Debit Indebted

Next year, Bank of America (among others) will begin charging debit card customers a $5 monthly fee.

Banks are making the change because revenue from lucrative interchange fees paid by merchants (a.k.a “swipe fees”) is being cut in half by a new rule issued by the Federal Reserve Board that takes effect Oct. 1st. So, instead of an average of 44¢ per transaction, banks will only be earning 24¢. Bank of America estimates that it will lose $2 billion annually because of the change. So, what’s a poor bank to do? Well, they’ll negate their losses by shifting their costs onto consumers, of course.

Even beyond avoiding the aggravating new monthly fee, using a credit card has distinct advantages.

Federal laws protect credit card users from fraud much better. The Fair Credit Billing Act ensures that you bear no liability for fraudulent purchases, damaged goods, and products that were never delivered. And you generally have 60-90 days to report fraudulent or erroneous charges to the bank.

credit card mouse trapThe Electronic Transfer Act does provide debit card users some protection during a dispute or error but only if you catch and act upon the issue quickly. If you notify your bank within 2 days of a questionable charge, your liability is limited to $50. However, between 2 – 6 days your liability could increase to $500. Beyond 6 days, you may have no coverage. And to dispute a debit card transaction, you may be required to prove that the card has never been used online on an unsecured network.

And remember that with a credit card dispute, you’re questioning fraudulent or erroneous transactions before you’ve paid the bill. With a debit card, the money has already been withdrawn, so recovery is going to be much more difficult.

Given that debit cards are directly linked to your bank account, a thief who obtains or clones your debit card along with its PIN may be able to clean out your bank account, and you’d have little or no recourse.

By the way, many banks claim that their debit cards can also be used as a credit card. While it’s true that these transactions may take slightly longer to post to your checking account, they’re still a debit transaction. So, using your debit card in this manner does not afford you the same protections or deferred payment opportunity as a “real” dedicated credit card.

The biggest disadvantage of using a credit card over a debit card is self-control. You have to make sure that you’ve saved enough money to cover your purchases when the credit card bill arrives in order to avoid finance charges. Since the money is not being taken out of your bank account immediately as you make purchases, there’s a high risk of overspending and accumulating interest-bearing debt. But with a little self-discipline you can actually avoid the finance charges and earn money on your purchases.

So, do you use debit cards? And if so, will these needless new fees affect your debit card usage?

Ikea Pilgrimage

Ever since the dust settled on our move, Dede & I have been wanting a few pieces of furniture to round out our home office and replace some old mismatched stuff from our old house. So, we embarked on what’s quickly becoming one of our favorite road trips (from Odessa to Austin, via Brady) on Easter weekend to do some shopping at our favorite store—Ikea:

Round Rock, Texas Ikea store

We shopped, quite literally, until some of us dropped:

Shopping begins at the Round Rock, Texas Ikea store     Done shopping at the Round Rock, Texas Ikea store

We arrived at Ikea Round Rock near Austin with detailed shopping list in hand, having measured very carefully to ensure that everything we wanted would fit into the always deceptively-cavernous Element. As was the case with our Ikea Frisco trip nearly 5 years ago, we had the car loaded to the gills! (I even removed one of the back seats entirely to free up some extra cargo space!)

Loaded car at the Round Rock, Texas Ikea store

Of course, since nearly everything at Ikea is flat-packed, the adventure has only just begun once you get your haul home! With cordless drill, mallet, glue, and a deep breath, I started assembling stuff…

Here’s a glimpse of the first pieces put into service—our new Malm nightstands, which are hung on the wall with a pair of 18″ Hangman Picture Hanging System brackets, a.k.a. French Cleats (Thanks for that tip, Ryan!):

Ikea Malm nightstands

Watch for more photos of the Ikea furnishings as they come together and are in place!

Easter 2011

Liam had his first Easter egg hunt of the season on April 16th at the hospital’s annual Easter egg hunt. Liam did quite well, his bucket was overflowing with treat-filled eggs.

MCH Easter Egg Hunt

Next, his Pre-K class had their egg hunt on April 21st at the park across the street from their building. It was lots of fun to see the kids clear the grounds in less than 5 minutes. I noticed that one inventive little guy, finding no more eggs, starting filling his bucket with pine cones instead. 😉

Pre-K Easter Egg Hunt

We were out of town for Easter weekend. We went to Round Rock for shopping at our favorite Ikea store (more on the Ikea purchases in a separate post). Liam is such a good traveler and we are so fortunate that is he is completely content just riding in the car patiently for 6 hours. He took a few books and things to play with but mostly he just likes to ride, look out the window, ask questions, catnap, talk, and sing along the way. He was very excited about going to Ikea because he loves the Småland play area where he can dive into the giant ball pit.

After we filled the car with Ikea boxes, we headed home on Easter Sunday. We stopped off to see our friends in Brady and Liam got one last egg hunt in.

Brady Easter Egg Hunt

I hope you all had a Happy Easter!

Online Optics

eyeglasses

Dede & I had both been wanting to get some new eyeglasses for a few months now—we were both overdue for new ‘scripts and the rough & tumble nature of being a toddler’s parents had taken its toll on our glasses. (A nasty heel swipe to the nose in October was the last straw, so I bent my mangled glasses back into some facsimile of proper shape and made an appointment with my optometrist.)

Anyway, like us, many of you probably have often winced at the sky-high prices at the local EyeMasters, LensCrafters or other such "brick & mortar" eyeglass shops. But you pry open your wallet, pony up the big bucks, and get what you need—at a very premium price. And since Dede & I both started doing the bifocal bugaloo a couple of years ago, our glasses are all the more pricey. But this time was different…

When we went looking for glasses to fit Liam last year, we couldn’t find a single store locally that carried a frame small enough to fit a 2 year old. One shop did offer one pair of glasses that came close, but those were $130 just for the frame and didn’t feature springy hinges, flexy temples, or anything that would inspire us to believe that they’d hold up to a toddler’s torture. But then another adoptive couple told us about Zenni Optical and the results couldn’t have been better!

So, when it came time for us to get some new specs, we decided to boldly venture into the world of online eyeglasses too!   I picked out a snazzy pair of light, rimless, frames with Transitions-style progressive (no-line) bifocal lenses, treated with anti-glare pixie-dust—all for under $100 shipped! Dede opted for a half-rimless pair with progressive lenses and some funky plastic-framed sunglasses with a cool hibiscus design on the temples for less than $100 shipped! That’s a fraction of what a single pair of similar glasses would cost locally!

Buying glasses sight unseen (rimshot) does seem like a daunting proposition, but once you break it down, it’s not too tough. You just need the dimensions from glasses you own or a pair you like at a store. For example, my previous frames were 53mm wide by 27mm tall, had a bridge width of 17mm, and temple length of 140mm. So using those measurements as a guide when shopping online for my new glasses, I looked for a pair that closely matched so they’ fit well and be proportionate for my face.

So yeah, buying glasses online is a little intimidating at first but the incredibly low prices make it easy to venture into the unknown!

And it also helps that there’s a large and rapidly-growing subculture of glasses-wearers who use online optical shops. Ira Mitchell’s excellent GlassyEyes.com website has a wealth of useful info specific to this.   The GlassyEyes forum is a hotbed of discussions where friendly & knowledgeable folks will help you ease into this new frontier with lots of anecdotal info & suggestions. For example, having never gone “rimless” before, I was nervous about the thickness of the lens and one of the helpful guys posted a link to a handy Lens Thickness Calculator tool that put my mind at ease.

Update:   In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve gotta admit that those snazzy rimless frames sounded better than they actually worked out to be.   The temples were an Oakley-style straight-legged affair so they slid off nearly every time I bent over.   I don’t fault Zenni for this — I just chose a frame style that was too different and loosely-fitting than what I’m used to.   They’re still well worth having as a backup though.

And when we had Liam’s eyes checked a few weeks ago, his vision had changed enough that he needed new lenses. But Zenni no longer carries the frame we bought for him last year or any other comparable childrens’ models. So, based on the excellent reviews on GlassyEyes, we tried a very similar pair from Coastal Contacts.   Thanks to a fantastic half-off seasonal promotion, I bought new glasses for both Liam and myself for slightly under $50, they arrived a mere 8 days after I placed the order, and they’re great!

So, if you’re ready for some new glasses and are tired of getting robbed blind (rimshot) by the high-priced local retailers, I highly recommend trying one of the online stores. At $35-50 for a pair of glasses, you can afford to experiment a little.

Food For Thought: Loco For Locavore

One of the focal points in The Omnivore’s Dilemma is the value of eating locally-grown food and although I don’t believe the term is specifically used in the book, author Michael Pollan clearly supports the principles of the "locavore" movement.

What is a locavore?   Well, much like a carnivore is someone who eats meat and a herbivore is someone who eats plants, a locavore is a person who eats locally-sourced food.   The locavore movement has sprouted in the past few years to encourage people to consume more food from regional farms, area farmers’ markets, at stores which carry local products, or even to produce some of their own food.

farmers market graphic

There are several reasons in makes sense to favor locally-grown food:

  • Regarding food quality, even if local products aren’t formally certified as "organic," chances are still very good that they’ve been grown or raised using much healthier methods.   The result is better quality, fresher flavor, and more nutritious food.
  • Locally-sourced food is "greener" or more environmentally-friendly.   It has a smaller carbon footprint due to the lower "food miles" — or how far food has to travel from the farm to the fork.   Importing non-regional and international foods can sometimes require vast amounts of fossil fuels & non-renewable resources.
  • Locally-grown and/or produced food is often likely to be the result of more Earth-friendly & sustainable practices.   This translates to fewer unwanted chemicals making their way into your family’s plates.
  • There’s also the satisfaction of knowing that you’re supporting your local economy when you purchase from regional farmers & growers.

Green Blog Diaries offers a bushel-load of great locavore-themed blogs to chew on.   The blogs featured in that roundup are an excellent starting point to discover lots more about the local food movement.   There’s also a great new group blog called Civil Eats that strives to promote critical thought about sustainable agriculture & food systems.

Of course, there has to be a balance struck between lofty ideals versus what’s practical — buying local is far easier in fertile regions than in other, more agriculturally-barren areas.   Some people will be discouraged by the radical narrow-focus surrounding the locavore "movement" and its 100-mile limit.   And there’ll even be the wacky few who drive gas-guzzling SUVs all the way across town to buy locally-grown tomatoes because they’re more environmentally-friendly.

So, what do you think?   Have you already been focusing more on local food?   Do you believe efforts to be more local-minded can make a difference or do you dismiss this as just another pointless yuppie fad?

Remember to post a comment by midnight (P.S.T.) so your name will be entered for a chance at one of the two food-related books I’m giving away to commemorate this Food For Thought series.

Tax-Free Insanity

tax-free graphicThe annual, three-day Sales Tax Holiday begins today in Texas.   During the "holiday" weekend of August 21—23rd, back-to-school shoppers get a break from state & local sales taxes on most clothing, shoes, backpacks, & school supplies priced at less than $100 purchased for use by a student in an elementary or secondary school.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for being frugal and realize that even small savings can add up, but just as I wondered how did shopping become a holiday? a couple of years back, I continue to question this insanity.   There’s little doubt as to our government’s underlying motives for this "holiday" — oh sure, we get a little relief from sales taxes on a few select items, but they get a massive shot in the arm from the influx of taxes on incidental purchases — purchases we’d be much less likely to make if not for this artificial incentive.

And really, unless you’re spending hundreds of dollars, an eight percent savings isn’t a tremendous net.   (C’mon, we’re talking about less than a Frappuccino or two.)   In fact, I suspect that if instead of this pay no sales tax all weekend event, retailers advertised a take 8% off on back-to-school purchases sale, the response would be, um, "yawn."

Rapacious retailers are, of course, banking heavily upon this "holiday" to lure budget-crunched consumers into the stores and help pry open their wallets.   These annual sales tax holidays have become a huge event that extend, in many states, well beyond sensible school supplies to include big-ticket items like large electronics, major appliances, & furniture.

And the tax-free insanity doesn’t end there…

Some states also have separate sales tax holidays just for firearms.   Firearms?   Yup, you can get your weaponry & ammo tax-free in Louisiana on September 4—6th and in South Carolina on November 27—28th!
 

Skinstinct Sets Sail!

Skinstinct logo

We got word a few days ago that the website for Skinstinct has finally been launched!   Our pals Topper & Shannon started their Skinstinct boutique specializing in organic, eco-friendly clothing, skincare, furnishings, etc. about two years ago and they’s just opened their fourth store!   So now you can shop in their stores (if you happen to be in the Chicago area) or on the website from the comfort of your own home.
 

HEB Saves the World

HEB reusable shopping bagTo encourage more people to switch to reusable products & recycle more, H-E-B Grocery stores in Texas are celebrating Earth Day (Tuesday, April 22nd) by giving out coupons for a free reusable shopping bag when you drop at least 5 plastic shopping bags into the recycling bins located at the front of their stores.

While I’m not 100% sure, these look to be H-E-B-branded versions of the 1 Bag at a Time reusable bags that Dede wrote about last year.   They’re made of non-woven polypropylene from yogurt cups, syrup bottles, straws, medicine bottles, etc. — typically one of the least recyclable plastics.   These shopping bags are sturdy, water resistant, allergy-free, & shaped like the paper sacks that used to be popular at grocery stores so they have a flat bottom to make ’em easy to fill & unload.

By the way, have you ever wondered about those little numbers with the arrows around them on the bottom of plastic containers?   They’re called and they indicate the type of plastic that an item is made from.   These codes are designed to help consumers know how to recycle various plastic products & packages.

So, mark your calendar to remember to drop by for a free bag next Tuesday, April 22nd so you can do your part to help H-E-B save the world!
 

Discover Green Deals Daily

Given the ever-increasing emphasis on environmental issues, you may have been inspired to start doing whatever you can to "green" up your life a little.   Problem is, until recently that’s been a bit of an expensive choice to make.   But now eco-friendly options don’t necessarily have to be more costly, thanks to…

GreenDeals Daily logo

GreenDeals Daily (which is sort of what you’d get if you mixed one part eco-blog with two parts Dealcatcher) helps you find bargains on environmentally-friendly products & services and provides information & tips for ways you can save both money and the environment at the same time.   What’s more, the site owner, Jean-Paul Davidson, donates 5% of the revenue from advertising & affiliate links to Carbonfund to help defray the global warming impact of their servers & web surfers.
 

Bag and Baggage

A comment from Pelf Nyok on Dede’s What’s In Your Bag post from earlier this month prompted a little thought & research on a simple but intriguing plan.   Increasingly, retail stores are beginning to charge for those insidious plastic shopping bags that we all seem to take for granted.   The amount charged is relatively trivial, but the hopes are that this plastic bag tax (or "PlasTax") is enough to influence a change in consumers’ behaviors.

Well, I was pleasantly surprised & proud to discover that Ireland pioneered a nationwide plan, the Plastic Bag Environmental Levy, back in March ’02 to impose a 15¢ charge on plastic shopping bags to encourage the use of reusable bags and help change people’s attitudes about litter & pollution in Ireland.   This was raised to 29¢ early this year to further encourage the adoption of reusable shopping bags.

  The money gathered by the levy has been used for environmental initiatives and has reportedly led to more than a 90% reduction in use of plastic shopping bags and a dramatic reduction in litter throughout Ireland.   Although some retailers switched to supplying (untaxed) paper bags, many simply stopped supplying bags altogether.

So what do you think — should more retailers begin charging for the "free" plastic bags to encourage consumers to be more mindful of their choices?