Personal Finance 
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Free Consumer Information Guides from the Federal Citizen Information Center

Consumer Action HandbookI just learned that it’s National Consumer Protection Week and the featured resource is the very book I mention below, the Consumer Action Handbook!

Did you know that the U.S. General Services Administration’s Federal Citizen Information Center offers hundreds of publications that you, as a consumer, could benefit from? Each year, they send out a catalog of their pamphlets and booklets and I received mine last week. I now receive it because I once ordered a copy of their Consumer Action Handbook, yet another entirely free publication. I never order anything because all the documents are available online (and if it’s available online, why waste the paper printing it out and the fuel on shipping it to me?).

Let’s take a look at some of the publications in their “Cars” category:
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 Taxes 
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Free Tax Filing Resources

1040 Tax FormsWe’re deep in the throes of tax season and with the economy in the sorry shape that it’s in, I’m sure many taxpayers are looking to gain an edge. I mean we’re already paying taxes, surely it makes less sense that we have to pay to figure out how much we’re going to pay in taxes right? Fortunately, there are a lot of different ways you can get tax filing software or assistance absolutely free.

In addition to the nationally available programs I’m about the list, there are also a lot of local programs. Each state’s tax website will usually list the free tax filing resources or services available in the state. many of these are simply listings of data made available through the IRS Free File system but you might be able to find some gems in there as well.

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 Free 
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Free Copy of Suze Orman’s Women & Money from Oprah

This offer has ended.

Oprah is giving away free digital copies of Suze Orman’s Women & Money until 8pm (7pm Central) tonight (February 14th). (Direct download link) A Spanish translation of the book is available as well.

This book is copyrighted. You may view and download the file, but you may not copy the file or share or forward it to any other person.


 Investing 
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Zecco to Limit Free Trades in 2008

I just received an email from Zecco about a change to their fee structure, effective 01 Jan 2008, and below is a comparison of the changes as I can tell.

Description Current Future (01/01/08)
Free Trades per Month 40 10
Min. Balance* $0 $2,500
$ Per Trade $3.50 $4.50

*Minimum Balance: Under the new structure, you only get 10 free trades a month if you have a balance over $2,500. Those with balances under $2,500 will not get any free trades. So, while the account has no minimum balance, to qualify for ten free trades you must have more than $2,500 in that account.

Summary

This likely will have little effect on the majority of Zecco users as Zecco claims that 98% of their investors will not be affected, that is, 98% trade less than 10 times a month (good!). I bet you that they saw a large percentage of their costs being eaten up by day traders and so they decided to change the structure such that they can start charging those “power users” without upsetting the majority of their customers. This also allows them to add a number of features they’ve wanted to such as increasing the number of service representatives, adding 3 and 4 legged options strategies (butterflies, condors, etc.), releasing options analytics, and building up their ZeccoShare social network (all these were described in the email).


 General 
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Listen to a Timeshare Pitch, Get [insert freebie here]

I’m willing to bet that on more than one vacation, someone has come up to you and offered you something free to sit in on a timeshare sales pitch. This happened to me on a vacation to Las Vegas, NV, in 2004 outside Treasure Island. The pitch was for Polo Towers, which is a piece of property closer to the Mandalay Bay end of the Strip than the TI end. I was apprehensive so we passed. The next day we’re walking through the mall in the Aladdin when we passed a booth and that’s when we agreed to go do it in return for eight tickets to Folies Bergere at the Tropicana, which is a classic Las Vegas second or third tier show.

Basically it was three hours of aggressive sales marketing of the Polo Towers and the vacation club/network. The price started at around $15k and soon dropped to somewhere in the $3-4k region by the third hour. We lied about our credentials (you needed to be 23+ and have a salary greater than $40k), because otherwise only I would qualify since the others were still in school, but they didn’t check. We were handed off twice and different sales pitches were used (nice guy peddling a good deal, not as nice guy peddling a great deal, mean bitch who was pissed of we weren’t jumping on an awesome deal). After taking our tickets and walking out we were offered $200 for the four of us to go back the next day and try it again but we declined because we valued our three hours more than $50 a person.

My advice to you if you’re asked to do it… take the freebie if you’re willing to say no to people who will grow increasingly abusive as the hour goes on. If you can’t stop your impulse buying, do not do this.

When I returned home from the trip I had a few questions and so I wrote them down, collected the answers, and here they are.

What’s the deal with timeshares? Why are companies willing to give you all sorts of free stuff just for you to sit down and listen to a timeshare presentation?
They do it because they can make a ridiculous amount of money if only a small percentage of people buy the timeshare. This page is designed to answer the lesser known questions as to how timeshares work, not necessarily the better understood parts of timeshare types, trading timeshare rights, etc. I wanted to tell know about how the soft underbelly works like how they can afford to give stuff away, the resale value of timeshares, and other quirky things you probably didn’t know and didn’t know how to ask.

How can they afford to give people such good incentives to listen?
The developer creates a timeshare by buying land and developing a resort, then selling units to people willing to buy them. Some of these developers are shady and cheats (the first bunch were, that’s why timeshares have a bad reputation) but some are well known like Disney’s Vacation Club. Once done building, they start their marketing program to peddle the units to buyers and will spend upwards of 50% of the final sale price of a unit on marketing alone. They might bring in an outside outfit to do the marketing, but eventually when you pay $10,000 for a timeshare, about $5,000 was on marketing.

How is the resale value of timeshares?
Terrible. Bad. Awful. Supply far exceeds demand, as evidenced by the fact that the original developers are giving away huge freebies just for people to listen to pitches. An individual can’t possibly compete on that level with developers! Add that to the fact that you can’t even research how similar units are selling, as you would in traditional real estate, and you’ll find you’re in a very bad situation. This is the perfect buyer’s market. That means if you want a timeshare, buy it used!

How can I buy it used?
If you know where you want the timeshare, call them directly. They usually have listings of units looking to sell. There are also resale brokers specializing in timeshares, otherwise, just do a search online or in the newspaper for a listing. Online there are various sites that have listings of people looking to sell along with prices so as a buyer you can do a little comparison shopping. Getting a 50%+ discount on a timeshare for buying used is not unheard of.

Shoot! I bought and now I don’t want it, help! How do I cancel a timeshare purchase?
Usually the contract will have a cooling off period of less than two weeks, check the contract and if you still have time, cancel! Past that time? Chalk it up to buyer’s remorse, enjoy the vacation because it beats getting a hotel at the last minute and paying out the nose. Timeshares in general aren’t a bad idea, otherwise no one would get them, but playing the waiting game is the way to go. Always wait if you’re hesitant because you can 1) always get more freebies to listen to a presentation and 2) get the next timeshare offer.

This timeshare is too good to be true! How is it this cheap?
Either no one else wants that timeshare or you’re really lucky. Actually, there are annual fees, maintenance fees, usage fees, trading fees (say if you trade resorts), and other various fees you probably aren’t thinking of. Timeshares are a good deal (if you don’t mind being “forced,” in some cases, to use a vacation each year) for some so the fees are overcome.
Another thought is that perhaps you are being scammed. If it sounds too good to be true, walk away. They will be pushy, but just walk. Then do an internet search and see if it’s shown up because chances are it wasn’t tried on you first and someone else blew the whistle. Worst case? You don’t get a timeshare and you can do it some other time. No big loss.

The more information I find, the more I will post.

Resources:
Timeshare Secrets Exposed – Comprehensive site detailing much of what you need to know about timeshares.
The Timeshare User’s Group – Most of the information I’ve provided was learned from reading that site and the advice it’s given. Stephen J. Nelson’s Timesharing 101 presentation is a definite must see if you have the time.


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