TIME Workplace & Careers

7 Ways to Get Ahead at Work Before the New Year

160002679
Coworkers in discussion at conference room table Thomas Barwick—Getty Images

7 things you must do before January

You have a little more than a month to go before the end of the year, so make the most of it. Experts say these are the important things to get done now if you want to start your career in the new year off on the right foot:

List your wins. Think of the best three things you accomplished over the last year and write them down, says career coach and personal branding strategist Pamela Weinberg. “Having these accomplishments on paper will help you to be able to better articulate your strengths when you get a review, or bonus,” she says. And if you’re looking for a new job, you’ve just written a couple of your resume bullet points.

Deliver bad news. If you manage other workers, this is the time to have any hard conversations you’ve been putting off. “Think about needed discussions with your subordinates concerning ongoing work,” says career coach Todd Dewett. “What needs to be improved that you’ve noticed but not addressed?” Be as specific as possible so the employee knows how to improve in the new year.

Brace for change. “Companies are constantly evolving,” says Margaret Spence, an expert panelist at the Society for Human Resource Management. “This work economy doesn’t allow you to be stagnant in your career.” The end of the year is a great time to look ahead and figure out what you’re going to need to know for the coming year. Is the company shifting to a new tech platform or implementing a new process? Are there any legal or regulatory changes the new year will bring that will change how you do your job? Get out in front of these changes in advance, Spence advises.

Get people’s contact info. “Get in touch with people who are leaving [or] moving to new roles,” says Patti Johnson, author of Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life. Get their personal phone number and email address so you can stay in touch, and make plans for an initial meet-up or get together now so you already have networking opportunities on your calendar for the new year.

Check in with your boss. “If you’ve signaled interest in a role shift or promotion and it’s been six months or more, it’s time to initiate conversation once again,” Dewett says. “You want to go into the new year with clarity about where to invest the bulk of your networking efforts — internally or externally.”

Plan on education. Consider your professional development and determine what skills you’ll need to make it to the next rung on the corporate ladder, Weinberg advises. Maybe a public speaking course or participation in an industry conference might give you the boost you need. “December is often a slow time business-wise so take some time to research how you might gain the skills you need to reach your 2015 career goals,” she says. Bonus: By getting a jump on this process, you won’t need to worry about a course or event selling out before you can sign up.

Say thanks. “It’s a great time to write hand-written personal notes of appreciation,” says career coach Glo Harris. She’s not referring to holiday cards, although those are important, too. The intent of this is to say thanks to standout clients, mentors and others. “Do the same with your team,” Harris says. Acknowledge what you appreciate about your colleagues — and be specific.

TIME Saving & Spending

The Disastrous Black Friday Mistake You Must Avoid

Money in jeans pocket
Image Source—Getty Images

Shop smarter—or else pay for the consequences

Going into the holiday season with a budget is a good start, but it might not be good enough. A new study shows that misestimating how much of a deal they’ll get on Black Friday and underestimating how long it will take them to pay off their holiday splurges will cost American shoppers.

According to the National Retail Federation, the average holiday shopper spent a little less than $770 last year. It predicts a total increase in Americans’ holiday spending of just over 4% for this year.

But shoppers could find themselves with sticker shock, a new study from NerdWallet.com warns. And middle-class shoppers could bear the brunt of it. According to a survey conducted by Harris Poll for NerdWallet, families in the $50,000 to $75,000 income bracket won’t pay off their debts for an average of nearly three months. Poorer families will pay off their debts a little more quickly, in an average of two months.

Odds are, even these estimations are optimistic. Other studies show that people tend to take longer to pay off their holiday bills than they anticipate. And, odds are, many of these shoppers aren’t starting from scratch but adding onto an existing balance — one that averages nearly $16,000, based on NerdWallet’s look at household credit card debt.

And the cost of servicing that debt keeps going up. The average APR on a general-use credit card is a tick under 16%, according to Bankrate.com. For store cards — you know, the kind many of us open over the holidays to get the one-day discount on purchases — it’s even higher. They have an average APR of over 23%, higher if you have marginal credit.

New data from Experian shows that more of us are signing up for those store cards and the higher rates they charge; both the amount we borrow and the number of cards we have has risen over the past year.

“Middle-class households can fall into a costly situation this holiday season, where they’ve been extended ample credit but have incomes too thin to comfortably pay the bills later,” warns NerdWallet senior retail analyst Matthew Ong. “Many are still struggling to reconcile a typically middle-class standard of living with stagnant incomes,” he says.

Adding insult to injury, NerdWallet also finds that those Black Friday deals many of us think we’re going to score might not be so hot after all.

In an analysis of 27 major retailers’ ads, more than 90% of them listed “sale” prices identical to last year’s Black Friday prices. This isn’t always apparent at a quick glance; the site found that retailers use tricks like misleading original prices and make shoppers jump through hoops like requiring mail-in rebates.

TIME Careers & Workplace

7 Essential Rules For Texting at Work

143383028
Go ahead, text. Blend Images - REB Images—Getty Images/Brand X

Here's how to "speak text" on the job

If you see young people at work texting all the time, don’t assume they’re chatting with friends.

Roughly one in seven millennials in a recent survey said they prefer text messaging over other methods of communication at work. Given this demographic’s size and rising clout in the workforce, this means one thing: If you don’t already text with your co-workers, it’s probably only a matter of time.

The problem is, there isn’t a lot of guidance around what, for most people, is a casual form of communication, says Jason Dorsey, chief strategy officer at the Center for Generational Kinetics. “Many employee manuals and orientations don’t cover texting at work, which makes knowing what to do or not to do all the more stressful,” he says.

So, we asked experts in workplace communications, human resources and millennial behavior to weigh in with some rules for texting at work. Here’s what they say:

Ask first. Just because you have a colleague’s mobile number doesn’t give you carte blanche to fire off a thumb-typed note, especially when it comes to your boss, Dorsey says. “Your company may have a policy or compliance issues that says texting is not allowed,” he points out. Plus, it’s entirely possible the recipient might find the communication intrusive instead of imperative.

Skip the salutations. “It’s fine to leave out formalities, best wishes, kind regards-type wording in text messages and get straight to the point,” says Matt Mickiewicz, CEO of job-search site Hired.com. If you’re not certain if the recipient will recognize your mobile number, it’s fine to start off with, “Hi, it’s so-and-so,” but that’s it.

Keep it brief.Texting is an interruption driven communications, less intrusive than calling, but more than an email correspondence,” says Praful Shah, senior vice president of strategy at cloud-based phone company RingCentral. “Only text when response time is important.”

Know when to kill it. “Texts should be used to share a key piece of information or ask a short question,” says Paul Wolfe, senior vice president of human resources at job-search site Indeed.com. They’re not meant for hashing out complicated situations or providing tons of detail.

“If it takes more than three text messages to answer your question, stop texting and call them,” Dorsey says.

Abbreviate judiciously, spell correctly. In general, you can get away with commonly used abbreviations, Dorsey says. That is, unless your boss spells everything out, in which case — sorry — you should, too. The brief nature of text messages means that truncated grammar is generally OK, but it’s still important to make sure your spelling is correct.

Reply promptly. “Since texting should be much more brief than an email, it should be easy to respond to more quickly than an email,” Wolfe says. Put it in the same category of communications as an instant message, and reply accordingly.

No emoticons. Just — no. Save that for chats with your friends or your kids, not the person who signs your paycheck.

TIME Saving & Spending

The Problem With Millennials, In One Staggering Statistic

137470615
KC Photography—Getty Images/Flickr RF

It's almost unbelievably bad

New data about how much debt today’s students are graduating college with just came out. The results are ugly, but that’s not the worst of it.

The Project on Student Debt conducted by The Institute for College Access & Success says the average debt load carried by last year’s crop of four-year nonprofit college grads is $28,400. That number is several hundred dollars higher than last year and roughly ten grand more than the average a decade ago. Roughly seven in 10 students today graduate with debt, a figure that has ticked up in that time period, as well.

This number would likely be even higher if for-profit colleges, which were included in previous tallies but left out this year because many failed to provide data, were included, since their students tend to leave school burdened with debt at a higher rate — 88% indebted with at average of nearly $40,000 in 2012.

That’s bad — but that’s not the problem. You might think these young adults would be worried about paying off a new car’s worth of debt they’d accrued before getting their first full-time job.

Nope.

A new study from Junior Achievement USA and PwC US conducted by Ypulse finds that 24% of millennials think their student loans will be forgiven.

“It’s a scary statistic,” Junior Achievement president Jack Kosakowski tells CNBC. The survey doesn’t explore why roughly a quarter of young people have such an optimistic — and for the majority, unrealistic — expectation.

In many cases, the payments they expect to be forgiven are significant. “Loan payments are also rising, taking a significant chunk out of Millennials’ pay checks when it comes time to pay up post-graduation,” the report accompanying the survey says. “One-third of those with student loans are shelling out over $300 per month and five percent are actually paying more than $1,000 per month.”

Although 60% of respondents to the PwC/JA survey say financial aid is a consideration in their school choice, the survey also finds that today’s high school seniors are relying on an average of just over $8,200 in contributions from their parents and more than $6,600 in student loans to help fund their first year’s tuition. Their average contribution from savings or earnings: less than $1,400. (These students also spent almost $200 of their own money, on average, on back-to-school shopping. School supplies, followed by clothes, were the most common purchases.)

Got a family? Want more to talk about with them? Click here to find out more about the new Time for Family subscription

TIME

This Is How the Big Mac Is About to Change

McDonalds Campaign
A McDonald's Big Mac sandwich at a McDonald's restaurant in Robinson Township, Pa. on Jan. 21, 2014. Gene J. Puskar—AP

And other popular fast food menu items

The fast-food industry was an especially vocal critic of minimum-wage legislation, but voters essentially drowned them out last week. New laws in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota will raise their minimum wages to between $8.50 and $9.75 over the next few years. (The federal minimum wage is $7.25.)

People made dire predictions about the fate of your favorite drive-thru indulgences. Last year, an article in Bloomberg Businessweek predicted that the price of a Big Mac would go up by a dollar if the minimum wage was raised to $15 an hour. (None of the state-level new minimum wage laws call for increasing it that much, but $15 is the number union-backed labor groups have been campaigning for.)

“Our concern remains that there is no way to raise the minimum wage without raising the cost,” Gwyneth Borden, director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, told the San Francisco Business Journal immediately after the election. San Franciscans passed legislation to raise their minimum wage to $15 on Election Day.

Now that the dust has settled, fast-food publication QSRWeb.com steps in and explores how its industry will cope. The short version: It will survive, and while you might see higher prices here and there, there won’t be any huge price spikes for which you can blame higher minimum wages.

“The customer will have to pay a few pennies more for their normal order,” Gary Wilkerson, president of a Sonic franchise, tells QSRWeb. “But we’re going to try to do everything we can in our business to try and prevent that.”

Restaurant analysts agree. “I think the customer’s not going to see much in the way of price increases,” says Bob Goldin, executive vice president of restaurant research company Technomic. “I think they’ll do things to counterbalance the need to take price [like] reducing portion size, using less expensive ingredients where they can.”

The increase in beef prices is a bigger issue, says Paul Pendola, manager of Menu Insights at market research firm Mintel. “We’ll see less beef, more less-expensive proteins and protein alternatives,” he predicts.

What else can diners expect? Skimpier combo meals, Pendola says. Some restaurants are already experimenting with leaving beverages out of combo pricing. Regular but low-profit menu items will become limited-time offerings or could disappear entirely.

Descriptions could get vaguer, Pendola says. For instance, “beef meatball” could become just “meatball,” which gives operators more flexibility to swap in pork or some other cheaper meat. They could cut back on the amount of bacon in certain dishes, or make it an optional add-on, he says.

What customers are unlikely to see are big price increases in fast food chains’ flagship products, Goldin says. They want to avoid the bad press, so higher prices are more likely to creep onto the periphery of the menu: fries, sodas and higher-end or specialty offerings could cost more.

Pendola says fast-food menu prices could rise, but it won’t be across the board or across the country, assuming the current piecemeal pattern of minimum wage increases continues. “Pricing will become more variable by state and city as brands will be forced to adjust to local conditions,” he says.

So, drive-thru splurges will survive mostly unscathed, but diners at nicer restaurants might find an unpleasant surprise when they get their bill, says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for market research firm The NPD Group.

“My opinion is that we’re going to be seeing an across the board price increase for many and more full service operators adding a service charge to the check,” she says. Obviously, diners might find this hard to swallow. “They do not feel that they should be paying extra to help meet restaurant operators meet their operating expenses,” Riggs says.

 

 

TIME Careers & Workplace

5 Words That Can Doom Your Career

185927672
Buero Monaco—Getty Images

You've probably been overlooking this all along

“To whom it may concern” — you should never use this bland business-letter greeting in your cover letter.

Like most default modes, “To whom it may concern” is effortless — in other words, lazy. And when you’re job-hunting, that’s not the first impression you want to give. It conveys the message that you couldn’t — or couldn’t be bothered to — figure out the name of the hiring manager who’s going to read it.

“Hiring and the job search have changed dramatically with the advent of new technologies,” says Joe Essenfeld, founder and CEO of recruiting software company Jibe. “It would send a bad message if a job seeker were unable to use simple search tools and social networks to personalize their outreach.”

“It demonstrates that you took initiative and did your homework before deciding to apply to this position,” says Amanda Augustine, job search expert at mobile career network TheLadders.

This probably is going to mean some extra legwork on your part. “Sometimes it is very difficult, if not impossible, to track down those names,” says Art Glover, an expert panelist with the Society for Human Resource Management. But it usually can be done, he adds. “A good web search and a bit of networking and sleuthing will often give you the information,” he says.

Here’s where to look.

Start with the company. You might be able to figure out who you need to reach right from the careers section of the company’s website, Augustine says. “Don’t forget to check out… their career-specific social media accounts and their page on Glassdoor,” she adds.

Try social networks. LinkedIn is a no brainer, but in some cases, you might need to dig a little deeper. “Run an advanced search on your professional social networks and see if you know anyone who currently works or previously worked at your target organization,” Augustine suggests. This person might be able to tell you who the hiring manager is, or maybe pass your application along directly.

Check online job postings. “On some job sites such as TheLadders, the recruiter who posted the job may associate the posting with their account or include their contact information in the body of the job description,” Augustine says.

Pick up the phone. If all else fails? “Go old-school and call the company to find out,” Essenfeld says. Call the main phone line or human resources department. “Putting in a little effort can go a long way,” he says.

Get the HR director’s name. If you can’t track down the hiring manager’s name, you can at least direct your letter to the company’s HR head.

Read next: 27 Pre-Written Templates for Your Toughest Work Emails

TIME

Looking for a Bump in Your Paycheck? Here’s Where to Look

154502639
Geri Lavrov—Getty Images/Flickr RF

These are the jobs and skills companies want

Employers around the country are trying to fill roughly 4.7 million vacant positions, and that number grew by nearly 800,000 between the beginning and middle of 2014.

A whopping 96% of organizations told the Society for Human Resource Management they’ve hired full-time employees over the past year in the group’s new economic conditions survey. Two-thirds have hired part-time workers, and more than half have hired full- or part-time contract workers.

More than 80% of high-tech companies told SHRM they’ve added full-time contract workers. Almost three-fourths of educational services companies have hired part-time temp or contract workers.

Although there has been plenty of commentary about a skills gap in the sciences and technological fields, the positions companies today are trying to fill vary widely. Six in 10 of hiring companies are adding administrative staff, more than half are hiring financial and accounting professionals and about half are looking to fill managerial or executive-level positions. Other hot job categories include IT and HR.

That said, it certainly wouldn’t hurt job-seekers to brush up on their skills. About half of companies today are looking for workers to bring new skills to the replacement jobs they’re filling, a figure that climbs to nearly three-quarters in the technology sector.

This requirement is making it tougher for companies to fill these positions, so applicants who have kept their skills up-to-date will go to the front of the line. Only 4% of companies say that it’s “very easy” today to fill full-time positions that require new skills, a sharp drop from the 16% who gave this response in SHRM’s 2010 survey.

Over that same time frame, the number of organizations who judge it “very difficult” to fill these positions climbed 9 percentage points. This gap is especially acute in manufacturing, where an increased reliance on robotics and high-tech production methods means factory floors offer fewer, but higher-skill jobs.

“The recession eliminated a lot of line jobs that weren’t as skilled,” says Jennifer Schramm, SHRM’s manager of workforce trends. “Now the jobs that remain need to manage those robotics and, of course, that’s a much higher skill set.

Over the past year, roughly two in five companies have increased salaries, and one-third have offered employees bonuses. (Read why that might not be so hot here.)

If you’re looking for a one-time or regular bump in your paycheck, check out jobs in the professional, scientific or technical services field: Nearly half offered either raises or bonuses in the past year.

Other categories where a large number of employers report hiking salaries include manufacturing and high-tech, as well as finance, insurance and real estate. Nearly half of finance, insurance and real estate companies report offering bonuses, too.

More than 80% of hiring companies are replacing jobs that had been previously lost, but there’s plenty of opportunity for job-seekers to forge new ground: More than 60% are hiring for completely new positions, and two-thirds say they’re creating and filling more new positions today than they were a year ago, and over 40% are hiring people to replace existing jobs, but with new duties.

“It looks like getting the right credentials and education are important today and are going to be more important in the future,” Schramm says. Since companies are actually cutting back on how much they invest in worker training and education, that puts the onus on the job-seeker to pay for those certifications or degrees on their own.

Since education is already pricey and getting even more expensive, make sure your educational investment will give you what you need to move ahead in your career. “The trajectory is that more credentials and education are needed today than were in the past across all job categories,” she says.

TIME

5 Holiday Spending Mistakes That Can Kill Your Credit

handing money over
PM Images—Getty Images

This time of year can be brutal on your credit score

Now that the holiday shopping season is here (what, you didn’t know Halloween is the new Black Friday?), companies are pulling out all the stops to get us to spend. But watch out: There are some fairly common holiday spending behaviors that can do a number on your credit score. Here’s what the experts say you need to avoid.

Maxing out your cards. In truth, getting anywhere near your credit limit is a bad idea. “Your credit card utilization rate accounts for nearly a third of your credit score,” says Charles Tran, founder of CreditDonkey.com. This percentage of the credit you’ve used compared to how much you have available should be at 30% or less, and if you’re actively trying to raise your score, you should aim for as little as 10%.

This holds true even if you don’t revolve a balance, Tran says. “Even if you religiously pay off your credit card balance in full, the snapshot that the credit report captures might show a high balance, which has a negative impact,” he says.

Loading up a low-limit card. This is a corollary to not maxing out your cards because your credit is scored based on both your per-card as well as aggregate limits, explains John Ulzheimer, credit expert at CreditSesame.com. “The closer your balance is to your credit limit, the lower your credit scores,” he says. If you put $1,000 on a card with a $1,500 limit, that looks much worse than putting the same amount on a card with a $15,000 limit, he says, even though the amount you’re spending and the total amount of credit you have available hasn’t changed.

Ulzheimer notes this is even more important if you plan to pay off your holiday purchases over a number of months, because this maximizes the amount of time you’ll have a harmfully high ratio on the card.

Opening a slew of store cards. Yes, we know — you’ll get 10% or 15% off, or maybe you’ll even be able to jump that insane line on Black Friday. Opening a bunch of store credit cards is still a bad idea. Every time you apply for credit, your score takes a (small) ding, so making your way through the mall filling out applications can cumulatively have a noticeable effect on your credit score.

Closing a bunch of cards. “It can… be damaging to panic and close credit cards because you’re afraid of overspending for the holidays,” warns Bankrate.com analyst Jeanine Skowronski. If you know you can’t handle the temptation, then go ahead and close cards, but this should be a last resort because it can hurt your score because closing a card takes that credit away from your utilization calculation, she says.

Similarly, a lot of people think they’ll sign up for a store card just to get the one-time discount, pay it off and then cancel it. This is really a double-whammy for your score because you ding your credit profile twice, once when you open the card and again when you close it.

Taking the deferred-interest bait. “One marketing strategy that can get folks in trouble is the delayed interest offer,” says Beverly Harzog, consumer credit expert and author of “Confessions of a Credit Junkie.” Not paying by the end of the grace period or even missing a payment could trigger retroactive interest on your purchase, often at sky-high retail card rates. “You’ll owe the interest that would have been charged during that time period,” Harzog says. Not only does this make that purchase ultimately more expensive, it also increases the likelihood you’ll need to revolve that debt, which hurts your utilization.

TIME Careers & Workplace

Not Taking a Vacation Is Costing You an Insane Amount

201407_SPE_VACATIONBOX
R. Kikuo Johnson

It won’t even help you get a raise.

Last year, American workers walked away from $52.4 billion in unused vacation time, forfeiting a total of 169 million paid days off, according to the U.S. Travel Association. While it’s well-known that American companies are less freewheeling with paid time off than their counterparts in other industrialized countries, it seems that a lot of workers here don’t even take the allotment they do get.

The amount of vacation we take as a nation is at a 40-year low, USTA says. As recently as 2000, the average worker took roughly 20 vacation days a year. By last year, that had fallen to 16 days. For most workers, wages and income have stagnated since the recession. But for all the complaining we do about our paltry paychecks, a lot of us are willing to literally work for free.

By giving up vacation, “U.S. employees are serving as volunteers for their companies,” Adam Sacks, founder and president of the tourism economics division of Oxford Economics, the group that prepared the report, said in a statement. In total, American workers essentially donate just over 1% of their salary back to their companies in the form of vacation days they give up. (Of course the USTA is hoping you’ll take more vacation.)

Another survey, this one conducted by Harris Interactive for the job and salary site Glassdoor, says we only take about half the time off we’re entitled to, and 15% of workers who get vacation don’t take any of it.

People forfeit their vacation for a variety of reasons, Glassdoor found. On a related survey question about people who take vacations only to work through them (which about six in 10 workers do), a third of respondents said they do so because nobody else can do their job, and about 20% said they do so in the hopes of getting a promotion.

The new USTA survey finds, though, that people who don’t take vacations are actually less likely to get ahead in the workplace. People who forfeit between 11 and 15 days are actually 6.5% less likely to get a raise or bonus than colleagues who take all their vacation.

That might be because they’re too stressed to do their jobs well. Survey respondents who leave behind more than two weeks of paid vacation are more likely to say they’re “very” or “extremely” stressed at work. “America’s work martyrs aren’t more successful,” says USTA president and CEO Roger Dow. “All work and no play is not going to get you ahead — it’s only going to get you more stress.”

TIME Careers & Workplace

1 Trick to Remember Even the Most Boring Information

125529676
Katie Black Photography—Getty Images/Flickr RF

If you're not curious, you should be

Facing the unpleasant task of having to commit some dull facts or figures to memory? Now you don’t have to be that person fumbling for their notes or clicking frantically through slides during an important presentation. To kick your ability to recall information into overdrive, try piquing your curiosity, a new study suggests.

People are better at learning and remembering information they’re genuinely interested in, but researchers have discovered that a state of curiosity has a kind of halo effect on other, incidental or unrelated information we’re exposed to at the same time.

An NPR article points out this principle is useful for teachers who want to engage students by framing a lesson as a story or riddle, but as it turns out, the idea also might benefit grown-ups in the workforce.

“I think there are some useful ideas that can come out of our study with regard to adult learning,” says Charan Ranganath, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis and one of the study’s authors, although he does caution that this is speculative.

Ranganath and his co-authors presented experiment subjects with both interesting and incidental information, and watched how these people processed it using MRIs. They found that a state of curiosity stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers.

What’s so special about curiosity that it has such a powerful effect? Ranganath suggests it’s an evolutionary response. “We are starting to think that the feeling of curiosity reflects a natural drive to reduce uncertainty in your understanding of the world,” he says. “So when you know something about a topic, but then find there is a gaping hole in your knowledge, you will feel the itch to get to the bottom of it,” he says.

Ranganath and his colleagues theorize this might be why we’re more receptive to remembering ancillary details unrelated to the object of our curiosity. “Our work suggests that the motivational state of high curiosity can help you more effectively retain what you learn,” he says.

If you’re faced with a memory task that doesn’t grab your attention, Ranganath suggests tricking your brain into engaging with the information by pinpointing a gap in your knowledge about a topic that interests you, then investigating it, before tackling the chore at hand. “If you have to learn something, it is important to stimulate your curiosity,” he says.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser