Monday, July 30, 2007

Phone cards don't always deliver as advertised

NEW YORK (7/30/07)--Some providers in the $4 billion prepaid phone card business are under attack that their marketing tactics may short-change consumers (Business Week July 23).

Newark, N.J.-based IDT Corp. is charging that nine of its rivals are marketing 100-minute prepaid cards but delivering products that deliver only about 60% of the time. IDT Telecom estimates the practice may be costing consumers $1 million a day while cutting into IDT's sales.

Prepaid phone cards are particularly popular among new immigrants, older people, and other low-income consumers who are least able to afford conventional phone service.

They are used mostly by travelers, students and those without long-distance telephone service. Pre-paid phone cards are sold at many locations, including newsstands, post offices, travel agencies, retail stores, and grocery and convenience stores. Some are used as incentive giveaways.

Some pre-paid phone cards can be refilled, usually by charging the additional cost to your credit card. And some cards have features like speed dialing for frequently called numbers and an activity report of called numbers, which can be handy for business purposes. Hispanics may be particularly vulnerable to deceptive practices since many are unable to show the documentation needed for conventional phone service.

Of concern are unmentioned fees that may reduce the value of these cards, trimming off 10% to 20% or more of the minutes a consumer may buy. According to a 2005 study by Associate Prof. Julia Marlowe at the University of Georgia, typically connection, service and maintenance fees are hidden in the hard-to-read fine print on the back of phone cards. But there are often other undisclosed fees as well.

Already, three providers have settled out of court with IDT. Epana Networks, Dollar Phone and Locus Telecommunications denied any liability and made no payments, but they agreed to change their marketing messages.

Only 11 states have laws on calling cards. Most states rely on generic consumer protection regulations.

The Federal Trade Commission offers these tips (
  • Ask whether the retailer will stand behind the card if the telephone service is unsatisfactory.
  • Look for the rate for domestic and international calls on the card's package or on the vending machine. These may vary, depending on where you call. If you can't find the rate, call the card's customer service number.
  • Be cautious of very low rates, particularly for international calls, which may indicate poor customer service.
  • Look for disclosures about surcharges, monthly fees, per-call access, and the like, in addition to the rate-per-minute or unit. Some cards add a surcharge to the first minute of use. Others charge an activation fee for recharging cards.
  • Check the expiration date. Most cards expire one year after first use. If there is no expiration date, a card usually is considered "live" until all phone time is used.
  • Look for a toll-free customer service number. If the customer service number isn't toll-free or displayed, it may be difficult to contact the company if you have a problem with the card. A repeated busy signal on the customer service line may be a tip-off to a rip-off.
  • Be sure the card comes with instructions that you understand.
  • Make sure the card comes in a sealed envelope or has a sticker covering the PIN.
  • Otherwise, anyone who copies the PIN can use the phone time you've already paid for.
    Ask friends and relatives about their experiences with the card you're thinking of buying.

For more information about your recourse if you have phone card problems, read "State Consumer Protection Agencies Look Out for Your Best Interest" in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

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Compliance: Do faxed instructions fall under Reg D?

WASHINGTON (7/30/07)—Credit unions want to provide convenient service to their members, but they must proceed with caution when considering whether members' requests for certain types of service puts them at odds with regulatory compliance, advises the Credit Union National Association (CUNA).

CUNA's Compliance Challenge looks at such a paradox: At hypothetical ABC FCU, a member wants to fax instructions to the credit union whenever he needs to transfer funds from his share account to his share draft account or when he wants to withdraw funds.

The credit union is aware of potential fraud issues in accepting faxed instructions. However, the credit union wants to know if transfers or withdrawals initiated by faxed instructions should count as Regulation D transactions. Reg D addresses reserve and reporting requirements.

Heather, the compliance officer, blasts into research mode and finds that transfers or withdrawals when requested by fax must be limited to no more than 6 per month. Reg D imposes monthly transfer limits on a share and savings accounts so the share account will not be categorized as a transaction account (share draft account) subject to monetary reserve maintenance requirements.

To see what else Heather discovered, and for up-to-the-minute compliance information, use the resource link below to visit CUNA's Compliance Challenge.

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Judge denies dismissal motion in $210,800 embezzlement case

WORCESTER, Mass. (7/30/07)--A Worcester, Mass., Superior Court judge denied a motion to dismiss a case on bank embezzlement and attempted counterfeiting charges against a woman accused of stealing $210,800 from a credit union.

Susan Carcieri, 56, and her husband, George Labadie, 48, are awaiting trial related to charges of staging a robbery at W-G FCU in Worcester on Aug. 27, 2002. Carcieri worked at the credit union at the time.

Judge Kathe M. Tuttman ruled against the dismissal, saying there was ample evidence to indict on the charges. Two days after the reported robbery, police using a warrant seized $24,900 in $10 and $100 bills from the couple's home. Also seized were two sheets of paper depicting exact-size replicas of the backs of $10 bills.

The couple have pleaded not guilty and filed a civil lawsuit in federal court accusing police of violating their civil rights during the investigation.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Consumer brief

SAN DIEGO (7/26/07)--Since January 2005, more than 158 million records containing sensitive personal information on U.S. residents have been involved in security breaches. For a chronology of data breaches--updated twice each week--visit The site also contains tips on what to do if your personal information has been exposed due to a security breach (Privacy Rights Clearinghouse) ...

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

PAYjr launches prepaid card for teens

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (7/25/07)--PAYjr, a service provider aimed at helping youth understand money, has launched a customizable, prepaid credit card for teenagers aged 13 or older.

The card is called the PAYjr Visa Buxx Card. It is available through the PAYjr website or through partner banks or credit unions. The card is different from traditional prepaid cards because it allows parents to see what their teens are spending money on (Wireless News July 18).

The Buxx card also is customizable. Teenagers can upload and edit the photos that appear on the card, and PAYjr recently announced a card design contest where teens can enter their cards for a chance to win an Apple Macbook.

David S. Jones, PAYjr CEO, noted that the card is a great way for youth to learn about money management. As the population moves toward a "cashless society," Jones said it's vital for young people to understand how to manage their money.

Though the card will provide an avenue for teens to spend money, the program is not about advocating debt--rather, it's about advocating education, Jones noted.

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Smart food shoppers go green

NEW YORK (7/25/07)--When it comes to buying organic produce, many consumers are willing to dole out the extra cash to get the better taste. But you don't always have to spend a fortune to get the health and environmental benefits organic food has to offer ( July 16).

Follow these tips from to get more for your money when considering organic purchases:
  • Know what types of food are worth the extra bucks. Apples, cherries, grapes, pears, peaches, berries, spinach, tomatoes, green beans, beef, poultry, and eggs are all worth the splurge. Why? The non-organic counterparts contain pesticides and additives. However, any type of fruit or vegetable that requires you to peel the skin is not worth the organic price--the peel reduces exposure to pesticides.
  • Shop at the local farmers' market. The seasonality of produce as well as competition allows you to get fresher products at a better price. You can find the best deal by asking questions and buying in bulk.
  • Check out a community-supported agriculture program (CSA). In a CSA program, you receive boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables in-season every week, in exchange for paying for a portion of the farm's operating expense. It costs about $300 to $400 for a 24-week growing season. Type "community-supported agriculture program" in your Internet browser search box to find one nearest you.
  • Buy in-season. Simple economics: More competition makes things cheaper.

For more information, read "Farmers and Consumers Connect Through Community Supported Agriculture" in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Savvy shoppers: Take advantage of tax-free holiday

WASHINGTON, D.C. (7/24/07)--Shoppers, start your engines and get ready to save. Tax-free holiday weekends are just around the corner for this year's back-to-school shopping season (National Retail Federation July 17).

Families with school-age children are expected to spend about $564 on back-to-school items, up 6.9% from last year's average of $527. This year's total back-to-school spending is expected to exceed $18 billion.

If you're lucky enough to live in a state that offers a tax-free holiday, you can cut the cost of sending your kids back to school this fall. Websites and list states that participate in tax-free holidays and include eligible items.

The tax holiday originated in Texas in 1999. Currently, a dozen states and Washington, D.C., offer the holiday. It generally takes place on a Friday through Saturday or Sunday in August, before school is back in session. During this special weekend, sales tax is not collected on selected items such as clothing, school supplies and even computers. Consumers can purchase an unlimited amount of items, but items subject to tax exemption might be restricted by price--for example, clothing up to $100 or personal computers up to $3,500 (

A new item--backpacks--is on some state lists for the first time, according to the Texas Credit Union League's LoneStar Leaguer (July 18). The bill for backpacks can get pretty steep--especially if you have to purchase more than one.

Jan Garkey, Credit Union National Association's manager of adult member education, said when she lived in Iowa, her sister in Illinois would send her children to stay with Garkey for the tax-free weekend so they could take advantage of the savings. "It made a sizable difference in total back-to school costs--she has three kids," Garkey said.

Other ways to save on back-to-school shopping:
  • Have kids foot part of the bill. They might actually need less if they're paying part of the bill.
  • Reuse items. Maybe that three-ring binder only was used once and still looks brand new.
  • Sell clothing no longer worn. You can recoup some of this year's cost by having a garage sale or working through a consignment shop to sell items old items.
  • Use cash when possible. You'll be more aware of how much you're spending if you don't put everything on plastic.

For more information about teaching kids you're sending back to school about money, read "Credit/Debit Cards, Checking Accounts, Teach Teenagers to Handle Money" in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

New spam alert: PDF attachments

SUNNYVALE, Calif. (7/23/07)--New spam messages with Portable Document Format (PDF) attachments flooded e-mail inboxes the past few weeks. In one 24-hour period, PDF spam accounted for an estimated 10% to 15% of all spam messages around the world (Commtouch July 17).

The bodies of new spam messages have the look and feel of a legitimate business message, but the text inside a PDF (if it's opened) is easily recognized as spam. Most existing spam filters ignore e-mails with PDF attachments, so many of these messages have made their way into inboxes across the globe (SC Magazine July 13).

Here are some tips to help you avoid and recognize spam e-mail:
  • Use more caution than in the past when opening e-mails. PDF spam e-mails might look like a business e-mail you should open, but pay close attention to the sender before opening any PDF attachments. Anti-spam and anti-virus companies are working to find a way to combat this new kind of spam, but while they're working, pay closer attention to all e-mails before opening anything.
  • Don't open e-mails that look suspicious. If you open it accidentally, delete it right away and don't click on any links or open attachments. Don't ever reply to junk e-mail, even if there is a link to "remove" your e-mail address from a mailing list.
  • Make sure your spam filters are set to filter out most junk mail. The higher your filters are set, the less chance you have of accidentally opening an unwanted e-mail.
  • Check for security program updates regularly. Spam evolves rapidly, but security program researchers and developers work quickly to combat new spam evolutions. Keep your computer protected by checking for updates frequently.
  • Don't post your e-mail address on websites. Even though it might be tempting to put your e-mail address on a social networking site or other website, don't do it. Give your e-mail address only to people you'll be contacting regularly.
  • Opt to "opt out." If you need to create an account for a website that sends you e-mails you don't need, remove yourself from its mailing list.

For more information, read "Financial Fitness Challenge, July--Brush Up PC Security" in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Sunday's H&FF Radio show: Summer travel tips for road warriors

WASHINGTON (7/20/07)--Summer vacation travelers, listen up: Don't venture out on the highways or fly the friendly skies without getting some useful tips from experts. This Sunday, H&FF Radio hosts two travel experts to help you get the best value for your vacation dollar.
Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. EDT on the Radio America Network. The one-hour program devoted to consumer finance issues is presented by America's Credit Unions.

Sunday's show, which you also can hear later via the Internet, features Paul Berry, Washington, D.C., journalist and broadcaster, discussing these topics with special guests:
  • "Travel Tips--On the Cheap," with Tim Leffel, author, travel writer, and editor of narrative travel site, Nashville, the Yucatan and all points beyond;
  • "Car Title Loans," with Jean Ann Fox, director of consumer protection, Consumer Federation of America, Washington, D.C.;
  • "AAA Vacation Tips: Is the Summer Family Road Trip Still Dollar-Wise?" with John Barrett Townsend II, manager of public and government affairs, AAA Mid-Atlantic Office, Washington, D.C.;
  • "New Credit/Debit Card Technology: The Contactless Card," with Brian Triplett, senior vice president for emerging product development, Visa USA, San Francisco, Calif.; and
  • "Moving Brokers: Are You Getting Taken for a Ride?" with Melissa DeLaney, director of communications, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, Washington, D.C.

Home & Family Finance is a resource center for personal finance information at the Credit Union National Association (CUNA). The radio show's national presenting sponsor is CO-OP Financial Services. Accel, VISA, and CUNA Strategic Services are national sponsors.

For more information, read "Research, Plan, and Budget for That Special Vacation" and "Take a Summertime Drive to Safety" in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007


Consumer brief

WASHINGTON (7/19/07)--Think twice before opening that E-Card--a fake one is being spammed worldwide and it has a nasty computer virus just waiting to be unleashed with the click of your mouse. The greeting is a replica of the well-known Hallmark E-Card or The recipient is instructed to click on a link to view the greeting card. However, the link goes to the hacker's website and opens a file called "postcard.exe." Opening an "executable" file from an unknown source could have the consequence of downloading a Trojan or other unwanted program that damages your computer and creates a security risk. Don't do it ( July 9) ...

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

eBay News

eBay pitfalls to avoid

YONKERS, N.Y. (7/18/07)--The best advice when shopping on eBay: Find out as much as you can about the seller you're dealing with. According to Consumers Union, almost half of eBay users surveyed encountered deceptions from their buyers (Consumer Reports August).

Watch for products recalled for safety defects, especially with children's toys. Lead-based paint, for example, was found in a lunchbox and a karaoke player. Prepare yourself when dealing with eBay sellers:
  • Visit the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's website at to make sure the product you are considering purchasing has not been recalled by the government.
  • Insist that your seller provide proof of authenticity and condition.
  • Look for sellers who have at least a 99% positive feedback score.
  • Verify your seller's identity by confirming the address and phone number provided. Check to see if the seller has changed eBay identities.
  • Check another source, such as Shopzilla or Yahoo Shopping, to make sure you're getting the deal you think you are.

For more information, read "State Consumer Protection Agencies Look Out for Your Best Interest" in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Credit Score News

Piggybackers are in for credit score shock

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. (7/17/07)--If you've been "piggybacking" on someone else's pristine credit record to boost your chances of getting credit at decent interest rates, be forewarned: Your inflated credit score is about to pop ( July 4).

Fair Isaac, the creator of the proprietary credit score formula, announced recently that at least one of the credit reporting agencies won't consider authorized user accounts in the scoring model. This means the practice of piggybacking likely will come to an end as other reporting agencies follow suit (USA Today July 10).

Eliminating this shortcut to good credit is bad news for young adults with no credit history, married women, and adults with limited or blemished credit histories, who are added as authorized users to a parent's or spouse's card so the card holder's payment history then appears on the authorized user's credit report. The result: They'll be forced to pay more for car loans, credit cards, and mortgages.

If you have no credit history, consider boosting your credit score in other ways:
  • Convert to a joint account. If you're about to lose authorized user status on your spouse's account, apply for a credit card in your own name or switch the account to joint status.
  • Apply for a department store or retail card. They're relatively easy to get, and they'll help you improve your score as long as you pay off your charges on time.
  • Apply for a secured credit card at the credit union. You'll deposit a sum of money that typically will serve as your line of credit. Again, pay all charges on time.
  • Keep all balances less than 25% to 30% of your available credit. Having a low utilization rate will improve your credit score.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Nagging Kids?

Stand ground, tell nagging kids 'no'

MADISON, Wis. (7/18/07)—If you have children, there's a good chance you've given in to their nagging to—for lack of better words—shut them up. But when parents cave in, the nagging behavior can be hard to change ( July 11).

From early childhood on, kids beg. Children receive cues as to how their behavior can get them what they want. A national survey commissioned by the Center for a New American Dream found that children ages 12 to 17 will ask for something they've seen advertised nine times until a parent finally gives in. More than 10% of 12- to 13-year olds admitted to asking parents for something 50 times or more until they got what they wanted.

"Parents eventually reach a breaking point," said Philip Heckman, director of Credit Union National Association's young adult programs in Madison, Wis. "Children nag because it works as a successful tactic for getting what they want." When parents give in it's kind of an odd win-win: Children get what they want and parents get peace and quiet—for a little while at least.

Heckman said it's not easy, but parents can regain control:
  • "Look forward and anticipate situations in which a child may be tempted to make a request, and be prepared to respond firmly to that request. For example, if you're taking children to the store, tell them before you get there that you will not be purchasing things that haven't previously been agreed upon.
  • "Respond in an unexpected fashion. Instead of blowing up, yelling, and getting aggravated, give the child a hug and say something like, 'It's hard growing up isn't it?' or 'It's hard to take no for an answer and I appreciate that.' These unexpected responses really will throw a child off balance."

Heckman compared the rewards of nagging to gambling incentives. Slot machines don't pay off every time because irregular payoffs are a much stronger reinforcement to keep gambling.
So standing your ground today means you must also do so tomorrow and each time thereafter. Lapsing and giving in is even stronger reinforcement; it tells your kids they'll eventually get what they want if they keep nagging you for it.

Inevitably, parents will be challenged. Standing your ground and saying no makes kids face the reality that consumers have to make choices, including the choice not to buy.

CUNA's "Thrive by Five™: Teaching Your Preschooler About Spending & Saving" offers free activities and other resources for parents who want to encourage healthy attitudes about money in young children. Visit for more information.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Go Green

CUs Go Green to Help the Environment

MADISON, Wis. (7/12/07)--It might be easy being green after all--just ask some credit unions that are working to come up with unique ways to preserve the environment.

North Island CU in San Diego broke ground on Wednesday to open a six-story, 130,000-square foot headquarters building in Kearny Mesa, Calif. The building will incorporate "island-inspired" elements and environmentally-friendly features and will seek the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, which is recognized proof that a building is an environmentally responsible and healthy place to live or work.

Efforts have been made in all aspects of design to make the new building as "green" as possible, including the use of recycled water for irrigation, recycled materials, renewable materials (such as bamboo flooring) and the recycling of construction debris.

A focus on efficient mechanical systems and building design will hopefully encourage other credit unions to follow suit, according to Michael Maslak, president/CEO of Island CU.

"We are using locally found and readily available renewable materials to create an energy efficient and environmentally friendly building that will simultaneously provide a comfortable corporate home to hundreds of our employees," he said.

Last month, Boulder Valley CU (BVCU) in Boulder, Colo., announced the installation of a 10-kilowatt Sun Power solar electric system on the roof of its Arapahoe branch. Since July 1, the solar electric system has produced clean, emission-free solar electricity, offsetting 14 tons of carbon dioxide pollution.

The system has a life span of 30 to 40 years--equivalent to planting 1,078 trees or reducing 30,500 auto traveling miles per year.

Sun Power also helps the credit union stabilize its electricity costs. Future plans allow for the installation of additional panels, which will increase electricity production.

"Boulder Valley CU is the first credit union in Boulder to go green and turn to solar electricity for its future energy needs," said CEO Rick Allen. "We hope other companies will follow suit to preserve our environment and public health."

BVCU is celebrating the solar system milestone by offering its members low rates on financing solar electric systems in their homes as well as lower auto rates for fuel-efficient vehicles.

Sydney CU, in Sydney River, Nova Scotia, recently campaigned for its members to not "stand idly by" efforts to save the environment (Cape Breton Post July 7).

The credit union created idle-free zones in its ATM lanes and in the parking lots at all 10 of its branches, with signs encouraging members to turn off their cars.

The environment is very important to the credit union because it is a community-minded institution, noted Leanne Boutilier, credit union manager.

Franklin Mint CU in Broomall, Pa., is encouraging its members to look at more cost efficient, alternative methods of public transportation. In May, two employees promoted this cause by participating in the Delaware County Transportation Management Association's (DCTMA) Bike to Work Day.

John Hargrove, vice president of information technology, and Langston Williams, information technology network administrator, biked eight miles from the credit union's headquarters in Broomall to the DCTMA information tent in Media, Pa.

Not only does biking save the environment, it also has health benefits, Hargrove noted.
"During the summer months, I frequently ride my bike to and from work," he said. "It's good exercise. It keeps me physically fit and reduces my stress level."

Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) in Gainesville, Fla., recently partnered with 1st CU of Gainesville to offer credit union members $1,000 to $10,000 in loans to pay for appliances that will reduce energy consumption (Gainesville Sun July 11).

GRU will fund up to $450,000 in 2008 to bring the interest rates on the loans to 3%. GRU Energy and Business Services Manager Bill Shepherd said 300 to 400 people are expected to take out the loans, and four people already applied.

Shepherd said the loan program helps reach those who can't afford energy-saving measures. The qualifying loans under the program cover items like insulation, solar panels, Energy Star-rated appliances, and efficient cooling or heating systems.

A number of credit unions are offering low-rate loans for members purchasing fuel-efficient vehicles. Members First CU in Mechanicsburg, Pa., has offered a rate discount on loans for the cars (eLumination June 20) and Stanford FCU in Stanford, Calif., has offered "drive green loans." VanCity CU in Calgary, Alberta has also offered its members loans under the Clean Air Auto Loan program (Calgary Herald June 5).

While some credit unions are offering energy-saving incentives, Columbia CU, located in Vancouver, Wash., has been "green" for some time, according to CEO Parker Cann.

"Environmentally friendly business practices are enjoying a huge renaissance right now," he said. "But in truth, Columbia instituted 'green' practices years ago. It continues to be an integral part of our operations and guides our approach to serving our community."

Columbia stays green by:

  • Printing marketing materials on recycled paper;
  • Rewarding members with environmentally-friendly incentives, such as natural cleaning products or lawn care;
  • Sponsoring local tree planting through Vancouver Urban Forestry;
  • Being a charter member of the Northwest Biofuels Association; and
  • Incorporating sustainable building features into its branches.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Grocery Bills Rising

Grocery bill chomps away at budget

NEW YORK (7/9/07)--Gas prices aren't the only consumer expenditures that have gotten out of control. The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates that food inflation is running at a 6.7% adjusted annual rate through the first quarter of 2007. That's more than three times last year's 2.1% increase (MarketWatch June 13).

Prices for many items including meat, milk, eggs, butter, soda and fresh fruit all rose this spring. Consumers are facing rising food prices not only at the grocery store, but at restaurants. The cost of dining out has risen 3.3% in the past year (USAToday June 18).

Here's what you can do to keep your grocery bill from taking a bigger bite:

  • Change how and where you shop. Consider shopping at a warehouse-type grocery store for most of your items. Buying in bulk can save a family of four $200 or more a month. Try to shop at your small-town grocer or organic grocery store only for those "must-have" specialty items you can't find at the bigger chains.
  • Use coupons. It might not be how you want to spend your Sunday morning, but clipping coupons can help you save money. Use them on those "double coupon" days and save even more. But watch out--if you use coupons to buy high-priced items that you normally wouldn't purchase, you're not saving money.
  • Stick to a list and don't shop hungry. Take the time to make a grocery list and don't let yourself purchase items that aren't written down. Avoid going to the store right before mealtime or you'll be tempted to buy much more than you need.
  • Try generic. For some items, name brands are the only way to go. But generic or store-brand foods can be just as good for many items.
  • Eat less. Cut back on the amount of snack food and junk food items you're buying and you might find yourself shedding a few unwanted pounds.
  • Grow your own. Planting a garden is fun and saves a lot of money. You'll get a lot of tomatoes from that $2 tomato plant.
  • Try new recipes. Look at what you're putting in the meals you make--perhaps there's a less expensive way to cook. The U.S. Department of Agriculture shows how you can make meals for less at

For more information, use "Calculator: Budget Blueprint" in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Wedding bliss without toasting your budget

MADISON, Wis. (7/10/07)--U.S. couples spent an average of almost $27,000 to tie the knot in 2006, according to a study conducted by It's easy to want to splurge, but there are ways to stay within budget (MarketWatch May 13):
  • Consider shopping at a consignment store. You may find a gorgeous dress for a fraction of the cost of buying it new. But keep in mind that consignment shops might carry only limited sizes and might not offer alterations.
  • Choose party favors wisely. Do your guests really want candles wrapped in lace? Try giving them something they might really use--like chocolate.
  • Employ a photography student to document your wedding.
  • Buy in-season, local flowers and food to avoid shipping costs.

Teddy Lenderman, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Perfect Wedding," also suggests:

  • Find a location that is meaningful to you--a ski hill in the spring, a local garden in the fall, a family member's home around the holidays, or your house of worship.
  • Borrow items such as the cake knife, toast goblets, or ring pillow from family or friends.
  • Use photographs as pew decorations instead of flowers. You can save a bundle.

For more information, read "Say 'I Do' Without the Debt" in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

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Friday, July 6, 2007

Digital TV: Are You Ready?

Sunday's HFF Radio show: Are you ready for digital TV?

WASHINGTON (7/6/07)--Digital television (DTV), a new type of broadcasting technology that will transform television as you've known it, is slated to replace analog TV in February 2009. Are you and your TV ready? Not sure what a set-top box is? Tune in to this Sunday's Home & Family Finance Radio show to find out what you need to know--and do--to make sure you're ready for the switchover.

Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. EDT on the Radio America Network. The one-hour program devoted to consumer finance issues is presented by America's Credit Unions.

Sunday's show, which you also can hear later via the Internet, features Paul Berry, Washington, D.C., journalist and broadcaster, discussing these topics with special guests:
  • "Conversion to Digital TV: Will You Be Prepared?" with John Kneuer, assistant secretary of communication and information, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Department of Commerce, Washington, D.C.
  • "Fair Debt Collection," with Thomas Kane, attorney, Bureau of Consumer Protection, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C.
  • "Fraud Protection on the Road," with Mary Hessel, product manager, Co-op Financial Services, Ontario, Calif.
  • "July Financial Fitness Challenge: Make Sure Your Computer is Secure," with Michelle Dosher, senior editor adult finance publications, Center for Personal Finance, Credit Union National Association (CUNA), Madison, Wis.
  • "Set Strong Passwords to Prevent Access to Your Computer," with Pat Jury, president/ CEO, Iowa Credit Union League, Des Moines, Iowa.

Home & Family Finance is a resource center for personal finance information at CUNA. The radio show's national presenting sponsor is Co-Op Financial Services. Accel, VISA, and CUNA Strategic Services are national sponsors.

For more information, read "Identity Theft: Getting Back to Square One" and "Debt Settlement Sets a Costly Trap" in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

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Thursday, July 5, 2007

Debit Card Use

Debit card penetration slows, but purchases increase

NEW YORK (7/2/07)--Credit unions looking for ways to get their members to use their debit card will be interested in a new study, which concludes that the percentage of U.S. households employing debit cards is up dramatically; card penetration is slowing; and transactions are increasing.

TNS Group, a market-intelligence firm based in New York, conducted the study.
What do these findings mean for credit unions? It means that with penetration slowing, financial institutions will be challenged even more to find new ways to get the cards into members' hands (ATM & Debit News June 28).

Among the findings:
  • Sixty-three percent of U.S. households in 2006 had at least one debit card--up from 52% in 2002, 49% in 2001, and 36% in 1998. By 2009, the number of households with debit cards is expected to reach 73%, says George Ravich, senior vice president and general manager of syndicated research at TNS. Ravich told the publication debit card penetration is still increasing but at a slower rate.
  • Households use their debit cards to pay for 13.3 transactions per month, versus paying for 6.6 transactions a month with credit cards. Merchant acceptance of debit cards is contributing to the increase, said the publication.
  • The growth rate of debit transactions is expected to remain at 15% annually for several years.
  • Debit card users are shifting toward more expensive purchases. At one time the breakpoint for a debit card purchase was $50.
  • Debit card transactions are also increasing for smaller purchases because major card companies no longer require card users to sign a receipt for purchases of less than $25. Debit cards are paying for more meals, with debit card transactions at quick-service restaurants for first quarter growing 32% over the previous year.

To deepen debit card use by members, financial institutions will need effective strategies aligned with the issuer's acquisition, including cross-selling, retention and payments strategies, Ravich said.

Also, they must place more importance on developing debit card innovations and differentiating them from other commoditized products such as free checking. They can link the cards to deposit accounts, online banking and bill payment to drive use from a source other than point-of-sale transactions, he said.

courtesy of

Monday, July 2, 2007

Grilling 101: Steak, Chicken, & Kabobs!

(4th of July BBQ ideas)

Grilling 101: Steak, Chicken and Kabobs
By: Kelly Brant

From flame-kissed steaks and smoked chicken to shish kabobs and satays, grilling adds flavor and flair to virtually any meat.

Fire Away
The most primitive style of cooking--meat roasted over an open flame--can't be beat. You can pan-sear and broil all you want, but nothing compares to a grilled steak. The combination of a smoky, caramelized crust and a tender, juicy interior is what grilling beef is all about.

Tips for a perfectly grilled steak
Choose wisely: Favorable grilling candidates include New York strip, T-bone, porterhouse, sirloin, filet mignon and rib-eye.

Size matters: Choose cuts that are 1- to 1-1/4 inch thick. Pay special attention to bone-in cuts of meat: make sure the steak is an even thickness. Meat near the bone will take longer to cook.

Use caution with marinades: Over-marinating can result in tough or mushy meat. For additional ways to flavor-up a steak, try a dry rub or top cooked steaks with herbed butter.

Handle hot coals: Sear steaks over direct heat, then move them to indirect heat to finish cooking. For a 1-inch thick steak, a general guide is 5 to 7 minutes per side for medium-rare (145 degrees F). For an accurate reading--and to avoid cutting into that sublime steak--use a meat thermometer to test for doneness.

Easy Grilled Tri-Tip
Sirloin Steak with Garlic Butter
Smothered Filet Mignon
Willy's Juicy Steak
Barbequed Marinated Flank Steak
Adobo Sirloin
Bulgogi (Korean Barbecued Beef)
BBQ Chuck Roast

Fair-Weather Fowl
Chicken may be one of the trickiest foods to grill, especially the ever-popular boneless, skinless chicken breasts. The grill's high heat tends to dry out the meat before it's cooked through. One way to avoid this is to lightly pound boneless chicken breasts to a uniform thickness, helping the breast cook evenly.

Grilled Chicken with Herbs
Beer Butt Chicken
BBQ Miso Chicken
Grilled Asian Chicken
Indian Barbeque Chicken
Honey Mustard Grilled Chicken
Tina's Best BBQ Lime Chicken

Get on the Stick
Whether you call them kabobs or satays, skewers of meat, vegetables and even fruit are ideal for the grill. For kickin' kabobs:

Cut meats and veggies to the same size. One- to 1½-inch inch cubes work well.
Group foods with similar cooking times together. While a skewer of bell peppers, cherry tomatoes and chicken looks appetizing, those tomatoes may turn to mush--or worse, slither off the skewer--by the time the chicken is done.
To stabilize round or hard-to-skewer foods like tomatoes and shrimp, use two skewers parallel to each other.

courtesy of

Tips for Successful Grilling

(4th of July BBQ Ideas)

Tips for Successful Grilling
By: Sydny Carter

Everything tastes better off the grill. And nothing could be simpler, right?

Preheating the Grill
The right temperature is always important. Many gas grills come equipped with thermometers, and reliable grill thermometers are widely available. A thermometer will tell you exactly what heat you are working with. That being said, the standard is still the caveman method. This consists of holding your hand approximately 6 inches above the coals or heat source, about the spot where the food will be cooking, and counting how many seconds you can keep your hand in this position. Count 'one-barbeque, two-barbeque...'

High Heat: 3 seconds or 500 F (260 C)

Medium High Heat: 5 seconds or 400 F (205 C)

Medium Heat: 7 seconds or 350 F (175 C)

Medium Low Heat: 10 seconds or 325 deg F (165 deg C)

Low Heat: 12 seconds or 300 deg F (150 deg C)

Direct Heat vs. Indirect Heat
There are primarily two methods of using a grill. Cooking directly over the heat source is known as grilling over direct heat. The food is cooked for mere minutes on a hot grill, and the lid is rarely if ever closed. Thin cuts of meat, fillets, kabobs, sates, and vegetables are good candidates for this method. Indirect heat is used for larger pieces of meat, such as thick steaks, roasts, and whole fish. In this method, the food is cooked just off the heat at about 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). The lid is closed, and the cooking times are somewhat longer. On a gas grill this generally means firing up the two outside burners, and cooking the meat over the middle, unlit burner. When using charcoals, the coals are pushed to the sides of the grill, leaving a place in the middle to cook. Traditional barbeque is a form of indirect heat using very low temperatures over long periods of time.

Timing Is Everything
A table of grilling times is of necessity only approximate. There are a lot a variables, such as the difference between the 7 seconds Uncle Frank can keep his asbestos hands over the live flames and the 3 seconds your absolutely normal hand measures the same grill at the same time. Of course, a thermometer can measure the heat exactly, but where's the fun in that? There are other variables, less easily tested, that can make two seemingly identical cuts of meat cook at different times - exact thickness, texture, age, and temperature of the raw meat.

That being said, timing is everything. There might be only a minute or two between a moist and tender chop and dry, tough shoe leather. So, check for doneness at the approximate time given in the recipe. An instant read thermometer is a good tool. Insert it into the thickest part of the meat, away from the bone, to measure the internal temperature of the food. The most popular method of ascertaining the doneness of the meal is, again, the caveman method. Slice the meat, and observe the color of the juices. If the juices are red, the meat is rare. Pink juices indicate medium rare, and well done meat will have clear juices.

Food Handling
Prepare all ingredients before you begin grilling. Not only is it unsafe to leave a hot grill unattended, but it can be very stressful to run back and forth between your kitchen and the grill.
Do not allow raw meat and fish to come into contact with other foods. Use separate cutting boards, or thoroughly sanitize the one you are using. Wash with hot soapy water, spray with a 5 % solution of chlorine bleach, and air dry. Plastic cutting boards can also be sanitized in the dishwasher.
Do not carve cooked meat on the board used to hold or cut raw meat.
Cut the fatty edge of steaks and chops to prevent curling. Slice through the fat at 2 to 3 inch intervals, cutting just to the meat.

Most basting sauces can be brushed on throughout the cooking process, the exception is sugar based sauces. Many commercial barbecue sauce preparations fall in this category. These tend to burn if applied too early, so apply during the last few minutes of cooking.
Marinades should be boiled if they are to be used as basting sauce as well.

Poking and stabbing the meat will cause the loss of juices that keep your meat moist and tender. Do not attempt to turn the meat with a carving fork. Instead use long handled tongs or spatulas to turn the meat.

courtesy of

Patriotic Gelatin Salad

(4th of July Recipe Idea)
Serves: 16

2 (3 ounce) packages berry blue gelatin
2 (3 ounce) packages strawberry flavored gelatin
4 cups boiling water, divided
2 1/2 cups cold water, divided
2 envelopes unflavored gelatin
2 cups milk
1 cup sugar
2 cups sour cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1. In four separate bowls, dissolve each package of gelatin in 1 cup boiling water. Add 1/2 cup cold water to each and stir. Pour one bowl of blue gelatin into an oiled 10-in. fluted tub pan; chill until almost set, about 30 minutes.

2. Set other three bowls of gelatin aside at room temperature. Soften unflavored gelatin in remaining cold water; let stand 5 minutes.

3. Heat milk in a saucepan over medium heat just below boiling. Stir in softened gelatin and sugar until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat; stir in sour cream and vanilla until smooth. When blue gelatin in pan in almost set, carefully spoon 1-1/2 cups sour cream mixture over it. Chill until almost set, about 30 minutes.

4. Carefully spoon one bowl of strawberry gelatin over cream layer. Chill until almost set. Carefully spoon 1-1/2 cups cream mixture over the strawberry layer. Chill until almost set. Repeat, adding layers of blue gelatin, cream mixture and strawberry gelatin, chilling in between each. Chill several hours or overnight.

This recipe was tested with Splenda No Calorie Sweetener.

Note: This salad takes time to prepare since each layer must be almost set before the next layer is added.

Ranch Pasta Salad

(4th of July Recipe Idea)
Serves: 6

16 ounces pasta
1 (6 ounce) can black olives, drained and chopped
1 (5 ounce) jar stuffed green olives, sliced
8 ounces shredded Cheddar cheese
8 ounces shredded Monterey Jack cheese
2 1/2 tablespoons bacon bits
1 (16 ounce) bottle ranch-style salad dressing
1/2 cup chopped green onions
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until al dente; drain and reserve.
In a large bowl, combine black olives, green olives, Cheddar cheese, Monterey Jack cheese, bacon bits, dressing, onion, ground black pepper and pasta; mix well.
Cover bowl, refrigerate to chill for one hour, and serve.

Energy Saving Tips for Summer

1. Use a fan-the moving air creates less strain on air conditioners.
2. Close the blinds-before you leave in the am to prevent the sun from over-heating the house.
3. Don't turn down the temperature drastically-on your thermostat since it won't help your house to cool down any quicker.
4. Lower the temperature on your water heater-to 120 degrees F & use water/energy saving settings on your appliances.
5. Wash only full loads of laundry and dishes.

courtesy of Idaho Power