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DailyFinance.com

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    Angry businessman on the phone
    Getty Images
    The FCC will soon vote on a proposal that would allow phone companies to selectively block calls to customers.

    The proposal by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler authorizes "do not disturb" technology that would block unwanted communications such as robocalls.

    The FCC, which enforces federal regulations such as the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, or TCPA, is scheduled to vote on the proposal when its members meet Thursday.

    If the proposal is approved, providers of both cellphone and home landline phone services could offer such technology to their customers, according to a two-page FCC document filed about Wheeler's plan.

    Unwanted calls and texts are the top consumer complaint to the FCC, which received more than 215,000 complaints related to the TCPA last year.

    The TCPA authorized the FCC to establish the National Do Not Call Registry in 2003, but scammers and telemarketers have used technology to circumvent the federal law, CBS News reports.

    Spoofing, for example, is the practice of using apps to alter what appears on the call recipient's caller ID or cellphone screen, allowing scammers to impersonate government agencies like the IRS.

    Linda Blasse of Dallas, who is on the Do Not Call list, told federal lawmakers during a hearing Wednesday:

    "These people call my business three times a day. I tell them to stop calling and they keep calling."

    The FCC proposal doesn't address whether or how much phone companies would be allowed to charge their customers for call-blocking services. CBS reports that Democratic Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill predicts the services would be popular:

    "If they [phone companies] came out with an ad, 'We're going to block robocalls,' I mean, I don't think they could handle the business they would get."

    While waiting for the proposal to be approved, you can find out how to stop robocalls by reading "8 Tips to Stop Annoying Robocalls."

    Would you be willing to pay for robocall-blocking services? Sound off below or on our Facebook page.

    How to Save 50 Percent on Your Cell Bill

     

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    TV--Sharknado
    Scott Roth/Invision/AP'Shark Tank' star Mark Cuban will play the president of the United States in the third installment of the goofy 'Sharknado' TV movie series, set to premiere next month.
    By Stefanie O'Connell

    Mark Cuban, billionaire investor, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and mainstay of the hit show, "Shark Tank," is known for his business savvy, work ethic and penchant for turning fledgling startups into multimillion dollar ventures.

    Before becoming a self-made billionaire, however, Cuban worked a series of odd jobs as a student at the University of Indiana, including giving dance lessons and hosting disco dance parties. After graduating, Cuban transitioned into a sales job at a Dallas software company before getting fired.

    Seeing an opportunity to make a huge deal, Cuban pursued it, even though the CEO told him not to. "I thought when I showed up with a $15,000 check, he'd be cool with it," Cuban told Forbes. Instead, the CEO fired him on the spot for insubordination.

    Cuban told Forbes that this unpleasant encounter served as the catalyst for his first major self-driven business endeavor, MicroSolutions, which he sold in 1990 for $6 million. His next venture, Broadcast.com, made him a billionaire after selling to Yahoo in 1999 for $5.7 billion in stocks. With Mark Cuban's net worth now estimated at $3 billion by Forbes, he has remained an icon of entrepreneurship and financial success ever since.

    This self-made business mogul also has quite a bit to say about fiscal responsibility and money management. Cuban is known for being outspoken and often shares his thoughts on personal finance. With a strong track record of self-driven financial success, it's certainly advice worth considering. Here is money advice from Mark Cuban that you can put into action today.

    Mark Cuban's Top Money Management Tips for 2015

    1. Live cheaply so you can use resources to pursue opportunities. Before his billionaire days, Cuban spent his early adulthood living on the cheap -- crashing on the couch (or floor) with five roommates in Dallas and splitting the $750 rent six ways. In his book, "How to Win at the Sport of Business," Cuban wrote:

    "It doesn't matter how you live. It doesn't matter what car you drive. It doesn't matter what kind of clothes you wear. The more you stress over bills, the more difficult it is to focus on your goals. The cheaper you can live, the greater your options."

    Cuban is a reminder that living within, and even below your means when possible, is less about sacrifice and more about opportunity. Find ways to cut expenses, both luxuries and the necessities, to reduce your total cost of living and free up your resources -- time, energy and money -- for the pursuit of greater goals.

    2. Prioritize paying off debt for a guaranteed return. In a 2014 interview with Business Insider, Cuban revealed what he wished he'd known about saving money in his 20s:

    "That credit cards are the worst investment that you can make. That the money I save on interest by not having debt is better than any return I could possibly get by investing that money in the stock market. I thought I would be a stock market genius. Until I wasn't. I should have paid off my cards every 30 days."

    Cuban not only emphasizes the importance of paying off of debt and using credit responsibly, he also warns against overzealous investing. Getting loan and credit card balances down to zero is a straightforward strategy for increased wealth that, as Cuban notes, requires no investment risk for a great return.

    3. Use the job you have now to get the job you want in the future. Cuban's journey -- from his first job selling garbage bags, to teaching disco, to getting fired, to founding a business and becoming a billionaire -- is a reminder of the power of the "hustle" and the importance of constant growth. On his blog, Cuban quoted an interview in which he said:

    "I worked jobs I didn't like. I worked jobs I loved, but had no chance of being a career. I worked jobs that barely paid the rent ... I knew I would end up owning my own business someday, so I figured my challenge was to learn as much as anyone about all businesses. I believed that every job I took was really me getting paid to learn about a new industry."

    Every job is an opportunity to develop a new skill set and learn about a new industry, both of which can be leveraged for future career success while getting paid in the present. Reap the benefits of diverse work experience by staying open to any and all job opportunities - engaging in your career, income and personal growth throughout.

    4. Stick to what you know when investing. Cuban is notoriously skeptical of traditional financial advice and investment vehicles. "I create offbeat advice; I don't follow it," Cuban said in an interview with Forbes. "I rarely take third-party advice on my investments."

    Instead, he encourages saving and puts money into ventures he knows well -- benefiting from the "information advantage." While seeking advice from financial professionals can be helpful, be sure to build an understanding of the accounts and investment vehicles holding your assets to ensure they serve your best interests. Handing complete financial control over to anyone and agreeing to a strategy with blind trust can result in big fees at best, and huge losses at worst.

    5. Cultivate wealth for yourself -- and others. It's unsurprising that as a man of means, Cuban is an advocate for cultivating wealth. But his position is not just about what wealth affords him personally, but the power it gives him to help others. In a 2011 blog post titled "The Most Patriotic Thing You Can Do," Cuban wrote:

    "Being rich is a good thing. Not just in the obvious sense of benefiting you and your family, but in the broader sense. Profits are not a zero sum game. The more you make, the more of a financial impact you can have."

    Building wealth enables meaningful giving as much as meaningful living. When you have wealth, you're better positioned to make an impact. Foster prosperity through the pursuit of increased income endeavors, investment growth strategies and financial education. In cultivating your own monetary success, don't forget to give back to others.

    6. Use money as a tool to meet your goals. When asked if money can buy happiness Cuban replied, "Absolutely not," reports Entrepreneur magazine. He continued:

    "To me, success isn't defined by your wallet. It's defined by waking up with a smile on your face, knowing it's going to be a great day. But, sure, money can make your life a whole lot easier."

    These days Cuban can basically buy whatever he wants, whenever he wants -- but his happiness began long before by setting goals and accomplishing dreams, like being the first in his immediate family to graduate college. Why else would a man worth billions continue working?

    Don't count on an arbitrary financial threshold to hold the key to happiness. Money should be what helps you reach the goal, not the goal itself. Instead, work toward goals and dreams with concrete actions you can implement immediately. Acknowledge and celebrate your progress toward future prosperity, and find happiness in each small step toward success.

    This story originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com.

     

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    Young woman shopping in supermarket
    Getty Images
    By Jennifer Liu

    Planning to fire up the grill this summer? Brace yourself for costlier grocery runs.

    According to recent research from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the price of many meats -- along with other key food staples -- are set to skyrocket this season.

    To start, retail beef prices are already at record highs and are expected to jump close to 7 percent -- even after adjusting for inflation. The same goes for white meat, with poultry prices seeing an uptick of at least 3 percent this year.

    Those looking to load up on fresh fruits and veggies this season should be prepared to shell out a bit more, too. That's due, in part, to the ongoing drought in California. Some of the produce that will see the biggest price increases: Grapefruit, which rose 10 percent already, strawberries, up 11 percent, and broccoli, ballooning 7 percent.

    Egg prices have also started to surge. That's thanks to the recent bird flu outbreak -- credited as the worst in history -- and will mean a summer of high prices and emptier shelves.

    Here's the good news, though. Minus these basics, the USDA predicts food price inflation overall to stay pretty average this year.

    And for those grill masters looking for a more budget-friendly summer barbecue option, you're in luck. Pork fell close to 4 percent in price in the past year -- and is expected to only continue to drop.

     

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    Increase In Housing Starts At End Of Year Signals Housing Market Recovery
    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. permits for future home construction surged to a near eight-year high in May, suggesting a building up of momentum in housing and the broader economy after a dismal performance at the start of the year.

    While housing starts fell last month, that followed a robust gain in April and groundbreaking remained at levels consistent with a strengthening housing market.

    Housing's improving fortunes, marked by rising home prices and sales, are likely to be acknowledged by Federal Reserve officials, who were preparing to gather for a two-day policy meeting Tuesday.

    [T]he moon shot surge in new permits today means the final piece of the recovery puzzle is now falling into place

    Policymakers have repeatedly singled out housing as one of the weak spots in the economy. The U.S. central bank is expected to raise interest rates later this year. It has kept its short-term lending rate near zero since December 2008.

    "Residential construction has been the laggard in this recovery and the moon shot surge in new permits today means the final piece of the recovery puzzle is now falling into place," said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at MUFG Union Bank in New York.

    Building permits jumped 11.8 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual pace of 1.28 million units, the highest since August 2007, the Commerce Department said. It was the second straight month of increase. Permits have been above a 1 million-unit pace since July.

    Groundbreaking dropped 11.1 percent to a 1.04 million-unit rate. While that partially reversed the prior month's large gain, April starts were revised up to a 1.17 million-unit rate, the highest since November 2007.

    Economists had forecast both building permits and housing starts falling to a 1.10 million-unit pace last month. April starts were previously reported to have increased to a 1.14 million-unit rate.

    The Commerce Department report came on the heels of solid data on retail sales, consumer confidence and employment that have suggested the economy was rebounding from the first quarter's soft patch, when gross domestic product contracted.

    Growth estimates for the second quarter are currently as high as a 3.3 percent annual rate.

    The dollar rose against a basket of currencies and U.S. Treasury debt prices were higher on safe-haven bids amid worries Greece could default on its debt.

    U.S. stocks were trading marginally higher after a two-day losing streak. But the S&P homebuilding index fell 0.6 percent. D.R. Horton (DRI), the largest U.S. homebuilder, slipped 0.5 percent. Lennar (LEN), the nation's second-largest homebuilder, fell 0.6 percent.

    Builders Upbeat

    Homebuilding has regained ground lost during a harsh winter and there are signs activity will accelerate this year as tightening labor market conditions spur strong wage gains and encourage young adults to move from their parents' basements.

    A survey Monday showed confidence among builders vaulting to a nine-month high in June, with measures of both current sales and buyer traffic increasing solidly.

    Economists anticipate that the housing market will strengthen enough to take up some of the slack from the struggling manufacturing sector and support economic growth.

    "With the trade deficit no longer widening, business investment improving and households buying vehicles like crazy, the GDP number could come in a lot better than most expect," said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pennsylvania.

    "Investors need to recognize that while a rate hike tomorrow looks to be off the table, the economy is already strong enough to support one at any meeting in the future."

    Single-family building permits, which account for the largest share of the market, increased 2.6 percent to their highest level since December. Building permits for the volatile multifamily segment soared 24.9 percent.

    Permits for buildings with five units or more increased to their highest level since January 1990. The multifamily sector is being driven by demand for rental accommodation as more people move away from homeownership.

    Permits in the Northeast vaulted to their highest level since March 1987 and were at a near one-year high in the Midwest. They fell, however, in the South and West.

    Groundbreaking for single-family homes fell 5.4 percent to a 680,000 unit pace. Multifamily starts tumbled 20.2 percent to a 356,000 unit rate.

    Groundbreaking fell in all four regions, declining a steep 26.5 percent in the Northeast after April's spectacular gains. Starts in the South, where most of the home building takes place, fell 5 percent.

     

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    Disney-Wearable Toys
    Damian Dovarganes/APActress Evangeline Lindes demonstrates a "repulsor," a wearable forearm attachment with infrared that puts kids in the role of Marvel superhero Iron Man.
    As far as holiday seasons go, this one could do some serious damage to your pocketbook. A lot of the new tech toys -- for children and adults -- aren't cheap. It could be worse, of course. The consumer version of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset won't hit the market until early next year.

    You will probably still have to do a little more saving than usual this year to check these items off your holiday wish lists. Let's check out some of new items that either have already been introduced in 2015 or will be introduced soon that should turn heads and bank accounts later this year.

    Disney Playmation -- $120

    Disney (DIS) knows that you can't live off "Frozen" dolls forever and sales of its once-hot Disney Infinity video game line have started to fade. The media giant is hoping to raise the bar come October when Playmation hits the market.

    Playmation combines wearable technology and motion sensors to create physically active experiences. There will be "Star Wars" and "Frozen" Playmation lines, but the first one to hit the market will be "Marvel's Avengers." The $120 starter kit features an Iron Man glove that sends the wearer off on missions that involve moving around to succeed. There's also an app that expands the number of stories and characters that one can take on in new missions.

    Apple Watch -- $349

    There's no way to get around the success of Apple's (AAPL) iconic smartwatch. If you own an iPhone or have to buy a gift for an iPhone owner, you may find yourself joining the masses at an Apple Store near you.

    Most of the smartwatches that came out before Apple introduced its Web-tethered timepiece flopped, but Apple has sold millions of them since its April debut. The cheapest models start at $349. Given Apple's knack for annual updates, it may be tempting to wait until the second generation of the device to come out by the time the holidays roll around. But if you're considering gifting a cheaper knock-off, know that if someone wants an Apple Watch, anything else just won't do.

    Hello Barbie -- $75

    Mattel's (MAT) line of Barbie dolls has been languishing in recent years. That may come as welcome news to those claiming that Barbie promotes unrealistic body images, but now it's time for Barbie to have her say.

    Mattel debuted Hello Barbie at the North American International Toy Fair in New York back in February. The $75 doll uses Wi-Fi and voice recognition software to allow for conversations with the doll. Yes, Barbie has some personality.

    Barbie sales have fallen sharply during the past three holiday shopping seasons. Mattel is hoping that a chatty doll renews interest in the once-trendsetting plaything.

    Keurig Kold -- $299

    Both kids and adults get thirsty, and Keurig Green Mountain (GMCR) is teaming up with Coca-Cola (KO) to offer a tech-savvy appliance that makes eight-ounce servings of New Coke, Sprite and other carbonated beverages.

    Yes, there are already much cheaper products on the market that fizz up still water. Keurig Kold expects to stand out because of its partnerships with some of the top soda brands as well as its appliance that actually serves up chilled beverages.

    Unlike Keurig's more popular coffee-brewing line, Keurig Kold won't be available at most retail outlets this year. It will only accept online orders initially for a fall delivery. Widespread retail distribution will follow in 2016. However, folks who have been clamoring for a chance to make Coca-Cola at home will probably hop on Keurig's website to get one in time for this year's holiday shopping season.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Keurig Green Mountain and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, Coca-Cola, Keurig Green Mountain and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Walt Disney and has the following options: long January 2016 $37 calls on Coca-Cola and short January 2016 $37 puts on Coca-Cola. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    cutting the cable on tv  ...
    Shutterstock
    Let's face it: No one likes paying their cable bill. You're charged a hundred dollars or more for hundreds of channels you don't watch, and outside of going without television, there seems to be little choice than to keep paying whatever Comcast (CMCSK) or Time Warner (TWC) is charging.

    Streaming companies including Netflix (NFLX) and Hulu have taken some of that pressure off having to have cable, and so far it's come with much smaller bills. But the streaming future might not be the utopia of content some think it will be. In fact, it'll probably look a lot like cable someday.

    Why Cable Bills Are So Annoying

    The reason cable bills are so disliked is the feeling that there's little choice and terrible service behind them. Cable companies bundle channels we like with ones we don't and then offer some of the worst customer service, according to multiple consumer studies. Since they run a virtual monopoly in most cities, why offer better service, more selection or lower prices?

    Even if you'd like to leave cable, there are precious few options for you to get the content you want. You could buy satellite TV, which comes with many of the same downsides of cable, or you could buy shows individually on iTunes or DVD, but that gets expensive very quickly. The problem is that content is tied to cable and content is what people want.

    Content Is King

    The reason streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu and HBO Now have had success over the last few years is the amount of content they offer on demand for a fairly low price. You can watch thousands of shows for $7.99 to $14.99 a month.

    But this starts to get really expensive the more streaming subscriptions there are. If you have Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Now, your bill is already $30.97 a month. That's without any live sports and doesn't include broadcast TV. By offering products you want separately, instead of in a bundled package, streaming companies are slowly pushing costs higher by adding more subscriptions and that'll only get worse as more content companies offer streaming models. In the future, you may not have a $100 cable bill, but you may have a half-dozen or more $15-a-month streaming subscriptions, which could quickly eat up any savings streaming may seem to offer today.

    Why Streaming Won't Solve Anything

    The current selection of streaming subscriptions is like an entree for consumers and content companies. It's showing that streaming is possible and popular, but it's just the beginning of what we'll see in the future. And that's when the model will change to something much closer to cable.

    The problem is that a relatively small number of content companies own a vast majority of what you see on cable -- and Hulu and Netflix, for that matter. Disney (DIS), Comcast's NBC Universal, Viacom (VIA), Time Warner (TWX) and CBS (CBS) are the dominant players in media today, owning some of the most attractive assets to cable, and eventually streaming companies.

    Media Company TV Stations and Movie Studios
    Disney ESPN, ABC, ABC Family, Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm
    NBC Universal NBC, CNBC, NBC Sports Network, USA Network, Universal Studios
    Viacom MTV, Nickelodeon, VH1, BET, Comedy Central, Paramount
    Time Warner HBO, TNT, TBS, CNN, Warner Bros.
    CBS CBS, The CW, Showtime
    Source: Company websites

    If all of this content moves to streaming, independent of a cable subscription, you can bet that these companies will want to bundle their own content together. Disney doesn't just want to sell you ESPN, they want to sell you ESPN 2, the SEC Network, ESPNU, ABC Family and maybe others. Viacom will want to bundle MTV with Nickelodeon, VH1, BET and Comedy Central.

    The result will be the same dilemma consumers face today: Pay for the bundles that include content you don't want, or go without the channels you want to see. The only change may be that we'll have five or more bills to pay each month from each content provider instead of one.

    Be Careful What You Wish For

    Cable may have its downsides, but streaming television may not be much better in the long run. A small number of companies own almost all of the content that's in demand from consumers and that puts them in charge of how much your streaming bill will be every month. Cable may be going away, but the reason we don't like cable companies probably won't.

    Motley Fool contributor Travis Hoium has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Netflix and Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    THINGS YOU SHOULD NEVER BUY NEW
    Spring and summer means you'll be seeing lots of yard sales, which also means you can find a lot of great deals, but as much as we all love a bargain, it can be tough to decide which items are worth buying from someone else. Here are a few things that you should avoid buying new.

    First, let's start with tools. Not only are they durable, they're also easy to find at yard sales. instead of spending $10 on a new hammer, you could find a used one for a buck. Just be sure to stick to the simple stuff. Anything with a motor can wear out quickly, so only buy power tools from someone you trust.

    Next, if you or your children are trying a sport for the first time, check out a garage sale before springing for a new pair of skis or a tennis racquet that you might not use a lot. The same goes for weights and other basic exercise equipment. Most of these items are sturdy and built to last. Just be careful with electronic gym equipment, like treadmills. They can be great bargains, but you should inspect them very closely before deciding to buy one that's used.

    When it comes to furniture, wood is definitely the way to go. It's easy to clean, plus you can sand it, paint it and decorate it to give it your own unique look. Not only will you be saving money, but there's a good chance that an older piece of wooden furniture is built better than what you'll find in a store. Stay away from mattresses and anything with upholstery, though. Not only are they tough to clean, they might carry bed bugs as well.

    Finally, if you or your kids love to read, buying new books all the time can add up. Unless you're planning on building a library, save money by buying used books at yard sales. You can also go online and find lots of websites that sell secondhand books in good condition for cheap. When you're finished reading, you can list them yourself to recoup some of your expenses.

    Before you buy something brand new, remember these tips to avoid overspending. If you know what to look for, you can find hand-me-downs that are just as good as new and cost just a fraction of the price.

    View Poll

     

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    Social media button concept
    Getty ImagesProof-read your tweets. Employers don't look kindly on posts with spelling and grammar errors.
    By Robin Madell

    "Better safe than sorry" is the motto job seekers and employees alike should adopt when it comes to posting on social media. "Many underestimate the reach of social media," says David Hoffeld, CEO of Hoffeld Group. "Social media is search-engine friendly, and many wrongly assume that when they post something, only those they are connected with will see it. In today's world, employers, co-workers and potential customers and future employers are searching online to learn more about you."

    Hoffeld adds that this enhanced exposure is the "new normal," so being careless about what types of content you post can cost you a job. Making mistakes on social media isn't uncommon. According to a new report from Nexgate Proofpoint, the average Fortune 100 firm now has 320 social media accounts, with an average of 213,539 commenters (including followers) and more than 1,159 employees making more than 500,000 posts to these accounts. The research shows that the average firm had 69 unmoderated compliance validations over the past year, with employees responsible for 12 of these violations.

    Devin Redmond, vice president and general manager of Nexgate Proofpoint, notes that employees are now regularly balancing professional and personal social media identities -- and they're wrong to believe a line exists between the two.

    "The informal, fast-paced nature of social media discussions create an environment where employees are far more likely to unintentionally share insights or information about their work," he says. "Often, security concerns, compliance implications and issues regarding fair disclosure are the last things on their mind." Redmond adds that it's critical for employees to remain mindful of the content they share on social media channels and ensure that it doesn't put their employer -- and their own career -- at risk.

    Here are three common errors on social media that can keep job seekers from getting hired and get employees fired:

    Careless posting. Dashing off a tweet as you race into a meeting might not be so smart. According to Jobvite's 2014 Social Recruiting Survey, 66 percent of recruiters reconsidered candidates because of spelling and grammar errors in their social profiles.

    While you're at it, slow down and reread your post to make sure it's not offensive. The same survey found that 63 percent of recruiters have negatively reconsidered candidates based on finding profanity in their profiles. Illegal drug references top the list of content to avoid, with 83 percent of recruiters reconsidering candidates because of them. Posts with sexual content run a close second, with 70 percent of recruiters thinking twice about hiring candidates who post that type of content.

    Val Matta, vice president of business development at CareerShift, adds some context to these trends: "It might go without saying, but what candidates do in their spare time and broadcast to the world through social media speaks volumes about their personal values and culture. The hiring manager knows that, in hiring that person, they'll likely bring those values and culture into the office. So it must align with, or contribute positively to, the organization's current culture."

    Dishing dirt about former or current bosses, employers or colleagues. It's tempting to vent when you're feeling annoyed after a bad day at work, and social media makes it so easy to do so. But beware of being critical of employer, bosses or co-workers online, even if you no longer work with them. "Everyone has a bad day once in a while, but incessant complaining about a company or boss -- and even worse, the online spreading of rumors or gossip -- can lead a potential (or current) employer to view a candidate as overly negative or a potential threat to the morale of the company," says Greg Moran, founder and CEO of Chequed.com.

    Kris Ruby, president of Ruby Media Group, adds that people often get fired for complaining openly about their boss online. "This may seem like a basic no-brainer," she says. "But, believe it or not, your boss is more social media savvy than you think. And even if they aren't, they have people around them who are social media savvy who will let them know if you are complaining about them. Most companies have a zero-tolerance policy toward this that will lead to immediate termination."

    Failing to take control of your digital identity. It's not only what you post but what you remove from your social media profiles that makes a difference. Jennifer Lee Magas, vice president at Magas Media Consultants, notes that in today's digital age, you are your brand. To manage this brand successfully, you should conduct a thorough search of your name via Google, Bing and Yahoo.

    "Don't rely only on privacy settings. Remove every potential inappropriate post or picture, and always keep language and grammar in mind," she says. Magas advises cleaning up your social media profiles by setting tighter controls on sites you can control and using privacy settings to limit who can view your information. For example, on Twitter you can use "Protect my Tweet," and on Facebook you can use "Lists" to group different people together, like professional connections.

    If in doubt about what to keep and what to remove from your social profile, Magas suggests considering a simple test: "If you won't say it to 60,000 people, don't put it online."

    Robin Madell has spent over two decades as a corporate writer, journalist, and communications consultant on business, leadership and career issues. Connect with her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter: @robinmadell.

     

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    nutritional label with focus on ...
    Shutterstock
    By Toni Clarke

    WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday made good on its proposal to effectively ban artificial trans fats from a wide range of processed foods, from microwave popcorn to frozen pizza, saying they raise the risk of heart disease.

    Under new FDA regulations, partially hydrogenated oils, which have been shown to raise "bad" LDL cholesterol, will be considered food additives that can't be used unless authorized by the FDA.

    The regulations take effect in three years, giving companies time to either reformulate products without partially hydrogenated oils or petition the FDA to permit specific uses of them.

    Following the compliance period, no partially hydrogenated oils can be added to human food unless they are otherwise approved by the FDA.

    The food industry has begun preparing a petition seeking approval for limited use of trans fats in certain products, such as decorative sprinkles, the industry's trade group, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said.

    FDA has acted in a manner that both addresses FDA's concerns and minimizes unnecessary disruptions to commerce.

    The group declined to give details Tuesday about its petition and what other products were involved, but expressed satisfaction with the FDA's overall action and 3-year compliance period.

    "FDA has acted in a manner that both addresses FDA's concerns and minimizes unnecessary disruptions to commerce," it said in a statement.

    Efforts to remove almost all remaining traces of trans fats from the food supply will be worthwhile, Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine, said in a media conference call. "The public benefits far outstrip costs of compliance."

    Under current law, food additives cannot be used unless they have been approved in advance by the FDA or are generally recognized as safe. Such substances do not have to be approved before being used.

    In 2013 the FDA made a preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oils, the major dietary source of trans fat in processed foods, are no longer recognized as safe because they increase the risk of heart disease.

    Saving Lives

    The oils are formed during food processing when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to make it more solid. Reducing their use could prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths, the agency said.

    Currently, foods are allowed to be labeled as having "0" grams trans fat if they contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.

    The food industry has reduced its use of trans fats by 86 percent since 2003, according to the grocers trade group. The reduction was spurred in part by the FDA's requirement, in 2006, that trans fat levels be disclosed on package labels and by New York City's move to curtail trans fats from restaurant meals.

    The industry has reformulated many products using palm, sunflower, safflower and other oils. But there are some products that have relatively low levels of trans fats and can't easily be reformulated.

    Food companies are hoping to persuade the FDA that such products meet the agency's food additive safety standards. To do that, they must prove with reasonable certainty that the products cause no harm.

    Naturally occurring trans fat found in milk and certain meet products wouldn't be affected by the rules.

    -With additional reporting by Anjali Athavaley and Ransdell Pierson in New York.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Rodrigo Campos

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks rose Tuesday following back-to-back daily declines, with merger activity more than offsetting market concerns as Greece struggles to avoid a default on its debt.

    Traders also kept an eye on interest rates as a two-day policy-setting meeting at the Federal Reserve got under way.

    Despite the collapse of talks between Athens and its European and IMF lenders over the weekend, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew that Athens aimed to reach a deal. Lew said failure to reach an agreement would create broad uncertainties for the global economy.

    The market seems to be pricing in a possibility, overpricing, a Greece exit.

    "The market seems to be pricing in a possibility, overpricing, a Greece exit," said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Wunderlich Securities in New York.

    He said he doesn't expect a surprise to the market from the Fed in terms of a rate hike, or from a Greek default.

    "Financials have been leading and dividend payers have sold off. That trade probably unwinds if there is a surprise," he said.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 113.31 points, or 0.6 percent, to 17,904.48, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) gained 11.86 points, or 0.6 percent, to 2,096.29 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) added 25.58 points, or 0.5 percent, to 5,055.55.

    Stocks had opened lower but quickly turned higher and drifted up throughout the day to close near the session's high.

    Consumer staples lead the way up, with Coty (COTY) shares at a record, closing up 19.3 percent at $31.08. Coty is on track to buy Procter & Gamble's beauty business in a $12 billion deal. P&G (PG) shares closed up 1.3 percent at $79.10.

    In other merger news, shares of NCR hit a 14-month high of $36.50. Reuters reported Blackstone and Carlyle are making a joint bid for NCR in what would be the year's biggest leveraged buyout at more than $10 billion, including debt. NCR (NCR) closed up 10.7 percent at $34.73 while Blackstone (BX) fell 0.6 percent to $41.98 and Carlyle Group (CG) rose 0.8 percent to $28.41.

    More M&A Activity?

    The chance that the Fed will give more clarity Wednesday on the timing of its expected rate hike was seen as a catalyst for more takeover deals.

    "Rising rates could be a trigger for even more M&A activity," said Brian Jacobsen, chief portfolio strategist at Wells Fargo Funds Management in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.

    "They are a signal that now's the time to get the deals done if you are going to do them with cheap financing."

    Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 1,946 to 1,104, for a 1.76-to-1 ratio on the upside; on the Nasdaq, 1,635 issues rose and 1,158 fell for a 1.41-to-1 ratio favoring advancers.

    The benchmark S&P 500 index posted 8 new 52-week highs and 4 new lows while on the Nasdaq composite there were 138 new highs and 37 new lows.

    About 5.5 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, below the 5.98 billion daily average so far this month, according to BATS Global Markets.

    What to watch Wednesday:
    • The Mortgage Bankers Association reports weekly mortgage applications at 7 a.m. Eastern time.
    • Federal Reserve officials conclude their two-day meeting on interest rates and issue a statement at 2 p.m.
    • At 2:30 p.m., Fed Chair Janet Yellen holds a press conference.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:

     

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    Buffett Interviews
    Nati Harnik/APMicrosoft co-founder Bill Gates
    Bill Gates built a fortune that's approaching $100 billion on the back of his incredible innovative and business genius at Microsoft (MSFT). He's now turned his attention to helping the world through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, giving money away and investing in other innovative companies that could improve the world for everyone.

    One such company Gates has been supporting for nearly a decade is TerraPower, a next-generation nuclear power company. But TerraPower is quickly falling behind more competitive energy sources and Gates could be left in the dust by the time he can even prove his nuclear vision has legs.

    The Problem With Nuclear Energy Today

    It's fun to talk about nuclear power like it could save the world, but the reality is that it's one of the most expensive forms of energy we have today. According to a study by investment bank Lazard, it would cost more to build a nuclear plant today than it would to build a plant for natural gas, wind, solar and in some places even coal.

    The problem with nuclear energy can be seen in the U.S. today. The Vogtle nuclear expansion in Georgia is slated to cost $14 billion and has been delayed by at least three years. Even Georgia Power estimates that when it's completed, customers' rates will go up 6 to 8 percent, on top of the hundreds of millions in rate-based payments they've already paid for the plant while it's been under construction.

    That's a plant that has a design that we at least know is feasible. Gates is betting on technology that TerraPower is hoping to prove in a pilot plant in the "mid-2020s" -- 10 years from now. Meanwhile, the technology Gates called "cute" four years ago is disrupting everything we know about energy.

    Missing the Solar Bandwagon

    While the cost of nuclear energy continues to rise, the cost of solar energy continues to drop and at rates that defy all predictions. The cost to install a utility-scale solar project has dropped 62 percent in the last five years and a residential project now costs half of what it cost at the start of 2010.

    Data source: GTM Research. Chart by the author.
    To put solar's cost in perspective: Companies like SolarCity (SCTY) and SunPower (SPWR) are now selling power from rooftop solar systems to consumers for lower costs per kilowatt than what they pay for electricity from the grid. On an even larger scale, utility-scale projects are now being built with power purchase agreements of 6 cents a kwh or less. To put that wholesale cost into perspective, if you live in New England, you're paying an average of 21 cents a kwh for electricity in your home and the national average is 12.3 cents a kwh. And those wholesale costs are beating natural gas, coal and nuclear in competitive market bidding.

    Ironically, what Gates, and many others, have missed is the rapid rate of innovation happening in energy today. But we're not talking about innovation in nuclear plants, which takes decades; we're talking about innovation that can go from idea to reality in a matter of months.

    The Rate of Innovation Matters

    One major reason I think Gates has the future of energy all wrong is the fact that nuclear energy is so slow to innovate, and some incredible innovations are coming out of new industries, like wind and solar.

    I already talked about the cost of solar but look at what's happening on the energy storage side as well. One problem with wind and solar energy in the past was its intermittency when the wind isn't blowing or the sun isn't out. This variability makes it a poor source of base load power that can be on at all times, like a natural gas or coal plant. But Elon Musk's Powerwall and Power Packs, along with dozens of other competitors, are answering that problem by allowing homeowners and utilities to store a few hours' worth of electricity to reduce the impact of intermittency, provide backup power, or lower the overall cost to run the grid. As storage technology improves, it will likely be an economical addition to wind and solar, and could be a standard component of a home solar installation.

    You could potentially have a solar system on your roof with battery backup by 2020. Gates won't even have a new nuclear pilot plant up and running by that point.

    Where we source energy from is changing faster than at any point in history and the companies that can innovate quickly will be standing strong in the future -- while companies who are betting on technologies that are a decade away will be left in the dust. Sorry, Mr. Gates. The energy source you once thought was "cute" is now making your nuclear power dream a nightmare.

    Motley Fool contributor Travis Hoium owns shares of SunPower. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of SolarCity and Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Prepare your portfolio for the future: Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Blue social security card macro shot
    Alamy
    By Hal M. Bundrick

    NEW YORK -- Social Security is a safety net for millions of Americans, either for retirement, disability or for the survivors of a qualified deceased family member. But there are situations when those benefits can be cut off or curtailed. Owing the government money -- even for student loans -- is one trigger.

    While commercial creditors can't garnish Social Security benefits, the IRS can take a 15 percent levy to satisfy a delinquent tax debt. And student loan debt -- no matter how long ago you went to school -- can put your Social Security benefits at risk. Other government agencies can also tap Social Security to resolve debts, including for federally backed home loans, as well as unpaid child support and alimony.

    There are two primary ways to lose disability benefits. Aaron Hotfelder, formerly a Social Security disability benefits attorney and now a legal consultant near Columbia, Missouri, says an improvement in your medical condition is one common reason.

    "If you had a serious heart surgery, that can put you out of commission for more than a year and qualify you for Social Security disability benefits, but it's also the kind of thing that people can recover from to some extent and at least be able to go back to some kind of job," Hotfelder says.

    With periodic assessments every three to seven years, it's possible that a Social Security Administration review can conclude that -- with health improvement -- you don't still meet the requirements for the medical disability program.

    "One of the telltale signs that you have gotten better is that you stop receiving medical treatment," Hotflelder adds. If Social Security reviews a case, requests medical records and finds none available, they might assume that you're well. But Hotfelder says often the opposite is true. Patients may give up hope on a serious medical condition, or sometimes can't afford continuing care.

    "And in some cases, their doctors have told them, 'There's nothing else that we can do for you, you don't need to continue seeing a doctor,' " Hotflelder says. Cases where disability benefits have been cut off can be appealed.

    Earning more than $1,090 a month (in 2015) can also cause you to lose disability benefits, though you have a nine-month trial period to test your ability to work again. "If you go back to work full-time for an extended period of time, they're going to decide you're not disabled," Hotflelder adds.

    Besides employment, other income may be considered to determine your continued qualification for full Social Security disability benefits. That can include pension payments or alimony, free housing -- even wages earned by your spouse. And jail or prison time, or a felony conviction, may stop benefits, too.

    Social Security is a complex system that serves complex needs. "You can compare it to the tax code," Hotflelder admits. And even that may be an understatement.

     

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    Visualize Saving!
    Getty Images
    By Tess Frame

    It's not easy to keep track of where your money is going each month (though a budget is a great place to start). Still, if you want to regain any sort of financial freedom and start saving for future goals -- remember retirement? -- you'll need to stop blowing through your paycheck.

    We've rounded up 10 sneaky ways your money is leaving you before you even have a chance to use it. Read on to see how you can keep more of your paycheck for yourself next month.

    1. Bank Fees. Many banks charge a monthly or yearly "maintenance fee" that can cost you upwards of $25 a month, or $300 a year. Read the fine print associated with your bank account and find out if there are ways you can avoid a maintenance fee. If you can't, switch to an account without one.

    Other bank fees can also add up fast. The average overdraft fee will run you about $30, according to a Moebs Services report -- if you overdraw at least once a month, you're paying $360 a year just in penalty charges. Other sneaky bank fees to watch out for include ATM fees, withdrawal penalties and minimum balance fees.

    2. Recurring Payments for Services You're Not Using. Netflix ($7.99 a month), Hulu Plus ($7.99 a month), Spotify ($9.99 a month) and other recurring monthly services allow you to watch movies and shows, listen to music, and indulge in other media for a lower rate than cable (which can run you over $100 a month) -- even combined. Still, if you aren't taking advantage of these services, you aren't getting your money's worth.

    Services like Pandora, YouTube and the basic version of Hulu allow you to watch and listen for free. Cut these monthly recurring payments in favor of cheap or free alternatives and reroute the money to your savings account.

    3. Outstanding Credit Card Balances. If you maintain a balance on your credit card, you're signing away a portion of your paycheck before you even get paid. The average interest for credit cards is hovering around a whopping 15 percent, which means you're paying $15 for every $100 that isn't paid off at the end of each billing cycle. These fees can drain your paycheck extremely fast, especially if you're maintaining a high balance.

    You'll owe a mandatory minimum payment every month your credit card has a balance. The minimum allows you to pay interest and a portion of the principal so you can eventually get out of debt -- but the fastest way to stop paying any interest each month is to pay off your balance in full.

    4. Car Payments. Last year, new cars averaged a price of $31,831, according to TrueCar. That means, depending on your interest rate and loan term, you could end up shelling out $500 or more a month in car payments -- a huge chunk of your paycheck.

    Used cars, on the other hand, only averaged $16,335, cutting your monthly payment almost in half. If you have a high-interest rate auto loan, you can also try to refinance for a lower interest rate or trade your car in for a cheaper model.

    5. Student Loans. Student loans can vary widely depending on where you went to school, how many loans you took out and what kind of interest rates you got -- but they can easily be a huge drain on your income. The average student graduates college today with more than $30,000 in student loans, according to a report by Edvisors.

    One way to reduce the amount of interest you pay is to consolidate your loans into one single payment with a lower interest rate. You can also negotiate a payment plan with your lender if you're unable to meet the minimum monthly payments -- but be careful that you don't harm your credit score in the process.

    6. Gym Memberships. Gyms, spas, shopping clubs and other monthly memberships are great for health, socializing and buying in bulk -- but they can be awful for your budget, adding up to hundreds a month. If you aren't using your memberships as often as you'd like, it might be time to cancel that monthly payment and find a cheaper (or free) alternative.

    Gyms and spas are highly competitive, which means you can almost always find something cheaper. Certain gyms, community centers and nonprofits (like the YMCA) offer low-cost options ranging from $10-$50. Additionally, newly opened gyms and spas will often run promotions to encourage new business.

    Otherwise, skip the group workout altogether and do it from home: Try one of these 10 cheap fitness apps.

    7. Unused Coupons. Coupon sites like Groupon and LivingSocial are great resources for finding deals and discounts on products, services and experiences. But these deals are only worth it if you would have bought the service anyway. A 2013 North American Technographics survey found that the average Groupon user spends about $675 online within three months -- compared to just $467 spent by the average consumer.

    Since you pay for the coupon upfront, it's up to you to follow through and use it. Unused coupons eventually expire and become difficult to redeem, which means you forked over a big portion of your earnings and didn't actually save any money.

    8. Phone Payments. That fancy new iPhone 6 you just bought set you back by hundreds of dollars -- and upfront costs aside, you'll also be making monthly payments that could range anywhere between $40 or $50 and hundreds of dollars. Unless you realistically and regularly use 128 GB of space and 10 GB of data, you're overpaying for your phone and phone plan.

    Alternative carriers like Republic Wireless will sell you phones and service plans for a lot less. And if you're willing to part from the latest Apple product, you'll save even more by choosing a cheaper (if slightly less flashy) phone.

    9. Taxes. Unfortunately, taxes are a paycheck deduction that you can't avoid. Still, by adjusting your W-4 form, you could maximize the amount of cash you get to keep each month. If you tend to get a large refund each year, you're a prime candidate for keeping more of your money each paycheck (and forgoing the big payout April 15).

    Additionally, when you do your taxes, make sure you're taking advantage of the full range of deductions and credits available; don't leave money on the table that should be going straight to your savings account.

    10. 401(k) Contributions. It's incredibly important to start saving for retirement now -- and you should try to set aside as much savings as possible. Still, it doesn't make sense to put aside so much that you're going into debt or overdrawing your checking account in order to make ends meet at the end of the month.

    Sit down, write out your budget and find the perfect number to contribute to your retirement accounts each month. If your employer matches a certain amount (say 3 or 4 percent), you should aim to contribute at least that much -- you don't want to be leaving money on the table. Keep in mind that your retirement savings should always be a priority; if you're having trouble padding your 401(k) while still buying groceries, it might be a sign you need to cut down in other areas of your budget -- specifically, "wants," like dining out or going shopping.

    This story originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com.

     

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    Shutterstock
    By Ellen Chang

    NEW YORK -- Consumers who view the monthly payments as a guide to determine how much to spend on a new house or car are making a mistake, because many people tend to overspend when using this logic.

    While the lower payments mentioned by a real estate agent or salesperson may sound like a good idea, both purchases have many hidden costs that can put most shoppers over their ideal debt-to-income ratio of 40-to-60 -- meaning home and car payments in total do not equal more than 40 percent of household income. "There are two people who should never define your capacity to afford a loan: the salesperson and the lender," said Bruce McClary, spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization. "It is up to you to determine if the loan you have been approved for is going to be affordable."

    How Much to Spend on a Car

    Too many consumers have high monthly car payments, because they purchased vehicles out of their price range. Don't be lured by the gimmicks of advertisers of low interest rates. Some experts recommend following the "20/4/10" rule which calls for a 20 percent down payment, financing lasting no longer than four years and no more than 10 percent of a person's gross income to be devoted toward the principal, interest and insurance.

    The dangerous habit consumers have is they shop on the basis of the monthly payment without adequate consideration for the total costs they are going to incur over the term of the loan.

    "The dangerous habit consumers have is they shop on the basis of the monthly payment without adequate consideration for the total costs they are going to incur over the term of the loan," said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for by Bankrate, the North Palm Beach, Florida-based financial content company.

    One rule of thumb to follow is to avoid taking out a car loan for more than five years. If you chose a longer term, then it is a "sign that you are biting off more than you can chew," McBride said. Think about how long you want to keep the car, because if the loan term is longer, then you are headed for trouble. Avoid stretching out the term of the loan so you can lower your monthly payments.

    Although many people do not have a lot of spare cash for a down payment, putting down 10 percent for a new car and 20 percent for a used car will give you a "cushion considering the rapid depreciation after you buy the vehicle," McBride said. Just because you can purchase a car with a minimal or no down payment, it is still a good idea to make one because you will pay less in interest. Used cars require a larger down payment, because they are more prone to breaking down.

    Factor in your costs for a warranty, sales tax, gas, insurance, maintenance and repairs that you will incur. A shorter loan means that the balance of the loan will decrease faster than the rate of depreciation of the car or truck, McClary said. Although some reports have found that the average consumer spends 11 percent of his household budget on a car payment, the recommended allowance is 8 percent or less, he said.

    Other drivers aren't even remotely close to achieving these rules and are compounding the problem by rolling over negative equity from their trade-in. If you still owe money on your previous car, meaning that you are underwater on the loan, the result is that the negative equity gets rolled into the new loan. If you still owe $2,000 from your previous loan, then the $25,000 car becomes a $27,000 auto loan.

    "The moment you drive off the lot, it's no longer worth $ 25,000 and depreciates dramatically to a market value of $20,000," McClary said.

    The best advice for consumers trying to tackle other debt such as student loans or credit cards is to keep a car for a longer period.

    "Life without car payments is good," McBride said. "You want to get to that point where you are no longer on the treadmill of monthly payments. Keep your car and drive your way out of debt."

    Many lenders are less merciful when it comes to missing a car payment and repossession is more likely to be on the table. Some lenders will repossess the vehicle "as soon as a payment is missed in some cases," said McClary.

    What to Spend on a Home

    Although a mortgage lender will approve you for a loan that is much higher than you can afford, it does not mean you should go for it. Homeownership can be costly, with added fees such as mortgage insurance, property taxes, house insurance, maintenance and a homeowner's association fee.

    Some real estate agents will tell you that obtaining a mortgage for two or three times your salary is an adequate guideline, but in some cases that is far too generous.

    The problem is that people want the "biggest, nicest house they can get," said McBride. "There is that tendency to borrow as much as you are able to, and it's not always a good financial decision."

    During the previous housing boom, many consumers found themselves in trouble, because they only focused on the monthly payment and compared it to their rental payment cost. What was lacking was a consideration for what occurred down the road such as when the interest rate of a homeowner's adjustable rate mortgage rose without a commensurate salary boost.

    The best method to measure if the price of a house is affordable is to base it on a traditional 30-year fixed rate mortgage, McBride said.

    "If you can't afford a payment on a 30-year mortgage, you're not looking at the wrong loan, you are looking at the wrong house," he said said.

    Consumers shouldn't devote more than 30 percent of their income to a mortgage payment, which includes property tax and insurance. To boot, the amount of the mortgage shouldn't be more than three times your gross salary, McBride added.

    Bringing It All Together

    The best approach is for consumers to allocate no more than 10 percent of their income to an auto loan and 30 percent to a home. Many mortgage lenders won't approve potential homeowners if their total debt exceeds 43 percent of their income. This means that student loans and credit cards should be factored into the equation as well, McBride said.

    "That's why it pays to keep these ratios low because it's not the payment you don't have today, but the ones you might have in a few years," he said.

    Mortgage lenders tend to be more tolerant if you miss one or two payments. While a foreclosure typically can't start until your mortgage is at least 120 days past due, it is a serious problem, said McClary.

     

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    Shutterstock
    We don't trust corporate America by default, but there are certainly more than a few retailers that earn our respect. Whether it's a warehouse club that offers rock-bottom pricing or an e-tailer that has nailed down the tricky fulfillment challenges, there are a few merchants that consumers generally see as pretty reputable.

    Earlier this month, the Reputation Institute put out its annual survey of the most reputable companies in the U.S., derived after interviewing more than 50,000 consumers to determine the companies that have the most trustworthy brands. There are a few surprises once you get past the top-dog retailer, so let's dive right in.

    1. Amazon.com (AMZN)

    It's not a surprise to see Amazon on top. This is the third year in a row that the country's largest online retailer tops Reputation Institute's list. It also nearly took top honors in a similar survey conducted by the pollsters at Harris Interactive earlier this year. Wegmans took the top prize in that survey, though the privately held grocer didn't make the cut in Reputation Institute's list.

    Amazon has managed to establish its solid reputation despite doing business out of faceless distribution centers, unlike the local merchants with brick-and-mortar locations where shoppers can engage in actual conversations.

    That's a pretty big feat, and Amazon has made it happen as a result of its reliable shipping and sticky Amazon Prime loyalty program that keeps its customers close.

    2. Publix

    Wegmans didn't make this list, but another regional grocer with a cult following -- Florida's Publix -- is Reputation Institute's silver medalist. It's a pretty big honor for the chain that topped $30 billion in sales last year through its network of more than 1,100 supermarkets across the Southeast.

    Since Publix is second only to Amazon on the list, it also makes it the most reputable retailer in this country with a physical store presence. Publix has been at it for 85 years, combining modest prices with fresh merchandise. There's also quite the fan base for the grocer's deli-made submarine sandwiches.

    3. Whole Foods Market (WFM)

    Another supermarket on the list is Whole Foods Market. There are just 417 locations, but management has a goal of eventually having 1,200 grocery stores that specialize in organic foods and natural merchandise.

    Whole Foods recently announced that it will roll out a sister concept called 365 next year, aiming to provide cheaper organics to millennials who don't flock to Whole Foods the way that older shoppers do.

    4. Tiffany (TIF)

    A big surprise on the list of reputable companies is an upscale jeweler. Then again, Tiffany has always set itself apart from other jewelry merchants with its premium shopping experience and its signature light blue boxes tied with satin ribbons. Tradition works: Tiffany scored $4.2 billion in sales last year.

    5. Costco Wholesale (COST)

    You would think that slapping a cover charge -- and in Costco's case we're talking about annual membership fees -- for access would turn consumers off, but that's just one of the many ways that the leading warehouse club can offer great prices on everyday merchandise.

    Costco is also able to keep costs down with its bare-bones store design, complete with exposed beams and a penchant for bulk packaging. It all boils down to low prices, and that includes the famous rotisserie roasted whole chicken that it continues to sell for just $4.99.

    It's probably not a surprise that three of the five most reputable retailers specialize in groceries, given the industry's meager markups and quick turnover of merchandise. However, we also can't dismiss Amazon.com and Tiffany. Let's see if Amazon can stretch its streak on top to four years in a row next year.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Amazon.com, Costco Wholesale and Whole Foods Market. John Mackey, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Credit Card Changes Q and A
    Matt Rourke/AP
    By JOYCE M. ROSENBERG

    NEW YORK -- New credit and debit cards with computer chips are putting the squeeze on small businesses.

    The cards being rolled out by banks and credit card companies are aimed at reducing fraud from counterfeit cards. As chip cards are phased in, magnetic stripe cards, which are easier for thieves to copy, will be phased out. Businesses of all sizes face an Oct. 1 deadline to get new card readers and software that can handle chips. Most estimates of transition costs for small companies vary from the low hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars due to the wide range of equipment used.

    This is one of the biggest nightmares merchants are going to face.

    If businesses don't meet the deadline set by companies including MasterCard, Visa and American Express, they can be held liable for transactions made with phony chip cards.

    The switch to new chips in credit and debit cards poses a threat for small companies because they can't get the volume discounts on the new equipment that big retailers get. And they don't have in-house tech experts to install the new systems.

    "This is one of the biggest nightmares merchants are going to face," says Michael Kleinman, owner of Mason Eyewear, a store in Brickell, Florida, and Centurion Payment Services, a company that processes credit and debit card payments.

    Tip of the Iceberg

    The card readers shoppers see are just one part of a payment processing system. They're connected to software in a merchant's computer system that receives the transaction information and sends it to a payment processor. The processor then posts a charge or debit to the cardholder's account and a credit to the merchant's account.

    The simplest card readers used in stores and other small businesses are likely to cost at least $100. The machines will also read magnetic stripes and some also handle what are known as contactless payments made with services like Apple Pay or Google Wallet. Most software prices start at several hundred dollars, but can run into the thousands for more complex systems. Many companies have computer systems that do more than handle payments -- they also manage inventory and customer and vendor information. Businesses like restaurants and those with multiple locations are likely to have the most complex systems and the highest expenses.

    Dickie Brennan & Co., which operates four New Orleans restaurants, expects to pay more than $25,000 to replace card readers and software, says Derek Nettles, the company's information technology director. The company won't raise its prices to pay for the switch; instead, it's delaying an upgrade of its security camera system.

    "We're not happy about the additional expense," Nettles says.

    It's Not Plug and Play

    Changing card readers and software isn't something many small business owners, even tech-savvy ones, will be able to do on their own. They'll need to hire technology consultants who can charge as much as $100 an hour or more to install the system and ensure it works.

    Even with Kleinman's expertise in payment processing as owner of Centurion Payment Services, it took him five hours to install two card readers and software. And he was on the phone getting technical support from his vendor while he did it. Although the new system works, there are glitches that keep him tinkering. For example, sometimes the system has trouble accepting certain cards.

    "Most people are definitely going to need to hire somebody to do it," Kleinman says.

    It may make sense for companies with combined payment, inventory and other systems to separate the payment part to make them less vulnerable to hackers, says Scott Shedd, a technology consultant with WGM Associates in Scottsdale, Arizona.

    But that will add more costs, says Avivah Litan, an analyst with Gartner Research.

    "If you want to use this opportunity to secure your systems, it could cost you thousands," she says.

     

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    German Launch For Amazon's Fire Smartphone
    Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    By Jeremy Wagstaff

    SINGAPORE -- Security researchers have uncovered a flaw in the way thousands of popular mobile applications store data online, leaving users' personal information, including passwords, addresses, door codes and location data, vulnerable to hackers.

    The team of German researchers found 56 million items of unprotected data in the applications it studied in detail, which included games, social networks, messaging, medical and bank transfer apps.

    In almost every category we found an app which has this vulnerability in it.

    "In almost every category we found an app which has this vulnerability in it," said Siegfried Rasthofer, part of the team from the Fraunhofer Institute for Secure Information Technology and Darmstadt University of Technology.

    Team leader Eric Bodden said the number of records affected "will likely be in the billions."

    Another security researcher working separately, Colombian Jheto Xekri, said he had also found the same flaw.

    The problem, Bodden said, is in the way developers -- those who write and sell the applications -- authenticate users when storing their data in online databases.

    Most such apps use services, such as Amazon.com's (AMZN) Web Services or Facebook's (FB) Parse to store, share or back up users' data.

    While such services offer ways for developers to protect the data, most choose the default option, based on a string of letters and numbers embedded in the software's code, called a token.

    Attackers, Bodden says, can easily extract and tweak those tokens in the app, which then gives them access to the private data of all users of that app stored on the server.

    The researchers said they had no documented evidence that the vulnerability had been exploited.

    The vulnerable applications, which they declined to name, number in the tens of thousands, and include some of the most popular on the Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG) app stores.

    Rasthofer said all four companies had responded to their findings; he said Apple staff had told him Monday that they would soon incorporate warnings to developers to double check their security settings before uploading apps to its App Store.

    Google declined to comment, while Apple and Amazon didn't respond to queries.

    A Facebook spokesperson said that after researchers notified it of the vulnerability the company had been working with affected developers. She declined to provide details.

    App Developers Responsible

    Facebook's Parse lists among its customers some of the world's biggest companies -- all of which, Rasthofer said, were potentially affected.

    Security researchers say mobile applications are more at risk of failing to secure users' data than those running on desktop or laptop computers. This is partly because implementing stronger security is harder, and partly because developers are in a rush to release their apps, said Ibrahim Baggili, who runs a cybersecurity lab at the University of New Haven.

    Others pointed to weaknesses in the ways apps transmit data. Bryce Boland, Asia Pacific chief technology offer at internet security company FireEye, said the report reflected deeper problems.

    He said FireEye (FEYE) regularly found developers send users' names and passwords unencrypted, "so it's not surprising to find them storing them insecurely as well."

    Bodden likened his team's discovery to the Heartbleed bug, a Web-based vulnerability reported last year that left half a million Web servers susceptible to data theft. Security researchers said this might be worse, since there was little users could do, and exploiting the vulnerability was easy.

    "The amount of effort to compromise data by exploiting app vulnerabilities is far less than the effort to exploit Heartbleed," said Toshendra Sharma, founder of Bombay-based mobile security company Wegilant.

    Other security researchers say that while responsibility for weak authentication lies with those developing the apps, others in the chain should shoulder some of the blame.

    "The truth is that there is plenty of fault to go around," said Domingo Guerra, co-founder of mobile security company Appthority. Cloud providers and app stores, he said, should ensure best practices are implemented correctly and test apps for such holes.

    -With additional reporting by Mari Saito and Julia Love.

     

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    Bird Flu
    Janet Hostetter/AP
    By DAVID PITT

    DES MOINES, Iowa -- A bird flu outbreak in the Midwest that's boosted prices for eggs and roasting turkeys has actually resulted in cheaper chicken in the U.S., as many countries restrict imports of poultry products, the Department of Agriculture said in a report released Tuesday.

    Even though bird flu hasn't found its way onto farms that raise chickens for meat, lower exports mean plenty of chicken available in the U.S., the agency said in its monthly report on the poultry market.

    What this situation has done is increase the amount of broiler products on the domestic market...

    "What this situation has done is increase the amount of broiler products on the domestic market, boosting cold storage holdings and resulting in placing downward price pressure on a number of broiler products," the USDA said.

    At the end of April, 181 million pounds of leg quarters were in cold storage, 80 percent more than last year. Leg quarters are the largest chicken meat export product.

    May wholesale prices in the Northeast market for bulk leg quarters averaged 34 cents a pound, 32 percent lower than a year earlier. Prices for drumsticks were down 33 percent and boneless/skinless thigh meat was down 19 percent, the USDA said.

    The bird flu cost Minnesota, the leading turkey producer, 9 million birds. Egg farms in Iowa, the nation's leading egg producer, lost 25 million hens.

    The frequency of new cases has slowed dramatically, with no new commercial barn cases in Minnesota in 11 days. Iowa went six days without a new case until Tuesday, when Iowa agriculture officials said a chicken farm with 1 million egg-layers tested positive.

    The USDA lowered its forecast for table egg production this year to 6.9 billion dozen, a 5.3 percent drop from 2014. Fewer eggs created a supply shortage and higher prices. By late May, the price for a dozen Midwest large eggs had soared 120 percent from their mid-April pre-bird flu prices to $2.62, said Urner Barry, an industry analyst group. Prices began falling last week and were at $2.22 a dozen on Tuesday. Breaker eggs -- those used in processed food and by bakers for cakes and cookies -- soared 273 percent at the peak and have fallen only slightly in the last week.

    Turkey production for this year is estimated at 5.6 billion pounds, a 3 percent reduction from 2014, the USDA said. The relatively small decrease is because production for the first three months of the year was 7 percent higher than a year ago, before the bird flu surfaced in the Midwest.

    Prices for some turkey parts, including drumsticks, were lower than a year ago in April, but boneless/skinless breast meat was 8 percent higher. Whole frozen hens often used for roasting were 3 percent higher in May than the same month a year ago at $1.09 a pound. They are expected to climb to as much as $1.15 a pound in the third quarter.

     

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    mother and son drawing present for daddy
    Getty Images
    By Louis Ramirez

    Father's Day is fast approaching, and if you're like most consumers, chances are you're still looking for a gift for dad. That's where we come into the picture.

    But, rather than barrage you with yet another generic Father's Day gift guide, we're here to show you what sales you should shop in order to save the most money. So whether your dad is into sports, gadgets, or designer polos, these are the sites you should visit in the days leading up to Father's Day.

    Deals Will Make it Easy to Give Your Dad a Wardrobe Makeover

    Last June, men's apparel dominated all other sales categories, accounting for 35 percent of all of our Father's Day deals. This included everything from shorts and polos to sportcoats and men's shoes. For dapper dads, keep an eye out for sales from Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale's, which each took 70 percent off a selection of designer men's clothing including brands like Versace, Armani and Cole Haan. Ralph Lauren also took up to 50 percent off its own merchandise with free shipping on all orders.

    For more casual clothing, expect to see deals from JCPenney, Eddie Bauer and Belk, which featured discounts of up to 50 percent off. For its members, Rue La La also took up to 74 percent off brands such as adidas, Original Penguin, Ben Sherman and Calvin Klein. In terms of dollar-off sales, Puma took $25 off for every $75 spent, whereas Kohl's took $10 off purchases of $30 or more and took an extra 15 percent off via a stackable coupon. Shoe sales were a little harder to come by, however, Allen Edmonds took 37 percent off select men's shoes and up to 60 percent off small leather goods, such as phone cases, wallets, and money clips.

    Sitewide Electronics Sales Will Discount Laptops and Accessories

    Every dad needs a few good gadgets in his life and although this time of year isn't generally the best season for electronics deals, with a little digging you can score a few bargains. Keep in mind that tech items only represented 21 percent of last year's Father's Day deals, so when you see a deal that fits your budget, you'll want to act immediately, as that deal may not resurface until later in the summer.

    That said, we noticed an abundance of sitewide sales last year at stores such as Best Buy, Target and A4C with discounts that took from 50 to 82 percent off a wide variety of items. Best Buy's sale was particularly noteworthy for including Apple devices such as iMacs and MacBooks. For notebooks, Lenovo also merits a mention for taking up to 39 percent off of its selection of laptops.

    Alternatively, T-Mobile took up to $100 off select 4G tablets during its Father's Day sale, whereas smaller vendors such as ZAGG will likely take up to 70 percent off its selection of accessories including headphones, Bluetooth keyboards, and cases.

    This year you may also want to pay close attention to offers for music-streaming services. Earlier this month Apple announced its new streaming service, Apple Music, with prices ranging from $9.99 a month for single plans to $14.99 a month for family plans. Even if you find that too expensive for your budget, Apple's service could spark a temporary price war between competitors like Spotify and Rdio, which may announce specials in an effort to keep their customers from jumping ship. Spotify has already announced it plans to price match Apple Music in the near future.

    Tools and Sporting Gear Will Offer the Lowest Starting Prices

    If your dad loves the great outdoors, you'll be happy to hear that 25 percent of all Father's Day deals last year included outdoors or sporting equipment. The stores with the most noteworthy deals included Bass Pro Shops and Gander Mountain. The former offered deals from $3, whereas Gander Mountain offered 70 percent off select camping, hunting, and fishing gear.

    For DIY dads, last year both Home Depot and Lowe's offered a wide variety of gifts starting at just $5. Lowe's had slightly better prices in that it offered an extra 10 percent off via a stackable coupon. However, if there's a particular item you want, we recommend price checking both stores.

    Finally, if you just don't know what to get your dad this Father's Day, there are many unconventional gifts/deals you can choose from. Omaha Steaks slashed up to 60 percent off select meat packages and bundled in free shipping and a free 6-pack burger kit. 1-800-Baskets discounted select Father's Day gift baskets by up to 40 percent. Travel site Jetsetter also partook in the deal slinging with discounts at 10 international golf hotels (prices started at $94 a night). And of course, online giant Amazon.com took 60 percent off a wide assortment of gifts for Father's Day. It even offered a student special wherein students would receive a $10 credit with the purchase of a $50 Father's Day gift card.

    No matter which route you take, your dad is bound to love his gift and the best part is, he'll never need to know just how much (or how little) you spent on it.

     

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    Wall Street
    U.S. flags fly over the New York Stock Exchange early Tuesday morning Jan. 22, 2008.
    Seven years after the financial crisis (and six years after Warren Buffett declared it to be over), Americans are still leery of getting back into stocks.

    That's the upshot of a poll recently released by Gallup, which confirmed that while no longer quite as negative on stocks as they were a couple of years ago, American investors still haven't returned to the levels of stock ownership seen before the crisis -- or even in its immediate aftermath.

    Once Burned, Still Shy

    In the run-up to the financial crisis, Americans threw care to the wind. Despite having been burned just a few years earlier by the "popping" of the dot-com bubble, Americans at the dawn of the financial crisis were more devoted to stock investing than ever before.

    Just before the bubble burst in 2000, 62 percent of Americans owned stocks (either directly, through a mutual fund, or through a 401(k) or IRA plan). Undeterred, investors proceeded to pile right back into the market post-bubble. By the time the financial crisis hit in 2008, stock ownership levels had exceeded pre-bubble levels -- hitting 65 percent.

    Fool Me Twice ...

    This, however, marked the high-water mark on investors' patience. One year into the financial crisis, stock ownership levels plummeted 8 percentage points to 57 percent -- and kept on falling all the way into 2013, finally bottoming at 52 percent.

    Fast-forward another two years and stock ownership in the U.S. has barely lifted itself off that floor. Stock ownership levels stand today at just 55 percent, according to Gallup. This is despite the fact that, since bottoming at 7,033 points in early 2009, the Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) has risen 156 percent in value over the succeeding six years.

    That's a crying shame -- the more so when you notice the statistics that show which Americans have shied farthest away from stocks and have stayed away the longest.

    Fool Me Thrice?

    As Gallup's data reveal, overall and across the nation, 55 percent of Americans have at least dipped their toes back into the stock market (or never left). The numbers are similar for the subgroups of:
    • Americans earning between $30,000 and $75,000 -- 56 percent
    • Americans ages 55 and older -- 57 percent
    • and those ages 35 to 54 -- 58 percent.
    In contrast, investors who refuse to invest in the stock market today congregate within just two groups:
    • Americans ages 18 to 34. Experts point out that young investors have the most time to benefit from a bit of risk taking, and plenty of time to recover from the occasional bad investment. Yet only 49 percent of them are "in the market" today.
    • And poorer Americans earning less than $30,000 annually. This demographic has avoided the stock market in droves: Only 21 percent of the sub-$30,000 set are invested in the market, according to Gallup.
    In contrast, Gallup notes just one group that owned stocks before the financial crisis, kept owning stocks all the way through the aftermath, still owns stocks today, and consequently has reaped the lion's share of the gains from the rising stock market: The rich.

    According to Gallup, "the financial crisis did not appear to have had much of an effect on whether [the] wealthiest Americans chose to invest in the market." To the contrary, 90 percent of Americans earning $75,000 owned stocks before the financial crisis. Eighty-eight percent of them continue to own stocks today.

    Investing for the long term, riding out the short-term turbulence, and patiently awaiting better days, the rich have reaped the rewards of one of the fastest, and biggest, market rebounds in recent memory. Maybe, if we want to get rich one day, too... we should all follow their example when the next "crisis" hits.

    Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith wishes he practiced more of what he preaches. In the spirit of full disclosure, he's forced to admit that while he didn't panic and sell after the financial crisis... he didn't do nearly enough new buying, either. Rich does not own shares of any stocks or indexes mentioned above, and neither does The Motley Fool. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

     

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