Tuesday, April 29, 2008

$4 per gallon! Time for some commuting tips

Just getting to work is getting more expensive. But there are ways to cut down on commuting costs. Here are some top tips on how to save while driving to work.

1. Calculate Alternatives

Do you know just how much money you're using by commuting back and forth to work?

The typical commuter pays over $200 per month just to get back and forth to work. That's over $2,400 per year, or put differently, the same as a $3,500 raise in your salary.

So, think about how much you would save by taking mass transit instead.

Check out this calculator from commuterchoice.com that let's you see what the cost benefit could be if you hopped on the train or the bus.

2. Improve your mileage

Getting the most out of your gas tank is a priority.

Here's how to do it:

First, simply maintain your car. One of the most important things you can do it to make sure your tires are inflated properly.

According to tests done by Edmunds.com, driving with tires underinflated by 25% caused a loss of fuel economy on an average of 3.75%.

If you have a roof rack that you're not using, take it down. It can cause a fuel loss of 1%.

And if you have a lot of junk in the trunk, make sure you get rid of it. That heavy load can really add to your gas bill.

If both spouses drive to work in separate cars, use the more fuel-efficient one for the longest commute.

3. Look to your employer

The federal and most state governments offer big tax breaks for commuters.

If your employer offers a flexible spending plan for transportation, take advantage of it. This program lets you put pretax money away for your transit passes or parking expenses.

And the money you contribute to this fund lowers your taxable income, so you'll be shielding the cash from Uncle Sam.

Make sure you ask your employer if this perk is offered.

4. Find a buddy

Driving to work may be a drag, but you can drastically cut down on your mileage by sharing the ride with a colleague or a buddy.

Sign up for the free service http://www.erideshare.com/ to find fellow travelers who are looking to connect and share rides.

You can also check out commuterchoice.com or your state's department of transportation for more information.

5. Call your insurance company

If you do cut your commute, let your auto insurer know.

You'll generally get a low-mileage discount if you drive fewer than 40 miles per day.

You may also be able to cut down on your mileage by pitching the idea of telecommuting one or two days a week to your boss.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Stimulus Payments to Go Out Ahead of Schedule

The federal government, eager to boost the flagging economy, will start distributing special stimulus payments Monday—four days earlier than expected.

"Beginning Monday, the effects of the stimulus will begin to reach households," President Bush said Friday. "This money is going to help Americans offset the high prices we're seeing at the gas pump and at the grocery store."

The department announced the early arrival of the payments Thursday after saying last month that it would begin sending out the money on May 2.

As of next week, 800,000 tax filers daily will begin to have their checks directly deposited Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. No checks will be distributed Thursday, and 5 million payments will be made Friday.

The payments will go out ahead of schedule because of a new computer program that updates records daily—faster than an older program that updates weekly, according to Andrew DeSouza, a Treasury spokesman.

Overall, the Treasury will distribute more than $110 billion to 130 million taxpayers by July and hopes to get the first $50 billion out by the end of May, DeSouza said.

The checks are the centerpiece of an economic stimulus program signed into law by President Bush in February. The aim is to boost consumer spending and help mitigate problems caused by the slowing economy.

Checks are being distributed to people who file 2007 tax returns. Those who opt for direct deposit with the Internal Revenue Service will start getting payments before those who use the mail.

The program calls for rebates of up to $600 for single filers making less than $75,000. Couples making less than $150,000 would receive rebates of up to $1,200. In addition, parents would receive $300 rebates per child. Filers who do not owe income taxes but have at least $3,000 in income would get a $300 payment.

Payments to taxpayers slated to get paper checks will start to go out May 9—one week earlier than originally planned.

The order in which tax filers will receive their payments will be based on the last two digits of their Social Security numbers.

Under the government's economic stimulus plan, 130 million people will receive tax rebate checks for $300 and up, starting Monday. What do you plan to do with your check? How do you think the stimulus plan will affect the economy?

There is fear that many, many Americans will pay down personal debt (which will not act as an immediate stimulus to the economy). And that's what we're doing. We still have over $45,000 in Home Equity Line of Credit debt hanging out there. My wife and I are starting a business and have been using excess cash to fund that. Therefore, we haven't had as much cash to pay down the debt. When our $1,800 arrives, I'm paying down debt.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Killer credit card rewards

As the quantity and variety of credit card offers seem to expand like options on a Chinese food take-out menu, card issuers keep searching for new ways to capture and retain customers. One approach has been to appeal to consumers interested in benefits other than typical financial inducements such as low interest rates, no annual fees and travel rewards. By offering rewards that benefit the specific passions and interests of consumer niches, issuers have found that they can appeal to a particularly loyal base of customers.

Whether you are an extremely generous or loyal person, or someone in need of extreme pampering, there is almost certainly a credit card tailored for you. And if you are a partisan of long-term relationships, there is a credit card that claims it can make you a millionaire!

Extreme Generosity

Yes, Virginia, you really can do good things with your credit card beyond feeding your own selfish needs and desires. Some credit cards offer a convenient way to support worthy charitable and socially conscious programs.

Best Friends Animal Sanctuary Platinum Visa Card

This card benefits the Best Friends Animal Society, which operates an animal sanctuary in Utah and promotes the No More Homeless Pets campaign.

Basic reward:

  • 0.55 percent of purchases charged to the card are donated directly to the Best Friends Animal Society.

Bank of America Brighter Planet Visa Credit Card

Want to use your plastic to boost renewable energy projects? This card benefits Brighter Planet, which helps combat global warming and fund community-based renewable energy projects. Current projects include a wind turbine project supplying electricity to a rural Colorado school district and a methane abatement project at a Pennsylvania dairy farm.

Basic rewards:

  • Earn one point for each dollar spent.
  • Points automatically redeemed each month by Bank of America to purchase carbon offsets.
  • Through 2008, Bank of America will make matching contributions. At the current price of carbon offsets, this amounts to about $18 total redemption for each $1,000 charged (or 1.8 percent).

Target Visa REDcard Credit Card

Here's a credit card that helps build school playgrounds and purchase books. Select your kids' school or another eligible school. Through its Take Charge of Education program, Target will send twice annual checks to the school.

Basic rewards:

  • Earn one point for every dollar you spend at Target and every two dollars spent elsewhere.
  • Enjoy a 10 percent discount for a full day at Target every time you earn 1,000 points on your credit card.
  • Receive a 10 percent discount on prescriptions at Target pharmacies.
  • Target will donate 1 percent of your Target purchases to the eligible school of your choice.

Extreme Loyalty

Everyone has at least one substantial passion. Whether yours involves a pet, a theme park, a city, or a sports team, chances are that you will be able to merge that loyalty with a credit card. Here are a few examples:

Bank of America PetRewards Platinum Plus Visa Card

Pets are great, but they can be a costly indulgence. This card can take a bite out of that financial strain, while offering you the opportunity to carry a credit card emblazoned with your pet's photo.

Basic rewards:

  • Personalize your card with a photo of your pet or choose from one of three stock designs.
  • Earn one point for every dollar you spend on everyday purchases and two points for purchases at participating veterinary clinics and pet stores.
  • Redeem rewards for pet food discounts, veterinary care savings and shelter donations.

Disney Rewards Visa Card from Chase

How many households can you think of that have kids, but don't have at least a few Disney-related items and a desire to visit a Disney theme park? Probably not many, and that's why a Disney-branded credit card appeals to so many parents.

Basic rewards:

  • Earn one reward dollar for every $100 of card purchases.
  • Redeem reward dollars throughout the Disney empire--Disney stores, theme parks, cruise lines, and through the Disney catalog (clothing, DVDs, toys).
  • Receive additional theme park discounts, with no blackout dates.
  • Pay 0 percent interest for six months on select vacation packages.
  • Choose among six different Disney-theme card designs.

IN:CHICAGO Card from American Express

If Chicago is your kind of town, the IN:CHICAGO Card might be your kind of credit card.

Basic rewards:

  • Earn one point for each dollar spent anywhere, and double points for selective services in the city.
  • Redeem your points for rewards (dining, entertainment) in Chicago, and receive special discounts on a range of activities around town.
  • American Express offers similar cards for New York City and Los Angeles, and points earned on each card are redeemable in all three cities.

Nordstrom Visa Signature® Credit Card
Store-branded cards can be great choices for frequent shoppers. Nordstrom's is one retailer whose card was rated highly by an October 2007 Consumer Reports survey.

Basic rewards:

  • Earn two reward points for each dollar spent at Nordstrom's, and one reward point for card purchases elsewhere.
  • Earn double rewards during special sales held twice annually.
  • Automatically receive $20 Nordstrom Notes by mail every time you accumulate 2,000 reward points.
  • Free concierge services.

The KISS Visa Card with Chase Flexible Rewards

Fans of aging rock stars with painted faces and prominent tongues can bond with their musical heroes financially with this card. For better or for worse, there don't seem to be any KISS-specific rewards associated with this card beyond the colorful face of the card itself.

Basic rewards:

  • Earn one point for each dollar of card purchases.
  • Redeem points for the typical array of travel, cash, and merchandise offerings.
  • Extreme Gamble

    Enjoy rolling the dice? Rest assured that you can find a credit card to satisfy the craving.

    American DreamCard

    This card centers around a monthly jackpot drawing. The jackpot, which is equal to 0.5 percent of total dollars spent by cardholders that month, has ranged from $12,000 to $25,000 over the past two years. Winners' names are posted on the Web site. The more you charge, the better your odds of winning. This is probably not, however, a smart choice for those with gambling and shopping addictions.

    Basic rewards:

    • Earn one entry into monthly drawing for each dollar charged.
    • With Lady Luck's cooperation, win the monthly jackpot.

    Extreme Pampering

    "Concierge service" and "exclusive" are buzzwords in the promotional efforts aimed at credit card customers looking for a little extra attention. These cards tend to flow to high net-worth customers seeking individualized service, flexible or substantial credit limits, and a helping hand with scoring dinner reservations or finding a gift.

    American Express Platinum Card

    If you want more, sometimes you have to pay more. This card carries a hefty $450 annual fee, but promises experiences "that are a cut above the rest."

    Basic rewards:

    • Exclusive travel benefits (airport club access, cruise discounts, hotel upgrades).
    • Concierge service.
    • Access to invitation-only events.

    MERRILL+ Visa+ Credit Card

    If your idea of being pampered is having the option to spend huge amounts of money, here's a card that offers credit limits up to a whopping $250,000.

    Basic rewards:

    • Earn one point for each dollar spent.
    • Redeem points for air rewards (any airline, no blackout dates) or merchandise.
    • Concierge service.

    Bank of America Rewards American Express Card

    Here's a card available to consumers with good, but not necessarily great, credit ratings.

    Basic rewards:

    • Earn one point for each dollar charged.
    • Redeem points for travel (no blackout dates), hotel discounts, cash, or merchandise.
    • Flexibility to pay balance over time.
    • Concierge service.