Daily Hampshire Gazette - Established 1786
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The Conspicuous Consumer

Branching Out: Look beyond the (big) box for your holiday shopping

A “Santa’s helper” scouting trip to the mall yesterday left me feeling glum: All the displays of gift items blended together into one generic muddle.   But there’s an easy solution to that Grinch-like take on the holiday - the decidedly non-generic offerings you can find at holiday craft shows and fairs. Given the large number of artists who live in the Valley, the pickings are plentiful.  Start your shopping this weekend with the open studio event at the Arts & Industry Building at 221 Pine St. 0

Prized Possessions: Making sure your heirs get what’s coming to them

A visit to our attorney last week to update our will produced a useful bit of information about a recent change in Massachusetts property law: After my husband and I have departed for good, all our “stuff” - the cameo brooch from Aunt Julia, the ceramic dish from Aunt May, the vintage golf clubs from Uncle Dan, etc., etc., etc. - can be divvied up among our heirs via a simple memorandum separate from our will. Better yet, we can update the memo at any 0

A Kinder, Gentler IRS? FSA rules get a little more flexible

Putting money in a flexible spending account via payroll deductions can be a smart move, since the money - which must be spent on health-related expenses - isn’t subject to federal income tax. Given that individuals can set aside up to $2,500 in a health FSA, the tax savings can be significant.  But there’s been one big downside to FSAs: their use-it-or-lose-it feature. If you put $800, say, in the account, and then don’t use it all up within the calendar year (or the relatively brief 1

Go For the Gold: The best cookie sheet ever?

I’d been using the same cookie sheets for years, and scrub and scour as I might, decades’ worth of oh-so-slightly burned-on cookies had created a “patina” that I wasn’t happy about. So I decided to splurge on a new batch of cookie sheets - and lucked into what I now consider the gold standard (literally).   From Williams-Sonoma, the GoldTouch Nonstick Cookie Sheet, made from aluminized steel, has a diamond pattern that produces even baking and a finish that allows cookies to slide off the pan, 0

Phishing Trip: Don’t fall for fake email

Phishing - emails designed to elicit personal information from you, for possible identity theft - has been a problem for years, but in my Inbox, at least, it's getting out of hand. In the past month I’ve gotten bombarded with emails from Amazon, Target, Kohls, Petco and more that all look like the real deal. Generally they offer a gift card or some other enticement to click on a “survey” link within the email. But don’t do it - not until you’ve inspected the link 0

Clean Sweep: Clear out your medicine chest this Saturday

There's a right way, and a wrong way, to dispose of pills and liquid medicines you no longer need. The wrong way: Cavalierly tossing them in the trash or flushing them down the toilet. The right way: Bringing them to a collection event arranged by a law-enforcement agency.   This Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is sponsoring its National Take Back Initiative. There are three drop-off spots in Hampshire County: at Smith Vocational High School in Northampton, at the 0

Pennies From Heaven? Beware of check scams (Part II)

A couple of months ago I wrote about an identity theft scheme that targets an individual by sending him a small check in the mail, in the hopes that the person will deposit the check in his personal checking account. The check - sometimes sent as "thanks" for participating in a survey, for instance - is actually a way for scammers to obtain the individual's banking information. Doug Johnson, vice president for risk management policy for the American Bankers Association, told me that endorsing the 0

The Price Is Right: What to do when an item goes on sale - after you've bought it

It's a frequent frustration among shoppers: You buy something in a store or online for full price - then discover that it's been marked down the very next week.  Don't just grumble; ask for a price adjustment. Most national chains, and some smaller stores as well, will offer a one-time adjustment for an item that goes on sale after you've purchased it, as long as you request the adjustment within 14 days. Usually the store will offer only one price adjustment - but not always. This 0

Cry Me a River: Soon, shopping at Amazon will no longer be tax-free in Massachusetts

For someone who doesn't like to venture out to malls - that would be me - shopping at Amazon.com is a wonderful thing. Good prices, amazing selection - and no sales tax.  But that last benefit disappears at the end of this month. Starting Nov. 1, the state's 6.25 percent sales tax will be tacked onto items bought on Amazon.com and shipped to Massachusetts addresses. (The usual rules apply about taxable items; that is, if you buy clothing or food, it still won't be taxed.) Gov. 0

Icing on the Birthday Cake: Free stuff just because you're a year older

My birthday was last week, and the greetings started arriving well in advance. The first to wish me Many Happy Returns was F.L. Roberts, the local gas station and convenience store chain, which offered me a free no-strings-attached car wash to celebrate. Soon I heard from World Market (a $10 coupon, with no minimum purchase required) and Banana Republic (a $15 gift coupon). And those were just the start. I got a free birthday pastry at Panera, a 20 percent discount at Different Drummer's Kitchen 0