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    California Homes
    AP
    By JOSH BOAK

    WASHINGTON -- Americans signed contracts to buy homes in April at the fastest pace in nearly nine years, evidence that steady job growth is strengthening the real estate market.

    The National Association of Realtors said Thursday that its seasonally adjusted pending home sales index climbed 3.4 percent to 112.4 last month. It's the fourth consecutive monthly gain. The index now stands at its highest level since May 2006.

    The confidence has returned to housing, not only as shelter but as a good long-term investment.

    "The confidence has returned to housing, not only as shelter but as a good long-term investment," said Ron Peltier, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway's real estate affiliate, HomeServices of America.

    The upswing comes after a year of strong hiring, which has heightened demand to buy houses. Increased sales should help bolster the economy, but the surge could potentially destabilize the housing market, Peltier cautioned. Inventories remain low, causing home values to rise at a pace that is eclipsing wage growth.

    Signed contracts are a barometer of future purchases. A one- to two-month lag usually exists between a contract and a completed sale.

    Pending sales increased in the Northeast, Midwest and South, while barely edging upward in the West. Greater demand has fueled sales growth this year after a lackluster 2014. Still, there is evidence that limited inventories are beginning to weigh on the market.

    Sales of existing homes fell slightly between April and March to an annual clip of 5.04 million last month, the Realtors reported last week. The decrease may reflect complications in finalizing sales in addition to the shortage of listings.

    Less Inventory

    The inventory of homes listed for sale has declined 0.9 percent over the past year, so would-be buyers have fewer choices and may face bidding wars.

    On average, existing homes sold in 39 days last month, versus 52 days in March and 62 days in February, the Realtors said.

    Employers have hired 3.1 million new workers over the past 12 months. But wages are rising at a 2.1 percent annual clip, about four times slower than prices of existing homes.

    Nationwide, the median price of an existing home surged 8.9 percent over the past 12 months to $219,400.

    Unless home values level off because more supply comes onto the market, economists warn that buyers will be priced out of the market and sales will suffer.

    Still, there is tremendous pressure on buyers to find homes quickly, since average rates for 30-year, fixed mortgages may start to climb from the relatively low sub-4 percent level.

    A new analysis by Realtor.com indicates nationwide that waiting one year to buy will subtract $18,672 from the benefits of owning over the course of 30 years.

     

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    Massive Airbag Recall Prompts Safety Concerns
    Joe Raedle/Getty Images
    By Bernie Woodall

    DETROIT -- Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCAU) on Thursday became the first automaker to expand its U.S. recall of vehicles with faulty Takata air bag inflators since federal safety regulators announced a massive recall campaign last week.

    The company said it would recall 4,066,732 vehicles from the 2004 to 2011 model years "equipped with a dual-stage driver frontal air bag that may be susceptible to moisture intrusion which, over time, could cause the inflator to rupture," according to a filing by Fiat Chrysler with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

    Last week, Japanese air bag maker Takata said it would double the recall of potentially deadly air bags to nearly 34 million in the United States, boosting the number of vehicles affected globally since 2008 to more than 53 million.

    Takata officials and safety regulators have said that air bag inflators exposed to moisture over time can explode with too much force, shooting shrapnel into the vehicles. Regulators have linked this to six deaths worldwide.

    Thursday's filing by Fiat Chrysler highlights that automakers and regulators are still seeking to pinpoint the root cause of the problem. This means that even with replacement parts, consumers have no guarantee that the safety issue has been solved.

    Some of the more than 4 million vehicles involved in Thursday's move have been covered by previous Fiat Chrysler recalls involving Takata air bag inflators.

    One injury has been reported among the Fiat Chrysler vehicles recalled. The car involved in that incident, a 2006 Dodge Charger, was part of a previous recall.

    Honda Motor (HMC) also expanded its recall Thursday of vehicles with Takata air bag inflators by 350,000 in the United States and 340,000 in Japan. As with the new Fiat Chrysler recall, some of the vehicles involved have been part of previous recall campaigns, Honda said.

     

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    Congress Keystone
    J. Scott Applewhite/APSen. Al Franken, D-Minn.
    By Sen. Al Franken

    Last year, at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, I met Joelle Stangler, a sophomore who was the incoming student body president. Joelle had graduated from Rogers High School in Minnesota as the valedictorian, with a 4.12 GPA. Joelle doesn't lack motivation.

    Both of Joelle's parents were teachers, and in fact she comes from a long line of educators going back six generations. But a couple of years ago, Joelle's mother made the difficult decision to quit her job as a 5th grade teacher to go work in the private sector to help send her four kids to college. Even with her mom's sacrifice, Joelle, who is finishing up her third year of college, already has $20,000 in student loans, and she estimates that her total debt will be around $35,000 by the time she graduates next year.

    It didn't use to be this way. Things have changed a lot since my wife Franni and I went to college in the early 1970s. A full Pell Grant paid for almost 80 percent of a public college education. Today, it pays for less than 35 percent.

    Today, the total amount of student loan debt held by Americans is more than $1.3 trillion -- more than the total amount of credit card debt in our nation. Student loan debt doesn't just affect the individual lives of the 40 million Americans who carry the debt. Student loan debt also has an enormous negative impact on our nation's economy. I recently spoke with Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, and he explained that student loan debt dramatically limits people's ability to buy a home, save for retirement and start a business. These types of big-ticket purchases help keep our economy growing, and delaying these acquisitions is damaging to the long-term well-being of our country.

    So students are coming out of college with crippling debt that holds them back. Yet we keep telling young people that they need to go to college in order to aspire to the middle class. And that's true; in fact, college graduates earn over 60 percent more a year than high school graduates. We should be encouraging more Americans to get a college degree, but they shouldn't have to take on huge amounts of debt that will take decades to pay off.

    Part of the reason that this debt is long term is because borrowers are paying high interest rates. Many college graduates are locked into loans with interest rates as high as 10 percent, which makes it all the more difficult to pay off. When interest rates are low, homeowners, businesses and even local governments regularly refinance their debts. However, the federal government -- despite being the biggest student lender by far -- offers no refinancing option to student borrowers. Once you graduate with high interest rates, you're stuck with that high interest rate forever.

    So I'm doing something to fix that problem. Earlier this year I joined Sen. Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts in introducing the Bank on Student Emergency Loan Refinancing Act. Our legislation will allow borrowers to take advantage of lower interest rates and refinance their student loans. This will help millions of Americans, like Joelle, cut down their debt and keep more of their hard-earned paychecks.

    I also wrote two bipartisan bills with Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa that would help students and families better understand college costs before taking on debt. Our Net Price Calculator Improvement Act makes online cost-calculation tools more user-friendly in order to give students and their families a better estimate of college expenses before they decide where to apply. Sen. Grassley and I have another bill that will require schools to use a universal financial aid letter. Right now, these letters are confusing -- they often don't clearly explain the difference between a grant and a loan, which means students and families may take on debt that they don't know they have to pay back. Our bill would make sure that students and their families get uniform information so they can make apples-to-apples comparisons between what the different schools are offering.

    We have a lot of work to do and a long way to go to reduce student debt and make college more affordable. But it's critical that we do. Addressing college affordability will not only make college accessible to more Americans, but it will also help more young graduates start a business sooner, buy a home earlier and start a family -- things far too many young people have been forced to delay because of being saddled with college debt. That's not only good for those graduates, but is enormously beneficial to our economy.

    This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and doesn't necessarily represent the views of the company or its affiliates.

    Al Franken represents Minnesota in the United States Senate. First elected to the Senate in 2008, and re-elected in 2014, he currently sits on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee; the Judiciary Committee; the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and the Committee on Indian Affairs.

     

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    McDonalds Resource Site
    Nam Y. Huh/AP

    There's a new chicken offering coming to McDonald's (MCD). The world's largest burger chain is rolling out "artisan" chicken, hoping to make it seem as if a chain with more than 36,000 locations can somehow mass-produce gourmet fare.

    It gets worse.

    "Made in our kitchen with ingredients from yours," begins the pitch on posters popping up across the country, promoting the new grilled chicken product that's available in sandwiches, wraps, and salads. The posters go on to promote that the poultry has been seasoned with "pantry herbs and spices," a suggestion that's already garnering more snickers than foodie cred. After all, it's already a pretty creepy marketing image to find Ronald McDonald raiding one's pantry for the garlic, salt and parsley used to seasoned the grilled chicken.

    Giving Angus and Sirloin a Bad Name

    You can't blame McDonald's for trying. It's going to use words and terms that sell, even if the very association with the cheap burger chain often takes the monikers down with it. Remember when Angus referred to a high-quality cut of beef? Then McDonald's introduced Angus burgers. Now the chain is promoting Sirloin Third Pound Burgers, and it's a fair bet that a few taste tests into the process, the word "sirloin" is about to become the next cheap-chic debasement victim.

    McDonald's loves to position its products as something else. The online menu at McDonalds.com has no less than a dozen fish and chicken items with the word "Premium" in the title. There are also items designated as "Steakhouse" or "Clubhouse" even though the public knows that there's little on the actual menu that could pass for fancy chophouse or country club fare.

    If McDonald's can run loose with the definition of Angus, sirloin, premium, steakhouse and clubhouse, why wouldn't "artisan" be the next foodie term to toss into its ammo bag? There don't seem to be any members of the foodie police checking the chain.

    Defining Desperation

    Dictionary.com defines "artisan" as "a person or company that makes a high-quality or distinctive product in small quantities, usually by hand or using traditional methods." Only some of that rings true here. Obviously this "artisan" grilled chicken isn't being made in small batches.

    McDonald's knows that it's coloring outside of the lines, but it doesn't have much of a choice. Comparable-restaurant sales have posted year-over-year declines for six consecutive quarters in the U.S. market, and things are so bad that the chain just announced that it will no longer be reporting its monthly sales metrics. When you have nothing nice to say ...

    However, one can also argue that McDonald's will get it right sooner or later. The art of perpetual reinvention may at some point stumble across a hit product that wins back the hungry defectors. It could very well be this artisan grilled chicken fillet. However, since sales have been stumbling even as it spins the wheel of foodie terms, it seems as if consumer tastes are getting a little more jaded with every turn.

    The only real artisans at McDonald's these days, it seems, are the aspirational marketers.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Want to make 2015 a winning investment year? Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Dow Drops Over 200 Points In Intraday Trading
    Spencer Platt/Getty Images
    By Caroline Valetkevitch

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks slipped Thursday as mixed messages about Greece's debt talks kept investor uncertainty high along with a sharp drop in Chinese shares after brokers tightened margin rules.

    Seven of the 10 major S&P 500 sectors were lower, with the industrials sector falling the most, 0.4 percent, a day after the Nasdaq closed at a record high.

    International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde said there was still a lot of work to do before Greece and its international lenders could clinch a cash-for-reforms deal.

    Greece's government said it aims to reach an agreement with lenders by Sunday. A euro zone official said Greece won't be able to get the money still available under its current bailout plan if it doesn't agree to the outline of a such a deal by the end of the week.

    "Everybody is coming out with a different story. I'm looking for an EU-endorsed comment rather than something coming from Greece to be sort of the final arbiter on what the sentiment really is with regard to a resolution," said Mark Luschini, chief investment strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott in Philadelphia, which manages about $67 billion in assets.

    Shares of Caterpillar (CAT) fell 2.2 percent to $86.01 and helped to drag down the S&P 500 and Dow, while shares of transportation companies extended recent losses. The Dow Jones transportaion average was down 0.9 percent.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell 36.87 points, or 0.2 percent, to 18,126.12, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) lost 2.69 points, or 0.1 percent, to 2,120.79 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) dropped 8.62 points, or 0.2 percent, to 5,097.98.

    In China, indexes plummeted 6 percent after more brokerages tightened margin trading requirements in a move seen aimed at curbing risks in a red-hot market.

    Investors also were cautious ahead of Friday's reading on U.S. gross domestic product.

    Movers and Shakers

    Among gainers, action camera-maker GoPro (GPRO) rose 6.6 percent to $56.81 after GoPro and Google introduced a virtual reality system using 16 cameras and Google software. Google (GOOG) shares were near flat at $554.18.

    Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by 1,756 to 1,282, for a 1.37-to-1 ratio on the downside; on the Nasdaq, 1,468 issues fell and 1,277 advanced for a 1.15-to-1 ratio favoring decliners.

    The S&P 500 posted 16 new 52-week highs and seven new lows; the Nasdaq composite recorded 85 new highs and 45 new lows.

    About 5.7 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, below the 6.2 billion daily average for the month to date, according to BATS Global Markets.

    What to watch Friday:
    • The Commerce Department releases first-quarter gross domestic product at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    • The University of Michigan releases consumer sentiment for May at 10 a.m.
    Earnings Calendar
    These selected companies are scheduled to report quarterly financial results:
    • Bank of Nova Scotia (BNS)
    • Big Lots (BIG)

     

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    Are Home Warranties Worth the Money?

    By Marilyn Lewis

    If you've bought a home recently, you may have purchased or received a home warranty.

    However, consumers frequently expect more from these plans than they deliver.

    Home warranties aren't insurance policies. They're service contracts. Like a service contract that covers repairs to your computer, a home warranty is a company's agreement to pay for fixing -- and, if necessary, replacing -- specified home components.

    A home insurance policy, in comparison, covers losses if your home and its contents are damaged or lost to theft, fire or other causes.

    A basic home warranty costs about $350 to $500 a year or more. It typically covers kitchen appliances, plumbing, water heater, furnace, sump pump, whirlpool tub, and ceiling and exhaust fans, Angie's List says.

    "Enhanced" plans, purchased for another $100 to $300, provide added coverage for such things as a washer and dryer, air conditioning, refrigerator and garage door opener. Optional items can be added, including pools and septic systems.

    You May Be Covered Already

    If someone gives you a home warranty, accept it -- at least while it's free. But understand that, even with someone else paying the premiums, you'll likely pay a service fee (typically $50 or $75) each time you need a repair, according to Angie's List.

    Before buying a home warranty, learn what coverage you may already have. For example, if you're buying a newly built home:

    The home appliances and systems typically have one-year warranties.
    Most states require builders to warranty the home's structural elements for up to 10 years.

    Also, when you buy new furnishings and appliances, use a credit card that extends the product's warranty. That can add as much as an extra year of protection.

    Is a Home Warranty Right for You?

    Sellers may offer a year's coverage as an incentive to home shoppers. Owners of new homes frequently pay the premiums after their free year expires.

    Real estate agents sometimes give home warranties to clients as a thank you gift for purchasing a home. Some buyers of older homes find that a warranty gives them confidence.

    Other homeowners decide they're better off setting aside savings to cover home repairs and replacements.

    One way to think about your needs: Compare the age of each covered item with its average life span. To do so, use this chart from the National Association of Certified Home Inspectors.

    With expensive components near or past their life expectancy, a home warranty might be a good idea. Components that have pre-existing problems, however, typically are excluded from protection.

    Pros

    Buyers who purchase a previously owned home inherit used appliances and home systems with wear and tear. A home warranty can help cover the cost if things break down.

    New Jersey real estate agent Lorraine Labonne-Storch told HSH.com that a few days after closing on a home she purchased, the boiler caught fire. It cost her $12,000 to replace.

    A home warranty would have covered a portion of the cost, she said. She'd had the option to purchase a warranty when she bought the house, but declined it.

    Cons

    Home warranties top the list of complaints received by Angie's List. One reason, Angie's List says, is the difference between customers' expectations and what the plans actually deliver. Homeowners also complain about the quality of service from warranty companies.

    Before buying a home warranty, read the contract and understand exactly what it does and doesn't cover. For example, some contracts won't provide coverage if:
    • You didn't maintain the appliance.
    • The appliance was installed incorrectly.
    • The appliance had too much wear and tear.
    If you haven't read carefully, be prepared for surprises. Don't assume:
    • Your policy will replace a faulty component. The warranty company may insist on repairing it instead.
    • You can call your favorite service provider. Home warranties usually require you to use a contracted servicer.
    • The warranty will cover the entire cost. Although she would have been happy to have it, Labonne-Storch said the home warranty she declined would have paid only up to $1,600 to repair or replace the $12,000 boiler.
    Find out what's covered, and what the warranty provides. There may be exclusions and limitations. Perhaps the refrigerator is covered, but the ice maker is excluded. Claims may be rejected because of pre-existing problems or insufficient maintenance.

    Learn who will perform the repair work. Also, find out if you can cancel the policy. Most contracts allow a 30-day "free look" that allows a buyer to cancel within 30 days and get a full refund, says the Service Contract Industry Council.

    Vet the Company

    Research a company using these sources:
    • Better Business Bureau. Type in your city's name. On the next page type the company's name. Or type "home warranty." You'll see if a company is BBB accredited. That means a company agrees to resolve complaints with the BBB and pays an accreditation fee of anywhere from $400 to several thousand dollars. See company ratings, if any, and a summary of complaints to the BBB.
    • Your state attorney general's office. Find yours from the National Association of Attorneys General.
    • Your state insurance commissioner. Locate yours with this National Association of Insurance Commissioners map. Although home warranties aren't insurance policies, 32 states require companies offering warranties to register or be licensed by the state's department of insurance.
    Like this article? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you a regular digest of our newest stories, full of money saving tips and advice, free!

     

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    Kilowatthour electric meter register dials with light bulb shining below
    Getty Images
    By Eric Reed

    NEW YORK -- Benjamin Franklin once wrote, "Beware of little expenses. A small leak will sink a great ship." Much has changed about the economy in the centuries since Franklin wrote those words, but his warning rings just as true today as it once did.

    Small spending is an easy way to hemorrhage money, not in great chunks but in small drips. It blends into the background noise of a household's finances, hidden in cups of coffee and cable bills and never appears more sinister than $5 here and $10 there. Those add up though -- and quickly.

    This is how people wind up bleeding money so easily to monthly bills. They show up in a thick stack crammed with line items, sent to customers who quite rightfully hesitate over whether a few bucks is really worth negotiating with Lilith, the Comcast service rep. Yet cumulatively, recurring bills are one of a household's biggest expenses. MainStreet caught up with Craig Brimhall, the vice president of wealth strategies for Ameriprise, to talk about how consumers can get smarter about managing these bills and where to start looking first.

    After all, if you don't take the time to check you might miss problems such as:

    Irregular Bills

    Most people run their personal finances on a monthly budget. The problem, however, is that not all bills keep to that same accommodating schedule.

    "One of the ones that creeps up on you, that you don't think about, is [a bill] that doesn't happen monthly," Brimhall said. "You can budget that monthly but the auto insurance bill is due semi-annually, and real estate taxes are due semi-annually. Those are the things that can sneak up on you."

    For example, let's say a bill accumulates at $175 a month but gets collected every June and January. Without forethought, it's possible to come to that month and find yourself short by nearly $1,000, not to mention the added penalties and interest virtually always assessed for making late payments.

    Better to simply budget ahead of time.

    Electricity Delivery Charges

    "Is it normal for someone to end this conversation feeling like they just got screwed with their pants on?" I asked a Com-Ed customer service representative recently. The subject was the recent doubling of my power bill, to a shocking $75 a month in the winter from $30 to $35 for our one-bedroom apartment in Chicago.

    "There's just no way I'm using this much power," I futilely tried explaining, and that's how I learned about electricity aggregation and delivery charges. It turned out I wasn't using more power; I was just paying a heck of a lot more to receive it.

    Where I live, Constellation Energy Services had gotten the local government to opt-in automatically every resident to use the company as the local power supplier. Although our bills still came on power company letterhead, we all actually became customers of Constellation. The carrot was a small reduction in price per kilowatt hour. The stick was a $35 "delivery fee" and no mention of Constellation (then called Integrys) at all on the paperwork.

    What precisely constitutes delivery for a product where "delivery" means beaming electrons down a wire at 18,600 mph, I don't know. What it entailed for my bill, though, was shocking.

    Fortunately I had a bit of leverage, since I hadn't yet paid the bill and could negotiate before sending the money in. As Brimhall recommends, this is why consumers should be careful about over-reliance on autopay for their bills. It's a terrific resource for convenience, as well as for keeping down late fees for the absent-minded among us.

    On the other hand, when you're fighting over a bill it's almost always better to be arguing over how much money you'll pay versus trying to get them to give something back.

    "I have a pattern that when my bills arrive," said Brimhall. "I just literally have to take the time to sit in my office and go through them. I still pay a lot of my bill by check, I'm old fashioned that way."

    Cramming

    We've written on the subject of cramming before, but it keeps on going and is one of the sneakiest ways that cell phone providers have of driving up the bill. Even behemoths like Verizon and Sprint occasionally get caught with their hands in the cookie jar and were recently fined $120 million by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for it.

    Cramming is when your mobile phone provider allows third parties to add, or "cram," unauthorized charges onto users' accounts. Common charges include low cost, high volume products like ring tones and emojis associated with premium texting packages. Merchants will apply charges to a customer's account without his knowledge or approval, often getting the consumer's information through online ads offering "free digital content" for which the customer was then charged.

    When mobile companies exercise little or no oversight, it generally doesn't take much more than a phone number to bill a customer. When those same companies collect 30 to 40 percent of every transaction, they don't have much incentive to provide that oversight.

    In a statement released after the Sprint and Verizon fine was announced, CFPB Director Richard Cordray called cramming the result of "flawed billing systems," saying that "consumers bore the brunt of those charges and ended up paying millions of dollars while the companies reaped the profits."

    Customers don't need to have signed up for anything to fall victim to cramming, so make sure to keep an eye on your cell phone bill every month. If a $4.99 charge for Hello Kitty emoticons shows up, don't hesitate to refuse payment. The law is on your side.

    Supplier Switch Scam

    Companies that charge high utility delivery fees are bad enough, but sometimes they won't even ask permission before taking over your account. Often all it takes is a name, account number and customer address to process the paperwork.

    This is how the supplier switch scam works.

    Reported by Consumer Affairs and the AARP, this starts with a gas or electric supplier calling customers to offer big discounts on their utility bills. All they need is an account number so they can confirm your eligibility, and once they have that, the con is on.

    Some suppliers make the switch through "slamming," the illegal practice of switching a customer's account over without getting consent. They make the switch and hope that no one notices.

    More often however companies simply take advantage of the widespread confusion over what a utility supplier actually is. Most consumers only know about their local electric or gas company. When some third party calls offering great discounts on basic utilities the result is confusion and, often enough, an assumption that this must have something to do with the only players anyone knows.

    Not seeing any difference between electric companies and electric suppliers, consumers agree to take the discount. Then, one or two billing cycles later, those delivery charges start showing up or the discount turned out to be just an introductory period.

    Don't get suckered by the scam. Keep an eye on your bill and make sure you're actually doing business with the people you think you are.

    Discount Drop and Rate Creep

    How many of us have had that feeling, opening the bills each month, that these things just seem to keep getting bigger? I know it's happened often enough to me. Recently I had that moment with my Comcast bill. Sitting at my kitchen table I began to write the monthly check and hesitated over the number, thinking to myself, "I know this cost less when I first signed up ..."

    Good news, you're not crazy! It's called rate creep, and it's one of the most widely complained about issues in the utility world, especially with cable companies.

    Rate creep sets in for any number of reasons. One common problem is with cable companies that run promotional prices for the first year of service, and celebrate your 12 month loyalty mark by adding $30 to $40 to your cable bill. In other cases, elements of noise simply creep into the bill, ticking prices slightly higher with things like "Regional Sports Fees" ($1), "Franchise Fees" ($4.57) or "Late Fees" ($9.50).

    That last one may be my fault ...

    Don't be afraid to follow up when it comes to rate creep. The bill is actually getting bigger, and that's not OK Sometimes it's legitimate, but it's always worth following up on. Take this opportunity to take stock of the optional features you're actually using and get rid of all the rest. I mean, sure "Game of Thrones" introduced us all to sexposition and thus forever married the evil monologue with softcore porn, but do you really need to pay for it every month? When was the last time you actually watched all 80 channels that comes with that sports package, or is ESPN perhaps actually good enough?

    Push back. You won't always win but it's a heck of a lot better than just shrugging and cutting the check.

    As Brimhall explained, keeping track of these small expenses is essential to a healthy financial plan.

    "It's just taking the time whenever in the month those bills come in," he said. "Most of us are going to get wealthy over the years by what we accumulate. It's cash flow, and one thing I try to impress upon people is that most of us will go through several million dollars in our lifetime."

    It's important to stanch the unnecessary outflow.

    "If you're going to to go through that money over your career it's important to pay attention, because the way most of us are going to get to retirement or financial independence is through cash flow," Brimhall said.

    Ben Franklin couldn't have said it better himself.

    -Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website A Wandering Lawyer.

     

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    By Andrew Meola

    NEW YORK -- At some point in many of our lives, we've tried to complete a collection of something. There's just something about having an incomplete set of collectibles that triggers this desire in our brains to go out and gather the rest of them because ... well, that's a question for another day.

    But if we're truly honest with ourselves, many of the collectibles we've tried to amass, either as children or as adults, were ultimately rendered worthless. We spent all that time and money to finish the set only to realize that we wasted our resources.

    So looking back on it, what are some of the most devalued collections out there? We checked out some of the collectibles up for auction on eBay (EBAY) and compared them against current selling prices for the same item on Amazon (AMZN). Here's our list of 15 collectibles that tend to be more worthless than not.


    What are some other worthless collectibles? Let us know in the comments section.

     

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    Gold ingots
    Getty ImagesYou don't need to be a "gold bug" to see the value of mixing this precious metal into your portfolio.
    By Kira Brecht

    Gold is considered to be the world's first currency. The yellow metal was melted into gold coins created by King Croesus of Lydia around 550 B.C. and circulated in many economies well before the creation of paper money. Today, Western investors view gold as an alternative asset, a commodity, a quasi-currency, a portfolio diversifier and an inflation hedge. So-called "gold bugs" invest in the metal to protect against global gloom-and-doom scenarios. But average investors might want to diversity into gold as well, experts say.

    Investment demand for gold rose 4 percent to 279 tons in the first quarter of 2015, according to the World Gold Council. The metal is currently trading around $1,208 an ounce, a 2.1 percent gain since the start of the year, but down from its 52-week high of $1,338.70. Here are three reasons you might consider adding some of the yellow stuff to your portfolio.

    Portfolio diversifier. The goal of any balanced portfolio is diversification, and gold can play a part, experts say. "You want a portfolio of noncorrelated assets, and the statistical correlation between gold and stocks is virtually zero," says Jeff Christian, managing director at New York-based CPM Group, a commodities research consulting firm.

    An allocation to gold has been shown to protect and enhance returns while reducing volatility.

    Returns aren't too shabby, either. From 2001 through 2014, the annualized return for holding gold bullion was just over 12 percent, according to Peter A. Grant, chief market analyst at USAGold, a Denver-based coin and bullion investment firm.

    "An allocation to gold has been shown to protect and enhance returns while reducing volatility," Grant says.

    Safe haven. Gold has traditionally been viewed as a safe investment that climbs in value during times of geopolitical crisis or political instability. "A lot of people who invest in gold look at it as insurance in your portfolio against catastrophic financial market failure, severe economic problems or war," Christian says.

    For example, one of the factors that helped propel gold to its all-time high in 2011 above $1,900 an ounce was news that Standard & Poor's downgraded U.S. government debt for the first time. The downgrade occurred after a debt ceiling battle in Congress that took the U.S. to the brink of default.

    "Gold is first and foremost money. Money that cannot be printed or debased. It therefore insulates its owner from the negative outcomes historically associated with fiat [paper] currencies," Grant says.

    Inflation hedge. Gold is considered a classic inflation hedge because its price tends to rise during inflationary periods, and it tends to rise as consumer prices increase. "As one's cost of living increases, so too does the value of one's gold holdings, thereby protecting purchasing power," Grant says. "With interest rates remaining near zero and monetary bases continuing to expand in many quarters, a return of inflation is a definite possibility."

    For the average U.S. investor looking to buy gold at today's prices, one ounce costs about $1,200. Gold has been vulnerable to price swings, however, including a sharp sell-off in 2013, so some experts suggest limiting it to a small portion of your portfolio. Here are several ways investors can diversify with gold, including buying coins, investing in gold mining companies or investing in exchange-traded funds that are backed by physical gold.

    Gold coins. Christian suggests retail investors allocate between 2 percent and 10 percent of their portfolio to gold. "For the average small investor, the best way is through gold coins: Maple Leafs and American Eagles. There is something nice about having a gold coin in your sock drawer or safe," Christian notes. Storage is certainly a consideration for investors buying physical gold, and many gold investors use safe-deposit boxes or home safes, Grant notes.

    One of the downsides of holding outright physical gold is that there is no interest rate or cash flow attached to owning gold bullion, and the investor is reliant on metal price increases for profit.

    ETFs. Another way investors can gain exposure to gold is through ETFs, which hold baskets of securities and trade like stocks. "For a long period of time, people only had the choice of a pair of earrings or a gold bar buried in hole in the backyard, but ETFs democratized access to gold," says Ben Johnson, global director of ETF research at Morningstar (MORN), a Chicago-based independent investment research firm.

    With ETFs, investors can buy as little as a single share, and they're also cost-efficient, charging relatively low annual expenses, Johnson says. The two largest gold ETFs are SPDR Gold Trust ETF (GLD) and iShares Gold Trust ETF (IAU), which are physically backed gold ETFs. "Our favorite is the iShares gold [fund] because it is cheaper to own," Johnson says. In terms of annual expenses, iShares compares favorably at 0.25 percent a year versus 0.40 percent for the SPDR fund.

    Gold stocks. Buying shares of companies that mine for gold is another alternative. These stocks can represent exposure to gold, but in recent years gold mining stocks as a group have underperformed gold's actual returns due to company-specific operational issues, which include projects failing to deliver as expected or even open, notes Kristoffer Inton, equity analyst at Morningstar. For investors looking for a pure gold play, bullion or ETFs could be a better choice, as company risks and operational costs can cause a divergence between the price of the underlying metal and the gold mining share price.

    Gold stocks Morningstar rates as four stars, which is considered slightly undervalued, include:
    • Eldorado Gold (EGO). This is a low-cost gold producer, currently working on opening Skouries, a major mine in Greece, Inton says.
    • Yamana Gold (AUY). Yamana has a portfolio of mines throughout Central America, South America and Canada. "Recent mine openings have been disappointing, but we think the project pipeline is still healthy and should provide meaningful low-cost production growth. In addition, the company is exploring strategic alternatives for its underperforming mines," Inton says.
    • Barrick Gold (ABX). This is the biggest gold miner in the world by production and is anchored by five large mines that generate roughly 60 percent of production at low costs, Inton says.

     

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    Money Moves to Make in Your 30s

    By Maryalene LaPonsie

    We're back with the next installment of our Financial Planning Through the Ages series, offering our top tips on how to manage your money and prepare for retirement during every decade.

    It's time to talk to you 30-somethings. At 37, I'm in the thick of this decade myself and can attest to the fact that life is much different now than it was 10 years ago. After spending our 20s getting acclimated to adulthood, we finally have our sea legs. Or at least, many of us do.

    You may be married. You may have kids. You may have a house. You may be making more money than ever.

    Regardless of the particulars of your current life, here are 10 money moves we should all be making during this decade of our lives:

    1. Revisit your retirement savings. By this point, you should have a retirement fund, whether that be a 401(k) or an IRA. If you don't, getting one set up should be priority No. 1 in your life this week.

    For everyone else, it's time to pull out your most recent statement and take a look at where your money is invested. Over time, our retirement account can fall out of balance. We may have too much risk or, more likely for those of us in our 30s, we may have too little risk. Remember, you likely have 30-plus years left in the workforce, so you can afford to have money in more aggressive funds that carry the potential of bigger returns.

    Review our article on how to manage your 401(k) in a minute. If you've changed jobs at any point, you should also look at doing something with your orphaned 401(k).

    2. Increase your emergency fund. In theory, creating an emergency fund is another money move you took in your 20s. If you don't have one, putting money aside for a rainy day is priority No. 2 for you, right after you set up that retirement account.

    However, let's assume you did create an emergency fund in your 20s. It's probably time to up the balance now. You've probably moved out of the studio apartment. You may have a family to feed. You possibly financed a couple of purchases along the way.

    Your emergency fund should have enough money to cover three to six months' worth of expenses. Add up all your current must-spend monthly expenses and see if your fund falls short on covering them. If so, it's time to beef up the account.

    3. Rebalance the budget. How long have you been living on the same budget? Ideally, you should revisit your budget at least once a year or every time you have a major life change. If it's been a while since you crunched the numbers, sit down with your significant other, if you have one, and do a thorough review. Here are a couple of questions to help guide the discussion:
    • Does your current budget support your life goals?
    • When is the last time you shopped for better prices on expenses such as Internet and insurance?
    • Are you spending money each month on items that don't fit any of the current budget categories?
    • Can you eliminate any categories at this stage in your life?
    4. Track your spending for a month. Oh, you don't have a budget, you say? Well, that's a shame. Let's work on correcting that.

    The best way to create a workable budget is to track your spending for an entire month. Keep tabs on every penny. That sounds like a lot of work, but if you use your debit card or a credit card (that you pay off at the end of the month) for everything, it's not so bad.

    Actually, let's all make this money move, regardless of whether we have a current budget or not. We tend to idealize where our money goes ("Oh, I never eat out!"), but once you start tracking, there's no denying that you hit the drive-thru once a week or go on a spending spree at the mall once a month.

    So keep track of your money in June and then compare your actual spending to your budgeted amounts. Depending on where the numbers land, you're going to either need to rework the budget or rethink your spending.

    5. Pay off your debt. Of course, we all wish we had never gone into debt in the first place, but there's no use in rehashing past mistakes. Now is the time to take action and correct them.

    Cut up the credit cards and then go read about eight smart ways to pay off debt fast.

    6. Perfect the fine art of haggling. In your 30s, you'll likely be making some major purchases. You may also have more discretionary income to buy the things you want.

    You can stretch your dollars further if you learn how to bargain like a pro. There's no reason to pay full price when a few simple techniques can help you save money on purchases big and small.

    No need to worry about looking cheap or unreasonable either. Haggling doesn't have to equal a high-pressure conversation. I'll let Stacy Johnson explain further in his confessions of a serial haggler.

    7. Consider starting a college fund. For those of you with kids, your 30s are a good time to set up a college fund. Don't wait until the kids hit high school to have a plan for higher education.

    Personally, I recommend 529 plans, but you could also put money in a Coverdell education savings account or buy a prepaid tuition plan. You could even use the principal investment from your Roth IRA to pay college expenses, although pulling from a retirement fund should be no one's first choice.

    Even if you don't have kids, you may want to start a college fund for yourself if you think you'll eventually want to earn a second or graduate degree.

    8. Re-evaluate your career trajectory. How's that job going? Is your line of work all you'd hoped it would be?

    Your 30s are a good time to re-evaluate your career path. If you decide you hate your job, now might be the best time to make a change. You're still young enough that you could go back to school and recoup your investment. That said, going back to school may not be necessary to change fields.

    Sit down with a trusted adviser and carefully consider your options. Maybe you like the line of work but want to shift responsibilities or move up the ladder. Start with your end goal and map out, in reverse, all the steps you need to take in order to get there.

    9. Upgrade your insurance coverage. Reviewing insurance coverage is another money move to make in your 30s.

    If you have a family, you need to have enough life insurance to replace your income should you prematurely leave this world. Likewise, you'll want to have disability insurance if you're the family breadwinner. Super high-deductible health insurance may not make sense anymore either if you have kids who may be prone to ear infections or the occasional broken bone.

    You'll also want to double-check your home and auto insurance limits. Once you've traded in that beater for a nicer vehicle, you may want to have comprehensive coverage. For your home, check with your insurer to see whether valuable items are covered by your policy or you need a separate rider.

    10. Keep your eye on the prize. Finally, don't get caught up in what you think life should be like in your 30s. It's easy to look at friends and neighbors and try to duplicate what they do.

    My experience has been that this is especially true where our kids are involved. If everyone around us has kids in sports or dance or 4-H, we might feel like we need to do the same for our kids, lest they miss out. Same goes for vacations. Maybe you feel obligated to take your kids on a big summer vacation each year because, well, that's what good parents do.

    Rather than live according to society's standards for the good life, live according to your own standards. Keep your eye on what's a priority to you and your family and only spend your money on those things that further your personal and household goals. It's OK to take the big vacation or buy a fancy car if you can afford it, but do so because it's important to you, not because you think it's expected of you.

    That wraps up our top money moves for your 30s. I'm handing the torch to Donna Freedman, who will pick up next time with the best moves for 40-somethings. If you have tips for folks in their 30s, be sure to share them with us in comments below.
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    Economy GDP
    Charlie Riedel/AP
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- The U.S. economy contracted in the first quarter as it buckled under the weight of unusually heavy snowfalls, a resurgent dollar and disruptions at West Coast ports, but activity already has rebounded modestly.

    The government Friday slashed its gross domestic product estimate to show GDP shrinking at a 0.7 percent annual rate instead of the 0.2 percent growth pace it estimated last month.

    A larger trade deficit and a smaller accumulation of inventories by businesses than previously thought accounted for much of the downward revision. There was also a modest downward revision to consumer spending.

    We're going see enough growth to keep job creation in place and allow the Fed to maintain their lift-off schedule for September.

    With growth estimates for the second quarter currently around 2 percent, the economy appears poised for its worst first-half performance since 2011. The economy's recovery from the 2007-2009 financial crisis has been erratic.

    Weak data on consumer sentiment and factory activity in the Midwest suggested that while the economy has pulled out of its first-quarter soft patch, the growth pace was modest early in the second quarter. That mirrored other recent soft data on retail sales and industrial production.

    But reports on housing and business spending plans have indicated momentum could be building, which would keep the Federal Reserve on track to raise interest rates later this year.

    Economists caution against reading too much into the slump in output. They argue the GDP figure for the first quarter was held down by a confluence of temporary factors, including a problem with the model the government uses to smooth the data for seasonal fluctuations.

    Economists, including those at the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank, have cast doubts on the accuracy of GDP estimates for the first quarter, which have tended to show weakness over the last several years.

    They argued the so-called seasonal adjustment isn't fully stripping out seasonal patterns, leaving "residual" seasonality. The government said last week it was aware of the potential problem and was working to minimize it.

    "Obviously the economy is weaker than we would like it to be, but the first quarter overstates that," said Robert Dye, chief economist at Comerica in Dallas. "We're going see enough growth to keep job creation in place and allow the Fed to maintain their lift-off schedule for September."

    When measured from the income side, the economy expanded at a 1.4 percent rate in the first quarter. A measure of domestic demand growth was revised up slightly and business spending on equipment was much stronger than previously estimated, taking some edge off the slump in output.

    U.S. Treasuries were trading higher, while the dollar was largely unchanged against a basket of currencies. Stocks on Wall Street fell.

    Dollar, Energy Drag

    Apart from the statistical quirk, the economy, which expanded at a 2.2 percent pace in the fourth quarter, was hammered by a sharp decline in investment spending in the energy sector as companies such as Schlumberger (SLM) and Halliburton (HAL) responded to the plunge in crude oil prices.

    Spending on mining exploration, shafts and wells plunged at a 48.6 percent pace in the first quarter, the largest drop since the second quarter of 2009.

    Economists estimate unusually heavy snowfalls in February chopped at least one percentage point from growth.

    Trade was hit both by the strong dollar and the ports labor dispute, which weighed on exports through the quarter and then unleashed a flood of imports in March after it was resolved.

    That resulted in a trade deficit that subtracted 1.9 percentage points from GDP, the largest drag in 31 years, instead of the 1.25 percentage points reported last month.

    The GDP report also showed after-tax corporate profits declined 8.7 percent. That was the largest drop in a year and the second quarterly fall, as the strong dollar burdened multinational corporations and oil prices hurt domestic firms.

    Multinationals such as Microsoft (MSFT), household products maker Procter & Gamble (PG) and health care conglomerate Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) have warned the dollar will hit sales and profits this year.

    Unlike 2014, when growth snapped back quickly after a dismal first quarter, the dollar and investment cuts by energy companies continue to hamstring activity.

    But growth could accelerate as the year progresses.

    The value of inventory accumulated in the first quarter was revised down to an increase of $95 billion from the lofty $110.3 billion rise reported last month.

    That meant inventories contributed 0.33 percentage point to GDP instead of the previously reported 0.74 percentage point, suggesting warehouses are not bulging with unwanted merchandise and businesses have latitude to order more goods from factories.

    While consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, was revised down by 0.1 percentage point to a 1.8 percent rate, it could finally get a lift from the considerable savings households amassed because of cheaper gasoline.

    Personal savings increased at a robust $726.4 billion pace.

    "The outlook for the economy is very encouraging," said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics in Toronto.

     

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    Netherlands-Earns-Ahold
    Stephan Savoia/APStop & Shop is one of the supermarket brands operated by Royal Ahold.
    Don't look now, but America's grocers are merging again.

    Two years after Kroger's (KR) purchase of Harris Teeter, and a year after Safeway sold out to Albertson's, the parent companies of the Giant and Food Lion supermarket chains (Netherlands-based Ahold and Belgium's Delhaize, respectively) have recently began discussing a merger.

    Ahold also owns the Stop & Shop brand, while Delhaize has Hannaford in its pocket. Through these chains, the two foreign-owned holding companies collect the majority of their revenues in the U.S. And by merging all four chains, these firms would leapfrog U.S. rivals Publix and H-E-B. Together, they'd be America's fourth-largest grocer, operating roughly 2,000 stores, and controlling 4.6 percent of the supermarket ... er, market, in the United States. They'd lag only the aforementioned Kroger, Albertson's and also Walmart (WMT) in size.

    So Is This Good News or Bad News for Shoppers?

    Well, it might not be "bad" news necessarily. After all, this is a simple change of ownership of chains that are already here. But it's also not good news.

    Multiple reports have emerged in recent months regarding the state of the supermarket market in the U.S. -- who's hot, and who's not, in the opinion of consumers. Unfortunately, none of the supermarket brands that would merge and get bigger as a result of an Ahold/Delhaize deal make it onto the "hot" list.

    Nationally, shoppers tend to prefer supermarketeering giant Kroger. Regionally, consumers give top marks to Publix and Walmart in America's South, to Hy-Vee and Meijer in the Midwest, and to Costco (COST) and Trader Joe's in the West. In the Northeast, Wegmans and Trader Joe's (again) reign supreme. But nowhere in the country do any of the chains managed by Ahold or Delhaize rank in even the top three.

    At this point, it's probably worth reminding you that one of these grocery stores recently won the top spot for highest "corporate reputation" out of America's "100 most visible companies," in a survey conducted by Harris Poll. That would be Wegmans, a Rochester, New York-based grocer whose 85 stores make it less than 5 percent the size of this new Europe-owned "Giant Lion" that will soon prowl our supermarket aisles. So once again, we see that just because Giant's and Food Lion's parent companies may get bigger as a result of this deal, there's no reason to expect this will make them better.

    Caveats and Provisos

    Granted, both Ahold and Delhaize are somewhat hobbled by the fact that they don't compete in either the Midwest or West, and so can't "rank" there at all. But both companies are present in the Northeast and South. In the Northeast, here's how they rank, according to Harris:
    • Stop and Shop ranks 5th (out of nine grocery store chains rated) in the Northeast.
    • Hannaford is one rung lower in 6th place.
    • And Giant didn't even make it onto the list.
    Food Lion, with only a limited presence in the Northeast, wasn't evaluated in that region. However, in the South, where both Giant and Food Lion do operate, neither company made it onto Harris Interactive's list of the top 9 stores in that region.

    The Upshot for Consumers

    Analysts who've taken a good look at the proposed merger between Ahold and Delhaize argue that it has "strategic merits" (Jefferies). As a bigger business, the merged supermarket holding company would enjoy "scale advantages in purchasing power," and could also save money by "combining headquarters, management structures and logistics" (Citigroup).

    Stock market investors like these kinds of moves because they enable the companies to grow their profits by cutting their costs. From a consumer's perspective, however, we'd much prefer that the companies pass along any cost savings they gain to consumers.

    In an ideal world, that's what would happen after this merger. But recall that, when reporting on Wegmans' top marks for "reputation" earlier this year, Harris Poll noted that Wegmans earned its ranking only after "years building a sterling reputation in the communities they serve, through its employees, one shopping experience at a time."

    Conversely, merging supermarket chains Giant, Food Lion and all the rest have spent years ... not building up a reputation equal to Wegmans'. That suggests that even in an ideal world, where Ahold and Delhaize use their cost savings to benefit consumers rather than pad their profits, improvements might be a long time in coming.

    Moral of the story: Don't hold your breath.

    As a long-time East Coast resident, Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith had many opportunities to shop at both Giant and Food Lion. At the time, neither one seemed remarkably bad ... but now that he lives in the Midwest and can shop at Kroger, Rich knows better. He owns none of the stocks mentioned above.

    The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Costco Wholesale. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days, and check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    A Chipotle Mexican Grill Restaurant head Of Earnings Figures
    David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    There were plenty of winners and losers this week, with a struggling mall retailer rolling out a controversial T-shirt and the top dog in wearable cameras eyeing growth in the drone and virtual reality markets.

    Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) -- Winner

    The country's cult fave burrito roller moved higher after a timely analyst upgrade. Miller Tabak analyst Stephen Anderson is upgrading the stock to "buy" and lifting his price target on the shares from $715 to $725.

    Anderson is encouraged by Chipotle's growth prospects, expecting earnings growth to average at least 25 percent in the near term. He's also excited that Chipotle is expanding its ShopHouse concept into Chicago as a springboard to more aggressive growth for its Asian fast-casual chain.

    Pacific Sunwear (PSUN) -- Loser

    Surf-and-turf retailer Pacific Sunwear got into some hot water over Memorial Day weekend for selling a shirt featuring an upside-down American flag. Social media can be a viral beast when something deemed unpatriotic is on display, and PacSun quickly pulled the the shirt from its stores and its website. An upside-down flag is a symbol of distress, and it's even part of the logo of the popular "House of Cards" series. However, it's also interpreted by many as a show of disrespect, and when that controversy heats up during Memorial Day weekend, the court of public opinion will side with those who are offended.

    GoPro (GPRO) -- Winner

    The fast-growing maker of wearable cameras is broadening its reach. GoPro announced that it's diving into the drone and virtual reality markets. It expects to hit the market with a virtual reality camera ahead of this year's holiday shopping season, and its evolutionary push into drones will take place early next year.

    Most high-end drones are already being retrofitted to hold GoPro's HERO cameras, so it only makes sense for the company to enter the market on its own.

    Tilly's (TLYS) -- Loser

    PacSun wasn't the only West Coast-themed athletic apparel retailer to stumble. Tilly's took a hit after posting uninspiring quarterly results. The real dagger in the report is its near-term outlook, as Tilly's sees a profit of 1 to 5 cents a share on flat comparable-store sales growth. Analysts were holding out for earnings of 8 cents a share on healthier top-line growth.

    SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS) -- Winner

    The struggling theme park operator made waves by announcing not one but two new coaster attractions for its Florida theme parks. SeaWorld held a media event Wednesday at SeaWorld Orlando to introduce Mako, Orlando's tallest and fastest coaster. A day later it unveiled plans for Cobra's Curse, a family-friendly spinning coaster, at its Busch Gardens Tampa park.

    Both rides will open next year. With SeaWorld coming under fire for its killer whale and dolphin shows, emphasizing magnetic rides and attractions is a great way to woo guests and reduce its reliance on controversial live marine-life shows.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of SeaWorld Entertainment. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill and GoPro. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Looking for a winner for your portfolio? Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    God Officially Has Awesome Credit

    NEW YORK -- A New York City man whose first name is God has settled a lawsuit with a credit reporting agency that had refused to recognize his name as legitimate.

    Under the agreement reached in Brooklyn federal court this week, Equifax will enter God Gazarov's name into its database. The terms of the settlement weren't disclosed.

    Gazarov now has a robust 820 credit score.

    He says he was shocked by Equifax's refusal to acknowledge his moniker.

    The Russian native is a Brooklyn jewelry store owner who is named after his grandfather. He says it's a relatively common name in his native country.

    He told the New York Post he's relieved the matter has been settled and plans to buy a new BMW.

    Lawyers for Equifax (EFX) declined to comment.

     

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    APTOPIX Etsy IPO
    Mark Lennihan/APEtsy executives celebrate the company's IPO with employees and guests last month at the Nasdaq MarketSite.
    There's a new arts and crafts marketplace hitting cyberspace, and the company behind it is going to attract plenty of attention. The Wall Street Journal reports that Amazon.com (AMZN) has been actively reaching out to the artisans who make Etsy (ETSY) their home, surveying their interest in a new platform that the e-commerce behemoth is readying to roll out called Amazon Handmade.

    Etsy has carved out a cozy corner of cyberspace where the makers of handcrafted items and sellers of vintage items gather to reach an audience. Etsy has been able to stand out successfully in the otherwise cutthroat climate of e-tail. There were 1.4 million active sellers on Etsy last year, and their goods were snapped up by 19.8 million active buyers.

    Will Amazon's presence in this niche be disruptive to Etsy? Will it expand consumer appetite for homemade wares? We still don't have all of the answers, but Etsy vendors and shoppers alike will want to pay attention to what Jeff Bezos' dot-com darling does in this space in the coming months.

    Building a Better Etsy

    Amazon's survey didn't provide any insight into what its pricing strategy will be. Etsy currently offers very competitive rates to indie artisans trying to grow their own cottage industries. Etsy charges just 20 cents to list an item on its site for four months. It then charges just 3.5 percent of the subsequent sale.

    Amazon itself takes a different tack. It's been an open platform for third-party sellers since 2000, offering vendors big and small access to its growing audience. Amazon doesn't charge any listing fees for individuals looking to sell no more than 40 items a month through the site, but it does charge them 99 cents for each sale, and then we get into variable costs that typically consume another 6 percent to 15 percent of the ultimate sale, depending on the product category.

    Amazon Handmade could have its hands full if it prices itself out of Etsy's vendor base, but there's also something to be said about the new platform providing incremental sales. If the fees are fair, there's no reason a talented artisan can't sell through both digital storefronts. Amazon would expand a craftsman's client base, and there isn't anything wrong with that.

    Etsy's Rookie Mistake

    Things have been rough for Etsy since it went public in April at $16 and nearly doubled to close at $30 on its first day of trading. Concerns surfaced about vendors selling counterfeit goods on the site, and then it posted a widening loss in its first quarter as a public company in May.

    The stock has gone on to give back nearly all of its opening-day gains. That's more pain for its shareholders than for the folks buying and selling on Etsy, though one has to wonder if the site will be able to keep its selling commissions so cheap if it continues to post quarterly deficits.

    Now we have the Amazon challenge, which at the very least will draw attention away from Etsy as the marketplace of choice for handmade goods. If Amazon promotes Amazon Handmade with the same kind of home-page marketing push that it has used to promote Kindle products in the past, it's going to draw a crowd. That's great news for potential sellers on the new site, but it may not be such good news for Etsy itself.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Amazon.com. The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com and Etsy. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days, and check out our free report for one great stock to buy for this year and beyond.

     

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    A pedestrian walks past a Yum Brands Inc. KFC restaurant in
    Nelson Ching/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    Colonel Harland Sanders is back at KFC, hoping to bring back some of the brand's initial "finger lickin' good" appeal. The chain's new marketing strategy features musical commercials, funny videos and even a few online games, and they all star KFC's iconic founder.

    If you haven't seen Sanders around until recently, it's probably because he passed away 35 years ago. He was the focal point of the chain's ads when he was alive, joining the ranks of Dave Thomas at Wendy's (WEN) and Carvel's Tom Carvel as highly visible founder-spokesmen.

    KFC parent Yum Brands (YUM) naturally held back after Sanders passed away. It did bring Sanders back as an animated figure for several spots starting in the late 1990s, but the retro charm just wasn't there. Now it seems as if bringing back an actor to portray Sanders -- tapping "Saturday Night Live" alum Darrell Hammond, who is best known for his impressions of Bill Clinton and Sean Connery, to play the colorful founder -- is KFC's new shot at winning back its relevance with consumers.

    The Rise and Stall of KFC

    KFC continues to be a big driver for Yum Brands, particularly in China, where it was a big winner until a recent avian flu scare. However, closer to home, KFC was overtaken by Chick-fil-A as the country's largest chicken chain in 2012, and it's been struggling to get back on top.

    There are also plenty of hungry and now well-financed upstarts gunning for KFC in its fried-chicken stronghold. Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen (PLKI) and the recently gone-public Bojangles' (BOJA) now have easier access to expansion financing as a stand-alone public companies. Even Shake Shack (SHAK) looms as a potential challenger after recently taking out the "Chicken Shack" trademark.

    KFC can't afford to be seen as just as bland as its mashed potatoes, so in comes Hammond with a self-effacing turn as Sanders in a new commercial singing the praises of the chain's signature bucket of fried chicken. The marketing doesn't end there. KFC has launched ColonelSanders.com with a handful of online games depicting everything from a gunfight at his original gas station to his dropping out of school in the sixth grade. Players of the Colonel Quest games who are successful can print out a $5 coupon that's good through early June.

    Add it all up and KFC is pulling on lots of levers at the moment, hoping that either the Hammond commercial, the five Colonel Quest games, or even a depiction of the infamous gunfight tweak nostalgic feelings in millennials who were born after Sanders passed away.

    Giving all elements of the new campaign a life on social media is the right approach. KFC aims to reach consumers where the traditional KFC marketing messages aren't resonating. Whether or not it succeeds in an era where the number of options for fried chicken continues to grow remains to be seen, but if KFC can bring Sanders back from the dead, it may be able to do the same thing to its tired brand.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Caroline Valetkevitch

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks closed lower Friday as data showed the economy contracted in the first quarter but indexes still posted gains for the month.

    Transportation shares also weighed on the market, extending recent losses. The Dow Jones transportation average fell 0.8 percent, putting it just shy of correction territory, almost 10 percent below its 2014 high.

    Data showed the U.S. economy contracted at a 0.7 percent annual rate in the quarter, a sharp turnaround from the earlier estimate of growth of 0.2 percent.

    We had some weak numbers, but it's the end of the month for the trading of May, which can sometimes cause a sell-off.

    Weak reports on factory activity in the Midwest and consumer sentiment for May suggested that the growth pace was modest early in the second quarter.

    "We had some weak numbers, but it's the end of the month for the trading of May, which can sometimes cause a sell-off. It's also Friday and Greece worries are still in the marketplace," said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Rockwell Global Capital in New York.

    U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew repeated warnings on Friday not to minimize the global stability risk of Greece sliding out of the eurozone.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell 115.44 points, or 0.6 percent, to 18,010.68, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) lost 13.4 points, or 0.6 percent, to 2,107.39 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) dropped 27.95 points, or 0.6 percent, to 5,070.03.

    For the month, the Dow was up 1 percent, the S&P 500 was up 1.1 percent and the Nasdaq gained 2.6 percent.

    For the week, stocks posted losses, however. The Dow was down 1.2 percent, the S&P 500 fell 0.9 percent and the Nasdaq lost 0.4 percent.

    Stocks Making Moves

    Weighing on the market Friday, shares of Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY) tumbled 6.6 percent, its biggest daily drop since 2012, following a company presentation at a cancer meeting. The stock had gained 8.5 percent this month before the presentation.

    Humana (HUM) jumped 20.3 percent to a record high after a source said it is considering selling itself.

    Intel (INTC) was up 1.3 percent to $34.46. People familiar with the matter said it has resumed talks to buy programmable-chip maker Altera and is close to a $16 billion deal. Altera (ALTR) rose 4 percent to $48.85.

    Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by 2,097 to 945, for a 2.22-to-1 ratio on the downside; on the Nasdaq, 1,723 issues fell and 1,039 advanced for a 1.66-to-1 ratio favoring decliners.

    The S&P 500 posted 16 new 52-week highs and 7 new lows; the Nasdaq composite recorded 77 new highs and 36 new lows.

    About 7 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, above the 6.1 billion daily average for May, according to BATS Global Markets.

    -With additional reporting by Sweta Singh in Bangalore.

    What to watch Monday:
    • The Commerce Department releases personal income and spending for April at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    • At 10 a.m., the Institute for Supply Management releases its manufacturing index for May, and the Commerce Department releases construction spending for April.

     

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    Hammer Out a Better Deal on Home Remodeling

    By Jim Gold

    Cooking up a major kitchen remodeling, but hoping to get it for a price far below the project's national average of $56,768? Or maybe a wood deck would do you, but its $10,048 average price doesn't square with your budget.

    Almost six in 10 homeowners plan to spend money on home improvement projects this year, according to a Harris poll conducted for SunTrust Bank, but fewer than one in five plan to spend more than $10,000.

    1. Pause for a Moment

    Remodel magazine says the 2015 average home project will cost $43,800 but return only 62.2 percent of your investment if you sell your home. You might want to consider whether going forward with a project is even worth it. (Here are some we think are probably not.) If you do move ahead, use these creative tips to bring that price down to earth.

    2. Save on Materials
    • Recycle and reuse building materials. Habitat for Humanity's 850 ReStores sell new and gently used furniture, home accessories, building materials and appliances at fractions of retail prices. Donations to locally operated ReStores are sold to the public, and proceeds go toward building homes, rather than trying to fit donated items into homes that volunteers build. You can find anything from prehung doors to acrylic skylights to partial insulation bundles.
    • Find free or cheap materials online through sites like eBay, Craigslist and Freecycle or in person at flea markets or building-supply auctions operated by state and federal governments.
    • Look for ways to repurpose materials. Actress Amanda Pays ("The Flash") recently told Remodelista she loves the look of old wood, but reclaimed timber has gotten expensive and overused. Her builder, though, was happy to sell her and actor-husband Corbin Bernsen scaffolding boards for $10 a plank, she said. "They're all over our house," Pays said. "We even used them as stair treads."
    • Ask your contractor for odds-and-ends left over from other jobs. "What we do is take 50 percent off the materials from the previous client, and we offer them to the next client," says contractor Butch McKeon. "We always have extra materials left over."
    3. Look for Deals on Pivotal Pieces

    Keep an eye out for specials on big-ticket items that you need, things like countertops, kitchen island installation, or new windows. Once you buy the deal, plan the rest of your remodel around it.

    4. Stick With Standard Sizes

    Semicustom pieces can cost twice the price of stock pieces, which already run $8,000 to $10,000 for a typically sized kitchen, says Houselogic.com. Custom is even more. You'll sacrifice some options in size, color, finish and accents, such as crown molding, to get the less expensive stock cabinets.

    5. Consider Good Imitations

    Lowe's recently advertised laminate wood planks strongly resembling hardwood floors at $1.89 per square foot, about half the price of real deal, prefinished oak, at $3.59.

    6. Maximize Space Before You Enlarge It

    For example, in the kitchen, replacing cabinet shelves with pullout draws and racks would cost $35,000, but that's less than a $48,000 to $95,000 kitchen blowout, says This Old House.

    7. Don't Move Plumbing

    Relocating a toilet just three feet, for example, can cost you up to $1,000, says This Old House; relocating the kitchen sink, up to $2,000.

    8. Plan What You'll Spend -- and Then Some

    Make a budget, but build in 10 to 20 percent margin of error for whatever may go wrong.

    9. Use Elbow Grease to Save on Labor Costs

    What can you do yourself? Sometimes projects are best left to professionals. But interior painting and trim work can cost a small fortune, warns HomeAdditionPlus.com. If you can handle basic tools such as a paint brush, ladder, miter saw and a coping saw, you can save a bundle on labor. If you can't, consider volunteering at Habitat for Humanity or other groups that would give you free lessons while you help a good cause.

    If you do hire a contractor, ask about doing your own demolition or cleanup. Also ask if you can order supplies yourself. Contractors who order on their own often add markups for themselves on the materials they order for your job. You can also save if you can pick up materials and haul away job waste yourself.

    10. Time Your Project

    You'll often pay a contractor more in summer, their busy season, than in winter months, when work usually slows and they may discount their services.

    11. Save on Stress and Cost With a Schedule

    However, as you craft your spending plan, build in up to a 20 percent cushion to cover nasty surprises. Sticking to a timetable may also help avoid cost overruns by eliminating inefficient use of any labor you may hire or having subcontractors show up to perform work that's not ready for them to tackle.

    For additional tips for stretch your remodeling dollars, such as remodeling slowly, using solar tubes instead of skylights and more, read on here.

    Do you have ingenious ways of making home improvements without breaking the bank? Share them on our Facebook page. Did you find this article useful? Share it on your Facebook page! Like this article? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you a regular digest of our newest stories, full of money saving tips and advice, free! We'll also email you a PDF of Stacy Johnson's "205 Ways to Save Money" as soon as you've subscribed. It's full of great tips that'll help you save a ton of extra cash.

     

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    hot air balloons over the gorge ...
    Shutterstock

    By Paul Michael

    Most of us have a few ways of racking airline miles up, either through credit cards, loyalty clubs or frequent flyer programs. Depending on which way you earn your miles, they can be worth several cents a mile, with a penny a mile being the average.

    What do you do with all those miles once you've collected a bunch -- but aren't flying anywhere? After all, 100,000 miles is a cool $1,000, and can be acquired quickly with a double miles card and some business and personal trips.

    1. Do Something Thrilling

    How do you fancy doing a tandem skydive? What about doing three laps in a stock car or Indy race? Maybe a hot air balloon ride, fighter pilot experience or scuba diving is your thing. Airline miles can now be turned into memories you will never forget. Some run as little as 10,000 miles, and others top 650,000 miles. It all depends on how much of your breath you want taken away.

    2. Turn Them Into Magazines, Newspapers

    If you really want to stretch your airline miles, why not turn a few thousand in for some subscriptions to big magazines and newspapers? The price is so cheap, it's almost free. Many annual magazine subscriptions are under 2,000 miles, or $20. When you consider the average price at the newsstand is $4-$5, that's a steal. Newspapers also take part, and you can use local papers. Simply enter your AIP code, and you'll get airline mile quotes for your local papers, usually for 13 weeks and above.

    3. Donate to Charity

    If you're feeling philanthropic, airline rewards can easily be donated to charities. Just enter your ZIP code and the area of interest you'd like to help out with. The miles will be turned into cash donations, and of course, they are tax-deductible.

    4. Get the Latest in Entertainment

    Whether it's the latest albums, songs, eBooks, audiobooks, movies or TV series, you can easily exchange the miles you have accrued for hours and hours of great entertainment. Just check out the offers page of your airline miles website.

    5. Bid in Auctions

    Most airline miles reward sites have an auctions section now. For instance, United is accepting mileage bids on VIP experiences with sports stars. Of course, if you don't win, you don't lose the miles, so you can bid again on something else.

    6. Upgrade Your Flight

    It can cost many thousands of dollars to buy a first class ticket to Europe. But when you use your miles, it's nowhere near as expensive. For instance, take a quick look at this chart. A typical upgrade to business class, from economy, is coming in at around 50,000 miles. You can take your long haul flight from a sardine can experience, to something much more pleasurable indeed. American Airlines charges just 25,000 miles to go from a full fare ticket to a business seat.

    7. Get a Better Hotel Room

    Most miles you accrue can be transferred to hotel loyalty programs, be it Starwood Preferred Guest, Hilton HHonors or Marriott Rewards. So, next time you check in, see if you can use some of your miles to get a much better room. It can cost as little as 6,000 miles to go from a standard room to a fancy suite.

    8. Take a Cruise

    You can redeem your airline miles for tickets to cruise lines, including Norwegian, Royal, Celebrity, Carnival and Princess. How about four nights in the Bahamas for under 25,000 miles? In fact, the average cost of a night on board a cruise ship is between 9,000 and 10,000 points. That's cheaper than a mediocre hotel room in the Midwest.

    9. Pay Off Your Credit Card

    Some credit cards have programs that can give you cash credits to your statement or even cold hard cash. With the former, you make travel related purchases with your credit card, and then use your miles to put that money back on the card at a later date. It's basically like using your miles to go shopping without worrying about using points to redeem flights or stays.

    10. Get Cool Merchandise

    What kind of cool stuff? Well, what do you want? Airline miles can be turned into great purchases, with categories including apparel, accessories, automotive, tools, baby gear, electronics, gadgets, home and garden, sports, outdoors, toys and collectibles. I recently used rewards to get a fantastic hybrid coffee maker that uses both pods and regular filters. It's also great fun to browse. Of course, make sure you're not paying over the manufacturer's suggested retail price for anything.

    Now, have you done something cool with your airline miles that isn't on this list? Let us know.

     

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    Row of Houses
    Getty Images
    By Teresa Mears

    If you buy a condominium, townhouse or single-family home in a newer development, you're likely to become a member of a community association.

    About 20 percent of Americans live in a community governed by a condo association, homeowners association or co-op board, according to the Community Associations Institute, which educates volunteer board members and association management professionals. The number of communities covered by associations has grown to more than 333,000 today from about 10,000 in 1970.

    Community associations come with rules that determine everything from the number of pets you can own to what color you can paint your front door. Some include amenities such as pools, clubhouses and golf courses, while others provide services such as road maintenance and streetlights.

    The associations are set up by developers and then turned over to a volunteer board of homeowners once all the units in the development are sold. Those volunteers are responsible for making sure facilities are maintained, collecting maintenance dues and enforcing the rules. "This is the ultimate form of democracy," says Frank Rathbun, vice president of communications for the institute.

    Satisfied -- or Not?

    While stories of homeowners associations that deny permission for kids with cancer to build a playhouse or veterans to fly a flag on the wrong kind of pole may steal the headlines, institute statistics show that 64 percent of residents are satisfied with their community association experience and 26 percent are neutral, with only 10 percent dissatisfied, according to a 2014 survey.

    But the same survey shows that almost a quarter of residents have experienced a significant disagreement with their association, with landscaping and parking being the two most common causes, followed by finances and architectural issues.

    Whether you like or hate the rules that come with community association life, once you've bought or rented in an association, you've signed on. Being a member of an association ties your fate to your neighbors' in ways that living in a traditional subdivision doesn't. "You have to overcome that 'my home is my castle' issue," Rathbun says.

    Property Values, Property Values, Property Values

    Rules are designed to protect property values, and 70 percent of the respondents in the CAI survey believe they do, while 26 percent believe they make no difference. Disagreements over which rules are required to protect property values often leads to conflicts that can cost residents both time and money if they're handled poorly.

    "People ought to know that being in a condo is a give-and-take kind of thing," says Patrick Hohman, author of "Condos Townhomes and Home Owner Associations: How to Make Your Investment Safer" and a longtime volunteer board member who is now a part-time, on-site manager at a condominium near Louisville, Kentucky. He also runs an educational website called www.CondoHOAinfo.com. "It's a nonstop process of building trust and maintaining trust," Hohman says. "You learn to be forgiving of others and forgiving of yourself. You deal with people where they are and as they are. It's kind of like dealing with your extended family at Thanksgiving."

    "Board members are almost never trained in property management," says Richard Thompson, who publishes The Regenesis Report, a weekly newsletter for board members and developers. He also writes a syndicated column for Realty Times and just published the book "Trade HOA Stress for Success."

    Professional Management Is Common

    He recommends professional management -- hiring trained and experienced property managers to oversee operations -- for most associations. "If the board hires competent people, they're going to stay ahead of the curve and not put fires out," he says. About two-thirds of associations hire professional managers, but the rest are managed by the residents themselves.

    Communities are dependent upon the skills and personalities that residents and board members bring to the table. Some people are better than others at working with their neighbors, and residents with poor people skills can create problems for everyone, especially if they get on the board.

    Experts say that communications and transparency -- being very clear about where the money goes, welcoming residents and board meetings and sharing information about how decisions are made -- go a long way toward building community harmony. "There is no substitution for communication between the association and the residents," Rathbun says.

    How to Get Along
    • Know the rules before you move in. Too few prospective residents understand the rules before they buy or rent. It's particularly important to be able to live with policies on pets, parking, collection, rentals, noise and architectural guidelines. "Folks buy into a homeowner association without any clue of what they're obligated to do," Thompson says. "Few prospective buyers research these things before they close the deal."
    • Follow proper procedures. Boards should set up clear procedures for everything from getting permission to paint your front door to rental applications to installing a satellite dish, and homeowners should expect to follow those procedures.
    • Go to your neighbor before you go to the board. The board is there to make sure the rules and regulations of the development are followed, but if your neighbor's loud music annoys you, talk to your neighbor first before taking your complaint to the HOA board.
    • If you don't like a rule, get your neighbors together to change it. Changing circumstances may make some rules outmoded, and boards should review the rules every few years to make sure they're all serving the community. If you don't like a rule, talk to your neighbors and petition the board collectively for a change.
    • Volunteer to help your community. It's not always evident from the outside what work the board of directors is doing and what issues the community faces. Once you move in, volunteer to help with a project or serve on a committee, and expect to serve on the board at some point. "Get involved. Don't wait until you're dissatisfied about something," Rathbun says.
    • Try to stay out of court. Every community has a few people who think the rules don't apply to them, and some would rather fight than comply. A court battle can be costly, both in money and in emotional turmoil within the community. "Win, lose or draw, we are still talking about neighbors who have this bigger wall between them," Thompson says. Adds Rathbun: "Be reasonable: That applies to both the homeowners and the volunteer homeowners who serve on the board."
    • Have a long-range plan. State laws regarding reserves and planning vary, but it always makes sense to plan for items you know will have to be replaced or repaired, such as roads, roofs and pools. If the community has no reserves and no plan, a roof leak at a condominium complex could mean a surprise assessment of thousands of dollars for each homeowner. "If the board had been collecting money and planning for this ... every member along the timeline would have been paying some portion," Thompson says.

     

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