MONEY Travel

Unlimited Free Booze! Tropical Cruise Includes Alcohol, No Extra Charge

Norwegian Sky
Norwegian Cruise Line Norwegian Sky

One major travel company is shaking up the way cruises are priced: All passengers get to enjoy all-you-can-drink beverages—beer, wine, and spirits included—for the whole cruise, without having to pay extra.

Norwegian Cruise Line sure does seem to want to woo heavy drinkers aboard its ships. Or at least passengers who don’t want to have to pause and think about the cost of each and every beverage they’re consuming.

Last summer, the company introduced an all-you-can-drink beverage option on a limited-time basis, in which passengers could partake in unlimited beer, wine, and spirits for a flat few hundred bucks extra. This week, the company introduced a new all-inclusive cruising package, in which all passengers aboard certain Norwegian Sky departures can enjoy unlimited alcohol at no extra charge. The new policy takes effect starting in January 2016, only on Sky three- and four-day sailings from Miami to the Bahamas.

Normally, cruise prices cover only the cost of a cabin, buffet meals, and some entertainment, and guests are charged extra for most beverages. Cruises attract people who want to relax and cut loose, so alcohol tends to be a huge revenue stream for operators.

What can happen, however, is that newcomers and experienced cruisers alike get turned off by the idea of getting nickel-and-dimed—at exorbitant, sports arena-type prices, mind you—for each drink they have. So it’s easy to see the appeal of Norwegian’s new policy, which is truly more in line with the original pitch for cruising as a mode of vacation: that of a hassle-free, all-inclusive, value-laden experience in which customers could board ships and never have to touch their wallets or worry about much of anything.

While at this time it’s only limited to one ship and short cruises, Norwegian’s more all-inclusive pricing structure will “strongly differentiate us from our competitors,” explained Norwegian president and COO Andy Stuart. He expects the change to appeal in particular to the all-important pool of people who have never been on cruises: “The three- and four-day market is an important market for us and is a market we introduce a lot of new people to cruising, and we’re excited about the prospects of going all-inclusive.”

Let’s not be naïve, however, and think that Norwegian would simply throw free booze into the package without upping the price of cruising. Stuart admitted, vaguely, that Norwegian is increasing prices “a bit” on these all-inclusive sailings. What does that mean exactly?

Answering that question with any degree of precision is more difficult than one might hope because cruise pricing in general is so muddled. How much you pay varies based on when you book, choice of cabin and extras, how you book (broker or directly?), availability, the season and exact dates when you’re traveling, choice of destination and ship, and so on.

For some indication of how much extra Norwegian is charging for its drinks-included Norwegian Sky cruises, we looked at rates in December 2015 and January 2016—immediately before and after the pricing change goes into effect. Four-day cruises from Miami to the Bahamas in early December are currently starting at a rate of $209 per person (not including port charges, taxes, and other extras), based on prices listed at Norwegian’s website. The cheapest rate in January, on the same ship with the same itinerary, starts at $339.

That’s a difference of $130, or $32.50 per day for a four-day cruise. Considering how pricey booze is on cruises—maybe $6 for a beer, $9 per glass of wine—it will be easy for many cruisers to come away feeling that the new pricing offers better value. But what if you’re traveling with children or adults who are content with a single glass of wine at dinner, or who don’t drink at all? If, on average, everyone in your party wouldn’t otherwise be compiling a bar tab of $130 or more during the course of the cruise, you’d probably be better offer sticking with a cruise with more traditional a la carte pricing.

That equation is oversimplifying things because, as mentioned above, cruise pricing is a moving target that’s impossible to nail down. Norwegian hinted that all-inclusive cruises could prove so popular that they’ll drive prices higher, which would change the math on which pricing model represents the best value for the individual cruiser. “We expect that this will increase demand, which—as you know—will drive bookings and ultimately price,” a company PR spokesperson said to Cruise Critic.

MONEY freebies

Where to Get Free Pretzels on National Pretzel Day

Pretzel on checkered napkin
Alamy

Sunday, April 26, is National Pretzel Day, and yes, that means there are free pretzels to be had.

We imagine that Stanley Hudson from “The Office” would love pretty much any fake holiday involving free food. We know for sure that he eagerly awaited the opportunity to snag a free pretzel once a year, as this classic clip shows:

This weekend is your chance to channel your inner Stanley, as National Pretzel Day is being celebrated at the following pretzel chains:

Auntie Anne’s: If you’ve already downloaded the chain’s mobile app, you’re in luck. Customers who downloaded the app by Thursday, April 23, can redeem their reward of a free pretzel anytime between April 24 and 26. (Something tells us Stanley wouldn’t be happy with the need to download or plan anything in advance to get a free pretzel.)

Philly Pretzel Factory: All customers are welcomed to a free soft pretzel on National Pretzel Day, no apps or coupons required.

Pretzel Maker: One free soft pretzel (salted or not, your choice) is awarded to each customer who is able to says, “Pretzelmaker prepares perfectly pleasing pretzels for National Pretzel Day.” Give it your best shot and we think they’ll give you a free pretzel.

Wetzel’s Pretzels: To score your free original pretzel, head into any Wetzel’s location on Sunday and say this rhyme, even though it’s probably not true: “My name is (your first name) Wetzel and I’d like a free pretzel.”

MONEY Airlines

The Pathetic State of Airline Travel Today Was Predicted Long Ago

crowded airplane seats
Jason Hetherington—Getty Images

No one should be remotely surprised that flights today are more crowded and more expensive, with more fees and worse service. As many critics warned, this is exactly what would happen with widespread airline consolidation.

The airline business is complicated. To some extent, however, making a profit is as simple as getting as many passengers on board your company’s airplanes as possible, and charging each customer as much as possible for the services provided.

Lately, airlines have been extremely good at being profitable. Airline profits soared in 2014 amid plummeting fuel prices, and the trend has continued in 2015. The first quarter of the year is generally a slow, lackluster period in travel, yet most domestic airlines reported record-high profits for the first three months of 2015. American Airlines reportedly took in a profit of $1.2 billion in the first quarter, according to the Dallas Morning News; previously, the carrier’s best first quarter was a haul of a mere $480 million.

Historically, in a scenario like the one outlined above, airline executives could be relied upon to add flights and new routes, and/or cut airfares, with the goal of winning over new passengers and snagging market share. None of the above is happening, however. For an explanation of why this is so, look no further than the string of airline mergers that took place in recent years—and that effectively killed the robust competition that existed in the industry not long ago.

“The airline industry is increasingly looking like an uncompetitive oligopoly,” Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote in a recent New York Times analysis. Sorkin pointed to the insights of analyst Vinay Bhaskara, who in late 2014 wrote in Airway News, “We are unquestionably living in an air travel oligopoly,” in which virtually all power in the industry lies in the hands of very few players.

“I will go on record stating that I believe that 2015 will be yet another year of record profitability for US airlines,” Bhaskara wrote at the end of 2014. Based on the first quarter results, his predictions appear to be coming true. As for the idea that airlines would expand service to take advantage of low fuel prices and attempt to win over business from their competitors? Let’s just say no one should go holding their breath waiting for heated competition and price wars anytime soon. “The idea that US airlines would, once again, devolve into a war for market share is founded on a misunderstanding of the new structure of US airlines.”

This “new structure” is one in which airlines are rigorously maintaining “discipline,” as Bhaskara puts it. This highly profitable approach is one in which the airlines aren’t expanding service because they prefer to fly densely packed planes, and they aren’t cutting fares because, well, they just don’t have to as demand remains high.

The approach might come across as greedy and opportunistic. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, the marketplace we have today is one that was predicted years ago by airline merger critics. Back in 2010, when United Airlines was close to completing its acquisition of Continental, consumer advocate Bill McGee published a manifesto about the ramifications of such mergers. Among other things, his analysis showed:

When merger partners’ route maps overlap, certain cities will lose service, with fewer flight frequencies and loss of nonstops.

Airline mergers don’t improve customer service.

When one airline suddenly dominates a route where it previously competed with a merger partner, ticket prices are likely to rise—often considerably.

Likewise, over the years various consumer groups and business travel coalitions have urged regulators to stop mergers from taking place for largely the same reasons. And, based on the routinely oligopolistic tactics of airlines in the post-merger world, in which travelers based in cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis have seen dramatic reductions in flights, and in which average flights in the U.S. have pushed past $500 (not including fees), the critics sure do seem to have been on to something.

Most unfortunate of all, the average airline customer should only expect more of the same approach going forward. Instead of adding flights, “Almost all of our capacity growth domestically is about putting more seats on airplanes,” American Airlines president Scott Kirby explained in a recent investment conference. “We will absolutely not lose our capacity discipline,” or the practice of limiting expansion in order to keep airfares high, United CEO Jeff Sismek said earlier this year, while announcing the company had nearly doubled profits in 2014.

Thanks to seat design “innovations,” airlines are able to cram more and more tiny seats into economy sections. This obviously makes flying worse, but that’s not stopping airlines from going forward. “When it comes to passenger comfort, the airlines are saying that this isn’t something that’s very important to them,” Eric Gonzales, an engineering professor at UMass-Amherst specializing in transportation issues, said to the Los Angeles Times. “These changes are intended solely to improve the bottom line.”

If the airline space were more competitive, it would arguably be a lot more difficult for carriers to get away with this kind of stuff. Yet they get away with this and more, including all manner of fees for services that used to be covered in the price of a ticket, plus a range of cost-cutting steps that show through in the results of a new study indicating that customer complaints, lost bags, lateness, and overbooking were all up in 2014.

As if it isn’t already clear, Brent Bowen, dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and a co-author of the study, explained how we got to this point: “Airline mergers and consolidations are taking a systemic toll that is bad for consumers… Performance by the airlines is slipping while they claimed this would make them better.”

MONEY Advertising

Under Armour Wants You to Wear ‘Avengers’ Underwear

150422_EM_UnderArmour
UnderArmour Under Armour's Alter Ego line, the quickest way to get six-pack abs

The sports apparel company that some think will be the new Nike is on quite an amazing run—partnering with Masters champ Jordan Speith, Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady, and now, the Avengers.

At long last, it appears to be acceptable for grown men to wear Underoos. That’s essentially what Under Armour’s new Alter Ego line of Avengers-theme shirts and leggings is, isn’t it?

The product line includes polyester T-shirts, as well as skin-tight “compression” shirts and leggings that make the wearer resemble superheroes such as Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, and others from the new film Avengers: Age of Ultron. The first Alter Ego products from Under Armour were released in 2013 featuring Super Man and Batman gear, and a new roster of items has been timed to coincide with the latest Avengers movie hitting theaters on May 1. The options include a $59.99 shirt that makes you look like the Hulk, complete with faux six-pack abs, and unlike the original Underoos for kids, Alter Ego gear is made in adult sizes and is intended for the world to see rather than serving as mere undergarments.

Avengers’ costume designers actually worked with Under Armour for the new film, and in what seems to be some brilliant product placement the company’s “tactical gear” is worn by superheroes in the movie. If a shirt is good enough for Captain America, Thor, and Tony Stark, after all, it must be more than adequate for your workout at the gym, right? Here’s a little about how Under Armour was incorporated into Age of Ultron:

The partnership with the surefire blockbuster hit movie is the latest in an incredibly hot streak for Under Armour. When 21-year-old golfing phenom (and UA client) Jordan Speith recently won the Masters, it was estimated that the exposure was tantamount to $33.6 million in advertising. Meanwhile, another high-profile Under Armour athlete, Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, is on everyone’s short list for regular season MVP in the NBA, and yet another (New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady) started the year by grabbing the Super Bowl MVP while leading his team to the championship.

Oh, and about the same the Patriots were winning the Super Bowl, Under Armour was releasing a product line featuring one of the greatest and most famous athletes of the 20th century: Muhammad Ali.

To recap, Under Armour has got some of the best and most popular players in sports on their side, as well as “The Greatest” period. And now, with the Age of Ultron partnership, the company has teamed up with the Hulk, Thor, and Captain America. No wonder Under Armour seems capable of convincing grown men that they want to dress up like superheroes, and pay $60 for T-shirts while they’re at it.

To be fair, Under Armour isn’t the only apparel company playing the superhero card to an adult audience. Sets of actual adult-sized Underoos (briefs and T-shirts) in varieties like Batman, He-Man, and Captain America went on sale last fall and promptly sold out in a few hours.

Call us crazy, but we’re partial to the original, just-for-kids Underoos like the ones advertised in this classic commercial:

MORE: 12 Things Made for Kids That Are Now Marketed to Adults

MONEY deals

Long-Lasting LED Bulbs Now 90% Cheaper

Philips bulb
Philips

A new lightbulb from Philips, combined with a special deal from Home Depot, means that efficient bulbs with a 10-year lifespan cost as little as $2.50 apiece. Similar bulbs cost $25 or more not long ago.

Around Earth Day 2013, the average price of an LED lightbulb with the equivalent brightness of a 60W incandescent bulb was about $25. The average American house has roughly 40 lightbulbs, so upgrading your home to LED cost a cool $1,000.

But, as with virtually every emerging tech and consumer product, prices for LED bulbs have dropped steadily as manufacturing has ramped up and the products have been embraced in the mainstream. When This Old House published a guide to LED bulbs a year ago, most of the 60W equivalent bulbs it recommended sold at retail for $20, some went as high as $35, and one outlier was priced at a comparatively cheap $10. Manufacturers and retailers have also periodically used coupons and rebates to further bring down the cost and tempt consumers into into buying unfamiliar, non-incandescent bulbs.

Now, during Earth Day week, Philips Lighting has introduced a long-lasting LED bulb that’s simply “Too Cheap to Ignore,” as Wired put it. The 60W equivalent bulb will sell at retail for $4.97, no coupon or rebate required. What’s more, starting May 1, Home Depot will be selling two-packs for a limited time for that same $4.97.

So essentially these efficient bulbs, which have a 10-year lifespan and are expected to add just $1.02 to your annual utility bill, cost slightly less than $2.50 apiece. Remember, two years ago the typical price of a similar bulb on the market was $25. Prices have come down by a factor of ten in a remarkably short period of time, and the total cost of outfitting your home with LED bulbs can run as little as $100, rather than the $1,000 outlay a couple of years ago.

It’s been estimated that 70% of lightbulbs in the U.S. are inefficient models—usually old-fashioned incandescent bulbs. But government regulations improving the energy efficiency of bulbs are more or less phasing out the usage of incandescent bulbs. A few years ago, some shoppers were buying up all the incandescent bulbs they could find out of fear they wouldn’t be available in the future—and that they’d be stuck with overpriced alternatives that some deemed inferior. As the cost of innovative bulbs has declined and quality has improved, however, the argument in favor of old-school, inefficient incandescents has been harder to make.

For instance, Home Depot still has 40-watt and 60-watt Philips incandescent bulbs for sale, and at $3 and $4, respectively, for a two-pack they’re cheaper than the new LED bulb offer. Yet the incandescent bulbs have an expected lifespan of 1.5 to 2.7 years, compared with 10 years for the new 60W-equivalent LED bulbs. What’s more, the estimated energy cost of using the 60-watt incandescent bulb is $7.23, compared with $1.02 for the LED bulb.

Overall, now that LED retail prices have come down so substantially, there isn’t much debate about which option provides more value. Clearly, in this instance, paying a little more upfront will save you money in the long run.

MONEY Leisure

Legal Pot Prices Keep Getting Cheaper

A view of the screen of a ZaZZZ vending machine that contains cannabis flower, hemp-oil energy drinks, and other merchandise at Seattle Caregivers, a medical marijuana dispensary, in Seattle, Washington February 3, 2015. Vending machines selling medical marijuana opened for business in Seattle on Tuesday, in what the company providing them billed as a first-in-the-state innovation that it expects to expand to other cities and states where pot is legal as medicine.
David Ryder—Reuters A view of the screen of a ZaZZZ vending machine that contains cannabis flower, hemp-oil energy drinks, and other merchandise at Seattle Caregivers, a medical marijuana dispensary, in Seattle, Washington February 3, 2015.

The price of legal recreational marijuana is down to an average of $12 per gram in Washington state lately. Last summer, it was as high as $30 per gram.

One justification for making recreational marijuana legal in Colorado, Washington, and perhaps elsewhere soon is the hope that it will help put an end to the black market, which is unregulated and untaxed and has been known to involve gangs, drug cartels, and crime far beyond the low-level dealing of weed. But it’ll be all but impossible to stop the black market if its prices are substantially cheaper than rates on the up-and-up.

Last year, when recreational marijuana sales opened in Washington, prices were often $400 or more per ounce, typically breaking down to $25 and even as much as $30 per gram. The cost of taxes and regulation were partly responsible for the high price of Washington weed last summer. But an even larger factor was simply that supply was too low; sellers couldn’t get their hands on enough legal marijuana from licensed growers to keep up with marketplace demand.

By the start of 2015, however, the state’s marijuana’s shortages were a thing of the past. Bloomberg News reported in January that average prices were down to $15 per gram in Washington pot shops.

And prices keep getting cheaper. This week, the Seattle Times pointed to new data from the state Liquor Control Board (LCB) that indicated the average per-gram retail price for pot in Washington had dropped to $12 in early April. “The agency was charged with creating a recreational system competitive with the gray and illicit markets,” a Washington LCB spokesperson explained. “We thought if we could get it to 12 dollars a gram, we would be competitive, and we got there in a matter of months.”

Legal marijuana prices in Washington are not cheaper than the black market, at least not yet. But legal prices are certainly in the same ballpark. While black market prices for pot vary widely, $10 per gram is a commonly cited figure. According to the website, PriceofWeed.com, which allows anyone to submit sample marijuana prices where they live, the average price for medium-quality product throughout the U.S. is $257 per ounce, which breaks down to $16 per gram. In Washington and Oregon, the average of prices submitted by users comes to around $11 to $12 per gram. This is hardly scientific data, but gives some indication that legal prices are fairly competitive with that of the black market.

This may seem surprising. After all, black market operators do business under the table. They aren’t taxed or subject to the costly regulations of legal growers and vendors. And yet, as Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, explained to my colleague Jake Davidson last summer, black market sellers must cope with a multitude of factors that make doing business costly and full of hassles: “If you have to hide, you have to pay premium wages because people risk going to prison,” said Kleiman. “You can’t invest in expensive fixed tech because you’re worried about a raid.”

Legal vendors, of course, have no such concerns, and therefore have a competitive advantage over their black market counterparts.

MONEY Autos

Cheap Gas Helps Pull the Plug on Electric Cars

2014 Chevy Spark EV
GM 2014 Chevy Spark EV

Sales of the Nissan Leaf and other electric cars have dipped thus far in 2015, and automakers have resorted to price cuts to boost interest in plug-ins.

How does the price of gas correlate to electric car sales? One might reasonably assume that the higher gas prices go, the more likely battery-powered vehicles are to appeal to the masses. When gas prices are cheap, on the other hand, interest in electric cars would tend to fade, as the difference in the cost of charging versus fueling up shrinks.

Jessica Caldwell, director of industry analysis at Edmunds.com, has said that gas prices “certainly” have an effect on electric car sales. This week, Edmunds released some data that may seem particularly alarming to green car enthusiasts: Thus far in 2015, 22% of owners who traded in hybrid or electric cars did so while buying an SUV; only 12% did such as swap three years ago.

“For better or worse, it looks like many hybrid and EV owners are driven more by financial motives rather than a responsibility to the environment,” Caldwell said in a press release timed to coincide with Earth Day. “Three years ago, when gas was at near-record highs, it was a lot easier to rationalize the price premiums on alternative fuel vehicles. But with today’s gas prices as low as they are, the math just doesn’t make a very compelling case.”

Edmunds is hardly the only auto industry observer to take note of how low gas prices affect car purchases. John Krafcik, the former CEO of Hyundai Motor America and current president of the car-buying website TrueCar.com, explained to NPR, “During months when gas prices are low, less fuel-efficient cars tend to take a greater share of the market and vice versa. It’s a fairly one-to-one relationship.”

Yet other data indicates that falling gas prices have little, or perhaps no, impact on sales of electric vehicles. The Los Angeles Times pointed out that plug-in EV sales were up 3% in January 2015—when the national average price for a gas was a cheap $2 per gallon—compared with sales in January 2014. Sales of the plug-in Nissan Leaf remained strong last fall and hit a record high for 2014, even as gas prices plunged and fuel-efficient hybrids like the Toyota Prius struggled to win over buyers. Some electric car enthusiasts have therefore concluded that “gas prices don’t affect electric car sales,” or that there is “zero correlation” between gas prices and plug-in electric vehicle sales.

Let’s look at how things have played out over the past few months, however, during a time when gas has remained cheap, and when forecasts indicate that prices at the pump will stay low for some time to come.

Indeed, EV sales in January 2015 surpassed the same month in 2014, and sales in the first three months of this year are above the corresponding period from 2014. According to Inside EVs data, 23,339 plug-in cars were purchased in the U.S. from January to March 2015, compared with 22,671 for the same three months in 2014. Yet 2015’s total includes 2,681 sales of the BMW i3, a vehicle that wasn’t on the market during the same period in 2014. What’s more, sales of the $70K+ Tesla—which, presumably, few buy for the sake of saving money on fuel—have taken off lately. Through March 2015, an estimated 4,700 Tesla Model S vehicles have sold, compared to 3,500 a year ago. Remove the i3 and the Model S from the equation, and EV sales in 2015 have fallen behind the 2014 pace.

Notably, the world’s best-selling electric car, the Nissan Leaf, is in a sales slump. Just over 4,000 Leaf purchases have been made in the U.S. during the first three months of 2015, down more than 20% compared with roughly 5,200 for the corresponding period a year ago. The #2 best-selling plug-in, the gas-electric hybrid Chevy Volt, has fared even worse: The prospect of the forthcoming 2016 redesign, as well as anticipation of the long-range Chevy Bolt down the road, seems to have dampened enthusiasm for the current Volt. Sales are down roughly 50% compared with last year, and Chevy announced it would halt production of the Volt in May with the hopes of clearing out a backlog on dealership lots.

A couple of other GM electric cars are showing obvious signs of weakness as well. Cadillac just cut the price of the ELR plug-in hybrid, while Chevy dropped the price of the Spark EV—essentially bringing the takeaway cost to under $15,000 in some places once incentives are factored in—and has also begun offering leases for as little as $139 per month.

That’s “cheaper than the average family’s monthly phone bill,” as Kelley Blue Book’s Karl Brauer put it in a USA Today story. “Automakers are doing what they can to get these vehicles out of showrooms and into consumers’ hands.”

It’s foolish to say that the price of gas is the only reason more people aren’t buying these cars. Still, the cheap price of gas can only hurt the case for owning such a vehicle.

As for what’s the smartest approach when it comes to deciding which car to go with, it’s unwise to buy into an idea just because it happens to be trendy at the time, just as it’s unwise to make a big-ticket purchase based on the price of gas at any given time. Most car buyers expect to own their vehicles for the long haul, and they should fully expect gas prices to fluctuate over the years. Edmunds.com put it this way: “The best rule of thumb is that the longer you intend to keep a vehicle, the less you should rely on the present price of fuel when determining whether your budget can handle the monthly operating costs.”

MONEY sustainability

10 Super Easy Practices That Are Good for the Earth—and Your Budget

In honor of Earth Day, here are 10 incredibly easy things we should all be doing: They're good for the environment and save money at the same time.

Taking major steps like installing rooftop solar panels or buying an electric car are hardly the only ways to go green. It’s very possible to practice an earth-friendly lifestyle without incurring a major cost outlay. In fact, tons of tiny, easy tweaks to what you do and what you buy day in, day out can not only help the environment, they’ll save you money as a bonus. Here are 10 green cost-saving practices for Earth Day—and every day.

  • Walk or Bike

    Capital Bikeshare, Washington, D.C.
    James A. Parcell—The Washington Post via Getty Images Capital Bikeshare, Washington, D.C.

    Cities and even many small towns are increasingly focused on becoming more walkable and bike-friendly. So why not take advantage? Obviously, neither of these modes of transportation requires the use of fossil fuels or electricity. They’re also free or nearly so. Depending on where you live, you might not even have to buy a bike: The bike share program in Washington, D.C., for instance, costs $75 per year and rides are free if they last 30 minutes or less. (Check out MONEY’s ranking of the Best Places to Walk or Bike.)

  • Group Errands Together

    150420_EM_EarthDay_GroupErrands
    Getty Images—Getty Images

    You could take separate car trips to go grocery shopping, get the oil changed in the car, and visit the doctor for an annual checkup. Or you could combine them into one outing, in a process some call “trip chaining,” which is as simple—or challenging, for some—as being a little more organized and efficient. By planning ahead and grouping errands, you save time and gas money and reduce congestion on the roads.

  • Use Public Transportation

    150420_EM_EarthDay_MassTransit
    Craig Warga—Bloomberg via Getty Images New York subway

    Some parts of the country have better public transit than others, and surveys indicate that people—millennials especially—place a high priority on living in cities with good options for getting around. This makes sense for a number of reasons. According to a study on commuter satisfaction, people who get to work on foot, bike, or via train are happiest. These options are not only more affordable compared with driving, the time of one’s commute is more consistent and therefore less stressful. Check out the tools at PublicTransportation.org to scope out transit options and see how much money and carbon emissions you could save by using public transportation in your neck of the woods.

  • Drink Tap Water

    150420_EM_EarthDay_WaterBottle2
    Alamy

    Americans spent roughly $13 billion on bottled water last year, up 6% from 2013. We’re drinking roughly 34 gallons of bottled water annually per capita, up from just 1.6 gallons in 1976. Granted, this is a much healthier option than sugary beverages, but is bottled water any better for us than tap water? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, tap water is completely safe; many bottled waters are just tap water that’s sometimes (but not always) filtered. And bottled water easily costs 100 times or perhaps even 1,000 times more than tap water. Only an estimated 23% of disposable plastic water bottles are recycled, by the way.

  • Shop with Reusable Bags

    canvas bag
    Getty Images

    The environmental benefits of shopping with a reusable bag like these recommended by Real Simple are pretty obvious: They eliminate the need for plastic bags that tend to wind up in landfills. Shopping with a reusable bag may also save you money, because stores in places like Dallas and Encinitas, Calif., charge customers 5¢ or 10¢ apiece for non-reusable bags.

  • Don’t Overdo It on Groceries

    shopping list
    Getty Images

    Somewhere between 25% and 40% of the food we buy in the U.S. is thrown away. What this shows is that too many of us buy too much at supermarkets and warehouse bulk-supply retailers, and/or that we’re not particularly good at strategically freezing or concocting leftover dishes. To waste less, shop smarter and be creative with foods that might otherwise be dumped in the trash. And to avoid going overboard with impulse purchases at the grocery store, always make a shopping list in advance, and stick to it.

  • Heat and Cool Your Home Wisely

    Insulation
    Jonathan Maddock—Getty Images

    Among the many straightforward and fairly simple steps you can take to trim back household costs and conserve resources: Turn the heat down in winter (you’ll shave 1% off your heating bill for every 1 degree lower); use fans rather than nonstop A/C in the summer; insulate around doors and windows to protect from drafts; and put heating and cooling systems on a timer so that they’re only in use when needed.

  • Use Energy-Efficient Lightbulbs, Appliances

    150420_EM_EarthDay_Lightbulb
    Alamy

    They tend to cost more upfront than less efficient models. But they’ll save you money in the long run because they eat up less electricity when being used, and, at least in terms of lightbulbs, they have longer lifespans so therefore have to be replaced less frequently. As for appliances, look for the Energy Star label as a sign of a product’s efficiency—and its potential to shave dollars off your utility bills.

  • Be Practical About Landscaping

    cactuses outside home
    Trinette Reed—Getty Images

    It’s not wise to battle against Mother Nature by trying to force flowers, plants, and grasses to grow in areas where they’re simply not suited. A low-cost, low-maintenance yard is one that incorporates native plants and greenery that flourish in your zone, without requiring extensive watering, fertilizer, and attention—nor a big budget. Check out classic tips from This Old House and Better Homes & Gardens for landscaping that’s gorgeous, affordable, and earth-friendly. Don’t fixate on having a prototypical grassy front lawn, which may look good but often requires loads of time, energy, money, water, and chemicals to maintain.

  • Compost

    Dumping compost
    Jill Ferry Photography—Getty Images

    Many towns give residents free or deeply subsidized composters, and using one is generally as simple as dumping vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, fallen leaves, grass clippings, and such into the bin. The resulting material can be help your garden and new plants grow, and eliminate much of the need to water and buy fertilizers and pesticides. Composting reduces the amount of waste in landfills as well, of course. (Even apartment dwellers can get in on the act with vermicomposting, or composting with worms.)

MONEY Taxes

8 Reasons Your Property Taxes Are So Damn High

150420_EM_PropertyTax
Lisa Corson—Gallery Stock Tourism keeps Las Vegas' property taxes low. New Jersey homeowners have no such luck.

Income taxes are probably top of mind right about now. But for many homeowners, high property taxes are an issue year-round. What's to explain why property taxes are such a burden in certain parts of the country?

A Monmouth University survey released last fall showed that more than half of New Jersey residents want to leave at some point, with 26% saying that it’s “very likely” they’ll move away from the Garden State. The most popular reasons cited for were the costs of housing and property taxes—the high cost of property taxes in particular. “The chief culprit among these costs is the New Jersey’s property tax burden,” Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, explained.

New Jersey isn’t the only state at risk of losing residents to Florida, Pennsylvania, or another state with lower taxes. Stories pop up regularly speculating about the likelihood of homeowners jumping ship from high-tax states like New York and Connecticut as well.

Why is it that some states and municipalities have much higher property tax than their neighbors in the first place? Here’s a rundown of a few major factors.

The community has good schools. Or at least extremely well-funded ones. According to Zillow, the median residential property tax bill in New York’s Westchester County is $13,842, highest in the nation. A Westchester Magazine feature focused on why the leafy, desirable county holds this dubious distinction. The piece draws a comparison to Virginia’s Fairfax County, which is similar in many ways to Westchester: They’re both suburbs of big cities (New York and Washington, D.C.), they have similarly high home values, and they educate about the same number of students in public schools, which in both places have a good reputation.

Yet Westchester spends over $1 billion more to fund its schools, and since property taxes cover the lion’s share of that bill, there’s a big disparity in what homeowners pay. The average residential property tax bill is about $5,500 annually, less than half of what Westchester residents pay (people in Fairfax still complain about property taxes being too high).

The average teacher salary in Fairfax was roughly $67,000 in 2014. In Westchester, the average was estimated at $88,000 in 2013. Benefits and administrative costs add up too—Fairfax County has one superintendent, Westchester has 40—and collectively they translate into bigger burdens on Westchester’s property owners. Defenders of high educator salaries always note that they’re necessary given the high cost of living in the area, and it’s a valid point. After all, teachers, principals, and superintendents must pay local property taxes!

State workers make good money too. By most measures, New Jersey homeowners have the country’s highest property taxes. Tax Foundation data shows that the Garden State has the highest effective property tax rate (percentage of home value) and the highest property taxes per capita. The average property tax bill in the state hit $8,161 in 2014, also tops in the U.S. In fact, one study indicates that less than 1% of American homeowners pay more than $8,000 annually in property taxes.

An Asbury Park Press op-ed published last summer noted that a big reason for the state’s high property taxes is how much the state pays its workers:

The problem lies less with layers of government and excessive numbers of government workers providing services than with the generous salaries and benefits of those who are on the public payroll. Average state worker salaries: highest in the nation. Average teacher salaries: third highest. Public employee health benefit costs: second highest in the nation.

Your state relies heavily on property taxes. The above-referenced editorial also points out that 48% of state and local revenues collected in N.J. come from property taxes, which is off-the-charts high: “No other state derives more than 41 percent of its revenue from that source; the U.S. average is 33.1 percent.”

This state of affairs would be more acceptable to locals if the tradeoff for high property taxes is low taxation in other areas. Indeed, New Jersey has one of the country’s lowest gas taxes, and it’s in the middle of the pack in terms of taxes on wine, spirits, and beer. Unlike many other states, people in New Jersey don’t pay any vehicle property taxes either. Then again, New Jerseyans do pay the second highest state sales tax rate (7%, only California is higher).

Little or no tourism. A recent WalletHub study named Hawaii as the state with the lowest property taxes. New Jersey property taxes are eight times higher than their counterparts in the Aloha State. And a big reason why homeowners get off (relatively) easy in Hawaii is that the state collects so much from outsiders, thanks to high taxes on hotels and other tourism expenses. Likewise, taxes paid by casinos and tourists in Nevada are often credited as a reason why state property taxes aren’t high.

Little or no industry. The more that industrial and commercial businesses pay in taxes in a state or town, the less it’s necessary for homeowners to cover the government’s tab. According to the Wyoming Taxpayer Association, 69% of property taxes in the state are paid by mineral production businesses. Therefore, residential property taxes can remain low—the state has no income tax either. The city of Marlborough, Mass., recently estimated that it were it not for local commercial taxpayers, the average homeowner would see his property tax bill (now averaging $4,791) shoot up by $1,164 per year.

Your property is worth a bundle. Your property tax bill is based on multiplying the local tax rate times the assessed value of your home. So, generally speaking, the owners of more valuable homes pay more in property taxes. Marin County has the most expensive real estate in California, on average, so it should come as no surprise that it has the highest (or among the highest) average property taxes too. In New Jersey, the 10 towns with the highest property tax bills all averaged over $18,000 per year, and five out of the ten had average residential property values over $1 million.

Or it’s not worth much at all. A recent RealtyTrac report shows that nationwide, the highest property tax rates were for high-end homes, valued between $2 million and $5 million. That’s not surprising. What is somewhat of a shock, however, is that the second highest effective property tax rate—calculated based on a percentage of a home’s value—was for houses at the extreme low end of the value spectrum, assessed at under $50,000 or less. Granted, owners at the low end aren’t paying big bucks, but in terms of the percentage of the home’s value, property tax rates represent a disproportionate burden.

Your assessment was too high. There may not be much you can do to change your local tax rate—other than move, of course. But you can challenge the assessment on your property. If your appeal results in a lower assessment, your tax bill goes down as well. The National Taxpayers Union estimates that somewhere between 30% and 60% of properties are over-assessed. This guide to disputing your property taxes from This Old House has some of the best advice on the topic we could find.

MONEY deals

Freebie Frenzy! It’s Peak Season for Free Stuff

Crowds watch the eruption of Castle Geyser in Yellowstone National Park.
Lisa Corson—Gallery Stock Crowds watch the eruption of Castle Geyser in Yellowstone National Park.

If you love getting free stuff—ice cream, pretzels, milkshakes, cookies, burgers, coffee, park admissions—you are loving life right about now.

Freebie promotions pop up throughout the year. Donut Day giveaways are always in early June, free Slurpees are slurped up on 7-Eleven Day (held, of course, on July 11), National Coffee Day is in late September, IHOP hosts a free pancake day every March, and so on. The calendar is sprinkled with all manner of fake holidays and their corresponding giveaways and marketing promotions.

But sometimes the deals are clumped together in what amounts to a freebie frenzy. Were are in the midst of just such a period—Peak Freebie if you will.

Freebie momentum began ramping up roughly a month ago, with Dairy Queen and Rita’s dishing out free ice cream and free Italian ices, respectively. Things really picked up steam last week, with back-to-back-to-back giveaways of ice cream (at Ben & Jerry’s), coffee (Wawa), and all manner of foods and services (to soften the blow of Tax Day).

And the fast and furious freebie gravy train isn’t over yet. Not by a long shot. Here are more freebies to take advantage of in the very near future:

• The National Park Service kicks off National Parks Week with free admission for all visitors on Saturday and Sunday, April 18-19.

• In honor of Earth Day (Wednesday, April 22), the giveaways include free organic milkshakes at the chain of Evos cafes and free kids crafts at Anthropologie stores.

• Between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. on Thursday, April 23, all Jamba Juice customers are welcomed to order their choice of a free classic smoothie or juice.

• National Pretzel Day is Sunday, April 26, with freebies available from Pretzel Maker, Auntie Anne’s, and Wetzel’s Pretzels.

• Tuesday, April 28, is being celebrated as Hero Appreciation Day at Krispy Kreme, and anyone who purchases a dozen original glazed donuts gets a second dozen for free. The Krispy Kreme offer is being promoted as a way to celebrate the heroes in your life. But if you show up at home or the office with two dozen donuts, we all know who will be looked at like the real hero.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com