Black Friday: Ready or Not, Here It Comes!

According to all of the ads on TV, Thanksgiving is no longer a holiday. It is now Black Friday Eve.  It has simply become the mark of the beginning of Christmas shopping season. If you are a big Black Friday fan and prefer to get your shopping done early, you might be okay with this.  But for me, all the hub-bub about Black Friday seems silly. Is anyone really saving that much money? Are the deals on toys, electronics, and clothes really worth getting up at 2 am and foraging your way through the crowds for? I have never been shopping on Black Friday and ever since I read a terribly sad article about a part-time worker at a Long Island Wal-Mart who was trampled to death by Black Friday shoppers back in 2008, I know I probably never will.

Despite the heavy advertising for the event, it seems that more and more Americans are on the same page.  A survey done buy NerdWallet.com revealed that only 12% of consumers will be doing the majority of their shopping on Black Friday this year.  Apparently most of us have decided we would rather enjoy our turkey in the company our families on Thanksgiving instead of gearing up for a shopping spree.

But there is an upside to early shopping.  The National Retail Federation says that Black Friday shoppers spend an average of $300 with about 30% savings. If you’re willing to put in the effort, Black Friday deals could really help you keep your holiday budget in check. So here are 3 important things to keep in mind if you will be braving the crowds next week:

1. PLAN AHEAD – Black Friday can get crazy.  Shopping on this day is not for the weak of heart. You need a battle plan.  Check ads in your local paper before hand and use websites like TGIBlackFriday.com and RetailMeNot.com to find out where the best deals are for the items on your list.  Those websites even provide mobile apps to help you navigate stores while you are on the move.  Make a plan ahead of time for what stores you will visit, what items you are purchasing, and a timeline of where you will go and when.  This will help you keep your cool in the stampede of shoppers and avoid unnecessary, impulse buys.

2. FOCUS ON ELECTRONICS – Forbes.com claims that the best deals on Black Friday are always for electronics.  Unlike toys and jewelry who’s prices tend to drop 2 weeks before Christmas, things like TVs, gaming consoles, and smart phones tend to be at their lowest price on Black Friday.  So if you have any digital gadgets on your shopping list, Black Friday is the day to get them.

3. FOLLOW THE 40% RULE – This shopping strategy can help you make sure you are actually getting items at a bargain price.  If an item is not 40% off or more, it’s not worth your time; it will probably be available somewhere else for less.  So if it’s not at least 40% off, don’t put it in your cart! The only exception to this rule? Stores that don’t typically have sales.  Some retailers are always discounting items (think Kohl’s or Walmart). But others, like Ray-Ban, Prada, or Patagonia, hardly ever discount merchandise.  If these retailers are advertising discounts on Black Friday take them, even if it’s not a full 40% off! Chances are you won’t see that bargain price again.

One important thing to know before you rush out in your pajamas in the early hours of the 29th – 70% of Black Friday door-busters are available online, according to Forbes.com.  This means you could stay home and get the same prices on your laptop that you would elbowing your way through the mobs in store. It’s definitely something to consider before you hit the road to shop.

With that in mind, here are 3 Cyber Monday Tips:

1. SHOP SECURE HTTPS:// – Only use familiar, well-known websites while online shopping.  Legitimate sites will have https:// (the “s” is for secure) in the URL. If the business doesn’t have a phone number or physical address listed on the site, it might not be a real business.  Scammers will create dummy websites and fake online ads, often promoting discounts on popular items, to trick shoppers into giving them account information, credit card numbers, and other personal info.  Be wary of any e-mails or online ads from unknown retailers that promote huge discounts on merchandise.  If the price sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

2. REVIEW IT – When using a marketplace style website (sites that use multiple vendors like Amazon, E-bay, or Etsy) check the customer reviews before buying a product.  Buyers often rate the quality of the item they purchased, how quickly it was shipped, what shape it was in, how easy the vendor was to deal with, etc.  If the vendor seems trusted and reliable, go ahead and buy the item.  If the reviews are bad, chances are something will go wrong, so avoid those items no matter how big of a discount they’re offering.

3. KNOW THE RETURN POLICY – Before buying, check the website’s return policy. You want to know what your options are if the item doesn’t get to you on time, gets damaged during shipping, or the recipient doesn’t like it.  If it can’t be returned, you’ll want to know that before you pay.

Happy Thanksgiving and Best of Luck to all Black Friday Shoppers!

Short & Sweet Credit Card Advice

Want to know the single best piece of financial advice I’ve ever been given?

If you wouldn’t go to a bank or credit union and ask for a loan to buy it, DON’T put it on your credit card.

creditcards

I got this tip way back at the beginning of my financial career (like 2 years ago) at a Financial Literacy Conference.  It came from Dr. Barbara O’Neill a member of the New Jersey Coalition for Financial Education. She’s a very smart lady.

The trouble with credit cards is, they don’t feel like real money. It’s not cash you have to hand to the cashier.  It’s not a debit card that affects your checking account balance right away.  It’s so easy to impulse buy or overshop with a credit card because payment is delayed.  And all of the sudden 1 or 2 small purchases turn into 20 and it all adds up to a big balance.  Worst of all, since you haven’t depleted your checking account or the cash in your wallet, you probably feel like you still have money to spend even though you’ve already burned through your monthly budget.

Another problem with credit cards? Interest rates are crazy high (average in the U.S. is 14.95% APR according to CreditCard.com). Why would you want to pay 14% interest on a purchase you could have paid for at 0% interest with cash or a debit card? You wouldn’t! You’re paying more for items in the long run just to delay payment for a few weeks or months. I’m sure you’ve been told before to pay-off your credit card balance in full every month, but how many of us actually do that? According to NerdWallet.com the average U.S. household in 2013 has $7,050 in credit card debt, which makes me think not too many of us are good at ante-ing up each month to pay off our credit card balance.

If you follow Barbara’s rule, however, you are less likely to drive up the balance of your credit cards unintentionally.  Before you swipe your credit card, think “Would I ask my bank for a loan to make this purchase?”  If the answer is “NO WAY” then pay with cash or debit instead.  For example, you wouldn’t walk into a branch and ask for a loan to pay for a pizza, would you? If you were brave enough to do it I can almost guarantee that you will not be approved (unless that particular loan officer has a great sense of humor).

If you reserve your credit card for big purchases that you could ask for a loan for, like car repairs or furniture, you will be a much more cautious spender. It’s likely you’ll have done some research into what you want to buy, where to get the best price, and whether or not you really need it. If it’s truly something you might not have immediate funds ready to purchase, your credit card can help you get it.  If you can pay for it out of your regular budget, do that instead.  No more racking up your balance on nail polish or new going-out clothes from Forever 21 (not that I’ve ever done that . . . ).

With the holidays, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday quickly approaching it’s more important than ever to remember this rule. All the knick-knacks, decorations, gifts, and food that come with the holiday can really put a dent in your wallet.  But putting all of those expenses on your credit card might not be the best solution.  Set a limit to your holiday spending that fits your current budget, even if these means cutting back a little. Start putting a little money away each week (start today!) so you have money saved specifically for holiday shopping.  And last but not least, see if your financial institution offers a Holiday Loan; the rates would likely be a lot less than your credit card and making the payments will improve your credit.

Leaving your credit card at home this holiday season might make your 2014 a little more merry and a lot brighter!

What You, Allen Iverson, & Curt Schilling Have in Common

This year, Alex Rodriguez made 30.3 million dollars.  His 10 year $275 million contract with the New York Yankees makes him the highest paid baseball player in history, according to Forbes.com.  Like you needed another reason to hate A-Rod, right Red Sox fans?

A-Rod’s $30 mill isn’t too impressive, however, when compared to NBA star Lebron James who made a staggering $60 million dollars this year.

2013’s highest paid athlete? Tiger Woods.  $78.1 million.

I would fist pump too if I that was my salary.

I would fist pump too if I that was my salary.

We hear these numbers all the time.  We are all familiar with the idea that most professional athletes will make more in one season than we will in a lifetime of working.  Which is probably why we don’t have much sympathy, and maybe even get a little pleasure, out of hearing about athletes who go bankrupt.  Allen Iverson, Michael Vick, Dennis Rodman, Curt Schilling . . . the list goes on and on.  These days we hear about broke athletes just as often as we hear about wealthy ones.

Mint.com states that 60% of NBA players will file for bankruptcy within 5 years of retiring. Football players have even worse luck – 78% of them will file for bankruptcy within 5 years of leaving the NFL.

How do these athletes lose all this money? The easy answer (and the most entertaining) is that they aren’t good with their money.  They wasted it on fancy cars, mansions, jewelry, partying, gambling, and bad investments.  But it might not be that simple.  ESPN’s documentary Broke explores the bankruptcy trend in pro-sports and presents some unique explanations for why this particular group of people continually mismanages their money.  It turns out pro-athletes lose money for a lot of the same reasons non-athletes do.  Here are 4 mistakes those athletes made and lessons the Average Joe can takeaway from them:

1. Money is Finite, Even if You Have A Lot of It. Probably the most common mistake players who end up penniless make is that they spend money they don’t have.  The average NBA player makes $5 million a year, according to yahoosports.com.  That sounds like a lot of money to me and I’m sure it does to most young players when they sign their first contract.  But even a $5 million bank account isn’t bottomless.  After deducting taxes and agent fees, that NBA player only actually takes home around $2 million. That’s still a lot of money but if you’ve been spending like you’re $78 million dollar baller Tiger Woods, your wimpy $2 million might not be enough to cover all of your expenses. For a lot of players, their salary is too large for them to think of in terms of real dollars, so they don’t; they just spend like the money won’t ever run out.  And when it does, they find themselves in big trouble.

Your salary might be an easier number to wrap your mind around, but a lot of us still don’t have a clue how much we spend each month.  Simply put, your expenses should always be smaller than your income.  No matter how much you make, you can always spend more. Keep an eye on what you’re buying.  Track spending with a mobile app like Mint or just with a good old fashioned pen and paper. Make sure you’re living within your budget.

2. Understand your finances. You’re in charge. A lot of athletes blame their financial advisors for their money problems.  They claim they were tricked into a bad investment or dupped by an advisor with hefty fees who didn’t have their best interests at heart. Former tennis star Aranxta Sanchez-Vicario alleges that her parents, to whom she gave complete control of her finances, blew her $60 million fortune without her knowledge or consent. It’s a pretty lame excuse really. YOU are in charge of your money. No one else should manage it for you.  If you don’t know how much you earn, where you are investing, or what your expenses are, you are begging some Wall Street piriah to take advantage of you.

Not having a budget and a strong financial plan in place that you understand and expecting to be monetarily stable is like walking out on the football field without a play and just hoping that the ball somehow ends up in the end zone.  It’s just not going to happen.  You might need a coach or financial expert to guide you in the right direction, but whether you’re an NFL quarterback or an electrician, you alone are responsible for your financial success.

3. You have a future, save for it. When I was a kid, I had a swim coach who told us that every practice we did was like “money in the bank.” The more we swam, the more money we’d have, and the more prepared we’d be for success in the future.  It turns out he was pretty unique amongst athletes in his ability to think long-term. Research done by the Journal of Judgement & Decision Making shows that professional athletes are significantly more present-focused than non-ahtletes; athletes tend to focus more on tasks that are happening now (like hitting the ball or running down the court) than on long-term projects that occur over the course of months or years.  This “live-in-the-moment” attitude might make them successful on the field, but it often means that players don’t make plans for how they will earn an income once they retire.  The average NHL and MLB careers last just over 5 years. NBA? 4.8 years. NFL? Just 3.5.  (Figures according to mint.com) Athletes might make millions of dollars in the few years they play, but it has to last them an entire lifetime.  An NFL player typically earns $6.65 million over the course of their career, which spread out over a 50 year adult life is about $130,000 a year.  Not a bad living, but how many pro-football players do you know who live like they only make 100 grand?

Planning for retirement might not be glamorous, but it might mean the difference between having a comfortable future and flipping burgers when you’re 60 to make ends meet. Financial security is a marathon, not a sprint.  Pace yourself, save money, and you’ll come out on top in the end.

4. Be generous, but don’t be a pushover. One thing I never thought of before I watched Broke was how many people might depend on or ask for money from a professional athlete. Quite a few of the athletes in the documentary talked about requests for financial help from their family and friends as the biggest strain on their income.  Saying no to loved ones who need financial help can be very hard, especially for athletes who come from less fortunate backgrounds.  If you were lucky enough to grow up with money, you are most likely not a major source of cash for your loved ones. But many professional athletes come from economically depressed neighborhoods and have never had money to share before.  They feel guilty saving money for themselves when it means saying no to friends or family in need.  Cleveland Brown’s quarterback Bernie Kosar admitted that at one time he was supporting almost 50 families with his paycheck.  That’s so generous, but so unrealistic.  Bernie might have made much more money than any of his neighbors, but there’s no way it could stretch that far.  Kosar declared bankruptcy in 2009.

As with all of your financial goals, you need to set realistic, attainable dollar limits to how much money you can donate to family, friends, or charity. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to help someone else, but it shouldn’t be to your financial detriment.  Sometimes it’s ok to say no.

Big Papi with a financial grand slam.

Big Papi with a financial grand slam.

The big takeway from all of this money misfortune – anyone can make financial mistakes.  Whether your budget is big or small, financial success comes to those who invest time, knowledge, and energy into making their money work for them.  You don’t get drafted into the NFL without years of hard work.  You don’t lead the league in homeruns without getting your butt kicked for years.  You’ll get out of your finances what you put into them.

If you’re interested, check out this cool infographic from mint.com about pro-athletes and their finances:

https://www.mint.com/blog/how-to/from-stoked-to-broke-why-are-so-many-professional-athletes-going-bankrupt-0213/?display=wide

Friday Favorite: Big Kid Grilled Cheese!

On Monday night the most amazing thing ever happened to me. So amazing that the whole world needs to know about. It made my day. It actually made my week. It was the best thing to happen to me in a loooooong time. I cannot over-hype it enough. Here’s how it went down . . .

I went to Panera Bread for dinner with my friend. I ordered the Big Kid Grilled Cheese, which is the most delicious sandwich the world has ever known! It is a big, yummy, toasty, cheesey grilled cheese sandwich with BACON in it.  If you were wondering how to make your grilled cheeses better the answer is bacon. Lots of bacon.

When my little buzzer went off to let me know my food was ready I walked up to the counter and the guy handed me a plate with not one but TWO Big Kid Grilled Cheeses on it.  He said “I cut the bread wrong so I gave you two.”

I’m pretty sure my reaction looked something like this:

babyexcited

I think I scared the poor kid working behind the counter.  I was so pumped.  Two sandwichs for the price of one.  How can you beat that? Not only do I get a Big Kid Grilled Cheese for dinner, but I get one to take home for lunch the next day. UNBELIEVABLE!

Sometimes, you have to find joy in the little things.  And sometimes that little thing is a bacon and cheese sandwich. Yummmmmmmmmmmmmm.

Seeing Santa in September: the Money-Saving Logic of Christmas Creep

If you’re a Christmas-enthusiast like myself, you are undoubtly familiar with the ABC Family’s “25 Days of Christmas.”  It’s an annual special the channel does where they play holiday movies 24/7 from December 1st all the way until Christmas Day.  Needless to say, ABC Family is the only channel I watch for that entire month; I love any Christmas movie, the hokier the better, and I am obsessed with the old Rankin/Bass films like Jack Frost and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. I look forward to those movies marathons every year.  

Santa

But a week ago I saw a commercial for something called “the Countdown to Christmas” that starts on November 20th and I was a little confused.  Like me you’re probably thinking, isn’t the “25 Days of Christmas” already a countdown? Yes, yes it is.  And doesn’t starting it early and playing Christmas movies willy-nilly sort of make the real holiday season less magical?  It sure does.  To me, adding extra days to the “25 Days of Christmas” is like adding days to your Advent Calendar – it ruins the whole thing, it makes no sense, and you just don’t do itBut apparently ABC Family has decided that 25 days is not enough.  They will start the Christmas season before the rest of us sit down for Thanksgiving Dinner.

In recent years the Christmas-Come-Early schtick has become all too familiar to the American consumer.  We roll our eyes and change the channel when we see holiday commercials on TV during Halloween, but so many major retailers are advertising holidays deals in October now-a-days that none of these ads really take us by surprise.  In fact, the marketing phenomenon is so common that it has a name, Christmas Creep, which urbandictionary.com defines as a:

“Universally hated, market driven phenomenon that if left unchecked will eventually culminate in an uninterrupted decade of concatenated carol medleys, closely followed by a glorious moment of frantic arson destroying every Christmatastasized mall in America.”

This year, Kmart wins the award for earliest Christmas ad of the season; their commercial started running on September 9th, when most kids were still getting on the bus for their first day of school. The company aired a television ad featuring a gingerbread man sneaking up on a women while a voiceover stated, “Don’t let the holidays sneak up on you. Shop early with Kmart free layaway.”  You can check it out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNbHHwaXhYg

So why is Christmas coming earlier and earlier here in the U.S.?  Turns out ad execs don’t encourage Christmas Creep just because they’re little elves who like to spread holiday cheer; there less lofty reasons for adverstising early.  DailyFinance.com and financial columnist Jean Chatzky list a few:

1. No Presidential Election.  Last year, political attack ads and endless news cycles about the race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney ruled the airwaves until early November.  This year, ad space is free for more cheerful messages about layaway programs and good deals on toys.

2. Late Thanksgiving/ Black Friday.  Thanksgiving is always on the 4th Thursday of the month, with Black Friday, the “official” start of the shopping season, kicking off the next day.  The 1st of November is on a Friday this year, which means Thanksgiving is a week later than usual (November 28th) AND Black Friday isn’t until the 29th. Instead of the usual 5 weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, this year only has 4.

3. Super Early Chanukah.  This year the first night of the Jewish holiday falls on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (November 27th) so Jewish shoppers can’t wait for Black Friday to do their shopping. Though only 2% of Americans celebrate Chanukah, the early holiday is prompting some retailers to start advertising sooner, especially in areas like New York or Florida with a higher number of Jewish shoppers.

4. Low Spending Forecast. ShopperTrak predicts that holiday spending will rise this year, but only by about 2.4%.  In a still struggling economy, consumers are keeping a close eye on their holiday spending budgets.  Retailers are hoping to boost profits buy advertising early and promoting discounts.

Santa Carrying Shopping Bags

Knowing there’s reason behind the early season might not have you humming carols and smiling about seeing Santa in September, BUT you might be pleased to know that Christmas Creep is actually very good for your wallet.  Starting your holiday shopping early (maybe not in September but October or November) can help you stay within your budget and still get you everything on your Christmas list!  Here’s 5 reasons to shop early:

1.  Aggressive Ads = Great Deals. You might think that everything goes on sale December 26th, but there are actually a lot of great bargains to be found early in the shopping season.  Retailers want consumers to shop early and often, thus all the ads in September.  Early bird deals are often the most aggressive/ lowest prices of the year.

2. More Time. If you are my dad, you do all of you shopping Christmas Eve, and you are forced to buy whatever is in front of you.  If you need presents for the next morning, you’ll buy stuff no matter how high the price because it’s there.  Shopping early allows you to compare between other stores and online retailers for the best price on an item.  It also lets you be more picky; if you don’t see something you really like at one store you’ll have the time to browse elsewhere.  No time crunch means less impulse buying.

3. Layway & Holiday Loans. It turns out, Kmart was doing you a favor with that Christmas in September ad.  Using financially smart products like Kmart’s layaway program help you pay for the holiday without racking up the charges on high interest credit cards.  If the stores on your shopping route don’t offer layaway, consider applying for a holiday loan.  Many credit unions offer low rate loans specifically for holiday purchases.  Mine is offering a holiday loan right now at 7.99% (which is way better than my 19% credit card) for up to $2,500.  Making payments on a holiday loan will keep your monthly budget on track and help build your credit. If you haven’t been putting a little money away here and there throughout the year for holiday spending, a loan like this is a super smart way to finance your Christmas shopping.

4. Online Shopping. If you shop early online, a large number of retailers offer deals on shipping costs (some even ship for free!).  Even if there’s no shipping discount, you won’t have to worry about paying extra for next-day shipping or wonder if your items will get delivered before the 25th.  And finally, you’ll have time to return things that got ruined in the mail or that don’t look as nice in person as they did on your screen.

5. Spread It Out. I don’t know about you, but my budget doesn’t really accomodate dropping two grand in one day during a holiday shopping spree.  I have a little wiggle room, but most of my money goes towards rent, food, and those pesky student loans.  If I start shopping early, I don’t have to buy everything on my list all at once.  Spreading the cost out over 2 or 3 months worth of paychecks makes holiday shopping a lot more manageable because my budget can handle $50-75 every few weeks. While I could just put that money in a Christmas Savings account, I know I’m more likely to spend it on other things if I have access to it.  If I already bought the items, I can’t buy shoes or coffee with the funds instead.  Shopping a little at a time makes my wallet and everyone on my list have a merrier Christmas.

Here’s a few other good reads about holiday shopping:

http://adage.com/article/cmo-strategy/105-days-til-christmas-kmart-airs-holiday-ad/244064/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/12/kmart-christmas-ad_n_3916000.html

http://www.dailyfinance.com/on/why-christmas-is-coming-early-this-year/

http://www.littleones.com/family-life/7-smart-reasons-to-start-your-holiday-shopping-early/

Happy Shopping and Happy Holidays to You!