Why Dinner’s About to Start Eating More of Your Wallet

Best Of The MonthNew York — If food prices start taking a bigger bite out of your wallet in the near future, you can blame it on Mother Nature.

A confluence of events including strange weather from El Nino, activity on the solar surface and the effects of a U.S. drought years ago are reducing agricultural output, which may drive up grocery store prices for individual consumers and supply costs for dining chains such as Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) and coffee shops like Starbucks (SBUX).

The current El Nino weather system, which periodically forms off the Pacific coast of South America and alters weather patterns throughout the world, is projected to be the strongest in decades, according to AccuWeather.

Already, El Nino is causing drought in Asia, most notably in Vietnam, which is the second-biggest coffee producer in the world behind Brazil. Vietnam grows robusta beans and while their taste isn’t typically as appealing as that of arabica beans, what happens in the robusta market matters.

“If robusta production is down, then it will drive up the price of arabica as well,” says Nicholas Gentile, managing partner at New York-based commodity trading adviser Nick Jen Capital Management. It’s possible that any production shortfall from drought in Asia could be made up by more output in South America, he added.

If all goes well, the rains will come to Asia in time, but if they don’t, then expect coffee prices to rise.
If you want milk with your coffee, then things look even bleaker because that’s likely to be more expensive as well.

Milk prices have already jumped in New Zealand and in the first six months of 2016, U.S. prices will catch up, Shawn Hackett wrote in a recent edition of The Hackett Money Flow Commodity Report. The problem is that due to a drought years ago, the price of milking cows is high while current American milk prices are low, which gives diary farmers little incentive to add cows to their herd.

Finally, the number of spots on the sun has started its periodic cycle of decline this year, which will likely lead to lower crop yields and hence higher prices for grains such as wheat and corn. The phenomenon is discussed in detail in a 1976 USDA report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that examined data from 1866 to 1973.

The number of sunspots fluctuates in a fairly predictable cycle that tends to last around 10 to 11 years. NASA actually counts the spots and makes projections about how many there will be in future years. While the mechanism isn’t understood, there does appear to be a high correlation between spot count and global temperatures, with fewer spots being associated with cooler weather.

NASA projects that the sunspot count is entering its cyclical decline and doing so from a fairly low peak. That doesn’t augur well for crop yields next year.

“Lower-than-average yields are associated with low sunspot activity,” according to the Agriculture Department paper, “Do Sunspot Cycles Affect Crop Yields?” by Virden L. Harrison. The report singles out corn, wheat and rice as particular examples of the phenomenon.

The effect, however it occurs, can be large, although it does vary by crop and the location within the U.S. Declines in average yield of 10 percent during low sunspot years were not uncommon in the study period.

“The bottom line is that the great U.S. crop production miracle of the last two years will not repeat in 2016,” Hackett wrote in a recent report.

A Guide to Discounts for Military and Veterans

Veterans Day Parade

Many retailers offer discounts on goods and services for active duty or veteran military personnel out of respect for those who serve, and some of these discounts are well worth taking advantage of. But with dozens of deals and policies varying by business, it can be tough to navigate.

With Veteran’s Day right around the corner, we thought it was high time we update our guide to where you can find military discounts, and how they might apply.

How to Get Military Discounts

Some businesses advertise their military discounts prominently, but at many you may have to ask, show ID or other proof of service, or even be in uniform to get a discount. Complicating matters further, many national retailers (particularly franchises) offer discounts that may vary from location to location; you’re most likely to find deals at locations near military bases.

So despite what’s on this list, you’ll want to check with your local retailer to be sure what discount is offered.

What Discounts to Expect

The discounts available, when you’re willing to jump through the hoops to get them, can vary greatly in quality. But many retailers will offer around 10 percent off. If you’re a military member or veteran, you can usually find car manufacturers willing to offer you $500 or more off, though deals depend on what make you’re shopping for as well as when you’re shopping for it.

Travel deals are also common, but typically vague. Many hotels offer discounted rates for military members and families on leisure travel that are based on government per diem rates, which may or may not be the best deal you can find.

No matter where you’re shopping or what you’re shopping for, be sure to ask about a military discount before you buy. Even retailers who aren’t on this list may offer military discounts — you just don’t know until you ask.

Here’s a look at the deals.

Store Discount Who’s Eligible? Details
24 Hour Fitness Discounted membership Active duty
Alamo Rent A Car Discounted rates Active duty
AMC Theatres Discounted tickets Active duty, retirees, and family Typically after 4PM
Apple Discounted products Active duty, veterans, reservists, National Guard members, and family
Applebee’s 10% off, free entree on Veterans Day Active duty and veterans
AT&T Wireless 15% off phone plans Active duty, veterans, and qualified military spouses In-store only
Baskin-Robbins 10% off Varies
Bass Pro Shops 10% off Active duty and retired For one week, beginning on the 15th of every month
Best Buy Up to 10% off Varies
Best Western Based on government per diem Active duty
Burger King 10% off Varies
Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s 10% off Varies
Chick-fil-A Discounted pricing, free meals on Military Appreciation Nights Varies
Choice Hotels Based on government per diem Active duty, retired, and family
Chrysler Up to $500 Active duty, active reservists, retirees, and veterans discharged within the last 12 months
CiCi’s Pizza 10% off Varies
Cinemark Movie Theatres Discounted tickets Active duty
Dairy Queen 10% or more off Varies May only be available certain days of the week or to uniformed personnel
Dell Up to 30% off Active duty, veterans, and families
Ford $500 bonus cash Active duty, reservists, National Guard members, veterans (within 180 days of discharge), and family Offer only good on eligible models
Fuddruckers 10-20% off Varies
Geico Up to 15% off Active duty, National Guard members, reservists, and retired
General Motors Discounted pricing, up to thousands off Active duty, active reservists, National Guard members, retirees, veterans discharged within the last 12 months, and spouses
Greyhound 10% off Active duty, retired, and family
Hard Rock Cafe 15% off Varies
Hertz Discounted rates Active duty
Hewlett-Packard Various discounts Varies
Hilton Hotels & Resorts Based on government per diem, 10% off leisure stays with Military Family Rate Active duty, reservists, retired, and family
Home Depot 10% off Active duty, reservists, retired, disabled veterans, and family
Honda $500 off Active duty, reservists, spouses, retirees, and veterans (within 180 days of discharge) Only available if you finance or lease from Honda
Howard Johnson Based on government per diem Active duty Depending on availability
Hyundai $500 off Active duty, reservists, National Guard members, retirees, veterans, and spouses Only for select 2014, all 2015, and all 2016 models
Jiffy Lube Up to 15% off Varies
Kohl’s 15% off Varies
La Quinta Inns & Suites Based on government per diem Active duty
Lowe’s 10% off Active duty, reservists, National Guard members, retirees, veterans receiving VA benefits, and family
Marriott Hotels Based on government per diem Active duty
Mazda $500 off Active duty; reservists, veterans, and retirees (within 12 months of discharge/retirement) Only for 2015 and 2016 models
Motel 6 10% off Active duty, retirees, and family
National Car Rental Discounted rates Active duty, retired, and family
National Park Service Free Annual Pass Active duty, family, reservists, and National Guard members
Nike 10% off Active duty, reservists, and retirees
Nissan Varies Active duty, reservists, retirees, veterans (within 12 months of discharge), and spouses and partners
Old Navy 10% off Varies Mondays
Pep Boys 10% off Active duty, National Guard members, reservists, and retired Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays
Regal Entertainment Group Varies Varies
Scion $500 off Active duty, reservists, National Guard members, retirees and veterans (within one year of service), and family
Shoney’s 15% off Varies May have to wear a uniform
Showcase Cinemas $5.50 or $7.50 per ticket Active duty and family
Sprint Monthly service discount Active duty and retirees
Starwood Hotels & Resorts Based on government per diem Active duty
Toyota $500 rebate Active duty, retirees and veterans (discharged within 12 months), and family
Verizon Wireless 15% off monthly plan and 25% off select accessories Active duty and veterans
YMCA Free membership and child care Families of active duty service members

7 Best Rewards Credit Cards for Holiday Shopping

Row of Credit CardsFrom presents for the kids to special food for family get-togethers, holiday traditions have the potential to put a significant dent in your wallet. However, you can take the sting out of that spending by earning rewards for every purchase.

Rewards credit cards come in many flavors, with some offering cash back and others providing miles or points that can be redeemed for travel, gift cards or merchandise.

U.S. News spoke to four credit experts to learn which cards they recommend consumers use this holiday season. They say shoppers shouldn’t only worry about which card they select, but to also focus on how to maximize rewards.

“I’m a strong believer that rewards cards are best used by people who pay off their balance each month,” says Jason Steele, the credit card expert at CompareCards.com. If you fail to pay off your balance, you could get charged interest that will negate any rewards you earn.

Online shoppers should also always visit their card’s website to look for special offers before making a purchase. “A credit card bonus mall is an online portal that allows you to get extra points or cash back on your online purchases,” says Sean McQuay, a credit card expert for NerdWallet. “But remember, the consumer has to use the card associated with that bonus mall to take advantage.”

Beyond that general advice, McQuay and Steele say it helps if you are swiping the right card for you. Here are their picks for the best rewards cards for holiday shopping, along with those of Bethy Hardeman, chief consumer advocate at Credit Karma, and Jill Gonzalez, credit card analyst for WalletHub.

Best rewards credit card for online shopping: Chase Freedom

Any rewards credit card can be used online, but Hardeman, Steele and McQuay all single out the Chase Freedom card as a particularly good choice this holiday season.

The card offers 5 percent cash back on categories that change quarterly. This quarter’s bonus retailers include Amazon, a go-to destination for many holiday shoppers, as well as Zappos, diapers.com and Audible. “[The current bonuses] are very helpful for those who like to do shopping online with ease and convenience,” Hardeman says.

For all other purchases, Chase Freedom offers 1 percent cash back. Plus, you get a $100 bonus if you spend $500 in the first three months after you open your account.

Best rewards credit card for in-store shopping: Blue Cash Preferred from American Express

If you’d rather shop in stores, Steele recommends using the American Express Blue Cash Preferred card.

The 3 percent cash back you get for department store purchases is nice, but the 6 percent offered at supermarkets is even nicer. “While you may not think of supermarkets as a place for gifts, you can find a lot of gift cards there,” Steele says. You can either give those gift cards as presents, or use them to buy presents at other retailers.

You may need to register for cash back promotions on the American Express website, and the supermarket cash back offer is limited to $6,000 in purchases. Other card perks include a $150 statement credit after you spend $1,000 on your card in the first three months and a 0 percent APR in the first 15 months.

Best rewards credit cards for cash back: Discover it and U.S. Bank Cash+

For those who split their shopping between online and brick-and-mortar retailers, the Discover it and U.S. Bank Cash+ cards are two solid options.

The Discover it card offers 1 percent cash back for most purchases with the exception of three bonus categories that rotate quarterly. For the current quarter, cardholders can get 5 percent back at Amazon, department stores and clothing stores. “It also offers one of the best bonus malls in the industry so it’s an awesome choice for shopping online for the holidays,” McQuay says

The bonuses are even better if you use Apple Pay, Steele says. Currently, Discover it offers 10 percent cash back for up to $10,000 of in-store purchases made with the mobile payment service through the end of the year. New card members also receive double cash back for their first 12 billing cycles, which means you could earn a whopping 20 percent cash back before 2016.

For those who’d prefer a Visa to Discover, the U.S. Bank Cash+ card offers 5 percent cash back on two categories of your choice, on the first $2,000 in purchases. You can also earn 2 percent cash back on one category, such as gas or groceries, that you select. On top of that, you get 1 percent back on all other purchases.

Hardeman likes the card because it allows consumers to evaluate where they will spend the most and select the appropriate categories.

Best rewards credit card to help you stay out of debt: Citi Double Cash

The Citi Double Cash card gets a nod from McQuay as having one of the highest flat cash back rates in the industry. Users get 2 percent cash back on all purchases, with no rotating categories to worry about.

However, the catch is the card gives you 1 percent when you make a purchase and 1 percent when you pay your bill. For those tempted to carry over some debt into the new year, the card’s structure could provide a little motivation to pay off the balance ASAP.

Best rewards credit card for big spenders: Chase Sapphire Preferred

If you have a long gift list, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card could be a good choice, according to Gonzalez.

New account holders who charge $4,000 in the first three months receive 40,000 bonus points, worth $500 of travel through Chase. The card also offers other perks for travelers, including 2 points per dollar spent on travel expenses and restaurants, point transfers to eligible frequent flyer and hotel rewards programs and a 20 percent discount on travel redemptions.

The card is free for the first year but charges a $95 annual fee after that.

Best rewards credit card for those with average credit: QuicksilverOne from Capital One

Not everyone has stellar credit and for those with a few dings on their record, Gonzalez recommends the QuicksilverOne from Capital One. “It is a bit easier to get your hands on,” she says.

The card has a $39 annual fee and doesn’t offer any upfront bonus like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, but it does come with 1.5 percent cash back on all purchases. Not too shabby for a card that may be willing to approve customers who wouldhave their applications rejected elsewhere.

Before you start applying for cards, check your credit score to find out whether you should start with a card like QuicksilverOne or if you can apply for a more lucrative account. Hardeman points out too many applications at once could drop your score. “You don’t want a bunch of inquiries on your report and nothing to show for it,” she says.

College Scholarships Aren’t Free Money

Mixed race mother and daughter using laptop togetherIt is National Scholarship Month, which means high school seniors are being exhorted to scoop up free money for college.

What they are often not told is that scholarships won from corporations, non-profits and other “outside” sources can reduce — dollar for dollar — the grants and cost-reducing financial aid they might get from colleges.

Students with financial need should be aware of this potential disincentive before they spend countless hours pursuing scholarships that may leave them no better off. The same scholarships could, however, benefit affluent families by reducing the amount they have to pay or borrow.

I felt it was so unfair that I’d worked so hard and was bringing a huge amount to the school but not seeing it reflected in my own package.

Casey Lu Simon-Plumb, a sophomore at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, won more than a dozen scholarships during her senior year of high school, including a $20,000 Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation award.

She thought her winnings would dramatically reduce the $60,000 annual cost of attending the school. Instead, the outside money replaced other aid Swarthmore had offered her, leaving her family’s contribution about the same.

“I felt it was so unfair that I’d worked so hard and was bringing a huge amount to the school but not seeing it reflected in my own package,” said Simon-Plumb of Hampden, Massachusetts.

Federal rules require schools to reduce need-based financial aid when students win outside scholarships to ensure that their total financial aid doesn’t exceed their costs by more than $300.

Colleges have some flexibility in how they implement this “award displacement,” said financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz, co-author of the book, “Filing the FAFSA.”

If the college does not meet students’ full financial need – and most do not – it may opt to let the outside money help fill that gap.

“But most will reduce aid dollar for dollar,” Kantrowitz said.

Swarthmore’s policy is more generous than many. The small liberal arts college uses outside scholarships first to reduce the earnings students are expected to contribute from summer jobs, said Varo Duffins, the college’s financial aid director.

Once those expected earnings are offset, the next category of aid to be reduced is federal work study, in which students contribute to the cost of college through part-time jobs. After that, the college reduces the institutional scholarships it offers students.

Like many elite schools, Swarthmore meets 100 percent of student financial need and does not include loans as part of its need-based financial aid packages, Duffins said.

When colleges do include loans as part of a need-based package, some use outside scholarships to reduce those loans and thus the ultimate cost of going to college. Others don’t.

Because colleges’ policies vary so much, the only way to know how an outside scholarship might affect financial aid is for families to ask the individual schools, said Lynn O’Shaughnessy, a college consultant and author of “The College Solution.”

Kantrowitz recommends doing so early enough in the application process that the colleges’ scholarship policies can be factored into the decision of where to go to school.

If outside scholarships can reduce the loan portion of an aid package or out-of-pocket costs, personal finance author John Wasik, author of “The Debt-Free Degree,” recommends casting a wide net. FinAid, FastWeb and Sallie Mae all offer search engines.

Simon-Plumb said some of her scholarships offered other benefits, such as networking or prestige, which made the hours spent writing essays and filling out applications worthwhile.

Had she known about award displacement, she said she would have focused more on landing those awards and not bothered with the rest.

“You don’t have to kill yourself doing it if there’s no payoff,” Simon-Plumb said.

Should You Use a Third Party to Negotiate Your Cable Bill?

Woman paying bills online at homeDespite many consumers’ interest in streaming content online, TV subscription prices continue to rise. In fact, consumer research from Leichtman Research Group Inc. found in a survey of 1,222 American households earlier this year that the mean reported monthly spending on TV cable, satellite or other TV subscriptions is nearly $100, an increase of 39 percent since 2010.

If you notice your bills creeping up, then maybe it’s time to call your provider and ask for a better rate. But if you hate sitting on hold or negotiating, a few new services will do the dirty work for you.

BillCutterz and BillFixers

Companies like BillCutterz and BillFixers will call to negotiate on your behalf in exchange for half of whatever discount they negotiate for the first year.

BillCutterz has been in business since 2009, and customers most often request help negotiating cellphone, cable, satellite TV and Internet bills, according to vice president Sydney Alcala. The company can also negotiate gym memberships, landscaping, pest control and alarm and security bills. Overall, the average savings is around 35 percent, and customers can save 10 percent off BillCutterz’s cut by giving the savings amount for a year upfront rather than splitting the costs monthly. (If the savings last longer than a year, you keep all the of savings beyond those first 12 months.)

A more recent entrant to the market, brothers and recent graduates Julian and Ben Kurland launched BillFixers in July 2014 as a side gig. Now Ben works on it full time and Julian is part time, along with five employees. The brothers say they attract a variety of customers, and they’re able to negotiate a discount around 95 percent of the time.

“You get folks who are really savvy about dealing with money, and that’s why they come to us,” Ben Kurland says. “You get folks who are just busy and don’t want to deal with the hassle and figure they’ll throw it to someone else.” Senior citizens are another key market, Julian Kurland adds.

Both companies ask that you send a copy of your bill so your negotiator has your account number and knows what you’re currently paying and for what plan. One way he or she can help, according to Alcala, is by identifying premium channels, cellphone insurance or other add-ons you don’t use. “We’ll ask, ‘Do you know you’re paying for that, and is that something that you want?'” she says. “We want to make sure you’re not paying for something you’re not going to use.”

The amount of additional information you must share with BillCutterz or BillFixers depends on what the provider requires. For instance, some providers require the last four digits of your Social Security number or a passcode to verify your identity. If customers balk at giving out their personal information, they can join the call to verify their identity and authorize the negotiator to speak on their behalf.

AirPaper

If you’re ready to cut the cord entirely, a San Francisco-based company called AirPaper will help you minimize hassles by sending a letter to Comcast, Time Warner Cable or Verizon at a cost of $5 (in some cities, you can have someone else return your equipment for an additional fee).

AirPaper launched its Comcast cancellation letter service earlier this year and has since added Time Warner and Verizon. You’ll need to provide the minimum amount of information required by that service provider, which is typically name, address and account number. “When a customer signs up to cancel with our service, we generate a letter and mail it on their behalf to their local Comcast branch,” explains co-founder Eli Pollak. “It’s a fully automated process.”

However, it’s not automated on Comcast’s side, Pollak explains, so it can take five to 10 business days for them to process. And if you’re still under contract, then AirPaper’s process won’t help you avoid early termination fees.

Should You Enlist One of These Company’s Help?

That depends on whether you have the time and motivation to do it yourself. While many people dread negotiating, Stuart Diamond, author of the best-selling book on negotiation “Getting More,” says it’s easier than we think. “[For] small things like phone company discounts, it’s probably better to do it yourself,” he says. “Sit down, figure out your arguments and try to make a human connection.”
Instead of threatening to switch providers (which may not even be an option in some markets), Diamond recommends asking if they’ve ever given a discount to other customers and under what circumstances. “If you can find a precedent, a big company will usually say OK,” he says.

Another strategy is to reference the language on the company’s website. “These companies all have website that promise good customer service, and people hate to contradict themselves,” says Diamond, who also teaches a popular course on negotiation at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. “Just reference their own standards.”

If all else fails and you’re not getting anywhere with one representative, “you can always call back and get somebody else,” Diamond points out.

Some customers first try negotiating themselves and then enlist BillCutterz to see if they can increase their savings, Alcala says. “Since we do this every day, our savings experts have been trained and they know what to say, who to say it to,” she says. “Some people are good negotiators so they can get similar to what we get. Or we can call back and get $20 or $30 off [a month], which is a pretty big difference for most people.”

Ben Kurland says they’ve boiled it down to a science with each provider. “We’ve figured out the right people to talk to and when to talk to them,” he says. (Pro tip: Representatives tend to field fewer calls between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., according to Ben Kurland, so that’s a good time to call when they’re less frazzled.)

Negotiating yourself means you’ll get to pocket the entire discount without sharing anything with an outside company. But if you put it off or never enlist the help of a third party, then you’re likely leaving money on the table every month – and that won’t do your wallet any favors.

7 Ways to Lower the Cost of a Holiday Road Trip

Thanksgiving Travel OutlookThe holidays are nearly upon us, with many families driving long distances to spend time with each other in the next weeks. Road trips are also an annual part of my family’s holiday traditions, with our extended families living at least three hours away (and many relatives even farther).

Along the way, we’ve developed a lot of strategies for minimizing the cost of such road trips. Here are seven tactics anyone can pull off before and during long drives.

Fill your tires with air before you leave. Check your owner’s manual and find out the maximum recommended pressure for your tires. Then stop at a gas station, and fill your tires to that pressure. All you need is a small pressure gauge, which most gas stations and convenience stores sell; if you need detailed instructions, check your owner’s manual.

This saves money in two ways. First, automobiles with tires filled to the recommended level get better gas mileage than cars with tires that have lower pressure. Second, low pressure in your tires increases the chance of a blowout, so if you fill them up to the recommended pressure, you’ll reduce your chance of an unwanted (and expensive) roadside stop.

Fill your tank with gas before you leave. This is an indirect strategy for saving money. When you’re on the road and you stop to fill up for gas, it often can be tempting to go inside and get a cup of coffee or a soda or a snack. Gas station prices can be expensive, so this is just money disappearing from your pocket.

The best strategy we’ve found to battle this expense is to simply fill up our car with fuel before we leave. If we do this right before departing, there is minimal temptation to stop inside for a snack, which keeps money in our pocket where it belongs.

Pack snacks and meals. Another tactic for avoiding unnecessary convenience store expenses is to simply pack some snacks and beverages and even full meals before you leave. Choose items from your pantry, make sandwiches before you go, fill up a few water bottles and you’ll have far less need to make an expensive stop.

Drive the speed limit. The obvious reason for doing this is to avoid getting pulled over, which could result in a very expensive traffic ticket. However, there’s another, more subtle reason — cars tend to be more fuel efficient when you drive at around 55 mph. The faster you go, the less fuel efficient they become, meaning you’re going to spend more money on fuel just to cover the same distance. You might save five minutes an hour of driving by speeding, but over a long trip, that can add up to another stop at a gas station, which loses some of that time advantage and also gobbles up more money.

Keep updated registration and proof of insurance in the car. If you doget pulled over, that stop is going to be far less painful if you have proof of insurance and registration in the car, conveniently available. If you don’t have these documents, you can expect a much more expensive traffic ticket. It’s well worth spending 10 seconds (and the 10 minutes it might take to print new ones if you can’t find them) to make sure you have these documents in your car to avoid the possibility of hundreds of dollars in tickets.

Refill your gas on the cheaper side of state borders. If you’re crossing any state borders, you’ll likely find very different gas prices on each side of that border. It can be well worth your time to stop just before crossing a state border — or holding out until after a border crossing — to get cheaper fuel. You can check out varying prices at GasBuddy’s national gas price map. Some borders have a surprisingly large difference in fuel prices. The Iowa-Missouri border, for instance, can have as much as a 40-cent a gallon difference.

Avoid toll roads, even if it adds more miles to your trip. Toll roads can be a large additional expense on your journey, easily adding $10 or more to the trip. Thankfully, many online mapping tools like Google Maps can provide you with alternate routes to your destination that avoid toll roads. Adding another few minutes to your trip to avoid several tolls can end up saving you quite a lot of money.

Just a little bit of advance planning and some smart choices on the road can save you lots of cash on a holiday road trip. Using these strategies, you’ll arrive at your destination with plenty of money still in your wallet where it belongs.

Thanksgiving: The Cost of Cooking vs. Takeout vs. Dining Out

Rustic Thankgiving DinnerThanksgiving is a time for friends and families to share a festive meal and reflect on their blessings. Along with that comes the expectation of a full-on turkey dinner, not to mention the stress associated with planning, spending, and cooking. But hosts have options besides preparing a meal from scratch: carry out from a commercial eatery or grocery store, organize a potluck or dine at a restaurant.

Believe it or not, the alternatives are easier on the wallet. In a comparative price check, found that a home-cooked meal for eight rang up at $13.20 a person compared with $10 for restaurant takeout, $11.25 for grocery store takeout, and $11.99 for an adult restaurant meal.

Takeout

Many restaurants and grocery stores offer prepared meals that include everything needed to satisfy Thanksgiving cravings. A quick survey of takeout menus and prices at several national chains found that a Thanksgiving meal with all the fixings can be procured for about $10 a person.

Takeout From a Restaurant

National chain Bob Evans charges $79.99 for a complete turkey dinner for eight ($10 a person). Four can enjoy a similar repast for $49.99 ($12.50 a person).

  • Roasted turkey breast or sliced boneless ham (4 lbs.)
  • Bread and celery dressing (40 oz.)
  • Green beans with ham (40 oz.)
  • Buttered sweet corn (40 oz.)
  • Mashed potatoes with gravy (40 oz. potatoes/32 oz. gravy)
  • Cranberry relish (12 oz.)
  • Rolls (12)
  • Pumpkin bread loaf
  • Pumpkin pie with topping

Takeout From a Grocery Store

The Kroger supermarket chain offers the “supreme” Thanksgiving dinner, which serves eight, for $89.99 ($11.25 a person).

  • Roasted turkey (13-16 lbs.)
  • Mashed potatoes (two 24-oz. containers)
  • Stuffing (two 32-oz. containers)
  • Turkey gravy (two 24-oz. containers)
  • Cranberry celebration (two 16-oz. containers)
  • Dinner rolls (two 12-count packages)

Takeout From a Grocery Store (Express)

Kroger also offers just the essentials for six diners, which lowers the price to $49.99 ($8.33 a person). When planning the budget, remember to factor in a few homemade side dishes and dessert to round out the meal.

  • Roasted turkey (10-13 lbs.)
  • Mashed potatoes (24 oz.)
  • Stuffing (32 oz.)
  • Turkey gravy (24 oz.)
  • Dinner rolls (12)

Dining Out

To avoid meal prep and cleanup entirely, eating out is the way to go. The price is about the same as takeout for adults, and considerably less for children. Many restaurants offer kids’ meals at a savings of about $5. A Thanksgiving meal at the Cracker Barrel chain costs $11.99 for adults and $6.99 for children (tip and tax not included).

  • Turkey and gravy
  • Cornbread dressing
  • Sugar-cured ham
  • Sweet potato casserole
  • Cranberry relish
  • Choice of country side
  • Biscuits or corn muffins
  • Slice of pumpkin pecan streusel pie with real whipped cream
  • Beverage

Cooking From Scratch

Surprisingly, a Thanksgiving meal from scratch is the most expensive. Based on full prices for Kroger store brands, the grocery bill for eight people eating a complete turkey dinner at home totals $105.59 ($13.20 a person). Halve the number of guests and the price comes to $65.91 ($16.48 a person).

  • Turkey (16 lbs.): $25.44
  • Mashed potatoes/gravy: $15.41
  • Stuffing: $12.01
  • Green bean casserole: $8.86
  • Buttered corn: $4.14
  • Cranberry relish: $3.98
  • Pumpkin pie: $31.96
  • Rolls: $3.79

Savings Tips for Home Cooks

Raid the pantry before heading to the store, and keep an eye out for sales and savings that come with a loyalty card. Alternatively, purchase a pre-cooked turkey and the side dishes that are the costliest to make from scratch and prepare the rest of the feast in the kitchen. A no-frills takeout meal that includes mashed potatoes saves $10 for the ingredients, along with the time and effort required to boil and mash them. A store-bought pumpkin pie costs about $5 compared with nearly $15 to bake from scratch. Another money-saving idea: Delegate responsibilities by arranging a potluck. The host provides the turkey or ham and the guests contribute the fixings.

7 Ways to Save Money and Stay Sane on Turkey Day

Family Toasting at Thanksgiving
For most of us, entertaining on Turkey Day means one (difficult) thing: juggling. Trying to balance the wave of relatives and friends, all while keeping a budget and loading up the sleeping bag for the Black Friday campout, is a tricky endeavor. So what can you do?

Here, we offer our best tips for how to save on hosting the Thanksgiving meal this year, and ways to entertain without getting drained.

Save Money (and Time) With a Potluck

This idea depends entirely on what kind of friends and such you have: the adventurous, fun kind or those who will bang on the table like gorillas until you serve the big bird. If it’s the former, put out some feelers to see how the idea of a potluck strikes them. You can make it easier for them by taking on the turkey task by yourself while others chip in on the trimmings, dessert, etc. Aside from being thrifty, this can prove incredibly festive if you and your crew would otherwise spend Thanksgiving alone, or in small pockets of two or three.

“Potluck Thanksgiving also serves as a time-saver and allows guests to enjoy a variety of cooking styles,” says Rick Castellano, a spokesman with Upromise. It’s especially smart if you’re a college or graduate student adult doing the hosting.

Share the Love by Sharing Leftovers

If you’re the kind who refuses to skimp on a Thanksgiving meal, we’re right there with you. But if you’re also the kind who gets stuck eating turkey-topped pizza and turkey smoothies for the next three weeks, then you could certainly benefit here. “Be realistic about what you will eat at dinner and what you can consume in leftovers,” says Kevin Gallegos, vice president of Phoenix operations withFreedom Financial Network. “Send some leftovers home with guests, and freeze some to enjoy later.” Adds Castellano, “As tempting as it is to live off Thanksgiving leftovers for two weeks, consider giving to your local food bank.”

Focus on Food Instead of Decor

We’re not trying to yank the stuffing plate away — just the impulse to go overboard with decorating your home for your guests. “Keep the focus on the food instead of the decorations,” Gallegos advises. Here’s an easy way to go cheap and classy: “Gather attractive houseplants in a large basket, bowl, or even a box decorated with fabric or paper for a centerpiece.” Want to go classier still on a budget? “Small plants chosen for the occasion could be given to guests as favors when they leave.”

Fast-Forward to December Fun by Trimming the Tree

Entertaining guests poses a challenge of extremes: Throwing the Big Game on the big screen doesn’t work for those who couldn’t care less about football, and hiring a string quartet is excessive, even for Donald Trump. Since most people rush by Thanksgiving to get to the December holidays anyway, give some thought to breaking out the ornaments and having everyone trim the tree (assuming you can put one up this early). It’s a novel twist on a holiday pastime and much in the spirit of our next tip.

Revive a Lost Tradition: Ye Olde Song Circle

Think back to a time before smartwatches … smartphones … flat-screen TVs. Can’t think back past yesterday’s breakfast, eh? Well, in the days before radio, families gathered in the living room after a celebratory meal to sing holiday songs, accompanied by piano, reed organ, or the aptly named parlor guitar. Why not revive a lost custom this year?

Tell your friends and family to bring song lyric printouts, instruments and the like. Have kazoos or something else fun on hand for those who claim a lack of musical talent. This activity is way cheap, way fun, and gets your guests to interact instead of crawling into the stale cocoon known as cable TV. How many reruns of “Seinfeld” can your posse watch anyway?

Ditch the Paper Plates and Don’t Be Afraid to Borrow

We all want to save on time and labor on Thanksgiving, so there’s the possibility of going with paper plates and cups or having food catered. One obvious savings point is to cook the meal yourself, or with help: Look for those close to you who love to help in the kitchen.

But what if you could take what you spend on paper plates and keep it as paper cash? “If you are short on place settings, borrow — neighbors, family, and guests usually are happy to share,” Gallegos says. “Or look on Craigslist, eBay or at thrift stores for extras you can reuse throughout the year.”

Avoid Leaving Stuff to the Last Minute

Next to cooking too much, the next greatest risk in entertaining comes when you leave everything until the last minute. As Gallegos sums it up, “If you are just days away from Thanksgiving with nothing planned, human nature says that you will be more likely to run to the store and load up on somewhat random items for your meal and day.” And by not planning in advance, you make it more likely you will spend too much.

Should You Pay to Make Mobile Deposits with Your Smartphone?

Female hands using mobile bankingThe money question is blunt: should you pay — will you pay — to make deposits with your smartphone by clicking a picture? Know this: Some banks charge for mobile deposit, typically at 50 cents a deposited item, sometimes more.

It may be free at your bank. Most in fact offer it as a gratis perk, said Bob Meara, who tracks banking for research firm Celent. “The vast majority of banks offer the option with no charge,” he says.

For instance, at Amplify, Karen Pollack, a vice president at the Austin-based credit union, said, “I don’t want to charge the member — we don’t want to put fees on our members back.” At that institution, photo deposit is free.

But there are some institutions that are imposing fees and the question has to be asked — in the fee-happy banking universe of today, will more banks follow?

This matters, because mobile deposit is one of the hottest features in mobile banking. So-called mobile remote deposit capture (abbreviated MRDC in the trade) has proven to be a hit with consumers. And why not? You could get in your car and drive five miles to the nearest bank branch and wait in line to deposit the $5 birthday check from Aunt Tillie (that’s $2.50 in expense, calculated at 50 cents a mile) or you could slap the check on your dining table, call up a mobile app and, inside a minute, send the image of the check to your bank or credit union.

By federal law (the 2004 Check 21 Act), that image is as good as the real, paper product.

Financial institutions, too, reap savings when you use MRDC. Some expertsclaim that the cost to a bank of a teller line deposit is $4. The same deposit made via MRDC costs maybe 40 cents.

So why do some banks charge? Among those that do are U.S. Bank in Minneapolis, a top-10 bank. Also known to charge is Regions, based in Birmingham, Alabama, and KeyBank, based in Ohio — both large regional institutions. Many small banks are also said to charge for MRDC.

At Regions, customers are presented with a menu of fees for mobile deposit. Want the funds in the deposit immediately? That will cost you 1 to 3 percent of the check, depending on the type and amount, with a $5 minimum. Want the item processed that night, so it is available for items processed that same day? That costs $3. You’ll settle for standard availability? That will nick you 50 cents. “Deposits made before 8 p.m. Central time will typically be available in two business days,” Regions said. “Saturdays, Sundays and federal holidays are not business days.”

At KeyBank, a mobile deposit costs 50 cents with many accounts. (Some get free MRDC.)

At U.S. Bank, there is a fee of up to 50 cents an item.

As for the rationale behind the fees, Leon Majors of Phoenix Marketing International’s Payments System Practice said that some banks want to recoup their costs of offering the service. That’s despite the money saved compared to the costs of using a teller.

What should you do if your bank charges fees? If the fee is for a basic, straightforward MRDC transaction, think about changing banks. Said Majors: “Personally, I would look for a [bank] that offered the service for free (mine does), compare that to the cost (some people write almost no checks now) and then compare that to the hassle factor of changing financial institutions.”

But maybe not all fees are evil. Meara is a fan of the service — as offered by Regions, for instance — that will make funds deposited via MRDC available immediately for a fee. He explained: “We do think some banks have a good idea in charging consumers for accelerated funds availability as an option. This has been a big hit among small businesses, for example, that might get paid by check at the end of a job and need the funds immediately to pay workers.”

It might even be a good idea for some consumers. If your rent check will bounce unless that $500 loan from your brother — paid via personal check — is immediately credited to your account, paying $10 or $15 for fast access might be economically wise.

The lesson: not all MRDC fees are entirely anti consumer. But if the fees rub you the wrong way, know that at the biggest banks — Chase is a case in point — and at most credit unions there currently are no fees for using mobile deposit. It’s your choice.