Category Archives: Consumer Tips

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. 



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.


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

17.7 million Borders gift cards are worthless

borders booksGift cards are a popular gift despite the fact that many go un-redeemed. Most of the time the cards don’t get used because consumers forget about them or lose the card. Stores going out of business are another problem, and a court ruling isn’t giving consumers much hope that their gift card is worth anything when a store closes.

There are more than 17.7 million Borders gift cards that were never used and a judge decided those customers will not get a refund. There are many reasons for the decision including issues over paperwork and whether it was filed in a timely manner.

The value of the unused cards is estimated at over $210 million. That’s a lot of money that consumers invested in a defunct company. It raises questions about whether a gift card is really the best gift. It’s a debate we have every holiday season as analysts predict which stores may be defunct within six months.

I still think gift cards are a good idea if you have no others. If you get one and don’t feel you’ll use it, then sell it. There are several sites like Gift Card Granny and Plastic Jungle that allow you to sell and buy cards at a discount. As soon as you hear about a store closing or liquidating its goods, sell fast so you don’t lose your money.

Mother’s Day gift ideas

flowers - gerber - assortedMother’s Day is just around the corner, and now is the time to cash in on savings. Flowers are one of the easiest and best gifts for most moms. My mom loves flowers, and gets them whenever she can come up with a reason to get them. I’ve been the receiver, “Just because.” So, of course they are to of the list for Mother’s Day gifts. Hopefully she’s not reading this.

ProFlowers is my favorite go to florist. They deliver all over the United States. I think they deliver a good product. I will say I have received a few bad bunches, mostly roses, from the company. I complained and was offered another bunch or a refund. The company’s customer service is top notch.

I’ve heard people grumble about these flowers, so let’s be clear upfront. The flowers arrive in a box. The receiver has to cut the stems and put them in water. Sometimes you get a vase. Sometimes you don’t. It depends on the promotions and whether the giver paid for one if it wasn’t free.

If that’s not for you, call a local florist where your mom or loved one lives. Do not order the arrangement online. Call and request certain flowers and a dollar amount. You usually get a better bouquet than just ordering the standard one online. If you develop a rapport with the florist over the years, they will take care of you each time. Make sure you ask about shipping, because it’s often up to $10 extra.

Shipping with ProFlowers is a bit expensive. It’s like $12 which seems like a ripoff, but it is what it is. You are going to pay for it most places.

The company is running all sorts of deals right now. I saw 20% off on Facebook. I’ve gotten VIP emails, and there is a LivingSocial deal. You pay $15 for a $30 discount. To figure out which offer will give you the most savings, pick out an arrangement ahead of time and figure out your budget.

If your budget is around $50, the LivingSocial deal will probably offer you the most savings. If you are going to spend $100, try the 20% off deals.

People always worry, as competitors have done this, that the daily deal site offers are more expensive than ordering normally off the website. While there is a special website for the deal,, I compared the prices and they are about the same.

You are only allowed one LivingSocial deal per email address or registered user.  So, a hubby and wife may need to buy the offer to take care of both moms.

If you live in town, how about picking out the arrangement yourself. Costco sells beautiful flowers for less than $20. They have exotic looking ones with bright colors and roses. You can pick them up last minute, too.

I tend to buy something that lasts. While the arrangements look better than a potted plant, I think plants are a better option because they will show your mom love week after week.

You can even buy an exotic looking potted plant by going with an orchid. They are beautiful plants, and you can get a decent one at Costco or a big box home improvement store for less than $20.

It’s not the size of the gift, but the beauty of it. Get one that will last for weeks and months to come.


Dispose of old medication this weekend

Prescription medicationsSpring weather will finally arrive this weekend, which makes it a great time to do some spring cleaning. Grab your expired medication and get it destroyed for free. Old medicine should not be thrown in the trash because it can contaminate our drinking water and environment. That’s why the Drug Enforcement Administration is teaming up with law enforcement agencies across the country to help you properly dispose of your old medicine.

In the last five years, the program has discarded over 2 million pounds of expired or unwanted medication. This helps the environment and also the community. Pill popping is becoming a problem in many parts of the country. Thieves have even broken into homes where they know there are pain medications stored. That’s why it’s important to get rid of old medication the proper way.

The event will happen across the country this Saturday, April 27 from 10 AM until 2 PM. Click here to find a location near your home.


Earth Day freebies

sunset mtnIf you’re willing to help keep the Earth green this Earth Day, you can keep that green money in your pocket. Businesses are offering freebies to help celebrate this environmental holiday.

Caribou Coffee is offering a free coffee of the day when you bring in a reusable mug / cup. Some stores recently closed so check to make sure your location is still open before you waste gas to get there. Now that wouldn’t be green!

You can also visit a National Park for free. This offer runs through April 26. The Park Service said that with 401 parks across the country, every American is less than 100 miles from a park. Click here to find one nearby.

The Body Shop is giving away a free 8.4 oz Earth Lovers Cucumber and Mint body gel with a purchase.  The coupon code is 3Minute or print off the coupon for an in store purchase. The gel is part of a college YouTube promotion to get students to cut their shower to just three minutes. The Body Shop said if everyone took the 3 minute shower challenge, the average person would save nearly 50 gallons of water per shower. Studies show a typical shower uses roughly 7 gallons of water a minute.

Grab those plastic bags and recycle them at the Disney Store to receive a free reusable tote bag. There will be 200 bags available per store. The bags are made from 80% recycled materials.

Pottery Barn Kids is giving away free seeds for kids to plant. The offer will be valid while supplies last. The store is also having a sale on lunch bags and storage containers. If your family is acting in a green way, enter a photo for the chance to win one of three $100 gift cards to Pottery Barn Kids. Details on the store’s Facebook page.

If freebies are not for you, how about donating / recycling an item so someone else can get a free item? We replace sneakers yearly if not more often. What do you do with all your old pairs? There are three great ways to get rid of those old sneakers that are collecting dust in your closet.

Nike offers a “Reuse-A-Shoe” program. You can dropoff your shoes at U.S. Nike and Converse stores, and they are recycled. The shoes are ground down and used in sports facilities and in new shoes. More than 1.5 pairs of shoes are recycled each year. If you don’t live near a dropoff location, you can mail your shoes to: 
Nike Grind Processing
3552 Avenue of Commerce
Memphis, TN 38125

If you want to help someone in need, Soles 4 Souls might be the organization to donate your old shoes. The organization started after the 2004 tsunami that hit Southeast Asia. Click here for a list of dropoff locations.

One World Running promotes awareness of health, fitness, and nutrition by giving sneakers to underprivileged communities. Click here for a list of dropoff locations.