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Reducing your car insurance rates

In a time when we’re all looking to cut expenses, here’s an interesting story about how some people are cutting their car insurance rates.

When Zshavina Meacher of Cleveland traded in her car for a new 2011 Chevy Malibu last summer, her insurance premium jumped to $510 every six months. Her insurer, Progressive Corp., asked her whether she wanted to cut her rate.

If Meacher agreed to install a device in her car that monitors how safely she drives and the results were good, her rates would go down. If the results weren’t so good, her rates would stay the same. She agreed.

During the first few weeks, the device told Meacher that she slammed on her brakes a lot. She stopped the hard braking.

In February, the 23-year-old’s insurance bill dropped by $120 per six months, or 24 percent.
Meacher is happy her rates went down. And Progressive is happy the risk of Meacher getting into an accident went down. Fewer claims will help keep Mayfield-based Progressive profitable.

If you haven’t heard of telematics — a device that monitors your driving — then get ready. While Progressive started dabbling in telematics in the 1990s, it started pushing it in 2010 with its “Snapshot” program, and other insurers have stepped up interest in the last year.

Telematics is changing car insurance, and who knows what else it might change. Of course this raises privacy issues, but for people who need to watch every penny, it can really be a helpful option to lower your car insurance costs.

Savings rate down

Here’s some interesting news on the national savings front.

The nation’s savings rate has dwindled as consumers try to juggle rising prices and stagnant wages.

According to government data released Wednesday, the national savings rate was 3.5 percent in October, a slight improvement from the previous month but significantly below the 5 percent rate seen for most of the past two years. During the throes of the recession, the savings rate had skyrocketed above 8 percent.

“They spent it. That’s the short answer,” said Paul Dales, senior U.S. economist for Capital Economics. “It might be a lot of households don’t have a choice.”

Economists blamed higher gas and commodities prices for sending the savings rate to its lowest point since 2007. After remaining virtually flat in 2010, the consumer price index inched up this year as prices rose for essential products such as cotton and corn. Although consumers received bigger paychecks this year thanks to a payroll tax holiday, many found that the extra money was eaten up by increased fuel costs.

Another item to consider is that frugality is becoming less popular. Of course people are still looking for deals, but overall spending is up. We just had a record Black Friday and Cyber Monday, so people are flocking to the stores. Unemployment is still high, but more people perhaps are secure in their jobs after years of downsizing slows down.

Basic budgeting for new graduates

The Cleveland Plain Dealer has a good article on basic budgeting for new college graduates, but this advice can apply to everyone. The advice might seem obvious, but unfortunately many people, let alone young people, have no idea about this stuff.

A smart budget has three building blocks: the money you make, the money you spend and the money you save.

Once you draft a budget, you may discover your plans outstrip your actual income. The good news: You’re only in debt on paper.

The real value of a budget is it lets you spot potential money problems and fix them before they hurt you or your credit rating.

Check out the whole article, and you’ll be on solid financial footing for your life if you learn the basic rules of budgeting.

American are shedding their mortgage debt

USA Today has a story on an interesting trend:

Americans are reducing mortgage payments at a record clip, directing cash that once went for debt into consumer spending and savings.

Low interest rates, defaults and refinancings have shaved more than $100 billion off the nation’s annual mortgage bill — an amount comparable to all unemployment benefits for one year or this year’s Social Security payroll tax cut.

“This is a form of economic stimulus that goes to Main Street rather than Wall Street,” says Nicholas Carroll, a journalist on consumer finance and author of Walk Away From Debt for a Better Future. When freed from a mortgage payment, people’s first purchases tend to be necessities, such as socks and underwear, he says.

Homeowners have trimmed interest payments alone by 11% — or $67 billion a year — from the peak in 2008, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). The savings come equally from grabbing lower interest rates and reducing what’s owed by paying down principal or defaulting on loans.

This is another positive byproduct of the real estate bust. Home prices keep coming down, and more and more Americans are underwater on their mortgages. So many of them are walking away. Homeowners with jobs and good credit are taking advantage of low mortgage rates to refinance and lower their payments.

This results in more disposable income, so Americans can spend more on typical consumer products.

Collapsing home prices are good for the young

Robert Samuelson is usually bringing bad news. He’s a respected economist, but nobody will accuse him of being an optimist. In fact, he’s very bearish on our fiscal future and he believes that life will be more difficult for the next generation of Americans given our massive debt and the inevitable need for higher taxes or cuts in benefits like Medicare and Social Security.

But he sees a silver lining with the collapse of housing prices. It’s terrible for anyone who bought a home in the past decade, but it’s good news for young people who home to buy a home some day.

But housing’s troubles may have a silver lining. If you’re a homeowner, the steep fall in prices is calamitous. But if you’re a future buyer, it’s a godsend. What we’re seeing is a massive wealth transfer from today’s older homeowners to tomorrow’s younger homeowners. From year-end 2006 to 2010, housing values fell $6.3 trillion, reports the Federal Reserve. Assuming there’s no sharp rebound in prices — a good bet — that’s $6.3 trillion the young won’t pay.

Up to a point, the lower home prices merely deflate the artificial “bubble.” But there’s evidence that the declines transcend that. The National Association of Realtors routinely publishes a housing “affordability” index, which judges the ability of median families to buy the median-price home at prevailing interest rates. By this measure, existing homes are the most affordable since the index started in 1970.

Young buyers “will be able to enter the housing market at bargain prices,” argues NAR economist Lawrence Yun. When home prices again rise, increases will parallel income gains, meaning that the relative burden of housing costs will remain roughly stable, Yun says. He expects only modest increases in interest rates. (A rise of one percentage point — say, from 5 percent to 6 percent — on a $150,000 mortgage boosts the monthly payment about $95.)

The important thing for young people, however, is learning to avoid credit card debt. If they don’t learn this lesson, lower housing prices won’t matter much as they wont be able to afford a mortgage payment if they’re loaded up with credit card payments.

The Medicare debate

House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-WI, arrives for a hearing to mark up his 2012 budget proposal called “The Path to Prosperity” on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 6, 2011. UPI/Roger L. Wollenberg

With the radical new budget proposed by Paul Ryan and passed by the House Republicans, we have a full-fledged debate about the future of retirement in America. Ryan’s budget removes the guaranteed Medicare entitlement and replaces it with vouchers (or premium supports, depending on who you listen to). According to the Congressional Budget Office, the subsidy from the government will not be enough for most seniors to purchase medical insurance, assuming private insurers even want to cover them.

This is a radical departure from the social safety net. The Republicans argue that this will not apply to current seniors, just those under the age of 55. But that cold comfort for everyone else, including seniors who care about the future of their children, relatives and friends.

It’s doubtful that anything like this will pass with the current President and Senate, but everyone needs to pay attention. Who knows, the next election may affect your retirement years.

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