TIME Consumers

Gas Prices Inch Higher After Months of Decline

Drivers pass by gas prices that are displayed at Valero and 76 gas stations on Feb. 9, 2015 in San Rafael, Calif.
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images Drivers pass by gas prices that are displayed at Valero and 76 gas stations on Feb. 9, 2015 in San Rafael, Calif.

The steady rise reverses a record 123-day decline that started in September and ended last month

Drivers recently spoiled by falling gasoline prices are now having to deal with a new reality: Higher costs at the pump.

The average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline has increased every day for the past 28 days to a national average of $2.30 per gallon, according to AAA. The steady rise reverses a record 123-day decline that started in September and ended last month with fuel costs reaching a five-year low of $2.03.

A major drop-off in worldwide oil prices drove the four-month long decline. Global oil oversupply cut oil prices by more than half between last summer and the beginning of 2015, but oil prices have slowly rebounded in recent weeks and the price most drivers pay at the pump has risen accordingly.

After slipping below $45 in January, the price of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate crude oil has since climbed by more than 10%. Brent crude topped the $60-per barrel mark earlier this month, but dipped slightly Monday to $58.90.

AAA also notes that fuel prices tend to rise at this time of year due to the fact that seasonal maintenance typically happening at oil and gas refineries tends to put a drag on fuel production.

U.S. motorists are still paying $1.11 less per gallon on average than they were at this point last year. The largest year-over-year savings gap experienced in recent months was $1.25 per gallon. Drivers in Utah and Idaho are currently seeing the lowest price at the pump with an average of $1.95 per gallon in those states. Hawaii, which tends to see the highest gas prices, is the only state where the average price for regular unleaded gas is more than $3, with that state’s residents currently paying $3.04 per gallon.

California is also seeing higher-than-average prices at $2.95 per gallon, while motorists in Texas are paying $2.12 per gallon.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME Retail

Wal-Mart’s Problems Go Beyond Underpaid Workers

An employee pulls a forklift with display units for DVD movies at a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. location ahead of Black Friday in Los Angeles, Calif. on Nov. 24, 2014.
Bloomberg—Getty Images An employee pulls a forklift with display units for DVD movies at a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. location ahead of Black Friday in Los Angeles, Calif. on Nov. 24, 2014.

The retail giant's customers are less and less satisfied with its services

Wal-Mart’s announcement on Thursday that it would start paying its employees more and training them better, and would invest more heavily in online operations, almost seems like it could have been a reaction to a survey released a day before, ranking the company as “the most hated retailer in America,” as several news outlets have put it.

It wasn’t, of course. Wal-Mart’s plans had clearly been in the works for quite a while. But those plans, announced as the retail giant issued fairly weak quarterly results, address some of the biggest reasons for Wal-Mart’s ranking at the very bottom of the American Customer Satisfaction Index for 2014: poor service; messy or understocked shelves; and higher prices than many consumers expect.

The survey polled 8,700 consumers. It found overall satisfaction with retailers down by 1.4% over last year, mainly due to higher prices—a sudden reversal after three straight years of rising satisfaction. Wal-Mart’s score of 68 (on a scale of 100) was its worst since 2007, and continues a trend. In four of the past five years, it has scored the lowest of all department and discount stores. This year, it scored the lowest among all retailers. Just a decade or so ago, it regularly scored near the top.

On Thursday, Wal-Mart announced it would boost employee pay to a minimum of $9 an hour, which will put Wal-Mart’s lowest salaries 24% above than the $7.25 federal minimum wage. Some 500,000 workers, or about a third of Wal-Mart’s U.S. work force (including at the Sam’s Club warehouse-store chain) will be affected. It will, of course, eat into profits. Wal-Mart said the short-term hit would yield longer-term benefits down the road, as happier, better-trained, longer-tenured employees will translate into more customer traffic. The wage hikes and improved training will cost Wal-Mart about $1 billion this year.

The action will result in average hourly full-time wages at Wal-Mart rising to $13 an hour from below $12 an hour. That’s still below the $15 per hour demanded by pressure groups, some including Wal-Mart workers, that have been seeking pay hikes from big retailers and fast-food chains.

Wal-Mart also pledged to invest more in its e-commerce operations. The ACSI report noted that even as overall satisfaction with retailers fell by 1.7%, satisfaction with online retailers rose by 5.1%, to 82 out of 100.

That was due in part to a dip in satisfaction the previous year due to a spate of delivery problems, particularly during the holiday season. Still, it points to a big problem brick-and-mortar retailers — even those, like Wal-Mart, with substantial investments in e-commerce: the convenience of online shopping is tough to beat. There’s no such thing as a surly employee or a messy shelf. And what you’re looking for is generally in stock.

Hence Amazon’s place at the top of the list, with a score of 86. In the discount and department store category that Wal-Mart belongs to, Nordstrom was tops, also with an 86. Target tied with Kohl’s at No. 3, each scoring an 80.

 

TIME Food & Drink

Global Coffee Consumption Projected to Soar Over Next Five Years

MakiEni—Flickr/Getty Images
MakiEni—Flickr/Getty Images

Populous nations like India and China are increasingly becoming fans of coffee

As more of the world turns to coffee, demand for the beverage will increase by nearly 25% over the coming five years, according to the International Coffee Organization (ICO).

“Consumption is increasing as societies in India, China and Latin America continue to be Westernized,” the ICO’s executive director Roberio Silva told the Wall Street Journal.

Currently, consumer intake of coffee stands at 141.6 million bags of beans; but by 2020, coffee demand is slated to rise to 175.8 million bags (each weighs approximately 132 lb.).

The high demand coincides with a period of tight coffee supplies globally and currency fluctuations in Brazil. Last year’s high prices were partly precipitated by a drought in the South American nation, currently the world’s largest coffee grower.

Global coffee production has been cut by 5.7 million bags this crop year because of the Brazilian drought, bad weather and a Central American plant fungus.

Other coffee growers like Vietnam, India and Indonesia are not expected to produce enough coffee to ensure a market stabilization next year.

[WSJ]

TIME Food & Drink

A Harvard Professor Launched an Epic Rant Over an Extra $4 on his Chinese Takeout Bill

And here's what the Twitterverse had to say

A man ordered Chinese takeout. Things went downhill from there.

Ben Edelman, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, expected his takeout order from Boston-area restaurant Sichuan Garden to come to $53.35.

But the bill for his meal from the Brookline, MA, restaurant — shredded chicken with spicy garlic sauce, sauteed prawns with roasted chilli and peanut, stir-fried chicken with spicy capsicum, and braised fish filets and napa cabbage with roasted chilli — was $4 too high, boston.com reports, based on menu prices Edelman saw online.

So the professor emailed the restaurant to ask why. Ran Duan, who owns a bar in one of the restaurant’s other locations (his parents founded the eatery), replied. The email exchange escalated. It ended with Edelman still out $4, a worker at a “mom and pop” Chinese restaurant wondering if all this was really “worth your [Edelman’s] time,” and a lot of Twitter rage for Edelman, Harvard, lawyers, and grade inflation, among other things.

Here’s that rage:

Word is getting out. A Harvard professor has behaved badly:

Uh oh, no one is surprised. Harvard’s name is getting besmirched:

And we do mean besmirched:

Well, Harvard Business School, to be specific. HBS is to blame.

Also, privilege, elitism, and grade inflation:

Whoops, all lawyers are going down over this, too:

And everyone in tech:

Now, how shall we punish Edelman?

Or maybe just tweets like this will do:

Don’t worry Edelman, not everyone hates you:

There is chatter about an entertaining sequel:

Let’s all head to Sichuan Garden and plan one:

Except, Edelman is not invited. Actually, everyone is a bit curious, if nervous, about what it might be like to have dinner with Edelman:

We’ll probably never find out, though. Edelman is escorted out of society:

And we are left to reflect on its rubble:

Read next: Twitter Just Made It Easier to Block Haters

TIME Amazon

Amazon Is Butting Into the Diaper Business

Amazon Amazon released a new line of products for Prime members Thursday, beginning with diapers and baby wipes

Prime members will be able to get Amazon-branded diapers and baby wipes

Amazon is now offering a new perk exclusively to its Prime members: Amazon-label baby wipes and diapers.

The baby products are the first part of a new lineup of consumer goods that the e-commerce giant announced on Dec. 4 called Amazon Elements. Elements, Amazon says, will feature labels that customers can scan on the company’s mobile shopping app to find where and when they were made, and where the ingredients were sourced from, among other information.

“The two things customers told us they want are premium products that meet their high standards, and access to information so they can make informed decisions, Amazon Elements offers both,” said Sunny Jain, Amazon.com consumables vice president in a statement.

Amazon also sells Pampers diapers, produced by Procter and Gamble, and Huggies, a Kimberly Clark product, so the new product line sets the online retailer up as a competitor with its suppliers. Amazon.com acquired Quidsi, Inc., which operates Diapers.com and Soap.com, for $550 million in 2010.

Elements products are made by third-party manufacturers, Amazon said, with the diapers manufactured in Canada and baby wipes in Indiana.

An Amazon spokesperson said there’s demand among Prime customers for products including diapers, as well as information about where products are sourced.

Elements is the latest feature offered to Amazon Prime members, a $99-per-year subscription for customers that includes discounts on shipping, as well as free music, video and book downloads.

 

MONEY bills

The AT&T Bill That Just Wouldn’t Die

AT&T store with pedestrians rushing on sidewalk below
Richard Drew—AP

A Chicago woman got more than she bargained for when she tried to change her phone-and-Internet service.

When you have a dispute over a bill with a company, sometimes it’s not enough to respond to a collections notice with evidence that the bill has been paid. Sadly, even if the collections firm appears to drop the matter it can still come up again, and again, and again. This is the tale of the bill that just wouldn’t die.

It’s often harder than it should be to close an account. A small remaining balance, sometimes invisible to consumers, can create a big hassle, leading to collections calls and damaged credit – even bills that are several years old for as little as $50 or $100 can really punish a credit score. That’s bad enough.

It’s hard to understand how simply changing service – rather than canceling service – could lead to that kind of red tape nightmare. But that’s exactly what happened to Cathy Nestor, who lives north of Chicago, when she dropped AT&T’s U-verse TV, phone and Internet bundle three years ago and went with only U-verse Internet service.

The trouble started with a $70-something balance remaining on her old bundled account with AT&T’s U-verse, which Nestor claims she paid back in 2011.

Since then, three different firms have tried to collect on the bill, and Nestor says she provided evidence it was paid each time. Still, by the time she wrote to me, she was on the verge of getting reported as delinquent to the credit bureaus.

AT&T, for its part, disagrees with Nestor’s version of events. The company says the old account was never settled (for reasons we’ll explain shortly) and claims her evidence is faulty. Nestor says that the various collection firms never successfully communicated that to her, or didn’t push back when she told them the bill was paid.

The Confusion Begins

When Nestor dropped her U-verse bundle in 2011 but kept high-speed Internet, AT&T gave her a new account and new account number. She says she paid her new bill, thinking it would include any leftover balance from her old U-verse account. It didn’t. But soon after, she realized the error and says she separately paid the old account bill balance of $72 on Nov. 23, 2011. As evidence, she provided me a copy of an electronic payment from her bank statement. (And we should note that she is currently considered an in-good-standing customer of AT&T’s Internet service — that is, on the new account.)

Then the fun began.

She says she got a letter requesting that the bill on the old account be paid. She says she wrote back with evidence that it had been paid, claiming AT&T must have lost the payment amid the account number confusion. About 18 months later, she got a letter from another collection agent demanding that the bill be paid. Again, she wrote with evidence of payment. Then in January 2013 (“Yes, this has been going on that long!”), she received a letter from yet another collections company, Afni Inc., based in Bloomington, Ill., demanding a $79 payment.

“This account has been placed with our agency for collections,” read the letter. “We are requesting your assistance in resolving this matter. We may report information about your account to credit bureaus.”

“I WILL NOT BE PAYING THIS COLLECTION ITEM,” she wrote to Afni, in all caps. (Nestor provided a copy of the exchange for my review). “AT&T has already been paid, and they have tried to sell this off once before. I have already proven to them they were paid. I do not know why they keep trying to collect this.” She concluded by threatening legal action.

Then, nothing. No acknowledgment of receipt. No, “We’re sorry, we’ll drop it,” notice. No new attempt to collect. Silence. It was tempting to think the matter was closed, but Nestor knows consumers should never assume any such thing.

“Just waiting for it to show up again, you know,” she wrote when she contacted me to complain about the repeated collections.

Unraveling the Mystery

I reached out to Afni, and the firm shed a little light on the situation. AT&T had not sold the debt, but was using Afni as a third-party firm to attempt collection.

“When Afni had this account, AT&T was the owner of it—we did not purchase it,” said Debra Ciskey, director of compliance at Afni. “This account was recalled from Afni by AT&T on Aug. 5, 2013, so we are no longer handling it on behalf of AT&T.”

When I asked Ciskey what “recalled” meant, she said Afni was simply instructed to stop attempting to collect on the debt on behalf of AT&T.

“I am sorry that I am unable to tell you what would have happened to the account after we returned it to AT&T,” she wrote.

Ciskey’s responses suggested Nestor’s fear her bill would become zombie debt was well-founded.

“Terrific. I’m guessing that means I still haven’t seen the end of this,” Nestor said, sarcastically. She was right.

Next, I contacted AT&T, and the firm said that Nestor did indeed still owe the money. Emily J. Edmonds, director of AT&T Corporate Communications, acknowledged the payment Nestor made in November 2011, but said it was applied only to her new Internet service account rather than her old bundled account. That left a $79 balance (Nestor and AT&T also disagree on the old account balance).

“This customer has had an outstanding balance on her former account since 2011 that was never paid, ultimately resulting in the bill being sent to collections,” Edmonds said in a statement. “Once we were notified that the customer claimed to be wrongly charged, we conducted a thorough account review and determined the outstanding balance was indeed still owed.”

She also said Nestor had only contacted AT&T directly once during the three-year dispute to complain.

There’s no way to know who’s right about the payment, unless of course Nestor provided proof that the $70-something check was applied to the old account or AT&T provided proof that it was applied to the new account (which should have led to an account surplus, or reduced bill, if logic serves). But we do know for sure that when the third and final collections firm tried to collect, she wrote back with evidence the disputed amount – or something close to it – was paid, and then Nestor heard nothing more.

Edmonds said she could not explain why Afni didn’t respond to Nestor’s letter with further evidence that the debt was owed, and referred that question to Afni.

Afni says a collector is not required to respond to a consumer disputing a debt if it simply ceases collection. “A response is required only if the agency is going to continue collection attempts,” Ciskey said.

And that is one reason some bills never die; it’s also how consumers come to be reported to credit bureaus as late. While Afni could not pursue the debt any further without continuing the dialog by “validating” the debt, that doesn’t stop AT&T from contracting a different collector, or selling the debt.

Margot Saunders, a debt collection law expert at the National Consumer Law Center, said that’s true. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act requires any firm collecting a debt on behalf of a third party to “verify” the debt if a consumer objects to a collection notice – but only if the firm continues to attempt to collect. Second or third collections firms get to start the process over, and are currently not required by law to keep track of prior collection attempts by others.

Moving Forward

AT&T is now working directly with Nestor to resolve the dispute, so at least for now, she appears to have a happy ending. There is a lesson in her tale, however. She is an example of a concept I call the “exception bin.” Computers and databases are great at handling 99% of transactions. When things follow standard patterns, computers hum along and take care of everything. But once there’s something even a little unique about your situation, you land in the exception bin. And because corporations rely on computers so much, many run into trouble when dealing with items that land in the exception bin. Often, it can feel impossible to get out of it – even if you send letter upon letter providing evidence.

In Nestor’s case, it’s perfectly sensible that she thought she could just keep paying the bills AT&T sent her for U-verse and her account would be current. If you think like a computer, however, you can see how the firm’s computers might handle customers who downgrade from bundled service to a single service. Then, once her bill was handed over to collections, she became an exception that just wouldn’t die. Yes, AT&T used three different firms during a three-year stretch in an attempt to collect a $70-something debt from someone who otherwise seems to be a good customer. And yes, the firm could have seriously harmed her credit over a small bill that she thought she’d paid, that she provided evidence she’d paid, and for which she’d received no response (until the next collection attempt).

So what’s the lesson? In broad strokes, do whatever you can do to avoid the exception bin. Of course, that’s not always possible. Moves happen. Mid-contract cancellations happen. Early service upgrades or downgrades happen. And mistakes happen on both sides. But when they do, realize that your odds of getting caught in corporate red tape go up astronomically. In that case, you must be hyper-vigilant for signs that your exception will soon lead to headaches. Be proactive: Pay a bill, then call to make sure the payment is applied. When you cancel a service, get a letter confirming cancellation and a bill showing a $0 balance. Furthermore, check your credit scores and credit reports regularly for signs of trouble, and dispute any errors as soon as possible. You can get your credit reports for free once a year from each of the major credit reporting agencies, and you can get two credit scores for free from Credit.com along with an explanation of what they mean.

It may seem tedious, perhaps even unfair, but it’s a reality of navigating your way in the 21st Century.

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

MONEY consumer psychology

10 Subliminal Retail Tricks You’re Probably Falling For

soda can with sprinkles and a cherry on top
William Castellana—Gallery Stock

There's a reason that salesperson is being rude. Increasingly sophisticated consumer research shows that if she disses you, you'll spend more.

Today’s marketing strategies aren’t dreamed up in smoky rooms full of Mad Men. The tools companies employ to get you to buy their stuff have grown ever more sophisticated, with marketers even using neural measurements to design product packaging and appeal to your deepest desires (to be covered in Cheetos dust, apparently).

Consumer experience these days is not simply designed; it’s engineered. Research determines the ads you see, the scents and sounds you encounter in stores, even the way a salesperson might casually touch your arm. It’s not all high-tech brain science, but here are some of the tricks companies use to entice you to spend more.

1. They make you nostalgic. Don Draper was on to something with his sentimental pitch for a Kodak campaign. But the abundance of families, puppies, and childhood ephemera in the ads you see every day is more than a simple ploy to tug on your heartstrings. Recent research shows nostalgia makes people value money less and feel willing to pay more for purchases.

2. They sic rude salespeople on you. At high-end stores like Gucci, customers are actually more inclined to buy expensive products after a salesperson has acted snottily to them, a new study found. This effect—which doesn’t work with mass-market brands, only luxury—seems to have something to do with the desire to be part of an in crowd. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, you’re more likely to want to belong to a club that doesn’t want you as a member.

3. They use smaller packaging to get you to buy bigger. You’d think that it would be easier to buy and drink less soda and beer if you stick to the cute new mini-cans that seem to be all the rage these days. But research shows buying multi-packs of those small sizes can actually lead people to consume more overall.

4. They get you lost and confused. It’s not an accident that grocery stores are often laid out unintuitively. Losing focus makes people spend more on impulse purchases, says expert Martin Lindstrom, who has conducted studies on marketing strategies. Getting interrupted during shopping also makes you less price-sensitive, according to research co-authored by marketing professor Wendy Liu at UC San Diego. That’s because when you return to look at products after a distraction, you have a false sense of having already vetted them, she says.

5. They mimic your gestures—and get women to touch you. A woman’s touch—but not a man’s—makes people of either sex looser with their money, so when that saleswoman touches your shoulder, you may unwittingly end up spending more. Additionally, research shows that if a salesperson of either sex imitates your gesticulations, you are more likely to buy what he or she is selling.

6. They get you to handle the merchandise. Consumers are willing to pay at least 40% more for mugs and DVDs—and 60% more for snacks—that are physically present than for the same products displayed in photographs or described in text, according to a Caltech study. And other research shows your willingness to pay more increases as you spend more time looking at and holding objects.

7. They create the illusion of bulk bargains. Whether you’re using a jumbo shopping cart or a small basket, you’re going to be tempted to load it up, so it pays to make sure those “deals” are actually worthwhile. Researcher Lindstrom found that adding the sentence “maximum 8 cans per customer” to the price tag of soup cans caused sales to jump, even if no true discount was offered, because it gave the illusion of one. It’s worth asking at checkout: Does that “10 for $10″ actually just mean one for $1?

8. They give you free treats. Consuming even one free chocolate increased shoppers’ desire for nonfood luxuries—including expensive watches, dressy designer shirts, and Mac laptops—right after eating it, according to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

9. They drop the dollar sign. If you think the plain old “28” rather than “$28″ on the menu of your favorite fancy restaurant is simply designed to look chic and minimalist, think again. A Cornell study found that a format that leaves off dollar signs and even the word dollar gets people to spend 8% more at restaurants.

10. They carefully engineer store ambiance. Ambient sounds and smells can make you less careful with your cash. In an appliance store, researcher Lindstrom pumped in the smell of an apple pie, and the sales of ovens and fridges went up 23%. He also found that alternating German and French music in a wine shop influenced which bottles customers purchased. Even nonmusic background sounds can make you overspend: A researcher found that the distraction of noise made people more likely to buy fancier sneakers.

 

TIME Retail

Toys ‘R’ Us to Open at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving

Retailer unveils initiatives to make the shopping experience smoother during the busy holiday season.

Toys “R” Us will open its stores at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving this year, the same time as last year and a sign the toy retailer is showing some restraint when it comes to the so-called “Black Friday creep.”

“We had incredibly positive feedback with customers who shopped with us on Thanksgiving last year,” Chief Merchandising Officer Richard Barry told Fortune.

The toy retailer, which generated $12.5 billion in sales for the latest fiscal year, and many other big-box retailers have been progressively opening their stores earlier and earlier each year for the critical Black Friday weekend. Many are now open on Thanksgiving itself, angling to get an important slice of consumer spending in a bid to better compete with online rivals that can generate sales at any time of the day. Several years ago, when brick-and-mortar retailers realized they were losing out on precious sales as consumers took to their computers to shop after their Thanksgiving feasts, they began to respond by opening their stores on the actual holiday.

Mayc’s and Kohl’s are among the retailers that have already announced earlier hours for the upcoming holiday season. And for years, Toys “R” Us has been a willing participate in this “Black Friday creep” game. It first inched into Thanksgiving Thursday in 2009 and pushed store opening times earlier in every subsequent year through 2013.

But Toys “R” Us says 5 p.m. is the right time to open its doors.

“We saw that people really enjoyed the early opening, and frankly we saw the sales on Black Friday itself being very strong,” Barry said. “There wasn’t as much pressure on that 10 p.m. or midnight time. It was more spread out and people had a more civilized shopping experience.”

Toys “R” Us on Thursday also unveiled a few other initiatives to make the shopping experience smoother during the busy holiday season. The company is placing employees, known as a “Guru for Play Stuff,” at the front of the store to help assist navigation. New express lanes will help speed up the checkout process for those buying two items or less, while employees will also have the ability to scan items in a jam-packed cart and provide a bar code that can be scanned to get them out the door quickly.

Barry said it was important to serve both customers, those with the overflowing carts and those with just a few items in their arms.

Toys “R” Us must perform well during the holiday season, as it generates roughly 40% of its annual sales during the final quarter of the year, which runs from November through January. The toy retailer battles big-box rivals like Wal-Mart Stores and Target, as well as online retailers like Amazon.com, for a slice of consumer spending in the $22 billion domestic toy business.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

MONEY stock market

3 Ways a Market Swoon Can Put Money in Your Pocket

Money in jeans pocket
Image Source—Getty Images

Though the stock market tumble has been scary, there are some upsides to all the bad news.

With the market down more than 7% in the last month, it’s easy to feel fearful for the parts of your life most immediately affected by a rocky financial world — like retirement savings and job security.

Certainly, there are plenty of good reasons to be cautious about the future, including high valuations and other signs the current bull market may be aging.

But a downtrodden market like this one can create pockets of opportunity for investors and consumers alike. Here are just a few ways you can benefit from the recent pullback.

1. Cheaper gas prices

Thanks to a supply glut and low demand, gasoline prices are hovering at less than $3 a gallon across the United States. And that’s despite international geopolitical unrest, which usually keeps oil expensive.

2. Low interest rates on mortgages

The Fed is keeping short-term rates low, and the sell-off has sent investors into Treasury bonds, driving down the yields that serve as a benchmark for borrowing costs throughout the economy. So mortgage rates have taken a big dip in the last month.

Interest on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is now 4.01%, which means that if you’re sitting on a much higher rate from buying a home a few years ago, now could be a very opportune moment to refinance. Though the paperwork might be intimidating, letting inertia get the best of you could mean leaving literally tens of thousands of dollars on the table.

3. Stock-buying opportunities

When the market takes a big dive, it can be a good moment to purchase stocks, especially if your goal is to buy and hold for the long term. This is particularly true for younger people who have time on their side, as they stand to lose very little in the short term (even if stocks continue to drop) and can gain much more when the market eventually recovers.

So if you are a millennial and have been putting off opening (or upping contributions to) that 401(k), now is your moment to choose a plan. And even Gen X-ers generally have enough years ahead to take on some risk in their retirement portfolios.

Finally, if you’re not a driver, homeowner, or investor, there’s always that trip to Paris you’ve been putting off: Thanks to economic uncertainty in Europe, the Euro is trading for less than $1.30—the cheapest it’s been since last summer.

TIME Shopping

Why It’s Your Fault There’s Already Christmas Stuff in Stores

Richard Drury—Richard Drury

Exhausting? Yes. Going anywhere anytime soon? No

Everybody complains about seeing inflatable lawn Santa and Christmas ornaments stocked next to the candy corn and costumes in October or even earlier. Better get used to it, though. Plenty of research indicates that ‘Christmas creep’ shows no sign of slowing down—and stores are just delivering on what shoppers today want.

Consulting company the Hay Group finds that more than half of retailers surveyed say they’ll have kicked off their holiday promotions by this month (including almost 20% who said they started last month), up significantly from last year. That’s a lot of red and green mingling with Halloween orange and black.

“Shoppers can expect to start seeing holiday sales early this season, as retailers work to get customers in the door sooner,” the company says.

Both the Hay Group and the National Retail Federation are predicting healthy increases in holiday spending this year, and after a largely disappointing back-to-school shopping season, stores are scrambling to be the first ones getting a crack at your wallets.

If the NRF’s prediction of a 4.1% increase in holiday shopping this year is correct, it will be the first time in three years that holiday sales increase by more than 4%. “Consumers are in a much better place than they were this time last year, and the extra spending power could very well translate into solid holiday sales growth for retailers,” the group says.

The funny thing is, as much as we complain about holiday promotions pushing into ever-earlier parts of the calendar, retailers are just delivering what customers today seem to want. We might gripe, but we’re still buying holiday stuff as soon as it’s on shelves. The NRF found last year that 40% of shoppers started before Halloween, including nearly 20% who started in the month of September or earlier. The Omaha World-Herald says the Mall of America even sells plenty of holiday-related items over the summer.

“You’re going to see holiday promotions coming on maybe even prior to Halloween… with ‘Black Friday’ thrown in there repeatedly before Thanksgiving,” Ken Perkins, president of research firm Retail Metrics, tells the newspaper.

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