It Was an Awful Year for the Economy. But a Great One for the Consumer?

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The most obvious upside to being a consumer this year was that you felt wanted, and you felt appreciated. In a bad year for business, retailers were very, very happy to have yours. You felt the love—though sure, they only “love” you for your money. It wouldn’t be the first time somebody was happy to be in a relationship with a gold digger.

How’s this for an indicator of shoppers’ status? As the NY Times reported during the heart of the holiday shopping season, salesmen at luxury stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Prada were actually being nice to customers. That’s more shocking than that the stores were handing out glasses of Champagne to anyone who walked inside.

More often, retail suitors fought for our attention via discounts and price wars: Amazon and Wal-Mart, for instance, battled it out, and probably will continue to scrap until one calls mercy. Grocery stores like Safeway, Stop & Shop, Publix, and Whole Foods dropped prices, and a decrease in all sorts of food resulted in the price of an average ten-person Thanksgiving dinner dropping to $42.91, or just $4.29 per person. That’s 4% cheaper than in 2008.

It seemed like everywhere you looked, someone wanted to help you buy stuff, from Cash for Clunkers to Cash for Caulkers to enormous rebates on end-of-year car sales, and more.

The government stepped in to help the little guy on more than one occasion, though some consumers are saying that the government help only resulted in them needing more help.

Just this week, laws are taking effect that’ll make it easier to understand how your mortgage works, exactly how much you owe, what your interest rate is and whether it can rise, and so on. You’d think that spelling out this info was already standard practice, but it’s not.

Per the WSJ:

One difficulty of shopping for mortgages is that the lender with the lowest rates often isn’t offering the best deal. High fees can wipe out the benefits of low rates, and little-noticed features such as prepayment penalties can burn borrowers. Even for savvy consumers, it is hard to compare different combinations of rates, “points” (paid in exchange for a lower rate), fees and other terms. Lenders often sprinkle in lots of confusing charges, such as processing and messenger fees. Dickering over the smaller fees could distract borrowers from the bigger picture of total costs…

Good Faith Estimates have been around for decades, but there was no standard format. Under the new rules, lenders and mortgage brokers will be required to give consumers the estimate forms within three days of receiving a loan application.

Maybe, if people understand the terms of their mortgages better and feel like they’re not getting ripped off, they’ll be less likely to do a strategic foreclosure, by just walking away (and then, perhaps, going to Disneyland) if they owe more than the home is worth.

Plastic was often a government reform target in 2009: There were reforms to gift cards and debit cards that made it more difficult for the card issuers to reap in sneaky and abundant fees. Now they’ll have to charge those fees in more blatant fashion, and there should be fewer of them. But we all need to watch out: The banks have earned something like $38 billion in 2009 on debit card overdraft fees, and now that it’s going to be more difficult for them to make money that way, they’re going to be looking to take your money via unprecedented exciting new strategies.

The other reform (no, not that one, I can’t deal with that now) is changing the credit card landscape dramatically. Mostly, the monumental credit card legislation was aimed at putting an end to many unfair and deceptive practices by banks and credit card companies. In many ways, the new laws succeed on the deceptive front: Consumers get a lot more disclosure regarding fees and rates, and a little more notice regarding when bills are due. But “unfair”? Many people would say the situation is less fair than ever, with skyrocketing rates and odd fees, and millions having their accounts summarily closed.

The government efforts have helped credit card holders a bit, but in other ways, consumers need to be more vigilant than ever when dealing with plastic. If you don’t pay attention or use the wrong card, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself. A nice quote from the LA Times that sums up the year to come:

“2010 is going to be the year of accountability,” said Adam Levin, chairman and co-founder of Credit.com, a credit-shopping website. “Credit card companies are going to be more accountable to consumers, but consumers are going to have to be more accountable too.”

The debt, so to speak, has hit the fan. Now is the time to clean up the mess and figure out how to handle your post-recession, post-credit-card-reform future.

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