Aaah, no loyalty card.

A couple of weeks ago I stopped by Rite Aid to purchase bottled water [I know, not very “green” or environmentally friendly.  I do have a 10 stage premium water filtration system and it’s time to replace the filter – $50.  My budget is so tight right now, that the purchase will have to wait another month or so].

So, yes I was at Rite Aid.  It was so refreshing to purchase an item on sale without pulling out a loyalty card or providing my home telephone number (to bring up that loyalty card).  Because Rite Aid doesn’t demand that its customers have a loyalty card, I find shopping there more relaxing because my every shopping decision is not being analyzed or dissected by someone at headquarters.

Marketing has become “too fine” of a science for my taste.  I love the cloak of anonymity (no loyalty card and I pay with cash).

Maybe, we as consumers should let stores like CVS Pharmacy know we are not lab rats.   Let us shop without you hovering over our every purchase!

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The Wonders of Vinegar

At Costco, for under $4, I purchased a 1.32 gallon ( 5 liters) of Heinz All Natural Distilled White Vinegar.  I use this distilled white vinegar for multiple tasks.

I apply the vinegar to weeds around my home, along the sidewalk and curb (those weeds that love to sprout in the smallest crack of concrete or asphalt).  With a concentrated squirt, the weed dies without any harmful chemicals eventually ending up in the river or ultimately the drinking water supply.   I avoid inhaling harmful chemicals.  My dog is not exposed to harmful chemicals.  Vinegar is a better environmental choice and much cheaper than Round-up.

Windows – why spend money on Windex?  Instead pour vinegar into a spray bottle, use elbow grease and clean the windows.   Again, better for the environment and less expensive.  Considering I have more than 20 windows in my home, using vinegar is definitely a bargain.

And vinegar is a wonder product on the mirrors in my home.  Plus, vinegar cleans my car windows so well, they look new.

I had a renovation project in my home for the past 3.5 weeks.  Not unexpectedly, there was a lot of dust build up.  The crystal I purchased from Prague more than 10 years ago look pretty dingy.  The sparkle has returned to my crystal after cleaning with vinegar!

My dog has sprinkled or doused the carpet in the basement on more than one occasion.  I’ve purchased various products ($$)  to combat the urine odor.  One day I decided to try vinegar.  Yes, the scent of vinegar is pretty powerful.  Well, the vinegar does the trick.  A good dose of vinegar applied in the evening and the next day – no urine smell.

So why spend lots of money on weed killers, window cleaners and pet deodorizer?  Buy a 1.32 gallon Heinz All Natural Distilled White Vinegar.  You can be “green” and save money.  What a steal  🙂

Bounty Basic Paper Towels

I made the mistake once of a purchasing Bounty Basic Paper Towels.  I could tell, looking through the plastic, that the paper towel appeared different.  I can you, without question, that Bounty Basic is very different from the regular Bounty.

Bounty Basic has a textured appearance but don’t let that fool you.  It’s very thin.   It not a “quicker picker upper” of  spills.  Instead, it pushes spills along.  Hey, my two-ply toilet paper or facial tissue is more absorbent.

I don’t know why the decision was made to create the Bounty Basic line.  It’s comparable to New Coke as far as I’m concerned.  A bad idea.  If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Tithing vs. Volunteering

About two years ago I stumbled across a message board where someone had posted the virtues of tithing and further proclaimed what he/she received in return (meaning a blessing where he/she received some unexpected gift).  And a few others posted their comments about tithing and what wonderful things have happened to them.

Okay, that’s fine and dandy.  Should you be tithing just to “receive” some recognition, some benefit because of your good deed?  And, if tithing is a worthy practice, what about volunteering?  To me it’s easy to write a check or donate by credit/debit card.   It’s tougher to roll up your sleeves and do “grunt work” or “work in the weeds.”

If someone contributes only 5% to his local church but also volunteers with the church (and outside the church), would God look less favorably on this individual because he’s not giving 10% of his income?  We all know that time is money.

Volunteering is much more personal versus writing a check or making a donation by credit/debit card. I believe one should balance one’s deeds with monetary contributions and volunteering.

I’m volunteering presently in two capacities:  as a lector at church and as a volunteer at the Washington Youth Garden (at the U.S. National Arboretum).   My volunteer activities in the past have ranged from usher at The Shakespeare Theatre, volunteer at a soup kitchen, volunteer at the Green Festival and volunteer at a food distribution center.   Some activities are more educational, others cultural and still others community oriented.   I’m not going to assign “values” to different types of volunteer activities.  The point is – to volunteer.

Consider what James says in 2:14 – 17 (NIV)

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save him?  Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to him, “Go I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

Deeds can be tithing or volunteering.  You give either way – money or time/talent.

Tithing – Church Only?

The concept of tithing (giving 10% percent of one’s income) can be traced to the Bible, Old Testament.  In fact, the very first time the word “tithe” is mentioned in the Bible is Genesis 14:18 – 20 (NIV)

Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine.  He was priest of  God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying,

Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of  heaven and earth.   And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.

Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

So, according to the Bible, we should give God a tenth of everything.  But, what if you want to give some of the tenth to an organization other than the church?  You want to give money to an organization that feeds and houses the homeless, or provides medical assistance to the poor or food and medical supplies to populations in extremely poor nations?  Would God reject such generosity?

Some believe that you give to your local church and let your local church distribute funds for the local community.  It is not the believer’s position to question how the money is used; God requires that you give 10%.

Sorry, but not me.  Just like I want to know how Oxfam, Mercy Corps, the American Red Cross, USO or the Salvation Army is spending donated funds, I too want to know how the church is using my contributions.  And, the church does not always support the causes I feel are important (and I’m not talking about a donation here or there to a public radio station).

I support an order of nuns by giving a monthly contribution.  I support a Catholic Mission in rural Alabama that provides food, clothing and other support to some of the poorest citizens of the United States.  I recently pledged to support two children (a boy in Tanzania and a girl in Ghana) through Compassion International.  And, I’m still giving money monthly to Mercy Corps for the Haitian Earthquake Relief.

Are these not worthy causes?  Of course they are.

Now some may say, you are supposed to give 10% to the church and anything above that is an offering.  Well, frankly, I can afford to give 10% or 11% maximum (thanks to “too much house” purchased in January 2005).

I’m glad to give 10% but I believe in sharing the wealth.  I give to the church and I give to a lot of organizations (some religious) doing “God’s work.”

Topic for tomorrow – tithing vs. volunteering (you know what the pastor or priest says – will you give your time, talent and treasure).

Tithing/Giving

I’ve come a long way or evolved in my viewpoints about “tithing”

I’m not talking in the strictly religious sense where one gives 10%  to one’s local church.  So for those who are purist, by “tithing” I mean giving.

At first I wasn’t sold about giving 10% to the church.  I gave money weekly but it didn’t rise close to the level of 10% of my next pay.  I recall when I was stationed at Yokota Air Base, Japan, one of the Catholic s sort of chastised the congregation for not giving more.  This Chaplain began publishing in the weekly bulletin the total collections of the Protestants versus the total collection of Catholics.   I don’t know how successful the Catholic Chaplain’s plan was.  I know it didn’t cause me to increase my weekly giving.

My position has changed.  Now, I do give about 10%  of my next pay.

I  don’t give the full 10% to the church;  I give 10% to churches, NGOs, and other charitable organizations.

More tomorrow.

Another reason to pay with cash

Among the several podcasts I listen to is Wake Up To Money, a BBC radio program.  I really enjoy this program, obtaining a British perspective about the financial markets and matters of personal finance.

One of the topics of discussion during a recent broadcast is “are we becoming a cashless society?”  Apparently the Brits swipe their plastic as much as Americans.  The amount paid with plastic continues to rise whereas payment by cash continues to slide downward.

Wake Up To Money solicits text messages in response to different segments of the program.   In response to the segment about becoming a cashless society, one individual texted he still uses cash for privacy concerns.

Have you ever noticed, especially when using your credit union’s check car, detailed information is reported about the transaction:  date, amount, vendor, and product or services.

Banks collecting all this information is a little intimidating.  Citizens are concerned about “Big Brother.”  What they really need to be concerned about is “Big Sister” or big corporation.

When one watches the news, one inevitably, will see how police are solving crimes, let’s say a missing person, because the police will obtain the missing person’s last known cell phone transmission, or most recent visit to an ATM or most recent purchase.

But if you don’t won’t every hour of every day tracked by Big Sister, consider paying with cash.

Federal Benefits Garnished? Soon, not any more.

In a June 1, 2009 article by Ellen E. Schultz in the Wall Street Journal entitled Closing the Benefits Loophole, the first three paragraphs of the article states,

A bipartisan group of legislators is pressing the Treasury Department to close a loophole that has allowed banks to seize Social Security and disability benefits from customers’ accounts despite federal rules intended to protect these benefits from creditors.

The loophole also has enabled some banks to seize from customers their recent $250 Economic Recovery Payments, payments to disabled veterans, and supplemental benefits to impoverished individuals from the Social Security Administration.

Federal law says creditors can’t take Social Security, disability, veterans’ and children’s survivor benefits to pay a debt. But the federal law doesn’t say how money deposited directly into bank accounts is to be protected – a gap that has given banks the ability to seize such funds.

I recall reading this article last year and thinking, what a minute, the federal government is encouraging, close to mandating direct deposit.  Yet the federal government didn’t foresee this consequence.   NEVER forget Newton’s third law of motion:  for every action, there is an opposite and equal [and, I humbly add, “unanticipated“] reaction.   After reading the article I was fuming and sad.  Fuming at the federal government for not “anticipating” this issue, and at the banks for allowing these federal benefits to be garnished but sad for those individuals who had their benefits garnished.

Well, good news.  Treasury Moves to Protect Federal Benefits,  Ellen E. Schultz reports in today’s Wall Street Journal.

The Treasury Department is releasing new rules preventing banks from seizing Social Security and other federal benefits from customers facing debt collectors.

Federal law prohibits creditors from taking Social Security to recover a debt, but the law doesn’t say how money deposited directly into bank accounts is to be protected.

*                                                         *                                                    *

The proposed new rules, to be published Wednesday in the Federal Register, will require banks that receive garnishment orders to review the accounts to see if they have received any direct deposits of federal benefits within the past 60 days.

If so, they must establish a protected amount equal to the sum of the benefits deposited.  So, if the person had two deposits of $1,000 each, the protected amount is $2,000, even if the person had spent the benefits.

*                                                       *                                                         *

Any amount above the protected amount would be handled according to the garnishment rules of each state.  The rule doesn’t prohibit states from establishing a higher protected amount.

Not sure why it took almost a YEAR before the Treasury Department came up with this proposal but at least the ball is now moving.

For those who have had their federal benefits garnished, I wonder if they requested that their benefits be sent by check instead of direct deposit.  One always hears about the benefits of direct deposit but here’s a situation where it can hurt you.

Obviously, the moral of the story – stay out of debt so collectors won’t attempt to garnish your bank accounts.

And, thanks, Uncle Sam, for FINALLY tackling this issue.

No More Mortgage Interest Deduction?

During former President George W. Bush’s administration, the idea was first floated:  eliminate the mortgage interest deduction.  Supposedly a lot of homeowners take the standardized deduction instead of itemizing their deductions.  The federal government theoretically could collect more in taxes.   Plus by eliminating this and most other deductions (except for a precious few), tax forms would be simplified.

One of the selling points of home ownership is deducting one’s mortgage interest on one’s tax return.  If this deduction is eliminated, will the American Dream of home ownership fall out of favor?  Apparently, because of the Great Recession, home owners being underwater with their mortgages, millions facing foreclosure or having been foreclosed, the luster of home ownership has begun to fade.

And, how does the elimination of the mortgage interest deduction affect individuals with rental properties who do not own their rental properties mortgage free?

What about single home owners without children?  Owning a home is their most significant deduction (if not only one).  Local communities fund public schools by taxing home owners.  How cruel and ironic that single home owners have to pay local taxes to support schools yet these same single home owners may lose their mortgage interest deduction.  Those single home owners are penalized TWICE (taxed at local level but lose their deduction).

In contrast, individuals (whether homeowners or renters) with children get a DOUBLE BENEFIT:  they get to claim their child[ren] on their tax returns and the local community, through taxes, pays for their child[ren]’s education.

As this country deals with this Great Recession and looks for ways to tackle the deficit, the possible elimination of the mortgage interest deduction on the federal tax returns shouldn’t be the only thing on the table.

Have you ever asked yourself – why should parents get to claim their children on their tax returns?  Why get, essentially, a tax credit for procreating?

IMHO, only individuals who ADOPT (so children are not wards of the State) should be able to receive a tax credit.

Returning to the main topic of this post – should the mortgage interest deduction be eliminated?  And, if eliminated within the next five years, how much will it hurt those home owners who purchased a home with a 30 year fixed mortgage expecting to have a deduction on their tax returns for the life of the mortgage?

Large Tax Refunds

Some individuals view a sizable tax refund as a method of forced savings.   Or as a belated Christmas gift.  Of course,  on the flip side, receiving a large tax refund means Uncle Sam or the State Equivalent held on to your money “interest free.”

Now with interest rates so low during this Great Recession, you’re not losing that much interest if Uncle Sam or the State Equivalent has your money “interest free.”  But another problem has surfaced during this tax year.

Many State Equivalents don’t have a lot of cash.  Thus these State Equivalents are not issuing refunds promptly.  I experienced this myself but didn’t realize it at first.

I mailed my tax return rather early (3rd week of February).  I waited patiently but no refund.   So over a month later, I called to check on the status of my refund.  When I spoke with a tax official, I was told there was a glitch on the government’s part.  But since I called to inquire, this tax official corrected the glitch and my refund would be issued within 5 to 7 days.

I called my tax preparer regarding my federal refund and mentioned in passing what the District of Columbia tax official told me.  My tax preparer responded – the District of Columbia Government is intentionally delaying the issuance of refunds (he had learned through the grapevine).  Once a taxpayer calls to inquire, a tax official provides a pseudo explanation (such as what I was told).

Nothing makes me ANGRIER than FIRST, Uncle Sam or the State Equivalent having my money “interest free” (something which I allowed but not claiming enough withholdings) and then SECOND, Uncle Sam or the State Equivalent delaying my refund.

In the hopes of avoiding this situation next tax year, I’ve increased my withholdings at the federal and state levels one each.  I hope I won’t have to write a check to Uncle Sam or the State Equivalent next year (if so, it should be small).  Or if I receive a refund, it should be small.

Plus, by receiving more money in my pay check today, I can make larger payments on my rental property’s mortgage and get rid of that mortgage sooner rather than later. A win-win situation.

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