4.51% Checking Account from Focus Bank

by Lynn B. Johnson on May 13, 2009

High-Yield Checking AccountLooking for a checking account that handsomely pays you back? Focus Bank of Missouri and Arkansas is offering a “MAXimum Free Checking Account” with no monthly service charges, no minimum balance requirements, and no direct deposit required.

Balances up to $25,000 earn a whopping 4.51% Annual Percentage Yield (APY). MAXimum Free Checking account holders also enjoy ATM fee refunds up to $25 per statement cycle, free wallet-style checks, free ATM/debit card, free 24-hour telephone banking, free online banking, free bill pay (with eStatement sign-up), and free direct deposit/automatic drafts. Additionally, qualified customers receive a $500 overdraft privilege, though if you’re earning 4.51% APY, I’d say that it behooves you to maintain the largest account balance possible.

Facing the Economic Aftermath

by Odysseas Papadimitriou on May 12, 2009

AftermathObama has four major issues on the agenda for his presidency:  three he wants to deal with and one he inherited.   Those issues are: the current economic recession, education, health care, and energy.  All of these issues are pressing.  Massive government spending needs to happen to keep this recession from spiralling into a full blown depression.  We must maintain high standards in education so as to make sure that the next generation of American worker will be as competitive in the world stage as the previous one.  We must refigure health care for moral reasons as it is unacceptable that one of the richest nations in the world should leave millions of its citizens without health care.  Energy innovation is an issue of  both national security and economic prosperity in that it keeps America’s money at home instead of sending it abroad.

All of these projects will significantly drain the nation’s finances in the short term.  We agree that these plans are necessary but the money to pay for them must come from somewhere.  As we see it, of the four agenda items, the development of a more efficient energy source is the most likely to produce the money needed to fuel the other initiatives. 

Buy a FarmShare, Save Money, Eat Better

by Lynn B. Johnson on May 11, 2009

VegetablesAre you interested in saving money, while promoting your local economy and eating delicious, even organic food? Me, too. I’ve found a way that my family will get garden-fresh organic produce for half of what I spend at the  grocery store for non-organic fruits, veggies, and herbs. The answer? Purchasing a CSA FarmShare. Read on…

Look: I’m no hippie and I wear leather shoes – this was a purely economic and gastronomic decision. I want to eat good food that hasn’t traveled across the country to get to me, because when you can buy strawberries in Massachusetts in March, that’s a pretty good sign that they’re non-native.  As such, my requirements were stringent:  I needed local, weekly pickups of a box of food manageable to the size of my small family.

Senate Voted Wisely on Cram Down Bill

by Brian Johnson on May 8, 2009

StimulusOn April 30th, the Senate defeated the “cram down” bill that would have allowed bankruptcy judges to adjust mortgages so as to allow those people going through bankruptcy to keep their homes.  The defeat came as some democrats sided with the bill’s opposition, mirroring a general weariness from within the banking community towards this piece of legislation.

The media balked at this defeat with claims that echoed the bill’s sponsor Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) that the banks essentially controlled congress and that senators needed to vote along with the needs of the American people rather than according to the desires of the banking and mortgage lobbies.  The accusation from Durbin, and from the media following the defeat, was that these senators (particularly the 12 democrats who voted against the bill) were essentially bought out.  The media portrayed the senate as under bank control.

Credit Card Rate Hikes NOT Halted

by Odysseas Papadimitriou on May 7, 2009

Rate ChartBy July 2010, credit card companies will have to play by a new set of rules.  This new set of Fed regulations will curb abusive credit card practices and will fuel transparency within the credit card industry, thereby making it easier for consumers to understand the real costs of a credit card. Specifically, one of the new rules that will take effect in July will prohibit credit card companies from raising the interest rates on existing balances for consumers that pay on time.

On May 4th, the Federal Reserve rejected a request by Senators Schumer and Dodd that would force credit card companies to immediately halt interest rate increases on existing balances.  “We believe that issuers must be afforded sufficient time for implementation to allow for an orderly transition process that avoids unintended consequences, compliance difficulties and potential liabilities,” Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke wrote in a May 4 letter.

No Time Like the Present for Term Life

by Lynn B. Johnson on May 5, 2009

InsuranceTerm life insurance is temporary protection for people with limited budgets. You can get a great deal of coverage for a relatively low premium rate. It’s particularly appropriate for situations where your beneficiaries would need additional help – say, to pay off a loan or provide for the needs of your children – in the event of your death.

My husband and I signed up for term life insurance upon the birth of our first child and that was pretty much the first day I ever felt like a grown-up. He’d just quit smoking and I hadn’t lost my baby weight yet, so our rates were higher than I expected but worthwhile for the million bucks he or I would get if the other partner kicked the bucket.

Foreign Transaction Fees Without Leaving Home

by Lynn B. Johnson on May 4, 2009

Home IconI’m crazy about books. Certifiably crazy. So when I realized I hadn’t completed my six-volume set of William Blake: The Illuminated Books, I feverishly scoured ABE Books and Amazon for the best book vendors for the cost. The winner was a bookseller in London, so I went to their secured Web site, entered my credit card number, and then squealed delightedly when book six of six arrived on my doorstep.

Imagine my surprise when I got my credit card bill that month and learned that my bargain shopping came with a 3-percent foreign transaction fee!

Congratulations on the Chrysler Bankruptcy

by Odysseas Papadimitriou on May 1, 2009

ChryslerChrysler has been in deep financial trouble for months and the President has been trying to save it.  In order to keep the iconic American company afloat, President Obama had asked that various groups make concessions.  First through the government bailout, he asked tax payers to make concessions.  We were willing.  Second he asked the banks to whom Chrysler owes money to make concessions; they would have to forgive the majority of the loans awarded.  They were willing.  Then he asked the auto workers themselves to make concessions; for Chrysler to stay afloat they would have to accept pay cuts and a restructuring of employee benefits.  They were willing.  The hope was that all of these concessions would make the company attractive to Fiat who would then swoop in and save Chrysler from economic oblivion.  It was this plan that had ultimately guided the government’s attempt to rescue Chrysler.

Unfortunately, Chrysler also owed money to hedge funds who were also asked to make concessions; they were not willing.  Because of these hedge funds, Chrysler is now going into what is called either surgical or pre-packaged bankruptcy:  bankruptcy in which the government steps in after the debts have been sorted out and provides funding to allow the company to emerge in shape to continue doing business.  By going into pre-packaged bankruptcy, Chrysler and the U.S. government are basically forcing the hand of the hedge fund investors who would not play ball.  They will have to get in line with Chrysler’s other creditors.

A Government of Zero Accountability

by Odysseas Papadimitriou on April 30, 2009

ZeroThe barbarians, so the saying goes, are no longer at the gates.  They’ve stormed through.  In many cases, they were practically let in by negligence of the regulators whose job it was to protect us from greedy swindlers, inventive accountants, and fraudulent lenders.  The gatekeepers themselves, the various federal regulators, have not been punished for failing in their duty to protect America.  They remain, even now, at their posts as the country reels from the damage it has taken from the various scandals and crimes committed against its economy and its taxpayers.  Those whose job it was to police against these crimes have failed us and we wonder why they have not been made accountable.

Why, for instance, didn’t Christopher Cox, the head of the SEC, not resign after the Madoff scandal?  Surely the crime was glaring enough to call his competency into question.  Shouldn’t he have taken some responsibility as the scheme was carried out on his watch?  Cox offered no public apology and was never taken to task for the calamity that resulted from his oversight.  He just stayed in, despite the very real complaints of his critics, until he was replaced by the next administration.

Shop Year-Round and Save Money

by Lynn B. Johnson on April 29, 2009

CalendarAre you one of the shoppers out on December 24  every year, grabbing whatever you can to assuage your loved ones’ needs for heartfelt gifts? Yes? Then it’s quite possible that you’re paying too much!

Retailers generally follow a sales schedule that stays the same every year. If you can adjust your shopping schedule to a year-round approach, found at the end of this article, I guarantee you will save money.

Prepaid cards are poorly regulated

by Odysseas Papadimitriou on April 24, 2009

Terms & ConditionsRecently, we suggested that the problem with credit card regulation was that financial companies are able to arbitrarily create fees, and that there is no regulation which would essentially stop the explosion of instances in which the customer can be charged extra money.  For example, unless you use a sophisticated credit card comparison tool, like Card Hub (owned by the same company as this blog), there is really no great way to compare one credit card against another.

Our suggestion was, and is, that the number of fees be limited so that financial products can be easily compared.  Lets take prepaid cards as an example. Obviously, a prepaid card company should be able to charge an activation and monthly fee.  They should be able to charge a transaction fee (i.e. a fee for every time that you use your prepaid card) and a customer service fee.  We are willing to accept perhaps one or two other fees, but beyond this, the explosion of fees does nothing but confuse customers and make them unable to judge the strengths of their plan against another.

Citigroup Provides Further Proof that the Board of Directors System is Broken

by Brian Johnson on April 23, 2009

Board RoomAP Business Writer Madelein Reid, in a recent article summarized the conflict between Citigroup Inc. and its shareholders at the company’s annual meeting.  The shareholders were rightfully outraged.  The Board seems unwilling to change most of its procedures or to give up any of its power to decide the future of the company.  It alone decides executive compensation packages—not the shareholders just as it alone decides that the company will fund a new stadium.  The shareholders, simply put, have no say.

Reid points out that the chairman of the board of directors amiably listened to the shareholders’ many complaints while keeping in good spirits and remaining polite and unflappable.  And of course, offering no indication that the shareholders’ opinions would have any affect on the business of the board or in the method by which the board would be run.  If the shareholders don’t want to support a new stadium, too bad for them.  As unhappy as the shareholders of Citigroup Inc. are with the company’s performance, all returning directors and the four new recommendations were voted in without much difficulty.  The board had not recommended anybody to run against the contenders for these positions…

An Adult is an Adult, even for Credit Cards

by Odysseas Papadimitriou on April 23, 2009

AdultCongress has once again taken up the banner of credit card reform. Chances are that we can expect some of the changes they propose to actually take effect. Some we agree with, especially those laws that prevent issuers from making unilateral changes to the consumer’s contract or those laws which create counterintuitive ways of charging their customers.

One proposal on the table, however, seems so worrisome that it borders on the ridiculous and that is the proposal to restrict the issuing of credit cards to those under 21 unless they have a parent or guardian backing them or unless they are able to pass a test of their financial “literacy.” Why is this nation so bent on avoiding the definition of a legal age of adulthood? At 18, aren’t people adults? They can vote in national elections to decide the President of the United States. If they win the lottery or land a high paying job, we let them keep their money—we don’t place it in the hands of a more financially “literate” guardian. We allow 18 year olds to go to the front lines of war zones, to hold an enemy in their sights and to make the life and death decision to pull the trigger. Even those who do not go to war, at 18 years old, can buy a gun. Heck, at 16 we allow people to drive 3000 pounds of metal out into traffic where they risk the lives of others as well as their own. Doesn’t responsibility for life and death decisions require more maturity than a card with $1000 balance?

Obama's Cost Cutting: A drop in the ocean

by Brian Johnson on April 21, 2009

Drop in the oceanPresident Obama has asked his cabinet to cut 100 million dollars of government spending by finding ways to make government more efficient.  His hope is that by finding 100 million dollars worth of waste, he will help to restore taxpayer faith in their government’s attempts to keep the economy healthy.

The subject of government spending is a hot topic here at Wallet Blog.  We are in agreement with the President’s basic philosophy that the government needs to spend money to get us out of this recession—it’s about the only thing that helped the United States get out of the Great Depression.  The system needs money and that money has to come from somewhere.  If regular citizens are unable to stimulate the economy, then the government must intervene.  To this end, we support, generally, President Obama’s decisions to inject cash into the system so as to support fiscal growth and to create job opportunities in a period of rampant unemployment.

CardHub.com Launches New Tools & Help

by Lynn B. Johnson on April 20, 2009

Credit Card HelpToday’s consumer has a total of 13 credit obligations on record at a credit bureau. With so many obligations, consumers need up-to-date credit card tools and help more than ever before.

To that end, CardHub.com (owned by the same company as this blog), the world’s most innovative credit card portal, today announced the expansion of its “Tools and Help” section, which offers free and comprehensive advice and tools for U.S. consumers. This new source of credit card help is now available online.

Money for Nothing and your MP3s for FREE

by Lynn B. Johnson on April 17, 2009

Amazon Free MP3If the same 25 songs keep showing up in your iTunes randomizer, then it might be time for some new downloads. But who wants to spend money on music when you can buy more important things, like lunch or car insurance or a new hat for pending trips to the beach?

Don’t fret – this intrepid reporter has unearthed a link that connects you to 775 (ok, 774) mp3 files. That’s hours and hours of music. Best of all, the recording industry won’t come after you for illicit downloading, because these are all licensed, legal, and FREE!

Immigration: Foreign Technical Expertise and its Solution

by Odysseas Papadimitriou on April 16, 2009

Immigration VisaOne problem with the American workforce is that it lacks an abundance of highly skilled technical labor and so these jobs are going elsewhere.  All things being equal, American employers would prefer to hire native born American employees.  The reason for this preference is three-fold.  First, on average, American born employees have better communication skills than their foreign born counterparts.  Second, the bureaucracy that surrounds hiring immigrants, such as work visas, complicates the process of employing immigrants.  Third, there is always the danger that the immigrant will return to their homeland, and thus, the American employee is seen as a more stable choice for the position.  All things being equal, American companies should be hiring Americans.

We can only assume then, that for skilled technical and scientific labor, all things are not equal.  American companies routinely ask congress for more visas so that they can bring in scientific researchers and engineers from foreign countries, sparking debate about whether such visas are good for the American economy and the nation’s workforce.  The American labor pool for these skill sets is, however, simply not large enough to keep up with employers’ demand.  When American companies don’t get these visas, the jobs do not automatically go to Americans by default.  Instead, the companies staff these jobs in foreign offices.  The government’s position on these visas provides yet another example, like the payroll tax, where U.S. policies are effectively encouraging American companies to outsource jobs.

Open a Checking Account, Get a $200 Savings Bond

by Lynn B. Johnson on April 15, 2009

$200 Checking AccountLooking for some free money? Ask and you shall receive! Wainwright Bank (of Boston, MA) is offering a free $200 savings bond to new customers who open a Value Checking account with Direct Deposit. You do not have to be a Massachusetts resident to apply, and you can complete your application online.

The skinny: You only need ten dollars for an opening minimum balance, but Wainwright bank requires that you have a $500 minimum balance to avoid a $6 monthly service charge. If you link your account to Direct Deposit, though, the account is “free with no minimum balance required and unlimited check writing.”

Who is responsible for the CDS Scandal?

by Brian Johnson on April 15, 2009

ScandalHere at Wallet Blog, we have been reporting on the fallout of the CDS scandal by looking not only at the issue as it is affecting us now, but also at who is responsible for allowing unregulated trading of Credit Default Swaps (CDS) to occur in the first place.  We have pointed out that the laws that made Credit Default Swaps illegal, which had been in place for over 90 years, were repealed by congress in its passing of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act in December of 2000.  The repeal of these laws has cost hundreds of billions of dollars in tax payer money, including the $180 billion that taxpayers are paying for the collapse of AIG alone.

Since our reportage, some of our readers have asked us for an explanation as to why there has been no significant mention of congress’s role in the production of the CDS scandal within mainstream media.  Here at Wallet Blog, we too are troubled that the media has, in general, avoided taking lawmakers to task for their votes.  We are equally troubled by the overwhelming number of congressmen and women who voted this bill into law and who are, therefore, responsible for the legislation that is currently devastating the American economy.  In the House of Representatives, the bill passed 291 with only 60 representatives voting no.  In the senate, the bill passed unanimously without a single voice of objection.

Regulation that Fosters Innovation and Competition

by Odysseas Papadimitriou on April 13, 2009

RegulationIt’s interesting that we never debate the need for a police force to regulate civic behavior.  We can all imagine that if, tomorrow, there simply were no more police officers, anarchy and chaos would be the likely result.  Yet, when it comes to our economy, we are able to entertain debate about the need for regulation without ever acknowledging that an economic market without regulation is just as volatile as a city without law enforcement.

We need regulation, this should never have been up for debate, and it is certainly obvious how much we need regulation given the various economic scandals that are the root causes of the current recession.  If there is to be debate, let it concern, instead, how to create regulation that levels the playing field between companies.  By regulating businesses and their products in such a way so as to make comparison possible, we would foster the competition and innovation that are key elements for a successful free market.

Companies that still don't get the role of bonuses

by Odysseas Papadimitriou on April 10, 2009

BonusesFannie Mae and Freddie Mac are planning on paying out $210 million dollars in bonuses despite the fact that both these companies had to be seized by federal regulators so as to prevent dire repercussions across the economy.  Their failure has been one of the central low points to the economic devastation of this past year

James Lockhart, federal regulator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, defended these bonuses for two reasons.  First, he suggests that the bonuses are needed because of the destruction wrought upon the company employees’ savings by the crash of their stock.  The scene for such workers is, of course, tragic, but we wonder if bonuses should go out to those who lost money in the stock market, then don’t we all deserve some of that cash?  The plight of the employees at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is hardly unique—it is the plight of every American hurt in this recession.  But of course, the average American doesn’t get government bailouts for the money that they’ve lost in the various markets—we pay for them.  When all is said and done, investment is a gamble.  In other words, the people at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac gambled their life savings, like so many of us, and lost.  We don’t get a safety net, why should they?

We're All In This Together…Except For Bondholders

by Odysseas Papadimitriou on April 8, 2009

Boat WavingAs more and more big name companies become insolvent, taxpayers and shareholders in these companies are losing money.  Bondholders, on the other hand, are not feeling the hit and are actually making money out of bailed out companies.  Given the size of America’s economic problems and the ways in which these problems seem to affect all of us, it makes no sense that bondholders aren’t feeling the effect as well.

A bondholder is essentially someone who has loaned money to a company.  When a company needs cash, it either issues stock to shareholders or takes out loans.  Thus far, if the stock goes down, investors take the hit.  If the company requires government bailout, taxpayers must pay for the company.  However, even when a company is on the brink of total collapse, and must be brought under federal regulation to keep it from failing, that company is still expected to pay off its debt at the rate set at the time of the loan.  So long as the company has not gone bankrupt, it must still repay its creditors, including its bondholders.

Free Tax Help, Just in Time

by Lynn B. Johnson on April 8, 2009

ClockI always purchase my tax-prep software the day it hits the shelves, and then I don’t file until about three minutes before the April 15 deadline. It’s a tradition, like wrapping gifts on Christmas Eve or overeating during the Super Bowl.

In any case, I know I’m more fortunate than a lot of folks out there who can’t do their taxes on their own, or those who need answers and additional help on their basic returns. If you’re lower-to-middle income, or above age 60, or an active member of our great military (or a family member of an active military member), there are places you can turn to get FREE help with tax preparation.

Chase Reverses Unfair Monthly Fee

by Brian Johnson on April 7, 2009

Terms & ConditionsBack in December of 2008, we commented on Chase’s new policy of charging a monthly fee on customers that were promised a fixed APR for the life of their balance transfer. We found the policy to be troubling, to say the least, as it essentially breached the promise advertised to these customers when they applied for their Chase credit card. 

Recently, the state of New York has taken an active role in applying pressure to get Chase to change its policies.  Attorney General Cuomo said:

The American Rule Encourages Bullying & Inefficiency

by Brian Johnson on April 6, 2009

Money and JusticeRight now, if someone were to sue you, the bottom line is that it would cost you money.  It wouldn’t matter if you were innocent – the case could be groundless or even ridiculous – it would still cost you money.  On the other hand, it cost nothing for the average person to threaten a lawsuit or for a lawyer to pursue a lawsuit if they have extra time on their hands.  Because of what is called the American Rule upon which our legal system is based, those engaged in lawsuits pay their own expenses.  In other words, even if you win, you still have to pay the lawyer.

Because it costs nothing to threaten a lawsuit, this results in a kind of legalized extortion.  An example might help to illustrate the point: imagine some person A who threatens to file a lawsuit against person B unless he gets $1,000 from person B. Person B is faced with a choice:  will their lawyer charge them more than a $1,000 to defend them.  If they choose to go to court and lose, they are out of pocket $1,000 plus their lawyer fees, but even if they win, they still have to pay the lawyer’s fees which are likely to amount to much more than $1,000.  The choice is really no choice at all.  It is in B’s best interest to pay the $1,000, and it is in person A’s best interest to keep bringing threats and lawsuits against other people given that each one earns him some cash.

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