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Search for a Micro-Rave

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, April 30, 2006

Every time my husband and I decide to buy something, he responds with one phrase: "We need to check Consumer Reports."

Every time. Even for products that are relatively inexpensive.

Recently, we decided to replace our 20-year-old microwave. I'm not kidding -- we'd kept the microwave oven that I bought when I graduated from college. Being the penny-pincher that I am, I just couldn't bring myself to replace it, even though it occasionally stopped working or the food I was heating came out hard as a rock.

One day, though, I realized it was time to retire Minnie the Microwave, which by the way was the size of a steamer trunk. Once I made up my mind to replace Minnie, I was ready to head to the store. I wondered, how hard could it be to get a decent, reasonably priced microwave? But oh no, my husband wanted to check Consumer Reports first. Thank goodness the magazine had reviewed microwave ovens in its February 2006 issue, which we still had around the house.

And thank goodness I listened to my wise husband. He was right about consulting the magazine, as he always is. There were a lot of features and price ranges to consider.

If you are ever going to buy something, you need to get a subscription to Consumer Reports. If you don't have a subscription, here's the next best thing: the publication's buying guide. In it you get a full year's worth of advice and ratings on everything from automobiles to cellphones to flat-panel televisions to toilets to pressure-washers to, of course, microwaves.

To that end, for the Color of Money Book Club May selection I've chosen the "Consumer Reports Buying Guide 2006" by the editors of Consumer Reports magazine. The guide is a bargain at $9.99, and I love its paperback, compact size. It's perfect to take along on your trips to the store with its more than 950 brand-name ratings.

There's a great section on how to protect your identity in stores and online. Also, are you wondering if you should get that extended warranty?

"Once offered primarily on costly appliances and of course automobiles, extended warranties and similar insurance products have now trickled down to just about everything on the shelves," the editors of the 2006 guide write.

The guide has a useful chart with a rundown on the odds of needing a repair on various products and thus the likelihood you'll need to get a warranty on that product.

The odds of needing a repair on a camcorder: 8 percent. A washing machine: 22 percent.

Throughout the book are short "shop smart" and "tech" tips. For example, looking for a dryer? The tech tip: "Dryers with a moisture sensor tend to recognize when laundry is dry more quickly than machines that use a traditional thermostat."

Here's a "shop smart" tip if you have a printer: "Be wary of off-brands of replacement inks; we have found brand-name cartridges to have better print quality overall, and per page costs are often comparable." I definitely concur with that tip. In trying to be cheap, I've tried all kinds of methods to reduce the cost of ink cartridge replacements. I usually end up with ink on my hands and a trip to the store to get the brand-name cartridge.

Let me say this one thing about the guide and Consumer Reports magazine. I know you can get both at your local public library and I certainly would encourage you to make a visit there if you're strapped for cash. However, if you can truly afford a magazine subscription or the guide, buy them. I feel compelled to say this because Consumer Reports survives on selling its magazine, guide and online information and services.

Consumer Reports buys all the products it tests and does not accept free samples or advertising. It also doesn't allow companies to use its information or ratings to promote products (although I've known many salespeople to carry around a good CR review).

Are the tests and advice perfect? Not always. I sometimes disagree with some of the ratings. Still, this is the best thing out there. Consumer Reports and the editors are on our side and it's important to financially support this unbiased, independent source of consumer product and service information.

If you are interested in discussing this month's book selection, join me online at noon Eastern on May 25 at http://www.washingtonpost.com/ . Lisa Lee Freeman, deputy editor at Consumer Reports, will be my guest and will be available to take your questions.

To become a member of the Color of Money Book Club, all you have to do is read the recommended book and come chat online with the author and me. In addition, every month I randomly select readers to receive copies of the book, donated by the publisher. For a chance to win a copy of the "Consumer Reports Buying Guide 2006," send an e-mail to colorofmoney@washpost.com . Please include your name and an address so we can send you a book if you win.

· On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online athttp://www.npr.org.

· By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

· By e-mail:singletarym@washpost.com.

Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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