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    Toyota recalls Sienna Minivans

    A curtain shield air bag could malfunction during deployment

    Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. Is recalling approximately 30,000 model year 2015 Sienna Minivans.

    The recalled vehicles are equipped with left and right side second row overhead assist grips mounted to the roof rails. In the event of a collision that results in deployment of a curtain shield air bag (CSA), an assist grip could detach from the mounting bracket under some conditions.

    If an assist grip completely detaches, it may contact an occupant, increasing the risk of injury in a crash.

    Toyota says it is not aware of any injuries or fatalities caused by this condition.

    Owners of the recalled vehicles will receive a notification by first class mail. Toyota dealers will modify the headliner under the second row overhead assist grips at no charge to the customer.

    Owners may call Toyota customer service at 1-800-331-4331.

    Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. Is recalling approximately 30,000 model year 2015 Sienna Minivans. The recalled vehicles are equipped with left and right sid...
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    Holiday spending hangover can last months

    Here are some good reasons to stay on a budget this season

    There is always a certain tension between the interests of businesses and those of consumers. Businesses need to post record sales. Consumers need to stay within their budget.

    During the holiday season, those competing interests often collide and when consumers lose, they can end up paying for it well into the following year.

    This year the shopping has started early, with most major retailers rolling out pre-Black Friday sales in October and November. If consumers have already been shopping, they may have lost track of what has been spent so far.

    If they get caught up in Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday madness, they can easily go deep into debt without realizing it.

    “If there’s one time of the year when people shop with their heart, not their head, it’s the holiday season,” said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC). “Emotional spending during the holidays is often the tipping point that pushes people over the edge financially, as common sense can take a backseat during this time of the year.”  

    Starting with a big balance

    The problem is made worse because so many consumers already have large credit card balances that they may be struggling to pay. Maybe they've made some progress over the last few months in paying down the balance. Adding to it in a burst of holiday spending can have a demoralizing effect as well as a financial one.

    The financial effect is bad enough. Piling new debt onto an existing debt load that can't be paid off when the bill arrives means paying more money each month in interest. That means you're starting the new year with an increase in monthly expense.

    Some of the drawbacks

    Remember that an increased level of debt reduces the amount of credit available to you in the future and might even cause lenders to reject applications for new lines of credit or loans. If you are unable to tap into credit in the future, your financial position becomes weaker.

    Increasing your debt level – especially credit card debt – can lower your credit score. Unmanageable debt can lead to late payment of bills, skipping payments, and utilizing too high a percentage of open credit, all of which could lower the all-important credit score.

    And if you apply for new lines of credit simply to save money on today’s purchase, it will not only increase the temptation to spend, but will show as an inquiry on the credit report, potentially lowering your score.

    Tips for staying on a budget

    Here are some tips to keep from overspending this holiday season:

    First, determine how much you've already spent. Subtract that from what you plan to spend and that's how much money you can spend on gifts and festivities for the rest of the season.

    Second, try to do as much of your spending as possible with cash. Cash is a great accounting tool because when it's gone, you're done. In this era of cyber crime, it's also safer.

    Third, look for the best deals. There are a number of apps and technology tools that can help, including ShopItToMe, which analyzes your shopping list and tells you where to buy everything on it for the best price.

    There is always a certain tension between the interests of businesses and those of consumers. Businesses need to post record sales. Consumers need to stay ...
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    OPEC: No cut in world oil production

    That means U.S. gasoline prices will fall even lower

    When you pull up to the gasoline pumps over the next few months, thank Saudi Arabia. That country has almost single-handedly forced down the price of oil and with it, the price of gasoline, which could fall even more in the days ahead.

    While Americans were eating turkey and watching football, OPEC oil ministers gave them something to be thankful for. At the insistence of the Saudis, OPEC voted not to cut back oil production to reduce worldwide supplies, even though members like Venezuela and Iran are desperate for higher oil revenue.

    As a result, oil prices are plunging, hitting a nearly 5 year low Friday. As oil prices continue to fall, so should retail gasoline prices.

    Relief at the pump

    The national average price of self-serve regular gasoline has fallen below $2.80 a gallon, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Survey. It was $3.28 a gallon a year ago.

    Motorists are accidental beneficiaries of oil producers' attempts to regain control of the oil market. And those benefits – lower prices at the pump – should last well into 2015.

    Right now the world is producing more oil than it is consuming and the goal of producers, of course, is to restore a balance so that prices go up. They've hovered around $100 a barrel for the last 3 years and producing nations have become reliant on that money.

    The traditional way to restore the balance between supply and demand is to reduce production. But the Saudis, in particular, didn't want to go down that road this time. They are worried about losing market share to U.S. oil producers – particularly shale oil producers.

    Squeezing shale producers

    The U.S. now produces nearly as much oil each day as the Saudis, but with one big difference. Extracting oil from shale is an expensive process – profitable at $80 or more a barrel but much less profitable when prices fall below that.

    The oil in the Persian Gulf is much more accessible and much easier and cheaper to extract. The Saudis are likely hoping that driving down the price of oil temporarily will cause American producers to slow down and produce less.

    Once the supply balances out – sometime next year – OPEC can ease off on production and the price of oil – along with gasoline prices – will begin to rise once again. At least that's the theory.

    The question remains, is this a long-term strategy or is OPEC simply kicking the can down the road? It has to be assumed that the best minds in the petroleum engineering field are at work on making shale production more efficient, and more profitable at lower prices.

    Economic benefits

    In the meantime, U.S. consumers can look forward to more reasonably priced gasoline. The benefits for the individual consumer and for the economy can be significant.

    “If oil prices stay between $75 and $95 a barrel, we would see the kind of stimulus package that the Federal Reserve or Congress could never do,” Douglas R. Oberhelman, the chief executive of Caterpillar, told The New York Times.

    Middle to lower income consumers will likely benefit the most, since gasoline is a requirement for most workers to get to and from their jobs. Spending 50 cents a gallon less for fuel gives these consumers a little breathing room in their monthly budgets, which have been constrained in recent years by stagnant wages.

    How long will it last? No one seems to know. OPEC and U.S. shale producers appear to be engaged in a high-stakes game of chicken. But until someone blinks, gasoline prices should remain at present levels.

    When you pull up to the gasoline pumps over the next few months, thank Saudi Arabia. That country has almost single-handedly forced down the price of oil a...
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      Disney’s “Frozen” takes the toy crown from Barbie

      The doll’s 11-year run has come to an end

      Barbie has learned -- as we all do -- that all good things come to an end.

      According to the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) latest Holiday Top Toys Survey, one in five parents (20%) plan to buy Disney’s Frozen merchandise for the little girls in their life this holiday season , beating out the top reigning Barbie (16.8%) for the first time in the survey’s 11-year history.

      LEGO toys are number one again for boys this year (14.2%).

      “Parents will not have to go far to find good deals on the toys their children have put at the top of their lists,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Retailers have spent weeks preparing for the holiday rush to make sure that the season’s hottest toys are both easy to find in stores and online, and competitively priced.”

      Toys on top

      According to NRF’s 2014 holiday consumer survey, 42% of shoppers plan to buy toys as gifts this holiday season. For girls, dolls hold the top spots at #2 (Barbie), #3 (generic), #4 (Monster High Dolls) and #5 (American Girl), while boys have made it clear they still want cars and trucks #2.

      Boys and girls alike have requested tablets/Apple iPads from mom and dad this holiday season (girls #7 and boys #10). Other familiar items will be awaiting children, including My Little Pony (#8 for girls) and Hot Wheels and Xbox One (#5 and #6 for boys.)

      “Barbie has been the top girls’ toy for over a decade, but it is no surprise that Disney’s Frozen has taken the top seat as children have had it on the mind as far back as Halloween,” said Prosper’s Consumer Insights Director Pam Goodfellow.

      2014 Top Toys for Boys

      1. LEGO
      2. Cars & Trucks
      3. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
      4. Video Games
      5. Hot Wheels
      6. Xbox One
      7. PlayStation 4
      8. Transformers
      9. Remote Controlled Vehicles
      10. Marvel Action Figures (T)/Tablet/Apple iPad(T)

      2014 Top Toys for Girls

      1. Disney Frozen
      2. Barbie
      3. Dolls (generic)
      4. Monster High Dolls
      5. American Girl
      6. LEGO
      7. Tablet/Apple iPad
      8. My Little Pony
      9. Disney Doc McStuffins
      10. Apparel

      Barbie has learned -- as we all do -- that all good things come to an end. According to the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) latest Holiday Top Toys Surv...
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      Ford bets on the future with aluminum F-150 truck

      Truck's improved gas mileage might not be the only payoff

      Admittedly, the timing could have been better. If you are going to announce a new, full-sized pick-up truck that gets great gasoline mileage, it's probably best to do it when gasoline prices are sky-high.

      Still, Ford's recent announcement that its aluminum body F-150 pick-up will get up to 26 miles per gallon (MGP) on the highway has gotten a lot of attention. In one bold stroke it is catapulting the F-150 into the mileage lead among full-sized pick-ups, edging out the gasoline-powered Dodge Ram.

      In designing an aluminum truck Ford engineers believed they had nailed down a key selling point, even in a time of declining gas prices. Reducing the vehicle's weights by 700 pounds would make it more attractive for consumers who passed on this class of truck because they use too much fuel. But even with fuel well below $3 a gallon Ford is betting the new F-150s enhanced MPG will spur sales.

      Impressive

      Jack Nerad, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book (KBB), is impressed.

      “Depending on if model F-150 fuel economy is 5% to 22% better than similar versions of the previous generation truck, the highest fuel-economy version gets 22 mpg combined,” he said. “This compares well with the gasoline versions of the GM and Chrysler pickup trucks. At the same time it is important to note that, depending on version, the F-150 also claims best-in-class payload and towing.”

      KBB's Akshay Anand says it may not matter all that much if a driver saves money on fuel by driving one of the new F-150s. It's all a matter of perception.

      “At this point, fuel economy numbers are as much of a marketing game than anything,” he said. “The 'best truck mpg' claim probably matters more than the cost savings from a one or two mpg difference over competitors, especially if gas prices remain low for the foreseeable future. We know some of the import trucks will be released in the next year or 2, and you can bet those will have solid mpg numbers, especially as diesel looks to gain more traction in the truck segment.”

      Even though expectations for fuel economy were significantly higher, the automotive press has generally been generous in its praise of the new truck, which will start coming off the assembly line next month. Improved gasoline mileage isn't the only thing reviewers like.

      Other features

      Bret Kenwell of the Motley Fool financial website likes the park assist feature, to aid drivers getting into a tight space. He notes the new truck comes with over 100 new patents, a record for a new Ford model.

      Taking a slightly contrarian view is Richard Truett of Automotive News. He thinks Ford probably spent too much money to achieve too little improvement in fuel economy.

      “GM, on the other hand, has developed a low-cost aluminum welding system that joins sheets of aluminum together on the same production equipment already in use in its plants,” he writes. “GM’s cost to switch to aluminum compared with Ford’s: pennies on the dollar.”

      But that doesn't mean Truett isn't impressed with what Ford has done. He says Ford has done something auto companies rarely do – make a major investment that won't pay off until about 15 years in the future. By then he predicts Ford trucks will be a lot more fuel efficient than the company's first aluminum F-150.

      Admittedly, the timing could have been better. If you are going to announce a new, full-sized pick-up truck that gets great gasoline mileage, it's probably...
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      Bunny ban pending in NYC

      Enough already with the rabbits, New York City exclaims

      First it was smoking. Then it was jaywalking. Then big sugary drinks. Now New York City wants a bunny ban -- specifically, a ban on selling baby rabbits in pet stores.

      The reason is pretty obvious: rabbits have a very big sexual appetite and they multiply pretty quickly.

      A bill currently before the City Council would make it illegal for pet shops to “display, offer for sale, deliver, barter, auction, give away, transfer or sell” rabbits.

      “They’re frequently dumped in city parks and brought to city shelters. There’s simply not enough room," said Christine Mott, who heads the city Bar Association’s Committee on Animal LawFollowing dogs and cats, rabbits are the third most common animals left at shelters.

      Most abandoned rabbits don't get rescued and when they are dumped into the parks they are eaten by raccoons, dogs, cats and wildlife.

      This is all part of the bill that prohibits pet shops from buying dogs from "puppy mills." It gives the city a stronger hand and puts more restrictions on pet stores. The rabbit addendum was added two weeks ago. 

      For some reason when people buy rabbits they don't buy just one. That means that pretty soon they have lots of bunnies, and lots of problems.

      Three large cities -- Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago -- have banned the selling of rabbits in pet stores already. Petco no longer sells rabbits in their stores and other pet stores may soon follow.

      First it was smoking. Then it was jaywalking. Then big sugary drinks. Now New York City wants a bunny ban -- specifically, a ban on selling baby rabbits in...
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      Court-ordered shutdown and another privacy bombshell hit Uber this week

      Uber suspends Nevada operations and "look[s] into" ghost-text messages

      The past couple of weeks have been turbulent for ride-sharing company Uber. In the legal arena, Uber was ordered to suspend all operationsin the state of Nevada, after a district court judge in Washoe County granted the state's request for a court order shutting Uber down for noncompliance with state laws regulating commercial motor carriers and transportation services.

      An Uber representative on Thanksgiving Day criticized the Nevada ruling, saying that “nearly 1,000 jobs just disappeared overnight, and those residents lost their ability to earn a living.” The company said it is in compliance with the order, but intends to continue fighting it in the courts.

      That legal ruling came after the company spent a couple weeks collecting negative PR, mainly regarding its allegedly cavalier attitudes toward people's privacy. A BuzzFeed reporter learned that company executive Emil Michael had discussed the possibility of dealing with criticism of the company by digging up dirt on any journalists who dare to criticize it. That same week came another unflattering story about Uber's “God View” program, which offers a real-time (or “god's-eye”) view of all current Uber users, including their identities, current locations and trip itineraries.

      Ghost texts

      And early on Thanksgiving week, Newsweek reported on Uber's disturbing tendency to advertise via sending “ghost texts” — messages which Uber drivers allegedly sent to their friends, except the drivers didn't actually send them and may not even know they exist:

      Several days ago, an Uber driver in a major city received a curious text from his girlfriend. “Do you want me to be an Uber driver?” she asked. No, he replied, confused. A text message she had received implied otherwise:

      "USER MSG: Congratulations! Your friend [name redacted] wants you to be an Uber partner. Both of you can make money when you APPLY HERE: [link redacted]"

      The driver contacted Uber about that text message, asking how Uber had his girlfriend's phone number in the first place, and asking if Uber had access to his phone's contact list. Uber replied with what sounds like a generic auto-reply:

      Thank you so much for reaching out. I have passed this request to an Operations Manager to ensure it is handled appropriately.

      We appreciate your patience as we work to resolve this matter.

      Thanks for your partnership!

      Tip: if you have different questions or issues unrelated to this ticket, please do not reply to this email. For faster responses, please send a separate, new email.

      All the best,

      Uber later assured reporters that it is “looking into how these messages may have been sent.”

      The past couple of weeks have been turbulent for ride-sharing company Uber. In the legal arena, Uber was ordered to suspend all operations in the state of ...
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      Adobe issues critical new Flash security update

      Whether you use Windows, Mac or Linux, you need this patch right away

      Time to update your Adobe Flash Player, right now: Adobe has issued new patches, the second this month, to fix critical security errors in Flash for Windows, Mac and Linux. This patch is being released outside of Adobe's usual security update cycle, since the previous patch didn't quite fix the problem — or, rather, since hackers were able to quickly develop new ways to work around the patch.

      Sophos' Naked Security blog referred to this latest security patch update as a “booster dose” for the previous one. Sophos also went so far as to advise its readers to “Try uninstalling Flash to see if you can live without it. As this incident reveals, Flash is popular with crooks, who put plenty of effort into working out how to exploit it.”

      But if you keep Flash installed, try changing your browser settings to require the “click-to-play” or “Ask-to-activate” option, which requires your permission every time before Flash runs on your computer.

      And definitely check to make sure you get this patch, although most Adobe users have Flash set to update automatically.

      Time to update your Adobe Flash Player, right now: Adobe has issued new patches, the second this month, to fix critical security errors in Flash for Window...
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      Touchless faucets becoming affordable for home use

      They're more sanitary and can be big energy-savers. Installation is no snap though

      It makes sense in a public restroom to have a faucet that you don't have to touch. After all, just think of all those icky germs from people we don't know who just used the restroom. Well, now you can have that same luxury in your home.

      Think about the possibilities of not having to turn your faucet on and, instead, just having the water appear when you need it. You can wash vegetables or fruit all in one swift splash. It's also an advantage for people who are disabled.

      Many manufacturers are opting for this new concept -- Kohler, Hansgrohe and Moen to name drop a few.

      One of the great things about a touchless faucet is the way you can save on water. The other side of the sink is that they do come with an energy cost. Most touchless faucets operate on battery or A.C. power and require sensors to work. This can be costly and inconvenient when the batteries run out and need to be replaced. There are newer models coming out that feature rechargeable batteries. These models are generally more expensive, but can end up paying for themselves in the long run because you don’t have to keep buying batteries.

      Not too hot

      They aren't as hot as you might think though. Most traditional faucets come with a hot and cold side. Touchless faucets usually have a control under the sink and it's set at lukewarm.

      Thinking of saving yourself a few bucks and installing it yourself? You might want to think again. They are more than tricky to install. Not only does the touchless faucet require power in the form of electricity, and sensors, but it is installed differently than a traditional faucet. Getting the pipes and tubes spaced correctly so that the faucet is able to receive warm water quickly is often the biggest challenge.

      Cost can also be a factor. Most touchless faucets are more expensive than your traditional faucets but manufacturers are creating ways to bring the cost down. They currently range in price from $260 to about $615, but usually have a warranty, althouogh there are lesser-known brands that are available for less than $100 online.

      It makes sense in a public restroom to have a faucet that you don't have to touch. After all, just think of all those icky germs from people we don't know ...
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      PETA wants to ground Rudolph

      The animal rights group want to ban the use of live reindeer in public appearances

      PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is trying to keep Rudolph and the rest of Santa's crew from making any public appearances in the UK. Nobody is complaining about the elves, although when you think about it some of those guys are pretty small and they could be stepped on, but no it's just Santa's reindeer that appear to be the target.

      Last year in Dillon, Colorado, a reindeer got loose while it was being used in a holiday display and PETA got in on that event as well, asking the mayor to not let any reindeer be used for holiday displays. But the owner just got a tighter grip on the leash and on went the festivities.

      Tilly Smith, who is in charge of the herd in the UK, which has been touring every Christmas since 1990, said: “Last year we received some hassle from an organisation called Captive Animal Protection Society and this year it’s been PETA."

      PETA has contacted many of the venues hosting the reindeer, urging them to cancel the events and claiming the safety of the animals and the public is at risk.

      A message from staff at the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd, in the Scottish Highlands, home to the UK’s only free-roaming reindeer, says:

      “We know our reindeer are very happy and comfortable in their work -- otherwise we wouldn't take them to the parades -- as we are the ones who work with them day in, day out and know them all extremely well.”

      Not tied up

      Tilly said the reindeer are put in specially made boxes when they're being transported them and are not tied up. They usually stay on farms when they aren't at home and are away for 10-14 days.

      Tilly explained that without the money they make doing this at this time of year they wouldn't be able to care for the reindeer or pay their staff.

      “We feel worn out by it all, to be honest. The reindeer bring a huge amount of joy, but there’s a blackness in the background just now because of it,” Tilly said.

      But PETA spokesman Ben Williamson said: “We should not be supporting such unethical displays. Children should not grow up thinking animals exist merely for our entertainment."

      The Cairngorm Reindeer Herd was established in 1952 by Swedish reindeer herder Mikel Utsi.

      We'll see how this flies with Santa.

      PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is trying to keep Rudolph and the rest of Santa's crew from making any public appearances in the UK. Nob...
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      Imported Acme Smoked Nova Salmon recalled

      The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      UPDATE: Acme Smoked Fish Corp. reports that it has recovered all of the smoked salmon recalled by it earlier this month and says the recall notice below has been "terminated." ConsumerAffairs has not received any confirmation of that claim from the FDA.

       "We were able to recall all product and all consumers who purchased the product at Giant were contacted. This is old news and there is no need to make people think that this is breaking news," said Gabriel Viteri, VP of Strategy and Business Development, Acme Smoked Fish Corporation.

      Viteri complained that the recall was an inconvenience to his company. "I am having to put a hot line to answer questions to consumers who are calling confused based on your recent alert," he said.

      The recall notice was dated Nov. 18 but did not appear on the FDA's recall site, which ConsumerAffairs uses as its source for food and drug recalls, until Nov. 25, Tuesday. Because of the Thanksgiving holiday it was not posted on our site until today, thus leading to Viteri's unhappiness.  

      ---

      Acme Smoked Fish Corporation of Brooklyn, N.Y., is recalling 564 pounds of its Imported Acme 4-oz. (113g) vacuum packs of Smoked Nova Salmon.

      The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

      No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with this problem.

      This product was distributed to Giant Food of Landover, Md., which operates supermarkets in Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

      Consumers who have purchased 4-oz. Smoked Salmon with lot code L.05122014 should return it to the store or discard it, and contact Acme for further details and full refunds.

      Consumers with questions may contact the quality assurance department at Acme Smoked Fish Corporation at 718-383-8585.

      Acme Smoked Fish Corporation of Brooklyn, N.Y., is recalling 564 pounds of its Imported Acme 4-oz. (113g) vacuum packs of Smoked Nova Salmon. The product m...
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      Consumers may be more choosy on Black Friday

      With all the bargains so far, it may pay to take a wait-and-see approach

      Even though the nation's retailers have rolled out sales promotions all month long, most still expect a robust turnout for Black Friday, which increasingly starts on Thanksgiving day. But they might have to work harder for shoppers.

      A survey conducted for the National Retail Federation (NRF) finds 61% of consumers may or will shop either Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday. That equates to about 140 million consumers – roughly the same as last year.

      Why no growth in the numbers? It may be because there have already been plenty of deals. It could also mean more bargain-conscious consumers are taking a wait-and-see approach.

      “Consumers today want more than just the discounts they’ve been showered with since the start of the recession; they want exclusive offerings and a good reason to spend their discretionary budgets,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay.

      Major shift

      In fact, Shay believes there could be a major shift this year as shoppers become more picky. The Internet gives consumers multiple tools to compare prices and the difference of just a couple of dollars – or the inclusion of free shopping – could influence a buying decision.

      While there has been criticism of retailers launching their Black Friday promotions on Thanksgiving, there appear to be significant demographic differences in those attitudes. The survey suggests much of the criticism is confined to older generations.

      Millennials, on the other hand, are much more willing to including shopping as part of their Thanksgiving Day activities. Nearly one-quarter of 18 to 24 year olds said they plan to shop on the holiday.

      “For younger shoppers, shopping on Thanksgiving and Black Friday is as much a social experience as it is a buying mission,” said polling firm Prosper Insights & Analytics Principal Analyst Pam Goodfellow. “While these shoppers may not have the biggest holiday budgets or the longest shopping lists, they still enjoy the ‘tradition’ of heading out with friends and family on two of retail’s most exciting shopping days.”

      Last year for old credit cards?

      Shay, meanwhile, says this could be the last holiday shopping season in which consumers use the current magnetic strip credit and debit cards that are more prone to fraud. He says these cards haven't been updated since the 1960s, despite 21st-century cyber threats and criminals who use the Internet to steal money from half a world away.

      “The good news is that the card industry plans to roll out new cards in 2015 that will replace the easy-to-copy magnetic stripe with a sophisticated computer microchip that is far more difficult to counterfeit,” Shay writes in an op-ed. “Chip-based EMV cards are used in 80 countries and have reduced fraud as much as 75%.”

      However, Shay also notes that U.S. banks don’t plan to replace the signature with a personal identification number the way banks have in the rest of the world. Rather than “chip-and-PIN,” U.S. banks are calling their new cards “chip and choice.”

      Retailers are expressing disappointment. Shay says the PIN is a critical element of fraud reduction and that where it has been implemented, it has worked. He says the chip ensures that the card is real, but the PIN is needed to prove that the person trying to use it is the legitimate cardholder.

      “In today’s world of high-tech criminal hacking, an easily forged, illegible scrawl at the bottom of a receipt is no longer good enough,” Shay says.

      Even though the nation's retailers have rolled out sales promotions all month long, most still expect a robust turnout for Black Friday, which increasingly...
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      Money- and sanity-saving Black Friday strategy: skip it

      Don't believe the hype: successful gift-giving doesn't have to break the bank. Or you, either

      An old maxim says that it's better to give than to receive but – true fact – historians agree that statement was first written at least1,500 years before the invention of the consumerist faux-holiday called “Black Friday.”

      Legend has it the name came about because the day after Thanksgiving (and semi-official start of the Christmas/Hanukkah/Solstice/etc. holiday-shopping season) is when most retailers would finally break even and start showing a profit for that fiscal year – the day their accounts finally switched from red ink to black. But if you have or ever held a retail job, you know Black Friday earns its name by being the worst workday of the year – unless, perhaps, you work for a store forcing you to come in on Thanksgiving (without even earning extra holiday pay, likely as not).

      From a customer's perspective, Black Friday offers you the chance to wake up insanely early on a day off, or even camp out overnight in a parking lot during the cold season in the northern hemisphere, and fight enormous mob-style crowds (who trample the occasional person to death, whoopsie) in hope of saving a few dollars off the price of whatever “door-busters” the stores are trying to sell this year.

      Go Ortho

      Of course, the single easiest way to save money, if you mustcelebrate a gift-giving holiday called “Christmas,” is to go by the Eastern Orthodox calendar, which does not observe the holiday until January 6. You'll find lower prices and smaller crowds for your holiday shopping, if you delay the official start of shopping season from “Black Friday” to December 26.

      You might also consider joining the Amish or some other group with actual religious – not just financial – objections to buying cutting-edge latest-gen electronics costing hundreds of dollars.

      In all seriousness: cutting-edge electronics and other high-price appliances make poor holiday gifts anyway, for several reasons. The first is that any major appliance-type item makes for a poor surprise gift.

      Suppose, for example, you're thinking of getting “a computer” for somebody. Nowadays, “computers” are almost like “clothes” – a single word encompassing too many options to easily count them all, but plenty of opportunities to give a gift the recipient doesn't want or need. What will she use the computer for — is it primarily a tool or a toy? Is a tactile keyboard necessary, or are touchscreen controls sufficient? A student or journalist who primarily reads and writes text documents will have different computing needs than a graphic designer, and someone who primarily wants Internet access might be better off ignoring “computers” altogether in favor of a smartphone or tablet or other device, especially depending on where they live and what ISP bandwidth options are available in their area, and ….

      You get the picture: some items work better as carefully researched and personally chosen purchases, not as surprise gifts picked by someone else.

      Of course, it's quite possible someone has carefully researched and personally chosen what they want – especially if you're buying for children who have given you and/or Santa extremely specific wish lists, including catalog numbers and links to make purchases online. When it comes to buying the latest electronics, or whatever is the current season's high-demand item, the bald truth is: there probably isn't any legal, scam-free way to find a good bargain price on that — not if you are determined to get it before this Dec. 25.

      iThings

      Of course, the latest-gen game systems and iThings that are super-expensive this month are pretty much guaranteed to significantly drop in price once the “holiday season” is officially over (although, despite previous cracks about postponing Christmas until the first week of January, the serious price declines on today's hot new techno-whatever probably won't kick in until February or March).

      So that's how you save money (or don't) on electronic gifts. But chances are you still have to buy plenty of less-extravagant (though still potentially expensive) gifts for various people in your life — how do you do that without breaking the bank or putting yourself into debt?

      Plenty of thrifty-living blogs will advise you to save money on presents by ignoring the mass-produced corporate whatever in favor of giving something more personal, perhaps something you made yourself. That's great advice – if you have the talent, skill and time required to produce handmade gifts anyone would actually want. I personally do not.

      But I do have a knack for secondhand and other forms of bargain shopping, and I genuinely enjoy browsing flea markets, thrift stores and other cheapo-discount stores anyway. So I keep an eye open all year long, for any oddball gift-worthy item to store in my gift closet (actually a couple large boxes on a single closet shelf, but never mind that).

      China pattern

      Of course, the better you know someone, the easier it is to find just the right present for them, and at a bargain price, too. (My personal favorite amazing-find gift story is this: a friend of mine inherited her grandmother's china – which had much sentimental value to her, though that pattern is not actually valuableon the open antiques market. The china set wasn't complete, though; a few pieces had gone missing or broken over the years, including the sugar bowl and a couple of salad plates. Yet one weekend, while browsing at a local church's rummage sale, danged if I didn't find a sugar bowl, salad plates and a few other pieces in my friend's grandmother's china pattern – and I only paid $3 for all of it!)

      Unfortunately, such perfect-find stories are rare — and it really isn't practical to go around buying and holding any mismatched china pieces you see, just in case you one day meet someone looking to finish that set. But I also keep my gift closet supplied with more “generic”-style gifts, bought throughout the year and appropriate for workplace Secret Santa programs, local-club gift exchanges and any other situations where you're expected to give a present to someone you might not know too well. One year, around March or so, an overstock store near me had a stockpile of colorful brass Galileo thermometers selling for only $5 each — guess what my colleagues, mailman and similar people all got for Christmas that year?

      I hope their pleased exclamations were all sincere, and that they all genuinely enjoy having a Galileo thermometer on display in their homes or offices — but if they don't, at least those thermometers let me affordably meet my socially expected grownup gift-giving obligations for another year. (And their recipients can always turn around and give the thermometers to someone else, provided they're familiar with the ins and outs of successful re-gifting.)

      An old maxim says that it's better to give than to receive but – true fact – historians agree that statement was first written at least 1,500 years before ...
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      Making sense of calorie information

      Knowing how many calories are in a candy bar is only half the battle

      Now that the Food and Drug Administration is moving forward on new rules requiring chain restaurants, vending machines and coffee shops to post calorie information on food products, consumers will have an easier time keeping up with the calories they consume.

      But will it make any difference? The question is, what will consumers do with this information? The answer is, probably not much – at least not right away.

      Fast food restaurants have been posting calorie information on their menus for some time now and it hasn't reduced the number of triple bacon cheeseburgers they sell. In 2012 researchers at Columbia University studied the calorie counts for 200 food items on menu boards in fast-food chain restaurants in an area of New York, which began the menu posting requirement in 2006.

      “Although most postings were legally compliant, they did not demonstrate utility,” the researchers wrote.

      In other words, consumers weren't always able to make sense of the information, especially when they combined food and beverage items and added toppings. A total meal might contain 1,100 calories – but so what?

      How to use the information

      To use this data consumers need to know how many calories are too many. Eleven-hundred might well be too many calories for the average person but it might not be for someone who just ran a marathon.

      While most people have no idea how many calories they consume on a daily basis, they are even more in the dark about how many calories they burn each day. Depending on a long list of factors, that number is going to vary from person to person.

      Calorie calculator

      To arrive at that number most consumers will need to use a calculator, like this one. For a man 45 years old, weighing 190 pounds, 6 feet tall and with a “somewhat active” lifestyle, the calculator show he would need no more than 2,884 calories a day. Any more than that and he starts packing on the pounds.

      An 1,100 calorie meal would take up 38% of his daily calorie needs. That would leave just 1,700 calories for the remaining two meals – and any between-meals snacks.

      It should also be noted that not all calories are created equal. Loading up on "empty" calories, found in candy, sugar-sweetened beverages and alcohol, doesn't provide much in the way of nutrients. Getting calories from fruits and vegetables promotes health while managing weight.

      Fast food

      In 2003 filmmaker Morgan Spurlock focused attention on fast food calories when, for 30 days, he ate every meal at McDonald's and turned the results into a documentary, “Supersize Me.” Since then, fast food restaurants have added healthier and lower-calorie menu items so that it might be possible today to eat fast food for 30 days and lose weight.

      It all depends on what the consumer chooses to order when they step up to the counter.

      Perhaps consumers will make healthier choices if they have more information but don't count on it happening overnight.

      Now that the Food and Drug Administration is moving forward on new rules requiring chain restaurants, vending machines and coffee shops to post calorie inf...
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      Feeling bad about leaving your dog?

      A few days in a pet spa or with a sitter at home won't hurt your hound

      Everyone's packed up, you're ready to go but one family member isn't heading out with you -- your dog. Grandma has had enough and the dog isn't coming this year. So you are freaking out about leaving it.

      Stop stressing -- there are a few options that can leave you less uptight if you do your homework beforehand.

      First, investigate and make sure that the company you are leaving your pet with hasn't ruffled too many feathers. Check them out online and ask friends about their experiences. 

      If you have a dog that tends to bolt, ask about the kennel's steps to keep it escape-proof.

      Do they let your dog be social with other dogs or are they kept apart at all times? You want to make sure everyone has had their shots and that they check for that and you have to show proof.

      Inquire about what time you can drop off and pick up because it could affect the billing. Just like a hotel, if you stay past check-out time, you may be charged an extra day.

      Let him stay home

      Another option is to let your dog stay in the comfort of familiar surroundings and have a pet sitter come to your home. There are many ways to find one and a really great way to start, is to ask your friends. Your vet may have some recommendations as well. You can also contact the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters (856-439-0324) or Pet Sitters International (336-983-9222). Or check out online services like Rover.com. 

      One thing with a pet sitter in your home is -- you want to make sure they are licensed and bonded. Breaking an antique vase can be expensive, same thing with having your coin collection mysteriously disappear.

      Is back-up available? What happens if the sitter gets sick? Do they have people who can come at a moment's notice?

      Is this sitter familiar with emergency services if your dog starts choking or getting sick? Make sure no one shares their raisins with them.
      What kind of training does the sitter have?

      Even if you like what you hear from the pet sitter and from her references, it's important to have the prospective pet sitter come to your home to meet your pet before actually hiring her for a pet-sitting job. Watch how they interact; does your pet seem comfortable with the person?

      You can find more tips in our recent story, Airbnb for dogs.

      Everyone's packed up, you're ready to go but one family member isn't heading out with you -- your dog. Grandma has had enough and the dog isn't coming this...
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      Personal income and spending on the rise in October

      First-time jobless claims shoot higher

      Consumers saw both their personal incomes and disposable personal income (DPI) head higher last month, with personal spending also posting a gain.

      Figures released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis show personal income was up $32.9 billion, or 0.2%, and disposable personal income (DPI) -- personal income less personal current taxes -- rose $23.4 billion, or 0.2%, in October.

      Personal consumption expenditures (PCE) increased $27.3 billion, or 0.2 percent.

      Wages and salaries

      Private wages and salaries advanced $18.8 billion last month, compared with an increase of $13.9 billion in September. Payrolls of goods-producing industries rose $7.2 billion, with manufacturing payrolls up $4.4 billion.

      Services-producing industries' payrolls increased $11.6 billion, and government wages and salaries added $1.4 billion.

      Personal outlays and saving

      Personal outlays, which include PCE, personal interest payments and personal current transfer payments, rose $26.3 billion in October, after increasing just $8.7 billion the month before.

      Personal saving -- DPI less personal outlays -- was $651.2 billion, down nearly $3 billion from September. Still, the personal saving rate -- personal saving as a percentage of disposable personal income -- was 5.0% in October, the same as in September.

      The complete incomes and spending report for October is available on the Commerce Department website.

      Initial jobless claims

      Separately, the government reports first-time applications surged by 21,000 in the week ending November 22 to a seasonally adjusted initial claims was 313,000. The previous week's level was revised up by 1,000 -- from 291,000 to 292,000.

      The consensus estimate of economists surveyed by Briefing.com was for a total of 288,000.

      Analysts say the surge above 300,000 for the first time since early September was likely the result of a one-time episode of volatility and that the previous weeks lead them to believe claims are in the range that suggest full employment.

      The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile than the weekly tally and considered a more accurate reading of labor conditions, rose by 6,250 from the previous week to 294,000.

      The full report may be found on the Labor Department website.

      Consumers saw both their personal incomes and disposable personal income (DPI) head higher last month, with personal spending also posting a gain. Figures...
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      FHFA House Price Index up again

      Home prices have been on the rise for 13th consecutive quarters

      It's lucky 13 for the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) House Price Index (HPI).

      According to the agency, U.S. house prices were up 0.9% in the third quarter of 2014 -- the 13th straight quarterly price increase in the purchase-only, seasonally adjusted index.

      The HPI is calculated using home sales price information from mortgages sold to, or guaranteed by, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Compared with last year, house prices rose 4.5% from the third quarter of 2013. FHFA’s seasonally adjusted monthly index for September was unchanged from August.

      “Easing interest rates and modestly improving labor market conditions helped to drive up prices in the third quarter,” said FHFA Principal Economist Andrew Leventis. “The price increases were relatively small in most areas, however, and are consistent with the type of market deceleration that other housing market statistics have shown in recent periods.”

      Report highlights

      • The seasonally adjusted, purchase-only HPI rose in 40 states during this year's third quarter. The top five states in annual appreciation: 1) Nevada 2) Hawaii 3) California 4) North Dakota 5) Florida.
      • Of the 9 census divisions, the West South Central division experienced the strongest increase in the third quarter, posting a 1.8% advance for the quarter and a gain of 5.8% since last year. House prices were weakest in the Middle Atlantic division, where prices inched up 0.1% from the prior quarter.
      • As measured with purchase-only indexes for the 100 most populated metropolitan areas in the U.S., third quarter price increases were greatest in the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California, Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) where prices increased by 6.6%. Prices were weakest in the Greensboro-High Point, North Carolina, MSA, where they fell 4.4%.
      • Eleven of the 20 metropolitan areas with the highest annual appreciation rates were in California.
      • The monthly seasonally adjusted purchase-only index for the U.S. showed no change between August and September. The last time prices did not change on a month-over-month basis was in November 2013.
      It's lucky 13 for the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) House Price Index (HPI). According to the agency, U.S. house prices were up 0.9% in the third...
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      Mortgage applications head lower again

      Applications have fallen in 4 of the last 5 weeks

      After posting their first gain in 4 weeks, mortgage applications are down again.

      The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports its Mortgage Applications Survey for the week ending November 21 shows applications were down 4.3% from the previous week.

      The Refinance Index also posted a decline -- 4% from the previous week -- with the refinance share of mortgage activity rising to 63% of total applications from 61 percent the week before.

      The adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) share of activity increased to 7.0% of total applications, the FHA share fell to 9.4%, the VA share dropped to 10.3%, and the USDA share was unchanged at 0.8%.

      Contract interest rates

      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) with conforming loan balances ($417,000 or less) fell 3 basis points -- from 4.18% to 4.15%, with points rising to 0.25 from 0.24 (including the origination fee) for 80% loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs with jumbo loan balances (greater than $417,000) was unchanged at 4.10%, with points increasing to 0.25 from 0.16 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate increased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 30-year FRMs backed by the FHA rose 5 basis points to 3.90%, with points dipping to 0.13 from 0.18 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was up from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 15-year FRMs slipped to 3.35% from 3.38%, with points decreasing to 0.25 from 0.27 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate decreased from last week.
      • The average contract interest rate for 5/1 ARMs dropped from 3.09% to 3.06%, with points rising to 0.41 from 0.34 (including the origination fee) for 80% LTV loans. The effective rate was unchanged from last week.

      The survey covers over 75 percent of all U.S. retail residential mortgage applications.

      After posting their first gain in 4 weeks, mortgage applications are down again. The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) reports its Mortgage Applications ...
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      Another slim gain for new home sales

      On the other hand, the near-term sales outlook for existing homes isn't encouraging

      Sales of new single-family rose in October for a second straight month.

      A report released jointly by the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development put sales at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 458,000 -- up 0.7% from the previous month and 1.8% higher than a year ago.

      Prices and inventory

      The median sales price of new houses sold during the month was $305,000 -- up $40,700 from October 2013. The median is the point at which half of the prices are higher and half are lower. The average sales price was $401,100, a year-over-year gain of $65,400.

      The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of October was 212,000, which translates to a supply of 5.6 months at the current sales rate.

      The complete new home sales report is available on the Commerce Department website.

      Pending home sales

      On the other hand, the National Association of Realtors (NRA) reports pending home sales declined in October, but are still at what it calls “a healthy level of activity,” and are above year-over-year levels for the second straight month.

      The Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), which is based on contract signings, fell 1.1% last month to 104.1, but is 2.2% higher than October 2013. The index is above 100 -- considered an average level of contract activity -- for the sixth consecutive month.

      Still at a healthy pace

      "In addition to low interest rates, buyers entering the market this autumn are being lured by the increase in homes for sale and less competition from investors paying in cash," said Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist. "Demand is holding steady but would be more robust if it weren't for lagging wage growth and tight credit conditions that continue to hamper those individuals looking for relief from rising rents."

      The median existing-home price for all housing types in October was $208,300 -- 5.5% above October 2013. Monthly median price growth has averaged 5.8% so far this year after averaging 11.5 % in 2013.

      "The increase in median prices for existing-homes has leveled off, representing a healthier pace that has kept affordability in-check for buyers in many parts of the country while giving more previously stuck homeowners with little or no equity the ability to sell," said Yun.

      Regional breakdown

      • The PHSI in the Northeast inched up 0.5% to 87.9 in October, and is now 3.4% percent above a year ago.
      • In the Midwest the index dipped 0.6% to 100.6, and is now 3.0% below October 2013.
      • Pending home sales in the South decreased 1.0% to an index of 118.3, but is still 3.9% above the same time last year.
      • The index in the West plunged 3.2% to 98.1, but stands 4.1% above a year ago.

      Crystal gazing

      NAR also recently released its economic and housing forecast for 2015 and 2016.

      Yun projects existing-home sales this year to fall slightly below 2013 (5.1 million) to 4.9 million, and then increase to 5.3 million next year and 5.4 million in 2016.

      He also sees the national median existing-home price rising 4% both next year and in 2016.

      Sales of new single-family rose in October for a second straight month. A report released jointly by the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and U...
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