TIME Saving & Spending

The Disastrous Black Friday Mistake You Must Avoid

Money in jeans pocket
Image Source—Getty Images

Shop smarter—or else pay for the consequences

Going into the holiday season with a budget is a good start, but it might not be good enough. A new study shows that misestimating how much of a deal they’ll get on Black Friday and underestimating how long it will take them to pay off their holiday splurges will cost American shoppers.

According to the National Retail Federation, the average holiday shopper spent a little less than $770 last year. It predicts a total increase in Americans’ holiday spending of just over 4% for this year.

But shoppers could find themselves with sticker shock, a new study from NerdWallet.com warns. And middle-class shoppers could bear the brunt of it. According to a survey conducted by Harris Poll for NerdWallet, families in the $50,000 to $75,000 income bracket won’t pay off their debts for an average of nearly three months. Poorer families will pay off their debts a little more quickly, in an average of two months.

Odds are, even these estimations are optimistic. Other studies show that people tend to take longer to pay off their holiday bills than they anticipate. And, odds are, many of these shoppers aren’t starting from scratch but adding onto an existing balance — one that averages nearly $16,000, based on NerdWallet’s look at household credit card debt.

And the cost of servicing that debt keeps going up. The average APR on a general-use credit card is a tick under 16%, according to Bankrate.com. For store cards — you know, the kind many of us open over the holidays to get the one-day discount on purchases — it’s even higher. They have an average APR of over 23%, higher if you have marginal credit.

New data from Experian shows that more of us are signing up for those store cards and the higher rates they charge; both the amount we borrow and the number of cards we have has risen over the past year.

“Middle-class households can fall into a costly situation this holiday season, where they’ve been extended ample credit but have incomes too thin to comfortably pay the bills later,” warns NerdWallet senior retail analyst Matthew Ong. “Many are still struggling to reconcile a typically middle-class standard of living with stagnant incomes,” he says.

Adding insult to injury, NerdWallet also finds that those Black Friday deals many of us think we’re going to score might not be so hot after all.

In an analysis of 27 major retailers’ ads, more than 90% of them listed “sale” prices identical to last year’s Black Friday prices. This isn’t always apparent at a quick glance; the site found that retailers use tricks like misleading original prices and make shoppers jump through hoops like requiring mail-in rebates.

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TIME

5 Holiday Spending Mistakes That Can Kill Your Credit

handing money over
PM Images—Getty Images

This time of year can be brutal on your credit score

Now that the holiday shopping season is here (what, you didn’t know Halloween is the new Black Friday?), companies are pulling out all the stops to get us to spend. But watch out: There are some fairly common holiday spending behaviors that can do a number on your credit score. Here’s what the experts say you need to avoid.

Maxing out your cards. In truth, getting anywhere near your credit limit is a bad idea. “Your credit card utilization rate accounts for nearly a third of your credit score,” says Charles Tran, founder of CreditDonkey.com. This percentage of the credit you’ve used compared to how much you have available should be at 30% or less, and if you’re actively trying to raise your score, you should aim for as little as 10%.

This holds true even if you don’t revolve a balance, Tran says. “Even if you religiously pay off your credit card balance in full, the snapshot that the credit report captures might show a high balance, which has a negative impact,” he says.

Loading up a low-limit card. This is a corollary to not maxing out your cards because your credit is scored based on both your per-card as well as aggregate limits, explains John Ulzheimer, credit expert at CreditSesame.com. “The closer your balance is to your credit limit, the lower your credit scores,” he says. If you put $1,000 on a card with a $1,500 limit, that looks much worse than putting the same amount on a card with a $15,000 limit, he says, even though the amount you’re spending and the total amount of credit you have available hasn’t changed.

Ulzheimer notes this is even more important if you plan to pay off your holiday purchases over a number of months, because this maximizes the amount of time you’ll have a harmfully high ratio on the card.

Opening a slew of store cards. Yes, we know — you’ll get 10% or 15% off, or maybe you’ll even be able to jump that insane line on Black Friday. Opening a bunch of store credit cards is still a bad idea. Every time you apply for credit, your score takes a (small) ding, so making your way through the mall filling out applications can cumulatively have a noticeable effect on your credit score.

Closing a bunch of cards. “It can… be damaging to panic and close credit cards because you’re afraid of overspending for the holidays,” warns Bankrate.com analyst Jeanine Skowronski. If you know you can’t handle the temptation, then go ahead and close cards, but this should be a last resort because it can hurt your score because closing a card takes that credit away from your utilization calculation, she says.

Similarly, a lot of people think they’ll sign up for a store card just to get the one-time discount, pay it off and then cancel it. This is really a double-whammy for your score because you ding your credit profile twice, once when you open the card and again when you close it.

Taking the deferred-interest bait. “One marketing strategy that can get folks in trouble is the delayed interest offer,” says Beverly Harzog, consumer credit expert and author of “Confessions of a Credit Junkie.” Not paying by the end of the grace period or even missing a payment could trigger retroactive interest on your purchase, often at sky-high retail card rates. “You’ll owe the interest that would have been charged during that time period,” Harzog says. Not only does this make that purchase ultimately more expensive, it also increases the likelihood you’ll need to revolve that debt, which hurts your utilization.

TIME Saving & Spending

5 Ways Money Can Buy Happiness, Backed by Science

Money
Getty Images

You have to be a spend wisely, though

The old saying that money can’t buy happiness? Not true, it turns out. But you have to spend strategically if you expect the Benjamins to put a smile on your face.

Buy moments, not stuff. According to Dan Gilbert, Harvard University psychology professor and author of Stumbling on Happiness, the key is to spend your money on experiences rather than material things. Material things, even if they’re expensive or you wanted them badly, tend to lose their luster after a while, literally and figuratively. Memories of people, places and activities, however, never get old. In a survey, Gilbert found that 57% of respondents reported greater happiness from an experiential purchase. Only 34% said the same about a material purchase.

Spend on others. In a study published this year, Harvard University researchers conducted experiments and found out that spending money on others (called “prosocial” spending in academic jargon) boosts people’s emotional and physical well-being.

“The benefits of prosocial spending… extend not only to subjective well-being but objective health,” they write. Despite people’s intuitions and inclinations to the contrary, one of the best ways to get the biggest payoff personally from a windfall of $20 is to spend it prosocially.”

Buy small splurges. Dropping a ton of cash on someting extravagent doesn’t give you the same bang for your buck because, no matter how special it is at first, you get used to having it over time and it becomes just another object. “Giving yourself inexpensive indulgences is a clever way to gather up lots of bursts of happiness,” a recent Business Insider article suggests, citing Gilbert’s research.

Buy what you like. No keeping up with the Joneses — that’s not going to make you happy. “There are a lot of reasons someone might buy something… but if the reason is to maximize happiness, the best thing for that person to do is purchase a life experience that is in line with their personality,” Ryan Howell, an associate psychology professor San Francisco State University, tells Forbes. Howell recently co-authored a study finding that when people spend money just to project or uphold a certain image, it doesn’t bring happiness.

Spend with others. You might think spending money on things or activities you do by yourself will make you happy, but a recent study in Psychological Science says that tactic can backfire. “To be extraordinary is to be different than other people, and social interaction is grounded in similarities,” says Gus Cooney , Harvard University research assistant and lead author of the study.

Doing things with friends or family, even if it’s not as exciting, makes you happy because it fosters a sense of togetherness and connection between you and other people. “The guy who had the extraordinary experience had a harder time fitting in,” Cooney tells The Atlantic.

MONEY psychology of money

WATCH: How to Get More Bang for Your Happiness Buck

Want to get happy? Economist Justin Wolfers explains the best ways to spend your cash.

Check out our full interview with Justin Wolfers on the connection between money and happiness.

MONEY Shopping

5 Ways to Trim Your Meat Budget During Barbecue Season

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Flamed grilled steaks on a barbecue Carlos Davila—Alamy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MONEY

Cheapest Rangers Stanley Cup Tickets Already Starting at More Than $1,000

New York Rangers
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 27: Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers makes a save against Scott Hartnell #19 of the Philadelphia Flyers in Game Five of the First Round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 27, 2014 in New York City. The New York Rangers won 4-2. Scott Levy—NHLI via Getty Images

New York Rangers fans have waited 20 years to see the team play for the Stanley Cup championship, and they're paying top dollar for tickets in New York City.

It’s been a long two decades since the New York Rangers were in the Stanley Cup Finals. Now that Lord Stanley is within the Blueshirts’ grasp, diehard fans are paying big money for home game tickets.

Heading into Game 6 of the NHL Eastern Conference finals on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, tickets on the secondary market were averaging about $800, with the “cheapest” seats selling for $350. Within hours of the Rangers defeating the Montreal Canadiens, sending the New York squad to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since Mark Messier led the Rangers to the championship in 1994, those $350 seats truly do seem cheap. So do the $800 tickets for that matter.

“People are dying to see this team back in the Stanley Cup Finals,” Connor Gregoire, of ticket resale and aggregation site SeatGeek.com, told a New York CBS station in advance of Game 6.

As of Sunday morning, it wasn’t yet determined who the Rangers would face in the finals. But, because either opponent (Chicago Blackhawks or Los Angeles Kings) would have home ice advantage, it was clear New York would host Game 3, 4, and (if necessary) 6 at MSG—and ticket prices for those games skyrocketed. At StubHub, the cheapest seats for Game 3 were going for more than $1,000. Meanwhile, tickets for Game 6, the last game of the series that the Rangers could possibly host, were starting above $1,500. According to ticket aggregation and research site TiqIQ.com, the average ticket price in New York ranged from $2,200 for Game 3 to more than $2,700 for a potential Game 6.

Prices haven’t changed much since it became clear the Rangers will be playing the L.A. Kings for the Stanley Cup championship. As of Monday, the cheapest prices for Games 3 and 4 at MSG started at more than $1,100, and Game 6 tickets were available for $1,700 and up.

Those are the least expensive tickets, mind you. Lower section seats near the glass for Game 3 were posted with asking prices of more than $7,000 apiece at SeatGeek.

As the Daily News recalled, the Rangers’ 1994 dramatic, long-awaited championship is still remembered fondly by fans, who had suffered through 54 years without a Cup:

“The waiting is over!” play-by-play legend Sam Rosen bellowed. “The New York Rangers . . . are the Stanley Cup champions! And this one will last a lifetime! No more curses. This is unbelievable.”

Today’s New York fans are hoping that the magic comes back to Madison Square Garden ice, and that their wait for another championship ends at the 20-year mark. Those lofty ticket prices demonstrate how badly fans want to see the team hoist the Cup. They also show how crazed Rangers fans are in general.

The same can’t be said of the fan base in Los Angeles, which isn’t exactly known as a hockey town. Last week, the Chicago Tribune noted that NBC, which is airing the games, must be rooting for the Blackhawks to make the Stanley Cup Finals because an Original Six Rangers-Blackhawks series would blow away a Rangers-Kings showdown in terms of TV ratings, thanks to Chicago’s diehard hockey fans.

Likewise, ticket prices probably would have been higher for a Stanley Cup home game in Chicago versus sunny Los Angeles. On Friday, tickets for Game 6 that night at the L.A. Staples Center, when the Kings could have closed out the series against the Blackhawks at home, were starting at around $120 on the secondary market. Now that we know the Kings are in, ticket prices on StubHub are starting below $500 for Game 1 in Los Angeles, or less than half the get-in price at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Tickets to a potential Game 7 in Los Angeles are available for just a smidge more than $1,000, “cheap” compared to the going prices in NYC.

MONEY Odd Spending

There’s Probably No Cash in Your Wallet. Could That Cost You?

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Nikola Bilic—Alamy

If you walk around with little or no cash, you're in the majority. But choosing plastic over cash for everyday purchases could mean you'll spend more in the long run.

According to two recent surveys, the majority of consumers walk around with little or no cash. Most prefer plastic for the sake of convenience and safety. There could be an unfortunate side effect, however, based on the theory that people spend more when making purchases with credit or debit cards rather than cash.

Last week, VoucherCloud, a UK-based deals and coupon site, released the results of a survey of 2,341 Americans indicating that “over half of American citizens (57%) ‘never’ carry cash, instead relying solely on credit and debit cards to pay for their daily expenses.” Only 10% of survey participants said that they “always” carry cash, and another 33% said that they carried cash “rarely” or “sometimes.”

Could this be true? Do the majority of American adults you pass on the street really have empty wallets? There’s reason for skepticism. Let’s start with the question that prompted the responses: “How often do you carry cash with you on an everyday basis?” Many may read this question as essentially asking, Do you always carry cash? That’s different than asking if you usually keep a few greenbacks in your pocket.

What’s more, another recent survey, from Bankrate, focused on the same subject but ended up with very different results. In its survey, which asked, “How much cash do you usually carry on a daily basis?” Bankrate found that only 9% selected the option “Don’t carry cash/does not apply.”

There’s no denying that folks carry a lot less cash than they used to. According to Bankrate’s data, more than three-quarters of people generally walk around with $50 or less: 40% usually have less than $20 on hand, 29% say $20 to $50, and 9% typically go cashless (or “does not apply,” whatever that means).

In both surveys, participants said they felt safer that way. The top reasons given in the VoucherCloud survey were “concerns over safety and the risk of theft” (65%) and “risk of losing my wallet and/or its contents” (53%). Women tend to carry less cash than men—77% of female respondents said they keep $50 or less handy, versus 61% of men—perhaps owing to the fact that women “may prefer to carry less cash than men so as to reduce the risk of being a target for criminal activity,” according to Bankrate chief financial analyst Greg McBride.

As for whether it’s wise to carry little or no cash, the surveys come to very different conclusions. When asked, “Do you spend more or less when paying by card instead of cash?” 84% of VoucherCloud respondents said they do more damage when spending with plastic. “While using payment cards rather than cash is a widespread modern phenomenon, because it is so quick and convenient, it can become a dangerous trend for some of us!” VoucherCloud’s Matthew Wood warned. “It’s much harder to keep up with what you’re spending as you don’t see the money leave your hands and, because it’s just a little piece of plastic, it doesn’t feel like a real exchange. It’s easy to get carried away.”

There’s plenty of research out there to back up this theory. Generally speaking, the idea is accepted that handing over cash feels more tangible and “hurts” more compared to quickly swiping a card. Many budget and personal finance experts recommend going cash only and maybe even freezing credit and debit cards in a block of ice as a strategy to limit one’s spending.

The Bankrate study, on the other hand, makes the argument that people today think of any cash as “petty cash” that will inevitably be spent quickly and carelessly. So it stands to reason that people don’t want to carry around too much. “If you’re carrying more, maybe you feel you have more, and you feel you spend more easily,” Joydeep Srivastava, a professor of marketing at the University of Maryland, told Bankrate. To many consumers, cash on hand is as good as cash spent. “As soon as you draw it from the ATM, it’s like you’ve already spent it,” said Srivastava. “You don’t feel that pang of guilt of spending it anymore.”

So which theory is true? If you’re trying to avoid unnecessary spending, should your primary mode of paying be plastic or cash? And by extension, is it best to carry lots, some, or no cash? The truth is, the answers probably vary a lot from person to person.

If you’re the type who is constantly piling up credit card debt or getting hit with overdraft fees on a debit card, it may be time to put the plastic on ice and limit yourself to cash-only expenditures. And it’s probably best to try to plan out your daily expenses and limit how much cash you carry around. Because if you have more cash than you need, you know you’ll just spend it.

MONEY Shopping

SPF? UVB? PhD! The Complex Science of Sunscreen Shopping

Woman in swimsuit applying suntan lotion or sun block
Tom Merton—Ocean/Corbis

If you're not worried about choosing the wrong sunscreen, you haven't been paying attention.

Everybody knows that they should wear sunscreen to avoid sunburns and skin cancer. But apparently, you can’t just slather on any old product. These days, the risks of using the wrong sunscreen are said to include hormonal imbalances, nanoparticle inhalation, and the outside chance of setting oneself on fire.

Hey, we were just getting the hang of the traditional acronyms associated with sunscreens—SPF (sun protection factor), UVA, UVB (the two varieties of ultraviolet rays). Now we also have to think about oxybenzone, avobenzone, and titanium dioxide, just to name a few. Because many of these scary-sounding chemicals are, indeed, tied to legitimate health concerns, the question is not Should I wear sunscreen? but, to paraphrase a Slate writer, Which sunscreen won’t kill my kid?

In light of all the complications, the common-sense approach might just be to go with a well-known brand like Coppertone. In a post for the St. Louis College of Pharmacy, Abby Yancey, an associate professor at the school, explained that’s what she did, sending a double pack of Coppertone spray with her child to daycare.

Then Yancey got an e-mail from the daycare service stating that children should not bring sunscreens containing oxybenzone. Sure enough, there was oxybenzone in the Coppertone. And when Yancey went back to Target, there was oxybenzone in pretty much every sunscreen in the store. What’s so bad about oxybenzone? Yancey didn’t know, so she Googled it—yes, even pharmacy college professors have to Google this stuff—and found out that it’s absorbed into the skin, and some people “believe oxybenzone can cause hormonal imbalance” in users.

So there you are: Even pharmacists are flummoxed. Which would be reassuring if it weren’t also frightening.

There are plenty of other sunscreen-related concerns to freak out about not mentioned by Yancey. Like, oh, the possibility that using spray sunscreen could mean you’ll burst into flames, or at least get a bad burn—not a sunburn, a regular fire-type burn—if you’re near an open flame, such as a barbecue grill. That’s according to the FDA, which warns that because many of these products contain alcohol, which is flammable, “if you apply certain sunscreen sprays and then come close to a source of flame, you may risk the sunscreen catching fire and giving you a serious burn.”

As for some other basics, such as the proper distance for applying spray sunscreen—again, far away from any open flames!—the experts aren’t always on the same page. Yancey’s post recommends that users “be sure to hold the container 4 to 6 inches from the skin.” In the June issue of Health, meanwhile, Joshua Zeichner, M.D., the director of cosmetic and clinical research in the department of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, says, “Hold the nozzle 1 to 2 inches away from the skin.” At least everyone agrees that you should rub in the sunscreen after applying. (Ideally, not while you’re also flipping burgers on the grill.)

Experts also tend to agree on something that seems rather disconcerting to the consumer who doesn’t want to spend more than three seconds picking out a sunscreen: A lot of what’s on store shelves should be avoided.

In the latest tests of 20 sunscreens by Consumer Reports, only two of the products provided the SPF protection claimed on their packages after the wearer was immersed in water. One of the sunscreens tested offered only half the claimed SPF after being in water.

After running its own tests, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) issued a guide promising that “Sun Safety Gets Easier,” while offering a dire warning about the majority of products on the market:

Two-thirds of the sunscreens in our analysis don’t work well enough or contain ingredients that may be toxic. American stores are still stocked with inferior products.

The EWG “Easier” guide features page after page of alarming info, including the idea that many high SPF claims are misleading (SPF100 isn’t twice as effective as SPF50), that Vitamin A, found in 20% of sunscreens, “may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions,” and that mineral sunscreens, which are generally zinc oxide and titanium dioxide-based, and which actually get a favorable rating from the EWG and most experts, are of concern because they contain nanoparticles, which are dangerous if inhaled. (Side note: The FDA has also issued warnings about the dangers of inhaling spray sunscreens. And Consumer Reports notes that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide “have been linked to reproductive and developmental effects in animals.”)

Even so, deep within the EWG guide, you’ll find the seemingly straightforward recommendation: “Zinc oxide is EWG’s first choice for sun protection.” Overwhelmingly, however, the EWG hammers home the point that every effort should be made to limit sun exposure and sunburn. “Don’t depend on sunscreen,” the study states. “People who rely on sunscreens tend to burn, and burns are linked to cancer.”

Likewise, there’s this shocking finding from CR:

Research shows that people who rely on sunscreens alone tend to burn more than those who stay in the shade and wear long sleeves.

Wow. Who would have guessed?

Seriously, for those who feel compelled to escape the shade occasionally, and who want to buy a sunscreen without having to get a PhD in chemistry, do the bare minimum and be sure the product has an SPF of at least 15, and that the FDA-approved phrase “broad spectrum” is on the label. That should help protect you from the most harmful rays. And take CR’s helpful, common-sense reminder to heart: “Using any sunscreen is better than using none.”

MONEY Autos

The Little Engine That Could Save You Big Money

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BMW's sleek new i8 Sports Coupe hides a 3-cylinder engine under the hood. courtesy BMW GROUP

Automakers are being curiously quiet about the expanded use of an engine that’s lighter, more fuel efficient, and even safer than what drivers have come to expect under the hood. Why?

Because the type of engine in question runs on three cylinders, a breed that’s widely been considered “weird” and “wimpy.” The truth is that many of today’s 3-cylinder engines are neither.

The shift to smaller engines has been long in the making. By 2011, roughly half of new cars sold had 4-cylinder engines, up from around one-third in 2007. The average fuel efficiency for new cars has kept increasing, reaching over 25 mpg in recent months, and in order to hit the aggressive CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) goals established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, vehicle mileage will have to keep inching upward.

One way automakers are trying to pump up fuel efficiency is by expanding the use of engines that have traditionally been associated with snowmobiles, mopeds, and lawn mowers. Manufacturers such as Ford, Nissan, and BMW have spent years developing vehicles with 3-cylinder engines, and now there are a handful of models with the teeny-tiny engines on the market. Among the options are the 2014 versions of the Ford Fiesta SE and the Mini Cooper, as well as the BMW i8, a sleek new hybrid sports car that’s expected to have a sticker price well over $100,000.

You probably haven’t heard much about the engines in these cars, however, which seems odd. Automakers love promoting every innovation and technological advancement. BMW, for instance, devotes ample website space to the i8’s design features that boost efficiency, including streamlined aerodynamics and the way “the passenger compartment is made of a carbon fibre composite, which proves to be an ingenious all-rounder: up to 50 % lighter than steel and approximately 30 % lighter than aluminum.” By contrast, very little attention is given to the fact that the gasoline engine under the hood is of the 3-cylinder variety. It’s buried low on one web page amid a barrage of jargon concerning the vehicle’s “BMW eDrive technology and a BMW TwinPower Turbo 1.5-litre, 3-cylinder petrol engine.”

As Automotive News recently explained, the 3-cylinder engine still has a “wimpy reputation,” generated by earlier, golf-cart-like 3-cylinder models. “Ford, BMW and other automakers are not drawing attention to the number of cylinders,” the Automotive News story noted. “That’s due in part to the reputation of three-cylinder engines. Instead, their message focuses on performance and fuel economy.”

The Mini Cooper and the Fiesta SE both get highway mpg ratings in the 40s, and they’re not underpowered, with 134 and 123 horsepower, respectively. The new Mini does 0-60 in 7.4 seconds, 2.3 seconds faster than its 4-cylinder-powered predecessor. (The new Mitsubishi Mirage and Smart fortwo, which also have 3-cylinder engines, have horsepower more in line with what most consumers would expect: 74 hp and 70 hp, respectively.) Three-cylinder engines are also lighter, which of course helps fuel efficiency, require fewer parts (which lowers manufacturing costs), and take up less space under the hood, which can improve safety because there’s less chance it will penetrate the interior in a front-end collision.

It’ll be up to cars like these, as well as high-tech 3-cylinder engines developed by Nissan, one of which weighs just 88 pounds and pumps an amazing 400 horsepower in the automaker’s batmobile-like ZEOD RC concept car, to convince consumers that a 3-cylinder engine is good for more than cutting the grass. Some auto insiders say that the assumptions most drivers make about these engines are outdated, and that the engine’s reputation is bound to change once word spread about the advances that have been made.

Jalopnik declared that 2014 will be the “year three-cylinder engines stop being weird,” and, presumably, wimpy. “It’s time for three cylinders,” Jalopnik’s Jason Torchinsky proclaimed. As for the skeptics and naysayers, who are stuck with the perception that 3-cylinders can’t adequately power anything bigger than a scooter? “Remind your wanna-be gearhead co-workers that most of these modern 3-cylinders have power pretty damn close to V8s in the mid-1970s.”

MONEY Food & Drink

National Crisis! Free Bread Disappearing at Restaurants

Selection of breads in restaurant
Kieran Scott—Getty Images

The free bread basket, once a staple at any halfway decent restaurant, is increasingly off the table around the country.

You want bread with your meal? Then be prepared to pay up. More and more restaurants around the country are upending decades of tradition by doing away with the bread basket.

The obvious reason that free bread is disappearing—or being offered upon request instead of showing up automatically—is that it’s expensive. According to one baker interviewed recently by the Boston Globe, “a restaurant used to be able to get a roll for 10 cents. Now it can be 50 or 55 cents. Bread used to be cheap, but now it’s a serious cost.”

Even worse, restaurateurs are facing the proposition of paying more for bread during a time when diners are less likely to eat it, thanks to dietary restrictions and trends—in particular, the two big pushes to eliminate or restrict carbs and gluten. These shifts in eating habits don’t appear to be going away anytime soon. The National Restaurant Association trade show in Chicago last week featured no fewer than 75 booths with gluten-free products.

In San Francisco, where it’s become common for restaurants to either charge for bread or offer it only upon request, the new policies are promoted as a means to limit unnecessary waste. “I’m all for” it, wrote the San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer, because in the past, much of the free bread wound up in the trash, untouched. “Why waste bread if the diner really doesn’t want it?”

Baby boomers, who have lived for decades with complimentary carbs, seem to be much more upset than younger generations about the disappearing act. The Arizona Republic, which last fall noted the phenomenon at restaurants in the retiree-heavy Phoenix area, quoted one 51-year-old man who spoke for many when he said the change was a way for a restaurant to “chintz out.” A 20-year-old customer, on the other hand, felt quite differently: “I usually prefer that [restaurants] don’t give me bread because it fills me up.”

For restaurant owners, the decision to bread or not to bread tables comes down to figuring out a way to keep customers happy while maximizing sales and limiting unnecessary costs. Sensitive strategizing is needed to avoid putting off patrons.

Earlier this year, The Record (N.J.) reported that many restaurants in northern New Jersey have either stopped placing free bread at tables or deliver it only by request after customers have placed their orders. Why the latter? Because restaurants want people to order when they’re hungriest, and customers are less likely to spring for appetizers and big entrees if they’ve already started chowing down on bread.

“If we can’t sell plates because people are filling up on bread, it’s a financial burden,” said one New Jersey restaurant owner. “We’re in the business to sell food, not to sell bread.”

One sneaky strategy, employed by Abby Lane Food & Spirits in Boston, involves subbing homemade spicy barbecue blue potato chips for free bread at tables. The chips cost a fifth as much to produce as bread, and they are gluten-free, the Globe reported, which works out brilliantly for the restaurant. Even better—for the restaurant—because the chips are so salty, customers tend to spend more on drinks.

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