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The events that happened throughout my life, the paths that got me to where I am today, present an interesting story. I refer back to pieces of this story once in a while here on Consumerism Commentary but I never focus on it, nor do I ever really provide a complete narrative. When I write, I prefer to focus on things external to me. Although this blog started more like a personal journal interspersed with my financial details and interesting bits of information about personal finance, like many other long-lasting websites, it’s evolved over time.

Storytelling fills an important role. A good story triggers powerful emotions in readers or listeners, and these can be emotions of connection (like sympathy or jealousy or inspiration). Humans are emotional, not logical, decision makers, so strong emotions can cause readers or listeners to make decisions they wouldn’t have made without that emotional connection. Emotional triggers are certainly nothing new. Charismatic individuals have been using storytelling for centuries to spread religious beliefs, gain allies, and sell products.

The best salespeople today are keenly aware of this effect and use storytelling to convince people to spend money. A good story can change someone’s mind; a great story can change someone’s financial situation. Sometimes for the better, but often not.

For Consumerism Commentary, I try to think of ways to encourage readers to become better consumers: to make the most of the money they have, to improve their financial situation through building income and reducing expenses, to move towards a better financial situation than in the past even if full financial independence isn’t achievable. And, at least so far, I haven’t used my writing to sell products to readers. Yes, I’ve written or published some product reviews designed to help people make good choices about the financial products they use, including a way for readers to take advantage of those offers, but those have been generally directed at people who had already decided to use those products. I’ve tried hard not to sell someone something that wouldn’t be appropriate for them.

Storytelling has a much bigger benefit than selling products — it can sell ideas. And that starts to get dangerous. An inspiring story about quitting your job to blog full time can easily convince people who would otherwise know better to follow that same path in search of riches. I know for a fact that my personal success has given hope to people, even if their reasoning might have been, “If that fool can quit his job and sell a little blog for an insane amount of money, a smart guy or girl like me can do even better.” This is why I don’t make a big deal out of my story. This is why I take my role as a business coach for select clients very seriously. I don’t want to see people make huge mistakes.

People often ask me if blogging as a business has a future. People every day are quitting their jobs, ready to tell their stories online, ready to find a way to sell things to their readers, and they need to know if there’s a future in blogging. In fact, my girlfriend, who is also a blogger, asked me about this recently, but companies have paid me to hear my thoughts on the future of blogging, even though I’ve often been happy to chat with CEOs about it for free.

They ask me because I’ve been around. I’ve been on the Internet since about 1989. I’ve been building various types of online communities since 1990. I’ve been building websites and teaching people how to build websites since 1994. I know how to manage UNIX servers so I’m familiar with the technical side of the Internet, but I’m also as well as the social side (and that goes far beyond “social media”). And I watch related trends pretty closely, and I see a future that is troublesome for the small-time independent web publisher. Today’s environment is not one in which I’d suggest anyone quit their day job to be the next big blogger. Not without a head start, not without the financial backing that allows you to effectively compete, not without something that makes it clear that success is imminent.

That doesn’t mean bloggers can’t start today and become popular. That happens all the time. But translating that popularity into a sustainable living, or even better a valuable asset with the potential of lasting a long time or being recognized by the market as an acquirable asset, goes from rare to incredibly unlikely. But people beat the odds all the time. In fact, people who are more inclined to ignore the odds have an increased chance of meeting those goals, at least partially. I don’t want to say it’s impossible. The danger is in seeing others who have done something impressive and expecting the same will come with a little hard work. Make a living? Maybe. Make a great living? Well… Make a fortune? Doubtful.

The inspirational entrepreneurial story that spreads the lie that this path is the best way to secure a financial future is often incomplete. And the reason I’m writing this article in the first place is because I recently came across a story from a few years ago that is a perfect example of this. It shows you that a smart consumer will always need to look for the questions that go unanswered in any story.

Someone I follow on Twitter attended her sister’s wedding a few days ago, and posted a photograph of the two of them together, beaming with happiness. The individual I follow on Twitter will become clear in a few moments.

For some reason, I decided to look for more information, to learn more about her sister. One of the first things I found was her “origin story.” The trend with superheroes in movies recently is to present a character’s origin story — well, entrepreneurs have origin stories, too. And her story is about as sweet as it gets.

Mary Riesgraf — that’s her name — started a confectionery shop, Sweet Mary’s, in Los Angeles. The business is registered to a home address, so there’s probably no storefront. These are the words she told AllParenting in an interview:

Sweet Mary’s was started out of pure joy that my sweets brought to my friends and family. I started making homemade sweets for holiday gifts and everyone kept telling me to start a business. I was afraid of making such a big commitment so I didn’t consider starting a business until Fall 2011. My boyfriend Leif and my three daughters (Grace, 11, Sarah, 10, and Emma, 8) were my biggest fans encouraging me to go for it. I am so glad I started. I have had a blast making sweets and I love hearing all of the great feedback from our customers.

It’s such a heartwarming story about success, and inspiring to anyone who is passionate about a skill and contemplating starting a business to focus and perhaps make a living.

AllParenting notes that she and her shop has garnered the attention of celebrities, making the shop an overnight sensation. Mary took an activity she loved and for which she had a talent, opened a store, and suddenly celebrities were talking about it. Not bad! The story refers to mostly actors who quickly jumped on her team and supported her as happy customers, like Jason Lee (“Earl” from My Name is Earl), Timothy Hutton (“Conrad” from Ordinary People), and Jenna Elfman (“Dharma” from Dharma and Greg).

I don’t want to criticize Mary. She’s done a great job — and congratulations to her on her recent wedding! The story is inspiring, but the interview neglects to focus on the huge advantage Mary has over a typical entrepreneur, tired of his or her job, feeling a pull to do something else with life. Mary had quite a few built-in connections. While she’s an actor and producer in her own right, her sister, Beth Riesgraf, is also an actor (and a talented film photographer). And the business was launched at the height of Beth’s popularity, as her show Leverage was coming to a close and fans were imploring the producers to keep the show running.

In the interview, Mary says, “My sister had tweeted about me and a bunch of our friends re-tweeted… It was explosive!” Today, Beth has 438,000 Twitter followers. I’m not sure how many she had in 2012, but I expect it was a similarly high number. If you want to be an entrepreneur, ask yourself how many Twitter followers your siblings have.

Mary also says about her first celebrity order, “Jason Lee ordered 150 of our Signature Caramel Chocolate Apples for his wedding.” The story of her success would have had less of an impact if she had said, “Jason Lee, my sister’s former fiancée and father of her daughter, ordered 150 of my caramel chocolate apples for his wedding a couple years before I launched my actual business.” Timothy Hutton, also mentioned as a celebrity customer, was Mary’s sister’s Leverage co-star. Sales or gifts, readers aren’t really sure what those orders are, but either way, they’re still in the family.

My intention isn’t to dampen the success of one particular sudden-entrepreneur, but just to show there are often a lot of details missing from our favorite inspiring entrepreneurial stories. This is just an example I came across recently, and one where I happened to know some of the missing pieces.

The problem is that a story like this can easily encourage someone to start their own business. Is that really such a bad thing, when the employment environment today is so bad and it seems to make a lot of sense for people looking for a better financial future to take matters into their own hands? Being a business owner does open lots of opportunities for personal, professional, and financial growth. But you have to do some market research and soul searching first. Don’t be swayed by inspirational stories. Ask questions! Get to the bottom of the issue. Find out why and how people succeed — not just how they say they succeed, because the true story is often much different than the marketing (and every story is marketing).

If you make decisions based on inspirational stories, whatever hard time you thought you had working at “just a job” could be much, much worse, when you find yourself struggling as a business owner. And then years later, when you discover you need to go back to the workforce, you’ll be in further trouble because you haven’t maintained your skills and have a gaping, unsuccessful hole in your résumé. Too many people are willing to be inspirational and motivational, and to be inspired and motivated, and too few people are willing to discuss realities. That just doesn’t sell as well.

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It’s the height of home repair season, a time when established contractors are often in demand and unavailable. That’s a big opportunity for the fly-by-night operators to step in.

Hiring a contractor to do work on your home, whether it’s a relatively small job or a major renovation, is a big deal. For most consumers, your home is your biggest investment. It should be treated with the level of respect that comes along with that.

Just like you wouldn’t want some quack of a doctor to perform surgery on you, you don’t want someone with questionable skills to be operating on your home. On top of that, if you do end up with a shady “contractor” you not only run the risk of poor work you also are taking a chance on getting ripped off.

Scams in the home improvement business have been around for a long time. They’re finely tuned and very focused on getting consumers at their points of maximum vulnerability.

Recognizing how their game is played, however, can help you avoid getting ripped off. And, if you play the role of consumer by the book, you’ll have the best chance at getting the job done properly for a fair price.

What to watch out for

Ideally, you should be seeking a contractor rather than the contractor seeking you. So, when someone comes to your door after spotting some loose shingles, cracks in your driveway, or just about any other problem that could benefit from repair, watch out.

One of the oldest scams in involves the door-to-door approach. They’re looking to do two things: tempt you with their immediate availability and get a commitment from you without giving you the benefit of thinking things through or reviewing your options. More than likely they’ll also dangle a price that’s too low to believe. Unfortunately, for many victims, that combination can be irresistible.

You should try to resist, however, because the very next thing after you say you want the work done is you’ll be asked for money. More than likely they’ll ask for cash or, if they take a check, it will be cashed before the job even gets going.

Regardless of whether the contractor looks the part, sounds impressive, or otherwise spins a believable tale, avoid these sorts of spur of the moment decisions. Driveway repair schemes, in particular, are widespread during the spring and summer months. A crew of workers will troll neighborhoods looking for driveways in rough shape and pitch the homeowner that they can do the work then and there on the cheap. Why? Because they claim they have a bunch of asphalt left from a previous job that must be used up. In reality, they drive around with this asphalt and what they want is someone who will lured by the chance of a cheap repaving. The result for the unfortunate people who agree is a scam that involves a demand for more money with the threat of leaving a partly finished job.

How it should work

The simplest way to avoid these contractor scams is to understand the proper way to hire someone to do work on your home. That involves doing a bit of homework and taking the time to screen contractors you are considering hiring.

Recommendations are not the final word, but a place to start. Many jurisdictions license or register contractors. It is vital that consumers make sure a contractor they are considering is properly licensed or registered with the state, county, or municipality where the work is to be done. That’s a way to avoid fly-by-night outfits and typically means the contractor has at least a minimum of amount of insurance so you don’t get left holding the bag if something goes awry. (Here’s a list of state and local consumer agencies by state that can help you track down the rules where you live.)

Check with the agency that licenses or registers contractors- or your state attorney general – to see if many complaints have been filed against any company you are considering. Look on the Better Business Bureau website, as well.

Invite at least three contractors to provide detailed estimates of what they think the work should cost. Getting estimates should be free. At their visit, ask to see their liability and worker’s compensation insurance (if they have anyone working for them). Be sure to ask them to be specific on their estimates, including any particular materials they might use (the brand of window, for instance, if they’re replacing windows). Ask what the estimate includes and does not include. Check if permits will be needed for the job and if they will be getting them. A reputable contractor will play by the rules and take care of those sorts of details. Failure to get a required permit could result have serious consequences for the homeowner.

Always ask when payments are due. Payments should be incremental, starting with a small deposit, followed by percentages of payment made after certain milestones are reached, with the last payment of, say, 25 percent, being withheld until the work is completed to your satisfaction.

The lowest price is not always the best deal. Pay attention to how the various contractors communicate with you, how thorough their estimates are and how inclusive. A shady contractor will offer a low-ball estimate to entice a customer and later jack up the prices. You want to hire someone with an established track record, references you can check, who understands what they’re doing.

It takes more time and more thought, but playing it safe will help you dodge the worst of the worst and avoid home improvement ripoff.

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As the title implies, there is a war between consumers and creators, and the battles in this war are played out with money. It’s a war I’ve been seeing from both sides of the trenches. I am a consumer, but more than that, I’ve been writing and thinking about consumer behavior from an empowerment perspective for more than a decade. I am also a creator; I’ve turned my thoughts about culture into a website and a business, for which I’ve needed to market myself as any other entrepreneur might for his or her own business.

In both roles, I read quite a bit. I read about the psychology behind the decisions Americans make as consumers, and I read advice from other business owners about selling their products and brands to these same consumers. On the one hand, I want the public to made the best decisions about money management, but I also see inside stories about how consumers are effectively manipulated into making purchasing decisions — and how business owners should want to use these manipulation techniques to their advantage.

For example, a new study to be published in the October edition of the Journal of Consumer Research shows how certain salespeople in upscale stores can increase sales by being rude to the customers. This would confirm something I had heard years ago about shopping for luxury cars. First of all, conscious consumers might want to avoid wasting money on luxury car brands, for which consumers pay a price for a label or for a perceived experience that goes beyond the basic needs of transportation.

Regardless, the hypothesis was that stepping into a dealership, consumers should be filled with a sense of inadequacy, perpetuated by salespeople who simply ignore them. This in turns makes the customer more desperate to be accepted, more willing to prove they belong in some “secret club.” That need to be accepted results in the customers’ determination to prove their worthiness by completing the purchase.

The new study‘s conclusions are along the same lines, though they focus on designer clothing and accessory brands. And this is just a hunch, but putting aside the truth that you can’t judge someone from outward appearances, this may contribute to the observation that some people you see adorning themselves with luxury and designer items may not be the wealthiest individuals for whom spending extra money for luxury equivalents wouldn’t contribute to long-term financial hardship.

This is a battle that the creators are clearly winning. Exclusivity makes anything more desirable, and brands create this appearance of exclusivity through marketing and advertising, hiring salespeople whose outward appearances fit that vision, and by making everyone feel unwelcome. And consumers fall for it all the time.

One of the researchers who conducted this study offers the following advice based on the conclusions: “… if consumers are being treated rudely, it’s best to leave the situation and return later, or avoid the interactions altogether by shopping online.” This advice sounds easy, but it’s difficult advice to follow because it runs contrary to a internal psychological drive for acceptance.

When you start looking at the bigger picture, a different piece of advice emerges. Don’t be part of the consumer class, be a creator. Learn the tricks that companies use to generate revenue and use those tricks for yourself. Learn to manipulate customers, to sell products effectively. And if you’re successful, you’ll be on the winning side of the war.

This isn’t necessarily bad advice. As a creator who creates — and effectively sells — something unique, you are adding something of value into the world. If your creation isn’t valued by someone, you wouldn’t be successful, and even if your product is not overwhelmingly accepted as good, if someone is buying it, it has some kind of value to those customers. Not every consumer will become a creator, though, and while it’s good to encourage as many people as possible to find something they can bring into existence, most people will not be a successful creator in this particular sense.

The corollary is interesting. Even if some consumers will never be creators, creators never stop being consumers. Everyone needs to consume something in order to live, starting with food and water. Many successful creators have been able to navigate the subtle of their class, and are even better consumers because of it. Relate this to the study pertaining to the salesperson attitudes in designer clothing stores. The average consumer used for this study is not the owner of a designer brand in his or her own right. The average consumer in the study is not a business owner and is not someone who has had the benefit of studying consumer behavior.

It’s hard to imagine the owner of Gucci walking into a Louis Vuitton store, encountering a rude salesperson, and subconsciously fighting for his place by making up for the lack of sales pressure, proving his worth by buying a high-priced item. The owner knows these tricks (and likely never deals with the retail sales channel anyway). This individual is winning the war. He or she is in a position of power to work the system.

And being in a position of power, having the leverage to make the best deals, is the only way to win the war in the end.

Consumer war tactic number one: Learn the tricks the creators use. Consumer empowerment is the first step. You won’t be able to always stop yourself from being manipulated because this occurs at a subconscious level, but you will be able to have a better idea of how you are being manipulated when it happens.

Consumer war tactic number two: Don’t assume you are tricking the creators. And here is where we meet the idea of “extreme couponing.” People who spend a lot of time clipping coupons and buying $20 worth of unnecessary products for $0.05 (plus accumulated store points), if they believe they’re beating the retailers at their own games, are just fooling themselves. If the retailer were getting the short end of the deal, they wouldn’t let you through the door.

Retailers want a certain number of customers to believe they are winning, because it keeps people coming through the door, buying more. I’ve written about extreme couponing previously, so I won’t revisit it, but in general it is not a way to save money over the long-term and is not a part of a sound approach to personal money management. Excessive use of cash-back or frequent flyer credit cards falls into the same category.

Consumer war tactic number three: Become a creator. When you learn about the tricks for consumer manipulation, you may be able to build expertise in perpetrating these same techniques against your fellow consumers. I’m not saying creators are inherently fraudulent, but successful business people are keenly aware of what they need to do in order to sell more of their products.

Is there a line of ethics regarding consumer manipulation? Which of these is not ethical?

None of these techniques run afoul of consumer protection regulations, but they are clearly designed to trick the customer at the point of sale while allowing the seller to claim, “Nothing I’ve said or done is a lie.” When is it considered acceptable to use subtle psychological tricks to increase sales? When you’re the salesperson or creator. It’s a war consumers cannot win by remaining solely consumers.

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Although I don’t take advantage of this type of service every time I need to go food shopping, grocery delivery is one luxury I enjoy about once a month. I’ve been a customer of Peapod for about eighteen months. Peapod is a company associated with Stop & Shop, a supermarket in my area. The food they offer is the same as Stop & Shop’s items, including store brands. Throughout almost this entire period, living in a New Jersey suburb, Peapod has been my only choice for food delivery.

That changed a few weeks ago when FreshDirect expanded its delivery service to include my town. That news, accompanied by a $50 coupon, inspired me to try the service. After one delivery from FreshDirect, I think I’m ready to compare the food and experience with that from Peapod.

My grocery needs are simple. I am a single man living in a second-floor apartment. I have no pets. I try to eat healthy food but I mostly fail at that goal. I don’t particularly like cooking, but I have had some success with fajitas. As time permits, I’ll continue my cooking attempts, but I can’t say I enjoy it.

Generally, some items I buy from the grocery store go to waste because I can’t make use of an entire package before it goes bad. For example, even the smallest containers of fresh milk expire before I have a chance to use it all. Add some frequent traveling to my schedule, and the food doesn’t stand a chance of survival, left unconsumed.

I may not be the best shopper to fully compare every small aspect of an online grocery shopping experience, but there are things I see worth discussing, and each service has its own benefits.

Online ordering process.

The process for ordering groceries is the same regardless of which service you use. Both Peapod and FreshDirect ask you to create an account. With both, you can save your shopping list or items in your cart to return at a later time, making it easy to add items throughout the week as you think about them or as you discover you need more. That, in theory, replaces the notepad on the refrigerator, but I still have one there anyway.


Peapod’s website is a little nicer for displaying items up close, but keep in mind the photographs are generic; if you go to a store, you can pick a specific package of meat, for example, while ordering online, your selection is subject to the whim of someone in a warehouse. To the right, you can see the look of the Peapod website, and underneath that, FreshDirect.

During the checkout process, you can choose your delivery date and time. With Peapod, you can save some money on the delivery charge by choosing a wider time frame for delivery. If you need the groceries delivered during a specific two-hour window, the delivery fee is one dollar higher. With Peapod, if I order early in the day, which I almost never do, I can generally find time slots available the following day.

With FreshDirect, however, and probably because I live in one of the outermost counties in the company’s delivery area, I can rarely find delivery windows available for the following two days. As a result, if I plan to shop with FreshDirect, I have to plan more in advance than I usually do.

Delivery and reception.

With Peapod, I can leave a tip for the driver during the checkout process, and I usually leave $5. While you can leave a tip online, if you have coupons to apply to your order, you hand them to the delivery person. I occasionally have coupons to use — but not often since they’re usually not worth the hassle for me. If I have one, I use one.

FreshDirect has not provided me any coupons thus far, except for a online code for $50 off my first order, then another coupon in the mail for $50 off my first two orders. Each time, the discount only would apply to orders over $125. These are codes that you would use during the checkout process online, and it was a struggle to use them. I entered the code in the appropriate place, but FreshDirect responded with a message saying the coupon wouldn’t be applied until I selected a delivery date and time.

I continued with the process, selected an open delivery window, and no longer had an opportunity to enter a code. I had to complete the checkout process and edit my shopping cart later to use the coupon code. Both FreshDirect and Peapod allow customers to modify their orders until a cut-off time in advance of the delivery, so it’s easy to make last additions to your shopping list or cancel the entire order. The services won’t charge your credit or debit card until the order is finalized, and in Peapod’s case, they won’t charge until your food is packed (and weighed, if applicable) at the warehouse and placed on the truck.

With Peapod, the refrigerated delivery truck arrives, and the driver grabs the plastic bags that were organized for the delivery before they were placed on the truck. He — so far, every time I’ve ordered, the delivery person has been male — carries the bags up to my kitchen and presents me with the invoice, indicating if the store needed to make any substitutions or if any of the items weren’t available for any reason.

FreshDirect’s delivery arrives by refrigerated truck as well, but my items have been packed into cardboard boxes, with dividers if necessary. This makes it easy for the delivery person to place the boxes on a hand truck to wheel them to my door. I was much more impressed with FreshDirect’s packaging than with Peapod’s. I have no use for Peapod’s plastic bags. I have little use for cardboard boxes either, but at least they’re better for the environment.

Selection and quality.

I don’t have exquisite taste when it comes to groceries. I do, however, have some favorites, and in those instances, FreshDirect delivers. I don’t drink soda very often, but I like Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda and Black Cherry Soda. Peapod doesn’t carry these drinks, although I can get them in Stop & Shop. FreshDirect also has some prepared meals which are useful in situations where I don’t feel like cooking, although one such meal I received was recalled right after I purchased it. (The company automatically credited my account and encouraged me to discard the item.)

With the deli meats that I order — my typical lunch is a sandwich — FreshDirect seems to offer higher quality. Yet, the same size slices of the same meats seem to last longer when I order from Peapod. That is, even though I order a quarter of a pound, sliced medium, I can make more sandwiches from the result when I order from Peapod than I can when I order from FreshDirect. That may be all in my mind, and it may also be all in my mind that the meat from FreshDirect is tastier.

For fresh meat, FreshDirect customers can customize their cuts, from thickness to weight. Customers can even choose vacuum packaging for an extra fee of $0.50. With Peapod, customers are restricted to a default cut thickness, predefined approximate weights, and cheaper Ziploc-type plastic bags.

FreshDirect has more choices for people who prefer organic foods. I don’t have much experience with that.

Price comparison.

Here are a few examples of the price differentiation between Peapod and FreshDirect.

Item Peapod FreshDirect
Arnold Whole Wheat Bread (each) (sale) $2.25 $4.39
Tuscan Dairy Farms Whole Milk (gallon) $4.69 $4.29
Boars Head Deluxe Roast Beef (pound) $13.99 $12.99
Skippy Creamy Peanut Butter (16.8 ox jar) $4.19 $3.69
Red Delicious Apples (bag of 4) $2.76 $3.99
Store Brand Unbleaced Flour (5 lbs) (sale) $2.00 $3.49

It’s interesting to see that it’s impossible to say, overall, that one store is cheaper than the other. The prices do vary, and this is just a snapshot of items at a snapshot in time. Assuming the prices average out to be roughly equal, the points for consideration are FreshDirect’s slight edge in quality and availability of more of the items I like and Peapod’s flexibility in scheduling delivery. In this case, I think FreshDirect wins, but by a small margin. In a pinch, I can still run to the store to get some of the items I can’t get from Peapod, but that defeats the purpose of delivery.

Update: With a second $50 coupon, I placed my second FreshDirect grocery delivery order. The options for delivery were more varied, and I was able to choose a delivery time within the next twenty-four hours. If this is the likely situation for future orders, FreshDirect will most likely be my delivery option of choice.

Do you have your groceries delivered? What are your experiences?

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Boycott Wal-Mart on Black Friday and Thanksgiving?

by Luke Landes
Black Friday

Someone I know is boycotting Wal-Mart. I would not be able to boycott Walmart myself, as I never shop there in the first place. My absence from Wal-Mart does not have any effect. I believe I’ve stepped inside the store twice in the past decade or longer, and I don’t remember why. The basis for ... Continue reading this article…

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Black Friday Deals: Don’t Fall for These Dirty Tricks

by Luke Landes
Black Friday Dirty Tricks

For some reason, this year I’ve been bombarded more than any other year by advertisements for Black Friday deals. The marketing is coming from helpful people who just want to share the good news with their friends, people who are clearly paid to spread the messages, and retailers who simply want people to buy as ... Continue reading this article…

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The Chase Freedom Lifestyle Index: Finding a Story Amid Data

by Luke Landes
Chase Bank

In terms of credit card offers, Chase Freedom is one of the most popular. This is the card that was selected by expert personal financial bloggers to win the Fourth Annual Plutus Award for Best Credit Card Offer, most likely due to its cash back program, a sign-up bonus, and the strength of the Chase ... Continue reading this article…

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Should a Consumer Return a Duplicate Shipment?

by Luke Landes
Unexpected shipment

Day one, there didn’t appear to be a problem. Some time earlier, my girlfriend ordered some clothing online. Either she had received a discount to apply to the order or she would receive a future discount in return for placing the order. I’m not clear on the details of the discount, but it’s mostly irrelevant ... Continue reading this article…

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How to Save Money Without Worrying About Coupons

by Luke Landes
Coupons

The retail industry has everyone fooled. While millions of people spend their time scouring for deals, clipping coupons from the newspaper if they’re old-fashioned, plugging into the latest mobile deal applications if they are somewhat more technologically inclined, sharing their finds on Facebook to recruit friends for group deals, the companies on the other side ... Continue reading this article…

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Subscription Culture: You No Longer Own Anything

by Luke Landes
Dollar sign

Most financial experts agree that if you need a car, buying is almost always a better financial decision than leasing. Even if you have to borrow money for the purchase, traditional financing is a better option than making payments for a couple of years and having nothing to show for it unless you’re willing to ... Continue reading this article…

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How to Order Your Free Chex Systems Report

by Luke Landes
ChexSystems - Free Annual Checking Account Report

Chex Systems is a private database that tracks consumers’ behavior with checking accounts. The company that owns the database, Fidelity National Information Services (no relations to Fidelity Investments), is, among other things, a credit reporting agency. Therefore, customers whose activities have been tracked in Chex Systems have some rights, like customers whose credit is reported ... Continue reading this article…

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Replace the Dollar Bill With the Dollar Coin: The COINS Act

by Luke Landes
Dollar coins

A proposal has been floating around Congress for the past few years, and it should save taxpayers $4.4 billion over the next thirty years. The Currency Optimization, Innovation, and National Savings (COINS) Act would replace the $1 bill with the $1 coin. The $1 coin has been in production and circulation since 2000, with an ... Continue reading this article…

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Elimination of the Payroll Tax Cut Reduced Consumer Spending

by Luke Landes
Consumers Planned Response to Tax Hike

In 2010, Congress passed the Tax Hike Prevention Act, which among other things reduced the payroll tax from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent starting in 2011. For two years, workers saw higher take-home income than they would have had the law never existed, and consumers responded favorably by using the extra money throughout the two years to ... Continue reading this article…

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The Great Gatsby Backlash

by Luke Landes
Art Deco

I’m looking forward to seeing Baz Luhrmann’s new film treatment of The Great Gatsby. The book, of course, is a seminal piece of American literature, and the new movie is yet another in a long line of interpretations. I like the director’s previous works, and I expect I’ll enjoy the new film. I read The ... Continue reading this article…

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Mint.com Tracks Two Million Users to Create Spending Index

by Luke Landes
National Average Monthly Spending

When staff writer Sasha introduced Consumerism Commentary readers to Mint.com in 2007, I began to think about the power of massive consumer financial data. As more people signed up for this online service that connects directly to users’ credit card accounts and bank accounts, Mint.com, or any other similar services, would be able to analyze ... Continue reading this article…

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8 Scientifically Proven Principles of Happiness

by Luke Landes
Happiness - 8 scientifically proven principles

There is a link between wealth and happiness, but it’s not that having more of the former results in more of the latter. The Journal of Consumer Research published a study involving a scientific analysis of the link between money and happiness designed and analyzed by researchers at the University of British Columbia, Harvard University, ... Continue reading this article…

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Will an Internet Sales Tax Change How You Shop?

by Luke Landes
Internet sales tax - shopping bags

After a rocky beginning to the relationship, I’ve grown to appreciate Amazon.com. For the most part, the online retailer still boasts the best prices, shipping can be free, and if your purchases are delivered to New Jersey or one of several other states, Amazon doesn’t add sales tax to the purchase. Lobbyists that represent all ... Continue reading this article…

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Can Tipping Change a Waiter’s Behavior?

by Luke Landes
Can tipping change a waitress's behavior?

A friend of mine once lamented publicly: “When did the standard restaurant tip change from 15 percent to 20?” Sure, I remember paying typically 15 percent for a tip when I first started dining out with my friends. That was when I gained my first sense of independence from my parents twenty years ago, as ... Continue reading this article…

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What To Do If You’ve Donated to a Fraudulent Charity

by Luke Landes
Charity scam and fraud

It happened after September 11, Katrina, Sandy, the Boston Marathon, and other disasters, man-made and natural, around the world. After serious tragedies, when a compassionate public is at its most vulnerable, unscrupulous individuals find taking advantage the world’s generosity comes easy. Within hours — even minutes — of the news, new operations spring up, offering ... Continue reading this article…

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Prepaid Debit Cards Are Riskier Than Checking Accounts

by Luke Landes

Thanks to heavy marketing campaigns, including endorsements and partnerships with everyone from Russell Simmons to Kim Kardashian to Suze Orman (it’s hip! it’s popular! it’s financially smart!), use of prepaid debit cards has surged. Prepaid debit cards were once a fringe financial product. They were intended to be used by people who have a communal ... Continue reading this article…

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