MONEY holiday shopping

11 Clever Stocking Stuffers They’ll Never Know Cost Almost Nothing

If you’ve ever struggled to get a good gift at the last minute and, like most Americans, ended up spending way too much as a consequence, do not fear. Here’s a list of $25-and-under presents that will impress with their (read: your) savvy—without putting a big dent in your wallet.

  • Citrus spritzer ($5)

    Citrus Spritzer
    Citrus Spritzer

    Whether the goal is keeping guacamole from browning, adding an even mist of lime juice to some (chili!) popcorn, or simply wowing guests, the Quirky Citrus Spritzer is pretty much the coolest gadget you can get someone for $5. Expert tip? Increase juice flow by rolling the fruit in question on a table for a minute before inserting the device—and spritzing to your heart’s content.

  • “Drinks are on me” coasters ($6)

    Set Of Four 'Drinks Are On Me' Coasters
    Set Of Four 'Drinks Are On Me' Coasters Karin Åkesson

    Get these charming furniture-protecting coasters from illustrator Karin Akesson for the pun enthusiasts in your life (or that friend who always picks the most literal responses in Cards Against Humanity). Or anyone, really: Who doesn’t love a good double entendre?

  • Clothespin clip-on reading light ($7)

    Clothespin Reading Light
    Clothespin Reading Light MoMA

    Like any unsung hero, this ordinary-looking clothespin doesn’t seem like much at first glance. But pin it to the corner of a book and it transforms into the (drumroll…) Clothespin Clip Light—casting extra light across text while holding pages in place. It’s a sweet stocking stuffer for bookworms and lovers of modern/contemporary art alike… and worst-case scenario, it can be used to hang laundry.

  • Tetris Jenga ($12)

    Jenga Tetris Game
    Jenga Tetris Game Hasbro

    If you thought Truth or Dare Jenga was bold, give Tetris Jenga a spin. This new take on the game has six different shapes that look like the ones you used to flip around on your Ti-84 instead of paying attention in math class. It’s a lot harder to pull a piece out, but destroying the tower is the whole point anyway, right?

  • Tablet “hands” prop ($16)

    TwoHands E-reader prop
    TwoHands E-reader prop Felix

    In the catalog of first-world problems, having to hold your iPad while you use it might be at the top of the list. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t an issue people want solved, and luckily for us, TwoHands E-reader prop is here to help. TwoHands not only props up your tablet so you can read or watch movies hands-free, but its cute little hands will make you smile.

  • Folding cutting board ($16)

    Folding Cutting Board
    MoMA

    Unless you’ve got knife skills like a ninja (or Jamie Oliver), it’s hard to keep all those darn veggie bits on the chopping board and off of the floor. MoMA’s Folding Cutting Board solves that problem with bendable sides that transform into a little chute to help keep chopped food in check and transfer pieces from one place to another neatly. It’s the perfect gift for friends or family members with culinary inclinations but a low tolerance for clean-up.

  • Personalized “magic” mug ($17)

    Walgreen's Magic Mug
    Walgreen's Magic Mug Walgreen's

    This Collage Magic Mug from Walgreens lets you add text and up to 15 custom photos to a mug—with a fun extra twist: Those images appear only when the cup is filled with a hot beverage. Whether you lean more sentimental or silly, a personalized gift like this is likely to mean more than the typical holiday present. One playful idea? Photoshop images of you and other friends so it appears you’re “trapped” in the mug.

  • Smartphone gloves ($20)

    Agloves smartphone gloves
    Joe Coca

    Unless you live in a naturally perfect climate, you might be familiar with the winter misery of trying to type on your smartphone with the useless icicles you once called fingers, as freezing sleet and wind whips around you. Enter Agloves smartphone gloves. Yes, there are even cheaper versions out there, but deep discounts come at the expense of quality and touch-screen responsiveness. These sleek puppies give you the equivalent of BMW performance at Hyundai prices.

  • Foodie Survival Kit ($20)

    Restoration Hardware Foodie Survival Kit
    Restoration Hardware Foodie Survival Kit Restoration Hardware

    For foodies and flavor junkies who can’t tolerate a bland meal, this emergency Mobile Foodie Survival kit is a game-changer, especially while on the road (or camping). With 13 organic spices, your gift recipient can heat up a too-tame Tikka Masala or add herbal fragrance to a mopey pasta Alfredo. Plus, buying the kit supports a good cause: It’s assembled by disabled adults through non-profit Brooklyn Community Services.

  • 10-in-1 bartender tool ($22)

    Restoration Hardware Bar10DER
    Restoration Hardware

    We’re not going to say they’re the best part of December, but holiday cocktails are a delight, and anyone who disagrees is wrong. Hopefully those on your gift list understand the truth, because you won’t find a better gift than this Bar10der tool from Restoration Hardware. Whether one needs to muddle some rosemary, zest an orange, or strain ice, the 10 devices that pop out of this tool have got the cocktail game covered.

  • Dining Table Tennis ($24)

    Dining Table Tennis
    Dining Table Tennis Restoration Hardware

    Here’s a scenario: It’s day two of your family’s holiday celebration. Cookies have been eaten, presents opened, and Netflix queues depleted. Everyone’s trapped together and there’s nothing left to distract from food comas (and bickering relatives). Enter Dining Table Tennis, a kit with all you need to turn your dining room table into a ping pong battlefield. It burns more calories than Scrabble and gives your loved ones something fun to do—even after all the wine is gone.

MONEY IRAs

The Best Way to Tap Your IRA In Retirement

Ask the Expert Retirement illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I am 72 years old and subject to mandatory IRA withdrawals. I don’t need all the money for my expenses. What should I do with the leftover money? Jay Kahn, Vienna, VA.

A: You’re in a fortunate position. While there is a real retirement savings crisis for many Americans, there are also people with individual retirement accounts (IRAs) like you who don’t need to tap their nest egg—at least not yet.

Nearly four out of every 10 U.S. households own an IRA, holding more than $5.7 trillion in these accounts, according to a study by the Investment Company Institute. At Vanguard, 20% of investors with an IRA who take a distribution after age 70 ½ put it into another taxable investment account with the company.

The government forces you to start withdrawing your IRA money when you turn 70½ because the IRS wants to collect the income taxes you’ve deferred on the contributions. You must take your first required minimum distribution (RMD) by April of the year after you turn 70½ and by December 31 for subsequent withdrawals.

But there’s no requirement to spend it, and many people like you want to continue to keep growing your money for the future. In that case you have several options, says Tom Mingone, founder and managing partner of Capital Management Group of New York.

First, look at your overall asset allocation and risk tolerance. Add the money to investments where you are underweight, Mingone advises. “You’ll get the most bang for your buck doing that with mutual funds or an exchange traded fund.“

For wealthier investors who are charitably inclined, Mingone recommends doing a direct rollover to a charity. The tax provision would allow you to avoid paying taxes on your RMD by moving it directly from your IRA to a charity. The tax provision expired last year but Congress has extended the rule through 2014 and President Obama is expected to sign it.

You can also gift the money. Putting it into a 529 plan for your grandchildren’s education allows it to grow tax free for many years. Another option is to establish an irrevocable life insurance trust and use the money to pay the premiums. With such a trust, the insurance proceeds won’t be considered part of your estate so your heirs don’t pay taxes on it. “It’s a tax-free, efficient way to leave more to your family,” Mingone says.

Stay away from immediate annuities though. “It’s not that I don’t believe in them, but when you’re already into your 70s, the risk you’ll outlive your capital is diminished,” says Mingone. You’ll be locking in a chunk of money at today’s low interest rates and there’s a shorter period of time to collect. “It’s not a good tradeoff for guaranteed income,” says Mingone.

Beyond investing the extra cash, consider just spending it. Some retirees are reluctant to spend the money they’ve saved for retirement out of fear of running out later on. With retirements that can last 30 years or more, it’s a legitimate worry. “Believe it or not, some people have a hard time spending it down,” says Mingone. But failure to enjoy your hard-earned savings, especially while you are still young enough and in good health to use it, can be a sad outcome too.

If you’ve met all your other financial goals, have some fun. “There’s something to be said for knocking things off the bucket list and enjoying spending your money,” says Mingone.

Update: This story was changed to reflect the Senate passing a bill to extend the IRS rule allowing the direct rollover of an IRA’s required minimum distribution to a charity through 2014.

Do you have a personal finance question for our experts? Write to AskTheExpert@moneymail.com

Read next: How Your Earnings Record Affects Your Social Security

TIME Senate

Senate in Rare Saturday Session as Shutdown Threat Looms Again

Senator Sherrod Brown Holds Hearing On "Regulatory Capture" With New York Fed's Dudley
From Left: Senator Elizabeth Warren a Democrat from Massachusetts speaks with Senator Joe Manchin a Democrat from West Virginia during a Senate Banking Subcommittee in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 21, 2014. Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The House passed a bandaid spending bill Friday but the Senate is locked in a showdown

For its grand finale before it concludes early next year, the 113th Congress is staging yet another procedural showdown in a rare Saturday session, as lawmakers work to pass a bill to fund the federal government before it runs out of money at midnight.

The House of Representatives Friday averted a government shutdown with a temporary spending bill to fund the government for five days, but the Senate must still approve the bill. The Hill has been locked in debate over a $1.1 trillion spending bill to fund the government through September of next year.

The Senate had hoped to close up shop for the year Friday, but lawmakers could not come to agreement after some Republican senators demanded a vote on a measure protesting President Obama’s controversial immigration order issued in November, which shields some four million undocumented immigrants in the United States from deportation.

“Before the United States Senate is a bill that does nothing, absolutely nothing to stop President Obama’s illegal and unconstitutional amnesty,” said Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.

Some Democrats, however, are worried about changes to financial regulatory laws included in that measure, McClatchy reports. “A vote for this bill is a vote for future taxpayer bailouts of Wall Street,”Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D—Mass.), a longtime advocate for financial regulation reform, said Thursday.

If lawmakers cannot come to an agreement on a temporary spending bill by midnight Saturday the federal government will run out of money. A final vote on the full $1.1 trillion spending bill could come on Monday.

[McClatchy]

MONEY Holidays

8 Smart Ways to Save When Buying Holiday Gifts for a Big Family

Buying christmas presents for a big family
Vstock LLC—Getty Images

You've made your list, checked it twice, and—my god, are there really that many names on it?! Keep your budget from being scrooged by your generosity with these strategies.

If you’ve got a lot of people to buy for, you’re probably used to watching your holiday budget spiral out of control.

The costs of purchasing presents for a long list adds up fast. The average American expects to spend $720 this year, according to a Gallup poll, and a quarter of people will spend more than $1,000. If you’ve got a huge extended family or a big coterie of gift-exchanging friends, you may have found that your own expenses surpass even that not-so-grand figure.

And many people embrace the giving spirit and are generous to a fault: Nearly four in 10 people admit to feeling pressured to spend more than they can afford during the holiday season.

To help spare you some pain when January’s credit card bill arrives, MONEY asked a few smart mom bloggers to share some of the cost-cutting strategies they use for their own gift giving. Cue the elves!

1. Cut Out the Adults

“Last year we agreed with my brother and sister-in-law to only exchange gifts for the kids. It was the start of something wonderful. We have agreed to do it again this year, and I also reached out to another family-in-law this year to do the same. We have reduced our present load by at least four, saving about $150 to $200—as well as the weeks-long process of my husband mulling over the perfect present while vetoing everything I suggest!” —Elissha Park, The Broke Mom’s Guide to Everything

2. Rotate Recipients

“On one side of the family, we rotate between the four siblings and their families as to whom we give gifts. My three kids enjoy coming up with a theme and putting together a ‘family gift’ for their cousins.”—Gina Lincicum, MoneywiseMoms

3. Agree to Get Crafty

“On the other side of our family, we do homemade gifts—still sticking to a dollar amount because it’s easy to overspend even with craft supplies. These have been some of our family’s favorite gifts, like the CDs of favorite kid songs my son made for his uncles when they became new dads!” —Gina Lincicum, MoneywiseMoms

4. Think In Tiers

“It’s so easy to go overboard from year to year. That’s why I use a three-tiered gift-giving system: Tier 1 is family. We do gift exchanges with each individual person in our immediate family, and set a budget for each person. Tier 2 is friends. We typically do a single-family gift for our friends, like movie tickets with free babysitting or a fun new game for them to play together. Tier 3 is neighbors and co-workers. I create homemade chocolate goodies in handmade packages.

Once I establish my budgets for each tier and the people in them, I create a cash envelope for that tier. I only spend cash on what I buy for gifts, supplies and even wrapping paper. Once the cash in the envelope is gone, it’s gone!” —Kim Anderson, Thrifty Little Mom

5. Focus on Experiences

“Meaningful gifts don’t have to be extravagant and costly. Consider giving experience gifts—whether that means buying tickets for a ball game or making plans to take the kids to a matinee movie. Sometimes, the most remembered gifts are those that took thought, not money.” —Crystal Paine, Money Saving Mom

6. Pick One and Be Done

“We often employ the Secret Santa method for the adults in our extended family, because with all the siblings and parents things can add up pretty quickly! Rather than try to spend $50 on everyone in each family—which would total $500—we each pick one name to buy for, with a set price range of $100 to $150 per person. This cuts our costs pretty much in half. Plus, this method makes sure that the adults each get a nice bigger gift rather than a whole bunch of smaller gifts. (We don’t include kids in Secret Santa—under 18 means you get a gift!) It adds a fun element, too, seeing who got who and what they got them!” —Scarlet Paolicchi, Family Focus Blog

7. Set Aside Cash

“As a mom of five boys, planning ahead for the holidays is an absolute must. Four of my kids are teenagers, and while their wish lists may not be as long as they were when they were younger, the price of their toys has certainly gone up.

To combat the heavy hit the holiday season takes on our budget, my husband and I decide in January how much we want to spend on each child (as well as on ourselves) for the holidays and birthdays for the upcoming year.

We then take the total, divide it by 12, and put that amount into a special savings account every month. By putting away a small amount each month, we aren’t met with panic when the holiday season is upon us.”—Candace Anderson, Frugal Mom

8. Block Up the Chimney

“Decide with your family to forgo gifts all together. Volunteer Christmas morning so you don’t feel like you’re missing out on anything, and instead of exchanging gifts, take some of the money you all would have spent and use it for an experience together.” —Anna Newell Jones, And Then We Saved

MONEY consumer psychology

10 Subliminal Retail Tricks You’re Probably Falling For

soda can with sprinkles and a cherry on top
William Castellana—Gallery Stock

There's a reason that salesperson is being rude. Increasingly sophisticated consumer research shows that if she disses you, you'll spend more.

Today’s marketing strategies aren’t dreamed up in smoky rooms full of Mad Men. The tools companies employ to get you to buy their stuff have grown ever more sophisticated, with marketers even using neural measurements to design product packaging and appeal to your deepest desires (to be covered in Cheetos dust, apparently).

Consumer experience these days is not simply designed; it’s engineered. Research determines the ads you see, the scents and sounds you encounter in stores, even the way a salesperson might casually touch your arm. It’s not all high-tech brain science, but here are some of the tricks companies use to entice you to spend more.

1. They make you nostalgic. Don Draper was on to something with his sentimental pitch for a Kodak campaign. But the abundance of families, puppies, and childhood ephemera in the ads you see every day is more than a simple ploy to tug on your heartstrings. Recent research shows nostalgia makes people value money less and feel willing to pay more for purchases.

2. They sic rude salespeople on you. At high-end stores like Gucci, customers are actually more inclined to buy expensive products after a salesperson has acted snottily to them, a new study found. This effect—which doesn’t work with mass-market brands, only luxury—seems to have something to do with the desire to be part of an in crowd. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, you’re more likely to want to belong to a club that doesn’t want you as a member.

3. They use smaller packaging to get you to buy bigger. You’d think that it would be easier to buy and drink less soda and beer if you stick to the cute new mini-cans that seem to be all the rage these days. But research shows buying multi-packs of those small sizes can actually lead people to consume more overall.

4. They get you lost and confused. It’s not an accident that grocery stores are often laid out unintuitively. Losing focus makes people spend more on impulse purchases, says expert Martin Lindstrom, who has conducted studies on marketing strategies. Getting interrupted during shopping also makes you less price-sensitive, according to research co-authored by marketing professor Wendy Liu at UC San Diego. That’s because when you return to look at products after a distraction, you have a false sense of having already vetted them, she says.

5. They mimic your gestures—and get women to touch you. A woman’s touch—but not a man’s—makes people of either sex looser with their money, so when that saleswoman touches your shoulder, you may unwittingly end up spending more. Additionally, research shows that if a salesperson of either sex imitates your gesticulations, you are more likely to buy what he or she is selling.

6. They get you to handle the merchandise. Consumers are willing to pay at least 40% more for mugs and DVDs—and 60% more for snacks—that are physically present than for the same products displayed in photographs or described in text, according to a Caltech study. And other research shows your willingness to pay more increases as you spend more time looking at and holding objects.

7. They create the illusion of bulk bargains. Whether you’re using a jumbo shopping cart or a small basket, you’re going to be tempted to load it up, so it pays to make sure those “deals” are actually worthwhile. Researcher Lindstrom found that adding the sentence “maximum 8 cans per customer” to the price tag of soup cans caused sales to jump, even if no true discount was offered, because it gave the illusion of one. It’s worth asking at checkout: Does that “10 for $10″ actually just mean one for $1?

8. They give you free treats. Consuming even one free chocolate increased shoppers’ desire for nonfood luxuries—including expensive watches, dressy designer shirts, and Mac laptops—right after eating it, according to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

9. They drop the dollar sign. If you think the plain old “28” rather than “$28″ on the menu of your favorite fancy restaurant is simply designed to look chic and minimalist, think again. A Cornell study found that a format that leaves off dollar signs and even the word dollar gets people to spend 8% more at restaurants.

10. They carefully engineer store ambiance. Ambient sounds and smells can make you less careful with your cash. In an appliance store, researcher Lindstrom pumped in the smell of an apple pie, and the sales of ovens and fridges went up 23%. He also found that alternating German and French music in a wine shop influenced which bottles customers purchased. Even nonmusic background sounds can make you overspend: A researcher found that the distraction of noise made people more likely to buy fancier sneakers.

 

MONEY Financial Planning

7 Pre-New Year’s Financial Moves That Will Make You Richer in 2015

champagne bottle with $100 bill wrapped around it
iStock

Before you pop the champagne this December 31, get your financial house in order.

Didn’t 2014 just start? At least that’s the way it feels to me. Well, regardless of how things seem, the reality is the year is just about over. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make a big impact on your financial future before the big ball drops in Times Square.

You can still achieve some very important financial goals before Dec. 31.

1. Make a Plan to Get Out of Debt

You may not be able to get out of debt between now and the end of the holiday season but you can set yourself up now so you’ll be debt-free very soon. Of course the first step is to watch your spending over the holidays. Don’t overdo it. That only makes it harder to solve your debt situation.

Next, create a system to eliminate debt by first consolidating and refinancing to the lowest possible interest rate. Once you do that, put all the muscle (and money) you can towards paying off the highest cost debt you have and make the minimum payments towards other credit card balances. As you pay off your most expensive debt continue to keep your debt payments as high as possible towards the next highest-cost debt. Repeat this process until you are debt-free. Believe me it won’t take that long. But you won’t ever be done if you don’t start. Why not begin the process of lowering your cost of credit card debt today? (You can use this free calculator to see how long it will take to pay off your credit card debt. You can also check your credit scores for free to see how your debt is affecting your credit standing.)

2. Track Your Spending

Even if you aren’t in debt, it’s important to know what you spend on average each month. Once you know where the money is going, you can decide if you are spending it as wisely as possible or if you need to make some changes.

Many people think they know how much they spend on average but most of us underestimate our monthly nut by 20-30%. You can use a program, a spreadsheet or simply look at your bank statements and track your total withdrawals for the month. It doesn’t matter how you do it. But if you aren’t tracking your spending, I recommend you start doing so now.

What’s great about starting to track spending before the new year is that you get used to your system and if you use a program or spreadsheet, it will also simplify your tax reporting for next year. This is especially helpful if you do your own taxes.

3. Review Your Estate Plan

Things usually slow down at work during the holidays. That gives you time to get to important items you may have been putting off. Estate planning is one of those items that people often procrastinate on.

I’m not asking you to get your will or trust done by Dec. 31 (although you could). But at the very least do two things:

  1. Educate yourself about the difference between wills and trusts.
  2. Find a good estate planning attorney or legal service and start the process.

My parents completely ignored this topic. When they both died young and unexpectedly, it made it monumentally more painful, difficult and scary for my siblings and I. Don’t take chances. You can and should start taking care of your estate planning now.

4. Review Your Life Insurance

As long as we’re talking about estate planning, we might as well dust off your old life insurance policies and give them the old once over. Some people have outdated and overly expensive life insurance they no longer need. Others walk around woefully under-insured, exposing their loved ones to great risk that is completely avoidable.

Pull out your old policies today. Do you still need those policies? If not, cancel them. If you do need insurance, start comparison shopping to make sure you have the right coverage at the right price.

5. Start Investing

If you’ve been on the fence about investing it’s time to stop thinking and start doing. If you don’t know how to get started, there are plenty of great resources on the Web. You need to understand the basis, of course, but you don’t need a Ph.D. in economics before you leave the starting gate. Once you read up on the basics of investing, be prepared to start slow and learn as you go. You will be fine.

And remember: You don’t need a pile of dough in order to start investing. If you are a DIY investor, there are plenty of good online brokers who will open an account for as little as $500. Can you think of a good reason to wait until next year to start investing? I can’t either. Let’s go.

6. Maximize Your Retirement Contributions

Before year-end, make sure you have maximized allowable contributions to your retirement plan at work. Unless you are in debt, you want to take advantage of employer matching if at all possible. Even if there is no matching program at work, try to maximize your plan contributions. This will give you the benefit of tax deferral and a forced savings plan.

Call your HR department today to find out if you can bump up your retirement plan contributions for the year.

7. Get in Front of Your Finances

You have an amazing opportunity right now. Make sure you are on top of your financial game now, next year and beyond. Take out a calendar right now and schedule when you are going to begin and follow through on the items on this list.

Look at your calendar for the next seven days. When are you going to:

  1. Inquire about refinancing your debt?
  2. Set up your spending tracking system?
  3. Start asking for estate planner referrals?
  4. Review your life insurance?
  5. Set up your investment account?
  6. Call HR and make sure to bump up your retirement contributions to max out for the year?

Taken all together, the list above might seem overwhelming. But if you do one task each day, you can really change your financial life this week. Each task above will take you between 15 minutes to three hours to complete. Are you going to do one item each day this week? How will you feel once you’ve begun? Or are you going to wait until “after the holidays”?

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

MONEY credit cards

The Best Credit Cards for Holiday Shopping

credit card purchase of holiday present
Lucas Lenci Photo—Getty Images

'Tis the season to spend! These cards can help take some of the pain out of your purchases by giving you cash back, protection against price drops and extended warranties.

The holiday season is upon us, which means it’s time for you to open your wallet.

The average American expects to spend $781 on presents this year, according to Gallup—the most since 2007. Use the right plastic, though, and you can shave some off that bill, or at least get more for your money.

Below you’ll find the best cards for rewards, price protection and extended warranties. They should make your holiday a little more merry. Ho, ho, ho.

Best for Holiday Rewards

Two no-fee cards—the Discover It and Chase Freedom—are offering Christmas shoppers fat cash back.

From October through December, Discover It cardholders can receive 5% back—on purchases up to $1,500—at online retailers that include Amazon and Zappos, and department stores like Bloomingdale’s and Sears.

Discover also has a robust online shopping portal—ShopDiscover—where its customers can earn additional cash back simply by using the online mall. So combining ShopDiscover’s 10% back from Acehardware.com with the 5% back that the card gives you normally, and you’ll reap $15 on a $100 purchase.

Over the same time period, Chase Freedom also offers shoppers a chance to earn 5% back on up to $1,500 of their holiday gift list.

The Freedom limits online discounts to Amazon and Zappos, but has a varied department store list that includes JCPenney, Kohl’s and Nordstrom. Also, Freedom cardholders usually receive a $100 sign-up bonus—although that’s been bumped up to $200 for a limited time—if you spend $500 in the first three months of opening the card. And you can receive $25 for adding an authorized user and making a purchase within 90 days. So you have the possibility of earning up to $300 by year’s end.

Best For Price Protection

Some issuers and networks offer price protection on certain purchases, meaning they will reimburse you the difference when the price of an item you’ve bought drops within a specific period of time.

“Having managed benefits for an issuer in the past, I can tell you that very few consumers are aware of the coverage they may have,” says Ben Woolsey of CreditCardForum.com. “I would be amazed if one in 100,000 consumers ever makes a claim.”

Not every item is covered (generally not cars or event tickets or anything off eBay), and refund maximums are limited per item and per year. But you can still save yourself some significant dough—not to mention fits of rage—when you see an expensive television you bought at full price go on sale a few days later. Plus, the price protection windows tend to be long enough that if you buy now you’ll be able to take advantage of steep after-holiday discounts.

Citi Price Rewind offers a max refund of $300 per purchase and $1,200 per year, and gives you 60 days to receive the lower price. Unlike Discover and MasterCard Price Protection, you don’t have to keep track of your own purchases, notice if the price drops and submit a claim. Instead you register the item on the Price Rewind site and it notifies you if the price has dropped.

Of the three major protection programs, Discover has the most generous refunds ($500 per claim and $2,500 per year) and the longest time to submit a claim (90 days). MasterCard, meanwhile, gives you 60 days and limits your refunds to $250 per item and four claims a year. For more details on these three major programs, see NerdWallet’s roundup.

A great no-fee rewards card that includes this insurance is MONEY Best Credit Card winner Citi DoubleCash. You’ll receive an unlimited 2% cash back on everything—1% when you swipe the card and 1% when you pay your bill—in addition to a price protection program that requires the least amount of work on your end.

Best for Extended Warranties

Are you among the 31% of consumers who buy extended warranty programs each year? Well, skip that expensive insurance—MONEY generally doesn’t think the plans are worth the price they go for anyway—and use the right piece of plastic.

Credit card networks (Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover) typically offer a similar type of protection.

CardHub.com recently released a report on which network offers the best extended warranty, and selected Amex as the winner. All Amex cards are eligible for extended warranty, and unlike Discover or MasterCard, the program covers refurbished items as well as failure due to wear and tear.

If you’re in the market for a new card and want this kind of protection, your best bet would be MONEY Best Credit Card winner Blue Cash Preferred. You’ll receive 6% on groceries on your first $6,000 spent, and an unlimited 3% back on gas. Moreover, you’ll receive a $150 sign-up bonus if you spend $1,000 in the first three months, which more than makes up for the $75 annual fee.

RELATED:

Don’t Get Suckered into Signing Up for Store Credit Cards this Holiday

Money’s Best Credit Cards of 2014

RELATED: Money 101: How to Pick a Credit Card

MONEY

How to Cook a Real Dinner for Your Family…and Finish Before 9 p.m.

Luke Tepper

First-time dad Taylor Tepper asks parents and cooking experts for advice on feeding a family while maintaining your sanity. What he learns: Focus on formats.

Last week, I stood in the first aisle of my local grocery store for a few minutes blinking at a bin of scallions.

I had a cart in one hand, a shopping list in the other, and a podcast playing in my ear. I needed to grab a bunch of groceries, get home and make dinner.

But at some point in the produce section, I fell victim to a momentary lapse of cognitive function, as if I was a computer that had overheated. For a moment, I wished I had simply ordered in Chinese.

A parent’s day is long. Ours starts at 5:30 a.m. with a groggy baby and two sleep-deprived parents, and I don’t return home with dinner’s ingredients in tow until 7 p.m.

To be clear, I genuinely relish the responsibility of providing my family with sustenance. Plus I know there are real benefits to eating real food prepared at home: We can eat more healthfully and save a few bucks in the process.

But my problem is that I’m terrible at planning. I’ll look up a recipe before I head home from work, buy everything on the ingredient list (often forgetting that I have a quarter of the stuff at home), walk home and make the meal. On that day last week when I paused in front of the scallions, for instance, I ended up preparing a baked chicken dish with Kalamata olives, dates, tomatoes with an herb jus and mashed potatoes.

Delicious. Only, my wife and I finished eating close to 9 p.m.—at which point I devolved into a coma.

I know I’m wasting time and money. I need help. I need a plan.

So I turned to a few experts: KJ Dell’Antonia, who as the lead writer at the New York Times Motherlode blog has written on her successes and failures of cooking for a family, my friend Cara Eisenpress whose cookbook and blog BigGirlsSmallKitchen.com document dinner prep in a diminutive Brooklyn apartment, and Phyllis Grant, a former pastry chef whose blog DashandBella.com chronicles meals made with her kids.

The Game Plan

“Obviously I’m a big fan of planning,” says Dell’Antonia. “There’s nothing like realizing that it’s 4 pm and you’ll have to make dinner again tonight—but not only do you know what it is already, but you’ve got all the ingredients and maybe some prep work done. Saves my life every time.”

But what type of plan is best for a busy working parent like me?

Cara told me to forget about specific recipes and think more broadly.

“When planning, think in terms of formats,” she says. “Pasta, hearty soups, stir fries, roasted cut-up chicken, and eggs are all classes of weeknight dinner that are so simple to vary.”

In other words, rather than shopping for a pasta dish on Monday (like Lemon Fettuccine with Bacon and Chives) and then returning to the store on Tuesday in search of ingredients for for another (say Orecchiette Carbonara with Scallions and Sun-dried Tomatoes), plan on whipping up two pasta dishes and a chicken entrée over the next few days and then map out recipes from there. That way you’ll buy overlapping ingredients.

At the same time, though, be mindful of planning too far ahead, says Cara.

“Don’t shop for the seven nights’ worth of formats—you’ll waste food and money if something comes up,” she advised. “Better to plan out fewer and then grab a few miscellaneous staples that could turn into dinner as needed, like extra onions (caramelized onion grilled cheese), a box of spinach (lentil soup with spinach), or some bacon (breakfast for dinner).”

Grant even suggests preparing more than one night’s worth of a neutral protein like chicken, which she notes “can be a life saver, You won’t get sick of it because you can dress it up with some many different flavors and techniques.”

Most importantly, Cara said, make sure you have a stocked pantry—including olive oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, rice, pasta and cheddar, among others—to augment whatever recipes you’ve chosen.

The Defense Formation

After you’ve figured out the formats and recipes you’re interested in for the next couple of days, it’s time to actually buy the food.

But the grocery store is like a casino: The thing is designed to have you spend more time shuffling along the aisles so that you look at more food. They even mess with the music (see #19 here).

If you’re not careful, you’ll arrive home with a beautiful jar of jam that will sit in your fridge for the next six months. (Guilty!)

That’s why Dell’Antonia recommends shopping with a list, “and not buying anything that’s not on it,” says. “Ridiculously, I save money by sending my babysitter to the grocery store when I can. Her time costs me less than I’d spend in ‘Oh, look! Halloween Oreos!'”

Also, look for items that will make your cooking life easier, says Cara. “Don’t shy away from shortcut ingredients. Find brands of tomato sauce, salsa, stock, pre-washed spinach, ravioli, etc. that you like: each of those gets you a third of the way to dinner. There are some vegetables I think of as shortcuts too because they require so little prep: a potato you can rinse and then bake, and my go-to, fennel, where you just remove the outer skin, quarter what’s left, and roast to get a super simple serving of vegetables.”

Kickoff!

Time to practice my new strategy.

I replenished up my pantry—I was a little low on olive oil and pepper—and decided to prepare Chicken with Figs and Grapes from Grant’s blog. I even bought a little extra chicken and stock for some soup later in the week (guess I was in a chicken format mood.)

Her recipe calls for about a dozen different ingredients, but since my pantry is already full, I only need to pick up the chicken, anchovies, figs and grapes.

I’m in and out of my local grocery store in five minutes (without jam!) and before long my kitchen is humming right along.

The dish is relatively easy to prepare and after a little less than 30 minutes in the oven, my wife and I have a meal for tonight and tomorrow. I arrived home by 7:15pm and we finished eating around an hour later, about 45 minutes quicker than normal and nearly a Tepper weekday record.

Our stomachs were full, the kitchen relatively clean and my brain didn’t wither like a raisin during the process.

A sense of peace had been restored in my life.

Adulthood can be difficult—after a long day of work, it often just feels easier to order a delicious Korean BBQ kimchi burrito than expending the time and effort to put together a meal. So sometimes the Teppers do just that.

But as Cara says, “Cooking at home is one of the best parts of being a grown-up. You get to eat exactly what you want when you want it. So, if you like to eat, you like not spending all your money, and you like putting relatively healthful food in your body, you should probably learn to cook.”

And if you’re going to do it, plan ahead.

Taylor Tepper is a reporter at Money. His column on being a new dad, a millennial, and (pretty) broke appears weekly. More First-Time Dad:

MONEY First-Time Dad

Why You’re Better Off With a Hard-Working Child than a Smart One

Luke Tepper
Luke's drive is more important than his intellect. And look at him drive!

I wanted my son to be born a genius. Turns out I should have been hoping for something else.

My son took his first steps the other day.

Not yet nine months old, Luke stumbled forward two paces as Mrs. Tepper prepared his evening bath. The next day, like a revved up toy racecar, the tyke zoomed five strides after I relocated him from the Jumperoo to the floor.

This achievement is a great source of pride in the Tepper household.

According to Babycenter.com, babies usually begin walking between 9 and 12 months. Luke was only 8 1/2 months—so he’s obviously smarter than the average bear and destined for riches and glory.

Ever since, my wife and I have indulged in a series of daydreams featuring Luke passing milestones well before other tiny mortals. Reading by age 2, dunking a basketball by 10 and garnering a Nobel Prize before he’s legally allowed to consume alcohol.

Of course we know we’re being ridiculous, but that’s part of the fun of parenting an infant—widely projecting all the things that he might accomplish that you never will. In so doing, we imagine a super-smart older version of Luke wowing the world with his intellect.

It turns out, though, we have it all wrong. Intelligence is valuable, obviously, but the more powerful skill parents should be instilling in their children doesn’t have anything to do with brainpower.

If we want him to maximize his earnings—and we do—studies show that we’re much better off emphasizing hard work and gumption.

What the Research Says

The Brookings Institute recently came out with a report that summarizes the research into the debate of character versus intelligence. Therein lay a panoply of statistics that illuminate importance of grit and drive.

For instance, high school grade point average is a better predictor of whether a student will complete college in six years than SAT/ACT scores. Grade point averages are all about grit: You have to come to class every day, turn in your homework, and perform well on tests and papers in order to earn a high grade. A standardized exam, like the SAT, mostly measures your cognitive abilities.

Another study Brookings referenced followed 1,000 children starting at ages 3 to 11 in New Zealand and found that later in life those who possessed more self control “were healthier, richer, less likely to be single parents, and less likely to be convicted of a crime as adults, controlling for childhood social class and IQ.”

Accurate, real-time salaries for thousands of careers.

I asked Jessica Lahey, a teacher who writes a biweekly parenting column for the New York Times, for her perspective.

She said the research jibes with her experience. “Kids who are raised by parents with good impulse control—the ability to plan for long-term goals and stick to those goals—are more successful than kids raised by parents who model impulsive, disorganized, chaotic thinking and actions,” she says.

And what about smarts?

“A kid who has no ability to delay gratification, has no patience with momentary confusion or frustration, or simply never develops the frontal lobe function he needs in order to organize and plan his behavior is never going to be as successful as one who can,” she says. “I don’t care how brilliant or talented he is.”

Why That Terrifies Me

For a parent, this is a little bit scary.

The idea that my son would be born with a particular IQ took the pressure off of me. However he comes out was how he was meant to come out; I couldn’t really mess him up.

But now, I need to instill a work ethic and character in him that I’m sure I don’t always live up to. My wife and I are only 28 years old and we’ve only just begun our careers; how are we supposed to have the authority to mold Luke into driven student and worker?

These are the things that keep me up at night.

But then I remember how far we’ve come since we found out Mrs. Tepper was pregnant.

We comparison shopped hospitals and doctors, and coordinated with health insurers and human resource departments. We’re following a kind of food progression chart so that he takes in as many different kinds of tastes as possible. We nurse him when he’s sick and hold him when he cries, and we do it every day no matter how little sleep we had the night before.

The act of raising a child (and we’re only in year one) absolutely filled us with fear before we had one. But like a frog in a slowly warming pot of water, we’ve adapted. We’ve found a way to weave Luke into our life.

Teaching him stick-to-itiveness, then, will just be another challenge we’ll (hopefully) slowly overcome with our infinite small decisions.

Taylor Tepper is a reporter at Money. His column on being a new dad, a millennial, and (pretty) broke appears weekly. More First-Time Dad:

Read next: Injuries. Stress. Divided Attention. Are Coaches Damaging Our Kids?

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.

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