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This Week in Your Wallet: Holiday Sweets and Entertaining on the Cheap

$350. That’s the amount Americans will spend — on average — entertaining over the holidays. (Millennials, somewhat surprisingly, will spend about $100 more.) If that seems like a huge amount of money to you, well, it did to me, too. And I do quite a bit of entertaining. This year for New Year’s we’ll be celebrating with six of our nearest and dearest. I’m waffling a bit about what to put on the menu — a turkey with the fixins is a leading contender (it’s my husband’s favorite meal, no matter what day of the year it is), but I’m considering fondue as well. Neither of which, for the record, would make even a dent in that $350 budget.

I’d like you to save as well — which is why we recently posted a story on JeanChatzky.com about how to save on your holiday entertaining. It covers everything from how to save on libations (hint: think signature cocktail) to why asking your guests to bring a dish makes sense (c’mon, you know they’re not going to show up empty handed — let them bring something you’ll actually use.) You can read it here.

And now a few other tips to help you make it through this pre-holiday week.

The Extended Warranty Trap

When you’re at the check-out counter putting down hundreds for that new big screen TV, take a second before you let the sales clerk’s “in-case-of-damage” pitch scare you into buying a pricey extended warranty. As Daily Finance reports, retailers seem to know exactly when and how to hit you with the question, especially when it comes to expensive electronics and appliances.

As for whether it’s worth it? Generally, no. First off, it’s expensive. At Sears an extra three-years of protection on a $950 fridge runs $280 (ouch!). Second, many of the problems covered under these packages tend to happen right after you purchase them — when the manufacturer’s warranty will suffice. Third, most customers don’t pay cash for big items like washer-dryers or the like. They charge them. That’s a smart move, because it can double the manufacturer’s warranty. (Check with your credit card company before shopping to see what sort of benefits you have.) And finally, like all things where fine-print is concerned, these warranties aren’t the same everywhere — and they don’t cover every little thing.  You could ante up for coverage in the moment only to find you’re not actually covered later on.

The Gift of Green

Some people consider gift cards and cash gifts to be unimaginative or too impersonal, but sometimes they’re exactly what your loved ones really want (and need). Take Elizabeth Starkey, a 31-year-old digital designer for Bravo, who also happens to be one of the many graduates tackling this country’s $1.2 trillion worth of student debt. In a recent New York Times article, Starkey said she put loan donations at the top of her wish list. She even found a service for her family and friends to use for sending cash to her loan provider. As the article points out, there are a handful of new and more personal ways to give the gift of green these days. Here, a few ideas:

  • Student loans:  If you’d like to help pay down student loans, you can send a letter with a check directly to the lender. Make sure you state that the money should be used to prepay or reduce the principal of the loan, and that you’d like your money to go towards the loan with the highest interest rate. That way your recipient will see the biggest payoff.
  • Fund a 529: If you want to help future students (and their parents) save for college, you can contribute to their preexisting 529 accounts. Your contributions will grow tax-free, and as long as the money is withdrawn for college expenses, there won’t be any capital gains taxes either. If you have the account number for a preexisting account, then the next step is calling the plan for further instructions. No account number, no problem – some new services, like GiftofCollege and GradSave, both simplify and jazz up the process by allowing you to contribute to anyone’s account through college gift registries. Or, you can purchase 529 gift cards.
  • Retirement: Nowadays you can give anyone’s Roth individual retirement account a boost. You’ll make the contribution with money that’s already been taxed, but withdrawals will be tax-free for the retiree. When you’re gifting to an existing account, make sure the recipient’s income at least matches the contribution amount. (So, for instance, if you want to give $500 to your college-aged child or grandchild, be sure they earned at least that much this year.) For 2013, the most you can contribute to someone’s Roth or traditional I.R.A is $5,500.

For more cash gift ideas, you can see the full article here.

Emergency Room Secrets

Is your doctor’s office shutting down for the holidays?  Many do, which is why so many people end up in the ER around Xmas and New Year’s. (Not surprisingly, as MarketWatch reports, these spikes are often related to overindulging.) If you should find yourself headed there over the next couple of weeks, here are a few things you should know:

  • Wait times aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Some hospitals are competing for patients these days by advertising their ER wait times on their websites and social media accounts. Take these estimates with a grain of salt, because hospitals will measure times differently. Also, shorter wait times don’t necessarily mean better, or more efficient care. Some professionals are worried that publicizing the time pressures doctors into focusing too much on the turnover rate, and too little on the care itself.
  • As for that bill…when you receive it, it’ll likely be a whopper. Don’t you dare just pay it. “Think of it like a starting point,” Linda Adler, chief executive of Pathfinders Medical Advocacy & Consulting, a company that helps patients negotiate medical bills, told MarketWatch.  You can typically get a break of 10% to 25% just by raising a fuss.Stay healthy — and have a great week!


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