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Your Money Weekend | MONEY TALK

A Dose of Ingratitude in Observance of Our Personal Finances

November 24, 2000|LIZ PULLIAM WESTON

The national day of gratitude is over, so now it's time to get a little cranky.

True, we have a lot to be thankful for--a still-strong economy, low inflation, high employment. But what's the point of being an American if you can't gripe a little? And when it comes to our nation's personal finances, there's plenty to whine about.

In that spirit, here are the things I'm not thankful for this year:

The new $5, $10 and $20 bills. Other countries get pretty money--lovely multicolored currency with all kinds of holograms and other special effects. Yes, the new U.S. bills with the bloated pictures of Abe Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton and Andrew Jackson have watermarks, security strips and other cool stuff, but it's the same old boring green. How can we convince young people that managing money can be fun when our color scheme is so tired?

125% loans. Just when you thought there were lending ideas that were actually too awful to foist upon the American public, along came loans for 125% of a home's value. Naturally, all the 125% lenders are merely interested in helping you get out of debt. That's why they want to put another noose around your neck. Hold still, please.

Car donation programs. If you see a wild-eyed blond screaming at her car radio on the freeway, that's me, talking back to those ads promoting "charitable" vehicle donation programs. It's time to cut out the middleman. Instead of pretending this money is going to charity, just dig a couple of thousand dollars out of your wallet and hand it to the towing services that run most of the programs.

The IRS' lack of enforcement. At first, the dramatic decline in IRS audits seemed like a good thing for law-abiding citizens who no longer have to worry much about an expensive or protracted bout with a revenue agent. But now a growing number of yahoos are openly proclaiming their contempt for the nation's tax laws, and getting away with it because the agency lacks the will or the budget (you choose) to enforce the law. The IRS needs to clean a few clocks again before compliance gets much worse.

People who fall for really, really dumb scams. There are some really slick con artists out there. The people running the Nigerian bank schemes and the "Double Your Money This Month!" e-mail campaigns aren't among them. If you've fallen for one of these, or been burned more than once in any scam, you might want to check out a copy of James Walsh's excellent book, "You Can't Cheat An Honest Man." Ahem.

Social Security taxes. Social Security is a fine idea, one of the great pieces of legislation to emerge from the Depression. I tell myself that every two weeks when another 6.2% of my paycheck goes swirling into the Social Security system.

Next year, Social Security taxes are going up for highly paid folks as the maximum amount of earnings that is subject to Social Security payroll taxes rises from $76,200 to $80,400. I'm delighted to do my part to make sure our nation's elderly stay out of poverty. Just don't tell me I'm going to get that money back someday, or you'll make me even crankier.

Credit scoring. There's no three-digit number than can make a bigger difference in your financial life, yet you're not allowed to know what it is or what, specifically, goes into creating it. Because hey, if you knew, you might actually do things to improve your credit situation, and then where would we all be?

"Gotcha" fees. Undeserved late fees, hidden balance transfer fees, over-limit penalties, deceptive rate offers--oh, the webs credit companies can weave when they set their minds to it. Almost makes you want to pay for the holidays in cash. Almost.

Wade Cook. Just when you thought regulatory scrutiny, financial problems and tax liens would finally KO this guy, he pops up with a new round of "free" seminars for inexperienced investors. Here's a hot tip: Start by checking his company's Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

Life insurance salespeople, especially those who send long, sarcastic e-mails with lots of exclamation points. OK, OK, I give in. Your liberal use of punctuation has finally overcome objectivity, research and SEC warnings. So, from now on: Annuities are the best thing since sliced bread and belong in every individual retirement account. Variable universal life policies should be sold to anyone with a pulse. Surrender charges are the consumer's friend, expenses and fees are irrelevant and commissions have no effect on an advisor's recommendations. There, are you happy now?

*

Liz Pulliam Weston is a personal finance writer for The Times and a graduate of the personal financial planning certificate program at UC Irvine. Questions can be sent to her at liz.pulliam@latimes.com or mailed to her in care of Money Talk, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. She regrets that she cannot respond personally to queries. For past Money Talk questions and answers, visit The Times' Web site at http://www.latimes.com/moneytalk.

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