • NEVER open any e-mail that promises to make me rich/make me money working from home/make me money as a secret shopper/help some foreign start-up “use” my bank account/or help the leader of an African Country move his fortune to the U.S.;
    • NEVER sign up for a credit card because they are offering me a free [anything] or so I can get a discount on whatever I’m about to buy;
    • NEVER give away my personal private information (even my email address) just to see if I have won a free coke or to register to vote for my favorite next singing star;
    • NEVER make any purchase over $250, until I research, compare prices and make an informed choice;
    • NEVER rely on customer reviews and remember that they can easily be faked or made by the place I’m buying from (or by one of their competitors);  And lastly, I will
    • ALWAYS – Pay attention to scam alerts. 

We’re sure that there are more things that you should do to be a safe consumer in 2015. Consider this a start.

Co-posted by: Nadine Ballard and Mark Wiseman (who always did his homework on time, went to class and was never worried during finals)