MONEY Saving

Verizon’s Smart Rewards, and Dumb Rewards Programs You Should Skip

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iStock

Verizon's new rewards program, which requires users to receive targeted ads if they want to get any benefits, is a case study for why you shouldn't sign up for every reward program on the planet

On July 24, Verizon rolls out a new program called Smart Rewards nationally. All customers who sign up as members—and, more important, who also enroll with Verizon Selects, a targeted advertising program—accumulate points for doing things like registering for paperless billing, autopaying their bills, and connecting a tablet to their account. Points are redeemable for things like retailer gift cards and perks such as the ability to “save up to 40% on brand name merchandise,” according to Verizon.

By now, we should all be well aware that there’s a tradeoff for membership in any such rewards program. Namely, that rewards come at the cost of giving up our data and privacy. Verizon’s program, while not all that different from many others in the marketplace, stands out because it’s especially invasive, allowing the bots to track members’ locations, web browsing history, and app usage, among other things. What’s more, the program’s rewards, which mainly consist of discounts on merchandise rather than cash back or discounts on, I don’t know, say, … your monthly Verizon bill! seem pretty lame.

So are the program’s meager benefits worth the sacrifice? We asked a few rewards program experts for their thoughts on the topic, and on the state of rewards programs in general. Here are some key takeaways consumers should think about before absentmindedly signing up for any old rewards program.

Rewards programs aren’t designed to reward you. “What’s most important to understand is that these are marketing programs,” said Jeff Blyskal, a senior editor at Consumer Reports who covers loyalty and reward programs. “They’re just another form of advertising. They’re designed to get you to spend more.”

That happens either when you spend more often because you’re a member, or you buy things you wouldn’t have after they’re brought to your attention—again because you’re a member—or both.

Forget the garbage about getting only ads you want. To consumers accustomed to being spammed with irrelevant ads, the idea of receiving deals and offers specifically tailored to your interests sounds appealing. While some targeted advertising efforts indeed seem, well, on target, the reality is that once the door is open, “you’re going to be pestered by all kinds of marketers,” said Blyskal. “And you’ll have no idea how exactly these companies and marketers got your information.” The result is that you’re likely to be bombarded by ads for products and services that you weren’t shopping for, and/or that you have no interest in whatsoever. And the result of that is increased annoyance, increased spending on stuff you otherwise wouldn’t have bought, or both.

“If you read Verizon’s Privacy Policy Summary, that means you’re subjecting yourself to telemarketing, e-mail marketing, postal mail marketing, and door-to-door calls,” said Louis Ramirez, senior editor at dealnews. “You can opt out of some of these, but I’m sure it won’t be an easy task.” (A representative from Verizon reached out to clarify that Smart Rewards and Verizon Selections are entirely optional for customers, and “that it’s easy for customers to change their privacy choices at any time, and we encourage them to review and consider them on a regular basis.”)

The rewards are rarely as rewarding as promised. “Every program has more than one catch,” said Ramirez. Among the many catches are that the rewards are harder to use or less valuable than they seem at first glance, and that the “rewards” come in the form of discounts or “special offers” that are readily available elsewhere on the web, without the requirement of joining a rewards program. Verizon Smart Rewards, for instance, promises that members who are redeeming rewards points for discounts on merchandise are guaranteed that they’ll get the lowest price available; if not, they’re eligible for a refund of both the points used and the price difference on the item.

“They’ll say they have the guaranteed lowest price, but it’s up to you to shop around and make sure that’s true,” said Blyskal. “You’ve got to do the work. And we all know that you won’t do the work. As soon as you trust a marketing company, you’ve lost half the battle.”

It’s not easy to correlate points to dollars. The best rewards programs give members easily understood discounts or cash back on items that they’d be buying anyway. When you get a CVS receipt giving a flat $5 off your next $25 purchase, that’s a solid, comprehensible value. (There may be some other hassles involved, including the fact that the rewards may expire quickly, and that you’re apt to wind up buying something you wouldn’t have just because you’re trying to use the coupon, but those are different issues.) Likewise, consumers like the simple value provided by supermarket rewards programs that give discounts on gas based on the amount spent in stores. (Though this structure can also result in customers buying stuff they didn’t need in order to secure the discount.)

What’s truly frustrating are the rewards of undeterminable value because there are so many unknowns involved. Is $5 off a $25 gift card at a retailer you think of as a ripoff worth jumping at? Is 40% off a blender that you had no inkling to buy before seeing the offer a good deal? As Ramirez pointed out, “Verizon states in their FAQ that every point you earn has no monetary value.” Sometimes, the reward structure is so complicated that it may be best to not even bother wading into the fine print. “Sometimes there’s a fee involved to be a member, or for some other part of the program,” said Blyskal. “The benefits are hard to measure.”

“Sorting the worthwhile from the worthless can require time, effort, and an exhaustive (and expensive) amount of trial and error,” wrote Brad Wilson of BradsDeals.com in a post about rewards programs. “No one wants to toil away in a customer loyalty program that doesn’t effectively reward their loyalty.”

Working the system is harder than you think. “There are people out there who are really good at working these programs,” said Blyskal. “They look at them like games, like bingo.”

Being good at this game takes up a lot of time. In fact, some reformed extreme couponers (remember that craze?) have said that maximizing every little offer in order to snag every freebie or deal under the sun is, in fact, “a waste of time.”

To figure out which of the thousands of rewards programs out there are worthy of your membership, it’s necessary to look at oneself—and one’s spending inclinations—in the mirror. If you’re the type who wants to win at everything, and who therefore may be tempted to nonsensically spend hundreds of dollars in order to “win” $25 off, tons of rewards programs would absolutely love to have you as a member. Likewise, it may seem fun to regularly be presented with tempting random offers, but if you’re the type who frequently bites on such deals, rewards programs and targeted advertising schemes could be bad news for your bank account.

The key is to make sure that you’re working the rewards program, and not the other way around. Sign up for rewards programs when the benefits pay off in a clear and practical way, with rewards for things you would be buying even if the program didn’t exist. Don’t go overboard. Don’t buy all sorts of things you don’t need. Understand that with every rewards program, there’s a tradeoff for every little reward you receive. And understand that however rewarding the programs seem to you, they’re far more rewarding for the retailers that run them.

MONEY Tech

Should You Snap Up a (Cheap) Plasma TV Before They’re All Gone?

A visitor looks at a Samsung ultraslim plasma flatscreen television.
Jochen Eckel—Bloomberg

First Panasonic. Now Samsung. With the big makers dropping plasma, now could be a smart time to buy a TV.

Plasma TVs are going the way of the floppy disk, Walkman, and VCR. This month, Samsung announced that it would stop making plasmas by the end of November. Panasonic got out of the game last year. That leaves just LG to carry the plasma torch—and that probably won’t last. Indeed, by 2016, research firm IHS says plasma TVs will be completely vanish from the U.S. market.

So, with plasma on the way out, should you expect to start seeing killer discounts on TVs that use the technology? And, if you do spot a plasma bargain, should you buy it, or will you just end up with a 60-inch doorstop?

Plasma Prices

Let’s start with prices. No need to hotfoot it to Best Buy right now, according to industry watchers. Panasonic’s exit from the market didn’t have a significant effect on prices, says Ty Pendlebury of CNET.com, and Samsung’s move is expected to be similarly uneventful, at least in the short term. However, that may change “at the very end,” Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis for the NPD Group. Eventually, retailers will be looking to move those last few plasmas to make room for newer stock and the markdowns will shift into high gear.

The average selling price for a plasma is currently $878, expected to drop 14% to $752 in 2015, according to IHS. On paper, plasmas seem more expensive than LCDs, which have an average price of $735. (A note: Some types of LCD TVs are often referred to LEDs. In this story, “LCD” refers to both types.) That’s misleading, though, because LCDs come in a range of sizes, while plasmas are only made in large (and thus expensive) sizes. When comparing TVs of similar size and quality, says Will Greenwald, who covers consumer tech for PCMag.com, plasma is cheaper.

The takeaway: If you’re in the market for a big TV, plasmas are a good deal and will likely get even cheaper. Just don’t expect to see fire-sale prices.

Is Obsolescence Really So Bad?

People who love plasmas–and they definitely exist–love them because they have great color contrast, a clear, sharp picture, and a wider “viewing angle” than LCD models, meaning you can sit further to the side of the screen without seeing a distorted image. However, they’re also massive energy hogs, and aren’t as thin or bright as other technologies.

The reason so many companies are dropping plasma has little to do with the technology itself. Rather, as LCD models have gotten better and cheaper to produce, it’s become less logical for manufactures to build and maintain factories capable of building only large, pricey plasmas.

Still, if you’re buying a technology that you know is headed for extinction, it’s worth considering what will happen if you need to get a new part for your plasma or have it repaired. Consumer Reports argues that TVs from the top brands are reliable and will continue to support their products. A Samsung rep echoed this, saying the company “will continue to provide support for our plasma TVs and our customer service policy will remain the same as before.” That said, it’s difficult to predict what repair options you’ll actually have.

So You Want to Buy

If you think a plasma could be the right buy for you, check out the Samsung F8500, which CNET dubs “the last great plasma TV.” Starting at $1,800 for the smallest 51-inch model, down from $2,700, “this TV is a very good value and will easily beat any LCD under $3,000 for picture quality,” says Pendlebury.

 

MONEY online shopping

Should You Ditch Amazon and eBay for Alibaba’s 11 Main?

Abandoned shopping cart
Michael Wriston—Getty Images/Flickr

The June 11 launch of 11 Main, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba’s first foray into the U.S. retail market, set off plenty of speculation about the company’s plans to take on Amazon and eBay. But for online bargain hunters, the real question posed by 11 Main isn’t which corporation will come out on top. It’s, “Should I shop there?”

To find out, I requested an invite (the site is currently invite-only) and pulled out my credit card.

Visually, 11 Main has more in common with crafty marketplace Etsy and flash sale sites like Gilt than the no-nonsense, utilitarian look of Amazon. Rather than sell its own items, the site is a platform for smaller sellers to hawk their wares. 11 Main currently hosts over 1,000 of these sellers, and divvies up their products into categories like fashion, home, tech, toys and jewelry. You can also browse each provider’s shop, and “favorite” items, saving them to a separate page.

Since much as been made of the 11 Main vs. Amazon and eBay showdown, I decided to compare the three by shopping for identical product on each site. I selected five different items: a jump rope, iPhone cover, bottle of pet shampoo, set of children’s socks, and pair of sunglasses (eclectic enough for you?). In each case, the item is sold not by the big site itself, but by a small seller using 11 Main, Amazon, or eBay as a storefront.

Here’s what happened:

On the pure price of the item, Amazon and eBay tied with two winners apiece, leaving 11 Main to bring up the rear.

What really matters to shoppers, though, is the total cost required to get the object of your desire to your doorstep. Now, if you’re Joe Shopper, who just wants to log on and pick up one item, you should go directly to eBay, which won (or tied) on price plus shipping, four times out of five.

But who actually pays shipping on Amazon? If you shell out the $99 a year to be a Prime member, or are willing to stock your cart with $35-worth of must-haves, you can drop those nasty shipping charges on many items. Of our five buys, four qualified for Amazon’s free shipping (the fifth was mailed directly by the seller, and was therefore ineligible). Once free shipping was factored in, the power dynamic flip-flopped, and Amazon came out on top.

Now for returns. When it comes to shipping back a product from 11 Main, you and the seller are on your own: you communicate via email to hash out the details. You also deal with the seller on eBay, though you message back and forth using the site, rather than directly. Amazon provides the most mediation; the site even sent me a printable mailing label, despite the fact that I was shipping the item directly back to the seller. (The actual return policies for each item vary by seller, no matter which site you use.)

The takeaway:

At least in its current form, 11 Main is no match for America’s current online retail kingpins. Can you take advantage of Amazon’s free shipping options? If so, make the Seattle-based retailer your first click.

Stray notes on 11 Main

  • When I logged into 11 Main after making my first purchase, the site had no record of my order.
  • If the items you put in your cart are from different sellers, they are treated as entirely separate purchases, and must be bought individually. Never have I been so happy that Autofill exists.
  • 11 Main has no product reviews or seller ratings. It’s often possible to find them elsewhere online, but adds to your shopping time.

 

 

 

 

MONEY deals

15 Great Fourth of July Deals You Absolutely Must Check Out

Baskin-Robbins Two-Scoop Waffle Cone
Baskin-Robbins Two-Scoop Waffle Cone courtesy of Baskin-Robbins

This year, July 4 falls on a Friday. And given the sales we're seeing (entire stores at 40% or 50% off!), it's looking a lot like an early Black Friday. Happy National Ice Cream Month!

The deals range from popular apparel stores to restaurant chains, and from travel sites to online banks. Here’s a rundown (all sales on Friday, July 4, unless otherwise noted).

Aeropostale: “Everything” is currently 50% to 70% off at Aeropostale; “everything” is in quotes because there are some exclusions. It’s unclear when the special pricing will end.

Banana Republic: Use the coupon code BRJULY for 40% off your entire purchase, now through July 7. Items in Banana Republic stores are also 40% off.

Baskin Robbins: Through July, Baskin-Robbins is giving customers a free waffle cone upgrade with any double scoop order, in honor of National Ice Cream Month. An even better, buy-one-get-one-free offer is good through July 6 with this coupon.

Bonefish Grill: The total bill for three takeout orders of spicy Bang Bang Shrimp is $19.99.

Boston Market: Use the coupon in the link for 50% off any family meal purchase.

Buca di Beppo: Print out the coupon linked from the chain’s Facebook page for $20 off two entrees or pastas, valid through July 6.

Calvin Klein: A 50% off sitewide sale is in effect for online orders made through July 6. Some exclusions apply.

Capital One 360: During the online bank’s “salute of financial independence” promotion, customers opening up a new savings account get a $76 bonus, and a new checking account comes with a $100 bonus.

Easy Spirit: Women’s shoes are on sale on a buy-one-get-one-50%-off basis.

Gymboree: 40% off everything, meaning savings of up to 70% on items already on clearance, at the children’s apparel store.

H&M: Select summer items (T-shirts, tube tops, blouses, sneakers) are just $4 apiece.

Hotels.com: Use the code FIREWORKS when making a reservation of at least $300 by July 4, for any date now through the end of the year, and you’ll get a $50 discount.

MSC Cruises: A Fourth of July promotion brings prices down as low as $349 per person (taxes and fees extra) for a balcony stateroom on a seven-night Caribbean cruise.

Old Navy: Specials include shorts for $8, kids’ T-shirts for $4, and women’s tanks for just $2.

Omaha Steaks: Get four free burgers and four free jumbo gourmet franks with an order of at least $59.

MONEY online shopping

It Doesn’t Matter That Amazon’s Music Streaming Service Is Lame

listening to bad music
Monalyn Gracia—Corbis

Last week, Amazon introduced Prime Music, a streaming service included in a Prime subscription that scared … absolutely none of the big music streaming competitors.

Within hours of Amazon introducing its music streaming service, Prime Music, the consensus among critics and observers is that the service is … okay.

While Amazon played up the fact that Prime Music has “unlimited, ad-free streaming” and a catalogue of “over a million songs,” anyone and everyone evaluating the service was quick to point out that players in the streaming scene such as Spotify have well over 20 million songs. “It’s hard to tell who is the target audience for Amazon’s service. If it’s a consumer mass market play, there are still some big gaps,” TechCrunch observed, noting that 9 of the current top 10 in the Billboard Top 100 were not available last week via Prime Music streaming.

Businessweek called the service “half-baked,” declaring “there is little reason to believe that Prime Music will lure people away from Spotify or Rdio.” The tech columnist at USA Today agreed: “If you’re already a paying subscriber to Spotify, or huge fan of Pandora, nothing in Amazon’s new Prime Music offering, introduced Thursday, will make you want to switch.”

Prime Music’s reception in the marketplace bears an eerie resemblance to that of another streaming service, which also happens to be an Amazon product. Tech and entertainment writers have long argued that Amazon Prime’s streaming video options were no match to Netflix, which has a far more robust catalogue of TV shows and movies.

When Prime Instant Video was still new, critics bashed its “dismal lack of popular and recent titles.” Likewise, music critic Bob Lefsetz called Prime Music a “disaster” because, among other reasons, there are so many holes in the catalogue it’ll inevitably frustrate subscribers. “Now Bezos wants me to waste time, which nobody has any of, to click around and find the music I want to hear on his service, ultimately being disappointed in a fair share of my efforts?” Lefsetz wrote. “This is not a benefit, this is a DISTRACTION!”

Much of the Prime Music criticism is completely valid. But it probably doesn’t matter. Amazon customers are not only likely to see Prime Music as a benefit, but as the best kind of benefit, one that’s totally free, passed along by those generous benefactors in Seattle. Amazon Prime was born as a two-day delivery service—buy as much as you want on the site and get two-day shipping for $79 annually—and that’s what the average subscriber still thinks he’s paying for. All the extras, including video streaming, some free Kindle ebook rentals, and now, Prime Music, tend to be viewed as just that, as perks or extras.

It’s hard to complain about a service being somewhat subpar when the service being provided is free. Or at least when it feels like the service is free. Of course, you’re paying for the service, via your subscription fee—now $99, up from the original $79—plus all of those purchases you’re making at Amazon. But it still sorta feels free. For that matter, the “free” two-day shipping isn’t really free either; it’s more like a flat prepaid payment of $99 for a year’s worth of shipping.

By bulking up what’s included in the Amazon Prime service package, Amazon is using a tactic out of the storied cable TV bundle playbook. The average pay TV subscriber watches only around 17 channels, yet his package includes 100, 200, perhaps 700 more options. Paying $90 per month for a mere 17 channels sounds like a lot. But when that $90 gives the customer a bundle of 600 channels, it feels like a much better value—even if you never watch 573 of them. Similarly, Amazon Prime members are likely to feel like they’re getting good value for their Prime bundle, even if they rarely or never take advantage of the streaming options and other extras.

Just knowing that these extras are part of the package helps convince some consumers that a Prime membership is worthwhile. And if they actually use those streaming options for hours and hours, week in, week out? That works out well for Amazon too, because the more time spent on the site, the more likely a subscriber is to be tempted into making purchases. And the more likely a subscriber is to feel that an Amazon Prime membership is an absolute essential. Subscribers will only head more in that direction as Prime Music adds to its song list, which is sure to happen in the same way that Prime Instant Video has expanded its catalogue, adding HBO shows like “The Sopranos” in April.

And hey, remember, it’s all free for Prime subscribers!

MONEY Shopping

QUIZ: What Your Dad Really Wants for Father’s Day

Drawing a blank on what to buy your pops? Take our quiz to figure out the perfect gift to match his personality.

 

 

MONEY Sports

How World Cup Soccer Puts the Squeeze on Fans

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June 07, 2014: the United States of America forward Clint Dempsey (8) takes a shot on the goal while being defended by Nigeria defender Juwon Oshaniwa (13) during action between the USA Men's National Soccer team and Nigeria at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Florida. This is the last match before the USA team leaves for Brazil and the 2014 World Cup Championships. USA defeated Nigeria 2-1. Gray Quetti—AP

From $35 pizzas to $40,000 ticket prices, official noisemakers to the official FIFA music album, companies want fans to pay up to enjoy the 2014 World Cup in style.

Watching the 2014 World Cup in Brazil doesn’t have to cost anything. Ten matches are being aired on public television (ABC), and the rest are available for pay-TV subscribers via ESPN’s streaming services and plain old ESPN TV channels. (Many other streaming options are available as well for online viewing.)

But for those who want the full fanatical World Cup experience—and who are willing to pay for it—there’s no shortage of options for enhancing one’s enjoyment of the beautiful game on its biggest stage. Here’s a look at some of the costs confronting fans:

$0 The cost of a special temporary visa for U.S. citizens going to Brazil specifically for the World Cup. A normal tourist visa for entrance to Brazil is $160, but the fee has been waived by the Brazilian consulate for American travelers who already have tickets to one or more World Cup match. Be sure you qualify and all your paperwork is in order before applying. Mind you, the cost of a flight to Brazil will run in the thousands for the foreseeable future.

Gumtoo World Cup tattoo.
courtesy of Gumtoo

$1.25 Cost of a World Cup-theme “designer temporary tattoo” from Gumtoo, after a special coupon code (BRASIL2014) is entered at checkout, giving a 50% discount on the regular $2.50 price. International shipping is free on orders of $20 and up. It’s a far cheaper, less regrettable, less fanatical alternative to the real tattoos sported by World Cup superfans.

World Cup official CD
courtesy of Sony Music

$1.29 Price to download “We Are One (Ole Ola),” the official 2014 FIFA World Cup song by Pitbull, featuring Jennifer Lopez and Claudia Leitte. It costs $9.99 to download the entire 2014 FIFA World Cup official album, “One Love, One Rhythm,” with songs from Shakira, Ricky Martin, Santana & Wyclef, the Isley Brothers, and Baha Men.

$10 Difference between the cost of a three-piece infant World Cup soccer outfit featuring England ($74.99) and USA ($64.99), at the official FIFA online store. The site also sells onesies with the logos of every country in the tournament, from Algeria to Uruguay, and no matter what the team, they cost a flat $16.99 apiece.

140612_EM_PriceSoccerFan_Caxirola_1
The Asahi Shimbun—Getty Images

$13.99 The price listed on FIFA’s website for a caxirola, a hand-held noisemaker in your choice of yellow or red that sounds like a traditional South American rainstick when rattled. It’s being marketed as Brazil’s answer to the vuvuzela, the annoying plastic horn that blared nonstop during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Though World Cup marketers are presenting the caxirola as a “must have” for any fan, the noisemakers are actually banned inside soccer stadiums for safety reasons. They’ve been “likened to a hand grenade with brass knuckles,” as the Wall Street Journal put it.

$15 The cheapest World Cup ticket available on the secondary market after prices crashed in late May, according to Bloomberg News. Tickets for a matchup of Greece vs. Ivory Coast with a face value of $135 were selling for as little as $15.48. Last week, FIFA released nearly 180,000 more early-round tickets for sale starting officially at $90. You don’t want to know how much sellers have been asking on the secondary market for prime tickets to the final match, but scroll down and you’ll see.

140612_EM_PriceSoccerFan_Cheeseburger_1
Lonely Planet—Getty Images

$17 Price for a cheeseburger in Rio in advance of tourists arriving for the World Cup. A pepperoni pizza, meanwhile, is running at the inflated price of roughly $35.

Caipirinha
Ivan Mateev—Getty Images

$35 to $50 The range of what you’ll pay (in the U.S.) for a bottle of cachaca, the sugar cane-based Brazilian liquor described as “halfway between rum and tequila” sure to get you in the spirit, so to speak, for enthusiastic 2014 World Cup viewing.

$48 Amount being charged to soccer fans in China (which is apparently wild about the World Cup even though the national team isn’t involved), when they need a fake medical note in order to be excused from work the day after watching a late-night match.

Soccer Jersey
courtesy of Nike

$90 The price of a particularly popular white replica Team USA soccer jersey on Fanatics.com. (For a while, the item was sold, but has been restocked to meet demand.) Some sports apparel sites are also still selling USA jerseys featuring the name and #10 of Landon Donovan, one of the best American soccer players ever—who was shockingly cut from the 2014 World Cup team in May.

$120 Minimum extra being charged, on top of a customer’s existing pay TV package, by a TV provider in the United Arab Emirates for access to all of the tournament’s 64 matches. The cheapest package showing the World Cup runs Dh440, or around $120—nearly 50% higher than all-access World Cup viewing four years ago. It’s not the only place where fans must pay up to watch: In Singapore, for instance, a package with all 64 matches is running about $88.

Corcovado, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Andrea Pistolesi—Getty Images

$487 to $682 Range of estimated daily expenditures by travelers visiting World Cup host cities, according to TripAdvisor data, with Cuiaba at the low end and Rio de Janeiro, unsurprisingly, as the most expensive option. The average hotel room rate in Rio is $445 during the World Cup, roughly double the price at the same time last year.

$714 The average amount Chileans would pay out of their own savings to see their team win the World Cup, according to an ING Direct survey. That’s the highest of any country in the survey—Italy came in second, with the average fan willing to part with €464 ($630) to be guaranteed the national team would win. America’s less-than-crazed soccer “fans,” by contrast would pay a mere $50, on average, to win the World Cup.

$40,000+ Despite FIFA’s warnings that resold tickets will not be honored at stadiums, sellers have been advertising tickets to the World Cup finals for upwards of $40,000. At the ticket resale site StubHub, the starting price for World Cup finals tickets was around $6,600 on the eve of the tournament kickoff.

140612_EM_PriceSoccerFan_Adidasball_1
courtesy of Adidas

$650 Million Rough estimate for how much Adidas will make selling various versions of the official 2014 World Cup soccer ball.

David Villa of Spain
David Ramos—Getty Images

$900 Million Estimated collective worth of Spain’s World Cup team, after tallying up the market value of its 23 players. That’s the highest of all the 32 World Cup teams. Spain is followed by Germany (players’ market value: $828 million), Brazil ($689 million), and France ($607 million), all the way down to Honduras ($31.1 million). Team USA’s players have a total value of $84.3 million, ranking it #26 on the list. All of the players in the tournament combined have a value of $9.69 billion, according to Transfermarkt, the trading site that put together the study.

Hey fans around the globe: In one way or another, we’re all collectively paying their salaries!

MONEY First-Time Dad

Daddy No Bucks: Why Does My One Baby Need Two of Everything?

Luke Tepper
Do not be deceived by the adorableness. This child is one very demanding consumer.

Little did this new dad know that one bouncy seat wouldn't be enough. The next installment in a series of dispatches on being a new dad, a Millennial, and (pretty) broke.

One day about a month ago, I found myself in the middle of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in the pouring rain desperately clutching a BabyBjorn Babysitter Balance black pinstripe chair. (That’s a seat for newborns—which retails for about $150—in case you’re among the well-rested childless.)

My umbrella’s metal rod smacked me in the face before blowing off into the wind like so many other lost New York City umbrellas. I muddled on soaked for the next 20 minutes until I reached my apartment. My wife took one look at me, then down at the trash bag-protected chair, and in a pained voice said, “I hope it isn’t ruined.” I could see my place.

The rub is that the BabyBjorn was our second infant chair. Our son—only three months old at the time—hadn’t outgrown his first one, he just didn’t like it. Or at least my wife didn’t. The same goes for his sound machine and bathtub. I knew that we’d need a lot of baby stuff, but I had no idea that we’d need that stuff in duplicate.

I had gone to purchase the chair from a perfectly sweet couple that lives in a tiny brownstone apartment—I immediately resented them and imagined my family in their home—because in the recent past our son began a non-violent protest against his chair (a Fisher-Price My Little Snugabunny Deluxe Bouncer, $65.)

The problem with the Snugabunny was beyond me. Cloth birds hang from a plastic branch attached to its base, soft fabrics cushion its seat and the thing vibrates, bounces and chirps. It was also the first bit of his furniture I assembled, so there was that.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Tepper said the chair was no longer worthy of our son’s time. And to be fair, she is with him all day (I’m only there mornings, nights and weekends), so she would know.

Some poor soul bought us the Snugabunny for our baby shower, so at least we hadn’t laid out any cash on the thing.

The brownstone family sold us the BabyBjorn for $70 because we are part of the same neighborhood parents’ listserv. Get on a listserv! It pays to belong to a community of concerned parents who will read a product’s specs and reviews as closely as your wife.

It also helps if all the parents in your group have a lot more money than you do.

This is not the only time we’ve doubled up on items:

His original sound machine, the Sweet Slumber by Graco ($45), came with a glow nightlight and 12 sounds, such as nature sounds and white noise. At some point that became insufficient, so we added the Dohm-DS by Marpac ($60.) This one is for adults. He now uses both and his room sounds like an airplane tarmac.

We’ve gone from the Puj Tub ($45) to the 4mom’s Infant Tub ($50), which actually measures water temperature, and traded in the Harper Elephant Mobile from Pottery Barn ($59) for something French called the Mobile nuit insolite Djeco. This mobile sells for 20 euros, (I’m not actually sure how my wife paid for it) and also glows in the dark. Glowing in the dark is big.

I’ve found it’s best to think of the first round of baby purchases, and the hundreds of dollars spent on these finely crafted stand-ins, as a necessary cost of business: Everything involved in caring for your child is so new and you don’t know what chair your kid will like until he sits in it.

At least you can always hock the barely used stuff on your neighborhood listserv.

MONEY Shopping

5 Ways to Trim Your Meat Budget During Barbecue Season

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Flamed grilled steaks on a barbecue Carlos Davila—Alamy

Smart, simple ways to keep the soaring price of beef from ruining your grilling season.

Just in time for prime barbecuing season, there’s been an across-the-board rise in meat prices. Many reasons have been cited for higher prices at the supermarket—lingering drought conditions tend to be blamed the most—but farm groups point to another culprit: you.

Strong consumer demand, especially for high-quality meats, is the primary reason, according to Bob Young, chief economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation. “Consumers are feeling better about themselves and their income situation and willing to pay up for good meat,” Young told The Atlantic recently. “I think that given the stronger demand, folks are going to find not quite the cut they want for the price they want. They might have to downmarket a bit.”

Here are five smart ways to cope without giving up your barbecue fix.

Buy in bulk. Maybe from the back of a truck. No matter if you’re at Costco, Walmart, or your local grocer, you’ll almost always pay a lower per-pound price for steaks, ground beef, and more by purchasing meats in larger packages—over 3 pounds, typically. Foodies and frugality gurus alike often recommend the strategy of buying a side of beef or an entire pig straight from a trusted farmer, though this isn’t always practical for folks who don’t have the freezer space or the desire to sharpen up their butcher’s skills.

One of the more odd and intriguing means of buying in bulk comes from a Washington-based company called Zaycon Foods, whose curious sales procedure—and terrific prices, under $2 a pound for chicken breasts—started attracting national attention more than a year ago. You won’t find the Zaycon brand at any store; instead, the company uses a no-middleman approach to business, in which customers place orders online and pick them up at a prearranged time from the back of a truck that’s waiting in, say, a church parking lot. The meat is never frozen; it’s taken from the farm and loaded onto the refrigerated trucks that wind up at pickup locations. “The products are as fresh as if you had your own farm, but without all the chores,” the Zaycon site explains. This is truly a buy-in-bulk operation, with huge packages you won’t see at the supermarket, or even Costco. An individual order of ground beef or chicken breasts is 40 pounds worth of meat.

The Seattle Times described the typical pickup scene: “The driver arrives at the designated parking lot, spreads out yellow parking cones to create a path for the customers’ cars, and hands off the boxes while checking names on an iPad.” Yet despite the quirkiness (or maybe partly because of it), Zaycon’s business has been thriving. At last check, Zaycon had roughly 1,300 drop-off locations in 48 states. Some 325,000 customers have signed up with the company around the country, up from just 84,000 registered users at the end of 2011.

Freeze now, eat later. It goes without saying that if you’re going to make use of Zaycon, or Costco’s meat section for that matter, owning a large freezer is in a must. Of course, smart grocery shoppers also stock up on meats for grilling when their favorite supermarket has a good sale, or there’s a great coupon circulating, rather than right before the July 4 weekend, when you’ll have to pay top dollar. Yet again, a good—and good-sized—freezer is in order, as is some basic knowledge about defrosting meat safely, without losing flavor.

Master of the art of leftovers. Today’s grilled steak is tomorrow’s shabu-shabu. Sure, you could simply heat up the leftovers and eat, but where’s the fun in that? If done correctly, leftovers won’t taste like leftovers, and they can be stretched out and incorporated into several days’ worth of eating. To spice things up, consult SuperCook and enter the foods and ingredients you have handy to see what new dish you can make. For leftover grilled meats, Real Simple recommends sprinkling barbecue sauce, a marinade, or just water over what you have, then wrapping it in foil and warming over indirect heat for a few minutes. Plain old reheating can dry out the meat.

Don’t be snobby about cheap cuts. Ground beef that’s 90% lean will be more expensive than ground chuck that’s 70% or 80% lean. And guess what? The fattier stuff offers far superior taste in a burger. Whereas burgers made with lean ground beef tend to be dense and dry, a 70% lean burger will be juicy and tasty. As a bonus, a lot of the fat drips off in the grilling process. As for grilling steaks, consider less expensive cuts like the skirt and hanger steak over the pricier strip or ribeye. When seasoned and cooked wisely, the cheap cuts won’t taste cheap.

Embrace meatless Monday. It’s an easy way to save a little cash and get a little healthier: At least once a week—it doesn’t have to be a Monday—go meatless. You can still fire up the grill. The Meatless Monday movement offers plenty of suggestions for meals planned around grilled vegetables. Quinoa and white bean burgers anyone?

MONEY privacy

7 Ways to Protect Your Privacy Online

Illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Companies can buy info on your health, political affiliations, financial stability, and more. Here's how to keep data brokers in the dark.

Data brokers store personal information about almost every single American consumer–and there’s usually very little you can do to see, correct, or delete your file. In fact, the companies that sell your personal data may know more about you than your own family does. That’s Federal Trade Commission chairwoman Edith Ramirez’s striking conclusion about a new government study on the data broker industry.

Brokers collect a wide swath of data about your buying habits, online behavior, home, finances, health, and more, according to the FTC, including this information:

• Your name (and previously used names), age, birthday, and gender
• Your address (and previous addresses), phone numbers, and email addresses
• Your Social Security and driver’s license numbers
• Your children’s ages and birthdays
• Your height and weight
• Your race and ethnicity
• Your religion (based on your last name)
• What languages you speak
• Whether you’re married (and whether you’re a single parent)
• Who lives with you
• Your education level and occupation (or if you’re retired)
• Bankruptcies, convictions for crimes, and tax liens
• Your state licenses–whether you hunt, fish, or have a professional license
• Your voter registration and political party
• The electronics you buy
• Your friends on social media
• How much you use the Internet and various social networks, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter
• Whether you use long distance calling services or mobile devices
• What kind of home you live in and how long you’ve lived there
• Your home loan amount, interest rate, and lender
• Your home’s listing price and market price
• How many rooms and bathrooms are in your home
• Whether you have a fireplace, garage, or pool
• What kinds of clothes you like
• What kinds of sporting events you attend
• The charities and causes you donate to
• Whether you gamble at casinos or buy lottery tickets
• Whether you’re a newlywed or pregnant
• The magazines and catalogs you subscribe to
• The media channels you use
• Whether you golf, ski, or camp
• Whether you own pets
• The celebrities, movies, music, and books you like
• Whether you have upscale retail cards
• The daytime TV you watch
• What credit cards you carry and your credit worthiness
• Whether you own stocks and bonds
• How many investment properties you own
• Your estimated income and your discretionary income
• Whether you have life insurance
• What car brands you prefer
• The make and model of your cars
• Whether you own a boat
• The most you’ve ever spent on travel
• Whether you’re a frequent flyer and your favorite airline
• Whether you own vacation property
• What kinds of vacations you take (including casino, time share, cruises or RV vacations)
• How you pay for things
• What kinds of food you buy
• How much you buy from “high-scale catalogs”
• What kinds of products you frequently buy
• Whether you buy women’s plus-sized clothing or men’s big & tall clothing
• Whether you search for ailments online
• Whether you or someone in your household smokes
• The drugs you buy over-the-counter
• Whether you wear contacts
• Whether you suffer from allergies
• Whether you have an individual health insurance plan
• Whether you’ve bought supplemental Medicare or Medicaid insurance
• Whether you buy weight loss supplements

 

How do companies know that? You might be revealing details about your private life without realizing it. Whenever you post information online, register on a website, shop, or submit a public record like a mortgage or voter registration, data brokers can collect information, and then turn around and sell what they have on you to advertisers and other companies (like risk mitigation and people-finder services).

Data brokers also make guesses about you and your interests based on other information they have, then sort you into groups, called “segments.” That way, advertisers can buy lists of consumers who might be interested in particular products.

Privacy advocates fear that companies might use personal information–and particularly demographic information–to discriminate against certain consumers. For example, the FTC warns that lenders could target vulnerable groups with subprime loans, or insurers could decide that people with adventurous hobbies are high-risk.

The industry line is that those concerns are purely speculative and that some customers appreciate targeted ads. “One interesting thing about this [FTC] report is that after thousands of pages of documentation submitted over the two years of thorough inquiry by the FTC, the report finds no actual harm to consumers, and only suggests potential misuses that do not occur,” Peggy Hudson, senior vice president of government affairs at the Direct Marketing Association, said in a statement.

The FTC is urging Congress to give you access to your data and the ability to opt-out of data broker services. In the meantime, here are a seven easy things you can do to limit what you share.

1. Delete Cookies

The first step towards protecting your privacy online is to delete “cookies” from your browser, says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Cookies let websites collect information about what else you do online. Most browsers have privacy settings that let you block third-party cookies. But it’s not fool proof. Stephens warns that trackers are now switching from cookies to a new kind of targeting called fingerprinting, which is much harder to avoid.

2. Log Out of Social Media Sites While You Browse the Web

Another simple strategy, says Stephens, is to use different browsers for different online services. That will limit how much information any one site can collect about your web activity. For example, he says, “don’t go to a shopping site while you are logged in to Facebook.”

3. Change Your Smartphone’s Privacy Settings

Advertisers can also track you when you’re browsing the web on your mobile device, warns Gautam Hans, attorney at the Center for Democracy and Technology. You can change the privacy settings on your iPhone or Android device to limit ad tracking.

4. Skip Store Loyalty Cards

Data brokers collect information from the real world too, Hans says. It’s impossible to limit brokers’ access to some kinds of personal information, like public records. But if privacy is really important to you, decline offers for store loyalty cards–a major way retailers gather information about your buying habits. The downside? You may miss out on discounts.

5. Employ Advanced Online Tools

For the especially privacy-conscious, there are a number of online tools that can ratchet up your defenses. Some browser add-ons, like Disconnect.me, help you see and block tracking requests as you spend time online. Instead of Google, you can try the DuckDuckGo search engine, which promises not to collect or share personal information. Or use the browser Tor, which lets you go online anonymously. But these extra measures may not be a good fit for everyone. Some websites don’t load properly when you use anonymous browsing, Hans notes.

6. Opt-out of Data Broker Collection—Whenever Possible

Ultimately, it’s difficult to get data brokers to stop collecting information about you, or even find out how much information brokers already have. The FTC concluded that to date, “consumer opt-out requests may not be completely effective.” But one major data broker made waves last year when it launched a portal that allows you to access your data and opt-out of certain services. Check AboutTheData.com to see what information Acxiom has stored on you.

7. Do a Digital Check-up

Many popular sites like Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter offer privacy controls, so use them. Every once in a while, check your settings and see if you’re happy with how you are limiting the ways your data is used. “What’s important is that people have the opportunity to meaningfully consent,” Hans says.

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