Ah, December. A month of cold weather and the countdown to the holidays, when many people lose their minds buying gifts with money they don't have for people who probably don't really need anything.
Don't label me a Grinch. I just want people to think about the spending madness that goes on this time of year. And instead of buying the latest hot toy or gadget, I encourage you to give gifts that have the potential to increase someone's financial common sense. I offered up a list of suggestions in my Nov. 25 column, "Giving Gifts That Make Good Financial Sense."
And one other tip: Be careful with credit. Last year, I offered some tips that might help you avoid post-holidays debt hangover -- "Shop So Your Debts Drop" (Nov. 27, 2003).
Along similar lines: If you don't want your kid's personal mantra to be "born to shop," you should read the transcript of my recent Web chat with the author of the Color of Money Book Club selection for November. Consumer expert and Boston College professor Juliet B. Schor joined me yesterday live online to talk about her book, "Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture" (Scribner, $25). Schor hit the mark on so many points.
Free Credit Reports
Have you checked your credit report lately? If not -- and depending on where you live -- you may be eligible to get copies of your credit reports.
Starting yesterday, the nation's three major credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion -- will process consumer requests filed at www.annualcreditreport.com.
The free reports are courtesy of the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003 (FACTA), which requires the nationwide credit bureaus to provide, upon request, a free copy of a consumer's credit report once a year. There are many other provisions of the law that you should be aware of, as I listed in a column last December.
Consumers in 13 western states could start requesting a free annual credit report as of Dec. 1. I'm not thrilled about this phased-in approach, especially since those of us in the eastern United States are last in line to get our free reports.
Here's the schedule for when and where free credit reports will be available:
* After December 1: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
* Beginning March 1, 2005: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
* Beginning June 1, 2005: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.
* Beginning September 1, 2005: Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia. Also Puerto Rico and all U.S. territories.
I guess when the government says it's free it actually means it'll be free when it gets good and ready to give it to you free. But my Big Mama did teach me to be grateful, and this law could save you $27 a year (typically a single credit report costs $9).
By the way, real estate columnist Kenneth R. Harney wrote about the free credit reports last weekend in "The Nation's Housing."
Paragons of Parsimony
I'm on a mission to encourage people not to be wasteful, so I was thrilled to get this tip from Aaron Rogers, the manager of a restaurant in Washington, D.C.
Rogers wrote: "Most restaurants these days will tell you nobody should leave their establishment hungry. So portion sizes are always far more than people should eat in one sitting. But what amazes me is the amount of food that is thrown away. So my penny-pinching suggestion is to take your leftovers to go. No matter how small the portion. After all, you have already paid for the food. My [restaurant] trashcans are filled with food every night and they are not full because people didn't enjoy the meal. They are full because customers didn't want to bother with wrapping up the food."
Folks, I never leave uneaten food on the table when I dine out. And Rogers is right. I've often made several meals out of my restaurant takeouts.
Even my kids know not to leave food on their plates: My youngest starting crying once while we were packing up to leave a restaurant. Finally, we realized why. We had left a tiny chunk of pineapple on her plate and she wanted to put it in her takeout box.
It's never too early to train a penny pincher.
Read Past Penny-Pinching Tips
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