The U.S. lags far behind several other nations when it comes to recognizing female leaders on paper currency.
As a campaign to get a woman on the $20 bill picks up steam, you might be surprised to learn just how far behind the times the United States is compared with other countries.
At least 10 other nations have already recognized female leaders on their banknotes, including Syria, the Philippines, and Israel.
Click through the gallery below to see which countries made the list. Then take MONEY’s poll to vote on the woman you’d most like to see on American currency. If you need inspiration, check out WomenOn20s official site to learn more about candidates like Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, and Sojourner Truth.
Syria’s current image is that of a nation wracked by civil war and struggling against the violent militant group ISIS. But it outpaced the United States on one sign of social progress: recognizing women on official currency.
Syrian Queen Zenobia, known for fighting back against Roman colonizers in the second century AD, appears on the 500-pound note.
During the mid-1980s, the Philippines introduced a 500-peso note featuring prominent senator Benigno Aquino Jr., who had been assassinated in 1983. His wife, Corazon Aquino, went on to become the first female president of the Philippines—and the first female president in Asia, for that matter—and her image was added to the bill after she died in 2009. Early 20th-century suffragette Josefa Llanes Escoda also appears (alongside two men) on the 1000-peso note.
In Turkey, the current 50-lira note features turn-of-the-century novelist and women’s rights activist Fatma Aliye Topuz on its reverse side. (The first president of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, appears on the front of every bill.)
Mexico’s 500-peso note shows muralist Diego Rivera on the front and his wife and fellow artist Frida Kahlo on the back. Her image is a 1940 self-portrait, alongside a famous painting of hers from 1949, “Love’s Embrace of the Universe, the Earth (Mexico), Myself, Diego and Señor Xólotl.” Seventeenth-century Mexican writer Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz appears on the 200-peso note.
Argentina’s beloved former First Lady Eva Perón—widely known by her nickname “Evita”—appears on the current 100-peso bill. The 20-peso note depicts 19th-century Argentine political activist Manuela Rosas along with her father, politician Juan Manuel de Rosas.
Like many other former British colonies, New Zealand features Queen Elizabeth II on its currency—the 20-dollar note to be precise. But Kiwi banknotes also honor suffragette Kate Sheppard, who in 1893 helped New Zealand become the first country in the world with universal voting rights for both men and women. Her image appears on the 10-dollar bill.
The Bank of Israel recently announced that it will be adding images of two female Israeli writers to forthcoming 20- and 100-New Shekel banknotes, respectively. The former will feature turn-of-the-century poet Rachel Bluwstein, and the latter author, poet, and literary expert Leah Goldberg, who died in 1970.
Imagery on the krona celebrates several women in Sweden’s history. Currently there’s Selma Lagerlöf—the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature—on the 20-krona note, as well as 19th-century opera singer Jenny Lind on the 50-krona bill. Starting this fall, a new line of banknotes will feature Pippi Longstocking author Astrid Lindgren on the 20-krona, 20th-century soprano Birgit Nilsson on the 500-krona, and classic film actress Greta Garbo on the 100-krona note.
Australia has one woman on either the front or back of every banknote currently in circulation. They include Queen Elizabeth II on the front of the $5 bill, social reformer and writer Dame Mary Gilmore on the back of the $10, 19th-century businesswoman Mary Reibey on the front of the $20, politician and social worker Edith Cowan on the back of the $50, and turn-of-the-century soprano Dame Nellie Melba on the front of the $100 note.
If featuring women on currency were a contest, the Bank of England would win, with every note since 1960 depicting Queen Elizabeth II on the front. Past bills featured nurse and statistician Florence Nightingale on the back, current 5-pound notes show 19th-century social reformer Elizabeth Fry, and the next 10-pound bill will celebrate famed 19th-century author Jane Austen.
Plenty of apps can make it easier to send money from one person to another
Whether it’s splitting a tab, paying someone back for a few rounds at the bar, or negotiating six months of electricity bill back payments with your roommates, there isn’t always an easy way to square away your debts with friends. You never want to be that person who breaks out the checkbook at dinner.
But you’re in luck: There are plenty of great digital payment apps that can make your life a lot easier.
The most obvious choice for the job is the PayPal app. Once you sign in to your PayPal account, you can link your card or bank account when prompted. If you want to add a second card, you’ll find the option to do so on the app’s home page. In order to transfer funds to a friend’s account, select the option on the bottom left of the app that says “Send.” If your friend also uses PayPal, you send money using their email address.
However, PayPal knocks you with a 2.9% fee for sending money via a credit or debit card account instead of sending from a PayPal account to a PayPal account. To avoid that fee, check out Venmo, an increasing popular mobile payment app that doesn’t knock you with a fee if you link it with a debit card (using a credit card involves a 3% fee).
When you first open Venmo, you’ll be prompted to enter your bank info — stick with a debit card to avoid that fee. If you give Venmo access to your Facebook friends list, you’ll be able to select from a list of your friends already using Venmo, thanks to integration with Facebook’s social graph. You can also search for people on Venmo who aren’t already your Facebook friends by clicking the new transaction button—the upper rightmost gray button—and then typing a name.
Once you have selected your recipient, you’ll be prompted with a number pad on which you’ll be able to decide how much to transfer. Venmo also lets you request payments from people — say, that roommate who still hasn’t doled out his share of last night’s Thai delivery order. If you have somebody you really trust, like a significant other, you can let them take money from you without asking — sort of like having a joint bank account — but that’s probably not the smartest thing to do with casual friends.
Venmo keeps money you receive in a separate account; you can either hang on to that cash to use via Venmo or “cash out” and have it hit your regular bank account in 24 hours.
It’s worth noting here that Venmo recently had a security scare, but it’s taking steps to address those issues. There are other cash-sending alternatives, too: Mobile messaging app Snapchat recently added “Snapcash,” a payment feature that integrates with Square, while Facebook is rolling out a payment option in its Messenger app as well. Which app you use ultimately depends on which ones most of your friends or roommates are using and which one you feel most comfortable linking to your bank accounts.
It's convenient to put your regular bills on autopilot. Just don't ignore them entirely or you might find yourself short on cash.
Autopaying bills is a no-brainer. You are never late with a payment, and you do not have to spend all that time going through stacks of bills, filling out checks, and then stuffing and stamping envelopes.
But Brent Cumberford learned the hard way that automatic bill paying is not as simple as setting it up and walking away.
Last year, his natural gas was turned off because expected automated payments were not made, a canceled subscription kept getting paid and another canceled service automatically renewed itself.
Cumberford, 32, who runs the personal finance site Vosa.com and splits his time between San Diego and Calgary, resolved the natural gas situation without figuring out what exactly went wrong (the bank and the utility blamed each other) and got the automatic renewal credited back. But he is still dealing with the subscription.
“The lesson I learned was that it’s important to still track automated payments,” Cumberford says.
About 61% of Americans have set at least one bill to pay automatically, says Eric Leiserson, a senior research analyst for financial technology services company Fiserv.
The main reason consumers use autopay is to make sure bills are paid on time. That is vital to their credit scores when it comes to debts like car loans, credit card balances, and mortgages, but most other on-time payments are not recorded.
A recent study by credit reporting firm Experian, however, suggests that including positive utility payment histories, which is not commonly done, could help elevate the credit scores of millions of Americans. The report also says people with thin credit histories would benefit from having a richer record of payments made.
As much as automation can be a positive, there are plenty of catches to be watch out for:
1. Changing accounts
If you decide to pay from a different account, be sure all the changes are in place. Marketing consultant Peter Brooks, 56, of Vallejo, Calif., says it was a big hassle to re-enter all the payment information after he changed checking accounts.
2. Being short of funds when bills are paid
Not having enough money in the bank is a main reason not to automate bill paying. If you have a bill set up to pay automatically and you lack money to pay it, this could affect your credit history as much as forgetting to mail in the check. Being on time 99% of the time does not help you much, but missing one payment could hurt your credit score for years.
3. Continued withdrawals even if you stop using the service
Monthly recurring charges for services can keep occurring even if you asked for them to stop. A gym membership or subscription set to be paid automatically every month could lag a request to cancel. So it is vital to keep an eye out to see if withdrawals persist after you have canceled a service, experts say.
4. Inadvertently disengaging the automated payments by making one manually
Bob Girolamo, 41, of Chicago, who runs the startup data and statistics organizer Sorc’d, learned that the hard way. He says he made a manual payment for his health insurance that disengaged the autopay. He did not notice the missed payments until he received the cancellation notice.
5. Errant payments
Monitoring transactions is key to fixing errors. Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for Bankrate.com, says putting payment dates in an online calendar is one way to stay on top of what payments should be going out. “With 24-7 online and mobile account access, keeping tabs on your account is easier than ever,” he says. “Taking a matter of seconds each day is all it takes.”
MONEY contributor Farnoosh Torabi shows how to get your cable provider to cut your monthly bill.
Managing your finances isn't easy, but it's a lot harder when you start lying to yourself.
A few weeks ago, an acquaintance asked me about my job, and upon hearing that I write about budgets and credit cards (and such), she had something she wanted to share. She doesn’t like to pay her credit card bills on time, she told me, because it makes her nervous to see her bank balance dip so low afterward.
People tell me random tidbits about their finances all the time, and I know she’s not alone in doing things with her money she knows she shouldn’t. Others are misinformed about things that will help or hurt their credit or overall financial health, which is probably a much bigger problem than people who go out of their way to justify poor habits.
Inspired by this interaction, I asked several people who work in personal finance to share the strange excuses they’ve heard from people when explaining why they can’t or won’t pay their bills on time.
Fear of a Low Balance
There are millions of Americans who legitimately can’t afford their bills, but there’s a difference between not having enough money in your bank account and not wanting to see the balance get smaller after you’ve paid a bill. You may have to pay a fee if your account balance drops below a certain level, and you should avoid that if you can, but skipping a bill could be much more costly. Late fees will add up, and if you forget to make a payment, your credit score will suffer. (You can see how late payments are affecting your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)
No one likes seeing their bank accounts shrink, but if you’re tracking your spending, keeping to a budget and monitoring your accounts for unauthorized activity, you shouldn’t have to worry about account fluctuations. That’s just how the cycle of getting paid and paying bills works.
The Myth of the Credit-Building Balance
This is one most credit experts have heard: Carrying a balance on your credit card will help you build credit.
When using a credit card, the two best things you can do for your credit are pay your bill on time and use a small portion of your available credit (generally less than 30% of your limit, but an even lower credit utilization rate is better). Whether you carry a balance from month to month has no direct impact on your credit score.
However, if you’re carrying a balance and continue to add to it, either with new purchases or with the interest the balance accrues, you could hurt your credit utilization rate and end up hurting your credit. If you can, it’s a good idea to pay your balance on time and in full every month.
The Bill Protester
Sometimes people just don’t know what they’re getting into when they use credit cards, so when they get a bill they think doesn’t reflect their spending, they balk.
“We run into some people who, regarding credit cards, won’t pay because they’re angry with the high interest rates or they’re angry about the fees,” said John Szalicki of Cambridge Credit Counseling. These people think they’re taking a stand against the credit card company by refusing to pay. “We tell them it doesn’t work like that.”
Some consumers take a similar approach with other financial obligations as well, “protesting” by not paying parking tickets, refusing to pay the utility company they think billed them incorrectly, ignoring payments for student loans taken out for a degree they never earned, and so on. That tactic usually wrecks consumers’ credit, by way of collection accounts and sometimes lawsuits, in addition to costing more with late fees and collection fees.
There are avenues for resolving billing errors, and while they’re often time-consuming or frustrating, using them is a better idea than doing nothing.
Credit Card Confusion
Szalicki said he has also seen consumers who don’t understand how interest, finance charges or promotional offers through credit cards work, leaving them stunned and unable to afford the credit card bills they receive.
If you’re using a credit card, you need to know if it has an annual fee, what the interest rate is and what you as a cardholder have to do to hold up your end of the agreement. Otherwise, you could find yourself owing more than you thought.
This is perhaps the worst offender when it comes to excuses for not paying the bills. Thomas Nitzsche of ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions asked counselors to share some of the most notable excuses they’ve heard from clients for not being able to pay their bills.
“One client said that doggie daycare was the reason she couldn’t pay her bills,” Nitzsche said. The consumer’s veterinarian had recommended daycare three times a week to socialize the dog, and at $50 a day, the costs added up very quickly. It wasn’t something the consumer wanted to give up, despite not being able to afford it.
Deciding what to cut out of a tight budget is difficult, and everyone will prioritize differently, but it’s hard to not shake my head at some of the stories Nitzsche shared with me.
There was the family that spent roughly $7,600 each year on trips to Disney World, and despite being in unaffordable credit card debt, they weren’t willing to stop making the trips. These vacations were their family time, which they wanted to continue doing until their kids got too old for it.
Then there was a couple who prioritized their car payments because without the cars, they couldn’t get to work and make the money they need for everything. That’s a fair point, but two months before entering credit counseling, the couple had taken on two new car payments, adding up to several hundred dollars a month. The car payments cost more than their mortgage payment. It was a clear case of wants overtaking needs, Nitzsche said.
Parents making sacrifices for their kids was a common theme, but it seemed people struggled to see the difference between making sacrifices and risking financial ruin for the sake of their children (i.e. falling behind on bills or mortgage payments so the kids could go to private school).
My favorite from Nitzsche’s collection of anecdotes was the binge-before-purge method: “‘I didn’t pay the bills in December because I wanted to have one last good Christmas before I tackle the bills in January.’ … We always see an uptick in January and February of people who put their heads in the sand in December,” Nitzsche said.
All that does is make the road to recovery more challenging, in terms of rebuilding your credit and getting your finances in shape. It may feel good in the moment, but as it is with most excuses, you’ll kick yourself later.
More from Credit.com
- Late Payments: A Credit Score Killer
- The Credit Card Payoff Calculator
- The Best Credit Cards in America
This article originally appeared on Credit.com.
Ever feel like the cable company or your phone service provider is charging too much? Ever feel helpless to do much about it? You’re not crazy.
When you call them the customer service rep is reading from a script. I know somebody who has worked on producing those scripts — he’s a Harvard trained negotiator. An expert. He makes sure the phrasing triggers reciprocity and subtly includes a number of other techniques to benefit them — and not you.
So when you talk to the person reading that script you’re basically going up against a top tier negotiator. Totally not a fair fight. And that bugs me. A lot.
If they have experts helping them, we should have experts helping us. So I called a friend who is an expert.
Chris is going to show us a number of methods he’s used for dealing with hostage takers, terrorists and other people almost as scary as Comcast. Chris and I specifically discussed how you can lower your cable bill but these concepts will work for most any service provider you’re dealing with.
Here’s what you’ll learn in this post:
- How to find out what to ask for.
- The most effective way to speak.
- Jedi Mind Trick phrases that get them to pay attention and get them off script.
- How to make them like you.
- The technique that makes them see your point of view without making demands.
Let’s get to it…
1) Do A Little Homework
Not a ton. But negotiation studies show that good results are correlated with time spent preparing.
Check what specials and discounts your cable company is offering new customers. Here’s Chris:
Look at what they’re offering new customers. By and large their rates for new customers are going to be slightly below market rates. That’s why they think it’s going to attract people. You can also take a look at what their competitors are offering but they will have done that research for you. That’s why they’re offering the price they’re offering because they’re getting it from the marketplace.
(For more on the fundamental principles of hostage negotiation, click here.)
Okay, you know what you’re looking to get out of this. But before we think about what to say, it’s important to think about how you say it.
2) Use The “Late Night FM DJ Voice”
No, you don’t have to do a Barry White imitation. The point is to make sure your voice is projecting calm and warmth.
Chris couldn’t be jumpy or angry when talking with hostage takers and you probably won’t get far like that dealing with battle-hardened customer service people either. They’re used to dealing with crazy people; they have a script for it.
Calm is largely a matter of slowing your speech down. Warmth comes from smiling while you speak. Here’s Chris:
Customer service people are so used to being attacked that this has to be the first step. It’ll either prevent them from putting their guard up or make them less leery in dropping their guard. It’s just a matter of slowing down a little bit and pacing. I think one of the things that has the tendency to make a difference in how it sounds is actually whether or not you’re smiling when you speak.
(To hear an FBI behavioral expert’s secrets on how to get people to like you, click here.)
Time to start talking. What you say first is very important. It’s one of his favorite Jedi Mind Tricks.
3) Start With “I’m Sorry”
Are you wondering why you should start with “I’m sorry”? Well, so will they. Here’s Chris:
When the first thing you say to someone is “I’m sorry,” they think, “What in the world is going on with this person that’s causing them to say I’m sorry? I’ve got to take a look at this guy or gal.” In a very non-threatening way, you have forced them to take a look at you to figure out what’s going on.
So you’ve got their attention, they’re curious and surprised. What other effect does it have? It also makes them feel good. Here’s Chris:
It’s amazingly disarming. They know that they haven’t spoken to you at all so they’re amazed that you’re showing them that much respect to start off with. There’s great power in deference. A lot of people want to dominate a conversation, control a conversation and they forget about how much it causes your counterpart to raise their guard. When you’re very deferential, the other side has a tendency to drop their guard and they feel powerful because you’ve empowered them. What they don’t understand is that you’re the source of that power and if you can empower them you can also take it away. So it puts you in a tremendous position of advantage. You’ve already initiated the negotiation and the other side has no idea that you’re already working on them to get them to drop their guard.
(For more on how to deal with the most difficult conversations, click here.)
What’s the next Jedi Mind Trick Chris recommends?
4) This May Sound Harsh…
Anticipating what I’m going to say next? Of course you are. And whatever I say, frankly, isn’t going to be as scary as whatever you just imagined.
So that’s why Chris recommends you use the phrase, “This is going to sound harsh…” It holds people’s attention and whatever comes afterward is a relief. Here’s Chris:
Whatever we think of that horrifies us seems huge and having braced ourselves for something terrible and horrifying whatever comes next is always less than what we expected. We feel relieved and it seems easy in comparison.
(For tips from Harvard Law School’s Project on Negotiation, click here.)
So you said you were sorry, and warned them that the next thing was going to sound harsh. You have their attention and they’re wondering what is going to come next… So what comes next?
5) Turn A Complaint Call Into An Appreciation Call
Developing empathy with the other side is a huge part of the FBI Behavioral Change Stairway. And with customer service people, it’s not easy.
They’ve probably fielded 100 other calls like this with people meaner, smoother, cooler, whatever-it-is than you are. And they’re probably tuned out. They’re jaded and they’re just reading what the script tells them to say.
Their shields are up. How do we bring them down? It’s called “forced empathy.” Here’s Chris:
“Forced empathy” is an incredibly strategic way to make them see your point of view without them knowing that it’s being forced on them. In a recent post on your blog, Daniel Pink was talking about how important autonomy is to people’s motivation. The minute you start trying to force something on someone you’re taking away their autonomy and they’re getting their guard up.
You need to avoid the predictable. Leading with “I’m sorry” is actually a method of forced empathy as well.
Chris knows about this firsthand from dealing with terrorists (no, not the variety that works at Comcast). When they hear predictable phrases from FBI negotiators it was very very bad. Here’s Chris:
The minute we fall into predictable dialogue, the terrorists are looking at each other and saying “Yeah, our leaders told us you were going to say that.” And that makes them believe in the direction they were already going in even more.
So how do you use “forced empathy” and resist being predictable? Turn a complaint call into an appreciation call. Here’s Chris:
The last thing they expect you to do is appreciate what their company has done for you. Because customer service, by definition, is there to field complaints. They don’t field appreciation calls. So start off by saying, “Your company provides phenomenal service. I’m getting a great bargain and I’m a little embarrassed that I’m calling in and asking for a better deal because what your company is providing is worth every single dime that you’re charging me.”
(For my interview with Robert Cialdini, the most noted persuasion expert in the world, click here.)
They’re paying attention and they like you — so now it’s time to assert.
6) A Focused Comparison With An Open-Ended Question
You don’t want to demand anything. That’s another autonomy struggle. But if you make a solid comparison then the conclusion in your head will appear in their head — and then they’re much more likely to accept it. Here’s Chris:
You lay out the empathy and then you lay out the reality and then you hit them with a “how” question. That’s a forced focus comparison. Here’s x and y — how do these two things lineup? Again, that’s why you need to say it with the late night FBI DJ voice. It’s got to be very gentle. It’s got to be very deferential so they don’t feel backed into a corner.
So how do you construct a focused comparison? For the cable company scenario let’s compare the two relevant billing schemes:loyal customers who pay their bills on time every month have to pay higher prices than strangers off the street. Does that sound fair to you? BOOM. There’s your point of attack.
But we don’t want to be too confrontational. You want them on your side. Chris explains how one of his students worded it perfectly:
He called in and he went on and on and on about how good the service was and then he said, “I’ve been a loyal customer and I’ve always paid my bill on time and then I find out that with the great value that I’m getting and the tremendous amount of loyalty that I’ve been providing that you guys are offering better deals to people who have never paid you a dime and never been a loyal customer.” He said, “How am I supposed to live with that?” The next thing he heard was the sound of crickets. Because the person on the other end of the line had no answer, it was just dead silence.
And that silence is key. Effective pauses are a key tool of FBI hostage negotiation. Here’s Chris:
Any great open ended question has got to be followed with silence. You have to let the other person respond. If you don’t, you may completely bail them out and take them off the hook. Again, that’s a very deferential approach. It’s not forcing them to answer directly but it is indirectly because you were the last person to speak.
And, yes, his student got a much better deal on his cable package.
(To read more tips from Chris click here.)
Okay, let’s review and learn my favorite insight of all.
Enough Reading. Time For Doing.
Here’s the script from Chris:
- Do a little homework. Find out what they’re offering new customers.
- Late night FM DJ voice. Speak in calm, measured tones and smile as you talk.
- Start with “I’m sorry.” It grabs their attention and empowers them.
- “This is going to sound harsh…” It sets them up for something big and makes whatever you say a relief.
- Turn a complaint call into an appreciation call. This is forced empathy. They’ll want to help you.
- A focused comparison with an open-ended question. And it’s probably going to bring your bill down a lot.
This isn’t yelling and shouting. It’s not hardball with numbers flying back and forth. None of that works for saving hostages and it doesn’t work all that well for cable and phone companies either.
The more effective system is a lot more subtle. As Chris is fond of saying:
The most dangerous negotiation is the one you don’t know you’re in.
This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.
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A few of America's favorite items for snacking, cooking, and recaffeinating got a lot more expensive this year. Meanwhile, one big cost has gotten much cheaper.
Inflation causes the slow, steady rise in prices for all manner of goods and services. But the price hikes incurred by the five common expenditures below have far outshot inflation. Over the past year, chances are a much larger portion of your household budget has been allocated to the following expenses.
Olive Oil Times noted recently that “2014 will go down as one of the worst years in recent history for olive oil production in Italy.” Production has slowed significantly in Spain and Portugal as well, thanks to a range of factors including a fruit fly infestation and a cold spring followed by a hot, humid summer—followed by hail storms. The end result is that global production of olive oil could be down as much as 27%, and prices for high-quality European olive oil are soaring: Recently, wholesale prices for extra virgin olive oil in Italy were up 121% compared to a year ago.
Virtually all meat prices rose in 2014, thanks largely to long periods of drought in the American West colliding with increased global demand. Yet beef prices rose swiftest of all this year, with live cattle futures hitting an all-time high in November and retail prices being pushed up 18% to 20% compared to a year ago. And get this: Skyrocketing beef prices are being blamed for what appears to be the return of cattle rustlers, who presumably made off with 150 cows that were reported missing in Idaho, and that are worth over $300,000. Perhaps worst of all, bacon prices have been rising nearly as steeply as beef.
Surging cocoa prices led both Hershey’s and Mars to raise prices by 8% or so on your favorite chocolate candy bars this year. And because the supply of chocolate appears unable to keep up with demand—which is soaring in particular in Latin America and Asia—chocolate prices are expected to keep rising going forward.
The average round trip flight in the U.S. surpassed $500 in 2014, and the cost of flying domestically has been rising nearly 11% over the past five years, after adjusting for inflation. What’s puzzling—not to mention frustrating—for travelers is that base prices for flights have been soaring at a time when airline fees and airline profits are both sharply on the rise. Lower fuel prices have served to make profits even larger, and while the airlines have kept prices high thus far in the new era of cheap oil, costs have declined so dramatically that some are anticipating slightly cheaper airfare in 2015.
Starbucks, Folgers, and Dunkin’ Donuts are among the well-known coffee brands subjected to price increases in 2014. Persistent drought in Brazil, the world’s largest coffee bean producer, has been blamed as the main reason for the price hikes. And while it may seem as if coffee drinkers will pay any price to get their java fix, a recent report noting falling coffee sales from Smuckers, maker of Folgers, indicates that the demand for coffee has its limits. Meanwhile, Starbucks’ new plan focuses on a luxury retail concept, where a haute cup of Joe will run around $6.
On the flip side, you paid less for these three expenditures in 2014:
Thanks to an increase in supply and lower consumption due to more fuel efficient vehicles and other factors, gas prices launched into a slow, steady decline last summer that hasn’t really ended. The national average hit what was then a low for 2014 in early October, at $3.27 per gallon—a rate that seems quite expensive of late. Prices dipped under $2 per gallon in a few stations in Oklahoma in early December, and government forecasts are predicting a national average of $2.60 per gallon for 2015, down from $3.51 in 2013.
It’s no surprise that the price of most electronics drops year after year, thanks to increasingly lower production costs and the fact that any technology available for more than six months is deemed old and unhip—and therefore must be discounted. Even so, the dip in TV prices in 2014 has been pretty amazing. In October, the Labor Department reported that TV prices were down 14%, and that decrease of course occurred well before the rollout of super cheap TV deals on Black Friday and the rest of the holiday period. As Consumer Reports noted recently, it’s now pretty easy to find a 40-inch TV for less than the price of an 8-inch tablet.
The past year brought with it more changes in cellphone plans than we’ve seen in perhaps the previous five years combined. In addition to a sharp shift toward more possibilities in “non-contract” plans, in which you’re not locked into a two-year deal, wireless providers have been especially aggressive this year in terms of rolling out new plans and bonuses in order to win over customers from the competition. In August, for instance, Verizon and Sprint both introduced significantly cheaper plans to new customers—potentially cutting one’s monthly bill by 50%. More recently, Sprint promised a new unlimited talk and text deal that would cut in half the bill currently paid by any AT&T or Verizon customer.
None of this necessarily means that your household’s smartphone bill actually went down in 2014. But considering the increased competition and wide range of new individual and family plan offers on the table, you should be paying less. If you’re not, it’s time to start shopping around to get a better deal. You might not even have to switch providers. Sometimes it’s as simple as calling up and asking for a cheaper option.
A Chicago woman got more than she bargained for when she tried to change her phone-and-Internet service.
When you have a dispute over a bill with a company, sometimes it’s not enough to respond to a collections notice with evidence that the bill has been paid. Sadly, even if the collections firm appears to drop the matter it can still come up again, and again, and again. This is the tale of the bill that just wouldn’t die.
It’s often harder than it should be to close an account. A small remaining balance, sometimes invisible to consumers, can create a big hassle, leading to collections calls and damaged credit – even bills that are several years old for as little as $50 or $100 can really punish a credit score. That’s bad enough.
It’s hard to understand how simply changing service – rather than canceling service – could lead to that kind of red tape nightmare. But that’s exactly what happened to Cathy Nestor, who lives north of Chicago, when she dropped AT&T’s U-verse TV, phone and Internet bundle three years ago and went with only U-verse Internet service.
The trouble started with a $70-something balance remaining on her old bundled account with AT&T’s U-verse, which Nestor claims she paid back in 2011.
Since then, three different firms have tried to collect on the bill, and Nestor says she provided evidence it was paid each time. Still, by the time she wrote to me, she was on the verge of getting reported as delinquent to the credit bureaus.
AT&T, for its part, disagrees with Nestor’s version of events. The company says the old account was never settled (for reasons we’ll explain shortly) and claims her evidence is faulty. Nestor says that the various collection firms never successfully communicated that to her, or didn’t push back when she told them the bill was paid.
The Confusion Begins
When Nestor dropped her U-verse bundle in 2011 but kept high-speed Internet, AT&T gave her a new account and new account number. She says she paid her new bill, thinking it would include any leftover balance from her old U-verse account. It didn’t. But soon after, she realized the error and says she separately paid the old account bill balance of $72 on Nov. 23, 2011. As evidence, she provided me a copy of an electronic payment from her bank statement. (And we should note that she is currently considered an in-good-standing customer of AT&T’s Internet service — that is, on the new account.)
Then the fun began.
She says she got a letter requesting that the bill on the old account be paid. She says she wrote back with evidence that it had been paid, claiming AT&T must have lost the payment amid the account number confusion. About 18 months later, she got a letter from another collection agent demanding that the bill be paid. Again, she wrote with evidence of payment. Then in January 2013 (“Yes, this has been going on that long!”), she received a letter from yet another collections company, Afni Inc., based in Bloomington, Ill., demanding a $79 payment.
“This account has been placed with our agency for collections,” read the letter. “We are requesting your assistance in resolving this matter. We may report information about your account to credit bureaus.”
“I WILL NOT BE PAYING THIS COLLECTION ITEM,” she wrote to Afni, in all caps. (Nestor provided a copy of the exchange for my review). “AT&T has already been paid, and they have tried to sell this off once before. I have already proven to them they were paid. I do not know why they keep trying to collect this.” She concluded by threatening legal action.
Then, nothing. No acknowledgment of receipt. No, “We’re sorry, we’ll drop it,” notice. No new attempt to collect. Silence. It was tempting to think the matter was closed, but Nestor knows consumers should never assume any such thing.
“Just waiting for it to show up again, you know,” she wrote when she contacted me to complain about the repeated collections.
Unraveling the Mystery
I reached out to Afni, and the firm shed a little light on the situation. AT&T had not sold the debt, but was using Afni as a third-party firm to attempt collection.
“When Afni had this account, AT&T was the owner of it—we did not purchase it,” said Debra Ciskey, director of compliance at Afni. “This account was recalled from Afni by AT&T on Aug. 5, 2013, so we are no longer handling it on behalf of AT&T.”
When I asked Ciskey what “recalled” meant, she said Afni was simply instructed to stop attempting to collect on the debt on behalf of AT&T.
“I am sorry that I am unable to tell you what would have happened to the account after we returned it to AT&T,” she wrote.
Ciskey’s responses suggested Nestor’s fear her bill would become zombie debt was well-founded.
“Terrific. I’m guessing that means I still haven’t seen the end of this,” Nestor said, sarcastically. She was right.
Next, I contacted AT&T, and the firm said that Nestor did indeed still owe the money. Emily J. Edmonds, director of AT&T Corporate Communications, acknowledged the payment Nestor made in November 2011, but said it was applied only to her new Internet service account rather than her old bundled account. That left a $79 balance (Nestor and AT&T also disagree on the old account balance).
“This customer has had an outstanding balance on her former account since 2011 that was never paid, ultimately resulting in the bill being sent to collections,” Edmonds said in a statement. “Once we were notified that the customer claimed to be wrongly charged, we conducted a thorough account review and determined the outstanding balance was indeed still owed.”
She also said Nestor had only contacted AT&T directly once during the three-year dispute to complain.
There’s no way to know who’s right about the payment, unless of course Nestor provided proof that the $70-something check was applied to the old account or AT&T provided proof that it was applied to the new account (which should have led to an account surplus, or reduced bill, if logic serves). But we do know for sure that when the third and final collections firm tried to collect, she wrote back with evidence the disputed amount – or something close to it – was paid, and then Nestor heard nothing more.
Edmonds said she could not explain why Afni didn’t respond to Nestor’s letter with further evidence that the debt was owed, and referred that question to Afni.
Afni says a collector is not required to respond to a consumer disputing a debt if it simply ceases collection. “A response is required only if the agency is going to continue collection attempts,” Ciskey said.
And that is one reason some bills never die; it’s also how consumers come to be reported to credit bureaus as late. While Afni could not pursue the debt any further without continuing the dialog by “validating” the debt, that doesn’t stop AT&T from contracting a different collector, or selling the debt.
Margot Saunders, a debt collection law expert at the National Consumer Law Center, said that’s true. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act requires any firm collecting a debt on behalf of a third party to “verify” the debt if a consumer objects to a collection notice – but only if the firm continues to attempt to collect. Second or third collections firms get to start the process over, and are currently not required by law to keep track of prior collection attempts by others.
AT&T is now working directly with Nestor to resolve the dispute, so at least for now, she appears to have a happy ending. There is a lesson in her tale, however. She is an example of a concept I call the “exception bin.” Computers and databases are great at handling 99% of transactions. When things follow standard patterns, computers hum along and take care of everything. But once there’s something even a little unique about your situation, you land in the exception bin. And because corporations rely on computers so much, many run into trouble when dealing with items that land in the exception bin. Often, it can feel impossible to get out of it – even if you send letter upon letter providing evidence.
In Nestor’s case, it’s perfectly sensible that she thought she could just keep paying the bills AT&T sent her for U-verse and her account would be current. If you think like a computer, however, you can see how the firm’s computers might handle customers who downgrade from bundled service to a single service. Then, once her bill was handed over to collections, she became an exception that just wouldn’t die. Yes, AT&T used three different firms during a three-year stretch in an attempt to collect a $70-something debt from someone who otherwise seems to be a good customer. And yes, the firm could have seriously harmed her credit over a small bill that she thought she’d paid, that she provided evidence she’d paid, and for which she’d received no response (until the next collection attempt).
So what’s the lesson? In broad strokes, do whatever you can do to avoid the exception bin. Of course, that’s not always possible. Moves happen. Mid-contract cancellations happen. Early service upgrades or downgrades happen. And mistakes happen on both sides. But when they do, realize that your odds of getting caught in corporate red tape go up astronomically. In that case, you must be hyper-vigilant for signs that your exception will soon lead to headaches. Be proactive: Pay a bill, then call to make sure the payment is applied. When you cancel a service, get a letter confirming cancellation and a bill showing a $0 balance. Furthermore, check your credit scores and credit reports regularly for signs of trouble, and dispute any errors as soon as possible. You can get your credit reports for free once a year from each of the major credit reporting agencies, and you can get two credit scores for free from Credit.com along with an explanation of what they mean.
It may seem tedious, perhaps even unfair, but it’s a reality of navigating your way in the 21st Century.
More from Credit.com
- 10 Tips for Negotiating With Debt Collectors
- A Crash Course in Debt Collections
- The Lifetime Cost of Debt Calculator
This article originally appeared on Credit.com.
Unfortunately, sharing an apartment can also mean sharing money woes. Use these conversation starters to make sure your own finances don't end up in the gutter—and you don't end up on the street—because of someone else's problems.
If your roommate can’t manage his or her share of the rent, you’ve got more than an uncomfortable situation on your hands.
When both your names are on the lease, you’re both liable for the full amount owed to the landlord, and you can both be evicted if payments aren’t made in total. Your credit score may suffer in the process, too—making it difficult for you to get another apartment. Serious stuff.
Still, the first time your roomie misses a payment, you might give him a pass, says San Francisco-area financial counselor Susan Bross. “But if this happens more than once, it’s about bad decisions they’re making with their money.”
And since the situation could worsen, you’ve got to address it head on, she says. Here’s how:
OPEN GENTLY: “Can we talk about what’s going on with our rent payments?”
Your first goal is figure out why your roommate was late, so that you can determine whether missed payments will continue to be a problem in the future.
If your housemate has just started freelancing and hasn’t yet figured out how to balance expenses against an irregular income, the problem may resolve itself once she gets more settled. But if she’s got a shopping habit that eats up all her paycheck before she can get to her bills, you may have a regular headache ahead.
As you try to ascertain the situation, try your best not to come off as accusatory, says Dr. Eric Dammann, a New York City clinical psychologist and financial coach.
The last thing you want to do is put your housemate on the defensive before you’ve had a chance to discuss resolutions. And if the conversation escalates to a fight, it’ll be tougher for you to live harmoniously under the same roof going forward.
“So bring it up in the gentlest way you can,” he says.
PUT IT IN PERSPECTIVE: “I was late paying some of my other bills last month because of the missed payment.”
If your roommate’s not opening up, or if he acts like missing the deadline is no big deal, let him know how his lateness is affecting you or the rest of your roommates.
“Suggest ways in which it is a big deal,” says Dammann. “You might get through that way.”
Also, explain to him the possible consequences if his portion of the rent is not met every month (e.g. you’ll get kicked out and both end up with poor credit).
FIGURE OUT A GAME PLAN: “Let’s come up with a system so we make sure we don’t have to have these conversations again”
“If you’re not able to keep up with rent payments, I need to know so that I can go to our landlord and try to renegotiate the terms of our lease.”
If the late payments are truly only a matter of forgetfulness, try to encourage your roommate to set up a new system to avoid missing payments, so that you’re not left scrambling for money again.
The fix could be as simple as a Google alert, a gentle reminder on a whiteboard in the kitchen, or together using a site like Splitwise, that helps roomies coordinate shared expenses.
But if you find out the issue is more serious or more chronic, start by asking your roommate if he sees any possible resolution, such as asking a parent for money. No end in sight to the problems? Without being too aggressive, let your flatmate know that you’ll have to get the landlord involved in order to protect your own finances.
Then do so, stat. “Most leases can be modified,” says Brandy Peeples, a Frederick, Md. litigation attorney specializing in real estate. “If your landlord knows you’re having problems, he or she may work with you—it’s practical to go back and ask.”
You could see if your landlord will allow you to bring in an extra roommate to reduce everyone’s individual contributions. Or you could try negotiating an early termination fee that allows your roommate to pay a fine and leave the apartment.
“It’s good to keep the landlord into the loop,”says Peeples. “If you wait until after the fact, a lot of times the landlord is not going to be so forgiving.”