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    Getting rid of private mortgage insurance

    It can be a big addition to your monthly house payment

    If you purchased a home with less than 20% down, chances are you are paying for private mortgage insurance (PMI) each month. Added to your principal, interest, tax and insurance (PITI), it can make for a rather hefty monthly payment.

    PMI is nothing new, but lenders have been more relentless in insisting on it since the housing meltdown. In short, it's an insurance policy in case you default on your mortgage.

    During the Great Recession lenders lost hundreds of billions of dollars because they foreclosed on properties that were worth much less than the amount of the mortgage. When a buyer puts up 20% of the purchase price as a down payment, the lender is fairly sure they can get their money back if things go sour.

    Banks got burned

    Even if the house has lost some of its value, the thinking goes, the bank should be able to sell it for 80% of its original value. That proved not to be the case, of course, when homes in some markets plunged by 50% or more but that's still the theory.

    These days, unless you can make a 20% down payment you're going to be saddled with a PMI payment, which generally runs $40 to $50 per month for each $100,000 of mortgage. PMI for a $200,000 mortgage will cost $80 to $100 a month – on top of your mortgage payment. If you have questionable credit, the PMI could be much higher.

    If you are already paying PMI, you can ask your lender to cancel the insurance when you get to the point where you have 20% equity in the property. But expect a vigorous discussion with your lender when you make such a request. It might entail a new appraisal if the lender isn't convinced your home is worth what you think it is.

    Not in any rush

    Your lender may automatically cancel PMI when your equity reaches 20%, but again, expect your lender to be slow to reach this decision. In fact, some lenders won't automatically cancel your PMI until they think your equity has reached 22%.

    Ordinarily, a lender terminates PMI when the loan is scheduled to reach a 20% equity point. But because home values fell nearly everywhere over the last four years, that line has become blurred. If your home value is deemed to have fallen, the lender can classify it as "risky," requiring you to continue to pay PMI.

    If you think you have reached the point of 20% equity, your first step should be to ask your lender to cancel the PMI. They might or might not, but it's certainly worth a try. If real estate in your neighborhood has been stable for a couple of years and you've made all your payments on time, it's possible the lender will look kindly upon your request.

    If your home has increased in value recently, that can also help you shed PMI. If you bought the house for $150,000 and the house is now worth $175,000, the extra $25,000 in value goes to your equity. If you put $15,000 down and have since paid $8,000 on the principle, the mortgage is just $127,000 on a house worth $175,000 – giving you about 28% equity, more than enough to ditch the PMI.


    Another way to get rid of PMI is to refinance your mortgage. If you are convinced you now own 20% of your home but just can't seem to convince your lender, try to find another lender. If you are correct, you should be able to find a loan that will not require you to pay PMI. It worked out for Philip, of Orange Calif.

    Consumers rate Amerisave Mortgage
    “Although the refinance process lasted three months, Amerisave finally approved my loan, eliminated PMI (huge savings) and waived the impound account at no cost to me,” Philip wote at ConsumerAffairs. “In summary, Amerisave save me roughly $400 by a combination of better interest rates and elimination of PMI.”

    Even if you are a bit shy of 20%, there is a way to drop PMI through refinancing. It's called 80-10-10 financing and it's actually two loans.

    You take a first mortgage for 80% of the value and take a second mortgage for 10%. Your equity in the home makes up the remaining 10%.

    The drawback are the fees associated with closing two loans, and the fact that the rate on the second mortgage will likely be a little higher. But if it allows you to get rid of PMI years ahead of schedule, you may come out better in the long run.

    If you purchased a home with less than 20% down, chances are you are paying for private mortgage insurance (PMI) each month. Added to your principal, inter...

    Report finds technical support lacking for home network users

    Home users are having to become their own "experts" to keep their networks running

    Remember the days when most homes had a single computer, connected to the Internet with a phone line running directly to its modem?

    Today, the average home might have a couple of desktops, a laptop or two, a tablet and several smartphones that are connecting to a home network through a router. Parks Associates, an international research firm, estimates that 78% of U.S. broadband households had a home network router in 2012, up from 54% in 2009.

    With all this sophisticated connectivity, it's little wonder consumers encounter problems and frustrations with their home networks.


    The signal keeps dropping out,” Jim, of Sodus, Mich., wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “In order to get it to work I have to unplug the NETGEAR N900 Router that comes from the satellite box every 15 minutes to 2 hours.”

    Jim also complains that the satellite Internet provider's tech support is of little to no help, a complaint echoed by Greggory, of Centerville, Ohio, who says AT&T Uverse was no help when he experienced network problems.

    “Still have big problems with the computers at the far end of house, about 60 feet from the hot spot,” Greggory wrote. “I called AT&T customer service and a not so techy tech told me to move my computers closer to the hot spot. Move our office?”

    Pearce, of Franklin, Va., blames his Century Link modem for his problems and he too is unhappy with the level of tech support he's received.

    Just buy a new one

    “I have spent at least 10 hours with technicians and it has never been fixed,” he writes. One tech said the best bet would be for me to go to a store and buy my own modem and router!”

    Parks Associates says the increasing number of frustrated consumers shouldn't come as a surprise.

    "Tablets, game consoles and smartphones have been incredibly popular, but the influx of connected devices adds new layers of complexity to the connected home," said Patrice Samuels, a research analyst at Parks Associates. "Approximately 35% of broadband households experience home networking problems when trying to sync devices and enable functions."

    That's a lot of problems. But unfortunately hardware manufacturers and service providers are not staffed up to provide the support that consumers think they should receive. That creates problems for everyone.

    Problems create opportunity

    "In today's world, customer experience has become paramount to every business's success," said James Morehead, Vice President Product Management and Corporate Marketing, "With the wide adoption of wireless networks and connected technology, and the challenges that they are causing for consumers, companies have an opportunity to take customer experience management to the next level through premium support."

    Not surprisingly, Parks Associates research finds 68% of U.S. broadband households are interested in new technical support services. Over 70% of these consumers say they would expect this service to address all of their technical problems, highlighting the importance of a comprehensive support solution that covers all of the devices and services on the home network.

    Many of the problems are not directly related to a piece of hardware or the Internet service. Instead, there's a glitch in the network configuration that's causing the problem. Tech support personnel are rarely equipped or have the time to help with a problem they don't think is directly related to their company.

    Unfortunately, consumers are often left to fend for themselves, “Googling” the problem to see how others have dealt with it and reaching out to others on message boards.

    Add a repeater

    One simple way to deal with weak signals and overloaded routers is to add a repeater. An inexpensive unit like the Amped Wireless Repeater goes for less than $100 and is easy to set up.

    If you have a large house, just position the Amped anywhere you can get a reasonably strong signal from your primary router. It should then provide a stronger signal -- a second network, basically -- in the area where the signal is currently weak. 

    Our editor and nitpicker in chief has a couple of these scattered around his house. They allow him to smoke cigars outside while enjoying a strong signal on his laptop, he tells us. 

    Also, adding a second router will give you a new bank of numbers. Without getting into the details and oversimplifying it rather dramatically, each device that's using your router -- and all the devices that used your router recently -- have set aside space for themselves in your network.

    If your book club comes over and each person has a smartphone, iPad, Nook or Kindle in tow, each of those devices stakes a claim to an address on your network, even after your literary friends have driven off in their SUVs.  Over time, this adds up and if you don't clean out your router and start over, you'll run into problems. 

    Instructions for cleaning house for your particular router should be readily available in the Support section of the manufacturer's website. 

    Remember the days when most homes had a single computer, connected to the Internet with a phone line running directly to its modem?Today, the average hom...

    Ever hear of a smart table or smart bed?

    The smartphone concept isn't just for your phone anymore

    Since everyone started carrying smartphones it seems that a lot of consumers expect other electronics to be smart too.

    Like what’s a TV recording system like Tivo if it doesn’t anticipate what shows you may want to record? Or what good is a new video recorder or camera unless it has a bevy of touch-screen capabilities?

    Apparently, the convenience that smartphones and tablets offer these days makes using items that don’t have the same level of intuitiveness seem old-fashioned and annoyingly slow.

    But fortunately, inventors and designers have been hard at work creating some extremely eye-popping products that either take the smartphone concept and apply it to the everyday item or build everyday items to better accommodate modern technology.

    For example, the Sound Sofa by the company CSL should comfortably seat four to five people -- but the kicker here is that you can connect your Bluetooth, mp3 player or memory card to play music, and through its USB port you can attach your mobile device for recharging.

    So instead of sitting on the couch and stretching the chord to the wall to use your laptop fully charged, you can simply plug it into the couch.

    The Sound Sofa also comes with built-in speakers that the company says don't take away from the comfort, since they're built into the bottom corner of the sofa. Although one could be suspicious.

    A possible downside for some may be that the speakers are extremely visible, so there’s a good chance the sofa will appeal more to either ardent music lovers or people who aren’t looking for excessive subtlety.

    You can purchase the Sound Sofa in a variety of different color greys or in a shade of burgundy. There’s even a purple option for those who really love the color or happen to be huge Prince fans.

    CSL is a UK-based company, but it does have an online showroom.

    Multimedia bed

    Although not yet available, a company by the name of HiCan is rumored to be releasing a futuristic multimedia bed that has a canopy and four walls that have blinds which go up and down upon your control.

    In addition, the all-purpose and wonderfully freakish bed has a high tech sound system, a Microsoft PC already built into it, a place to connect game consoles and perhaps best of all it’ll come with a huge high definition screen that’s attached to the wall at the foot of the bed.

    It also comes with overhead lights attached to the ceiling for night reading.

    By remote control you can also raise and lower the mattress, so watching a movie or playing a game will be more comfortable and it also comes in a bunch of cool-sounding colors like Sky, Green Grey and Ice which all complete the futuristic look.

    No supplemental oxygen though.

    You would probably expect a bed like this to cost a ridiculous amount of money, so you might not be too surprised to learn that it costs over $62,000, but for those who have that kind of dough -- and obviously some do -- you’ll have to contact the HiCan company directly to place an order.

    Coffee table

    Or if you have about $7,800 to spare, there's the Mozayo Professional Series M42 Pro Interactive coffee table. It has a 42-inch liquid crystal display screen, so you’re able to use the table as you would a smartphone or a computer.  

    It also comes with a premium Dell Commercial Grade system computer built right inside.

    The Mozayo has a water-resistant and stain-proof touch-screen, so it can be used as both a coffee table and a life sized smartphone at the same time and the table itself is beautifully designed and would make a fine addition to any rustic-colored living room, even if it didn’t have the 42-inch screen embedded.

    Clearly, the California-based company did a stellar job of marrying functional use and creative design with technological innovation, which isn’t an easy feat to accomplish. That's assuming, of course, that it works. We didn't have the chance to try it out in person.

    In fact all of these innovators have merged the idea of comfortable furniture and modern-day gadgetry quite well. Now if someone can just design a way for most of us to afford this kind of stuff that would be even better.

    Since everyone started carrying smartphones it seems that a lot of consumers expect other electronics to be smart too.Like what’s a TV recording sy...

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      E-Cigarette use is growing, study finds

      The question is: Are smokers using e-cigs to quit or are they smoking more than ever?

      Everything else is electronic today, so why not cigarettes? That seems to be the thinking behind the growing use of electronic cigarettes, though whether this is a good thing is open to question.

      If e-cigarettes replace traditional cigarettes, the net effect might be good, since the e-cigs emit fewer toxins than the real thing. But if people end up using both -- like avid readers who tote around both books and e-books -- it would be a different story, health officials say.

      “If large numbers of adult smokers become users of both traditional cigarettes and e-cigarettes — rather than using e-cigarettes to quit cigarettes completely — the net public health effect could be quite negative,” said Tim McAfee, MD MPH, director of the Office on Smoking and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

      Research is needed to assess how e-cigarette marketing could impact initiation and use of traditional cigarettes, particularly among young people, the CDC said.

      Anti-smokers huff and puff

      One group that's already made up its mind is Americans for Non-Smokers Rights. It's gone on a crusade against the marketers of e-cigarettes, claiming they are using press releases and social media to tout the benefits of their product, despite a lack of independent peer-reviewed scientific evidence demonstrating the safety or effectiveness.

      E-cigarettes don't just produce harmless water vapor, the group claims. Instead, they say, they pollute indoor air with detectable levels of carcinogens and other toxic chemicals.

      "What I find most egregious are the direct advertisements with false and misleading claims, including that e-cigarettes are effective smoking cessation devices, that e-cigarette use is permissible in all indoor environments, including venues that are smoke-free, and targeting pregnant women claiming that e-cigarettes are safer and healthier than other tobacco products," said Cynthia Hallett, executive director of Americans for Non-Smokers Rights.

      Usage is up

      One thing's sure: more people are trying e-cigarettes.

      In 2011, about 21 percent of adults who smoke traditional cigarettes had used electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes, up from about 10 percent in 2010, according to a study released today by the CDC.  

      Overall, about six percent of all adults have tried e-cigarettes, with estimates nearly doubling from 2010.

      “E-cigarette use is growing rapidly,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, MPH. “There is still a lot we don’t know about these products, including whether they will decrease or increase use of traditional cigarettes.”

      During 2010–2011, adults who have used e-cigarettes increased among both sexes, non-Hispanic Whites, those aged 45–54 years, those living in the South, and current and former smokers and current and former smokers.  In both 2010 and 2011, e-cigarette use was significantly higher among current smokers compared to both former and never smokers. 

      Awareness of e-cigarettes rose from about four in 10 adults in 2010 to six in 10 adults in 2011.

      Everything else is electronic today, so why not cigarettes? That seems to be the thinking behind the growing use of electronic cigarettes, though whether t...

      Class action says Hertz overcharged its customers

      Suit says Hertz charged too much sales tax

      A class action lawsuit accuses Hertz of gypping customers by charging too much sales tax.

      The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in New York by Napoli Bern Ripka Shkolnik, LLP, charges that Hertz violated New York and other states' laws by issuing customer coupons and discounts, while knowingly imposing sales tax on the pre-discount total.

      This unlawful practice has resulted in the overcharging of Hertz customers, according to the suit.  

      "This overcharge scheme by a multinational multibillion dollar corporate giant may have cheated Hertz's customers out of many millions of dollars," the law firm said in a press release.

      "New York and other states have passed legislation and regulations disallowing this predatory behavior and to protect the public from this unscrupulous business practice that attempts to overcharge customers under the veil of the tax code," the firm said. "The class complaint seeks Hertz's compliance with these laws and regulations and the return of all improperly charged costs and fees to class members."

      A class action lawsuit accuses Hertz of gypping customers by charging too much sales tax.The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in New York by Napol...

      New Jersey firm recalls chicken sausage product

      The sausage may contain small pieces of plastic

      Schmalz's European Provisions of Springfield, NJ, is recalling approximately 8,424 pounds of chicken and apple sausage that may contain small pieces of plastic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced today.

      The following product is subject to recall:

      • 12 oz. vacuum packages of "Applegate Organics Chicken and Apple Sausage" with "Use or Freeze By 03/17/13" on each package.

      The recalled product bears the establishment number "P-5411" inside the USDA mark of inspection. It was produced on January 24, 2013, and sold in retail stores nationwide and through limited Internet sales in New Jersey.

      The problem was discovered after the company received three consumer complaints. There have been no reports of injury at this time.

      Consumers with questions should contact Gina Asoudegan, public affairs specialist, or Gerry Clarkson, consumer affairs specialist, at (800) 587-5858.

      Schmalz's European Provisions of Springfield, NJ, is recalling approximately 8,424 pounds of chicken and apple sausage that may contain small pieces of pla...

      Hey!! The economy actually grew in the final three months of 2012

      But the rate of expansion was minuscule

      Back in January, the government reported that the real gross domestic product (GDP) -- the output of goods and services produced by labor and property in the United States -- declined a bit. But now, after recrunching the numbers, the Commerce Department reports the GDP increased -- a bit.

      According to the second estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the economy grew 0.1%. The earlier estimate had it contracting 0.1%. The latest estimate is based on more complete source data than were available for the "advance" estimate issued last month.

      A tiny change

      The upward revision to the percent change in real GDP is smaller than the average revision from the advance to second estimate of 0.5 percentage point. While the direction of change in real GDP was reversed, the general picture of the economy for the fourth quarter remains largely the same as what was presented last month.

      The increase in real GDP in the fourth quarter primarily reflected positive contributions from personal consumption expenditures (PCE), or consumer spending; nonresidential fixed investment and residential fixed investment. These were were partly offset by declines in private inventory investment, federal government spending, exports and state and local government spending. Imports, which are a subtraction in the calculation of GDP, decreased.

      The slowdown in real GDP in the fourth quarter primarily reflected downturns in private inventory investment, in federal government spending, in exports, and in state and local government spending that were partly offset by an upturn in nonresidential fixed investment, a larger decrease in imports, and an acceleration in PCE.

      Back in January, the government reported that the real gross domestic product (GDP) -- the output of goods and services produced by labor and property in t...

      Mailbox: Is this how checking your email should be in 2013?

      The creators promise blissful euphoria, which may be going a little far

      Remember when being able to send an email seemed futuristic, when the very idea of being able to send an instant message to someone without pulling out a pen and paper seemed George Jettsonish?

      It seems the moment that email became available it changed many of us from occasional letter-writers, who only sent letters on special occasions, to full-on correspondents who contacted people for just about any reason, even if it was just to say a quick hello.  

      Also, email made it easier for people to keep up with the hard-to-get-in-touch-with types.

      But just like any other revolutionary invention, the revolution was short-lived and before you knew it, checking your inbox went from an anticipated daily event, to something you looked forward to about as much as you did to checking your physical mailbox.

      And once social media sites swooped down from the digital skies and took over the Internet, email took a back seat while pages like Facebook and Twitter shared the driver’s seat and advanced the vehicle of communication to much greater speeds.

      Another shot at steering

      Well, a company by the name of Orchestra Inc. wants to give email use another shot at the steering wheel by releasing the very buzzed-about app Mailbox, that’s supposed to make checking your messages way easier by allowing you to quickly swipe them into various categories.

      It’s like the creators of the app took the concept of message filtering and added a much-needed 2013 twist to it.

      Arguably the best feature of the app is that users don’t have to click on emails the traditional way, since it lets you swipe messages back and forth and allows you to really control how messages are accessed.

      And just like you swipe images on your smartphone screen, Mailbox lets you quickly put messages in places like your trash bin or in your archives and it allows you to move emails to virtual folders that can later be opened.

      But unlike traditional email folders, users can place messages into very specific destinations, which helps, since most of us tend to read different emails at different times of the day or week.

      Users can store messages in specific locations named “later today,” “the weekend,” “next week” or “in a month,” and once you make your selection messages will be resent to you, so you don’t have to manually check those folders in order to read them. You can also select a date as to when the email will arrive in your inbox again.

      Take a number

      What’s also different about Mailbox is that people have to reserve a slot in order to access it, and the reason for that is twofold.

      For one, there’s been a crazy demand for the new app, which recently launced and two, the company is using this reservation system to build even more buzz and anticipation, which so far seems to be working.

      For those who downloaded the app prior to its launch, users can simply enter their registration code and begin using it, but for those who are newly interested you have to download it, which puts you on a first-come-first-serve waiting line.

      You can also watch your place in the waiting line once you download the app, so you’ll have a basic idea of when you’ll be able to use it. The company also sends you a message that lets you know that your access is available.

      The co-creator and CEO of the app, Gentry Underwood, said having the ability to specify where emails go, according to how you want to read them, allows your inbox to become less muddled and lets people manage how they're contacted.

      “We want to decide ‘do I need to reply now,’ can I deal with this later,’ or ‘should I get it out of the way and never deal with it again,’” he said in a published interview.

      Blissful euphoria

      “That creates a very different experience and peace of mind where you know that everything is in its place. All of a sudden you can have the blissful experience without developing the ninja-like discipline and that’s the secret sauce behind this more euphoric experience.”

      Honest, he really said that. And maybe it's a good thing because not everyone is feeing blissful or euphoric.

      Over at BusinessInsider, columnist Nicholas Carson griped that after waiting two weeks to active Mailbox, he deleted it in just two days.

      Why? "Mailbox makes you deal with one email at a time," he grumped. The whole idea is to save time, not create more busywork, he said.

      Bonnie Cha at AllThingsD was a bit more pleased: "It has its limitations. Namely, it only works with Gmail accounts, and it doesn’t automatically sync labels. But I found the ability to set aside messages with reminders to respond later to be extremely useful."

      Will it work for you? Well, it might. There's only one way to find out.

      Remember when being able to send an email seemed futuristic?Do you remember when the very idea of being able to send an instant message to someone withou...

      How not to overspend on a car or truck

      Study finds few consumers can afford the average-priced vehicle

      New and used car sales are remaining strong in a sluggish economy, as millions of consumers find they can get financing for the vehicle of their choice. But behind those bullish car sales numbers is cause for concern, according to a personal finance webite. 

      “What really got us going was when we saw the average cost of a new car or truck last year was $30,000,” said Mike Sante, managing editor of “And that just seemed like an extraordinary amount of money.”

      So much money that Sante and his staff wondered how consumers could afford it. They conducted a study and found that, for the most part, they can't.

      They studied the top 25 cities and calculated the average income. It turns out that residents of only one city – Washington, DC – could afford to pay $30,000 for a car, based on a sound personal finance metric that we'll get to later. According to this formula the average consumer in Houston can only afford a $19,000 car. The average consumer in Philadelphia can only afford to pay $21,000.

      You can buy it anyway

      So, if nobody can afford to buy a $30,000 vehicle, how are they doing it? Simple, says Sante, they're being sold cars they can't really afford.

      “What really defines affordability?” Sante asked. “Unfortunately, I think most people define that by how much the monthly payment is. A lot of people think, if the check doesn't bounce I must be able to afford it.”

      But when they do that, they're inefficiently allocating their resources. They're taking a lot of money out of their pockets they could use to invest in themselves, or save up a reserve fund.

      They're strapped, and they might not understand why. Chances are, it's because of the expensive vehicle in the driveway. This doesn't happen by accident.

      “If you go into a car dealership, one of the first things the salesman will ask you is 'how much of a payment do you think you can afford?'” Sante said. “I think that if you ask a lot of people, they don't have a very good sense of what's affordable. For most people, the car dealer ends up defining it. We're trying to figure out a way to get people to think about cars in terms of what they can really afford.”

      20-4-10 rule

      As part of their study, Sante and his staff interviewed a number of financial planners and adopted the 20-4-10 rule. When buying a car, you should put 20 percent down, finance it for no more than four years, and keep the principal, interest and insurance total for the year at no more than 10 percent of your annual gross income.

      Using that formula, you may not be able to afford a $30,000 vehicle, even though the dealer is perfectly happy to sell you one. If this sounds familiar, it should. It's exactly how the housing bubble started.

      Before going car shopping, consumers should sit down and figure out how much car they can afford, without focusing on the monthly payment. has an auto loan calculator that can help you decide what you can afford by plugging in some key numbers. 

      You may discover you can't afford the car you really want. The good news is, there are plenty of new and late-model used cars that probably are in your price range.

      For comparative purposes, the average price of a new car or light truck in 2012 was $30,550, according to TrueCar. That equates to a monthly payment of approximately $601. If your numbers are less than that, don't let the salesman sway you.

      “The dealer wants it to be an emotional decision that wraps your self-esteem up in what you're driving,” Sante said. “We're trying to separate those things and say, this can't be an emotional decision. It needs to be a dollars and cents decision.”

      New and used car sales continue to remain strong in a sluggish economy, as millions of consumers find they can get financing for the vehicle of their choic...

      How to save on prescription drugs

      Not having prescription drug coverage doesn't mean you have to pay a lot

      Prescription drug costs are a growing part of rising health care costs. Some drugs are very expensive. Even those that carry a moderate cost can be a burden if the prescription must be filled on a regular basis.

      Many consumers have prescription drug coverage as part of their health benefits but for those who don't, paying for prescription drugs can be a problem.

      An obvious way to save money is to always purchase generic drugs instead of name brands. It's the same medicine but the cost reflects the absence of research and development and marketing costs.

      When your doctor prescribes a medication, ask if there is a generic equivalent. These days many pharmacists routinely fill a prescription with the generic if one is available. Generic drugs have exactly the same active ingredients and effects as brand-name drugs, but they can cost 30 percent to 80 percent less.

      Foreign purchases a no-no

      Some U.S. consumers try to save money by purchasing prescriptions from outside the U.S., but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says, not only is that illegal, it's a safety hazard.

      "When Americans import medicines illegally or buy medicines online from unreliable sources, they are faced with a dangerous buyer-beware situation," says FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford, D.V.M., Ph.D. "The FDA understands why people who are having a hard time paying for prescription drugs might do this. We have been expanding our generic drug program to help make more affordable prescription drugs available. This is one solution that does not put consumers at risk."

      If patients can't afford the drugs their doctors prescribe, the FDA views that as a public health issue. That's why the FDA has enhanced the process for the review and approval of generic drugs, and has taken steps to eliminate roadblocks that keep generics off the market.

      Where you purchase your prescriptions can make a difference. Walmart, Walgreens and some other national chains have lists of generics they sell for $4 for a 30-day supply. The lists of these drugs are on their individual websites. Before filling your prescription, check to see if your generic drug happens to be one that's sold for $4.

      Mail order

      Some consumers try to save money by using mail order pharmacies, though this system can have its glitches and frustrations.

      “I placed an order with Medco (now Express Scripts) seven days ago,” Jane, of Montclair, N.J., reported on Feb. 15. “They have sent me several e-mails in that time saying that they could not reach my physician to approve the order. I had tried to transfer my prescription from my retail pharmacy to Medco.

      "The only reason I was doing this was because if I don't use Medco, the pharmacy charges me $200. Anyway, they wouldn't transfer the prescription and said they had to speak to my doctor to have her fax in a new one. When I called my doctor on Tuesday, her receptionist said they hadn't heard anything from Medco. Now today, I got another e-mail saying that they could not reach my doctor and they'd cancel the order by Tuesday if they couldn't get through.”

      And mail order pharmacies are not always cheaper, according to Dr. Norman Carroll, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

      Surprising local savings

      Carroll reviewed millions of Medicare Part D prescription drug event (PDE) data has found that community pharmacies provide 90-day medication supplies at lower cost than mail order pharmacies. Not only that, he said he found that local pharmacists substitute lower-cost generic drugs more often when compared to mail order pharmacies.

      "Local community pharmacists not only offer expert medication counseling face-to-face, but they also provide affordable access to prescription drugs and are leading the way in the appropriate use of lower-cost generic drugs," said NCPA CEO B. Douglas Hoey, CEO of the National Community Pharmacists Association.

      The key, of course, is being able to purchase a 90-day supply rather than 30 days.

      Help from big pharma

      Finally, pharmaceutical companies themselves may be able to help if you can show that you cannot afford prescription medicine. Several companies offer programs that allow consumers to take a discount drug card to the pharmacy to get a discount off of the price of prescription drugs. And most major pharmaceutical companies offer programs which give free or low-cost medicines to people in need.

      For example, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) operates its Orange Card program. It offers 20 percent to 40 percent off the usual price of the company's drugs, and is open to older people who are without health insurance and who have an annual income not exceeding $30,000 to $40,000 for a couple.

      Merck's discount program offers discounts of 15 percent to 40 percent on many of the company's medicines to uninsured patients, regardless of age or income. About 15,000 people signed up for the program within the first few weeks that it began in April 2005, the company says.

      Prescription drug costs are a growing part of rising health care costs. Some drugs are very expensive. Even those that carry a moderate cost can be a burde...

      Cablevision-Viacom stand-off may be the beginning of the end for bundled TV

      It's only a matter of time before cable "tiers" break up and float away

      They may be old but Charles Dolan, 86, and Sumner Redstone, 89, have their eyes on the future -- and what they see there may be what all of us will be looking at eventually.

      Dolan controls Cablevision, a major cable TV provider, while Redstone controls Viacom and CBS. Their current tussle involves "bundling" -- the practice whereby cable TV systems sell "tiers" of service to us couch sprouts. 

      You can't just call up Cablevision and say you want to subscribe to MTV, Nickelodeon and the Comedy Channel, Viacom's most popular cable channels. 

      One reason you can't is that Viacom and other program providers require cable systems to buy a package of channels -- not just, to extend the example, MTV, Nick and the Comedy Channel but also Tr3s and Palladia, two of Viacom's lesser-known channels. 

      The cable industry, which has never been shy about putting the hammer down when it comes to setting prices, is beginning to fret as the average monthly cable bill nears the $100 mark and as Netflix, Amazon Prime and other streaming giants begin cherry-picking some of the best shows and series.

      In a weak economy, $100 is a lot of money to shell out every month just to watch TV when, after all, when you can do it for next to nothing through Internet streaming.

      Consumers rate Cablevision

      The cable industry -- not just Cablevision -- would like to get a handle on all this but the big program producers aren't showing any mercy. So Dolan has taken the first shot -- filing a federal antitrust suit against Viacom in U.S. Federal District Court in New York.

      Cablevision charges that Viacom twisted its arm in the last contract negotiations, forcing it to carry and pay for numerous obscure channels that do nothing but line Viacom's pockets at Cablevision's expense.

      Viacom fired back, vowing to "vigorously defend this transparent attempt" by Cablevision to squirm out of its two-month-old agreement.

      No one is required to feel sorry for either Dolan or Redstone but it will be interesting to watch this unfold, as this may be the time when the cookie starts to crumble and cable TV becomes a lot more like Netflix and Amazon.  

      They may be old but Charles Dolan, 86, and Sumner Redstone, 89, have their eyes on the future -- and what they see there may be what all of us will be look...

      Don't get swept up by the Shark Navigator infomercial claims

      The little vacuum may be OK but there are plenty of other models to choose from

      The Shark Navigator is one of those intriguing gadgets featured on low-budget infomercials. Priced at around $150, it's a lightweight, battery-powered vacuum cleaner that, like all infomercial-hyped items, claims to be unlike any vacuum cleaner you've ever experienced.

      But is it really?

      Christine of Vienna, Ohio, has a love-hate relationship with the Shark. 

      "I have had at least a dozen or so Shark products, about 8 have been Shark Navigators," she said in a ConsumerAffairs posting. "Each one quit working within months. I don't know why I keep buying them. Maybe it's the price or that when it works, it is a great machine."

      OK, so maybe it's turning into more of a hate relationship?

      "After just a few months either the cord becomes defective or the motor just quits altogether. They say they have a 5-year warranty, but don't believe it. I am so dissatisfied and angry. I will never purchase another vacuum made by Shark. I have also owned the shark steam mop and it also quit making steam after about 10 uses."

      Paulalee of Tampa had even worse luck with her Shark, which she said started shooting sparks and flames after she recharged the battery. 

      "The battery melted and I discovered that a replacement battery with shipping is nearly $30.00. Too bad. It should be improved because it would be a nice household item," she said ruefully.

      Consumers rate Shark Navigator Vacuum

      Christine of Cambridge, N.Y., didn't see any sparks but her Shark quit working after one month anyway.

      "I called the customer service number. Together, over the phone we did some trouble-shooting. It was determined that the power nozzle, the main part of the vacuum, was the problem," she said. "At first they wanted to charge me $99.99 for this new part. I told them it was supposed to be under warranty for 5 years. Then I was told I would be receiving this new part free of charge."

      But a few months later the part hadn't shown up and Christine was stuck with a non-functioning vacuum. It sounds similar to what happened to Doris of Bethlehem, Pa.

      "My Shark Euro-pro has disconnected at the bottom of the machine...there is a red button that will not stay connected and therefore I cannot use the vacuum. I've only used it for one month."

      Other consumers have had problems with the supposed "free trial," which turned out not to be free, and with various payment and delivery issues.

      If you're looking for a small, battery-powered vacuum there are plenty out there. The Shark may be OK but instead of ordering directly via the infomercial, we'd recommend paying a visit to Amazon's or Walmart's battery-powered vacuum page. Both offer a wide variety of brands, including Hoover, Eureka and Black and Decker and a broad range of prices, including quite a few models under $100.

      Better yet, drop by a Walmart, Best Buy, Sears or other big retailer and check out the various models before you spend your money. Any major online or bricks-and-mortar retailer will have a clear return policy so you're not left holding the bag if your purchase turns out to be a disappointment.

      The Shark Navigator is one of those intriguing gadgets featured on low-budget infomercials. Priced at around $150, it's a lightweight, battery-powered vacu...

      Teen driver deaths rise in 2012

      Deaths of 16- and 17-year-old drivers up 19 percent

      Although overall traffic fatalities are on the decline, that's not the case with younger drivers.

      The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) reports the number of 16- and 17-year-old driver deaths in passenger vehicles increased dramatically for the first six months of 2012. Based on preliminary data supplied by all 50 states and the District of Columbia, 16- and 17-year-old driver deaths increased from 202 to 240 -- a jump of 19 percent.

      Alarming increase

      The new report -- the first state-by-state look at teen driver fatalities in 2012 -- was completed by Dr. Allan Williams, a researcher who formerly served as chief scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Dr. Williams surveyed GHSA members, who reported fatality numbers for every state and D.C.

      Deaths of 16-year-old drivers increased from 86 to 107 (a 24 percent change), while the number for 17-year-old drivers went from 116 to 133 (a 15 percent change), a cumulative increase of 19 percent. Twenty-five states reported increases, 17 had decreases, and eight states and the District of Columbia reported no change in the number of 16- and 17-year-old driver deaths.

      GDL laws may be a factor

      Dr. Williams attributes much of the increase to the fact that the benefit of state Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) laws may be leveling off, as most of these laws have been in place for some time. Additionally, he speculates that improving economic conditions are contributing to an increase in teen driving, thus increasing their exposure to risk. “Based on 2011 final data and the early look at 2012,” he says, “it appears that we are headed the wrong direction when it comes to deaths of 16- and 17-year-old drivers.”

      Dr. Williams stresses that while this is certainly not good news, deaths in this age group remain at a historically low level. “We are still at a much better place than we were ten or even five years earlier,” he notes. “However, the goal is to strive toward zero deaths, so our aim would be that these deaths should go down every year.”

      Action urged

      Kendell Poole, chairman of GHSA and director of Tennessee’s Governor’s Highway Safety Office, says any increase in highway deaths is unacceptable -- particularly among our teens. “We know from research and experience that teen drivers are not only a danger to themselves, but also a danger to others on the roadways. So these numbers are a cause for concern.” He pointed out. “As the report notes, a widespread strengthening of laws is still possible, and utilizing effective tools outside of GDL should be a focus. These include improving driver education and ensuring that scientifically based educational programs are available to new drivers.”

      GHSA Executive Director Barbara Harsha stressed that while data are preliminary, she is concerned that signs point to a significant increase in 16- and-17-year-old driver deaths for 2012. She advises states to focus on strengthening GDL and programs that are data-driven, adding that states should consider implementing parent programs to help parents keep their teens safe. “Parents have a huge responsibility to ensure safe teen driving behavior,” she concludes, adding, “States can facilitate this by providing innovative programs that bring parents and teens together around this issue.”

      Although overall traffic fatalities are on the decline, that's not the case with younger drivers. The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) reports ...

      Amazon gets exclusive online rights to 'Justified' and 'The Shield'

      Bidding war for popular shows heats up as Netflix, Amazon build their arsenals

      Netflix had better watch it. There may not be room in town for both Netflix and Amazon Prime. Prime today got the drop on Netflix as it scored an exclusive deal to distribute a couple of FX shows -- "Justified" and "The Shield" -- online.

      Amazon said it has reached a content licensing agreement with Sony Pictures Television to make Amazon Prime the exclusive location to watch FX's "Justified" and "The Shield."

      Prime subscribers can watch the shows for free, while other Amazon visitors can purchase and download episodes for $1.99 apiece.

      "Justified" is a gritty series bult around the deeds and misdeeds of Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal based in the backwater reaches of Kentucky, with Timothy Olyphant of "Deadwood" fame playing the lead.

      It's been one of the most watched shows on Amazon Instant Video, where customers can purchase and download episodes for $1.99 each, and will now be available to Prime members at no additional cost, the company said.

      In addition, Prime Instant Video will add the inner-city Los Angeles crime drama "The Shield"to its catalog.

      “Justified"and "The Shield"are two fan favorites on Amazon,” said Brad Beale, Director of Digital Video Content Acquisition for Amazon. “We’re consistently looking for ways to make Prime even better – and one of the ways we’re doing that is adding shows like these that we know customers love.”

      Amazon stole some thunder earlier this month when it acquired exclusive online rights to the PBS hit "Downton Abbey." 

      Netflix had better watch it. There may not be room in town for both Netflix and Amazon Prime. Prime today got the drop on Netflix as it scored an excl...

      The buyers are out there: Pending home sales rise in January

      Healthy gains were registered in every region except the West

      The real estate market is humming, with pending home sales up in January.

      The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports all regions but the West, which is constrained by limited inventory, posted strong gains. But even that area showed slight improvement.

      The Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), a forward-looking indicator based on contract signings, rose 4.5 percent last month -- to 105.9 from a downwardly revised 101.3 in December. The index is is 9.5 percent above January 2012 and has been above year-ago levels for the past 21 months The data reflect contracts but not closings.

      The January index is the highest reading since April 2010 when it hit 110.9, just before the deadline for the home buyer tax credit. Aside from spikes induced by the tax credits, the last time there was a higher reading was in February 2007 when it reached 107.9.

      Inventory and affordability keys

      NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun says inventory is the key to this year's housing market. "Favorable affordability conditions and job growth have unleashed a pent-up demand,” he notes. “Most areas are drawing down housing inventory, which has shifted the supply/demand balance to sellers in much of the country. It's also why we're experiencing the strongest price growth in more than seven years."

      Yun explains that over the near term, rising contract activity means higher home sales. But, he adds, “Total sales for the year are expected to rise less than in 2012, while home prices are projected to rise more strongly because of inventory shortages."

      Regional sales

      The PHSI in the Northeast rose 8.2 percent to 84.8 in January and is 10.5 percent higher than January 2012. In the Midwest the index increased 4.5 percent to 105.0 in January and is 17.7 percent above a year ago.

      Pending home sales in the South rose 5.9 percent to an index of 119.3 in January and are 11.3 percent higher January 2012. In the West the index edged up 0.1 percent in January to 102.1 but is 1.5 percent below a year ago.

      Yun expects approximately 5.0 million existing-home sales this year. However, price growth could exceed a seven percent gain projected for 2013 if inventory supplies remain low.

      Previously, NAR had expected 5.1 million existing-home sales in 2013, while prices were forecast to rise 5.5 to 6.0 percent.

      The real estate market is humming, with pending home sales up in January. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reports all regions but the West, whi...

      Watch out for 'free trial offer' traps

      Most free offers end up costing you time, money and maybe more

      Free trial offers, used to market a variety of products sold online, are usually nothing more than a sucker pitch. The advertiser suggests the consumer can try the product for free, when in fact it's just a way to sell a full order of the product – sometimes several full orders.

      When most consumers see a “free trial” offer, they reasonably think they will be allowed to try a sample at no charge, with no strings attached. The company, however, cannot afford to offer unlimited free samples unless it is assured of converting a large number of the free trials into sales. So sometimes they un-level the playing field.

      They do this two ways. First, they set a very limited time for the consumer to receive and try the sample before they are charged for a full shipment. Second, they require the consumer to pay a nominal shipping and handling fee – usually around $2. It might not sound like much, but it's the key to charging you more later on.

      The goal is to get your credit card

      The consumer is required to pay this fee with their credit or debit card. When the marketer determines that the trial period has expired, it can then charge a full order to the consumer's card. And therein lies the rub.

      In 2011 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) went to court to stop an operation it said took in more than $450 million from consumers by using “free” or “risk-free” offers for weight-loss pills and tooth whiteners, and then billed them for things they did not want or agree to purchase, providing false or misleading information to merchant banks in order to acquire credit and debit card processing services.

      Consumers were often charged for the “free” trial plus a monthly recurring fee, typically $79.95. Consumers were also charged monthly recurring fees for the so-called bonus offers.

      But legitimate companies also employ the “free offer” trap. They may follow the rules for such offers but consumers don't always understand that they must act promptly to prevent future charges. Consumers, then, have to be aware of the pitfalls of accepting a free offer.

      Here are some products whose trial offers seem to draw a lot of complaints at ConsumerAffairs:


      Hydroxatone is a moisture cream that is supposed to keep skin looking younger. It offers consumers a free trial but many consumers complain they end up being charged for the product.

      “They make it look like a free sample, but you pay for the postage by credit card,” Sean, of Victoria, British Columbia, wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “Then they charge you each month for the product whether you want it or not. They give you a small window of time to contact them to stop them from debiting your credit card. I'm pretty sure this is against the trades practices act.”

      April, of Chicago, writes that she cancelled within the allotted time but was still charged for a full shipment.


      SmileBrite is just one of the teeth-whitening products that uses the free trial offer. Farah, of Ames, Iowa, reported she went for the $1.99 free trial but ended up getting charged $87.13.

      “After reading the terms and condition, I quickly cancelled my order as I still able to do that within the time period,” Farah wrote.

      But Farah says, despite being told by the company she would get a refund, she didn't.


      Transunion is one of the three credit reporting agencies that provide consumers with a variety of services that have to do with their credit. Many consumers who are in the midst of a major credit purchase will check their credit and sometimes go for the “free offers” in an effort to save a few dollars.

      “Like most people here, I signed up for free trial and then when I tried to get my free report/print it the very next day, they charged me saying I'd upgraded,” Raychelle, of Charlotte, N.C., wrote. “They charged my card $29.99! There's no way I'd pay for something I know I can get for free! This is a major scam. And canceling the 7-day free trial is tricky too!”

      Raychelle and others should keep in mind that, once a year, all consumers can check their credit reports at no charge at

      The companies that offer free trials will insist that most unhappy consumers are simply not following the rules. But consumers overwhelmingly argue they are, or that the rules are impossible to follow. In many cases, the courts have sided with consumers.

      A win for consumers

      Last year the state of Washington brought action against Seattle-based Real Networks, claiming the software maker's free trials, and other marketing practices, were deceptive.

      “Deceptive pre-checked boxes and fine print obligated consumers to not-so-free trials for subscription services they didn’t want in the first place,” Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna said at the time. “People were charged for months — sometimes years — paying hundreds of dollars for subscriptions they knew nothing about.”

      Real Networks settled with the state and agreed to change its marketing practices. Consumers, meanwhile, should avoid the “free trial offer” trap.

      Remember, if the company insists of getting your credit or debit card information, the chances are your trial offer isn't going to be free.

      Free trial offers, used to market a variety of products sold online, are usually nothing more than a sucker pitch. The advertiser suggests the consumer can...

      Advanced breast cancer cases increasing in younger women

      Younger women have a poorer prognosis so the findings are cause for concern

      In a potentially ominous report, researchers have found "a small but statistically significant" increase in the incidence of advanced breast cancer in younger women in the United States. 

      “The trajectory of the incidence trend predicts that an increasing number of young women in the United States will present with metastatic breast cancer in an age group that already has the worst prognosis, no recommended routine screening practice, the least health insurance, and the most potential years of life,” the authors write a study appearing in the February 27 issue of JAMA.

      "Young women with breast cancer tend to experience more aggressive disease than older women and have lower survival rates," the researchers noted. 

      The study was conducted by Rebecca H. Johnson, M.D., of Seattle Children's Hospital and University of Washington, Seattle, and colleagues, using data from three U.S. National Cancer Institute Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) registries. 

      “In the United States, breast cancer is the most common malignant tumor in adolescent and young adult women 15 to 39 years of age, accounting for 14 percent of all cancer in men and women in the age group. The individual average risk of a woman developing breast cancer in the United States was 1 in 173 by the age of 40 years when assessed in 2008," the article noted. 

      Younger not always better

      The researchers also found that the rate of increasing incidence of distant disease -- meaning malignancies that had metastisized, or spread to other parts of the body -- was higher in younger women. The greatest increase occurred in 25- to 34-year-old women. Progressively smaller increases occurred in older women by five-year age intervals and no statistically significant incidence increase occurred in any group 55 years or older.

      “For young women aged 25 to 39 years, the incidence of distant [metastisized]  disease increased in all races/ethnicities assessed since at least 1992, when race/ethnicity became available in the SEER database,” the authors write. These increases occurred in both metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas, and were statistically significant in African American and non-Hispanic white populations.

      The researchers said the causes for the increase are not known but said more study is needed.

      "If verified, the increase is particularly concerning, because young age itself is an independent adverse prognostic factor for breast cancer, and the lowest five-year breast cancer survival rates as a function of age have been reported for 20- to 34-year-old women.

      "The most recent national 5-year survival for distant disease for 25- to 39-year-old women is only 31 percent according to SEER data, compared with a 5-year survival rate of 87 percent for women with locoregional breast cancer,” the authors write.

      In a potentially ominous report, researchers have found "a small but statistically significant" increase in the incidence of advanced breast cancer in youn...

      New service scans your snail mail, makes it easier to manage

      Outbox reduces clutter, handles "unsubscribe" chores, lets you check mail from anywhere

      This had to happen eventually. A feisty start-up called Outbox is offering a service that, for a few bucks a month, will turn your snail mail into email, so you can delete it, forward it, save it or even unsubscribe from future mailings.

      There's a physical element involved, of course. Outbox couriers come to your home a few days a week to pick up your mail and take it back to the mothership for scanning. This means that if you have a mail slot in your front door, you may have to do a little remodeling.

      Outbox was founded in 2011 in Austin, Texas by Harvard classmates Will Davis and Evan Baehr. It's currently available only in Austin but is coming to San Francisco shortly, we're told.

      "Outbox ushers postal mail into the digital era by making it social, interactive and sharable through a suite of mobile and web applications," the company says. "Outbox collects and manages postal mail on users’ behalf, discarding junk mail and enabling them to take action -- such as organize, prioritize, or unsubscribe -- on any piece of mail."

      As Outbox explains it, mail is collected from customers' mailboxes three times a week and scanned the same day, making it available online.

      If the scanned mail includes a piece of mail you'd like to have physically delivered, Outbox promises it will do so in the next delivery after you request it.

      And as for checks, if you see a check in your mail you can have it delivered physically or, better yet, if your bank accepts high-res scans of checks, you may just be able to send the scanned image to your bank.

      The price for all this? $4.99 a month and Outbox swears there are no additional fees. 

      It all leaves one big question unanswered though: Why didn't the Postal Service think of this?

      This had to happen eventually. A feisty start-up called Outbox is offering a service that, for a few bucks a month, will turn your snail mail into ema...

      Researching colleges and tuition costs? Try these helpful sites

      The College Scorecard and NextStepU make looking for colleges a bit easier.

      There are many things that go into a student’s decision when they're choosing a college -- some related to academics, some to cost and some to location.

      Sometimes people choose a school because other family members went there, so a student’s desires take second place to a sense of obligation and family pride.

      There are also times when a high school student doesn’t have the proper amount of adult guidance and the college decision is simply left up to them, which can lead to students being placed in a school that doesn’t fit their passion or help them develop one. It's also hard for a student to generate excitement for a school if they don’t know enough about it.

      Fortunately, there are some websites available that can at least help students get started on their college quest and although you’ll have to couple these sites with some good old-fashioned legwork by visiting schools and speaking to administrators, they can at least give you a basic amount of information that you can fill out later on.

      College Scorecard

      One of the newer college sites comes from the U.S. Department of Education and was mentioned in President Obama’s last State of the Union address. It’s called “The College Scorecard,” which the President says will not only help parents and students decide which schools are best for them, but also help decide which schools will be best for their budget.

      “My administration will release a new College Scorecard that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria: where can you get the most bang for your educational buck,” Obama said.

      Parents and students can use the site in any number of ways by conducting searches by degree, major, size and location of the campus or campus setting.  You can plug a college name into the search field and pull up information that way too.

      Once your search is completed, the screen brings up a digital scorecard that has each school's tuition cost, loan default rate, graduation rate, employment rate and the average amount that’s borrowed per student.

      U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says the virtual scorecard is supposed to provide a quick college overview for students and will help them make a more informed decision compared to just a few years ago.

      “We know students and families are often overwhelmed in the college search process, but feel they lack the tools to sort through the information and decide which school is right for them,” said Duncan. “The College Scorecard provides a snapshot about an institution’s cost and value to help families make smart decisions about where to enroll.”


      Another useful site, which also serves as a good first step when researching colleges, is It lets you search for schools, find available scholarships and get guided tips on how to pay for school.

      The site also has different contests that users can join like writing competitions and contests where you can win tuition money, but it would probably be smart to stay away from these offers since you’ll most likely be inundated with annoying follow-up emails and non-stop promotional offers.

      Although NextStepU doesn’t seem to provide the same depth of well-researched data as The College Scorecard, the site is still easy to navigate and has some helpful information about many different aspects of the college-hunting experience.

      What’s a little annoying about NextStepU is that users will have to register to use some of its features, always an annoying step and one that raises privacy concerns.

      But in an email, Diana Fisher, the site's publisher, said the only part of the site that requires registration (aside from the Win Free Tuition contest) is the Scholarship Search Tool.

      "The rest of the site you are free to navigate at will. We abide by privacy laws and are quite strict in what we do with the registrations on the site, especially because they are teens and most are under 18," Fisher said.

      But without signing up you can still do a quick college search based on your major and location and be able to see the cost of the school, the average amount of student aid awarded and some informational write-ups on each institution. Registered users can click on a link and contact a school of their choice to request information be sent to them.

      Deciding on a school is no easy task and doing your homework can be a more cumbersome experience, but instead of picking up phones and using snail mail to get college info like many of us had to do back in the day, the process has been streamlined, thanks to technology and some creative educators who know just how difficult finding the perfect school can be.

      These sites and others like them are also useful because parents can make sure their kids are choosing the right schools for the right reason and not making their selections solely based on where the campus is located and what the social scene will be like.

      There are many things that go into a student’s decision when their choosing a college, and for some, those reasons don’t really have much to do...

      The sequester: what's it mean for you?

      If you don't work for the government, the impact may be slight

      The “sequester,” a uniquely Washington word, has entered our economic vocabulary recently. What's it mean?

      It means on March 1, 2013, across-the-board cuts in government spending go into effect, meaning every non-entitlement federal program will have to cut its budget. It was designed to be a ticking time bomb, part of the debt ceiling negotiations of 2011. Under its provisions, either lawmakers came to an agreement on deficit reduction in the following months or a meat cleaver would be taken to the federal budget.

      "The sequester was intentionally designed to be bad economic policy in order to motivate a political compromise on a better substitute," said Bank of New York Mellon chief economist Richard Hoey. "The adoption of a fiscal policy intentionally designed to be dysfunctional in its impact appears to be a unique American policy innovation, one unlikely to be copied by other countries."

      Tap dance

      So, in effect, the sequester is all about a political tap dance. Democrats prefer to address the deficit through tax hikes, Republicans through spending cuts. Neither side has shown much willingness to budge.

      Hoey believes that once the sequester takes effect lawmakers will actually try to come up with some sort of compromise. So, will you be affected by all of this?

      It depends. If you work for a major defense installation or a government contractor, you could be. In fact, Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), whose district includes the Newport News Naval Shipyards and a number of naval facilities, says the effects of the sequester are already being felt.

      “Work for shipyard workers has been delayed and many men and women in uniform have been asked to stay home just days before they were set to deploy, injecting a great deal of stress on service members and their families,” Wittman said. “The Hampton Roads military community and shipyard already know firsthand the effects of sequestration.”

      If you work for the federal government you might also be affected, especially if you work for a national park. Some workers might be furloughed, although for how long is a subject of debate.

      Little impact in the private sector

      If you work in the private sector, however, there may be little impact. The latest Wage Trend Indicator from Bloomberg BNA suggests little change in annual wage growth for private sector workers in the coming months. At the same time, if you are out of work it might make it harder to get hired.

      "Labor market conditions overall have been improving slowly, but the economy remains somewhat weak," economist Kathryn Kobe, a consultant who maintains and helped develop Bloomberg BNA's WTI database, said. "Although the fiscal cliff has been avoided, there's still a lot of uncertainty about the economic impact of a possible federal budget sequester, and businesses appear hesitant to hire new employees," Kobe said.

      National parks

      Employees of, and visitors to national parks may feel some pain. The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees projects sequestration will cut visitor access to the rim of the Grand Canyon, significantly delay the spring opening of key portions of Yellowstone and Yosemite, reduce emergency response help for drivers in the Great Smoky Mountains, limit access to the beach at the Cape Cod National Seashore, and impair the experiences in many other ways for millions of visitors at America's national parks.

      In addition, local, regional and state economies that depend on national parks will probably take hits as visitors are either turned away or skip visits due to the impact of the mindless sequestration budget cuts.

      The group's report says sequestration will result in a much-reduced workforce, shutdowns of certain national park areas altogether or for extended period of times, closure of visitor centers and services, restrictions on the availability of campgrounds, visitor centers, comfort stations, and trail and other backcountry access. Additionally, the ability to respond to emergencies including wild fires will be sharply reduced.

      Before you castigate Congress and the White House for being unable to reach an agreement on how to reduce the deficit, consider this Harris survey that suggests the American people can't even agree.

      Public is divided

      According to the survey, only 12% of the public want to see a cut in Social Security payments, 19% want to cut federal aid to education and 23% want to cut federal health care programs. But on the other hand, over three in ten U.S. adults want to see increases in spending for education (37%) and health care (31%).

      The only programs of the 20 listed in the poll that half or more of Americans want to cut are foreign economic aid (77%), foreign military aid (74%), spending by regulatory agencies (55%), subsidies to business (54%), federal welfare spending (51%), and the space program (50%). Unfortunately, those programs account to only a tiny fraction of federal spending.

      Which brings us to a final somber note. The sequester cuts, which have Washington in a panic, hack $85 billion a year from the federal budget. While that is a lot of money, consider this: the annual deficit is $1 trillion.

      If reducing the deficit by a measly 0.85% can cause such alleged economic harm, it is difficult to see how the U.S. government will ever be able to live within its means.

      The “sequester,” a uniquely Washington word, has entered our economic vocabulary recently. What's it mean?It means on March 1, 2013, across t...