Mary Mastroeni
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Mary Mastroeni

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Time to Switch Banks? More Fees Coming in 2012

January 6, 2012 5:48 pm

Consumer Reports recently investigated upcoming banking fees, and found that consumers who say they're furious at behemoth banks for their lending practices, fees, account requirements and various other reasons, can get ready to vent some more.

Among the findings of the consumer organization's investigation:

The investigation showed that fee hikes and tougher account requirements will probably continue, especially while the economy remains weak.

While customers with a lot of accounts at one bank might avoid some fees, they're not immune. Banks may try a spectrum of charges even for good customers, including fees for paper statements and higher safe-deposit costs.

Consumers are more likely to find lower fees and better rates at community banks, larger credit unions, and online institutions. According to research, banks are trying to make up billions in lost revenue due to the bad economy, new regulations, and in some cases perhaps even their own inefficiencies.

Should you switch banks?
Now that you know that fees may fire up, you may be wondering if you should switch banks. If your bank plans to stick you with new fees or tougher account requirements, your first thought might be to find a new one. According to Consumer Reports, that might be your best option, but switching banks can be a hassle. So it's important to weigh your options before making a decision to move. The following tips can help you decide:
• Check the terms. If you're facing a single new fee, see what it would take to avoid it. Increasing your account balance by a few hundred dollars or signing up for direct deposit might work.
• Change your habits. For example, plan a weekly visit to an ATM in your bank's network to withdraw cash instead of going out of network. And check your statements more carefully so you don't rack up overdraft fees.
• Try to negotiate. You might be able to get a fee waived if you tell your bank you're thinking about moving your accounts.
• Consider convenience. Banking is about much more than rates and fees. It's also about the day-to-day banking experience. Does the bank have adequate ATM locations and local branches with convenient hours, or give you privileges to use out-of-network ATMs?
• Do your homework. Check with competing banks and credit unions, starting with their websites. That's where you'll find complete information about rates, fees, terms, and conditions.
• Plan your getaway. If you've decided that moving your money is the best solution, make the process as smooth as possible. Check to see whether your new bank offers a "switch kit" to help you streamline the process
• Make your move. Open up the account in your new bank or credit union with a small deposit. Then you can transfer funds from your old bank to the new institution electronically. Arrange to switch over your automatic payments and deposits to the new account.
• The grand finale. Leave at least a small amount of cash in your old account and close it once you're sure all checks and transfers have cleared.

Source: http://www.ConsumerReports.org

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Raising Money-Savvy Kids

January 6, 2012 5:48 pm

Adults aren’t the only ones making money-smart decisions these days. In fact, the 2011 Free Enterprise National Survey found that 64 percent of high school juniors were interested in starting or owning their own businesses. And, 15 percent of respondents had already started their own business.

Additionally, The 2010 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation's Youth Entrepreneurship Survey found that 40 percent of students between the ages of 8 and 24 would like to start a business in the future, or already have done so.

Do your kids keep asking what they can do to earn more allowance? Do they know how to save up for something they want? You might have a budding entrepreneur on your hands. From setting up a lemonade stand on the corner to creating smartphone apps, kids are learning the ropes of running a business early.

Yet with all this interest in entrepreneurship, few students are getting this information from school. According to the Council for Economic Education, only 15 states require public high schools to offer a personal finance course, and there are no national standards for an entrepreneurial education.
If you have a budding entrepreneur in the family, what can you do to encourage and equip them to take on the challenges of starting and running a business?

Kim Danger, personal finance expert and founder of www.MommySavers.com, says that even if you're not a business-minded person, you can help your child or teen grow in this area.

"It's never too early to start learning about financial matters, whether it's managing their allowances or starting their own dog-sitting service," Danger says. "In addition to talking with them about money matters and being a good role model when it comes to finances, there are some things you can do to help them get some real-world business experiences."

• Take them seriously. If they have an idea for a product improvement or a service they can provide to neighbors, don't dismiss it. Listen to the idea and ask them questions to help them figure out how to make that idea a reality. Even if they don't make a dime, they'll get a boost in confidence and some lessons in planning and critical thinking that will pay off later.
• Don't do too much. It can be very tempting for adults to take over a project and "do it right," but kids need to learn from mistakes, and to take responsibility for decisions and their consequences. Entrepreneurship means facing a lot of challenges that require persistence, patience, determination and creative problem solving. They'll miss out on all those lessons if you do the legwork for them.
• Make sure it's a labor of love. It's one thing to come up with an idea to make some short-term pocket money. But starting a business takes a lot of time and effort, so it needs to be something that they can be passionate about. Starting a pet-care business when they don't really love dogs will not end well.

"Kids have energy, imagination and creativity that could very well lead to the next big idea or make a big difference in their world," says Danger. "All they need is some encouragement from you and they can start creating their own future today."

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Word of the Day

January 6, 2012 5:48 pm

Survey. An exact measurement of the size and boundaries of a piece of land by civil engineers or surveyors.

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Question of the Day

January 6, 2012 5:48 pm

Q: What guidelines should I follow to find a contractor?

A: Always exercise caution and be comfortable and confident about your final decision. This means selecting a competent and reliable contractor with a track record who can complete the job without hassles or negative consequences. What you can do:
• Get word-of-mouth referrals. Ask friends, family, co-workers and neighbors for the names of established, local contractors in your area; avoid the telephone book.
• Call trade groups. When all else fails, contact local trade organizations, such as the local builder association or the Remodelors Council, an arm of the National Association of Home Builders, for the names of reputable members in your area.
• Associate with licensed contractors. Many states require contractors to be licensed and bonded. Contact your state or local licensing board to ensure the contractor meets all requirements and has a decent record. The Better Business Bureau and the local Consumer Affairs Office can also tell you if any complaints have been filed against the contractor and how they were resolved.
• Conduct interviews. Talk with each contractor, request free estimates, and ask for recent references. When dealing with several different contractors, make sure they’re bidding on similar project specifications and quality of work. Remember, the lowest bid isn’t always the best.
• Check insurance information. Most states require a contractor to have workers’ compensation, property damage, and personal liability insurance. Ask for proof of this insurance and get the name of the insurance company to verify the information and to ensure that all minimum insurance requirements are met. You could be held liable for any work-related injury if the contractor is not covered.

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Word of the Day

January 6, 2012 5:48 pm

Tax basis. The price paid for a property plus certain costs and expenses, such as closing costs, legal counsel, and a commission paid to help find the property.

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Question of the Day

January 6, 2012 5:48 pm

Q: Are there specific questions I should ask a contractor?

A: According to the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, sometimes it’s not the responses you get that are important, but what you don’t get. So you should trust your instincts and pay attention to the information that is obviously missing. Nevertheless, here are some questions NARI suggest you ask before signing that remodeling contract:
• How long have you been in business?
• What is your approach to a project such as this?
• Who will be working on the project? Are they employees or subcontractors?
• Who will be assigned as project supervisor for the job?
• Does your company carry workers’ compensation and liability insurance?
• How many projects like mine have you completed in the past year?
• May I have a list of references from those projects?
• Are you a member of a national trade association?
• Have you or your employees been certified in remodeling or had any special training or education?

It also wouldn’t hurt to inquire about how trash removal and clean up will be handled and the times workers will begin and end work – this is not only for your convenience but also for your neighbors, who have to endure the noise and fewer parking spaces that may result from your project.

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Rehab Your Place; Taking on Large-Scale Projects

January 6, 2012 5:48 pm

As 2011 turns a new leaf and a new year, I am looking back on some of the best—or most tried and true—consumer advice dispensed during the past year, all while looking forward to some of the top trends and issues expected to top consumers' agendas in 2012.

Picking up on the continuing trend of rehabbing expected in 2012, some great advice on larger-scale rehab projects came our way in 2011 courtesy of the National Park Service’s Technical Preservation Services—the nation's leading provider of information and guidance on the care of vintage/historic buildings.

In exploring the agency’s Standards for Rehabilitation & Illustrated Guidelines on Sustainability for Rehabilitating Historic Building we learned:

• Using shutters, operable windows, porches, curtains, awnings, shade trees and other historically appropriate non-mechanical features reduces heating and cooling loads. Consider adding sensitively designed storm windows to existing historic windows.
• Retaining or upgrading existing mechanical systems whenever possible is the way to go. Reuse radiator systems with new boilers, upgrade ventilation within the building, and install proper thermostats or humidistats.
• You can greatly improve energy efficiency of existing buildings by installing insulation in attics and basements. Add insulation and vapor barriers to exterior walls only when it can be done without further damage to the resource.
• In major spaces, seek to retain decorative elements of the historic system whenever possible. This includes switch-plates, grilles and radiators. Be creative in adapting these features to work within the new or upgraded system.
We also learned when renovating a vintage/historic property, design climate control systems that are compatible with the architecture of the building: hidden system for formal spaces, more exposed systems possible in industrial or secondary spaces. In exposed areas, avoid standard commercial registers and use custom slot registers or other less intrusive grilles.

Size the system to work within the physical constraints of the building. Use multi-zoned smaller units in conjunction with existing vertical shafts, such as stacked closets, or consider locating equipment underground, if possible.

Then, maintain appropriate temperature and humidity levels to meet requirements without accelerating the deterioration of any historic building materials. Set up regular monitoring schedules, and have a regular maintenance program to extend equipment life and to ensure proper performance.

To view the entire guide, start by visiting Technical Preservation Services at www.nps.gov/hps/tps.

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It’s Electric: Wiring 101

January 6, 2012 5:48 pm

Taking the necessary safety precautions and understanding your electric system is crucial—it can help you understand what to look for in your new home, guarantee the approval of home owner’s insurance and provide you with the confidence and know-how to stay safe in an emergency situation.

While all major electrical repairs should be done by a professional electrician, understanding your electrical system is an essential part of buying, owning and selling a home.

Know Your Panels

Knowing how your electric panel functions is an essential safety precaution. Your electric panel is the direct connection point between your home’s wiring and your incoming electric current. Each panel should contain a main shut off (service disconnect), a circuit breaker (overload protection) and wiring. Each part of your panel should be clearly labeled for fast use in any emergency. Having a service disconnect is one of the biggest safety precautions you can take regarding your electric panel.

When analyzing your panel, be wary of oversized fuses or circuit breakers, or multiple circuits connected to a single overload device. These can create an overload hazard—a safe electric panel should have one wire per fuse or circuit breaker.

Learn Your Lines

Service lines bringing electrical current to a home can be run overhead or buried. However, if you have overhead lines, be sure all ladders, poles, outdoor cable dishes or trees are a safe distance away to avoid accidental contact.

Wire it Right

If you have an older home, keep an eye out for knob and tube wiring, a two-wire system that is not congruent with modern, up-to-date appliances and can cause potential safety hazards.

If your circuits contain aluminum wiring, you should get it check by professional who can determine if work or replacement is necessary. Aluminum wiring is no longer typically installed on household circuits due to the common occurrence of faulty connections.

Safety First

If your home is not already equipped with a Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI), consider having one installed. GFCIs are personal safety devices installed in high-hazard locations, including exteriors, kitchens and bathrooms.

You may also want to consider installing an Arc-Fault Circuit-Interupter—or AFCI—in your living or sleeping area. These circuit breakers are meant to detect faulty arcs and significantly reduce your risk for electrical fires.

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Students Manage Debt with Financial Planning

January 6, 2012 5:48 pm

In an increasingly competitive global market, education is becoming more important. But many families find the cost of education to be outside their grasp. According to a study commissioned by the US Department of Education, from the 2001-02 to the 2010-11 academic year, the cost of attending a 4-year undergraduate in-state school rose by 47.3 percent.

With ever-increasing education expenses, many families are accumulating significant debt, putting students further behind. However, with planning and financial management, students can control their finances. Here are some tips for parents of soon-to-be college students.

Start the conversation. Talk with other parents, teachers and guidance counselors about the cost of education. Make contact with the student financial aid offices of the colleges on your child's list and get an accurate estimate of the cost of each institute. Most importantly, talk with your child. It is imperative your child learns the budgeting process as they will soon be managing their finances away from home.

Set the budget and stick to it.
Once you have a set budget, add wiggle room for other unforeseeable expenses. Make sure you set this budget realistically. Calculating the cost of pens and pencils may seem ludicrous, but if you're on a tight budget, every expense counts.

Get connected.
Tracking your financial spending is easier than ever. From smart phone apps to free financial planning software, you can get an accurate financial report at any time. Research banks to determine which ones offer services to help you can stay on top of your budget. Also, consider linking your banking account with your child's, to easily transfer funds online.

Make a plan.
When taking on debt, it is important to have a plan for paying it off. Calculate the monthly payments and time it will take your child to pay off the debt. Research salary ranges for the field in which your child plans to pursue a career to understand the debt they can realistically carry. Find more information and calculators to help determine payment schedules and interest rates at www.direct.ed.gov.

Do your research. Before taking out a student loan, look to other options, such as financial aid and scholarships. While some scholarships are awarded on academic merit, others are given based upon both academic performance and community service. Foresters™, a life insurance provider committed to the well-being of families and their communities, is one organization that provides a competitive scholarship program1 open to eligible members or their dependent children, including grandchildren, worth up to $8,000.

Recipients can use the scholarship to attend accredited universities, colleges and vocational schools, as long as they are pursuing their first post-secondary degree or diploma. There are up to 350 Foresters Competitive Scholarships available, in the US and Canada including five Ken Peterson Awards for Community Service. These awards are worth up to $11,000.

Source: www.foresters.com.

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This Year, Drink to Your Health

January 6, 2012 5:48 pm

Fitness goals are a common trend in New Year’s resolutions. Between gym memberships, the latest diet fads and miracle-promising supplements, billions of dollars get spent each year on achieving fitness goals.

Many people don’t realize that one of the best things you can do for your body is not found at the gym, or in a pill. Believe it or not, being properly hydrated is one of the healthiest things you can do. That means being in balance—the water your body loses from perspiration, breathing and other body processes is replaced by the water you consume.

Based on clinical trials on adults, published in the journal Nutrition Reviews in 2005, scientists have identified that dehydration has an impact on physical and mental performance. Even mild dehydration—a loss of 1 to 2 percent of body weight—can impact your mental and physical performance. In addition to being thirsty, mild dehydration can cause headaches, decrease your alertness, concentration and memory, and reduce your endurance.

So making sure you stay healthfully hydrated is an important part of taking good care of your body. And water is the key.

Easy Ways to Stay Hydrated
Good hydration is at the heart of a healthy lifestyle. Here are some tips for getting water into your daily routine:

1. Choose water instead of caloric, sweetened beverages, especially during mealtime.
2. For an easy and inexpensive thirst-quencher, carry bottled water throughout the day.
3. Give your water variety by adding slices of lemon, lime, cucumber or watermelon.
4. Choose flavored sparkling water as another zero- calorie option.
5. Drink a cup of water before and after workouts, and more if it's hot or your workout is long and strenuous. Sip water throughout the workout for steady rehydration.

Drink in the Facts
• 38 out of 50 states have obesity rates higher than 25 percent. According to "F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America's Future 2011," a report funded by Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, twenty years ago no state had an obesity rate above 15 percent.
• The average person gets more than 20 percent of their total caloric intake each day from beverages. Research suggests this number should be closer to 10 percent. To achieve that goal, pay attention to the calories per serving in all your beverages.
• We drink about 450 calories a day. In 1965 we consumed only 225 calories from beverages.
• A 2010 study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that soda, energy and sports drinks—including sweetened water products—are the number 4 source of calories for Americans, providing an average of 114 calories/day.
• Unlike soft drinks and sweetened juices, water has no calories. In fact, making a simple switch such as replacing one 140-calorie sugared beverage a day with water can reduce 50,000 calories from your diet each year, as reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Source: www.nestle-waters.com.

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