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DailyFinance.com

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    Girl with debt and depression
    Getty Images
    Nearly half of American households carry credit card debt today, with each household owing an average debt of $15,863, according to NerdWallet -- but it's not the worst of the bad news.

    That number -- $15,863 -- is nearly twice the level of debt ($8,300) that credit card resource website CardHub says is "unsustainable." But instead of working this debt level down, consumers are growing their credit card debt levels, NerdWallet statistics show, with May figures (the latest available) clocking in at about a 2.11 percent annualized growth rate compared to April, and 3.19 percent compared to May 2014.

    None of the above sounds particularly encouraging. But one company thinks it has found a solution nonetheless.

    Introducing Payoff.com

    Billing itself as a "next generation financial services company," 6-year-old Payoff.com of Costa Mesa, California, says it's on a mission to help consumers get control of their credit card debts and pay them off for good -- "faster, easier, and cheaper" than traditional banks might prefer.

    According to S&P Capital IQ, Payoff.com is a privately held company, and its partner First Electronic Bank, which provides the funds for its loans, is similarly privately owned. Thus, neither company needs to charge high rates to keep public shareholders happy and rolling in profits.

    So What Do They Do?

    Say you're an incredibly "average" credit card holder, owing about $16,000 on several credit cards, and paying 15 percent annual interest on these cards. (Bankrate.com (RATE) subsidiary CreditCards.com confirms that rates have averaged about 15 percent over the past six months). That's right in the sweet spot for the customers Payoff is trying to help. According to the company, it offers "Payoff Loans" of anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000 to help consumers get out of debt.

    Payoff does this by first requiring you to fill out an online application for a loan. Be aware -- Payoff currently operates in 29 states and the District of Columbia. It doesn't, however, currently operate in: Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, Wisconsin or Wyoming.

    Here's Your Money...

    Once you've been approved, the company deposits a loan, sufficient to pay off your credit card debt, directly to your bank account. Note that you should ask for a bit more than you owe, however, to account for the Platform Fee. (More on this in a moment).

    Use this money to pay off your cards. At this point, you owe no credit card lenders. Your only debt is to Payoff.com.

    Ideally, Payoff's loan will carry an interest rate lower than what your credit cards were charging. Examples given on the company's website suggest that a 15 percent or 20 percent variable interest rate, charged by a credit card-issuing bank, might be replaced with a fixed-rate Payoff loan of as little as 13 percent (rates can, however, range from as much as 19.65 percent to as little as 6 percent, depending largely on the duration of the loan you request).

    Now for the "Platform Fee." Essentially an origination fee covering the overhead and costs for providing you the loan, Payoff charges 2 percent to 5 percent of the loan amount up front. This Platform Fee is deducted immediately from your loan, which is why you'll want to request a total loan amount a bit more than the value of the credit card debts you plan to pay off.

    In the interests of full disclosure, Payoff incorporates this Platform Fee into the annual percentage rate on the loan it quotes you, telling you the notional APR so that you know what the interest rate would be, if the Platform Fee were spread out over the cost of the loan (instead of being paid off up front, as it is in fact). Thus, for example, Payoff would describe a loan at 6 percent actual interest as costing you 8 percent APR; a 19.65 percent interest rate would similarly be quoted at 22 percent -- so that you know the true cost of the loan you are getting.

    Crucially, though, this Platform fee is the only fee Payoff ordinarily charges for its loan. (There may be a returned payment fee if one of your payments bounces, however.) In particular, Payoff does not charge late fees, eliminating a major stumbling block to many consumers' journey out of debt.

    Details, Details

    A Payoff customer service representative contacted by phone, Lisa, warned that it's difficult to give a precise rate without knowing a customer's financial information, which requires a credit check. But even so, the company's online calculator suggests that a $16,000 loan, taken out by a customer with a merely "good" FICO score of 660 to 690, could save as much as $19,673 and pay off his or her debt 31 years faster using Payoff.com, as opposed to paying off a 15 percent interest rate on a credit card with minimum payments. The time needed to pay off a Payoff loan varies with the customer, of course. A Payoff representative named Billy noted that customers are given as many as 15 different options to choose from, offering the ability to pay either more than, the same as, or less than their former monthly credit card payments. And generally speaking, the more you pay per month, the faster you'll pay off your debt.

    Which sounds like a pretty good deal. If you happen to live in one of the 29 lucky states (and one District) that Payoff serves, it might be worth the 60 seconds it takes to fill out an application, and see if they can give you a good rate.

    Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith has a lot of credit card debt ... and he pays it off in full every month. (He doesn't imagine the credit card companies are very happy about that.) In the spirit of full disclosure: When putting together the list of states where Payoff doesn't operate, he had to use spell-check to get the spelling on "Massachusetts" just right.

    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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    Mature Parents Frustrated With Adult Son Living At Home
    Getty Images
    By Carleton English

    NEW YORK -- Even an improving job market isn't enough to get millennials to move out of their childhood homes, says Goldman Sachs (GS). At least not when they're still grappling with high student debt, low starting salaries and increasing rents.

    Unemployment among 18- to 34-year-olds has dropped from a high of nearly 14 percent in 2010, just two years after the financial crisis, to 8 percent. That's almost reaching the 7 percent rate in 2007, but it hasn't enabled the generation born from 1980 to 2000 to match historical patterns in achieving one of the most basic adult milestones -- getting their own places.

    With a population of about 92 million, millennials are the largest generation in U.S. history, outnumbering even baby boomers, so their spending patterns are important for both individual companies and the economy as a whole.

    "While moving into a rental unit usually presents a lower hurdle than becoming a homeowner, young people who now have jobs but struggled in recent years might not have enough savings to cover an initial deposit or might fall short of landlords' expectations for a potential tenant's credit score, savings, or income history," David Mericle, an analyst for Goldman Sachs, wrote in the report.

    According to the Goldman report, which cites U.S. Commerce Department data, the percentage of young adults living at home grew from around 26 percent in 2006 to about 32 percent in 2012. In 2014, it started to decline, but progress toward pre-recession levels has stalled in the past six months.

    The chart below compares the percentage of young adults living at home in 2007 and in 2015, across various employment statuses. While it would make sense that the unemployed and under-employed part-time workers -- those who would like full time work but are unable to find it -- would stay at home, even the ones with the jobs they want are doing so.

    Despite gains elsewhere in the economy, what's keeping millennials at home may be summed up the most easily by the statement of Jimmy McMillan, the failed New York state gubernatorial candidate: "The rent is too damn high."

    Since 1981, the ratio of rent to income has climbed 15 percentage points for all workers and more than twice that much -- 35 percentage points -- for workers under the age of 34. A spread between younger and older workers is expected as incomes tend to rise with age while housing needs tend to flatten. (The apartment you had in your early 20s would likely be unsuitable for starting a family in your 30s, but the house you have in your 30s could reasonably fit your needs for decades.)

    However, factoring in a slow career start coupled with a high student debt burden makes the dream of renting a home improbable -- let alone the dream of owning one.

    Not helping matters is that wage growth has been slow in recent quarters and, when adjusted for inflation, salaries have largely been flat since the late 1970s. That's not lost on Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen.

    "We have been through a period in which wages have been, in real terms, growing less rapidly than productivity," Yellen said in testimony to the Senate Banking Committee in July.

    "It is evidence of some remaining slack in the labor market, so my forecast is that we will see some pickup in wage growth. But it is important to remember that there has been increasing wage inequality in the United States over a long period of time, certainly going back to the mid- to late-70s."

     

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    Back To School Supplies At A Target Corp. Store Ahead Of The  School Year Starting
    David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesYou can get your student ready without breaking your budget.
    By Karen Cordaway

    According to the National Retail Federation, the average family will spend roughly $630 on kids in kindergarten through 12th grade and $899 for college students. If you're looking to slash these costs or get more for your money, here are some tips to do so.

    1. Spend less out of the gate. If you're looking to get a head start on stretching your dollars before you even begin to shop, Shelley Hunter of Giftcards.com recommends purchasing discounted gift cards in advance and explains how it's one of the easiest ways to guarantee savings on your back-to-school expenses.

    "Consumers can slash their bill and save anywhere from 2 or 3 percent to significant double-digit discounts," she says. If you're flexible with where you shop, Hunter suggests letting the discount lead the way. Items like school supplies can be purchased at a variety of stores; look for the savings before you pick the destination.

    2. Don't compete with the pack for uniforms. If you purchase school uniforms from retail stores, consider stocking up when items are discounted. I recently bought some uniforms before the actual back-to-school rush. You can avoid crowds and shopping at other times of the year when items are harder to find or may cost more.

    My daughters prefer the skinny cut when it comes to shorts and pants over Bermuda shorts and the standard uniform pants. If you wait for "the big sale" or when everyone else is shopping, you might not get what you're looking for before the school year starts.

    Consider the same strategy for certain must-have fits, cuts, styles or coveted brands, especially for pants. While clearance can be king for steep discounts, it can be a gamble on what ends up in your wardrobe. On a recent trip to what I consider an overpriced store, my daughter made a dash for the jean area. We found jeggings and other jeans she liked. They fit her well and were on sale.

    3. Run to the deals. Mary Hoover from MissionToSave.com likes to approach back-to-school shopping as a marathon and not a sprint. She enjoys shopping the weekly advertised sales for the best back-to-school supply deals. This strategy means staying on top of the ads and shopping multiple times to get the lowest prices on each item.

    If you don't have the time or endurance to do this footwork on your own, Hoover shares her wallet-friendly finds on her site each week. She provides readers with a list of the best current deals so shoppers can mimic the same smart spending strategies. She adds that she's on the lookout all year for great back-to-school deals, including during post-season clearance sales.

    4. Work as a team. For Ashley Barnett, a contributor for MoneyUnder30.com, shopping tasks are split between the parents. She and her husband go through all of their kids' clothes first to get a sense of what is needed. Then, they plot out what to buy with a set dollar amount in mind. When they actually shop in person, they divide and conquer to get the shopping done. Each parent takes one of the children and gets what's on the list. This works well for their family and gets the shopping done in half the time.

    Linsey Knerl of 1099Mom.com explains how she and her family plan one big shopping trip about a month before school starts with the whole family. Then her husband, Samuel Knerl, later goes back to the store to fill in any gaps that they may have missed the first time around.

    They prefer in-store shopping for back to school. "When you're dealing with clothes and electronics for five kids, it's important that we can touch and feel the merchandise," she says. They also take advantage of the opportunity costs of stocking up on loss-leaders such as notebooks and socks. They can use the supplies later and shop less often, especially since they live in a rural area and get to the store less than once a week.

    5. Make a dash for secondhand. The recent NRF survey reports that the average family with college students will spend $126 to furnish dorm rooms. If you're looking to slash this expense, consider getting items secondhand.

    Doug Nordman of the TheMilitaryGuide.com explains that your back-to-school shopping is a lot cheaper when it's done at Goodwill and garage sales. Be on alert during spring cleaning and summer moving season, he suggests. People are looking to offload their stuff and that can work to your wallet's advantage.

    6. Relay your wish list to friends. You can always send out a social media search party to potentially get your furniture needs met. If you're brave enough to ask on Facebook, you might be one status update away from getting a freebie or low-cost piece from local friends or family. You can offer to pick up furniture they might be looking to ditch.

    When you're running around to find good deals on back-to-school shopping list, use the tips mentioned to spend less and get the items needed on your list.

    Karen Cordaway is a teacher and writer who currently shares money saving tips on her website, MoneySavingEnthusiast.com.

     

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    Android Security Hole Found By Researcher
    Chris Goodney/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesFrom repairs to accessories to apps, your smartphone costs you a lot more than the monthly bill you pay.
    By U.S. News Staff

    Many smartphone apps, including budgeting and price comparison tools, can help you save money. But data plans exact a steeper monthly cost than most simple cellphone plans, and in-app purchases lead to overspending. Here are eight hidden costs associated with smartphones and tips on how to reduce them:

    1. The data plan. The monthly fee you pay for access to the Internet and streaming capabilities costs anywhere from $15 a month to as high as $80 or more, depending on your usage needs. If you use more data than your plan allows, you'll be charged "overage" fees on top of that monthly fee. To keep costs down, assess what you need from your data plan during a month of typical use, and choose the cheaper plan that will still keep you from going over the data limit -- and racking up those extra fees.

    2. Apps. Apps are what make smartphones so invaluable to busy people: You can shop, check your bank account, play games, track what friends are up to and follow social media accounts through apps. They can also come with a price, though: Many apps cost money to download, and others allow for in-app purchases. You could end up spending more money through apps just because it's so easy.

    In fact, a 2012 survey of 1,005 adults by the American Institute of CPAs found that more than half of respondents reported technology has made spending money easier. The respondents who said they use their smartphones to download songs, apps and other products spent an average $38 a month on those purchases.

    AICPA suggests giving yourself a budget for smartphone-related purchases and setting up a separate credit card, with a low limit, to keep yourself from going overboard with those spur-of-the moment purchases.

    3. Memory. While basic smartphones come with a decent amount of memory, buying extra gigabytes to store all your music, photos and other items can be as much as $100 or more. That increases the total price of the phone. Instead, you can use a free cloud-based storage system or transfer items you want to save, like photos, to your computer's hard drive.

    4. Headphones. While most smartphones come with a standard pair of headphones, like the classic white earbuds with iPhones, not everyone is happy with that basic model. Some consumers opt to buy a specialized Bluetooth headset or Beats headphones, which start around $200.

    5. Protection. To protect your phone, you'll probably want to consider buying some kind of case for it, which can range from $10 to $30 and up, depending on how fancy you want to get. Purchasing insurance for your phone is another way to guard against losses and accidents, but it's not cheap. A typical two-year insurance plan will run between $100 and $200. Many financial experts say it makes more sense to insure the phone yourself -- in other words, to pony up the cash for a replacement or repairs if necessary. In the meantime, you can reduce your risk of needing to buy a new phone prematurely by taking good care of it and using that protective case.

    6. Repairs. If your phone starts malfunctioning or needs a new screen, those repairs can come with a high price tag. According to Apple, replacing or repairing a broken iPhone 6 screen costs $109, and a replacement screen on an iPhone 6 Plus or iPhone 5 costs $129. Just another reason to buy some protective gear and to always use it.

    7. Mindless shopping. Many people play on their phones while unwinding from the day, and if you have your favorite shopping apps such as Amazon, Keep Shopping or Poshmark on your phone, then you just might make some extra purchases. Consider deleting the apps or exerting some self-control during those hours when you're most likely to buy items you don't really need.

    8. Children. If you let your children play with your phone, they can accidentally purchase items, and sometimes a lot of them. It's such a widespread issue that Apple offers a refund process for purchases made by minors without parents' knowledge. (Parents have to file all receipts and make a request for a refund through the company.) Parents should also consider strengthening their password settings and turning off in-app purchases on their phones as a preventive measure.

     

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    Senior businessman pulling facial expression and looking up, close-up
    Shutterstock

    By Louis DeNicola

    Cheapism.com has created and curated dozens of lists that share tips and tricks for saving money. But this post takes a different tack: highlighting things that probably aren't worth doing even if they save a little money. These behaviors hover right on the edge of being just too weird or downright gross.

    Eating Dog Food. There have been several exhortations in the "frugalsphere" to try eating dog food. You may wonder who takes this tip seriously, but apparently some people do, and the consenus is that dry dog food is tastier than wet. After looking at how much high-end dog food costs, making the switch might not save much money at all.

    Skipping Showers. Of course, conserving water for ecological reasons is important (do you live in California?), and everyone has those days when a shower just doesn't fit in. But keeping clean seems pretty fundamental. Those who want to pare the water bill when showering should invest in a shower head with an on/off switch. Get wet, turn off the water while lathering up, and then rinse off quickly.

    Splitting Toilet Paper Rolls. Using single-ply toilet paper isn't the best experience, but it's not necessarily disgusting. And yes, buying two-ply rolls and splitting the sheets will probably save a little money. But considering the time it takes to split and re-roll toilet paper, are all those wasted hours worth the small change? An alternative way to save on toilet paper is to install a bidet. Buy one online for about $35; installation is simple.

    Eliminating Toilet Paper Altogether. Moving beyond splitting TP rolls or using a bidet, some families have made the switch to cloth wipes, according to the EnviroMom blog. Used wipes are dropped into a bin filled with water and bleach, where they soak until laundry time. For many people, this tip is surely a step too far.

    Reusing Paper Towels. Drying and reusing paper towels or napkins is a nice way to limit waste, but there are better ways to save money. This may be a case where those cloth wipes come in handy. Use them as napkins and for cleaning up spills and then throw in the wash when it's time to do a load.

    Dumpster Diving for Food. Yes, most people know one bakery on the other side of town that throws out perfectly good day-old bread. And it's true that many supermarkets throw away food that's far from spoiled, and that some folks have few other sources of nutrition. For the most part, though, dumpster diving is kinda distasteful.

    Dumpster Diving at Cemeteries. Dumpster diving for food may be a tad gross, but dumpster diving in a cemetery to find flowers seems downright disrespectful. If the temptation to scrounge for flowers is too strong, at least go to the dumpster of a nearby big-box store.

    Toilet-Training the Cat. Actually, this is pretty cool, albeit peculiar. The YouTube training videos may seem a bit bizarre, and the basic premise is certainly way out there, but potty-training the cat will save a load of money on litter and air fresheners.

    Hoarding. Hoarding sometimes stems from the belief that when something is super-cheap it's good to stock up, or that it's worth stockpiling necessities "just in case." The upshot can be dangerous. Hoarding disorder may become serious and shouldn't be dismissed with the same lightheartedness directed at the other oddball ideas on this list. Anyone who is experiencing these tendencies, or knows someone who appears to have hoarding disorder, should consult a professional.

    Spamming Friends. Cheapism has written about how to get rebates and discounts by sharing deals and recent purchases with friends, but there's a limit. Over-sharers should cut it out now or they'll find they don't have any friends left with whom to share what's really important.

    Taking In Cast-Off Furniture. Before protesting, read on. Furnishing digs with items rescued from the sidewalk (or a garage sale) is an obvious money-saving strategy. The piece might need a quick sanding and paint job, or a little spot-clean and patch, and it will be as good as new. But for those who live in an area where bed bugs or other small pests run rampant, bringing an upholstered chair into the home is potentially gross and very costly.

    Eating a Cup Noodles Diet. This is an easy way to live off a few dollars a day, but the Cup Noodles diet provides several times the recommended daily intake of sodium. Don't be surprised if the initial savings are short-lived because one's health from excess sodium may be, too.

    Stealing Media. Stealing is just plain wrong, regardless the object of desire. At one time illegally downloading music, TV shows, and movies was the only way to get access to a wide variety of media without heading to the store. No longer. With free streaming services such as Pandora or Spotify and inexpensive options such as Netflix and Hulu Plus, it's a snap to find something to listen to or watch on the cheap. Heck, there are even deals at movie theaters for those who know where to look.

    Knitting with Dog Hair. Thanks to the website Cracked for sharing the fact that this is something people do. "Knitting with Dog Hair" is an actual book, published way back in 1997, that details the ins and outs of recycling the hairs Fido sheds into wearable (?) clothing. It may be time to find a different craft.

     

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    In this photo taken Wednesday, June 10, 2015, job seekers attend a job fair in Sunrise, Fla. The Labor Department reports on the number of people who applied for unemployment benefits the week ending Aug. 1 on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
    Alan Diaz/AP
    By JOSH BOAK

    WASHINGTON -- Slightly more Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week, but their numbers remain near historic lows in a sign that the job market is healthy.

    The Labor Department said Thursday that applications for jobless aid rose 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 270,000. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, dropped 6,500 to 268,250. That average has fallen nearly 10 percent over the past year, close to levels last seen in 2000.

    Applications are a proxy for layoffs. Their steady decline suggests that employers are confident about the health of the economy and prospects for continued growth.

    On Friday, the government will release its July employment report. Economists expect that employers added another 225,000 jobs last month as the unemployment rate was unchanged at 5.3 percent, according to data firm FactSet.

    The drop in people seeking unemployment benefits has corresponded with the solid pace of hiring.

    Employers have added an average of 221,000 jobs a month in the past three months, driving down the unemployment rate to a seven-year low of 5.3 percent. The economy has created 2.9 million jobs over the past 12 months, gains that helped boost spending on housing and autos.

    The July jobs report will influence when the Federal Reserve decides to raise interest rates from near-zero levels. Fed Chair Janet Yellen has said that it may hike rates later this year, which would end an economic stimulus in place since late 2008 that was designed to boost borrowing, spending and investing in the economy.

    Many economists say that job gains at the current level should cause the Fed to raise rates in September, although other economists expect the rate increase to begin in December.

     

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    IBM Chief Executive Officer Ginni Rometty Speaks At The Economic Club Of Washington
    Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images IBM CEO Ginni Rometty
    By Supantha Mukherjee

    IBM said it would buy Merge Healthcare, which provides medical images and clinical systems, in a $1 billion deal and combine it with its Watson Health analytics unit.

    Merge Healthcare shareholders will get $7.13 a share at a premium of 31.8 percent to Wednesday's close, the companies said.

    Merge Healthcare (MRGE) shares were up 29.5 percent at $7 in early trading. IBM (IBM) shares were little changed at $156.78.

    The equity portion of the offer is valued at $713.1 million, according to Reuters calculations based on 100 million Merge Healthcare shares outstanding as of June 30.

    IBM plans to combine data and images from Merge Healthcare's medical imaging management platform with Watson computing platform's image analytics.

    Cloud-based Watson computing system analyzes high volumes of data, understands complex questions posed in natural language and proposes evidence-based answers.

    The deal is IBM's third major health-related buy since launching its Watson Health unit in April.

     

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    A T-Mobile US Inc. Store Ahead Of Earnings Figures
    Craig Warga/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    By Alina Selyukh

    WASHINGTON -- The Federal Communications Commission has denied T-Mobile US' request for more airwaves to be set aside for smaller wireless companies like itself to bid on during a government auction next year.

    The unanimous vote Thursday by the five-member commission came after months of T-Mobile's lobbying for stricter limits for AT&T's and Verizon Communications' participation in the auction of prized low-frequency airwaves.

    Reuters previously reported that agency staff had found existing restrictions were sufficient to ensure that smaller carriers get a chance to outbid Verizon and AT&T, which dominate those low frequencies.

    The auction, tentatively slated to start in March, will be a landmark one for the U.S. wireless industry as it will give participants their first chance since 2008 to buy low-frequency airwaves, which are valued for their ability to carry heavy data over long distances and through obstacles such as buildings.

    The FCC voted last year to curb participation of carriers that held dominant slices of low-frequency airwaves in each market by reserving a piece of spectrum for bidding only by non-dominant carriers, but not to the extent T-Mobile sought.

    The vote was something of a compromise among the FCC's Democrats, who wanted to give smaller carriers a leg up while ensuring that restrictions on the big carriers wouldn't cut the proceeds of the auction, expected to be the agency's largest.

    T-Mobile Chief Executive Officer John Legere on Twitter played down the policy loss, touting the existence of the reserved spectrum in the first place.

    "Good news -- the reserve includes great quality spectrum & looks like the FCC will be monitoring closely so duopoly can't game the system," Legere tweeted, referring to the top two U.S. carriers, Verizon and AT&T.

    T-Mobile (TMUS) shares were down 1.2 percent at $40.24 in afternoon trading, while Verizon (VZ) slipped 0.6 percent and AT&T (T) fell 1.6 percent.

     

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    Financial Markets Wall Street
    Richard Drew/AP
    By Noel Randewich

    NEW YORK -- Wall Street ended sharply lower Thursday as weak earnings reports from media companies stirred fears that more viewers are ditching cable TV, dragging the sector to its worst two-day loss since the financial crisis.

    The sell-off was compounded by nervousness ahead of key employment data Friday that could provide clues about the timing of the first Federal Reserve interest rate hike in almost a decade.

    Viacom (VIAB) fell 14.2 percent to its lowest in almost four years after reporting lower-than-expected quarterly revenue due to weakness in its cable TV business. Walt Disney (DIS) was off 1.8 percent and down for a second session after it lowered profit guidance Tueday for its cable networks unit.

    All the media stocks are down and it seems people just want to get out of the sector at any cost and take any loss.

    The S&P 500 media index lost 2.1 percent and notched its biggest two-day fall since November 2008, with Time Warner (TWX), Comcast (CMCSA) and CBS (CBS) all in the red and Twenty-First Century Fox (FOXA) down 6.4 percent.

    "All the media stocks are down and it seems people just want to get out of the sector at any cost and take any loss," CLSA analyst Vasily Karasyov said.

    Viacom's results and Disney's warning put the spotlight on a trend of viewers shifting from cable TV to Internet-based services such as Netflix (NFLX), which rose 2.2 percent.

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell 0.7 percent to end at 17,419.75 and the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC lost 0.8 percent to 2,083.56. The Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) dropped 1.6 percent to 5,056.44, its biggest one-day tumble since early July.

    Eight of the 10 major S&P sectors were lower, with the health index's 2.1 percent fall leading the decliners. Allergan (AGN) fell 5.1 percent after the Irish drugmaker reported a second-quarter loss.

    In other earnings-driven stock moves, Tesla (TSLA) fell 8.9 percent and Keurig Green Mountain (GMCR) slumped as much as 29.8 percent after reporting disappointing numbers.

    Investors were also jittery ahead of the release of U.S. non-farm payroll numbers, which are expected to have risen by 223,000 in July, matching gains in June.

    The Fed has said it will raise rates only when it sees a sustained recovery in the economy.

    Higher Earnings, Lower Revenues

    After the bell, Zynga (ZNGA) fell 6 percent after it posted a disappointing quarterly report.

    With about three-quarters of the S&P 500 companies having reported, second-quarter earnings are estimated to have increased 1.6 percent while revenues are projected to have fallen 3.4 percent.

    However, valuations look stretched. The S&P 500 is trading at a 25 percent premium to its historical median price-to-sales ratio, Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at BMO Private Bank said in a note to clients.

    In Thursday's session, declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by a rate of 1.47 to 1. On the Nasdaq, that rate was 2.46 to 1 favoring decliners. The S&P 500 index posted 18 new 52-week highs and 44 new lows; the Nasdaq composite saw 64 new highs and 169 new lows.

    About 7.8 billion shares changed hands on all U.S. exchanges, well above an average 6.77 billion in the past five sessions, according to BATS Global Markets data.

    -Tanya Agrawal and Lehar Maan contributed reporting.

    What to watch Friday:
    • The Labor Department releases employment data for July at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    • The Federal Reserve releases consumer credit data for June at 3 p.m.
    Earnings Season
    These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:
    • Cablevision Systems (CVC)
    • Groupon (GRPN)
    • Hershey (HSH)
    • Southeby's (BID)
    • Whitewave Foods (WWAV)

     

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    Family shouting on mountain
    Getty ImagesPlaying with your grandchildren can help to keep you active in retirement.
    By Tom Sightings

    No one admits that they want to be labeled or put into a box. It seems so confining. But, actually, most people do. It gives them an identity, and a group where they fit in.

    Here are 10 basic retirement lifestyles, some with a bit of tongue-in-cheek. But face it, if you're retired, you probably fit at least partially into one of these categories. If you're not retired, maybe this will give you an idea of what to expect after you hand in your papers and accept your gold watch.

    Traveler. You've already been to the national parks and Europe. You like to read articles about travel to exotic places. Now you're looking to expand your horizons and hit some of the must-see destinations like the Pyramids, the Great Wall or Machu Picchu. Next you'll be trying a different twist on the standard European vacation, perhaps venturing to Latvia or Romania. And instead of just visiting France or Spain, you could take a river cruise on the Loire or walk the Camino de Santiago.

    Social butterfly. A book club simply isn't enough. Perhaps you belong to three book clubs, or bridge or lunch clubs. You feel like a failure if you find yourself at home more than one or two nights a week. You like to dance, party and go to meetings. It doesn't really matter the topic. You just like to have places to go and people to see.

    Loafer. You're a type B personality. You like to watch TV, are a voracious reader and could spend hours listening to music. You are at your happiest when wearing a t-shirt and slippers or padding around the house barefoot, feeling comfortable and content.

    Dreamer. No matter where you are physically, your mind is somewhere else. Maybe you're planning a vacation, researching the place where you're going to retire or trying to decide on a political cause to get involved in. Your fantasy life is so active that there isn't much time to actually carry out your plans. That's OK. Your mind is occupied, you're not spending too much money and you're safe from the dangers of the world.

    Artist. You carry a camera everyplace you go, and your walls are covered with photographs. They are big and small, color and black and white, pretty sunsets, stately architecture and sharp-angled abstracts. Or maybe you're into knitting, crocheting, painting or woodwork. You might spend your weekend prowling around arts festivals, or maybe your work is featured on Etsy.

    Athlete. Maybe you play in the over-50 softball league, go hunting with your buddies or play tennis at the club. Whatever the sport, it is what you live for. Then there's the golfer who takes the game a little further than the casual player. Finally, there's the fan. He's got the hat, jersey, license plate and season tickets. He's in a league of his own.

    Worker. Some people never retire. They love their work. Sometimes their colleagues are their friends, while other people just don't want to sit around at home. If forced to retire, you plan to find another job. You might spend your retirement years consulting, offering your services to a nonprofit or down in the basement working on a craft or home improvement project.

    Stock market guru. You read Barron's and The Wall Street Journal. You watch Bloomberg and CNBC. You know about alpha and beta, price-to-earnings ratios as well as all the trendy new products. Every evening you log onto a financial website and check the balance in your IRA or 401(k). Win or lose, you know you are on top of things.

    Volunteer. You usually focus on one particular cause. Maybe it's your church, where you volunteer on the auction committee, help out at the church rummage sale, sing in the choir and spend Sundays as a deacon. Or maybe you're a volunteer fireman, or a member of the Lion's Club or Kiwanis Club. You're directing traffic at the Fourth of July celebration, grilling hamburgers at the club picnic and serving dinners at the annual fundraiser. You enjoy helping out your community, and you know everyone in town.

    Professional grandparent. She babysits the grandchildren two or three times a week. He has installed swings, play sets and ball fields in his backyard. You live down the street from your children. You see no greater joy in life than spending time with your family.

    Tom Sightings blogs at Sightings at 60.

     

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    Mature Woman Looking at Household Bills
    Getty Images
    By Mark Miller

    CHICAGO -- Retirees are facing a double whammy next year: no inflation adjustment in their Social Security benefits and a whopping 52 percent jump in certain Medicare premiums.

    The Medicare premium hikes will hit only 30 percent of beneficiaries: those who aren't protected from a "hold-harmless" provision in federal law that prohibits any premium hike that produces a net reduction in Social Security benefits. But the increases suggest strongly that the recent trend of moderate health care inflation is ending.

    Social Security Changes

    Final figures for 2016 won't be available until the fall, but the recent annual report of Social Security's trustees projects that there won't be any cost-of-living adjustment next year.

    The COLA is determined by averaging together third-quarter inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers. Inflation has been flat due to collapsing oil prices.

    The forecast underscores the need for a better gauge of the health care inflation that disproportionately affects seniors.

    Advocates have argued for years that an alternative, the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly, would do just that.

    If the CPI-E had been in place from 1985 to 2014, Social Security benefits last year would have been 6.5 percent higher than they are today, according to an analysis by J.P. Morgan Asset Management.

    The Health Care Front

    Health care inflation has been quiet lately -- annual growth in total Medicare spending averaged 4.1 percent from 2010 to 2014, compared with 9 percent from 2000 to 2010 -- even though the number of enrolled beneficiaries rose.

    But renewed cost pressures are pointing toward much higher Medicare premiums starting next year, according to the Medicare trustees' annual report.

    Consider the monthly premium for Part B (outpatient services), which has stayed at $104.90 for the past three years. The Medicare trustees projected that the premium will jump 52 percent, to $159.30 for beneficiaries who aren't protected by the hold-harmless provision.

    That would include anyone enrolled in Medicare who isn't yet taking Social Security benefits due to a decision to delay enrollment. It also would include new enrollees in Medicare next year. (The increase also would be applied to low-income beneficiaries whose premiums are paid by state Medicaid programs).

    High-income retirees -- another group that isn't protected by the hold-harmless provision -- also will be hit hard if the trustee projections hold.

    Affluent seniors already pay more for Medicare Part B and also Part D for prescription-drug coverage. This year, for example, higher-income seniors pay between $146.90 and $335.70 monthly for Part B, depending on their income, rather than $104.90.

    The Medicare trustees now project that to jump even more.

    "When you combine it all, it's looking pretty ugly," says Sharon Carson, a retirement strategist at J.P. Morgan Asset Management.

    Higher costs for the affluent look like a trend that could accelerate further. The recently passed "doc fix" legislation (which corrects long-standing problems with reimbursement rates to physicians) shifts a higher percentage of costs to higher-income seniors starting in 2018.

    Seniors with incomes of $133,000 to $160,000 would pay 65 percent of total premium costs, rather than 50 percent today. Seniors with incomes between $160,000 and $214,000 would pay 80 percent, as they do today.

    "Congress will probably go back to that well again," predicts Carson, and she thinks one possible outcome will be lower income thresholds.

    More Impact

    Medicare premiums aren't the only area where seniors may feel the impact of impending health care inflation. The median health care cost for a 65-year-old in 2014 was $4,400, according to recent J.P. Morgan research; the firm expects those costs to rise at an annual rate of 6.1 percent over the next 20 years, to $17,000 at age 85 (the costs include Medicare Part B, Part D, and Medigap premiums, out-of-pocket expenses, and vision and dental services.)

    If you want to be prudent in your retirement planning, Carson advises assuming inflation of 7 percent going forward. Coping strategies include keeping at least some portion of your portfolio in equities well into retirement, and taking steps to minimize ordinary income, with an aim to stay out of the high-income premium surcharge brackets.

    "The common wisdom is to withdraw money from the IRA or 401(k) last," says Carson. "But doing some of that in the early years -- or doing some Roth conversion -- can help."

    (The writer is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

     

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  • 08/06/15--22:00: 3 Worst Things to Buy Online
  • Filed under: , , , ,

    3 Worst Things to Buy Online

    By Andrea N. Browne

    Shopping online certainly has its advantages. You can easily compare prices without having to leave your home, and you can quickly search the Web for coupon codes to score bigger discounts. And, of course, your purchases can be delivered to your doorstep.

    While convenience is a huge plus, sometimes it is smarter to make purchases in person rather than online. For starters, you can judge the quality of a product better. You also don't have to worry about paying those pesky shipping fees. And for certain items, it can be much more effective to haggle over price face-to-face.

    Here are three things that you probably shouldn't buy online:

    Groceries

    Ordering groceries online can save you the hassle of a trip to the supermarket. But if you are picky about your purchases and want to ensure that you're getting the choicest meats, fruits and vegetables, you should go to your local grocer and select everything yourself.

    Also, buying groceries online can be more expensive. For example, Peapod can charge $10 or more to delivery groceries from your local supermarket. And don't count on Amazon to undercut the competition. Our research found that warehouse clubs and grocery chains beat Amazon's prices on most food items.

    Bicycles

    If you're in the market for a new bike, the Internet is a great place to do research. But when it comes time to buy, most cyclists will want to visit a bike store in person to test-ride a few models. In particular pay attention to size. To get the most out of a new bike that might cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars, it should be tailored to your measurements.

    Keep in mind too that it can be an inconvenience to get warranty repairs done on a bike ordered online. You'll need to pack it up and ship it to the seller or manufacturer. With a locally purchased bike, you can simply take it over to the shop to get the work done.

    Furniture

    There are several reasons to think twice about ordering furniture online. Start with shipping. Many Web retailers levy a delivery surcharge on top of the standard shipping fee. Typically, the larger the item, the higher the surcharge. Brick-and-mortar stores usually just charge a single fee for delivery. And you'll have a better shot at getting the delivery fee reduced or waived, not to mention getting a lower purchase price, by negotiating in-person with a furniture salesman.

    In addition, the shopping experts we talked to said it's difficult to judge furniture online. You need to see the colors in-person, touch the fabrics and sit on couches and chairs to determine quality and comfort.

    Take a look at our complete list of the worst things to buy online.

     

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    Group Of Friends Jumping Over Tree Trunk On Countryside Walk
    Getty Images
    By Gina Martinez

    Summer officially ends Sept. 22, but for most of us it ends much sooner. Nonetheless, there's still plenty of time for summery activities. Take advantage of free and low-cost offerings in your area, and get some practical stuff done. Here are 25 things to do before the school year starts and the weather turns.

    Attend an outdoor movie or concert. Parks all over the country show movies and concerts during the summer. You can sit on the lawn, have a picnic, and enjoy the entertainment, surrounded by fellow locals. (Cheapism.com assembled a guide to free concerts in 15 U.S. cities.) It's always worth checking your community's website, social media pages, and parks department for showings and performances. The free Bandsintown app (for iOS and Android) enables easy searches for concerts in and beyond urban areas.

    Discover a new podcast. If you're still feeling withdrawal from the Peabody-winning podcast "Serial," which wrapped last winter, you're not alone (and don't worry -- NPR has confirmed that a second and third season are coming). But there are tons of podcasts out there to obsess over this summer, so find a new fandom to join. Popular titles include "Freakonomics Radio," "On Being," "Radiolab," "Stuff You Should Know," and "Undisclosed," which examines the same case as "Serial."

    Dive in. Ocean waters are at their highest temperatures in August, usually reaching somewhere in the comfortable 75- to 85-degree range depending on the region. This goes for lakes as well, although the far north waters run slightly cooler. What are you waiting for? Find a stylish, affordable swimsuit and a swimming hole near you and take the plunge. For the kids, head to dollar stores for cheap beach toys including water noodles, rafts, buckets and shovels, sand toys, and beach balls. Don't forget the sunscreen.

    Make popsicles. Making popsicles is a fun summer activity for the whole family, and searching for recipes on Pinterest yields seemingly endless variety. Pick up a set of reusable popsicle molds, which sell at Amazon, Walmart, and Target for as little as $10, and you'll be ready to go. Try making smoothie popsicles out of cheap summer fruits that will be harder to find fresh next season, such as watermelon, cherries, and berries.

    Enjoy a thunderstorm. June, July, and August are storm season compared with the rest of the year. Take some time to enjoy a thunderstorm safely by lighting a few candles, sitting on the porch, or simply watching from the window. Interesting fact: A 2013 study of 58,000 Facebook users suggested that "liking" thunderstorms (as well as "The Colbert Report" and curly fries, apparently) is a strong predictor of high intelligence.

    Explore your surroundings. Visiting and exploring a new-to-you neighborhood, town, or city near your own can be a fun, cheap activity on an idle summer day. Look at a map and go, or use the AroundMe app and website to identify places of interest and get directions. Summer is a good time for trying new activities, as well, so check out nearby libraries for free or inexpensive summer reading programs, free workshops, classes, arts and crafts, movie screenings, and more. Also, look into activities at community recreation centers for free or low-cost end-of-summer memories.

    Go to a festival. Summer months are buzzing with street festivals and parades. Popular festival themes include food and beverage, holidays, heritage, history, music, art, and more, so there's something for everyone. Admission is usually free, under $10, or by donation. Most cities post comprehensive festival guides online. Check out community centers for smaller town events. Festivals.com is also an excellent resource.

    Harvest your own fruit. Summer is berry season, and blueberry and strawberry farms often invite guests to pick their own. The top states in blueberry production are Michigan, Oregon, Washington, Georgia, and New Jersey. Pick-your-own strawberries are most abundant in California, Florida, Oregon, North Carolina, and Washington. Not to worry, though: There are berry farms throughout the country. Berry picking is a family-friendly summer activity that yields a tasty souvenir to bring home. Pay by the pound and don't be afraid to load up: Freeze the fruit and use it in pastries and smoothies through the winter. In addition, tomatoes, watermelons, and summer squash are at their peak in August. Check out the map at Epicurious for seasonal ingredients in your state, then visit PickYourOwn.org to learn where to harvest the freshest fruits and vegetables.

    Host a barbecue. Invite family and friends over for a barbecue -- one that won't cost a fortune. The cheapest meats include pork shoulder and chops, beef brisket and burgers, lamb breast, chicken, and chuck eye steak. Inexpensive veggies to grill during the summer are corn, red and Vidalia onions, eggplant, potatoes, zucchini, asparagus, bell peppers, and green beans. If you're grill-less, Cheapism has a guide to quality, low-price options.

    Knock out medical appointments. Dental, vision, annual physicals -- get them all done over the summer. (You know you'll regret it if you don't.) The blog Save on Medical has advice on getting affordable health care. Check out Costco for cheap eye exams and glasses.

    Learn something. Putting off learning a language? Want to know about something you missed in school, such as ancient Rome, game theory, or how currency works? There are thousands of free online courses from renowned universities. Most are audio and/or video courses, and many are interactive, so it's almost like being a real student, except that you're at home and learning on your own schedule. Check out the list of more than 1,000 options at Open Culture and the website Coursera.

    Plan a budget. Spend a day going over family finances and making a plan for the coming months. Come the holidays, you'll be prepared to celebrate with peace of mind and a full wallet. With school out, summer is also a prime time for speaking with children and teens about money.

    Plant a garden. Prep and plant your garden in late summer, and you should have abundant crops to harvest when fall arrives. For gardening in July, August, and September, Urban Farmers suggests planting beans, carrots, cucumbers, kale, lettuce, spinach, radishes, and cover crops, which are various seeds that add nutrients to the soil for the upcoming year. If you reap more than you can use, consider selling some crops at a farmers market to make a bit of side money. Gardening even has mood-lifting and stress-relieving effects.

    Pick up a summer beach read. Find a sunny lounge spot and indulge in a crime thriller, a light piece of chick lit, or a young adult dystopian fantasy. Just don't overpay -- there are lots of sources of free and cheap ebooks. Libraries are perfect for picks you won't want to own or reread, and most offer free ebooks for download to electronic devices. Also check out BookLending.com, a service that lets you borrow and lend ebooks for free. Thrift stores are a good place to score hard copies for super low prices.

    Shop clearance sales. This is the cheapest season to buy summer clothes, office supplies, camping gear, and more. Toward the tail end of summer, start looking at holiday travel deals. Keep in mind that some states offer tax-free weekends in August for school supplies and clothing. Finally, Labor Day and the preceding weekend are associated with clearance sales for major purchases such as appliances and cars.

    Sightsee at a national park. U.S. national parks are a cheap, worthwhile family excursion. Visit one near you and hike one of the many trails. Entrance fees tend to run $10 to $30 a vehicle, though there are ways to save. Take advantage of fee-free days -- the next two are Aug. 26 (the birthday of the National Park Service) and, just a few days after summer's end, Sept. 26 (National Public Lands Day). Another option to explore: national monuments, protected historical and natural landmarks where entrance fees are often lower than those at national parks.

    Simplify, simplify. If you missed spring cleaning, the more leisurely summer months are a great time to declutter and purge your stuff. A tip from the best-selling Marie Kondo book everyone is talking about: Ask yourself if an item brings you joy; if not, it goes. Sell or donate unused clothing, shoes, books, and bric-a-brac. The Simple Dollar shows how purging will save you money, even if you don't sell anything.

    Tour a museum. Most museums feature free days or free afternoon or evening hours. Typically these opportunities are offered during the week, making it a challenge to plan a visit during the school year, so make the most of summer freedom. Other museums are always free or "pay what you will," so search for local options.

    Start saving. Dreaming up a vacation -- or big purchase -- for this year, or even next spring or summer? Start saving now. There's plenty of helpful information about saving money on Cheapism.com and elsewhere online. Even $10 a day can really add up by the end of the year.

    Unplug. Summer's an ideal time to shut off electronic devices and enjoy pets, family, friends, and the freedom that comes from being unplugged. Studies link excessive technology use to stress, sleep disruption, obesity, and antisocial behavior.

    Volunteer. Before school starts and it's harder to coordinate family activities, round up the troops to participate in a school-supply drive, serve food at the local soup kitchen, walk shelter dogs, or play bingo at a retirement home. For families with older children, building homes through Habitat for Humanity can be rewarding. For high schoolers, community service is sometimes required or recommended for college applications, and with few demands on students' time, summer is the moment to rack up those volunteer hours.

    Watch a baseball game. Whether it's a major league, minor league, or amateur club game, this is a quintessential summer activity not to be missed. Minor league baseball games, especially, are a cheap, child-friendly option; kids often get to meet the players and join in on-field activities. Weekday games are usually the cheapest, and if you wait as late as possible to buy baseball tickets, you can score a sweet deal.

    Wear white clothes. It's a controversial etiquette point, famously opposed by Coco Chanel, but nevertheless, many people quote "no white after Labor Day" as a fashion rule. Obviously white clothes are generally cooler; historians call the rule a status symbol dating to 1920s elites who left dingy cities for warmer climates, then changed their wardrobes when returning after Labor Day. The "Great Gatsby" look can be emulated on a budget at stores such as Old Navy and Target. Then strap on a pair of designer look-alike sandals and enjoy the sunshine.

    Whip up your own ice cream. There's no need for an expensive appliance to make this classic summer treat. There are ways to churn ice cream at home that cost less than the store-bought stuff. One nifty method calls for a resealable plastic bag and salt. We found the results to be pretty tasty but recommend heavy cream instead of milk.

    Write a letter. Some say it's a dying art, but a thoughtful letter or postcard can really make someone's day. Blue Mountain has free printable greeting cards, and the website Teaching with TLC provides a fun guide for teaching letter writing to kids. Once they've nailed it, help them seek out a pen pal for the coming year.

     

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    girl in white and falling...
    Shutterstock
    By Marianne Hayes

    It's a popular fantasy: Out of the blue, you receive a lump sum of inheritance cash from a great aunt twice removed.

    Fast forward a few months, when you're either lounging on a catamaran in the Caribbean, zipping around town in a bright red convertible -- or kicking back in a French country house for the summer.

    But if that happened in real life, would you really be so extravagant?

    If you're familiar with the 90/10 rule, you may already know the better way to divvy up a financial windfall -- putting 90 percent of that money toward financial goals, and the remaining 10 percent toward a splurge.

    Of course, not everyone has the same visions for a windfall, which is why we asked three people to answer a simple (but loaded) question: What would you do if you unexpectedly came into $10,000?

    We chose that amount because it's enough to make a difference in someone's budget -- but not so high that your brain goes straight to purchasing a private jet.

    Then we asked Chad Nehring, a certified financial planner with Conceptual Financial Advisors in Appleton, Wisconsin, for his opinion on whether they could stand to make some smarter decisions with that money.

    The Small Business Owner Who's Got Big Plans

    Courtesy: Natalie Elizabeth Tackett
    Who: Natalie Elizabeth Tackett, 44, owner of a painting and restoration business, Bristol, Tennessee.

    What I'd Do With a $10,000 Windfall: "My top priority would be to pay off my credit card debt.

    "I'm currently in the hole for about $3,500 -- a mix of personal expenses and costs from getting my company off the ground three years ago.

    "I'd split the remaining $6,500 between buying a work van or truck (I'd sell my current car to help defray the cost), and on classes to keep my restoration, repair and decorative painting skills fresh.

    "Being self-employed is a 24/7 job. I predict my take-home pay will be about $20,000 this year -- roughly five times less than what I was making as a marketing director -- so I'm focused on growing my business.

    "That said, my personal expenses are low enough that I still live a good life. I'm not married and I don't have children, so I don't have to support a family. My car is paid off. And I own a charming stone cottage that costs me under $1,000 a month in mortgage payments.

    "Unfortunately, my emergency fund isn't too impressive -- several hundred dollars, at best. And I'm sure a financial planner would say I should boost the $10,000 I have in my Roth IRA."

    What the financial planner thinks: Nehring agrees that Natalie should first tackle her credit card debt -- but he isn't a fan of commingling personal and business expenses.

    "I wouldn't be opposed to having her pay off the personal credit card debt, but the business itself needs to pay the business expenses," he explains.

    He suggests that she could start by treating debt repayment as a line item in her company budget, which would help make the business become more self-sustaining.

    As for the work vehicle, Nehring advises against using any of the $10,000 for that. Instead, he says it's a better idea to sell her existing car, and buy a used truck or van for the same amount to avoid having to finance a new vehicle.

    Nehring also suggests putting savings higher on her priority list -- over continuing education, which could also be a line item in her business budget.

    "I'd suggest she put a few thousand into her emergency fund," he says, adding that the remainder can go to the Roth IRA, "so she can get some more retirement accumulation."

    The Money-Savvy Soon-to-Be-Dad

    Courtesy: Eric Serdar
    Who: Eric Serdar, 25, online marketing specialist, Salt Lake City.

    What I'd Do With a $10,000 Windfall: "I like to think that my wife, Des, and I are pretty responsible when it comes to money. We have zero debt aside from our car loan, and saving is our strong suit.

    "We have $10,000 in a rainy-day fund -- enough to cover our expenses for at least six months -- but it can never hurt to pad that more, so I'd add $2,000 from the windfall.

    "We're currently renting an apartment, but I would love to start building equity in a home. So I would use $3,000 of the windfall to start a down payment fund.

    "Both Des and I save for retirement. I've got about $2,000 in my 401(k), and she has about $10,000 in hers -- plus I have another $4,000 in a separate mutual fund.

    "But I really don't know much about investing and I'd like to learn more, so I'd put another $4,000 into some type of brokerage account -- maybe take some risk with it for a higher return, since I wouldn't care as much if I lost that money.

    "I'd use the final $1,000 on a trip to Disneyland, because we're due to deliver our first child, a girl, very soon. Des loves Disneyland, so it'd be a nice vacation for us."

    What the financial planner thinks: Nehring commends Eric's windfall plans -- with just a few small changes.

    For starters, he'd ditch the trip to Disneyland.

    Instead, Nehring suggests using that $1,000 to start a travel fund for a future vacation, when his child is a little older and can appreciate it more.

    "If they're going to go in the next one to two years, I'd suggest keeping that money in either a savings account or a very short-term CD," Nehring says. "If it's a trip five or six years in the offing, then you could maybe take a little more risk with it [by investing it]."

    Nehring also lauds Eric's desire to pad his emergency fund and save for a home, but as a beginning investor, he doesn't think Eric needs to resort to complicated investing strategies to help that $4,000 grow.

    "A good starting point that's been attractive to investors lately could be target-date funds," says Nehring, a type of mutual fund that readjusts its asset allocation based on a selected time frame, and is often used to help meet a future retirement date. "Barring that, a balanced index fund or mutual fund could work just fine," he says. "[They don't provide] such a significant amount of risk that he could lose it all, but at the same time, the money's not sitting in a savings account," where it would potentially earn less.

    Overall, Nehring thinks Eric and Des are on the right track.

    "I really like what they've done so far," he says. "They've got a great emergency fund that's probably better than what a lot of their peers have, and they don't have a lot of debt. There are some good things happening here."

    The Expat Who's Starting Over Stateside

    Courtesy: Johari Murray
    Who: Johari Murray, 40, language educator, Norwalk, Connecticut.

    What I'd Do With a $10,000 Windfall: "My family has spent the last nine years living in Spain, so a $10,000 windfall would help us settle back into life in the U.S.

    "My husband, Agustin, is a linguist and former university lecturer, so he's looking for a job in higher education. I ran my own language school in Spain, and am waiting to hear if I'll be teaching in Norwalk's public school system this fall.

    "We're staying with friends and family while we transition, and living off savings for the next month or so. We also have about $3,000 in a separate emergency fund, but because our income is uncertain right now, I'd split $1,000 of the windfall between our two checking accounts, so we have an extra cash cushion.

    "I'd also put $1,000 each into savings accounts for my two children, ages 9 and 6, so they have some money that can grow for their futures.

    "I'd like to invest $6,000, but I'm not sure how. $1,000 could go toward seeding a new educational business project I have in mind, with the rest going toward the markets. I don't actively invest now, so I'd use the windfall as an opportunity to learn.

    "Finally, charitable giving is important to me, and I'd love to split $1,000 between my favorite causes, including museums, NPR and PBS."

    With a lot of the unknowns and uncertainties that they have, this money is best kept completely liquid.

    What the financial planner thinks: Between their international move and changes in employment, Johari and her family are dealing with a lot of moving parts -- and Nehring says a windfall could give her some much-needed peace of mind.

    "With a lot of the unknowns and uncertainties that they have, this money is best kept completely liquid," he says.

    So he'd suggest holding off on investing, charitable giving, and even funneling any of the money toward savings for the kids -- and keeping that windfall as an emergency fund in a basic savings account they can easily access.

    The reason, Nehring says, is simple: They don't have income coming in yet, and their current emergency fund is too low to provide enough of a safety net.

    "[The money] will earn nothing, but it's going to be there," he adds. "For these folks the idea of just having $10,000 that's liquid and free of any risk is going to be the most important thing."

     

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    State Farm Jobs Fair
    Ross D. Franklin/APA State Farm employee, back left, helps an attendee during a State Farm Career Fair in Phoenix.
    By Lucia Mutikani

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. employment rose at a solid clip in July and wages rebounded after a surprise stall in the prior month, signs of an improving economy that could open the door wider to a Federal Reserve interest rate hike in September.

    Nonfarm payrolls increased 215,000 last month as a pickup in construction and manufacturing jobs offset further declines in the mining sector, the Labor Department said Friday. The unemployment rate held at a seven-year low of 5.3 percent.

    Payrolls data for May and June were revised to show 14,000 more jobs created than previously reported. In addition, the average workweek increased to 34.6 hours, the highest since February, from 34.5 hours in June.

    If you thought that the Fed was going to go in September, this report would suit that thematic nicely.

    "If you thought that the Fed was going to go in September, this report would suit that thematic nicely. I don't think anything has changed in that regard. I think it's another step toward the eventual lift-off," said Tom Porcelli, chief U.S. economist at RBC Capital Markets in New York.

    U.S. stock index futures and prices for shorter-dated U.S. Treasuries were trading lower after the data. The dollar rose to a two-month high against the yen and firmed versus the euro. The swaps market was pricing in a 52 percent chance of a September rate hike, up from 47 percent before the jobs data.

    Though hiring has slowed from last year's robust pace, it remains at double the rate needed to keep up with population growth. The Fed last month upgraded its assessment of the labor market, describing it as continuing to "improve, with solid job gains and declining unemployment."

    Average hourly earnings increased five cents, or 0.2 percent, last month after being flat in June. That put them 2.1 percent above the year-ago level, but well shy of the 3.5 percent growth rate economists associate with full employment.

    Still, the gain supports views that a sharp slowdown in compensation growth in the second quarter and consumer spending in June were temporary. Economists had forecast nonfarm payrolls increasing 223,000 last month and the unemployment rate holding steady at 5.3 percent.

    Wage growth has been disappointingly slow. But tightening labor market conditions and decisions by several state and local governments to raise their minimum wage have fueled expectations of a pickup.

    In addition, a number of retailers, including Walmart (WMT), the nation's largest private employer, Target (TGT) and TJX Cos. (TJX) have increased pay for hourly workers.

    Nearing Full Employment

    The jobless rate is near the 5 percent to 5.2 percent range most Fed officials think is consistent with a steady but low level of inflation.

    A broad measure of joblessness that includes people who want to work but have given up searching and those working part-time because they can't find full-time employment fell to 10.4 percent last month, the lowest since June 2008, from 10.5 percent in June.

    But the labor force participation rate, or the share of working-age Americans who are employed or at least looking for a job, held at a more than 37½-year low of 62.6 percent.

    The fairly healthy employment report added to robust July automobile sales and service industries data in suggesting the economy continues to gather momentum after growing at a 2.3 percent annual rate in the second quarter.

    Employment gains in July were concentrated in service industries. At the same time, construction payrolls rose 6,000 thanks to a strengthening housing market, after being unchanged in June. Factory payrolls increased 15,000 as some automakers have decided to forgo a usual summer plant shutdown for retooling, after rising 2,000 in June.

    More layoffs in the energy sector, which is grappling with last year's sharp decline in crude oil prices, were a drag on mining payrolls, which shed 4,000 jobs in July. The mining sector has lost 78,000 jobs since December.

    Oilfield giants Schlumberger (SLM) and Halliburton (HAL) and many others in the oil and gas industry have announced thousands of job cuts in the past few months.

     

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    McDonalds To Offer Its Breakfast Menu All Day Long
    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
    By Katie Little

    As restaurants double down on breakfast, their timing is far from eggscellent.

    After the worst avian flu outbreak in three decades hit flocks this year, U.S. egg supply is lower than usual. As a result, prices at both the retail and wholesale level remain sharply elevated, and several restaurants are starting to feel the heat in the kitchen.

    This coincides with a monthslong test at McDonald's (MCD) of extending breakfast hours all day, part of the broader effort to turn around its U.S. business. There is strong evidence, too, that a nationwide launch could be on the way as soon as October, meaning its need for eggs could be about to increase.

    It's probably not going to be the best timing for McDonald's, unfortunately, but it's part of a longer-term strategy to focus on what's working and increase that.

    "It's probably not going to be the best timing for McDonald's, unfortunately, but it's part of a longer-term strategy to focus on what's working and increase that," said Nick Setyan, equity analyst at Wedbush Securities, in a phone interview.

    Meanwhile, Will Slabaugh, managing director of Stephens, said, "It would definitely pressure their cost of goods sold if they were to roll it out now. It would hurt them near term."

    Fellow fast food brand Taco Bell (YUM) is also more exposed to egg swings after it rolled out breakfast last year, though a company representative said it has not been hit by the price hike so far. McDonald's did not respond to CNBC's request for comment.

    While restaurants often lock in prices under contract, they do feel the pinch from higher commodity prices if they stay elevated for a prolonged period of time.

    "Most are only going to contract three to six months because it's a volatile commodity, and you never want to get yourself locked into all of it," Slabaugh said.

    As of Monday, Midwest wholesale prices have risen 135 percent to $2.80 a dozen, from $1.19 a dozen on April 22, according to prices from market research firm Urner Barry. Retail prices typically run even higher.

    The problem could get worse if wild birds spread the flu this coming fall when they migrate south.

    Restaurants' exposure to avian flu impact is very case specific and depends on whether or not their suppliers have been directly impacted or not by the virus or not. "Some major corporate chains have not seen an impact to their supply or price. Others have seen higher costs through regular suppliers. Others are completely exposed to the open market and are struggling to source full need," said Brian Moscogiuri, market reporter for eggs and egg prices at Urner Barry, in an email.

    Due to tight supply, breakfast heavyweight Dunkin' Donuts (DNKN) withdrew a major promotion it planned for the current quarter.

    Shelving Products

    Others have also had to shelve products, including Rita's frozen custard and Panda Express' hot and sour soup.

    Meanwhile, Denny's (DENN) expects the impact from pricing to get "more significant" in the second half of the year. The chain pegs the egg portion of its market basket at 10 percent, a fairly big chunk for the restaurant industry.

    "[W]e think without the eggs, we would have had a fairly flattish commodity year, but we're guiding 2 percent to 2.5 percent," said John Miller, its president and CEO, on a Monday earnings call.

    To counteract the egg price increase, some restaurants are passing costs off to customers.

    Denny's boosted omelet pricing while Fiesta Restaurant Group's (FRGI) Taco Cabana temporarily raised prices on egg-based breakfast tacos and burritos until it was able to secure lower prices.

    While restaurants are already starting to see some impact from higher prices, analysts say restaurants will see a larger effect starting the current quarter.

    One positive is that eggs are typically featured in breakfast items, dishes that are already seeing strong demand. In fact, breakfast is the only time of day posting strong growth in visits, rising 4 percent for the year ended in May, according to data from The NPD Group.

    "I don't expect it to hurt as badly because that pricing power is there," said Stephens' Slabaugh.

     

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    Charter Netflix
    AP
    There were plenty of winners and losers this week, with analysts warming up to a leading online travel portal operator after another blowout report and companies behind beverage maker platforms posting financials that proved hard to swallow.

    Makers of Beverage Makers -- Losers

    SodaStream (SODA) and Keurig Green Mountain (GMCR) posted disappointing quarterly results this week. SodaStream posted another problematic report with double-digit year-over-year declines in all four of its regional territories. Folks just aren't interested in its once-trendy machine that turns tap water into carbonated beverages.

    Single-serve coffee leader Keurig Green Mountain saw its stock take a 30 percent hit Thursday after posting results that were a lot weaker than its signature brews. Things just haven't been the same for the K-Cup champ since it rolled out a new platform that uses copy protection to assure that only Keurig-packaged coffee is being brewed.

    Netflix (NFLX) -- Winner

    The leading premium video service turned heads after announcing that it will offer unlimited maternity and paternity leave, and it will be a paid leave with full benefits for the first year. It's a big move, even in a tech field where the benefits can be plentiful to attract top candidates.

    This is a brilliant move by Netflix. Sure, there were some people bellyaching about the decision, arguing that it's not fair to employees who won't be having kids. However, by and large, it seems as if most people now either adore Netflix even more or want to work for the company. That's going to help with attraction and retention for both subscribers and potential workers.

    Checkers Drive-In -- Loser

    This week's social media loser was Checkers Drive-In, the chain of small-box burger joints under the Checkers and Rally's banners. A video went viral this week showing an employee at a franchisee-operator outpost in Baltimore deliberately dropping a burger bun on the floor, rubbing it around the floor and placing it on a sandwich.

    Checkers claims that the burger was never served to a customer, but that's something that we'll just have to take on faith. The chain fired the employee, but the image will linger in the minds of potential customers.

    Priceline (PCLN) -- Winner

    At least two Wall Street pros see better times ahead for Priceline. Cantor Fitzgerald boosted its price target on the shares to $1,480 from $1,360. Even better, Benchmark jacked up its price target to $1,500 from $1,350. Yes, there are still some dot-com darlings out there that haven't gotten the itch to split their shares.

    Priceline moved higher after yet another strong quarterly report. It managed to post better-than-expected growth even with the negative impact of the strong dollar on overseas bookings.

    Media Companies -- Losers

    You know things are bad when even ESPN is feeling the pinch of cord cutters. Most of the leading cable channel and network operators took a hit after Disney (DIS) warned that ratings are down at ABC and tempered growth expectations for its cable properties.

    It was really a matter of time. Streaming services are gaining in popularity at a time when cable service providers are shedding subscribers. However, it was assumed that live sports was one bastion that was untouchable given the immediacy of the news. Well, even ESPN is feeling the sting, as cord cutters continue to free themselves of costly cable bundles.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Keurig Green Mountain, Netflix, SodaStream and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Keurig Green Mountain, Netflix, Priceline Group and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Netflix, Priceline Group, SodaStream and Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Looking for a winner for your portfolio? Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    The Many Uses of Orange Peels

    We all know that oranges are great for our health, but what you might not realize, is that their peels are useful, too. So, before you throw them away, here are a bunch of ways to put them to use around the house.

    First, you've probably noticed that lots of wood polishes have citrus in them. Why spend money on chemicals when all you really need is an orange peel to get the job done? Just rub the white side of the peel on your wood furniture and watch it shine right up.

    The same goes for caked on microwave stains. Start by putting a few peels in a bowl, add some water, and then microwave on high for five minutes. The steam from the water will loosen up the stains, while the citric acid from the orange peels will kill the bacteria. Once it's done heating, wipe away the mess with a damp cloth and you'll be good to go.

    Next, orange peels aren't just good for cleaning around the house, they're good for cleaning your body, too. Instead of buying an expensive body scrub, just wrap the orange peels in some cheesecloth or gauze, tie it up and use it the next time you shower. The peel will firm and brighten you skin, and besides being free, it's all natural.

    Finally, orange peels are a great household deodorizer. Put a single layer of orange peels on a cookie sheet in a warm room for a few days until they're dry. Once they get brittle, grind them up, and put them in a sachet. From there you can place them in drawers, closets, shoes, or even at the bottom of your garbage can to keep odors from overwhelming your house.

    The next time you eat an orange, don't forget to hold onto the peel. You'll see that what most people toss in the trash can be a real treasure around the house.

    View Poll

     

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    Whole Foods Dispute
    Julie Jacobson/AP
    By Jonathan Stempel

    A Whole Foods Market shareholder has accused the grocer in a lawsuit of committing securities fraud by concealing its overcharging of New York City customers, leading to bad publicity that hurt sales and drove its share price down.

    In a complaint filed Thursday in federal court in Austin, Texas, the plaintiff Yochanan Markman said Whole Foods knew or recklessly disregarded that it routinely overstated the weight of pre-packaged products, causing the overcharging.

    The complaint said that made the company's public statements about its operations and prospects false and misleading.

    Whole Foods specializes in natural and organic goods. It has been sued several times by customers over the overcharges, which were revealed June 24, but not by shareholders.

    We have upheld our responsibility to our stakeholders, and are confident that this complaint is baseless and without merit.

    Whole Foods spokesman Michael Silverman said the grocer is committed to providing "transparent, accurate pricing" to customers.

    "We have upheld our responsibility to our stakeholders, and are confident that this complaint is baseless and without merit," he added.

    Shares of Whole Foods fell 11.6 percent on July 30, causing a $1.7 billion drop in market value, a day after the Austin-based company admitted that negative publicity about the overcharges had hurt its quarterly results.

    Whole Foods said same-store sales growth rose 2.6 percent in the first 10 weeks of its fiscal third quarter, but less than half a percent after the overcharges were revealed.

    Co-chief executive Walter Robb said in a July 29 conference call "there is no magic bullet for restoring whatever trust was lost," and that it was "just a matter of sawing wood and doing the good work day in and day out."

    The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs said the overcharges ranged from 80 cents for pecan panko to $14.84 for coconut shrimp.

    Robb and Co-chief executive John Mackey later apologized, calling the mistakes inadvertent. Both are defendants in the lawsuit, as is Chief Financial Officer Glenda Flanagan.

    Markman seeks class action status for shareholders from Aug. 9, 2013 to July 30, 2015.

    Shares of Whole Foods (WFM) were down about 1 percent Friday at $34.53.

     

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    Consumer Credit
    Julie Jacobson/AP
    By PAUL WISEMAN

    WASHINGTON -- U.S. consumer borrowing hit another record in June, good news for the American economy.

    Americans piled on another $20.7 billion in debt in June, bringing total consumer borrowing to a record $3.42 trillion, the Federal Reserve reported Friday.

    In June, borrowing in the category that includes auto and student loans rose by $15.2 billion. Borrowing in the category that includes credit cards rose by $5.5 billion.

    The Fed's monthly report on credit doesn't cover home mortgages or other loans secured by real estate such as home equity loans.

    Economists expect consumers to borrow and spend more the rest of the year. That would boost growth in a country where consumer spending accounts for nearly 70 percent of economic activity.

    The American economy grew at annual rate of 0.6 percent from January to March and 2.3 percent from April through June. Economists expect growth to pick up to about a 3 percent pace the second half of the year.

    Consumers are drawing confidence from an improving job market. On Friday, the Labor Department said employers added 215,000 jobs in July and unemployment remained at a seven-year low 5.3 percent.

    Over the past year, consumer borrowing is up 6.5 percent. Borrowing rose 7.7 percent in the student and auto loan category and 3.5 percent in the credit card category.

    During and after the 2007-2009 Great Recession, Americans scaled back their borrowing. Consumer borrowing hit bottom at less than $2.52 trillion in July 2010 and has been climbing more or less steadily ever since.

     

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