MONEY deals

Free ‘Transparent’ Streaming, Cheap Amazon Prime on Saturday

Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent
Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent Beth Dubber—© Amazon/Courtesy Everett Colle

Amazon already has tens of millions of subscribers to Amazon Prime. But Amazon wants more, and it's using a Transparent-Golden Globes-themed promotion on Saturday to win them over.

A report surfaced last autumn estimating that as many as 50 million people were members of Amazon Prime, the $99-per-year subscription service that includes two-day shipping on most purchases and unlimited streaming of video and music content. Mind you, that was before the 2014 holiday shopping season, during which Amazon reported some 10 million new members had signed up for Prime.

Previous studies have indicated that Amazon actually loses money on Prime due to all the shipping costs incurred by frequent shoppers. Yet Prime is undeniably a powerful revenue driver for the world’s largest retailer, because of the tendency of subscribers to make nearly all of their online purchases at Amazon once they’ve paid for a membership. Hence Amazon’s relentless push to boost Prime subscriptions at any and every opportunity.

And hence the latest Amazon promotion, which on Saturday grants everyone with an Internet connection free streaming of Transparent, the ground-breaking Golden Globe-winning comedy normally only available to Prime subscribers. Besides celebrating the success of Transparent and lead actor Jeffrey Tambor at the Golden Globes, the idea of airing the show for all to see is surely also a pitch to snag more Prime members. The implicit sales pitch being: Just look at the kinds of things you’d get to watch regularly if you were a Prime member!

What’s more, Amazon is giving Prime extra appeal by knocking the usual $99 price of a subscription down to $72 on Saturday, January 24. Why 72? Again, it has to do with the Golden Globes—the most recent awards were the 72nd in history.

MONEY health

Smoking Can Cost You $1 Million to $2 Million in a Lifetime

smoking cigarette wrapped in money on ashtray
John Knil—Getty Images

Your pack-a-day habit isn't just destroying your lungs, but your bank account as well—more than you ever imagined.

According to the American Lung Association, tobacco kills nearly half a million Americans annually and costs the nation $333 billion per year in health-care expenses and lost productivity to boot. But it’s hard for the average person—specifically, the average smoker—to wrap one’s brain around such an enormous figure.

Coming to the rescue, timed to coincide with the CDC’s Tobacco Awareness Week, is a new state-by-state analysis from WalletHub detailing the lifelong financial costs of smoking for an individual. Because the average price of a pack of cigarettes varies widely around the country—$5.25 in Virginia, $8 in Michigan, $12.85 in New York—the lifetime outlay varies greatly from state to state as well. In all cases, though, the data gathered by WalletHub show that smoking is incredibly costly in addition to being potentially deadly.

The total cost per smoker is estimated at $1,097,690 in South Carolina—and it’s the least expensive state in the nation. A Kansas City Star headline noted that the “cost of smoking is cheap in Missouri … relatively,” as the state ranks as the eighth least expensive on WalletHub’s list, with the total cost for a lifetime of smoking running “only” $1,177,230. At the high end of the spectrum, there’s Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut, where the habit costs more than $1.9 million per person in a lifetime. Priciest of all is Alaska, which crosses the $2 million mark.

For a little perspective, federal data estimates that the cost of raising a child to age 18 is about $250,000—a big chunk of change, but only a small fraction of expenses reportedly incurred by smokers.

Right about now, the average smoker (or just the average reader with a healthy degree of skepticism) is probably thinking: hogwash. The process of coming up with such wild figures must involve a fair amount of smoke and mirrors, so to speak, right?

Let’s have a look at what WalletHub did, exactly. By far, the largest expense incorporated into the per-person total is the “tobacco cost per smoker,” measured at $786,346 in South Carolina, up to roughly $1.5 million in Alaska. WalletHub came up with that figure by multiplying the average price of a pack of cigarettes in each state by the number of days in 51 years. Fair enough. There are cheaper ways to go about buying cigarettes, like buying smokes by the case, but many people purchase by the pack.

What’s trickier is the way that WalletHub pumped up its tobacco cost estimates by calculating “the amount of return a person would have earned by instead investing that money in the stock market over the same period. We used the historical average market return rate for the S&P 500 minus the inflation rate during the same time period to reflect the return in present-value terms.” In other words, the assumption is that money not spent on cigarettes would have been dutifully and wisely invested over those same 51 years.

Similar assumptions have also been used in the now (mostly) discredited “latte factor,” which is the theory that holds that people can wind up with millions in the bank by cutting back on everyday expenses like a daily latte. Among other reasons, this line of thinking is questionable because people don’t necessarily invest money that they don’t spend on some product or service—they’re more likely to simply spend that money on something else.

WalletHub also includes other costs that many smokers never think about, factoring in added health care expenses (with state-by-state data from the CDC) and an 8% hit on income due to smoking, as determined in a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

Add up all of these and a few other estimated expenses, and over the course of a half-century, the cost to the pack-a-day smoker runs $1 million to $2 million, according to WalletHub. Are the figures overblown? Well, perhaps a bit. There’s a good argument to be made that the data were construed to come up with totals that are as big and headline-worthy as possible. (After all, they got our attention.)

Nonetheless, even if the figures are on the inflated side, it’s an undeniable reality that the smoking habit costs big bucks over a lifetime. And oh yeah, it can make your lifetime a lot shorter. Let’s not forget that.

MONEY Saving

How the Great Unbundling of Pay TV Could Backfire on Consumers

Cable remote
Brad Wilson—Getty Images

Cable TV customers love the idea of paying just for the services they want—and skipping those they couldn't care less about. To see how such an a la carte model could turn to misery, however, look no further than the airline business.

For years, couch potatoes have dreamed of an a la carte pay TV model. Instead of the standard package—a bloated bundle with hundreds of channels that you’re paying for whether you ever tune in or not—the a la carte option would allow customers to pick and choose and pay for only those deemed worthy. Every household is different, but the average pay TV customer watches only 17 channels, a small fraction of the 189 channels that are factored into the average package’s monthly bill.

To which the natural reaction of many customers tired of constantly rising cable bills is: Wouldn’t it be a cinch to save a bundle simply by eliminating the bundle?

In fact, while the oversized bundle remains the standard, the door to unraveling the cable package has been opened, thanks to the arrival of a broad variety of viewing options—notably including standalone streaming options that require no cable package from HBO, the Dish Network, and of course Netflix. Admittedly, Dish’s just-introduced Sling TV streaming service is also a bundle, but it comes with only 11 popular, very watchable channels (including all-important ESPN), and at just $20 a month, it’s a potentially big money saver.

To many, it’s a just and foregone conclusion that the big cable bundle will continue to lose its dominance in the marketplace, and that cord cutters and upstart competitors will push us all toward an increasingly a la carte system. There are likely to be more small and affordable packages along the lines of Sling TV, and we’ll probably see more options to pay to stream content from favorite individual channels, which HBO and CBS have already made possible.

And yet, as much as consumers loathe the big pay TV providers, analysts have long warned that we should be careful what we wish for in terms of an a la carte viewing future that doesn’t necessarily involve Cablevision, Comcast, Verizon, or Time Warner Cable.

Back in 2010, New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki wrote that if the bundle disappeared, the cost per customer for each channel would soar, “perhaps on a customer-by-customer basis.” The likely result would be that loads of channels would go out of business, and that the average customer would pay roughly the same amount monthly he was paying for the big bundle, only with far fewer channels.

The landscape has changed since then, what with the consensus assumption that TV in the future will be delivered via the Internet rather than cable. Yet the argument that unbundled TV will not necessarily yield cheaper prices remains. Among cable defenders, this acclaimed manifesto from 2013 summed up the big upside to the bundle, including more content and cheaper prices when they’re broken down on a per-person, per-channel basis:

Cable TV is socialism that works; subscribers pay equally for everything, and watch only what they want, to the benefit of everyone.

More recently, Wired offered some deep-held concerns for consumers regarding a future dominated by Internet TV options:

It will be deeply fragmented. That could threaten the very companies that pioneered this space to begin with—and make it more difficult and more expensive to get everything you want to watch.

In light of Dish’s rollout of Sling TV this week, Neil Irwin of the New York Times summed up previous research on the topic of how an a la carte TV scene would play out, writing, “contrary to many peoples’ intuition, the unbundling of cable service could actually lead to slightly higher prices for fewer channels.”

Irwin pushes the issue further, diving into the idea that not only could unbundling provide worse value, but there’s a good chance it’d make the average customer even more miserable regarding pay TV than he is right now. And the cautionary tale he cites as an example of how this could come about is the one that travelers have been living through for the past two decades or so. After all, the airline industry has steadily unbundled the flight product, which was once a package including food, checked bags, and the privilege of actually sitting on the plane next to your travel companion. With today’s more a la carte model, the price of airfare may include nothing more than bare-bones transportation.

What’s more, the airlines that have embraced the a la carte, fee-laden way of doing business most just so happen to be the most hated carriers of all. And across the board in the industry, flight prices have gone up, not down, while the unbundling has been underway.

Is pay TV heading in this same direction? Irwin acknowledges that unbundling undeniably benefits certain kinds of consumers—travelers who don’t fly with bags or care about legroom, and TV viewers who watch only a few channels and no sports. Yet he writes that the effects of unbundling on the average TV customer will be similar to what we’ve seen with the airlines:

For many more people, the result will probably be little or no reduction in total fees, combined with the hassle of making constant decisions about what channels you really want and which you don’t.

The airlines have been working hard over the years to perfect systems for extracting maximum revenues out of passengers. A recent New Yorker story described the broad airline strategy of inflicting “calculated misery” on customers and all but force them to pay fees to avoid the pain: “Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it.”

Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle responded to the idea of “calculated misery” with a slightly different take on the matter. “The problem isn’t greedy airlines” trying to milk customers by making them miserable, she writes. “It’s us.”

When travelers use search engines to find and book the cheapest tickets possible, McArdle explained, we’re sending a message to airlines that low flight prices are the most important and perhaps only criterion in our purchasing decisions. “To win business, airlines have to deliver the absolute lowest fare,” McArdle writes. “And the way to do that is … to cram us into tiny seats and upcharge for everything.”

It’s understandable that people want cheap airfares, just like we want cheap pay TV bills. It’s just that the way providers get to these end points may ultimately make us less—not more—happy. In the end, the standard could become an assortment of confusing fees and bills that, when tallied up, isn’t cheap at all.

MONEY Leisure

Right Now Is the Best—and Cheapest!—Time to Learn to Ski

A male snowboarder ripping powder in Idaho.
Patrick Orton—Getty Images

In January, ski resorts around the country offer incredibly cheap packages for lessons and rentals—often under $30 per day, occasionally totally free. And sometimes you wind up with a free season pass.

If you’ve ever considered getting into skiing or snowboarding, then you should especially consider doing so in January. With the exception of the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, January is generally a slow time for skiing, as there’s a lull in between the busy Christmas and Spring Break periods. So it’s a perfect time for mom-and-pop ski hills and huge destination resorts alike to roll out their very best promotions to entice novices into picking up skiing or snowboarding (or maybe both). And that’s just what they do, as the industry has collectively dubbed January the official Ski and Snowboard Month.

Click on that link for a long list of ski lesson specials around the country in January. So long as you live somewhere remotely hilly and snowy (sorry Florida), there’s probably a good offer within proximity to your neck of the woods.

The offers are literally and figuratively all over the map. One of the best values and most comprehensive programs is coordinated by Ski Vermont. Nearly all member resorts that belong to the state ski association, including big industry players like Killington, Mount Snow, Stratton, and Stowe, offer a beginner package with lessons, lift ticket, and rentals for just $29 on most days (not available over the holiday weekend). What’s more, Bromley Mountain in southern Vermont has a special granting lessons, rentals, and a lift ticket for the beginner area totally for free on Monday, January 19.

Likewise, ski mountains all over New Hampshire offer a similar lessons-lift-ticket-rental package for $29 in January, while the standard January promotion price for beginners in world-class Utah is $45. Then there are dozens and dozens of individual resorts around the country offering their own special deal, like a $29 beginner package from Sunday River in Maine and a $69 deal for Mammoth Mountain in California. The latter may not seem quite as good a bargain as other offers, but bear in mind that what’s included—one-day lift ticket plus a beginner group lesson and rentals—normally costs $190. So participants are saving $121.

There are other freebies too. Many resorts, including Bromley, Killington, Sunday River, Sugarloaf (Maine), Schweitzer (Idaho), Liberty Mountain (Pennsylvania), and Wachusett (Massachusetts) have special “bring a friend” promotions, in which one or more lift tickets is provided free when a newbie signs up for a lessons package.

Finally, there are resorts like Mt. Spokane in Washington and Brian Head in Utah, which offer bonuses after the basic lesson package is completed. At the former, after buying a $99 three-day package, skiers and boarders can purchase a pass valid for the entire rest of the season for another $99. At the latter, beginners who finish a three-day learning package (price: $199) receive a lift pass good for the rest of the season at no extra charge, plus the option of buying a pass for the 2015-2016 season at 50% off.

MONEY pay TV

3 Moves to Cut Your Cable Bill Right Now

Roger Lynch, chief executive officer for Sling TV LLC, speaks at a press conference during the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., on Monday, Jan. 5, 2015. Dish Network Corp. plans to unveil the first major online television service from a cable or satellite company, a $20-a-month set of 12 channels that targets U.S. customers who don't want to pay for larger, more expensive TV packages. ]
Roger Lynch, chief executive officer for Sling TV LLC, speaks at a press conference during the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., on Monday, Jan. 5, 2015. Michael Nagle—Bloomberg via Getty Images

The annoying fees on your monthly Internet-TV bill probably just rose. But there's an easy trick to stop paying some fees entirely. There's also a new way to cut your bill down to just $20 a month.

According to the NPD Group, the average pay TV subscription package in the U.S. cost $86 per month in 2011, and projections call for that figure to hit $200 as soon as 2020. Thankfully, however, we may never get there. And there’s no reason you personally should be anywhere near there. The emergence of more options for cord cutters and a long-awaited increase in competition from satellite and streaming upstarts should loosen pay TV giants’ stranglehold on America’s monthly TV bills.

Lowering your pay TV bill is very possible right now, though it’s up to you to take action. Here are three suggestions, based on recent shifts in what’s being offered in the marketplace:

1. Buy Your Own Modem
How much you’ll save: $96 to $120 a year

Cable TV companies have been experiencing a net loss of subscribers, and it’s no mystery why: The combination of awful customer service and rising monthly bills from pay TV giants, plus expanded streaming options for Internet-only viewing, have together chased consumers away from traditional bloated and overpriced pay TV packages.

Comcast and Time Warner Cable understand that blatantly jacking up monthly package prices is likely to turn even more customers into cord cutters. So as a sneaky alternative, both just hiked an assortment of fees instead. Specifically, both raised the rental fees for customers using the company’s modems. You might not even notice the fee on your bill because the word “modem” isn’t stated; instead a vague “Voice/data Equipment” line item is listed. For Comcast customers, that line item went up from $8 to $10 per month at the start of the year. Time Warner Cable, meanwhile, raised its monthly modem fee from $5.99 to $8, a hike of over 30%, while also boosting the monthly nickel-and-dime sports channel fee (on top of your regular package price) from $2.25 to $2.75.

These bill hikes may seem like small potatoes—a few bucks extra per month—but they’re galling nonetheless because they’re cash cows for pay TV companies and, in the case of the modem at least, there’s an easy way to drop the fee to $0. David Lazarus, the consumer beat columnist for the Los Angeles Times, noted that anyone can simply purchase a Time Warner-compatible modem for $90 to $130 rather than leasing one. By raising modem fees, the pay TV companies give customers more reason than ever to go this route, as the investment will pay off sooner, roughly in a year. (Lazarus also pointed out the shady way that Time Warner Cable upgraded customer modems “for free” recently, only to follow up with a monthly fee hike; it’s just this sort of deceptive double talk that insults customers’ intelligence and will push subscribers away, if for no other reason than spite.)

A Motley Fool post reports that both Comcast and Time Warner Cable have web pages that list modems available for purchase that will work with their respective Internet services. In some cases, compatible modems cost as little $70, the same amount you’d pay to rent one from Comcast for just seven months.

2. Switch to Dish’s Sling TV $20 Streaming Package
How much you’ll save: $360 or more per year

On Monday, the Dish Network announced a new streaming service that could very well upend pay TV as we know it. It’s a streaming service called Sling TV that offers an online package of 11 channels for $20 per month. The package includes TNT, TBS, HGTV, CNN, Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, and, most importantly, ESPN and ESPN2. ESPN is by far the most valuable cable channel, and the prospect of losing live sports broadcasts is believed to be what’s stopped millions of subscribers from dumping their pay TV packages. “Sports is the one thing keeping many people on pay-TV services,” one analyst told Bloomberg News. That changes with the arrival of Sling TV, however, as sports fans can cut the cord and still get the two best sports channels (plus a few other channels probably enjoyed by the rest of the family) for a mere $20.

While 11 channels may seem paltry in light of the 189 channels available in the average pay TV household, bear in mind that most people only tune into only 17 channels, and some watch far fewer. When the basic 11-channel package is combined with an on-demand streaming service like Netflix and/or HBO’s standalone Go package—both of which will be available without a traditional pay TV package in 2015—you can have access to a robust selection of viewing options while still significantly cutting your monthly bill.

3. Buy an Antenna for Broadcast Networks
How much you’ll save: $72 or more per year

The one problem some—sports fans in particular—might have with the Sling TV option is that it doesn’t include access to the big “free” broadcast networks such as Fox and CBS, which at least for the time being retain most rights to air NFL games. The easy fix is to pay $30 to $100 for an HD antenna, which will provide up to 30 local TV channels (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, PBS) in crystal clear clarity, for free.

Pay TV providers like Comcast offer basic TV packages that include only broadcast networks such as those listed above, but they’ll charge you for those “free channels,” to the tune of $6 or more per month.

Read next:
How to Break Up with Your Cable Company
5 Packages That Will Replace Pay TV as We Know It

MONEY health

Joining A Gym This New Year May Be A Waste Of Money

Gyms know many of the customers who get memberships because of a New Year’s sale will not continue to come to they gym past January. They actually count on the membership revenue from those who never come to keep afloat.

MONEY freebies

Free Rides and Coffee to Keep New Year’s Eve Safe

The Blue Line, Chicago, Illinois.
The Blue Line, Chicago, Illinois. CTA Web via Flickr Creative Commons License

It's New Year's Eve! Let's kick off 2015 in the best way—safely, and without spending a dime.

It goes without saying that roads are safer when drivers are awake and alert, and when people who shouldn’t be behind the wheel can find cheap and easy alternate ways home. That’s why these freebie programs available around the country are so brilliant.

Free Public Transportation
It’s become a tradition for cities such as Boston and Chicago to get potentially drunk drivers off the roads by providing free public transportation in their respective metropolitan areas on New Year’s Eve. The MBTA in Boston, for instance, won’t collect fares after 8 p.m. tonight, and will be running extra trains until roughly 2 a.m. Likewise, Chicago’s CTA has expanded service tonight, and thanks to a partnership with MillerCoors is offering free rides on all trains and buses from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. The company’s Miller Lite brand is also the official sponsor of a program providing free bus rides tonight in cities in Minnesota and Wisconsin, including Minneapolis-St. Paul, Duluth, Milwaukee, and Madison.

Free Rides & Car Tows
In the Washington, D.C, area, a local program known as SoberRide has been giving free taxi rides (up to $30 fare) from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily during the holidays, and the offer extends into New Year’s Day. AAA’s Holiday Safe Ride Program, meanwhile, helps keep those under the influence off the roads via auto clubs around the country that provide free rides—and often tows for vehicles as well—on major party holidays, including New Year’s Eve and Super Bowl Sunday. As you might expect, these free ride services are in high demand, and the wait for a pickup could take hours. To get home quicker while still being safe, consider using one of these apps for hailing rides from Uber or Lyft, or for getting a taxi at a flat $10 fare on the West Coast cities of Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle.

Free Coffee
To keep drivers who are on the roads tonight awake behind the wheel, rest stops on major highways such as the New York Thruway, the Ohio Turnpike, and several arteries in Illinois and Massachusetts are giving away free coffee starting late tonight and stretching into early Friday morning. The Cumberland Farms convenience store chain is also handing out free coffee (iced or hot), hot chocolate, tea, and cappuccino from 5 p.m. on New Year’s Eve through 5 a.m. on New Year’s Day.

Be safe and have a happy new year!

MONEY Leisure

Why a Hyped New Lottery Game Went Bust in a Hurry

The "Monopoly Millionaire's Club" lottery launch at Times Square on October 20, 2014 in New York City.
The "Monopoly Millionaire's Club" lottery launch at Times Square on October 20, 2014 in New York City. Andrew H. Walker—Getty Images

A new Monopoly-themed lottery game was expected to be popular enough to warrant its own TV show. But the game has already been killed after flopping with lottery players, who often had no clue if they won or lost.

State lottery sales have largely gone flat at the same time that much of the country has come to rely more and more on the revenues sanctioned gambling provides. To boost sales, state lottery commissions are constantly trying to capture the imagination (and dollars) of players by rolling out exciting new games. As one economist explained to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch this past summer, a lottery game “follows a life cycle like any product… You get this increase in sales. It peaks. People get used to it, and then you get this slowdown.”

Hence the need to regularly create and market new lottery games, like the Monopoly Millionaires Club, introduced in 23 states in October as the first multi-state lottery game to hit the scene in 12 years. At the time, state lottery commission press releases (like one published for Arizona) and news outlets in participating states (such as New Jersey) had trouble explaining all of the game’s particulars. It was a “two-pronged game,” but with potentially multiple winners and “three different ways to win a million dollars,” and each ticket came with a series of numbers as well as a traditional Monopoly property, like Marvin Gardens or B&O Railroad. Anyone with a ticket matching all six numbers would win the jackpot (starting at $15 million), and when a jackpot was awarded, other randomly selected players would win $1 million apiece. But if nobody won the jackpot, nobody else was eligible to win $1 million either.

Oh, and players were supposed to enter an online sweepstakes to win a trip to Las Vegas to be on the associated TV show, to be hosted by Billy Gardell (Mike on “Mike & Molly”), where more millions could be awarded. And each ticket cost a pricey $5. “This $5 price point strengthens the game’s play value while differentiating it within lottery draw game portfolios,” the Arizona press release explained. Whatever that means.

From the get-go, people were puzzled. “Monopoly Millionaires’ Club is like a cross between Powerball, the Pennsylvania Lottery’s Millionaire Raffle, and McDonald’s Monopoly game, which makes people collect various game pieces,” one Philadelphia Inquirer writer summed up. “Plus, there’s a TV show,” and unlike popular scratch-off lottery tickets, “there’s nothing ‘instant’ about” about the Monopoly game. While it could possibly pay off big-time for players, the game was so confusing it might “set records for people who fail to realize they won, as well as people who mistakenly think they did.”

Turns out people don’t like confusing lottery games involving delayed gratification, and they certainly don’t like forking over $5 a pop to play such games. Citing “sales that have not met the lottery industry’s projections,” Texas announced last week that it was suspending the Monopoly game, and all other states followed suit recently. By December 26, the game will disappear nationally. To borrow from Monopoly lingo, this game is going indefinitely to jail. Do not pass Go; do not collect $200—or any amount.

MONEY Leisure

Great Ways to Spend Black Friday Not at the Mall

One of the contraptions. The 16th Annual Friday After Thanksgiving Chain Reaction Event held at MIT, featuring 34 teams and their Rube Goldberg machines.
One of the contraptions. The 16th Annual Friday After Thanksgiving Chain Reaction Event held at MIT, featuring 34 teams and their Rube Goldberg machines. Jonathan Wiggs—Boston Globe via Getty Images

Who says you must go shopping on Black Friday? Here's a roundup of suggestions for fun, worthwhile events that take place on the notoriously crazed shopping day—but don't involve shopping at all.

It’s understandable if you plan to steer clear of the mall on November 28, a.k.a. the day after Thanksgiving, a.k.a. Black Friday. A confusing, contradictory string of consumer polls suggests that “only” 11%, or perhaps as many as 28% of Americans will physically go shopping in stores on the day. Even if the true figure is at the low end of the spectrum, it’ll still mean millions and millions of people clogging shopping centers across the land. The National Retail Federation estimated that 141 individual consumers made shopping purchases last year during the Thanksgiving weekend. The majority of the purchases were made in person (not online), and as expected, Black Friday was the weekend’s biggest day for sales.

The point is that there are literally millions and millions of reasons why you might want to consider not going to the mall on Friday. Add in the fact that deal-tracking experts argue that smart shoppers should probably skip Black Friday because, with the exception of a few amazing-but-limited doorbuster deals, stores don’t have their best prices this day, and we’re left with one overarching but illogical reason why people are compelled to shop on the day: They go not in spite of the crowds and the crazed, competitive atmosphere but because of it. In certain circles, Black Friday is considered the “Super Bowl” of shopping, or a “blood sport” of consumerism if you will, and there are shoppers out there who can’t pass up the action—even if it ruins Thanksgiving because Black Friday now starts on Thursday for most national retailers.

In any event, if you decide to not go shopping on Black Friday, congratulations. You pass the sanity test. But just because you sit Black Friday out in terms of shopping doesn’t mean you have to sit at home the whole day. Here are some suggestions for the day that don’t involve elbowing a desperate mom out of the way to get the last cheap TV or video game console in a store:

Parades and Holiday Lights
Portland (OR), Seattle, Estes Park at Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, and San Antonio are among the many spots that traditionally host parades on the day after Thanksgiving. The latter is a nighttime floating parade that spectators view from San Antonio’s River Walk (tickets are necessary), and the elaborate floats feature tens of thousands of lights. Black Friday is also the day that the flip is switched on for the season for holiday light displays in places such as Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.

Coat Exchanges
In honor of Buy Nothing Day, an anti-consumerism event timed to coincide with Black Friday, charity organizers launched a coat exchange years ago on the day in Rhode Island. Nowadays, coats are gathered and given away all over the state on Black Friday, and similar coat exchange programs have popped up in Utah, Kentucky, and Indiana.

Museums (and Drinks!)
Museums around the country give visitors extra reason to absorb some culture and knowledge—both in short supply at the nation’s malls—with special events and discounts on Black Friday. For instance, Miami’s Frost Museum of Science has two-for-one admissions on November 28, while from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. the Oakland Museum of California waives admission for kids and offers half-price entrance and drink specials in the beer garden for those of age. In Milwaukee, the Harley-Davidson Museum is hosting its third annual Black Friday Beerfest, with samples from dozens of craft brewers on hand.

F.A.T. Chain Reaction
Every year, an inventive, entertaining, and admittedly geeky event called the Friday After Thanksgiving (F.A.T.) Chain Reaction takes place in the Boston area at the MIT campus. Teams of kids come with elaborate Rube Goldberg/better mousetrap creations made with any materials of their choosing that, like dominos, set off a wild chain reaction of moving pieces that takes between 30 seconds and three minutes to complete. In the end, each team’s creation is linked together in a giant chain reaction to delight the crowd. Tickets are $5 for children ages 5 to 17, and $15 for adults at the door ($12.50 in advance).

Live Sports
We all know that the NFL is the dominant sport for Thanksgiving Day. The day after, however, has increasingly become a hot day for the other two major pro sports being played right now: A dozen NBA games take place on Black Friday 2014 (including a 1 p.m. tipoff of the Chicago Bulls versus the host Boston Celtics), and three of the 11 NHL games scheduled for Friday get underway during family-friendly afternoon times. Plenty of college football games kick off around the country on Friday, November 28, as well.

 

MONEY Leisure

4 New Ways Movie Theaters Are Filling Seats and Upselling Patrons

People relax in all powered recliner seats at AMC Movie Theater in Braintree.
People relax in all powered recliner seats at an AMC Movie Theater. Jonathan Wiggs—Boston Globe via Getty Images

The next time you go to a movie theater, you may be coaxed into spending a little extra money—perhaps for a beer, a toy your kid is begging for, or the right to watch the film you just saw over and over.

Even with the blizzard of ticket sales for Frozen starting the year, 2014 has been less than stellar at the box office, with a summer of few blockbusters and overall sales that are down 4% compared to last year. In previous years, theaters and movie studios have resorted to raising admission prices (often using IMAX or 3D screenings as a justification) as a way to offset declining ticket sales.

However, fewer 3D films are being released lately—at least partly because theatergoers have come to see the technology as a gimmick not worth paying extra for in an otherwise mediocre movie—so theaters and movie studios have had to become more creative in their efforts to fill seats and upsell patrons. Here are a few of the strategies that have popped up recently:

Unlimited Admission Ticket
AMC Theatres and Paramount Pictures are experimenting right now with a special unlimited admission for Christopher Nolan’s three-hour space epic Interstellar that’ll get customers to turn over an extra $15. Like it sounds, the unlimited admission ticket allows filmgoers to see the movie as many times as they like—which could be quite a few times, considering how confusing some have found it to be. Unlimited tickets are on sale for $19.99 to $34.99, depending on location, or customers can pay $14.99 to upgrade a one-time admission into an unlimited one.

Combo Concessions
To boost revenues, theater concessions stands have increasingly been offering combo packages that generally include popcorn, a drink in a collectible cup, and often some kind of toy or figurine related to the movie such as How to Train Your Dragon 2 or Transformers: Age of Extinction. The Hollywood Reporter noted these combos cost theaters about $1.50 apiece, and they’re sold to customers for as much as $7.95. As one executive involved in the creation and licensing of such products explained, the natural reaction children have when seeing such combos is to whine until a parent gives in and buys one: “The kid sees another kid with this toy and says, ‘Hey, I want that, too.'” And the popularity of these offers isn’t limited to children, as one theater food service manager said: “We didn’t think we would see 35-year-old guys with collectible cups with little toys on them, but they love them.”

Booze, Food, Recliners… and Wind
To attract more customers and simultaneously squeeze more money out of them at the same time, theaters have been adding or expanding amenities and special features so that going to the movies is much more of an “experience” than sitting at home watching Netflix. Regal Cinemas has been adding luxury recliners to theaters, and plans to have them in as many as 350 locations by 2015. AMC’s Dine-in Theatres program allows patrons at select locations to grab beer and wine, as well as lunch, dinner, or some snacks while taking in a film, sometimes from the comfort of a recliner. In June, the country’s first 4D theater opened in Los Angeles, with artificial wind, fog, scents, and sensor-equipped seats adding another dimension to 3D films.

Gamer Competitions
In October, three Cinemark theaters boasted “multiple sold-out auditoriums” for special screenings that took place in the middle of the night and charged a premium over the usual movie admission. Most curiously, the screening that drew these crowds into the movie theaters wasn’t a movie at all, but a video game competition, the Riot Games League of Legends Championships, which were being held in South Korea and live-streamed at theaters in Texas, Illinois, and Washington.

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