Monday, March 1, 2010

Weary & Wary in the Heartland

Our online NewsHour editor requested that the Patchwork Nation bloggers comment on the fact that consumer confidence had fallen in February to the lowest level since last spring. She asked if we were confident consumers? Why or why not?

Here’s the deal. As far as I'm concerned -- and as far as a lot of people I talk to are concerned -- we are simply fed up with greedy business institutions, self-serving politicians, ego-inflated celebrities, cheaters, liars, over-indulgers, media blowhards and shameless marketers. Most of us are people who played by the rules – paid our taxes, paid our credit card bills on time, bought modest homes, didn’t live above our means, provided for our families, saved for our kids’ college educations, had savings accounts, invested what we could for retirement, did our charity work, helped our neighbors, got out to vote and ate our apple pie with skim milk. So what did we get for living a decent life? Screwed.

I feel a slow-burning anger in people – cynicism, frustration and defensiveness. We’re on our guard expecting to be taken advantage of at every turn. And we are! For example, look at these credit card companies sending us changes to our agreements in tiny type and incomprehensible legalese. Here’s a recent example from my life:

When my daughter went off to college four years ago I got her a credit card in her name for emergencies. The card company billed it as a card that parents could trust because of the low credit limit. The bills came home to me and I paid them, as I always do, on time. Over the years that limit crept up, but my daughter was responsible with money so I didn’t balk. So last fall the company sent one of those Changes to Your Credit Agreement letters. I admit that I generally ignore these things, which I'm sure the credit card companies depend on, but this time I read it.

Well, I read it and I read it again and then over again attempting to decipher the fine print and financial jargon. Then I called to ask questions. The company wouldn’t talk to me even though I pay all the bills. So I called my daughter and gave her a list of things to ask. The deal was that they were starting to charge immediate interest on all purchases -- whether you've been a responsible client or not. You buy something and interest charges start that day. So when you get the monthly bill you already have interest charges built in to the amount you owe!

So my daughter said she wanted to cancel the card. The company threatened that doing that would destroy her good credit record. There was an option -- in tiny, tiny print -- that you could reject the agreement changes and the account would close on the card's expiration date and not be renewed. So she did that and stopped using the card.

After a few months of no purchases on the card, the company took note and sent a revised credit agreement letter changing the daily interest rate provision to some other complicated scheme. I got her a different credit card. But guess what – I now go over every one of those complicated Changes to Your Agreement letters with a fine-toothed comb looking for twists that are going to somehow pick my pocket. My son just got one that said his credit card company was going to start charging him $60 per year unless his spent an average of $200 per month with his card!

I know there is new federal legislation to regulate this – BUT I don’t trust the government either. After all who deregulated all those financial institutions and let greedy Wall Street executives gorge with abandon on our meager middle-class investments? My dreams of retiring early to somewhere warm and sunny crashed last fall along with the financial market.

So are you getting the picture from out here in the Heartland? Consumer confidence? No such thing. Confidence in our government leaders – Democrat or Republican -- to solve the country’s financial problems? No such thing. We’re weary and wary.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A new year ...

2009 is now a memory and what a year it was! For our extended family, it meant new beginnings with four new babies! That’s what made my holidays so special this year. Seeing the holidays through a child’s eyes can really put things into perspective. Most little ones are as pleased with the packaging – ribbons, bows and tissue paper – as they are with what’s inside!

Spending time together meant more than exchanging large, elaborate gifts, as it should. We watched the faces of grandparents and great-grandparents light up as they held the new little ones in their arms. Their faces shone brighter than any star atop a Christmas tree. It was priceless.

Most of my family and friends had to scale back the spending this year due to layoffs and salary decreases. My husband didn’t get paid for the two weeks he had off surrounding the holidays, so that will make the next couple of months a little tight for us. We won’t spend as much on entertainment as we normally do, and we may have to charge a thing or two or dip into our small savings.

We’re looking forward to the tax relief that the new baby will bring, which reminds me that we’re still catching up on those hospital bills. This is the first year that I’m actually eager to file our taxes. I really wish that we could have earned the tax credit for making our home more energy efficient with new windows, but the initial investment was too much for us. We bought a new car - well new to us - but that won’t qualify for a tax break either.

The state of the economy and concerns about the future may have taken a back burner during the joyful month of December, but they will soon resurface. A new year brings new worries and possibly New Year’s resolutions. For my husband and me, it may involve spending less and working more. While I’ve held multiple jobs before, it’s not going to happen this year with the new baby. However, my husband will work as a referee during the summer and fall to supplement our income and believe me, we will need every penny.

Although times have been a little tougher financially, we still have our heath and happiness. Our home is overflowing with the joy of our new baby. He’s changing and learning every day and we’re excited to watch him grow.