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Financial Beat


Postage, Retirement, Philanthropy, College, Real Estate, Stocks, Trading


Financial Beat

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Choose article section...Postage: Priority Mail is no bargain Philanthropy: New help in deciding who should get your money Trading: Watch out for hidden fees Real Estate: What dangers lurk behind that sheetrock? Stocks: Need help figuring out what a company is really worth? Retirement: Maybe you shouldn't increase your IRA contributions College: College-bound kids can't choose their best SAT score anymore

By Yvonne Chilik Wollenberg

Postage: Priority Mail is no bargain

A 37-cent stamp can probably get your mail to its destination just as fast, if not faster, than a Priority Mail stamp, which costs $3.85, says the Postal Rate Commission. Priority Mail, advertised as a two- to three-day service, can actually take up to five days, says the commission's consumer advocate office. About a third of all Priority Mail packages are not delivered by the end of the third day. On the other hand, mail sent from New Jersey with a first-class stamp to Chicago, Omaha, Boston, Atlanta, Washington, DC, or Los Angeles, gets there in about three days, according to Postal Service estimates.

Philanthropy: New help in deciding who should get your money

Giving to charity might be a little easier with the launching of a new Web site that analyzes the financial health of nonprofit organizations. Using data from charities' federal tax returns, Charity Navigator tracks how much they spend on fund-raising, administration, and programs, and assesses long-term financial stability by examining operating revenue and working capital. Charities receive a rating of zero to four stars, with four stars representing an exceptionally good financial picture and zero stars for exceptionally poor financial health. To look up the free evaluations, go to www.charitynavigator.org .

Trading: Watch out for hidden fees

Many online trading brokers are charging inactivity fees for investors who don't meet a minimum account balance. Information about the charges, which are also called maintenance fees, is frequently buried in brokers' Web sites. You can avoid the fees by making a set number of trades or keeping a minimum balance. (At E*Trade, you'll have to do both.)


Price per trade
Inactivity fee for market order
Conditions to avoid fee
American Express
Over $25,000 minimum balance or 1 trade per quarter
$2,000 minimum balance or 4 trades in last 6 months
Charles Schwab
30/quarter for balances of $5,000 to $50,000; 45/quarter for balances under $5,000
$50,000 minimum balance or 8 trades in last 12 months
$5,000 minimum balance AND 2 trades in last 6 months
Fidelity Investments
$30,000 minimum balance or 2 trades in last 12 months
$10,000 minimum balance or 4 trades in last 12 months
TD Waterhouse
$10,000 minimum balance or 2 trades in last 6 months


Real Estate: What dangers lurk behind that sheetrock?

Outdated kitchens and undersized closets aren't the only things you should be watching for if you're shopping for a new home or just want to keep up with maintenance in your current house.

Experts say many environmental hazards could be hiding indoors. These Web sites can keep you informed about environmental hazards:

• Mold can grow virtually anywhere that's wet, says the US Environmental Protection Agency. For information about mold and what to do about it, go to www.epa.gov/iaq/asthma/triggers/molds.html .

• Asbestos can make you sick if it becomes loose and crumbly, says the American Lung Association. It's often found in homes built before 1978. To learn where to look for it, and how to repair it if necessary, go to www.lungusa.org/air.

• Radon may contribute up to 30,000 lung cancer deaths a year, says the EPA. The average home has a level of 1.3 picocuries per liter. If you have concentrations of more than 4 pCi/L, you should seek help in reducing the level. For more information on how to test for and treat radon contamination, go to www.epa.gov/iaq/radon .

• Lead could be present in your home if it was built before 1978, when lead-based paint was commonly used. Before you do any home improvements in older homes, read information put together by federal agencies on how to deal with the lead paint. You can find the information at the Web site of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development at www.hud.gov (look for "Protect Your Family From Lead In Your Home").

• Drinking water can be contaminated by various chemicals. To find information about the quality of your drinking water, go to www.epa.gov/safewater.

Stocks: Need help figuring out what a company is really worth?

To help frustrated investors, Standard & Poor's has changed the way it evaluates corporate earnings. Companies now use different measures of corporate performance in their earnings reports, which is confusing, says S&P. In an effort to create a standard definition of earnings, the financial information company introduced "core earnings," which are the after-tax earnings generated from a corporation's principal business. The new measure will include expenses arising from employee stock options. The S&P will use core earnings in calculating its stock indices, including the Standard & Poor's 500 Stock Index.

Retirement: Maybe you shouldn't increase your IRA contributions

Residents of eight states should check with a tax adviser before plunking extra cash in a 401(k) or IRA account. Last year's tax law changes raised the amount you can put in an account without paying federal taxes, but some states have not changed their tax laws to conform with the new limits, says the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Alabama conforms to new federal contribution limits of $3,000 for IRAs and $11,000 for 401(k) plans, but does not allow taxpayers 50 and over to make catch-up contributions. Arizona, Arkansas, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin either do not follow the federal limits or do so only in part, so you could pay more state taxes if you increase the amount you contribute to a retirement plan in these states.

College: College-bound kids can't choose their best SAT score anymore

New reporting policies that no longer allow high school students who take the SAT II subject tests to release only their best scores to colleges and scholarships sources went into effect last month. The College Board, which conducts the college admission exams, dropped its score choice policy because it favored wealthy students who could afford to retake exams and withhold unfavorable results. Scores for all SAT II tests will now appear on the reports sent out to colleges, although the Board says that nearly all schools consider only the highest scores.

The author is a freelance writer in Teaneck, NJ.


Yvonne Wollenberg. Financial Beat. Medical Economics 2002;13:14.

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