By Gregory Karp
Identity theft protection, TV antennas, light bulbs and home heating myths are just a few of the Spending Smart topics we explored this year, along with how to speed through airport security, get free books and college courses, and avoid wasting money on mobile phones.
In abbreviated form, here is the top Spending Smart money advice from 2014, based on reader feedback, uniqueness of the advice and our own favorites.
Hackers and ID theft.
Perhaps the biggest consumer issue in 2014 was the plethora of credit card breaches, many involving stolen payment card numbers from retailers. Scary stuff, and readers were understandably alarmed.
But here’s the main takeaway: Credit monitoring, the centerpiece of many identity theft services, will not help one iota with stolen debit and credit card numbers, although a retailer’s knee-jerk reaction is to offer credit monitoring to customers who suffered a breach.
Fraudulent charges don’t show up on credit reports, and thieves don’t have enough information to open new credit accounts in your name. It’s like offering to X-ray your big toe to check for a sinus infection. The best advice is always free.
Check your card statements for unusual charges and, if found, report them to your card issuer. The phone number is usually on the back of the card. Overall, be skeptical when buying identity theft services; many consumer groups are lukewarm to hostile toward them.
Services that tout ID theft prevention and protection are overreaching. They mostly help you only after identity theft has happened. Check your credit reports for fraud yourself at annualcreditreport.com, one report free from each of three credit bureaus once a year.
Readers seem to love learning more about an old-fashioned, and free, way to get TV programming, with an over-the-air antenna.
Many shared that they cut the cord from the cable company and are thrilled about it. “Thank you for your article regarding TV antennas,” one reader wrote. “I was unaware of the current technology. I just purchased an antenna for $18, small multidirectional, at Best Buy.
It works as advertised with excellent reception.” Indoor antennas are less intrusive than ever, some are flat and wall-mounted, and the picture is likely to be superior to the one you get via cable or satellite because the signal is less compressed.
An antenna can be a great complement for TV programs and movies you get online through your smart TV or with a streaming box. The downside is you only get broadcast stations with an antenna, ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, PBS but no CNN, ESPN or Discovery Channel. Antennaweb.org is a good place to get started.
In polite company, you don’t discuss politics, religion or light bulbs. A column about phasing out old bulbs lit up my email box from readers, with not only questions but stories of their own experiences, good and bad, with CFLs and LEDs.
At the beginning of the year, it became illegal to produce 40-watt and the most popular type, 60-watt, incandescents, at least those that aren’t far more energy efficient. CFL quality has improved, but some people are still furious with past disappointing results, usually with the quality of light they provide.
CFLs often don’t work well in dimmers, outdoors in cold weather and in recessed ceiling lights. They also contain a small amount of mercury. LEDs are probably the way to go, and are finally dropping into a reasonable price range, dipping under $10 per bulb.
They have the best energy efficiency, great light quality, instant brightness, better dimming than CFLs and ridiculously long life, about 25 years. Snarked one reader: “So I’m 70, how many 25-year bulbs should I buy?”
Misinformation about home heating is common, including thinking that cranking up the thermostat heats a chilly house faster. It doesn’t, and only wastes energy. Duct tape? Not good for sealing ducts.
One reader suggested the topic was a source of marital strife: “Just read your article about home heating myths. My wife pointed out every myth and justified her philosophy on heating the house. I’ll let it pass.”
Libraries are unsung gold mines in a community, and nowadays you don’t even need to leave your house to get e-books, download music and access databases. You just need a library login. “Thanks for the article about free library books,” one reader wrote. “I had no idea the Chicago Public Library offered free (electronic) magazines. Now my iPad is filled with great magazines!” Libraries are starting to buy 3-D printers, operate Internet cafes and install recording studios and video game rooms. Why buy when you can borrow instead?
Free college classes?
In other personal-enrichment news, how about free college courses by a MOOC? That stands for massive open online class, college courses taught online, some by the world’s leading experts in their fields at famous universities. Imagine taking an eight-week course on financial markets by Nobel Prize winner in economics Robert Shiller at Yale University. Or a marketing course from professors at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Or take less-academic courses, such as “Child Nutrition and Cooking” or “The Music of the Beatles.” Sit in front of your computer or watch lectures on your smartphone. Courses typically aren’t for credit and don’t lead to a degree but might offer a course-completion certificate.
The largest provider is coursera.org. Also check out aggregator class-central.com, a directory of courses at MOOC websites.
Fly through airport security.
We pay for all sorts of services to avoid hassle and stress. Should paying for TSA Precheck to speed through the fast lanes at airport security screening be one of them? Maybe. But Global Entry, for $100 instead of $85 for five years, might offer better value, giving you all the benefits of Precheck plus faster clearing through customs.
Applying for Global Entry is likely to be more hassle, though. Apply online for Precheck at tinyurl.com/precheckapp. Apply for Global Entry at tinyurl.com/globaleapp. The downside is privacy, providing information about yourself to the government and submitting to a background check.
Our smartphones have quickly become central to daily activity, but is it worth insuring them with an extended warranty? A simple, blanket answer to the warranty question, advocated by Consumer Reports, for example, is no. Besides, conventional wisdom is you shouldn’t insure against minor financial problems.
Still, if insurance holds allure, consider price, deductible and coverage. Bypass your wireless carrier and get the warranty from a third party, such as SquareTrade, or for Apple products, consider AppleCare+. Unusual tip: Check with your home insurer about adding your phone to your policy. It might provide the best value. And if you have a smartphone sitting in a drawer, especially an iPhone which holds value well, you can probably sell it online, maybe for hundreds of dollars. Check Gazelle, NextWorth and Amazon Trade-In.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Gregory Karp, the author of “Living Rich by Spending Smart,” writes for the Chicago Tribune