theft protection, TV antennas, light bulbs and home
heating myths are just a few of the Spending Smart
topics we explored this year, along with how to speed
through airport security, get free books and college
courses, and avoid wasting money on mobile phones.
abbreviated form, here is the top Spending Smart money
advice from 2014, based on reader feedback, uniqueness
of the advice and our own favorites.
and ID theft: Perhaps the biggest consumer issue in 2014
was the plethora of credit card breaches, many involving
stolen payment card numbers from retailers. Scary stuff,
and readers were understandably alarmed. But hereís
the main takeaway: Credit monitoring, the centerpiece of
many identity theft services, will not help one iota
with stolen debit and credit card numbers, although a
retailerís knee-jerk reaction is to offer credit
monitoring to customers who suffered a breach.
Fraudulent charges donít show up on credit reports,
and thieves donít have enough information to open new
credit accounts in your name. Itís like offering to
X-ray your big toe to check for a sinus infection. The
best advice is always free. Check your card statements
for unusual charges and, if found, report them to your
card issuer. The phone number is usually on the back of
the card. Overall, be skeptical when buying identity
theft services; many consumer groups are lukewarm to
hostile toward them. Services that tout ID theft
prevention and protection are overreaching. They mostly
help you only after identity theft has happened. Check
your credit reports for fraud yourself at
annualcreditreport.com ó one report free from each of
three credit bureaus once a year.
antenna: Readers seem to love learning more about an
old-fashioned ó and free ó way to get TV
programming, with an over-the-air antenna. Many shared
that they cut the cord from the cable company and are
thrilled about it. "Thank you for your article
regarding TV antennas," one reader wrote. "I
was unaware of the current technology. I just purchased
an antenna for $18, small multidirectional, at Best Buy.
It works as advertised with excellent reception."
Indoor antennas are less intrusive than ever ó some
are flat and wall-mounted ó and the picture is likely
to be superior to the one you get via cable or satellite
because the signal is less compressed. An antenna can be
a great complement for TV programs and movies you get
online through your smart TV or with a streaming box.
The downside is you only get broadcast stations with an
antenna ó ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, PBS but no CNN, ESPN or
Discovery Channel. Antennaweb.org is a good place to get
bulbs: In polite company, you donít discuss politics,
religion or light bulbs. A column about phasing out old
bulbs lit up my email box from readers, with not only
questions but stories of their own experiences ó good
and bad ó with CFLs and LEDs. At the beginning of the
year, it became illegal to produce 40-watt and the most
popular type, 60-watt, incandescents, at least those
that arenít far more energy efficient. CFL quality has
improved, but some people are still furious with past
disappointing results, usually with the quality of light
they provide. CFLs often donít work well in dimmers,
outdoors in cold weather and in recessed ceiling lights.
They also contain a small amount of mercury. LEDs are
probably the way to go, and are finally dropping into a
reasonable price range, dipping under $10 per bulb. They
have the best energy efficiency, great light quality,
instant brightness, better dimming than CFLs and
ridiculously long life ó about 25 years. Snarked one
reader: "So Iím 70, how many 25-year bulbs should
heating: Misinformation about home heating is common,
including thinking that cranking up the thermostat heats
a chilly house faster. It doesnít, and only wastes
energy. Duct tape? Not good for sealing ducts. One
reader suggested the topic was a source of marital
strife: "Just read your article about home heating
myths. My wife pointed out every myth and justified her
philosophy on heating the house. Iíll let it
Libraries are unsung gold mines in a community, and
nowadays you donít even need to leave your house to
get e-books, download music and access databases. You
just need a library login. "Thanks for the article
about free library books," one reader wrote.
"I had no idea the Chicago Public Library offered
free (electronic) magazines. Now my iPad is filled with
great magazines!" Libraries are starting to buy 3-D
printers, operate Internet cafes and install recording
studios and video game rooms. Why buy when you can
college classes: In other personal-enrichment news, how
about free college courses by a MOOC? That stands for
massive open online class, college courses taught
online, some by the worldís leading experts in their
fields at famous universities. Imagine taking an
eight-week course on financial markets by Nobel Prize
winner in economics Robert Shiller at Yale University.
Or a marketing course from professors at the Wharton
School at the University of Pennsylvania. Or take
less-academic courses, such as "Child Nutrition and
Cooking" or "The Music of the Beatles."
Sit in front of your computer or watch lectures on your
smartphone. Courses typically arenít for credit and
donít lead to a degree but might offer a
course-completion certificate. The largest provider is
coursera.org. Also check out aggregator class-central.com,
a directory of courses at MOOC websites.
through airport security: We pay for all sorts of
services to avoid hassle and stress. Should paying for
TSA Precheck to speed through the fast lanes at airport
security screening be one of them? Maybe. But Global
Entry, for $100 instead of $85 for five years, might
offer better value, giving you all the benefits of
Precheck plus faster clearing through customs. Applying
for Global Entry is likely to be more hassle, though.
Apply online for Precheck at tinyurl.com/precheckapp.
Apply for Global Entry at tinyurl.com/globaleapp. The
downside is privacy ó providing information about
yourself to the government and submitting to a
phones: Our smartphones have quickly become central to
daily activity, but is it worth insuring them with an
extended warranty? A simple, blanket answer to the
warranty question, advocated by Consumer Reports, for
example, is no. Besides, conventional wisdom is you
shouldnít insure against minor financial problems.
Still, if insurance holds allure, consider price,
deductible and coverage. Bypass your wireless carrier
and get the warranty from a third party, such as
SquareTrade, or for Apple products, consider AppleCare
Plus. Unusual tip: Check with your home insurer about
adding your phone to your policy. It might provide the
best value. And if you have a smartphone sitting in a
drawer, especially an iPhone which holds value well, you
can probably sell it online, maybe for hundreds of
dollars. Check Gazelle, NextWorth and Amazon Trade-In.