MONEY consumer psychology

12 Ways to Stop Wasting Money and Take Control of Your Stuff

Digging in overflowing closet
Steve Cole Images—Getty Images/Vetta

If you're swimming in stuff, not to mention debt, check out this list of a dozen tips to stop the madness and streamline your lifestyle.

In my work as a consumer psychologist and author, I’ve read countless studies about consumer behavior, and I’ve conducted plenty of research on my own, interviewing hundreds of shoppers about how, when, and why they shop. Here’s what I’ve learned about how to avoid piling up too much stuff and how to stop making unnecessary, excessive, and ultimately unsatisfying purchases.

Do an inventory check. Jenna Suhl, who has worked as a wardrobe stylist in San Francisco for more than a decade, told me, “It’s not uncommon for people to buy new things because they have so much they can’t see what they already have.” Suhl recommends weeding out what’s worn, ill-fitting, unmatchable, or a style that no longer suits. That’s not only true for clothing and accessories, but also tools, household products, and knickknacks. Another woman once mentioned to me that she actually bought the exact same serving platter twice, forgetting that she already owned it. “At least I have consistent taste,” she laughed, “but clearly I have too much stuff.”

Buy good quality—and use it. Perhaps counterintuitively, I’ve found that it’s common for people to almost never use the things they love the most—a favorite pair or jeans, a vintage Mustang—and that give them the most pleasure. Why? Often, it’s because they want to protect the item in question, because they like it so much and don’t want it to be ruined. Instead of using their favorites regularly, they buy cheaper things—sometimes knockoff imitations—for “everyday” use. The unfortunate result is less satisfaction, and that lack of satisfaction often leads to more buying in the misguided hope that some new item will make us happier. In a similar vein, many people spend more money on an outfit they wear once for a special occasion than they spend the entire year on clothing they use every week, such as workout wear, jeans, or sneakers. The smarter approach is to put your money where you’ll see it in action and enjoy it the most, thereby reducing purchasing cravings.

Count your blessings. First and foremost, being grateful—not just for possessions, but also for the people, places and simple pleasures in life—is good for the soul. But an attitude of gratitude is also a proven antidote to impulse purchasing because it creates a sense of abundance within the individual. When you’re feeling full of gratitude, you’re less likely to subconsciously try to fill emotional holes by treating yourself with gifts and accumulating more stuff.

Turn off the temptation. Imagine having a friend who was constantly telling you about seemingly terrific deals (half-off watches!), or that you simply had to try the new pizzeria in town (free dessert!). Hearing about these offers puts you in the position of considering purchases you might not otherwise have noticed. Worse, you’re likely to get worn down over time, so that you end up jumping at some offer partly to reward yourself for all of the times in the past you behaved virtuously and passed on the latest bargain. These are the effects of signing up for email subscriptions from retailers and deal sites. If you’re trying to rein in your spending, simply cancel those subscriptions. Forget the idea that they somehow save you money. You’ll save a lot more by remaining ignorant of all those seemingly amazing bargains.

Play the waiting game. When you’re tempted to buy something on a whim, wait at least 20 minutes. Then, after clearing your head, reconsider how and when you’ll actually use the product. Instead of simply choosing to have it or not have it, think for a moment about what else you might prefer instead—such as the freedom of having less debt or a bigger purchase that requires saving, such as college tuition, a house or retirement. When considering larger purchases of, say, anything more than $100, make the wait period 24 hours. The typical impulse purchase seems a lot less like a “must-have” after sleeping on it.

Learn to share. I’m not talking about the explosion of “sharing economy” businesses that facilitate things like car-sharing and bike-sharing. I’m talking about the old-fashioned DIY method of buying something with a friend or neighbor and owning it jointly. I recently watched two young women negotiate sharing rights for a relatively expensive gold necklace they both wanted and ultimately bought together at Nordstrom. And I interviewed a family that purchased backyard play equipment with their neighbors. That family is also ingenious about repurposing. For example, they decorated homemade birthday cards with buttons taken from worn-out shirts (which were cut up and used as dust rags). I’ll admit these practices can seem time consuming and not commonplace—but they’re inspiring, and perhaps there’s an opportunity to share or repurpose that will eliminate a new purchase in your life.

Buy only what you need, right now. Part of what makes shopping so alluring is the mental vacation that comes with imagining how a product can be used, such as, “I’ll turn heads in this outfit,” or “We’ll have the wildest parties with this cocktail shaker.” But most homes are cluttered with unused merchandise (often with the tags still attached) purchased for, say, an African safari that never materialized or a slimmer figure that has yet to be acquired. Don’t let your imagination divert attention from the cost and practicality of an object, nor from reality. Before making a purchase, ask yourself if you’ll be using the item in the very near future. If the answer is no or not likely, pass.

Focus on the bottom line, not freebies. “Free” is the four-letter word that always seems to work in marketing. But the free gift with purchase, the free bottle of water while you’re shopping, and the free samples can all cost you. For one thing, getting something for free creates a sense of obligation that makes it harder to say “no” to a persuasive salesperson. Shoppers also often use the free gifts included with purchase to rationalize buying something that’s way beyond their budget. I’ve seen otherwise highly intelligent, logical people spend a fortune to get something for free. And the irony is completely lost on them.

Remember that it’s okay to buy nothing. Shopping takes time, and it can feel like time wasted if a purchase isn’t made. Outlet malls, which typically require a significant drive, are particularly dangerous places for people trying to reduce their consumption. It’s not uncommon for people to purchase something they don’t really need rather than to leave empty-handed, with the feeling like the trip was a total waste. The same phenomenon occurs in upscale “destination” boutiques and at e-retail sites that have drawn shoppers in for significant amounts of time. But don’t fall for the notion that you’ve wasted time if you shop and don’t buy. The truth is that buying something you don’t need only makes for more waste.

Do some quick math as a reality check. If you earn an hourly wage, do a little simple division to see how much of your time, effort, and work is eaten up by a potential purchase. The thought that three hours of your work barely covers the cost of some restaurant meal is likely to inspire you to cook more. The same concept works for salaried workers, just first do the math to break down your roughly per-hour take. Alternately, you could compare the cost of a new purchase to the amount in a savings account, or how long it took to save that amount. Calculating that the cost of a new TV would swallow 50% of the savings that took you two years to compile should be enough to give you pause. Likewise, if you’re really trying to get a better sense of how much you’re spending, don’t use credit cards. Spending with cash feels more tangible, more like you’re spending real money that required your real time, sweat, and effort to earn—and that’s the whole point.

Buy for the right reasons. Research shows that we can think we’re hungry when we’re actually thirsty, think we’re tired when in reality we’re bored, and so forth. In other words, we’re pretty good at identifying when we need something, just not so good at identifying precisely what it is we need. The concept translates directly into the world of shopping and buying: People often buy stuff not because they truly need the stuff, but to fill a variety of other psychological needs, including the craving for human contact, relief from boredom, the opportunity to feel totally competent and in control, and the mental stimulation of something unique or beautiful. To buy less, don’t confuse the real reasons you’re shopping; the tips above about practicing gratitude and waiting for a specified time period before making a purchase should help boost awareness of what it is you truly need.

Shop for stuff you need, not sales. Another of the psychological reasons that many people over-shop and buy is to get a burst of feel-good dopamine that accompanies sale shopping. Snagging a coveted item at 30% off can feel like winning a prize. But sales are nothing special: Virtually everything is discounted at some point in today’s retail world, and at least three-quarters of the purchases shoppers tell me they regret making were bought on sale. They often say they the item isn’t quite the right size, color, shape, or style—but what got them hooked was that the price was right. This is silly, of course. If you don’t like the item, there’s no price that makes it a smart buy. I’ve also found that sale-focused shoppers, ironically, tend to spend more total money than others. Remind yourself when shopping that the point is to seek good-quality items you need, not random stuff that is appealing solely because of a seemingly good price.

MORE: How Do I Set a Budget I Can Stick To?

Hey Impulse Spenders, Here’s a Solution to Your Bad Habit

_____________________________________________________

Kit Yarrow, Ph.D., is a consumer psychologist who is obsessed with all things related to how, when and why we shop and buy. She conducts research through her professorship at Golden Gate University and shares her findings in speeches, consulting work, and her books, Decoding the New Consumer Mind and Gen BuY.

MONEY groceries

Rumors Are Flying of a Thanksgiving Turkey Shortage

Turkeys in a grocery store
Richard Levine—Alamy

You may have heard that there's a turkey shortage, and that prices are rising just in time for Thanksgiving. Hogwash.

Supermarkets have plenty of turkeys, and prices are incredibly cheap right now. How cheap? How about 79¢ per pound? That’s what the Kroger chain of supermarkets is offering in a special deal valid through Thanksgiving, so long as the customer buys an additional $35 or more in groceries.

If that’s too pricey, check out the offer from Meijer: When a customer spends at least $20 in the store, the chain’s own brand of turkeys are 50% off, which translates to 54¢ per pound for frozen birds and 98¢ per pound for fresh ones. In competitive markets such as western Michigan, meanwhile, some local grocery stores are selling turkeys for as little as 49¢ a pound. The latest Stop & Shop circular is advertising frozen turkeys for 59¢ per pound with a $25 purchase, and the chain says it will match the turkey prices of any grocery competitor. Yet another large player in the grocery field, Hy-Vee, has a coupon valid for a free 10- to 14-lb. Honeysuckle White Turkey for customers who purchase a Hormel whole ham. And ShopRite is giving reward club members a free turkey once the customer meets certain spending requirements (usually $400) over a period of a few weeks.

So why are so many headlines are making the rounds lately indicating that turkey is getting expensive?

It’s true that production is down, and that wholesale prices are up for turkey. But the important takeaway for shoppers is that neither of these factors is necessarily translating to rising prices in stores.

Due to long periods of drought and rising prices for feed, production of all manner of livestock has been on the decline in recent years. Beef prices, for instance, have increased to the point that consumers needed smart strategies to keep barbecue costs down over the summer. The Associated Press recently reported that American farmers will produce a total of 235 million turkeys this year, “the lowest since 1986, when U.S. farmers produced roughly 207 million birds.”

It sounds pretty dire. And yet, there’s nothing remotely true about the idea of there being a turkey “shortage,” as some have called it. A shortage means there’s not enough to go around—that the supply can’t keep up with demand. But as no less an authority than the National Turkey Federation noted that Americans collectively consumed 46 million turkeys at Thanksgiving 2012, and 210 million turkeys during the year as a whole. That, combined with the fact that there are ample supplies of turkeys at supermarkets all over the country, should dispel any claims of a “shortage.”

As far as prices go, wholesale prices may be rising—reportedly up 12% in October compared with last year—but, as USDA agriculture economist David Harvey explained to the AP, “There’s really no correlation between what grocery store chains are paying and what they’re selling them at.”

This year—and every year around this time—supermarkets use turkeys as “loss leaders.” The stores advertise exceptionally low prices on turkeys, knowing that doing so will be a draw for customers. The grocers don’t care if they make little or no money, or even if they lose money, on turkey sales; shoppers who come for turkeys almost always buy plenty more groceries when they’re in the stores, especially when they’re required to do so, as the best deals stipulate, and it’s in these purchases where the supermarkets make their money.

What’s more, the idea that there is a turkey shortage and/or that turkey prices are soaring is a myth that pops up regularly around this time of year. Last year’s “shortage” turned out to be hype because, once anyone read past the headlines, it was clear that even as the supply of one particular kind of turkey had declined, the vast majority of turkeys (and consumers) were completely unaffected.

In a story published today by the New Jersey Star Ledger, Ashley Myers, co-owner of Ashley Farms, is quoted laughing off the idea of there being a shortage of turkeys. “They say that every year,” she said.

And every year, everyone who wants to buy a turkey for Thanksgiving is able to buy a turkey very easily, generally at very low prices—or even free. This year is no exception.

MONEY Food & Drink

These Coffees Want To Be the Christmas Version of the Pumpkin Spice Latte

Seasonal drinks from Dunkin Donuts
Jim Scherer

Can the pumpkin spice latte phenomenon be repeated, only in winter? Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, and others hope so—and they're heaping on sugar, ginger, cinnamon, and chestnut flavors into new drinks to make it happen.

It’s no wonder coffee chains are trying to replicate the retail magic that appears annually in the form of autumn’s onslaught of pumpkin spice beverages. A hot seasonal beverage is proven to juice sales big time. To milk the PSL (Pumpkin Spice Latte) frenzy even more, Starbucks rolled out the beverage earlier than usual this past summer in many parts of the country, and it boosted sales to the surprise of no one.

Peppermint, which is known to increase physiological arousal and heightens alertness, has been a popular flavor in holiday season beverages, and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, McDonald’s, and 7-Eleven, among many others, are bringing peppermint-laced hot drinks back to their winter menus. But the new holiday beverages go far beyond a mere minty twist, with chestnut, cinnamon, gingerbread, sugar cookie, and other sickly sweet flavors providing the rush. (Perhaps that puzzlingly catchy Def Leppard song was really about holiday season coffees?)

When done right, a hot seasonal beverage succeeds for the seller two-fold by 1) drawing in customers early and often, at least partially because any limited-time offer won’t be around forever and people don’t want to miss out; and 2) getting customers to pay more than usual for their caffeine fix. As NPD Group analyst Bonnie Riggs explained of all unique coffee beverages, customers “expect to pay a premium because the specialty drinks … are not something they can replicate at home or easily get at retail.”

All of which helps explain why Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and others have introduced these new contenders for the 2014 winter season:

Starbucks Chestnut Praline Latte
In the same way that pumpkin spice has come to be the dominant, most eagerly anticipated flavor of fall, Starbucks is hoping its brand-new Chestnut Praline Latte becomes inextricably tied to the winter holiday season. “The rich, earthy, sweet, roastiness of chestnut is a perfect foil to espresso. Then we balanced the nutty chestnut flavor with brown sugar and spice,” Starbucks research and development manager Amy Dilger said of the new latte, which is the company’s first new holiday beverage in five years. “It’s a quintessential flavor of the holiday season.”

To get customers to sample the goods early in the season, Starbucks is having a buy-one, get-one-free special on holiday drinks, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. through November 16.

Dunkin’ Donuts Sugar Cookie Latte
Less than a week after Halloween, Dunkin’ Donuts introduced its lineup of sugary winter beverages, including two cookie-flavored lattes: the Sugar Cookie Latte and the Snickerdoodle Latte. They’re both available in hot or cold varieties, as is Dunkin’s Peppermint Mocha, which is back again this holiday season.

Caribou Coffee Gingersnap Cookie Mocha
With “hints of ginger, allspice and clove,” the Gingersnap Cookie Mocha from Caribou Coffee is trying to make its case as the hot caffeinated beverage of the season. Previous seasonal brews also are returning to Caribou’s menu, including the Ho Ho Mint Mocha and special Reindeer Blend coffee—and thank goodness the latter is false advertising. (The coffee contains no real reindeer ingredients, but does have “a hint of caramel and a dash of spice.”)

Peet’s Cinnamon Hazelnut Latte
Peet’s is bringing back holiday beverages such as the Sea Salt Caramel Mocha, Eggnog Latte, and Winter Solstice Tea, while also introducing a new seasonal beverage, the Cinnamon Hazelnut Latte. Follow the link for a coupon granting a free small seasonal beverage with the purchase of any food item, now through November 26.

MONEY deals

Free Donuts, $3 Burritos, and 6 More Scary Good Halloween Food Deals

Krispy Kreme Halloween donuts
courtesy of Krispy Kreme

Krispy Kreme, Chipotle, and other restaurant chains are giving customers freebies--or discounts so good they'll give you an excuse not to cook on Halloween.

This year’s Halloween food deals include free bacon and free donuts, as well as several options allowing kids to eat for free. In many cases, getting into the Halloween spirit—by way of wearing a costume—is required, so check the rules and dress accordingly.

Arby’s: No costume is required to take advantage of Arby’s Halloween freebie—instead, all customers need to do is say “Trick or meat” when ordering to get bacon added at no extra charge. Free bacon can be added to burgers and other sandwiches, or even mixed into milkshakes.

Baja Fresh: Click on the link for free kids meals for children in costume, when combined with the purchase of an adult entrée.

Boston Market: Use the linked coupon for a free kids meal with the purchase of any individual meal.

Chipotle: The annual Halloween “Boo-rito” promotion allows each patron in costume to order a burrito, tacos, salad, or bowl for $3, from 5 p.m. until closing only.

IHOP: All children ages 12 and under get a free Scary Face Pancake decorated with Oreos and candy corn (scary indeed!) from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Krispy Kreme: All customers in costume can select one donut free of charge today at participating Krispy Kreme locations in the U.S. and Canada.

Olive Garden: Follow the link to get a coupon for a free kid’s meal with the purchase of an adult entrée.

Outback Steakhouse: Kids in costumes eat free on Halloween—presumably also with the purchase of an adult meal, but the offer doesn’t specify.

MONEY halloween

Here’s How to Turn Trick-or-Treat Candy Into Cold Hard Cash

dentures on top of candy
Aleksandar Mijatovic—Alamy

Hey kids, you know your parents aren't going to let you eat all of the candy hauled in on Halloween trick-or-treating rounds. So why not swap some of it for cash money?

The cash payoff isn’t the only reason kids might want to trade in candy soon after Halloween is over. Doing so also supports the troops overseas.

To participate in the annual program, called the Halloween Candy Buy Back, families should start by finding a participating nearby dentist’s office, via a search tool at the link or at the program’s Facebook page. There are thousands of participants around the country–in New Jersey, Ohio, California, and beyond. Chances are, there’s a poster up at your dentist’s office asking locals to join in its Candy Buy Back campaign.

While the particulars of each participating office may differ slightly, they generally all welcome unopened candy donations in the days right after Halloween, and they pay $1 per pound of candy dropped off, with a $5 maximum payout. Some also give treats or goodie bags for kids—toys, stickers, toothbrushes, sometimes pizza or local baked goods—as well as the chance to win iPods, gift cards, and other prizes. It softens the blow inherent in handing over the sweet and chocolatey fruits of one’s labor spent trick-or-treating.

The program was originally envisioned as a means to get massive quantities of Halloween candy “off the streets” and out of the bellies of America’s children, and the campaign truly caught fire when it partnered with Operation Gratitude, an organization that sends care packages to military veterans, new recruits, and most especially troops who are deployed overseas. Some 130+ million tons of candy has been collected over the years, and with the help of Halloween Candy Buy Back participants, Operation Gratitude was able to ship its one millionth care package last December.

As for the more mercenary kids out there—those who are trading candy in for cash at least as much as they are motivated to support the troops—they’re probably trying to figure out what candies weigh the most to maximize their payout.

MONEY freebies

4 Bizarre Reasons Your Kids Might Not Be Trick-or-Treating on Halloween

kid in polar bear costume
Emma Kim—Getty Images

Free candy may not be in the cards for kids in your neck of the woods on Friday night—for odd reasons ranging from polar bears to high school football.

Strange things are known to happen around Halloween, and this season is no exception. Here are a few weird reasons your child might not be trick-or-treating on October 31 this year:

Polar Bears
The community of Arviat, on the Hudson Bay in far northern Canada, has decided it’s too dangerous for children to go trick-or-treating door to door because of the increased presence of polar bears in the area in late autumn. Kids are welcomed to visit the community hall instead on Halloween for face painting and a haunted house. Before assuming that one Halloween costume must be particularly popular up there, take note that no one in the area dresses in polar bear outfits because patrols on watch are instructed to scare bears off with rubber bullets. “Nobody dresses up as seals” either, one local political leader explained, because they’re what polar bears hunt and eat.

Alleged Cop Killer
Trick or treating has also been cancelled due to safety concerns in Barrett Township, Pa. In this instance, it’s because of worries about Eric Frein, who is suspected of killing one police officer and wounding another in a September ambush, and who is believed to be hiding in the woods outside town.

High School Football
This year, October 31 falls on a Friday—the day of the week that’s dominated by high school football in many parts of the country. To avoid a conflict, communities all over states including Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and New Mexico have rescheduled trick-or-treating to a day other than Friday. Most towns pushed up trick-or-treating to Thursday, October 30, but some have postponed it until Saturday—meaning trick-or-treating in November.

They’re Too Old
Apparently, the arrival of teens demanding candy at strangers’ doors was enough to scare communities around the U.S.—notably, several in and around Virginia Beach, Va.—to put an age limit on when kids are too old for trick-or-treating. In most cases, laws allow only children ages 12 and under to go door-to-door in costume begging for candy, and it’s a class four misdemeanor if you break the rules.

MONEY

Wake Up! Monday Is National Coffee Day and There’s Free Coffee to Be Had

A sea of to-go coffee cups
Paul Kooiman—Gallery Stock

On Monday, September 29, a.k.a. National Coffee Day, plenty of regional and national restaurant chains will pour you a coffee for free—or at most, $1.

Fake marketing holiday or not, Monday, Sept. 29 is being celebrated as National Coffee Day, and that means free (or nearly so) coffee can be had at several donut, fast food, and coffee specialists around the country. Here’s where to score an extra jolt of caffeine on the cheap:

Dunkin’ Donuts: All customers get a free medium cup of Dark Roast CoffeeDD’s new flavor, a surprising one from the chain—on September 29, and from September 30 to October 5, the same coffee (medium size Dark Roast) is being sold at the special price of 99¢.

Kangaroo Express: A 12 oz. cup of the convenience store chain’s Bean Street Coffee costs just 1¢ from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Monday.

Krispy Kreme: Help yourself to a free cup of 12 oz. coffee, or get $1 off a mocha, latte, or ice coffee.

Lamar’s Donuts: The Colorado-based donut chain is giving away free 12 oz. coffees on National Donut Day.

McDonald’s: Monday is actually the culmination of a two-week coffee giveaway at McDonald’s, which has provided one complimentary small coffee during morning hours since September 16.

Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co.: Customers get a free coffee (hot or ice) with the purchase of any menu item.

Peet’s Coffee & Tea: Participating stores are giving free samples of coffee and espresso, and all beverages are available on a buy-one-get-one-free basis; also, bags of coffee (ground or whole bean) are discounted by $2 apiece at Peet’s on Monday.

Tim Horton’s: The Canadian quick-serve chain gave out free donuts on National Donut Day, but sadly, customers have to cough up actual money for coffee on National Coffee Day. Any size coffee costs $1, and the promotion stretches from September 22 to 29.

Wawa: Fill out a form linked to from the Wawa Facebook page and you’ll get a coupon valid for a free 16 oz. coffee on Monday.

MONEY freebies

McDonald’s Is Giving Away Free Coffee for the Next 2 Weeks

All McDonald's customers get free coffee during breakfast hours over the next two weeks, starting Tuesday, September 16.

From September 16 to 29, participating McDonald’s restaurants around the country are giving one free small McCafé coffee per customer during the location’s breakfast hours—generally from around 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.

The move comes at a time when the world’s fast food giants are embroiled in a battle for consumers’ breakfast dollars, when on-the-go Americans are less likely to be eating cereal or anything else at home—and are more prone to swing by a chain restaurant for a quick fix of calories and caffeine. After Taco Bell launched a breakfast menu earlier this year (and also launched some funny ads poking fun of Ronald McDonald to generate attention), McDonald’s responded by giving away coffee for a 14-day period starting in late March.

The new coffee giveaway, roughly six months after the first one, is basically a repeat performance, a McDonald’s statement explained: “This event builds on McDonald’s first-ever Free Coffee Event launched in March, when the company gave away millions of cups of free coffee during the two-week period.”

With a two-week giveaway in the fall, a few weeks after the new school year started—when mornings for families and students still feel exceptionally hectic and harried—McDonald’s is likely seeking to position itself as a quick and convenient habit that’ll help you get your day started a little easier. The idea is to give out lots of free coffee now, with the goal being that 1) customers will buy breakfast when they’re picking up free coffee; and 2) customers will keep coming back for breakfast and coffee (and perhaps lunch and dinner, too) long after the freebie promotion is over.

It also must be noted that the promotion comes on the heels of McDonald’s suffering through a horrible month for sales in August, when global same-story sales were down 3.7%. Giveaways are always known to juice sales, and McDonald’s is hoping that this giveaway more than pays for itself in the form of boosting sales in the long run.

MONEY

How to Watch Every NFL Game This Season Without Going Broke

guys on couch cheering for football team
Michael Cogliantry—Getty Images

The 2014 NFL season starts Thursday, September 4. Here are 5 essential tips for tuning in to all the NFL action your eyeballs can handle throughout the regular season, and beyond.

Watching the NFL used to be simple. Fans could just plop down on the couch on Sunday afternoon, click on the local broadcast station, and they’d be contentedly screaming at the ineptness of the local team before they knew it. Then came exclusive NFL contracts with pay TV providers and sports channels, plus Thursday Night Football, plus a wide range of streaming options. Let’s not forget about the advent of fantasy football, which brought about the “need” for fans to keep tabs not just on their local team, but on the players they drafted across the league and relied upon to stomp on the teams run by their college buddies and office mates.

Stuff got complicated, at least compared to how it used to be. For help sorting out how and where to watch the NFL this season without spending a fortune, here are some handy tips.

All fans can watch some Thursday Night Football for free. According to NFL.com, “Thursday Night Football” starts one week from today, on September 11. That’s silly, of course. Even CBS Sports acknowledges that Thursday Night Football begins tonight, September 4, with rival NBC broadcasting the season-opening matchup of the Green Bay Packers versus the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. Anyone with access to free network TV can watch the game.

What the NFL is referring to is that September 11 is when the NFL Network begins its airing of Thursday Night Football. But even then, it’s not necessary for fans to have a pay TV package that includes the NFL Network. For the first time, seven Thursday night games, between September 11 and October 23, are being broadcast on both the NFL Network and CBS. An additional Thursday night game will be aired on NBC on Thanksgiving night. So unlike in the recent past, when the NFL Network had exclusive rights to almost all Thursday night games, even cheapskate fans without a pricey pay TV package get to tune in to some pro football on Thursdays. What’s more, whereas in the past Thursday night games tended to be dominated by mediocre matchups, this year’s lineup features several premier rivalries of teams with big fan bases, including Steelers-Ravens (September 11), Giants-Redskins (September 25), and Jets-Patriots (October 16).

On Sundays, check out networks for free, or DirecTV at a price. Fox and CBS will broadcast NFL Sunday afternoon games featuring local-market teams—and another game or two, usually—and NBC is yet again the network destination for Sunday Night Football.

For fans who want the freedom of tuning into any NFL game their hearts desire on Sundays, DirecTV is the go-to provider. Thanks to an exclusive contract with the NFL, DirecTV offers two packages to subscribers: the NFL Sunday Ticket ($40 per month for six months) and the supersized NFL Sunday Ticket Max ($55 per month for six months). Both options allow subscribers to tune in to any out-of-market NFL game on Sunday. The Max package comes with extra features including the Red Zone Channel (shows highlights and scoring plays of all Sunday games) and, notably, the ability to stream Sunday NFL games on your computer, tablet, or phone.

ESPN has a stranglehold on Monday Night Football. Nothing new here: ESPN has the rights to air Monday Night Football. The MNF action begins with a double header on Monday, September 8, starting with a 7:10 ET kickoff of the Detroit Lions hosting the New York Giants, followed immediately by a matchup of the Arizona Cardinals hosting the San Diego Chargers at 10:20 ET. If you don’t have a pay TV package, or you don’t have a package that includes ESPN, you’re out of luck (though there are some less-than-fully-legal streaming methods out there). Monday Night Football is available for streaming—for subscribers only—at WatchESPN.com. Subscribers have the option of tuning in via desktop, tablet, Google Chromecast, Xbox Live Gold, and several other methods, but not through phones.

Here’s how to watch games in just 30 minutes. In addition to ESPN and DirecTV streaming options, a variety of Game Rewind packages are offered by the NFL, allowing fans to watch full game replays on-demand on your choice of devices after they’ve aired on TV. As a bonus, subscribers can use a Condensed Game feature, in which the typical, stretched-out 3.5-hour football viewing experience is boiled down to roughly 30 action-packed minutes. Fans have the option of buying Game Rewind for a single team ($30 for the season) or all teams ($40) during the regular season. A Season Plus package ($70) includes all of the above, as well as access to view the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl—on-demand, after they’ve aired on TV.

(The alternative to Game Rewind is simply recording games on a DVR, then fast-forward or replay to your heart’s content.)

Yet another streaming option is available for subscribers to Verizon Wireless More Everything plan. Verizon used to charge $5 monthly for subscribers to live stream nationally televised games on Monday, Thursday, and Sunday nights, but it dropped the fee for this season. Fans can also use their devices for live streaming local-market games on Sunday afternoons.

For now, hated blackout rules remain in effect. In recent years, the NFL has received pressure from fan groups as well as the FCC to get rid of blackout rules, which stipulate that networks will not broadcast local home games if the stadium isn’t at least 85% sold out within 72 hours of kickoff. The rules threatened to ruin several Sundays for many fans around the country last season, even during the playoffs, but several teams ran last-minute ticket promotions to boost attendance and thereby avoid blacking out broadcasts. In a few cases, local corporations or the NFL franchises themselves bought thousands of tickets and distributed them free of charge so that games wouldn’t be blacked out.

Lately, the league has been threatening to move all NFL games to cable if the FCC insists on eliminating the blackout rule. That, in effect, would black out the games for everyone who doesn’t have a pay TV package. So for now at least, the blackout rules remain, and fans of local teams that have trouble selling out—Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Buffalo Bills, we’re looking at you—are likely to face the choice of paying up for a ticket or missing the game a few times this season.

MONEY Fast Food

Why People Care So Much About McDonald’s One-Minute Drive-Thru Guarantee

McDonald's drive-thru sign
Ace Stock Limited—Alamy

A McDonald's drive-thru promotion in Florida has kickstarted discussions on the treatment of low-wage workers, the quality of food and customer service, and even fast food's effects on health and society in general.

When McDonald’s restaurants in Florida began a limited-time promotion guaranteeing that drive-thru orders would be ready within 60 seconds, it seemed like a pretty interesting development to us. But we had no idea just how interesting others would find it. The response it has generated on the TIME Facebook page has been off the charts.

And it all stems from what seems at first glance like some quick, little article about a limited-time promotion that’s only available at McDonald’s in one state. What gives?

After reviewing hundreds of comments, as well as seeking comment from McDonald’s, low-wage worker activists, and assorted industry observers, here are some theories for why the story received such a huge reaction.

Concern for Low-Wage Workers
The comments section discussion is dominated by a wide range of people—McDonald’s workers, former McDonald’s workers, fast food customers and noncustomers alike—who essentially are worried that McDonald’s employees will be screwed over by such a guarantee. They say that fast food staffers are already overworked and under too much stress, for wages that aren’t nearly up to snuff. There’s “enough pressure right now without having to deal with this,” one commenter who said she is a McDonald’s employee wrote. “They are some of the most mistreated workers in our community,” another commenter wrote of McDonald’s workers. “This is a terrible, terrible idea and I do not support it whatsoever.”

Worker activist groups such as Chicago-based Fight for 15 and New York City’s Fast Food Forward have been campaigning for more than a year to push fast food giants such as McDonald’s to institute a minimum hourly wage of $15. As a Fight for 15 statement explains, “We believe that people who work hard for a living should make enough to support themselves, their families and their neighborhoods—and that workers should be treated with dignity and respect.”

“This is just another example of how McDonald’s is the boss, despite what it says,” reads a statement released to MONEY, credited to Angeling Carter, a 23-year-old McDonald’s worker in Miami who makes $7.93 per hour. “The corporation sets rules and controls just about every aspect of its stores, from drive-thru service speeds to up-to-the-minute reports on labor and sales. If McDonald’s really wanted to improve customer satisfaction, boost their bottom line and help the economy, it would raise workers wages instead of telling franchisees they are paying too much.”

McDonald’s responded to our inquiry by saying it was “great” the post received such a big response on social media. A statement from the company also clarified, “The 60-second guarantee promotion is reinforcing a standard we’ve had for many years regarding timing from the ‘cash’ window to the ‘food present’ window.”

Because there’s been much confusion about what exactly is being guaranteed, let’s reiterate: The timer starts after the customer has placed an order, paid for it, and received a receipt. After that, employees are to deliver the customer’s food within 60 seconds. If they miss the cutoff, the customer does not get his or her order for free. Instead, the customer receives a coupon good for a free sandwich on a future visit to McDonald’s. And again, the 60-second guarantee is a promotion only at McDonald’s in Florida with drive-thrus (approximately 800 restaurants), only Monday to Friday from noon to 1 p.m., and only through August 29.

As for the criticism that the guarantee is unfair to workers, McDonald’s instead characterizes the promotion as “energizing our crew and … entertaining to our guests. Contrary to some of the Facebook comments, the feedback thus far from the crew is that they are having fun with it. They are engaging with customers in a new way and are having some fun camaraderie with each other.”

Concern About Quality and Service
Many commenters took the opportunity to voice their dissatisfaction with McDonald’s drive-thru service even when there is no timed guarantee. “I’ve had to wait at drive thru 10 minutes for a Coke,” one customer chimed in. “The staff employed have no idea how to count change back, poor interpersonal skills, and little to no work ethic.”

When employees are under the gun to get orders ready under a strict time restraint, the assumption made by many is that the service and quality of the food can only get worse. Commenters joked, “Now you can get your wrong order even faster,” and “I’ll take 50 Big Macs and 24 snack wraps. Good luck doing that in 60 seconds.” Others offered more measured, sensible thoughts: “I’d rather have good service and good food by a polite employee than rushed, bad service with a half-cooked burger,” and “Accuracy is better than fast.”

McDonald’s maintains that restaurant accuracy scores “actually improved when this program was tested in Tampa and we’re seeing similar results more broadly thus far.”

Steve Connelly, of the Boston advertising firm Connelly Partners, said via e-mail that the reaction shows how much people care about food quality. “The seesaw between quality and speed, which has for so long leaned towards speed, may be coming back into balance,” he said. “People have finally started to figure out that something worth eating is worth waiting for. In a down economy, food is fuel. When the economy is less dire … food elevates in importance. Dare I say, it may even be worth [waiting] 90 seconds.”

Concern about Society in General
Some received news of McDonald’s limited guarantee as yet another indication that the priorities of our instant-gratification, rush-rush-rush society are way out of whack. “It’s sad when society has gotten to the point where it can’t wait more than 1 minute for something,” one extremely popular comment reads. Another person commented, “increased speed = decreased quality, and if you don’t believe that you’re delusional, and if you don’t care… well that shows you where society puts its priorities.”

Concern That Fast Food Is Ruining the World
When McDonald’s introduced a creepy mascot named Happy recently to consumers in North America, the masses took to Twitter to declare it the stuff of nightmares. And sure, the idea of a Happy Meal come to life with googly eyes and big teeth might be a little scary. But that alone doesn’t explain why so many people felt compelled to bash the Golden Arches.

Connelly, the ad executive, explained at the time that McDonald’s isn’t merely a brand but “a piñata” that some people must poke at every available moment. Likewise, the reaction to the 60-second guarantee shows that, “McDonald’s is a target for everyone,” Connelly explained. “No matter what they do they will be bashed. This is very important to consider here: the people who don’t eat at McDonald’s or who will never admit they eat at McDonald’s will smash them at every available turn for being a bad employer and serving bad-for-you food.”

Indeed, the people who commented on TIME’s Facebook page along the lines of “Eating that timer would be better for you than eating McCrap,” and “now they can kill Americans a little faster than Usual” probably aren’t McDonald’s customers. At least, you’d hope they aren’t.

Concern That Some People Don’t Read Beyond Headlines
Many commenters said the guarantee was absurd because customers sometimes take more than one minute to order, or they don’t have their money ready and therefore take up more time to pay. Others wondered why their local McDonald’s doesn’t have a 60-second drive-thru guarantee. And still others commented something to the effect that they will place a huge order that will be impossible to deliver in 60 seconds, and then come away with all of that food for free.

What all of the comments like these reveal is that some of the commenters didn’t read the story before responding — or at least not very closely. (One commenter who did read the post chastised this group: “Reading comprehension people!”) To clarify again, the 60-second timer starts only after the customer has paid. The guarantee is only in effect in Florida McDonald’s. And if McDonald’s fails to meet the 60-second cutoff, the customer receives a coupon for a free sandwich in the future. You don’t get your current order for free.

But why even bother with this explanation here? The people who didn’t read the initial five-paragraph post probably aren’t reading the end of this much longer story now.

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