9 Year Mortgage Financial Peace Newsletter May 2011

The International Monetary Fund has just dropped a bombshell, and nobody noticed…

For the first time, the international organization has set a date for the moment when the “Age of America” will end and the U.S. economy will be overtaken by that of China.  And it’s a lot closer than you may think. 

According to the latest IMF official forecasts, China’s economy will surpass that of America in real terms in 2016 — just five years from now.  Put that in your calendar.

It provides a painful context for the budget wrangling taking place in Washington right now. It raises enormous questions about what the international security system is going to look like in just a handful of years. And it casts a deepening cloud over both the U.S. dollar and the giant Treasury market, which have been propped up for decades by their privileged status as the liabilities of the world’s dominant power.

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According to the IMF forecast, which was quietly posted on the Fund’s website just two weeks ago, whoever is elected U.S. president next year will be the last to preside over the world’s largest economy.  Most people aren’t prepared for this. They aren’t even aware it’s that close. Listen to experts of various stripes, and they will tell you this moment is decades away. The most negative will put the figure in the mid-2020s.  But they’re miscounting. They’re only comparing the gross domestic products of the two countries using current exchange rates.  That’s a largely meaningless comparison in real terms. Exchange rates change quickly. And China’s exchange rates are phony. China artificially undervalues its currency, the renminbi (or yuan), through massive intervention in the markets.

In addition to comparing the two countries based on exchange rates, the IMF analysis also looked to the true, real-terms picture of the economies using “purchasing power parities.” That compares what people earn and spend in real terms in their domestic economies. Under PPP, the Chinese economy will expand from $11.2 trillion this year to $19 trillion in 2016. Meanwhile the size of the U.S. economy will rise from $15.2 trillion to $18.8 trillion. That would take America’s share of the world output down to 17.7%, the lowest in modern times. China’s would reach 18%, and rising.  Just 10 years ago, the U.S. economy was three times the size of China’s.  We have lived in a world led by the U.S. for so long that there is no longer anyone alive who remembers anything else. America overtook Great Britain as the world’s leading economic power in the 1890s and never looked back.


Banks expect to send out 3.2 billion card offers this year…

The 3.2 billion card offers this year is up 15% from 2010, and more than double the 1.4 billion mailed out in 2009. “Issuers are actually sending the best offers we’ve ever seen in 20-plus years,” says Anuj Shahani, the director of competitive tracking services for Synovate Mail Monitor. As an aftereffect of the CARD Act, the attractive terms you see in pre-approved offers are also more likely to be those you get, according to a study by the Center for Responsible Lending. 

Still, finding a card that offers the best of the recent changes without the costs isn’t easy. Many of the drawbacks are buried in the fine print (yes, there’s still lots of that). We dug through the cards to find the best new ones that might be worth a place in your wallet.

First, some good news: consumers have less credit card debt to wrangle. The average household owes $7,490 — 9% less than at the recession’s onset in 2008, according to Synovate Mail Monitor. Spending cutbacks have helped, but so have CARD Act provisions that allocate payments of more than the minimum toward high-interest rate debt first and forbid issuers from raising rates on existing balances in good standing, says Odysseas Papadimitriou, the chief executive of CardHub, a comparison site for credit and prepaid cards. Of course, higher interest rates overall and rising minimum payment requirements can cancel out those friendlier practices, making carrying a balance just as expensive, if not more so. And balance transfer fees now range as high as 5%, up from 3% a few years ago.

Managing debt in a post-CARD Act world requires at least two different cards: one with a good balance transfer offer and another with a low ongoing rate on purchases, just in case you can’t always pay off your monthly balance, says Papadimitriou. Right now, the most generous balance transfer deals for consumers offer at least 18 months at 0%, and charge no more than a 3% fee. With 21-month offers and 3% fees, both Citi Diamond Preferred and Citi Platinum Select fit the bill. (The 0% rate applies to purchases made during the first 21 months, too.) Discover More offers more time — up to 24 months — with a higher 5% transfer fee. But for those who need more time to pay down their debt and don’t plan to make any new purchases on the card, it could be the better deal, Papadimitriou says.

For the occasional balance-carrier, the best bet is typically the card with the lowest rate available. The Simmons First Platinum Visa currently offers a 7.25% APR, but only for people with excellent credit. For those with average credit, there are cards with average rates that cut interest rates for on-time payments and offer rewards for months you pay in full. Citi Forward cardholders see their rate drop 0.25% every three months that they pay on time and stay within their credit limit, for up to a 2% total reduction. After 0% for 12 months on purchases, the APR ranges from 12.99% to 19.99%.  The higher interest rate and short introductory offers aren’t the best deal if you’re carrying a big balance. But the rewards, including 6,000 points for making $250 in purchases within three months and 2,500 for paperless billing (combined, worth $50 in cash or $60 in gift cards), can work out better for cardholders who only occasionally don’t pay off their balance in full.

How to negotiate the best deal on 6 common fees & expenses…

1. Credit Card Rates
• Why they are negotiable: Now that most of the dust has settled following the big credit card reform act, card companies are competing fiercely again for new customers. Issuers sent out 1.2 billion credit card offers in the third quarter of 2010 — more than three times the number sent during the same period in 2009. “Use the competition to your advantage,” says Ira Rheingold, executive director for the National Association of Consumer Advocates. “Don’t jump at the first offer. You should argue for the best rate.”
• Who to talk to: Call the 800 number associated with a new card offer (or the number on the back of a current card) and talk to the customer service rep. If the rep can’t — or won’t — adjust the rate, ask to speak with a manager.
• What to say: “I’ve gotten several credit card offers with lower rates. Tell me what you can do to beat those offers.”
• Possible savings: How much you’re able to lower your interest rate will depend on your credit and payment history, as well as your credit score. In a study conducted by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group several years ago, more than half of consumers who asked for lower rates got them, with their average APR dropping from 16 percent to 10.47 percent. 

2. Mortgage and Refinancing Rates and Fees
• Why they are negotiable: “Mortgage lending has gotten difficult, which means that a lender will work hard to make a deal,” says Rheingold. And that’s particularly true for consumers with credit scores of at least 750.
• Who to talk to: Mortgage brokers or lenders at banks and credit unions.
• What to say: Get several estimates in writing and ask, “Here’s the best deal I can get. Can you beat it?”
• Possible savings: In addition to offering better rates, lenders might reduce certain fees or even waive them altogether. To negotiate the lowest out-of-pocket costs, ask for discounts on all upfront fees, including application and origination fees. According to the Federal Trade Commission’s website, comparing and negotiating mortgage fees can result in thousands of dollars of savings.

3. Home Improvements
• Why they are negotiable: “Business is slow and that means contractors are willing to haggle over their prices,” says Greg Daugherty, executive editor of Consumer Reports. Plus, the prices of many common home building materials are down as much as 35 percent from their peak in the mid-2000s.
• Who to talk to: The contractor.
• What to say: “What are the options for less expensive materials? And what discounts can you offer me on labor?”
• Possible savings: Up to 20 percent of the cost of the project, according to a new survey by Angie’s List, a website that publishes surveys and consumer reviews of service businesses. Of the home improvement contractors who were surveyed in 2010, 80 percent were willing to drop their prices to get a job (compared with 43 percent in 2008). And more than half of the contractors surveyed said they were willing to lower prices by 10 percent, with nearly 25 percent willing to drop their fees up to 20 percent.

4. Home Appliances and Electronics
• Why they are negotiable: Store managers understand that a discounted deal done today is often better than a potential deal in the future (and definitely better than no deal at all). One trick is to go first thing in the morning or just before the store closes when there are fewer customers. “A manager will hesitate to offer a discount if he thinks he’ll have to make the same deal with all of the customers who overhear the negotiation,” says Consumer Reports’ Daugherty.
• Who to talk to: A store’s manager or assistant manager.
• What to say: “I like this model. If you can give me a discount and free delivery, I’ll buy it today.”
• Possible savings: Profit margins are generally fairly thin on appliances and electronics, so getting 10 percent off is a reasonable goal, particularly if you can also get them to throw in free delivery and installation. Consumer Reports found that three-quarters of shoppers were able to negotiate a better deal on major appliances, with an average savings of $100 per appliance.

5. Cars and Vehicles
• Why it’s negotiable: Car dealerships are one of the few places where price negotiations are not only acceptable, they’re expected, notes Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor for car-buying site Edmunds.com. But instead of trying to negotiate your purchase price down from the MSRP (the sticker price), as you might for other items, ask to see the invoice price (the price the dealer paid for the car) and work your way up from there. You can look up dealer invoice prices for free on Web sites like IntelliChoice.com, Edmunds.com, and KBB.com.
• Who to talk to: Sales staff.
• What to say: “Another dealership has given me a better price on the same model. Tell me how you can beat their offer.”
• Possible savings: It’s possible to save more than $1,000 on a new car by negotiating smartly, according to Reed. And you’ll net even higher savings by also negotiating the value of your trade-in, as well as financing terms and the cost of extended warranties.

6. Medical Bills:
• Why they’re negotiable: Patients usually assume that the cost for various medical procedures and tests are set in stone, but often they’re not. And with health care companies shifting more out-of-pocket costs onto consumers, asking for potential discounts is essential, particularly since there’s often a huge variance in costs among providers, says Angie’s List spokeswoman Cheryl Reed. In Washington D.C., for example, the price for an MRI of the right knee ranges from $400 to $1,501, according to a recent report.. You can look up average prices in your area for various procedures at Healthcare Blue Book.
• Who to talk to: The billing administrator.
• What to say: “This is a significant expense for me. Is there a discount for paying upfront or in cash? What other kinds of discounts might be available?”
• Possible savings: Fifty percent or more. An Angie’s List poll found that 74 percent of respondents who negotiated their medical bills were successful, often paying less than half of the original cost.


What is the danger of making minimum credit card payments…

Gift cards: For the person who has everything (or whose tastes you simply cannot fathom), gift cards are a safe bet. You can find cards on discount at www.giftcardgranny.com.  The site pulls prices from six gift card discounters, which buy unwanted cards from other people that they then resell for less than face value. Discounts can be as much as 50%, although most are in the 15%-to-20% range. And the rules for gift cards just became more consumer-friendly (see Gift Cards: A Better Deal Now).

Checking accounts: Banks everywhere are eliminating free checking accounts, but with a little creativity you can still avoid paying that extra $8 to $15 a month. If you arrange for direct deposit or maintain a minimum balance, or bank online and skip the paper statement each month, your bank is likely to waive the fee.  About 750 community banks and credit unions offer free checking accounts with no minimum-balance requirement. They’ll also pay as much as 3.5% interest if you use your debit card ten to 15 times a month, arrange for automatic payment or direct deposit each month, and receive your statement electronically.  www.checkingfinder.com.

Groceries: For many families, a bulging budget is the result of excess spending at the supermarket. Ditch the gourmet grocers and shop at Trader Joe’s or warehouse stores.  While you’re at it, use coupons, which you can find online (at CouponMom.com, Coupons.com and CouponCabin.com). Or, for $5.95 a month, you can get customized coupons from Shopping Nanny. Shopping Nanny recently guaranteed that if you spend more than $90 a week at the grocery store, you’ll save $40 a month using its service — or your next month’s membership is free.

Connectivity: Bundling your cable-TV, phone and Internet service can save you — dare we say it — a bundle. For example, you pay just $85 a month for 12 months if you sign up online with Verizon for unlimited local and long-distance calling, high-speed Internet service and DirecTV with DVR service. That saves $50 a month compared with buying the same services separately.

Cell-phone plans: Wireless carriers keep you tethered to them with two-year contracts and tempt you to renew with snazzy new phones or monthly discounts. But you can slash your costs with a prepaid plan, especially if you’re paying extra for text messaging and data plans.  All of the major carriers plus a number of smaller firms offer prepaid plans. Compare them at www.prepaidreviews.com/compare , then check the carrier’s Web site for more details. Before you compare plans, decide what is most important to you.

Water: A low-flow shower head is easy to install — just screw off the old shower head and twist on the new. Because it restricts the water output to no more than 2.5 gallons per minute (older shower heads send as many as 5.5 gallons per minute down the drain), you can save 25% to 60% of the water and 50% of the energy it takes to shower and shampoo you and your family. The shower heads generally run $10 to $20 a pop (some utility companies give them away) and screw into existing fittings. The new fixtures — labeled WaterSense — go as low as 1.5 gpm, saving 7,300 gallons and $30 to $100 a year over their 2.5-gpm counterparts. 

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