Coffee heat rising

When Is a Splurge a Good Thing?

Not, one could argue, when the Splurger is supposed to be pinching pennies to get through a ridiculously tight time.

That bit of logic notwithstanding, today I blew $400 out of my monthly diddle-it-away fund, reducing the balance to just over a thousand bucks. After the glasses and the clothes episodes, this might (one could argue), just might not represent the highest pinnacle of wisdom to which I have ever aspired.

But it’s not bothering me. Here’s why:

Today’s purchase is a new gas grill, a Weber Spirit E-210, which sells here, there, and everywhere for $399. It’s small—only two burners—but it comes highly recommended by reviewers on several sites.

I love my charcoal grill, which replaced the last gas grill. But…it’s just enough extra work to make me not want to fire it up for dinner. Even when I feel like hassling with it and then scrubbing charcoal dust out from under my fingernails, at this time of year it feels unsafe. During monsoon, a stiff wind can come up with no warning; the hardwood charcoal I favor shoots out hot sparks and cinders with the élan of a magnesium sparkler. In a stiff breeze, they blow into the shrubbery and trees, and frankly I’m concerned about starting a fire in these hot, dry conditions.

Meanwhile, cooking in the kitchen also creates a hassle. Every time I get that darn stove clean, I end up splattering more grease all over it. Last night I cooked a piece of steak and, craving a little enhancement, poured in a few drops of wine to deglaze the pan. Even though I’d turned the heat off under the pan, the wine and hot grease exploded all over the kitchen!

So with dinner congealing on the plate, I got to break out the de-greasers and scrub down the walls, counters, floor, and even the counter all the way across the kitchen from the stove. That was fun.

When I’m tired, which is most of the time, I just don’t feel like making another mess to have to clean up, like having to scrub a frying pan and at least one or two other pans if I make side dishes.

The result is, I’m not eating well. Sometimes I’m not eating at all. I just don’t want to be bothered with the mess.

Half the time I snack on cheese and crackers, often washed down with a beer or two. If I feel energetic enough to cook, it’ll be a pot of pasta, because I can prepare the pasta and a quick sauce in the same pan. As a result, despite not eating much, I’m getting even fatter than I was.

This isn’t healthy.

When I had the gas grill, I usually tossed meat and vegetables onto the grill to cook. All that had to be washed was a dinner plate, a glass, a knife, and a fork. The stove never needed to be scrubbed more than once a month, if that often. I ate well because it was easy to eat well.

Now I’m eating badly—when I eat at all—and I’m getting fatter and fatter.

You see where this is going? I regard that $400 as an investment in my health, not an extravagance. I have got to get back to eating properly!

This little grill, which actually cost a bit more than I planned, is just about the right size to cook one or two portions. The big charcoal grill can be reserved for when guests come over or when I have enough ambition to cook up something that tastes smokey and good.

I think I got a pretty good deal on it: commenters at Amazon revealed that the version sold at Home Depot comes with cast-iron grates; most Weber Spirit models have sheet metal grills, far less desirable. Went over to Lowe’s and found the Weber Spirit there, and sure enough, theirs had the chintzy grates. Lowe’s was having a sale on a larger, fancier model, but the $500 asking price was more than I could afford. On to Home Depot: yea verily, for the same price, their Weber Spirit 210 has nice, heavy cast-iron grates. Not only that, but the Depot will assemble the thing for free.

So I think this is a case where a splurge is not a splurge.

Did I already have a charcoal grill? Yes. But because it’s charcoal and not gas, I use it less and less.
Did I need a gas grill? Probably not, given that a perfectly fine charcoal grill is standing out there in the backyard.
But really, do I need a gas grill? Sure, if I’m going to get back to eating healthy again. Or eating at all.

Cheese & crackers vs. meat and veggies? No contest. I really do think this is not a splurge but a wise move, in spite of the bad timing.

Have you ever had a splurge that was not a splurge? What did you not-a-splurge on?

Income Streams/Savings Streams

People talk about establishing several income streams to increase net household income, pay off debt, and build a safety net for hard times. I certainly have advocated that more than once, because I’ve done it and it’s worked well for me. A small, unsteady income from freelance editing combined with taking on a few courses at the Great Desert University and then at a community college earned enough to pay off the second mortgage on my house, leaving my house free and clear before I was laid off, and helped establish a $14,500 emergency fund, which, in a pinch, would cover a year’s worth of living expenses.

So…how did I manage to cobble that much together, when I certainly didn’t net $35,900 ($21,400 went to pay off the loan) in those two semesters of part-time teaching?

Well, you’ve heard of snowflaking, whereby we put every little windfall and every extra few pennies toward debt? I think of this as snowmelt into savings streams. For some years before I was laid off, I had several savings streams:

One was a regular credit-union share savings account, into which I put a base amount of $200 a month. In addition, I also deposited any windfalls in here: the annual American Express card rebate, manufacturers’ rebates, gifts, whatever. In palmier days, come to think of it, I usually  put the AMEX rebate into a Roth IRA, but that’s another story.

Another was a money market savings account, into which I put everything I netted off sidestream jobs—teaching and freelancing—plus any other windfalls that came my way. This was the primary savings for the loan payoff.

A third was a money market checking account. Each month as paychecks came in I moved $1,500 here, to cover the $1,500 a month I budgeted for credit-card spending. This represented discretionary spending, as opposed to monthly bills that have to be paid come hell or high water. Usually, I spent significantly less than this. Any money that was left over stayed in money market checking.

A fourth was another share savings account at the credit union. It held a monthly $325 self-escrow to pay annual property taxes, homeowner’s insurance, and auto insurance.

And a fifth savings stream was a Vanguard Prime Money Market Fund, into which I put 30% of all freelance income—a set-aside to pay income taxes and my tax preparer.

Three of the five monthly “snowmelts” happened as automatic transfers: on the first of the month, $1,500 was moved to money market checking to cover discretionary expenses; on the last, $200 went to monthly savings and $325 went to tax & insurance savings. Instead of “paying myself first,” I kept that $525 in my primary checking account until the last of the month to ensure that no checks would bounce. They never did. But in Quicken I deducted the amount from the bottom line, so I would always know what was left in the account with those savings streams flowing out.

In other words, what I left in checking from each month’s pay was only enough to cover monthly nondiscretionary expenses. Funds for costs over which I had some real, credible control were paid from the credit card budget, which flowed into an account specifically to pay off the card in full each month.

Because the discretionary budget is based on summer expenses, which are about $300 higher than late fall, winter, and early spring costs, over time quite a bit of leftover money quietly accumulated in regular checking, just as it was quietly accumulating in the discretionary spending account (because I rarely used all my discretionary budget).

It’s surprising how much money accrues—and how painlessly it accrues—when you make savings streams a part of your financial life. When I was finally laid off last December, I was pleased to find something over $28,000 lurking in the credit union. That was after the second mortgage was paid.

Admittedly, a credit union or bank account is not the best place to stash 28 grand. I simply hadn’t registered how much had accrued in the various accounts that I wasn’t deliberately using as savings accounts. When you added the serendipitous savings that resulted from living within my means to the deliberate savings, it came to quite a lot. I moved $14,000 to investments and kept $14,500 as this year’s “cushion,” knowing that with Social Security’s stringent earned-income limit, 2010 would be tight.

Although 2010 is tight, I still haven’t lost the savings-stream habit. In semiretirement, I no longer feel the need to save as much—largely because I no longer live in fear of layoffs. And restructuring The Copyeditor’s Desk from a sole proprietorship to an S-corporation changed its tax structure, so I don’t have to set aside a chunk of dough to cover taxes on freelance enterprises.

I’m now keeping all budgeted spending money—discretionary as well as nondiscretionary—in my primary checking account. Because I’ve undershot both budgets all winter…uhm, well…ahem…until the great Shopping Spree Episode…about $2,100 extra has accrued in there. So it’s a de facto savings account, although I expect to spend that money over the summer, when teaching income dries up.

Regular monthly savings still gets its $200/month deposit, plus all other small windfalls. As a matter of fact, this is where the $700 to cover the clothing frenzy will come from. With over 14 grand sitting in checking as a gigantic emergency fund, the regular monthly savings account, which I used to regard as “emergency” savings, is now a diddle-it-away fund.

Another $325 still goes into the self-escrow account each month. Taxes and insurance being unavoidable, that one’s not an option. Starting this month, I’ll add another $90/month to that, to cover the annual cost of Medigap insurance.

The corporate account now collects all freelance and blogging income. With an S-corporation, you pay yourself a salary, which can be fairly modest as long as it recompenses you reasonably for the work you do as the corporation’s director (which ain’t much). The money that remains in the corporation can be used to cover your incorporated enterprise’s operating expenses (such as computer equipment, office supplies, server space). Money that you draw out after you’ve been paid your salary is treated as dividend income. To date, I haven’t needed any of that money to live on. So, the corporate account also functions as a de facto savings account.

Even though I’m now unemployed (or, we might say, “underemployed”…in a big way), with a total gross income of about 58% of what I earned at the Great Desert University, money is still flowing through four income streams (teaching, Social Security, a small pension drawdown, and the incorporated freelance enterprise) into three formal savings streams (tax & insurance, regular monthly savings, and the corporate account) plus an informal savings stream in the form of unspent cash in regular checking.

Savings streams ensure that there’ll always be enough to cover those ugly recurring tax and insurance bills, plus something to pay for the occasional indulgence. Consequently, my lifestyle has really not changed much, despite the 42 percent cut in income. Thanks to a few small income streams and savings streams.

Every little bit helps...

Money Happens: Planning ahead through 2011

Reviewing the first quarter of post-Canning Day finances, I’m amazed to discover that I’ve not been spending as much money as I budgeted, and not anything near the amount that’s been flowing into the checking account. In fact, on average I’ve spent about $1,100 a month less than income!

The reason for this, of course, has been the part-time teaching, which will end in May and bring in nothing for two and a half months, when expenses rise into the stratosphere.

But…but my $805/month nondiscretionary budget, which includes those soon-to-be-stratospheric utility bills, is based on the bloated summer rates. So in theory, as long as I stay within the discretionary spending budget of $800, even in the summertime I shouldn’t be spending much more than $1,600 a month. In June and July, my income will drop to about $1,390 a month (maybe less, if I put my latest scheme in action—see below). That’s about $210 short. But with $3,400 sitting there from the first-quarter budget underruns, in theory it shouldn’t matter. Those two unpaid and two underpaid months would eat up only about $420 of the three thousand bucks residing there from the first quarter.

Here’s how this shakes out:

Yipe! The average monthly net left in my checking account, income minus expenses, has exceeded $1,100 a month!

Part of this happened because Social Security has been dragging its feet on withholding income tax from the benefit it’s paying. I’ve now asked three times and am assured that in April my SS payment will be $1,008, down from $1,257.

So, in April Social Security income drops about $250; in May teaching income drops in half and in May and June drops to zero. In August teaching income starts up again, with one paycheck that month, two a month from September through November, and one again in December. Net Fidelity income is $389 a month, giving me a net income of about $1,389 in June and July. For the entire year 2010, the result looks like this:

Can that possibly be correct? This suggests that teaching 3 and 2 and collecting $385 net a month from the Fidelity 403(b) will leave me with a surplus of over $9,000 at the end of the year!

Amazing, isn’t it…

Well, the state General Accounting Office demanded that I take a drawdown from my Fidelity 403(b), lest my request to collect my RASL be rejected. This worked contrary to my purposes, because that money needed to be left in investments in hopes that during the time I still have the strength to work, it will recover some of the losses incurred during the crash of the Bush economy. So I asked for $500, the least I thought I could get away with. The net on that is $389 a month.

The fact is, now that the first of the three annual RASL payouts has been approved and transferred to my keeping, it’s unlikely the RASL administrator is going to notice what’s going on with my drawdown. So, I’m thinking I should continue to draw down $500, but have only $100 deposited in checking, rolling over the remainder to my big IRA, which is professionally managed and doing quite well. Another advantage of this strategy is that it would drop my gross income into a lower tax bracket and might insure that none of my Social Security would be taxed at all.

To get 100 after-tax dollars in my sweaty little hand, I’d have to ask for a $125 transfer to checking (i.e., $125 – 20% tax = $100). This would leave $375 a month to roll into the IRA: $4500 a year. It would look like a $500-a-month distribution, but in fact the lion’s share would be extracted from the plain-vanilla 403(b)  into my better-managed IRA with no tax consequences.

In terms of my cash flow, what would happen? Collecting $100 instead of $389 a month would remove $2,601 ($289 x the remaining 9 months) from the bottom line above for 2010:

Okay. So, what if I cut Fidelity income to $100 a month for the entire year of 2011? Could I survive? Let’s assume a 3% inflation rate for expenses, since everything but our paychecks is going up fast. In this scenario, I again teach 3 & 2 instead of 3 & 3:

Huh. Almost $5,000 left at the end of the year. These figures translate to after-tax funds I can use to pay toward my share of the mortgage ($9,000 a year) in 2011 and 2012, delaying serious drawdowns from retirement savings another two years!

So, if there’s that much play in the budget, why on earth am I working at all? What would happen if I didn’t teach in 2011 but instead collected the net $389 on a $500 monthly drawdown from Fidelity?

Yes. The Copyeditor’s Desk, Inc., would earn enough to cover the shortfall and more over the course of a year. As we come to the end of the first quarter, the corporation is holding $2,218, and I’m doing precious little freelance work! Net after a 20% tax payout would be $1,774. That’s for a single quarter in which I’ve made no effort to find work.

Teaching one section would net $1,920, more than enough to break even.

I have to ask you, isn’t that the most amazing thing you ever saw? I can’t believe my expenses are that low in this four-bedroom house on a quarter-acre with a big pool and a forest of fruit and ornamental trees.

And yes, it has occurred to me to wonder if I’m being too frugal here. Surely I can afford to get my hair done by a better stylist than the $30 guy—last week he left me with a tuft sticking out at the neckline and a kind of box-like cap on top. Possibly I can afford to buy some clothes somewhere other than Costco. Or, who knows? Maybe I could even afford a cell phone.

I don’t feel like my life is pinched. I still shop at AJs and Whole Foods; I still buy plants at the fanciest nurseries in town. So…is this money happening, or what?

Financial Freedom: Building the bankroll, part 1

In the quest for financial freedom—the search for a way off the day-job treadmill—it’s important to build the habit of living not just within your means but below your means.

When you live within your means, you spend no more than you earn. In living below your means, however, you spend less than you earn. This allows you to put money aside for future use; to wit, early retirement. The scheme is pretty simple:

Live below your means;
Save a specific amount each month;
Also set aside whatever else you don’t spend;
Stash your savings in investments and leave it there.

Saving is a strategy you can start at quite a young age, from the moment you begin to earn. My first full-time job paid a grandiose $300 a month. After paying the rent, I had $200 to live on. From that I budgeted $15 to buy myself some clothes or shoes and $20 to put into savings. Following the old adage, I always paid myself first. We didn’t have automatic electronic funds transfers in those days; I had to physically go into the bank to deposit my paycheck, and while I was there I had a share of it deposited to a savings account. If I hadn’t spent the previous month’s clothing budget, I transferred that or the amount remaining from it to savings, too. I still do the same today, only instead of $20 I put aside $200 plus anything else that doesn’t get spent.

It doesn’t sound like much, but over time it adds up. And when you’re young, your greatest financial asset is time. Twenty dollars a month invested at 8 percent starting in, say, 1967, when I began working, today would amount to $89,498.86. If you began investing $200 a month today and worked for twenty years, in 2030 you’d have $117,804. That’s a respectable amount, especially if you’re saving from after-tax income so that this is on top of your 401(k) or 403(b).

Yes. That’s what I’m talking about here: not only investing before-tax income in whatever savings plan your employer offers, but also setting aside something from take-home pay.

For most people, $200 a month is minimal. In fact, while I was still working I was setting aside about $370 a month, plus whatever was left over from my general operating expenses. Over 20 years at 8 percent, $370 a month would add up to $217,937.55—about as much as my 403(b) accrued in 15 years with matching contributions from my employer. In other words, the habit of saving and investing on your own can double your retirement savings…and at least some of it will be in instruments that you can access before age 59½, a crucial factor for those of us who do not intend to stay in the traces until we drop.

Even if your earnings are modest, it’s surprising how many ways you can find to unearth cash for savings and investment.

If you’ve recently succeeded in paying off debt, then you know that you can break loose a certain number of dollars from your income for purposes other than mere survival and indulgence. If that’s your case, instead of diddling away the newly freed-up income that you were having to use to service debt, put it into savings.

If you’re using the “snowball” approach to debt payoff, once you’re out from under the debt, put the snowballs into savings. If you’ve “snowflaked” debt away, keep on putting every little windfall aside, only put it into savings and investments.

Similarly, when you get a raise or move to a better-paying job, don’t change your standard of living. Put the increase into savings.

More proactively, start a side income stream and invest all the after-tax proceeds for the future. My freelance endeavors, for example, have earned around $8,000 to $10,000 a year. Eight grand amounts to about $666 a month; invested at 8 percent over our 20-year period, it would add up to $392,288.

Living below your means entails downsizing before you upsize. Instead of buying the biggest, most grandiose house you can afford, for example, buy a more modest but comfortable house. Or rent instead of buying and save the difference between the rent payment and mortgage payments for comparable digs. Refrain from buying the largest, fanciest vehicle your paycheck will support; get a car you can pay off quickly and use the amount you’d have to put into payments to build your Bumhood stash. Find better ways to entertain yourself than sitting in front of the boob tube, and then ditch the cable TV. Get rid of the land line. Learn to cook, and eat better for less by eating in instead of haunting restaurants.

If you never develop the habit of buying more than you need, you’ll never miss what you don’t have. Obviously you don’t have to live like an anchorite. But too many apparently middle-class Americans fail to distinguish between indulging their wants and providing for their needs. As a result, they’re really not in the financial middle class: they’re actually poor folks who are in way over their heads.

By April of 2009, the average household saving rate was only about 4 percent of disposable income. Let’s say you have $48,000 left after taxes from a $60,000 household  income: that would give you an annual savings rate of $1,920—significantly less than the rather modest $200/month we started with in this discussion. If your 4 percent includes your required contribution to an employer’s deferred saving plan, then you’re not even putting $160 a month ($1,920 ÷ 12) aside from take-home pay.

Meanwhile, economists at the Federal Reserve estimated (also in 2009) that despite the slight increase in U.S. households’ savings rate, most savings were going to pay off debt, which had accrued at a staggering rate during the recent boom, when consumption far exceeded income. To eliminate this household debt, the Fed observes,

Assuming an effective nominal interest rate on existing household debt of 7%, a future nominal growth rate of disposable income of 5%, and that 80% of future saving is used for debt repayment, the household saving rate would need to rise from around 4% currently to 10% by the end of 2018.

Clearly, if you start out with little or no debt and never accumulate debt, instead of pouring your savings into some already spectacularly wealthy banker’s pockets you can put your money to work for you. Living below your means is, then, the first stage of building your Bumhood bankroll.

The Financial Freedom Series

An Overview
Education
Work
Debt
The Health Insurance Hurdle
Own Your Roof
Building the Bankroll, Part 1
Building the Bankroll, Part 2

Big-picture thinking and the penny-pincher

This morning a fresh experience led me to realize that I spend way too much time on penny-pinching and way too little on focusing on the big picture that is my life—or more to the point, that is my earning potential.

Yesterday one of my former students sent me a LinkedIn invite. This caused me to return to that much-neglected site, where I was reminded that an old friend, a graphic artist with whom I worked at Arizona Highways and later through a talent agency I ran, had made himself one of my “contacts.” When I dropped him an e-mail to ask how things were going and mentioned that I’m now free of the Great Desert University, he invited me to join him for breakfast today with a business networking group he frequents. So, as dawn first colored the sky, I was shooting across the city to a Good Egg restaurant in one of Scottsdale’s toniest strip malls.

I arrived early, and since I didn’t want to be first at the trough, I spent 15 minutes or so window-shopping.

In more halcyon times, a colleague and I used to meet about once a month for lunch at the expensive trattoria that forms one of the small gems in this iridescent commercial strip. She has since moved to a historic whaling village in Massachusetts, and I have since taken to clinging to every penny that comes my way, and so I haven’t been back there in a long time. As I strolled past the elegant interior design stores, clothing boutiques, and gift shops, I thought, “Imagine what it would be like to be able to shop in one of these places whenever you feel like it!”

But when my friend and I were hanging out there, I used to shop in those glittery stores every now and again. And before then, when I was married to the corporate lawyer, I could indeed have shopped there any time I felt like it. Yes, it is true that even when my husband was bringing home a generous six-figure salary, I would never have purchased the luminous bedding set, redolent with satin and hand embroidery (if you have to ask, you can’t afford it…but you can be sure it’s more than my entire month’s discretionary budget). However, on my Great Desert University salary I did buy smaller items, which today I would not buy because I wouldn’t spend that much on, say, bubble bath or bathroom towels.

Can’t say I feel any great loss in the absence of these things, but still…the point is, I’ve taken to denying myself a lovely venue to hang out in and also small, not very expensive luxuries.

The meeting soon got under way: about a dozen small-business owners meet once a week to socialize and trade leads. I enjoyed these guys very much (the group was all-male, though they swore a couple of women belonged). They seemed like pretty nice gents, all of them fully engaged in their businesses and their lives. The group offered a number of ideas for expanding and improving on the enterprises I have in hand just now, and believe it or not, I got a lead to a full-time job. My old Arizona Highways pal has become a successful web design artist, and another member bills himself as “The PC Magician.” These two got me thinking about ways to improve and grow FaM.

At the end of the get-together, the group’s president suggested I apply for membership. Dues are $110 upfront and $50 a month, for which you get the pleasure of their company and breakfast every Thursday.

Gulp! thought I: Where the hell am I gonna come up with fifty bucks a month?

The money would have to come out of the S-corp’s checking account. The corporation actually has enough to cover that. But…it only just recently accrued enough to get me out of teaching one section of freshman comp next fall. And oboyoboy, do I want to get out of teaching one section of freshman comp! If I spend the money on socializing, I’ll be stuck with three sections next fall. And that, in addition to adding to the misery quotient, will put me over Social Security’s penurious earnings limit.

However, I did feel the group delivered more than that much in value received. And it really would take only one assignment to pay for it. Or one full-time job, eh?

Driving home, it dawned on me how ridiculous it is to feel I can’t spend $600 a year to belong to a trade group.

And, like the morning star sitting in that early dawn light, the thought also struck me that I don’t need to draw down money from the S-corp to get out of teaching one section of composition. In fact, I would do a great deal better not to do so! It would be far better to use $2,400 of the $10,000 emergency savings cushion, and to use the pretax money in the S-corp to pay for business expenses.

Duh!

The savings fund has already had the tax gouged out of it. The community college is withholding 15 percent of the $2,400 I earn per class, so that third section is actually worth only $2,040. Using after-tax funds I already have would provide an extra $360 to live on. Meanwhile, The Copyeditor’s Desk can pay for anything that’s even vaguely presentable as a business expense with revenues that are effectively tax-free.

This strategy has two other sterling advantages:

By pushing my earned income below $14,000 in 2010, it would ensure that that I absolutely would not exceed the subsistence wage Social Security allows.

It would cut my taxes significantly, since my total taxable income would drop well below $30,000.

I came away from the meeting feeling energized and excited about building Funny about Money and The Copyeditor’s Desk into serious money-making operations that might, in the future, support me in the manner to which I wish to become reaccustomed. And in that flush of ambition, I realized that I spend too much energy and time figuring out how I can live on next to nothing, and way too little time developing assets that I already have and that could do a great deal more for me.

Case in point: sitting here in front of the computer shivering with cold because I’ve calculated, penny by penny, how much I need to save on utilities in the winter to pay the exorbitant air-conditioning and water bills next summer.

Why have I spent all that time counting little pieces of copper? Wouldn’t I be a lot better off to invest some money in living normally and to devote that time to marketing FaM, spinning off a book from it, and hustling some more editorial clients?

And why am I wasting my time teaching time-consuming, exploitively underpaid junior-college courses when I can live on cash I already have and use that time to develop the two far more interesting enterprises that have already shown they can generate income?

Why? Because I’ve been obsessively focused on pinching pennies, at the expense of thinking about the big picture!

What’s the big picture? It’s life. And it’s how I can make life in Bumhood comfortable without having to accept insulting wages and without having to deny myself little luxuries like central heat.

And so, my friends, to work. It’s time to jump-start that old entrepreneurial engine and get it running again!

25 awesome sites for personal finance buffs

In a moment of idleness, I decided to Stumble in search of sites that might interest friends of Funny about Money. Below, 25 sites full of information, leads, and tools for personal finance enthusiasts. Prepare to bookmark!

Find Help, Get Action:

Hard-to-find 800 numbers. Includes Amazon, Google(!!), Dell, Apple. Some entries give a clue to how to reach a human.

How to Complain. For our friends in the UK.

Consumer Action. Free hotline refers consumers to complaint-handling agencies through our free hotline. This nonprofit publishes multilingual educational materials; compares prices on credit cards, bank accounts and long-distance services; advocates for consumers.

Federal Reserve Consumer Help. Contact the Federal Reserve if you’re having a problem with a bank or other financial institution.

General Consumer Information

Lifehacker. The Magic 8-Ball of interesting, useful, and amazing stuff

Federal Citizen Information Center: a gold mine of information. Click “Employment” to check out “how to get a job in the federal government.”

FRB Consumer Information. Another Federal Reserve Board page: banking, credit, mortgages, personal finance, leasing, identity theft. Useful information.

Consumer Product Safety Commission. Consumer info, news, recalls.

Consumer World. A large, active site: articles, links, tips, price comparisons…

Consumer Reports. Web presence of the granddaddy of consumer organizations; unfortunately, some parts of the site are restricted to subscribers.

Consumer’s Checkbook. Nonprofit organization reviews local companies and providers. Requires a log-in.

Frugalism

Retail Me Not.  Coupon codes & discounts

Local gas prices. Find the best prices in your area.

Swap Skills. Skill swapping network

DIY bath & body products: “800 bath & body recipes  you can make at home.”

How to make soap. It is what it says it is.

Bizrate: Shopping online; reviews, price comparisons

Quatloos: Cybermuseum of Scams & Frauds. Funny, often informative, sometimes provocative blog

Privacy Issues

Consumer Reports on privacy.  What information is being collected about you, why you need to know, and what (if anything) you can do about it. Did you know there’s a database tracking your record of returned merchandise?

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Nonprofit for consumer information and advocacy

Radio frequency identification. Clear, readable, and well researched excerpt from a law review article detailing what this is and how it will affect everyone’s privacy. Even cash transactions will be trackable…right to your doorstep. So much for any ideas about “going off the grid”!

Pest Control

Spambox.  Creates a temporary e-mail address for those outfits that demand an e-mail address to “verify” when you need to download or get into a site. It forwards to your real site and then expires after a set time.

Bug Me Not.  Shared logins for sites that pester you to register

Annoyance zappers. Plug-ins for zapping many common online annoyances

Junkbusters. Reduce physical junkmail.