By Deborah A. Wilburn
A while back, I sprang for a Belkin wireless network card that would enable me to pick up any available Internet connection when traveling with my laptop. It was about $100, but the CompUSA salesperson convinced me it was a good deal since Belkin was offering a $40 rebate. I sprang for it and carefully cut the UPC code from the box, filled out the hard-to-read form, and included my receipt. Did I ever get my refund? Nope. After waiting several weeks, I sent an e-mail to Belkin to find out when my rebate would be forthcoming, only to be told that it wouldn’t be. According to them, I hadn’t bought “the product required for rebate.” Say what? At this point, I had neither the paperwork nor the time to double-check whether this was true or not, although I had bought that particular product because I was told that a rebate was available. Turns out, many of you may share a similar story.
While it’s hard to come by hard statistics, collecting a rebate can be as difficult as buying snow boots in July. In fact, delayed and unpaid rebates have caught the eye of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Last year, the FTC settled charges against CompUSA and the manufacturer of QPS and CompUSA brand products for allegedly failing to pay, in a timely manner, rebates on thousands of products.
The moral of the story? Taking the rebate bait may not be such a good idea. According to Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., collecting on rebates can be “a royal pain in the neck”—which he knows firsthand after having jumped through various hoops to collect five rebates totaling $210.
His advice? “Consumers should shop around and see if they can get as good a deal elsewhere.” If you can’t and decide to go the rebate route, says Mierzwinski, “insist that the store give you two copies of each rebate receipt, one to mail and one to keep, make extra copies of any UPC codes, especially if they require you to mail an original, and note the dates when you mailed the rebate requests.” If you don’t get your money in the time promised, make them feel your pain: Report it to the retailer, your state attorney general’s office, and the FTC.
Tax Write-offs for Educators Jeopardized
We know too well that educators don’t earn the big bucks—but they’re still willing to shell out an average $443 per year for school supplies that benefit their students. Other educational expenses often are paid out of their own pockets as well: A recent NEA survey found that 75 percent of teachers participate in professional development. And let’s not forget the cost of testing or coursework required under the No Child Left Behind law to become certified or “highly qualified.” Teachers have the privilege of footing that bill, too. Shouldn’t Uncle Sam give teachers a break on these expenses?
He used to, but he won’t start doing it again if you don’t get involved today. A tax law giving teachers and paraprofessionals a $250 deduction for educational expenses expired on December 31. With the deduction in place, educators in the 25 percent tax bracket who claimed $250 of expenses saved $62.50.
“NEA is working tirelessly with Congress to extend and increase the $250 educator tax deduction,” says Al Campos, NEA federal lobbyist. “If educators make their voices heard with their members of Congress, it would help immensely.”
Bottom line for teachers: Do something! Visit NEA’s legislative action center at www.nea.org/lac . Enter your zip code and send a letter about the Teacher Tax Relief Act to your representative and senators. Tell them you need your break back!
Build That Nest Egg
Say you got a $2,000 windfall. What would you do with it? Pay off bills? Take a vacation? Go on a shopping spree? While there is wisdom in using found cash to pay off debts, it may be smarter to sock that money away and think of it as your emergency fund. “Few people have an emergency fund,” says Bonnie Hughes, a fee-only financial planner with A&H Financial Planning and Education Inc. in Kennesaw, Georgia. “But it’s a mistake. It means you end up using credit cards for emergencies, or money that was intended for other financial needs or goals.” She says most families should set aside at least three months of expenses to deal with life’s calamities.
Where to stash that cash? Hughes recommends putting it in a money market account (which usually pays a higher interest rate than savings accounts) to keep it easily accessible or, if you can tie it up for a few months, a certificate of deposit (CD). “Both of these accounts are paying pretty good rates right now,” she says. Look for money market accounts with no fees attached. In terms of CDs, shoot for one that compounds interest daily. NEA Member Benefits offers two possibilities with competitive rates. You can open an NEA-sponsored money market account with a $500 deposit and an NEA-sponsored CD with $1,000. Both offer yields ranked among the highest in the nation and are a nice, safe way to make your emergency stash grow.
Is It Worth It?
They want $2.99 a pound for organic nectarines at the health food store when the regular ones are on sale at the grocery store for $0.99 a pound?! We all know that organic costs more—sometimes as much as 50 to 100 percent over the price of regular produce, dairy products, and meats. While few of us can afford to go totally organic, the good news is you don’t have to.
According to researchers at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., certain fruits and vegetables carry higher pesticide residue than others. Here’s where it pays to go organic: Apples, bell peppers, celery, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, strawberries, and spinach. If possible, buy organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy: You’ll bypass the hormones and antibiotics used under regular production methods. Feel free to skip organic seafood, since fish (wild or farmed) can contain mercury and PCBs. And don’t waste your money on organic shampoos and body lotions. Personal care products are typically made from chemicals. Those made from natural ingredients, like aloe vera, are “organic” no matter how they’re labeled.