Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Guest posts wanted!

In about three weeks, I'll be heading out for a two-week vacation.  If anyone is interested in submitting guest posts to be featured at Money and Values while I'm away, please let me know in comments or by e-mail.  Obviously I have a preference for money-and-values posts but you can really write about whatever you want!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Watch some free outdoor movies this summer!

One of the fun perks of summer in a city is watching classic movies outdoors on a big screen for free. We used to do this in Chicago, where they call it the Chicago Outdoor Film Festival and hold it in Grant Park-- and I was glad to find out they do it in Washington DC on the Mall (and call it Screen on the Green). Here in DC we have three weeks of Monday movies left, and I'm hoping to make it to see All the King's Men on August 6th and Casablanca on the 13th, both movies I've wanted to see for a long time but never gotten around to.

Do they have these in your city or town? If you're not sure, it's certainly worth a quick Google of "outdoor + movies + yourtown"... seems like almost every big city and a lot of smaller ones do this, and it sure is fun, frugal entertainment!

Friday, July 27, 2007

My guest post on Socially Conscious Banking is up at "Get Rich Slowly"

Didn't want to post this yesterday to distract from the Carnival, but I have a guest post up at Get Rich Slowly:  Community Investing and Other Socially Conscious Banking Options.  Please go check it out if you haven't seen it already! I spent a bunch of time on it and am very proud of how it turned out.  (I am not sure what the etiquette is around guest posts; I would like to put the post up here at some point, but it certainly won't be at least until J.D. gets back from vacation in a couple weeks and I can ask him about it, so I'd suggest you read it there for now.)


When you put your money in a bank to earn interest, the bank is actually turning around and loaning your money out again, to earn enough to pay you plus turn a profit.  When you invest in a typical bank, the bank makes investments it thinks are best based solely on financial criteria, and you don't know where the money is flowing — it could be spent on manufacturing cluster bombs or financing companies that enrich and support the government in Sudan , to name just a few of the unsavory possibilities. 

Other financial institutions, on the other hand, use a broader set of criteria — making investment decisions based on a combination of financial and social and/or environmental factors.   This doesn't just mean avoiding negative investments — it allows funding to be targeted to specific causes in order create positive social and environmental impacts...

There's a wide range of community development/socially conscious products available, from checking and savings accounts to money market accounts and CDs, at hundreds of financial institutions. In general, the interest rates are considered market rate and are roughly comparable to what you'd find at an average bank– although they're not always going to match the very top rates available.  Here are some of the highest-earning (as of 7/07) and/or most interesting options I've found: [click to read the full article]

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Carnival of Ethics, Values, and Personal Finance #13

Hi there, and welcome to the 13th Carnival of Ethics, Values, and Personal Finance! As most of you know, this carnival is for posts exploring the connections between personal values and financial decisions, and appears every other Thursday.

Editor's Choice:

Take Inventory: Identify Your Spending Values (Baby Step #2) is a great post at Millionaire Mommy Next Door talking about how to identify your values and priorities in order to shape money decisions around them.

Other top posts:

Right-Sized Living, by Toni Tiu at Wifely Steps, explores how to make purchasing choices that are not bigger than you can manage or smaller than you can tolerate, but instead are right for you.

A Fantasy Social Finance Portfolio, by Betsy Teutsch at Money Changes Things, profiles some socially responsible and socially beneficial companies.

House obsession, by Beth Dargis at My Simpler Life, talks about what really makes a house a happy home-- and whether stylish decor and brand-new appliances have us on the wrong trail.

Other posts:
And finally, this carnival gets a lot of off-topic submissions that are either only about personal finance or only about ethics and values-- it's supposed to be both! Most are pretty bad and I usually just delete them. However, the posts below are off-topic but high-quality, so they'll get a temporary reprieve this time around, to remind them and you to include money and values next time:
Thanks for reading! Please promote the carnival on your own site, volunteer to host a future edition, and continue to submit posts that fit the carnival's theme using this submission form.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Fair trade bananas, rice, sugar, and more: 12 types of fair trade products and where to find them

If you think fair trade is just about coffee, tea, and chocolate, take another look-- new products are being produced and traded fairly all the time!  Co-op America's put together an article called Twelve Ways to Shop Fair Trade Now and a brand-new 24-page Guide to Fair Trade(PDF).
The types of fair trade products available are expanding at a fantastic rate. There's fair trade sugar (and molasses), which is already available at a grocery store near me and maybe one near you.  A number of varieties of fair trade rice are in stores and online as well. Fair trade bananas and other fruit are being certified now, including mangoes, pineapples, and grapes. And where there's fair trade grapes, there's fair trade wine-- it debuted in the U.S. this spring.
There's fair trade vanilla, in a starring role in Ben and Jerry's ice cream and increasingly available in stores and online. Fair trade olive oil from rural Palestinian farmers is a new trend.   Fair trade spices including pepper, ginger, turmeric, curry, nutmeg, lemongrass, lemon verbena, peppermint, and oregano are available in Europe and are about to start showing up in the U.S. And don't forget the fair trade sports balls-- soccer, volleyball, and more-- if you're thinking fair trade is all about food. (It's not, of course; the movement began with fair trade handicrafts decades ago.)

I wrote about how to find coffee, tea, chocolate and handicrafts here and here, so let's move on to some of the newer products:  
  • According to this search using the Transfair store finder, there are 162 stores nationwide selling fair trade sugar, rice, and/or fruit. These 119 sell fair trade sugar, here's 91 selling fair trade rice, and 110 stores offer fair trade fruit. And I am sure that I will shortly be in the happy position of having my numbers be out of date, as new stores start offering the products.
  • You can order Frontier fair trade vanilla extract through their website-- or through Amazon Grocery.  A few stores, including some Whole Foods/Wild Oats locations, stock it too, and more will soon!
  • Etica fair trade wine is available in a few stores, in states like Minnesota, California, and Illinois, or can be ordered online if it's legal for you to receive it by mail in your state.
  • Buy fair trade olive oil online and keep an eye out for it to appear in stores.
  • Mountain Rose Herbs say they are the first U.S. distributor of fair trade spices and herbs-- at the time of writing I can't find confirmation on their website, but give them a call or order their catalogy!
  • Fair Trade Sports has fair trade sports balls online, and I've seen them occasionally in stores as well.
  • Alter Eco, which sells fair trade coffee, tea, chocolate, sugar, rice, and even quinoa and hearts-of-palm, sells products in  these stores (no details on which stores carry which products) and online.
  • And the National Green Pages are a good tool to find all sorts of online and offline stores selling fair trade products-- so if you haven't found what you were looking for yet, search away!
  • If you can't find what you're looking for near you and/or would like to help expand the availability of fair trade products, Co-op America is always working on this-- right now they have a letter-writing campaign to get supermarkets to carry fair trade bananas.
I continue to be amazed and pleased at how quickly the fair trade movement is growing.   I bet this post will be out-of-date within a few months, and I couldn't be happier about it!  In the meantime, I hope this is a good resource to help you track down the new fair trade products in stores and online-- let me know if you have other intel I can add.  (And again, I know this post is very U.S.-centric, but the availability of fair trade is so different between countries that I just couldn't do the research for everyone-- I'm glad to add links for other countries if readers can suggest them.)

Sunday, July 22, 2007

When getting ripped off is worth it...

I have not had a hot dog at a baseball game since I was ten or so, back before I became vegetarian, so the first time I saw vegetarian hot dogs for sale at a baseball game, I thought it was pretty darn awesome.

That said, usually I do everything in my power to avoid buying food at baseball games. It is ridiculously overpriced, and I go to enough games that it's important to make a practice of keeping costs down because it all adds up. Plus, I just have a very difficult time overpaying for things... a little voice shouts, "No! No! They're ripping you off, don't give in!"

But on Friday, there was a last minute decision to go to the 7pm Nationals game after work. No advance planning, no time or ability to stop and pick up food on the way. There I was, at the game, hours from my last meal and hours from my next chance to eat outside the ballpark.

So I had a veggie dog. It was $4. I can get an eight-pack at the grocery store for $2.50.

It was fantastic. There is something about a hot dog and a ballgame...

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Look out for abusive overdraft charges at your bank!

How does your bank deal with overdraft charges?  Partly out of fear of this very thing, I keep way too much in my checking account, so I haven't had to deal with the issue.  But if I was smarter, I'd have a lower balance, and that might include the risk of an occasional overdraft.  And if I was less lucky and less fortunate, I might have no choice about cutting things close in my checking account.
So I was really disturbed to read this recent report from the Center for Responsible Lending  ( via Michelle Singletary's WaPo column).  Based on a study of 18 months of data including more than 3 million banking transactions, they estimate that Americans are paying $17.5 billion a year in abusive fees on overdraft loans-- for balances totaling only $15.8 billion and loan terms that average less than five days!
Basically, many banks and credit unions automatically enroll customers in what CRL calls "abusive overdraft loans" and the banks typically refer to as "bounce protection " or "courtesy overdraft coverage."  The programs are exempt from the Truth-in-Lending Act, and they're usually hidden in the fine print.  When customers overdraw their accounts, the bank automatically loans them the money to cover the charge-- but on the average loan of $27, the fees total an additional $34.  And since the bank recoups the total from the next deposit into the account, the term is very short, typically 5 days or less.  In contrast, even the priciest alternative-- covering the charges with a credit card or line of credit at 20% or 25% APR-- is markedly cheaper.  ($27 at a 25% APR is less than $7 a year, less than 50 cents a month.  According to CRL, the transfer fees for drawing on a line of credit are usually $5-$10.)
This is a growing problem, not only because the fees are more common (only 2.5% of banks and credit unions charged them in 1999 , but now most customers are enrolled in such a program), but because many banks have stopped declining debit-card charges when there are insufficient funds in the account.  Banks claim they're doing it as a service because customers would rather pay the fees than face the "embarrassment, inconvenience, merchant fees and other adverse consequences of having a check bounce or a transaction denied,"  but CRL did a survey that found that 53% of customers would prefer their card be declined and only 22% wanted the bank to cover it (the other 25% had no preference or didn't know).  Many banks also allow customers to overdraw their account at the ATM without any notification they're over the limit, even though 79% of users would cancel the transaction if warned rather than pay the fee.
The report also highlights some other unethical practices designed to increase the number of overdraft fees, like processing debits faster than deposits, and processing debits in whatever order maximizes the number of fees (ie, instead of processing small charges first and then the final big charge that leads to the overdraft, they can process the big charge first so that all of the small charges lead to additional fees).
So what can you do?  Read the fine print!  What will your bank do if you overdraw your account?  What are the fees?  Can you link your checking account to your savings account (preferred), or to a line of credit or credit card if necessary, to cover the balance rather than taking these bank "loans" with their higher fees?  Can you opt out of the overdraft protection and ask your bank to decline debit card and ATM transactions if you don't have the balance to cover them?  And what is your bank's policy on the order of processing debits?  If the answers are not what you'd like, perhaps you should consider other banks.  Of course it's important to monitor your balance closely and keep yourself safely in the black, but it's also wise to be informed and prepared for the worst, and this is more important the more often you find yourself skirting the edge.
CRL is also pushing for public policy solutions to address some of these issues.  They're backing a bill called HR 946 that would require banks to disclose their overdraft programs and get express written consent, warn customers when their ATM withdrawals will overdraw their accounts, and prohibit banks from manipulating the order of debits and the timing of deposits in order to increase fees. 
What do you think?  Do you know what your bank will do if you overdraw your account?  Do you think the laws need to be changed? (I do!)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Is leaving the newspaper on the train the right thing to do?

If you commute to work on public transportation in a city, you're probably very familiar with your city's commuter paper(s).  When I lived in Chicago, it was the RedEye ; here in DC, it's the Express.  That day's edition of the major paper (The Washington Post , in this case) is shrunk down and dumbed down into a quick and easy read.  There are kiosks everywhere with big stacks of them for free, and sometimes there'll even be people handing them out to you as you walk into the train, making sure thousands of copies get distributed to commuters. 
I read the Express.  It's hardly a mind-stimulating exercise, but it gives me a general overview of most of the news of the day, and pretty good coverage of what festivals/shows/concerts/etc are going on in the city, plus various odd tidbits I can call on for small talk at a later date.  Plus, the length is almost perfect for me-- unless there's a particularly large inset, I'm at the back of the paper in the celebrity gossip section by the end of my 20-minute ride.  And since I drink my morning coffee at work, I'm not usually up for much heavy thinking pre-caffeine anyway, so the Express is just about right.
However, I make it a point of never taking a copy of the Express on my way into the train station.  Instead, I purposefully board the Metro car at the opposite end of where I plan to sit and walk the length of the train car, scanning the empty seats and floors for a copy of the Express lying around that I can grab.  I probably find one about 75% of the time, and if I don't, I just sit with my thoughts for the ride.  Reading the Express is not so important to me that I need to waste another copy in order to have a guaranteed read.  (Yes, I know that the copies are already printed, so it's not directly wasteful, but there must be some sort of research they do on how many copies are used that helps them decide how many to print, so it's indirect earth-friendliness, really!)
The catch comes at the end of the ride.  My policy has always been just to leave the paper on the train-- that's where I got it, that's where I should leave it, right?  But I was talking to my boyfriend about this the other day, and he disagreed.  "That's littering," he said.  "You're cluttering up the train, making a mess for other people rather than cleaning up after yourself."
I explained my whole rationale.  "But there will be other people who want to read the paper!  If I toss my perfectly good paper in the recycling bin, they will have to get a brand new one.  There are these huge garbage bins packed full of papers at the train exits.  I know they're going to be recycled, but still, it seems so wasteful."
"If they were going to get a brand new one, they'd have already done it by the time they see if your paper's there or not.  If you're so concerned about the paper being reused, why don't you just put it back in the kiosk on your way out?  That way it's more likely to actually get reused.  And it's better than littering."
"But... but... it's like a social contract!  We don't pick up new papers because we know there will be old ones on the train.  If I helped decrease the number of papers on the train, that would cause people to reevaluate their plans and probably use more new papers in the long run.  Besides, it's not messy litter.  I fold it up nicely and put it between the seat and the wall. It wouldn't bother you if you weren't looking for it."
At which point he sighed, gave me a look, and then gave up.
But it has kind of stuck with me.  Am I one piece of a larger whole, or is this just something in my own head?  If I am really one of the only people who doesn't take a new paper because there will be used papers available to me, then the benefit of leaving the paper on the train to help conserve resources doesn't outweigh the fact that I'm cluttering up the train for other passengers and making more of a mess for the staff to clean up, and I should take my paper with me and put it back in the kiosk.  But if other people think like me, and there really does need to be a critical mass of papers left on the train to keep the whole cycle going, then I am one piece of a group that's working together to share and conserve resources, and that's pretty cool.
So I thought I would draw on the wisdom and experience of the public transit riders who read Money and Values.  Whether you live in DC or not, have you come across this situation?  Do people leave papers on the train in your city, and do other people read them?   Or even if it's not from personal experience, does my thought process make sense or does it sound crazy to you? 
And yes, I know that either way it isn't a big deal and I am probably over-thinking this!  I'm just curious now...

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Socially Conscious Gas Guide, Part 1: Environmental Rankings

I'd be remiss if I didn't start off by stating that the most socially conscious gas choice you can make is not to buy it at all, or barring that, to buy less. So try walking/biking more, car-sharing, and getting better gas mileage, for starters.

Nonetheless, most of us will be buying gas at least occasionally, and for many of us, we do it all the time. And gas is a very unique purchase in many ways-- we typically have almost no brand loyalty and often a lot of options. So it's worth exploring what the social and environmental implications are of the brands we choose.

This is going to be a multi-part guide, since there is a ton of information I've found to share, but we'll start with the impact these gas companies have on the environment. There are a lot of information and rankings out there, which I tried to compile for you in one place. (Let me know if you know of more for me to add!) So without further ado:

Specific Environmental Issues/Areas

Corporate Governance and Climate Change rankings from Ceres:

  • BP: 90 (out of max 100)
  • Royal Dutch Shell: 79
  • Statoil: 72
  • Total: 62
  • Chevron: 57
  • Anadarko and Sunoco: 39
  • Amerada Hess, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil: 35
  • Less than 35:
    • Marathon (26), Occidental (25), Valero (24), Apache (22), Tesoro(15), Burlington (13), Devon Energy (11), El Paso (9), Murphy Oil (6), Williams (3)
Renewable energy strategy and investment, Jantzi Research (looks at 23 companies, skewed to Canada):
  • High performance: BP, Shell, Suncor
  • Low performance: Burlington, Marathon, ExxonMobil
The Toxic 100-- top air polluters in the US:
  • #3: Conoco-Phillips
  • #6: Exxon-Mobil
  • #22: Tesoro
  • #28: Valero
  • #55: Sunoco
  • #64: Chevron
  • #81: Amarada Hess
  • #84: Marathon
Refinery Eco Ratings, Better World Handbook:
  • Sunoco: +40%
  • Chevron: +18%
  • Citgo: +17%
  • Conoco Phillips: 0
  • Total: 0
  • BP: -10%
  • ExxonMobil: -33%
  • Shell: -43%
[Methodology is not explained but I'm pretty sure this is looking at the % of refineries that rank either high or low in pollution... ie 2 good refineries out of 5 total is 40% for Sunoco, while 1 good refinery and 4 bad refineries out of 7 for Shell is a net of -3/7, or -43%.]

Overall Environmental Ratings

Innovest's EcoValue21 rating (AAA best, CCC worst):
  • Shell: AAA
  • BP: AA
  • Suncor: AA
  • Marathon: B
Jantzi rankings[PDF] environmental subscore, Canada-based:
  • Nexen: 7.6
  • Petro-Canada: 6.3
  • EnCana: 5.4
  • Suncor, Shell Canada, Syncrude, Imperial Oil: 5.0
  • Talisman: 4.9
  • Husky: 4.0
  • Canadian Natural Resources: 3.0
Sierra Club's "Pick Your Poison" Rankings:
  • Top of the Barrel
    • Sunoco
    • BP
  • Middle of the Barrel
    • Citgo
    • Valero ie Corner Store/Shamrock/Ultramar/Stop N Go/Beacon
    • Chevron/Texaco
    • Shell
  • Bottom of the Barrel
    • ConocoPhillips ie 76/Conoco/Phillips 66
    • ExxonMobil
Coming up next... a look at the human rights/workers' rights & safety/etc aspects of these companies, and an attempt to sum up and draw some conclusions.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Carnival of Ethics, Values, and Personal Finance #12

Hi folks! Here's the Carnival of Ethics, Values, and Personal Finance again... we're up to edition #12!

My top picks:

And the rest of the posts...
And that's all for this go-round. Submit your posts for next time using the carnival submission form. And please help support the carnival by linking to it and spreading the word (and by volunteering to host!)

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Free Slurpees-- Free Donuts

Yes, I have indeed made it back from vacation. You know how there are some vacations that are relaxing and refreshing, and others where you're doing something every minute and then at the end you're happy about making the most of it but you also kind of want another vacation so you can recover from your vacation? Yeah, this one was the latter.

Anyway, real posts coming soon, but for now, don't forget that tomorrow, 7/11, is 7-11's annual free slurpee day. The slurpees are only 7.11 ounces, but that's not too bad for a giveaway. (store locator) And, if your birthday happens to be July 13th, you get a free dozen donuts at Krispy Kreme this Friday the 13th-- and happy birthday! (store locator)