Life is about taking risks and finding the hidden reward

megs beach135It started out as a quiet Friday, just like any other before a holiday weekend. We chatted about our Easter plans hundreds of miles apart. Megs in CT home for Easter break and me in South Bend, Indiana, trying to make it in my first TV job post college. My weekend was a little less exciting. Just a soccer game, followed by a sleepless night that I passed up to too much Gatorade. Megs was home on Easter break, ready to enjoy life with friends after a week studying for exams and interviewing for teaching jobs with graduation just a few weeks away.

MegsIn a flash, it all didn’t matter. Megs was gone, and my sleepless night made sense. When the phone rang in the middle of the night to alert me to the accident, I picked it up on the second ring already wide awake for some unknown reason. After all, it wasn’t too much Gatorade. It was that sick sense shared between sisters that something terribly was wrong. Megs wasn’t coming for another visit. The woman I knew was gone forever, remembered only in my heart.

Instantly I thought back to our visit two weeks prior in Syracuse, the surprise Christmas trip, and previous summer vacation. Three occasions where we put each other first and visited each other spending quality time. We both had no money, but put our sisterly bond first and saved up to make our trips possible.

MegsMegs drove through an ice storm to come to Syracuse to hang with my friends, which with Megs meant “our” friends. Being so close in age, we shared and got along with each other’s friends. My college friends embraced Megs when she visited her big — actually little in stature — sister. I’m reminded of that last trip in horrible winter weather every March. Megs came to Syracuse to watch the ‘Cuse advance to the Final Four. She didn’t care about my team, just sister time. Every March Madness I am now reminded of that amazing risk she took driving through terrible weather. The memories are the best reward. That was the last time I saw Megs alive. She was killed two weeks later.

skydivingThe previous summer we took a leap of faith and jumped out of an airplane in an awesome girls weekend. Something I will forever cherish.

It’s been 11 years, and this weekend is exactly as it was then. Good Friday followed by the day of shock and then Easter on Sunday. A day that will forever be marred by the memory of picking out caskets. Not exactly what I thought I would be doing for my 21 year old sister. Easter will never be the same for me.

It’s been a long, challenging road full of twists and turns. It took many years to collect myself, contain my anger over the injustice of what happened, and open my heart so I could love again. I lost the closest thing to me — the person who could answer my sentences — and knew me inside out. The years of legal maneuvers leading up to the trial, then an early release, and request to end  probation early weighed heavily on me. Just when I thought I was doing better, there was a new and unexpected legal fight. I found it hard to heal constantly dealing with the court system, but I vowed to never stop fighting for Megs. None of it really mattered. Nothing would return what I lost, but I committed myself to standing up for my sister. Finally, about seven years after Megs was killed I was able to begin the healing process.

Wedding sunset with heartI had to find my new normal. My husband helped me find that. He taught me how to love again. Not only love another person but love life again. I continued to pursue my career, and dragged him along the way.  Having been through his own significant loss, we both know what life is really about. If anything, we have gained new perspective on life from our losses.

In the TV business, it is easy to get caught up in the numbers especially the size of a market. Last year, I faced a turning point. Move to a city because it was simply a bigger market or move to a city that offered a better lifestyle. We took a risk, and packed up our belongings and moved to Florida.

There were many critics along the way who told me I was making a huge mistake. I ignored them. You get used to ignoring critics after you’ve lost someone so close and so suddenly.  Throughout the last eleven years, plenty of people have told me how I should be grieving and handling the stress and emotion that accompanied my loss in. Plenty of people also told me why I lost my sister even though there is no reason. It was bad luck and bad timing. Megs was on the wrong road at the wrong time. I once again ignored the critics, and listened to my heart and the guidance of my closest friends who have stood by me for eleven tough years.

imageAs my windshield wipers dried up the last of the raindrops on my windshield, a rainbow appeared in the road in as I drove the last few miles in Ohio. I had hundreds of more miles to drive to Florida, but that rainbow was a sign to me that I knew I was making the right choice. Sunshine awaited to wipe away all the tears and agony of the last eleven years.

Fast forward a year, I am living in a city and state I should have moved to years ago. It is not about the size of a city, but the circumstance. I am working at a TV station that is the dominant leader in the market and state, and exposing stories and issues that haven’t been exposed for years in this community. I feel I am making a difference in a place I am happy to finally call home.

megs beach139The beach. The sun. The warmth. What is not to love?

A place that reminds me of Megs. She went to school on the beach, and loved all it had to offer.

Losing Megs was the worst thing in my life. It turned my life upside down. That being said, I learned the true value of life. I am the first to admit my life probably would not be what it is today if she were still here. I probably would have chased an elusive dream rather than focusing on my husband and the personal things in life that fulfill us.

jenn and meg

Life takes unexpected twists and turns. I never expected the dark path I would have to walk. Luckily, Megs left a few angels to walk that path with me. In honor of Megs, live each day to the fullest and take risks. They lead to the greatest rewards.

imageThanks to all my friends who guided and pushed me along the last 11 years. Some of you never knew Megs, and those of you who did still stick by me knowing the scar sometimes still bleeds often at the most unexpected times. Thanks to all who still remember a young woman who touched so many of us in her short time.

imageMy friends have given me so much. You allowed me to walk this painful journey and guided me as I took a big risk. Now I want to give back to you. Come visit me in Paradise. A place where I feel closest to the sister I love no matter how long ago I lost her.

 

 

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Fill up at the rental car counter or at the gas pump?

hertzWhen you rent a car, you’re bombarded with questions from upgrades to insurance. I always say no to everything including the gas, but I recently thought twice about saying yes. The salesman told me the pre-pay gas price was cheaper than nearby gas stations. The price of gas seemed cheap on the sign behind the counter, but I wasn’t willing to take the risk. After all, I’ve always been told to say no to all the add-ons at the rental car counter. How did I know the gas at the counter really was cheaper?

As a consumer reporter, I have a natural skepticism toward the rental car salesman. I’ve done stories with drivers who dropped off their car flawless only to be billed later for damages they say they didn’t cause. Some companies are even requiring receipts for gas to make sure you fill up the tank close to the airport and don’t get a few extra miles out of that full tank of gas.

On my way back to the airport, I filled up at a nearby gas station. The price I paid was a few cents more than the one I saw previously posted at the airport rental car counter. It made me think. Maybe this was something to consider the next time I rent a car.

Before I do it, or suggest you do it, ask many questions. Make sure the price listed is the TOTAL price you will pay per gallon. Make sure there are not additional taxes or fees. Also, ask if that price is valid regardless of whether you need a full or half tank of gas. Finally, get the offer in writing to make sure you won’t be charged later.

I wasn’t ready to experiment with this during my last rental, but I might explore it next time around. I’ll at least ask a few questions to consider whether it’s really a good deal.

hotels charging for items

bed for saleI don’t like to pay full price for hotels, and gladly share my tricks for saving. However, is the hotel business that bad that they need to sell everything in the room from the shower head to the alarm clock?

Many high end stores are even expanding beyond the items you’ll find in a hotel room. They want your hotel to seem as comfortable as your room at home. I might look at the style at a hotel chain like W Hotels or Westin, because they are high-end or luxurious brands. They sell their amenities in online stores, and offer much more than what you’ll find in the hotel room. W Hotels sells jewelry, and the West Hotel Collection is having a summer sale on its products.

This trend of selling products seen in a hotel room is not reserved for luxurious hotel chains. I recently saw a budget hotel making a pitch. I don’t feel luxurious at a budget hotel. I feel like I’m getting a good deal, but that’s about it.

alarm clock for saleAt a low end hotel that I stopped in on my way to Florida, the hotel was selling everything from the alarm clock to the ironing board. Is that really necessary? It wasn’t a fancy alarm clock. It was a clock radio just like the one I’ve had at home for years. Only, the one at home was nicer and cheaper. The hotel wanted $25 for an alarm clock. Really? You can find similar ones for $10 at retailers.

coffeemaker for saleIt gets worse. The hotel wanted $50 for the coffee maker. This wasn’t a Keurig. Just a basic coffeemaker. A similar pot is sold at retailers for less than $20. More than 50% markup is a pretty good profit margin for a hotel.

The hotel chain sold items from $25 to $80. While many were ripoffs, the $80 comforter actually isn’t a bad deal. Those can cost $100, but rest assured the store bought $100 comforters are thicker.

hotel items for saleIs anyone really buying, though? The sign says that due to the increasing popularity of the guest room amenities, the housekeeping staff now offers them for sale. Maybe it’s to prevent theft. The fine print at the bottom of the sign reads, “Each guest room attendant is responsible for maintaining the guest room items. Should you decide to take these items from your room instead of obtaining them from the Executive Housekeeper, we will assume you approve a corresponding charges to your account.” Sounds to me like you’ve been warned. Don’t steal the towels, coffee pot, or ironing board!

What’s next?! Pretty soon they’ll be charging me for the soaps and shampoos that they put out for guests to use. Of course, I always take the supplied ones for my travel stash. At this rate, that amenity will soon cost me $10.

I like my hotel to be cozy and as homey as possible, but I’m never going to fall in love with the products in a room that will make me want to buy them. What about you? Join the conversation.

Related links you may like:
A new hotel amenity?
Airport parking that won’t break your travel budget
Picture perfect honeymoon – best research sites
Tipping habits – have yours changed with the economy

Saving money on vacation: ask for a “life” discount

New ZealandBooking a hotel for a vacation or just one night is never an easy task in my house. I like to save, and don’t like to pay full price. I scour websites for the best prices and dates to travel (if my dates are flexible). Sometimes, you just can’t find a deal especially if it’s a vacation hot spot. Before you give up, pick up the phone and ask for the discount you need.

In this day and age, picking up the phone and calling a hotel seems so ten years ago. For years, my bargain strategies began and ended online. Priceline was my best money saving tool for years. I always bid $25-40 in a big city, and typically get well known hotels. I once told a hotel employee this, and she gasped. I usually just gasp in excitement. Why pay $150 for a room when I can get it for $40?

Lately, Priceline hasn’t been cutting it for me. I think the hotels are catching on to cheapskates like me. They haven’t been as willing to sell me that $40 hotel room. I’ve had to look for other options.

My other option is the phone. We were booking our one-year anniversary getaway and noticed some hotels in Florida offer discounts for Florida residents. I called up the hotel we really wanted, and told them we were down to two hotels and that the other one offers a Florida residency discount. I then said, “This trip is for our one-year anniversary. Do you offer any of these discounts?” Within minutes, I saved $60 off the lowest advertised price for the resort.

This brings up another tip for newlyweds on their honeymoon. Tell everyone it’s your honeymoon. You will get all kinds of perks and freebies. The travel industry wants you to enjoy your trip, and they want you to make honeymoon memories so you’ll come back again.

IMG_7090Unbeknownst to us, our New Zealand travel agent told the hotels it was our honeymoon even though we really got married seven months prior. We told our travel agent we were newlyweds, never imagining it would get us upgrades in New Zealand so long after our wedding. It was a great surprise hearing “Congratulations on your wedding” from the reception desk throughout our trip. We got room upgrade and free commemorative gifts. It’s something we’ll always remember. 

We got an even bigger kick out of it because of the couple they congratulated. I booked the trip, and used my maiden name. So, “Mr. and Mrs. Strathman” were congratulated for their wedding. It made us chuckle.

There are unadvertised deals out there. You just have to know what to ask for. Don’t forget to ask for a “life” discount.

 

Extreme changes to eBay coupon policy limiting resale

The controversy over extreme couponing practices continues. This time, eBay is the target of the anger. For years, couponers have sold their surplus coupons on eBay, but the website is making changes to its policy that will make it harder to make money. Just like when a grocer changes its coupon policy, there is outrage.

Under the new policy, sellers will be restricted to a monthly maximum of coupons valued up to $100 or 25 valid, unexpired, original coupons. The limit you reach first will be the one that is enforced. Previously, couponers sold multiple coupons under one listing. You’ll still be limited to 25 coupons even if they are all sold in bulk under one listing.

If you have a coupon for a free product or a buy one get one free (BOGO) offer, you can’t sell it. Those are some of couponers favorite coupons.

The changes start September 1, and any listing that violates the new policy will be removed. Also, the seller could have their buying and selling privileges restricted or suspended.

Couponers are sounding off on eBay’s community forum saying their business will shut down and they’ll lose money. It’s a big reversal in policy, but it’s one some advocates say is long overdue because the rules have been bent for years.

Most coupons say they are void if sold or transferred. To get around the fine print, eBay sellers put a disclaimer on their postings. It often said the coupon price was not for the value of the coupons but for the seller’s time spent clipping the coupons. The disclaimer outraged ethical couponers. For a story I did on this issue in 2011, the Coupon Information Corporation said, “The CIC said disclaimers “prove that the seller / auctioneer knows that their illicit coupon sales are inapropriate, wrong.”

There’s always been a push for eBay to police the coupon selling, but it never happened until now.

What do you think of the changes? Join the conversation by commenting below. 

 

 

Shining a light on ripoffs in the sunshine state

west palm beachIt’s been a busy few months. My husband and I recently hit the road driving from Ohio to Florida, where we are making our new home. Instead of blogging about consumer tips, I’ve been putting them to use getting our car ready for the 1200 mile road trip and hiring a moving company to help us unload our belongings. Over the next few weeks, you’ll notice a few consumer thoughts and tidbits that popped in my mind during the 18 hour drive. After all, this blog is about my life as a consumer with the insight of a reporter who has been covering these issues for 13 years.

headshot 2I am excited to be in South Florida, the epicenter of many consumer issues. Many of the biggest national ripoffs I’ve covered as a reporter, originated in Florida. I’m glad to be here to expose some of these schemes and to help South Florida consumers.

I’ve already picked up on how rampant the fraud is here. The good news — there are many arrests for it. In some states, consumer fraud is rarely investigated or prosecuted. That’s not the case here. There are also many agencies trying to educate consumers to prevent them from becoming a victim. Despite all the efforts to curb the fraud, it’s still prevalent and a threat to consumers. That’s why NewsChannel 5 is is launching the Contact 5 Consumer Watchdog.

helping in floridaI’m already working with many South Florida and Treasure Coast residents. In a way, I feel like I’m back home in the Northeast. Every day I speak with someone from New York. I’ve even met many people from my home state of Connecticut. We’re already getting action for people, and I look forward to helping even more people.

You can find me on Florida’s #1 station, WPTV. My Contact 5 Consumer Watchdog reports will start in August. Until then, stay connected on Facebook and Twitter. Let me know if you have a consumer issue, or think I should look into a new trend or ripoff. I look forward to working with you, and warning you of ripoffs.

Dealing with debt collectors

moneySince the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau started it’s slowly broadened its scope addressing issues with additional financial products. When a consumer runs into financial issues and can’t pay their bills, debt collectors begin their calls. Debts are often sold to third party’s, and collection efforts can be intense. To make sure you are not taken advantage of, the CFPB is empowering consumers with letters you can use to make sure your rights are not violated. 

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created five action letters that you can use to reply to a debt collector. The letters will help you obtain valuable information about the claims being made, and empower you so the debt collector can’t take advantage of you. 

If you need more information on your debt, you should send the CFPB’s first letter. It’s called the “need more information letter.” The letter says you are disputing the charges until the collection agency answers specific questions about the debt.

The second letter is the “dispute and proof” letter. It tells the collector to stop contacting you until they show evidence that you are responsible for the debt. This may be an option for you if you don’t want to talk about the debt until you have information that verifies the debt.

The “contact restriction” letter allows you to tell the collector how you would like to be contacted. Under the law, you can’t get calls about a debt at a time or place that the collector knows is inconvenient.

If you hire a lawyer to help with your case, send the “hired a lawyer” letter. That way all future correspondence is with your legal representation.

The “stop contact” letter tells the collector to stop all communication. That won’t cancel the debt, and could be sued for it. It’s something you might want to use if you feel you are being harassed by the debt collector.

If an issue arises with a debt collector related to any consumer debt, including credit cards, mortgages, auto loans, medical bills, and student loans you can file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. You can file for the collector and the company who you originally held the account.

 

Google Reader alternatives

Google ReaderGoogle Reader is disappearing in a week (July 1), so you need to find a new RSS reader if you haven’t found one already.

Google says it’s getting rid of its reader program because usage declined. The company is putting all its energy into a few products so it can make the user experience better for the remaining programs.

feedlyI chose to switch to Feedly. You simply allow the site to access your Google Reader account like you would any other app on Facebook. It takes just seconds to import your files.

I think this process is easier than exporting your information on Google Takeout. I tried this as well, and it creates a zip file with your contacts and feed information. However, I’m not sure how you import this into Feedly at this point. I’m not a computer whiz, so I opted to let Feedly do the accessing and work for me.

Feedly is all about enhancing the user experience. The company added new servers and created 10x more bandwidth to deal with the influx of users. Also, the company wants to hear about your experience on the new site and new releases will be pushed out weekly. It looks like this is one company hoping to capitalize on another one that’s fading away.

feedly picturesYou can select  how you want to view your content. You can do it in a list format or with pictures.

Of course, Feedly is not the only option for former Google Reader users. It depends on what you are looking for as some options are only available in a mobile format. Let me know what you choose and your experience as we say goodbye to Google Reader.

 

Facebook rolls out new design for news feed

Facebook Timeline updateFacebook is slowly rolling out changes to your news feed, but this new design may not leave you grumbling like all the other changes. Unlike previous design updates, this layout one is intuitive and easy to figure out. It allows you to customize your feed based on your interests and viewing habits.

facebook photos newsfeedI think the new design features a cleaner look that’s customizable based on what you want to see. The stories and photos in your feed are bigger. You can also customize your news feed on the right hand side. You can select recent, all friends, or just photos. When you select photos only, your news feed is filled with large photos that your friends posted. The photos are vivid and large. It’s like a slideshow of your friends lives. It’s so customizable, you could view photos only from people you went to school with or your work colleagues. It’s all based on groups you create. You can also choose a news feed based on music or games. It’s all based on your interest or mood at the time.

new timeline 2 edited There is a sidebar full of icons that allow you to easily navigate to the other sections of Facebook like events, photos, and messages. There is even an icon to build a family tree.

News feed family tree icon The family tree is not an app, but you need to add it to your timeline. You can build it right on the web. You click add a family member, and Facebook automatically populates possible people. It’s pretty accurate, and based on your previous interactions and mentions. You can even get stats on your family, like age distribution, gender distribution, alive/deceased.

Facebook is trying to get you to spend more time on their site. While the family tree is an interesting feature, you need to consider what you are telling the social media site and all your friends. At some point, you need to consider what to share and what not to share. Privacy is becoming more of a privilege than a right, and we’re partly to blame. While social media sites make it easier to share and connect, the more we share the more we give up our right to privacy.

The family tree is a neat feature, because it makes it easy to see how you’re connected to loved ones. It’s visually laid out for you. However, think about what you’re doing and how much of your privacy you’re compromising.

privacy settings

Whenever changes are made, it’s a good idea to check your privacy settings. You can do this by clicking at the top of your Facebook page and choosing Settings. Then click privacy from the left hand column. You can also find privacy settings as a lock icon in the sidebar.

Most of these changes seem to effect your news feed only. The Timeline page looks the same, other than the icons that are on the left allowing you to navigate to different sections of Facebook.

My husband got the new look this weekend, but I still don’t have it. If you want to get it earlier than scheduled for your Timeline, you can add your name to the waiting list.

Facebook explains the new design here. What do you think of the changes?

Related links you may like: 
Facebook Timeline 101
How to use Facebook Graph Search
Facebook Timeline privacy