MONEY Shopping

Customers Desert 3 Big-Name Retailers

Some very high-profile retailers were either part of this week’s bankruptcy news or having to admit some very expensive mistakes.

MONEY Debt

7 Ways to Free Yourself From Debt—for Good!—in 2015

How to pay off debt
PM Images—Getty Images

These smart and easy strategies can get you back in the black before you know it.

If you’re in debt, getting out may seem impossible.

One in eight Americans don’t think they’ll ever pay off what they owe, according to a survey by CreditCards.com.

But it’s a new year and a new balance sheet. And the seven steps here can help you put hundreds more towards your bills every month—while still living the kind of life you want.

Can you taste the freedom?

1) Know What You Owe

It may sound easy, but this can be the hardest part, says Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the National Foundation of Credit Counseling. “A disturbing number of people come to our offices with grocery bags filled with bills,” she adds.

After you’ve tallied up your total debt, make a “cash-flow calendar” to track how much money is going in and out of your accounts, and when, Cunningham says. When do you get your paycheck, and how much do you get net taxes and benefits? When is each bill due every month, and what is the typical cost? How much do you spend on each of your other expenses, and when?

The more you want to procrastinate on this step, the more you need to do it.

“People resist doing this,” Cunningham says. “I think that’s because they’re afraid of what they’ll find. There’s nothing like seeing your spending staring back at you. That could force a behavioral change.”

2) Follow the 10×10 Rule

If you want to create a debt-repayment plan you can follow, you need to set reasonable and sustainable goals. Curb rather than cut your spending, advises Kevin R. Weeks, president of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies.

“Just like a New Year’s resolution to get in shape, it’s very difficult to go cold turkey and say, ‘I’m going to do all this, this week, or today,'” Weeks says. “People bite off more than they can chew, with good intentions.”

Start slowly by following Cunningham’s 10×10 rule: “If you could shave $10 off 10 disposable spending accounts, you’d never miss it, never feel it, never feel deprived—and you’d have another $100 in your pocket,” she says. “Little money adds up to big money.”

3) Spend Cash

Researchers have found that when people shop with credit cards and gift certificates, they are more likely to make impulse purchases on luxury items because they feel like they’re using “play” money. If that sounds like you, cut up the plastic.

And force yourself to feel the pain associated with spending real money by going on a cash-only diet.

“People who live on a cash basis typically save 20% over their previous spending, without feeling deprived,” Cunningham says. “It’s because using cash creates a heightened sense of awareness. You are more contemplative, and you realize you’re going to have to pay for things with hard-earned cash. Something clicks in that allows you to feel better about not buying the item.”

4) Tackle Christmas First

There are two possible ways you can go when it comes to prioritizing your debts: You can pay off your highest interest-rate balance first to cut your financing charges the most or you can pay off a small debt first to build confidence and momentum.

To decide which path is best, you need to know what drives you, Weeks says.

Whichever way you choose to go, Cunningham recommends beginning with a goal of paying off all your holiday spending debt by the end of the first quarter of 2015.

“That will keep you from dragging that debt along with you all the way through 2015,” Cunningham says. “You’ll be back to where you were debt-wise before the holidays.”

No matter what, expect a series of small steps. “It’s going to take time,” Weeks says. “If you’re looking to lose 50 pounds, you should focus on losing the first five and then you move yourself forward. It’s the same thing on the financial side.”

5) Reduce Your Rates

Don’t do all the work yourself. Get your lender to cut your interest rates.

One way to do that is a balance transfer. Many credit cards offer promotions of 0% interest for a year or more if you transfer your debt from an old card and pay a small fee.

You can save $265.48 on a $5,000 debt with a typical balance transfer, according to a new report from Creditcards.com. That’s assuming a 3% balance transfer fee, a 12-month 0% intro APR, and the debt being paid off within the year.

You could do even better than that if you used Money’s pick for a balance transfer card, the Chase Slate, which currently offers a 0% APR for 15 months, no balance transfer fee in the first 60 days, and standard APR of 12.99% to 22.99% after the promotional period.

If you won’t be able to pay off your debt in the promotional period, however, this might not be the best option. You don’t want to move your debt only to possibly get stuck with a higher APR than the one you already have. A better choice: Move your debt to the Lake Michigan Credit Union Prime Platinum Visa, which has no balance transfer fee and an ongoing APR starting at an ultra-low 6%.

Or, simply call your issuer and request that your APR be reduced. In another report, CreditCards.com found that two-thirds of people who asked for a lower rate got it.

6) Stop lending so much money to the IRS

The average household got a $3,034 tax refund last year. In other words, every month, an extra $253 was taken out of your paycheck and loaned to the IRS interest free!

Sure, you’ll get it back after you file your taxes, but don’t you need it now?

“I don’t want anybody to receive an income tax refund—that $250 a month can make a major, life-changing difference,” Cunningham says.

Rather than paying interest on your debt every month while the government gets your money, you should be funneling that cash toward your balance. On a $5,000 debt at 16%, adding $250 a month to a payment of $200 a month, you’d save $675 in interest and get your debt paid off in just over a year vs. two and a half.

You can put your money back in your pocket by adjusting your withholding on a W-4 tax form.

Of course, you don’t want to owe money at tax time, so use the government’s withholding calculator to figure out exactly how many allowances you should take. File your new W-4 with your human resources department and give yourself a raise.

7) Ask for help

If you can’t stop taking on debt or are really unable to make payments on what you owe, you may need professional help. Credit counseling can be especially useful if you’re struggling with student loan debt or medical debt, not just credit card debt.

Find a nonprofit credit counselor through the National Foundation of Credit Counseling or the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies. Financial counseling should be free, though agencies can charge an enrollment fee for a debt management plan, which will consolidate your debt into one payment with a more reasonable interest rate, Weeks says.

If you don’t need professional help, but you need someone to keep you honest, ask a friend to be your accountability partner, Cunningham suggests. Share your debt repayment plan and check in periodically about how you’re doing. Leverage the positive power of peer pressure.

“People don’t want to let somebody down,” Cunningham says. “They don’t want to have to admit that they weren’t as committed to their plan long-term.”

More on paying off debt:

More on resolutions:

MONEY Scams

The Surprising Truth About the Latest Text Spam Attack

woman text messaging
Getty Images

Handbag pirates will actually send you the (knockoff) products you order... but it's unclear what they do with your personal data.

A text-message spam campaign that flooded mobile phones and irritated perhaps millions of iPhone users last summer reared its ugly head again towards the end of 2014. The messages offer recipients a cheap way to order designer products like handbags and sunglasses. In a curious twist, one researcher says those who “fall” for the spam appear to get what they order. But it’s still a scam — the bags are fakes, of course, sent directly from China. And who knows what really happens to the personal information you give the spammers.

At one point last summer, this one “product promotion spam” campaign, which specifically targeted Apple’s iMessage users, made up as much as 40% of all unwanted text messages received by U.S. users, says spam-fighting firm Cloudmark.

By September, the campaign had all but disappeared. But from September to December — perhaps in time for the holidays? — it reappeared. Preliminary research shows a four-fold increase during that stretch, Cloudmark says. The new version of the scam adds knock-off Ugg boots, perhaps just in time for winter.

Last year, Cloudmark researcher Tom Landesman “fell” for the spam’s offer. He visited the fake Michael Kors site hawked by the spam, and ordered a bag using a limited value credit card. It’s easy to imagine the spammers’ goal was identity theft, and that the card and other information would immediately be used for fraud. Instead, he actually received a fake, shipped from China, made of poor imitation leather and cheap clasps. Buttons were inscribed with Chinese instead of English.

The Internet Protocol address of the knock-off websites advertised in the spam suggest they are in China, Landesman said. Packages are shipped from locations in and around Suzhou, China, not far from Shanghai.

So far, at least, there are no signs the spammers are interested in identity fraud. They’re just selling fakes.

“I suppose they see it as advertising…China has a lot of unique advertising ideas,” Landesman said. “China doesn’t have the same legislative disincentives (for spammers).”

While recipients do seemingly get something for their money, they are still getting cheated, Landesman says — they don’t get what they think they are paying for. He breaks spam into three categories: Simple spam, which is just noise; scams, with false advertising; and malicious texts, such as bank phishing messages seeking banking credentials.

spam attack types

“This is kind of middle-of-the-road. Arguably you can go to a flea market and buy something similar,” he said. “Still, you should absolutely ignore these messages.”

Text message spam is not the nuisance that email spam can be — in many parts of the world, three out of four emails are spam — but text spam is certainly on the rise. Given the widespread adoption of smartphones, it’s much easier for a text spammer to get a recipient to follow the complicated chain of events required to monetize a victim, such as directing recipients to a website to enter personal information.

Other technological circumstances can make things even easier for spammers. The knock-off campaign Cloudmark examined specifically targeted Apple’s iMessage users. iMessage makes it easy for users to follow text chats from phone to tablet to desktop, but because users link their email addresses and mobile phone numbers, spammers have an easier time finding targets. The messages run through Apple’s servers, rather than through mobile carriers’ text message systems, which can save users money, but that also shifts the burden of spam filtering to Apple. And iMessage users by default send a return receipt, which is gold to a spammer, Landesman said — it reveals to spammers they have a “live” phone number to attack, or sell to other spammers.

Any mobile text users can protect themselves chiefly by ignoring the spam. If you choose, you can forward the message to 7726 (which spells SPAM on old telephone keypads), where an industry group will help block future messages from the same sender, or with the same content.

iMessage users can take the additional step of turning off return receipt notification, or block notification of messages from users who aren’t in their contact list.

Image courtesy Cloudmark

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

MONEY Shopping

Why Teens Hate Shopping at ‘Teen’ Clothing Stores

Paper covers the windows at a closed Wet Seal store on January 7, 2015 in San Francisco, California. Wet Seal, a teen clothing retailer, announced that it has closed 338 of its retail stores and will lay off nearly 3,700 employees.
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images Paper covers the windows at a closed Wet Seal store on January 7, 2015, in San Francisco.

Teen retailers are suffering for not paying enough attention to the shifting taste of their target audience.

Expect to see more blank storefronts at your local mall—that is if you even go to the mall anymore. Teen clothier Wet Seal announced this week that it will close 338 stores after years of slow sales.

The once popular teen clothing store Delia’s filed for bankruptcy in December with plans to shut down entirely, and yet another apparel specialist targeting teens, Deb Stores, slid back into bankruptcy that same month. The struggles of youth-oriented retailers don’t stop there. Aeropostale lost $141.8 million in its most recent fiscal year and shut 120 stores last year. Rival Abercrombie & Fitch fared little better, while American Apparel has posted net losses of more than $300 million since 2010.

At the same time, sales are booming at shops like H&M, Zara, and Forever 21. The latter plans to double its number of stores in the next three years.

So what happened? Why are teens no longer shopping at the stores that were once the hallmark of “cool”?

1. Individuality Trumps Logos

Thanks to social media—in particular the popularity of searching “outfit of the day” or “OOTD” posts on Instagram—teens now can view hundreds of different products and looks to help them figure out what they want to buy and how to style it. They don’t need a store or brand to help dictate their look for them and aren’t relying on a single brand’s cachet. Instead, millennials favor individuality and shop accordingly. They’re less attached to brands and more willing to mix and match to create their own style, surveys by Nielsen, the Boston Consulting Group, and others have found.

Even Abercrombie, whose name and moose logo were signature design embellishments for every shirt, has realized this. A spokesperson acknowledged to Reuters: “They no longer want to be a walking billboard of a brand. Individualism is important to them, having their own sense of style.” To that end, Abercrombie has shrunk its well-known logo and increased the assortment of offerings in an attempt to better appeal to teens who don’t want to look like store mannequins (or each other).

Abercrombie isn’t the only company that has taken note and been busy “de-branding” designs, notes the Intelligence Group, which found in a study on millennials that they also favor more durable purchases, not flash trends, like classic dark plain denim jeans that can be worn for several years. Retailers that have been more successful with teens of late such as H&M and Forever 21 tend to focus more on selling clothes that seem brandless and still trendy, without prominent logos.

2. “Faster” Fashion Dominates

Stores like Zara, H&M, and Forever 21, which have much shorter waits between when clothing is ordered and when it goes on sale than traditional teen retailers, can roll out new clothing options each week, not each season, meaning they can quickly adopt trends from the catwalk and rapidly bring them to a sales floor. They can also better capitalize on cuts and patterns that are trending well with teens, giving them exactly what they want, faster than ever.

These “fast fashion” shops typically sell clothes at low prices—ideal when your clientele doesn’t have much money—and an ever-changing roster of products lures teens back into stores (or websites) again and again to see what’s new. It’s easy to see how this trend snowballs and hurts the competition, with teens having less time or inclination to look at other shops selling the same 14 sweaters they were a month ago.

3. Malls Are No Longer a Hangout

Remember Clueless, that movie that Iggy Azalea replicates in the “Fancy” music video? In it, privileged 1995 teen Cher’s default retreat is the mall. It’s where she goes to find comfort and break in her new clogs, and where a major popularity restructuring happens. Such a plot point wouldn’t be happening today, and I don’t just mean about the clogs.

Twenty years later, Cher’s counterpart’s default hangout could be at a fast-casual restaurant or at home in front of a screen of some sort. Basically, anywhere but the mall, which has seen a drop in foot traffic across all age groups, but among young people in particular. Strict “parental supervision” policies, like the one Ford City Mall announced this week, make it impossible for some teens to hang out at the mall even if they wanted to, with requirements that anyone under 18 be accompanied by a parent on Friday or Saturday evenings. Roughly 80 other malls have implemented similar policies, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Add in the fact that in 1990, about 3 million retail jobs were held by 16-to-19-year-olds, vs. about 1 million today. When someone works at the mall, they’re more likely to shop there simply as a matter of convenience. Plus, isn’t part of the fun of going to a mall getting to annoy your working friend by unfolding all the shirts or pretending to be interested in smoothies so you can spy on your Jamba Juice crush?

Oh, and young people today are less likely to have driver’s licenses or own cars than prior generations, so it’s just plain more difficult for them to get to the mall. Assuming they wanted to go there, of course.

4. Budget Cuts

Clothing simply isn’t the top spending priority for teens it once was. In 2003, teens spent nearly 30% of their budgets on clothing. Nowadays, that figure has dropped to 21%. Of course, teens in 2003 didn’t have the newest iPhone 6 and its accompanying data plan to pay for or selfie sticks to buy. The best a 2003 teen could hope for was a pink Motorola Razr, if they got a cellphone at all. But the point is that today’s teens and millennials are likely to spend less on clothing and more on electronics and eating out at restaurants like Chipotle.

5. Yoga Pants, Yoga Pants, Yoga Pants

Skinny jeans? Flare? Colored? Forget them all. No teenage girl wants to buy new denim each season when she can slip on the modern uniform involving some variation of yoga pants, leggings, or upscale sweatpants. Sales of these “athleisure” offerings, embodied best by retailer Lululemon, have soared this past year as millennials swap their jeans for bottoms that can do double duty at the gym and school. Sales for activewear topped $35 billion last year and now make up 17% of the total clothing market, according to market-research company NPD Group.

With leggings offering greater wardrobe versatility at a lower cost than a typical pair of denim, teens just aren’t feeling the urge to buy those artfully ripped jeans in 10 different washes that still dominate the offerings from American Eagle Outfitters and Abercrombie & Fitch. And though AEO and Aeropostale have tried to break into the leisurewear market with new offerings, they’re having a hard battle for attention with established players likes Lululemon and Athleta.

MONEY Food & Drink

5 ‘Imported’ Beers That Are Really Brewed in the U.S.A.

Japanese Kirin Ichiban beer
Simon Dack—Alamy

If you've been buying the Japanese "import" Kirin beer brand under the impression it's actually made in Asia, you've been misled. And you've probably been paying too much for the beer.

Fortunately, you might be able to get some of that beer money back. According to Law360.com, Anheuser-Busch InBev, which owns Kirin alongside giant brands like Budweiser and Bud Light, recently settled a class-action lawsuit filed in Miami that alleged “the packaging, marketing and advertising of Kirin beer is designed to deceive consumers into believing they are purchasing a product made in Japan.”

In fact, Kirin—described as a “Japanese-style pilsner” on the Anheuser-Busch website—is brewed in Virginia and southern California.

A statement offered to the press from A-B said, “We believe our labeling, packaging and marketing of Kirin Ichiban and Kirin Light have always been truthful.” Yet the company agreed to settlement terms that include no further use of the word “imported” relating to Kirin, more prominent disclosure on labels concerning where the product is actually brewed, and refunds to people who bought Kirin and have receipts to prove it. Customers can get money back to the tune of 10¢ per bottle or can, 50¢ per six-pack, and $1 per 12-pack. No matter how much Kirin you’ve purchased, the maximum payment per household is $50.

What’s interesting, and somewhat ironic, about the alleged trickery is that the labels and marketing would be implying a beer was made somewhere other than the U.S. in the first place. After all, the “Made in the USA” label is a selling point for all manner of goods lately. And in an era when Budweiser, Coors, and other iconic “American” brands—even Pabst, for cryin’ out loud!—are in the hands of foreign owners, smaller brewers have gone to special lengths pointing out that their beers are thoroughly American.

What’s more, consider the swift rise of American craft beer’s reputation around the globe, and how the hot trend is for beer-loving countries like Germany to import top-quality American beer rather than the other way around. Given the modern-day beer landscape, if anything, you’d think that beer companies would be more inclined to fudge that a product was brewed in the vibrant American beer scene even if it wasn’t.

But Kirin, and a few other mass-market “imports” (see below), gained their footholds in the marketplace during a different era—one in which beers were deemed superior to American brews simply by claims of foreignness. So, in the same way that the world’s biggest brewers continue to blur the lines of what brews are truly worthy of the “craft beer” label, there remains a proliferation of a few beer brands that seem to originate overseas, and that one would understandably assume are made overseas, and yet truthfully are produced right here in America.

In addition to Kirin, the faux imports below are all brewed in the U.S.:

Beck’s. Like Kirin, this Anheuser-Busch InBev-owned brand is the subject of a class-action lawsuit claiming deceptive marketing because the labels use phrases such as “Originated in Germany” and “German Quality.” Beck’s is actually brewed in 15 different countries, including the U.S., so the Beck’s you buy in this country was most likely produced here.

Foster’s Lager. Billed as a “uniquely Australian beer” by corporate parent SABMiller, Foster’s has been brewed in Texas for years. British pub patrons may also be surprised to know that the Foster’s on tap there is made in Manchester, England, not Down Under.

Killian’s Irish Red. In fairness, MillerCoors lists the Killian’s brand under the category of “Craft” rather than “Import.” But craft beer insiders wouldn’t call Killian’s either. The Killian’s website runs through the history of the brand, which originated in with “the first batch of Enniscorthy Ruby Ale” made by George Killian himself in Ireland. It glosses over how the name was purchased in the 1980s by Coors, and that it’s been brewed in Colorado for decades.

Red Stripe. When sold in the U.S., the iconic grenade bottles of Red Stripe used to feature the word “Imported” on its label. But starting in 2012, when production for the U.S. market was switched from Jamaica to Wisconsin, the Diageo-Guinnness-owned beer dropped the “I” word and tweaked the label to reflect its status as merely a “Jamaican Style Lager.” Nonetheless, plenty of drinkers assume it’s still made and imported from the Caribbean.

[UPDATE: Somehow we overlooked that Bass Ale, the “original English Pale Ale” that was actually served on the Titanic, is now also brewed in the U.S. (Baldwinsville, N.Y.), and some drinkers sure aren’t happy about how the American-produced version tastes.]

Read next: Alcohol Poisoning Kills 6 Americans a Day

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MONEY Autos

President Obama Strongly Hints You’ll Regret Buying a Gas Guzzler

"Folks should enjoy" gas prices while they're low, the president said this week. But he warned it would be foolish to expect gas to stay cheap forever.

In an exclusive interview with the Detroit News, President Obama explained that while Americans “should enjoy” cheap gas prices across the country, long-term projections call for rising demand for oil in the U.S. and other parts of the world. Which means a return to higher fuel prices in the future is more or less inevitable.

Consequently, Obama said that it’s wise for Americans to operate—and spend, particularly in terms of big-ticket purchases—with the assumption that gas won’t be under $3 per gallon indefinitely. “I would strongly advise American consumers to continue to think about how you save money at the pump because it is good for the environment, it’s good for family pocketbooks and if you go back to old habits and suddenly gas is back at $3.50, you are going to not be real happy,” he said.

In reality, when you look at the auto sales trends of 2014, what with purchases of fuel-efficient hybrids like the Toyota Prius flagging while SUVs and luxury cars soar, it appears as if consumers have pretty much been doing the opposite of what the president is advising.

To be fair, consumers haven’t totally abandoned the idea that it’s smart to own a vehicle that gets good gas mileage. Today’s SUVs and trucks are far more fuel-efficient than they’ve been in the past, and it’s not like everyone is suddenly wishing they could drive 10 mpg Hummers again.

But there has been a shift to less fuel-efficient cars that’s coincided with plummeting gas prices. According to research by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle of the University of Michigan Transportation Institute, in December new car purchases averaged 25.1 mpg, down from a high of 25.8 mpg in August. “These recent reductions likely reflect the large and continuing decreases in the price of gasoline,” the researchers stated.

Everything’s relative, of course. The December average of 25.1 mpg may be down compared to earlier months in 2014, but it still represents a vast improvement over prior years: The average was 24.8 mpg for 2013 as a whole, and around 21 mpg in 2008 and 2009.

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

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
    Brian Pope—Gallup, Inc. StrengthsFinder 2.0

    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.
    Brennan Linsley—AP 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.

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

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

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

    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
    Veryan Dale—Alamy Minecraft on an Apple iPad

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

    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
    Ford 2015 Ford F-150

    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.
    Mercedes-Benz USA—Wieck 2014 CLA45 AMG.

    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
    Nissan—Wieck 2015 Nissan LEAF

    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.
    Jim McIsaac—Getty Images 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.

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

    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.

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