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5 Ways to Nurse Your Holiday Spending Hangover

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At the end of 2016, a quarter of consumers said they expected to rack up holiday debt. Of those shoppers, 66 percent said it would probably take them three months or more to pay it all off. That’s a lot of shopping.

“Most, if not all, of us have been there,” says Ryan Frailich, a Financial Planner in New Orleans. “We forgot about four people we needed gifts for and underestimated how expensive traveling would be. Before you know it, our December credit card bill is double what we expected. The good news is, for many, this is manageable.”

If you’re in a post-holiday spending haze, your first order of business is to come up with a solid debt payoff plan. Beyond that, here’s what you can do to fix your finances now, supercharge your debt payoff, and prepare your budget for next year’s spending craze.


Whether it’s a top that doesn’t fit or a camouflage-patterned Snuggie you'll never use, try to return any unwanted gifts and gift cards you received this year, says Kendal Perez of Coupon Sherpa.

“Return them for cash and use the money you receive to pay down your holiday debt,” Perez says. “If you don't have a gift receipt and receive store credit for your return, you can sell your gift card through sites like for up to 90 percent of the card's value in cash.”


It’s easier said than done, but a side gig or two could really boost your debt payoff goal. “Love dogs? Dogsit your way to being out of debt," says Frailich. "Got an extra room? Airbnb can bring in great cash flow for a short period of time if you need it. Find a way to boost your earnings so you can rid yourself of the debt ASAP.”

When you're using your extra cash to bail yourself out of debt rather than, say, buy a new pair of sneakers, the money doesn't seem to go as far. “Once people are in debt, an extra $300 doesn't feel as big as when they were debt free,” Frailich says. But this is precisely when every penny matters. As your debt increases, so does the interest you rack up. As you pay down your principal balance, even if it’s by a small amount, your interest payments will also decrease.


“Try a ‘no spend’ month, where you stay away from restaurants and movie theaters and stay home for a month,” says Craig Dacy, a Financial Coach.

Most "no spend" months involve cutting non-essential expenses—like entertainment, shopping, and meals out— so you can funnel those funds to your credit card bill instead. Perez adds that some extreme participants also cut their grocery spending for the month and eat what’s already in their refrigerator or pantry. For this stricter approach, Dacy recommends using Supercook, a web app that generates recipes based on what you already have at home. (You can use an app like this to help you shop smarter, even if you're not drastically limiting your grocery budget.)

“Identify what structure works best for you to yield the most savings and apply your ‘extra’ cash toward your holiday credit card bill,” Perez says.


And then there’s the balance transfer hack. You transfer your credit card debt to another card that offers a promotional 0 percent interest balance transfer. With these promos, you have a certain amount of time—usually six months or a year—to pay off your balance before you start accruing interest.

“If you have a high credit score and are eligible for a 0 percent balance transfer, it may be a good strategy to use in this one instance, as long as you are absolutely certain you can pay off the full balance during the 0 percent term," Frailich says. "Be careful, though, because if you don't pay it off in full during that window, you'll pay even more in credit card interest than on your original card.”

Not only that, you also want to watch out for deferred interest credit cards. These cards offer similar terms to 0 percent interest balance transfer cards, but if you don’t pay the full balance by the end of the promotional period, you could end up owing interest retroactively. Be sure to read your credit card’s terms and conditions thoroughly before committing to anything.


Finally, prevent another hangover by preparing for next year’s spending as soon as possible. The holidays catch people off guard, but they really shouldn't—they’re right there on the calendar. Holiday gifts and travel are predictable expenses you can budget for now.

Frailich describes a client who consistently overspent and racked up debt every January. After paying off the previous year’s debt in April, she started automating a $50 transfer from each paycheck into a savings account dedicated to holiday spending. “When the time for gift-buying and traveling came, she already had $800 set aside, so she was able to handle almost all of her costs with that money. Going forward, she is continuing her automated savings so she'll be ready next year to handle the full holiday expenses with money she saved ahead of time.”

Another suggestion to consider: You don’t have to spend so much on the holidays to begin with. Lay out your spending limits and expectations beforehand so you’re not frantically spending on last-minute gifts. “I know some families who do a drawing and each person only buys and receives one or two gifts per year rather than facing an endlessly growing list of people to shop for,” Frailich says.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]