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YOUR BOTTOM LINE

Credit Card Contracts May Change Due to New Legislation; Tax Time Preparation: Explore Your Charitable Options; Consumers' Spending Habits Are Changing; Inexpensive Holiday Entertaining

Aired November 21, 2009 - 09:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


GERRI WILLIS, CNN HOST: Hello I'm Gerri Willis and this is YOUR BOTTOM LINE, the show that saves you money. No one likes to talk taxes, but there are smart moves you can make right now that will save you a lot of cash come April.

Get ready, get set shop. You thought last year's deals were steals? We'll tell you which retailers are planning to go all out this season. And holiday parties on a budget, the best food, the best wine at the best prices. The show that saves you money starts right now.

Have you actually ever read your credit card contract? Well, if not, you're not alone, but it has key information about what you agreed to. Most people find the documents too long, too complicated, too much of a burden.

CNN's Jessica Yellin joins us now from Washington, she found a man with a revolutionary idea of how to change these contracts -- Jessica.

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Gerri. You know, we've all heard endless horror stories about credit cardholders hit by unexpected rate hikes and penalty fees. Well, now we sat down with this one man who says your credit card agreement can be made crystal clear. He just needs Congress's help to make it a reality.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN (voice-over): Americans swipe their credit cards 58 million times a day. But how many cardholders actually understand what they've signed up for?

Some in Congress are trying to get rid of the fine print in contracts like this one...

(on camera): Can you tell me what the annual percentage rate is? What the interest is?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I haven't a clue. It doesn't say. You'd have to give me about an hour. But at the end of the hour, I would say no.

YELLIN: Why?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's too much gobbledygook.

YELLIN (voice-over): To test the point, we sat down to read one.

(on camera): And the person to whom we address billing statements...

(voice-over): So how long did it take? Stay tuned.

Alan Siegel says it doesn't have to be this way. His company specializes in contract simplification. They've done it for the Internal Revenue Service, major banks and insurance companies.

ALAN SIEGEL, SPECIALIZES IN CONTRACT SIMPLIFICATION: It's designed to be readable, and it's totally plain English. And we use personal pronouns instead of the party of the first part.

YELLIN: He says government regulators and credit card companies have both resisted simple contracts.

(on camera): Is it possible to have a credit card contract that anyone can understand?

SIEGEL: Absolutely.

YELLIN: How long does it have to be?

SIEGEL: I believe it can be on one side of one piece of paper.

YELLIN (voice-over): In fact, he's created a sample, one page. Here's the interest rate. Here are the penalty fees. His testing shows a tenth grader could understand it.

(on camera): Have you shown this to any credit card companies?

SIEGEL: Yes.

YELLIN: And what do they say?

SIEGEL: Panicked.

YELLIN (voice-over): Some in Congress think card companies have a stake in keeping their products and their contracts confusing, and have proposed a consumer protection agency that would work to make these agreements less complicated.

The American Bankers Association is fighting it.

NESSA FEDDIS, AMERICAN BANKERS ASSOCIATION: There are other ways to address it rather than having to create an expensive big bureaucracy.

YELLIN: Speaking for the credit card companies, she says government regulators are already working on streamlined new rules that will make credit card agreements clearer. But she insists credit card contracts can never be just one page. Blame the lawyers.

FEDDIS: Those contracts are based on lawsuits that have compelled them to use certain terms, certain words, and to include certain information in order to have an enforceable contract. It's the nature of law.

YELLIN: Back to the current complicated contract.

(on camera): "Authorization for us to collect the amount of the check electronically or..."

(voice-over): It took 10 minutes to read one page, an hour for the whole thing. No wonder so few of us know what we've agreed to.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: Now Gerri, that was fun to read. When it comes to credit cards, though, the federal reserve actually does have some consumer protection powers. They, as you know, have been criticized for not being aggressive enough, so now they've approved some rules that would simplify credit card agreements starting next year. But, consumer advocates insist, look, there's much more to be done, taken them way too long to get there and this power really shouldn't be left to the Federal Reserve.

WILLIS: You know, you talked about the agency being put in place that's being discussed on Capitol Hill. How would the agency work to make contracts simpler?

YELLIN: OK, the folks drafting the proposed legislation say it would first of all require that the contracts be written in plain English, it would take out some of the mandatory federal disclosures that are gobbledygook, but also, and here's the controversial thing, it would push the companies to offer simpler products, credit cards that have fewer tricks and traps which also creates simpler contracts as you can imagine, that is the piece that industry is fighting so long and hard.

WILLIS: Jessica Yellin, thank you for that.

YELLIN: Thanks.

WILLIS: At the end of the day, disclosure is really just that, a disclosure, but what will it mean for you and YOUR BOTTOM LINE? Let's bring in Robert Manning into the discussion, he's the author of "Credit Card Nation."

Robert, great to see you. Thanks for coming in.

ROBERT MANNING, AUTHOR, CREDIT CARD NATION: Always a pleasure.

WILLIS: You know, I want to tell people about how some of the disclosures are changing. Let's take a look at the card act particulars, what people can expect will happen when this law does changes, lots of changes coming here, including grace period, let's see, 45-day notice of any interest rate changes, you see a lot of things going on here. We talk about disclosure, though, but at the end of the day just having a laundry list of how the rules are changing, does that really help people?

MANNING: No, I think the real key here is people need to understand what is most important to them, and I'm hearing a lot of consumers, for example, saying I've got a renewal notice saying my interest rate is going to go from 12.9 percent to 29.9 percent. What should I do? I'm looking at changes in minimum payments. I've got different interest rates on my balances. What are those rules mean to me? And in some cases they're very significant and in other cases they may mean absolutely nothing.

WILLIS: Sometimes you just get nor gobbledygook and it's more legalese and hard to make sense of that. My question, though, is there going to be a backlash from the industry as the rules go into place? We've already seen rates rise and limits lowered, is there going to be more of that?

MANNING: Well, that's ultimately the problem right now is the industry is blaming the legislation. Instead of the fact that the industry has been pursuing policies that are losing money, for example, 40 percent of their cardholders that get a free loan. You can make up the difference if they're going to get other loans such as a mortgage loan or car lone to counteract the losses on the credit card.

But now, if those divisions aren't making money the credit card divisions have to make more money than before and now we're going to see more membership fees, we're going to see all kinds of new fees that are going to creep up on the consumer.

WILLIS: So, even if you're a good credit cardholder you pay your bill every month, maybe you pay it off, you may see some onerous fees out there. Tell us about people who have the loyalty cards. What do they need to know about the changes that are coming?

MANNING: You know, in many cases the loyalty cards should be cashed out now because you're going to see more service fees associated with them. You're going to need more points to qualify than ever before, and you may see greater restrictions, and in many cases cash is king, and many people should convert to a cash back rather than a regular gift, free gift program.

WILLIS: What about retailer cards, the big department store cards? Often the bad actors in these scenarios. Are they going to get any better or what's your outlook for those cards?

MANNING: Well, the industry understands that if you use a retail or a private issue card, you're probably maxing out on your other cards and they can afford to charge you an extra five percent or eight percent interest points on those credit cards. So, be very careful when you're using those new cards that give you 10 percent off on the holiday gift giving season.

WILLIS: All right, Robert Manning, thanks for that, author of "Credit Card Nation." It's a fantastic book. Up next we get into the holiday spirit from charitable giving to Black Friday bargains, and entertaining for less. You're not going to want to miss a minute.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WILLIS: You know it's hard to believe that tax time is just a few months away and it may seem too early to think about it, but there are some things you should be doing right now to get the most out of tax season. Roni Deutsch is a tax attorney and she joins us from Sacramento.

Roni, great to see you again.

RONI DEUTCH, TAX ATTORNEY: Yes, thanks for having me, Gerri.

WILLIS: All right, so the first thing we want to talk about is this idea of selling your losers. What do you mean by that and why is it an advantage?

DEUTCH: Everyone needs to look at their stock portfolio at the end of the year, Gerri, and determine should we sell our losers, should we sell our gains? What is important to know? You are allowed to deduct, Gerri, $3,000 in capital loss against any type of ordinary income.

But the real money and the real savings, Gerri, is when you can deduct capital loss against some of your capital gain. We all know we've been hammered in the stock market, so let's take advantage of capital losses and let's also be aware that capital gains taxes will increase next year, so let's sell gains, save money on taxes in '09, rather than pay more in our gains in 2010.

WILLIS: You know that's great advice, Roni. A lot of people out there have been so afraid to invest and put money away in their 401(k). What would you just say to them at the end of this year, what would be a good thing to do right now?

DEUTCH: Everybody needs to make a date with themselves in the future. You can save on pre-tax dollars, $3,000, $4,000, $5,000 right now, Gerri, and all you have to do is put $16,500 in a 401(k) plan. Everyone is entitled, but we're afraid to put money in the stock market, because we know we've lost a lot. I say put that money in your 401(k) plan and save $3,000 right now in pre-tax dollars. It's a great way to not pay taxes today, and make a date with yourself in the future.

WILLIS: I think that's a great idea. You know, one of the really frustrating things, though, out there for people, who are unemployed, they get these unemployment benefits, but guess what? They're taxed. So, let's talk about the best way to, you know, plan for that, get around that. What can I do if I have unemployment benefits and I'm going to owe taxes on them?

DEUTCH: Do you realize we've got 17 million people looking for six million jobs. Guess what? Those 17 million people are receiving unemployment benefits, which means, Gerri, they are going to have to pay taxes on the money they received. Here's the good news, here's the consolation prize.

On the first $2,400 in unemployment benefits that you received in 2009, you do not have to pay taxes on that money. That's the good news, but everyone who's receiving unemployment benefits. We know they extended that program. You've got to pay taxes on it, be prepared to pay Uncle Sam on whatever you've received.

WILLIS: Well, Roni, thank you so much for that great information. I really appreciate it. This is something to think about right now, before this year ends. Thank you.

You may also get a tax break if you explore your charitable option this is holiday season. In this economic downturn giving is more important than ever. Here with some creative ways to maximize your charitable impact without having to part with your much-needed cash is George Mannes, he is a senior writer for "Money" magazine.

Good to see you.

GEORGE MANNES, MONEY MAGAZINE: Thank you for having me, Gerri.

WILLIS: All right, so the first thing you say is maximize your resources. It doesn't have to be your cash necessarily that you're giving.

MANNES: No. Your professional expertise, once -- is extremely valuable for the companies, excuse me, for the charities you might do work for. They can't afford to hire marketing people, they can't afford the legal help they need. You go in and might be like the easiest thing in the world for you, but it does a great benefit for them.

WILLIS: And that's a great idea. You're extending yourself, giving something but don't have to put any actual cash down. Another great idea you have is don't miss your match. Companies are meeting you half way, some employers. Tell us about that.

MANNES: Yeah, you'd be shocked at how many companies still match your charitable gifts to the 501-C3 organizations.

WILLIS: They got to qualify.

MANNES: They have to qualify.

WILLIS: They have to be a real charitable organization.

MANNES: And usually you can't give it to your house of worship either or a fraternal organization. But 75 percent of employees, at the companies that are eligible for these things, don't take advantage of them and we're talking serious money. Some of them will easily match up to $5,000 of whatever you give.

WILLIS: Now, one of the things I've seen people do and I think it's successful is they get friends and family to come in with them, to help do that charitable giving. What is the best way to do that and are there any online resources to help?

MANNES: Well, yeah, there are a bunch of ways to do it. One is to have a party, and say...

WILLIS: I love that, that's great idea, let's have a party.

MANNES: Let's say it's a bunch of professional women and say bring in your own clothes and you can donate your really nice outfits that you don't wear anymore for organization, "Dress for Success," which gives women who could use them for a job interview. That's one easy thing to do.

WILLIS: You know, one of the interesting things that I saw in your story is this idea that there are cash-strapped charities out there you may want to avoid. How do I know if there's a problem with a charity?

MANNES: That's a very tough thing. There are a few things you can look at. One of them is how much working capital do they have. If they are, you know, have barely enough cash to get them through next week, giving them money, unfortunately, might be throwing good money after bad.

Another thing that you can do is, another thing that you have to look at is how long has a charity been in existence. If it's still a startup, those, unfortunately, are the most vulnerable in a downturn.

WILLIS: You know, you've got to watch that obviously and really analyze these charities, so you get the biggest bang for your buck when you're giving. George Mannes thank you for helping us out today. We really appreciate it.

MANNES: Thank you, Gerri.

WILLIS: Thanksgiving is just around the corner and this means so is Black Friday. Retailers are pulling out all the stops this holiday shopping season. We'll tell you where you could score the very best deals.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WILLIS: Well, whether you're ready for it or not, holiday shopping season is just around the corner, and according to a new report out from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, there's a bit of a shift this year when it comes to how consumers plan to pay for their purchases.

Check this out, 68 percent plan to pay with cash, hallelujah, the right thing to do, 12 percent plan to charge then pay in full, always good intentions, 10 percent plan then pay over time and 10 percent plan to take advantage of layaway plans.

OK, no matter how you plan to pay for those purchases, we all want them to cost as little as possible. Right? Well, here with some black Friday bargains, our own friend, Janet Bodnar of "Kiplinger's Personal Finance." Janet, great to see you again.

JANET BODNAR, KIPLINGER'S PERSONAL FINANCE: You too, Gerri.

WILLIS: All right, one of my favorite topics -- shopping. Love that. But, you know, I'm thinking that all of us are trying to dial back this year. I'm hoping they're going to have really good bargains if this year. What's your outlook?

BODNAR: Well, we at Kiplinger's say, oh yeah, go for it. In fact we have a whole special report on this on Kiplinger.com, our Web site. But you know, retailers are really afraid that people are not going to spend this year so therefore they're trying to lure us in with absolutely everything they can possibly do. So, if you're a shopper this year, especially if you like to go out on Black Friday, you're in the driver's seat.

WILLIS: All right, obvious question, here. Where are the deals?

BODNAR: They're everywhere, they're everywhere. No, electronics are probably the products that people tend to glom onto, and that's true this year as in every year. In our office, at the Kiplinger offices, people are talking about, oh, I saw a $500 flat-screen TV, 40-inch, it's really terrific, iPods for under $200.

But one of the things that's new this year are the netbooks, you know, the little baby computers, which have come on -- they've been around for a while, but they seem to have really taken off in popularity this year. So, if you're interested in something like that, a teeny computer, especially for travel purposes, I've got one.

WILLIS: Yes, that is a good thing. I know my husband's going to be really excited about all the electronic sales, but what about clothing? Let's talk about the women in the room.

BODNAR: And that's true, too. What we're finding in Kiplinger, again, in our report in Kiplinger.com, what we found was that there are going to be bargains on clothing, but more tilted toward private- label brands, you know, the brands that are actually produced by each retailer because they have more control over the cost.

Costs are going down because of the whole sort of recessionary atmosphere, but they can pass the savings through more directly on their own products. So, you're going to see a lot of bargains there. And also trendy things, you know, things they know will move, because they don't want inventory leftover.

WILLIS: That stuff doesn't last two seasons. You have to get rid of it.

BODNAR: Exactly.

WILLIS: We want to remind people there was a report out this week that retailers are not stocking up as much as they usually do, so you might want to shop earlier rather than later. And I just want to get to one of these tools people are using now, layaway. Janet, are you pro or con? What do you need to know about layaway?

BODNAR: Well, as you said earlier, because so many people are planning to pay with cash, layaway is a really good thing. and you can see already starting before Halloween you've had commercials on from some of the big retailers. You have Sears, you have K-Mart and, even Toys 'R' Us that have layaway plans. So, I think, as far as a budgeting tool, I think it's really terrific because, you know, you buy the stuff and then there's no bill to pay after Christmas and that's your real holiday treat. Right?

WILLIS: Right. Now, that is a big holiday treat. Janet Bodnar, thanks for the help today. We appreciate it.

BODNAR: My pleasure, Gerri.

WILLIS: Thanksgiving dinner and that visit from your in-laws less than a week away. Up next, how to entertain for less.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WILLIS: Holiday entertaining doesn't have to cost a fortune. Join me with tips to save but not scrimp on your holiday plans, Dana Cowin, she's editor and chief of "Food and Wine."

Dana, welcome, great to see you.

DANA COWIN, "FOOD AND WINE": Great to see you.

WILLIS: All right, I want to start with wine because people blow a lot of money buying wine for parties, for dinners. How can I save and still something that's really nice?

COWIN: OK, you're not going to believe this, you can buy a box of wine that tastes fantastic. It's like, you used to think you know, the Chianti and the straw bale, you know, it's terrible, the box is the same. This is going to change your mind. I want you to swirl and smell, and you're going to get blackberries, they're going to just hit you in the nose and you'll go, yum.

WILLIS: It is yummy.

COWIN: You see?

WILLIS: I would like to taste it, but I cannot. It's Saturday morning, it's too early.

COWIN: Yeah.

WILLIS: But you've also got bubbly here and I have to tell you, I just don't drink that much champagne anymore.

COWIN: Well you know, champagne is so expensive, and you're paying for that method champagne noir (ph), well, you can get method champagne noirs (ph) in other countries with a different name at a much lower price. So, if you go to America, for example, we have a blanc deblanc Domain St. Michelle which is $12 a bottle and not $40, and it's delicious. So, if you get the little bubbles spraying up from the bottom, that's what you want. You want little bubbles on your tongue. And it's a party in your mouth.

WILLIS: It's a party in your mouth. OK. All right, another idea you have which I thought was really compelling, the soup party. Tell us what you're thinking about with the soup party.

COWIN: OK, I'm a person who loves a theme party, so I invite my friends over to make some soup, take it to a soup kitchen, we volunteer, we, you know, help some others, and then we go home and help ourselves to some fantastic soup. You are looking at a black bean soup that costs $2 a person to make.

WILLIS: Hmm.

COWIN: And it's good. Right?

WILLIS: It's really good.

COWIN: Yeah. It's a couple of cans of, you know, black beans and sauteed onion and some water.

WILLIS: Easy peasy.

COWIN: Simplest steasy (ph).

WILLIS: All right, OK, so you also have an empting out your pantry party.

COWIN: That's right. Another theme. I get to the end of the year, and I want to toss everything. My husband will not let me. I have to turn that into a party. So, I take out whatever I've got in there. I've always got some olive oil, I often have chick peas.

WILLIS: These are chick peas.

COWIN: Those are chick peas. It's called a chunky chick pea dip. And what you do is you put it in the blender with some olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper, and then you eat it.

WILLIS: I love that. This is fantastic looking. Everything smells so good. One big question though for you. How about buying in bulk for these parties? Because if you have a lot of people over at the end of the day, it makes sense to really buy things that are in big quanties.

COWIN: Yes. I believe in buying in bulk. I sort of think ahead, so I'll buy things that I think I can use many different way, so I'll get a huge chunk of cheddar, for example, and I know I could have a party that's a mac and cheese party, I could have a party that's lots of little cubes of cheddar and I could have, you know, a party with biscuits.

WILLIS: You can do anything with that.

COWIN: Anything.

WILLIS: Absolutely true.

COWIN: So buy ahead, buy smart, buy something you can use in many different ways.

WILLIS: I think that's a great idea, Dana. Thanks for coming and helping us out for the planning of the party as always, we thank you for spending part of your Saturday with us. YOUR BOTTOM LINE will be back next week on CNN.

You can also catch us on HLN every Saturday and Sunday at 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time. And you can hear much more about the impact of this week's news on your money on YOUR MONEY with Christine Romans and Ali Velshi Saturdays at 1:00 p.m. Eastern and Sundays at 3:00, right here on CNN.

Don't go anywhere. Your top stories are next in the CNN NEWSROOM.