Monday, April 28, 2008

Beware Bogus Bank Fees

This weekend I received a letter from my bank, TDBanknorth, telling me that I had violated Federal Regulation D and had been charged a $20 fee for each infraction. I logged on to my account to discover that I'd been fined $40.

It turns out that Federal Regulation D limits the number of debit or withdrawal transactions on savings accounts to six per statement cycle. This includes, apparently, transfers of funds from your savings account into your checking account using online banking. However, if one were to drive to one's bank--in my case, the nearest branch or ATM is one town over--and withdraw the funds in person and then deposit them into one's checking account, one would not be charged a fine for doing so. How this makes any kind of sense is beyond me.

In my case, I have direct deposit so my paychecks go directly into my checking account. Then, each month I have three auto-transfers that go into my savings. I had been overenthusiastic in my savings plan in April and so I also transferred another significant sum over to my savings because I didn't want to be tempted to touch it. Plus, it earns a teensy bit of interest while it sits in my savings, so it seemed to make sense to leave it there rather than in my checking account. However, I had some unexpected expenses, medical and otherwise, and wound up transferring some of that money back into my checking account to cover my bills.

I made eight transfers altogether, so by the time I received the letter informing me of the regulation, I had already been charged $40.

Today, I called the bank and talked with two snarky customer service representatives. The first offered to give me $20 back as a one-time courtesy, but told me I really should have paid more attention to my Deposit Account Agreement. Who reads that? I said. She maintained that I should have. Then she reminded me that it's a Federal regulation, not the bank's. But you set the fees, not the federal government, right? It was the bank's decision to charge me $20 for transferring $25 from my saving to my checking?

I also argued that I should have been notified in some way that I was going to be fined if I completed the transaction. I was polite, but adamant that the whole amount should be refunded. Since I couldn't get any farther with the first person I spoke with, I asked to speak with a supervisor. I sat on hold listening to bad music for about four minutes.

When she came back, the first person was cordial and let me know that she had already credited my account for half of the fines ($20), so at least I could rest easy that some progress had been made. The supervisor was unpleasant. She pointed out that on the transactions page there is a hyperlink that is "clearly" labeled "What are my transaction limitations?" I told her that I assumed that had to do with the dollar amount, and that it didn't occur to me to click on it since I was only transferring small amounts.

She gave me a really hard time, but since I wouldn't hang up, she finally cut me off and said, I don't mean to be rude, but I'm going to tell you we will never do this for you again.

That's fine, I said. Now that I know about the regulation, I'll handle my banking differently. Had I known that I would be fined for transferring money from my savings to my checking, I never would have done it.

I thanked her for her help and we hung up.

Two hours later, the credits have not posted to my account. If they haven't shown up in a couple of days, I'll check back, I guess. I wrote down the names of the women I spoke with, but hopefully I won't have to go through all of that again.

I guess the lesson to be learned here is a) apparently in the U.S., one can't withdraw money more than six times per billing cycle from one's savings account, unless one does so in person and b) it's worth it to make a phone call and be polite, but persistent when one is charged a bogus fee.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Best Deals on Non-PVC Yoga Mats

There's a reason that your average sticky yoga mat is so inexpensive. They are made with PVCs (poly vinyl chlorides), a common (but toxic) thermoplastic resin, that doesn't biodegrade and can off-gas or leech during use.

If you're looking to upgrade to a more eco-friendly type of mat, you have a lot of choices--but you have to be willing to spend significantly more than you would for a regular sticky mat. Thrifters know, however, that that doesn't mean you can't get the most for your money.

For Christmas, I decided to do my homework and buy myself an earth-friendly mat. I did tons of research and found that the best deal for me was at Barefoot Yoga. I paid $38.95 for a TPE mat (thermo plastic elastomer), a non-toxic plastic that can be melted down for reuse.

I chose this mat after narrowing my options to nine online stores. (Because of time constraints, I didn't feel I had time to call around or visit local yoga studios to see if they carried any perfect mats.) I found the nine online outlets by Googling and using shopping bots, such as MySimon.com. I also checked Overstock.com to no avail.

I decided to purchase some additional items at Barefoot Yoga, so I got free shipping.

Other options included Lotuspad, which calls PVC yoga mats "some of the most hazardous consumer products ever created. The site quotes Greenpeace as saying, " The manufacture, use, disposal, and recycling of PVC releases some of the most toxic chemicals we know of. Mercury, lead, dioxins and phthalates are all used or released in the manufacturing of PVC. In fact, PVC manufacturing is the single largest use of industrial chlorine. These compounds cause cancer, endocrine disruption, reproductive system harm, immune system damage, and other serious health problems..." [Read the full Greenpeace quotation here.]

At the time I was shopping, Lotuspad was offering $5 shipping, which was better than competitors and was having a 25% off sale. However, the colors and sizes of its TPE mats weren't quite right for me, so I decided to buy elsewhere. If you're looking to buy kid-sized eco-mats, definitely visit Lotuspad and look around.

I also tried Natural Fitness, which sells "premium eco-fitness products." The mats were reversible, available in pleasing colors, and some included DVDs. However, after factoring in the cost of the mat ($39.99) and shipping ($7.95), I decided not to buy there.

Yogasite.com has an Eco-Friendly Yoga section with mats ranging from $34.95-$79.95, including bio-degradable mats. I found the color selection to be too limited, however.

YogaAccessories.com also sells ECO mats, but only in one color combination (blue/black reversible).

Last on my list was Target, which sells a couple of Gaiam brand natural mats at decent prices (roughly $38-$40) plus shipping. However, since the pricepoint was almost identical to Barefoot Yoga, I opted to go with the independent business with the earth-friendly business philosophy and specialty in yoga accessories, rather than the big box store (with a smaller selection).







Labels: , , , , , ,

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Affordable Cross-Country Moving Solutions

I've been doing a little research into cross-country moving alternatives. I've moved across the country three times so far, and cobbled together some strange money-saving techniques that were fairly time-consuming and involved some special circumstances--like access to free storage and lots of free cross-country plane flights--but I'm still looking for the perfect solution.

Recently, I came across this very thoughtful review at epinions.com of ABF, a company that will put your stuff in a tractor trailer and haul it cross country relatively cheaply. The process requires some planning on the part of the mover, and some patience with the flawed system, but can, it seems pay off nicely in the end when properly executed.

If you're considering this option, this woman (who moved 2,000 miles using ABF), has some very helpful tips. Totally Thrift-approved. Click here to read her review.

Labels: , , , , ,

Avoid Sneaky Late Fees

The credit card industry makes a large portion of its income on its exorbitant late fees. They want you to be late. Devising a system that works for you is essential. For instance, always putting your bills in one place when they arrive or always paying bills on the same day of the week works well for a lot of people.

I, myself, like to receive both paper and electronic bills--plus I have set up all of my credit cards to send me little reminder e-mails when my bill is ready and when it is approaching its due date.

It can be tempting to pay your bill at the last minute--to hang onto your own money as long as you can before you hand it over to them--but beware. Even if you make an online payment, which should be instantaneous on a business day, you are likely NOT protected from incurring late fees.

HSBC, for instance, a major credit card lender, warns its customers who pay online that standard payments "post in 1-2 business days, late fee may apply." For those paying by check through the mail, it's important to leave at least ten days--more to be safe--to allow for transport time and "processing" time.

Of course, if you want an instant payment, HSBC will let you, but at a premium.

In a nutshell, pay your credit card bills early, even if you are paying online. Make a note of your transaction number and print and keep a receipt. If you pay two days before your due date and are still charged a late fee, make a polite, but assertive phone call to your credit card company, provide them with the confirmation number that proves you paid on time, and see if you can get the fee refunded. If you are a customer in good standing, they will often do this. Sometimes, they offer to refund half the fee. Still annoying, but better than sucking it up.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

To Buy or Not to Buy: Renter's Insurance

I recently got to the point in my life where I felt it was important to insure my belongings. I've been a renter for 14 years and, in general, have been too cash-strapped to invest in renter's insurance. Instead, I invested in extra smoke detectors, a fire extinguisher, and used some common sense. (No burning candles left unattended; know where the shut-off valve for the water and gas lines are, lock the doors and windows at night or when I'm away, etc.)

Also, I've been thrifty about my furniture, dishes, and other belongings. 90% of my books are used and could be replaced easily and affordably. Same with my furniture. For instance, I'm currently living in a two-story, three-bedroom apartment with living room, dining room, kitchen, walk-up attic, and full (unfinished) basement. I've fully furnished the property--including stocking the cupboards with pots and pans, and an overabundance of linens--and hardly spent a dime. Most of what I own, I was able to come across free, cheap, or to receive as a gift.

However, now that I have a more stable income and I can actually afford to shell out a bit of cash to protect my possessions, it really does make sense. I know several people who have lost everything to fire. Four were apartment-dwellers; one a homeowner. It happens. I live in a duplex, which means no matter how safe I am in my apartment, if my neighbors (my horrid landlords) were to have an accident or cause a fire, I would likely also suffer damage and loss at my place--an event totally beyond my control.

While I've been thrifty in acquiring my possessions, it would be expensive, disheartening, exhausting, and incredibly time-consuming to replace them. It's taken years to accumulate my thrifty collection of stuff; it would take just as long to replace it using the same method.

Plus, I have a few nice things now. I invested in a delicious set of expensive sheets that make me moan a little bit with joy every time I slip between them. I got them on sale, but they'd cost almost $90 to replace. I have three televisions--all of which I got for free, but they're very nice and replacing them would be costly. Three computers, a printer, three digital cameras, MP3 players, my bed--you get the drift.

So, I went ahead and got a quote from a local insurance agency. I made sure to get replacement coverage, which means that if my house burns down, I can buy a new bed, television, printer, etc. and my insurance will reimburse me. If you don't have this coverage--which costs a little extra--then you'll only be reimbursed for the actual cost of your belongings. How much is a five-year old full-sized bed worth versus the cost of replacing it? Or a one-year old computer? If you don't get replacement value coverage, you may as well not buy insurance at all, in my opinion.

But, here's the catch. After choosing my policy and sending in my first payment, a few weeks went by and I still hadn't received a copy of the policy. I called my agent and she discovered that I had, in fact, been turned down by the insurance company. Why? All they would tell her was that it was my credit--and they sent her back my check.

This infuriated me. My credit score is very good. I'm gainfully and stably employed in the same field I've been in for 14 years. I don't have a criminal record. But you know what I do have? A bankruptcy on my record. It's been more than three years. My credit score is on the brink of being in the second highest range possible. My income is twice the median for my region. I have a savings account, an IRA, and a 401(k). I don't smoke or own a dog (things that make it harder to get insured), apart from a four-month period where I stopped paying just before my bankruptcy, I have never missed a payment on anything since my first credit card was opened 16 years ago. And I only took out the minimum--$15,000--on my policy. I'm 35-years old with no history of fraud or any reason for them to believe that I don't deserve their coverage.

But, they rejected me. The good news, I suppose, is that another company was willing to insure me. They don't look at a person's credit history, I'm told. Their rates are 20% higher, though.

Mostly, I'm angry that I'm losing money because of something so unfair. They didn't even talk to me. They just rejected me because of--I assume--my bankruptcy.

It's so odd that I was able to get a car loan with a competitive rate, but not renter's insurance.

At any rate, I'm switching my car insurance over to the same agency that got me the renter's insurance, so I'll save a little bit of money there and make up some of the difference between the first policy's rate and the second.

And, as a bonus, the company that rejected me has been covering me for free until I sign on with another company, so, technically, I'm getting about a month and a half of free renter's insurance from them.

In the end, I'm a little bitter, but at least I am insured. And if I took the time to shop around more, I might even find a more competitive rate. For now, there are just too many other things to take care of, so I'm going to fork over the dough ($175/year) for the company that's willing to take me on (Vermont Mutual).

The company that rejected me, by the way, was Merrimack mutual.

I wonder if this was a soft pull on my credit or not? If they dinged my credit by checking it for this, I'm going to be extra-special pissed off!

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Buy Forever Stamps

On May 12, 2008, the USPS will raise its rates again. Currently, you can by Forever stamps for 41 cents and, as their name suggests, they will be good forever, no matter how high the postage rates go. If you stock up now, you'll see an immediate return on your investment when you start using the stamps in May--you'll save one cent per stamp. And, if you have enough of them and hang onto them long enough, the savings is sure to increase.

It's up to you how much you want to invest in Forever stamps, but at least they are one investment that is sure to increase in value.

Labels: , , ,

Save Money on Heating Oil

If you live in New England and heat your home or business with oil, before you buy your next batch of heating oil, visit NewEnglandOil.com. Click on your state to get a chart of local rates from various suppliers.

I tried this out recently and was pleased to discover that my supplier is one of the least expensive in the region. However, the rate indicated in the chart did not match what I paid when I ordered oil last week, so clearly the chart isn't up-to-the-minute. But, I think it still pays to check it out and perhaps call around to confirm prices.

Labels: , , , , , ,

"Thrift" in the News

I discovered today that my Thrift blog was referenced in a feature story (part of a six-part series) by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram on March 23rd.

If you'd like to read the article, "The Middle-class Squeeze," click here.

Labels: ,