Consumer Issues

August 9, 2009

Kudos to Championship Chess

I came across this chess program for teaching children the fundamentals for the game of chess and I must say I am really impressed.

Searching for a program to introduce my kindergartener to the game of chess, I found their website and decided to try their program.  I found their approach rather interesting and basic and thought it just might work.

At first, just because I didn’t know anyone who had used it before, I chose to buy their very basic product thinking to myself that if it didn’t work, I wouldn’t have invested too much in it. For $20 the basic product included the workbook – Color my world Chess (a coloring and sticker book with dot-to-dot exercises to help young children identify the chess pieces) as well as music CD which puts the moves of the pieces into a song so it is easy for the children to memorize.  Needless to say, even my two year old can identify all the pieces now.  I am really glad I tried this product out. 

I am so excited about it I have since ordered more of their workbooks.  All the workbooks can be purchased with companion DVDs.  Though I only bought a few of the DVDs, overall, I am impressed by the ease of use of these products as well as the simplicity with which it passes the message across to the children.   I have shown  the product to the some of the scholastic chess teachers at my children’s school as well and they have also found it impressive.

So here goes the Kudos to Championship Chess for a great product.

For more information, check out their website www.championshipchess.net for more information about their products.

October 7, 2008

THE “TIPPING” POINT

Filed under: consumers — Tomi @ 8:47 pm
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 Tipping as I understand it is supposed to be optional and entirely at the discretion of the giver. In fact, the Merriam Webster dictionary defines tip (also frequently called gratuity) as a gift or a sum of money tendered for a service performed or anticipated. I find it rather amazing therefore that these days tip giving has ceased to be discretionary but has rather become more of an anticipation on the part of the receiver so much so that they do not care whether they perform a service or not worthy of a tip.

 

For example, a lot of  restaurants now automatically add a 15% gratuity to your bill if it’s a group of 6 or more it doesn’t matter what the constituent of the group is.  A case in point my family went out to dinner with my mom (there was in our group of six 3 adults, 2 preschoolers (we ordered 3 adult meals which was shared meals with the preschoolers)  and a 3 month old baby who was exclusively breastfed.  When the bill came an automatic 15% gratuity had been added to our bill (for our use of table space I guess) but to make it more interesting underneath the total was another tiny line for “Tip”. Obviously the gratuity goes to the restaurant and the actual tip added  to the subtotal of the actual cost of meal and automatic gratuity is what goes to the waiter or waitress. 

 

The other day a friend went in for lunch and right outside the restaurant windows, were employees carrying placards “stop stealing our tips” a message addressed to the owners of the restaurant. On further investigation, we discovered that employers are beginning to consider tips as part of the wages received by the employees thus in a bid not to overcompensate, some of them simply aren’t paying good enough wages to these people leaving it to the client to bridge the gap. 

 

While I have no hold back on the giving on tips, I prefer that it be given to duly deserving people and not just to anyone who feels like they have a right to it.  The other day we ordered delivery and the food came in 1 hour later than the promised delivery time rather cold.  We complained to the driver but rather than apologize,  he matter of factly stated “I lost my way and when we handed him a $1 tip, the guy goes “ I won’t accept that, “ according to him he’s gone to too much trouble delivering the food $1 was too small.  He insisted on having more added to the receipt rather than accepting a $1. Another delivery guy not only insisted on been paid the tip in cash but said we looked too rich for a $5 tip on a $20 delivery order. I thought that was astounding until a friend mentioned that fact that at her hair salon you had to put the tip for each individual in a labeled envelope before actually putting it in the tip box and when she innocently asked one of the individuals why you can’t drop a sum for everyone to share in the tip box the abrupt reply “you obviously have never had to work for tips in your life”. 

 

Though the tipping issue is most obvious in the restaurants, the unreasonable expectations on tips is going on everywhere.  Another example is the porter at the airport who goes in search of someone who could break a large note for change and not only does he bring the individual over to us, he takes the larger bill then hands us the change automatically keeping what he believes was commiserate to the level of service he’d offered. 

 

Personally, I have reached my own tipping point and I am done with the giving of tips to undeserving people.   As a matter of principle, these days, I do not give a tip unless I am genuinely impressed by the level of service received.  Over the summer, I got a nice lady who came to babysit for me, she played with the children and even made them dinner.  She was so good to them that I gave her a tip bigger than what I had paid the agency for her time.  That was someone who was deserving of a tip and I had no guile in giving it to her. But when we went to a restaurant and the attending waitress not only got our orders wrong but also slammed the food down then forgot to refill our drinks, I refused to give her any tip she was so nasty afterwards and complained loudly to the cashier “ they didn’t give me any tip”.  My friend did say that she gives 1cent  in a case like that so that she would not be tagged a stingy person but like that old age adage little drops of water makes the mighty ocean as far as I am concerned even 1cent is valuable it has to be deserved. 

 

People have to understand that it pays to treat other people with respect and it seems the only way to get the message across is to speak a language they understand. 

  

 

 

September 26, 2008

Expired or Not?

Filed under: consumers — Tomi @ 1:50 pm
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Expired or Not?

 

With the recent increases in gas prices, and the mortgage slum, a lot of consumers are implementing different methods to cut gas expenses by limiting driving time as well as experimenting with others ways of cutting their living expenses.  For example, more and more family shoppers are going into the store with a list for items needed in the homes in a bid to cram all shopping need into one visit. Instead of daily or weekly shopping trips, many are choosing to stock up for a few days, for some it’s weeks and for some it’s months as a means to save on gas costs.  Also many are going in to discount warehouses for the first time, some clipping coupons to get more items per trip while cutting reducing the costs.

 

The efforts of the consumer are however frustrated by the manufacturers who it seems is unsympathetic with their offerings of confusing listings of expiring days on items available for purchase. Going from one aisle to the other in a regular grocery store, you’ll be amazed at the differences on the listed expiring dates on the items.  There is – use by, best by, best before, sell by, buy by, use or freeze by, enjoy by and then there is the one that has different days for different localities like the sell in NY by and in NJ by which you see mostly on milk.

 

A basic analysis of the different prints:

 

Use by: this is the most plain and easily understandable of all it tells you exactly when to use the item and after the listed date, you discard the unused portions.

 

Best before: I’ve often wondered if this means the item is still good after the date stipulated or if and if it’s only at it’s best before then.  I often thrown it out by the date but then sometimes I wonder if I could be saving more if I use it after the dates since I’d actually finished a box of cookies once afterwards noticing that the expiring date was 2 months prior to my consumption date. I’ve also bought bread once that got moldy two days before the listed date.

 

Sell by: This you find more on meat. Obviously the listed date is for the retailer but if I as the consumer buys the item on the exact same date listed and then change my mind for my recipe and I don’t use it that day but plan on using it the day after, would it still be ok?

 

Use or freeze by: this is as confusing as it can be. If I don’t use by but buy it and decide to freeze it would it still be okay to use if in 6 months or let’s say it gets tossed into the bottom of the freezer and I don’t get to see it until the next year. Would it still be okay to use it?

 

Finally, the use in NY by and in NJ where usually, the date in NY is an earlier date than the NJ date This begs the question why is there an earlier date. Obviously, certain laws limit the shelf life of these items in NY but the same law doesn’t apply in NJ.  It does makes one wonder if the people of NJ are being used as guinea pigs for an experiment. Why don’t we just have the same date for everyone???

 

True these manufacturers have laws governing their conduct but where exactly does that leave the common man.  The retailers offer on sale some items a few days before the printed expiring date and some don’t even notice that some items on their shelves are past the said expiring date.  As a rule I try to go for the item that is farthest from the expiring date but using online grocery delivery service, I get items within a day of it’s expiring date and the time I’m trying to save by not going into the store in the first place is wasted because I would have to go into the store to exchange it eventually.   Wouldn’t it be fair if the FDA mandated the use of same statement of expiring by all manufacturers? It would certainly help a lot of shoppers coordinate their shopping if only they understood when exactly the useful life of the item expires. Thus there would be no confusion and shoppers would really be able to save time and who knows it might be a major step in saving the environment from that dangerous Carbon Monoxide exhaust culprint that’s contributing to  GLOBAL WARMING.

September 21, 2008

The five hour Window

Filed under: consumers — Tomi @ 2:10 pm
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Ever had to deal with the five hour window? You know, the time frame giving by delivery men when you purchase items and by repair men too?  When we moved a few years ago I had to deal with so many five hour windows – appliance delivery, furniture delivery, phone installation, Satellite TV installation.  Just name it.  Everything had to have a five hour window however since we were just settling down, and everyone was on vacation, it was easy schedule for delivery at that time as someone was certain to be home.

Now that I need some repairs, I’ve recently had a series of the five hour window given that got me irked.  The most annoying of course was for a repair on my dryer. After clearing my schedule to be home at the stated time frame, I ended up waiting all day for the guy, then he calls 2 hours later than the stated time to tell me that he would not be able to make it that day  – he had run late at the previous job. I would have to reschedule for another day .  Of course when I did try to reschedule, I was given another five hour window and to make it even worse, they don’t work weekends.

Why can’t all these people just give you a specific time that they would be at your place and stick to time? Wouldn’t that be easier?  I’m told the reason for the five hour window is that most times jobs are schedule based on location and distance thus they tend to schedule for jobs depending on the closeness of the location and their arrival time at subsequent locations depend on when they finish from the first job.  It makes perfect sense except that there seems to be no consideration for people at work on weekdays.  How do these people expect you to be available for five hours straight? Well I think I finally figured it out – Don’t go to work on the scheduled day.  Period!.

That would seem sarcastic. But I simply can’t help it.  When trying to reschedule my repair appointment,  I couldn’t seem to get a reasonable time until I started venting my anger.  I my call got transferred from one party to the next then finally, I got to speak with the manager.  She did promise that due to the previous disappointment, she would make sure my job would be the first on the schedule for the appointed day that way I wouldn’t be waiting for too long.  Though hey did fulfill the promise, I’m left with a question what if on the appointed day for the job, the delivery man or the repair man also has his own five a window for a job at his home or office, what happens then? A vicious circle?

Dealing with Medical Bills.

Filed under: consumers — Tomi @ 1:40 pm
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The cost of medical services is often the reason why many people hesitate to go to the hospital. Sometimes situations that could have been prevented by early medical intervention are left unaddressed until they become too advanced to ignore. Everyone should be able to receive medical attention without fear of bankruptcy. Bills received after a visit to the hospital, are often riddled with mistakes and sometimes have frivolous charges included. With insurance it is possible to avoid the payment of frivolous medical charges as the medical insurance often tends to pick them out. Even then, medical billing mistakes still tend to present themselves. Unfortunately, these charges are often paid out by individuals who are paying out of pocket since most out-of-pocket payers would not know which charges are expedient and which are frivolous. Hence most times, a patient paying out-of pocket and not via insurance ends up paying way more than the patient who has insurance. Here are a few tips to use when dealing with medical bills whether you have insurance or not.

· Be organized. Keep all payment receipts, insurance EOBs and file all bills. As with all things this will help in keeping your facts straight in case you need to dispute a bill.

· Always review your bills .There are sometime mistakes that can work in your favor for example a charge that should not have been made. Make sure you are being correctly billed and check the date of service to confirm that you were indeed the patient.

· If you have insurance, make sure you cross reference all medical bills with EOBs received from your insurance company make sure you are not paying twice. Also review EOBs from your health insurance. Sometimes, you might find that you have paid to your doctor, more than what your EOB (explanation of benefits) states as due in a case like this talk to both the doctor and the insurance company with regards to getting a credit.

· Learn to negotiate –

o If you can’t make a payment some hospitals might be willing to forgo some of the payment if you can pay a percentage and some will allow you set up a payment plan so you can stretch it over a period of time and pay as you find convenient.

· Don’t give up. If a collecting agency would not cooperate with you, call the creditor directly and see if you can work out something with them.

· Sometimes you might be billed by a doctor you have not seen. Try to keep a record of who you see when you go in the hospital and ask for information about all lab tests. This way you can easily spot services for which you are billed but did not receive.

· If you receive a bill that you consider fraudulent do not hesitate to dispute it. A friend once received a bill from a walk in ER for treatment despite the fact that she did not see a doctor after a 10 hour wait – her situation was not considered urgent enough to warrant urgent treatment. She disputed it promptly (with facts of course) and never heard from them again

Finally, for those without insurance, I would advise that you acquire some form of insurance. The thing to look out for when getting insurance aside from what is covered under your insurance and what is not is how much your deductible would be. Most of the time even with a high deductible, it is possible that due to the ability of the insurance company to deny the payment of frivolous charges to the hospital, you end up paying less than you would if you had no insurance and were billed directly by the hospital for an out of pocket payment.

September 20, 2008

Cultivating the habit of financial discipline

Filed under: consumers,finance — Tomi @ 9:01 pm
Tags: , ,

Financial Discipline requires both focus and self discipline. Attaining self sufficiency and wealth requires determination as well as hard-work. Below are some guidelines for developing a habit of financial discipline.

1. Limit your credit options. It is often said that the more credit you have access to the better it is for your credit. This is only true if you do not use the credit. However, if you have the habit of using up your credit, then the best option for you if you are determined to cultivate financial discipline is to limit your access to credit lines. Pay cash for the things you need. Whatever you cannot afford to pay cash for, either save up for it or forgo it. If you have to take on credit, try to limit it to capital items like a home which tends to appreciate in value.

2. Before buying a home, take the affordability challenge – 2x income and never go above that

3. Buy what you need NOT what you can afford

4. Think long term. Payoff and cancel excess credit cards newest cards first. Hold on to older cards as they give you a longer credit history. Canceling your credit cards might affect your credit score in the short term but the longer you go without dependence on credit lines, the better your credit score.

5. Invest excess cash. It is much easier to spend money that is readily available.

6. Save as much as you can. Clip coupons if you must. Compare prices for bargains. Try eBay.

7. Get organized, pay your bills on time. Sign up for email bill notifications (if you check your email regularly) otherwise try phone alerts – for bill payment notification. Set up bill payments on quicken, Microsoft money etc or set up auto pay via direct debit with your service provider.

8. Get rid of stuff you don’t need.

a. Donate and get a tax break (some charities will pickup from your home)

b. Sell it on eBay

An added bonus is that you get some free space around the house.

9. Learn to negotiate – you may be eligible to cut interest rates on your credit card. Call up your credit card company often (they won’t call you to tell you of your eligibility)

10. If you can’t make a payment some companies will let you skip a month without reporting to the credit bureau but only if you have previously paid on time.

11. If you have no rewards on your card, ask your credit card company to switch it for a rewards card, usually you get a new account number but if it’s the same company, the history from your previous card is transferred to the new card ex. Length of account etc. Some credit companies offer you cash back which you can get as a cheque or apply towards your payment.

12. Register for rewards = points, cash back etc. store cards (not credit cards) sometimes give you discounts on groceries (Vons, Albertsons, Shoprite, Ralphs, Wegmans etc). Most grocery stores these days have rewards cards which you register for free. For example the Shoprite card helps you earn cash back for Upromise eligible products and also when linked to your continental airlines Onepass account, gives you 1 mileage point for every 2 dollars spent (after the first $250 upon registration). It also offers your free cash for purchases on baby items via its own program called the baby bucks point and give you access to free turkey or ham – Thanks giving and Easter.

13. Have excess cash? Open a CD if you have money available now but which you would need at a specific later time. CDs usually have higher interest than regular savings. Some banks like Bank of America also offer risk free CD accounts though with a lower interest rate than the fixed CD the risk free CD gives you easy access to the money without penalties.

14. Go for quality rather than quantity when buying the stuff you need.

15. To cut your living costs, try discount shopping. Try wholesale clubs (Sam’s, Costco, BJs) especially for non perishable items. For perishable items, the wholesale clubs might not be worth it except you have a large family. For items like for clothes (Marshalls , Ross, TJ Maxx),for shoes ( try the discount aisle at DSW, famous footwear and payless shoes amongst others). Some of these stores even have home products and Walmart as well as Target are always a cool place to go for reasonable priced items.

August 23, 2008

EXTENDED WARRANTY

Filed under: Random posts — Tomi @ 1:55 pm
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Most times when I buy appliances and electronic items from the store, I generally avoid buying extended warranty not because I didn’t believe in its validity, it was simply because I thought it was an excuse for the sellers to get more money out of you for that item.  My take on it was that the item would have to be replaced sometime and so why pay more?  Also the extended warranty has a limited time frame and if the item does not have a problem before the warranty expires I would simply have paid more money for the item than it was worth unfortunately, the money was not refundable.  Again, if I don’t want the purchased warranty to expire, I would have to renew it on a yearly basis and so suddenly, I have an annuity on the item.  However, I found a good deal at the store a three years ago on a major appliance however, it was an open item, a floor model, brand new but it had been sitting out for a while, it seems too good a deal to pass over (the cost was half the price of the in-box item) and so I decided that I’ll purchase the item and an extended warranty that way, I was covered in case of any problem.  Also, the cost of the item and the cost of the extended warranty was still going to be less than the cost of the in-box item.

The appliance has worked well for the three years I’ve had it but the other day, it suddenly decided to malfunction.  When I discovered it had a problem I wasn’t much perturbed since I had the extended warranty service.  My! was I happy I had purchased that service.  Without much ado, I picked up the phone to make a service appointment. First shocker I got, I had not registered the extended warranty and until that was done, I could not make an appointment for service.  Second shocker, the registration required that I had the original purchase receipt as the service contract number was printed on it.  Well, since I had no idea that I had to register the service to activate it and the appliance was over three years old, I simply did not have the receipt.  However,  I needed the original receipt, to activate hence I had to go back in the store where I made my purchase to request for a duplicate of the receipt. 

To get a duplicate of the receipt, I needed to have the credit card which I had used for the receipt and the date of the transaction.   I frantically delved in to my credit card statement for the past three years in search of the transaction.  Luckily, I had an idea of when I made the purchase, so I didn’t have to go searching for long before I found it and it was back to the store. I was told I needed to speak to the book keeper but she wasn’t available at the time, so I had to call her on the phone to leave a message.  I also had to call back a number of times before I finally got to speak with her.   Now another shocker the duplicate was going to take about ten to fourteen business days since the bookkeeper from the store had to send the request to the corporate headquarters where the old receipts were kept and because it could not be mailed, the store would have to call me after it arrived at the store and I would have to make an appointment to pick it up.

Eventually, I got the receipt and called the extended warranty department back  to activate the service contract.  For the registration processing, I had to wait another 2 days before I could schedule a service appointment.  Two days later, I called back again and listened to 45 minutes of please continue to hold messages and music before I was able to schedule an appointment.  Unfortunately, the technician would not be able to come over until 2 weeks later and of course I had the five hour window (see my blog on the five hour window) to deal with.  The whole process was beginning to get annoying, but since I  had purchased extended warranty,  already, I could not bring myself to check the yellow book for a certified technician in the area to check out the problem I would be paying twice. I had no choice but to wait it out.

Finally, two weeks later, the technician showed up to check up my appliance and after looking it over, He discovered that the problem was not covered by the warranty (can you imagine!) and so even though I didn’t have to pay a trip charge because of the extended warranty contract, I still I had to pay for the part.  Also, he would have to be order the part first and after it was delivered to me, I would have to call back to schedule a different appointment for the repair. This  for me was the tip of the iceberg.  Not only did I end up paying more for the item, I had a lot of time wasted just waiting for service during which I could not use my appliance and then what I thought would be the service ended up being nothing but a diagnostics test and the repair didn’t happen until three weeks later (one week for parts delivery and another two weeks for the repair appointment). My conclusion, I probably would have been better off without the extended warranty contract. I I had found someone from the yellow book, I probably would have gotten the problem checked out and fixed sooner than it took with the service contract either way I would have paid for the part.  It is more likely that I would have paid the guy from the yellow book a bit more on labor.  Thus it looks like without the extended warranty that I could have paid more for the repair yet when I look at the time cost and the cost of the warranty which eventually wasn’t as useful as I had imagined, coupled with the fact that I could not use the appliance until it was fixed, buying the extended warranty service didn’t look like such a good deal after all. That’s why I decided, no more extended warranty contracts for me.

July 11, 2008

The Fine Print

Filed under: consumers,Random posts — Tomi @ 10:58 pm
Tags: ,

Buying something new, most of the time, the average consumer rarely bothers with the fine prints and that is exactly what the manufacturers, service providers and all those who put the fine prints there are counting on. 

What is “the fine print”? It in those small parts of your agreements and contracts written in such small prints you’ll need to use both a glasses and a magnifying glass together to read it.  While most times  consumers avoid reading the fine print, it is indeed essential especially in signing a contract that we take the time to read it.

Why do we need to read “the fine print”?  Let’s put it this way, the one who is providing the service is putting the fine print there as a means of protecting themselves in case a problem arises and in case of litigation the main reason why it is written in such small prints is that if you had the chance to read it most times, you’d actually think twice about going ahead with the contract since you as the consumer are not covered in case a problem arises. The provider on the other hand is well protected.

I do feel a lot of problems in the housing market, could have been prevented if most lenders were more forthcoming with information instead of putting the pertinent information in “the fine print”. A lot of good people signed mortgages without adequately understanding the details of their agreements.

These days you buy a new computer or phone, sign up for a service, almost everything even radio and TV advertisements has fine prints.  I listened to a radio Ad the other day and the offer was extremely tempting but at the end of the jingle, a man reeled off these words and sentences that left me so amazed. I first thought it was a part of the offer until I finally caught a few phrases and realized the fast speech I was hearing the fine print of the ad. I couldn’t understand his speech for the most parts, but the I did deduce at the end  that I was better off not taking on the offer being advertised.  

Does this mean we should avoid purchasing new products or taking on new contracts.  Not at all I’m simply saying that a lot problems have arisen from people not having enough information about what they are taking on and as such my advice is that everyone takes time to read the fine print so that they would be full aware of the risks involved in whatever contract or agreement they are signing thus if they do go ahead to sign the contract they would be full prepared in case a problem arises.

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