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DailyFinance.com

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Mark Lennihan/AP
    By Noel Randewich

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks finished sharply higher Monday, with the Dow Jones industrial average re-emerging in positive territory for the year, after eurozone leaders reached a tentative deal to bail out Greece.

    The improved European picture led to best three-day run this year for the S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite.

    Facebook (FB), Netflix (NFLX) and Amazon (AMZN) all hit record highs, while Apple's (AAPL) 1.93 percent rise gave the biggest boost to the Nasdaq.

    Headlines out of Greece are going to dissipate a bit and with that the U.S. earnings picture is going to start to emerge as the important factor.

    Greece won conditional agreement to receive a possible $95 billion over three years, along with an assurance of talks to bridge a funding gap until a bailout is ready. The deal is contingent on Greece meeting a tight timetable to enact strict reforms.

    "Headlines out of Greece are going to dissipate a bit and with that the U.S. earnings picture is going to start to emerge as the important factor," said Mike Binger, a portfolio manager at Gradient Investments in Shoreview, Minnesota, with $850 million under management.

    Also making Wall Street more confident, Chinese stocks rose for a third straight day as data showed exports rose while imports slipped in June, a tentative sign global demand might be on the mend.

    Historically high stock valuations may attract fresh attention when U.S. companies post second-quarter results over the next several weeks. Wall Street expects a 2.9 percent drop in quarterly earnings, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

    Pointing to expectations of calmer trading, the CBOE Volatility index fell 16 percent Monday. Its 29 percent decline in the past two sessions is the largest two-day drop since Jan. 2, 2013.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 217.27 points, or 1.2 percent, to end at 17,977.68. The S&P 500 gained 22.98 points, or 1.1 percent, to 2,099.6 and the Nasdaq composite added 73.82 points, or 1.5 percent, to 5,071.51.

    Tech Surge

    All of 10 major S&P 500 sectors were higher, led by the technology index, up 1.6 percent. The financial index rose 1.1 percent. Upcoming quarterly earnings reports from banks are expected to benefit from a recent rise in long-term yields relative to short term yields.

    Crude tumbled on progress toward a nuclear deal that would end sanctions on Iran, allowing more oil onto the market. The energy index stayed positive but has been the worst-performing S&P sector over the last month, falling over 5 percent.

    The oil slide boosted U.S. airline stocks. American Airlines (AAL), United Continental (UAL), JetBlue (JBLU) and Alaska Air (ALK) were all up 1 to 3 percent.

    Apple (AAPL) was up 4.7 percent in the past two days for its best back-to-back run since January.

    Markwest Energy Partners (MWE) rose 14 percent. MPLX, Marathon Petroleum's master limited partnership, said it will buy the natural gas processor for about $15.63 billion. MPLX (MPLX) fell 14.5 percent while Marathon (MPC) rose 7.9 percent.

    Advancing issues outnumbered decliners on the NYSE by 2,242 to 830. On the Nasdaq, 2,002 issues rose and 808 fell. The S&P 500 posted 43 new 52-week highs and 10 new lows; the Nasdaq recorded 149 new highs and 42 new lows. About 5.9 billion shares traded on all U.S. platforms, according to BATS exchange data, below the month-to-date average of 6.9 billion.

    -Tanya Agrawal contributed reporting.

    the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC)
    the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC)

    What to watch Tuesday:
    • At 8:30 a.m. Eastern time, the Commerce Department reports retail sales for June, and the Labor Department reports import and export prices for June.
    • At 10 a.m., the Commerce Department reports business inventories for May.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:
    • Commerce Bankshares (CBSH)
    • CSX (CSX)
    • John & Johnson (JNJ)
    • JPMorgan Chase (JPM)
    • Wells Fargo (WFC)
    • Yum Brands (YUM)

     

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    Inventor Mentor
    Mike Derer/APA.J. Khubani, founder and chief executive of Telebrands, shows off one of the company's battery-powered light bulbs in this 2008 photo.
    By BRUCE SHIPKOWSKI

    TRENTON, N.J. -- A company known for its "As Seen on TV" products including the Pocket Hose has reached a settlement with state officials who said it used high-pressure sales tactics and made it difficult for customers to get refunds.

    Telebrands Inc., whose products include the PediPaws pet nail trimmer and the non-spill Wow Cup, has agreed to revise its interactive voice response ordering system and other business practices, state consumer affairs officials announced Monday.

    But wait, there's more: The company has to pay the state $550,000.

    Investigators said they bought Insta Bulb battery-operated light bulbs, the Olde Brooklyn Lantern and the Pocket Hose as part of their probe into Telebrands, based in Fairfield, New Jersey.

    Telebrands, whose products are designed to save consumers time and money through convenient solutions to everyday problems, calls itself the largest marketer of "As Seen on TV" products. It said the settlement with the state Division of Consumer Affairs will lead to an improved shopping experience for customers. It said there was no admission of liability but it has made changes to its websites and customer service processes to assure customers "are better informed throughout the ordering process."

    "We are a company predicated on consumer satisfaction and if we can improve the experience of our customers, we want to do that expeditiously," said Telebrands CEO A.J. Khubani, who designed the red "As Seen on TV" logo.

    Telebrands will have to retain at its own expense a consumer affairs liaison for up to two years. The liaison will be subject to state approval and will monitor the firm's compliance with the settlement terms and applicable laws. The liaison also will help resolve consumer complaints and provide quarterly reports to the state.

    The settlement resolves a civil lawsuit the state filed last August. The lawsuit alleged that the company scammed customers by aggressively pushing more expensive products, shipping and billing for products not ordered and using misleading advertising.

    It also alleged that the company violated the terms of a 2001 agreement with the state that required it to comply with the Consumer Fraud Act.

    Acting state Attorney General John Hoffman said the deal puts Telebrands customers back in control of the ordering and payment process.

    "No longer will consumers find themselves subjected to an onslaught of solicitations for products that they have no interest in, with no way to end the merciless upselling," he said.

     

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    happy asian seniors walking on the beach
    Getty Images
    By Rachel L. Sheedy

    Lower-earning spouses who claim their own Social Security benefit before full retirement age take a cut of as much as 25 percent. But all's not lost. They can boost the payout when they collect a spousal benefit, and the size of the increase depends in part on the age at which they claim.

    To figure out the best strategy, you need to understand that the spousal benefit has two parts. The first part is the lower earner's own retirement benefit based on her earnings record. The second part is based on the higher earner's benefit. The two parts together could provide the lower earner with a payment of up to 50 percent of the higher earner's full retirement benefit. (Full retirement age is 66 for those born between 1943 and 1954.)

    Say a 66-year-old wife's benefit based on her work record is $800 a month, and half of her husband's benefit at his full retirement age is $1,200. If she claims a spousal benefit, she gets her own $800 benefit, plus $400 based on her husband's earnings record -- for a total spousal benefit of $1,200. A spousal benefit can be claimed as early as age 62, as long as the other spouse has claimed his benefit.

    Recently a Kiplinger's Retirement Report reader was considering filing for his benefit at full retirement age. His wife had filed for her own benefit before she reached full retirement age. Once he claims his benefit, how much would she get as a spousal benefit? The answer depends on when the lower earner claims her spousal benefit.

    Her best bet is to wait until full retirement age to switch to her spousal benefit. Her own benefit will remain reduced, but she'll get the full spousal portion based on her husband's earnings record, says Jim Blair, a partner at Premier Social Security Consulting, in Sharonville, Ohio. If she claims a spousal benefit before full retirement age, both her own benefit and the spousal portion will be cut.

    By waiting until her full retirement age to switch to a spousal benefit, she'll do better. Say Mary took Social Security at age 62. By claiming early, her full retirement benefit of $1,100 was reduced to $825. Once John claims his full retirement benefit of $2,500, Mary will be eligible for a spousal benefit.

    If Mary is full retirement age when she switches to the spousal benefit, her own portion will remain at $825. But she will get the full spousal portion of $150 -- the difference between $1,250 (half of John's full benefit) and her full benefit of $1,100. Her total benefit: $975. If, instead, she claims her spousal benefit before she turns full retirement age, she would get less than $975 because the spousal portion will also be reduced.

    Unintended Claiming Consequences

    But beware the "deeming" provision. Say John applies for his benefit first. Then Mary applies for her own benefit before her full retirement age, intending to delay taking the higher spousal benefit. Not possible, says the Social Security Administration. It automatically "deems" her as taking the highest benefit she's eligible for -- in this case, the spousal benefit.

    To get around the deeming provision, the lower earner should apply for her retirement benefit before the higher earner applies for his. The Social Security Administration won't automatically switch her to the spousal benefit once she is eligible; the wife will have to file an application for the spousal benefit, Blair says.

    Having the lower earner file early could make sense for couples who want to bring in some money while the higher earner delays. But couples who regret having the wife take her own benefit early could boost her benefit by waiting to collect her spousal portion.

    In all cases, the lower earner will be eligible for a survivor benefit of 100 percent of the higher earner's benefit if he dies first. And lower earners shouldn't delay beyond full retirement age to claim a spousal benefit.

    You won't find an estimate for the spousal benefit on either spouse's Social Security statement. To get that estimate, call Social Security at 800-772-1213 or visit your local field office.

     

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    Picnic on the Beach. Female Legs and Basket with Food
    Getty Images
    By Sabah Karimi

    If you're tired of spending those long summer days cooped up at home, but don't have the budget for a vacation or pricey concert tickets, don't overlook some free and low-cost activities in your own backyard. There are several ways to enjoy some fun in the sun and relax in the great outdoors with friends and family, on date night or when you're flying solo and just need a break.

    Skip the restaurants and pack a picnic for the beach.

    Here are eight frugal ways to enjoy the great outdoors this summer.

    1. Settle in for summer movies at the park. Skip vegging out in front of the television on a hot summer night in favor of enjoying an outdoor movie. Many local parks and recreation centers host summer movie nights where you can pack a picnic and enjoy a movie on the big screen with friends, neighbors, and family members. This can be a fun and frugal way to spend an evening -- and it won't put a dent in your budget.

    2. Take yoga and fitness classes. Many yoga instructors, personal trainers and dance fitness instructors host free or low-cost workshops outdoors during the summer. If you need to revisit your New Year's resolution to get in shape this year or just want to try something new, use some of that time off this summer to indulge in fitness activities. Yoga in the park or on the beach, dance classes outdoors or even a boot camp personal training session are great ways to change up your routine.

    3. Pack a picnic. Find your nearest lake or beach for a relaxing picnic by the water. The summer months call for spending time on the shore, so pack a tote with food and drinks for the day, reading materials and your favorite device for a low-key afternoon or evening. Some beaches and camping grounds near lakes allow you to set up a bonfire -- another great way to enjoy the great outdoors while treasuring the company of friends and family.

    4. Go on a ranger-led tour at a national park. All national parks around the United States offer ranger-led tours each season. If you happen to head to a park on a weekend with free admission, you can enjoy a free tour of the area with an expert. Otherwise, admission fees will cost only a few dollars per vehicle. Before you go, look at the calendar of upcoming programs, such as canoe or boat tours, bird watching tours, nature hikes and tram tours.

    5. Host a potluck barbecue. If you're an avid party planner, host a potluck by your pool or in your backyard. If you're expecting a larger turnout, consider reserving a gazebo or picnic area at your local park or recreation center. Barbecues are a great way to get people together during the hot summer months, and you'll keep food costs down by encouraging attendees to bring a dish to pass. The group could go hiking around the park or on a nature walk after the meal to make the most of the great outdoors.

    6. Go stargazing. Museums and planetariums in your area may host stargazing and moon watching events throughout the season. Check out their calendar of events for upcoming sessions, and plan your evening around them. You could look up a few budget-friendly restaurants in the area to enjoy a good meal before you head out for the free nighttime show or just enjoy a delicious and low-cost home-cooked meal before the stargazing adventure.

    7. Join an outdoor sports team. If you enjoy staying active throughout the season, skip the gym a few days a week to play beach volleyball, tennis, basketball or other outdoor sports with a local team. You can find a number of sports-oriented groups on sites like Meetup.com where you can join a tournament or league for free or by paying a nominal member fee. If you prefer solo activities, head to the local skate park or go paddle boarding at a lakeside park for some outdoor fun.

    8. Try geocaching. Enjoy a good scavenger hunt? Geocaching is the perfect excuse to get outdoors and will give you a chance to discover new places in your own backyard. All you need is a GPS device -- and some patience -- as you start exploring the area or the nearest geocache. Just log on to geocaching.com to join the "world's largest treasure hunt." Geocaches may be hidden in local parks, near the beach, around natural attractions and in other public places accessible by car or on foot.

     

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    Couple counting money
    Getty Images
    By Natasha Burton

    For most of us, early retirement means moving to Boca Raton at 60 instead of 65 -- and that's only if you've been diligent about growing your nest egg.

    But there are people out there who are determined to retire decades before that, and who will do whatever it takes to quit their day jobs before the gray hairs set in.

    How, you ask?

    By pinching as many pennies as possible now so they can live the good life later.

    Curious to see just what it takes to reach such a lofty goal, we asked three couples to share the seriously frugal moves they're making to get to retirement -- fast.

    For some, the end game is traveling the world on their extreme retirement savings. For others, it's leaving the rat race with the help of passive income.

    Whatever their definition of success, the one thing they have in common is a willingness to give up some creature comforts in the here and now in order to retire on their own terms.

    'We Want to Retire by 40'

    Who: Gretchen Lindow, 24, Pinterest marketing consultant and blogger, and Matt Lindow, 25, National Guardsman and heavy equipment operator, St. Louis.

    Our Early Retirement 'Aha!' Moment: "It wasn't until I found out I was pregnant with our daughter in 2013 that I realized just how terribly we were managing our finances. We barely had enough money for our bills -- much less a baby.

    So I started binge-reading personal finance blogs and decided that, if we were going to work so hard when we were young, it should be for a big goal -- like retiring by 40!

    I started Retiredby40Blog as a way to keep myself accountable with my finances.

    Our Frugal Moves: Aside from doing a lot of discount shopping, there are other creative ways we've discovered to help cut our expenses.

    For one, I never pay for oil changes. In fact, I get paid to get them because I'm enrolled in a secret shopper program!

    We also have a super-cheap cellphone plan ($23 a month can't be beat!) because we use a company that lets you make calls over Wi-Fi and cellular service. I estimate this saves us more than $2,000 a year.

    "Our expenses were $4,500 each month before we set our early retirement goal. But by living frugally, we've cut that amount to $2,700."

    I don't do a whole lot of DIY, but there are a few things I make on my own to save money -- like laundry detergent. That saves us more than $100 a year, although I do spend $8 on scent crystals because Matt likes his clothes to 'smell clean.'

    We also decided early on to limit the number of toys we buy for our daughter. It helps save money, and teaches her minimalism. We want her to value experiences and relationships, rather than things, so we leave only three toys out at a time. She's actually happier with fewer toys -- she plays longer and uses her imagination more!

    The Impact on Our Nest Egg: Our expenses were $4,500 each month before we set our early retirement goal. But by living frugally, we've cut that amount to $2,700 -- and any leftover money goes toward paying down debt and retirement savings.

    Our nest egg is about $125,000, but over the next year or so, we expect to pay off a big chunk of some student and auto loans -- which means our savings will skyrocket to between $2,000 and $3,000 per month.

    And we won't need millions to retire.

    Frugality gives us a better perspective on life. It may seem like a big sacrifice on a day-to-day basis, but we're much happier -- and healthier -- when we're not stressing over money."

    'We Want to Retire in Our 30s and Live Off Rental Income'

    Who: John and Melissa Steele, both 26, real estate sales associates, San Diego

    Our Early Retirement 'Aha!' Moment: "The lightbulb moment for Melissa and me came when we were both working at a large bank in Buffalo, New York, right after college.

    Many of our co-workers were older and had been working there for many years. Seeing how unhappy they were made us realize we didn't want to be 55 and stuck in a job we hated just because we were close to retirement.

    We realized it was important to take control of our lives now -- and that included working for ourselves. So two and a half years ago, we moved to San Diego and started our own real estate company, Steele San Diego Homes.

    Our goal is to be financially free enough to explore other interests and travel the world -- hopefully by our 30s. So it's retirement in the sense that we're free of the rat race and able to live off passive income from real estate investments.

    Our Frugal Moves: We have no debt, and share the one car we own. Our largest monthly expense is food at around $2,000. Melissa has some health issues, so we buy healthier food that costs substantially more.

    But, as a result, we cook and prepare almost every meal ourselves, and rarely eat out. I bring lunch to work every day. And neither one of us drinks coffee or has any other daily spending habits.
    "We do a lot of selling on Craigslist and eBay to make back some money. Anything we no longer use, we put up for sale. And I do mean anything."

    A lot of how we save is by ensuring we're getting the best value for our dollar. We canceled cable three years ago, opting for Netflix. When choosing an apartment, we factored in amenities like a parking spot, commuting costs and a gym -- ultimately choosing the place that would save us the most in cost of living over time.

    And when Melissa wanted to buy a Vitamix, she spent six months debating whether the purchase would be worth it. Now it's an appliance she uses almost every day.

    We also do a lot of selling on Craigslist and eBay to make back some money. Anything we no longer use, we put up for sale. And I do mean anything.

    When we moved to San Diego, we sold everything: our house, our car, even our sheets. The only thing we threw away was a broom! And we do a purge of our apartment every few months, when Melissa sells or donates anything we no longer need.

    The Impact on Our Nest Egg: Our two biggest expenditures are groceries and rent, which run about $3,500 a month. Our cost of living was much cheaper in Buffalo, but even so, we've managed to keep our monthly spending the same -- between $4,000 and $5,000 per month total -- by remaining frugal.

    We just paid for our wedding out of pocket, so right now we have only about $20,000 in regular savings and another $10,000 each in our old 401(k)s. But since we're relying on rental income to get us to retirement, we're most focused on our net worth, which is currently over $350,000.

    That includes rental properties we own in Tennessee, through which we earn more than $1,200 a month without doing a thing. Because we live frugally, we don't touch that rental income -- funneling it back into paying down the mortgages quicker."

    'We Wanted to Retire and Travel the World in Our 30s -- and Did It!'

    Who: Jeremy Jacobson, 40, and Winnie Tseng, 36, retired, formerly of Seattle

    Our Early Retirement 'Aha!' Moment: "In 2002, I took my first real vacation, to the Philippines. After three weeks of scuba diving and eating great seafood, my goals were completely transformed -- I wanted to do this every day for the rest of my life!

    Over the next few years, I sold my house, car and motorcycle so I could ramp up my savings. A few years later, I met my future wife, Winnie, who is also a great saver and travel lover.

    We moved in together in late 2005, and by keeping our expenses low, we were able to save over 70 percent of our income from my job as an electrical engineer and hers as a project manager.

    Thanks to our thriftiness, we retired three years ago, and now blog about our travels at GoCurryCracker.

    Our Frugal Moves: Most people spend their money on housing, food and transportation, so we knew reductions in these areas would go a long way.

    In Seattle, we chose to rent a small apartment in a very walkable neighborhood, which eliminated the need for a car.

    "By saving so much we watched our portfolio grow to more than $1 million -- enough for us to retire at 38 and 33."

    Winnie is a great cook, so we always ate and entertained at home. If we asked friends, 'Do you want to go out for brunch and spend $50 on eggs, or would you rather come over for a home-cooked meal?' there was really no debate.

    We also saved on food by raising vegetables in a small garden plot, and making our own kimchi, kombucha and bread at home for pennies.

    Most of our clothes were from thrift stores -- before hipsters made it cool -- and Winnie made any jewelry we wore by hand. When I traveled for work, I brought home hotel soap and shampoo, so we almost never had to buy those things. And when we vacationed, we'd use rewards to get free flights and hotel stays.

    We never viewed being frugal as a sacrifice -- but as a way to spend efficiently while building a nest egg. Saving to travel forever, over buying more stuff, was an easy sell.

    The Impact on Our Nest Egg: Before 2002, my expenses were $5,000 a month living on my own. Together, Winnie and I spent less than $2,000 per month during our peak savings years.

    By saving so much, we watched our portfolio grow to more than $1 million -- which we calculated was enough for us to retire at 38 and 33.

    We are currently in Taiwan, where Winnie is originally from. We just had our first baby three months ago. Incidentally, we chose to undergo in vitro fertilization here because the cost would have been five times more in Seattle. Health care abroad is often a fraction of what it is in the U.S.

    When our son is 6 months old, we plan to hit the road again.

    Over the years, we could have bought most of the symbols of success: a big house, a couple of fancy cars, a nice watch. But for what purpose?

    Instead, we travel to beautiful places, rent luxurious housing -- and never have to mow a lawn or get the oil changed. This is the life."

     

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    Welcome to Mississippi sign at the state border
    Alamy
    By Karla Bowsher

    Mississippi residents are about 15 percent richer than their incomes suggest, at least for the purposes of day-to-day living expenses.

    That's one way to look at a state-by-state analysis released last week by the nonprofit Tax Foundation. The results map out how much $100 buys in each state and the District of Columbia.

    The same goods are often cheaper in some states and more expensive in others. Mississippi is where $100 buys you the most stuff. Washington, D.C., is where $100 gives you the least bang for your buck.

    The states where $100 is worth the most are:
    • Mississippi ($115.21)
    • Arkansas ($114.29)
    • South Dakota ($114.16)
    • Alabama ($114.03)
    • West Virginia ($113.12)
    That same $100 is worth the least in:
    • District of Columbia ($84.96)
    • Hawaii ($86.06)
    • New York ($86.73)
    • New Jersey ($87.34)
    • California ($89.05)
    These findings are based on the latest price data (which is for 2013) published by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, a federal agency that tracks purchasing power.

    The foundation offers a summary of the results:

    Regional price differences are strikingly large; real purchasing power is 36 percent greater in Mississippi than it is in the District of Columbia. In other words: By this measure, if you have $50,000 in after-tax income in Mississippi, you would have to have after-tax earnings of $68,000 in the District of Columbia just to afford the same overall standard of living.

    Income also impacts the results, because states with higher income generally have higher prices, the foundation notes. However, those higher incomes effectively make up for those states' lower purchasing power.

    The Tax Foundation doesn't specify whether state or local sales taxes were taken into consideration in its rankings. (According to the foundation's 2015 data, combined state and average local sales taxes range from a high of 9.45 percent in Tennessee down to zero in about a half-dozen states that don't tax sales.)

    To view the Tax Foundation's map of the real value of $100, click here. To view its map of sales taxes, click here.

    Are you surprised by how your state fared? Share your thoughts in a comment below or on our Facebook page.

    Like this article? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you a regular digest of our newest stories, full of money saving tips and advice, free!


    Dumb, But Common, Money Moves

     

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    Amazon Prime
    MarkGregory007/Flickr
    By Elyssa Kirkham

    Amazon.com (AMZN) is turning 20 years old, and to celebrate the online retailer is offering a huge sale, which it's calling Prime Day. The July 15 sales event will feature giveaways and discounts steep enough to rival those of Black Friday.

    With the right information, shoppers interested in taking advantage of Amazon Prime Day 2015 deals can get their money-saving strategies in place.

    What You Need to Know to Shop Amazon Prime Day 2015 Deals

    Prime Day Deals will start rolling in Wednesday at 12 a.m. Pacific time, and new deals will begin as often as every 10 minutes. The Prime Day deals will include seven "Deals of the Day" as well as thousands of "Lightning Deals," and purchases will come with unlimited free and fast shipping.

    The catch: Shoppers must have an Amazon Prime membership to take advantage of these deals. For $99 a year, Prime members usually get access to unlimited free two-day shipping, as well as access to free movies and TV shows to stream on Prime Instant Video, among other benefits.

    But if you don't have a membership, you can still sign up for a 30-day free trial of the service to buy Prime Day deals.

    Best Prime Day Deals

    Prime Day deals will be offered across different categories, including "electronics, toys, movies, clothing, patio, lawn and garden, sports and outdoor items and more," said Amazon. The company also said shoppers will find deals on items to meet every need, from back-to-school shopping to family road trips. Marking down everyday items makes sense, as this is the category of items Prime members shop for the most.

    But Prime Day will also offer opportunities to make bigger one-time purchases. If it's going to live up to the promise of comparing the event to Black Friday, then Amazon will probably provide discounts that will mimic the savings offered on the day after Thanksgiving. Big-ticket electronics like TVs, laptops, tablets, Apple-brand items and video game consoles are some of the items marked down the most on Black Friday. Shoppers should watch out for similar deals on these types of electronics on Prime Day.

    GOBankingRates confirmed these Prime Day deals to watch for:

    Prime Day Giveaways

    Amazon is also offering a few giveaways on Prime Day to entice members to try out different features, primarily its Prime Photo and Prime Music services.

    The #PrimeLiving Photo Contest invites members to share a photo showing "how Prime helps enable some of their happy moments" through July 15. A winner in each Prime-eligible country -- U.S., U.K., Spain, Japan, Italy, Germany, France, Canada and Austria -- will be selected to receive $10,000 in Amazon gift cards and have the option to set the winning photo as a screen saver on Amazon Fire TVs.

    Amazon's other giveaway is being offered through Prime Music. Subscribers can play any song, playlist, album or station on July 15 to enter to win up to $25,000 in Amazon gift cards.

    Amazon Aims to Broaden Customer Base With Prime Day

    Of course, Amazon's Prime Day fits nicely into its revenue plans. Offering a mega-sale will entice new and casual customers to try Amazon Prime, even if it's just as a trial to access Prime Day deals. If a small portion of those trial members convert to paying Amazon Prime customers, this will be a win for Amazon -- and not just because of the $99-a-year revenue.

    In addition to the annual cost, Prime customers are central to Amazon's business. They shop far more often on the site and spend more than other customers. On average, Prime members spend about $1,500 a year while non-members spend about $625, according to a survey from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.

    And if Amazon can grow its Prime membership it can get ahead of up-and-coming competitors. Online auction site eBay (EBAY) is also testing an all-you-can-ship option, and Walmart (WMT) announced in June it was offering a $50-a-year free shipping program called Shipping Pass to rival Prime. (On Monday, Walmart lowered its free-shipping threshold to $35 and plans to offer thousands of its own discounts on Wednesday.)

    There's also a soon-to-be-launched service called Jet.com that functions as an online shopping club. It charges a flat $50-a-year fee for access to discounted prices, which The Motley Fool reports are 5 to 6 percent lower than anywhere online.

    By getting shoppers to commit to Prime, Amazon will ensure that it continues to be the go-to online retailer for shoppers' everyday needs.

    This story originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com.

     

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    Retail Sales
    Danny Johnston/AP
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. retail sales unexpectedly fell in June as households cut back on purchases of automobiles and a range of other goods, which could raise concerns the economy was slowing again.

    Tuesday's weak retail sales report, together with signs of some softening of the labor market, could dampen expectations for an interest rate hike from the Federal Reserve this year, which most economists expect could come in September.

    The underlying tone of this report suggests that the recovery is beginning to show some signs of strain.

    "The underlying tone of this report suggests that the recovery is beginning to show some signs of strain. If anything it will temper, at the margin, any consideration for a September rate hike," said Millan Mulraine, deputy chief economist at TD Securities in New York.

    The Commerce Department said retail sales slipped 0.3 percent, the weakest reading since February, after May's downwardly revised 1 percent increase.

    Retail sales excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services slipped 0.1 percent following a 0.7 percent gain in May. These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product.

    Economists had forecast retail sales rising 0.2 percent last month after a previously reported 1.2 percent jump in May. Core retail sales had been expected to increase 0.4 percent.

    The dollar fell against the yen and the euro after the data, while prices for U.S. Treasury debt rose. U.S. stocks were trading slightly higher on better earnings from JPMorgan Chase (JPM).

    Coming on the heels of June's disappointing employment report and sharp drop in small business confidence, the weak retail sales data suggests the economy might have lost some momentum at the end of the second quarter, having struggled at the start of the year.

    The economy contracted at a 0.2 percent annual rate in the first quarter and the drop in core retail sales could see economists trim their GDP growth estimates for the April-June quarter. The second-quarter growth outlook was also dimmed by another report from the Commerce Department showing retail inventories excluding automobiles rose only 0.1 percent in May.

    This component, which goes into the calculation of GDP, increased 0.5 percent in April.

    "Consumers are struggling this year, probably because income has been affected by weakness in the oil industry. The odds of tightening in September just diminished a bit," said Chris Low, chief economist at FTN Financial in New York.

    Looming Rate Hike

    Fed Chair Janet Yellen said last Friday she expected the U.S. central bank to tighten monetary policy "at some point later this year." Yellen could offer more clues on the timing of the first interest rate increase since 2006 when she testifies before lawmakers Wednesday and Thursday.

    Retail sales last month were broadly weak, with receipts at auto dealerships falling 1.1 percent after rising 1.8 percent in May. Clothing stores sales dropped 1.5 percent, the largest decline since September 2014.

    Receipts at building material and garden equipment stores fell 1.3 percent and sales at furniture stores declined 1.6 percent, the biggest drop since January last year.

    There were also declines in sales at online stores and at restaurants and bars. Rising gasoline prices supported sales at service stations, where receipts rose 0.8 percent.

    Sales at electronics and appliance stores rose 1 percent, the biggest rise since September.

    A separate report from the Labor Department showed the lingering effects of a strong dollar continuing to suppress imported inflation pressures. Import prices fell 0.1 percent in June after increasing 1.2 percent in May.

    Import prices have now declined in 11 of the last 12 months.

     

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    Airbag sign on the steering wheel of the vehicle, close-up
    Alamy
    By TOM KRISHER

    DETROIT -- The problem of exploding air bags could be widening beyond Japanese manufacturer Takata Corp.

    U.S. safety regulators are investigating inflators made by ARC Automotive that went into about 420,000 older Chrysler Town & Country minivans and another 70,000 Kia Optima midsize sedans.

    The probe, revealed in documents posted Tuesday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, comes just weeks after Takata agreed to recall 33.8 million inflators in the U.S. in the largest automotive recall in American history. At least eight people have been killed worldwide by flying shrapnel from Takata inflators, and more than 100 injured.

    At the present time it is unknown if there is a common root cause in these incidents.

    The safety agency said it received a complaint in December about a 2009 incident in a 2002 Chrysler minivan but determined it was an isolated case involving an ARC driver's side inflator. Then in June, Kia told the agency about a lawsuit involving a 2004 Optima with an ARC driver's side inflator, so the agency decided to open an investigation. Both cases are the only known incidents involving ARC inflators in vehicles made by either automaker.

    "At the present time it is unknown if there is a common root cause in these incidents," NHTSA investigators wrote in the documents. "[The agency] is opening this investigation in order to collect all known facts from the involved suppliers and vehicle manufacturers."

    The agency said two people were hurt in the incidents but no one was killed.

    Knoxville, Tennessee-based ARC said in a statement that it is cooperating in the probe and pointed to a 60-year record of "serving our customers with products that meet the most stringent global safety standards."

    Fiat Chrysler (FCAU) said it no longer uses the inflators that are being investigated. Both it and Kia said they are cooperating.

    NHTSA said in documents that ARC makes inflators that are used by other companies in their air bag systems. The inflators use an inert gas to fill the air bag which is supplemented by an ammonium nitrate-based propellant. A preliminary analysis of the Chrysler minivan system showed that the path for the inflator gas to exit the inflator may have been blocked by an unknown object, the document said.

    In the Takata cases, ammonium nitrate is the main propellant, and it can become unstable over time when exposed to high humidity and temperatures. The chemical can burn too fast and blow apart a metal inflator canister. Automakers, NHTSA and Takata are trying to find exactly what causes the malfunctions.

    Documents show that the Chrysler minivan incident happened on Jan. 29, 2009, in Ohio. A man complained to NHTSA that his wife was injured by flying shrapnel when the minivan collided with a snowmobile while she was turning into their driveway and the air bag deployed. "Most of the shrapnel went into her chest, with the air bag plate breaking apart, striking her in the chin, breaking her jaw in three places," wrote the man, who was not identified. "If it hadn't been for a great ambulance crew, she would have bled to death."

    According to NHTSA, ARC made inflators for Delphi Corp. air bags that were sold to Kia and used in Optimas, and it made inflators for Key Safety Systems air bags sold to Chrysler and used in minivans.

    Delphi said in a statement that it will respond to any NHTSA inquiries. ARC inflators were used in some of its air bag assemblies before the company sold its air bag business in 2010, the statement said. Key said it would support the investigation.

     

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    Save Money on Your Summer Camping Trip
    Camping is a great way to take a summer vacation without spending a ton of money, and if you plan your trip carefully, you can stretch your dollar even further. Here are a few simple ways to save on your summer camping trip.

    First, before you go out and buy new gear, take a look around your house. You'll find that you already have a bunch of items that are perfect for camping. For instance, the yoga mat that's rolled up in your garage will work perfectly as a sleeping pad, and rather than spending up to $200 on a new sleeping bag, grab some old comforters from your closet. Also, you likely have older pots and pans lying around the house. Instead of shelling out for a brand new set of camping cookware, put them to use.

    Next, while you're packing up the cooler, always use block ice instead of buying bags of ice cubes.
    Just fill up some plastic jugs with water, freeze them, and you'll be good to go. Not only will they last much longer than a bag of ice, but when they thaw, you'll have cool drinking water.

    Another great way to save on your camping trip is by using solar lanterns. Charge them in the sun during the day so they'll run all night. You can pick one up for around $30, and you won't have to buy a box of batteries just to keep the lights on.

    Finally, always bring a small tarp to protect your woodpile from a surprise rain shower. All it takes is a passing storm to ruin your entire wood supply, forcing you to run out and buy more. Keep it covered to save yourself money, time and a lot of frustration.

    If you're going camping this summer, remember these tips to get the most out of your trip. You'll see that by using a few small strategies, you'll stretch your camping budget in a big way.

    View Poll

     

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    Walmart
    JeepersMedia/Flickr
    By Collin Binkley

    BOSTON -- A Massachusetts woman filed a class-action lawsuit Tuesday accusing Walmart of wrongly denying employee benefits for same-sex spouses.

    Jacqueline Cote says Walmart repeatedly denied medical insurance for her wife before 2014, when the retail giant started offering benefits for same-sex spouses.

    After Cote's wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012, the couple incurred $150,000 in medical costs.

    The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Boston seeks damages for the couple and any other Walmart employees who weren't offered insurance for their same-sex spouses. A federal commission concluded that Walmart's denial amounted to discrimination and said in May that Cote could sue.

    Walmart didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

    Walmart (WMT), based in Bentonville, Arkansas, agreed in 2014 to start offering medical insurance for same-sex spouses. But the lawsuit brought by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders and the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs claims that hundreds or thousands of the company's employees had already been wrongly denied benefits for their same-sex spouses.

    No other employees are named in the suit, but it seeks damage for those who come forward. It also seeks damages for Cote and her wife, Diana Smithson, and it asks Walmart to acknowledge a legal responsibility to continue offering benefits for same-sex spouses.

    Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, a nonprofit group that helped file the lawsuit, said Cote's case is the first class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of gay workers since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in June.

    Cote, of New Bedford, previously took her case to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which decided in January that Walmart's denial amounted to discrimination and gave her the go-ahead in May to bring the lawsuit.

    Cote and Smithson met while working at a Walmart store in Augusta, Maine, in 1992. They moved to Massachusetts, where they continued to work for Walmart and where they married in May 2004, just days after the state legalized same-sex marriage.

    Smithson quit in 2007 to take care of Cote's elderly mother. That prompted Cote to try to add Smithson to her health plan the following year.

    Cote said she tried to enroll online, but the system wouldn't let her proceed when she indicated her spouse was a woman. When she sought an official explanation, she was told that same-sex spouses were not covered.

    Each year thereafter, she tried and failed to enroll Smithson -- including in 2012, when Smithson got her cancer diagnosis.

     

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    Greece Bailout
    APOne of the stars of a European Union flag is seen in front of the ancient Parthenon temple at the Acropolis in Athens, Greece.
    By Lou Carlozo

    If the Greek government were a football team, then it just threw a Hail Mary pass to pull out a squeaker, reaching a third bailout deal with eurozone leaders to rescue the country from an all-out economic disaster. But as they say on the gridiron, time out -- as in big time out. If Greece and the European economy at large face uncertainty as they move forward, the last-minute deal poses an equally large quandary for investors, who have little if any precedent for interpreting a situation this dire.

    Nor is the deal set in stone, at least yet. The Greek government now must convince lawmakers in Athens to approve tax increases and other unpopular measures by Wednesday or the deal could fall apart.

    By no means are the problems in Europe over, so investors have to be very cautious in how they invest.

    "By no means are the problems in Europe over, so investors have to be very cautious in how they invest," says Jeffrey Sica, president, CEO and chief investment officer of Circle Squared Alternative Investments in Morristown, New Jersey. "They shouldn't have an overwhelming amount of confidence just because there seems to be a solution to the Greek crisis -- in reality, there is no quick fix."

    That said, savvy investors might find opportunities even as they avoid some offerings, and consider trimming shares in others. Which ways should you go? As the precarious situation calms down, at least for now, experts offer six investor tips:

    Exercise caution with European stocks and exchange-traded funds. By saving Greece, Europe connects its fate to a nation on rickety legs, even as the eurozone tries to climb out of its own deep recession. "Even multinationals that do business in Europe are going to be vulnerable," Sica says. And despite European stocks gaining more than 4 percent in 2014, "they are very vulnerable because the economic fundamentals for recovery have not materialized."

    World bond and U.S. equity funds are safe. World bond funds invest 40 percent or more of their assets in foreign bonds. "But the exposure to Greece is 0.3 percent, which is next to nothing," says Ned Gandevani, a faculty member and program director at the New England College of Business in Boston. "And with U.S. equity funds, we're talking about maybe a 2 percent stake. When you look at it from this perspective, the default has close to zero effect on U.S. investors."

    Look to U.S. stocks and bonds. Investors across the world -- especially in the eurozone -- will see safety in American markets. "In the trading world, we used to call moves like this a 'flight to quality' as investors spooked by conditions in more exotic markets returned to the good ol' U.S.A. to ride out potential squalls," says Michael Driscoll, visiting professor and senior executive-in-residence at Adelphi University's Robert B. Willumstad School of Business in Garden City, New York. Thus Greece's deep problems "may ultimately be seen as net positives for the more mundane U.S. stock and bond markets."

    Expect a stronger U.S. dollar. Gandevani notes that the psychological and political impact of the Greece bailout could see investors flocking to the dollar. "As the pressure is mounting on Greece to give up their sovereignty to eurozone leaders, they have to put aside $50 billion worth of assets just in case there is catastrophe beyond government reach -- and the dollar gets stronger as a safe haven currency."

    Watch out for Greece redux. Greece isn't the only European nation in serious trouble in terms of debt as a percentage of GDP. While it's at 160 percent, Italy is not far behind at 141 percent, according to the National Debt Clock. "In terms of the future, this may lean heavily toward Italy taking the same kind of route," Gandevani says.

    Absolutely stay away from Greek stocks. The conventional wisdom to buy low and find bargains simply doesn't apply here, so forget it. "I can't see anyone going in there until the smoke clears," Sica says. "Greece will be a bargain again when they get this worked out for the long haul, but the EU is looking to extract as much revenue out of Greece as they can get, and how can they grow under that scenario?"

    But just in case you're looking for slick Greek stocks at a premium, the parting shot might as well be this: If you see prices plummet, stock up on Greek olive oil.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Mark Lennihan/AP
    By Chuck Mikolajczak

    NEW YORK -- Wall Street gained for a fourth straight session Tuesday, its longest winning streak since January, buoyed by the energy sector as oil prices rebounded from early declines.

    Oil prices were initially lower on concerns a deal between Iran and six global powers would result in more supply, but turned higher after it became apparent sanctions on Tehran's crude exports would not be removed immediately.

    The big news is clearly in the oil markets and the fact there was an agreement reached.

    "The big news is clearly in the oil markets and the fact there was an agreement reached," said David Lefkowitz, senior equity strategist at UBS Wealth Management Americas in New York.

    "There is still, frankly, a lot of uncertainty about exactly what it will do in terms of oil supply."

    The S&P energy sector advanced 0.8 percent, led by a 0.8 percent gain in Exxon Mobil (XOM) to $83.11. Brent settled up 1.1 percent to $58.51 and U.S. crude settled up 84 cents to $53.04 a barrel.

    Gains were broad, with nine of the 10 major S&P 500 sectors ending higher, led by a 1 percent gain in the health care index. The Nasdaq biotech index jumped more than 2 percent to hit a record high for the second time in three weeks.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 75.9 points, or 0.4 percent, to 18,053.58, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) gained 9.35 points, or 0.4 percent, to 2,108.95 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) added 33.38 points, or 0.7 percent, to 5,104.89.

    Earnings Season

    Investors have shifted focus to corporate profits as the pace of quarterly results begins to pick up speed, diverting attention from the debt crisis in Greece and the massive sell-off in Chinese stocks.

    U.S. companies are expected to report their worst sales decline in nearly six years when they post second-quarter results, while earnings are expected to have fallen 2.8 percent, according to Thomson Reuters estimates.

    JPMorgan and Wells Fargo helped lift financials by 0.4 percent after posting quarterly results. JPMorgan (JPM) rose 1.4 percent to $69.04 and Wells Fargo (WFC) climbed 0.9 percent to $57.25.

    Twitter (TWTR) jumped as much as 8.5 percent after a false report, attributed to Bloomberg, that the social media company received an offer to be acquired for $31 billion. Bloomberg and Twitter said the report was fake and the stock ended the session up 0.9 percent at $36.72.

    Micron Technology (MU) jumped as much as 12.7 percent to $19.84 and was the biggest gainer on the S&P 500. China's state-backed Tsinghua Unigroup is preparing a $23 billion bid for the U.S. memory chipmaker, Reuters reported, in what would be the biggest Chinese takeover of a U.S. company.

    NYSE advancing issues outnumbered declining ones 1,934 to 1,089; on the Nasdaq, 1,769 issues rose and 1,032 fell.

    The S&P 500 posted 44 new 52-week highs and 2 new lows while the Nasdaq recorded 137 new highs and 34 new lows.

    Volume was light, with about 5.5 billion shares traded on U.S. exchanges, well below the 6.8 billion average so far this month, according to data from BATS Global Markets.

    What to watch Wednesday:
    • At 8:30 a.m. Eastern time, the Labor Department releases the Producer Price Index for June, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York releases its survey of manufacturing conditions in New York state.
    • The Federal Reserve reports industrial production for June at 9:15 a.m., and releases its survey of regional economic conditions at 2 p.m.
    Earnings Calendar
    These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly finical results:
    • Bank of America (BAC)
    • BlackRock (BK)
    • Delta Air Lines (DAL)
    • Intel (INTC)
    • Netflix (NFLX)
    • PNC Financial Services Group (PNC)
    • U.S. Bancorp (USB)

     

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    Mature couple with young financial consultant - they are planning their retirement
    Alamy
    By Jason Notte

    NEW YORK -- Good luck to your loved ones when you die, because you're going about your estate planning all wrong.

    According to a recent study from the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College, an estimated $59 trillion will be transferred from 93.6 million American estates between 2007 and 2061. However, there is far less clarity about where those assets are going since those currently holding them can't be bothered to update their estate planning documents or inform potential beneficiaries about their plans.

    Little more than half (56 percent) of American parents have a will or living trust document, according to a Caring.com survey of adult children. Nearly one-third of parents (27 percent) don't have estate documents in place and 16 percent of adult children are unsure if their parents do. Of those that do have a will, only 40 percent have updated it in the last five years. Almost a quarter of adult children don't know if their parents' will has ever been updated.

    Wills and estate documents can be a touchy subject, but they are necessary conversations to have.

    Even when parents do have estate documents in place, adult children are mostly uninformed about where the documents can be found and what is written in them. Over half (52 percent) of adult children don't know where their parents store their estate documents, while 58 percent percent don't know the contents of the documents.

    "Wills and estate documents can be a touchy subject, but they are necessary conversations to have," said Andy Cohen, CEO of Caring.com. "Too often the surviving family members are left not knowing where to find the documents, or worse, have to go through a lengthy and expensive legal process because no documents were ever created."

    Even when a will or a trust is in place, it isn't a given that the assets in it will be distributed smoothly. Attorneys and financial advisers say that wills and trusts are legal minefields that can keep families in courtrooms and at each other's throats for years if they aren't administered properly. We spoke to a team of financial and legal experts about estate planning and discovered that the following five estate planning mistakes are among the most common. If you want to maintain your legacy, but don't want to implode your family in the process, avoid these grave errors:

    1. Not accounting for sibling rivalry. According to Nicholas Wooldridge, a Las Vegas attorney, nine out of ten times, the people fighting over the estate end up in worse financial shape, because they've given their attorneys a chunk of their inheritance. If the deceased's children didn't get along while their parent was alive, there is no reason to believe that parent's death will help patch things up.

    "When a parent dies, lingering tension between the kids can rise to the surface," Wooldridge says. "As a result, the estate's settlement becomes a battleground for settling old scores."

    Mela Garber, principal at Anchin, Block & Anchin and head of the firm's trust and estates services group, notes that she's seen numerous examples of sibling beneficiaries taking each other to court when the will or trust distribution is unequal, usually because one of the children was closer to the deceased parent than the other.

    "After the parent dies, I see litigation between the siblings saying one pressured the parents to give them more money," Garber says. "Kids equate money with love, and when the asset distribution is unequal, they feel less loved. That hurts, and that can trigger litigation."

    The easiest way to remedy that situation is to discuss estate plans with your children before you die, but that isn't always desired. Garber notes that most of her clients, out of practicality, avoid that conversation and say, "I'll be gone, it's not my problem." However even a little explanation goes a long way.

    "The ideal situation would be if the creator of the document, whether it be a trust or a will, could have a conversations with the family members to explain what their wishes an desires are," says Tom Six, a wealth management strategist for RBC Wealth Management. "Sometimes, it makes sense to have distributions among the beneficiaries that are equal, and other times, you want to have the ability to give more to one beneficiary than another if one has financial resources."

    But not every situation is so ideal. In cases where the family dynamic is too dysfunctional to accommodate a family meeting, Garber suggests a letter from the parent explaining any imbalance in distributions. She also recommends creating a list of personal items and indicating specifically who will get jewelry, art or anything else of even sentimental value. If that doesn't work, a will or trust should have contingencies for selling those items and dividing the profits or -- in a plan Garber has implemented before, holding an auction between the competing parties in which the winner gets the item and the loser gets the money bid. However, that somewhat undermines the integrity of the estate plan.

    "I tend not to favor situations where, when parties disagree, there's an auction or assets are divided by a certain percentage," Six says. "I think it's the right of the person who created this legacy to dispose of it the way he or she pleases, and family dynamics shouldn't affect that."

    2. Unexpected surprises. "One of the big issues I've seen and that is subject to litigation is the way that the estate tax apportionment is either written in the will or omitted," Garber says. "The will would say, for example, 'I give my house to my daughter, I give this brokerage asset to this person,' and the estate taxes on these items are paid out of revenue. I've seen [situations] where the revenues, the leftovers in the estate, are not enough to cover the estate taxes on the items distributed."

    This is typically an issue for high-income families, but it's a problem that can also crop up if the deceased owned property whose value has increased significantly during his lifespan (such as a brownstone in a suddenly popular neighborhood or farmland in a fast-growing county). If unresolved, the estate may be forced to sell bequeathed assets to cover estate tax. It also doesn't help is the deceased leaves a large gift to someone before he or she dies and either doesn't pay the gift tax or lets it eat away at his lifetime gift allowance.

    "From personal experience, I've seen a person who was not a spouse receive a gift from the decedent -- it was his girlfriend," Garber says. "Of course, the spouse did not know about it, the girlfriend received the gift and the estate ended up paying gift taxes on that gift, so the wife ended up paying the tax on the gift the girlfriend received."

    That's unpleasant, but life is filled with those kind of unpleasantries. It's one thing to find out the deceased has someone on the side, it's quite another to discover that he's had an entire family with that person.

    "If somebody has kids, the family doesn't know about out of wedlock, I would highly recommend that provisions be made in the will for that child," Garber says. "It is very hard emotionally to find out that there is another child in the family and, financially, some wills may not name a child but the child has rights and may sue the estate. If possible, clean it up, and address it before the will is done."

    The answer here is to cut off surprises immediately. Ideally, you'd have a discussion with family members before you die, but realistically this is something you'd likely have to spell out specifically in a letter and certainly in the will or trust. Oh, and make sure your adviser, attorney or trustee has knowledge of it.

    "List everyone who is part of your family, list your friends so there is no gray area as to what your intent is so there's a clear understanding of why and non-family member is getting this expression of your appreciation," Six says. "If the family dynamic is such that it is not conducive to a discussion ahead of time, then it is dependent upon the client and advisers to make sure the document delineates as much as possible why assets are distributed as they are."

    3. Letting your plan lapse. Are you forgetting certain details, like that divorce and remarriage or that son you disinherited? They seem hard to miss, but they're easy to overlook when you don't update your will for half decades at a time.

    When those big changes in family life occur, not accounting for them in your estate planning leaves your legacy up for grabs. If you thought a divorce, a remarriage or blending of families was tough during life, the scrum that can follow after your death if you don't address your specific wishes can be infinitely worse. You're going to want to shift everything into a trust in this situation just to shield everyone from potential legal repercussions and to make sure your assets go where you want them to.

    "Children, or other successors, left outside the wall of inheritance don't have anything to lose by challenging their exclusion," Wooldridge says. "The situation just gets worse in blended families."

    4. Co-trustees. Please don't do this. Maybe you want your spouse or child to be part of the process. However, if they don't have the time, patience and acumen to handle the responsibility and liability that come with trusteeship, there's no need to name co-trustees and add further stress to an already trying time in people's lives.

    The two-headed approach may work in some situations, but there's a reason why most teams only have one head coach or manager. These folks are employed to make swift and decisive decisions. It's tough for a trustee to do so when he is squabbling with a counterpart.

    "Even if two people get along on 99.9 percent of matters, that one-tenth of 1 percent will lead to a problem," Wooldridge says.

    5. Undue influence. Yes, a personal caregiver can look out for your loved one in their waning days and take some of the responsibility off the family, but some caregivers can also work their way into estate plans though less-than-honest means.

    The end of a person's life is an incredibly fragile time for everyone involved, but Wooldridge notes that shifting end-of-life care to one person opens the door to elder abuse for personal gain. The solution to this problem, in Wooldridge's view, is simple: If you care about your parents' assets, care about your parent.

    "Undue influence is usually a by-product of apathetic children," Wooldridge says. "Children with good parental relationships seldom fall into this trap."

    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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    401k
    Getty ImagesTo make your 401(k) work for you, study up on rules regarding rollovers, withdrawals and Roth options.
    By Dana Anspach

    Do you have a 401(k) plan? If so, read on. Here are seven things I wish people knew about their 401(k) plans:

    1. You can roll it over when you leave. When you leave your employer, you can transfer your 401(k) plan to an individual retirement account, and it is not a taxable event. This type of transfer is called a rollover. Many 401(k) participants think any type of distribution from their 401(k) plan is taxable and subject to penalties. That isn't true.

    All plans allow rollovers to an established IRA account. Usually, the check is made payable to the new financial institution as the custodian, with an "for benefit of," or FBO, to you. If you have a few 401(k) plans from former employers, I advise consolidating them into one IRA account. That will make it far easier to handle address and beneficiary changes, manage investments and track distributions once you are retired.

    2. Automated portfolios work. Most 401(k) plans today offer either a fund choice or an online interactive tool that will make the investment decisions for you. These types of automated portfolios are great choices. If it is a single fund, it may have a retirement year in the name of the fund, such as "Target Date 2030." In that case, pick the fund that corresponds with the approximate year you think you may retire. A single fund like this is a complete diversified investment that automatically allocates your money across many asset classes.

    If it is an online tool, take the time to walk through the steps, and it should pick the portfolio for you. This type of system often results in something like "conservative," "moderate" or "moderately aggressive" as a result. Using such a tool delivers a complete, professionally designed portfolio.

    These automated portfolios make far better choices than the random way many participants pick investments, which often seems more akin to "eeny meeny miny moe."

    3. Stable value funds are a good choice. As you get closer to retirement, you'll want some of your retirement money in a safe investment option. Stable value funds, which are offered within many 401(k) plans, are a good choice. Today they are paying higher interest rates than bank savings. They won't fluctuate like stock funds, and unlike bond funds, they shouldn't go down in value if interest rates rise.

    How much should you keep in such a safe choice? It depends on how close you are to retirement and how much you'll need to withdraw. For example, if you are retiring in two years and know you'll need to withdraw $20,000 a year once retired, consider moving at least your first two to three years of future withdrawals into a safe investment option. In this example, that would be $40,000 to $60,000.

    4. Age 55 is special. Most people think that if they take a withdrawal from a 401(k) plan before age 59½, a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty tax will apply. This isn't always true for 401(k) plans. There is a special provision in 401(k) plans for people who leave their employer after they reach age 55 but before they reach age 59½. This rule allows you to take withdrawals that are exempt from the penalty tax without having to use the substantially equal payment provision.

    Beware of someone who suggests you roll funds from a 401(k) to an IRA without first explaining the age 55 provision to you. Once you move funds from your 401(k) to your IRA, the age 55 penalty-free withdrawal provision no longer applies, and you'll have to wait until age 59½.

    5. You have creditor protection. Your 401(k) plans are creditor-protected by law. This is why it can be foolish to use 401(k) money to avoid foreclosure, pay off debt or start a business. In the case of future bankruptcy, your 401(k) money is a protected asset. Don't touch your 401(k) money except for retirement.

    6. Designated Roth accounts are great. More and more 401(k) plans are offering the ability to make Roth contributions. In a 401(k) plan, this is called a designated Roth account. Such contributions, unlike regular 401(k) contributions, are not tax-deductible, but they grow tax-free, and in retirement, your withdrawals will be tax-free.

    There are many people who would be better off making Roth contributions, but they don't consider it because they assume they are better off getting a deduction today. This is not always true. Check to see if your plan offers a Roth option, and if so, talk to your certified public accountant, tax preparer or other financial adviser to see which choice they think would be best for you.

    7. Company stock may have special tax treatment. If your 401(k) plan has an employee stock ownership plan within it, and you own a lot of company stock, a special tax rule may apply to you. This tax rule is referred to as net unrealized appreciation. At retirement, it enables you to distribute company stock and only pay ordinary income tax on the cost basis of the stock. Then, as you sell the stock off, you can typically pay tax on the gain at the capital gains tax rate, which is lower than the ordinary income tax rate.

    If this tax rule applies to you, that doesn't automatically mean it will be to your benefit. But you should at least run an analysis to see if it would save you money. I've seen cases where using the net unrealized appreciation tax rules saved tens of thousands of dollars, and other cases where it offered no meaningful benefit. You won't know unless you look.

    Updated on July 9, 2015: This article was originally published May 19, 2014. It has been updated.

     

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    Tax forms, mobile phone and pen
    Getty ImagesYou'll be thanking yourself when tax time rolls around if you use these handy apps throughout the year.
    By Maryalene LaPonsie

    Each spring, the Internet fills with information about how to organize your records and get ready for tax time. However, if you're reading that advice only a month or two before the filing deadline, some of it may be too little too late. Instead of waiting until next spring to get organized, start now. Taxes may be the last thing you want to think about on a sunny summer day, but the current crop of mobile apps make it quick and easy to set up automated systems to capture the information you'll need next year.

    "The mobility that an application provides is invaluable in today's world," says Kyle Willis, vice president of Swipefin, an app that helps track business and personal expenses for tax prep. He adds that receipts can be lost and notepads forgotten, but apps make it easy to instantly record data and keep it handy.

    If you're ready to make next tax season the easiest one ever, here are 10 apps that can help you out.

    Swipefin

    Willis' app fancies itself as the "Tinder for tax prep." Swipefin has the ability to pull data from more than 29,000 financial institutions. Users can scroll through their transactions and swipe right to identify business expenses or left for personal ones.

    "The entire purpose is to save independent contractors time and stress and money," Willis says.

    The app has a partnership with Intuit, TurboTax's parent company. At the end of the year, data can be directly uploaded to TurboTax or sent to the user's personal tax preparer.
    • Platform: Apple
    • Cost: Free

    FileThis

    Brian Berson, CEO and co-founder of FileThis, says his app acts as an electronic filing cabinet. It allows users to store and categorize documents of all kinds and makes it easy to find necessary paperwork at tax time.

    "FileThis has the ability to pull in a lot of documents automatically when they become available," he says. That could mean no effort on your part to gather items such as credit card, bank and investment statements.

    While FileThis offers users cloud storage, it can also send items to other systems such as Dropbox, Google Drive or Evernote.
    • Platform: Apple and Android
    • Cost: Free for basic account, $2 to $5 a month for upgraded accounts

    MileIQ

    If Swipefin is the Tinder of finance apps, MileIQ is the Fitbit, automatically recording and storing data all day long.

    Once people download the app, all they need to do is carry their device with them to use it. When the app senses it's traveling in a vehicle, it comes out of sleep mode to track the route, start and stop times and other data required by the IRS for a business mileage deduction.

    "The IRS requirements are relatively stringent on what you need to record," explains Chuck Dietrich, CEO and co-founder of MileIQ.

    Dietrich says he regularly hears from people who say they had no idea they drove so many reimbursable or deductible miles before using the app. In some cases, new users were finding they had more than $500 in tax deductible miles a month.
    • Platform: Apple and Android
    • Cost: Free for up to 40 drives a month, $5.99 a month for unlimited drives

    TripIt

    When asked what other apps could be helpful at tax time, Dietrich suggests TripIt as a good complement to MileIQ. "It's a great way to record all your travel in real time," he says.

    The app can be used to track overall travel expenses to keep an accurate record of everything from hotel stays to airfare purchases.
    • Platform: Apple and Android
    • Cost: Free or $49.99 a year for upgraded version TripIt Pro

    QuickBooks

    Although it's a competitor to Swipefin, Willis says if he had to recommend another app for tax prep, it would be QuickBooks​.

    "There's a reason they're so successful," Willis says. "Tax prep is not easy. They've built a product that's genuinely helpful."

    QuickBooks offers accounting software at a variety of price points. The least expensive plan is geared toward the self-employed and allows them to track expenses and mileage as well as download bank data and calculate quarterly tax payments. The Plus plan, which QuickBooks advertises as its most popular option, lets small businesses create estimates and invoices, manage and pay bills, and track inventory, among other advanced functions.

    At all plan levels, the mobile app can be used with an online QuickBooks account.
    • Platform: Apple and Android
    • Cost: Free 30-day trial, then $9.99 to $39.95 a month

    Expensify

    Like QuickBooks, Expensify​ is geared toward self-employed or small business users, although it could be useful to anyone who wants to easily track expenses and mileage in the same place.

    "Expensify is a great app for tracking every receipt that may be tax deductible," Berson says.

    The mobile app uses a GPS to track mileage, and it can help manage other travel as well. Data entered through the app may also be accessed through an online Expensify account.
    • Platform: Apple, Android, Windows and BlackBerry
    • Cost: $5 a month for a team account or $9 a month for a corporate account (price per person)

    OneReceipt

    OneReceipt​ is one of several apps that allow users to scan receipts, categorize them and store in the cloud for easy access. It can automatically pull online receipts, or you can take photos of paper ones to add to your account.

    The app then indexes all spending to simplify the process of finding potentially tax-deductible expenses. For those who don't have an iPhone, users can set up a OneReceipt account and email photos of their receipts to the service.
    • Platform: Apple
    • Cost: Free

    Scannable

    If you already use Evernote, the service's Scannable​ app might be a logical choice for you to scan and organize your receipts. You can tag tax-related items to find them easily in April.

    Up to 60 MB of storage is provided free to basic users. Those looking for more storage or features can upgrade to a plus or premium account for an annual fee.
    • Platform: Apple
    • Cost: Free for basic account, $24.99 to $49.99 a year for upgraded accounts

    Scanbot

    While OneReceipt and Scannable only operate on Apple iOS systems, Scanbot​ is available for Android devices as well. Scans taken by the app can be sent to cloud storage systems such as Evernote, Google Drive, Dropbox or OneDrive.

    Use it to scan and upload charitable donation receipts, medical bills and work-related invoices. Pay for the pro edition to get features such as text recognition, smart file naming and document editing.
    • Platform: Apple and Android
    • Cost: Free or $4.99 for upgraded version Scanbot Pro

    ItsDeductible

    You don't have to be self-employed or a small business owner to benefit from ItsDeductible​. Offered by TurboTax, the app lets users track donations year-round and calculates a value for donated items that can be used for itemized tax deductions.

    "It's a simple app to record charitable deductions," Dietrich says.

    When tax time rolls around, there's no more guessing exactly what you took to the local thrift store in the August and how much it was worth.
    • Platform: Apple
    • Cost: Free

     

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    International finance
    Getty Images
    By Jennifer Liu

    With Americans still feeling the effects of economic instability (hello, rising debt, cost of living and stagnant wages!), it's no question that there's room for improvement for sunnier financial prospects.

    But compared with the rest of the world, we're still doing pretty well.

    According to new analysis from the Pew Research Center, the U.S. is one of just 10 countries where more than half of the population -- that's 56 percent of Americans, to be exact -- are considered to be in the highest tier on a global income scale with $50 or more a day to live on.

    The other countries are Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Norway. Altogether, just 7 percent of the global population falls into this range.

    The study, which includes 111 countries totaling 88 percent of the global population, divides income level into five groups:
    • Poor, or those living on $2 or less a day
    • Low income, from $2.01 to $10
    • Middle income, from $10.01 to $20
    • Upper-middle income, from $20.01 to $50
    • High income, more than $50 a day
    These dollar figures were calculated based on purchasing power parity dollars, or the exchange rates adjusted for differences in the prices of goods and services across countries

    Although the U.S. official poverty line threshold translates to living on $15.77 or less a day, that's still a fair amount higher than the $10 a day middle-income global baseline. In the U.S., almost 9 in 10 Americans fall above this worldwide middle ground -- a quality shared with many other European and North American residents, who together account for 87 percent of the global high-income population.

    Interested in how your money life compares to your other U.S. neighbors? Check out these personal stories of how other families across the country make their budgets work.

     

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    Walmart Announces New Sale to Rival Amazon Prime Day

    By Ari Cetron

    The world's largest brick-and-mortar retailer has plans to crash Amazon's party, and that could mean significant savings for shoppers.

    Amazon.com, which started as an online bookstore and has morphed into a massive online retailer and major player in cloud computing, celebrates its 20th anniversary Wednesday.

    And to celebrate, it's having a huge sale Wednesday that includes tons of items. The lower prices will only be available for Amazon Prime members -- people who pay a $99 annual fee to access a variety of features, such as faster shipping and video and music streaming.

    Now Walmart has kicked off its own online sale this week. Wrote Walmart.com CEO Fernando Madeira on the company's blog:

    "We're kicking off some awesome deals this week that will be available for everybody with no hidden costs or admission fees, and they won't be available for just one day. Our customers will see thousands of great deals on Rollback beginning this week along with some special atomic deals (more on that in the days to come)."

    With an extra dig at Amazon, Madeira wrote:

    "We've heard some retailers are charging $100 to get access to a sale. But the idea of asking customers to pay extra in order to save money just doesn't add up for us," he wrote.

    The combination of the two sales could add up to serious savings for consumers looking to make a purchase, as the competition drives both sites to offer a steady stream of deals over the course of the day.

    Are you planning to check out deals from the battling retailers? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

     

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    Producer Prices
    Rogelio V. Solis/AP
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. producer prices rose more than expected in June as the cost of gasoline and a range of other goods rose, indicating the recent oil-driven downward spiral in prices was abating.

    Other data Wednesday showed a rebound in factory activity in New York state this month. The signs of stabilizing manufacturing and firming inflation came as Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said the U.S. central bank remained on track to raise interest rates this year.

    The Labor Department said its producer price index for final demand increased 0.4 percent last month after increasing 0.5 percent in May. It was the second straight month of increase in producer prices.

    A 0.7 percent increase in goods prices accounted for nearly two-thirds of the increase in the PPI last month. In the 12 months through June, the PPI fell 0.7 percent after declining 1.1 percent in May. It was the fifth straight 12-month decrease in the index.

    If the economy evolves as we expect, economic conditions likely would make it appropriate at some point this year to raise the federal funds rate.

    Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the PPI rising 0.2 percent last month and falling 0.9 percent from a year ago.

    In testimony prepared for the U.S. House of Representatives Financial Services Committee, Yellen affirmed the view of a central bank prepared to gradually raise rates after more than six years at a near-zero level.

    "If the economy evolves as we expect, economic conditions likely would make it appropriate at some point this year to raise the federal funds rate," Yellen said.

    The dollar rose against the euro, while prices for U.S. Treasury debt fell.

    A plunge in crude oil prices and a resurgent dollar have subdued producer inflation and dampened overall domestic price pressures. Inflation is stabilizing as oil prices steadily rise, but a strong dollar suggests any increase will be gradual.

    A report Tuesday showed broad weakness in import prices in June, underscoring the impact of the dollar's 11.6 percent appreciation against the currencies of the United States' main trading partners since June 2014.

    In a separate report, the New York Fed said its Empire State general business conditions index rose to 3.86 in July from -1.98 in June, which was its lowest level since January 2013.

    A reading above zero indicates expansion. Manufacturing has been hammered by the strong dollar and investment spending cuts in the energy sector in response to the tumble in oil prices. There are signs, however, that the spending cuts in the energy sector are diminishing as oil prices rise.

    The New York Fed survey's index on future business conditions climbed to 27.04 from June's 25.84, which was the weakest since February. A measure of new orders, however, contracted for a second month.

    Last month, gasoline prices increased 4.3 percent after surging 17 percent in May. Food prices rose 0.6 percent in June following a 0.8 percent increase the prior month.

    A shortage of eggs after an outbreak of bird flu, which led to the culling of millions of chickens, continues to pressure food prices. Wholesale egg prices soared a record 84.5 percent last month after surging 56.4 percent in May.

    Higher gasoline and food prices are likely to filter through to the June consumer price index. June consumer price data will be published Friday.

    The volatile trade services component, which mostly reflects profit margins at retailers and wholesalers, rose 0.2 percent in June after increasing 0.6 percent in the prior month.

    A key measure of underlying producer price pressures that excludes food, energy and trade services increased 0.3 percent last month after slipping 0.1 percent in May. The so-called core PPI was up 0.7 percent in the 12 months through June.

    -Richard Leong contributed reporting from New York.

     

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    Federal Reserve Yellen
    Manuel Balce Ceneta/APFederal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen testifies Wednesday before the House Financial Services Committee hearing on monetary policy and the state of the economy.
    By Howard Schneider and Michael Flaherty

    WASHINGTON -- Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen resisted calls Wednesday for more congressional oversight, as members of a House of Representatives panel criticized the central bank's policies and pressed it to be more accountable.

    In her semiannual testimony to Congress, Yellen repeated her view that the Fed will likely hike interest rates later this year if the U.S. economy expands as expected, and cited improvement in the labor market.

    Her remarks largely tracked the Fed's policy statement last month.

    But in the hearing before the House Financial Services Committee, monetary policy took a backseat to central bank transparency. While some lawmakers aggressively questioned Yellen, it was a gentler session than the grilling she received before the same panel in February.

    The most heated exchange occurred when Representative Sean Duffy, a Wisconsin Republican, lambasted the Fed and Yellen for what he described as a failure to properly respond to the 2012 leak of sensitive information to a private financial newsletter.

    Duffy pressed Yellen to explain why the Fed has failed to meet the House panel's demands to release documents related to the case.

    "We've said that we plan to give [the documents] to you as soon as we're able to do so and not compromise an open criminal investigation," Yellen responded. "We want to see this investigation succeed."

    Yellen added that the Fed has a clear set of rules to follow in the event of an alleged leak, but Duffy shot back that the central bank has failed to follow those rules.

    "If anyone is trying to sweep this under the rug, it's the Fed," Duffy said, demonstrating the frustration that Republican and some Democratic lawmakers have felt over the case.

    U.S. Treasury yields and the dollar rose on Yellen's rate comments, while U.S. stocks held steady.

    'Not Above the Law'

    Republican lawmakers in particular have sought to rein in the central bank's authority, disturbed by the quadrupling of its balance sheet, its wide impact on the economy and the broad regulation powers it has accumulated since the 2008 financial crisis.

    Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling, the committee's chairman, demanded the central bank be more predictable and implored it to cooperate with the leak investigation. "The Fed is not above the law," Hensarling said during his opening remarks.

    Hensarling noted that the Senate Banking Committee had passed a bill in May requiring the Fed chief to go before Congress in a separate hearing in place of the vice chair of regulation if that latter position remained unfilled.

    Hensarling then asked for a "yes" or "no" answer, and as Yellen indicated her willingness to do so, he cut her off and said he would take that as a "yes."

    Hensarling and Yellen then sparred over whether banks continued to be too-big-to-fail.

    Representative Bill Huizenga, a Michigan Republican, told Yellen the Fed should follow a predictable monetary policy rule rather than exercise wide discretion.

    "I think we need a systematic policy," Yellen responded. "But I would strongly resist agreeing to follow any rule where the stance of monetary policy depends on only the current readings of two economic variables, which is what your reference rule relies on."

     

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