Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The 5 Best Summer Party Themes Under $100

There are so many things to love about the summer: soft serve chocolate ice cream, refreshing cerulean waves, extra-long days of birdsong and sunshine - the list goes on and on.

Still, one of the best things about the summertime is the chance to throw a super fun soiree. But, for too many of us, the cost of hosting such a party makes us jump with fear rather than excitement. To throw a summer party and be broke, or wallow away in fiesta-less season - Where’s the middle ground? 

Throwing an awesome bash needn’t break the bank! As a former party planner, I now bring you five summer party themes. Each will cost less than $100 to deck out your home in style and leave your guests bowing down to you, the Royal Party Highness.

#1 Toga Challenge
This is an excellent afternoon party option, and is well-suited for both adults and teens. Tailor your “Olympic Events” to cater to participants’ abilities. A few event suggestions: three-legged race, water balloon toss and wrap the mummy (toilet paper unrolled onto a teammate) Wrap things up with a medal ceremony while Olympic-themed music, or perhaps just “We are the Champions” plays on a boom box. Make your own togas out of various linen sheets to make these challenges even more fun. Just be sure that everyone gets gold.
Shopping List:
Flat White Sheets $14.98 at elderdepot.com
Roman Laurel Wreath $1.45/ea at stumpsparty.com
Biodegradable Water Balloons $9.75 from amazon.com
4-pack Cotonelle Double Roll $3.85 from soap.com
Plastic Super Star Gold Medals $7.95/48 at ebay.com

#2 Hawaiian Luau
Google “Hawaiian Luau Music” before your guests arrive and plug in what you learn on Pandora in order to stream the perfect soundtrack. This party idea works best as an outdoor party at nighttime, although a daytime Luau would be prefect to throw poolside (should you be so lucky to have access to one) or at a local beach. Quirky decorations will turn this luau into an Aloha-evening you’ll never want to forget.
Shopping List:
Set of 8 Tiki torches with oil $33.95 from centurynovelty.com
Mega Lei Assortment $15.00/100 at orientialtraders.com
Drink umbrellas $5.00/144 at orientialtraders.com
Bright Flower Lei Garland $4.00 at orientialtraders.com
Tiki Bubble Machine for $39.95 at target.com

#3 Red Carpet Event
Looking for a way to recycle that old prom gown or bridesmaid dress that has been hanging unloved in your closet? A Red Carpet/Hollywood party is just the ticket! If you have the technology available to you, try projecting an out black and white movie onto a sheet for your guests to gaze as they mingle.
Shopping list:
Red Carpet Runner $6.28 at partycheap.com
Red Rope Set $55.96 at partycheap.com
Movie Night Cascading Centerpiece $4.00 at orientaltrading.com
VIP Entrance Sign $.96 at partycheap.com
Plastic Champagne Glasses $.4.99 at Walgreens.com

#4 Tea Party
This is a good option for a rainy day in with the gals. Entertain yourselves by decorating the cookies or cupcakes that will be served as snacks. Don’t forget the cucumber sandwiches! (Crusts off; pinkies up!) Encourage your female invitees to wear frilly hats!
Shopping list:
Whistle 3 qt Tea Kettle $39.95 at target.com
Victoria Plastic Cup and Saucer $6.50/ea at enjoyingtea.com
Celestial Seasonings Fruit Tea Sampler $1.37 at amazon.com
Tea Party Beverage Napkins $1.75/16 at orientaltrading.com
Fox Run Tea Party Cookie Cutter Set $5.95 at amazon.com

#5 South of the Border Fiesta
Olé! Try setting up a make-your-own-taco bar for your friends to feast on and be sure to mix up a batch of fruity virgin margaritas for the kids. This party theme also lends itself well to an assortment of dips served with chips and fresh veggies.
Shopping list:
Rainbow Donkey Piñata $13.50 at piñatas.com
3 lbs. Piñata Candy & Toys filler $12.99 at piñata.com
Embroidered Sombreros $25/dozen at orientaltrading.com
Plastic Neon Margarita Glasses $10.49/dozen at partywedding.com
Fiesta Maracas $15/dozen at orientaltrading.com

There you have it, a whole slew of exciting summer shindig options that won’t cost an arm and a leg. Which is good, since you’ll need all your limbs intact to fun it up at your fete!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Hot Tickets for Cool Shows

The summer is filled to the brim with cool concerts. But, with that daily skinny vanilla latte, beach passes, and rising gas prices, it’s often hard find a way to finance that Britney concert that you’ve been waiting all year to attend.

Well, breathe easy. As it turns out, your best ally in helping to score awesome seats to this season’s hottest shows may be right in your wallet.

Most credit card companies have valuable rewards programs that offer cardholders incredible deals on airfare, dining out, shopping and just about everything else in between—including “event perks” that can allow you VIP access to hit summer concerts!

Three Cards That Offer Great Concert Perks

Below are three different credit cards whose reward programs have big bonuses for concertgoers:

Citi Private Pass is a free program for Citi credit and debit cards users that can provide special access and reduced prices for concerts. It offers presale tickets for Citi card members, allowing them the opportunity to purchase tickets before they go on sale to the general public. For some concerts, VIP packages are available that include extras like hotel stays, bottle service during the show and special video monitors in your section so you can peek behind the scenes and catch the action from different angles.
American Express has its very own ticket saving center directly on Ticketmaster’s website. AmEx’s Membership Rewards Program offers cardholders the opportunity to purchase tickets in advance of the general public and to select their tickets from a pool of premium seats reserved exclusively for American Express cardholders.

Chase Freedom and Sapphire cardholders are able to partake of the Chase Ultimate Rewards program, which allows members to use their points to score front-and-center seats at popular concerts, among other things. Points are earned for every dollar charged to the card and may be redeemed for special access to shows and events. Cardholders participating in the Ultimate Rewards program are given the opportunity use their reward points for special VIP tickets to select shows.

Research what your card can do by calling the issuer and asking for a list of benefits. Or visit the credit card’s website to get a list filled with easy-to-understand bullet points about the card’s perks. If you dont have a credit card yet, visit www.credit-land.com for ideas on where to start looking.

So if you’ve set your mind this summer on seeing if Willow Smith really can whip her hair back and forth, or want to see if Rihanna really does like S & M, your credit card may be just the ticket to getting you there.

Published: thepress.net - Your hometown news source for in Brentwood CA

Friday, July 1, 2011

Rich Folks: The Good, The Bad, The Beautiful?

I don’t know of a single girl who saw that mountain of a rock on Kim Kardashian’s ring finger and didn’t think, “I wish I was her.”

Kim’s future beau has ruined it for men everywhere who are hoping to one day find a bride. Because let’s face it, very, very few engagement rings will ever compare to the $2 million, 20.5 carat monster sitting on Kim’s left hand.

But, jealous as we are of this lovable Kardashian and her good fortune, do we ever stop and think about what she and other celebrities really do for us? Yes, they engage us in frequent drama-filled television shows. And yes, from them we learn about fashion, fitness, star gossip, and of course, where to buy the perfect pair of Manolo Blahniks. For this we are eternally grateful.

Still, we rarely stop to think about what these celebrities do for us downtrodden consumers: They stimulate the economy. The question before us is simple: Can the wealthy spend enough to make the economy grow faster and bring down unemployment?  

Reports from the Associated Press, say that fewer people applied for unemployment benefits last week. Now don’t get too excited. This doesn’t mean that finding a decent job will be any less difficult. It also doesn’t mean that there will be any fewer résumé-holders standing in front of you during a company’s open call hiring day.   

But a front page article in the Financial Times on April 25, 2011 did speculate about the positive effects of spending in the current economic slump by the rich and the really rich.

It explained that the wealthy are extremely helpful in stimulating the economy on the short term spectrum, and that their purchasing is helping companies continue to make a profit. This, in turn, leads to more jobs. So, in a way, the affluent are the exact stimulus that we need.

I recently read an interesting report by the Harrison and American Express Publishing groups. Some of the statistics were mind-boggling. They found that top 10 percent of Americans are expecting to spend $26.6 billion more in the next year on luxury goods, excluding cars and travel.  This year alone, their spending on luxury items is expected to rise 8 percent compared with 2010.

Talk about a lot of money. But is there a way that that our wealthy counterparts can stimulate the economy while doing some good for society also?

Bill Gates seems to think so. He made a speech in 2008 at the World Economic Forum in the beautiful city of Davos, Switzerland. Gates, a computer whiz and superb speechmaker, spoke about a new approach to capitalism in the 21st century. I sincerely believe that if more wealthy people start using an idea Gates calls “creative capitalism,” our economy, little by little, can pick itself out of the dirt and finally wash up.

Gates colorfully describes a fun conversation he had with Bono. Bono couldn’t stop talking about how they could get a percentage of each purchase from civic-minded companies to help change the world. Gates said, “He kept calling people, waking them up, and handing me the phone to show me the interest.”

Several seconds later Gates continued, “He was right.”

He further said that if you give people the chance to associate themselves with a cause they care about, all while buying a great product, they’ll do it. That same night in Davos, the RED Campaign was born.

RED products are today available from companies like Gap, Motorola, and Armani. Dell and Microsoft have now joined the cause also. And, in 2008, RED generated $50 million for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and Malaria. Because of this great cause, nearly 2 million people in Africa are receiving life-saving drugs today.

How does this relate to us, and specifically to the rich? Gates thinks that there’s an understanding around the world that when change is driven by proper incentives, we have a sustainable plan for change, as profits and recognition are renewable resources.

So, if the rich continue their frivolous spending, but perhaps focus more of their energy on this creative capitalism mindset (say by purchasing a collection of RED shirts) they can do two main things: Stimulate our economy and do some good for the world.

Yes, it won’t fix everything. Credit card companies are saying that there is still $4 trillion in money market accounts. This paints the picture of a society still risk-averse and concerned about spending or losing money. But consumer spending, which accounts for 70 percent of U.S. economic activity, did rise 4% in the last quarter.

And hey, if high-end shoppers continue swiping their plastic cards across the states – just making sure to look out for companies that are socially responsible – well, it can be a beautiful thing.

Help us, Kim Kardashian, and other wealthy idols. We need you to shop.

Handling Student Debt: 5 Tips for Future Students

So you’ve graduated from high school and are on your way to college. Congratulations! You will soon be experiencing the unforgettable: road trips, toga parties, and…student debt? If you’re not careful, the woes of college may overwhelm you and crush the perks of attending a top-notch university. College should be about learning, meeting new people, and having the best four (or sometimes five or six) years of your life. So, to keep things from getting too overwhelming, here are five ways you can crush the incoming student debt before it crushes you. 

1) Become Best Buds With Your Financial Aid Department
Sure, they seem intimidating from far away but up close they’re really not so bad. Within your first few weeks at school, schedule an appointment with your financial aid department. They can make sense of confusing topics like “Stafford Loan” and “Pell Grant” that make your head spin. They can also help you find scholarships, and tell if you’re eligible for various in-school financial aid packages. Some schools will offer scholarships to students who do well academically their freshman year. But the only way to find out is if you take the first steps into that office. The financial aid office can even help you with balancing your up-and-coming loan payments, and assist you with setting up payment plans. Cindy Bailey, a senior policy analyst at College Board even said, “I always refer people back to the financial aid people at their college. They’re the most generous, well-meaning people in the world. They want to be helpful to kids and their families.” So smack on a smile and talk to them as soon as you can. 

2) Consider Consolidating Your Loans
Consoli-whating? Layman’s Terms: Essentially, consolidating your loans means you combine all of them (for example, a federal, state and a private loan) into one lower payment. When you squeeze these together, your repayment time is extended. For those of you who either have several types of loans or who are having trouble making complete monthly payments, consolidation can be the right option. But, if you’re able to pay your student loan bill pretty easily each month, though, the best advice is not to consolidate. Have a chit-chat with your family or again swing by the magical financial aid office for further help with this issue. It’s definitely something that can keep you debt-free for a long time.  

3) Don’t Give In To Peer Pressure
Just Say “No”. Parents and mentors alike have been telling us this since grade school but it will never apply stronger than in college, I guarantee it. You’ll get swamped rich new friends who want to spend Spring Break in Cancun and the winter vacation skiing in the Swiss Alps. You’ll also get bullied by credit-card companies to sign up for their “perfect, unbeatable offers.” My advice? Don’t. If you know it’s too expensive, and that it’s something you’ll develop heart palpitations over, just say that you can’t do it right now. No one will judge you, and no one will think any less of you. Think about it. “No” is a two-letter word that takes a quarter of a second to spit out. Accrued debt is something that can follow you for the rest of your life. 

4) Avoid Shiny Things
We all know and love Kanye West’s music. Minus that whole Taylor Swift debacle, he’s pretty on-point with his stage presence and lyrics. But Kanye lyrics like “She don't believe in shootin' stars / But she believe in shoes and cars” need to be wiped from your memory when you first get to college. “Why?” You may ask. Because song lyrics like this make you want to spend. And while we do need to stimulate spending for the health of the economy, you, as a college student, are already doing enough by paying thousands of dollars to your school of choice. So when it comes to being a frivolous spender…Just don’t do it. College is expensive enough. It is a financial burden on both you and your family, and you don’t need to make it worse. So before purchasing the iPad 2 and Rock Band: The Beatles Edition, think about how much you really need these things. Chances are, you don’t really need it.

5) Find an On-Campus Job
Yes, few things are better than sleeping ‘til 4 p.m., partying ‘til 5 a.m. and never having to work a day in your life. It’s also delusional. Getting a job, especially one that’s on campus, can be a great way to make some extra money while not taking too much time away from your school work. And, when it comes to buying something you really can’t breathe without, this sort of part-time employment will really help you make payments and stay debt free. So try to pick up a few hours here and there at your local campus bookstore (they usually hire at the very beginning and very end of semesters). Working between classes or on days when you have a lighter course load can help you make enough money for those few things you really can’t live without. And, if you already have a credit card with monthly payments that need to be made, this can help you keep up a high credit score. Your career center (or it’s online site) will most always offer listings. 

You are about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. College is going to be incredible, and is going to fly past you faster than a Boeing Business Jet. But be careful, because the consequences of getting bad debt in college are mountainous. More than that, they’re scary. You can end up losing out on a job, apartment, car loan or graduate school admission, all because you have outstanding debt. So, be careful playing with credit. It isn’t a game like beer pong and flip cup, and if you’re not careful, you can really lose out on post-grad opportunities.

Rise in Tourism in the U.S., Credit Card Experts Link it to Perks

A news release issued by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) earlier this morning shows that spending on travel and tourism increased in the first quarter of 2011. 

Specifically, the increase occurred at an annual rate of 0.6 percent, which is following an increase of 2.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2010.           

According to the Central Valley Business Times, tourism is vital to the success of California’s economy. It helps fuel employment and generates high spending in the region. In fact, figures from the California Travel & Tourism Commission show that visitors to California spent $87.7 billion in 2009, and that travel spending in California directly supported 881,000 jobs.          

What’s the story behind the recent visits from tourists? 

The BEA said that the growth in prices for travel and tourism reflect strong price increases in gasoline and passenger air transportation. If one goes up, so, in turn, must the other.

But credit card experts suggest something else. Rupert McAllister, a senior analyst at Credit-Land.com says, “The recent rise in tourism has to do with the recent traveling perks that many well known credit card companies have begun offering.” 

Time magazine that recommends several credit cards to help you heap rewards while enjoying a vacation. 

Planning a stay at a Los Angeles Marriott Hotel?

If so, Doug Miller, senior analyst for banking and cards at consulting firm Corporate Insight, recommends the Chase Marriott Rewards Visa card. Miller told Time, “If you’re a frequent traveler and have a hotel chain or a series of hotel chains you like or use a lot you can rack up rewards quickly.” Using this card to pay for a room in one of 3,200 hotels in the Marriott family of brands, earns you three points per dollar spent. Points can then be cashed in for free nights at certain Marriott hotels.

Planning on going overseas?
Roman Shteyn, the founder of credit card comparison website Credit-Land.com gives Capital One Venture One Rewards card his nod of approval. “You get 1.25 miles per dollar spent and a one-time bonus of 10,000 miles. That can easily equal $100 in cash,” Shteyn said. “What’s great is that you can use it for booking flights, car rentals, or hotels.” Shteyn also said that for those traveling overseas, the card offers no foreign transaction fees, which can be a penny saver. 

Planning on Driving and Need an Automotive Bonus?

Both Shteyn and McAllister recommend the Discover More card.  According to them, the card offers a five percent cash back bonus in categories that change like travel, gas, groceries, and restaurants. These perks sound perfect for a road trip. “This one is my favorite for short-distance trips,” Shteyn said. 

Other perks of the card include up to 20 percent cash back Bonus at popular retailers when you shop online through Discover as well as unlimited cash rewards that never expire.

How much will this actually help you on your trip? Let’s look at the numbers. Say you charge $1000 on your card during your vacation. Anytime you refuel your car, pick up snacks for the kids, or book a night at a motel – that’s five percent that you’re getting handed back to you. That’s $50 that’s handed back to you so you can breathe a little bit easier and go back to enjoying your vacation. 

So remember, as you’re planning a fun-filled getaway this summer; keep in mind that you may be in store for some great rewards. All you have to do is know where to look.

Celebrity Endorsements: What were they thinking?

By now you’ve probably heard about the Kardashian sisters’ most recent win. This time, it isn’t a second hit reality show or another $2 million engagement ring. Instead, Khloe, Kourtney, and of course Kim Kardashian have secured a win in a lawsuit against them by a credit card company for which they were spokespersons.   
The drama began in January. According to Reuters, the girls and their mother, Kris Jenner, were sued by Revenue Resource Group, for forfeiting a contract to promote a celebrity debit card known as the “Karadashian Kard.”   

Initially the sisters agreed to speak positively about the card to the media and on their Facebook and Twitter pages. For their help, the girls would receive a flat fee, as well as a percentage of revenue from all the customers who signed up. But a problem occurred when the Kardashians learned that they were endorsing a prepaid debit card that was criticized for its high fees. According to the Huffington Post, the reality show stars felt they had no duty in promoting a product that might be considered unlawful.    

The judge agreed. The $75 million lawsuit against the girls was dismissed, and Revenue Resource Group was ordered to pay the Kardashians $6,825 in attorney's fees.

Interestingly enough, the “Kardashian Kard” was not the first of these celebrity credit cards that has not become widely popular. According to www.creditland.com Usher and band KISS are some popular entertainers who have formerly been the face of such a card. Currently, only a handful of these cards exist and most are phased out with time.  

Why does this happen? Prescott Perez-Fox is an expert brand developer and designer in New York City who blogs about branding at his site, Perez-Fox.com. He spoke to creditcards.com about this issue for celebrities. 

“The notion of 'member since' stamped on the front of a credit card helps customers reinforce this feeling of pride over time. Celebrities, however, exist in the here and now,” he said. “Since they go out of fashion with every changing season, most consumers aren't willing to throw away their hidden 'time equity' for someone who may be old hat by this time next year.”     

Perez-Fox continued to explain the most often, celebrities won’t agree to this sort of prepaid card contract just for the money. 

“Yes, celebs may earn a few dollars by lending their name to a financial product or service, but the damage to the celebrity 'brand' is far-reaching. It makes the celeb appear as a money-grubber, someone who doesn't value his own name and is willing to slap his face on any old thing that will sell.”

For the Kardashian girls, the bad stigma associated with wide-reaching fees from Revenue Resource Group, made them pull out of the agreement also. Luckily, their reputation was salvaged.

Can Technology Squash Shop-Lifting Once And For All?

Small business owners have had enough. They are cracking their knuckles, craning their necks, and whipping out the big guns – metaphorically speaking. Retailers are finally ready to combat their credit card fraudster arch nemeses once and for all.

According to an article that appeared in The Republic earlier this week, retailers are currently working to adopt new technologies to better protect against credit card fraud and counterfeit bills. They are putting tiny, hard-to-spot GPS devices in cargo shipments. They are attaching ink-dispensing tags to designer suits that will splatter ink all over your new outfit if you try to dismantle it without a store associate’s help. The article states that now there is even an alarm tag that can go into the meat soaker pad under a packaged T-bone steak. What’s next?   

Retailers are buckling down, and it is just in time. According to the article, retail theft is on the rise, with $37.14 billion lost nationally just last year. This is already almost a 2% increase from 2009 or 1.5% of total retail sales to be exact.

An annual study from the National Retail Federation said that the biggest share of those losses, 44%, was from employee theft, with shoplifting at a close second at 33%.     

For small business owners, these deficits can be killer.     

The article cited Bill Titus, the loss prevention manager of the Sears Holding Corp. "If you think the last 10 years were turbulent and required our stores to adapt, stand back for the next 10 years," Titus said.  "When are flash mobs organized on Twitter going to start stealing from our stores?"    

Why have shoplifting and credit card fraud grown worse with time? First Data North Bay, a leader in the credit card processing industry, said that the problem may lie with merchants themselves.  They cite four major reasons for this increase in fraud.  They deal with sales associates not comparing the signature on the back of the card with the cardholder’s signature at the time of purchase as well as merchants not calling cardholders to confirm major orders. A failure to check the credit card for the hologram (while making sure there are no alteration marks) and sloppily rushing through transactions are additional reasons for the increase.       

But while some merchants are giving up, other store owners are more optimistic and are not ready to give in to shoplifting and fraud just yet. In fact, they are raving about a new technology that can change the way loss prevention teams operate forever.

It’s name? Virtual Wallet. It’s availability? Slim – it’s still being tested. It’s effects? Wide-reaching. Virtual Wallet can possibly change the playing field of credit card transactions forever, and, thus, change the world of fraud. Once developed, this technology will allow you to sync your Visa, Discover, and MasterCard to your smartphone. As a result, you may never again need to bring an actual plastic card with you. All your information – bar code, security code, everything, will be safely stored on your mobile device.

This will make it more difficult for criminals to hack into or steal your personal data, loss prevention experts say. In turn, shoplifting and card theft may be dramatically altered. Joe LaRocca, the National Retail Federation's loss prevention staff expert, said that while it won't happen overnight, new technology will have a strong effort in making major retail theft obsolete.