NORTHRIDGE — Ever wonder if a $300 cappuccino machine is really that much better than an $80 one?
Need information about what teenagers these days want for Christmas or what to get your toddler nephew for Hanukkah?
The Consumer Resource Center at Cal State Northridge can probably help. This week the center, which has been operating on campus for 10 years, is gearing up for holiday queries.
Through Dec. 11, the center will offer a free 24-hour hotline to help consumers determine a realistic holiday shopping budget, figure out if those Beanie Babies are authentic, handle credit purchases and come up with gift ideas for the relative who has it all, among other things.
Students in the Family Environmental Science Program will take calls and do the research necessary to answer inquiries. In some cases consumers will be referred to the agency that handles a specific area. For example, a recent caller was referred to the Better Business Bureau about a store's return policy and another to the Auto Safety Hotline with a question about a child's car seat.
Allen Martin, a CSUN consumer affairs professor who oversees the center, expects many of the holiday callers to have basic questions about products or spending.
"Like what's the difference between two different bread makers? Things like that," he said.
He also expects questions about such things as how much one should spend on certain relatives or on discount shopping.
Martin advises consumers not to hesitate to recycle gifts, something many people may find awkward or feel guilty doing.
"Don't be embarrassed," he said. "If someone gave you something you won't use, but someone else might, then you've done a good deed. There's no sense in it sitting in your closet."
His strongest holiday shopping advice is: avoid charging gifts. Credit accounts often get consumers in big trouble, costing them much more in the long run, he pointed out.
"If you pay only the minimum on the account, you're going to basically double the purchase price with the interest," Martin said. "For example, $1,000 worth of holiday purchases could turn into $1,800 of debt if you only pay the minimum each month to the lender."
Martin created the holiday hotline following success with similar services at Ohio State University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he previously taught. He hopes it will be as popular at CSUN.
"I think it's a matter of getting the word out to the community that we're here," he said.
During the rest of the year the center, which has been located in a mobile home on campus since the 1994 earthquake, assists the public with anything related to spending money.
Inside the trailer are shelves and tables filled with books and brochures on such subjects as landlord-tenant issues, credit repair, small claims court, telemarketing fraud and lemon laws.
"We've pretty much heard it all," said senior Razi Syed, a family environmental science major who answers calls. "One person recently called complaining that a store would not take something back. Another person was concerned about food labeling and the calories a specific serving size contained."
Throughout the year the highest volume of calls deals with automobiles, Martin said. People usually want information on insurance rates and where to get a reliable used car.
As for the cappuccino machine, go for the gusto, Martin said. The more expensive one isn't necessarily the best, but the cheaper one could turn out to be a dud.
"In a case like this," he said, "the low-end price will often buy crappy material."
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The Consumer Resource Center at Cal State Northridge offers a free 24-hour hotline that may be reached by calling (818) 677-4726.
Callers may leave messages 24 hours a day, but the best time to call to speak to a person is from noon to 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Consumers may also walk in, but center hours vary from semester to semester, so it's best to call in advance.