Tag Archives: economy

Hope in the form of cement and two-by-fours, beauty in the hot air

This morning’s tally:

  • 3.48 miles
  • 14 houses under construction
  • 4 new houses or duplexes completed since the beginning of the year
  • 2 hot air balloons

I decided to monitor the new home construction in my neighborhood this morning as I ran a circle around my house. It was eye-opening.

My house sits in the midst of a subdivision on the edge of the “old” part of town — old meaning pre-1990, when little Hampshire sat on the edge of the prairie. The houses on my street were constructed in the boom years, roughly 1995-2005, when Hampshire sat at the edge of suburbia.

A dozen other empty subdivisions dot Hampshire’s landscape. They have streets and curbs and gutters and street lights, advertising promise and hope pre-2008, when new home construction came to an abrupt halt.

I’ve lived in Hampshire for eight years, and in the past seven, I’ve seen only a handful of new homes built along those empty roads.

But the times, they are a changin’.

I was out-of-town for five weeks, and when I came back, three lots with only dandelions last month now sport insulation board on wooden skeletons above cement foundations. Houses are growing! The trickle that began at the beginning of the year has become a wave. Besides the 14 structures under construction (just on my side of town!), there’s a lot of earth moving happening on at least a half-dozen other lots.

It is evidence of the rebounding housing market, and it’s thrilling. Not because I think the world needs more houses that look like every other one on the block but because people build houses because they have jobs and new babies and hope! And a rising tide raises all boats. Maybe the value of my house will someday equal what I paid for it.

I also saw two hot air balloons as I huffed and puffed down the asphalt in my hot pink running shoes. They were so far away, I couldn’t even tell you what color the balloons were, but they were distinctive against the absolutely clear blue horizon, hanging like Christmas ornaments in the stillness of dawn.

They were beautiful.

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No satisfaction in cashing this check

The check that was in the mail arrived yesterday.

It was a settlement for a class action lawsuit in which I was a party. Well, one of the lawsuits in which I’m involved. This lawsuit is the case of Currency Conversion Fee Antitrust Litigation & Ross, et al, vs. American Express Co., et al.

At the risk of being sued, here’s the summary: Credit cards in the early 2000s were charging high (reasonable? outrageous? depends on your perspective) conversion fees to Americans who used their cards when traveling outside the country. Somebody (Ross?) took issue with this and sued the credit card companies on behalf of the card holders.

See, when you use your credit card in another country, the credit card “converts” the purchase in say, Euros or pesos, into U.S. dollars, and it charges you a certain percentage for the privilege. Most travelers choose to do it that way rather than convert dollars to another currency before leaving on the trip because the bank charges even higher (more reasonable? more outrageous?) fees for that.

Like anything having to do with banks nowadays, they get you coming and going.

At the time, I was traveling internationally on a monthly basis and I spent a lot of  personal funds on cool jewelry, funky clothes, strange snacks, mind-expanding entertainment and foreign reading material (I was reimbursed for hotel, meals and taxis, so I didn’t get to claim that). I was made aware of this lawsuit and invited to submit documentation, so about four years ago, I did. I claimed I spent somewhere along the lines of $6,617.37 over the course of eight years on various meaningless trinkets on which the credit card companies charged 1% to 3% in conversion fees.

That was four years ago. The folder of my documentation is so old it was in the very back of my file drawer.

The settlement check was for the tidy sum of …

$32.76.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

It took more than four years, a solid afternoon of my time, 10 million claims from other card holders, two separate lawsuits (this represents the results of only 1) and 11 appeals by the credit card companies to get this check.

Oooh, we really stuck it to the Big Banks, didn’t we?

That’s the part that makes me laugh.

The second lawsuit, if I read this right, is about to be settled. Nearly $50 million in claims have been submitted by members of the 99% like me, and attorneys have been awarded $13.875 million plus the costs of notice and administration of the settlement.

Now that’s a check: $13,875,000.

So the banks overcharge their customers, and a law firm gets millions of dollars for representing the customers. And it takes the American legal system nearly five years to sort the whole mess out. That’s the part that makes me want to cry.

So, I have this check for $32.76. How should I spend it? Should I invest in more cool jewelry and funky clothes? Or buy a tent and a picket sign?

Well, while I ponder it, I think I’ll deposit it.

In a bank.

Doughnuts are harbingers of good news

When we first moved to Hampshire nearly 5 years ago, we heard a lot of talk about how the community was on the verge of expanding.

“Oh, a new grocery store is coming to State Street.”

“Hwy. 72 needs a Starbucks.”

“Wal-Mart is coming.”

With more than a dozen subdivisions planned on the fringes of this former farm community surrounded by corn fields and an enormous new high school under construction, the talk seemed believable.

Of course, we all know it was just day dreams. The housing market went to hell and businesses started closing instead of opening. Hampshire has the same grocery store it’s always had, a coffee shop opened and closed, and Wal-Mart is nowhere in sight.

So when one sees new businesses opening again, one gets hopeful: Maybe the economy is turning around.

Economic turnaround exhibit No. 1: A Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru has opened in Hampshire.

With our kitchen draped in drop clothes, we dined on Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and doughnuts this morning. I had a tasty plain cake doughnut — my favorite (I only wish it was fried a bit more — the best part of a cake donut is the crispy edges).

The new restaurant is generating buzz, I’ve noticed on Facebook, and a lot of traffic, I’ve noticed on my way to working out.

Economic turnaround exhibit No. 2: We’ve eaten out or gotten take-out five times this weekend (yeah, yeah, my New Year’s resolution is to update my house, not spend less or eat less, OK?), and we’ve encountered crowds and long waits everywhere we went.

We barely got a table at the bar and grill on Friday night, and the server remarked they just experienced a big rush. We waited in line at the tiny diner Saturday morning and then shoveled in our biscuits and gravy so we could make room for the people waiting in line behind us. We waited so long for even a glance from our waitress at the sushi joint Saturday night that we finally left and went to another restaurant where we managed to get drinks and then waited 45 minutes for our food; when she finally brought it, the server said she’d never see it so busy. And then tonight, we waited nearly an hour for the delivery of our Chinese food — we normally expect it within 20 minutes.

People who are in dire financial straits don’t dine out. But people with an appetite and a some spending money were definitely eating out this weekend around here.

It feels like good news.

Here’s the best news, though: Dunkin’ Donuts has filled a hole even bigger than the retail space it filled. Until now, Hampshire residents had to drive a good 15 minutes for a bagel.

Get it? Filled a hole? Donuts and bagels have holes?

Good grief.

11 Retirement Realities (not 10 — this Top 10 is ‘enhanced’)

Accession, the Wealth Enhancement Group, sent me an offer for a “free” copy of “11 Retirement Realities You Need to Know.”

I’m flattered that Accession would contact me in the same way I’m flattered when a bartender cards me. Sometimes it’s nice to delude one’s 40something self into thinking one looks younger than 21.

But, like the dumb bartender, Accession has the wrong gal.

The expertly written copy noted this guide is written exclusively for “people with investible [sic] assets of $500,000 or more.”

I have a lot of things (including the ability to spell “investable”), but the last thing I have is a half million dollars to invest. And I’m thinking those folks with half-million-dollar portfolios might be able to buy their own copy of “11 Retirement Realities” rather than wait for Accession to offer them a “free” copy.

So, since I’m not going to get a “free” copy of anything from Accession, I thought I’d develop a version of “11 Retirement Realities” for those of us who don’t have a half million dollars in our mattresses:

11 Retirement Realities You Need To Know

  1. Don’t bank on myths. The most activity that happens at that “active” retirement community occurs around a card table. It does freeze in South Texas. And blue hair is your destiny.
  2. Social Security is a ponzi scheme. Start collecting glass bottles now because by the time you turn 65, or 67 or 72, Social Security will be paying recipients so little, you’ll get more for recycling those bottles and collecting the deposit. Hey, on the bright side, it’ll take only 80 5-cent bottles to buy a promise from Social Security and a cup of coffee.
  3. Forget about that wall Rep. Michele Bachmann wants to build along the Mexico border. The fence you should be worrying about it the one that the 1% is going to build around Wall Street to keep out the Occupy Wall Street protesters representing the 99%. You read it here first.
  4. The asset you call your home is worth the lot it’s sitting on. If that. You won’t live long enough to recoup the 2007 appraised value.
  5. Wondering if you should pay off credit cards with 9% interest rates or contribute 15% of your income to the 401(k) that your company matches up to 3% and invests in company stock? Stop. The math will just get you a headache. You’re screwed either way.
  6. When you finally push the baby bird out of the nest, it’ll be saddled with crippling student loan debt and unable to find a job, er, spread its wings. In the end, you’ll both be competing the same low-paying retail job without benefits. Decide now who’ll get the oxygen mask first.
  7. Worried about estate taxes? Don’t. You need to have an estate to pass on to your heirs for estate taxes to be an issue.
  8. Start studying up on supplemental Medicare insurance now. It’ll take you decades to get through all the fine print.
  9. Don’t lay awake thinking about the price of bread when you retire. Based on inflation over the past 28 years, a loaf that cost 50 cents in 1983 will cost $11.05 in 2039, the year you turn 72. Savor the Wonder Bread today and sleep now because it’ll be hard to sleep on an empty stomach when you retire.
  10. Consider stalking public officials — especially former members of Illinois state government and Chicago union officials. They’re collecting outrageous public pensions and might offer poverty-stricken folks like you crumbs off their feast tables. Unlikely, but worth a shot.
  11. Retire? Ha! You’ll never retire. You will work until you can no longer form coherent sentences and your legs have turned to arthritic blocks of concrete. You will then move your grocery cart of belongings to the street gutter. Near a van. Down by the river.
And you thought the “free” copy sounded like a deal.

Is it too much to ask that common cents be our new currency?

The protesters on Wall Street — and spreading to other cosmopolitan hubs across the nation — have a point about corporate greed and the gap between the rich and poor.

I hate banks. Or, at least, some banks. Or, at least, one bank.

I’ve had it up to here with Chase Bank’s student loan department.

My stepdaughter took out a significant amount of money in student loans, and my husband co-signed for a couple of them. She graduated in May, and the six-month time frame for beginning repayment is approaching.

Mind you, the first payment isn’t due until November. And mind you, my stepdaughter has every intention of repaying her loans. And mind you, my husband is a co-signer, an albeit important but a secondary role if the primary debtor — my stepdaughter — defaults.

Despite all that, Chase has called our home six times in the past three weeks. The first five times, the bank representative was “confirming contact information.” We weren’t home for the first call, but on the second call, my husband talked to the bank representative to confirm his and his daughter’s contact information.

Still, Chase called three more times. Once when I got irate, the bank rep hung up on me. No kidding. By “irate,” I mean I raised my voice. I was not threatening lives or the life of the bank rep’s first-born. I was irked that the bank was calling a third time for information they already had.

By the fourth and fifth calls, I wouldn’t even pass the phone to my husband. I just told them to check their notes. I was assured on the fifth call that the bank rep would “talk with a supervisor” to make sure the automated called were being “coded” properly.

Yeah, I’d like to code you.

Sixth call: The bank rep, after I demanded that the bank rep add to the notes that “stepmother is irate about the bank harassment,” apologized for the previous phone calls and said he was calling about deferment. Deferment? Seriously? Shouldn’t you be talking to the primary debtor first?

At that point, I called my stepdaughter and asked her to contact the bank directly, which she did, and now we’ll see if Chase Bank calls our house again next week.

The hassling has reached a level of total farce. No payments have been late. The first payment isn’t … even … due … yet! If Chase Bank employed a few less call centers harassment specialists, maybe my stepdaughter could enjoy a lower interest rate.

It makes me want to create a clever picket sign and spend some time in the financial district in downtown Chicago.

Really, who do you call when you’re being bedeviled by a bank? It’s like, who do you call when the fire department burns down your house? There’s no 911 for this. Yes, my stepdaughter borrowed money. Yes, my husband co-signed. Yes, papers were signed promising repayment. I get it.

But there is nothing wrong yet! We’re the good guys!

There is no way my stepdaughter could have gotten that kind of money without a bank.

But I am really hating banks right now.

Especially Chase Bank.

Oink if you’re invested in funeral homes

Being the National Public Radio fan that I am, I am constantly bombarded lately with stories about the economy.

Stimulus package. Mortgage crisis. Business bailout. Stock risks. Sounds like a 2009 verse from Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

After reading “The Pig in the Python: How to Prosper from the Aging Baby Boom” a couple of years ago, I can’t say I wasn’t warned.

The authors essentially provide a demographic analysis of the economy from a financial and investment perspective. The thesis is that the baby boomers, the huge generation born between 1947 and 1966, now comprises one-third of the  population and thus inevitably affects most of what happens in this country as a consequence of its sheer size. The influence of boomers as they age and move through society (that “pig” pushing its way through the “python”) is and will continue to be tremendous (from http://www.consulttci.com/Book_reviews/Pig.html).

OK, the title of the book only makes sense if you’ve seen those gross-out pictures of a snake devouring a huge meal, like a pig. (No, I’m not going to make it easy for you. Type “pig in a python” in a search engine yourself. Yuck.)

As I recall, the book specifically says that baby boomers will be withdrawing money from the stock market in huge numbers beginning in 2008, which would mark the beginning of a long bear market.

What the book doesn’t predict (or, at least, I don’t remember it) is the housing crisis. Of course, the baby boom generation probably can’t be blamed for the fishy financing of mortgages or the outright stupidity of lenders in offering financing to people who didn’t deserve it, but the reason the bubble popped can be blamed on boomers: They started selling the huge houses they needed for their families in order to downsize. The market is now glutted with too many family-type houses in the ‘burbs (like mine), and there aren’t enough people who want them (or can afford them). Thus, prices dropped, and half the country is upside down with a mortgage that costs more than the house is worth.

Baby boomers are now between 43 and 62 years old. (This is why we’re all bombarded with Viagra spam, anti-aging cosmetics and advertising for 150 different kinds of oatmeal. It’s also why prunes are now called “dried plums.” But I digress.) With an average life expectancy of 68 or 69, dying boomers in a few years will make over the funeral industry just like they changed the face of colleges in the ’60s, the workforce in the ’70s and ’80s and investing in the ’90s. Look for multi-media obituaries, custom coffins, overcrowded cemeteries and I don’t know what else.

My dad works part-time at a funeral home, and I think his job is safe for as long as he wants it. Mortuary science is starting to look mighty appealing.

Thank you, Mr. President, but no thanks

My beautiful and intelligent stepdaughter attends Loyola University-Chicago. She transferred there last fall after attending the University of Minnesota for two years. I’m so happy she gets the opportunity to learn at such a high caliber school because I know how much (or little) I appreciate my education at St. Cloud State University, known at the time more for its drunken, rioting students than for its high quality educators and programs. (I’m not kidding. As a student journalist, I had the “learning opportunity” of covering stories about tear gas and beer keg ordinances because street riots occurred a block away from the student newspaper during Homecoming. It was embarrassing. So, if you want to defend a state university education, please do so on the SCSU alumni blog, not here.)

Anyway, you get what you pay for, and Loyola University tuition costs are not exactly the same as St. Cloud State’s. This year, it costs about $3,500 a semester to attend SCSU and about $15,000 a semester to attend Loyola.

Last week, we got a “personalized” letter addressed to my stepdaughter’s “parent/guardian,” printed on linen paper with an electronic signature from Michael J. Garanzini, the president of Loyola. He was giving us “as much advance notice as possible” of increases in tuition, housing, meal plans and student activity fees. And he wanted us to “please know we are doing everything we can to reduce expenses” including “improving operations” (is that vague enough for you?) and “requiring departments to redeploy budget dollars.” Huh?

Um, it was a gobbledy-gook waste of paper and postage. If the university public relations department was involved, then I would recommend against getting your public relations degree there. Here we are in the worst economic recession since the Great Depression when families all over the country are tightening their belts in every possible way and even “rich” people have seen their real estate investments and stock portfolios take a nosedive, and Loyola University justifies a 4% increase in tuition and fees by saying they’re “improving operations” and “working with vendors to improve service and reduce costs”? Puh-leaze. Just send me the bill.

(Dear stepdaughter, if you’re reading this, please know we will come up with the money somehow despite Mr. President’s poor attempt at communicating.)

Anyway, I thought I might use Mr. President’s letter as a template for writing a response. How do you think he might respond to this?

Dear President,

I wanted to give you as much advance notice as possible regarding salary and other income for the 2009-2010 academic year. To continue to expand and enhance our ability to pay ever-increasing utility costs, secure legal representation to recover our retirement income and cover medical expenses, this household has approved a decrease of 10 percent, effective last summer, in household income for the 2009-2010 academic year.

Other costs to note are gasoline, which fluctuates wildly from month to month, and transportation costs related to the Illinois Tollway which recently spent $15,000 to remove Rod Blagojevich’s name from signs. At-home dining, which has been employed to reduce restaurant dining costs, also has increased in the areas of dairy, meat, rice and macaroni-and-cheese.

Please know that we are doing everything we can to reduce expenses so we can pay these increasing tuition expenses. Some examples are:

  • Improving operations.
  • Requiring family members to redeploy entertainment dollars in lieu of increasing costs.
  • Working with medical providers, charitable beneficiaries, housekeepers and nail salons to improve service and reduce costs.
  • Reducing energy consumption in our upside-down-mortgaged house so that our teeth chatter 18 hours a day instead of the former 10.

For details about cost of living expenses for average Americans for the 2009-2010 academic year, please read any newspaper or view any nightly news program. My best wishes to you, and thank you for your commitment to an affordable education.

Sincerely,

Parent/Guardian of a Loyola Student