Don’t Worry If You Missed Out on Black Friday

While Black Friday is the traditional opening day to holiday shopping, this year retailers may have held back from unleashing their best bargains and deals.  So if you were recovering from food coma on Friday, there is still plenty of holiday sales and promotions to look forward to in the next few weeks.  Below are a few tips to help you make it through to 2010:

  • Don’t wait until the last minute – Retailers will be stocking less inventory this year, so if you wait too long, the only thing you’ll see are “Out of Stock” signs.
  • Don’t wait for the lowest price, but for the lowest price you are willing to pay – Sometimes these two may be the same, but often times they are not.  Whether a transaction is a bargain can be subjective.  And the lowest price always comes at a cost.  For example, you might get your netbook for only $200, but it might have a different color or slightly less memory.  Nothing is too trivial to make or break a deal.  You’re the one doling out the dough, so as long as you are willing, go for it.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask a retailer to match a competitor’s lower price for the same product – Apparently, Wal-Mart and Target are happy to do so.  Competition are fierce this year, so I would not be surprised if it also works for places such as Best Buy and Staples.

This Black Friday, Get the Deals Before Hitting the Stores

As you sketch out your plan for Black Friday shopping this week, you may want to check the retailers’ ads to make sure that you visit the stores with the best deal for what you want to buy.  Even if you are shopping online, knowing what deals will be available may help you save time – an important factor if there are limits on the number of items available on sale or if the internet connection is slow because of traffic.

Many retailers, including Best Buy and Ikea (the latter is even offering a free breakfast coupon valid this Friday-Sunday), have already put out their Black Friday fliers.  But if you want to compare promotions or a sneak peak on fliers that have not been officially released yet, Dealnews has been tracking retailers for Black Friday fliers and posting them as they “leak”.  Visit dealnews this week to see compare Black Friday offers and optimize your shopping plan of attack.

Rewards in Checking: Citibank

This is Money Under Your Futon’s 101st post!  To celebrate this occasion and thank our readers, we are announcing our new e-mail address: moneyunderyourfuton [at] gmail [dot] com.  Please feel free to send us your money-related questions, and we will try to respond to them in future posts.

* * *

It is hard to make money off your checking account.  With a few exceptions, such as ING’s interest-paying Electric Orange account, most checking accounts give you no more cash than what you have already deposited into them.  And some don’t even offer that, as their maintenance fees slowly chisel through your balance.  But sometimes a bank promotion can transform a regular checking account into part of a relatively generous program.

With Citibank, for example, you can earn ThankYou points every month simply for having a checking account with a debit card and direct deposit.  The ThankYou Network allows for point accumulation through several services and merchants, including Citibank and Expedia, though the fastest way to earn points is usually through one of Citibank’s credit cards tied to the program.  But Citibank also gives its checking customers monthly ThankYou points for coupling the account with at least any two other services, such as having a debit card, direct deposit, or online bill payment.  The monthly points range from 25 to 1,200, depending on the type of checking account and the number of services linked to it (click here for a table detailing the points per account type and number of services).

You can earn even more ThankYou points if you use your Citibank debit card for purchases.  Although the credit card offers tends to be more generous, Citibank has jumped into the bank trend of linking debit cards to reward programs in an attempt to attract more customers dropping credit cards in response to the crisis.  For purchases made with a Citibank debit card, you can earn 1 ThankYou point for every $2 spent on signature purchases (i.e., a purchase that requires your signature on the receipt) and 1 point for every $3 on purchases using your PIN.

If you already have a ThankYou Network account, make sure to get points for your checking and debit card use.  Call customer service (1800-THANKYOU) to link your checking account to the network.  And if you have a Citibank checking account but are still not in the ThankYou Network, consider joining it and reaping rewards, especially if you use the other partners in the network, have a high-end account for which you can get a lot of points per month, or use your Citibank debit card frequently.

With the current low interest rates on savings account, you may find that your checking account gives you more bang for your buck.

More Purchases are Now Eligible for the Home Buyer Tax Credit

The federal home buyer tax credit was extended and expanded last week, giving home buyers more time and making more people eligible for the credit.  The Worker, Homeownership, and Business Assistance Act of 2009 extends the home purchase deadline to April 30, 2010, raises income limits for eligibility, and allows some existing home owners to take advantage of the credit as well.

For first-time home buyers, the tax credit is calculated as 10% of the home’s purchase price, up to $8,000.  You are considered a first-time home buyer if you (and your spouse) have not owned a house in the last 3 years.  If you already own a home, however, you may be eligible for the credit as an existing home owner.  To qualify under this category, you (and your spouse) must have owned a home and lived in it for at least five consecutive years out of the eight years prior to making this new home purchase.  The credit for existing home owners is also equivalent to 10% of the purchase price, but is capped at $6,500.  For both groups, the home’s purchase price cannot exceed $800,000.

The income limits have also been increased under this new Act, and, for first-time home buyers, apply retroactively up to the beginning of 2009.  That is, the first-time home buyer tax credit applies to purchases made between January 1, 2009 and April 30, 2010, inclusive, although the credit for existing home owners only covers purchases made on or after November 6, 2009, up to April 30, 2010.  The retroactivity on the first-time home buyer credit may now make some people, who bought homes earlier this year but were ineligible then for the tax credit, eligible through the income limit increase.  With the WHBA Act, the tax credit is available to individual taxpayers with a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) of up to $125,000 (or $225,000 if married filing jointly).  Individuals with MAGIs between $125,000 and $145,000 (and joint filers with MAGIs between $225,000 and $245,000) may claim partial credit.

If you are thinking of taking advantage of this home buyer tax credit, here are a few more things you should know:

–  You must live in your new home for 36 months after the purchase date.  If you fail to do so, you are required to pay back the credit when you file your income taxes for the year in which you move out.  (Deployed military personnel are excluded from this restriction, as long as they do not sell their new home.)

–  If you are claiming the credit as an existing home buyer, you do not need to sell your old home as long as you make your new home your primary residence.

–  If you cannot meet the April 30, 2010 deadline, you have at least then to enter into a binding sales contract and you must make the purchase by June 30, 2010 to be eligible for the credit.

–  The tax credit is also available for constructing a home in a lot that you already own, and the April 30, 2010 deadline applies to the date of occupancy.

–  For a purchase in 2009, you can choose whether to claim your credit by amending your 2008 taxes (use IRS Form 1040X to do so) or through your 2009 taxes.  Similarly, if purchasing in 2010, you can include the home purchase in either your 2009 or 2010 income taxes.  This flexibility may be useful if your MAGI is below the limit in one year but not the other, and you may decide according to which gives you the highest credit.

Legislators expect that, with the expansion of the eligibility criteria for this tax credit, home sales will pick up again.  If they are at all right, this increase in demand may bring increases in housing prices.  So if you are thinking of buying a home in the next year, jumping in early might get you a better deal – and a hefty tax credit to go with it.

Parking Wars

Parking Wars is a reality television series that follows “the everyday people on the front lines of parking enforcement in Philadelphia and Detroit.”  While most of our parking violations won’t even be half as dramatic, I hope none of our readers has accepted a parking citation without putting up a fight.

The first thing you should always do when you receive a parking ticket is to DECLINE it.  Depending on where you live, the exact procedure might differ, but you usually have 30 days to contest either through an online database (as in Massachusetts) or by writing a letter (such as in Washington DC to the DMV’s Adjudication Services).    Regardless, the general idea is that you have the opportunity to explain any extenuating circumstances to the DMV and put forth any reasons you should be excused from having to pay a fine.  Below are some suggestions; remember to provide pictures, where appropriate, for visual effect:

  • The sign was obscured, so you thought you were parking in a legal spot.
  • You have parked in the exact spot on multiple other occasions and have never received a citation.
  • The officer miscalculated how close you parked to a fire hydrant or how far you parked from a curb.
  • The parking meter was broken.
  • You went an hour over the meter, because you were wearing a watch that haven’t been changed to account for Daylight Savings.
  • You had a medical emergency and it would have been unsafe and irresponsible for you to move the car and be out on the road.

Once you deny your ticket , it will take several weeks before you hear back from the DMV.  If they refuse to accept your bulls**t explanation, you still have to pay the ticket, but at least you have some time to start saving up.  On the other hand, they might lower your fine or dismiss your ticket entirely.  I have contested four parking citations so far and have gotten all four dismissed.  (Perhaps the bigger lesson here is to learn to park properly, but this is neither here nor there.)  Finally, if you are unable to pay the fine at once, you can contact the DMV again to work out a payment plan.  Just like you should always call your credit card companies, cell phone providers, and utilities services to try to waive any installation or late payment fees, it’s worth a shot to try and haggle with the DMV over a parking violation – it may save you some money, or you might end up not paying at all.

Amtrak Adds Bonus Points to Double Points Deal, If You Got the Email

In previous posts on travel deals, we have encouraged readers to pre-register for any free promotion on airlines or Amtrak that may potentially be relevant to them.  Many times, airlines will send emails to frequent flier customers advertising a bonus miles campaign.  If there is any likelihood that you might be eligible for the promotion (e.g., travel to a specific destination during a predefined period), you should sign up for the deal as soon as it hits your inbox.   That way, if and when you plan your trip, you won’t risk missing out on any bonus deals.  Also, some promotions are only available to customers who received an email about it and have to be redeemed through links included therein.  Therefore, if you delete that email or forget to look for it before booking your travel, you may also miss out.

Amtrak’s latest move to lure more travelers to trains during the holiday season drives this point home.  In September, we told you about Amtrak’s Double Days promotion, through which you can get double Amtrak Guest Rewards points until December 19th.  This past week, Amtrak emailed all customers who had signed up for the promotion and offered them an extra 250 bonus points for taking a trip on Acela or 100 bonus points for a trip on any other Amtrak train between November 4 and December 19, 2009.  Now, if you did not sign up for the Double Days promotion mentioned earlier, you did not get an email about this bonus, and there are no links on the Guest Rewards website for it.

If you think you might travel by train sometime between now and December 19th, sign up for the Double Days promotion today.  Maybe Amtrak will surprise you with extra offers too.

Better Save Now than Later

The recession might have ended, but we are still a long way from recovery.  Back in July, we wrote about some of the better online savings options that were available.  We hope that you took advantage of those “high” interest rates then, because since then all the institutions covered have reduced their savings interest rates.

Here are the current rates (APY) as of November 1, 2009:

There are, however, still a few institutions that offer interest rates over 2.00% APY, such as SFGI Direct’s Online Savings at 2.25%  with a $500 minimum deposit and ShoreBank’s Direct’s Online Savings at 2.15% with a $1 minimum deposit.  These places may be unfamiliar to you, but rest assured that they are FDIC-insured.  So if you haven’t started saving yet, start today before these interest rates fall as well.

If you have already opened a savings account and are discouraged by the falling interest rates, remember that your money still worked harder for you sitting in a savings account and collecting some interest rather than in a checkings around collecting no interest.  And nothing is standing in the way of closing your current account and opening a new one with a higher interest rate.  Happy Savings!