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    How to Pick the Perfect Financial Adviser

    By Hiram Reisner

    For most of us, feeling confident in our financial decisions calls for the help of a skilled and reliable adviser. A professional can help us create the path to our investment goals, whether that means generating immediate returns, providing college education for a pack of kids, securing a comfortable retirement, or all of the above.

    Here's the challenge: There are at least 250,000 financial advisers in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and not all are created equal. So how do you choose one? Read on.

    1. Trawl for referrals. Start by getting recommendations from friends, family and reliable Internet sources. If you're getting referrals from friends, it makes sense to rely on those who are in a similar stage of life, with similar financial needs, Forbes suggests. Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson notes that your accountant or lawyer may be another good source for referrals, depending on their familiarity with your circumstances.

    Check out registries with professional associations like the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors or Garrett Planning Network to locate advisers in your area who have received training and agreed to the organizations' ethical standards, says

    Also, knowing some financial advisers may be distracted by sales quotas and time prospecting for new clients, you want to make sure that your financial adviser won't sign you up and then file you away, warns

    Once you think you have some potential candidates, ask them these questions:

    2. What are you going to do for me? Beware the salesman, Ameriprise Vice President Pierce Hardman tells MTN.

    "I think one of the most important things is for the financial adviser to listen to the potential client," Hardman says. "All too frequently they talk themselves up a bit and blather on about what they can sell you, when in reality it is all about what you need -- not what they can sell you."

    Shomari Hearn, a vice president at Palisades Hudson Financial Group, describes his philosophy with clients.

    "I'm going to approach it from a holistic approach. I'm going to look at your overall situation," Hearn says. "Not only looking at your investment portfolio, but taxes, estate planning, retirement planning."

    3. How are you paid? 'Fee-only' vs 'fee-based.' Your potential adviser should outline products that meet your needs. You should avoid advisers who have a financial incentive to focus on the offerings of particular firms or on specific investments. These are known as fee-based or commission-based advisers.

    Stacy recommends a fee-only adviser to eliminate conflicts of interest. Fee-only advisers charge you a rate, usually based on the assets you put under management.

    Here's a cautionary tale that illustrates what can go wrong with an adviser motivated by commissions: How to Find an Awful Financial Adviser.

    In any case, make sure you are clear about what you are getting.

    "No matter how they get paid, ask them, so you know," says Stacy.

    4. Credentials, disciplinary history. If you want someone to manage your money, then look for a registered and educated investment adviser, according to Forbes.

    The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority allows you to check out the advisers through Brokercheck, Ameriprise's Hardman says. FINRA oversees the people and firms that sell stocks, bonds, mutual funds and other securities.

    You type in your current or prospective broker's name to see employment history, certifications and licenses - as well as regulatory actions, violations or complaints. You also can get information about your broker's firm, according to Brokercheck.

    The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which investigates suspected fraud, can clue you in on advisers who have had disciplinary actions. Disciplinary History is a searchable repository of the agency's active investigations and past violations. Look for CFTC SmartCheck.

    Run this search to find out if your financial professional has a disciplinary history with the CFTC. The AARP also offers a questionnaire to help you weed out the bad players.

    5. How will I know how I am doing? It's important to be clear about communication with your financial adviser.

    You need to set a schedule, laying out how often you will meet to evaluate and review your portfolio and whether this will be done in person or remotely. The adviser should be ready to help you measure your progress over time with regular meetings and check-ins as well as access to your account online.

    Proper communication is the key to a successful relationship that can last through many market cycles: It is important to work with an adviser who talks to you, not through you, according to Right Financial Advisor.

    Bottom line: Always remember that your adviser should be working for you, not the other way around.

    Do you have hints or tips for getting the most value from a financial adviser? Share them with other Money Talks News readers.

    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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    Home Mortgage Refinance
    Getty ImagesRequest closing documents at least 24 hours before signing so you can closely review them.

    If you're paying an interest rate of more than 5 percent, now may be the time to refinance your home mortgage.

    Although interest rates have risen slightly in the past few weeks, they are still at historic lows. The average rate for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage was 3.87 percent in the last week, and the average rate for a 15-year mortgage was 3.11 percent, according to the Freddie Mac weekly mortgage rate survey.

    Deciding to refinance comes down to whether it will actually save you money, says Casey Fleming, author of "The Loan Guide: How to Get the Best Possible Mortgage" and a mortgage professional in the San Francisco Bay Area. "Everybody wants a rule of thumb, and rules of thumb don't work."

    The biggest mistake people make is they keep regenerating their loan so it's never paid off.

    He suggests calculating whether the new loan will save you money based on the time left to pay off your old loan. The question you should ask yourself is: If you have 20 years left to pay on your mortgage and you get a new 30-year loan, would your payments be lower if you paid the new loan off in 20 years?

    "The biggest mistake people make is they keep regenerating their loan so it's never paid off," Fleming says.

    Jason van den Brand, CEO and founder of Lenda, a Web-based platform that allows homeowners to complete a mortgage refinance completely online, cautions against being drawn in by deals that advertise "rates as low as," because you're unlikely to ever receive those rates. "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," van den Brand says. Lenda, which so far handles only refinance loans in California, Washington and Oregon, believes it can save customers money by automating the process. Van den Brand notes that, as a lender, his company is different from sites that provide mortgage quotes and then hand off leads to brokers.

    "You end up looking at a lot of sites that are ultimately lead-generation sites," van den Brand says. "Be careful about putting your name and number online unless you're ready to receive 10 calls an hour. Telemarketing is not necessarily the solution to a better experience."

    Here are 11 steps to help you navigate the refinance process:

    Make sure your credit is in order. Your credit score is perhaps the largest factor that will determine what rate you get on your new loan. Before you apply for refinancing, get a copy of your credit reports and make sure there are no errors. "Even if you think everything is fine, you might have a serious credit issue," Fleming says.

    Know your home's value. Your house will have to undergo an appraisal for the lender to know its worth. That number will help determine how much you can borrow. Check comparable sale prices (not just listing prices) in your neighborhood to see if your house is worth as much as you think it is.

    Get all your documents together. If you haven't applied for a mortgage recently, you may be surprised at how much documentation and verification is involved. Whether you're scanning, faxing or uploading with your phone, you'll still need to provide proof of employment, income and assets. That could mean pay stubs, tax returns, bank statements and other documents, which places a premium on organization. "The more you can have your documents ready, the faster the process will go," van den Brand says.

    Get quotes from at least three mortgage lenders or brokers. When you start shopping for a mortgage, make sure you get quotes from multiple lenders or brokers. You might start with your bank, but also consult an independent mortgage broker because one may have programs and deals the other doesn't. Online quotes give an idea of the range of rates available, but only quotes using your real credit score and the loan-to-value ratio of your deal are truly accurate. Personal referrals are a better way to find a quality mortgage broker. "You need to make sure the mortgage professional you're working with is on your side and is going to give you good advice," Fleming says.

    Decide whether to pay more now in exchange for a lower rate. If you pay "points" on a mortgage -- a point is a fee equal to 1 percent of the loan amount -- you can get a lower rate. If you plan to keep the home for more than three years, it may be a good idea to pay the points, Fleming says, as long as you pay in cash upfront and don't add to your mortgage balance. "Not only is your mortgage payment lower, but more of your payment goes to principal," he says.

    Make sure you are comparing apples and apples. The numbers you want to compare are interest rate, fees and points. Fees will vary by lender. Rates will, too, but rates also will vary based on whether you want to pay points. You also will have additional fees that should be the same no matter which lender you choose, including state or local taxes and title costs.

    Know that 'no-cost' refinance deals don't exist. A refinancing that has no upfront closing costs from the lender has the costs built into the interest rate or adds them to the principal balance. If you plan to keep the loan for a long time, you might be better off paying fees.

    Consider whether to lengthen or shorten your mortgage. When you refinance you mortgage, you start the 30-year clock ticking again. If you don't want to do that, consider a 10-year, 15-year or 20-year mortgage, if you qualify. "If you can afford it, a 15-year loan or a 10-year loan is a good idea," Fleming says. Reducing the length of your mortgage can be an appealing option for homeowners seeking to pay off their house before retirement.

    Weigh carefully whether to take cash out. If you take cash out to, say, remodel your kitchen, you will be paying for that remodeling job for 30 years -- during which time you may need to remodel again. If you take cash out to pay your child's college tuition, you put your home at risk if you don't make the payments, which doesn't happen if you take out an education loan. There are times when taking out cash makes sense (you can't get that low of an interest rate elsewhere), but there are times it's not wise.

    Know what it will cost to close. The fees charged by the bank aren't the only costs you'll need to pay to refinance. You'll also need to pay taxes, legal fees, title costs and perhaps put additional money in escrow for taxes and insurance. In some states, it pays to shop for closing agents because fees may vary significantly. In other states, there is less variation.

    Scrutinize the documents before closing. Ask to see the closing documents at least 24 hours before you're expected to sign. That gives you time to ask questions and get any errors corrected.


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    financial check
    Getty Images
    By Rebecca Reisner

    You have six months of take-home pay socked away in an emergency fund, you pride yourself on your 720 credit score, and you contribute enough to your company 401(k) to get a match.

    If this sounds like you, then you deserve a big pat on the back -- you're well on the road to optimal financial health.

    But what are the signs that you're really rocking your finances -- that you're not just an "A" student, but picking up extra-credit points along the way?

    To help you see if you've entered overachiever territory, we've rounded up six benchmarks that show you're kicking your finances into high gear.

    And even if you can't tick off everything on this list, consider them aspirational new goals to work toward, so you can take your money game to the next level.

    Telltale Sign No. 1: You're a two-income household -- but you can live off just one.

    For couples who bring in two salaries, it can be tough to resist the temptation of lifestyle inflation -- which makes it all the more impressive when you can comfortably live off one income and devote the other to long-term goals, like retirement or a college fund.

    "It's a good objective, although it's fairly rare that people can do it," says Kevin O'Reilly, a certified financial planner and principal at Foothills Financial Planning. "It's not unusual to see people with two incomes who can't save anything."

    So if you're part of a duo who's resisted trading up your lives with every raise or bonus, consider yourself masters of living well within your means.

    "[Living on one income] is a great discipline -- and it provides a lot of financial help if one spouse loses a job down the road," says Jean Keener, a certified financial planner and principal of Keener Financial Planning.

    If you're not quite there, comb through your expenses to see which category of costs is eating into your budget the most, and use that as a starting point for paring back.

    "If a significant portion of [your budget] is discretionary, it may be easy to cut back travel, make fewer trips to a restaurant, or buy clothes less frequently," Keener says. "However, if [your budget] is going mostly to fixed spending, looking at larger items will lead to longer-term success. Making one big decision, like downsizing your house, [will be] generally easier than making small decisions about cups of coffee and Girl Scout cookies."

    Telltale Sign No. 2: Your net worth exceeds your annual income -- and keeps growing.

    Net worth is one of the most important barometers of financial health because it looks at your whole money life: your total assets (like the cash in your checking account, the current value of your home and your investments) minus your liabilities (such as student loans, credit card debt and what's left on your mortgage).

    While having a positive net worth is great, having a net worth that exceeds what you earn is excellent because it shows you've been diligent about building wealth, living within your means and paying down debt simultaneously -- goals you don't have to be in the wealthiest 1 percent to achieve.

    There's no hard and fast rule for how much your net worth should be. But for something aspirational, O'Reilly likes this equation from Thomas J. Stanley, author of "The Millionaire Next Door": 10 percent times your age times your income. So if, say, you're 40 and make $100,000, your target net worth would be $400,000.
    "I have people who come in and say they're good savers, but they haven't touched their 401(k) allocation in 10 years. That's a bad sign."
    But don't let that number intimidate you -- what's really important is that you show an upward trend.

    "Is your net worth growing? That's a good sign that debt is going down and savings are going up," Keener says. "Maybe you don't think you have enough yet, but you're headed in the right direction."

    Just make sure that you're not relying on just one asset to get into the black. Otherwise, you may not be addressing all of your long-term savings goals.

    For example, "[Your] half-million-dollar house is not necessarily something you're going to use to fund your retirement," says Cheryl Krueger, a certified financial planner and founder of Growing Fortunes Financial Partners. A healthy retirement plan covers a comprehensive mix of assets.

    Telltale Sign No. 3: You can name what's in your investment portfolio.

    If you've been steadily stowing away 10 percent of your income into your 401(k), congratulations! Now, quick: What's your asset allocation?

    If you can answer that without reaching for old brokerage statements, you're ahead of the game. "I have people who come in and say they're good savers, but they haven't touched their 401(k) allocation in 10 years," O'Reilly says. "That's a bad sign."

    Unfortunately, investing with blinders on isn't altogether uncommon: One 2014 survey found that one in five people don't know what goals they're investing for -- and about 12 percent don't know which primary asset class their money is in.

    So how can you go from clueless to someone who can answer the asset allocation question in five seconds flat?

    For starters, keep tabs on where your accounts are housed, and don't look at them as separate entities. Your portfolio as a whole should be reviewed to see if it's meeting your investment objectives, whether that's growth (taking on more risk) or preservation (taking on less risk to protect your principal).

    "In a couple, typically one spouse knows more about the finances than the other, so they defer to the other person [on knowing where the money is]," Krueger says. "Or with single people, you see a lot who've changed jobs and don't [even] know where their 401(k) is. It helps to be able to look at things all together."

    Once you've nailed down your total investment picture, figure out the frequency with which you'll check on those investments -- keeping in mind that you may have to tune out market noise. "You don't have to look at the Dow every day, but you should be checking your portfolio every quarter or so," suggests Keener.

    Telltale Sign No. 4: You neither owe nor get a refund at tax time.

    If you got to the bottom of form 1040 this year and netted close to zero, then you (or your accountant) did an excellent job of managing your tax liability.

    "Penalties are a waste of money, and an unexpected tax bill can cause someone to invade their emergency fund or [resort to] high-interest credit cards to help pay the bill," Keener says. "It's also beneficial not to get a huge refund because you could be earning interest on that money over the course of the year, rather than giving an interest-free loan to the IRS."

    If you consistently owe or get a refund of more than $1,000, consider adjusting your withholding, so more or fewer taxes are taken out of your paycheck during the year.

    Using your most recent W2, fill out the IRS' withholding calculator to estimate what your number should be -- and remember to take note of any life changes that could affect your tax situation, such as getting married, having a child or changing jobs midway through the year.

    Telltale Sign No. 5: Less than a third of your income goes toward debt.

    Your debt-to-income ratio -- minimum monthly debt and mortgage payments divided by your gross monthly income -- helps tell lenders how well you're managing debt.

    Although every lender varies, the oft-quoted benchmark for an acceptable debt ratio is 36 percent. Krueger, however, believes that percentage is still fairly high.

    "I would say 10 percent or less of your gross income going to debt is a good indicator [of strong financial health] -- and, of course, you want it eventually to go down to zero," she says.
    "Before you trade up for the latest car model, consider whether you really need that rich Corinthian leather -- or whether the money could be better served for retirement."
    Krueger believes that aiming for less than the lending benchmark is prudent, because "between taxes and saving for retirement, having debt [take up] 36 percent of your income doesn't leave much money for [other] savings."

    If you need to chip away at debt to improve your debt-to-income ratio, consider the "avalanche method," which involves prioritizing paying down your highest-interest debts first, while still meeting the minimum payments on others.

    Then, once you're done paying off that first debt, you can apply that payment to your next highest-interest loan or credit card.

    Telltale Sign No. 6: You're done with car payments.

    Being free and clear of auto financing is a double-whammy positive indicator. Not only have you eliminated debt -- and likely improved your debt-to-income ratio -- but "it means you're driving your cars longer, and getting more value out of them," O'Reilly says.

    But living car-debt-free is something few Americans seem to be able to accomplish: At the end of 2014, the country's automotive loan balances reached a record $886 billion, according to Experian Automotive.

    Of course, this doesn't mean you should sink a hefty lump sum into your car loan just to be rid of it.

    "[Not having a car payment] is a positive indicator [of financial health], but with interest rates so low right now, having a car loan isn't necessarily a bad thing," Keener says. You could, for instance, consider using that money instead to beef up an emergency fund, pay off higher-interest debt or invest in something with better returns.

    In other words, what having no car payment really signals is that you're getting as much bang for your auto buck by driving your car until it dies -- which can yield a significant savings, considering the average auto loan now surpasses $28,000.

    So before you trade up for the latest model, consider whether you really need that rich Corinthian leather, or whether the money could be better served for retirement -- or a new-car savings account, so you can pay cash for your next ride.

    "Financially, you're much better off if you continue driving the car as long as possible and view it as a depreciating asset that's just transportation from point A to point B," Keener says. "As long as it's reliable and safe, it doesn't need to be replaced."


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    Bellhop smiling, portrait
    Getty Images
    By Louis DeNicola

    It's easier than ever to find good deals on hotel rooms online, but the actual price at the check-out counter is often higher due to fees and charges that are tacked onto the bill. In 2014, hotels made $2.25 billion in revenue from extra fees and add-ons, according to a study by a researcher at New York University. Travelers can be nickel-and-dimed for just about anything, and the most frustrating part is that many of the fees aren't clearly disclosed ahead of time. found 10 such fees and offers tips on how to avoid them.

    Minibar. It's not a secret that items in the hotel minibar have huge markups. Avoiding minibar charges should be easy: just don't eat or drink anything. But it's not always that simple. Some hotel minibars have sensors that automatically charge guests for items that are simply picked up or moved, even if they are put back. The front desk should remove these charges, but you have to notice them on your bill and ask. Some hotels may charge guests to store their own items in the minibar, up to $50 a night. Read the fine print on the refrigerator to avoid this aggravating fee.

    Parking. Often buried in the booking agreement, parking can cost an extra $20 to $30 a day, even for self-parking. Avoid this fee by parking in a nearby lot or on the street. Even if you don't have a car at the hotel, give the final bill a quick check. Some hotels automatically charge the parking fee, and you'll have to ask to remove it if you didn't use the parking facilities.

    Wi-Fi. With free Wi-Fi available at just about every McDonald's and Starbucks, you'd think hotels would offer the same. But an extra charge for using in-room Wi-Fi is common at business and luxury hotels, and the fee can be $20 a day or more. The easiest way to avoid this fee is to stay at a hotel that offers free Wi-Fi, or to limit Wi-Fi use to the lobby or business center that offers a free connection.

    Resort Fees. Hotels in popular tourist destinations such as Las Vegas often tack a resort fee onto the bill. The fee covers the use of the pool, lounge chairs, beach umbrellas, and fitness and business centers, and it's mandatory even if you don't use those amenities. The advertised price rarely includes the resort fee and the extra charge can catch guests off guard. Some travel sites and hotel chains list the fee before you book, but that's not always the case. Annoyingly, the fee can be charged even if you book a free room using points in the hotel's loyalty program. There's no way to avoid this charge aside from reading the fine print ahead of time and opting for a hotel that doesn't charge a resort fee.

    Early Check-In and Late Check-Out. Some hotels charge guests for arriving early or leaving late. Asking politely at the hotel desk to skip those fees can pay off. Alternatively, ask to store your bags at the hotel desk before checking in or after checking out.

    Third-Party Reservation Fee. This is the easiest fee to avoid if you catch it in time. Some online travel sites, such as Priceline (PCLN) and Orbitz (OWW), charge a fee for booking select hotels. Avoid this fee by booking directly with the hotel.

    In-Room Safe. The extra charge for an in-room safe is usually small, just a few dollars a day, but some hotels don't disclose the fee up front. If you didn't use the safe, ask the front desk to remove the charge. Alternatively, call ahead when booking and ask the hotel to remove the fee if you don't plan to use the safe or ask for a room that doesn't have one.

    Fitness Center. A charge for use of the hotel fitness center may be added to your bill automatically even if you didn't use the facilities. Ask the hotel to remove the fee when you check out.

    Automatic Gratuity. You may have planned to tip housekeeping anyway, but check to see if a gratuity has been added to your bill so you don't tip twice. The same goes for services you received during your stay, such as a massage at the spa.

    Telephone Surcharge. Using the phone, even for local calls, can result in extra fees at many hotels. This is easy enough to avoid by using your own phone, but what if you're traveling overseas? Sign up for a Skype subscription and for $2.99 a month you can make unlimited calls to U.S. and Canadian landlines and mobile phones. Or check with your cellphone provider about local service plans to avoid big fees on international calls.

    Get Status. One way to avoid extra fees is to have elite status in a hotel chain's loyalty program. Depending on the chain, the higher status can include extras like free Wi-Fi, breakfast, bottled water in your room, early check-in or late check-out, health club access, and upgraded rooms. Some credit cards automatically give you elite status just for being a cardholder. The cards may have an annual fee, but the perks can more than offset the cost in just a single trip.


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    More Jobs Low Inflation
    Paul Sancya/APAutomated robots build a Chrysler 200 at the Sterling Heights Assembly Plant in Michigan.
    U.S. economic growth in the second quarter will be far weaker than previously expected and it will prevent the pace of growth from exceeding last year's 2.4 percent, according to a forecast by a group of U.S. business economists.

    Growth is expected to accelerate significantly in the third quarter, but "sluggish" conditions in the first three months of the year will persist into the second quarter and drag down average growth for the year, a survey by the National Association for Business Economists said Monday.

    The survey of 47 economists from companies, trade associations and academia was conducted from May 8 to May 20.

    A growing number of economists in the survey believe that the Federal Reserve will begin raising interest rates in the third quarter. Many had expected a second-quarter increase until the year started off so slowly.

    The labor market will improve at a slower rate also, according to the survey, but job growth will remain "robust." Economists now believe payrolls will grow by 217,000 a month in 2015, down from an earlier forecast of 251,000. Last year the economy added 260,000 jobs a month on average.

    A stronger U.S. dollar is hampering growth by making U.S. goods more expensive overseas, and slower growth in China is also taking a toll on the U.S. economy, according to the survey.

    The group's forecast for U.S. economic growth in 2015 fell to 2.4 percent, from 3.1 percent in March.

    The Federal Reserve also has revised its expectations for growth after a difficult winter. It expects economic growth for the year to average between 2.3 percent and 2.7 percent, down from a range of 2.6 percent to 3 percent it projected in December.

    Still, the survey pointed to a number of positive economic indicators despite what it described as a "disappointing" start to 2015. The NABE panel expects consumer spending, residential investment and government expenditures to increase at a faster pace in both 2015 and 2016 compared with last year.


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    Apples Show
    Jeff Chiu/APPedestrians in front of the Moscone Center in San Francisco, site of the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference.
    By Julia Love and Yasmeen Abutaleb

    SAN FRANCISCO -- Apple announced its new music streaming service Monday, dubbed Apple Music, entering a hotly competitive market but offering a product that comes with tremendous strengths.

    Calling it a "revolutionary music service," legendary music industry figure Jimmy Iovine took the stage at the company's annual conference for developers to unveil what had been widely expected ahead of the event. Apple Music includes a service to connect artists and fans and what the company described as a global radio station called Beats 1.

    While late to the streaming music business, Apple has strong advantages: deep relationships with music companies; a global brand; and hundreds of millions of customers -- and their credit cards -- through iTunes.

    Apple Music's $9.99 a month price takes effect after a three-month free subscription period. The company is also offering what it calls a "family plan" for $14.99 a month for up to six family members.

    Earlier in the event, Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook announced that so-called "native" apps will be introduced in the next version of the operating system for its Watch that should make apps for its latest gadget speedier and help untether it from the iPhone.

    The company also unveiled new details about its Apple Pay service, saying it was already supported by more than 2,500 banks and will surpass 1 million locations accepting it next month. In addition, the company said it would roll out the service to the United Kingdom next month.

    In a related move, Apple said it would rename Passbook, its app for credit and debit cards and boarding passes, to Wallet.

    Apple (AAPL) shares were down 0.5 percent at $128.05 in afternoon trading.

    The company also unveiled the next version of its operating system for Macs, El Capitan, continuing the company's theme of naming key updates to the software after California landmarks. The software will be available in the fall.

    Like other Apple products, the Watch's commercial success will likely hinge on a compelling collection of apps. But early apps for the timepiece have been tethered to the iPhone, placing some limits on what developers could do.The expanded software kit should lead to better and faster watch apps, said Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at TECHnalysis Research, in an interview before the event.

    But it was the music service that was the highlight of the event. The company behind the iPod and iTunes has long been a leader in digital music, but it has lost ground in recent years as subscription services such as Spotify have caught on with consumers.


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    Earns Sears
    Steven Senne/AP
    By Nathan Layne and Sruthi Ramakrishnan

    Sears Holdings reported a smaller first-quarter loss as it cut advertising and other costs, but sales continued to tumble, underscoring the need for a big cash injection that the struggling retailer said would materialize next month.

    The company expects its plan to spin off 235 Sears and Kmart stores into a real estate investment trust to be approved by the Securities and Exchange Commission this week, paving the way for a rights offering to sell shares in the REIT to existing shareholders Friday.

    The retailer, which has lost $7 billion over the past four years, expects to receive about $2.6 billion in proceeds from the sale early in July.

    That deal, if accomplished, should buy Sears time to pursue a revival strategy that involves a loyalty program and shrinking its presence to its best-performing stores.

    Still, that strategy has yet to produce profitable results for the retailer, which reported its 12th straight quarterly loss.

    For the quarter ended May 2, net loss attributable to shareholders was $303 million, or $2.85 a share, following a loss of $402 million, or $3.79 a share, a year earlier.

    Overall revenue slumped 25 percent to $5.88 billion, reflecting the sale of most of its stake in its Canadian operations, the spinoff of the Lands' End (LE) clothing chain and the closure of stores.

    Still, shares of Sears (SHLD) jumped 4 percent in premarket trading.

    It reported a sharp drop of 10.9 percent at comparable stores open at least year, a key measure of retail performance. Sales at Kmart fell 7 percent, while Sears' sales slid 14.5 percent, hit by falls in key categories like appliances, apparel and auto centers.

    Sears said some of the decline was expected as it shrinks operations. Apparel was also hurt by supply disruptions due to a slowdown at ports in the West Coast, the company said.

    Sears said it was in talks with lenders to extend a revolving credit facility, due to expire in April 2016, to 2020. It has already reached agreement with three lenders representing $1.175 billion in commitments, it said. The size of the facility would likely decrease to about $2 billion from $3.275 billion.

    Sears was seeking a smaller lending framework because it has fewer stores, a larger online presence, and less need for financing due to decreased inventory levels, Chief Financial Officer Rob Schriesheim said on a pre-recorded conference call.


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    A Caesars Entertainment Corp. Location Ahead Of Earnings Figures
    Jacob Kepler/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesCaesars Palace casino in Las Vegas.
    Plenty of stocks go up and down in any given week. The gainers inspire us to keep investing. The decliners keep greed in check while reminding us about the risks of the equity markets.

    Let's go over some of last week's best and worst performers.

    Immunogen (IMGN) -- Up 64 percent last week

    Nasdaq's biggest gainer last week was Immunogen, taking off after a favorable report. Immunogen announced upbeat data on its ovarian cancer drug candidate at the annual American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting. Immonugen's mirvetuximab soravtansine is currently in the second of three clinical trial stages, but a recent test showed a positive response rate with a little more than half of the patients that had been resistant to other drugs on the market.

    Sina (SINA) -- Up 38 percent last week

    One Chinese CEO is putting his money where his mouth is. Sina shares rallied after its CEO announced plans to buy 11 million shares in a $456 million transaction. Paying $41.49 a share for the 11 million shares was a slight premium to the going price when it was announced Monday, but it's a huge bargain after the 38 percent pop.

    Zoe's Kitchen (ZOES) -- Up 15 percent last week

    A better-than-expected quarterly report sent shares of the Mediterranean restaurant chain higher. Zoe's Kitchen saw its revenue soar 36 percent over the prior year's quarter, fueled by brisk expansion and a robust 7.7 percent spike in comparable-restaurant sales.

    However, the bigger surprise came on the bottom line where Zoe's produced a quarterly profit. Analysts were holding out for a modest quarterly deficit. Zoe's has fared well since going public at $15 just 14 months ago. The stock has now gone on to more than double.

    Caesars Entertainment (CZR) -- Down 32 percent last week

    Nasdaq's biggest decliner was Caesars, losing nearly a third of its value after a judge ruled in favor of creditors that are trying to collect from the casino operator based on a subsidiary's bankruptcy. Caesars has struggled as a leveraged casino operator, and naturally it's not in a position to take on more creditor claims.

    Zumiez (ZUMZ) -- Down 20 percent last week

    West Coast-themed mall retailer Zumiez wiped out after posting a sloppy quarter. Zumiez's fiscal first quarter wasn't pretty, but it was the outlook for its current quarter that ultimately slammed the stock. Zumiez is now targeting between $179 million and $183 million in sales for the period, well short of the $193 million that Wall Street was forecasting. Things get uglier on the bottom line, where Zumiez expects to earn roughly half as much as analysts were projecting.

    Vera Bradley (VRA) -- Down 17 percent last week

    Finally we have Vera Bradley heading lower after a weak quarterly report. The seller of colorful luggage and other accessories slipped after posting a year-over-year decline in revenue. Adjusted earnings fell short of expectations for the second quarter in a row. Several analysts lowered their ratings and/or their price targets following the problematic report.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends ImmunoGen, Sina and Zoe's Kitchen. The Motley Fool owns shares of Zoe's Kitchen. The Motley Fool is short Caesars Entertainment. 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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    Auto Show General Motors
    APThe Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicle was unveiled in January at the Detroit auto show.
    Electric vehicles are growing in popularity, but so far, outside of Tesla Motors' (TSLA) Model S, there haven't been a lot of attractive electric vehicles for consumers to choose from. The Nissan Leaf was an uninspired design and the Chevy Volt didn't bring much in the way of sexiness to EVs.

    But recently automakers have been investing heavily in making EVs people will actually want to buy. Here are five that will look good in your driveway without leaving you broke.

    A Refreshing Bolt

    The Chevy Volt wasn't a head turner when General Motors (GM) launched it, but the Chevy Bolt might be. The sleek, compact design is highlighted by an all-glass roof and a minimal dash that seems like it was designed by a startup auto company rather than Detroit's old guard.

    What's equally as impressive is the 200-mile range and a $38,000 price tag, even before tax incentives. The Chevy Bolt won't go on sale until about a year from now, but it could quickly become the best-selling electric vehicle on the market when it does.

    Tesla Motors' Encore

    The Model S is now the benchmark for electric vehicles, but the Model 3 is really when Tesla Motors will prove its mettle. This will be the third mass-produced vehicle for Tesla Motors (after the Model X launches later this year), but it'll be the first to be within reach for the mass market.

    Current plans are for the Model 3 to have at least 200 miles in range and a price tag of $35,000 before tax incentives. Styling will be similar to the Model S, so Tesla isn't taking too many risks there. With a price tag that's more in reach for consumers this could be a defining product for Tesla Motors' future and could make or break the company financially. The most recently reported launch date for the Model 3 is March 2016.

    Germany's Best Shot at Electric Vehicles

    Tesla Motors and Chevy get a lot of the attention in the EV market, but BMW has come out of nowhere to take the No. 3 spot in U.S. EV sales so far in 2015. The i3 may be the most ambitious EV we've seen yet with a chassis built of carbon fiber and an all-electric design from a company known for luxury, high-performance vehicles.

    The $42,400 price tag is expensive to be sure, but it's not much more than other EVs and among the least expensive vehicles BMW makes. The 81-mile range of the i3 isn't the industry leader in range, but this is also the first crack at EVs for BMW and I think that will improve dramatically given its success out of the gate.

    VW Makes EVs Affordable

    If you want an EV on a budget, the VW e-Golf is a great place to start. The car is available for $25,950 after the $7,500 federal tax credit and gets up to 83 miles on each charge. VW claims you can get up to 66 miles of charge from fast-charging stations that are popping up around the country.

    The e-Golf will also perform nearly as well as gasoline-powered competitors in VW's line. It has just one foot pound less torque than the Golf TSI, due to a natural torque advantage electric engines have over gasoline power. The e-Golf should be fun to drive and at an affordable price it could be a worthy competitor to other compact EVs hitting the market.

    Ford Has Gone Electric

    A relative late comer to the EV party was Ford (F), but it has managed to learn from mistakes manufacturers like GM and Nissan made to bring an EV to the market that could appeal to the masses. The Ford Focus Electric has 80 miles of range in a hatchback design that starts at just $29,170.

    Unlike the original Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt, the Focus Electric is a sleek design that doesn't scream "electric" as it's driving down the road. At under $30,000 it looks like Ford is also trying to see if there's mass appeal for future electric vehicles.

    It's Not So Crazy to 'Go Electric'

    Just a few years ago, it would cost a fortune to buy an electric car and if you got one it was hard to feel "cool" driving it. But automakers have upped their game when it comes to styling, range, and affordability. Today, it's possible to find an attractive electric car without breaking the bank.

    Motley Fool contributor Travis Hoium owns shares of Ford. The Motley Fool recommends BMW, Ford, General Motors, and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford and Tesla Motors. 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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    Home Foreclosure Sign
    Terrance Emerson/Getty Images
    By Diana Olick

    The number of delinquent mortgages continues to fall, but the foreclosure crisis is still taking its toll on hundreds of thousands of borrowers.

    Of the approximately 952,000 borrowers who are 90 or more days past due on their monthly payments, but not yet in foreclosure, 62 percent have already been through some form of home retention program, according to Black Knight Financial Services. They are, it seems, beyond help. Home retention programs were established by lenders and the government to work with borrowers to enable them to keep their homes.

    "The percentages do look significant," said Ben Graboske, senior vice president of Black Knight's data and analytics unit. He pointed to trends in the government's modification program, which has given borrowers less relief of late.

    In 2010, homeowners on average could have received a $530 monthly payment reduction. That has dropped to the $450 range today. Graboske said that it is a major reason you are not seeing better performance for these homeowners today.

    Banks are also getting more aggressive in pushing delinquent loans through the foreclosure process, rather than offering more modifications. As home prices rise and demand surges, banks can sell the homes more easily in today's market than they could during the height of the crisis. Retention actions are down 42 percent over past two years, but of the new modifications or payment plans, 70 percent have already been through one or even more modifications that failed, according to BKFS.

    Banks are also favoring short sales more, rather than taking the home to final foreclosure and selling it. A short sale is when the bank allows the home to be sold for less than the value of the mortgage.

    "The ongoing shift away from [final foreclosure] sales is a driver of improving home prices since bank-owned properties typically sell at a larger discount than short sales," noted a new report from CoreLogic (CLGX). Distressed homes accounted for 12 percent of March home sales, according to the report, down from 39 percent at the peak of the foreclosure crisis.

    The numbers still vary dramatically place to place. Ironically, Washington, D.C., where the federal loan modification program was born, led the nation with 67 percent of its seriously delinquent inventory having gone through some sort of home retention activity. Maryland, Georgia, Texas and Connecticut followed with each seeing 66 percent of their 90-plus-day delinquent inventory involved in a home retention action.

    The government's Home Affordable Modification Program, introduced in 2009 and recently extended, has offered just more than 1.8 million loan modifications to date. Banks and mortgage servicers have also done independent loan modifications, including millions of dollars in principal reduction and principal forgiveness.

    Although the number of both delinquent loans and those in active foreclosure is down dramatically, they are still two and three times their precrisis norms, respectively, with 28 percent of the remaining foreclosure inventory located in just three states: Florida, New York and New Jersey, according to BKFS.


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    Everest College Closes
    Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty ImagesEverest College in City of Industry, Calif., is one of the Corinthian Colleges that closed in April.

    WASHINGTON -- The federal government will erase much of the debt of students who attended the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges, officials announced Monday, as part of a new plan that could cost taxpayers as much as $3.6 billion.

    Corinthian Colleges was one of the largest for-profit schools when it nearly collapsed last year and became a symbol of fraud in the world of higher education and student loans. According to investigators, Corinthian schools charged exorbitant fees, lied about job prospects for its graduates and, in some cases, encouraged students to lie about their circumstances to get more federal aid.

    We will make this process as easy as possible for them, including by considering claims in groups wherever possible, and hold institutions accountable.

    In a plan orchestrated by the Department of Education, some of the Corinthian schools closed while others were sold before the chain went bankrupt this spring. The biggest question has been what should happen to the debt incurred by students whose schools were sold. The law already provides for debt relief for students of schools that close.

    "We will make this process as easy as possible for them, including by considering claims in groups wherever possible, and hold institutions accountable," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement.

    The Education Department said it would streamline the process for the students whose schools were sold but who still believe they were victims of fraud.

    For example, the department has already found that many programs at a California subsidiary of Corinthian Colleges, known as Heald College, were "misrepresented" to students. So any student enrolled in the school between 2010 and 2015 would likely qualify for relief.

    The amount of debt relief could be staggering. Officials estimate that at the Heald College alone about 40,000 borrowers took on $542 million in loans. That number, however, climbs to $3.6 billion in loans if looking across all Corinthian schools, according to the Education Department.

    Duncan told reporters in a phone call Monday that the department has no way of knowing how many students will come forward and ask for help.

    "It's an unknown quantity at this point," he said of the final price tag.

    Former officials at Corinthian Colleges weren't immediately available for comment. A former lawyer for the school said he no longer represents the chain of colleges since it went bankrupt.

    Most of the company's assets have been sold and its stock worthless.

    Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., praised the move by the administration, even as it left glaring questions about whether the government could have done more to protect students in the first place.

    "It is our responsibility to hold servicers and colleges accountable to prevent future students from having to endure anything like this debacle ever again," Cummings said.

    Online: For Corinthian Colleges Students: What You Need to Know about Debt Relief


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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Noel Randewich

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks ended lower Monday as investors worried about Greece and mulled the prospect of the Federal Reserve raising interest rates as early as September.

    With investors growing more nervous about the timing of the Fed's first rate hike in nearly a decade, the Dow fell into negative territory for 2015.

    Stronger-than-expected May jobs data released Friday prompted expectations of a Fed rate hike in September, sooner than some expected.

    The May jobs number is pointing in the direction of a more likely interest-rate hike. The market is cringing at that idea.

    "The May jobs number is pointing in the direction of a more likely interest-rate hike. The market is cringing at that idea," said Frank Davis, director of sales and trading at LEK Securities in New York.

    Also weighing on U.S. investors, officials from Greece and the European Union met Monday but there was little indication of progress to head off a potential Greek debt default when the country's bailout program expires at the end of June.

    "The news flow continues to revolve around Greece," said Alan Gayle, senior investment strategist and director of asset allocation at RidgeWorth Investments in Atlanta. "We're of the opinion that a successful resolution to the Greek problem remains a coin toss."

    The dollar retreated after a report -- later denied -- that President Barack Obama had expressed concern over its strength after a year-long rally.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell 82.91 points, or 0.5 percent, to end at 17,766.55. The Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) lost 13.55 points, or 0.7 percent, to 2,079.28 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) dropped 46.83 points, or 0.9 percent, to 5,021.63.

    Nine of the 10 major S&P sectors were lower, with the technology index's 1.2 percent drop leading the losses.

    With Monday's losses, the Dow is down 0.3 percent in 2015, while the S&P 500 is up a modest 1 percent and the Nasdaq is 6 percent higher.

    Movers and Shakers

    Atmel (ATML) jumped 3.6 percent after Reuters reported the chipmaker is exploring strategic alternatives including a possible sale.

    Apple (AAPL) weighed most on the Nasdaq composite and the S&P 500. It was down 0.7 percent to $127.80 after the iPhone-maker unveiled a new music service.

    Airlines stocks fell 4.34 percent, with JetBlue (JBLU) slumping 7.2 percent. Qatar Airways asked the industry's largest trade group to address protectionism, hitting back against U.S. airlines campaigning to restrict competition from Gulf carriers.

    Tesla Motors (TSLA) rose 2.9 percent after plans for its Gigafactory got a boost from Panasonic's move to start sending its employees to the plant, with manufacturing expected to begin next year.

    Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by 2,153 to 884, for a 2.44-to-1 ratio on the downside; on the Nasdaq, 1,785 issues fell and 1,004 advanced for a 1.78-to-1 ratio favoring decliners.

    The S&P 500 posted 9 new 52-week highs and 9 new lows; the Nasdaq composite recorded 131 new highs and 28 new lows.

    About 5.5 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, below the 6.1 billion daily average so far in June, according to BATS Global Markets.

    -With additional reporting by Tanya Agrawal.

    What to watch Tuesday:
    • Lululemon Athletica (LULU) and Burlington Stores (BURL) release quarterly financial results before U.S. stock markets open.
    • At 10 a.m. Eastern time, the Commerce Department reports wholesale trade inventories for April, and the Labor Department releases job openings and labor turnover survey for April.


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    social security cards
    Getty ImagesFrom 62 to 70, here's what you can expect to receive.
    By Emily Brandon

    You can sign up for Social Security at any time after age 62. However, your monthly payments will be larger for each month you delay claiming them up until age 70. Here is when most people start receiving Social Security payments, and how signing up at each age impacts your payout.

    Age 62. The most popular age to claim Social Security payments is age 62, the earliest possible age you can sign up. However, the proportion of people signing up for Social Security at age 62 has been declining since the mid-1990s, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College analysis of Social Security Administration data. Some 48 percent of women and 42 percent of men signed up for Social Security at age 62 in 2013, down from around 60 percent of women and 55 percent of men in 2005, CRR found.

    Social Security payments are reduced if you claim them before your full retirement age, which is typically age 66 or 67, depending on your birth year. If you sign up at age 62, you will get 25 percent smaller monthly payments if your full retirement age is 66 and 30 percent smaller payments if your full retirement age is 67. For example, a worker who would be eligible for a $1,000 monthly Social Security benefit at his full retirement age of 66 would get just $750 a month if he signs up for Social Security at age 62. "A lot of people just take it as soon as they can, and if you take it too early, you're really leaving a lot of money on the table," says Joel Shaps, a certified financial planner for Bedrock Capital Management in Los Altos, California.

    Age 63. It's relatively unusual to claim Social Security payments at age 63. Only 8 percent of women and 7 percent of men sign up for Social Security at this age, according to CRR. Monthly Social Security payments are reduced if you sign up at age 63, but by less than if you claim payments at age 62. A worker eligible for $1,000 monthly at age 66 would get $800 a month at age 63, a 20 percent pay cut. If your full retirement age is 67 you will get 25 percent less by signing up at age 63.

    Age 64. Another rare age for people to claim Social Security benefits is age 64. CRR found that 8 percent of women and 7 percent of men claim benefits at this age. Social Security payments are reduced by 13.4 percent for those with a full retirement age of 66 and 20 percent for people with a full retirement age of 67. A $1,000 retirement benefit would be reduced to $866 for most baby boomers who sign up at this age.

    Age 65. The full retirement age used to be 65 for people born in 1937 and earlier, but was then gradually increased in two-month increments to 66 for everyone born between 1943 and 1954. The full retirement age increases to 67 for everyone born in 1960 or later. Baby boomers who claim benefits at this age will see their payments reduced by about 7 percent, so a person eligible for $1,000 at age 66 would get $933 monthly starting at age 65. Members of Generation Y will see their payments reduced by 13.3 percent if they claim payments at age 65.

    Age 66. This is the age when people born between 1943 and 1954 are eligible to claim unreduced Social Security benefits. CRR found just over a third of men (34 percent) and a quarter of women (27 percent) sign up for Social Security benefits at their full retirement age, which is the second most popular age to claim payments. "When you take it at your full retirement age, which for a lot of people retiring today is 66, there are no reductions in benefits," says Christopher Rhim, a certified financial planner for Green View Advisors in Norwich, Vermont. For those who have a full retirement age of 67, you will get a 6.7 percent pay cut if you sign up for payments at age 66.

    Age 67. People born after 1959 will be able to claim unreduced Social Security payments starting at age 67. And boomers who delay claiming their Social Security benefit until age 67 will get an 8 percent increase in their payments, which would boost a $1,000 monthly payment to $1,080.

    Age 68. Baby boomers get 16 percent more if they claim Social Security payments at age 68, increasing a $1,000 Social Security payment to $1,160 a month. Members of Generation Y will get 8 percent more if they sign up for Social Security at 68.

    Age 69. Those born in 1960 or later get 16 percent more by claiming their Social Security benefit at age 69, and baby boomers can boost their benefit by 24 percent. A worker could increase a $1,000 Social Security benefit to $1,240 by signing up at age 69.

    Age 70. Baby boomers can increase their Social Security benefit by 32 percent by waiting until age 70 to sign up, boosting that $1,000 Social Security payment to $1,320 a month. People born after 1959 will get 24 percent more by claiming payments beginning at age 70. However, only 4 percent of women and 2 percent of men hold out until age 70, according to CRR.

    "If the goal is to get as much Social Security income as possible, the way you get that is by claiming as late as possible," says Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. "If you want a higher Social Security benefit, wait until 70." After age 70 there is no additional increase for further delaying your Social Security payments.

    Emily Brandon is the senior editor for Retirement at U.S. News. You can contact her on Twitter @aiming2retire, circle her on Google Plus or email her at


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    Russia May Day
    Denis Tyrin/APCommunists carry a portrait of former Soviet leader Josef Stalin as they march along Kremlin Towers during a May Day demonstration in Moscow.
    By Cameron Huddleston

    Remember the Soviet Union? If you grew up in the 1980s, as I did, it's not just something you read about in history books. You knew the U.S.S.R. as one of America's greatest rivals. My husband, on the other hand, knew it as home. He was born in Ukraine, then a Soviet republic, and lived there until his senior year in college, when he came to the U.S. as an exchange student.

    Although the Soviet Union was a superpower with nuclear weapons, its communist system of state-run industry and collective farms lead to shortages of consumer goods and food. Yes, it's true that Soviet citizens would stand in long lines at stores that had limited supplies, my husband says. There were waiting lists to buy big-ticket items, such as furniture and cars. And, for the most part, people paid with cash, which meant saving for months or even years to make a purchase.

    Although my husband has now lived in the U.S. for 20 years, he often acts as if he were in the Soviet Union when it comes to spending money -- and that's not a bad thing. As someone who grew up in a country of abundance, I've learned a lot from a spouse who grew up with little.

    Get the most out of what you have. Because most consumer goods in the Soviet Union were expensive and hard to come by, it was important for my husband's family to make the things they could afford to buy last as long as possible. For example, his parents spent about 25 percent of one month's salary to buy a pair of Wrangler jeans for his sister (yes, even off-brand American apparel was a big deal there). Because the jeans had cost so much, they were passed down to my husband. Every time a hole appeared, they were patched until, finally, they were cut off and made into shorts. My husband still will wear things for years. When something can be worn no more, I hear what seems like the sound of defeat when he says he's going to toss it. With our three children, clothing and toys are passed down from one to the next, though I draw the line at making my son wear his sisters' hand-me-downs. Every winter when I contemplate replacing my decade-old dress coat, I talk myself out of it because the one I have is still in great condition.

    Fix it, don't replace it. People who lived in the Soviet Union didn't have much of a choice but to fix things if they broke because it was too hard and too expensive to get a replacement. My husband says his dad could fix almost anything with a pair of pliers and some wire. I don't doubt him because I've seen my husband do the same. My first instinct when something broke used to be to replace it. Now I know I can save money by asking my husband to fix it, which he usually can.

    Learn how to DIY. For the most part, people living in the Soviet Union didn't hire others to do things for them because there wasn't really a contractor market, my husband says. If you wanted to paint your walls, tile your bathroom, build a table or make curtains, you did it yourself. So when something needs to done around our house, my husband usually will figure out how to do it by searching online or watching a YouTube video. Occasionally, if something is outside the scope of his abilities or will be too time-consuming, he'll agree to hire someone. For the most part, though, his willingness to DIY has saved us thousands of dollars over the years.

    Repurpose what you can. My husband's family didn't need Pinterest to prompt them to turn a pallet into a coffee table. They were always repurposing things. And my husband still does. He could buy a set of matching containers for a few bucks to store miscellaneous items on his workbench in the garage. But why waste the money when a few sturdy boxes lying around from other purchases will do the trick? That repurposing mentality has rubbed off on me. When my husband cut down a dead tree in our yard recently (that DIY skill), I had him cut the trunk into equal sizes to use as rustic side tables for chairs we have around a fire pit. Yes, I can repurpose with the best of them -- and save

    Be mindful of your spending. As my husband sees it, most Americans aren't mindful of their spending. Credit has made it easy for us to buy things without putting much thought into how much use we'll really get out of what we buy or whether that money could be put to a better use. His family -- like most families in the Soviet Union -- didn't have access to credit and had little money to spare. So every purchase that wasn't a necessity had to be weighed carefully. He still agonizes over whether to buy things both big and small. Admittedly, his reluctance to spend money can drive me, a personal finance journalist who writes about saving money, a little crazy sometimes. But it's good to have that voice of reason reminding me to question whether I'm always making the right decision when it comes to spending money. And our kids are picking up on that mindset -- at least our oldest is. We need to work a little harder with our middle child, who's a natural spender. And our youngest is just 3, so we consider ourselves lucky when he doesn't have a meltdown if we tell him no (which, trust me, is often).


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    Man in shoe shop
    Getty ImagesMillennials seek out value from their retailers.
    By Stefanie O'Connell

    With millennials surpassing baby boomers as the nation's largest living generation and approaching the precipice of their prime spending years, retailers are scrambling to figure out what makes members of Gen Y open their wallets to spend.

    Recent statements from Macy's (M) and Whole Foods Market (WFM) announcing plans to open off-price counterparts to their current operations suggest that retailers understand the reality of a shifting consumer value system taking hold in this younger generation. But is slashing prices the solution to winning over millennial business?

    If it were, we'd probably see millennials flocking to Walmart (WMT) in droves -- and that's just not happening.

    With record student loan debt and an entry into the workforce characterized by vast un- and under-employment courtesy of the Great Recession, millennials have less spending power than previous generations. As such, they tend to be frugal shoppers. But what retailers seem to be forgetting is that frugality isn't just about the bottom line, it's about maximizing total value.

    To capture the millennial consumer, retailers need to look beyond price and ask themselves how millennials define and assess value.

    "Millennials value access over ownership," says Joan Kuhl, founder of Why Millennials Matter. Kuhl cites the rise of popular services like ZipCar, AirBnB, Uber and Rent the Runway as evidence of millennials' "restless quest for efficiency." These companies have "served them a whole new, on demand, experiential style of living," Kuhl notes.

    The Value of Experience

    The prioritization of experiences over traditional products is a theme noted by many experts. "They are far more likely to spend money on an international trip with their friends than designer clothes. They value how something will make them feel over stuff," says Christine Hassler, author of "20-Something Manifesto."

    Jason Dorsey, lead millennial researcher at The Center for Generational Kinetics, attributes this behavior to the ongoing financial recovery and lack of firm financial footing millennials face. "Experiences are more financially accessible than say buying a house or fancy car,"Dorsey explains.

    This kind of cost consciousness also affects how millennials shop for the products they do purchase. Millennial Chelsea Krost notes how her gen Y counterparts "take the extra step to research an item" before buying.

    [Millennials] want to build relationships with brands that are honest and open.

    A 2015 millennial consumer study conducted by millennial expert Dan Schawbel, in partnership with Elite Daily, confirmed the gen Y tendency to rely on peer reviews before making a purchase, with 33 percent of millennials using blogs as their primary research resource. Millennials look to peer content and social media over more traditional media outlets for an authentic look at what's going on in the world.

    "[Millennials] want to build relationships with brands that are honest and open. Part of how millennials define value is by the utility they get for what they purchase and how socially acceptable it is for them to be using the product or engaging in the service. You know if they find a product socially acceptable when they take a selfie with it and post it publicly," says Schawbel.

    Reflecting Values

    Millennial CEO of Findspark Emily Miethner also notes how millennial value assessments extend beyond utilitarianism. "Millennials consider how the things they buy reflect on them and want brand values to reflect their own values," Miethner says. It's not just about the product and what it does, but how it identifies the individual to others and how that identity makes them feel. That explains the popularity of brands that make outreach part of their business model, like Tom's and Warby Parker.

    Hassler has also observed the influence of brand values in shaping millennial consumer habits. "They value brands that have a positive social and environmental impact over the big brands," she says. Findings from Schawbel and Elite Daily's millennial consumer study emphasize the importance of a company's policy on giving back, with 75 percent of millennials ranking those company ideals and efforts as fairly or very important. For a generation burned by the recession and characterized by Occupy Wall Street, it's no surprise that corporate greed is unpopular. Millennials are willing to go out of their way to purchase from competitors with a more favorable history of supporting local communities.

    So how do these values and priorities play into price and the reality of millennials' limited spending power? "Less stuff," Miethner says. Quality, of products themselves, the consumer experience, and company values, paired with a fair price point, will beat out quantity for this new largest generation of consumers.

    Stefanie O'Connell is a New York City based actress and freelance writer. She chronicles her struggle to "live the dream" on a starving artists' budget at and her book, "The Broke and Beautiful Life," is now available.


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    men hand businessman puts...
    By Ellen Chang

    NEW YORK -- While carrying around your debit and credit cards to make your daily purchases from coffee to lunch to parking is efficient, the convenience could spell trouble.

    Using your credit or debit card to pay for your purchases puts consumers at greater risk of identity theft and losing key personal information.

    Here are seven places you should think twice before swiping your debit or credit card to prevent a hacker from intruding into your finances and potentially affecting your credit score.

    Online Shopping

    With the proliferation of discount shopping websites, make sure the online retailer you are purchasing from has a safe website, because many aren't secure. Before you enter your credit or bank card information, look for the green lock icon without any overlays, said Shaun Murphy, CEO of Private Giant, an Orlando, Florida-based company that plans to launch a security app for smartphones. "Some sites, including Amazon, will not show you a lock icon until you log-in into your account or begin the check-out process," he said. "This means anyone can see what you are shopping for while you are browsing."

    Hidden/Out of View Terminals

    Be wary of the hidden terminals when you are shopping. It could be the gas pump that is furthest away or an unattended station for automatic checkouts at the grocery store, Murphy said.

    "These are sweet targets for credit card skimming devices that can sit there for months without anyone noticing," he said.

    Nowadays, skimmers are small enough to fit inside pockets or even hidden within the credit card slots in payment terminals. This means you may unwittingly hand over data when swiping your card at a gas pump, so go inside to pay, said Geoff Sanders, CEO of LaunchKey, a Las Vegas-based decentralized mobile authentication and authorization platform.

    "Criminals merely need to pull a car up in front of a pump to surreptitiously install or retrieve a skimmer within a matter of minutes," he said.

    Temporary Stores

    It's tempting to use your credit card to pay for a T-shirt at a concert or a vendor at a temporary open air markets, swap meets or craft fairs, "thanks to the ubiquity of mobile Internet connections," Parker said.

    "These scenarios provide an excellent venue for the grifting of card information," he said. "The consumer is left trusting a vendor that doesn't have an actual retail location."

    Outdoor Pay Terminals

    Another place that consumers should be wary of using their cards is at outdoor pay terminals including drive through locations at fast food restaurants. Being outdoors means it's another prime location for a skimmer device to be hidden. Skimmers have even been found on the door readers that require users to scan their card before entering the ATM lobby, Parker said.

    Cellphone Charging Stations

    As consumers spend more time on their smartphones, charging your phone becomes more of a necessity than a preference. Even though it seems like a no-brainer to swipe your card to charge your phone for free when the battery is nearly dead, the convenience could cost you.

    "These devices can also dump the information from your cellphone while charging," Murphy said. "This attack method even has a cool name: juice jacking!"


    All apps aren't the same and designed with the same goal in mind. If any of the apps on your laptop, tablet or mobile device ask you for your credit card information outside of the normal app store, check to be sure the program is legit. There is a good possibility that it is a fake, especially the ones the need your immediate attention and claim that your computer has a virus or all of your files are encrypted and need to be unlocked for a price.

    Free Services or Trial Period There are a multitude of free services or a trial period that allows you to watch a movie or try some software for a period of time. The catch is that you still need to enter your credit card information before you can start using it. It sounds too good to be true, because it is "almost guaranteed that the service is either going to scam you or sign you up for some paid service that will be impossible to cancel," Murphy said.

    What to Use Instead of Your Bank or Credit Card

    Re-loadable pre-paid cards and cash are two good options since they are not linked to any personal financial information. Using cash is the best way to avoid overspending, because it makes you more aware of the financial impact that the purchase has on your budget, said Bruce McClary, spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization.

    If an attacker successfully drained your checking account through your debit card, you could be without cash for quite some time.

    You shouldn't use your debit card anywhere other than in an ATM machine, said Steve Weisman, a Boston lawyer and a lecturer of law, taxation and financial planning at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. You are exposed to more liability when you are using a debit card. Although laws limit your debit card liability to $50 if you report the fraudulent use to the bank within two days,that changes as you wait longer. If you don't notice the fraud and report it to your bank after three days, your liability jumps to $500, he said.

    "Your bank account will be frozen while the bank investigates the matter, thereby limiting your own access to the account," Weisman said.

    If you don't have cash or a pre-paid card handy, a credit card is still a good choice because it may take banks many days to refund fraudulent charges or withdrawals, said Sanders.

    "If an attacker successfully drained your checking account through your debit card, you could be without cash for quite some time," he said.

    Since nearly all debit cards can be used as a credit card, consumers should always use the credit card feature, Parker said. When the card is used as a debit card with the PIN being entered, you are risk for having both the card and PIN compromised.

    "This could allow cybercriminals to directly withdraw cash," he said.

    With major retailers and banks such as Target, Sony, eBay, JPMorgan Chase, Home Depot, Anthem, T.J. Maxx and Apple being attacked by cybercriminals and having millions of data records leaked and exposed, consumers should be more concerned about large companies, said Dave Bennett, CTO of IONU, a data security company based in Longmont, Colorado.

    "Hackers are going to go after the big targets, not the small fry," he said.

    -Written by Ellen Chang for


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    Which Is Cheaper: Cats or Dogs?

    How much is that doggy (or kitty) in the window? According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the total annual cost of owning a dog is between $1,314 and $1,843. All you crazy cat people will shell out about $1,035 a year for your little purrmeisters.

    Those numbers reflect the basics: food, litter, collar, leash, dishes, cage, toys, scratching post, carrier and medical care. But the figures don't encompass a lot of other potential costs, from pet-sitting to insurance increases.

    Is it appropriate to put a price tag on the love and affection a pet can bring? Absolutely! In fact, it's essential to look at the lifetime costs of a companion animal before you get one, or before you take on a second -- or third, or fourth -- fuzzy buddy.

    Owning a pet is a lifetime commitment. You can't fall in love with a cute Persian kitten and then ignore the needs of the maybe-not-as-adorable grownup cat. That butterball of a pup will need to be fed, walked and socialized regularly, even when you'd much rather sleep in or binge-watch shows on Netflix. Pets are always going to need you -- and they're always going to cost you, which is why you should factor in not just the SPCA data but other potential costs.

    Do You Have the Time?

    First and foremost, pets need your attention. Although felines tend to be more aloof, some cats are real cuddlers and need a lot of you-time. To ignore a cat's need for affection isn't only cruel, but can be costly. A neglected kitten might shred the curtains or urinate on furniture.

    The same is true for man's best friend. A bored or lonely pooch may take out his stir-craziness on your landscape or the furniture. I've personally seen where canines chewed through fences, even chain-link ones.

    Dogs can also get you in dutch with the neighbors or even the police by barking constantly in search of attention. Because dogs are pack animals, it's particularly inhumane to adopt and then neglect one.

    Don't have enough time to devote to a pup? Don't get one. If you get very busy at work sometimes -- say, tax season at your accounting firm -- then budget for some outsourced affection by paying someone to tend to your pet or enroll Fido in a doggie day care center.

    More Than Just Kibble and Litter

    When choosing a cat or dog, beware the kinds of costs that novice owners can't anticipate. Certain breeds need specific types of grooming, so unless you plan to buy clippers you'll need to budget for visits to the pet beauty salon.

    Are you willing to clean your pet's teeth? It'll save money (and pain for the animal) in the long run, but not everyone wants to do it. If that's you, then you'll have to pay the vet to do it.

    Incidentally, those vet visits will likely become more frequent as your pet ages and health problems crop up. Some people deride those SPCA figures as ridiculously high. But anyone whose dog developed hip dysplasia or whose cat has been attacked by a raccoon can tell you that pets can run up a big bill.

    Note: One way to keep health costs way down is to keep your animals indoors or in a fenced yard. Dogs and cats do not need to roam, and owners who let them do so are risking the pet's health and the associated costs.

    Suppose your pet has, uh, digestive issues? Fork over additional cash for diagnosis and then the necessary (and more expensive) special pet foods. Add a little extra for rug cleaning, too.

    Love to travel? Your trips just got more expensive because you'll either have to board the animal or pay someone to look in on your pet. And if you want to travel with Fido or Fluffy, prepare to pay hundreds of dollars for the privilege.

    That Is NOT a Chew Toy!

    Pet behavior sometimes seems malevolent, but you must remember that animals don't reason the way we do. That plush sofa you spent so much money on makes a wonderful scratching post. Pets don't understand why they shouldn't gnaw on your expensive leather shoes (those things are delicious!).

    It's possible to train them not to do these things. (Need to hire a dog trainer? Ka-ching!) Until that happens, you're on the hook for repairs or replacements. If you're a renter, the landlord will probably want that dug-up landscape or chewed-upon fence picket fixed right now.

    Depending on the type of dog you get, you may also have to pay higher homeowner or renters insurance premiums. Large dogs or breeds labeled as aggressive can cost a lot more, depending on the insurer.

    Speaking of insurance: If your dog bites the mailman or your cat scratches a visitor and they file a claim, your insurance rates will likely go up. That is, unless you decide to pay out of pocket to make things right. Even the best critter sometimes acts out, so it's always a possibility. Sometimes they even hurt their owners. My sister broke her wrist after being tripped by her excited pup. The result was nine missed weeks of work (she's a dental hygienist). Guess who didn't have nine weeks' worth of sick leave?

    Congratulations! You're a Pet Owner!

    If you're ready to commit to your first pet, or to add to your current menagerie, get smart about ways to keep costs down. To be clear, that does not mean cheap out on necessary pet care and comfort. What it does mean is using your money wisely.

    For starters, pets don't really need lots of toys or -- heaven forbid -- Halloween costumes. They do need vaccinations, spaying or neutering, decent food and supplies, and yearly visits to the veterinarian.

    This doesn't have to bust the budget. For help, check out these Money Talks News articles: Animals can greatly enrich our lives. In return, they deserve decent food and care from the humans on whom they depend. If you can't afford to provide those things right now, wait until times are better to get a pet.

    And if you don't have a lot of time? Don't kid yourself that your loyal pup or purring kitten will wait patiently for you at home, require a few minutes of your time and then stay out of your hair.

    If that's the kind of pet you want, check out a robotic dog or cat. But don't subject a living, breathing creature to distracted or indifferent care. Our animal friends deserve better.

    Readers: What are some of the ways you save money while still providing good homes for your furry companions?

    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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    Dunkin Donuts California
    Nick Ut/AP
    Dunkin' Donuts (DNKN) saw a spike in sales after introducing its own version of the cronut pastry last year, and now it's hoping that chocolate chip cookies will keep the good times coming. The country's largest doughnut chain has teamed up with Nabisco parent Mondelez International (MDLZ) to roll out a pair of Chips Ahoy-spiked doughnuts.

    The Chips Ahoy Creme Donut is filled with cookie dough buttercreme and frosted with chocolate icing before being topped off with crumbled chocolate chip cookie pieces. The Chips Ahoy Crunch Donut is a traditional ring-shaped treat with the same chocolate icing and crumbled Chips Ahoy bits.

    It's not the only products that Dunkin' Donuts is introducing this month based on Mondelez products. The iconic Oreo is also playing a major role here as iced coffees and Coolatta frozen beverages will be available in either Oreo or Chips Ahoy flavors.

    Topping things off, the cookie takeover at Dunkin' is culminating in an online Cookie Dunk Instant Win Game where folks can go to to dunk virtual cookies in pursuit of prizes.

    Filling Holes

    Dunkin' Donuts doesn't usually incorporate popular brands into its menu. Outside of the seasonal Peeps doughnut that the chain introduced during Easter last year -- and, yes, we're talking about those very Peeps marshmallow chicks as chewy toppings -- Dunkin' usually likes to fly solo.

    It's a strategy that's hard to question in light of the chain's success. There were 11,367 store locations by the end of March, up from the 10,901 units open a year earlier. It didn't need to team up with another company to put out a croissant doughnut, a premium-priced addition that it continues to credit for strong sales growth.

    However, the name of the game these days is to partner up. We've seen Yum Brands' (YUM) Taco Bell turn to Doritos-dusted taco shells, Cinnabon-sweetened coffee, and even Starburst-flavored frozen beverages. Pizza chains that used to go it alone have turned to Fritos as toppings and Hershey-branded dessert treats.

    There's strength in combination, even if it means licensing fees, higher food costs, or promoting someone else's product.

    Sweet Rewards

    The marriage of cookies and doughnuts -- and cookies and coffee -- makes sense. Dunkin' parent Dunkin' Brands should know. It also watches over an ice cream empire that includes 7,574 Baskin-Robbins scoop shops, even though we may never see an ice cream doughnut or a doughnut ice cream cake.

    Dunkin' also has turned to big partners to broaden the reach of its signature coffee outside of its stores. Jelly giant J.M. Smucker (SJM) is its distributor, and it recently expanded its partnership with Keurig Green Mountain (GMCR) to get Dunkin' coffee sold in K-Cups for Keurig machines beyond just its doughnut shops.

    This is the new normal for quick-service eateries. This is the new combo meal. That's not going to change, especially if rivals are doing it. And, yes, in case you were wondering, Dunkin' nemesis Krispy Kreme (KKD) is already offering an Oreo-branded "Cookies and Kreme" doughnut.

    Two brands are apparently better than one.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Keurig Green Mountain. The Motley Fool recommends Keurig Green Mountain. 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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    Sobriety Test
    Getty Images
    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has unveiled a first-of-its-kind prototype car with a new alcohol-detection system that is intended to stop a drunken driver from driving the car.

    For now, it's just a prototype. But it's a big step forward for a program the agency has been working on with automakers since 2008, one that could put an end to drunken driving for good.

    Testing the Driver

    The car uses a technology called "Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety." The DADSS system detects when a driver is intoxicated with a blood alcohol concentration at or above 0.08, which is the legal limit in all 50 states. If an intoxicated driver is detected, the car won't move.

    But how does it work? There are actually two different technologies being developed under the DADSS program. One is a system that quietly checks the amount of alcohol in a driver's breath as she breathes normally after sitting down in the car. The other is a touch-based system that measures blood alcohol levels under the surface of the skin on the driver's fingertip with a sensor that uses an infrared light.

    The idea is that the touch-based system could be mounted in the car's starter button, somewhere the driver will need to touch in order to get the car running. But either or both mechanisms could be included in the version of the DADSS system that comes to market in a few years.

    NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said that his agency has no plans to try to make the technology mandatory on new cars. But he thinks it'll become very popular and widespread even without a government mandate. Here's why:

    An Unobtrusive Way to Stop Intoxicated People From Driving

    Current systems to prevent drunken driving are cumbersome. They require drivers to breathe into a sensor device before starting the car. That has greatly limited their use.

    What makes the DADSS system different is that it's passive -- it works without any action at all from the driver. Like an airbag, it works in the background, without any effort needed from the driver -- until it's needed. Then it steps in to prevent an intoxicated person from driving.

    NHTSA officials think the technology will be very popular. One audience that's expected to embrace it very quickly: parents of teen drivers. While the system will default to a blood alcohol limit of 0.08, in line with state drunken-driving laws, it can be set lower, all the way down to a "zero tolerance" mode. That mode would stop a driver with any detectable level of alcohol from driving. NHTSA thinks that will appeal to parents of drivers younger than 21 years old -- and it's probably right. But one could easily imagine other applications for a "zero tolerance" mode -- vehicles driven by on-duty public safety officials, for instance.

    The DADSS technology is still under development, but it's coming. Rosekind hopes to have the technology available for testing, probably by a government or commercial vehicle fleet, within a few years. Once it's proven, he hopes it will be offered as an option by automakers. He's convinced that demand will be strong as parents of teens, operators of commercial fleets, and others demand it on their new cars. It could be widespread within 10 or 15 years.

    And it's likely to be widely available as soon as it's perfected. Nearly all of the automakers that do business in the U.S. have signed on to the program. Jeff Boyer, General Motors' (GM) vice president of global safety, said that the technology "has the potential to prevent tens of thousands of needless deaths and injuries every year."

    Boyer emphasized the passive, unobtrusive nature of the technology, comparing it to air bags and electronic stability controls. That's a strong hint that GM will be in the forefront of adopting the new anti-drunk en-driving system. Given the widespread publicity around the dangers and costs of drunken driving -- and the likely demand from concerned parents of teen drivers -- its competitors are likely to follow suit quickly.

    Motley Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of General Motors. The Motley Fool recommends General Motors. 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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    A sign outside the corporate headquarter
    Stan Honda, AFP/Getty Images
    NEW YORK -- General Electric (GE) will sell its private equity business in a deal valued at about $12 billion as it refocuses on its core businesses and exits a banking sector now under stricter oversight.

    The U.S. Sponsor Finance business, which includes Antares Capital, GE Capital's lending business to private equity-backed middle market companies, will be sold to the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, alongside a $3 billion bank loan portfolio.

    GE is looking to sell most of the assets of its $500 billion GE Capital over the next 18 months, but plans to keep the financing components that relate to its industrial businesses. The Fairfield, Connecticut, company is transforming itself back into an industrial conglomerate that makes large, complicated equipment for other businesses.

    Investors had long pushed for GE to get rid of its finance unit, though it had been extremely profitable, as federal regulations and tough market conditions made it less lucrative and at times, more risky.

    GE spun off its consumer credit card business, Synchrony Financial, into a separate publicly traded company in July. It sold a 51 percent stake of NBC Universal to Comcast (CMCSK) for $13.75 billion in 2011. Two years later, Comcast bought GE's remaining 49 percent stake in NBC Universal for $16.7 billion.

    General Electric Co. spun off its insurance business into a separate publicly traded company, Genworth Financial Inc. (GNW), in 2004. It sold its reinsurance business to Swiss Re in 2006, and a year later sold its plastics business to Saudi Basic Industries Corp. GE sold silicones to private investment group Apollo Management for $3.8 billion in 2006 and sold its security business to United Technologies for $1.82 billion in 2010.

    GE said Tuesday that it is on pace to execute sales of $100 billion by the end of the year.

    The U.S. Sponsor Finance transaction is targeted to close in 2015's third quarter.


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