The Holiday Shopping Guide for Hard Times

Whether you’re unemployed, underemployed or self-employed -- or if you just haven’t gotten a raise in a while -- you’re probably feeling the effects of this economic downturn in one way or another. And yet the holidays are the holidays; you can’t just buy crappy gifts and tell people you’re broke. Well, you can, but wouldn’t you rather get great gifts that seem a lot more expensive than they are? Herewith, Andrea Woroch, a consumer-savings advisor for Kinoli, Inc. (owner of several money-saving websites, including freeshipping.org and giftcardgranny.com), reveals her top tips for shopping smart this holiday season.

1. Shop Online
Internet shopping over the holidays is expected to reach an all-time high as more consumers trust e-retailers and look to the Web to avoid massive crowds. The Internet also makes it easy to compare prices and find online coupons from sites like PromoCodes.us for additional savings.  Merchants are aware that e-commerce is on the rise, and are putting a lot of effort into it. Look for more online deals this season than ever before.

2. Download Apps
Smartphones can turn you into a smarter shopper. Before heading out to shop, download the following apps to help you detect deals and score discounts more easily:

  • Barcode scanning app RedLaser instantly provides price comparisons at online retailers and nearby stores           
  • CouponSherpa searches for digital coupons at stores near you
  • SalesLocator tells you what’s currently on sale in local stores

3. Socialize
Follow retailers on Twitter, like them on Facebook or check into their stores on FourSquare to stay on top of the latest deals and discounts. Many brands also release special offers exclusively to their social media fans.

4. Use Discount Gift Cards
Buy other shoppers’ unwanted gift cards for less than face value (some can be had at half price) from sites like GiftCardGranny.com. You can find discount gift cards for almost everything, from restaurants and department stores to travel services and movie theaters. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

5. Research Prices
Knowing how much a product costs before shopping any sale will help you determine the best values. Without this knowledge you could fall for a misleading promotion that really isn't much of a deal at all! So do your homework and compare prices. Try Google Shopping online or its smartphone app.

6. Price Match
Stores like Walmart and Best Buy have been offering price match guarantees for a long time. Sears and Home Depot are taking it a step further: The retailers will price match and offer an additional 10 percent off! You also want to watch out for price drops after you buy. Walmart recently announced that they will give credit to any shopper who found a better deal on a recent purchase from their store with a gift card worth the difference.

7. Buy from Flash Sale Sites
Flash sale sites typically offer high-end products at a huge discount. Gilt.com, for example, sells designer clothing for both sexes, as well as home and foodie items and travel discounts. If you have champagne taste on a beer budget, these sites can help satiate your designer craving without breaking the bank. However, it's easy to get caught up in the hype and urgency, and end up overspending on products you wouldn't otherwise buy. Patrons of these sites should have a list of what they really want and apply tunnel vision when searching for deals.

8. Join the Club
Shopping clubs are a trend this year, with retailers like Toys R Us and Kohl's offering benefits for shoppers who join their exclusive programs. The danger: Shoppers often have to spend a certain amount in order to get worthwhile rewards, which may turn into overspending.  However, if you regularly shop with a retailer offering one of these programs, go for it!

Photo: @iStockphoto.com/pierredesvarre

The CD Solution

When was the last time you bought a compact disc? For many of us, that’s like asking your buddy about his latest VHS purchase. But what about all those shiny discs you bought before the advent of iTunes, peer-to-peer sharing, music streaming and cloud storage made it so easy to find music online and access it on the device of your choice? In other words, is Fatboy Slim still staring at you from a CD tower, its jewel case growing dustier with each passing year?

Antiquated though they may seem, CDs should not be consigned to the digital trash heap -- at least not until you’ve gotten what you need from them. For starters, the music quality is far superior to that in an MP3. The MP3 is a small file for a reason: It doesn’t contain anywhere near the amount of data (and thus fidelity) that a track on a CD does. Secondly, although the selections offered on Amazon, iTunes and Spotify are enough to keep your head banging for a lifetime, chances are you own some eclectic albums that you won’t find in any of those libraries.

So what’s a guy to do about all those CDs that haven’t seen the light of day since “Friends” was a staple of Thursday night TV? You’ve got two options: DIY and outsourcing.

The DIY Route

If you’re on a Mac and use iTunes to manage your music, you’ll find an option under “Preferences” (within the iTunes pull-down menu) to import songs automatically on insertion of a CD. Select that option. Also in this menu you’ll find your import settings. To import your music at the highest quality possible (provided that space isn’t an issue) select AIFF Encoder or Apple Lossless Encoder. If storage space is an issue, you can import your music as MP3s. As noted above, though, the MP3 format makes use of crafty (though some say undetectable) audio compromises to keep the files small.

If you’re on a PC and don’t use iTunes, there is software both free (e.g., Winamp) and paid (e.g., Nero and Winamp Pro) that can assist you with the music-importing process. These time-saving programs will also help you manage your music library once you’re done importing your CDs. On a PC (and again, providing storage space is not an issue), you’ll want to import the songs in either .WAV or FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec).

The good news is that regardless of whether you’re on a Mac or a PC, the software will do most of the heavy lifting for you (including finding album artwork and ID’ing the tracks on your CDs automatically). But you’ll still be stuck with the mind-numbing task of popping the CDs in and out of the computer every several minutes -- with the time for ripping dependent on the format you select.

Once you’ve imported a few discs, test the extracted music by streaming it to your various devices (desktop, laptop, tablet, phone). Make sure the format you’ve selected will not prove problematic -- or acoustically unsatisfying -- on any of them. (Not all cloud services will accept the higher-resolution files, for example.) Once you’re pleased with the results, finish ripping the rest of your CDs. And when you’re finally done, back up! Save your music files on a large external drive (or two) and, for safekeeping, on a cloud-storage server as well.

Outsourcing

Find a service that will convert all of your CDs to digital files and put them onto a hard drive or music player for you. (Google “CD conversion” or use one of the services below.) Ship out your CDs in a box -- typically provided -- and expect to pay anywhere from 25 cents to more than $2.00 per disc, depending on the final format you select. Some companies will clean your discs prior to importing and even attempt to repair damaged ones. Firms such as Pickled Productions will give you a bound, printed inventory of your music collection. RipStyles can recycle your jewel case and return the CDs in a portfolio instead.

When selecting a company, compare included services as well as extras such as shipping costs and insurance. And to make sure you’ll see your precious music collection again, check the Better Business Bureau for complaints from other customers.

Once you’ve gotten your music back, if you’re an iTunes user, you can pay Apple $25 for a new service called iMatch, to which you can upload all of your ripped CD content. Once your files are in the cloud, that music -- along with any music you’ve purchased from the iTunes music store -- will automatically be placed in your music “locker,” accessible to you on all of your iOS devices via the Web.

Google’s Music Beta (free for up to 20,000 songs) and Amazon’s Music Cloud (MP3 and AAC only) offer cloud hosting of your music files too. But be prepared for a long initial upload that can take hours, if not days. This won’t tie up your computer entirely, but it will slow down your Internet connection.

Regardless of whether you go for the DIY route or the outsourced one, you will love having all of your music at your fingertips all the time. Now your biggest dilemma won’t be where to keep your music, but what to do with the space where that CD tower used to be.

Photo Credit: @iStockphoto.com/ishai01

How to Use Facebook So It Doesn’t Use You

Whether you call it a time-saver or a time-suck, Facebook has surpassed the almighty Google as the most trafficked website in the U.S. -- and the second most popular site in the world. Whatever you happen to think of it, if you’re not living in a cave in northern Pakistan (and maybe even if you are), you’re probably using it in some manner. Need someone’s contact info? Check. Birthday minders? Ditto. Photos and videos to share? Done and done. Random thoughts to send into the ether? Well, you know the drill.

But as quickly as Facebook has become an integral part of the way we communicate with friends (and “friends”), it has also raised concerns. How much sharing is too much sharing? What do Facebook and its marketing partners really know about you? And what are they doing with all of that juicy data? Men’s Life Today reached out to David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World, for tips on getting the best out of Facebook while avoiding its potential dark side.

Don’t Be Daft
For starters, says Kirkpatrick, if there’s something with the potential to embarrass, don’t post it. Despite how secure you believe your privacy settings to be, modern society is littered with Internet roadkill, like jobs lost, scholarships rescinded and relationships shattered simply because a user didn’t think twice before posting. “This is a shockingly common-sense rule that many people disregard,” says Kirkpatrick. But don’t go too far in the opposite direction, he advises. “If you never post anything of interest, you’re less likely to have anything of interest come back to you.”

Friendly Fire
If your standards for accepting friends have been, shall we say, less than discerning, Kirkpatrick suggests it could be time to do some pruning. “One of the classic errors is to accept every friend request you receive,” he says. The problem with such loose standards? “You’re empowering these individuals over your information.”

It may also be time to shed people you do know, but who don’t reflect your sensibility or values (see “jobs lost,” above). “If you’re beginning to question their judgment, hide them from your news feed or unfriend them entirely.” If we were to discard all but those whom we consider true-blue buddies, says Kirkpatrick, many of us would wind up eliminating three-quarters of our so-called friends.

App Happy
Here’s a little heads-up: Third-party apps gain access to your personal information when you install them. (And yes, “Mafia Wars” and “Farmville” fans, that includes you.) So be picky. “Something that looks cool, but which I’ve never heard of and that only a couple of my friends are using? I’m not going to adopt it,” Kirkpatrick says flatly. If you already have an app installed but haven’t used it in a while, delete it. Why? Because even if you’re not doing anything with it, chances are its developers are still doing something with your data.

Fortunately, right before you install any app, Facebook will remind you that you’re about to hand over access to your info. The choice to “allow” is up to you. Pretty simple.

Privacy Protection
Although he concedes that navigating Facebook’s privacy settings can be like trying to solve a Chinese puzzle, Kirkpatrick says an investment of 45 minutes should be enough to establish settings you’re comfortable with. For advice on how to get started, he recommends the site AllFacebook.com. (Search for “privacy settings.”)

To be on the safe side, a good across-the-board option is “friends only.” If you have a burning desire to make your life an open book for exes, frenemies and strangers, go ahead and use “everyone.” If you’re particularly guarded about your information, there’s a custom setting called “only me” -- though if you choose this option, you might just want to delete your Facebook account altogether and go back to calling your friends on a landline. Tedious, yes, but no privacy worries!

Target: You
And what about those ads in the margin that seem to know a little too much about you? They don’t concern Kirkpatrick terribly. If Facebook is doing its job and serving ads that jibe with your interests, you might welcome seeing some of them. And if you don’t, “they’re easy to disregard,” Kirkpatrick points out, explaining that one of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s core tenets is that advertising should not disrupt the user experience.

Despite articles like this one, Kirkpatrick knows that many of you will continue to throw caution to the wind. “Facebook is loosening inhibitions about self-display,” he acknowledges, “and we’re becoming a more transparent people.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing, he adds, but if you’re going to share, just be sure you do it wisely -- or be ready for your loony-tunes ex, nosy co-worker and the rest of the world to know your business.

The Ultimate Game-day Gear … for Tailgating

It’s football season, and you know what that means. You should be in game shape … for the All-tailgating Team! While steroid nation is knocking the snot out of itself inside the stadium, real men are bulking up their party muscles in the parking lot. But like the pros on the field, the bros behind the wheels need the right equipment to score the biggest compliments on their hungry man’s football feast. So here’s your season ticket to the all-star gear that will be a big hit with your boys.



The RoadTrip Party Grill
You’ll keep your food -- and your crew -- fired up in the most adverse game conditions with this compact)

Instant Canopy
Unless you’re a UCLA or Honolulu U fan, it’s best to be ready for the bad weather. So put a lid on cursing the sleet and snow with this portable protection against the elements. Are you a stats guy? This 12-foot by 12-foot canopy sets up in less than three minutes, giving you 9 feet of clearance and 144 square feet of cover. It also travels well, since you can fold it up and pull it around in a wheeled carry bag -- just like the one your mom uses!
Price:
$189.99

Collapsible Table
Now that you’ve got something to sear your meat and a shelter to devour it in, you’ll need a surface on which to serve it up. Say hello to the Micro Table! It’ll be a much more polite conversation than the screaming matches you usually have with those bulky oversized folding tables. This 15-inch by 11-inch table surface with expandable 4-inch to 6-inch legs (perfect mouth-level entry point if you’re strafing the food from a lawn chair) is both flame- and heat-resistant, plus it folds up faster than Michele Bachmann in a serious debate.
Price:
$32.95

Outdoor Heater
Here’s a heater that’s so damn good they call it “Mister.” Yes, this Mr. Heater–brand portable heater is a cordless propane heat-blower that lets you bring hot air (not the kind that’s emanating from your mouth) to the parking lot. The 35,000-BTU-per-hour unit heats you and the boys up for approximately eight hours -- without a generator or extension cords to trip you up. The battery actually charges while it’s keeping your kishkas toasty!
Price: $159.99


Tailgator Gas-powered Blender
 Making blended drinks may not sound macho, but doing it with this gas-powered blender puts a locker room full of hair on your private parts. This baby whips up drinks wherever you can buy gas, and it does it in less than 15 seconds.
Price: $289.99


The Cruzin’ Cooler
Forget about lugging a heavy cooler all over the lot. This one brings you to the party. The invention of the century, this 500-watt electric scooter only weighs 74 pounds and can haul your up-to-250-pound tuchus around at 12 mph while holding 24 cans packed in 8 pounds of ice. It has disc brakes and aluminum construction, and it can be used for hauling meat. (Hauling vegetables is officially confined to beauty salon parking lots.)
Price:
$599


All-weather TV
If you’re really serious about tailgating, catch the pregame show on this 32-inch LCD outdoor TV, which is able to withstand temps from minus 24 F to 122 F. (You, of course, will succumb to frostbite or heat stroke, but the show will go on!) The all-weather aluminum enclosure keeps this baby safe from snow, wind and rain. But be warned: It will short out from repeated exposure to Star Jones.
Price:
$3,295


Photo: @iStockphoto.com/sjlocke

The Top 5 Movie Phones

Got the latest music phone? That’s so 1998. If you’re keeping up with the ever-increasing multimedia processing power of cell phones, yours should be streaming movies by now. But if you’re watching your favorite flicks on a tiny touch screen … sorry, dude, you’ve fallen behind again. The big trend in mobile phones now is size: screen size, that is. The perfect movie phone is still a work in progress, as you’ll see in our reviews, but here are our top five picks of the big-screen babies currently -- or soon to be -- on the market.


LG Thrill 4G
The 4.3-inch, 800-by-480-pixel screen on this one is a good start. But what makes the Thrill, well, thrilling, is that it provides 3-D visuals by overlaying a “parallax barrier” on the screen -- in other words, you don’t have to wear wonky donky glasses. In addition to exclusively integrating YouTube 3-D, the Thrill can capture high-def movies in 3-D, and the dual-core 1GHz processor means 3-D games don’t get choppy or laggy. There is a catch, though: The screen design needs your head to stay in its sweet spot for the 3-D effect to work. In other words, forget catching the latest Harry Potter on a jolty road trip.
LG.com

HTC TITAN
HTC phones were already pretty hot before the TITAN came along. But with a 4.7-inch and 800- by 480-pixel screen, the aptly named TITAN takes the crown. It’s a bit of a lump in the pocket, sure, but nowhere near the oversized Dell Streak or Samsung Galaxy Tab. And on top of great visual real estate, it offers an 8MP camera, high-def video recording (at 720p) and the new Windows Mobile 7.5 OS, all backed by a speedy 1.5GHz chip. The downside? Windows Mobile is still lagging way behind Android and iOS for apps. For movies, though, this one’s a blockbuster.
HTC.com

 

Samsung Galaxy Tab
Straddling the divide between the phone and the tablet is the Samsung Galaxy Tab. The 7.4-inch, 1024- by 600-pixel screen means there’s a huge and bright high-resolution display for Web surfing, movie watching and other multimedia munching. But don’t try making a call on it unless you’re going for laughs; it’s strictly for use with a hands-free headset or inline mic/earbuds. While it would be a tight squeeze to fit this device into your jeans pocket, it’s full of features, which include loads of movie codex support (including DivX and Xvid) and great n-level Wi-Fi as well as mobile data options.
Samsung.com

 

Samsung Galaxy S II
With a 4.5-inch screen and 800 by 480 pixels, there’s not quite as much resolution on this one as there is on the iPhone 4 (see below), but the Galaxy S II has pretty much dominated sales of smartphones in Europe and the Far East. That’s because it hits the perfect balance of features (8MP camera, 1080p HD recording, 3G/4G and Wi-Fi, etc.) in a long-lasting, beautifully compact, well-designed Android package. It certainly isn’t the ultimate movie phone, if you must munch popcorn on the subway. But it’s probably the current frontrunner for the title of “ultimate do-it-all device.”
Samsung.com

 

Apple iPhone 4
The iPhone remains one of the best all-around smartphones in the business. Though its screen, at 3.5 inches, is not the largest, its bright, clear Retina display is the best on the market, boasting an 800:1 contrast ratio and a 960- by 640-pixel resolution. So it’s pretty damn great at playing movies. But it’s also great for all the other stuff too, because the iTunes Store remains the most stuffed for justifiably popular apps and games. Of course the wireless elephant in the room is the iPhone 5. While the launch has been long-rumored, current projections are that it’ll land its big hoofs sometime in October. Buy an iPhone 4 before then and you may be obsolete soon after.
Apple.com