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Conspicuous Consumer: Beware of free checks in mail

PICKY AND CHOOSY: Cleaning my refrigerator usually prompts some unsettling questions … What, exactly, is the food that now sports a furry white coat? What am I going to do with that half bag of spinach that has turned to mush? Seeing just how much produce goes to waste because I either forgot about it or couldn’t use it all is sobering.

One easy way around the wastefulness: buying only the amount I need, at a supermarket salad bar. When I want celery for tuna salad, I buy a single stick, instead of an entire bunch. This weekend I needed just a few cherry tomatoes for a recipe. A pint container — far more than I’d use, and thus likely to end up withered and wasted — was $2.99 at Stop & Shop; but nine tomatoes from the salad bar ($4.99 per pound) cost me just 50 cents.

DRIVER EDUCATION: When my auto insurance bill arrived recently, I looked at it a little more carefully than usual, because I wanted to know what kind of rental-car coverage I have (more on that in a future column).

What caught my eye were the various discounts that my husband and I qualify for. Auto insurance companies offer breaks for drivers in low-risk categories, and my bill reflected a bunch of them — a discount for having air bags, another discount for maintaining continuous coverage, plus several others.

But there was also a low mileage discount, for driving under 7,500 miles annually. Even though I rarely take my car on long trips, that particular discount didn’t appear.

I fished the bill of sale out of the glove compartment to check the odometer reading on the date I bought the car.

Then I subtracted that number from the current odometer reading. The result: On average, I’ve been driving 6,000 miles per year. I contacted my insurance agent, and a revised bill arrived soon after, reflecting the low-mileage discount.

Lesson learned: Determine what discounts you qualify for — then ask for them.

While I like using a local insurance agent, with a local office, there’s another option for keeping auto insurance costs down: Progressive’s Snapshot program, which uses an in-car gadget to track your driving habits — how far you drive each day, how frequently you stomp hard on the brakes, how often you’re on the road between midnight and 4 a.m.

After collecting data like that for 30 days, Progressive says, it will come back with a policy priced to reflect your driving style. There’s no commitment, the company adds, and if you don’t like the bottom line you can stick with your current insurer. (FYI: The device has no GPS capability, so you aren’t being tracked.)

For general advice about how to shop for car insurance in Massachusetts, go to www.mass.gov/ocabr/ to download a copy of “Ways to Save on Your Automobile Insurance,” published by the state’s Division of Insurance. It contains truly useful information - far more than what’s offered in most boilerplate consumer brochures.

Finally, if you want to check the personal information that your insurer is using to set your auto premium, ask to see your Detailed Driving History Record, which is maintained by the state’s Merit Rating Board. It contains data from police departments, Massachusetts courts and insurance companies about all accidents and violations that are on file for you (if an incident happened more than six years ago, the insurance company can’t use it against you). Go to www.mass.gov/mrb or call 617-351-4400 to request a copy. There’s a $15 fee.

EXTRA CREDIT: I get so many credit-card pitches these days that I barely look at them, but it’s worth taking the time: Some of those pitches are for cards I already have, offering me additional reward points for using them.

My Chase Freedom Visa card, for instance, gives me 1 percent cash back on all purchases. But each quarter it offers a bonus in certain product categories — and those bonuses can add up.

Last month my bill was just over $900, earning me around $9 in cash rewards. But I’d signed up for the card’s April-June promotion, offering 5 percent back on purchases at restaurants, movie theaters and Lowe’s stores, and that generated another $13.53 for me. In the current quarter, I’m earning 5 percent on purchases at gas stations, theme parks and Kohl’s stores. (It’s not a “the sky’s the limit” proposition, though: The bonus maxes out once you spend $1,500 in those categories.)

I have three credit cards, and they all offer various promotions from time to time, so I adjust my card use accordingly. Right now, if I buy something online I use my Citi Cash Returns MasterCard, which is giving me 2 percent on online purchases instead of the usual 1 percent. The only hitch — you have to sign up for the extra-credit programs. But in general, as long as you register before the promotion is over, all purchases count.

STEP ON IT: While it’s not quite the same as having ancestors who came over on the Mayflower, a car with a low-number license plate still suggests a family tree with impressively deep roots in the Bay State.

But for those of us who didn’t happen to inherit a low-number plate along with the family silver, there’s another way to get one — via an annual lottery run by the Registry of Motor Vehicles. If you’re interested, you’ll have to act fast: The deadline for this year’s lottery is today.

Getting a plate via the lottery is definitely a long shot — but I know from experience that it’s not impossible.

My husband has a 1967 Volkswagen bug, and a couple of years ago he saw that the perfect low-number plate — one including the number 67 — had become available. He put his name into the license plate lottery, and amazingly, considering that 5,000 other people had done the same, he came out a winner. The only hitch: Winners don’t get to choose their plates, and he ended up with K 88. It looks very cute on the car, and even better, it’s easy to remember. But he’s still pining for 67.

This year’s lottery is offering 140 plates bearing four characters or less. Among the numbers up for grabs: Z7, 2Q and 6868. (If it was 6767, I know who’d be putting his name in once again.)

There’s a limit of one entry per person, using a form that you can download at www.massrmv.com or pick up at any RMV office. The form must be sent via U.S. mail, postmarked by today, Aug. 12. There’s a limit of one entry per person. Winners will be announced by Sept. 15.

To read more, go to The Conspicuous Consumer blog at www.gazetteteNET.com. Margot Cleary can be reached at MKCleary413@gmail.com.

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