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Consuming Interests
A blog for the smart consumer
Gas prices continue to fall

Maryland's gas prices fell closer to the $2 mark this week, continuing a downward spiral that could have lasting benefits for consumers.

On Tuesday, the state's average was $2.11 for a gallon of regular, with some gas stations advertising prices below $2. The national average is $2.03 — the lowest since April 2009 — and AAA Mid-Atlantic officials said they expect that average to be under $2 by the end of the month. Maryland's prices haven't been this low since May 8, 2009.

Cheaper gas, analysts said, can be attributed to the price of crude oil falling below $50 a barrel and refineries switching their blends of gasoline. At the end of each year, refineries must deplete their supply of cheaper winter gasoline before they switch to the more expensive spring version. That cuts prices at the pump.

When refineries do switch to the more expensive spring blend —normally in the first quarter of a new year — prices rise, analysts said.

This transition should occur by March. By then, consumers...

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Consumer advocates call for cheaper auto insurance for low-income residents in Maryland

Automobile insurance in Baltimore and other cities across the country is prohibitively expensive for low-income drivers, particularly those who have financed a vehicle, according to a report released Monday by the Consumer Federation of America.

Variations in rates charged by insurers based on factors unrelated to driving — including where they live, their credit score, their education level and their occupation — also make it more difficult for less affluent city residents to afford coverage, the group said.

"High auto insurance premiums represent a huge barrier to car ownership, and economic opportunity, for millions of lower-income Americans," said Stephen Brobeck, the group's executive director, in a statement.

J. Robert Hunter, the group's insurance director, said the issue can hamper cities' efforts to grow. As an example, he described a Baltimore resident struggling to hold a job in the surrounding suburbs.

"The people living downtown have no way to get there, even if they use...

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Settlement plan could give Rams Head concertgoers $5 vouchers

Concertgoers who bought tickets to a Rams Head Live or Pier Six Pavilion show in recent years would be eligible for a $5 ticket voucher under a proposed class-action settlement.

The settlement would resolve a lawsuit, brought last year by John Bogdan Jr. of Baltimore, alleging the venues overcharged for tickets from March 14, 2011, to March 14, 2013, and would grant customers one voucher for each purchase during that time.

Rams Head has denied it did anything wrong in the estimated 364,000 transactions but has agreed to settle the case, according to court documents.

The settlement isn't final; a hearing on whether to approve it will be held March 10. Barring appeals, the vouchers would be issued two months after the settlement is made finaliz.

Customers who bought tickets from the venues online during the two-year period received emails Thursday from Baltimore City Circuit Court notifying them of the proposal. Those who bought tickets at the box office or with cash would need to...

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Workers pick up greater share of health care costs, survey finds

Health care costs might be rising less sharply than they were a few years ago, but employers continue to make employees take on more of the burden, and that's likely to continue, a new survey shows.

Plans with high deductibles are becoming the norm, and employers are contributing less to the employee health savings accounts tied to those plans, according to an annual survey released last week by benefits advisory organization United Benefit Advisors.

"More and more of this is on the back of the employee," said Jonathan Weiner, professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "They're paying more up front and more after the fact," and, he said, seeing steeper increases in their share than employers.

Employers are shifting more responsibility and cost to workers through increases in out-of-pocket costs and cutbacks in family benefits, according to the survey of nearly 10,000 small to large employers, billed as the largest benchmarking...

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Bigger Baltimore boat show reflects rosy industry outlook

Brian Conner hasn't attended the Baltimore Boat Show as a dealer since the Great Recession hobbled the industry, but he's back now, sensing opportunity in a recovering economy and a niche he might fill in the Chesapeake Bay: pontoon boats.

"This is our debut," said Conner, owner of Rhode River Boat Sales and Rhode River Marina in Edgewater. He hopes the powerboat show scheduled at the convention center from Thursday to Sunday will launch him once again into the boat sales business, which he has shifted in and out of more than once in the last 30 years with rising and falling economic tides.

He's bringing 10 boats — eight Bennington pontoons and two Sundance skiffs — to be displayed with about 260 others. Baltimore's show, one of the region's largest pleasure boat shows, has added 20 percent more space and exhibitors, reflecting overall growth in the boat business.

"This is the largest the show has been since 2008," said show manager Tara Davis, who works for the National Marine...

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Tax filers can pick up refunds in cash at Walmart stores

Walmart is encouraging tax filers to skip the government check and pick up their refunds in cash in stores.

The discounter's Direct2Cash service is now available through more than 25,000 tax preparation locations using the Walmart software, for no additional fee or up to $7 at the time of filing.

"We know tax refunds can be one of the largest financial payouts of the year for many of our customers, and the last thing they want is to wait for their refund check to arrive and then spend money on unnecessary fees -- in many cases upwards of $70 -- to cash it," Daniel Eckert, senior vice president of services for Walmart U.S., said in today's announcement.

Customers who choose the option would get an email with a confirmation code for their federal or state return when the refund is ready. Customers can pick up refunds at Walmart stores.

This year, Walmart will also offer in-store tax preparation services by Jackson Hewitt. Eligible clients will receive a $50 Walmart eGift card when they...

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