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DailyFinance.com

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    Florida West Palm Beach Palm Beach Outlets shopping discount store business display sale TJ T.J. Maxx clothing Black man men's
    Alamy
    Consumers flock to Kohl's (KSS) and TJX's (TJX) T.J. Maxx, expecting deep markdowns on apparel and other department store staples. They may not be getting the bargains that they think they're getting.

    Both retailers are being sued in different lawsuits, alleging that the discounts being promoted on price tags are deceptive. Anyone shopping at Kohl's or T.J. Maxx knows the drill. Items appear to be on sale, referring to higher original or "compare at" prices. It helps justify or validate the purchase, and the argument here is that publishing these higher prices works on the psychology of the shopper. A fashionable $30 spring dress may seem like a good deal, but when the price tag claims that it's selling elsewhere for $50, it may seem outright irresistible at a 40 percent discount.

    It's not right, and now legal fisticuffs are flying.

    Mad Maxx

    The first federal class action lawsuit was filed on July 17 in California. A pair of shoppers filed the suit, claiming that placing dubious "compare at" prices constitutes deceptive advertising. The lawsuit is specifically trying to compensate shoppers from California who have made purchases at T.J. Maxx over the past four years, but if it sticks, you know that more will follow.

    T.J. Maxx explains on its website that the "compare at" price promoted on its price tag is based on its "buying staff's estimate of the regular, retail price at which a comparable item in finer catalogs, specialty or department stores may have been sold."

    It then goes on to clarify that it buys products from thousands of vendors, so the actual item being sold may not be offered by other retailers at the "compare at" price that it's broadcasting. It then encourages customers to do their own comparison shopping as another way to see the "great value" that it's offering.

    However, if customers are buying a pair of cargo shorts for $22 on the premise of a "compare at" price of $33 when there's no one really selling the same item at $33, is the 33 percent discount real?

    Lumps of Kohl's

    Four days after the class action lawsuit was filed against T.J. Maxx, a somewhat similar claim was made against Kohl's. Two different California shoppers kicked off the fireworks at the popular department store chain, voicing concerns that it, too, is inflating the value of its bargains.

    This is a particularly thorny issue at Kohl's. The allegations claim that price tags offering higher "original" or "regular" prices on its own brands -- including Croft & Barrow and Apt. 9 -- are disingenuous if they were never offered at those higher prices. They are in-house brands, so it's not as if they are being sold elsewhere.

    It's easy to shake our heads when folks initiate class action lawsuits, but there is some meat to these allegations. We'll see how it plays out, and ultimately T.J. Maxx and Kohl's may have to change their labeling practices. A good deal is still a good deal, and hopefully consumers will see it that way without having to be swayed by potentially dubious "original" or "compare at" pricing.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Couple Cooking
    Getty ImagesRomance doesn't have to be expensive.
    Open up any magazine targeted to women and you'll see article after article telling you that couples should continue to spend time with each other by scheduling regular date nights.

    The articles typically say that date night is good for your relationship and helps you focus on each other. This type of language can create a bit of pressure for couples to actually take the advice. Couples might even feel guilty if they don't plan regular date nights, especially if it's because of budget restrictions.

    Unfortunately, date night isn't exactly cheap. If couples have children, they have to make reservations and hire a babysitter. Then, they face pressure to make it a great night because they've already spent so much money on it.

    So, wouldn't it be nice to take the pressure off? Wouldn't it be great if you could go on a fun but frugal date and have a great time without breaking the bank?

    Well, if a frugal but fun date is your idea of a good time, here are some examples of ways to spend time together without paying a ton of money for the privilege:

    1. Send the kids to a friend's house. Sometimes people have the right idea when it comes to trading babysitting responsibilities with another group of friends so each couple can go on a date night. However, they overcomplicate things when they decide to bring their kids over to someone's house and then go out on an elaborate date.

    Instead, why not stay in your own house and send the kids to a friend's house for a few hours? Your kids can watch a movie, eat pizza, pop some popcorn and have a great time with their friends and you and your significant other can cook a nice meal at home, pop open a bottle of wine, and watch a movie in a quiet house without any waking up and coming out of their rooms to ask for a bottle of water.

    This eliminates the need for an expensive babysitter and as well as the need to spend a lot of money on a meal out. You still get to spend time together sans kids, and you're in the comfort of your own home so there's no need to get all dressed up. It's casual but fun.

    2. Picnic in the park. One of my favorite dates to plan with my husband is have a picnic in a park. Somehow, in the last 10 years, we've associated picnics with buying fried chicken at a fast food restaurant. We rarely eat fast food, so it's always this random treat. It's inexpensive at about $12 for a few pieces of chicken and biscuits, and free to grab a picnic blanket out of the linen closet.

    On a beautiful day, it's a sweet and simple way to spend time together. You can even bring the book you're reading or a magazine and quietly sit and read together (if that's your jam).

    3. Museum date. Most museums have discount days or coupons where you can go at a certain time to get a better ticket price or go on a certain day. Still, even if you have to pay full price, most museum admissions are no more than $15 per adult. The trick is not to eat at the pricey museum café but instead bring a few snacks or sandwiches with you. Stroll around the museum with the one you love, learn something new, and enjoy. It's actually far cheaper than going to a movie and your money will be going to a good cause: the preservation of important objects or art.

    4. Backyard camping. When my husband and I were still dating, we discovered all of his old camping gear in his parents' attic. Since he used to work at a sporting goods store, he had tons of equipment, including a tent, camping stove and sleeping bags.

    Instead of booking an extensive camping trip where we had to pack the car, pay a fee and buy tons of food to eat while we camped, we just camped in the backyard.

    It was really fun and silly and just something different to do. Best of all, it was completely free, and when we wanted to eat something, we just walked into the house and ate it!

    5. Volunteering together. One way to do something different and feel good at the same time is to volunteer together as a date night. You can go together to a dog shelter, clean cages and play with adorable dogs. You can plant a garden at a school. Really, the sky is the limit when it comes to thinking of ways you can give back to your community.

    My advice is to think of something your partner and you are both passionate about, something you would enjoy doing together, and then pursue it. That way, you can have a free date and spend time together but feel good about it in the process.

    Overall, date night can be anything you want it to be. It doesn't have to be a table for two with a candlelit dinner and a $200 dinner tab to be something special. All you need to do if you're frugal or on a tight budget is think outside the box.

    Catherine Alford is a professional public speaker and freelance writer who enjoys speaking and writing about the challenges of motherhood, building creative businesses and making smart financial decisions at BudgetBlonde.com.

     

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    Bored mixed race businesswoman using laptop
    Getty ImagesDoes free time inspire you to shop?


    Two weeks ago, I had a full-fledged computer meltdown. My laptop started operating at speeds circa 1996 and deteriorated quickly from there. An appointment at the Genius Bar realized my worst freelancer fear: I'd have to part with my computer for the next three to seven days while the Mac Geniuses worked to repair it.

    Being a full-time, online entrepreneur, I was professionally devastated by the news. I fumbled around on my phone, painstakingly typing out emails to clients and editors whose deadlines I wouldn't be able to meet until further notice. With that small matter of business taken care of, I quickly came to realize that without my computer and the zillions of files I had foolishly failed to back up, there wasn't much I could accomplish.

    What would I do with myself? Binge watch Netflix with a side of red wine or maybe schedule some dates with the friends I hadn't seen in ages. It was a dilemma I hadn't encountered in a while, but the feeling was familiar: I needed to kill time, without blowing my budget.

    Whether it's waiting for a friend who's running late or finding a way to spend an afternoon, aimless time has a tendency to lend itself to aimless spending. Sometimes minimally: a cup of coffee to enjoy while capitalizing on free Wi-Fi. Other times detrimentally: a spontaneous shopping spree born out of seemingly innocent window shopping.

    Having a plan for directing your free time can be just as effective as having a plan for your spending. Though you may not know when instances of empty, unplanned time may arise, having contingencies on hand that align with your budget and personal priorities is simply good practice.

    Kiss broke and bored goodbye with these cost-effective, time-efficient strategies.

    Reassess and refine your goals. Down time is prime time for some quality introspection. The silence and stillness necessary to ponder big questions such as, "What do I want?" and, "What am I doing to get it?" doesn't present itself too often.

    Whether it's an extra 15 minutes or a few hours, taking some time to reflect on these questions central to happiness and fulfillment is a great way to break the cycle of simply going about the routine of day to day living and checking in on big picture goals, making sure forward progress is being made and adjusting as necessary.

    Write down whatever comes to mind along with next action steps for each item to get the momentum rolling in the direction of your goals and dreams. January doesn't have a monopoly on resolutions; every interval of down time offers an opportunity to reset, restart or readjust, and it doesn't have to cost a thing.

    Practice healthy habits. Not enough time is the ultimate excuse for forgoing exercise, ordering in and other chronic, unhealthy habits. If you're given the gift of time, don't waste it on being bored. Instead, ditch the excuses and justifications and start a workout regimen or meal plan.

    Start a Pinterest board of easy, healthy recipes. Go for a walk outside. Download a free meditation app to foster some mental clarity. Time that isn't monopolized by the pressure of responsibilities and deadlines presents an opportunity to foster habits that support a healthy, optimized lifestyle that can save you thousands over the course of a lifetime.

    Give yourself a financial physical. Speaking of goals and healthy habits, let's not forget to include the occasional fiscal check-up. How are you doing on your financial goals? Do you need to make any adjustments to your current budget and habits to reach your targets? What other adjustments might serve to optimize your financial profile? Perhaps canceling the magazine subscription you're not reading anymore? Renegotiating the interest rates on your loans and credit cards? Researching better deals on you recurring bills?

    Effectively using just a half hour of down time to give your finances a once over can help you put systems in place to better manage your money and stay accountable to your long term goals, even as the craziness of day-to-day living picks back up.

    Volunteer. You don't have to limit your giving to monetary contributions, use moments of down time to make service contributions. There are endless ways to give back. Research organizations and causes that are meaningful to you and the tasks that you can do to contribute within the limitations of your idle time.

    Learn something. Read a book, watch instructional YouTube videos, visit your local library -- using your down time to learn new things and develop your skills is not only practical, it can prove highly enjoyable and may help you connect with like-minded people, often leading to even more exciting opportunities.

    In the wake of my computer meltdown, I took to Twitter to get updates on a conference I knew was happening in my hometown. With a few strategic tweets and hashtag searches I managed to score a $25 ticket to the conference and spent the next two days soaking up valuable new information and perspectives while connecting with other entrepreneurs. I even scored a Kate Spade bag during a conference giveaway -- talk about a sweet way to kill time!

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

     

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    internet theft   a gloved hand...
    Getty Images
    By Jason Notte

    NEW YORK -- Making charitable donations can be philanthropically rewarding, but only if your money actually reaches those who need it.

    Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission noted that about $187 million in donations went to a group of four cancer charities that were nothing but a slush fund for one family. The FTC says that 97 percent of donations were used by family members to pay for cars, gym memberships, luxury cruises, college tuition and high-salary jobs for other family members. The Cancer Fund of America and Cancer Support Services in Knoxville, Tennessee, the Breast Cancer Society in Mesa, Arizona; and the Children's Cancer Fund of America in Powell, Tennessee, not only bilked donors out of millions, but binged on money that other charitable organizations could have put to good use.

    Contacted by TheStreet for this story, a receptionist for The Cancer Fund of America and its subsidiary, Cancer Support Services, declined comment on behalf of the organization. The Breast Cancer Society directed TheStreet to this official statement, denying any wrong doing and demonstrating a focus on other charitable efforts to avoid legal entanglements. The Children's Cancer fund site has disappeared, and its number is no longer in service.

    Some of the fraud stuff that has gone on is because of a lack of oversight by donors. They haven't done their homework and they haven't done their due diligence.

    Equally unfortunate was that, according to Friedman partner Amish Mehta, a quick look at the IRS database of charitable organizations, the charities' Form 990 submissions or charity clearinghouse websites would have told donors just how suspicious those charities were. Mehta points out that the New York State Attorney General's office considers administrative costs equalling 35 percent of total donations or less ideal for a charitable organization, though Mehta says that cost for operating expenses should more ideally be capped at 20 to 30 percent.

    "That topic [charity fraud] continues to come up," Mehta says. "Some of the fraud stuff that has gone on is because of a lack of oversight by donors. They haven't done their homework and they haven't done their due diligence."

    Shomari Hearn, a certified financial planner and vice president at Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, notes that online resources including Guidestar and Charity Navigator can help potential donors determine home much of their gift is going to the cause and how much goes toward administrative costs. Those sites draw much of their information from the charities' 990 forms and explain what your donation pays for in fairly simple terms. From there, a little help from the IRS and a bit of legwork can help determine whether or not a charity meets your needs. "Even if it is a charity that has been in existence for many years, it is worth verifying that the organization's tax-exempt status has not been revoked," Hearn says. "Second, I recommend conducting a quick online search of the charity's name to see if there are any stories of improprieties by the organization."

    A charity's biggest red flag is either not registering as a 501(c)3 tax-exempt institution or having that designation revoked. Mehta notes that while contacting the IRS and performing simple online searches for the charity in question can work, it may also be worth your time to contact the Better Business Bureau and see if it has received any complaints about the organization. It may seem like a whole lot of steps just to give money away, but for private or family foundations with sizable sums at their disposal, the only way to make sure a charitable organization fulfills the foundation's mission statement is to vet it throughly.

    "If the foundation is determined that it wants to give to that charity, hopefully the foundation has grant-giving guidelines and parameters established to vet various charities," Mehta says. "Hopefully there's a board for that foundation, because it's helpful to get different perspectives, present a challenge and provoke some thought and within the foundation."

    Another approach that both individuals and charitable foundations may want to consider is something they should already be doing with their other non-charitable investments: diversifying and balancing. That offers donors some protection if a charity turns out to be fraudulent or simply changes course and no longer meets the needs of the donor. More importantly, especially when considerable donations are involved, diversification can prevent any one individual or foundation from giving too much to an organization and "tipping" it from a public charity to a private foundation of its own.

    "501(c)(3) organizations have to have a broad range of support among the people they receive money from," Mehta says. "If they receive money from a single or limited source of avenues, they could jeopardize their public charity status. That charity can become like a conduit for a charitable foundation."

    However, the most important rule to apply when tracking down a charitable organization is to do your homework.

    While your threshold for administrative cost may vary from those of your advisers, it's always good to know that your money is going to help the cause and isn't just lining the pockets of the folks on the phone or someone with a boat named after a shell charity.

    "As a rule of thumb, if administrative and fundraising expenses, such as compensation to executives and fees to telemarketing firms, account for more than 25 percent of an established organization's annual revenue, I would avoid these organizations in favor of a charity that uses at least 75 percent or higher of their revenue on program expenses," Hearn says. "You want to know that the majority of your donation is being used to fund the programs and services the charity was established to deliver."

     

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    Cold
    Getty Images
    By Kalyeena Makortoff

    Complaints about cold offices finally have some basis -- it's likely your male colleagues are to blame.

    According to a new research by Maastricht University, the standard used to determine the ideal indoor temperature is based on the body heat of the average man.

    Current calculations for building temperatures try to balance average body heat -- which is dictated by the body's metabolic rate -- and that of the room or office, in order to find the ideal level of warmth.

    These standards are deployed across both Europe and the U.S., Boris Kingma, a lead researcher of the report, told CNBC via email.

    Body heat production is directly linked to metabolic rates, which refer to how much energy your body requires to maintain its physical functions.

    Individual body and composition are essential in determining your metabolic rate, Kingma explained. Body cells and fat cells generate heat, even at rest.

    "Men are in general a bit taller than women and also a bit more muscular than women. These two add up that males in general have a higher heat production than females," he said.

    Women's metabolic rates are 20 to 35 percent lower than their male counterparts, the report's press release explained.

    Kingma said researchers found, though other research, that women in general prefer a warmer environment.

    Maintaining less-than-ideal office temperatures for women not only results in chilly workers, but a spike in energy consumption as people reach for the thermostat or drink more coffee or tea to stay warm.

    If addressed, offices could lower their energy use. Together with residential buildings, offices account for approximately 30 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions, the report said, with human behavior contributing to nearly 80 percent of the variation in those buildings' energy consumption.

    "By taking into account the actual metabolic rate of women, a crucial step can be made in creating more energy-efficient buildings and a more comfortable working area for women," the release explained.

     

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    FILE - In this Feb. 11, 2015, file photo, Mark Moriarty works on a John Deere Tracked Feller Buncher/Harvester at John Deere Dubuque Works in Dubuque, Iowa. The Commerce Department reports on U.S. factory orders for June 2015 on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2015. (Jessica Reilly/Telegraph Herald via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
    Jessica Reilly/Telegraph Herald via APAn employee works at John Deere Dubuque Works in Dubuque, Iowa.
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- New orders for U.S. factory goods rebounded strongly in June on robust demand for transportation equipment and other goods, a hopeful sign for the struggling manufacturing sector.

    The Commerce Department said Tuesday new orders for manufactured goods increased 1.8 percent after declining 1.1 percent in May.

    We are moving past the very weak period for the manufacturing sector from early on this year, but that activity has yet to meaningfully increase.

    "We are moving past the very weak period for the manufacturing sector from early on this year, but that activity has yet to meaningfully increase," said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan (JPM) in New York.

    Factory activity has been stymied by a strong dollar and spending cuts in the energy sector after last year's sharp plunge in crude oil prices. Tepid global demand also has weighed on manufacturing, which accounts for about 12 percent of the domestic economy.

    Those factors have eroded the profits of multinational companies like Caterpillar (CAT), Procter & Gamble (PG), the world's largest household products maker, and Whirlpool (WHR) the global home appliances giant.

    Though there are signs that the energy spending drag is easing, the dollar's strength will likely remain a constraint. The dollar has gained 15 percent against the currencies of the United States' main trading partners since June 2014.

    Stocks on Wall Street were little changed, while prices for U.S. government debt fell. The dollar was largely flat against a basket of currencies.

    Orders for transportation equipment surged 9.3 percent in June, reflecting a 65.4 percent jump in aircraft bookings.

    There were increases in orders for machinery, furniture, fabricated metal products, electrical equipment, appliances and components.

    Solid Inventories

    The Commerce Department also said orders for non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft -- seen as a measure of business confidence and spending plans -- increased 0.7 percent instead of the 0.9 percent rise reported last month.

    Shipments of these so-called core capital goods, which are used to calculate business equipment spending in the gross domestic product report, increased 0.3 percent in June. Shipments were previously reported to have slipped 0.1 percent.

    Manufacturing inventories increased a solid 0.6 percent, which was more than the government assumed in its second-quarter GDP snapshot published last week.

    Coming on the heels of a report Monday showing stronger construction spending in May and April than previously reported, economists said the sturdy increase in factory inventories suggested that second-quarter GDP could be revised to as high as a 3 percent annual pace.

    The Commerce Department reported last Thursday that the economy expanded at a 2.3 percent pace in the second quarter. It will publish its second GDP estimate for that quarter later this month.

    In the wake of the construction data, economists had said they expected second-quarter growth would be raised by at least four-tenths of a percentage point to a 2.7 percent pace. They forecast factory inventories adding another 0.3 percentage point.

    But with the inventories-to-shipments ratio at a lofty 1.35, compared to 1.30 last September, manufacturers might be sitting on a pile of unwanted goods, which could hurt production and weigh on growth in the coming quarters.

    "It also highlights the probability that an unwinding of this stockpiling will almost assuredly result in a drag on GDP growth in the second half of the year," Tim Quinlin, an economist at Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, North Carolina.

     

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    Comcast sign
    Alamy
    By TALI ARBEL

    WASHINGTON -- Comcast is speeding up and expanding a discounted Internet service that was created to get more low-income people online.

    Comcast (CMCSA) created the program four years ago as a condition of government approval of its purchase of NBCUniversal. The service costs $10 a month, a quarter of Comcast's promotional price for a slightly faster Internet speed.

    But critics have said the service, called Internet Essentials, was too slow and its reach too limited.

    The increasing of the speed is a step in the right direction. The real test will be in assuring that actual families will benefit from this.

    The latest upgrade doubles the current speed to up to 10 megabits a second. That lets you watch online video but is still below the benchmark for broadband, 25 megabits, set by the Federal Communications Commission.

    Internet Essentials had been limited to families of children who would qualify for the government's discounted school lunch program. Now Comcast is testing a program for low-income seniors, too.

    "The increasing of the speed is a step in the right direction," said Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente, a Latino advocacy group that had fought Comcast's failed proposal to merge with Time Warner Cable. "The real test will be in assuring that actual families will benefit from this."

    In a report last year, the California Emerging Technology Fund, a non-profit that advocates for broadband adoption, said signing up for Internet Essentials was a "long and cumbersome" process that can take up to three months.

    Comcast spokesman Charlie Douglas said some of the criticisms of the program are "quite old and have not been well-documented." Comcast says it's increasing the number of schools whose families are eligible for faster approval. Once a family is approved, Comcast can send a self-installation kit in three to five days.

    Philadelphia-based Comcast said Tuesday that more than 500,000 households have been Internet Essentials customers. That's up from 350,000 households about a year ago. About 20 percent of eligible households have signed up.

    Other changes Comcast announced Tuesday included adding a free Wi-Fi router so families can connect their smartphones and other devices to a home network and a pilot program for helping low-income seniors get Internet access in West Palm Beach, Florida.

    Comcast said additional cities for testing the service for seniors will be announced in coming weeks.

    The service's expansion comes as the government is also pushing programs meant to help bridge the "digital divide." According to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, 97 percent of adults living in a household with annual income of $75,000 and higher say they use the Internet. For households making less than $30,000 a year, that number falls to 74 percent.

    The FCC wants to expand its Lifeline discounted phone program to include Internet service, while President Barack Obama last month unveiled a public-private partnership called ConnectHome, which aims to get low-income families discounted access to the Internet. The government had said ConnectHome will initially reach more than 275,000 low-income households.

     

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    New Amazon Prime Members Can Split Account Only Between 2 Adults

    By Rebecca Borison

    NEW YORK -- HBO CEO Richard Plepler may not care that you're sharing access to your HBO Go subscription with friends, but Amazon (AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos apparently isn't pleased with the amount of sharing taking place among its Prime members.

    Last week, Amazon quietly changed its policy for sharing a Prime account, which provides a variety of discounts for a $99 a year membership. Previously, each Prime member was able to share their account with up to four other people. But now, thanks to the crackdown, accounts can only be shared with one other adult and four children. On top of that, the two adults must have access to the same credit cards, a move intended to discourage sharing with lots of friends or extended family members.

    HBO's Plepler seems to view account sharing as a means for new subscribers to try out the service. Amazon, on the other hand, is no longer willing to give up those $99 membership fees.

    The question now is whether consumers who were accessing the Prime benefits for free will transition to paid memberships, or whether they will look elsewhere for their online shopping needs. Yes, Amazon may have been missing out on those membership fees, but people using Prime tend to buy a lot more on Amazon than non-Prime users, and it's possible that the extra sales from that non-paying, account-sharing friend could have made up for the lost fees.

    Gartner (IT) analyst Gene Alvarez predicts the impact won't be terribly huge either way, arguing that the change Amazon won't cost it too much revenue, nor will it propel a large number of new Prime subscriptions. Sure, there will be some account-sharing consumers who have gotten so used to Prime benefits that they will opt into an account of their own. But there will also be some who decide it's not worth it and move over to the websites of Walmart (WMT) or Target (TGT).

    Prime has been around long enough, that it has hit "the point of inflection," Alvarez said, and Amazon has decided that its path forward includes a lot less account sharing. It remains to be seen whether consumers will turn away after this shift in policy.

     

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    Avoid These Budget-Busting Triggers
    Trying to stick to a budget is never easy, but what you might not realize is that certain factors, like your mood, can actually cause you to spend more. So before you give in to temptation, here are a few tips to help keep your budget intact.

    First, how many times have you run out for some milk, and come back with a bag full of groceries? Don't worry, you're not alone. According to a study by Visa, 34 percent of the people polled said that the supermarket is where they overspend the most. Instead of getting caught up, make a list before you go and only include the things that you definitely need. You'll find that sticking to this plan will save you a lot in the long run.

    Another place where lots of us go off track is on vacation. All too often we only remember to budget for airfare and hotel and completely forget about the other costs involved. The best way to get around this is by making some simple trade-offs. For instance, if you've got your heart set on staying at a four-star hotel, then scale back on other things -- like going out for fancy meals -- to offset your spending. By having a plan in place before you leave, you'll be less likely to splurge while you're there.

    Next, special occasions are also known to be real budget-killers. Big events like a family wedding or your best friend's birthday can make you feel compelled to buy them something expensive. Rather than letting your feelings overwhelm your bank account, start saving now. Even if it's only $20 a week, that can add up to hundreds over the course of a few months, and if something pops up suddenly, or you haven't had time to put aside some cash, try thinking outside the box and making your own gift. Most of the time, people will appreciate something from the heart just as much as something you bought at a store.

    Finally, we all know that stress can trigger a lot of things in us, including an unnecessary shopping spree. Before you turn to retail therapy, try exercising instead. Activities like yoga or even going for a 20-minute walk can help give you some real relief. Just think, you'll be getting rid of the stress without spending a penny.

    Remember these tips to keep your budget from going off course. You'll see that by recognizing these triggers ahead of time, you'll be able to avoid overspending in the future.

    View Poll

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Noel Randewich

    NEW YORK -- Wall Street ended lower Tuesday for a third straight session as investors worried about a rise in interest rates while Apple (AAPL) shares hit their lowest in over six months.

    The iPhone-maker's shares fell 3.2 percent to $114.64, firmly below their 200-day daily moving average, a key technical level closely watched by traders. The stock was the biggest drag on the three major U.S. indexes.

    Apple has been the weak sister in the market today. But if you look at the sectors, most everything is down with the exception of materials.

    A slowdown in China and skepticism over demand for iPhones were contributing to pressure on Apple's shares, traders said.

    "Apple has been the weak sister in the market today," said Alan Gayle, senior investment strategist and director of asset allocation at RidgeWorth Investments in Atlanta, Georgia. "But if you look at the sectors, most everything is down with the exception of materials."

    Stocks extended losses after Atlanta Federal Reserve President Dennis Lockhart told The Wall Street Journal that September may be the right time for Fed to lift interest rates.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell 0.3 percent to end at 17,550.69 and the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) lost 0.2 percent to 2,093.32. The Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) dropped 0.2 percent finish at 5,105.55.

    Eight of the 10 major S&P sectors fell, with the utilities index's 1.6 percent decline leading the losers.

    The Fed has said it needs to see a sustained economic recovery before it raises interest rates for the first time in nearly a decade.

    Soft economic data had prompted some investors to argue that the Fed might hold off on raising rates until December. After the Fed meeting last week, investors expected a rate increase in September.

    'Mixed Bag'

    "The market is getting such a mixed bag of rhetoric from the Fed, it seems like the Fed isn't sure what it's going to do," said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at BMO Private Bank in Chicago.

    After the bell, shares of crafts website Etsy (ETSY) fell 9 percent and Walt Disney (DIS) lost 1.4 percent after the companies posted quarterly results that disappointed Wall Street.

    During the session, American International Group (AIG) fell 2.8 percent after the insurer's underwriting income fell in almost all of its units, while home and auto insurer Allstate (ALL) fell 10.2 percent after its profit missed expectations.

    Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by 1.23 to 1. On the Nasdaq, 1,414 issues fell and 1,376 advanced for a 1.03-to-1 ratio favoring decliners. The benchmark S&P 500 index was posting 32 new 52-week highs and 26 new lows; the Nasdaq composite was recording 91 new highs and 127 new lows.

    -Tanya Agrawal contributed reporting.

    What to watch Wednesday:
    • The Commerce Department releases international trade data for June at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    • The Institute for Supply Management releases its service sector index for July at 10 a.m.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:
    • CBS (CBS)
    • Dish Network (DISH)
    • Dominion Resources (D)
    • Fitbit (FIT)
    • Keurig Green Mountain (GMCR)
    • Marathon Oil (MRO)
    • Priceline (PCLN)
    • Prudential Financial (PRU)
    • Ralph Lauren (RL)
    • Sun Life Financial (SLF)
    • Tesla Motors (TSLA)
    • Time Warner (TWX)
    • Twenty-First Century Fox (FOX)(FOXA)
    • Voya Financial (VOYA)

     

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    Federal Building Fed
    Andrew Harnik/APKeeping too close of an eye on the Fed's moves can make some investors believe that today's market and economic conditions are substantially different from the past.


    For nine years, there's been plenty of speculation about when the Federal Reserve might raise interest rates.

    The last central bank rate increase came in June 2006. The federal funds rate, the amount creditworthy institutions pay to borrow money from one another overnight, dropped to zero in December 2008. It's hovered near zero since then.

    For the past several years, financial experts and industry professionals have encouraged investors to shuffle portfolio holdings in anticipation of rising rates. Thus far, that advice has proved to be wrong.

    Whether or not the central bank raises rates in September, as many now expect, the barrage of Fed-related investment advice isn't likely to end.

    Many advisers strive to keep clients from acting on interest-rate forecasts, which have been notoriously inaccurate. Some of these incorrect predictions come from members of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, or presidents of the regional banks. Fed officials regularly appear on TV, often causing an uproar with their comments.

    It's important to keep such news in context, says Nancy Hetrick, founder of Smarter Divorce Solutions in Phoenix. Hetrick is a certified divorce financial analyst, and she manages client assets through Houston-based Clarity Financial.

    A quarter-point increase in the interest rate, Hetrick says, wouldn't put a sudden end to the economic stimulus that's intended by keeping rates low. "To talk about these increases as if they have the same impact as an increase that results from excess growth and inflation and lack of capacity is absurd," she says. "It's easy for the talking heads to make people think this could be just tragic."

    Nine years ago when the Fed began lowering rates, almost no one would have predicted they would have remained extremely low for so long, says Brad Wasserman, managing partner at Wasserman Wealth Management in Farmington Hills, Michigan.

    "I would advise against making significant portfolio changes based on someone's prediction of where interest rates will be in the future," he says.

    Bond Strategy

    In client accounts, Wasserman's firm opts for bonds with shorter maturities. This strategy can protect clients against interest-rate risk that's more typical in longer-term bonds.

    "We're proponents of buying individual bonds with staggered or different maturity lengths. We use two-, three- or four-year bonds, or maybe out to six or seven years, depending on individual circumstances. We wouldn't use all eight-year bonds, or all two-year bonds, because then you are making a bet on interest rates. We would rather have a smooth ladder to develop a portfolio of bonds," he says.

    Though Wasserman advises against changes to stock and bond portfolios based on the inevitability of rising interest rates, that's not necessarily the case with other interest-sensitive decisions.

    For example, homebuyers may be better off getting a fixed-rate mortgage today instead of two years from now, if they expect their personal situation to remain the same or improve. Likewise, it may be a mistake to prepay a fixed-rate mortgage with rates at historic lows, rather than in a few years, when money is worth more and rates are higher.

    If you look at Fed activity, rates are still very, very low. Even if the Fed raises rates, they will still be very, very low.

    One effect of the constant Fed-watching is that some investors start believing that today's market and economic conditions are dramatically different from any in the past.

    "It's human nature to think this time is different," says Bryan Rogowski, founder of Rogowski Wealth Management in Bainbridge Island, Washington. "There's nothing different this time than in many other generations. If you look at Fed activity, rates are still very, very low. Even if the Fed raises rates, they will still be very, very low."

    Rogowski says tying portfolio buying and selling to Fed moves is an exercise in market timing.

    "Many people sold fixed income several years ago, thinking that the Fed was going to raise rates at any moment, and they were wrong about that timing decision," he says. "Making timing decisions over and over is really dangerous to overall wealth. It's a gambling game, and it's not worth playing. I would rather be right about a buy-and-hold strategy and a proper allocation to fixed income and equities over a client's full-time horizon, which may be five, 10, 20, 30, 40 or more years, than any one market timing decision."

    Rogowski says individual investors are mistaken if they believe they can somehow outwit markets, considering all the information that is publicly available. "The market reacts instantaneously to any new information, which is always a surprise, no matter how much in hindsight we say we could have seen it coming," he says.

    Limiting Risk

    But when an event is widely anticipated, such as an interest-rate increase, market prices generally reflect that expectation. "So there are no actionable nuggets here to capitalize on that," Rogowski says. "We're not going to make a buck by acting on information that's in the press and publicly available, or a news release from the Federal Reserve. So we have to return to our original purpose: Achieve the highest return we can to meet our goals, with as little risk as we can take."

    Hetrick says investors who understand the emotions inherent in investing are better prepared to stay the course when confronted by rate-hike hysteria. That's where an adviser who serves as a coach and educator can help investors stay on track.

    "An adviser has an obligation to educate clients on ongoing basis, so when things like rate increases happen, the client can say, 'Oh, yeah. We talked about that a few months ago, and I understand it, so now my emotions are not going to get piqued.' It's all about our emotions, so when we hear bit of unfamiliar news, it will trigger fear," she says.

    Combating that fear requires steady reminders of why an investment strategy is in place, and why it's worth sticking to.

    "When you give people the opportunity to stay in their logical brain and not go to their emotional brain, they do just fine," she says, "But they can't do that if they have no knowledge on the logical side to apply."

     

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    kalaharimedia.com
    Summer getaways aren't cheap, but sometimes not traveling at all isn't much of an option. Thankfully, there are bargains to be had as we head into the final few weeks of the season.

    Let's go over a few last-minute vacation ideas that won't necessarily break the bank.

    1. Hit an Indoor Water Park

    One of the biggest travel trends to emerge over the past decade is the indoor water park. It began in the Wisconsin Dells, where resorts began to build massive indoor pool areas complete with water slides and lazy rivers to entertain guests in all climates. Now they can be found in most states.

    Staying at some of the more popular indoor water park resorts doesn't usually come cheap. A family of four heading out to Kalahari Resorts in the Wisconsin Dells this weekend would be paying at least $580. However, if that same family of four could hold off on that two-night stay until an early weekday getaway in September, the rate drops to as low as $280 for a stay that includes the room and access to the watery fun.

    2. Cruise Control

    Hopping on a multiday cruise may seem like a lavish diversion, but it's not as expensive as you might think. Sure, you may have to limit yourself to older Carnival (CCL) boats sailing on shorter itineraries, but you will still get decent meals, daily on-board activities, and exciting ports of call that are included in your fare.

    CruiseCheap.com has a list of last-minute bargains, and as of now that includes a four-night sailing out of Miami on the Carnival Ecstasy leaving in early September and a late August getaway leaving out of Long Beach on the Carnival Inspiration starting at just $229 a person. The rate assumes that at least two people will be traveling together. If you're willing to sail later in September, there are a few bargains to be had south of $200. There are also port charges and suggested gratuities to factor into your tab, but as long as you don't go on costly shore excursions or break the bank on spa treatments, alcoholic beverages, or casino outings that aren't included in your fare, you should be fine.

    3. Let the Internet Smoke Out a Bargain

    There's no shortage of getaway deals to be found online, but the same can also be said about travel scams. You certainly don't want to follow a link from an unsolicited email promising a beach getaway at a ridiculous price, but if you stick to legitimate deal finders, you might be surprised at how deep resorts are willing to go with discounts to fill empty rooms.

    All of the major travel portals promote great deals, but you might also want to check with markdown specialists. Groupon (GRPN) may get a bad rap from time to time, but Groupon Getaways does offer some great prepaid deals for last-minute bargains. Travelzoo (TZOO) is another bargain-seeking specialist. It pushes out the weekly Travelzoo Top 20 list, and as a publisher it vets the offers to present the ones most relevant to you. Yes, it does get paid for the referral. (How else do you think a free service makes money?) Either way, stick to legit websites to make sure that you don't wind up falling for a scam or have to sit through a timeshare hard-sell to make a marked-down getaway happen.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Estate Planning Documents You Need Right Now

    By Stacy Johnson

    What's the one document many Americans should be dying to have but often don't bother getting?

    A will.

    Any financial adviser worth his salt will insist you have one. He'll say things like, "It doesn't cost much, takes only a few minutes to prepare and will save both money and hassle for those you leave behind."

    All true. What's also true is that planning for one's demise sometimes can open a can of worms. Case in point: this reader's question.

    Stacy, I have a good problem to have, but I need some advice.

    I am a 50ish, single female with some health problems. My worth is slightly over $2 million and I'm still working. My problem is, I need to make a trust or something. I am good at saving money and working but have very little financial expertise otherwise. A family member has been helping me.

    Problem: I have two children, one in college and the other a high school grad this year. Neither would be able to manage their money if something happens to me. The college student's boyfriend would spend hers, and my son would just blow his. I would like to leave the money in a trust for them, but I don't know at what age I should allow them to have the money. Should it be in a lump sum at a later age, or should it be given in stages?

    Thanks, Susie

    This is a common problem, even among those not as well off as Susie. When you make a will, you're deciding who's going to get your money in the event of your death. But if you have irresponsible adult heirs, your demise could have an unintended consequence -- the death of your life savings.

    I've had personal experience with this problem. But before I tell my story and answer Susie's question, let's understand a few estate-planning basics.
    A will vs. a trust

    A will is a simple document describing, among other things, how you'd like your stuff distributed upon your death. If you don't have one, a status known as dying intestate, your possessions generally pass to your spouse, then your nearest blood relatives. If you don't have any, they'll go to the state.

    To make sure everything's on the up-and-up, distributions by most wills are overseen by a court. This process is called probate.

    A trust is different. It involves three roles:
    • The trustor -- the owner of the property, who transfers it to ...
    • The trustee -- the person who takes care of the property for the benefit of ...
    • The beneficiary -- the person or people who will eventually receive the property.
    If Susie forms a trust, she'll be the trustor. Whomever she names to take care of her money -- maybe a family member -- will be the trustee. Because her kids will ultimately get the money, they're the beneficiaries.

    There are two types of trusts. A living trust is created while the trustor is still alive. A testamentary trust is created through a will after death. Some trusts can be changed (revocable) and some can't (irrevocable).

    Why Use a Trust?

    We've already explored one reason to use a trust -- to name a trustee who will take care of the money until the beneficiaries are responsible enough to manage it. A second common use of a trust is to bypass probate, the sometimes expensive and time-consuming process of court supervision. Finally, trusts are often used to bypass estate taxes.

    Until Susie's estate reaches a certain level, currently $5.43 million, she doesn't have to worry about federal estate taxes. Whether it's worth the cost to establish a trust to bypass probate depends on the laws where she lives, as well as other factors. She should consult an estate-planning lawyer for more advice about that. But she obviously has a desire to take care of her kids.

    The Problem With the Trust Solution

    My mother died in 2004 and left her estate to my father. Before he passed away in 2009, he was facing the same problem as Susie. He wanted to leave his assets to me, my older sister and my niece. While he didn't worry about leaving a lump sum to my sister and me, he was more hesitant when it came to my niece. She was an adult but, in his opinion, not yet responsible.

    So he used a will that included a testamentary trust. Upon his death, part of his estate went to me, part to my sister and part went into a trust for my niece. My sister and I were named co-trustees, and we were given the authority to give the money to my niece whenever and however we deemed fit.

    This was a good solution for my dad. For me, my sister and niece? Not so much.

    When my father died, my sister and I stood between my niece and what she regarded as her rightful inheritance -- not a pretty picture. I won't go into detail, but you can probably imagine what it was like trying to juggle my father's wishes and an impoverished niece who wanted her inheritance.

    I could see this problem coming and begged my father not to leave my sister and me in this position. But his options were limited.

    He could have named someone less personally involved to be the trustee -- for example, a bank or other institution that provides trust services. But that introduced two new problems: First, the amount involved didn't justify the expense of a corporate trustee. More importantly, my dad wanted trustees who knew my niece and could decide when she needed money, how much she needed and when it was appropriate to give it all to her.

    He could also have simply stated in his testamentary trust the exact age at which my niece would get her inheritance. The problem with that, however, was that he couldn't know what that age would be.

    And that brings us back to Susie.

    Susie asked for the answers to seemingly simple questions: "I don't know at what age I should allow them to have the money. Should it be in a lump sum at a later age, or should it be given in stages?"

    I don't have the answer, Susie. If you lay out specific details, you could be making the wrong decision. If you do what my father did, you could be creating uncomfortable family gatherings.

    So what do you do? The best you can. Hopefully you'll be around long enough to get a better handle on what to do. Remember, as long as you're alive, you can change your will and the terms of the trust. But all you can do now is take a stab at the ages and stages you think best reflects the maturity of your kids. Then, relax. You've done your best.

    Got a Question You'd Like Answered?

    A great way to get answers to just about any money-related question is to head to our Forums. It's the place where you can speak your mind, explore topics in-depth and, most important, post questions and get answers. It's also where I look for questions to answer in this weekly column.

    About Me

    I founded Money Talks News in 1991. I've earned a CPA (currently inactive), and have also earned licenses in stocks, commodities, options principal, mutual funds, life insurance, securities supervisor and real estate. Got some time to kill? You can learn more about me here.

     

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    Home Prices
    Ted S. Warren/APWith home sales starting to slow, sellers now need to try harder to fetch the best price.
    By Theresa Mears

    When you put your house on the market, it goes without saying that you want the best price when it sells.

    But many sellers shoot themselves in the foot, doing things that will torpedo their home's selling price and net them less money. Plus, there are certain home and neighborhood characteristics that all the staging in the world can't overcome, once again dragging down the price.

    In a really hot market, or in certain desirable areas, as Redfin Chief Economist Nela Richardson puts it, "any house standing upright can get a bid." But she also notes that Redfin's new Housing Demand Index shows that home sales are slowing.

    What we've seen is that the market has changed dramatically in the last two months. Prices are slowing considerably.

    "What we've seen is that the market has changed dramatically in the last two months," Richardson says. "Prices are slowing considerably."

    While inventory of homes for sale is still low and many buyers are still looking for homes, they're not willing to pay just any price. "They're making more conservative decisions," Richardson says. "What our agents are telling a lot of buyers is just wait."

    The latest Case-Shiller index found that housing price growth is slowing, with prices up 4.4 percent in May 2015 compared to a year ago. That's essentially flat compared with April's 4.3 percent annual increase, and once season adjustments were factored in, the national index showed no change from April to May.

    "Sellers are still firmly in control, but they're not getting a free pass," Richardson says.

    Here are nine factors that can keep you from getting the best price for your home.

    Overpricing. By far, the biggest mistake sellers make is to set their home price too high, thinking would-be buyers will offer a lower price and they can use that as the starting point for negotiations. "If you misprice it in the beginning, it can tend to languish, and you may end up selling it for less than you would have if you had priced it correctly to begin with," says Kevin Brown Jr., president of Praedium Real Estate Services in Pittsburgh and a regional director of the National Association of Exclusive Buyer Agents. Houses that are overpriced tend to stay on the market longer, which makes buyers suspicious that there is something wrong with the home. "Right now, people are expecting they will receive multiple offers, and their house will sell for over asking price, no matter what," says Sabrina Booth, an agent with Redfin in Seattle. "They tend to shy away from houses that come on the market overpriced. We're seeing less competition at this time."

    Bad pictures. Nearly all home shoppers these days start their searches online, and they decide which homes they want to see based on the photos posted with the listing. Not surprisingly, blurry cellphone shots don't draw much interest. "People just skip over it," says Matt Francis, branch manager of Better Homes and Gardens Mason-McDuffie Real Estate in the San Francisco Bay Area. "The millennial buyer is not interested in what it can become."

    Difficulty showing the house. In these days of instant gratification, home shoppers want to see homes as soon as possible and at their convenience. If you make your home difficult to show, fewer prospects will see it, and it can take you longer to find a buyer. "If you don't show it, you can't sell it," Francis says.

    Messy neighbors. The proverbial neighbors with the unkempt lawn, couch on the porch and junk cars in the yard do indeed bring down property values. If your neighbors' houses and yards look bad, home shoppers are likely to put a lower value on your home. You could try to reason with these neighbors and ask them to clean up, or even do the work for them. But your success rate will vary by neighbor, and some may be opposed.

    In bad company. If the most recent sales of homes like yours in your neighborhood have been at low prices, that is likely to hurt the price of your home. That's because real estate agents and appraisers base their view of home value on the sales of comparable homes nearby.

    Bad location. If your house is next to an apartment building, a busy street, a school or otherwise is in an area that is considered less desirable, it will sell for less than a comparable home in a quieter area. In family areas, being in a bad school district also hurts home values significantly. In cities that rely heavily on mass transit, being too far from transit stops may be a detriment. If your home is near a noisy road, you may also have trouble getting full value for it.

    Compartmentalized rooms or a dark first floor. "People these days want bright, airy, open," Francis says. If your home is dark or has a lot of small rooms rather than a larger open space, that makes it less desirable and therefore likely to sell at a lower price.

    Structural defects. No amount of granite or stainless steel can compensate for structural issues such as foundation problems. Buyers are wary of homes that need these kinds of repairs because it's difficult to estimate how much they will really cost to solve.

    Dirt and grime. If your house is messy, your yard is unkempt and the windows are grimy, it isn't going to put its best foot forward. Most buyers will have a hard time getting past that initial negative first impression, and failing to clean up your home could cost you a lot of money.

     

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    Row of traditional US mail (aka post) or letter boxes, Texas, US
    Alamy
    By Karla Bowsher

    The U.S. Postal Service is trying to bridge the gap between physical mail and email.

    The struggling federal agency is testing out "Real Mail Notification," a program that offers customers a daily email about what will be in their snail mail before the mail actually reaches the physical mailbox.

    A pilot was undertaken in Northern Virginia, and a pilot in New York City is the next step, according to Postmaster General Megan Brennan.

    Brennan described the service in May when she gave the keynote speech at the National Postal Forum, the annual mailing industry trade show:

    Imagine if you got an alert every day saying what time your mail would be delivered and what's being delivered that day.

    Everyone has their daily digital routine -- we want to elevate the role of mail by being part of that daily experience.

    Among customers included in the Northern Virginia pilot, 9 out of 10 checked their mobile devices to see what would be arriving in their mail every day, Brennan said.

    Brennan contends that the mailing industry has opportunities to take advantage of today's digital and mobile technology.

    "We've become a device-oriented culture, with laptops, tablets, smartphones and now even watches providing digital and mobile experiences in every aspect of our lives. The good news is that our industry has a big role to play in that digital future."

    Would you use Real Mail Notification if it became available in your area? Share your thoughts on this program 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!

     

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    ADP Employment
    Alan Diaz/APJob seekers and recruiters mix at a recent employment fair in Miami Lakes, Fla.
    By Richard Leong

    NEW YORK -- U.S. private employers hired 185,000 workers in July, which was the smallest increase since April and reduced expectations of a strong jobs reading in the government's payrolls report due Friday, according to a payrolls processor Wednesday.

    Economists surveyed by Reuters had forecast the ADP National Employment Report would show a gain of 215,000 private jobs in July.

    June private payroll gains in June were revised down to 229,000 from an originally reported 237,000 increase, which was the biggest rise since December.

    The report is jointly developed with Moody's Analytics.

    The ADP figures come ahead of the U.S. Labor Department's more comprehensive non-farm payrolls report Friday, which includes both public and private-sector employment.

    Economists polled by Reuters are looking for total U.S. employment to have grown by 223,000 jobs in July, matching June's figure. The unemployment rate was forecast to hold for a second month at 5.3 percent, the lowest since April 2008.

     

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    men hand businessman puts credit card into ATM
    Getty Images
    By Robert McGarvey

    NEW YORK -- The numbers are chilling: ATMs on bank property are under heavy and escalating attack by organized criminals who are ever smarter and slicker. What that means is that every time you stick a debit card into an ATM slot you just may be giving your information to a crook who has inserted a "skimmer" that gathers your card data. The crook then prints out a fake card with your data. Usually PINs are also collected via tiny pinhole cameras.

    Credit reporting group FICO has reported that attacks on ATMs on bank property jumped 174 percent year on year in the first part of 2015. Attacks on non bank machines jumped 315 percent in the same period.

    Matters are so grave that leading ATM-maker NCR on July 23 issued an alert to its customers that said, "NCR is tracking an increasing frequency of card skimming attacks in both the U.S. and in Mexico."

    An NCR spokesperson said that direct losses globally due to ATM skimming is $3 billion.

    It gets worse. Until recently many skimmers were crude and attached directly on top of the ATM card slot. For them, the usual self defense prescription has been to shake the slot. If something comes off in your hand it's probably a skimmer. No more. Owen Wild, an NCR expert, said that NCR is seeing more skimmers that are inserted down into the card slot and thus are invisible on the exterior. There also is a rising incidence of cases where a criminal drills a hole into an ATM, inserts a copying device, then covers the hole with a decal. Wild said many of these devices are slick enough that they defeat some anti-skimming technologies in use on ATMs.

    By now you want to know what your liability is.

    The news is mixed. On paper you have little to no liability. The Federal Trade Commission says losses are capped at $50 if the loss is reported within two days of learning of it. The cap is $500 if reported within 60 days. More than 60 and the losses are unlimited.

    But it gets worse. Several victims of ATM fraud have told TheStreet that their bank refused to restore any monies, insisting the victim must have given the crook his card and PIN. Remember: the crook has a card with the right data and the PIN, so it looks like the accountholder is withdrawing cash. Who knows the real facts in these cases -- just don't assume all will be well with ATM theft because it isn't always.

    In just about all cases, too, there are delays -- often short, occasionally long -- in restoring money taken from an account. With a bogus credit card charge, it's put in suspense the instant it is challenged. With a debit card, real money has to be restored to the account and while that is happening, rent checks may bounce, car payments may be late and more mayhem may befall the victim. It isn't pretty.

    The best defense: don't become a victim.

    So, why is ATM skimming sharply jumping? "The ability to buy pre-assembled or programmed skimmers have turned what was once a complicated scam, into something that the average Joe could do if he's willing to pay for it," said Luis A. Chapetti, software engineer and data scientist at Barracuda. Chapetti also provided a URL where many skimmers are for sale, generally at prices of $1,000 and up.

    Snag just two or four cards and the skimmer paid for itself. The rest is gravy.

    This availability of off-the-shelf skimmers is key to the epidemic. Before a crook needed some fabrication skills and tools. No more. Ready cash buys the gear, so any klutz can become an ATM crook. It won't stop soon, either. Experts anticipate a sustained attack on ATMs, because they are where the money is.

    How can consumers protect themselves?

    "Shield the [ATM] pad from prying cameras as you enter your PIN, and regularly check your account for evidence of fraud," said Steven Weisman, a lawyer in Amherst, Massachusetts, who frequently writes about scams. The first part is crucial: cover your actions with your other hand as you enter the PIN. That probably will thwart the crook's attempt to grab the PIN and, by doing that, you have dramatically reduced -- maybe eliminated -- this card's usefulness.

    As for checking your account -- and setting up account activity alerts -- that's key to minimizing your actual losses. The sooner you notify the bank, the lower your losses generally will be.

    Do just those two things and, probably, you'll be fine -- even if the ATM crooks keep redoubling their efforts which is what some experts gloomily expect.

     

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    Congress Rdp
    Susan Walsh/APSen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has fought for rules mandating disclosure of differences in pay between CEOs and workers.
    By Sarah N. Lynch

    WASHINGTON -- Companies will have to provide investors with a ratio showing how the median pay of their workforce squares with their chief executive officers' compensation, according to new rules adopted by U.S. securities regulators Wednesday.

    Under the Securities and Exchange Commission's final rules, companies will get some flexibility in how they find the median. For instance, they can exclude 5 percent of their overseas workers when arriving at the number and use statistical sampling.

    Pay ratio disclosure should provide a valuable piece of information to investors.

    In addition, only larger and mid-sized companies will need to comply, while smaller ones are exempt.

    However, those changes did not assuage corporate trade groups, which have opposed any rule and are widely expected to file a legal challenge.

    The SEC has been under mounting pressure by Democrats, such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and unions such as the AFL-CIO, who support the rule and have lamented delays in its adoption.

    The measure was tucked into the 2010 Dodd-Frank law amid concerns about the growing disparity between compensation for chief executives and their corporate workers.

    "Pay ratio disclosure should provide a valuable piece of information to investors," said Democratic Commissioner Kara Stein said.

    Republicans and trade groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have fought back against the measure at every turn, saying it will be too expensive, could mislead investors and is not material to a company's financial statements.

    'More Harmful Than Helpful'

    The Chamber has urged the SEC to defer working on the rule at all, and it called for permitting companies to disclose the ratio in an addendum instead of formal filings in order to reduce their liability.

    "This rule is more harmful than helpful," David Hirschmann, head of the Chamber's Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness, said in a statement. He said the Chamber would explore options to "clean up the mess" it believes the rule has created.

    Both SEC Republican commissioners also opposed the rule Wednesday.

    "To steal a line from Justice Scalia: This is pure applesauce," said Republican Commissioner Daniel Gallagher.

    Companies will have to start reporting the new pay ratio disclosures in the first fiscal year beginning on or after Jan. 1, 2017.

    Heather Slavin Corzo, a director at the AFL-CIO, said she was pleased that the SEC completed the rule but remained concerned about "weaknesses that could lead to loopholes," including letting companies exclude a portion of their overseas workers from the median.

     

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    A Mazda logo hangs on a sign outside the Ed Morse Mazda deal
    D. Kevin Elliott/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    DETROIT -- Mazda is recalling its biggest SUV to fix suspension parts that can rust and come loose, causing a loss of steering control.

    The recall covers 206,000 CX-9 SUVs from the 2007 through 2014 model years, mainly in the U.S. and Canada.

    The company said in documents posted Wednesday by U.S. safety regulators that front ball joints can rust from water leaks and separate from the suspension. Ball joints allow the wheels to pivot when the steering wheel is turned.

    Owners will be notified by letter starting in September. Dealers will replace suspension parts on both sides.

    When parts become available, CX-9s registered in states where salt is used to clear roads in the winter will be repaired first. Those states are Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C.

    The recall comes after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation into the problem in June. Mazda said Wednesday that it has no reports of crashes or injuries from the problem.

    In documents filed with NHTSA, Mazda said it first found out about the problem in May of 2012 and began investigating. It fixed the problem at the factory in January 2014 but decided not to do a recall because the ball joints didn't separate suddenly and owners would be warned by front-end noise.

    But NHTSA opened its investigation after getting 16 complaints about the problem. Mazda said it decided to do the recall because in some of the complaints, the failure happened suddenly.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Rodrigo Campos

    NEW YORK -- The S&P 500 and Nasdaq composite rose Wednesday following three days of losses as tech shares advanced, while the blue-chip Dow index ticked lower, weighed by Disney's largest daily drop in almost seven years.

    Gains in major tech companies Google (GOOGL) and Facebook (FB) led the advance on the Nasdaq. Apple (AAPL) added 0.7 percent to $115.40, up for just the second session in the last 12. The S&P 500 tech sector gained 1 percent, its best daily performance in three weeks.

    There's been a sector rotation into technology because of the improvement in their earnings expectations.

    "There's been a sector rotation into technology because of the improvement in their earnings expectations," said Chad Morganlander, portfolio manager at Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. in Florham Park, New Jersey.

    Earnings in the technology sector of the S&P 500 are expected to have grown 5.3 percent in the second quarter, up from a 2.1 percent increase expected back on July 1, according to the most recent Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S data.

    The market's advance is, however, "a modest bounce back after discernable pressure over the last trading sessions," Morganlander said. He cited deceleration in the Chinese economy as a continuing headwind for stocks, specifically commodities-related sectors.

    Disney's (DIS) shares fell to $110.53, a 9.2 percent drop and the largest for any day since Dec. 1, 2008, after it cut its profit forecast for its cable networks unit, spooking the entire industry.

    Shares of Comcast (CMCSA) fell 4.7 percent, Discovery Communications (DISCA) lost 12.1 percent and Twenty-First Century Fox (FOXA) fell 7 percent. Disney's shares are still up 17.3 percent year to date, compared with a gain of 2 percent on the S&P 500.

    "Disney has had such a tremendous move in the past months that a setback within the stock price should not be a surprise," said Morganlander.

    Mixed Results

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell 10.22 points, or less than 0.1 percent, to 17,540.47; the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) gained 6.52 points, or 0.3 percent, to 2,099.84; and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) added 34.40 points, or 0.7 percent, to 5,139.95.

    Despite the gains on the S&P 500, declining issues slightly outnumbered advancing ones on the New York Stock Exchange by 1,542 to 1,518. On the Nasdaq, however, 1,606 issues rose and 1,203 fell.

    Private job growth slowed in July, but a surge in services industry activity to a near-decade high suggested solid economic momentum that strengthens the case for a Federal Reserve interest rate hike this year. Friday's payrolls report is key for traders who are trying to anticipate the Fed's next move.

    First Solar (FSLR) shares jumped 16.7 percent to $51.92 a day after it reported sharply higher quarterly sales and earnings and said results for the year would top Wall Street estimates.

    Shares of Chesapeake Energy (CHK) tumbled 12.1 percent to $7.03 on worries about hefty debt and spending at the No. 2 U.S. natural gas producer.

    The benchmark S&P 500 index posted 54 new 52-week highs and 31 new lows; the Nasdaq composite recorded 135 new highs and 107 new lows. About 7.2 billion shares changed hands on all U.S. exchanges, compared with an average 6.78 billion in the past five sessions, according to BATS Global Markets data.

    What to watch Thursday:
    • The Labor Department releases weekly jobless claims at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    • Freddie Mac releases weekly mortgage rates at 10 a.m.
    Earnings Season
    The following companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:
    • Allergan (AGN)
    • AMC Networks (AMCX)
    • Brinker International (EAT)
    • Cinemark Holdings (CNK)
    • Consolidated Edison (ED)
    • Duke Energy (DUK)
    • Dynegy (DYN)
    • Energizer Holdings, (ENR)
    • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Co. (HMHC)
    • HSN (HSNI)
    • Lions Gate Entertainment (LGF)
    • Manulife Financial Corp (MFC)
    • Michael Kors Holdings (KORS)
    • Mobileye (MBLY)
    • Mohawk Industries (MHK)
    • Molson Coors Brewing Co. (TAP)
    • Monster Beverage Corporation (MNST)
    • New York Times Co. (NYT)
    • Nvidia (NVDA)
    • Prestige Brand Holdings (PBH)
    • Sally Beauty Holdings (SBH)
    • Sprouts Farmers Market (SFM)
    • Viacom (VIAB)
    • Zynga (ZNGA)

     

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