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    Woman in kitchen with laptop using cellular phone smiling
    Getty Images
    By Meghan Rabbitt

    When you're making all (or most) of the "right" money moves -- like building a nest egg, and not racking up a ton of debt -- it can be easy to ignore your net worth, assuming it will grow as long as you're being financially responsible.

    But it's important to keep regular tabs on your net worth -- and actively try to increase it, says Cheryl Sherrard, a certified financial planner and director of financial planning for Clearview Wealth Management in Charlotte, North Carolina.

    Your net worth -- the difference between your assets and your debts -- provides a good bird's-eye view of your finances. So the greater your net worth, the more likely you'll be able to weather a rough patch, like losing a job or dealing with a sudden medical emergency.

    Boosting your net worth also gives you more financial security, allowing for some risks -- like finding a new job or buying a house that looks like a great investment, Sherrard adds.

    Kathy Gibson*, 36, from Denver, is one of those people who's doing everything right on paper. The health care research program director makes a six-figure income, saves regularly for retirement and emergencies, has a decent home down payment fund and has no debt, having paid off her student loans two years ago.

    But in order to move on to the next phase of her life with financial confidence, Kathy believes there's more she could be doing to increase her net worth.

    "I often wonder if I'll have enough money when I retire, and I don't want to fall into the trap of assuming that I'll eventually be married and have two retirement incomes to fall back on," she says.

    What's more, Kathy's career involves moving from one project to another, with contracts that tend to last two to four years -- so there's always the possibility she'll have to dip into her savings when she's between projects.

    We asked Kathy to share the details of her budget, savings and investments, so that Sherrard can help her find ways to boost her net worth by at least $40,000 over the next few years -- because there's always room for improvement when it comes to growing your wealth.

    What Kathy Says About Her Net Worth ...

    "After I graduated from college in 2001, I got a job at a science lab that made me realize health care research was my passion -- and that I'd need to get my master's degree in public health to continue climbing the ranks.

    "Fortunately, I didn't have any debt from my undergrad years -- my parents were awesome and covered tuition for me -- but I did have to take out about $45,000 in student loans for my graduate program. That put my net worth in the red, but I anticipated my future career would pay me well enough to be able to chip away at it relatively quickly.

    "Right out of grad school, I got a job working on hospital research databases, and I continued to get promotions for the next five years. As my pay grew, I put more toward my student loan, taking care of the bulk of that debt during this time -- and also started socking away money into a 401(k) and a home down payment fund.

    "Then I got my current job, which bumped my income up further -- but the trade-off was job stability. The projects I work on are steady for a few years, but there's always a chance that the groups we contract with won't renew. As such, I've tried to beef up my emergency savings, but I suspect the [financial planner] will tell me I should be saving more.

    "Overall, I feel like I'm doing pretty well. I put about 4 percent of my salary into my 401(k), which my company matches. I also have about $66,000 from my old 401(k) rolled over into an IRA, and I've saved up enough for a down payment on a home.

    "My fixed expenses are relatively low compared to my $4,800 per month take-home pay because I've paid my student loans and car off -- plus, it's a hybrid, which means low fuel costs. I'm also good about paying off my credit cards every month.

    "I do anticipate that my $850 monthly rent will become something like a $1,200 per month mortgage if I end up buying a house, so I want to make sure I'm doing everything I can to cover all my financial bases."

    "I'd suggest Kathy consider contributing to a Roth IRA. Over the next five years, that would add almost $27,500 to her retirement savings."

    What the Financial Planner Says About Kathy's Net Worth ...

    Cheryl Sherrard: "She's doing a great job planning for her future. She also deserves kudos for not depending on marriage for financial stability. She's taking charge of her own financial success, which is a great attitude to have.

    "Because Kathy has no debt, her net worth is the total of her savings, a little more than $150,000. To beef it up further, I think Kathy's first net-worth-boosting goal should be to increase her emergency savings because her income isn't completely stable, and she doesn't have another person's income to rely on as a backup.

    "My recommendation would be to have somewhere between six and 12 months of pay saved, which is anywhere between $28,800 and $57,600. Even doubling her current emergency fund to get closer to the $30,000 mark would be great.

    "To build up to that over the next four years, Kathy will need to sock away a little more than $300 each month, which she could do by re-evaluating her discretionary spending.

    "For example, could she spend $100 on an espresso machine rather than drop $4 to $5 on lattes every day? I'd also challenge Kathy to set aside a certain amount each month for eating out -- maybe half of what she spends now -- because it's easy to get into the habit of ordering takeout or going to restaurants without realizing how much you're spending.

    "In fact, considering that what she spends on entertainment, food and drinks takes up more than a quarter of her take-home pay, I think Kathy can look for further cuts in these categories in order to boost her nest egg.

    "As for her retirement savings, it's great that she's taking advantage of her employer 401(k) match, but it'd be better if she could find a bit more than 4 percent to invest. I'd even go a step further and suggest Kathy consider contributing to a Roth IRA, since her income still qualifies her for one.

    "Currently, the maximum contribution is $5,500 a year, which breaks down to about $458 a month. She's debt-free, doesn't have a lot of other expenses, and lives within her means, so I think that's a reasonable goal. Over the next five years, that would add about $27,500 to her retirement savings.

    "If Kathy built up a $64,000 down payment in order to put down 20 percent, that means she's thinking of buying a $300,000 home. I would just caution her not to buy more house than she needs.

    "If she uses all of that savings, it won't leave her much wiggle room if she has to, say, fix a broken water heater. I also wonder if she has seriously considered all of the extra expenses that she'll incur as a homeowner.

    "Not only will her mortgage be more than her rent, but she'll also have to think about taxes, insurance -- and a utility bill that could be 10 to 15 times more than the $20 she's paying right now.

    "I'd suggest that Kathy pretend she's already purchased this new house and stash the extra expenses in a separate 'house emergency' fund. This way, she's crystal clear on how much she'll really pay to own a home -- and it can help her see where she may need to make adjustments to her flex spending in order to cover those new costs.

    "My guess is that in 'practicing' being a homeowner she'd be putting $600 to $800 a month into her house emergency fund, which could be as much as another $9,600 in savings a year.

    "Finally, if Kathy wants to make even faster gains on her net worth, she might consider freelancing on the side, if that's feasible given her work commitments. Some of her skills might translate into a part-time gig that could help her save even more aggressively."

    "I'm close to putting an offer in on a house, and I was considering funneling any down payment money I don't use into my IRA, but I may put that into a house emergency savings account."

    What Kathy Says About Her Planner's Advice ...

    "I think these are all things I can start implementing immediately. I know that beefing up my emergency savings is really important, so that's something I'll make a priority.

    "I also like the idea of stashing away a bit more money toward retirement via a Roth IRA -- it'll be nice to add a cushion to my retirement money.

    "I'm close to putting an offer in on a house, so I definitely need to start calculating my increased expenses -- and socking away that extra $600 to $800 a month Cheryl suggested. I was considering funneling any down payment money I don't use into my IRA, but I may put that into a house emergency savings account instead.

    "Regarding my 'fun' expenses, I had a feeling Cheryl was going to call me out on those. I love going to concerts, and since I live alone, I go out a lot to meet my friends for meals or drinks. It's no fun cooking for myself!

    "But there are definitely ways I can still socialize without having to spend as much -- and I'll try to make that happen over the next few months so I can start to build better spending habits.

    "It's encouraging to know that I'm making a lot of good financial planning moves, but it's even nicer knowing what I could be doing better. I don't want to get lulled into thinking that I'm doing fine when there are ways that I could be saving more and building my net worth."

    *Name has been changed.

     

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    JAPAN-US-TOYOTA-CRIME-MANAGEMENT
    Toshifumi Kitamura, AFP/Getty ImagesToyota president Akio Toyoda speaks at a press conference Friday following the arrest of the company's managing officer, Julie Hamp, at the automaker's headquarters in Tokyo.
    By YURI KAGEYAMA

    TOKYO -- Toyota Motor (TM) President Akio Toyoda said Friday he believes an American executive arrested on suspicion of importing a controlled drug into Japan had no intention of breaking the law.

    Julie Hamp, Toyota's head of public relations and its first senior woman executive, was arrested Thursday on suspicion of importing the painkiller oxycodone. She was the first foreign Toyota executive to be fully stationed in Japan, and was in the process of moving her belongings from California.

    At a hastily called news conference Friday, Toyoda bowed briefly and apologized for the troubles set off by the arrest of Hamp, who was tapped as Toyota's chief communications officer in April.

    He said the company should have done more to help with Hamp's relocation. He declined to go into details of the police allegations, only repeating several times that the company was cooperating fully with the investigation.

    The drug was found by customs officials in a package Hamp sent to herself by air mail from the United States, according to police. Japanese media reports said the drugs were hidden in various parts of a jewelry box.

    The high-profile stumble of a media-savvy executive, so early in the game, is an embarrassment for the world's top-selling automaker. Toyota had highlighted Hamp's appointment with much fanfare as a sign that it was promoting diversity.

    Toyoda said he had picked Hamp, 55, because of "her character." She was an excellent leader, communicating well with Japanese employees, he said.

    I believe that we will learn that she had no intent to violate the law.

    "For me and for Toyota, she is an indispensable and precious teammate," he told reporters. "I believe that we will learn that she had no intent to violate the law."

    He acknowledged that her appointment had been a "big step" in a globalizing Toyota. Although Japanese Toyota officials had gone abroad to live, she was the first foreign Toyota executive to be fully stationed in Japan.

    It was unclear when she might be released. Japanese authorities can detain suspects without charge for up to 23 days.

    Japan has strict controls over drugs. Possession of marijuana, for instance, is a serious crime. Foreigners being detained for mailing or bringing in medicines they used at home is not unheard of. Such drugs may be banned in Japan or require special approval.

    The U.S. Embassy in Japan warns on its Internet site that Americans can be detained for bringing in prescription drugs that may perfectly legal in the U.S.

    Earlier this year, Oregon woman Carrie Russell, 26, was detained for 18 days in Japan over a shipment of prescription Adderall for attention-deficit disorder. The drug is commonly prescribed in the U.S. but contains amphetamines, which are outlawed in Japan.

    She had come to Japan to teach English and shipped in the unopened package of pills that her mother had sent from the U.S. to South Korea. U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy worked for Russell's release.

    Beefed Up Crackdown

    Japan's government has been beefing up its crackdown on drug abuse this year.

    About 250 cases of drug smuggling are recorded a year, according to recent government data, with about half of cases involving foreigners including Americans. It is unclear which ones were over prescription drugs.

    Public relations experts say Hamp may have to resign because, even if it turns out to be an honest mistake, it's still a mistake and one that reflects lack of awareness about a country she would be expected to have some familiarity with.

    Before joining Toyota in 2012, Hamp worked for PepsiCo (PEP) and General Motors (GM). She oversaw marketing and communications for the Toyota, Lexus and Scion brands in the U.S. before her latest promotion.

    Toyota employees are held to a high ethical standard, and run-ins with the law, even minor misdemeanors, are rare and seen as a disgrace.

    Toyoda, who faced criticism for being slow in reacting to the Toyota's recall crisis of several years ago, emphasized he was responding quickly to the Hamp news.

    "We still don't have all facts, and what I can say is limited. But I felt it's critical to tell you my thoughts in my own words," said Toyoda.

     

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    Charter Time Warner Cable
    Jeff Roberson/AP
    The Comcast-Time Warner merger is dead! Long live the Charter Communications-Time Warner merger!

    Ever since Comcast announced plans to purchase Time Warner last February, consumers had protested that this deal wasn't going to be good news for consumers. After all, according to a 2014 Customer Satisfaction Report by the American Customer Satisfaction Index, Time Warner and Comcast were the two worst-rated cable TV companies in the industry that year (and the year before it as well). Merging these two "wrongs" wouldn't likely make a right -- only a bigger wrong.

    And so, great was the rejoicing in April, when Comcast announced that it was, in fact, not going through with the merger. Objections from the Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission had apparently scotched the deal. But no sooner had that news broken than another announcement came out:

    Comcast (CMCSA) may not be buying Time Warner (TWC), but Charter Communications (CHTR) is.

    Six on the One Hand, Half a Dozen on the Other

    So is this good news? Well, it is at least better news. By ACSI's estimation, a merger between Time Warner and Charter will combine the worst cable company in America with the third-worst. That's at least a bit better than putting the two absolute worst companies in the same cable box.

    And maybe, just maybe, an association with Charter will rub off on Time Warner and make the latter's customer service somewhat less horrible.

    But the big question isn't what happens when bad cable provider Charter buys even worse cable provider Time Warner. It's what happens when the good folks at Bright House Networks get shoved into bed with both these giants.

    Guilt by Association

    You see, in addition to spending $78.7 billion to acquire Time Warner, Charter has also announced plans to buy Bright House for about $10.4 billion. Although unrated by ACSI, Bright House scores strongly among consumers polled by Consumer Reports, which rates Bright House seventh out of 24 rated "TV services" providers in its latest survey of the industry. With a score of 67 on a scale of 100, Bright House outperforms rivals Charter (59), Comcast (57) and Time Warner (54) as well.

    In fact, Consumer Reports rates Bright House above even AT&T (T) U-Verse (66) in customer satisfaction -- and ACSI's survey had AT&T U-Verse rated the second-most-popular cable TV provider in the industry!

    Two Wrongs Plus One Right Equals ... What?

    And so the question facing consumers becomes: Will Charter's move to buy Bright House improve customer service at both Charter and Time Warner? Or will it be Bright House -- once subsumed within two other businesses that, combined, serve eight times as many customers as Bright House -- that gets worse instead? Is this three-way merged business going to sink to the lowest common denominator?

    Whatever happens with regard to the quality of service, one thing seems certain: A merged Charter/Time Warner/Bright House is going to cost you more money next year than this. According to Consumer Reports, the price of cable has grown at twice the cost of inflation over the past two decades, and the price hikes show no signs of abating.

    So in the best-case scenario, you can probably expect to be paying more money for slightly better service after this merger goes through. More likely, though, you'll be paying more money for... more of the same.

    Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith doesn't own shares of any of the stocks mentioned above. (Nor does The Motley Fool.)

    Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond .

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street Fitbit IPO
    Richard Drew/APFitbit CEO James Park shows off one of his devices Thursday outside the New York Stock Exchange, before his company's IPO.
    There were plenty of winners and losers this week, with a popular pizza chain introducing a new pie that raises the bar on outrageous and a once-popular mall chain deciding to close down stores and shave its HQ payroll.

    Fitbit (FIT) -- Winner

    It was a healthy debut for fitness tracker Fitbit. The pioneer of fitness trackers priced at the high end of its expected range, hitting the market on Thursday at $20. It was originally expecting to price its offering as low as $14 a share. It wasn't enough: The stock opened at $30.40. That uphill climb will give your Fitbit bracelet quite the workout!

    Fitbit's rolling these days. It's profitable, and revenue last year nearly tripled to $754.4 million. There are plenty of tech giants eyeing the wearable tech space, but Fitbit's positioned well as a pioneer in a market that's been very receptive to strong consumer brands.

    Starbucks (SBUX) -- Loser

    The baron of baristas announced this week that it would be shutting down all 23 locations of the La Boulange pastry shop that it acquired just three years ago.

    Buying a business to shut it down is common in the tech world. They call it "acqui-hire" when a company is hired for its key executives or technology. In this particular case, Starbucks may have gotten what it wanted out of La Boulange. It's been able to upgrade the food offerings at its namesake coffee shops. However, by shutting down the nearly two dozen stores that bear the La Boulange name, it's also shutting down the brand's tradition.

    Pizza Hut -- Winner

    Yes, the very notion of a "hot dog pizza" with a crust of pigs in a blanket is a ludicrous notion. Yum Brands' (YUM) Pizza Hut introduced the new frank-fortified pie on Thursday at an introductory price of just $11.99.

    The pizza may seem outrageous, but it has generated plenty of free publicity for Pizza Hut at a time when rival chains are also trying to stand out.

    Gap (GPS) -- Loser

    The once-thriving apparel retailer that fitted folks with denim and khaki a generation ago is struggling to regain its relevance, so Gap is retreating. The mall icon announced that it would close 175 stores. It will also be trimming its payroll at headquarters by 250 employees.

    It's true that Gap will be able to shave its overhead, and closing underperforming stores isn't necessarily a bad thing. However, any retreat is going to be a morale buster at a company that has seen its namesake concept struggle while its sister concept Old Navy holds up well with cost-conscious shoppers.

    Microsoft (MSFT) -- Winner

    The world's largest software company wowed attendees at the annual E3 powwow for video game enthusiasts. The star of the conference by some accounts was the demo of HoloLens, the Microsoft headset that offers augmented reality, blending goggle-projected images with physical objects in the real-world environment.

    A high point at E3 was a HoloLens demo of "Minecraft," the popular community game that Microsoft acquired last year. There were some glitches, but Microsoft appears to be leading the charge for the next generation of gaming.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Starbucks. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Looking for a winner for your portfolio? Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Supreme Court Health Overhaul
    Andrew Harnik/AP
    By ANDREW TAYLOR and RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR

    WASHINGTON -- Repealing President Barack Obama's signature health care law would modestly increase the budget deficit even as it boosts the economy, while the number of uninsured Americans would rise by more than 20 million, according to a nonpartisan government study released Friday.

    The Congressional Budget Office report says that completely repealing the law would, on average, increase the economy by 0.7 percent a year when economic effects have had a chance to kick in at the start of the '20s. That's mostly because more people would enter the workforce or work more hours to make up for the lack of government health care subsidies.

    But repealing the law's spending cuts and tax increases would add $137 billion to the federal deficit over the coming decade, CBO says, even as almost $1.7 trillion in coverage costs would disappear. Repeal would reduce deficits in the first few years but increase them by steadily rising amounts as time goes on.

    Repeal would increase the number of uninsured people by about 24 million people, and the share of U.S. adults with health insurance would drop from roughly 90 percent now to about 82 percent, the report said.

    The CBO provides lawmakers with nonpartisan budget and economic analysis. Republicans controlling Congress have increasingly asked the office to incorporate a broader range of the expected economic consequences of major legislation into its work. CBO analysts always caution that their studies of legislation can be uncertain, especially over many years.

    Under its traditional model, CBO wouldn't have taken into account such economic consequences. Using that earlier approach, the agency said deficits from repealing the law would increase by $353 billion over the coming decade. Adding the economic factors cuts the repeal's effect on the deficit by more than half over 10 years, the report says.

    The budget scorekeepers also offered a cautionary note to Congress: Obama's law -- known as the Affordable Care Act -- is by now so enmeshed with the health care system that uprooting it would create its own issues.

    'Major Challenges'

    "Implementing a repeal of the ACA would present major challenges," the report said. "In the five years since its enactment, nearly every key provision of the law has taken effect and has been incorporated into final rules and other administrative actions. Undoing the ACA would thus be quite complicated."

    Unwinding changes to Medicare would be particularly difficult, the CBO said.

    The health care law offers subsidized private health insurance policies to people who don't have access to coverage on the job, along with an expanded version of Medicaid geared to low-income adults, in states that have accepted the expansion.

    If the law is repealed, about 18 million fewer people would have individual health insurance policies, and about 14 million fewer people would be covered under Medicaid, the report said. Gains in employer coverage would partially offset those losses, with 8 million more covered through job based insurance.

    The study comes as Washington awaits a decision from the Supreme Court on whether to nullify coverage subsidies in more than 30 states.

    In a twist, the budget office suggested that if those subsidies are curtailed, it would reduce the projected savings from repealing the rest of the law. That's because the government would not be spending money to subsidize coverage for more than 6 million people in the affected states.

    Conservatives who brought the lawsuit say the law's literal wording prevents the federal government from subsidizing private health insurance premiums in states that failed to set up their own insurance markets. Most have not done so, reflecting continued political opposition to the program. The administration argues that the law intended subsidies to be available in all states.

    The Supreme Court is expected to issue their decision by the end of June.

    Republicans in control of the House and Senate have said that if the court strikes down subsidies in the mostly GOP-held states that would be affected, they would advance legislation to ease the immediate effect on people who would lose coverage.

     

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    BIZ CAR SALES
    David Zalubowski/APThis 2006 image shows a row of 2007 Vibes at a Pontiac dealership in Littleton, Colo.
    DETROIT -- General Motors (GM) is adding more than 243,000 compact hatchbacks in the U.S. and Canada to the growing recall for air bags that can explode with too much force.

    The company said Friday that the expanded recall for passenger air bags covers the Pontiac Vibe from 2003 through 2007. The cars were designed by Toyota (TM) and made at jointly owned factory in California. They're twins of the Toyota Matrix, which was recalled earlier.

    The Vibe recall comes after Takata Corp. of Japan agreed in May to double the size of its air bag inflator recall to 33.8 million, making it the largest automotive recall in U.S. history.

    The propellant in some Takata inflators can burn too quickly, blowing apart a metal canister and sending shrapnel into the passenger compartment. The problem has been blamed for at least seven deaths and more than 100 injuries.

    Last month Takata bowed to pressure from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and declared many of its products defective, agreeing to double the number of air bag inflators being recalled.

    The giant recall covers driver and passenger air bags in cars and trucks made by 11 automakers. Takata, the automakers and NHTSA are still trying to determine what exactly causes the inflators to malfunction.

    Owners can find out if their car is part of the giant recall by going to https://vinrcl.safercar.gov/vin/ and keying in their vehicle identification number. The number is located on many state registration cards and is stamped on the dashboard near the bottom of the driver's side windshield.

    NHTSA says the numbers of all the recalled cars have been entered into its database.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Rodrigo Campos

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks fell Friday ahead of a summit next week that could decide whether Greece will need to print its own currency and ditch the euro.

    Eurozone leaders are scheduled to meet Monday night in a last-ditch effort to reach a deal with Athens. As bank withdrawals across Greece ballooned to about 4.2 billion euros this week, the European Central Bank boosted its emergency funding for Greek banks.

    It's sort of the last lifeline they are going to throw out to Greece and people are selling ahead of that because of the uncertainty.

    Friday's decline in stocks "has to do with the meeting on Monday," said King Lip, chief investment officer at Baker Avenue Asset Management in San Francisco. "It's sort of the last lifeline they are going to throw out to Greece and people are selling ahead of that because of the uncertainty."

    Lip said, however, that any sharp selling because of developments Monday could be yet another buying opportunity for investors in U.S. stocks.

    "If Greece leaves the union, that removes an uncertainty and is actually good for the markets over the long run; if there is a resolution, that is also good," said Lip. "In some way, whatever happens on Monday is a win-win and [a market selloff] is a buyable dip."

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell 101.56 points, or 0.6 percent, to 18,014.28, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) lost 11.48 points, or 0.5 percent, to 2,109.76 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) dropped 15.95 points, or 0.3 percent, to 5,117.00.

    For the week, the Dow gained 0.6 percent, the S&P added 0.7 percent and the Nasdaq, which had closed at a record high Thursday, rose 1.3 percent.

    Movers and Shakers

    Utilities led the S&P 500 decline in percentage terms, down 1 percent as a group after gaining 2.7 percent over the previous three sessions.

    A market debut fizzled, with shares of 8point3 Energy Partners (CAFD) down 2.4 percent at $20.49. It offered 20 million shares that priced at $21, the top-end of the filed range.

    ConAgra Foods' (CAG) shares jumped 10.9 percent to $43.37 after activist hedge fund Jana Partners took a stake in the company. ConAgra's peer Pinnacle Foods (PF) rallied 8.6 percent to $46.81 after earlier hitting a record high of $47.21.

    Macerich (MAC) slumped 6.8 percent to $76.87. Sources told Reuters Simon Property Group was selling its ownership stake in the No. 3 U.S. mall operator. Simon fell 1.3 percent to $179.48.

    KB Home (KBH) rose 9.4 percent to $16.37 after the homebuilder's quarterly results beat estimates.

    Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by 1,788 to 1,257, for a 1.42-to-1 ratio on the downside; on the Nasdaq, 1,557 issues fell and 1,254 advanced for a 1.24-to-1 ratio favoring decliners.

    The S&P 500 posted 29 new 52-week highs and 2 new lows; the Nasdaq recorded 161 new highs and 40 new lows.

    About 7.9 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, above the 6.03 billion daily average so far this month, according to BATS Global Markets.

    What to watch Monday:
    • The National Association of Realtors releases existing home sales for May at 10 a.m. Eastern time.

     

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    Dollars and Euros
    Getty Images
    The dollar is so strong these days, especially against the euro, that it is spurring many Americans to chase their dreams of visiting the Eiffel Tower in Paris, riding a gondola through the canals of Venice or hiking the majestic Bavarian Alps.

    It makes a lot of sense. By traveling when the dollar is strong, you can save yourself a small fortune. That helps bring down the cost of foreign travel to a level that seems manageable to many Americans who might have previously felt those sorts of trips were beyond their reach.

    Some unscrupulous merchants abroad might try to take advantage of the dollar's strength -- and your enthusiasm -- to fill their own pockets a bit more with a sneaky tactic called "dynamic currency conversion." However, if you keep alert and know what to look and listen for, you can head these bad guys off at the pass before they're able to rip you off.

    The Dynamic Currency Conversion Trap

    Here's the situation: Say you're at a shop near the Eiffel Tower in Paris. You've just spent a day taking in all the sights in one of the world's most spectacular cities, and now you're buying a bottle of wine and some bread and some cheese so you can have a picnic in the park and relax as the world passes by. You even splurge a little bit on the bottle because the dollar is strong and because, well, it's Paris.

    You walk up to the counter and pull out the chip-and-PIN credit card you got specifically for your trip because you're a savvy traveler. (And since you're a savvy traveler, you also don't have to worry about your bank refusing the transaction because you took the time to call the bank before you left to tell them where you were going and when you'd be there.)

    "Bonjour, madame," the man behind the counter says. Then, in broken English as he holds your credit card, he says, "Would you like for your transaction to be done with dollars or with euros?"

    You pause. "Oh, I didn't realize I had a choice. But I guess since the dollar is so strong, I'll go ahead and pay in dollars."

    And you've just fallen into the trap.

    It's called dynamic currency conversion, and paying in dollars instead of the foreign currency is pretty much never a good idea, even though it sounds like one.

    Reasons to Avoid Dynamic Currency Conversion

    Here's why paying in dollars is a bad idea:

    Your credit card issuer offers a better exchange rate than a merchant ever could. In this situation, the merchant -- not the credit card company -- is doing the currency conversion. That's a problem. Credit card exchange rates are pretty hard to beat. That small Parisian merchant wouldn't be able to match that. The currency exchange booth at the airport won't be able to either.

    The merchant will likely tack on a bunch of fees. If you just let your credit card issuer do the currency conversion, there's a good chance you won't pay any extra fees for the service. That's because most credit cards have eliminated foreign transaction fees. Those fees used to add 1 to 3 percent on top of your bill when you purchased something overseas, but not anymore. In recent years, those foreign transaction fees have become far less common.

    Let the merchant do the conversion, and it's a different story. The fee a merchant will charge you for this service can reportedly run as high as 7 percent of the transaction. So make sure the card you travel abroad with doesn't charge extra for foreign purchases.

    The merchant might not give you all the details. Don't expect full disclosure of fees if you agree to dynamic currency conversion. Stores in tourist areas of major European cities are busy and crowded, and sometimes a cashier just won't think to give you all the information you need. And then, of course, there's the more sinister possibility: They know that it is a bad deal and don't want you to know what fees will be added on to the charge.

    What You Should Do Instead

    If someone asks you if you want your credit card transaction to be done in dollars instead of the local currency, the solution is simple: Just say no.

    There will be times when a store owner won't take no for an answer, however.

    Thankfully, this doesn't happen often, but if it does, you have a couple options. You could either offer to pay cash for the items, or you could simply walk away. There's a good chance that the merchant will give in if he thinks that pushing currency conversion will cost him a sale. If he doesn't give in, however, just keep walking. Chances are that you'll be able to find that bottle of wine and cheese at some other store that will be a bit more welcoming.

    Finally, when your trip is over, be sure to go over your credit card statements with a fine-toothed comb. Keep your eyes open for any charges that seem unusual for any reason, and don't hesitate to call and ask the bank about anything that looks amiss. After all, the last thing you want is for some unscrupulous storekeeper to take advantage of you and tarnish your treasured memories of a magical, once-in-a-lifetime trip.

    Matt Schulz is the senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com, a site dedicated to helping people make smart decisions about obtaining and using credit. You can follow him on Twitter at @matthewschulz.

     

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    Woman checks cell phone
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    Digital music services have come a long way. Pandora (P) and Spotify combine for more than 150 million active listeners, and now Apple (AAPL) is making its biggest play for the streaming market with the rollout of Apple Music.

    It has never been easier to rely on Internet services to provide a steady flow of tunes. Whether you're craving the personalized radio stylings of Pandora or prefer to pick out your own tracks through Spotify, the way that a growing number of consumers are experiencing music is changing. If you're not one of the 154.2 million people who actively listen to Pandora or Spotify, there's a good chance that you will inevitably be one of them.

    With tens of millions of songs available on most of the leading streaming platforms, access to these deep jukeboxes is as close as an online connection. Even Internet access isn't required all of the time for some premium services that can store select playlists for you to crank out when you're offline.

    So let's talk about that record collection of yours. It may have been pretty impressive at one time. It was the soundtrack of your youth. However, if your vinyl records and CDs are collecting dust, there's a good chance that you don't need physical recordings anymore. Your record collection served you well, and now it's time to cash in on your music.

    Passing Along the Music

    There are plenty of ways to unload your catalog of albums. You don't need to settle for a garage sale, though that's not necessarily a bad idea unless you're sitting on some valuable rare editions.

    The same Internet that's providing you with instant access to tens of millions of songs is also your tool to make some dough on your physical recordings. If you're loaded with vinyl, your first and perhaps only stop should be Discogs.

    The leading marketplace for vinyl makes it easy to list and sell an old record. Listing an item is free, and Discogs collects a reasonable 8 percent from any album that's sold (with a minimum of a dime and a cap of $150). You'll have to assign your vinyl a grade based on its condition, but it's a great way to see what others are selling that record for. You don't want to give away a valuable recording for pennies at a garage sale.

    Discogs also connects buyers and sellers with 8-track and cassette tapes, but vinyl is the top draw. Discogs' marketplace also lets users swap CDs, but there are plenty of other outlets available for compact discs, which are easier to ship and less prone to scratching.

    One popular place to sell CDs is Amazon.com's (AMZN) trade-in program. CD owners will receive instant quotes on used CDs that Amazon is willing to buy. It usually won't be as much as you could generate in a private sale, but at least it's instantaneous. Amazon also foots the postage when you ship your approved titles to the leading online retailer.

    Get the Word Out

    Just listing your music on a marketplace may not be enough. It may sit there for a long time, and it may be easier to reach out directly to fans. It's easier than ever these days thanks to social media.
    Sellers can post on Facebook fan pages for the bands whose albums they are looking to unload. There are also online forums where you can reach out to devout fans who may be willing to pay a premium for recordings that aren't easy to obtain.

    It all boils down to simplifying your music collection. You may not make a mint by selling off your music, but it will generate at least some incremental revenue. Creating space is also something that is appealing. The digital music revolution is here, and now it's time to cash in.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Amazon.com, Apple and Pandora Media. 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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    Retirement
    Getty Images
    By Donna Fuscaldo

    To save or not to save for retirement isn't the question. For most investors, the question that matters is which retirement savings strategy is more beneficial: Roth IRA or traditional IRA.

    With a Roth IRA or 401(k), the investor pays taxes on contributions, but once they are 59½ or older, account withdrawals, including any gains, are tax-free. With a traditional IRA or 401(k), the investor puts off paying taxes on contributions until they begin making withdrawals. At that time, however, they pay taxes on their contributions and account earnings.

    Which strategy makes more sense depends on the investor's tax bracket and earnings potential, but that doesn't mean they have to choose one over the other. Thanks to a handful of different strategies, savers can get the benefits of both pre-tax contributions and tax-free gains.

    Basic Considerations: Current Income & Future Earnings Potential

    When choosing between contributing to a Roth or traditional account, the biggest factors to consider are the income limits for IRAs, your tax bracket, and your future earning potential.

    Income limits. Individual investors whose adjusted gross income exceeds $71,000 (or $118,000 for married couples filing jointly) aren't eligible to make tax-deductible IRA contributions. Individuals whose AGI is $61,000 or lower ($98,000 for married filing jointly) can take the full deduction for their IRA contributions in 2015. There is one exception: investors who don't have an employer-sponsored retirement account at work qualify for tax-deductible contributions regardless of income.

    Future earnings. Future earnings potential, on the other hand, plays a role choosing between Roth and traditional IRA options. A Roth IRA or 401(k) doesn't give you an upfront deduction, but the earnings grow and can be withdrawn tax-free. "Someone in an entry level job working on their MBA, who will have the opportunity to amass significant savings over time, is better off paying taxes upfront," says Christine Benz, director of personal finance at Morningstar (MORN). But if you have already reached your peak earnings level and find yourself in a higher tax bracket than you believe you will be in upon retirement, the upfront deduction of a traditional IRA account may make more sense.

    Mix and Match to Get the Most Out of an IRA

    "If you put a thousand financial advisers in a room, [a third of them] will tell you to put everything in pre-tax [accounts] and a third will tell you to put it in a Roth. I'm in the camp [that says] do a little of both," says Larry Rosenthal, a certified financial planner and president of Rosenthal Wealth Management Group.

    Additionally, as your tax bracket and income can change over time, so too should the way you save for retirement.

    Most people age 25 to 35 typically are on the lower side of their potential earnings and may benefit from a Roth IRA, says Rosenthal. The ideal time to begin saving in a traditional IRA is once an investor moves to a higher tax bracket (assuming they still qualify for the deduction), so they can take advantage of a bigger write-off.

    401(k) Considerations: Roth or Traditional

    Increasingly, employers are beginning to offer a Roth option within their 401(k) plans. This can be a boon to investors who are phased out of Roth IRA contributions, but believe that their tax bracket will be higher in retirement. "The Roth 401(k) doesn't have any income restrictions, so it's a good way to get some tax-free growth if you can't contribute to a Roth IRA," says Robert Brokamp, senior adviser at The Motley Fool (a DailyFinance content partner).

    Backdoor IRA Rollover

    Roth IRAs have income eligibility requirements that may disqualify higher earners from contributing. Roth IRA eligibility for 2015:
    • Individuals with AGI between $116,000 and $131,000 and married couples filing jointly who earn between $183,000 and $193,000 qualify for a reduced contribution.
    • Those with AGI higher than the upper limits above don't qualify for Roth contributions.
    One way around those requirements is a backdoor Roth IRA. With this strategy, investors contribute to a traditional nondeductible IRA, which is available to anyone regardless of income, and then convert that to a Roth.

    There is, however, a caveat to this strategy for investors who already have assets in a traditional or rollover IRA (with assets that have not yet been subject to taxation); the taxable portion of the conversion will be prorated over all IRA assets. In order to take advantage of the backdoor Roth conversion, the investor will need to convert all other IRA accounts to Roth. This may present an investor who has a large pre-tax IRA balance (including any rollover IRAs) with a sizeable tax bill. Before taking any steps, it's best to consult with a tax professional, such as a CPA.

    Donna Fuscaldo is a contributing writer at SigFig. Nearly a million people use SigFig to track, improve and manage over $300 billion in investments.

     

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    Couple signing contracts
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    So you have a little money saved, and you're wondering how to invest it. Should you buy stocks? Bonds? And what about those commercials about gold I keep seeing on TV?

    Actually, if you ask most Americans, there's just one answer: According to Gallup, we believe real estate is the No. 1 "best long-term investment" you can make.

    Survey Says ...

    Conducting a nationwide poll of 1,015 adults earlier this year, Gallup found that 31 percent of respondents choose real estate as their favored investment. Real estate beats out stocks (25 percent), gold (19 percent), bank savings (15 percent) and bonds (just 6 percent) in popularity. What's more, 2015 was the third year in a row that Americans polled by Gallup chose real estate as their favorite investment, and the fourth year in which Gallup's poll showed real estate rising in popularity relative to other potential investments.

    (In contrast, gold, bonds and savings accounts have all been generally declining in popularity. Other than real estate, stocks is the only category of investment that's been gaining.)

    Not only is real estate the most popular long-term investment, generally. It's also preferred as an investment vehicle within just about every demographic breakdown Gallup examined. Men prefer to invest in real estate, as do women. Men 18-49 prefer real estate, and so do women over 50. The poor (people with income under $30,000 a year) like it; and the middle class, too.

    In fact, only two demographic categories prefer stocks over real estate -- millennials ages 18 to 34, and rich folks earning $75,000 or more a year. And even among these two groups, real estate is the second favorite investment.

    Do What We Say, Not What We Do

    And yet, Americans seem increasingly leery of taking their own advice. According to a separate poll published just days after the first one, Gallup found that even as more and more Americans agree that real estate is the best investment, fewer and fewer are willing to ante up and make that investment. This second poll finds that the number of Americans agreeing that now is a "good" time to buy a house has dropped 5 percentage points in the past year, to 69 from 74 percent.

    So why are Americans reluctant to take their own advice, and invest in real estate?

    There may be a couple of factors at play. On one hand, Gallup observes, home sales have been perceived as "lackluster" in the early months of 2015. Between March and April, for example, the National Association of Realtors reported a 3.3 percent drop in sales of existing homes in the U.S. On the other hand, NAR's chief economist attributes slowing sales to "lagging supply relative to demand and the upward pressure it's putting on prices" (emphasis added).

    Indeed, Bankrate.com (RATE) points out that median sales prices in April were up 8.9 percent year over year. Those higher prices may have scared off some buyers between March and April. Higher prices may also explain why investors, despite broadly agreeing that real estate is a good investment, are reluctant to ante up for the chance at earning a profit.

    That's a reluctance they might want to try to overcome, though.

    Do What You Know You Should Do

    Consider: According to Gallup's more recent poll, most Americans (59 percent) expect home prices to keep on rising over the next 12 months. This belief is even stronger in the South and West regions, where 61 percent and 76 percent of Americans, respectively, foresee continued rising home values. If they're right, it would make sense for them to buy before prices rise -- whether they're buying a home to own, or buying in hopes of selling for a profit.

    Yet commenting on these figures, Gallup hypothesizes, "Those widespread expectations of higher prices may explain why fewer Westerners," for example, "believe now is a good time to buy a home."

    However, if you truly believe that prices are going to rise -- as 76 percent of people in the West believe -- then you should want to buy before they do rise. Yet only 64 percent of these folks think that's a good idea.

    The case for buying real estate only gets stronger when you consider that interest rates, which are still at historically low levels, appear to be heading higher. According to data from Freddie Mac, 30-year mortgage rates have already jumped nearly half a percentage point off their February lows of 3.59 percent, and averaged 4.04 percent in the second week of June. That's a big jump, but still leaves rates lower than what they were a year ago (4.17 percent), close to where they were two years ago (3.98 percent), and significantly cheaper than what a 30-year fixed mortgage cost in mid-June 2010 -- 4.75 percent.

    When you add up the three factors: More Americans choosing real estate as the best investment, widespread agreement that real estate prices are heading higher, similar agreement that interest rates are also going higher -- and demonstrable proof in the numbers that the last two beliefs have been correct so far -- it makes sense for anyone interested in buying a home to do so sooner rather than later.

    Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith doesn't own shares of any of the stocks mentioned above. (Nor does The Motley Fool). Rich does, however, own some real estate -- more than he can comfortably mow in an afternoon -- and so won't be buying anymore anytime soon, no matter where prices go.

    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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    Frustrated woman using cell phone next to car wrecked on guardrail
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    By Jerry Kronenberg

    NEW YORK -- A 20-year-old married male pays 21 percent less on average for car insurance than a 20-year-old single male, but 22 percent more than what a 20-year-old married female spends for the same coverage.

    But don't worry, he'll get a better rate than the married female does when they both turn 30 -- until, of course, they reach 56, at which point she'll enjoy lower premiums again.

    It's all part of the complicated way that auto insurers factor in age, gender and other data when calculating how much you have to pay for coverage.

    People are shocked when they find out how many variables go into car-insurance rates.

    "People are shocked when they find out how many variables go into car-insurance rates. Where you live, whether you're married -- all of that impacts what they charge," says Laura Adams of InsuranceQuotes.com, which recently analyzed how different factors affect premiums.

    Carriers have long used a wide variety of data beyond just driving record or claims history to set rates. Firms generally look at everything from age to credit score, unless you live in a state where insurance rules ban the use of a given factor.

    The industry maintains that its statistical analysis accurately predicts how much you're likely to cost your carrier in claims -- and therefore what your premiums should be.

    "These underwriting criteria have been tested for almost a century now and have been demonstrated to [work]," says Robert Hartwig of the Insurance Information Institute, an industry trade group.

    For instance, he says, male teenage drivers have far more accidents and higher claims than female ones, so charging guys higher rates means keeping prices lower for the ladies.

    Still, InsuranceQuotes' study -- which analyzed market tracker Quadrant Information Systems' database of typical rates that different kinds of consumers paid as of February -- uncovered some surprising differences in average premiums based on demographics.

    Some key findings:
    • Premiums drop nearly in half once you hit age 25. The typical 25-year-old driver pays a hefty 41 percent less than a 20-year-old of the same gender for identical coverage. After you turn 25, you rate slowly continues to drop every year for decades. It'll fall another 18 percent by the time you reach 60.
    • Once you're 60, your premiums will rise gradually again, but only by 17 percent by the time you're 75. And even with those increases, the average 75-year-old will still pay 43 percent less than what a 20-year-old forks over for identical coverage.
    • Married people usually enjoy lower premiums than singles, but the gap shrinks as you age. As noted, a married 20-year-old pays 21 percent less for coverage than a similar single. But the difference drops to 7 percent at age 25 and just 2 percent or so once you hit 30.
    • Women don't always pay lower rates than men. True, a 20-year-old male does face 22 percent higher premiums than a 20-year-old female for identical coverage, but the gap narrows to just 3 percent at age 25.
    • At age 30, single males actually pay 0.62 percent less on average for coverage than 30-year-old single females. Such discounts continue to age 56, at which point women begin getting the better rates again.
    • As noted, some states ban insurers from using certain criteria when setting rates. Hawaii has some of the strictest rules, prohibiting the use of age, gender or marital status. California bans the use of age, but not years of driving experience, while Massachusetts and North Carolina don't let carriers use gender when setting rates.
    Adams says that while consumers can't do anything about their ages, and won't change their marital status or gender (a la Caitlyn Jenner) just for insurance purposes, savvy shoppers will make sure they get the rates they're entitled to. For instance, she says newlyweds should tell carriers they're getting hitched so their premiums drop.

    "If you get married this summer and wait to report that to your insurance company until your policy renews next year, you'll be missing out on savings that whole time," Adams says.

    Methodology: InsuranceQuotes' study analyzed average premiums paid by consumers who drive 2012 sedans and have a job, a bachelor's degree, a clean driving record, excellent credit and no lapse in coverage. Researchers also assumed that all policies included $100,000 bodily injury per person, $300,000 bodily injury per accident, $100,000 property damage per accident, $10,000 personal-injury protection and a $500 deductible for comprehensive and collision.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    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.

    Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSO) -- Up 36 percent last week

    The biggest gainer on the New York Stock Exchange was Martha Stewart Living. The crafty lifestyles publisher soared on speculation that it was in talks to be acquired by a retail licensing company. But shares fell Monday, after Sequential Brands Group (SQBG) announced it would buy Martha Stewart's namesake business for $353 million. The cash-and-stock deal values the company at $6.15 a share.

    TripAdvisor (TRIP) -- Up 20 percent last week

    It will be easier to book a room at a Marriott (MAR) on TripAdvisor. The two struck a partnership deal that will allow Marriott's entire global portfolio of properties to be booked through the online travel website's Instant Booking option, where lodging seekers can reserve a room at one of Marriott's more than 4,200 hotels without leaving TripAdvisor's own site.

    The partnership helped push shares of TripAdvisor higher. Expanding its roster of properties that can be booked instantly on its site will naturally make the reviews aggregator more popular when future travelers are researching a hotel stay.

    Town Sports International (CLUB) -- Up 17 percent last week

    Sometimes all you need is a timely departure to get your stock moving again in the right direction. Town Sports moved higher after announcing its CEO was leaving the company. Some companies would be rattled if they lost a helmsman, but Town Sports has been struggling under the current regime. The market's hoping that the transition could result in either a dynamic new CEO or a buyout offer.

    The operator of 158 fitness clubs reported another quarterly loss last month on declining revenue. There are plenty of ways to stay in shape these days, but it's hard for Town Sports to stick around if it keeps building on its streak of six consecutive quarterly deficits.

    Avalanche Biotechnologies (AAVL) -- Down 62 percent last week

    The market's biggest loser last week was Avalanche, living up to its name when the stock shed nearly two-thirds of its value after a disappointing clinical trial. Avalanche is working on a treatment for wet age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of elderly blindness.

    Biotechs can be volatile, particularly companies that have so much riding on a single potentially promising treatment's ability to clear the mighty hurdle of FDA approval.

    Mindbody (MB) -- Down 17 percent last week

    Not every IPO is a winner out of the gate. Mindbody priced its offering at $14 after Thursday's close, but the stock plunged 17 percent on Friday. Mindbody is a provider of cloud-based management solutions for the wellness and fitness industries, but it has struggled to turn a profit despite a client base that's 42,000 businesses deep. I guess you can say that the stock was a downward-facing dog.

    Etsy (ETSY) -- Down 14 percent last week

    It's been a rough road for Etsy shareholders since it went public at $16 two months ago, nearly doubling to close at $30. Uninspiring results and the threat of Amazon.com (AMZN) rolling out its own arts and crafts marketplace have weighed on the stock, and now it's trading below its IPO price.

    Etsy seemed to have a chance to bounce back on Tuesday when it announced a new crowdsourcing platform, but the excitement didn't even last until the end of the trading day. Etsy shares declined every single day last week.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Amazon.com and TripAdvisor. The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com, Etsy, Inc., and TripAdvisor. 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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    Fed Stimulus Did It Work
    Manuel Balce Ceneta/APFormer Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke
    By PAUL WISEMAN

    WASHINGTON -- Former Federal Reserve chief-turned blogger Ben Bernanke is calling for the U.S. Treasury to abandon plans to drop Alexander Hamilton from his featured spot on the $10 bill and to dump Andrew Jackson from the $20 instead.

    Bernanke wrote Monday that he is "appalled" by Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew's plans to replace Hamilton with a woman. In a post entitled "Say it ain't so, Jack," Bernanke wrote that adding a woman is "a fine idea, but it shouldn't come at Hamilton's expense."

    Given his views on central banking, Jackson would probably be fine with having his image dropped from a Federal Reserve note.

    He called the first Treasury secretary "without doubt the best and most foresighted economic policymaker in U.S. history."

    By contrast, Jackson, president from 1829 to 1837, was "a man of many unattractive qualities and a poor president." Jackson opposed attempts to establish a U.S. central bank.

    "Given his views on central banking," Bernanke wrote, "Jackson would probably be fine with having his image dropped from a Federal Reserve note."

    Treasury last week revealed plans to put a woman on the $10 note, which has featured Hamilton since 1929. Candidates include Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks. Treasury says that Hamilton wouldn't disappear from the redesigned $10 bill and that it might print two bills, one with Hamilton.

    On his blog, Bernanke was effusive about Hamilton, noting that he helped create the U.S. Constitution and knit 13 fractious states into a single economic unit. The 19 countries that use the euro currency are struggling now with similar issues - which is why Bernanke says he recommended Ron Chernow's 2004 biography of Hamilton to European Central Bank President Mario Draghi.

    Bernanke stepped down as Fed chair in 2014 and is a distinguished fellow and blogger at the Brookings Institution.

    Editor's note: This story has been corrected to show the first name of the figure on the $10 bill is Alexander, not Andrew.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Ryan Vlastelica

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks ended higher Monday, with the Nasdaq closing at a record as hopes grew that a deal would be reached to prevent Greece from defaulting on loans.

    Equities have been largely driven by the situation in Greece of late, with investors concerned that if the country defaults on its loans, it may have to leave the euro or the European Union, potentially shaking the region's economic foundations.

    This takes one anxiety off the table, even if it doesn't yet resolve the primary issues that made investors anxious in the first place.

    Athens presented new reform proposals which were cautiously welcomed by eurozone finance on Monday, though the Eurogroup said the proposals required detailed study and that it would take several days to determine whether they can lead to an agreement. Greece needs fresh funds to avoid defaulting on a $1.8 billion debt repayment to the International Monetary Fund on June 30.

    "This takes one anxiety off the table, even if it doesn't yet resolve the primary issues that made investors anxious in the first place," said Bruce McCain, chief investment strategist at Key Private Bank in Cleveland, Ohio.

    Sentiment was also lifted by merger and acquisition activity. The S&P energy index rose 1 percent as the top-performing sector of the day after Energy Transfer Equity confirmed it had made a $48 billion unsolicited bid for Williams Cos. (WMB), hours after Williams rejected the offer as significantly too low.

    Shares of Williams surged 26 percent to $60.90 and were the biggest percentage gainer on the S&P 500 by far.

    Separately, Cigna (CI) rose 4.8 percent to $162.65 after the health insurer rebuffed Anthem's $47 billion merger proposal Sunday. Anthem (ATHM) rose 3.6 percent to $171.04.

    Home Sales Rise

    Homebuilders rose as existing home sales grew more than expected in May, surging to their highest in five- and-a-half years. The PHLX Housing index rose 0.9 percent while Lennar (LEN) added 1.7 percent to $49.49.

    Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSO) slumped 12.5 percent to $6.11 on heavy volume after Sequential Brands (SQBG) agreed to buy the company in a deal that values it at about $353 million, or $6.15 a share. Martha Stewart shares had risen about 37 percent over two days after news of the deal emerged.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 104.53 points, or 0.6 percent, to 18,120.48, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) gained 13 points, or 0.6 percent, to 2,122.99 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) added 36.97 points, or 0.7 percent, to 5,153.97.

    With the day's gains, the Nasdaq ended at a record while the S&P closed 0.3 percent away from its own record close. Currently, the S&P trades at 17.3 times earnings, according to Thomson Reuters (TRI) data, above its long-term average.

    "Valuations are somewhat high, but there aren't many alternatives that look attractive," said McCain. "Stocks will probably get a lot higher before there's any serious risk of a pullback on valuation."

    Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 1,830 to 1,238, for a 1.48-to-1 ratio on the upside; on the Nasdaq, 1,819 issues rose and 988 fell for a 1.84-to-1 ratio favoring advancers.

    The benchmark S&P 500 index was posting 51 new 52-week highs and 1 new lows; the Nasdaq composite was recording 207 new highs and 26 new lows.

    About 5.31 billion shares traded on all U.S. platforms, according to BATS exchange data, compared with the month-to-date average of 6.17 billion.

    What to watch Tuesday:
    • Carnival Corp. (CCL), Darden Restaurants (DRI) and BlackBerry (BBRY) release quarterly financial results before U.S. stock markets open.
    • The Commerce Department releases durable goods for May at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    • The Commerce Department releases new home sales for May at 10 a.m.

     

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    Never Buy These Used Items
    Buying things at a discounted price can be great for your wallet, but there are some things you should never buy used.

    For instance, a secondhand crib simply isn't worth the risk. Since 2007, nearly 10 million cribs have been recalled, so there's a good chance that a used one isn't up to code.

    The same goes for old car seats, which actually expire after six years, and need to be replaced after a crash, so buying a hand-me-down could end up being a dangerous decision. These days, car seats go for as little as $50, so you're better off choosing safety first and buying new.

    And when it comes to digital cameras, stay away. Since they're so portable, there's a good chance they've already been through several spills and drops. The wear and tear may not be obvious on the outside, but the damage on the inside might be expensive to repair. Instead, do a little bit of research, and find a new camera that fits both your needs and your budget.

    If you're trying to save with used items now, think twice about your purchases or they could end up costing you a lot more later on.

    View Poll

     

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    Save With These Shoe Hacks
    Do you have a pair of shoes that just don't seem to fit the way you want them to? Well, before you throw them away and buy a new pair, here are some tips to help you save your shoes, and your wallet.

    For leather shoes you just can't seem to break in, try stretching them out with these simple steps. Pour a mixture of half water and half rubbing alcohol into a spray bottle. Then, dampen the inside of the shoe, focusing on the spots that feel tight. After that, put on a couple pairs of socks and wear the shoes around the house for a few hours. The alcohol will cause the leather to stretch and conform to the shape of your foot.

    When it comes to breaking in other types of shoes, here's a solution that only takes a few minutes. Start by putting on a couple pairs of socks and then slip your shoes on. Next, aim a hairdryer on the tight sections for a few seconds. To maximize the stretching, wiggle your feet at the same time. After they cool off, take off the extra socks and test them out. By this point, your shoes should feel much more comfortable.

    Finally, did you know that the time of day affects the size of your feet? It's true. Your feet can swell up to half a size bigger as they day goes on, so try to shop for shoes in the afternoon or evening. You'll get a much more accurate measurement, which means a better fit for your feet.

    Remember these tips to save your uncomfortable shoes from getting tossed away. You'll see that you with a few easy steps you can hold onto your shoes, and your money.

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    Choosing a travel rewards credit card can be overwhelming. Every week, American consumers receive millions of pieces of direct mail from credit card issuers offering large sign-on bonuses and fast ways to travel for free. If you search for the best travel card on Google, you will be presented with millions of results. It can be very difficult to find the best card.

    Most credit card comparison tools are either blog posts or static lists of credit cards. One of the oldest in the market is CreditCards.com, which has a page dedicated to travel and airline credit cards. The top result is the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card.

    Is Capital One Venture the best card for everyone? As my research reveals, it depends upon your situation. I used the customizable tool at MileCards.com to review three different scenarios, and I received three different recommendations. Now more than ever personalized recommendations are important to earn the best rewards.

    Scenario 1: The Frequent Flier

    Bob flies United Airlines all the time for business. He is earning 50,000 miles every year from business travel and wants to top up those miles with a credit card. He spends about $3,000 each month on his personal credit card and about $800 of that is in restaurants.

    Based upon Bob's information, the recommendation was the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. The card allows you to earn 2 points for every $1 you earn on dining, and you can transfer the Sapphire points directly to United Airlines. Including the first year bonus, Bob would earn 91,600 points in the first 12 months. Capital One Venture doesn't allow you to transfer points to existing frequent flier programs, and would not have been the best option for Bob.

    Scenario 2: The Infrequent Flier With Hawaii Dreams

    Sarah never flies. A recent graduate, she wants to visit Hawaii soon, but only if she can get a free flight. And she doesn't want a card with an Annual Fee. She spends about $1,000 a month, and most of it is spent on groceries and gas.

    After inputting Sarah's information, the Amex Everyday Credit Card was the top result. There is no annual fee on the credit card. You earn 2 points for every $1 spent in grocery stores, up to $6,000 each year. And Sarah can transfer those points directly to Delta Airlines. In the first 12 months, Sarah will earn 31,600 points. So long as Sarah pays her bill on time and in full every month, those points won't have cost her a dime. That would be enough for a flight anywhere in the continental United States and she would be on her way towards that Hawaii trip.

    Scenario 3: The Big Spender

    Emily has a big job and likes to spend what she earns. She spends $4,000 a month on her credit card and pays the balance in full every month. Her spending is evenly split between travel, clothing and restaurants. Emily is always looking for ways to get more free travel. And Emily isn't afraid to pay an annual fee if she is able to get value.

    After inputting Emily's information, the top recommendation is the Citi Prestige Card. There is a steep $450 annual fee. However, the rewards are significant, especially in the first year. Although Emily has to pay the $450 fee, she will get $250 of air travel credit. So, on the next flight that she books using the Citi Prestige Card, she would immediately get $250 of her $450 fee back.

    She would earn 3 points for every $1 spent on travel and 2 points for every $1 spent on travel. Even better, after Emily spends $3,000 she would receive a 50,000 point welcome bonus offer.

    So, during the first 12 months, Emily would earn 135,200 points with a true cost of $200 (after the refund of the air travel). MileCards values those points at $1,993. Emily is more than happy to spend $200 to receive $1,993 of value.

    The Best Travel Credit Card of 2015: It Depends

    The right travel rewards credit card really depends upon your unique situation. It pays to do your homework and find the card that meets your specific needs. The Capital One Venture Rewards Card recommended by CreditCards.com isn't a bad card. But it may not be the best card for your situation. That is why is you should look for tools, like MileCards, that provide personalized results.

    Just remember, these cards are only worthwhile if you have a lot of self discipline. If you don't pay your balance in full and on time every month, you will be hit with steep interest charges. The interest you would pay on your credit card debt would likely end up costing much more than the free travel that you receive. But if you have the discipline to make your payments on time every month, free travel awaits.

    Nick Clements is the co-founder of MagnifyMoney, a price comparison and financial education website. You can follow him on Twitter @npclements.

     

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    Congress Keystone
    J. Scott Applewhite/APSen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
    Elizabeth Warren would like to change the way you bank.

    The Massachusetts Senator and consumer advocate firebrand may not be running for president. But her backing of the U.S. Postal Service's plan to begin offering budget-priced banking services to U.S. savers could remake the American landscape regardless.

    An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

    In May, USPS admitted to losing $1.5 billion in its most recent fiscal quarter. If the losses keep up at this rate, the Post Office's budget deficit could surpass last year's $5.5 billion loss, and swell into a $6 billion annual deficit. Last month, though, the USPS Office of Inspector General refloated an idea to close the Post Office's budget gap. Simply put, the Post Office should turn itself into a bank.

    Not entirely, of course. Under the Inspector General's plan, backed by Sen. Warren, USPS would still deliver mail and such. But it would also begin expanding the kinds of financial services it offers, permitting "unbanked" and "underbanked" customers to take out small loans, cash checks, pay bills, and open savings accounts -- all at their local post office. According to the Inspector General, entering this market could help USPS reap as much as $10 billion in annual revenue -- and close its budget gap with a resounding snap.

    Even just expanding the financial services the Post Office already offers, by adding electronic wire transfers and ATMs to existing offerings of selling paper money orders and prepaid cards, and executing international money transfers, could raise as much as $1.1 billion in additional revenues for USPS.

    An Idea Whose Time Came a Year Ago ...

    USPS actually first voiced this suggestion early last year (when it was promptly and publicly taken up by Sen. Warren). Back then, Warren explained that 68 million Americans currently have no active checking accounts, yet still need the kinds of banking services associated with such accounts. To get these services, they pay through the nose.

    According to Warren, banks and -- in particular -- payday loan and check cashing stores, charge unbanked customers "an average of $2,412 per household" annually for ordinary financial services. The Senator notes that "the average underserved household spends roughly 10 percent of its annual income on interest and fees -- about the same amount they spend on food."

    What It Means to Them

    This means that in one fell swoop, expanding financial services offerings at post offices could both solve USPS's chronic budget deficit and prevent millions of Americans from being overcharged for basic banking services.

    No longer would the "unbanked" be stuck paying high monthly service fees to maintain a bank checking account with a too-low balance, or even higher costs for small loans from a payday lender. These low-margin activities, too unprofitable for many banks to bother with them, could be offered at the post office instead. As a side benefit, these folks would then have thousands of extra dollars a year to spend on things they actually want to spend their money on, helping to grow the economy.

    What It Means to You
    Of course, if you already have a bank account, you may think USPS's plan is interesting, but not really relevant to you. It could become relevant, however.

    In recent months, we've seen multiple stories of traditional banks closing down their physical branches to cut costs and take advantage of the cheapness of online banking. SNL Financial reports 332 bank closures across the U.S. in the first quarter of 2015. One single bank, JPMorgan Chase (JPM), says it's planning to close 300 branches over the next two years.

    Assuming this trend continues, finding a physical branch of your bank at which you can cash a check or get a money order when you need it could become increasingly difficult. Knowing that the local post office can help you out, on the other hand, could turn increasingly attractive.

    Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith doesn't own shares of any of the stocks mentioned above. (Nor does The Motley Fool.) Rich admits, he does most of his own banking online. But he's willing to give post office banking a try if it will help poor folks out, save the Post Office and thereby secure our Strategic National Junk Mail Reserve.

    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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    Man lifting weights in gym
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    By Brian Sozzi

    NEW YORK -- Discount gyms offering affordable memberships and endless rows of cardio machines are exploding in number and popularity, and one prominent chain may even soon go public.

    On May 26, Planet Fitness, a fast-growing chain owned by private equity firm TPG Consumer Partners, filed draft documents for an initial public offering. The submission to the Securities and Exchange Commission doesn't disclose what ticker symbol the company would be listed, and the number of shares to be sold and the price range have yet to be determined, according to Planet Fitness.

    Should Planet Fitness raise cash via an IPO, it would be well-positioned to expand even more aggressively in what remains a very fragmented gym facility industry.

    According to research firm IBIS World, the 50 largest gym companies in the country together control only about 30 percent of the market, and there are only a dozen or so companies that own more than ten centers. Currently, there is only one publicly traded gym company -- Town Sports International (TOWN), which operates popular brands such as New York Sports Club and Boston Sports Club in over 150 locations along the East Coast. Lifetime Fitness, a high-end gym operator, was purchased by Leonard Green & Partners and TPG Capital in 2015 in a transaction valued at more than $4 billion.

    TheStreet takes a look at the three of the biggest discount gym chains in the business today, ranked from smallest to largest.

    1. Retro Fitness
    • Founded: 2002
    • Founder: Eric Casaburi
    • Membership costs: $20 a month
    • Number of locations: 132 in the U.S.
    • Primary regions: Northeast
    • Total revenue: Undisclosed
    What it's known for: Bright orange and yellow branding and fitness equipment; founder was on popular show "Undercover Boss" in 2013

    "We are at 132 locations right now, we will open 30 to 40 this year, and are looking to open 50 to 100 per year," said Retro Fitness founder Eric Casaburi in an interview with TheStreet at the International Franchise Expo. Newer markets for Retro Fitness are in prime locations for baby boomers such as Jacksonville and Orlando, Florida, where retirees are looking to improve their health and live longer. A visit to Retro Fitness for $20-a-month is an easy sell to a boomer. According to Casaburi, Retro Fitness is "making money" and cash flow positive.

    One way Retro Fitness is seeking to differentiate relative to larger rivals in Planet Fitness and Anytime Fitness is through the use of technology. The chain is developing tools for members that may be wearing Apple's (AAPL) Apple Watch or a Fitbit (FIT). "Fitness wearables is something we adopted early, we are looking over the next two quarters unveiling some amazing technology in our gyms that will blow our members minds -- it will be able to track your fitness when you are walking outside, or on one of our treadmills," said Casaburi.

    2. Planet Fitness
    • Founded: 1992
    • Founder: Chris Rondeau
    • Membership costs: $10-a-month base; $19.99 premium.
    • Number of locations: Opened its 1,000th club in Washington, D.C., on June 9.
    • Primary regions: Northeast; Central
    • Total revenue: $211 million in 2013, according to Moody's.
    What it's known for: Bright purple interiors and gym equipment, open 24 hours, guests can come for free if a member has a premium membership, tanning beds

    A customer can be asked to leave a Planet Fitness for repeatedly violating the "lunk alarm," which rings loudly if someone makes noisy, intimidating grunts while working out. Planet Fitness, according to founder Chris Rondeau, wants to be the non-intimidating place to grab a workout.

    If it were to stop accepting new agreements today, Planet Fitness would have a development pipeline of at least 500 additional locations. "Being healthy is becoming more mainstream," said Rondeau in an interview with TheStreet in December.

    3. Anytime Fitness
    • Founded: 2002
    • Founder: Chuck Runyon
    • Membership costs: Average cost is $40 a month, but exact price depends on location.
    • Number of locations: Over 3,000 in all 50 U.S. states and in 20 international markets.
    • Primary regions: Northeast, Central
    • Total revenue: Projected system-wide sales of $1.1 billion in 2015, growing 14 percent year-over-year, according to the company.
    What it's known for: Tanning services, 24/7 hours, members have access to all locations, outdoor classes, largest gym operator in Australia with 400 locations

    "The fact is that you have less hassles with the experience, it's a quicker workout, alongside a friendly staff that takes away the fear and intimidation for members", explained Anytime Fitness founder Chuck Runyon on his chain's appeal. Anytime Fitness banners are popping up in local strip mall centers, notably inside of old Blockbuster sites. The membership mix is split about 50/50 between male and female, with the average member age at 30 years old.

    Today, Anytime Fitness' newer locations are kicking it up a notch. They have more functional space, points out Runyon, including personal training areas. "We are also doing pop-up fitness, outside the club in your local park with a trainer or a group," says Runyon, capitalizing on the growing popularity of outdoor endurance races such as Tough Mudder and Spartan Race. Every Saturday in May, for example, Anytime Fitness offered free outdoor bootcamp sessions.

    Although Anytime Fitness plans to open 350 locations a year for the next six years, Runyon doesn't believe the company needs the cash from an IPO to make it happen. "We do not have any plans to IPO, and we really don't have any need -- we are well financed."

    This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

     

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