MONEY consumer psychology

Avoid These 5 Pitfalls That’ll Undermine Your New Year’s Resolutions

New Year's Resolutions
Peter Dazeley—Getty Images

Fewer than 10% of New Year resolutions are kept for the entire year. In fact, most are toast by Valentine’s Day. This year can be different, and avoiding these classic resolution mistakes will give you a fighting chance.

It’s a couple days past New Year’s, the traditional time to resolve to make positive changes to your life. Perhaps you want to improve your health, turn a bad habit into a good one, or get your finances in order. In fact, new financial goals such as spending less, saving more, paying down debt, or sticking to a budget are routinely among the top New Year’s resolutions. No matter what your pledge, it’ll be much more difficult to follow through if you make resolutions that, for one reason or another, are nearly impossible to keep.

Don’t set yourself up for failure. Here’s what NOT to do when making resolutions:

Set unrealistic goals. Full of resolve, we typically start off the year sure we can go forever without the spending pleasures we enjoyed just a week ago. But then real life takes hold. Big, bold, sweeping resolutions are set-ups for failure. Be realistic about your life and articulate goals that you can live with and achieve. For example, vowing to swear off something that you love or find incredibly convenient (be it fine wine or Uber rides) isn’t a resolution that’s likely to last. Instead consider compromises that you can live with all year long, such as trimming your wine budget by one-third or opting for public transportation during the work week and Ubering only on weekends.

Pledge to change in a vague way. Now that you’ve got a realistic goal or two, create a specific, detailed action plan. For example, rather than saying you’ll save money, say that you’ll increase your retirement contribution by $1,200 a year. Or rather than saying you’ll spend less, say that you’ll cut $30 a week from your grocery bill or limit yourself to one Starbucks a week.

Don’t bother tracking your progress. Not doing something (like spending or eating) is far more difficult than doing something. We do better when we can take action. Therefore, activate your goals by doing things like writing them down or using tools that will help you see your progress. For example, apps and websites like Mint.com can be set-up to automatically upload credit cards, loans, investments, property, savings and checking accounts so that you can see what you’re spending, set up a budget and track your progress.

Focus on the negative. Don’t shame or label your self in a negative way — such as a “problem spender” or “bad with money.” Shaming and negativity backfire by inspiring self-doubt and guilt, which sabotages the resolve necessary to implement your plan. Focus instead on the positive characteristics you have that will aid you instead — such as flexibility, eagerness to learn new habits, or wisdom. Speaking of wisdom, we do tend to get wiser with age. You might have once indeed been “bad with money,” but you’re older and wiser now. Give yourself a break, as well as the opportunity to see yourself in a new light. This approach will increase your chances of successfully seeing resolutions through.

Expose yourself to temptation. If your downfall is the after work get-together at the local bar, suggest other activities like getting together at someone’s home. If shopping is the culprit, cut off those email blasts and avoid the mall. Our resolve diminishes the more we’re forced to say “no,” so avoid situations where you have to choose. Similarly, wherever you can, set up automatic savings or contribution plans to avoid the temptation of spending.

New Year’s resolutions are hard enough to abide by when they’re made in the right way. So don’t make your job more difficult. The start of a new year brings with it a prime opportunity to jettison past baggage and see ourselves in a new light. By setting realistic, specific, actionable goals and arming yourself with new tools and a positive attitude, you’ll increase the likelihood of making changes that are truly for the better and that last for the long haul—or at least past Valentine’s Day.

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 deals

Why You Should Be Shopping for Christmas Decorations Right Now

Customers browse Christmas decorations while shopping at a Home Depot Inc. store in Torrance, California, U.S.
Customers browse Christmas decorations while shopping at a Home Depot Inc. store in Torrance, California, U.S. Patrick T. Fallon—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Walk into pretty much any store that stocks holiday decorations this weekend and you're bound to bump into tremendous deals--easily discounts of 75% off or more.

Every price-conscious shopping strategist is well aware of how quickly and dramatically seasonal items go on sale as soon as the peak-buying period around a holiday is over. It’s tradition for holiday decorations to go on clearance sale immediately after Christmas, and sometimes even days or weeks before December 25.

But now that we’re a week removed from Christmas, shoppers can expect prices on holiday merchandise to plunge even lower. What this means is that this weekend is an absolutely optimal time to buy, provided you’re the type who 1) doesn’t mind sifting through haphazardly picked-over merchandise for treasures; and 2) will actually remember and keep track of this stuff when the time comes to use it 10 or 11 months down the road.

Here’s one indication of how prices have fallen even during the week after Christmas. The deal-tracking experts at dealnews highlighted a few of the best post-Christmas Christmas decorations sales at the end of last week. At the time, a 3.5-foot-high LED Yoda dressed up as Santa and holding an oversized candy cane, for example, was selling for $14.99, half off the original price of $30. By now, however, that same Yoda is marked down to just $7.50, or 75% off the retail price.

Unfortunately, you can’t order Yoda online, not even if the force particularly strong with you is. Instead, you’ll have to call up your local Home Depot and see if it’s in stock, or just head down and browse.

Likewise, shoppers can generally expect to find the lowest prices on decorations in the physical locations of other stores, including Sears, Big Lots, Crate & Barrel, and more, rather than online. At this point, it’s problematic for retailers to sell some of their discounted Christmas items online because inventories are so low.

As for what’s left behind in individual stores right now, it’s something of a crapshoot. Major retailers are desperately trying to unload these items to make way for the next season’s merchandise—the stuff they have a prayer of selling at full price—so it’s hard to tell in advance what you’ll find in the clearance aisles of each store location.

Depending on the item and the retailer, it is sometimes possible to buy ahead online and pick up at your local store. That’s the most efficient strategy for shoppers. Those who simply venture into a store to browse can also be assured that whatever leftovers they find will be dirt cheap. Here are a few options:

Big Lots: The discount retailer’s Christmas Clearance sale knocks 50% off all seasonal items, including lights, ornaments, trees, wrapping paper, and Christmas pet gifts. (“Selection varies by store,” Big Lots warns.)

Crate & Barrel: A winter clearance sale knocks off up to 60% on seasonal merchandise, and there are even deeper discounts on items specifically geared for Christmas, including this Glitter Twig Garland now priced at $8.98 (originally $29.95); many items are available for online purchase but the retailer warns “quantities are limited.”

Home Depot: 75% or more off a wide range of ornaments and artificial wreaths and Christmas trees, and much of it can be purchased online and then picked up at a store.

Sears: Up to 70% off artificial trees, holiday collectibles, lights, and indoor and outdoor decorations—much is available for purchase online with free shipping, though there may be even lower prices at physical Sears locations.

Target: 50% or more off holiday costumes, ornaments, decorations, and such

Walmart: A huge mixed bag of Christmas clearance deals, such as a Santa tree topper for $6.97 (originally $16.98)

Yankee Candle: 50% or 75% off seasonal items, with the biggest discounts generally available for Christmas-y goods like Balsam & Cedar ornaments

MONEY Shopping

You Haven’t Even Heard of Some of the Best-Selling Stuff of 2014

OK, so you probably guessed that some "Frozen" stuff would be among the year's best sellers. But a Jack White record, a 7-year-old self-help book, and generic bottled water?

In no particular order, here’s a compilation of items that proved to be top sellers for 2014, including more than a few head scratchers.

  • Book

    StrengthsFinder 2.0
    StrengthsFinder 2.0 Brian Pope—Gallup, Inc.

    The year’s best-selling book at Amazon.com may come as quite a shock, starting with the fact that it wasn’t released in 2014—but seven years earlier. It’s StrengthsFinder 2.0, a research-driven book about assessing one’s natural talents and building them, from author Tom Rath and publisher Gallup Press. In fact, many of the 2014 top 20 best-sellers at Amazon may be surprises, including several kids’ books (two Frozen-related titles, one Whimpy Kid), some classics (To Kill a Mockingbird, Oh the Places You’ll Go!), and the College Board’s Official SAT Study Guide. There’s a fair amount of overlap with the list of 2014 best sellers from Barnes & Noble, including The Fault in Our Stars, Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Patton, and Diary of a Whimpy Kid: The Long Haul in the top 20 for both.

  • Packaged Beverage

    soda cans
    Andrew Bret Wallis—Getty Images

    Soda slumped in a big way in 2014. Among other measures, Coca-Cola felt forced to cut jobs, partner with energy drink Monster Beverage, and launch a high-end milk brand in order to cope with declining sales of classic Coke soda brands. But guess what? According to data from the Beverage Marketing Corporation, carbonated soda is still tops in the U.S. in terms of packaged beverage sales, accounting for 20.9% of all sales in 2014. Fast on soda’s heels, however, is bottled water, which captured 17.8% of the beverage market this year, up from 14.4% in 2009. By 2016, it’s expected that bottled water will surpass soda as the country’s best-selling packaged beverage.

  • Bottled Water

    Bottle of water
    Getty Images

    Per Statista, the all-things-statistics site, the best-selling water brand in the U.S. in 2014 was “Private Label,” which was purchased at least twice as often as any other brand. What, you’ve never heard of “Private Label”? There’s good reason: It’s simply the collective term used to lump in all generic store brands of bottled water—the cheap stuff that’s apparently quite popular with American consumers. (The nation’s best-selling ice cream is also “Private Label.”) Rounding out the top five are bottled water brands you’re probably more familiar with: Dasani, Nestle, Aquafina, and Poland Spring.

  • Surprise Marijuana Product

    Freshly packaged cannabis-infused peanut butter cookies are prepared inside Sweet Grass Kitchen, a well-established gourmet marijuana edibles bakery which sells its confections to retail outlets, in Denver. Colorado is now selling more recreational pot than medical pot, a turning point for the newly legal industry, tax records released Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014 show.
    Freshly packaged cannabis-infused peanut butter cookies are prepared inside Sweet Grass Kitchen, a well-established gourmet marijuana edibles bakery which sells its confections to retail outlets, in Denver. Colorado is now selling more recreational pot than medical pot, a turning point for the newly legal industry, tax records released Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014 show. Brennan Linsley—AP

    When recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado (and later, Washington state), it was assumed that sales would be strong for pot you could smoke. Much more surprising have been the impressive sales of pot you can eat or drink. A recent report estimates that in Colorado, edible marijuana accounts for 45% of all pot sales. One explanation for high demand for edibles is that local laws ban public smoking, while pot-infused brownies or soda can be consumed out in the open without calling attention. (Keep in mind: It’s still illegal to consume marijuana in public in any way in Colorado.)

  • Album

    Executive producer John Lasseter (C) and the cast of Disney's "Frozen" were presented with gold records commemorating the success of the "Frozen" soundtrack.
    Executive producer John Lasseter (C) and the cast of Disney's "Frozen" were presented with gold records commemorating the success of the "Frozen" soundtrack. Alberto E. Rodriguez—Getty Images for Disney

    The “Frozen” soundtrack had a huge headstart, but “1989” from Taylor Swift has been coming on strong in recent months, with sales boosted no doubt by her decision to remove her music from Spotify. Just before Christmas, the New York Times reported that “Frozen” had sold 3.46 million copies in the U.S. thus far in 2014, versus 3.34 million for Swift, and that it was too early to declare a champ: “The victor will be decided in the next few days as stockings are stuffed and iTunes gift cards are redeemed.” Meanwhile, a few months ago, Billboard posted a fascinating comparison of the top-selling albums from 2014 versus 1994: Through October, 2014 had only one album that had sold more than one million copies (“Frozen,” of course), while every album at that point in 1994’s top 10 had sold more than 1.8 million copies.

  • Song

    Pharrell Williams performs onstage during 93.3 FLZ’s Jingle Ball 2014 at Amalie Arena on December 22, 2014 in Tampa, Florida.
    Pharrell Williams performs onstage during 93.3 FLZ¬ís Jingle Ball 2014 at Amalie Arena on December 22, 2014 in Tampa, Florida. Gerardo Mora—Getty Images North America

    On both iTunes and Amazon, the 2014 crown goes to a tune that seems like it was released ages ago: “Happy” by Pharrell.

  • Vinyl Record

    Jack White performs at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD.
    Jack White performs at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD. Kyle Gustafson—The Washington Post/Getty Images

    The Wall Street Journal dubbed the vinyl record as the year’s “Biggest Music Comeback” after LP sales surged nearly 50%. Record sales were especially strong among hipsters and younger clientele at retailers like Urban Outfitters, Whole Foods, and Amazon. As for the year’s best-seller, it looks like the award goes to Jack White’s “Lazaretto,” which became the biggest vinyl record in 20 years after 60,000 copies were sold within two months of its release. “Lazaretto” has gone on to sell more than 75,000 copies in vinyl format so far. White also broke the record for the fastest released record ever in 2014, with a special limited-edition 45 of the album’s title track that was printed and made available for sale less than four hours after the song was recorded.

  • iTunes Paid Apps

    Minecraft on an Apple iPad
    Minecraft on an Apple iPad Veryan Dale—Alamy

    MineCraft and Heads Up! hold the top two spots. The $7 pocket edition of the former reportedly made more money on Christmas than any other iOs app. The latter is a 99¢ guessing game introduced in 2013 by Ellen DeGeneres, who plays it on her show.

  • Video Game

    Call of Duty 4
    Alamy

    “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare” sold roughly 5.8 million units in the U.S. in 2014, the most of any video game. The others in the top three (“Destiny” and “Grand Theft Auto V”) were also heavy on guns and violence.

  • Video Game Console

    Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 4 (PS4) game console and controller
    Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 4 (PS4) game console and controller Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

    Thanks to some deep discounting, Microsoft’s Xbox One reportedly outsold the Playstation 4 and all other consoles on Black Friday and throughout all of November. But in the grand scheme, Sony’s PS4 has been pretty dominant. The PS4 reached 10 million global sales by August 2014, less than one year after it hit the market, and the console crossed the 17 million mark in December, far outpacing Xbox One sales.

  • Vehicle

    2015 Ford F-150
    2015 Ford F-150 Ford

    The Ford F series has been America’s best-selling truck for 38 years, and the best-selling vehicle period for 33 years—including 2014. This is the case even as Ford sales fell off in autumn because buyers have been waiting for the new aluminum-body F-150 to hit the market. Perhaps more interestingly, Car and Driver compiled a list of the year’s worst-selling cars, which includes the Porsche 918 Spyder and the teeny-tiny Scion iQ. No doubt the former sold only 57 units at least partially because of its $800K+ starting price.

  • Luxury Auto Brand

    2014 CLA45 AMG.
    2014 CLA45 AMG. Mercedes-Benz USA—Wieck

    Bragging rights for the year’s top-selling luxury automaker will come down to the wire. As of early December, BMW and Mercedes had each sold a smidge under 300,000 vehicles in 2014.

  • Electric Car

    2015 Nissan LEAF
    2015 Nissan LEAF Nissan—Wieck

    Through November, Nissan had sold 27,098 Leafs in the U.S., by far the most of any plug-in in 2014. Overall, however, electric car sales have underwhelmed lately, which isn’t surprising considering that gas prices have plummeted, negating some of the savings electrified vehicles provide compared to traditional cars. For the sake of comparison, Honda sold more than 32,000 CR-V crossovers in November 2014 alone.

  • NFL Jersey

    Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos in action against the New York Jets on October 12, 2014 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
    Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos in action against the New York Jets on October 12, 2014 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Jim McIsaac—Getty Images

    According to NFLShop.com, the best-selling jersey from April 1 to October 31, 2014, was Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos, followed by Super Bowl champion quarterback Russell Wilson of the Seahawks, and then two quarterbacks whose teams didn’t reach the playoffs this year: the Cleveland Browns’ Johnny Manziel and last-year’s jersey-selling sensation, Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers. Interestingly, while Dick’s Sporting Goods also has Manning’s jersey as its top seller, the best-selling jersey among women is Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts. Perhaps they appreciate the incredibly sportsmanlike way Luck congratulates the opposition whenever a player slams him to the ground.

  • Movie

    Guardians of the Galaxy
    Guardians of the Galaxy © Walt Disney Co.—courtesy Everett Collection

    After being pulled from theaters and then released online, the controversial Seth Rogen comedy “The Interview” quickly became Sony’s top-grossing online film of 2014, snagging $15 million in digital revenue in a single weekend. As for traditional movies actually released widely in 2014, “Guardians of the Galaxy” came out on top in what was called a “confounding,” lackluster year at the box office, with overall sales down 5% compared to 2013. “Frozen,” the top-grossing animated film of all time and #10 among all movies, doesn’t qualify as the biggest movie of 2013 or 2014 because it was released in late 2013 and ticket sales were spread over both years. As for the top-selling DVD of 2014, the contest isn’t remotely close: Nearly 10 million copies of “Frozen” have been sold, roughly three times more than the #2 film, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”

MONEY Shopping

The 5 Big Lessons of the 2014 Shopping Season

141229_EM_shopping_2
Alamy

Perhaps the most frustrating lesson learned: Even as consumers get better at tracking the best prices, retailers have made it harder than ever to know when you're getting the absolute best deal.

Considering that the American economy is faring better than it has in previous years, that sales of big-ticket items like crossovers and luxury SUVs are booming, and that dramatically cheaper gas prices amount to mini-raises for most American households, it would have been reasonable to expect an especially huge holiday season for retailers. Yet the latest numbers indicate that total retail sales in November and December are up a mere 3% to 4% compared to last year. That’s decent, roughly on par with most projections, but nothing extraordinary.

While overall sales almost exactly wound up meeting the predictions of retail experts, the season still delivered its share of surprises and revelations. Here are a few things we learned about how the holiday shopping season is evolving:

Big shopping days aren’t so big anymore. Overall sales for the holiday season may have been decent, but some of the traditionally biggest shopping days seem to have lost their luster for consumers. This was most noticeable over the four-day Black Friday weekend, when foot traffic in stores and sales were reportedly down 5% and 11%, respectively, compared to 2013. What’s more, “Super Saturday,” a.k.a. the Saturday before Christmas, underwhelmed as well, with one study finding spending in brick-and-mortar stores to be essentially flat compared to last year. Another report, from the analytics firm RetailNext, estimated that foot traffic at major retailers was down 10.2% over Super Saturday weekend, while sales dropped 8.9%.

The “season” got even longer. It was early September when Kmart aired the year’s first holiday season shopping ad, and several retailers launched “Black Friday” sales the day after Halloween. Likewise, one retail expert was of the opinion that nowadays Black Friday essentially stretches throughout all of November, and Walmart began using the term “New Black Friday” for the five-day deal period from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday. In light of how promotion-heavy the entire months of November and December have become, it’s no wonder sales have fallen off on days like Black Friday and Super Saturday themselves.

“Thanksgetting” As more and more stores decided to open on Thanksgiving—and to open earlier on the holiday, often by 5 p.m. if not sooner—a backlash spread calling for a shopper boycott of retailers who can’t find it in their hearts to remain closed on what’s traditionally been a relaxing day for food and family time. Logical arguments have also been made that opening on Thanksgiving actually hurts overall sales, and some retail experts have argued that remaining closed could very well boost employee morale and boost customer sales at the same time. Nonetheless, stores were sufficiently crowded on Thanksgiving—especially with millennial shoppers—for stores to think it’s essential to kick off doorbuster deals on cheap TVs on the national holiday. So it looks like we’ll be seeing more of the term “Thanksgetting,” which is obviously a consumerist-focused tweak of “Thanksgiving,” and which now has its own entry at Urban Dictionary.

Online sales are unstoppable. Rising e-retail sales can simultaneously be celebrated as the season’s savior, as well as the force that’s to blame for smaller crowds and slumping sales in actual stores. According to comScore, desktop spending leading into Christmas was up 15% compared to 2013, and online sales surged in particular on Thanksgiving (up 32%) and Black Friday (up 26%). Shoppers took to the web on Christmas Day itself was well, with sales rising 8.2% compared to 2013.

Interestingly, while e-retail helps the bottom line in one way, online sales wreak havoc in another. Items purchased online are three times more likely to be returned than goods bought in stores, and handling all the returns is a time-consuming and costly endeavor for retailers.

Deals are ubiquitous, yet the best deal is elusive. In terms of deals and pricing, this had to be the fastest-changing holiday season ever. Blink and you could expect a new deal to pop up. Blink again and the prices of the old deals would change. The Associated Press reported it’s become common for e-retailers to use software to change prices dozens of times per day on thousands of different items. “The main goal is to undercut rivals when necessary, and raise prices when demand is high and there’s no competitive pressure,” the report explained.

As a result, even as shoppers waded into what one retail expert called the “most promotional holiday on record,” it was impossible to figure out the optimal time to buy. The average Black Friday discount was only 5%, while the shopping retail site ShopAdvisor noted that December 18 was the best day for deals in 2013, with average discounts of 17.5%. That factoid didn’t do much good for shoppers this year, because just before Christmas ShopAdvisor announced that the 2014 shopping season’s best day for deals was Monday, December 15, when discounts averaged 20%. Yet another pricing study indicated that Walmart tended to have better prices than Amazon.com for the same products, when in the past just the opposite was generally true. The Wall Street Journal also recently took note of the increased tendency of retailers to send email blasts highlighting the best deals only to customers with a history of discount purchasing. On the other hand, customers who are known to pay full price for goods never get wind of these bargains.

All of which has led to confusion, frustration, and indecision among shoppers, who have good reason to feel like stores are constantly manipulating them. And all of which should serve as reminder that consumers should take advantage of automated coupons and price-alert services that’ll get you the best price possible at the time of purchase—and that can later get you money back if the price drops.

MONEY Shopping

American Apparel’s Unhappy Holidays

The embattled clothing retailer reportedly missed sales projections and is slowing down production amid calls from investors for the company to sell.

MONEY Shopping

How to Get Cash for Your Unwanted Gift Cards

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Tom Hahn—Getty Images

Fortunately, you aren't stuck with that gift card to your great-aunt's favorite store. Here's how you can dump it for something you actually want this holiday.

Now that Christmas has passed and the piles of wrapping and ribbons are cleared, you have a good view of the duds in your holiday haul.

For items like that hideous sweater from your cousin, see our guide to returning and exchanging gifts. But if the unwanted present is a little rectangle of plastic redeemable at a store you’ve never heard of or would never willingly wander into, it may seem like you’re stuck with it—or whatever item you find least offensive in that shop.

That’s if you use it at all. This year alone, American consumers will leave more than $1 billion in store credit unused, according to CEB TowerGroup, which tracks gift card trends. Rather than leave that card to languish in your wallet, consider these options for swapping it for something you do want.

Trade It In

There are a number of websites that let you get cash back for your card or swap for another you’re more likely to use, but don’t expect to recoup the full value. These vendors will take a small percentage, meaning you’ll pay a price for your swap.

To make sure you get the most for any trade, try giftcardgranny.com. This online gift card aggregator lets you select the merchant of your card and then easily compare offers from 15 reseller sites, including cardpool.com and giftcards.com, to figure out who will offer you back the highest percentage of your card’s value. Since each gift card reseller uses different fees and payment methods, it’s worthwhile to do this check first and then go to the site offering the most for your unwanted plastic.

Not included in this price comparision site is a new offer from Walmart that’s good if you have a lot of love for the big-box retailer. Walmart will trade store credit for gift cards from more than 200 different retailers, restaurants, and airlines through its own online exchange website, Walmart.CardCash.com. Certain merchant cards will get you up to 95% of the original card’s value, or about 3% more than most reseller websites, which usually top out at 92% of a card’s face value. Others will get you 85% back, and some as little as 70%.

Sell It

If you don’t want to make your swap online, you can visit certain Coinstar kiosks (yes, those same machines you dump a year’s worth of spare change into). These yellow boxes accept gift cards from more than 150 retailers and restaurants, as long as they have a balance of at least $20. It will make you an offer for the card, and, if you accept, will provide you with a voucher you can then redeem for cash at the register of the shop the kiosk is located in.

If you don’t want to have the value of your card dictated by a reseller, use raise.com. Through this site, you can set your own price for the gift card in a marketplace similar to eBay, without the bidding. You can list any e-card for free on the site and a physical gift card for $1, but when you sell it, the company will take a 15% cut, meaning that even if you sell it for full value you can still end up recouping the same or less than a site that pays a lower percentage outright, plus you won’t have to wait as long to get money back.

Donate It

If you’d rather keep another service from profiting off your gift card or don’t find the exchange worthwhile, contact your favorite charity organization and ask if they accept donated gift cards. You could also use a site like Gift Card Giver, which distributes donated gift cards to certain approved nonprofit organizations. Giving the card away could lower your tax bill and extend that holiday generosity even more.

Who do you side with in the Great Gift Card Debate?
Why gift cards are the only present that makes sense
Why gift cards are a crime against Christmas

TIME Know Right Now

Know Right Now: Christmas By the Numbers

Everything you didn't know you needed to know about Christmas

Christmas was Thursday, but do you know how many Christmas trees were sold this year and how many of them were real? Do you know how much the average American spent on gifts this year? How about the most downloaded Christmas song? Hint: The answer to that one is featured at the end of Love Actually.

If you’re still in the Christmas spirit (or even if you aren’t), watch Friday’s installment of Know Right Now to learn some yuletide facts about this year’s X-Mas.

MONEY Holidays

Hate Your Gifts? Tips for Returns, Exchanges, and Regifting

141225_EM_RETURNGIFTS
Michael Blann—Getty Images

December 25 is the traditional day for epic gift exchanges. Inevitably, it's also the start of an equally epic season for figuring out what to do with unwanted presents.

If you’re looking over one or more of your holiday gifts right now with puzzlement or disgust, and with a yearning to make it disappear in exchange for something—anything—else, you’re not alone. (Side note: If the above describes you, check yourself, you ungrateful SOB.) As my colleague Jacob Davidson pointed out, the most compelling reason to give gift cards for the holidays is that as many as three-quarters of Americans won’t like the gifts they receive. The cold-hearted but compelling 2009 book Scroogenomics made the argument that gift-giving wastes billions annually because it’s so rare for the recipient to deem the present worth the money that the giver paid for it. The result is that value is destroyed in the traditional exchange of surprise presents.

While returning a gift can be dicey because people’s feelings can be hurt, the purpose of a gift is to make the recipient happy. And the best givers will want that to be the result, regardless of whether the giftee keeps the original purchase or not. What’s more, it’s in the best interest of retailers to have good return policies because shoppers are more likely to make purchases at stores where it’s not a pain in the neck to do returns and exchanges.

Assuming that your mind is made up that you’d rather not simply live with the gift out of obligation or a fear of causing offense, your basic options are to return, exchange, or regift. Here’s some guidance on all fronts.

Return
First off, if you know you don’t want the gift you’ve received—perhaps you already have one, or it’s not remotely in your taste—don’t open it. You have the best chance getting a refund or the full value in store credit for packages that are unopened and in brand-new condition. Next, check if the gift was accompanied by a gift or regular receipt. If yes, the person who bought the gift saved you some potentially big hassles, because without a receipt you may have no right whatsoever to a return or exchange. (Note to self: Always include gift receipts with presents.)

If there is no receipt, you could ask the giver—nicely, cautiously, graciously—where the gift was purchased and if he or she still had a copy of the receipt. This could be quite tricky, and if you’re going there it would be wise to mention how deeply you appreciate the thought behind the gift, but that there was a reason you wanted something slightly different; it could be as simple as needing a different size. Then again, there are reasons to steer way clear of this route. Not only could the giver wind up being offended, the situation could make an extremely awkward turn if, say, the giver didn’t want to reveal that the present was purchased at 85% off.

Assuming there is a receipt, look up the store’s return and exchange policy online, and then be sure to bring the item back to the store before the period expires. As the comprehensive holiday return report from the site Consumer World notes, around the holidays many major retailers institute policies that sensibly make it easy for recipients to bring items back after Christmas. Walmart, for instance, normally has return policies of 14, 15, or 30 days, depending on the item, but for purchases made between November 1 and December 24, the return period countdown doesn’t commence until December 26. In other words, if the item was normally subject to a 30-day return limit, the recipient would have to return it within 30 days of December 26, even if it was purchased in early November. What with the crush of crowds hitting the malls in the days right after Christmas, you might consider waiting for a bit before handling the return.

If you don’t have the receipt but you know where the item was purchased, go ahead and bring it back to the store. It’s likely the item was purchased with a credit card or was otherwise tracked by the retailer, so there will be a record of it on file, and you should be offered store credit or the right to exchange. (An outright cash refund is extremely unlikely, and pretty much impossible unless the original transaction was in cash, but it can’t hurt to ask.)

When bringing the item back, bring ID. According to the National Retail Federation, somewhere between 3.4% and 6.5% of returns are fraudulent, and one way retailers try to curtail abuse (and arguably, cut down on returns in general) is by requiring ID during returns and exchanges. Victoria’s Secret wound up on Consumer Reports “Naughty” list this year for its rigid requirement that customers present a government-issued ID for all returns and exchanges. Beyond having ID at the ready, be polite and patient. Store managers are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt on a return if they perceive you as a potentially good customer down the road.

Regift
If you think that regifting is a no-no, you’re in the minority. An American Express survey revealed that 42% of Americans repurposed presents they received by passing them along as gifts to someone else, while 76% of respondents deem regifting as “acceptable.”

But as with hand-picked and purchased gifts themselves, there are thoughtful and thoughtless ways to go about regifting. For example, it’s bad form to regift an item within a circle of friends who socialize regularly because it’s easy to see how word could spread and everyone could find out where the gift originated. It’s also the opposite of generous to pass along a gift to someone else when you found it hideous. Check out our five-step guide to regifting to repurpose presents in a way that won’t offend anyone, and that (hopefully) won’t get you branded as a crass, thoughtless regifter—which is even worse than being a thoughtless giver.

MONEY Shopping

The 3 Things People Buy on Christmas Day

The shopping frenzy may be over, but that doesn't mean people aren't shelling out for these things on Christmas Day.

Christmas is supposed to be the day the buying frenzy ends. But consumerism never rests, not even for a single day. Especially not if you’re spending money on these three things, which top the list of Christmas Day purchases.

1. Movie Tickets

OK, you’ve opened presents, you’ve schmoozed with cousin Ralph, you’ve had your fill of turkey—now what? I know, let’s go see a movie! That impulse has made Christmas day openings a huge source of profits for Hollywood.

Major flicks like Annie and Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken (not to mention some movie about North Korea) are opening Christmas Eve, and if history is any guide, they’ll have a chance to make quite a bit of coin. Last year, total domestic box office gross for the week that included Christmas was almost $400,000. According to BoxOfficeMojo, the single-day record for Christmas earnings belongs to Robert Downey Jr.’s 2012 Sherlock Holmes remake, which took in $25.6 million.

2. Chinese Food

The stereotype of non-Christians eating Chinese food on Christmas appears to be based in truth, according to Slate. The site partnered with food delivery app GrubHub to find out how much interest in Chinese food increased on Christmas by measuring what percentage the cuisine made up out of all the service’s orders and then looking at how much that percentage increased on Christmas.

The result? Chinese food experienced a relative increase in order percentage of 152% on Christmas (at least in the urban areas GrubHub servers). So there you have it: Christmas is definitely a big day for Chinese restaurants.

3. Booze

Going to a movie solves some of the stress of hanging out with the in-laws, but you can’t spend all of Christmas in the theater. How to get through the rest of the holiday? According to a Yahoo’s “Alcohol and America” survey, the answer is, well, a stiff drink. Respondents listed Christmas as one of their favorite drinking holidays, second only to New Year’s Day. It’s no accident that Budweiser launched a holiday marketing project to sell expensive, “vintage” crates of beer to millennials.

MONEY Shopping

Walmart Will Trade You for Other Merchants’ Gift Cards

Don't like the gift card you got for Christmas? Walmart feels your pain.

Don’t worry if you don’t like some of the gift cards you receive this Christmas. The AP reports that Walmart will trade store credit for gift cards from more than 200 different retailers, restaurants, and airlines.

Beginning on Christmas day, shoppers can trade in any eligible gift card for a Walmart gift card of similar value. How much you get depends on what kind of card you’re trading in. An Amazon card will fetch 95% of its value, a Gap card will be worth 85%, and some cards will be matched with just 70% of their original value. The exchange program is being done in partnership with CardCash, the largest platform for buying and selling gift cards. Walmart says this exchange is a test but could be made permanent if there is heavy demand.

To exchange their gift cards, shoppers don’t even need to leave the house. Walmart’s card exchange website, Walmart.CardCash.com, lets users input their gift card’s information, and a Walmart gift card will be emailed to them once the original card’s balance is verified.

The motivation for Walmart’s gift exchange is probably to increase store traffic, but there are many reasons retailers love getting their gift cards into the hands of shoppers. As MONEY’s Kara Brandeisky points out, shoppers are likely to overspend when given what seems like fake money. In addition, researchers have found that consumers buy items they don’t need when they use a stored-value certificate; the CEB TowerGroup consultancy has found that 65% of gift card users spend 38% more than the face value of the card.

The CEB also reported that customers tend to forget about their gift cards and don’t spend the full balance, resulting in more than $1 billion in unused store credit this year alone. But that appears to be less true in the case of Walmart: A company spokesperson told the AP that 95% of Walmart holiday gift cards are usually redeemed by February.

Who do you side with in the Great Gift Card Debate?
Why gift cards are the only present that makes sense
Why gift cards are a crime against Christmas

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