As you stock up on champagne and black-eyed peas for your New Year's celebration, make sure to keep the rotten Granny Smiths away from the family dog.

Reuters reports that a drunken bull elk in Sweden attacked an 8-year-old boy after eating fermented apples, a snack that actually made the mighty moose inebriated. (That would explain why Grandma got run over by a reindeer.) Police shot the soused moose dead, and the boy suffered only a bruised neck.

The FOOL 50, three sheets to the wind after using an iMac, was up half a percent today.

In today's Motley Fool Take:

Retailers Say Bah, Humbug

We've all heard this holiday shopping season is "the worst in 30 years." Most retailers haven't used language quite that dire, but the jury will soon be in on just how bad it was.

A couple of big names released news today. The biggest retailer on the block, Wal-Mart(NYSE: WMT), is sticking by its lowered forecast of comps growth between 2% and 3%. Originally, the Dow component thought comps would rise 3% to 5%, but it changed its tune the day after Christmas.

The retailer's warehouse shopping unit, Sam's Club, continues to pressure overall results. Its comps are expected to decline, weighing down the namesake's forecasted 3% gain.

Things went from bad to worse in a hurry for Federated Department Stores(NYSE: FD), parent of Bloomingdale's and Macy's, which just last week cut its holiday comps forecast to flat to 2% lower.

It now expects a 4.5% drop for the combined period between Nov. 3 and Jan. 4. Comps were off 7.4% in November and are expected to drop 2.5% in December.

Only J.C. Penney(NYSE: JCP), which two weeks ago stood in contrast to other gloomy retailers, offered a ray of hope. At that time, it said holiday results were shaping up ahead of expectations. Penney said much of the same today, and expects comps growth of 4.5%, ahead of the forecasted low single-digit rise. Heavy discounting and increased advertising drew in shoppers just before Christmas.

It's worth noting, too, that Penney's turnaround appears to be the real deal. We can't accuse the retailer of making today's numbers seem better than they are because of weak year-ago comparisons. Same-store sales for December 2001 rose 5.4%. Combined, November and December comps from last year were up 3.7%. Not too shabby.

We'll be watching specialty retailers such as Gap(NYSE: GPS) and Abercrombie & Fitch(NYSE: ANF) and department stores such as Nordstrom(NYSE: JWN) as they report December sales results next week. As it stands, J.C. Penney appears to be the exception, not the rule.

Quote of Note

"[Medicine is] a collection of uncertain prescriptions the results of which, taken collectively, are more fatal than useful to mankind." -- Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 - 1821)

9 Ways to Cut Health Costs

Over the past 25 years, health-care costs have grown more than twice as fast as overall inflation. What's a Fool to do? Here are nine ways to alleviate the health-bill blues:

  1. Being healthy is not only good for you, but it will keep insurance costs down. You'll save on premiums and reduce the risk of being turned down later for pre-existing conditions.

  2. Two-income couples should coordinate their insurance benefits. It might make sense to opt out of one plan and choose the family option on another. On the other hand, maintaining coverage with two providers can make sense, if one will fill the gaps of the other.

  3. Do you smoke, overeat, or overdrink? Not only are you endangering your health, but you have some expensive habits.

  4. Contribute to a flexible spending account (FSA), which allows you to use pretax money to pay for medical costs not covered by a health plan, such as deductibles, co-payments, and even eyeglasses. This could shave a few hundred dollars off your tax bill, depending on your medical expenses and tax bracket. If you participate in a plan that operates according to the calendar year, you must exhaust your account by Dec. 31, or you lose the money forever.

  5. Choose the right health plan: Most employees are offered a choice of health plans, ranging from options that don't cost as much yet don't allow much flexibility (such as a health maintenance organization, or HMO) to plans with more flexibility but higher costs (such as a preferred provider organization, or PPO). Unless you significantly benefit from more choice, choose the HMO.

  6. If you incur extraordinary medical expenses in one year, you can deduct from your taxable income the medical costs that exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income. This can include out-of-pocket insurance premiums and a host of other expenses. See IRS Publication 502 for the complete list.

  7. Take advantage of the free and discounted services offered by your health plan. Many providers subsidize flu shots, gym memberships, nutrition classes, and other preventive care.

  8. Check your bills. According to a Consumer Reports survey, 5% of patients found serious errors in their hospital bills. Those who paid $2,000 or more out of pocket for their care were twice as likely to find billing boo-boos.

  9. If you've covered your deductible for the year and can get an appointment, get a service done before the New Year.

Shameless Plug: Only Two Days Left

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Going the Distance

After years of pennies, profits, and pins dropping, long-distance telephone service providers are starting to raise their rates.

AT&T (NYSE: T) announced price hikes over the weekend, and the Bell bellwether isn't alone. Sprint(NYSE: FON) and troubled MCI parent WorldCom have announced similar plans this month.

Don't expect your phone bill to skyrocket; most new fees will apply only to new customers. This may be the end of an era in which phone companies perpetually tempt users with low fees and nickel rates.

For investors, a truce to the pricing wars may sound like the right connection. AT&T and Sprint are both profitable, and higher markups can only help. Earlier this month, Sprint projected revenues to dip from $15.2 billion to $15 billion next year. The company made the forecast on the heels of layoffs and other cost-cutting moves. If none of the carriers balk at the new fees -- giving the customer little choice in the matter -- even a flat top line can translate into a higher bottom line with the beefed-up margins.

The industry, as a whole, can use a little good news. WorldCom's bankruptcy filing has the sector ailing, and AT&T's cash flow has fallen every year since 1999. While wireless once was seen as the future, cellular spin-offs AT&T Wireless(NYSE: AWE) and Sprint's PCS Group(NYSE: PCS) are both trading in the single digits.

2003 may be the start of the telecommunication comeback call. Let's just hope it has a nice ring to it this time.

Discussion Board of the Day: AT&T

Are you ready to believe in AT&T again? Confused over your personal calling plan? Care to reach out and post to someone? All this and more -- in the AT&T discussion board. Only on Fool.com.

Tips for Travelers

As bad as they already are, expect your airport experiences to get even worse -- unless you're one of those rare people who enjoy high blood pressure and long lines.

Beginning New Year's Day, new standardized security measures, sure to frustrate travelers and airport workers alike, take effect.

For starters, all checked baggage will now go through a screening process. It's a massive undertaking that may delay flights until the kinks are worked out. Some of the screening may happen behind the scenes, and as such, security personnel won't hesitate to break the locks of bags that require a hand search. Officials therefore suggest keeping your luggage unlocked. In addition, screening equipment will likely damage undeveloped film, so be sure to keep that in your carry-on luggage.

After checking your bags, you'll have to pass through passenger screening. This is the familiar checkpoint involving an x-ray machine and metal detector. Finally, some travelers may have to go through additional screening at the gate.

According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), several measures can help you get through this rigamarole more quickly. Among them:

  • Make sure you have no food or beverages in checked bags (they may resemble explosives)
  • Leave gifts unwrapped
  • Avoid wearing clothing or jewelry that contain metal items
  • Hidden body piercings may result in a pat-down inspection (so load up, if you enjoy that sort of thing!)

Even if you only have a carry-on bag, you'll not be able to proceed directly to the gate, so the most important tip may be to arrive early.

The best place to bone up on the regulations is the TSA website; it's required reading for travelers in the new high-security era. The policies may add another layer of frustration and more pressure to financially strapped airlines, but most Americans seem willing to trade the inconvenience for safer travel. As one passenger told the Associated Press, "I'll make the necessary sacrifices to make it happen."

Quick Takes

In a case of REIT 'em and weep, Real Estate Investment Trust Keystone Property(NYSE: KTR) is warning that its fourth-quarter funds from operations will come in below its initial projections. The weakness will carry into 2003, as reduced investment activity and lackluster leasing results are hurting the bottom line.

If you're worried about paying more at the pump, imagine trying to take your own gas and oil company private. Exco Resources(Nasdaq: EXCO) Chairman Douglas Miller has raised his bid to buy the company for $18 a share from his management group's earlier bid of $17 a share.

Looking for gold in the golden years, Sunrise Assisted Living(NYSE: SRZ) will buy the senior-living business from Marriott(NYSE: MAR). Hoping to teach an old-age home business new tricks, the company will be renamed Sunrise Senior Living after the all-cash deal closes early next year.

Talk about acquiring low and selling lower. CMGI(Nasdaq: CMGI) Chairman David Wetherell announced he would sell 200,000 shares for personal tax-planning purposes. The company once admired as the stud of dot-com incubators (to the point of paying up for the short-lived stadium naming rights for the New England Patriots) has come down a long way from then. Maybe Raymond James will give up the rights to the playoff-bound Tampa Bay Bucs, because that's where shares of CMGI are trading right now -- a buck.

And Finally...

Today on Fool.com: Matt Richey discusses his worst stock pick of the year. Fortunately, it taught him some valuable lessons.... If you're spending more time at home, consider stocking up on these four companies.... In Fool's School, understanding FAFSA and the financial aid process.... Our Fool Community looks at debts and deficits to dispel the Reagan mystique.... And the Post of the Day: differentiating Apple's retail division from Apple North America.

Contributors:
Bob Bobala, Robert Brokamp, Jeff Fischer, Tom Jacobs, LouAnn Lofton, Bill Mann, Selena Maranjian, Rex Moore, Rick Munarriz, Matt Richey, Jackie Ross, Reggie Santiago, Dayana Yochim