A friend of mine has just become a real estate agent.

She has a PhD in economics and has taught for years. But tenured professors are becoming an endangered species.

Our colleges can no longer afford high salaries for those who teach a few hours a week and spend the rest of their time on arcane research that few read except people trying to publish rebuttals. So more and more courses are being taught by graduate students or "adjuncts," PhDs who cannot find a full-time job and are paid by the course, at vastly lower per-hour cost.

So as I said, my friend is now a real estate agent, and I have received her first newsletter, publicizing herself and her firm.

Now, I get tons of material-you probably do too-from real estate brokers asking me to keep them in mind if I ever want to sell our house, or to buy a bigger or a smaller one.

But her newsletter was far more interesting than most. Most show a picture of the agent and his or her family and talk about how long they have lived in town and what schools the kids attend.

But my friend's letter had far more meat. Among other things, it talked about how long it usually takes to sell a house in the community; how much on average the original asking price is above the selling price on local homes; and the advantages of a 15-year versus a 30-year mortgage.

What does this have to do with banking?

My agent friend was giving important, honest information. Some financial institutions' mailings are pure fluff, or worse.

For example:

As I mentioned in an earlier column, Discover offered "interest free" cash advances, with the only charge being a modest 2.5% of your cash advance if you pay your balance in full each month. This, of course, works out to a rate of 30% a year.

Citibank sent me a notice saying that since I was a top cardholder, I was entitled to a gift-if I only paid the cost of postage and handling. Problem: the postage-and-handling charge was more than the gift would cost.

Institutional Investor magazine just offered me a "free" subscription. All I have to pay is postage and handling, a modest $41.95 for 12 issues.

Sometimes I think those who plan marketing campaigns are contemptuous of the American public. Don't they realize we can see through their specious offers?

Well, maybe not. If they did, I wouldn't get 10 letters a year telling me I won $1 million and all I have to do to collect is buy six magazine subscriptions.

But I looked at my friend's newsletter and felt, "This woman knows what is important, and she will undoubtedly do right by her clients." I wish I could feel the same way when I see the promotions that so many institutions send me.

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