MONEY credit cards

The Best Credit Cards for Holiday Shopping

credit card purchase of holiday present
Lucas Lenci Photo—Getty Images

'Tis the season to spend! These cards can help take some of the pain out of your purchases by giving you cash back, protection against price drops and extended warranties.

The holiday season is upon us, which means it’s time for you to open your wallet.

The average American expects to spend $781 on presents this year, according to Gallup—the most since 2007. Use the right plastic, though, and you can shave some off that bill, or at least get more for your money.

Below you’ll find the best cards for rewards, price protection and extended warranties. They should make your holiday a little more merry. Ho, ho, ho.

Best for Holiday Rewards

Two no-fee cards—the Discover It and Chase Freedom—are offering Christmas shoppers fat cash back.

From October through December, Discover It cardholders can receive 5% back—on purchases up to $1,500—at online retailers that include Amazon and Zappos, and department stores like Bloomingdale’s and Sears.

Discover also has a robust online shopping portal—ShopDiscover—where its customers can earn additional cash back simply by using the online mall. So combining ShopDiscover’s 10% back from Acehardware.com with the 5% back that the card gives you normally, and you’ll reap $15 on a $100 purchase.

Over the same time period, Chase Freedom also offers shoppers a chance to earn 5% back on up to $1,500 of their holiday gift list.

The Freedom limits online discounts to Amazon and Zappos, but has a varied department store list that includes JCPenney, Kohl’s and Nordstrom. Also, Freedom cardholders usually receive a $100 sign-up bonus—although that’s been bumped up to $200 for a limited time—if you spend $500 in the first three months of opening the card. And you can receive $25 for adding an authorized user and making a purchase within 90 days. So you have the possibility of earning up to $300 by year’s end.

Best For Price Protection

Some issuers and networks offer price protection on certain purchases, meaning they will reimburse you the difference when the price of an item you’ve bought drops within a specific period of time.

“Having managed benefits for an issuer in the past, I can tell you that very few consumers are aware of the coverage they may have,” says Ben Woolsey of CreditCardForum.com. “I would be amazed if one in 100,000 consumers ever makes a claim.”

Not every item is covered (generally not cars or event tickets or anything off eBay), and refund maximums are limited per item and per year. But you can still save yourself some significant dough—not to mention fits of rage—when you see an expensive television you bought at full price go on sale a few days later. Plus, the price protection windows tend to be long enough that if you buy now you’ll be able to take advantage of steep after-holiday discounts.

Citi Price Rewind offers a max refund of $300 per purchase and $1,200 per year, and gives you 60 days to receive the lower price. Unlike Discover and MasterCard Price Protection, you don’t have to keep track of your own purchases, notice if the price drops and submit a claim. Instead you register the item on the Price Rewind site and it notifies you if the price has dropped.

Of the three major protection programs, Discover has the most generous refunds ($500 per claim and $2,500 per year) and the longest time to submit a claim (90 days). MasterCard, meanwhile, gives you 60 days and limits your refunds to $250 per item and four claims a year. For more details on these three major programs, see NerdWallet’s roundup.

A great no-fee rewards card that includes this insurance is MONEY Best Credit Card winner Citi DoubleCash. You’ll receive an unlimited 2% cash back on everything—1% when you swipe the card and 1% when you pay your bill—in addition to a price protection program that requires the least amount of work on your end.

Best for Extended Warranties

Are you among the 31% of consumers who buy extended warranty programs each year? Well, skip that expensive insurance—MONEY generally doesn’t think the plans are worth the price they go for anyway—and use the right piece of plastic.

Credit card networks (Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover) typically offer a similar type of protection.

CardHub.com recently released a report on which network offers the best extended warranty, and selected Amex as the winner. All Amex cards are eligible for extended warranty, and unlike Discover or MasterCard, the program covers refurbished items as well as failure due to wear and tear.

If you’re in the market for a new card and want this kind of protection, your best bet would be MONEY Best Credit Card winner Blue Cash Preferred. You’ll receive 6% on groceries on your first $6,000 spent, and an unlimited 3% back on gas. Moreover, you’ll receive a $150 sign-up bonus if you spend $1,000 in the first three months, which more than makes up for the $75 annual fee.

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MONEY First-Time Dad

The One Book All New Parents Really Need to Read

Luke and The Giving Tree

Fifty years from its first publication date, The Giving Tree remains a relevant allegory for modern parenting, says first-time dad and MONEY reporter Taylor Tepper.

I try to read one book a day to my son, Luke—which works slightly better in theory than practice.

Luke’s a restless infant, who is as eager to sit still in my lap for 10 minutes as he is to fall asleep. So I spend as much time reading as I do extending the pages beyond his grasp. Often he simply bores of the exercise, and I’m left talking out loud to no one in particular.

One of my favorite stories to read on these occasions is The Giving Tree.

The tiny book—which turned 50 this year—is perhaps the most important book in my life. I’ve loved it ever since I was a boy.

I recently discovered, though, that my adoration of Shel Silverstein’s classic is not universally shared.

What the Book Is About

For those unfamiliar, The Giving Tree is the story of a relationship between a tree and a boy the tree loves. At first, the boy and the tree engage in what everyone would consider to be a healthy relationship. He plays on her limbs, eats her apples, and sleeps in her shade—all of which makes the tree happy.

Nothing stays perfect forever, though, and as “time went by,” their encounters changed. The boy started to grow up and wanted new things.

Rather than playing in her branches, he wanted money and a house and a boat to escape his life. The tree gives up her apples and branches and trunk for the boy’s sake, rendering herself nothing but a stump.

Through it all, the tree is forever happy when the boy returns for his next request and willing to give anything she has. In the end, the boy uses her stump to sit on “and the tree was happy.”

Why It’s So Hated

When I told friends of my affection for the book, they were incredulous: How could I find meaning in a story where one character repeatedly and unrepentantly takes and takes from the other? Was I some kind of martyr?

My friends were not alone in their hatred for the book. In doing a bit of research for this column, I found that many academics and authors, liberals and conservatives alike, find its supposed commentary on parenting distasteful, amoral and depressing.

Dr. Lisa Rowe Fraustino of Eastern Connecticut State University is among the haters. In an essay titled “The Rights and Wrongs of Anthropomorphism in Picture Books,” she writes:

“Representing the symbolic mother as a literal tree may be what makes so many readers blind to the conceptual metaphor staring us in the face: GIVING TREE IS WOMAN. Even if it’s true that patriarchal culture has traditionally cut woman down and used her up, assigning her to the role of mother with her only happiness being with her son, is that an underlying moral we want to keep imparting to young children? Is it ethical?”

A post in The American Conservative says:

“Human love simply doesn’t leave its subjects ‘spent’ in this way; there is death, to be sure, but that’s not a consequence of love in the way that the tree’s destruction follows upon the boy’s exploitation of it.”

An entry in the New York Times’s Motherlode blog writes,

“Parenting should not strip and denude, but rather jointly fulfill. The parasitic part is supposed to end with pregnancy. After that the point is to teach a child to make his own way in the world.”

In The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Anna Holmes, founder of Jezebel.com, wrote,

“Of course, maybe we’re just projecting, but to those who would say that Silverstein’s book is a moving, sentimental depiction of the unyielding love of a parent for a child, I’d say, learn better parenting skills.

Others claim that the book teaches kids to become narcissists—that the world is built for their taking, that they’ll never have to grow up.

Shel himself simplified the book to its essence, but warned readers from thinking the book has a happy ending.

“It’s just a relationship between two people; one gives and the other takes,” he’s quoted as having said.

In any case, apparently you’re a naive sentimentalist if you enjoy the thing.

Why It Should be Loved

Like most times in life, I think I’m right and those that disagree with me are wrong. Those critics that see a dark tale are misunderstanding something fundamental to the nature of parenting.

The infantilization of “emerging adults” is a hot topic these days, as more Millennials decide to return home after college due to a difficult job market, historic levels of student loans and soaring housing prices.

MONEY recently published a long feature on the stress parents face supporting their kids into their mid-20’s and on: Nearly three quarters of parents aged 40 to 59 said they’d helped support an adult son or daughter in the prior year. Half said they provided their child’s primary means of support.

No parent wants to be a stump.

But with all due respect to the critics who say this is a book about kids taking advantage, I think they are missing the point. At the same time, those who say The Giving Tree exemplifies unconditional love undersell its depth.

When Luke was first born, my wife and I were scared. We weren’t scared because we were now charged with caring for a human life (an alien experience to both of us), nor were we terrified that our lives would change forever (though they have.)

The scary thing was that we, of our own will, introduced something into the world that we loved so much. And that newborn would soon be an infant, then a boy, then a teenager and on and on.

Just as we’ve struggled to find ourselves, to carve out our own little piece of happiness in our nearly 30 years, so he would too.

When you consider the weight of that decision, when you realize that you’ve suddenly foisted the world’s beauty and ugliness onto this tiny thing, that he’ll have to reconcile it just as you did, you become scared. (And then he has a dirty diaper, and you move on.)

To me, the Tree does not represent mom or dad, so much as it symbolizes an aspect of parenthood. Parents are obviously more than stumps for their children: We have lives, hopes, dreams, disappointments completely separate and apart from the goings-on of our progeny.

But when it comes to them, when they must grow up and face the world head on as adults, we want to be there to give them apples and branches and anything else we have to make their struggle a little easier.

“The Giving Tree” is beautiful because it lets kids know they’re never alone. I think that’s why I loved it so much as a child.

And that’s why I think all new parents should read the book. It will help you put the task before you in perspective.

Taylor Tepper is a reporter at Money. His column on being a new dad, a millennial, and (pretty) broke appears weekly. More First-Time Dad:

 

MONEY

How to Cook a Real Dinner for Your Family…and Finish Before 9 p.m.

Luke Tepper

First-time dad Taylor Tepper asks parents and cooking experts for advice on feeding a family while maintaining your sanity. What he learns: Focus on formats.

Last week, I stood in the first aisle of my local grocery store for a few minutes blinking at a bin of scallions.

I had a cart in one hand, a shopping list in the other, and a podcast playing in my ear. I needed to grab a bunch of groceries, get home and make dinner.

But at some point in the produce section, I fell victim to a momentary lapse of cognitive function, as if I was a computer that had overheated. For a moment, I wished I had simply ordered in Chinese.

A parent’s day is long. Ours starts at 5:30 a.m. with a groggy baby and two sleep-deprived parents, and I don’t return home with dinner’s ingredients in tow until 7 p.m.

To be clear, I genuinely relish the responsibility of providing my family with sustenance. Plus I know there are real benefits to eating real food prepared at home: We can eat more healthfully and save a few bucks in the process.

But my problem is that I’m terrible at planning. I’ll look up a recipe before I head home from work, buy everything on the ingredient list (often forgetting that I have a quarter of the stuff at home), walk home and make the meal. On that day last week when I paused in front of the scallions, for instance, I ended up preparing a baked chicken dish with Kalamata olives, dates, tomatoes with an herb jus and mashed potatoes.

Delicious. Only, my wife and I finished eating close to 9 p.m.—at which point I devolved into a coma.

I know I’m wasting time and money. I need help. I need a plan.

So I turned to a few experts: KJ Dell’Antonia, who as the lead writer at the New York Times Motherlode blog has written on her successes and failures of cooking for a family, my friend Cara Eisenpress whose cookbook and blog BigGirlsSmallKitchen.com document dinner prep in a diminutive Brooklyn apartment, and Phyllis Grant, a former pastry chef whose blog DashandBella.com chronicles meals made with her kids.

The Game Plan

“Obviously I’m a big fan of planning,” says Dell’Antonia. “There’s nothing like realizing that it’s 4 pm and you’ll have to make dinner again tonight—but not only do you know what it is already, but you’ve got all the ingredients and maybe some prep work done. Saves my life every time.”

But what type of plan is best for a busy working parent like me?

Cara told me to forget about specific recipes and think more broadly.

“When planning, think in terms of formats,” she says. “Pasta, hearty soups, stir fries, roasted cut-up chicken, and eggs are all classes of weeknight dinner that are so simple to vary.”

In other words, rather than shopping for a pasta dish on Monday (like Lemon Fettuccine with Bacon and Chives) and then returning to the store on Tuesday in search of ingredients for for another (say Orecchiette Carbonara with Scallions and Sun-dried Tomatoes), plan on whipping up two pasta dishes and a chicken entrée over the next few days and then map out recipes from there. That way you’ll buy overlapping ingredients.

At the same time, though, be mindful of planning too far ahead, says Cara.

“Don’t shop for the seven nights’ worth of formats—you’ll waste food and money if something comes up,” she advised. “Better to plan out fewer and then grab a few miscellaneous staples that could turn into dinner as needed, like extra onions (caramelized onion grilled cheese), a box of spinach (lentil soup with spinach), or some bacon (breakfast for dinner).”

Grant even suggests preparing more than one night’s worth of a neutral protein like chicken, which she notes “can be a life saver, You won’t get sick of it because you can dress it up with some many different flavors and techniques.”

Most importantly, Cara said, make sure you have a stocked pantry—including olive oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, rice, pasta and cheddar, among others—to augment whatever recipes you’ve chosen.

The Defense Formation

After you’ve figured out the formats and recipes you’re interested in for the next couple of days, it’s time to actually buy the food.

But the grocery store is like a casino: The thing is designed to have you spend more time shuffling along the aisles so that you look at more food. They even mess with the music (see #19 here).

If you’re not careful, you’ll arrive home with a beautiful jar of jam that will sit in your fridge for the next six months. (Guilty!)

That’s why Dell’Antonia recommends shopping with a list, “and not buying anything that’s not on it,” says. “Ridiculously, I save money by sending my babysitter to the grocery store when I can. Her time costs me less than I’d spend in ‘Oh, look! Halloween Oreos!'”

Also, look for items that will make your cooking life easier, says Cara. “Don’t shy away from shortcut ingredients. Find brands of tomato sauce, salsa, stock, pre-washed spinach, ravioli, etc. that you like: each of those gets you a third of the way to dinner. There are some vegetables I think of as shortcuts too because they require so little prep: a potato you can rinse and then bake, and my go-to, fennel, where you just remove the outer skin, quarter what’s left, and roast to get a super simple serving of vegetables.”

Kickoff!

Time to practice my new strategy.

I replenished up my pantry—I was a little low on olive oil and pepper—and decided to prepare Chicken with Figs and Grapes from Grant’s blog. I even bought a little extra chicken and stock for some soup later in the week (guess I was in a chicken format mood.)

Her recipe calls for about a dozen different ingredients, but since my pantry is already full, I only need to pick up the chicken, anchovies, figs and grapes.

I’m in and out of my local grocery store in five minutes (without jam!) and before long my kitchen is humming right along.

The dish is relatively easy to prepare and after a little less than 30 minutes in the oven, my wife and I have a meal for tonight and tomorrow. I arrived home by 7:15pm and we finished eating around an hour later, about 45 minutes quicker than normal and nearly a Tepper weekday record.

Our stomachs were full, the kitchen relatively clean and my brain didn’t wither like a raisin during the process.

A sense of peace had been restored in my life.

Adulthood can be difficult—after a long day of work, it often just feels easier to order a delicious Korean BBQ kimchi burrito than expending the time and effort to put together a meal. So sometimes the Teppers do just that.

But as Cara says, “Cooking at home is one of the best parts of being a grown-up. You get to eat exactly what you want when you want it. So, if you like to eat, you like not spending all your money, and you like putting relatively healthful food in your body, you should probably learn to cook.”

And if you’re going to do it, plan ahead.

Taylor Tepper is a reporter at Money. His column on being a new dad, a millennial, and (pretty) broke appears weekly. More First-Time Dad:

MONEY Jobs

Don’t Count on Raises Despite Friday’s Jobs Report

Person popping balloon
Getty Images—Getty Images

Despite more Americans finding employment, workers shouldn't expect any big changes in their paychecks just yet.

Workers can be forgiven if they don’t rejoice in Friday’s jobs report.

Employers added 214,000 jobs in October, pushing the unemployment rate down to 5.8%. This is another sign the U.S. economy is starting to get on a roll.

Businesses have added an average of around 230,000 jobs a month since January, when the unemployment started off at 6.6%. Stocks have been hitting all-time highs. And the Federal Reserve just announced that it was ending the third round of its stimulative bond-buying program thanks in part to the fact that the labor market has been improving.

Despite these positive trends, though, there still remains significant slack in the labor market. Millions of discouraged workers who want a job have given up looking — or are working part-time when they prefer full-time employment.

Moreover, the long-term unemployed are still much less likely to find a job now compared to before the 2007-2009 recession, and employees still don’t feel confident enough about their situation to quit their job in search of a high paying one. Meanwhile the unemployment rate lags the pre-recession low by more than a percentage point.

This might help to explain why Americans are still so pessimistic about their personal finances.

Almost three in four Americans think the economy was permanently damaged by the Great Recession, according to research by Rutgers University, which is actually more pessimistic than right after the recession. Moreover, only 37% say their finances are good or excellent shape, per recent Pew Research Center data.

Workers also understand that whatever raises they do get probably won’t outpace inflation. Take the Employment Cost Index, which measures workers salaries and benefits. Before the recession, the ECI rose at a year-over-year rate of more than 3% for about two years. Since 2009, though, the ECI hasn’t jumped above 2.2% (which, to be fair, was last quarter.)

fredgraph

And while the Fed did decide to end its bond-buying — otherwise known as quantitative easing — short-term interest rates remain essentially at zero, with expectations of a small hike potentially put off until well into 2015. By keeping rates so low for so long, the Fed is essentially signaling that consumer demand just isn’t there. Yet consumer demand is an essential ingredient in the recipe for gaining raises.

“We didn’t hear anything that causes us to reconsider our outlook that the Fed will follow a ‘lower for longer’ course when it comes to interest rates,” wrote USAA’s John Toohey in a recent note. “The U.S. recovery from the 2008–09 financial crisis has been slow and at times fragile, so our thinking is that the Fed will not want to risk a setback by raising rates too quickly. What is ending now is the third round of QE since late 2008; after the first two wrapped up, economic gains soon stalled. The Fed has not forgotten this.”

This jobs report seems to be another brick in the slow rebuild of the U.S. economy following the disaster of six years ago. It is encouraging that the Fed feels the economy is strong enough to chug along without it pumping billions of dollars into the financial system each month.

But workers should remember how big a hole we’ve needed to climb out of. Millions are still struggling to get by, or even get a job. And without strong bargaining power, or full employment, workers shouldn’t expect a raise anytime soon.

MONEY First-Time Dad

Why You’re Better Off With a Hard-Working Child than a Smart One

Luke Tepper
Luke's drive is more important than his intellect. And look at him drive!

I wanted my son to be born a genius. Turns out I should have been hoping for something else.

My son took his first steps the other day.

Not yet nine months old, Luke stumbled forward two paces as Mrs. Tepper prepared his evening bath. The next day, like a revved up toy racecar, the tyke zoomed five strides after I relocated him from the Jumperoo to the floor.

This achievement is a great source of pride in the Tepper household.

According to Babycenter.com, babies usually begin walking between 9 and 12 months. Luke was only 8 1/2 months—so he’s obviously smarter than the average bear and destined for riches and glory.

Ever since, my wife and I have indulged in a series of daydreams featuring Luke passing milestones well before other tiny mortals. Reading by age 2, dunking a basketball by 10 and garnering a Nobel Prize before he’s legally allowed to consume alcohol.

Of course we know we’re being ridiculous, but that’s part of the fun of parenting an infant—widely projecting all the things that he might accomplish that you never will. In so doing, we imagine a super-smart older version of Luke wowing the world with his intellect.

It turns out, though, we have it all wrong. Intelligence is valuable, obviously, but the more powerful skill parents should be instilling in their children doesn’t have anything to do with brainpower.

If we want him to maximize his earnings—and we do—studies show that we’re much better off emphasizing hard work and gumption.

What the Research Says

The Brookings Institute recently came out with a report that summarizes the research into the debate of character versus intelligence. Therein lay a panoply of statistics that illuminate importance of grit and drive.

For instance, high school grade point average is a better predictor of whether a student will complete college in six years than SAT/ACT scores. Grade point averages are all about grit: You have to come to class every day, turn in your homework, and perform well on tests and papers in order to earn a high grade. A standardized exam, like the SAT, mostly measures your cognitive abilities.

Another study Brookings referenced followed 1,000 children starting at ages 3 to 11 in New Zealand and found that later in life those who possessed more self control “were healthier, richer, less likely to be single parents, and less likely to be convicted of a crime as adults, controlling for childhood social class and IQ.”

I asked Jessica Lahey, a teacher who writes a biweekly parenting column for the New York Times, for her perspective.

She said the research jibes with her experience. “Kids who are raised by parents with good impulse control—the ability to plan for long-term goals and stick to those goals—are more successful than kids raised by parents who model impulsive, disorganized, chaotic thinking and actions,” she says.

And what about smarts?

“A kid who has no ability to delay gratification, has no patience with momentary confusion or frustration, or simply never develops the frontal lobe function he needs in order to organize and plan his behavior is never going to be as successful as one who can,” she says. “I don’t care how brilliant or talented he is.”

Why That Terrifies Me

For a parent, this is a little bit scary.

The idea that my son would be born with a particular IQ took the pressure off of me. However he comes out was how he was meant to come out; I couldn’t really mess him up.

But now, I need to instill a work ethic and character in him that I’m sure I don’t always live up to. My wife and I are only 28 years old and we’ve only just begun our careers; how are we supposed to have the authority to mold Luke into driven student and worker?

These are the things that keep me up at night.

But then I remember how far we’ve come since we found out Mrs. Tepper was pregnant.

We comparison shopped hospitals and doctors, and coordinated with health insurers and human resource departments. We’re following a kind of food progression chart so that he takes in as many different kinds of tastes as possible. We nurse him when he’s sick and hold him when he cries, and we do it every day no matter how little sleep we had the night before.

The act of raising a child (and we’re only in year one) absolutely filled us with fear before we had one. But like a frog in a slowly warming pot of water, we’ve adapted. We’ve found a way to weave Luke into our life.

Teaching him stick-to-itiveness, then, will just be another challenge we’ll (hopefully) slowly overcome with our infinite small decisions.

Taylor Tepper is a reporter at Money. His column on being a new dad, a millennial, and (pretty) broke appears weekly. More First-Time Dad:

Read next: Injuries. Stress. Divided Attention. Are Coaches Damaging Our Kids?

MONEY The Economy

The Stock Market Loses a Big Crutch as the Fed Ends ‘Quantitative Easing’

The Fed has concluded its asset-purchasing program thanks to an improving labor market. Here's what QE3 has meant to investors and the economy.

After spending trillions of dollars on bond purchases since the end of the Great Recession — to keep interest rates low to boost spending, lending, and investments — the Federal Reserve ended its stimulus program known as quantitative easing.

The central bank’s decision to stop buying billions of dollars of Treasury and mortgage-related bonds each month comes as the U.S. economy has shown signs of recent improvement.

U.S. gross domestic product grew an impressive 4.6% last quarter. And while growth dropped at the start of this year, thanks to an unusually bad winter, the economy expanded at annual pace of 4.5% and 3.5% in the second half of 2013.

Meanwhile, employers have added an average of 227,000 jobs this year and the unemployment rate rests at a post-recession low of 5.9%. It was at 7.8% in September 2012, when this round of quantitative easing, known as QE3, began.

What this means for interest rates
Even with QE over, the Fed is unlikely to start raising short-term interest rates until next year, at the earliest.

In part due to the strengthening dollar and weakening foreign economies, inflation has failed to pick up despite the Fed’s unprecedented easy monetary policy.

And there remains a decent bit of slack in the labor market. For instance, there are still a large number of Americans who’ve been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer (almost 3 million), and the labor-force participation rate has continued its decade long decline. Even the participation rate of those between 25 to 54 is lower than it was pre-recession.

What this means for investors
For investors, this marks the end of a wild ride that saw equity prices rise, bond yields remain muted, and hand wringing over inflation expectations that never materialized.

S&P 500:
Equities enjoyed an impressive run up after then-Fed Chair Ben Bernanke announced the start of a third round of bond buying in September 2012. Of course the last two times the Fed ended quantitative easing, equities faced sell-offs. From the Wall Street Journal:

The S&P 500 rose 35% during QE1 (Dec. 2008 through March 2010), gained 10% during QE2 (Nov. 2010 through June 2011) and has gained about 30% during QE3 (from Sept. 2012 through this month), according to S&P Dow Jones Indices.

Three months after QE1 ended, the S&P 500 fell 12%. And three months after QE2 concluded, the S&P 500 was down 14%.

 

Stocks

10-year Treasury yields:

As has been the case for much of the post-recession recovery, U.S. borrowing costs have remained low thanks to a lack of strong consumer demand — and the Fed’s bond buying. Many investors paid dearly for betting incorrectly on Treasuries, including the Bill Gross who recently left his perch at Pimco for Janus.

Bonds

10-year breakeven inflation rate:

A sign that inflation failed to take hold despite unconventionally accommodative monetary policy is the so-called 10-year breakeven rate, which measures the difference between the yield on 10-year Treasuries and Treasury Inflation Protected Securities, or TIPS. The higher the gap, the higher the market’s expectation for inflation. As you can see, no such expectation really materialized.

BreakEven

Inflation:

Despite concern that the Fed’s policy would lead to run-away inflation, we remain mired in a low-inflation environment.

fredgraph

Unemployment Rate:

The falling unemployment rate has been a real a bright spot for the economy. If you look at a broader measure of employment, one which takes into account those who’ve just given up looking for a job and part-time workers who want to work full-time, unemployment is elevated, but declining.

unemployment rate

Compared to the economic plight of other developed economies, the U.S. looks to be in reasonable shape. That in part is thanks to bold monetary policy at a time of stagnant growth.

Indeed, many economists now argue that the European Central Bank, faced with an economy that’s teetering on another recession, ought to take a page from the Fed’s playbook and try its own brand of quantitative easing.

MONEY First-Time Dad

How to Cook a Real Dinner for Your Family…and Finish Before 9 p.m.

Luke Tepper

First-time dad Taylor Tepper asks parents and cooking experts for advice on feeding a family while maintaining your sanity. What he learns: Focus on formats.

Last week, I stood in the first aisle of my local grocery store for a few minutes blinking at a bin of scallions.

I had a cart in one hand, a shopping list in the other, and a podcast playing in my ear. I needed to grab a bunch of groceries, get home and make dinner.

But at some point in the produce section, I fell victim to a momentary lapse of cognitive function, as if I was a computer that had overheated. For a moment, I wished I had simply ordered in Chinese.

A parent’s day is long. Ours starts at 5:30 a.m. with a groggy baby and two sleep-deprived parents, and I don’t return home with dinner’s ingredients in tow until 7 p.m.

To be clear, I genuinely relish the responsibility of providing my family with sustenance. Plus I know there are real benefits to eating real food prepared at home: We can eat more healthfully and save a few bucks in the process.

But my problem is that I’m terrible at planning. I’ll look up a recipe before I head home from work, buy everything on the ingredient list (often forgetting that I have a quarter of the stuff at home), walk home and make the meal. On that day last week when I paused in front of the scallions, for instance, I ended up preparing a baked chicken dish with Kalamata olives, dates, tomatoes with an herb jus and mashed potatoes.

Delicious. Only, my wife and I finished eating close to 9 p.m.—at which point I devolved into a coma.

I know I’m wasting time and money. I need help. I need a plan.

So I turned to a few experts: KJ Dell’Antonia, who as the lead writer at the New York Times Motherlode blog has written on her successes and failures of cooking for a family, my friend Cara Eisenpress whose cookbook and blog BigGirlsSmallKitchen.com document dinner prep in a diminutive Brooklyn apartment, and Phyllis Grant, a former pastry chef whose blog DashandBella.com chronicles meals made with her kids.

The Game Plan

“Obviously I’m a big fan of planning,” says Dell’Antonia. “There’s nothing like realizing that it’s 4 pm and you’ll have to make dinner again tonight—but not only do you know what it is already, but you’ve got all the ingredients and maybe some prep work done. Saves my life every time.”

But what type of plan is best for a busy working parent like me?

Cara told me to forget about specific recipes and think more broadly.

“When planning, think in terms of formats,” she says. “Pasta, hearty soups, stir fries, roasted cut-up chicken, and eggs are all classes of weeknight dinner that are so simple to vary.”

In other words, rather than shopping for a pasta dish on Monday (like Lemon Fettuccine with Bacon and Chives) and then returning to the store on Tuesday in search of ingredients for for another (say Orecchiette Carbonara with Scallions and Sun-dried Tomatoes), plan on whipping up two pasta dishes and a chicken entrée over the next few days and then map out recipes from there. That way you’ll buy overlapping ingredients.

At the same time, though, be mindful of planning too far ahead, says Cara.

“Don’t shop for the seven nights’ worth of formats—you’ll waste food and money if something comes up,” she advised. “Better to plan out fewer and then grab a few miscellaneous staples that could turn into dinner as needed, like extra onions (caramelized onion grilled cheese), a box of spinach (lentil soup with spinach), or some bacon (breakfast for dinner).”

Grant even suggests preparing more than one night’s worth of a neutral protein like chicken, which she notes “can be a life saver, You won’t get sick of it because you can dress it up with some many different flavors and techniques.”

Most importantly, Cara said, make sure you have a stocked pantry—including olive oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, rice, pasta and cheddar, among others—to augment whatever recipes you’ve chosen.

The Defense Formation

After you’ve figured out the formats and recipes you’re interested in for the next couple of days, it’s time to actually buy the food.

But the grocery store is like a casino: The thing is designed to have you spend more time shuffling along the aisles so that you look at more food. They even mess with the music (see #19 here).

If you’re not careful, you’ll arrive home with a beautiful jar of jam that will sit in your fridge for the next six months. (Guilty!)

That’s why Dell’Antonia recommends shopping with a list, “and not buying anything that’s not on it,” says. “Ridiculously, I save money by sending my babysitter to the grocery store when I can. Her time costs me less than I’d spend in ‘Oh, look! Halloween Oreos!'”

Also, look for items that will make your cooking life easier, says Cara. “Don’t shy away from shortcut ingredients. Find brands of tomato sauce, salsa, stock, pre-washed spinach, ravioli, etc. that you like: each of those gets you a third of the way to dinner. There are some vegetables I think of as shortcuts too because they require so little prep: a potato you can rinse and then bake, and my go-to, fennel, where you just remove the outer skin, quarter what’s left, and roast to get a super simple serving of vegetables.”

Kickoff!

Time to practice my new strategy.

I replenished up my pantry—I was a little low on olive oil and pepper—and decided to prepare Chicken with Figs and Grapes from Grant’s blog. I even bought a little extra chicken and stock for some soup later in the week (guess I was in a chicken format mood.)

Her recipe calls for about a dozen different ingredients, but since my pantry is already full, I only need to pick up the chicken, anchovies, figs and grapes.

I’m in and out of my local grocery store in five minutes (without jam!) and before long my kitchen is humming right along.

The dish is relatively easy to prepare and after a little less than 30 minutes in the oven, my wife and I have a meal for tonight and tomorrow. I arrived home by 7:15pm and we finished eating around an hour later, about 45 minutes quicker than normal and nearly a Tepper weekday record.

Our stomachs were full, the kitchen relatively clean and my brain didn’t wither like a raisin during the process.

A sense of peace had been restored in my life.

Adulthood can be difficult—after a long day of work, it often just feels easier to order a delicious Korean BBQ kimchi burrito than expending the time and effort to put together a meal. So sometimes the Teppers do just that.

But as Cara says, “Cooking at home is one of the best parts of being a grown-up. You get to eat exactly what you want when you want it. So, if you like to eat, you like not spending all your money, and you like putting relatively healthful food in your body, you should probably learn to cook.”

And if you’re going to do it, plan ahead.

Taylor Tepper is a reporter at Money. His column on being a new dad, a millennial, and (pretty) broke appears weekly. More First-Time Dad:

MONEY First-Time Dad

Why Work-Life Balance Is Just As Impossible for Dads

141014_FF_TEPPERBLOG
This mug is what I'm missing out on when I'm working late.

We're struggling with the same issues working moms face, says MONEY reporter and first-time dad Taylor Tepper.

Sometimes I feel like a bad dad.

Doubts over my parental savvy often correlate with how long I’m at the office. When I call to tell Mrs. Tepper that I’ll be here until 7:30 p.m. working on a magazine feature—and won’t be home to put our son Luke to bed—the soft disappointment in her voice stays with me like a faint ember.

The same guilty feelings apply to my job, too.

I’m 28 and now is the time to work long hours, take on more responsibility and show my bosses just how willing I am to immolate myself for the greater good. Every time I leave the building at 5:30 p.m., a part of me thinks I’m sacrificing future promotions, raises and glory.

What it means to be an American father, and the responsibilities therein, have changed radically in the last few decades. In 1975, 45% of families consisted of a male breadwinner and a stay-at-home mom; today 31% do. And now, men are taking on more chores and spending more time with their children than their dads spent with them.

But this blending of gender roles has done much to confuse the male mind. We want to spend more time with the kids and earn accolades on the job; we want to attend the soccer game and become senior management; we want to be Bill Cosby and Steve Jobs.

Many of us feel—just as working moms do—that we’re succeeding at neither.

The Research Backs Me Up on This

According Boston College’s Center for Work & Family, 86% of dads agreed or strongly agreed that “my children are the number one priority in my life.”

That’s well and good.

At the same time, though, more than three in four fathers wished to advance to a position with greater responsibilities and three in five demonstrated a strong desire to reach senior management.

Half of working dads say they find it very or somewhat difficult to balance the responsibilities of work and family, according to Pew.

And on the whole, we don’t feel like we’re living up to the dad role either. Almost eight in 10 dads want to spend more time with their children on an average workday, and one in two say they spend too little time with their kids. (Only 23% of mothers feel that way.) From first-hand experience, there is nothing quite as enervating as coming home from work to an already-sleeping son.

In Boston College’s research, you also see dads grappling with perceptions of what they want and the reality of how things are.

While today’s fathers also recognize that parenting is a two-person job—65% say they believe that partners should take care of a child evenly—only one in three say that they actually split the work in half. Women typically spend more than three times as many hours per week solely looking after the child than men.

Even on weekends, men fail to live up to their ideal. On Saturdays and Sundays, moms spend 1.2 more hours on housework and childcare than dads do. When it comes to time spent on leisure activities, dads out-loaf moms by an hour.

While Mrs. Tepper and I have something of a modern marriage—split chores, female breadwinner—she almost certainly watches Luke more on the weekends, especially when sports are on.

In spite of my few hours more on the couch, however, I’d still argue that achieving and maintaining true work-life balance is impossible. You can’t achieve these competing goals—working at the top of my game, being the best dad and husband ever, and getting in a few NBA games to recharge my own engine—within a finite number of hours in the day.

So, What Is a Modern Dad to Do?

I put that question to Sara Sutton Fell, the CEO of FlexJobs.com, a job search site focusing on companies that allow for flexible schedules and telecommuting. Her advice: to think of work-life balance as more of a journey than a destination.

“As a working parent with two young sons, I believe that work-life balance is often mistaken as an end-point that we reach eventually,” she says. “In my experience, it’s more of a balancing act—shifting your weight back and forth between your various responsibilities.”

Some days you’re going have to work long hours at the office to close out a project or meet a deadline, in other words; and some days you’re going to work from home to take your kid to the doctor.

Try to find an employer that will embrace that flexibility, Fell says.

This makes sense.

But we’ve also got to try to overcome our own guilt. That means accepting our limitations as parents and workers and people, and setting realistic expectations for ourselves.

It’s difficult to remember, but today’s dads spend more time with their kids than their fathers spent with them by a factor of three. Today’s fathers are by and large more engaged in their kids’ lives than previous generations. So we’re definitely doing better, if not up to the standards we’d hold for ourselves.

When I’m stuck in the office until dark, maintaining that perspective is difficult. But I try to remember that the next morning I’ll be there when Luke wakes up, and with any luck, arrive home in time to help his mom put him to sleep.

And if not, there’s always tomorrow.

Taylor Tepper is a reporter at Money. His column on being a new dad, a millennial, and (pretty) broke appears weekly. More First-Time Dad:

MONEY The Economy

Why the Fed Should Stop Talking About Raising Interest Rates

Some central bankers have called for raising rates sooner rather than later. Recent economic data — and the huge stock market sell-off — should dampen those calls.

There have been two presidential inaugurations and six Super Bowl champions since interest rates were effectively lowered to 0%. Recently, some Federal Reserve officials have said they expect to raise rates by the middle of next year thanks to a decently expanding economy and stronger job growth.

Some central bankers, though, think the middle of 2015 is too late and have been pushing to increase borrowing costs sooner. Esther George, President of the Kansas City Fed, said as much in a speech earlier this month, and two members of the Federal Open Market Committee voted bristled against easy monetary policy in their most recent meeting.

But with developed economies around the world showing dismal growth and less-than-stellar economic metrics here at home — punctuated by a rapidly declining stock prices (the stock market is, after all, a reflection of the market’s forecast for the economy six to nine months down the road) — it might be time for these inflation hawks to quiet down.

“Until we see wages expanding faster than the rate of inflation, and significantly so, we won’t see much in the way of inflation pressure,” says Mike Schenk, Vice President of Economics & Statistics for the Credit Union National Association. “Why raise rates if you don’t have inflation?”

Inflation Hawks

Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher voted against the most recent monetary action policy, according to minutes of the meeting, due to, among other factors, the “continued strength of the real economy” and “the improved outlook for labor utilization.”

Earlier this month, Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser said that he’s “not too concerned” about inflation growth below the Fed’s 2% target and joined Fisher in voting against the Fed policy because he disagreed with the guidance that said rates will stay at zero for “a considerable time after” the Fed ends its unconventional bond-buying program later this month.

George, meanwhile in a speech earlier this month, said Fed officials should begin talking seriously about raising rates since “starting this process sooner rather than later is important. If we continue to wait — if we continue to wait to see full employment, to see inflation running beyond the 2% target — then we risk having to move faster and steeper with interest rates in a way that is destabilizing to the economy in the long term,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

Jobs

The jobs environment has been improving in recent months. The economy added almost 250,000 jobs in September and the unemployment number fell to a post-recession low of 5.9%. But the unemployment number doesn’t tell the whole story.

If you look at another metric that takes into account workers who only recently gave up looking for a job and part-time employees who want to work 40 hours a week, the situation is much worse. Before the recession, this broader unemployment rate sat at around 8%. It’s now at almost 12%. There are still about three million workers who’ve been unemployed for longer than 27 weeks, up from around 1.3 million at the end of 2007.

Inflation

Right now, and for some time, there has been very little inflation. Prices grew 1.7% over the past year in August, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Consumer Price Index. Even the Fed’s preferred inflation tracker, the PCE deflator, showed prices gain 1.5% compared to 12 months ago.

Wage growth is likewise stalled. Taking into account wages and benefits, workers have only seen a 1.8% raise. It’s just difficult to have inflation in a low interest rate environment without wage growth.

St. Louis Fed President James Bullard recently said that the Fed should consider postponing the end of its bond-buying program. “Inflation expectations are declining in the U.S.,” he said in an interview yesterday with Bloomberg News. “That’s an important consideration for a central bank. And for that reason I think that a logical policy response at this juncture may be to delay the end of the QE.”

Europe

European economic woes aren’t helping. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, recently cut it’s growth forecast, now only expects to grow by 1.2% in 2014 and 2015. Sweden and Spain saw prices actually decline in August, and now there’s fear that the euro zone will endure a so-called triple-dip recession. The relative prowess of the American economy compared to Europe’s has strengthened the U.S. dollar, thus making our exports less competitive.

Look, the U.S. economy isn’t about to go off a cliff. Not only did we see growth of 4.6% last quarter, but employers are adding jobs at a decent clip and the number of workers filing first-time jobless claims fell to the lowest level since 2000, per the Labor Department.

But with low inflation and European struggles to achieve anything close to robust growth, raising interest rates anytime soon doesn’t appear likely.

MONEY stocks

October Can Be Frightful for Stocks. But It Can Also Be Fruitful.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, Tom Hardy, 2012.
Ron Phillips—Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

By reputation, October is the scariest month on Wall Street. In reality, this month tends to be either very good or bad for the market. Which one will it be this time around?

This story was updated on Oct. 15, 2014

Is the Ghost of October Past haunting Wall Street again?

By reputation, October is the market’s scariest month. Six years ago, October witnessed several knee-buckling plunges during the financial crisis — an 8% drop on the 9th, an even-bigger 9% fall on the 15th, followed by a 6% slide on the 22nd.

Go back further, to the Asian currency crisis, and the Dow plunged 554 points on Oct. 27, 1997. Go back further still, and there was Black Monday, when the S&P 500 fell 20% on Oct. 19, 1987. And don’t forget that the stock market crash that set off the Great Depression will commemorate its 85th birthday at the end of this month.

At first blush, this October seems to be trying to join this list.

On the last day of September, the Dow Jones industrial average had climbed as high as 17,145. Two weeks later, the benchmark index was more than than 800 points lower, thanks in part to fears over the slowing global economy, escalating Mideast violence, continuing Russian conflict, and quite possibly the spreading Ebola virus.

Yet October gets a bad rep, and some market observers think this could be a buying opportunity.

While October may be pockmarked with a minefield of securities devastation, history is also filled with examples of strong Octobers for the S&P 500, according to the Stock Trader’s Almanac. Among them: 1966 (up 5%), 1974 (16%), 1998 (8%), 2002 (9%), and 2011 (11%).

return
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Plus, when you average out historical performance, this autumnal month isn’t so shabby.

In fact, if you look at each month’s returns from 1988 to last September, October turns out to the third best-performer on average, behind December and April. The S&P 500 has gained at least 3.8% in three of the last four Octobers, according to data from Morningstar.

Liz Ann Sonders, chief investment strategist for Charles Schwab, noted that while some investors might be taking profits after a sustained run up for stocks, “we don’t see anything that indicates a more sustained downturn is in store.”

In a note published online, she added:

“We are entering a traditionally positive period seasonally for stocks. According to ISI Research, since 1950, December and November have been the highest returning months of the year, on average. Additionally, according to Strategas Research Group — also since 1950, in midterm election years — October has been the best performing month, followed by November and December. The recent selling we’ve seen could just be setting up for a nice year-end run.”

So is Sonders right? Will this October turn out to be a treat for Wall Street? Or will it just be one big trick?

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