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DailyFinance.com

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    diy couple in home improvement...
    ShutterstockAbout 70 percent of Americans plan to take on a DIY home improvement project this year.
    By Abby Hayes

    Nearly one-third of Americans are planning a home renovation this year, according to a Liberty Mutual Insurance survey of 2,000 adults. Of those, 7 in 10 plan to do at least some of the work themselves. DIYing it can be a great way to save money, but you have to be careful with the projects you choose to tackle on your own.

    Projects that look enticing and easy on Pinterest can easily go awry if you're an inexperienced DIYer. Even experienced DIYers can have trouble handling some of the more difficult home improvement projects.

    So which projects should you tackle to increase your home's value, and which ones should you hire out to a professional? Master carpenter Chip Wade of "Ellen's Design Challenge" and HGTV's "Elbow Room" weighs in.

    To DIY

    Let's start with the hopeful side of this equation. You can give your home a boost this summer and save money by doing it yourself. You just have to be careful which projects you choose. Chip's top three projects for homeowners to DIY include landscaping, seating and interior painting.

    1. Landscaping. This can be a huge project, but you can use a few simple tricks to add some curb appeal and comfort to your home. "A tip I always give is for homeowners or renters to start by removing dead plants, or trimming unhealthy plants that may bloom later on in the season," Wade says. This simple trick can make your home appear more pulled-together. Then, add splashes of color with easy-care perennials in a front garden bed, or place potted annuals on the porch.

    2. Seating. If you're hankering to start hammering something, building multipurpose outdoor furniture is a good place to begin. Boxy, bench-style furniture is a great option for cutting your teeth on carpentry. It's fairly easy to build, and there are plenty of tutorials online. This easy, versatile seating can instantly update a front porch or back deck, and give you a more personable outdoor space.

    3. Painting. The easiest of these projects is probably interior painting, and it can make a huge difference! The right paint can make a space look larger and more finished. Or you can simply update the look of your home by opting for a trendy color, like these in the Benjamin Moore Color Trends 2015 palette.

    Not to DIY:

    When it comes to home renovation, Wade says, some projects are simply best left to the professionals. Certain projects, of course, are downright dangerous. For instance, you don't want to go around messing with electrical wiring if you don't know what you're doing. The top three popular projects Wade cautions homeowners against tackling alone include outdoor pathways, retaining walls and large landscaping.

    1. Outdoor pathways. This can seem like an easy, cheap DIY project. Pinterest, after all, is full of cute ideas for outdoor walkways. However, Wade notes, homeowners often skimp on costs by using less expensive materials, which crack in a season and need to be replaced. Plus, ensuring an absolutely level underlayment is essential. Without proper tools and knowledge to level the walkway, even the best materials will crack.

    2. Retaining walls. These are similarly difficult to install properly, though they can look effortless. Most homeowners don't understand the intricacies of properly installing a wall that will last for years to come. Engineering is essential, especially for walls over 2 feet high.

    3. Large landscaping. The last project to steer clear of may seem contradictory. Wade did say that landscaping is a great DIY project, right? However, when it comes to planting medium-to-large sized trees, it's a whole different story. These trees and shrubs need particular care to help them take root. You don't want to spend hundreds on an ornamental tree only to have it die within a season.

    If you decide to hire professionals for some must-do projects this summer, Wade gives some good advice: "A great way to find a professional is to ask friends or neighbors who they have used for their renovations or home projects. Additionally, if you have one trusted professional, he or she may be able to recommend a skilled worker they have worked with in the past."

    DIY projects can be a great way to save on summer upgrades to your home. But you won't save a dime if you waste money on a project that's better left to the pros!

    Abby Hayes is a freelance blogger and journalist who writes for the personal finance blog The Dough Roller, which covers topics ranging from credit scores and banking to how much money you should be saving.

     

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    Focused college student studying at computer
    Getty Images
    By Bob Sullivan

    It seemed like a classic utopian vision. Free prestigious university classes delivered online, open to anyone, offering the potential to slay the college debt monster.

    Instead, so-called Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, proved how little students often learn from online classes. Dropout rates as high as 90 percent were reported, and it seemed that traditional higher ed's stranglehold as the gateway to higher-paying jobs was even tighter.

    But new models of higher education alternatives are rising from those ashes that really can challenge -- or neatly supplement -- a college degree. MOOCs have morphed into hybrid programs with a more human touch, and ultrafocused, skills-based training courses in fields like computer programming are proving to be real contenders, offering 90 percent-plus job placement rates.

    We're trying to democratize education, make it available to as many people as possible.

    The success of programs like General Assembly and The Flatiron School in New York City lead to an inevitable question -- at least if you're technically inclined: Why spend $200,000 on four years of college when you can spend $10,000 on 12 weeks of training and get hired by an app developer for $70,000 or more?

    "We're trying to democratize education, make it available to as many people as possible," said Vish Makhijani, chief operating officer of Udacity, which ran some of those celebrated MOOC failures.

    Udacity has abandoned the idea of giving classes away to huge numbers of people in favor of "nanodegrees" -- boot-camp style, short-term programs with a laser-like focus on preparing students for a career. Nanodegree subjects include Web developer, Android developer, iOS developer ... you get the picture.

    What you don't get is a huge student loan debt. Udacity classes start at $1,200 for a six-month program. The fees have actually helped with online classes' biggest problem: High dropout rates. Turns out, more people stick with classes if they have to pay for them.

    "Our form factor, delivery over the Web and mobile, makes it very affordable. And we've decided to do that away from the traditional university system," Makhijani said. The school has also added an Uber-like version of peer reviews, digital age teaching assistants, which lets students grab virtual roving experts and get one-on-one feedback that was sorely missing from initial MOOCs.

    When Udacity pivoted toward computer programming courses, it found a cottage industry of "hack schools" were already thriving in the space.

    A Better Deal

    General Assembly offers intense, in-person training to students in 14 cities. Co-founder Jake Schwartz comes from a private equity investment background, and thinks higher education institutions will have to offer a better deal to students in the future.

    "What we think of as college now is a luxury good," Schwartz said. "Think of the value proposition. No. 1 is baby-sitting young adults. It's a safe place for them to learn about themselves and learn to drink beer. No. 2 is the liberal arts idea of becoming a citizen of the world. And then No. 3 is helping you prepare for economic life. ... But I ask, 'What is the value proposition?"

    General Assembly's answer to that question: A good job. Tuition isn't cheap. Students pay anywhere from $3,500 for part-time courses to around $10,000 for immersive eight- to 12-week courses, in subjects ranging from Web development to data science to digital marketing. But Schwartz says 99 percent of them get a job within 180 days of completion.

    "We focus solely on in-demand, contemporary skills," he said. "We are trying to deliver an outcome."

    Avi Flombaum is himself a college dropout who went on to co-found The Flatiron School in New York City, which now charges $15,000 for 12-week immersive courses in subjects like Android app development. He brags about a third-party audit that claims essentially all Flatiron graduates get jobs earning at least $70,000 a year upon completion.

    Many are college graduates who need help making the next step in life, he said. But the school does offer an eight-month fellowship program designed to help 18- to 26-year-old New Yorkers without a four-year degree develop the programming skills they need to get hired as Web developers.

    "The college problem is about more than debt," Flombaum said. "It's about students being unprepared and undirected about how to enter the workforce. It's a combination of a skills gap and also a general lack of direction. Students aren't sure what they enjoy doing. They are inquisitive and smart but not sure what job going to allow them to work in that way and make a living."

    Skills-based schools are aiming to disrupt the lives of teachers, too. Fedora is among the several services that allow anyone with expertise to teach anything online. Fedora takes a cut, but teachers keep most of the tuition they charge. Class prices can range from just a few dollars to several thousands. And while there is the odd successful watercolor course, tech classes are by far the most popular says founder Ankur Nagpal.

    'Democratize Teaching'

    "We are moving from a credential-based economy to a skills-based economy. It doesn't matter if you are certified. What matters is that you can do the job," he said. "Who is to say someone with a Ph.D. is better at teaching you how to code? We are trying to democratize teaching."

    So far, these boot camp training programs haven't strayed far from the obvious, focusing primarily on technologically driven courses like coding apps, managing databases and so on. Students who invest so heavily in a specific skill -- rather than a more general topic area like engineering -- might find their options limited in an industry that changes so quickly. After all, who knows how long Android app coding skills will pay well?

    The "hack schools" that dot Silicon Valley promise a shovel during a gold rush, but critics point out that they can't give students the prestige of a brand-name university degree, or the more holistic view of computer science that four years of classes can offer.

    Flombaum argues that coding offers life skills too. "We can teach skills that will never go away: How you approach a problem; being able to articulate a thinking process to a computer; how to understand logic. What coders are really good at is thinking about thinking," he said.

    In what might seem an irony, Flombaum is among the boot camp tech-class crowd that's skeptical of online course delivery. In-person coaching and camaraderie are both essential elements of learning, this group argues.

    'Blended Model'

    "Education is not [just] about content. That's like giving someone a textbook," agrees General Assembly's Schwartz. "It's not just about exercises. There's the emotional journey, career coaching, interactions with peers. All these dynamics are incredibly important to learning ... we are going to have more of a blended model, but we are very skeptical that the core of our business will be online."

    One big advantage skills schools have over other institutions of higher learning: they can be as nimble as the job market. It can take a decade for a university to develop a new major field of study; Udacity says it can create a brand-new nanodegree within four or five months.


    That's particularly important in a world where workers might change careers four or five times in a lifetime. Today's 22-year-old college graduate might raise a family supported by a job in an industry that doesn't even exist yet, and many boot camps think their sweet spot will be in retraining midcareer professionals rather than replacing college. About 40 percent of Udacity's students are 35 or older, the firm says.

    "Most of our students have college degrees. We are disrupting graduate school more than colleges," Schwartz said.

    Opportunities on the Cheap

    But college is clearly in the crosshairs.

    "We have numerous testimonials from people who say, 'I came from a four-year degree program ... and then I pay $79 for an online class that gets me more opportunity than my $30,000 degree,' " says Fedora's Nagpal. "Now, jobs are not the only way of quantifying the value of an education, but it's impossible not to think that's going to change a lot of things."

    Makhijani, of Udacity, talks about "unbundling" the elements of the university experience -- skills training could come from boot camp courses, while community building and more general courses could be delivered separately. "But that will take time."

    One reason for the delay: nanodegrees and bootcamps are so dominated by computer programming offerings that it's unclear the format will work well in other subject areas. While learning to manipulate data is important in every field today ("In reality, every company is a tech company," said Schwartz), you won't soon find many people signing their kids up for a school full of elementary teachers with 10 weeks of training or to be defended by lawyers with nano-law degrees.

    Still, Flatiron School's Flombaum believes that education has become too much of an either/or proposition in the minds of most. Online or in person, college or boot camp, liberal arts or STEM.

    "Look, there are very few bad guys in education. Nobody said, 'Hey guys, let's hike up tuition and totally screw everybody.' We are not an indictment of higher education," he said. "The problem is when [it seems like] the only option is a college buy-in to a four-year degree and $60,000 in debt. ... That's such a myopic view. And you're front-loading your entire education investment, and I don't think we'll ever live in a world where something we learned 10 years ago will work for us today. The opportunity cost is too high for too many people and we pretend that it's not."

     

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    businessman clench us dollars and thumb up
    Getty Images
    By Roger Ma

    NEW YORK -- A Roth IRA is the ultimate retirement vehicle, as it allows you to contribute post-tax dollars to a retirement account. That means a Roth IRA grows tax-free and is withdrawn tax-free since you've paid taxes on the money upfront. Essentially, consumers pay taxes on the seeds they sow instead of the robust crop they harvest in retirement. That's just peachy -- until you bump up against income barriers. If you make too much money, you might find yourself blocked from contributing to a Roth IRA -- that is, unless you go through the backdoor.

    Slipping Into a Roth IRA

    For 2015, only individuals making less than $131,000 a year or a married couple making less than $193,000 a year can contribute directly to a Roth IRA. Thus, higher income earners are effectively locked out from contributing directly to a Roth IRA.

    However, in 2010, income restrictions were removed from Roth conversions, which opened the "back door" to allow anyone to contribute to a Roth IRA, either directly or indirectly.

    If you exceed the Roth IRA income limits, you can perform the below steps to contribute to a Roth IRA:
    1. Open a traditional IRA, if you don't have one already.
    2. Make a nondeductible contribution to your traditional IRA, up to the limit of $5,500 a year for those under 50 and $6,500 a year for those 50 and over.
    3. Shortly thereafter, convert your nondeductible contribution from your traditional IRA to your Roth IRA.
    Upon your conversion, you'll only owe taxes on the growth of your nondeductible investment from the time when you initially made your contribution to your traditional IRA to when you ultimately converted it to your Roth IRA. Since this is typically a very short amount of time, your tax liability from the conversion should be minimal.

    Matthew Heaney, a 51-year-old software engineer based in San Jose, has been utilizing the backdoor Roth IRA strategy since he heard about it five years ago. "Because the money grows and is withdrawn tax-free, what you see is what you get," he said. "During retirement, I'll be able to make withdrawals from my Roth IRA without having to worry about paying taxes or how those withdrawals will affect my taxable income."

    Financial advisers also swear by the Roth. Jeff Jones, a Certified Financial Planner with Cypress Financial Planning in Woodbury, New Jersey, leans on Roth IRAs extensively in his practice. "After ensuring company 401(k) matches are being maximized and high interest debt is eliminated, I make sure every client utilizes a Roth IRA to the fullest extent," he told TheStreet.

    Pre-tax 401(k)s and traditional IRAs, on the other hand, allow you to invest pre-tax monies into a retirement account that grows tax-free. When you begin taking withdrawals from these accounts, you'll be taxed on the entire amount of your withdrawal (contribution and growth) at your ordinary income level.

    This additional tax diversification could be a very valuable benefit, especially if you're able to isolate tax-inefficient investments, such as REITs, into your Roth IRA. That could help those planning for retirement save a bundle in taxes.

    While there is some fear that the government could eventually shut down the backdoor Roth IRA -- trying to put the kibosh on a tax break that seems too beneficial to citizens -- it's a skilled trick retirement savers can safely use to their advantage. As an added bonus, unlike traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs don't have the required minimum distribution that takes effect an an account holder nears age 71. That means, a Roth IRA account holder has the flexibility to let his money grow or take it out for use as needed.

    Beware of the Pro-Rata Rule

    The backdoor Roth IRA strategy works best when you don't have any outstanding traditional, SEP or simple IRAs. If you do have any of these accounts, you should consider rolling the monies into your current 401(k) plan. If that's not an option, you should think twice before doing the backdoor Roth IRA strategy.

    The reason the strategy becomes a little hairy when you have existing IRAs outstanding is the IRS forces you to convert monies on a pro-rata basis rather than allowing you to select specific monies to convert.

    For example, let's say you have $15,000 in deductible contributions in a traditional IRA. You make a nondeductible contribution of $5,000 into your traditional IRA with the goal of converting it into a Roth IRA. Not so fast. Unfortunately, because of the pro-rata rule, in this situation, if you converted $5,000 into a Roth IRA, you would owe taxes on $3,750 of the $5,000 (at your ordinary income level). This is because 75 percent of your IRA is made up of deductible contributions ($15,000 / $20,000 = 75 percent) while 25 percent is nondeductible contributions ($5,000 / $20,000 = 25 percent). When you make the conversion, the IRS assumes the monies are converted on a "pro-rata basis." As a result, 75 percent of the $5,000 you converted is assumed to be made up of deductible contributions, and thus, taxable.

    When employing the backdoor Roth IRA strategy with clients, Jones of Cypress Financial Planning takes care to heed these necessary caveats. "I first take steps to ensure there are no outstanding pre-tax IRA funds due to the pro-rata rule," he said. "Then, each spring, I work with clients to max out their Roth IRA with no adverse tax consequence."

    Bottom Line

    The backdoor Roth IRA strategy is a great tool to allow high-income earners to contribute up to $5,500 a year ($6,500 for those 50 and over) to a Roth IRA. With that said, the strategy works best if you don't have any traditional, SEP or simple IRAs outstanding. Before proceeding with the strategy, make sure to roll over any IRAs to an existing 401(k) to make the conversion as clean as possible and to ensure minimal tax liability.

     

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    Durable Goods
    Charlie Riedel/APWorkers install an engine in a Ford F-150 truck at the company's Kansas City Assembly Plant in Claycomo, Mo.
    By PAUL WISEMAN

    WASHINGTON -- Orders to U.S. factories for long-lasting manufactured goods fell in May, pulled down by a sharp drop in demand for aircraft. But a category that reflects business investment rose last month, a hopeful sign for manufacturing.

    The Commerce Department said Tuesday that total orders for durable goods dropped 1.8 percent in May after falling 1.5 percent in April. Last month's drop was caused in part by a 35.3 percent plunge in orders for aircraft, which is often a volatile category.

    Excluding transportation, orders rose 0.5 percent. Durable goods are items meant to last at least three years, such as cars, home appliances and furniture.

    American factories have struggled this year in part because a strong dollar has made U.S. goods more expensive overseas. Cheaper oil prices also mean energy firms are buying less equipment. So far this year, durable goods orders are down 2.2 percent from January-May 2014.

    A key category that tracks business investment plans -- orders for non-military capital goods excluding aircraft -- rose 0.4 percent in May, reversing a 0.3 percent drop in April. Some economists view the increase as a sign that the damage from lower oil prices is starting to fade.

    "The underlying trend in U.S. core orders and shipments point to stronger activity ahead," Jennifer Lee, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets, wrote in a research note. "It helps that the greenback, though strengthening again recently, is off its highs, and oil prices are steadying."

    But Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, noted that factories reduced inventories in May, a sign that manufacturers expect less demand from customers. Reduced inventories are a drag on economic growth.

    Last week, the Federal Reserve said manufacturing output dropped 0.2 percent in May.

    The Federal Reserve Bank of New York also reported that factory activity in New York state contracted in June. But factories around Philadelphia expanded this month at the fastest pace since December, the Philadelphia Fed reported last week.

    Despite their troubles, factories keep hiring, though at modest levels. The Labor Department reported that manufacturers have added jobs 22 straight months through May, longest streak since the late 1970s.

     

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    Walmart
    Danny Johnston/AP
    BENTONVILLE, Ark. -- Walmart said Monday it is removing any items from its store shelves and website that feature the Confederate flag.

    The announcement by the world's biggest retailer comes as the shooting deaths of nine people at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, have reignited the debate over the flag's symbolism. The white suspect in the shooting, Dylann Storm Roof, appeared in photos holding the banner.

    South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said Monday that the flag should be removed from the statehouse grounds, acknowledging that to many the flag is a "deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past."

    In a statement, Bentonville, Arkansas-based Walmart Stores (WMT) said its goal is to not offend anyone with the products it offers.

    "We have taken steps to remove all items promoting the Confederate flag from our assortment -- whether in our stores or on our website," the company said. "We have a process in place to help lead us to the right decisions when it comes to the merchandise we sell. Still, at times, items make their way into our assortment improperly -- this is one of those instances."

    A search Monday of Walmart's website for Confederate flag merchandise returned no results. But a Mississippi state flag, which features the Confederate battle emblem in one of its corners, was on offer.

    A top Mississippi lawmaker called Monday for the removal of the emblem from the state flag.

     

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    Pending Sales Of U.S. Homes Rose More Than Forecast In February
    Matthew Busch/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- New single-family home sales increased in May to a more than seven-year high, further brightening the outlook for the housing market and the broader economy.

    The Commerce Department said Tuesday sales rose 2.2 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 546,000 units, the highest level since February 2008. April's sales pace was revised to 534,000 units from the previously reported 517,000 units.

    Economists polled by Reuters had forecast new home sales, which account for 9.3 percent of the market, rising to a 525,000-unit pace last month.

    The report came on the heels of a report Monday showing home resales surged to a 5½-year high in May. Data last week also showed building permits at near an eight-year peak in May and homebuilders were the most optimistic in nine months in June.

    The new home sales report added to strong retail sales, consumer sentiment and employment data in suggesting the economy was gaining speed in the second quarter after output slumped at the start of the year.

    Housing is being buoyed by a strengthening jobs market and steps by the government to ease lending conditions for first-time buyers through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage finance companies it controls. Young adults who are setting up their own households also are lending support.

    New homes sales surged 87.5 percent in the Northeast, the largest increase since July 2012. Sales increased 13.1 percent in the West, the biggest gain in nine months. Sales fell 4.3 percent in the South and were down 5.7 percent in the Midwest.

    The stock of new houses for sale was unchanged at 206,000 last month. Supply remains less than half of what it was at the height of the housing boom, good news for home builders who will need to ramp up construction.

    At May's sales pace it would take 4.5 months to clear the supply of houses on the market, down from 4.6 months in April.

     

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    Youth of the Year Event
    Boys & Girls Clubs of America via AP ImagesTupperware CEO Rick Goings and his wife, Susan.
    By Jacquelyn Smith

    Good advice doesn't land in our laps often - but when it does, it can be life-changing.

    Business Insider recently spoke to Rick Goings, CEO of home products company Tupperware Brands, which brought in $2.6 billion in revenue last year. He said the best piece of advice he ever received -- which came from a Navy officer -- has helped him become a better leader and grow a successful business:

    The officer told me, "The higher you go in any organization, the nicer the people should become."

    It's something I truly believe makes a difference in company culture. All of this really connects to transcendental meditation, something I've been practicing since I was 22, and the goal to try to be the best version of yourself.

    As a leader, if you go in with the attitude that there are sleeping giants of potential inside people (no matter their position), coupled with an operating landscape that lets them grow and helps them become the best version of themselves, you can create future generations of leaders.

    Even from a business perspective, all a company ever is is a collection of people. If you're working with a high percentage of people who are all trying to be the best versions of themselves, you can't avoid success.

    One other piece of advice he admires, he says, is something written on a candy dish in a guest room in his home: "Skills and savvy get you to the top, character is what you keeps you there."

    "Character is what you do when nobody is watching," Goings says. "And the best quality of what makes a great leader really starts with character at the core. Character gets molded in the way you behave. There isn't a single more important ingredient than character."

     

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    Earns Ebay
    Ben Margot/AP
    By JOSEPH PISANI

    NEW YORK -- Calling it a "contemporary symbol of divisiveness and racism," eBay said Tuesday that it will ban the sale of Confederate flags and similarly themed merchandise.

    "This decision is consistent with our long-standing policy that prohibits items that promote or glorify hatred, violence and racial intolerance," said eBay spokeswoman Johnna Hoff.

    The e-commerce company is the latest to prohibit the sale of Confederate merchandise following Walmart Stores (WMT) and Sears Holdings (SHLD). The shooting deaths of nine black church members last week in South Carolina has reignited debate on what the flag symbolizes.

    South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said this week that the Confederate flag should be removed from the Statehouse grounds.

    EBay (EBAY), based in San Jose, California, said it will begin notifying sellers Tuesday of its decision and begin removing items that contain the Confederate flag. A search for "Confederate flag" brought up 1,400 listings, including pins, watches, ties, hats and sunglasses with an image of the flag on it.

    Rival Amazon.com (AMZN), which also sells Confederate flags and other items on its site, didn't respond to requests for comment.

     

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    This image provided by Hulu shows Showtime programming, which be available on the Hulu platform ahead of the July 12 premiere of Season 3 of �Ray Donovan.� Showtime is trimming its price to $9 a month for Hulu subscribers in a deal that will make it the first premium pay TV service offered through Hulu. (Hulu via AP)
    Hulu via AP
    By RYAN NAKASHIMA

    LOS ANGELES -- Showtime is trimming its price to $9 a month for Hulu subscribers in a deal that will make it the first premium pay TV service offered through Hulu.

    The price is less than the $11 a month it costs to access Showtime's app on its own and would bring the price of Showtime plus Hulu Plus to $17 a month.

    The service will integrate Showtime shows into the Hulu platform and be available ahead of the July 12 premiere of Season 3 of "Ray Donovan."

    Showtime, owned by CBS (CBS), has been pushing distribution of its service separate from traditional cable and satellite TV packages in the last month, similar to a push by rival HBO. Earlier this month, Showtime announced its app would be available on Apple TVs, Roku streaming equipment and Sony's PlayStation Vue online TV service.

    Showtime is also available from traditional cable and satellite TV providers for $10 a month to existing TV subscribers.

    Showtime CEO Matt Blank said that prices are set by retailers. He told The Associated Press in an interview, "Hulu is in fact subsidizing the price difference."

    He also said he wasn't worried about the lower price causing existing Showtime customers on other platforms to switch. "I don't think someone is going to drop a big package of video services to save a dollar on Showtime."

    Showtime has nearly 24 million existing subscribers while Hulu Plus has nearly 9 million.

     

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    Home Rental Prices
    Robert F. Bukaty/APHomes on Munjoy Hill in Portland, Maine, overlooking Portland Harbor.
    By JOSH BOAK

    WASHINGTON -- Home rental prices are climbing across much of the United States -- with the biggest gains coming from not from New York or San Francisco but Jackson, Mississippi, and Portland, Maine.

    Real estate data firm Zillow (Z) said Tuesday that prices nationally climbed a seasonally adjusted 4.3 percent in May from a year ago. Rents still are rising at double-digit rates in Denver, San Francisco and San Jose, California, with their job opportunities drawing new residents at a faster pace than construction can match.

    But two smaller metro areas led the gains in May. Houses in the Mississippi capital of Jackson are renting monthly for $1,169, a 22.7 percent yearly increase. On the northeastern end of the United States, rental prices in Portland, Maine have shot up 17.4 percent.

    The steadily rising costs of renting houses and apartments are creating new financial pressures for many Americans. Rental prices have grown at roughly double the rate of wages, forcing more Americans to limit their spending elsewhere or cutting into their savings.

    A stunning 73 percent of renters say they have made financial trade-offs to pay their rents during the past three years, including taking a second job and going into credit-card debt, according to a survey released this month by the MacArthur Foundation.

    The greater financial pressures have led 61 percent of Americans to say the country is still in the middle of the housing crisis, according to the survey.

    Consumers are pessimistic about housing despite a clear rebound in sales. Home purchases increased 5.1 percent in May to annual rate of 5.35 million, putting the country on pace for the strongest sales level since 2007, according to the National Association of Realtors.

    But the rising rental prices are limiting how much many would-be buyers can save to buy a home, particularly in cities with a higher concentration of jobs in technology and finance. Monthly rental prices for a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan averaged $3,521 last month, according to the real estate brokerage Douglas Elliman.

    Still, some cities have a glut of rental units available. Zillow found that rental prices fell slightly in Chicago, New Orleans and Milwaukee.

     

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    APTOPIX Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Ryan Vlastelica

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks ended with slight gains Tuesday, with the Nasdaq eking out another record close while investors continued to await clarity on whether Greece could reach a deal to prevent defaulting on its loans.

    The day's action was quiet, with trading volume below average. While energy shares rose alongside a jump in the price of crude oil, a sharp rise in the U.S. dollar capped broader gains.

    While there were no major developments involving Greece, investors continued to hope that the country's newest budget proposals -- introduced Monday -- would avert a looming default.

    Greece needs fresh funds to avoid defaulting on a $1.8 billion debt repayment to the International Monetary Fund on June 30. Equities have been largely driven by Greece lately, with investors concerned that if the country defaults, it may have to leave the euro or the European Union, potentially shaking the region's economic foundations.

    "The market seems to expect that this will end favorably, or at least benignly, but I think people need to be nimble right now as circumstances could change at any time," said Steve Sosnick, equity-risk manager at Timber Hill/Interactive Brokers Group in Greenwich, Connecticut.

    "Greece may not be all that meaningful to the U.S. market, but it could have a big impact on the euro and the dollar, and it is unclear how big of an impact that will have on stocks."

    The U.S. dollar index, which measures the greenback against a basket of currencies, rose 1.1 percent. A strong dollar is considered a headwind for equity prices as it weighs on the profits of multinational corporations.

    U.S. crude futures settled up 1 percent at $61.01 a barrel, lifted ahead of U.S. inventory data expected to show strong demand for gasoline. The S&P energy index rose 0.3 percent and was one of the day's top-performing sectors. Halliburton (HAL) rose 0.9 percent to $44.49.

    Movers and Shakers

    AT&T (T) rose 2.5 percent to $35.91 and was one of the biggest percentage gainers on the S&P 500 after at least two brokerages upgraded the stock.

    Facebook (FB) shares rose 3.7 percent to $87.88, a record close. With the day's gains, the social network's market value is now bigger than that of Dow component Walmart Stores (WMT).

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 24.29 points, or 0.1 percent, to 18,144.07, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) gained 1.35 points, or less than 0.1 percent, to 2,124.2 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) added 6.12 points, or 0.1 percent, to 5,160.10. The Nasdaq ended at a record while the S&P 500 closed 0.3 percent below its own record.

    Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 1,772 to 1,276, for a 1.39-to-1 ratio on the upside; on the Nasdaq, 1,567 issues rose and 1,203 fell for a 1.30-to-1 ratio favoring advancers.

    The S&P 500 posted 43 new 52-week highs and 2 new lows; the Nasdaq composite recorded 180 new highs and 23 new lows.

    About 5.4 billion shares traded on all U.S. platforms, according to BATS exchange data, below the month-to-date average of 6.15 billion.

    What to watch Wednesday:
    • The Commerce Department releases first-quarter gross domestic product at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:
    • Bed, Bath and Beyond (BBBY)
    • Herman Miller (MLHR)
    • Lennar (LEN)
    • Monsanto (MON)

     

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    EBay Confederate Flag
    APA man wears a Confederate flag bandana on his head at the annual Redneck Games in East Dublin, Ga., in 2011.
    By TOM MURPHY

    Even as national retailers pull Confederate flags from shelves and websites after the shooting deaths of nine black church members in South Carolina, manufacturers that produce the divisive symbol say that sales are now surging.

    "I don't sell the Confederate flag for any specific group, I just sell the flag," said Kerry McCoy, owner and president of Arkansas' FlagandBanner.com. "This is America. Everybody has a right to be represented whether you are a history buff or a nut."

    McCoy said her company expects to sell about 50 of the flags over the next week. That's about half of what they typically sell in a year.

    Amazon (AMZN), Sears (SHLD), eBay (EBAY) and Etsy (ETSY) said Tuesday that they would remove Confederate flag merchandise from their websites. Sears doesn't sell the merchandise inside Sears or Kmart stores.

    A wave of merchandise bans came a day after Walmart Stores (WMT) said that it would remove all Confederate-themed items from its store shelves and website after the South Carolina shooting suspect, Dylann Storm Roof, appeared in photos holding the flag.

    Other national retailers say they don't sell, or never have sold, Confederate items.

    White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, asked about the retailers pulling flags from stores, said those are "decisions for individual businesses to make." He added that the businesses' decisions were consistent with the president's position.

    "We welcome those decisions but obviously those are decisions that should be made by individual businesses."

    The red-white-and-blue Confederate battle flag represents racism to many, and southern heritage to others. The debate over its place exploded after the church shootings. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said Monday that the flag should be removed from the Statehouse grounds.

    While the Confederate flag represents a small slice of their business, those that produce them say they have no plans to stop.

    Pete Van de Putte said sales of Confederate flags are surging at his Dixie Flag Manufacturing in San Antonio, Texas. He said he has sold more flags in the last couple days than they would have typically sold over a couple of months.

    "Any time there is a controversy about any flag, we sell more flags," he said. "It's not like selling tires or washing machines.

    "When people come in here, they're buying their national pride, their ethnic origin ... so people are naturally passionate about the product."

    Both Van de Putte and McCoy say American flags are their most popular products. McCoy said most of the Confederate flags she sells are lower-quality items not meant to fly outside every day. She said residents of California easily buy the most of any state.

    "They're more for a dorm room or a gag gift," she said. "I don't know anybody that flies the Confederate battle flag on their flag pole outside their business. I mean, who would do that?"

    Van de Putte's inventory also includes novelty flags and banners from the military and countries like North Korea. He estimates that nearly every flag in his store could be seen as objectionable by someone.

    Likewise, McCoy said she frequently gets pressure she resists to stop making gay pride flags or even flags that represent political parties.

    "I'm not here to judge who does what with their flag, I'm just here to provide for America," McCoy said.

    -AP Writer Nancy Benac in Washington and Business Writer Joseph Pisani in New York contributed to this story. Murphy reported from Indianapolis.

     

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    Parents with sons (4-5) (6-7) daughter (10-11) sitting on deckchair, portrait
    Getty ImagesAbout 70 percent of families say they would rather take a dream vacation than renovate a family room.
    By Abby Hayes

    When it comes to money, many Americans are trying to be more intentional about spending. Instead of just buying the latest gadget, we are concerned about spending money in ways that will actually increase our happiness.

    Recent research shows that spending money on experiences and other people, specifically, increases our happiness. And families today seem to understand this intuitively.

    In November, FamilyFun magazine surveyed 300 U.S. adults with kids ages 5 to 12 to see how they would spend money to boost the happiness of their family. Here are some of the survey results:
    • 88 percent of families say a family game night would make them happier, while only 12 percent said a new, big-screen TV would make them happier.
    • 71 percent of families would rather take a dream vacation than renovate a family room.
    • Families ranked vacations as the No. 1 way to promote family happiness, followed by smaller outings (such as the zoo and museums visits) and playing board or video games together.
    So what can you learn from other families? The bottom line is that the way to be a happier family is to spend more quality time doing fun things together. Point your budget in that direction, and you'll be on the right track.

    Here are five tips for spending money in ways that will make your family happier:

    1. Get your budget in order.

    This is the most basic step, but it's essential. In fact, the FamilyFun survey showed that over half of families believed more money would make their families happier. That's no surprise, considering many Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. In Bankrate's 2014 Financial Security Index survey, 26 percent of over 1,000 respondents reported having no emergency savings, and 24 percent reported having less than three months' worth.

    Clearly, money isn't everything. But living paycheck to paycheck is stressful, at best, and can take a toll on the entire family. So your first step is to get out of the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle, create a budget and put some money into savings. Then, you can focus on developing family spending goals to promote happiness.

    2. Save for vacations -- and take your vacation time.

    Even though nearly three-fourths of American workers earn some paid time off, most don't use all they've earned, according to a 2013 Oxford Economics survey of 971 employees. It's time to start taking those vacation days you've got banked! Your family will thank you for it.

    But before you just up and take a week off, make a habit of saving for vacation. One way to do this is to set up a separate savings account, where you funnel a small part of each paycheck. That way, when vacation time rolls around, you've got enough money to enjoy yourself.

    Don't think you need to save thousands for a swanky European vacation, though. Your family can get as much enjoyment from a cheaper vacation near your home. The U.S. is full of fabulous vacation locales, some of which are sure to be within a few hours' drive.

    3. Budget for smaller outings, more often.

    Clearly, your family shouldn't just spend time together on a once-a-year 10-day vacation. Set aside time for smaller outings throughout the year.

    One good way to do this is to check out memberships to local zoos and museums. Often, the cost of a membership is the same as (or even less than) the cost of two family trips to the zoo or museum. So if you go once a quarter, you'll save money with a membership.

    The other advantage of a membership -- especially for a museum or zoo near your home -- is that these outings don't have to be stressful, coordinated, all-day affairs. If you have a membership, you can hit up the local children's museum for just a couple hours on a Saturday. It's a great way to spend time with the family, without feeling the pressure of planning snacks, packing the diaper bag and getting everyone rested enough for a tantrum-free, eight-hour event.

    4. Spend money on at-home family activities.

    The FamilyFun survey indicated that families want to spend more time at home playing board or video games together. This can easily be achieved and won't throw off your budget.

    Over the next few months, set aside some funds to build up a family game library. If you already have a video game system, check out all-family options for your game system. Or consider board games that the whole family will love. Some great entry-level options are old-fashioned games like Go Fish. Older kids can learn strategy and critical-thinking skills from higher-level games like Ticket to Ride and Catan Junior.

    If your family prefers the outdoors to board or video games, invest in some new gear you can all use together. Kayaking, rollerblading, biking and hiking are all great activities you could regularly work into your family time.

    5. Give it away!

    Giving is an important part of the spending-for-happiness equation, since regularly giving back to others can increase your sense of fulfillment.

    As a family, you could practice this by sponsoring a child in need through an aid organization. Or you could save up money every week, and spend it all on a needy family around the holidays. If you really don't have cash to spare, reap the benefits of giving back by regularly volunteering together.

    Abby Hayes is a freelance blogger and journalist who writes for the personal finance blog The Dough Roller, which covers topics ranging from credit scores and banking to how much money you should be saving.

     

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    Man and woman working together at home
    Getty Images
    By Lisa Poisso

    Your 40s represent a unique period in your financial life. You're older, wiser and well-established, but there are still a few things you have yet to figure out -- like how to afford your children's college education and where you're going to retire.

    Though you might feel settled, becoming complacent could impact your financial well-being. Don't fall prey to these common money mistakes that people often make in their 40s.

    1. Not Having a Plan for Your Money. The bar has been steadily rising for 40-somethings who are working to maintain their place in the middle-class pack, noted economist William Emmons of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. On top of that, many Generation Xers took a financial torpedo during the Great Recession right at the time they were stretching to afford housing and establish careers. "That's the group we feel maybe doesn't get enough attention for having suffered a great deal in this cycle," he said.

    Forty-somethings who are just now recovering from losing a house or a job need to make a plan for their money now and stick to it. "If you're reeling from this blow financially in your 40s, there's not a lot of time to recover," he said.

    2. Not Maintaining Enough Liquidity. A lack of access to cash in an emergency sends many Gen-X families to predatory payday lenders, Emmons said. "It should be a high priority to have enough cash reserves so that you don't have to go to a high-cost lender or to sell off assets or pass up opportunities when they arise," he said.

    If you don't have an emergency fund by this point, you might need to make some aggressive moves to establish one. The short-lived sting will pay off big over the years.

    3. Letting Your Emergency Fund Fall Behind Your Growth and Expenses. If you've had an emergency fund in place for years now, don't pat yourself on the back too hard. Many people realize in their 40s that their emergency funds now fall woefully short of supporting their larger incomes and budgets.

    Whether your cash reserves have kept pace with your budget or not, when you've reached your 40s, it's time to invest your emergency fund for maximum growth while keeping your funds liquid.

    4. Getting Complacent About Carrying Consumer Debt. It's easy to get too comfortable when you're tucked into a good job and cozy home. Don't get complacent about carrying consumer debt. "Not that everyone that has borrowed has trouble, but people who have trouble typically have borrowed," Emmons said. Limit your exposure to debt, and don't use a current position of strength to justify putting yourself in precarious position.

    5. Prioritizing Paying Off the Mortgage. Some people crave the security of owning their home free and clear, but putting your mortgage ahead of other financial obligations is almost always a bad idea. Before you pay off your home, personal finance author Dave Ramsey recommends paying down all your other debt, establishing your retirement savings and setting your children's college funds into motion.

    6. Assuming Remodeling Will Add Value to Your Home. The luxurious bathroom remodel you feel brings a little slice of heaven to your humble cottage-style home might be exactly the thing a potential buyer will want to rip out and redo. Don't count on others to value remodeling and renovations the same way you do. Overcustomization can lower the value of your home.

    7. Putting Kids' College Ahead of Retirement Savings. When your family, friends and neighbors are putting their kids through college, the pressure's on to do the same -- but if your retirement savings aren't already on or ahead of target, funding the kids' education is the wrong move. Your children can take out a loan for their education, but you can't take out a loan to live on during retirement. Treat this like putting on your own oxygen mask first in case of an airplane emergency and don't help the kids until you've helped yourself.

    8. Dipping Into Your Retirement Funds. The power behind retirement savings is time -- time for interest to work its magic, time for the market to lean your direction over time. When you dip into your retirement funds, even with the best of intentions, you take away the very time that makes long-term savings so effective. Cashing out your 401(k) before you are 59½ means not only an ugly 10 percent penalty on top of federal and state income taxes but also zero in reserve working its magic over time.
    diversification

    9. Not Diversifying Your Investments and Savings. The reason boomers came out of the recession in better shape than Gen-Xers is that they had diversified their savings and investments. "It's true, the stock market crashed at the same time as the housing market did -- but the stock market came back," Emmons said. "Older people tend to be more diversified, so they have done very well in that regard." Don't throw all your eggs into one basket, he advised, whether that's your house or a particular investment.

    10. Considering Being Risk-Averse a Bad Thing. "It doesn't get glamorized the way entrepreneurs and risk-takers [do], but being risk-averse is a very good strategy for most people," Emmons said. "And by that I mean keeping your checking account stocked so you have emergency cash, having a very diversified portfolio and keeping your borrowing very low," he said. "Control the things you can control -- so reduce risks and be boring and conservative and prudent."

    11. Assuming Your Best Earnings Are Still to Come. It's easy to assume that your income will always grow the way it has so far in your career. "Incomes rise in their 20s and 30s and a little bit in their 40s, but peak earnings are usually around 50," Emmons said. For people with more education, that peak comes a little later but is generally stronger, with more of a peak and more of a falloff.

    Forty-somethings should plan not only for a flattening income curve but increasing concern for job security. "There's more risk as you get older," Emmons said. "It is a little more difficult if you lose your job, the company shuts down or you lose your job for whatever reason," he said. "It's illegal to discriminate against someone based on their age, but we know that there are some difficulties."

    It's easy to become complacent once you've reached your 40s, but don't set your finances on cruise control just yet. Keep your head up for what's just ahead to prevent poor assumptions and common mistakes from tanking the financial security you've worked so hard to build.

    This story originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com.

     

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    Economy Unemployed Finding Jobs
    Wilfredo Lee/APJob seekers fill out forms at a career fair in Miami Beach, Fla.
    What does the Federal Reserve's latest report say about America's poorest?

    Short answer: A lot. Every year the Federal Reserve spends a lot of time polling tens of thousands of Americans for its Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households. They find out about all kinds of factors -- citizens' standard of living, how much money they make and spend, their expectations for their future, how their educations have paid off, among many other details. It makes fairly interesting reading if you're into that kind of thing. But as a finance writer, there were several points that made a clear impression on me.

    First the good news. Americans report that they're doing better than they have since the Great Recession. They feel more secure, their bills are more likely to get covered, and it's a little easier to find work than it has been in recent years. But while most Americans aren't facing desperate financial circumstances, their personal finances certainly couldn't be described as healthy either.

    So here's the bad news. Forty-seven percent of respondents said that if they had a sudden emergency costing $400, they couldn't afford it, or would have to borrow money from family or friends to get by. That's bad enough, but of the 53 percent of people who said they could handle a $400 debt, most of these could only do so with the help of a credit card.

    But things get worse for folks making less than $40,000 a year. Using that same $400 emergency standard, only 31 percent of this population could pay this amount by any means, including payday loans and the like. Fifty-five percent of people under this $40,000 threshold also have no retirement savings and plan to work as long as they possibly can, regardless of age or health.

    Let's leave this example for a moment and talk about education. Higher education has gotten a bad name in some circles since the 2008 financial crisis, but the survey highlights strikingly different opinions among people who completed an associate or bachelor's degree and those who started but didn't complete such a degree. Graduates overwhelmingly say that their education was worth the cost. People who didn't go on to graduate overwhelmingly say that higher education wasn't worth it.

    The Fed's take on this latter phenomenon is that people who don't finish college are statistically more likely to be first-generation college students. If they can't complete their studies, for whatever reason, their student loans may fall harder on them than they would on someone who has one or more generations of college-graduated older relatives. It's not inappropriate to bring up issues of class in a situation like this. Many people report feeling as if they've "made it" when they graduate. From a financial perspective, they might not be far wrong.

    The last point I'll tackle (of the dozens covered in the report) is Americans' ability to secure credit. A sixth of Americans aren't able to get a sufficient loan through traditional means, like banks. Of these, 38 percent go on to secure credit through much more risky methods, like payday loans. Using this insight and the above numbers on education, it's easy to see that there's a financial threshold that's difficult for America's poorest to cross. The Fed's report suggests that as the economy improves for Americans on the wealthier side of that imaginary line, it may not be getting any better for those on the poorer side of things.

    Why am I interested? I'm a Canadian citizen. But like a lot of the people described in the Fed's report, it was a challenge for me to get my associate degree. I often wonder, what if I hadn't completed it? I'm very sympathetic to the plight of America's poor, and to the opportunities that are available in America for someone who is no longer poor. While it's still the world's largest economy, financial enthusiasts like myself watch the way America handles its money problems with interest. In the next decade, and especially in the next presidential election cycle, this is going to be a hot button issue: the segment of the American economy that fell down -- and is staying down.

     

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    Yes!! We've won!
    Getty Images
    By Elizabeth Sheer

    Social Security payments are the primary source of income for many retirees. Nearly one-third of respondents to a 2013 survey by the Federal Reserve indicated that they had no retirement savings. Whether Social Security will be your sole means of support or a source of pocket change, it's a good idea to strategize how to get the most out of your benefits -- before you hit retirement age.

    Work for 35 Years or More. Throughout your working years, the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA, as it appears on your pay stub) taxes part of your wages that count as credit toward Social Security. The Social Security Administration determines your monthly benefits based on how much you earned during your 35 highest grossing years before you file a claim. The calculation also factors in your age and the number of years you worked. The result is known as the primary insurance amount, or PIA. Check the official online estimator to see how these numbers work out for you.

    Wait Until Full Retirement Age. In a recent survey by MassMutual Life Insurance Co., more than 70 percent of respondents incorrectly assumed the retirement age was 65. Full retirement age is 66 for people born between 1943 and 1954 and rises incrementally to 67 for those born in 1960 and after. Although you can start collecting Social Security benefits when you turn 62, the amount of your monthly payment is reduced permanently by 25 percent.

    Delay Until Age 70. The maximum payout at full retirement age is $2,663 a month in 2015. But most financial planning experts recommend waiting even longer to start receiving benefits. For each year you hold off beyond 66 or 67 up to the maximum age of 70, the size of your monthly payment increases 8 percent. Once the benefit stream starts flowing, regardless of your age, there is no turning back; you cannot change your mind.

    Maximize Lifetime Benefits. The first Social Security payout is the base line for what you will receive every month thereafter. Each October, the Social Security Administration calculates a cost of living adjustment, based on changes in the federal consumer price index, and increases your monthly benefit accordingly for the following year. In 2015, the adjustment amounted to 1.7 percent. When you delay Social Security payments beyond the minimum retirement age of 62, the cost of living adjustments you "missed" are factored into the benefit you ultimately receive.

    Consider Your Life Expectancy. The decision to stop working is, of course, a very personal one. There are many factors to consider when assessing the right time to push "go" on Social Security, including the question with an unknowable answer: How long will you live? Although waiting longer to collect benefits increases the monthly payout, it may not make sense for you. If your health is poor, it may be more prudent to start receiving Social Security now. And if you find yourself in financial straits once you hit retirement age, collecting a smaller benefit for a longer period might be the wiser (and necessary) choice.

    Bridge the Gap. It's possible to retire at 62, delay collecting Social Security, and still maximize your financial situation. Depending on the size and nature of your retirement savings, you could draw on investments, particularly those made through a tax-deferred account such as a traditional IRA or 401(k), until Social Security checks start flowing. Research by a consulting firm that partners with Kiplinger suggests that waiting on Social Security could be more beneficial than limiting withdrawals from a private retirement account. That is, you would wind up with a larger Social Security benefit and likely extend the longevity of your retirement account. This is a very complicated calculation that depends in part on the type of investments you have and is best discussed with a financial planning professional.

    Limit Post-Retirement Earnings. You can keep your job after hitting age 62 and still collect Social Security, but there is a penalty for doing so. Until you reach full retirement age, the Social Security Administration will deduct $1 from your benefit for every $2 you earn above $15,720. If you are working the year you reach full retirement age (66 or 67), it will deduct $1 for every $3 earned above $41,880 before your birth month. These deductions are temporary; when you stop working, the agency will recalculate your benefit based on earnings and the benefits withheld. If you work beyond full retirement age, you can collect the full benefit regardless how much you earn.

    Claim Spousal Benefits First. Being married has its advantages as far as Social Security is concerned. When one spouse files for benefits, the other may collect up to half that amount, assuming both spouses are at least 62. This is a boon to couples where one spouse didn't earn any credits toward Social Security or earned significantly less than the other. For example, if a husband and wife retire at 66 with full retirement benefits -- she at $1,500 a month and he at $600 a month -- he can file for spousal benefits worth $750 instead of his own Social Security. Meanwhile, the value of his benefits continue to increase until age 70; at that point, he will receive the greater of the two. Note that spousal benefits are reduced for people younger than full retirement age.

    'File and Suspend.' This tactic for maximizing spousal benefits pays off most when one half of the couple has reached full retirement age with accrued earnings that exceed those of the other spouse. The high-income earner can file for Social Security and immediately suspend the benefits flow. The lower-earning spouse, who must be at least 62, can then file for spousal benefits while the value of the higher earner's benefits continue to grow until he or she reinstates the claim (ideally at age 70).

    Apply for Survivors Benefits. A surviving spouse at least 60 years old can collect a percentage of a deceased spouse's benefit. By waiting until full retirement age, the surviving spouse would receive a higher benefit -- up to 100 percent of the deceased's benefit, depending how old the deceased was when Social Security payments started. Survivor benefits are available even if the deceased was not yet receiving checks from the Social Security Administration. If both spouses are retired and collecting Social Security, the higher benefit is the one that endures regardless which half of the couple lives longest.

    Minimize Your Tax Burden. Once Social Security benefits kick in, recipients with income over certain thresholds must pay the tax man. (Income here includes variables such as wages, capital gains, dividends and interest payments, payouts from retirement accounts, and one-half of Social Security benefits.) A married couple with income between $32,000 and $44,000 owes taxes on up to half the value of their Social Security benefits. Income exceeding $44,000 incurs taxes up to 85 percent of the annual benefit. For single recipients, the outside income thresholds are $25,000 and $34,000.

    Start Planning Now. Consider working with a financial planner who knows the ins and outs of the system to customize a plan for you. Barring that, free online tools from AARP or T. Rowe Price, an investment management firm, can help you optimize your Social Security benefits.

     

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    Shopping Frustration
    Getty ImagesAvoiding these mistakes could save you tons of money.
    By Geoff Williams

    It doesn't matter how often you shop, or how careful you are to only buy the best things at the best prices. There are so many stores, so many deals and so many ways you can waste money that it's almost inevitable you're going to make some rookie shopping mistakes.

    So with that in mind, keep these eight stupid shopping slip-ups in mind the next time you head to the stores.

    1. Not looking for deals. This is an obvious mistake, but men apparently need reminding that looking for deals and doing a little comparison shopping can pay off. Y&R, an advertising agency with offices in 93 countries across the world, released a study of 8,000 dads and found that 59 percent of fathers feel that coupons make them look cheap, compared to 37 percent of mothers (and 49 percent of child-free men). These perceptions really end up costing male consumers. According to Y&R, fathers spent more than moms when back-to-school shopping in 2014 -- almost $250 more, on average.

    If you don't research what you're purchasing, you're basically leaving money on the table.

    "If you don't research what you're purchasing, you're basically leaving money on the table," says Erin Konrad, a Los Angeles-based content writer with CouponPal.com.

    Besides, you'll end up beating yourself up later if you don't do some comparison shopping, says Scott Hamula, a marketing communications professor at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York, and someone who loves to shop.

    "We often look at the prices for something we bought after we bought it, so we can reassure ourselves that we didn't just make a blunder," Hamula says.

    2. Assuming the final price is the final price. When it comes to online shopping, once you put something in your virtual shopping cart, remember: You're not done yet. It's time to look for an online coupon code. There are seemingly thousands of these sites, including RetailMeNot.com, Coupons.com, Valpak.com, CouponCabin.com and CouponPal.com. If you don't feel like visiting them all or don't have time, you should at least go to a search engine and type in "coupon code" plus the business you're buying from. You probably won't save more than a few bucks, but that's at least worth several seconds of your time.

    "Every little bit helps," Konrad says.

    3. Not planning for shopping in advance. Many of us lurch from one week to the next, buying things as we realize we need them. Trae Bodge, the senior lifestyle editor of RetailMeNot.com, points out that we'd be much better off if we planned ahead for upcoming shopping expenses.

    For instance? "Set aside money for birthday gifts and holiday shopping," Bodge says. "I even recommend putting away a little extra for when you want to splurge and get yourself a guilt-free gift."

    In other words, when you budget, think about the type of shopping that you don't do regularly, but you almost certainly will do at some point.

    4. Buying the wrong things in bulk. Bodge also says that while bulk shopping is popular, don't go overboard. Buying in bulk can be a waste of money if you don't know what you're doing.

    "Some items, like spices, vegetables, liquid detergents, cooking oil and brown rice can go bad or become less effective before you go through them," Bodge says.

    5. Ignoring loyalty programs. You know how grocery stores, drugstores and even some restaurants will offer loyalty programs, affording you discounts as you keep buying from them? You don't need anyone telling you it's a good idea to use them. So we won't do that. But Bodge does have a tip for anyone wary of carrying around all those loyalty cards on a key chain: "Use an app like Stocard," she recommends. "It holds all the info for you in one convenient place [on your mobile phone]."

    6. Getting a store card and not paying attention to it. That store credit card is offering discounts galore and probably sending you coupons via email or through the postal service. If you're not occasionally using it, and especially if you're shopping without it, then you may want to ask yourself why you applied for the card in the first place.

    On the other hand, with so many store credit cards offering high interest rates, which can get you in trouble if the card becomes a place to park revolving debt for months on end, you could say that getting the store credit card in the first place was a mistake.

    Either way, pay attention to it.

    7. Forgetting to send in rebates. As any experienced shopper knows, some products come with rebates. Pay $800 for a TV and send in your $100 rebate, and you'll get a check for $100.

    "There's a lot of research that shows that overwhelmingly, people don't use rebates, and so the company actually gets the full retail price out of you, and it's just a wonderful win for them," Hamula says.

    Hamula suggests that if you're going to buy a product with a rebate, don't put off sending it in. "Get home, fill it out. Nowadays, a lot of companies will let you do it online. But whatever you do, do it immediately," he says.

    8. Looking too hard for a deal. First of all, if you overthink your purchase, you may never make it, which is just as well if you were going to buy something you don't really need, but if you're buying a car or some other necessity, why make this purchase more stressful than it needs to be? At some point, you have to make a decision.

    But you can also get so focused on saving money that you forget about what you're buying, Hamula points out.

    "I did this about a month ago. I purchased a decent but older model of a weed wacker and leaf blower, and I thought I'd be happy with it. But it's not all that high quality," says Hamula, who paid about $90 for his gadget instead of around $140 for a pricier model.

    He predicts that within a year, he'll probably end up buying another, more expensive version of what he has, so that in the long run, he'll have ended up paying a combined total of at least $230 on the things.

    It's one of the risks of being a little too clever for your own good when you're shopping. Sometimes when you buy something for a steal, you still come out feeling like you've been robbed.

     

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    Woman in car lot holding brochure
    Getty Images
    By David Muhlbaum

    What if we told you that you could buy a meticulously maintained, late-model used car that may cost you less than if you bought it at a dealership? And what if we said you could take it home for a few days and, if you didn't like it, return it? And that you would pay a no-haggle price, so you didn't have to play the dealer's games?

    Here's the catch: You'll be buying a vehicle that has spent its previous life as a rental car. Some see that as a deal-breaker. Who knows how many people drove it? And how they drove it? Not to mention how many Slurpees were spilled on the upholstery? But if you can get past the stigma, buying a used vehicle from a rental fleet could translate into savings.

    The three-day test-drive. Rental car companies have been selling off vehicles retired from their fleets for decades now, but two of the big players in the field are making the process so low-hassle and transparent that you may not mind buying a car that dozens of drivers have already had their mitts on.

    Rent2Buy at Hertz and the Ultimate Test Drive at Avis/Budget let you browse the fleet online, pick the model that you want, and take it for an extended test-drive (up to three days) from many of their rental locations. During the car's tryout, you can have a mechanic look at it, if you like.

    They're not all plain-vanilla sedans, either. Both companies offer a variety of luxury models, as well as less-pricey cars with a dollop of personality, such as Minis and Fiats. Enterprise Car Sales, which has outlets in more than 35 states, doesn't offer a several-day test-drive, but it will buy the car back within seven days if you don't like it.

    Rental vendors seek to counter worries of auto abuse by noting the frequent inspections and regular service they give their fleets, and that the vehicles they sell to retail customers are the pick of the litter (others go to auction, among other fates). Plus, all of the companies provide a report from a third party (such as Carfax) on the vehicle's history. Philip Reed, of Edmunds.com, also reassures potential buyers that serving time in a fleet is no curse on a car, even if it gets an occasional lead-footed driver. "Cars are so well engineered these days that it really doesn't matter," he says.

    What you'll pay. We compared prices for that automotive commodity, a Toyota Camry, at Hertz, Avis/Budget and Enterprise. As a benchmark, we used the Kelley Blue Book Fair Purchase Price -- what you might expect to pay a dealer -- for a good-condition 2014 LE model with about 25,000 miles on it, which in late April was $17,716.

    The lowest price was at Hertz, where our Camry went for $16,000. It was $17,600 at Avis/Budget and $17,999 at Enterprise. Prices for some other vehicles we checked, including the Hyundai Elantra, Mercedes C250 Sport sedan, Nissan Rogue and Ford Expedition, in a variety of trim levels, also showed savings -- sometimes slim, sometimes huge. The Elantra at Hertz had 35,000 miles and was 15 percent below the KBB Fair Purchase Price.

    Hertz and Enterprise call their offerings "certified," but the term certified on a used car is a bit loose, like natural on foods. You don't get factory-trained inspectors or an extension of the manufacturer's warranty, as you would with a manufacturer's certified program.

    Avis/Budget's cars are a year or two old, so what's left of the factory warranty is all you get. Hertz's and Enterprise's for-sale fleets include older cars as well. For those, if factory coverage has expired, a 12-month, 12,000-mile powertrain warranty helps. Both Hertz and Enterprise throw in roadside assistance, too.

    Our advice: Shop all the rental fleets as well as sites such as Autotrader.com. Stop by the CarMax site, too.

     

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    Netherlands-Earns-Ahold
    Stephan Savoia/APRoyal Ahold owns and operates Stop & Shop supermarkets, such as this one in Pembroke, Mass.
    By MIKE CORDER and JOSEPH PISANI

    NEW YORK -- The owner of Stop & Shop and Giant will tie up with the parent company of Food Lion, creating a $29 billion grocer that will be in a stronger position to compete with Walmart and other discount retailers.

    The deal, which would create the fourth largest grocer in the U.S., is the last in a series of buyouts and mergers that has major players bulking up to carve out market share in an industry that has grown intensely competitive.

    Shoppers may be the biggest winners as the bargaining power of grocers grows along with their size, said Euromonitor retail analyst Tim Barrett.

    The latest tie up is between the Dutch retailer Royal Ahold and its rival, Belgium's Delhaize Group. Yet the combined company, to be called Ahold Delhaize, will generate about 61 percent of its revenue in the U.S.

    In addition to Stop & Shop and Giant, Royal Ahold owns the Martin's supermarket chain and online grocer Peapod in the U.S. In Europe, it owns Albert Heijn stores. Food Lion and Hannaford are Delhaize's best-known brands in the U.S. It operates the Delhaize and Tempo chains overseas.

    Together, Ahold Delhaize, will have more than 6,500 stores around the world and it would cater to 50 million customers a week in the U.S. and Europe.

    Though grocers have grown larger, the grocery sector has become fragmented, with stores like Whole Foods hitting the high end, and Walmart (WMT) and Dollar General (DG) coming in low.

    That has left more traditional grocers fighting for the massive customer base that lies in between. As those grocers grow and their leverage increases, they can demand more from food and beverage supplies, said Euromonitor's Barrett.

    They are likely to pass on the savings to customers in a bid to take back market share from Walmart, dollar stores and other discount retailers, said Barrett.

    Earlier this year, the owners of the Albertsons chain bought Safeway, and Dollar Tree (DLTR) is in the midst of buying Family Dollar (FDO).

    Cerberus acquired the Albertsons stores it didn't already own from Supervalu (SVU) two years ago, along with four other Supervalu chains.

    Kroger Co. (KR) bought the regional chain Harris Teeter.

    The deal announced Wednesday consolidates the sector even further.

    Ahold and Delhaize had combined sales last year of $60.6 billion (54.1 billion euros).

    The companies said that the deal will involve one-off costs of 350 million euros that will create annual savings of 500 million euros in the third year after the combination is finalized.

    Ahold Chief Executive Officer Dick Boer will become CEO and Delhaize CEO Frans Muller will be his deputy.

    The deal is expected to be completed in the middle of next year.

    -Mike Corder reported from The Hague, Netherlands. Joseph Pisani reported from New York.

     

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    Economy GDP
    Tony Dejak/APA carpenter working on a new home in Pepper Pike, Ohio, last February. Bitter winter weather is being blamed in part for a slowdown in the economy during the first three months of the year.
    By CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER

    WASHINGTON -- The U.S. economy contracted in the first three months of the year, just not as much as previously estimated. More recent data show that the weakness was largely temporary, with a rebound in the works for the April-June quarter.

    The economy, as measured by gross domestic product, shrank at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 0.2 percent from January through March, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. That's better than last month's estimate of a 0.7 percent decrease.

    Harsh winter weather slowed spending by keeping consumers away from shopping malls and auto dealerships. The trade deficit ballooned, slicing growth by the most since 1985 as exports fell and imports rose.

    Yet consumers stepped up their spending in May, and home sales are climbing -- signs that the economy is back on track.

    In addition, many of the headwinds the economy faced in the first quarter are fading.

    Exports were hammered by a sharp rise in the dollar's value, which makes U.S. goods more expensive overseas. The dollar has increased 15 percent in the past year compared with a basket of overseas currencies.

    That also makes imports cheaper and better able to compete with U.S.-made goods. Imports increased 7.1 percent in the first quarter, while exports fell 5.9 percent. That widened the trade gap, cutting nearly 1.9 percentage points from growth, the most in 30 years.

    A trade dispute at West Coast ports also contributed to the disparity, but it has since been resolved. And the dollar's value has leveled off since March, suggesting its impact will lessen.

    Oil and gas companies, meanwhile, sharply cut back on drilling and exploration activity and spent much less on steel pipe and other equipment. Those cutbacks occurred in the wake of last year's steep drop in oil prices, but have since slowed and should stop lowering growth in the second half of the year, analysts forecast.

    Americans saved more in the first quarter, aided by lower gas prices and greater hiring. Consumer spending growth slipped to just 2.1 percent, down from 4.4 percent in the final three months of last year.

    But since then there have been signs that Americans are spending more freely. That should provide a crucial boost to growth in the second quarter and the rest of the year. Consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of economic activity.

    Sales at retail stores and restaurants jumped 1.2 percent in May, as shoppers spent more on clothes, building materials and furniture.

    Consumers are also willing to spend more on major purchases, potentially a sign of growing confidence in what has been a stop-and-start expansion. Auto sales jumped in May to the highest level in nearly a decade.

     

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