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Cash for Clunkers Program on Track to Stimulate Economy

by Alexandra Zega

The governments Cash for Clunkers program (C.A.R.S.) began stimulating the economy a month before the first rebate check was cut to a consumer for a new vehicle. “Manufacturers and dealers have spent millions to reach consumers who qualify for the $4,500 government funded rebates,” said Sharon O’Connell from www.CashForClunkersInformation.org.

Big budgets have been activated to implement campaigns targeting clunker consumers who are eligible for the program and the early results suggest the returns will be worth the investment. “We predict that the annualized selling rate for July will exceed 10 million vehicles for the first time this year due to the government program bringing dormant consumers back into the market,” adds O’Connell. “We think August could do even better with a million or more sales due to increased demand from the CARS program.”

“The stimulus helps local markets more than national car companies because car dealers stimulate the local economy through their big advertising expenditures, job creation and enormous state tax revenue,” said O’Connell. “A small dealership who sells 100 vehicles a month spends an average of $500 per car in advertising, which is a total of $50,000 that is spent in local advertising.”

Courtesy Chevrolet, one of GM’s largest dealerships in the country, “bought new inventory, hired additional salespeople and increased our ad budget by 88%,” said Scott Gruwell. “We spent $200,000 on a targeted direct mail and Web campaign to every customer in our market and we launched a regional information portal called www.CashForClunkersDC.com,” said Vince Sheehy, owner of www.Sheehy.com in Washington, DC, Virginia, Maryland and Baltimore. “So far we have sold over 100 vehicles while most dealers in our area are just getting started.”

Since over 80% of consumers initiate their vehicle searches online, Automotive Manufacturers and retailers have spent a lot of money online. Ford Motor Company is promoting its program on their home page where consumers can link to a website that promotes Ford models that qualify. The New York Honda Dealers Association initiated an integrated campaign weeks before the final ruling to send a targeted mailer to every qualified clunker owner on the Clunker List in New York while most other brands were focused solely on expensive television advertising. The Association also created a regional website, www.NYCarsProgram.com, to educate New Yorkers about the program. “Honda is the most popular brand in the New York market and nearly all Hondas qualify for the Cash for Clunkers program, so we launched an interactive website to educate the public,” said Rob Sabbagh Jr., representing www.NYLIhonda.com. www.NYCarsProgram.com provides program information, a clunker calculator and a multi-media consumer tutorial that highlights the fact that nearly every new Honda qualifies. “You don’t really need a complicated chart to find a qualifying vehicle at a Honda dealer,” said John Mendel, executive vice president of American Honda Motor Co., Inc.

Early Spenders are the Early Winners
Most of the economic activity generated up to this point has come from early spenders who also appear to be early winners in the race to reach clunker consumers. The winning retailers have been marketing to consumers for weeks while others are just getting started. Hyundai and a small group of dealer groups got a head start when they announced they would help consumers participate in the program starting on July 1st, while others were turning them away until the final rule was published on the 24th. The NHTSA and the National Automobile Dealers Assn. warned dealers against doing transactions before the final rules were announced on July 24th. Despite these warnings, Hyundai and a few dealers took the risk to help consumers get rebates when the law said they could. “Hyundai has attributed 10 percent of July’s sales to the program and some dealers have generated hundreds of incremental sales,” said O’Connell.

“We quickly created a program that helped consumers take advantage of the program and it has helped our sales a lot,” said Rick Case, who has 6 Hyundai stores as a part of one of the most successful automotive groups in the country. “So far all our sales are conquest sales. More than 70% of the clunkers were Ford or Chevy trade ins, 71% of the clunkers were SUVs, 93% had over 100k miles and 71% qualified for the $4,500 because SUV’s only need a 5 mpg improvement to get the full $4,500 rebate. The average clunker trade in gets 17 mpg and the average new vehicle gets 25 mpg, which is an average of an 8 mpg improvement,” explained Case.

“We had over 100 orders by the time the final rule was announced and our customers appreciated the fact that we could help them when they were turned away by other dealers that weren’t ready,” said Sheehy. It turns out their strategy was not very risky because the Consumer Assistance to Recycle and Save Act clearly states that consumers were eligible for rebates starting July 1st.

For more information, visit www.CashForClunkersInformation.org.

piggy_bank_homespun_7_27For some people, the U.S. savings bonds they’ve bought end up forgotten in a drawer, closet or safe-deposit box. But these days, when cash is king, those bonds may yield a nice surprise. Your bond may have matured and stopped earning interest-and that means it’s time to cash it in.

“In these lean times, these savings bonds, which can be worth at least three to four times their face value, can be a great help to cash flow needs,” said Joyce Harris, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of the Public Debt, which conducts the government’s borrowing operations.

Currently, there’s $16.6 billion in unredeemed matured savings bonds, meaning they’re no longer earning interest.

The value of matured unredeemed savings bonds is growing steadily each month, said Jack Quinn, chief executive of SavingsBonds.com. “That means there are a lot of savings bonds out there that are still in drawers, not seeing the light of day,” he said.

But Quinn said: “The redemption of savings bonds has been more pronounced these past nine months than it had been in a while.” Typically, outstanding savings bonds are “somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 billion,” but as of the end of June, it’s dropped to $193.5 billion, he said. “When you see it down to $193 billion, that’s a pretty big departure than what it used to be,” Quinn said.

Savings bonds are mostly bought through employers’ payroll deduction plans and stop earning interest after 30 or 40 years, depending on when they’re purchased.
You have to keep an eye on this because the government won’t notify you that you have a savings bond about to mature.

Generally speaking, you can cash in your Series EE bond a year after the date of purchase, but if you redeem it before it’s 5 years old, you will lose three months of accrued interest.

However, you may be able to redeem bonds sooner if you live in an area that’s been affected by a disaster, such as a flood, fire, hurricane, or tornado.

Interest subject to tax
Before you redeem your saving bonds, you should be aware of the income tax implications.

The interest earned on your savings bonds is subject to federal income tax but can be deferred until redemption or maturity, whichever occurs first. If you haven’t reported the increased value of the bonds as interest each year, you must report all of the interest in the year you cash them in.

Some or all of the interest may be excluded from your gross income if you pay qualified higher education expenses for yourself, your spouse, or a dependent during the year.

Savings bonds also are subject to estate, inheritance, gift, or other excise taxes, whether federal or state.

Redemption strategy
Because of the tax issues involved, there’s a strategy to redeeming savings bonds.

Savings bond interest is compounded, so as your bond gets older, the interest continues to grow and becomes a major part of the bond’s value. “One of the biggest mistakes people make is they cash in their oldest savings bonds,” Quinn said. “Those are the ones that are growing exponentially, so the rule is, if you have to cash in some savings bonds-unless your bond has reached final maturity date-you should hold on to those and cash in the newest bonds first because those bonds have the least amount of interest associated with them and your tax bite is smaller.”

But don’t let tax concerns prevent you from redeeming your bond if it’s matured.
If you don’t cash it in, you’d be giving an interest-free loan to the government, and who wants to do that?

 

 

(c) by Pamela Yip  2009, The Dallas Morning News.

Paws up: All-pet airline hits skies

by Alexandra Zega
AP 
In this photo made Thursday, July 9, 2009, Pet Airways Co-founder Alysa Binder's 

NEW YORK – One trip for their Jack Russell terrier in a plane's cargo hold was enough to convince Alysa Binder and Dan Wiesel that owners needed a better option to get their pets from one city to another.

On Tuesday, the first flight for the husband-and-wife team's Pet Airways, the first-ever all-pet airline, took off from Republic Airport in Farmingdale, N.Y.

All commercial airlines allow a limited number of small pets to fly in the cabin. Others must travel as checked bags or in the cargo hold — a dark and sometimes dangerous place where temperatures can vary wildly.

Binder and Wiesel used their consulting backgrounds and business savvy to start Pet Airways in 2005. The last four years have been spent designing their fleet of five planes according to new four-legged requirements, dealing with FAA regulations and setting up airport schedules.

The two say they're overwhelmed with the response. Flights on Pet Airways are already booked up for the next two months.

Pet Airways will fly a pet between five major cities — New York, Washington, Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles. The $250 one-way fare is comparable to pet fees at the largest U.S. airlines.

For owners the big difference is service. Dogs and cats will fly in the main cabin of a Suburban Air Freight plane, retooled and lined with carriers in place of seats. Pets (about 50 on each flight) will be escorted to the plane by attendants that will check on the animals every 15 minutes during flight. The pets are also given pre-boarding walks and bathroom breaks. And at each of the five airports it serves, the company has created a "Pet Lounge" for future fliers to wait and sniff before flights.

The company will operate out of smaller, regional airports in the five launch cities, which will mean an extra trip for most owners dropping off their pets if they are flying too. Stops in cities along the way means the pets will take longer to reach a destination than their owners.

A trip from New York to Los Angeles, for example, will take about 24 hours. On that route, pets will stop in Chicago, have a bathroom break, play time, dinner, and bunk for the night before finishing the trip the next day.

Amanda Hickey of Portland, Ore. is one of the new airline's first customers. Her seven-year-old terrier-pinscher mix Mardi and 2-year-old puggle Penny are taking their first flight soon.

Hickey said the service was a welcome alternative to flying her dogs in cargo when she transplants them from her soon-to-be Denver home to Chicago to stay while she and her fiance travel to Aruba to get married.

"For a little bit more money, I have peace of mind," she said.

It was a stressful experience in a cargo hold that spurred Binder and Wiesel to start their airline. Their Jack Russell terrier, Zoe, flew once in cargo and Binder said they worried about how the dog was doing, but were unable to check on her or get information. The couple soon started looking for a better solution.

"One time in cargo was enough for us," Binder said, walking through an airplane hangar as Zoe trotted in front of her. "We wanted to do something better."

The company, which will begin with one flight in each of its five cities, is looking to add more flights and cities soon. In the next three years, Binder hopes to fly to 25 locations.

Among the big U.S. carriers that offer pet services, AirTran, Spirit, Southwest and JetBlue only allow pets to fly in the cabin. Most U.S. airlines charge between $100 and $125, but Delta and Northwest charge $150 for cabin trips. AirTran is the cheapest among big carriers at $69.

The charge is more to fly in the cargo or check-baggage holds. Delta and Northwest are the most expensive at $275. Alaska Airlines and Midwest charge the least, at $100. Frontier prices its checked pets fees between $100 and $200 and only takes pets as checked baggage.

Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com, questions the viability of an airline with such a specific niche.

"I'm not sure how sustainable it is," she said. "But if people are trying to go for a first-class service, it could make sense."

She said the service's popularity could spike in peak summer or winter months when airlines in some areas don't allow pets to travel.

Betsy Saul, co-founder of Petfinder.com, which has ranked the pet-friendliness of airlines for three years, said she's excited about the expected impact Pet Airways will have on pet travel across major airlines.

"The entire industry will stretch because of Pet Airways," she said. "It's a challenge that says 'let's make this (experience) better for pets.'"

 

Getaways - Web Sources Can Save You Money on Vacations

by Alexandra Zega

vacation-7-10-homespunSaving money on a summer vacation used to be a matter of personal discretion. Today, it’s a science, part of a massive U.S. travel-advice industry with thousands of analysts, organizations, publications and websites.

“The bad economy has cut into household travel budgets, and more people are staying closer to home, but this is actually a great time to save,” said Los Angeles-based travel consultant Mark Katz. “There’s never been so much information available to travelers, and since the industry is competing for every tourist dollar, there are many great deals.

“I call it a traveler’s market.”

The bargains are out there.

“Those who do vacation this summer will find a plethora of attractive discounts and special offers resulting in some outstanding vacation values,” said Robert L. Darbelnet, AAA president and CEO. “If you can afford to go, this summer is a smart time to travel.”

But where to start if you’re looking to save money while enjoying some quality time or family fun in a recession-battered economy? Travel magazines and books contain valuable tips, but the Internet is today’s travel planner of choice, according to industry experts.

A Google search of “saving on summer vacation” brings up 41,600,000 results. Changing “vacation” to “travel” balloons results to 121,000,000. A search of “businesses” and “travel advice” produces 99,500,000.

Bargain-hunters can whittle down the myriad options with specific keywords and knowledge of travel-niche websites.

If you’re going the Google or Yahoo search-engine route, narrow things down. For example, don’t search for “Yosemite lodgings.” Get specific with “discount motels near Yosemite National Park.”

Want to know the price of gas where you’re going? Try www.gasbuddy.com to get a reading in all 50 states. AAA’s www.fuelcostcalculator.com can calculate fuel costs along a given travel route. AAA also has a link to map out the most-direct driving route (www.csaa.com).

One area that was once the near-exclusive domain of AAA is the pre-vacation car checklist-things to do to your motor vehicle to ensure money-saving performance. Now, scores of auto-repair chains, safety organizations and travel groups publish such checklists, but the basics remain the same when it comes to saving on fuel costs:

-Underinflated tires hinder gas mileage, picking your pocket at the gas pump. Keep tires at pressures recommended in your car owner’s manual to improve gas mileage by up to 5%.
-Use the grade of oil recommended in the owner’s manual, and you’ll likely see a 2% improvement in gas mileage.
-Do you really need four sweaters for that weeklong stay on the Monterey Peninsula? Lightening up the luggage will reduce car weight and through-the-air drag, another potential 2% bonus on gas mileage.
-Other fuel-mileage savers include a full-service engine tune-up, easing up on the gas pedal and cutting back on hard-braking maneuvers.

Most car adjustments and safety checks you can do yourself. If you want a professional mechanic to do the job, that’s OK. But check the newspaper and Internet before going to your favorite gas station or auto-service shop. Many have special deals and coupons this time of year.

High gasoline costs have prompted a new wave of ventures designed to help everyone from “staycationers”-those opting for vacations at home or close to home-to long-haul travelers save money at gas pumps.

Petrofix, a newly formed San Francisco company, enables customers to buy gas at a fixed price without locking them in if prices fall.

At www.petrofix.com, customers can quickly buy gas “coverage” at a rate that fits their driving habits. Plans vary in length-three months, six months, a year or longer-and customers can get gas at any station in the nation as usual.

If gas prices go up, Petrofix pays customers the difference by check or credit card at the end of the month. If gas prices go down, customers are not locked into a specific rate and still benefit from lower pump prices.

Roadside-assistance programs have taken some of the worry out of car breakdowns on long-distance car vacations, but not everyone has them. Car repair hundreds of miles from home can bust the travel budget and spoil a vacation. RepairPal is among the recent arrivals offering relief.

Founded in 2007 in Emeryville, Calif., the RepairPal site (www.repairpal.com) provides information on how much you should pay for a specific repair on your vehicle. The database includes more than 173,000 shops nationwide, covering most cars manufactured after 1990. The RepairPal application for iPhone users can be downloaded free at the iPhone App Store.

Car costs are key, but food and lodgings also take big bites out of the vacation budget.

Most travelers know that dinner at Denny’s is going to cost far less than an evening meal at a four-star restaurant. But AAA also noted that many restaurants offer deals for seniors as young as 55, and in some places, children under the age of 12 eat free.

Surfing major restaurant chain sites online typically turns up coupons. Also, when you drive into an unfamiliar town, grab the local newspaper and see if any restaurants are offering deals in their ads. Don’t be afraid to ask the locals about discount dining.

The experts agree on lodgings: Do this planning well in advance, not on the road.

The good news is that decreased summer travel has pumped up the availability of discounted motel/hotel rooms on travel websites, including www.hotels.com. A scan of the site found hundreds of rooms available for $60 or less nationwide, some of them near resort areas.

Other sites go beyond lodgings. Travel-specific sites such as www.travelocity.com, www.orbitz.com, www.expedia.com, www.hotwire.com and www.priceline.com offer bargains on not only rooms, but air travel and rental cars. If your schedule is fluid, these sites feature deep discounts on air/hotel/rental car packages.

Be aware, however: Some travel sites include booking fees and nonrefundable deals. Look carefully at the fine print before clicking on the “purchase” button.

 

 

 

 

©2009, By Mark Glover, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).

Safety Tips for Firing Up This Fourth of July

by Alexandra Zega

 

barbeque_consumer_topAccording to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association (HPBA) more than two-thirds of Americans will fire up their grill, smoker or fryer for the Independence Day holiday this year, the most popular outdoor cooking holiday. Blue Rhino, a leading brand of propane tank exchange, offers some cookout safety & preparation tips for your propane grill, making sure you are ready for your backyard celebration.

Gas Grill Cookout Preparation & Safety Tips:

Make Sure Your Tank is Ready:

- A damaged tank - consumers should not try to repair damaged tanks.
- Obsolete tanks - tanks with round- or star-shaped handwheels do not contain Overfill Prevention Devices (OPD) and can no longer be filled.
- Empty tanks - You can get a fresh, ready to grill tank that includes an OPD.

Transport Your Tank Safely - After you buy your tank, secure it upright in a well-ventilated area of your vehicle. Take it directly to the point of use.

Check for Leaks - When attaching your tank to the grill, use soapy water to check the tank and valve for leaks. Open the valve but leave the appliance off while testing. Don’t use a match or open flame to check for leaks. Blue Rhino includes safety and leak checking information on the side of your tank to help.

Lighting Your Grill - Before lighting, always refer to the grill manufacturer’s safety and operating instructions.

Tank Storage - When you store a tank, be sure to keep it in an upright, vertical position. Never store tanks in a garage, building, or enclosed area. Never store an extra tank under your grill.

For more tips, visit www.bluerhino.com.

 

How to Celebrate with Style on July 4th

by Alexandra Zega

4th_of_julyFourth of July entertaining doesn’t have to mean carting out the box of American flag decor and cutesy gadgets with red-white-and-blue everything.

Make your decor go farther by staying away from the flag accessories you can only use once a year. Instead, buy things in solid colors that you could use throughout the year. It’s a great excuse for buying that red vase you’ve been coveting. Or consider mixing it up by varying one of the colors. For instance, we used a light blue instead of a traditional royal blue. And other colors aren’t off-limits: think the yellow of daisies and lemonade.

Cathy Weldon, owner of the Porch in the Soulard neighborhood of St. Louis, says Fourth of July decor is more sophisticated this year. “People are going toward stuff that’s not so gimmicky. You can use it in different areas of the home throughout the year. In this economy, things have to do double-duty. Solid colors work really well for that.”

You can use these tips to decorate a quiet table on your front porch or several picnic tables at your local park.

Lighting. Don’t forget that at least part of your party will be under the stars (and fireworks!) outdoors. You’ll need outdoor lighting that makes sense. Consider paper lanterns or consider stringing up white or blue Christmas lights.

Centerpiece. A simple vase adorned with hypericum, blue delphinium and white hydrangeas sets the tone for this outdoor party. You could also try daisies or geraniums or a combination of carnations.

Place Settings. You probably have some white plates in your cabinets. Pull them out. Yes, even the fancy ones. We got a set from Home Goods for $6.99 each. Placed on top of a round red placemat ($1.99 each) at Bed, Bath & Beyond, they take on a more casual look. For the tablecloth, we used a couple of yards of light blue drapery fabric from Hancock Fabrics. For the napkins, we made cloth napkins from the same fabric and tied them with red striped ribbon.

Music. Here are some great ideas from evite.com:
1. “Freedom” by George Michael
2. “I’m Free” by The Soup Dragons
3. “Pink Houses” by John Mellencamp
4. “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood
5. “American Girl” by Tom Petty
6. “America” by Neil Diamond
7. “Me and Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin
8. “Rockin’ in the Free World” by Neil Young
9. “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie
10. “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Jimi Hendrix

Food. Most people like a good barbecue - hot dogs, burgers, brats - for the Fourth. You could consider an old-fashioned New England-style clambake or simple finger foods instead. Add a little flair to sandwiches by taking various ribbons and wrapping them around toothpicks. Secure with a little hot glue.

For dessert, try a white sheet cake with raspberries and blueberries arranged to resemble an American flag or go light and serve fruit salad in a hollowed-out watermelon.

But remember, it’s hot outside, so be sure your food doesn’t spoil. Keep all perishable food in bowls over ice or in a cooler.

Statement makers:
Cupcakes
For a standout piece on your table, try this cupcake combo. The kids will love the cupcakes baked in red and blue holders ($2.09 for a package of 75 red, blue and yellow) at a cake supply shop. Top with white icing and raspberries (or blueberries).

Next, arrange them on a cake plate and top with fondant stars ($9.99 for the fondant; $2.49 for the star cookie cutters) at Michael’s.

Arrange on top of two cake plates. On the large one ($16.99) at HomeGoods, we threaded a gingham ribbon. We stacked a smaller white cake plate on top ($7.99) at HomeGoods. You could also add a little zing with sparklers, which make dazzling decorations for any cakes or cupcakes.

But think safety first: Be sure to keep them out of children’s hands.

Games. The good thing about the Fourth of July is that the entertainment is often built-in with fireworks displays doing the heavy lifting. But while you are waiting for the sun to set, consider a game of water balloon toss with red, white and blue balloons.

 

 

©2009, Amy Bertrand, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

 

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