The government has put the screws on credit-card issuers and other lenders.
Credit will be harder to get, and people who are making payments on revolving credit accounts might have to pay larger minimums.
For many, it will force a return to paying cash for goods and services. "Cash" is a word we've almost forgotten in our plastic paradise. It's difficult, if not impossible to carry a large amount of cash around in your purse or wallet, and it could be dangerous.
A checking account lets you use paper instead of money and in many ways acts as a brake on spending impulses. If you have to write out a check, it's more of a hassle than just slipping someone a credit card. You know for sure that the check has to be backed up with real money. With a credit card, you often have up to 50 or 60 days to pay something on your account. You put off the day of reckoning and go on spending -- out of sight, out of mind.
While the government is putting the clamp on credit, banks are pushing checking accounts. They want these accounts because it's cheap money. They're offering all sorts of incentives.
For example, with some checking accounts you can, in effect, earn interest on your cash balance. Your money is earning something for you as it sits there. Credit unions and some savings and loans have also been able to rig up savings accounts that, in effect, offer the convenience of checking accounts. They do this by shunting money, from a passbook savings account into your checking account.
The trouble with checks is that they're not acceptable everywhere. Credit cards are accepted immediately -- no hassle.
This is why there's a resurgence of check "guarantee cards" issued by banks.
With a guarantee card, a merchant will automatically accept your check and know that it's backed up even if you don't have the funds. In some cases, these guarantee cards are acceptable in an entire area and in other cases they're limited to participating merchants and restaurants. Supermarkets, pharmacies and department stores also issue special check guarantee cards. You have to apply for the cards much in the manner of applying for credit cards.
With the credit crunch on, banks are reporting an increasing number of bouncing checks. "Most people," says one bank official, "rarely balance their checking accounts."
They just let it run and hope to keep putting enough money in, but it's getting expensive to bounce checks. The bank charges a fee ($10 or so) for each check and eventually you get on a "don't-accept" list which is circulated among merchants.
Some banks offer overdraft protection through a line of credit. When you run out of funds in the checking account, they automatically loan you $100 or more. This type of lending will also be cut back, and some banks will charge higher interest rates on new borrowing -- up 3 percent a year or more. Still, it's a good deal if you can qualify and discipline yourself to only use the credit when it's absolutely necessary.
Then there's the amazing spread of the "no-credit" SaveSystem card offered by savings and loans and a few banks. You pay cash, show the card to a member merchant or restaurant and a 5 to 15 percent discount is sent back to your savings account -- automatically. For more information on who offers SaveSystem cards, write: Savings Plus, P.O. Box 1200, Sikeston, Mo. 63801.
Q. How much energy can you save by using house fans instead of air conditioning? Do you get a tax credit for the installation of a fan?
A. You do not get a tax credit for a whole-house fan. The Internal Revenue Service has the tax credit list, and fans are not on it. You get credits for other energy savers such as insulation and storm windows.
But you can cut down your summer energy costs a lot with a fan -- even though IRS won't give you any credit. A National Bureau of Standards whole-house fan test in Houston showed that the cooling energy requirement was substantially reduced when whole-house ventilation was used.
You can keep your home fairly cool with a fan system when the temperature is under 82 degrees or so. After that you need air conditioning to keep comfortable. The whole-house fan creates a cooling effect by drawing air in through windows and out through the attic. According to NBS and Department of Energy experts, a two-speed ceiling fan is the most effective because the higher speed provides additional cooling with a "breeze effect" during the day. At night, you can turn the speed down when the outside temperature is cooler.
Q. My husband and I have a small mail-order business we run from our home. We also have three children and other relatives spread all over the country. Is there any way we can cut down on our monthly phone bills? They're unbelievable.
A. Get in touch with your phone company's business office. Explain your problem. Ask about the possible use of a WATS line for business (if you really do a lot of calling).
You might even consider the service of a telephone consulting or equipment firm.
Otherwise, you can always cut costs by knowing what types of long distance calls cost the most and what time is least expensive to make a call.
Some samples from your area to Los Angeles:
The most expensive five-minute call is person-to-person from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ($4.31).
The least expensive call is direct dial from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. Monday to Friday and from 11 p.m. Friday through to 5 p.m. Sunday (83 cents).
You always save money by direct dialing unless, of course, the other party is not there. Try to set up schedules to call when you know people will be in. When you call someone through an office switchboard in another city, experts feel person-to-person may be better because you might have to wait on the line. Try it, and time it. You definitely can cut your phone bills with a little concentration on how, when and why you make your calls.
Q. I've read that caffeine can be dangerous for pregnant women and people who are on special medicines. How much coffee can you drink and be safe?
A. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has collected a list of cases where people have suffered from caffeine exposure. A Belgian study showed that some mothers who had children born with defects were drinking a lot of coffee. The Food and Drug Administration is testing the possible dangers of caffeine overdoses in rats. Meanwhile, if you're pregnant or plan to be, it's a good idea to stay off coffee (unless it's decaffeinated). If you're taking special medicines, check with your doctor.